Sunday, September 6, 2009

Howl of New York, Poets of Providence, Slaves of the South


I heard a bit of the Allen Ginsberg-inspired Howl! Festival this weekend, on the Lower East Side — where Ginsberg lived in the same building as a poet friend of mine from Brown, Polly Kanevsky. This weekend’s readings included another Providence (turned Sarah Lawrence) poet (I missed the name) who stood out for sounding more whimsical and funny, less tortured, than the others, reciting (from memory) a long poem about “a place where imaginary friends go to retire” — closer to a Nickelodeon show premise than the pain of beatnik life on the streets. And that’s fine. We can’t all be tortured. And the world needs Nickelodeon shows.


This in turn reminded me of Providence poet Brett Rutherford, who also often writes about encountering imaginary creatures — except his are often H.P. Lovecraft-inspired and as much creepy as kooky (I recall him using the ominous title “Curb Your God”). What’s really unsettling, though, is the thought that Rutherford (who is a libertarian of some sort, as I recall) and I corresponded back when I was at Brown and there was no Web.

It’s not just that we’ve quickly learned to take the ease of Net access for granted — we’ve also forgotten how strange and spotty and unpredictable (yet sometimes all the more important because of it) our pre-Web correspondences were, often taking some form like: “I read your letter in the local newspaper and, since I’m not aware of any organizations in the area that address these themes, I thought I’d [hand-]write this long correspondence about some similar thoughts I’ve had, which I hope I’m mailing to the right house…”

That was the life of a young intellectual in 1990, in a nutshell.

As Tyler Cowen has recently written, one important means of overcoming such communication problems back then was…moving to New York City. If you couldn’t find intellectuals’ minds in non-physical cyberspace, you had to go to one of the locations where they actually lived — such as the Lower East Side, as the Howl! Festival poets have explicitly celebrated this weekend. This raises questions about whether communities built upon transient intellectual (or misfit) populations can or should be sustainable as geographic locations over the super-long-haul in the Net era.

I ask whether they should be not only because they may be less necessary now but also because such communities might be more prone to pathology than normal, more organic towns. One big purpose of the Howl! Festival has been to advertise a new service called Howl! HELP, which exists for the noble but rather narrow purpose of providing desperately-needed social services to troubled Lower East Side poets and artists. How troubled must a population that small be to warrant its own social-services non-profit?


If I were as devoted to exposing the plight of the socially- or ethnically-marginalized as the Beats and some of their intellectual allies, I suppose my method of writing about it would be something decidedly drier and more rational than anguished, free-associative poetry. Possibly an alternate-history sci-fi novel (alternate history has become such a big genre — and so respected even within real history departments — one can almost dispense with calling it a mere subset of sci-fi).

Two ideas, for instance:

(1) America becomes so heavily regulated that only Indian reservations, with their gambling and peyote dispensations, are still loci of commerce — and Native Americans thus buy back all their land.

(2) The Civil War never occurs, but instead of slavery gradually giving way to freedom, as many people would like to think might have occurred (and perhaps they’re right), in this nightmare scenario, slavery gradually evolves into an even more totalitarian, condescending, and omni-custodial welfare state, yet a disturbingly familiar-looking one. The happy ending? Unlike in our own world, intellectuals in this alternate universe are more easily able to see the similarities between statism and slavery, and eventually they revolt.

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