Reviews - May 2011
On the tenth anniversary of the Electronic Poetry Festival
I’m completing this book having recently participated in the 2011 E-Poetry Festival. For my own part, as a performer, I assembled a panhemispheric musical group named grope uSurp, comprised of other multimedia artists and friends attending the festival; Lucio Agra, John Cayley, Stephen Cope, Andrew Klobucar, Siew-wai Kok, and Eugenio Tisselli joined me onstage. One of our pieces, proposed by Cayley, remade a Neil Young lyric (“Albuquerque”) that was particularly apt to the gathering. In one verse Cayley sings, “I’ve been flying / through the code / Words are starving / to loose their hold” (E-Poetry). This sensibility happened to echo observations presented in my talk at the event (“Bearing the Fruits of E-Poetry: A Personal Decennial View”), which describes how my 2001 E-Poetry band “9 way mind” strove to emphasize language in its performance, whereas this year’s band’s preparations largely focused on using MIDI technology to compose images and language interactively — a transition indicative of the aesthetic course the field as a whole has taken. In the period between the first (2001) and most recent E-Poetry festivals, a shift in the prominence of language occurred. Authors present language — indeed, each work discussed in this book and at the Festival features words — but verbal components are today fully balanceable with mediated components. In programmatic compositions such as those permitted by computers and on the WWW, words hungrily invite, and may require, extratextual supplementation to thrive. In this new poetic paradigm, words do not surrender their power, but share it with other expressive elements. Reading now happens on multiple registers.
I anticipated attending E-Poetry might bring apprehension, a type of crisis to my research — that a new slew of dynamics might be unleashed, deviating beyond contexts I consider for the genre. They did not. New applications, tools, and skillful, energetic combinations of forms presented at the Festival were all very exciting. Yet I left E-Poetry 2011 charged with understanding, with a sense that digital poetry, as presented on the WWW, has reached a necessary plateau. A stage replete with exploration and variations of form that test and perpetually reestablish boundaries. A juncture at which the essential points of departure are — while variable and interchangeable — evident, that will remain in place as long as the technologies supporting them are upheld. Inevitably a new phase will arrive, and the dynamics identified in this study will fold into new dynamics held by shifts in hardware, software, and network technology.
What conditions will incite movement away from this particular epoch? Presumably it will include device-based developments, a trend which may have already begun. As portable devices move away from the PC/laptop model, creative applications developed specifically for global satellite networks, made with tools not congruous with those used for WWW production, may change the face of digital poetry. Proprietary delivery mechanisms (i.e., hardware) already prohibit viewing entire swaths of work germane to digital poetry at present (e.g., Apple refuses to enable use of Flash players on iPhones and iPads). New devices may or may not be inclined to incorporate technologies compatible to those used on today’s WWW, and the likelihood of tomorrow’s devices rendering today’s processes and productions obsolete is near certain.
We have enjoyed a specific and special moment in the genre’s continuum, more than a decade of its arrival on a global, multimedia computer network. Its ephemerality — knowing E-Poetry as such will not be here forever — encourages me explore what works consist of, and show ways of reading them.
How to read Tan Lin's 'Seven Controlled Vocabularies'
Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies (7CV) is not about what many people seem to think it’s about. I’ve seen reviews that take the story of meeting his wife at a Macy’s event as if it were straight autobiography; I’ve seen its reproduction of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Foreword to Rational Meaning taken as an affinity between his book and her theory; I’ve heard people compare it to Adorno or say that it is a manifesto. These misreadings are interesting to pursue, as they signify exactly what the style of the book does — tempts us to lapse into certain habits of reading (focusing on what is most recognizable to us, projecting our own desires and interests into places they aren’t, etc.) instead of actually reading the book for what it is, does, asks of us. This marks one of Lin’s long-standing goals: to create texts that get the reader thinking about reading environments, or how various texts trigger certain kinds of reading.
Yes, 7CV teases at being both a book of aesthetic theory and straightforward stylized autobiography. It is certainly concerned with the meanings of words. And while it concerns topics such as beauty, art and society, and meaning creation, and contains elements of both theory and story, very little of the content is what it seems at first reading. The book does not approach its issues directly, with hammer and tongs, as it were. Wherever you think you’re reading in one framework, you’re often actually reading in several others.
This book is unlike most of its contemporaries. It doesn’t take chunks of sampled text and leave them for the reader to work with, and it doesn’t severely cut up and-or juxtapose. Where a typical post-Langpo book tends to maintain categories as they are commonly understood and either place them in relief or shred them so that meaning is compromised for the purposes of social critique, Lin’s work cooks categories down to a base, opening and expanding them into each other like ingredients you’ve never had prepared so well before. With an almost scientific precision, Lin’s style cross-pollinates the standard vocabulary systems for organizing information, and in doing so opens up new horizons for thinking through the reading environments for those vocabularies. The result is a new style of thinking and writing that produces in the reader a less clear sense of where one category begins and another ends. It’s not merely about the relationships between things and ideas, but about how we read, and are always reading, often according to methods and guidelines we are not entirely conscious of.
Lin has published four books to date, including 7CV. His more recent books have emerged out of sourced or ‘marginally authorial’ writing processes such as collages of material plagiarized from the internet (Heath Plagiarism/Outsource, Zasterle Press, 2009), and riffs on ambient and electronic music (Blipsoak01, Atelos, 2003). Like Heath and Blipsoak01, the work of 7CV is sampled and written-through, collaborative and democratic, but not does not register as polyvocal. Its style, on the level of sentence and paragraph, is glassy and seamless, insinuating the warmth of statement. It pulls its sources together with results that resemble more airport muzak than hip-hop, less post-Langpo and more something we haven’t seen before. Any interruption or seam-rending happens more at the level of the book—between chapters and pages, between the cover displaying the front matter data and the back of the book looking like a front.
In discussions of his turn toward this kind of work, Lin often talks about wanting to make reading easier, more relaxing, by creating a smoother textual surface than what his readership had become accustomed to with Language Poetry. 7CV, the latest, works many of the same ideas about writing, but the surface of this text is the smoothest yet. While this smoothness often induces reading strategies appropriate to popular forms such as the novel, autobiography, or restaurant review, the descriptors locating the book within American library databases inform us it is to be categorized in ways that don’t seem as apparent on first glance: poetry, engagements with mass media, cookbooks, book design, and the product standards of the publishing industry—among other topics. Lin seems to want us to attend to this right away, foregrounding these headings by moving them to the cover of the book, away from their usual place in the unreaderly front matter. They are clues for how to read the book. They activate its poetics. A reading framed by these descriptors reveals a text less concerned with the truth value of any statements seemingly made, and more concerned with blurring the lines between the categories and genres it plays with.
Because of this emphasis on blurring categories, most of the text of 7CV cannot be taken at face value. This makes it difficult to quote well. One cannot say “Lin asserts” or “Lin thinks” and then take a sentence or phrase from the text. Much of it is just exemplary phrasing for whatever vocabularies are under consideration. He does not necessarily think what it says. If studied too closely at the sentence or paragraph level the text often frustrates as much as it holds sense seductively just within reach.
Lin has come to be known for what he calls “ambient stylistics,” a style he has described in a few interviews, but whose greatest articulation yet may be 7CV. In a 2005 “Close Listening” interview with Charles Bernstein, discussing ambient stylistics in his Flash Video/poem-films, Lin provides us with a key insight into the concept of ambient writing when he talks about his interest in Stein’s idea that a reader cannot help but create meaning when any combination of words are put together . He asks, “Can three words that appear together be made into a narrative?” Lin tested this idea in his poem-film experiments, which bring words together in various combinations of three on the screen. In the animations, there are always three words and no other images. The program sequence allots each word the same amount of time on screen, and all words fade out at the end simultaneously. The question is how far apart in meaning can the three words be and still produce a narrative?
We watched one of these with students when Lin came to read and talk where I teach at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College in May 2009. He asked students to talk about how they processed the language during viewing. Beforehand, he told students he intended the video to be soothing, yogic, and invited students to view the film meditatively. After watching for a few minutes, he asked them to discuss connections they made between the words. Students volunteered associations they had made, and what we discovered was that they tended to either be narratives or flashes of scenes involving the meaning of each word. One student saw the same woman doing various things associated with the words on the screen.
7CV builds on this experiment, moving it from film to the realm of the book (though it is useful to think of the book as working like a film, employing the dissolve as a way of moving across discourses), and from combinations of discrete words to explorations of controlled vocabularies, many from the publishing industry: poetry, fiction, autobiography, theory, art book, and so on. How many generic terms and reproductions of images are required to trigger a reading response of “art book”? How many references to positions in the structure of the family (wife, father) before the assumption “autobiography” begins to creep into the reading? In this sense, Lin’s work is genuinely experimental, recalling not only Gertrude Stein but the early-twentieth-century psychophysical studies of Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus, whose experiments were designed to test memory through the memorization and recitation of randomly-chosen syllables, noted that, at least initially, his subjects tended to produce meaning involuntarily, forming narrative chains through the association of the test syllables with known words. (It is worth noting that Stein took part in comparable ‘dissociative’ language experiments during her student years at Harvard University.)
Lin says in his BOMB Magazine interview with Katherine Sanders, “Style is what is statistically likely to induce a reading” . In other words, a statistically significant showing of lexical elements and other features associated with a specific controlled vocabulary, say poetry, tends to produce, involuntarily, particular forms of reading. One reads differently when there are line breaks. One reads a certain way when it seems the text is guiding the reader through a recipe. Anyone might lapse into certain reading habits by way of textual cues or even the marketing strategies used to sell the book. With this realization in place, Lin’s book playfully cues, samples from, and surfs around specific structures and vocabularies, mixing and echoing and reversing throughout. The vocabularies of painting, architecture, autobiography, design, shopping, etc, slowly shift and blend.
When asked about the connection of 7CV to ambient stylistics (Lin had published an earlier edition on Lulu.com), Lin described the book as “a piece of low-level durational energy” emphasizing a long time concern of his to create reading environments, but in this one “distinctions between recipe, novel, etc are dissolved” (“Close Listening”). He compares this to visual artists like Jorge Pardo who renovated a house, presented it as art, and had an “opening” there, blurring the line between art, carpentry, and gallery. Works like Pardo’s made Lin wonder about the possibilities for a generic poetic work for today. He realized “it would be metadata/controlled vocabularies.” Using these generic terms, he says, he wanted to create a reading environment where “a novel … could be confused with or blurred with airport or architecture.”
This blurring of categories across the book creates a peculiar sensation of drift, float—a haziness—while reading as the surface of the text shifts laterally across the reader’s expectations; which makes it quite a different reading experience/environment than any other I know of. So the reference to Laura (Riding) Jackson (about two-thirds of the way through 7CV there is a scan the 1986 Preface to Rational Meaning) should not be taken to mean Lin has affinity with her theory of radical meaning. 7CV performs mostly in opposition to Riding’s theory (this is perhaps the one binary remaining in the book). Where radical meaning posits that a word has rigid intrinsic meaning that must be preserved, Lin’s ambient stylistics moves against that toward the edges of meanings. In 7CV there is no rigidity of aesthetic terminology, no ultimate truth to our vocabulary. Lin wants to soften meaning, as opposed to Riding’s hardening meaning; he chooses drift where Riding chose focus.
The vocabularies Lin works with, pulled together by a bland elliptical style that seems to hold them in solution, will often suggest a certain genre to the reader, setting up certain expectations for what will be covered, but the text humorously subverts those expectations as often as it sets them up. The play with vocabulary creates a reading game for the audience to think around the limits of both genre and the construction of books, treating those constructs as material bases to draw from. The game consists of playing on a series of vocabulary markers as they are encoded in readers, and the book is more concerned with playing on those codes than saying anything directly from within them. More, the suggestive nature of the content not only plays on our habits of reading but consistently tempts us to lapse into those habits.
The best example of this may be the section that offers a first person account of meeting one’s wife at a flash mob event at Macy’s. The story told reads as autobiographical, and even contains the name of Lin’s wife Clare Churchouse. But this narrative is called into question as the wife enters the story and reports that this is not where they met, and offers her own journal as evidence that they met two-and-a half years earlier. With such a time difference, one already has to question the degree to which the reading “autobiography” can be applied. It may be that Lin has that bad of a bad memory, but the question this text opens up inspired me, with Heath in mind, to look for source material online. In fact, the date and description Lin gives for the flash mob event match the description of the first flash mob ever in the Wikipedia entry for “Flash Mob,” strongly suggesting that he borrowed the flash mob description and mixed it with that which triggers the reading "autobiographical" in order to place those categories in relief. (Of course, it is also possible that Lin edited the Wikipedia entry to match his book, but we'll leave that for another essay.)
The romantic personal story available in this section of 7CV is easy to believe if you don’t want to see the evidence that it is likely (at least in part) a falsification. The reader is invited to “read” autobiography, to lapse into that comfortable pleasure, but is also given the opportunity to begin thinking about the triggers that evoke “autobiography” and why even the most trained readers are so susceptible to its codes. It is also worth noting that the flash mob in question involved a critique of shopping. Combining these issues in this segment also creates space for readers to consider the relationship between the forces that produce shopping, the autobiography, and the subject that desires autobiography.
Every chapter is an example of this kind of category blurring. In the chapter titled “Field Guide to American Landscape Painting,” a reader might find himself expecting everything to be about American landscape painting, but the text concerns topics that seem marginal to that discourse. It concerns various forms of sequencing, primarily as found in other media outside painting: A-Side vs. B-Side, top vs. bottom, how many things the human brain can remember at once, the convention of numbering plates to display paintings in a book about painting, that a poem could instigate looking more than reading, that a novel is most often ordered according to what will make it most hypnotic and mesmerizing—all of which seems to come down to how “everyone says ‘cogito’” (22). The revelation to be had from reading between the categories of “field guide” “landscape” “painting” “sequence” “narrative” “cogito” etc. is that each category already contains elements of the other. On the one hand, the controlled vocabulary system for landscape painting is the mediatory apparatus that allows one to speak about painting and also for painting to exist as a function of particular discursive practices. On the other hand, that vocabulary system, at its margins, can be used to re-orient the way we think of other media, and vice-versa. This opens up an opportunity to think about how we define thinking itself: the way we have been trained by discourses on narrative to think of novels or even our own personal stories, or the way we have been influenced by landscape painting and books about landscape painting to think of certain landscapes as beautiful. What is the difference between and frame and a fence? How do those discourses influence what we think thinking or art or nature is?
Reading this way, one can see that the chapter title already suggests a network of relations between words whose opposition and reconciliation lead one towards this central concern of the book—dissolving controlled vocabularies. A painting is a two-dimensional representation; a field guide suggests preparing for experience in a three-dimensional landscape where one might want to identify wildlife or rocks or minerals. One has field guides for birding, recognizing flora and fauna, but not painting. Moreover, field guides help users distinguish animals and plants that may be similar in appearance, but unlike a field guide, this section (and all of 7CV) forces a reader to think about similarities between categories, to think at their fuzzy boundaries. 7CV is more of an unfieldguide, or a unified field guide. Can we look at paintings the way we look at wildlife? Study them as emerging forms in environments? What is the environment for painting and how has it determined what survives?
Surprisingly, there are no photographic reproductions of paintings in this chapter, but instead, several pages with only the language typically used to catalog paintings when they appear in a book: “plate 1,” “plate 2,” and so on, bringing a reader’s attention more to the production of a book about painting than onto painting itself. In that spirit, reading this chapter one might ask: How much text does it take to instigate the reproduction of an image, and how much reproduction of an image instigates a book? And, crazier yet, in the context of a book partially titled The Joy of Cooking, the word “plate” begins to accrue meaning that would otherwise be considered quite marginal to any consideration of painting. But then again, any viewer of Top Chef knows that presentation matters; two seasons ago the winner was called the “Picasso of Presentation.” This line of connection gets reinforced later in a section describing painter Bruce Pearson, at home, attempting to reproduce a recipe from a high-end New York restaurant.
The third chapter, titled “American Architecture Meta Data Containers,” also does not go directly at architecture in the traditional sense, but explores the paratext of books (back covers, barcodes, etc.) and their construction, blurred with more marginal reading contexts such as designer clothes, product tags, and credit card bills. Here the vocabulary for “architecture” and related concerns of space, territory, etc., dissolve into considerations of reading: American Written English (AWE) is “a series of spaces”; the page is “a quadrant filled with various codes that resemble flags”; “literature should function as a pattern with a label on it”; a Louis Vuitton bag has scrambled letters all over its surface “in order to be read”; cineplexes function like pastoral poetry. And here we find the following sentence repeated twice: “Literature as Space with Language Attached to It,” bringing the question again to what this all means for how we define/categorize literature. What would we learn if we defined literature by its spatial relations first, treating language as an accessory? Most of us are not trained to attend to books or text in this way, and yet Lin’s work here suggests that so much that is happening, including the shape things take both within the space of the book and outside of it, unconsciously affects how we read.
In this chapter, the vocabulary of architecture helps to frame a consideration of reading as a spatial experience: “… reading is generic and immaterial like most of the buildings we pass through [ ] and the streets we happen to be on. [As anyone] [who has spent time on the Las Vegas strip] can tell you.” The use of brackets in the second sentence suggests we take seriously the contents of the brackets in the first, that the brackets are both meaningful and have essential information inside them. So the empty space in sentence one is pregnant. It seems to invite us to compare buildings and brackets, and what comes to mind immediately is things treated as parenthetical, aside from the matter. This suggests that we pass through buildings like we read [and don’t read] brackets and bracketed information.
In a context where we are already asked to be thinking of that which triggers us to lapse into habits of reading, we might think of a parenthesis as a representation of the unconscious, a kind of space of repression. We know we are unconscious of a great deal of what is affecting us when we read. Why not also the spaces in which we read. The physical places where reading takes place—parks, libraries, cafés—are generally considered “outside” the book, but influence it nonetheless. Buildings may be thought of as the brackets in which we read. Reading happens within, between, and alongside a variety of structures, but how many are we aware of during any given act of reading? Likewise, a book and its readership are in part created by the generic and meta data structures ostensibly “outside” of it. Furthermore, feelings and expectations often seek fulfillment “inside” a book, as when I buy a book marketed as an autobiography of Bréton, hoping for straightforward gossipy life-story beach reading, only to find out that it too is constructed according to surrealist principles and will not deliver the reading experience I wanted.
The section “2 Identical Novels” plays out these concerns further. Where, with such a title, one might expect a story or comparison of stories or the way they appear, one instead finds oneself immersed in a discussion of cooking and recipes as “typologies for those emotions we forgot were inside of us.” So questions might arise: How are novels (and their similarity (identicalness?) to each other) also typologies for forgotten emotions? How are novels like recipes or cooking? Where a novel is designed to induce particular feelings or habits of reading, or draw on ones that seek empathy, the recipe produces a flavor profile persons with certain experience can recognize. Where a novel has a fundamental reproducible form, a recipe is also endlessly reproducible.
This chapter gives way to a brief discourse on potentiality: “An emotion, like a recipe, is always waiting to become the thing that it already is. […] People who think they have their own emotions are incapable of empathy or cooking.” Feelings, like genres, can be difficult to identify, but we learn to identify them and are often uncomfortable when we can’t. Many people enjoy or even need a certain amount of coherence in the handling of literary genre as well as in the use of spices. Experimenting with either can produce a number of effects, from “this has X influence” to “those two flavors/approaches do not work together.” So maybe the question in 7CV is whether “the novel” has about as many options as there are flavor principles, ways material can be combined to create recognizable effects and connections, pleasure or displeasure, identification or dysidentification in the reader/eater. Overwhelmingly the novel—especially the popular novel—like a recipe, formulaically induces target results in the form of certain emotional responses. Those responses also tell us a lot about how “Everyone says cogito.” What is the relationship between what we are willing to read and what is marketed as a novel? What is the relationship between what we are willing to eat and what we have always eaten? What lurks at the far edges of anyone’s answer is the avant-garde, or perhaps just distasteful.
Categories aren’t blurred only within the chapters of 7CV. As much blurring takes place across them. Where in the field guide/landscape painting chapter we consider how a poem might be sequenced to instigate looking instead of traditional poem-reading, in the architecture/metadata chapter we find further consideration of reading and appearance. Among the more thought-provoking sentences for me with regard to this are “the most powerful texts function like logos, a code wherein words and reading are synthesized into looking and staring” and “a logo-like text is text and reading instructions as one.” Should this be read to mean Lin wants texts that are logo-like? I wouldn’t force the text to choose, but instead consider what can be learned from thinking about reading as it happens in the case of logos.
On the one hand, the Louis Vuitton logo works because it is a bit indecipherable and requires a certain amount of reading for anyone to get it. You have to stare, invest, figure it out. Then a moment of recognition occurs—and as of that moment the logo has claimed a small bit of real estate in your brain (that’s branding). On the one hand, this is the kind of thing Naomi Klein has revealed for the manipulative invasion of space it is. But on the other hand, the logo induces reading while teaching us something about how we read, perhaps the way Pollack once helped us see painting differently. This fact might also teach us something about the way we read other texts, like poems.
When one looks at a long, thin piece of line-break-driven writing, one “knows” it is a poem before one reads the words. The line-break writing announces itself as “poem” from afar like a giant Chanel logo on a t-shirt worn by a stranger on the subway. Then when one does finally read the language, certain assumptions about what a poem is/does will influence how it is received. If what happens there doesn’t meet expectations, a reader might question whether such a piece meets the standards for the genre. They might in effect claim false advertising. Readers often will not recognize a poem as such because they are bringing traditional, and often very rigid, practices to the act of reading. Many people dismiss Language Poetry because the language is too shredded. Many people look at books like Lin’s Heath and see huge chunks of plagiarized, prose-y text and say “that’s not poetry” and “that’s not writing.” But many other people look at such texts and learn something about both the genre and the act of reading. Any time something unfamiliar begins happening within a genre, readers may want to push the material out and say the descriptor “poetry” cannot contain it, but the reality is often that these challengers to the genre are redefining it, re-branding it, and teaching us as they do.
7CV occupies the limit space between generic terms; how is a blouse like a poem? How is a strip mall like a film? Observing these forms in terms of how each instigates reading, the central question becomes what instigates a reading, what codes do people respond to in the same way across a wide variety of objects? Furthermore, how are the various forms of non-reading also the products of systems of reading? Is there anything that is not instigating reading? He creates blur around these categories not for the sake of playing with signifiers, but because the process of softening these categories, feeling their edges and experiencing content as a statistical aggregate, ultimately opens out onto a much larger question of cultural production and the role of metadata in it. Metadata and controlled vocabularies play a large role in how we read. Not only is any object of art or literature defined by the multitudinous descriptors and frameworks that cue our responses to them; these works are artifacts of production or moments in a work-flow that does not stop with the consumer, but carries thru in the production of scripted responses. In this sense the content of designer clothes, like the content of the book, is identical with its frameworks.
Metadata emerges as one of the central concerns of 7CV not only through the play at dissolving controlled vocabularies, but through consistent reference to the manufacture of goods and services and tracking of sales. Images of or reference to bar codes, backs of books, clothing tags, credit card bills, shopping, restaurant matchboxes and the like appear throughout. The text becomes less about the genres themselves and more about how texts and objects are positioned within flows and systems. This emphasis, in the context of thinking about reading, ultimately figures “literature” in terms of work-flows and mechanisms of exchange. But just as this book cannot be separated from its marketing and American library database categorization, it also cannot be separated from the work at the compositional phase of production.
Both the exposed raw info of the cover image and full title Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 The Joy of Cooking, play with descriptors in unusual ways that often point to things ostensibly “outside” the book. For example, when I first read the subject heading “poetry—therapeutic use” I assumed it was ironic. My own somewhat anti-confessionalist training surely influenced this reaction. But in the context of thinking through the book in terms of work-flows and the [false] inside/outside division of the book, it occurred to me that my own bracketing off of “poetry as therapeutic” may be yet another of the categorical limitations this books challenges. Who’s to say the author wasn’t experiencing personal difficulty during the production of this book? Who’s to say struggles with attention and memory are not behind the new form of writing we find here? Perhaps book-construction-work and personal difficulty re-frame each other throughout, and to therapeutic effect. Or in a whole other sense, perhaps every blurring of vocabulary marks an important event in the life lived ostensibly “outside” the book. Perhaps 7CV is autobiographical in ways that are submerged but everywhere, and lived events are generic driving forces in the composition phase of the book.
The parts that read most immediately as autobiographical, like the story of meeting his wife, are clearly partially plagiarized, but perhaps some of the parts that do not register as autobiographical also contain personal elements. In his interview with Bernstein he talks about the Joy of Cooking being the book his Chinese family learned American cooking from. There isn’t much direct address of that story in 7CV, but the title memorializes that fact, and cooking, cookbooks, and restaurant reviews are referenced throughout, calling us back to that part of the title. Thinking autobiographically, I also began to wonder if the backs of books displayed in the metadata chapter are books that somehow influenced 7CV. It might make sense to think of, for instance, Gary Sullivan’s How to Proceed in the Arts as influencing 7CV. And while some of the autobiographical elements may be Lin’s own, who’s to say someone else’s story, found on the internet, isn’t a story shared by many? Saying otherwise might make us incapable of empathy or cooking, remember? In the end, Lin has produced a text that on the one hand appears fairly seamless in its writing, but on the other hand is radically dispersed and empathetic, while also suggesting that there are an abundance of stories and processes rendered invisible in any book.
Upon first reading, autobiography seemed to be part of the project, but knowing Lin’s work I was hesitant to take that at face value. But after many rereadings, autobiography has re-emerged for me as central to this project. Like Breton’s Nadja, 7CV views autobiography not so much as a straight story of a life, but as a catalog of important moments, somewhat disjunct from each other, but ultimately recognizable as containing the pivotal problems and questions in one person’s coming to be who they are as an artist. But where for Bréton the stories create a picture of his most important surrealist influences and experiences, Lin’s autobiography is a series of ambient constructions built around the vocabularies and codes that have influenced his life/practice, with each of these constructions organized to alternately trigger or diffuse the reading “autobiography.” This raises the question: where does the construction of the book begin and the life lived outside it end? In the BOMB interview he describes his relationship to this question, suggesting the distinction itself is false: “Context is more important than content. There is a lot of personal and extra-personal communal history (errors of attribution: death, tragedy, etc.) beyond a book’s covers…. Every book is an abbreviation/revision that erects some sort of false distinction or difference between reading and non-reading, between the life lived inside and the life outside the book. I wanted to exteriorize the ecosystem of reading as much as possible.”
In the end, I have come to understand 7CV as an ambient autobiography of a book about ambient autobiography. Lin created a book out of his life, which is largely made up of what he reads, how he reads, and his relationships to food, friends, and art, and the ways all these things inform each other.
photo of Tan Lin by Lawrence Schwartzwald
1. Tan Lin and Charles Bernstein, “Tan Lin in Conversation with Charles Bernstein,” Close Listening, May 23, 2005, Clocktower Studio, New York, NY, http://mediamogul.seas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Lin/Close-Lstening/Li....
2. Tan Lin, interview by Katherine Elaine Sanders, bombsite.com, March, 2010, http://bombsite.com/issues/999/articles/3467.
On the tenth anniversary of the Electronic Poetry Festival
This past weekend, the Electronic Poetry Festival returned to Buffalo, New York, to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Since the first festival in 2001, the event has been held every two years in a new location: Morgantown in 2003, London in 2005, Paris in 2007, and Barcelona in 2009. This year the event took place mostly at the Center for the Arts on SUNY Buffalo’s North Campus, with some events held in downtown Buffalo at Sugar City and Squeaky Wheel. The festival ran May 17–21 and was dedicated to Robert Creeley (1926–2005), who founded the near legendary Poetics Program at Buffalo with Charles Bernstein in 1991.
Jörg Piringer addressing the key issues of the festival. Photo by Chris Funkhouser.
The four-day festival featured a variety of different types of practitioners, performers, and professionals, including Charles Bernstein, Dee Morris, cris cheek, Nick Montfort, Chris Funkhouser, and Lori Emerson. Apart from these usual suspects, the festival also focused on bridging international and generational divides. The festival’s internationality, reflected in its changing locales, was far from merely nominal. Participants included Philippe Bootz (France), María Mencía (UK), Jörg Piringer (Austria), Claudia Kozak (Argentina), and others; many of their talks focused on how the academic and artistic acceptance of digital media is received (or not) in different countries. The festival also included a bilingual poetry reading and an “Encuentro Virtual | Video Encounter” with the International Conference on Latin American Cybercultural Studies, which was simultaneously taking place in Liverpool. Another key aspect of the festival was a series of panels dedicated to emerging artists. The audience seemed particularly excited about David Jhave Johnston (glia.ca), an artist working out of Concordia University in Montreal; Sandra Huber, who recently returned from a nine-month residency at the sleep lab at the Centre for Integrative Genomics in Switzerland, resulting in a long poem mapped onto an EEG entitled “Assembling the Morrow”; and Ian Hatcher (clearblock.net), who performed his “Prosthesis,” in which he interacts with his own digital text.
On the last day of the festival, organizer Loss Pequeño Glazier and Charles Bernstein gave what might be construed as the keynote addresses of the festival. Glazier began his talk with a video and explanation of a “cuchufleta,” a contraption made of a bicycle wheel that is put in a river to generate energy, before presenting his e-performance of the same name. Bernstein’s talk focused on the necessity of archiving recorded performances of poems because, he argued, sound recordings have a “thick textuality” — one that is not just confined to the letters of the alphabet but has rhythm, accent, and word duration, complicating typical notions of poems as stable texts. (For more on Charles Bernstein’s talk, see Nick Montfort’s “Charles Bernstein Sounds Off”.)
Talan Memmott articulating the complexities of editing Electronic Literature Collection, vol. 2. Photo by Chris Funkhouser.
Another highlight of the festival was a discussion of the launch of the second volume in a foundational publication of electronic literature, the Electronic Literature Collection. Talan Memmott, one of the editors of the project, presented the new work and discussed the problems, struggles, and issues surrounding editing a volume of electronic literature, including the fact that he had to help two of the contributors with their Java — a problem that of course would not exist in editing a traditional print volume. Erin Costello, cofounder with Mark Rockswold of SpringGun Press, which publishes print and digital work side by side, also discussed the issues of electronic publishing, which began to emerge as a main theme of the festival.
Near the end of the festival, a panel consisting of Sandy Baldwin, John Cayley, Loss Pequeño Glazier, and Giovanna di Rosario discussed the festival’s past and future with the audience. Some bemoaned the presence of the standard critical essay accompanied by PowerPoint, particularly in the presence of a community so well versed in the other possibilities of the computer, while others celebrated the festival’s diversity. There was talk of designing future conferences to include technical workshops on HTML, Flash, or other tools of digital media and more actively integrating both present audience members and a wider outside audience through live video streaming or a coterminous interactive wiki. My guess is that the festival will morph more and more into an e-event, a (to quote Bernstein, inverting David Antin) “public occasion in a private space,” turning the conference into its own kind of digital performance.
Endnote: An astounding amount of material was presented at the festival. An ongoing, in-progress archive of some of the primary texts encountered at the festival can be found at ELMCIP. For more information about the festival itself, including a program of the events, visit the Electronic Poetry Center.
Static in Karen Weiser
In the introduction of To Light Out, Karen Weiser outlines the origins of her overarching conceit, which fuses Emmanuel Swedenborg’s theory of “correspondences” with Jack Spicer’s notion that “the poet is a radio” and the mid-twentieth-century discovery that the “mysterious sound” of static “springs from the big bang, its radiation continuing to move through space as it expands” (11). Correspondingly, she writes:
When I became pregnant my brain and body were suddenly filled with static […] a sense that the flickering snow on a tv screen had been made into a liquid and pumped into my veins. (12)
It follows that every word in To Light Out is an act of cosmological correspondence through which the poet/antenna receives amorphous external signals, which she shapes into language. To this effect, Weiser writes, “Until they too are invaded, our insides are a virgin land” (64).
Karen Weiser photographed by Anselm Berrigan.
To Light Out is filled with people, but most of them — when it is not clearly her daughter — remain pronouns, specks of static-snow in lines like “Do you fancy we remain inferior machines […] / or turn churlish and refuse to mean somewhat” (21). Weiser seems content to meander along with the vagaries of her particular experience of poetic correspondences, noting that:
There is an
ethereal pulse between your ideas
about the poem and its actual being
no matter how you think they coincide (43)
The way Weiser weaves together Swedenborg’s and Spicer’s ideas of “correspondences” as exemplified by Spicer’s radio metaphor begs comparison to Coleridge’s notion of inspiration in “The Eolian Harp,” in which the unpredictable wind plays “Like some coy maiden half yielding to her lover.” Consider Coleridge’s apostrophe:
O! the one life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere —
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.
“The one life within us and abroad” bears similarities to Swedenborg’s correspondences, yet is more atheistic along Spicer’s lines; the poet, like the harp, is a receiver/converter of a natural force in very much the same way that Spicer thinks of the poet as a radio. For Coleridge, the sound of strings in the wind symbolizes the “many idle flitting phantasies, / [that] Traverse [his] indolent and passive brain,” while Weiser finds that “Our nebulas are colored with data that could be sound / but we can’t hear it” and, with characteristically disjointed syntax,
our sense habits
let go of their drawing room objects
like a piano, open, at a regional fair
playing its own ethereal pulse
the thoroughfare between us
pulse between the through
thing impossibly us (68)
For Weiser, we are “the through thing.” All metaphors are one at the same not metaphorical, not separate, but rather, the thing — the static — arranged into a body for a time. Thankfully, Weiser avoids clumsy mysticism by humorously blending religious creation metaphors with big bang theory and epistemology, often resulting in unexpected questions like
Your verbal tick is beautiful
a metaphysic wit of the longest blossom
illuminating your face as it drapes its own century
Who knew the gaudiest peacock
would be the one without color
lying in an inquiry of our own gardens
sculpted to grow only biblical plants? (28)
Again, Weiser abandons clear punctuation and syntax in order to emphasize the muddled static flooding the poet/antenna. The conceit of the correspondences necessitates the poetic equivalent of a scrambled television signal, where every turn of a tinfoil frilled antenna provides a glimpse of a program akin to a poetic image, the significance of which may or may not be apparent to the poet, who says, “I come into the places propriety bars me / with attention to means / but I am born to be deceived” (46).
A review of 'Emergence'
It is no secret that, in general, Christianity makes today’s experimental American poets nervous. Considering that genuine religious conversation in this country has been hijacked by the evangelical bloc and their teabag-toting allies on the Right whose thinly veiled homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and militarism are accompanied by a WWJD bumper sticker, this generational rejection of the religious is unsurprising. And when we establish the philosophical foundations of a diverse American avant-garde — Marxism and subsequent theories of historical materialism, modern science, antiauthoritarianism, poststructuralism — we see not only an apparent incompatibility between religion and experimental poetry but a historical antagonism, a feud.
The avant-garde by definition exists in a perpetual state of apostasy — a denunciation or disaffiliation from the dominant thinking — and acts by way of taboo-breaking, iconoclasm, blasphemy. How can this mode possibly jibe with Christian institutions built on strict notions of hierarchy, piety, the orthodox? Can we infer that the poetic agonist, as defined within this tradition, is necessarily agnostic?
In theological terms, heresy differs from blasphemy. The former constitutes a reform, a change of approach or action toward religion that conflicts with dogma, whereas the latter amounts to a show of irreverence toward sacred persons, artifacts, or beliefs. In many respects, reverence is a requirement of the heretic; the wish for change is a wish for progress — a desire to improve upon, complicate, intensify, not tear down — and shows a deep commitment to one’s faith. And unlike blasphemy, which positions itself in opposition to the orthodox — the sacred held against the profane, its shadow self — heresy transcends dualities by offering up an alternative, a third way, a new form.
Thinking about the heretical, that which questions, complicates, disrupts in order to illuminate, helps form for me an entrance into the poems comprising Emergence, Fanny Howe’s most recent publication from the small British press Reality Street. The book collects poems originally published in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that are now largely out of print. Howe is an experimental poet and a Catholic. She is also deeply immersed in a long tradition of Christian history, theology, mystical literature, and heresy. In her prose meditations collected in The Wedding Dress, she discusses with acuity and enthusiasm influential yet controversial Christian thinkers such as Marcion, Meister Eckhart, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Simone Weil, and Edith Stein. Gnosticism, Quietism, Apophatic Theology, Thomism, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim thought all appear in her work as mooring points from which the poet casts her broad net.
The structure of Emergence maps a trajectory, the aesthetic evolution of Howe’s career over the past decades. It shows that Howe, at her core, is a poet of deep disruption — of complication — but also one of contemplation, which is to say, a poet for whom humility and reverence walk hand in hand with restless inquiry. Hers are poems sharpened by questions designed not to elicit totalizing answers from God or reader, but to dredge up new possibilities for both faith and poetry.
The mastery with which Howe uses the serial form deserves noting, not simply as a testament to her craft but also as the enactment of her worldview. In the essay “Bewilderment,” Howe ventures a prescription for the serial poem which “attempts to demonstrate this attention to what is cyclical, returning, but empty at its axis.” Howe’s emphasis on cyclicality, on circumspection, constitutes a poetic ethics. For Howe, both world and word are sacred phenomena to be revered. Her manifold processes of contemplation and questioning never transgress into blasphemy; they never breach the integrity of these sacred spaces. And like her forebear Emily Dickinson (“My Business Is Circumference”), to revolve around the sources of revelation — undiscoverable countries, axis-less — is to glimpse them without becoming overly familiar, to approach the divine without falling prey to hubris. This “Business” happens in how the language builds and recedes, how the sounds circle:
Walking to developmental old trombone — I —
seeking to be found —
inside time! — by one whose blues
seek by speaking tunes to
this specific city afternoon
of bread, fumes, and orange
nasturtiums — am, still, solo —
even the base of me being, unknown. (60)
In proximity to a larger American avant-garde, whether precursors in the New American Poetry or contemporaries and peers among the Language poets, Howe’s poetics are anything but dogmatic. Emergence shows us above all else how difficult it is to be certain of anything, especially of what our most sacred terms actually mean. World, self, God, word: all are subject to the contingencies of experience which, for Howe, are themselves a wild flurry of things coming into being by way of language, and consequentially coming into meaning. From “On Time”:
A daring blue heron
Hops into place
And a cloud
Sends showers down
Provoke endless patterns
Each thing is sewn into time, then
Having a child
Is the most extreme caprice
A smashing of space (13)
An incarnational understanding of grace in everyday experience is articulated here both philosophically and formally. The compression of the line (reinforced by the final utterance), the simplicity of syntax, the restrained diction, the taxonomic cataloguing: all condense into the revelation, “Some moves / Provoke endless patterns.” Here, I would like to define what I perceive as “revelation” or revelatory utterance in Howe’s work as an essentially religious conception as opposed to the poetic conceit of “epiphany.”
“Epiphany” consolidates, colonizes, a sequence of experiences into a thesis statement. The language ceases to be of primary importance to the writer; it’s the imagined greater “truth” behind the curtain we’re supposed to pay attention to as well as the resounding depth of feeling. The effect is loudness — Eureka! — and its sincerity seems doubtful, its depth predetermined. The epiphany never transcends the self. Where epiphany is momentary and complete, revelation by contrast is gradual and unending: it calls attention to the processes by which the truth it speaks of is revealed. To “reveal” does not replace what was hidden with what is now visible (such a movement would be epiphanic, because static). Instead, it leads the subject to a confrontation with a greater mystery. The epiphanic poem appeals to truth, while revelation creates it. In language (i.e., not behind it) is the only possible site of revelation, and in language we behold the object of experience itself transfigured. In this passage, “Some moves” refer to those of the heron, the cloud, but also of the poet, writing about them, or better, writing them into being, and also the moves of the objects-made-words-made-revelatory. The “illuminated surface,” to quote Saint John of the Cross, is essential to Howe’s understanding of what poems do to the world, the self, the word. In Howe’s poems, the world gets worded and ignites.
Howe’s work does not fall neatly into the materialist poetics of immanence espoused by many of her contemporaries. For Howe, the world is an ikon of the divine, both an emblem of God’s grace in the world as well as a constant reminder of God’s absence — the ikon, after all, is not itself God: “I stand to find a tunnel to look again out of.”(51) As a profoundly felt absence, the poem is, while a contemplative space, a performance of longing. Here, Gnostic theology seems to play a complicated role in Howe’s poems. One is never sure if the appropriate way to regard her worded world is with awe — the material surfaces illuminated for us by a light unique to grace — or with despair — all matter, all flesh a cage the spirit flags in, far from its creator. This tension, this anxiety, forms the center of many poems around which the language revolves, propelled by its own centripetal force.
“Suspended and sick, my body is the effect” begins the poem sequence “Walk to Work.” From there, the poem’s moves are steplike, paratactic. However, they are prevented from becoming mere stutter or staccato by a prosodic agility and an acute logic the poem invents for itself early on, where steps are conducted through negations of what has already been said, reversals, revolutions and revisions. This poetic via negativa navigates a vertical terrain scoured with switchbacks, where the path changes direction but does not cease to climb. Steep ascents and hairpin turns occur at the line’s end even as the poem constantly pitches over the breaks caused by internal punctuation:
The puzzle’s pulled apart becoming tattered and stranded.
Green came from yellow, families of birds and animals
were separated then divorced. A trustworthy man
identifies with the homeless. A trustworthy woman
forgives everyone everything. Two species
of human beat the weak into submission. Dualism
between master and slave, London and Dublin.
Few knew who they were or cared. More lived in
— those whose actions were service-oriented, whose mouths
were sealed after their words were endlessly amended. (37)
Alienation from God, from each other, from ourselves and from our language orients us around a zero point, a missing axis, and needs the long length of the line for full articulation. However, the short, compacted utterances thwart the flow of the energy the long line tries to mediate. In its architecture, the poem mirrors the irreconcilable antagonism between the physical and transcendent subject, a source of existential anxiety caused by their being forced to share the same space. Compression is not simply precision or acuteness of perception but also confinement. There are political implications here, as well. Howe is able to identify human and institutional causes for this suffering, this longing:
Christ victor, the glitter of a country galaxy
is lost in a brick city. I love to live
but decrepitude is an anxiety
(illness, slow motions) in a motherless society.
Institutions and their shadows dampen the wet asphalt
where light is not a source but a reflection. (39)
What is remarkable about these sequences is that Howe’s political and religious consciousnesses, though distinct, are constantly operating in a dynamic, shifting relationship.
The idea of motherhood, for example, a figure that orbits within Howe’s entire body of work, has political, personal, and mythical valences that speak to one another. In her essay “Catholic,” Howe writes, “For some persons, meditation, contemplation, prayer indicate that there is an emptiness already built into each body and it is that which (paradoxically) makes them feel at home in the cosmos.” Her remarks speak not only to the paradox troubling her poems — feeling at once the presence and absence of God in the world and the fate of having to infer a presence from an absence — but also to an emptiness which is our lot and which, therefore, finally unites us as a body politic of the stranded. Here that emptiness is both the hollow the body makes for the soul and also the empty womb the mother fills with another. This emptiness suffuses the world with meaning, and it is a human condition the title poem sequence holds in delicate balance:
The dark night of the body
(alone) is heavy and dense
its fright swallowed in daylight,
like a story re outer space or ghosts.
But with you it puts me up against
your fortress, fast, where my limbs
and heart swing onto yours,
and I pray in a pair
we will mount the arc
to the void, and not be flooded apart. (18)
Howe invokes Saint John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul,” and by doing so creates an inhabitable space that is a site of self-interrogation, self-mortification, but also of potentially mystical encounter. In my reading, Howe’s poems understand the body in a similar way, as a vessel capable of both experiencing and inflicting pain, but also capable of being inhabited by both God and lover.
Howe’s poetry participates in a common trope of mystical literature: to blur the distinctions between the languages of erotic passion and religious encounter. In doing so, she ties the idea of sex to corporeal agony which again has social and political ramifications: “Four bodies, fallen / into an amalgam frieze, / all young black girls, are felled / by the clasp of a mean man’s hand”(20); however, there remains the possibility that in sex, in the hands of another body, lies the stranded body’s chance for salvation. Like a mystical encounter, sex obliterates the self, obliterates the duality of self and other, and creates the third term, the novum, the newly born:
Love between a couple
of men and women has a strange
momentum, witness the long suffering
of many children born
in one flash. (26)
The risk of sex is equal to its potential reward, which is the same as the soul’s negotiation between the body assigned to it and the world illuminated by God’s simultaneous presence and absence. We lose track of the addresser and the addressee of this sequence, for somewhere in the loop they became either the same entity or persons entirely new: “When you are gone, I go on // but when you return, I’m full of / questions, as if // I didn’t understand everything.”(19)
Emergence is vatic utterance — which Howe shares with Dickinson — the prophetic voice which is serene yet moved enough to speak, concerned yet composed. It is the voice of the contemplative which needs the breadth of the serial form to traverse its “dark night,” to retire all possibilities for unmediated encounter with world, God, and word. Emergence does not offer a clear answer — certainty is never the target — but clear vision, an ear fine-tuned to the whisperings of the unknown, and a touch that is delicate and sure. Emergence enacts one of Howe’s favorite Muslim prayers: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.” Howe is a poet who has achieved a new dimension above the nexus of the American avant-garde, a heretical dimension which seeks to blaspheme neither poetic form nor religious discourse, but to deeply imagine both, defying the incompatibility of religion and poetry, and reinvesting word with wonder.