"Uncontrollable Leakage" v. "Hygienic Barrier"

by on Aug.13, 2013

In recent essays posted at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, Johannes discusses art and violence in ways that interest me for a variety of reasons as a writer who was once able to write fiction and poetry; also in my present incarnation as “crime writer”; also in my capacity as publisher of at least a few violent books — notably Johannes’s and Joyelle’s work, of course, along with Gordon Massman and Kim Gek Lin Short (to say nothing of Tarpaulin Sky magazine’s past contributors and editors, Rebecca Brown, Blake Butler, Selah Saterstrom, et al). I have a lot of things to say in response to Johannes’s essays, but am a terribly slow writer: with any luck, I’ll add a “part two” to this post in the next week or so.

Johannes notes that many poets are “hesitant about involving art and violence. If they do engage with violence, poets tend to seek to create a distance from the violence, erecting a hygienic barrier between the art and the violence.” This “hygienic barrier” may be found not only in work that seeks to avoid violence, but in the critique of work that employs violence. This “critical distance” appears “the hallmark of most academic writing about poetry for quite some time (and especially the kind of “experimental poetry” favored in the academy).” Johannes also discusses, by contrast, the unfiltered, unprocessed, experience of the “murderous impact” of violent art — i.e, the experience of violence before “learning to appreciate the artwork, before gaining that distance from the music that is the most intense.” This, writes Johannes, is the “best example of how art affects me.”[1]

I am reminded of a chapter in Selah Saterstrom’s novel, The Meat & Spirit Plan: “And Suddenly I Thought: This Is What It Means to Make a Movie in Sweden,” in which a young woman from the U.S. (the South), who is narrator and protagonist, receives a grant for promising ex-reform-school girls, allowing her to study abroad in Scotland. After shacking up with a local ex-con, she spends much of her free time making a study of meat — standing before the butcher at the open-air market, or sitting in the museum before Rembrandt’s “Slaughtered Ox,” when she is not incapacitated from inexplicable and excruciating illness.

The Postmodern Seminar for the Study of Interpretive Uses decides to include film as text. We gather two nights a month, watch movies, and drink scotch though never enough. After one film I get in a fight with a master’s candidate from Washington, DC who is doing his last year of research at the Seminar by invitation….[2]

The film we got in a fight about ended with a woman being killed by a soldier. She was pretty much dead, but he did her in for good by jamming a gun in her vagina and then pulling the trigger. The film didn’t show this but implied it. The question the fight hinged on was this: Did the woman, in the last split second of her life, experience the meaning of her suffering? Washington said yes. The possibility of experiencing such meaning, despite solitude and cruelty, was the rule.

I thought this was a romantic view of what the last split second of life might be like. And I thought it was unfair. It was stealing the woman’s death from her, which meant in the end everything was taken. Taken and put in the ghettos of our intellectualizations. Soured thoughts counting more than smears of blood. Why couldn’t we sit in the pain of not knowing? Maybe she didn’t get the big meaning of her suffering. Maybe she just suffered, then died.

When the fight is finally drawn to a close by the head of the Seminar, Washington has won because he is smart and uses language like an exacto blade. He never raised his voice and has remained calm. My face is red and my voice shaky. As people leave the room they look at me as if they feel sorry for me and look at Washington like he is a great guy who understands theology.

Later, I look out the terrible room’s bay window. In my head I say to the people who watch movies that it is a stretch to think that the witness knows what it is like to die. I say: may the story of Washington, DC be a lesson to you.[3]


It’s interesting to note that a marketer wanted to reduce Selah’s book’s title to The Spirit Plan. Perhaps in the hopes of making the text eligible for a fabled “general readership,” or for Oprah’s Book Club — the latter appearing to have established a certain rubric by which a violent work is to be judged: “OK, if the violence is followed by redemption.” As long as the reader comes away feeling that violence was necessary as part of a larger scheme of understanding in which the victim, in the end, is also changed for the better, then violence is acceptable. This is, allegedly, Art. This is what supposedly sets it apart from entertainment, from porn.

I’d also like to mention: this is not the first time I’ve quoted this scene from The Meat and Spirit Plan. The first time was for an essay at Delirious Hem, which was later reproduced in Chain’s Megaphone anthology on feminism. At the time I noted that, during the five days it took me to write the essay, it had been estimated that 250 women and girls had been raped in South Kivu alone, in eastern Congo, where

the most common wound to woman is a “traumatic fistula … caused by insertion of a gun, bottle or stick into the vagina or shooting a gun between the woman’s legs.” The fistula causes a “rupture between the vagina, bladder and/or rectum” and creates “an uncontrollable leakage of fluids, secretions, urine or feces.” The intent is not to kill the woman, but to shame her. This is a “strategy of war.”

Perhaps it is the lack of that “hygienic barrier” — i.e, the insistent return, instead, of ruptures and “uncontrollable leakage” that continue to re-infect any understanding / redemption of the violence — which keeps Congo rapewars occulted, not unlike AIDS in Congo and throughout Africa, kept on the last page of the news in the Western World. Buried somewhere after the latest celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, as of the time of this writing, the UN estimates that “200,000 women and girls have been the victims of rape or sexual violence in Congo during the past 15 years,” while other organizations put the number as high as approximately 48 women and children raped every hour.[4]


Regarding violence within its own borders, US culture may be generously described as “conflicted.” Violent crimes in the US are at their lowest point in decades, according to the Department of Justice, but no one would know, watching mainstream news. Further, a quick glance at the schedule reveals that crime television, both fictional and “reality” shows, dominates the air waves — indeed whole networks are now dedicated to crime shows alone.[5] The ID (“Investigation Discovery”) Channel, which is wholly dedicated to crime — primarily rape and murder — encourages fans on Twitter to use the hashtag #IDaddict.

Interestingly, the more unlikely the crime, the more popular it appears to be — if its popularity is indicated by the attention it receives in major media. War casualties, for example, receive only moments, if any time at all, in the nightly news, and they receive little space even in ostensibly “lefty” online publications such as the Huffington Post; whole neighborhoods that are predominately black or brown may receive an episode on COPS or the like (wherein we learn it is a futile effort to “clean up” such neighborhoods); one dead suburban white girl, however, receives her own feature program, if not a mini-series, and perhaps years in the news cycle, from nightly “local” news to 20/20 and Dateline, etc.

But for all our love of Crime Porn in the US, we’re also the “toughest” on crime, funneling ever-greater numbers of people into prison for ever-expanding definitions of crimes and ever-lengthening already-draconian sentences. According to The New Yorker (via Time, via CNN), “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today…. Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America – more than 6 million – than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”[6] Moreover, two-thirds of prisoners today are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, many of which, of course, stem from the US’s alleged war on drugs. [7]

Writing about crime and magic means I am often obsessed with divining the Mind of the aforementioned fabled “general readership,” by which I mean: potential jurors. Even though a “general readership” cannot exist, jurors exist.

But I am also curious about how purveyors of High Art remove their work from the violent sphere that “others” inhabit. It would appear that decidely-not-High violent Art does not risk losing the attention of a “general public” who is either victimized or fascinated by violence, but risks losing the audience of allegedly sensitive types who suffer (as Johannes discusses) from what Timothy Morton calls “Beautiful Soul Syndrome”: the artist/writer/critic who “washes his or her hands of the corrupt world, refusing to admit how in this very abstemiousness and distaste he or she participates in the creation of that world.” [8]

When, for example, poet Rauan Klassnik wrote an essay in response to Johannes’s essay on violence, then emailed other writers to let them know, most folk responded by simply ignoring both essays, but one Beautiful Soul replied more directly:

Fuck you, Ruan. Please stop violating me with your violent emails, composed of language which is inherently violent, and take me off your list.[9]

It is interesting — because the reaction might be common, but is less commonly expressed — that the attempt to discuss violence provokes in the violence-shunning Beautiful Soul an immediate violent response: Fuck you, Rauan…. [10]


Two weeks ago, Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant poem, “Rape Joke,”[11] went viral with “over 10,000 Facebook likes within hours of being posted on The Awl,” noted the UK’s Guardian[12] (presently “recommended” on Facebook by 27,247 users).[13]

The old chestnut, that a text may exist unto itself but that the poem (or story, etc) is created in the mind of the reader, is interesting in this case, and may speak to the mystery of why Lockwood’s violent art was instantly and hugely popular. The Guardian posits that Lockwood “may well be the first person with an actual sense of humour to write an attack on rape jokes” and then asks of the poem: “Or is it actually a defense of rape jokes? Ah, you see, that’s why it’s so clever.”

Lockwoods poem, The Guardian continues,

also answers the question: “Is it OK to joke about rape?” The way I’ve read it, she’s saying: “Yes, it’s OK. Let’s not censor ourselves. But be clever about it, not crass.”

I read this poem initially as an attack on rape jokes. It’s actually not about rape jokes at all. It’s about what it’s like to be raped. Which is not funny.

Salon writer Prachi Gupta, by contrast, sees Lockwood’s text not as complex and multi-valenced art, but as an argument: one designed to shut down all other arguments. The Salon headline reads in no uncertain terms: Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” should end the rape joke debate.[14] For Gupta, the poem is not actually a poem at all, but simply a diatribe that “demonstrates why rape jokes are so damaging.”

I am left to wonder how many “different” poems were FB-Liked among the 27K+ positive responses.

In a future post, I hope to come back to some of these questions via the work of Vanessa Place; Carl-Michael Edenborg’s Parapornographic Manifesto (Action Books, 2013); the multiple personalities and other fictions of Michelle Smith, Lauren Stratford, and Judy Byington, et al; and, if I can swing it, fellow “occult crime journalist” Doug Mesner , who, I’ll probably argue, isn’t “really” Satanic High Priest Lucien Greaves.


[1] Johannes Göransson, “‘Corean Music,’ Part 2: Ambient Violence.” Harriet Blog (The Poetry Foundation). http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/08/corean-music-part-2-ambient-violence/

[2] [The paragraph continues:] At a departmental gathering to welcome new students he once reprimanded a Theoretical Studies girl for using “Heidegger” and “grace” in the same sentence. Never use the word “grace” he said. It shows your hand. By which he meant ass. He said it like her use of “grace” revealed her trailer park origins when she should try and marry better. Oh, said the Theoretical Studies girl, scribbling a note to herself on a napkin.

[3] Selah Saterstrom, The Meat and Spirit Plan. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2007, pp.131-133.

[4] “From the Congo to Cottingham: Woman’s mission to help rape victims.” Hull Daily Mail. 11 August 2013. http://www.thisishullandeastriding.co.uk/Congo-Cottingham-Woman-s-mission-help-rape/story-19586488-detail/story.html

[5] Not to cast aspersions even on the more “artless” and “exploitative” among them — I personally find crime shows soothing and often use them as a sleep aid; surrounded by others’ grief and horror I feel more comfortable in my own.

[6] Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, quoted in Fareed Zakaria’s “Incarceration nation.” TIME. CNN. 22 March 2013. http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/22/zakaria-incarceration-nation/

[7] [UPDATE: Amazingly, in one of the rare bits of good news regarding US Law, Attorney General Eric Holder announced just yesterday, 12 August 2013, that his office is looking to do away with mandatory minimums for lower-level drug offenses involving non-violent offenders, and will be looking to treatment programs and community service as alternatives. Equally astonishing is the bi-partisan support. No mention was made of retro-active applications for generations of men and and women already languishing in prison, but the future is indeed a little brighter for this sudden and unexpected rationality on the part of the State.]

[8] “A truly theoretical approach is not allowed to sit smugly outside the area it is examining. It must mix thoroughly with it. Adopting a position that forgoes all others would be all too easy, a naive negative criticism that is disguised position all of its own. it is all very well to carp at the desires of others while not owning up to the determinacy of one’s own desire. This is a political as well as an intellectual position, one to which ecological thinking is itself prone. After Hegel, I call it beautiful soul syndrome… The “beautiful soul” washes his or her hands of the corrupt world, refusing to admit how in this very abstemiousness and distaste he or she participates in the creation of that world. The world-weary soul holds all beliefs and ideas at a distance. The only ethical option is to muck in…” (Timothy Morton, from “Ecology Without Nature,” quoted at Montevidayo: http://montevidayo.com/beautiful-soul-syndrome-timothy-morton/ )

[9] Rauan Klassnik,”Art & ‘Sound’ Violence (Jhnns Göransson – A.D. Jmsn).” HTML Giant. August 3rd, 2013. http://htmlgiant.com/craft-notes/art-sound-violence-jhnns-goransson-a-d-jmsn/

[10] Something about this particular Beautiful Soul seems to re-invest even a common verbal assault — Fuck you — with the often-lost flavor of sexual violence.If I were to profile this particular Beautiful Soul, I’d guess 1) he’s a he; 2) he’s fastidious and keeps a tidy workspace and home; 3) he would enjoy nothing more than murdering his mother and father and then buggering their corpses before heading out on a mass shooting spree, but ultimately lacks the “courage” and will likely commit suicide instead.

[11] Patricia Lockwood, “Rape Joke.” The Awl (ed. Mark Bibbins) Thursday, July 25th, 2013. http://www.theawl.com/2013/07/rape-joke-patricia-lockwood

[12] Viv Groskop, “Rape Joke: what is Patricia Lockwood’s poem really saying?” The Guardian. Friday 26 July 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2013/jul/26/patricia-lockwood-poem-rape-joke

[13] Stats at The Awl as of 8 Aug 2013. http://www.theawl.com/2013/07/rape-joke-patricia-lockwood

[14] Prachi Gupta, Patricia Lockwood’s ‘Rape Joke’ should end the rape joke debate.” Salon. Thursday, Jul 25, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/07/25/patricia_lockwoods_rape_joke_ends_rape_joke_debate/

7 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Really interesting post, Christian…

    I especially like this part, about the response to Rauan’s blog post a few weeks back:”It is interesting — because the reaction might be common, but is less commonly expressed — that the attempt to discuss violence provokes in the violence-shunning Beautiful Soul an immediate violent response: Fuck you, Rauan…. [10]”

    I think the near hysterical reaction by some poets/critics to Johannes and Lara’s books (and others too) is related to that weird paradox…an almost violent reaction by writers who profess to admire “distance,” “critique,” etc…


  2. Christian

    The rub, of course — at least as publisher; I can’t speak for Johannes or Lara, obvs. — is that I’d certainly prefer the “near hysterical” reaction over that of silence. At least Rauan’s Fuck-You letter has given us something to discuss, a point of departure. It’s literally impossible to know how many other reviewers or potential reviewers read a text but say nothing about it, even if it sends them through the roof. Like, I would dearly love to know why Publishers Weekly told me they were running a review of Johannes’s latest, but then never did. Why did they pull it? What did it say? I can’t help but think, the more scathing it was, the more likely it was perversely awesome. Then again, they did run a review of Joyelle’s latest, and it was just sort of stoopid, really, so perhaps I’m too hopeful that any review is a good review, etc.

  3. Johannes

    I love the story about the Meat and Spirit Plan editor wanting to drop the “meat” part. The “meat” would be perceived as a kind of violence against the readership. THis is not restricted to Oprah by the way. Most poetry critics, scholars would think Meat in bad taste.


  4. Johannes

    Yes, Christian. I was just writing something about this. The way we deal with things we don’t agree with is to ignore them. We might write, “this is a great book unlike those many books of tasteless writers who write schlocky poetry” – but not mention those writers, not include any of their poetry so that readers can decide for themselves.

    The hysterical reactions to my work tend to happen in un-private places – emails, offices, listserves, the backrooms of poetry. A lot of backstabbing but nobody wants to disagree with anybody because that would draw attention to them. This kind of attitude is terrible for poetry.

    I’ll post my post about it tomorrow.Excellent observation.


  5. Johannes

    It’s like we can’t disagree over poetry. We either acknowledge that it exists or we try to ignore it.

    BTW, I don’t think Action Books has ever had a review in Publishers Weekly. Like not a single one.


  6. James Pate

    Good points…I was thinking specifically of some of the scathing comments, virtually always anonymous, that I’ve seen for the Gurlesque anthology on various websites, but also things overheard at conferences, remarks here and there on facebook, etc. But yeah, it’s strange how these reactions never get much play in larger forums, where there could be an actual debate/discussion. And I don’t think that silence is accidental.

    I remember Johannes got into a debate with Stephen Burt a few years ago when he wrote a review that seemed critical of Lara and other writers like her, but never named her outright. Johannes’ response (if I remember correctly) was why? Why not shine a spotlight on her work (even if, as probably in this case, a negative spotlight). Burt’s response (again, if I remember correctly) was that he didn’t want to write negatively about poets who were young and might develop in different directions.

    For one thing, I’m not sure if Burt’s critical writings carry that much weight (I doubt the poets in question would think, “God, I can’t write anymore, Stephen Burt doesn’t like it”). But more importantly, as you all point out, controversy is good. It’s healthy. I’m sure Burt meant well, but it would have been interesting if he had named actual poets.

    I think the overall issue relates to some of what Johannes was writing about in the recent post about translation. Just as translation can upset the apple cart of modern American poetry, so do some of the books from Action Books and Tarpaulin Sky and other places. They often don’t fit into the grand narrative of American poetry as told in the last decades. Certain English departments and publishers want this narrative to stay in place — and they’ve invested huge amounts of time and capital making sure that is the case. That’s why the supposed future of American poetry often looks so much like the past.


  7. Johannes

    The Burt debate was in result of his essay about Rachel Zucker that it seems he wrote in response to Joyelle’s gothic motherhood essay (“The Future of American Poetry”, Burt was on the panel with her), without mentioning Joyelle.

    I think you bring up a key element here too: the academy. It’s really the academy more than mfa programs that shape the “future of American poetry” with books and articles. They are heavily invested in a “field” which they can master. When things become “too much” – they can’t “master” the field. And that’s trouble. Well, it doesn’t have to be. I would love it if Phd types broke out of their marble tower and engages with a wider array of American poetry.