June 12, 2010

Does the Cambridge School exist when you are in Dortmund?

Before going to Dortmund I was too busy to read much of the discussion of Robert Archambeau’s essay in the Cambridge Literary Review positing the existence of a Cambridge School (of poetry) by Andrea Brady and others in various posts, forum discussions and blogs. At least some of the debate revolved around whether or not the CS exists, but I remember the phrase that came absent-mindedly as it was going on in my background was: “What would it mean if the Cambridge School existed?” Before setting off to Germany I printed off as much of the debate as I could find to read on the planes/trains. Of course, coming to a debate after everyone has had their say and moved on is a bit of a cheat, as you can pick your way through all the previous ideas, the clever analysis and look to be bringing something fresh, even if you’re not. So acknowledging my connivance, I found that reading the Cambridge School debate conflated with the discussions of European cultural policy and social inclusion strategies. Indeed, although not formulated in the CS context, the insight I came to, that the imposition of social inclusion bureaucracy on cultural practice leads to the exclusion of artists themselves, was as much a feeling about the claims of a Cambridge School; that the effects of institutionalisation of the arts in the UK are, in my mind, replicated by the constrictions of academia. And so that question kept recurring: What would it mean if the Cambridge School existed?

The discussion frequently veered into questions about whether poetry could be politically effective, which I won’t pursue here. Part of the question relates to the word ‘School’. Unpicking this ambiguity raises doubts about the whole claim: a school is not a movement – the comparisons made between L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Cambridge don’t stack up. The best you can claim for a school is that it is a source of influence, a generator of ideas. Clearly individuals who are being mentioned in this discussion are poets who command attention but I wouldn’t say that that constitutes an ‘incorporative’ effect across the UK poetry scene. Certainly, though I have read some but not all of the poets mentioned in connection with the CS epithet, I would have to say I don’t recognise any influence on my writing and I’m not sure I can see any particular influence on many other writers in the north. That might sound like a parochial observation from ‘up north’ but Chris Hamilton-Emery’s comment that “The British experimental crowd for whom Cambridge serves as a centre of gravity …” needs to be challenged. If anything, the thing that is most exciting about the UK is the ‘decentralisation’ of practice, the multiple and mobility of ‘centres of gravity’. I think it was Keston Sutherland who replied about the developments going on in Brighton for instance; I would identify what is happening in Manchester – practice, which I think influenced by the Text Festival, interweaves possibilities with the city’s sound art/performance art scenes.

And then there is the problem of ‘Cambridge’; from Dortmund (and the context of 300 delegates of 15 nationalities), the CS discussion seemed an increasingly localised irrelevance. Comments from Andrea Brady and Ken Edwards seemed to encapsulate the crux of the counter argument, a position I’d assume everyone who is not part of Cambridge or academics who want the association of reference would take. (“The problem of shipping everything under this CS bill…is that a great deal of really important poetry gets lost” and “Cambridge Poetry itself is NOT an adequate metonym for British innovative poetry”) To me the claims for it as a brand or a rallying point or even an actual School of poetry are irrelevant “springes to catch woodcocks”. Robert Archambeau commented that “what’s happening is that geography has become incidental, just as publication in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E became incidental to what was meant by Language Poetry. I use the term because that’s the term that seems to be coming into use.” Not round our way! My immediate response to the question what would it mean if the Cambridge School existed was: nothing. I have no contact with anything happening in Cambridge – I imagine that there are great people there, but, as far as I can tell, if it exists it has no influence on me or anyone I know, and don’t have any feeling that I am missing anything. If this term is coming into use, it is less than useless.

In Dortmund I reflected that there is more to the issue, especially viewed from outside the UK. It is surely self-evident that 21st Century cultural practice is globalised – geography is indeed becoming incidental. But the act of naming posits a future and a definition, a definition that has major implications if it is loaded with a geographic location and a particular history. Unchallenged, pinning the ‘British experimental crowd’ to Cambridge as ‘a centre of gravity’ limits UK innovative practice to a global (and local) perception of tradition – I don’t think anyone can see the word 'Cambridge' and it not trigger historic images. On top of this, Cambridge is globally synonymous with the University – what else is Cambridge known for? So putting aside the fact that the epithet does not represent the actual ecology of British experimental poetry, if the CS existed it could significantly distort UK poetics viewed from outside. Of course if CS existed it would carry an additional pejorative connotation within the UK which associates ‘Cambridge’ with elitism (in the English tradition of suspicion of the intelligentsia), allowing the mainstream hegemony of the banal (Armitage, Duffy, Motion, et al) easy unchallenged rejection of experimental practice.

So if the Cambridge School existed, if only for marketing reasons, it would need to drop the Cambridge. The ‘School’ is also a problem as above. In a way, the academic labelling of whatever is or has recently gone on in Cambridge is a decelerating act itself. I recall Ron Silliman telling us last year at the Text Festival that the meaningful label that ultimately sticks to a movement more often than not comes from your enemies. The leading players of something new are not usually that interested in labelling themselves. That is a little worrying for UK innovative poetry as the hegemony of the banal doesn’t have the imagination to come up with something good. The fact that the British mainstream hasn’t bothered to engage in naming its opposition indicates how little threat innovative practice is to its hegemony. However, I regard the institutionalising effects of the academy itself as one of the problems with British poetic development, much as the institutionalisation of other artforms through the State centralisation of culture have damaged UK artistic practice in general – and led to the exclusion of artists, I perceived in Dortmund.

In the Text Festival, I have been very conscious to locate it away from debates in poetry; as Ron Silliman observed of the last one: “Situating poetry in the arts, rather than in the academy, is of course exactly the right idea.” And to avoid the risk of institutionalisation, the 2011 Text Festival will be the last. As Geof Huth wrote in his excellent blogs about 2009: “Whenever you think you’re doing something right, you need to do something different. Otherwise, you’ll keep doing the same thing but think you’re moving forward. The good thing, though, is that Tony knows how to kill himself.” The process of the last Text Festival will inform the concept of what comes next – although it will probably go in the direction of the Language Moment concept which was developed last year.

(By the way Festival submissions have been coming in and more are welcome. There are some pretty exciting things which will be announced soon).

No comments: