Reviews - September 2011

File under: new media poetics, electronic literature, technotext, flarf and so on

A review of 'Electro Þerdix'

Electro Þerdix

Electro Þerdix

by Christopher Funkhouser

Least Weasel 2011, 43 pages, $9.00, ISBN chapbook

Christopher Funkhouser is a poet engaged in exploring the multiple possibilities of digital language. That involves not only writing pieces using word-processing software but also sound-design and the composition of visual pieces in video—and not rarely he mixes both media. File him under: new media poetics, electronic literature, technotext, flarf and so on.

Besides this intense creative output, Funkhouser is a serious and attentive researcher of his own poetical and artistical genealogy. An excellent example of his deep research is Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995, where the author displays comprehensive erudition. His knowledge with the most interesting tradition of modernist poetics, particularly that one engaged into exploring on different levels the artistic drive towards experimentation, is intimate. His paideuma brings together diverse sources and approaches such as OuLiPo, concrete poetry, cut-up ontology and anthropophagy.

Obviously, this bio-bibliographical introduction wouldn’t be necessary if you’re familiar with the changes in perception, thinking and cultural patterns provoked by digital media. Texts like Electro Þerdix are self-referent and as long as one is acquainted with postmodern communication systems, one will easily recognise la règle du jeu in action and recognise the whole textual scenario in which this work takes place. These texts reflect so much the ambivalencies of our times — particularly towards the social relevance of writing — that we’re caught in the middle of them like we’re caught in the streams of broken narratives of social networks, in the SOS signs implicit in cynical but inconsequential tweetying and pop philosophy (to make sure anything can be metamorphosed into marchandise pour les masses), in the paradox of velocity being reified and sold in the global market.

Electro Þerdix is a welcome book due not only to its aesthetical achievements (and they’re not a few but actually quite many that make the book simply one of the best references when the subject is the direct link between digital language and poetry) but also to the field of discussion that it opens up in front of our conceptual machinery for reading poetry.

Aesthetically, it’s impossible not to notice the fractured and/or hypercubic rhythms. They compose a series of truly interesting experiments in phrase-building and collapsing, in a way very similar to drawing and modelling a sound wave in musical software, via the attack and decay commands, so that the rhythmical assymetry produces not only graphical results but also musical occurrences. It’s like the phonemes have been electronically induced by the broken beats which freefloat on the page. As long as the results are as important as the process, the whole set of poems surely functions as a sort of pocket digital Gesamtkunstwerk, where one finds assymetrical rhythm patterns, sonic and phonetic design, graphical dance of words and unusual imagery acting upon one an other.

Those texts remind me of another highly experimental work by Funkhouser, his blog, Freeholderville. There, he piles feedback-driven layers of a smoky narrative — also a worthy achievement in terms of aleatory narrative string, composed from selected blog posts written by people in his region.

But what strikes me most in Electro Þerdix is the general sense of cut. As the majority of the raw material is — let’s say — borrowed words (or samples, if you want to establish since this very moment the relations that are so evident between Funkhouser’s verbal opus and fringe electronic+rock music, particularly of the improvisational kind), one is necessarily striken by the absence of an autorship as traditionally perceived and dictated by hegemonic western culture paradigm. In Electro Þerdix one finds an operator of multiple choices whose final montages take over the read through the pungence of his absence. It’s really like bassplaying, since when you play the bass you’re obliged to not only produce sound but also silence — or not be there.

This sense of an onipresent Absence is probably tricked by the use of what I like to call Language Black Box, the real motif of the book. Some word combinations conduct sinister mindscapes and I dare say it’s as difficult to translate some of these poems as it is to translate into any human language a fragment by Joyce (I know it sounds a little bit out of context here, but consider it specifically in function of linguistic density) or the most radical cut-up experiments by William S. Burroughs. But “into” (id est: in their nucleus) these texts you won't find a Presence — as you find in “automatic writing” (where you supposedly end up finding Unconscious as The Other) or in Burroughsian cut-ups (where you risk to end up finding The Other as Word in the state of virus). On the contrary, these texts compound something like a book of prayers for a universe where the idea of transcendence was devastatingly swept away but poetry has survived as a matter of possibility (even organically speaking). Just don’t think this is tragic, because it definitely is not. As long as the samples are wildly skewed, the slant of meaning comes up with new possibilities of what seemed to be an exhausted system. Poetry has survived.

That’s the reason why humour plays a particular place in Funkhouser’s works. To counterbalance the angst driven by the sinister LANGUAGE BLACK BOX motif which envelopes creations like Electro Þerdix, one has to explore a work such as his transcreation of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances.” It’s supposed to be a transcreation of one of Baudelaire’s most celebrated poems — itself a sort of remix of Swedenborgian and gnostic tones into a fresh brand new French tune. We know that transcreation means not translation but essentially self-permition for creation on behalf of the transcreator. We also know that the exercise of this self-permission, the exercise of this liberty, is what truly interests in this kind of semiotical intervention — and eventually has its influence on the result of being or not being a failed communicational experiment. Obviously, it can devolve into a trick (more or less aesthetically convincing) and even become a consolidated formula.

The final result of the recreation of “Correspondances” is puzzling: the image of a sinister duck and a sort of subtitle (like an artifact fallen from a silent and nostalgic galaxy lost in time) following the image. It’s like a twisted drink since the correspondence is not where it is supposed to be (creating a strange and disturbing ressonance between iconic information and verbal information), it’s somewhere else, de-conditioning reading patterns and frustrating cognitive expectations. It has a lot to do with de-assembling a formulae, since “correspondence” became sort of a formulae/recipe from the late XIXth poets onwards.

As already detected in the discursive texts, it’s surprisingly interesting to notice how a single image (which is the poem, or its transcreation) can retain so many connections and iconic-verbal puns. E.g.: Lautréamont (proto punk-rock hero for maudit poets) is inscribed in it (through a pun — Mal the error => Maldoror), and you also have a duck (a quite weird one) instead of an albatross (a typical Baudelarian bird). It's like consciously denying or erasing the easiest and most banal levels of intertextuality predictable in a transcreation.

Of course, this “impertinent duck” says “uh oh” and never “never more.” And all these references and signs are anthropophagised in a style of transcreation whose results remind me directly of the Primeiro caderno de poesia do aluno Oswald de Andrade (not by coincidence the self-titled book of a student and so much a testimony of the contacts of the poet with the LANGUAGE BLACK BOX) — at least for its iconoclastic humor, its high level of semiotic compression and the quest for fresh language. This makes things not easier — but harder, since Funkhouser is an attentive reader of Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, and is fully aware of the aesthetic consequences of the Brazilian author’s cultural project.

A few words about two points I deem medullar in any discussion concerned with Electro Þerdix are still necessary.

The first one is the title, with its extravagant typographical word-shaping (Þerdix) and its portmanteau ambivalencies (Perdix being both a bird, a medicine, and a bit of mythology and having its meaning radically metamorphosed with the addiction of that strange mineral character). The appearence of the letter thorn (Þ) remits so much to a techno-fetishist computer language sign (impression stressed by the word “electro” by its side) as to an archaic (which in fact it is) and totemic language symbol. As the hero of a German expressionist novel says “P for Pumpernickel”, one can surely say “Þ for Þerdix”. And that’s where Funkhouser’s creative output is placed — in between: aware and reverential to a certain modernist and post-modernist lignage but causing effects beyond it and its limitations.

The second and last point is about the fact that Electro Þerdix displays some texts written collectively. The superb art work also shows a collaborative interaction between the visual artists Amy Hufnagel and Karen Pava Randall, in which they converge and combine their processes and approaches to image making. This particularity is an interesting move from the isolationism currently in force among digital experimentalists. The effort for placing writing in a collective perspective is something that shouldn’t be underestimated since it’s one of the paths that seems to signal a possible reinsertion of poetry in a social context and might lead to a horizon of regaining social relevance for the act of writing.

The letters of the alphabet and letters to the dead

A review of 'Two'



by Paul Vangelisti

Talisman House 2010, 91 pages, $14.95, ISBN 9781584980773

 I: Two slim volumes

Paul Vangelisti’s newest collection, Two, despite being only ninety some pages long, is comprised of two distinct, chapbook length sequences. The cover design reflects this by superimposing the black numeral “2” over a yellow “Two” on a bright red background. But the mood of the contents is much more subdued. Maybe characterizeable as a muted palette blend of the cover colors—resulting in a quiet, brooding Burgundy with glints of winter sun?

The two sections of Two are very different, but what they do have in common is a quizzical maturity on the cusp of aging. A sense that memory’s a meager compensation for what’s lost. And that the better part of what’s to be gained in life, has probably already been gained. This isn’t “late life” work. Vangelisti has only just turned sixty-five and the material in Two goes back some years. The tone seems more reminiscent of that George Simenon memoir, When I was Old, which ends around the age of sixty with Simenon’s nagging sense of mistrust for what may come. In contrast with the same author’s late life Intimate Memoirs. That Simenon tome, despite some true intervening miseries, ends with the now really old storyteller, intimately and serenely consoled and warmed by his young Italian housekeeper-mistress.

II: A is an Angel

Letters and Letters

 Alabaster, the first half of Two consists of twenty-six musings loosely inspired by a sequence of alphabetically sequenced words — from Alabaster … through Pall, Quotidian, Reliquary, Sacristy, Tabernacle, Unction, Voluntary, Xystus, Yes, Zuchettto.

 The second portion of Two, is cryptically entitled A Capable Hand, Or Maps for a Lost Dog. This section is comprised of XXXIV Roman numeral designated posthumous letters to Adriano Spatola, an Italian poet and close friend of Vangelisti who died suddenly in 1988. From a poetic standpoint their friendship was deepened by translation.  Vangelisti and Spatola each translated each other, and Spatola introduced Vangelisti to other contemporary avant-garde Italian poets, who he translated and published over the years.

In Two, Spatola seems both a friend still mourned and a friendship still cultivated. In 1996, Vangelisti began a large project — the translation of Spatola’s collected poems. Although Vangelisti had translated and published a number of the Spatola pieces previously, he set out to begin afresh, rereading and retranslating rather than simply revising. The project was assisted by a translation grant from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the result, Adriano Spatola The Position of Things: Collected Poems 1961–1992, published by Green Integer in 2008, won the prestigious American Academy of Poets Raiziss / de Palchi prize in 2010.

Translation as Conversation

The letters to Spatola in Two represent a ten-year plus, ongoing conversation with the friend Vangelisti was simultaneously translating. But perhaps, “letter” isn’t the best descriptive. Each piece begins and ends with a stanza of poetry. As in V:

How heavily the foot is accented,
don’t let the message stop you
this far into the service,
morning has been sentenced to love

 This is followed by a prose reminiscence of attending a Christmas Mass at St. Peter & Paul’s in San Francisco offered by an Italian-accented priest:

“Christ,” said the Italian priest at the Chinese Mass on Christmas morning, “died on the cross because he ‘lafed’ …”  The entire Mass was in Chinese, except for a few minutes of the sermon in heavily accented English. I was there with my father. It had been many years since I set foot in church. I couldn’t keep the tears out of my eyes the more Chinese I heard. Only the English stopped me. God is ‘laf’, said the priest repeating the Christmas message. When the service began, I stood in the pew glaring straight ahead, a loaf of bread we had just bought under my arm. My father kept repeating something like ‘amon’ along with the Chinese until I asked to leave. Amon, Egyptian god of life and reproduction, revealed as a man with a ram’s head.” Christ’s”, concluded the priest, “is the kingdom of heaven ‘an dearth’.

All those years at the kitchen table,
only mothers and fathers asked to leave,
there with a loaf of bread under my arm
until just now your laughter catches me.

At a recent reading from Two, Vangelisti explained that in this portion he wanted to present both a prose and poetry version of the same piece. What I’m also struck by, especially in the multilingual aspects of the piece quoted above, is the parallel between the process of translating poetry: The migration from the original poem to a prose “trot”, a sort of conversation with the poet you’re translating. Then, after the necessary internalization, a rebirth as a poem in a new language.

A recurring alphabet and recurring letters

Those familiar with Vangelisti’s previous work, especially readers of his selected poems, Embarrassment of Survival will quickly recall both the themes of an alphabet sequence (Aleph Again 1999) and of letters (Villa 1991). Aleph Again, in fact, is dedicated to Spatola and begins:

A is an angel who wants absolutely nothing. She looks elegant in torn trousers and almost never answers the phone. She seldom speaks, especially when spoken to. Right now A’s on Adriano’s lap making him laugh.

III: Stevens and Williams

Two lines of descent?

This is obviously an oversimplification, but for explication it might be helpful to think of two lines of descent from two early century modernists for two approaches to contemporary American poetry. One, coming from Wallace Stevens, tending towards the abstract, the cerebral, conceptual. A lyrics of ideation. The practitioners of language oriented poetry would fall into this camp.

The other lineage, descending from William Carlos Williams, tends toward more concrete, narrative, discursive images. A poetics in which all other aspects are subordinate to communication. A broader, more transparently outgoing, reader-centric group. Vangelisti, as a poet and also as an editor has always seemed to manage to have a foot in both camps and still walk, even dance, without stumbling.

Alabaster, the alphabet sequence that constitutes the first half of Two, tilts toward the aesthetics of ideation as opposed to imagery. “Tilts” rather than embraces that aesthetic, because while Vangelisti may flirt with a “language” aesthetic, his willingness to wholeheartedly embrace it seems always undercut by his sense of humor. While humor may be subtle, it’s never hermetic. It mocks self absorption and can only live by communicating.

Alabaster opens with an epigraph by Ray Di Palma that seems a good summation of the attitude Vangelisti wants to explore with this sequence: “Hey, Presto, where’s the elephant? / And what have you done with the other half of the girl?”

A matter of form.

In an after-note to the alphabet sequence Vangelisti talks about “moving outside the approved forms toward a different vision of language, an alphabetic burlesque of constraint” where “the text resists with words speaking in time and place, at once language’s conscience and its promised land.” This last is, for me, a maybe overly cerebral pronouncement. But what follows quickly redeems it: “To paraphrase Orson Welles, this must be Los Angeles; my horoscope at breakfast told me to choose words carefully when speaking to myself.”

It took several poems to spot what Vangelisti meant by “moving outside … approved forms” into “an alphabetic burlesque of constraint.” The alphabet is present not only in the sequenced titles, but in two other ways. Each poem consists of twenty-six lines. And each line begins with a sequenced letter. As in the “ABCDE” opening sentence of the poem Alabaster.

Almost anything between joy and survival, / both anxiously here to needle a tragic bearing, / comfortable besides with things, speechless things face up or / down, commonly lavender or sometimes blue with that/ everyday delirium born from the briefest pleasure …

And its “VWXYZ” ending with: "Various unfulfilled desires exposed in a remodeling / without vain hope beyond profit, a lump, a spasm in the night, / xeric, that mauve citizen of ritual and doubt, / zealous you find that inch of satisfaction in contriving."

Into or Out of a Form?

Inveterate sonneteers sometimes remark that an unanticipated conclusion of a poem, even the sonnet’s turn, often occurs to them as an adjunct to the rhyme scheme—that in trying to find a rhyme something new and elemental can appear out of nowhere. In trying to find metaphors for the difficulty of translating formal poetry into formal poetry, I once threw out the concept that poetry was: “language that talks back to you with something that can’t be said any other way.” And that the craft of formalism required writing “out of” rather than “into” a form.

Although both camps would resist the comparison, I’ve often thought of the new formalists as simplistic second cousins of the language poets. At their extremes, both schools share a self conscious addiction to theory that can defeat practice by stifling the germ of poetry. The danger for the retro neo-formalist is that of writing into rather than out of a form. Of settling for obvious rhymes and metronomic meter, because the form rather than the poem becomes the goal. The danger for the language poet, I think, is a coy opacity, an aristocratic refusal to name anything by its common name. This also can remove huge energy sources.

So has Vangelisti — writing language oriented poetry with his new (as opposed to received) form — managed to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of both schools?

Is Vangelisti writing into or out of his new form? I would say, mostly out of. How else could an obscure adjective like xeric (deficient in moisture) marvelously appear? And is xeric’s languagesque characterization as “that mauve citizen of ritual and doubt” too opaque? I think it’s not only the smile of burlesque that saves it, but the weight of common, charged language in the, albeit, oblique image. 

If there’s any criticism I might have of the way Vangelisti navigates the triple-alphabet concept, it’s that to fully enjoy some of the poems it helps to be conscious of the form. But in others, such as Hermitage, the lines work without any consciousness of form:

A bit like I came, I saw, I got swankered in this place / best Asia Minor of the intellect money and fear / can buy. Kiss me once and kiss me twice and the third O the third / doesn’t count for much besides nostalgia for bread buttered / evenly down both sides

Or Sacristy:

About beauty they often had so little to tell us / beyond a laconic smile that took your breath away, / covering belatedly the occasion of whim left / desperately coveting even the glimpse of a faux heaven

You might, by the way, wonder how Vangelisti handled twenty-six xs. There aren’t, after all, that many x words. As he observed in his 1999 Alephs Again:

X is too imposing for words. There’s only one under X in my thesaurus, X-shaped, and that’s too chiasmal.

Chiasm another word I had to look up, an x-shaped intersection or crossing. Merriam Webster online offers that it rhymes with orgasm, phantasm, sarcasm. See how easy it is to get caught up in this stuff? But as far as X-words in the twenty-six-poem sequence, Vangelisti conveniently uses his unique form’s counterpart of off-rhyme: words like expectations, exfoliation, exaltation. Although in other poems. he does manage:

x-rayed with their derbies, fedoras, even children’s messy heads


X looks delirious with longing for your dreamy boulevards.

Not to mention a sort of “XYZ — burlesque” tour de force in the ending of Yes:

Exactly X willing the ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-a ling-a / yes with your work and someone who loves you genuinely much / zip zap, pretty blue skylight outpacing the elemental.


Smack in the midst of all this wordplay, halfway through the alphabet, unexplained and plaintive, is Misericord. A title word which Vangelisti notes at the bottom of the poem has two meanings:

“1. A bracket attached to the underside of a hinged seat in a church stall, against which a standing person may lean. 2. A narrow dagger used in medieval times to deliver the death stroke to a seriously wounded knight.”

Misericord breaks the sequence with 26 lines of un-patterned verse and accessible, evocative images. Going back to the Stevens / Carlos Williams metaphor: A good portion of the alphabet sequence challenges the reader’s attention, not unusual for a descendant in the Stevens thread. Misericord on the other hand is an exception that whispers in what might be the reader’s own voice. Misericord begins:

All along, beautiful mountains may crumble but our love
isn’t at all where it ought to be holding up the whole
damn baggage — stars below in the street, the echoing house,
the shimmering O my desert, a small door, a gentle rain
twice blest, heartbreak or lemons in the fog, those graceless
repetitions plus or minus thirty-two. Where is the harm,
where the tenderness in losing oneself for so many years
in lost causes, in winning forgeries for endowing
a life of rime? My littlest sister, when just a wrinkle …

And ends:

What do you see besides a guy who’s been winning and losing
the territory for too many years, who hasn’t forgotten
even if it took his appetite more than fifty years to
remember to? Have any of us, even in this
second-hand city, any idea of how you break my heart.

IV: Spatola again

Ghosts and Epigraphs

The second section of Two also opens with an epigraph, three actually, and in contrast to the Di Palma epigraph, they’re almost funereal:
The first from Dante’s New Life: “I would give expression to my grief and send it to this friend of mine, so that it would seem I had written it for him.”
Then, a quote from a Spatola’s Stalin Poem: “silence is no better than lying.”
And a Jack Spicer line: “We ghosts, lovers, and casual strangers to the poem”.
So there’s not much surprise when the first prose conversation with Spatola opens:

Look Andriano, it’s what I said to them: the dead prefer restaurants when they’re closed. A Sunday morning after a rain, restaurants like the one we were sitting in, ran along the avenue like banks or Presbyterian churches with their parking lots empty and that postcard blue sky. They like bread almost exclusively, in fact I’ve never heard of them eating anything else. This time it looked like both of them might smile. What do you think, I said, that the dead will swallow anything? Just because they listen and seem to agree with whatever we say doesn’t mean they’re gullible. It’s just good manners

For me, this conjured echoes of Rilke’s Orpheus Sonnet #6:1: “At night, when you go to bed, never leave bread, never leave milk on the table. It draws the dead.”* The opening epigraphs were appropriate: This is a big, traditional theme and, as Joseph Brodsky once observed, we write as much, if not more, to impress our poetic forebears as posterity. Isn’t poetry of a certain ambition, always an implicit conversation with the dead?

Still, the unpretentious conversational tone of Misericord carries forward in the second portion of Two. And why not? These are, after all, quiet conversation with a dead friend and translatee. Sometimes we’re not sure who’s translating whom. From II:

What was it Pasolini called death, “the alibi of Catholic slaves?” Writing must make you uncomfortable. So Catholic of me. And what about translation? Think of all the days and years: to fly 7000 miles and ride several trains, to arrive at a river in a valley at the foot of mountains, to sit in a millhouse before a glass of wine and a poem and start translating

Who do we talk to when we talk to dead people?

Whether or not you believe in an afterlife or ghosts or lingering protoplasm, after you reach a certain age you find parents and close friends you’ve lost never seem to really depart your dreams. I guess there’s a difference between conjuring the dead while awake or in dreams, but I’m not sure what it might be. And, really, if it happens — either dreaming or daydreaming — isn’t conversation with a dead person the only truly guileless conversation you can have? We, don’t so much lie, but — can really never manage the unembellished truth with our living friends, lovers, parents, kids. And we do lie to ourselves all the time.

There’s a certain generosity between the dead and the living that seems courted by the funeral banquet. I remember my mother’s banquet outside Queen of Heaven cemetery in Chicago; a sad-eyed, exquisitely gentle Mexican waiter urging a comfort bowl of mashed potatoes on me while fraternally squeezing my shoulder. Did I sense my mother was passing the bowl when I realized all our petty, generational quarrels had not only evaporated like incense, but were henceforth impossible?

It’s only in discussions with the dead that complete openness is possible. The visiting ghost understands us beyond any possible designs on us, an alter ego that only asks to be acknowledged. And if, to boot, that ghost is a poet who brings poems to be translated, then he, indeed may seem to be something akin to Orpheus in Rilke’s Sonnet 7:1:

one of the enduring messengers. A friend,
who deep within the portals of the dead, still
offers the glorious fruit and the brimming bowl.*

Or as Vangelisti’s II continues:

It was as if this game of metaphrase and two-mindedness, played at your kitchen table or mine, continents and years apart, came before or sometimes replaced how are you, what have you been doing, how does it feel to be living alone? Sure Pasolini postured and exaggerated, but don’t we all when we’re alive? Did I mention, by the way, that I had been hired to teach creative writing at Occidental College? Where your “Seduction Seducteur,” if you recall, was done as a dance. It’s a private college, founded some 120 years ago, Presbyterian in intent, meant to spawn upright, successful young men and women. Robinson Jeffers attended in 1904, brought here by his father … The old man picked the college for moral reputation … Anyway, Jeffers attended though I don’t think graduated before running off with a friend’s wife. So we translated from a day or so after we first met, April 2, 1975 to that last stifling afternoon in Sant’llario, drinking Pernod and repairing someone else’s translation, Thursday, July 21, 1988. Time being at the moment parenthetical, I write in English without translation. Odd how in death a word seems more than what was available in life. Animal in the dusk, is it you or me with a house and a job and the right wine glasses finally?

By the way, did I mention the need
for parentheses, like the possibility
of running off with a friend’s wife,
untainted by time after time of
replacing how are you with what
are you going to do with that bottle?

And what was Adriano saying all this time?

Ghosts, after all, visit us from a place we’re in no hurry to get to, and their end of the conversation isn’t always all that sunny. Their very presence is a memento mori. Maybe to get a feel for the poet Vangelisti was talking to, and for some of the messages he was delivering, it might be well to give Adriano Spatola the last word.

Vangelisti chose a recurring phrase from Spatola’s, circa 1970, poem The Next Sickness (La prossima malata) as the title of his collected translations. The second and third stanzas of that six stanza poem seem to serve as well as anything as an example of Spatola as poet and Vangelistis as translator, in duet.

2. consider first of all the position of things
the common cold the saw mill screeching in your ears
the syllabic clamor of water from the faucet
presence and absence shortness of breath digestion
a wet body’s odor is synonymous with perversion
or excessive prudence or a spark in the retina
something beats on the temples we must open the head

3. consider first of all the position of things
you’ve become cordial you’re not complaining you smile
behind the house the grass begins to grow
with its sweet lice green like the green of the grass
this itching that you scratch is called spring
jeweler and hydrochloric acid silver and clay
be careful of drafts to the heart to your thoughts


* Rilke: my own translations

On 'Both Sides and the Center'

A review of the festival, part one

Bhanu Kapil’s performance “Schizophrene [Remix].” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.
Bhanu Kapil’s performance “Schizophrene [Remix].” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Both Sides and the Center

Both Sides and The Center

at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House

West Hollywood, CA, August 19-21, 2011

If the centre has the place then there is distribution.
That is natural. There is a contradiction and naturally
returning there comes to be both sides and the centre.
That can be seen from the description.

— Gertrude Stein, “Rooms,” Tender Buttons, 1914

Both Sides and the Center, a three-day experimental literary festival, took place recently in Los Angeles. Superbly curated by Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody, and in association with Les Figues Press, the first two days were hosted at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, with the third day at another Schindler-designed home, the Fitzpatrick-Leland house. 

Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody welcome everyone at the Friday night reading. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Writers were invited to engage with the structure and spirit of the 1922 Schindler house, renowned for its innovative, modern design and vision. Schindler constructed the house as a live-work space to be shared by two couples (originally, the Schindlers and the Chaces) with a joint kitchen and common area, and individual studios. Integral to Schindler’s floor plan is an inventive merging of interior and exterior space that consequently revisions divisions of private and public space. Sleep quarters are rooftop, tree-shaded bed baskets. Outdoor courtyards with fireplaces are designated living rooms. Glass panels meet concrete floors and walls to invite outside light and looks in.

Cain and Carmody encouraged featured writers to create works inspired by Schindler’s architecture whose boundaries play at inversion to emphasize permeability over separation. The dynamic responses the curators elicited reflected on both the physical site and the multiple themes generating from such considerations, for the Schindler house is not only home but also container for intimacy, familiarity, strangeness, and exposures of all sorts.

The first night’s opening reception was a literary reading with writers Michael du Plessis, Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona, Bhanu Kapil, Amarnath Ravva, Sophie Robinson, Anna Joy Springer, and Vanessa Place. All read work thematically connected to the event and to their Saturday pieces. 

Writers and guests returned to the Schindler house on Saturday for an evening of installations and performances. With the exception of Robinson’s photographs and needlepoints, which hung or lay around the house, each writer occupied a particular — entryway, studio, nursery, restroom — that produced a series of encounters for the viewer entering the space.

Two of Robinson’s black and white photographs hung opposite the front entrance. Each an image of a lunette arched above a doorway. Using text selected from her poems, the words “do not leave” mark one arch, with “go away for a long time” on the other. Along with Robinson’s other strategically placed pieces, these photos remind one of the often contradictory imperatives always acting on a body entering a place. 

Also positioned within the circumscribed area of the entryway, John Beer’s “Peripatetics” performed a textual wandering of interval readings and recordings. People were invited to listen and then participate by written response to a choice of Beer’s prompts. Drawing from the works of Beckett and Joyce, Beer’s piece effectively evoked the house’s modernist history.

John Beer reading in the entryway with Sophie Robinson’s work on the wall beside him. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Recalling modernism and then some, Michael du Plessis’s “The Twitch of the Tablescape (A Comedy of Manners)” faced into the corner Chace studio. While du Plessis’s title suggests satire, his performance was also homage. Du Plessis sat, alternatively bound, blindfolded and ballgagged, or affably reading a viewer-selected “Endnote” from his equally (and rightfully so) erudite and risqué document of sources. His table of curiosities — national monument pillboxes, skull paperweight, snow globe, The Golden Bough — were arranged in asymmetrical concert with his endnotes, which ranged from Foucault on Roussel to The Story of O. His literary and corporeal inquiry provocatively reopened questions of modernist aesthetics through textual entanglements of Southern California architecture, the semantics of sado-masochism, Barnes, Brinig, and Klossowki. 

Michael du Plessis at his tablescape. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Amarnath Ravva’s video installation “This Movement Is Our Own” explored the more personal history of the Schindler house toward a meditation on nature and home. Retelling the story of Schindler’s visit to Yosemite, which became the retrospective inspiration for his visionary architectural plan, Ravva looped lovely time-lapse photography stills of Anza Borrego’s night sky with an accompanying, looped reading. Displayed in a boxed screen on the floor, the sublime is sublimated into the body looking down on it, asking one to reconsider, as Schindler did, previous conceptions of body and place boundaries.

Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s “la casa por la vantana/past the open window,” framed as a private scene of artistic communion, invited passersby in to view the choreographed performance. The room arrangement included an old record player, pile of 78s, and knitted blankets open on the floor, with Hofer and Moscona kneeling opposite and at a small distance, working together, sewing and writing toward one another, in a book folding into itself. 

Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s “la casa por la ventana/past the open window.” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Anna Joy Springer shifted connotations of private and public space with her “Inside Voice Oracle” performance. An announcement posted on the rear restroom door gave directions for the “personalized oracular narrative for an audience of one” to take place inside. One entered the restroom, rang the bell attached to the plunger earphone hung from the ceiling, and waited. Located outside on the roof above the restroom, Springer assigned and sang to the listener a bird of fortune and its attendant forecast. Hers was an intimate encounter that showed the different shapes that proximate relations can take and the sounds alternative epistemologies can make. 

Vanessa Place and Kim Rosenfield’s “SCUM 1976 (2011)” restaged Carole Roussopoulos’s “S.C.U.M.” by way of Lacan’s maxim la femme n’exist pas, and in accord with Place’s larger Boycott project, which changes all pronouns in selected canonical feminist texts from she to he. The video installation, appropriately in the Pauline Schindler studio, included a monitor of Place and Rosenfield just out of the frame, across a table from one another, Rosenfield typing and smoking as Place reads from “SCUM.” With Andy Warhol supplanting Valerie Solanas on the book’s cover, this “SCUM” is Place’s with the pronouns leveled into sameness. At the same time the video updates Roussopoulos’s piece with the use of a laptop for a typewriter and Place’s appropriated and altered text, this video is set on a desk with two empty chairs, microphone, typewriter, and ashtray to recall the video’s original context. The staged absences made present through approximation suggest who is always substitutable when the switch happens, and the failure, or the great success, of the copy. 

Vanessa Place and Kim Rosenfield’s “SCUM 1976 (2011).” Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Bhanu Kapil’s “Schizophrene [Remix]” took place after the sun went down, allowing the Schindler studio to be backlit for her performance. The audience remained outside the studio to look in through the window. Kapil, in a symbolic rendering of a butcher scene, was the meat on the block. Wholly encased in red cloth, she moved in a contained rhythmic dance to a dramatically read excerpt from her forthcoming Schizophrene, bringing nation and its violences to bear on the question of home. For an hour, the recorded text played over and again as Kapil, captivating and captive, stretched limbs and torso, embodying questions of duration and endurance, compelling the viewer to ask: when does an onlooker turn and walk away from one who can’t?

The third day was hosted at the Fitzpatrick-Leland house. In an event described as the “performance of a conversation,” a diverse group of writers, visual artists, and critics joined together to reflect upon and further explore the previous two days of happenings. Cain and Carmody smartly coordinated the gathering, assigning each participant the task to bring and exchange an assigned question, comment, or object as entry points into the conversation. With the aid of a radio frequency interpretation system, what ensued was a lively and productively stimulating bilingual discussion with all voices offering readings, impressions, and reflections. 

Both Sides and the Center is the latest in a series of inventive, larger-scale curated events from Les Figues Press, such as last summer’s Not Content, which continue to bring together and cultivate an ever-growing artistic community in Los Angeles and beyond.

Blueprints, or sight-maps

A review of 'Meddle English'

Meddle English: New and Selected Texts includes a broad range of texts that vary in texture and rhetorical means. Texts range from an engaging essay on the history and future of English (and language in general) to an essay on language as personally experienced by the author; from deft poetic trans-creations of Chaucer’s Middle English to blueprints, or sight-maps, for performance poetry; and from textual art and to visual art. A rare bounty of textuality, and for Bergvall this variety is intentional; she believes that the situation of contemporary poetry demands such resourcefulness: “Poetic art becomes an occupancy of language made manifest through various platforms, a range of instrumental tools and skills and relativized forms of inscription” (15–6).

Bergvall knows no fewer than three recognizable languages (English, French and Norwegian are on display here), and her personal history and current life, growing up in a handful of countries and now widely touring Europe and beyond as a poet, are also expressive of cultural and practical complexity. This book argues that this sort of interstitial, diasporic, multi-tiered living and thinking is personally salubrious, culturally necessary and a model for being in time to come. The word “meddle” signifies how language and experience, self-consciously activated, must combine to exert a pressure on individual and collective consciousness: “The meddle is collective awareness. Denaturalization of one’s personal and cultural premise. Getting lost. Physical and mental effort. New apprenticeship and transformed commitment” (19).

Her desire is to uncover language to show not only the prejudices of current and traditional discourse models (both poetic and ratio-logical) but also to show how language, at a fundamental level, impacts your body. She writes elsewhere that “[f]or a long time, I’ve been working out of pressure points, awkward grammatical and cultural units that force up questions about linguistic belonging, bodyshape, the communal bonds or binds or bounds that lodge within my own make-up” (Feminaissance, 68). She means to delve into the middens — the refuse — the material that would otherwise be looked over because not part of the structure of meaning — and investigate these odd remains.

This sense of mission shows itself everywhere in her prose: “It is the writer’s role to test out, provoke the naturalized edges and bounds of language use and rules. She mines language for what is always moving, always escaping. To travel at the heels of writing activates reclaiming zones, fictitious collective memory” (17). It is an exciting project, and her intention carries over into her poetic texts. Take, for instance, the beginning of the “Fried Tale (London Zoo)”:

All juicit with an arseful of moola, wonga, clams & squids
doks stasht in identikl blakases hanging from ther hans
2 Suits, a mega pair of Smith, Blupils no dout,
viddying how they trading outa goodness welth stuporifik […] (38)

While it’s difficult to say what such deformations of standard, written English can produce in the way of a sharable idiom, this strategy does certainly remind us that any notion of standard comes fraught with questions of political agency and oppression: Whose English is standard? What are the consequences of a super-valuation of written speech over oral? How does a person separate themselves from the stigmas, and the ideologies, of any language?

Her interest in finding a way to be right within wrongness, natural within unnaturalness, comes with its material themes: spit and shit; phlegm and food. This creates situational irony: poetry, the once-upon-a-time elevated rhetoric of the wise, turns into a jaunty (Chaucerian) romp through the Seven Deadly Sins and those bodily and sexual issues that can be reliably counted on to offend propriety:

begs out of
ental [....] (“Goan Atom,” 94)

This infringement of the body upon the corpus of the written word (and art), most famously and egregiously implemented by Beckett, creates a paradox, itself evident above. That is, her poetry’s intentional textual errors and pre-literacy create a level of sophistication that means that in order to appreciate the textual disturbances a reader probably ought to have both a glancing familiarity with the most current varieties of art-talk and language-theory but also a recording of her reading the text to show how it’s done. (Here’s one case where it would have been nice to have a CD with the book.)

Tacked onto this paradox comes another. For a person relatively unversed in the particularities of her idiolectic, mixed languages, her poetic texts might read like computer code; but since the effort is meaningful, what of it? It points toward the last paradox, that despite her texts’ sophistication — which might seem to inaugurate strictly intellectual pleasures — when the texts enter into the reader’s ear and/or metaphorical bloodstream, the first clear pleasures are intuitive, those of sound, rhythm and cadence and the forever-alive performative dimension of speech. The delights are as alive (and personal) as language exists in the morning before you have re-coded it all into the Queen’s English, or the rational language of book-reviews, or even syntax itself.