On canon, Kenneth Goldsmith, and reading
I pitched this piece before Kenneth Goldsmith’s March 2015 performance at Brown University, and I wrote the interlinking reflections that follow the first section right after Goldsmith’s performance, so the progression of my thinking within this reflection is contorted and strange, especially now that I’m writing this preface months later. My piece feels a bit out of time, and while the intention of its content holds true, the reference points and ongoing discourse around the politics of Conceptualism (for example, reactions and performances made in spring and summer 2015 by Vanessa Place, Ron Silliman, and other poets and thinkers) make portions of it feel a bit outdated. From the outset, even before issues of race and appropriation set afire the poetry community, my intention was to discuss how canons are framed in deeply exclusionary ways, even within some of the portions of the canon that seem settled. I tend to think such exclusionary practices are just reinscribed across spaces — people seem to prefer there to be a telos in which a handful of contemporary writers “descend” from another handful of writers, all of whom look, and think, and sex, relatively the same. To be blunt: it is a bad way of looking at the world.
My initial intention with this reflection was to approach a transhistorical and transnational reading of a handful of canonical poets as a subversively amateur practice in order to intimate how the same structures of exclusion that reify a handful of white, heterosexual poets to privileged positions within Conceptual poetry are extant across temporal and national borders even within some of the more seemingly formed and settled historical sites of canonicity, sites that themselves can often be expanded via comparative lenses and contemporary theory. The aesthetic preferences that prop up a blank, white, able-bodied, heterosexual version of Conceptual poetry overlap, for instance, with the aesthetic preferences that exclude Richard Crashaw from the canon for being too femme, too excessive, too foreign. T. S. Eliot described Crashaw’s poetry: “Subtract from Donne the powerful intellect, substitute a feminine for a strongly masculine nature, posit a devotional temperament rather than a theological mind, and add the influence of Italian and Spanish literature … and you have Crashaw.” Given the dominant Anglo-American aesthetic, it’s no surprise that until 2013 there hadn’t been a critical edition of Crashaw’s poetry published in over forty years. Aesthetically queer, femme, excessive, foreign: erased.
To turn this toward the personal (because maybe the personal is still political): while a young, tender, and impressionable student in MFA school, I included an epigraph from a Rilke poem at the top of one of my own poems, and a doctoral student there looked at my poem and said, “Rilke, really? That’s sentimental rubbish.” A dull, offhand comment, but I respected this person, and his comment became a kind of strange, worm-like thing in my brain that bothered me for months. I deleted the epigraph. I read Rilke with more critical-tinted glasses. I pushed Rilke away from me. Why? Why did I listen to this person? How strange that while thinking about Conceptual poetry now I stumbled across a scholar who described the contemporary critical discourse surrounding Rilke in these terms:
One can remark that the critical discourse on Rilke runs to the homophobic without oneself attributing homosexuality to the poet. Instead, the point is that the professional stricture that readers should not get too personally stimulated by the caress of this seductive voice is structurally like, and probably is, prophylaxis against too-great intimacy with the sissy poet.
What is implied in intimacy? What should we be intimate with? Within such structures as the ones that exclude Crashaw and contain Rilke, to be called serious, to be allowed rigor easily, is to be bound inside an immunological border that elevates a handful of poets who are easily incorporated into white, cis, heterosexual, privileged, and able-bodied positions. Even these poets so seemingly canonical get cut out, excised. Other bodies need not apply — or, rather, there is no application process: there is a self-reproducing canonicity-machine reinforced by certain aesthetic proclivities and institutions written into those aesthetic proclivities. There are efforts at tokenistic inclusion, but the center rarely shifts; the world, the body of literature framed as being important to being in the world, rarely refigures itself deeply and inextricably. The question is: how can one change disciplinary and institutional spaces in order to make them more inclusive? What is being included on syllabuses? What theory is being read? How are you talking about the object in front of you? These spaces and canons are not going to disappear in a puff of smoke, but we can question what we’re including, and how we’re looking at it. In a way, this feels like a regressive suggestion of a return to warring over what should be included and excluded from the canon — but it feels clear to me from my everyday interactions within graduate school and within the wider poetry community, that we need to keep returning to these discussions within the institutional spaces we occupy. We need to look again at syllabi, at reading series, at journals, at conferences, at hiring practices, at the very lenses we use to approach texts in order to ask: “what is being left out?” Why has the center of this discourse settled here? What can I do as a student, teacher, writer, person, activist in order to make this better, to make it more inclusive? Such work is inescapable even when one sits down with metaphysical poets to pray to some dirty and erotic version of the religious, even as one is abstractly trying to navigate the relationship between the spiritual and the profane.
Against Conceptualism as a center
My initial intention was to provide a space strangely out-of-time and out-of-contemporary-poetry to think about how pervasive all of this is, but my initial intention was framed before Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown,” before what some people considered the center of contemporary “Conceptual poetry” collapsed on itself, became nothing more than an echo that I hardly remember as much more than an empty space, an opening to be left for a multiplicity of poets. I take a bit of joy in this breakdown, and I want to caution against an attempt to recuperate certain writing practices under the singular banner of Conceptual poetry. I don’t think, nor do I think anyone should think, intertextuality, erasure, pastiche, performance, docupoetics, neobaroque poetics, ecopoetics, ethnopoetics, experimental lyricism, and so on, are practices that need to be included explicitly under the banner of “Conceptual poetry.” At best, Conceptual poetry is just one practice amid these other practices, and that’s fine, and that shouldn’t even be the center of our concerns because there are structures of exclusion that are much more insidious, of much greater import, than the mode or style a text was made in. And I ask quite simply to Conceptual poetry: what are you really adding to Warhol, and why won’t you let him have his femme shoes, male bodies, blowjobs, and erotics? Better yet, why are you even trying to add to Warhol? What do you have to say about systemic violence, systemic death? What do you wonder about as bodies around you are dying and you are surviving? I hope, for all our sakes, it’s not just the reproduction and representation of text.
Tentative closing thoughts
Proximally and for the most part, unless explicitly poked, poked the way I felt poked by Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, I’m not a polemical person. I’m too bad at my own life, at being in the world myself, at coping with my three courses and teaching and my desire to be engaged in local politics. So, instead of giving you an epiphany, I just want to ask you, reader, to pressure your reading practices and the reading practices of the communities you occupy, because reading is a demanding practice that can help you find a way to be in our shared, complex, violent, political given. Seek out books that can provide you with an ethics in this sea of carnophallologocentric violence that is bound into all of the light bouncing off of all of the material that is entering your wounds, your eyes. And maybe your reading practices are even better than mine; in fact, I hope they are, and I hope you’re asking others to read different things too as an act of love, and that you’re loving those people so much that you help them push that reading into change at the site of politics, and at the site of the institution, and at the site of all that is dying outside of the text. This world, this world and the things we read within it, will be all the better for it; it will let us see how we might survive.
2. For a detailed description of the critical reception of Crashaw’s poetry see the introduction to Richard Crashaw, The English Poems of Richard Crashaw,ed. Richard Rambuss (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
4. Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Body of Michael Brown” (reading, Interrupt3: A Discussion Forum and Studio for New Forms of Language Art, The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University, Providence, RI, March 13, 2015).
5. I was asked to respond to Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown” on the last day of Interrupt3. A version of this response titled “The (Dis)Embodied Voice” is available online at The Offing with an introduction by Michael D. Snediker. The short response was originally performed using a feminine electronic voice in a form of drag.
I’M A REAL ARTIST
I’M A REAL MAMMAL
I’M A REAL SON
I’M A REAL AMERICAN
I’M A REAL HOMOSEXUAL
I’M A REAL BROTHER
I’M A REAL HOMINID
I’M A REAL CREATOR
I’M A REAL THIRTY-YEAR-OLD
I’M A REAL FRENCH
I’M A REAL UNCLE
I’M A REAL COOK
I’M A REAL MASTURBATOR
I’M A REAL DESCENDANT
I’M A REAL PRACTITIONER
I’M A REAL READER
I’M A REAL POET
I’M A REAL WORKER
I’M A REAL SLEEPER
I’M A REAL LOVER
I’M A REAL OMNIVORE
I’M A REAL PLAYER
I’M A REAL COUSIN
I’M A REAL EMPLOYEE
I’M A REAL STUDENT
I’M A REAL PISSER
I’M A REAL STEP-SON
I’M A REAL RESEARCHER
I’M A REAL NEPHEW
I’M A REAL DREAMER
I’M A REAL WINE DRINKER
I’M A REAL BIKER
I’M A REAL NON-DRIVER
I’M A REAL MYSTIC
I’M A REAL PEDESTRIAN
I’M A REAL NON-SMOKER
I’M A REAL WHITE MAN
I’M A REAL PRIVILEGED PERSON
I’M A REAL COMPUTER USER
I’M A REAL DIRECTOR
I’M A REAL SEDENTARY MAN
I’M A REAL ADULT
I’M A REAL LOVER
I’M A REAL FELLATOR
I’M A REAL QUÉBÉCOIS
I’M A REAL SWALLOWER
I’M A REAL SON-IN-LAW
I’M A REAL INSOMNIAC
I’M A REAL DRINKER
I’M A REAL VOYEUR
I’M A REAL VIDEOGRAPHER
I’M A REAL LITTLE SON
I’M A REAL SPENDER
I’M A REAL COLLECTOR
I’M A REAL CATHOLIC
I’M A REAL MAN
I’M A REAL ANIMAL
I’M A REAL VISITOR
I’M A REAL HEIR
I’M A REAL OBSERVER
I’M A REAL STEP-BROTHER
I’M A REAL WESTERNER
I’M A REAL SHITTER
I’M A REAL TOURIST
I’M A REAL SPITTER
I’M A REAL LIVING
I’M A REAL LITTLE NEPHEW
I’M A REAL SLOBBERER
I’M A REAL MONTREALER
I’M A REAL HOMO SAPIENS
I’M A REAL FUCKED
I’M A REAL SUPPORTER
I’M A REAL FUCKER
I’M A REAL CONTINENTAL
I’M A REAL FEMINIST
I’M A REAL BELIEVER
I’M A REAL LISTENER
I’M A REAL BOURGEOIS
I’M A REAL BUYER
I’M A REAL PILGRIM
I’M A REAL ISLANDER
I’M A REAL SPEAKER
I’M A REAL SCREWER
I’M A REAL SAVER
I’M A REAL CLEANER
I’M A REAL ASSISTANT
I’M A REAL PERFORMER
I’M A REAL ESSAYIST
I’M A REAL BORROWER
I’M A REAL PAYER
I’M A REAL FAN
I’M A REAL PLAYER
I’M A REAL SPEAKER
I’M A REAL CONSUMER
I’M A REAL MOVIE BUFF
I’M A REAL PARISHIONER
I’M A REAL EATER
I’M A REAL PAPIST
I’M A REAL SUBJECT
I’M A REAL SCHOLAR
I’M A REAL TAXPAYER
I’M A REAL CUSTOMER
I’M A REAL FRIEND
I’M A REAL TENANT
I’M A REAL SPECTATOR
I’M A REAL LEFTIST
I’M A REAL CITIZEN
I’M A REAL THINKER
I’M A REAL UNKNOWN
I’M A REAL CHILD
I’M A REAL MORTAL
I’M A REAL EARTHLING
I’M A REAL TRAVELER
I’M A REAL SINNER
I’M A REAL JOKER
I’M A REAL DESPERATE
I’M A REAL LUNATIC
I’M A REAL MESS
I’M A REAL PLAGIARIST
I’M A REAL ARTIST
“I’M A REAL ARTIST (JE SUIS UN VÉRITABLE ARTISTE)” was first published in May 2012 in French by No Press.
CODA: In 1972, the conceptual artist Keith Arnatt was photographed as a sandwich man, holding a placard which read “I’M A REAL ARTIST” to create his Trouser-Word Piece. This photograph was accompanied by a philosophical text that questioned the term “real.” However, Arnatt’s piece remained ambiguous: Was it simply tautological (an artist says that he is an artist within a work of art …), or was it ironic? Forty years after the creation of Trouser-Word Piece and in a similar spirit, my poem “I’M A REAL ARTIST (JE SUIS UN VÉRITABLE ARTISTE)” questions the possibility of having a “real”/stable identity.
A way to begin is finding a way to begin without. Writing with brown
outs and without internet on this island is to begin without access to
the etymology of the word begin. On this island you learn to live off
scraps washed up from where. The word begin is made of scraps
washed up on fishermen’s shore. The words are plastic post
apocalyptic bits: a pink child’s wallet, soda bottle wrappers, Shoe
Mart shopping bags. The scrap collector fisherman was bent over
picking through whatever could support his life and house. Things
around here begin like this — salvaging second and third things from
an unknowable life before.
When the Spaniards came, they brought cocks. They trained native
islanders to train the cocks to fight. They brought money, Santo Niño,
cholera, and their language of science that could not be translated into
native tongues. They brought a brain, a globe, and a golden future of
extraction with a pope that would keep returning for his knuckles to
be kissed by a girl who asks “why does god allow so much
prostitution in my country?”
The salty air eats away at things from before, mostly metal: tricycle
jeepneys, motorbikes, window frames, sinks, shower faucets, light
fixtures, Spam cans, pambot motors. Decay and unfinished concrete
structures appear “site-specific,” a tropical minimalist afterthought in
the context of privileged art. This unfinished building will remain
outside, thousands of miles outside of Noah Purifoy, unlocatable,
unnamable, unarchivable, unremembered, and therefore, free.
In Olango everyone and everything is hashtagless. Crab and fish
variants circulate in the wider sphere of ghostly friends and followers.
Simulacra here is useless. Everyone might be related somehow. There
are only two different kinds of beer, San Miguel and Red Horse.
There are several videoke machines and American lyrics housed in a
binder filled with individual plastic sheets to keep the fantasy clean.
Just before someone wants to become Mariah Carey, cocks crow
biblically like everyone is Peter in denial of their Lord. So deep in my
day dream but its such a sweet sweet fantasy baby.
If a life might begin with/through/because of romance (as a genre),
does it ultimately begin with empire? As visitors we witness a
succession of beginnings that depends on continuous replenishment
and repair. There is no single solution for how to build a home
resistant to salt, typhoons, and earthquakes. Like romance, there is no
single solution for how to buy and sell imaginary love. Can you
imagine a Danielle Steel narrative taking place in a matriarchal post-
apocaplytic minarchy littered with plastics, coconut trees, and a
language with no word for kitsch?
To begin to exist to others you have to create yourself to receive the
false shine of information, however true. First and last name. Email or
mobile number. New password. Birthday. Female or Male. Sign up. I
drew the internet on the sand, bottle caps for log-in buttons, starfish to
like and share. Crabs crawled out of the screen, water a natural mode
of erasure. Of course this never happened but it’s like so easy to do.
At the height of night, something circles outside of time, dogs and
cocks screaming. Wind the shape of angry wind. There must be
another way of putting it, not exactly bolo knives. You leave the
bathroom light on so the ghosts won’t come to wake you. At least
one’s already there in the room but you pretend you’re better than it.
There’s some kind of telephone in your chest and you call on the
Virgin Mary who might as well be a fair skinned Maria Clara, a
whitening bleach soap commercial, but definitely not a barrio
girlfriend, to come help you. When she doesn’t come, you switch
back and forth between the triangulation of benevolent protectors:
US, Spanish, and pre-colonial gods. Japanese gods didn’t penetrate
hard enough to make you call on them. Which one will come? Which
one will stay? Only sleep can begin to save you.
The screen was small enough to imagine actually being here. There
were no photos of this island, only a nipa hut deep in Surigao del Sur
surrounded by unrecognizable hues of green. On this mangrove
beach, there’s a white raft that could become a façade of a house.
Local children play house on it. Who knows what they imagine. But
without façades, in what direction would paranoia go? Would it go
back home or to a grave? Between the screen and raft is a kind of
heterotopia — not entirely elsewhere nor here too.
A village shares a portable videoke machine. You must slip pesos into
the coin slot to turn it on. You must pay to partake in a journey of
culturally specific repetition and mimicry. No one can tell you which
song to sing, only you can choose which one to lend yourself to. Like
your Filipino father, you give yourself over to a distant yet present
empire: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles. (Mimi)cry is also
an intimate relation to an object, one step removed from becoming
that object. This is why impersonators are so powerful; they get to
marvel in the space between relation and becoming. Their becoming
is continuous and meant to never be fulfilled which is why the
machine is full of money.
Press 0 to speak to a customer service agent. You are caller number 2,
therefore, forced to get lost in Für Elise. As you look beyond the half
open window slats, the stupid notes carry you into a hallucination of
bleach white wigs copy and pasted over barrio kids running around a
mangrove. Someone with a neutral accent politely asks what your
technical problem is. You begin to forget what the problem was. Was
it about data roaming on a tropical suburban tourist island, was it
about data charges for photo uploads on instagram? You begin to hear
the neutral accent of millions of voices spread across a thousand call
centers in the Philippines. In trying to remember why you called in
the first place, the neutral accent asks how they can assist you. You
begin to sense that neutrality is a polite way of meaning assimilation.
The question of why anyone would want to sound like you ultimately
points toward a skill set, therefore, a wage. That someone might need
to sound like you is merely a means of survival.
Here there are no communication machines no “assist relations”
between family and friends but there’s a sari sari store filled with
decades old computers and television sets. Media relics undergo slow
and continuous makeovers to unknown ends. Cognitive enslavement
hasn’t begun. Reflected from the dim and lifeless screens are young
men hammering local trees into boats and those boats will have blue
painted windows to imitate a reflection of the sky or sea.
What happens to the code of beheadings or dick pics that have been
scrubbed into nothing? Does it disappear forever or take up space in
the mind of content moderators? Here is one kind of emotional labor.
Here is a different kind of erasure. Human invisibility in the
Philippines is a requisite for the production and flow of palatable
images on US screens. Eat your green beans, it’s good for you. Finish
your rice, it’s a sin to waste food.
What they brought was a holy child or infant. After all, a child or
infant could mean no harm. The twelve inch figure from Belgium was
code for empire; the child armed in a velvet robe holding a gold globe
in its left hand and right hand raised in benediction as if to say “you
can be saved by the monarchy if you let us destroy you.” The tiny
figure just kept multiplying from Prague and reached the Visayas.
Just imagine Humaway, after being crowned queen, receiving this
most sacred code meant to annihilate; a ticking bomb that would keep
exploding for the next several hundred years in the form of feast days
or quietly in the mind.
They went to an underground river tour in Palawan to feel some finite
darkness inside the earth. The feeling could be rented for 45 minutes
with strangers. As the plastic orange canoe moved further into
absolute darkness, the remnants of capitalism stayed bright outside.
The underpaid tour guide yelled from the back of the canoe and
pointed out concrete projections as a way of communicating with the
tourists; the ability to be relatable as a banana leaf motif of emotional
labor. Stalactites and guano accumulated into bratty amorphous
figures that resembled a food market, cathedral, movie star, hot dogs,
Pegasus. Regardless of how far into the darkness they went, an
audience remained inside them, wondering if they got their money’s
worth. When they returned to their Airbnb, they read philosophy and
watched The Butler and Julia & Julie from the dvd library. “The
thinking mind […] is that work which produces reality, that is to say
work as projection” summed up the underground river perfectly.
Like any beautiful self-similar pattern, the young Filipina held hands
with a much older white man. For generations of Spanish and
American empire, their relationship resembled a Koch snowflake.
There’s no snow in the Philippines but infinite iterations of this type
of always oppressive relationship rich with gray areas.
Note: The complete document from which this piece is taken is a collaboration with Ben Segal forthcoming from Urgeruge Books. Photos taken in Cebu, Philippines, by Feliz Lucia Molina.
List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the Commissioner of Immigration at Port of Arrival
Required by the regulations of the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, under Act of Congress approved March 3, 1893, to be delivered to the Commissioner of Immigration by the Commanding Officer of any vessel having such passengers on board upon arrival at a port in the United States
1. No. on list
49 x 49 (7 x 7 = 49)
2. Name in full
Your Name Try CUNT INTERNATIONAL
One and Three Chairs
OVER AND OVER. OVER AND OVER. AND OVER AND OVER. AND OVER AND OVER.
5. Married or single
Painting to Hammer a Nail In
6. Calling or occupation
I Like America and America Likes Me
7. Able to read | write
I’m Too Sad to Tell You
Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole
9. Race or people
One Billion Colored Dots
10. Last residence (province, city or town)
House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home
11. Seaport for landing in the United States
The Residue of a Flare Ignited Upon a Boundary
12. Final destination in the United States (state, city or town)
Thirtyfour Parking Lots
13. Whether having a ticket to such final destination
Protect Me From What I Want
14. By whom passage was paid
Pay Nothing Until April
15. Whether in possession of money, if so, whether more than $30 and how much if $30 or less
Take Care of Yourself
16. Whether ever before in the United States, and if so, when and where
17. Whether going to join a relative, and if so, what relative, their name and address
Portrait of Iris Clert
18. Purpose of coming to the United States
19. Ever in prison, or almshouse, or institution for care and treatment of the insane, or supported by charity. If so, which?
20. Whether a polygamist?
Don’t Postpone Joy, or Collecting Can Be Fun
21. Whether an anarchist?
I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art
22. Whether under contract, express or implied, to labor in the United States
Workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes
23. Condition of health, mental and physical
Statue of Venus Obliterated By Infinity Nets
24. Deformed or crippled, nature, length of time and cause
I Am Still Alive
25. Height: feet. | Inches.
Vanilla Nightmares #3
27. Color of — Hair. | eyes.
28. Marks of identification
12 Months with Postcards From Today of Kittens
29. Place of Birth. Country. | City or Town
There is a morning when it rains in the corner of everybody’s bedroom.
— Jack Spicer, excerpt from Oliver Charming’s Diary (1953)
I started a Tumblr in 2011 and called it Little-Richards. For it, I took screenshots of all the dick pics I received without solicitation from dating apps I sometimes use to flirt with other users. I applied two filters to each image. First, a nice sepia tone (Am I projecting? This is very common.), and second, a soft-focus, so as to strip each dick pic from its original context as misfed courage, and hopefully get to a place where each dick can tell me it knows what I want. Maybe something soft, but likely nothing at all. Then I posted them.
If Little-Richards is any good — and it may not be (none of the photos have gotten any likes) — it is because it stops short of benefiting the real-world context it came from. The conceptual operation at the heart of the project — that I would screen cap these images, fuck with them a bit, and repost them onto an ongoing Tumblr account — doesn’t provide a specific point of entry “into” the piece as a viable channel through which its viewer might gain access to its lurking compiler, nor anything necessarily to do with that compiler’s penchant for lurking, or for looking at dick pics. Rather, Little-Richards hopes to expose no more than the possible behaviors that such a penchant allows for. The preference to look at dick pics, here, is merely the hollow condition that led the compiler to feed on the dicks in the first place. Otherwise, I can say that if Little-Richards is any good, it is because the title makes a pun on the R&B singer’s name and then follows through, with the appearance of many dicks, which are, for the most part, not little. In any case, it is a good idea to bite back the boner that feeds you. If that’s not your thing, fine. Here are three hundred ways to pull out.