by Johannes Goransson on Feb.11, 2011
Can I just make a very obvious point implicit in Joyelle’s pop quiz: There seems to be this pervasive idea that “experimental” poetry is something apolitical or “ironic” (I understand less and less what that word means), something that belongs to recent American poetry, something that is not really serious.
One of the ways Carolyn Forché maintains this distinction in her anthology Against Forgetting is by claiming that foreign writers write “poetry of witness,” merely witnessing such horror makes the writing strange (almost against the poet’s will). But, the ‘witness’ part is important– it’s not the atrocity but the witness, the emphasis on experience, that defines this genre and legitimizes and homogonizes the variations and intensities and fantasies and excesses of the writing itself.
Raul Zurita is such an interesting case because he could be made into an iconic “poet of witness” – having been tortured in a shed for weeks after the Pinochet coup and then having spent the subsequent two decades writing visionary, grotesque poetry and engaging in outrageous protest stunts (self-mutilation, airplanes, milk trucks).
One way to deal with him would be to see him as a “poet of witness” – something we could ghettoize, render him an historical figure of great suffering etc. According to such thinking, politics and atrocities take place elsewhere, not in the US. But I like what Joyelle did in her pop quiz because she’s asking us to see the conversation taking place between Zurita as a living, fantastically radical poet and contemporary US poets. Ie, not letting him turn into a historical figure, like poets in translation often do.
Though of course we should not forget about his background, about Chilean history either. I think it should be emphasized. This guy was tortured by Pinochet and made art a counterforce against the regime. That’s not beside the point.
Some might object that by letting his biography into my thinking, I’m removing his agency, like Carolyn Forché does. But, as Zurita himself said during QandA at Notre Dame: “The greatest poem would have been for this poem not to have been written” (or something like that), acknowledging that in some way Pinochet was the co-author of his works.
But like James has been pointing out in his posts, we’re too much in love with agency, the idea of the author as acting out of a self-sufficent agency. To invoke Joyelle’s other post and my own post about Greil Marcus, we could begin to see Zurita as possessed by the coup, by Pinochet’s ruthless capitalist (U of Chicago-advised) rule. Possession is far in excess of ‘witness’, and it can produce excess in turn. So possession is a way to think about his work’s relationship to atrocity without reducing it either to “witness” or to experience (which again, roots it in the past– past-experience). In preparing for his performances, he told Daniel Bortutzky, he has to return to that place and time completely, so performing the poem is a harrowing re-possession.
We can begin to see contemporary American poets in conversation with both Zurita and Pinochet, possessed by the same horrible idea. Kill the cows.
Atrocity Kitsch: it is interesting how the niches of the shed in Zurita’s Song for his Disapppeared Love ties in to Forché’s kitschy chapters of atrocities in Against Forgetting, or for that matter, Aase Berg’s appropriation of the computerized displays of atrocity from Harry Martinsson’s Aniara, in her book Dark Matter. This is why I always emphasize that I’m not totally against Forche (or for that matter “kitsch”); I’m really interested in atrocity kitsch. One of the things these “niches”/displays/chapters do is move away from narrative causality, tasteful scholarship and logic, to something viscerally visual, and also something not limited to just one national history– all kinds of histories and relics fill the niches. These display cases remind me of fashion.
In his report on the AWP, Tim Jones-Yelvington writes about being dressed up in a glamorous outfit at the Zurita reading:
“Given the gravity of Zurita’s experiences and textual concerns, I feel a certain kind of guilt about using its occasion to call attention to my own frivolous pageantry. And yet at the same time, I refuse to buy into any system of prioritization that would, in the fashion of old-school Marxism, place my queer elevation/exploration of surface aesthetics in opposition with activism or art that addresses state violence and material inequity.”
I appreciate Tim’s anxiety but I think the key here is that Zurita was *all about pageantry*. His stunts and poems are/were not somber “witness,” it’s incredibly spectacular (written by airplanes in the sky! Acid thrown into his face!). So, I think Tim’s get-up was perfect for the Zurita reading.
(Also, Zurita’s speakers are often women, so theres an element of cross-dressing going on in his poetry as well, as he frequently attests to in Q and As.
I was telling Daniel Tiffany that I couldn’t understand this obsessive need in American poetry debates of turning everything into “sincerity vs irony.” He said that he thought one of the key issues in American poetry right now were differing attitudes toward “theatricality,” a topic that obviously ties into his current topic of kitsch, which is seen as the ridiculous opposite of the authentic.
Someone told me they had overheard another publisher saying: “I’m glad we don’t read with Action Books this year, they’re always showboating.” I.e. theatrical.
Which reminds me of all these instances where well-meaning friends of mine email me and tell me to tell Joyelle to “tone it down” in her readings because it seems “unserious.” I remember a discussion following Joyelle’s reading at St Mark’s back in 2001 or so (before I was married or even seeing Joyelle), where these young poets were complaining that she was too “showy.”
Here’s from the Wiki entry on Prion:
“Prions propagate by transmitting a misfolded protein state. When a prion enters a healthy organism, the prion form of a protein induces existing, properly-folded protein to convert into the disease-associated, prion form; the prion acts as a template to guide the misfolding of more protein into prion form. These newly-formed prions can then go on to convert more proteins themselves, this triggers a chain reaction that produces large amounts of the prion form.”
The thing about the “King Prion” poems is that they’re not poems, they are possessions.
To “recite” them is to be possessed by them.
You can find them in the latest issue of the journal 1913, a great issue full of fine writing. But you’ll want to read them aloud.
Isn’t “witnessing” in Baptism a form of being possessed?