BABEL 2014: File under Waves (catching, making)

I’ve been trying to write up my thoughts about last month’s BABEL Working Group meeting in Santa Barbara (yclept “On the Beach: Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World”), and it has been difficult.

I enjoyed the conference a lot. I heard a lot of great papers, had a lot of great moments, met some great people, drank some great cocktails, and spent time with some great friends. I got to organize a punchy poetry reading during a clamorous party on a rooftop bar on a beautiful Santa Barbara night. I co-organized my first session, and it was a delight and a success. And I say all this to contextualize and counteract the melancholy tone in the following—because I’ve been dilating on the melancholy this time, and I’m using this space to explore that. This melancholy isn’t entirely representative of my feelings about the conference.

My experiences at the 2012 meeting—in Boston, in a compact yet confusing-to-navigate city—were intense and frenetic, and involved wandering around the city in the wee hours of the morning and getting pleasurably lost among so many curving streets, so many swerving papers, so many intersecting moments. But Santa Barbara is quite different from Boston. We met along the ocean, at a university that is steps from the beach, there at the edge of the continent; we looked at the surfers, the oil platforms, the crashing waves, the distance. I keep referring to the conference as pummelling, as waves pummelling the shore. Of course, some of us were not on the shore, some of us did more than look at the surfers, some of us joined them, some of us learned with them—but not the part of us that included me. I am no surfer, heading into the ocean’s surge to catch a moment of flow. The ocean is a swallower, and I do not care to play with it. So I kept back, and kept observing. 

I felt, at times, abstracted. I regret not heading to the beach with the Material Collective. Their exploratory beach walk together was probably what I needed most from the conference; when I finally had some fellowship on the beach, on the last day of the conference, it provided some much needed space for a different kind of thinking, a different kind of being together at the edge.

Instead, I was dutiful, and went to more obviously academic sessions. (This is dutiful, no?) And the two sessions I saw when I could have been walking—they were terrific sessions, and not always so obviously academic. One session included a paperish poem by Eleni Stecopoulos; the other session was sculpted by Angie Bennett Segler, who cut up the panelists’ papers and reassembled them into a coherent-yet-fractious script, with some smart moments of polyvocality and disruption. I would like to see more of this, please—

Well, I did see more of this, actually. Alan Montroso and Haylie Swenson, having discovered not long before the conference that their papers were in dialogue with each other, did a similar stitching together of papers, and brought their other two panelists, Megan Palmer Browne and Erin Vander Wall, into the mix. This move to edit together a session into something larger, something which more explicitly draws out the various positions held amongst the panelists, is a move with potential. Let’s explore it further.

And there was another poemish paper given in the session David Hadbawnik and I had organized on “Writing the Unreadable Text”. David Abel ended our session with images from a dense visual poem of his, from his book Carrier, and a beautiful piece about what a forest fire approach to literary ecologies might provide space for, a piece with huge gaps of silence between phrases, like the pauses between crashes of waves. Afterwards, I kept thinking: Why are we so afraid of moments of silence, of moments of rest, at these conferences; moments of digestion, moments of introspection. Is there a model for a conference that would encourage more silence together—between papers, within papers—while still erupting in moments of raucous joy?

Our panel was a delight, and I’d like to thank the participants—Ruth Evans, Thomas Prendergast, Heather Bamford, Michael Johnson, and especially the poets, Tom Comitta and David Abel, who were able to come without any institutional support and without academic cvs to bolster with their participation. The talks were sharp and heterogenous, and they helped complicate notions of the unreadable (and, indeed, notions of writing). The conversation afterwards—for, after giving people permission to leave once the speakers had finished, we went on about fifteen minutes late, bleeding into lunchtime, with Q&A—was all over the map, and if people sometimes seemed to be speaking at cross purposes, they were still crossing, finding moments of intersection.

Thanks also to everyone who came to fill the room, who participated by being an audience. Afterwards, a few people were concerned about a lack of participation at the conference, and our session was singled out for including some participation with its Q&A. Which we did, again, by breaking the format, by spilling over the unusual hour-long session length. This is a length of time which session organizers were not accustomed to. We have all been trained to think in ninety-minute sessions, and in the attempt to cram a session’s worth of material into two-thirds the time, the Q&A was jettisoned first. This says more about our own temporal habits, rather than the feasibility of an hour-long session.

But Q&As are not coterminous with participation, obviously. I managed to miss (sigh!) all of the sessions that were structured around direct audience participation, this time—the walk with the Material Collective, the Rogue Studies pirate game. But even in more typical sessions, just being in the audience, just filling out the numbers, this is also a kind of participation. And not being at a session can be a kind of participation too, and we might want to think about how that could function in positive ways. (What about a session that intentionally limited the number of audience members, that attended to the scale of the attention given to it as it unfolds, and how that attention participates in the unfolding?)

But also: There was a generous amount of time between sessions—thirty minutes! with usually very little travel time between venues—which allowed for sessions to linger in various ways. One of which was what I call “the crush”—that moment after a session when people who have an interest rush the front of the room, to get involved in more detailed (or nit-picky, or tangential, or what have you) conversations. Those conversations seem more participatory than the Q&A—by which I mean, they are the moments that are more likely to lead to new or strengthened relationships, new projects, new doings.

I want us to think of participation less as the measured performance of the Q&A, and more as the opportunities for connecting and doing that might emerge from the performance of the session; more about the types of attention that we foster, and less about the number of bodies in a room or the number of people who “have their say”. And I want us to try out new modes, and see what encourages connection, what encourages doing, what encourages a sustainable space for a heterogenous group, what encourages the proliferation of possibilities.

David Abel, from  Carrier  (c_L, 2012)

David Abel, from Carrier (c_L, 2012)