Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 48, December 2014)

Tim Horvath
Avante-Garde Mandate

It is notable that Perloff draws the phrase “avant-garde mandate” from the introduction by Cole Swenson and David St. John to their own poetry anthology, who use the phrase to denote a vision of hybridity, wherein experimentation is fully commensurate and conversant with “the emotional spectra of lived experience.” I have to say that in this caucus, I’m more on the side of the room with Swenson and St. John—I read and write in part to heighten tacit experience, to stir the body and usher it into emotional realms to which it might otherwise not have access. Perloff argues for a mandate that “by definition…defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.” I’d suggest that by this definition, rigidly applied, no poetry, nor literature, nor language itself is possible, since language is itself bound up in the status quo, bearing its history, its junk DNA, its barnacles, its emotional carry-on items. Maybe the idea is that to “incorporate” means to tame and domesticate, that poetry might imbibe but not digest, and thus not incorporate (see there, exhibit A, the junk DNA of the corporeal in the very notion). I suppose I’m okay with that—I’m all for work that writhes its way off the page, that seethes and hides and won’t stay put. But I like this idea of not choosing. Literature is where I don’t have to choose between the primacy of physical, emotional, political, social, and intellectual being, since it proves more resoundingly than any other realm, to me, the ways in which these are utterly entangled. 

To me, then an “avant-garde mandate” is a sort of a rallying cry, a vow to acknowledge the inventions and effects of a restless, revolutionary spirit, of motion and reinvention, of writing that seeks to displace or jar, to undo and to disperse, and insofar as these are modes in which the universe itself exists I embrace them all. I wish the phrase weren’t so forward-inclining, and and I'd prefer to treat “mandate” more as a muscle than a command per se. I’m a secret or not-so-secret Darwinian—that is, I believe that Darwinism, while by no means providing an exhaustive explanation for anything, has something to contribute to almost any topic, and this means I have an eye on the past as much as on the future, the retro-garde.I believe that our zeal for storytelling is deeply embedded, as are our longings for intimacy, our capacity and delight in interpreting and taking on the thoughts of others (so-called “theory of mind”), our hungering after meaning, our reliance on metaphor.  Deception, conflict, hierarchy, and the proverbial “tooth and claw” are also parts of the story. To me, the question is how to make these all compatible with aesthetic integrity and social justice.

 As for “accessibility,” I would like my work to be accessible, yes.  I prefer a work that resists somewhat at every turn, that is playful and dodgy and not always in the same way. A work whose sentences reward multiple readings, whose sentences are doing, rather than merely rendering or representing or even evoking. I’m drawn to work where there is a certain friction, a sense that the language has been kneaded a bit, where its material element doesn’t necessarily interfere with the reading eye or ear, but it slows it down, making those sense organs want to linger and loiter. Also, I appreciate work that comes at something from unexpected angles. Angle of approach weighs a lot, which is different from point of view.  

Part of what I’m looking for is to be seduced, which involves being immersed, but somewhat paradoxically this means letting us out, affording us continual little glances outside or beyond. The truly immersive work has to point beyond itself, cannot envelope us fully, has to have air holes that allow for the oxygenation of the world beyond the book. The truly immersive work leaves the reader conflicted about whether text or world is ascendant at any given moment. The truly immersive work is one that the reader surfaces from like a whale that spends occasional but crucial time at the waterline.