Thursday, February 19, 2009

Joyelle on Obama Blog

Joyelle's poem as part of the Poems for Obama Blog is up and it's amazing:


Blogger Johannes said...

Seriously. Everyone should read this poem. It's it.

6:15 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...

It's it? Do you mean it's mint ice cream?

10:03 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

It's the poem to read.

2:06 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Poetry about timely and specific political issues always makes me cringe, no matter how appealing the raw construction itself happens to be.

4:35 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Writing poems about the news is one thing. But I just don't understand why an intelligent and talented poet would front for Obama and his crew of thugs, clowns and mercenaries. It's depressing to say the least. Is this the political subtext of the radical and marginalized art that you prosecute here, Johannes?

And why is this poem about the Cambodian genocide? Given the people that are in Obama's administration--Hillary, for one--it's not a stretch to claim that this poem legitimates the kind of humanitarian imperialism that would take us to war in Sudan or Iran. . .

7:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Why do you think it's "fronting" for Obama?

Why is it about the Kmer Rougue? My question is: Why does that seem so far-fetched to you?


8:03 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, what kind of poetry am I prosecuting? I don't know what you mean.

8:05 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Hi Johannes,

Every poem up at the 100 days thing, if it doesn't directly critique Obama and his administration, is fronting for him, legitimating him, pimping for state power, basically, in perpetuating the illusion that he will deliver "change," that "hope" means anything other than "the bullshit I choose to believe right now." It's not like the blog makes any secret of its love affair with the man. It's an embarrassment, really.

As far as I'm concerned, the faster we can dispense with these illusions the better, and I look at the 100 days thing as an obstacle. It's a giant work of gassy liberal ideology. As a reader of Zizek, you should be able to figure this out.

As for the Khmer Rouge, I don't think it's far-fetched, nor do I think there is in general any problem with writing about the tragedies of Cambodia, but in the context of the blog and the project, it strikes me as tremendously problematic. I've said why. This isn't a problem with the poem, which I like. As somebody so adept at critiquing anthologies and the way they frame things, I would suspect you could understand what I'm getting at.

Just to make things clear: whatever differences might obtain here, I have enormous respect for Joyelle as a poet and editor and reviewer. I was just remarking to myself yesterday how smart and perceptive of a reviewer she is as I reread her review of Hannah Weiner (I'm getting ready to work on a dissertation chapter that involves Weiner).

8:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think your reading of the poem's relationship to Obama is a bit reductive.

If anything, a "direct critique" would just legitimize the idea of democratic exchange. How ridiculous would that be?

Exactly the kind of "liberal" idea of "choices" that the poem questions.

The poem troubled you: Why is she writing about Kmer Rouge? you asked. It troubled your reading of the website. Good.

I imagine it troubled other people - for the opposite reason! But the same question: What does KR have to do with Obama?! (With more hysterical tone of voice.)

I have to admit that I haven't read any of the poems on that blog. But the more lovefest they might be, the better my argument.


9:20 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Hey fellas,

Am I off base here? I'm read the KR as exploration of the f'd up transition period in which members of the former administration become almost adorable in their underdog state, as one in which the quotidian neutralizes horror via optimism and "progress," in which the citizen still suffers stasis, etc...

J's bio notes: "She wrote this poem on Wednesday, February 18, 2009, and completed it at 10:54 AM." Pre-inaug, liminal zone.

Also, I can't but help read it in relationship to some of the Girl as Citizen discussion that's been floating around these parts (Aaron Kunin's essay at AY?).

I'm surprised you dislike it, Jasper, since it seems to put tacks in the dominant ideology of the 100 days project. Which project I'll add didn't come with explicit mission statement, but takes form as each poet posts. The project may necessarily intimate a prObama stance, but if individual poets don't wish to question that assumption, then, yeah, more lovefest = more better. At very least, more audible.


10:47 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

These are poems for the first 100 days of a new administration, not a Suck Obama's C*ckfest (at least not from what I can tell, skimming over a few and reading Joyelle’s thoroughly). Also, check out the blogs intent, which is pretty open: “…a call to poets we admire to write poems that respond, however loosely, to the presidency, the nation, the government or the current political climate.”

It seems Joyelle's poem (which IS great), is simply drawing attention to something that needs dire attention in these early days. She's probably not assuming Obama will pay attention, but she's hoping. The blog seems to be about hope—hope that people's voices will be heard which have not been heard for a long time. Hope in general, but especially politically-oriented hope, is always fun for certain intellectuals to compulsively poop on, so they might continue to feel important and holy (set apart).

That said, I agree with Max that poetry (or art) about timely political issues often does have a disturbing quality, something like propaganda to it. There isn't that critical distance. But sometimes that can't be afforded. In the cushy U.S., I think we forget that sometimes.

There—I made a comment and I promise I won’t delete it this time, even though I used colorful language! ☺

11:46 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I read the poem as drawing a thematic connection between the exiting Comrade Duch and the exiting GW Bush. As usual, the "dictator" stance re: GW Bush mulls over the troublesome reality that he asserted control largely within legal limits, however gray those areas might have been, and will likely receive no official, prosecutorial reprimand for those illegalities in which he may have been involved.

It may be the case that we don't have the luxury of avoiding cringeworthy political poetry in these troubled times, but in that case, why not take on forms of expression that make similar points, but yet don't have the effect of producing cringes from the audience? Why not write an essay, for example? If the issue is urgent enough for us to throw caution to the wind and risk a touchy response, then times are certainly urgent enough for us to consider the audience and tailor expression such that our urgent messages will be taken seriously.

I didn't feel like any aspect of this poem that made me uncomfortable was there to make me feel uncomfortable, that there was any intention to create that effect, or that the poem was designed to incorporate unintentional effects of that sort into its mission either. I actually liked a lot of the language/wordplay, from a raw aesthetic perspective, taking the poem outside its immediate contexts, but "dictator" and "war on terror" just seemed to have been assigned to carry more freight than they could realistically bear.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


It doesn't make me cringe. I think it's a great poem. It's certainly not an essay; it's a terrific poem.

But of course this is a different discussion than Jasper's point. He was opposed to the pro-Obama nature of the blog. Your problem is that news in the poems make you cringe. So you're opposed to the Obama project largely on the grounds that it asks poet to let the news into the American Poetry Wax Museum.

It's long been known that American Poetry (and other poetries too) has an aversion to writing about news event. It ruins the illusion of the wellwrought urn, the illusion of immortality, timelessness, immortality all that. Allowing the news into the museum makes the museum goers nervous, makes them cringe. I think that's good.

This is a poem that takes ultra-seriously the idea of the Obama blog to document the 100 first days of Obama's tenure. Only Joyelle chose to focus on another part of the world. She emphasizes this documentary nature not just with the title or the fact that all the language is from the news (as was The Red Bird) but also in her biography which says it was written during a certain time etc.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

On the whole I don't think art should avoid "cringes".

7:26 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...


I think what you say about the Poetry Wax Museum is really interesting. Why is it that we think that poetry that deals with very current events is so disturbing? I feel like I've kind of swallowed that stance without even questioning it--though obviously sometimes poetry that is *too* current can sometimes read like propaganda for a certain political party, which is what Jasper was talking about.

But it seems like there should be room both for poetry that has a critical distance from an event (time for rumination), but then also poetry that is more urgent, more current and therefore more dangerous and risky. It uses its power to call attention to the moment, in the time that it exists, instead of just calling us to reflect solely on the past and what we've is, perhaps, poetry that asks us to actually *do* something, instead of just *ponder about* something...

My husband recently had an art show where he dealt with the financial crisis on Wall Street. He got some flak for dealing with something "too current", but I don't understand why. Was it that people don't want to be confronted with the reality of their culpability within the issue? Does it overwhelm them with their own reality and horrors, instead of someone elses (like reading Holocaust poetry for example)?

His work is here if you are interested:

1:53 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

That's a total mischaracterization. It has nothing to do with "letting the news into the American Poetry Wax Museum." It has to do with the fact that, oftentimes, reliance on current events as a linchpin is merely a method of creating false amity for the poem. It makes us cringe not because some discomfiting element has been added to the "pure" mixture, but because it's a cloying attempt at authenticity, like an 17 year old white suburban kid writing about the plight of El Salvadorans in the 80s just so he can win the school prize.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I actually think it is about letting the news into the Wax Museum. It's clearly not about wanting to be authentic; your characterization of it as "inauthentic" is I think part of our discomfort with the news. Authenticity is a private moment.

I love how Suburban White Kid cannot be involved in political issues without being inauthentic.

Also, that kid didn't win the contest. The kid who wrote about the Holocaust did.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I'm not saying that Joyelle = the 17 year old suburban white kid.

Rather, what I'm arguing is that that's why it's uncomfortable. That's where the discomfort comes from. From that cloying feeling attended by the tossing around of "dictator" and "war on terror." It has nothing to do with the pure "Wax Museum" being invaded by a threatening substance, and I don't understand why you feel the need to reduce it to that, other than to just dismiss my feelings out of hand and put them in a tidy little container with the rest of the opposition.

I'm not trying to argue that feeling uncomfortable is universally a bad thing, but I think it's completely fair to draw distinctions between those things that make us uncomfortable, instead of lumping them into this one category of universal praise, where you're not doing something right unless you're making them feel weird. I think that's perhaps the most tired countercultural argument of all time.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Also, this idea that we can claim any discomfort on the part of the reader and make that part of our intention after the fact, it's just a total cop-out, and just a really boring stance. "Oh, it made you feel that way? Well obviously it was created to make you feel that way, so that's a good thing!" Such a sad art-student mode to fall into.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I reduce it to that because that's the sense I get from your argument. That's still what I think you're up to.

Clearly that's not a point of the poem (to make Max uncomfortable), if that was all it was up to it would be pretty unambitious. And it would never have entered the discussion unless you brought it up. I would never have thought of this issue unless you brought it up.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

My problem is that you're lumping together all discomfort, as though there aren't various forms of it. The discomfort I feel when I read these poems which are timely political screeds is not an interesting discomfort ... it's more like a slight sense of embarrassment for the author. Granted, the embarrassment I sense in Joyelle's poem is obviously not of the same intensity as that which I might experience from a 17 year old's political poem. It's really only focused on two terms ("dictator" and "war on terror") and the fact that the seething anger goes a little over-the-top. There are actually many things I like about the poem.

I think it's silly to argue, as you seem to have done here, that discomfort is this universal prerogative, as though any and all discomfort roused in others is of value and interest. If you think this is about the American Poetry Wax Museum, then the Museum itself must be the broadest possible designation, including things like birthday cards and Lifetime TV movies, because this type of discomfort, of the embarrassing sort, isn't only limited to the realm of the well-wrought urn, of high-minded poetry. It would be embarrassing anywhere else, too.

Also, have you even taken one second to consider the possibility that your American Poetry Wax Museum is just a way of tracing out your own well-wrought urn in negative?

8:16 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


It's because I haven't seen you actually think through your embarassment other than to say politics-in-poetry is not "authentic". And that totally jives with my reading of your cringes. And I think that kind of stance should be made to feel cringey. Good.


7:54 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Either that or it's just a long-standing method for parrying any and all criticism. I wonder which it might be.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Dear Max,

Saying something makes you cringe is not a critique.


7:04 AM  
Blogger Max said...

But saying that terms like "dictator" and "war on terror" are just sort of flung around in the poem haphazardly--without really offering/revealing interesting connections, or treating the terms in anything other than the most common pat/sarcastic way--and that the poet's anger rings false and melodramatic ... these things do constitute critiques, Johannes. Perhaps not ones that you like or agree with. But they are critiques, and I've made them in previous posts.

Of course, now I'm sure you'll go on to say that either these things were intended to fall into the infinitely broad prospectus of the poem (i.e. if it makes you feel that way, it's supposed to make you feel that way), or that these feelings are the wages I pay for being a dummy who can't possibly understand the limitless magnitude of the poem's genius (i.e. if you feel cringe-y, then you deserve to cringe).

7:17 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Oh please, Max. This is not a critical discussion, it's snark. (And counter-snark, I admit.). You haven't given a reading of the poem that we can even discuss. All you've offered are attacks.

There's really nothing for me to discuss with your statements. Do you want me to say: No this isn't melodramatic! or "haphazard"? etc. What's the point? Do you want me to "prove it" using historical precedents? How boring and useless.

That's why I'm much more interested in the way you consistently bring up those cliche conservative critiques: authentic vs false, haphazard/noise vs tasteful. Seemingly without any sense of self-critique. (To whom for example?)

Also: You keep saying that I'm defending the poem by saying it's meant to discomfort you and that this is such a cliche.

I'm not saying that.

Let me make this clear: The poem doesn't have to do with making your or Jasper uncomfortable. The fact that it does, that interests me.

But not very much. So lets move on. I've wasted enough time sparring with you over this snark.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Max said...

To whom? To me, of course. I never claimed to be constructing the one and only possible reading of the poem, nor did I ever attempt to write an exhaustive dissertation about the piece. I think that where you get me wrong is in assuming that my criticisms speak to an overarching set of aesthetic values that I think everybody must have.

My problem is not that we disagree, but that you insist on engaging in this metonymy of ideas, in which if you disagree with something, you put it aside in a handy little box for easy dismissal (i.e. the "American Poetry Wax Museum"). Your definition of what constitutes "conservative" is kept very loose and general for this specific purpose, it seems.

For example, when I say that the tone of the poem rings false, I mean that the tone appears to have been designed to be authentic, to elicit the response that authentic anger would in most readers, but instead it falls flat, and it doesn't seem as though its falling flat is part of the project. I'm not saying that I prefer authenticity. I'm saying that I read it as an attempt at authenticity that ultimately proves inauthentic. But yet you insist on tying me down to an authentic/false preference that I've never actually stated or argued for. Again, metonymy of ideas. Totally wrongheaded. I don't expect us to come to an agreement. We're talking about a completely subjective issue. But I do expect not to be marshaled by your assumptions into making arguments that I have no real interest in making. You'd think that would be a common courtesy of discourse.

But anyway, yes. We can drop it there, I suppose.

8:23 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Please see my contribution to 100 days here:

10:40 AM  

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