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'Their own privately subsidized firm'

Bryher, H.D., and 'curating' modernism

Once and future coeditors Kenneth Macpherson, Robert Herring, and Bryher at Advent Bay, Norway, July 1929. From the Bryher Papers, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Used with permission of the Estate of W. Bryher.

As the child of the wealthiest man in Britain, Bryher (born Annie Winifred Ellerman on September 2, 1894) occupied a unique position within the first half of the twentieth century. Her own success as a writer came later in life — her historical novels and memoirs were bestsellers in the years following World War II — but early on she used her inherited wealth to support a range of career paths: editor, publisher, and patron. Bryher early on established herself as an ardent and vocal supporter of both the creative and practical sides of literary production. She provided financial assistance to struggling poets; subsidized publishing endeavors like Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions, Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, and Harriet Shaw Weaver’s Egoist Press (with which she also collaborated as a contributing editor); established little magazines and presses for emerging artists and her own work; and drew on her longstanding interest in education to produce a large body of pedagogically motivated essays, reviews, and treatises on modern film, poetry, and art. Moreover, she demonstrated a willingness to challenge and transcend traditional boundaries between artistic genres — primarily literature and film — as well as those separating publisher, patron, editor, and artist.

Perhaps ironically, it is the breadth of Bryher’s contributions to the development not only of modernism as an artistic movement, but also of an audience receptive to its aesthetic and political ramifications, that has caused her to be overlooked as an artist in her own right. Jayne Marek has shown that Bryher became, in effect, an “invisible woman” through her associations with figures who were either more dynamically invested in their own personae, or who became the subjects of biographies dedicated to the construction of a mythic portrait of the era.[1] And indeed, Bryher can be hard to locate within primary accounts of her time, in part because she appears to have been so willing to recede into the background, silencing herself in ways that are themselves culturally significant. It is possible to read this silence in part through her unusual personal life, which encompassed a lifelong relationship with H.D. and two marriages of convenience to bisexual men, as well as an ardent conviction that she should have been born a boy. This personal and professional reticence has also, unfortunately, resulted in a critical invisibility that is only now being undone.

Bryher’s marriage to, and fiscal support of, Robert McAlmon — editor/publisher of Contact Editions and, with William Carlos Williams, Contact magazine — often bears the brunt of this invisibility. McAlmon’s memoirs appeared thirty years earlier than Bryher’s, and his champions were dedicated to ensuring his place within the literary mythos surrounding the writers of Paris in the 1920s.[2] Later narratives — including The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (published by New Directions in 1967), Kay Boyle’s 1968 revision of McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, Barbara Guest’s 1985 biography of H.D., Herself Defined, and even Bryher’s own The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs (1962) as well as academic monographs and surveys, have historically missed Bryher’s reach into nearly every aspect of transatlantic modernist literary and cinematic production.[3] To be fair, the mundanities of literary production — bookkeeping, publicity, education, audience cultivation — that make the romance of “genius” possible, and which Bryher performed and represented, are often not the most compelling elements of literary history. But they are crucial nonetheless.

Bryher’s role in ensuring the viability of modernist writers and artists has begun to be recovered, thanks to scholars such as Marek, Susan McCabe, Charlotte Mandel, and others. Their research begins to excavate the silences, illuminating the Foucauldian dictate that “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.”[4] While critics like Lawrence Rainey have dismissed Bryher’s literary efforts as, at best, solipsistic — calling Brendin Press, her last publishing house, H.D.’s “own privately subsidized firm”[5] — Marek instead sees Bryher and H.D.’s partnership, in its many and shifting forms, as instrumental to “helping to push forward the frontiers of twentieth-century thought.”[6] Likewise, McCabe shows how Bryher’s archives reveal that “the unusual extent of disparagement, neglect, and discounting of Bryher has more to do with her transgressive ‘husband’ role in curating modernism than with her actual character.”[7] Bryher’s relationships with the artists she admired did cross heteronormative cultural boundaries, in ways unremarked upon yet remarkable. She independently controlled a level of wealth normally reserved for men, and adopted a traditionally “masculine” role in literary production, taking charge of the business side of the presses and magazines she worked with even as she cultivated certain artists and educated the public about them. Yet Bryher was remarkably quiet about her wealth — it garners only a sideways mention in her account of her engagement to Robert McAlmon[8] and is, at best, implicit throughout the rest of her memoirs.

Bryher’s contribution to modern art, especially that most underappreciated element of artistic success — what McCabe terms “curating,” or the cultivation of material coupled with the overt attempt to engage a willing audience with it — is best understood by examining her publishing and editing career in toto, as deeply influenced by her personal idiosyncrasies and also marked by both profound silences and moments of astonishing revelation and action. This occurs most clearly when Bryher blurred the boundaries between her personal relationships and her public/professional endeavors, a pattern that can be seen as partially responsible for the ways in which her work has been dismissed as paternal or solipsistic. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s early work on H.D. represents an important first step toward acknowledging Bryher’s presence within H.D. scholarship and, more broadly, an emergent, alternate modernism that resisted the dominant, masculine ethos of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Blau DuPlessis credits Bryher with helping to develop parts of the poet’s mercurial sexual persona, wondering in a 1979 article if “Perhaps [H.D.] felt guilty to be so happily involved in a world made up of women exclusively — she, her daughter Perdita, and Bryher appear as a kind of triple goddess in some of her late dreams — and had to compensate by torturing herself with thralldom to men.”[9] Twenty years later, DuPlessis notes that Bryher’s presence was an essential part of H.D.’s “complex relational life,” suggesting her centrality within H.D.’s career as a whole.[10] Recovering Bryher-as-muse (of a sort) was a crucial beginning to recovering the complicated nature of a poet like H.D., yet because H.D. is the focus, Bryher’s presence is primarily that of helpmeet or “midwife” of the poet’s genius, rather than an active and influential player herself. Building on this essential work, I want to suggest an expanded vision of the world that these women created together, and its ramifications for the dynamic literary landscape of the early twentieth century.

Bryher’s contributions have been historically difficult to parse in part because she herself is so mercurial, shifting from intimate to public roles with the same people, often within the same circumstances. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner identify the critical/social impulse to find “a structural differentiation of ‘personal life’ from work, politics, and the public sphere” as distinctly heteronormative, an attempt to reinscribe “public” heterosexuality onto queer relationships.[11] They argue that “[T]he normativity of heterosexual culture links intimacy only to the institutions of personal life, making them privileged institutions of social reproduction, the accumulation and transfer of capital, and self-development.”[12] While much of the early feminist recovery work honored the primacy of the H.D.-Bryher relationship (or her ties with other women and men), in so doing it often glosses the influence she had upon the readers who supported the writers she loved. Bryher transgressed the distinction between professional and personal boundaries fairly consistently, bringing intimates into her public sphere and bestowing professional favors on close friends. Only by taking seriously the delicate balancing act between privacy and revelation, personal life and professional life, that Bryher maintained can we begin to understand how she so profoundly affected the international reception of modernism in the years following World War I.

Bryher’s penchant for transgression was apparent from the start: The protagonist of her early novel, Two Selves (1923), wrestles with the certainty that she was meant to be a boy.[13] This outcast sensibility informed her interest in art as a revolutionary mode of expression and social change, one that she enacted specifically by publishing three novels before her twenty-ninth birthday. It also provides insight into her collaboration with McAlmon for Contact Editions, and the energy and momentum that Bryher inspired in him. McAlmon’s early letters to Bryher revel in their platonic relationship and shared aesthetic sensibility. In an typical missive from 1921, he questions her taste in poets, in this case Marianne Moore, and then enthusiastically compliments her:

[Marianne Moore] will matter as a piquant idea — a closeted intellect I think …. I can’t know whether people like that have any urgent life in them, or not …. [handwritten on margin:] As Mrs North said “You’ll be a great poet.” You are now one of about 5 I know about who do not make a mannered impression of writing. That’s real achievement.[14]

Such conversation repeats throughout his correspondence, mixing critical debate with admiration for her talent, and gratitude for her support. He writes, “O I’m liking myself these days Bryher — and I’m doing writing I’d not have done for years, perhaps never, if I had stayed in that damned New York. You’re to thank for that,”[15] suggesting that he found liberating the fact that the marriage was, in his own words, “legal only, unromantic, and strictly an agreement.”[16] Indeed, these limitations perhaps enabled a more equal exchange of ideas, one unhindered by the traditional social roles Bryher challenged, and ultimately rejected, throughout her life.

The “invisibility” that Marek notes as symptomatic in early treatment of Bryher indicates a pattern in Bryher’s own life that first surfaced in her personal relationships, from as far back as childhood,[17] and revealed itself publicly almost as soon as she entered society, continuing throughout her considerable career. It also manifests in early critical work, downplaying Bryher’s impact by inadvertently concealing ways of understanding the role of people like her, who were able to exploit their own resources in service to art, by working outside the boundaries of traditional partnerships.


“You want something in poetry and in life that I want too”

By the time she became involved in Contact Publishing, Bryher had already established her engagement with the burgeoning literary and artistic movements of the 1910s. Her interest in poetry, and the possibilities of language and art, began long before her involvement with McAlmon — though it was, even early on, inextricably bound up with her personal development and sense of identity. A devoted reader, she recalls in The Heart to Artemis her discovery of the French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, and simultaneous introduction to the transatlantic modern poets:

I do not know how I should have lived if it had not been for one of those little magazines that, as Gertrude Stein was fond of quoting, ‘have died to make verse free.’ It was Poetry and Drama, edited by Harold Monro .… F. S. Flint had written articles on modern French poetry and I found in them for the first time the magic word ‘Mallarmé.’[18]

From there, she found Pound’s seminal Des Imagistes, which led her to Amy Lowell and, ultimately, H.D., Harriet Shaw Weaver, and Marianne Moore. Fifty-three years after the event, Bryher wrote of the appeal that vers libre and imagism held for a fifteen-year-old would-be poet on the brink of self-revelation and artistic inspiration: “I was discontented with traditional forms but this was new …. [The artist] must be in advance of his time and as to know is to be outcast from the world, why should he expect recognition?”[19] In this moment, she establishes the themes that resurfaced throughout her life, most especially the ways in which feeling “outcast from the world” fed the literary and artistic innovation of an entire movement. Bryher engages the trope of outsider-as-visionary repeatedly in her memoirs, embracing the overlap between personal identity, political engagement, and professional/artistic development. Indeed, this tension was central to her unusual marital-business arrangements, and to her willingness to transgress the standard editorial role in relation to the artists she supported.

Bryher’s editorial relationship with Egoist Press began in 1918 — three years before her marriage to McAlmon — when H.D. introduced her to Harriet Shaw Weaver. She went on to write reviews for The Egoist magazine, and Weaver invited her to translate Antipater of Sidon’s “Six Sea Poems” for The Poets’ Translation Series.[20] H.D. introduced her to Marianne Moore as well, and following her 1921 marriage to McAlmon, Bryher worked with Weaver to publish both Marianne Moore’s Poems and H.D.’s Hymen. The books were printed in a limited edition of 300, the entirety of which Bryher bought and then left with Weaver to resell. While this might seem a baffling action, Bryher’s sponsorship of these two titles represented a crucial element of each poet’s initial reception.

In her analysis of the professional relationship between Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot, Sheila Kineke defines “literary sponsorship” as a useful framework for understanding modernist patronage and publication, particularly among women. She notes multiple definitions of the term “sponsorship” within the Oxford English Dictionary, including the commercial aspect (“one who pays or contributes towards, the cost of a broadcast programme or other spectacle … in return for commercial advertisement”) and the “agonistic” (“one who stood surety for the appearance and good faith of either party in a trial by combat.”)[21] Commercially, Bryher stood to gain from the success of Poems and Hymen — if not financially, then by a more widespread recognition of artists she championed and, secondarily, acknowledgement of her own abilities as editor. Thus what might be cast as an effort to fetishize or cloister certain authors can also be understood as a way to guarantee audience. Bryher’s willingness to contribute to the publication of Poems and Hymen, and her decision to “stand surety” for their success, allowed Egoist Press to keep costs low for potential buyers. Through Bryher’s sponsorship, the books quite literally paid for themselves. While any poet might hope that her work would be organically discovered, read, and celebrated, the realities of the publishing world in the early twentieth century — particularly for practitioners of a new and daring poetics — often necessitated subsidization.

It matters, as well, that H.D. and Moore were among the first two poets Bryher “published.” Her ardent support of H.D. was perhaps to be expected: Their personal relationship grew out of Bryher’s admiration for H.D.’s poetry, and by the time Hymen was published, Bryher had nursed H.D. through a nearly fatal bout of flu and the birth of her daughter Perdita. With Moore, the personal/professional relationship was more complicated. Bryher and H.D. were Moore’s earliest champions, helping bring her work to the attention of critical supporters like Eliot, Williams, and McAlmon.[22] While H.D. participated fully in the production of Hymen, Bryher’s friendship with Moore empowered the former to overrule the latter’s resistance to publication. Accounts of this dispute range from the resentful[23] to the conspiratorial, but Elizabeth Gregory offers perhaps the most balanced assessment, arguing that Moore’s resistance grew out of an “overall critique of the literary superstructure that her work effects.”[24] Further, she claims that the publication of Poems engendered a response that

combined anger … with gratitude …. Though Moore also took steps to encourage publication of her work, her qualms (more than mere modesty) seem consistent with her revisionary practice in their questioning of the privileged and inviolable status of established texts ….”[25]

In other words, Moore’s resistance was not to publication per se, but to the fixedness such undertakings implied.[26] By publishing a limited edition through a British press, Bryher ensured that Moore could revisit, revise, and republish the poems in later editions and versions, most notably the American Observations, a collection that included much of the work in Poems but published three years later, at Eliot’s urging.[27] Bryher’s willingness to refigure the relationship between poet and publisher, motivated by the personal as well as professional alliances that marked her career, eliminated the more mercenary aspects of publishing, and made it possible for her closest friends (Moore, but also Weaver and H.D.) to work unencumbered.[28]

The chivalric origins of the “agonistic” facet of sponsorship — the champion standing for and defending his familiar — complicate and expand on assessments of Bryher’s patronage as well, specifically through her written reviews. Like Eliot and others, she had no qualms about reviewing her friends. Indeed, one might excuse the uncomfortable ethical propriety of reviewing books one has paid to publish by acknowledging its long tradition within modernist literature, and the fact that Bryher’s wealth obviated the need to sell the books in order to become or remain profitable. In Harriet Monroe’s “symposium” on Marianne Moore, published in the January 1922 number of Poetry, Bryher’s review of Poems reveals both her literary fluency and her efforts to guarantee Moore a wide readership. Monroe describes Bryher (perhaps disingenuously) as a “more moderate admirer” of Moore’s, though the review itself is glowing and poetic in its own right:

This volume … is the fretting of a wish against wish until the self is drawn, not into a world of air and adventure but into a narrower self, patient, dutiful and precise. “Those Various Scalpels” is … as brilliant a poem as any written of late years …. [Moore’s] Poems are an important addition to American literature, to the entire literature of the modern world.[29]

Bryher engaged both the literary and commercial aspects of publishing, doing what she can to establish Moore’s first book as “an important addition to American literature” and situating the poet among those more commonly reviewed in Poetry at the time (Eliot, Pound, H.D., Lowell). It is, in many ways, a nascent form of support and patronage that Bryher would later develop throughout her tenure as publisher/editor of various magazines and presses.


“I would start a film club”: Crossing boundaries in Close Up

By 1927, Bryher had divorced McAlmon and married Kenneth Macpherson, a move that allowed her to more fully explore the patron/publisher roles she had begun to inhabit during her first marriage. With Macpherson and H.D., Bryher established a complicated, triangulated personal relationship — the bisexual Macpherson and H.D. were briefly romantically involved, while Bryher and Macpherson legally adopted Perdita, H.D.’s daughter from an affair with the composer Cecil Gray — which found creative fruition in Close Up magazine, the first film magazine in English, and the film and publishing company POOL. Close Up provided a forum for the pedagogical mode that Bryher embraced from an early age: Her theories of education achieve full expression in the pages of this magazine, devoted as it is to explicating both a modernist aesthetic and a burgeoning and at times baffling new medium. Close Up also established an aesthetic and intellectual connection between the art of cinema and the literary experimentation undertaken by modernist poets and novelists, particularly women. This connection was cultivated and influenced by Bryher’s engagement with both genres, her willingness to put writers and filmmakers into dialogue with each other, and her continued publication of poets as film theorists (and vice versa). The magazine provided a platform through which Bryher first engaged what Celena Kusch calls her “transnational cultural project … shaping the definition of modernism” across national borders.[30] Through Close Up, Bryher created connections between modernist artists in multiple genres, a project that would come to define her influence on the era as a whole.

Bryher, H.D., and Macpherson launched POOL and Close Up with the July 1927 number. Close Up was initially a monthly journal intended to “transform the cultural topography of the cinema and its future,”[31] though as the years went on its frequency diminished to quarterly, and it closed in 1933. While Macpherson was the editor in chief and established the philosophical underpinnings of the journal, Bryher took on the managing editor role, running the day-to-day aspects of the magazine and often taking charge of contributors and content. Close Up performed several important functions for Bryher as editor and publisher, and as a cultural avatar. Anne Friedberg argues that

[i]n retrospect, the body of writing in Close Up appears as its own form of “literary montage” — a serial project with the random architecture of juxtaposition, an exhibit of documents which offers the contemporary reader an extensive tour of the ardent debates about cinema as it emerged as an aesthetic form.[32]

Close Up thus embraced a distinctly modernist approach to both intellectual engagement and the cultivation of the reader. This embrace of “montage” helped justify her habit of putting poets and filmmakers into conversation with each other and the reader, placing multiple points of view and theories in close proximity in order to make them new, strange, or provocative in ways that recall both avant-garde filmmakers and the fractured, multifaceted element of modernism more generally. At the same time, Close Up was an organ for publishing writers Bryher personally and publicly championed, giving them room to develop ideas in multiple genres within a supportive environment.

Throughout her tenure as publisher and editor of Close Up, Bryher’s willingness to break the boundaries between art and politics surfaced in her encouragement of her favorite artists to push beyond their own generic ideals. Writers and poets tackled film criticism and theory, while filmmakers contributed poetry and short essays. H.D.’s contributions to Close Up provide a useful example of this: She submitted eleven articles during the first two years of the magazine’s existence, along with poetry. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, her efforts dropped off once the magazine became embroiled in debate about sound and film, leaving behind the more visual elements of the genre.)[33] H.D.’s engagement with film was, as Laura Marcus argues, “in many ways idiosyncratic, to be understood as an aspect of her broader concerns with language and symbol, psychoanalysis, mysticism and spiritualism, classicism and the celebration of women’s beauty and power.”[34] Bryher’s willingness to publish her “idiosyncratic” and, at times, digressive work in a magazine so deeply devoted to both the theory and technical exploration of film demonstrates her personal/professional commitment to H.D.’s artistic development, even if it occasionally wandered from the overt mission of the journal.

In the first issue, July 1927, H.D. published two pieces: a poem, “Projector,” and the first of a three-part film critique, titled “The Cinema and the Classics.” These two works inform each other and frame the number — the critique is the first “feature” and the poem is the last, creating a visual break between the significant body articles and the “Comments and Review” and “Advertisements” departments. H.D.’s relative inexperience with film (particularly as compared to Macpherson or even Bryher) is less important than her desire to write about it, and her criticism introduces ideas that echo, and are echoed in, her poetry.[35] The first installment of “The Cinema and the Classics” is subtitled “Beauty” and H.D. dispenses quickly with movies per se, beginning her second paragraph with the dismissive, “So much for cinema.”[36] Better, she argues, to think of film in terms of an endangered experience of beauty, specifically one that enables something like transcendence: “Anyhow it is up to us, as quickly as we can, to rescue this captured Innocent [film] … stepping frail yet secure across a wasted city. … Beauty, among other things, is reality, and … beauty herself, Helen of Troy, rises triumphant and denounces the world for a season, then retires.”[37] Film becomes a metaphor for resistance to war’s ugliness and brutality, a capricious art capable of instigating fleeting moments of “triumph” that recall an epic age of beauty and glory.

These images appear again in “Projector,” a poem that, while named for a cinematic technology, quickly leaves behind these mechanical roots in favor of a meditation on light, mythology, and transcendence. Here, film is invoked primarily in the ways that H.D. conjures images — shrines, gateways, markets, cross-roads — recalling the frenetic jump-cut of the cinematic frame. As in a film, the images work together to evoke something bigger, epic, transcendent: the light from the projector bulb morphs into “a king of blazing splendour and of gold,”[38] an image that reappears throughout lines that juxtapose pomp and majesty, gold and light, mythos and spiritual revelation. Ultimately, the projector gives a “vision” that offers “fresh hope” for “weary eyes that never saw the sun fall in the sea / nor the bright Pleadiads [sic] rise.”[39] The lyricism of H.D.’s verse and the poetics of her criticism are markedly different from the pedagogical tone of Bryher’s editorials or Macpherson’s theoretical examinations of film. Instead what emerges is a poet working through her own project, using film as one source of inspiration in her own engagement with poetry and spirituality.

These pieces appeared in the first issue of Close Up but they are indicative of the pattern of H.D.’s contributions to the magazine, which themselves reveal Bryher’s own priorities. One of H.D.’s final essays for Close Up, “An Appreciation,” in the March 1929 number, continues her montage style of image-driven, lyrical criticism, situating film critique within the poetic discourse previously established by her oeuvre. Ostensibly a celebration of the career of the actress Louise Brooks, H.D.’s rumination instead dwells lovingly on Brooks’s eating habits, her attitudes at lunch, and a brief conversation between her and G.W. Pabst.[40] H.D. recalls the merits of Christmas pudding,[41] and digresses on emotions and art, calling art “a sentiment that is never called forth and never inspired and never made to blossom by technical ability, by sheer perfection of a medium, by originality and by intellectualism, no matter how dynamic …”[42] But we must wait three pages for H.D. to even mention a specific film, and then it is not Brooks but Pabst whom she praises, shifting the entire focus of the critique as fluidly as she earlier moved from pudding to beauty.

Thus film became one more medium in which H.D. could begin to articulate a philosophy of art as “universal,” capable of, as Marcus argues, “bridging national differences or, at least, … allowing for a clear, undistorted perception of the terms of such differences.”[43] By providing an outlet for H.D.’s idiosyncratic film writings, Bryher encouraged the poet to venture into new forms, new genres, and new ideas by ensuring an audience for them. She also made explicit her own connection to, and support of those ideas. The ease with which she incorporated H.D.’s cross-genre experimentation into the theoretical and technical discourse of Close Up is indicative of Bryher’s own fluidity in regard to her role as publisher, editor, patron, and friend.


“Responsibility for the future”: Publishing during the wars

Bryher’s influence on Close Up was visible until it folded in 1933. Unwilling, perhaps, to stray too far from the world of literary publishing, she started Brendin Publishing Company shortly thereafter. Brendin specialized in limited editions of books, including a lavishly illustrated edition of Marianne Moore’s The Pangolin and Other Verse in 1936; the 1937 Cinema Survey pamphlet by Bryher, Robert Herring, and Dallas Bower; an illustrated edition of H.D.’s children’s book, The Hedgehog; and two collections of H.D.’s poetry intended as for “private circulation” among their friends.[44] These limited-edition books were more than mere frivolity, however, despite the fact that they were printed at the height of the Depression in England, as the continent edged perilously close to war. Even during Britain’s increasingly difficult national and political situation in the 1930s and 1940s, Brendin remained able to produce books, and as a result, helped keep literary production alive in England through World War II.[45] Bryher’s influence is most apparent in her acquisition through Brendin of Life and Letters, at that time a floundering but respectable literary magazine that she retitled Life and Letters To-Day. Critical interpretation of this journal tends to focus on Bryher’s publication of twenty-three of the thirty-one new poems H.D. wrote between 1931 and 1950 in its pages, rather than its lengthy run and international scope.[46] There is little evidence, however, to support the idea that Brendin or Life and Letters To-Day were H.D.’s vanity presses, gifts bestowed by a paternalistic sponsor upon a pet poet; rather, they mark a triumph of Bryher’s skill as editor and publisher, making accessible a wide range of international voices and genres to readers all over the world, and provide a fitting conclusion to her publishing career.

With Life and Letters To-Day, Bryher managed to create and keep viable[47] a literary magazine that explicitly connected her intimate friends and personal aesthetic philosophies to an international community of modernist artists, allowing British readers to experience a range of ideas even as World War II loomed on the horizon. She took over the publication of the magazine in 1935, with her friend and Close Up contributor Robert Herring. The journal had been in existence at that point for seven years, a vehicle primarily of the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists. In a letter from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell, in February 1928, Woolf details the initial aim of the magazine and its editor, Desmond MacCarthy:

Desmond has been given £6.000 by Oliver Brett to start a monthly magazine with. How bored you would be to hear all of us authors chattering about it! — not that it will ever come out, but if it did come out it would be the most brilliant, the most advanced, the best said paper in the world — Also it would make Desmond’s fortune, so he says.[48]

While the magazine did manage to be born, MacCarthy never achieved the wealth and fame (let alone the superlatives) he hoped for. In part, his own idiosyncrasies may have doomed Life and Letters: his insistence on reviews of established writers; his love of detective fiction; and his embrace of the Bloomsbury writers, who by then were no longer quite so cutting edge.[49] Though MacCarthy published notable authors like Vita Sackville-West, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Graves, he was unable, finally, to establish a coherent identity or aesthetic. The magazine underwent significant financial difficulty and two changes in editorial staff and ownership before Bryher’s school friend and fellow writer, Petrie Townshend, alerted her to the possibility of buying it for £1,500 in April 1935. Bryher appointed Herring, her friend and collaborator from Close Up, and Townshend (for two issues) to handle what she called the “hack work” of day-to-day editing, while she solicited manuscripts and shaped the editorial vision.[50]

This shift in the roles Bryher adopted is notable after her professional collaboration with Macpherson, in which she ably handled the “hack work” to support Macpherson’s vision. Unlike Macpherson, however, Bryher’s name did not appear on the masthead of the newly revamped Life and Letters To-Day, despite her editorial input. Instead, the Table of Contents reads like a Who’s Who of those writers and artists, particularly filmmakers, she worked with throughout her life.[51] The last issue of Life and Letters under Hamish Miles (who took over from MacCarthy in the last years of their involvement with the magazine) includes writers like Roland Lushington and Denis Ireland, and is fronted by an ad for the Everyman’s Library editions of Henry James and G.K. Chesterton.[52] Bryher and Herring’s first issue, on the other hand, bears a remarkable resemblance to the contributor lists of Close Up and even Contact and Contact Editions: Mary Butts, Osbert Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, Gertrude Stein, and Havelock Ellis fill its more than 200 pages, and the facing ad signals that the following issue will feature Wallace Stevens, Hanns Sachs, and Jean Prevost.[53] There is a “Cinema Section,” of course, with articles by Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Herring, and an extensive “Reviews of Books” section which in later issues becomes varied enough to warrant categorization by country of origin. Bryher even titled the current events section “News Reel,” a nod to her and Herring’s cinematic backgrounds. Later issues included Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Richardson, Marianne Moore, a very young Elizabeth Bishop, and Thomas Mann. Renata Morresi argues that

Life and Letters To-Day aimed at becoming a centre for cultural debate on literature and the arts, promoting young talented writers, and, in general, at being a crucible for the new, which included new sciences such as psychoanalysis and anthropology and new arts such as cinema.[54]

In this respect, it much more closely resembled other little magazines that preceded it (The Dial, Poetry, The Little Review, The Egoist), than it did a vanity publishing outlet. Bryher’s tenure as publisher/editor lasted fifteen years, rivaling all but Harriet Monroe at Poetry in terms of the length of her run — and she did it under arguably more difficult circumstances. Bryher’s Life and Letters To-Day not only stayed afloat until 1950, it did so as bombs destroyed three different office locations — and sold out month after month.[55]

Although Bryher’s name is not on the masthead as editor, her influence can be seen throughout the magazine. The first (unsigned) editorial in the first issue details the magazine’s mission:

We are aware of our debt to the past. We are conscious also of responsibility to the future, and it is because of the need to maintain an outlet for the non-commercial work of our time that we are trying to give “Life and Letters” further life. it will, we are told, be uphill work … we would declare that any bias we have is not towards experiment for its own sake, but to unrecognised achievement. We incline to young writers more for what they may do, given outlet, than for what they have done.[56]

Herring may be the presumptive writer, but the language echoes not only Bryher’s own syntax — her writings for the magazine included reviews, articles, and a serialized novella — but also the philosophy of patronage mentioned briefly in her memoirs. In The Heart to Artemis, she recalls her father’s admonition to support only those artists who are still living (for they need the money), and his willingness to pay for “some of my incredibly bad verses to be printed.”[57] One might see her father’s willingness to blur filial and professional boundaries as the beginning of Bryher’s own such efforts, and it echoes in the “Editorial” — particularly the determination to support what young artists “might do” rather than what “they have done.” Bryher herself proudly recounted her contributor list in The Days of Mars, her memoir of the war years:

Besides contributions from the Sitwells, H.D., Elizabeth Bowen, Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, Alex Comfort and many other writers, we printed, I believe, the first story by Sartre to be translated into English and an early tale by Kafka.[58]

Her deep commitment to an international scope of literary art is apparent as well. Celena Kusch has argued that Bryher was responsible for “connecting H.D. and many of her American colleagues with continental artists and intellectuals”[59] in the early parts of their respective careers; with Life and Letters To-Day, that commitment to a transnational community of artists took concrete form. Kusch reads the first issue’s “Editorial” as indicative of Bryher’s underlying fascination with the “youth” and possibility represented by the idea of America.[60] More than that, it represents the creation of a truly international space, where multiple languages and political beliefs, strangers and intimates, can mingle under the umbrella of modern art. Bryher kept Life and Letters To-Day going during the War, and was committed to its availability around the world, ensuring that her audience could consistently participate in the artistic conversation. The magazine represented the culmination of a lifetime of dedicated support and encouragement for the artists Bryher so admired and the readers she so ardently hoped to cultivate for them.

The transnational element of Bryher’s editorship is a useful place to conclude an analysis of her work within the development of an audience for modernist poetry. Rather than simply seeking larger outlets for the writers published therein, Bryher explicitly saw the development of international relationships, and the education of her readers, as a crucial aspect of her role as publisher/editor. Her own restless relocation,[61] and her sense that she didn’t quite belong to any one country until she staked her lot with Britain during the Blitz, reverberates throughout the magazine’s attempts to connect international empathy, antifascism (or perhaps antinationalism), and artistic engagement. In the Summer 1937 issue, Bryher published a piece titled “Paris 1900,” in which she claims to have “geographic emotions,” that is, a natural empathy with cities — and all the history, social heterogeneity, and motion that they imply — rather than individual people.[62] Implicit within this is the idea of committing to communities rather than nations, and to connecting those communities through wanderlust and international engagement.

In the Autumn 1936 issue, a year before Bryher’s “Paris” piece, the opening “Editorial” established the political and historical ramifications of this fluidity, inviting readers to join a community invested not only in art but also in world politics and social development. Employing a universal and again unsigned “we,” the piece addresses the Spanish civil war and launches an interrogation of the role of art within international dialogues, which ultimately continues until the magazine abruptly ceases publication in 1950. It begins as, quite literally, a call to arms:

A year ago we expressed out intention of being non-political in these pages.… But a year ago is a year ago, and it would be useless to maintain now that Spain’s civil war is none of our business. It is everyone’s business. We hope that we speak for our readers as well as for our authors when we say that we consider it impossible to go to press without paying tribute to the courage of the Spanish people fighting in support of their government.[63]

“We” goes on to criticize the coverage of the war in the English and French press, decrying the media’s painting of the loyalists as “really the rebels,”[64] and warning that such media might be a harbinger of what may come to Britain or France, should a fascist force take over. Moving quickly from politics to the efforts of the International Association of Writers in Defence of Culture to establish the freedom of the press even during times of conflict, the “Editorial” provides the first instance in which Bryher and Herring were explicit about the connection between a vital literary culture and liberty:

But because we ourselves, with our translations and articles from other countries, attempt to keep the world open instead of a collection of closed nationalistic compartments, we do stress that writers such as Gorki when he was alive, Gide, Karel Kapek, Heinrich and Thomas Mann … were alive to the necessity of urging their colleagues to make a stand for those principles of humanity for which they are, or should be, the spokesperson.[65]

Life and Letters To-Day became, in many senses, a beacon of international creativity and audience engagement, an outlet for the editors to educate, empower, and ultimately plead with their audience to take part in the growing unrest around the world. This is particularly true of Bryher, who saw herself at the front lines of a war that no one else would admit was coming. In The Heart to Artemis she recalls living in Switzerland, where she edited Life and Letters To-Day via post and used her home to help Jewish artists flee an increasingly hostile Germany and Austria: “I warned the English privately and also in print. They called me a warmonger and jeered at me for my pains .… I remain ashamed of the majority of my fellow citizens and convinced that apathy is the greatest sin in life.”[66] This sentiment comes through clearly in both the “Editorial” of 1936, and in future issues, a sense that the readers must be active, must be cognizant of, and work to defend, the connection between artistic freedom, international peace, and justice. Most of all, Bryher here enacted an active rejection of the boundaries between such ideals, blurring the lines between art and politics much as she blurred the lines between intimate and professional engagement.

Life and Letters To-Day (by that time titled simply Life and Letters again) abruptly closed in 1950, following a notice at the end of the May 1950 number stating simply: “It is regretted that it has been found impossible to continue LIFE AND LETTERS. The review will therefore be suspended after the June issue, which completes the present volume. The balance of subscriptions will be refunded in due course.”[67] The brevity was likely perceived as jarring for readers, for the next (final) issue features a lengthy apology and explanation for the decision. The June 1950 leader begins:

With this number, as announced in the May issue, we suspend publication. That notice, occurring as it did on the last page and consisting of only three and a half lines, may have seemed somewhat curt. For that, I would apologize. I intended no discourtesy to readers but sought, rather, not to distract attention from the Norwegian authors, whose number it was, by discoursing unduly on so personal or domestic a matter as our cessation.[68]

The reasons Bryher gives for shutting down the magazine will not be unfamiliar to scholars of, or participants in, small-press publication: loss of money, lack of time, instability. I name Bryher here as the single author of this unsigned “Editorial” — the first and only to employ the singular “I” rather than “we” — in part because the focus is so clearly on the financial aspects of publication, but also because she quickly turns attention not only to the readers, writers, and staff, but also to the behind-the-scenes companies that enabled literary production. It is here that she adopts the plural “we”:

Looking back, indeed, the wonder would seem less that we end now than that we did not before — at almost any time in the last ruffled decade-and-a-half of wars, cold wars, and wars of nerves; of abdication and elections; of restriction, regimentation, and reaction. But I do not propose to look back .… We have not lacked support, and I would like here to thank not only readers and writers, but also publishers, agents, and the trade for their unvarying help …[69]

This acknowledgement of the workhorses of the publishing industry — in the same breath as the creativity they make possible — was typical of Bryher’s own sense of the debt owed to the people behind the legends, a tacit awareness, perhaps, of her own place within that circle. Indeed, in The Heart to Artemis, she recalls meeting Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whom she much preferred: “[I]t was Miss Toklas whom I loved. She was so kind to me. Perhaps this came from her long practice as Gertrude wrote ‘of sitting with the wives of geniuses.’”[70] As one who had long been regarded as a “wife” of genius — whether supporting Robert McAlmon, H.D., or Kenneth Macpherson — Bryher might easily have seen herself allied as strongly with the businessmen as with the artists. After folding Life and Letters, Bryher went on to develop her own creative impulses, writing a series of bestselling historical novels and three memoirs, and formally ending her position as an editor and publisher (though not ceasing her financial support of individual artists). The final “Editorial” thus provides a fitting coda to a publishing career that spanned three decades and crossed multiple boundaries, upsetting social conceptions of personal and professional relationships; creating a critically empowered readership; and ultimately redefining the role of the editor/publisher/patron in the first half of the twentieth century.

 


 

1.  Jayne Marek, Women Editing Modernism: “Little” Magazines and Literary History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 101.

2.  Ibid., 116.

3.  See Kay Boyle’s savage characterization of the quiet heiress as “infantile” in Being Geniuses Together (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1968), 53, or Guest’s portrait of a pathologically controlling, and frustratingly sullen, misanthrope in Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 115. Susan Stanford Friedman offers some insight into Guest’s characterization by demonstrating that her representation of H.D. is one of “a fragile and nervous Circe who draws everyone into her net.” See “Review: H.D.,” Contemporary Literature 26, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 109.

4.  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1990), 27.

5.  Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 153.

6.  Marek, Women Editing Modernism, 102.

7.  Susan McCabe, “Bryher’s Archive: Modernism and the Melancholy of Money,” in English Now: Selected Papers from the 20th IAUPE Conference in Lund 2007 (Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 2008), 119. Emphasis mine.

8.  Bryher, The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs (Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2006), 239.

9.  Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Romantic Thralldom in H.D.,” Contemporary Literature 20, no. 2 (Spring 1979): 189.

10.  DuPlessis, “H.D. and Revisionary Myth-Making,” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry, ed. Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 114.

11.  Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2, “Intimacy” (Winter 1998): 553.

12.  Ibid. Emphasis mine.

13.  Two Selves begins with an evocation of what we might now call transgenderism: “Two selves. Jammed against each other, disjointed and ill-fitting. An obedient Nancy with heavy plaits…. A boy, a brain, that planned adventures and sought wisdom.” Bryher, Two Novels Development and Two Selves, ed. Joanne Winning (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 183.

14.  Robert McAlmon, letter to Bryher, 1921, 1. Bryher Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

15.  Ibid., 1.

16.  Quoted in Boyle, Being Geniuses Together, 45.

17.  In The Heart to Artemis, Bryher recalls meeting Doris Banfield, the girl who took her “all over the [Scilly] islands” (148). They “were inseparable” and “only [grew] nearer to each other throughout the intervening years” (148). The island was, of course, Bryher Island in the Scillies, the name she ultimately adopted as her own.

18.  Bryher, The Heart to Artemis, 180.

19.  Ibid., 180.

20.  Marek, Women Editing Modernism, 116

21.  Sheila Kineke, “T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and the Gendered Operations of Literary Sponsorship,” Journal of Modern Literature 21, no. 1 (Summer 1997): 123.

22.  Indeed, while McAlmon found Moore personally aloof and naïve, and felt her poetry “cold,” he did publish her work in Contact at Bryher’s suggestion.

23.  George Bornstein argues that the publication of Poems was a misguided failure, as Moore repeatedly expressed unhappiness with that edition. See Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 140.

24.  Elizabeth Gregory, introduction to The Critical Response to Marianne Moore (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 4.

25.  Ibid. Emphasis mine.

26.  Letters from McAlmon at the time suggest few people saw Poems as contrary to Moore’s wishes. He writes, “What do you hear from Marianne? I hope she isn’t irretrievably offended by publication of her book, anti —” implying that her unhappiness was more performative than serious (Robert McAlmon, letter to Bryher, 1921, 1).

27.  Andrew J. Kappel, “Presenting Miss Moore, Modernist: T. S. Eliot’s Edition of Marianne Moore’s ‘Selected Poems,’” Journal of Modern Literature 19, no. 1 (Summer 1994): 130.

28.  In The Heart to Artemis, Bryher discusses Moore and H.D., and indeed all of the Paris set, almost entirely in terms of friendship and conversation; she mentions little of the financial aspect of these relationships.

29.  Harriet Monroe, “A Symposium on Marianne Moore,” Poetry 19 (January 1922): 208.

30.  Celena Kusch, “‘Not a Continent I Dreamed About’: Bryher’s Circle Between the Wars” (paper presented at the Modernist Studies Association Annual Conference, Montreal, Quebec, November 6, 2009), 2.

31.  Anne Friedberg, “Introduction: Reading Close Up, 1927–1933,” in Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism, ed. James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 3.

32.  Ibid., 4.

33.  Marcus argues, convincingly, that when H.D. did write about sound, she “contrast[ed] it (for the most part unfavourably) with the ‘masks’ of silent cinema which, like those of Greek drama, conceal … a mystery and a vision destroyed by the ‘mechanical,’ overtly automated technologies of ‘movietone’ sound” (“Introduction: Reading Close Up,” 101).

34.  Laura Marcus, “Introduction: The Contribution of H.D.,” in Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism, 98.

35.  Marcus notes, “the interplay between an aesthetics of formal restraint and one of emotional, spiritual, or ‘psychic’ transcendence, between holding back and going beyond, runs throughout H.D.’s film writings.” “Introduction: The Contribution of H.D.,” 97.

36.  H.D. “Cinema and Classics: Beauty,” Close Up 1, no. 1 (July 1927): 23.

37.  Ibid., 32.

38.  H.D., “Projector,” Close Up 1, no. 1 (July 1927): 47.

39.  Ibid., 51.

40.  H.D., “An Appreciation,” Close Up 6, no. 3 (March 1929): 56–57.

41.  H.D. spends much time on the food: “Louise Brooks said that the Christmas pudding she had had in London was not flat, but round — basin shape. That she had liked it very much, and lived on it for a week.” “An Appreciation,” 57.

42.  Ibid., 60.

43.  Marcus, “Introduction: The Contribution of H.D.,” 104.

44.  Rainey, Institutions of Modernism, 153.

45.  In Material Modernism, George Bornstein argues that such small, limited editions played “an important role in modernist dissemination during the 1910s and especially the 1920s,” and that Bryher’s use of her wealth to continue the tradition “gestured toward an alternate economic order to the one that had led to the Depression itself” (112–13).

46.  Even H.D. biographer Barbara Guest saw the journal as a vanity press for the poet, writing, “If H.D. were worried about her neglect by the literary scene … Bryher would provide a publication in which H.D.’s poetry and prose could once more find its readers.” Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 232.

47.  Bryher’s prescient decision to stock up on paper in 1938 led to accusations that Life and Letters To-Day was hoarding. They were forced to share with other, “less thoughtful” publications as the War dragged on. Charlotte Mandel, “Letters Across the Atlantic: H.D., Bryher, May Sarton, During World War II,” in A Celebration for May Sarton: Essays and Speeches from the National Conference “May Sarton at 80: A Celebration of Her Life and Work,” ed. Constance Hunting (Orono, ME: Puckerbrush Press, 1992), 98.

48.  Quoted in Renata Morresi, “Two Examples of Women’s ‘Hidden’ Cultural Net(work): Nancy Cunard’s Onion and Life and Letters To-Day,” in Networking Women: Subjects, Places, Links Europe-America: Towards a Re-writing of Cultural History, 1890–1939, ed. Marina Camboni (Rome, Italy: Edizioni di Storia e Litteratura, 2004), 376.

49.  Morresi, “Two Examples,” 376.

50.  Ibid., 376.

51.  Interestingly, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Susan Stanford Friedman recount one episode in which Bryher was kept from publishing a poem by H.D. (“The Master”), which the poet denied her the rights to. For a fuller discussion, see “‘Woman is Perfect’: H.D.’s Debate with Freud,” Feminist Studies 7, no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 417–430.

52.  Hamish Miles, “Contents,” Life and Letters 12, no. 64 (April 1935): fp.

53.  Bryher, “Contents,” Life and Letters To-Day 13, no. 1 (September 1935): fp.

54.  Morresi, “Two Examples,” 375.

55.  Mandel, “Letters Across the Atlantic,” 98.

56.  “Editorial,” Life and Letters To-Day 13, no. 1 (September 1935): 2.

57.  Bryher, The Heart to Artemis, 181.

58.  Bryher, The Days of Mars. A Memoir. 1940–46 (London: Calder and Boyars Ltd., 1972), 33.

59.  Kusch, “Not a Continent I Dreamed About,” 2.

60.  Ibid., 5.

61.  From 1920 until 1950, Bryher’s travels and residences span the globe: New York, California, Paris, London, Cornwall, Berlin, Switzerland, Greece, Egypt — to say nothing of a childhood spent partly in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

62.  Bryher, “Paris 1900,” Life and Letters To-Day 16, no. 8 (Summer 1937): 33.

63.  Bryher, “Editorial,” Life and Letters To-Day 15, no. 5 (Autumn 1936): 2.

64.  Ibid., 1.

65.  Bryher’s suspicion of state-sponsored censorship can be traced at least as far back as her work for Close Up and her 1927 book-length study, Film Problems of Soviet Russia (Bryher, “Editorial,” Life and Letters To-Day 15, no. 5 [Autumn 1936]: 3).

66.  Bryher, The Heart to Artemis, 326.

67.  Bryher, “Editorial,” Life and Letters To-Day and The London Mercury and Bookman 64, no. 1 (January–March 1950), bound (London: The Brendin Publishing Company, Ltd.), 172.

68.  Ibid., 173.

69.  Ibid., 173.

70.  Bryher, The Heart to Artemis, 250.

Towards a conceptual lyric

From content to context

Elizabeth Alexander, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Allison Knowles at the White House in May 2011. Photograph by Steve McLaughlin.

Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.

— Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”(1959)[1]

Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

— Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect” (1918)[2]

Public perceptions

Scene: the State Dining Room of the White House on the afternoon of May 11, 2011. Occasion: a poetry workshop held under the auspices of Michelle Obama for high school student-poets. The workshop has been organized by the First Lady’s close friend, the Yale poet-professor Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote the inaugural poem for Obama in 2008. The four participating poets are the former laureates Rita Dove and Billy Collins, along with — implausibly enough[3] — the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith and Fluxus performance artist Alison Knowles. Seven teenage students have been chosen to read their work, and in the evening there is to be a poetry reading by Dove, Collins, Goldsmith, Knowles, and a few others, with President and Mrs. Obama in attendance.

After Alexander makes a brief introduction about the powers of poetry, Melody Barnes, the president’s domestic policy adviser, discusses the importance of the arts — poetry, dance, country music, Motown hits — for young people, stressing the fact that those schools that incorporate the arts into their regular curriculum (English, math, science) get a better yield of “successful” students. She then introduces the first poet, Tiesha Hines, a senior at Ballou High School in Washington, DC. Tiesha, we learn, “has been writing poetry since she was seven and is now president of her poetry club …. After she graduates, she is going to get to use those skills in other ways, as she studies criminal justice at Fortis College and Trinity University.”[4]

Note the assumption here that poetic composition is a skill to be applied elsewhere. Tiesha’s “poetic” abilities will transfer to her study of a subject that matters in the real world — criminal justice. Poetry, by contrast, does not matter in the real world and is not something that grown-ups do, except for a few “professionals” like the four invited poets. Tiesha accepts this definition herself: she tells the audience that she was chosen because she loves to write poetry but also for her “positive attitude and compassion for other poets.” And, having read a short love poem (“Ten Things I Want to Throw at You”), Tiesha turns the podium over to the First Lady, who welcomes “this extraordinary group of poets” to the White House. Michelle Obama begins by explaining her own interest in poetry:

I was a budding writer. Elizabeth [Alexander] doesn’t know this …. [B]ut when I was young, I was a passionate creative writer and sort of a poet. That’s how I would release myself. Whenever I was struggling in school, or didn’t want to go outside and deal with the nonsense of the neighborhood, I would write and write and write and write.

So this workshop and celebrating you all is important to me … because I think it was my writing that sort of prepared me for so much of what I’ve had to do in my life as an adult.

There it is again: the theme of poetry as preparation for a useful life, a serious life. Poetry as “release,” as escape from the daily struggle and “nonsense of the neighborhood.” “And when you write poetry,” the First Lady continues, “you’re not just expressing yourself. You’re also connecting to people …. Think about how you feel when you read a poem that really speaks to you; one that perfectly expresses what you’re thinking and feeling. When you read that, you feel understood, right? I know I do. You feel less alone. I know I do. You realize despite all our differences, there are so many human experiences and emotions that we share.”

And so on. The uplift theme continues for a few more minutes, honoring poetry as expression, connection, communication — and escape from the drudgery of daily life. Finding your authentic voice, tapping into your unique and truest feelings: this is the poet’s task. And Michelle Obama concludes by announcing, “I’m going to sit for the first session and hear a little bit, but we’ll probably get up while you keep going.” The reference is to her need to leave before long, together with her special guest, Mrs. Margarita Zavala, the First Lady of Mexico. These First Ladies have important things to do!

Poetry, we surmise from these introductory remarks, is essentially a teenager’s pastime. Writing and reading it can help our young people stay off the streets and express their better selves. But such self-expression, friends, has its limits: when we grow up, we must turn from poetry to things that matter — real things! Shades of the prison house, as Wordsworth put it in the great Immortality Ode, begin to close upon us. In the meantime, though, there is “finding your voice.” After some short statements by the “professionals,” of which more below, we are treated to readings of seven student poems. The first poem to be read is called “Belly Song”; it is “dedicated to my mother who has been diagnosed with kidney failure”:

Eight months you carried me
Morning sickness wasn’t ready,
Eight months you carried
But I, I will
Carry you as long as needed, sit
In my belly
For I shall hold you, sit
In my belly
Listen
To the song it sings for my heart
My belly song
Will cure your sickness
Cure you
From kidneys that decided they had enough
Filtering blood so that your heart will pump my heart
Pumps
Memories
Of daughter-mommy day
Memories
Of pillow fights and movie nights …[5]

The second reader picks up on the memory theme with “Those Were the Days”:

I remember those good old days
The days when I ran with a Barbie in my right hand
And a toy car in my left,
The days when I ate the chicken
And put the veggies in a napkin
The days of naptime and milk with cookies
Yea, I remember those days
With the screens and the elves
The whips and the brooms
The ultimatums and the dusters
Those were the days.
I remember those days
With the beer bottles and the hard liquor
With the tears and the blood
Those good old days
With the police and the jail visits
The CIA and immigration
And lonely nights with no one to tuck me in
Yeah, those were the days
I did my homework with no help
I cooked my own food
I did the cleaning
I got fatter and fatter
I remember those days,
Which I worked out alone
Which I exceeded without you,
Which I ate my burnt food
Yeah, I remember.

What does the word “poem” mean to these aspiring poets? What conventions govern their poetic discourse? I find three constants: (1) poetry is assumed to be self-expression — the expression of one’s most private and often painful feelings; (2) poetry is text that is lineated (and when delivered orally, punctuated by pauses at line-ends); and (3) poetry exploits phrasal repetition, as in “eight months I carried” and “sit / in my belly” in the first poem and “Those were the days” and the “I did” and “which” clauses in the second. There is, evidently, no thought of using meter, of counting stresses or syllables. If it is divided into lines, these texts say, it’s poetry; if it’s not, it’s just prose. And repetition — or more properly refrain — underscores the personal feeling of a ubiquitous “I.”

The voice that comes through these recountings of “unique” experience turns out to be surprisingly uniform, despite differences in ethnicity and gender (“Belly Song” is by a young African American woman; “Memory” by a Hispanic male). Indeed the “Memories / Of pillow fights and movie nights” could be exchanged with the “Days of naptime and milk and cookies” in “Those Were the Days,” without much difference in tone or meaning. In both cases, the “I” is the victim of unanticipated external forces: the mother’s kidney disease in the first; CIA immigration policies in the second. In both cases, fear and pain are associated with the loss of a loved parent. The “I” must be strong and learn to cope.

The resulting rhetoric is often praised for its authenticity, but how authentic is it? The belly metaphor, for example, which compares the mother’s protection of her child in the womb to the daughter’s desire to, so to speak, swallow her mother’s body so that she can shield her inside her belly, is strained: a gradual gestation is compared to the momentary urge to change a desperate situation. And the image of the mother’s diseased body inside her daughter is even more problematic. In a similar vein, the second poem’s comparisons of “ultimatums” to “dusters,” “whips” to “brooms,” is hardly a simulation of natural speech. More important, here words are sometimes used incorrectly, as in “I exceeded without you,” evidently for “I succeeded without you,” the lines further marred by the ungrammatical use of “which” where “in which” is called for. Language, in these instances, is regarded as a kind of afterthought or additive: first come the feelings to be embodied in words and only then does word choice kick in, designed to make the resulting discourse appear “poetic.”

No wonder — and it is not the students but their teachers who are to blame — that the readership of poetry has so drastically declined. How are students, whose knowledge of poetry is presumably confined to a high school anthology of near contemporaries, supposed to find their own poetic voice? Even the author of “Belly Song,” interestingly enough, turns to citation, in this case to the classic wedding vows in the Book of Common Prayer:

Our love is deeper
This daughter mommy love vowing
To be there in sickness and in health,
For richer or for poorer
’Til death do us part.

 

The conceptual reaction

When, as the famous anecdote has it, the painter Degas told the poet Mallarmé that he had good ideas for poems but couldn’t find the right words, the latter responded, “It is not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes poems. It is with words.”[6] This is neither sophistry nor an unusual doctrine of poetry; it is the recognition that, as Wittgenstein put it, “The limits of language mean the limits of my world,” or “Language is not contiguous to anything else.”[7] Those mysterious feelings and ideas the young poets are told to “express” are not there till they are materialized. As Robert Smithson puts it in a quip cited by Craig Dworkin in “The Fate of Echo,” his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (edited with Kenneth Goldsmith): “my sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas — i.e., ‘printed matter.’”[8] And the paradox that both editors pinpoint in their respective prefaces to the anthology is that, in the digital age, the best words for a given occasion may well not be one’s own at all.

Or so Goldsmith remarks in his own presentation at the White House workshop, based on his now well-known 2007 manifesto “Uncreative Writing.” Against the usual admonition to “Look in thy heart and write” (Rita Dove has just told the group that “Only you can tell your story. So if you remain true to your own experience, your voice will find you!”), he begins by noting, tongue in cheek, that his own students are penalized for any shred of originality or creativity they might show. As he puts it in the manifesto, “Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering and stealing. Not surprisingly they thrive. Suddenly, what they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out in the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.” Copying, cutting and pasting, downloading, recycling: these activities, Goldsmith argues, will actually teach students more about literature than the seeming “originality” of self-expression. Whereas a fellow professor assigned students to write “in the style of Jack Kerouac,” Goldsmith would have them simply copy out a few pages of On the Road — a process that, he insists, will teach them more about Kerouac’s style than can the clever imitation. The analogy is to the apprentice painter of the nineteenth century who, before the days of adequate reproduction, diligently copied a Rembrandt or Vermeer for sale to fine arts patrons, thus becoming curiously familiar with the style in question.

But can such copying actually produce works of art? The White House audience, not surprisingly, looks a bit skeptical. In his new book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Goldsmith argues that, in the wake of the digital revolution, writers now face a situation similar to that of painters in the nineteenth century: “As photography forced artists to alter their approach to their medium, the [newly invented broadband] Internet presents challenges and opportunities for writers to reconceive ideas about creativity, authorship and their relationship to language. Confronted with an unprecedented amount of available text and language, writers need to move beyond the creation of new texts to manage, parse, appropriate, and reconstruct those that already exist.”[9] And again, in his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Goldsmith argues, “What we’re dealing with here is a basic change in the operative system of how we write at the root level.”[10] Choice and framing take precedence over individual verbal invention. Context replaces content as textual determinant.

If this position sounds extreme — and it has so sounded to many poets and their readers — we might stop to consider that in the visual arts, conceptualism has been the dominant mode since the late 1960s, when Joseph Kosuth published his manifesto “Art after Philosophy” and Sol LeWitt his now classic “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.”[11] In the latter, we read:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art … is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman …. What the work of art looks like isn’t too important …. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned.[12]

The premise behind this and related manifestos was that, for at least the moment, “perceptual” art — what Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades anticipated conceptual art by half a century, called “the retinal shudder” — had lost its challenge: realistic, or even impressionistic and expressionistic, representation of the external world had become too easy, too familiar. Portraiture, for example, had become the domain of photography, as had representations of landscape. As for formalist abstraction, however “wonderful” the severe negation of the all-black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth argued, they represented a point of no return: “After Reinhardt, the tradition of painting seemed to be in the process of completion, while the tradition of art, now unfettered, had to be re-defined.”[13]

When Goldsmith published his own “Sentences on Conceptual Writing” (2005), a document which was, in fact, a verbatim copy of Sol LeWitt’s manifesto, merely substituting the phrase “uncreative writing” for “conceptual art” and “text” for “art” wherever these terms occurred,[14] the poetry community, not recognizing the source, mostly expressed outrage at Goldsmith’s position, thus proving his point that poetic theory and practice were distinctly behind those of the visual arts (indeed, those of music as well), where LeWitt’s principles had long been accepted.[15] It is the theme Dworkin, himself one of the most accomplished young conceptual poets, unpacks in “The Fate of Echo.” Reading conceptual poetry against the background of the conceptual art of the 1960s, Dworkin traces a line from the conceptualist rejection of visual image in favor of the dominant “idea” to the premise that, in the case of writing, opaque language is a starting point and hence something to be appropriated and thus called into question. Like Goldsmith, he is convinced that the digital revolution has been seminal:

[P]art of the difference between 1980 and 2000 derives from the cultural changes brought about by an increasingly digitized culture. During those decades, appropriation-based practices in other arts spread from isolated experiments to become a hallmark of hip-hop music, global DJ culture, and a ubiquitous tactic for mainstream and corporate media. Concurrently, sampling, mash-up, and the montage of found footage went from novel methods of production to widespread activities of consumption …. Conceptual poetry, accordingly, often operates as an interface — returning the answer to a particular query; assembling, rearranging and displaying information; or sorting and selecting from files of accumulated language pursuant to a certain algorithm — rather than producing new material from scratch. Even if it does not involve electronics or computers, conceptual poetry is thus very much a part of its technological and cultural moment.[16]

Interestingly, this shift to a poetry “more graphic than semantic, more a physically material event than a disembodied or transparent medium for referential communication” (xliii), haunts the May 11 poetry workshop and reading at the White House, even though no one but Goldsmith, and indirectly Alison Knowles, demonstrating one of her Bean Bag sound pieces to the audience, talks about the problem. The inclusion of singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Jill Scott, rap artist Common, and comedian-playwright-composer Steve Martin, in what was billed a “poetry event” at the White House, suggests that the organizers felt that poetry as such wouldn’t quite cut it.

Thus, although all the student performers in the afternoon workshop were writing traditional lyric under the sign of, say, Rita Dove, the evening reading itself veered increasingly toward musical performance. The relationship between poetry and performance became complicated: the audience was reassured about “imaginative writing” by being treated to a kind of “poetry-plus,” with plenty of song to interrupt what might otherwise have been the tedium of the merely verbal.

Still, as the inclusion (fortuitous or not) of Goldsmith and Knowles at the White House event suggests, there are other possibilities for poetry. As Dworkin puts it:

The great break with even the most artificial, ironic, or asemantic work of other avant-gardes is the realization that one does not need to generate new material to be a poet: the intelligent organization or reframing of already extant text is enough. Through the repurposing or détournement of language that is not their own (whatever that might mean), the writers here allow arbitrary rules to determine the chance and unpredictable disposition of that language; they let artificial systems trump organic forms; and they replace making with choosing, fabrication with arrangement, and production with transcription.[17]

Such détournement, Dworkin suggests, can go a long way in countering the public perception of the poetic as an additive of sorts, a special language made of tropes and figures of speech devised by the “sensitive” poet who knows how to tap into his or her memory pool. One of the two poems read by laureate Billy Collins at the White House was called “Forgetfulness” and begins:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.[18]

When the poet read these lines at the White House, the audience politely chuckled. Indeed, the first time one hears this gently self-deprecating account of memory loss it seems funny and familiar. Oh yes, we’ve all been there, at least those of us of a certain age! But “Forgetfulness” cannot bear much inspection. For not only is the metaphor forced — where is the fishing village today that has no phones? — but, more important, an aging speaker suffering from memory loss could hardly give us such a clever description of the process, much less come up with the pun on “harbor” or the witty reference to the southern hemisphere of the brain. This is poetry as cocktail party banter. “Don’t imagine,” Pound warned us, “that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.”[19]

 

The renewal of lyric

What, then, will “go” in verse? When Pound used the term he was referring neither to metrical nor to free verse (“vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it”) but to the musical phrase: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (3). And again: “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”[20] The musical phrase is, of course, associated with lyric: for the ancient Greeks, the term lyric referred to verse that was accompanied by a lyre or other stringed instrument (for example, the barbitos), and musical speech — speech to be sounded — characterized a large body of poetry from the Hebrew and the Chinese to the Arabic lyric of the Middle Ages and Troubadour verse of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

When lyric is construed, as it has been since the Romantics, as the art of self-expression, of the private language of a subject overheard while engaged in meditation or intimate conversation with another, conceptualism would seem to be, by definition, its enemy, relying, as it so often does, on words not one’s own or submitting ordinary words to elaborate rules. But if we relate lyric to the musical phrase, the dichotomy disappears: what Dworkin describes as “sorting and selecting from files of accumulated language” is perfectly consonant with the notion of a poem as a distinctively sounded structure, the proviso being that in the digital age the look of the text becomes equally important, so that all poetry is, in a sense, visual as well as sound poetry. In Joyce’s idiom, taken over by the Concrete poets, who anticipated some central strains of conceptualism, poetry is verbivocovisual.

Consider Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7.92–10.20.96, a text generated, as the title tells us, between the dates February 7, 1992, and October 20, 1996, by recording all the phrases the author happened to come across in his daily reading that ended in the sound linguists designate as schwa — the er or uh sound which is one of the most common in English, as in father, finger, future, happier, but also in such one-syllable words as car or are. These units are then organized alphabetically by syllable count, beginning with one-syllable entries for chapter 1 (“A, a, aar, aer, agh, ah, air …) and culminating in the 7,228-syllable reproduction of an entire short story: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner.”[21]

The five-page excerpt from this book selected for the Anthology of Conceptual Writing is chapter 8, with its eight-syllable phrases running from a to z and within a, from ab (“A beer does not come with in-laws, a Bohemian reformer” to “Australian buttchug moon river” (258–59). Here is a sample passage, beginning with de:

deliver Oscar caliber, Delta is ready when you are, der Wallet-emptyung Meter, Dhamacakkappavattana, Diarmuid and Grania, did damage on the 3s and 4s. Did I ever? Did I ever!, Did you ever!, Did I ever?, Did you ever!, Did you ever! Did I ever!, Did you ever? Did I ever?, Did you ever? Did you ever!, Did you finish sewing my bear?, dig a ding dang depadepa, digital slaves of the future, dinkus simmers in late summer, discharges corroding humours, dive into an icy river, Do food makers get fan letters?, Do me a big favor will ya?, do not whine to the Postmaster, dock doesn’t quite reach the water, Does anyone sing anymore? Does it speak to you any more? don’t ask me I only work here, don’t believe everything you hear, don’t even think of parking here. (260–61)

This absurdist catalogue, with its advertising slogans (“Delta is ready when you are”), slightly obscure literary titles (Yeats’s play Diarmuid and Grania), Indian chants, bop rhythms, questions, commands, bits of dialogue, homonyms, comic repartee, and slippery punctuation — a montage of voices that don’t go together and yet seem perfectly consonant with the way language actually confronts us today. At the same time, the elaborate structure of rhyme and anaphora, the nursery rhyme echoes and bits of chant (“Dive into an icy river”), the alliteration and assonance, and the return of the –er sound at every eighth syllable makes this a sequence curiously more “poetic” than, say, Billy Collins’s poem or the student poems I cited earlier. It gives us the sense that, however bizarre the discourse of our daily lives, it can be organized and given some kind of pattern that is meaningful. The words may not be Goldsmith’s, but their choice and framing certainly are.

The anthology contains extracts from many such “lyric” conceptual poems, from the “abecedaries” of the Vienna Group (571–75) and John Cage’s “Writing through The Cantos” (129–35) to Caroline Bergvall’s riff on Dante called “Via” (982–86) and Christian Bök’s extraordinary Eunoia (119–20), both of which I have discussed elsewhere.[22] In the anthology, lyric is still in the minority — such recent texts as Vanessa Place’s Statement of Fact, her intricately structured presentation of police reports and court records pertaining to indigent sex offenders whose cases come before the appellate court where the author is a public defender, or Craig Dworkin’s own “Legion,” composed by “rearranging and recontexualizing the true-false questions of the 1942 Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory as if they were declarative confessional statements … part of a poetic monologue rather than a forensic instrument” (190) — these require the prose of their source texts, although Dworkin’s litany of I’s — “I wish I were not so shy,” “At times I feel like smashing things” — is, of course, a brilliant spoof on lyric self-revelation.

But in recent years, Dworkin, like many conceptual poets, has also turned back to lyric itself. Motes contains 150 minimalist poems, usually two per page (105 “Opuscula”[23] and 45 “Ayres”), many of them epigrams, riddles, and definition poems in the vein of Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro” or, more immediately, Stein’s Tender Buttons. But whereas Stein describes, however elliptically and fancifully, the object designated by her title — “Milk,” “Sugar,” “Umbrella,” “Custard” — Dworkin’s concern is with the riddling of semantic overload: pun, paragram, homonym, foreign-language equivalent. “Every word,” he explains, “is multiply determined — by translation between languages, or sound, or typography, etc. — but my goal was to have all those rules as invisible and elided as possible.”[24]

The title Motes is at once simple — we all know that motes are small particles or specks, especially of dust — but also resonant of the King James Bible, as in Matthew 7: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Dworkin’s epigraph from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (book 2, stanza 32), “Well mote yee thee, as well can wish your thought,” complicates the picture, for in Spenser’s purposely archaicized English, the Redcrosse Knight’s “Well mote yee thee” means “Well may you thrive.”[25] The little epigraph thus suggests not only that language is inherently slippery, but that canonical authors in earlier periods also engaged in language play: according to the OED, thee, the diminutive of the Anglo Saxon theon, to thrive, was already obsolete by Spenser’s time. Meanwhile “thee” — the second-person singular pronoun meaning “you” — is now, in its turn, obsolete in standard common English. To read Motes is thus to cast off familiar habits and let the words (mots in French and thus directly in the title) open up to reveal their mysteries.

The first of the Opuscula reads:

a shiver
winters itself[26]

“Shiver” contains the French word for winter, “hiver,” and the “s” that precedes it suggests the reflexive pronoun “se.” To shiver is to winter oneself. It makes perfect sense. Or again:

seasick
too much marmalade now
starting to turn green

When one is seasick, one’s stomach turns to jelly. It’s an old cliché. But no one would normally use the word “marmalade” in this context: marmalade is much more specific than jam, originally referring only to citrus fruit, and it doesn’t shake as does jelly. No one would say, “My stomach turned to marmalade.” But look again: marmalade contains the French word malade: ergo, too much illness now. In this context, turning green refers to the appearance of the seasick, but also to the cooking process or even to the ocean. And in a related “mote”:

berkeley marina
frottage of fish grotto signage as
announcing the decline of the west —

The reference is to the signpost in front of a restaurant on the Berkeley marina, behind whose “frottage,” or dim image of a fish grotto, sunset is taking place. In Berkeley, even the sunset is taken seriously, representing, with a grandiose flourish, the decline of the West (Oswald Spengler’s title). But in the meantime, the intricate phonemic play (internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration) of “frottage of fish grotto signage” conjures up the image of a rare fish ragout served in the “grotto” of the restaurant.

Some of the motes are riddling anagrams, like:

wilted tulips
split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew

The short title generates seven words characterizing the tulips in a mock alexandrine, the “dew” spilling out from those “puppet pulpits,” rhyming with the first syllable of “tulips” to make the organic process of decay and rebirth as graphic as possible. Or again, “thunderclouds” are characterized as “really loud under there,” the word itself yielding paragrams that describe the situation quite accurately.

Part 2, “Ayres,” contains a number of bird songs. Here are two “Crow” poems:

cawking

a flock of chalk-
white aging birds
flew by, coughing
at a watching sky

 

two crows over there

there’s a crowd now’s growing
from those fielding old seeds

Here the first little “ayre” depends on acoustic imagery: not only is the ugly crow sound reinforced by “coughing,” but “chalk-white” suggests the homonym “caulking” for “cawking,” and thus we both hear and see these crows! What can the sky do but “watch,” the rhyme “by” / “sky” bringing this elliptical lyric full circle. The second poem uses visual punning: two crows can be stretched to make a crow-d that’s “growing,” as it is seen to be “fielding” (the baseball term, plus “belong to the field”) those old seeds.

Where, in all this verbal play, is the “authentic” voice of the poet on display at venues like the White House workshop? How does the self emerge from Dworkin’s elaborate sound games? Reading Motes, the purported “impersonality” one would expect from these riddles or epigrams is illusory: there is a particular persona who speaks, one who can’t look at or hear a word without wanting to explore its insides and study its living relationships. For Dworkin that quest to unlock the word seems to be a special pleasure:

margin
Explanation of butter on the counter overnight

Leave it out all night, and butter (margarine) has melted, losing the margin of its rectangular eight-ounce bar or perhaps running over the margin of the counter. The explanation makes sense, and look at what lovely sound it generates, with its anapestic rhythm and alliterative “t” patterns:

Explanátion of bútter on the coúnter overníght.

Indeed, Dworkin’s is a Jamesian aesthetic: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” If he sees the name “Vincent Van Gogh,” he focuses on the middle word “Van,” a variant on the German “Von,” originally designating aristocratic birth. But in everyday parlance, a van is, of course, a vehicle, and so by metonymic transfer, we move from “van” to the poem’s first word, “diligence,” the French stagecoach of the nineteenth century that, no doubt, took Van Gogh to Paris.

The free-associative and yet rule-generated lyric of Motes is part of a new congerie of conceptual lyrics younger poets are producing. A great venue has been the Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn, most of whose books are individually designed little pamphlets with artful paper covers and innovative typography. Consider Uljana Wolf’s False Friends (Falsche Freunde). Wolf is a young poet from Berlin who lives in the US with her American husband, poet Christian Hawkey, whose own Ventrakl (another Ugly Duckling book) is an elaborate serial poem on the nature of translation.[27] The author’s note at the back of False Friends explains:

These DICHTionary poems (Dichtung is German for poetry) are based on lists of so-called “false friends” in German and English — words that look and/or sound similar in both languages, but differ in meaning. At any given moment, each of these words might be used with German in mind, or English, or both. Other times these “friends” do not appear explicitly in their poems but instead remain standing behind them with suitcases full of etymology and misread linguistic maps.[28]

The picture is further complicated by the fact that the “DICHTionary poems” have been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, one of the best translators of German poetry, who worked closely with Wolf to find the right nuance and idiom. We thus have “German-English” turned into English-English, with German bits sometimes pasted in. Take for example, Wolf’s “bad / bald / bet-t / brief”:

am anfang bald, und bald am ende wieder: unsere haare, und dazwischen sind sie nicht zu fassen, nicht in sich und nicht in griff zu kriegen, weder im guten noch im bad. stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad). Am besten hälst du sie als igel der hat noch jeden hare besiegt. Liegt aber eine strähne im brief, gar eine lange, halte sie unverfänglich an die wange.

In Wolf’s wronglish, as she calls her bilingual idiolect, the German title words migrate into their unrelated English counterparts, shifting grammar along the way and blowing apart the poet’s mock-meditation. The effect is that of travelling to a foreign country and not quite hearing the other. How can “soon” (adverb) be “bald” (adjective)? “bad” (adjective) a “bath” (noun)? “bet” (verb) a “bed” (noun)? Or “brief” (adjective) a “letter” to be mailed (noun)? Never mind, Wolf’s little love poem, concluding with a rhyme on “lange” (long) and “wange” (cheek), urges the lover, who may find a strand of hair in the letter, to press it sweetly to his cheek.

In Susan Bernofsky’s translation — or more accurately her adaptation — the poem reads like this:

In the beginning bald, bald at the end once more: in between, this hair is hard to grasp, tricky to pin it up or down, for better or for bed. standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad). perhaps best to crop it hedgehog close: he always gets his hare. But should you find a strand within a letter, long or brief, press it sweetly to your cheek.[29]

Bernofsky’s all-English version retains the German element in hidden form: “within a letter, long or brief,” for example,” the “brief” reappears, and “hair” becomes “hare” in the hedgehog fable. Once the stage is set for such adaptation, the possibilities multiply: in the “Variations” section at the back of the book, the poet Eugene Ostashevsky gives “bad bald bet-t brief” a further spin:

In the beginning hareless and unhared again in the end: our hare — even a dachshund can do nothing against it, neither by itself nor by wearing its war claws, neither in good weather nor while it rains cats and dogs. In the morning it pitches a tent (in bad) and at night it gambols in the bathtub like an advertent bettwetter. It fell out to have been bested and halted by an eagle, who then had to bear a hat to bear ahead because it became a bald eagle . . . what a bad hare day! In brief, it lay around here on the strand like an unopened ladder and gargled, can you catch the hare by the cheek, it can’t ear.

Thus Uljana Wolf’s little love poem, with its slide into English usage, gives Ostashevsky the impetus to produce his own “bad hare day.” His version eliminates the “pure” German, settling for the mongrelism of “bettwetter,” or substituting cliché for foreign locution: here it “rains cats and dogs”; our hare wears “war claws,” “pitches its tent,” and becomes a “bald eagle.” The strand of hair becomes the beach, the unopened “brief” a ladder. As for the “hare” (for hair) to be absurdly caught by the cheek, “it can’t ear.”

Such writing is often dismissed as mere game playing. Isn’t poetry supposed to be a noble pursuit, a way of expressing yourself and communicating with others, as the White House speakers suggest? Of finding your authentic voice? For decades now, the cult of expressivity has dominated — the belief that self-revelation will automatically become poetry if it is sufficiently sincere and earnest. Hence the endless drive to bring poetry to the prisons, poetry to the hospitals and nursing homes, as if simple desire could bring one to write “poems” others would want to read.

But suppose we regard “poetry” as the language art, parallel to the composition of music, the making of visual objects, or dance? However original the art work may be, there is a discipline to be learned: a discipline that cannot encompass personal effusions like “Belly Song” or “Those Were the Days,” or, for that matter, the magazine verse that now dominates the poetry scene. Forced feeding, as Frank O’Hara said, leads to excessive thinness! And in the Internet age, where we are at liberty to download such a plethora of texts — to reproduce them, recycle them, change their appearance by altering font, typeface, spacing, size — context and framing become the key elements. The poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.

Let me conclude with one of the most remarkable lyric sequences of recent years: Cia Rinne’s notes for soloists.[30] Born in Sweden and raised in Germany before living for over a decade in Finland and then Denmark, Rinne moves easily between languages: in Notes her base is English, but an English laced with echoes of French, German, occasionally another language. The poem is both visual composition and sound text: recorded by Rinne and accompanying soloists with music and sound design by Sebastian Eskildsen in Copenhagen in 2011, this elaborate echo structure, with sounds ranging from gong to passing train, is available at PennSound.

Here is the visual configuration of the first two facing pages:


Cia Rinne, from
notes for soloists.

When Robert Creeley wrote his “Numbers” series in the late 1960s, he did not decompose the words themselves; in notes for soloists, however, the number 1 quickly morphs into “one,” the German “ohne” (without), “oh no, ono” (as in Yoko), and then “on, o,” with the echo of “(oh no).” The next section treats the number 2 as the reversal of “one/on,” and “to” has its homonyms “two” and “too.” But it is the third section where things become complicated. Words beginning with “to” are broken so as to become infinitives. It begins low-key with cases where “to” is a separate syllable, as in “to tal,” “to lerance,” “to morrow,” and “to rah.” But then come diphthongs, first on “o” like “to ol,” but then on “oa” like “to aster,” and finally single-syllable words that give us “to p,” “to ss,” “to sh,” and at last, “to o,” bringing us back full circle to the first lyric, and hence zero.

Notes for soloists exhibits an extraordinary eye and ear for sound echo, homonym, and paragram. Even the days of the week, the “tou jours,” become interesting. And on the next page “N 29” is first taken apart as “No 2 9,” then spelled out to become “no two nine,” and finally transformed by homonym and German translation to “no to nein.” Or again, on the next page Rinne explores the effect of spacing:

insecurity
in security

Allow for a single space, and the meaning reverses. Rinne’s seems to me the perfect poem for the age of digital composition, when, as we know, every character and space makes a difference. Mistake a single letter, number, or punctuation mark, and you have altered what the text “says” beyond recognition. Moreover, omission or duplication has consequences: think of paying a bill of $67.50 online and omitting the decimal point. The Bank, as I know from experience, will not let you off easily. And neither, in the case of poetry, will a future audience.

What, in this new poetry, has happened to the authentic voice? Where is the expressive self of “Belly Song,” of “Ten Things I Want to Throw at You,” or of “Those Were the Days”? The fabled “sensitivity” of the Creative Writer gives way to a sensitivity to language that is almost like a fever — a sensitivity that has been the distinguishing mark of the poet from the Troubadours to George Herbert’s “The Windows” and Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” to Emily Dickinson’s “My Life has stood — A Loaded Gun — ” and Susan Howe’s “That This.” Indeed, in one sense the poetry of Dworkin or Wolf or Rinne is perfectly traditional. It merely seems new because in the early twenty-first century, the equation of poetry with self-expression has become so normative.

Perhaps, then, the copying exercises Kenneth Goldsmith talks about in his address to the White House workshop come at a moment when students badly need tools to make constructs more satisfying than their attempts to bare their unique souls. As Rinne puts it in “notes for censorship”:

cut out from books
important words
destroy the book.
(diagonal reading)

And then

someone will notice

 

 


 

 

1.  Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto,” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 498.

2.  Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), 5.

3.  According to Goldsmith in conversation, his invitation came from Joe Reinstein, the deputy social secretary at the White House, who told him he had loved the art gallery installation of Goldsmith’s Soliloquy and must have long been familiar with Ubuweb. Reinstein is married to the Fluxus artist Hannah Higgins, whose mother is the well-known Fluxus performance artist Alison Knowles, who was invited together with Goldsmith, thus literally sneaking in the avant-garde by the back door of the White House.

4.  For the transcript of the opening remarks, visit the White House Press Office.

5.  Note that this and the subsequent White House poems and prose commentaries cited are reproduced from the video and transcripts of the actual White House event available online, not from manuscript or printed versions.

6.  The story was first told by Paul Valéry: see his “Poésie et pensée abstraite,” Théorie poétique et esthétique (1939) in Œuvres (Paris: Pléiade ed.), 1, 1324.

7.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (1922: London and New York: Routledge, 1988), §5.62; Wttgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1930–32, ed. Desmond Lee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 112.

8.  Craig Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, ed. Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011), xxxvi–vii.

9.  Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), dustjacket.

10.  Goldsmith, “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?,” in Against Expression, xxi.

11.  See Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After, Collected Writings 1966–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 13–32; Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 79–83.

12.  LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” 79.

13.  Kosuth, “On Ad Reinhardt,” in Art after Philosophy, 191–93.

14.  See “UbuWeb Papers: Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics.”

15.  See, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the current consensus on the importance of conceptual art.

16.  Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” xlii.

17.  Ibid., xliv.

18.  For both the text and a reading by the poet, see Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness.”

19.  Ezra Pound, Literary Essays, 6.

20.  The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1993), Canto LXXXI, p. 538.

21.  Kenneth Goldsmith, No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96 (Great Barrington, VT: The Figures, 1997). Embedded in the larger text, the Lawrence story (588–606) escapes notice and hence required no copyright permission.

22.  See Marjorie Perloff, “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall,” Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University of Abalama Press, 2004), 205–26.

23.  Dworkin supplies this note: “Opuscule, a little work a little labor, Thomas Blount, Glossographia (1656).”

24.  Email to the author, 23 May 2011.

25.  I found this translation by Googling various Spenser sites and finding the notes to the most recent editions of The Faerie Queene. In the Internet age, accessing such information, which might formerly have involved a trip to the research library, takes just minutes, and poetry students like the ones who came to the White House could readily learn to find the text in question. Purists object to this practice as being merely mechanical — the “researcher” need know nothing or little about Spenser’s poem — but it may just be possible that the search would generate interest in The Faerie Queene.

26.  Dworkin, Motes (New York: Roof, 2011), unpaginated (in press).

27.  Christian Hawkey, Ventrakl (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), unpaginated. See my review in Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 May 2011.  

28.  Uljana Wolf, False Friends, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), last page of unpaginated book. Wolf’s reading of extracts from the related Jane poems may be heard on YouTube.  

29.  For example, Wolf’s “weder im guten noch im bad” (whether for better or in the bath) becomes “for better or for bed,” presumably for the sake of sound, and “bed” is one of Wolf’s key words.

30.  Cia Renne, notes for soloists (Stockholm: OEI, 2009), unpaginated.

The Tolerance Project

Projection of the intimate into the historical

Poetic DNA at the Tolerance Project collaborative blog.

The Tolerance Project, what could be the first collaborative MFA in Creative Writing ever,[1] has engendered many defining responses. Poet and scholar Jeff Derksen frames the project “within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer.”[2] One blogger poet wrote that it “actively challeng[es] the stagnating culture of poetry workshops and the dominance of mainstream Romantic ideas propagated within them.”[3] Another blogger poet opined that The Tolerance Project “explore[s] the civility agenda intrinsic to the MFA workshop experience.”[4] Language poet and critic Charles Bernstein wrote me that it “promises to take on the institutionality of the MFA in a way that I haven’t seen before.”[5] And some reactants claim that this collaboration “violates the privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, while others have accused me of “cavalierly” using my “arrogance” to “GAME the system” — in big block letters.[6]

While I appreciate the range of these takes on The Tolerance Project’s poetics, for me this is primarily a collaborative conceptual-performance project, a queer-in-more-ways-than-one response to how desire is constrained and regulated in the US, an examination of the governmental functions of docility (partly under the guise of tolerance discourse), the self-regulating “conduct of conduct” that occurs under the sway of institutional and repressive state apparatuses not only at the border but within the academic industrial complex or even the hospital, where I may not be allowed to visit my partner if she’s sick, or on the street where queer (mostly trans) sex workers get killed every day for sport. Suffice it to say that for me The Tolerance Project is not simply a set of poetic gestures; it has had daily real-world implications, so its lived material aspects are as important as its conceptual and poetic facets.

The project is influenced by theorist Wendy Brown’s book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in Age of Identity and Empire,[7] in which Brown examines how US government policy notions of tolerance have come to dominate pedagogy and other forums and have shifted discussions from challenging citizens to work on internalized and externalized racism, homophobia, classism, etc., to simply tolerating (or not, in the case of Islamophobia, for example) what we hate about the neighbo(u)r over the fence. As alluded to earlier with my use of the terms “docility” and “conduct of conduct,” Michel Foucault’s work is also key to the project. Discipline and Punish[8] is an important inter-text, and both Brown and Foucault appear in The Tolerance Project Archive’s Office of Institutional Research, a key source of poetic DNA in the project.

As Derksen rightly deduced, the project is also influenced by Institutional Critique, which is a subset of conceptual art made famous by artists such as Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Andrea Fraser since the 1970s, and which looks at the systems and processes of art worlds and the solidification of the artist as commodity. Michael Asher made an important piece in 1974 in which the art viewer entered the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles and was confronted simply with blank walls, no art objects anywhere to be seen. Gradually, the astute viewer (the one who doesn’t leave in flustered confusion) discovers that the only subtle manipulation Asher has made to the space has been to remove the wall separating the art dealer from the spectator, thus laying bare the invisible hand of commerce behind each art gesture. Andrea Fraser, who engaged in a well-known performance in 1989 where she posed as a tour guide in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and waxed on about the beautiful architectural composition of the museum cafeteria and Duchampian water fountains, even went so far as to have sex with an art collector for $20,000 in one infamous instance of Institutional Critique in 2003.

The Tolerance Project is also in conversation with the recent Conceptual Writing phenomenon thrust onto the public scene by Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place, among others. British artist and poet Brion Gysin (inventor of the cut-up technique) quipped in 1959 that “writing is always fifty years behind painting,”[9] and indeed Conceptual Writing is a little late to the game for conceptual art practices made famous in the 1960s, many of which used similar textual modes of appropriation, constraint and polyvocality that are so trumpeted by Conceptual Writing folks. I was asked to be in a forthcoming anthology of Conceptual Writing by women (perhaps there is another more important one by men), and though I gave them some work, I don’t define myself as part of the Conceptual Writing movement (as Groucho keeps saying, I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member). Though my work can employ allegorical and other strategies that Conceptual Writers promote (again via theories of conceptual art and Walter Benjamin, etc.), the product is always impure, and indeed too invested in meaning and materiality for some. “Context not content,” Fitterman once whistled pithily to me.

 

The Tolerance Project call

The Tolerance Project began with an email call on June 6, 2009, to more than 250 writers and artists across North America. For reasons that may become apparent, the call itself went through thirteen drafts as I dealt with intense focus-group feedback from my poetic peers, who warned me not to sound too “smug” or too “negative” or unwilling to engage in “community” with my fellow students; to especially avoid being threatening to my teachers; and to not exhibit a number of other adverbs and affects I can’t remember right now,[10] affects that, as Derksen would later astutely notice, I was deliberately trying to circumscribe in order to place myself “outside of the feelings of the workshop”[11] while being ensconced within it, doing something like a duration performance:

June 6, 2009

Subject: Donate your poetic trace to a worthy cause

Dear fine writers, artists and thinkers I admire,

I’m embarking on a two-year conceptual writing project — and I need your help. It’s participatory! This fall I will be entering The New School MFA in Creative Writing to work on my fifth book of poetry. The story behind that weird decision is long and at times boring boring,[12] but the gist is my partner K. got a job at The New School in 2008 and because of the US Defense of Marriage Act, I was not allowed to move with her from Canada. I have “visited” K. and the lovely NYC this year, but that is no longer tenable and I need status at the border, which being a student brings for a couple of years.

Okay, here’s where you come in. As far as I can gather, part of The New School MFA involves writing poems each week — sometimes in specific forms and on assigned topics — and bringing them to class for critique. What I’d like to do is gather “poetic” material from you fine folks for a textual archive from which I will draw elements to create poems for the MFA. For example, if the assignment is to write a sonnet in the style of Petrarch on the colour purple, there’s bound to be something inspiring in the archive, even if only a hint of blue in a Fitterman tome or a yellow Levitsky sigh on the page. I will likely have to mash together multiple pieces of donated poetic material to fulfill the parameters of the week’s assignment, so there’s no worry that plagiarizing — that scourge of university campuses and influence anxiety everywhere — will come into play here. What you define as poetic material is up to you. It can be your favourite poem from your salad days in the MFA, it can be a grocery list, a picture, a philosophical treatise, a confession, manifesto, tweet to one of your thousands of friends — in short, it’s your poetic DNA, define it as you wish.

What I offer you is a chance to hear real feedback on your work from my fellow MFA students[13] and our instructors. What I offer you is a chance to take part in what could be the first collaborative MFA thesis ever imagined! What I offer you is a chance to help out a queer poet[14] who might just blow her head off if she has to look out her window and wait for poetic inspiration to come to her each week. How’s that for a good cause, eh?

Each poetic trace that you give me will receive a barcode that I will give you — you’ll see it on your donation receipt, which you can attempt to get a tax break for (good luck!). Starting this September, each week I will post the poem(s) I brought to class, plus the feedback I received, on a blog created for this project. Maybe it will be called The Tolerance Project, because, as Wendy Brown and the Museum of Tolerance have taught us so well, it’s important that we tolerate neighbo(u)rs and lifestyles and other things that we hate!

The pieces of poetic DNA used in the poem and their barcodes will also be posted on the blog, so you’ll know when your trace has been activated. I will include a comments section on the blog too, so you all and anyone else can put in your two cents toward creating the perfect MFA poem. I will then attempt to revise the poems according to all comments received and get closer to that messianic MFA perfection myself.

For my final thesis, I will collate the poem versions and responses and such and make something beautiful and grade A-worthy that everyone will want to publish. What else is an MFA in creative writing for?[15]

So, I’m offering you participation in something pure, something purely conceptual, a collaborative idea that may not work but may be fun, an idea that will help me tolerate MFA school (and it me). Your assistance in this matter would be greatly appreciated. 

Please send poetic material [by email] that you think would help me create the perfect MFA poem (come on, most of you have taken and/or teach in these programs!). At the end of the project, all barcode IDs will be revealed on the blog and in print, if it gets that far. Of course it’s fine if you’d rather remain anonymous too. I promise to only create poems from the project archive and to use at least an aspect of every piece of poetic DNA donated — so bring it on, bards!

Yours in canonical perpetuity,

Rachel Zolf

After the thirteenth draft came as close to perfection as humanly possible, I sent the call out on June 6, 2009, to all the writers and artists I had email addresses for in North America, most of whom I didn’t know personally at all. As I performatively pressed “send” 250 times and imagined people’s responses on the other end, my sense of anticipation and mild fear was interesting. Would these people know who I was? Would they care? Would they write back? Would they narc to the “authorities” and have me kicked out of the country? It’s difficult to explain to United Statesians (to borrow Rachel Levitsky’s torquing of the colonial American) the daily fears of the precarious “alien,” and of course my situation as a white Canadian is nothing compared to “suspect” Mexicans or other brown people forced to carry nonexistent “papers” on their bodies in Arizona and likely soon a state near you.

But the fear, however borne from privilege and incomparable to the struggles of racialized peoples, was real. This is partly why I had decided to do the MFA, so that I could get two years in the US with my partner somewhat free of overriding anxiety. Yet, once I was accepted into the New School program (after an initial wrinkle due to my lack of a Bachelor’s degree — and a consequent intervention by a powerful Language poet, who assured the Dean that I had more “credentials” than students exiting the Ivy League PhD program where said poet taught), the anxiety merely shifted, when I realized I had no idea what poems I would work on during the MFA. I was in the final stages of editing my fourth full-length book, Neighbour Procedure, and not interested in “workshopping” (that awful neologism) those poems with people I didn’t know or trust, even if the poems could possibly make sense as stand-alone pieces, which they couldn’t. I’d also never taken part in a workshop, other than once in 1990, when I was living in what I called “the sex commune” in Winnipeg and was sort of forced to go to this weekend poetry workshop (long story … it was a fundraiser and one of the members had to go); at the time, I had never written any poetry at all, so had to bring an unfinished essay from my failed BA era on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that stopped after a page and a half when the reader became a travailer (i.e., the reader had to work like Christian to get anywhere). I actually wrote my first poem at this workshop, something about an abusive guy and a bellybutton, but hadn’t attended another workshop since. And, at the risk of sounding maudlin, my “little poet” inside, which I guess you could laughingly call a kind of “voice,” was mildly panicked at the thought of having to write an “experimental poem” or sonnet, villanelle, haiku or whatever assignment task I might be given each week, and I was more than a little worried that that little poet might shut up forever in protest.

Though my poetics changes with every project, the base of my work has always come from years of intense research collecting textual material and fumbling around with inexpert knowing. I am pretty much physically unable to write poems by looking out my window at the birds or at my inner consciousness, and I tend to depend on that archival crutch, feel safer with my hoard of research or marbles in place to work and play with. Hence, K. and I came up with the idea to make the MFA process collaborative and have people donate “poetic DNA” from which I would cull the MFA poems. Not only would I get my language archive, and sort of feel in control of one part of my existence in the US (much as of course the archive always swerves slant just out of grasp), but the project would push the boundaries of the workshop, and of course its buttons too. The project’s constraints, where I would only make poems from the donated textual material, would mimic the constraints I was living under on a daily basis. The extensive time and labor involved with the project — which included organizing an enormous amount of material in various forms, extensive communicating with collaborators, dealing with finicky barcodes, and wrangling with blog software, not to mention combing through the archive and actually writing the poems as well as participating in classes week in and week out — also reflected the quotidian nature of the physical and emotional labor involved with figuring out how to be here with my partner and for how long and how to make money to survive, etc.

The project would of course also test the limits of what is deemed originality within the “American MFA industry.” The notion of defamiliarizing Romantic originality and transparent self-expression is not new, but the MFA is, of course, still designed to churn out marketable “author functions” (to use Foucault’s term)[16] and mostly not set up to tolerate much difference from or opposition to that saleable norm. The “American MFA industry” is poet and activist Mark Nowak’s term for “the multimillion-dollar conglomeration of state and private enterprises within the neoliberal language industry that has developed in continuum with the crisis of global capitalism over the past four decades” that he examines in a well-known essay published in 2004 called “Neoliberalism, Collective Action and the American MFA Industry.” In the essay, he “reconfigure[s] the work of Adorno and Horkheimer (‘the culture industry’) and Charles Bernstein (‘official verse culture’) by examining an industry and culture at all stages of production, exchange, consumption, and reproduction.” He continues:

As an industry its objectives include the market socialization of the contemporary “poet & writer” and the neoliberalization of its relations of production. Through its rapid expansion in the late 20th century it has produced a largely under- or unemployed workforce of “poets & writers” in free market competition for jobs (advertised through the MLA job information list, the AWP job list, and the Chronicle for Higher Education career network) and publication opportunities …

… A new social formation for the collective cultural worker must replace the stereotypes of the hermetic, visionary artist (the product of early capitalism) and the market-socialized neoliberal artist (the product of late capitalism and the American MFA industry). One question at hand is whether the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer.

In response to Nowak and further to Derksen’s reference to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the author as producer,[17] it was important to me to look at the institutional processes involved in my being in the MFA, and how I was being constructed and reconstructed while I attempted to sit placidly in my seat in the classroom for the two years it would take me to become accredited to teach other writers. Hence my decision to expand the authorial creation and feedback process beyond the confines of the workshop room, as a way of examining the inner workings of the MFA, in the tradition of conceptual art’s Institutional Critique, and also to see how these processes operate within larger state and cultural apparatuses. I was here influenced by Louis Althusser’s writings on Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses (ISAs and RSAs), through which the subject is “interpellated” — called into being — by a force outside herself that torques her subjectivity with its loud “Hey, you!”[18]


Rachel Zolf in Brooklyn, May 2011. Photo © Brian Adams.

A hoard of poetic DNA 

The response to The Tolerance Project call was enthusiastic, and the material donated from eighty-six writers and artists across North America was vast and varied. A number of donations looked like they could be actual poems or notes toward poems. Sometimes they had titles. Among the poetic DNA traces, there were photos, pop songs, syllabi, blood sugar charts, parking tickets, pet-loss odes, prayer lists, to-do lists, lists of aphorisms, lists of library headings, list of chemicals, lists of Facebook updates, academic and layman articles, prose musings on stray facts, museum objects, and even a breast cancer diagnosis and two medieval gynecological texts. Some donors gave whole books of their own poetry. One donor gave a multitude of email spam, which (strangely, or perhaps fittingly) proved to be the most poetic of all donations, this trace appearing in The Tolerance Project poems more often than any other. One judge kindly gave a ruling, another lawyer a note of appeal. A corporate hack writer parted with some corporate hack paragraphs; a few activists telegraphed activist texts. One mother sent her son’s dinosaur poem; another mother some posts from the “parents of twins listserv”; yet another sent some musings on breastfeeding and chemicals. There were translations of history texts, strangely beautiful paratactic sentences generated by an online engine, and even two love poems addressed to me. One donor gave a stack of response papers she had written to her peers during her own time in the MFA. Another donor chose to remain anonymous, because the donated material was scathingly insensitive feedback she had received from a key instructor in the New School program (e.g., “There is nothing in this that interests me.”… “You might want to give up on poetry entirely and take up creative non-fiction, perhaps even learn to write linearly and write your own memoir.”…“Why don’t you try centering all your poems — both physically and theoretically?”). Both this donation and the one from the other former MFA student would prove to be very useful after the event described below. 

 

The event

Here it makes sense to skip ahead to the “event” that sort of sideswiped me in the first term of the MFA and The Tolerance Project — even though I had guessed an event would occur. There tends to be some kind of event generated by my work, whether it be a potential lawsuit or other threat, such as being kicked out of job, country, or family. K. and I were aware of this risk when we came up with the idea for me to attempt to do the MFA and then to do The Tolerance Project — we suspected both would be awkward fits. This awareness of risk added another layer of tension to the process, and frankly to our relationship, which had experienced its strains as a result of our separate and common anxieties about my immigration status. One might ask, why take the risk of doing a controversial project based in a seemingly negative stance when it could affect your visa status and your partner’s precarious job security as an untenured professor at a new institution, not to mention piss a lot of people off? We thought about these issues, and I’m using “we” because both K. and I were implicated by the choices that went into conceiving and following through on this project. But we still felt compelled to go forward, primarily because both of our practices involve examining the rhetorics of structures and ideologies and discourses from within and without, this is what we both do. And negation can be a productive creative space, however fraught, acting as a kind of psychic protection against falling into docility. The line of creation is the same as the line of destruction. Nevertheless, neither K. nor I was sure what blowback this particular risky venture would generate.

The cataclysm occurred after I posted on The Tolerance Project blog some anonymous feedback that my classmates in my first term (fall 2009) workshop wrote on my poems. Somewhat like a reality TV show for poets, as mentioned earlier, I had promised my collaborators constructive criticism by “real” MFA students and teachers. By that stage of the workshop (mid-October), I had drawn on Juliana Spahr’s donation to bring in a poem about the chemicals in breast milk that I’m sure led some people to assume I had a child. K.’s DNA was the source for a love poem/manifesto about my fears at the border due to my naïve “radical honesty” that never works. (Incidentally, students had a lot of trouble with that poem’s pseudo-typewritten x-ed-out words mimicking tweaked-to-the-last-minute political manifestos of the 1980s.) And just to shake things up a bit, I had also brought in a poem from my third book, Human Resources, partly about Adrienne Rich using a form letter from Norton to let me know that I wasn’t allowed to use a piece of her famous lesbian sonnet sequence, “Twenty-one love poems,” in my first book (that was back in the 1990s when we used to ask permission). I thought people might get a giggle or something out of the Human Resources poem. Instead, I got a range of epistemological reactions that circled like a chorus around the cramped and sweaty little workshop room, and later on the copies of the poem that students gave back to me. As had been my habit up until then, I posted this constructive feedback “as found” (but anonymously, as a choral response, just as I had experienced it), preceding the poem on The Tolerance Project blog:

“I don’t know what this is about — I am pretty sure I am not part of the target audience”; “I can’t find much to hold it together beyond its instruction manual style tone”; “I’m confused by the poem”; “doesn’t seem to hang on its own”; “I don’t get it; or I don’t see how these things are related”; “I can tell some of the expressions are meaningful, to someone – but I can only read them and read on”; “I don’t get it”; “I don’t think I ‘get’ it.” “C3I = Church?”; “flarf?”; “a bit cynical, in a way, how certain things are unquestionably negative”; “do you not want a title!?”; “particularly don’t understand ‘communities of meaning’”; “not convinced with the [George] W. imagery, it’s an easy out …”

What seems to have happened is that soon after I posted the Human Resources poem and its feedback on The Tolerance Project blog, a teacher of mine in the MFA program — strangely enough, not my workshop teacher — went to the blog for the first time, and apparently this teacher was quite disturbed by its existence. A number of discussions ensued, including one between this teacher (a well-known New York School poet) and my workshop teacher, and one between this teacher and a famous Language poet (who has nothing to do with the New School program), and one between this famous Language poet and me, and then, finally, one between said offended New York School teacher and me, in which the gist was that the teacher thought I was “violating the privacy of the workshop structure.” The teacher vehemently did not appreciate the term Institutional Critique, and didn’t think the MFA administration would either, and by the end of all this discourse, enough subtle or not so subtle admonitions had been communicated that I became sufficiently paranoid of being kicked out of the program (and hence country) that I decided to remove the anonymous comments from the blog and put them in the private space of Facebook.

Everything happened very quickly, and in a two-hour blur before the next workshop a couple days later, I wrote a statement to read to my bewildered workshop-mates, who hadn’t even bothered to go to the blog. I had quickly told them about the project and the blog in the one minute we got to introduce ourselves in the first class, but the rest of the workshop term had been devoted pretty much solely to the black ink bits on the page. Writers were barely allowed to respond to feedback on their poems in class, let alone discuss their work in any larger context.

But back to the statement: I had written to my workshop teacher in advance of class that I would use my slot in the “Issues in Writing” portion of the workshop (which fortuitously happened to coincide with that night) to speak to this controversy related to my MFA project, as it seemed an appropriate issue for discussion. The teacher’s response, with no explication, was that I should stick to the original idea I had proposed, which (somewhat ironically) had been to use Charles Bernstein’s essay “The Difficult Poem” as a teaching tool. After I held back my terrified impulse to vomit and came to class and read the statement out anyway (which included an apology for any confusion or upset caused if I hadn’t been clear enough about my project), one of the students gave me a thumbs up, and another shrugged and later said to me, “I thought everything was public.” The workshop teacher spoke about preserving the “sanctity” of the “safe” workshop space, where “you can feel like you can do anything” (except something like The Tolerance Project).

After the teacher spoke, we were given no time to discuss the controversy, and I realized I had to quickly talk about Charles’s essay so the teacher wouldn’t fail me. I later sent all the students an email asking how they wanted to move forward, and by that time enough of them weren’t interested in my posting their anonymous feedback on the blog that I decided it was too much trouble to push that aspect of the project further. I encouraged the students to use the blog’s comments field to post their feedback on the poems themselves (anonymously or not). As far as I know, few students from that workshop have posted on the blog — but I could be wrong, given the anonymous comment option.

I posted the statement that I read out to class on the blog on October 13, 2009, and here is just a short excerpt from it:

The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter … that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How’s that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?

Some interesting discussion in the blog comments stream ensued. One anonymous commenter’s long post started with the strange solecism, “I empathize deeply with the state-sponosored [sic] homophobia of the US government,” then went on to bemoan my “lack of educational humility,” calling this apparent lack “ludicrous and shaming to say the least,” and, among other things, venturing that I was “simply enrolled in the MFA to GAME THE SYSTEM” and had “bought into the arrogant, hyper-commercial notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation.” Finally, the commenter asked, “do you even give a darn about truly teaching anyone in the future in a way that mirrors how you **could*** have been guided if only you were open and not bitter?”[19]

Poet and academic K. Silem Mohammad responded to this commenter with the following statement (excerpted):

Let’s talk about arrogance. Boiled down to their essentials, these comments amount to the following: “How dare you enter into an institutional structure with a negative hypothesis about its methods and objectives? How dare you challenge the participants in that system to examine that structure and their roles in it? How dare you come into this system with an idea of your own? How dare you pursue your course of inquiry without submitting to the very conditions of supervision and control it is partly your objective to question? How dare you use the position you have been so benevolently granted within this institutional structure to advance a project that is critical of that structure, and how dare you attempt to critique the criticisms of that project you receive therein?”

Wow. Even taken on their own terms, the commenter’s objections are often nonsensical: in what way is the “notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation” a “hyper-commercial” one? Isn’t commerciality precisely what such a notion protests?

… Any system that can’t tolerate being “gamed” when the alleged game consists of nothing more insidious than a legitimate interrogation of that system’s efficacy doesn’t deserve to sustain itself.

Another anonymous commenter self-identified as a second-year New School MFA student, whom I’d supposedly never met, but who claimed to have been “a provocateur in the program to a certain degree” and who pointed to “some issues which I think your enthusiasm may have caused you to overlook.” The commenter continued:

Many of our classmates are very young, fresh from undergraduate programs, and while they have the excitement for poetry they still trust very much in the system. They are looking at this program through the fogged lens that lets them see the glory of themselves as future masters, and the slightest moment of instability that they feel may give them pause. I'm not saying that giving them this is a bad thing, it is perhaps the best lesson one can learn, but it is a point that you should consider.

The commenter went on to warn me that “our program buys into the ‘positive and nurturing’ MFA philosophy, whether it be because of cynicism (‘why not nurture, they’ll never go anywhere anyway’) or a true desire to progress the arts I don’t know, but any critique of the system will draw out the ire, especially by the individuals who stand to face the direst consequences, i.e. the position of teaching creative writing will fight for its life while being exposed as a fraud or mocked in any way.” 

Poet Lisa Robertson posted a comment asking, “What’s with all the anonymity here in the comment polis? Do I sense fear? I think so.” She spoke to the professionalization of poetry in the US and her own struggles to get work here without an MFA or BA, even with a widely read and respected oeuvre. She continued:

Most Canadian poets do not have MFA’s. We think there are many ways to become a poet, even a very good poet, and so we set about inventing ourselves and our communities (and our arguments and enemies! We do not follow the support and nurture model of learning — it’s more the swill and swear model.) … I have played the game in order to have my little visiting positions [in the US], which are the positions available to an MFA-less poet. But we all know this: nobody needs an MFA in order to write a poem. It’s another mode of regularization. Because of love and politics and economics some of us step through some of the hoops. Rachel is displaying the hoops publicly instead of pretending they’re natural. This is what an engaged poet does. This is a real time engagement with form. Why agree to protect the naive? Why not explore together how power works? She has guts. Maybe a little more arrogance would be in order, if this is arrogance. I’d call it discourse, simply.

 Jeff Derksen’s comment post came closest to describing The Tolerance Project as I see it:

When Rachel first announced her project, I thought that — by using poems from a transnational community as source texts — it was structured to test the concepts of originality and self-expression within a creative writing MFA program. And the project was also going to foreground the social context that it is as taking place within — the USA’s nonrecognition of same-sex partners and restrictive immigration policies. The project struck me, to use a phrase from Walter Benjamin as an investigation of “the projection of the historical into the intimate” and also a critique based on a reversal, of a projection of the intimate into the historical and structural (from the state to the university to an MFA program to everyday life). These aspects seem to solidly put the project within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer. So the roots of this project can be traced from Walter Benjamin, through the institutional critique phase of conceptual art up to the type of art as commodity critique that Andrea Fraser has spectacularly engaged in. Given this, it would seem like an ideal project for a research university with a radical heritage. In the statement on her blog, Rachel is pretty clear about the critical heritage of her project and points out that part of her project is to take the workshop feedback as also part of an institutional mechanism. I know of many MFA projects in visual arts that have done similar things and have not met with the same nervousness (and most forms of institutional critique have been institutionalized in the art world …).

And Lisa’s comments also show what is at stake beyond the feelings in a MFA workshop (which is the space that Rachel’s project was exactly aiming to be outside of). There is a simultaneous professionalization of the university and the “creative industries” in it and the precariousness of many jobs in universities. So writers and artists are being asked to do more to get less (and being asked to be “flexible” and move from city to city and negotiate the tough J1 visa which was the class of visa clamped down on after 9/11). This set of relationships is what critical/conceptual practises are supposed to show or reveal: the dialectic of possibility and restriction, of forms and scales of “freedom” and, of course, the possibilities of art as a form of knowledge/research/expression. So rather than critique being understood as “arrogance”, I’d rather think of it as “sincerity” (in the way the Objectivists drew on sincerity).

I was heartened to get these and other responses, but my consequent response was to go into retrenchment mode, thoroughly emotionally exhausted. I decided to concentrate on getting through the program without another “event” occurring. I kept quiet. I wrote poems that no one got. And I attempted to mend fences with the New York School teacher who didn’t like the blog by giving said teacher a green dinosaur brooch I found on the floor.

But alas, it wasn’t going to be my fate to avoid further controversy, and in the second term I had a strangely terrifying encounter with a nonfiction teacher (I was taking a little break from poetry) who actually screamed at me in response to my holding a different opinion from her about a George Orwell essay. But I won’t get into that event, because it wasn’t focused on The Tolerance Project and I, fortunately or unfortunately, was not the only one to experience the wrath of this particular teacher in that bizarre class.

 

Methodologies

On the bright side, term two’s workshop turned out to be much more bearable than term one’s had been, particularly with the addition of one curious student who was interested in “innovative” work, and a more laidback teacher, Mark Bibbins, who was supportive of my project. I even collaborated with the student, Jeff T. Johnson, on a poem, and he wrote another poem riffing on The Tolerance Project blog comments stream. And interestingly enough, other students in the workshop who had been quite resistant to my work in the first term opened to it a little more this time around, perhaps because the groupthink “I don’t get it” attitude was not given as much sway in this class.

So I was able to get into the swing of writing poems for the project in a much freer way than I had in the previous workshop. I honed a method of using search terms related to what I was thinking and feeling in the moment and then rooting around in the archive to make poems riffing off the lines that came up in the search and nearby lines that popped out at me. I started with search terms such as “tolerance,” “respect,” “economy,” “catastrophe,” “horses,” “dinosaur,” and even “love.” Just as an example of how my mind would swerve based on my circumstances, partway into the second term I found myself going down one particular path in the poems for a little while. As befits my anxious DNA, I had already started to get worried about what I was going to do after the MFA, and considered applying to get into a PhD program in English in New York in order to give me a few more years in the US with my partner, and the credential that is in the process of superseding the MFA for poets like me to get any work at all in North America. In order to even contemplate applying for PhD school, though, I had to get over the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) hump. So I spent a couple months dusting off twenty-three years of math cobwebs, memorizing thousands of arcane vocabulary terms I’ll never use, and attempting to learn how to write a five-paragraph essay the GRE grad student markers would be pleased by. I found the whole process quite frustrating to say the least, even though I got the score I needed to on the GRE (bombed the math, though). Indeed, I found studying for the standard GRE such a colossal waste of time that I decided to cancel the Literature GRE slot I had signed up and paid for, knowing that my cursory movie version of studying (renting all the BBC movies on “great books” on Netflix) wasn’t going to lead to a good score on what is an impossible test of memorized middle-class cocktail banter designed to weed out those with little cultural capital and/or bad memories for dates and names. I guess you could say I reached a hard limit with this particular hoop and couldn’t bring myself in any conscience to jump through yet another round in the docility sweepstakes (mixed metaphor intended).

In response to this failed attempt to continue my travails as a forty-two-year-old student in and of the US academic industrial complex, I ended up writing a few poems that referred to the US “mental measurement” tests and their origins in the early twentieth-century American eugenics movement that prefigured and inspired the Nazis’ grand eugenics performances.[20] The American scientists involved in those early eugenics tests (and sterilizations of the “mentally unfit,” etc.) were also the progenitors of the Educational Testing Service that oversees the GRE and countless other gatekeeping tests in the US that are an arm of the education system’s regulatory and regulating apparatus. The links between my mental measurement journey and my MFA accreditation/nonresident alien journey were indeed ironically apparent. Perhaps needless to say, I hadn’t had to write any standardized tests during my schooling in Canada.

In term two, I also wrote a few poems based on the controversy over my project from term one. Luckily, as mentioned above, one Tolerance Project donor, Sarah Dowling, had donated a lot of feedback she had written in response to her colleagues’ poems during her MFA; so, coupling this with the feedback from the anonymous donor who had so suffered during her experience attempting to write “experimental” poems in the New School MFA program, and with the addition of other complementary Tolerance Project material, I was able to make poems that addressed the issue of term one’s “event” without actually using any of my own poet-colleagues’ comments, and thus not “violating the privacy of the workshop.”[21]

 

The Tolerance Project Archive revealed

By the end of term two, I had survived half of the MFA and indeed had already managed to use a tiny bit of my eighty-six donors’ poetic DNA. I decided it would be an interesting shift in the project to make the archive public at this point, so I worked with designer HR Hegnauer, who created the clever Tolerance Project logo (a riff that K. thought of on the hip New School graffiti-in-the-city logo), to put the donation archive on the web. I had originally planned not to reveal the donor identities until the end of the MFA, but since I had used a trace of everyone, it seemed right to make the collaboration more visible and expand its reach. With the archive now up on the web, the barcodes below the poems on the blog became live links back to the poetic DNA donations from which I had culled material for each poem. This simple linking act made it instantly clear that each poem written for The Tolerance Project was much more than the sum of its stanzas on the blog, and that part of the act of reading the poem involved clicking on the barcodes and absorbing the donated material that emerged. The poems themselves as presented on the blog enacted the destabilization of the canonical western authorial “voice” and its singular ownership framework. The reader was thrust into the collaborative position of becoming coproducer of the text, not simply consumer of the Word of MFA genius.

To stretch the collaboration trope even further, in term three I worked with a number of other writers and artists to create poems for the blog. One collaboration was with Kai-Fierle Hedrick as part of an artist residency with the UK’s Department of Micro-Poetics at the AC Institute in New York’s Chelsea art district. Together we wrote a sequence of poems responding to the exhibition EXCHANGE VALUE at the AC Institute. Fierle-Hedrick wrote onsite at the gallery, then forwarded an ekphrastic poem to me at the end of each session. I then identified a set of search terms in Fierle-Hedrick’s poem and used these to generate a new response from within The Tolerance Project Archive. My poetic permutation then served as the starting point for Fierle-Hedrick’s next session in the gallery, and so on for three sessions. The residency explored a variety of exchanges and mappings — ekphrastic, dialogic, technological — in addition to embodying some of the challenges and creative loopholes of distance collaboration.[22]

I also wrote a Tolerance Project poem in response to a photographer’s request to create a written “frame” for one of his photos, as well as writing two occasional poems for specific anthologies using specific search terms.[23] Near the end of the project, my MFA thesis supervisor Mark Bibbins even wrote a guest poem riffing on the sponsored search results in The Tolerance Project Archive. It is interesting to read through these final poems of the project and see how the themes that emerged at the beginning of The Tolerance Project related to constraint and freedom and docility and collaboration and response have remained as traces throughout the course of the project, even with the variety of approaches to making poems.

 

The future of tolerance 

Poet and Tolerance Project collaborator Erín Moure suggested that I could publish two companion books out of The Tolerance Project, one with the poems and one with the large archive of donated poetic DNA; but I think the project is best situated as it is on the web as a kind of hypertext moment that could last forever. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of the treasures that The Tolerance Project Archive could yield, and I think there are still some artistic, playful, and pedagogical uses it can perform over time — by others than me. Duration Press has kindly agreed to host the archive for free, so maybe The Tolerance Project will attain canonical perpetuity as a duration performance (pun intended). Not only is The Tolerance Project’s hypertext quality so key to the way the blog poems interact with the archive and expand its reach, but the blog comments section is also integral to how the poems are read and received. One could also say it’s fitting that The Tolerance Project not become yet another book of MFA poetry. As K. remarked in a talk at CUNY on queer/feminist literary nostalgia, “the desire is not to get somewhere,” the “desire is for desire” itself.

It is also perhaps fitting (and perhaps a little tragic) that the culmination of The Tolerance Project has been the breakup of my relationship with K. Perhaps all the pressure of projecting the historical into the intimate and the intimate into the historical — and present and future — in the end proved to be simply intolerable.

Now, of course, I am recalibrating, and wondering if I can live like many of my poet colleagues in New York as an adjunct “professor” teaching first-year composition classes with little pay, no job security and no health benefits. Not to mention dealing with having to cross the border to get a different visa for each institution I work at in each and every contingent term. That is even if I can get work in a tight post-“recession” market. After all is said and done, I may be forced by fiat or resignation to go back to Canada and figure out some other new way to make a living besides teaching, because, fortunately or unfortunately, not every student in Canada has to take a first-year composition class, and MFA programs have not yet done their viral thing there. Yes, indeed, the irony is not lost on me that I may have gone through all this enormous trouble GAMING THE SYSTEM for nothing but three useless block letters next to my name.[24]

 

The Tolerance Project collaborators are: Sandra Alland, Gary Barwin, Emily Beall, Joel Bettridge, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, Jules Boykoff, Di Brandt, Laynie Browne & Jacob Davidson, Kathy Caldwell, Angela Carr, Abigail Child, George Elliott Clarke, Stephen Collis, Communications & External Affairs, Jen Currin, Moyra Davey, Anonymous Donor, Thom Donovan, Sarah Dowling, Marcella Durand, Kate Eichhorn, Laura Elrick, Jennifer Firestone, Rob Fitterman, Jenna Freedman, Dina Georgis, Barbara Godard, Nada Gordon, Kate Greenstreet, Rob Halpern & Nonsite Collective, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Holbrook, Catherine Hunter, Jeff T. Johnson, Reena Katz, Bill Kennedy, Kevin Killian, Rachel Levitsky, Dana Teen Lomax, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jill Magi, Nicole Markotic, Dawn Lundy Martin, Steve McCaffery, Erica Meiners, Heather Milne, K. Silem Mohammad, Anna Moschovakis, Erín Moure, The Office of Institutional Research, Akilah Oliver, Jena Osman, Bob Perelman, Tim Peterson, Vanessa Place, Kristin Prevallet, Arlo Quint, Rob Read, Evelyn Reilly, Lisa Robertson, Kit Robinson, Kim Rosenfield, Paul Russell, Trish Salah, Jenny Sampirisi, Heidi Schaefer, Susan Schultz, Jordan Scott, Evie Shockley, Jason Simon, Cheryl Sourkes, Juliana Spahr, Christine Stewart, John Stout, Catriona Strang, Chris Stroffolino, Michelle Taransky, Anne Tardos, Sharon Thesen, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Aaron Tucker, Nicolas Veroli, Fred Wah, Betsy Warland, Darren Wershler, and Rita Wong. Profuse thanks to all donors for your steadfast collaborative energy and patience for the duration.

Particular thanks must go to Kate Eichhorn for her enduring contribution to The Tolerance Project

A final note

So so sadly, far beyond words, two of our beloved collaborators died during the duration of The Tolerance Project. Rest peacefully astounding luminous minds and bodies, Barbara Godard and Akilah Oliver.

And farewell, too, to gentle soul Paul Violi, one of The Tolerance Project’s final MFA teachers.

 


 

1.  This project was launched in June 2009 and completed in May 2011, when I graduated with a MFA in creative writing from New York’s The New School.

2.  Jeff Derksen comment to October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog. See comments section below post.

3.  Eric Goddard-Scovel, blog post, December 14, 2009.

4.  Alex Leslie, blog post, April 14, 2010.

5.  Private email correspondence with Charles Bernstein, June 2009.

6.  See rest of this essay for more on privacy/sanctity comments. “GAME the system” etc. from comments section to October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog.

7.  Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

8.  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

9.  Gysin, quoted in Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age, ed. José Férez Kuri (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 153.

10.  See Communications & External Affairs in The Tolerance Project Archive for some of this focus-group feedback.

11.  See Jeff Derksen comment below The Tolerance Project blog post, October 13, 2009.

12.  This is an allusion to Kenny Goldmith’s statements on the experience of reading Conceptual Writing as being “unboring boring” as opposed to “boring boring.”

13.  First footnote to project email: “I want to assure everyone that NO MFA students will be harmed in thE MAKING OF THIS proJECT. They won’t be identified by name, and some may actually enjoy the project, since it won’t be a secret. We’re all collaborators in this grand Ponzi scheme, aren’t we?”

Subsequent note added at the talk I gave on The Tolerance Project at The Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church, on May 19, 2010: “Just as an aside, I can’t take credit for the Ponzi metaphor. I heard it through the grapevine; some said it was Kristin Prevallet, who denied attribution and thought it might have been Rebecca Wolff, and they told two friends and so on and so on.”

14.  Second footnote to project email: “If the queer thing isn’t clear, the point is I can’t enter and live in the US on a spousal visa (even if my partner and I swallowed our political aversion toward institutions like marriage, held our noses and took the plunge in Canada, the “event” wouldn’t be recognized at the Amerikan border). Why take the MFA and not a PhD or something else? Well, like a number of your favo(u)rite Canadian poets, I don’t have a BA, and no one’s going to let me into a PhD program without one. Going to The New School for the MFA was basically the only viable option, because the tuition will be largely covered, since I’m recognized by the school as a “domestic partner” of professor K. [last name deleted]. Yep, there are different rules for queers at the federal and state level. Pretty boring boring, eh?”

Subsequent note added at Poetry Project talk, May 19, 2010: “And an addendum to this — in fact I will be spending almost $30,000 to get the MFA because the tuition ‘benefit’ is added to K.’s salary and taxed at 50%, and I pay her the taxes. They used to have an exemption for a certain portion and then arbitrarily changed it for grad students. Another lovely surprise.”

15.  Third footnote to project email: “In initial focus-group testing, some concern has arisen that this project may have a stink of the smug to it. Perhaps people think I am going to create deliberately ‘bad’ MFA workshop poems. This is not the case. The reality is that all of my work is based on collecting archives of material and drawing from them. And all of my work has a self-conscious ‘meta’ element to it. Tolerance and the MFA is the project because tolerance and the MFA has to be the project. The poems I create for The Tolerance Project will be real poems that will be critiqued and improved upon by real students and teachers and people like you who read the blog religiously and comment religiously. How much more open to ridicule can I make myself?”

16.  Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 108.

17.  Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 220.

18.  Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).

19.  All comments quoted in this section are from the comments section below the October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog.

20.  See poem 24 and poem 25 for direct reference to mental measurement. Other references scattered throughout a number of Tolerance Project poems.

21.  See poem 21 and poem 23. Poems 26 and 27 are also response poems, and there are other response references peppered throughout the later Tolerance Project poems — poem 36, for example.

22.  For “Exchange Value” collaboration, see Kai Fierle-Hedrick’s Guest poems on September 19 and 26, and October 3, 2010, on The Tolerance Project blog. See Tolerance Project poems 35, 36, and 37 for the response poems.

23.  See Tolerance Project poems 38, 39, and 40.

24.  Immediately before publication of this essay, another ironic twist reared its mixed-metaphoric head, as I was offered a three-year contract as an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, hired partly to supervise grad students to completion of their creative (and critical) theses and dissertations. Perhaps the three block letters aren’t so useless after all, eh?

Norman Fischer: A 'test case for being'

Norman Fischer.

Editorial note: Brian Unger’s “Norman Fischer: A ‘test case for being’” was written in response to a portfolio of eleven new poems by Norman Fischer, which you can read hereFischer was also the subject of PoemTalk #38, for which host Al Filreis was joined by Linh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock. — Michael S. Hennessey

Somewhere we’ve developed the misconception that poetry is self-expression, and meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, it is the way to be free, finally, of self-expression …

— Norman Fischer

… in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.  

— Gary Snyder

Is it not possible that all poets, the writings of all poets, participate in a kind of lyricism?

— Hank Lazer

I don’t know who’s right, Gary Snyder or Norman Fischer. Norman says that poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, while Gary says poetry is rooted in self-expression. Much of Fischer’s work reviewed here is highly social and profoundly universalist in nature, but it is often a form of self-expression from which the self has been excised, a “voiceless lyricism” denoting conflict and contradiction, not mastery or self-elevation.[1] Self-expression, according to Adorno, is a false categorization if left unanalyzed. Adorno’s critique is exemplified extraordinarily well in Fischer’s poetry, particularly in “Expensive Arrangements,” which we will examine closely. This excerpt from “On Lyric Poetry and Society” helped shape my examination of this poem:

For the substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal …. Not that what the lyric poem expresses must be immediately equivalent to what everyone experiences …. Rather, immersion in what has taken individual form elevates the lyric poem to the status of something universal by making manifest something not distorted, not grasped, not yet subsumed. It thereby anticipates, spiritually, a situation in which no false universality, that is, nothing profoundly particular, continues to fetter what is other than itself, the human .… The universality of the lyric’s substance, however, is social in nature. Only one who hears the voice of humankind in the poem’s solitude can understand what the poem is saying.[2]

Without the theoretical hall pass of “voiceless lyricism” or some other dispensation, (former) language writers who are committed Zen Buddhists need a special pass to write old-fashioned lyric poetry. Let’s be honest, Buddhists don’t believe in a substantially constituted, separate, independent, thoroughly individualized self, and that’s what old-fashioned poetic self-expression has been based on since the nineteenth century. So Norman has a double problem: he has the Buddhist problem with the self in self-expression, and he has the language school problem with the I-focused, emotive, subjective, autobiographical narratives of neo-Romanticism. Language poetics calls for the “abolition of the spell of selfhood,” the demolition of the I-based lyric.[3] The group that Norman Fischer associated with, trained with, and wrote with, wanted a clean break with “the automatism of the poetic “I” and its “naturalized voice.”[4]

Yet self-expression is not the whole of lyricism. Lyric poetry isn’t delimited by statute to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Romantic and neo-Romantic writing. In order to find an acceptable theoretical basis for lyricism within the poetics of contemporary avant-garde criticism, and to enable the works themselves to remain socially and politically grounded and relevant, Susan Schultz has proposed a solution she terms the “voiceless lyric,” which in combination with Adorno’s social conscience can rescue lyricism for Buddhist language poets like Norman Fischer.

It was only natural for Norman to manifest a theoretical disdain for the neo-Romanticism and narrative referentiality of, say, the Beats, or the New York School writers. He thusly describes how he and his friends thought about the Beats back in the early 1970s: “We were self consciously another generation — we were not the New York poets (because we were from San Francisco, and that must be different) and we were not the Beats. We were not going to be the heroes of our own Romantic picaresque novels and poems.”[5]

Some people see the poetics of the Beats, neo-Romanticism, and other “personally expressive plain-spoken voice-based poetry” that still dominates the production of poetry today at odds with the experimental, deconstructive, open language approach of contemporary language writers and their close descendants. Yet experimentalism with language is common throughout literary history. Scholars and critics typically mention Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and other modernists, and there are stark parallels with the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. More recently there is the Zen monk-poet Philip Whalen, a writer who no fewer than three or four established language poets claim as a literary mentor and influence.

Norman Fischer’s literary influences and predecessors come through two distinct lineages, one Asian and Buddhist, and the other Euro-North American and Judeo-Christian. His immediate ancestors in the West include the monkish T. S. Eliot and the actually ordained monk-priests Thomas Merton and Philip Whalen. Going further back, Fischer continues a mystical or religious tradition that includes female writers, poets, and religious dissidents in the medieval period, like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, plus St. Jerome, Meister Eckhart, and later Thomas Traherne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. With Fischer’s strong identification with Judaism, I would add the presumably multigendered authors of the Psalms, Revelations, other Old Testament texts, and Hebrew mystical poetry. This oracular, revealed, dissenting line migrates to Blake, Wordsworth, Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, and many other writers and artists.

The poetics of Whalen, ostensibly a certifiably Beat generation writer, don’t result in poetry that bears much resemblance to the work of his contemporaries. A humble but extraordinary genius, his literary offspring include a surprisingly wide range of talents, including people who were or are significant language writers such as Leslie Scalapino and her acolyte Denise Newman, large chunks of the New York School’s second generation including Alice Notley and Lewis Warsh, and more than several of the younger poets featured in Schelling’s important Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry.

Norman Fischer’s work is best described by Hank Lazer as part of a new spiritual realism that has developed in the past fifty years, first noted by Gertrude Stein in the 1935 essay “Poetry and Grammar,” which was a riposte to Emerson’s “The Poet.” Stein wanted to get writers to move away from Emerson’s focus on the poet’s transcendental relation to nature and divinity onto language itself, “in which a form of divinity resides, not wholly beyond words, but within them.”[6] This is developed by Lazer and Fischer. Lazer describes his creative poiesis as investigative, spiritual, and heuristic:

a phenomenology of spiritual experience — a writing that engages momentary experience and that embodies particular intervals of consciousness.[7]

My question is this: is the revisionist, dissenting impulse behind Fischer’s and Lazer’s accounts of their work different in effect from, say, Blake’s investigation and origination of new mythographic and religious systems in The Four Zoas?

I can’t help but regard this as individual poets grounded in their respective contextual histories, broadly speaking, doing similar work with different tools. Blake was probably the first major Romantic poet to pull traditional Indian religious imagery and theology into the European market in a concerted effort to liberate people from the onerous burden of state religion. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and The Discharged Soldier are, in a sense, a continuation of Blake’s experiment. If you read these works closely, and if you have some detailed experience with an Eastern meditation practice like Zen, Tintern Abbey and The Discharged Soldier are suffused with a meditative depth that is uncanny, especially given that they were conceived and written not in Asia but in Britain in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

We know now that hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu texts were flooding intellectual and artistic circles in the main European capitals at this time. British missionaries, civil servants, and budding scholars were translating and interpreting significant works. The Schlegels were translating and publishing texts containing highly sophisticated Buddhist doctrines. This was the birth of the discipline of comparative religion, and Blake had direct access to some of these texts and commentaries through his patrons in the intelligentsia. The cultural, religious, and historico-literary connections between British Romanticism, Beat literature, language writing, and contemporary post-language Buddhist writers are close and rich.

*

Norman’s poem “Test Case” is a perfect poem in many ways, simple and meditative. In the first stanza the end of each line of verse disappears into the universe with no apparent relation to the next line, except that the next line is the next line, but is somehow dissevered or peripheral, connected merely by position. The poem begins, like a Terry Riley composition, with disparate opening chords:

It’s quiet or in the quiet
Where the tongues of disjunction lick the arms of affection
And one plus one’s not two

It doesn’t follow from this …

A stream-of-consciousness, Steinian phrasing is deployed, mimetic of the extreme random orderlessness of everyday consciousness. The three verse lines of the first stanza have no comparative relation to each other, engendering a feeling empty of ‘own-being’ (Buddhist psychology’s svā-bhāva); a feeling of zazen itself, a quiet meditation that’s either quiet, “or in the quiet.” I like how the slowly opening andante tempo turns to cold hard reality a few stanzas later:

My hard-earned cash
Your vaunted self-esteem —

Halted, halted

This is all, after all, just thought’s river flowing.

Uncanny occurrence
Test case for being

In this little poem, “Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts [that] rarely come to terms … transitions, transmutations.”[8] “Test Case,” then, is like life itself, and the poem is a self-reflexively demonstration, a test case (a koan?) of being itself.

*

In studying some of the other poems under consideration here — “Nothing Matters,” “Expensive Arrangement,” and “A Flatter Form of Research” — I am reminded of the Metaphysical poets John Donne and Thomas Traherne, and of their literary connection with a poet like Norman Fischer. Traherne’s descriptions of meditation are striking for their affinity with Zen practice. It has been said that the Metaphysical poets, like the language poets, adopted new verbal devices and technologies with considerable skill in order to distance themselves from the dominant classicist writers of their period. Yet even as they expanded the territorial reach of language, they were lineally related to some of their own close literary predecessors, and like Fischer and Eliot, the Metaphysicals wrote devotional poetry of “ecclesiastical solemnity.” Eliot sounds like a language writer here:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary …. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

In The Metaphysical Poets, Eliot describes a zone where intellectual thought and meditation is separate from feelings, passions, and emotions, sounding intriguingly like Lazer’s “phenomenology of spiritual experience,” and Fischer’s linguistic open mind receptivity, which he describes as a highly sensitized state with physical manifestations, a radical openness that allows “a shape” or “a sense of form” to reach the writer, which he then writes from. Fischer describes his writing practice as an intellectual exercise that induces a “nearly physical sensation.” Eliot, too, saw in Chapman’s work a “direct sensuous apprehension of thought.”

Like probably all poets my writing comes out of reading, and reading may be a form of writing and vice versa. So I am reading something important to me and then at some point in reading I am drawn to writing. It is a nearly physical sensation that I have come to be very sensitive to. And along with it comes a shape, a sense of form … so that the writing begins with a shape or a form, which constellates a sound and a subject matter … a tone, a tone of voice. 

Norman Fischer’s poetics, strongly influenced by Zen meditation, are closely cued to physical presence and felt sensation, as well as a focused mental presence and analytical, intellectual thinking. This practice is uncannily similar to Wordsworth’s description of meditative experience in Tintern Abbey, where a moment of samādhi (concentrated, trance-like consciousness) is a physically “felt” event, not merely intellectual, or linguistic:

                                    … sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart (29)

In The Discharged Soldier, Wordsworth describes the experience again as felt physically, in the body, accompanied by a cessation of routine cognition, a “slumber of the sense,” “heard and felt.” As with Fischer, palpable forms and images arise in Wordsworth’s consciousness. It is straight out of traditional Soto Zen meditation, with some of the Romantic touchstones also encountered in Rousseau: a centripetal turn inwards, solitude, quietude, a study of origins, a careful use of language.

Certain mystical strains of Romanticism and its meditations are uncannily similar to the poetics espoused by Norman Fischer, and whether a self is required for self-expression or not is at least arguable. In classical Buddhist Mādhyamika dialectics there is the possibility that a human self exists, but at the same time, in an ultimate sense, no self self-exists on its own, and therefore we say there is no self, or that ultimately no self exists. The paradox here is the simple dialectical distinction between a conventional truth and an ultimate truth, which was developed by Mādhyamika logicians. Both in classical Buddhist philosophy and in certain poststructuralist accounts, no separate, independently existing, permanent self resides independently outside of or distinct from the frameworks of extensive biological, physical, and social networks. Yet at the conventional level many of us do, indeed, have driver’s licenses, social security cards, etc. We duly pay the bills that come to us with our names on them. That is, forms of identity have been assigned to our bodily presence in this world system, and we recognize and respond to them.

Conjointly, a writer sits down and with a pen, a computer keyboard, or a tape recorder, and “writes” words down which become a poem, a letter, a story, a screenplay. It’s not that there is no authorial self, it’s just that the person behind the pen, the keyboard, etc., is ungraspable. The self’s observable and inferred existential bases, biological, psychological, and physical, are constantly shifting, changing, dissolving, and undergoing re-creation or rebirth, if you will. We are not the same person we were back then; we were never totally individualized to begin with because we were born entirely dependent biologically and socially. We are never entirely individualized in exactly the same way from each epoch of our lives to the next. So when Norman writes,

There’s no self or person, just what arises … writing is words,
how they sound, how they look lying on the page.

he is taking the absolute position, the position of ultimate prajña (wisdom). Whereas, a bodhisattva also works with beings (audiences, political events, society, suffering, etc.) from the position of karuña (compassion), which entails a Buddhist practicing in relativity, including the relativity of imagined or posited selfhood, and individuated suffering.

*

For me, Fischer’s “Nothing Matters” is a definitively Buddhist poem resting squarely within the Western tradition of religious poetry. It strongly echoes T. S. Eliot’s somber, monkish Four Quartets. Repetition is a critical tool in both poems, creating a metronomic effect, and adding a surface tension to a disturbingly sustained focus on death and the severe brevity of life. Fischer’s repetition of “nothing matters,” repeated six times, and “in the end,” “at the end,” and “end,” repeated seven times, stir buried memories of the “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” sections of the Quartets. In those works Eliot can’t resist repetition of words like “end,” “beginning,” “die,” “time,” “dark,” “darkness,” and “ashes.” This excerpt is from the last stanza of “Burnt Norton”:

Love is itself unmoving
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.

Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

It’s interesting that where Eliot says “love,” Fischer says “affection.” Eliot points out that love is the cause and end of life, causal of human form (birth), which occurs between non-being and being. Fischer also implicates love and marriage. He seems to address his wife with deeply personal, unsettling questions, questions which, by implication, may also be addressed to his family, and to the wider Buddhist sangha (community) that he is responsible for as a Zen teacher and former abbot.

There is a sacramental (and sacerdotal) quality in both poems, and in Fischer’s the sure-footed intimacy of a husband, a father, an abbot, and a priest counseling his flock in a sermon:

Did you expect
To go on
Forever, that we would
Go on forever
That there would be

No end to us
Our life here

In the long second stanza of “East Coker” Eliot also invokes the sacrament of marriage, in a traditional peasant ceremony staged in a field outside an ancient English village. Fischer extols love as the highest good, but Eliot, a more pessimistic monk, blames love for initiating the wheel of birth and death in the first place. “Who then devised the torment?” he asks, answering himself: “Love.” Eliot may have been tormented by love, but for Fischer it is the soteriological path in life.

The affection between people, between lovers, between spouses, amongst family and among all human beings transcends suffering. This is for Fischer the one great good that withstands time’s ravages and overrides the dark sadness of the Four Quartets. It’s more a metaphysical poem than a language poem, transcending the similar but rather nihilistic and solipsistic verses crooned by the rock band Queen in the superb 1975 work “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Nothing really matters — to me,” Freddie Mercury wails, and the song (for me) infiltrates the space of Fischer’s poem. But Fischer doesn’t literally mean nothing matters, but rather that in the thick of it, everything matters so much, and the most important things matter most, namely affection, love, the quality of the affection.

He finishes off this poem with an allusion to Four Quartets, counseling that rather than live our lives saddened and inhibited by the extinction of self and consciousness that is surely coming soon, savor this, see this life as satisfactory, please see in your end a satisfactory completion:

Find the end
In the beginning
Savor that, its force
A satisfactory completion

*

I am going to finish with the poem “Expensive Arrangements,” an extraordinarily weird and evocative poem that I find profoundly and politically anarchic. “Expensive Arrangements” is constructed of fifteen simple and very concise two-line stanzas, beginning rather suddenly in the middle of a descriptive narrative, a narrative of address where we, the reader or listener, are inserted without introduction into a Kafkaesque colloquy. It is dreamlike, and somebody, a narrator, is describing a strange place, a bizarre system that is actually here and now:

It is indicative of the loose arrangements
That apply in this place

That those who pose as bosses
Don’t really know any better

…                                              — all about
Themselves they heap their ribbons
And these flow on as if crystalline into the bare and tidy

Nights that give us all pause
And not a little glow, so that our friends

Can better see us as we leave
In a series of city blocks, arranged like long pegs

In baize drawers …

“Expensive Arrangements” can be read as an Adornoesque parable on the pervasive un-freedom of late capitalism in mature imperial democracies. No one knows what is going on; power is difficult to understand, leveraged at a great distance from ordinary lives. It is indicative of the nature of these massive and over-bearing structures of power, explains the narrator, that the elites are poseurs, they “pose as bosses,” but they know nothing. They only happen to have their hands on the controls, the money, the arrangements, because of the randomness of evil and the randomness of events, where they went to school, who their parents were, their class position. The award-winning elites are heaped with ribbons of ‘success,’ while we are the piglets of Animal Farm, the automatons of Brave New World. We exit our workplaces to monotonously arranged city blocks that enforce conformity as the sign over the door intones “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” The blocks are tidy and featureless; architecture mimics political system. Workers consume messages and file straight-jacketed to the next mass injustice, the next horror, the next holocaust.

These first six stanzas establish the parameters of a discourse that breaks in the seventh to the revolutionary statement I pass by sometimes in Brooklyn, hand-painted on an abandoned building: “Open Your Eyes.” The shift comes at the rigid linear structures of the “baize drawers,” simultaneously kicking off the next section:

In baize drawers one loses track too quickly
Of the sense of things

The purpose for which this little hunting party
Has been organized

Which is why the others
Long for such clarified sentences

They want the clear demarcations
That money as money, hefty money

Would provide and do not see the colorists
Are making themselves out to be

Anything but what they are …

The hunting party hunts for the real “sense of things,” beyond the grammar and logic of established structures of power. This is a strong reading in the sense that I am pushing the poem’s dialectic into the open, and maybe it is a dialectic that only I see. Yet the work’s eerie totalitarian environment seems to beg an interpretative reading that is not only political, but also spiritually and artistically rebellious, a secular soteriology if you will, a call to arms against the crystalline ribbons and the tidy, empty nights. Perhaps Fischer’s challenge is personal and spiritual, as well as intrinsically political. Outside the realms of state power, state religion, and corporate mass media, “If you stretch this cloth any tighter / I think surely your bell will crack.”

 

 


 

1.  Schultz coined the term “voicless lyricism” in “‘Called Null or Called Vocative’: A Fate of the Contemporary Lyric,” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 14 (1996): 70–80.

2.  Theodor Adorno, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Notes To Literature, vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 38.

3.  I am thoroughly indebted here to the chapter “The Lyric Valuables” in Hank Lazer’s Lyric and Spirit (Richmond: Omnidawn, 2008), where quoted material can be found at pages 33–73.

4.  Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 12–13.

5.  Hank Lazer interviews Norman Fischer in The Argotist Online, 2010. The full text is available online.

6.  Harriet Scott Chessman, The Public Is Invited to Dance, cited in Lazer, 213.

7.  Ibid.

8.  Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 1.

Mobilizing the POLI

theprecession.org and languages of the Internet populace

Judd Morrissey during a rehearsal for The Precession. © John Sisson Photography.

The Precession, Judd Morrissey and Mark Jeffery’s newest project, redefines literary creation as intertwined acts of writing, composing, and viewing/reading work on the Internet, as well as collaboration and performance. The entire process makes a series of exciting suggestions about how electronic writing in particular can be translated into innovative and significant performances either on your own computer screen, projected into and onto various spaces, or interacted with as a live event.

 

A new screen

Morrissey and Jeffery use the idea of the website as both a nexus and a prompt for many other community-based activities in the world, continually connecting the experience of navigating language on the Internet to encounters with words and actions in other environments. At an April 2011 talk at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Morrissey explained: “We thought of The Precession as a structured fluidity that could be realized at multiple sites and in multiple contexts. Wherever we worked or performed, we integrated the architectural environment, volunteers from the local community, the positions of celestial bodies overhead, and online activity within our vicinity as revealed by geo-coded Twitter feeds.”[1] Their process ultimately exposes a continuum normally perceived as separate modes of media that we enter in various situations in an increasingly electronic world.

As a piece of literature, theprecession.org connects the social context of reading on the Internet to the traditional question of how form provides meaning to content. The piece is specifically engineered to use language in very particular ways as a test within/against the context in which it is presented. The multiple elements of the duo’s practice — travel and experience, writing, programming, performance, and documentation (both of experiences and performances) — suggest the act of making art as a powerful analog for action in the world: civic action, exploration, and participation in the world, and the subsequent creation of community. Examined on its own, theprecession.org is a data stream presented in the language of tweets and poetry that continually updates the results of these experiences. It demonstrates that discovery of meaning in the world is a constantly shifting balance between our social context and the personal agency we employ as interpreting it: theprecession.org is a long performance on the Internet that is entered through the small portal of a click that leads to a new window that becomes an endless parallel to our ongoing lives. The element of time that evolves during a reading of this work is particularly effective in evoking a sense of irresistible involvement. The piece becomes self-referential and ironic, evolving and surprising. At its core, theprecession.org is aware of its own context in our current orientation in media, and therefore necessitates a similar awareness on the part of its readers. This is a gesture that places participants precariously, yet precisely, between current and culturally specific positions of consuming information and producing meaning.

In “Personism: A Manifesto,” Frank O’Hara talks about the importance of writing with an awareness of available surrounding technologies, and the poem’s social impact. He recounts that “[w]hile I was writing it I was realizing that if wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.”[2] A generation later, theprecession.org effectively acts as the telephone writing the poem instead; the act is similarly decisive in its acute awareness of the involvement of even surrounding media technologies in the understanding of any writing. Considered as a poem, the text of theprecession.org implements many basic ideas from the same poetic tradition as O’Hara’s in terms of how form operates in conjunction with content. In the twentieth century, O’Hara was vocal about poetry as a practice in reaction to social opportunities to communicate. He exclaimed in “Personism” that as “[i]t puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person … [t]he poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”[3] This rendering of the page as transcended by its words suggests a curious irony in the relationship between material conditions of communication and any direct connection between people. We adapt to the increasingly complicated dilemma of more mediation that both promises and threatens our relationships to others.

Here, theprecession.org occupies a space that is similarly “squarely between the poet and the person,” but under very (appropriately) different circumstances. Its formal gestures address new contexts of information streaming from screens, from multiple sources to multiple sources, rather than from one voice to several readers who are supposedly eavesdropping on a personal communication rendered in poetic form. Rather, theprecession.org has a different attitude and approach to the personal, seeking to address the individual as a social entity. The precedent for working with context is carried over from O’Hara, but in a new setting, the poetics accompany a different kind of pace, pattern, and placement, elements that primarily challenge our reading habits both visually and cognitively, rather than the idea of any immediate or simply amplified connection with one other person. Rather, the poem seems to reflect the form and language of information as a social material that each of us must determine our relationship to. We may wonder about authorship, or we may accept its example of the power of language that’s perpetuated by its own momentum, kept in motion by a constant urban hum, dropping its detritus at our electronic doorsteps every so often as questionable “communication.” Following this rule, once a group of words attains a kind of critical mass in the chapter “POLI,” it fades until almost out of sight, lingering only enough to maintain a sense that it happened.

In order to slowly build up to such moments of catharsis, the first moments of encountering theprecession.org are constructed carefully for an acclimation to the abstract environment of the website. After making a simple initial click, our eyes are directed in constant motion by broad Art Deco striped blocks in basic movements we later learn are inspired from such O’Hara-era political architecture as the embellishments of the Hoover Dam. In a sort of training round, it becomes clear that the eye is obedient and trusting, eager and adept at changing environments and fluctuating rates. Inevitably, these acclimations might change our perception of how time passes around us as we center ourselves in a new normalcy. After all, the website is generative and ongoing. Once inside, we may realize that our point of entry was a curiously unifying start (a chorus of sound bars in a circle flickering like a birth canal coming into focus) for what follows as a very personal and critical experience full of choices (more like conscious life). Therefore, theprecession.org is concerned with the same kind of immediacy and accurate reflection of real-life circumstances that O’Hara was also sure could lead to a paradigm shift in poetry. O’Hara declares, “I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it.”[4] This kind of flippancy is followed up with the equally hyperbolic and sarcastic, equal parts superior and defeatist statement that personism “is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything.”[5] If as writers our point of focus is split, always, between working within a genre and innovating, theprecession.org provides a necessary precedent that fuses concerns of contemporary poetics for the page as well as for the screen by addressing the basic notion of both as media.

So then the page as a site now is not old news, but a new screen. While Morrissey and Jeffery use the languages of popular media to create the poetry in theprecession.org on the platform of web technologies, the piece explores the contours and possibilities of the square space as always capable of manipulation in new ways. When animated, literature on the Internet necessarily references and joins with newer media like television, and it fuses our social faculties, eliciting hybrid and totally new forms of writing and reading; theprecession.org in particular is generative, accurately reflecting how we track our identities on screen perpetually. Such methods offer a new standard for writing in contemporary contexts, whether they are electronic or traditional. The specific use of the Web as a type of theater anticipates the kinds of expectations that readers have in contemporary, popular, interactive, yet mediated forums.

The provocation of awareness of certain contexts in the work itself coincides with the call to artists that Marshall McLuhan makes in his media theory of the mid-1960s. McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man seems to have emerged from both fear and excitement of the seemingly total permeation of television in the American household, and becomes both warning and user’s manual. Describing television as the latest advancement in media, McLuhan makes a strong case for how media, which always evolves with technological advancements, provides a strong and unconscious undercurrent for the status quo in Western society. Therefore, in his introduction, he writes that “technologies begin to perform the function of art in making us aware of the psychic and social consequences of technology.”[6] By the end of the introduction, he is urging us to prioritize art as part of the experience of culture in order to better orient ourselves in the chaos of industrialized living:

The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century, Ezra Pound called the artist ‘the antennae of the race.’ Art as radar acts as ‘an early alarm system,’ as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression.[7]

McLuhan outlines the evolution of media from oral forms to television in order to expose a continuity of cultural needs that media always responds to, for better or for worse. He is famous for insisting that the definition of media is better understood as a tangible medium for cultural information, and that it always influences large populations of people mostly in ways beyond its content. So, most importantly, media creates modes of reception that respond to and mimic the most current technologies and ultimately define demographics and ideologies.

Following McLuhan’s lead, in the early 1990s critic Craig Saper examined the role of the computer in art making in the age of electronics. In his article “Electronic Media Studies: From Video Art to Artificial Invention,” he asserts:

the computer user follows the contours of a thought built on computational commands. The system mirrors something called cognition — the abstract rules of supposedly pure unadulterated thought. Or, more precisely, the screen mirrors cognitivism’s pop-comical description of human minds as algorithmic computational code machines.[8]

 Undoubtedly, this shift to reading material on a computer, not to mention reading literature or experimental poetry on one, or even the idea of reading something on the Internet, adds a new level to how we understand what we are reading. Saper’s point that we adapt our mode of reading, or roving for information, to a modified reception that adjusts its rate to one that the computer directs, adds to McLuhan’s initial observations about our ability to locate patterns in an increasingly mediated world. However, Saper argues that our thoughts become more digital-like, and that our cognition begins to “mirror” how the computer is modeling the world. This suggestion complicates any notion of responsibility that McLuhan had initially suggested for the artist in terms of the form used to mimic media, how the artist might use this form to effectively communicate a message about media itself. Works like theprecession.org that incorporate consciousness of the context of its own writing, and the precise role of the reader, are bound to incite a reader to consider the actual real-time experience with that work.

Poetry, in contrast to regular everyday media, has always had the reputation of using language in a way that deviates from common usage in order to provide critical perspectives for society. In his introduction to The Politics of Poetic Form, Charles Bernstein claims that “the formal dynamics of a poem shape its ideology; more specifically, … radically innovative poetic styles can have political meanings.”[9] Poetry always acts as media, and has the potential to be the kind of meta-media that McLuhan asked for: a heightened practice whose consciously constructed form might convey stronger messages than its content. McLuhan insists that the artist is the key to, and must focus on providing, the necessary insight for people surrounded by and actively using media. Similarly, Charles Bernstein insists that “[p]oetry remains an unrivaled arena for social research into the (re)constitution of the public and the (re)construction of discourse.”[10] The best new poetry often comments ironically on the multiple genres (social, economic, political and literary) that produce the contemporary context of the act of writing. These projects tend to sample language from media and test it out as poetry, asking readers to adopt a dual awareness that highlights its reception, and therefore heightens the impact of the content.

Morrissey and Jeffery’s theprecession.org, and the chapter “POLI” in particular, engage this vein of interaction based on the particular qualities of our reception of language. Certain modes that constitute our shared approach to the centers of language are met with a form in the piece. And, each element of the piece remains unique, like a person among people in the space of society.

 


Images from
theprecession.org are projected onto the Hyde Park Art Center during a performance in March 2011. © John Sisson Photography.

 

Upon first arriving at the website

A new window opens. Like a cover, a circle of sound files appear to create the circle over and over at an increasing rate. Snippets of archived files are translated by a computer voice program into parts of phrases and words. We are surrounded by fragments, continually translated from other realms and times.

Diorite. Rock. Origins of the word from the early nineteenth century. Bars containing sound files disappear and are replaced by a circle of sentences that extend like rays from a center, based on the original formation of the sounds. We are leaving the area of the aural and entering the timeframe of the book. The center shifts and the circle moves around the page.

A little time later, two figures appear like hieroglyphs surrounding angular fonts that resemble bricks. A line appears every so often and then disappears. As I write, I see the book shifting behind the page. As I stop my own writing to check in on the state of the site, letters are being offered up onto a screen. They form into circles of their own accord, owing to an ever present center of gravity.

“Bricks fell to announce that they had fallen.” In some sort of post-literary world, when “literary” is only defined by the book, action exists to cause our accounts of it. An announcement is meant to cause a sort of pause in the pattern, even as it persists. There is a return to the pattern. I click on an “L” in the center of the rays, and it brings me back through what has happened to the beginning, centered around a symbol for money.

It is moving forward with or without me. Is this still the Diorite? As static and still as we assign? Is this the brick? Put in place where we want it? I decide to intervene. I click on the word “Diorite.” A golden thumbprint in the center of black building blocks on a white screen. It allows me to click on its center, which initiates a shift. I click on the symbol for money. A black screen with a thumbprint that builds itself out of golden letters that overlap. This is perhaps our shared identifying mark. I wait. “Bricks fell to announce that they had fallen, rather.” I wait. These chapters refer to my prior reading. They are an archive of what has been read. I click on an “O.” The screen turns black. I wait. The chapters disappear.


Mark Jeffery during a performance of
The Precession at the Hyde Park Arts Center in March 2011. © John Sisson Photography.

 

“To change the material artifact”

Within this format of questionable divisions that overlap and shift, the book is redefined as it is translated from its traditional physical form into a conceptual entity of readable spaces in new media. Then, “chapters” become more fluid organizational units rather than static ones, and previously passive divisions are activated as performances of traditions in transition. The piece is continuous, circular, and potentially endless, a metaphor for the conversation between older and newer forms.

The jump to using a computer as an element in the composition of literature, not merely to transcribe it, was the invention of a new genre. As with the inception of many new genres, electronic literature is the fusion of a more traditional genre with a new technology, responding to a new need in the community for a more accurate perspective on our current world. N. Katherine Hayles outlines the history of electronic literature from the late 1980s in her seminal survey, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, and mentions Morrissey’s earlier piece The Jew’s Daughter prominently. Hayles shows that the form of electronic works have been extremely varied from the beginning, owing to the fact that these writers have often chosen to include reflective commentaries on the traditional act of writing, on conventional genres, and on the role of new media in writing and in our lives. Such projects elevate the reader’s awareness of context, and elicit an entirely new mode of meaning. In her more personal and experimental project Writing Machines, Hayles suggests: 

To change the material artifact is to transform the context and circumstances for interacting with the words, which inevitably changes the meanings of the words as well. This transformation of meaning is especially potent when the words reflexively interact with the inscription technologies that produce them.[11]

An extremely current project, theprecession.org is particularly concerned with our reception of units of information in time, our apprehension of how language congregates and aggregates around us, and our specific orientation in a field of stimulus and information. After entering the website and being given a thorough orientation for our eyes to the kind of movement that will be required of them here, we might arrive at the chapter “POLI.” The play on the term POLI in this central poem reveals a fascination with the juxtaposition between larger social structures and the most basic units of life. Polis is a Greek root meaning both the city and its citizens, and poli is the human gene responsible for the production of a DNA enzyme. The title then serves as a catalyst for the understanding of the poem on both its macro and micro levels. Words and letters are scattered across the screen, making patterns that both challenge and facilitate comprehension. So, most importantly, the reader is involved in a real-time construction of meaning with fragments of language structures that appear in electronic environments. Readers must use their own sense of synthesis to create an accurate representation of the haphazard apprehension of the world.

It’s important to note that an experience of poli can occur over a period of minutes, hours, days, or even months. When I first loaded it up, I had the immediate sense that the poem had its own timeframe, which I could access in a range of degrees between how I was directed into it and what my own timeframe was urging me to do. Further, the pace of the language as it appeared on the screen reminded me that all writing always exists in two sets of time: that of its own making, and that of the reader’s discovery. As digital technology allows us increasingly individualized control over our environments, our relationship to language becomes more personal as well. Surfing for the most personally relevant material, we use language to process the information that we select, and we then change ourselves in order to cope with knowledge and experience. How this process effects a particular notion of orientation in time and relative place is a central metaphor anchored by a definition of precession provided by Morrissey and Jeffery in a video documentation of rehearsals for a performance of the piece: the Earth’s axis tilts one degree every seventy-two years, roughly a lifetime. Interpreting the movements in space by Morrissey and Jeffery around projections of the poem, we may decide that we must follow what we perceive to be the center of our world as it shifts, and we are constantly reorienting ourselves as our understanding of our surroundings adapts, even if we might not notice it happening.


Images from a performance of The Precession at the Hyde Park Arts Center in March 2011. © John Sisson Photography.

DNA

Starting point: summer 2009. The poem seems centered on our reception of images from the media about “real” boyhood. People are tweeting about Harry Potter and there’s a lot here about Pinocchio. There’s no such thing as a real boy or a magic boy or a boy who is not real but still walking around.

A little while later Tiger Woods is I guess who everyone is tweeting about. The boy seems to have grown into a man. But maybe not a real man (he is another male representation in the media).

“A feather at the top of the stairs, a father.” Genealogical material determines not only gender, but changes in language. Remove a letter and you have the difference between a word and a person. A representation.

“Chorus: keep misreading.” Language overlapping and the Internet’s always moving. Literary form might naturally gravitate into a design that imitates life forms. A deep pattern may now generate or dictate life.

I say go further and congregate. Lay down tracks that cross and split. Enter an inner space that spirals out. Find a reflection that’s not you. Top off the afternoon with a trip to the Hoover Dam. See frozen angels perched there.

 

A point on an analogous arc

Each manifestation of theprecession.org demonstrates a poetics of immediacy and direct address. On the site, programming is concerned with the ways that the population who logs on assimilates language according to its expectations of how it will appear. Performances acclimate to the expectations of a live audience and adapt the project’s core issues to engage the present tense of presence, live action of bodies, and utterance in a space. A video “documentation record” of a rehearsal of The Precession, posted on Vimeo, is edited meticulously to fit appropriately to its medium and location as a short video on a video sharing site, and quickly transcends documentation to become video art. The video shows Morrissey and Jeffery rehearsing the performance elements of the piece, and cuts produce palpable effects of active decision-making by the videomaker, another collaborator. Before it plays, the video presents itself as a screen shot of a quote by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the project’s trademark architectural yellow font for the piece: “I hope that you will pardon me for the unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize it makes it a lot easier for me in not having to carry about ten pounds of steel on the bottom of my legs.” Roosevelt’s words serve as an indirect reference to the immobilization and weight that we are all currently subjected to by the conditions of media: remember that you sit yourself down to be shackled to a metal computer or TV, and keep in mind that even as we sit to watch or listen to anything as an audience we are bound by a cultural contract that includes our momentary passivity. Roosevelt’s disclaimer suggests a premise of self-awareness that, as the video begins, immediately fractures into a kaleidoscope of lines of text and audio play bars criss-crossing a computer screen. As the camera angle widens, we see two large projection screens, each with the same image, that create an amplified fracture. As the camera begins to pan, Jeffery and Morrissey create embodied translations of the phrases in the poem. Doing so, they curiously question the meaning of the moment in a piece of art. In a live performance, this is an immediate experience, but in a poem, each line may serve as a “moment” in which the reader ciphers a bit of meaning. Using the website during the performance, they directly challenge and exercise our expectations of the physical aspects and timing that we rely on to parse information by directly juxtaposing our experiences in different modes. At first, Jeffery stands on a chair holding a mic on a stand out to Morrissey, who speaks into it obediently. However, Jeffery soon sweeps the mic out into an arc that traces the diameter of the performance space they’ve created, which forces Morrissey to follow it. In the next scene, they’ve switched places. With these simple and effective gestures, the viewer becomes a point on an analogous arc, and, when we examine our own position, we find that we are in a similar array of conditions. And what are our external signals for change? After all, about two and a half minutes into the eleven-minute video, the seminal quote appears on the screen: “Every 72 years / The Earth’s axis / tilts 1 degree / this tilting is / called precession.” We are quietly caught up as the focus of a parallax that places us in paradox: subject to the rules that gave rise to us, but with some access to the agency that our social conditions provide.

In Writing Machines, N. Katherine Hayles makes the claim (and the call) that

[l]iterary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate open a window on the larger connections that unite literature as a verbal art to its material forms …. [T]echnotexts play a special role in transforming literary criticism into a material practice, for they make vividly clear that the issues at stake are nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of literature.[12]

Hayles, a critic who fuses the concerns of McLuhan’s media theory and Bernstein’s poetics, sets a theoretical precedent that is fulfilled by The Precession: an expansive and utterly creative project that experiments with forms, expectations, and manifestations of our relationships to action, language, writing, and art. I find the ground that is opened up for other electronic writers or performers to be extremely exciting, but what I find even more significant is the equal challenge that it holds for writers who use the page as their screen. Moves like the ones that theprecession.org makes with form and language are poetic gestures that should be especially inviting, and not intimidating, to all those who continue to work with text in space. The screen and the page are not so separated by technology that they can’t both be seen as sites related in their unique potentials for considerations of movement, experimentation with form, attention to time spent there, and meanings that emerge from play with these material conditions.

 

 


 

 

1.  Judd Morrissey, “Hacking the Night Sky: A Transdisciplinary Code Poetics,” lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 2011.

2.  Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 499.

3.  Ibid.

4.  Ibid.

5.  Ibid.

6.  Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill 1964), viii.

7.  Ibid., x.

8.  Craig Saper, “Electronic Media Studies: From Video Art to Artificial Invention,” special issue on Deleuze and Guattari, SubStance 20, no. 3, issue 66 (1991): 114.

9.  Charles Bernstein, introduction to The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Bernstein (New York: Roof Books, 1990), vii.

10.  Ibid., viii.

11.  N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 23–24.

12.  Hayles, Writing Machines, 25–26.