Monday, June 21, 2010

Response to Rebecca Wolff of Fence Magazine

So Rebecca Wolf, editor of Fence Magazine, wrote a criticism of the 95 Cent Skool that boiled down to, "they're taking too absolute a position with their poetic sensibilities. I wish they'd added "to us" onto the end of "any poetry which subtracts itself from such [social] engagements is no longer of interest" in their mission statement. I don't want anyone telling me a) how to write poetry and b) how to be socially effective. Furthermore, radicalized social poetics will never change the system." Read the post if you have the time and emotional energy.

Of course, what she said would infuriate the choir here, but more importantly, the language of her critical argument betrayed a lot about her own social (and generational!) position. I posted this response to her criticism on the Fence blog, located here:


This is an apt description of the generation Rebecca described herself as part of:

"We are careerists -- clinging to our conviction that we can change the world not by forceful ideas but by the mere force of our own often-coddled personalities, even if the ideas and passions that once animated our humanity have been buried under pages of resumes and cover letters."

Rebecca: Perhaps your social and generational realities/experiences (which you described very beautifully by the way, thank you for that) are ill-equipped for dealing with the problems the world faces today. Furthermore, perhaps the 95 Cent Skool is popular among young people like me not because we're being "bullied" or "intimidated", but because we've seen how your generation's moderation, careerism, and emphasis on "um, creative freedom," (i.e. not taking an absolute aesthetic position) has remained not only useless, but disheartening /to us/, when faced with the rising tide of Suck in the U.S.A. In addition, perhaps said social realities make you mock the possibilities of the Skool; you criticize the "super-strong drive for some kind of unified, community-based, activated practice for your own writing and for the writing of those you want to be surrounded by," simply because its strength denies the opposite drive. Well yeah, of course it denies the opposite drive; it would be tepid, unfelt and insincere if it didn't. This isn't about F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence as the ability to hold conflicting notions in one's head at once; it's about what we actually want from the contemporary society in which we live. We want to live our lives in a way that satisfies us as writers and as human beings who share a social poetics, day-to-day in the moment.

As writers, we are more willing to be a part of something greater than ourselves that takes a strong, firm stance against social oppression than those who came before us. Even if it means our writing isn't filled with "creative genius" and "personal inspiration." We're willing to put everything about ourselves on the line for that stance, even if nothing changes because of it. From whence does this passion arise: We know to our guts that we don't exist in a vacuum. There is no choice but to hold a social poetics. It's not even about making a change; hell, we know better than you seem to know that the 95 Cent Skool is not going to change anything in the system. It's not going to clean up the oil in the Gulf. It's not going to get our tax dollars back from Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and the rest of those crooks. It's not going to keep Latinos in Arizona from being racially profiled and harassed. It's not going to magically make capitalists care about human beings over profits, and it's not going to magically make politicians care about their constituents over lobbyist contributions.

The difference between you and us is that we have much less faith that we can have any sort of positive impact by "establishing direct mental contact with [our] government." Writers much more talented, creative and educated than us have been ignored, undermined, placated or transformed by the people in power for decades with no real change; what chance do we have of getting through? As far as we're concerned the system can collapse upon itself without our creative input, as it seems on track to do. We'll still produce and offer our criticism and engagement through our work, but we can't devote our professional satisfaction to the possibility that someone in power will listen. We have to find that satisfaction in a different way.

The 95 Cent Skool isn't about social change in the broad sense of marches and letter-writing campaigns; it's about satisfying our souls' need to exist apart from a failing system and apart from people whose actions or inactions support the system that's failed our sense of justice for our entire lives. If Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover were to add "to us" to the mission statement, it would deny the full-bodied fervor we feel for how the system, implicitly supported by any aesthetic that doesn't explicitly take it on, has failed not just us but the entire world. It's about social change in the sense of creating the sort of (micro)society we want to live in, as writers and as human beings, to study and learn what we love.

I'd be willing to maintain an exclusionary aesthetic for the Skool in order to accomplish the above-described souls' need. Walls keeping people out also protect the hearts of those they enclose. Those who disagree can form their own group and end declarative statements with "to us" all they want.


  1. As writers, we are more willing to be a part of something greater than ourselves that takes a strong, firm stance against social oppression than those who came before us. Even if it means our writing isn't filled with "creative genius" and "personal inspiration."

    Or resumes and cover letters. Jesus! I want to read, I want to write and I don't want to be blind or have no critical perspective on what is happening.

    Well said, Skooler. Thank you for putting in the part about younger people and the appeal of the 95 Skool Seminar to people like you and I. Not all of us attending identify as "Young People" but at least this echoes my thoughts. See you in Oakland!

  2. You don't think you can affect social change, but you want to feel good about what you're doing, you want to satisfy yourself, you want to feel apart from a society of which you are part. That's not a social poetics, that's escapism (and nostalgia).


  3. I find myself agreeing with the possibilities of the 95c Skool, but I feel this response left me worrisome because it seems as though you have no confidence in the system itself. It's totally possible to create a large enough Skool that everyone who wants to engage in it can. Maybe I'm going off on a tangent, but despite the fact, I feel this retort is not what the Skool needs. The Skool needs action, a movement.