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“MUSIC IS DEATH!” That’s what the neon sign large as a billboard should say on the hill above my house. Think of how many lives could be saved. All the smoke-addled rock musicians, bedeviled blues guitarists, heroin addicted jazzers, not to mention their speed and travel-blasted crews, roadies, entourage, lackeys and flunkies, they could be steered to useful vocations as drug abuse counselors, astronomers, postal carriers, tug boat deckhands. They could live positive lives, not suicidal stereotypes of artistic nutcases, instead of dying early they might hang out with their children, getting health back. Music is death, think of all the artistic careers that futile pursuit of pop stardom has destroyed. THINK of all the deluded masses who muddle through their lives, hypnotized by celebrity cults of vapid divas and crooners, hoping to get a warm feeling when the PA pipes cliched lyrics into their cells. Music is commercialized hypnosis, thrumming lulling nonsense with desultory beat, pulsing drone of commercial preconceptions and brain-filler. It’s the cult soundtrack of capitalist times. Pop horseshit with youth whored out forever. Trying to be cool. Total cliche. Absurd recycling of wasted breath. Repackaged old styles. Repeated rehashed filler. That piano has bad intentions. The drumset has contempt for all of you. Don’t listen to it! Pay no attention. It wants your noodles preoccupied. This guitar wants to kill your mama. It wants you swallowing romantic cliches when you can barely pay your bills. It wants you sitting there passively clapping like a clapper. It’s all lip-sync for endless marketed preconception. You must wean yourself; you must get off it; you must strike out into a world of silence and noise. Take out the stupid ear buds.



Little universes!———-What’s U. doing? She went out, took the dog out 90 minutes ago———-I sent her a rocket ship piloted by Valentina Tereshkova, cosmonaut, to land beside her with roar of smoke and blasted dust, Valentina steps from the ship, shakes hands, “Comrade!”———M., who at this moment is driving north on what highway, to Santa Ynez, Valentina can scout out her Toyota truck far below through wispy clouds, shining Southern Calif. day, slight haze——–zooming over the Toyota truck, Valentina sets down with expertise and precision, out of some other time, some other ideology, some other dimension, Valentina can say hello to M. from all of us, and then————What’s Grandma up to? Sudoku? Reading? ———–Lift-off! Zoom! Valentina greets you with comradely outer space greetings from U. and M., and all of us!———–J. and C. are dabbling at their computers, working it seems, at the kitchen table——–D. joins them with her computer——–Valentina could set her rocket ship down adroitly in the driveway, the whole house would shake, dust drift from the ceiling, the door bell rings!————Who’s there? ———-Valentina!


Long ago I joined the cult of womb-weary mid-wives, signed the membership form of that woman walking the sidewalk crack of weariness between her eyes, stood at the end of the line with the discount crowd waiting their turn to pay off ghost children hanging on them, I too walked in the shadow of the the ficus trees at the Italian Hall and the CPUSA storefronts and the dirty palm trees, today I submit my vote for the Tzotzil and Quiche day laborers for president of the association and its 30,000 members, standing together with you speaking softly in the back holding a cup of black coffee in our four hands or in our eight hands, under the vast Western tent of blood-pink weariness in the sunset before the endless infinite universe, there I keep the brochure of their society in my pocket, already paid my dues to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Firefighters and Sanitation Workers, walking that line that goes out the door, across the parking lots in lines of taillights and headlights, dispersing throughout the city to deliver you this ticket. Sign here ___________________________________ .



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broderick crawford

In one scene, the final scene I think of an Italian movie, Broderick Crawford was dying, I don’t recall exactly how but he’s dying, if not physically he’s about to expire spiritually, getting shot and beat up or maybe already shot, he’s trying to scramble on hands and knees up a scrambly eroded slope, he can’t make it because of (or in spite of?) his desperation, wearing his ill-fitting dirty suit with collar open, probably symbolic of his old life killing him, he can’t get shed of it, dirty shirt and a look of crushed desperation on his face, his mouth dry and his face dusted with dust flying off the slope in some abandoned countryside desolation, the pebbles and clods crumbling down, he’s sliding down too, the movie ends there I’m pretty sure he’s doomed, that’s it for him

tenderly sometimes moist hollow of collarbone, call it covered in sage dusk or rusty drip faucet

gaze darkly glancing inside and outside, call it potato skin or thrift of main street lights

mystery of clean neat cuticles and knuckle creases, call it loose sailing spider thread or glance at the storm front

hair sheen taken in hand or ends flicked back, call it thudding of the earth or several short pencils

voice turns the corner and leans over your shoulder, call it mild surmise in error or shape rising like a wave

arcs of shoulder profile and light on cheekbone, call it scattering of tern cries or lick on a postage stamp

curl or fold at the top of the ear seen and noted, call it unknown automobile that once passed or windblown letters

and the palm (held up) that looks so human like all of history, call it palm held (up) in mid-air or bleeding across an edge

and the bones of the face and the skull strong as an idea, call it afternoon’s dryers open warm or edge of moss

and tendon in the neck and a vein in the neck, call it summer’s past dust of trails or city of every freeway

and reflection of it and remembering it, re-imagined it (as nothing), call that pity’s sweat or bits of bread rolled into balls with fingertips



I spoke to the Japanese woman, she suggested the arugula was good in salad, try the Japanese parsley— I knew that, I picked two bunches of Japanese mustard and some garlic chives because you like greens— She pointed to the black storm cloud moving in from the west, rolling across the expired sunset above silhouettes of black treetops— “Maybe we’ll be gone before it rains”—“Is it supposed to rain Saturday, too?” —”No, we’ll get ready tomorrow for Saturday.” —”Where will you be Saturday, Pasadena?” —”Santa Monica.” I cradled three pink proteas with spikes and black fuzz inside my elbow (you do not care for proteas, but I bring them to you), I selected four pounds of $3/pound pink-fleshed cara cara oranges wondering why you don’t care for oranges—you don’t have anything against them, but you don’t go for them—like the books I give you which you don’t read, you may start them but not finish them—as much as I can feel my own fingertips, more than I feel my own heart beat as I perused the cauliflower, a guy in the baseball cap following my every move, tallying the total even as I turned over purple kale and green kale in my hands—recalling our trips through the four corners area (once on a warm night the tent was crushed at the edge of the Uncompahgre by gale force winds 2,000 feet above Grand Junction, CO— once at Willow Flat Campground in Canyonlands, Utah the tent was destroyed in my hands before I could even put it up, rain sweeping over and battering me in sheets as lightning blasted the thousand foot high mesa around us, day’s end after you photographed the rainbows driven toward us across the storm front)— I stuffed the celery, kale and cauliflower in my bag with small yellow Yukon Gold potatoes, recalling breakfasts you dished out when we have a full house, fried potatoes flecked with onions and garlic— (we’ll have a full house next week, Marina’s bringing her dogs Friday—maybe for weeks after that—Rick called to say he’s bringing the wife and kids out of Slovenia by way of Vegas and Culver City)— night sweeps over everything and everyone, bringing the rain, music playing somewhere, the crowd sparse at the market under the big spreading oak in the night streets— but really, having collected change and folded the bills in my wallet, I strive after dreams that I no longer remember, though even in the dreams of you, I kept doing what I was doing, though I felt a bit abashed.

zeppelin stunt

And if the man with the choke-hold
by Juan Felipe Herrera

— Ezekiel saw the wheel …

And if the man with the choke-hold pulls the standing man down

Why does he live and if the dead man is gone why does he rise and

Why is there a clicking sound the sound the soul makes when it leaves

Even though no one knows and if the woman stays why is she the

Crucible the fire why is she the voice and if the voice is never heard

Why does it resound for 9 generations and if it was a teen man with

A swagger why is he still prone and if the police was right and the court

Was in agreement and the governor spoke humble facing the masses why

Are they lost in the desert infinite and if looters broke the wall and split

The wine why are they still scorched with thirst and if we march

Why does the street break as we pass by why does it not offer us Here

Take my water and if all the laws are Freedom for you for me why do we

Not speak and if that tree behind you green with its last two limbs up

Swollen in blood why does it not suffer


does it

blossom torches


from Song of The Wreckage
by Danez Smith

I have no time for Red to be beautiful
with summer bloodied as it is & normal
as it’s become, with the rusted, small bones
of boys who should be my father’s age
buried under the beaming bones of boys
who should be my age, still tinged with meat.

have no peace left, it’s been replaced by smoke
& I am sick of always running from the fire
this time. I am sick with impossible hues of black
boys, their dark ghost, crow winged angels raised
lynch high off the ground. I mourn all the time
right out the sky. I got no need for the sun

& the moon might as well be a warning shot.
How many black boys stolen in the hot night?
From their own homes? From their own bodies?
How many black boys until we make history
finally let us in on the joke? How little progress
before it’s not progress.? How much prayer & song

must we stuff our mouths with before we lose
our taste for empty? I got faith like a man down
in the dirt who don’t believe in no kind of God
how he gonna watch the earth turn his legs to rot
how he got eternity to feel dirty & left behind
& wonder if there might be a land of light.


We Must Be the New Guards: Open Letter to White Poets
by Danez Smith

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security,–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

– The Declaration of Independence

To my kin and colleagues in letters and art, I come to you out of ink, of breath, of patience, & almost emptied of any belief that there is anything this country that doesn’t seek to end me, keep me and my black & brown loved ones from living lives that are not designed around your comfort and benefit. I’m not mad at you. I, in my best mind, believe in a borderless world of unified citizenship, not a utopia, but a place where justice is birthright and peace is promised, protected. But we live in a history well versed in repetition, where the people who built this country on burdened, wound-red backs are the same people today waiting for some declaration of independence, equality, or ceasefire.

The skin tone of the oppressed along color lines in this country’s history reads like bad alliteration, our skin a hard sound echoing endlessly in a unjustified fear we have renamed “self defense” or “probable cause.” I’m not saying that self-defense doesn’t exist, but I question what men like Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman were defending themselves against except a fear they nursed since elementary school, a fear that screams “SHOOT” somewhere deep in their minds, their hands.

I did not come here to talk about these men. I came to talk to you, my partners in verse who build a life’s work documenting their brief time on this earth. I come you to asking to question the landscape of our pastoral muse. I ask you to question to what makes you safe? What frees you to write odes of the low country of America, to mention the trees and not their wicked history, to write the praise song of night, but not sing of what dark bodies hide cold in daylight? My family, and I pray we can call each other family, I am asking you to do what you do best: Write.

We must be members of the New Guards for those whose futures have been deemed questionable and expendable. I am asking you to explode the canon with what we must make sure is remembered in this nation. We cannot leave the duty of elegy for black bodies and calls for our fellow citizens to rise, even if wounded or enraged or scared, to the catalogues of solely black artists. We must write the American Lyric like Claudia Rankine so fearlessly writes, no matter now brutal or reflective it might be for you. There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.

And this is not the only fight we must rage, there are many suffering the awful weight of a society and judicial system that has edited “for all” from “with liberty & justice”. We must create work that refuses to leave this world the same as when we entered. We do not have the luxury of only writing the selfish confession, we must testify in our court of craft that these poems we write are bold, unflinching, and unwilling to stale idle in a geography of madness. We must demand of ourselves to write the uncomfortable, dangerous, shift-making poems. How much longer will we write casually in the face of a beast? Submit your facts to the candid world! I ask you to join me and others in utilizing verse to not rewrite our shared, grizzly history. I end this letter by not begging you “please”, but by telling you “you must.”


alternate names for black boys
By Danez Smith

1. smoke above the burning bush
2. archnemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath


A Poem for White Policemen (and White Poets)
by Noah Eli Gordon

And when you flick

with callused thumb the butt-end

of that particularly weighted

and golden bullet aimlessly

and when your lips at night

meet your wife’s mother’s

husband’s daughter’s stranger’s

lover’s perfectly fit perfection

and when to you the moon

sitting there just so just so

stunningly quiet knocks and knocks

all night long majestic

and when through walls and doors

your kid’s laughter

cuts so swimmingly into the morning’s

last dream motionless

and when in the rearview

you see yourself seeing

like such an Ahab at the helm

this American music of now

and when Chamillionaire

drops from the speakers

and you too for a second sing

as if you’re smilingly free

and when you kick in the ribs

of the boy who ran

because he knew you’d do so

before you did before you did it

and when you call dutifully

whomever in your family

listens intently to the space

between the other’s words

and when you can for a second

see what I mean when I

say things about being afraid

we’re so indifferently alike

and when that toothbrush

stuck in its lousy cup

looks to you like a flag atop

your tiny kingdom and mine

and when a toddler buckled in

against the back

of his stroller looking at you

with his whole body waves

and when you finally finish

the book your cousin bought

you last Christmas knowingly

close it knowing he was right

and when the dog circles

the couch before nuzzling up

pressing her snout into your knees

needing you so much

and when you’re doing your job

simple as that and I’m simple

as that doing mine and we meeting

move always along

and when your tribe and mine

can make the same jokes because

we don’t you know mean it really

we don’t do we no I know

and when it’s a point of pride

to stub until it’s dull the point

with which you pride yourself

on such sustenance being present

and when we can each of us eat

as much as we damn well please

while the bones of black and brown

bodies stiffen our silverware

and when we sing so sanctimoniously

about it all in the loud

blackface we both wiped off

before leaving the apartment

and when we think the pronouns

are always us always ours

always the you that you’re using

here as being the me I mean

what if you’ve known by heart

since you were twelve the lyrics

to LL Cool J’s I Need Love and admittedly

never in your life loved anyone black?


Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde
by Cathy Park Hong

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition. From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment. Even today, its most vocal practitioners cling to moldering Eurocentric practices. Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.” James Baldwin wrote that “to be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter conditions forged in history . . . it is clearly at least equally difficult to surmount the delusion of whiteness.” The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are. But perhaps that is why historically the minority poets’ entrance into the avant-garde’s arcane little clubs has so often been occluded. We can never laugh it off, take it all in as one sick joke, and truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history. But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.

Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions. Of course, I am aware that I am erecting an artificial electric fence between two camps that many argue no longer even exists. Poetry’s current aesthetic styles bear a closer resemblance to an oscillating Venn diagram and there are plenty of indie presses and magazines that have outright and rightly rejected these ossified two poles, not to mention that to argue what is and is not truly avant-garde now, based on say, Peter Burger’s definition of the avant-garde, would be a mind-numbing, self-defeating, and masturbatory exegesis. But for this forum, I will assume that such a cold war relationship exists (though it’s been a détente for quite a while) and that the poets and schools whom I identify as avant-garde will be those who have been institutionalized as such, and I’ll include upstarts who have trumpeted themselves as the vanguard’s second coming, such as the Conceptual poets. But to return to my initial point, poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.

But I want to pause from this expected bean counting since examples are too endless. I would also argue that the institutions of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry accept poets of color based on how they address race. Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document. Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form! Thankfully, such “ethical inadequacies” have been disciplined enough to be “in the service” of experimental writing.

Without such formal restrictions, Philip’s Zong would be in danger of being dismissed as “identity politics,” a term that has turned into quite the bogeyman of a moniker, gathering an assortment of unsavory associations within the last few decades. To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism. Compare that to Marxist—and often male—poets whose difficult and rigorous poetry may formally critique neoliberalism but is never “just about class” in the way that identity politics poetry is always “just about race,” with little to no aesthetic value. Such bias abounds in experimental poetry circles, not just among blustering chauvinists like Goldsmith and, most damagingly of all, Marjorie Perloff, but by experimental poets of color who can be their own harshest critics. Here I must speak anecdotally, as it’s persistently turned up in conversation among friends and students, but some of us (and here I use the first person plural loosely) dread the possibility of being tarred as an “identity politics” poet, and perhaps to such a degree that it’s turned into our own detriment: we may overly exercise a form of self-restraint, scraping our writing of explicitly toxic racial matter, so we won’t be exiled to that ghetto.

Marjorie Perloff, preeminent critic and academic gatekeeper of avant-garde poetry, has on numerous occasions shared her distaste for identity politics literature. Here is an excerpt she wrote for the MLA newsletter:

Under the rubrics of African American, other minorities, and post-colonial, a lot of important and exciting novels and poems are surely studied. But what about what is not studied? Suppose a student wants to study James Joyce or Gertrude Stein? Virginia Woolf or T.E. Lawrence or George Orwell? William Faulkner or Frank O’Hara? The literature of World Wars I and II? The Great Depression? The impact of technology on poetry and fiction? Modernism? Existentialism? What of the student who has a passionate interest in her or his literary world—a world that encompasses the digital as well as print culture but does not necessarily differentiate between the writings of one subculture or one theoretical orientation and another? Where do such prospective students turn?

I found this excerpt in the scholar Dorothy Wang’s excellent book, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Wang notices that in this excerpt, Perloff immediately sets up a kind of “us vs. them” opposition, which is of course a favored rhetorical tool used by avant-garde schools in the past from Futurists and Dadaists to Language School poets. Avant-garde manifestos have always assumed a tone of masculine and expansionist militancy, enforcing an aggressive divide-and-conquer framework to grab the reader’s attention. Of course, this “us vs. them” rhetoric can be used to an exhilarating effect when there is a revolutionary legitimacy to that opposition, when “we” are the rabble-rousing outliers and “they” are the hegemonic majority. But Perloff sets up an opposition that’s far more disconcerting: oddly, the hegemony has become the nameless hordes of “African Americans, other minorities, and post-colonials” while “us,” those victimized students who are searching for endangered “true” literature (read as “white”) are the outliers (since when has Ulysses taken a nose-dive from the canon’s summit down to the rare-and-hard-to-find-books list?). From her Boston Review essay “Poetry on the Brink” where she lambasts Rita Dove, to countless other instances, Perloff has persistently set up these racially encoded oppositions and the sentiment is always the same: these indistinguishable minority writers with their soft, mediocre poetry and fiction are taking over our literature. How is this advocate of experimental poetry any different from the icon of literary conservatism, Harold Bloom, who once declared that writers like Sherman Alexie are “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us?” Although Perloff has made these misguided observations for years, no one has taken her to task for it until recently, as if poets in the experimental community, afraid to fall from her good graces, look away as one looks away during Thanksgiving dinner when an aunt might complain how “those people” are driving down the property value of “our neighborhood.”
The classic function of the avant-garde has been, according to Renato Poggioli, “not so much . . . an aesthetic fact as a sociological one,” interrogating the very role of art as an institution in a bourgeois society and seeking to collapse artistic praxis with daily life. Echoing this, Charles Bernstein has said, “I care most about poetry that disrupts business as usual, including literary business. I care most for poetry as dissent, including formal dissent; poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are not otherwise articulated.” The spirit of the avant-garde has been revolt, making it all the more baffling that avant-garde poets and their scholars have—except for occasional inclusions—largely ignored major groundbreaking movements like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. BAM, with its revolutionary zeal inspired by the Black Power movement, sought to upend Western cultural institutions, energize black communities, and develop languages and forms that rejected western-influenced craftsmanship. In her illuminating must-reed Renegade Poetics, the scholar and poet Evie Shockley writes, “Black Arts proposed to establish a new set of cultural reference points and standards that centered on ‘the needs and aspirations’ of African Americans.” Amiri Baraka blended black nationalism with Dadaist linguistic disruption in his poetry and his raconteur misfit persona shared a similar showman’s DNA with the likes of Filippo Marinetti, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton. Even BAM’s much-criticized separatist agenda, to write exclusively for a black audience, is not so far off from the avant-garde’s dictum not to assimilate into the majority, but stand apart. If we are to acknowledge that there are formal choices that define avant-garde poetry such as polyvocality, hybridity, collage, stream-of-conscious writing, and improvisation, these techniques were not only used but were actually first inaugurated by African American writers or they were America’s early practitioners. Jean Toomer’s Cane, written in 1923, is an uncategorizable cross-genre book that is wide-ranging in its experimentations with fragmentation, stream-of-consciousness, and surrealist wordplay. Before academic words like hybridity and heteroglossia became en vogue, Harlem Renaissance socialist poet Claude McKay—whose work inspired key figures like Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor from the Negritude movement—experimented with Jamaican dialect and code-switching in his collection Constab Ballads. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s visionary work is a pioneering example of conceptual writing. Known for her 1982 posthumously published cross-genre memoir Dictee, she was also a multi-disciplinary artist, dematerializing text through her video montages and performances, inspiring future digital artists with her hyper-textual methods. Many of these poets’ reputations have long been battened under the banner of ethnic studies but are rarely regarded as core figures in experimental poetry. So while Dictee is considered as seminal as Tender Buttons among Asian American circles, it’s still treated like a fringe classic in the avant-garde canon.

From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters. Simone White, poet and curator of St. Marks Poetry Project, writes in Harriet: “Let me say again: I am used to being the only black person in the room. . . but the fact is, being used to being the only black person in the room isn’t the same thing as thinking that this is a tolerable or reasonable condition . . . more and more, I’m sure that I have to refuse intellectual “community” whose joy is in some way predicated on enjoyment of what is, at best, obliviousness to these harms, or worse, actual celebrations of all-white clubs. It is total bullshit to enjoy being in a social or creative community that is segregated the way poetry is segregated.”

So what is a poet of color to do, one who subscribes to Harryette Mullen’s definition of innovation as “explorative and interrogative, an open-ended investigation into the possibilities of language?” Shall we continue our headcount of reading venues and anthologies? Shall we politely speak up and beg for more representation, say a few more panels on forgotten subaltern poetry for the next wax museum conference? Shall we again rehearse these mechanical motions under the false diplomacy of inclusivity? A more generous slice please! A little more room! Just a few more faces I can recognize as my own! For too long, white poets have claimed ownership and territorialized “the new” as their own and for too long experimental minority poets have been cast aside as being derivative of their white contemporaries. If tastemakers of poetry like Marjorie Perloff have this fear of a black planet, let us become “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming” them and wrest control of the wheels of innovation. The most radical writings today are coming from poets of color—writers like writers like Black Took Collective, Rodrigo Toscano, Bhanu Kapil, Tan Lin, M. NourbeSe Philips, Douglas Kearney, Farid Matuk, Monica De La Torre, David Lau, Divya Victor, LaTasha Nevada Diggs, and so many more. The voices have returned (they’ve never gone anywhere) as a matter of survival, and also as minstrelized, digitalized, theatricalized artifice, speaking in a mélange of offshoots, with multiple entryways and exits through the soaring use of aberrant vernaculars. The form is code-switching: code-switching between languages, between Englishes, between genres, between races, between bodies. As Derek Walcott said, “there is no nation but the imagination,” and poets like Kapil create the geopolitical imaginary, building worlds to critique world-building. Conceptual writing is, for all its declarations, pathetically outdated and formulaic in its analog need to bark back incessantly at the original. As Deleuze said, “Why must we be the crocodile imitating the tree trunk? Why can’t we be the pink panther? The pink panther imitates nothing; it reproduces nothing, it paints the world its color, pink on pink; this is imperceptible itself, asignifying, making its rupture, its own line of flight.” Excessive and expressionist, poets like Ronaldo Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin and Diggs have created cyborg enunciations out of shredded text, music and lived experiences; they are building a new, dissonant futurism, treating poetry as rank growth as it punctures the dying medium of print via performance, video, or audio recordings, finding inspiration from hip hop that has oddly, so far, been ignored by Poetry. Nicholas Bourriaud, the critic who coined the term “relational aesthetics,” said the artwork is the interaction between artist and viewers, as a way to “inhabit the world in a better way.” The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.


because that was not very good, really not very good, I know you probably thought it was at first, but at least the damage is not permanent, so you still have time to appeal to any of the following (even those who may by this time have passed to the other side —so-called—might be persuaded probably for ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS):

Ken Chen:

“My life is not unbearable yet still I must escape it.”

Jayne Cortez:

“no ju ju leaves hidden/ in the center of the whirlwind”

Will Alexander:

“I am more like a crow from crucial underwater fires/ a crucial underwater crow”

Eileen Myles:

“These’ll/ Diesel”

Noah Eli Gordon:

“praised as supreme realism condensed in the face of a blue flower”

Arthur Sze:

“he closed and opened his eyelashes along her ear”

Jose Emilio Pacheco:

“Ashes are smoke you can touch,/ fire mourning itself”

Juan Felipe Herrera:

“a neutrino perched on a string/ of no-seeing”

Ammiel Alcalay:

“into this world slower or more quickly”

Martin Espada:

“like broken rifles, all the people/ who are now red trees”

Susan Howe:

“Words words night unto night”

Miguel Hernandez:

“En el fondo del hombre/ agua removida”

Nicanor Parra:

“I am hanging from the wing of a fly/ or rather I am clinging tooth and nail”

Yoko Ono:

“Write all the things you want to do./ Ask others to do them and move on.”

Roque Dalton:

“Say flower, bee, bread, teardrop, storm.”

Nguyen Quang Thieu:

“I touch the great vow/ ringing fiercely from the dark side of the sun.”

Dolores Dorantes:

“Es estoy/ este arbol/ donde el protesis/ que crecio en tu alma/ como pie”

Aharon Shabtai:

“The meat on its plate/ tells of placentas/ cast aside by roadblocks.”

Paul Guest:

“My mouth is empty. The words won’t stay.”

I believe any of these poets would be happy to help you with your problem. Purchase several lines of your choice together for a discount.


December 2014