Archive for April, 2011

Fear and Love In Criticism (pt 2): Billy Collins and Accessibility

by on Apr.21, 2011

Billy Collins is often held up as a paradigm of “accessibility” (frequently published in venues with aspirations toward “general readership” – NPR, Best of American Poetry etc) or denounced as a simpleton. I have never really read his work but lately I’ve been interested in reading it as a way to think about this mythic “accessibility” and such. Here’s a poetics poem (turns out almost all of his poems are about reading/writing poetry):

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

(continue reading…)

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Love and fear: Kirby, Orr and poetry criticism

by on Apr.20, 2011

[I started to write this last week meaning to expand on it, but I haven’t been able to, so now I post it anyway.]

I’ve been running into a lot of articles with ambivalent (at best) views of the way we talk about poetry – ie “criticism.” There seems to be some anxiety that the way we are talking about poetry is corrupting our experience of the poems; that it’s somehow (like an illegal alien) taking the place of the true text, that it is separate from the poem.

Exhibit A: David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s book “Beautiful and Pointless” in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday (and, also I suppose Orr’s book by implication).
(continue reading…)

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Britney, Demske, and the Ruins of Creative Writing Pedagogy

by on Apr.19, 2011

Not to beat a dead horse, but I was just thinking about how the criticisms of MFA programs sometimes contradict each other.  Take the notion that writing can’t be taught.  Along with this claim about the classroom’s impotence, you might hear someone say that the MFA homogenizes and ruins people’s creativity.  As if students were receptacles (trash cans?) to be filled in by the aesthetics of their professors and peers.  MFA students in a given program thus all digest and churn out the same poem, story, etc.  So, in this top-down analysis of power dynamics in the classroom, the MFA can only squander the student’s potential.  Writing can’t be taught, yet it can somehow still be ruined through the pressure to imitate.  What a chokehold!

One thing that complicates the idea of MFA student-as-receptacle is that we often get to take the reins, design syllabi, and teach our own classes.  For example, I just asked the undergrads in the workshop I’m teaching to compare Nick Demske and Britney. (continue reading…)

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Paul Thek's Tomb and the Image

by on Apr.19, 2011

1) I first heard of Paul Thek about a decade ago, when I saw some of his work at an exhibit in Vienna; it included several of his Meat Pieces and his famous Chair with Craws and Meat Pieces. The exhibit was called Eine barocke Party, and it contained many grotesque and disturbing works (another piece was a film showing a nude woman lip-singing to the only known recording of a castrato), but even in such an exhibit his work stood out. The black bird in Chair with Craws reminded me of Poe, or Hitchcock, and the meat-strewn chair looked like the residue of some annihilating catastrophe. I remember thinking that the piece was absolutely disgusting but also absolutely beautiful. If “beautiful” is a word that could be used for such an arrangement. And the “meat” was all the more unnerving for looking so shiny and fake; actual meat, which has become that product we see in grocery stores, would have been less disgusting.

2) Contrary to the traditional notion of art as a vehicle for creating distance, and the related notion of art as a vehicle for emotional catharsis, there is the notion of art as stimulant. Nietzsche and Deleuze put forth such a form of aesthetics, as did Artaud and Francis Bacon. (Artaud: “We have no intention of boring the audience to death with transcendent cosmic preoccupations.” And also: Art should be “nothing but a fine Nerve Meter.”) Disgust can be a stimulant too. As can nausea.

3) Before diluting his insights with his arguments about authenticity and his highly teleological brand of Marxism, Sartre wrote a brilliant novel entitled Nausea that dealt with the way the material world can cause us unease and disquiet, and how this very unease and disquiet can lead to a radical and dizzying form of freedom. (Before becoming Sartre the Dialectician, Sartre was actually very close to certain elements in Blanchot and Bataille; even the anti-Sartean Derrida considered the novel Sartre’s most radical work.) Roquentin is constantly picking up random bits of trash from the street and being overwhelmed by their there-ness, their stubborn insistence on being nothing but transparent. Transparency becomes horror because there is not even a fall from grace to romanticize. Even his own body takes on this fearsome (and for Roquentin, nauseating) quality: “My body of living flesh, the flesh which swarms and turns gently liqueurs, which turns cream, the flesh which turns, turns, turns, the sweet sugary water of my flesh, the blood of my hand…”

4) Disgust is linked to attraction and allurement in the same manner love is linked to hate. Jean Genet, from Our Lady of the Flowers: “I hate them, lovingly.” Or the many sex scenes in Dennis Cooper’s novels where disgust and desire are part of the same woof and warp.
(continue reading…)

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Fellow Montevidayoan in London? Here's Your Art-Infections

by on Apr.19, 2011

I just found out that the Spill Festival of Performance‘s theme this year is infection, and infection being my favorite theme ever I had to share Robert Pacitti’s curatorial note:

This year SPILL has been curated around notions of infection. Performance presents us with multiple layers of ideas, images and politic, but how do we – the audience – receive these live transmissions? Does information simply arrive in straight lines, making the same sense to each of us? Or does it cross-pollinate with our own individual experiences, contaminating each personal reading to form new hybrid knowledge?….Amongst the programme are large ambitious stage works, small delicate interventions, stunning installations, a SPILL Thinker in Residence, infected artist talks, contaminated salons, paranoid film, contagious music, a party, and even a backstage feast….SPILL spreads like an epidemic of ideas across this Easter – be sure to catch it. Now wash your hands.

Harminder Singh Judge, Self Portrait after Kali and Gene

April 18-23 at the Barbican. There is a lot going on including the SPILL tarot and a screening of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Blob”. For instance. Harminder Judge will explore the occult’s influence on popular culture with an unholy immersion.

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Unacknowledged Legislator Strikes Back: Langston Hughes vs. Rick Santorum

by on Apr.18, 2011

Is it super-delicious or super-tragic that gay-phobic (yet man-on-dog slipperyslope fantasizing) Rick Santorum is currently fundraising for his presidential campaign under the banner of a line taken from gay, black, red Langston Hughes? Under the slogan ‘Fighting to Make America America Again’, he asks you to donate now to . There is also a picture of him canoodling with his wife so you may be sure he ain’t gay.

Hughes’s poem ‘Let America be America Again‘, is part of Hughes’s red work that is customarily excised from sanitized classroom lesson plans, vaguely referred to as propaganda and thus lesser work. I for one actually love Hughes the propagandist; I don’t think propaganda is lesser poetry. I love the passion that rivens this, the self-compulsion of the poem. Hughes wants justice more than he wants the poem. Ok by me. Or maybe it’s more like, this poem-machine kills fascists. For the record I also love Mayakovsky’s Soviet-committed verses, inviting the factory foreman to lock up his lips once the work is done. Well, what do you think, Montevidayans? Here’s some lines I’m sure Rick Santorum highlighted on his Kindle:

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

The poem continues for quite some time. I also like those italicized lines– that weird spectralization of the choral speaker, speaking not from the fields or the factory but from behind a veil of stars. Really fascinating.

On the other hand, on the current budget battles, Santorum remarked, “Why punish the most productive people? The people who have resources create jobs, not poor people.”

Ahem. As an English prof, I’d like to suggest, Mr. Santorum, that you review that poem before the exam.

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"… inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine…": Kim Hyesoon, Kara Walker and Kitsch Allegories

by on Apr.15, 2011

1. Today I’m sick in bed and thinking about Kim Hyesoon (and Camille Rose Garcia, Kara Walker, and others), gothic wallpapers and allegory, kitsch, and atrocity kitsch.

2. Here’s a quote from Joel Scott’s review (which I posted in a comment below). I thought it might lead to some discussion about Kim Hyesoon’s work and the role of kitsch.

(continue reading…)

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by on Apr.13, 2011

A lot of people seem to misunderstand what I mean by kitsch. So I’ll make a brief note here. To me kitsch is on the most basic level rhetoric used (usually) to dismiss things for being inauthentic – for being in essence like mass-produced objects and a whole host of associations that have come about in modernism through the discussion of kitsch – seductive, counterfeit, image, reproduction, “soft” (as in Silliman’s “soft surrealism”), feminine, gothic etc. Kitsch is the “versioning” of the original. Obviously the immigrant is kitsch.

When I talk about kitsch, I don’t mean mass-produced objects, but the rhetoric that surrounds them. So Kenny Goldsmith can build his rhetoric on dismissing “creative writing” as kitsch – it’s actually tasteless in its unoriginalness, the very thing it’s supposed to ensure (you should be able to “find your voice” or “the voice that is great within you”, and learn how to “earn your images”). In a lot of experimental poetry discussions, traditionally literary devices like similes and metaphors are now treated as kitsch of “creative writing.” Workshops meant to protect against the garish threat of kitsch (teaching generations of writers how to write with Taste), have now become kitsch-ified.
(continue reading…)

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Another Review of Kim Hyesoon (and Don Mee Choi)

by on Apr.13, 2011

Australian critic Joel Scott has reviewed Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must be a Fountain of Feathers and Don Mee Choi’s The Morning News Is Exciting!.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

“In Kim, the body is inextricably and painfully knitted into the industrial landscape. Again, this knitting does not serve an erotic function. Kim’s problem seems to be an optical one: how to distinguish the body from the landscape when there appears to be no clear difference between organic and inorganic bodies. In fact, in Kim’s poetry, organs seem to be largely autonomous from their bodies.”

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Mother Substance

by on Apr.12, 2011

Joyelle’s postabout the Sublime as Deformation Zone, (along with lots of what’s been going on here lately, e.g. necropastoral, ambient shame, etc) really resonates with my current project, which revolves around—& constellates from—the nonsteroidal synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol (DES) that was prescribed to pregnant women through the mid-1970s under the false presumption that it would reduce the risk of miscarriage (not to mention “render normal gestation even more normal” and “make healthy babies even healthier.”)

A typical dose for pregnant women was equivalent to an intake of 700 birth control pills a day. DES was also used as a food supplement for cows, chickens, and other corporately farmed livestock–not only did it fatten the meat, but, conveniently, it chemically castrated the males. Notably, the FDA banned its use in chickens close to 20 years before banning its use in humans. Shortly after the initial synthesis of DES, male lab workers handling this “mother substance” (as it was christened by its discoverer, Charles Dodds, who had synthesized DES from a coal-tar derivative in 1938 at the University of London) began to grow breasts and become impotent (which Big Pharma fixed by hiring only female lab workers.) Dodds had intentionally forfeited his patent from the start, aware that the Nazis were conducting hormone research as part of their eugenics program, and wanting to protect against experimentation on women. He never expected DES would be used for healthy women, and (like Oppenheimer) he agonized over and regretted how the PCPs (patriarchal capitalist pigs) commandeered his discovery.  Nevertheless, Dodds was knighted in honor of his contribution to science, and served as Master of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries where his achievements were endowed with a stained glass window representing his “coat of arms.” Crowning this armor, emerging like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus, is a woman holding an open book revealing the formula for DES.

Permission granted by the Apothecaries Society: Photo courtesy of Caitlin McCarthy.

Permission granted by the Apothecaries Society: Photo courtesy of Caitlin McCarthy.

DES Daughters (female offspring of women who took the drug) became victims of the first transplacental carcinogen known to humans, sometimes developing a rare form of vaginal clear cell carcinoma—requiring the removal of their entire genital tract & all reproductive organs—as young as age 14. Potential cancer of the vagina, uterus, cervix, vulva, breasts, and ovaries perpetually haunts all DES Daughters since the carcinogenic medium installed during in utero chemical exposure can have a decades-long latency. Additionally, these daughters (I’m one of them) experience a variety of teratogenic effects resulting from their prenatal exposure: t-shaped, septated, mottled, and smaller-than-normal uteri; cervical hoods, adenosis, and other cervical deformations; increased miscarriage, infertility, preterm labor & ectopic pregnancy; increased risk for auto-immune disease; endometriosis and other nondiagnosable/untreatable (defaced) menstrual disorders, etc.

a DES uterus

It’s like we have 3 parents really, one of them synthetic: splitting & surging—as physical matter becoming a fetal body—alongside all the other “natural” stuff. Hybrid body, part “machine” (pharmaceutical), part organism. This indeed is sublime parentage, producing endocrinological disruption/dys-circuitry, an interior/invisible performance of cyborg femininity, plastic sensations at the meat core, non-alive therefore non-dying, embodied monstrosity. My uterus is just barely recognizable as a uterus; ultrasound techs are always shocked to discover that I managed to grow a baby in that thing. It’s a sublime uterus, dreadful & captivating & incomprehensible. Imagine the horror of those DES daughters who required removal of their vaginas. How do you remove a hole?

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Ronaldo Wilson's Woundscapes and Racial Deformation Zones

by on Apr.11, 2011

I was just teaching Ronaldo Wilson’s poetry (Narrative of the Brown Boy and the White Man and Poems of the Black Object), following a discussion of Aime Cesaire’s Notebook on a Return to the Native Land, and I couldn’t help reading Joyelle’s post but to see a connection between “the deformation zone” (a phrase Joyelle takes from Aase Berg’s book Upland, which is notably “set” in an airplane crash that never happens, instead hovering like a dragonfly in between life and death): a zone where the inside is outside, the outside inside.

From Narrative, we discussed the poem in which the brown boy fantasizes about Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon being attacked by “a flaming couch section” and covered in gasoline and sperm, and the one in which the brown boy becomes sexually attracted/curious by an old white man who appears to be “dying”: accumulating bodily materials like “coral” or “rust,” his flimsy boxer shorts appearing to meld with his body, stitched up as if his interior was about to flow out.
(continue reading…)

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On the Sublime as Deformation Zone?

by on Apr.11, 2011

Sublime Zone as Peripheral Materials

Just now re-reading my grad-students’ excellent workshop submissions (sorry for bragging) I found myself thinking about the Sublime. The Sublime as we receive it through Romantic poetry already amounts to a paradox—beauty and terror, height and depth—but is carefully discussed in terms of polarities and binaries, with the ‘and’ both linking and firmly separating the two poles. Geographically the Sublime occupies both height and depth but separately—both the Pleasure Dome and the deep romantic chasm (Coleridge, Kubla Kahn), both Mont Blanc and the deep ravine of Arve (Shelley, Mont Blanc). In both poems a fluid current runs from one pole to the other; wired like a circuit or a battery with positive and negative poles, the current ‘flows through the mind,’especially through the poet’s mind, ‘and rolls its rapid waves’, generally from high to low.

Reading my students’ work, I wonder if we can imagine a reconfigured or non-configured Sublime, that does not rely on the topographical maps the Romantics configured but exists as obscurity, all inside, inside the atom, say, that is simultaneously also all outside, on the impossible-to-imagine denatured Moebius strip of the ampersand or Lyotard’s libidinal band? What if it were not a circuit but a zone? (continue reading…)

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"Contagious Poetry": Jessica Lawson on Kim Hyesoon

by on Apr.10, 2011

Jessica Lawson has written a great, insightful review of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry over at the new Jacket online journal, “Contagious Poetry”:

“The patient’s disease threatens to reach out beyond the body and invade others, moving with the force of a river that cannot be dammed even when the word river is carefully broken up. Meaning manages to leak out even in the face of verbal mutilation and constant interruption, so that the poem operates by a contagion that spreads among words and makes collective sense of them. Poetry is a virus, its semiotic contagion infusing bodies and connecting us to one another and to the language with which we are infected. Viewed in this way, poetry is both an intimately corporeal act and a guerilla-style revolution in the politics of expression.”

Lawson’s emphasis on the body as a two way street of violence and politics suggests a connection to what Joyelle and I called “soft surrealism” a while back (yes, we intentionally misread Ron Silliman’s phrase to critique his politics; yes we were totally talking about poets like Kim Hyesoon, not actually the poets Ron was talking about), as well as Mark Seltzer’s idea of “wound culture,” where collectivity is gathered around wounds.

Not to mention Joyelle’s recent entry where she compares the way Kim Hyesoon and Camille Rose Garcia’s bodies deal with pollution and contamination.

Anyway, I think this was a really thoughtful essay, an important essay for putting the body – not as a simple “realness” but as something more complicated and interesting – in to the discussion of poetry and especially the poetry of Kim Hyesoon, one of my absolutely favorite living writers, whose book, All the Garbage of the World Unite! will be published by Action Books this fall.

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