Friday, January 29, 2010


As a follow up to Katy Lederer's statements about writing and money, here's Henry Parland from 1930:

Kiss a girl and eat cream with a fork.
(It’s never enough.)


Life is getting cheaper and cheaper,
and last year’s ideals,
now only cost 10%
of the original price.
You can paint the old wreck,
put in a few spare parts
and transport
people, suitcases and booze
for a decent fee.


Good Lord,
why don’t we
write poetry with money
like Ivar Kreuger
or Basil Saharoff.
They don’t give a damn about the Nobel Prize.
Tear a sheet out of history
and write a receipt:
received Europe
which is hereby acknowledged.

(my trans.)

Mudluscious Press

I recommend the new anthology from Mudluscious Press gathering all of the chapbooks the press published last year. It's a fantastic anthology. Very exciting stuff.

Among other things, it includes a great piece from Shane Jones called "black kids in lemon trees," which begins:

Looking over the edge of a cloud, I can see two people standing at opposite ends holding a giant banner. The banner reads: ALL YOU COPS ARE IN THE CLOUDS."

Back when my mlp chapbook, In Praise of Virgins, came out some people seemed to have trouble getting hold of it. Well now they can, it's in the anthology.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Deleuze, Bacon, Beckett, and Minnis

[Note: This post was written by James Pate.]

Below I’ve posted sections from a paper I delivered at the &Now conference in Buffalo, New York back in the fall. The paper was written on cards, some of which I have lost, but I’ve tried to tie the various pieces together as much as possible. I’ll post more soon, but this is the first part:

Philosophers sometimes write best when they’re not writing philosophy. Sartre’s book on Genet is one of his most far-reaching, full of fascinating digressions, and escaping the occasionally bloated Hegelianism of his more straightforward philosophical work. Similarly, Deleuze book on Francis Bacon in many ways gives the reader some of his best examples of his concept of “the body without organs,” as well as introducing fascinating new concepts such as the Figure (which is directly related to the body without organs) and the Diagram.

It’s the Diagram that I want to focus on, relating Deleuze’s notion of a certain type of pictorial space to the writings of Beckett, Tom McCarthy, and Chelsey Minnis. Deleuze begins his section on the Diagram by saying that we all live with clichés in our heads, virtual clichés, and that for the painter this is a problem since he or she approaches a blank canvas that is already haunted by previous painterly gestures, by a thousand commonplaces. For Deleuze, there is no such thing as a blank canvas. So how can a painter escape from the realm of the virtual cliché? Deleuze argues that Bacon finds an especially original approach (and one that relates to Deleuze’s concept of Force): he commits a kind of violence against the canvas. He throws paints, makes marks, blotches, and scratches: he creates a non-illustrative space, a Sahara desert, what Deleuze calls a “catastrophe.” As Bacon said: “I rely on chance as much as possible and push the paint around until something happens. I think of myself as an instinctual painter, being as close as possible to the nervous system and the unconscious…One doesn’t know what one’s instinct is, why one retains one hazardous mark rather than another.”

At this point Bacon is working on a manual level similar to the Abstract Expressionists. But for Deleuze this is a starting point, not an end point. Deleuze says that for Bacon heads and even Figures begin to emerge from this Diagram, and a certain rhythm is created. (This concept of the Diagram echoes Deleuze’s notion of the war machine too -- that dynamic that clears off what already exists, opening up a new space.) Deleuze believes that without the use of rhythm the Figure (a non-humanist body or form shot through by Force -- hiccups, pain and pleasure, shitting, orgasm, etc.) is not possible -- and that it is this emphasis on bodily forms that crystallize around rhythm that makes Bacon akin to certain major painters of the past, like Michelangelo.

It’s always dangerous comparing painterly concepts or practices to writing, since the metaphors can become way too vague, or loose. Words simply aren’t paint, and what Bacon does on canvas is impossible in language. How many times are we told that this or that practice “opens up possibilities”? Yet “opens up possibilities” has become a deadly cliché itself. But I am drawn to the idea of a writing practice that tries to not so much erase itself as obliterate itself, that uses a kind of Deleuzian Diagram to create its own Sahara within the text, a “catastrophe” that might bring forth its own expressive (instead of representational) Figures.

Beckett in The Unnamable does exactly this. The narrator at first seems to even dwell in this Sahara. The distances are blurred, time is jumbled, confused. The very first words of the novel place the reader in this world (or non-world) of absolute collapse: “Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, I say. Unbelieving.” There is a movement forward--the following line is “Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on”--but this need to move, which takes the form in Beckett usually as a need to speak, even when the speaker wishes he or she could simply shut up, is as unknowable as anything else in this landscape. It is dynamism without meaning, or rational purpose. (Deleuze argues that Bacon is not a simply a pessimist because of his focus on force; the dynamism in Beckett works in a similar way. A true miserabilist would not write at all.)

This place of collapse and catastrophe is how Beckett scrapes away at the usual novelistic gesture of attempting to establish a sense of narrative plentitude--that feeling that a story is unfolding before us. In The Unnamable, only a few scraps, a few images, appear before us. Malone passes by (though it could well be Molloy); the narrator seems to be sitting “like a great horn-owl in an aviary.” The narrator does not want to bring these scraps together into a cohesive whole, however. He writes: “The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.” (Has there ever been a more anti-dialectical writer than Beckett!) But in this place of catastrophe (what I see as being a literary echo of Bacon’s Diagram) a certain rhythm develops: mainly a rhythm consisting of the need to speak, to begin, even though the narrator suspects there will be no ultimate benefit, no higher place to stand in order to take in the full scene. He says: “The best would be not to begin. But I have to begin. That is to say I have to go on. Perhaps in the end I shall smother in a throng.” There is no God-like perspective for the narrator. This is a place without History in the Hegelian and Marxist sense. There’s only the throng, and the fear of being smothered in it.

There are also the bodies in Beckett, and while it might be a bit of a stretch, I would argue that they relate to the Deleuzian Figure. The anonymous quality of Beckett’s characters is well known, with so many wearing the same shabby clothes and hats. The facelessness plays a part also, with maybe the most famous example of this being the mouth in Not I. (Not enough has been made of the monstrous and/or anonymous bodies in Beckett, I think: so much emphasis is placed on voice instead. But the voices in Beckett always arise from someplace, even if only a single desperate mouth.) The bodies themselves are such tortured, contorted things: they are sometimes on crutches, sometimes getting their low-hanging scrotums tangled up in their bicycles, and frequently they are immobile, as in the case of the narrator of The Unnamable who sits (or thinks he might sit) with his hands on his knees and tears streaming down from his “unblinking eyes.” But the best example of the Beckett figure as a Deleuzian Figure would be the person (the name keeps changing) without limbs who sits in a jar across the street from a chop-house: “Stuck like a sheaf of flowers in a deep jar, its neck flush with my mouth, on the side of a quiet street near the shambles, I am at rest at last.” But there is no rest. The physical immobility is a by no means a sign that the dynamism is lessening. The thinking and questioning go on unabated. And even without limbs the body continues to move: “I could never bear to be idle, it saps one’s energy. And I open and close my eyes, open and close, as in the past. And I move my head in and out, in and out, as heretofore…For with a kind of tossing and writhing I succeed in imparting to my trunk the degree of rotation required.” Such convoluted gymnastics, what Deleuze calls “athleticism,” resembles the contorted torsos in so many of Bacon’s triptychs, where the material body mass seems to be a blurred smear of movement. Though a movement that seems to go nowhere, a movement defined by its lack of progressive trajectory. (We see this also in the way Molloy and many other characters crawl or walk in circles.)

Chelsey Minnis’ Bad Bad could be said to be Pop poetry (and I mean that as a compliment: Deleuze once said what he did was POP philosophy). Minnis creates a persona in these poems that could have come from one of Warhol’s films: a narrator that is a weirdly menacing mixture of naiveté and startlingly insight and playful viciousness. It is powerfully original stuff, and one of my favorite books of poetry in the past five years. And as strange as it might seem to relate such a colorful, funny book to Beckett’s The Unnamable (with its reputation for being difficult, teeming with exhaustion and dry despair--a reading Adorno did his best to promote, saying that Beckett’s humor was mirthless), Beckett’s monstrous text really IS funny (Adorno was wrong). And the humor in Minnis is frequently used to make fun of supposedly profound themes or ideas, much as it is in Beckett; in “Prefaces” for example, she plays with the idea of “poems” and “poetry” so much (“Poetry is like picking your fox coat up off the floor and saying goodnight…//There are some very cut-rate lines in this…) that the notion of Poetry as a refined spiritual or political force in the world starts to look absolutely ridiculous. “I write it with a distaste for any other opportunity,” she tells the reader.

Also, like Beckett’s Malone, who constantly undercuts his own eloquence by pointing out what a great line he has just written, Minnis’ persona continually adds a flippant remark to place some of her most vivid lines within a comical framework. The reflective lines, “And that is why I go against so many things in life…// I have gone against many things in life…// And it has always been rewarding…” is followed by the less contemplative line, “But none so much as when I have gone against my mentor!”

But the part of Bad Bad that I want to focus on is the middle section, starting with “Double Black Tulip” and ending with “Foxina” -- the section where the dots run wild. This is the section that I see as relating to Deleuze’s notion of the Diagram. To describe how the pages look is difficult. On each page a handful of phrases appear separated by several lines of ……….. Sometimes even the dots vanish, leaving blank page space. At other times the dots themselves are separated by a certain amount of space. Minnis is not the only contemporary poet to use the long lines of dots to create blank spaces within a text, but the dots work in a very specific way in Bad Bad. Though they create an initial effect of making the text seem blotted out, with parts missing, on a closer reading it is clear that one phrase does relate to the one that appears later on the page, making the dots an example of an ellipse that has gone haywire. For example, the line, “The truck is haunted because you’re seduced when you drive and that’s why you’re riding it on tantalizing gravel a truck that is driving by itself down the lover’s lane,” actually does make sense when written out (that is, no words have been “blotted out”), but the line in the text takes up three-fourths of a page, much of it being various ellipses.

So how do I see this section of Bad Bad as being somehow similar to the Diagram? The effect of reading these poems on the reader is that you feel like the poet is using the ongoing ellipses and blank spaces to create a weird syntactical rhythm within the text, a rhythm of stuttering thought and slippery-slope reason, much like the all-out use of the ellipsis in Celine’s later novels. But with one big difference. Celine uses his ellipses to create his famously vigorous and enraged voice. The use of dots and blank space in Minnis seems to do the opposite -- the voice (at least in my reading) implodes, with only a series of beautifully odd and decadent images remaining. It is difficult to imagine this cluster of poems in Bad Bad as even being read outloud.

My central point is this…I find the Deleuzian Diagram a fascinating concept that could be applied to writing as well as the visual arts. Also, there is no singular way of using the Diagram (“using” being the wrong word here--but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Beckett draws us immediately into a world of collapse where writhing bodies slowly take shape from an exhausting dynamism (the need to speak on and on, to begin). In Minnis, dots and blank spaces are used to create a rhythm that tears away at the voice being issued forth between those dots.

More later, on Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Katy Lederer/Hybrid

Here's a really interesting little interview with Katy Lederer about her work on the small journal Explosive. After a while she starts talking about American Hybrid, which is interesting because I immediately started thinking - from the very first answer - that here was a totally different model of "hybrid" - one that focuses on one person's editorial ideas (aesthetic, geographic etc) on a very local level. And when I berate Kent that I want the discussion to be more specific (as opposed to vast labels like "post-avant" etc), I would include this interview in a piece of writing that is specific. Very interesting.

Lederer doesn't theorize her hybridization project; her answers are more social. And I think that is just as interesting.

But I was actually more intrigued when she does posit a kind of theory of "hybridization":

"It is, in some small part, because of my disappointment with the way the “hybridization” thing panned out (especially during eight years of the Bush administration—my God!) that I ended up writing poetry about my day job at a hedge fund (talk about creative and destructive at once! Talk about the grotesque seductions of cancer!). I wanted to get dirty. I wanted to sin! I thought: I am going to “hybridize” with something as far outside of academic poetry as I can think up."

What this made me think about: Both Cole Swensen and Katy Lederer engage in their "hybrid" projects from Iowa. In Cole's intro to American Hybrid she talks about purifying the language and resisting mass culture etc. And it's exactly the failure of "hybridization" that leads Lederer to want to "get dirty" with money, the market place etc. Hybridization seems to demand the academy as a liminal space - due to geographic dislocation, estrangement from "the community" - but at the same time the academy is portrayed as a failed liminal space, in part - I deduce - because it couldn't deal with Bush, the market place etc.

I'll continue to think about this. Please chip in.

Killing Kanoko review

[I found this review of Killing Kanoko on the web site:]

I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko
Before she spills my blood...
Congratulations on your destruction
Congratulations on your destruction

These words come from "Killing Kanoko," one of the most controversial and dramatic poems from contemporary Japan. Published in 1985, this poem conveys the Japanese poet Hiromi Ito's exhaustion as a mother and her thoughts of infanticide. She was subsequently pilloried by the popular press for her writing, while feminist writers held her up as a hero, praising her for her bold and unflinching exploration of the dark, emotional underside of motherhood. This collection includes this famous poem, as well as many other poems exploring gender, sexuality, language and the female body.

Hiromi Ito, born in 1955, is one of the most important contemporary poets and novelists in Japan. She has has published over a dozen critically acclaimed collections of poetry, several novels and numerous essays. She has also won many important Japanese literary prizes including the Takami Jun Prize, Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize, and the Izumi Shikibu Prize.

As the introduction explains, many critics have credited her dramatically direct poetry and sophistication as igniting the wave of "women's poetry" in the 1980s. This book of English translations makes her most dramatic and historically important work available to the English-speaking public.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lara Glenum, James Pate

In an effort to widen the scope of the commentary on this blog, I've invited two friends and writers I admire, Lara Glenum and James Pate, to be collaborators on the blog. So look for posts from them in the near future. One thing we're going to try to do is write more reviews of contemporary books.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Katie Toussaint on Dear Ra

This fine review from the Verse Blog. Thanks!]

Dear Ra: A Story in Flinches by Johannes Göransson.
Starcherone Books, $16.

Reviewed by Katie Toussaint

Johannes Göransson’s Dear Ra: A Story in Flinches tears open the epistolary crypt of conscious outpouring belonging to a man who holds modern society in utter contempt. His willing descent into a disordered existence apart from the organized world is carved out in three chapters throughout which he asserts that “[t]his language doesn’t mean anything” to him. With the touch of an ultra-modern Romantic, he warps the conventional presentation of language, spinning the reader into the fast-paced confusion that becomes the cognitive whirlpool.

Jordan Davis on Aase Berg

Jordan Davis has a fine review of With Deer over at Constant Critic.

The most interesting part is perhaps this:

"I’m taken in here by the lullaby repetitions, the drowsy (wounded) repose that if I’ve seen before it was through a peephole in a museum in Philadelphia, Duchamp’s Étant Donnés. This restrained presentation of provocative material feels completely convincing to me, as does the strange plasticity of the guinea pigs, and the mounting creeping creepy feeling."

This really made me start thinking, not just of Aase Berg's various connection to Duchamp and his erotics, but also to any number of swooning and/or dead female heroines, for example Laura Palmer: the fashion shoot of her body "wrapped in plastic" versus her rabid behavior before death for example and her constant multiplication (in the various rumors and hidden life stories that come out after her death, ending up in that "black lodge" where everybody multiplies at rampant rates). I'm very interested in multiplication as opposed to cause-and-effect, lineage etc.

Also, as I've repeatedly stated on this blog and elsewhwere, I love the 19-th century swoon, the syncope, the blackout.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Inarticulate: Fashion, Narrative, Poetry and Rodarte

Despite the fact that I'm a balding dude living in Indiana, I am very interested in the way the trope of "Fashion" is used in poetry discussions, as well as the way fashion is discussed (even in conservative NY Times, the fashion articles are far more interesting than the book review).

It seems you can blindly throw a stone into poetry and you're bound to hit an article or blog entry denouncing the fashion or hipsterish quality of contemporary poetry.

In the most recent "Writer's Chronicle," I found an article by a Charles Harper Webb on "narrative poetry" that begins by denouncing fashionability in poetry: "The narrative... still scores low on teh hipness scale." And he then re-hashes Tony Hoaglund's attack on the "Skittery Poem of our Moment."

This of course ignores the fact that the "narrative" poem has far more institutional support than any other "type" of poem. I use quotation marks because, as I've written before, a lot of my favorite writing is engaged with various forms of narrative. In fact, all of my work is narrative (in different ways), except my blackout book but that one I've decided never to publish.


But I'm more interested - as everyone who reads this blog knows by now - in the use of fashion in this rhetoric, to suggest that there's a superficiality in poetry. This came out - as readers of this blog also knows - when Mark Halliday freaked out over Josh Clover's "lettrist jacket." Halliday was upset that Clover's poetry was not engaged in the real/genuine. Grieving one's father's death I think was Halliday's example. Or maybe that was my own wishful thinking because that's too perfect: "fashion" is the death of the father in some way, the end of patriarchy comes from multiplication, exchangeability, shallowness, flimsiness. That is a funny reading of Halliday. I'm pleased as pancakes.


It seems Aesteticism is threatening. And this should explain why people are wrong when they assume aesteticism is apolitical. Or those who equate it with mere formalism.


For the longest times I've been meaning to write about some recent books that embrace this negative "fashion" element: Sandra Simmonds, Kate Durbin, and Dan Hoyt & Jon Leon. And I've arelady discussed Chelsey Minnis (staging a rape as gothic fashion show) and Lara Glenum (Versace violence shows) in these terms.

Of course the opposition between these "fashionable" hipster poets and true, genuine traditionalists is of course ridiculous. Many of the poets held up as "traditional" and genuine are of course straight out of the 1970s workshop playbook, while "fashion" has a very storied tradition - think of Baudelaire writing "in praise of cosmetics" or Mallarme's fake fashion reports.

I also should mention Marianne Moore as probably the best example in American canonical poetry. The way she turns the (lively, energetic) animal into artifice over and over. For example: "An Octopus/of ice." Another example: O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them," in which spontaneity is artifice (or perhaps a comparison of O'Hara's Grand Central Station and Plath's Lady Lazarus). Another: Hannah Wiener.


The Finland-Swedish Modernists always embraced each other's writing except when it came to Dadaists Henry Parland and Gunnar Bjorling. Parland in particular they dissed as being decadent and nihilistic. Here's a piece from Idealrealisation (clearance sale of ideals - a title that encompasses both the fears and promises of "fashion"):

I though:
it was a human being,
but it was her clothes,
and I didn't know
that that's the same thing
and that clothes can be very beautiful.

This turn - where you expect the punch line (and punch-line is a fittingly shallow way of putting it) to be a division between real and artificial but instead turns out to blur this distinction - is repeated in this poem:

what do you know about legs?
you who think about skirts
when you pass the windows of the department store.
Whta do you know
about the legs
of the twentieth century?

Here one might expect it to be a critique of someone who can't appreciate the real legs, but then the "real" legs turn out to be "the legs/of the twentieth century" - mannequin legs cut off from the rest of the body, identified by an advertising-ese jingo.

The sections of "Ideals Clearance" (available in my translation from Ugly Duckling Presse) are also appropriately titled Stains, Socks, Flu and Grimaces - as if the body,clothing and expressions are all part of the same realm. (And disease and facial expressions are part of the same realm).

Insert your favorite Tzara or Picabia or Duchamp reference here.


There is also something of a discomfort with the "visual" in poetry in these critiques: the opposition between narrative and image. Images have to be "earned" according to 1970s workshop protocoll - or they become excessive. The poem becomes fashion. It loses that redeeming protestant work ethic of the "narrative."


Part of my interest in the critique of fashion is the way it neccessarily seems to move out of the kind of narrow poetic lineages to engage with pop culture and other things outside of this. It seems to lead to a kind of social interaction that a lot of folks want to keep poetry away from.

An interesting paradox of this: In his phenomenal history of American poetry, The American Poetry Wax Museum, Jed Rasula criticizes the urge to keep poetry separate from this kind of sociality, but at the same time displays the same fear of aesteticism and kitsch (it's a wax museum! I wish!).


Fashion also has its own writing, and often, curiously, it follows some of the same tropes as poetry discussion. For example, I just read a New Yorker article about the fascinating fashion designing duo Rodarte (Laura and Kate Mulleavy), where the NY Times fashion reporter Cathy Horyn writes the following complaint:

"All those scarred fabrics are essentially ornament; the underlying shapes don't change much, and they're not interesting. Indeed you wonder if they are bored or intimidated by the actual mechanics of design - cutting, setting a sleeve - and that is what their clothes express isn't technical virtuosity but inarticulateness."

Here you have a strangely similar criticism of fashion as is implied in the common poetry criticism of fashionability: it's inarticulate and doesn't know the basics.

The writer of the article (Amanda Fortini)responds to Horyn's criticism like this: "Most of the time, the Mulleavys' dresses hover mysteriously at the point where balanced meets busy, and beautiful meets baroque. But their recent designs, while arresting, do not perform the simple duty of most women's clothing - to make the wearer look either pretty or sexy."

Interesting: that in fashion, the critique is perhaps more honest. It's not the "shallow" prettiness that is the problem, but that this kind of fashion (or art) does not fulfill its function. Why we supposedly buy these garments.

This makes me think of my favorite TV show, Project Runway,where the most interesting designs are often denounces as "costumey" - they foreground their own artifice. And the host will say "No normal woman would wear this thing around town."

It is as if in order to be fashionable it has to have an element of costumeyenss, but it can't have too much, it cannot actually make the judges aware of this.

And that makes me think of Judith Halberstam's queer studies reading of the Gothic, Skin Shows (a title that connects to this blog entry already - visuality, pornography, gothic) where she argues that the Gothic uses costumeness to call attention to the costumeness of all identities etc.

It is no coincidence that the Rodarte clothes are very Gothic.

And here's a quote from the Tom McCarthy essay I linked to yesterday:

"Art’s dirty secret is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments that attempt to cover over the traumatic event of materiality.”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Aase Berg, With Deer


There's a new book of translation of Serbian poet Novica Tadic, translated by Steven Teref & Maja Teref (sometime readers of this blog). Great book. Fantastic translations. Published by Host. I'll write something more about this in the near future.

Here's a couple of pieces from Action, Yes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More on Necronaut McCarthy

[Here's a good essay about Tom McCarthy's International Necronaut Society.]

The INS is on the side of comedy, not tragedy. For, if art is a “repetitive mechanism,” we are reminded that the repetitive and the mechanical are also at the heart of Bergson’s theory of comedy—think of Wile E. Coyote, whose many deaths are not noble or meaningful, merely hilarious. The tragic hero meets the inevitability of matter with an acceptance that turns his death into an affirmation of self. He claims his own unique and excellent death and, with it, meaning. The comic hero, in contrast, dies badly: Wile E. Coyote’s deaths are neither chosen nor accepted with grace. He dies repeatedly: His is not the single luminous moment of a tragic death affirming the transcendence of self over matter. Rather, he endures a multiplicity of moments that continually undo the self, undoing as well that supposedly ultimate undoing, the fetishized death. And why is this funny? Because “humor is the highest expression of the principle of dividuation, of an ever-divided self-relation, of our essential lack of self-coincidence.” This lack is the fundamental trauma that gives rise to the repetition compulsion of Wile E. Coyote—and of art. Art may attempt to hide “the traumatic event of materiality,” but there is always “a remainder that remains: a shard, a leftover, a trace, a residual.” That remainder is the mark of inauthenticity. This The New York Declaration declares.

Words are the shit of art

[Here is an excerpt from an article Joyelle and I wrote a while back for a journal that solicited us. They didn't like it, so now I'm thinking of where to publish the whole thing. In the meantime, I'll present the beginning. I think it makes a fitting first entry upon bringing home my second daughter:]

from “…lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art”: Translation, Foreign Bodies, Kitsch, Disability, Unnatural Motherhood, Plastic Ono Band

1. This was to be an essay on translation. But this is not to be. For translation is never one thing—one body, one text, one language, one nation undergodinidivisblewithlibertyandjusticeforall.

2. Speaking of fallacies of the Founding Fathers, as Frost has it, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and we couldn’t agree more. For this quote inadvertently acknowledges the inextricability of poetry and translation. You can’t have one without the other, as Daddy/Frosty eternally says (attempting to suppress, as he does so, his Luftwaffe and his gobbledygoo and two eyes made out of coal).

3. Far from the programmatic dis of translation which even translators are always taking it to be, this quote also shows the ravening and subaltern power of translation, which comes from below and behind and pulls Pretty-Pony-Poetry-Persephone under into dark, subterranean Dis, which touches Earth everywhere from
underneath in the private and secret and dirty parts.

4. What is lost when Poetry’s lost? In the formalist sense, it’s Poetry’s well-wrought, perfect body, the sense that the poem is exactly the words on the page. Move it and lose it. Shift the Poetry somewhere else (off the page, into the underground, or into paraphrase, or mouth in another tongue) and you lose it. There is no noise in Poetry. Full stop. The rest is silence.

5. Furthermore, what is lost is the illusion of immediacy, of authenticity, of one person speaking to the next, of natural community.

6. So translation is that heterogeneous ingredient that creates an excess: an excess of words, excess of authors, excess of readings. And most of all: an excess of poems. Where there was once one there are now two, and those two are in a disturbing, mysterious, not-quite-symmetrical state. Like Elizabeth Smart and Persephone, is Poetry ever quite the same?

7. Oh Elsie Beckmann, why can’t you be true Oh-oh Jon-Benet--

8. Evoking Bataille’s notion of ‘expenditure’, we can say that translation creates loss indeed, that loss is utter luxury, that there’s no success like failure. Translation makes excrement of poetry. Words are the shit of art.


[Also this I include because it relates to the Tom McCarthy essay I linked to yetterday:]

20. An unnatural mother, whose body Dis-functions, whose reproductions are cheap and Dis-orderly and do not preserve the patriarchal lineage of art or life, resembles the disabled body, that ultimate cultural bogeywoman who threatens both in her evident lack and in the threat of an overcompensating, hysterical excess. It is not wonder that Rasula not only compares the wax museum poets to “muzak” and “karaoke” (kistsch), but also that he claims they use “vocal prostheses.”7 With its missing, defective, or inordinate components, the disabled body challenges the organic wholeness, the originary nature of the would-be natural body, just as a translated text uses its demonic combination of excess and lack to pull down the natural body of Poetry into the inchoate darkness (Mörk Materia) of Dis. This makes the translated text the ultimate disabled text:
"As do disabled bodies, disabled texts create a nervousness with reference to able, or enabled, texts and bodies. They give the lie to the supposed centeredness, completeness, originariness of able, enabled, or ‘original’ bodies and texts. Such nervousness is already an admission that all is not as stable—with our bodies, selves, and texts-- as we are led to believe we should believe… Disabled texts need no longer comply with compulsory ablebodiedness."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

International Necronaut Tom McCarthy on David Lynch

Angela Genus sent me this very insightful article about David Lynch:

This article has a bit in common with Joyelle's and my essay "The Manifesto of the Disabled Text," which makes some similar connections. We also wrote an article about The Shining for some German book that I think draws some connections between prosthese and Lynch and Kubrick (or maybe that was another essay I wrote about Lynch for a book about Lynch... I can't remember... I haven't slept for a while).

Nevertheless a really interesting book dealing with prosthetics is Prosthesis by David Wills.

McCarthy is part of a very interesting group called the International Necronaut Society, which among other things published an awesome little manifesto centering on Cocteau's Orphee taking notations from the radio (later known as Radio Spicer, and later still, My Teeth Are Hurting).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Aase Berg: Forsla Fett and Minor Literature

[In the comment field from a couple of weeks ago, Mark Wallace suggested a breakdown of contemporary "avant-garde" (provisional term) between Juliana Spahr’s critique of language and Aase Berg’s use of images. Mark asked me about some things I said, so I think I will try to elaborate here. First of all I want to show how Berg’s poetry is most certainly involved in “language.” And then later I’ll write about the problem of images – iconophobia in American poetry, kitsch and the fact that an image in poetry is seldom an image but words (and why this matters).]

I've many times it seems quoted Hermann Broch's highly influential 1933 essay on kitsch, in which he says "kitsch is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art" (which I got from Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Kitsching the Cantos”).

One interesting aspect of this metaphor is that if we turn the equation around, we can conclude that the foreign body is kitsch. Another interesting maneuver would be to see the overall system of art as a kind of mother, in which kitsch is lodged like a child, the horrific foreign body. (One might also consider why kitsch has to use a borrowed term from the German.) Influenced by Broch’s statement on kitsch, Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was a kind of parasite on art.

It is in this intersection of kitsch, the foreign, the parasite, the body and poetry that I read Aase Berg’s book Forsla Fett (Tranfer Fat), one of my favorite books of poetry. If a dominant feature of (official) modern American poetry has been monologic (poetry is what is lost in translation) and anti-kitsch tastefulness (anti-parasites), Berg’s (admittedly Swedish, not American) book is a poetics based exactly on translation and transformation and parasites. And it does so in a book of “mommy poetry” (to go back to Steve Burt’s review of Rachel Zucker’s book, which most certainly positions “mommy poems” as minor and tasteless).

It’s in the very title: This is a book that is dragging around fat inside of it; that is translating some foreign object – undifferentiated “fat.”

In her essay “Madness and Language” (published not insignificantly in a multilingual anthology of writers from Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and Russia), Berg describes language as a kind of parasite:

“The language cells hovered over the earth looking for a host body… Then came humans. The invisible potential words attacked her, like mosquitoes who know that they need blood… It mustn’t have been an especially logical language, rather paradisical and timeless, a kind of joyful babbling for the babbling’s sake.”

She goes on to find this “babbling” in children’s talk. This model of language as a kind of parasite, a foreignness that comes inside the human body, as well as the “joyful babbling for the babbling’s sake” reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “minor literature”: creating a revolutionary language within language:

“A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language.”

In a sense, minor language is a parasite in the sense that it is countering the major host, which it is part of. The difference is of course that in Aase’s essay, the minor precedes the major; the major is how the patriarchal political forces make utilitarian use of the babbling. Perhaps the minor is a post-major turn back towards “babbling.”

Here are a couple of other relevant points about “minor lit”: the point is to “oppose a purely intensive usage of language to all symbolic or even significant or simply signifying usages of it. Arrive at a perfect and unformed expression, a materially intense expression” (or “fat”); to “hate all languages of masters…[and]be a stranger within one’s own language.” Analogously to Kafka’s Yiddishing of German, Berg makes a strange “babbling” out of Swedish by introducing foreign languages into her Swedish and by exaggerating features of the Swedish language.


In difference to a modern American poetry, which still seems to pivot on Frost’s cliché of poetry being what is lost in translation, Berg’s book is in fact largely based on translations of English-language articles about string theory (a subject about which the poet claims to know little). From these translations she gets words like “strings,” “tone” and “conductor” that she repeats throughout the book. However, her “translations” of these scientific tracts do not make sense of the terminology. She is enchanted by the textures of the scientific language, which, when brought into her grotesque fairytale poetry, turns physical. Thus she also gives us half-science terms like “spänntid” (“strungtime”) and “vibribrerar” (“vibribrates”) in the poem “Harpalt” (“Hare Baby”):

The hare conductor stringed
attracts the opposite tone
the string vibribrates
dimensions that will
crook the Instrument

Hearing has a strungtime
tugs faster than the string beats
harpy births child
conducts child over fields
of the as-of-yet unprepared

By adding an extra “ibr” to “vibrates,” she creates a hindrance to a smooth reading of the term – the reading process “vibribrates” as the reader is forced to stutter, to stumble, to become a foreigner inside the language. Berg uses scientific language the way Deleuze and Guattari says Kafka uses Yiddish: She “sees it less as a sort of linguistic territoriality” for the scientific exchange of information “than as a nomadic movement of deterritorialization that reworks [Swedish]” (25). What Berg transfers into the Swedish is not the sense or signification of string theory, but the “fat.” The poetry vibribrates as a “materially intense expression,” as “fat.” The science becomes grotesque, the grotesque sciency.


Späckhuggaren –

här hänger hugget
väntande på späck
i många tusen år
av långsamhet

[Blubber Biter –

here hangs the bite
waiting for blubber
for many thousand years
of slowness]

Like the pregnancy process, the denaturalization in Berg’s book does not just come from the outside, but also from within. Berg makes constant use of the Swedish language’s penchant for compound words. By forging neologisms like “smoothpipe” and “skinfish,” she teaches the reader to break down the standard compound words, to read them like a foreigner who can see the components but does not know that they form another word. That is why, for example, I translated “späckhuggare” as “Blubber Biter” rather than the standard “killer whale.” When I get to that word I have been trained to break down the compounds, and see “späck” (blubber”) plus “huggare” (biter), rather than the standard term. Elsewhere in the book, I translated “däggdjur” as “suckle animals” rather than “mammals.” The book makes the Swedish language strange, it un-teaches us how to read it; it sabotages our fluency. By translating these words non-fluently, I have tried to follow Aase’s method of translation, to bring the fat – rather than the signifiers - of Swedish into the English language, and thus to deterritorialize it.


The hare is also an astrological sign
in the listless, frigid hydrosphere
Same cosmic fatstiff freezefearflood
same cuntstiff looptrack fatflood
We like suckle animals egg animals, whalenut animals
prefer to not give birth to live young

The entire book is focused on a set of words – whale, hare, fat, strings, conduits, animals – that accumulate shifting, mutating sets of associations, constantly changing in and out of various meanings through puns, decontextualizations and recontextualizations. The whale appears to be the central allegorical trope in the collection. We get a variety of whales – “killer whales,” “toothed whale” and “Hole Whale.” When we get to the second to last line of “Hydrophobia,” the book has taught me to look for the word “val,” so that it becomes hard for me to read “valnöt,” the standard term for “walnut,” without noticing the “val” in it. The compound-based reading process has infiltrated our reading even of non-compound words like walnut. This is why I translated the term as “whalenut.” The whale creates a kind of triple-exposure image. By introducing the blubbery whale material into the walnut, we might see not just whales and nuts, but ultimately perhaps the walnut as an image of a fetus. However, the instability of the language itself makes it hard to put the image exactly into focus. The language itself gets in the way, as the word “vibribrates” between images and words (whalenut, walnut).


And perhaps more importantly, the poem seems to vibribrate between text and blackout, words and images, materiality and holes.

Here’s the Catherine Clement quote I cited in my entry on My Own Private Idaho:

“Surprisingly, this glaring weakness contains a raging force. This frustration is creative; from its disorders, unknown energies are often born… the world in which I have lived until now idolized power and force, muscle and health, vigor and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it leads to new rebellions.”

This is a book that seems to black out and faint all the time. It consists of short little poems, but the darkness (“dark matter” was the title of Berg’s second book) seems to give birth to the fragments; or really, the fragments seem like parasite-babies-fat enveloped in darkness. The poems seem flimsy (minor), not official, certainly not Silliman’s idea of a macho Rigor. As in Joyelle’s “Future” of “Poetry” talk, the poems seem to hover between language and “dark matter”.


But even that metaphor is not good enough. At the core of book, as I said, are a series of words, such as “val” (whale). But depending on the context, “val” can also mean “choice” or “election.” These puns strike me as holes (as in “hole [in the] whale”).

Mamma val

Amma val
Ge harmjölk,
alla val är
samma val

Mom Choice

Nurse whale
Give hare-milk
all whales are
the same whale

Here the poem can be about a whale or an abstract choice. The flimsiness “vibribrates” between the two choices. It feels like a “hole whale.”

Or as another poem has it a “malströmsår,” which may mean “maelstrom year” (the kind one has when hauling fat inside one’s stomach) or a “maelstrom sore” (out of which perhaps the fat springs) or even a “moth stream sore/year.”

Yet I think what I love about these puns is that they don’t feel like a vague “indeterminacy,” they seem much more physical. The pun as a physical flimsiness that “vibribrates.” I don’t know. Something like that.


One poem is called “The hare infects dad with rabies,” and that could be another poetics statement of this poetry. The child does not just infect the mother-tongue but the father as well. And it seems to me that implicit in Berg’s minor poetics there is something that is relevant to my previous musings on My Own Private Idaho and Synecdoche, NY – something of relevant to the idea of “community.”

The model of community one could say present in Berg’s minor poetry is one of “the hare infects dad with rabies,” it is a minor community, a community based on a rejection of a common language in favor of a language that collapses and blacks out and faints and is deformed into anti-hierarchical fat. It is the “no-future” community of the queer boys mourning the Falstaff character outside the official fence of the graveyard.

It is not an official community of lineages and descendants which Keannu Reeves’s character joins (reflect perhaps in Silliman’s obsessive charting of lineages and descendants) but a minor idea of community, the fake kind – not the ideal so frequently perpetuated in American poetry of an unalieanted community, but a counterfeit community.


The interesting wrinkle (or perhaps contradiction) in this argument about community is that with this book, Berg actually went from being more of a cult poet (and a member of the militant avant-garde group Surrealistgruppen of Stockholm) to an acclaimed poet; she was nominated for Augustpriset (Sweden’s Pulitzer Prize), she was made editor of BLM (a journal with circulation of thousands) etc. And now she’s a “major” figure in Swedish poetry in the sense that her influence is hugely apparent in younger poet and she writes a column for the big national daily paper Expressen. She was recently up against an indie rock singer and a film-maker for an annual award of most significant contemporary artist. Her book of reviews, articlces and essays were recently published as a book. Students write dissertations about her. She sells more books in tiny Sweden than supposedly “important” US poets sell in the US. Etc.

What is important to note here is of course that she’s from another country, with a different literary dynamic. I should add, a “minor” country absolutely saturated with translation (from day 1 you have to handle foreign languages, especially English). Our poetry culture discourse still dominated by people who believe in “major” poetry, even when that poetry is very “minor” in the culture at large., people who make lineages and descendants out of poetry.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Letter Machine Press Announcement

[I got this from Noah and Joshua:]

Dear friends,

Letter Machine Editions is pleased to announce the pre-release of our first full-length collections.

Iowa by Travis Nichols

Texture Notes by Sawako Nakayasu

Although the official launch for these books is months away, we’re currently offering a limited-time discount of twenty dollars (postage paid) for the pair, which we’ll ship right away:

As a fledgling press, we’d be honored if you’d help spread the word!


Texture Notes by Sawako Nakayasu

ISBN: 9780981522722
$14, trade paperback, 136 pages, 5.25” x 7.5”

Is there a relationship between the population density of Tokyo and the pinkest part of a hamburger? Can one touch the inside of a noun to learn the difference between one bicycle and a field of bicycles? How close is yellow to need? How far are human fears from the fears of insects? Through a sequence of prose investigations, directions, theoretical performances, and character sketches, Sawako Nakayasu’s Texture Notes presses itself against everything. Here is a book of liminal cartography, where textures are percolated by thought and propelled by feeling, where intellectual frottage meets sunlight, moonlight, the pain of seeing something beautiful and an entire town enamored by a simple rock. Once again, Nakayasu’s writing explodes with genre-bending fury and fine-tuned improvisation, leaving in its wake a largess of feeling for the things of the world.

“[Nakayasu]…pursues speed, crowds, performance and collapse…serious quirkiness across a range of forms…”
—David Perry, Poetry Project Newsletter

“Nakayasu’s distortions encourage a state of deepened perception…”
—Craig Santos Pérez, Rattle

Sawako Nakayasu was born in Japan and has lived mostly in the US since the age of six, spending various bouts of time in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Paris as well. She is the author of Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009); Nothing fictional but the accuracy or arrangement (she, (Quale Press, 2005); and So we have been given time Or, (Verse Press, 2004). Books of translations include For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide (New Directions, 2008), which won the 2009 Best Translated Book Award; Four From Japan (Litmus Press, 2006) featuring four contemporary poets; To the Vast Blooming Sky (Seeing Eye Books, 2007), a chapbook of poems by the Japanese modernist Chika Sagawa; and Time of Sky // Castles in the Air (Litmus Press, 2010) by Ayane Kawata. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Brown University and has received grants from the NEA and PEN for translating Japanese poetry. Her own poetry has been translated into Japanese, Swedish, Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese. More information can be found here:


Iowa by Travis Nichols

ISBN: 9780981522739
$14, trade paperback, 80 pages, 5.25” x 7.5”

In Iowa, Travis Nichols turns the bleak cultural void of Midwestern adolescence into a sequence of stunning prose vignettes. Here, a coming-of-age consciousness articulates the knotty uncertainties of personal, social and familial anxieties in sentences as equally complex as the feelings they house: “The memories true or not against him seem to be turning to steam, as I turned, all the while thinking of chewing out alone through the ghostly meats.” With youthful perplexity and zeal, a humorous and caustic violence of reflection drives this meditative, unclassifiable book. The scary truth is that the foreignness of private teenage cant was always asking the right questions. Now, we just have to listen: “Is this the right one thing you haunt? Looking at this one house year after year? Yes. It must be. Not to let you move on. That was the way out.”

“[T]he people who surprise me most are the ones I’ve never ever heard of before…Travis Nichols is [one] with several short sharp prose poems from…Iowa.”
—Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog 8/16/05

“A series of dynamic self-histories, richly compiled…stoked with radically expressive image-torquing…”
—Brad Fliss, Octopus [review of a chapbook excerpt from Iowa]

Travis Nichols was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. He now lives in Chicago, where he works as an editor at the Poetry Foundation. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, Details, Paste, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Stranger, and The Huffington Post. With Katie Geha, he co-edited Poets on Painters. Iowa is his first book. His forthcoming books include the novel Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press) and an as-yet untitled collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press.


Thank you for your support!
Noah Eli Gordon & Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Letter Machine Editions

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Joyelle's talk about motherhood and poetry (again)

[Since I think there are some new readers of the blog, brought here by the Burt-Zucker discussion, I thought I would post Joyelle McSweeney's talk "The "Future" of "Poetry"" again, since I refer to it quite a bit. It seems also to be a ghost presence in Steve's article - not only because Steve was on the same panel talking about raw and cooked aesthetics, but also because it's precisely the kind of unsupervised "plague"-wading (which Joyelle calls for) that Burt seems to find so troubling. Joyelle gave this talk as part of a panel on "The Future of Poetry" at the Minnesota Book Festival this past fall. I like to pair Joyelle's talk with Steve's article because this pairing shows a very important conflict of views.]

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.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Plath, Abjection and Steve Burt (#3)

Steve Burt responded to me in the comment section to the last entry, so I thought I would reply to him here:


You continue to avoid actually engaging in an argument. You say for instance:

"I like poetry that alters the way in which we see those modes, but I very rarely embrace poetry that imagines it can destroy all those modes and then go on constructing a life without them."

Who are these people imagining this destruction? Of what? What would it mean? Crashing the Norton's website? Burning down the Poetry Foundation? It's impossible to evaluate your statement if I don't know what poets you are talking about.

Then you once again resort to the kind of trope I criticized you for:

"This difference isn't just aesthetic: at the very highest levels of generality it is probably ethical and political too: I admire some elected officials, I'm not a big fan of the 1972-style New Left, and I think it's usually a bad idea to try to change the government by using guns."

You're not mentioning names, positions etc, instead falling back on a very strange metaphor. What is it about these (still un-named) poets that you find so threatening you feel like comparing their rhetoric to terrorists (though to be fair, it's also a bit of a slur on the new left)?

The conceit also suggests it's the methodology of change you disagree with, not the goal. Is that true?

It seems to me that perhaps there is nothing about "goals" in your framework, only method as its own goal. To examine your own metaphor, if you prefer the elected official, then you are supporting a kind of mediation between the masses and power-- a kind of institutional gatekeeping. To apply this analogy back to poetry crticism, you believe in gatekeepers, tastemakers, who can keep the (very small) masses from being tasteless, immoderate. The method is the message.

Your implicit identification with yourself as a kind of "elected official" has implications for your own role as a critic. Who elected you? In what way are your representative? It's not that I think people should not have opinions about poetry, it's that I think people should be up front about their own aesthetics. On this blog, I review or discuss some poets and movements because I want people to know about them and to enter a discussion about them--even, yes, to propose sometimes alternative historical lineages for their work. I'm not trying to suggest that there's some first rate and second rate poetry out there that I'm expertly reporting on the first in the light of objective literary history.

I don't claim that you like: "... poetry that pushes or renegotiates or argues with, or picks a fight against, boundaries, limits, institutions, and inherited modes."

To me it seems you are defending hierarchies of tastefulness and refinement (inferior, second-rate etc), New Critical paradigm of form equals function etc. Taste needs tastemakers, hierarchies need gatekeepers. It seems these negotiations are all going on with your *own* taste, your *own* institutional position. That's an admirable attitude to take, but don't pretend that it's some kind of objective taste, some kind of stable Literature.

You ask Kathleen: "would you really prefer it if this essay (and others before it) included list of names of not-very-famous, early-career poets whose work I found derivative, boring, second-rate? Would I be a better person, or a better critic, if I routinely published such lists?" Well, yes.

What I disagree with in your comment(Kathleen has her own response in the comment section below) is the idea that you can call someone a second-rate poet without engaging in an argument about them - without figuring out what they are doing and why. That's just taste-making of the worst kind.

From your review, it seems to me that you're not opposed to people who are boring, but to poets who are too exciting (excessive!). In other words, they are following a different aesthetic than you believe in. But you don't give a name and you don't show their poems, so I don't know. You merely reinforce an unquestioned, prominent critical framework of moderation without any investigation of the assumptions (why are certain things immoderate? to begin with).

Let these immoderate poets in, describe what you think is so excessive about it. Let the reader try to figure out what this excessive poetry is all about. Your unwillingness to do even this (much less try to understand the ideas behind such poetry), makes your essay seem defensive.

Even when you praise Zucker you seem to need to use her as as defense against the dangers of poetry that you see as threatening, you use her as a limit. Don't go any further!

I don't think you see Plath as formless, but what I'm trying to understand is why you repeatedly try to write her out of the conversation. You mention her several times, but always as a negative, to say that she was not an influence. Even in the passages you quote from Zucker she is obviously an influence (the fever quote seems a direct reference). Why does Plath need to be negated? Like I said below, you did the same thing with Mark Levine's first book. What's so scary about Sylvia Plath?

(Though really Sharon Olds and Anne Sexton seem perhaps even bigger influences. I would ask why they have to be negated, but I ask about Plath because that seems like a more prominent trend.)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Response to Steve Burt on Abject Motherhood (part 2)

I thought i would follow up very briefly on my note about Steve Burt's essay on mother poetry in the Boston Review.

To begin with, I would suggest you read Joyelle's talk (on this blog, December 20th) in conjunction with this essay. That way you can just immediately see what's at stake: two very different takes on a similar issue.

I appreciate the fact that Steve writes so much about contemporary poetry, and I think this essay is probably a very good way to draw attention to the role of motherhood/child-rearing in post 1960s American poetry. It's interesting that he sees it as a source of "innovation," a term that usually has a very masculinist vibe. (Joyelle's essay rejects the whole idea of "innovation" as positivism.)

However, there is a feature of Steve's criticism that I don't like, and that's the way he assumes the role of patronizing, professorial gate-keeper of good taste, authority, refinement. And I find that particularly troubling in the final paragraph (which I quoted in my last post), where he writes that "inferior poets" - unlike Rachel Zucker (and I want to note that I don't know Zucker's book, this entry is certainly not a critique of her work) - merely "like to break taboos" and shock, but their poetry gets "old fast" because the shocks are not "formal."

In other words: these poets are flawed because form does not equal function. These poems do not lend themselves to a clean close-reading. There is an excess to their writing.

Throughout the piece he assures the reader that in Zucker's poetry - no matter how "beat"-like it may seem - does have aesthetic "goals." In other words, don't be scared, this poet is not chaotic, she knows what she is doing, she is "masterful" in her own way. At one point he says: "the raw feel of which belies its well-paced plot." And though he mentions "form" what he really seems to mean is that the poem's form reflects the very real life (he constantly refers to the poet as the speaker, and repeats Zucker's real life qualities like some kind of mantra of authenticity): poetry is still all about mimesis.

Insisting that something is well-made, well-wrought is of course the standard criteria of criticism of the New Critical lineage. However, I was struck by how often he repeats how "visceral," "raw" and "excessive" it is; how it's about "embodiment" and "the abject"; how it will "gross you out"; how it's coming up with these negative "affects" that are commonly overlooked in poetry.

The constant repetition of the word "excess" in particular is what struck me the most when I first read the review. It is as if he's trying too hard to convince us that it is "excessive" by just repeating the word without actually investigating the term. If I saw this enough times, this will be "excessive" poetry!

And still, most of the essay is meant to reassure us through close reading that this is indeed still well-made poetry, poetry in which the shocks are "formal" not just pointless, *not* just "excessive".

So it seems we have a contradiction here: Steve wants Zucker to be excessive, but also not excessive. It's a bind. And it's a bind that I think comes from Steve seeing criticism as gatekeeping: there is a lot of excessive, abject poetry out there that is challenging his notions of well-made. The way you deal with this is of course not to criticize that poetry (which would draw a lot of attention to poetry that would otherwise not get attention), but to set up a safer poet as a limit and then strangely "abject" the truly excessive poetry out of the essay by criticizing it without giving it a name or giving the poetry any space in the journal.

This is of course the old "I'm neither raw nor cooked", "hybrid" approach. And just like Lowell wanted to deal with the threat of "the New Americans", this is an attempt to deal with tasteless poetry that now threatens Burt's refinement.

I think a more honest approach would be to mention one of these masses of "inferior" poets who are just plain shocking, and to show what he means when he says that they are merely shocking.

(Steve does mention in his 'historical' overview that Sexton and Sharon Olds were "less formally interesting" (as if that were an objective historical fact) but it doesn't seem like that's who he's talking about at the end of its piece. It's very hard to believe he's dragging Sharon Olds out for another horse-beating.)

Also, in an essay that would seem to desire to cast a spotlight on contemporary poetry by women, a patronizing sexism surfaces in this piece, both in the potted-history of the first few paragraphs, in which judgements of taste double up as historical fact, or when he says that the poem about going to a support group "is strange and more demanding than such facts might let you expect," or when the obviously belittling term 'mommy poetry' sneaks into the essay on the second page. The latter example makes it clear why interventions like the Gurlesque anthology are still necessary.

In the end what I take away from this review is a fear of the poetry of Ginsberg, Plath, Sexton and Olds and what they represent. What they have in common is beside being women and queer that their poetry is popular, that is affective, that challenges the idea of poetry as a refined, tasteful, disinterested.

[One more thing: From the quotes in the review it's absolutely obvious that Zucker is deeply influenced by Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg. Why does Zucker have to be rescued from her influences like this? The same way, when Steve wrote about Mark Levine's first book Debt some 10 years ago, he made Berryman into Levine's main influence, when Mark was almost overtly channeling Plath? Why must Plath be written out of our poetry?]

Mommy Must Be A Fountain of Feathers

There's a great review of Kim Hyesoon's Mommy Must Be A Fountain of Feathers over at Bookslut by Olivia Cronk. Here's the beginning. Yes, I realize there's a hipster in there, but I won't bother you with any more discussion of that. This is the beginning of the essay:]

By morning all is quiet— he must have left
Mommy finally gets up and breathes
Mommy bites and kills each one of us
for giving off a suspicious scent from last night’s terror
She kills us then eats our intestines,
grinds her teeth against a wall
then digs out our eyeballs to eat
then there is no one
As always, only Daddy and Mommy are left
It looks as if Mommy is expecting another litter

--Kim Hyesoon, from Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers

Stars are whores.

I weave pubic hair for dolls and frogs naively lit by your orange lamps. If cloth is meat, what is blood? Try weaving shredded wrists, decapitated hearts.

--Don Mee Choi, from “Weaver in Exile 2” in La Petite Zine

Terror deserves a special place in poetry. Of course we live in a mutual assured destruction world. Of course modernity as we know it is dying. Many of us still delight in Kafka and Beckett, though the cultural weight is lighter and lighter all the time. We could all turn to hipster writers who slickly reveal, while boot-lickingly accepting it, the emptiness of this permutation of reality. We can eat Hot Pockets and watch The Simpsons. Or we can take a cue from Action Books: Terror, Horror, Cruelty, Disgust, all made lovely; Villain-making, shit-spewing Decadence in the Face of Despair -- this is the right response to our times. Such antics will save us -- in a way -- or will, at least, act as salve.

Kim Hyesoon is a feminist South Korean poet. Her translator for this text, is Don Mee Choi, also Korean, also a feminist poet. Their work is anything but “antics,” but this book fits nicely into Action Books’ taste as I know it (Lara Glenum and Aase Berg were my introduction to the Notre Dame press)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Bob Brown

Holy cats, you can now read "Words" by Bob Brown, one of my favorite modernists, on the Internet. Craig Saper just altered my syllabus for Modern American Poetry by making this available.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Steve Burt on Abject Motherhood

Steve Burt (who incidentally was part of the panel on which Joyelle gave the talk I published on this blog a couple of days ago, though he talked about the raw and the cooked dichotomy) has now published an essay in the Boston Review proclaiming Rachel Zucker the poet of abject motherhood. The review ends like this:

"With inferior poets who like to break taboos, the shocks are thematic—not formal—and they get old fast. With Zucker, you never know what the next line will hold. The point, the achievement, is not that she can gross us out, drive us around the bend, report the truth about her body, her husband, her sons, or the profession of poetry. The point is that these long, long lines, these stutters and splutters and blanks and lists, can portray, with more verve than anyone else has brought to such tasks, what it is like to be this person, this mother and teacher, at wit’s end: exhilarated, exhausted, exasperated, and able to show how it feels."

I like some of what Steve writes, but so much of it depends on attacking these un-named poets (He was the one who got me going on "hipsters" by using the hipster as the antidote to the very humane, real guy-poet he was discussing). Who are these inferior gross-out poets writing about abject motherhood? Can you name names? I'd like to know who you are attacking?

Sunday, January 03, 2010

My Own Private Idaho, Synecdoche NY, Kitsch and "Community"

In the past couple of days I watched Gus Van Zandt's My Own Private Idaho from the 1990s and the more recent Synecdoche, NY by Charlie Kaufman, and today I've been thinking about how similar their concerns are, although they ultimately seem to come up with nearly opposite takes on things. And those things are strangely relevant to things I've been writing about on this blog: queerness (in both a specific and particular definition), foreignness, disability and how these all come together in a concern with aesteticism, or the kind of blurring of the supposed life/art boundary that Ranciere characterizes as "kistsch" in his essay "Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed"(and which Bobby Baird tied to "hipsters" a while back on the Digital Emunction Blog). In both movies, kitsch and aestheticism seem to be the result of the threats/promises of queerness and foreignness.

The similarity of the titles of these movies is important, or at least a starting point. These are movies about a space, a space that starts out being geographic space, connoting a social community, but then becomes something more metaphorical. That metaphorical space is an aestheticist space not that different from what Ranciere talks about: the fear of art and life blurring.

Both movies seem to come out of disability: Idaho begins with River Phoenix's character swooning in a fit of narcolepsy, while Synecdoche begins with the main character suffering a blow to the head. In both cases, the results are movies that are "unreliable" - movies in which what is "real" is undermined. These guys are mentally askew; they are distracted; they are not able to make a coherent reality (not to be confused with the Real, which is what can't be brought into reality).

The similarity of the titles of these movies is important. These are movies about a space, a space that starts out being geographic space, connoting a social community, but then becomes something more metaphorical. That metaphorical space is an aestheticist space not that different from what Ranciere talks about: the fear of art and life blurring.

But the two takes on this blurring could not be different. It seems in Idaho, the narcoleptic fit is seen as something like the swoon of Decadence: it's the source of art. Or perhaps more interestingly what Catherine Clement calls attention to in her book Syncope, the swoon, the gap, the blackout as a subversive step out of logic and chronology:

“Surprisingly, this glaring weakness contains a raging force. This frustration is creative; from its disorders, unknown energies are often born… the world in which I have lived until now idolized power and force, muscle and health, vigor and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it leads to new rebellions.”

[Read this against Ron Silliman’s vigorous dismissal of “soft surrealism”]. As in that book, Idaho merges orgasm, blackout and narcoleptic fits. Idaho could in fact be seen as a kind of code-word for this swoon/orgasm.

In Idaho, the blending between different registers of “realness” seems part of the community of hustlers and vagabonds that make up the nomadic coreless core of the movie. The film goes from interviews with actual Portland hustlers to restagings of Shakespeare's Henry IV in an abandoned hotel full of young hustler boys. But none is given higher status as more real and/or less artificial (Todd Haynes makes a big deal of the strange naturalnessof the Shakespeare talk in the interview that comes with the New Criterion version of the film).

There are tons of these kinds of shifts; plots exhaust themselves and new plots are grafted onto old ones (which apparently was actually the method of writing the script, according to the special feature interview between Van Zandt and Todd Haynes). We might even say that the continual exhaustion of little narratives is related to the swoon, or structured like swoons.

[This same exhaustion of plot is similar to my favorite Wong Kar Wai movie "Days of Being Wild", a comparison I might write about later. Or one can say that the various narratives (Henry IV most notably) exist as a constant state of parasitism – not a parasite on the original text, but a flux of parasitism, much like Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, in which pregnancy narratives, sci fi, horror and string theory all mingle across linguistic borders. (See my comment-reply to Mark under the Joyelle talk about “future.”)]

The orgasm-swoon-exhaustion angle also suggests the importance of homosexuality. It's a movie about homosexual boys. Often these boys are so stylized, beautiful that the movie certainly opens itself up the charge of kitsch, shallowness, fashion, hipsterism. (As any readers of this blog knows – especially Max – I am drawn precisely to those qualities that are rejected in this way, the negative affects.)

The film hinges on a central plot development - based on Henry IV - of Scott (Keannu Reeves) rejecting his homosexuality and prostitutional life in favor of heterosexuality and social and economic elite life. This shift seems to result in two deaths: the death of the obscene queer father and the death of the mayor of Portland, Scott’s biological father. These deaths facilitate Scott’s rise to his new position as king of the social order.

One of the most interesting scenes in the movie takes place at the dual funeral of these two fathers: there's the high-falutin funeral of the mayor, where everyone's dressed up etc, but Scott can also see the weird funeral taking place outside the cemetary gates: where the queer boys are screaming pointlessly and wrestling maniacally, exuding ecstatic jouissance.

On one hand there's the vision of growing up, becoming a productive member of society, replacing the father. On the other, you have a bunch of people who refuse to grow up, who insist on their own teenagerness, their own asocialness. This I see as the kind of jouissance Lee Edelman talks about in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive; it's a joy not from optimism about the future but from a total disregard for futurity, productivity.

The one place one could argue that Idaho fails my easy binary between queer and anti-queer movie is in the depiction of Hans, the German gay former singer. This character is somewhat ridiculed, but in the end I think he’s kind of a cool-ridiculous guy. In some ways, he harkens back to the gay criminal guy in Blue Velvet (he does a lip-synch dance with a lamp as a microphone), but this movie redeems Lynch’s homophobia, just as the Falstaff character could be said to redeem Frank (from monster to down-and-out gay guy).

Synecdoche seems to be almost the opposite of Idaho. In Synecdoche, a married guy hits his head, which leads to some kind of mental disability, which in turn leads to the end of his marriage. After the dissolution of his marriage, he begins a vast play that blurs life/art (in a cavernous space not unlike the abandoned hotel where the gang hangs out in Idaho), but which never gets an audience only proliferates copies of himself and the various objects of his desire. Meanwhile, his ex-wife embarks on a lesbian liason in Germany, which results in his 4-year-old daughter becoming tattooed, becoming a stripper, and dying (from wilting tattoos – these three seem connected). To make matters worse, she also begins to speak with a German accents, and on her deathbed forces her dad to admit to a gay sexual tryst. The threat of homosexuality seems to both effect the plot in direct ways (the wife) and hovers behind the plot (the possible homosexuality of the main guy). Basically, disability leads to homosexuality, which breaks up the family and leads to a blurring of life and art (in his life as play, in wife’s constant lurid art exhibition, in his daughter’s evolving German diary). That is to say the “queerness’ of the foreigner, the homosexual, the disabled replaces the reproductive community of the nuclear family with a pointless community of life as art – pointless because it leads to no reproductive relationship (only the proliferation of fake copies), because the lack of audience, and because it’s a kind of madness that ultimately ruins and kills the main character.

As in Ranciere’s view of Madame Bovary in “Why Emma Bovary Had to be Killed,” Synecdoche can be seen as an anti-kitsch manifesto (as well as homophobic, xenophobic etc).

I’ve long been thinking about the valorization of “community” in contemporary American poetry discussions. And it seems that questions about community is central to both of these works. In Idaho: the community as a restless, fainting, nomadic, in flux – ie not community, not productive. In Synecdoche: fear of exactly this state, fear that it will replace the natural, productive, heterosexual community.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

We're a Bunch of Beatniks!

According to Sonora Review, we're too depressing.

It's strange to see us opposed by Ginsberg since we are a bunch of beatniks.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Best Films of the Decade

So everyone is making all these lists, and I'm trying. Here at least is my list of my favorite films of the past decade (admitting fully that I don't watch all that many new movies):

11. The Saddest Music in the World (or My Winnipeg)
10. I'm Not There
9. Last Days (or Paranoid Park)
8. Hole in My Heart (or Together)
7. Mullholland Drive (or that last one)
6. Drawing Restraint 9
5. Hunger
4. 2046
3. In Praise of Love (or Notre Musique)
2. Bad Education (or Talk to Her)
1.Dogville (or Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ or Manderley or Dancer in the Dark)

Here are some other ones that didn't quite make the cut: The Ring, that Japanese animated movie with all the violent fantasia, Waltz with Beshir, Pan's Labyrinth, No Direction Home, Standard Operating Procedure, Pervert's Guide to Cinema, The Orphanage, The Devil's Backbone, The Grizzly Man, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Let the Right One In), Children of Men, The Zodiac,

Kate Zambreno

has a wonderful new blog, "Frances Farmer Is My Sister," which promises to be my new favorite blog.

Here is an excerpt from her first post:

"I am like this with the authors I love, I claim my favorite male authors as female, or feminine. Genet, obviously, Cixous did that, but also Rilke to me is a female author (his mother did name him Rene Maria), and Fernando Pessoa is a female author, Artaud is female. It's not reverse sexism, it's just a game of genderbending I play in my head."

[Artaud as woman is what Joyelle did in her "Future" talk and that's something worth talking about, not the mindless jabber about whether it's new or not to write a manifesto, whether it is new or not *to write*.]

Also she likes one of my favorite films of all time, Dreyer's Joan of Arc. Not only a great film but a film with a history that is intriguing: how it was re-cut repeatedly, how the original burned down, how the second original was lost, how it was found decades later in an old mental institute in Norway.

Anyway, go read the whole thing. It's great.