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A Tonalist Poetry Feature

Brent Cunningham

A Note on the A Tonalist

January 2010


The A Tonalist has always belonged and will always belong to Laura: as an invention, as a proposal, and as a practice.


For me this has been, distinctly, its advantage and attraction. Laura is not an autocratic systematizer, so my lifelong resistance to belonging to any specific aesthetic grouping (common, as Laura points out, among A Tonalists) is calmed by the provisionary, idiosyncratic, oblique, and even often contradictory nature of her A Tonal speculations. This fluctuating structure has also, most of all, given me a sense of permission. No matter how much I abstractly or pedantically theorize the A Tonal, I know it will stay anchored in a real and historical situation, the one of knowing Laura, reading her, learning from her. And by anchored I mean, of course, unanchored. “Still, it moves.”


In a piece I posted some years ago on the A Tonalist blog I claimed that the difficulty of taxonomizing A Tonalist formal devices was part of the point. Still, if only for argument’s sake, I’d like to take a moment to briefly enumerate a few of the similarities I see among the diversity of writers Laura considers A Tonal.


   A Tonalists tend to value something I would call “liveliness.” To the A Tonalist, it is far better to write a piece which bewilders or even upsets folks than to write something the reader would approve of with merely a blasé enthusiasm.


   In most A Tonalist works I sense a desire to preserve as much subtlety and fluidity in the work as possible. Yet there is also an undercurrent to that desire, which takes the form of aversion to detached abstraction (or really to any self-indulgent lack of intelligibility). Step cautiously, sayeth the A Tonal, for just as clarity can end up serving reductionism, so can intricacy end up serving obfuscation.


   It’s critical to notice when prevalent aesthetic debates are absent among A Tonalist. For instance there is a wide range of A Tonal approaches to the ironic. It’s almost as if the problem of authorial reliability and irony/sincerity (which has been a persistent part of aesthetic questions in American poetry and literature over the last couple decades) has been sidestepped, largely replaced by a value for rhetoric. In the A Tonal, the writer borrows from various language-contexts their different styles and tones, using them for changing and ambiguous purposes: sometimes ironic, sometimes sincere, sometimes betwix or beyond.


   As with New Narrative writing, which may be the major influence on the A Tonalist, writing is fundamentally a matter of the personal, and even the person. It’s not just the idea of specifics but specific specifics that the A Tonalist tries to recapture (as a case in point: photos and reportage from my wedding were posted on the A Tonalist blog, appearing after a post on Obama’s health care plan and before a post on prosody — it’s all interwoven). The A Tonal insists that an aesthetic program will ultimately prove to be radical and political as long as it stays grounded in its relation to real people and real communities, even if such a stance risks certain romanticizing tendencies . But on balance there’s been, in American avant-garde poetry, too much worry that particulars from our lives will neuter political and theoretical possibilities, when the opposite is, to A Tonalist thinking, closer to the truth.


There are plenty of other characteristics that Laura and others have identified or will identify, and even these are offered in expectation of some heated disagreement. But despite the continual provisionality of the A Tonal, and the possibility that my ideas of it are off-base, I still hold that Laura is gesturing towards something actual. In fact her descriptions of the group often remind me of the Samuel Beckett line that hangs in the bathroom where Laura and I both work. What the A Tonalist is, what it isn’t, its borders, its traits, remain always “perfectly intelligible and perfectly inexplicable.”

Brent Cunningham and Mina; photo: Melissa Benham

Brent Cunningham and Mina
photo: Melissa Benham

Brent Cunningham is a writer, publisher and visual artist currently living in Oakland with his wife and daughter. His first book of poetry, Bird & Forest, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2005, and his second, Journey to the Sun, is forthcoming. He and Neil Alger founded and run Hooke Press, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing and ephemera.

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