Saturday, June 27, 2009

Artaud and "Profound Anarchy"

The spirit of profound at the root of all poetry.

Poetry is anarchic to the degree that it brings into play all the relationships of object to object and of form to signification. It is anarchic also to the degree that its occurrence is the consequence of a disorder that draws us closer to chaos.

To make metaphysics out of a spoken language is to make the language express what it does not ordinarily express: to make use of it in a new, exceptional, and unaccustomed fashion; to reveal its possibility for producing physical shock; to divide and distribute it actively in space; to deal with intonations in an absolutely concrete manner, restoring their power to shatter as well as really to manifest something; to turn against language and its basely utilitarian, one could say alimentary, sources, against its trapped-beast origins; and finally, to consider language as the form of INCANTATION.

It is readily visible here that some parts of Artaud's formulations fit post-avant better than others. How much in common does edge have with anarchy? Artaud does not give examples here of what would constitute a resolutely anarchic language. It would seem that, because post-avant (as I have formulated it) has a strong narrative sense, the kind of anarchy that Artaud is naming would be inadmissable. On the other hand, poems with edges can impart the feeling of anarchy, rather than the anarchic state itself. That is part of post-avant: creating affect out of semblances of anarchy and/or chaos. The irony, and it is one that Artaud does not address, is that to create this kind of affect takes tremendous formal discipline. You cannot waste any words, make any false or half-assed moves, put anything out that does not add to the effect. This, to me, is one of Artaud's Achilles' heels: he does not offer examples (at least where poetry is concerned), but a kind of Science of Imaginary Solutions, so that we are left to piece together and reconstruct our version of what Artaud is talking about. One thing that would be hard to argue with is that Artaud wants words to transmit a certain vision of reality, rather than any artifice or self-absorption.

This is what I referred to earlier: a certain way of making art through authenticity, which in this case means channeling and accessing the primeval chaos that lies beneath all language. Language serves something deeper, rather than being an end in itself. Where post-avant is concerned, this depth flows from a commitment to expressing every kind of edge which human beings experience: psychological (and Artaud happens to hate psychology, which is another stumbling block), emotional, metaphysical, sexual, and all the other ones. Physical shock, as Artaud describes it, is an apt description of what post-avant poetry should produce (in its ideal form, which many poets are still working towards.) Incantation, however, is problematic, in the sense that it aligns poetry with music, and language that merely "chimes," that is merely musical, can never suffice for post-avant. Although, who knows, perhaps someone will write a striking anaphoric poem in the post-avant mode, and show us how it can be accomplished. I do not see any reason why it could not happen. All it takes is a commitment to edge and to affixing it to poetry's long history; ambition, in other words. How ambitious is post-avant?

Here's another interesting Artaud bit:

We must get rid of our superstitious valuation of texts and WRITTEN poetry. Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed. Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us, deadens our responses, and prevents us from making contact with that underlying power, call it thought-energy, the life force, the determinism of change, lunar menses, or anything you like. Beneath the poetry of the texts, there is the actual poetry, without form and without text.

Artaud wanted to get beyond language, and to do it through theater; poetry (of course) does not have the option of getting beyond language. Nonetheless, these are useful insights, because it shows what post-avant has in common with its parent movements: a hankering for something "deeper than language." It is also useful to think of post-avant as an irreverent movement, which acknowledges lineage without being willing to sacrifice any of its edges. Post-avant, and post-avant poets, should be polyglot. I want post-avant to be in that prized second category: a movement which succeeds via authenticity. I do not want to cast aspersions on other movements, but there is a potential for a new mode of humanism in post-avant, and the opportunity is too good to waste. We cannot be the ideal artists that Artaud would have wanted; we rely too much on what Artuad wants to get rid of. However, that Artaud associated affect, chaos, anarchy, and physical shock with his Theater of Cruelty is a good sign. There is genuine overlap. The idea that post-avant could manifest a Poetics of Cruelty is not too far-fetched. The point Artaud was trying to make is that what is cruel is what is real, and post-avant is attempting to prove precisely the same thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Post-Avant and Personism

Frank O'Hara's Personism, though not as stringently defined as Breton's Surrealism, or our own Aughts Neo-Surrealismis another movement (a one-poet movement, in this case) that can and has had a fruitful interaction with post-avant. There are solid reasons to say that post-avant can go further than Surrealism; where Personism is concerned, I would say that post-avant does not necessarily go further, but is substantially different in its approach. Personism involves the social aspect of poems; how they can serve as links between individuals (or groups), and in doing so enact a tender (or fierce) intimacy. What is intimate about the O'Hara poems we know is that we never doubt his sincerity as a (usually first-person) protagonist. The edges come from a certain honesty at all costs; that O'Hara does not pull punches, though he is seldom brutal, either. O'Hara is sincere, overt, direct, and touchingly so. What post-avant wants to do is to take Personism and darken it. Post-avant's spin on the Personism ball often produces poems that have an edge of detachment, parody/satire, or even meanness; taking Personism and giving it an edge of experience over innocence. Rather than reality infringing on dreams, reality infringes on relationships. People's edges are exposed, their weaknesses probed, their insecurities laid bare.To demonstrate the darkening of Personism, I thought to bring in a poem by Jason Bredle, one of the darkest (and funniest) poets working this terrain.

This famous Personal Poem is taken from O'Hara's Lunch Poems. It is representative of O'Hara's vision of Personism (which he did, in fact, patent):

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's where I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, and LeRoi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then

we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

Now, a post-avant response; Bredle's Girls, Look Out for Todd Bernstein:

Because after sitting out for a spell
he's back with a degree in accounting and a high
paying position in one of the leading
pharmaceutical corporations in the country
and aspirations of owning that exotic yellow
sports car, license plate EVIL.
And like Dennis Meng at Sycamore Chevrolet
stakes his reputation on his fully reconditioned
used cars, I stake my reputation
on telling you Todd Bernstein means business
this time, girls. No more of this being passed over
for abusive arm wrestling stars. He's got
a velour shirt now. No more of your excuses-
if he wants you, you're there. None of this
I'm shaving my pubes Friday night nonsense-
come on, you think Todd Bernstein's
going to fall for that? He knows you're not
studying, not busy working on some local
political campaign, not having the guy
who played Cockroach on THE COSBY SHOW over
for dinner, not writing any great American
novel. He's seen your stuff and it's nothing more
than mediocre lyrical poetry with titles
like "The Falling" and "Crucible" and "Waking to Death"
that force impossible metaphors, despairing
about love and womanhood and how bad
your life is even though you grew up happily
in suburban America, or at least as happily
as anyone can grow up in suburban America,
which normally, you know, consists of
the appearance of happiness while your dad is doing
three secretaries on the side and your mom
pretends not to know and brags to the entire
town about how you're an actress about to star
in a sitcom about the misadventures of a cable TV
repairperson who, while out on a routine
installation one day, accidentally
electrically blasts herself into the living room
of a family of barbarian warloads on a planet
near Alpha Centauri who force her into slavery
before sending her on a pillage mission
to a planet of Cloxnors who capture her and place
her in a torture institution where she meets
a vulnerable Meeb whom she convinces, because of
her cable TV repairperson skills, to let her
become nanny to its impressionable Meeblets just
before it's about to rip off her limbs
with its ferocious abnons and devour her.
The results, according to your mom, are hilarious,
but come on, you and I both know the story
is just so PREDICTABLE. And Todd knows
your writing doesn't pull off any metaphors
for the happiness taken from you by some dude
who played bass and called himself a musician
when all he could really do was play a couple
of chords and sing about true love and alligators
and how the alligator represents true love
which somehow explains the legend where the guy
cut open an alligator one time in Florida
and found a golfer. There's just no fooling
Todd. Sure, he'll act like he's interested, that's
Todd Bernstein, and he'll make claims
that he too has written or been artistic
at some point in his life, but Todd Bernstein
knows all you girls really want is a piece
of good old Todd Bernstein. No longer
will any strange auras enter the bedroom
during sex and keep him from maintaining
an erection, no longer will any women
walk out on him repulsed. If anybody's walking out
after sex, it'll be Todd Bernstein, I can assure you.
He won't be humiliating himself by falling down
a flight of stairs in front of a group of Japanese
tourists anymore, but rather coaxing entire
masses of women into his bedroom. Because
that's Todd Bernstein. He's on the move.
And he wants you to know, girls, that he's well aware
you certainly can't learn Korean sitting around here
which is why he's out there right now, preparing
for the slew of women just beyond his sexual
horizon, spray-painting GIRLS, LOOK OUT
of a Village Pantry.

A mouthful, to be sure. But, as funny, perverse, and on-the-surface as much of the humor is, notice that there is an ambiguity here that is not in O'Hara. What we have is a poem mostly written in the third-person, with an "I" here and there thrown in for good measure. The effect is to call into doubt what the relationship is between "I" and the legendary Todd Bernstein. The narrative has so many edges in it that the implied relationship could not be farther from the relationship between Frank and LeRoi in the first poem. There, Personism means straightforward friendship, camaraderie, a sense of being in cahoots against the rest of the (especially literary) world. We do not learn anything embarrassing about Frank or LeRoi in the poem (unless we want to count Frank's "batting average.") Here, we learn nothing about the poem's "I," and everything (and more) than we ever wanted to know about Todd Bernstein. Frank and LeRoi are equals; the narrator in Bredle's poem seems to be looking down on Todd Bernstein from an omniscient perspective. When put through the post-avant skewer, Personism comes out twisted by the recognition of human frailties. We see so far into Todd Bernstein that he becomes a joke- his delusions of grandeur, sexual frustrations, inability to connect. Bredle's tangents (and there are a bunch) are another way of creating edge; it is the literary equivalent of playing bumper cars. Bredle includes the raw and the brutal, to hilarious effect- the gruesome detail about girls "shaving their pubes Friday night," the suburban dad "doing three secretaries on the side." The net effect is Personism shot through with black humor and satire, and it is, to my eyes, at least as potent as O'Hara's original version.

P.S. Jason Bredle on PFS Post.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jordan Stempleman: Softer Edges

I am by no means convinced that Jordan Stempleman's work fits into a post-avant frame-work. As with Andrew Lundwall's Neo-Surrealism and some of Chris McCabe's work, there are edges, and what Stempleman is doing is (more often than not) substantially new, but edges are usually overtaken by an impulse towards grace, delicacy, charm, and sophisticated perspectives. These are the thematic issues Stempleman raises which this discourse needs to deal with: non-edgy affect (love), straightforward sentiment, caring, affection, and the domestic. With Stempleman, as with Steve Halle, what you get, as has been shown in PFS Post,  is frequently an air of the domestic sublime; poems which address private concerns in resolutely subjective language. All these things seem incompatible with the brutality, rawness, razor-sharp edges, and modes of affect that I see as pivotal to post-avant.

This poem is called Love, and it is from the Otoliths book Facings. It can be considered an archetypal Stempleman poem:

I told them, you can take half the conversation
away from a stranger without them ever knowing

it, take the real side away, and then turn it
into that place, that day that never happened

to you, some intended thought, now yours. There,
you will have it for years, or because of the excitement

that will no doubt accompany this treasure, the night
will come when, not alone to repeat it only to yourself,

perhaps, lying down in a close but uncomfortable
position, faced with a person equally as exciting (in

their own way) as what you've heard, you will tell
them this side of things, so they can stare at you

as you tell it. And afterwards, before falling asleep
near them, they will tell you, I know, I was there.

There are no edges, as I have defined them, here. The poem takes its energy from an intimacy that is graceful, relaxed, and even (slightly) epiphanic. Beyond an obvious glow of genuine human warmth, the poem is charged by a subtle kind of pronoun game: who is "them" in line one? Why does the third person plural not appear again? The conceit of having more than one "I" in the poem creates an effect of boundaries being blurred, which is very similar to what we experience in close physical proximity to a lover or mate. Yet the poem's peculiar grace lies in the combination of familiar and unfamiliar elements: it is never obvious, and, while it does not exactly attack, it is certainly multi-leveled. This impression is heightened by a kind of twist ending, in the sense that the poem deliberately leaves unanswered questions. This is done without ever losing sight of an immaculate internal smoothness, the opposite of edginess. How could the second "I" have been there to witness the fabled conversation? Was it a miraculous occurrence?

Here is another Stempleman poem, from his Blazevox book String Parade. It is called Unlike Weight:

There are more faucets
in this house than hands.

My daughter thinks of telling
me, the time is now

to go out and get myself
a gun. She silently looks

at me, eyeing my gumption,
determining how much firepower

my wrists will take.
She looks at me differently

in these times, with a doubtful
pattern of the eyes, quite unlike

when we swim in large bodies
of water. There she is light

enough to carry. There she trusts
my arms will never snap.

There is a sweetness and a vulnerability to this which suggests edginess without being edgy. Edge here is an undercurrent, a darkling hint. I cannot think how this can be done in post-avant, unless it is made threatening and/or surreal, which is of course what Brooklyn Copeland does in Borrowed House. The dynamic between Copeland and Stempleman is interesting: both are low-key, subtle, nuanced, detailed, and (seemingly) rural. The difference seems to be that Copeland focuses on an edgy sense of her own sexuality, rather than on the settled domesticity that Stempleman highlights (as Nick Moudry plays the middle between them.) Stempleman comes ever so close to overdoing sentiment; but there is an imaginative edge, amidst all the grace, which redeems him most of the time. Here, it is displayed in the issue of fire-arms, in a very unlikely context. Domesticity is a theme or trope which will need to be addressed over a length of time. It is too broad and too complicated a conundrum in serious poetry to solve instantly, even in a discourse which aims to be as inclusive as possible.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Brooklyn Copeland: Borrowed House

Borrowed House is a chap released this year by Greying Ghost Press. I do not know if Brooklyn will have a problem with being labeled post-avant; yet these poems are, in fact, exemplary of what poems from the "narrative branch" of post-avant can do. They derive their energy from dramatic metaphors, some of which are extended for the length of the chap. Copeland's language never veers into the literal; figurative language predominates, and so narrative (in these poems) is immediately distinguished from language, as it appears in mainstream poetry. Copeland's poems haunt out of a sense of heightened tension and drama that is more potent for being understated. Despite their reliance on dramatic metaphor, these are demonstrably "relationship poems," that work out their edge via "we" rather than "I." Between these divergent impulses, unique textual entities present themselves, that demonstrate both the freshness and the disturbing quality that I look for in post-avant poetry.

The conflicting strains manifest palpably in He Is Watching which, in its eight solid lines, brings together many of the best elements in Copeland's poetry:

Press into the window.
You become

the shallow face
that presses into the window,

surveying all that was
and wishing for just one

more chew on the blade,
another second to swallow.

As is the case in Stacy Blair's work, the understated quality of the poem belies its visceral intensity, the physical nature and sensations that accrue to close readings of it. This response is encapsulated in the final two lines: "..chew on the blade,/ another second to swallow." Revulsion is part of the point, what lends the poem its potency, and why I would align it to post-avant. It is disturbing, unsettling, but not presented in a grandstanding way. In fact, if read quickly, it is rather inconspicuous. You have to read it slowly and carefully for it to cast its spell. The title (He Is Watching) clues us in that the poem, on at least one level, concerns voyeurism. It could be emotional, psychological, or sexual, but it undoubtedly involves a self-conscious narrator, who cloaks her rhetoric in metaphoric terms; a sophisticated narrative-thematic gambit Copeland is making. It is, also, a surprisingly complete performance from a younger poet, and doubly surprising because the different levels are not immediately apparent on first reading. If you dig deep into this poem, it is perceptible that the lack of sentiment and fanfare are specifically what allows the poem to turn its tricks successfully. Levels of temporality are important here too: the narrator is "becoming," while "surveying all that was."

Other poems in the collection play their games more overtly. Flirtations turns psycho-affective confrontation into a children's game, minimizing its seriousness with dollops of irony and raw frankness:

Drunk beside the pond, we play
with ultimatums

:if you cannot fathom this thick mud.

:if you cannot pull the legs from this daddy-long.

:if you cannot stew this prepubescent carrot
in your own blood.

:if you cannot hitch the butterfly with your sugared thumb.

:if you cannot look me in the eye
when you recite

the filthiest passage in the grassiest language.

The anaphoric catalog presented here is interesting for a number of reasons. Since both partners are "playing," it can be difficult to tell which partner is saying what. The most obvious ultimatum, of course, is the "prepubescent carrot in your own blood," which seems to issue from the female protagonist. She seems to be indicting her partner's sexual immaturity, his inability to raise himself above infantile self-obsession. These two lines are placed in the center of the anaphoric structure, making them both more visible and asked to carry more weight. Conversely, we are presented initially with the fact that these lovers are "drunk": this would seem to cast doubts on whether the catalog can be taken seriously, or if it is merely a kind of game again. Why are the lovers placed "beside the pond"? The pond, in fact, reappears throughout Borrowed House, but what it denotes remains elusive. A pond is not wild or active like a river or a sea; it is (like the astrological sign Scorpio) "fixed water." As such, it can be taken to denote the settled feeling of unease that has developed between the two protagonists, or something they have in common, or something between them that is draining their energy, or a little bit of all of these. Ultimately, Flirtations is interesting because it seems to contradict its own title; rather than seeming like flirtations, these ultimatums feel more like a game of Russian Roulette. Between the title and the substance of the poem, a layer of irony is added which makes the poem that much more satisfyingly obtuse; and that kind of depth, multi-leveled attack, is what post-avant is all about, or should be. I continue to explore these issues here.

Friday, June 05, 2009

"Anything with an edge": Rethinking Post-Avant

Many definitions have been posited for post-avant. There was a flurry of action about five months ago, in which I and a handful of other poets had it out over what post-avant means and what it does not. It was my impression that no general consensus was reached, and that much had been said but little of it had a substantial impact. This goes, certainly, for the things I said too; I do not privilege my own formulations here. Nonetheless, I think the discussion is a worthwhile one, and thinking about it has led me to some new conclusions. Here is the original definition I posited for post-avant: the diasporic movement of Language Poetry towards a new synthesis with erotic and narrative elements. That's roughly it. What I have been thinking over the last week is slightly different, and simpler. It is defining post-avant poetry as anything with an edge. This begs some immediate questions. What do we mean when we say that a poem, or a book of poems, has an edge? How do we strictly define edgy poetry? Colloquially, if it is said that something has an edge, it usually denotes that it is pointed, direct, sharp, and that it skirts the uncomfortable or the unsettling. It may deal, thematically, with a difficult issue, or it may take an unusual stance on an issue that has become stuck in a rut of settled representations.

These are the names of some poets you will see mentioned in the days to come: Jordan Stempleman, Brooklyn Copeland, Nick Moudry, Mary Walker GrahamStacy Blair, Jason Bredle, David Prater. To start with: all share a sense of vested intensity in representations of affective extremity in collusion with delicate, sensuous handling of metaphor and prosodic effects. What I call edgy in them may be an edge of humor, or of sexual hunger, or of desperate longing for any kind of transcendence, over circumstance or sense. Why this edge leads these poets away from disjuncture, back into narrative and erotic engagements, is that the ultimate textual idea or ideal here is fulsomeness, of being well-rounded, or of being a synecdoche of what is most compellingly human, humane. Avant-gardism, with its willful obfuscations, finds its wings clipped on one side; Centrism's insipidity and hackneyed expressionism finds its wings clipped on the other. Interesting to me is that so many of these poets were raised, nurtured, and found their voices in the Midwestern United States. How long has Indiana been waiting to express itself in a profound way?

The Midwest is in the middle of things, where the larger United States is concerned; so is post-avant poetry, as I have defined it here. If, because interrogations of text and textual efficacy must remain a post-avant imperative, the connection to Language poetry must remain staunch, it is nevertheless the case that post-avant can never settle for less then a cards-on-the-table confession of general emotional urgency and expressive intensity. Thus, the ways and means these poets have of developing this dichotomous dynamic- avant-garde interrogations towards linguistic innovation, offsetting a Neo-Romantic sense of appreciation of emotional and aesthetic gravitas- will be what we look into, hopefully with a refreshed sense of solid ground being broken, and with it a strain of American art guaranteed to live a long and healthy life in the world.

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