What nothing is in here?

The novel in a virtual absentia

Andrew Levy. Photo by Tim Trace Peterson.

I found myself talking to myself saying there must be an identity I’m getting acquainted with living in the postmodern — or is it the post-postmodern? It’s an identity I know nothing about. It knows nothing while seeming to know everything. It’s not the everything of the Victorian age, though, nor the ignorance of the perspicacious liberal skeptic. Those are identities with a past, ones I am familiar with, through usage as well as tradition and education. This one has no particular past it is not so sketchy about that it seems an abstraction.

Rather than puzzle out the why or how or origins of the identity I’m talking about, a task I feel beyond me, I had better identify it somehow. I can use my words and thoughts as well as referencing some literary fiction I’ve been reading lately, culminating in Andrew Levy’s Nothing Is in Here,[1] that seem to manifest this identity. If it’s an identity, it’s not a fact, a thing, or a given, but then I’m not sure in what sense it’s a construction or a premise, nor whether it has a nature. 

An identity may emerge somehow and invade, by osmosis, our pores, or mine, and become familiar, barely ever noticed, without defining who I am. My identity is plastic, mercurial, adaptive, like, I would suppose, anyone else’s. I don’t seem to be seen as the same at work as I am at home, though I’m the same guy; I’m not given the same identity by those I serve at work as by my kids.

In a postmodern or post-postmodern age, identity may be more generic and more plastic than ever, close to collapse into a liquid. The avatar doesn’t much count as an identity. What remains is vague. Vagueness and plasticity may be afunctional or dysfunctional by known standards, but might be one’s best shot at adjustment to the dystopia or atopia one may feel increasingly destined to envision as well-nigh hegemonic and definitive, and yet not quite. People still relate cooperatively, at times and in places. Dystopia and atopia are, like utopias, imaginative constructions that draw on experience (experiences of fantasy and of consensual reality). Even if they’re visionary and delusional, such constructions can become shared and come to condition and tailor one another’s response.

[The use of a-, as in atopia and afunctional, is intended, as in apolitical or amoral, to mean “without regard for” or “without reference to.” An amoral orientation has no investment in whether it’s morally right or wrong, whereas an immoral orientation clearly defies moral standards. An immoral choice violates morality; an amoral choice doesn’t reference morality. So an atopic orientation has no particular sense of place; an afunctional activity has no particular expectation regarding its function.] 

The afunctionality of the atopia may begin to supersede the wobble between utopia and dystopia observed through recorded history, or better still, to triangulate with them, the better to evaluate our own times. For all their hopes for enlightened consciousnesses in the postmodern period, people have also suffered perennial and acute betrayals of promises, abdications of premises, and hard-hearted brutality and trauma-reenactment as standards for their operating procedures, hard truths to look in the face day in day out, for which compromise, civilization, and progress have served as justification and cover.

Robert Musil’s unfinished second (and last) novel, The Man without Qualities, written from 1921 until his death in 1932, over 1700 pages long in a current Vintage paperback edition, is to me as uncanny and familiar a read as Tristram Shandy or De Rerum Natura, but represents a different age, so close to our own as to seem to bleed through it, indistinguishably, ours being an age in which the residues of the past seem ridiculous, hopeless, and pointless, in which the promise of the future may be lost in speculation, potentiality, and questioning.

The central character, Ulrich, is so absorbed in his idiosyncratic ideological dilemma regarding his technocratic orientation and his intuitive tendencies that he barely seems to do anything but pontificate at tangents, given opportunity for conversation, and the manner of his musings and pronouncements is as one with that of the narrator. Walter, a compulsive romantic and, like all the other characters, a perspicacious yet unreliable authority on that with which he is intimately familiar, says of his old friend Ulrich,

“He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect — why quibble, suppose we grant him all these qualities — yet he has none of them! They’ve made him what he is, they’ve set his course for him, and yet they don’t belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He’ll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context — nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a superwhole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only ‘how’ it is — some extraneous seasoning that somehow goes along with it, that’s what interests him. I don’t know whether I’m making myself clear —?” 

“Quite clear,” Clarisse said, “but I think that’s all very nice of him.”[2

This world is in its own way timeless, not as a traditional, ahistorical, and unchanging culture might be but as a moment that doesn’t resolve, pivoting between the decided and the undecidable. Wonderfully, events do transpire and have consequences, including other events, although whether any of these events matter, on any scale, is difficult to determine. As the author, or the narrator (no distinction is attempted), says in parsing Ulrich’s development, as a reflection of Ulrich’s own thoughts about it,

The drive of his own nature to keep developing prevents him from believing that anything is final and complete, yet everything that he encounters behaves as though it were final and complete. He suspects that the given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be; no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled, and the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted. [3]

Ulrich attempts to orient as follows, at least in one discussion with his cousin Diotima:

“For quite obvious reasons, every generation treats the life into which it is born as firmly established, except for those few things it is interested in changing. This is practical, but it’s wrong. The world can be changed in all directions at any moment, or at least in any direction it chooses; it’s in the world’s nature. Wouldn’t it be more original to try to live, not as a definite person in a definite world where only a few buttons need adjusting — what we call evolution — but rather to behave from the start as someone born to change surrounded by a world created to change, roughly like a drop of water inside a cloud? Are you annoyed with me for being so obscure again?”

“I’m not annoyed with you, but I can’t understand you.”[4

Women think in this book too but mostly quietly and to themselves, patronizing the ravings and ramblings of their male friends in a sort of abject appreciation. If Musil respects women, he doesn’t take this further than he can handle it, and he certainly represents a prefeminist realm.

One either cares, or doesn’t — never for the characters but perhaps rather for what happens in the thinking and writing committed to their consideration. The reader feels as if lost despite never leaving an orderly and unremarkable progress of personal and diplomatic relations that provide convincing contexts for unpredictable tides of reflection and realization that wash up breathtakingly from page to page. The present appears never to have impact or direction; its persons are alive with understandings that feel redolent with startling and yet unpurposed significance. People want things and hold huge ambitions, and yet one doesn’t sense their efforts lead them toward any sort of achievement.

“Now please don’t think,” he said, turning to her in all seriousness, “that all I mean by this is that everyone wants what is hard to get, and despises the attainable. What I mean is this: Within reality there is a senseless craving for unreality.”[5

J. M. Coetzee’s 2007 novel, Diary of a Bad Year, is set in Australia, where he became a citizen in 2006. It presents itself initially as a set of brief essays on topics he feels strongly about — gripes, or critiques — which we gather he’s prepared for publication in a proposed anthology of such pieces, but this might be a fiction. Here they are juxtaposed (passim, on the same pages, separated by horizontal lines) with brief passages in a developing account of his intrigued acquaintance with an attractive younger Filipina he takes on as typist and impromptu critic. After a second horizontal line is introduced on later pages, we also read her own sympathetic and acerbic reflections on both Coetzee and the man with whom she lives upstairs. Juxtapositions of passages from these superficially unrelated and yet approximately contemporaneous discourses break time and space into fragments, focusing a tension in the unmanageability of personalities that soon seem all too contracted in value and abilities.

One full sample page reads so:

In the days when Poland was under Communist rule, there were dissidents who conducted night classes in their homes, running seminars on writers and philosophers excluded from the official cannon (for example, Plato). No money changed hands, though there may have been other forms of payment. If the spirit of the university is to survive, something along those lines may have to come into being in countries where tertiary education has been wholly subordinated to business principles. In other words the real university may have to move into people’s homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates.

If you wanted a CV you should have asked for it at the beginning, she says. Instead of hiring me on the basis of my looks. Do you want to call it quits right now? That would suit me. Then you can find someone else who meets your high standards. Or go to a bureau, like I suggested in the first place.

Alan comes into the room while I am typing. So what are you up to now? he says. Typing for the old man, I say. What is it about? he says. Samurai, I say. He comes and reads over my shoulder. Birth certificates for animals, he says — is he crazy? Does he want to give them all names? Clifford John Rat. Annabel Rat. What about death certificates too, while he is about it? When are you coming to bed?[6

The power of thought, plainly reactive and responsive to circumstances, stymies any efficacy in altering them, even as it scores high points with remarkable consistency. As in The Man Without Qualities, little beyond discoursing occurs, and what does is commonplace and predictable, such as might have happened anyway, despite characters’ word-bound development of ambitious possibilities never pressed toward realization. Setting the novel in 2005 Australia serves little but to anchor it to Coetzee’s actual biography.

Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel, Chronic City, is set in Manhattan, across the East River from its author’s most accustomed stomping grounds. Lethem does not appear in this book, nor anyone who might appear to stand in for him, though he may share predictaments with all those he represents here. “Predictaments” are predicaments that are not only wholly predictable on the basis of what’s already been told as known but also more than likely to result in outcomes well-anticipated in advance, which themselves may seem more more-of-the-same than novel.

That Lethem frames such a pedestrian progress in an alarmingly comic and charismatic field of peculiar suspense, reverie, and disintegration is remarkable enough, but that he does it without ever suggesting one believe in, much less sympathize with, his characters or their commitments, in a prose style by and large unmarked and yet as vital as anyone’s circulatory system, evokes my running astonishment. So what? One gets acquainted with a way of seeming and reflections on it that seduce and betray attention, animated as it is in regions of reality more alternate than actual, in which representation, symbol, fantasy, and the quotidian are looped in a fatal web of perpetually reconditioned actuality the persons, if they are such, collude against and with, discovering further intrigues or, failing that, explanations that feel sooner or later beside the point.

For me the central axis that spins this coil of existence out of control is expounded halfway through the narrative, when three central characters address the premises of “simulated worlds theory,” which posits that computing power can grow to simulate an entire universe in every detail, down to the avatars’ conviction that their experiences are genuine and their perceptions spontaneous, that “the odds are overwhelming that it’s already happened” and therefore that their lives and conversation occur within a gigantic computer simulation, “one of innumerable universes living in parallel, a series of experiments just to see how things will develop.”

“There might be trillions of these simulations going on all at once.”

“Why couldn’t we be the original?” I asked.

“We could be,” said Oona. “But the odds aren’t good. You wouldn’t want to bet on it.”

I didn’t protest to Oona that we felt like the original, to me. I knew she’d say that every fake universe would feel like the original, to its inhabitants. Yet everything around me, every tangy specific in the simulation in which I found myself embedded, militated against the suggestion that it was a simulation: the furls of stale smoke and gritty phosphenes drifting between my eyes and the kitchen’s overhead light, the involuntary memory-echo telling me one of the rock bands Perkus had played was called Crispy Ambulance, a throbbing hangnail I’d misguidedly gnawed at and now worked to ignore, the secret parts of Oona Laszlo I’d uncover and touch and taste within the hour, if my guess was right.

“The problem,” she continued, “is that our own simulated reality might only be allowed to continue if it were either informative or entertaining enough to be worth the computing power. Or anyway, as long as we didn’t use too much, they might not unplug us. That’s assuming there remains some limit on that kind of resource, which all our physical laws suggest would be the case. So the moment we develop our own computers capable of spinning out their own virtual universes — like Yet Another World — we become a drastic drain on their computing power. It’s exponential, because now they have to generate all our simulations, too. We wouldn’t be worth the trouble at that point, we’d have blown the budget allocated to our particular little simulation. They’d just pull our plug. I mean, they’d have millions of other realities running, they’d hardly miss one. But, you know, too bad for us.”[7]

This theme is virtually eclipsed, scarcely addressed, through the remainder of the novel, one of many subtexts that subtend the functioning of its narrated evolution. What is this miracle of life? Why am I here? What can I do with this opportunity? These questions reverberate, pointedly unasked, in the halls of spectacle, capital, and intentionality. The non-actor as actor, the actor as non-actor, unwittingly cased within a script preset by conspiracy within the higher ground of capital, cannot, does not leave, without an opportunity arising. The text recoils on itself, rejecting its own resolution as foreign matter, consigning the reader to nocturnal indeterminacies and considerations that fail to link content with context so that they hold. Unlike Coetzee, Lethem makes mincemeat of sentimentality, while recognizing and condoning sentiments’ compulsive functions in the human world. Much occurs, much of it dismaying, its implications, however directly elaborated, nevertheless all up for grabs. Manhattan here becomes so nebulous, so problematic, it ceases to exist — even while the existence of its boroughs and suburbs, sites of possible awakening, remains an object of speculation.

Andrew Levy’s only novel so far as I know, Nothing Is in Here takes place in an everynow in which the foreseeable future slips barely recognizably through the immediate present into the accepted and yet contested history of the past. In this present, things are as vague, rubbery, and slippery as attention’s swiveling between self and other, artifice and gut reaction, capital and helpless evaporation. Rereading is necessary, as a reader experiences focus sliding backward, skipping ahead, bushwhacking through the present — the text makes itself instantly available, yet collectively absent. Like a series of false starts that stand for the way things really are but cannot lead one to understanding it, the sections, which are segments laid out diversely as prose, verse, collage, lead into a world of trouble less Manhattan than a streaming of consciousnessness, here a drizzle, there a backed-up polluted quagmire, now a gushing torrent, then some muck, and again a spreading puddle stamped on by unknown soles. Writing, Levy sticks his neck out and follows it as far as it will go, at each glance, which at times means stumbling, sometimes tumbling head over heels into a world any reader might not know rabbits share with us.

Reading takes precedence as protagonist of this untoward picaresque. Any and all books make up the narrative of this bildungsroman. Our earliest hopes, expectations, and disappointments in literacy might be the ground or subject of this book. Perhaps “nothing is in here” because this is all projection. Ideals of reading the book we’ve severally inherited from childhood, the mystery that was made of it by our not yet reading and our coming to read: a time, I take it, when we could know, experientially, the emptiness of the book, a cypher, along with its profound fullness when read aloud by another and its absorption of others reading silently alone.

Neither big nor small, Nothing is as shapeless as the left half of a Rorschach blotch. It finds scale and orientation, shape and form in the reader’s apprehensiveness, dissolving and reshaping in response to that. The reader suffers narcissistic injury — realizing: it’s not about you, it’s not here for your convenience.

It’s the kind of text one might open anywhere and, doing so, discover it’s the farthest thing from logical, despite its often standard syntax. Existentialist, however, a Nausea for our time, I can’t deny. After a fragment of uncredited dialogue from The Brothers Karamazov reflecting on the inevitability of crime and amorality premised on the death of God, comes a question, without apparent connection,

“Is beauty made, perceived, witnessed and felt in a momentary bump in the minutest cessation of desire?”[8]

Then, in the same paragraph, reflection on how any instance of reality or revelation might manifest unremarkably, or just barely remarkably, as “a blip on the radar, a blink” — too much to think about, embedded in a throwaway line. Is beauty, then, an exceptional incident to be, possibly, encountered in the relentless progress of corruption? Is there beauty here, in this poetry, er, fiction?

I’ll proceed to a nearby sentence cluster, which is still less than a complete paragraph (stanza, poem):

“To read a story and a table light to see by is something I can do myself. I’d thought I could do it myself, but I cannot. Whether he had known that, or had not, it was something that supported him that was always there. To act so that thought could possibly be read in ways different than one expected. His thought, from childhood, that it had been explained. These are the rewards for reading. The places you return to, to go over, again. The places that is more beautiful. That supports, that’s always there.”[9

Following any precise quotation from this text, one may well add “[sic].” Is this cut-up, free association, or a crafted exposition of some arcanely advanced kind? The text offers little traction to such queries, no gloss but variants of same. Close readings could bore through such verbiage a thousand ways, productively, I’m afraid, and remind us where things have been heading. Is this only a worrisome, cautionary, fatalistic, and burdensome text, or does it embody, also at all points, epiphany, home, transformation, and return to fertile potentialities? I think so.

Any reading has to reveal the text’s implicit code, that this is only one way of looking at it, telling it. The not-necessarily-so is embedded diversely and at all points, by the face (I had meant to write the fact, but face is better) that this is writing, not life; this is the trace of unsuccessful mediation, not a proof or justification, of the way things are.

The passage I copied out above, “To read a story …,” ends a paragraph and precedes a heading (or should I say, a centered line, with title caps?); it concludes the paragraph that began with the question about beauty, quoted further above.

Nothing, however, does not refer back and forth like I do. It just revises, alters, reframes, repeats, and ignores its own rhetorical gambits and assertions in the context of others. They all seem easy enough to make, though they may have taken Andrew Levy a lot of trouble to come up with, for all we know. Either he is a Dylanesque genius from whom this sort of thing just streams out, creating meaning through a logic peculiar to itself and perverse by any other standard, or he has sweated bullets to generate as nonviolent a text as this. Not that it’s perfect. In fact, his writing has achieved with extraordinary grace an imperfectness that deranges and then reconfigures one’s sense of time and sense as dramatically as electronics and corporate personhood, but in a different and humanly tuned key.

The passage quoted above does touch on or resynthesize themes recurrent throughout the text —beauty, reading, self, explainings, place, repetition. Repetition might not be as good a term as déjà vu, reiteration, or some kind of bargain-basement table of eternal recurrence.

“The places that is more beautiful,” then. Not “most beautiful,” but more than … More than they were, before one’s return, perhaps. I can accept that. Then what? Well, what about that singular verb, after a plural subject, in a noun phrase, is it?, not a complete sentence anyway. Is text missing? E.g., “The places that one preferred to that which actually is more beautiful”?

Levy’s Nothing proposes nature, as we cannot fail to know it, suffering the thrill of download and remastering with the electronic intelligence of a global corporate age, from the vantage point of some quotidien personal life in Manhattan. It may not be the life of any one person, any “I” or “he,” the self itself seen as in suspension as well as flux. Slippage of grammar and idea are congruent and consistent with slippage of identity and locus of control; in fact, any idea or image registered can only be a blip or bump in the perpetual slippage we enjoy or suffer, as circumstances and attitude allow. A startle response in the eye of the beholder — there are a million of them, and more await a second reading.

Thus, reading is not the author’s intention transposed to the reader’s assimilation and framing but the returned-as-different of thought, attention, and awareness. “These are the rewards for reading,” this text says. Why not “of reading”? Maybe there’s no reason, just slippage. Maybe this is how reading, like a kinder slot machine, spits out benefit, coinage negotiable but value undefined. Reading will not make sense; it will generate sense-accessible counters and their associations, and people, should they appear to answer their own apprehension, may make something of it.

But Nothing is hardly a desiring machine per se. It is a lot of parts that one is more or less familiar with from some of them, crowding one another illegitimately or dispersing by high-handed accident until we grab one and hug it to another and hit them both with a third. What? No! They actually connect? Short-circuit?

Luminous jets of nebulosity blossomed outward from a bright,
highly condensed nucleus.

These commentary fragments — countless bits
of metal and stone —

A meteor is not a particle of matter itself. It is merely
the short-lived streak of light produced by the meteoroid as it
is heated to incandescence by its plunge

The dollar was strong, the dollar was going up

When I listen to this it stresses me out

I don’t want to see that happen[10]

Perhaps Nothing Is in Here affords each of us the advantage of a virus (as does a vaccination — after all, it’s just a book, this is just “reading,” a mere infectious trace of the affliction) that may render the relentless insanity of the marketplace of logic less stressful and more available to re-vision and re-form, toward something we can only recognize so far peripherally and in fugitive skips in the metronome of the order of things that we depend on so often to navigate this matrix of need and desire that we think we know what it is and how it makes sense.


Author’s note: Lethem and Levy have both been friends of mine for more than a quarter-century, but they have never met. I have no shared history with Musil and Coetzee, aside from reading some of their works. — Steve Benson



1. Andrew Levy, Nothing Is in Here (Brooklyn: EOAGH, 2011).

2. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (NY: Knopf, 1995), 63–64.

3. Ibid., 269.

4. Ibid., 295.

5. Ibid., 311.

6. J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (NY: Viking, 2007), 36.

7. Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City (NY: Random House, 2009), 228–29.

8. Levy, Nothing Is in Here, 22.

9. Ibid., 23.

10. Ibid., 58.

The Plain Edition

Gertrude Stein and modernist book history

Sarah Stone
Sarah Stone (center) at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

In 1916, seven years after her first book publication, forty-two-year-old Gertrude Stein fantasized about ways to see more of her work into print. She exclaimed in a letter to Carl Van Vechten, “where oh where is the man to publish me in series. […] He can do me as cheaply and as simply as he likes but I would so like to be done.” Fantasies of “being done” aside, it is in fact Stein’s persistent self-assertion that secured what limited publishing opportunities she had before the popular success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

The first book Stein saw into print, Three Lives, appeared at her own expense through the vanity publisher Grafton Press in 1909. From then until Brewsie and Willie, the last title released before Stein’s death in 1946, she created, alongside a remarkable body of literature, a record of how she saw her writing into public circulation. Her three-year career as copublisher of the Plain Edition (with her partner Alice B. Toklas) occasioned drafts and correspondence that show Stein engaging with the book as a material object. While her writing is now recognized as among the most innovative in the twentieth century, Stein’s paraliterary work in book design and publishing has gone largely unexamined. 

Between 1930 and 1933 the Plain Edition released five books: Lucy Church Amiably (1930), Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded (1931), How to Write (1931), Operas and Plays (1932), and Matisse, Picasso & Gertrude Stein (1933). The couple funded their venture by selling one, and maybe more, of their beloved Picassos.[1] The sale yielded cash and the promise that Stein might leverage one kind of sociocultural capital to acquire another. Having gained notoriety as an art collector and the charismatic hostess of the salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein nonetheless continued to feel profound frustration as her writing, which she considered her most important work, was repeatedly rejected by major publishers and ridiculed in the popular press. Trading a painting for “an Edition,” she hoped, might shift public attention away from her personality and toward her writing.

The Plain Edition books were the first over which she could exercise significant control.[2] Stein self-published by necessity, but gaining power over the physical production of her books had a significant positive by-product. Her early publication experiences had been marked by frustration and misunderstanding. The publisher of Three Lives, for example, insisted that her writing was riddled with “pretty bad slips” in grammar and urged Stein to make corrections. (She insisted that he print the manuscript just as it was.) As the publisher of the Plain Edition, Stein could make creative decisions about what her books would look like, how many copies to print, and where to distribute them.

Evidence from Stein’s papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library elucidates how Stein used the occasion of self-publication as an opportunity to extend her poetics to the book’s cover, title page, front matter, and advertising materials. Because paratextual spaces are normally controlled by a publisher, self-published texts offer a unique opportunity to see a writer negotiating the conventions of book design and marketing: commercial traditions parallel to literary composition.[3] As Plain Edition books are long out of circulation, and subsequent editions have obscured or eliminated Stein’s original paratexts, we have to go to the archive to see the Plain Edition books, as well as the drafts in which Stein worked out their design.

The vast majority of items in Stein’s 173 boxes of collected papers at Yale are accessible in person. Perhaps the difficulty of accessing the relevant materials is in part what led critic Jerome McGann to insist in his foundational book on modernist book history, Black Riders (1993), that while one could — and even must — write the history of modernism as a history of its book-objects, Stein’s books are not important to such a history.[4]

While McGann borrows the title of Stein’s famous essay for his second chapter, “Composition as Explanation (of Modern and Postmodern Poetries),” he dismisses her in his introduction, arguing that while her writing was innovative, “Stein did not utilize the physical presence of the book in any notable ways” (21). If one were to write a modernist book history, he says, “Ezra Pound would once again appear the crucial point of departure” (76). Having jumped from Stein to Pound in the white space between his chapter heading and first sentence, McGann traces the printing history of the Cantos without a backward glance to the allusion of his title.

McGann’s larger argument, that modernists’ turn toward material features of book design and typography as meaning-making components of their literary works was made possible by the late nineteenth century “Renaissance of Printing,” is both convincing and important. Renewed interest in fine press printing “encouraged writers to explore the expressive possibilities of language’s necessary material conditions” (19). McGann identifies two major styles that modernists combined as they carried on the legacy of the late nineteenth-century “Renaissance” — the medieval revival aesthetic of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the modern look of Bodley Head books. These two styles converge in the finely printed books of Yeats and Pound, books that fuse poetic project and book-object such that “the semantic content of the message is carried by their graphic features” (83).

For McGann, by contrast, Stein’s contribution was limited to the level of semantic content. She found “linguistic equivalents for the bibliographical innovations that were being developed and explored by others” (22). While McGann celebrates Stein as “a far more innovative writer than Pound or perhaps anyone else writing in English during the first two decades of this century,” he explicitly excludes her from the lineage he constructs (19). His dismissal recapitulates much modernist history-making to date, summoning Stein to view just long enough to account for her exclusion.[5]

While Stein’s Plain Edition books use modern typefaces and spare design rather than a synthesis of medieval and modern styles, they make decidedly innovative use of the physical presence of the book — arguably more so than those of Pound or Yeats. The subtitle of Lucy Church Amiably, for example, foregrounds the productive confusion of the verbal and visual aspects of the book that the novel and its physical form explore. While we do not think of the novel as a particularly visual kind of artwork, Stein’s subtitle, “a novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which looks like an Engraving,” insists with the words “looks like” that the novel must be visible. In order for it to “look like” something else, the novel itself must be something you can look at.

But what would it mean for a novel to “look like” an engraving? The idea that unlike media “look like” rather than are alike frustrates our conventional sense-making strategies, opening a range of possible literal and metaphorical relations among visual and verbal forms. Stein’s lifelong interest in visual art, and particularly in the links between cubist painting and her own writing, spurred her to draw connections between visual and verbal forms, and to understand writing through painting. In a 1946 interview with Robert Haas, Stein insisted, “I write entirely with my eyes. The words as seen by my eyes are the important words and the ears and mouth do not count.”[6] Stein’s self-published books testify to her understanding of writing as a deeply visual form of art. She uses the book’s physical form and paratextual conventions to draw unlikely things into surprising relation, extending her poetics to include both the writing and its presentation.

Take, for example, Stein’s brief description of her press, which through its deployment of her trademark repetition turns the convention of including publisher information into an occasion for meditating on what, exactly, publishing is. On a large piece of paper folded in quarters to make separate “pages,” Stein made drafts of various parts of the book’s front matter, including the press description. The handwritten version reads, “THE PLAIN EDITION / An Edition of first / Editions of all the work / which has not been printed of GERTRUDE STEIN.”

Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Press description as printed in Plain Edition Lucy Church Amiably (1930). Photograph courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

In Stein’s tiny composition, several meanings accrue to the word “edition,” each corresponding to a different dimension in which she imagines her work as a publisher. First, as part of the press name, the word “edition” functions as an imprint, a brand name. At the same time, it is an addition, a series of titles, open-ended and accumulating. Stein’s use of “edition” yokes a fixed notion of identity to the motion of accumulation. Further, between the first and second uses of the word “edition,” Stein generates the counterintuitive possibility that there may be an edition of an edition. An edition of an edition might be at least two different things: a title that belongs to an imprint, or a single copy of a given print run of a book. Finally, in the third and final instance, the pluralized “first Editions” indicate either the first typesetting of a book or the particularly valuable individual copies of that printing — as in, “I have a first edition of Tender Buttons.” Stein’s reworking of the word “edition” through singular and plural versions paired with definite and indefinite articles teases out the multiple and changing nature of the functions and productions that cluster around “a press.”

Despite Stein’s wish for her books to be “read and not owned,” her description of the Plain Edition makes a point of the first-ness of her editions, highlighting the added exchange value associated with first edition copies of significant literary works. She thereby optimistically predicts, and perhaps helps to create the demand for, subsequent editions as she implicitly argues for the literary value of her work. Moreover, Stein’s unconventional capitalization scheme (in the print version), which demotes the first term of the press’s title and promotes the word “edition” in every instance, creates a visual association among the capitalized terms “Edition,” “Printed,” and “Gertrude Stein,” a typographical tip of the hat to the notion that “Gertrude Stein” becomes an author precisely by being “Printed” in “Editions.”

Stein’s deceptively simple eighteen-word description of the Plain Edition debuts in the press’s first book, Lucy Church Amiably, which furnishes the best record of Stein’s careful work as an author-publisher designing her book-object and its marketing materials. Over the course of two subsequent editions of Lucy Church Amiably — first in 1969 by Something Else Press, and then in 2000 by Dalkey Archive, the original cover, title page, and press description that Stein composed disappeared.[7]

A single page entitled “Advertisement,” bound in with the front matter of the book, however, appears in all the editions. An “Advertisement” conventionally offers a succinct and appealing summary of the book; it is the equivalent of what is now the inside jacket flap copy. Here is what Stein composed:

Advertisement / Lucy Church Amiably. There is a church and it is in Lucey and it has a steeple and the steeple is a pagoda and there is no reason for it and it looks like something else. Beside this there is amiably and this comes from the paragraph // Select your song she said and it was done and then she said and it was done with a nod and then she bent her head in the direction of the falling water. Amiably. // This altogether makes a return to romantic nature that is it makes a landscape look like an engraving in which there are some people, after all if they are to be seen there they feel as pretty as they look and this makes it have a river a gorge an inundation and a remarkable meadowed mass which is whatever they use not to feed but to bed cows. Lucy Church Amiably is a novel of romantic beauty and nature and of Lucy Church and John Mary and Simon Therese.

The title character, Lucy, is generated from a feature of the landscape — a church in the town of Lucey, near where Stein spent the summers in the French countryside. Stein begins from the cognitive dissonance created by the fact that the church has a pagoda (a many-tiered Eastern-style tower) where there would normally be a steeple (a Western-style spire). There is no reason for it, Stein asserts, and it looks like something else. Indeed, Stein’s entire novel — and her design of the book — works and reworks the possibilities of two things that oughtn’t be comparable “looking like” one another. The book itself, she lamented, was like a body. The cheap binding of the 1,000 copies of the book quickly began to disintegrate, and Stein lamented that “Lucy’s spine” had broken. Nonetheless, “Lucy” is a flexible entity, able at turns to become a character, a town, a book and a body.

Like Lucy’s multitudes, the French and English languages exceed their territories and intermingle. Characters named John Mary and Simon Therese make similar-sounding names in French and English into an opportunity to suggest that maleness and femaleness are not opposites, but rather similar, and even combinable categories. Hybrid personal names work similarly to towns, characters, and architectural features, the nature and limits of which all begin to look (and sound) fungible when they come into relation with more or less similar others.

“Painfully blue” copybook-like cover of the Plain Edition Lucy Church Amiably (1930), recently listed on eBay for $300.

Stein’s idiosyncratic conceptual matchmaking practice governs both the inside and the outside of the book, including its telling cover. The cover’s electric indigo color — one American reviewer called it “painfully blue” — alludes to copybooks. As Stein’s Toklas reports in The Autobiography, “Gertrude Stein wanted the first book Lucy Church Amiably to look like a school book and to be bound in blue” (emphasis added). A “school book” here means a copybook, a blank book where students write their assignments. Stein’s likening of a finished book to a handwritten artifact of learning, the copybook, undoes the clear division between her manuscript drafts?, which were composed in notebooks, and the final printed books.

The blank notebook or copybook was not merely a place to put down words, but a set of limits, opportunities, and organizing features. Stein often used a notebook as a unit of composition, making a piece last exactly as long as one or several notebooks, sizing her writing to the blank, bound space. She frequently worked in groups of copybooks with a series of related illustrations on their covers, filling in the printed blanks for the student’s name with versions of the private names she and Toklas gave to each other.

Lucy Church Amiably’s composition notebooks have solid black oilcloth covers, which suggests that Stein’s decision to stage the print version of her novel like a school book was not intended faithfully to reproduce the site of composition, but rather to stage a productive confusion of the different features associated with print and with manuscript. Stein’s design “looks like” a place to be written in rather than read. Her book design closes the gap between the privacy and singularity of the handwritten manuscript and the public-ness of the mass-produced, typeset book and its indefinite number of identical copies. Stein’s book design, then, brings into view the assumption that publishing, after medieval monks stopped copying things out by hand in scriptoria, is a forward movement from manuscript to print.

At the level of composition and of book design, things did not simply move forward for Stein without circling back. In fact, she often had a hard time accurately remembering her own publication history and was a notoriously poor bibliographer of her own work. There are substantive reasons for Stein to confuse the order in which her texts were written or published, chief of which is her tendency to return to phrases from earlier work, repeating and revising them, drawing them into relation with new contexts. Frequently, the repeated and reworked phrases appear first in one of her pocket-sized notebooks or carnets, where Stein doodled, recorded addresses and reminders, tried out short rhymes and phrases, and exchanged love notes with Toklas.[8] Stein wrote more elaborate and extended treatments of words and phrases from the carnets that intrigued her in larger notebooks, cahiers, where she composed full-length manuscripts.[9]

The most familiar of these phrases, “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” recurs not only across years and texts, but in various media. The phrase, arranged into a circle, was cast as a metal stamp for sealing wax, printed at the top of personal letterhead, and embroidered on the couple’s table linens. Another recurrent phrase, “when this you see remember me,” and its variations appear throughout Lucy Church Amiably and across Stein’s body of work. Lucy Church Amiably features a textual emblem of its own, a sentence that, with minor variations, appears on the title page, the cover, in the Advertisement and in the novel. On the cover and title page, two elliptical sentences in small italic type, justified right below the title, condense the Advertisement to a central gesture and mode: “And with a nod she turned her head toward the falling water. Amiably.” A slightly longer version appears both in the Advertisement and on page 19 of the novel: “Select your song she said and it was done and then she said and it was done and with a nod and then she bent her head in the direction of the falling water. Amiably.”

Stein composed the text and layout for the title page, including its elliptical mini-advertisement, in several handwritten drafts. In the first and most chaotic of them, she worked out the name and location of the publisher (at the bottom of the page), and fine-tuned the language for the subtitle (at the top of the page), which was ultimately printed in smaller type above the main title. In this second version, the layout began to crystallize, and the subtitle, “A novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which looks like an Engraving,” took its final form. In the third and final draft, Stein changes from pencil to pen, and from her everyday cursive — the script she uses in her carnets and cahiers — to print-like letters, each individual letter carefully drawn. It is as close an approximation to a mechanically reproduced page as she can manage by hand, suggesting an attempt to close the gap between handwritten and typeset compositions.

Stein’s first draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Stein’s second draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Stein’s third draft of the title page for
Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Compare Stein’s painstaking individual letters to the looping cursive style of the word written on the right-hand side of Stein’s third title page draft, “Cochin.” This name, added to Stein’s draft by someone with different handwriting, appears to be a suggestion from the well-respected printer Maurice Darantiere, who was responsible for Stein’s Making of Americans, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the later Plain Edition books, among many other important modernist volumes. Darantiere’s handwriting appears on this draft of a title page, which he probably created during a consultation with Stein and Toklas about printing Lucy Church Amiably. Although they decided to use a cheaper printer, Stein took Darantiere’s suggestion to use Cochin, a serif font named for the eighteenth century artist and engraver Charles Nicolas Cochin and released in 1913 to popular success. It is also the font in which the cover and front matter of Lucy Church Amiably is set. Stein’s choice to use Cochin for the title page, which advertises the novel as a text that “looks like an engraving,” embeds a pun on the aspect of “engraving” in the very contours of the letters on the page. For Stein, whose surname denotes, in German, an engravable surface, it is a particularly fruitful pun. Just as Lucy may be a character, a town, a book and a body with a broken spine, so might Stein be the author, publisher and site of inscription for her writing.

Stein’s Plain Edition paratexts — her press description, cover design, title page, and font choice — contribute to, rather than passively carry, the meaning of her books. Their gradual disappearance in subsequent editions has obscured a significant part of Stein’s artistic work: her book designs, which extend her poetics from the level of the text to the level of the book-object. Given the opportunity to turn the commercial space of the book to her own uses, Stein extended her poetics of relation and multiplication to the material form of her books, making it as new as any of her contemporaries. “And then,” she said, “there is using everything.”[10]



1. Ulla Dydo suggests that more than one painting was likely sold to underwrite the publication of the five Plain Edition books. Stein’s correspondence evidences a reluctance to correlate her decision to sell paintings with her need for money to print the Plain Edition books. It is therefore difficult to trace the relationship between the proceeds from selling the paintings with the production of the Plain Edition books. Stein employed a euphemism — “the exigencies of country proprietorship” — when she discussed her financial need in letters to friends. Two Picasso paintings, Woman with a Fan and Girl on a Horse were sold in late 1929 or early 1930. Dydo writes, “[a]lmost certainly further paintings were sold, but I haven’t been able to document reasons, activities, sales, or prices accurately and completely and correlate them with the cost of the Plain Edition,” Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 418–419.

2. On Stein’s input regarding the design of Tender Buttons (Claire Marie, 1914) see Joshua Schuster, “The making of ‘Tender Buttons’: Gertrude Stein’s subjects, objects and the illegible.”

3. “Paratexts” are defined as “all the liminal devices — titles, signs of authorship, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, notes, intertitles, epilogues, and the like — that mediate the relationship between text and reader,” Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xi.

4. “In truth the history of modernist writing could be written as a history of the modernist book” (76), Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 76.

5. See Marianne DeKoven, “Gertrude Stein and the Modernist Canon,” in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (Houndsmill, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1988). DeKoven demonstrates that “[t]he most influential canonisers of modernism … have either left Stein out altogether, or might as well have, or they have included her as ‘personality’ and influence first, writer second, or, like Edmund Wilson, they have included her as an extreme point, a boundary which marks the limit of modernist discourse,” 15–16. McGann locates Stein “at the margin of the margins” (19).

6. Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces? (New York: Pitman, 1970), 104.

7. Stein, Lucy Church Amiably (Paris: Imprimerie Union, 1930), Lucy Church Amiably (New York: Something Else Press, 1969), and Lucy Church Amiably (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2000).

8. See Kay Turner, ed., Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

9. Ulla Dydo initiated the practice of referring to the notebooks as carnets and cahiers during her decades of meticulous work in Stein’s papers at the Beinecke Library. See Dydo, Gertrude Stein, 16–17.

10. Stein, “Composition as Explanation.”

The Chicago School, Imagism, and early poetry of Melvin Tolson

Kathy Lou Schultz at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Kathy Lou Schultz at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

Critical reengagement with Melvin B. Tolson’s writing from the 1930s and ’40s makes clear that his later Afro-Modernist epics, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965), are neither anomalies out of sync with the developments of modernism, nor distanced from African American schools of writing. Rather, Tolson’s engagement with the contemporary poetic practices of his time results in a traceable trajectory from modern free verse, influenced by Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg of the Chicago School; to experimental modernist practice in the 1940s, drawing from T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s methods; and finally to the development of Afro-Modernist innovation in Libretto and Harlem Gallery, as he realizes his own vision for the Afro-Modernist epic. As he becomes more fluent in his own particular modernist practice, Tolson’s task of decolonizing what Aldon Nielsen describes as “the colonized master text of modernism,”[1] results in a “rearticulation of modernism [that] led him eventually to assert African progenitors in the realm of technique” (247). Tolson’s Afro-Modernism is marked by a diasporic worldview in which multiple lineages, including those from Africa, Europe, and Asia, are incorporated into his work. This diasporic imagination, which is inherently transnational, is present in the Afro-Modernist epics of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka as well. Each of these poets turned to the epic form to include large swaths of diasporic history in their retellings of African American genealogies.

In his poems of the thirties, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, Tolson first utilizes a modern free verse line. It is in the 1940s, however, in Rendezvous with America that we see Tolson moving toward experimental modernist forms. Clearly his work from the forties serves as a bridge to his later Afro-Modernist epics. Although both of his early collections are deserving of close attention, the foundational stages of Tolson’s development as a poet have been obscured for several reasons, including Tolson’s publishing history; periods of scholarly disinterest, neglect, even outright hostility; and little recent attention to Tolson’s work prior to the 1950s. Ironically, when Michael Bérubé published his major work on Tolson, Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon in 1992, Portraits was the only collection of Tolson’s still in print. In staging the reemergence of Tolson into modern literary criticism, Bérubé’s work focuses on unpacking the complexities of Tolson’s last work Harlem Gallery and its relationship to modernist studies. Bérubé, whose book mentions Portraits almost exclusively in footnotes, seems, in part, to have drawn his assessment of the earlier work, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, from Tolson himself who claims at one point to have stashed that manuscript in a trunk for twenty years. Bérubé also asserts that Tolson “brackets off” Portraits as “premodernist” in his representation of it in later works.[2] In addition, Raymond Nelson’s important edited volume that helped to create a new generation of Tolson readers, “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (1999), contains, as Nelson explains, only “the three books [Tolson] published in his lifetime”[3] and does not make mention of Portraits at all.

Tolson spent most of his life in small towns in the Midwest and Southwest far from major urban center. Thus, a significant turning point in his poetics occurred during his stay in New York in 1931–32, where he studied for a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University. During this time, Tolson began composing his Portraits, encouraged by a fellow student at Columbia to write a “Negro epic.” In this early part of his career, Tolson is working through his initial introduction to modern poetry, a process in which he is more an emulator than innovator. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits was modeled after The Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters, who in turn had used J. W. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology as a model. Masters’s populism appealed to Tolson. As critics have noted of Spoon River: “Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized — not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition.”[4] Ernest Earnest writes: “Spoon River is a community, a microcosm, not a collection of individuals” (63). Tolson sought to do the same for the community of Harlem. What distinguishes Tolson’s modern free verse from that of Masters, however, is his inclusion of black vernacular forms, including the blues. For example, the first stanza of “Diamond Canady” quotes from a familiar African American boast:

I plays any game
Dat you kin name

For any amount
Dat you kin count.

Tolson was conscious of using his poems as written repositories for such oral forms as the boast and spoken African proverbs; his later works utilize vernacular forms as a compositional structure, displaying entire scenes following the protocol of the dozens.

According to Tolson, he discovered Masters along with Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Edward Arlington Robinson in 1932. Tolson writes that his “German American friend” who encouraged him to begin the epic that became A Gallery of Harlem Portraits told him: “You’re like the professors. You think the only good poet is a dead one. Why don’t you read Sandburg, Masters, Frost, Robinson?”[6] These writers were not part of his academic training at Lincoln University and Tolson frequently recounted his disappointment that “his English professor at Lincoln reacted with discouraging disdain when [he] excitedly discovered Sandburg’s ‘Chicago.’”[7] As John Timberman Newcomb points out, Sandburg was one of Harriet Monroe’s “important early discoveries.”[8] She “sought the maximum avant-garde impact by leading off [an] issue [of Poetry] with ‘Chicago Poems,’ placing Sandburg’s rough-edged, soon-to-be-famous portrait of the city, ‘Chicago,’ on the first page, where it became a self-defining editorial statement for this proudly Chicagoan magazine” (15).

Displaying a specific understanding of the place of the Harlem Renaissance within the broader context of modernist literature, Tolson asserts in his master’s thesis that what he calls the Harlem Group of Negro Writers is an active component of “the larger culture of the new literature” represented by Poetry Magazine:

The literature that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, which has been the focal point of this thesis, affected and was affected by the larger culture of the new literature that began with the publication of the first issue of Poetry by Harriet Monroe in 1912. Many thought that the Harlem Renaissance was just a fad. In this they were mistaken. It has been followed by a proletarian literature of Negro life, wider in scope, deeper in significance, and better in stylistic methods.[9]

Tolson’s understanding of the contours of modernism is prescient on a number of levels, including his awareness of the importance of Monroe’s journal. Newcomb writes:

The magnitude of Poetry’s importance to modernism has never been fully appreciated. More than any literary endeavor of its times, Monroe’s magazine challenged the prevailing notion that poetry had no business in urban-industrial modernity, and theorized the continued value of verse at a time when to many, the genre seemed about to end its days as a refuge for spineless dilettantes. (7)

Poetry magazine was an especially important touchstone for Tolson with its “uninhibited inclination for conflict with self-appointed defenders of tradition” (11). Furthermore, Tolson notes that as precursors to proletarian literature, Harlem Renaissance writers laid the groundwork for a literature of Negro life with improved formal methods and a wider range of content, reflecting his appreciation of the formal and thematic possibilities opened up by modernist method. Tolson’s analysis remains an unusual view of American literary history. More often, modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian writing are understood as three separate strands, rather than part of the same thread. Moreover, Tolson recognizes the cross-racial affiliations among American modernists in his observation that New Negro writers both affected and were affected by the new literature represented in Poetry Magazine.

Scholars are still defining the historical features of the Chicago Renaissance. For example, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

the term ‘Chicago Renaissance,’ as it is usually used, applies more precisely to the second wave of Chicago writing. It describes a gathering of writers, a flowering of institutions that supported and guided them … between about 1910 and the mid-1920s. Major figures include novelists [Theodore] Dreiser (whose career extended well into this period), Sherwood Anderson, and Floyd Dell; poets Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay; reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner; and editors and critics Monroe, Dell, Margaret Anderson, and Henry Justin Smith. [10]

Other sources such as the Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance date the movement more broadly: from 1900 to 1930.[11]

In addition, a Chicago Renaissance occurred among African American writers and artists, which a Chicago Public Library project dates from 1932 to 1950.

In 1979, Chicago Renaissance artist Eldzier Cortor recalled that among those whose “burgeoning talents shaped a kind of Thirties/Forties Renaissance in Chicago were the dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty; writers Richard Wright and Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley and John H. Johnson (now publisher of Ebony); sociologist writers St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (who later coauthored Black Metropolis); entertainers Nat King Cole, Ray Nance and Oscar Brown, Jr.; photographer Gordon Parks; poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the artists Elizabeth Catlett and Hughie Lee Smith.”[12]

The African American Renaissance in Chicago contributed significantly to Tolson’s career as a poet. At the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago in 1940, he won the national poetry contest for his poem “Dark Symphony,” which was subsequently published in Atlantic Monthly in September 1941. Tolson biographer Robert Farnsworth finds that the critical and popular success of Tolson’s collection, Rendezvous With America, published in 1944, which includes the award-winning poem “Dark Symphony,” played a major role in Tolson being named Poet Laureate of Liberia. Following on the serial poems “Dark Symphony” and the title poem of the collection “Rendezvous With America,” Tolson writes his first major Afro-Modernist epic at the bequest of the Liberian Centennial Commission: Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.

Tolson’s chosen poetic affiliations throughout his career have been a puzzle to some critics; however, his interest in Masters, Sandburg, and Monroe of the Chicago Renaissance in his early career as a poet is not unusual among African American writers. Moreover, recognition of the Chicago writers illustrates the need to understand the “New Negro Renaissance” more broadly — instead of relying only on Harlem-centric accounts. Notably, among the many influences on Harlem Renaissance writers George Hutchinson lists in The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White is the “Chicago Renaissance authors’ experiments in vernacular poetry and regionalist fiction.”[13] In fact, for Midwesterners Hughes and Tolson, the Chicago Renaissance was of special interest. More specifically, “[a]ccording to [Langston] Hughes’s biographer, Faith Berry, Hughes’s high school English teacher (at Central High in Cleveland), ‘introduced her class to the Chicago school of poets: Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and — the poet Hughes admired most, and eventually his greatest influence in the matter of form — Carl Sandburg.’”[14]

In the 1930s Tolson had yet to extol the genius of T. S. Eliot. He is writing more out of a Chicago Renaissance influence: a Whitman-inspired, free verse poetics. By Tolson’s later account, his introduction to modern free verse served as a springboard toward his eventual discovery of formally experimental modernism. Tolson links the emphasis on vernacular, or “common speech,” in free verse to the Imagists: “The first finished manuscript of the Harlem Gallery [A Gallery of Harlem Portraits] was written in free verse. That was the fashion introduced by the imagists.”[15] Though Tolson’s accounting of the connections between free verse and imagism is historically inexact, this quote is particularly interesting in that Tolson seems to be attempting retrospectively to mark his first manuscript as exhibiting modernist influences, which may be an attempt to recoup it for history. (At other points he seemingly disavows the manuscript of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits.) In the later work Harlem Gallery, which Tolson casts here as a rewriting of the earlier Portraits, we see Tolson’s move from modern free verse to the aesthetics of experimental modernism.

In the March 1913 number of Poetry, F. S. Flint’s article “Imagisme” lists the three “rules” of “Imagisme” as follows:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.[16]

In the “Preface” to Some Imagist Poets (1915) there are six rules, sometimes referred to as the Imagist “Manifesto.”[17] One of the basic tenets is “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”[18] The list also emphasizes “absolute freedom in the choice of subject” (vii) and the “individuality of a poet,” (vi) concepts that for Tolson may have also brought to mind the democratizing influence of the Whitmanian free verse line. Drawing evidence from the Tolson papers housed at the Library of Congress, Nielsen shows that: “What Tolson came to attempt was a decolonizing of American letters, a task which he saw as linking him to Whitman” (244). “I had deserted the great Romantics and Victorians,” Tolson states in an interview in 1965, “Walt Whitman’s exuberance was in the marrow of my bones.”[19] Pound’s view, however, is much less democratic than that of Whitman. In “A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste” which followed Flint’s article in the same issue of Poetry, Pound writes: “To begin with, consider the three rules recorded by Mr. Flint, not as dogma — never consider anything as dogma — but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”[20] It is difficult to imagine, however, anything more dogmatic than an article assailing one with “Don’ts.”

Significantly, Chicago was an important ground on which the battle for the kind of free verse that would reign in American modernism was fought. The two sides that emerged were Midwesterners placed in the lineage of Whitman and the Imagist group made up of writers recognizable now as members of what used to be called the “high modernist” canon. The battles took place in the pages of Poetry and The Little Review. As Mark Morrisson explains, “These two trends in the contents of the Little Review reveal two competing visions of an American modern poetry canon developing during the pre–First World War period. The first was epitomized by Lindsay, Masters, and to some extent Sandburg, and it represents a continuation of the Whitman-inspired canon.”[21] Both Poetry and the Little Review published works from this group. “Yet even as many contributors and readers of the Little Review sang the praises of Lindsay and Masters and Whitmanian poetics,” Morrisson describes, “another American poetry quickly rivaled this aesthetic Imagism” (22). The Little Review eventually becomes an advocate of Imagism, awarding its 1917 “Vers Libre Prize” to Imagist writers (23). Ultimately, “[t]he free verse revolution in American poetry had come, in the pages of The Little Review, to be an Imagist revolution (23).

Morrisson describes Imagism as “a canonization strategy, designed to give a coherent focus to the otherwise disparate work of poets ranging from Pound, H.D., and Aldington to D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce” (22). Current examination of the modernist canon reveals this strategy to have been a successful one, and though we know — as Tolson certainly must have known — that Whitman introduced the American revolution in free verse in the century before Pound, Tolson’s move late in his life to associate himself with Imagism may have been one of his own canonization strategies. Certainly the two types of free verse discussed here are very formally dissimilar. The influence of free verse by Illinois poets Sandburg and Masters is dominant in Tolson’s work from the thirties, exhibiting phrasally-based enjambment based on prose rhythms as opposed to the sculptural exactness called for by Imagism.

Tolson’s poems from this period suffer from the same pitfalls as other free verse works of the thirties, such as Sandburg’s Marxist-influenced The People, Yes (1936) that Brian M. Reed links to the aesthetics of the Popular Front. Of the 107 parts of The People, Yes, Reeds writes: “There is little or no rhyme, meter, or other organized patterning of sound. The poetry depends instead on syntactical parallelism — especially in the form of lists, catalogs, and repeated phrases — to give his verse coherence and force.”[22] Tolson’s method is similar to Sandburg’s in several respects. For example, Reed describes rather arbitrarily lineated prose quotations throughout Sandburg’s work and “patches of the book that consist of nothing but reams of what Sandburg calls ‘proverbs’” (195). So, too, does Tolson’s early work display these traits. Tolson’s Portraits rely almost entirely on narrative techniques, lacking the crisp images and pared down lines associated with Imagism. Tolson’s narratives about violence and tragic deaths such as “Diamond Canady,” also mirror the content of Spoon River Anthology:

“Love ’em and leave ’em.”
Said Diamond Canady …
But when he got ready to cast Little Eva Winn aside
She left him in bed one morning
With a thin knife sticking in his heart. (7)

Without the introduction to Sandburg and Masters, however, Tolson’s later experimentally modernist epics would not have been put into motion. Moreover, the examples of their content and scope influenced the development of Tolson’s later populist Afro-Modernist aesthetic. By considering the entire scope of Tolson’s poetry and prose (as well as that of Langston Hughes) a more complex picture of the so-called schools of the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, modernism, and proletarian literature emerges. What may be most useful is a reconsideration of the works labeled as “Harlem Renaissance” and a reassessment of the common timeline of twentieth century African American literature that highlights the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, but little else. Recent work on the Chicago School and the Chicago Renaissance among African Americans may help to fill in this history.



1. Aldon L. Nielsen, “Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism,” African American Review 26, no. 2 (1992): 241.

2. Michael Bérubé, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 109.

3. Raymond Nelson, “Editorial Statement,” in “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), xxvii.

4. Ernest Earnest, “Spoon River Revisited,” Western Humanities Review 21 (1967): 63.

5. Melvin B. Tolson, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979), 7.

6. Tolson, “The Odyssey of a Manuscript,” New Letters 48, no. 1 (1981): 8–9.

7. Robert M. Farnsworth, Melvin B. Tolson, 1898–1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 24.

8. John Timberman Newcomb, “Poetry’s Opening Door: Harriet Monroe and American Modernism,” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15, no. 1 (2005): 15.

9. Edward J. Mullen, ed., The Harlem Group of Negro Writers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 135.

10. Carlo Rotella, “Chicago Literary Renaissance” Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman (Chicago History Museum, The Newberry Library, and Northwestern University, 2005).

11. Jan Pinkerton and Randolph H. Hudson, Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance (New York: Facts on File, 2004).

12. Michael Flug, introduction to Chicago Renaissance 1932–1950: A Flowering of Afro-American Culture, Images and Documents from the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection (Chicago Public Library).

13. George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), 30.

14. Yusef Komunyakaa, “Langston Hughes + Poetry = the Blues,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (2002): 1143.

15. Tolson, “Interview with M. W. King: A Poet’s Odyssey,” in Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, ed. Herbert Hill (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 194.

16. F. S. Flint, “Imagisme,” Poetry 1, no. 6 (1913): 199.

17. Later, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Amy Lowell lists the six rules as part of a larger essay.

18. Preface to Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), vi.

19. Tolson, “Interview with M. W. King,” 195.

20. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry 1, no. 6 (1913): 201.

21. Mark Morrisson, “Nationalism and the Modern American Canon” in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, ed. Walter Kalaidjian (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 21.

22. Brian M. Reed. “Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, Thirties Modernism, and the Problem of Bad Political Poetry,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 2 (2004): 191.

Zombie poetry

Table at Kelly Writers House

I want to feel what I feel. —[1] Toni Morrison, The Guardian (2012)

Let us consider a poetry of the apostrophe. That is to say, an exclamatory poetry, a poetry addressed to no one in particular, a poetry of broken and abstracted personification, of possession and emotion in the extreme. To put it another way, a poetry of a sign used “to indicate the omission of one or more letters in a word … to indicate the possessive case … to indicate plurals of abbreviations and symbols.”[2] In other words, “O death, where is thy sting? O graue, where is thy victorie?”[3]

I have been accused of, and voluntarily confessed to, killing poetry. If the problem of prior murders was what to do with the body, the problem of the moment is the corpse will not stay dead. Or rather, it will stay dead, but will not shut up. It rots and rises, and opens its maw to state the obvious: “I am dead.” Now Derrida said to say “I am dead” is “the condition for the true act of language.” “True” because the sentence follows the rules of pure grammaticality — it signifies despite its lack of significant object. Because it is obviously false and yet intelligible, “I am dead” is “the very condition for the living person to speak.”[4] It is the matter of fact of the doubling of the je, which was not, for Derrida as for Barthes, a matter of distinction between énonciateur and énonciation, the latter being the Barthean point of discursive origin,[5] but which was latent in temporalization itself. There is no “pure present,” for “historical time is already implied in the discursive time of the énonciation.” Furthermore, for Derrida, “I am dead” is possible because “I am always already absent from my language,” from my singularity, which is reanimated each time, for the first time, when I say “I.”[6] This, to me, is a given of what has constituted poetry, an énonciation of je that is a matter of form over matter, mass over mind. Like the “I” that “likes” on Facebook. To my mind, some of the newest forms of conceptual poetry enact various forms of communion between the I that was poetry and the I that is the state of post-conceptual poetics. In which post is less a temporal or historical marker than a matter of assignment, such that “to post” is derived from the Latin pōnere, “to place.” It is not for nothing that I am where I am placed, the site/non-site specificity of avant-garde poetry.

In Robert Smithson’s provisional theory of the site, abstract logical representation represents an actual, that is to say, literal site. The space between the aestheticized and the real is the “space of metaphoric significance,”[7] which is the space where Bourdieu locates the field of cultural production, and where I would place allegory as a purely prepositional matter. And as I am cognizant of my occasional role as poetic arbiter, “arbiter,” which does not appear to derive from the German arbeiten, but should, especially in this context, especially as the latter implicates expansion and shrinkage, especially when applied to wood. This specialized cognition should not get in the way of a more specialized cognition, which is the coincident of my function and my desire to confirm the undead of poetry, to serve, in a word, our disinterred poetic interests. Such as manifest in the following three exhibits, each of which exhibits a particular desire to animate conceptualism, that is to say, to give it an animus — historically, psychoanalytically, paternally, communally, literally.

I confess as well that I find a certain a mezzanine quality to all this, a notable backstitch, in which the pleasures of animation coexist (perhaps forcibly) with the pitch of thing-ness, one not sacrificed for another, save in the (libidinal) manner of the Eucharist. That is to say, the saving grace of the promise of life after life, of Zombie poetries. In which, for example, the quite historical formal dictates of a historical group such as the Oulipo may be considered the considered equivalent to the idiosyncratic, ahistorical peregrinations of “n/oulipo,” a set of no one’s design but the claimant’s — in this case, critic Katie Price.[8] And I would argue that this kind of maneuver is a magic trick, that the real work being done in such new criticism has nothing to do with the work being considered, which is the hand that moves, but the work right in front of you, the steady hand of the critic. For Katie Price’s essay equating choate and inchoate coteries[9] is above all a piece of conceptualist criticism, akin to Marjorie Perloff’s essay on Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project in Unoriginal Genius, in which Perloff pretends not only that there is something entitled The Arcades Project (or Passagenwerk) that was a book by Walter Benjamin, but that such a book is a book of literature, a harbinger of conceptual writing.[10] A similar move enables Price to consider n/oulipo as a form of constraint-based or procedural writing akin to its antecedent. One that exists in no one’s mind but the critic’s. Though that is more than good enough. Because the stake at stake in any (and every) community is that of the cartoon creature who builds the footbridge across the chasm one step ahead of its crossing the footbridge across the chasm.

An effort more directly evidenced in broader genre-establishing maneuvers, such as those of Russian videopoetry. As described by poet/critic Natalia Fedorova, Russian videopoetry defines itself as “a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience,”[11] and the mark of poetry evidenced in the genre-constraint that “the text of the poem should be displayed on screen or voiced.” According to Fedorova, Russian videopoetry explicitly “legitimizes itself through creating a number of expertise institutions like “festivals,” and, one would assume, university conferences and occasional essays such as this. Or, better still, definitional rules.[12] And to go even further towards what passes for my point, there is the self-proclaimed narcissism of second-generation American conceptualists, who rail against their chosen parents, as is inevitable, by embracing their grandparents. A new New York School about which Trisha Low, for one, girlishly cracks wise, casts heterophilic asides, names the names of her contemporaries several times,[13] and altogether admirably performs the function of those whom Bourdieu terms the “youngest,” who must, again according to Bourdieu, “assert their difference, get it known and recognized, get themselves known and recognized (‘make a name for themselves’), by endeavoring to impose new modes of thought and expression … bound to disconcert the orthodox by their ‘obscurity’ and ‘pointlessness.’”[14] So far, so good.

I should note parenthetically that I am of course opposed to the very idea of community, particularly an aesthetic community, which may or may not be something different than being opposed to its concept. This is a structural position, related to the Kantian notion of community, which has to do with a presumptive schema of cause and effect, or the reciprocity of action and reaction, that is to say, succession subjected to a general rule. Logic being one such rule. And one of the rules of logic is that a thing cannot both be and not be. A rule belied by Hamlet, who is and is not mad, and here, where I can say confidently that I am dead. Not as proof of my humanity, but as proof of a scandal.

I say that to say “I am dead” is a scandal as it reveals the impossibilities of the structure: true and not true, as language is neither site-specific nor non-site-specific, but is rather site-contingent. Geography, as we all now know, being history and vice versa. Or rather, not: simultaneity being the new atemporal temporality. The good news is that ahistoricity is upon us; the bad news (depending on one’s desires) is that it is purely immanent. Much in the way that the law can only proscribe evil and not prescribe good, in the Wittgensteinian sense of not speaking about that which one cannot know, I can only accurately speak of my death in the present tense. To say “I was dead” is incorrect, to say “I will be dead” is hopeful, but inaccurate. Derrida’s “I am dead” was predicated on the ever-rejuvenating je, which itself was based on an I that was the I of the master: I know that I am not-I, therefore, as I announce my I, I belie I. Contrapuntally, my I is that of the slave: I echo I. For inasmuch as I am is to be an I, that is to say an extant cause on account of which there is an articulable effect, I am dead. Stopped and not in my self-perpetuating tracks.[15] The thing that masks the thing itself.[16] Similarly, to say that poetry is dead in the context of poetics is a scandal because it lays too-bare the game at hand, which I should like to bare further, in true community spirit.

What I am getting at is the difference between acting for the purpose of something and acting with the purpose of something, the difference between the efficient cause (the latter) and the final cause (the former). Going back to my three examples, each acts with the efficient avant-garde cause, operating as an avant-garde category, serving the final avant-garde cause, operating topographically and categorically, that is to say, as aesthetics itself, and as aesthetics itself operates. Thus, conceptualist criticism engages with chance, second generation conceptualism with joke, Russian videopoetry with situation. To be even more reductive, chance as it operates as a traumatic shift within the work, chance as described by Bataille as naked, “definitive” — “obscene and disgusting, in short, divine.”[17] Joke as a way of affirmatively asserting affect into conceptualism, born of an institutional/cultural fear and refusal of affectlessness on the one hand and desire for “secondary failure” (failure as avant goal) on the other.[18] Situation as that which has become site, as site has become procedural, and therefore, allegorical.[19] For Hegel, as described by Žižek, the passage from tragedy to comedy was the move from the individual to the universal;[20] if this is so, then the radical move of conceptualism is the passage from the universal to the radically, the irredeemably, particular.[21] First as farce, then as tragedy.[22] There is no textual bid even for immanence. Not that it matters. Because the case for the apostrophe is being made, will be made, what does not exist taken as omission, or, more properly, as elision. For Rosalind Krauss, video was the medium of narcissism because video could not be about its own materiality or formalism, could not be reflection, but only reflexive.[23] Thus, we return as zombies, to the possessive case, to an I for an I. The hand that turns the tables, or reinscribes poetics as the signification of text, as the I witness, as the unrelenting humanity of cruelty and chance.

“The sting of death is sinne, and the strength of sinne is the law.”[24] It should be noted that the law we all follow is the law of the institution, and here we all are. Like the law, at least in the United States, this is an adversarial proceeding. For my part, I have two choices, two roles to play. I can either approve these new avant-gardes, solidifying my position as elder, their position as heir, our position as a forum, always communal, in which such positions not only may be taken, but must be taken. As I have taken myself. Or I can disapprove this particular trinity or parts thereof, and perform the exact same function. It should be noted that my position, as theirs, as yours, is site-contingent. When my hotel is paid for, I am elder. When my hotel is not paid for, I play the part of upstart. When my hotel is paid for as a residency, that makes me a worker. When my hotel is paid for as a matter of course and convenience, that makes me master. Within, it does not need to be said, a certain discourse, primarily that of the university. As I wait, as we all wait, to be archived, collected, confused. For it should not be forgotten that the I who is dead is the I that eats, that “likes” the I of which it may grammatically be said, “What does I provide?” Which is another way of saying, “Are you being served?”

As an aside, there are two Lazaruses in the New Testament: the first is the subject of one of Jesus’s miracles, as reported in the Gospel of John. For those unfamiliar, Lazarus is a follower of Jesus; when word reaches Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Jesus waits two days before departing, arriving in Bethany to find Lazarus dead, four days in the grave. Pithily, “Jesus wept.” Jesus then goes graveside, is assured of belief by the assembled believers, calls to Lazarus, and Lazarus rises, wrapped in his grave clothes. The second is a leper, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Full of sores, Lazarus the beggar died at the gate of a rich man, who also died, and who saw, from the pits of Hades, Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. Abraham rejects the rich man’s pleas for mercy, and refuses to send the leper to warn the rich man’s kin about the heretocome, noting that if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not hear, “though one rose from the dead.” The name “Lazarus” is an English derivation from the Latin, derived from the Greek, taken from the Aramaic, adapted from the Hebrew, meaning, “God has helped.” The take-away point, the point of con-fusion, is that compound past tense, for the object of the resurrection is not Lazarus but God, who has helped Himself to Lazarus, subjecting him to a miracle, to the will, that is to say, of God, of one greater than oneself, that is to say, has forcibly subjected Lazarus to what can only be described as God’s erection. And yet, there is impotence. The speech act of the resurrection is predicated on belief, belief before transfiguration.[25] Put another way, the repressed can only return. Just as conceptualism is dead insofar as poetry is sans heartbeat, and as much as I would very much like to kill poetry, it rises because of our belief, because, in a word, I am, we are, this is, paid. And so we are left with our Zombie poetries and the fitted happiness of our revival poetics. My institutional critique being perhaps, in the end, less of a critique of institutions — for without them, where would we be — and more a critique of the desire animating the animating desire. The animus here being the vestigial I, the language of the unsubjected self, the linguistic thing that is, in the end, the singular fundament of any community.[26] And, as indicated above, the thing that I want to do without.

Here is a joke, circa 3 or 4 BCE: a Roman meets another Roman in the street. First Roman: Hang on, I thought you were dead. Second Roman: Well, as you can see, I’m very much alive. First Roman: Ah, but the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you. Thus, my question: am I reliable enough for you?

Put another way: There is no ‘I’ in team. But there is a ‘me,’ bitches.



1. Emma Brockes, “Toni Morrison: ‘I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness,” The Guardian, April 13, 2012. The word “feel” is used eighteen times in the article, fifteen of which appear in quotes by Morrison.

2. “Apostrophe,”

3. 1 Corinthians 15:55, King James Bible.

4. Jacques Derrida, “Barthes-Todorov Discussion,” in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 155–156.

5. Roland Barthes, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?,” in The Structuralist Controversy, 136–139, 143–144.

6. Derrida, “Barthes-Todorov Discussion,” 155.

7. Robert Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites.”

8. Katie Price, “The Clinimatic Poetics of the Noulipo,” unpublished. In the piece, Price argues the “n/oulipo,” which was, insofar as such things ontologically “are,” a 2005 conference at CalArts which considered the effect of the Oulipo on non-Oulipian constraint- or procedure- based writing, and The /n/oulipian Analects, the anthology based on the conference, which includes work by Oulipians such as Paul Fournel and Ian Monk alongside “n/oulipians” like Christian Bök and Harryette Mullen: The /n/oulipian Analects, ed. Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2007).

9. Borrowing from an idea presented at the “Emergent Communities in Contemporary Experimental Writing” conference held at the University of California, Santa Cruz (May 4–5, 2012) by poet and critic Wendy Walters, there may be an argument to be made that conferences and anthologies produce a “durational community,” a temporal or project-bound association, a community both affined and finite.

10. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 76–98.

11. Fedorova here quotes from poet Tom Konyves’s “Videopoetry: A Manifesto,” September 6, 2011.

12. To which I would add my own thesis, which may or may not be contra the genre-self-definition of Russian video-poetics, that all poetry is that which operates as poetry within the institution of poetry.

13. Trisha Low, “4 REAL: On authenticity, influence and post-conceptual narcissism,” unpublished.

14. Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 58.

15. Consider here the four Aristotelian causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. It is a mark of aestheticism that cause moves from final to material rather than the usual way.

16. My analysis here is based on the discourse of the slave and consideration of the operation of “I am dead” within that schema. “I am” being apostrophized “I’m.” Or as unwittingly put in an April 27, 2012, Guardian article on the response to another article asking why Arab men hate Arab women: “‘I agree with most of what she said but I think that the one thing that she might be reluctant to admit is that it’s not about men hating women, it’s about monotheistic religions hating women,’ says Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author and journalist”: Martin Chulov, Eileen Byrne, and Abdel-Rahman Hussein, “After the Arab Spring, the Sexual Revolution?,” The Guardian, April 27, 2012.

17. Georges Bataille, “Chance,” in Chance, ed. Margaret Iversen (Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2010), 30.

18. Alex Farquharson, “ Sean Landers: Art and Language,” in The Artist’s Joke, ed. Jennifer Higgie (Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2007), 194. In this, New York second generation conceptualists follow second generation Conceptualists such as Mike Kelley and Martin Kippenberger, who also constructed “mocking and self-depreciating” personas. In his essay, Farquharson argues that the question of identity posited by these personas had “more to do with ambivalent and nuanced relations between the self and society, than issues of visibility and representation” (194–195). I would argue that the matter of identity in New York second generation conceptualism is more concerned with self and institutional relations, though there is a shared sense of latent sincerity, or what Rob Fitterman called, in a recent conversation, sentimentality.

19. James Meyer, “The Functional Site, or The Transformation of Site Specificity,” in Situation, ed. Claire Doherty (Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2009). Site as process and/or operation “occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and textual filiations and the bodies that move between them” (38).

20. Slavoj Žižek, “The Christian-Hegelian Comedy,” Cabinet 17 (Spring 2005). The individual described therein being the individual as personae, not the individual as subject.

21. From what I recall of a 2012 talk given by Steve Zultanski at the Poetry Project, he critiqued this position as being “too Real.” Whether my recollection is accurate or not, this stance also inheres in his statement that “the role of the avant-garde is not to present the brute materiality of the world but to take an aesthetic position that can then be negated,” qtd. in Low. It is perhaps this perfunctory institutional performance I would like to, in turn, naively negate. Put another way, Zultanski’s position is the same as that of a recent Facebook meme-post: “Art is a way to say fuck you to reality.” My own institutional interest lies in reversing the paradigm within, of course, the institution. (An interest crystallized in a February 2012 discussion with Renee Gladman, who noted about my poem, What what nigger, “It hurts.”)

22. A brilliant example of this was the video-poem presented by Anna Tolkacheva Fedorova’s Freedom, in which a small mouse runs inside a wheel upon which the words “Freedom” and “Is” are fixed, the mouse’s movements creating the poem: “Freedom Is Freedom …” Again, I = I.

23. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October 1 (Spring 1976): 50–64. According to Krauss, “Reflection, when it is a case of mirroring, is a move toward an external symmetry …. the agency of reflection is a mode of appropriation, of illuionistically erasing the difference between subject and object” (56–57). Within the medium of video, the object is “merely an appurtenance” as the real medium is “a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object — an Other — and invest it in the Self” (57). The question here is whether poetry has ever been a medium of anything else, at least since Romanticism and excepting (though I could argue both sides) conceptualism.

24. 1 Corinthians 15:56, King James Bible.

25. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever believeth in me shall never die.” This should be set alongside Freud’s aside that “every individual is, in virtual terms, an enemy of culture” and his attendant warning that “Culture, in other words, needs to be defended against the individual …” Sigmund Freud, “The Future of an Illusion,” in Mass Psychology and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 110. Put another way, we may soon want to choose which to exhume, culture or individual. There is an interesting side question concerning the relationship between the individual as proposition and the individual as subjectivity, the former substance, the latter accident, which may be nothing more than a pure copula, such that I = I. Culture should rightly fear both.

26. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Exile and nomadicism

Communi[]t[] manifesto


According to Charles Bernstein, it is necessary to forge “a community of […] poets that allows for active intense exchange … not based on location or prior friendship or like-mindedness, but on the qualities and quiddities of the work as it unfolds in time and space, on earth and in the heavens of our ‘image nations.’”[1]

But, like genres or overcommitted notions of race, ethnicity and gender, the once-upon-a-time concept of community, though significant for defining an aesthetics or a group of texts, is also hugely problematic, confining and reductive. Not only must we keep in mind (and I quote the esteemed Johanna Drucker) “the cycle of fashion trends of poetics in which one style of school is [continuously] replaced by another in a bid for top billing,”[2] but the work risks getting trapped, held captive in some cushy framing. Though at best it provides easy access into the aesthetics of said community, it’s also hugely reductive for potential readers who then receive that work through a specific and oft restrictive lens.

But before I go any further, it’s important to foreground that these “communities” we’re talking about are no longer geo-located but orbital: dot.COMmunities, technomediatic and web based. And as i text my youtubed tumbl twitters while facebooking my foursquare hopstoppin’ i-clouded techniverse, my community is growing 140 characters per nanosecond, panoptically re-creating its own borders, orders, limits, laws, flaws / forging its own auto-correcting tribalism. Low-lying and high-def,

my “community” lives
on iPods, Pads smart phones.

All webbed up and buttoned down,
intratextual and hyperlinked

It IS an intra-galactic lexical plexus
of screening media

a misc-en-sceney panacea
cannibalizing itself through its own lateral feed nodes,

all blogoscopic and sucking on its own
saucy posturing  

living on the edge[3]

of micro-civilizations, micro-communities from which we adapt our ever-shifting conceptual systems; through intra-lingual migrations, aggregations, and translations, constructing an ever widening community.[4]


As we know from Derrida, the mark of circumcision is both a cutting off and into.

So as much as we may “belong” to any given social or aesthetic community, there is a non-belonging, a simultaneous exclusion and inclusion.

Given this, perhaps it’s more productive to focus on the breaks in the homogenous discourse of specific communities and the cracks in its authority —

How do you even belong to a community?

This is particularly true for me as an expat Canadian, Russian Jewish poet, academic, writer, and performer inscribed with a very lived-in sense of nomadicism and exile with a deep-rooted fear of commitment. I was born into the second wave of Tisch poets on the edge of L=A=N=G=U=G=E via the Kootenay school, on the edge of Canadian and European Sound Poetry, the Four Horseman, those days reverberating with Owen Sound, ReSounding, the downtown-Metis shamanistic chanting and (across the border) Tjanting in the wake of the Black Mountain. And each aesthetic community defined itself with a fervent Olsonic sense of polis. Framing itself hard between lyric and language, the oral and the written, between performance and anti-performance, between the communities of small press and big voices, I took to the margins. And now even here in New York, on the margins of Flarf, of Conceptualism, on the margins of being a femme, Jew, Canadian writer, performer, pop parody poeoke videopoem-maker, a “use-your-hands-too-much” Kabbalistic alchemist, Pattern Variant OuLiPian collaborator, you have to ask — where do the aesthetics begin and the friendships end? How do you read a text and not traverse it so deeply that it becomes a part of your own process? How do you continuously (contiguously) belong without belonging in an ever-widening circle of language, production, filiation, power and desire? What I am describing here is not only a “double bind,” but straddles a multitude of problems, praxes, questions and constructs.

And in an age of aggregate authorship, socially-based, procedurally-executed work — work that mines, sorts and restates, reorders, repurposes, work that is massively participatory and has got collectivity in at its heart — one cannot separate one’s community from the shared language that expresses it.

In “an-ever widening scope of where letters reside,”

i belaunge (without belonging)

to an artifice (an edifice) which is informal, polystructural ana-historical ideological and collaborative.

belangue —

To not a community but A COMMA[5] UNITY

per coal et commata, she tears
about on the hillside of
language; endlessly sorting &

constructed and reconstructed in the course of its stutters, stop gaps, hesitations, intrusions.

For, according to French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, commas are tiny rods, mistresses of language that create potholes in the subject. They act as a separator. A troublemaker. Creating havoc in public spaces. They belong without belonging.

So I say bring on not the community but the comma unity — a community that thrives on rhetorical strategies of hybridity, deformation, masking, and inversion, and produces an absent presence inscribed on an intra-cultural trajectory of difference —

an ever-shifting, indefinable community of linguistic innovation and transgression, contamination, infiltration, hybridization
an intra-textual and redoubled community.


How is it possible to claim membership to or lineage

when according to Derrida, “the lineage of a progenitor […] no longer resembles it.”[6] With continuous proliferation, mutation and contamination, “one can no longer count its offspring or interests, its supplements or surplus values.”[7]

So, how do you BELONG to a community, when the community itself is not an autonomous locatable topos but a spectrogenic process, indebted to all the precursors
Proprietous riotous radical grafts traces of all who are or have ever been
embedded in that “community.”

And how do you FUNCTION in a community when you are always between multiple cultures and traditions, re-codings,
variously described as ‘migrant,’ ‘diasporic,’ and ‘transnational,’ located between languages, praxes, aesthetics, shifting modes of discourse drawn from discrete polysystems.

When you are “on the edge” of community.

in NOT a community or even a comma , unity

but a comme unity. If you think about it, in French (or in Dante’s Italian),
“co(m)me” (meaning “as,” “as if”)
So, linguistically, the very moniker “community” embodies within itself the pretense, THE FANTASTY of unity, of oneness.

Where is the unity when everything is fluid, shifting, (in)finitely divisible, translatable, mutatable? Where is subjectivity when it slips between difference, appliance, appearance, and (like text itself) does not possess some portable and universal context, but functions with transgression, invasion, contradiction, ambiguity as di-/efferentially embedded figural traces orbiting through the anxiety of power relations?

So bring on the “comma , unity” the “comme unity” which thrives on rhetorical strategies of contamination, deformation, hybridity and desire

Thrives like a Bernsteinian “constellation” with the links always open
spiraling outward centrifugally

a community always in excess of itself.

Take Charles — a builder of community. A “ripple agitator,” “cultural deranger,” constantly challenging himself in term of his Radical Leftist Jewy Langpo aesthetics, politics, shifting ideologies, praxes. “Occypying” communities within communities that exceed spatiality, temporality, locatability. An ever widening network that includes the Marxes and the Steins. Guthrie lovin’, Jacket2 wearin’, Shadowtime Conceptualists, Plastique constructivists and Blind Witnesses, distinguished academics, scholars, poets, painters and essayists, communities of com-/opposers and librettists, oh whiskey swillin’ jewy girly man theorist rock prof, I have never known anyone to belong to so very many communities.

Same with Jerome Rothenberg. On the edge. A renegade ethnopoetic technician of the sacred gone rogue. Part of sixty decades of communities, from chanting beat poet, to Polish, Russian Talmudic Kabbalist; mystic, thief, madman, burning babe of the millennium; a dada Navajo-lovin’ pumpkin shakin’ polemicist, embodying the braided armpits and camphor smells of the wedded collectives of the sound poet, critic, anthropologist, editor, anthologist, performer, teacher, translator. Unbridled, he’s so on the edge.

Or take Steve McCaffery. To what community does he belong? As a Carnival creatin’ Horseman, expat Brit Canadian, now SUNY Buffalo Poetics Chair holder, Sound ’n’ Concrete poet, analyst, cultural and political theorist; cheating words and paying debt to sediment. Always knowing “knowledge” never known. I have watched him over three decades of bordering communities. Kootenay, L=A=N=G=A=U=G=E, Toronto, Buffalo, Tenerife, Manchester, all performative-antiperformative, protosemantic? and parodic waving his anti-consumerist Muffins and shifting Waifs, his Panoptical Distortions all over the globe. On the edge of many communities.

Each of these outliers engages with their own linguistic hybridity by explicitly thematizing negotiation between differing linguistic praxes, exploring new identities by constructing dialogic spaces that at once foreground, perform, and problematize the act of being both a part of and apart from and insofar never get subsumed in any one community.

Engaging instead in a poetics of resistance — a resistance to the confines of a particular aesthetic (or the “elite practitioners” of said aesthetic) — and celebrating strategic, linguistic or communicative slippage.


Inevitably, talk of “community” is one of labels, restrictions and their inherent parameters. Take for instance Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the jews.”[8] His celebratory attempt to define a community becomes a sick and twisted reductive grouping, glossing over all difference without reverence for the intricacies of Jewish thought and history, reminiscent of perhaps a nineteenth-century universalist model, without questioning the ideology behind such a definition. And I only raise this here as once categorized, any text risks being compartmentalized, muffled, bound and ball-gagged.

So say yes to not the community but the comma unity / and you too can navigate between multiple language and semiotic systems and their associated contexts, in the very act of poesis, question the inherent border of any one community, embrace all dislocated, marginalized, or insurgent subjects, negotiate in the antagonisms,
of aesthetics, of difference.


But, the question remains — how then can a community be a community when it is marked by deterritorialization, dissemination, displacement, rupture?

Perhaps it is to embrace a spectral dissymmetry where each law is a series of borders, orders, mirrors, screens. Comprising not a pure community, but a puréed, ever-widening community. Not marked by nationalities or gender or locus but by multiple dislocations, translations, serrations and embodying all the lingual confusions, frustrations and ecstasies as they merge into cultural palimpsests, creating intricate relational models between “possible” communities.

And live in the interstices, the aporias in a superfluity of loci, foci, folds
flying through multiplicitous systems of social and cultural signification.


like a campy colossus scrolling its

 beaux faux info-flecked flurry

 of siphoned hyphenates

 foppishly flaunting its pixie fricassee flambée

 ((of flustered clusters))

because community can never resort to what Homi Bhabha calls “a rememoration,” a living memorial of what has been excluded, excised, evicted — the unheimlich space for the negotiation of identity and history.

I want a community that will carve out a new dwelling place, a hybridized syncretic space between cultures and idioms, that doesn’t close down but builds a dialogue to create an equal interchange between communities.

And i ask —

 Who ARE the people in my neighborhood?

 Who IS under my umbrella — when that umbrella

 is always being blown away

 leaving its roots dangling in the thunderstorm.

 Between the conflicting layers of affiliation and identity.

Take Maria Damon, who also is a prime example of someone who is ambiguously located between cultures. As a flarfy poet theorist critic feminist écriture meshword avant gardist, cataloguer, etymological collaborator, risk takin & Iggy lovin’ weaving her jewy bloggalicious bagel shop jazz in intertextilic files of textual exile. In every word, she embodies that sense of interlinguistic expatriation, actively participating in the destination of culture. Between communities.

All to say, we are all always already “out of place” with respect to whatever tradition. Because traditions are always changing, the borders are fluid, in flux, fleeting. Performance is celebrated. Performance is outlawed. Too ego-centered, not theatrical enough, overshadowing the writing. The language is too personal, has too many repetitions, doesn’t have enough emotion. Is too complex. Has no subject. Is dirty, disjunctive full of foreign elements. Whatever it is, it is always located “between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages.”[9]

And i say bring it on. Give me

 a community that celebrates its otherness.

 And all that is dirty and disheveled. Impure.

 All that has been excised;

 Silenced. Left out. All that has been deemed unworthy,

 unartful or politically problematic.

Give me a community that

 offers the latest in decapitalized ultra-portable pimped up conceptualism

And celebrates all that is bloggy and viscous

 in the badonkadonk junk trunk

celebrates a mother-plucker

of spatially contagious parsed pulse plais plays,

 laced with socio-political-cultural shards, fractures of history

HIGHLIGHTING how nothing is pure,

 but contaminated

 with palimpsestic resonance —

 riffs of re-presentation, illumination


And is forever,

 Drawing on the Kindness of Strangers




1. Charles Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” WITZ: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry vol. 3, no. 1 (Winter 1994).

2. Johanna Drucker, “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice,” The Poetry Project Newsletter 231 (April/May 2012).

3. Lady Gaga, “On the Edge of Glory,” Born This Way, 2011, compact disc.

4. And produces a conflictual economy, a graphematic synchrony that simultaneously inhabits multiple and conflicting positions. Foregrounds the hybridity of culture: a forbidden transparency and impossible univocity, which defies any notion of “belonging to.” Or taking this to its extreme — with an unspeaking, a not naming, dis-identifying could open up possibilities for other narrative gestures of cultural signification. Producing a contingent and liminal space, a multi-accentual politics of desire, which confounds the ordering of a cultural hegemony and provides a narrative strategy for a hybrid site of cultural negotiation.

5. According to Hélène Cixous, commas are “those tiny rods, mistresses of his innumerable amphibologies and anacoluthons, hence of such ambiguities as poke holes in the subject, in the literal meaning of things.” Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (New York: Columbia University Press), 34.

6. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Working of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 152.

Which brings to mind the recent groundbreaking anthology Radical Poetics: Secular Jewish Thought, ed. Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009), which did not attempt to define secular Jewish writing but erupted as the locus of multiple dislocations, translations, border crossings of aesthetic praxes. But even so, how is it even possible to locate oneself within a Jewish community of writers if, according to Jabés, “being Jewish means exiling yourself in the word.” Where the word: law looks, overlooks or locks in an interlocutive locus. And if the law of the book is the law of the infinite (which incidentally for both Cixous and Derrida is the time of borders crossed), the beyond of the book is still the book. So, when there is nothing outside of text [ne pas de hors text], no core text, a vortext of contingency and incommensurabilites, translated, the community veils itself in the community, is always in recognition of the community, in ambush for the community and belongs to (belangues) to a textual practice of passages, signatures, indices.

I belong to a mode of writing which not only draws upon my ever-shifting geo-linguist-socio-economic cultural idiom but one which mirrors a Kabbalistic hermeneutics, a heteroglossic / palimpsestic enunciative process where potential meanings are never fixed, never exhausted, where language acts as a productive economy of intersequential subterfuge.

Belong to a secret which secrets, a s’ecrit: a diasporic discourse inscribed in iteration and renegotiation, becoming and effacement. Where my home [logis] in logos, in language. In a langue, a tongue (that swallows itself and eats itself, is silent, tongue-tied, dies or vomits) but cannot assimilate.

Belong without belonging to a comma unity, a comme unity comprised not of an autonomous locatable topoi but a spectrogenic process, a “ligneous-non ligneous” space of “invisible visibility” which remains inappropriate, propre impropre proprietous riotous, in(excess)able, fallible and open.

7. Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 138.

8. Jean-Francois Lyotard, Heidegger and “The Jews” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

9. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 332–3.