The Heathen at the Trading Post

What if one of the few places you feel intellectually at home is a once-a-year gathering that shifts from city to city and disperses after three days? At the annual Modernist Studies Association meeting I can’t sleep for worrying about what I said or didn’t say during the panels. I sometimes feel like a clown from the wilderness, behind on the reading that everyone else seems to manage, failing to remember what I actually have read.

I also have conference friends with whom I’m instantly relaxed and cheerful, and I always feel energized by the intensity of the conversations. I missed fully half of the 2011 modernist materialization in Buffalo, New York last weekend but crammed in as much as I could while on site. The panels and especially the roundtables were terrific. I was on a roundtable organized by Helen Sword about innovative scholarship; my co-panelists were brilliant and I’m still chewing on their propositions. Another, Marsha Bryant’s “Re-thinking Poetic Innovation,” presented an electrifying investigation of a ubiquitous word. When it’s used to describe contemporary poetry, “innovative” vexes me no end and lo! I am not the only resister!

Some scraps from my notebook follow—smart questions, sharp observations, and other bon mots. I identify speakers when I know them. Caveat: I may have details/phrasing completely wrong. I was pretty worked up.

Alan Golding: What does fetishizing innovation stop you from doing?

Bob Perelman: “Avant-garde” is an increasingly quaint period term.

Steven Yao referred to “the phenomenon of the usual suspects” and asked what modernism would look like if we acknowledged the bigger picture of literary production. Following up on that point later, Mike Chasar pointed out, “when you read distantly you first have to identify your archive,” and then described going into debt buying strangers’ poetry scrapbooks via E-Bay.

Elisabeth Frost recalled another poet asking her, “But isn’t all good poetry innovative?” Discovering that her conversational partner “held all the rhetorical cards,” she rethought the term and proffered “transformational poetry” instead, being interested in identifying “what poetry can do.” The transformational critic, she went on to say, “tries not to be smart so much as connected.”

From the audience: “Innovation can be contextual. A Harlem Renaissance poet using the sonnet is doing something transformational.”

Another man asked how we can talk about innovation without destruction—the adolescent impulse to smash? Some enthusiastic/mocking pounding of tables ensued.

Jed Rasula offered the following distinction: experiments can fail while innovations have already succeeded; their status is beyond failure.

Meredith Martin asked why we’re still buying the “make it new” tag Ezra Pound sold us. It’s easy to teach, she answered herself, and Alan Golding commented that the problem with the great project of blowing open the modernist archive is that it becomes unteachable.

Mike Chasar informed us that Edgar Guest is the most published US poet of the 20th century—he published a poem a day for 30 years—and no one has written critically about him.

Lynn Keller suggested that innovation is a professional term: “WE want to be innovative, justifying what we do. The word has to do with the profession more than with the literature.”

Even just one provocative conversation justifies a few stupid airplane hops, especially when it’s framed by reunions over free pastries. I walked into breakfast on Saturday and Annette Debo and Marsha Bryant called out, fully as if they were happy to see me, “It’s Lesley! Where WERE you?” People greeted me like that all morning. I concluded the evening at the bar with a former undergraduate, John Mellilo, who now has a PhD and an ACLS fellowship and honeymoon plans and a wildman beard. Now, of course, I’m back on the heath, bags and brain stuffed with winter provisions

2 responses to “The Heathen at the Trading Post”

  1. So tru dat, “Even just one provocative conversation justifies a few stupid airplane hops.” Lefcadio Hearn used to love a Cajun saying that translates, “Conversation is food for the ears,” and it’s right (and you are Lesley) that provocative collegial conversation can sustain us in ways that other conversations, however caloric, cannot.

    I attended a reading by W.S. Merwin this week, and it was clear that he was sustained by encountering more piercing questions, more real conversation than he had expected in the out of the way place of Kent, OH.

    So here’s to conferences and readings and other provocative encounters! And to coming home and having time to recollect them in tranquility or recollect them anyhow.


  2. It was a capacious and energizing conference, I think! Agree wholeheartedly with your preference for roundtables, Lesley, because they allow us to hear more voices in the room and build connections among them. My work on women’s poetry has made me revisit a reigning assumption about innovation: it must be subversive, against the mainstream in some way. The more I read and think, the less convinced I am that this is always true.


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