Friday, December 4, 2009

I'm Not a Pluralist, It's the Internet

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).


  1. does adherence to saussure disqualify one for the title of west coast radical? If so I should read more Wittgenstein.

  2. Hi David,

    Actually, I don't think you and Nada are too awfully far apart in terms of appreciation or enthusiasm for contemporary poetry. See her glowing report, from last month, for instance, on Laura Elrick's reading at Segue/BPC:

    Too, I think the original post you linked to was not as dismissive, and certainly not "mean-spirited," as you might have initially sensed. Rereading it again, half a year later, I see that it's actually very measured; it's more a kind of taking stock of her own response to some recent work. It should be noted, too, that the post itself was occasioned by Stephanie Young's reading at Segue/BPC--Nada and I had invited (and introduced) her.

    Nada would agree that categorizing and throwing lines down in the sand is not terribly generative. And I don't think that's really what she's doing in that post--which is respectful of her subject, though questioning. (She calls Juliana's piece "brilliant," for instance. And I don't think she's using didactic as a put-down; she has didactic work of her own, which she would readily admit--and even stand by.)

    "Just like Juliana, and C.S., and Stephanie, and Bernadette, and Kenny, and Ed, and all the rest, I write to navigate my existence, to explore my mental contours and the nuances of language and experience," she writes towards the end of the post. Her basic assumption, I would say, is of kinship, even despite some differences of how those kinships are made manifest in the work itself.

    The post, overall, strikes me not as "idiotic" or "mean-spirited," but questioning. And she is, I hasten to point out, questioning those she has, and continues to be, directly supportive of in very real ways, on her blog, through Segue, and elsewhere.

    --Gary Sullivan

  3. Seccion: ha! you are officially "disqualified," where "disqualified" is a performative speech act...

    Gary: (in 2 parts)

    I think yes, Nada, myself--and you--are not at all far off. We do, it seems, dive into poetic instances like rats burrowing into dumpsters. Difference being each of us, or at least you & Nada, I admire for yr careful attention to works that are wildly different, retaining not only an openness to whatever's around the bend that excites, but real, like, physical, support of myriad artists--yr example of friendships & support of Laura & Stephanie are spot-on as criticism of the above post--should have added this, as yes, loved the Elrick post, as I've brought her out here for a conference/reading, & Nada nailed the important aspects of the new work, which I take to be one of the most important developments in poetry in the last couple years--started with the AWESOME "Corpus" if I recall, another ambulatory poem. And yet I tried to be careful to point this out above in a more general way, as I assume those who glance at this blog know Nada, or know her work quite well, and know it to be usually generous AND probing--one without the other is what one USUALLY gets with criticism, but not with her critical eyes & ears, which realize the stakes in all this.

    And yr right, "idiotic" is not the right word--I hesitated using it, & of course, saying "rather..." doesn't cancel it out. Difficult to associate Nada with "idiotic." The term drops out & is contradicted by the rest of the post. But I do think her post that I linked to was uncharacteristically categorical, if not a long put-down, where here, as opposed to most everything else I've read of hers, her "questioning" is either prefaced, or followed by, a categorical critique, one that seems stuck on the problem of didacticism as put-down, or, in any case, synonymous with aesthetically failing, eg:

    "grasping for mimesis
    and reportage at the expense of verbal
    imagination, I feel in it a kind of
    shoehorning of didactic social message
    into poetic forms that have no intrinsic
    connection to, or maybe add no value to,
    the often compelling and important
    narratives that are being conveyed in these
    pieces. Maybe the added value is entry into
    the still privileged aura of the category of
    “poetry” and the [sometimes] warm
    communities that form within it? Anyway,
    the poetic devices in these pieces, it strikes me,
    if anything, distract from the reportage, which
    in itself is genuinely heroic, making it sound,
    to my ear, a bit preciously or artificially heroic.

    Where in this quote, eg., I'm both irritated but in agreement--I'm VERY MUCH with Nada (as I briefly mention above) that there is a danger in any so-called overtly political work, a la the poeme en prose, that the poem fails to decenter or radically revise thru language device what it is that we are witnessing, as well as what & how "witness" forms & unravels. The end result can be--and often is--the "slogan poem," which is simply to say, the "bad" (aesthetically failing) poem. But who cares about these? Seems to me, these are mainstream works, things to be found, say, on this blog ():), & not the works Nada circles around/is interested in.

  4. Part 2:

    The quote I picked above also spirals into an "it" or "them." Where "it," yr right, Nada does mention briefly, is occasioned by both Spahr's & Young's work, yet a great deal of the time there is, yes, a questioning, but a questioning that forms two large, rather amorphous distinctions: east/west coast, and "docu-po"/other. And that was/is mainly my problem with these arguments. They are very either/or in a general way. Which opens the door to lame or mob-ish comments such as those found below that post (not all, mind you). It's the specificity & particulars that anchor Nada's criticism usually, & yrs, & Mark's or Stan Apps's--& that's when one can really dig into the function or use value (or lack their of) of particular contemporary poetries. So, I suppose I was disappointed, but not too much: at least that post opened the door (for me) to a tiny, tiny discussion about the efficacies of Nada's (& in different, but connected ways, Kenny Goldsmith's) poetics, strategies of scrounging or culling via various softwares or etc, where an aesthetic materialism is here defined, in part, as an inductive procedure, where language itself, found & fonded, carries within it the dross of crisis, of wreckage, & this is its approach to the political so-called. Tho I admire the poetics for its richness & engagement, my approach differs substantially, & interestingly so--& I say this in a more fleshed out way in a forth. essay in a book.

    So, end of the day, I take yr comments, Gary. I appreciate the tenor & generosity of yr response. I was hoping to cite this post as both a) a tendency found more often elsewhere, but in abundance, on the blogosphere--macroscopic demarcations and b) the importance of taking a stand on what one's politics are in relation to one's poetics.

    When I read with Nada last time I was on the east coast (orign. from NY, after all), she was so generous in her listening to the very different readers. My work, very much in the "docu-" mode; Nada's; Chris Stackhouse, whose work wonderfully escapes categorical framings.

    I guess my complaint is that I wanted that particular discussion I ran into to be fuller, to be particularized, as it was an opportunity for a really interesting engagement on a poetry of witness, or "docu" or whatever one wants to call it, yet to hook these frames onto a wall, a backdrop, of particular sociopolitical realities that would call for or negate, or problematize, say, the lineated sections of The Incinerator, etc. Nada almost gets there every few lines of the post, but then it gets into generalities & west-east again.

    Any case, thank you, Gary, for yr thoughtful post. I think the three of us share a lot of common ground, & I conjecture this is why we're engaged in this discussion. My only regret is that I don't aim to rag on Nada--especially when she's not here! Well, my best to you--& when I run into her again (on the web or in NY) best wishes to Nada as well...