This talk was originally presented online as part of The Factory Lecture Series at VERSeFest, alongside Khashayar Mohammadi, on November 20, 2021, lovingly hosted and curated by rob mclennan. You can see a video of the full event, including both lectures, archived here.
I had my students, who are mostly in their first semester of the university experience, turn in a paper on their field— what they might want to study, what they might want to do career wise. Most of them, well, panicked. I assured them that no, they were not marrying this assignment, there was no obligation here other than to do the broader project they were to be working on.
One student turned in the initial assignment of the project, a proposal, with the title “Pharmaceutical Representative.” They did all the work wonderfully, citations and all that boring stuff we look for, so no problem there, but I spent a good fifteen minutes thinking…who in the hell actually WANTS to be a pharmaceutical representative? I would have settled for astronaut or Olympian or President (a job that was very nearly destroyed by terrorists in my country earlier this year) but somehow, I’ve dwelt now for some weeks on the idea that anyone— much less one of MY students— would want to work for pharmaceutical companies pushing drugs on doctors, reproducing all the worst habits of capitalism in one of the most crucial places in our lives.
But in the most disturbing way, I began to wonder to myself…does anyone set out to be a poet? Does anyone choose poetry as some kind of “career?” What does it mean to have a career in the field of poetry? Very few of us manage to do it in the wonderful way rob mclennan has, by giving himself entirely to the renegade production of the materials that exist within our field— journals, chapbooks, etc, as well as being a writer. For a lot of us, as Mark McGurl is quick to remind, higher education has become our refuge from the outside world, completely absorbing the field of poetry within it. Of course, we don’t like this idea. We are, after all, necessarily opposed to that kind of patronage system that grew up out of the Program Era, necessarily opposed to the systems of capital that require these kinds of survival mechanisms. And yet, of course, are happy to have some kind of support, have some kind of money and funding come our way. Naturally.
So of course, it never really occurred to me to be a poet. But I was writing poems, I imagine like anyone who starts writing, as a teen, but of course it was just something to do. It was a way of dealing with whatever thoughts and ideas were coming along and it took further engagement, as it does in most things, to actually work along further. This meant reading that stellar high school canon that comes along, and I think for most students, poetry becomes a difficulty, an “I don’t get it” situation or, even worse, a situation in which teachers end up turning poems into puzzles, into some kind of riddle that must be solved. This is no doubt the outcome of an education system which teaches us to look for value in what we can define easily, to define things as “worth it.” There has to be some kind of pay off.
I think any poet worth their salt must be rolling their eyes at this idea, the riddle that needs solving, the “a ha” moment being the only reason the poet writes anything at all. I don’t think, for most of us, that we get into writing to do this kind of work, to play a kind of game.
But what is it that draws us to writing? Pierre Bourdieu, of whom I am a fairly devout follower when I’m wearing my theory hat, would want me to say something here about class distinction and how we are charged by our habitus and by cultural capital to value not only the product that is the poem but the very labor that goes into producing the poem, journal, book, whatever. We are, as it turns out, sort of predisposed by a number of factors into valuing what the poet or any other artist contributes to the society we’re living in. As you may have guessed, I’m going to agree here— to say that most of us have a kind of class distinction which draws us to this field and makes it an acceptable “career” (in quotes) choice. No doubt many listening along here will say “Not me, Amish” but I have no doubt, were we to dig just a little in a one on one discussion, we would find out why you value the work of the poet, the object that is the poem.
As far as the personal journey is concerned, it never occurred to me to actually BECOME a poet— it wasn’t a “career,” it was something that people in the before times did, when we (even though I didn’t have language for it then) lived free of the whims of modern Post-Fordist capitalism in which we are defined by our production, defined by the profits we generate for others. Everything under neoliberalism is defined by value, the question “is this worth doing?” Poetry, if you’re not already predisposed due to a number of factors, rarely BECOMES worth doing, rarely BECOMES a thing one finds value in. It is the struggle we have in finding new venues, in growing our field for readers. This is not the case for other arts, which have in their own ways been absorbed not by the grand estate that was the 20th century university system but rather by that Fordist and Post-Fordist political economy. They defined their value, defined themselves as generating profit for corporations, defined themselves as “worth it.”
So poetry did, I feel like I can certainly say at this point, find itself absorbed by the university system of the late 19th century and early 20th. Keep in mind that the universities— both American and Canadian as well as European universities (I won’t speculate further than that as I am not an expert on much beyond my own backyard) found themselves influenced by the Humboldtian model in which the university should find itself at the center of a community, at the center of the cultural production, discussion, and evaluation that was going on in a society. Universities, in their missions at the end of the 19th century, wanted to be that center of culture and this meant absorbing as much as possible of the late 19th century world into its walls, especially all forms of cultural production. As such, the art life slowly morphed, for many, into the academic life, no doubt because the university provided, as already described by McGurl, as a true patronage system: give us your production, and we’ll give you jobs, and money, and teach you a few skills so that you can teach. There’s also free coffee, office space, and some cheap labor in the students. We’ll fund your journals and your books and your reading series. The University of the late 19th and early 20th century wanted to be that one stop shop for culture.
In some ways, we’re still holding onto this, hoping this model, that is not yet 150 years old, will endure. The thing about centers is that they never end up holding— and this is where we are now and have been for the last fifty years of neoliberal policies that have crimped the university and made it, certainly in the US and I suspect increasingly elsewhere, into a minor league system for businesses and industry. I apologize for not knowing what the hockey equivalent is for minor leagues, but you understand my meaning: a system which feeds into the large machine— and in this case, one that is still primarily publicly funded by a public that no longer understands the value of education as it exists separately from careers and positions. The mission of the university, as the late Bill Readings writes at length, is in ruins around us. What will follow is really anyone’s guess, but I think to an extent is things like this— independently run festivals and organizations that no longer require the old systems to support them (though no doubt— some forms of support will always be required) and people like rob who are doing things on their own, the way that they want. I think too we’ll see the rise of things like Frequency in Providence, RI, an independent organization which runs workshops and readings and does many of the things we expected university centers to do but without the administrative terror that is the modern university setting. They do it on their own, with a small board of directors and instructors they hire on an individual basis. There are, as ever, people who just want to write and discuss their own work— and I suspect we’ll see more of that moving away from the credentialed creative writing program.
For me I’m always kind of writing about ruins. FuturePanic is about a collective ruins, the graveyard Earth we’re living on, eventually an object which will itself cease to be, scattered in space or melted and nothing but gasses and particulates. Writing to me has become the mechanism by which to begin thinking about the world, our society, our culture— the collective one, one not defined by national borders or any other kind of divisions we’ve drawn around ourselves. In a sense, I think I have come to finally understand that the act of writing itself— that every act in my own life— is about community, the group or groups within our sphere, shaped by our various interests, our recognition of and mutual understanding of forms of capital (even if we don’t openly acknowledge it). It is this mutual understanding of our labor and our production that helps us form writing communities, or reading communities— what folks in rhetoric would probably prefer I call a discourse community. I see my writing, my work as writer, as educator, reviewer— whatever— as part of an engagement with all of you, with all of us.
In a way, this is where this last book, FuturePanic, started. I remember reading an interview with Sting as a Police-obsessed teenager that you eventually start to move beyond immediate concerns of the self and I found myself in 2014 or so starting to become incredibly concerned, as I suppose all aging people do, about the young people in my classes. There was a kind of pervasive nihilism among my students that I’m not sure I had felt or that I necessarily recognized among my peers. Of course, I am nothing if not an expert in a kind of cynical nihilism, but I was disturbed to hear this from young people who had, more or less, the most comfortable lives I could imagine: upper middle class upbringings, cozy New England college without the pressure of the bigger New England schools— wealth, material…what was there to feel an impending sense of doom about?
And I got to thinking…and I got to writing and in writing I realized that it is impossible now— made more so impossible after 2016— to not feel as though no matter how good or how bad one might have things, “the world is collapsing around our ears,” to quote REM’s Radio Song. Climate, politics— there seem to be forces hellbent on murder and destruction in the name of profit, a pervasive feeling not just for classic left leaning folks but rather for everyone now. We’re all hyper aware— every day— the ways in which our various systems are failing us, and not merely on a nation-to-nation basis, but globally speaking. And it’s not just, as the admonition goes, a bunch of people who have too much time on their hands. Enter a diner near you and the discussion among the staff is about questions of labor and their relationship to management. They don’t necessarily have the language— especially because they are taught every day (at least here in the US) that that language is itself very dangerous— but they know something is not right. Things are not going as they should be.
And yet we seem trapped, aware of what needs doing but still just comfortable and happy enough to not do anything about it. Why ruin the system we have for the system we cannot even imagine? We talk of revolution, but the harder truth is what happens the next day, when everyone wants to wake up after a long restful night of sleep and just get back to normal. Here, FuturePanic turns not inwards, towards some kind of spiritual awakening, but recognizes in some ways that our historical way of managing these existential crises has been to start thinking outward— out beyond, over the horizon, out beyond the moon and into the various galactic spaces. Our salvation as humans, we rather foolishly believe, exists at the far end of our fingers, just out of our grasp, and that the best way to reach it is to physical go there. Somewhere in here I began reading about the Earth’s eventual end, through the expansion of the sun. Death is scary enough for us humans, but what’s really scary is the realization that, unless we are very wrong about the nature of the universe and its distances, no one will ever know we were here. All the experiences will mean absolutely nothing because we will no longer have any kind of oral history to pass— or ears to pass them along to.
Here, I started reading about John Von Neumann, who before we had even left the atmosphere of the Earth, theorized the building of machines that could travel across the galaxy in a mere four million years, landing on distant planets and absorbing the resources required to rebuild themselves and send themselves on to the next place. They were called universal replicators, half mechanical tool, half biological machine that could do all the work for this travel on its own. But then this is where the dread set in: Who was this for, I wondered? Who would such a machine even benefit, assuming anyone on the far end existed, answering and reaching back out? Maybe I was asking if such an endeavor was worth it and worth it to whom.
So this is where FuturePanic begins, and what the writing process can do for me as person experiencing all these same anxieties of being is become the place in which I begin to work through those anxieties and those feelings. FuturePanic in that way felt like one of those novels too big to really describe— I cannot say what it’s about because in a way it’s about everything— all of time happening at once, we’re experiencing every moment of it not in a relativistic way, but rather as it is occurs. Our current panics are already happening and already have happened and will happened but will have happened too.
I was reading a few weeks back with the poet Madison McCartha— who would no doubt be a great ask for next year’s festival!— and he wrote me after to say he was amazed at how well FuturePanic functioned both as poetry book but as kind of radical manifesto. I had not considered it as such, but I also thought: well of course it is. What else is writing but always pushing those ideas which are most central to who we are, to the way we envision the world? I always see writing as a kind of invention, as a calling into being of an idealized world— the way we want to live in it, the way we see ourselves in it.
I’ve spent some time here considering the way that the system of higher education has spent much of the 20th century in support of art production, but as that falls away, I fear we’re turning more towards a space no one quite understands yet. I take that back: some people understand it very well. It is…corporate…it is nebulous, existing beyond brick and mortar places and beyond any particular discourse community, creating a whole new one based on its various platforms. Social media has become, in a very quick amount of time (relative to the entire human experience on earth) the place through which all things much go. If it doesn’t exist in social media, it may as well not exist at all. Social media has became an interesting point on in the discussion of value in the current political economy, which lends itself to impressions of a kind of anarchist space in which there is no authority or gatekeeping to be done. Of course, this is pure delusion. Social media is not free of these mechanisms anymore than any other space in which we do our reading and writing, but we’re still trying to figure it out. In some ways I think FuturePanic grew out of an anxiety about that space too, because we had not imagined it in some way as humans. We can talk about the anxieties of space or climate or government, but we had not really properly imagined what spaces like social media platforms would create, further complicating the question of worth and value.
As a poet whose day gig is teaching and who wears a few hats as writer, I do wonder now more than before about the way in which that writing exists in this hard to define space, harder even still to theorize because it is filled with unknowns. I like to think that next works, whether in the poetry realm or theoretical realm will begin to ask how poetry, the ancient art, begins to reconcile these spaces and how it begins to function under new and emergent political economies. As Yanis Varoufakis puts forth, we’ve moving beyond post-fordism in our capitalism and maybe even out of capitalism into a technofeudalism driven more by platforms than even by nation-states, which I suspect will be something of a relic even within our lifetimes, existing more to provide transnational corporations with resources than having anything to do with our lives. How do we write from this space and, perhaps more importantly, what can the art of writing do— what can poetry do to call into question these new power dynamics. I know these will be questions I will be working on going forward.
Amish Trivedi is the author of three books, most recently FuturePanic (Co•Im•Press). He has an MFA from Brown, a PhD from Illinois State, and is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Delaware.