by on Jan.02, 2013

Mother Death Poetics originated here, and I think, Montevidayans, you’ll agree this mater-manifesta furthers our consciousness and our desire. Elisabeth Workman lives in Minneapolis, and I hope she won’t mind me reporting that she actually delivered her baby, by chance, in the bathtub in the bathroom of her own home. Her husband helped. I love her. She says, “It should be noted that this is very much a document in progress, and that any comments may be incorporated into the poetics &/or poetry as it grows.”

The image was made by my goddaughter Grace, who is 12, and is responsible for the cover art of my first book.

Happy New Year!


The Cuntos: A Poetics
Elisabeth Workman

The source text for this project was written out of a fugitive anxiety in July 2012. The source texts feeding into that text were written out of desperation in the 19th century, out of significant disdain, out of borders, disillusionment, and uncertainty. A passive voice gets acted upon. A passive voice becomes receptive. The nascent language of a two-year-old girl surfaces. The neurotic language of a mother at the edge of pigeon-hole surfaces. A poet in the word-hole listens. The in-between language of revenants collides with a perverse pleasure of near-sounds and puns and estranged, entangled meaning. It is a blatant abuse of paper.

In July 2012 I had recently re-read Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, her own July project published in 1976 (the year I was born; bicentenialism) that sought to document via photography, sound recordings, and most dominantly, words as much of each day as possible. At the same time Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans kept resurfacing to the top spot on my bedside pile of books—maybe compelled by my own melancholic nostalgia to not be an American, maybe an extended fascination with wanderlust and frontiers and the lawlessness they foment. Online, I kept returning to readings from Anne Tardos’ Nine, whose concept of the line as independent semantic phenomena—and many aphoristic—I found beautiful and true in a Jenny Holzer on jouissance-poetry-drugs way.

A simple project with several moms and a simple premise—each day type a single-spaced page following Bernadette Mayer’s premise of writing non-stop whatever surfaces, knowing—and here I depart from BM—that I would return to these pages and redact, distort, or vandalize as necessary. Whenever I paused, I would pull from Fanny Trollope’s chapters on Americans, and integrate her language into my text, using it to spur a continued stream-of-consciousness. It was a way of sharing syntax with her, so that the consciousness is not exclusively my own, nor exclusively hers, but more of a mutual permeability, a new memory of a non-event. In addition, each day, I would also write a 7 x 7 poem—each line seven words across in a poem seven lines long, this shorter series working with and improvising upon language appropriated from late-19th-century emigrant diaries from the Oregon Trail. Here, I was most attracted to the semi-literate language of one William T. Newby, whose formulations offered what I found to be poetic renderings of the vernacular—e.g. engraved becomes “in graved”; move becomes “moove” (cattle, the story of the conquering of the American West); night becomes “knight” (for a chivalric realm of death); others becomes “authers” (which I read as “authors”). Author as the other. This was how it began.

Now, maybe a quarter of the way through the erasure/vandalizing process, what’s staining the page is something of its own mutational being. As I proceed I am noticing that far more than two or three “voices” at play in the original texts, there’s more of a horde—my daughter’s voice appears, The Specials appear, Johnny Cash, Jonathan Richman, old, old songs, memes, phantasms, quotations from email dialogues, etymological entries and more. And as I proceed more voices/momenta are pushing their way into the process to land upon poems that bear the traces, or really spaces, of their ghosts. A spectral palimpsest. If someone asked me what my project was about right now, I would say “motherhood and death,” but that would be too fey because more than being about, they are moving about and are driven by—above all else—propulsion.

In his essay “On Jean Genet,” Edward Said grapples with the ostensible contradictions between the man and the writer and how “[Genet] seemed totally unlike anything of his that [Said] had read,” and then discovering in a letter to Roger Blin, “[Genet] says in fact that everything he wrote was written ‘contre moi-même.’” Against myself. Anti-self. There is an uncanny familiarity to this and particularly Said’s description of Genet’s writing: “you feel that his words, the situations he describes, and the characters he depicts no matter how intensely , no matter how forcefully are provisional. It is always the propulsive force driving him and his characters that Genet’s work delivers most accurately.” Propulsion derives from the Latin propellere “drive before (oneself),” and perhaps as a condition of its own force collapses any spatial organization of past, present, and future, decentering the “I,” cutting it asunder.

In the margins of this essay in Revolution: A Reader Lisa Robertson notes “Identity is very ungenerous and completely non-erotic. If we can’t live without striving to lose every aspect of our putative self-knowledge in our search for the other, there is no hope for relationship, and hence for politics. It is this crucial loss that the regulatory state would prevent.”

Zurita: “Each one of us is more than an I, each one is a torrent of the deceased that ends in our life just as we end in our descendents. This is what’s meant by a tradition and culture: that all those who have preceded us return to speak when we speak, they return to see when we see, feel when we feel. Each one of us is the resurrection of the dead and that miracle is achieved in each second of our lives” [emphasis mine].

My primary instincts as an artist are informed by my training as a dancer, my first “discipline.” In a lexical context, these instincts manifest in a privileging of the kinetic at the level of the page, the line, the word, punctuation, in any combination thereof. Trained predominantly by Russians in the Vaganova [ballet] Syllabus, I now resist aesthetics that bear the scent of formulaic hegemony and obedience. I am more interested in the aberrant and the process of transfiguration (rather than product). In not knowing. In the poems here, titles move about on the page, erasure is only sometimes evident, order suspect, syntactic and phonemic phenomena repeat and shift and erode or form new alliances as traces of an unknowable propulsion.

How do you write through the Divine Fucked? Ambivalence? Polyvalence? Paradox? Simultaneity? The frothy contestation of so many dog heads barking, invisible growths on the monumental certainty of the archaic torso? How can writers overthrow the Tyranny of the I (the cult of personality) in an institution dedicated to its promise? In the summer of 2012, in a time of retreat, i.e. fellowship, underwritten by said institution, I was able to afford recluse. Not to be a lone artist inventing in a void, but something more of a vulnerability oozing through delirious hems.
“Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of voice but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing” (“The Ecstacy of Influence”).
A fellowship with a newby (as I was first referred to in the hazing poems of the Flarf Collective; may I always be a noob to poetics!) and a trollop(e). I decided to (w)rite through “that incendiary in-between state, to court anxiety, instability, that glorious fuckedupness” (Dodie Bellamy in Academonia).

In a current American context, the simultaneous consumer-fetishism and institutional/political abjection of motherhood and babies feed a kind of stereoscopic cultural anxiety. I joke when I say to sympathetic friends that the most difficult thing about having a kid is other kids’ parents, but the irony of the statement seems to situate it in that culture of distrust and anxiety by virtue of its own alienating observation, i.e. I am not immune, simultaneously alien & implicated. The circuitry of judgment livewires, the lens through which childbirth is seen as a medical crisis monoliths, and everywhere the micromanagement of space/time of new-beings microspecializes and in doing so deprives new hearts of the fundamental essence of human life: pleasure/pain. In saying so I find the notion of fearing the loss of one’s self in becoming a mother a product of this ontology. As if there’s a static self to lose. There is a poem that refers to the self-consciousness of motherhood as a dark flag flapping on the edge of things. I don’t think I dreamed it, but I also can’t locate it. What edge? Where? “Instead of sounding [her]self as to [her] “being,” [she] does so concerning her place: ‘Where’ am I?’ instead of ‘Who am I?’ For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic” (Kristeva on “The Exile Who Asks Where”).


“I do not like them. I do not like their principles. I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” –Fanny Trollope on Americans

Satirical and serious, Domestic Manners of the Americans charts Fanny Trollope’s expedition to America with three of her children and a young French artist. They set sail in 1827 with intention of joining a Utopian commune in the budding democracy. Though that intention failed, her journey was redirected to further travel and nearly two years in the then-frontier town of Cincinnati, OH, in which she confronted the various faces of the so-called American spirit. As Pamela Neville-Singleton points out in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the book, “Frances Trollope went to the United States, not to gather material for a book, but to seek a temporary shelter from hardship and troubles at home [including significant debt and a husband slowly going mad from mercury poisoning].” The English traveller E.T. Coke, residing state-side when the first American edition appeared, observed: “the commotion it created amongst the good citizens is truly inconceivable….At every corner of the street, at the door of every petty retailer of information for the people, a large placard met the eye with, ‘For sale here, with plates, Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Mrs. Trollope.’” Not only controversial in America, the book was wildly popular in England. “To ‘trollopize,’ that is ‘to abuse the American nation,’ became a recognizable verb in the English language.”

Several years prior, when Mark Twain led a group of European commentators on a tour of the Mississippi, he concluded, “Of all these tourists, I like Dame Trollope best.” In saying so, and in the context of this interface with the dead, I’ll quote him again: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”


Dear Fanny,
In his seminal 2007 Vanity Fair editorial, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” the late Christopher Hitchens argues that because of women’s biological “unchallengeable authority” in their role as bearers of life, and their non-need to be funny in courting rites of the species, women can’t play in the halls of jest. And when they do, they are “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” Aside from the suffocatingly normative paradigm—one so outdated it turns to Kipling and Mencken for support—in which Hitchens asserts, “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” (and I know many men who would disagree with this reductive hyperbole) he fails to concede that his very definition of “funny” is self-satisfying and limited to a conservative, white, heterosexual male authority.
I open with Hitchens’ argument not to assault the dead, for I am courting you, but to posit a two-fold argument that 1) his editorial is symptomatic of a greater cultural resistance to satirical gestures in women’s hands, and therefore, 2) the very parameters by which we define cultural authority (or the gaze of commentary)—and humor and irreverence being absolutely essential to its presence—are in need of dilation.

In the improvisational comedy world, the pretty versus the funny, a well-worn dichotomy (as descendent of the virgin vs. the whore binary), often imposes upon women’s roles—i.e. if you’re not pretty, you’re funny. These labels can be seen at-play in Poetryland (the one so-called an Industry), but perhaps in even more limiting terms in which the funny is restricted to the testicular and the pretty (or delicate or how Cox characterized Niedecker’s poems with the phrase “tremulous certainty”)—an expectation of the female poet. My undergraduate creative thesis Something Else to Say (2000) actively worked against the feminine pigeonhole (Destroy the pigeonholes! –Tristan Tzara) through a poetics that embraced the ugly, the incomplete, the awkward, and decay as values of an alternative lyric. Since that time, inspired my participation in the Flarf Collective, my work has taken on the funny and the “not-right” as poetic material, but in poems that collage these registers with other registers of the sincere, the violent, the sexual, and the lyrical.

It was with this embrace of multiple registers that I submitted my application for a Marcella DeBourg Fellowship. My proposed project sought to give “written expression to women’s lives” through the creation of a body of poems intersecting satirical gestures of mockery, hyperbole, irreverence, and so forth with the glittering, the sincere, and the tragic. I was interested in the threat and inherent risks of such a tonal rumpus. Hitchens himself speculates as to the dangers of women’s satire: in his hypothetical vision of a matriarchal world, he suggests, “it would not have taken women long to work out that female humor would be the most upsetting of all.”


Why not make upsetting a poetics? Why not do things backwards or wrong? Can such gestures counteract the catastrophic momentum of a world already topsy-turvy? Could we call it projectile verse? Expelling interiority (the beloved state of the I) in favor of the material realm through the kinetic propulsion of word corpses animated by the voices of the dead and the living on a stage where collision, error, phonetic corrosion, punning, looting, trollopizing, and play are all forces of transformation and revolution—a purging of bile—via the projectile—“The Barf.” And maybe, it might even be fun: “The Barf is feminist, unruly, cheerfully monstrous. The Barf comes naturally to women because women like to throw up fingers down throat, one, two, three, bleh … The Barf is an upheaval, born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ….the Barf is expansive as the Blob, swallowing and recontextualizing, spreading out and engorging. Its logic is associative, it proceeds by chords rather than single, discrete notes. Hierarchies jumble in the thrill, in the imperatives of purge” (Dodie Bellamy in Barf Manifesto).

To a significant extent, Flarf was all about upsetting and radiated a kind of glorious epileptic nihilism. In her postscript to Annoying Diabetic Bitch, the incomparable Sharon Mesmer concludes, “There’s a scene in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu where the citizens of a town gripped by plague dance and sing and carouse among corpses rotting and burning in the town square. In a way, flarf does pretty much the same thing. But without that awful stench.” But this was in the early 2000s under the insane rule of a Dick [Cheney LLC] puppet. Not to say our current conditions aren’t as problematic, but there’s an urgency to redefine and re-see reality that was previously obfuscated by a totalizing plutocratic charicature. Maybe it’s time to embrace the stench and nurture it and this may mean a new kind of tenderness, an auther Mother, and it may mean eating the dead because they’re nutritious.


Dear Newby,
The words in grave. The words in scribe. The words in nothing, nowthing, borderlinked.


Controversial for their experimental nature and density of references, Ezra Pound’s Cantos were essentially curated “journal dumps.” I want to make Ezra punned a woman, a dragqueen, a trickster, a witch, an androgyne confronting the always present past from a comPounded and complicated subjectivity, a cuntos. In “Matrixial Borderspace” Bracha Ettinger redefines the female artist: “I call ‘woman’ this interlaced subjectivity that is not confined to the contours of a one-body with its inside versus outside polarity. This gives rise to an idea of the aritst as working through traces coming through others to whom she is borderlinked. Here in this borderspace, any artist who opens pathways and deepens metamorphoses…thus turns into a woman when she wanders with her spirit’s eyes and her erotic antennae in a psychic space and in a world where the gaze is a veil, the touch—the trail of event.” The ampersand undoing itself and deforming and reforming and and—and per se and “& by itself is and,” chanted as a mnemonic. All of the withs in &, the trails curling in on themselves and the finite myth of their convoluted chronologies, holding up and pressing down, twisting, vibrating, sensate, exchanging. Time is something more like &.

“We are already moving toward a permission-less renumeration only system. As we do we move farther and farther away from the notion of author as rights-holding genius and closer to the notion of the work as a commodity of exchange.”—Marci Hamilton, “Appropriation Art and the Imminent Decline in Authorial Control Over Copyrighted Works” in the Journal of the Copyright Society of the USA, Winter 1994

In “Cybernetics and Ghosts” Italo Calvino redefines literature as “a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, activating something that on that second level is of great concern to the author or society.” A kind of evasive sensitivity with the potential for upset “will be the shock that occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and [her] society.”

And is it the shock of wild juxtapositon? Uncanniness? Unidentifiable familiarity? Bad rhyme? The shock of “pollution” historically attributed to death and menses? “Whatever charges of tastelessness or trademark violation may be attached to the artistic appropriation of the media and material environment in which we swim, the alternative—to flinch, or tiptoe away into some ivory tower of irrelevance—is far worse. We’re surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them.”

Pussy Riot: In her Closing Statement on 8 August 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova condemned the “corporate political system” for which the church is proxy and defended Pussy Riot’s occupation of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior as a verdict on that system. A brilliant and extensive indictment, she invokes, among many other artists, writers, and Jesus, the OBERIU poet Alexander Vvedensky. “Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s students and heirs,” she says, “His principle of the bad rhyme is dear to us. He wrote, ‘Occasionally, I think of two different rhymes, a good one and a bad one, and I always choose the bad one because it is always the right one.'”

I’m not proposing a superlative poetics, but a necessary one that draws from the voices and rites of traditions swept aside in the sterilizing forces of profit-driven history. The fly-by-night nocturnae, the witches who plaited their hair counterclockwise, who danced in reverse, who did, as Petronius observed in Satyricon “all thinges contrary to the custome of Men, dauncing back to back, hip to hip, theyr handes ioyn’d, and making theyr circles backward, to the left hand, with strange phantastique motions of theyr heads heads, and bodyes.” The Heyoka, the sacred clowns of the Lakota, doing everything “backwards-forwards” and “running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy things,” the spirit of thunder and lightning. The Rabelaises, the Dadaists, the OBERIU, the Baroness, the Flarfists.

A poetics that takes chromosomes from the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Analytical Chemistry of Progeny”: “I am—gleaming fruit at the tree top / Fulfilment—brilliant design / Of a thousand-year-old marriage manure / Genius—idiocy—filth—purity.”

In “Motherhood” Julia Kristeva proposes the ideal of the “good enough mother”—“she who knows how to leave to make room for pleasure, for the child, for thought. To leave room, in other words, to disappear.” Kristeva describes a complex dynamic between the writer Colette and her ideal mother, her own Sido, who—in one anecdote delayed seeing her own daughter because she was waiting for a cactus flower to bloom—both disappeared but also also through “superb letters” showed her daughter the infinite pleasures of language: “Colette ends up saying that the writer of the family is her mother and not <>, Colette the writer!” Kristeva asks, “Would not the capacity to share passion through this delight in language alone be a way of providing a freer more protective maternal presence than does the overbearing mother whose daughter continues to be dependent on her?” Kristeva concludes that “by turning all our attention on the biological and social aspects of motherhood as well as on [ostensible] sexual freedom and equality, we have become the first civilization which lacks a discourse on the complexity of motherhood.” The imperative, she suggests, is “to sharpen our understanding of this passion, pregnant with madness and sublimity,” because “this is what motherhood lacks today.”

When, in The Cuntos, a poem asks “what’s the use / of a ramrod / a laborer / a mother,” may it be answered by the dead/living through play and defiance—an alternative discourse of mutational, material magic.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. amelia

    this makes me want to tattoo &s on my ovaries