Commentaries - December 2013
The Buffalo Poetics list is twenty. I started the list in December 1993 with this poem --
Above the world-weary horizons
New obstacles for exchange arise
O ye postmasters!
Our first post was from Peter Quartermain about the new Coach House edition of Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest.
The list went through many versions but in its earliest from there were about 150 of us exchanging posts in a pre-web environment. Somewhere along the line I came up with this statement of purpose:
Our aim is to support, inform, and extend those directions in poetry that are committed to innovations, renovations, and investigations of form and/or/as content, to the questioning of received forms and styles, and to the creation of the otherwise unimagined, untried, unexpected, improbable, and impossible.
In the late 1990s, Joel Kuszai worked with me as list moderator, a job later assumed by Chris Alexander, Lori Emerson, and then, for a long string our current moderator Amy King. Running the list was not always easy: there was a while, which reached a peak around the time of the impeachment against Bill Clinton, where we were hit by a torrent of troubling posts, which made for a steep learning curb about what is now recognized as flaming and trolls.
The best introduction to the early list is Poetics@ edited by Joel Kuszai for Roof Books.
Poetics@ includes this post from March 1994, along with a discussion of the origin and aims of the list.
Subject: Hermit Crabs Don't Cry (Annals of Poetics 3/5/94)
Reply-To: UB Poetics discussion group <POETICS@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU>
HERMIT CRABS DON'T CRY
[The antiphonals that follow have just been published – in time for my birthday (today) – as a small hand-stitched paperback by sine wave peak in Edinburgh. The poems themselves were part of a commission from Francesco Conz, for work to be added to a series of large colored photo portraits of Haroldo de Campos. As my contribution to what was conceived as a group tribute, I took phrases & lines from English translations of Haroldo’s poetry & responded to them with loosely rhymed soundings of my own. I then handwrote the poems pair by pair onto a black left margin on each of the photographs. In the typographical version below, Haroldo’s words appear in italics, while mine are shown in roman type. For me at least, the resultant work has the feel of translation/transcreation – as still another instance of othering. They appear in the new edition in a noticeably different format. (J.R.)]
burnt by asthma
a blind nail
a kind whale
the malice of the mastery
the chalice of her chastity
the crux of the incredible
the flux of the inedible
mirrormoon in the mirage
silver spoon for persiflage
from muse to medusa all hot
when recused the accuser will rot
the fire became
water the water
a body of vapor
the tiger proclaimed
slaughter the slaughter
weary weary weary
and a fury
dreary dreary dreary
mirror of the self, mature
silver on my shelf, secure
Sitar of the tongue, how does one hear?
Guitar once unstrung is never clear
Unlike the bird
according to nature
but as a god
Hiding his word
under their strictures
rebuff’d with a nod
in front of a greater king
a king lesser great
unsung who will later sing
will more sing still late
secure a cut
a sure shot
on the bull's eye
skewer a cunt
the whore hot
on the driveby
the sky burns
Jerome Rothenberg, 15 antiphonals for Haroldo
Variations on English translations of Haroldo De Campos
hand-stitched paperback, 18pp, numbered edition of 250
Edinburgh: sine wave peak, 2013
by Matias Viegener & Christine Wertheim
In the early 2000s there were already many innovative writers, writing programs and bookstores in LA. However, the main performance venue for experimental writers, Beyond Baroque, lay on the west side of town, once the artistic center of bohemian LA, but now so wildly expensive no young or fringe writers could possibly live there. These now lived on the east side, where readings were held on an ad hoc basis in nightclubs, bookstores and galleries. We decided to intervene in this state of affairs by creating an annual conference for experimental writing at REDCAT, CalArts downtown arts space. Supported by the CalArts MFA in Writing and a generous grant from The Annenberg Foundation, between 2004 and 2010 we hosted 5 conferences in LA and 1 in NY, composed of daytime panels, evening readings, and workshops. In total, over 100 writers participated from the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK and France, helping to coalesce the nascent LA community. Three of the conferences yielded anthologies, Séance (Make Now Press), The Noulipean Analects (Les Figues Press), and Feminaissance (Les Figues Press).
Séance (2004) was a pure conjecture; we were still figuring out our speculative field. This was our first attempt to create a communal space where writers with very diverse aesthetics, politics and practices could gather for prolonged discussion. We chose the idea of the séance--channeling spirits and talking to the dead, as well as a current French term for a screening or session—because many of these writers do not often speak with each other. Indeed many were actively hostile to others, metaphorically wishing them dead, at least from the scenes of writing. Thus we deliberately chose writers from different literary camps for each panel, pairing poetic formalists and sex writers, language poets and 'pataphysical researchers. The conference examined the translation of the ordinary into words, from the extraordinary writing of sex to the supposed disappearance of the author, with panels focused on the phenomenological training of the person, textual hauntings, radical artifice, and the magic of letters freed from the paged grid. (see footnote for names of participants.)[i]
We hit our stride with nOulipo (2005). It combined constraint-driven writing, some influenced by the work of the French group Oulipo, with the more recent process work of the Flarfists. We aimed to highlight a set of English and North American writing practices that were under-recognized at the time— certainly against the quasi-realistic backdrop of American fiction, and the personal or lyrical emphasis dominating poetry after the Language movement. We were compelled both by the Oulipo’s commitment to perpetually elaborate new experimental forms and by Deleuze’s injunction to "experiment, but never interpret.” But we were also interested in the way formalist practice can be used to investigate questions of politics, including issues of race, class and gender. From this perspective the n in n/Oulipo stands for now, the new, and the not-only formal. This not-only created a real polemic, with the “true,” that is, formally elected Oulipeans, invited from France, sometimes acting as gatekeepers, passing judgments about whose work was genuinely constraint-based and whose was not. This, coupled with a feminist critique on the place of bodies in such work, and the lack of the writing-world’s capacity to sustain feminine and feminist trajectories, lead to a vigorous post-conference debate in the literary blogs. Though our intention had been to move discussion beyond an opposition between forms, or between form and content, the blog discourse focused on the question of essentialism, showing how far we still have to go before the “& and” of contemporary process poetics encompasses every-body’s traditions. [ii]
To transform the real, must we first transform the social imaginary? Impunities (2006) conjured imaginary communities, collaborative writings, and autonomous zones. It instigated a temporary community of anarchic, self-organizing poetic terrorists, pirate writers, and textual gleaners. The conference invited participants to invoke technologies of the self, offering help in negotiating real powers. We saw the name itself as a recuperative gesture: it is mostly agents of power who act with impunity, without fear of punishment for their often-violent gestures. We asked if agents without, or with less, power might do so as well, and through generative or instantiating gestures as well as critical or aggressive ones. The event was a response to our fantasies of escape, oblivion, arrival, and transformation. Issues explored included the question of whether fictitious authors can effect real change, and how the utterly bodied can be rendered visible in texts, as well as the possibilities of counter-memory, or forgetting to forget in specifically situated texts. Impunities cannot happen in a vacuum.[iii]
Feminaissance (2007) sparked Numbers Trouble, the counting of gender-based inequities in literary publishing — which overshadowed the post-conference discussion. The subsequent book highlighted other strands: the politics of writing; text and voice; the body as a site of contestation, insurgence and pleasure; writing and race; gender as performance; women writing about other women writing about other women writing about economic inequities, monstrosity, madness, and aesthetics. HOW can women say we, and not be heard to pronounce oui, a sign of agreement with some other’s desire, or urine, incontinence, and urinary urgency? Partitioning the page into 3 different sections, with three stories moving in horizontal waves, the related book enacts an alterative we, while also saying oui oui to collectivity, feminine écriture and mutual support networks; we wE WE WEE, all the way home.[iv]
Untitled (2009) and Untitled NY (2010), engaged conversation about writing that in some manner exceeds the printed page. While we are all familiar with visual artworks constituted by a set of instructions, secrets written in a visitor’s book, or one artist’s erasing another's work, what are their equivalents in literature? “Untitled” is a common title in contemporary art and also refers to the incipient moment of a new text file; it was chosen to convey a sense of openness and process. A combination of writers and artists discussed the object status of language, words, letter and book. Other panels addressed the "emptiness" vs. fullness of poetic language, the pictorial versus the narrative, and the incorporation in writing of extra-linguistic symbols and signs, such as maps, diagrams and formulas. As the principle sign of our times, and source of endless speculation, the monetary economy was compared to the textual, raising the question of how art and texts might now also be seen as forms of capital? [v]
We saw Untitled as a way to end the series in an act of incipience, like the Tarot card of the Fool: stepping off a cliff in a state of utter speculation and openness, the moment of birth that serves as a counterpart to the specific hauntings we opened upon in Séance. Over its six year run, this series helped change the landscape of writing in Los Angeles. It brought West Coast writers into conversation with their counterparts across North America and Europe, imagining new poetics and narratives that open onto the 21st century without recourse to confining paradigms whose roots lie in a murky past.
[i] With Dodie Bellamy, Charles Bernstein, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bök, Dennis Cooper, Madeline Gins, Robert Glück, Kenneth Goldsmith, Shelley Jackson, Kevin Killian, Ben Marcus, Tracie Morris, Eileen Myles, Joan Retallack, Cristina Rivera-Garza and Steven Shaviro, and Janet Sternberg, Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim.
[ii] With Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, Johanna Drucker, Paul Fournel, Jen Hofer, Tan Lin, Bernadette Mayer, Ian Monk, Joseph Mosconi, Harryette Mullen, Doug Nufer, Vanessa Place, Janet Sarbanes, Juliana Spahr, Brian Kim Stefans, Rodrigo Toscano, Rob Wittig, Matias Viegener, Christine Wertheim and Stephanie Young.
[iii] With Chris Abani, Sesshu Foster, Renee Gladman, Johnny Golding, Shelley Jackson, Joni Jones, Bhanu Kapil, Lewis MacAdams, K. Silem Mohammad, Ishmael Reed, Emily Roysdon, Sarah Schulman, Mady Schutzman, Edwin Torres, Matias Viegener, Anne Waldman and Christine Wertheim.
[iv] With Dodie Bellamy, Caroline Bergvall, Meiling Cheng, Wanda Coleman, Bhanu Kapil, Chris Kraus, Susan McCabe, Tracie Morris, Eileen Myles, Yxta Maya Murray, Maggie Nelson, Vanessa Place, Juliana Spahr, Stephanie Young, Matias Viegener, Christine Wertheim and Lidia Yuknavitch.
[v] With Latasha Diggs, Johanna Drucker, Kenneth Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman, Robert Grenier, Douglas Kearney, Steve McCaffery, Julie Patton, Vanessa Place, Salvador Plascencia, Jessica Smith, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Taylor, Matias Viegener, Shanxing Wang, Christine Wertheim, Heriberto Yepez, and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.
Katie Price’s short essay on Rae Armantrout’s “Spin” is the second of five first readings of that poem we will publish in this new series. Jennifer Ashton’s was the first. The series page can be found here. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
* * *
A note on the text: To read a poem for the first time, publicly. To document an encounter with a text. I took Brian, Craig, and Al’s invitation seriously. I wrote as I read, encountering each word, and each line, on its own, without expectation of what would follow. What does it mean to write the process of reading? How does our mind think when we read? What is the language of reading?
Spin. Pin. Pins. In. To spin.
“That we are composed / of dimensionless points.” That. A premise. A proposition. A shared proposition. That we are composed. That we are poems. That we are written. Come. Poised. We are composed. That we are composed of. That we, like Walt Whitman, contain multitudes. That we are of something. That poems and words are something. They are composed. That we are composed dimensionless. The boundaries between “we” and the “composed of” are unclear. The “we” and the what “we are composed” of do not have clear demarcations, although we denote them, here, clearly, in language. The dimensionless point as opposed to Alfred Jarry’s tangential point, though related in their impossibility. We are multiple unboundedness.
“Which nonetheless spin.” Which. A hinge to our premise. A concession. A clarification. An extension. A further-ness. Which nonetheless. These points, free from dimensionality, nonetheless. Despite a space that cannot be defined, points. Spin. Points move. Points circulate outside of knowable space. Points move unbounded, unclarified. That we are composed of pointless points in motion. That we, and the blank space in between stanzas, spin without defined space. Comma. A seated apostrophe. To spin. To curve. To punctuate. To delay. To change course. To pause, only to start again.
“Which nonetheless exist / in space.” Which. Another hinge. A moving hinge. Another concession. An alternative concession. A grammatical disruption. Anaphora. A list. A listing. Which nonetheless. These spinning pointless points, nonetheless. Nonetheless exist. They are. We are. Being. A being without space. Being without space. Being in space. In space. A contradiction. Dimensionless space. Space without dimension. Being there. Spinning. Comma. A seated apostrophe. To spin. To curve. To punctuate. To delay. To change course. To pause, only to start again.
“Which is a mapping / of dimensions.” Which. A third hinge. Another concessions. An alternative concession. Which is. Which exists. Which is a. Which is not particular. Which is a mapping. Which is not a map. Which is an action. Which is spinning. Which is in movement. Which is space. Of. Of dimension. A mapping of the concept of dimension, not of dimensions themselves. Period. Completion. Points map dimensions. They are spinning. They exist in space. We are spinning. We exist in space. We are mapping. We are not mapped.
“*.” A separation. A dingbat. A multidimensional point. Typography. Editorial choices. A point which points, stretching, reaching outward. Prepare for a second thought. A parallel thought. An alternative thought.
“The pundit / says / the candidate’s speech / hit / ‘all the right points.’” The. Specific. Something specific. The pundit. Politics. OED: pundit. Now usu. In form pandit. In India: a learned or wise person. Pundit of the Supreme Court. Now hist. an officer in the Indian judiciary with the responsibility of advising British judges on questions of Hindu Law. In extended use: an expert in a particular subject or field, esp. one frequently called upon to give his or her opinion to the public; a commentator, a critic. The pundit in extended use. An expert. A commentator. A poet. A critic. A writer. A learned writer. The pundit says. The expert speaks with authority. The pundit says. An action. An occurrence in the poem. The pundit says the candidate’s. The pundit speaks the other. The expert speaks the candidate. The face. The face of politics. The candidate. The option. The one put forward. The pundit says the candidate’s speech. The pundit speaks the speech. The pundit re-articulates. The expert ventriloquizes. Experts re-say. Hit. The speech acts. Not a speech act. The speech hit. Speech as subject. Quotation. A quote. An allusion. A lifting. Marked appropriation. Irony. All the right points. A construction. Speech as hammer. Speech as that which hits the nails that are already marked. Already demarcated in space. These are not the points in the first stanza. These points are cutting points. Piercing points. Tongue in check. Point in mouth.
“Hit ‘fed-up’ but ‘not bitter,’ / hit ‘not hearkening back.’” Hit “fed-up.” Hit a tone. Speech hits an affect. But. A Clarification. A parallel. “Fed-up” juxtaposed to “not bitter.” To strike a tone. To hit the right points. To persuade. To invoke. To manipulate. Hit. Hit. Hit. Violence. Insistence. Repetition. To hit. To hit again. Not hearkening back. Moving. Moving on. Forgetting. Historical, collective memory. To forget together. To hit so we forget.
“*.” A dingbat. Three parts. Multiple separations. A “point” to stop, to complicate, to add on.
“Light strikes our eyes / and we say, ‘Look there!’” Light. A revelation. An insight. A pushing back of the shadows. Light strikes, as opposed to hits. Lightening strikes. Emily Dickinson. Light strikes our. We are together. A collective knowing. A collective insight. Light strikes our eyes. Light enters. Light distinguishes. Light passes through. And. Additionally. Also. And we say. We speak. We, not the pundits, speak. We say, “Look there!” We exclaim. We ask you and others to look in a specific direction. Direction. There is italicized. Direction matters. Look directionally. Look over there. Look over. Look beyond. A look described in language. Spin your eyes. We spin. We turn. We look. We show you the direction. We spin to look. There.
* * *
Katie L. Price is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specializes in modern and contemporary poetry. She is currently completing her dissertation, "'The Tangential Point': 'Pataphysical Practice in Postwar Poetry," under the direction of Charles Bernstein. Portions of the work are published or forthcoming in Canadian Literature and Contemporary Literature. Katie maintains positions as Interviews Editor at Jacket2, and Associate Editor at the Electronic Poetry Center.
* * *
Rae Armantrout, “Spin”
That we are composed
of dimensionless points
which nonetheless spin,
which nonetheless exist
which is a mapping
The pundit says
the candidate's speech
“all the right points,”
hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”
Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!”