Friday, May 30, 2008

A poet from Dickinson College re-educates the intellectuals

Here's a poem I found on the web from Adrienne Su, one of the people who played a role in denying tenure to a psychology professor at Dickinson College, Richard Abrams, apparently on the basis of Abrams' role in running a literary series that featured writers interested in flarf:

The Re-Education of the Intellectuals

The irony here is stunning. What's morally repulsive speaks for itself.

For more details, check out Gary Sullivan's blog.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

on the road again

And don't think for a second that I'm not loving it.

This will be my last blog post for awhile. My apologies if you write me or leave a blog comment and it takes me a bit of time to get to it. I'll be checking e-mail every so often though.

First stop, Press: A Cross-Cultural Literary Conference at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where I'll be giving a reading on Saturday night and participating in a panel on Sunday on "Globalism In Literature and Globalization: Postcolonialism and Emergent Languages."

Then on Monday it's off to Seattle for more fun and a reading Wednesday night in the snuggery (aka the back room) of the College Inn for the new Seattle area Subterranean Yak poetry series. Any yeti who's any yeti will be there, so if you're in the area come on out.

Until we meet again, enjoy your subversions.

Monday, May 19, 2008

new blog conversation hosted by Les Figues Press

Vanessa Place and Teresa Carmody, the editors of Les Figues Press in Los Angeles, have re-envisioned the goal of their Les Figues blog. The result is, to quote them, that "Considering our mission of creating aesthetic conversations, we've asked six people to be guest writers in this space for the next six months. Guest writers will be sharing their thoughts about books they're reading, or events they're planning/attending, pieces they're writing, or collaborations they're working on. Our goal is to cultivate a lively discussion about issues, practices and happenings in the world of innovative writing and contemporary aesthetics."

So check it out and become part of the conversation they're creating:

With the first guest editors including Sawako Nakayasu, Jennifer Calkins and Harold Abramowitz, as well as Teresa and Vanessa themselves, the conversation is bound to be lively, informative, and unexpected.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

quick takes

A few books I’ve been thinking about recently in those few minutes I have for thinking.

Kim Hyesoon, Mommy Must Be A Mountain of Feathers
translated by Don Mee Choi
Action Books

This book really deserves a full-length review, and if I’m ever again living a life where that’s possible I may just try it, although Kasey Mohammad has already done a fine one. Combining Surrealist-like distorted images, details of daily life, and concerns with the social and physical condition of being a woman in Korea, the poems in Mommy Must Be A Mountain of Feathers are often powerfully disturbing. What most amazes me about them is the way that unlike most work that picks up traces of Surrealism, they don’t take readers out of the conditions of ordinary experience but instead deeply embroil us in them. Rats, horses, spiders, fish, kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, prisons: these images help shape a picture of life in a place and time and gender that’s both terrifying and convincing while never being realistic in any conventional sense. “do I go and ask the woman who endures a horse inside her unable to say a single word because the pesticide has destroyed her vocal cords?”

Mel Nichols, Bicycle Day
Slack Buddha Press

A gentle, pained mournfulness has always been key to the fragile lyricism of Mel Nichols’ poems. Bicycle Day shows her work taking new chances with line and page spacing and carries readers along through a series of linguistic surprises and worthwhile insights into people’s relationships both to each other and to the non-human life around them. These are songs of loss, no doubt about it, but there’s also an undercurrent of strength and survival that is all the more remarkable for constantly seeming on the verge of falling apart. There’s a sly, almost imperceptible humor at times too. In the best sense, these are pretty poems, but they’re also not afraid to engage the ugly parts of experience. “what large thieving dogs we don’t know hungering/might break their teeth on our red door/wanting to take your lovely feather [ steal it [ ]/ away [ ] the screaming breaks of the train/balanced over the tales of a dark hollow”

Jen Benka, a box of longing with 50 drawers
Soft Skull Press

I met Jen Benka for the first time on my last trip to NYC and was pleased to receive a copy of this 2005 book. Each poem is titled with a single word from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution kept in literal order. These are overtly political poems, taking up issues of U.S. history, bourgeois conformity, and the abuses of human life and the natural environment created by the powerful and the wealthy. There’s plenty of anger here, but the precise minimalism of the presentation keeps the poems from becoming partisan rants and always gives readers no more than we need to know. The poems also manage somehow to take a trip across the terrain of the contemporary U.S., dropping us in various locales to show us the social and political connections between past and present. “an unsolved mathematical equation:/land plus people divided by people minus land/times ocean times forest times river.”

Buck Downs, twist riffs and stiff hits

Buck Downs’ poems always have grit, soul, and more than a little dirt-under-the-fingernails sleaze. This little chapbook features another set of poems that aren’t afraid to tell you exactly where they’ve been. If you have the impression, like I do, that what’s wrong with a fair amount of poetry these days is that it’s too scrubbed and proper even when supposedly speaking on taboo subjects, then the work of Buck Downs is a like a splash of cold muddy creek water on the bottled Perrier at that faculty party no one wants to attend. “just for spite: the second time/they hang you it’s only for kicks”

Sandra Simonds, The Humble Travelogues of Mr. Ian Worthington, A Teeny Tiny Book of War, Bon Voyage

These three small examples of the art of the book certainly make me look forward to Sandra Simonds' first full-length collection, which with luck will be out shortly. Investigations of history and political consciousness are handled with a genuinely original humor and energetic doses of personality. A Teeny Tiny Book of War comes with its own snap-open purse with poems each titled with the name of an eye shadow or lipstick, while The Humble Travelogues are a half-real/half-farcical photo-poem journalism that explores social and environmental conditions on the emotional and geographical fringes of the world. From Bon Voyage: “so goodbye/bulky red/train-pulse sack of meat,/metal and nail/because my flesh is an artificial/field of feel where each cell/is a different/explanation, each nook/an anxiety to quell”

C.E,. Putnam and Daniel Comisky, Crawlspace
P.I.S.O.R Publications

The text version of Chris Putnam’s and Daniel Comisky’s performance poem Crawlspace is a pleasant diversion, but it’s in the accompanying CD that the conception really comes to life. Obsessions with late night TV, B-movies and other ephemera of American trash culture become essential to a goofy trek across a landscape that’s half circus freak funtime and half metaphor for a life full of shape-shifting alienation. We knew we had to change but none of us were quite prepared for what we found ourselves turning into. “It is difficult to use the claw/to introduce solution sequences/such as this one/because inside the head/are incredibly powerful training tools.” Putnam and Comisky have also done live performances of Crawlspace and if one comes near you, don’t miss it. Putnam has one of the most unique stage presences in contemporary poetry, some unfathomable combination of Sun Ra, “Beaver” Cleaver and a Martian. Or, in this video, a deranged worker just escaped from Colonial Williamsburg.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Bureaucratic Poetics

Bureaucracy isn’t the opposite of learning any more than a twinkie is the opposite of food. Who cares whether that’s how it seems? Bureaucracy is clearly a kind of learning. What’s at stake is the value of that learning.

The value of learning about bureaucracy is the value of learning disposable information that can be put to processes and ends that affect human beings, sometimes for the good, sometimes severely, but that are themselves as processes and ends also highly disposable. The relevance of bureaucratic detail is startlingly temporary.

Of course, one can study bureaucracy just as easily as one can study art, music, or literature. Studying bureaucracy becomes a way of studying history. One can learn as much about human life, especially daily life, by knowing the history of post offices, state colleges, and banks as by knowing about Cindy Sherman, John Coltrane or Virginia Woolf.

There’s no reason at all to see that as some kind of shocking loss.

Still, there’s a distinction to be made between studying the history of bureaucracy and working in a bureaucracy, in which the goal is not to understand the historical effects of the bureaucracy you are part of but to understand your job just well enough to get those tasks done today that can be done today, then forget about them forever, while calculating what kind of longer range tasks are beneficial and trying to move forward towards them. Knowing about the history of that bureaucracy may help in your job or make it harder.

Of course, the more middle or lower of a middle or lower manager you are, the less you have to do with anything regarding those longer range tasks and the more you struggle, often immensely, with trying to get done today those tasks that can be done today. As all middle managers know, it’s only on rare victorious days that one actually does, today, what can be done today.

Consider for a moment the aesthetics of a budget chart. The simultaneously ordered and fractured rows with their staggered figures that must, when one reaches the bottom line, achieve the beautiful symmetry of unity.

Theories of narrative and theories of budgets tended to synchronize well until about the end of the 1950s, when theorists of narrative began to wonder whether older theories of narrative were really just theories of budgets in disguise. And it quickly became clear that most were.

Just when you thought you were reading literature, it turns out you were studying bureaucracy. In fact bureaucracy is one of literature’s greatest themes. Isn’t Kafka’s almost only point how the human soul has wilted under the endless meaningful meaninglessness of the labyrinth of human bureaucracy? Kafka is one of the world’s great thinkers about bureaucracy and so is Marx, who to his credit perhaps was more optimistic about bureaucracy, if maybe naive about how quickly bureaucracies might improve. Even someone like Jane Austen who isn’t writing directly about bureaucracy might as well be. She tells great stories about how to make the system work for you and retain your integrity at the same time. Very few people know how to do that.

Literature and philosophy, it seems, aren’t that good as escapism from bureaucracy.

Besides, consider how much you’re learning about human life from working in that state office or that bank and maybe you’ll stop wishing you had more time to read and write. Think about forms, committees, personality foibles, individual conflicts, misunderstandings of language, the need to be passive aggressive and the rhetoric of leadership. Think about the differences between censorship, what isn’t possible to say, and what goes unsaid. Think about pressure and meddling. Think about lies, unrealistic ambitions, and resentment. Think about the clash of opposing bureaucratic forces pretending to work together. Now, tell me that you’re not learning almost as much about human life as you can stand.

You’re not going to get more time to read and write anyway, so you might as well consider that your bureaucratic position requires a different kind of reading. Certainly it involves a large number of words on pages. It’s not any more boring and soul killing than you tell yourself it is. All you need to do is stop caring so much about other interests.

Granted, you may have thought you had interests more moving than bureaucracy. You may have thought that bureaucratic structures were actively disdainful of, or at least unconcerned with, a whole series of human possibilities that they push to the side and harm. Bureaucracy doesn’t help you think about why living matters. It doesn’t help when it comes to love, or intellectual or emotional intensity, and it certainly can’t help you think about dying, your dying or anybody’s, although it can help with the funding for those who have been left behind. It uses up land, it uses up resources, it uses up time, it’s very good at giving things to people who already have too many of those things. It’s not so good at revolutionary change or even significant small changes, although it talks about change constantly. It doesn’t help, and indeed often prevents, your ability to create anything, a song or a painting or a poem, that doesn’t have a use in bureaucracy, although maybe, in rare instances, if you’re lucky, your song or your painting or your poem may be counted by the bureaucracy as part of what the bureaucracy likes and promotes about itself.

But don’t forget about the positive things it gives you and others. Think about that salary and those benefits. Think about the lasting friendships you make at the office. Remember how many people would love to be in a situation like yours. Bureaucracy creates structure and opportunity for people who might not have those things otherwise, and sometimes it enables circumstances in which people genuinely help each other live better lives.

And remember, great potential lies in the fact that if the bureaucracy you work for is damaging the environment, or mistreating its workers, or maintaining an old system of hierarchies and prejudices, all things that bureaucracies usually do, that you can by working together with others develop your own alternative bureaucracies, or work with others in the bureaucracy for change from the inside. Those alternative bureaucracies, whether inside or outside the bureaucracy which they challenge, may damage the environment, mistreat workers, or maintain old systems significantly less. They often do important good and, in rare instances, even suggest ways of dealing with groups of others that aren’t bureaucracies at all.

As Althusser would have pointed out though, a question remains regarding how much such moments of genuine good are overwhelmed by bureaucracy’s central goal of supporting state power structures.

When it comes to learning, bureaucracy can give you a good education by teaching you about itself. Some bureaucracies can even give you an education about things that are not bureaucracy, although how well they do that remains debatable. Another debate, of course, is whether bureaucracy is being wasteful in educating you about things that are not bureaucracy. Some visions of bureaucracy imagine a future in which there’s nothing but bureaucracy and nothing to teach about but bureaucracy, and they imagine that future as good. They imagine that future as more full than ever of helpful vaccines.

At this time, there is no escaping the existence of large bureaucracies, the damages they do and the benefits they offer. You can work with the problem or try your best to wander off by yourself, maybe even with a few companions. You might even try to create your own bureaucracy or see how much you can do without one. You might even be able to keep an occasional bureaucracy from knowing your name. I wish you luck on the way.

Go ahead, try to write a poem about that.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Aesthetics of Cultures and Cultures of Aesthetics

Lately I’ve been noticing, particularly on the Harriet blog but elsewhere also, a number of writers suggesting that aesthetics and cultural studies are opposites. Even more than opposites: enemies.

Given that it’s blogworld we’re considering here, the terms themselves are rarely explored in much depth. Still the implication seems clear that the academic field of cultural studies has no interest in aesthetics, and aesthetics are what makes a poem valuable.

I understand where these concerns come from. Anyone who has spent any time in the world of literature departments has come across people for whom aesthetics don’t matter or matter only minimally. If you care about poems, that lack of interest can be frustrating, although as much as I hate to admit it, there are other things worthwhile to do in English programs besides talk about poetry.

That said, not only do I think the opposition is false, I also think it indicates some things about the culture of contemporary poetry that need further consideration.

First the obvious: all poems have aesthetic elements and all poems say something about the world. How these two elements operate in any poem is certainly not a given. How we discuss form and content or pick apart the binary of form and content, how we discuss the content of the history of form or the form of the history of content, how we differentiate between terms like aesthetics and style and form, or content and meaning and culture, all remain ongoing and at least sometimes intriguing questions. Further, whether we’re considering a sound poem that provides contrasts to existing languages or reading the most introverted poem of personal feeling, the question of culture is always open for reinterpretation but only because it’s always present. A poem always carries traces of its contexts.

So what then would be the point of pitting aesthetics against culture, since they are elements present in all poems? Further, since all cultures have aesthetics, and all aesthetics are developed by the cultures invested in them, we can never talk thoroughly about either culture or aesthetics without talking also about the other. So why separate out the two as implacable opponents?

The answer has to do, I think, with contemporary cultures and how those cultures view aesthetics. Some cultures values aesthetics more openly than others, obviously, although even those others still have aesthetics.

It’s not possible to create a poem that says nothing about the world, but at times I feel that’s almost what I’m hearing people say they want: a poem about the pleasure of language, about an interplay of images and words that can’t be analyzed for political content, for traces of class, race, or gender, or for the social position of the poet who writes it. A poem, that is—and a poet?—freed from the burden of social context and not required to have any significant relation to what is otherwise going on in the world. A poem of play, entertainment, excitement, verbal prowess, a poem which when read has no messy relationship to anything other than itself and creates a moment of pleasure fully reveling in its own energy which then disappears, only to re-emerge when considered by the next person who experiences it.

Are there really people who would like a poem of this kind if it was actually possible to write one? Are people trying to write this poem right now: a poem of linguistic pleasure without social content? A poem that purely is while meaning nothing? What would a poem that wanted to play with language while saying nothing about the world look like, especially given that it would inevitably end up saying something about the world? And why would somebody want that? To be freed from the burden of meaning? To avoid responsibility for things they have said or be safe from the judgements of others? To be protected from an analysis that might say “I’ve read your poem and know who you are and where you come from”? More generously, I think we can see here a desire to counteract the unfair judgements of others: to prevent poems (and people) from being treated as nothing but chunks of information, to stop the complex dimensions of poetic language from being reduced to canned positions in a political debate.

As might not be surprising then, blogworld oppositions between aesthetics and culture are less failed theoretical approaches (since on some level they’re not even trying to be theoretical) than indications of a power struggle between poets and scholars, or even more broadly between poets and anyone who views language as purely instrumental. What makes a poem valuable turns out to be a question of who values it and for what and to what extent, and how the values of those people disagree or even openly conflict with other people and their values. It turns out to be a matter of who says what from what social position, and what kinds of power and resources are associated with that position. Many poets feel that aesthetics is right now simply too neglected even in the few fields that actually discuss poetry. And I agree.

Still, fetishizing aesthetics is not the answer. Nor is claiming that aesthetics is untouched by culture and power. Aesthetics, culture, and their relation to power, in the academic world and beyond, remain issues that poems are always taking up and cannot escape, no matter how badly the writers of them might want either more power or to be outside the game of power entirely. And to try to claim importance by claiming that ones’ poems exist outside conditions of power is hardly a new move. In fact it’s the poetry world equivalent of arguing for the divine right of kings.