Envoy: Postings on the digital life poem
A story that all readers of Drafts know well: in 1982, almost twelve hundred sculptures were discovered by trash collectors in a Philadelphia alley. The subsequent search for the artist who produced these pieces was unsuccessful. The working theory is that the artist had died and the pieces were discarded by those left behind — a family member, a friend, perhaps a landlord. The artist was dubbed the “Philadelphia Wireman,” assumed to be a man due to the physical strength necessary to work with the resistant found materials: “a wire armature or exoskeleton firmly binds a bricolage of found objects, including plastic, glass, food packaging, umbrella parts, tape, rubber, batteries, pens, leather, reflectors, nuts and bolts, nails, foil, coins, toys, watches, eyeglasses, tools, and jewelry.” Additionally, the demographic of the neighborhood, coupled with the apparent influence of African figural aesthetics on the sculptures, leads critics to believe that the artist was African American.
The Philadelphia Wireman is one of the many figures woven into Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, a shadow artist who embodies so many of the poem’s aesthetic and sociopolitical concerns. He was a shaper of “ordinary stuff,” “scratch, gum, mite, dust: travelling the range of signs. / Grunge things, junk things, things singed by light” — an art of anonymous transformation, a quoter and citer, a collagist with an acute sense of how the forces of the body intersect with the material pressure of inert matter and cultural signs. He toiled for what must have been decades on his craft, and left behind a massive body of work. And yet, in contrast to our received notions of artistic ambition, the work does not memorialize. It was mere chance, after all, that kept the work from becoming scrap once again.
The Wireman’s sculptures are also an apt representation of the life poem. His work reflects the dialectic between ongoing artistic effort and the subsequent accumulation of that process. Large and small, art and accident, form and medium/mediation — these always come together in the life poem. What changes from poet to poet is the attitude toward that interplay. All embrace it, as they must. The work takes over, and they cannot help but keep writing. But we can also detect degrees of resistance, a counterpressure, different inhabitations of the work.
In some cases, we find a monument to the writing’s own excess. The Maximus Poems, published posthumously in its oversized folio form, sits on my bookshelf. It is the most valuable text I own, now out of print, a gift from family members. I am inordinately fond of it. I could also use it as a weapon, should the need arise. Olson appears on the front cover, again a large photograph designed to accentuate the work’s concern with size, space, projection of a post-human historical consciousness. Less physically impressive, perhaps, my tattered paperback New Directions copy of The Cantos, its black binding recognizable to any student of modernist poetry and poetics. Together, these texts can’t help but suggest one element of the life poem: its hulking presence in the world and imagination, its often insane ambition, its fortification against time.
Ironically, of course, the monumental aspect of the life poem actually arises from its opposite: its inherent vulnerability, the constant sense that it is on the verge of falling apart. An impossible art form. It is this exchange between impossibility and force that, to my mind, makes these works both interesting and important. They test both the nature of composition (the possibility of form) as well as the limits of distribution and exchange (the prospects of reading). The life poem asks us what can be written, and what can be read.
A few shelves over is my collection of Drafts: Toll, Drafts, Torques, Pitch. Undoubtedly, these texts could be, and I suspect will be, collated into an equally impressive single volume. But, somewhat different from the case of Olson and Pound, Drafts has been composed during a time of unprecedented transformation in textual distribution. It is one of the preeminent examples of the life poem in the digital age, a time when, as Kenneth Goldsmith has recently written, “[faced] with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.” Although the life poem, more than many literary practices, anticipates textual abundance, Drafts seeks to realize those anticipations. In many respects, DuPlessis’s work has evolved alongside the digital revolution; “Draft 1: It” was composed in the 1980s, over a decade before the first Google search. The work has adapted itself to that new environment and, most importantly, interrogated it. The results are exploratory and yet forceful, contemporary and yet untimely. Almost anonymous, like the sculptures of the Philadelphia Wireman, Drafts produces messages that call out of and into the network: “who circulated zigzag workings filled zeros. / WHO DID the work?”
To write a life poem in the network, to write the digital life poem, is to loosen one’s hold on the monument in order to embrace a new textual ontology. Text, after all, is now a verb, not merely a noun.
A somewhat exceptional Draft offers an interesting illustration of the digital life poem’s transformed mediation. “Draft 94: Mail Art” is more radically pictorial than most of the work, although DuPlessis’s poetics has been avowedly visual from the very beginning. The different versions of “Mail Art,” when read side-by-side, stage dynamics unique to the digital world. And I believe that the poem is best read in this way, seen as multiple to achieve its many effects. In other words, the poem divides itself, cites itself, like all of DuPlessis’s work, but it uses the exchange between the digital and analog to produce this commentary.
When read in its original digital form, published in Jacket 37, the collage of “Mail Art” shimmers, particularly if your computer screen is of sufficient size. The ephemera of an imagined international snail mail is overwritten, tonally pitched, scribed and erased. Most importantly, digital reproduction, here, becomes an irreplaceable tool for the artwork’s transmission. The substance and heft of the material is visible in the texture of the physical artifacts. Compare this digital publication to its second version, in Pitch. Here, the colors are lost; the sense of the work as a multidimensional creation, flattened. The stamps and postmarks less visible, both of which are central to the concept of the piece. Strangely, then, the analog, in this case, becomes somewhat impoverished next to the digital, exactly the opposite of what those of us who often succumb to analog-nostalgia (like myself) would expect.
We could say, then, that in print the poem is subjected to a more fragile mediation. Why undergo this loss? To take its place in another moment, a different dialogue, for one. Drafts has structured itself as a process of ongoing revision, as its readers know, in which each textual element becomes meaningful in several directions at once. “Mail Art,” when placed within a volume of Drafts, calls to, and is responded by, “Draft 75: Doggerel,” “Draft 56: Bildungsgedicht with Apple,” “Draft 37: Praedelle, “Draft 18: Traduction,” the structure of the fold that DuPlessis has used to grid the work. But it also echoes, less directly, the found art and lost sender of the Philadelphia Wireman; it puns, to my ear, the play between virtual and analogue in “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (also originally published digitally); as a mail art project, it clearly is a link in the chain of communication between “Draft 42: Epistle, Studios,” and “Draft 80: Envoi.”
In Jacket, the work took place in a different exchange, within a localized network that included entries as unexpected as Jennifer Moxley, Jack Spicer, Oulipo, Rosmarie Waldrop, Seamus Heaney (a flurry of postings on that one), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, on and on. More significantly, like the many other recent Drafts first published on the web, “Mail Art” participated in any number of lines of unanticipated connectivity. In the network, the work can be linked, referenced, copied and pasted, rapidly and unexpectedly transformed from one moment of transmission to the next, intercepted or encountered by a reader who knows nothing of Drafts as a whole. When read through this context, Pitch becomes simply another transmission, discrete from other, future moments in the (re)publication of the work. Because the text was “limited to black and white presentation,” DuPlessis writes in her note, the work in the book is “a selected Mail Art” (Pitch, 146). The book, in other words, becomes only a link in the digital life poem’s network.
In this sense, Drafts is always sent. And sending is risky business, a fact that champions of the network sometimes overlook. Consider the opening text from “Mail Art”:
anything — envelopes
according to the weight of insouciance (Pitch, 147)
The mail as propriety, in its proprietary, official capacity, appears in this mini-catalogue of “anything.” Sealed, stamped, paid for, approved, sent off under the proper authorities. And can we not help but hear in this passage an attempt to reclaim the transgressive roots of collage, to remind us that the now most ubiquitous practice of the avant-garde called into question the control over letters that ownership and authorship under bourgeois copyright implied? Your deed to your letters, author, gives you the right to publish them, and yet, paradoxically, as soon as you publish those words they are no longer entirely yours. They are then vulnerable, not simply to the approved responses of reviewers, peers, other authors, the press, but also to tearing and remaking, the cutting and pasting, of the Dadaist and vandal.
The mail, in this sense, acutely stages the dangers of publication: you send your letters out into the world, and you do not know into whose hands, entirely, they will fall. No one has theoretically analyzed this quite like Jacques Derrida. The Post Card:
Of course I felt, at the second I was writing, that this letter, like all the others, was intercepted even before any hands could be put on it, any accidental interception — for example, by the woman postal clerk, the rival of your childhood. All the precautions in the world are taken in vain, you can register your envois with a return receipt, crypt them, seal them, multiply coverings and envelopes, at the limit not even send your letter, still, in advance, it is intercepted. It falls into anyone’s hands, a poor post card, it ends up in the display case of a provincial bookseller. … Once intercepted — a second suffices — the message no longer has any chance of reaching any determinable person, in any (determinable) place whatever.
Derrida’s fearful, obsessive letter writer confronts the inherent fragility of the text, and the structurally inevitable failure to arrive that accompanies any sent message. Despite Derrida’s relentless critique of presence and the ego, The Post Card plays with the feelings of anxiety that comes when you realize that the letters you send are not, never will be, your own. Today, awash in Wikileaks and social media, that feeling may strike us as inescapably romantic. But we often can’t help but feel it.
Drafts confronts not simply the reality of threatened circulation but also the subjectivities the post produces. “Mail Art,” in its opening page, takes those supposed illicit hands into the compositional process. The type is notated by hand — the text is not the “original” but the original annotated, the letter defaced or displaced or corrected. The letter not under erasure but under the pen, or, in the world of the digital, under the keystroke of another, of many others that we cannot know or anticipate. Where Derrida’s post cards fear theft and misplacement, the networked text can expect to be converted, resaved, reformatted, pasted, X-posted. Even more than the post card, permeable and multiple uncontrolled circulation is the condition of the digital life poem’s existence.
Under certain signs, poetic form has been represented as the anti–post card, the nontransmittable or untranslatable. “The poem should not mean / But be.” “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” The life poem rewrites this regime, by seeking to incorporate the accident of the post card into its form. Instead of writing to resist translation, the life poem writes as a transmission, and, by doing so, it tests formal potential and the ways of subjectivity that sending produces. Drafts is nothing if not formally precise, an ongoing dialogue between poetic traditions and practices. We feel language being shaped, torqued, as we read Drafts, even as the demands of the life poem never allow that shaping to come to a final resting place.
In this sense, the poem stages the tension of making form, of forming language poetically, in the world of multiple languages, infinite signs, and global networks. In my mind, the effort to make something new adds to the vulnerability of the digital poetic exchange. There is no doubt that the responses to Goldsmith’s “new environment of textual abundance” are as varied as the environment itself. Goldsmith’s own conceptual poetics represents one form of response, what we could call the procedural or what he calls the “uncreative.” Another response might be detected in David Shields’s recent manifesto Reality Hunger, which takes up some of Goldsmith’s concerns but in a significantly different way:
All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the books and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge …. We all need to begin figuring out how to tell a story for the cell phone.
Where Goldsmith frames, shifting the focus from artistic creation to the artistic mediation of information, Shields samples, adding to that library screen with tiny flashes, transformations, new mash-ups. Goldsmith’s Day is decidedly not composed for the cell phone, while Reality Hunger wants to abandon citation entirely. Not entirely new, of course: “What matter who’s speaking?”
Neither conceptualism nor “reality-based art” (Shields’s term) adequately describes the following lines:
“12 hours per day for a pittance, living
“12 to a room, working
“in fenced-in factory complexes,”
nailed to the sewing,
chained to the fabrications.
Who controls these junctures?
who prices these conjunctions?
who mines the evisceration?
Another walks beside me, not an illusion.
Revenant, tell me if you know
what land am I? and you?
The newspapers become the source for this work, copied and quoted, as in Day. In this particular case, the 2001 story reports on factory labor conditions in China. The poetic response, however, is not content with mere framing. The questioning lines test various possibilities not only of description but also communication and authority, acknowledging both disorientation and anxiety. In a global marketplace, the ghostly other who weaves our clothes and assembles our cars is decidedly not an illusion. Thus, the speaker is literally haunted by the report, unable to adequately account for the situation, turning the interpretation over to that other in the hopes of a response.
In lines such as these, Drafts does seek to write something new, to say something singular, forging a temporary poetic authority, but in such a way that the realities of the digital world, with all of its material pressures and disorientating virtuality, is brought to terms. The digital life poem bares its own vulnerability, turns this into a central concern of the work, but simultaneously crafts resilience and seeks to offer that counterpressure to the world. The results are always engaged with other voices, always in a process of formation that never ossifies into monumental form. Between poetic form and digital mediation, the poem seems to suggest, is where a language of communication could emerge, however humble and temporary.
This poetics, fragile yet resistant, contestatory yet haunted, is, for me, one of the ways DuPlessis extends and transforms George Oppen. Drafts can be read as an effort to develop not simply a “language of New York,” but a language of the network. Oppen’s life and poetry was a constant struggle to assert the articulation and exchange of singular selves and voices in a world of numerousness. The paradox is that for both DuPlessis and Oppen this articulation is always a citation, a borrowing and a giving. Hence the struggle, the drama of a poetry and a self tentatively exploring the conditions of linguistic existence, venturing into the virtual where another citation is inevitable, for better or worse.
Like the Wireman’s sculptures, cast into the alley, Drafts desires the anonymous revenant to pick them up in some as yet unknown future network, to speak back to the challenge of the material by acknowledging the pressure of the crafting hands.
1. For more general information, see the brief biography posted by the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery.
3. Pound’s concern for the book as an art form, including deluxe editions illustrated by his wife, is usefully examined in Olga Nikolova, “Ezra Pound’s Cantos De Luxe,” Modernism/Modernity 15, no. 1 (2008): 155–77.
4. From the preface to Against Expression.
5. Drafts 1-38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 142. I wonder if “almost anonymous” could be the contemporary correlate of nineteenth-century ennui or twentieth-century angst, a characteristic sentiment of what Zadie Smith has dubbed “people 2.0” (“Generation Why?,” New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010)? The paradox of our unprecedented power over information, our access to it and power of manipulation, our connectivity and communicability, on the one hand, and our exposure, permeability, fragility on the other. I am one node in a network of billions, but you can find me on Facebook.
6. Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (London: Salt, 2010), 146–65. Reproduction in the book form, the book being the traditional conclusion of the literary art work in the age of print, the book bound, bought, sold, collected, reviewed, signed. The books climbing the library shelves, swarming, a fact that bothers William Carlos Williams to no end in the third section of Paterson. I recognize the irony to then call the publication of Pitch a reproduction, for isn’t this the end to which the original text was striving — is not the telos of the life poem that ambitious monument? Not for the life poem in the digital world. Monuments are, after all, for the past.
8. I may appear to be making far too much of a decision that was undoubtedly prompted by the exigencies of publishing and economics. But those accidental and inescapable realities are exactly the point. In the digital life poem, every publication is a selection, every gesture subject to endless reframings and new articulations precisely because the definition of publication is so rapidly changing.
9. Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 51. The obsessiveness over phallic certainty in this text by Derrida, with its subsequent anxiety over origins and arrivals, crosses in the mail with Drafts’ interrogation of patriarchal post cards.
12. George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2003), 84. Another moment of mail art: “Of Being Numerous” contains anonymous, but willingly acknowledged, quotations from DuPlessis’s letters to Oppen.