Kept Women & Other Concepts

by on Feb.22, 2013

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Last night I went to see my friend Jordan give a poetry reading at Lolita bar on the Lower East Side. I really didn’t feel like going to a poetry thing since I’d been to a lot in the past few weeks and the synchronicity of my iPhone and Facebook calendars meant that I’d be staring at rows of black dots corresponding to events for days to come.

Anyway I went because I like Jordan’s poems a lot and he isn’t one of those New York poets who gives a reading every five and a half seconds, perhaps fearing that if they are not constantly engaging in the pukey schmoozefest of “the scene” they might fall clear off the actual planet. I was accidentally already drunk when I got there because I’d gone to a happy hour at the punk bar around the corner from my apartment where I’d last drank in the summer with an ex-lover. The bathroom of the bar had some really great poems in it, like “The less I think of you, the more you think of me; please let me think less of you.” Jordan read a poem that he’d written the other day while gchatting with me while we were both at work, a poem composed mostly of extravagant insults to an ex-lover, like “burger king breakfast of affection.”

When I got back to my apartment it was still a pretty respectable hour and my roommates were smoking at the kitchen table, a large envelope covered in Hello Kitty stickers between them.

“Omigod I think you got more fan mail please open it so we can see, plus the new Vogue and Beyonce is on the cover,” one of them said. I opened the envelope, dutifully sipping a teacup of water, and pulled out a lipstick-kissed copy of Kate Durbin’s new book, Kept Women. Underneath that envelope was another envelope containing another copy of Kate’s book, this time from the editor of Insert Blank.

Being, as I was, kind of drunk and desperately wanting to chain smoke while doing something creative yet having not the energy to finish the poem I’d started writing in my head in the cab home from Broome street, I decided to read the entire book aloud to my one roommate. My roommate is not a poet but a dancer/painter/figure skater/filmmaker hybrid, living, like me, in the margins of several mediums. We discussed the book as we read, both agreeing that Tomboy Boudoir was the cutest room because it was most like mine.

It was only after we’d finished reading and I returned to my own glitter-strewn boudoir that I had time to consider the fact that, technically, Kate’s latest work, and probably realistically all of her work, certainly fell under the umbrella term of “Conceptual Poetry,” the New York variety of which bored me literally sometimes to tears. This morning I carried the book with me on my morning walk and on the subway and tried to think about why I liked it; it had to be more than the fact that I think Kate is a really rad human and I’ve seen every episode of Girls Next Door multiple times.

What I don’t like about most Conceptual Poetry isn’t that it’s conceptual. I like concepts, I like art with a strong sense of self and a general conceit, and in a sense all art or at least all good art must probably be on some level conceptual because without that transient sphere surrounding it, which is conjured by the artist and a filter for The World, the art would have no space in which to exist; conceptual art creates a space for itself simply by being.

What I don’t like about the variety of Conceptual Poetry one often encounters is that it’s sloppy, lazily crafted, hanging all its hopes on the project/concept and paying no heed to the fact that a poem, regardless of its concept, is supposed to be linguistically inventive and formally interesting or at least structurally sound, should be aware of the larger conversation in which it is automatically taking part by merely existing as a poem-entity even if it chooses not to engage.

What’s different about Kate’s poetry is that it has both an overt and fully-formed Concept which governs it and meets my perhaps unfair standards of what a hardworking poem should be achieving. In moments like “insects rapt in amber” in Stone Sanctuary, the poem describing a shower/waterfall/grotto, the ingenuity of the author pierces the flattened affect of the project. The reader becomes, like the illustrated insect, rapt, aware of their suspension in this world that is at once entirely organic and entirely artificial.

Walking through Grand Central Station this morning, carrying Kept Women and listening to Billy Joel in my black wool overcoat my aunt bought me because it was “professional,” and none of my other coats in their cherry, leopard, and leather hues qualified as such, I wondered whether I would ever turn into one of those sharp-eyed ladies I saw striding through the station with their looks suggesting a confident ability to question everything. I looked at my calendar and wondered whether I had the strength to attend eight or nine readings and book parties in the upcoming weeks, because I feel this weird compulsion to engage in a conversation, even if it’s a conversation I don’t particularly enjoy.

Perhaps the arrival of two copies of Kate’s book post-poetry reading shook something in me; it was undeniable evidence that I am part of a conversation and I have a responsibility to it, to my work and to everyone else’s. And it’s not so much that my voice is the mire of argument and circle-jerking matters so much as it is that if everyone who gets pissed off stops talking, only the dregs will be left, reading themselves like tea leaves in a dark room. I want the room for reading to be too loud, too bright. I want to yell at someone across a table of spilled wine.

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4 comments for this entry:
  1. Kim

    i think i might just love concepts so much that i don’t know what isn’t one. maybe its a concept if you want it to be one and put those edges on it, like a big puffy frame that says im as important as whats inside.

    but that wasn’t what i was going to say. oh yes

    i’ll be stealing that hello kitty balloon.

  2. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    “Walking through Grand Central Station this morning, carrying Kept Women and listening to Billy Joel in my black wool overcoat my aunt bought me because it was “professional,” …

    Can’t remember the last time I read a sentence that began better than this one. Which is definitely NOT a criticism of where the sentence went. It’s just a bit of applause.

  3. Eika Eiva Rondgrarn

    – First she says: we’re all part of a conversation.
    – But some of us are just staring back at her with our own form of conceptual silence.
    – Then she sets the rules for the conversation.
    – Soon, the conversation transforms into a trial.
    – She gently reminds the defendant that she should obey convention.
    – (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Kafka’s literary trope of bureaucratic formalism)
    – what little of the book she shares, she presents as merely contingent, under the framework of a larger formal fallacy.
    – Someone gets to be the plaintiff, and if the plaintiff also gets to be the jury, and if the jury also gets to be the judge…
    – One of us ladies is now the overlord.
    – Which means we’re not all women in this conversation together anymore.
    – Solidarity wanes while dogma waxes with its vestiges of elitist “insiderism” as if Billy Joel could (and did) seal the deal, along with a “suggestive,” lusty gaze at the rich-sadists in the train-station.
    – And we know what that means…
    – Someone uses the word conversation to imply: culture, race, status, class, pre-determination: the “mode,” the “cultural currency,” the “sanctioned iPhone and its manufacturing practices that make us whimper, in nostalgic innocence, about more environmental wreckage in that distant nonentity: China”
    – China laughs.

  4. Carina

    It’s true; I’m a fascist. <3