Over the past year, many of us have written into, thought through, lashed out against, and endured polarizing discourses about North American and transnational poetics. Some of us have participated in these discussions carrying flags of myriad colors, some have been dragged through unwillingly, some have watched from the sidelines anxiously wringing hands or studiously taking notes. These discourses have polarized writers and critics on aesthetics, ethics, and politics, sometimes producing useful questions about the intersections between these realms, sometimes enforcing reductive homologies between them. While polarity has often characterized these discourses, it is hard to pin down even contingent names for the resulting dichotomies: Conceptual Writing vs. Lyric Poetry? Conceptual Writing vs. Political Poetry? Conceptual Writing vs. Positivist Representation? Avant Garde Aesthetics vs. Activist Poetics? To speak in the idiom of Maestro Ilayaraaja, my muse while I edited this feature: How to name it? How to, indeed?
In documenting the contours of contemporary poetry, an attempt to map any such binary becomes immediately fraught with all kinds of methodological and historical burdens, and is immediately complicated with a simple problem: polarizing discourses do not always tell us the story of practitioners and critics who labor as “emerging” or “international” or “unanthologized” and who are never fully included or drawn into debates that are, essentially, very much about them too.
Sometime in February 2015, I became interested in asking poets, editors, publishers, and critics questions that didn’t result in polarizing reductions, but instead revealed the contradictory and complex truths about their disparate processes, political motivations, and communal concerns. It was important to create a forum in which they would ask better questions about their own methods and concerns; where they would stage and rehearse their own ethical, aesthetic, and political attempts to work through problems of medium, market, form, and language within the institution (rather than the genre) of “poetry.” This moment, like many significant moments in literary history, requires better questions: questions that do not demand denouncement, do not enforce allegiance to a certain aesthetic, do not automate categorical definitions; questions that challenge how writing is institutionalized, incorporated, or made hegemonic and complicit; questions that clarify and document the contemporary moment as it is, rather than answers that produce easily instrumentalized narratives.
So, instead of asking practitioners who they are (i.e. the questions of inquisition), I asked writers why and how they work (i.e. the questions of exposition). They told us, in return, how they lean and how they work through, beside, outside of, and within what we’ve come to understand as Conceptual writing. They told us how they have grown into, grown from, outgrown, or forborne its possibilities. To pluralize prepositional relations to the thing seemed like the best way to counter polarizing discourses that focus on select individuals in an otherwise highly diverse, striated, and divergent network of poetic practitioners.
If we can re-envision the premises, techniques, and theoretical presuppositions of Conceptual writing as provisional rather than monolithic — which is to say, if we can effectively observe that these are rooted in both contingency and subjective experience (rather than in universal principles of aesthetic norms) — then we will be able to challenge Conceptual writing’s supposed orthodoxy, intervene into narratives of its dogmatism, and discuss its social effects. If Conceptual writing is everything we’ve hoped/dreaded it to be, it will also be a generous host for the occasion of its own destruction, just as it will be open to fabrications of refusal, regeneration, reshaping, renewal. In other words, it will be monstrous and alive, its existence, like any invention, bound with “slight ligaments to [both] prosperity and ruin.”
The resulting feature here is a collection of thirty-five responses, from thirty-seven practitioners and critics of diverse method, intent, and position, that carry forward the goals of the original call for writing:
1) To expand the field of critical influences and frame its discourses through the lenses of anti-imperialism, postcolonialism, spirituality studies, disability studies, ecocriticism, and critical race theory.
2) To create records of aesthetic and political genealogies which resonate as true and lived for practitioners.
3) To articulate the critique of dominant and hegemonic genealogies or histories associated with contemporary conceptual and conceptual-like writing.
This feature suggests some important approaches to the poetics of Conceptual writing and its critique:
That we must acknowledge the identitarian and ideological diversity of practitioners and critics interested in Conceptual writing as a discourse across racial, sexual, class, dis/ability, immigration status, and national categories.
That we must account for a growing number of players in this field well beyond the figureheads who have become instrumentalized into rhetorical shorthand for polarizing discourses. Our contributors are graduate students, independent and institutionally affiliated scholars, teachers, activists, freelance artists, established writers, and emerging voices. In this way this feature converses with an important earlier editorial effort initiated by Caleb Beckwith and Tom Trudgeon in Evening Will Come: Conceptual Issue over at The Volta, and it builds on Caleb Beckwith’s Essay Press collection of interviews with conceptual-leaning writers.
That we must constantly push beyond the regional peculiarities and cultural privileges of the United States. Our contributors are from Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Philippines, the UK, and Germany, and from across the US. And in this way, this feature converses with the significant documents of Global Conceptualisms curated by Vanessa Place at Jacket2.
That we must seek a more intermedial and interdisciplinary approach to contemporary poetry so as to challenge the institutionalization of the genre as a fact rather than a fiction. Many contributors describe Conceptual writing as a discourse with implications for other disciplines: material culture; dance theatre; athletics; religious philosophy; hip-hop, electronic and avant-garde music; and visual, video and installation art, among others. And in this way, this feature continues to answer the critical question asked by Katie L. Price in “What is the relationship between Conceptual Art and Conceptual Writing?” at Jacket2.
The feature is organized below into clusters to help readers navigate the essays. These clusters are provisional and practical, rather than determining, and they showcase many possible positions from which we may describe and critique a significant artery in the circulation of contemporary poetics. If Conceptual writing is indeed “dead,” as some have suggested, it will be necessary, after this feature, for those critic-morticians to account for the bodies and lives of these living practitioners and their vital and thriving practices.
I proselytize for Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014) and his poetic legacy as a new convert, not with unique insight into his importance or his poetics. That I leave to the eleven Polish poets sampled here (and several translators), who can testify better than I can. I am motivated by a conviction that Różewicz, and the poetry that follows the paths he marked out, should be far better known among American poets — and that as long as we are ignorant of him, we lose something needful for our contemporary poetry. To get acquainted with Różewicz, rush out and buy Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 2011), translated by Joanna Trzeciak. To begin to grasp his legacy for Polish poetry — for the world — read on.
I knew Różewicz’s name first as a mysterious force that was mentioned often among poets in Poland in 2008 (when I worked on collaborative translation there as a Fulbright research scholar, with Jerzy Jarniewicz as my excellent guide). It operated throughout the contentious, various, vital world of contemporary poetry in Poland. And when his name went unmentioned, it felt like an unspoken presence, an authority taken for granted. The idea of tracing his influence — especially for a foreigner — is unusually difficult, even preposterous. His work has affected the poetic tradition in Poland at its core. In a class in 2011 at Warren Wilson College’s MFA program, Jennifer Grotz explained Różewicz’s desire to kill poetry — his mistrust of the figurative and of the felicities of rhyme, rhythm, and pleasing sounds. She suggested that his motto might be (contra Pound’s “Make it new”): “Make it hurt.”
His poems offer merciless scrutiny in a way that might be essential to great poetry now — toward the poet himself, toward the world, toward language first and foremost — not towards conventional grammar and syntax per se, but in the Nietzschean sense that Kacper Bartczak identifies. In his poem “To the Dead,” from Anxiety (1947), he writes of his everyday life as a survivor of WWII with a keen sense of the banality of his activities, their relative value, and his obvious grief, with cold acuity and without a single note of false piety:
My concerns belong to the living.
I am tired
I am bored I write poems
I think about death
I buy pretzels and fuzzy
peaches that look like baby mice
I read Marx
I don’t understand Bergson
I go out dancing with a redhead
A waiter carries foamy beer around
… I live
and nothing is as alien to me
as you my dead Friend.
What Różewicz seems to disbelieve is the capacity of language to say anything that does not have as its root motive human self-aggrandizement or delusion. Yet he also comes across as pragmatic, taking up the imperfect tool of language again and again to say what must be said without mercy.
What is clear is that Różewicz — more than the triad of older Polish poets who are more familiar to American readers, Miłosz, Szymborska, and Herbert — is a primary forebear of the most compelling contemporary Polish poets.
Note: The number of poems translated per poet in no way reflects their relative importance among contemporary Polish poets. We wish we could have included more.
Acknowledgments: Much thanks to all of the poets and translators for their thoughtful work for this feature. Special thanks to Wiesława Różewicz for allowing Jacket2 to use a photograph of her husband without charge, and to Elzbieta Ostromęcka, the director of Special Collections at Ossolineum in Wrocław.
In “Book Reviews: A Tortured History,” published in The Atlantic in April 2012, Sarah Fay outlines a modern history of book review culture in which the primary question, as it tends to be today, is whether overly glowing book reviews or completely damning ones are ever productive ways to become aware of or understand literature. For instance, she writes, “In 1846, [Edgar Allan] Poe wrote that book reviews (and the publishing industry) were a sham and riddled with nepotism.” Further along in her survey she explains how Zadie Smith railed against “mean” reviews and insisted that they always be positive and “useful.” The thesis of Fay’s essay is that book reviews have consistently been under fire for having ulterior political or personal motives and for being ultimately suspect in their greater purpose. She then criticizes those who have criticized reviewers for forgetting the human element of review. A deviation from the traditional review seeks to amplify, exploit, or diminish this problem, not accept it.
Many literary magazines have dedicated space to alternative modes of approach, response, and discussion to poetry, including Lemon Hound, Volta,and Horse Less Press. The purpose of this portfolio is to continue the project of exploring and expanding the notion of the review into wider and weirder territory. What constitutes “review” in light of its semantic, social, political, and literary purposes? These creative and experimental responses intend to provide an unexpected view that then manifests as a surprisingly useful way to understand someone’s poetry beyond a simple and extended analysis of its form, themes, and ways of conforming to the expectations of readers. The purpose of such a review is not necessarily to comment on the poetry, or to provide a reflection that deepens an understanding according to prescribed standards. Rather, an experimental review provides an entirely new text that shows how a reader has moved forward with their own thinking and relationship to language and poetry as a result of experiencing the work.