My partner, whose background is in theater history & performance studies, asked me to help out with delineating some of the strategies of contemporary performative poetry--i.e., poetic texts for which performance (a broad term, thus broad territory here) is a central element to the work. This was for an introductory level lecture that would pivot around Brecht & squeeze in, towards the end, some notes on contemporary, or recent, work in poets theater, in polyvocality, ambulatory poetry, in embodiment writing, etc. As an introduction to poetries that enter into the discourses of theater, as a basic lecture for students who have little to no knowledge of the history of various movements and practices, thinking about demarcations, lines of difference, seems somewhat harmless to me, and yet, both of us, as we talked things thru, realized a lecture that would retain a sense of historical accuracy without recapitulating the very hardened boundaries between this "kind" of poetry and that. Or we felt that it did anyhow.
The lovely thing about going back thru some of these works was revisiting works that have deeply influenced me, really inspired me very early on in my shoddy poetical attempts. Hannah Weiner's Fast came up for discussion, as did Laura Elrick's Stalk, and Rodrigo Toscano's Collapsible Poetics Theater. Good timing too, as Stalk has just been released--& I highly recommend it. Of course Kenneth Goldsmith came up too. Tho I'm fairly nonplussed by Goldsmith's work (except for the 9/11 tapes, which I think are really quite amazing), I can't help but admit an appreciation for his rhetorical strategies, his essaying on quote end quote conceptual poetry over at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere.
Anyway, point being it's my partner's fault (have I told you I have a fever?) for yanking me into the domain of well-tread squabbles between poetry "camps." Specifically, that old set of arguments between flarf/conceptual poets and, well, those who have been the target of the flarfists/conceptualists critique, usually (as far as I can tell) poets/text artists who overtly flaunt their (our) politics, have the nerve to rehearse referring, who dare appear to refer to, dunno, political shit. Or so goes this uncharacteristically idiotic, or perhaps mean-spirited post by Nada Gordon. From the very end of that post:
It struck me reading the new magazine that Andy Gricevich kindly gave me
last Saturday, Cannot Exist, that every poem in it seemed
to include some sort of heavy-handed socio-critique.
Isn’t, um, aren’t the lessons already in the fabric
of the language? Can’t we just assume that, and write
inductively, forefronting the senses?
Perhaps I'm motivated to stick up for Andy Gricevich's Cannot Exist because I love the journal so far, and Nada's critique is therefore unwittingly aimed at me. But if so, that's only part of the story, as it seems to me, at least briefly--but not just once--Nada is making that old pre-Wittgenstein category error (I mean, aren't all categories, in some sense, errors?): that there is some discernible difference between word and world, and that Flarf, by "forefronting the senses" escapes the mimetic didacticism of what she calls "Docu-poetry," e.g., here, the politically inflected poetry of witness of Juliana Spahr, and by doing so stands as the end product of a strategically more radical poetry than the poetry written by, according to Nada, West Coast radicals. Mark Wallace comments that this is really a non-issue, as there need be no "either/or" here. From Mark:
There's so much uselessly annoying either/or thinking in poetry. An insightful criticism rarely draws lines like "doing things in that (general) way is bogus by definition
Agreed, up to a certain point. I mean, as one can tell from how late I am to this discussion (Nada's post is from Feb), and as one can see from how rarely I involve myself in criticism of one school of poetry or another, I'm just this much interested in these sorts of discussions. But the interest, for me, is where I begin to disagree with Mark to some extent, if I read him right. I think it important to take a stand, not to rigidify poetically, i.e., to have tunnel vision and never rethink one's poetics, but the stakes are extremely high IF we think that language so-called is necessarily political, IF we take as axiomatic (and I think all here do) that any utterance is necessarily political as long as that utterance reaches the ears or eyes of another. Nada surely does, as her critical writing--which I deeply admire for its precision and openness to myriad works--articulates a poetics, a rich one, an ever-shifting one, a necessarily flexible poetics, of flarf. Nonetheless, I've always felt a lack in Flarf, as well as in quote end quote conceptual poetry (and here I come back to Goldsmith), a political naivete, or in any case a sort of middle class disinterest in radical revisions of social orders, and so it stands to reason that what I take to be so refreshing and rare in Cannot Exist, Nada takes as "heavy-handed." By imagining a process wholly "inductive" is to detach word from world--to take the process of scrounging the web as, in some sense, an archeology of the material substrates, not itself every bit as contiguously material with its evidentiary out-put, & this to recapitulate that division. And so it stands to reason that what I see as subtle, undercuttingly playful, synesthetic to the point of being proprioceptively didactic, Nada sees as very simply didactic, where, for instance, Spahr's "The Incinerator" is met with "didactic" as epithet. Didacticism need not be an epithet, just as a poetry of witness that isn't the crappy confessional poetry one runs into now and again if yr an editor, that immerses itself in its acknowledgment as commodity, unavoidably so, hence the imagarie (necessarily) of its environment, need not have a dead ear or be crudely mimetic of established forms of protest. Flarf's trolling, its, to use Nada's term, "rescuing" the language of the web, is a reclamation project not unlike a poetry of witness in its strategy of materialist framing of particulars, jamming logics up against one another as a way of sewing up the lark that's been split by consumerism, capital.
Any case, I write this not to rag on Nada Gordon, whose work for the most part I admire, and whose poems I often revel in--rather, like many, I find myself suddenly and temporarily engaged in these divisions if for no other reason than I find the strategic demarcating of flarf to be rather flimsy. That is, I've found the movement so to speak a) at times rather corporate in its sturdy reliance on, use and recapitulation of, technologies and ad-systems that serve as zones of distraction during times of crisis (and often the poems themselves reflect this); but, perhaps more importantly, b) not particularly new in terms of process of construction.
This jaunt, which started as a couple hours of hunting around for links for my partner's lecture, did, however, end up in me coming back to Nada's poems, again reveling in their turns, their sonic otherworldliness, and wow can she cut a line. So, I'll end, paradoxically, by saying that I, like Mark, find these arguments to be tiresome, but also important, deeply important, if we take our gestures as they turn public to be, each one, urgent. So, go read Dale Smith's post on flarf-conceptualism. Again, an older post. I ran into it during this revisit, and I think it the best negative critique of these closely connected movements that I've so far seen (Smith refers to the movements as one, as F-Con Po). Not that I've been looking far and wide. That, to use Nada's title, would be folly.
ps: for further reading on my distaste for the clubbiness economy of poetry, an economy that is every bit as "market driven" as anything else, and contemorary poetry's tendency to side-step radical politics by miming 80s-era conceptual art, read the essay "Example of an Essay: Power Point Poetics" in my forth. book, Prefab Eulogies Vol 1: Nothings Houses (BlazeVOX, 2010).