Thursday, January 08, 2009


Here's an interesting post on Ululations about Embarassment.

It is weird to hear someone write this because this is something I've been thinking about and talking about as well.

I'm working on an essay on Aase Berg, Dodie Bellamy, gay porn, Kenneth Anger and tacky occultism and some other stuff, and one point of comparison between Aase and Dodie is the emphasis on embarrassment.

I remember once when I was in Sweden the more langpo-influenced crowd had asked Aase to write something but they kept sending it back wanting it to be more rigorous and theoretical, and she told me, "They don't realize that I want what I write to be embarrassing: to them, to the reader but most of all to myself."

When Aase published her second to last book, Uppland, a lot of critics ridiculed because it is full of baby-talk and nursery rhyme. It was the perfect anti-dote to the serious Swedish cultural establishment. But the great concretist poet from the 1960s, Bengt Emil Johnson wrote at least two reviews lauding it. He's great (and he's my facebook-friend).

[Speaking about Swedish Concretism: For those who know something about Swedish culture, I might also add that what's so irritating about the recovery of Oyvind Fahlstrom is that most of the young Swedish critics who are part of this move try to make him into a language poet or a serious political poet. But his art is full of baby-talk, homages to Krazy Kat and R.Crumb, skin flicks. He made games or "variable art" - that he wanted mostly to play himself. Most of all it is: Artaud With A Ridiculous Body. Fahlstrom was the primary influence on "The Widow Party."]

I might also add Aase's frequent reference to bad zombie movies, not in a ha-ha clever kitsch way, but for their visceral effect. Or most recently, her re-write of that terrible movie starring Nicole Kidman as a mother who has killed her kids.

Embarrassment seems to be the driving urge behind Bellamy's recent book of essays/memoirs "Academonia." For one thing she chronicles the pressures of language poetry to be more rigorous and theoretical [This should surprise nobody who's read Ron Silliman's blog and his dismissal of "soft surrealism" - the impetus behind Joyelle and I writing our "Lemur" manifesto a while back, a manifesto in favor of soft things, embarrassment over macho hardness].

She also gives this quote which I am using in the essay and I think is pretty great:

"If I hadn't stumbled upon the gay narrative writers I might very well have succumbed to social pressure and toned myself down. Among the queers I not only found support for my interests in sex and trash, I received serious training in how to refine my trashiness. They taught me thrillingly radical values, such as porn is not oppressive but hot, writers should embrace porn as a political tool, group sex is transcendent, gossip and pop culture are good, writing about yourself is good, you can never have too much sex in your writing." (page 120)

Another character who comes into my essay is of course Sylvia Plath, and important figure to both Aase and Dodie. Here's what Dodie writes:

"Plath's exultation in lowness awes and inspires me. Her "high" poetry may be formally brilliant, but its content embarrasses. Her domestic squabbles, her depression, her female rages. From her I learned to grope around in the dark muck of femaleness, to embrace the terrors and embarrassments that emerged."

Kenneth Anger I find fascinating from this perspective. One connecting thread is the use of montage in Aase and Dodie's work. But more interesting to me is this use of the schlocky as both ridiculous and powerful. Think of Anger's dudes in lucifer-masks or all of "Invocation to me Demon Brother." Or most importantly, that his films were shown both as underground art films and as gay porn (in fact at that time the two seems to have been nearly synonomous).

In addition, I think if you youtube Ariana Reines's reading from Berkley awhile back: how her smalltalk is a kind of performance art of embarassment.

In addition, you might look at Ron Klassnik's recent "dreams" about Ron Silliman.

In addition: you might read anything by Hannah Weiner, or look at the way her supporters have shied away from some of her more embarassing fixations, such as her erotic fascination with Native Americans.

Also: Read Aaron Kunin's essay on Cathy Wagner and "diva citizenship" in the upcoming Action, Yes.


Blogger Matt Walker said...

[I thought that that "soft surrealism" thing was what Ron was calling James Tate and Charles Simic, both of whom I like (well one a lot more than the other) but don't think of as being about embarrassment. This is just a side note. I like what you say; I'm just saying. I could be wrong.]

7:46 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, we took the label from Ron and ran with it... It's not limited to any specific poet. It's a way of reading.

11:19 AM  
Blogger pr said...

Interesting post. I am a big fan of Barf Manifesto by Bellamy but have not read the thing you mention here.

I find it confusing to be so interested in embarrassment, or embarrassing things- the Plath and her female muck and so on-- and into "gossip" from her love of gay culture.

I stand by a serious dislike of gossip- I see it as against, fighting against, an honest assessment of our embarrassing humanness, our fluids and pains. Gossip is the opposite of compassion- the compassion she sought from Miles in Barf Mainfesto. Indeed, my understanding of gossip is that of social control- many sociological as well as linguistic theories discuss that. And social control seem to be the opposite of Bellamy's whole thing.

3:51 PM  

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