Johannes: OK, great. First a basic question: Can you tell me about your background? Ie how/why did you end up in the US? From what I can tell, you’re from Nigeria but lived for some time in Germany.
Uche: I was born in Nigeria in a family of christian priests. I was four years old when the Nigerian civil war began.I am Igbo and belonged to the Biafran side of that debacle.Many children of my age perished in that war through starvation.Till date some Igbo men and women and children are still being massacred in that country,particularly in the Northern parts.Sometimes for religious reasons and at other times for political reasons.Recently some members of the Igbo nation were deported to the East(Igboland) by the government of Lagos State.There are those who believe that after the civil war which ended in 1970 Nigeria resumed being one united nation.What crap! My generation nationally accepted the country but the nefarious actions of both military and civilian regimes that had piloted the country since the end of the civil war have given us cause to doubt a real Nigerian nationhood.Those civil and political injustices that led to the civil war in 1967 are still there.Now the problems of Nigeria are compounded even more by a sham democracy.For me the scars of living through Nigeria’s darkest decades are still here,and can never be forgotten. The Biafran War left a vicious gaping wound in life and art in Nigeria. I lived in Germany for about nine years and taught and wrote and explored that country.I lived in Holland for three years.I have been in transit in all the countries i have lived in since 1994 when i left Nigeria through the award of an Arts Fellowship by the Goethe Institute.I remain grateful to the Germans. I left Nigeria to free myself from organized idiocy and repression. I arrived in the United States Of America in 2007 to reunite with my parents and siblings who are naturalized Americans and who I did not manage to see throughout the twelve years i lived in Europe. At the moment I am a naturalized American: Nigerian-American.
I forgot to mention, I’m participating in a reading in Malmö tonight at 7:30 (19:30). The special tea of the evening is named after Hart Crane!
#2 Litterärt örtte: Crane
Författarmedverkan: Azita Ghahreman, Johannes Göransson, Hikaru Sugi
Tid: 23 september 2013, kl. 19.30-21
Plats: Poeten på hörnet, Södra Förstadsgatan 65B, Malmö
Litteratursalong Smockadoll: Tycken, texter, te.
#2 utgörs av boksläpp för Azita Ghahremans diktsamling ”Serendips loggbok”. Och USA-besök med poeten och aasebergöversättaren Johannes Göransson. SAMT…
Smockadolls artisan-te för kvällen den 23 september: CRANE.
I am intrigued by the way the reviewers who dislike Norén’s diary (and there seems to be many) tend to resort to very gothic imagery: Norén is a vampire (“The Vampire Diaries” one headline announced), or a baby sucking milk from society, a parasite, even – several times – a corpse. I am particularly interested in this case because I love Norén’s early – maximalist, grotesque, beautiful, kitschy – poetry (“visionary kitsch”), and I am fascinated by the way the diary’s reception seems to re-stage those early works, as well as the way it touches on a lot of issues I’m interested in pertaining to kitsch, nazism and, what Saul Friedlander calls, “the new discourse” about nazism and kitsch.
In other words, I’m interested in the way a lot of the condemnation both tries to condemn Norén’s by invoking such common tropes against such art – kitsch, gothic, grotesque, politically fascist – and at the same time plays into this aesthetic, as if contaminated by Norén’s sensibility.
The leftist poet Göran Greider wrote one of the most interesting reviews – a “poem-review” – of Norén’s diary the other day that touches on a whole bunch of my interests in this case.
Greider starts out by comparing Noren to an Internet troll, “but one published by Bonniers,” as if there’s something tasteless about the whole venture, something that should not be made public or endorsed by the taste-marker of a big press. Norén is too emotional in the work, it seems, for it to be proper art.
More importantly, Greider reads Norén himself as a politics. He calls Norén bourgeois, but implies that he’s in fact fascistic, or even a Nazi. Greider asks: “What would the world look like if Norén had absolute power? Summary executions, persecutions, impulsive destruction of cities…” Who is Greider describing at this point? He is basically calling Norén a Nazi, or more specifically Hitler.
For the past year I’ve lived in a valley at 6,500 feet, in a small community of homes tucked in the mountains of northern Colorado, surrounded by national forest. It’s just a fifteen-minute drive down the mountain to Lyons, a surprisingly vibrant town of twenty-five hundred or so that’s now drowning in water and sewage and pieces of people’s homes, and has been since the early hours of Friday, September 13.
I was with some friends at the Distillery in Lyons the night of the floods, but made it back up the mountain before the water tore through town in the middle of the night. It’s now several days later and entire neighborhoods are gone, the water is contaminated with E. coli, the infrastructure is destroyed, the St. Vrain river is now somehow a few hundred yards south of where it was, and most everybody in town is displaced for several months, or permanently.
Meanwhile, back at the homestead on that fateful night, we quickly lost power, water, phones, etc. By morning the bridges connecting various parts of the community were destroyed, and the highway connecting us to the global supply chain had succumbed to falling boulders & mudslides, the more precarious parts of the winding mountain road collapsing into the valley below. Unlike in Lyons, the houses, for the most part, were spared, but the community was completely cut off.
This was our situation for a few days, until somebody somewhere ordered an evacuation. My girlfriend Maggie and our friend Bernie visiting from NYC took the first helicopter out with our dogs – the only helicopter that day as it turned out, since the storms kept rolling in. I stayed behind for a couple of days until the storms finally passed, locking down the house and acclimating to a new reality, one in which I’m abandoning my home in the deafening roar of a Chinook helicopter, clutching my cats in a duffle bag.
This was literally a thousand year event. Only 1% of Colorado homes are even covered by flood insurance. People are displaced up and down the front range. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Boulder. I have shelter and kind people looking out for me, and a computer to share my lessons learned, en medias res, from this very wet, dry run for the apocalypse.
So I’m in Sweden reworking The Sugar Book, my next book of poetry (to be published next year). I’ve come to Malmö in fact to work on the book, to complete it by working through my fascination with certain aspects of aspects of art: its violence, its pointlessness, its manipulativeness, its necroglamour, the way it blurs the boundaries between life and death, art and life, private and public. It’s an unwieldy book: several hundred pages and growing. I can’t contain it. It’s also about being homeless, so that’s why I’ve returned to my home, to Sweden: if I can’t contain it here, I can’t contain it anywhere.
While writing this new draft, a few things have influenced me: Sweden’s obsession with Lars Norén’s diaries, Saul Friedlander’s book on Nazism and kitsch (“Reflection on Nazism”), a book of Francesca Woodman’s photograph (I found in Martin Glaz Serup’s apartment in Copenhagen), Raul Zurita’s poems and performances (cutting himself, writing in the sky, being rewritten as a fascist pilot by Bolano etc), and the use of the word “pornography” as applied to art that may or may not contain naked bodies (for example “ruin porn”) but which almost always betrays an iconophobic attitude about the intensive visuality of some art. This hot-spot of ideas is really fueling my re-drafting of The Sugar Book because that’s what it’s about. But I thought I would also do a little Malmö-blogging for the folks back home…
For those of you not from Sweden: (continue reading…)
[It's been suggested that I preface this. Well, I think the world is drenched with grief and I think poetry is the map of the grief, continually mapping and remapping itself and saturating and resaturating itself with ink and image and sound and damage and contaminants until something else breaks through. Another viscousness or viciousness. Not necessarily better, but next, or again. I don't know whether there's really a way out of the anthropocene with its lethal logics but I do think that Poetry is anthropocenic (though inhuman?) and has a lethal (ill-?)logic and is therefore up to the challenge of going up against the anthropocene, just as a bacterium with a porcine vector can go up against a person with a gun. I guess I do want the world to end and reboot without us. This ars poetica is made from the contaminants that influence my writing: technology, hacking, corpse jewlery, corporate hegemony, environmental degradation, dread, ecstasy, haruscopy and augury, fashion, art, etymology, sacrificial rites and the classical world, those doomed and doomy bastards.]
ARS POETICA, or, I wanted to unlock my phone
I wanted to unlock my phone.
I wanted to unlock the geode. I wanted to press it to my skull. I wanted to go right through the temple. Bedazzle my occipital. Be dazzled like a jeweled vagina or an improved corpse.
Incipio. And you can come in now. Bedazzled like a victim or an improved phone.
Nuncio, you’re fired now go home.
Get back on that fucking U-boat you rowed in on and float.
After I gave birth, an immediate labial tuck.
Cataract surgery, a backing track, and a ticket for checked luggage sutured to my gut.
I took exception.
I woke up a walking garment.
My innards for a pennant, a permanent crest or crown
crimped and crenellated, filleting my brow and my baby for a pigskin clutch. Accouchement.
On a couch, we rowed like dead Etruscans for the afterlife, clutching
thick slick magazines and
the handgrenade named for the pomegranate.
Bon chance, bon chance, shit out of luck, up shit creek on a
leaky horseshoe hung up the wrong way
twin emblems of closeness: horseshoes, handgrenades.
In that pink slick (Grenadine)
rode the drowners
pulled from the Seine with a seine net. With a purse seine.
And set up in the Paris morgue as in a marble parlor
A bejeweled purse, a lime sluice, a pearled vagina, a pullulating designer
dog, in puttees, the puttied vault of the sky, the ovulating
cranial crate which was about to be wider as it
split at its eyeteeth
It was a civic duty to visit them on Sundays
amid the gropeurs and pick pockets
To copiously paw and snuff the nose-wrinckling tissues
To bring them back into the human family.
To try to identify them by face, clothes, or posture
That piece of shit is not my father.
The bodies hit the ground in a fusillade like fuselage
You cannot hear this sound except on a snuff site
You have to go out as shame to hear this report
more like handgrenades than like pomegranates
with their little list of Hadean jewels inside
twisted inventories for the Christies auction
nextbodies texting their nobiles
fifty and two hundred bodies hitting the ground like exploding
I wanted to go live there
I wanted to go live in shame
as blood floods the vaulted chasm
I block the run-off-channels and snuff up the charnel-chum
I wanted to stop the clock
I wanted to give my brain a tuck
I wanted my brain to fold over.
I wanted to close the incision with cat gut and tungsten.
I wanted to hack my own phone.
Edison wanted to make a light bulb.
Franklin wanted to make a kight light up at night.
They both needed a conductor.
Franklin used his son’s arm.
Edison used the groin hair of a sacred goat, later slaughtered.
gh gh gh
you can’t even say it it’s voiceless
you can’t even hear this sound unless you hit the snuff site
so rank it rankles
too rank for superfund
I wanted to defund it
I wanted to give my head a kick.
I wanted my brain to double over, holding its gut.
In the train compartment. Its tank top riding up
to expose its kidneys to a kick
up the luggage compartment.
to stuff it up a suitcase
like a prettier girl I could waste on a snuff site.
The thread of life narrow as a jeweled thong for the bride
disappearing up the crack
reaching through the crack to hug the waist
to find the egress
up the ass of the egret
into the afterlife
the birds we are wasting in Iraq and Iran
know the only route to the afterlife
Bereft of sense
I don’t want to make sense
But I want to make something
as it leaves the body
the cloth of Veronica which wiped the face of Christ
producing the fake known as the Shroud of Turin
Fake like a purse is fake and flashy
and sold on folding tables or a sheet
grab it and run
when the heat comes
it cuts the air above the android in his android suit.
The bull is wearing his bull suit.
To cook what’s inside like a sacrifice.
Oxygen cocktail. Interior force.
I wanted to wear the fake mask of Christ.
I wanted to wipe the face of the crisis with my heat.
I wanted to make a mask of sweat, urine, sucrose, and dopamine.
I wanted to grow chesthair in the mirror.
It’s breezey today and the leaves flash their asses.
Something hangs down under the line of the short shorts.
Something like hell-fruit: lemurian pomegranate.
The puddled cloth, the placket of blood
like a garment for the flagstones
below the smashed skull
sewn on the bias
the seam lies flat
as a cellphone in the street
after it snapped the precious picture
the picture more precious than a skull
that smashed up screen makes a star in the sky like
panties in a vending machine
coolant pools which smirk and leak
an attempt to build a thermonuclear barrier at the beach
going to the beach
catching the fish
under the flagstones
sandals made of a tank tread rubbed with fish guts
a gun firing
a tracer whistling
the house folding
a satellite crashing into the Indian Ocean
as air douses his hand of guilt
stacked flat and veronica-ing
like a hiccupping GIF
a mortgage or flat tummy
a smart fabric tensing infinitely
into the air like the gut of a gull
that’s hauling a plastic reel
so thin it’s not a live anymore
so thin it can slip through the net of the sky
through the purse-seine up the Seine
and become the parenthesis for the next event
so thin it talcs the air with boanmeal
as in a nursery
ashmeal moanmeal veronica powder
Long Gone Blues: On Violence, Sex, Balloons, Repetition, Hello Kitty, Guy Hocquenghem, Airports, Billie Holiday, Miley Cyrus, Gender Autism and Shameless Promotions
Lately I’ve been thinking about the sexual part of violence and power. Lately I’ve been making something like blues music for an album (Black Water, estimated: side A in late September, side B in October). Lately I’ve been thinking about this one quote by Guy Hocquenghem found in the back register of the lovely little book “Sisyphus Outdone” by Nathanaël:
[Homosexual desire] is the slope towards trans-sexuality through the disappearance of objects and subjects, the slide towards the discovery that in matters of sex everything communicates.
One day I went to a child’s birthday party and ate cake from a hello kitty plate instead of a turtles plate. One thing that surprised me about America when I first got here was definitely the sweetness of its birthday cakes. One day I saw a daddy who was ready to let his son fall off a tall wall because a boy that gets really hurt turns into a man. Fourth of July fireworks were firing in the background. Lately I’ve been thinking about a photograph of Russian manly boys picking up and torturing young gay boys, posing shirtless with guns. I don’t even know where I saw the photograph, if it even exists, I think it was one of those facebook link shots. Maybe I had a dream. If you dream current events does that make you a whore for fashion? Lately I’ve been thinking about how being a man means being something singular and contained, the taming of the boy into an agent of rationality. A man is either irreparably violent or controlled, contained, a man whose subject-hood is locked and loaded.
in matters of sex everything communicates
On Friday nights the whole family gathers and watches Americas Next Top Model Girls & Boys. During the commercials we practice our best face-poses. The idea is to keep face despite the embarrassment of the body.
At the pool party it is modesty for girls only because boys can’t control what skin does, the belly-skin of girls. This is the skin of a certain age. This is the skin that is the most dangerous of all the skin and threatens to throw the not-yet rationalized boy into a raging rape scene.
I was thinking about the repetitive line and how it’s like an image in a way. We look at it sort of like an image. There is nothing to figure out. Instantaneous, useless. It becomes surface, sound.
in matters of sex everything communicates
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about rape-or-not-rape. On this new album of songs that are some kind of blues I made a song sort of about rape using a Mississippi Fred McDowell sample that runs over and over for eight minutes. It’s a remake of his “Find My Suitcase”. Toward the end it gets wobbly with weird dub-step-like bass lines.
Once I came on a plane and the man at the desk asked angry questions and made up lies because if you have nothing to hide you can’t be shaken because the world is ultimately fair. But I got shook up because the lies seemed very dangerous and I forgot some vital piece of information, became infantile, like a child. I stuttered. I couldn’t remember the name of my professor. I could see his bearded face, his gentle ways, his supreme knowledge of old testament lineage, but his name was gone. Because his name was gone I became someone hiding something. I wondered if this was how terrorists feel.
Sometimes I forget the silliest things. Like my own phone number. Like my own address. This is the stuff of identity, humanness: birth and death records. My band name is My Hot Air Balloon. It was inspired by Swedish balloon explorer Andrée and his demise on the north pole. Travel by hot air and spectacular failure.
Nothing has been heard of Professor Andrée, who started in a balloon for the North Pole, accompanied by two companions, about three weeks ago. Two carrier pigeons were afterward picked up, with certain marks on the wings intended to give the impression that they were from the explorer, but it was soon made manifest that they had not come from him.
-Baltimore News, Baltimore, MD. July 31, 1897
So anyway, I wrote this one song about interacting with authority called ”Honey You Got the Bible, I Got the Gun”. It’s an American fairy tale. Its like Thelma and Louise. It’s religion and guns. It’s a love story with authority. It starts:
Hey Mr. Officer won’t you take down my name
You can keep it in your file no hard feelings
This was a while ago, maybe like two years, a kind of protest song. I played it on my daughter’s ukulele but it didn’t quite work. But one day recently I was making this really bouncy sexup beat using an old atari beep and I got to singing this old song. And I was singing over and over “Mr. Officer” until the old-fashioned protest song seemed to turn into something else, more intimate perhaps, or at least more deranged. Sort of like Miley Cyrus grinding with that ridiculous foam hand. A kind of impotence. A kind of yearning.
(I know I know. Dead tissue, be gone. But I think the most upsetting thing about the Miley Cyrus thing was the flatness, the over-the-top-ness and the redundancy of the performance, like it failed to tap into shocking-but-acceptable sex-up Disney coming out behavior (say Christina Aguilera back when) as well as arty androgynous lady gaga awareness. When you’re trying to dance sexily but its not sexy it becomes something else, deranged, less than human, porn. Like the commercial. Shocking. Simply Oranges.)
Bible Song Intro Beat (ca 15 seconds):
Usually when there’s protest songs there’s not much sex going on, its more a manly comradely thing (like those boys in Le Mis!), dustbowls and union meetings, like sports, numbers in the proper squares. But I was thinking about this officer, this border control man, politician (the three characters of the song) and how there is a sexual element in that kind of official control-controlee relationship, this sort of dance and courting. And how we don’t want it to be. How we want the violence to be rational, because if its rational it can be identified and labeled and codified and renamed and verified and classified until it becomes digestible and necessary.
Like what if the power to be couldn’t just symbolically fuck their subjects. Couldn’t reasonably go to war.
Then I added a Billie Holiday sample over it. Not sure why, but once I had it sounded good. I love Billie Holiday. When I grow up, that’s who I want to be. Billie singing: Long Gone Blues. It fitted strangely well. So it goes something like, (where there’s suppose to be something like a chorus):
Talk to me baby
Tell me what’s the matter now
You tryin’ to quit me baby
But you don’t know how
I didn’t know then that Kanye West had sampled Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit for his Blood on the Leaves, a song that is sort of nauseating to listen to, Nina’s sped-up and deranged sounding vocal, Kanyes autotune, lynching meets club romance. But anyway, I like the idea, because the violence of the original, written by some Jewish guy who was inspired by a photograph of a lynching, isn’t allowed to be contained in the No Trespassing Zone of American History Relics.
It always befuddles me when the expected reaction calls for reflection and respect because the topic is of a certain bloodiness and severity, like you’re suppose to stay in this remembrance stillness pose. It reminds me of when I was a kid and we were playing charades and I did the act of Thinking or maybe even The Thinker by that sculpture guy and nobody could figure it out.
My wife says this is because I’m autistic. This is probably right. I’m planning to write a blues about this.
One thing America likes are those Time Capsules which is funny because there’s no history allowed in this small town. There should be jazz and blues statues and museums. Instead there’s waste and dead towns.
Like there’s something disturbed about the past, like a disease of nostalgia.
I decided to try to make a blues album because I love old blues music. Instantly it felt kind of fraudulent, treating blues as a genre rather than tradition, to make a kind of “concept” album. Tradition suggests initiation, cultural and geographical (if not genetic) inclusion, blah blah. I don’t feel part of that “tradition”, I don’t feel particularly rootsy. But I was interested in exploring different themes that blues music deals with: violence, sex, death, mainly, and folklore ghosty stuff, gospel religious stuff. Interested in certain very bluesy sounds and bluesy phrases. To write songs on these subjects, exploring these sounds, these phrases. The idea of tradition is so full of shit anyway, just time passing allowing motive to overgrow so you have something supposedly “genuine” and “deeply rooted” or whatever. For the purpose of division. You can only really sing the blues if your an old black guy who has suffered. Also that the blues is more like a condition, something inside you, your devil-deprived soul, expressed as a summary of one person’s life lived in some unending misery, it has to be earned.
One way of questioning this earning seems to be questioning the containment of certain people and art by labeling them/it exotic, wholesome, “natural”, as opposed to capable of a more rational, severed-from-the-creator, constructed, layered, complex Entity, suggesting that they are not capable of such elaborate thought processes. But hidden in such questioning there seems to be an underlying moral stand favoring written and planned transactions of feelings and information over oral and improvised expression, an economic approach to art.
In blues lyrics one thing that becomes apparent is that its pretty impossible to determine ownership, multiple versions of songs coexist, lines are swapped, stolen and reused. There is (as in most pop music!) the use of heavy repetition, a musical employment of words for their secondary quality, their sounds, an oral transference, to convey a mood, incite dancing, movement, the promise of ecstasy, possession, tongue talking. I’m muchly interested in all this, and most of these songs are written to fit a certain sound, often a beat, an atmosphere, than the other way around, creating a mood in which exorcism becomes possible. Hopefully.
It’s interesting how in early America the drum was banned for its dangerous ability to cause riots. It’s also interesting that the early banjo, brought over from Africa, is a kind of secret, hidden drum, later made a decidedly white instrument through minstrelsy. That it was instead the formerly royal artsy-ass then industrialized guitar that became the blues man’s primary instrument, awesomely tortured with knives and bottlenecks, made to scream and weep. Etc. etc.
“The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world, where it still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow ever present behind the living form which now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow. The corpse is a reflection becoming master of the life it reflects—absorbing it, identifying substantively with it by moving it from its use value and from its truth value to something incredible—something neutral which there is no getting used to. And if the cadaver is so similar, it is because it is, at a certain moment, similarity par excellence: altogether similarity, and also nothing more. It is the likeness, like to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvellous. But what is it like? Nothing.” (Blanchot)
I am reading a book, Corpus Delecti, about performance art in Latin America, and I found Nelly Richards’ essay, “Performances of the Chilean avanzda” particularly useful. It is a study of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit (to whom Zurita dedicated Purgatorio), CADA the performance group they belonged to) and Carlos Leppe. Zurita’s poetry (and the accompanying stunts, various acts of auto-mutilation for example) has influenced my own thinking about art’s relationship to the body and to violence. And I thought this essay insightful so I’ll quote a bit from it:
“The body is the stage on which this division primarily leaves its mark. It is the meeting place of the individual (or one’s biography and unconscious) and the collective (or programming of hte roles of identity according to the norms of social discipline). That is why its utilizationas a support for art practice entails the dismantling of the ideological use of hte body as a vehicle for images or representation of the ritual of day-to-day living, as material bearer of the means of social reproduction and the models of sexual domination.”
“Whereas Leppe postulated the body as a game of appearances and reinvented its image by maneuvering its external signifiers, Zurita and Eltit promoted the body’s “concrete substance of pain” in acts of resignation and self-denial. Their various mortifications of the body signaled a type of subjectivity modeled on sacrifice or martyrdom. Raul Zurita burned hsi face (1975) or attmepted to blind himself (1980). Diamela Eltit cut and burned herself and then turned up at a brotherl where she read part of her novel (1980). By inflicting these emblems of the wounded body upon themselves, Zurita and Eltit appealed to pain as a way of approachign that borderline between individual and collective experience: their self-punishment merges with an “us” that is both redeemer and redeemed. The threshold of pain enabled the mutilated subject to enter areas of collective identification, sharing in one’s own flesh the same signs of social disadvantage as the the other unfortunates. Voluntary pain simply legitimates one’s incorporation into the community of those who have been harmed in some way – as if the self-inflicted marks of chastisement in the artist’s body and the marks of suffering in the national body, as if pain and its subject, could unite in the same scar.
There were two models of body art which influenced the Chilean art scene: the boy of Leppe, who stimulated the sexual categorization of identity in order to denounce it or interchange its signs, and the stigmatized body of Zurita and Eltit, who used pain in order to recapture the communal body of suffering. These bodies organized or even opposed two kinds of discourse regarding the ideological maneuvers that each favored or rejected: Leppe’s materialistic body, or the theater in which the fiction of hte body is dismantled, and the utopian body of Zurita and Eltit, whose sacrificial scars evoke the humanism… on which the metaphysics of identity depends…”
Obviously this is a small excerpt from an entire book, but I find it interesting to think about in terms of Mark Seltzer’s wound culture (which is according to him a sign of the pathological state of our capitalist country, in Zurita the wounded body is perhaps even more dire); Jacqueline Rose’s argument that the criticism of Plath for her holocaust imagery is really about an opposition to metaphor (you have to have been in the holocaust to write that corpse-body) (and in fact Zurita has – like Plath – been accused of megalomania etc); and in terms of all my other preoccupation with violence, the body and art.
A while back, Kent Johnson sent a link in one of the comment section to a review of Marjorie Perloff’s entry on “Avant-Garde Poetry” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. So I picked up the encyclopedia and read through it. I think that the encyclopedia brings up questions that are essential in thinking about the relationship of American poetry to the poetries of the rest of the world, but also to my recent discussion of the role of scholarship in contemporary poetry, and the definition of poetry as a “field” that we as academics can “master.”
While Johnson commends the overall encyclopedia for included entries on other national literatures, he argues that Perloff’s entry for the term “the avant-garde” is too American-centric, that it excludes not just individual poets (such as the great poets Cesar Vallejo, Raul Zurita and Alejandra Pizarnik) but that the definition, the conceptualization of the term “avant-garde” does not account for writers that are not American or European (by which he means French, German, Russian basically, she doesn’t draw on examples from less central European countries either).
I actually think Perloff’s essay is very good in that it does what it sets out to do: it gives a short, very canonical overview of the term. It doesn’t trouble the term with movements from foreign countries because the entry is not supposed to be a theoretical re-consideration of the term “avant-garde,” but an encyclopedia entry that defines “the Field” of “the avant-garde” in a manageable way. She didn’t have too much space and she crammed it with stuff.
However, it’s exactly this “manageability” of the encyclopedia that I have a problem with, based on what I wrote a couple of days ago. The encyclopedia in itself is based on the idea of knowledge as a field you can master.
Based on this element of encyclopedic mastery, you can perhaps see why I disagree with Johnson about the inclusion of other national literatures in this encyclopedia. Of course you can’t say anything worthwhile about a whole national literature in just a little encyclopedia entry. We find out for example, that the hugely important Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund combines rhythm and image. And that the hugely influential Kim Hyesoon is a woman’s writer in the confessional mode. We don’t in other words find out anything at all about the rest of the world. Other nations are just reduced to some pointless summarizing.