Pageantry and Atrocities: Possession vs. Witness in Zurita

by 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.”

In a related matter, Joyelle performed some of her “King Prion” poems at the AWP this weekend, despite having barely any voice.

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?

17 comments for this entry:
  1. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Joyelle’s pop quiz was quite useful for me in terms of clarifying some shit and helping me navigate that anxiety. The reading was my first introduction to Zurita’s work — I prioritized going in part because of Blake’s post at htmlgiant abt it, and somewhere in that comment thread somebody said something about how Zurita makes the current conceptual poets look twee or something. I don’t really have any kind of horse in the race re: conceptualism, but that was nonetheless the kind of comment that, a little bit like the admonition to be less “showy,” I think I accidentally suck into my spine if I don’t guard against it, like allowing myself to be shamed. I look forward to becoming better acquainted w/ Zurita’s pageantry.

  2. Johannes

    Yes, I see what you mean. I think the admonition feeling you feel about dressing is similar to the admonition I describe in this post against showiness in poetry.


  3. adam strauss

    Its showiness is, for me, one of the delights of formal virtuosity: villanelles, for example, are so ornate/taxing in their “requirements,” so it seems to me that there’s more than a bit of showing off going on; I think this may be why I like Petrarchan sonnets so much too: that rhyme scheme is not easy/more difficult than the WS one, so again its very existence seems to me to scream look how adroit I am! I’m guessing what I’m chirping about is not what you have in mind, but I think there can be a relationship. Old-school formalism/set forms totally make poetry a runway show, an issue of cut; and I for one have a penchant for poems like extremely copifed moidels in elaborate togs just totally rocking a walk.

  4. adam strauss

    Coiffed models not copifed moidels, lol!

  5. Ken Chen

    I think Joyelle is an awesome reader!

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  7. Johannes

    Adam, I suppose that is one way of viewing form, but it would be pretty unusual; the way form seems mostly to be used is as the opposite of what I mean here: the sense of “restrain” makes the poem admirable, not excessive or “playing tennis without a net.”/Johannes

  8. adam strauss

    Yep–you definitely cite a common way of viewing overt formalism but I find that view to not really address/get at many interesting dynamics of form; I think the notion that form equals constraint/restraint needs revising/expanding; Zukofsky’s A-7, for example, is anything but utterly restrained/timid; or Bok’s Eunoia; M Moore’s grand stanzas are elaborate and often kinetic and yes working through set patterns but I wouldn’t describe them as timid; and then of course there’s over the topness a la Hopkins. Donne too is a good example of over-the-top fused to really formal. I definitely think that form to some degree can resemble formal wear or costume which could, I suppose, lead one to arguing well nakedness would be the genuinly wild stance–but I’m not sure one can be naked via language.

    I hope all’s well!

    All of the above stated–foremost I think form can afford pleasure, and I dig pleasure. Wild exquisite pleasure–mmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

    Note: I am far from being someone who only writes via end-rhyme, measured lines, syllabics, set-forms etc tho this weekend I’ve tried to really jump into the petrarchan sonnet stream: the results so far strike me as rather a mixed bag; but I am not at-all sure the result would be better with less constraint.

  9. Johannes

    Yes, but I’m talking about “showy” as used negatively. I’m not opposed to formal poems.


  10. adam strauss

    I think you may be focusing on semantic showiness, whereas I am suggesting that the composition itself can be showy and hence fit with an aesthetics of excess even if there’s no hyperbole in the poem. I’ve made a statement implying semantics and content are extricable–which is debatable. i think intuitevely I know what you mean, but feel that certain poems are likely to get wrongfully excluded if one allows logic its fullest sweep: Keats’ On Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” for example–which is more than less “perfect,” and totally showy–or is there a biggy difference twixt showstopping/show-piece and showy? It seems that there’s plenty of people who do think of elaborate formalism as negative: Williams and about a million others have lots of progeny (agh the lineage trope apologies!) and George Herbert not so much so. I guess a question is if someone thinks The Cow is objectionable for showiness etc, why don’t they level that charge at “To His Coy Mistress,” which is beautifully over the top; hmm, maybe the beautifully part o’ the equation explains things; but then that makes beauty pretty narrow, and I don’t believe that to be the case.

  11. Johannes

    Yes, I see your point Adam. I’m talking about negative criticism, and it’s certainly true that at various points some forms of formalism has been considered showy.

  12. Johannes

    Also, I’m most definitely not focusing on “semantic” showiness; I’m talking about the entire thing. I’ll explain better in the week ahead.


  13. adam strauss

    What I like, and how your view fits with mine, is that sometimes the justification for formalism is that it fits the content–serves as a sensible amplification, and that can be true, true, but I personally love form as just that, a dynamic, a decor, a decoration, because shouldn’t good accessories be celebrated; and what happens when every element of a work is an accessory! All writing is, ultimately, is words, so then again form is never extraneous unless one calls the very vehicle superfluous–which some do though I find that a bit cerebral for my taste though cerebralo is a sort of unfair term because it ain’t like the brain ain’t the body! It’s surely a sign of intersection that we both seems to see fashion as a good lexicon to discuss aesthetics.

  14. Johannes

    Yes, I see your point Adam. It drives home the sense in which all art is ultimately “showy.” Only some art pretends that it is not (it is “sincere” and what have you, or “rigorous” or “hard”)./Johannes

  15. adam strauss

    Yes to “some art pretends that it is not”….tho sometimes stylistic artiness can then be fused to very plainly radical but stated as unexcitedly as possible, aka some stories of Guy Davenport dealing with what I suppose many would call dubious sexual dynamics; example: he has a story in which–tho I may have misread–the mom thinks nothing of her son and her son’s friend “acting nasty” (quotations mine not GD’s) in the livingroom at midday. I’m a fan of the very unconventional being stated plainly, as if it is totally no biggie to many: M Nussbaum, in a review of a book whose title i don’t remember, points out a flaw in the logic, writing that the argument ought therefore to be in favor of sexual attraction to children, and so she subtly slips in a hot topic but in the coolest, calmest way–which strikes me as rather amazing: to discourse with calmness on what conventionally is not discoursed calmly. I feel like I got away from the intial thread, but maybe not: the normative impassioned response to some responses would seemingly be the example of showy, of artifice, but instead it’s the baseline tone.

  16. adam strauss

    the normative impassioned response to some responses
    should read the normative impassioned response

    an example of this could be Aaron Kunin writing in–saw this in a Fence of a few issues ago–something along the lines of “it is unlucky to be attracted to children,” which doesn’t immediately jump to the thesis that this dynamic is exploitative or willfully perverted and makes its point plainly/unshowily—which is not to say exploitation is not ever gonna be an issue.

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