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“A Made Up Thing” Full of Depth: The Queer Belonging of Robert Duncan and New Narrative

“Une chose inventée” pleine de profondeur : la co-appartenance queer de Robert Duncan et du New Narrative
Robin Tremblay-McGaw

Résumés

Cet article tisse des liens entre la conception qu’avait Robert Duncan de lui-même en tant que poète, c’est-à-dite à la fois « une chose inventée et une profondeur où se loge mon être », comme il l’écrivait dans The Years as Catches, d’une part, et de l’autre les apports théoriques des études en New Narrative, tout particulièrement les écrits de Robert Glück et Bruce Boone. Les auteurs rattachés au mouvement New Narrative se sont à la fois démarqués des représentations néfastes communément associée à l’identité gay et lesbienne, mais aussi de l’emprise des Language Poets et de leur « idéalisme de luxe, pour lequel le sujet parlant est appelé à [...]. disparaître », pour se tourner vers les figures de Duncan et de Jess, en ce qu’ils incarnent la force et le plaisir de l’invention, du fragment, du collage, comme art relationnel fondé sur une pratique concrète, une communauté queer au regard tourné vers l’avant pour mieux envisager l’avenir et proposer « une histoire de notre temps ».

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1Robert Duncan is a central figure in 20th Century American poetry and a significant figure in San Francisco Bay Area literary and gay history; additionally, he and his work constituted a lightning rod in the Bay Area’s infamous “poetry wars.” The occasion of “Passages”: The Robert Duncan Centennial Conference at Sorbonne Université in June 2019 offered an opportunity for a long overdue examination of the relationship between Duncan and New Narrative, a literary movement and – as Rob Halpern and I claim in From Our Hearts to Yours – an ongoing set of practices, inaugurated by Robert Glück and Bruce Boone, and taken up by Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, and others. Eschewing binaries for the more nuanced, complex, and self-reflexive, New Narrative writers favor prose (though many also write poetry) that emerges within the context of the experimental poetry community; their writing practices are informed by the political and social urgency of movement writing and queer performance and grounded in autobiography and fiction; these writers work in writing that “knows” itself as writing; that is, it is self-reflexive, inscribing its emergence as a written text in complex relation to its textual and social contexts. When I started working on this essay, while I was aware Glück and Boone knew Duncan, I wondered what the connections were – beyond the social and gay life generally – between Duncan and New Narrative. To my surprise, I discovered that Duncan, particularly for Glück, provided a grand and productive permission and language for the “made up” as an ongoing practice grounded – despite Duncan’s initial refusal of it – in queer life and belonging.

San Francisco Bay Area Poetry Wars & Robert Duncan

  • 1 The poetry wars were, however, more complex than can be excavated here. It is worth noting however (...)

2One origin story of the Bay Area’s poetry wars locates them in the late 70s with the screening of the out-takes from the 1966 KQED-TV PBS film on Louis Zukofsky. At the beginning of the screening on December 8, 1978 (just months after Zukofsky’s death), Robert Duncan began the event by announcing the program: an introduction by Duncan, the screening of the out-takes, a talk by Barrett Watten on Zukofsky’s long work “A,” and a planned follow-up discussion by Duncan of a selection from Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. In May 1984, a month prior to the June re-screenings, poet and editor of the journal ACTS, David Levi Strauss, wrote a provocative article about the 1978 event and published it in Poetry Flash. Old wounds were freshly opened. According to accounts in Poetry Flash, Duncan intervened in Watten’s talk and contested his reading. Levi-Strauss sides with Duncan – “Duncan’s reading was truly exploratory” (Levi Strauss 10) – over Watten, about whose contribution he writes: “In retrospect, Watten’s talk was perhaps well-meaning, but so tediously tendentious and closed that it did real violence to the work at hand” (Levi Strauss 10). Impassioned letters on both sides ensued. Decades later in The Grand Piano Part 4, Tom Mandel claims that “Duncan used his powers to win a battle that night, and he helped roust me out of the Poetry Center some months later. So began the ‘language wars.’ Poetry as agon not conversation” (e.g. Armantrout et. al. 61).1

  • 2 Currently, to listen to this audiotape one must have the permission of Barrett Watten. The tape’s c (...)
  • 3 For more on the Watten/Duncan exchange and the poetry wars see also Jarnot 2009, 361-65; Mark Scrog (...)

3Having listened to the audiotape, I infer that much of the contention around this event seems to have happened after the fact and this is reflected in the changing availability of the audio tape itself.2 At the event, Duncan discussed Zukofsky’s self-created lineage (Zukofsky was born in New York to parents who were Lithuanian Jews) in terms of literary paternity and national identity with, according to Duncan, Zukofsky nominating not only John Adams and Henry James as literary fathers, but also Walt Whitman. Duncan stresses the specifically American roots of this lineage. So, Duncan begins with a discussion of literary fathers and sons while Duncan himself, somewhere around the age of 60 at the time of the event, also sets up his relation to Zukofsky and then introduces the younger poet, Barrett Watten. Watten begins his talk with a comment about Duncan’s 30 years of reading Zukofsky as compared with his 10. The stakes here included a struggle over interpretation, literary paternity, lineage, and power.3

Thrusting Oneself Into The Light Of The Receiver’s Attention

4While there were tensions between the Language poets and Duncan and their respective poetics, Glück and Boone were interested in and engaged by Duncan’s work. In May 1978, Glück wrote to Duncan:

Dear Robert Duncan,
This is a fan letter. I heard your reading at [San Francisco] State today and was very moved by it. The poems seemed to me beautifully articulated, filled out, the brilliance of language and thought serving to express a generous line of feeling.
Isn’t it the nature of this kind of letter that the sender thrusts himself into the light of the receiver’s attention? To vie for more of your attention’s light, I’m enclosing a little chapbook
Metaphysics (unpublished SUNY Buffalo, fig. 1).

  • 4 Thanks to Eric Sneathen for bringing this letter to my attention.

Fig. 1: Robert Glück, Letter to Robert Duncan, May 9, 1978.4

Fig. 1: Robert Glück, Letter to Robert Duncan, May 9, 1978.4

Credit: Robert Glück, letter to Robert Duncan, May 9, 1978. Courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

  • 5 See for example my discussion of “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto” co-au (...)

5Calling himself a “fan,” Glück identifies the beauty of Duncan’s poems, attends to “the brilliance of the language,” and highlights the expression of “a generous line of feeling.” He also asks a rhetorical question aimed pointedly at its reader. While this letter might be easily written off as an entertaining curiosity, the sort of letter a younger poet might write to an older, more accomplished writer, it strikes me as significant because of Glück’s interest in Duncan’s investment in the richness of language and his commitment to feeling. While Language writing is certainly interested in language and form and what poetry might do in the world, “a generous line of feeling” was not one of its foregrounded aims since during this period many of its practitioners contested, among other things, the expressive self that was ubiquitous in American poetry.5 Duncan is important for Glück and Boone for other reasons as well.

  • 6 Glück’s Tribute was read in October 2012 at the Berkeley City Club for the launch of Christopher Wa (...)

6In his tribute to Robert Duncan,6 Bob Glück explains how he and Bruce Boone arrived in Duncan’s orbit of interest:

He [Duncan] became more interested in us – in Bruce Boone and me – after he read Bruce’s My Walk with Bob and my Family Poems. That is, after New Narrative got going. Partly it was our interest in him. Bruce was interested in ‘gay bands’ and did a number of essays on that theme, exploring the Duncan-Spicer-Blaser circle. We wanted a gay band of our own” (Glück 2014, 256-57).

  • 7 For more on this topic, see my essay “‘A Real Fictional Depth’: Transtexuality and Transformation i (...)
  • 8 Freeman fashions queer belonging by way of Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus. She writes: “In that habitus (...)
  • 9 In this sense, the kind of queer belonging Freeman elaborates and that I see at work in Boone and G (...)

7The three encounter one another in texts and language (including the productive pleasures of gossip) and Gluck and Boone are enthusiastic about the possibility of “a gay band,” an intimate community, a kinship among writers. In his article “Robert Duncan and The Gay Community: A Reflection,” Bruce Boone writes, “To me as a gay man the idea of gay writers getting together and forming a band of some kind is exciting” (Boone 2020, 309). Boone’s rich essay importantly nuances Duncan’s rejection of gay identity in his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in society” while simultaneously excavating the tangled relations between Duncan and Spicer, and claiming a significance for Duncan’s embrace of the “femme side early on” (Boone 2020, 321).7 Boone closes the essay with the assertion that he “like[s] the sense of conflicts not resolved in Duncan” (Boone 2020, 330). Boone’s reflection on the Berkeley Renaissance group as a “gay band,” his working through questions of gay community in a “period of reappraisal” in the early 1980s by way of Duncan, and along with Gluck’s textual appropriation of Duncan (which I will discuss momentarily) perform a “doing of kinship,” (Schneider quoted in Freeman 305) or to use Elizabeth Freeman’s formulation – Glück and Boone perform a “queer belonging,” a form of belonging that is based on “practices of queer habitus [...] and forms of alliance with an inheritance from bygone or not-yet eras” (Freeman 311)8. These relations reach both into the past and a future not yet arrived. For these writers, they are social but also importantly textual. 9

  • 10 While they continue to write poetry, Boone and Glück turned primarily to prose.
  • 11 While I can’t develop this here, I am struck by this passage in which Duncan writes: “They were an (...)

8While the primary forms of their writing differ10, Boone and Glück also share, however divergently inflected, an interest in Duncan’s “communal speech.” In The H.D. Book, Duncan writes: “Poetry was a communal voice for us – it spoke as we could not speak for ourselves. And there was a voice in me that sought such a communal speech in order to come to feel at all” (Duncan 2014, 62). Duncan was referring to a pivotal moment in 1938 – pre-Blaser and Spicer – on the Berkeley campus when he was reading aloud from James Joyce’s Collected Poems with two women friends, Athalie and Lili, who encourage him to ignore the Campanile bells calling students to R.O.T.C. classes. In this refusal to submit to State power, enabled by a community of women whom he frames as other, Duncan chooses poetry over war and names the power of feeling that is accessed by participating in a community of like-minded outsiders, however different from him they may be.11

9For Glück and Boone communal speech – including gossip, which carries along with it, “speaker and audience,” and thus community – is connected to the exigencies and pleasures of gay life and it demands narrative, representation, and “at least a provisionally stable identity” (Glück 2016, 14). In “Long Note on New Narrative,” while discussing New Narrative in the context of Language Writing, Glück asserts:

If I could have become a Language poet I would have; I craved the formalist fireworks, a purity that invented its own tenets [...]. The problem was not – or it was: I could not go on until I figured out some way to understand where I was [...]. Language poetry [...] we saw as an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of voice, of continuity) [...] I experienced the poetry of disjunction as a luxurious idealism in which the speaking subject rejects the confines of representation and disappears in the largest freedom, that of language itself [...]. Whole areas of my experience, especially gay experience, were not admitted to this utopia. The mainstream reflected a resoundingly coherent image of myself back to me – an image so unjust that it amounted to a tyranny that I could not turn my back on. We had been disastrously described by the mainstream – a naming whose most extreme (though not uncommon) expression was physical violence. Combating this injustice required at least a provisionally stable identity (Glück 2016, 14-15, my emphasis).

10Despite the attractions of Language poetry and because of the mainstream’s “resoundingly coherent image” of gay life, an unjust and often violent image, Glück and Boone found they could ignore neither the subject nor the “coherent image.” The “coherent image” and its violence found expression in verbal and physical threats and actions: in the murders of San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone; in the fact that by 1976 gay murders accounted for 10 percent of San Francisco’s homicide rate and a mass murderer known as “the Doodler’ (for his knife mutilations of victims) stalked the city’s gay bars between 1973 and 1976 while gay businesses were targets of bombings and arson (Stryker); in California’s 1978 proposition, the Briggs Initiative, which sought but failed to prevent gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools and in Anita Bryant’s “campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance already on the books in Dade County, Florida” (Stryker 78). Mainstream America’s disastrous description of gays and lesbians demanded redress, prompting Glück to ask, “what kind of representation least deforms its subject?” (Glück 2014, 18). While postmodernist theorists such as Jacques Lacan framed the subject as linguistic construct and Frederic Jameson articulated the postmodern as characterized by pastiche, “a neutral practice” that stress[es] disjunction” and language that “tend[s] to fall apart in random and inert passivity” (Jameson 31) eschewing depth, Duncan offered another possibility.

At Once A Made Up Thing And At The Same Time A Depth

  • 12 I am using Duncan’s language here, thus “homosexuality.”

11In the “Introduction” to The Years as Catches: First Poems (1939-1946), from the vantage point of the mid-1960s, Duncan re-reads his early work, calling them “poems of an irregularity,” locating poetry as “a source of feeling and thought,” and linking his coming into poetry with his homosexuality,12 “perhaps the sexual irregularity underlay and led to the poetic“ (Duncan 1966, i) he writes. The introduction outlines a queer, and for Duncan, a fraught, lineage. Duncan writes that he was thrilled by Rosario Jimenez’s reading in Spanish of Lorca’s “two immortal poems,” Oda A Walt Whitman and Llanta por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, in Berkeley in 1942, but that earlier in 1937 Auden’s Journal of an Airman contributed “its images of disease” as a source for “dis-ease [with] my own awareness of my homosexuality” (Duncan 1966, vi). He writes that “the structure of my life like the structure of my work was to emerge in a series of trials, a problematic identity. A magpie’s nest or collage” (Duncan 1966, ii). In addition to those already cited, Duncan identified other poets – Ezra Pound, John Milton, Sanders Russell, Federico García Lorca, Laura Riding, W.H. Auden – (some of whom are queer) whose work contributed to his own, including Charles Olson whose critique in Against Wisdom as Such of Duncan’s “I am a poet, self-declared, manqué” in “Pages from a Notebook” provoked a crisis: “I seemed to have no authenticity” (Duncan 1966, x). He acknowledges and then turns this criticism into a ground for a poetics: “the accusation of falseness and the derivations must be then true to what I was, must be terms in which I must work” (x). The introduction sutures: homosexuality, the structure of his work, a problematic identity, derivations, collage. While Duncan’s queer coming into writing is not heroicized or triumphant, but rather complex and even troubled, he does nevertheless posit a connection between his sexuality and poetics.

  • 13 Even when such feeling gave form to a poetry always already “incorporating an inner opposition or r (...)

12While the introduction expressed disappointment with some of his earlier work, Duncan informs his readers that he decided not “to resolve or eliminate [...] the old conflicting elements [...] but to imagine them [...] as contrasts of a field of composition in which I develop an ever-shifting possibility of the poet I am – at once a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is(Duncan 1966, x). This “made up thing” in Duncan acknowledges the sedimented and shifting location of truths and falseness, the centrality of his derivative poetics, the failed or inadequate experiments, the feeling and thought replete with all their contradictions and possibilities;13 a poetics that is not static, but “ever-shifting,” contingent. The “field of composition” underscores the constructed, the made, material, artifacted nature of the poet – “his being” – and the poems themselves.

13Throughout Duncan’s writing, he marks this “ever-shifting [...] made up thing” that is self, the poet, poem, and poetics. For example, in Duncan’s poetry, the “made up thing” registers in the well-known “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” While the poem begins with a proposition in simile, claiming the meadow or the entire experience of being permitted to return to it, is “as if ...a scene made-up by the mind,” subsequently the poem will unequivocally assert “that there is a hall therein/ that is a made place.” In The H.D. Book, Duncan links image, self, and poem: “[...] for I did not realize that my own human life was an image, that my self was the persona of a poem in process of making” (43). The title Fictive Certainties, a collection of Duncan’s essays, echoes the proclamation of the made up and depth.

14Maybe this “made up thing,” already embodying contradiction, is what enables mobility, and thus, a future, in Duncan’s poetics and in his life as a gay man. In a selection from one of his notebooks, Duncan describes “the household Jess and I have made” as “a made-up thing in which participating we have had the medium of a life together” (McDowell 17). In other words, it is not only the poet self that is fabricated. The queer household, this “made-up thing” functions as Tara McDowell points out, “with the full force of its artistic connotations” (McDowell 17-18). It is ongoing, requires participation. It is the means by which work – artistic, poetic, life – occurs and is made in a process of constant renewal.

15The Introduction to Bending the Bow, provides another example:

In the poem this very lighted room is dark, and the dark alight with love’s intentions. It is striving to come into existence in these things, or, all striving to come into existence is It – in this realm of men’s language a poetry of all poetries, grand collage, I name It, having only the immediate event of words to speak for It. …This configuration of It in travail: giving birth to Its Self, the Creator, in Its seeking to make real…this deepest myth of what is happening in Poetry moves us as it moves words” (Duncan 1971, vii).

Though tangled with Christian imagery (not included in the quote above), in this section Duncan describes the poem as a place, an event, of feeling (love and how we are “moved”) that creates self, the world, and the poem – the “grand collage.” This claim acknowledges both myth and the desire for the real: this is “the deepest myth of what is happening,” that nevertheless is also “a seeking to make real” through language – the self, the poem, the event that is creation itself. The event, the enactment in language, the grand collage, is Duncan’s “depth,” the “It” coming into existence. This made up thing, full of derivations.

Performing Queer Belongings

Glück refers to and collages the latter part of Duncan’s assertion – a made up thing and at the same time a depth – in numerous places across his writing. It turns up in his Artforum essay on Jess’s collage, “The Mouse’s Tale,” an image that graces the cover of Glück’s Collected Essays. Glück writes:

In the fifties, he [Jess] solved the exact puzzle I was working on in the late seventies: how to tell a story that also knows itself as writing – ‘a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is,’ as Duncan said of his poet self. Jess declined to recognize a dichotomy between abstraction and representation, or to take sides in a debate that fueled Bay Area art and writing for decades. His solution was pastiche and appropriation – a material-based aesthetics that narrates through the mystery and authenticity of salvaged images (Glück 2016, 142, my emphasis).

  • 14 One way to read Jess’s inclusion of two images of himself in his collage, “The Mouse’s Tale” is as (...)
  • 15 For a discussion of the lion in Duncan and Jess’s work see Robert J. Bertholf’s “The Concert: Rober (...)

16Glück equates Duncan’s “made up thing” with Jess’s appropriation and pastiche of “salvaged images” a practice that produces an aesthetics of mystery and authenticity; that is, depth. “The Mouse’s Tale” is a work of collage, or to use Jess’s term, a paste-up; the body of the central figure, a crouching man, is comprised of a plethora of images mostly of men, largely from physique and popular magazines; Jess has also playfully inserted two images of himself (a gesture that gets repeated textually in many New Narrative texts when authors shape characters who often share their names [e.g. “Bob” in Jack the Modernist and Margery Kempe and “Bruce” in My Walk with Bob].14 The crouching figure is framed on one side by a gibbet of clown heads, crowned by a monkey and a lion, the latter a figure that turns up frequently in Duncan’s poems and Jess’s work.15 “The Mouse’s Tale” was made in 1951, the same year Duncan and Jess married. Glück finds in Jess’s and Duncan’s work, models of art and writing that know themselves, that embrace abstraction, representation, narration, and appropriation – all features that are central to the architectures of Glück’s writing and New Narrative.

17Duncan’s quote also appears in Glück’s 1984 essay “Allegory”:

Perhaps allegory accommodates “rewritings” of ideology and self as externals that name us – as Robert Duncan says of his poet self, ‘a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is.” Perhaps this signals a new relation to audience – not vanguardist or utopian, but inviting, shared. (Glück 2016, 68, my emphasis).

Significantly, the made up thing (here via allegory) has a potential to shift the relationship between writer/text and reader/audience to something more open, participatory, community-minded. Appropriation is part of this equation; Glück explains: “appropriation is used to give the lie to the sovereignty of the mind and to challenge the distinction between public and private” (Glück 2016, 39).

  • 16 Interestingly, too, the verso of the title page for Jack the Modernist includes this note: “Mine is (...)

18In his Duncan conference paper, Rob Halpern pointed out that Duncan’s line is also collaged but unattributed near the end of Glück’s Jack the Modernist (1985): “[...] and the song increasingly legible rather than audible, at once a made up thing and depth in which my being is” (Glück 2016, 165).16 Importantly, “A Real Fictional Depth,” the first subsection in Communal Nude, echoes Duncan while Communal Nude is also an apt description of Jess’s collage.

19Certainly, the practice of pastiche, collage, the act of being derivative links Jess and Duncan. Duncan said of Jess: “What he has achieved is totally his, but in every detail derivative” (quoted in Auping 62). Glück too sees his work – though largely in prose as opposed to poetry or visual art – in a similar vein: “Mine is an art of collage” (Jack np [verso of title page]). Glück quotes Duncan when he asserts “Writers are thieves [...] what the highly original poet Robert Duncan would proudly call[] derivative” (Glück 2016, 363).

20In Glück’s writing the “made up thing” migrates beyond self or writer to reference narrative, story, the world, and meaning itself. Some examples from Margery Kempe include:

I am drawn to modernism but my faith is impure. I am no more the solitary author of this book than I alone invent the fiction of my life. As I write, I read my experience as well as Margery’s. Is that appropriation? – that I am also the reader, oscillating in a nowhere between what I invent and what changes me? (Glück 2016, 80-81).

I asked my friends for notes about their bodies to dress these fifteenth-century paper dolls [...]. My story proceeds by interaction. My friends become the author of my misfortune and the ground of authority in this book. We are a village common producing images (Glück 2016, 90).

And from Jack the Modernist:

That’s why I’m writing to you – would you prefer silences to a morbid love story held together by a long freight train of equal sings and propelled by a modern emotion? I don’t think there is a name for it yet; call it excited neutrality. You feel it in the space between image and meaning: an invented place but isn’t heaven? – the future? (Glück 1995, 98-99).

And from a section that comments on the content of the previous chapter – an elaboration of sexual fantasies:

Still, the last chapter was hot, lively; I like its disorder, desire that streams to all point of a compass. Zest for experience equals the ability to sustain contradictions like Jack’s absence and my desire. It’a turn-on, it’s thrilling – images of men – myself – reflecting each other into infinity, responding to desire and producing it. I’d like you to experience some of this work of literature on your skin if possible (Glück 1995, 116).

21And from Boone and Glück’s playful collaboration La Fontaine:

A strange prologue, if it is one. And it’s true we’ve doctored it. In it you have a hint of patriarchal insensitivities, gross and glaring faults. When the charm fails, it’s our fault! If good shows through, we willingly credit La Fontaine. What can you do with the literature of the past? Save it? It’s often disgusting; and how impossible to accept anyone’s blind spots, particularly the past’s. So here and there we altered. We apply cosmetics, make a brighter picture. It’s not better, only different. If it’s better for us, that will all change in a hundred years. Trust history on this, not us. You always live with your times. We hope you like it (Boone, Glück, 1981, 33-34).

22The quote’s reappearance and refraction, its interweaving and enactment in Glück’s writing performs a queer belonging. By way of Elizabeth Freeman, I’d like to argue that Glück’s quotations of Duncan function like “other constitutive substances of kinship” that “are taken to be the visual [textual] traces of a relation,” and “somehow become part of that relation’” (Freeman 307). Glück and Boone’s conception of the Berkeley Renaissance group as a “gay band,” Boone’s scholarly writing on Duncan, Spicer, and Blaser, Glück’s frequent weaving of Duncan’s phrase at once “a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is” constitute an engaged practice and set of relations; that is, they enact, make material, via collage, appropriation, and pastiche, queer belongings.

  • 17 I am thinking here of the way Rob and I articulated New Narrative as a set of practices, including (...)

23Perhaps there is a link between this “made up thing” in Duncan and practice as an ever-shifting critical mode of writing, reading, and praxis among New Narrative writers?17 Collage, appropriation, and pastiche – central to the “made up thing” in Glück’s writing – work with the fragment, the ruin, with materials from radically different registers and scales. As Yuval Etgar writes, visual “collage [...] shifts our attention to the margins or edges of pictorial fragments [...] to the point where one image encounters another” (Etgar 36). This suggests a social practice an enactment of relation. The oft-cited early collagists – Picasso and Braque – “rebelled against the Renaissance ideal of trying to copy nature and present a picture as if it were a fixed view seen through the window” (Etgar 36, my emphasis). Duncan, Jess, and New Narrative writers shape collage as communal and capacious, capable of excess that decenters, interrupts a “coherent image” (Glück 2016, 14-15). Aaron Shurin, a writer with deep connections to Duncan and proximate to, if not exactly New Narrative, asserts:

Collage, as a structure, and rhyme, as operation, are polysemous [...]. These populations of rhyme, assemblages of quotations, libraries or texts, and resonances of meaning parallel the workings of community, as the individual feeds and is fed by social forces, creates and is created by the various public and semipublic languages brought to bear (Shurin 145).

  • 18 Glück characterizes Language poetry “as an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of v (...)
  • 19 At the Poetry and Poetics of the 1980s National Poetry Foundation Conference in Orono, Maine in 201 (...)

24In the 1970s and 80s, some New Narrative writers turned from the regime of a violently coherent image (of what it is to be homosexual) and “a luxurious idealism in which the speaking subject [...] disappears” to Duncan and Jess for the power and pleasures of the made up, fragmented, collaged – a material based relational art, a set of practices, that create queer belonging, a belonging that enables looking back in order to move forward, that includes, as Glück writes, the “voices that sustain me: from my friends; from the gay, feminist, and left communities; and from the community of writers, living and dead [...] these voices [...] locate our afternoon – and afternoons in your life too – in the history of our times” (Glück 2016, 82). Paired with other New Narrative practices – text/meta-text, the naming of names, the inclusion of sex and direct address to the reader – collage and appropriation make possible “a made up thing,” that is predicated on risk and an aesthetics of abundance (and excess), as opposed to subtraction.18 Maybe it is this unique combination that makes narrative “new.” 19It “relates outward to a community speaking to itself dissonantly” (Glück 2016, 16), enables representation that will "least deform its subject, and might even be “inviting and shared,” offering multiple opportunities for exposure and recognition, queer belonging – a communal nude, so to speak.

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Armantrout, Rae, Benson, Steve, Harryman, Carla, Hejinian, Lyn, Mandel, Tom, Pearson, Ted, Perelman, Bob, Robinson, Kit, Silliman, Ron, Watten, Barrett. The Grand Piano Part 4. An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. San Francisco: This Press, 2007.

Auping, Michael. “Jess: A Grand Collage.”Jess: A Grand Collage 1951-1993. Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery,1993. 31-65.

Bellamy, Dodie. Academonia. San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2006.

Bertholf, Robert. “The Concert: Robert Duncan Writing out of Painting. Jess: A Grand Collage 1951-1993. Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1993. 67-91.

Boone, Bruce. My Walk with Bob. San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2006.

Boone, Bruce. “Robert Duncan and the Gay Community: A Reflection.” Bruce Boone Dismembered: Poems, Stories, and Essays. Ed. Rob Halpern. New York: Nightboat Books, 2020. 309-330.

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Duncan, Robert. Introduction. Bending the Bow. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971, i-x.

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Duncan, Robert. The H.D. Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Etgar, Yuval. “On Edge: Exploring Collage Tactics and Terminology.” Cut and Paste: Four Hundred Years of Collage. Ed. Patrick Elliott. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2019.

Freeman, Elizabeth. “Queer Belongings: Kinship Theory and Queer Theory.” A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Eds. George E. Haggerty and Molly McGarry. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007, 295-314.

Glück, Robert. “Dear Robert Duncan.” Unpublished letter. May 1978. Robert Duncan Collection. The Poetry Collection, SUNY Buffalo.

Glück, Robert, Boone, Bruce. La Fontaine. San Francisco: Black Star Press, 1981.

Glück, Robert. Jack the Modernist. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995.

Glück, Robert. Communal Nude: Collected Essays. South Pasadena: Semiotex(e), 2016.

Halpern, Rob and Robin Tremblay-McGaw. “A Generosity of Response: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice.” From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice. Oakland: On Contemporary Practice, 2017.

Halpern, Rob. “The Restoration of ‘China’: or, A Secret History of Language-Bashing” delivered at the National Poetry Foundation Conference on Poetry of the Seventies, University of Maine, Orono. 12 June 2008.

Halpern, Rob. “Realism and Utopia: Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative.” Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (Non/Narrative, Spring 2011): 82-124.

Harris, Kaplan Page. “The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation: New Narrative, New Sentence, New Left.” Jacket 2 (April 2011). http://jacket2.org/article/small-press-traffic-school-dissimulation

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Jarnot, Lisa. Robert Duncan: The Ambassador of Venus. Berkeley: U of California P, 2009.

Levi Strauss, David. “On Duncan & Zukofsky On Film: Trace Now and Then.” Poetry Flash 135 (June 1984).

McDowell, Tara. The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess. Cambridge: The MIT P, 2019.

Muñoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University P, 2009.

Scroggins, Mark. The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky. Emeryville, CA.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.

Shurin, Aaron. “Reading/Writing: An Introduction to Derivations.” The Skin of Meaning. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2016.

Silliman, Ron, et al. “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto.” Social Text 19/20 (Autumn 1988): 261-275.

Stryker, Susan and Jim Van Buskirk. Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.

Tremblay-McGaw, Robin. “‘A Real Fictional Depth’: Transtexuality and Transformation in Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe.” In Time Mechanics: Postmodern Poetry and Queer Medievalisms. Ed. David Hadbawnik. London and New York: Palgrave (forthcoming).

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Notes

1 The poetry wars were, however, more complex than can be excavated here. It is worth noting however that there was crossover among various groups in reading series and publications. Certain writers from each of the various communities seemed to relate better than others and the boundaries between these groups were porous. For example, Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax is favorably reviewed by Robert Glück in the June 1985 issue of Poetry Flash. Watten published Glück in the journal This which he edited with Robert Grenier from 1971 to 1972, and then on his own from 1973 to 1982. Glück and Watten were undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, at the same time and were in Robert Grenier’s poetry class together, a class that was as Robert Glück has said “[...] important to each of us in our different ways” (email to author). Elaborating on his interest in and relationship to Watten, Glück has said, “He [BW] was the one who saw Language Poetry most as a Way, to say it in retrospect, a mission, and perhaps that depth was also how Bruce and I took what we were doing. And I suppose he was the most conflict oriented, so attractive in that way. And at the same time, I think he had the elbow room to give any radical writing its due, to recognize it, which was different from the others” (email). In the early 80s, Silliman and Glück along with Kathleen Fraser and Steve Benson were in a Marxist Study Group at Small Press Traffic together; Silliman presented at the “Left Write” 1981 conference organized by Steve Abbott and Bruce Boone (Glück was on the conference steering committee). Dodie Bellamy underscored the support of Language writer Carla Harryman who edited the “Writing and Everyday Life” section of Poetics Journal in 1991, “Carla’s support gave me the courage to trust my own instincts when editing Mina [...]” (Bellamy 91). Glück’s, Boone’s, and Bellamy’s work all appeared in Poetics Journal edited by Watten and Lyn Hejinian, and Glück (along with numerous language writers – Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Alan Bernheimer etc.) participated in Bob Perelman’s Writing Talks Series at 80 Langton Street.

2 Currently, to listen to this audiotape one must have the permission of Barrett Watten. The tape’s current lack of availability was not always the case. Based on the Poetry Flash letters in 1984, I infer that the audio tape was readily available for anyone to listen to at the Poetry Center. Later, sometime after 2000, the tape could be listened to, but not purchased because, according to Steve Dickison, Executive Director of the Poetry Center, Watten never signed a release form so the Center cannot sell the tape anyone who wishes to listen to it must get Watten’s permission.

3 For more on the Watten/Duncan exchange and the poetry wars see also Jarnot 2009, 361-65; Mark Scroggins discusses the tape incident in The Poem of A Life (Scroggins 462-465). Rob Halpern discusses the debate following this event in his talk “The Restoration of ‘China’: or, A Secret History of Language-Bashing” delivered at the National Poetry Foundation Conference on Poetry of the Seventies, University of Maine, Orono, on 12 June 2008. See also Halpern and Harris.

4 Thanks to Eric Sneathen for bringing this letter to my attention.

5 See for example my discussion of “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto” co-authored by Language writers Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten which appeared in the journal Social Text in 1988 in “A Real Fictional Depth”: Transtexuality & Transformation in Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe” forthcoming in Time Mechanics: Postmodern Poetry and Queer Medievalisms from Palgrave.

6 Glück’s Tribute was read in October 2012 at the Berkeley City Club for the launch of Christopher Wagstaff’s edited collection, A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan 1960-1985. All essay citations are from Glück’s Communal Nude: Collected Essays.

7 For more on this topic, see my essay “‘A Real Fictional Depth’: Transtexuality and Transformation in Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe, forthcoming in Palgrave’s Time Mechanics: Postmodern Poetry and Queer Medievalisms, ed. David Hadbawnik.

8 Freeman fashions queer belonging by way of Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus. She writes: “In that habitus produces bodies that are like other bodies, it is a replicative system but not a heterosexually reproductive one. It is a representational technology of sorts, but a metonymic rather than a metaphorical one: a subject acquires a bodily schema through proximity, through the physical motions of imitating or being directed in an activity, which process may or may not result in a self-understood or culturally symbolized identity” (Freeman 306).

9 In this sense, the kind of queer belonging Freeman elaborates and that I see at work in Boone and Glück’s work strikes me as akin to an interruption of “straight time” and a performance of “queerness as a horizon” as elaborated in Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia. One of the many propositions relevant, for me, to New Narrative, is Muñoz’s claim that the “quotidian example of the utopian can be glimpsed in utopian bonds, affiliations, designs, and gestures that exist with the present moment” (Muñoz 22-23). In reading a poem by James Schuyler, Muñoz also identifies “affective excess that presents the enabling force of a forward-dawning futurity that is queerness” (Muñoz 23). Boone and Glück’s construction of an affiliation, a form of queer belonging that is enacted in the present through links with Duncan and his valorization of feeling are performed beside an abiding interest in excess and the possibility of a “human future” (Boone 2006, 36).

10 While they continue to write poetry, Boone and Glück turned primarily to prose.

11 While I can’t develop this here, I am struck by this passage in which Duncan writes: “They were an audience, these two women, my nurses, as, with a nurse's delight in the free vitality, they caught up the spirit of Joyce with love in which we find most dear some earnest candid need or weakness – no – the vulnerability in itself that shows bravely forth as a condition, not for our commiseration but for our sympathy, feeling with it, as in Joyce's poem, a vital information [...] Lili had come from a land and language of saints. ‘Dearest Brother,’ she would address me, laying her hands upon me with an expression of intimate care and love [...]” (Duncan 2012, 63, my emphasis). I am drawn to and want to note Duncan’s investment in serious consideration and study of writing by women, including H.D., Stein, Laura Riding, etc., something that sets him apart from his contemporaries. At the same time, Duncan’s treatment of these two young women in this passage and his figuring of them in a gendered role – as nurses – caretakers – who enable him, through their support, to name and discuss Joyce’s affective impact and the way the poetry ignites or displays need and weakness strikes me as problematic or at least worthy of more attention. In the passage, Duncan swiftly revises his choice of words shifting from “weakness” to “vulnerability.” Is vulnerability less gendered? Whatever the case, “vulnerability” is then quickly attached to a showing “bravely forth” for the reader’s sympathy and “feeling with it.” These gendered dynamics and Duncan’s relationship to that which is culturally figured as femme is a topic worthy of exploration.

12 I am using Duncan’s language here, thus “homosexuality.”

13 Even when such feeling gave form to a poetry always already “incorporating an inner opposition or reproof of such feeling” (ibid. i).

14 One way to read Jess’s inclusion of two images of himself in his collage, “The Mouse’s Tale” is as a pleasurable and pointed visual rebuttal to the proposed disappearance of the subject, the crouching figure himself comprised of many others.

15 For a discussion of the lion in Duncan and Jess’s work see Robert J. Bertholf’s “The Concert: Robert Duncan Writing out of Painting.Jess: A Grand Collage 1951-1993. Buffalo: Albright-Know Art Gallery, 67-91.

16 Interestingly, too, the verso of the title page for Jack the Modernist includes this note: “Mine is an art of collage; I invite you to register changes of tone and century. For acknowledgements, numerous as stars and stranger bedfellows, here’s an incomplete list of writers and works present one way or another: George Bataille’s Death and Sensuality; Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas; Denis Diderot’s art criticism and the theories about it in Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality….” (Glück 1995, n.p.). The list goes on but does not include Duncan.

17 I am thinking here of the way Rob and I articulated New Narrative as a set of practices, including thinking “practices [as] ek-static; they evolve with their social conditions; they can be taken up, resituated, transmitted, and deployed differently” (Halpern and Tremblay-McGaw 14).

18 Glück characterizes Language poetry “as an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of voice, of continuity)” (Glück 2016, 14). Glück names Language poetry’s use of “collage, pastiche, and the poetry of the ‘already said’” (ibid. 15), though clearly these two communities worked these practices to distinct ends.

19 At the Poetry and Poetics of the 1980s National Poetry Foundation Conference in Orono, Maine in 2012 during the “Post-Generic Writing in the 1980s” panel with Stephen Fredman, Kaplan Harris, and Peter Middleton, and Marjorie Perloff as a respondent, Perloff questioned what might have been “new” about New Narrative. See xpoetics: “Poetry of the 80s!" (accessed 30 October 2020).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Robert Glück, Letter to Robert Duncan, May 9, 1978.4
Crédits Credit: Robert Glück, letter to Robert Duncan, May 9, 1978. Courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
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Robin Tremblay-McGaw, « “A Made Up Thing” Full of Depth: The Queer Belonging of Robert Duncan and New Narrative »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/10711 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/sillagescritiques.10711

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Auteur

Robin Tremblay-McGaw

Santa Clara University
Robin Tremblay-McGaw lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department of Santa Clara University and at Bard College as part of the Institute for Writing and Thinking, and the Language & Thinking Program. She is the author of Dear Reader (Ithuriel’s Spear, 2015) and co-authored with Rob Halpern From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice (2017). She and Rob Halpern are currently editing a special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory on New Narrative. Robin’s writing on Harryette Mullen, Joan Retallack, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Mike Amnasan, Kathleen Fraser, and others has appeared in Tripwire, MELUS, Aufgabe, Crayon, On Contemporary Practice, Feminist Spaces 2.2, and elsewhere.

Robin Tremblay-McGaw vit à San Francisco et enseigne au département d’études anglaises de l’université de Santa Clara ainsi qu’à Bard College, au sein de l’Institute for Writing et du Language & Thinking Program. Elle est l’auteur de Dear Reader (Ithuriel’s Spear, 2015) et co-auteur, avec Rob Halpern, de From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice (2017). Tous deux travaillent actuellement à la publication d’un numéro spécial du Journal of Narrative Theory sur l’idée de New Narrative. Robin Tremblay-McGraw a également consacré divers articles à Harryette Mullen, Joan Retallack, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Mike Amnasan, Kathleen Fraser, qui ont paru dans Tripwire, MELUS, Aufgabe, Crayon, On Contemporary Practice, Feminist Spaces 2.2, parmi d’autres. Pendant de nombreuses années elle a été responsable du site xpoetics.blogspot.com.

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