Commentaries - April 2011

Maggie O'Sullivan and Bob Cobbing in 1985.
Maggie O'Sullivan and Bob Cobbing in 1985.

In "Good times, bad times," Ken Edwards discusses Robert Sheppard's new book, When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry and his own central work in the innovative poetry scene in the U.K. from the mid-70s to the mod-80s, while he was editing Reality Street. He also touches on the contemporary U.K. reaction to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.


Jill Moser on The Introvert


Jared Demick reviews
Attack of the Difficult Poems
in the new
Jivin' Ladybug


Collaboration and the Artist's Book at the University de Caen April 1, 2011.
(L to R) Charles Bernstein, Pascal Poyet, Raphael Rubenstein, Françoise Goria, Antoine Coron, Susan Bee, Bill Berkson, and Gervais Jassaud.
Photo: Kyle Schlessinger, from his blog.

Charles Bernstein Web Log:
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¡Viva el error!

“The point was to develop an art as poetically unpredictable as a dream, and then hurl it like a football into an unbelievable reality.” (Brian Holmes on Etcétera, later to transpose into the Errorist International)

The world as it is: utterly impossible. My trouble—shared by many who read these pages, I know—is navigating a space where writing and art practice dovetail with activist and resistance practice in ways that will create meaningful change both inside and outside the contexts where those practices tend organically to find a home. I’m tired of saying this; I’m tired of existing in the-world-as-it-is. I think of art-making as instigating change on a molecular level: our eyes and perspectives shift; the air we move through moves differently; we might be other than ourselves. Nomad thought: shifts in perspective and mobility make shifts in experience and relation possible. Along the way, we falter. That faltering is our art. ¡Viva el error!

Errorism: Key Points (not my translation; couldn’t for the life of me figure out whose it is)

1. We are all Errorists.
2. The basis of Errorist action is Error.
3. Errorism is a mistaken philosophical position. Ritual of negation. Disorganized organization.
4. Errorism’s field of action includes all practices tending toward the LIBERATION of human beings and of language.
5. Failure as perfection, error as bull’s eye.
6. Errorism: It Isn’t, and it Is. It gets nearer, it slips away. Self-creates and self-destroys. Lives up to its old and new forms. (sometimes without explanations, and who knows, maybe it’s totally banal).

I want to write a series of temporary manifestos or trans      positions. In Spanish the word “temporal” means both temporary and temporal, related to time, in time. This one will last as long as you’re reading this page—if that long. A constellation of transitory manifestos. Words are ephemeral or they are ephemera. They disappear, gauzy and forgetful, or they are retained, brittle mementos on display, warped cardboard boxes labeled “memories” in a pitched attic crawl space. 

video still from Errorismo Internacional (Calles: Palestina - Estado de Israel, Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Art-making and political action ricochet off one another. The intersections of poetic consciousness, artistic adventure, outrage at the brutalities that result from overzealous militarization combined with institutionalized oppression combined with enforced scarcity, and a willingness to fail—and to do so sometimes dazzlingly—can be located or inhabited anywhere. Opportunity lurks on every street corner. (It seems apt to be reminded of this work just now, when the Goldstone Report, on the targeting of civilians and other war crimes during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, is being called into question, while Gaza remains a war zone.)

Here’s what the Errorists had to say about this video at the time of its making:

Since its founding in 2005, The Errorist International has performed actions and awareness-raising maneuvers in relation to the global logic of terror/error, as a response to particular types of situations, such as the attacks, invasion and occupation currently underway in Gaza, in the Palestinian Territory. The conflict has been going on for nearly three weeks and to date has resulted in more than 900 deaths and more than 3000 people wounded, according to official data. 1/3 of the dead and wounded are Palestinian children, women and men from the civilian population, and inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.

As with every action of the Errorist International, the functionality of the image-action relies on a play of various meanings and multiple possibilities for errors of interpretation. And the possibility that even the enactment of the very idea itself might be an error! (my translation)

Theater of the absurd, theater of the real. I'll state the obvious, which seems necessary to restate. It is not possible to remain silent. But how to speak in the presence of the unspeakable? The errors of attempt, of articulation, of clamoring refusal to bow down in the presence of atrocity are necessary, if our alternative is the error of failing to respond at all.

Escrache against Luciano Benjamín Menéndez,
responsible for the kidnapping, torture and death of dozens of people
accused of being leftist guerrillas during Argentina's Dirty War.

Etcétera, the collective that sowed the seeds and weeds of the error-actions of the Errorist International, worked with HIJOS (Hijos por la identidad y la justicia contra el olvido y el silencio) and with Colectivo Situaciones to create responses to the violent failures of repressive systems of government. Together with other activists in the long-term aftermath of military dictatorship, they enact escraches, through which participants in the dictatorship’s brutalizing of freethinkers and autonomous civilians are boisterously “outed” and encouraged to go public with the history and reverberations of their actions. (Genocide in the Neighborhood is a fantastic book on the subject, published by Chain Links and edited/translated by Brian Whitener.)

Escrache... what would we call that in English? And what would such an event look like in Los Angeles or Philadelphia? In Ciudad Juárez? In Sana’a?


Doesn’t need to be defined...
Use your imagination: what comes next...
Etcetera... is the word that shatters the linguistic system
Etcetera... closes and opens discourse
Etcetera... «is» in all languages 
It is thus an ally everywhere in the world 
Its members can’t be counted
Etcetera… is singular and plural, feminine and masculine
Etcetera… adds subtracts divides and multiplies

P.P.S. For further Errorist perusal: 

From the Relative Truth to the Absolute Error!
There’s a fairly substantive English-language description of the Errorist International on the Smart Project Space website, along with an exhibition view with a gallery of errorist projects in the footer. And here is a more recent errorist interview.

More information on Argentina's Dirty War can be found online at Proyecto Desaparecidos, the HIJOS website, and at the Association of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.

On the topic of Latin American art-making (and noise-making) against forgetting, Subverso, Detroit-born Chilean activist rapper, wrote this dynamite song, "San Bernales," about the whitewashing of history after the death of General José Alejandro Bernales, posthumously named "general del pueblo" ("the people's general") despite his use of terrorist tactics against Mapuche activists and others working for social justice and human rights for all people in Chile.

More Subverso videos and other information at the Sala de Noticias Anarcopunk.

... just when you thought it was safe to go back to the poetry waters ....

Attack cover

Attack of the Difficult Poems
Essays and Inventions
University of Chicago Press
On Attack of the Difficult Poems:

full compilation of reviews

"A superb poet and great inventor of poetry, Charles Bernstein dazzlingly invents the essay for poetry: professing in a gorilla suit and white tuxedo.”—George Lakoff

 “This is a smart and invigorating book that triumphantly demonstrates Charles Bernstein’s goals and values. Those who want satire, those who want earnest discussion, those who want information, those who want to get a sense of personality, those who want theory, those who want entertainment, even those who wish to be confirmed in their beliefs and those who wish to nurse their resentments, will all find something here.”—Daisy Fried

 “I regret to inform you that Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems is highly unsuitable (not suitable) for National Poetry Month. Not suitable for acceptance by the publications of the Modern Language Association or its affiliate, the Annual Convention. Not suitable for readers under the age of five. Not suitable for endorsement by the Paris Review. Not suitable for your average television sitcom. Not suitable for tenure. Not suitable for free distribution. Not suitable for variations in the ontological condition. Not suitable for readers of generic poetry. Not suitable for the MFA. For everyone else: priceless.”—Tan Lin 

Charles Bernstein is our postmodern jester of American poesy, equal parts surveyor of democratic vistas and scholar of avant-garde sensibilities. In a career spanning thirty-five years and forty books, he has provoked us with writing that is unafraid of the tensions between ordinary and poetic language, and between everyday life and its adversaries. Attack of the Difficult Poems, his latest collection of essays, gathers some of his most memorably irreverent work while addressing seriously and comprehensively the state of contemporary humanities, the teaching of unconventional forms, fresh approaches to translation, the history of language media, and the connections between poetry and visual art. 

Applying an array of essayistic styles, Attack of the Difficult Poems ardently engages with the promise of its title. Bernstein introduces his key theme of the difficulty of poems and defends, often in comedic ways, not just difficult poetry but poetry itself. Bernstein never loses his ingenious ability to argue or his consummate attention to detail. Along the way, he offers a wide-ranging critique of literature’s place in the academy, taking on the vexed role of innovation and approaching it from the perspective of both teacher and practitioner.

From blues artists to Tin Pan Alley song lyricists to Second Wave modernist poets, The Attack of the Difficult Poems sounds both a battle cry and a lament for the task of the language maker and the fate of invention. 

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-04477-4
ISBN-10: 0-226-04477-7 $26.00
Cover design by Isaac Tobin 

 I. Professing Poetics
    The Difficult Poem
    A Blow Is Like an Instrument: The Poetic Imaginary and Curricular Practices
    Against National Poetry Month as Such
    Invention Follies
    Creative Wreading & Aesthetic Judgment
    Wreading, Writing, Wresponding
    Anything Goes
    Our Americas: New Worlds Still in Progress
    The Practice of Poetics

II. The Art of Immemorability
    Every Which Way but Loose
    The Art of Immemorability
    Making Audio Visible: Poetry’s Coming Digital Presence
    The Bound Listener
    Hearing Voices
    Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics

III. The Fate of the Aesthetic
    McGann Agonist
    Poetry and/or the Sacred
    The Art and Practice of the Ordinary
    Electronic Pies in the Poetry Skies
    Poetry Plastique: A Verbal Explosion in the Art Factory (with Jay Sanders)
    Speed the Movie or Speed the Brand Name or Aren’t You the Kind That Tells
    Breaking the Translation Curtain: The Homophonic Sublime
    Fraud’s Phantoms: A Brief Yet Unreliable Account of Fighting Fraud with Fraud
    Fulcrum Interview
    Radical Jewish Culture / Secular Jewish Practice
    Poetry Scene Investigation: A Conversation with Marjorie Perloff
    Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?
    Poetry Bailout Will Restore Confidence of Readers

IV. Recantorium
    Recantorium (a bachelor machine, after Duchamp after Kafka)

James T. Farrell and James Joyce
James T. Farrell (left) and James Joyce

In 1944 the New York Times commissioned then widely read novelist James T. Farrell--an "ethnic proletarian" novelist who came of age in the radical context of the Depression, author of Studs Lonigan etc.--to make a commentary on James Joyce. Farrell wrote about his main topic: being Irish in the Irish diaspora. Below is the first paragraph of the essay Farrell wrote for the December 31, 1944 Times and here is a link to the whole piece.

This race and this country and this life produced me," declares Stephen Dedalus--artistic image of James Joyce himself--in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." "A Portrait" is the story of how Stephen was produced, how he rejected that which produced him, how he discovered that his destiny was to become a lonely one of artistic creation. It is well to look into the life out of which Stephen came, to discuss the social and national background of this novel. In Ireland a major premise of any discussion of her culture and of her literature is an understanding of Irish nationalism. And it is at least arguable that Joyce was a kind of inverted nationalist--that the nationalism which he rejects runs through him like a central thread.

@ PennSound Cinema

"El Atlantis" (1973, 21 minutes)
from footage from the early or mid-1950s; soundtrack – a toy piano, played by Kuenstler, "tape slowed, edited, adjusted to fit the images" [Michael O'Brien]

Frank Kuenstler (1928-1996) was a poet best known for his remarkable LENS (1964, published by Film Culture; available in full from Eclipse). While Kuenstler's  work as a film maker was rumored, the films themeselves only surfaced recently, ...via his daughter Emily and Andrew Lampert at Anthology Film Archive. PennSound cinema is making them available for the first time, with thanks to Andy, Emily, and AFA. There are four films in all, including one from 1968 that documents two plays by Serge Gavronsky starring a very young Rachel Blau (DuPlessis) and Michael O'Brien. The masterpiece is certainly "El Altantis." See all the films at Kuenstler's PennSound page..<Lens's brilliantly iconoclastic and cosmic compression of syntax and lexicon ranks Kuenstler with such pioneers of Zaum (Khlebnikov's word for pervasively neologistic poetry) as Gillespie, Melnick, and Inman. LENS is composed, basically, of two-word pairs joined by a period (though a period follows every word pair as well); though sometimes phrases stand in for single words. It is flush right, with hyphens noting split words. It runs 92 pages and is dated at the end: 1952-1964. Here is the opening of LENS (though note the original is justified):

mm.Pris. metiér.AAA. prime.Airies. numbers.Racquet. comma.Dei. rr.1919.
peru.Ruse. glen.A. ggg.Ire. leapfrog.Mick. créme.Nail. game.Ble. flame-
Bouyant. f.Rose. not.Ice. door.I. nigh.Eve. feather.Rail. mm.Error. mm.-
Pris. Oscar.Later. f.Oil. I'm.Moon. bb.Abe count.Tokay. newman.Asiatics.
mezzo.Potomac. sinned.Drone. signed.Hormone. rr.Asp. clues.Ott. oft.Shoes.
Deaf.Acid. ggg.Own. rape.Cyclical. Faith.Per Se. soul.Elicit. F.Unction. tie-
Grass. sign.Am carp.Pathagorean gas.Tone mm.Acquire f.Rail salon.-
Leica. Canine.Father tv.Jeeps it must be spring-A. picture of a flower
just flashed upon the screen. rr.Lourdes. rr.Lao-tse. rr-Enter. Rr.Entire.

"Color Idioms" (1968, 18 min.)

see full set of the films -- and with full screen -- at PennSound.