Humiliation and "Spoiled Identity": McSweeney, Koestenbaum and Glenum

by on Jul.11, 2013

“One must be nervous.” – Nijinsky

“I danced badly because I kept falling on the floor when I did not have to. The audience did not care, because I danced beautifully.” – Nijinsky

The other day I was talking to Joyelle about the highly ornamental, perversely poetic aesthetic of her work, and in particular the play “Contagious Knives” and she said, she feels the excessive aesthetics to be a form of humiliation – of the language and of herself as the author.

You can sense that in the very beginning of the play, in stage directions that are crowded with both props and language: from “panties” to “Harajuko cum Cracker Jack look,” from “liquid eyeliner” to “kiddie Oedipus.” When I talk about “kitsch”, this is the kind of thick, poetic language I talk about. What is more kitsch than poetry and its trinkets? Poetry Magazine (beacon of taste) recently published Vanessa Place’s manifesto of taste: it said “no more metaphors… no more retinal poetry.” This is fundamentally the guiding high culture taste of our age: the poetic is kitsch. Well, Joyelle’s poetry says: More ultra-retinal, so much more trinkets that it humiliates.
But, in keeping with a post from a couple of weeks ago, it’s also language that is highly alluring; a poetics of excess that fascinates.

Here’s Louis Braille’s opening monologue:

Louis Braille: Hi whores. I know you too my cell phone in gym class, but, whatever.
Looking for what, pictures of your boyfriends’ jocks?
Whores, you have no idea. I’m a very special cunt.
A very special fucking cunt. That’s what Daddy always said (wink wink).
You’ll never get the goods on me. I keep
two laptops, two accounts, a mirror site,
a snake ski encryption device: me
and then another me. I double down,
and then I double up. It’s in the footage you’ll never see.
For God’s eyes, sweeties. All my lines run to red, red, red.
That’s debt. A sinking balance, a fast declining line.
I get it from your daddies, and I spend it like endrhyme
or eyerhyme
like a run in one’s stocking or one’ arrow-stock-rah-cee
or in one’s eye.
I shot an arrow into the air, it split my eye, it doubled my vision
it made my stock sore, sigh high
and from that height I did espye
fallen to earth among a heep of polo ponies
Nazi costume parties fancy creeps and aging queens.

I think this is a kind of poetics statement: everything proliferates in art, creating a kind of “debt.” This makes me think not just of the current “austerity” obsession of American culture with its decidedly hetero-normative family values (if a family has to take care of its finances, shouldn’t the government etc), but also John Durham Peter’s “Speaking into the Air”, in which he argues that “communication failure” is inherent to the model of “communication”. What I am thinking about more specifically is a passage where he says something like: Beginning with Locke, language gets caught up in a metaphor of inflation. The ideal of “communication,” I think, is used to redeem this sense of debt/noise. We see this in the whole “accessibility” debates: poetry is debt unless it’s made “accessible,” which will redeem its “gauzy and inane phraseology” (to go back to Wordsworth’s idea of poetry as somehow being “men speaking to men”).

Joyelle’s work might be the extreme example right now of adventures in debt and inflationary language. It’s humiliating.


But what I really wanted to say this morning is that it is interesting that Joyelle used the word “humiliation” because this led me to pick up Wayne Koestenbaums’ memoir (of sorts) Humiliation, which is quite a page-turner. It also includes a wonderful discussion of two of my favorite artists, Artaud and Basquiat, as humiliation art:

Koestenbaum argues that Basquiat “treats words as visual objects, and he converts a painting into a poetic text.” But the act of turning the painting into poetry (as opposed to the Conceptualists who want to turn poetry into visual art) involves humiliation” “To cross out a word is to humiliate it; to cross out a word is to indicate, however obliquely, that words have already crossed me out.”

Interestingly, Koestenbaum late moves on to one of Joyelle’s favorite icons, Divine, arguing that “Divine was an apostle of “spoiled identity,” and that Divine’s spoilage created opportunities for other spoiled identities to form a constellation around her…” In particular I like the idea of “constellation” as opposed to proper lineage, linear progress etc.


Part of the humiliation of Basquiat’s painting must be the way they “smear” (one of my favorite words). The smear makes the painting seem physical – almost bodily, secreted, skin-like – and humiliating because smearing is “too much” paint, excessive paint, un-redeemed paint.

Another part of Basquiat’s humiliation is that the language does come from elsewhere, but the smearing and the crossing-out humiliates these sources as he brings these texts into the painting. One might say, that it’s the most tasteless feature – “the hand” – that humiliates the text into art (unlike Conceptual poetry, which is based exactly on the rejection of this tasteless hand).


In Lara Glenum’s new book Pop Corpse – also a verse play like Joyelle’s Knives (perhaps the verse play is the exemplary humiliated form in its passe-ness, its anachronism, its playing around with props quality) – a character named “The Smear” is both the most embarrassing, humiliated character wacking off to porn all the time (an activity which in its non-reproductive-ness is unredeemed; there’s a reason all kind of moralists refer to various unethical art as “porn” – as in “ruin porn” etc- it doesn’t edify us, doesn’t help us progress, grow etc).

As in Basquiat’s paintings, The Smear’s language is actually not technically speaking Lara’s, as she has taken it from various of my poems. Originally they were from poems by an ex-boyfriend, but he didn’t like the humiliation of being brought into the “constellation” of “The Smear,” so she took lines from my poems instead. And I welcome this humiliation because I was humiliated when I wrote them:

THE SMEAR: It was the Year of the Scab and there was no room for people who act like lawnfires when they should be modelling the latest symptoms in remodeled scriptoriums.

PURSED AND PUCKERED: [Hisses at XXX] What’s wrong with you? That guy’s like, a total freak.

(I recognize that the Smear’s lines are from my poems, but I can’t embarassingly remember which poem. Interestingly it might be from the poem “We Will use Clothes-Hangers Next Time” which Lara actually “rescued” after I had discarded it.)

I like how the characters in Pop Corpse! keep insulting my poetry, as if to deal with the fact that it has been “smeared” into their production of Little Mermaid. They humiliate my language but it humiliates Pop Corpse!

All of Pop Corpse! is also saturated by a kind of teeny-bopper/chatroom/top 40 language gone off the edge, and that’s a big part of humiliation of this rewrite of The Little Mermaid, in which the mermaid suffers what in our culture of “sex positive” ideology the ultimate humiliation of not having a sex organ:

Bratface I tell her
I’m vextipated
in my boo shank

I need some varmint to crank my jank

Some varmint exactly like
The Smear

1 comment for this entry:
  1. drew

    wrote a few thoughts based on this about authenticity ‘self expression’ (mostly coming from your paragraph about commuication)