Monday, January 07, 2013

MLA 2013 Panel on Black Poetics

Gathering audience, Black Poetics panel, MLA
The Black Poetics panel audience, before the room filled to capacity
So the 2013 Modern Language Association conference, held this year in Boston, has come and gone, and though I have more than once felt not just MLAlienation but also that sensation that those of us who write criticism and are conversant in and with theory, but who primarily live and work as creative writers also feel, I nevertheless headed north, was able to meet up with wonderful students and former colleagues, participated on a great panel on Black Poetics, chaired by Jennifer DeVere Brody (Stanford University), and comprising Marcellus Blount (Columbia University) and Meta DuEwa Jones (University of Texas), all superlative scholars, thus making me a bit of an interloper, and in the end I think all in all it went well. (There was even positive real-time Twitter commentary on the panel, and on my paper.) The topic of Black Poetics is vast; many are the byways down which you might travel in discussing the very concept, which would in part begin with definitions of "black" and "poetics." Jennifer's focus was on form, and both Marcellus and Meta spoke specifically on questions of "form" and "formalism," in contemporary black poetics.

Last year, as Jennifer was assembling the panel, I asked if I might steer my talk more to the issue of black digital poetics, or black digital literature, and Jennifer agreed that that would be interesting, so that's where I went, giving a refined version of the paper, "The Work of Black Poetry in the Age of Digital Reproducibility," that I first presented at MESEA in Barcelona this past June. The Poetry and Poetics Colloquium at Northwestern's excellent conversations only reinforced my desire to pursue the paper, and some of the many excellent exchanges led or sustained by Keguro Macharia also got me thinking hard about the topic. I attempted to contextualize the topic, historicize it, theorize it a bit, and then present one example of it, Mendi Lewis Obadike's online digital work from the late 1990s. The panel's audience was packed, with many amazing poets and scholars (including Keguro, January Gill O'Neill, Maryemma Graham, and many more) I knew, some senior, some junior, but so many really smart people, so I was a bit dazed even before I took the podium. But I finished, and when I finished, I felt clear-headed enough to respond to some of the questions directed my way, among them Aldon Nielsen's, which zeroed in on the fact of funding for an online archive of black digital poetry and poetics. Where would it come from? I urged (some in) the audience to consider setting one up, and as I also exhorted in my paper, it must be easily accessible and free, which would, I think, have the effect of both making available and visible some of the fascinating online poetic work people are undertaking, and jumpstarting a range of projects from here on out.

Another questioner, Robin Coste Lewis, I think, inquired about teaching the work of a poet like Douglas Kearney, and it struck me even as I was preparing the paper--and I answered along these lines to Robin--that an app like Faber & Faber's The Waste Land offered one possible vision of what a poet like Doug, whose texts, as poetic objects, possess tremendous vitality, but whose performances add to, expand and transform those texts dynamically, might consider. An tablet-ready or mobile app could include versions of the poem, but also a digital version of the poem, programmed by Doug and someone deeply knowledgeable about code, which could "eventilize" (to use scholar Nathan Brown's term) some of the poems in ways neither the text nor the video of the performance exactly can, since each represents a distinct and different medium. Instead, we might now think about the digital as making available a new format, to use David Joselit's concept, which would both present the existing media in which Doug's poetry exists while also expanding its possibilities and his (and black) poetics.

I unfortunately had to run--I mean, I really had to run!--out before the session had fully ended, to catch a train back to New York, so as to get home in time (MANY thanks to Evie Shockley and Stephane Robolin, who rode back from MLA with me, since the PATH was not running past 10 pm and C wasn't feeling well) to catch another train from New York to another destination first thing the next morning, as the possibility of traveling from Boston to my destination by any means other than car was nonexistent, but I was glad to have been able to present at this year's MLA, see that Boston has not changed all that much (except for more pleasant people in its Copley Square restaurants), and not wonder, as I have done more than once at past conferences, what on earth am I doing here?

(PS: As William Pannapacker also notes on the Chronicle of Higher Education's site, this was the year the Digital Humanities really broke out at MLA, as did recognition of the importance of Tweeting and blogging, so....)
Me, at MLA 2013 (photo by Jan Gill O'Neill)
Yours truly, photographed by January Gill O'Neill

1 comment:

  1. Great seeing you at the conference! And the paper was such good fodder for thinking about aesthetic genealogies in expansive ways! And as for digital archives: YES! ABSOLUTELY! Once I left Illinois, I realized how difficult it is to get books from the 30s and 40s, not to mention the many works published only in journals and magazines. The single-author book represents a very recent history of black poetry and poetics. So, YES! Looking forward to the essay whenever (and wherever) it appears.