Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hybrid Likes and Dislikes

I like the concept of the literary hybrid as a work that uses and refigures influences from a number of literary schools or genres or traditions, thus questioning the idea that literature is best when influenced by a single tradition only.

I like the concept of the literary hybrid when it takes up artistic elements from beyond the world of literature, whether music or visual art or others.

I like the concept of the literary hybrid when it exposes rifts and differences both within literary traditions and across them, and when it deforms its influences in such a way as to question the commonly assumed limits of those influences.

I don’t like the concept of the literary hybrid as something that synthesizes the differences of its influences and therefore “smooths the rifts” or “heals the wound” or “takes the best of both worlds and ignores the excess.” This concept tends to suggest that the hybrid is a centralizing work that has achieved a common ground superior to the traditions which it refigures. I use the word “synthesizes” to note the Hegelian aspects of this concept: one that takes earlier concepts and synthesizes them on a higher, more integrated plain. Of course, as Hegel would suggest, even a successful attempt to do so would lead to a reaction against this new synthesis.

I like the concept of the literary hybrid as one that juxtaposes languages, cultures, and histories in surprising ways and plays with the interconnections and differences between them.

I even like the concept of the literary hybrid as one that ignores or blurs the specifics of the interconnections and differences between language, cultures, and histories as long as in doing so, it does not claim to be a healing, seamless whole.

A blurry hybrid can be fascinating but an amorphous one is always boring.

I like the concept of the literary hybrid when it enlightens by confusing and confuses by enlightening.

I like the concept of the literary hybrid when it displaces, disrupts, exposes, makes strange, highlights alienation, or undermines assumptions, whether in reference to other literary and artistic practices or to the world itself.

I even like the concept of the hybrid when it becomes a new specific tradition of writing or highlights a new way of living in the world.

I like the concept of the hybrid as gender-bending but not as “man and woman are one” or “‘til death do us part.”

I don’t like the concept of the hybrid as the overcoming of differences but there’s a place for it as the mediating of them, as long as the mediation does not assume for itself a position of centralized authority. I like the concept of the hybrid as multiple or diffused mediation.

I like the concept of the hybrid when it wastes your time or makes you a better person or even when it gets you a job or makes you famous. I don’t like the concept of the hybrid as The Board of Directors.

I don’t like the concept of the hybrid when it is discussed as the only, the best, the right, the balanced, the middle, the cautious or the most inclusive.

I don’t like the concept of the hybrid as a big tent under which to gather the big names.

I like the concept of the hybrid as a way of combining things without including them.

I like the concept of the hybrid when it does what has not been done in a way that shows the value of its being done.

I don’t like the concept of the hybrid if it suggests that there’s nothing to do but re-mix what has already been done.

I like the concept of the hybrid as generous but I don’t like it as benevolent.

I like the concept of the hybrid as alongside, with, in contrast to, and as exception to the rule.

I like the concept of the hybrid as new potential guidelines but I don’t like the concept of the hybrid as the new rule.

I like the hybrid when it steals the show but not when it demands center stage.

I like the hybrid when it’s sleight of hand and I even like it when it picks my pocket. I don’t like it when it calls the shots.

I like a concept of the hybrid that scrambles the sides or says that none of the sides are worthwhile sides but I don’t like a hybrid that’s afraid to take sides.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Headed Into The Desert

I'm headed into the desert for several days of hiking and much needed time outdoors and away from my computer. Part of that time I'll be in the Coachella Valley Preserve, pictured above.

I'll put through further comments on the ongoing discussion below, or any other, when I return.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Michael Theune on Third Way Poetics

In a group of articles and reviews, critic and scholar Michael Theune has been critiquing in more detail than any other writer I’m aware of the concept of third way poetics. Below, I’m reprinting with permission his 2005 review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries edited by the late Reginald Shepherd.

Several quick questions and points of my own:

To what extent did the writers in The Iowa Anthology think of themselves as third way writers? In other words, do the group of writers gathered in the anthology see themselves as interrelated in the sense, for instance, that the language poets, the flarf poets, and some of the gurlesque writers seem to do? Or was the concept mainly Shepherd’s own? Is third way poetics a literary movement or one writer’s concept? Theune's review explores this question closely and comes up with an answer somewhere between these two poles.

To what extent might The Iowa Anthology (along with, perhaps, the just recently released American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, which I haven’t seen) be said to be primary examples of what might be called a contemporary Iowa School Poetics? For instance, there’s a relatively close connection between the work featured in the anthology and what Johannes Göransson described awhile back (go to August 8 2008 post) as the kind of poetry taught and promoted in the Iowa MFA program in the Jorie Graham years when he was a student there. On the other hand, I remember talk about a UBuffalo Poetics in the 1990s. My sense, at that time, of how there were so many differences in the writing of the students and professors there that I was (and am) convinced that there was no one such poetics, although people outside the context often thought there was.

There’s a big difference between an anthology that tries to build a bridge for writers with different approaches to aesthetics and politics, and one that claims to have found an overarching aesthetic that renders such differences passĂ© and irrelevant.

The poems featured in The Iowa Anthology often have a grand lyrical sophistication, classical references (perhaps just a idiosyncrasy of Shepherd but nonetheless suggestive), and come equipped with claims by the editor to have overcome partisanship. To what extent might the anthology be an attempt at defining not simply a new American middle ground poetry but a new version of an American elite poetry?


Review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, edited by Reginald Shepherd
(Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2004).

Michael Theune

This review originally appeared in American Book Review 27.1 (Nov/Dec 2005): 16-17

Randall Jarrell writes that "[a]nthologies are, ideally, an essential species of criticism." The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries clearly wants to be an important critical/theoretical text by presenting work that situates itself in the supposedly newfound territory between American mainstream and experimental poetries. As Reginald Shepherd asserts in the anthology's "Introduction," "This anthology collects the work of twenty-four poets whose work crosses, ignores, or transcends the variously demarcated lines between traditional lyric and avant-garde practice" (xiii). However, when considered carefully, this anthology reveals itself to be, at best, carelessly crafted and, at worst, actively detrimental, presenting a skewed picture of what otherwise might be a significant, interesting, transgressive trend in American poetry.

Though, as its introduction makes clear, this is not a collection of work by younger poets, this anthology does collect work by poets who had published, at the time of the anthology's publication, "no more than two full-length books of poetry" (xiii). These poets, the introduction asserts, have been brought together not through synchrony and not as a "representative sampling" of trends in American poetry, but so that the poetry of the between, of the lyric/experiment middle space, might be "explicitly laid out and brought together" (xiii). This rationale, though, smacks of a cover-up. The notion that the middle space might be fruitful territory for poetry to explore is not the invention of these newer poets but others-including Jorie Graham, Alice Fulton, Donald Revell, and Michael Palmer, just to name a few mentioned in the introduction-who have theorized and written in and from this space with varying degrees of success for decades. Including such work, though, in this anthology would be problematic, revealing how derivative so much of the anthology's supposedly "new" poetry actually is.

Or is it "poetries actually are"? Though this is an anthology assembled according to the "commonality" of the included work, its title refers to "poetries" and its introduction refers to the poets' various "directions," as if to say that among this new work there are new developments and varieties (xiii). While this anthology wants this to be the case, it employs many pages, regardless of its "[s]evere space constraints" (xiii), to introduce the work of each individual poet with a brief "Artist's Statement," a cursory look at the poet's aims and influences-such is not the case. What is most shocking about the statements is how very similar they are to the introduction and to each other.

Many of these poets think of themselves as poets of the middle space. Jocelyn Emerson notes that she is "…fascinated by the process of trying to map governing epistemes of putatively antithetical discourses against one another (the 'scientific' and the 'aesthetic' for example) to see where their mutually exclusive definitions of self and other become visible and audible" (35), and Heather Ramsdell begins to investigate the governing epistemes of the anthology, wondering, "Is language poetry scientific? Is lyric spiritual?" (223) In this middle space, these poets also, as Shepherd writes, "…reject the dichotomy of thought and emotion, feeling thoughts and thinking feelings…" (xvi). This notion is borne out in Dan Beachy-Quick's hopes that "…the poet's mind pulses, the poet's heart thinks" (1) and in Joanna Klink's positive assessment of Stevens, Bishop, and Eliot as "…poets [who] thought in their poems," who "…could not separate physical pain from its mental shape…" (113). Lastly, according to Shepherd, all included in this anthology are "…poets for whom experience is not prior to the poem but something we undergo with and within the poem, for whom the poem itself is an experience" (xvi). Karen Volkman agrees, stating, "I believe one of the jobs of poetry is to discover and enable different and more complex ways of engaging experience…" (234). And Amy Newman virtually seconds this, defining poetry's task as answering "…the complicating, intoxicating call for the near-impossible, the magic trick of representation: a desire to capture the moveable world with a tool that might always seem somehow inadequate" (176).

From such similar ideas spring very similar poems. The inadequate tools of choice for many of the anthology's poets seem to be chance, fragmentation, and paratactic assemblage. As the various statements reveal again and again, these poems have been put together "by slow accretion" (47), according to "phonetic associations…[an] accrual of design…[that] allows for electrical mistakes, resonant slippages, kinetic cryptographies" (85), employing "accident" (163), with "a lot of hypertextuality" (176) and not too much concern for "fit" (197). This results in, largely, a plethora of half-baked meditations, pointless narratives, and series of short-circuitings which in the end really are, as Cynthia Cruz labels her own work, "broken lyrics" (22). While this may be the new American poetry, it is reminiscent of the kind of poetry challenged in Mary Kinzie's 1984 essay, "The Rhapsodic Fallacy." What's really new here is not the poetry but how familiar such poetry has become, and how improved are the capacities and means-including the anthology's introduction and statements-for theorizing, or excusing, such poetry.

What the anthology's cant tries to conceal is the anthology's general lack of wit. Though Emily Dickinson is a tutelary spirit, referenced in numerous artist statements and poems, the Dickinson who intrigues this anthology's poets is the Dickinson of variants, of multiplicity, the Dickinson favored for her obliquity, her telling it "slant." But this understanding of Dickinson gives no credence to why her multiplicities are worth attention in the first place: Dickinson is the great poet of wit, if we mean by wit something much more than mere verbal cleverness and mean by it, as Charles R. Anderson does in Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, "…the power of joining thought and expression with an aptness calculated to delight by its unexpectedness…" (4). Though Shepherd claims that the work in his anthology is "fully accomplished work" (xiii), it is not to the extent that it's true that, as Anderson claims, "Wit is indispensable to the great poet" (3).

In part, the omission of wit is due to the nature of writing now. Many of the included poems simply weren't made to be anthologized in the way that they are, as they have been selected from longer, sometimes book-length, series of poems in which, according to Karen Volkman, the "movement of mind" is "from poem to poem" (233), in which, according to Jenny Mueller, as a result, there may be "less interest…in 'finishing' or 'originating' individual works" (151). However, part of the anthology's lack of wit also is the result of bad editorial decisions. Some of the writers here are poorly represented; often, their wit has been removed. Nowhere is Laura Mullen's cheeky "After I Was Dead." Nowhere is one of Rachel Zucker's strongest poems, "In Your Version of Heaven I Am Younger"-a sassy poem that begins, "In your version of heaven I am blond, thinner, / but not so witty." And while the poems included by D.A. Powell generally are very good-like so much of Powell's poetry, which is some of the strongest poetry being written today-they are not nearly Powell's best, and they all largely share a similar elegaic tone. Nowhere appears the bawdiness of Powell's "dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash," a traditional poem, much like Wyatt's "They flee from me," about lost love, but completely contemporary in its brashness and liveliness, or the sheer inventiveness of the sad and hilarious "morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead," a poem that employs the narrative of The Poseidon Adventure as an extraordinary extended metaphor for dealing with AIDS.

Shepherd clearly is not just re-presenting poetry of the middle space, he is shaping it, defining it. The problem is that he hobbles it, too, by presenting it weakly, substituting for literary quality-at most, 30 of the nearly 200 poems included are really good poems-a safe, unified style and tone. The extent to which this representation is hobbled is even clearer when one considers all that Shepherd has not included. Even limiting oneself to poets with a family resemblance to the anthologized poets-excluding, for example, poets participating in that very American phenomenon, slam poetry-it's hard to imagine how Shepherd relegated poets such as Olena Kalytiak Davis and Geoffrey G. O'Brien to a "Further Reading" list at the end of the anthology, and it is simply unimaginable that there is no mention whatsoever of work by poets such as Gabriel Gudding, Chelsey Minnis, or Spenser Short, poets who have written some amazing poems very different from each other's yet situated squarely in the middle space. Such exclusion seems especially unconscionable when it is considered that in their place was selected the generally convoluted work of Jocelyn Emerson, Catherine Imbroglio, and Jenny Mueller, three poets Shepherd, one assumes, knows, as they are thanked "for their comments, encouragement, and inspiration" at the end of his book, Otherhood.

Of course, it should be noted that in his introduction, Shepherd states, "…I have chosen poets whose experiments most compel me" (xiv). Fine, but it's not clear why their experiments are really new, or particularly American, or actually plural. Far from presenting new, American poetries, Shepherd has half-assembled and half-created a coterie, and, in doing so, he merely asserts a manner of writing already indicted and surpassed by so much of what it excludes.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Reading in San Diego Saturday February 7

If you live in the San Diego area and are interested in poetry and fiction, come on out for tonight's reading featuring Vanessa Place and Teresa Carmody.

Details here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Nada Gordon's Folly

Nada Gordon’s Folly may be the most essential theoretical statement of what the flarf aesthetic might be said to be about and include. Given the flarf groups’ resistance to the creation of conventional manifestos to explain their intentions, this point may seem paradoxical, but paradoxes present no problems for the author of Folly. With all its whimsy, winking, flirtatiousness, porousness and irreverence, there’s finally a very steely center to this book, even while that center is in many ways the opposite of what we usually mean when we say a book has a center.

The concept of folly, and the way that concept plays out through the poems and dialogues and poetic plays collected in the book, reveal that Gordon has a convincing theory of folly that links the often disparate strands of the marvelously energetic writing she has gathered here. If her book is not a comprehensive elucidation of all the possible elements of that theory, that’s mainly because folly laughs at the idea of comprehensiveness (or maybe just giggles) while at the same time implying how much strength there is in its own breadth. Gordon’s earlier books of poetry had an often scattershot yet compelling structure and energy, as if always threatening to fly apart. While Folly has a similar feel, everything here seems more thoroughly grounded in a sense of why it all belongs together.

As a word, folly was originally named folly by reason, of course. Everything that reason considers not to be itself it considers folly, whether it considers the folly in question disastrous or merely silly. The idea of folly contains not just playfulness, artifice, the slothful, the ornamental, the excessive and the wasteful; that is, not just the daily behavior that always sober seriousness rejects as extreme. It also includes marginalized cultures, histories, and genders, as well as everything that reason, and the various types of reason that pass as reason, tell us can’t or shouldn’t be said. When no longer seen from behind the veil of reason, folly turns out to be no fool, to know that in the moral realm reason is not often reasonable, that much of the time what gets called wisdom is not. Folly wants payback for the fact that reason named it. A payback party perhaps, but payback nonetheless.

In another essay I once called the concept of the avant garde, at its most progressive and least static, “the rejection of Western cultural rejection,” not an affirmation, although sometimes it contained an affirmation, but a double negative. A refusal of the historically acceptable standards for Western Art in a way that also refuses to accept the desire of Western Culture to determine who can be part of it and in what way, who is outside of it and not able to reap its benefits, who must work in poverty so that others can prosper, who must die so that others are allowed to live the way they want. But also a refusal to create even a new, rewritten centrality, a new canon, that would return us once more to the old game of folly and reason. It’s remarkable that Gordon’s Folly manages to refuse to rewrite centrality while at the same time highlighting a concept of what that centrality might be.

The poems in Folly often depend on incongruity, placing together things that, according to reason, ought not to be placed together. The book is full of unexpected juxtapositions, whether between vulgarity, satire, and lyric gracefulness, or between images of older and more contemporary outcasts, shapeshifters, jokesters and freaks. Vocabularies, histories, mythologies and much else are shaken loose from their expected contexts and interact with each other. Charles Bernstein’s back cover comment is exactly right, I think, when he says that Gordon is “on her way to inventing a new type of poetry in which Pre-Raphaelitism meets Zeppo Marx while doing the hokey pokey in a fox trot beat.” Right also in saying “on her way,” since the goal is not to determine who can or can’t belong but to fight back against, and laugh at, all those moments that readers might want to say “you can’t get away with that.” The result is not a coalition but a carnival.

Essential to Gordon is playing around with, and unraveling, the often assumed dichotomy of feminine and feminist.

Lovetta: You look real cute in that ninja getup.

Brianna: And may I say you look delicious in that sari, you wicked thing. The original exposed midriff, how very charming indeed.

Sheptanya: This makes me look like Queen Victoria on a bad day.

Lovetta: Are you kidding? You look totally shaggable in that. I mean, you look cute in that “OMG, that girl has got some BALLS to wear that in public” way. At least you didn’t have to wear elf ears.

Brianna: Does this make me look fickle? Or versatile?

Lovetta. Versatile. Does this make me look two-dimensional? Or careerist?

Sheptanya: Careerist. Does this make me look gelatinous? Or like slightly less of an awesomely intimidating authority figure?

Brianna: I think it makes you look “published.” (38)

There’s play here with the implications of clothing, obviously, and the social roles regarding sex, gender and power always implied by it. Certainly Gordon takes the supposed feminine/feminist dichotomy far beyond early evocations of the feminine as a set of traits revealing powerlessness and the idea of feminism as an assertion of group or individual action (whether separatist or assimilationist) designed to take power back. She goes past the step beyond as well, the idea that the feminine is or can be powerful, a discourse that can not only change in and of itself but in relation to others, spinning magic circles around conventional masculinist notions of power. Instead there’s a flamboyant game playing in Folly that suggests identity and relation and power and sexuality are found in how all of us play together, play even with the idea of playing. The characters note how quickly their relation to the game can change and how easily such changes can be signaled. In Folly the feminine and the feminist turn out to be interconnected roles that players might take up, both for the revel and the sheer pleasure of play as well as for the power at stake. Not so much play as a way to obtain change, but change as a means to more enjoyable playing.

That said, Gordon consistently signals her awareness of the sociopolitical conditions that not only limit choices for behavior but make play seem at times an impossibility, as in “Viagric Importunings:

God: For fuck’s sake, I despair at some humans, I really do. Gods, I am so angry. I wish there was something to be done, I feel so impotent.

A star-shaped pillowcase: I am able to convey so many things through nonverbal communication, why is it that I feel so impotent using tools that others use with ease?

Fat Thing: And the worse part is that I cannot do anything about it—except go on being a part of it. My god, why do I feel so impotent? When will we ever learn?

Rusty helmet: I’m scared. Everything has changed. I feel so impotent. There’s nothing that can be done but to sit here and watch.

Earthquake: I feel so impotent when I can’t think of the right words to describe the sound of an individual band or maintain an erection. (59)

It’s not surprising that feelings of helplessness are common in the face of the foibles of human behavior, the power of contemporary social institutions and the conditions of complicity that come with being inevitably part of them or at least subject to them, as well as the frantic pace of change that often overwhelms individual and even group response. Still, what this particular short sketch also shows is that the feeling of impotence has itself become a ritual, a social game people play in relation to each other. It’s a ritual that’s both ludicrous and paradoxically energizing. In “Viagric Importunings,” while reflections on impotence might in private doom us, the ritual of displaying it to each other comes with a sexual energy that must certainly be the ground of getting beyond it. Not that we will necessarily get beyond it in this or any other given instance, just that if we could, that would be where the impetus would have to come from. No resistance without sexuality.

In fact, Gordon also wants to make clear that the ultimate human folly is human belief in our own centrality in the universe, as in the opening to the poem “Nothing Is Untitled”:

Dear universal hominid ancestor:

Do you think you’re special because you have

It’s not easy to mix an often harsh critique of contemporary social conditions and human limitations with a good time party, yet Gordon manages to do just that, as in the two poems entitled “Why America Sucks” and elsewhere as well. Much of the book’s satire comes with a lush, sensual prose that certainly recalls 19th century verboseness without ever seeming actually retro. The book is a carnival of real and imaginary animals, human beings in strange, voluptuous costumes, sadness and cheerfulness and a thrilling celebration of the perverse in character, sexuality, and language.

The dialogues and poetic plays present characters expressing a wide range of emotions: depression, ecstasy, embarrassment, loathing, longing, horniness and many others. But Gordon doesn’t use the poems in Folly for direct confession or blatant exploration of her own subjective state, at least beyond the fact that the totality of the statements in the book might be said to map a whole arrangement of thought and feeling that’s uniquely her own. These are impersonal poems full of personal revelations, and also the opposite: personal poems displayed through the impersonal methods of characters and role players who serve as objective correlatives of emotions and social conditions. The poems refuse conventional notions both of subjectivity and objectivity, revealing both to be a play of physical surfaces while never turning the point into a purely theoretical suggestion. In fact another remarkable thing about Folly is that the poems never seem controlled by the idea of folly or written with the advance intention of proving a point. Instead they seem to revolve around and return to key ideas without seeming pre-mapped and while still coming together in a way that feels convincing as theory.

Saying that Folly is a central theoretical statement of the flarf aesthetic isn’t to suggest that the book can account for all the different types of writing that the flarf group has produced. The flarf group has usually resisted defining themselves through manifestos or other statements of its own importance, replacing such statements with ironic, self-undermining commentaries meant to make fun of the manifesto-issuing tendency while simultaneously turning the manifesto into another flarf game. Gordon herself somewhat notoriously refuses to define the flarf aesthetic, sometimes claiming that flarf is nothing more than a particular set of writers working in all their various ways in attempts to instruct and delight—the kind of claim that can make stance takers white-knuckled with annoyance. All that said though, the concept of folly that plays out in Folly seems to me a crucial ground for understanding the flarf group’s essential obsession with impropriety, with doing in poems all sorts of things that others say they cannot and should not do. One of the things that makes flarf so controversial is that it doesn’t just explore the improper as it’s defined in mainstream capitalist culture. It also takes on the improper as it appears in the tightly-interlocking social mores of the world of poets themselves who, in an age when society-at-large doesn’t pay attention (although if it did, it would inevitably disapprove), seem to make a tremendous effort to tell other poets what they shouldn’t do. If the world will not police our work, we will do it ourselves.

Frankly, I doubt that Folly is going to convince people who dislike flarf that they should change their minds. Though the book seems to me a statement of purpose, it hardly proselytizes for its cause or attempts to win converts across any of the well-worn aisles of contemporary poetry debates that one can read about every day on the Harriet or Ron Silliman blogs. It has more of a chance perhaps to reach some readers of mainstream verse who are trying to look beyond the most commonly asserted divisions in contemporary poetry. Gordon picks and chooses from various literary and cultural traditions, avant garde and otherwise, and restlessly unsettles many commonly accepted critical distinctions about literary language. In fact the book seems very connected to Arielle Greenberg’s ideas about the gurlesque. Still, Folly isn’t any kind of middle ground poetry. The poems never reach to define a middle but celebrate and juxtapose extremes. There are no linear narratives, no concluding lines of heightened emotion for lovers of traditional lyric, no descriptions of current events for those who like relevant of-the-moment protest poems. Folly is an important book not because it doesn’t offer such moves but because it shows us that all sorts of things which people think should not be part of poetry are actually crucial to it: all the impurities we’re always trying to cast out in order to remake the universe in our own image.