Old, weird America and sometimes not so old America: This is about as good a mix of songs I could ever hope to hear. And the little spoken segments that separate/merge the sections are also pretty great: Jamestown. Alice Notley. Amiri Baraka.
I like the way Loudon picked up on the humor as well as what she calls "bodice-ripper," the kind of kitschy high romantic romance/S&M that Berg pastiches in certain places. I think it actually comes from her mentor, Rut Hillarp's sexual novels from the 1950s, which Aase writes about in her new book of essays Uggla.
"...In Berg’s poetry, there are no fixed images or agents to calm the tumult. The figurative does not work to establish an easily discernible system of aesthetic correlations, but, instead, functions as a machine of mutation, almost always indicating a radical shift in the entire reality of the poem. It is an extraordinarily subtle way of unsettling and effacing the concept of subjectivity by vacillating between a. /the formal categories of the figurative and literal and b. / the ideological concepts of subject and object."
[Joyelle gave this talk as part of a panel on "The Future of Poetry" at the Minnesota Book Festival this past fall.]
The “Future” of “Poetry”
1. Becoming a mother made me a goth. Becoming a mother, and nearly dying in the process, and wondering for 10 months if the body inside me is alive or dead, and, concomitantly, if I would also kill myself if I learned it was dead, then holding it and realizing what a very minor and insubstantial gate a six pound infant is onto some kind of Hades—well, it rendered life on earth a kind of Hades. A kind of vista on death. Now I have a vision of the present tense in which every moment has its opening on death, has its interface with death. In fact the present tense might be an interface with death
2. The future of poetry is the present, and it has already arrived. The present tense rejects the future. It generates, but it generates excess without the ordering structures of lineage. It subsumes and consumes pasts into its present , erasing their priority. It’s self-defeating; its rejection of survival into a future may be infanticidal.. Without a concern with past or future it necessarily negates many of the values which come with Western literary tradition, including stability, well-craftedness, elegance, restraint, timelessness, humanism. It is concerned with the media through which it moves, flimsy concerns and flimsy conceits, superficiality, errata and (likely) ephemera, flexibility, instability, unevenness, but it also partakes of a non-productive productivity typified by bombast, excess and overproduction. This art often involves failure and ‘bad fits’—the ‘bad fit’ of one genre into another, the bad fit of one media into another. Its modality is violence, frequently a self-violence against the text itself, so that text is something that explodes, exhausts, breaks down, flounces around, eats and/or shits itself, is difficult to study or call a text at all.
3. Goth, noir, fantasy, speculative fiction in which the premise is as flimsy as a video game, video culture in which the video world is like a death world, is usually a space of death and has its literal interface thereon, its own glowing portal, virtuality in all its forms. Awesome and terrible books of poetry, like the nearly unreadibly excellent Alma or the Dead Women. Artforms which are already dead. Occult art. The ludicrous, the unjustifiable, the death-dealing. The films of Kenneth Anger in their recent DVD release form, piled-up, fragmentary, and degrading into commentary whose only accounting is either a) gossip, of which disparaged modality see Dodie Bellamy, and b)an accounting of failure (often fallacious or at least suspect, such as the account of the making of Invocation of my Demon brother which expands to include the Manson murders, etc).
4. Ryan Trecartin’s video art without an ariel view. In Trecartin’s I/Be area, which you can watch on YouTube, his characters, Wendy and Pasta, look like decaying cheerleaders, like Laura Palmer had she stood up in the plastic to direct Twin Peaks. They snap back and forth:
Life reproductions on top of shit/always in the moment/always/always/always/right now/so cool/never in the past/we show you your life/but better/thread edit/thread edit/because we know right now/and we know how to make contemporary/right now.
This sounds like an ars poetica, rendered, as it were, poetically—less so when snarled from a tiny glowing box by two crayon-hued, violent, aggressively bewigged heroines cavorting with actual pre-teens until spectra and spectre of simulacrum, copies of copies, become snaky, contaminatory, dirty, and contemporary.
5. The present tense, rejecting posterity and art’s endurance, insists on the artifice of creation and proposes children not as units of the future but as vulnerable portals between death and life. Children are death in life, their numeration and nomination the place where text happens.
In his late Fragmentations, the cuntphobic Antonin Artaud renders himself an ultra mother, without lineage: “Out of the motherless cunt I shall make an obscure, total, obtuse and absolute soul.” Artaud’s vision is of daughters whose bodies are a portal on violence and death—a portal which makes the body present and which becomes a kind if infinite catalog, life and death’s indeterminate co-extension:
“I saw the meningeal syphilis of my daughter Catherine’s legs, and the 2 hideous sweet-potatoes of the vats of her inflated kneecaps, I saw the onions of her toes blistered like her sex [...] I saw a skullburst like Annie of the ‘holy’ throat, and I saw her blood’s crown of intestinal thorns flowing from her on the days she wasn’t menstruating.
“And I saw the nicked knife of Neneka, my other daughter, and I felt her moving in the opium of the earth,
And there were also Yvonne, Catherine, Cecile, Annie, and Anna with Neneka [etc.]
[Trans. David Rattray]
6. A similar efflorescence of dead women and girls, an inverted and deathleaning and unnatural fecundity, makes up the decomposing and reforming body of Notley’s Alma or the Dead Women—even the math of that title exposes its flexing crowdedness, death’s revolving door, the fitful instability of multiplicity and individuality, a resulting instability in the syntax, and the twin conditions of scarcity and a useless excess this doubling creates:
“Alma is turning over again groaning in her stupor saying i am the unknown and all these you’s. i say i know you too are i and i am no superficially, for i’m whatever superficially, sad because of my body to age so i am let’s see Myra? too many names. well there are millions more of dead women not just he few you are hey nonny. i damned well can’t remember Nonny, though i remember Gracie, Marcellina, Irene, and others. I have shot up, in effect, and Alma’s tone is the boss tone here she is god.” 
In this passage, the ‘begat-‘ logic of linear generations is reworked, as ‘generations’ are obliterated by abortion and infanticide; instead of patronyms, given names and pet names overpopulate the text, so that the effect is multiplication rather than subtraction, and we are left with an ecstatic simultaneous omnigeneration of killers and ghosts. Death of the child is the same as generation of the child, is the site and the incitement, what each line does with its address, as each name appears in the text and is neither removed from it, nor made productive.
8. Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.
So quite a few people have written to me and asked what I thought about Ron Silliman's post the other day in which, after dismissing my reading of modernism as "ahistorical" (what could be more ahistorical than Ron's valorization of modernism-as-himself across time periods and cultures?), he conceded that I was right about the obsolesence of his binary of post-avant-vs-quietism.
I have a few things to say about this:
1. I think there's a problem with the "model" of the "model." The sense that this formalist (absolutely ahistorical) reading of poetry is merely descriptive. Criticism has effects. What is the effect of participating in a discussion that sets up American (and absolutely bafflingly, imperialistically, international) poetry according to a formal dichotomy, and then read poetry basically according to how well it fits into your model? What might the effect be? It's a recipe for the status quo.
2. One of the great aspects of language poetry was that they generated new models of reading, institutional critique, etc, and then wrote the poetry and esays and etc to make this model exist. That is, their models weren't descriptive so much as prescriptive-- they envisioned a new literary world they even as they constructed it.
3. Ron's more recent binary model-- quietist vs. post-avant-- I think has been good in some ways. His perspective makes it apparent that our extant institutions (journals, MFA programs, AWP etc) do not run on objective, neutral aesthetics/ideology. One of the reasons that the term "quietism" has upset so many people is that it calls attention to the prevailing standards used in American poetry, which are not at all 'neutral' or 'objective' but which for a lot of people were passed for 'neutral' or merit-based for a long time. I think it's a shame if that is lost in Ron's capitulation. On the other hand, by still giving so much attention to, say, the National Book Award, it seems like Ron recapitulates the quietist perspective-- i.e. that these prizes are indeed about merit, and not just an index of institutional power. So it 'proves' something that Nate Mackey can win the National Book Award, that the NBA is now about merit, that the millenium has arrived.
3. I think Ron should build a more complex model for how these things work. To begin with, it's not as simple as us vs them. Ron often dismisses academic poetries, but his own standing as a poet and critic is largely based on academic poetry (being published by academic presses, being read in academic classes, having studied himself in academic classes etc). So it may be time for a reevaluation of the role of the academy (to begin with, there just isn't one 'academy')in contemporary poetry. While a lot of bogusness is generated at schools and universities, is a university always the normative boogeyman? Can anything good (or interesting) come of the interdisciplinary or interlingual or other exchanges that can happen on campuses? Or is it all simply lockstep under the banner of institutional oppression and exclusion (and aethstic stagnancy)?
4. Ron notes that the American Hybrid anthology is based on the notion of the two-camp system. I made the same point in my review of the anthology. That doesn't show the two-camp-model is a good thing! It shows that it's a very available model. What's, after all, is the point of "hybrid" aesthetics? Like Ron's binary, it's a model that creates a notion of two camps plus the possibility of a compromise-aesthetic. No extremes beyond thsoe two camps; the horizon of aesthtic or political possibility is located between them instead of outside them. Like I said in my review, Robert Lowell was a hybrid poet (he was afterall the one who valorized himself by claiming he was neither raw nor cooked, thus superior). Binaries seem to me to be a way to defend against the disorder of new poetries. Just slot them into the easy three-piece system. Note also, that the anthology was edited by an Iowa prof, and contained all the faculty of Iowa (including many visiting profs). It's easy to say: they're co-opting the avant-garde; but the two-camp model was created out of this co-optation (for example Lowell); it did not come after the model; the two-camp model is already a co-opting, already a stabilizing, conservative model. All various forces are slotted into a static cold war opposition.
5. Going back to Ron's objection to my objection to his treatment of EA Robinson: The reason I objected to his dismissal of Robinson as an anti-modernist was that it allowed Ron to view literary history as an inevitable linear movement (toward Ron himself), a positivistic view that says that Ron's very ahistorical, very Ron-centered idea of "Modernism" is slowly winning the poetry wars, slowly reaping the rewards in terms of prizes etc. Instead, he should think about why Rae Armatrout is winning awards, why Lyn Hejinian has taught at Iowa, why various "post-avant" poets have edited David Lehman's horrific "Best American Poetry" anthology, why Poetry Magazine is so eager not just to publish the old language poets but also the (vaguely) "conceputal" poets and "flarf" poetry. In other words, why might the conservative Poetry Magazine want to publish "radical" poets? This is afterall a journal that is very much invested in maintaining the status quo.
6. As my father-in-law likes to say: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.
7. In other words, Ron should account for how he and his closest allies are in fact part of a quietist system. And for how his two-camp model supports the quietist system.
8. What's "next?" Ron asks. So I thought I would answer him. Next week I'm going to post in serial form Joyelle McSweeney's answer from a panel called "The Future of Poetry" that was part of the Minnesota Book Fair a few months ago. Then all will be revealed. Hint: It won't be neutral.
I've seen a lot of "best of 2009" type of lists and largely I don't know the books and there are no arguments that explain why these books are good or, far worse, "important".
Here is my list:
Right now I'm reading one of my all-time favorites, The Duchess of Malfi, in part because I'm teaching it to grad students next semester and in part because it's well probably the best piece of literature ever written.
Last night I read "Mexico" by Gertrude Stein all the way through to my daughter, who seemed to think it was swell because she sang along. It's a very beautiful play.
Another note about "Mexico" - I think it's in this piece more than any other I can see the point of the frequent comparison between Stein and Bjorling.
"The appearance of this generous and beautifully rendered translation of Hiromi Ito's poetry is a significant and memorable event for American letters. For Ito is poet of truly international stature, whose work breaks down barriers of language and gender, bringing an unprecedented erotic energy and eruptions of transgressive and domestic excess into areas of deep myth and shamanistic performance. It is a poetry of her world and of our worlds as well, the gift of a supremely intelligent and relentlessly exuberant mind, situated somewhere between bliss and nightmare. That she has now chosen to live among us is a still further cause for celebration." --Jerome Rothenberg
[Killing Kanoko can now also be purchased on Amazon, but I recommend buying it at SPD or, at a discounted price, at the Action Books site.]
Bio: Hiromi Ito, born in 1955 in Tokyo, is one of the most important and dynamic poets of contemporary Japan. After her sensational debut in the late 1970s, she emerged as the foremost voice of the wave of "women's poetry" that swept Japan in the 1980s. To date, she has published more than a dozen critically acclaimed collections of poetry, several novels, and numerous books of essays. She has won many important Japanese literary prizes, including the Takami Jun Prize, the Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize, and the Izumi Shikibu Prize. She now lives outside of San Diego with her partner Harold Cohen and her daughters. KILLING KONOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO is the first U.S. edition of her work.
This is what Anne Waldman said about the book: "KILLING KANOKO is a powerful, long-overdue collection (in fine translation) of poetry from the radical Japanese feminist poet, Hiromi Ito. Her poems reverberate with sexual candor, the exigencies and delights of the paradoxically restless/rooted female body, and the visceral imagery of childbirth leap off the page as performative modal structures--fierce, witty, and vibrant. Hiromi is a true sister of the Beats."
I recently wrote an article about the Gurlesque for a new San Francisco journal called Calaveras, and that made me think some more about this poetry.
One thing that interests me about the term is the resistance to the term. When I first read it, I too disliked it. It sounds a bit ridiculous. Then I was drawn toward this ridiculousness.
A friend of mine said she didn't like it because it sounded pop culture, it didn't sound refined. This objection seems to jive with that "goodreads" review I like to quote when the reviewer compared Lara Glenum's work to Marilyn Manson. Not just pop culture, in that regard, but debased pop culture even. And I think both of these objections are correct: In its embrace of the kitschy and debased it seems to more than anything oppose the "good taste" that poetry is supposed to uphold.
New Critics, Cole Swenson's "American hybrid," Ron Silliman's "post-avant," the goodreads reivew or the Workshop Poem- all these rhetorical models seem based on the assumption that poetry should be somehow "high art" and not kitsch, tasteless. In her intro to the American Hybrid anthology, Cole argues that poetry should save language against the onslaught of mass culture.
Here's from the Publisher's Weekly review of Andrew Zawacki's recent book: "Zawacki's work is not for everyone—its density and opaqueness can frustrate. But he displays a rigor, earnestness and commitment to poetry as high art; seekers of those virtues will admire this book deeply."
In the end I think Poetry still plays the role of High Art (at least to those who read/write it.).
It was interesting to me the other day how Jordan Davis on this very blog argued that Flarf was "accurate" representation of the English language, opposed to "translatese" of other poetry. In addition to this running totally contrary to the original impulse of Flarf as "bad taste", it was interesting to me that he used the word "translatese" to suggest the dullness of other poetry.
Translatese is of course the term traditionally used for the kind of deformed, minoritized language resulting from translations, language that has been foreignized by the process of translation. As Lawrence Venuti is prone to point out, it is the term used to describe unsuccessful translations, translations that do not sound "native" (It is noteworthy that this is explicitly Ron Silliman's criteria for judging translations, proving just how elitist and reactionary his supposed "avant" aesthetics are.).
Translatese is debased language, impure language.
But also: it sounds silly, ridiculous, just the same way "gurlesque" sounds ridiculous. There's an inherent, sonic despicableness about both terms. (Another terms that sounds the same way: Esperanto.). And this connection I think shows the connection between an anxiety about foreignized, impure English ("majoritiarian" poetry, to use Deleuze and Guattari's framework, establishes official language, true language) of translation, and the "Marilyn Manson" (or "gothic") aesthetics of "gurlesque" writing.
Kitsch, minor lit, the gurlesque: all of these terms are seen are debased, as foreign, as parasitic, impure.
Perhaps a pertinent quote here is the one I posted on this blog a while back (taken from Daniel Tiffany's wonderful essay "Kitsching the Cantos").
Herman Broch: “kitsch is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art.”
This seminal 1933 statement on kitsch makes a similar connection between the foreign and the debased, degraded. But similar views have been expressed repeatedly through modernity. Clement Greenberg called kitsch a parasite for the way it moves across national boundaries and destroys natural communities. Adorno objected both to kitsch and to impure German in poetry. As Tiffany notes, kitsch has been used throughout modernity as a negation of "art" (especially modernist art).
If kitsch is a foreign body, then the foreign body is kitsch.
(I already knew that.)
Another thing I find interesting about the term gurlesque is that both people who object to the gurlesque and people who favor it seem to want to expel *me* from it.
Both seem to want to say that I'm talking about something else entirely! This makes me really interested in this term! I'm a parasite within the parasite's body!
It's interesting to me how descriptions of kitsch and trash almost always come in lists. Whether it's Rimbaud's "Parade," Walt Whitman, Ginsberg, Clement (and Arielle!) Greenberg: The "poetic crap" (Rimbaud) always come in these long lists. It's as if there was an implicit notion of montage in the junk. No wonder Dada, Cornell, Rauschenberg etc etc made collages and assemblages out of this excrement. Our idea of kitsch is already as a pile of crap that we have to wade through. It lacks hierarchy or narrative. We have to wade through it. Just a bunch of excrement.
In a previous post about "hipsters" and kitsch, Bobby Baird left an insightful quote from Jacques Ranciere:
"Flaubert already deals with what Adorno will spell out as the problem of kitsch… Kitsch in fact means art incorporated into anybody’s life, art become part of the scenery and the furnishings of everyday life. In that respect, Madame Bovary is the first antikitsch manifesto."
This essay is called "Why Emma Bovary Must Die." She must die to keep art out of life. Ultimately, the fear of kitsch is this immersive aspect of it. The danger with Wax museums, novels, movie theaters, freak shows and other immersive experiences is that these works of art turns us into wax figures, puppets. Our bodies become denaturalized, become “foreign bodies.”
The question of course then becomes: what to do with all this trash?
Someone might say: It's camp.
But if camp, as Sontag famously put it, is the appreciation of the "awful," then it's not the same thing. Because most of the writing I see as "gurlesque" is never just an ironic appreciation of bad taste (which reinforces the bad/good taste divide).
In my article for Calaveras, I make a comparison to the 1960s underground cinema of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. I don't think of their art as "camp," but as something else. Both of these directors used a blend of lowbrow references (oriental costumes from the Silent Era, motorcycle erotics, pop music) and montage to create a gothic, fragmented body that is both unnatural and visceral, much like the Gurlesque writers.
In his book on the 1960s gay underground cinema, Bike Boys, Drag Queens and Superstars, Juan A. Suarez describes the scandalous Flaming Creatues like this:
"In Flaming Creatures… there is no subjective essence to be realized, no interiority where the self’s truth lies dormant. Gender-blurring, polymorphous desire, and constant fetishistic substitutions present an unstable sort of sexuality, always en fugue through various bodies and body parts, and never incarnated in self-identical images."
Suarez further argues that the “bodies are stages for the reenactment of alien roles” and that they are “collages made up, like Frankenstein’s body, of pre-existing fragments – quotes and images that most often emanate from the stock of Hollywood fantasies.”
Sontag defended Smith from censors arguing that it was really, after all, "high art." But Jack Smith himself insisted that he was not high art, that his "moldy aesthetics" was far from high art. This is an extreme case of an artist embracing not just mass culture (which Warhol did very differently), but embracing unfashionable items (a practice which links back up with Surrealism through his mentor, Joseph Cornell). Suarez notes that what drew Smith to his muse, Maria Montez, were the “intense affects” of her performances. This and in Smith’s “taste for kitschy ornamentalism and emotive figurativeness… and baroque Catholic altars” we can see a rejection of the “form equals function” of modernism and, to return to the beginning of this article, the urge of many people involved in contemporary American poetry to police work they feel is “too much,” excessive.
In Smith's devotion to Maria Montez and his moldy aesthetic, we can hear a number of echoes: Of Arielle Greenberg's valorization of Stevie Nicks, of the Goodreads comparison of Lara G to Marilyn Manson (she's not just mass culture, she's unfashionable mass culture), of Silliman's rejection of the kitschiness of "soft surrealism" (moldy surrealism from now on!).
Suarez wants Jack Smith’s recycling to be a critique of capitalism, arguing that his work destabilized the consumer economy of capitalism. Kaja Silverman’s argument about another 1960s filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal movie Weekend (which refers to itself as a “trash film,” and which, as Harun Farucki points out, engages in a lot of “scrapheap” aesthetics of underground film of the 1960s) is perhaps pertinent to this argument. In her book about Godard, Silverman discusses Weekend in terms of “anal capitalism.” According to Silverman, the movie depicts a world of consumption, in which “the phallus has lost its privileged status,” because capitalism has rendered everything exchangeable. even gender, even body parts (a claim reminiscent of Sontag’s observation about the equivalence of body parts in Flaming Creatures). Commodities lose their value when they are actually consumed; her insight is that Weekend is a movie that wants to be consumed, that does not want to be a monument like high art predecessors.
* I see in these “anal yzes” also something of Georges Bataille’s notion of “unproductive expenditures.” That's what I'm thinking about right now. Also, his ideas of heteregenous matter (within the system of Poetry).
For some other ideas and close readings of Chelsey Minnis, Dodie Bellamy and Aase Berg, you'll have to read the magazine when it comes out.
This was my blurb for John's book: "John Woods' THE COMPLETE COLLECTION brings the small-town America of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio into conversation with Italo Calvino's fake travelogue, Invisible Cities, and that book's dreamish vision of Imperial China. Like Calvino's novel, the book evokes a kind of nearly Renaissance-like iconographic worldview of Memory and the Imagination, but one channeled through the disposable world of American children's toys and comic books. The flat voice is disconcertingly balanced between farce, comedy and deadly seriousness."