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The State of the Art of the Avant-Garde

An Interview with Stephen-Paul Martin


Kirpal Gordon


KPG: SPM, you've been around for thirty years as a writer & advocate of experimental, imaginative, non-mainstream literature. Leaping Dog Press & Fiction Collective 2 will publish your 20th & 21st title this year. I also know that you co-founded Central Park in 1980 with Richard Royal & Eve Ensler & edited it up until 1996. So you strike me as the guy to ask: What has become of the literary avant-garde in the USA? How come it behaves like the Democratic party, factionalized & fragmented, its range of "tribes"---eco-driven, visual writing, dada, absurdism, lang-po, metafiction, surrealism, serialism, media critique, Buddhist, feminist, gay/lesbian, black, regional & traditions that have a literary history but no audience of any great size---united only by the fact that the mainstream may not see enough money in them to bother about?

SPM: I think the main claim to significance that avant practices can legitimately make is that they constitute an alternative network, as opposed to the small press scene, which functions more as the minor leagues for mainstream publishing. However, when avanties start to function as narcissistic egos desperate for recognition and power, the whole idea of an alternative network collapses.

KPG: So if the middle-browing, standardizing, bureaucratic process of "professionalizing" our poets, radical critics & experimental writers has insured them middle class salaries in our universities at the risk of betraying their roots, where is our sense of community now?

SPM: I hope you are not thinking of the downtown scene in New York City during the late Seventies and early Eighties because money---and the future---were so little on everyone's mind.

KPG: I'm thinking of your non-fiction book, Open Form and the Feminine Imagination. published in 1988. You helped coax us into a variety of texts that were difficult to enter. You demonstrated how writers as diverse as Susan How & Clarence Major, for example, were speaking to our condition, only requiring us to develop alternative interpretive skills, an act of transcending/seeing through limits that are culturally imposed. I'm wondering where that kind of encouragement has gone. I'm also remembering the impact of Central Park. I got bombarded by so many new ideas, challenging perceptions, contrasting styles & approaches. It was a beautiful thing. Put more plainly, has a lack of tenure & adequate health insurance, coupled with bourgeois fantasies of fortune & fame, compromised the avant garde?

SPM: Compromised in the sense of turning it into its opposite, my answer is, "At least to some extent." Letting the text unfold (as writers and readers) may be the only real community we will ever have. Exchanges between people are the ultimate value of literature. Yes, there's the undeniable value of the energies we invest in creating the work and reading it carefully. But then what happens? I think most writers, perhaps without fully acknowledging it to themselves, see their work in a career context: Where can the work get them in terms of jobs and recognition? This is the mainstream approach, with the work seen as a way to assimilate into the dominant culture. But when the work is seen mainly as a trigger for discussion, it pulls the writer and reader away from the condition of semi-consciousness encouraged by mass communication and into the shared contemplation of ideas that exist only because the intensity of the interaction creates them. It's precisely this kind of dialogue that cannot be appropriated by capitalist culture. It helps us stop worrying about how "great" the work is and puts the focus on the depth of feeling and imagination the work can generate and encourage.

KPG: Yes, that's if dialogue happens. One of the more ironic situations many writers find themselves in is figuring out which radical publication credits count for inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Avant-Garde Lit. Ditto the hustling poets discussing the relative amount of "status points" in performing at the Poetry Project versus the Bowery Poetry Club. Pardon me for the complaint. I always thought of "status-seeking" as the antithesis of "presence-dwelling." The packaging of an innovative writer into her greatest hits seems reductionistic, misses the point & concedes a victory to market strategy.

SPM: Why do we complain about what disappoints us rather than focusing on what works? Why do we expect not to be disappointed? Do we assume that somewhere out there, a select group of truly cool people are never disappointed, and if only we were either getting what we truly deserved or were part of that elite circle, everything would be copacetic? Or is it just that, as Strindberg once said, complaint is our mother tongue?

KPG: I'd say any return to anything resembling a mother tongue would be fine with me! Avanties who have to keep sounding like the poster they bought of themselves so people might identify their work more easily seem to be missing the biggest point of all, namely what's really going on with an audience. In contrast to this kind of logo-ification, I want to ask: how come your work seems to keep growing & expanding? You seem to continue to develop an organic & unique approach to prose that joins a wide range of altie lit practices to a new form. Neither fiction nor essay exactly, yours is somehow "in between," a highly readable approach, mixing theme & variation.

SPM: I think this in-betweenness is the key. I've always been fascinated by the avant experiments, but another part of me is still that kid watching The Twilight Zone and reading Mad Magazine.

KPG: Metafiction slipping on a banana peel?

SPM: Exactly! If it's not warped, why bother?

KPG: I admit that explains your comic impulse, which no doubt is a result of what Alan Watts once said, "When you see the whole of it not as separate parts but as all connected, there's nothing more to do than to have a great laugh."

SPM: At NYU I worked with a great professor named John Kuehl, and he introduced me to Theatre of the Absurd and Anti-Realist fiction. At the same time, I was trying to write poetry, and even though some of it was getting published poetry felt like a straight-jacket to me. For some writers poetry is a perfect vehicle but whenever I tried to write a poem I felt too serious, too self-conscious. So I started doing fiction as a way to make my poetry happen. There seemed to be more room for my particular talents---humor especially---if I let my poetry happen in dialogue with some of the elements of fiction.

KPG: I sense that you're following a line of thinking about the limits of language & meaning. Despite your being labelled avant garde, I have always found your work "user-friendly." You know what I mean?

SPM: I think my experience in the classroom has allowed me to understand the reading needs and interests of people who aren't future lit professors. So many of the so-called alternative writers are professors writing for other professors---writing to offend the conservative professors and get the approval of the radical professors. But it's all academic, and even the term anti-academic is an academic category. So where does that leave people like my students back at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City? Do any altie writers write with these students in mind? Most of these students don't even have time to read the Daily News, but the truth is that some of them are willing to read something challenging if it's fun in some way, or if the disturbance an avant text makes in their reading habits allows them to dance with the page. So as my teaching career unfolded, I began to write more from the zone of consciousness that guided the way I taught my classes. As you know, you need to make sense in the classroom, even if you're confronting students with difficult writing.

KPG: Yeah, but that's not the whole story, is it?

SPM: The other issue my teaching forced me to consider was relevance. In what context does innovative fiction matter? I think most avanties are unconsciously assuming that they're writing for possible inclusion in the grad school seminar rooms of the not-too-distant future. I try to write---or rather, I generally end up writing---as if my work might have relevance in those seminar rooms but also---and mainly---beyond them.

KPG: I'm picturing a person who works in the hotel business & has two toddler daughters. He comes down to breakfast & tries to read The Flood, your double-valanced satire stream.

SPM: Okay, so how far does he get before he loses interest and decides to read the New York Times? How far does he get before he has to focus on the bowl of cereal his howling daughter spilled, cleaning it up and shutting her up just in time to rush off to work and think about guest ledgers? You see my point: most people outside of academia don't have time to concentrate, and it's hard to write anything worthwhile when you're imagining a reader who keeps getting distracted and would rather be watching Monday night football.

KPG: So how do you imagine a reader of your work?

SPM: Realistically, the imagined reader who shares and to some extent guides my process of inspiration has to be someone who's willing to read carefully and has the time to do it, and who---outside of a few lit professors or professionals---has time to do that? So I end up somewhere in between, refusing to accept the merely academic audience, but realistically accepting that very few non-academic, non-artistic people will want to read me.

KPG: Stanislaw Jerzey Luc said of XXth century mass politics, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." Is the avantie scene bringing for-profit demands to a system of publishing & distributing of books that won't even break even? Paraphrasing Hubert Hunke: does "owning the rush" imply that we should be getting into the means of production & distribution of literature?

SPM: Not for me, not anymore. The scramble to get noticed feels wrong to me. I don't like the feelings of competition and comparison that get triggered when I try to make myself visible among others doing the same thing. I used to feel it was worth my while to struggle for recognition in the alternative writing world. I got so sick of that frustrated feeling that I finally decided I didn't want it anymore. It was more important to enjoy doing my writing and let the recognition side of things take care of itself. I still get twinges of frustration when I see less talented, more aggressive fiction writers getting the reviews and jobs I think I deserve. But I try not to stay in the resentment because it just makes me feel bitter, and when I'm "owning the rush," riding the wave of verbal grace and precision, none of the lit-biz bullshit matters.

KPG: Why does seeking to get noticed become a scramble? Why does competition & comparison get triggered?

SPM: Seeking to get noticed becomes a "scramble" because there's a limited amount of recognition available from universities, who divide writers into major, minor, and non-existent. Since not everyone can be included on the syllabus, there's a scramble for the few slots available for alternative writers. And of course there's a scramble for scarce money resources. But I've also encountered writers who seemed to want to be the ONLY writers worth reading and were threatened by the idea that anyone else might be worth reading. This relates to your second question. We all feel we're the true geniuses who ought to be getting major recognition, and when someone else gets it, or gets minor recognition that exceeds our minor or non-existent recognition, we hate the world, the other writer(s), and ourselves, and we accuse those other writers of being publicity hounds who are willing to make moves that we tell ourselves we're too cool to make.

KPG: Well, what about the internet? I google your name & up come all these insightful, well developed reviews from Andrew Joron, Harry Polkinhorn, Susan Smith Nash, Ben Stoltzfus, Majorie Perloff, John Tritica & others. All of your recent titles from Paul Rosheim's Obscure Publications can also be read right from the pdf file. Is this the future or will there be no future without more readers? If we allow ourselves to imagine a world where our literary output made sense, had meaning, engaged audiences & built community, what would that look like?

SPM: Your question presupposes a world where capitalism hasn't sped everything up to the point where mass trash is the only thing people have time to internalize. In this non-capitalist world, people aren't consumers. They buy or otherwise find what they need and they haven't been brainwashed into thinking they need more. They like taking lots of quiet time to read, but they read slowly, carefully, fully absorbing what's on the page, generating a meditative space that helps them see themselves as producers rather than consumers of meaning. The non-commercial circulation of texts has as its sole purpose the sharing of perceptions. There is no rating system, no promise of fame or financial reward. Minus the idealizations, this is the kind of world I've tried to create for myself. I try to stay close to the meditative meaning of reading and writing, and I'm most drawn to other writers and readers who do the same thing. The rest is bullshit.

© 2006 by Kirpal Gordon, 6 jan 06

Kirpal Gordon's website ~ www.KirpalG.com

Contact Kirpal Gordon by email : [email protected]

Also online by Kirpal Gordon

Gaps in the System/Erasing the Separation:
A Conversation on Stephen-Paul Martin's Fiction by Vernon Frazer & Kirpal Gordon

X Country: Touring The Nation With Jazz & Poetry, Election Season by Kirpal Gordon

The Fate of an Original Voice: Boyd & Arnold Enrich an American Grain by Kirpal Gordon

2003's Year-in-Review: A New York Jazz Report

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