Responses to Eleni Stecopoulos's Visceral Poetics
Eleni Stecopoulos’ brilliantly provocative, syncretic manifesto, Visceral Poetics, identifies idiopathic disease with ideolectical poetics, pathology with anomaly – the flesh of the text and the text of the flesh — bringing home the liberatory potential for visceral readings of the unintelligible. For Stecopoulos, diagnosis is a practice of aesthetic translation and poetry a quest for knowledge outside the disabling strictures of Western rationalism. Written in lyric bursts of telegraphic intensity, Stecopoulos follows her guides, Artaud and Metcalf, through veils of suffering in order to repossess, from the jaws of evisceration, her own life — and ours.
On March 15, a group of poets gathered at New York's Poetry Project to celebrate the book and engage in a conversation on "opacity." The evening was organized by Stecopoulos and Thom Donovan. Here is the handout of statements by several people who could not be present at the event: Will Alexander, Margit Galanter, Petra Kuppers, Sean Labrador y Manzano, Miranda Mellis, William Rowe, and Robin-Tremblay-McGaw. Prefaced by Donvan's introduction.
Visceral Poetics, an introduction
What seems like a very long time ago now, I applied to the Buffalo Poetics Program in hopes of apprenticing myself to a number of poets who had written criticism and scholarship as an extension of their poetic practices. And this, I suspect, is what also drew Eleni to Buffalo. To my disappointment, not everyone at Bflo shared the poetics faculty's enthusiasm for poets' scholarship, including, at crucial moments (and notwithstanding Charles Bernstein) some of the poetics faculty themselves.
How do we pursue scholarship and theory with a sense of, at the very least, not wanting to do more harm, and at the best, towards creating an ecology against the toxicity of professional criticism as it seeks to immunize us from our embodiment and relationality? In brief, I insisted on publishing Visceral Poetics (a slightly revised version of Eleni's doctoral thesis for SUNY-Buffalo) because it was, as far as I could tell, one of the only dissertations that lived up to promise of the Buffalo Poetics Program, and thus my youthful dreams. That one could compose a work of scholarship which fully embodied its subject; one that was rigorous (or more so, vigorous) in its methods of study while avoiding the protocols and shibboleths of a "high theory" class; that, not least of all, was transformative in terms of how it might not only reconfigure its ostensible discipline, but re-envision the practice of a life lived in the co-extensity of word and flesh, hermeneutics and therapeutics, communion and opacity.
I am so grateful that this book exists, if only so that others can begin to take up its important work. Without further adieu, I will turn things over to Eleni who will talk about the book and this evening's program around Edouard Glissant's indispensable concept of the "right to opacity." Thank you all for being here to celebrate Eleni's achievement and to appreciate the collective effort that her book
A Note On Asuric Confrontation
At present we find ourselves alarmed by Asuric confrontation, by its odoriferous embranglement. The forces of darkness newly ablaze with poisonous silver led by a wretched behemoth not unlike Goya's monster devouring his children. Of course it has quickened our life blood via panic, as though we are anonymous mobs, estranged as wildebeests or lemmings magnetized by concussive cul de sacs. True, we must electrify the circumstance with massive opposition in the streets, but also with a higher level of stamina in order to see through and withstand the occulted fumes from Asuric ammonia that seeks to invert us. It has been said that Hitler, at the behest of Asuric instigation, ignited slaughter across planetary impasse, as he attempted to relegate our earthly environ to universal darkness. Thus, it remains the Asuric hope that all our inner motion will cease, that our opposition will remain delimited to pedestrian attack sans higher verbal occultation. Language is power capable of transformative vibration within higher or lower ranges. Within its lower range it evinces power from those such as Edward Bernays, who made it possible to construct phrases from a paralytic lexicon that adduced a literal language; a language that embrangled collective thinking via exoteric phenomena thereby buoying the capital system. In contradistinction, we must return to the wellsprings of language, to its poetic origin and not subject ourselves to what Benjamin Péret once described as "the dishonour of poets" by turning over our energy in service of the didactic. To entrain our language within the province of the literal would be to give our alchemy over to the forces of lower occultation. Like Césaire language must function as miraculous weaponry. We have resource to a language with well over a quarter million words that can be inflamed through the imagination as weaponry, this being language crystallized with the power of rapiers. Thus, we will be able to more adroitly energize spells across the coming circumstance by never failing to respirate within higher linguistic occultation Thus we need move forward with lightning coursing through our language so as to project an inclement fate upon those forces that seek to immobilize and destroy us.
This past week Eleni and I were getting into it over skype. We're preparing for our workshop in April -- Cave Tones: For Opacity. We were making connections, how opacity is enacted foundationally in the furs and breaks of poetry, utterance, action, and tone.
What incites is the proposition of cooking the culture, opened and opening for multi-varied, multi-valenced. Space for interindependent voices forming an idiorrhythmicity, a song (in the broadest sense of the term). What incites is the potential for explication, for serious listening, ways to make new rooms through our own breathing in living communication, and by the flexings of our tongues. Its potency, that through the fecundity of the unknown, through gestures into constellating, a common field.
Green Orion Woman Begins
(with love from Petra Kuppers)
Green Orion Woman shudders. Orange man on the big screen.
Under the covers, the pulsar beckons purple, blue,
white heat Sun Ra sound floor nourishes Green Orion Woman.
She thinks dire wolves, dragon lords, wishes for a new song.
Flute squeals against the bass. Stutter. Starship prepares a landing.
No women to be sold. No men, neither crows, cats, dolphins.
Bat’s sonar stumbles cello string. Green Orion Woman’s rant
lands her in the brig, pink shirt irradiated in the stellar wind.
Green Orion Woman rocks against the blue curve. Lips flesh against
metal seam. Steam pounds other side of the wall. Drum kit,
mess kit, no food stamps to supplement carotene vitamin pill.
She lacquers her laughter into the porthole, blinks feather lashes out.
Tomorrow, she will begin a new story.
Tomorrow, she will lay down the bass.
Tomorrow, her red blood will stay a warm cloud
around her heart.
Sean Labrador y Manzano
I started attending Eleni Stecopoulos' "Poetics of Healing" events as a way to define and examine "Soul Trauma," that intergenerational burden carried from across the Ocean, originally buried in the Archipelago because centuries of colonial occupation beginning with the Spain, then the United States, then Japan, and again the United States through the Mutual Defense Treaty. April 2013, two mired projects got traction from the last Poetics of Healing, "Vital Forms: Healing and the Arts of Crisis."
The first project appeared as a 3-day symposium curated at California Institute of Integral Studies, "From Trauma to Catharsis: Performing the Asian Avant-Garde." The kernel was performing a Water Cure. I would perform a poem interrogating what it means to be a brown poet reading in white spaces while an Interrogator waterboarded me, in essence to remove truth from body, the truth that is more coherent to systems of oppression. Yes, drowning amplifies the microaggression. Central to this was how does an Asian poet overcome silence, especially when persistently censored? Address what is that silence? Is it the thorny weight and consequence of speaking and mastery of English? Reprisal to our daring abilities? Despite this criterion of citizenship and inclusion, skin color, country of parental origin, characteristic home language inflection or elision of certain consonant clusters, betray this covenant.
The second project is what prevents me from attending the Poetry Project today because instead of a plane ticket, I paid my week-long stage rental and Event Liability Insurance. I have been immersed in script rewrites when not trying to understand the economics and logistics of stagecraft and appreciating the small grant received from APICC (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center).
Yes, it has been a poetic dream to perform here at the Poetry Project, and I thought it would be appropriate to honor Eleni for her inspiring work. At "Vital Forms: Healing and the Arts of Crisis" Beth Murray led an example of a Constellation, using my suggestion of Graduate Student Suicide, and soon I got this idea. “The Twin Dane: a staged bardo” is a 13-person hybrid play, more poem than play, about Mixed-Raced Asian identity and Graduate Student Suicide. Themes also include adolescent mental health, neuroscience, acoustic projection, Jungian psychotherapy, Vajrayana Buddhism especially attitudes towards Desire, Impermanence, Attachment and Detachment, failure to thrive, and Cody’s Bookstore. The play is based on the suicide of my best friend from when I was in high school. After she got her PhD at Cornell she leapt from a waterfall. When we were teenagers we talked about jumping off the Golden Gate bridge together.
I have talked with organizations working to increase awareness of suicide, and they are willing to collaborate with me. A rep from Crisis Text Line wrote me, “The day after the election, we saw a 4x increase in volume of texters.” Will there be an upsurge of attempts and suicides in the next 4 years? How will you prevent? How will you intervene? How will you cope? How will you survive?
[The original “Twin Dane: a staged bardo” poem can be viewed here. To support a crowdfunding campaign for “The Twin Dane: a staged bardo”, please contact Sean Labrador y Manzano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.]
Climate change is an effect of the distance created by the wrong kind of opacity: the inability to feel and perceive, let alone steward, waste – “garbage”: an untenable concept in a biological world. Plastic, CO2, and radioactivity don’t biodegrade in the usual sense. That is, they do on time scales that require, on our parts, imaginative “time constancy” – sensingfar beyond our own time.
“I’m looking for control.” “Sorry, we are all out of control. Try nonlinearity.”
Apparently a dead tree (beloved of eagles) though less flamboyant than a living tree (with its eager leaves like little windows and mirrors) has more living tissue in it. Sacrificial tree!
Four million years old.
Inaccessible, inconspicuous, anonymous, invisible, opaque, imperceptible myriads feast on ‘dead’ organisms such as trees, proliferating so much so that the trees (neither themselves nor other than themselves) are ever more densely packed with living cells. Rather than putting a new ego on top of a dead one, like a gravestone, rather than burning the buried as fuel, unleashing their hot grief into the atmosphere, leave them be, opaquely. What is a person? Your teeth are from a coral reef; your hair is a thousand years old.
In the early days of the two-legged coin-tosser (you), it was thought that a single death–that of a king (not you)–could bring back the seasons. There was prescience, intuition in the considered idea that the death of rulers could be necessary for universal on-going-ness and the restoration of seasons. They were sacrificed for the sake of common flourishing, to prevent a corrupt congealing, to preclude the systematizing and sanctifying of what ought to be occasional and anomalous, to stave off the stupidities of calcified and mistook power which now infects the world-garden with a fatal array of disastrous loops, exponentially eroding every planetary resilience buffer, distorting every theory, every goal, every function.
However, if the bleak individualist is the sine qua non, and economies of enslavement are globally systematized imbricating everyone, the sacrifice of the individual doesn’t serve.
To change a system, you have to change the system’s goals. What goal should we strive for now? The goal of no goal?
For opacity then: as a “cure” for neurotic tunneling, antidote to robotic burrowing racism and ecocide baked into coercive metaphysics of transparency. Glissant’s concept of opacity is not to be confused with the suppression of knowledge, obdurate lies, stupefaction or the distorting delay and obfuscation of crucial feedback. It is social when this means I am allowed to, as Glissant puts it, “take care of my identity myself”, like any simbiont, go on foot, go on nerve, go on from here, from there: any body’s traversals, movement makes what space is, cricket to elephant, person to cyclone to mycelium, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, plazas, weedy lots, schools, city halls, rivers, swamps, glaciers, crossroads, migration corridors.
Opacity means: demilitarize borders. Let the lines of empire recede under a stampede.
Opacity as precautionary principle; opacity as ancestor worship; opacity as humility; opacity as meditation; opacity as metaphysics between friends, that light stepped transfer; opacity as demilitarization; opacity for open borders. Opacity how closed systems become open, the primacy of shape and intention, structures being restructured, forms transforming – mines and power plants becoming monasteries; cages placed end to end and shot through to make escape hatches; factories become universe-cities where anyone could practice cosmopolitics, ramifying puzzles, making turns and eternal returns. Fortresses turning into labyrinths, edifices becoming environments, enclosures becoming piers, walls opening onto plains. The soft and breathing epidermis, braided fascia fastened to ancient, porous bones, the merged skeletons of countless beings, fired in the kiln of deep time into hardened limestone that abuts the soft, heavy sea of blood, thoughts like soil, loose rocks, falling into opacity, mineral and starless.
For Visceral Poetics.
The fear that a person may not any more be able to touch the persons s/he loves, not because death will come but because we are inside a cosmic solitude, which is a kind of death, is a fear that occurs and increases, despite the multiplication of images of bodies, more and more intimate.
What is the work to be done? For a start, a re-thinking of empathy: ‘the terror of embodiment that seems to lack protective boundaries,’ as Eleni Stecopoulos writes. Here is a counter-reality to the bourgeois notion of the self as property. ‘In radical empathy, the body is not individual but cosmically extended in participation.’ Yet what can be done when the cosmos has been destroyed, has become an extension of the destruction of the earth?
However, Visceral Poetics offers a clearing: not a return to ‘the’ body, which is not possible, not new ways of expressing bodies, not a transcendence, but pain as foundation for imagining and making a different body. This is pain, not to be confused with the suffering of the victim, that exists before language, before symbolization, before ‘spirit’: pain which is the commons, or the ‘ethical substance’ of what we might become.
In the Radiant Field of Visceral Poetics
the holistic criticism I imagine follows whatever radiates from a text --Visceral Poetics
In my first reading of Visceral Poetics, I am enamored and intimidated. It is too much for me to take in, a dispersion of references, too big to swallow.
With my next encounter, I can’t put it down.
In my office at school on a Friday afternoon. My door is open. There are two lemons, a gift from a colleague. Their scent mixing with lavender. I tune-in and across ambient scents and music of other bodies, in rhythmic drift between Eleni’s Visceral Poetics and fragments of my office’s ecosystem; on the wall: Toni Morrison, Melville, Emily Dickinson, an array of carte postales, antiquarianreproductions from east coaster John Derian—“the solitary sparrow,” “whale,” “ship”; there are reproductions of Turner’s paintings, Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” one of Brueghel’s—a raucous array of richly colored peasants serving food to seated gentry; Frida Kahlo with monkey. The bookshelves offer: Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Yedda Morrison’s Darkness, Critical Theory Today, Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life, Contemporary African Cinema, Herman Melville: a Biography. Shoes off, feet on desk, book in lap.
Melville (“It is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open…” [qtd in Visceral Poetics 205]) and the whale turn up in Eleni’s Visceral Poetics though its point of meditation, its field radiates from Artaud’s work, the body and aesthetics, writing’s embodied life, radical empathy, philology, glossolalia; Eleni’s attention is attuned to dissonance and resonance, correspondences across an astounding array of texts and tissues—Wittgenstein, Salvador Dalí, Clayton Eshleman, C. Nadia Seremetakis, Susan Sontag, Michael Taussig, Dennis Tedlock, Elaine Scarry, meridians, reflexes, pressure points, parasites, where to stop? Visceral Poetics performs, brings into being a new form—critical autoethnography:
an investigation that does not oversee but is indistinguishable from its material—documenting the journey one takes through aesthetics, rather than overseeing it deductively. ... If autobiography is commonly thought of as writing one’s past, then autoethnography may be useful because it calls up a sense of the present, the (at least theoretical) openness of the work to what happens in a field—composition by field (69).
Eleni’s excursions undo me, send me to dictionary, library, Google: Etruscan haruspicy?—and attention to my own body, its myriad parts.
December 2015. In one of my Bikram yoga classes, I am feeling off. Maybe the heat is too much--? Every day is different. After more than a dozen years of practice, I know this. On the floor, in savasana, when it is time to sit up, I can’t move. I can’t even lift my head. The room swims. Which way is up
Latin vertīgo a turning or whirling round, giddiness, etc., < vertĕre to turn. Compare French vertigo, Spanish vertigo; also French vertige, Portuguese vertigem, Italian vertigine [OED].
I remain on my back, begin to cry. Shock, fear, humiliation. Something is terribly wrong. In my Americanness ("ubiquitous commercials for painkillers routinely show that 'getting tough' with one's pain is to be a go-getter, to be American" [Stecopoulos 44]), I presume I can suck it up, fight my way through, unwind it. I manage to get myself home. The disorienting dizziness dissipates. It will return variously throughout the day, for days. I am called by disparate attentions; my body demands I move deliberately, my head in particular. Kaiser Permanente’s advice line tells me it is vertigo; that it might be a virus, that little crystals in my inner ear could have been dislodged. It should go away in a week. It persists in varying degrees for three months. Outside the yoga room, like Hitchcock’s Scottie in Vertigo, I am becoming other to myself; someone I love is crumbling, spinning out of control, falling. A pre-existing dysphagia, trouble swallowing, finally attributed to a highly acidic stomach and constricted sphincter between stomach and intestine. Genetics. Written in the body. Some of this is hard to swallow. Body signs disruption and I read it, writing it into the now. In her crónica, “Mineirinho” Clarice Lispector writes: “the one who understands disrupts. There is something in us that would disrupt everything — a thing that understands” (365).
Visceral Poetics is a rare book; like Susan Howe’s 1985, My Emily Dickinson, it shifts the possibilities and available paradigms for writing, proposing newly attuned attentions, languages and writings that traverse, cut across categories, genres, forms. Autoethnography or “visceral criticism…require[s] reading with one’s entire proprioceptive repertoire, looking to the gut, to spinal distortions, neuralgic signing, as much as to the logistical faculties of close literary reading” (Stecopoulos 99).
Of Eleni’s work, I am in awe, inspired, touched, challenged. Visceral Poetics is a hot star radiating energy, dangerous, brilliant, gleaming.
Stecopoulos, Eleni. Visceral Poetics. Oakland, CA: ON Contemporary Practice, 2016. Print.
Lispector, Clarice. "Mineirinho." The Complete Stories: Clarice Lispector. Trans. Katrina Dodson, New York, New Directions, 2015: 362-366. Print.
"Vertigo." Oxford English Dictionary online. Web. 20 February, 2017.