Il Gruppo responds to Rothenberg and Yepez

Editorial note: We received the following response to Jerome Rothenberg’s May 2013 commentary on Heriberto Yépez’s book The Empire of Neomemory (translated from Spanish by Jen Hofer, Christian Nager, and Brian Whitener, and published by ChainLinks in 2013).

Il Gruppo: Olson the Imperialist & The Empire of Neomemory

The following statement is a response to Heriberto Yépez’s El Imperio de la neomemoria, excerpts from which recently appeared in Jacket2 under Jerome Rothenberg’s commentary page. In 2007, the book appeared in Spanish. It was recently translated as The Empire of Neomemory. In recent months, the book has received notice while its assumptions remain unquestioned. Its editors wrote:

This work is a dismantling of [Charles] Olson, and of empire, and yet it is also clearly an inside job, a book that could only be written by someone who had spent hours thinking with and through — and beyond — Olson.

Here is an excerpt cited in Jacket2:

“There are laws,” begins Olson’s essay “Human Universe” written in Mexico. How does one create the illusion that there are general laws? The foundation of time reduced to space is, precisely, the supposition that there exist laws that function in the same way (homogeneously) across all (heterogeneous) times. If different times are united by the same laws, then, these times are not separated and thus form a single space. … This belief is the basis of totalitarian thought, in all its forms. …

Here is what one member of Il Gruppo writes about Yépez’s distorted logic:

Linking Olson's assertions about general laws to totalitarianism seems a stretch. Physicians also believe in what we could dub “general laws” without becoming totalitarian. My physician talks with me about healthy lifestyles, but she doesn't break into my house and throw away all the pastries, nor does she train my kids to spy on me.

Yépez’s suggestion of Olson’s totalitarian thinking connects to his “theory” of Olson and his poetics as stamps of the imperial empire. If Yépez’s thinking on Olson is examined, however, it is clear that at no point does he let the salient facts and relationships of Olson’s life get in the way of his theory about Olson as the master poet of empire. Yes, unfortunately the editors are right, he has gone beyond Olson, way beyond Olson, so much so that Olson has turned into a ghost. In addition, nowhere in his book does Yépez specifically refer to a political policy or position of his own or Olson’s. Does his “theory” not seem self-evidently backwards when two elder poets, Amiri Baraka and Jack Hirschman, known not only for their clear anti-imperialist politics but for being eyewitnesses to Olson’s life and poetry, come forward and find it necessary to critique Yépez’s suggestion that Olson and his poetry and prose reflect the impulses of a totalitarian and imperialist servant of empire? If Yépez’s book were a film, it would be as if George Lucas had storyboarded a fantastical empire of lost memory from which Charles Olson has gone missing. One could conclude that Yépez needs a little history, since his history can only be called fantasy or revisionist. A group of poets have gathered, Il Gruppo, and are concerned.

Il Gruppo has noted this “dismantling” of Olson as a trend, a pattern: for the last several decades, following every emergence of new interest in Olson, there is an inevitable backlash — usually under the guise of Olson as patriarchal misogynist on the one hand, or grand failure on the other. But now, inexplicably, fantastically, he has been morphed into the imperialist emissary of empire. Why has this happened?

Members of Il Gruppo (Amiri Baraka, Jack Hirschman, Ammiel Alcalay, Carlos b. Carlos Suarès, Benjamin Hollander, and others) intend to respond in a place and form where such a debate — usually sublimated into one or another mode of theoretical double-speak, political correctness, or “fair and balanced” flattening of positions — might actually be forced out into the open. We will point to commentaries diametrically opposed to Yépez’s claims about Olson. For example, we would point to Diane di Prima’s lecture on Olson in which she recalls asking Olson

“When did America go bad? Was it after Jefferson? Was it late as Andrew Jackson and the stuff with a national bank?” Charles answered me instantly. Conspiratorially. Leaning close to my ear, he half-whispered in that gruff voice he used when he particularly wanted to underscore what he was saying: Rotten from the very beginning. Constitution written by a bunch of gangsters to exploit a continent.

Or we would point to comments by Olson’s Japanese translator, Yorio Hirano, who writes that Olson’s

Maximus Poems is a book of quest. Maximus, who wishes to find innocence in the beginning of America, finds the fact that the beginning has already been contaminated by the filth of commercialism and nascent capitalism brought there by Pilgrim Fathers.

As with any response to a revisionist historian’s subject, it is not so much the subject — in this case, Olson — which needs to be defended: his poetry and the facts of his life will do just fine in speaking for themselves. This is why it is difficult for Il Gruppo to buy into defending Olson as if we were presenting just another perspective in order to have a fair and balanced counter to Yépez’s so-called history. This move would mock the facts of Olson’s life. Are astronomers in the name of “fairness and balance” asked to present “the other side” to those who believe the moon is made of green cheese?

Rather, Il Gruppo intends to directly address Yépez’s claims, most importantly why they are being made, why and by whom they are seriously being entertained, their purported basis, and how they fall into a pattern of attacks on Olson. The space and form where such issues will be forced into the open is still under discussion.

— Benjamin Hollander, on behalf of Il Gruppo