Heriberto Yépez: Ethopoetics, what is it?
[In a recent announcement, which seemed strange even to those of us who thought we knew him well, our friend & companion in poetry Heriberto Yépez announced recently that “the writing project that was Heriberto Yépez” had now come to an end and that “Heriberto Yépez’s oeuvre has concluded.” Since Heriberto had only turned forty this year, it seemed a little premature & reminiscent, to me at least, of the “poets of the no” (the great refuseniks) in Enrique Vila-Matas's masterful Bartleby & Co. It was also enough to set off a new barrage of ad hominem attacks from a “gruppo” of American poets who had been on Yépez's case since publication in 2012 of his Empire of Neomemory, where he focuses critically, even negatively, on Charles Olson's northamericanist perspective (a part of Olson's “special view of history”), taking him seriously enough to place him on a par with Whitman, Melville & Lawrence, among others. I have no sense that the retirement of Heriberto Yépez as Heriberto Yépez has anything to do with those attacks, but the two events coming together encourages me to reconsider the value of Heriberto Yépez and what his work has meant to me over the nearly fifteen years I've known him. The essay that follows is the first work of his that I published in Poems and Poetics & was an early & tentative expansion of what I had been calling ethnopoetics into what he began to redesignate as ethopoetics. That seemed fair enough to me as a way to keep the discourse rolling, & I reprint it now as an appreciation of what can open up by not taking for granted or as gospel the work that comes before our own. I look forward at the same time to whatever comes next in Heriberto's work, by whatever name we get to call him – even perhaps the project we had planned together of a new assemblage that would bring the poetry of all the Americas together in a single large anthology or “grand collage.” (J.R.)]
In the nineties, I-I began translating Jerome Rothenberg’s poetry and prose and, of course, there I-I found that meaningful word that appears constantly in his work and maybe sums it up: ethnopoetics /// The term is not precise—and there’s no reason for it to be precise—it allows its own rethinking /// One afternoon I-I was working on the translation and I-I kept making a mistake—a typo I-I think Americans call that and I-I like writing “typo” by the way /// Instead of writing etnopoética (ethnopoetics) I-I repeatedly wrote etopoética /// The word was odd and at that time I-I didn’t realized it existed, though in a curious way the mistake meant—at least meant something that afternoon and also means something today—and I-I took it as a clue—and it stuck on my mind for a long time—in my journal I-I made a note: “etopoética, ¿qué es?”—Ethopoetics, what is it?
. . . . . . .
(Ethopoetics Not Just a Lapsus)
Ethnopoetics has been centered on the techniques on how to produce new kinds of poetry. Its own consciousness of that involves, of course, how to transform the poet, thought that hasn’t been its emphasis and I-I think Rothenberg himself would agree on that.
Some time ago, teaching at the university where I-I work—and I-I don’t teach anymore in a text-based traditional way, but more in a way that I-I can only describe as more on the spot, using ‘academic’ subject matters as pre-texts to invite students to work on themselves inside and outside class, to make books come alive, and without being preoccupied with making products such as ‘books’, ‘ideas’ or ‘works’, all of that driven by Mexican and American dreams of success, career, competition, originality, cleverness, reputation, copyright, control, and all the other things we all know are insane but we keep alive in the same degree that we still depend on them to ‘survive’.
I-I was saying, “some time ago, teaching at the university where I-I work”, I-I started using Foucault’s later work as a perfect excuse to invite ‘theory’-driven students—mostly afraid of their own bodies—to really understand the nature (change) of philosophy. And for that purpose I-I used Foucault’ seminars about the hermeneutics of subjectitivy. (I-I could use some other authors, but I-I’ve found Foucault make things easier. They trust Foucault. I-I use him as a fishhook).
I-I use, let’s say, his discussion on how Greek philosophers—though in his view mostly post-Socratic—which shows how Aristotelian Foucault still was—taught philosophy and how philosophy meant then a series of techniques to transform the individual so he is able to relate himself to the truth. For example—this is not the place to explain in detail Foucault’s late research—how parrhesia was obtained, that is, how to develop a complete freedom of speech, a capacity to “say everything”, based on the work on oneself, the care of oneself (epimeleia) in order to ABANDON SELF-DECEIPT and thus, boldly speak the truth in a world based on lies, that is, fears. (In spite of Foucault own fears of stating his position more clearly, because he was afraid of leaving ‘academia’, ‘philosophy’, ‘university’ and so he said all of this as if it only was what he found out in “scholarly” ways, in “scientific” ways, not what he personally, as a wise man in becoming, believed, no... Foucault in that sense died afraid of abandoning his past identity as a theoretical post-modern academic and writerly figure. He couldn’t take the ridicule of attempting to overcome himself.
But what he unearthed (again) was how to rethink philosophy not as a discourse-based discipline but as something else: the re-making of man. A re-making in which parrhesia for us in the poetics community is a key value, which consists in the cleansing of the mind of false idols and then and only then, producing language in unexpected and not always welcomed ways. Or to explain it a very simple way, how to produce spontaneous truth.
I-I’m not innocent of the resonances I-I’m trying to bring here. Not only in Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s Buddhist sense but also in earlier visions of what poetry meant (surrealism’s attempts to remove everything that blocked—aesthetics, morals and logic—the subject from understanding reality and also, again, in Situationism, which is mostly a spiritual discipline, though I-t don’t think Debord fully realized that). In Foucault’s take on Greek philosophy—not only based on Pierre Hadot incredible research but also, I-I heavily suspect though Foucault tries to hide it, in non-Western shamanism and Buddhism itself and, of very evidently in Marxism (philosophy defined not as ‘theory’ but as ‘the transformation of the world’) and psychoanalysis—In Foucault’s take on Greek philosophy, I-I was saying, philosophy is anthropoeisis, so called it somehow. Anthropoiesis = the making of man.
Of course, Foucault’s late work (less known still today than this earlier books) resonates with what I-I learnt from Matthai and from reading (enjoying, translating) Rothenberg’s work and with my own personal experiences with counter-psychotherapy, that is, not how to ‘normalize’ individuals but how to learn how to liberate oneself from hegemonic “one”self/constructs and also how to get free from society’s methods of control at all levels, with which we get caught up in the same degree we still (mostly in hidden ways) identify with those control-values, even if (or specially if) we believe we “fight” them.
What I-I am saying in these last words is that I-I have found out that writers, artists and intellectuals start as defectors of control but somehow during the way we generally don’t understood we were supposed to center our work on curing all our lies, fears, and then (or during that process) making our work (written or not), because the aesthetics mostly follows Ethics.
Understanding ethics as self-construction.
And so, without curing ourselves, we are now spreading in different ways the same methods of control that we believe we fight against…
Rimbaud couldn’t manage the forces he himself unleashed. He gave up and became himself a slave(rer).
Baudelaire knew he had to jump into the abyss, but remained in love of hate.
Artaud didn’t cure himself and so he ended destroying all that was profound in him through drugs, lies, ego, foolish frenzy, fantasies, misogyny and even crazy christianism at the end.
Kerouac had the potential to fulfill his dream of becoming a new kind of sage, but he never got rid of his childish Catholic dream of being a perfect saint for mommy and at the same time a big macho American cowboy-Superman, and so he drowned out in alcohol, the only situation at the end in which he fantasized he was a free and opened-up Western male.
Kathy Acker knew she had to blow up and in many ways she did, but there was a final step she didn’t take. She loved violence too much.
Debord knew all but stuck with paranoia and general control, so he projected all his authoritarian spectacle onto the ‘society’ and couldn’t manage to work on himself to really get ride of everything he rightly accused the world.
Foucault knew in public theory everything he ended up unfulfilling in his spiritual self.
And I-I am naming just a few of those more brave than us!
We idolize them so what’s similar in us is idolized by others.
Writers, thinkers, intellectuals, artists, ¡poets! Need to heal themselves (from themselves) in order to become true visionaries.
We haven’t done that—that’s the only task that completely matters right now.
But what is happening now? In Latin America, in Spain, in Europe, in China, in Japan, in America, in Russia, in everyplace the human mind is afraid of being an animal still evolving—and after the big upheaval we are living a return to the old models of poet as man-of-letters, and ‘artists’ as man-of-walls, though by way of post-modern disguises! Deceit yourselves! Or use all your irony or all your critical theory you can to hide from what you deeply know! Poets have to become knowers.
In this time of total warfare against the planet and humanity—which is not something we own but something we create—aren’t we suppose to lead the path into something beyond this cruel order of despair, poverty and neo-totalitarian control?
Archaic traditions, from shamanism to Eastern religions, were not perfect or worked at all—we are the inheritors of their collective failures—but they knew the end is not to produce things, but to produce subjects.
All the great poets have known poetry resides beyond writing, but in Modern Western cultures such as ours this knowledge is kept bookish, utopical, dream-like, and romantic, so we can play the game that consists in not fully accepting that everything we do is really based on the persecution of truth.
And I-I mean it in two ways, because that’s how (for us) it is.
Poets will be considered in the future only the ambivalent forerunners of now unexpected liberated women and men.
They will understand how afraid we were.
I-I’m not saying there’s something fundamentally wrong with poetry, what I-I’m saying is poetry can always be more!
(Ethopoetics. What Is It?)
Etopoética, no longer an accident. At one point I-I even found it to be a word in Plutarch. It means “the poetics of ethos”, that is, the making of ways-of-being. And ethos meaning there not just one way of being but a more healthier, open, developed, complex way of being, which is described by the different schools of ancient philosophy, and where writing is considered part of epimeleia.
Poetry? Does it affect anybody? Well, yes, the poet foremost.
Experimentalism means there to experiment with new ways of life, in which language techniques play a central role in the transformation of reality.
We can define poetry as a series of techniques to construct—or if you prefer, deconstruct—the subject through concrete and various methods that involve voice, body, book, theory, therapy, vision, tradition and writing.
Understanding “voice” as the ways in which mind and body materialized, the patterns in which change interplays with memory.
Understanding “body” as not just physical body but that other body that Blake refers to, and also Whitman—and romanticism and avant-gardes in general—and from my angle Pre-Hispanic thought through notions such a “nawal”, co-body (co-cuerpo)—that is, that other body (animal, plant, object, world) that through chant, writing, love, ritual, mind, vision, ordinary life and developed spiritualism is allowed to re-unite with our recognizable (already stable) physical body. Poetics means how to increase/accept more ‘body’.
Understanding “book” as a being existing not only in materiality (that which holds ‘pages’ or can be ‘read’) but also as a symbol of a ‘book’ inside the mind, that crypto-genetic information (form-giving) that we inherit and construct through out our lives.
Understanding “theory” as the intellectual capacity to see what’s separate—from ‘ordinary world’—the vision of teos, from theoin, the divine and, of course, theos, god(s)). Only later theory was degraded as mere ‘seeing’, ‘thinking’ (rationally), ‘spectacle’ (not only in the Greek sense but also in Debord’s). Here theory is understood as the vision of the sacred.
Understanding “therapy” as just as what it means “substitute ritual”, that is, ways of channeling individuals unto their next stage of development, and doing that inside societies that lost the ritual methods of helping in that process or inside societies that surpassed the levels of consciousness that collective ritual could provide.
Understanding “vision” as the emergence of uponoia, images made autonomously by the mysterious functioning of the ‘mind’, which is two (‘female’ and ‘male’ plus ‘one’ (The ‘I-I’)).
Understanding “tradition” through its missing n, “trans-dition”, trans-dare, trans-giving, that is not only the handing down of something that involves movement, but also the giving-of-how-to-change.
Understanding “writing” as psyche-making (psychopoetics), as the intervention on the mind-as-received, psyche-as-given, the modification of “one-self” (into other-selves) through all kinds of techniques. Understanding ‘writing’ as an open process of reinventing its identity, and understanding ‘identity’ in general not as a fixed list of attributes of something/something, but identity as a series of patterns and methods of changing one-another.
Poetry then means the new-making of oneself.
Poetry as the practical—not just ‘verbal’ or utopian—invention of wholeness/otherness. Poet as technicians of the (sacred) self.
And poets as proto-poets.
Ethopoetics as a rewriting not only of ethnopoetics but everything that poetry has discovered and everything we can find out outside writing. Ethopoetics as a mutation, an accident after the big accident of the 20th Century. Ethopoetics as a rewriting of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Ethopoetics as a rewriting of religions and philosophy and social sciences. Ethopoetics as a way out of the university and the humanities, all of them part of control, part of ‘discourse’. Ethopoetics as the rewriting of the Human animal.
And if writing as literary craft still is in your mind right now—it still is in mine—just remember that’s how poetry changes: when the self modifies itself or is abruptly or slowly modified by some ‘external’ force, the page also mutates.
We need not to look for ways to (just) ‘change’ the page—the main goal of the literary world, avant-garde or not—but ways of changing ourselves and then, the page, along with other structures, will emerge in otherness.
And poetics then will be understood as the techniques to help others that are seeking/desiring to transform themselves and have a strong relation to writing.
(And if somebody has a strong relation to writing, I-I have discovered that means s(he) wants to rewrite her/himself).
(And if poetry conceives itself as a way of changing others, that's a definition that I-I would consider authoritarian—to do something to somebody else, without their open, free and clear willingness to do it (for) themselves).
And, yes, this brings politics into place. Politics understood as the production of well-being inside gatherings, not just “cities” but everywhere the plural (polis) exists.
So by “poetry” I-I just don't mean “verse” but the construction (poiesis) of oneself.
And how trans-constructing oneself transforms ‘individual’ & ‘world’.
That is what ethopoetics is. A life-time project. A new science.
I-I conceived not a new literary style, school of philosophy or a combination of disciplines, but something beyond all of that, and maybe, far less recognizable, process-guided, site-specific, culturally-based, diverse, whose meaning can only be understood at its end. That’s how I-I see that which through accidents I-I got to un-cover and dis-cover.
And that’s how I-I see too the future of poetics as it is today.
I-I see fear will still dominate the last stage of this pre-human order. But I-I also see something else, I-I see a higher animal becoming visible. A general rewriting. A future radical ethopoetics brought by a collapse, a great unseen accident.
Tijuana / 2009
Poems and poetics