A quick report on a practice job talk/ reading given by poet Jane Gregory at the English Department at UC Berkeley on Thursday, January 12th.
I met Jane Gregory because we’re both smokers- or used to be, or sometimes are. Before it was anathema to smoke on campus, we’d cross paths at the usual smokers’ haunts around Wheeler Hall. I can’t remember how it happened but I eventually learned that she was a poet, and the next time we crossed paths she gave me a copy of her (then) new book, MY ENEMIES, which I’ve read over multiple times.
It feels like I say this a lot, which- if it’s true- must mean that I’m actually fairly lucky, though mainly I’m interested in whether or not other people experience the same thing: that thing where you meet somebody, find out they’re a writer, request and receive a copy of their work, all the while worrying that it’s going to be shit and you’re going to have to either lie, tell the truth, or just avoid that person forever. Anyway the thing I say a lot (usually to my partner, after I’ve met a new writer) is something along the lines of “I was worried that their work would suck but it’s actually really engaging” or something like that. The other option is that I’m incredibly uncritical, which I really don’t think is the case. Now of course comes the question: how many people are avoiding me because they’re read my writing, and hate it? I make an attempt to solicit bad reviews/ honest opinions, or at least I try (to remember) to, but I somehow think that taking me up on the offer is more awkward for more people than the above mentioned options. Which is to say, of course, that Jane Gregory’s work is really, really good, and I highly recommend it.
Gregory’s poetry succeeds in the same mode in which Daniel Owen’s fails, though to be fair hers is a more extreme version of the sort of poetry that manipulates its own surface- what with her plethora of slashes, back-slashes, parentheses, and de-etymologization of words via intentional misspellings, etc. The success of Gregory’s reading at the English Department at UC Berkeley on Thursday night had to do with- not unlike the similar but different success of the readings at SPD the night before- the hovering about a nexus of possible thresholds across which material was or was not disclosed, or promised to be disclosed and then withheld, and how the non-apprehension of things like gloss-data or marginalia or footnote like meta-data translates into a certain (aural/ oral) knowing unknowing- and whether or not this was a question of the virtual (Gregory’s claim) or the negative (via a comment from the audience).
What I mean to say is there was a whole lot of material that Gregory told us was there, on the podium or the page, but that she wasn’t going to or wouldn’t read to us. There were material reasons for this: this reading was really a practice job talk, in preparation for a visit with a prominent midwestern university (good luck Jane!), and so she was flying by night, as they say (I think), trying to find out what would work and what wouldn’t. In the end, I felt as though this was perfect: the uncertainty about what was desired led to an uncertainty in regards to not only what was or wasn’t really there, but where (podium or page?), and why something was or wasn’t there. All this is to say that Gregory’s poetry functions to perform the same work: in it’s increasingly fine distinction-making as made possible by the above mentioned plethora of surface markers, it sort of relentlessly slides about its own possibilities, all the while sort of displaying its own ability to agent distinctions or make judgements or claims in the world.
I was happy that she chose to read a number of her “BOOK I WILL NOT WRITE” poems, a series of poems that challenge the idea of a series on a number of levels (that she also spoke about during her reading). There are eight, I believe, such poems in MY ENEMIES, though interestingly enough she didn’t read the first one, which also happens to be my favorite. These poems are shot through with carefully constructed uncertainties: a) they claim to be a book, which they are not, 2) they claim to be one, which they are not (they are many), 3) they claim they are not written, or will not be written, but they are, 4) they fill out their given margins- are justified- but said margins fall short of normative prose/ book practice (again, defying bookishness). Their content performs similarly: the first BOOK (she) WILL NOT WRITE (see photo) couples its own motives for being written (“I must and know how to”) with the reasons behind that motive: “because it helps you.” The antecedent for this “it” is both either and/ or both because she “must” AND knows “how” to. It’s a both/ and situation, and affirmation, a yes that threads its way through the whole series as a contrariety with its own uncertainty.
This is fitting because Gregory kept mentioning, in her talk, the virtual, which amounted to those pieces that she didn’t read, or wasn’t going to read, or didn’t want to read, or decided she didn’t have time to read, or that she mentioned as not going to be read on purpose (without the intention of ever reading them (we’ll never know)). All of these came to occupy the space of the virtual in that Deleuzian sense of things not there/ revealed, but that exist in a sort of adjacent field, nearby and as-of-yet undisclosed, while the presence of their absence yet puts pressure on experience. This is the virtuality that Deleuze tried to articulate up to and against (that space of) the negative, which at least one member of the audience misidentified Gregory’s virtual space for: the significance isn’t that something was effaced or ever had the option of not being there, but that all these not-theres were carefully arranged in a virtual spectrum of sorts- from not being mentioned at all to being specifically mentioned as NOT there- and comprised just as much of the experience of the poetry as the read words, the spoken ones, the positives. Gregory’s work therefore does what the most sophisticated poetry-as-a-mode-of-thinking does: it articulates the mechanics of what to an untrained eye might simply seem like inference- that gap between the distinctions it can and does make in the world, and the virtual significances that fueled its own ability to do so.