BIASED CUB REPORT FROM OAKLAND ON THE NEW BRUTALISM AND POETRY BLOGGING
In which names are named, sentences are perhapsy, and the evidence is anecdotal.
by Stephanie Young
I first attempted to write about Oakland's summer break of poetry at the height of summer break: the Mary Burger/Ron Silliman reading at 21 Grand in July. How foolhardy! Everybody knows that nothing gets done in the summer. But now it's October and school is well underway. In such relative tranquility (I'm not in school) I thought it would be easier to answer the question that seemed to burn in everyone's mind for at least a moment this year: WHAT IS THE NEW BRUTALISM?
I was wrong. It hasn't gotten any easier. But, to echo Kent Johnson, I like to sound like I know what I'm talking about, which is why I'm leading off with a quote from Bill Marsh on assembly poetics. I'm using Marsh's ideas about assembly as a balancing tool while I attempt, on a tightrope, in a barrel, before your very eyes, to walk us through a short history of the New Brutalism. Marsh, not himself a New Brutalist, but familiar with the fine art of community org in San Diego, writes:
"Humans are meddlesome creatures alright and can't get enough of everyone else's 'private' information, but we are also fickle and easily distracted. So assemblies are short-lived and fragile, tinker-toy cars that don't really roll and break apart under the slightest pressure. The transfer / translation is always just that, in transit, in medias. Assemblies gather and intermix like dust clouds then disperse or settle. True, we need better ways to pull this stuff together but we are better off that it remains ultimately unassimilable and nebulous. We need fewer hard (and hardened) tools and more soft assemblies. The uncanny truth of our age is that we are all at once desperately alone and intimately connected. The din is endless and the silence infinite. Assemblies are perfect forms for this time. They materialize for the given particular needs of the moment then dissolve into pure potential."
Ron Silliman had this to sum up about the New Brutalism on his blog last week, as a way to illustrate overlap in his own earlier definition of scenes and networks in The New Sentence:
"The New Brutalists, for example, could be viewed as a scene (younger post-avant poets in the Bay Area) with some network connections, especially to writers in Massachusetts, although I suppose one could take a much narrower genealogical view (former writing students from Mills) as well."
OK. That's also a good place to start. Here are the gory details as I understand them. The term New Brutalism, in its current literary usage, has been primarily associated with a monthly reading series in Oakland started by Michael Cross in 2002 and now curated by Cynthia Sailers. Both are alumni of Mills College. (Are you as freaked out by this creepy psuedo historical tone as I am?) The New Brutalism is also also associated with the following publications:
- James Meetze's press Tougher Disguises, which has published books by Peter Gizzi, Clark Coolidge, K. Silem Mohammad, Noah Eli Gordon and forthcoming from Cynthia Sailers and Chris Stroffolino.
- The magazine A Very Small Tiger, co-edited by Dan Fisher and James Meetze, first issue goes to press soon
- Manifest Press, now run by Trevor Calvert and Michael Cross, with a publishing program that includes one title of poetry a year and the journal Syllogism
- Secret Swan, a public poetry project of broadsides edited and produced by Michael Cross
- The group anthology Involuntary Vision: after Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, edited by Michael Cross with writing from Ryan Bartlett, Julia Bloch, Tanya Brolaski, Trevor Calvert, Michael Cross, Eli Drabman, Geoffrey Dyer, James Meetze, Stephen Ratcliffe, Cynthia Sailers and Elizabeth Willis. Published by Stephen Ratcliffe's press, Avenue B.
- Blogs specifically addressing New Brutalism:
o The New Brutalism (group blog, last entry from July 2003, suspected members are James Meetze, Trevor Calvert, Michael Cross, Eli Drabman, Cynthia Sailers, Tanya Brolaski & Noah Eli Gordon)
o Older, More Brutal (Geoffrey Dyer's short-lived blog, two posts long, self described as "I've had it with New Brutalism. Jump me out? What defines New Brutalism? Should it? Does it?)
- Blogs written by individuals who are possibly New Brutalists:
o Swimming For Dummies (Tanya Brolaski)
o The Casual Tee (Trevor Calvert)
o My Blog (Michael Cross)
o The Brutal Kittens (James Meetze)
Let's get something out of the way first: the whole goofy problem of self-naming, which rests on the crux of how seriously one takes oneself. The implications are similar when considering the purchase of a baby-tee at Ross with the words 'bitch' or 'princess' or 'cutie' emblazoned in silver cursive writing across the front. Will people think I'm trying to look like a teenager (claim membership in a group closed to me on the basis of arbitrary restrictions?) Does my personal enjoyment of the irony (I'm no princess! I'm no bitch!) rely on a viewer registering the disconnect between my identity and the shirt's text? Is it clear that I sort of hope I am a cutie, that you think I'm a cutie, & that the possibility of a seamless relationship between myself and the shirt exists? Is it possible to wear the shirt with irony and still be invested in the shirt's signage as an aspect of my personality, that is, an expression of either sincerity or irony in my daily life?
The problem (or solution) is that such shirts are exhausted. They've been around forever, in fashion time, and worn by girls and boys in all the ways listed above, plus a number of variations and re-combinations. To pull such a shirt over one's head now is to shop deliberately within the mass market, to step into an echo chamber such as the hall of mirrors depicted towards the end of Enter the Dragon.
Here's how I think it happened: the term New Brutalism comes up in casual conversation among contributors to Involuntary Vision, i.e. "we should call ourselves the New Brutalists, ha ha!" Michael Cross decides to use the term when he names his reading series The New Brutalism. The first few readings are sparsely attended. They happen once a month. The audience starts to grow. Thanks in large part to an explosion of poetry blogs, the term spreads like a freaking virus, leaving ever widening circles of confusion (am I a New Brutalist if I read in the series?) excitement (it's a literary renaissance!) and hostility (explain yourselves!) Those Involuntary Vision contributors who may have been joking when they used the term to begin with (witness Geoff's alternate suggestion: "INFINITE COCK" and Tanya's coy description from the group blog: "a shard of glass, whacking off the head of a poppy?") find themselves called upon to articulate a group aesthetic, some philosophical body or theory-based alternative to support the thin cotton tee-shirt they seem to be wearing. At once, a series of catch-all words are bandied about by various individuals: The Lyric, a return to, (non-abstracted, non-fragmented), Romanticism, Emotion, and Meaning. By now, it's summer break and readings are being added to the series left and right to accommodate book releases and the vacation schedules of famous bloggers from the East Coast. And like any good virus, the first person to catch it in public, Michael Cross, had left the room for the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo by the beginning of August. But not before leaving behind the introduction he wrote for Involuntary Vision, which just arrived from the printer this week. While the position of a reading series is always on the move, as fluid as its readers and introductions, text is so fixed. I'll be curious to see how this particular piece of text is used or not as an articulation of the New Brutalist (whatever that may be TM) aesthetic.
Kasey Mohammad, who became associated with New Brutalism in the blogosphere (despite his membership in a more coherent literary school, Flarf) figured that if the people in Boston think you're a New Brutalist you might as well enjoy yourself and posted the TOP TEN MYTHS ABOUT THE NEW BRUTALISM on his blog (May 13, 2003):
10. In order to become a New Brutalist you have to kill a librarian.
9. Every New Brutalist poem must contain at least one of the following words: teal, monocle, isotope, Minotaur, caryatid, integer, palimpsest.
8. New Brutalists and Creep Poets are mortal enemies who stage secret underground "rumbles."
7. "New Brutalism" is an anagram of "lesbian war drum."
6. James Meetze likes to be called "Li'l Tiger."
5. If you go to Starbuck's and mention New Brutalism, you get a free latte.
4. Joshua Clover wanted to be a New Brutalist but was rejected because of "the way he dresses."
3. Negotiations are under way for a WB series starring that one guy from that one show.
2. Making it known that you're a New Brutalist is an effective way to get laid.
and ... the number one myth about the New Brutalism...
1. It's people-the New Brutalism is made out of peeeooooppppllllle!
Kasey's joke-list is easier to take than any attempts at serious manifesto making because it acknowledges the gaping hole at the center of the group's identity. In doing so, it comes closest to actually defining the New Brutalists, as primarily a social network fitting into a general trend in the bay area towards more self-consciously social expressions of poetry (witness the recent increase of readings in people's homes) but also an inchoate bundle of individual, kinisthetic impulses. Trevor Calvert wants to move to Japan! James Meetze: the new bard? Julia Bloch writes letters to Kelly Clarkson and Buffy! Tanya Brolaski on the high lonesome, medieval literature and other forms of country music! It's people the New Brutalism is made out of peeeeooooopppplllle!
I think bay area poets will agree that the reading series at 21 Grand is a terrific thing, and Michael Cross's energy, organization & promotional skills in beginning this series have left, I hope, a long-term mark on the east bay. It's been a luxury to drive or walk down the street a few short blocks in my own neighborhood to a poetry reading, as opposed to the usual navigation of BART or heavy traffic at the toll plaza and then getting lost on my way to CCAC. I know I'm whining and should cut it out. I live across the water from a major literary center. But still, kudos to the San Francisco audience members (to say nothing of those from Santa Cruz) who have faithfully made the reverse commute to Oakland. (Confidential to Kevin Killian, kari Edwards, Kasey Mohammad, Alli Warren, Carra Stratton & Taylor Brady: you are dolls! You win any commuter of the year award.) The New Brutalism readings have generously tried to pair well-known poets with younger, lesser known writers, a curatorial focus shared by both Michael and Cynthia, bringing together, by default, a hybrid audience of younger and older writers. There's been a kind of party atmosphere, too, a lot of standing around on the sidewalk and chatting, and then hanging out at bars afterwards, something I hadn't experienced much of at other poetry readings (maybe I didn't know the right people?) Along with readings such as those at David Hadbawnik's apartment, the New Brutalists have helped to invigorate social interactions between poets, no small task given the often shy, awkward, belligerent and reclusive nature of poets.
Curiously, the New Brutalism coincided with Friendster's rise to prominence. Friendster is an online social networking database where each user links to their friends or people they already know from a local scene. They're then automatically linked to a personal network through those friends, and friends of those friends, and so on. For instance, I'm linked to 18 friends but have a personal network of 223,506 people. My 18 friends are mostly poets. Of passing interest are the 'testimonials' at Friendster, essentially a blurb of one's friends. Hip to the smuttiness of literary blurbing, post-avant younger poets (isn't ANY new, cutesy name better than one more label beginning with 'post'?) still love nothing better than to employ these forms socially. Writing a social blurb-testimonial for your friend instead of their book cuts more closely to the nature of the literary blurb to begin with. But Friendster is a networking system that still relies on certain formal gestures of invitation and request. Users can only see or contact people within their own personal network. Linking isn't automatic and must be approved by the person being linked to.
Blogging dispenses with all such waiting around. No permission required when linking to other blogs. You can see as far as you can click, and a quick stroll through any poet's blogroll will demonstrate the overlap between various scenes. Like Friendster, blogging runs in two directions. Both systems highlight the connections within smaller scenes while opening up a much broader network. Ron Silliman pointed to network connections between Massachusetts writers and New Brutalists, but blogging is part of what amplified the local scene in Oakland and engaged poets in Mexico, New York, Texas and Australia. And, thanks in part to blogging, Massachusetts New Brutalist connections now include Jim Behrle, Aaron Tieger & Noah Eli Gordon as well as Peter Gizzi and Elizabeth Willis.
To those more used to the connections available through print and online magazine publishing or the listserv, blogging is a free for all. You need not submit a sample of your work to open a free blog. You won't receive an invitation from a moderator to join, nor are you required to write about poetry to the exclusion of what you had for breakfast this morning, film montage, music reviews, what the 'President' is up to now, U.S. OUT OF IRAQ, readings in philosophy and ethics, or morbid concentration on the physical attributes of other poets. Because anybody can join, because there is nothing to 'join,' bloggers may find themselves participating in a social-poetic network whose members are of a different class, literary school, race, age, nationality, aesthetic preference or gender from their own. They may also find themselves more intimately connected to members of their local scene.
Like the New Brutalism, there are problems with blogging (who has time to read all of this? Who has consistent access to a computer and the internet?) and with offline or institutional attempts at representation. Every generous intention to discuss or preserve the network offline, or even to fix it in time and space online, is limited in practice in ways that the blogosphere itself is not. For example, Gary Sullivan and Nada Gordon edited an issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter devoted to blogs, which helped in bringing the poetic blogosphere to a wider audience. But even the basic structure of a print publication restricts the number of bloggers and amount of material that can be reproduced. Gary and Nada's introduction to the issue explores other difficulties in representing the multiplicity of blogs in print. Similarly, the EPC posting of Nick Piombino's blogroll (link list) has been fraught with anxiety throughout the blogosphere. Nick is one of the warmest and most inclusive poetry bloggers we have, and it's still problematic when one blogger's link list becomes the (official, institutional) blogroll for one of the largest portals to U.S. and international poetry online. And poetry bloggers are just now beginning to discuss how the practice of blogging itself (consisting as much of reading as writing, and more about hyper links than anything else) replicates the hierarchical structures that we experience in all areas of cultural production, from the celebrity Gap ad to the celebrity poetry anthology.
But with the exception of sitting across from someone at their kitchen table, blogging may be the best connection tool we have. Prior to the advent of blogging, poetry readings were already happening at 21 Grand, a "volunteer-run interdisciplinary arts space hell-bent on presenting a macrocosmic panoply of emerging and experimental artists, focusing on genre-bending and innovative works of visual arts and live art." David Harrison Horton's terrific roving series Salon Salon at 21 Grand included poetry, theatre and musical performances by the likes of Brian Strang, Elizabeth Robinson & the Brown Bunny Collective. SONIC COLLABORATION, in 2001, was "a convolution of sound and poetry, with the sounds of heftpistole and the words of local poets Brandon Brown, Jennifer Scappettone, and Brian Glaser. All were events which generated excitement across particular local (real time) communities but which receded from view just as quickly as each performance appeared. Without a nucleus of conversation preceding and following these public appearances of poetry, it was as if they never happened.
And relationships or scenes not loosely organized around institutions are even further disappeared. Ben Friedlander wrote to me with a million and one delicious stories about Oakland in the 80's not included here - yes, I'm teasing you now because I hope to write more about this, because where did Oakland go? It is continuously going away. Current luminaries and fashionistas aside, I was unfamiliar with many of the names and publications he listed. Should I measure the visibility of Oakland's literary map and history by my own dimness? Probably not. But as Ben said, "how little I've thought about Oakland institutionally. It's solely the private residences that defined it for me as a poetry city."
Trying to capture or explain a local scene made up of private residences and / or infant groups such as the New Brutalism is prone to disaster, like baking a soufflé. Trying to do so in Oakland, about Oakland, is like baking a soufflé in Denver. Yet that's been one area where blogs excel. The form allows for daily, weekly, various, divergent attentiveness to local literary scenes and initiates new members into geographically invisible or closed communities. Even virtual distances (San Francisco v. Oakland) begin to narrow. Blogs also begin to create a public record of that which may gone by next year or next week. In this sense, blogs and the New Brutalism may be ideally suited to one another.
Bill Marsh again on assembly poetics:
"The logical endgame of assembly poetics is that (and this is the best part) it constantly disassembles and reassembles itself and thus rarely resembles a poetics. Those who have missed or mourned the absence of a discernable poetics among the tribe's most recent emissaries may do well to consider the "shape-shifting" character of today's assembly workers and their associated assemblies. If you happen to be at the right place at the right time, you may catch a glimpse of what you're looking for, but don't expect too much. The vision will be fleeting, an illusion of sorts, and what's more the people around you may have an entirely different sense of what they just saw, and there will be much excitement but little agreement."
Certainly there's been little agreement about what the New Brutalism is, and plenty of excitement. If it employs DIY methods, if a whole new crop of younger writers are publishing one other, paying tribute to their influences, providing reading spaces, realizing they can do for their peers what they've been waiting around for an authority to confer upon them, well, this is nothing new. It's the kind of DIY that gave birth to Small Press Traffic & New Langton Arts in the 70's, Jimmy & Lucy's House of K in the 80's, the a + bend chapbooks and reading series in the late 90's, subsequent Stork Club Sunday readings, Leroy Chapbooks, Shampoo Magazine Poetry Espresso Chapbooks, you get my etc. The fact that I'm using the term DIY for a literary group that doesn't fall into a punk context with a prescribed set of ethics is part of what's made debate around the group so generative.
When we consider the blog or the New Brutalist as alternate forms of assemblage, coherency matters less, as does the size or institutional heft of the information portal which leads a reader or writer towards either assemblage. Indeed, one link to one blog from the EPC would do the trick, especially if we as readers continue to click beyond the names we recognize. Of equally little importance is my own anxiety about Oakland's future as a locus of excitement and activity. The potential of the current moment in Oakland this last summer fluttered at the shifting intersection of poetry blogs and the unsubstantiated banter of New Brutalism. Some shift in the clouds was itself blindingly illuminated and a raggedy group with well made fliers stood there winking, trying to look cool. At such moments, a thin cotton tee shirt may be the best piece of clothing to have on.