Showing posts with label Flarf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flarf. Show all posts

Monday, January 07, 2019

Ben Friedlander jokingly introduced me at the 2017 National Poetry Foundation conference on the poetries of the 1990s by saying that that decade had been “the period between language poetry and Silliman’s Blog.” Later, in one of those hallway conversations that proves so fruitful at events like this, Ben and I talked more seriously about how one would periodize language writing, if one wished to do so. It’s a little like asking if Beat poetry still exists today, given that Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are still active. I said at the time that I had been serious in my characterization of it in the introduction to In the American Tree as more of a moment than a movement.

But I had betrayed that assertion in how I had edited that collection, including only those who had appeared enough times in works by publishers and magazines so thoroughly associated with langpo to thoroughly bear its stamp. And, as I’ve stated a few times since then, I did so thoroughly enough that there were just three poets who fit my criteria whom I failed to include: Curtis Faville, David Gitin and Abigail Child. The first two had withdrawn from publishing by 1981-2, the period when I put that book together, and I had misread Child as a committed filmmaker who wrote much as she also danced and did performance art, a misreading on my part that I have regretted ever since. If I had really edited that volume to articulate the moment, I should have included first-rate writers who were quite critical of language writing, such as Beverly Dahlen and Leslie Scalapino, or who were off doing their own thing without much if any reference to what was taking place at the Grand Piano, the Tassajara Bakery or the fledgling Ear Inn readings. This would have included people openly hostile to some of langpo’s investigations into language itself, such as Darrell Gray or Andrei Codrescu, but it also would have included the likes of Norman Fischer, CD Wright, Joan Retallack, Doug Lang, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joseph Ceravolo, Judy Grahn, Michael Lally, Lorenzo Thomas, Jim Brody, Simon Ortiz, and Nathaniel Mackey. Edited by a white guy on the West Coast, In the American Tree is very much a(n imperfect) record of a movement and not a moment at all.

Plus a nearly five-year gap occurred between editing and publication, the result of the original publisher, Ross Erickson Books, struggling financially. Had the collection actually been edited close to its publication date, younger writers who had subsequently emerged, including Charles Alexander, Laura Moriarty, Ted Pearson and Harryette Mullen, surely would have been added to what was already an unwieldy number. In 1986, when the National Poetry Foundation finally got the 1982 manuscript into print, Tree already some of the same time-bound features I had noticed earlier in Donald M Allen’s The New American Poetry, which presents the early Jack Spicer and not the later writer whom we think of today, the Edward Dorn who is clearly a lyric student from Black Mountain, not the pop-art philosopher-poet with the problematic politics. Indeed, Amiri Baraka was not yet Amiri Baraka when he appeared in the Allen anthology. One could argue the same for Denise Levertov as well.

Standing in the hallway in Orono, I told Ben that if I had to do so, I would agree that language poetry was not a literature of the 1990s, and that the poetics of the New Coast Conference, held in March of 1990 and later gathered into a double anthology by the journal Oblēk, had in fact accomplished what it set out to do, which was to announce a generational shift to a younger cohort of poets, a group notably more diverse in race and gender than that figured just four years before by Tree. The Oblēk anthologies never got the distribution they deserved, and, perhaps because of the hostility by many of the participants of the poetry publication to assertions given prominence in the theoretical one[i], the collections have never been republished or brought out in book form.  

I also had already given langpo a starting date, the appearance of Robert Grenier’s essay “On Speech” in the inaugural issue of This in 1971. Even 48 years later, that still feels right to me. There certainly were earlier manifestations of what would come to be known as language writing in journals such as joglars edited by Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer (dating back as far as 1963, when Charles Bernstein would have been just 12 years old, Erica Hunt only eight), 0 to 9, edited by Bernadette Mayer with Vito Acconci, and even my own Tottel’s, which beat This into print by a matter of weeks. But Grenier’s epic overstatement, “l HATE SPEECH,” had the concentrated effect of an announcement every bit as much as Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl in the Six Gallery, October 7, 1955, had announced the New American Poetry, no matter that it came five years after Olson’s essay on Projective Verse and even after Black Mountain College itself had closed down.

Real life is messy like that. A significant amount of the hostility to language poetry in the 1970s and ‘80s came from poets like Codrescu and Tom Clark, who had been too young for The New American Poetry and yet felt excluded by a younger map of the territory that no longer followed the familiar terrain set forth by the Allen anthology.[ii]  The Oblēk anthologies suggested that the debate was already irrelevant. I think it’s open to question whether I’ll Drown This Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, edited by Caroline Bergvalle, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody & Vanessa Place, or Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, edited by Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad & Gary Sullivan – the current pretenders to the short-lived Iron Throne of contemporary poetics – represents an extension of the New Coast poetics put forward by Oblēk, which is how I read them, or something altogether new. The documentary conceptualism put forward by Chain was clearly a part of the New Coast phenomenon and, nearing 20, flarf likewise is long in the tooth, and if the cover of that anthology is any evidence, also in need of a haircut.

What’s next? as President Bartlett used to say back when the nation was governed by the sane. The question of articulating any movement of poetry in a world in which there exist some 50,000 publishing ones is one hell of a lot harder than it was when the number was 2,000 or so just 30-plus years ago. Even the neo-Edwardian strain still exists, although if Terrance Hayes and AE Stallings are any evidence, they’ve had a serious rebirth of wonder since the days of Lowell and Wilbur.[iii]

My concern is that without some shape, younger poets have nothing to push against, no old guard conveniently tottering and about to be tipped into the dustbin of history. The turn to politics on the part of recent poets may be occasioned by how much more visible the depredations of capital have become, but the difference between langpo and the poets of Chain was never a question of political/non-political, but closer to which political and how. You can’t say that Terrance Hayes isn’t writing politically, even if his sense of caesura can be breathtaking. I was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America on the day when the New American Movement first merged with the Democratic Socialists’ Organizing Committee to form that organization and my membership is still current, thank you. As I’ve tried to make clear here and on Facebook and Twitter, I think we’re all in this together.

But poetry is governed by seasons – what gave birth to the New American Poetry was a hiatus occasioned by World War 2 when the number of books being published in the US was curtailed by the cost of paper and ink, and the absence of males from the continent. As it was, the number of books of poetry published in the US shrank from around 100 per year to just half that until well after the war. The old world had been an argument between the neo-Edwardians led by the Benet brothers and Robert Frost[iv] and the moderns led by Pound, Williams and the Objectivists. The publishing world was aligned with the neo-Edwardians and thus, as a result of the war’s impact on publishing, many Objectivists stayed out of print until the 1960s after the arrival of Ginsberg et al. Since the New Americans, we really have had just two other generations of poetry, albeit with much haziness at the margins.

It seems that we are now ripe for a third. From my perspective (in the dustbin of history where we are making room for the conceptualists and flarfists), I’m searching out for new shoots, wondering just where they might take us all. I for one am ready for the ride.

[i] Basically that a lack of spirituality was a defining feature of language poetry and that a return to religion would thus be a hallmark of poetry going forward, two decidedly inaccurate claims.

[ii] Which was a notoriously untrustworthy map. The absence of the Spicer circle was no doubt Duncan’s influence – Robert claimed that he had told Allen whom to include – just as the fiction of a San Francisco renaissance was his mechanism for getting older poets like James Broughton and Brother Antoninus into the book. Allen’s pointed comment in the introduction about Zukofsky’s exclusion suggests that a line was being drawn – Robert was allowed to dictate the San Francisco scene, but not the whole shebang. The 1967 A Controversy of Poets anthology, where Robert Kelly selected the New Americans and Paris Leary chose the neo-Edwardians, includes Zukofsky.

[iii] The brief interregnum of the Gnu Formalism can best be understood as an admission that the poetry wars, if not set off by the Allen anthology at least marked by it, was thoroughly won by the New Americans. The argument against this would basically be that the social upheavals of the 1960s disrupted everyone, and that the rejection of the New American paradigm by the likes of Dorn, Baraka and Levertov were no greater than the turn away from rhyming pentameter by  the likes of Bly, Merwin, Plath, Wright, Hall et al. The curious thing, reading anthologies of the New Formalists, is the near total absence of poets born in the 1930s. Hayes was born in 1971, Stallings in 1968.

[iv] Between them, Frost and the Benet brothers had 7 Pulitzer prizes by the time Stephen died of an early heart attack in 1944, including those for that year and the two preceding ones. Stephen also controlled the Yale Younger Poets award, the only other prize in US poetry to get significant critical and news coverage.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nada Gordon
Flarf to Myanmar

Nada Gordon
will read
@ Kelly Writers House
38th & Locust Walk
Tuesday, March 26, 6:00 P M

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wise Guys Meet in La Jolla
Clockwise from RS at rear of table:
Rae Armantrout, John Granger, Ted Pearson, Dustin Leavitt
(photo by TC Marshall)

Because I was in California for half of April, I missed the Poetry Communities & Individual Talent conference that took place at Kelly Writers House while I was gone. But the relationship of poetry & community was constantly on my mind, reading at UC (which still fails to treat me to the usual glut of alma mater literature, a mistake that SF State never makes, tho in fact I never actually received a degree from either), going past the house I grew up, the house eight blocks away that I owned prior to the move to Pennsylvania, visiting dear friends, including David Melnick in San Francisco & Cecelia Bromige in Sebastopol. I’m co-editing collected poems for both Melnick & David Bromige and had things I needed & wanted to discuss with each. Plus the primal pleasure of visiting dear friends. I was amazed, at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, to see that Steve Fama has a pretty good collection of my writings on prisons from my days with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), which is to say 1977 & before. Later in the week, Kathleen Frumkin & I sorted through the NY Times to find the crossword puzzle that listed “Pulitzer Prize Poet Armantrout & others” on April 13 (Rae’s birthday – did they know that?), plus the solution the following day, which was “Raes.” It was one of those deeply satisfying psychic journeys in which I traveled more than just geographical distance.

My first event on the West Coast was at the Center for Psychoanalysis in San Francisco, an interesting blend of resonances in my life given just how many psychoanalysts I know, how many therapists & the number of decades I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another. One of the first questions in that informal give & take setting was did I still think of myself as a Language Poet and had my sense of Language Poetry changed since the 1970s. My response was to begin with something I’d written in the foreword to in In The American Tree, that I understood Language Writing as a moment more than a movement, which was true in the early 1980s when I first penned that sentence, and is even truer today, when that moment seems to me clearly past.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Flarf goes to Belarus

“Reading” Pushkin’s
A Magic Moment

one phrase at a time
through Google

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mel Nichols, Elisabeth Workman & Nada Gordon
conducted by Drew Gardner

last weekend at the Zinc Bar, NYC
(best viewed full screen)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Photo by

Is poetry written to be read? That seemingly no-brainer of a question was roiling my half-sleep in that shadowland the other morning between the first sounding of my alarm clock & the moment, 30 minutes later, when I actually dragged my poor self out of bed. The answer appears obvious & yet it’s not, at least not once you start to tease out the assumptions implicit in such a question. Perhaps even stranger, the answer may be changing even as I write.

Homer, to pick an author, even if it is one that we agree represents a construct at least as much as it does an individual, never “wrote” with the presumption of a book. The meaning of the word text in an oral culture is one of those problematic horizons that French theory loves to gaze upon without end. The much more recent poet of Beowulf was no different in this regard. Chaucer, not quite 700 years ago, seemed to envision the Tales as texts, something that might be read & passed on even after he is gone, but his conception of the book does not include moveable type, let alone mass production. Shakespeare’s utter disregard to the preservation of his plays makes clear just how marginal the concept of a book was to his own textual practice, tho it is arguable that this is less true in the case of The Sonnets.

I would suggest that the first English poets to really write with the book – and all the implications for distribution & consumption that the book entails – always already as part of the package, indeed the primary location for the life of the poem, are the likes of Wordsworth & Coleridge.¹ The distance between Lyrical Ballads and Walt Whitman’s self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass, complete with photo of the author, is less than 60 years. In another 60, you will find Ezra Pound contemplating The Cantos as a keystone to his imagined five-foot bookshelf containing the Great Works. For Pound, the first English-language poet to make use of the typewriter not just as a site for writing, but as a compositional element in the spatial construction of his works, the book is thoroughly a given. It’s unquestionable.

But what is the book with regards to poetry? Anyone who spends any time in used book shops will know that it’s hardly a static thing. The classic hardback form of the 1950s consisted of one longer poem or sequence surrounded by shorter lyrics of a page or two, a format codified in that decade by the Wesleyan series & mimiced by all the trade & university houses. It was the apotheosis of the School of Quietude’s presentation of verse & seldom exceeded 120 pages.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first “paperback original” to have a defining impact on the writing of its time. As revolutionary as that book was, Howl really didn’t stray all that far from the big poem-as-regent ringed by a court-of-lyrics mode. Robert Creeley’s For Love, which pointedly omitted The Big Text in a notably fatter collection, was in this sense a more radical production. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first true revolutionary impulse was to start a bookstore predicated on the primacy of the paperback. His second was to start a series of paperbacks that could be carried around in one’s back pocket. By the 1970s, the paperback was the principle mode for poetry, with the notable exception of that reactionary sliver of poetry presented by the New York trade publishers. For awhile, the SoQ was able to characterize its social dominance over an increasingly diverse writing scene by pretending that it was the poetry important enough to come out in hardback.

Today it is the hardback that is the afterthought, a calculation as to how many copies might be destined for libraries, and when a press like Wesleyan, perhaps the only press of the 1950s stalwarts to have evolved with the times, moves back to hardback originals, its authors groan over the retro & backward-looking implications of that shift. But the one thing that virtually every poet in the last century – with a handful of notable exceptions² – has agreed upon is that poems go in books. Even the concrete poets mid-century made works primarily for the page, a page that could be printed, bound & distributed. One of the more radical projects of the seventies was Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling, a magazine that was produced by inviting contributors to send pages that would be bound, etc. Tom Phillips created one of the more radical projects of the century, A Humament, by transforming a book. Ronald Johnson “wrote” another entirely by redacting lines from a particular edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.³ Louis Zukofsky began his career with “Poem beginning ‘The’,” a parody of T.S. Eliot right down to the footnotes, a textual element that places both LZ & TSE thoroughly within the terrain of the book.

Poets since Wordsworth & Blake have not focused on the role of the book itself simply because, for them, it was a given. The great theoretical move of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, after all, is its declaration for speech. And, indeed, one could track innovation in writing for the next two centuries by its evolving focus on the materiality of the signifier, whether it plays out as a surfeit of run-on mad spoken word, a la Ginsberg’s Howl – let alone “Wichita Vortex Sutra” actually composed via audiotape (a device learned from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody) – or the notational palimpsests of Olson’s Maximus. Language poetry could be read as a logical next step in that chess strategy, but notice already that James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, has gone everybody one better – he already imagines (and manifests) the book as unreadable.

One might think that the arrival of the printed book should have moved texts away from the idea of speech – and in some sense it did so, as spelling & grammar became standardized in the 1760s with nary a comment from anyone. Yet the declaration for speech in Lyrical Ballads also is a recognition that the printed book has become a democratic thing, and that books are no longer the shut-ins of a few institutional libraries controlled by popes & kings. Again, Whitman takes this idea quite a bit further. One can imagine him celebrating what poets in the 1960s used to call “the mimeograph revolution.”

But what now unites both conceptual writing & flarf – not to mention tendencies within the videopoem movement, aspects of vispo such as the use of Java flash & GIF technologies, & even the retro-to-the-metro spoken word dynamics of slam – is that each, to one degree or another, seems predicated on some glimpse of poetry after the book. After, that is, the age of mechanical reproduction.

Until recently it has been easy enough for the School of Q to simply act as if those alternative poetries just did not exist. Sound poetry was neo-dada Euro-nostalgic & otherwise Other & slam poets for the most part were notoriously ill-read, unschooled (or, worse, wrong schooled) & didn’t much look like your typical pledges from Greek Week in Cambridge or Amherst.

But as Official Verse Culture – to use Charles Bernstein’s term – has expanded in recent years to include the likes of Charles Bernstein & others like him, some (not all) of its institutions have shifted toward recognizing greater diversity than previously had been acknowledged. The journal Poetry pointedly has had features on vispo & on the conceptual-flarf alliance in the past year. Can a CD of slam champions or portfolios of haiku &/or cowboy poetries be that far behind? And if not, why not?

Each of these poetries has a different relation to the book. If it has been the traditional distillation & repository for the poetries of both the School of Quietude & the historical avant / post-avant traditions, this is not necessarily the case for any of these others. And one could take the hubris of Kenny Goldsmith & the Flarf Collective as indicators suggesting that the post-avant tradition may be opting out forthwith as well.

But even within an aesthetic we see some significant differences. Kenny Goldsmith’s books are icons of conceptuality, but are they written to be read? Not in any sense one might traditionally have associated with literature, although it is conceivable that somebody with an abiding interest in weather or in baseball might find the volumes devoted to those topics of interest, much in the way that a memoir by Jim Brosnan or Jose Canseco might be. In this sense, Goldsmith’s wry polemics on conceptualism give him something he’s not really had before as a poet: readers. As distinct from audience, or buyers.

But with Christian Bök, we find a very different sense of conceptualism. Anyone who has ever heard Bök read aloud cannot fail to recognize that his works are most fully captured & presented in performance. It’s no accident that Eunoia is also available in CD format, an unusual option for a small press, even one as well-appointed as Coach House Books. As the website for the CD states,

Now you can invite that jazzman into the comfort of your own home! Reading Eunoia to yourself was fun, sure, but now you can hear it as it was meant to be read - by the author himself! Listen as he wraps his mouth around page after page of the most convoluted tongue twister you've ever heard! You can even follow along in your copy of Eunoia as he trips the vowels fantastic!

Recorded in the studio by Torpor Vigilante and Coach House author Steve Venright, this CD features Bök reading Eunoia in its entirety - in his uniquely energetic, well enunciated dadaist style.

Bök’s books, however, are themselves fully realized projects & eminently readable & pleasurable in text format. It’s almost the perfect hybrid (to use that slightly toxic term) of a performative project in book form. Which is why it became the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history.

To date, most conceptual writing – at least if I judge it from the brief bibliography of “book-length examples” at the back of Fitterman & Place’s Notes on Conceptualism - tend to bunch around Bök’s end of the spectrum.

Flarf approaches the problem from the opposite end of the telescope, by fundamentally questioning – if not outright attacking – received concepts of The Literary. Here the spectrum seems to run between those works that make use of the Standard Flarf Toolkit (Web-based appropriation, Google-sculpting, the use of traditional [albeit often post-avant] exoskeletal structures as tho they were the purely plastic moulds proposed by New Formalism) to render a work that reads as if it were entirely literary – Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson would be a case in point – and works that seem predicated on the idea of disrupting the reading so as to push the reader away from the text – K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation might be an example. Some of Kasey Mohammad’s texts strike me as nearly as unreadable as the work of Kenny Goldsmith, albeit for different reasons.

Thus conceptualism, at least near its outer limits, seems to call into question the social functions of the book as fetish – something about which flarf has thus far been mute – while flarf brings into question what goes on within the page as such.

Like the sound poetries of the seventies, animated vispo & videopoetry operate outside of the book by focusing on features – sound & motion – that are excluded by the book & printed page. The implicit problem that these tendencies have thus far failed to solve in any consistent manner has been the formal definition of their own territory, as such, as distinct from the various other art forms that often influence & inform them. Much the same is true with the mounted (or sometimes projected) minimalist scrawls of Robert Grenier, which approach the status of mounted language that has become familiar through the works of Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer & Ed Ruscha. To fully challenge the literary swamp from which Grenier’s scrawls have emerged, they have to steer clear of being captured by the gravitational pull of The Art Scene, even if there are real financial reasons to wish this were not so.

So the role of the book, and of The Literary, are definitely up for grabs going forward, and not every kind of poetry has anything like the same kind of commitment to these institutions as we have inherited them. Not everyone is bemoaning the death of the bookstore, for example, or of the daily newspaper and traditional journalism. And I sometimes think that the emotional energy I see in various critiques of newer types of poetry has as much to do with despair over the potential historical fate of just such institutions as these, and with the implicit fate of the work of anyone committed to these older forms. Maybe that’s as it should be – one way to register the success of flarf or of conceptual poetics, just as was the case with langpo 30 years ago, is by the volume & pitch of the howls of outrage that accompany any expression of their success or their entry into the polite society of the SoQ page.

But those howls really are irrelevant. To the degree that we get bogged down in such backward-looking battles, we fail to look hard & long & dispassionately at what makes the new new, and what differentiates its various tendencies going forward. Those are the questions that, once we begin to see & understand them, will begin to tell us where poetry is today, as well as just where it’s heading.


¹ Both of whom likewise wrote theoretically, something I suspect is directly related. Blake likewise is quite conscious of the book, but, first, it’s not the sole locus for the poem or at least his poem, & Blake’s conception of book form differs materially from that of his peers.

² Such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, some European dadaists (plus the dada nostalgics of Fluxus), & the mostly Canadian sound poets of the seventies.

³ Milton’s own relation to the idea of the book is more complicated than I could attempt to sort through here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

This is only going to get me into trouble, but…

I was thinking about the debate, to call it that, between flarf & conceptual writing, and specifically thinking that such a debate was in many respects the healthiest single phenomenon I’ve seen regarding poetry in several decades, because it meant that there were two contending (contesting) approaches to the new, and that you can actually feel the discourse getting off the dime finally of what to do after langpo and just doing it. And that feels so long overdue, frankly.¹

Then I had the thought, what if this were the 1950s? There are some interesting parallels. Flarf & conceptual writing appear literally decades after the last collective literary tendency, not unlike how the New Americans showed up 20 years after the rise of Objectivism. And there are already different voices & formations, again as in the 1950s. So the question occurred to me: if these are the new 1950s, just who are flarf & conceptualism. And then suddenly it was as clear as sunlight in spring:

Flarf is Projective Verse
Conceptual Poetry is the
New York School

Flarf, precisely by its interest in “deliberately awful” writing, is amazingly writerly. Its first notable device, Google sculpting, is not unlike way Olson et al reconceived the use of the linebreak & its relationship to speech so as to completely redefine how everyone (not just the Projectivists) would think about poetry. In this scenario, Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson is For Love for its generation. K. Silem Mohammad’s Dear Head Nation is what – the first Maximus? I don’t want to carry this analogy too far – Nada Gordon & Katie Degentesh don’t have to fight over who gets to be Denise Levertov (both are considerably more interesting in the long run, anyway). It would be valuable to note the differences between these formations as well – flarf is far more democratic, small d, for one. One doesn’t see Gary Sullivan pulling a “Reading at Berkeley” number any time soon. And is Rod Smith the Duncan, the Blackburn, the Edward Dorn?

Conceptual Poetry, like the NY School, borrows importantly on concepts from the New York visual arts world. Like Personism, it’s not about individual works of great art. It doesn’t overvalue personal creativity. It opts for fun. And it’s nostalgic for traditional forms – Kenny Goldsmith & Christian Bök, to name two, are deeply retro in terms of the projects they choose. Their relationship to fluxus & dada are as direct as Ashbery’s are to Stevens & Auden. All they’ve done is to switch the nameplates.

So where are the new Beats? Is that what slam or def jam poetics are about? I doubt it, actually, given just how completely the key early Beats were into form & literary history, but the whole valorization of the street poet, especially by the numbskulls who confuse Bukowski for a beat, has a deeply anti-intellectual strain one finds at a lot of slams.

And what would be the new SF Renaissance? One senses that the New Brutalist phenomenon really has not borne a distinct literary sensibility (one doesn’t hear anyone speaking of the New Yipes series as the foundation for a new poetics, for example, tho maybe I’m just hard of hearing). Is there a distinct aesthetic perceptible in Bay Poetics? Or are Bay Poetics as much of a fiction as was the first SF Renaissance? Maybe what that scene needs is a Jack Spicer, but is there anyone just plain grumpy enough?

It will, I think, be obvious that such an analogy as this does a lot of violence to all those named, for which I apologize, sort of. Sort of, because I don’t think my gut feel here is wrong. What we are seeing is the resurrection of some very basic tendencies active within poetry for over half a century, seeing them coalescing once again into shapely coalitions we can actually name. From my perspective, old collectivist that I am, this can only be a good thing for moving poetry forward.


¹ From my perspective the great “tragedy” of langpo is that there were no other seriously contesting approaches to poetry. Actualism, which I’ve written about before, dissipated after the death-by-alcoholism of Darrell Gray, and the NY School, gen 3, was never interested in working out its relationship to other poetics, period. Everyone else was pursuing the isolato mode of individualism, still the most popular (and futile) option.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I know that some people are going to cringe to hear this note’s topic sentence, so let’s just be blunt about it. We can come back and address the collateral damage after:

Fifty years from now, when people are writing without irony of “the classics of flarf,” one of the works that will turn up on that relatively short list will be Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson.

The book has just been released by Zasterle Press, so recently in fact that it doesn’t yet show up either on the Zasterle website, nor that of Small Press Distribution, where eventually you will be able to buy it.

The idea that flarf, which Gary Sullivan once characterized as

A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness." A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. "Not okay."

should have “classics” is, by itself, problematic. The whole notion of a “classic” “awfulness” ought to be oxymoronic even if one were to associate it with the somewhat older notions of kitsch or camp. But when I think of kitsch, say, I think of some social institution on the order of the Lawrence Welk Show, the 1950s TV bandleader whose sense of the polka drained the music of its ethnic heritage, substituting a treacly version of super-Americanism. Flarf, by its character, goes against that grain, raising its forms to the level of conscious while, in most cases, both loving & attacking them at the same time.

Magee’s choice of Emily Dickinson is a case in point. Magee notes in his forward that he seeks to

disrupt some of the pieties around Emily Dickinson’s work that I don’t believe have served her poems very well. (As an example, I would note the rarely mentioned fact that Emily Dickinson is one of the funniest poets ever.)

Whitman & Dickinson share an outsider’s perspective on what was already a submissive & imitative Anglophiliac literary establishment by the end of the Civil War, but where, when the descendants of that establishment claim Whitman for their own today, they simply look like fools, Dickinson’s own social isolation permitted her work to be mediated by that same establishment. That she is, grammatically at least, the most disruptive & fragmentary poet of the 19th century – Blake, Lautréamont & Rimbaud have nothing on her – has often been smoothed over by School of Quietude “heirs,”¹ at least until Susan Howe reclaimed the poet in all her rawness. It’s not an accident that Magee’s title points directly at Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, nor that he acknowledges her by name in his foreword.

Magee’s description of his methodology deserves to be noted:

The poems in this book were written during an intensive period of reading and writing in 2003 and 2004. I was curious as to whether I could, using some of Emily Dickinson’s forms, evoke in my own readership that combination of shock, bewilderment, excitement, pleasure (a process of dis-orientation and re-orientation) that I imagined Dickinson’s earliest readers must have felt when reading her work. I was cognizant of the fact that Dickinson’s poems, in both form and content, remain surprisingly volatile despite the various historical attempts to render them more placid. This is especially true of those invisible poems that continually escape anthologization and discussion, many of which stray far from English hymnology. So, I reread Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems and, as I did, performed Google searches using the phrase “Angie Dickinson” combined with bits of syntax from Emily Dickinson’s poems: “Angie Dickinson” + “Hope is”. Likewise I would sometimes integrate rhyming words into the search: “Angie Dickinson” + “with a” + “chimp” + “limp”. Each poem involved a series of such intuitive searches followed by fine stitching together, the mouse replacing the needlepoint.

In picking Angie rather than, say, Emily Dickinson, “a sort of Zelig figure in American popular culture,” Magee is picking not only the former lover of Frank Sinatra & actress in over 130 films & TV shows, but also a creature as self-made in her own way as was the poet. Angeline Brown – Dickinson was the surname of her first husband – was, like Lawrence Welk, born in North Dakota but transformed in L.A. The first major American female actress to routinely accept roles that required nudity & later the longtime star of Police Woman, Dickinson offered a persona that was tough, just a little brassy, but also always intelligent. She was a natural progression in a chain of actresses that included Dietrich & Bacall.

I had a hunch that searching her name would throw up an unending stream of interesting Googled material. Whatever voices emerged from this procedure were, to my mind, pure “flarf”….

Here, just to test this, is “087”:

To Die For — an idea — is Rather
Vegas to Flea
Let’s not — Devolve into Conjecture —
Sea-change on me.

The president hasn’t “Entered the Image” —
Achilles assumed when hid,
Himself among Women Puzzling questions
An old Yearning with His dad —

Jon Bon Jovi is
Classic deadbeat showing
Up — occasionally —
In Order — to beat — up His mother
Version — “to fully” —

This is where it gets interesting. Magee’s poems replicate the start-stop stutter step movement central to Dickinson’s prosody, but through this sonic veil we get glimpses of a world that is sharply etched, celebrity-ridden, but also more than a little dangerous. What Magee’s searches found literally appears to have been a series of websites that included Dickinson among other targets of celeb gossip (hence Bon Jovi) as well as others that recap the narratives of various films & TV episodes. The overall effect is a little like viewing the world through a TV that gets only two channels: E! & Turner Classic Movies.

As a project, My Angie Dickinson also rubs up against the notorious vessel model of communications, the linguistic equivalent of intelligent design. In this telling, poems functionally are molds into which content is then poured. But as with the poem above, what results constantly refutes the theory itself. The materiality of these snatches – “’too fully’” indeed – push back with as much resistance as Vegas or Flea.Throughout, one catches Magee’s own deft hand & sense of wit, as with “082”:

An “added” — Pleasure —
Tinsel Girl remembered —
His “menacing peril” —

The overall result is not that far away from something like Charles Bernstein’s Nude Formalism: brilliant, hilarious, deeply conceived, completely serious, with more twists than a pretzel factory, well written, but still thoroughly flarf. Just for good measure, My Angie Dickinson is also the most ambitious production, design wise, Zasterle has yet attempted. This book is a joy.


¹ To the degree that one poet I know used to claim you could read all of her poems aloud to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. If you suppress all the dashes (or presume them to be silent or “not really there”), this just might be plausible.