“Goddamnit, no,” he shouted, threw the covers off and sat up. “Anything’s better than this. Maybe I’ll try to read.” He got out of bed, went into the living room and sat on the couch. He felt unable to turn on the light.
From the easy chair that sat to his left, a voice said, “Cowardice of this kind is really unattractive. I could have expected it, but still.”
Richard stood up, stared. “Oh sit down again,” the voice said. For no reason that he could explain, Richard did. “There’s no reason to get worked up. I’m just here for a chat.”
“Shit,” Richard said. “I’m talking to myself like I’m someone else. A psychotic breakdown. Fantastic.”
“Wouldn’t you be lucky if it was that easy? I’m here all right.”
“And you would be?”
“That depends to a great extent on you,” the voice said.
“Do I go to the hospital, is that what I do? Tel them I’ve finally cracked?”
“I doubt that in any simple sense I’m a product of your mind. You’re not a product of your mind either, right?”
“What?” Richard’s heart was pounding. “I’m talking to myself and I don’t understand me.”
“Didn’t you just say a little while ago that your mind was a product of the world you’re living in?”
“Yeah, sure, fine, I did. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Some of these answers,” the voice said, “I think you can follow for yourself. I’ll help you just this once though. You’re a product of the world you’re living, so am I. Can we dispense with the introductions?”
Richard stood up, turned on the lamp beside the couch.
Sitting upright in his usual reading chair was a creature with about fifty eyes, all round and red. A bug of some kind, as large as a man. It had many little legs, most motionless, a few moving in a kind of frenetic spiral. The rest of it seemed a furry blackness dotted by circles of a muted, purplish color. Did they form the outline of wings? It was probably taller than Richard, and he guessed that the bug outweighed him by maybe fifty, seventy-five pounds. Richard nodded to it, sat back down. “Okay,” he said, breathing deeply. “This isn’t going to help my career much, is it?”
“What career?” the bug said. “Going down slow at first then picking up steam?”
“So you’re here to give me advice? Not only is there a gigantic bug in my living room, but it’s also going to tell me how to live? And in a snide tone.”
“The tone, my friend, is all yours,” the bug said. “It’s the only one you respect. Part of the problem, you know, if hardly the heart of it.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me what the heart of it is?”
“If you’d like. Fear. And weakness in the face of fear. Combine those with the genuine lack of options available to a person with precisely your social and psychological limitations, and voila. These aren’t original themes Rich, not for you, not for anybody. They’re dull. You have no idea how much of a burden it is, having to do this for one anti-social accidental dropout after another.”
“What are you, some kind of traveling good Samaritan insect? I don’t even get my own personal demon thing?”
“First of all, sure you do. I’m specifically for you, but I’m part of an interlocking species. We hear each other. It’s a kind of hum. I could explain in more detail, but the whole communal thing gets difficult for humans. Things might be different if you could hear each other’s brains. As it is, you’re stuck with empathy and sympathy, with trying to imagine what people feel like. That has positive results at times, but being stuck in your own brains leads most often to negative ones. Historically, those other forces have been much more powerful, although there’s nothing inevitable about it. But we’re drifting...”
“Why tell me? I don’t have any power. Why not go infest the President’s head? I mean, I even go to protest rallies. I vote green party when it’s practical. I don’t need lectures about human failure in our concern for others. I need a whole new reality.”
“I would suggest,” the bug said, fluttering its legs, “that a whole new reality is what you’ve got.”
Richard stared. “Okay,” he said, after a pause. “Good for me. You’re going to suggest I start a revolution or something? Tell people I met with a bug who represents some superior kind of hive mind and who’s going to lead us to a better future? Maybe see if I can find a few patrons? Some old rich folks nostalgic for the 60s and terrified by their own spiritual emptiness?”
“Not a bad idea,” the bug said, “if you’d take out the corrosive cynicism. It would be more interesting than what you’re doing now. But you know as well as I that you’re not cut out for it. I’m not sure I’ve ever run into anybody who has less potential as a prophet. Debunking is more your speed. You’ve practically debunked yourself right out of existence. The question is, what are you going to do now?”
“Go to the hospital?”
“Good old Rich,” the bug said. “That would be convenient. It is, I have to say, the essential middle class solution. Hospitals and jails. People like you spend your lives trying to stay out of them while secretly wishing you could go there. You’ve always been a bourgeois guy, that’s one of your problems. You’re all about consolidating your gains in order to avoid fear of loss. Regular meals and enforced intellectual inactivity form the core of your being. It’s no wonder you fantasize about a trip to the psych ward.”
“I’ve never claimed to be free of middle class drives,” Richard said, annoyed. “But I think, given that, that I’ve been pretty intellectually active on the whole. I haven’t just been sitting around.”
“Good,” the bug said. “That’s the kind of aggression I like. You should practice it, deploy it in more situations. Right now all you do is use it on your friends and repress it in front of your enemies.”
“Thanks for the insight. How much are you charging me per hour?”
“I’m here to help you, Rich. The sooner you decide to move forward with that rather than resist, the better.”
Richard shut his eyes, rubbed them, opened them again. The bug was still there. “I guess I’m not going to be able to will you out of here. Fine. What’s next?”
“That’s up to you.” The bug settled back comfortably into the chair. “There are a lot of options. The first point is simply to admit that you’re right about what you know: that the way you’re living can’t go on much longer. The second is to admit the other thing you know: that the world is going to keep going on more or less like it is, so there’s not all that much you can do about it. It’s you that has to change. You need to consider making a radical break with your life as you’ve known it up to this time. As you can see, the fact that I’m here proves the break has already started. But the point is, it’s time to take decisive action. Frankly it doesn’t matter whether it destroys you. You’re already destroyed, Rich. You can see that, yes?”
Richard gripped his own forehead and squeezed. “Yes. But I’m paralyzed too.”
“A destroyed man is a freed man. It’s a matter of courage.”
“I can’t believe there’s a bug in my living room,” Richard said, “handing me a bunch of self-help crap. All that Nietzsche will to power shit is for 22-year olds. I need a bug to talk to me about inner self-transformation and the freedom offered by existential despair? No. I need a better health insurance plan. I need a steady job and a union. I need alternatives to corporate control. I need less base level human corruption.”
“You need,” the bug said, “to take action.”
“Such as?” Richard said.
“You could kill somebody.”
Richard groaned like he’d been punched in the stomach. “Oh God. I really am dangerous, and not just to myself.”
Some brief thoughts on a few complexities it raises:
I was pleased to see Sherry try to avoid the politics of guilt-tripping and blame laying. Plenty of blame lies all over the place, as he points out, but guilt is rarely effective as a large scale political tool because of its tendency to lead to resentment and (often passive) resistance. The issue according to Sherry is not to tell people how bad they are and make them say “Sorry” but to make them clearer about ways in which environmental consciousness is in their interest (although only by shifting the nature of what is meant by self-interest).
It’s fascinating to see the way that terms that to some extent I associate with corporate capitalism, like “risk management,” come into play in the interview. Admittedly, poetry and environmentalism are more closely related to businesses than many people are comfortable acknowledging, and certainly part of Sherry’s point is that conventional leftist oppositional language isn’t sufficient for the task at hand. But will such terminology really help more conventional environmental practices become more effective or might it not instead co-opt and ultimately misuse them? Still, Sherry definitely acknowledges this risk. He’s careful to insist that predicting what will happen is difficult.
Sherry also makes the point that significant change in environmental practices on a large social is unlikely to come until people really find themselves in disastrous circumstances. While suggesting the importance of an environmental poetics, he’s also a bit of a fatalist (or at least skeptical) regarding its ultimate use value. But like him, I like the idea of making the attempt anyway, despite necessary skepticism.
How Sherry connects environmental issues with aesthetic practice seems to me more tenuous. He tends to assert a fairly well-known lineage of consciously avant garde writers as figures helping lead towards his ideas, but I’m not sure how the details regarding these writers’ work really supports his position.
I note for instance that the contemporary writers he mentions are heavily weighted towards contemporary poetry in New York City, with an emphasis on Roof Books authors. That doesn’t surprise me, given where he lives and his role as the publisher of Roof, but it doesn’t seem to me necessarily the best way to develop a list of writers whose aesthetic practices support the kind of philosophy of environmental poetics that Sherry is urging.
Where for instance are the west coast poets, in Canada or the U.S., who have specifically engaged with Pacific Rim cultural development issues? What about poetic practices beyond the U.S.? In the case of the poets he mentions, Sherry seems to be falling back more on the writers he specifically promotes and lives near than he is making an entirely convincing case for where his kind of environmental poetics might be found among writers. That’s interesting given his remarks about how easy it is to fall back into individualized self-promotion even when one is highly aware the problems of such self-promotion (and I have no intention of playing holier than thou relative to this).
With all due respect to my flarf and conceptual writing friends, I didn’t see how his repeated mentioning of them was really tying into his argument. He is making the case that it’s not subject matter, but structural developments in poetics, that most closely tie into his concept of environmental poetics. Citing Kenny Goldsmith as an instance environmental poetics struck me as off, especially given some of Goldsmith’s takes regarding poetry and politics, and I didn’t see the specifics to back it up: does it come from the way Goldsmith recycles text, rather than attempting to create new works of individual human genius to clog up our air? That seems a stretch to me, a metaphorical resonance perhaps but not much more. And while I think I can see a connection between environmentalism and some of Nada Gordon’s work, I’m not sure exactly how to tie most of the other writers of flarf into this situation, except again along the rather tenuous line of re-use of materials.
Minor note: I wonder if my friend Cathy Eisenhower will like her appearance in this essay as an example of a new generation of language poet.
Sherry himself says that he doesn’t wish to unsettle too far the relevance of earlier generations of writers relevant to “avant garde” practice, a term he uses only once though he insists on its significance, which I actually appreciate while seeing the pitfalls. He wants to rock the poetic boat but not to rock it too much, and he’s probably overly cautious here and ends up dishing out a few extra kudos to the usual suspects.
Lastly, I wondered about the degree to which Sherry insists on the rejection of most emotional, affective practices re the environment, that is, those practices that draw on emotional human responses. Sherry definitely does not favor the “we need to feel sad/mad about the dying animals” approach; he just isn’t sentimental about penguins. He notes, rightly I think, that putting individual human emotion and experience at the center of all things is part of why human beings find themselves in such a physically endangered world.
Yet the degree to which Sherry resists any return to a language involving emotion (so much so that he deconstructs Apps’ questions when Apps tries to draw him out on this and related subjects like that of individual responses) strikes me as overkill, simply too much careful theoretical and managerial distance. His attempt to refuse the value of emotion is something of a return to the blame-laying Sherry wishes to avoid, as if emotion’s frequent refusal to understand structural conditions is in fact still too much to blame for environmental problems. I’d suggest that we need a rethinking of how to consider emotion and structural understanding in relation to each other without rejecting emotional response so thoroughly.
These are very off-the-cuff (and quickly typed) thoughts, not all final versions of what I ultimately might think about all this.
AGITPROP READING & PERFORMANCE SERIES Saturday, February 6, 7:00pm AGITPROP Gallery 2837 University Ave in North Park (Entrance on Utah, behind Glenn’s Market) * San Diego, CA * 92104 * 619.384.7989
We hope you can join us this Saturday, February 6 at 7:00 pm for the next event in the Agitprop Reading & Performance Series featuring Jane Sprague and Diane Ward.
Jane Sprague is the author of THE PORT OF LOS ANGELES (Chax, 2009), BELLADONNA ELDERS SERIES NO. 8 (with Tina Darragh and Diane Ward; Belladonna, 2009) and numerous chapbooks including APACHE ROADKILL (Dusie, 2009) and SACKING THE HENWIFE (Dusie, 2008). She teaches at CSULB and for Bard College's Institute for Language and Thinking. She lives in Long Beach, CA where she edits and publishes Palm Press. Her current projects include editing the collection IMAGINARY SYLLABI, a utopian and practical investigation into various writing pedagogies in higher education as well as researching a project on generational poverty and histories of race and genocide in upstate New York, where she's from.
Diane Ward was born in 1956 in Washington, DC and currently lives in Santa Monica, California. She has published ten books of poetry including, most recently, *BELLADONNA ELDERS SERIES NO. 8 (with Tina Darragh and Diane Ward; Belladonna, 2009) NO LIST (NO LIST), Seeing Eye Books, 2008, Flim-Yoked Scrim, Factory School, 2006, among others. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies, among them: MOVING BORDERS: THREE DECADES OF INNOVATIVE WRITING BY WOMEN, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan (New Jersey: Talisman House, Publishers, 1998) and OUT OF EVERYWHERE: LINGUISTICALLY INNOVATIVE POETRY BY WOMEN IN NORTH AMERICA & THE UK, edited by Maggie O’Sullivan (London: Reality Street Editions, 1996).
Please share this information with friends and any interested parties. Agitprop readings are free, but donations to the gallery are always welcome.
We hope to see you there and for festivities afterward!