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2011, Nightboat Books
THE BOOK OF FORGOTTEN BODIES
The reader who opens the Book of Forgotten Bodies finds nothing. There are no horses galloping through deserted villages in search of the men who used to ride them. There are no children crying for their parents who were thrown out of airplanes and into the sea. There are no soldiers who had their arms sliced off for refusing to obliterate innocent bodies. There are no rich men leaning against paradise trees as the drunk bodies of poor men stumble up to their houses to kill them. There are no bodies of hopeless virgins smashes on city streets by Mercedes-Benzes cruising through the gentle drizzle of a foggy day. There are no bodies abandoned on beaches. There are no corpses floating down rivers. There are no bodies hanging in the military barracks on island XYZ off the coast of nation ABC. There are no bodies that pound rock against rock. No bodies that stand on one leg with hoods over their mouths mumbling words we don’t understand. No bodies covered in mud murmuring to the bodies that lie on top of them. There are no bodies that smell of chemicals and rest in puddles in the rain waiting for flowers to fall on their heads. No blind bodies that are painted by artists who value aesthetics over breath. No bodies that imagine their children’s bodies as ghosts and cadavers and skeletons. No bodies that fall from windows as they try to catch a glimpse of the bodies that have fallen before them. There are no bodies discovered by rabid dogs in houses abandoned before they could even be built. No bodies surrounded by barbed wire as countries die in the distance. No bodies whose skin burns in the strange machines that buzz like tropical nights. No bodies that burn in buildings that have been set on fire by bodies with no reason to live. There are no bodies that fry in the sun, that drown in the shadows, that roast on gas, that ooze algae and moss, that are covered in black rags as the lakes and the mountains die. No bodies that hunt or are hunted, that murder out of charity, that are murdered out of charity. No bodies that shutter the windows and hang themselves in libraries of their favorite books. There are no soulless bodies, no frozen bodies, no bodies gnawed to death by insects. There are no practice bodies, no transient bodies, no empty bodies, no blank bodies that twist between forgotten body and dream.
see also http://jacket2.org/commentary/talking-daniel-borzutzky
ONE SIZE FITS ALL
See that immigrant freezing beneath the bridge he needs a blanket.
See that torah scroll from the 16th century: it sprawls on the floor like a deadbeat; the Jews need to wrap it in a schmatte.
The problem, you see, is “exposure.”
Thje poet forgot to shake off his penis and pee dripped on the manuscript that he submitted to the 2007 University of Iowa Poetry prize.
The literary scholar took off his tie and lectured the class on the post-humanoid implications of the virtual cocktail.
He put a pistol on his desk and told the students he was going to kill himself if they didn’t do their homework.
Everything in his “worldview” was exposed.
The data-entry specialist imagined new forms for the senior administrator who was only a temporary carcass, an anti-poem: a budding literary movement that communed with master works by committing suicide while reading them.
The temporary carcass of the bureaucrat, dry as Vietnamese Jerky, called out for “gravy” as it “peppered” the eloquent field of syntax.
Abrupt exposure to ordinary language may result in seriously compromised intelligence, implied the carcass as he lipped the trembling lily which hid the police officer, who said: if you look at me one more time I’m going to zap you with my Taser gun.
I liked the former “Language Poet” for the speech act he attached to the back of my book, which reminded me of Charles Olson on human growth hormones.
The problem, said the critic, remains one of imagination and its insistence on the distinction between thought and action.
“I let him touch my wooden leg,” she said, “and when I unscrewed it I was stuck legless in the hay.”
Which is to say the detachable penis was and has been compatible with family values.
“He was a seriously hardworking boy with a fetish for glass eyes and wooden legs,” she said, “and I really loved him.”
The poetry era reached its nadir as the housing market plummeted, said the professor, as he repeated for the umpteenth time the anecdote about the boy who met an underwater woman as old as the hills.
“Does Poetry live here,” he asked. “Poetry lives here,” she replied, “but he will chop you up and kill you, and then he will cook you and eat you.”
My ideal reader has neither a name, a body, nor an online profile.
Which is not to say that I am not concerned with customer satisfaction.
Dear Reader, Because we value your input, please take a moment of your busy time to answer the following question, which will greatly assist us in our mission to produce cultural artifacts that will further meet your aesthetic and spiritual needs.
Which of the following statements most accurately reflects your feelings about the writing which you have just read:
a. This is a splendid poem, distinguished by the clarity of its thought, the force of its argument, and the eloquence of its expression.
b. This poem is conceptually vapid, artistically shallow, and contributes nothing to the world of letters. It is little more than a collection of bad sentences and poorly formed ideas.
c. I like this poem, but I wouldn’t spend money to read more poems like it.
d. When I read this poem, I feel frustrated and annoyed.
e. When I read this poem, I feel nothing.
L.A. TIMES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Seeley G. Mudd (SGM 123)Ticket required; Signing Area 4
SATURDAY, APRIL 9, 2016
Juan Felipe Herrera in conversation with Sesshu Foster
Juan Felipe will also be reading at the festival’s Poetry Stage at 2:30 PM
Indoor Conversations require free tickets.
There are two ways to get Conversation tickets:
Advance Conversation tickets will be available from the website starting April 3, 9 a.m. A $1 service fee applies to each ticket. See http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks/tickets-and-schedule/ticket-info/
At the festival
A limited number of tickets for each Conversation is distributed at the festival ticketing booth on the day of the Conversation — free of service charges. The booth will open at 9 a.m. each day.
Guests with Conversation tickets must arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled Conversation start time to ensure seating.
a poem by Juan Felipe:
Blood on the Wheel
Ezekiel saw the wheel,
way up in the middle of the air.
TRADITIONAL GOSPEL SONG
Juan Felipe Herrera, “Blood on the Wheel” from Border-crosser with a Lamborghini Dream. Copyright © 1999 by Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted by permission of University of Arizona Press.
Source: Border-crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (University of Arizona Press, 1999)
on / with Antena / Antena Los Ángeles
¡El AntenaMóvil ya está instalado! Ven a nuestro evento bilingüe este sábado no solamente para compartir comida rica y conversación rica, sino también para ver/leer/comprar libros de muchas editoriales pequeñas y micros de Latinoamérica y Estados Unidos — incluyendo las maravillas locales Kaya Press, Phoneme Media, Ricochet Editions, Seite Books, y Writ Large Press. El Antenamóvil es un triciclo de carga adaptado, equipado con libros que están a la venta y para leer aquí. La selección se enfoca en obras bilingües y multilingües, textos en traducción y textos innovadores de escritorxs de razas marginadas.
¡The AntenaMóvil is installed! Come to our bilingual event this Saturday not just to share delicious food and delicious conversation, but also to see/read/buy publications from many small and micro presses from Latin America and the U.S. — including local wonders Kaya Press, Phoneme Media, Ricochet Editions, Seite Books, and Writ Large Press. The AntenaMóvil is a retrofitted Mexican cargo trike stocked with books that are for sale and for reading on-site. The selection features bilingual and multilingual works, work in translation, and innovative texts by writers of color.
Justicia laboral alimentaria + Justicia del lenguaje: Un intercambio bilingüe
Food Labor Justice + Language Justice: A Bilingual Exchange
con / with Antena / Antena Los Ángeles, Cocina Abierta & ROC-LA
12 marzo / March 12
12pm – 3pm
Gratis / Free
Se proporcionará comida, pero si deseas, ¡trae una receta o un plato para compartir!
Food will be provided, but if you like, bring a recipe or a dish to shar e!
Por favor RSVP / RSVP Please
(¡pero ven aunque no puedas RSVP! / ¡but come even if you can’t RSVP!)
10899 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90024
The Worker Body / El cuerpo trabajador, Cocina Abierta & ROC-LA, July 2015 / julio de 2015.
Photo/Foto: Heather M. O’Brien
Antena y Antena Los Ángeles, artistas en residencia con el programa de Public Engagement (Participación pública), junto con artistas, organizadorxs y trabajadorxs restauranterxs de la colectiva Cocina Abierta y El Centro de Oportunidades para Trabajadores de Restauranterxs de Los Ángeles (ROC-LA), invitan a lxs visitantes del Hammer a compartir comida, ideas y conversación en un espacio bilingüe. Les invitamos a escuchar las historias de trabajadorxs restauranterxs y posteriormente participar en un diálogo bilingüe durante una comida estilo familiar. Se proporcionará la comida, pero cualquier plato o receta que quieran traer será bienvenido.
¡Colabora compartiendo una receta para nuestro recetario!
Las recetas que logre recolectarse serán utilizadas por Libros Antena Books para crear una pequeña publicación DIY (Do-It-Yourself o hazlo-tú-mismx), que será distribuida a todxs lxs participantes.
Public Engagement artists-in-residence Antena and Antena Los Ángeles, along with artists, organizers and restaurant workers from the Cocina Abierta collective and Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC-LA), invite Hammer visitors to share food, ideas, and conversation in a bilingual space. Visitors are invited to hear the stories of restaurant workers and afterward engage in bilingual dialogue over a family-style meal. Food will be provided, but feel free to bring a dish or recipe to share.
Participate by contributing a recipe for our recipe book!
The collected recipes will be made into a small DIY publication by Libros Antena Books and distributed to all participants.
Jen also notes, NEWLY AVAILABLE:
Blacktop Ecologies: Los Angeles Poetry and Poetics was a one-day symposium of writers active in Los Angeles November 21, 2014. (“Though largely drawn from the interaction of poetry and teaching, the poets range from highly experimental, even “conceptual,” writers of lyric, narrative and political poetry, as well as translation and performance writing. There is no “subject” for the symposium — it is not concerned with Los Angeles or even its poetical history — but a snapshot of poets in Los Angeles today, how they think and make their work. Each poet will make a short presentation of their recent thinking and read selections of their work; each “lane” will be followed by a question and answer (for passenger loading only) period.”)
Brian did the work. Thanks Brian Kim Stefans.
One guy showed us his tiny sculptures made of tissue paper, saliva and semen. One guy wrote a novel, the same novel that he kept showing me about a once famous child actor who had been his partner who died of AIDS around 1990, rewriting and revising the same manuscript for twenty years. One guy I’m sure still lives with his aged, infirm mom who he dutifully cares for and still writes noir stories he sends out to unknown on-line publications. One woman, the major poet of the city and basically the poet laureate of the city, died ill and broke out in the desert. One woman wrote brutal hilarious stories about dead-pan sexual relationships that I urged her to publish, but she did not. One woman, I should have called her back immediately, left a message on my phone machine saying she had a manuscript she wanted to show me, but committed suicide. One guy published about fifteen years ago a tiny edition, a few hundred copies, of a little poetry book which nobody saw and no one remembers. Sometimes I see him in Trader Joe’s. Another guy I see around seems like a good guy but never talks about books or poetry, instead he asks for favors, recommendation letters or referrals, or money for some project or other. One guy asked me to write a recommendation letter, and wrote me from the mountains thanking me for helping him get the gig; someone said he was drunk at a gathering, talking shit about my work. There was also the Paraguayan Korean poet, who I pointed out in a recent magazine photo to someone who didn’t recognize her; I said she’d gotten married, and the last time I saw her she was drunk outside Ave. 50 Gallery. A journalist we used to talk with about writing in bars or cafes wrote a cook book; the last time I saw him was with a script writer who wrote a little poetry on the side who had recently returned from Cuba, with a Cuban wife no less (supposedly she was making his life hell), who kept trying to turn the conversation into a lament for the death of Communism, but the journalist and I were talking poetry and how poetry related to the journalist’s cook book. The journalist left the city to become a professor up north. I did not see or hear from him after that, but I had dinner with an interesting poet in the Bay Area who said he was his nephew.
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
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
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.
Date: Friday, November 21st
Time: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m (reception to follow)
Place: UCLA Humanities Building, Room 193
Blacktop Ecologies: Los Angeles Poetry and Poetics is a one-day symposium of writers active in Los Angeles today. Though largely drawn from the interaction of poetry and teaching, the poets range from highly experimental, even “conceptual,” writers of lyric, narrative and political poetry, as well as translation and performance writing. There is no “subject” for the symposium — it is not concerned with Los Angeles or even its poetical history — but a snapshot of poets in Los Angeles today, how they think and make their work. Each poet will make a short presentation of their recent thinking and read selections of their work; each “lane” will be followed by a question and answer (for passenger loading only) period.
Breakfast will be available starting at 9.
Lunch will be available starting at 12.
Blacktop Ecologies: Los Angeles Poetry and Poetics
10-11:45: Lane 1
Aaron Kunin teaches at Pomona College (Milton, English literature 1500-1800, Poetics). His works include the novel The Mandarin (2008), and three books of poetry, Folding Ruling Star (2005), The Sore Throat & Other Poems (2010) and the forthcoming Cold Genius (2014). Grace Period: Notebooks, 1998-2007, a series of aphorisms, was published in 2013. He is a widely published reviewer of poetry and art.
Maggie Nelson teaches at CalArts (Poetics, Non-fiction) and is the author of five books of nonfiction and four books of poetry. Her most recent book is The Argonauts, a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, sodomitical maternity, queer family, and the limitations and possibilities of language (May 2015). Her nonfiction books include The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2012), Bluets (2009), and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007). Her poetry books include Something Bright, Then Holes (2007); Jane: A Murder (2005), The Latest Winter (2003), and Shiner (2001).
Andrew Maxwell is co-founder and -editor of the poetry journal The Germ (1997-2005) and presently founder and co-curator of the publishing collective and reading series at the Poetic Research Bureau. Long an advocate of local, small run publishing, he is the author of two collections of poetry, the aphoristic Peeping Mot (2013) and the forthcoming Candor is the brightest shield (Dec 2014).
Harryette Mullen teaches at UCLA (African American Literature, Creative Writing) and is the author of Urban Tumbleweed (2013), Muse & Drudge (1995), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), Trimmings (1991), and Tree Tall Woman (1981). Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge were collected into Recyclopedia (2006) which received a PEN Beyond Margins Award. In 2002, she published both Blues Baby: Early Poems and the widely acclaimed Sleeping with the Dictionary. Her selected essays and interviews, The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be, was published in 2012.
12:45-2:30: Lane 2
Christine Wertheim teaches at CalArts (Image+Text, Feminisms, Aesthetic Theories) and is a poet, performer, artist, critic and curator. Her books are mUtter-bAbel (2013) and +|’me’S-pace (2007), and she has edited the literary anthologies Feminaissance (2010), The n/Oulipean Analects (2007), and Séance (2006), the last two with Matias Viegener. Crochet Coral Reef, with Margaret Wertheim, is forthcoming in 2015. She has a PhD in literature and semiotics from Middlesex University. With her sister Margaret, she co-directs the Institute For Figuring, a non-profit dedicated to the intersections of math, science, art and pedagogy whose solo shows include NYU Abu Dhabi, the Smithsonian, Science Museum Dublin and Hayward Gallery London.
Daniel Tiffany teaches at USC (Modern Poetry and Poetics) and has published several works of important, idiosyncratic literary criticism: My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch (2014), Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (2009), Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (2000) and Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound (1998). HIs most recent book of poetry is Neptune Park (2013), preceded by Privado (2013), The Dandelion Clock (2010) and Puppet Wardrobe (2006). He has also published translations of texts by Sophocles and the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, as well as Georges Bataille’s pornographic tale, Madame Edwarda.
David Lloyd teaches at UCR (English) and is the author of numerous books of criticism including Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (1987), Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment (1993), Culture and the State (co-authored with Paul Thomas, 1997), Ireland After History (2000) and Irish Times: Temporalities of Modernity (2008). His most recent book is Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity, 1800-2000: Transformations of Oral Space (2011). Arc & Sill: Poems 1979-2009 appeared in 2012 from Shearsman Books, a collection of his many chapbook publications. A new sequence, Kodalith, appeared with the online press Smithereens in 2014. He has long been the organizer of the Effie Street Reading series.
Diane Ward, early associated with the Language poets, is the author of numerous books and chapbooks including: Theory of Emotion (1979), Never without One (1984), Relation (1989), Human Ceiling (1995), Imaginary Movie (1992), Exhibition (1995), Portrait As If Through My Own Voice (2001), Flim-Yoked Scrim (2006) and No List (No List) (2008). Her work is anthologized in Out of Everywhere: linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America & the UK (1996) and Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (1998). She is presently pursuing a degree in geography at UCLA.
2:45-4:30: Lane 3
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East LA since 1985. He is the author of the book-length poetry sequences City Terrace Field Manual (1996) and World Ball Notebook (2008) as well as American Loneliness: Selected Poems (2006). He co-edited, with Michelle T. Clinton and Naomi Quinonez, the anthology Invocation L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry (1989) and is the author of the novel Atomik Aztex published by City Lights Publishing in 2005.
Jen Hofer is adjunct faculty in the MFA Writing Program at CalArts and teaches part-time in the Graduate Writing Program at Otis, and is a poet, translator, bookmaker, social justice interpreter, public letter-writer, knitter, urban cyclist, and co-founder (with John Pluecker) of the language justice and literary activism collaborative Antena, which recently had an installation at the Blaffer Art Museum at University of Houston. Her latest translations include the chapbook En las maravillas/In Wonder (2012); Ivory Black, a translation of Negro marfil by Myriam Moscona (2011); sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre, a translation from Dolores Dorantes by Dolores Dorantes (2008); and lip wolf, a translation of Laura Solórzano’s lobo de labio (2007). Her most recent poetry books include the chapbooks “The Missing Link” (2014), “all at once and one at a time” (2013), and “Front Page News” (2013), and a book-length sequence of anti-war poem-manifestos, one (2009).
Will Alexander is an incredibly prolific poet often associated with Surrealism and the Negritude but a native of Los Angeles. His books of poetry include: Vertical Rainbow Climber (1987), Arcane Lavender Morals (1994), The Stratospheric Canticles (1995), Asia & Haiti (1995), Above the Human Nerve Domain (1998), The Sri Lankan Loxodrome (2009), Compression and Purity (2011) and The Brimstone Boat (2012). In addition, he’s published the essay collections Towards the Primeval Lightning Field (1998) and Mirach Speaks to his Grammatical Transparents (2011) as well as works of fiction and theater.
Paul Vangelisti is the Chair of Creative Writing at Otis College and has long been a staple — as writer, editor, curator of radio plays and publisher — of the Los Angeles Poetry community. He was co-editor of the literary magazine Invisible City from 1971-82, editor of Ribot, the annual publication of the College of Neglected Science from 1992-2002, and presently editor of or, a journal of poetry and translation. He is the author of twenty books of poetry, including Alphabets: 1986-1996 (1999), Days Shadows Pass (2007), Two (2010) and his selected poems Embarrassment of Survival (2001). His editing activities include Specimen ’73, Abandoned Lattitudes (including work by John Thomas and Robert Crosson, 1983) and Los Angeles Poetry, Place as Purpose: Poetry from the Western States (with Martha Ronk, 2002). He is currently editing, with Luigi Ballerini, a five-volume anthology of contemporary American poetry from 1960 to the present, Nuova Poesia Americana, for Mondadori publishing, Milan. He is also editor of Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995) and the forthcoming selection of Baraka’s poetry, S O S: Poems, 1961-2013.
for more information: https://blacktopecologies.wordpress.com/
Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ
They say that you, a road builder Had such love for our country You rushed out and waved your torch To call the bombs down on yourself And save the road for the troops As my unit passed on that worn road The bomb crater reminded us of your story Your grave is radiant with bright-colored stones Piled high with love for you, a young girl As I looked in the bomb crater where you died The rain water became a patch of sky Our country is kind Water from the sky washes pain away Now you lie down deep in the earth As the sky lay down in that earthen crater At night your soul sheds light Like the dazzling stars Did your soft white skin Become a bank of white clouds? By day I pass under a sun-flooded sky And it is your sky And that anxious, wakeful disc Is it the sun, or is it your heart Lighting my way As I walk down the long road? The name of the road is your name Your death is a young girl’s patch of blue sky My soul is lit by your life And my friends, who never saw you Each has a different image of your face
From Green Rice by Lam Thi My Da. Translated by Martha Collins and Thuy Dinh. Used with permission of Curbstone Press.
Lam Thi My Da is one of Vietnam’s best known writers. She comes from Quang Binh Province, in the central part of Vietnam, an area that saw a great deal of fighting during the war. A graduate of the Writer’s College in Vietnam, she has worked as a reporter and a literary editor. She has written five books of poetry and her work, Dedicated to a Dream, received the highest honors from the National United Board of Vietnamese Literature and the Arts. Translations of her poems have been featured in Six Vietnamese Poets, published in the United States by Curbstone. She has also published three collections of stories for children.
reviewed by Maxine Hong Kingston here http://www.waterbridgereview.org/092006/rvw_green_rice.php
Poem for the Year of the Buffalo
I was born in the year of the buffalo
A year that brings many troubles
A buffalo toils all year round
Works hard but never grumbles
When i was very small I walked
With my buffalo to the village fields
Green grass, high flying kites
Buffalo and I would daydream
There was so much wind
In the wide open fields
There was so much sun
Buffalo’s eyes would brim
Don’t play music near a buffalos ear-
Please don’t tell me that
If a buffalo looks, a buffalo knows
It doesn’t need to hear
I left home a long time ago
But when spring comes I go back
There I meet the black buffalo
Still attentive, innocent
The buffalo eats grass all day
Spring offers up grass again
Thanks to heaven for watching over
The buffalo’s youth, that never ends.
-Lam Thi My Da
translated by Thuy Dinh and Martha Collins