Guest + Host = Ghost: Fence Nonfiction 1998-2004
As Goethe says (in lines quoted by Heidegger): "Only when it owns itself to thanking/Is life held in esteem." "To own" here is used in the sense also of "to own up," which is to give oneself over, to experience hospitality, xenia, the guest/host relationship. And to enter the relationship of xenia is to accept its obligations.
"Some Notes toward a Poetics"
Xenia means hospitality and is the root of the word xenophobia. Between the opposites is a fence.
If the contributor is a guest whom the editor hosts in the magazine— and if the editor's ideas enter the essay as guests hosted by the writer—then the relationship of editor to writer entails certain obligations, and stimulates certain fears. The fears are not incidental. But in this passage, Lyn Hejinian demonstrates the reciprocal obligations of writing practice as joyful experiment. She opens the house of her text to the visitor Heidegger (arriving in translation), who brings with him his pal Goethe addressing the link between owning and owning up, receiving and giving, thinking and thanking. No one uses language alone, and everyone is responsible.
The editor, like the writer, is always gathering others into the contentious dinner-party spaces of symposia, where everyone may not agree—might yell, or turn away—but food for thought is on the table. This metaphor's too-perfect fit only testifies to the primary connection between language and the nourishing, or breaking, of bonds.
Hejinian's remarks appeared in Fence Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2000, as part of Statements from "Where Lyric Poetry Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women." This feature comprises seven short essays presented by participants at what has come to be known as the Barnard Conference, organized by Claudia Rankine and Allison Cummings at Barnard College in New York City in April, 1999. The poets address many things. But an underlying theme is the porosity of boundaries—between writers and writings, present and past, signs and significance. Each of the seven conferees plus two organizers in different ways activate these interests in discrete sections of a composite prose piece that ruminates on contemporary poetics. A number of the statements have since been republished in other contexts. We include them here with pardonable pride, marking not only the importance of these articulations but a portion of the history of Fence, whose founding premise of "meetings" between schools and across styles they enact, and where they were published for the first time. The multivocality of this project remains its most important aspect, to my mind: a collective structure that makes present the murmuring, layered , received-and-passed-on with-a-difference structure of text as Hejinian describes it.
The second nonfiction feature anthologized is the Black Took Collective's Call for Dissonance, which appeared in Fence Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall/Win ter 2002.. This, too, is a gathering of poems and statements by multiple poets, including the trio who founded the Black Took Collective in 1999 (a good year for statement -making ). As they describe in the introduction to their Call, they met at the Cave Canem writers' workshop, which itself was founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. The phrase "black took" derives from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, wher_e "took" rhymes with "book": "Book was there, it was there. Book was there." So, again, both lineage and document ramify in multiple directions. The BTC remains active, and is planning publication of a collection to be titled Burning Down The (Plan)tation: Contemporary Innovative Poets on Process, yet another tracking of intra- and exo-networks and affinities.
The Barnard Conference posited "lyric" and "language" as strangers (or estranged friends) meeting; the BTC—an outlaw pack embraced within the nurturing exclusivity of Cave Canem—called in responsive form for a dissonant or dissident collectivity. In both cases—to shift the metaphor from dinner party to digestion: multiple speakers are metabolizing at different rates the pith of poetic definition.
This seems to me a decent definition for both "magazine" and "anthology."
Anthologies, being condensed and portable, can go places and find readers that a long shelf of magazines can't. Their opportunities for guesting and hosting are wider than those enjoyed by single journal-issues. This must be good for poetry. Harryette Mullen remarks, "I write, optimistically, for an imagined audience of known and unknown readers. Many of my imagined readers have yet to encounter my work. Most of them are not even born yet." Whitman says the same: "I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born." Theresa Hak Kyung Cha foresees it too: "heard them hear her back turned to me away / she far came behind next to me follow / awhile travel condensed.” Eileen Myles once reminded me, apropos the importance for posterity of poets acknowledging their peers' work, that Sappho's fragments survive largely because other writers quoted her.
It's heavy to invoke such precedents for our off-kilter-decade celebration. But, why not? Fence was never modest. And Eileen was right. So, in selecting these two collaborative pieces to anthologize, I seek to introduce a protective and celebratory redundancy into print. I excerpt—optimistically—not only for the audiences arriving in real time at a conference conversation, or on the seasonal schedule of a periodical, but at the scale of years-who knows how many.
In Spring/Summer 2000, this concern with leaving extra records, just in case, prompted compilation of the bibliography of participants' publications appended to the Barnard Conference Statements. Something similar motivated Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo V. Wilson when they set their Black Took statements tête-a-tête with poems, so that theory and practice could activate as praxis on the page, even as they called for further “experiments, black holes, vestibules, waste and excess, hater monologues, drive-bys, cracks, chemical relaxers . . ."
It is in order to think and thank such range, to roll-call all I couldn't choose, and to tantalize the future to hunt up old back-issues, that I anthologize a third entry: a complete bibliography of all nonfiction content in Fence to date.
Much of this list also expresses collective/dissonant opinion, via conference proceedings, conversations, roundtables, surveys. We have published reprints of hard-to-find worthies, introductions and homages to under-celebrated or newly translated works, collaborations between writers and visual artists, and experiments that bend the definition of nonfiction, like opera libretti and ghost stories. We also, early on, included a section unofficially called "Precedents;' wherein we reprinted poems from the earlier part of the century that seemed to us to have established or paved the way, such as it was, for the new writing in the magazine. A poem by Weldon Kees was one of our first. We have been exceptionally fortunate in our contributors, and one of my favorite lines remains the opener of Anne Carson's essay "Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War", which appeared in our inaugural issue:
I like the way Thucydides begins his account of the hostilities between Athenians and Peloponnesians that we call the Peloponnesian War.
I like the way liking becomes a hermeneutic. 
So that is what. Now why or how. l find myself resisting this second query.
"Why is it," Claudia Rankine and Allison Cummings ask, "that so many women poets—or is it simply most poets—do not want to describe-or is it reify?—their poetics?" I don't want to reify what we have done in FENCE nonfiction, nor our reasons for doing so. But if l believe it is important for poets to write criticism—to exercise the radical precision of our language on knotty problems of how communication works and value is generated—and I do—then probably I shouldn't shy away.
Ideas for nonfiction commissions typically began as questions. What is experimental? What is the "I," or narrative, or language? (What is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E?) How have various poetic schools and styles been received, rewarded, or not? How does the normal reader become literate in literary history? Who is the normal reader?
How does one write well about coterie, rhetoric, ethics, mysticism, economics, war? How do modifiers like "American," or ''African-American," or "by women" or "newly published" tint the protean entity—demented poor relation of hypercorporate spectacle, laughable career-choice, song of itself, the unacknowledged legislator—"poetry"?
I wasn't personally enfranchised in the camps across whose territories Fence was initially laid out. I wanted to walk the lines myself and survey the topography, but I didn't mind who transgressed what boundary, and I was most excited by the growth that jumped the splits, the sounds I hat filtered in the air above contested regions. Now the metaphor posits nature against culture with me on the side of innocent authenticity. I wanted renegade dash and mixed meander; I thought that when you went and stood on the land, the property line was a self-serving abstraction with politically suspect and socially problematic implications.
See also "A Partial Bibliography of Memoir" Winter 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2), compiled by Fence editors, which begins with The Confessions of Saint Augustine.
Such insouciance regarding factionalism was partly uninformed. As benefit, my naiveté meant that the heated arguments of the mid-nineties about who owned which precursors or what diction, who patrolled whose publications, academic departments, prizes, publishing houses, and parties seemed quaint, and useless. As liability—although I possessed an MFA from a respected creative-writing program and had studied with a series of famous poets—it remained up to me to explore beyond postconfessional personal lyric. Fence was my real grad school.
Thus perhaps these assessments of benefit and liability should reverse.
In "Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism" (printed in the same issue as the Barnard Conference Statements), Juliana Spahr writes,
So it is with what is expected of all of us as encounterers, readers, sleepers on the job, word counters, elevator operators, word processors, typists…This is the way it is with thinking, with gendering, with joining. Forms can carry all ethical positions, like people, all the positions, all the meetings and dividings. We are transition work.
Fence worked for me because my understanding of poetics was in transition, and it seems to have interested others for the same reason.
The forms, the ethical positions; that guided the commissioning of nonfiction essays between the magazine's inception and 2004 were mine, with much important input from other editors, especially Rebecca Wolff and Caroline Crumpacker. Sometimes we drastically disagreed.
I remember the thrill, however—of encounter, of joining. In one early meeting, for example, one of the poetry editors spoke against "the chocolate-bar poem." We were all so sick of this layout that could be covered on the page by a Hershey bar: tidy lines of equal length, sans stanza breaks, or with only a few, segmented into bite size where the candy snapped. A rueful yet knowing autobiographical speaker allies him or herself with innocent authenticity. Relationships are hard. Dogs and grandparents die; the light in the kitchen is beautiful yet mournful with floating dust-motes; field -mice and song-birds bear toward us a fragile wisdom that the poem reassuringly transmits.
We start, as always, in the Attic which is Desire (Williams). But we arrive at Spots of Time (Wordsworth) in plastic storage bins. Unwelcome in such poems is what Rae Armantrout calls "slither" - a femininelycoded polyvalency, a "narrow, vaginal opening" out of which/into bursts the S*O*D'*A of rogue meaning.
It's hardly fair to mock the workshop/mainstream bonbons now—although, of course, new ones are minted daily. This summer I told my group of summer high-school poets about the chocolate-bar poem, and they understood right away. But to look back through Fence is to remember how urgent the alleged conflict between "word" and "world" felt then. Distrust of unfamiliar aesthetics cut all ways. I knew someone who made up ''Ashbery" poems extempore: "I walked to town, there was an armadillo / in a Cadillac, 'who cares about cinema these days?' / queried the astronaut querulously." I laughed when he did that. Those post-Surrealist structures electrified nevertheless, and I had also fallen in love with what Joshua Clover, in "The Rose of the Name" (Vol. 1, No.1, Spring 1998), calls "a tale of two Steins," Gertrude and Wittgen-. Still, I didn't want to give up Plath's Ariel, or June Jordan's "Out in the Country of My Country ," or Phil Levine's perfect Hershey "What Work Is." I still wanted to go to poetry for comfort and exhortation, for ontology, as the scripture of my quarrelsome, gnostic sect.
But what if no "I,” and the kitchen dissolving, and the attic blown open like a chakra or bombed house, poetics gnarled in what Brenda Hillman calls "dread"—in glitch and humor and physio-cognitive surprise; the allegedly professional Self wandering like a creek, or an aircraft contrail—and stay with it when the poem hits the invisible quark shield that binds the human mind in language and ricochets back in shattered colloquy as graphemes on the page. And then?
He was wrong about scorn. It's more: let them live without transparency who refuse to fabricate it. But I understood, then, his impatience with what felt, then, like Puritanical disapproval regarding human cravings for storytelling, shared comprehension, lyrical honey from the rock, or resolution however analgesic or provisional. I asked my summer high school students whether their thoughts are always clear, never disjunctive or chaotic, if shattered syntax is really that weird. They understood, of course. In 1999 or so, though, when some muttered that the resolute eschewing of recognizable thought-forms in conventional syntax-a.k.a. high-minded skepticism regarding "accessibility''—also betrayed a presumption of entitlement regarding the right to speak and be heard, I felt they had a point.
Variety is dialectical—authority and authorship are challenged by the collective, the indeterminate, the paratactic. Poetic literacy means staying open to work you don't like or understand, in case it might transform your understanding of how verbal expression works- and, thereby, shift your assumptions about power and signification. "Composition as Explanation" (Stein again): yes. "To make the stone stony" (Shklovsky): yes. "The main thing is to tell a story. It is/ almost/ very important." (O'Hara): yes. And yet: "Let them scorn meaning who never starved in its dearth" (Pinsky).
I liked the idea of "fence" because constitutionally, I am always on both sides.
 1. Eight poets participated in the conference. As the editor's note to the anthologized piece explains, in the rather tense aftermath Jorie Graham declined to allow her statement to be published. We regretted her decision then, and reflecting now on what remain important artifacts of American criticism in the late-late twentieth century, I regret it even more.
 If space permitted, I would also anthologize the "Reading Lists" printed by way of contributor's notes for every issue. Together these assemble another bibliography/anthology.
 I wrote this essay in the summer of 2007. Now, in the winter of 2009, I would choose the same works to anthologize, but probably describe them, and my experiences at Fence, somewhat differently. Inside each side lurk myriad facts. But let it stand.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019