Sunday, December 20, 2009

The "Future" of "Poetry" by Joyelle McSweeney

[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.” [17]

7. Hiromi Ito has been called the ‘poet of childbirth’ in Japan, which is ironic given that her most iconic poem is titled for infanticide and themed with both infanticide and abortion. Her daughter’s name is Kanoko, and this poem in English is ‘Killing Kanoko’, (also the title of the Action Books volume now available, Ito’s first English-language edition.) In the title poem,

Without melancholy, without guilt

I want to get rid of Kanoko in Tokyo


Congratulations on your destruction

Congratulations on your destruction


Congratulations on your abortion


Congratulations on your abortion


Congratulations on your abortion

Congratulations on killing Tomo-kun


How about getting rid of Nonoho-chan?


Was the fetus a boy or a girl?


It’s about time to get rid of Kōta-kun

Let’s all get rid of them together

All of the daughters

All of the sons

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.


Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

Strikingly and astutely put, Joyelle.

I just watched Trecartin for the first time a few days ago, and his hyperactive rhythms are fresh in my head. Poetry has to hustle to catch up with that sort of ambitious counterspectacularity.

8:55 PM  
Blogger anna said...

joyelle it's interesting that you link this excess to motherhood. I am curious about overgenerativity in writing, which seems to me to happen more in writing by female authors. Then you've got the French Feminists of course, and Julia Kristiva, and voila, perhaps the connection's been made. Listening to the Cocteau Twins today (a band which Carolyn Bergvall admitted influenced her work :), I was thinking about the negativity of this excess.

Motherhood for me, has been speed altering. It is a compression. It is also outside of (our) culture in many ways. We're like secret bomb defusers without danger pay.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Wow! I wish I'd had this before I finished my American Poet essay--but I got the Killing Kanoko in! And Maximum Gaga & With Deer.

There's a great passage by anthropologist Anna Tsing on the way maggots, flies, shaman, childbirth, etc. are as borderlands between life and death. It's in her first book In the Realm of the Diamond Queen.

Tell J. I love this spumey spectacolor future now.


12:13 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


This essay doesn't believe in the future. It believes in right now.

As I think the talk proves, poetry doesn't have to catch up with Trecartin.

But yes, I think it's pretty amazing work.


5:19 AM  
Blogger Providence said...

I think it believes in futurity, though (as does the Hannah Weiner piece in Boundary 2), as indicated by the numerical-linear structure being foregrounded. Both derive their precepts from the historical avant-garde, where various futures are by definition conceived.

I like the gesture of "presence" and both texts as a whole, even if I am still hungry for the notion of disabled texts to be qualified.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

A concern:

Does this presume to be an ethics of poetry? Applicable to the "present" poets of, say, Palestine, Jamaica, or Iran, as much as it might be to some academically affiliated petit-bourgeois a-g poets of the U.S. and Stockholm? I can't believe the manifesto, if that's what it is, proposes itself so *universally.* Assuming it doesn't, it might be a good idea to qualify and say as much. There are worlds out there, and not all of them necessarily demand as response a quasi-reactionary abjection tinged with theory-friendly, au courant nihilism.

If you'll pardon all the modifiers...

7:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


11:03 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Good point, re: Kasey's hustle. Tho' I often admire what you Kasey have to say about film, there's a suspect hierarchy going on when poets note how much *better* film is--in whatever way. In part 'cuz film is even more male-dominated, and the gaze is very literal there. But also b/c it's like hard sciences getting privileged above soft sciences/humanities. Joyelle doesn't distinguish emphatically between poetry and film--it's like she's talking about the same medium.

What's remarkable about Joyelle, Notley, Ito, etc. is that the vulgarity isn't in air quotes. It's blood on the floor, slip slip.

Re: Kristeva, I find her work really useful, too, but the Tsing quote I'm talking about is actually in response, in part, to Kristeva's discussion of abjection, which is so western/post-Freudian/almost Victorian in its assumptions about the grossness of the abject. Kristeva doesn't see the abject as a gateway or a portal. I love what she says about the subject being willing to kill a piece of herself to get rid of the abject, but I think she misses the opportunities in the abject material.

Okay, I'm back to defusing!

11:10 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I felt somewhat mystified by this essay until I recognized that "future" and "poetry" are in quotations, meant I suppose to suggest that in fact the essay is not really about them in any actual descriptive way.

The piece does seem an excellent essay, even perhaps a manifesto, of Joyelle's own aesthetic and cultural interests, a set of interests that do seem somewhat shared by some of the poets associated with the gurlesque (although I would guess not all).

So once I can see beyond the fact that this essay is not about the future in any general way, and not a broad description of poetry at the present moment, whether in the U.S. or anywhere else, and certainly not about the future of poetry either, I can read it as an intriguing development in Joyelle's work and the work of others who interest her.

I suppose the final paragraph still raises the most questions for me, as the phrase "poetry's present tense" does seem to define itself as descriptive to some extent, yet the description that follows sounds again like one person's perspective that doesn't really even intend to describe the world of poetry as it currently exists. I certainly don't think that the quoted long sentence is a good description of what the world of poetry is like right now, although it's a nicely pointed satire on the kinds of things people say when they give up reading poets younger than they are. There are, in fact, all sorts of ways to know what to read and to decide what you care about--and this essay is an example of exactly that kind of decision-making process.

Of course the phrase "poetry's present tense" has all the chutzpah of a classic avant garde manifesto, and I suppose one's liking it will depend on one's love of the manifesto's tendency to make sweeping claims.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

I've been thinking about Joyelle's piece all day. Thanks for posting it.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Max said...

My first impression is that there's something terribly retro necro about the impulse behind this manifesto. Which is to say that it follows pretty closely in the liberal tradition of accepting the premise (in this case, that poetry/art of the present is "sewage"), and then binding us to the reactionary mantra of "that's what makes it good/relevant/valuable/right for the times" etc. The position at once appears to be that new poetries need not defend themselves (they should just "be"), and that nevertheless a manfesto (implicitly a defense, at least in part) is necessary to tell us to do this, that this is the right path to take. "Accepting and claiming it" is a rather dubious political stance, and yet it seems to be what the entire attitude of the piece is dependent on.

I've always felt that this is the worst use of academic postmodern detachment--when a discussion of "why" is pre-empted by reactionary glance which tells us that "why" can always be found in the opposite, as though this is a clear, uncontroversial truth.

6:53 PM  
Blogger JP said...

This is great...

As Nietzsche always argued (and as Deleuze did too, after him) to hate and fear death is a way of hating and fearing the generative impulses in general. Any type of writing that doesn't let death it, that flees from it like an infection, is in danger of becoming banally utopian, sterile...

9:01 PM  
Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

Well, I read the quotes around "future" as skeptical of the notion of cultural progress and the quotes around "poetry" as alluding to the gradual erosion of many of the historical identifiers of generic poetic specificity.

Which is why I stand by my earlier statement: poetry has to hustle, whereas "poetry" is doing just fine.

I'm not without mixed feelings about this. Part of me has a hard time letting go of "well-craftedness" as it has manifested itself in the older traditions I'm most familiar with (i.e., the prosodic and syntactical standards of Greek and Latin verse practice and the Anglo-American strands that have been informed by them). But fuck it. When your time is up, it's up. But I also don't think the answer is some "third way" or celebration of "hybridity."

10:23 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Kasey, my sense is that the historical identifiers of poetry have always been in flux; they aren't stable entities, but language games (with consequences) that the culture of poetry plays. So a question: is there really any reason to believe that those always tentative identifiers are more in a state of erosion now than they were at other times?

I suppose one answer is that there may be a more varied and larger group of identifiers for aesthetic approaches than there have been in the past (although before I asserted that definitely I'd want to see it proved). But that wouldn't mean that the terms were eroding more than ever as much it would mean that they were multiplying more than ever--although I guess, now that I think about it, that a greater number of flexible terms makes each individual term more immediately mutable and disposable.

I guess I just mean then that I don't think the specificity of poetics is going away, even as any grand narrative about the ascendancy of one approach over another seems increasingly untenable.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Heh, heh, Kasey, by that logic, doesn't film have to hustle to catch up to Trecartin's "film?"

10:49 AM  
Blogger JP said...

I don't see this essay as being retro at all -- in philosophy all the post-Nietzschean thinkers (Foucault, etc.) start with death and the acidic erasure of all certitudes and go from there. Is Beckett retro? Is Bolano only a fatalist? The exciting aspect about this essay for me is the cheerful negativity of it -- stoicism at its best (the way Deleuze frequently approaches it)...

7:04 PM  
Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

HTML failure: the sentences "But fuck it. When your time is up, it's up." in my last comment were meant to be formatted as strikethrough, which apparently doesn't work in comment boxes.

Mark, I do think the state of "erosion" (though I think of it more as metamorphosis) in Anglo-American poetry is greater now in many ways, for reasons having to do with the transformation of what for the past five hundred years or so has been a culture that values verbal artifice as such into a culture that values, if anything, verbal artifice as a kind of implied reference point. So, for example, Trecartin's work is clearly attentive to the sound and character of spoken language, but not from a straightforwardly mimetic or craft-based perspective so much as one of hastily simulated allusiveness or pseudo-quotation. Tone counts more than precision, rough strokes carry more weight than fine lines. And not even rough strokes that suggest a total image which could potentially be rendered in clearer focus, but rather ones that call attention to their status as being really nothing but rough strokes. None of this is new in terms of the visual arts or even the avant-garde poetic innovations of a century ago, but it's dumbfounding how much of contemporary poetic culture still resists it (even within a lot of "experimental" practice).

Danielle: re: film, well, yes. But film enjoys something that poetry doesn't: mass commercial popularity. So it has a sort of economic justification for not evolving.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Max said...

JP --

I'm talking about the impulse behind the essay (the "accept and claim it" method of coping with criticism) as a "retro necro" thing. It's an impulse that should long have been considered dead, but which is, for whatever reason, constantly redeployed. The most important aspect of Joyelle's essay, it would seem to me, is how it reacts to/copes with criticism, even more than any set of positive aesthetics, stylistics, etc.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Here and abroad in the internets, I wonder why there's such an out of proportion focus on section 8, the last section of this talk? Thoughts?

Maybe I'm misreading Kent, but nearly bleeding to death while giving birth in the portal unto death isn't particularly bourgeois or specific unto western academics.

Also, folks, the birth/death portal isn't your standard nihilism. It's not nihilistic. It's morbidly optimistic. It's a dark angel Pollyanna perspective. I rarely champion *universality*, but the lived experiences of childbirth converge to argue hard against me.

Anyhow, I doubt Joyelle means to edify here. She's kicking open a fetid gateway that a lot of us have been squinching through lately, and you can come too if you like.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Certainly there is an element of looking into the rejected, but to say that it's just a meaningless knee-jerk reaction is to disregard all the myriad of issues involved in such a move. To say that this essay doesn't posit any kind of aesthetic is just mind-boggling.

As with a couple of the other posts, what your attitude most suggests is a defensive need to "TA", to nag, rather than engage with the arguments.


8:32 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

If there were any indication that the argument even questioned its own basis (as a reaction to a conservative bogeyman), I wouldn't be "nagging" on anything right now. As it stands, one gets the sense that this argument is supposed to feel very novel, very revolutionary, but it traffics in the same reactionary politics we've seen for ages. Our "answer" is still connected to the bogeyman in substantial ways. But the thing is, I'm not even sure how real, how worth responding/reacting to, this bogeyman actually is. Or if its actual existence even makes it worth responding to.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Regarding the Future of Poetry, certainly its future tense will be shaped by changes and tensions in the field over the ten years past. Change (in sense of what has *most* changed) is the topic of a Poetry Foundation roundtable currently featured at the PF website. Ron Silliman (one of the contributors) also posted about it on his blog the other day. I put the following comment up at the PF site and thought I'd share it here, since there is some relation to this discussion.

[On significant changes in the field of poetry during the decade]:

>What about the rapid process of institutional legitimation undergone by the so-called post-avant during the past ten years? In rather obvious and various ways, this has dramatically changed the landscape of U.S. poetry.

The academic turn was underway already in the 90s, certainly, but that the process of recuperation has reached qualitatively new levels (think, for contrast, of the NAP in the 60s or of Language poetry in the 80s) and that "experimental" or "avant-garde" modes are now widely sanctioned, quite well-integrated into what used to be disparagingly called Official Verse Culture, seems a crucial development to reckon with-- one whose consequences will be playing out for some decades to come.


8:59 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think that bogeyman is called culture (or ideology perhaps); and I think writers should be responding to that bogeyman. I don't care if that feels old to you. I think that's what poetry should do. Or "poetry."


8:07 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Professor Kent,

You have left some name-calling, patronizing comments in this thread (Joyelle is academic, she's petit bourgeois, she is a little girl who doesn't know about "the big wild world out there" (or however that Cat Stevens song goes)); and you have repeatedly suggested that what's at issue here is that she's a professor.

You say nothing about the talk, about her ideas, and you say nothing about why her academic status is so important to you, why you want to not only make across-the-board generalizations about professors but also want to lump a bunch of poets into the "post-avant" label.

If you want to criticize Joyelle's arguments or her position in the academy, you can do that; but right now you're just calling names. And that to me goes back to the oldest anti-intellectual traditions of America: we don't want to engage with some argument so we say it's academic/elitist etc.

There is certainly need for a good criticism of the academy, but Kent, I haven't seen anything but generalization coming from you.

I'm getting tired of people name-calling "academic". Maybe I'll try to put together a whole post about that when I have some time.


11:31 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

It's hilarious (hysterical?) to qualify this talk as primarily academic, elitist, or bourgeois. I'm totally bored by the academic/academia = villain argument, but for what it's worth personal experience tells me the birthing-vag-body (or the cuntless mother) as gateway to the present death interface poetry doesn't easily receive academic sanction.

Also to suggest that the various hideous oppressions going on world wide somehow remove the transgressive experiences of birth/death strikes me cuckoo. In fact, for poets like Kim Hyesoon or writers like Can Xue, these aesthetics become a powerful tool for the critique of political oppressions.

This whole comments thread strikes me bizarre (as did the one on kitsch). I meant to stay out of it, because I think I'm at risk of repeating myself, but it's creeping me out that it's mostly men responding, and responding so oddly. Why *aren't* y'all engaging the argument much beyond its rhetorical structure?

1:10 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...


You avoid the main questions I ask in the comment. In any case, when I said "academically affiliated petit-bourgeois a-g poets," I wasn't referring specifically to Joyelle; I was referring to the "post-avant" more broadly. The phrase is perfectly defensible as general sociological description.

When I said "a quasi-reactionary abjection tinged with theory-friendly, au courant nihilism," I was, yes, referring to the Joyelle's essay. That's my take on it.


8:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Don't be sorry. You again proved yourself incapable or unwilling to engage with the piece. Just name-calling Kent.

What I find interesting with both you and Max is that you claim to have critiques of the piece but seem unable to muster anything significant, or really anything at all.

Then the question becomes: Why write anything at all? What is the source of this need to police/nag? What's the point?

I think I've already written about the fears you represent on this blog.


9:56 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I do want to try to answer Danielle's question regarding rhetoric/content in Joyelle's essay and the ensuing discussion. Obviously though I can only continue the problem of men being the main ones to respond here, although given that this blog is one hosted by an argumentative male poet (I don't say that as put down, just as fact), I myself am not too surprised that it's mainly argumentative males who are responding.

But I'm only going to speak for myself here.

For me, the title of this piece, and Johannes' prior blog post highlighting the concepts of future and poetry in relation to Ron Silliman, caused me to go into reading the essay thinking it would be a discussion of the future and of poetry. It is, of course, more a critique of the idea of the future and of the notion that there is such a thing as poetry, but it took me at least (I'm slow) a while to realize that. And so I think that's why my comments focus on those issues... plus the fact that I'm not entirely persuaded by the idea that the present of poetry is an unreadable morass or that the future can be so thoroughly denied (it is, in fact, arriving in all its material specificity as I write this, more's the pity perhaps).

So I can't, myself, quite separate the essay's "rhetorical structure" from its other content, and in fact I'm not entirely sure that structure and content can or should be so separated.

But it's still true that I didn't mention the gothic motherhood concept which is so central to the piece.

For me, when I think of the gothic, women's writing, and modernism/postmodernism, I tend to think of precursor fiction writers like Djuan Barnes, Jean Rhys, and Isak Dinesen, more recent writers like Elfride Jelinek and Ursule Molinaro and (of course) Dodie Bellamy, as well as a few poets--Mina Loy, early Laura Riding, Helen Adam. More recently, obviously the gothic has been something that many poets associated with the gurlesque are working with.

I don't think I'm quite enough of an expert to know how Joyelle's work responds to/updates/changes the work of those earlier writers. I'm tempted to say that in making the mother the central gothic character, some kind of switch is being signaled, but gothic mothers do play a significant role in many of those other writers as well--if maybe not, in fact, or at least not often, the central roles. But perhaps one might say most safely that Joyelle is continuing an exploration of the horror of bodily experience that has been so essential to women and the gothic.

A key issue that's worth taking up further is the relation between the gothic gurlesque writers and women poets who have focused more on materialism, linguistic (rather than imagistic) extremes, direct politics, and phenomenology--Hejinian, Scalapino, Retallack, Brioth poet Maggie O'Sullivan, Juliana Spahr, as only a few example. I think I see a lot of differences between women writers on precisely the subject of materialist analysis and, as just one for instance, its relation to subjectivity and gender. But that issue needs an extended analysis, not a blog comment.

Ultimately (also in response to Danielle) I'm not sure it's most useful to speak about Joyelle's piece as "optimistic," even if darkly so. Optimism can only be optimism about the future, if I understand what optimism means, and this piece seems to stake itself on rejection of the future (though I may be over-reading that and would love to hear a response). For me, again, I'm not sure I'm convinced by that aspect of the piece, and that's why my comments focused so much on it.

One could say, of course, that it's typical of argumentative males, especially on blogs, to focus on the aspect of an essay that they find troubling rather than on the aspects they like--to which I'd have to admit to being guilty as charged.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I thought this was an insightful comment, and I thought your other posts were good too.

I was mainly talking about Kent's and Max's comments.

What do you mean by "linguistic" (as opposed to "imagistic") "extremes"?


11:30 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I guess I just mean the difference between work that concentrates on changing up/challenging the imagery in poems or on work that puts emphasis on how language/literature is structured. For instance, Hejinian's My Life doesn't try to make great changes in the kinds of imagery it uses for autobiography, as far as I can tell, but it changes the way paragraphs and autobiographical narratives are organized. Aase Berg's poems on the other hand don't strike me as structurally surprising, but instead are playing interesting games with imagery.

Charles Borkhuis' essay in the collection Telling It Slant that I co-edited discusses some of the differences between surrealism and language poetry on the question of whether imagery or structure is the key focal point of their critiques of western culture.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Whew, thanks, Mark--I was beginning to feel in a vacuum. And I agreed with your earlier comment about the relation between this aesthetic & gurlesque--I wonder if that isn't because so many of writers who use gurlesque have of late become (in one way or another) mothers?

A good point re: the temporal nature of optimism. Perhaps morbid contentment would be more accurate, which phrase well describes the more gothic elements of mother love. And maybe father love? I couldn't say. Anyhow, one of the reasons I feel we can't discuss section 8 w/out the mother/birth material is that this type of "acceptance" (which I'm not sure is the best term) of spume and sewage is intimately related to the experience of embracing the viscera and gore and material fragility of birth &/or small-chid rearing. Of course we shouldn't ignore the rhetorical structure, but if we read the posture without the content, then we lose all texture and the ravaged, overflowing figure *is* just a generic thinker with avant-garde limbs. If the body is hunched over an idea, spewing abstraction, it's a rather different analogy. If that makes sense. It's like when Benjamin uses childbirth to illustrate artistic production, but he so poorly translates the experience of childbirth that the analogy only serves to demonstrate how UNLIKE the two are.

Am I right that it's Benjamin? I can't find the quote, and I *can* find the quote where he insists that neither birth nor death are in and of themselves anything more than blase human body activities.

Would love to see someone analyze that key issue, Mark! I would juxtapose Lauterbach and Notley, maybe. And then with the gurlesque, I'd juxtapose the Les Figues women poets.

Also, re: the "argumentative males" :), I've nothing against a good argument, but this one (the general flow) seems to be using the talk as an excuse to hop up on those same well-worn soapboxes. A bit rude, no? And dull, no? Which perhaps I am as well, but not to my own self, ha!


11:59 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Danielle and Mark,

I see a lot of use for these kinds of comparisons, but I also don't think it's so cut and dry as image vs word.

Aase's first book, With Deer, is very much concerned with images, the nature of the visual/the hallucination, very much influenced by B-movies/horror movies (something she does a lot more with in her second book, Dark Matter).

However, she does a lot of charged exploration of words, grammar (more so I would say than in Lyn H's work) especially in her third book, Transfer Fat (and the following few books), which isn't really "imagistic" at all. (that word is a poor description of most poetry, which afterall consists of words.)

Interestingly, I know that in some ways that book was a response to reading Lyn's and Susan Howe's work (as weird as that may seem to an American).

The "structure" of Transfer Fat is translation to a large extent, but a sense of translation also as collapse, violence, parasitism etc than as a mere "transfer" of meanings.

Aase had never heard of the term "gurlesque" except I told her about it. Now she likes it and sees a lot of sense in it, but she is of course living in another country entirely.

In my idea about "gurlesque" (which notably has been very much contested!) it has to do with Bataille, queer theory, trash/kistsch, reshaping the relationship to mass culture (in particular the cinematic); but these too can be seen as "materialist critiques."

I see a lot of connection between the books put out by Les Figues and Action Books, certainly more than I see with about 99% of other presses. So I'm not sure I want to set up that binary. It would be a very tiny ground on which to erect a binary.

I think there should be more discussion of these poetries, and certainly I believe in not covering up differences, but I'm not sure drawing up new binaries is the way to go.

Maybe as a very provisional start it's a good thing.

Of course James Pate set up Juliana Spahr as a counterpoint to Lara Glenum and Ariana Reines in his essay on Action, Yes, but I ended up (perhaps I was the only one) reading that as a pretty positive and interesting analysis of Spahr's work. So OK maybe it's not a bad thing afterall.

I will say personally that I've been incredibly busy but I've been meaning to deal more in detail with books by poets like Lorraine Graham and Kate Durbin and Nada Gordon and people from other countries like Lotta Lotass and Sara Tuss Efrik and also of course men (but I can't think of any right now) since I don't think of this as a women's only style (though it seems more women are concerned with these issues). I haven't had the time but will try and perhaps we could discuss these issues with more specificity.

This comment is going from disjointed to contradictory so I'll stop right now I need to sleep.

Final words: I'm incredibly excited about a lot of new work coming out of small presses (like Les Figues and Fence etc). So much to read.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Oh, I wasn't thinking of these as binaries--I think of "juxtapose" as an act of comparing/contrasting, not polarizing. I like to think of these juxtaposed entities as branchings off from similar nodes (rhizomatic?). Nodes, feminist brambles. Because it's interesting to me, the rather different executions of related theories. I think that was my take on the Pate essay comparison of Spahr/Glenum/Reines, but maybe I've forgotten...

To extoll--am psyched about both gurlesque endeavors and Les Figues-ish endeavors! And maybe fem-Flarf endeavors are another branch? Hmmm. I've got a toothsome stack of Les Figues waiting for me to read...and of course I love Lauterbach & Notley, both. Kate's book, fab! Who is Lotta Lotass? Off to Google.

And I love me a microclimate.


1:06 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...


You're getting too worked up. I made a characterization of the essay. It's a fairly non-controversial one at that, so far as I can see. Anyone reading the talk by Joyelle should be able to see that terms like "abjection" and "nihilism" very fairly describe it (I would be surprised to hear you or Joyelle argue against the descriptive appropriateness of the terms--the talk falls within a tradition of affect that is not all that novel, in literature or the art world).

And I think it's quite fair and uncontroversial to say, too, that the poses or attitudes of the talk are couched in academic theory! Tell me if you think I am mistaken. It's natural that this would be the case: Gurlesque poetics and theory are academically situated, to important extent, and the talk in question was delivered at a very academic, institutional venue. (To say these things is in no way an attack on the author, as you seem to think it is; I am making quite objective, non-personal observations, referring to the *text* you posted, which certainly seems, in any case, to invite dissenting reactions.)

I offered the characterization I did mainly in the spirit of asking a couple questions, if you want to check those again. I thought the questions were of some value. I asked them and neither you nor anyone else bothered to offer response. That's OK. But instead, you are getting all rather grumpy, accusing me of being unwilling to defend a description that I just don't think needs defending. It's like we were at some museum, standing in front of a rural scene with shepherds and sheep, by Millet, or someone, and I said that the painting was "bucolic," and you got all angry and started shouting at me to write an essay explaining why I would call the painting "bucolic."

Calm down.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't know why you think I'm angry or grumpy or shouting?

I deal with this kind of reactionary rhetoric all the time on this blog.

I'm merely saying that you're not really offering a worthwhile criticism. You're simply saying: It's academic. Well, what I'm saying it: you tell me how and why it is important, otherwise I don't see how we can have a discussion about it.

Another thing: it was delivered at the MN book fair, not an academic conference.

A more important thing: I don't think it's useless to criticize the academy. I do it all the time on this blog. However, you have to be much more specific than you are in order for this to have any value. Not all "academy" is the same. Not all "post-avant" poets are the same. Your critique needs to be more nuanced. Right now it merely buys into the same old anti-intellectualism that allows for a simplistic divide between "the real world" and the ivory tower.

I don't see this simple divide between the academy and "the real world." I think it's a much more dynamic interplay.


4:47 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

First, apologies for my error on the venue of the talk: I was thinking it was the AWP. Not sure how that projection happened-- no doubt it's something to do with how prominent that institution, along with the MLA, has become in American "vanguard" poetry.

In any case, I'm copying below my original comment, for the record, so you can see, Johannes, that its main concern and focus was not the matter of the institutional, academic situation of the "post-avant"-- that matter a general fact no longer in much dispute, I assume we'd agree. What I questioned, specifically, and what went unremarked, concerned the somewhat prescriptive, totalizing push of Joyelle's talk-- a sense reinforced by the post's fairly teleological title, "The Future of Poetry." So please see my comment again below, so we don't keep talking past each other.

However, on the question of poetry and the academy, I'd note the following: I did assert in a separate comment, also above (first sent to the PF site under the post "How Has Poetry Changed in the Past Ten Years"), how the deepening confluence of condition is certainly one of the most important changes to be reckoned with in relation to the U.S. innovative poetic field. How this structural change in "habitus" has more locally impacted recent production, evaluation, hierarchies of position, tendency formation, and the like--and how it will likely continue to impact those things--still needs plenty of theorizing. Some of those impacts are and will be fairly obvious, and sociological (academic-- we are where we are!) tools for framing the dynamics are close to hand (Bourdieu, for one); other impacts of the now-dominant zeitgeist are and will be more subtle, obviously, and can't necessarily be grasped at present, for the obvious reason that we are all very much inside a still-unfinished picture. But the picture to be thought about is there and it's a pretty large landscape: from original Langpo, to the candid complicities of the new Hybridity, to Flarf, to Conceptualism, to the New Abject: the frame is now prepared, professionalized, and welcoming.

How to relate to that frame or what to do with it is an open topic. Maybe we don't want to do anything! But right now, I'd say, the obvious thing is that the big situation is by and large blithely disregarded (or happily commended, as in Alan Golding's recent jaw-dropper of an essay)-- though this would be, actually, precisely what one would expect, as symptom. I give you lots of credit, in fact, for being one of the few who've begun to raise the issue...

Anyway, here is that original comment I made on Joyelle's talk, which did contain some earnest modification that may well be part of the reason my main concern didn't register.

>A concern:

Does this presume to be an ethics of poetry? Applicable to the "present" poets of, say, Palestine, Jamaica, or Iran, as much as it might be to some academically affiliated petit-bourgeois a-g poets of the U.S. and Stockholm? I can't believe the manifesto, if that's what it is, proposes itself so *universally.* Assuming it doesn't, it might be a good idea to qualify and say as much. There are worlds out there, and not all of them necessarily demand as response a quasi-reactionary abjection tinged with theory-friendly, au courant nihilism.

If you'll pardon all the modifiers...

10:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Mark, Danielle,

(somewhat delayed)

I think Mark is right in that there is no optimism, ie no looking to the future, as I mentioned above. But I think it's a mistake to see joy as necessarily dependent on futurity (which apparently is the viewpoint of the dude whose post about Joyelle I linked to today).In many ways it's the opposite: what is that joy that does not depend on its productive results, its future good etc. The joy of the plague-spume.


12:01 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Yeah, I'm with Danielle in that the comparison/contrast between writers needn't and shouldn't be described as automatically a binary.

That's intriguing to know about Transfer Fat's use of grammatical structures. I haven't read that book--did Action Books bring it out?

I actually don't find Pate's take on Juliana Spahr all that convincing. I don't disagree with some of his points about This Connection of Everyone (which isn't my favorite Spahr book), but he ignores the context of the rest of her work and her variety of critical and other writing. Her book Response, for instance, does a great job of dealing with social structures and embedded ideologies, so to claim that she doesn't is only possible by not mentioning that book. And describing her as a hopeful Clinton liberal seems absurd; she's one of those anti-U.S. Berkeley radicals if there ever was one, for better or worse I'll leave others to judge.

Johannes, I'm not quite following your point about word and image. Creation of the clear image (in the Poundian sense and since) is by no means the same thing as just generally "using words." For instance, my essay on P. Inman points out how Inman has published many books with almost no "clear images" in them.

When Danielle brings up the issue of childbirth and Benjamin, she seems to be focusing on a content/description issue, and that's an example of how here the issue may be one of subject matter more than structure. But of course we all seem to agree that the two can't be separated and that the question of subject matter change or structural change is not an either/or. Just that the issue in this case, From D's point of view, seems more to be about the way motherhood is described and not poetic structures as such.

I'll have to think more about the relationship between gurlesque and materialist critique. I'm not sure how one can be a materialist (unless one develops a whole new idea of materialism) without belief in the future, that is, in the implication that our social relationship to materials should be handled differently--to suggest that something should be handled differently is to have a stake in the future. But I'm open to hearing here that there's something I'm not understanding.

Speaking for myself (and maybe I said something like this already), I don't think the issue is so much that the future is irrelevant as that obsessive belief/faith in the future is often used as a way of failing to think about the present. The future as denial of the present is definitely a problem, but for me I don't think the answer is to deny the relevance of the future entirely.

3:13 PM  
Blogger nicki-poo said...

Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world
It's hard to get by just upon a smile
Ooh, baby, baby, it's a wild world
I'll always remember you like a child, girl

/ C G F - / G F C - / C G F - / G F C DE /

5:53 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, that was the one I was thinking about!


5:55 PM  

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