The Corrupted Poet: Feng Sun Chen, Stina Kajaso, Uljana Wolf and Aase Berg

by on Sep.05, 2011

I’m going to return to a few texs I’ve been writing about and add a few to the discussion: Feng Sun Chen’s chapbook “Ugly Fish,” Stina Kajaso’s blog “Son of Daddy,” from which she translated a piece for the Swedish issue of Action, Yes, Aase Berg’s “Forsla Fett” and Uljana Wolf’s “False Friends.” In opposition to Tony Hoagland’s rhetoric of authenticity, accessibility, legitimacy and true heirs (ie lineage), I want to use these poets to talk about a poetics of counterfeits and “poisonous” influences. Taking my cue from Michael Leong’s post about Montevidayo/Action on Big Other, I might call these “compromised” texts, or perhaps “corrupted” texts.

In his harangue against Fence and the 2nd Generation NY School poets, Tony Hoagland warns against the dangers of influence: how influence can be “poisoned” and lead to degeneracy, and perhaps most importantly, “neutered” – unmasculine/emasculated – poetry. The way influence is made productive and healthy is of course: patriarchal lineage. Creating a “true line.” Like old inheritance rules!

The main reason I keep thinking about this essay is the way it lays bare a lot of the assumptions of the “accessibility” argument: the incredibly common argument (by Billy Collins, Poetry Magazine types, Hoagland etc) that poetry should be “accessible.” It becomes clear that what this means is not only a type of poetry but a type of “selfhood.” It’s a poetics of an autonomous, stable self and art that tries to maintain this illusion. And it’s an art and a selfhood which I think is profoundly anxious about Art and its powers, it’s actually a type of anti-Art rhetoric.

According to Hoagland what characterizes the masses of indistinct Fence poetry these days is a love of melancholy ambience. Ambience, as I argued in my last post, is a term for art which does not so much go from vehicle to tenor, that isn’t easily interpreted in terms of one thing leads to another, as much as it opens up a space where one thing may connect to another, one feeling bleed into another. This aesthetic preoccupation of the un-named Fence poets is “habit-forming” like a drug habit, according Hoagland, and lead to this poisoned influence, the degeneracy, the anachronism. These poets lose their names (he doesn’t include the names of the Fence poets he quotes, such as Eddie Berrigan the biological descendant of Ted, who thus manages to be an instance of doubly counterfeit lineage of O’Hara) in their ambience.

In difference to these names narcissists, Hoagland does name Matthew Zapruder as the antidote to this nameless ambience. Zapruder gets a name because unlike those minor poets, he’s a major poet; unlike those “passive” and “neutered” poets, he wages a “determined struggle” in his poems, he has autonomy, he is not “under the influence” but a true heir.

In his description of Zapruder, Hoagland uses a rhetoric of mastery: the Fence authors develop drug-like habits of ambience, while Zapruder is “adult” enough to take on the “struggles” of the world. Unlike the degenerates he is able to take on the excesses of mass culture. It’s in the “emergence of an adult figure” near the end, when Zapruder “moves[s] into the foreground of his poems” to “speak clearly” that distinguishes him from “most of his peers.”

This is to say that clarity or “accessibility” has to do with an adult sensibility, and that is when the writer “move[s] into the foreground of his poems.” I think this is key because it suggests the degree to which the “accessibility” argument has to do with a certain notion of self hood and of art – the accessible poem presents a coherent self. This is an art of mastery.


Mastery over what?

Art of course.


But what is there to be mastered of art? Isn’t art the means through which we master the world? No, art has to do with that “ambience” he’s so nervous about, that drug-like degeneracy that seems so un-“adult” to him. More importantly, Art does not create “adults” – safe subjectivities through which we can create nicely teachable lineages, through which we can control the dangerous (possibly poisonous) “influence” of Art – for Art shatters us, Art generates mobilities, ambiences.


And that’s why I brought in Feng Sun Chen’s book, Ugly Fish in my past post. Chen is the posterchild of melancholia. Her poetry is “the pregnancy of decadence, which is full of fetuses.” In the moebius movement of her poems, decadence – a term which is supposed to mean the end of pregnancies, the end of the line, the term both Steve Evans and Tony Hoagland uses to denounce Fence – becomes a kind of pregnancy. But this is not merely an easy reversal because it’s a pregnancy of “fetuses,” a word which ambiently associates not only with a baby in the womb but also with the pro-life movement’s death obsession (and its promotion of that strange liminal American Citizen, “the fetus” with its “rights”) and a kind of constant in-between, birth-death zone. Which is the zone of Art. Which is not the zones of “mastery” or “adults” speaking “clearly.” It does not have a vertical reading, but generates a zone where things come together and fall apart.

It’s not wonder people arguing for “accessibility” are almost always arguing not so much for an “accessible” poetry but a poetry that is “interpretable,” That is to say, accessible by people who have been to college and studied poems with a new critical strategy. Mastery.

The perhaps less unusual part is that the “accessibility” people share with so many “experimental” and “post-avant” poets and critics (including our frequent guest Kent Johnson), who stake a belief in the poem as a “critique,” an ideal of the poet and reader as autonomous, standing apart from the excesses of mass culture. A model of Art which indeed “masters” art, turns it into a utility of critique. This may in part explain why Hoagland is attacking ambient Fence poets, not language poets of any “generation.”

(Or it may be, as I have suspected in the past, that the Language poets have established themselves as serious poets with their own hierarchy and ideals of mastery. They are no longer – as they once were – perpetrators of chaos. This also explains why language poets can now be found in Poetry Magazine, right next to Tony Hoagland’s poems.)

I am reminded of what Leo Bersani has called “the sacrosanct value of selfhood, a value that accounts for human beings’ extraordinary willingness to kill in order to protect the seriousness of their statements.”

Which is to say: I like Feng’s book not because she appears as a master of Art, speaking clearly and adultishly, but because she dares to be totally and utterly “influenced” by art, to become a black hole of “ugly feelings” through which the poems emerges like a fetus from a decadent pregnancy. She doesn’t master Art, Art influences her.

THis may also have something to do with my post about “Gothic Plague Stages.” I think perhaps the “plague stages” of PJ Harvey, Herzog and Aase Berg are not just written from the zone of art but also about art.

One common misinterpretation people seem to have about my posts about art is that I am somehow in favor of some kind of hazy Bukowski type of art. That without mastery, what would happen would be that everybody would just write grunty and sloppy. As you can tell from most of the people I write about, it’s not the case. As in Daniel Tiffany’s description of kitsch as “excessive beauty”, Art un-mastered is not de-art-ified art; it’s the opposite. It’s not carelessness about art. It’s too much of an absorption in art. It’s writing in a trance. It’s being compelled to write. It’s being possessed by Art. The result is “excessive beauty.”

So I get to Stina Kajaso, whose blog is one of my favorite “books” running. She translated an episode from it for our latest issue of Action, Yes. She translated it herself and there are awkwardnesses etc and this to me brings back how translation challenges easy notions of Mastery. The Original is “corrupted” (to invoke Michael Leong’s article on Action, Yes).

Like Chen’s book, Kajaso’s entire text is written in the aesthetics of the damaged and corrupted. In her videos her image is messed with, damaged, discolored, spasmodic (a little like Ryan Trecartin):

Icebear from Action, Yes online quarterly on Vimeo.

You see this corruption in the texts: shoddy translation, misquoted allusions etc. A self set into art’s circulations, ambience. Not a “Mastered” text, mastered self, but a shattered and shattering self:

World ends.
Hero dies.
Pig says: Oink.

Or maybe “shattering” is wrong. There is an implicit inside/outside in that metaphor. Maybe we’re talking more about a kind of collapse, a spasm, a moebius strip, a decadent pregnancy.


The self as bloodied bunny smoking a cigarette while idly tossing a stupid knife.

You can sense this kind of corruption in German poet Uljana Wolf’s work. Here’s Marjorie Perloff in a recent article in Jacket:

In Wolf’s wronglish, as she calls her bilingual idiolect, the German title words migrate into their unrelated English counterparts, shifting grammar along the way and blowing apart the poet’s mock-meditation. The effect is that of travelling to a foreign country and not quite hearing the other. How can “soon” (adverb) be “bald” (adjective)? “bad” (adjective) a “bath” (noun)? “bet” (verb) a “bed” (noun)? Or “brief” (adjective) a “letter” to be mailed (noun)? Never mind, Wolf’s little love poem, concluding with a rhyme on “lange” (long) and “wange” (cheek), urges the lover, who may find a strand of hair in the letter, to press it sweetly to his cheek.

THis is what I wrote about another book by Wolf, My Cadastre, for the Attention Span list:

Wolf explores a tension between the hierarchical/Freudian family with an ambient language-scape where fathers and daughters multiply and get rearranged in language. And of course this kind of language-scape is interesting for purposes of translation. Especially with words like “Cadastre” or “flurbuch,” the “ownership” that seems to be “translated” away. The accounts are unsettled.

Perloff’s description of Wolf reads like an analysis of my own translation of Aase Berg, I’m just going to paste in an excerpt of something I wrote a long time ago on my old blog, exoskeleton:

In difference to a modern American poetry, which still seems to pivot on Frost’s cliché of poetry being what is lost in translation, Berg’s book is in fact largely based on translations of English-language articles about string theory (a subject about which the poet claims to know little). From these translations she gets words like “strings,” “tone” and “conductor” that she repeats throughout the book. However, her “translations” of these scientific tracts do not make sense of the terminology. She is enchanted by the textures of the scientific language, which, when brought into her grotesque fairytale poetry, turns physical. Thus she also gives us half-science terms like “spänntid” (“strungtime”) and “vibribrerar” (“vibribrates”) in the poem “Harpalt” (“Hare Baby”):

The hare conductor stringed
attracts the opposite tone
the string vibribrates
dimensions that will
crook the Instrument

Hearing has a strungtime
tugs faster than the string beats
harpy births child
conducts child over fields
of the as-of-yet unprepared

By adding an extra “ibr” to “vibrates,” she creates a hindrance to a smooth reading of the term – the reading process “vibribrates” as the reader is forced to stutter, to stumble, to become a foreigner inside the language. Berg uses scientific language the way Deleuze and Guattari says Kafka uses Yiddish: She “sees it less as a sort of linguistic territoriality” for the scientific exchange of information “than as a nomadic movement of deterritorialization that reworks [Swedish]” (25). What Berg transfers into the Swedish is not the sense or signification of string theory, but the “fat.” The poetry vibribrates as a “materially intense expression,” as “fat.” The science becomes grotesque, the grotesque sciency.


Späckhuggaren –

här hänger hugget
väntande på späck
i många tusen år
av långsamhet

[Blubber Biter –

here hangs the bite
waiting for blubber
for many thousand years
of slowness]

Like the pregnancy process, the denaturalization in Berg’s book does not just come from the outside, but also from within. Berg makes constant use of the Swedish language’s penchant for compound words. By forging neologisms like “smoothpipe” and “skinfish,” she teaches the reader to break down the standard compound words, to read them like a foreigner who can see the components but does not know that they form another word. That is why, for example, I translated “späckhuggare” as “Blubber Biter” rather than the standard “killer whale.” When I get to that word I have been trained to break down the compounds, and see “späck” (blubber”) plus “huggare” (biter), rather than the standard term. Elsewhere in the book, I translated “däggdjur” as “suckle animals” rather than “mammals.” The book makes the Swedish language strange, it un-teaches us how to read it; it sabotages our fluency. By translating these words non-fluently, I have tried to follow Aase’s method of translation, to bring the fat – rather than the signifiers – of Swedish into the English language, and thus to deterritorialize it.


The hare is also an astrological sign
in the listless, frigid hydrosphere
Same cosmic fatstiff freezefearflood
same cuntstiff looptrack fatflood
We like suckle animals egg animals, whalenut animals
prefer to not give birth to live young

The entire book is focused on a set of words – whale, hare, fat, strings, conduits, animals – that accumulate shifting, mutating sets of associations, constantly changing in and out of various meanings through puns, decontextualizations and recontextualizations. The whale appears to be the central allegorical trope in the collection. We get a variety of whales – “killer whales,” “toothed whale” and “Hole Whale.” When we get to the second to last line of “Hydrophobia,” the book has taught me to look for the word “val,” so that it becomes hard for me to read “valnöt,” the standard term for “walnut,” without noticing the “val” in it. The compound-based reading process has infiltrated our reading even of non-compound words like walnut. This is why I translated the term as “whalenut.” The whale creates a kind of triple-exposure image. By introducing the blubbery whale material into the walnut, we might see not just whales and nuts, but ultimately perhaps the walnut as an image of a fetus. However, the instability of the language itself makes it hard to put the image exactly into focus. The language itself gets in the way, as the word “vibribrates” between images and words (whalenut, walnut).


And perhaps more importantly, the poem seems to vibribrate between text and blackout, words and images, materiality and holes.

Here’s the Catherine Clement quote I cited in my entry on My Own Private Idaho:

“Surprisingly, this glaring weakness contains a raging force. This frustration is creative; from its disorders, unknown energies are often born… the world in which I have lived until now idolized power and force, muscle and health, vigor and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it leads to new rebellions.”

This is a book that seems to black out and faint all the time. It consists of short little poems, but the darkness (“dark matter” was the title of Berg’s second book) seems to give birth to the fragments; or really, the fragments seem like parasite-babies-fat enveloped in darkness. The poems seem flimsy (minor), not official, certainly not Silliman’s idea of a macho Rigor. As in Joyelle’s “Future” of “Poetry” talk, the poems seem to hover between language and “dark matter”.

Finally: it seems with these blog-based texts (I think Feng’s book was largely published on her blog first, sometimes in response to posts on this blog) explore a model of relations that is very different from Hoagland’s old model of Genius-Outsider vs the Masses (even as he teaches the masses). Here it’s relations that are infected. Poisonous influences. Kajaso’s blog features stories from her life and images from her performance art etc – the result is a a life as art, sexuality as aesthetics, politics as aesthetics.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. carina finn

    I really like that you call Kajaso’s blog a running “book,” because that’s exactly how I think of it. I think a huge part of the sort of ageist attitude towards younger poets, poets like Feng (whose blog/work in general I love), Kajaso, etc., is that we’ve all been brought up in this age during which the rapid and production of text for internet consumption is a fundamental part of forming one’s identity. for a poet to have this kind of interface is both horrifying and heaven-sent: on the one hand, we can construct these massive, time-sensitive texts that transcend anything our forebears could have imagined; on the other, those old guys with their letterpress machines and walkers can’t keep up with us, so we get labeled things like “decadent” & these texts “juvenalia.” There’s also the threat it poses to the poet/work itself, which is that the blog medium so greatly satisfies our consumerist instant-gratification drive that it can become difficult to step back, to figure out for ourselves what kinds of texts belong where (if anywhere), to see the difference between poetry and reality tv. the biggest issue, I think, is the fact that very few people would be willing to work with someone like kajaso to figure out how to put that blog in the format of a paper&glue BOOK, because it would be difficult, would require intense collaboration on both ends, would mean that the work itself would have to change a bit to fit into its new outfit.

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