"I"-criticism in postliterary America

Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries

Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries

Maria Damon

University of Iowa Press 2011, 273 pages, $39.95, ISBN 1587299577

In this timely and temperamental critical performance, Maria Damon celebrates our brave new postliterary world as a thing of the past. Before neighborhood slam and Flarf spam — the “diaspora poeses” of contemporary America, treated in the second half of this essay collection — there was a beat culture in postwar San Francisco that did more than Howl. In the “shadowland,” beyond the floodlight of Allen Ginsberg’s expressive iconicity, jazz, poetry, and performance communities thrived in a tenuous relation to the literary. Jewish and African American artists exchanged street verse, flamboyant rap, klezmorim and “Jewish jazz,” gospel music, live comedy, epistolary poetry, diary autobiography, and the signifying practices of ethnic identity to form collectives where, as today, “poets are not the only poets.” 

The five essays of part 1, “Identity Kn/ot/e/s,” step outside the doors of City Lights Books to tour adjacent “hipster/bohemian” art worlds in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s. Two figures animate this lively cultural commons: Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedian and “diasporic icon” whose 1962 obscenity trial is frequently eclipsed by the notorious censorship of Ginsberg’s Howl six years earlier; and Bob Kaufman, whose street verse enacts, for Damon, a reflexive sociology of the ethnic politics of jazz communities in North Beach. Lenny Bruce explicitly dynamizes the historical moment as a “cultural lightening rod” (“The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightening Rod,” chapter 1), a subversive disruption to the state as The Plaintiff, aka The People of San Francisco. (Bruce was charged with violating the Penal Code during a live act at the Jazz Workshop on San Francisco’s nightclub strip in 1961.) For Damon, the exposed Jewish male sexuality of Lenny Bruce stands as a “vulnerable” counter to concealed gentile male sexuality, “the capital-P phallus” representing state power (19). But what dichotomies might inhere in the case of Lenny Bruce, Heroic Dissident versus The People are quickly troubled, if not by Bruce’s own “frantic self-displacement” through “philosophical rambling” — what Damon calls the “survivalist compulsion” of “Jewish hyperverbalism” (26), simultaneously the threat of Bruce’s identity as a chameleonic ability to adapt, proliferate, trip over itself only to insist on itself again, but differently — then through its placement by artist-observers like Bob Kaufman. In Kaufman’s poem “Bagel Shop Jazz,” the Jewish entertainer assumes a contingent positionality in a “demography of the shadowland of the hip” (38).

In chapters 2 and 3, the most persistent and compelling analyses among the knotty notes which comprise “Identity Kn/ot/e/s,” Damon reads “Bagel Shop Jazz” as a description of the triangulated structure of desire among creative artists at Co-Existence Bagel Shop in San Francisco’s North Beach. In Kaufman’s social “tableau,” women — “nonethnoracialized ‘Beat chicks’” — mediate between 1) “presumed-male ‘white ethnic’ Beats,” often Jewish men, and 2) “presumed-male hip African Americans (black beats).”  Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop” throws into relief broader patterns of social affiliation presented in chapter 2, which introduces Jewish performers’ identificatory desire for African American culture. Against commonly accepted arguments about racial mimicry and assimilation, e.g. Michael Rogin’s account of Al Jolson’s blackface as a means to reject Jewish identity and gain acceptance by the American mainstream, and through readings of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, Ronnie Spector’s Be My Baby, and the exemplary case of Lenny Bruce, Damon argues that for Mezz, Phil Spector, Bruce, and others, blackness offered “a way to be ‘more Jewish.’” These performers were motivated by the anxiety that “Jewish American culture, by assimilating upward, was abdicating the special role of critique available to social outsiders” (42–43). For ‘white ethnic beats,’ identifying with ‘black beats’ was a way to maintain otherness — African American culture “a stable alternative, a nostalgic embodiment of the earthiness and vitality that threatened to get bleached out of secular and assimilated Jewish culture” (50). Moreover, women served as “vehicles … for these Jews’ desire for black masculinity” (46), alternately displayed in the autobiography of Ronnie Spector, Phil Spector’s African American ex-wife (“Phil loved his Afro wig. I guess it made him feel like he had soul or something … Here I was, this black girl, bored out of her mind at a gospel concert, sitting with a Jewish man in an Afro who looked like he was about to speak in tongues”)[1] and in Mezzrow’s jazz autobiography. Mezzrow narrates his transition into African American culture through love and scorn for women, his adoration of Bessie Smith matched only by his anger watching his sister “correc[t] Bessie’s grammar” while scribing her lyrics. Rejecting his sister’s “stuck-up jive” of “‘good’ English” and “fancy high-school airs” enabled Mezzrow to articulate his own (appropriated) vernacular and persona as “the first white Negro.” Damon’s argument is silently indebted to critical precedents describing women’s mediating social function between men, such as Eve Sokofsky Sedgwick’s landmark Between Men.

Throughout these readings, Lenny Bruce stands as a heroic counter: he “reverses the terms” of ethnic exchange, where black musicians “become honorary Jews”  (52). Yet Damon’s return to Bruce provides a welcome countermemory to the other “bellwether instance of Jewish male verbal and sexual identity on trial” in 1950s and ’60s San Francisco: Allen Ginsberg, whose obscene art and deviant sexual identity meanwhile fixed his iconoclastic “glamour for a straight white counterculture” (58). Beat criticism has lionized “‘white negroes’ for their individually flamboyant dissidence,” rather than endeavoring to see the kind of complex social portrait on view in Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop Jazz.” This has stultified the popular imagination in a romanticized heroics of commodifiable dissent. (Damon rightly estimates she need not refer to James Franco’s performance of Ginsberg in the blockbuster feature film Howl to make this point clear.)

The politics of identification among postwar artists as presented in part 1 thus provides an uncommon historical lens through which to view the contemporary in part 2, the exploratory “Poetics for a Postliterary America.” Damon toggles between two primary modes of “postliterary” poetries from the 1990s — present: counterperformance, or performance “practiced by poets of marginalized groups in American culture: young people, black people, street people, and various combinations thereof” (172); and micropoetries, a designation that riffs off of ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s study of “micromusics,” and encompasses “graffiti, poetry written as therapy, prison poetry, a relative’s topical verse, fortune cookie doggerel … market corporate slogans lasered in gothic script onto wooden plaques, preslam vernacular poetry …” (123). (Micropoetry’s subjects for inclusion, or at least its desire as a category to catalogue apparently endless cultural ephemera, could be said to derive also from Rimbaud’s accumulative recollection of ‘literary’ fondnesses as a child in “Alchemy of the Word,” an epigraph to chapter 10: “absurd paintings … old-fashioned literature, Church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms” [191].)  Chapter 7, “When the Nuyoricans Came to Town,” which describes the Nuyorican Poets’ Café tour of the Twin Cities in 1993 — or the cultural collision of Puerto Rican New York slam poets with “Midwestern lyric practitioners” — exemplifies the stakes of “counterperformance” as an analytical category. Damon’s reading of BlacQ/Ibn/Mujaheed/Adam Harden’s performance of “This poem’s about the alcoholic in my home,” for example, notes its “confluence of discourses” — “twelve-step philosophy, public prayer and black religious oratory, the dactylic tetrameter that by convention places it in a folk tradition” — all as “fodder for rich analysis” (123). At the same time, the poem derives traction from its social location, compelling Damon’s account of this context, a poetry slam battle pitting “New York in-your-face” improvisational acts against “Minnesota nice” and its “stoic prairie” poems. In chapters 9 and 10, Damon reads micropoetries to include text from anthropological ethnographies and exchanges of the Flarf collective and SUNY-Buffalo poetics listservs. Cyberpoet Alan Sondheim’s work (chapter 11) solicits readings as both counterperformance and micropoetry; although Damon reads Sondheim through Walter Benjamin, Sondheim’s explicit self-exposure during live web performance echoes the dissent tactics of part 1’s Lenny Bruce.

Damon’s critical method and discursive style are mutually constitutive and performatively engaged. The rough, uneven texture of the prose aspires to its objects, frequently imitating the creative acts it describes: “the Heraclitean flow of the ensemble process” — jazz improvisation — “a steady rhythm overshot with melodic lines improvised and defamiliarized from the individual pitches making up the chord progressions of … pop tunes” — bebop (1), — with Damon here overwriting critical rather than jazz standards; the organization of essays as thematically recursive and argumentatively iterative produces the “‘scrappy’ structure of feeling” (90) that Damon attributes to Adeena Karasick’s work in chapter 5. (Much like work by Karasick, “Jewish Canadian feminist Kabbalah scholar and poet” of “The Wall,” Damon’s project in part seeks to reanimate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, where Postliterary America is its own “instance of diasporic excess” in which the creator cannot “bear to leave anything out” [89].)

Not only is Damon invested in “attending to US poetries that have been underrecognized because of their social locations, processes, idiosyncrasies, or idiolects” (12), but she attends to their investments in experimentally mimetic affinity.  For example, she not only questions traditional notions of aesthetic value by examining a nontraditional subject, such as typo-infested Flarf doggerel, but by including and narrating through her own typographical errors in the monograph text. The chapter on Nuyorican slam ends in a catalogue of shout-outs and rants, desperate to lift off the page and into spoken word: “You say you want heteroglossia? Semiotic flux and shimmy shimmy coco-pop? Roll over, Bakhtin, and tell Kristeva the news” (143). Damon frequently makes parenthetical asides, offers a “[l]ongish disclaimer” by way of concluding chapter 6, and undercuts and pokes fun at her own critical affect: “It would be excessively corny to point out that AS, as the poet’s initials [Adam Sondheim] comprise an English word that, be it in the form of an adverb, conjunction, pronoun (!), or preposition, always necessitates relation and process — but if one can’t wax excessively corny in an essay such this, then where? And if not now, when?” (125, 215).

Finally, then, Damon’s most enduring argument is one about critical method, modeling a scholarship that performs pedagogical interest in its subjects as a student, or a “permanent apprentice” (203). Damon’s willingness to humor, imitate, and identify with her subjects frequently yields “research [as] emotional play” (123). This method in turn thoroughly hybridizes the genres of academic criticism and autobiography: chapter 3 opens with a reflection on her father and his efforts to “assimilat[e]” (40) in contrast to Jews of his generation who romanced alterity, i.e. Mezzrow, Spector, and Bruce. One can even get the feeling that the texts enlisted were plumbed in the interest of a family genealogy project or a quest for self-understanding as much as an academic argument: but this, Damon’s autobiographical or “I”-based criticism, is its own generative intervention. Rather than shy away from acknowledging the complex and often divergent affective motivations that compel one into contact with an archive or an art form, Damon embraces these “conflicts of interest” as an ethically invested mode of critical accountability. It is the task of the “I”-based critic to register and even explain her complicities and opacities vis-à-vis the historical record. Perhaps one of the next tasks of a “postliterary America” is to restore, or at least playfully retrieve, the speaking subject in criticism, the arena where it has been most comfortable withdrawing.  If the lyric “I” marks the sin of solipsism and private taste, the critical “I” meanwhile confesses — “this is not a disinterested analysis” (142) — and promises transparency from our cultural gatekeepers. Postliterary America is at least as “erratic” and “partisan” as Damon says it is — in the hope that postliterary criticism, like postliterary poetry, might have “poetry’s permission for subjectivity or hermeticism” to function as a “laboratory where the microeffects of subjectivity in discourse can be experimented on and with through the manipulation of language [as] a key to contemporary diasporic consciousness” (212); as a “completely appropriate venue for clarifying identities, evolving and devolving, that contribute to a rich, ahierarchic heterogeneity composing a thus far hypothetical democracy” (125).

 


 

1. Quoted in Damon, 48. See Ronnie Spector (with Vince Waldron), Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette (New York: Harper Collins, 1990) 171–2. Damon’s analysis does not explicitly note the presence of a white male ghostwriter.