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Community Day On My G-Reader

Dorothea Lasky has started a probably useful discussion on space and community in poetry. I encourage you to read the text in full. Otherwise, very edited excerpt:

I get kind of turned off when poets refer to groups of poets collaborating together as “communities.” In 2009, a “poetry community” usually means a bunch of people who hardly know each other communicating on a listserve or blog. That’s great, but that’s not a community…. A community is a bunch of people living around each other, helping each other out with their living…. Community is a family, a big regional, reciprocal one. And family….means cooking and loving and providing for, in real living ways.

Over on the Black Ocean Blog, Janaka outlines a broader definition of community and further parses the difference between scene and community. A scene:

….a subculture of people connected to each other through a mutual interest, which may or may not involve a proscribed set of actions and code of conduct. This interest could be aesthetic…and it could also be ideological …Although they may share certain interests or beliefs, the people within a scene do not necessarily share common goals. …[A] scene contains both negative and positive potential. Individuals within a scene are not working together; they are working for themselves. While this is not inherently bad, it entails a certain attitude of self-absorption…

A Community:

…is a group of people sharing a common goal which is not necessarily aesthetic or even ideological (though, perhaps tangentially so). A community of people can come from a diversity of aesthetic and ideological positions, but their unified goal is to uplift the community itself, along with all its members….Whatever form this communal fulfillment takes obviates (or at least mitigates) the desire for individual achievement; at the very least it supersedes it to some degree. In a word: sacrifice.

More on sacrifice:

Sacrifice does not mean passivity; rather it requires an active ability to let go of something we value in order to achieve something else of even greater importance. Additionally this may (and often does) require us to act aggressively and without guilt or remorse. This is what is required of members in a community; whether we give up our comfort, our financial security, our personal time or even our personal safety for the common advancement of the group we hold with regard outside of ourselves….What I am saying is that communities are real, regardless of spatial distance, and that when we discover ways to help others while helping ourselves we are discovering new ways to create and maintain the communities we live in….I do believe it is possible for a group of people within a scene to act as a community without the proximal opportunities that cooperative (or even regional) living provides.


While their ways of talking about community are different, their definitions of community overlap significantly.  They both define as networks of mutual beneficial, multistranded relationships. Multi-stranded, Lasky: “helping each other out with their living…. cooking and loving and providing for.” Janaka: mutual uplift, sacrifice. And family and sacrifice both implying that a community cannot be easily entered or left. Though Lasky might see the links between people as being necessarily denser to pass the community litmus test.

What’s really interesting to me is that their definitions of community come to loggerheads over the issue of space.   Lasky implies that the exchanges web based interfaces foster are insufficient. Perhaps because these interfaces only support certain kinds of exchange and prevent the other, lateral kinds of relationships, exchanges, and mutual dependencies that close geographical proximity can support. In the context of poetry, this is to say that its not just poetry that becomes integral to the life of the community. The other charge usually leveled at internet “communities” is that they are easier to enter and exit and so exchanges and relationships are less complex as they exist over shorter periods of time and between fewer channels. (Please imagine I’ve cited evidence).

I don’t disagree with these critiques and I’m glad Dorothea brings them to bare (implicitly) on the writing world , but I do sympathize with those whose primary instrument of connection to other poets/citizens is the internet and with the temptation to label these constellations of connections as communities. Here’s why: MFA programs place a premium on the fact that they manufacture a community for poets to enter. The irony of this institutional community building is that  a) two or three years of time consuming graduate work disrupts the poets’ previous community life and b) students most often disperse great distances from the space of the campus and attempt to maintain their links to an old set of peers through the internet while fostering connections with people and writers in closer geographic proximity to wherever they end up. The result for post-MFAs is a complicated sense of community–one that is both defined by exchanges on the internet and in person and in which these two arenas of exchange can seem inimical to each other.  It’s almost inevitable.

To add to the madness, while I think Janaka’s distinction between scene and community is very serviceable, distinctions between scene and community on the ground level might be not so clear to the participating member, and these groups can be, I think,  frustratingly fluid.  Scenes can disrupt community and vice versa. In the most likely case, while one might seek community, one might end up being a part of  a scene. One might also seek exchange, gravitate toward a group, then realize the cost of membership is too high.

What it seems like Dorothea is uncomfortable with is the fact that these systems of relations which are easily observable on the internet are called/considered communities without investigation into the degree to which these relations don’t exist on the internet.  While the internet is heralded as a way to transcend distance and meet people across the globe, sociologists have found that it is most often used to reinforce preexisting social ties. However alienating electronic communication can be, it is also important to remember that blogs/listserves/websites are just one public face of the many a geographically bound community can show. It also seems important to affirm the fact that electronic communication can be  instrumental in the creation and functioning of regional communities/families/etc.

Here the idea of sacrifice is vital. Right now it seems that the most robust poetic communities (let’s put universities and colleges aside), by Lasky’s definition, exist within cities. And, I think, one of the greatest roadblocks to joining these kinds of communities are the various costs associated with entering an urban community (being a perpetual renter, probably gentrifying a neighborhood etc–and there’s always the sense that urban communities are somewhat evanescent, largely due to financial pressures). So the sacrifices one has to make to join an urban community are very significant, where the sacrifices one makes by maintaining connections through electronic means are incremental and dependent on what ends the relationship achieves over time.  That’s to say, its far easier to gradually piss away one’s time on the internet or half-ass the project hoping it will pan out than it is to pack one’s bags and join the commune.

At this point, I think it is vital to ask ourselves to what ends are we entering or maintaining, however tenuously, our membership in these ” communities” and what the relationship between our virtual and real world communities is (mine is  schizophrenic and I hate it).

I’ve recently found myself believing more and more that the creation or elaboration of more alternate (non-digital or corporate) common spaces for (exchange? living?)  is an urgent job. It would seem that digital exchange might encourage the establishment or re-emergence of tight-knit cultural communities away from traditional cultural centers w/o the worry of these growing parochial–Part of me dreams of getting together a bunch of writer friends and buying out a bunch of foreclosed houses in a rotten suburb.– And, clearly, this is where my brain is starting to sputter out.  I guess what I’m reaching for here is that while the ease and ubiquity of electronic communication does prevent many of us from making the kinds of commitments to local communities that might be more rewarding  for all players involved, I think the relationships between virtual constellations of exchange and the grounds of shit and spit community life–between these two kinds of spaces–are increasingly dynamic and fecund and that these spaces hold the potential to give birth to the other.  And that Janaka’s and Dorothea’s posts reminded me of what I think are very real anxieties over space and community and the decisions and sacrifices we make in regard to where we live and be.

I’ll end with an invitation for all you mo-fos passing through the area to stop by the Joe-Cheryl compound.


Link  portions of this post on Exoskeleton to current discussion. I don’t have the wherewithal.

Goodbye. I love you.


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About the Author

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Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.


  1. Joe, you write that “I guess what I’m reaching for here is that while the ease and ubiquity of electronic communication does prevent many of us from making the kinds of commitments to local communities that might be more rewarding for all players involved, I think the relationships between virtual constellations of exchange and the grounds of shit and spit community life–between these two kinds of spaces–are increasingly dynamic and fecund and that these spaces hold the potential to give birth to the other.” That seems right on to me–that much of the hedging between notions of consensus and commitment that is floating around in this conversation is just that. In other words, by trying to enclose the ideas, you’re just putting up a fence on the lawn–it doesn’t mean that the grass won’t still stretch out underneath the fence, it just means that you can say, “alright, now that’s mine and that’s yers.”

    There are always complicated precedents, right? Like, how does Niedecker’s life fit in there, or Ian Hamilton Finlay? How does someone like Jonathan Williams fit into this?

    Or, what to make of Jack Spicer writing his letters to Lorca in After Lorca, even as he’s writing his series of Admonitions? Which do we prioritize–the relationship with the dead, or the relationship(s) with the living community around us? What’s more generative? And generative of what?

  2. joescirehall

    Hey Robb– Thanks for rephrasing my words in a much more sane way.

    Oh Lord, precedents. Yeah, I didn’t hazard

    I’m barely acquainted with the life and works of Niedecker and Finlay and not at all with Jonathan Williams (though I think I should be now), so I’m just going to spew out some fragments.

    If what we’re talking about is how we define community and the relationships between community, space, and mobility, then we’re looking at three individuals who made commitments to a space and this commitment is reflected in their work. I really can’t say much about their community life both because I’m not in a place where I can do any research but also because the lives of artists tend to be boiled down mostly to their relationships to other artists and formal institutions.

    What I find most interesting with Finlay is how completely he blurs the line between public and private in his art with Little Sparta. To encounter Little Sparta while Finlay was living was to, in a sense, to become a visitor of Finlay himself—a guest. So there’s this great invitation to not only encounter the art, but to encounter Finlay. Yet the garden itself was a place for solitude and contemplation. Country houses offer both intimacy and solitude. In their rooms and gardens have a greater potential to both express the values and preoccupations of the owner and for the guest to encounter these in a privileged and sanctioned solitude than the homogenized or rented spaces of city and suburb.

    The internet often seems like an insanely vertical city market place, especially in regard to art and culture. There’s a premium on universal access to its spaces and on the idea of the comment, review, or rating. It resists locked doors and intimacy. Putting up a piece of art on the internet that one must be invited to see seems antithetical. The idea of being a guest in a virtual space can seem absurd to me—the space does not hold the same kind of power over us that a physical space does.

    “Which do we prioritize–the relationship with the dead, or the relationship(s) with the living community around us? What’s more generative? And generative of what?”

    This is a great question—one I should ask myself more regularly. But, fuck, I can barely answer with any clarity or confidence. It’s huge. This is the kind of stuff I usually try and think through in poems. And here I feel schizophrenic in my own dealings. As a person who loves reading, I’m always paranoid that I’m not invested enough in my immediate community.

    In my book I parade around Pigafetta’s corpse a lot while also writing these letters to Cheryl, so I try to make the past and present into relation—the dead and the living. I wanted to have a real relationship to this dead guy, to imagine him as fully as possible and to not just look for my own shadow. That’s one of the reasons I called the book Pigafetta Is My Wife and not I Am Pigafetta.

    I really do believe that the American middleclass no longer sees the value of long term commitments to communities and that we put off this kind of commitment as long as possible—that this value has been obscured by the short term gains that can be reaped from being willing to move and the romantic myths associated with mobility. Yet, to try and fortify myself to make these kinds of commitments I’ve been busy as ever talking to the dead and, as a result, somewhat withdrawn. Sort of a catch twenty-two, huh?

    I’m tempted to say a community isn’t complete until it has the dead—its own dead. Ghosts. And not appropriated ones. Seriously. We need the dead close to us.

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