One of the great cliche conventions of 90s experimentalism was that narratives were inherently conservative. In part this came from the (justified) criticisms of the “narrative poetry” (or “Quietism”) that used to be imposed on students in most poetry writing classes. But the problem with the Quietist poems is not necessarily that they are narrative but rather that they use narrative in a boring way: I look out the window (literally or metaphorically) and see something that makes me remember and based on that memory I have some sensation of transcendence or epiphany.
These Quietist poems depend on a self-righteous sense of interiority and authenticity that allows no interesting language. You have to find your “voice” (interiority) but it’s a voice that sounds like every other quietist voice and anything interesting you might do with language will be a threat to that voice. And the narratives tend to be from behind the “window,” remembering, so it rarely feels that anything is at risk.
(I often quote that essay by Robert MnRuhr where he uses disability theory to critique the epiphany as an ableist model of coming back together, becoming whole.)
But narrative is not the problem. Narratives are often fascinating. I remember when I was a child, my grandmother telling me stories about Swedish kings poisoning each other. Years later, I found a photograph of my grandmother dated to “Berlin, 1933″ and my uncle told me that she had had dubious political sympathies back in the day. Narrative can be mysterious. “She’s full of secrets,” the little man says of Laura Palmer’s ghost in that famous Twin Peaks dream sequence (Of course in Quietism there are not supposed to be any secrets, that would be too thrilling.).
Some of the most interesting poetry books of the past few years have been explicitly narrative: Think of Chelsey Minnis’s poems with fashionable killers in Zirconia (“… uh… I want to wear hot pants… and rest my boot on the back of a man’s neck…”) or Bad Bad; or Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man and how those two get muddled up in Poems of the Black Object (“So tonight, when you saw this white man, in glasses, mid-30s with an early grey mullet, lift up his Alpaca sweater to reveal the slit in his abs beneath the bloody curtain of his shirt, you said “Welcome to Brooklyn.””).
I love detective/crime novels, but I only like the first half. (continue reading…)
ATLANTIS, book four of the Blood Work series and the last to be released, is now available in a limited edition of 33 copies from Deathbed Editions.
The trailer features footage of my town Lyons CO getting washed away this past September for those curious what a real deluge looks like.
The past few months I’ve been reading and re-reading the little chapbook His Days Go By the Way Her Years by the young Taiwanese poet and filmmaker Ye Mimi – and translated beautifully by Steve Bradbury and published beautifully by Anomalous Press.
A few months ago, after she came back from the Hong Kong poetry festival, Aase Berg wrote to me that she had come across an amazing poet: Ye Mimi. (Apparently YM appeared with a very impressive guitar player as well.)
That is funny because when I first read Ye Mimi what came to my mind was a somewhat controversial article Aase wrote in Expressen after Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize the other year:
I have already begun to view Tranströmer’s poetry – purely internally, in my brain – as kitsch. That makes it easier for me to communicate with it because I see kitsch as something generative: banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union. The idea of Tranströmer’s images as kitschy allows me to associate to other images, instead of getting stuck in an image mysticism which may seem chokingly water-tight.
Ye Mimi’s poems are wonderful in that way: as “banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union.” In fact they read a little like Tranströmer poems in which the metaphors flip out, go off in tangents. And a Tranströmer poem in which the tenor of the metaphor is not privileged – not over the vehicle, not over the “banal” everyday stuff (pink hoodies, telephone booths etc).
My favorite Tranströmer poem is “To Friends Behind a Border”
To Friends Behind A Border
I wrote so sparsely to you. But what I couldn’t write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned zeppelin
and drifted at last through the night sky.
Now the letter is with the censor. He turns on his lamp.
In the glow my words fly up like monkeys on grille
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth!
Read between the lines. We are going to meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and finally get to sleep, become orthoceras.
Part of what I love about this poem is how lovely and ridiculous his famous metaphors are here: the letters become monkeys (like in a Disney fantasia), the spy-microphones becomes fossils.
This element of goofy-brilliant metaphors are all over Ye Mimi’s work:
but he is bored to pieces and has to have a smoke
a ghost nods off beneath the blackboard tree in a punitive gesture the kittens are made to crouch in tummies
we are mortified at vomiting a layer of sea
the skin of which could not be whiter
(from “And All the Sweat is Left There”)
One big difference is that Ye Mimi’s work is more flippant, following the odd metaphor off in different directions, creating an effect like Exploded Tranströmer.
Hi Montevidayans, this Q&A with Cathy Linh Che & me came out on the Lantern Review blog a couple of days ago: featured briefly are literary obsessions & heartbreaks, writing’s co-occurrence with life, and backstories of our books: Kala Pani (from 1913 Press), and Che’s Split (forthcoming from Alice James Books).
I’ve meant to write down a few thoughts about Kristen Stewart’s poem published in (or recited for) Marie Clarie Magazine a couple of weeks back and the ensuing controversy. I think this discussion says a lot about taste, mass culture and poetry.
* I don’t know Kristen Stewart’s acting career very well but I saw her in a movie in which she was wonderfully paralyzed in the face. I also know that she was in the vampire movies, Twilight (which later turned into that S&M novel fan fiction).
* It’s interesting to see what kinds of people said what about KS’s poem. Marie Claire and the celebrity, mass culture magazine all seemed to repeat the line that KS herself used to introduce the poem: she said it was “embarrassing.” A celebrity sites seemed to merely repeat that word “embarrassing”. We can take that as a sign of their laziness, sure, but I think it says something else: Poetry – even though it’s supposedly “high culture” is – seen from the point of view of “mass culture” – embarrassing. Always embarrassing.
I think Ravel Galvin’s response to Cal Bedient’s essay “Against Conceptualism” is very thought-provoking. In particular, I am interested in her depiction of “lyric shame” in modern and contemporary poetics:
I’d like to add to Yankelvich’s observation by arguing that casting authorial intent as an “embarrassing indulgence” is symptomatic of the very dynamic that Gillian White identifies inLyric Shame: Producing the “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. This embarrassment congregates around poems seen as offering abstracted, “personal” expression—particularly Romantic, Confessional, and “mainstream” poetry—belonging to what is assumed to be the transhistorical genre of lyric poetry. From the twentieth century onward, such poems have been criticized by scholars, critics, publishers, and writers for their “expressivity,” which is understood as narcissistic and often politically conservative. White tracks how being associated with lyric poetry has become a source of shame in many literary circles. It is disparaged for being monological and oppressive, for relying on a lyric first-person speaker (a coherent “I”) to guide the reader and articulate the perspective of her single subjectivity, or for offering closure. The lyric poem is accused of being so directive as to put the “author” back into “authoritarian.” White argues, however, that such lyric poetry doesn’t actually exist as a form or a genre, but rather is called into being through reading practices. She persuasively explains that the dynamics of shame, and lyric-expressive reading (nineteenth-century constructions of lyric codified as reading methods by twentieth-century critics), have combined to denigrate some poetry as “retrograde, politically conservative, self-indulgent.”
While affect studies have become fashionable across several disciplines (anthropology, psychology, literary theory), “lyric shame” has continued to thrive, and Goldsmith has brought Conceptual poetry to the White House and to The Colbert Report. At the same time, in academia, the question of whether the lyric may be considered a transhistorical genre is producing influential reflections (such as in the work of Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Jonathan Culler, Meredith Martin, White). The entry for “lyric” in the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, written by Jackson, specifies thatsince the eighteenth century, “brevity, subjectivity, passion, and sensuality” have been associated with lyric poetry, but that “lyric” has not always named the same thing throughout history. She writes, “The story of the lyric charts the history of poetics.” The current conversation about conceptualism is part of this larger-scale history of poetics. It has struck a nerve with poets and critics alike, because we are at a moment of category fracture, when it is clear that the old terms won’t do, but we don’t have any new terms yet. Where are we to go after Hegel’s assertion that lyric poetry expresses personal feeling, and John Stuart Mill’s idea that poetry is an utterance overheard? And should poets also be activists? Commentators? Outsiders? Visionaries? Media mavens or PR wizards?
Today’s conceptualism debate is not really about constraint or procedure and their relative merits for writing poems, although that is the way Bedient’s piece leans. It is about the fraught notion of the lyric, the “lyric I,” and the possibility of emotional sincerity in art. It is predicated on polemical distinctions between sources of poetry (rational and planned, or “method” poetries versusirrational and “inspired” poetries), which all derive from a metaphysics of origin. Today’s debate once more asks the fundamental, mystifying questions, Where does poetry come from? How is it made?
We have four new books from Action Books for sale now at www.actionbooks.org: Wet Land by Lucas de Lima, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer and Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer by Abe Smith:
“Lucas de Lima’s stunning book affected me so profoundly at all the stages of reading it, encountering it—before it was a book and afterwards, when it was. In the work of this extraordinary writer, the fragment is not an activity of form. It’s an activity of evisceration.”
- Bhanu Kapil
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (trans. Don Mee Choi):
“Her poems are not ironic. They are direct, deliberately grotesque, theatrical, unsettling, excessive, visceral and somatic. This is feminist surrealism loaded with shifting, playful linguistics that both defile and defy traditional roles for women.”
- Pam Brown
Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer (various translators):
“Valerie Mejer keeps writing poems that, in their disconsolate perplexity, disclose a sweeping prospect in which biography, landscape, memory and dream erase their respective margins, making clear to us that what we come to call existence is simply a modality in which we claim our right to weakness, defeat, hemorrhage, because only through radical vulnerably can the urgency of love arise.”
- Raúl Zurita
“Abraham Smith carries greatness like a splinter in the lining of the heart. He carries it like a poison drunk up in infancy, a bone shard that traveled from a smashed rib or a flint of exploitation that was planted there by a bad friend or a wasted economic system. Yet music pours from Smith like blood, cheap wine, car-radio and bird song. Abe is an ecstatic, standing outside himself and singing to himself, the whole pulling-apart yet encapsulated pageant of Keats’ Nightingale played out in the person of one poet.”
- Joyelle McSweeney
The Most Poetical Topic in the World, According to Mario Bellatin, is No Longer the Death of a Beautiful Woman
as Poe once declared, but instead the death of her sidekick and counterfeit, the hairstylist in drag, now a shiny prosthesis to beauty’s phantom limb.
This is what Bellatin’s slim novella Beauty Salon (City Lights, trans. by Kurt Hollander) proposes in its revision of the decadent tradition, a call-to-arms much like Joyelle’s “We Must Be Decadent, Again” post against the ‘forward-thinking’ moves trending in our midst. The book’s indulgence in dystopian-utopian artifice, in fact, moves backward on multiple levels. Not only does it transplant the muse of beauty onto anonymous cross-dressing queers in an unnamed city, but it turns our RuPaul-friendly clock back to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic by any other name: the disease afflicting gay men in the book is likewise blacked-out, unidentifiable as in its early years. After the narrator describes having transformed his salon into a hospice for the HIV+, he unflinchingly refers to it as “the Terminal” or “Moridero” in Spanish, a word whose medieval source recalls those dark ages of the bubonic plague:
The increasing number of people who come to die in the beauty salon is no form of entertainment at all. (continue reading…)
“Things brought together by violent chance/ that could be stitched-up with a word” astutely describes the latest from Mexico City–born Mejer. In this collection of translations edited by Wright, reality and dream are carefully stitched to form a different fabric of sense: “I have a chest broken as a broken bone/ I have a home broken as a broken hand/ I have a bird broken as a broken chest/ I have a girl broken like a broken pencil// And no one gives me assurances because no one can.” These dreamscapes, infused with nightmare throughout the book’s four sections, subvert symbol and sign to reestablish new meaning—some in tight lyrics (“Today the roofs wear water./ Tomorrow I will have died:/ This is the rain of the future,/ humidity that returns to the country of eyes”), others in short prose (“But a nightmare is a single mare in the night or the night turned mare. Here they breed and a giant trembles in all of his leaves. The next day was as tall. The next day was like a son, even taller”). Andre Breton famously wrote “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”—Mejer convulses steady as a beating heart. (Feb.)
As most readers of this blog know, one of my pet peeves about contemporary poetry discussions is the “too much argument”: some critic or poet (usually with a strong reputation that allows him or her to address the rest of poetry from an elevated position) denounces contemporary poetry for being “too much.” We have heard this critique from Kenny Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff, but also from Tony Hoagland and countless conservative types.
As Joyelle described it in her reframing of this debate, “The “Future” of “American” Poetry:
“Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.”
Right now I’m reading Jacques Ranciere’s wonderful book The Emancipated Spectator, in which he takes issue with the idea – very prevalent in American poetry and leftism – of people “passive” spectators in a society of the spectacle, the idea that they have to be made active, that the images have to be overcome.
In one section he gives a kind of historical background to this kind of thinking, a background that links the “too much” criticism to the “society of spectacle” rhetoric, and links them both to a very old-fashioned form of elitism. He find the root of both of these rhetorical tropes in the second half of the 19th century – with science’s discovery that the brain worked by nervous stiumuli, not through a soul, and also with the simultaneous proliferation of mass produced images.
Notice how the criticism Ranciere calls attention to seems to be almost the same as the one heard in today’s poetry discussions:
“It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; (continue reading…)