iterative poetics

Whose speech? Who speaks?

Vanessa Place’s “Miss Scarlett”

Protesters picket the movie Gone with the Wind
Protesters picket the movie Gone with the Wind (1940s), Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Over on the Poetry Foundation, The Harriet Blog has a write up of my recent post on Vanessa Place’s “White Out” of Gone with the Wind. The Harriet Blog also notes Place’s current retyping of the novel on Twitter, and Brian Reed’s discussion of Place’s “Miss Scarlett” (also an iteration of Gone with the Wind). In a recent talk (which you can watch here), I discussed the relationship between Place’s “White Out” and “Miss Scarlett.” I read “Miss Scarlett” somewhat differently from Reed, as I outline below.

In “Miss Scarlett,” Place appropriates Gone with the Wind in a more overtly discomforting way than in her “White Out”:

Dey’s fightin’ at Jonesboro, Miss Scarlett!

Dey say our gempmums is gittin’ beat.

Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter

Maw an’ Poke? Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen

ter us effen de Yankees gits hyah? Oh,

Gawd—Ah ain’ nebber seed him, Miss Scarlett.

No’m, he ain’ at de horsepittle.

Let’s note (with Brian Reed) that a poem like “Miss Scarlett” is written for our digital world of searchable copies. Because of these digital copies, readers can type a phrase into Google and quickly locate the source text: in this case, all the words spoken the maid Prissy in a section of Gone with the Wind.

On not repeating Gone with the Wind

Iteration and Copyright

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Iterative poetics can serve as a mode of questioning political authority while remaining conscious of the danger that one might be merely repeating what one seeks to overthrow. But some contemporary modes of iteration seem more concerned with contesting other forms of authority. These forms of authority include, as we have seen with Prigov’s 49th Alphabet, the cultural authority of classic writers, as well as the economic authority of copyright and intellectual property. These two forms of authority are sometimes, as in the examples I turn to today, intimately linked.

Take, for example, appropriation artist Richard Prince’s recent work The Catcher in the Rye, in which Prince seemingly demands to be sued by publishing a copyrighted classic that has sold millions under his own name. Iterative strategies have also been used to challenge the copyright of another fiercely protected US classic: Gone with the Wind. Iteration here also becomes a way to respond to a more pernicious form of cultural copying: stereotyping.

“Their echoes split us”

Sean Bonney rewrites Baudelaire and Rimbaud

Sean Bonney's translation of Baudelaire's "Correspondances"
Sean Bonney's translation of Baudelaire's "Correspondances"

Sean Bonney is another poet who turns to a poetics of iteration as a poetics of revolution. Especially in Baudelaire in English and Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, Bonney adapts iteration to revolutionary poetic and political ends. In these two books, Bonney attends to the way revolutionary writing, if too direct or smooth, can become implicated in the power structures it seeks to overcome. Bonney’s Baudelaire in English concludes: “the poem is in danger of becoming an overly smooth surface fit only for the lobbies of office buildings and as illustrations / expensive gallery catalogues, that kind of bullshit.” In Baudelaire in English, Bonney stresses the relation between echoes and cracks in the smoothness in his version of “Correspondances,” which contains the phrase “their echoes split us.” Bonney’s texts are idiosyncratic translations of Baudelaire’s poems so breaking the smooth surface of standard translations. Bonney’s translations overlay lines of typewritten text to the point of illegibility, even as they superimpose twenty-first-century London onto nineteenth-century Paris. Through grainy photographs of neglected and forgotten places in London, Bonney (like Baudelaire) emphasizes the ruins and decay of the modern city, the fissure lines and suffering that are the neglected side of the progress of modernity.

In Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, Bonney again makes the city of London his subject, this time through a focus on the protests against the existing economic and political order that took place in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the financial crisis. Much of Happiness first appeared on Bonney’s Abandoned Buildings blog so that the book functions as a retrospective archiving and framing of poems written as news, as part of and in response to a movement for revolutionary change.

Emancipation via elimination

Vanessa Place’s “Boycott Project”

Vanessa Place
Vanessa Place

For all their twists and spin, poets like Kamau Brathwaite and Charles Bernstein seem strikingly direct in their politics when compared to Vanessa Place and her poetics of iteration. Where in a work like World on Fire Bernstein clearly attacks the US invasion of Iraq, Place, like some other conceptual writers, seems to reject the idea that we might change the world by transforming our language. Indeed, at times Place takes direct aim at texts that seek a revolutionary change in the social order.

For instance, in her “Boycott Project,” Place reproduces feminist classics such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex with all female-gendered words replaced by their male counterparts. (See Place’s The Father & Childhood.) 

Revolutions per minute

Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein reads/plays "stop it"
Charles Bernstein at a Poets Against the War reading, Buffalo, March 5, 2003

In the essay “The Conspiracy of Us” (first published in 1979, in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), Charles Bernstein anticipated a key driver of the iterative turn in contemporary poetry when he described his anxiety about collective identity and action and argued for the revolutionary power of poetry to disrupt the certainty of our collective positions.

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