Archive for August, 2010

Conversations with Ghosts: Walter de la Mare and Megan Pickerel

by on Aug.31, 2010

This: Walter de la Mare

I am not sure where in childhood I came across the terrifying poem by Walter de la Mare called “The Children of Stare.” This poem was not in the only book of his that I owned: a dilapidated copy of the creepily titled Come Hither I had found in a used bookstore in Miami while on a family trip to Disney World. (That book seems to have fallen off the map—a tragedy as it is full of invention and charm: ghost story, poetry collection, and folkloric study all at the very same time.) “The Children of Stare” haunted me strangely.  I did not understand its story at all: as a child I thought it was about children who stare, and what could be scarier? I read it again and again puzzling over these children—they reminded me of “The Fool on The Hill” by The Beatles, a song I played that creeped me out, and which I played a lot because it was scary. Who was that fool and could he see me? “Winter is fallen early/On the house of Stare;/Birds in reverberating flocks/Haunt its ancestral box.” That a house stared, and was a box: horrible! Beautiful too like the fog that came over me whenever I’d try to understand anything really. The poem had rabbits, the sea, crocuses, moons, all sorts of childhood word-jewels, yet the poem was a shudder. “Is there anybody there? said the Traveller,/Knocking on the moonlit door” began another poem of his I returned to over and over again, “The Listeners.” If a novel or story or poem felt there really might be Listeners out there, or Fools, this was very good news indeed. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you—Nobody—too?”—Emily Dickinson’s incredible poem, my favorite as a kid and still, belongs here. Nobody, Listeners, Fools: even if they were angry or weird, they were out there for you. With a stare. As a child I found comfort in books that believed in ghosts, that said what you fear is not imagined but real. I never considered there might be authors making things up—authors were books’ invisible riders. Authors are Listeners in the House of the Book.  Walter de la Mare, like Breton, felt that to be a visionary artist one could not leave childhood wonder (and its companion, deep fear) behind.

That: Megan Pickerel

First, a song . . .

Scary Lullaby by Megan Pickerel

Ghost:  Why do you eat me?

Midge: You know I am not eating you.  I breathe you in and you incarnate into me.  I breathe you out so I can sing and you become someone or something else.

Ghost: Why do you wear me?

Midge:  You are my permanent chrysalis.   Blanket of wanderoo.

Ghost:  Do you like seeing me?

Midge:  Without you I wouldn’t be able to look at the world.  It would be too bright.

Pacific Northwest musician Megan Pickerel is in Buzzyshyface (with Herman Jolly) and continues to play with seminal band Swoon 23, opening for The Dandy Warhols. She has also performed as a solo artist and in many collaborations, most recently with Hazelwood Motel, Birddog, and Transparent Thing. She is a painter and mother.

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Seth Abramson's MFA Rankings

by on Aug.30, 2010

So there has been and continues to be a lot of talk about Seth Abramson’s MFA rankings. I haven’t read much of these debates, but I did just take the time to watch some of Seth’s videos on his blog and read some of the stuff. And here are my quick two cents.

1. I went through this material because I wanted to find out the reason for the rankings. What is the point of the rankings? I still don’t see it. I think Seth has done an admirable job getting information to applicants about aspects of the programs that may not be immediately available. That’s good. But what’s the point of the rankings? This seems incredibly suspect to me.

2. Especially since, as Seth notes, a lot of things can’t be “measured.” It’s hard to quantify the pedagogy of teachers, what kind of location an applicant might like etc. A lot of things are very hard to quantify. So why create a ranking system?

3. Why not publish the facts and then let each and every applicant do their job: read poems or stories by the faculty and read critical articles – maybe even pedagogical statements – by the faculty, and visit the place (or read about the place on line) etc. The rankings – based largely it seems on polling of students on Seth’s site – lend themselves to the kind of “poll-think” that you see in politics. Instead of trying to create a hierarchy, why not encourage applicants to read the faculty’s work? Some things are not quantifiable, so why create a ranking system?

4. One part that really shows how problematic Seth’s methodology is is when he talks about the importance of “community.” The way to measure the strength of a community, according to Seth, is to look at the selectivity of the program: “One would expect a program that is fully funded, and therefore highly selective, to have the strongest cohort of writers. Over time, more selective programs will have a stronger community of writer than the less selective programs.” This seems at the heart of my disagreement with Seth: he believes that there is an objective “strength” in writers; I don’t. I think there are many different kinds of applicants, some of which are more likely to get into some programs and less likely to get into other programs. Just as there are some books that are good fits for the editorial stance of one press, others for another press.

5. When I applied to grad school, the only school I got into was Iowa. So is Iowa selective or not?

6. I also disagree with Seth in his statement that “community” of peers is more important than faculty. Absolutely untrue. But a very Iowa Ideology way of putting it. You obviously learn very different things from peers and faculty. Iowa’s rhetoric has always been: this is just two years of funding for you to write an interact with other writers, the teachers don’t really do anything. But of course they do! This rhetoric – which Seth seems to have totally absorbed – is a way of dealing with the problem a lot of people have with the idea of teaching art: according to romantic ideals (which are on full display at U of Iowa), art cannot be taught, it must be just achieved based on “Talent” etc. To deal with the contradiction, Iowa always pumps out that rhetoric. But it’s of course false, students absorb a lot of rhetoric and aesthetics from their teachers (witness Abramson’s rhetoric). The problem with Iowa is not that they don’t teach, it’s that they pretend they are not teaching while teaching!

7. I learned a lot at Iowa – some bad, some good – and my writing was definitely affected. Some of the ways it was affected, I’ve rejected, and some I’ve kept. Well, that’s a very simplistic way of stating it; it’s become part of my writing – how I think about writing, how I think about thinking about writing.

8. I did learn a lot from my fellow students: mostly that was more social things, how people positioned themselves in poetry for example. Or the way they thought about poetry (basically still, the odious Lowellian “who’s on top” game; I see these rankings as part of that sensibility). And I learned who the cool poets were (Clover, Palmer, Tate, etc), “the unofficial reading list” as I called it.

9. Seth makes a really strange claim at one point in one video, asking “how much of a window would they have into who you are on the day to day basis, and what your values are, and what you believe, and how you comport yourself” just from reading a poem. This is an insane statement. Of course you would learn a whole lot about a professor by reading their poems or critical works. Why would you study with someone whose aesthetics you didn’t share, or whose views you found antithetical. There can be no more important thing to do when applying for MFA school than reading up on the faculty. You may not learn what they are as a person, but that shouldn’t be as important as their ideas.

10. Seth’s views make the MFA seem like a fun lifestyle choice, a vacation for 2 years. Funding is what matters, so that you can live the best. The best funding equals the best students; bestness can be bought. This is I think a rotten way of viewing art, and an especially rotten way of viewing students who are just coming into their senses of themselves as artists. You should go to a program more than any other reason because you feel you would benefit from studying with the faculty. If you erase faculty, why not just get a grant and hang out with other grant-gainers? Or work and write at night and hang out with other writers? Even if you value the ‘community’ of other students more than the faculty, this ‘community’ is in fact assembled by the faculty, so having some notion of and agreement with faculty aesthetic is critical.

11. My advice to applicant is: look at the facts (funding, location, whatever) but, most importantly, read a lot of poetry. And that’s my advice for becoming a writer as well.

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Roberto Bolaño: The Leak of Literature, the Leak of Youth

by on Aug.30, 2010

I’ve just begun reading the “new” Roberto Bolaño short story collection The Return, which includes one of my favorite stories of his, “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, of which more in a future post.

What fascinates me about Bolano is his leaking, improbably proliferant and then unpredictably attenuated narratives. Like saints’ bodies or putrefying corpses, these leaking textual bodies issue two twin substances: literature and youth.

Literature itself has magic and improbable qualities in these stories. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, the Fascists copy themselves over in literature, so that an account of their genealogy is equivalent to an account of their literary output. In Distant Star, the Fascist pilot-poet writes airplane poems in the sky [NB: it transpires that this invention of Bolaño’s appears to be an inversion of the anti-fascist poet Raúl Zurita’s heroic real-life ploy of petitioning Pinochet’s Air Force to skywrite poems, a proposal that made it high up the chain of command before being swatted down.  Zurita’s project was itself an inversion of the military’s own project of dumping the bodies of their victims into mountains and oceans from airplanes—of which more in Action Books’s new publication Song for his Disappeared Love by Raúl Zurita, trans. Daniel Borzutzky—check it out, Bolaño fans!]. Less spectacularly but no more plausibly, the ex-pat  Chilean gangster in the first story in The Return, “Snow”, has read all of Bulgakov in Russian because his Soviet girlfriend liked Bulgakov. The initial narrator of Savage Detectives hasn’t a clue about what’s going on around him, or even about literature, he says, but can rattle off literary arcana to (literally) put his workshop instructor to shame. His youth directs him to arcana, his experience of this arcana blocks out experience of the historically present “world”, and in turn ensnares him in an alternate world of literature and murder.

In the opening pages of Amulet (my  absolute favorite of Bolaño’s books so far–but he seems to be writing more from beyond the grave like Cègeste)– the heroine, Auxilio Lacouture (from Montevidayo—I mean Montevideo!) introduces herself the mother of Mexican poetry not to assert an aesthetic matrilineage but because of her protective relationship to the waif-like young poets themselves:

“I am a friend to all Mexicans. I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets and all the poets know me. So I could say it. I could say one mother of a zephyr is blowing down the centuries, but I better not. For example, I could say I knew Arturito Belano when he was a shy seventeen-year-old who wrote plays and poems and couldn’t hold his liquor, but in a sense it would be superfluous and I was taught (they taught me with a lash and a rod of iron) to spurn all superfluities and tell a straightforward story.” (1-2)

This sarabanding quote is occultly beguiling. Lacouture says more than enough, all while repeating an interdiction not to speak at all (“I’d better not.”) Her statements exist only in the subjunctive (“I could”) but remain syntactically unsaid. Meanwhile, as her narration is showing itself to be gushy and excessive, ”superfluous”, as it says everything, including its own interdiction, we get a mini-portrait of Belano (the author’s double) who leaks text and liquor (and, by implication, vomit, piss, and perhaps blood from barroom fights). That is to say, he leaks youth. And youth, too, like an unkempt story, is superfluid, fluent, “superfluous.”  Both literature and youth flow or leak beyond requirement.

This kind of excess appears at the intersection of youth and writing when Lacouture describes her relationship to the young poets of Mexico City: “[….] I had a kind word for each of them. What am I saying: a word! I had a hundred or a thousand words for every one of them.” The excess of the words is twinned  by the excess of the young writers:

“[T]o me they were all grandsons of López Velarde, great-grandsons of Salvador Díaz Mirón, those brave troubled boys, those downhearted boys adrift in the nights of Mexico City, those brave boys who turned up with their sheets of foolscap folded in two and their dog-eared volumes and their scruffy notebooks and sat in the cafes […]and they gave me their poems to read, their verses, their fuddled translations […]

Here beyond plausible patrilineage the boys anaphorically multiply, coming out of literature like ants surging up from woodwork. Then again, their own writing doubles and multiplies all around them—the proliferant “foolscap folded in two” ,” volumes,” “notebooks,” themselves proliferating into “poems, ” “verses,” “translations”. A kind of exponential multiplication of boys and text surge all around these pages.

At the end of this book, Lacouture renders two stunning visions which seem to twin for each other. One is of literature, spreading itself unsteadily into the future, surging and lapsing and relapsing:

“Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076. Louis-Ferdinand Céline shall enter Purgatory in the year 2094. Paul Eluard shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.

Metempsychosis. Poetry shall not disappear. Its non-power shall manifest itself in a different form.” [159]

This vision of literature’s ‘non-power’, which goes on for several pages, is twinned with another vision, a polar vision of the ‘ghost-children’ of Latin America marching down a valley and into an abyss:

“Their passage was brief. And their ghost-song or its echo, which is almost to say the echo of nothingness, went on marching. I could hear it marching on at the same pace, the pace of courage and generosity. A barely audible song, a song of war and love, because although the children were clearly marching to war, the way they marched recalled the superb, theatrical attitudes of love.”

In this passage, the song and the youth both leak and flow, become indistinguishable from each other, become substitutes for each other. The magical inter-persistence of both substances is evident in the final passage of the book.

“And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of young Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew that above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.

And that song is our amulet.”

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2 Seconds With Bubbles & La Toya

by on Aug.30, 2010

1. By grieving for man through ape, she echoes Fernando Pessoa when he exclaimed, “O my dead childhood! Forever living corpse in my breast!”

2. By grieving for man through ape, she not only invokes her brother’s Peter Pan syndrome, but drags his longing all the way back to the cave.

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Daniel Tiffany Interview (#4)

by on Aug.29, 2010

[This is the fourth an final installment of my interview with Daniel Tiffany about kitsch. The other three were posted last week.]

Daniel Tiffany:
“”The transvaluation of kitsch in its relation to poetry must begin with a fresh look at the inaugural theories of kitsch (Musil, Broch, Greenberg, but also Walter Benjamin) in an effort to probe the significance of poetry–along the lines I sketched above–in their definitions of kitsch. Following this critique, one would want to develop a prehistory of the aesthetic ideology kitsch by examining more closely the poetics of Romantic imposture: Macpherson’s spectacular forgery of the Ossian manuscripts and Thomas Chatterton’s fabrication of the pseudo-medieval Rowley materials, but also the anonymous productions of the earliest editions of Mother Goose and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of English Poetry–all of which are symptoms of the emergence of literary antiquarianism, a wellspring of modern kitsch. Keats and Coleridge were huge fans of the Rowley forgery–Keats called Chatterton “the purest writer in the English language.” How bizarre!
“With this historical and theoretical foundation in place, one can confront the most entrenched and polemical feature of modern kitsch: its presumed antithesis to productions of the avant-garde. One might, for example, begin to destabilize the orthodox separation of kitsch and the avant-garde by examining modernist poetic practice in light of the dominant tropes of kitsch production: parasitism and the notion of an alien body “lodged” in the native corpus of art. Poetic kitsch thus begins to mirror–innocently but also grotesquely–the modernist practices of citation, automatic writing, and cryptography. The prospect of identifying Pound’s Cantos as a paradigm of high kitsch appears, like a flaming zeppelin, on the horizon.
“”Kitsching” the poetic monuments of high modernism immediately raises other questions, perhaps even more germane: what is the relevance of the concept of kitsch to the writing of poets associated with the emergence of pop art in New York City in the 1960s (and with Andy Warhol in particular), a moment in which the avant-garde becomes saturated with pop culture–with the fatal allure of kitsch. As a focal point in this context, one would want to reframe the early poetry of John Ashbery, in particular, who, among the poets of the first generation of the New York School (Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch), was the one most receptive to Warhol and pop art (and to the technique of appropriation, the key to the inauthenticity of pop and its correlation with kitsch). Ashbery took a strong interest in Warhol’s work from the start, contributing an essay to Warhol’s first one-man show in Paris in 1964 and producing reviews of other early shows as well. Warhol reciprocated the attention, describing Ashbery (in a public interview) as his “favorite poet.”
“One would want to pursue the investigation of kitsch into the writings of the second generation of the New York School poets, including Gerard Malanga, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Diane di Prima–all of whom collaborated with Warhol on various “mimeograph journals” and were markedly influenced by the book of Ashbery’s most flamboyantly associated with appropriation, The Tennis Court Oath of 1962. Berrigan and Malanga, in particular (who was Warhol’s studio assistant from 1963 to 1970, as well as a good friend of Ashbery’s), carried the technique of appropriation to extreme lengths. Malanga’s frequent sampling of lines from Ashbery’s poems, for example, recalls Thomas de Quincey’s plagiaristic relation to Wordsworth’s poetry, a circumstance reviving questions of piracy and fraudulence essential to the aesthetic ideology of kitsch.
“In the broadest sense, deconstructing relations between poetic kitsch and the many iterations of neo-formalist experiment in the present moment rehearses the challenges posed by pop art to late modernism in the early 1960s. Poetry is due for a similar moment: it’s pop vs. modernism all over again–and we all know how that turned out.
Ultimately, kitsch says: the faker the better. In the realm of art, lying is the only truth. Paradoxically, from this perspective, kitsch reveals itself to be an instrument of reason–Wilde and Kracauer are the crucial guides here–a tool of disenchantment. As a symptom of negativity, of resistance, kitsch places in question every myth, every article of faith. Kitsch flirts with nihilism: in human society, it croons to us, nature is a lie.”

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Bolano on Elvis

by on Aug.28, 2010

(From interview with Mexican Playboy, 2003, translated in “The Last Interview”)

Q: John Lennon, Lady Di [probably supposed to be Day?], or Elvis Presley?

Bolano: The Pogues. Or Suicide. Or Bob Dylan. Well, lets not be pretentious: Elvis forever. Elvis and his golden voice, with a sheriff’s badge, driving a Mustang and stuffing himself full of pills.

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Raúl Zurita Interview

by on Aug.27, 2010

Daniel Borzutzky has an interiew with the Great Chilean author Raul Zurita on the Poetry Foundation:

“That idea came about in the most desperate time of my life. I got the idea far before it happened, in 1975; it was at the time I burned my face and then I remembered that when I was a kid, a really young kid, I remembered having seen an airplane write the name of a soap in the sky. I didn’t know if it was a dream or if I had really seen it because it was an extremely old memory. . . . And so then it occurred to me that it would be beautiful to write in the sky. This was 1975 and I was totally desperate, but thinking about this helped me to stay OK. . . .I thought about this, and I was able to escape from the horrors of life.”

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Finland Swedish Gurlesque: Eva-Stina Byggmästar

by on Aug.26, 2010

[This post was written by Swedish writer Aylin Bloch Boynukisa. You can find her story, “I have nothing to do with birds,” in the most recent issue of Action, Yes. “Gurlesque” is a term coined by Arielle Greenberg to describe a sensibility in contemporary poetry. You can read more about it on Delirious Hem and in Lara Glenum’s essay on Swedish poet Aase Berg. And of course, there’s the anthology Aylin refers to in this post.]

A brief reflection on Gurlesque poetics in Swedish literature, part one: Exaggeration
By Aylin Bloch Boynukisa

“And I said sweethearts I said roses

I said sweethearts and I said the roses

there is so much light in here it must be the roses –

oh, so much light and I said lovely and

darling your eyes are roses and I said your

mouth is….a rose oh, let me kiss it again

and I said you are a girl and I am a rose

I said you are a rose and I am a girl and

I said girl girl there cannot be

too many roses, can there darling that’s what I

said didn’t I and then I said glorious and

wonderful and lovely I said there is so much light

in here it must be all the roses – but

darling bring in more roses and then I said

girl girl girl there cannot be too many

roses and then I said kisses –“
(Eva-Stina Byggmästar, 2006, my translation)

In her foreword to the Gurlesque anthology, Arielle Greenberg writes: “The Gurlesque was born […] in Burma and Ohio and Korea and New York and Olympia, WA and other places”. Yes. The Gurlesque was definitely born in Sweden (and Finland) (although she was born in Sweden, she’s very likely to have an immigrant mom, and since one never becomes Swedish “For Real” no matter how long you’ve lived there [here], she’s called a Second Generation Immigrant, which is the official way of saying “you don’t belong here”). Growing up in the remains of the Swedish welfare system, she – of course – turns to words and books and being impossible and horrifying and words and writing and taking everything too far. When I think of taking things too far, I think of the piece above, a piece from the Finland-Swedish1 poet Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s 2006 book of poetry Älvdrottningen (The Fairy Queen), which I find very much a part of the Gurlesque poetics. I think of Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s book in total since the entire book keeps on like this, dwelling and gorging on flowers, flowers of all kinds. Of course, this is playing with the notion that poetry is all about pretty flowers, and a remake of the traditional love poem where the troubled man-as-poet compares his love to a rose. But in Byggmästar’s poem there are just too many flowers, the “I” of the poem is just too excited, expressing her excitement repeatedly, and, it seems to be about two girls loving each others girlyness. This comes to me rather fast when I think of over-doing things; the exaggeration of the girly, i.e. overdoing the feminine into what is generally considered cute, and therefore kind of ridiculous, stupid and shallow, slowly becoming icky, abject, drag, unrespectable, whore, witch. Who is this “I” of the poem really loving so intensely, could it be herself (you are a girl and I am a rose/I said you are a rose and I am a girl), could it be multiple girls/roses/girl-roses (I said/ girl girl girl there cannot be to many/ roses), or could it be just the superficial idea of girlyness in general? Is the poem about anything at all or is it all girlish nonsense? Of course, neither of the options is preferable.

The poem itself is very easily read in the aspect of how Byggmästar has written it; there is a fluidity and lightness about it connoting the superficial girl/cuteness, but I would say that it is treacherous, a fake superficiality, it’s a death-serious drag show. Behind the fluidity that makes the reader rush through the poem, there are parts that makes one fall into lethal Gurlesque gaps. There are the roses and their layers, their buds opening like the mouth and the eyes and the room craving more roses and light, all reminding of the vagina dentata, the soft, sticky (smelly?) female body that can swallow the entire patriarchy whole if it’s not careful. An old friend of mine once said to me while writing her doctorial theses in architecture, critiquing the patriarchal structures of the architectural discourse: “the traditional belief in architecture is that there is surface (yta) in depth, but I would rather say that there is depth in superficiality (ytlighet)”. As you can see, in Swedish the words “surface” and “superficiality” stems from the same word so that all she did was swapping the words around, creating a whole new way of seeing. I believe that this is one way of thinking about the Gurlesque, and Byggmästar’s poem. So, maybe the girlish nonsense and cuteness is superficial. Maybe that’s why it’s so dangerous.

Women in combination with flowers and plants are dangerous per se. Byggmästar’s poetry dwell upon this as well. Traditional Scandinavian folk songs, especially the really old ones, tell stories about the fairy king’s daughter putting spells on innocent young men about to be married. One traditional song with unknown origin that Swedish kids learn in school is about a young girl picking flowers (the lyrics repeating the pretty flower names). This song is rumoured to be about making an abortion potion, the flowers being the ingredients, and although botanists claim this to be untrue, what the song and its context is telling us is that girls with pretty flowers have death on their minds. Byggmästar connects to this tradition (much more obvious in other poems) using anachronistic words and syntax that sometimes seem to be picked right out of the old folk songs.

Finally, I would like to add that the word “sweethearts” in the first two lines, is actually the English word “sweethearts” in the Swedish original version, making the poem deliberately dress up in some kind of language-drag in yet another way.

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Angela Simione responds to Kitsch Posts

by on Aug.25, 2010

Angela Simione was going to post a comment to the Tiffany interview but then it became too long so she wrote an entire entry on her blog. I’m copying it here.

Angela Simione:

i’ve been following this discussion about kitsch and its “poetry roots” for the passed few days and i find it so compelling. totally intriguing. and there is such a huge possibility for this kind of discussion to blow up, morph, twist, writhe, and then maybe create a site for a bit of understanding too.

i went to leave a comment but my comment got so big i decided to just stick it here. 🙂


mmmmmmm… Greenberg. i have issues with Greenberg.

a lot of his theories are based in class/social systems/beliefs: those who can afford leisure, those who have time to become educated about art vs. those who don’t. and he is quite blatant in his theories that poor people are stupid because they can’t afford to become un-stupid: they’re too busy working and scrubbing and scrimping.

i have deep, angry issues with Greenberg.

and so, based on his theories of Art: rich people have art. poor people have kitsch.

did poetry fall in to the hands of The Poor? did Poverty impoverish poetry? did The Poor infect it with their “bad taste” and lack of education? is it “fraudulent” to be poor? or… is it the social pressures to HIDE poverty that make one’s actions (poetry) appear “fraudulent”? is it “evil” to be poor? and therefore, Evil to express poverty? or, by way of lack of access, to function within/expose a language of impoverishment? dirt offends. that’s why The Angel of the House never did any cleaning. women are expected to be “pure” and not offensive. and so she had some other Poor Woman to do the cleaning for her, touch the dirt, finger the grime. status in direct connection with one’s proximity to dirt. to cleaning. to scrubbing floors.

and so i really like kitsch described as an “ineradicable residue” – dirt that cannot be removed. a grime that does not go away. a stained language. or the language of The Stain.

there are only two choices then: to ignore it (which has been the case) or to reckon with it (war or acceptance).

but, since the era when Greenberg was shoving all this out in to the world, the middle-class has become the biggest class in America. they create(d) a space between the extremes of rich and poor. but… a person of The Middle Class does not ever want to be mistaken for “Poor”. if anything, a person of The Middle Class would love to be perceived as “Rich”. and so i wonder… is kitsch, now, a sort of keeping-up-with-the-jones’s value system? is it a new breed of disdain for The Poor? that we are soooooo taken in and harnessed by the appearance of wealth (not necessarily actual wealth, just the appearance of it) that people who have the means to emulate wealth, do? or at least attempt to? is kitsch a Faux Elite?

if so, would kitsch, then, be an object produced that, through simulating the appearance of wealth, actually makes Greed concrete?

is kitsch, in essence, a representation of envy?

and therefore: shame.

an object or language that feels bad about itself? an object or language that refuses to accept itself as is, and wants to be perceived as something else? a play of pretend? a conscious action of trying to “trick” the sight and perceptions of others? a “poser”?

sight is the most easily tricked of all the senses: if you look like you have money, people will think that you actually do have money. kitsch understands this but somehow manages to miss the mark. there is the “ineradicable residue” of self-loathing (an acceptance of the ideology that “Poor” is a crime) on the surface. it is, somehow, an anti-reality. it doesn’t understand The Myth of Photographic Truth.

Bertolt Brecht said, “realism is not what real things are like, but what things are really like”

i have to read that statement out loud most of the time to get it. but once i catch what he’s saying, it makes such wonderful sense that it is the only way for me to describe my personal experience of what Kitsch “is”. it does not attempt to describe things as they actually are. it describes its own desire to be something it isn’t but hopes to be mistaken for. it is Frailty made visible. it is Inferiority-Complex made visible. it announces its complicity with regimes of wealth, power, and desire. it agrees that individual human value can be determined through the appearance of wealth. and, at this stage in the game, the actuality of Poor and the appearance of Poor (in its extremes) line up and therefore have an authenticity that kitsch will never have.

the Language of the Stain has honesty in it. art can be made with such humble materials. it can transcend its physical components. kitsch does not have the power of transcendence because it attempts to mirror what it sees to be art, not what art actually is.

Greenberg had it wrong. poor people are able to see and know art. they make it. they live it.

envious people have a hard time knowing what art is. an envious person spends their time in anger and fear, not learning.

a person becomes a leader by leading. not by making a knock-off of the jacket the leader wears. maybe kitsch is a physical manifestation of a NOW NOW NOW quick-fix culture?

it is an object that wants YOU to believe it has value. and kitsch is conscious of this. it is conscious of its own desires, shame, and motivations. it actively seeks to be perceived as The-Something-Else it admires.

this is not an effect of poverty itself. it is the effect of making being poor a blemish, a crime, something to be ashamed of… and the people who have become complicit with this outlook.

if people were not ashamed of poverty and did not try to hide it…
if people were not ashamed of the struggle they face…


what would kitsch be then?

all this is preliminary. i’m just thinking out loud. this is such an interesting topic and i can’t wait to see where johannes goes with this.

the language of kitsch is quite compelling and i think it can be harnessed to create tremendous works of art, and maybe even a new language.

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Conversations with Ghosts: Margaret Wise Brown and Kevin Brockmeier

by on Aug.25, 2010

This: Margaret Wise Brown

My daughter told me recently, in a matter of fact tone at breakfast-time, that our house has a ghost: a lady with a parasol who exits the front door in the early morning, to walk her ghost dog. It’s strange but if you search on the Internet from my location with the simple phrase “ghosts children” the first listing that comes up is a series of anxious questions posed to a medical site. “Are children more sensitive to ghosts?”  “Can toddler’s talk to ghosts?” (I particularly like the punctuation of that one, suggestive of a missing ghost word between toddler’s and talk.) “My child saw a ghost?” Again, the poignancy of the punctuation!  One apparently must not encourage children to engage with the Ouija, and many believe it is good if your child sees a ghost. This makes sense. After all, every children’s book is full of ghosts, not characters. A very young child hearing a book read aloud does not think “This is a book about an imaginary child or dog who does things.” The child senses that the characters are real and is enchanted by them.

How does this happen? The child experiences the story in image, in words, through a conduit (parent, teacher, or special friend). The zone is spectral, a triad of reader, child, and book, with the characters and setting of the book emanating out from its pages, floating out there invisibly in the air but electrifying the child. This “contact zone” as Maria Tatar beautifully calls it is really real.  Perhaps a children’s book is a kind of ghost vision. But in this vision, is the ghost the book, the house the reader, and the ghost-seer the child? Or is the reader the house, the ghost the book, and the conduit—whatever has to happen to reveal the ghost to someone—then the child? House, ghost, child, story, author and book move in and out of this and that world together, holding hands through invisible matter.

Regardless, as in any ghost story, there is no question about whether a ghost does or does not exist in a children’s book, whether about a sleepy bunny, talking badger, or depressive toad. Who is speaking in Goodnight Moon by the luminous author Margaret Wise Brown? (I will be writing more about her in this series.) Not the old lady whispering hush; the voice points her out to the reader. But whose voice? Not the bunny, waiting for sleep. Nobody? But nobody, too, is addressed: “Goodnight, nobody.” Nobody is out here, outside the book, with us, always. Is nobody a ghost?

The relationship between literature as supernatural begins in childhood.

 That: Kevin Brockmeier


Kevin, can you hear me? Kevin, Kevin, you’re awake, do you understand?

I’m not sleeping—I can see that. There’s the fan, and there’s the dresser. There’s the clock with its broken red numbers. Is there a middle place, one where we’re awake but still alert to our dreams? Then that’s where I must be. But you—you keep saying my name as if you know me.

 I do know you, Kevin, Kevin. I’ve been watching you, watching all these years. Tell me, because I want an answer: what gives you the right to waste them as you did?

 Ah, but to waste them—who can say what that means? There are too many puzzles, too many mysteries. Here: I found one possible road, and I took it, that’s all. I imagined once that I would find another way. I didn’t. Living is just too complicated.

 Living! Living is the same as dead. Only a matter of time. Do you know, Kevin, do you know, Kevin, Kevin, do you have any idea how much you’ll miss when you’re gone?

 I know I’ll miss my friends, the books I love, the music. The sound of a smooth road under my tires. The feel of soda bubbles pinpricking my lips. The way the sky looks through my window in the morning, when I’m lying in bed with my eyes open, refusing to begin the day.


Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. His new novel, The Illumination, is forthcoming in February 2011. Recently he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.

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Daniel Tiffany Interview About Kitsch (Part 3)

by on Aug.25, 2010

Here’s the third part of my interview with Daniel Tiffany about KITSCH.

Daniel Tiffany:
“If the verbal origins of kitsch appear to have been lost (or disguised) in transmission, its polarized relation to “serious” poetry looms large in the wake of modernism. For example, to call Ezra Pound’s experimental epic, the Cantos, a monument of literary kitsch would be nothing short of blasphemy. The rubric of kitsch is unthinkable even for poetry directly linked to developments in art with obvious (though perhaps unacknowledged) affinities to kitsch: pop art, especially, and its momentous legacy of simulation, seriality, and appropriation. Despite the apparent immobility of these assumptions, the polarized relation between kitsch and the aesthetic ideology of modernism (which anchors poetry’s supposed immunity to kitsch, even as it suppresses any consideration of “serious” poetry as kitsch) is dangerously unstable and transactional.

“Greenberg identified kitsch as a parasite feeding upon the productions of the avant-garde, while Broch claimed that kitsch is “lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art”: a dialectical “system” opposed to art (and to modernism in particular), whose resemblance to art only enhances its catastrophically destructive challenge to artistic values. The threat posed by kitsch is rooted in its uncanny properties, in its powers of dissimulation–what Musil calls “black magic.” Broch captures perfectly the apotropaic significance of kitsch for poetry when he observes, “kitsch is the element of evil in the value system of art.”

“In response, then, to these paralyzing antitheses, one must seek to excavate and to disenchant “the element of evil”–the anathematic substance of kitsch–in the value system of poetry. More specifically, one would want to isolate the one feature common to all modern theorizations of kitsch. Musil, Broch, and Greenberg all emphasize the inauthenticity of kitsch: it is described variously as “ersatz,” “spurious,” as a “counterfeit image,” a “faked article.” At the same time, though each of these authors claims that kitsch can be found in poetry (often Romantic poetry), none of them explains how, or why, the poetic properties of kitsch can be linked to its counterfeit nature, to fakery.

“The solution to the conundrum of poetry’s relevance to the inauthenticity of kitsch lies in the historical phenomenon of Romantic “imposture”: a series of momentous forgeries, facsimiles, and literary impersonations (including gaelic bards, medieval monks, and Mother Goose) in Britain between 1760 and 1820. The volatile nature of kitsch and its persistent associations with inauthenticity therefore stem directly from the complex legacy of poetic forgery and its disfiguration of literary authenticity. Poetic kitsch may be viewed as a “crime of writing” by later critics precisely because the formulation of these polarizing values is rooted in incidents of actual forgery (often seeking to relocate the origins of poetry). Furthermore, as an aesthetic category, kitsch is permanently contaminated by the delusional nature of literary fraud, even if the artifacts of kitsch are not actual forgeries. Kitsch must be inherently fake, regardless of its originality; it retains an air of fraudulence, however innovative–and imitated–its artifact may be. Kitsch in fact becomes the ineradicable residue of poetic originality, of the rewriting of literary origins.””

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Daniel Tiffany Interview About Kitsch (Part II)

by on Aug.24, 2010

This is the second part of my interview with Daniel Tiffany. Read the first part here.

Daniel Tiffany:
“Let me review the basic parameters of kitsch as a submerged economy of aesthetic provocation: Kitsch is a term associated in most people’s minds with certain kinds of artifacts, furnishings, or visual images characteristic of mass culture, often considered to be derivative, mawkish, or in bad taste. Debates about popular culture and aesthetic theory sometimes invoke the concept of kitsch, yet even the most astute contemporary observers usually overlook a central feature of the inaugural theorizations of kitsch: poetry is identified in the foundational essays on the subject as a primary exemplum and genealogical source of kitsch. Robert Musil, for example, in his essay of 1923, “Schwarze Magie” (Black Magic), responds to the question “what is Kitsch?” by anatomizing the work of “poet X,” who is at once a “popular hack” and a “bad expressionist.” In a more influential essay of 1933, Hermann Broch develops his theory of kitsch as a “Luciferian” phenomenon (fallen from the heights of Romanticism) in reference to the poetry of Novalis, Stefan George, and Mallarmé. Even more prominently (in an American context), Clement Greenberg’s essay of 1939, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” initiates its polemical formulation of kitsch (heavily dependent on Broch’s ideas) by drawing a contrast between the modernist poetry of T.S. Eliot and the songs of Tin Pan Alley. (Greenberg, like Broch, points to Romantic poetry–Keats, in this case–as a progenitor of modern kitsch.) What’s striking as well about Greenberg’s polemic is that he places poetry at the junction of his notorious opposition of avant-garde and kitsch.
“The significance of poetry in modernist formulations of kitsch has been ignored by later generations of kitsch theorists: Svetlana Boym, Danilo Kis, Susan Sontag, and Celeste Olalquiaga make no mention of poetry in their studies of kitsch (though Matei Calinescu does, to his credit, consider briefly the properties of poetic kitsch). This ongoing critical lapse concerning poetry’s relevance to kitsch makes it difficult to answer certain kinds of questions: what are the properties of poetic kitsch and, just as important, the nature of its reception? What is the significance of the concept of kitsch for modern and contemporary poetics? How has the suppression of its verbal or literary qualities deferred a richer understanding of the aesthetic ideology of kitsch in general? That is to say, how will our understanding of kitsch as an aesthetic category be revised by excavating its vanished history with poetry? Questions of this sort, so rarely posed, may strike the listener as incidental, jejune, or irrelevant, to the topic.”

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The Body Possessed by Media 2: Hunger’s Dirty Protest; or Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten; or, Bobby Sands, Matthew Barney, Fi Jae Lee, Atrocity Kitsch and Male Anorexia

by on Aug.23, 2010

When I watched Hunger, British artist Steve McQueen’s art movie about Irish dirty-protest-leader/hunger striker Bobby Sands, I freakin’ could not believe how much the Bobby Sands figure (as played by Michael Fassbender) reminded me,visually, of Matthew Barney in the Cremaster cycle. Even for an obviously debased Irish Catholic like me,  this is a sacrilegious thought. How could the body of Saint Bobby Sands twin with the body of an narcissistic anally-fixated bulimic art god?

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

[Wikipedia moment: Bobby Sands is an incredibly interesting (still notorious?) figure—an IRA member who, in various prisons, protested in order that he and his comrades be classified as political prisoners rather than criminals. First they refused to wear prisoner’s uniforms, going naked and/or wearing blankets instead; then they refused to bathe and smeared their prison walls with shit (the ‘dirty protest’); finally they began a hunger strike, of which Sands died. In freakin’ 1981, people. During the hunger strike he was also somehow elected to the British Parliament on the “Anti- H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner’ ticket—H Block referred to the ‘H’ shape of the Maze Prison in which the Hunger strike was taking place]

Sands flummoxed the British government with his blanket protest, dirty protest and hunger strike—these rejections of health and hygiene upended the Foucauldian prerogatives of both the prison regime and the British subjugation of Irish bodies as metonym for their subjugation of Ireland as a plantation, colony, etc. The protests went outside and around the value hierarchies culminating in the whole pure white bodies of Thatcher and the Queen and also activated the immemorial English condemnation of Irish as animals, savages, heathens, etc. The mortification of Sands’s body was also an easy match with Roman Catholic ideas of martyrdom, saints, and the physical mortification of the devout.

Hunger’s Dirty Protest

However , a Wikipedia-informed saint’s-life of Bobby Sands and a movie ‘about’ Bobby Sands are two different things.  What struck me about the movie is how deliciously it indulged in the visual breakdown of Sands’s (Fassbender’s) body—since he’s at least half naked throughout, one can observe he is at first attractively (male-ly) muscled, his cheekbones grow more pronounced; his muscles shrivel; bones appear beneath his skin, bed sores appear—rather than an interiority, it’s as if the body continually has more surfaces to reveal. The whole movie is Sands’s/Fassbender’s body. The flights of birds, the falls of light, the truncheons, the prison structure—all seem to emanate from or return to this body. The much praised mise-en-scene is like a bodily fluid. Sands’s body changes form and hosts other media—it never disappears. It cannot be erased from this movie because it is the movie—the medium through which it progresses.

Bed Sores

The same might be said for Matthew Barney’s oeuvre—his body is the ultimate material, the ‘matrix’ or mother material, through which and from which all the media move and pour. The beads, the vaseline, the flesh that falls away and continually reforms itself in bodies that signal hybrity—of man, animal, god, petroleum product—the tendency of bodies to break down, be consumed or consume themselves so that all physical gestures seem like a species of devourment, defecation or eructation. Gestation and the physical development of sexual differentiation in the womb allegedly provide the underlying structure of the Cremaster cycle, but this is overdetermination is also a kind of oversaturation—the very site of sexual difference inscribed within and shot through with and indeterminate from the continually reconfiguring material of the maternal body… itself indistinguishable from the ‘male’ body of Matthew Barney.

A Cremaster

Hunger and Cremaster link to Fi Jae Lee’s work in that the body is possessed by media but is never obliterated by it despite the violence done to it by media possession (and by becoming a medium). Instead, it multiplies, splits open to reveal new surfaces, digests itself, becomes porous to fluid, breaks down and reforms, extrudes new media and materials. Unlike actual anorexia or bulimia, this logic doesn’t end in death, but makes a zone there in which to continually reconfigure or recapitulate itself.


(Fi Jae Lee, Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten)

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