Some Thoughts About: The Gurlesque, Plath, Olga Ravn, Kim Yideum, Matilda Södergran and Sara Tuss Efrik

by on Oct.16, 2013

I’m supposed to write an essay about the gurlesque for the upcoming issue of the Swedish journal 10-tal. One thing I want to talk about is the importance of Sylvia Plath. Of course not the cleaned-up Plath that various scholars have tried to make into a master craftswoman over the past few decades, but the “problematic” Plath who blurs life and art, mythic suicide with art, the sleazy Plath of b-movies and fashion magazines, the Surrealist-influenced Plath, the ekphrastic Plath, the Plath of holocaust kitsch, the Plath beloved by teenage girls, the Plath quoted by Francis Bean Cobain in a recent tweet. In short, a gurlesque Plath.
Maybe I’ll talk about Judy Grahn’s amazing homage to that kitschy Plath, “I Have Come To Claim Marilyn Monroe’s Body”:

… They wept for you
and also they wanted to stuff you while
you still had a little meat left in useful places
but they were too slow.

Now I shall take them my paper sack
and we shall act out a poem together:
“How would you like to see Marilyn Monroe,
in action, smiling, and without her clothes?”
We shall wait long enough to see them make familiar faces
and then I shall beat them with your skull.
hubba. hubba. hubba. hubba. hubba.

Maybe I’ll talk about my meeting with the scholar who didn’t think Plath had any influence on contemporary poetry. I wrote about this some time ago: how he put all of Oppen’s work on the PhD comps list but had taken Plath off. Didn’t know about the gurlesque, didn’t know about any of the myriad of contemporary poets influenced by Plath. When I told him that’s because the field of contemporary poetic has become – post-lang-po – so narrowly defined that Plath is not part of it, he got upset and accused me of conservative populism a la Poetry Foundation. The truth is of course that the gurlesque is a word that points out the larger move toward maximalism and the grotesque, the kitschy and over-done (“too much”) that I at least find the most interesting poetry going on today.

An important features of this maximalism, this gurlesque is how international it is; how it’s not really a movement (which suggests a center, organization) but incredibly widespread, it’s really part of a kind of maximalist movement (that also is not limited to women). And it’s important to me that we don’t see it as an American thing. Even when Arielle Greenberg coined that word there were things that could be called gurlesque happening all over the place – from my point of view, most notably in Sweden and South Korea with people like Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon. The word “gurlesque” does not function for me the way say “language poetry” did – it’s not a set America export (where the US is undeniable central) but a way of calling attention to not just an aesthetic but a connection, a conversation across language boundaries and cultures.
(continue reading…)

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MY HEART IS A BOMB! (Some thoughts about Romanticism)

by on Sep.30, 2013

I’m thinking about this today in a cloudy Stockholm attic room: The way that academic discussions of literature (and poetry in particular) often veer into morality, some kind of justification for poetry, for style, or – its opposite – a rejection of it (usually as kitsch, immoral, schlocky).
I’m also thinking about how this relates to Lars Norén. As I wrote in my last post about Norén’s corpse, there’s this violence that permeates his work, from his early lyrics to his – almost up-to-date – diaries. There’s this sense of struggle: the desire to eradicate the poetic, the kitsch, but also the sense that poetic pulls you back in, damages you right back. I suppose this has something to do with Romanticism. In his diaries, I just read him reminiscing about reading Hölderlin, Novalis, Celan.


Aside I turn to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world — sunk in a deep grave — waste and lonely is its place. In the chords of the bosom blows a deep sadness. I am ready to sink away in drops of dew, and mingle with the ashes. — The distances of memory, the wishes of youth, the dreams of childhood, the brief joys and vain hopes of a whole long life, arise in gray garments, like an evening vapor after the sunset. In other regions the light has pitched its joyous tents. What if it should never return to its children, who wait for it with the faith of innocence?

[It’s worth noting that Aase Berg’s Dark Matter begins with a Novalis quote.]

Noren’s constantly caught in a battle with his art, and his art is caught in a battle with Auschwitz (“Auschwitz is the capitol of the 20th century,” he notes.), with American imperialism, with the Israeli attacks on Palestine. Is he aestheticizing politics? Is he playing “ruin porn,” “empire porn”? Is he immoral? Is he a vampire? Is Romanticism Norén’s downfall?

Romanticism still seems to play such a large part in how we view poetry: there’s something inherently Romantic about poetry, something we have to discipline because it is also of questionable morality. There was that movie the other year about Keats: how his pale body was covered in butterflies drawn by the smell of rotten fruit (butterflies which I then lured to my room for The Sugar Book).

But obviously also everything from “Berlin”:

I’m thinking back to when I was in college, when I was in a supposedly “quietist” grad workshop: the teacher brought in Language poetry and essays about language poetry and everybody thought that was all good. They were perfectly acceptable. But in discussions of poetry the “Romantic” was always what had to be rejected. This also went by the phrase “too much.” There are too many metaphors in this poem, this speaker is megalomaniacal, seems fake etc.
At the same time I read a lot of postmodern criticism: it was all about the rejection of the “Romantic I.” Supposedly this was what the Quietists practiced: but they too were rejecting the “Romantic.” I smelled a rat. But I couldn’t tell where. I still can’t.

Just that it’s stinking worse than ever.

(Or has the rat already been found? Did my generation of poets devour it without knowing it? Am I puking up something I’ve already eaten a million times? When I come across so many of the 20-something poets they seem unencumbered by all of this, free to write awesome poetry.)

I think of Saul Friedlander’s description of kitsch as “debased Romanticism,” and his whole link of Romanticism, Nazism, stunted-ness and death. It all starts to sound vaguely Frankenstein-ey.

I don’t know all that much about Romanticism even though it was largely the stuff that got me into poetry as a teenager. There’s something teenagery about Romanticism. “I love Shelley” written in a bathroom stall (oh, that Shelley). Or, this morning on the official sign that read “This Area Is Under Surveillance” somebody had slapped a sticker that said “MY HEART IS A BOMB!”

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“It’s like rooting around in a grave”: Necrophilia and Modernism in Lars Norén

by on Sep.28, 2013

[Here is another excerpt from the memoir/criticism book I’ve been working on lately. Like the other things I’ve posted on the blog, it has to do with Lars Norén’s work, especially his massive diaries that have been published in two volumes over the past few years. In many ways I feel very close to Norén’s work – both his writing and his diaries – and I’m trying to work through that here. So if it seems at times as if I’m writing about myself or my own work (as Lara noted on Facebook), maybe that’s true.]

On the train I read Lars Norén’s diaries. The more I actually read these diaries, the more interesting Greider’s claim that Norén (or his work) is a kind of corpse gets; and I sense my own thinking about not just Norén’s writing but my own writing start to shift. To begin with, around December 2001, at the same time as he’s going through a divorce and starting a new relationship, Norén goes through incredible physical ailments. He starts having diarrhea and vomiting constantly. He can’t keep anything down, as he repeatedly notes. It seems that everything just runs through him; his physical body cannot maintain its integrity, its completeness. So when Greider imagines Norén bleeding on a dissection table, he is in some sense describing this leaky, grotesque body that Norén himself describes.
This leakiness impedes a lot of his social interactions. For example, he has to hurry from dinners (with his family, colleagues); he wakes up vomiting in the middle the night. And importantly, it prevents him from fucking his new girlfriend: He says he’s too sick to “tränga in” himself in her. It’s a peculiar word for sex, “tränga” meaning to penetrate but also to push or force, and also to crowd (a “trängsel” means a crowd). The sick body prevents sociality and sexuality. It destabilizes his body and life, but it also stabilizes it as he is forced to stay indoors, kept from going out to shop, and kept inside to read and write, and he seems to get creatively going, working on four plays at the same time. The writing seems to take the place of the fucking.

And then things go from bad to worse. He has to have a jaw surgery – a part of the jaw is apparently cut off – that involves shutting his mouth with some kind of plastic prosthesis, that not only forces him to go on an all-fluid diet but which makes all the soups he’s forced to drink (he tries all kinds of fancy flavors, such as lobster bisque etc) taste like plastic. This seems the ultimate insult to a sensualist who spend much of his diary discussing the food he eats, often fancy meals (lobsters, sushi etc), someone for whom food – as much as art and clothes – takes up a large part of the diary.

Perhaps even worse, his face swells us horrifically, so that he can’t recognize himself in the mirror. He compares himself to “Francis Bacon,” a comparison that doesn’t just invoke what his face looks like, but also conveys the horror of not recognizing one’s own visage. I had an experience like that when I was about 10 or 11. I had a sinus infection that somehow got out of hand, and the sinuses around one eye swelled up so that I couldn’t even look out of that eye. That horror came back to me when I read about Norén’s experience of losing his own face in his own diary.

(It’s strange for me to write that because I’m sitting in this little hotel room in Göteborg and right in front of my little desk is a mirror so that whenever I pause I look up at my own face: my balding head, the wrinkles in my skin, the graying beard, the weird little random straws that stick out of my eye brows.)
When Norén compares his face to Bacon’s painting, it’s worthwhile thinking about the vehicle as well as the tenor of that metaphor (that’s generally true) – the sick body is like a work of art. And it seems sickness, love and art are all things that destroy Norén. At one very vulnerable moment he says: “I can’t defend myself. I don’t have any tools for defending myself.” [Jag kan inte värja mig. jag har inga redskap för att värja mig.”]. There is a naked vulnerability with which he approaches his life that makes him incapable maintaining control.
(continue reading…)

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“intransigence is my calling card”: Interview with Uche Nduka

by on Sep.24, 2013


Johannes: OK, great. First a basic question: Can you tell me about your background? Ie how/why did you end up in the US? From what I can tell, you’re from Nigeria but lived for some time in Germany.

Uche: I was born in Nigeria in a family of christian priests. I was four years old when the Nigerian civil war began.I am Igbo and belonged to the Biafran side of that debacle.Many children of my age perished in that war through starvation.Till date some Igbo men and women and children are still being massacred in that country,particularly in the Northern parts.Sometimes for religious reasons and at other times for political reasons.Recently some members of the Igbo nation were deported to the East(Igboland) by the government of Lagos State.There are those who believe that after the civil war which ended in 1970 Nigeria resumed being one united nation.What crap! My generation nationally accepted the country but the nefarious actions of both military and civilian regimes that had piloted the country since the end of the civil war have given us cause to doubt a real Nigerian nationhood.Those civil and political injustices that led to the civil war in 1967 are still there.Now the problems of Nigeria are compounded even more by a sham democracy.For me the scars of living through Nigeria’s darkest decades are still here,and can never be forgotten. The Biafran War left a vicious gaping wound in life and art in Nigeria. I lived in Germany for about nine years and taught and wrote and explored that country.I lived in Holland for three years.I have been in transit in all the countries i have lived in since 1994 when i left Nigeria through the award of an Arts Fellowship by the Goethe Institute.I remain grateful to the Germans. I left Nigeria to free myself from organized idiocy and repression. I arrived in the United States Of America in 2007 to reunite with my parents and siblings who are naturalized Americans and who I did not manage to see throughout the twelve years i lived in Europe. At the moment I am a naturalized American: Nigerian-American.
(continue reading…)

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The Sugar Book: On Nazism, Kitsch, Saul Friedlander and Lars Norén

by on Sep.20, 2013

So I’m in Sweden reworking The Sugar Book, my next book of poetry (to be published next year). I’ve come to Malmö in fact to work on the book, to complete it by working through my fascination with certain aspects of aspects of art: its violence, its pointlessness, its manipulativeness, its necroglamour, the way it blurs the boundaries between life and death, art and life, private and public. It’s an unwieldy book: several hundred pages and growing. I can’t contain it. It’s also about being homeless, so that’s why I’ve returned to my home, to Sweden: if I can’t contain it here, I can’t contain it anywhere.


While writing this new draft, a few things have influenced me: Sweden’s obsession with Lars Norén’s diaries, Saul Friedlander’s book on Nazism and kitsch (“Reflection on Nazism”), a book of Francesca Woodman’s photograph (I found in Martin Glaz Serup’s apartment in Copenhagen), Raul Zurita’s poems and performances (cutting himself, writing in the sky, being rewritten as a fascist pilot by Bolano etc), and the use of the word “pornography” as applied to art that may or may not contain naked bodies (for example “ruin porn”) but which almost always betrays an iconophobic attitude about the intensive visuality of some art. This hot-spot of ideas is really fueling my re-drafting of The Sugar Book because that’s what it’s about. But I thought I would also do a little Malmö-blogging for the folks back home…


For those of you not from Sweden: (continue reading…)

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Long Gone Blues: On Violence, Sex, Balloons, Repetition, Hello Kitty, Guy Hocquenghem, Airports, Billie Holiday, Miley Cyrus, Gender Autism and Shameless Promotions

by on Sep.10, 2013

Lately I’ve been thinking about the sexual part of violence and power. Lately I’ve been making something like blues music for an album (Black Water, estimated: side A in late September, side B in October). Lately I’ve been thinking about this one quote by Guy Hocquenghem found in the back register of the lovely little book “Sisyphus Outdone” by Nathanaël:

[Homosexual desire] is the slope towards trans-sexuality through the disappearance of objects and subjects, the slide towards the discovery that in matters of sex everything communicates.

One day I went to a child’s birthday party and ate cake from a hello kitty plate instead of a turtles plate. One thing that surprised me about America when I first got here was definitely the sweetness of its birthday cakes. One day I saw a daddy who was ready to let his son fall off a tall wall because a boy that gets really hurt turns into a man. Fourth of July fireworks were firing in the background. Lately I’ve been thinking about a photograph of Russian manly boys picking up and torturing young gay boys, posing shirtless with guns. I don’t even know where I saw the photograph, if it even exists, I think it was one of those facebook link shots. Maybe I had a dream. If you dream current events does that make you a whore for fashion? Lately I’ve been thinking about how being a man means being something singular and contained, the taming of the boy into an agent of rationality. A man is either irreparably violent or controlled, contained, a man whose subject-hood is locked and loaded.

in matters of sex everything communicates

On Friday nights the whole family gathers and watches Americas Next Top Model Girls & Boys. During the commercials we practice our best face-poses. The idea is to keep face despite the embarrassment of the body.

At the pool party it is modesty for girls only because boys can’t control what skin does, the belly-skin of girls. This is the skin of a certain age. This is the skin that is the most dangerous of all the skin and threatens to throw the not-yet rationalized boy into a raging rape scene.

I was thinking about the repetitive line and how it’s like an image in a way. We look at it sort of like an image. There is nothing to figure out. Instantaneous, useless. It becomes surface, sound.

in matters of sex everything communicates

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about rape-or-not-rape. On this new album of songs that are some kind of blues I made a song sort of about rape using a Mississippi Fred McDowell sample that runs over and over for eight minutes. It’s a remake of his “Find My Suitcase”. Toward the end it gets wobbly with weird dub-step-like bass lines.

Once I came on a plane and the man at the desk asked angry questions and made up lies because if you have nothing to hide you can’t be shaken because the world is ultimately fair. But I got shook up because the lies seemed very dangerous and I forgot some vital piece of information, became infantile, like a child. I stuttered. I couldn’t remember the name of my professor. I could see his bearded face, his gentle ways, his supreme knowledge of old testament lineage, but his name was gone. Because his name was gone I became someone hiding something. I wondered if this was how terrorists feel.

Sometimes I forget the silliest things. Like my own phone number. Like my own address. This is the stuff of identity, humanness: birth and death records. My band name is My Hot Air Balloon. It was inspired by Swedish balloon explorer Andrée and his demise on the north pole. Travel by hot air and spectacular failure.

Nothing has been heard of Professor Andrée, who started in a balloon for the North Pole, accompanied by two companions, about three weeks ago. Two carrier pigeons were afterward picked up, with certain marks on the wings intended to give the impression that they were from the explorer, but it was soon made manifest that they had not come from him.

-Baltimore News, Baltimore, MD. July 31, 1897

So anyway, I wrote this one song about interacting with authority called “Honey You Got the Bible, I Got the Gun”. It’s an American fairy tale. Its like Thelma and Louise. It’s religion and guns. It’s a love story with authority. It starts:

Hey Mr. Officer won’t you take down my name
You can keep it in your file no hard feelings

This was a while ago, maybe like two years, a kind of protest song. I played it on my daughter’s ukulele but it didn’t quite work. But one day recently I was making this really bouncy sexup beat using an old atari beep and I got to singing this old song. And I was singing over and over “Mr. Officer” until the old-fashioned  protest song seemed to turn into something else, more intimate perhaps, or at least more deranged. Sort of like Miley Cyrus grinding with that ridiculous foam hand. A kind of impotence. A kind of yearning.

(I know I know. Dead tissue, be gone. But I think the most upsetting thing about the Miley Cyrus thing was the flatness, the over-the-top-ness and the redundancy of the performance, like it failed to tap into shocking-but-acceptable sex-up Disney coming out behavior (say Christina Aguilera back when) as well as arty androgynous lady gaga awareness. When you’re trying to dance sexily but its not sexy it becomes something else, deranged, less than human, porn. Like the commercial. Shocking. Simply Oranges.)

Bible Song Intro Beat (ca 15 seconds):

Usually when there’s protest songs there’s not much sex going on, its more a manly comradely thing (like those boys in Le Mis!), dustbowls and union meetings, like sports, numbers in the proper squares. But I was thinking about this officer, this border control man, politician (the three characters of the song) and how there is a sexual element in that kind of official control-controlee relationship, this sort of dance and courting. And how we don’t want it to be. How we want the violence to be rational, because if its rational it can be identified and labeled and codified and renamed and verified and classified until it becomes digestible and necessary.

Like what if the power to be couldn’t just symbolically fuck their subjects. Couldn’t reasonably go to war.

Then I added a Billie Holiday sample over it. Not sure why, but once I had it sounded good. I love Billie Holiday. When I grow up, that’s who I want to be. Billie singing: Long Gone Blues. It fitted strangely well. So it goes something like, (where there’s suppose to be something like a chorus):

Mr. Officer

Mr. Officer

Talk to me baby

Tell me what’s the matter now

Mr. Officer

Mr. Officer

You tryin’ to quit me baby

But you don’t know how

Mr. Officer

Mr. Officer

( Billie Holiday’s Long Gone Blues)

I didn’t know then that Kanye West had sampled Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit for his Blood on the Leaves, a song that is sort of nauseating to listen to, Nina’s sped-up and deranged sounding vocal, Kanyes autotune, lynching meets club romance. But anyway, I like the idea, because the violence of the original, written by some Jewish guy who was inspired by a photograph of a lynching, isn’t allowed to be contained in the No Trespassing Zone of American History Relics.

It always befuddles me when the expected reaction calls for reflection and respect because the topic is of a certain bloodiness and severity, like you’re suppose to stay in this remembrance stillness pose. It reminds me of when I was a kid and we were playing charades and I did the act of Thinking or maybe even The Thinker by that sculpture guy and nobody could figure it out.

My wife says this is because I’m autistic. This is probably right. I’m planning to write a blues about this.

One thing America likes are those Time Capsules which is funny because there’s no history allowed in this small town. There should be jazz and blues statues and museums. Instead there’s waste and dead towns.

Like there’s something disturbed about the past, like a disease of nostalgia.

I decided to try to make a blues album because I love old blues music. Instantly it felt kind of fraudulent, treating blues as a genre rather than tradition, to make a kind of “concept” album. Tradition suggests initiation, cultural and geographical (if not genetic) inclusion, blah blah. I don’t feel part of that “tradition”, I don’t feel particularly rootsy. But I was interested in exploring different themes that blues music deals with: violence, sex, death, mainly, and folklore ghosty stuff, gospel religious stuff.  Interested in certain very bluesy sounds and bluesy phrases. To write songs on these subjects, exploring these sounds, these phrases. The idea of tradition is so full of shit anyway, just time passing allowing motive to overgrow so you have something supposedly “genuine” and “deeply rooted” or whatever. For the purpose of division. You can only really sing the blues if your an old black guy who has suffered. Also that the blues is more like a condition, something inside you, your devil-deprived soul, expressed as a summary of one person’s life lived in some unending misery, it has to be earned.

One way of questioning this earning seems to be questioning the containment of certain people and art by labeling them/it exotic, wholesome, “natural”, as opposed to capable of a more rational, severed-from-the-creator, constructed, layered, complex Entity, suggesting that they are not capable of such elaborate thought processes. But hidden in such questioning there seems to be an underlying moral stand favoring written and planned transactions of feelings and information over oral and improvised expression, an economic approach to art.

In blues lyrics one thing that becomes apparent is that its pretty impossible to determine ownership, multiple versions of songs coexist, lines are swapped, stolen and reused. There is (as in most pop music!) the use of heavy repetition, a musical employment of words for their secondary quality, their sounds, an oral transference, to convey a mood, incite dancing, movement, the promise of ecstasy, possession, tongue talking. I’m muchly interested in all this, and most of these songs are written to fit a certain sound, often a beat, an atmosphere, than the other way around, creating a mood in which exorcism becomes possible. Hopefully.

It’s interesting how in early America the drum was banned for its dangerous ability to cause riots. It’s also interesting that the early banjo, brought over from Africa, is a kind of secret, hidden drum, later made a decidedly white instrument through minstrelsy. That it was instead the formerly royal artsy-ass then industrialized guitar that became the blues man’s primary instrument, awesomely tortured with knives and bottlenecks, made to scream and weep. Etc. etc.

The album will pop up on soundcloud, here. Or like on facebook. Or some such. 

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The Mutilated Subject: The Performances of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit and Carlos Leppe

by on Sep.06, 2013


I am reading a book, Corpus Delecti, about performance art in Latin America, and I found Nelly Richards’ essay, “Performances of the Chilean avanzda” particularly useful. It is a study of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit (to whom Zurita dedicated Purgatorio), CADA the performance group they belonged to) and Carlos Leppe. Zurita’s poetry (and the accompanying stunts, various acts of auto-mutilation for example) has influenced my own thinking about art’s relationship to the body and to violence. And I thought this essay insightful so I’ll quote a bit from it:

“The body is the stage on which this division primarily leaves its mark. It is the meeting place of the individual (or one’s biography and unconscious) and the collective (or programming of hte roles of identity according to the norms of social discipline). That is why its utilizationas a support for art practice entails the dismantling of the ideological use of hte body as a vehicle for images or representation of the ritual of day-to-day living, as material bearer of the means of social reproduction and the models of sexual domination.”

“Whereas Leppe postulated the body as a game of appearances and reinvented its image by maneuvering its external signifiers, Zurita and Eltit promoted the body’s “concrete substance of pain” in acts of resignation and self-denial. Their various mortifications of the body signaled a type of subjectivity modeled on sacrifice or martyrdom. Raul Zurita burned hsi face (1975) or attmepted to blind himself (1980). Diamela Eltit cut and burned herself and then turned up at a brotherl where she read part of her novel (1980). By inflicting these emblems of the wounded body upon themselves, Zurita and Eltit appealed to pain as a way of approachign that borderline between individual and collective experience: their self-punishment merges with an “us” that is both redeemer and redeemed. The threshold of pain enabled the mutilated subject to enter areas of collective identification, sharing in one’s own flesh the same signs of social disadvantage as the the other unfortunates. Voluntary pain simply legitimates one’s incorporation into the community of those who have been harmed in some way – as if the self-inflicted marks of chastisement in the artist’s body and the marks of suffering in the national body, as if pain and its subject, could unite in the same scar.

There were two models of body art which influenced the Chilean art scene: the boy of Leppe, who stimulated the sexual categorization of identity in order to denounce it or interchange its signs, and the stigmatized body of Zurita and Eltit, who used pain in order to recapture the communal body of suffering. These bodies organized or even opposed two kinds of discourse regarding the ideological maneuvers that each favored or rejected: Leppe’s materialistic body, or the theater in which the fiction of hte body is dismantled, and the utopian body of Zurita and Eltit, whose sacrificial scars evoke the humanism… on which the metaphysics of identity depends…”
Obviously this is a small excerpt from an entire book, but I find it interesting to think about in terms of Mark Seltzer’s wound culture (which is according to him a sign of the pathological state of our capitalist country, in Zurita the wounded body is perhaps even more dire); Jacqueline Rose’s argument that the criticism of Plath for her holocaust imagery is really about an opposition to metaphor (you have to have been in the holocaust to write that corpse-body) (and in fact Zurita has – like Plath – been accused of megalomania etc); and in terms of all my other preoccupation with violence, the body and art.

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Corean Music #5: The Violent Excess of Rebecca Loudon, Kim Hyesoon and Marosa di Giorgio

by on Aug.21, 2013

The new installment of my “Corean Music” series is up at the Poetry Foundation:

“This is why I take issue with Steve Burt’s notion (expressed in a Facebook comment thread in response to my last post) that we can discern and celebrate a non-violent “excess” in contemporary poetry (and, by implication, construct a hygienic barrier around it, cordoning off and out of the conversation of those poets who don’t see violence as optional). Following my own ideas about ambient violence and those of Morton, I would argue that if excess isn’t violence, it’s not excess. That ‘ex-’ means something. It means coming out of, going beyond. Excess is something that is continually coming through itself, becoming an ‘Aeolian event,’ re- and hyper-medializing itself, splitting itself apart to pour more of itself through. If it doesn’t perform this ‘ex-’ it’s not excess. Excess is violence.”

I go on to talk about the work of Rebecca Loudon, Kim Hyesoon and Marosa di Giorgio.

Read the whole thing here.

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On the Importance of Taking Sides

by on Aug.20, 2013

When Joyelle and I started Action Books one of the first things we did was write some manifestos about poetry and poetics (about translation, deformation, the gothic etc). We wanted to not only generate a discussion that interested us and that dealt with work we loved (work which was not being published or discussed), but we also wanted to be honest. We hated how so many presses would claim to publish “the best of any style,” setting themselves up as neutral observers, as if their evaluation of what was “the best of any style” wasn’t a style, a point of view hidden beneath the cool veneer of rational and discerning judgment.

For all his flaws, one hugely important result of Ron Silliman’s blogging is that he made clear that everybody had an aesthetic, made clear that even that “neutral” aesthetic was an aesthetic.

I was dismayed at a lot of the recent responses to Cal Bedient’s criticism of “Conceptualism” in the Boston Review. Many merely dismissed his article using the same binary rhetoric of “anti-experimentalism” as Silliman has employed. Lots of people would simply this complex article as “Just another old guy attacking the new” etc. Here the rhetoric of experiment-vs-anti-experiment was a way of avoiding having to engage in a discussion, a way of merely blocking out opposing viewpoints.

Even more disturbing were all the people – both pro and con – attacking the idea of writing an essay opposed to a group of poets. “Why doesn’t he write about things he likes?” asked some pro-conceptualists, conveniently ignoring that in large part conceptualism has built its reputation on anti-kitsch rhetoric dismissing the “lyric” poem etc. Why is criticism so bad? I would be very happy if a prominent critic took the time to publish an essay on why he disagreed with my poetics! It doesn’t mean I would automatically shut down the Mutilation-Factory, but it would maybe force me to think about certain elements of my aesthetic from a new direction.

But the worst responses to the Bedient essay that I saw were that some people (on facebook) wrote: “Don’t talk about it, it only bring them more attention.” The way we express disagreement in our contemporary American poetry culture is apparently not by expressing disagreement. It’s by ignoring different views and hoping they will go away. By ignoring the things we disagree with. There can be no better recipe for an anemic and dull literary scene.

I remember reading similar reactions to Seth Oelbaum’s provocative, highly thought-out and magnificently performative posts on HTMLGiant (about the AWP, about Marxism, about gender and violence etc). His posts caught on like wildfire a few months back and immediately people started warning each other (in public places like facebook no less) not the “stoke the fire” or “feed the troll.” “Do not read this post, and please do not talk about it,” one poet wrote on a famous critic’s facebook wall in near hysteria, as if afraid that the critic would be infected with the Oelbaum virus. Some people wrote diatribes attacking Seth for his perpetrating the ultimate sin of “self-promotion” (even though he aligned himself with the most-hated “one percent,” a obviously abject position) and of misreading Marx (even though, again, he aligned himself with the “one percent”!). It appears that the most controversial thing about Oelbaum was that he was controversial in a literary culture that is scared of controversy. Oelbaum became a kind of violence to the status quo.

I was reminded of this when Rauan Klassnik recently wrote a response to my posts on violence and art on the poetry foundation. When announcing this post to his e-friend, one person wrote back:
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Ross Brighton responds to "Corean Music"

by on Aug.15, 2013

[Ross Brighton wrote these comments on Facebook in response to the second “Corean Music” post I wrote for the Poetry Foundation.]

Also the idea of violence as ambient is really, really …. acute (I don’t know why but that seems like the appropriate word).
I’ve been talking a lot about violence with several friends of mine, because we all have PTSD, which is a result of violence. In a way, PTSD is like being infected with the ambience of violence, it’s omnipresence. It becomes present even through it’s absence and as violence seems always somehow gendered (even/especially male-on-male violence), violence latches onto gender. I was talking with my friend the other night about violent intimate relationships, and that Rihanna and Eminem song, and how Rihanna was vilified for it in a really fucked up way (I mean she was basically demonstrating what such relationships are like, and they’re hyper-aestheticised, as they’re kind of like addictive behaviour, there’s a rush, all the power-play is like… obscene pantomime)… but also how I couldn’t listen to that song because it reminds me of the omnipresence (ambience) of violence…. the fat that the male body is already coded as a potential weapon (which ties back to your post about Hysterical masculinity, and Kim’s post about Sports). And how ‘good’, ‘proper’ masculinity is kind of enacted as a “being able to be violence, but restraining it”. Not an absence of violence, but a not-committing it. I’m not sure that phrasing works properly, but I hope you can get what I mean there.

I should quickly note before my big spiel that my experience of PTSD is probably really, really different for how soldiers experience it, I know a guy who’s got PTSD from seeing active combat, and while the… mechanics are probably similar the way we cope is really, really different, as are the experiences of trauma, and … yeah I can’t speak to that kind of experience, nor really understand it in anything other than a really cursory way. I just thought that needed saying. But anyway, here goes.

I think the big thing for me is … well there’s the tying of violence to masculinity which I think is a really big thing, especially as it relates to both economic depression and sports cultures and the excessive drinking that is particularly associated with the former. (continue reading…)

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"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. (continue reading…)

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"Dedicated Experiments in the Deadness of Form": Toby Altman on Nate Hoks

by on Aug.11, 2013

One version of Hamlet

Nate Hoks is a cowboy of the in and out (burger).
Let’s start with an outrageous claim about modernity: Hamlet begins on a wall. This is probably important: one of the things we learn over the play’s long action is that bodies and walls are not so different. If the play has a thesis, it is: walls are necessary. What is inside—the body; the city; the self—must be protected, militarized, quarantined. (In this sense, Hamlet is an ode to the prophylactic). If the play has an animating impulse, it is nostalgia: for a lost regime of bodily openness and political security, when unregulated contact with the outside was possible. But the orchard is tainted, and the open body of the King, violently shut: “a…tetter bark’d about, / Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust, / All my smooth body.”

Hamlet Sr. is not the only one of us obsessed with smooth skin—I, for instance, apply lotion with archive fever. Modernity is, as Hamlet predicts, a matter of boundaries and border patrols: compulsively returning to division and loss—or, the loss which is division. What this compulsion means will depend, in part, on your politics. It might seem like melancholic return to the scene of trauma. Or it might seem like the foundational act of revolutionary rupture. Andre Breton, for instance, insists the primary project of his Marxist surrealism will be a reunification of sensual and physical worlds:

“[Surrealism] expresses…a desire…to bring about an ever clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses….I say we have attempted to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, of finally becoming one.”

Surrealist poetry is—or should be—experimental in a scientific sense: a way of making knowledge (happen); research into the real. Surrealism is a technology for solving modernity: designed to resolve (dissolve) in and out.
(continue reading…)

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The Unicorn Paradox: An Epistolary Essay on Lyric Poetry

by on Aug.09, 2013

August 7, 2013 


Last night I spent a long time in a hammock in the foothills of some mountains beneath the Perseid meteor shower. I was thinking about lyric poetry and I was thinking about technology; I had let my phone die and then I did not look for a charger. There was no cell service or internet regardless, and I wanted to have an unimpeded closeness with the natural. Back on the internet, where this text will ultimately reside, there has been a lot of talk about Lyric versus Conceptual Poetry. Because I have no internet I can not directly address any of the specific things that have been said, and I am glad.

For a few months now I’ve been trying to think theoretically about unicorns. I was not at the bar when the friend of a friend said that unicorns must be a little suicidal, but since then I have been thinking about the relationship between suicide and immortality. As an immortal the death drive is a luxury, a tantrum. There is only the slope from the top of the hill; futility.

Perhaps all acts of art-making are gestures in the direction of the death drive. The Lyric is trying to kill something. The assertion of an “I” is a violence. The violence is done to language and the page and the addressee as well as the writing self — no victims are spared, no trauma is unreasonable. The assault is accepted because the stakes are so high: what’s offered as reward is some iteration of the divine. The act of writing lyric poetry, of manipulating the fabric (language) of subjectivity, is an enormous assumption. It requires a rakishness or recklessness, particularly with regard to the emotions of others. Because the deliberate articulation which is characteristic of the lyric is so manipulated, it becomes manipulative. What passes through language is desire; emotion and desire are, at their closest meeting point, the same.

Conceptual Poetry does not set out with this same intention. Rather than straining something through a mesh it creates a faux-solid, a facade. Notions of interiority are irrelevant because apathy is fundamental; there’s nothing inside, there’s not supposed to be anything inside.

Death and apathy are close, barely a border between them. Conceptualism as a movement in art is a response to the deadness of Art. It is urban, it is reactionary. Its relationship to natural form takes a step towards the uncanny. It is the purged and the purgative. Art post-death is an existential edge.

There is pleasure in an empty box in that it can be a vehicle for the creation of furthermore elaborate imaginary boxes, until they become not boxes at all anymore — this is the lyric impulse. The conceptual impulse is to dwell upon the object’s qualities of box-ness and emptiness. This is a purity. But we cannot confuse it with the mantra of “no ideas but in things.” Where Williams sought to abstract from the object, conceptualism strives to prohibit abstraction. There is nothing going on here other than exactly what is going on; not what you see, what is.

The conceptual posits an always-already dead, squaring off against the reluctant vivacity of the lyric. In both instances we see examples of the Unicorn Paradox: the conceptual can’t kill itself because it is already dead, the lyric cannot kill itself because it is immortal.


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