Thu, 12 Aug 1999
Subject: "alternative"

>>> "Maria Damon (Maria Damon)" <damon001@MAROON.TCMN.EDU>
08/09/99 05:25pm >>> "alternative" does tend to mean a certain
alternative, namely, an "experimental" style. like "avant garde."

With all of these various commentaries on the use of the phrase
"alternative poetry"--- isn't this use of "alternative" derivative, though,
borrowed from the marketing of contemporary music? It isn't as though
poets themselves had hatched this usage, the way "Vorticist" or such
may have been a genuine self-coined appellation. It's being patched in
from the language at large, where it already has its politicized functions.

In the NY area at least, there are radio stations, more and more actually,
which play what they call "alternative" rock; it's pretty much what used
to be called "punk", with a dash of occasional "metal." I have the
impression that with "alternative music" the marketers use the word to
soften the scary edge they don't want to name: "punk." And I would
suspect that, in its "pure" form, the same might be true of "alternative

Where "avant-garde" or even "experimental" may have suggested
something contestatory, "defiant," or antagonistic to a status quo, the
danger with a term like "alternative" is that it makes things sound as
though these were arbitrary choices that one might wobble back and
forth between casually: Coke/Pepsi ideology. It isn't dialectical anymore;
it's styled as a mere matter of taste and whim, that you can switch the
channel to "alternative" for a while if you get tired of mainstream, or
whatever. Spice things up.

What is being elided is that an authentic "avant-garde" might actually be
meant as "subversive," the concept of "revolutionary" art, that it is
seeking to change the whole rules of the game, and wasn't served up as
a diversion. "Alternative," like "pluralistic," is a troublingly umbrella
term, to my thinking: I thought Jacques Debrot's helpful postings correctly implied
that there are poets who are writing essentially normative and
conservative poetry, who are all too happy to slip under the tent skirts of
a bohemia, out of embarassment or plain obliviousness to their
"complicity" in perpetuating/reproducing things as they are, or for other

In short, what I am trying to say is that "alternative" is a vanilla-izing of
something perhaps much more bitter and tonic than that. Or, it is a
repackaging of (malgré lui) mainstream castaways who otherwise
would have been lost against the mainstream's more exclusionary
publishing odds. The "radical" that has lost its fight becomes

Why can't a conference bill itself as "Subversive" or "Insurrectionist"?
The fading of that sensibility may have a lot to do with the latter
generational "directionlessness" that is also being discussed under this
Boston theme.