Blake Butler on Fence Books and Haute Surveillance

by on Jun.02, 2013

Blake Butler has written a column for Vice Magazine about Fence Books (and the journal), “Fence has been Reconfiguring the Literary Landscape for 15 Years.” Fence has obviously been hugely influential to contemporary poetry over the past 10-15 years.

Since 1998, Fence magazine has been independently publishing a biannual journal of prose, poetry, art, and criticism; in 2001, they began publishing several lines of innovative, ambitious books. While most magazines (this one excluded, of course) and literary journals can be dry and tedious, each issue of Fence seems to raise its own benchmark. There’s always something in there to befuddle you, to challenge the idea of what could appear on paper, to make you wonder how or why a thing was made. Fence occupies a rare place in new language, and has charged itself with the noble “mission to encourage writing that might otherwise have difficulty being recognized because it doesn’t answer to either the mainstream or to recognizable modes of experimentation.” Editor Rebecca Wolff is unique in that she doesn’t aim to control or even codify the work the press presents: the work is the work, thank God, and understanding is a product of the experience of reading, rather than a kernel to be swallowed.

Red the full thing here.

Blake also wrote a recent Vice review of my new book Haute Surveillance:

There’s an ecstatic kind of media collision at work in the body of language produced by Swedish-born Johannes Göransson. Over the course of six books of his own, as well as translations of major Swedish authors like Aase Berg and Henry Parland, he has assembled an incredibly volatile and feverish vision, somewhere between Artaud and Lars Von Trier, though one more interested in the awkwardness and orchestration of the profane than simply milking it. His latest work, Haute Surveillance, may also be his most provocative. Here Johannes has assembled a feverish and explicit set of images and ideas revolving around power, fetish, porn, media, violence, translation, punishment, performance, and aesthetics. Taking its title from a Jean Genet play of the same name, it’s kind of like a novelization of a movie about the production of a play based on Abu Ghraib, though with way more starlets and cocaine and semen.

Read the whole thing here.

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"The man I remember and sing of / glittered with mutinous life": Neruda on Girondo

by on May.13, 2013

Action Books recently published Molly Weigel’s translation of Oliverio Girondo’s legendary book En la masmedula (In the Moremarrow). I’ve been obsessed by this book since I first heard Molly read an excerpt at a reading of Latin American poetry with Cecilia Vicuna (who called masmedula “a milestone in the history of poetry in Spanish”) at an AWP a few years ago. I’ve been searching for essays on it – turns out there are a ton of them but they are all in Spanish. However, I managed to find this elegy by Pablo Neruda from the journal Salmagundi from 1974.

Oliverio Girondo
By Pablo Neruda
(translated by Ben Belitt)

But under the carpeting,
on the otherside of the pavement,
between two immovable waves
a man’s been divided
and I’ve got to go down and see
for myself who’s been lost:
meanwhile- hands off, all of you:
here’s a line,a bite in a plate,
here’s a pressed flower in a book,
a transparent skeleton.

Oliverio,all of a piece,now
comes together again under my eyes,
definite as cut-crystal:
but however closely I come, whatever I
wring from the silence or keep to myself,
what looms large in my memory,
death’s little keepsake to me
will be only a stingy reminder,
a silhouette scissored in paper.

The man I remember and sing of
glittered with mutinous life;
I shared in the bursting explosions,
his comings and goings and backtrackings,
his horseplay, his wisdom:
elbow to elbow we greeted the sunrise
smashing the glass of the sky,
climbing the terraces
of mildewing palaces,
taking trains that never existed,
raucous with health
in the early hours of the milkman.
I was a sea-going yokel
( one could see the peninsular
cloud in my clothing)
while Oliverio walked
up and walked over the crowds,
the outsmarting customs-inspectors,
keeping cool on the crossings
( his big tie askew
in the wardrobeof autumn)
tossing down beer after beer in the thick
of the smoke, wraithlike in Valparaiso.

In the web of my boyhood
Oliverio Girondo is what happens. (continue reading…)

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Hilda Hilst, Power Bottom of Cosmic Fornications

by on May.01, 2013

In the early 90’s, Hilda Hilst, like many other Latin American writers, regularly penned a newspaper column.  Published as the collection Cascos e Carícias (Crusts and Caresses), her cronicas are as visionary, scathing, and hilarious as her books.  Hilst’s fiction, poetry, and drama might seem hermetic at first glance, so it’s interesting how often she reflects on politics at a time when Brazil was plagued by national debt, inflation, and corruption scandals.  I’m especially intrigued by the connection this example (my translation) makes between sexual/colonial aggression, submission, and marginalization:

System, Form and Cucumber

When Plato was asked which existing governments and systems were most conducive and useful for our knowledge, he responded:  “None of the present ones.”  I, a mere poet, would say the same today.  But the poet doesn’t exist.  That last phrase reminds me of a story:  Queen Victoria—angry because the Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo not only forced the ambassador of Britan to drink a barrel of chocolate as punishment for refusing a glass of chicha (an alcoholic drink), but also made the ambassador ride a donkey backwards on the main street of La Paz—Queen Victoria, as I was saying, asked for a map of Latin America, drew a line over Bolivia, and prophesied:  Bolivia doesn’t exist.  I would also say:  poets and Latin Americans don’t exist.  Yes, they exist to be ransacked.  Under any form of government, presidentialism, parliamentarism, or (!?!) monarchism, we, Brazilians, Latin Americans, will always be ransacked.

Ah… how sadly truthful is the fragment from the book Tu não te moves de ti, whose author is this modest writer of cronicas in her spare time, yes, myself, the one who’s been stoned (pooooor thing!).  Cut out the following (purchasing the book would be too much to ask!) and, please, don’t forget it this time:

“…I’m a man, I trip up, I lie on my belly, on my belly, ready to be used, ransacked, adjusted to my Latinness, yes this one real, this one on my belly, the countless infinite cosmic fornications in all my Brazilianess, me on my belly, vilified, a thousand bucks in my acosmic hole, handing over everything, my rich depths from within, my soul, ah, much like Mr. Silva, so thick, kicking the ball, singing, rich people abroad call you a bum, oh Mr. Silva the Brazilian,

Mr. Macho Silva, hoho hoho, while you fornicate asslike your women singing, kicking the ball, what a big cucumber, Mr. Silva, on your turntable, your poor junctures breaking, handing over your iron, your blood, your head, hidden, by the touch, half-blind, conceding, always conceding, ah, Great Ransacked One, great poor ransacked macho, on your belly, on your knees, how long conceding and pretending, green-yellow victim, loved macho entirely on your belly flexing, on all fours, multiplied in emptinesses, in ais, in multi-irrationals, mouth of misery, I exteriorize myself stuck to my History, she swallowing me, me swallowed by all chimeras.”

Did you hurt yourself, reader?  Did you scandalize yourself, reader?  (pooooor thing!)

Hilst’s sign-off—an acknowledgment of the degradation that literature, too, can inflict—reminds me once again of poetry’s ability to turn its own negligibility into a space of permissiveness, of potency, beyond the mandates of preconceived systems and forms.  By taunting the “hurt” or “scandalized” reader, Hilst deftly undermines a potentially imperialist ethics of reading based on the prowess of enlightened states such as ‘thinkership’.  Instead, the reader, like the poet, becomes a vessel—a “pooooor thing”—used and abused as a passive orifice to the phallic fruit (cucumber) of those higher up in the power structure.

The cronica thus illustrates the reversal of the power bottom—a writer whose submissiveness within the culture is the very thing that permits and spreads her voracity, her agility, her “multi-irrational” contagion and disease.  Her mouths and holes multiply in me, forcing leaps of an imagination whose violation only gives it more reach.

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The Book That Killed Me: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs's TWeRK

by on Apr.23, 2013


I am slain, felled, sweetened up and served by Latasha N. Nevada Diggs’ TwERK. It’s like an almanac-zodiac-aphrodesiac-cum-emetic: it’s going to make the language come out of you, and the knowledge, too. At the bargain price of 15 dollahs, this book, fetchingly wrapped in a crunk doily designed by Doug Kearney, delivers page after page of astounding and invigorating rhymes, rhythms, inflections, infections, connections, inventions, allusions and sluices. It’s freaky-deaky, freaking alluvial. It’s brainy and broad and plays its own killer jingle and drives up in its own truck. Watch, children!

TwERK hollas at you from the very first page, opens up by inviting you into a profane dialogue, Elizabethan in its innovation, its linguistic voracity, virtuosity, swift pace, killer instinct and bawdy humor (please be aware: this is not the correct spacing/layout for this poem– only as close as I could get on blog interface):

Mista Popo said: oh bodacious Zwarte Piet,

How does the butterfly thrive

for my big ole kettle belly?


An extra scoot never too robust for my flying carpet.


So croon,

holla at me Jynx,              holla at me Jynx,

holla at me Jynx w/some soba on the side.

Let’s fly away!


Mista Popo want that corn husky hair.


What inmate of the twenty-first century, what language-loving carbon based life form could not rejoice in the presence of such a pliant, flexible virtuosity as LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s? In the above passage, a zesty and ribald momentum opens its throat for a wash of dubious figures from global culture, and the page is both a party and a scrum: Zwarte Piet, the blackface figure and holdover from colonialism who accompanies Santa Claus in  Dutch culture; Jynx and Mr. (here ‘Mista’) Popo, literally cartoonish icons of blackness from Japanese anime culture who in their ‘Mista’-ness also call up the history of such images in Western culture; the iconic ‘flying carpet’, the fetish of Orientalism which hovers over and behind Western obsession with  ‘Arab’ cultures and bodies ; even the casual imperialism and race politics of the 50’s Rat Pack tucked into that lyric from Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly with Me’.  This poem is racy; this poem is rapier; this poem is sick and sic; this poem is fun! To me it suggests that the vicious vivacity of racist thinking is both the signature of our contemporary global imperialist culture and also its weakness, a circuit back through which lawless bursts of energy may possibly be made to reverse, amplify, over-dub, loop and surge, not unwriting the damage of globalism but defibrillating it, re-animating it, converting the damage to something else entirely: something next.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs has a lot of language at her disposal, more, I would guess, than most other North American humans. This book speaks Japanese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Urdu, Maori, Hawaiian, Samoan, Swahili, Runa Simi (Quechua), Yoruba, Portuguese, Cherokee (Tsa’lagi), Tagalog, Chamorro, Papiamentu.  Some poems are written in an English so alive with Diggs’s ingenuity it feels like a new fabric (“Sunspot”); others mobilize Caribbean-inflected dialects; others are in multiple languages which incorporate translation, change, and doubleness into their very format, so that the reader can feel the languages touching and  making out and mutating in ‘real-time’—that is, in the art-time of  Diggs’s voice and brain– into an irresistible scintillating new element which is as valuable as a smart-metal but which can be enjoyed without being mined, bought, fought for, bled for, or sold. Something virtual:

                knee deep as I speak,    kino body rock.

lehelehe wit the glock

of menehune.                   freak of the week.          you’s a pua‛a at a lû’au.


my hand lima blazes like Ka‛ahupahua.

make dope-a-delic like Redman in a hula

let me tell it:

I’m taking cheek papālina,

poli breast feedin’ malihini dust schemas.



In charming, generous endnotes which really read like rich and plentiful poems of their own, Diggs informs the reader that this poem was an experiment in scoring rap form for the page, and also that it makes use of Hawaiian language for various body parts with the translation of the body part “literally beside it (either before or after the word).” Just that explanation is an example of Diggs’s brainy, breezy brilliance; to be ‘literally beside it’ is to be in ecstasy; to have one body part ‘literally beside it’ on the page is for the two languages to ‘literally touch’ through a ‘literal’ double body. The circuit happens in and as a surplus, and so much life and energy and language pours through this light relay that it the entire current is transferred to  and through the reader as joy.

I cannot shout loud enough about Latasha N. Nevada Diggs’s TWeRK. Language is not a neutral tool, and the history of the peoples who belong to these language and the hegemonic forces that would distress, suppress or obliterate both the languages and their peoples is what makes these poems so fierce, fraught, bladey and mobile. The showiness  and flaunt of these poems are like the fierceness of the drag balls Diggs’ salutes in one poem: a visible weapon, a tactic simultaneously offensive and defensive, a wargame for the whole body. Diggs’s poems truly work the whole body of the poem, the whole body of sound, the whole body of history, the whole body of voice and ear, the whole body of language and the ability of the page to be its own sonic syntax; they articulate and rotate joints that seemed fixed; they are bawdy and triumphant and they more than work. They TwERK.

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What is Contemporary Poetry?

by on Apr.05, 2013

Recently a lot of people – a lot of them younger, a lot of them people with a fiction background who apparently used to think poetry was boring and a lot of Swedish and foreign poets – have asked me to tell them what contemporary poetry I read or I think they should read. Well, people often ask me to talk about contemporary US poetry, but so much that I love is in translation and I prefer to see US poetry in connection to other places. So here are some books of contemporary poetry I feel you need to read. I’ve excluded all Action Books and books that I have translated (all of which it goes without saying, you should read and read and read until you vomit!), but these are the books that really matter in contemporary poetry in my opinion:

The Drug of Art by Ivan Blatny (Ugly Duckling) – selection from a Czech poet, whose work ranges from Eastern European modernist poetry to the great late stuff, a glorious interlingual mish-mash. Read some poems here.

Raul Zurita, Dreams for Kurosawa – amazing visionary dream poems by one of the world’s great living poets. I love all his books: Prugatory, Songs for his Disappeared Love, Anti-Paradise etc. Here he is reading at Notre Dame.

Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney – Seth Oelbaum recently called Joyelle one of the three greatest living US poets, and that’s probably right. This is Joyelle’s best, most rambunctious, radical and necropastoral jam. (Also check out her new prose book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics.). Here’s something Joyelle recently wrote about the play, “Contagious Knives,” which is part of the book. Here’s a recent review in HTMLGiant. And another.

Chelsea Minnis, Poemland – Contemporary American poetry who blends fashion and ultra-violence. I love all of her books. This one is didactic in the best possible sense. I think she was also in Seth’s “top three.” It was also Minnis whose work first prompted Arielle Greenberg to coin the phrase “gurlesque,” a controversial and insightful concept that is now being hotly debated all over the Swedish newspapers, journals and webzines (here for example) due to Maria Margareta Österholm’s book of criticism, The Girl Laboratory in Pieces: Swedish Prose 1980-2005 (we published a translation of the intro here).

Alice Notley, Descent of Alette – It’s of course notoriously impossible to say who’s the “top three poets” in any country, but Notley has certainly been one of the best US poets over the past 20+ years. I love most of her books, but for me Alette – a feminist, visionary epic set in the subway of Reagan’s America (thus increasingly realistic, correct) – is probably still the best, the one I teach most often and the one I always recommend to people from other countries who want to know about the best contemporary US poetry.

Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object – African-American poet writes brutal, grotesque, gorgeous poems in prose and in pretty lyrics. I wrote this post about him a while back. This book really moved me.

Maroosa di Giorgio, The History of Violets – Aerie, mysterious necropastorals saturated by art, flowers and violence by the late Uruguayan super star (in the Warhol sense of that word). Swedish readers might see the incredibly close connection to Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund, the superstar of Sweden.

OK, I said I was going to ignore Action Books, but really I can’t talk about contemporary poetry without mentioning Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who is really one of the greatest living poets. She’s got two books out with Action Books and a few more on the way, and one chapbook from Tinfish, all translated by Don Mee Choi. Here’s something Lisa Flowers wrote about her. She too partakes with some of the gurlesque/necropastoral vibes I’ve mentioned above. THere’s a whole bunch of awesome poets in South Korea right now, though they have not yet been translated to English (we’re working on it).

OK, that’s my quick post for the day. I’ve no doubt missed some great ones but this is a pretty good image of my idea of the greatest “contemporary US” poetry, or at least a start.

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"The Political Uncanny": Raul Zurita's Purgatory

by on Mar.20, 2013

So I totally understand people who don’t want to go to the AWP for this or that reason, but the fact is that Raul Zurita gave a couple of readings this year as well as appeared on a panel on the translation of Latin American poetry, so I’m happy I went.


I’m teaching his book Purgatory (trans. Anna Deeny) in my creative writing classes, and I’m re-reading this amazing book. I think CD Wright does a great job in her Foreword. This morning, I am intrigued by this passage from her essay:

“Despite the savage despair he experienced while writing Purgatory, Zurita matched despair with ferocity, deploying his own formal inventiveness and skill to compose the poem that would stand as both a subwoofer attack on tyranny and a work of never-ending strangeness.”

So much of discussions about political poetry in the US is still bound up with the idea of efficacious simplicity and the idea that “strangeness” (ie Art) is apolitical, is decadently luxurious, without a point; that in order to be truly political we must turn away from strangeness. Wright sees the political dimension of “strangeness,” but the politics has to do with “match[in]” the desperate situation in some way with strangeness.

Zurita himself writes something similar in his preface:

“When faced with horror, we had to respond with art that was stronger and more vast than the pain and damage inflicted on us. I believe this is what I thought in 1975, a year and a half after the military coup. It was then that a few soldiers subjected me to one of those typical abuses in which they are experts. I recalled the well-known evangelical phrase: If someone strikes your right cheek, turn the other to him. So I burned my left cheek. Completely alone, I enclosed myself in a bathroom and burned it with a red-hot branding iron. Purgatory began with that laceration.”

Again, Zurita here “match[es]” the torture of the fascist soldiers with his art. He doesn’t merely turn the other cheek, he usurps their position as violators. I’m fascinated by this kind of “strange” “match[ing].”
(continue reading…)

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Michael Broder's Roman Camp

by on Mar.15, 2013

Michael Broder has a fab piece up at Huffington Post “Camping it Up in Ancient Rome a Queer Take on Catullus 16.”


I keep returning to his translation:

I will butt-fuck you and skull-fuck you,
Aurelius, you pussy-boy, and Furius, you cocksucker!
Both of you think I’m not man enough
because my little poems are a little soft.
But while a decent poet should be manly,
his bits of verse need not be manly at all.
In fact, poems are witty and charming
if they’re a little soft and a bit shameful,
and can get a rise, well, not out of boys perhaps,
but these hairy men who can barely get it up.
Because you read about my “many thousands of kisses,”
you think I’m not a real man?
I will butt-fuck you and skull-fuck you!

which reminds me in an anachronistic turnabout of the Deleuze and Guattari suggestion that we dig up dead philosophers and conduct on them similar acts (alias doctoral comprehensive exams, alias blogging, alias speech). Broder takes us into that weird orbit of pop/academy/poetry and calls:

 my critics claim, I’m just hell-bent on “seeing us in them,” of finding evidence for gayness wherever I look in history. Both of these sins fall under the general charge of “presentism,” applying modern categories inappropriately to the past. But now I’m on The Huffington Post, not at an academic conference. You make the rules around here. So read on and tell me what you think.

Of Catullus Camp and camp’s more general unparsable narratives, he argues:

There’s another way in which Poem 16 is camp: the way Catullus pretends to buy into moral standards that he actually rejects. In defending himself against the charges of being effeminate, he does not go all “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” on us. Instead, he deflects. He says he can be manly while still writing unmanly poems, and that unmanly poems are witty and charming. He’s no sissy, he’s just pretending to be one for the entertainment value. Wink wink. Does Catullus really accept traditional Roman standards of masculinity? Which is the “real” Catullus, the manly Catullus who only writes mushy love poems to give hard-ons to hairy old men, or the sissy Catullus who begs Lesbia and Juventius for kisses? The fact is, we don’t know for sure which is real and which is pretend, and that’s precisely how camp works. Camp is all about insider audiences and outsider audiences. In the 1960s, drag queens were called “female impersonators” to make straight audiences feel more comfortable. They could believe that once the man in the dress went home, he was a “normal man,” just like them. Meanwhile, the camp audience members knew that after the show, the drag queen was going to the nearest gay bar to cruise some trade. Catullus is wielding that same kind of double-edged sword.

Ain’t no real citizens but us chickens.


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"A cursory tracing of infection patterns": Jeremy Behreandt on Aase Berg's Dark Matter and "American kitschy-grotesque aesthetic"

by on Mar.13, 2013

Jeremy Behreandt has an excellent review of Dark Matter by Aase Berg up on Heavy Feather Review.In it he makes some really interesting comments about the matter-mind conflict in the poem and how this might relate to the deformative language:

In Berg’s language, which deploys neologism and bizarre grammar, one is invited to practice new logics or analogies. If the ghost is born of the dark material machine, does it inherit the machine’s characteristics in its genes? If yes, and the dark matter is opaque and inscrutable, then the consciousness can learn nothing of itself by studying its parent empirically. If no, then the consciousness is an orphan, a “deformity, an aberration…a slit in the structure.” It is lost in the hostile world and to itself. Rather than accepting Descartes’ comfortable Cogito ergo sum, Berg explodes the disjunct between mind and body into grotesque, unforeseen conclusions. An architectural or geological formation may have a face or faces, a name or names, corruptible bodily organs or erupting limbs as much as a human may not. Flesh is machine, mineral is flesh, figure is indistinguishable from ground. This yields powerful imagery in Dark Matter, such as “Here runs a visible underground border, a fistulation toward Mare Imbrium. I thrust the muscle latch toward the machines that throb there in the wound” from “In Dovre Slate Mill.” Or “Here the tendons weave a cathedral of signs from Pangea’s hidden core. Here the cranium glows in the memory of the machine’s facial features” from “Cryptogram.”

It has always struck me about this book how “figure is indistinguishable from ground” and this review brings this issue into an interesting conversation about matter.

Behreandt also raises the question of how I/Black Ocean have framed this translation:

Of course, one must remain mindful that the American audience receives Dark Matter through the interpretive framing of Johannes Görannson. If Berg writes, “Come Leatherface, my love, glide into the face of the secret’s bestial longing” and never again makes mention of Leatherface, both Gorannson’s introduction and the copy on the back cover, while acknowledging numerous sources, emphasize Berg’s allusion to and alteration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It makes this reviewer wonder if the American kitschy-grotesque aesthetic, as it codifies its discourse and forms its canon, is promoting an edgy, hip Dark Matter that is in constellation with Bataille while keeping mum on the Dark Matter in constellation with Novalis (whose verse serves as an epigraph for the book), the Dark Matter which frequently addresses traditional philosophic questions on idealism vs. materialism, artificial vs. natural, reason vs. will, being vs. becoming, unity vs. strife.

I think that’s a fair question. (continue reading…)

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Montevidayo books at the AWP

by on Mar.06, 2013

If you go to the AWP bookfair, look for the Action Books/Tarpaulin Sky table (J24). We’ll have the following new books:

From Action Books:
The Parapornographic Manifesto by Carl-Michael Edenborg
In the moremarrow by Oliverio Girondo (trans. Molly Weigl)
Pop Corpse! by Lara Glenum
The Warmth of Taxidermied Animals by Tytti Heikkinen (trans. by Niina Pollari)
Mouth of Hell by Maria Negroni (trans. Michelle Gil-Montero)

From Tarpaulin Sky:
Joyelle McSweeney’s new book, Salamandrine: 8 Gothics
Johannes Göransson’s book Haute Surveillance

We will also have a few copies of Radioactive Moat chapbooks by Feng Sun Chen, Lucas de Lima and Jiyoon Lee at our table.

Elsewhere in the fair:
Check out Sarah Fox’s new book First Flag from Coffeehouse Press.
Aase Berg’s Dark Matter (in my translation) from Black Ocean.

(And probably some stuff I’m missing, so please add if necessary in comment section.)

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Believe the New Sensations: Salamun, Aase Berg, Peter Richards and the "Overjoy" of Poetry

by on Mar.04, 2013

“Imagine the sinhome not as figure but as ground: a potent, non-neutral ground, a giant stain. This would square well with the vaginal connotations of the sinthome, in patriarchy a wound that is also a space.” (Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature)

I’m reading Tomaz Salamun’s book On the Tracks of Wild Game (first published in the 70s in Slovenia, recently published in translation by Ugly Duckling). I fucking love this book. So weird and unsettling but beautiful:

I was pulled under water. I swam back to the surface
as a dark blue
gleaming blossom. It’s terrifying to be
a lower. The world came to a halt. I bloomed quietly
like velvet, as if forever.

(from Plato, Islam, Barnett Newman)

The poems are these volatile zones shot through with violence and tenderness, zones of transformation, ambient zones that takes over the reader, takes us in like “dark blue gleaming blossom.”



In his reading of Peter Richards’ Helsinki (Action Books, 2011) in Jacket2, “Devisable Matter and Sheer Overjoy” (great title), Christopher Condrich keeps emphasizing two elements: the sense of a placeless, volatile place and a near-narrative that is more the “vestiges of narrative” than a traditional narrative. Within the space set up in the poem, his reading “shapeshifts and morphs.” (continue reading…)

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Believe the Hype: Mother was a Tragic Girl by Sandra Simonds

by on Mar.01, 2013


Have you heard the hype about Sandra Simonds’s Mother was a Tragic Girl? It’s tragic, to be sure, and it’s tragedies are tragedies of domesticity, of history, of animal hybridity, of motherhood, of childbirth, of the body and its flexibilities and deteriorations, and CVS. As I write about this book, I don’t want to read it closely. I want to hold it at a distance, to see how it’s shaped, how it makes things happen: this is a book that on the one hand insists upon the dignity of poetry while on the other hand it seems dedicated to writing poems about the impossibility of writing poetry, like “The Battle of Horseshoe Bend”:

I was going to write a poem about giving birth/about meconium, vernix/the cubic zirconium/scattered on the floor tiles of the hospital room./It would have been about false/windows that face false/walls, about/the tiny hamburger I ate afterward/—the mustard too yellow and sweet—the flushed/cheek of labor, ho hard it is/to piss afterwards…

This is, says the narrator, a “poem that erases itself as it is written,” and “that will never exist.” But it exists, and in existing it suggests, communally, that for the poem to be a poem it “would have had to murder the landowner/in the name of personal property.”

Mother is a Tragic Girl is a book in which the nipples of a stray wife “leak titanium,” where squirrels die from drinking water laced with antidepressants. The natural world is poisoned by psychiatry, and DNA is woven from lasers in the jungle; this is a book where characters must decide whether to piss or to write poems.
(continue reading…)

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Believe the hype: McSweeney's Percussion Grenade

by on Feb.27, 2013

maddinMake it matter. Make it cut & infect

like contagious knives. Like a sidewalk

made smart with brain matter.

— from The Contagious Knives

A few years ago, I watched one of the special versions of Guy Maddin’s Brand upon the Brain! at The Music Box Theater in Chicago — one of the versions where a live actor read sections of the film (in this case, Crispin Glover) and where a crew was in place (called the Foley Artists) to create the sound effects. And the effect I remember most was the scene where a character turns to cannibalism, biting into the skull of another character: one of the sound artists at that point crunched and chewed a piece of celery into the microphone. (As I write this, I realize I might be mis-remembering. Maybe he twisted the celery in his hands instead? If anyone out there saw any of the shows, feel free to correct me!) The moment was funny, sickening, and unsettling in a way that’s hard to describe. It might have to do with the juxtaposition, and how it becomes almost an act of translation. The person in front of us eating celery = the image on the screen of a character eating brain with an all-too-real sound. The crunch, the saliva, the swallow. (Or so I remember it.) But of course it cuts the other way too, and by doing so taints the act of eating a stick of celery. Never had eating celery seemed so full of ill-intent. It reminded me of how Artifice can make the unsettling more so. The almost-pink blood in so many horror films from the 60s always seems more disturbing to me than the darker, more realistically colored blood in later movies. To me, something about the artifice made the violence more visceral. “Fake” fake blood can be more effective than “real” fake blood. Another example would be the bright “blood” Godard used in the 60s, a kind of POP “blood.”

To misquote Zizek (who was quoting Kieslowski): the fright of fake blood.

Anyway, I bring up the Maddin/celery/brain chewing incident because something about that experience reminds me of McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade, one of my favorite books of American poetry in the last few years. The “fake” blood in this book is all the more real for being fake. Good taste (the realm of “real” fake blood) is often a way of letting us stay in our comfort zones by whispering in our ear that Realism, after all, can never hurt us. It mimics reality. In can never be it.  Percussion Grenade offers the reader/performer no such assurances.

godard weekendThe collection is about violence, war, contamination, catastrophe, kill zones, contagions. We walk through this decimated landscape that seems to have has no beginning and no end — there are no privileged, aerial views of the disaster here. In “Dear Fi Jae 3,” the speaker works in a factory owned by a multi-national: “I had a glue pot & several brushes & I had a smock // which fastened at the neck with a thong and an eye // and my hair in spit curls like eyes on my forehead // and another eye for each cheek // and my feet thrust in half-slippers called moliere shoes // striped like circus tents.” The language-spill here — the eyes that foam over the scene — and the odd precision of the shoes (“striped like a circus tent,” with its childlike vibe contrasting strongly with this setting) create an atmosphere of menace. The speaker goes out to take a break and meets “the killer of little shepherds.” The factory floor soon turns into a killing floor. The speaker tells us, “I am no shepherd sir I tweeted // when I went back inside // he spilled my guts on the floor // too-clogged fish gear // drain damage system crushed emotional mutating agent // multinational.” The poem then turns spectral. The speaker says, “I dipped a latex cover’d hand to the glue pot // I glued the ghostface to the ghostproduct.” This Blakean poem ends on a Blakean note: “When this you see remember me.” The terrain here reminds me of the flattened worlds of Bolaño and Cormac McCarthy (especially Blood Meridian) and Godard’s Weekened. Flattened because there is no teleological escape hatch in those zones, only landscape and days and weather and years.

There are countless great lines and images in this book. The language at times seems wonderfully drunk on itself. (One example from “A Peacock in Spring”: “He shrugs obscenely green, / obscenely jewel-toned, obscenely neck-like, / an obscene grandeur and an obscene decadency, / A screen, a mask, a dance, / A thousand green-groping eyes.”) Artifice runs like acid through the pages, dissolving the usual connections and groundwork. In the play “The Contagious Knives, “Louis Braille stands alone in pink panties and pop-star t-shirt from target…He ties a brown leather strap around his eyes and inserts an awl into the right. In liquid eyeliner, he paints big black tear drops…” In the same play, Bradley Manning appears, played possibly by Andy Warhol. And there’s a wedding chorus made up of the Jack Smith Superstars circa Normal Love.

While reading the book, I kept thinking of the introductory titles in Godard’s Weekend: a film found in a trash heap, a film adrift in the cosmos. Art that exists in a fallen state — the art of “no future” — is also an art that exist in a guerilla state, with a guerilla sensibility: an art that doesn’t believe in the usual notions of representation, the picture window view, but in coordinates and montage. And McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade is a great example of it.

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Believe the Hype: “The Doll Incident” by Sergej Timofejev. Translated by Keven M.F. Platt, Julia Bloch, Maya Vinokour, Sergej Timofejev. Fence. Winter 2012-2013

by on Feb.26, 2013

I too dislike it. But every once in awhile a poet you’ve never heard of, whose work you know nothing about, comes along and demolishes you. Such was my experience last night when flipping through the new issue of Fence, and stumbling on Sergej Timofejev’s “The Doll Incident,” which is part of a larger section of Russian poetry that translator Kevin M.F. Platt, in his introduction to the work, describes as coming together through first a virtual and then a real-life gathering of Russian and American poets and translators. The entire Russian poetry dossier in Fence is worth checking out, but this poem by Timofejev just blew me away. It begins:

“I see 25,000 defective Chinese dolls/Scattering, like energized peas, from several/Trains they seized at the border. They/Occupy cafés, bazaars, and supermarkets. And then/They set up field kitchens on the streets and start/Distributing broth made out of genetically modified soya and plastic packets.”

The “Incident” with the dolls is in reality an international war. The dolls “can’t be injured,” and their plastic flesh regenerates and when they are struck by bullets they resurrect. NATO forces seal the borders and isolate the territories, in which the dolls “impose a harsh regime,” broadcasting on TV “only black-and-white puppet-animation from the 60s,” driving the nation to the “brink of extinction.” NATO jets drop stoves over the occupied nation, and the dolls are shoved into the stoves.  And then everything ends happily ever after as “all local racial and ethnic/Conflicts are forgotten, and a new era of handicrafts and ecological thinking dawns.”

Kevin Platt, in his introduction to the Russian dossier, provides an appropriate transnational/translational frame through which to approach the writing, suggesting that the poems in the symposium can each be read as “a commentary or critique of national and political borders and identities.” And yes “The Doll Incident” provides a literal puppetization of nation-states and of the ideologies that suggest that the shit on one side of an invisible smells better than the shit on another.

The Doll Incident” does all of this, to be sure, but the poem’s voice, brought to us through the team of translators that includes the author, is perfectly performed: a journalistic/documentary/historical voice that presents World War Doll as if it were utterly human and normal. Shklovsky and Kharms come to mind here, but so does Patrik Ouředník’s brilliant novel Europeana: A Brief Hisory of the Twentieth Century.  And so does my favorite Caryl Churchill play, Far Away ,which presents its own obliteration of national identities through a climactic final scene in which there is an apocalyptic war that is as local as the characters’ bodies and as distant as the mews of the cats who ‘have come in on the side of the French.’

“The Bolivians are working with gravity,” writes Churchill, “that’s a secret so as not to spread alarm. But we’re getting further with noise and there’s thousands dead of light in Madagascar. Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence? That’s what I wondered in the night.”
Thanks to Fence and Keven M.F. Platt, Julia Bloch, Maya Vinokour, Sergej Timofejev for bringing us this stunning work.


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