“How It Works” is a column where I ask contemporaries for new ideas and terms to help us describe and analyze writing happening now. For my first guest I've invited Chris Alexander, my partner, the esteemed author of Panda, CEO of United Plastics, and co-editor, with me, of Truck Books, is a poet, professor, and graphic designer who reads a lot of German Media Theory, and also works on Robert Duncan. First, a little background on my assignment for him.
A few years ago, there was serious talk of creating an anthology of critical essays on conceptual writing. A number of people started essays, but then many aspects of the project were abandoned by different people for different reasons, and the anthology was not made. Then, last summer, Steve Zultanski was asking anyone who wanted to write collective manifestoes about contemporary poetry. These were both useful exercises for many of those who participated, but ultimately I think what emerged was the realization that few of us agreed on much, that people were coming from all manner of position on what was important, and that having emerged from different traditions gave us very different frameworks for imagining the situation. This difference is useful and good for learning and dialogue, not so good for group definitive statement-production.
A WORD OR TWO ON JOSEF KAPLAN’S EXTRAORDINARY INTRODUCTIONS TO SEGUE SERIES POETRY READINGS by Robert Fitterman
In David Joselit’s new critical book, After Art, he adopts the term “image fundamentalism” to describe a relationship to art that aims to be rooted to a “specific place.” He writes: “Religious fundamentalism is defined by adherence to doctrine, as laid down in sacred texts. Image fundamentalism asserts that a visual artifact belong exclusively to a specific site (its place of origin).” What, then, would literary fundamentalism look like? My point here is that Kaplan’s introductions are unchained to their origins, and, as such, they are the polar opposites of literary fundamentalism. Following Joselit’s premise, Kaplan lets the work of the writer he is about to introduce dictate a slippery procession, where the reader gets to traverse the unknown (and in this case the reader is the presenter). In exchange for a tired list of accomplishments, publications, and insights, Kaplan aims for another possibility: one reader’s world intersecting one writer’s world. Of course it is the seriousness, hilarity, courage, and thoughtfulness that makes us, the audience, interested in the performance of this intersection... an intersection, by the way, that overlaps the actual author’s work by as little as, say, 10%. But it doesn’t matter: this isn’t about being respectful or authentic or informative (can we say Google at home?), this is about actually caring enough to take the work—and a reader’s response to the work — somewhere else, not rooted to the original meaning or author’s intention or biography, but elsewhere.
If you haven't attended the December-January Segue events these past two years, you have missed something. Josef Kaplan's introductions. Most weeks, as they unfold, you can observe something come over the room. Some weeks it's like a wave of something between shock and glee. Other weeks it's just lots of audience reaction, hysterical laughter, conversations erupting, the occasional person turning away in discomfort. These introductions have been described as uproarious, sweet, insulting, naive, hilarious, and courageous. Many seem to agree he's exploding the form.
Rumor has it Ugly Duckling is planning to make a chapbook of a select few.
When asked if anything seemed special about what's happening here, James Sherry, who has been steering Segue for over thirty years, says, "Josef breaks the tradition of laudatory introductions with confrontational framing such as saying that he doesn’t understand the poet’s work." Sherry points to Kaplan's Michael Gottlieb intro, describing it as, "psychological rhetoric layered on satiric imitation creating an uproarious surface" that "exposed Michael’s social critique as a personal complaint." But what's equally extraordinary is how funny and loving it all seemed when it was happening. Michael laughed harder than anyone. Steve Zultanski, Segue co-curator with Kaplan for two years, described it as, "confusing and borderline insulting, but in the sweetest way."
Robert Fitterman's Holocaust Museum (Veer Books, 2011) is composed of sets of captions from photographs in The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The absence of the images has a powerful effect, evoking the erasure of a people and a culture through the Systematic Extermination Process. Over the course of Fitterman's book, lists become litanies, with intricate and horrific repetitions rippling through what simultaneously seems like dryasdust clippings. Fitterman's work is exemplary in its apparently inexpressive, understated approach. Page after page of catalog entries without photographs, names without faces, deeds without doers creates a work more chilling than the original installation, from which the captions are derived. Loss – erasure and absence – is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs.
The problems with representations "after Auschwitz" are well-rehearsed, hovering, like an angry hornet, around the crisis for representation posed by this particular series of catastrophic events and processes. Images, no matter how disfigured, mask the unseen, unspoken, and inexplicable but always -- here's the hardest part -- imaginable, reality: imaginable in consequence of being real. Imaginable yet ungraspable. Imaginable yet apparently out images' reach. Imaginable because we have no choice but to imagine, no matter how resistant our imaginations may be to the task. Imgined, in other words, through the not that Adorno called negative dialectics.