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Noh Quarter

Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

Philip Whalen

Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles
Published Quarterly (What Else) by the Noh Oratorio Society for the Purpose of Presenting Original Writings on the Spoken and Sung Word and the Performing Arts. Roger Anderson is editor of Noh Quarter

Volume 1 - Number 3 - Summer, 1986

"Poets and writers are so paranoid that they'll take offense at anything, and it really gets crazy. People can lose their minds."

THAT'S JOYCE JENKINS TALKING, and she's in a position to know very well whereof she speaks. Although the dust has about settled after last year's round of craziness and paranoia in the poetry community, it's almost incredible to realize that this smiling, friendly, attractive young woman, editor and publisher of Poetry Flash, a monthly calendar and review of Bay Area and national poetry-related activities, was only a few months ago at dead center of an aesthetic controversy that had poets from all over taking potshots at each other in the public prints - potshots that frequently escalated into out-and-out threats of personal and institutional reprisal. And the "public prints" in question were, more often than not, the pages of Poetry Flash itself.

And what were all the poets and writers so excited about? Scarce funding? Crowded reading venues? Space in anthologies? Not directly, though these too were strong concerns. But the core issue, the visual symbol of all the dissension, was something known as Language Poetry.

"It's like an outbreak of the plague," Jenkins reflects, not too seriously. "It comes in waves periodically, brought in by bugs over the mountains."

In brief, Language Poetry is a school of poetic thought that holds (in part) that poetry must be radically dissociated from meaning, that the value and power of poetry must reside in the sound and look of the words alone. Its champions are highly aggressive, dedicated theorists and practitioners; they make periodic forays against those whom they consider to be the enemies of truly progressive literature, and woe betide those who oppose them.

The Flash, which, through its reviews, essays, and letters from readers, serves as the closest thing to a public forum in the local poetry scene, was bound sooner or later to become embroiled in the controversy.

"Our whole purpose with Poetry Flash is to try to reflect the diversity of the community, not to work towards a false homogeneity," Jenkins says. "We want to have a healing effect. But we're not above talking about the different issues. We act as a sort of pressure valve. One of our problems in the poetry community is that some poets think the only valid position is their own, and that puts you between a rock and a hard place. Because if you think as I do - that they have important contributions to make but you can't buy the whole package intellectually, it puts you at continual odds."

For most of her adult life, if not longer, Jenkins has been familiar with the kind of hurly-burly that frequently characterizes the world of art and poetry. "I grew up outside of Detroit, and I was always sort of an oddball," she relates. "I hung out with the bohemian kids and produced plays and wrote poetry in high school, and didn't go to the senior prom you know, that sort of thing. I left home at seventeen, rented an apartment in downtown Detroit, and went to Wayne State University. I studied art there drawing and painting. I only took one class that was even remotely related to literature: the philosophy of language. After three years at Wayne State, I attended an experimental school called Thomas Jefferson, at Grand Valley State Colleges, which was similar to the Santa Cruz cluster college idea. There, I became totally absorbed with poetry and with women's studies. I've done a lot of work with events that merged those two interests."

After founding the Poetry Resource Center, in Grand Rapids, and the first Michigan Poetry Conference, Jenkins moved to the Bay Area with her architect husband in the mid-seventies. She organized the Third Annual San Francisco Poetry Festival in 1978, and worked as a poetry-buyer, bookkeeper, and promoter at Cody's Books, in Berkeley, till the birth of her daughter three years ago. In 1980, she became editor and publisher of Poetry Flash (which was founded in 1972). Although there had been occasional trouble over the Language Poetry issue for years, it was in June 1985 that things really began to come to a head.

The starting gun was a highly laudatory review of a book of essays, entitled Writing/Talks, in which a number of Language Poets set forth their theories. The review prompted a rebuttal piece by an anti-Language poet of some note who found nothing of value in the book; this in turn prompted a series of letters, charges, and counter-charges that scorched the pages of the Flash throughout the summer and into the fall. Meanwhile, all over the area fierce tussles for page space were being waged in the journals and reviews; reading series were being alternately besieged and boycotted; poets of long association were alternately vilifying each other and refusing to speak to each other. During this period, Jenkins came in for more than her share of pressure and acrimony.

"One leading Language Poet wrote a letter to about fifty individuals and institutions around this time," she recounts; "the letter was basically an unanswerable condemnation of the Flash, and it called into question our right to existence. He mailed us a copy, but said it was not for publication; therefore, we really couldn't answer it. He implied that people should withdraw their ads from Poetry Flash, and so on." (If this doesn't sound so dire, remember that poetry in America is an exceedingly beleaguered and underfunded discipline; a few ads withdrawn from a penurious nonprofit paper like Flash can easily spell its demise.)

"Although there was a lot of talk about actually doing that," Jenkins goes on, "it never really came to anything. When you got right down to it, everyone was afraid of being left out."

Things did descend at times to a more personal level. In the August '85 issue of the Flash, the author of an earlier anti-Language piece wrote to say that the article had garnered him "specific negative responses": "Such responses have ranged from personal insults (the best of those, I guess, was the wonderful obscene postcard ... informing me that I'm 'right in there weenie-to-weenie with Reagan & the Pope') to thinly veiled intimidation attempts posed against the paper ...

Jenkins herself was no stranger to such vituperation. "One poet left a screaming message on my answering machine saying that I was the Tom Brokaw of the poetry world," she recalls, "and that I would eat any propaganda that was fed to me. It was strange, because the poet who left the message used to be a friend of mine. But he got unplugged somewhere and became personally vile."

Although Jenkins no longer works full time at Cody's, she does still serve as co-coordinator of the poetry-reading series there; and it was in this context that one of the more pathetic incidents relating to the Language Poetry turmoil occurred. With her friend and colleague Richard Silberg, she organized a reading that featured two poets - one subscribing to the Language school, another who was not of the school but was greatly admired by its adherents. "They do that," Jenkins explains. "They decide they really like a poet, usually after he or she is dead, and kind of absorb him into their school. But this man was still alive.

"It was amazing. The whole room was filled with Language Poets, Richard and I were at the front, and they all managed to come in, listen to the reading, and leave - without ever once making eye contact or even looking at us."

These days, the Language Troubles have returned to a dormant state. If you pick up the next issue of Poetry Flash (available free at many book stores and cafes), the chances are you won't see much in the way of Language-related controversy. Of course, there's no telling when a fresh outbreak might occur; in the meantime, Joyce Jenkins offers this even­handed summary of the conflict.

"Aesthetically, the Language Poets are radically different
from most other poets, and it's taking a long time for them to become absorbed. They do bring fresh blood, new ideas; they're questioning the way we read and write, and if we can integrate some of what they're saying and learn from it and re-examine the old ways of looking at things, then they've served a very useful purpose. The trouble comes in when people become purist and doctrinaire. You're always going to have that; but not since the Dadaist movement have we had such new and powerfully different ways of looking at things that it really upset people."

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