A review of Dodie Bellamy’s 'Cunt Norton'
For a while I kept a copy of Harold Bloom’s Genius (subtitled A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds) in my bathroom, with the idea that I would read about one genius each time I shit. But ultimately it was too slowgoing. I slogged through pronouncements such as, “It is difficult to keep up with Whitman; perpetually he passes and surpasses us. Walt Whitman is the poem [sic?] of our climate, the genius of the shores of North America,”  and I was confounded by Bloom’s Kabbalah-inspired, baroquely elaborated, and ultimately senseless arrangement of the writers. Tired of the 814-page tome collecting dust in my small bathroom, I eventually relegated it to the darkest corners of my IKEA bookshelf.
Reading Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton, I unexpectedly found myself thinking back to Bloom’s Genius. Had an experimental poetry press like Les Figues, rather than Warner Books, published Bloom’s Genius, and had it not been packaged as a-genius-explains-other-geniuses-to-us-non-geniuses, it might have had a head start on Conceptual Writing. The book’s arrangement is far more interesting as poetic procedure than as systematic taxonomy, and Bloom gathers a bunch of writers we already know and does his own little jiggy with them. I can be on board for this. The real problem is that even as poetry — even as the most exaggerated form of “unreadable” Conceptual Writing — Bloom’s text makes no serious effort at engagement with its reader. The procedural framework, the gimmick, and the brand names are not enough to make me do much more with this book than buy it and stash it away. And maybe that’s the end goal. But for me to care about a book and to want to keep it in sight, let alone actually read it, the writing within must be either instructive or entertaining, hopefully both. Genius I won’t even read while shitting.
Bellamy’s Cunt Norton does precisely what Bloom’s Genius couldn’t. It rises above the gimmick, above the poetry brand names, and teaches us quite a bit about the poetics of Edmund Spenser, Alexander Pope, and Emily Dickinson amidst the ravenous wet pussies, Fuck Slugs, and cocks spurting coffee and cream. Is Cunt Norton great poetry, approaching the orbit of its anthologized subjects? Sentimental, I still believe in great poetry, and I have to say no. It would be inane, discrediting even, to claim, “Bellamy makes Shakespeare more interesting!” Nonetheless, Cunt Norton is certainly worth reading, worth keeping in sight. It is surprisingly instructive, and it is wildly entertaining. It is poetry in pursuit of real pleasure. It is radical writing as more engaging and readable than mass-market nonfiction. And it is — I mean this as sincere praise — a godsend of a potty book.
The book includes thirty-two “cunt-ups” of authors from the Norton Anthology of Poetry (the 1975 edition), with each cunt-up titled “Cunt Spenser,” “Cunt Shakespeare,” “Cunt Whitman,” etc., and consisting of two short-but-sweet facing pages. This layout is ideal for brief, gratifying bursts of reading and just enough for Bellamy to make her point and for the cunts to begin spreading throughout the poetic tradition and to adorn its readers with sex-colored glasses. Despite the book’s slimness and minimal, Gallimard-inspired design, you inevitably begin (if you haven’t been doing so already) to see the potential for cunts. Bellamy developed her cunt-ups from the cut-ups popularized by William Burroughs, in which an existing text is cut up and rearranged as a new composition. As Burroughs explains in “The Cut Up Method:”
Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different —(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise) —in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. 
Bellamy applied Burroughs’s procedure to porno-erotic source texts to produce her 2001 book Cunt-Ups,  which had the effect — on this reader — of saying much the same thing intended by the source texts but with actual force. In Cunt-Ups, Bellamy transforms what could be an anesthetically functional, and thereby alienating, kind of language into something far more erotic and consuming. The text moves in unexpected, incongruous directions, becoming tangled in a web of unclaimed body parts, a perspective that is intimately mine and evasively other, and the insistent demand, repeated through every word, to be right here and write now. Pay attention, be immersed, keep up, let go, come back, forget poetry or porn because this is pleasure.
And here, pleasure is political. Bellamy writes, “Each instance of cunting is a new encounter, not a reinscription. Each person who cunts will impart her DNA. (All persons who cunt are female, regardless of the gender they present in ordinary reality).”  The unapologetic proliferation of “cunt” in her work is not what defines Bellamy’s feminist intervention, but rather the forceful assertion of a female pleasure, of having to acknowledge that our sex lies within our simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from imposed structures of desire. For Bellamy, “cunt” is not a just colorful noun; it is an action, an imperative. If our language thus far has instructed us on the world viewed through the lens of male desire — and if that’s getting pretty old — Bellamy suggests, for males, females, and whomever else alike, a way to write our sex out of this hole.
Écriture féminine-inspired ground-laying aside, I want to emphasize the point that Bellamy’s twenty-first-century cunt-ups really aren’t about cunt for cunt’s sake. Just using the words cunt, cock, fuck, or even discharge isn’t enough to grab a 2014 reader’s attention. We like to pretend that this is still radical, but let me offer a gentle rejoinder: even I — emerging gray hairs, two children and all — grew up in a time when it was possible to watch “Two Girls One Cup” on my laptop, with the Bible-thin pages of various Norton anthologies open around it, just before I dragged myself to the Berkeley Film Archive to watch Salò, Or the 120 Days of Sodom. And then I was less disturbed by the bared genitals and feces-eating than the lines from Ezra Pound’s Cantos illuminated by graphic execution scenes at the end. Fascism is still shocking. Artistic genius so fully committed to bad politics is still shocking. Pedophilia, rape, and torture will always be shocking. But cunts, cocks, fucking, and discharges — qua cunts, cocks, fucking, and discharges — make up ninety percent of our daily Internet surfing. Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups and Cunt Norton, however, are worth more than the interest-value of seeing “cunt,” and it would be wrong to reduce the work her poetry does to just that.
In “These Lips Which Are Not One,” the writer’s statement accompanying Cunt Norton, Bellamy describes the book as “the big budget sequel to the indie Cunt-Ups”  and explains that here she combines the pornographic source material of her original cunt-ups with the 1975 Norton Anthology of Poetry she read as a young poet. That particular edition, the second, is remarkable for its “proud tokenism,” as Bellamy puts it, with the preface boasting of doubling the number of women (Anne Bradstreet and Elizabeth Barrett Browning being among those progressive additions) and including several non-white writers: “Four new black poets amplify the presentation of that tradition.”[vi] Referring to this patronizing objectification, Bellamy cunts not only the usual dead white men, such as John Milton and William Wordsworth, but a token female poet, Emily Dickinson, and black poet, Langston Hughes.
Bellamy’s tokenism is noteworthy in that her cunting of different poets produces quite different effects, and these differences don’t actually run along gendered or racial lines. You can’t say that Bellamy’s cunting of Dickinson dramatically empowers the shrinking violet poet and gives her ownership of her sexuality, whereas it uniformly subverts or deflates the machismo of Lord Byron and Robert Lowell. Granted, we do get delightful genderfuck moments, such as “Cunt Dickinson” declaring, “Slobber all over my cock until Eternity,”  and “Cunt Ashbery” observing, “The inside of my cunt is a bit sore, as I sit here between sea and building” (68). But whatever your impression of Dickinson-as-person, the Dickinson-as-text can be a kinky beast even pre-cunting. She doesn’t need empowering; she is always, resolutely, the true “Master.” Consider Bellamy’s cunt-up lines, “a Resonance of Hands are tied together and flare up into Blossoms on your Bush” (39). Isn’t this plausible as an actual Dickinson quote, even if the particular context Magic-Markers the innuendos?
And in the case of Hughes, the felicitous ambiguity of “Cunt Hughes” for either Langston or Ted made me waver for several lines on which one I was encountering first (Cunt Ted appears at the book’s end). How delicious here that, in being cunt-up, each writer more effectively stands on the fresh, complex, varying ground of their own writing rather than their conventional classifications. “Cut ups are for everyone,” Burroughs writes. “Poetry is for everyone.”  For Bellamy’s cunt-ups, this universalism also means that “Cunt Pound” can go from saying, “I clench my legs for there’s a landslide along my clit and tiller,” to noting, now seamlessly, in the next sentence, “I’m rubbing my cock against your shadows o’er all the ocean” (48). The “I” of “Cunt Pound” claims both clit and cock, but within a twisted figurative language that persuasively abstracts clit and cock away from biological givens. The speaking subject here is neither male nor female, neither straight nor gay, neither white nor black, but everything and nothing and always with such pleasure. In poetry, embedded even in the language of our dead white male geniuses, is this permeability, Bellamy shows us. To own our sex, to write into existence a pleasure our defined bodies can’t always perform, is possible through poetry — and, sometimes, even plausible. “Cunt Pound” waxes on, “fuck me with the glitter of sun-rays, stars stretching my cunt” (48).
For some poets, such as Geoffrey Chaucer or John Donne, Bellamy’s cunting doesn’t so much introduce graphic or absurd sexual language into their writing — which is already filled to the brim with such — than either provide some wickedly good new lines or veer into kitschy literary role-playing, what we might imagine of the MLA Convention’s key-swapping golden age: “To thee I renne,” declares “Cunt Chaucer,” “my clit so sensitive I doe nat like any oothers, and after wol I telle this aventure: whan it’s changing thy cock turneth to oon side” (8).
Even as pastiche, however, Bellamy’s cunt-ups have a lot to teach us about the original sources, with the Pumpkin Fucks and piles of flesh laundry acting as a foil to goad certain writers’ most distinctive mannerisms. Spenser’s lush metaphors and idyllic imagery are unavoidable in Bellamy’s rendition, such as when “Cunt Spenser” proclaims: “Behold thy many gazers — mine eyen and my cock on thee do stare. Soft, my cock lyke a sleeping river mussel doth look, but when thou darest lift up thy countenance so bold, my cock doth now blush” (10). And “Cunt Donne” offers us this insight on metaphysical poetry: “When thou drawest or eatest, that is a kind of fucking, right?” (14).
In creating her cunt-ups, Bellamy chose to forego certain formal elements, the most significant being line breaks and typographical variances. Each cunt-up is a solid, two-page block of prose, and thus we also find that some writers, such as Alexander Pope and William Carlos Williams, evaporate when given extraneous content and are no longer armed with perfectly crafted, lineated lines. Even familiar with his oeuvre, if you don’t recognize the specific allusions, I am not sure you would guess that, “Fucking you, my reason embraces emptiness (despair whines until I’m done),” comes from “Cunt Williams” (46). Whereas a distinctive Shakespearian vigor still resonates through, “O, no! it is thy tits swaying in rhythm, shaken to the stars. Thy tits are every large cow and they feed me sacredly with thoughts of heights to be taken” (12).
Through poets like Pope and Williams, however, Bellamy has more space to produce a poetic voice that feels different and original. The results are not quite as raucously fun as “Cunt Shakespeare,” but they also avoid devolving into pastiche. Pope aside, I am struck by how the twentieth-century writers, the poets writing after free verse, are the ones who most lose their distinctive flavor through Bellamy’s reshaping. The twentieth century is also when the fierce, insistent exaltation of the earlier cunt-ups begins to show some strain. “I hear spirits sob in each blood-on — everything’s throbbing so much I imagine myself in hell with nobody else here,” laments “Cunt Lowell” (63). And then exceptionally, surprisingly, “Cunt Creeley” remains resolutely male. The cunts are “yours,” while the King Kong cocks are only on “me.” This makes the conclusion of “Cunt Creeley” a little gag-worthy, a little sad, and not really deserved: “No woman ever was wiser than you, so my cock hangs above your face and what you take in your hand grows” (65). While Bellamy’s reasoning for cunting a token woman poet and a token black poet is clear, I found myself wondering what the cunt-up twentieth century would have looked like — possibly more vigorous and more powerfully, uncouthly, bizarrely sexual — if Bellamy had expanded to more recent Nortons and included “Cunt Moore,” “Cunt Plath,” “Cunt Lorde,” or “Cunt Carson.”
But perhaps this is just part of the cunt-ups’ strength — they have their ups and their downs, but still they give us new dreams, leave us wanting more. “Cunt Norton will last as long as there are quadrants of desiring text,” Bellamy promises. “When those are spent, the book ends. Until then it will keep fusing with poem after poem, desperate and insatiable.”  Cunt-ups are for everyone. So go ahead and read Cunt Norton in your bathroom. Read it in your gender theory class. Read it in your experimental poetry class to enliven your students again after you made them read Finnegan's Wake. Read it to your lover on Valentine’s Day. Read it in an MLA Convention hotel room, because it’s better than going to a panel. Read it and remember that poetry doesn’t need to exalt your soul nor stifle it. Sometimes it just turns you on.
2. William Burroughs, “The Cut Up Method,” in The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, ed. Leroi Jones (New York: Corinth Books, 1963).
8. Burroughs, “The Cut Up Method.”
A review of Sarah Gridley’s 'Loom'
Cleveland, Ohio, poet Sarah Gridley’s Loom (Omnidawn, 2013), is composed in three sections — “Shadows of the World Appear,” “This Heart is Dependent on the Outside World,” and “Half-Sick of Shadows.” Composed around Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 ballad “The Lady of Shalott,” Gridley’s book — one of the strongest poetry collections I’ve seen in some time — opens with a single line on the first page of the first section: “Still the lady could come to her senses. Cool as a nude or a pressed flower.”
Though I admire the greening brass of my dragon-handled
letter opener, it is nowadays better to be paperless.
There are those who said
only something useless can be beautiful.
I won’t say we no more have occasion
to open correspondence
but No servant can serve two masters Luke said.
Thoreau said the perception of beauty
is a moral test — and — How vain it is
to sit down and write
when you have not stood up to live.
Consider the lavatory, Gautier said: can where we shit —
arguably the most useful room in a house —
As she says in the short interview included with the press release, the inspiration of the Tennyson piece upon her manuscript was, in part, rhythmic:
An act of memorization initiated the work of Loom. The summer of 2006, before leaving Maine to move to Cleveland for my current work at Case Western Reserve University, I decided to memorize Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” — a poem that had haunted me for years. I did the memorization in tandem with a daily walk at a place called Morse Mountain in Phippsburg. The walk was about a mile in length, beginning in the woods, and opening to the Atlantic. The final 1842 version of the poem is 171 lines in length. The majority of the lines have four beats, with the exception of the refrains, which have three. This is a good walking poem. And not a difficult poem to memorize, thanks to its entrancing rhyme scheme and vivid imagery. I had thought to dispense with the haunting sensation this poem gives me by memorizing it, but if anything, committing it to memory only complicated the obsession. George Steiner says of memorization: “What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a pace-maker in the growth and vital complication of our identity.” This was certainly the case with this poem. Through this process of knowing it by heart, I discovered it was acting on me in ways I still did not understand. Its “agency” in my consciousness was much stronger — and stranger — than I’d thought.
Composing the first and third sections as single, extended sequences of short lyric fragments, the finest pieces in the book emerge from the middle section, the nearly thirty-page section of short prose poems that accumulate slowly into a suite of short takes:
Poetry Makes Nothing Happen
Ill at ease interposes a preposition into malaise as if to point to an actual place in the mind of translation. Lu Chi in his Fu of 303 AD put the waiting this way: We knock upon silence for an answering music. Everything starts out kicking. Everything dies inside some kind of song. Different musics respond to knocked-on silences: boats in loose percussion with docks — wings that whistle without the form of melody. What if knocking itself could answer knocking. Even the gods had need of a physician. We called the peony after him.
Winner of the 2012 Omnidawn Open Book Prize, Loom is Gridley’s third trade poetry collection, after Weather Eye Open (University of California Press, 2005) and Green is the Orator (University of California Press, 2010). Loom has a magnificent sense of rhythm, one that resonates throughout. Using the Tennyson poem as a stepping-off point, the poems seek out weave and unfurl, carefully working to explore the smallest moments around and between such a well-known Victorian ballad. As she writes in the first section: “What range of tones are possible / in the phrase See for yourself? // It is hard to explain. / Bloom is a noun and bloom is a verb.” Despite the occasional urgency, there is a meditative stillness that emerges through Gridley’s lines, quietly demanding an increased attention. Even more than usual, the reader is forced to listen.
A review of Susan Gevirtz’s 'Coming Events'
Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void. A common problem in the critical analysis of experimental writing appears to be an insistence on systematizing a writer’s creative efforts without affording due diligence to that selfsame individual’s specific relation to a/the general social narrative. Leslie Scalapino argued that even a “reconstituting of the general social narrative may be a radical change in expression arising from one’s separation from social convention.” Suggesting that such a change in and of itself constitutes a major break from that general social narrative and so works toward displacing it by appropriation, at least in certain cases, as the activity and its efficacy remains entirely deictic. Deleuzeian thought supports such claims, for it is by a process of subjectification and individuation that the individual is produced, and so each individual will therefore have unique orientations toward the general social narrative (problematic as it may be). In order then to disrupt the general social narrative, should one aim to do so, a particular and personalized approach toward literary disruption/articulation is necessary. That is to say, that no two modes of disruption/articulation will necessarily have equitable impact.
The searching is my dynamic. I don’t believe in the gold at the end of the rainbow, but I do believe in the rainbow. Coming Events signals that conventionally exegetical writing has proven insufficient for Susan Gevirtz. The matrix of information that makes up Gevirtz’s prose compositions wrests form away from conformity by a process of reorganization and proximal relation. Such a foray operates as an amorphous activity of thought and execution, a discourse in plasticity, in relation to that which is immediate and tertiary. Each essay explores the tethers of social convention as it relates to various forms of social discourse and creatively commits to exploring alternative and personal modalities of reinvention and separation. Furthermore, effective forms in Coming Events break with forms that would explicitly present information in favor of a form “that forms itself, newly invents itself, an ‘aesthetics of existence.’” In wresting form from conformity, Gevirtz forges a personalized approach that creatively addresses the historical social violence inherent to available modes of discourse. It is an acute sensitivity, characteristic of these prose forms, that supports an active refusal to participate and perpetuate the social violence that Gevirtz describes as “the reign of the discursive.”
We cannot opt out of discourse without opting out of ethics too: we are part of the conversation whether we like it or not. The Museum of Non Participation reminds us of this, proposing that the tactics of cultural production — Brecht’s allegory, Holzer’s semiotic excess, Andre’s reticent prosody — can be used to develop more nuanced and productive means of withdrawal. If there is value alone in the disruption of intelligibility, it is primarily mobilized when it affords the possibility of intellectual and ethical constructivity. Such disruption of intelligibility operates generatively and in contrast to conventionally coded notions of regulation and truth.
Poetry doesn’t simply supplement the rational intellect but provides inherent and sometimes incommensurable forms of insight. Because its meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, poetry may offer different, subtler, and more complex expressions than the language of information and commerce. Writing that overemphasizes communication and objective analysis inevitably misses the mark, as it stands in allegiance to dominant forms of representation and normative speech modalities that undergird regimes of violence and police domains of agency. In turn, those regimes actively and detrimentally police daily life, enabling myriad social, political, and economic margins, marginalized subjectivities, and marginalizable subjectivities.
I want to make a work that is on the offensive. I want to make a work that can be destabilized. I don’t want to work with vigilantes and their dogs. I’m not for everything safe. Gervitz’s speech modalities inform and work to inevitably subjectivize the individual. So here a common false premise is exposed: subversive speech modalities are not geared exclusively at toppling dominant regimes of violence, and no, their appearance on the social and literary landscape may not be revolutionary, as once considered, but remain absolutely vital in a conscientious society, not simply because they provide diversity, alterity, and artistry, but because they provide an active site for marginalized subjectivities by disrupting repressive norms and the policies, functions, and manifestations that police them. That is the struggle that many works of reinvention mobilize and embolden.
Language allows the animal to literally jump out of its skin — and to land inside a new and starkly paradoxical body.
Concerned with the proximal postures information acquires and the numerous networks of minute possibilities between disparate and sometimes seemingly contradictory terms, quotes, and other expectant bodies of information, the driving force of Coming Events is largely the formulation of these relationships.
379. I say with passion “I know that this is a foot” — but what does it mean? That which happens within and across those interstitial spaces allows for the formation of a matrix of prismatic meaning in perpetual revelation. Revelation, however, only in so much that it makes available the possibility of revealing, rather than exposing truth itself in the traditional sense; meaning is made available, rather than bestowed upon a reader. This approach reorganizes modes of discourse so as to make meaning and interpretations available that are never preordained by the linearity of meaning’s logic.
Poetry in this time and nation is doing the work of philosophy — it is writing that is conjecture. Information, as a fragment, or in toto, is made up of holes, vacuums, absences, and losses, though it too is fraught with gain and possibility. Even a fragment of information is the organization of its numerous constitutive availabilities and unavailabilities. As a result, information is infinitely renewable and subject to reinvention. Gevirtz’s approach suggests a recasting of the variables of possibility. Recasting variables of possibility is not a casting of a die. Information is proximate; the more proximate it is, the better it operates as possible truth. What’s crucial to information is what’s unavailable. What’s crucial to an approach is what’s undone — and what’s undoable. Gevirtz’s approach suggests that to go directly to information is to overlook its actual shape, which is without measure and can’t be approached directly, given that the totality of information is at best incomprehensive and dispersed accordingly. In so doing, new insights are kindled between fragments of information and the relationships brought to bear by proximity. The proximal relationships of composition are crucial, with their various fragments that create an available methodology for the disclosure of information, and they occur in the active reticence of writing and composition.
In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed. The ordinary and its extra-. Writing this closely tethered to performance enacts as much as it proposes in praxis. Crucial to this activity are the affective aporia made available by the many unpredictable prose forms, as they enact, embody, activate, and bring into existence new affective realities contingent on the proximities of thought, brought into new relation and offering new experiential possibilities. Affect is the result of the encounters made available by the reorganization of the familiar — the result of the proximal — the proximal as the result of reinvention, pushing back against familiar modes of discourse. It is interplay, but not only. A fertile, affective interplay of information and thought, and all its attendant properties, resists familiarity of form and composition. In Coming Events, it is the instance — the here and now of the text — that determines the necessities and probabilities of efficacy in relation to the modalities of speech mobilized by proximity and against the conformities of social violence. Writing has no form, but recalls form by recasting and reinventing it.
pablo lopez lives in San Francisco, California, and coedits an online journal (comma, poetry) that features new innovative work in English and translation. His recent poems, poetics, and reviews have appeared in Aufgabe; comma, poetry; Dusie; OmniVerse; and Rain Taxi.
3. Gilles Deleuze coyly attributes this theory of subjectification to Foucault, who traces it back to the ancient Greeks. Deleuze elaborates on the process of subjectification in his essay “A Portrait of Foucault,” in Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
14. This statement is a reconfiguring of an idea by Susan Stewart quoted in Outer Event: Lyric has no sound but recalls sound (130). My reformulation is not predicated on an acceptance of certain material aspects of both sound and form in writing as it might seem, but rather operates to draw important attention to the temporal aspects that function with respect to contemporaneity. Such attention to the here and now that occurs in the lyric are an operative and overriding principle in Gevirtz’s concept of “the event” — the here and now — of making and being made, be it lyric-making, sense-making, sentence/prose-making, or any/all other forms of making.
A review of 'I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women'
A defining moment in the life cycle of any avant-garde movement is its declaration of aesthetic victory over the preceding team of textual innovators. These declarations of victory have proliferated over the twentieth century and into our own, ever since various modernist poets went to war against the previous century’s Romantic avant-garde’s elevation of ordinary vernaculars, “the real language of men” and “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility.” Each successive movement has claimed less and less material territory than the militaristic roots of the word would suggest.
From Marinetti’s announcement that Futurists just “want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice,” to Dada’s avowal that “DADA remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours so as to adorn the zoo of art with all the flags of all the consulates,” the manifesto’s language shifts from that of violent revolution to a description of the highly personal experience of digestion. In its more recent iteration, the manifesto has emerged declaring a radical impotence, a refusal to lay claim even to the low-risk real estate of aesthetic conquest.
“It is not the job of poetry to solve the problems of the world, but to dumbly reflect them,” writes Conceptualist poet Vanessa Place, whose passive stance is echoed by her Conceptualist counterpart, Kenneth Goldsmith, who explains that “the best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read … my books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them.” Place and Goldsmith are the respective editors of I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women and Against Expression, two major anthologies of conceptual writing to come out within a year of each other.
The Conceptualist stance should surprise no one, as the harbingers of a socially critical avant-garde’s doom have been pointed out for years by such ancient voices as the Frankfurt school: “Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they belong to it … [r]ealistic indignation is the trademark of those with a new idea to sell.” This warning was sounded again by Peter Burger, and then by Paul Mann, and so forth.
Their warnings have long been that the more evolved the institutional support for an avant-garde, the less at odds the movement’s goals will be with those of the powers that be. Coincidentally, Kenneth Goldsmith read in 2011 as part of President Obama’s “Evening of Poetry” at the White House, in a group that included the rapper Common, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jill Scott, and the present poster-poet of mainstream lyricism, Billy Collins. Goldsmith wore a paisley suit and was later singled out for delighted mockery on The Daily Show. Stewart segues from a Clinton joke to an imitation of Goldsmith pinning together his blazer out of wallpaper.
The origins of Conceptualist writing are the subject of some debate. The movement is frequently framed by practitioners in terms of writing’s attempt to “catch up” to the conceptual movement in mid-twentieth-century visual art, exemplified in the work of Sol Lewitt or Andy Warhol. Oulipo, Fluxus, Cage, and the rest of Marcel Duchamp’s lineage are palpable influences. Writing that declares itself Conceptual typically privileges idea over content, and meticulous procedure over emotional expressivity. I’ll Drown My Book doesn’t answer any questions a reader might have about Conceptual writing, but provides an interesting site of discussion in its very resistance to Conceptualism’s aspirations to have no content, as well as its implicit motivation as a response to the male-edited, university-press-published Against Expression.
It would appear that the avant-garde has lost, at least, its etymological street cred as a site of art’s weaponized impact on society, but it is still a battlefield, and an art movement’s manifesto is still, begrudgingly or not, by definition a rallying cry to attract new members. As the language experiment du jour, Conceptual writing has come out against any thought of art’s potential to impact social change, to a sense of resigned institutional complicity, even within the workings of language itself. Vanessa Place describes her own practice as adhering to “the maxim of McDonald’s — provide maximum calories for minimum nutrition … Nada por nada.” Her claim is legitimated by her own work — a criminal defense lawyer, Place cleanly repurposes legal prosecution and defense documents verbatim in her poetry — but is completely contradicted by the work performed in the anthology of female conceptual writers she recently coedited.
The editors of Drown are hardly shouting up at the ivory tower from a cultural wilderness: Place’s work has been enthusiastically sanctioned by Marjorie Perloff (Florence Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California), the critic-kingmaker of the moment in avant-garde poetry. The other editors, Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Brown, and Teresa Carmody, are all in various ways well respected and established in that community. The anthology is not explicitly positioned as a challenge to the male-edited, university-press-published project of Against Expression. However, by choosing to put out an anthology of women writers and to call them Conceptualists, the editors assume a practical responsibility as curators. So, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women is an anthology of writing by women who, according to the rules of anthologies, because they are in an anthology of Conceptual writing, must be Conceptual women writers.
But the reader seeking a clearer definition of this movement will find herself mystified, as the paradigm that governs the works in this slippery, recalcitrant volume is that of discursion rather than commonality. Each contributor is given space, following her piece, to define her relationship to the Conceptualism in question, and the tone of these statements, to a large extent, is a questioning one, in which the writer asks whether her work actually fits under the heading of conceptualism. “‘Conceptual’ Writing Statement,” Sharon Mesmer titles the statement following her piece, while Kim Rosenfield’s statement cracks “Conceptual Writing Is: As If.” The portrait of Conceptualism here doesn’t at all adhere with Place’s “nothing; in response to nothing.” There are a lot of somethings, which arguably, in proliferation, amount to nothing-ish but don’t have the high, clean gloss of Nothing.
Clearly, the Conceptual part of this anthology isn’t in the content. If there is a polemic in its pages, it makes its arguments in the very large (organizational) and the very small (minutiae and notes), not in the poems between. After all, it is still an anthology. So, starting big: the title seems to quote from Prospero’s last speech in The Tempest, in which the sorcerer renounces all his magical implements and powers, having realized all the trouble he’s caused in meddling with the natural state of things. In other words, he announces that he’s giving up on tricks and deception, accepting things just as they are. Prospero sees his “choice” about how to understand and operate within his reality as a black and white one (all magic or nothing). In fact, the editors tell us the allusion has nothing to do with Shakespeare and comes instead via the poet Bernadette Mayer, in her collection The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. The rough magic of the old male enchanter acknowledged and abjured, at once, this drowned book represents Prospero’s choice as nothing but gray area. The book offers so many definitions of Conceptualism that the act of definition becomes purely gestural, the concept ‘definition’ stretched to a self-defeating breaking point, the black and white of the procedural manifesto dissolved in a haze.
The works here are divided into four categories: Process, Structure, Matter, and Event, which are each further broken down into five or six subheadings. The subheadings are descriptive or metaphoric, not prescriptive to the processes employed (“prescriptive” here meaning referent to a set of rules, thus explaining the process by which the work was created). The most recognizable mainstays of conceptualist practice (things like neo-Oulipean formal constraints and purist appropriation) have their place in this choir, the techniques. The overall effect is quite the opposite of that coldly objective, voiceless gloss which is typically associated with Conceptual writing: the book looks positively Dionysian, with little to no clear criteria for the choice of what goes into the categorical slots. Nada Gordon and Katie Degentesh, both of whom restrict their poems to text found online, clearly belong in the Structure (appropriation) category, but mightn’t Mette Moestrup’s readymade and Jen Bervin’s collages fit equally well in Event and Matter, respectively?
The challenge of presentation is the central riddle of any anthology, of course, and as a form anthologies are notoriously slippery. Still, for a movement whose ostensible ethos is to present such a clean, impenetrable surface that the reader is denied point of entry, isn’t this crazy quilt format counterproductive to Conceptualism’s aesthetic goals? How are we to read the categories, or understand them, when we haven’t been given proper instruction! When compared to Against Expression, which is clean, unified, and seminar-ready, Drown is a hot mess. But perhaps the excessive framing gives us a clue: in asking every contributor to offer her own definition, or list of dissatisfactions with the term “Conceptual,” are the editors letting us know that they’re in on the joke?
Structurally, the anthology’s intention could be read in a generous spirit, modeled to some extent after écriture féminine, in its privileging of cyclical, nonlinear textual organization. Such an anthology might please Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray, with its frayed and fragmented multitude of perspectives, rather than a uniform “masculinist” formalism. To put it another way: resistance to an “easy read” is legible as a feminist gesture. The discourse has no center, and this is admirable, but don’t start the party yet. While this isn’t your instructional handbook of Conceptualism and/or your poetics seminar syllabus, the absent center isn’t just a whirligig; it’s an absent lyric subject, who, in many of these pieces, seems eerily to reappear. Vanessa Place, in her afterword, writes, “do I consider all the work within this anthology to be conceptual writing? Yes and, more naturally, no.” Here perhaps she gives us an answer as to the question of how to read this volume, and the answer is neither, or, whichever. The one whose job it is to make sense, according to Place, is the reader, “who is the thinker who is the village explainer, given that this one is also the village.”
The question remains as to why the categories of Conceptual and female writers need overlap. In her introduction, Caroline Bergvall makes a compelling case for the two as linked due to the “existential dilemma” of female writers being inextricably linked to the impulse towards Conceptual writing in the late twentieth century. Beginning with a consideration of Kathy Acker’s practice (the negation of her own voice through plagiarism), Bergvall writes that this literary mode is “a way out of a societal status quo that must silence or symptomatize the female, minoritarian or differential writer.” She points to the feminine-conceptual connection, arguing that “conceptual methods paired with psychoanalytic and specifically feminine investigations have provided an ideal combination to seek out the somatic, cognitive and symbolic bases for language and gender development.” Whether or not we believe the argument that gender fundamentally influences the way we experience and use language, the idea is certainly an appealing way to understand this book’s chaotic, unwieldy energy.
The anthology frequently explains itself as an ameliorative action against a history of exclusion. In her introduction, Laynie Brown writes “the book began for me with the problem of the under-representation of women, particularly in key moments when movements begin to take shape … it is often at the stage of anthologizing that numbers start to shift so that women are not adequately represented.” The desire to be represented, to be historically heard, is echoed in a number of the works here, for example Juliana Spahr’s Influence & Originality: “to hell with the Black Mountain poets even though they had taught her a lot.”
On the one hand, this book seems to wants to follow Spahr’s sentiment: to hell with what they taught us; let’s mark our own territory. On the other, the book suffers from a pronounced uniformity: the individual statements are all written in a default theoretical prose style, a symptom that this avant-garde’s discourse is already comfortably couched in the institution of the university. The knee-jerk use of academic jargon is pervasive in other realms of the arts and culture industry (wall text, anyone?), but rarely are so many examples of this form placed side by side. These statements on poetics, which follow each writer’s work, are in many cases elucidating and enhanced by the sophistic language. Nonetheless, they evidence an implicit truth about the state of this movement, and of the poetry industry in general: most jobs in the field are academic, and the reception to one’s work will generally be tempered by the reaction of academic criticism. The book doesn’t endorse this tendency without self-reflexivity: both Laynie Brown and Caroline Bergvall explicitly address discomfort with demarcated movements and schools in their editorial introductions. Bergvall writes, “the conceptual poetics collated in this collection are filled with the meandering troubles of the term itself, as much as by the suspicion many female writers have harbored for its historical umbrella and initial propensity for exclusionary models.” Bergvall is pointing out that historically, the term “Conceptual” has been connected with the agenda of the male-dominated art world, and that the term “Conceptual writing” was brought to the public eye by a core group of men (including Goldsmith and Dworkin) whose influence remains primary.
However discontent its residents, any anthology, or movement for that matter, is by definition exclusionary. Poetry, contentious as its factions may be, is still a very small world. Many of the writers here are connected through clearly traceable links that are social, pedagogical, poetic-professional, or in several cases romantic. These connections are visible in the representation of certain schools (Black Mountain for Spahr, Kathy Acker, and Lee Ann Brown, for instance), or in the contributor’s references to one another. Jen Bervin’s piece, a collage of Susan Howe quotes, is 250 pages before Howe’s own contribution to the anthology, while Judith Goldman quotes Joan Retallack at a distance of roughly 200 pages. As Place quotes her fellow conceptualist, Craig Dworkin, “movements (like nation-states) are perhaps better defined by principles of exclusion rather than inclusion.” Place acknowledges that exclusivity is built into a movement, without Bergvall’s “suspicion,” and this anthology certainly reflects an exclusivity. However, the brand of exclusion is more social than aesthetic, as this is obviously an interlinked community, and perhaps the choices of whose work to include were motivated more by social commonality than by ideological or aesthetic agendas.
Many of the works in this volume don’t quite fit the brand identity advertised on Drown’s cover. Kristen Prevallet’s piece is essentially a flaneur-like record of her walks around Brooklyn, the Conceptual stakes of which are unclear. Jen Hofer’s hand-sewn quilts of paper are essentially collages. Without it being a question of the quality of either of these pieces, their inclusion should have been exegetically backed up by the editors. Other writers are excluded that ought not to have been, many of whose work actually does operate within Vanessa Place’s orthodox definition of Conceptualism to the letter, such as Divya Victor, Trisha Low, Holly Melgard, or Kristen Gallagher.
At a post-reading Q&A at the Poetry Project in St. Mark’s Church in October 2012, an audience member asked Vanessa Place why she had felt the need for an anthology of Conceptual women writers. Place responded that she simply wanted Conceptualism to be taken seriously as a movement, and felt that any serious literary movement needed an anthology of women writers. While probably tongue-in-cheek, this comment does imply that the proposed reading of this anthology as an embodied feminist critique is probably idealistic. Yes, of course, the idea of a gendered form is old-fashioned and callow, but the idea that balancing the representational scales in order to appear legitimate is the best that we can hope for now is just depressing. Perhaps there’s something pragmatic and positive in this possible future of the avant-garde as more like political lobbying than aesthetic and social revolution. After all, these sorts of strategies — of strength in numbers, in the ritual performance of a unified front — have worked in political revolutions, so why shouldn’t they work in an aesthetic one? Perhaps, along with the rejection of the Romantic lyric subject, we have also rejected the notion of the naïve artist in favor of the cynical artist, a strategic purveyor of manifestos and intramural social networks.
Caroline Bergvall writes of two principal ways, two main avenues, by which Conceptual poetics can avoid “production fetishism,” meaning selling out one’s lived experience in favor of uniformity, which in turn connects to the totalizing pressure of capitalism in art, and the ensuing institutionalized avant-garde. The first of these avenues is engaged disengagement: a willingness to constantly examine the means of one’s own intentionality. The second of these avenues is engaged disengagement: a willingness to accept the laughable obsessiveness of one’s intent in the face of the consumption machine. Bergvall’s formulation here, while playful, is the anthology’s most earnestly self-reflexive contribution, lightly addressing the pressures of innovative aesthetics, the utopian project of an anthology, and the future of the artist in the institution.
What is ultimately fascinating about this anthology is the enigmatic way in which it fails. The anthology resists the reader, resists its own structure, remains engagedly disengaged. If this book is supposed to be a strike in the conceptual campaign, why doesn’t it adhere to the operating principles of the movement? After all, if your movement claims its only intended conquest is an impenetrable, reflexive aesthetics, then the book should perform that function as an object. Or, if the book’s messy sprawl and haphazard structure is meant to be a social, communal gesture, why not say so? In other words, the book fails to function either as a conceptual art object, which would be a tautology, or as an anthology, which would be a collection of works arranged to appear as if based in a common aesthetic goal. This failure, however, if not wholly deliberate, has great value in revealing the conflicts and competing interests in this, as in any, avant-garde movement. The lack of editorial restriction allows the fissures to show in an anthology ostensibly meant to portray a unified front, and these fissures let the book communicate more about the state of the avant-garde, and about writing as women, than a polished nonexpressive text ever could. The poet Kim Rosenfield has one of the last entries in the volume. In her statement on conceptualism, she writes: “IT IS A WORLD OF MIRRORS. IT IS A USELESS AND OBSCURING FICTION THAT THERE IS A WORLD.” This book aligns itself in title with a movement that privileges an idea over content, yet the volume itself is much more concerned with content than the representative idea. As a result, the mystifying effect of the individual works is subsumed by the mystifying question of how to read the book, and where to find the commonalities or to understand the categories.
Perhaps Conceptual practice, and the multitude of its pursuant manifestos, is most effectively communicated to the reader at large when understood as a return rather than an advance, as a ritual engagement with language as a material imbued with innate meaning. In his remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (a response to James George Frazer’s anthropological study of magic and religion), Wittgenstein critiques Frazer’s study as epistemologically flawed, for failing to engage in an intellectually satisfying way with his subjects’ rituals due to his incomprehension of language’s magical and symbolic nature. On Frazer’s construction of projected meaning on rituals he didn’t understand, Wittgenstein writes, “Compared with the impression which the thing described makes on us, the explanation is too uncertain. Every explanation is after all a hypothesis.” By explaining a multitude of rituals simultaneously, the book evades any hint of evangelism, an admirable feat for any anthology, especially one so full of manifesto.
A review of 'Try a Little Time Travel'
As the title poem of Natalie Lyalin’s Try a Little Time Travel makes clear, this book is not concerned with telephone booths or Tardises, but rather with “time travel” as a mental process. The reader is exhorted to “Close your eyes, // And think, Grandmother, / I’m coming to you, live!” (6). In these poems, time travel becomes a method of inquiry, of digging through the shifting sands of memory and desire to discover imaginary truths about imaginary pasts and futures. Of her own journey in “Try a Little Time Travel,” the speaker reports:
I was not evil,
Fjords made a screeching sound when formed,
G-d is not vengeful,
My uncle smothered someone in an open field. (7)
This collection of heavy biblical lessons is something of a surprise at the end of a poem that began by glibly encouraging readers to try time travel “instead of sexing / one night,” and that along the way entertained the pop-culture commonplace about whether it would be advisable for a time traveler to kill Hitler. But these shifts in register are part of what makes these poems interesting and what allows them to cover so much ground. In the poem “Burn, Burn, Burn the Air,” for example, a flippant, matter-of-fact tone makes a startling juxtaposition with the grim subject matter:
Anyway, we went
Walking. The galaxies tried to part us. We were then
Pardoned for the war crimes. It was only after that we
Lead them to the mass graves. With some gravitas we
Dug for survivors. There were none, so they hanged us!
They hanged us in the brightest spot of our youth. (2)
With this juxtaposition in mind, the line about killing Hitler becomes more than a cliché. This series of quasi-comic reversals (being pardoned for war crimes before revealing graves, digging in graves for survivors) delivered in straight-faced, declarative sentences is strongly reminiscent of Yiddish nonsense tales for children. For example, the opening lines of a Yiddish story called “The Pain in the Neck” are designed to delight children through their continuous flow of contradictions: “Once upon a time there was a very rich poor man. He had no children except for nine daughters. His oldest son took it in his head to go to the fair.” Lyalin brings this comic structure closer to the theatre of the absurd, turning the real impossibilities of the Holocaust into grim entertainment.
Families figure prominently in these poems as a form of “time travel” in themselves, their generational structure linking the past with the future. A poem called “I Had This Hair When My Dad Was Alive” begins with seven relatively coherent lines reflecting on a past in 1980s Poland, when “it was hard to find boots and stockings” (14), then careens forward into thirty-nine relatively unconnected lines that loosely share a theme of life’s transitions, suggesting a contrast between the past’s existence as pat stories and the chaos of the present. But if the past is story, it’s also fantasy and guesswork, making it not all that different from the future. In addition to fathers, uncles, and grandmothers whose lives are half remembered and half imagined, there are a lot of babies and children in these poems. In a poem called “To All My Babies,” the speaker apologizes to her eerily and nonspecifically plural “babies,” who seem almost insect-like in the way that they’ve scattered to the winds. And in “All the Missing Children Go to Florida,” Florida is imagined as both haven and mother to the children on milk cartons, who roost in trees and taunt those who would bring them back to their homes, boasting about their alligators, orchids, and “the stench of [their] / Swamp hearts” (5). In both these poems, the speaker imagines a future for children whose fate she cannot know as a way of comforting herself in their absence.
What Lyalin’s first book, Pink and Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books, 2009), accomplished with invention, this chapbook does with increased focus on cohesion and coherence, which invites from the reader different emotional responses. The mothers, lovers, fathers, grandmothers, uncles, and children who populate these pages all seem to understand that the insight into one another provided by all this mental “time travel” — these memories, dreams, fantasies, and projections — is no less real for being imagined.