The Alphabet: A Symposium on Ron Silliman's Long Poem [abstracts due 1 Nov 2010]

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Louis Cabri / University of Windsor
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_the Alphabet_: A Symposium on Ron Silliman's Long Poem

25-26 March 2011
University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

"I'm not writing for 'a small circle of friends,' I'm writing to you."

After three decades of composition, Ron Silliman's _the Alphabet_ is complete, and published under one cover (University of Alabama Press, 2008). When this twenty-six-sectioned, thousand-plus-page poem was only available in discrete portions, in magazines, chapbooks, limited-run books, what punctuated each was not the poem's next "new sentence" but concurrent claims and counterclaims on contemporary life. _the Alphabet_ was written during decades when high theory and cultural studies had arrived in the academy to exact formal and mostly progressive social evaluations from culture and the arts, but still often at the expense of poetry's own theoretical challenges to the academy's institutional base; when intensified corporate consolidation of the mass media and new technologies were transforming existing paradigms of "the consumer society" (Baudrillard), its "captains of consciousness" (Ewen), and "culture of narcissism" (Lasch); and when, among other factors, manufactured consent (theorized equally by Burawoy for factory work as by Chomsky and Herman for mass media) propelled the US mainstream rightwards into postmodern politics. Specific responses to claims by these dominant narratives (to pick just three) from the post-Vietnam War era are to be found among poets associated with Language Poetry (a label in part projected from such narratives) and other contemporaneous groupings and tendencies. But even in a given contextual and interpretive frame such as this one, loose and incomplete as it is in this version but in which some idea of ideological mediation prevails, how is it that one thing _the Alphabet_ does is embody perceptions of a sensible world ("the way old gum leaves its spotted shadow on the cement"), which is a poetic task much older than and yet foundational to "the ideology of the aesthetic" (in Eagleton's title phrase)? I offer this long-debated question of art's function – "to strengthen the perceptive faculties and free them from encumbrance" (to quote Pound on Dante, from almost a century ago) – as an example of how _the Alphabet_'s singularities and influences may re-illuminate received verities regarding the politics of aesthetic forms in Language Poetry's milieu. Put another way, once timely and key discursive interventions associated with Silliman's name and context — such as use of theory in poetry, "ethnography" of the everyday, critiques of accessible communication modes and of speech-based subjectivization, poetics of ideological mediation — may require further elaboration, or rethinking, if not their significance re-calibrated, in the face of this poem's challenges. For, arguably, Silliman's reputation, even notoriety, as critic, theorist, exponent of poetry's production as a socially relevant and collective act, has preceded and to a degree guided how the poetry is to be received. But if a reader responds to the poetry, then how and what does she or he see and hear? "I'm writing to you," the text says in the section called "Lit." So, what is reading _the Alphabet_ "like," for you?

This symposium aims to invite readings of Ron Silliman's long poem, _the Alphabet_, and encourages critical engagements with its formal and socio-historical/-ideological dynamics as well as with its contexts and interpretive frames that have accrued around the author's time and work. Papers on any issue focussed on or around _the Alphabet_ or an aspect thereof are welcome, including but not limited to those addressing how _the Alphabet_ engages elements of

• language (poetic language and form, grammar, syntax, pun, cliché, description, reference, etc)

• narrative / anti-narrative / story

• representation (recalling Stuart Hall's constructionist sense of "the active work of selecting and presenting, of structuring and shaping: not merely the transmitting of already-existing meaning, but the more active labour of making things mean," "things" including class stratification, gender construction, whiteness / racialization, etc)

• the aesthetic (& form; & ideology; & the body; & perception)

• the social (historical; sociological; psychological; poetic)

• nature (landscape, description, etc)

• realism (& 19C / 20C codes of "the reality effect"; & knowing)

• the unconscious (political, etc)

• genre (long poems, prose poems, novels, lyrics, etc)

• group & individual affiliation / disaffiliation (Language Poets / Language Writing / Language School; contemporaries in the poetic field such as Rae Armantrout, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Leslie Scalapino, etc)

• "tradition" (e.g.: Whitman, Thoreau; first-, second-generation modernists such as H.D., Reznikoff; "New American Poets" such as Whalen, Olson, Spicer; etc)

• non-US poetry & poetics in/from Canada (e.g.: Kootenay School of Writing; Toronto Research Group; "the Canadian long poem"), China, Russia, France, Australia, England, etc

• theory (postmodernity / postmodernism / modernism / modernity / globalization)

• "after" (after theory; after "the American century"; after Language poetics; after "21st-century modernism"; etc)

Please send 300-500-word abstracts for twenty-minute papers, or detailed proposals for panels, by 1 Nov 2010 to Louis Cabri at