Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Going through a pile of papers (and believe me, my office is filled with many such piles, some of which have been accreting for several years, containing stuff in the bottom layers that I'd forgotten the exstence of), I ran across a printout of an essay by poet Alice Notley dated February 1998, titled "The Poetics of Disobedience," and of course I had to reread it, knowing that I'd kept it because it interested me.

Notley begins by noting that she considers her job to be "bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well." She then talks a bit about her history of disobedience in her work. I'd like to quote two passages from the piece, to give you a taste of its thinking. (It's available here, for those who'd like to read the whole thing.)

Like many writers I feel ambivalent about words, I know they don't work, I know they aren't it. I don't in the least feel that everything is language. I have a sense that there has been language from the beginning, that it isn't fundamentally an invention. These are contradictory positions but positions are just words. I don't believe that the best poems are just words, I think they're the same as reality; I tend to think reality is poetry, and that it isn't words. But words are one way to get at reality/poetry, what we're in all the time. I think words are among us and everywhere else, mingling, fusing with, backing off from us and everything else.


I think I conceive of myself as disobeying my readership a lot. I began the new work in fact denying their existence; it seemed to me I needed most at this point to work on my own existence so I couldn't afford to cater to them if they got in the way of my finding out things. But this is a work of mine, it should be published sometime. I'm now in a predicament I can't get out of, a form I can't manage for the reader, which just keeps leading me on and leading me on.

I can imagine many fiction writers saying that only a poet could seriously think of "disobeying [their] readership." Most fiction writers have an inbuilt reverence for their readership that is sternly articulated (by writers and readers both) in every discussion of what good fiction is, and this is usually the case regardless of how devoted the writer may be to making commercial fiction that is also art.

I remember now why I saved the printout; it struck me as worth exploring the implications of "disobeying one's readership" for what it might tell me about the state of our art. Hmm. Another time, perhaps...

1 comment:

Nancy Jane Moore said...

In SF/F, where both many readers and long-established publishers seem to be far too content with a continual stream of books cloned from their predecessors, a little disobedience to the reader might be a very good thing.