Saturday, September 22, 2007

Action Yes would seem to be a great online journal, given what I've had a chance to read so far. I've given a thorough skim to Joshua Corey's typically thoughtful essay on the possibilities of the Baroque for contemporary poetry (it deserves a more thorough reading, and will get it), and have scanned James Pate's intriguing writing on Wittgenstein versus "body philosophers" as influences on poets (I'll also read that one with full attention).

The one I've read through more thoroughly is Jasper Bernes' "On the Poverty of Internet Life: a Call for Poets," a great, relieving and sometimes frustrating critique of the depiction of the internet as a liberatory, democratizing non-space. Bernes runs very much against the grain here. Thank goodness. While I admit the unparalleled usefulness of the internet for many purposes, and certainly think it's done more good than bad for poetry, I'm thoroughly skeptical about the giddy postmodern glee so many express in relation to it.

I like Bernes' writing here. It's not just that I'm not particularly bothered by jargon and kind of attracted to polemics. What's compelling is the way Bernes deploys a lot of the same language often used to paint glowing pictures of the deterritorialized internet in order to make that picture look pretty ugly in a lot of ways. Here are a couple of bits that made me laugh:

In this, the funhouse mirror of the commodity, in which things appear to be more real than the social relations that produce them, in which commodities appear, in fact, to produce those relations—in this, the primary inversion of the commodity fetish that Marx described is itself inverted in the pseudo-emancipatory fetish of de-fetishization that is the user-generated internet. Opposed to relationships, here products and objects seem, in fact, the mere effluvia of an immense, acephalous process in which one futilely stakes out a section of the common and calls it “mine” or, more colloquially, “my shit.”

The point, then, is that to the extent that the internet fails to thrust me back onto my own lap, to the extent that it fails to render crystal clear the ugliness and smallness of the life I lead in all its terrible complicities, and to the extent that it fails to fail to escape these conditions, it is a vicious augmentation of the spectacular aerosolization of all that’s solid, a burp in the calculator.

Great stuff--and these excerpts don't give a sufficient indication of the ethical drive of much of the essay, its committed seriousness about U.S.-backed murder and colonialism. Bernes' discussions of IDF tactics as perfectly Deleuzian is terrifying. I love Deleuze, and this gives me chills.


It's when the discussion turns to poetry that I start to have some problems. Bernes claims that "American poetry is the cracked mirror of contemporary capitalism"--a familiar kind of statement about art as the reflection of society. It's been said a lot about the so-called 'so-called Language Poets"' (or SCSCLPs) who, the story goes, reflected in their early work the fragmented, postmodern, thoroughly commodified world they set out to critique. This story has always missed the constructivist side of the SCSCLPs' work--the astonishing variety of their literary production, the use of parataxis to produce new literary effects and new kinds of thinking in writing that, I'd claim, one certainly can't find "out there" in the sphere of consumer-capitalist consumption. The production of texts (like, I'd argue, Silliman's Tjanting) that, through their arrangement of materials, make an analogy for the everyday synthesis of experience that dehabitualizes that synthesis, bringing it into conscious view--an invaluable political effect for a piece of writing to have.

Perhaps the all-too-familiar critiques of SCSCLP lean all-too-heavily on the early theoretical writings, and not enough on the actual poetry. But that's an argument that, with its holes, belongs in another place.


Bernes' portrait of contemporary poetry as structured by the anxious Father, one "Son Realman," and by Oedipalized sons such as "Bomb Early," is all-too-familiar and none-too-true. The advantage of painting this portrait here is twofold: it makes explicit the situation that many poets (mostly poet-bloggers) enact without admitting it, and the situation itself is no less concretely effective among these poets for its unreality (just as the unreal value of money has very real effects). The problem with the portrait is that, while Realman may to some extent allow the power granted him to accrue, most of it is attributed by others (I've seen it happen over and over in Realman's comments box). Realman's authority as an arbiter of all things poetic is, in actuality, less weighty, worthy of fear, institutionally backed than the imaginary-symbolic figure the Bomb Earlies create in their attempted destruction of it. The anxiety lies not with the Realmans (who have little to gain or lose), but with the Earlies who go into conniptions every time the "school whose name cannot be spoken" is mentioned, each time an unapologetic pronouncement is made.


Thoughts on section 7.2:

1) Bernes' general proposal for intervention by poets via work that isn't poetry per se is a fine one ("an improvement of, or de-sterilization, or re-politicization of public language").
When one gets into the specifics of this, the problems become particularly difficult. By way of getting into a couple, I'd like to draw attention to a few distinct art-interventions in more or less recent times:

2) When I saw the film about the Yes-Men, I was struck by the differences in efficacy between their projects. On the one hand, there are the various presentations they've made at corporate conferences and universities (pretending to be representatives of corporations or consulting firms). These generally involve taking what sounds like an innovative business proposal and pushing beyond the bounds of what the attendees would accept as believable or ethically viable (either by proposing an utterly ridiculous product or a truly horrifying process, like piping processed feces from western McDonalds restaurants to "third world" restaurants, where they'll be made into new sandwiches). I'll also put their tour as fake Bush campaigners, in which they blatantly proposed massive environmental devastation to the residents of various small towns, in this category. In almost all these cases, the audience made no objections whatsoever; the proposals were often met with applause.

On the other hand, the project in which one of the Yes-Men posed as a DOW chemical representative and apologized, on international news television, for the Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal back in the '70's, promising massive remuneration and environmental cleanup, was highly effective. It forced the actual DOW people to tell the world that they did not apologize, took no responsibility for the spill, and would make no such promises--in other words, they had to appear on international news and admit that they were responsible and would do nothing about it.

3) When I was in Philadelphia for the protests around the 2000 Republican National Convention, I saw a Jenny Holzer project: sentences scrolling by on a board erected on a downtown street corner in front of a construction site. I'd seen and loved Holzer's work for years, but this context gave it an entirely new function. Her charged sentences about violence, ethics, money, value, sex, power, etc., some of which I'd seen in museum pieces and on a stone table at UCSD, took on entirely different meanings in a large city where people were having their homes and meeting spaces infiltrated by the police, having equipment destroyed, being arrested and beaten in jail, blocking routes to the convention center, confronting local and national political figures and screwing up everyone's downtown shopping experiences. Holzer's sentences seemed to address this context directly.

4) Hans Haacke, commissioned by a major museum in Germany, once undertook a project that involved making meticulous reproductions of the most famous works in the museum's collection, one copy for each previous owner of that painting. The caption for each copy detailed the owner's finances, social status, and how he or she acquired the work. These lists of dry facts revealed a lot about the owners, particularly the more recent ones: some acquired the paintings through associations with the Nazi party during their seizure of 'offending' works; some made the money required for the purchase through highly unethical business practices; some simply ripped off previous owners who couldn't afford not to make the deal.

5) As interventions, the first set of the Yes-Men's presentations failed (though they're hilarious, brilliant and troubling performances). Instead, they revealed a problem. I'd argue that the audiences for the Yes-Men have been able to accept their proposals largely because they fit formally with what's expected in the context of a conference or seminar. If they hadn't fit so well, the ruse would have been up, and the performers would have been driven from the stage--but the fit that allowed them to say whatever they wanted, as long as the form remained acceptable, prevented their content from having effects that were particularly distinct from those of the genuine presentations in such contexts.

If we're to alter or intervene in public language, we have (by definition) to do it in contexts in which that language appears. Given that, we need to find a way to build surprise into the work, perhaps by choosing media that will get attention by its public nature, but using, within those media, kinds of language that shouldn't be there. Kinds of language, not just amplified, distorted or mutated versions of the kind of language that 'belongs' in a given medium. At the same time, the degree of fit has to be engineered with regard to the specific medium. Media like caution tape (which Bernes proposes) might allow a certain degree of freedom with regard to this problem, since the set of kinds of language that belongs on caution tape is so small, and since people are used to seeing it but not absorbing it. The newspaper, on the other hand, is trickier; how to push past the point at which no-one will notice anything you've put in, without turning it into an obvious fake (like The Onion)? How to avoid either too close a fit or too great a mismatch?

6) Speaking of The Onion, there's the linked problem of irony. At this point, ironic methods ("Home Depot for President, for instance") are usually highly ineffective. Irony is so ubiquitous that everyone is used to it; it's the place where nearly everyone can feel at home. Almost no-one is made uncomfortable by South Park. Irony would capitalize (for example) on the president's bumbling, whereas the truth is that the bumbling image has been historically encouraged in order to take attention away from the hideous truth (as when the CIA, sued by patients whose lives had been ruined by the agency-funded electroshock/sensory deprivation research in Canadian hospitals in the '50s, portrayed that project as a clumsy, misguided and failed attempt to learn something about 'Communist brainwashing' of POWs, rather than as intentional and highly successful research into the torture techniques now employed in Iraq, Guantanamo, etc.). This is not to say that irony has no place--just that there has to be something besides irony at work. Otherwise, one simply thickens the skin of the reader at best (a sterilization of public language), or (at worst) contributes to the obfuscation of reality.

6) Holzer's kind of context-ready writing has more appeal for me. The problem might be that it's easily dismissable as art. Even in that Philadelphia context, I don't know if someone who wasn't interested in being affected by the work would have been.

7) The Haacke project, by contrast, places itself explicitly within the context of art, while linking art just as explicitly to the extra-aesthetic--and all this in a relatively public place, albeit one that only museum-goers would attend. It's an intervention within a smaller public sphere than that of Holzer's work or the Yes-Men's Bhopal apology.

8) All this points toward the notion (already there, more or less, in Bernes' essay), that the interventionist projects poets undertake need to be of a wide variety, in lots of different locations and media, taking place on different scales. Any general statement I've made here is bound to find exceptions in specific work, and there can be no all-encompassing prescription.


One of the tragic aspects of post-9/11 activism is the loss of the variety, creativity, and vibrancy
(not to mention, in some cases, success) that characterized the anti-globalization work of the late 1990s. Since 2001, we've seen a disappearance of that 'de-issuization,' the linking of many interests, concerns, strategies, and have instead been left with a pale shadow of the same old protest tactics, the speeches, signs and chants. In Philadelphia 2000, we had clowns, goatheaded bicyclists performing elaborate raps, puppets (those that weren't destroyed by the cops). In LA that year there were environmental activists in frog costumes, clown cops, poets, the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore). This wasn't just a colorful pageantry--it was a way of reaching out into a great variety of modes of public discourse, attitudes, interests. I miss it, and think we need it. Activism needs art, as it always has--but now more than ever. Bernes skewers the comforted flight of this kind of variety onto the 'net, and asks us to put it back into material society.

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Paid my fourth and (alas) final visit to the Jess exhibit at the Madison MCA today, and was stunned again by the intelligence of the composition, the humor, the precision of the technique, the referential complexity, the dizzying shifts and impossibilities of scale in the work. Not for some time have I had such experiences of profound estrangement; it reminds me of the first weird art that I remember seeing, as a kid wandering up the street to the art studios associated with Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, walking through the grounds of the former brickyard and train station, coming across unattributed abstract sculptures in the tall grass, entering the building (always open) and exploring the painting studios, in the presence of things utterly alien, fields of energy leaked through some rift from a hidden reality. Or the first times I saw De Chirico's paintings, also as a kid (still my favorite art associated with surrealism). That sense of vanished human time, a resonant silence.


Overheard before the Robin Blaser reading last weekend (with my unspoken comments in brackets):
"The thing about the Language poets [uh-oh]--and I'm sure I'm overgeneralizing [me too]--they've ended up in the same position as the New Critics, who were the enemy back in the '70s and '80s--taking up academic positions--they've become the canonical critics for the younger generation of poets [to some extent, yes, but there's a hell of a lot of resistance to that--and, in any case, the Language poets are so much better than the New Critics, and so much more fun!]"
[Also, they're poets.]


A curse of being a writer: it's hard to have an experience without thinking of it as material for poetry. One could spend an entire life working on two fronts: to let experience simply be experience, and to find a capacious enough poetics to encompass all of it.


Thinking about argumentation and critique:
If a statement is readily available, easily deployed, intuitively convincing due to its ubiquity, be as suspicious of it as possible. If you must use it, compose your language so that its former users don't speak through it so loudly that they drown you out.


On confidence:

A couple of years ago (just before I started sending stuff out for publication again), I finally convinced myself that I'm a good poet. This, however, does not at all mean that I think a given poem of mine is necessarily good--or that I have great confidence in the future production of good poems. On the contrary: the uncertainty only gets greater as I go on.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Robin Blaser at SF State

At the tail end of the Nonsense Company's trip to San Francisco for our performances in the Fringe festival, I managed to get to Robin Blaser's reading at SF State. I came away stunned, and remain so.

The reading was framed by an introduction by Norma Cole and the presentation of a Small Press Traffic Lifetime Achievement Award by Robert Gluck; both of them gave moving speeches that, unfortunately, have been erased from my mind by the poems themselves, and the talk between them.

I don't go to a lot of readings (not many opportunities here in Madison), and when I think highly of a reader it's most often due to the clarity of their delivery, the way they make the poems as comprehensible as possible. Blaser goes way beyond this. He knows exactly how to use his rich, musical voice, sliding between plain speech and a kind of half-sung incantation that recalls the way Pound would have read if he'd been less obsessed with his cultural authority and had been able to vary the song from that repetitious, irritating two-or-three-pitch range you hear in recordings (say, of the "usura" Canto). Blaser's reading always serves the poem. I was transfixed in a way I've never been at a poetry reading (and I pride myself on attentiveness at performances).

He began by voicing his gratitude for the fact that both Jack Spicer's and Robert Duncan's collected writings are in the works (which excites the hell out of me as well, especially as regards Spicer), moving on to read his "Great Companions" poem for Duncan. He then read Spicer's letter to him from Admonitions, followed by a couple of sections from Fifteen False Propositions Against God and the "God is a big round white baseball" section of Book of Magazine Verse--and then read all three of them again, without comment, a little faster but with every pitch curve the same as the first time. Then we got to hear half an hour or so of Blaser's work from this century, some of it from the last year, all wonderful. Ten minutes in he asked, "am I reading too long?," and everyone (a lot of people), a bit shocked that this question was possible, answered, "oh, no."

I won't go into a detailed account of the rest of the reading, except to say that the long standing ovation was moving and heartfelt. Afterwards I briefly met the Itinerant Poetry Librarian, who had draped Blaser's table with a beautiful cloth she informed me had "been to eleven countries and absorbed a lot of poetry." I wanted to talk with her, and others, more, but my mingling abilities, never great, had already been drained by the Fringe experience, and the idea of chit-chat after that reading seemed utterly innocuous and embarrassing.

I bought the expanded Holy Forest and The Fire, Blaser's collected essays, against my better financial judgment but with no regret, sunk in the writing on the Muni train back to the Tenderloin, in bed in the morning as a nasty cold came on, in the car and the motel on the way back to Wisconsin, last night when I couldn't sleep after thirty hours on the road. This is such important writing; Charles Bernstein's comment in his afterword to the Holy Forest seems right on: this poetry seems to have more to do with the future of the art than with the past. So fresh, so varied, so unabsorbed by us, we writers in Blaser's wake. Such political and intellectual commitment, such music, such weaving of motifs, the incorporation of the lyric and the epic with the essay and the diary. A poetry of capaciousness that always looks for a way to let more in, like Pound, Olson, Zukofsky, Duncan tried to open their work to the widest possible range of phenomena, like Silliman and Hejinian have done in much of their work... Blaser has an openness of his own, a freshness of thinking that sets him apart.

I can't do much more than rave at this point, still without a good night's sleep. I'll just say that Blaser looks extraordinarily good, not just for a man of 82 but in general, brimming with life that I can imagine taking him to 102. I hope so.

This is work one lives with.