Monday, August 21, 2006


I just posted this in response to a strand on the Buffalo Poetics list, and thought it came out well enough to put here:

The claim that poetry and politics are essentially opposed is a sigh of resignation that wants to make itself universal.

In a recent workshop on "Poetry and the News" (given at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee), Kerri Sonnenberg put some emphasis on the value of "vulnerability" for poetry that concerns itself with politics. The explicit suggestion was that a political poem is more likely to appeal to/reach a reader if the poet doesn't seem to already know all the answers to her questions (and, therefore, if the poem raises questions-- this said with the caveat that a totally open indecisiveness that anyone can feel comfortable with is NOT what's being recommended). There are a number of appealing things about this notion and the ways it can be expanded.

For one thing, "vulnerability," leaving oneself open to error and to multiple possible solutions (and to more interesting problems than the ones we're handed--and, because of all this, to attack), seems to me to be an essential ethical concept at this time, when we've suffered through almost five years of a relentless emphasis on "security." Support for the all-out "war on terror" has been (especially since 9/11) based largely on an insistence on the right to a total safety; do I need to point out that this safety is factually impossible? That nothing whatsoever can ensure an absolute safety on any scale? In the face of this, the demand for invulnerability amounts to a sociopathic paranoia. This is as true on the interpersonal scale as it is on the global. Letting vulnerability be is one way of removing oneself from power relations whose tendency is to reproduce themselves (indefinitely deferring their own impossible satisfaction), and whose consequences are brutal.

Recently, as part of an ongoing investigation of her book "The Fatalist," I watched a Kelly Writers' House talk given by Lyn Hejinian (archived on the PennSound site), in which she discusses the "open text" explicitly in terms of the contrary desire for closure, again in reference to 9/11. She identifies the need to close the narrative begun by the events of that day as one of the major political crises of our day.

Too often the idea of "openness" in poetry is oversimplified (made vague and broad) and caricatured, mostly by people who want to take a swipe at "LangPo," and can do so by not examining the actual work of those writers, but instead taking one or two sentences from an essay written in the late '70's and riffing on that. In her talk, Hejinian proposes one of many specific kinds and functions of openness (the "rejection of closure" for crucial political reasons) in poetic writing.

Openness and vulnerability. Poetry is a comparatively safe place to practice these. Even a prescriptive political poetry (isn't this an unlikely term? who will have their politics prescribed by a poem? "no-one listens to poetry") can allow its prescriptions to include their own cracks, uncertainties, provisionalities, tactical transiences, the new questions and problems raised by those very solutions offered as prescriptions. Vulnerability means maintaining a space for an active, thinking listening in the face of the insistent beat of rectitude that can only be heard and absorbed.

("no/ one listens to poetry")


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Minneapolis Fringe

The Nonsense Company returned from the Minneapolis Fringe Festival a few days ago. What an amazing experience. Now in its 14th or 15th year, the 11-day festival is remarkably well-organized by great, energetic people who have a genuine interest in a wide variety of types of performance, and in the truly odd to boot. Minneapolis seems like a great town; the people who thronged to the festival tended to be open-minded and intelligent, constantly discussing what each other had seen and what was most surprising or unique. The Festival makes every attendee buy a $3 button, which they have to wear in order to get tickets to individual performances; this means that Fringegoers are immediately identifiable, which facilitates the ongoing discussion (buzz) in a smart and simple way.

Our own performance got great responses from audience members and official Fringe bloggers (my favorite is here) and sold out the last night. It took place in the lovely Theatre de la Jeune Lune, known around the city for its innovative work. All the spaces (and there were many) used in the festival were lovely, and I got to see performances in the vast majority of them. The most amazing thing about the experience (connected to everyone's mutual support) was the astonishingly high quality of the work. I probably saw seventeen performances, and only one was utterly intolerable... three were halfway-decent wastes of time, and everything else ranged from the basically worthwhile to the truly amazing, leaning more toward the latter end of the scale.

My three personal favorites:

Sock Puppet Serenade, a remarkable marionette show by Kurt Hunter. I'm puppet-friendly, but this show was remarkable in terms of its status as theater in general. The first half featured animals and animal-like things, and even there the "acting" was more precise and complex than that you'll find in most human performance. The second half, though, was the truly amazing part, featuring a cardboard box that could imitate perfectly the dance moves from the "Nutcracker" and "Riverdance," followed by an abstraction of a box (just the outline), changing shape in impossibly expressive ways, and finally a marionette that was nothing but a dress shirt with a red nose. Pretty weird for a guy who turns out to be a methodist.

Gayle Austin's Resisting the Birthmark: A Feminist Theory Play, performed by Atlanta's Twinhead Theatre. Kind of like a mid-period Yvonne Rainer film for the stage, the play is more or less a staging of Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark" that's constantly taken over by excerpts of feminist essays about the story, as well as about literature and the role of the gendered body in theater. The acting was fantastic; there was a kind of visual flatness to the staging (almost without set), as if the distance from the audience of a given performer at a given time were meant to mimic the layering of texts and commentaries. Sharp dressers, too, these Georgians were, and great folks.

The Missoula Oblongata's The Wonders of the World: Recite is by far the hardest piece to describe. If they ever do it again, and you hear about it, go.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

addenda and

In my last post, I should have pointed out some more notable exceptions, in the queer community, to one of the norms described there. The queer punk scene in particular features some of the most wide-ranging activism (and aesthetic open-mindedness) I've come across anywhere. The hard work, good cheer and generosity one often finds in abundance among young anarchists is rare and wonderful.

A songwriter who exemplifies the best in queer political music is Scott Free, lynchpin of the Chicago queer folk scene, who's not a young anarchist and is only sometimes a punk rocker. Last year's They Call Me Mr. Free covers more ground than just about any album of political music I've heard in years, from high school gaybashing to the Iraq war to racial profiling and the corrupt Chicago courts to the insult of "disco divas singing at PrideFest," and more, all with subtlety, thought, detail, meticulous melodic writing, better hiphop than hiphop, and heavier rock than heavy rock.


If you're interested in more Fringe festival news, D.R. Israel blurbs the DC Fringe in a recent post.


The hubbub started by Ron Silliman's recent post on Gabriel Gudding, which I haven't been following very carefully, brings up some issues that matter to me (Silliman loves those figures who like to generate controversy, doesn't he? Controversy by proxy?). I surely shouldn't have taken the snide little swipe at Gudding I allowed myself in Ian's comments box today, since I don't know Gudding, have barely read his writing, and haven't even gone through the controversial eight-year-old essay yet. For all I know, he is indeed a genuine sweetheart, not a new age narcissist, and a smart writer. Or not; I'm no authority. Ian's post does point to something that's concerned me since I started reading poets' blogs, though: the "anxiety of influence" among younger poets doing work that's at least broadly interesting in the U.S. (I should point out that using a phrase of Harold Bloom's here causes me some mild nausea).

The phenomenon in brief:
Poet fears being called derivative, especially where hir immediate poetic predecessors are concerned. Poet goes around describing other peoples' writing in terms of those predecessors, and talking about how "old" things are. Criticisms go back and forth. Often the anxious poet writes in a style that could also be called derivative--it's just that it's derived from styles that aren't currently part of the nexus of anxiety. This is probably a disease of "scenes," a symptom of jockeying for social status... or the result of quick and careless reading habits.


The Minnesota Fringe festival is great; I've seen almost nothing that's dreadful, and much that's at least good, some amazing. Our own show is getting great responses, which surprises the hell out of me. People in Minneapolis apparently want to see weird art. Nice city, too. More detailed reports to follow.