Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Is Tasteless?

Let me be clear that I’m not recommending that you watch Takashi Miike's Visitor Q. In fact I’m recommending that you don’t watch it unless you have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Let me say also, in my own defense, that I only watched it at the request of a graduate student with whom I’m working who may be including a reading of Visitor Q in his thesis. And let me say, in his defense, that I think he has interesting things to say about this film and its relationship to the taboo. Besides, do I really need a justification for watching a film that many people claim is an important work of art? Even if I don’t though, in this instance it feels like I do.

All disclaimers aside, I think it’s not going too far to suggest that Visitor Q sets the contemporary standard for what’s tasteless. If there’s any more tasteless contemporary film around, I’m not aware of it and I’m not sure I want to be. Well, okay, I want to be aware of it. But watch it? I don’t know.

The only other film that I can think of that covers similar territory to Visitor Q is Pink Flamingos, a movie which is better than Visitor Q in almost every way. In fact one main problem with Visitor Q is that it’s just not very enjoyable to watch, or at least wasn’t to me. Its opening soft core porn incest scene, for instance, which turns out to be one of the gentlest in the film, is not only dull and interminable but also ridiculous. It’s perfectly transparent that the actors involved aren’t really a father and daughter, so the pretense that they are comes off as laughable. Similarly, the film’s rote attempt to shatter one taboo after another almost proceeds like a checklist: let’s shatter this one, and this one, and don’t forget this one. None of the characters or situations is ever believable for more than a few moments, which is part of the point perhaps but nonetheless not very interesting.

The idea of the tasteless obviously depends on the idea of taste. Both concepts are part of what we used to call back in the olden days of theory a binary opposition, like the concepts of good and bad art, the masculine and the feminine and many others. And taste of course is culture and class bound. One goal therefore of consciously tasteless art is to critique the social limitations of taste, showing it to be the property of the repressed, the controlling, and the power hungry. And certainly that’s part of what Miike wants Visitor Q to do.

But I’ve been wondering about an aesthetic of the tasteless and what value there is in it. Once the tasteless makes clear that it’s a critique of the limits of taste, isn’t it in some perverse sense making a bid for itself to be recuperated as somehow tasteful, at least in the sense that in showing problems in the idea of taste, it puts itself in the position of having a superior understanding of taste when compared to art that simply tries to reproduce cultural standards of the tasteful? Or to push this idea further, by showing that taste is no more than a set of biases, hasn’t it undermined both the idea of taste and therefore the idea of the tasteless by showing them both to be shaped by conditions of social power, in which case it’s not tasteless but something else? To remain tasteless, a work of art would have to accept normative standards of taste and therefore accept its own tastelessness. Many lowbrow American comedies, like the American Pie series, do something like this. Or else it would have to fail in its attempt to critique standards of taste and therefore remain tasteless.

The second of these possibilities is how Visitor Q achieves its own unique tastelessness. Its message, at the end, is that all we have watched has been part of the struggle of these characters to understand and accept themselves, and now that they have, they’ll be more capable of loving themselves and each other. Since it’s nearly impossible to believe that any of the characters could be actual people, the standard happy ending family message seems falsely tacked on, or else one more final tasteless joke in a series of such tasteless jokes. Believe me though, the ambiguity here is less interesting than it sounds.

Which is to say, Visitor Q remains genuinely tasteless because its critique of the oppression of social taboos is almost never convincing. Visitor Q remains tasteless because it doesn’t work.

Finally, I’m not sure how much interest I have in simply reversing the binary and celebrating the tasteless. Pink Flamingos, for instance, is gross, but because it succeeds as art it creates its own alternative standard of taste, that of the John Waters vision of the universe. Visitor Q remains tasteless mainly because it’s just not really that interesting. I can certainly acknowledge that someone might like this film because it’s both boring and tasteless. They might like it because it explores taboos and attacks middle class squeamishness even though I don’t think it does that very well. But what I can’t seem to acknowledge is that boring and tasteless art is automatically interesting simply because the idea of taste is a problem.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm reading at San Diego State this Tuesday

The Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series

Presents an Evening with

Mark Wallace

on Tuesday, September 23rd, at 7pm

SDSU's Love Library, Room 430

This event is free and open to the public.
Pay lots are conveniently located around the perimeter of the campus. A trolley stop for San Diego residents is also conveniently located near Aztec Center.

For more information, please contact Victoria Featherstone at

SDSU’s location:
Just off Interstate 8, at College Avenue.

The address is:
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, CA 92182

The reading is at SDSU's Malcolm A. Love Library, Room 430, at 7pm. Once you enter the library under the dome, go downstairs, walk west through the passageway to the elevators, and take one to the 4th floor. Room 430 is in the center of the stacks near the stairway.

People who live in San Diego who want to attend the reading might take the trolley to campus. It is very convenient.

Here are some driving directions:

If you are coming from coastal north: Take I-5 South to I-805 South to I-8 East to College Ave. Go south on College, and campus is on the right.

If you are coming from inland north: Take I-15 South; merge onto I-8 East to College Ave. Go south on College.

Paid visitor parking is available in designated campus lots. Please refer to the Campus Map for specific visitor locations.

Here is a link to the Campus Map:

(additional parking information)
Parking Structure 2 has yellow permit dispenser machines, and this lot allows for the most convenient walk to the library.

Visitors may park in Parking Structure 5 on the west side of the university, located on 55th Street and Montezuma Road. They may also park in Parking Structure 6 on the east side of the university, located off Montezuma Road and East Campus Drive. The cost to park is $1 per hour. Parking Structure 5 has permit dispenser machines on levels 1 and 2. The pay machine on the second floor, north side of PS 5, accepts VISA and MasterCard payments. Parking Structure 6 has permit dispenser machines on levels 1, 2, and 3.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Is poetry work?

Do you think of poetry as work?

If so, do you think of it as a particular kind of work?

If not, do you think of it as another kind of activity (that is, other than just poetry)?

I’m influenced enough by Wittgenstein that I don’t think of poetry inherently as work. Instead I’m interested in what happens to poetry if we define it as work, and what happens to it if we don’t. Thinking of it as work or not might change, and probably does, how we write poetry and how we feel about its importance.

There’s a long history, both in what became the United States and elsewhere, of distrusting poetry. That distrust has often been based in thinking of poetry as something that is not work, or as work that may not be all that valuable. Puritan culture, for instance, often looked skeptically at poetry. As one Puritan divine of the time put it, “It is as if words should elect to dance and caper, instead of to speak plainly.” In this view, poetry is playful and wasteful and an inappropriate manner of celebrating. The Puritans were no simpler than we are though, and one of them, Edward Taylor, wrote poems full of ornate artifice and linguistic playfulness, dancing and capering with quite marvelous results.

If we consider poetry to be work, is it possible that we’re looking to justify it by giving it the dignity of labor, dignity that perhaps we feel that poetry simply as poetry doesn’t have? When we use the phrase “work of art,” have we, in a subtle fashion and perhaps even unknown to ourselves, sought to justify art through the productive aspects of it as labor?

If we consider poetry to be work, what role does humor, feeling, playfulness, ornamentation, and artifice have in the poem as work?

If we do not consider poetry to be work, what role does effort, thoughtfulness, difficulty and developed skill have in whatever kind of activity we imagine poetry to be?

Which is to say, I wonder what aspects of poetry become more emphasized or more forgotten when we consider poetry as work or as something that is not work. And when we consider poetry as work or not, I think that probably changes the relation of poetry to the kinds of work we’re doing, work we may have to do or may want to do. Does poetry become less important or more important to us as we imagine it as more work or as something other than work?

And by the way, I’ve been working a lot these past few weeks. If you haven’t heard from me recently, that’s why.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Colin Smith's 8x8x7

At the Vancouver Positions Colloquium, it was great to see some old friends and acquaintances and to hear new work by writers whom I have known a long time. And it was nice to meet people whose work I have long known but whom I have never met, like Fred Wah, who continues to have a broad influence on the poetry of the Vancouver area and beyond. In a few cases though, not only was I hearing new work or meeting a writer I had never met before, I was meeting writers I had never even heard of before. One of those writers, Colin Smith, gave one of the most powerful readings of the colloquium, and I immediately picked up a copy of his book published by Krupskaya, 8x8x7. The book is every bit as powerful as his reading and I hope more people will find out about it and read it and buy it.

Smith’s book, and his reading, certainly shared in the tenor of the conference, and in the traditions of Vancouver avant poetries, in a focus both on global power structures and the most immediate details of the here and now and how connections between the two might be traced. He shares a Vancouver poetics also in the biting, ironic wit and rapid fire politicized quips that mark so many (thought not all) of the male poets I admire from that region (the female poets share it too, although they’re more likely to risk sincerity or aestheticism without sacrificing a keen politicized edge). But Smith’s work is marked by personal and painful immediacy, one that can sometimes be difficult to include in a poetics interested in understanding and critiquing large scale economic realities. Which is to say that his work often details, very affectingly, the fact of how these economic realities really do hurt individuals, and how it feels to be hurt.

Smith had perhaps the single best quip of a quip-filled colloquium. “Ready!——Fire!——Aim!” from 8x8x7's opening poem, “Just,” left the audience with one of those groaning laughs of recognition that continue to reverberate long afterwards. I’m still teasing out all the contexts to which such a phrase is too perfectly applicable. At the same time, the fact of his own obvious pain was apparent in his reading and can be found throughout the poems. This pain is both physical (chronic problems with his spine, he told me if I’m remembering correctly, can make it difficult for him to walk or stand for too long a period of time) and a function of being poor in the center of an economic boom which is making a few people rich and disenfranchising many others. “How can you say I’m committing a crime?/ I’m/ just/ sitting here,” he concludes at the end of “Just,” exposing readers to the ongoing history (one that in Vancouver lately has been amped up as the 2010 Olympics approaches) of making it a criminal act for people to have nowhere to go. Although he was a Vancouver resident for many years, he now lives in Winnipeg, a city where for the moment he seems to have found it more possible to survive.

8x8x7 consists of a number of poetic sequences of various lengths, many about 8-10 pages of accumulated reflections, critiques, one-liners, outbursts, and howls of recognition. From “Leper Hockey Punchline”:

The soup that thinks outside the can.


Eat crap, die, and leave
a luminescent biohazard of a corpse.

He lifts his spirits by reading Madame Bovary
while listening to Joy Division.

Would I think thrice
before donating Charles Dickens books
to people in prison?

War and unemployment
are the energies
of our economy. Cold and Hungry Please
Spare Anything

“Symptoms of vomiting and nausea”
“Alleged photos of torture”
Ask about our ‘hit the ceiling’ guarantee!

You are automatically entered.

The development of each poem isn’t so much narrative as associational, yet the overall affect paints a thorough picture of an individual subject to economic and social forces vastly beyond his control, forces that claim to be impersonal even as they wrench from those subject to them the most personal confessions, doubts and failings. Smith doesn’t reveal any of this through a conventional telling of his own tale, but through the way the snippets converge and diverge in a sort of globalist pointillism. His poems don’t so much map an overarching schema of social and economic landscapes, as for instance Jeff Derksen’s work (itself also very impressive but in a much different way) does, but bring us right to the points of contention, the sore spots, the sites of emotional anguish. Even as Smith’s poems remain really very funny, there’s the same sense of unbearable pain that one gets from Jack Spicer poems, a feeling of being overwhelmed, just from listening, by the suffering in the poem. But the irony and humor of many lines is not a distancing or muffling of anger, or even a way of making it more palatable, so much as it is an act of momentary relief from a tension that just keeps building. These are poems that can do things that political theory, for all its value, usually can’t: tell us what it feels like, all over one’s body, to be losing out in the midst of an economy that claims to be booming.

Oddly enough perhaps, there’s something intensely energizing about 8x8x7, just as there is about Smith himself, with his humor, generosity, and really just friendliness and willingness to converse. The poems in the book never completely give in or give up even as they acknowledge the many moments when giving up seems the only sensible reaction. There’s a sense of fight in these poems that I can’t help but admire—a fact which the cover art of the book, a montage by Frank Mueller of some of the boxing scenes in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, both points to and ironizes. A fight which shows the ridiculousness and often hopelessness of fighting, yet continues to strike back with whatever power it has, and does so with insight, hilarity, and a willingness to open its own most vulnerable conditions. From the book’s final poem, "Goodbye (Riddance)":

Because the closest to a safe home
I’ve ever known
was a psychiatric hospital I lived in
for 6 months when I was 14.

Chronic pain abstracts you
from yourself while making it impossible
to abstract chronic pain.

Sanction, endure, render.

Truth... grace... beauty... I dunno,
what do you think you get for them?

Smith’s book is hardly a self-congratulatory attempt at fighting the good fight. But it shows very well the degree to which the desire for self-determination and self-respect is perhaps the most essential power to tap into when struggling against forces and individuals who would take those things away from people.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Vancouver Positions Colloquium: Tom Orange photo sets

That's Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, being as usual casually remarkable, and the rest of Tom's very thorough photo set on the Vancouver Positions Colloquium can be found on his blog or by going directly to the complete photo set.