The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence


Bards of a Feather Flock Together… At the Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown


[This essay was sent to FAWC staff and a handful of workshop poet instructors. Nobody responded. It was sent to Provincetown Arts and Cape Cod Poetry Review. Nobody responded. A vastly truncated version was also sent to the Provincetown Banner. It was not published.]

Cape Cod, where I’ve been living for eight years, hates criticism of art and poetry. For its art curators, poetry editors, writing professors, art-center executive directors, and cultural-council apparatchiks, criticism simply doesn’t exist. If you stand up to criticize what needs to be criticized, as I have done, then you simply don’t exist. If you never test the waters of democracy, then you will never know just how murky they are.
In poetry, vigorous debate is dead. Ideology has coopted poetry (and art). Inevitably, ideology runs counter to reason and truth. Poets (and artists) ought to be staunch individuals with the courage to stand alone and speak truth to power (i.e., ideology) and not reside in groupthink ideological clusters. Poets must put reason and truth first, even at the expense of money, prizes, recognition, tenure, and especially cherished ideology.
“Generative” seems to have become the poetry workshop monkey-see, monkey-do term of the day. Perhaps, I thought, the Urban Dictionary might have a special PC-meaning for it, but, well, it doesn’t. So, “generative” means what it’s always meant: producing and reproducing… ad infinitum and sometimes ad nauseam. Regarding her workshop, Solmaz Sharif, for example, writes: “leave with a ton of ways to generate poems.” Patricia Spears Jones notes, regarding hers: “this workshop is designed […] to help to generate new work.” The copycat examples abound in the Fine Arts Work Center catalogue: “this class will utilize daily generative writing exercises” (Craig Morgan Teicher), “both generative and a workshop” (Brenda Shaughnessy), “workshop focused and generative” (Jennifer Tseng), “this generative workshop invites participants to write new poems” (Major Jackson), “once a poet locates an approach that makes quick work of the generative process” (Marcus Wicker), and “Revising & Generating: A Poetry Workshop” (Martha Rhodes). When paid poets spend too much time with other paid poets, they inevitably end up producing generative BS.
Grocery stores often stock tourist pamphlets, brochures, free newspapers, and other chamber-of-commerce-friendly innocuity in their entranceways next to their weekly ads, bottle-return machines, and garbage buckets. Thus, I picked up the 73-page glossily-expensive “Creativity [i.e., Generativity] Thrives Here” catalogue from one of them, thinking I’d likely come up with a couple of critical cartoon ideas from it. And sure enough, I did, though there was more in it with that regard than I ever could have expected. In fact, the catalogue seemed to incarnate the mind-numbing world of poetry workshops, which serve, more than anything else, to propagate the recognition status of workshop poet-instructors, to “generate” more money for them, and especially to “generate” more reams of vacuous, establishment and ideology-friendly verse.
How to make great brouhaha out of great nothingness? Poetry was once a solitary activity. Now, it’s become pervaded by groupthink groups and groupies, lack-of-originality hip-hop jazz poesy readings, poetry tourists, and increasing pervasive self-congratulating and backslapping ad nauseam. “Fine Arts Work Center Writing Fellows have won virtually every major literary prize awarded in the United States,” boasts the staff (Executive Director Michael Roberts, Writing Coordinator Sophia Starmack, Online Writing Coordinator Jill McDonough, Marketing and Communications Director Cary Raymond, Associate Director Bette Warner et al). Throughout the catalogue, the boasting (i.e., backslapping and self-congratulating) is echoed over and again. “This extraordinary group of poets and writers will be celebrated throughout 2018 in a series of readings and conversations in and around Provincetown.” “The caliber of our Summer Workshops faculty is unparalleled. Nightly readings and artist talks offer students a rare opportunity to learn from and interact with faculty at the highest levels of their disciplines.” “Work Center fellows have gone on to number among the most accomplished artists and writers working today, winning MacArthurs, Whitings, Pollock-Krasners, Tiffanys, Prix de Romes, Guggenheims, National Book Awards, and eight Pulitzer Prizes.”
But what does “accomplished” really mean in the realm of poetry, if not 100% coopted by the academic/literary establishment? The true purpose of FAWC is exposed in the last sentence of its own introduction: “Our programming also offers 100 public events, bringing 10,000 annual visitors to Provincetown…” Tourism! Money! Tourism! Money! Those visitors will pour money into the restaurants, motels, and souvenir shops. The entire June 10th to August 24th FAWC workshop event really does incarnate the business of poetry and art: the selling of accommodations ($800/six nights), books, artwork, tickets to see singing poets, etc., as well as the very selling out of renowned poets and artists.
Immediately after the introduction page, a handful of pages are devoted to FAWC’s other purpose, which is really the same purpose: money. “Our 50th Anniversary Campaign 1968-2018: The Goal—Raise $5 Million.” And of course the wealthier FAWC becomes, the more it will reward unquestioning and unchallenging poets and artists, who toe the line of inoffensiveness, with fellowship grants.
Somehow, prizes and popularity seem to cast a faux-air of objective determination of brilliance upon certain poets. But poetry, like art, is entirely subjective, no matter how much the machine wants us to think its objective. Might any of the poet and artist FAWC “faculty” possess the capacity to even contemplate when poetry and art become tourist attractions, they’ve inevitably become castrated or coopted? And for that to occur, something intrinsically wrong must occur in the very heart of poetry and art. In reality, FAWC’s “renowned faculty” of poets and artists have been well-trained like donkeys. Hold a carrot (i.e., money, fellowships, tenure, prizes, renown et al) in front of their snouts and they’ll move toward the carrot in an innocuous waddle.
Of the numerous (I avoid the term “diverse”) workshops offered in the catalogue, many, if not most, are in poetry, each lasting six days and costing $600 to $725 to attend (There are also a number of online workshops offered lasting up to two months.). Now, what kind of poet is going to spend that kind of money to attend a poetry workshop? Well, a trained poet will do that because he or she feels the need for more training. He or she also wants to rub elbows with renowned workshop poets and make connections, which will hopefully lead to increased recognition and even prizes. Perhaps also he or she is being supported by grants of public or university money, so it’s not coming out of his or her own pocket. And, after all, isn’t “recognition” the goal of the poet today? It certainly isn’t rude-truth telling, as in “go upright and vital and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). Indeed, you ain’t gonna find that at the FAWC, nor are you going to find poets apt to go against the grain of the poetry machine, as in “let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau).
But, of course, you’ll find plenty of ideologically-correct (i.e., PC) variety poets and artists, especially during FAWC’s “Social Justice Week” of “Writers & Artists as Activists,” or rather as Blind-Ideologues of Democrat-Party-line propaganda. So, poets, who don’t share the party-line views on global warming (uh, climate change), open borders, gun control, #me too, BLM, anti-white racism (i.e., white privilege), islamophobia, hate speech, and so on, will have to adorn an additional muzzle, that is, if they wish to keep their recognition status and teach future poetry workshops at FAWC.
“Writing the Forbidden: A Poetry Workshop” seemed to take the prize, amongst all the workshops, for contradictory absurdity. After all, the rude truth regarding “writing the forbidden,” as in this very essay, would be forbidden at FAWC. Earlier this year, I had already written the forbidden regarding Provincetown Arts magazine and received this memorable response from its brilliant editor, Christopher Busa: Silly Slone, I was trained in literary studies during a decade in graduate school with some of the foremost critics of the time. Your idea of criticism, from the shrillness of your rants, excludes any sense of illumination. Please do not contact me again. And when I wrote back regarding that comment, Busa continued with his, uh, “rant.” Clearly, your eyes are too clouded to read excellent writing, let alone understand. You are a silly pest that sucks blood from living things. And so, what was the monstrously horrible thought crime that merited such a response from the high-and-mightily educated Busa? Well, below is the email I’d sent. To Christopher Busa, Founder and Editor, Provincetown Arts, “An annual magazine devoted to art, writing & theater since 1985”:
Might I humbly suggest that you insert the word “establishment” in front of the word “art” in your subtitle? After all, should not art and writing be concerned with rude truth?
I attach a challenging aquarelle because it stands at the crux, at your very problematic crux. Examine it, that is, if you still have an iota of curiosity regarding things exterior to your art-establishment safe space. Why will nobody publish it? Is that a problem? Yes! It is a problem. It is at the very crux of the art problem… to the extent that any artist even capable of contemplating it will likely experience problems in the world of the art establishment, your world. I also attach the old aquarelle I did with you standing in the background.
“Go away troll,” had written one of your poesy-establishment cover girls, Eileen Myles. And indeed that seems to be the extent of permissible debate in the establishment world of poesy and art today. Rude truth is not permitted in such safe spaces! Only ideological echoing is permitted. The crux! Think! Now, why not one little page in your journal devoted to criticism of you and your journal? Pipe dream? You bet! The crux! Think! The two aquarelle (and a cartoon on Myles) can viewed on the American Dissident blogsite (http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/2018/05/sebastian-smee.html, http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/2016/08/eileen-myles.html, and http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/2018/07/kevin-howard.html). I also posted the cartoon I sketched on Busa after receiving his response of raving indignity (see http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/2018/07/christopher-busa.html). Criticize the establishment and it usually goes whacko… or more often reacts as if you didn’t even exist (i.e., deafening silence, though with eternal ostracizing).
Well, I do not digress because Busa is likely as tightly linked with FAWC as he is with the Chamber of Commerce and its diverse cultural councils and art centers. One must wonder if any real dissident poets or artists even exist in the tightly-bound Provincetown community. And what happens when “dissidents” become the establishment? Well, clearly they were never really “dissidents” to begin with. Think of Ai Weiwei, darling of the art establishment today and FAWC “special guest.”
Anyhow, “award-winning poet” Jennifer Tseng, the instructor and creator of the “Writing the Forbidden” workshop, declares in a not very forbidden statement, “What’s forbidden to one writer may not be forbidden to another.” She then puts forth the supposed taboo-breaking purpose of the workshop: “Whatever your forbidden territory is, visit it with curiosity and attention. We proceed as risk-takers together.” It would be quite surprising, of course, if Tseng and her adult poet students could even fathom the real great taboo, let alone risk breaking it: thou shalt not question and challenge the academic/literary establishment, including its icons, literary prizes, awards, judges, cultural apparatchiks, and various organizations like FAWC itself. After all, doing so, might really entail risk, that is, risk of no more paid FAWC workshops, of career destruction, of diminution of recognition and eternal exclusion. And so, I sketched my first cartoon from the catalogue on Tseng. Does that mean I’m racist or misoginist and not a worshipper of identity politics? Perhaps. And, if so, I don’t give a damn. My purpose is truth, not recognition, not obtaining a prize, award, fellowship, grant or workshop to teach, and especially not obtaining PC-certification. Truth. Nothing but the truth. And for that, you shall never hear or read of my existence in Provincetown Arts or Poetry magazine.
Now, Tseng might very well be a nice person. But how can a dissident poet like me not call her out for helping the establishment give the false impression that it is somehow open to criticism and risk-taking poets who really dare go against its grain? Yes, for the truth, I have sacrificed teaching jobs, publication possibilities, invitations, and grants, as well as the very right to enter my neighborhood library. Indeed, my very civil rights are being denied today because I am not permitted to attend any cultural or political events held there, thanks to the permanent trespass decree issued by Sturgis Library director Lucy Loomis (see theamericandissident.org/orgs/sturgis_library.html). Might any of the renowned FAWC poets give a damn about that? Of course not! Perhaps Tseng might wish to consider working for Xi Jinping as a propagandist. Well, she’s already working for Michael Roberts.
One thing these poet characters seem to have in common is their worship of the poetry prizes. Don’t-Bite-the-Hand-That-Feeds Poet Cornelius Eady—NEA, Guggenheim, Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, Lamont Prize and Pulitzer nominee—boasts, for example, “I read a lot—manuscripts I’ve read for contests have turned into Nat’l Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners.” He and his ilk seem entirely incapable of questioning and challenging the prizes (e.g., who are the judges? what are their ideological and stylistic prejudices?) or perceiving their precise role in the cooptation (i.e., castration) of poetry. A poet who is fed by the establishment like Eady is a poet of the establishment.
FAWC poets are clearly lost in verbosity, which can only create superfluity and general lack of originality. What to think of poet assistant professor of Creative Writing (Kansas State University), NEA Fellow et al Traci Brimhall’s statement: “We will focus on how to create a balance of tension in poems between clarity and wilderness, narrative and music, emotion and intellect. Using models and exercises, we will generate [oh, yeah, generate!] new work that tries to balance our inherent strengths by employing vocabulary, syntax, and tonal choices we normally shy away from. Sign up for a tune up.” Mind-numbing! Anything but rude truth! The poetess as filler of reams and reams…
The brouhaha in the catalogue is deafening… and utterly dumbing. “Artist as Activist: Ai Weiwei.” Oh, yeah, but Weiwei is certainly not an activist against the bourgeois art and poetry scene that’s been feeding him royally or rather as royalty. “Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project.” Yes, imagine the poems that tenured-academic, government-anointed poet laureate Pinsky would choose.
(see wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/2010/06/common-citizens-plea-for-justice-equity.html). Or how about tenured academic Fred Marchant, who has kept the doors of his Suffolk University Poetry Center hermetically closed to the poets published in The American Dissident (see
http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/2012/05/fred-marchant.html)? Yes, his poetry workshop, “Writing the Water Songs,” will surely make waves in the poetry establishment. Oh, yeah. It’s enough to make a thinking, unattached poet puke. Or how about “we will have a good time” workshop poet Eileen Myles, who dismissed me as a “troll” because I dared criticize her identity-politics inanity. Her “Basic Tools: A Poetry Workshop” will surely highlight how safe-space cocooned poets like her cannot bare to be criticized.
The descriptions of the workshops not only echo tedious repetition, but also absurdity and silliness: “Keep Your Foot on the Sustain Pedal: Writing Long Poems” (Ed Skoog); “Delightful Duos: Collaborating Poets” (Laura Madeline Wiseman) [How not to think of the French collabos during WWII!]; “The Poet as Spy: 4 Tricks from Espionage” (Jillian Weise); “Anthro-Poetics: Living, Seeing, and Wonder” (Nomi Stone); “I Am Trying to Be Marvelous: The Poetics of Body Positivity” (Emilia Phillips); and “Griffins, Harpies, and Jackalopes: Hybrid Poetics” (Sarah Rose Nordgren). Why are these superfluous workshops even created? To fill available space at FAWC? Ross Gay describes his exciting workshop: “In this generative workshop, we will stoke our imaginations by (often collaboratively) writing and performing mini operas, puppet plays, poem-type things, making books, studying flowers, and making a way together.” And shouldn’t poets expect more from FAWC Board of Trustees workshop instructor and poet laureate of New York, Sarah Lawrence College professor Marie Howe, who begins the description “Intention & Discovery: Form as Portal, Form as Path” with “This workshop is primarily generative”? For poets of the machine, forme always takes precedent over fond (substance). In fact, for many of them, poetry does not even need fond.
Why is criticism of the poetry machine conspicuously absent as a workshop possibility? Surely, it would provoke ample discussion and even thought amongst the poets. “Against the Machine: An Unusual Poetry Workshop.” In this workshop, poets will not be encouraged to generate or fill reams and reams of paper with vapid theme-based verse. Instead, they will focus on questioning and challenging all things poetry, including FAWC itself, poetry prizes, fellowships, other monetary lures, and what it really means to be a recognized poet. They will be encouraged, by the instructor, to question and challenge the instructor himself. Pipe dream? You bet!
Money serves to tame poets and artists. “The ambitious goal will grow our $1.5 million endowment by $3.5 million which will underwrite our residency program and provide additional resources to bring senior and mid-career artists and writers to Provincetown, offering our Fellows essential mentorship,” notes FAWC. So much money will surely serve to further muzzle and fully control poetry by enhancing the already insurmountable propaganda machine led by Poetry Foundation’s $200 million endowment, managed by investment bankers of course.
“Fellows are accepted entirely on the excellence of work submitted,” notes FAWC. But who determines what “excellence” constitutes? Can criticism of the bourgeois writing industry ever be considered “excellence”? Of course not! FAWC then quotes one of its obedient backslapping Writing Fellows, Ann Patchett, who seems to incarnate the vacuity of bourgeois writers of the writing industry: “It is quite easy to bet on a horse that you know has already won. What the Fine Arts Work Center does is it bets on the horses that haven’t run yet. And to give the gift to people who need it, in order to save their lives, is the difference between handling someone a laurel and handing someone a lifetime.” Patchett, the horse, argues in The Guardian, “If writers are to survive we must take responsibility for ourselves and our industry.” When poetry becomes an industry as it already has, then poetry is dead. Finally, one might wish to contemplate the likelihood that no “great” poet of the past ever took a course in poetry, let alone a poetry workshop. But that very thought ineluctably runs counter to the industry grain. For those who I did not mention in this essay, please forgive me. There are just far too many of you carrot-chasing poet donkeys to critique in one essay. Opening the hermetically-sealed doors to a wee bit of criticism might provoke a wee bit of unusual debate, open the scope of acceptable poetry, and even get workshop poets to perhaps seek a wee bit of originality, as opposed to copycat generative BS. Poet Charles Bukowski provides some rare words of poet wisdom: “A writer is going to get resistance to his work always unless he feeds the mass mind the pap they [sic] want. The only thing you can do is write the way you want to write and to hell with everything else. It’s better to fail your way than succeed their way. […] If you fail to make anybody hate you, then you haven’t done your job.” Well, then I guess I sure as hell have at least done my job...