Showing posts with label Juliana Spahr. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Juliana Spahr. Show all posts

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

Juliana Spahr
@ Mills College

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Of all of writing’s illusive qualities, none invokes more magic – at least in the sense of requiring a leap of imagination that transcends all immediate physical evidence – than does depiction. It was a dark and stormy night. You looked into my eyes. Inside his vest, the bomb exploded, shrapnel, blood, bone and flesh spewing about the plaza. The apple rested on the table, next to the wooden mallard. All of the homilies put forth by various library and publishing trade groups as to the ability of literature to “transport the reader” to new & unimagined places are predicated upon this capacity of language not merely to refer to a world of objects, but to do so in a manner that is socially internalized (learned behavior) as an equivalent for the process & experience of sight.

If sight would be language’s privileged sense, it has also been a dimension hotly disputed. It was Zukofsky’s thesis in Bottom: On Shakespeare that the Bard of Avon was responsible for the deep cultural linkage between the two:
Writing after Shakespeare few remembered: eyes involve a void; eyes also avoid the abstruse beyond their focus. Today the literary theologian reads Shakespeare and oversees his own spruce theology. There is also the latest derivative verbalism after Shakespeare’s savage characters – forgetting while it curses others’ intellect, in behalf of eyes, that the curse has become the feigning eye of the black dog intellect. Clotens and Calibans, Shakespeare’s tragic theme that love should see flows around their words and shows them all the more their sightless tune which does not find its rests so as to draw breath or sequence.
Note that “rests” is plural.

Today, there exists one literature on the gaze, that penetrating look that entangles desire with power, another on the spectacle, on all the roles of reification. & from Stein onward, a new literature of opacity, of the immanence of the signifier, has offered an alternative vision.*

“Starred Together” is a three paragraph prose poem by Jena Osman that looks intently at the process of looking & the concomitant phenomena of perspective & point of view. The position it stakes out is unique & worth examining. That it stakes out a position is itself noteworthy. Osman, as with her Chain co-founder Juliana Spahr, is a writer intensely concerned with a poetry that has a critical function & edge, the sort of text most likely to bring out snarling from “black dog intellect” intent on saving poetry for the feigned purity of uncritical emotion.

But it is the role of the person that is in fact at stake. The poem telegraphs the core of its concerns in a terrifically condensed first sentence: “A glance hits an object or person and pins it down like a star.” This sentence itself could be taken as a model for the poem, as so many of the larger text’s devices and strategies are employed simultaneously here. The most obvious is a Brechtian device that I want to be especially careful in discussing, as it’s just the sort of thing that a “dog intellect” would be most apt to misconstrue, perhaps even willfully. Let’s call this device depersonification. The agent or noun phrase that is the literal subject of this sentence, “A glance,” has been removed from any human (or otherwise sentient) context, abstracted precisely so that it can be examined as a process without our being distracted in the most literal sense by some charming (or not) foible-ridden setting, the person. The implicit question – who glances? – is not answered because it is exactly not the point. The verb, or rather the first verb, is notable for its implicit violence – “hits.” Now one finds the person tucked into the conjunction that is the object of the sentence: “an object or person.” It is no accident which item comes first in that pairing. After the conjunction comes the send verb phrase, “pins it down,” one that will invoke butterfly collecting for some readers, wrestling for some and target practice for others. The final analogy, however, is completely unpredictable given what has come before: “like a star.”

Like a star. Incongruous as the phrase is in the context of the first sentence, it returns us to both the title and to the Cecilia Vicuña epigraph:

A constellation of darkness
another of light

A gesture to be completed
by light

Light is what enables sight to be embodied. In this poem, Osman will use the stars as light, as constellations, as mapping tool and as repository of human narrative. She will write, near the very end of “Starred Together,” “When you look at a constellation, you draw the points together with your own lines.” But the problem of the poem is that, as the second sentence states, “The actual moves.” Between these two poles, Osman brings in other tropes: cinema, homelessness. The poem constantly constructs the possibility of seeing only to undercut via another perspective already inherent in what has been laid out.

The result is a remarkable text, remarkable in part for its sheer density – Osman can get more complexity into two pages than most poets get into 20. Reading it, I find two aspects that push my own thinking further than it has previously gone. First is a concept for which Osman makes claims:

The narrative drive is what clings to the actual moves; the narrative drive persists through the fragmentation in which seeing occurs.
The narrative drive is a concept that invokes psychology, but not one that I personally recognize from that field. If accorded the status of a drive, narrative in this sense of joining elements together to create coherence is much more  (or perhaps much deeper) than the parsimony principle of cognitive linguistics. Is it eros, the death wish, some combination? I’m not certain, but the way Osman puts the concept out there in this poem makes me want to mull it over in more depth than I have done before.

The second aspect is Osman’s strategy, implicit but clear enough even in the first sentence of the work, of deliberately avoiding any personification of the text. The word “I” never occurs, replaced most often by “you” and occasionally “we.” In fact, the only instance in the text in which we do “hear” the narrator function self-reflexively, it’s in both quotation marks and French: “’Voyeur? C’est Moi!’”

Here Osman is working through the problem of sight, the gaze and that mutual penetration that is recognition, but recognition in the Althusserian sense of ideology**. That last sentence I quoted about “drawing the points with your own lines,”***  leads directly to the end of the poem:

But when someone catches your eye in a direct grip, there are no more stars. You might shake your hands at the sky as the light crashes in, we’re pinning you down. You might shake your head to clear it, then step inside.   
“Starred Together” refuses to escape the problem of Others. It’s a testament to Osman’s integrity, that the poem doesn’t evade the problem. Nor does it offer us a way out, easy or otherwise. “Inside” is exactly not a solution. The word “Together” in the title is not there by accident.

I suspect that Osman’s intellectual integrity on this question of the person is part of what creeps out Seattle Times reviewer Richard Wakefield. Characterizing “Starred Together” as “a belabored amalgam of clichéd ideas and limp prose,” Wakefield quotes the first four sentences of the poem, including “While sitting in the box, images from a window are stolen from the street.” He comments:

She doesn't, apparently, have the taste to delete an excruciating line like that last one: What is "sitting in the box"? Her grammar seems to say it is "images," but how can they be "stolen from the street" WHILE "sitting in the box"?
Osman’s poem is hardly “limp prose,” though Wakefield’s phallic trope is worth noting. Working through the problems of representation within ontology could only be seen as “clichéd ideas” to someone for whom the idea itself is off limits. In addition, the objectification of interiority (housing, rooms, theaters, “the box” – Osman seems to omit only Plato’s cave) is hardly the readerly conundrum that Wakefield pretends it to be. The idea that Wakefield cannot understand how images can be “stolen from the street” – let alone recognize how delightful its play on scale is – suggests that he will find “The perversion of your own observation,” the reference to voyeurism, & “the corruption of your own detached look” later in the poem equally opaque.

It is true that “Starred Together” may confound the willfully illiterate reader, so there is a perverse poetic justice in Wakefield selecting it to demonstrate “why there are so few poems here … (in The Best American Poetry, 2002) that are even readable.” The poem is focused right on the problems of taking responsibility for the pragmatics of reference. Blaming the poems displays Wakefield’s position well enough.

Part of me wants to take Wakefield to task for such critical malpractice. But another part would love to understand what it must mean to live inside a worldview that could come to these conclusions, finding complexity more or less the way the Amish do electricity, as though it were something unintelligible & threatening.  To claim that such work is unreadable is to concede that you cannot read it. Some of the contributors of the writers in this “unreadable” collection include Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Charles Bernstein, Anselm Berrigan, Tom Clark, Clark Coolidge, Diane Di Prima, Ted Enslin, Elaine Equi, Clayton Eshleman, Ben Friedlander, Gene Frumkin, Forrest Gander & Peter Gizzi, just to pick from the top of its alphabet.+ So what is Wakefield saying? If you take him at his word, here is a professor of literature who also is the poetry reviewer for a major American daily newspaper who proclaims in print his own inability to read. His sad situation invokes the very issues that Osman’s poem addresses.

* My own essay, “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” in The New Sentence can be read as a contribution to the history of this debate.

** Tho Shakespeare might call it love.

*** I can imagine another reading of this work in which I would push much harder on the idea of one’s “own lines,” given my own sense of how helpless most of us prove to be in the context of our socio-historical positioning.

+ Truth in advertising: I’m also a contributor.

Monday, October 21, 2002

I have mentioned Chain on several occasions on this blog, for good reason – it is the premier hard copy poetry journal of the day. My first piece on September 11 touched a nerve in a way that hopefully has been productive. Co-founder Juliana Spahr responded to it on the 14th of September. Jena Osman, the other co-founder, used the occasion of the First Festival of Literary Magazines in New York to respond to these issues. Here is her talk:

As a poet I have long been interested in chance occurrences, in unpredictable sense created by different languages meeting inside of a page-bound framework.  My work has been informed by theater, in the way that language performs in various contexts, in the relation of spectator to stage and reader to page. I experiment with the collision of narrative and anti-narrative strategies and take notice of the various registers of attention that we bring to what’s before us.

I met Juliana while I was a grad student at SUNY Buffalo. Some other younger poets in town when I arrived included Peter Gizzi, Lew Daly, Pam Rehm and Liz Willis. We all had quite various concerns, and I was interested in finding a way to create a conversation through our work. At the end of my first year, I organized an experiment called The Lab Book where eight of us wrote poems and then each of us wrote responses to the poems written by the other seven. The book that resulted began with a poem, followed by the seven responses, then another poem, followed by seven responses, etc. I was interested in the idea of writing as reading and reading as writing in perpetual exchange.

Such forms of exchange and investigation are crucial to my process as a writer.

A couple of years later (in 1993), Juliana and I decided to start a magazine. I don’t remember the exact moment when we made this decision, but we knew it was possible, there was a beautifully simple access to funds, and we went ahead with it. For me, the idea behind the first issue was something of an outgrowth of the conversation begun in the lab-book experiment in that the structure allowed for a diversity of content. As we said in the introduction to the first issue, we weren’t interested in making a journal where the editor was “objective talent scout” controlling the content; instead, we were interested in providing a forum for conversation, where we couldn’t predict what would happen when the various pieces were placed side by side.

Such uses of procedural form are important to my process as a writer.

In the introduction to the first issue of Chain we said “It is ironic that in order for dialogue to take place, conversational limits must be set.” And so for each issue there is a limit—a special topic—around which a large number of writers and artists gather. Sometimes the gathering is cacophonous, sometimes eerily synchronous. In my opinion, it’s often a source of delight and surprise. No matter how much time I spend with the contents—reading, selecting, typesetting, proofreading—I never have a real sense of what the issue is until it arrives from the printer, bound between its covers. And even then I can never know it completely because it changes every time I sit down to read it.

This is often the way I feel about my poems.

Each of the limits/special topics of the magazine come out of concerns that Juliana and I are thoroughly engaged with in our own work: documentary poetics, hybrid genres, procedural writing, visual poetics, different languages, subverting/converting memoir form, performative forms, etc. Because we both actively investigate the relation of forms of life (aesthetic, biological, cultural) to forms of writing, these organizing structures make sense to us. The work we publish feeds us, further informs us about these areas we’re already in. In many ways the journal is an investigation into what we want to know, an attempt to find some answers to questions we have.

There are certain pieces that we’ve published that continue to haunt my own writing. Looking back at past issues, I’m amazed at how many have crept into my aesthetic consciousness and stayed there.

In a recent web-log entry, Ron Silliman critiqued Chain for its policy of organizing authors alphabetically, rather than structuring the book as a kind of narrative that could properly honor its writers. He suggests that because of Chain’s inclusivity, it lacks influence on the literary landscape—the birth of future poets—and that the overall effect of the journal is one of muteness rather than speech. He suggests that accident caused by alphabetic chance is perhaps of less value than the deliberate and “heroic” arguments of past journals, and that unlike Origin (which was responsible for making Blackburn and Zukofsky major figures on the literary landscape), Black Mountain Review (responsible for Creeley and Duncan), Caterpillar (which brought Antin, Rothenberg, Mac Low, Kelly, Joris, Palmer and Bernstein onto the scene), Chain can not claim such strong parenting skills because, well, who can name its progeny?

My interest in hybrid genres is due in part to a disinterest in the perpetuation of linear heritage. Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over, provide much more appeal than following respectful and respected maps of canon-building. Conversation is not for canonical heroes. Can you really converse with an unproblematized construct? Or can you only listen?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed in Silliman’s list of heroic editorial gestures the lack of women’s names (although he did make a weak attempt to remedy it by claiming that the magazine However was responsible for bringing Lorine Niedecker back into the world (but why was she ever gone? and is that really what However is known for?).

Silliman is part of the Language Poetry movement that informs much of what I do as a writer. And what I take very seriously from the writings of the Language Poets is that there is a value to reader activism, to not simply consuming, but creating through the act of reading. And I bring this idea with me to the forms that I use when writing poetry or when editing Chain. Chain is not about “making” writers by publishing them in its pages (although its tables of contents list many writers—established and emerging—whom I believe to be of great significance). Chain is about providing a place for a reader to engage with an idea—to think, to argue, to write in response. In other words, it is putting the theory that informs my own writing as a poet into practice in an editorial forum. Rather than what Silliman has called “editorial muteness,” I believe that Chain invites an animated conversation between reader and text that is generative in its necessary unpredictability.

Which is also an invitation I hope my own poems deliver.

In closing I’ll quote once more from the introduction to the first issue of Chain, where it all began: “any printed text is a gesture toward conversation; it’s a presentation that invites response. We’re trying to create a forum that takes that invitation seriously, that is not just going through the motions of what it means to instigate response; it requires continuation.”

Saturday, September 14, 2002

A thoughtful response to my comments on Chain from Juliana Spahr:

i like to think of magazines not as arguments but just as conversations or as possibilities. i think the job of the editor is to put forward and stand back at the same time. and i think this is the big difference between what you say and what i think. we started chain b/c there were too many arguments being made. we started it in the climate of apex and o-blek. there were arguments already and we needed other sorts of conversations to happen. this felt crucial to us. we needed to make a place for us to think about things in our way--a more sideways way or a less declaratory way. now, perhaps, we/poetry community need arguments again. it is sad that apex and o-blek are gone and really haven't been replaced. and somehow for some reason that i'm not sure i know yet, we keep doing chain. but i'm not the person to do this sort of editing. i'm just not interested in doing it (although i always like to read apex and o-blek).

i think this is not a thwarting of political efficacy. i just think it might be something different than you are used to seeing. similarly, with the "writers a journal brings forward" issue. i think there are writers to which chain as been especially committed. or writers that i really feel are important and worked hard to make sure they got into the journal, bugged them a lot, etc. but i've always hated that idea that editors "make" writers. i would feel weird making a claim on any we've published.

i do think that the one argument that chain is making loudly is that poetry has a lot of various uses and positions and a lot of connections that are often overlooked. i've been editing from the middle of the pacific for six years now. and i've thought a lot about the sort of work chain can do/attempts to do from this place because it isn't all that evident everyday here (susan schultz is our only regular subscriber in the Pacific). one thing chain does for me here is it keeps me reading writing from over there (continent). which is good for me but that isn't enough finally. from here, however, it has felt crucial to include more international work (which we have done to the best of our abilities), to be more devoted to cross talk among things that don't cross everyday, to more clearly address poetry's cultural role, to support poetry as a genre of subcultures with ties to various locals/locales, to put writing in both idiolects and in dialects together in the hope that a larger and more complicated critique of standard English would happen in both sorts of poetry, to make room for work about identity and nationalism (those things the avant garde seems to spend too much time seeing as reductive) and yet not to sacrifice the work that gets done in more avant garde forms at the same time, to support both works written from the local and works written against the global, etc.