Edited by Divya Victor


Divya Victor

When Jacket2 invited me to compose a CFP for a special feature spanning multiple modes of thinking, it was the summer of 2017 and we were several months into Trump’s presidency. I had just returned to the United States, where I am a naturalized “citizen,” after years in Singapore, where I was employed as a faculty member on a work visa, a status determined almost solely on the state’s articulated understanding of my temporary utility to society — a condition that defines and delimits the lives of immigrants everywhere, but especially in oligarchic states (like Singapore and the US) that bank on the sweat and blood of certain bodies, the profitability of distended indenture (including debt), disenfranchisement, carceral surveillance, and other forms of coercion. The CFP was composed at a moment when it seemed that a majority of Americans had acquiesced to live, normally, under extreme conditions, with denuded civil rights, attenuated freedoms of press, increasing inequality of wages, and diminishing access to medical care, and under misogynist, transphobic, and supremacist policies. The moment was marked by fury over Trump’s “Muslim ban,” an executive order that prevented the entry of foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The moment was also marked by shock over the rhetorical construct “extreme vetting,” which Trump used to describe the invasive and racist procedures that would be undertaken by Homeland Security/ICE to determine who, in the United States, would be viewed as a “positively contributing member of society.” I was struck by this simultaneously pithy and subjective phrase, and the adjective’s pendulous rhetorical function within it. As an adjective, “extreme” seemed to swing in one direction towards a sense of inherent seriousness, completeness, thoroughness, and absoluteness, which are states associated with mass, space, number, and volume. This seemed to make sense given that Trump’s populist rhetoric was intended to inspire favor towards regulating boundaries for a nation’s imagined constituency. The use of this adjective is, in fact, consistent with Trump’s particular lexicon, which insists on words that refer to size and scale. As a recent study showed, the words “big / huge / major / many / massive / numerous / staggering / substantial / tough / vast” feature disproportionately in his speech, sometimes doubled (“major major”) or tripled (“many, many, many”). However, the adjective “extreme” also seemed so utterly enmeshed in American consumer habits that its connotations swung in a different direction, suggesting trivial enjoyment and appetitive, embodied satisfactions— Doritos has an “Extreme” flavor line; Burger King has an “X-TREME” Whopper; Disney has an “Extreme Skate Adventure”; Extreme Championship Wrestling was definitely a thing. I observed that “extreme” has come to mean a way of delimiting the lives of certain people and not others under oligarchic states (consider, for instance, the moniker “extremist”), and it has also come to mean a way of ensuring the utmost consumer experience — a way of procuring the most of anything. The political valence of this term cashes in on its banal consumer cache, and its connotations have come to include comfort and security. Extremity, in other words, is one way of assuring the consumer-citizen that what is theirs (America/Doritos) is theirs in some ultimate, final, complete, total way. I intuited that poetry (and writing about poetry) could argue against this particular and peculiar condition of the term in the twenty-first century.

This feature was thus imagined as a space for writing that generates an expanded and torqued understanding of the term “extreme,” to transcend its contemporary rhetorical role as a term of banalized terror. The CFP welcomed writing on, about, and as “extremity” in its multifarious meanings and implications, from the material to the ideological, from the word’s connotations as “catastrophe” or “limit event” to its denotation as “the farthest point” something can go. We invited scholars, essayists, and poets to explore the farthest point in poetry and poetic texts, including prose, image-text artworks, poetic performances, and soundworks. We were most interested in featuring writing on poets who have prioritized formal, thematic, and material extremes: digression, excess, maximalism, minimalism, affective extremity, and otherwise take up high-risk positions by pursuing “extreme” formal and publication methods and sociopolitical associations.

My editorial aim was to understand how poetry operates within the “extreme” as a thematic and formal abstraction as well as a political reality with devastating quotidian impacts for both art and survival, and art as a kind of survival. The dead reckoning between the devastations of global politics and the social function of poetry is best documented in Michele Seminara’s “Truth in the Cage,” an introduction to the work and life of Iranian poet Mohammad Ali Maleki, who remains involuntarily detained on Manus Island. The special “Philippines dossier” confronts art and writing under and against the emerging bureaucratic-capitalist dictatorship of Rodrigo Duterte as he carries out a mounting number of human rights violations. Angelo V. Suárez, Shaunnah Ysabel Cledera, Ivan Emil Labayne, and Tilde Acuña offer us urgent models for imagining the necessary intersections between critical, activist, and aesthetic practices during a time when poetry, as an institution, remains so resolutely trapped within the “neoliberal accommodation of imperialism” (Angelo’s phrase).

Michael Leong’s engrossing article “Bad Combinations” narrates the underexplored connections between Amiri Baraka and Flarf poetry, offering a view of Baraka’s “extreme testing of the limits of bad taste” and his interventions into “cultural memory.” Whereas Leong explores the “extreme” as social manner and moral comportment, Paul Stephens’s attentive article frames the “extreme” as an “attempt to transcend standard syntax, spelling, and discursive meaning” in an elegant introduction to the “transreal” writings of the grossly understudied African American poet Norman Pritchard, a member of Umbra, a collective of black poets working out of Manhattan in the early ’60s. Orchid Tierney’s essay “Imagining Assemblage as Maintenance” studies the facture of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s book of visual-poetic objects, Graphic Novella, to engage with the extreme fact of human-made waste and to ask how poetry produces “new … configurations that speak to a desire to reorganize rejectamenta.”

Explorations of “extreme” forms of communal knowledge-making emerge in two works by Los Angeles essayists and poets; Matias Viegener takes a biting, personal, and anecdotal approach to exploring obsession and “literary assassination” in the relationship between Kathy Acker and Gary Indiana; and fellow writer Christine Wertheim performs “CUnT-UPs,” liaising and fucking around/up a community of elders and peers, from Valie Export to Dodie Bellamy to Chris Kraus and others, to imagine fraught forms of community in contexts of “extreme violence that can subsist between and around women.” The bodies of female subjects, especially racially marked ones, are centered in the configuration of the “extreme” in Kasia van Schaik’s article on “prone” figures and sexual violence in Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue as well as in Julie Phillips Brown’s essay on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, two pieces that study how flesh and breath mark the precarity of some more than others.

I had hoped that “Extreme Texts” would syncopate against the beat of #NotNormal, the idea that extremism under Trump is some kind of aberration or exception, rather than a global advancement of entrenched and profitable oppressions of multiple classes of the individual that have already implicated and impacted our bodies, literary practices, and identities. Nhã Thuyên’s close-up on the Vietnamese poetry collective Mở Miệng (Open Mouth), for example, narrates how the collective’s “samizdat movement … resists censorship in the struggle for the freedom of publication” and offers a model for everyday forms of refusal through the compostion of “anti-poetry.” Andrew Smyth’s article frames Anne Tardos’s polylingual and itinerant practice as an “opportunity in the sense of circumstances that allow for something and, relatedly, as trouble” and calls for us to consider our own practices of “extreme reading” as an act against the “ethnocultural attrition” implicit in postcolonial and globalized conditions. Like Thuyên’s portrait of the Open Mouth collective, Andrew imagines the “extreme” as a (to use his phrase) linguistic and embodied “ability under duress” that emerges in both compositional and interpretive acts. Elsewhere, as in Eileen R. Tabios’s statements of poetics, this ability emerges as an inversion of or resistance toward embodied authorial fatigue: “I was weary of everything I’d written. So I decided to murder my poems.” Continuing the feature’s investment in identity and embodiment, Jordan Chesnut’s “All Axes Blur in Transit” challenges the extremities of the gender binary by imagining alternative embodiments through a performance score that “limns” and “blurs” these polarities, and Megan Burns’s “Dollbaby Poetics” offers a charged and intimate view into the terrarium of maternity poetics as a fearsome and fierce response to domestic toxicity cultivated under patriarchy.

What emerged from the original call for this feature surprised us by its abundance, modal diversity, intellectual frisson, and wide-ranging interpretations of both key terms: “extreme” and “texts.” The feature’s volume and many modalities are categorized as follows: “Scholarship,” which hosts single-author and comparative studies; “Engagements,” which hosts texts that are in open conversation — either as review, dialogue, interpretive creation, or performative critique — with specific poetic works; “Cases,” which hosts statements of poetics, performance and exhibition documentation, and individual works by poets; and a dossier of Philippine literary production under fascism. Together, these thirty-six pieces include writing from/about poetry and poetics from Canada, Australia, England, Singapore, Vietnam, Uruguay, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and the US. “Extreme Texts” accounts for, documents, and queries (in the long view) how poetry behaves under extremity, both political and personal, and how it represents lives lived under the duress of an extreme made everyday.

Hannah Weiner and the limit experience of language
Sean Braune
Otherbreath: Bare life and the limits of self in Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’
Julie Phillips Brown
A spring in one’s death: Or: a fountain of youth/doom in (Middle English) lyric
Chris Holdaway
Bad combinations: Flarf, Amiri Baraka, paranoia, and cultural memory
Michael Leong
Open Mouth: The revolt of trash in contemporary Vietnamese poetry
Nhã Thuyên, trans. Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên
Sampler: Open Mouth poetry — Bùi Chát
Bùi Chát, trans. Lê Đình Nhất-Lang
Sampler: Open Mouth poetry — Lý Đợi
Lý Đợi, trans. Nguyễn Tiến Văn
At the surface and medium-depth: Theorizing a haptic poetic
Eric Schmaltz
Truth in the cage: The poetry of Mohammad Ali Maleki
Michele Seminara, Mohammad Ali Maleki
Anne Tardos in high definition: Polylingualism and extremity in ‘Uxudo’
Andrew Smyth
The transrealism of Norman Pritchard
Paul Stephens
Leav Rupi alone: eXXXtreme #instapoetry
Marylyn Tan and Samuel Caleb Wee
Imagining assemblage as maintenance: Rachel Blau DuPlessis and the ‘Graphic Novella’
Orchid Tierney
FREE BLACK TERRITORY: On Dingane Joe Goncalves
Yeshua G. B. Tolle
On being prone: Violence and vulnerability in Bhanu Kapil’s ‘Ban en Banlieue’
Kasia Van Schaik
The assassination of Kathy Acker
Matias Viegener