Forum on Compromise Aesthetics

Criticism Forum/ Johannes Göransson, Ryan Brooks, Stephen Burt, and Rachel Greenwald Smith

:: Introduction ::

In the Fall 2014 Issue, The Account published a manifesto by Rachel Greenwald Smith entitled “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics.” In that piece, Greenwald Smith highlights the contradictions in the belief held by many contemporary writers and critics alike that art is “at its most socially relevant when it forges compromises between strategies traditionally associated with the mainstream on one hand and those associated with experimental departures from the mainstream on the other.” Notably, she suggests that “compromise” is “symptomatic” of the emergence of neoliberal thought over the past thirty years. And, given this fact, we should be cautious of celebratory claims that poetry has found a more “fertile” ground between avant-garde and traditional, arguably more accessible, forms. Her manifesto, true to its form and intent, incited considerable interest from those on both sides of the argument. The Account has convened a special forum on “compromise aesthetics” featuring responses by Johannes Göransson, Ryan M. Brooks, Stephen Burt, and of course, Rachel Greenwald Smith, who responds to her interlocutors.

– Davis Smith-Brecheisen, Guest Criticism Editor

 

:: The Intervention of Art’s Enchantment ::

Johannes Göransson

1.

The beginning of Jean Genet’s classic Our Lady of Flowers (translated incredibly by Bernard Frechtman) is the most beautiful writing I know:

Weidman appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded pilot fallen into the rye one September day like the day when the world came to know the name of Our Lady of Flowers. His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers, cunningly elevated to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stairway that has abetted them by not creaking. Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: murder one, murder two, murder three, up to six, bespeaking his secret glory and preparing his future glory.

A little earlier, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mistress . . . . (Genet  51)

I love how Weidmann appears suddenly in the five o’clock edition like a vision—a little like how Billy Holiday appears suddenly in Frank O’Hara’s famous elegy “The Day Lady Died”—inaugurating a flight of fancy in which images keep multiplying and spreading. But of course in O’Hara’s poem, the sudden appearance comes at the end of the poem, steering us away from the quandary-inducing picking through of books and booze and transporting us into that deathy-sacred-erotic space of her whispering performance where we all stop breathing. In Genet, this is where the book starts, and the whole novel takes place in a deathy-erotic-sacred space of art. In Genet’s book, art’s enchantment is not limited to the memory; art—in the shape of crime, or crime as art—intervenes in, saturates all of life. It is not an escape from life but a transformation of life into something too much, too full, overdone. One might say that Genet never “stop[s] breathing” but goes on and on, and at the same time it is art’s necroglamorous dimension—the way it stops our breathing (as when Weidmann’s handsome, alluring image appears before us), it kills us. 

This is why it is so hard to live in this world if you are contaminated by art; this society needs to exterminate art’s enchantment in favor of a “restricted economy” (as described by Georges Bataille) of utilitarian concerns.

There is no place for us in this functionalist world, except maybe in the night, if “night” (in Raul Zurita’s words) is “the insane asylum of plants.” 

This is also why art is a crime, why enchantment is an intervention in a world of consensus and agency, a world where people make decisions and solve crimes. Art’s intervention is to ruin us. 

2.

Weidmann appears and is immediately “multiplied”—first in the newspaper copies, then by being compared to a nun “and yet a wounded pilot,” and this wounded pilot leads to the doubling of the day (both as a September day and the day that Our Lady of Flowers is found out). His multiply multiplied face is then transported throughout the land to remind everyone of “enchanting murderers.” The key for me is the word “enchanted”—a term often associated with fairytales. In this book, the criminals are enchanting—that is to say, they are poetic like the prose style.

Genet’s prose style is wound around and around like the swaths of Weidmann—and the nun and the wounded pilot. One might say that it’s the very definition of “Baroque”:

From birth, the Baroque was destined for ambiguity, for semantic diffusion. It was the thick, irregular pearl—in Spanish barruco, berrueco, in Portugese barrocco—the rocky, the knotted, the agglutinated, density of the stone—barrueco, berrucco, or perhaps the excresence, the cyst, something that proliferates, at once free and lithic, tumorous, warty; perhaps the name of the hypersensitive, even mannered pupil of the Carraccis . . . . Finally . . . the Baroque is defined as “shocking bizarreness” (Littré) or as “outlandishness, extravagance and bad taste. (Sarduy 270) 

I love how Sarduy’s own critical prose mimics the “thick, irregular pearl” of the baroque. As in Genet, here baroque is something that winds, swathes in layers, and “proliferates.” It is both the seemingly elevated and free, and the tumorous and warty. The key here is that artifice is not—as it is often viewed—the opposite of the bodily and “warty,” the abject, but rather is something that collapses such distinctions. 

In Genet, after all, even a fart can become a beautiful, ornate, oriental “pearl” through the artifice-saturated lifestyles of the drag queens and criminals that populate his book—and are populated, created, generated by his fantasies in order, quite explicitly, to get himself off:

If he says, “I’m dropping a pearl” or “A pearl slipped,” he means that he has farted in a certain way, very softly so that the fart has flowed out very quietly. Let us wonder at the fact that it does suggest a pearl of a warm orient: the flowing, the muted leak, seems to be as milky as the paleness of the pearl, that is, slightly cloudy. It makes Darling seem to us a kind of precious gigolo, a Hindu, a princess who drinks pearls. The odor he has silently spread in the prison has the dullness of a pearl, coils about him, haloes him from head to foot, isolates him. (Genet 15) 

It is both ridiculous and beautiful, artless and ornate—it ruins such distinctions. The truly artful is tasteless, goes over the top, becomes farce, becomes porn, goes too far. I love how the small, ephemeral fart here becomes not just one valuable but multiple pearls, grows to become an entire “orient” and its entire treasure trove of exotica before finally turning the pimp Darling into a kind of saint (like Weidmann), haloed by the (f)art. 

3.

This tacky, artless over-artfulness is in much modernist discourse dismissed as kitsch—as something tasteless. But Timothy Morton has made a point of how kitsch’s tacky, slimy quality turns it into a kind of abject:

The Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein are gothic and tacky. The tacky is the anaesthetic (unaesthetic) property of kitsch: glistening, plasticized, inert, tactile, sticky—compelling our awareness of perception; too bright, too dull, too quiet, too loud, too smelly, not smelly enough—subverting aesthetic property. Coleridge respected the tacky; he appreciated the ethics of calling sugar the crystallized blood of slaves. So did Mary Shelley: her monster story undermines the myth of Romantic genius.  Both stories are about excessively material stuff, art-matter as pure extension. (Morton 158)

It seems to me that Morton is wrong to call this “anaesthetic”; rather, it seems over-aesthetic, an artfulness that cannot be contained by good taste—the defense of a restricted society, the restraint of consensus culture—but instead overwhelms us, infiltrating every aspect of our lives. It is this “art-matter” that draws me into art, that enchants me, and it’s the intervention of art’s matter—as an enchantment, which can transform a fart into a pearl—that I am interested in exploring, in this essay and in my own poetry. 

Unlike the more standard politics (subverting gender norms, critiquing the patriarchy, etc.), art’s matter intervenes in our life like the sudden appearance of Weidmann’s killer mug:

Beyond its cuteness (a reified version of Kantian beauty), an element in kitsch ecological imagery maintains this abjection, a formless, abject element, Bataille’s informe . . . . The bourgeois subject would rule forever if fascination and horror always resulted in spitting out the disgusting object. Ecological art is duty bound to hold the slimy in view. (Morton 159)

I would add that it’s not just “ecological art” that should “hold the slimy in view.” It is art’s role in a hygienic society devoted to a kind of functionalism that runs counter to art’s shitty matter. Art is extreme, but in a consensus culture, extreme art becomes “kitsch.” 

4.

What makes me write about Genet and the baroque? To me, this vein of art—the bad taste of artifice—is at the heart of so many poetry discussions. It bubbled up in Stephen Burt’s discussion of the “nearly baroque” (almost in bad taste, almost over the top, almost enchanting) (Burt, “The Nearly Baroque”). And in a sense it’s also the nameless other of his “New Thing” essay, which posited a new standard of taste in prosaic, un-ornamental poetry against “candy surrealism,” which has no standards (Burt, “The New Thing”). Again, it’s the sugar that revolts us as if it were shit.

Shit and sugar, shit and sugar is the mantra of this screed.

It is hard to read a single issue of the Writer’s Chronicle (a journal for MFA programs, thus invested in teaching students, budding poets, to be tasteful) or some such journal without being reminded of the importance of not going too far. This makes sense since the quietist pedagogy (it was always more of a pedagogical stance than an aesthetic movement) always focused on restraint—you have to earn the images, write what you know, etc. In one recent article in the Writer’s Chronicle, Gregory Orr espouses Wordsworth’s famous anti-kitsch manifesto, the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798):

Wordsworth rescued lyric from elitism by saying that the language used in poems isn’t a special, flowery language reserved for special people or a special class of people. Instead, he insisted it was “a selection of the real language spoken by men” (and women). Poetry was just us, speaking a little more intensively or rhythmically than we ordinarily speak, but not in some special language only available to social or economic elite. (Orr)

This argument seems to be repeated over and over: the fanciful, the “flowery,” the “gaudy and inane”—in other words the too-poetic, the baroque—is somehow evil, somehow associated with the upper class, with elitism, even though it is tasteless to write flowery language—and taste tends to follow money. 

Too often, somehow the too-poetic—“effete” poetry—is made evil,  exclusive, and elitist in its “preciousness.” How can it be, I wonder, that Jean Genet—orphan, prostitute, vagabond—who wrote Our Lady of the Flowers while in jail can be an exemplar of an exclusive, economically elite style of writing? 

5.

The answer is quite simple: the eliteness of the effete is a different kind of eliteness from the economic privilege that Orr stresses. It is true that the baroque too-muchness of some art—“heavy” with symbols and art’s stuff—is elite in a certain way. Not because its author or reader has to be rich, but because such art demands more of us, demands not “difficulty” or “accessibility” (both notions that depend on a new-critical, interpreter-in-charge model of reading), and most of all: not the bullshit capitalist idea of “easy communication” (achieved, I assume, after reading one of those “ten ways of easier communication” books that businessmen tote around in order to rise in the rungs of the corporate ladder).

No, it’s an idea of art that overwhelms and “enchants,” appears before us like a vision and saturates our lives like newspapers magically “strewing death” into our lives (Genet 52). Of course, Genet constantly explores the connection between art and the antisocial, poetry and criminality, as well as the aristocracy of art. So perhaps it makes sense: “Nobility is glamorous. The most equalitarian of men, though he may not care to admit it, experiences this glamor and submits to it” (Genet 194). Art’s necroglamorous “nobility” demands that we “submit” to it. Our relationship with art is not egalitarian, with its accompanying bourgeois idea of progress. It’s not “easy” and it’s not tasteful. Art’s matter infiltrates, infects, ruins us. 

It is in a sense too easy.

It overtakes us.

“Come on over and do the twist!” (K. Cobain)

“And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud, / Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,/And go Johnny go, and do the watusi, oh do the watusi” (P.Smith)

 

We will not rise in the corporate ladder.

There is no place for art in our society, but art persists as a crime.

 

Sugar and shit, sugar and shit. 

 

We live in a time when academics write about conceptual poetry with its anti-poetic stance, which is also based on an anti-baroque model (poetry is so over the top, excessive, time to write poetry without the poetry, poetry that doesn’t even have to be read), according to which poetry is dead. That is to say, whether you subscribe to a quietist model of “earn your images” or a conceptual model that also distrusts poetic language, it is tasteless to be poetic.  [i] And if conceptual poetry says that poetry is dead, I answer that of course it is. Both conceptual poetry and quietist pedagogy oppose the enchantment that is art’s matter, want to discipline it into a dull and “easy” communication. Both thrive on a compromise-culture aversion to the kind of enchantment we have to submit to. Compromise culture wants us all to remain interpreters-in-charge, to not have to be shipwrecked by the intervention of art’s matter.

 


[i] And as Daniel Tiffany argues in his book My Silver Planet, kitsch finds its origin in the poetic, which runs counter to the progress-oriented bourgeois idea of “literature” and the writer as “man speaking to men.”

 

 Works Cited

Burt, Stephen. “The Nearly Baroque.” Boston Review. 11 April 2014. Web. 2 April 2015.

—–. “The New Thing.” Boston Review, 1 May 2009. Web. 2 April 2015.

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1991. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Orr, Gregory. “Foundational Document and the Nature of Lyric.” The Writer’s      Chronicle. October/November 2014. Web. 2 April 2015.

Sarduy, Severo. “The Baroque and Neo-Baroque.” Baroque New Worlds:   Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest. Eds. Louis Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Tiffany, Daniel. My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Print.

 

Johannes Göransson is the author of six books, most recently The Sugar Book (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2015), and the translator of several works in translation, including books by Aase Berg, Henry Parland, and Johan Jönson. He publishes Action Books and teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

 

:: Conflict before Compromise: A Response to Rachel Greenwald Smith ::

Ryan M. Brooks

Rachel Greenwald Smith’s “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” can be understood as an attempt to think through the internal connection between U.S. literary post-postmodernism and the neoliberal turn, two cultural shifts that have been widely discussed but less often discussed together. Smith suggests that these shifts converge in what she calls “compromise aesthetics,” the belief that forging “compromises” between “mainstream” and “experimental” literary strategies makes a text “socially relevant,” a belief that displaces the old idea that texts are relevant precisely to the degree they refuse to compromise (1). As Smith argues, this new aesthetics reproduces the logic of neoliberalism in several ways, beginning with its tendency to privilege stylistic accumulation and the “entrepreneurial capacity to marshal resources effectively” more than “social or political form of alliance” (5). Like “the neoliberal model of the entrepreneur,” moreover, critics and writers in this mode tend to see “the individual as both self-consciously constructed and immensely valuable” (7), a compromise between the postmodern critique of the subject and the attempt, in both lyric poetry and realist fiction, to evoke speakers or characters “who seem like real people” (7). Finally, just as neoliberals imagine the end of ideological disagreements about the value of different political systems—to be replaced by “‘the end­less solv­ing of tech­ni­cal prob­lems’” (“The End of His­tory?” 25 qtd 16)—these critics and writers imagine the end of ideological disagreements about the value of different literary styles—to be replaced by the endless solving of aesthetic “technical problems.”

One way to synthesize these elements is to suggest that, like neoliberalism, compromise aesthetics imagines a world in which every person is an “entrepreneur” or, as Foucault famously put it, an “entrepreneur of himself” (226), a vision which reframes social relationships in terms of personal choices and personal characteristics. Smith’s concept of compromise aesthetics is important, then, because it points to ways this logic plays out in contemporary criticism and the literature that aspires to move “past” postmodernism. At the same time, I suggest that Smith doesn’t fully account for the specific discursive work performed by this logic, which serves to personalize conflicts otherwise irreducible to the personal, including both material and ideological conflicts, and thus symbolically resolve those conflicts. Disavowing structural antagonism in this way is the gesture that all neoliberal discourse must make, insofar as “neoliberal” signifies the embrace of liberalized markets and market logic, and insofar as this attitude has flourished at the same time that economic inequality—the cause and effect of the antagonism known as class—has intensified. Identifying how contemporary cultural forms make sense of such conflicts is thus crucial not only for understanding their relationship with neoliberalism, but also for trying to imagine alternatives to this discourse, in both art and politics. 

At various moments, however, Smith implies that it is “compromise” itself—rather than the disavowal this “compromise” performs—that makes this aesthetics a “symptom of the cultural entrenchment of neoliberalism” (3).  Although I strongly agree that we can see evidence of the neoliberal turn in the abandonment of the traditional conflict between “mainstream” and “experimental” literature, as Smith suggests, it’s important to note that this disavowal doesn’t always take the form of “compromise” between mainstream and experimental techniques. Indeed, as I argue elsewhere, in an essay on the Jonathan Franzen/Ben Marcus debate, this disavowal may also take the form of an insistence that, since literary tastes are a function of what “kind of person” (Franzen 241) one is, writers should not compromise, but should instead produce as many different kinds of writing as there are “kind of person” or “kind of reader” (Marcus 51). [ii]

More to the point, neoliberalism cannot be reduced to the various political positions “compromise” is said to embody in this essay. These commitments include a denial of historicity—“the appeal to inevitability and permanence that is at the heart of the very concept of compromise” (Smith 2)—and a denial that disagreements still exist, that there continues to be “global conflict” and “racial unrest” (12). In my view, neoliberalism—as an active political force and not simply a utopian thesis about the “end of history”—does not so much deny that change is possible or that people continue to disagree as find ways to make these disagreements impossible. How can we disagree when, to put it as crudely as Franzen, our disagreements are really just a function of what “kind of person” we are? 

For a more high-tech example of this logic, in fact, we can look at an instance of compromise aesthetics cited by Smith, David Foster Wallace’s “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which has been widely read as an attempt to forge a “postironic” literary ethos (Konstantinou 85). Wallace’s oft-cited diatribe against postmodern irony doesn’t actually reject the social vision reflected by this irony—“theoretical anti-foundationalism” (Konstantinou 84), or the idea that the world is “constructed” (Wallace 180)—and he clearly sees himself as extending postmodernism’s “genuine socio-artistic agenda,” its attempt to “transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal and television” (171). His argument, however, is that in an era when postmodern irony has been “co-opted” (177) by “televisual culture” (172), it may actually be contributing to TV’s cultural dominance: “the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability . . . . The well-trained lonely viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier” (181). In response, Wallace issues his famous call for writers “who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” (192-193).

Not only does the very instrumentality of Wallace’s critique make it seem like a peculiarly ironic form of “postirony,” but, as Konstantinou notes (without quite teasing out the consequences of this observation), the belief he calls for is a belief “emptied out of specific content” (85). Wallace is not telling us what to believe, in other words, but asking us to be “believers” (Konstantinou 104). By this logic, it doesn’t really matter what we believe—which “single-entendre values” we “endorse”—as long as we believe something. Rather than a rejection of postmodern irony, then, it seems more accurate to call this a personalized, neoliberal version of this irony. Postmodern irony suggests that we can’t disagree because our beliefs are just the products of our positions within competing systems of meaning (grand narratives, language games, ontological worlds, etc.), a logic that requires us to imagine that if we were in different systems, we’d no longer believe what we believe and thus no longer disagree. [iii] Wallace’s neoliberal irony suggests that we can’t disagree because belief is just a relationship between the self and the self’s own “expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability” and that no one iteration of this relationship is more valuable than any other (even if belief or “sincerity” [178] itself is more valuable than cynicism). 

Smith actually provides an apt summary of this logic when she writes that compromise aesthetics celebrates works that “affirm the fundamental existence and importance of individual subjective experience in general even if [these] works demonstrate skepticism toward any individual subject’s reality as universal” (7, italics original). Here, again, though, she suggests that this is a distinctly neoliberal logic not because of its personalizing disavowal of antagonism—its untenable “skepticism,” the fact it denies the universalizing nature of our judgments even as it makes such judgments—but because it represents a “compromise” with another neoliberal value, in this case the “neoliberal primacy of being an individual person (constructed or not)” (7). Although I believe Smith is exactly right when she describes contemporary literature’s tendency to invest “the personal” with “deep and specific value” (9), it’s important to remember that, just as neoliberal aesthetics cannot be reduced to a denial of historical contingency, it also cannot be reduced to a celebration of “the individual,” as seems to be suggested here. [iv]

To see why this is true, we can look again at Wallace’s essay, which, on one hand, does reflect the literary-historical shift Smith describes. Whereas self-consciously “post-postmodern” writing tends to understand social relationships in terms of “the personal, and by extension, the emotional” (6) (and, we might add, “the ethical”), postmodern writing tended to understand social relations in terms of impersonal systems of mediation and power and, following from this, tended to imagine that political action meant intervening in these systems, including the systems that construct subjects. As Smith puts it succinctly: “Postmodern aesthetics saw an insistence upon the artificiality of the subject as a form of critique. Postmodernist works therefore tended to minimize the affective pull of the individual by emphasizing their artificiality” (9). We can see this representational change enacted in Wallace’s observation about the “well-conditioned” and “well-trained viewer” quoted above: ultimately he is less concerned with the technologies that have “conditioned” and “trained” these viewers than with their emotional experiences, the fact they’ve been made “lonelier.”

As this lament also makes clear, however, this commitment to “individual subjective experience” (Smith 7) does not necessarily translate into a celebration of what Wallace calls “the nobility of individualism” (174). Indeed, the whole force of “E. Unibus Pluram” is, as the title suggests, to decry the atomization of U.S. life, the “Joe Briefcase-type world that shifts ever more starkly from some community of relationships to networks of strangers connected by self-interest and contest and image” (154). In protesting irony’s “tyranny” (184), Wallace explicitly rejects the counter-culture’s commitment to non-conformism (because it has been co-opted by ironic TV advertising) and the “conservative” belief that “the discerning consumer instincts of the little guy would correct all imbalances if only big systems would quit stifling his freedom to choose” (185). Thus, we see that Wallace’s social vision is importantly different from the stereotypical right-wing insistence on personal liberation within a market framework—the insistence that, to quote Philip Mirowski quoting Slavoj Žižek, “You are free to do anything as long as it involves shopping” (421). 

What makes Wallace’s aesthetic still a neoliberal aesthetic is not, then, an antisocial individualism but a different kind of “compromise”: his tacit acceptance of the premise that capitalism’s problems can be addressed at the level of personal values and relationships. That is, just as his call for “single-entendre” “‘anti-rebels’” (192) disavows ideological antagonism by turning belief into a personal identity, his ideal of a nurturing “community of relationships” disavows the impersonal economic and political conflicts that tend to cut across such “communities,” including the antagonism between labor and capital that makes capitalist marketplaces possible in the first place. Rejecting this disavowal is essential not just for understanding neoliberalism—which has functioned, as David Harvey argued a decade ago, “as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capitalist accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19, emphasis original)—but for resisting it, as acknowledging the irreducibility of these antagonisms is the first step to accepting that “economic elites” will only care about workers’ “old untrendy human troubles and emotions” (Wallace 193) if workers organize and force them to care. This vision is already being embraced in the emergent academic labor movement, especially among contingent faculty (who are an excellent resource if you are looking for “old untrendy human troubles and emotions”), and critics need to bring the same rigorous perspective to their analysis of contemporary literary culture. This is especially true if we are in search of genuinely radical texts, works whose aesthetics are—as Smith suggests of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrower (2013)—not just post-postmodern, but post-neoliberal.

 


[ii] “‘The Family Gone Wrong’: Post-Postmodernism and the Neoliberal Turn,” currently unpublished.

[iii] For an analysis of how “the redescription…of people who have different beliefs as people who are playing different ‘language games’ amounts to a repudiation of the idea that people actually have any beliefs,” see Michaels (189).

[iv] In her essay “Postmodernism and the Affective Turn,” Smith suggests that texts and discourses that attend to the “deindividualizing affective forces that bind humans to one another and to other species” (435) represent an important alternative to the commitment to “humanism and the insularity of the individual” (442) implicit in neoliberalism. Although attending to these “deindividualizing affective forces” may translate into more radical “new forms of consciousness” (441) than the community-mindedness on display in Wallace’s text—whether you believe this seems to depend on whether or not you find affect theory convincing—Wallace’s text also demonstrates that neoliberalism can accommodate many different forms of subjectivity and that, in fact, analyzing neoliberalism in terms of modes of subjectivity alone risks reproducing neoliberalism’s various disavowals of antagonism.

 

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. Ed. Michel Senellart. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. Print.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult.” How to Be Alone: Essays. New York: Picador, 2002, 2003. Print.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Konstantinou, Lee. “No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief.” The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. Print.

Marcus, Ben. “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction.” Harper’s Magazine. October 2005: 39-52. Print.

Michaels, Wal­ter Benn. The Shape of the Sig­ni­fier: 1967 to the End of His­tory. Prince­ton and Oxford: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004. Print.

Mirowski, Philip. “Postface: Defining Neoliberalism.” The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Eds. Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Print.

Smith, Rachel Greenwald. “Postmodernism and the Affective Turn.” Twentieth-Century Literature 57.3-4. (Fall/Winter 2011): 423-446. Print.

—–. “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics.” The Account: A Journal of Prose, Poetry, and Thought. Fall 2014. Web.

Wal­lace, David Fos­ter. “E Unibus Plu­ram: Tele­vi­sion and U.S. Fic­tion.” Review of Con­tem­po­rary Fic­tion 13, no. 2 (1993): 151–94. Print.

 

Ryan M. Brooks recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and he is currently the Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Contemporary American Fiction at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature and the critical anthology The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

 

 :: A Response to “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” ::

Stephen Burt

First, thanks to Rachel Greenwald Smith for the attention! “The Elliptical Poets” is almost twenty years old; sometimes I’m afraid it’s the only thing I’ve written that more than ten people will ever read. I don’t regret writing it, but I do recognize that its generalizations about some poets I liked in the 1990s (I do still like them) belong to a kind of story about how the arts change, a kind of story that we can see over and over, from generation to generation, in almost every art form in the Atlantic world since 1910, if not since 1789. It is the kind of story anatomized, and largely endorsed, by Mark McGurl for American fiction in his tome The Program Era, and it is the kind of story often told—with passion—about pop and rock music over the past 30-odd years of rock fanzines.

In this story, a set of artists who appear more or less traditional, more or less accessible to a large audience, and more or less financially successful (large institutions owe them a living), though perhaps in decline, face challenges from newer artists whose work is more difficult, stranger or angrier, incompatible with institutional expectations, and—at least apparently or initially—aligned with a politics of radical change. Usually those politics are on the left—like Jon Langford’s, Yoko Ono’s, or Ron Silliman’s—but sometimes they are rightist, like Ian Hamilton Finlay’s or Ezra Pound’s. Often these newer artists have an explicit program, with critical prose (if not a manifesto) stating shared social, as well as artistic, goals.  These younger or newer artists make an impression: they appear to some third set of artists (most of them newer or less established) as a resource or a breath of fresh air; to critics as a Hegelian antithesis; to tastemaking editors as the next big thing. 

To no one’s surprise, that third set of artists (most new, a few established) conduct experiments; some of them, magpie-like or bricoleurishly, try to take parts and techniques from apparently incompatible schools, and of course few of them have signed on to a complete five- or thirty-year-old program.  One of those artists “breaks through”—does something that many critics, readers, listeners, recognize as imitable and remarkable, if not also marketable. It then becomes possible to regard that breakthrough artist, and her immediate peers, as a kind of Hegelian synthesis of the traditional, audience-friendly art and its tough, programmatic antithesis. 

Two minutes after that happens, it becomes possible (whether or not it’s justified or appropriate) to regard the breakthrough artist as a sellout, diluting or de-politicizing or betraying the difficult artists’ original program. That’s what happened on the way from Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp to Stuart Davis and Barney Bubbles; from the Stooges and the Electric Eels to the Clash to REM and/or the Police; from Xenakis to Kraftwerk to New Order and/or Daft Punk; from Lyn Hejinian and Rosmarie Waldrop to C. D. Wright and/or Jorie Graham; from Alurista, or from Anzaldúa, to J. Michael Martinez (whose “Notes on Chic@Nceptualism” you should maybe go read).

It seems important to say—though it should be obvious—that these sorts of overviews and stories, in which difficult or uncompromising innovators are followed by less programmatic, more popular syntheses, do not have to imply particular judgments of value; nor does the way you feel about the story have to dictate what you think of the artists involved. It seems to me that Nirvana was great and the Police mostly execrable, though both were latecomers and popular synthesists. I’d rather reread Infinite Jest than re-tackle Gravity’s Rainbow. On the other hand, I prefer the Raincoats to the Clash. One artist in one art form might be a sellout, while another who occupies an analogous art-historical position (“the Nirvana of Britain,” “the Spanish Gertrude Stein”) might seem to give the masses just what the masses need.

Moreover, stories about movements, programs, and syntheses can also omit what’s most interesting in the individual artworks, whatever makes for differences in practice among the people who share a theory or program. (Does Rae Armantrout ever sound like Charles Bernstein? Did the Who ever sound like Pink Floyd?) Stories about schools and movements are never sufficient, though sometimes necessary. And almost any story of any art movement—the story of American experimental poetry, in and out of coffee shops and classrooms; the story of experiments and marketplaces in American fiction; the rise and fall of Algerian raï—can be told in a way that celebrates, or decries, the dispersion of their innovations, the dissolution of a tight program.

Rachel Greenwald Smith, unless I have misunderstood her, decries it. She finds in American Hybrid, Cole Swensen and David St. John’s much-noticed anthology, and in other reactions to the synthetic impulse in much 1990s and 2000s poetry—including my essay from 1998—a retreat from history, from analysis of political economy, from the social utility that (in her view) difficult poetry ought to sustain. She thinks my piece, and American Hybrid, endorses something called “compromise aesthetics,” which she defines as the claim that “contemporary art is at its most socially relevant when it forges compromises between strategies traditionally associated with the mainstream on the one hand and those associated with experimental departures from the mainstream on the other.”  

This claim, Greenwald Smith says, is mistaken. It hives innovative techniques off from one another and from the social critique that once came with them. (Steve Evans objected to me on similar grounds 15 years ago.) It re-inscribes faith in the person, in the individual, exactly where such faith should not belong: art should challenge the capitalist model of autonomous, atomized individuals moving through space, maximizing utility, and making investments on their own. And it suggests that the dynamic history of innovation (in art, in politics, in anything) can reach an end.

I thought I was writing—I think I am still writing—about some poets who share some techniques and about some reasons you might want to read them; social relevance seems to me, at best, one reason. I have never claimed that compromises, in general, make art, in general, more “socially relevant,” in general, although I do think compromises and syntheses, in art and in politics, get a bad rap (more on that below). I do think that the synthetic poetry I’ve recommended, by Wright and Graham and Forrest Gander and D.A. Powell and the Thylias Moss of the 1990s, finds an accommodation with an idea of the person, and with an idea of lyric (they are, of course, historically linked ideas), that language poets and Continental avant-gardes held at arm’s length, or rejected outright. (What corresponds to “lyric” or to “the person” in the corresponding histories of avant-garde music, pop, and rock? The answers are melody, sung lyrics, and verse-chorus-verse song form).

But I do not see how this unstable and qualified return to the idea of the person, or the soul, or the individual, corresponds to a neoliberal “End of History,” or to a turbo-capitalist “Third Way.” If there is a consistent politics in the idea that we can remake lyric, can open it up to the last few decades of critique—and I am not sure whether there is such a politics, although I’d look for it first in C.D. Wright—it is not neoliberal, but simply liberal, or social democratic (not the same thing as “liberal” in other contexts, but compatible with it here), in the sense that Paul Wellstone, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and Eleanor Roosevelt were and are liberals. This liberalism founds a vision of social justice (when it has one) on a notion of needy, volatile, unpredictable, widely differing individuals, produced by our cultures, our families, and our unjust economies, along with our DNA: it envisions meshes and networks made of individuals who—though never really autonomous—deserve a degree of autonomy and a measure of respect. That is the explicit politics of Wright’s One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana and—though challenged by our climate emergency—the apparent politics of Powell’s Chronic, for example.

If Rachel Greenwald Smith were arguing that my so-called “Ellipticals,” or Swensen and St. John’s flotilla of hybrids, could not be reconciled with certain flavors of antihumanist Marxism (because they do not fit any tight program; because they find value in imagined persons), or that they could not be reconciled to deep ecology (because they cherish human opportunity and a diversity of human voice), then I would agree and move on. And if she were arguing that “compromise aesthetics,” as she defines them, seems complicit with neoliberal nonsense (both neoliberals and “compromise” fans believe that history has a direction and that it favors autonomous individuals), then I would also agree, though I am not sure what critic and what art form endorses “compromise” in that sense. But she is arguing something more: she claims that Wright and Mark Levine and American Hybrid conform this “compromise aesthetics,” and that I endorse it.  I do not think I do, nor that I did.

I do think there are people. Older or traditional artistic practice, in the 20th century, often presents itself as humanist, taking man or human beings or somebody (perhaps a white or a First World person) as the measure of all things; newer, more difficult artistic practice has often opposed that humanism, in the name of Marxism or of brute force. Take individual agency and feeling as one’s only source of value, and we may get stuck with the tragedy of the commons, watching the final glacier melt. But refuse to acknowledge anything like a human person as a source of value, and we may end up a nihilist, or worse; we might take “collective oppositional positions” with confidence (so Rachel Greenwald Smith quotes Göransson), but what would one favor, now that we know what one opposes? (Perhaps it’s “innovation.” Or “the Revolution”). 

Other than deep ecology (which values what’s good for the Earth, not what’s good for people), and other than cultural-nationalist collectivisms (which value what’s good for “my people,” not what’s good for persons), I have some trouble finding a sense of value that does not assume, in some sense, that there are people, and that people have wants or needs, and that some source of value inheres in what people want or need. Political change, the kind that reduces childhood illness, raises the minimum wage, or gets us a few more yards toward justice for janitors, requires some attention to what actual, already-existing persons (voters, potential union members, child-care providers) believe and think and do (and earn). For me, the most serious challenges to critical points of view organized around individuals comes not from programmatic (post) Marxist positions, but from certain kinds of multiculturalism, which claim that voices and tastes cannot be reconciled if they have sufficiently distant cultural origins (on which please see Charles Taylor), and from deep ecology, which claims that you are part of the problem if you prefer people to trees. 

But the “postmodernist” perspective that Rachel Greenwald Smith appears to prefer (her examples come from prose fiction, not from poetry) does not look like deep ecology, nor like a challenge to European-American, Atlantic, Western ideas of the subject; it looks more like 1890s naturalism, in which “the artificiality of the subject” receives emphasis, and “the affective pull of the individual” is “minimized.” Does she really want to go back to Stephen Crane? 

It seems to me that Rachel Greenwald Smith has confused neoliberalism with liberalism. It also seems to me that she has confused my 17-year-old description of a moment in the history of poetry with a claim about the end of political and cultural history. In fact—and I never said otherwise—all things must pass: today’s synthesis becomes tomorrow’s thesis, to be stomped on, turfed out, and partially resurrected in its turn (if climate change doesn’t first do everyone in). 

When I wrote that essay I would have simply rejected the idea that literary and stylistic compromise and political compromise could look like the same thing. I would not quite reject that idea today; they aren’t the same thing, but one can represent (or endorse, or repudiate) the other. If I favor compromise—if some of the poets I like also favor compromise, in the voting booth or in the public square or at the level of diction and line—it is not an end-of-history all’s-well compromise but a recognition that literary history, like every other kind of history, can be unpredictable and contingent, and that if you ask for everything all at once, according to a pre-set program, if you take a maximal, programmatic position, you will only get even part of what you want if someone (it doesn’t have to be you) will play the inside game to your outside, the good cop to your bad cop, the negotiator to your unyielding demand. There is (or there are) poetics of Occupy, but there also ought to be a poetics of running for your local school board; we need both, unless we don’t need schools. (You can have both in the same poet, or the same poem: for example, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen).

I never said C.D. Wright or Jorie Graham or Mark Levine or Thylias Moss or anybody else in 1998 (or in 2015) would be the end of history, or a stable resting point. Indeed I thought (and said) that their aesthetics were unstable, founded as they were on a tropism toward the volatile, the labile, even the teenage. If compromise aesthetics means a conviction that the compromise of the moment is not for an age but for all time, then I’ve never endorsed it, nor has any responsible poetry critic I know. Nor would I endorse an aesthetics of permanent revolution. Rachel Greenwald Smith’s apparent (perhaps just apparent) irredentism, her insistence on all-or-nothing, no-sellouts agendas, looks to me like a road to an aesthetic—and a political—dead end. Her insistence that history isn’t over, however, appeals to me—and to my favorite poets, too: I hope we can go on arguing about what can, and about what should, come next.

 

Stephen (sometimes Stephanie) Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Belmont (Graywolf Press, 2013), The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics (Belknap Press, 2010), and the chapbook All-Season Stephanie, out now from Rain Taxi Editions.

 

:: Rachel Greenwald Smith Responds ::

Rachel Greenwald Smith

Writing “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” was, in part, an experiment in critical form. What would it mean to write something like academic criticism in the form of a manifesto? What advantages could such a rhetorical mode afford? What gestures would it make possible? For Janet Lyon, “the manifesto fosters antagonism and scorns conciliation” (Lyon 9) and yields “an alternative historical narrative” (Lyon 15). [v] These characteristics suited my project in this piece, which was to suggest that having a name—“compromise aesthetics”—for a shared tendency across a range of varied critical and evaluative assessments of contemporary literature might allow us to identify how these assessments reflect some of the ideological assumptions of our social and political moment. While this critical gesture is entirely uncontroversial when applied to earlier historical periods, I had the sense that applying it to relatively recent literary criticism—by which I mean criticism of the past twenty-five years or so, a period that I see as characterized by the influence of neoliberalism in the cultural sphere—might be a more polarizing endeavor. But this was the point: to make something that seems self-evident (the notion that it’s good when experimentalists and non-experimentalists play nice with one another and share tactics) identifiable, disputable, and therefore a matter for debate rather than simple acceptance. A rhetorical mode that amplifies the existence of polarization and recasts history as a result—in this case, the history of criticism—seemed, therefore, apt for what I was up to.

This forum is a welcome occasion to witness the effects of such a project, both in terms of its content and—perhaps more conspicuously, if only implicitly—its form. Indeed, taking stock of the responses to my piece, the most striking initial impression one gets is their pronounced differences in tone and approach: in short, they seem to exhibit very different senses of how a work of criticism like this should be received, used, and engaged. The responses can, I think, be understood to stem from three very different impulses: an impulse to channel the piece’s formal energy in order to inspire further thought (Göransson); an impulse to analyze, critique, and expand its arguments (Brooks); and an impulse to instruct and discipline its writer (Burt). 

Inspiration. “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” was not intended to be a defense of the avant-garde, but rather an investigation of why we might now be so eager to celebrate its passing. As the piece suggests, I am worried about the triumphalism with which self-consciously polarizing, oppositional, or excessive work can be recast as belonging to an expansive set of post-avant-garde practices. Johannes Göransson shares that concern. It motivates much of his critical and poetic writing, and it is very much at the forefront of his objections to American Hybrid, objections that, in turn, have helped me shape my own sense of why that volume might be symptomatic of wider social, political, and economic currents. I admire his response to my piece very much. If my piece responded to the state of affairs that I am calling “compromise aesthetics” with an intentionally performative refusal, his responds with an equally performative affirmation of a counter-tradition in writing. 

Most of all, Göransson wants us to be “shipwrecked by the intervention of art’s matter,” to be “ruined” by “art in—in the shape of crime, or crime as art” (he takes Jean Genet as muse in developing this argument). In my view, whether or not art that performs this kind of intervention must adhere in some strict sense to what we would expect from the avant-garde isn’t the point. But, as Göransson insists, if art does anything important, it is only by being disruptive that it does so. As I argue in my original piece, this is why efforts to retroactively script that disruptiveness within narratives that see it as compatible with strategies and audiences that are essentially not disruptive are so damaging: such critical approaches do a violence to writing that is quieter, but more thoroughgoing, than the violence of the kind of “criminal” art Göransson advocates. 

Analysis. Like Göransson, Ryan Brooks uses my piece as an occasion to turn to another source text, in this case David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram.” But Brooks offers a more direct analysis, probing my definitions and pushing my thinking in new directions. The results of this are enormously fruitful, and I largely agree with Brooks’s arguments, especially his closing point regarding the importance of academic labor organizing and the status of contingent faculty.

Brooks and I do have our points of divergence. He argues convincingly that my piece does not address how neoliberal discourse thrives off of “disavowing structural antagonism” in such a way that goes beyond compromise. Writing can participate in this disavowal, for instance, through pluralization: “producing as many different kinds of writing as there are ‘kinds of person’ or ‘kinds of reader.’” Brooks argues that neoliberalism produces not compromise but the proliferation of individual perspectives; not a kind of watered-down sameness but endless articulations of equally valid perspectives.

Pushing this objection further, it would be possible to identify the presence of not one but two distinct ways of avoiding aesthetic conflict in contemporary literary culture: on one hand, the reconciliation of previously opposed impulses (compromise) and on the other hand, the belief that the conflict itself has no basis and can therefore be ignored (pluralization). On the level of writing, the literary landscape is characterized by pluralization. Writers are largely proceeding as if there isn’t any need to engage in the old battles anymore—look at the kind of work that is published in Poetry these days, or the diversity of work coming out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But on the level of criticism, compromise still seems to have purchase, in part because we aren’t particularly good at accounting for plurality (though Mark McGurl’s The Program Era is an important exception) and in part because literary critics and scholars tend to want to draw continuities. And if the cultural landscape is increasingly plural, that plurality drawn together suggests that the concerns that used to divide writers into groups and produce opposed schools no longer matter as they once did. So the meta-conclusion that many scholars and critics come to when faced with a plural literary landscape tends to look like the critical position I have called compromise aesthetics. In other words, these two phenomena, pluralization and compromise, aren’t as different as they seem when put into practice (think, for instance, of the suggestion to “agree to disagree”). And they seem to require one another, the latter giving retroactive shape to the former as the former justifies the presumption of the latter. Both compromise and pluralization are ways of disavowing antagonism. Compromise just explicitly celebrates what pluralization achieves by mere withdrawal.

Instruction. In his response, Stephen Burt spends considerable time explaining things to me: the distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism, the definition of deep ecology, the dialectical process of innovation in the arts, and the difference between naturalism and postmodernism among them. He begins with a rehearsal of what he calls “a kind of story about how the arts change, a kind of story that we can see over and over, from generation to generation, in almost every art form in the Atlantic world since 1910, if not since 1789.” It is, as he puts it, a story that positions a “breakthrough artist…as a kind of Hegelian synthesis of the traditional, audience-friendly art and its tough, programmatic antithesis.” Here Burt describes my work as falling in with the tendency to call out these “breakthrough artists” as “sell-outs,” to side with the lesser-known early avant-gardists over the “latecomers.” He casts me as a would-be knee-jerk Nirvana-hater, which in political terms makes my position one of “irredentism,” of “programmatic” rigidity, of valuing something other than the human—maybe “innovation,” maybe “the Revolution,” or maybe nothing at all. In response to this perceived rebelliousness on my part, he instructs me in the importance of liberal humanism and the dangers of nihilism. His overarching tone is one of patient discipline, as one might address someone who means well but could be helped by seeing the possibly dangerous results of her oppositional positions (in this case, the possibility that she might accidentally advocate a return to the naturalism of Stephen Crane. We could do worse, I think).

This impulse to instruct and discipline makes sense as a response to the tonal quality of my original piece: insofar as “the manifesto eschews . . . gradualist language of debate and reform”  (Lyon 31), the form of my piece does gesture toward the kind of suspicion toward liberalism that Burt addresses in his response. But the substance of my argument is not a call for a revolutionary avant-garde. Burt’s characterization of my argument as whole-cloth rejection of those artists who bring together techniques associated with experimentalism and those associated with more easily digestible modes ignores my piece’s sixth proposition: “All hybrid aesthetics are not compromise aesthetics.” By this I meant to suggest that we can love a band like Nirvana—indeed I think we should; I do—but not because the band found a way of closing the gap between punk and mainstream rock. We should love Nirvana because of the pronounced tension that remains at the core of its music, the way in which punk seems to continue to do battle against the mainstream within the songs, as if there is a kind of rage that can’t be loud enough because it’s stuck in a pop song and can’t get out. That rage, I would argue, is more powerful because it’s stuck in a pop song. Nirvana was important not because the band was able to able to moderate the oppositional aspects of punk or make punk more listenable and therefore relevant to a wider audience: it did do the latter, but so did a lot of much worse bands. Nirvana did what these bands didn’t do: it retained a fuck-you stance that was total and uncompromising, wrapped it in a pop veneer, and then showed the world what the bloody fight that resulted looked like. The literary analogue, as I wrote in my sixth proposition, might be something like Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which highlights the conflict “between the feelings of pleasure produced by its formal features and the political volatility it associates with the aesthetic impulse.”

So suffice it to say that I did not make reference to the dialectical story that Burt tells in Close Calls With Nonsense in order to say that the avant-gardists are right and that the artists who learn from and appropriate their formal techniques are wrong, but rather to suggest that there’s something about that story that leads us to ignore the more interesting aspects of a lot of art and literature. I think we could go even further and say that the story he tells, a story that does indeed go well beyond Burt (though suggesting that it inheres in all Western arts back to 1789 might be a bit grand), is itself a problem in the contemporary context for three reasons. 

First, in positioning the artist who brings together techniques drawn from both the avant-garde and the mainstream as the synthesis in a literary-historical dialectic, such a story suggests that the compromise or hybrid form is inherently a privileged vehicle for aesthetic progress. It should be up for debate, I think, whether or not this is or has been always the case. Second, there is increasing evidence that the story itself might be wearing out. As “underground” or “avant-garde” positions become less and less possible—because of the speed with which they are appropriated; because of the expansion of taste such that it’s difficult to offend anyone anymore; because of the pluralization of the aesthetic field—the engine of the dialectic will likely continue to have less and less oppositional material to fuel itself as time goes on. So if this story describes how aesthetic change always happens, or has happened since 1789, it is now describing the way aesthetic change will stop happening. And that leads me to the third problem with this story, the one I focused on in my original piece: there is a tendency for critics to seize upon the situation outlined above in order to suggest that the wearing-out of the conventional/avant-garde dialectical machine might mean that we’ve finally achieved the end of all of that nonsense and can just start producing work in which formal decisions aren’t envisioned as either challenging or conventional, but as just a set of neutral tactics to be marshaled in an entrepreneurial fashion. And seeing this turn to aesthetic entrepreneurialism as a good thing reflects neoliberal ideology.

This is why I don’t think Mark Levine or C.D. Wright (two of my favorite poets, incidentally) are practitioners of “compromise aesthetics.” The term compromise aesthetics doesn’t describe the quality of a work of art, but a particular critical posture one can take in relation to a work of art, a posture that relies upon buying into this apparently enduring story, a posture that I believe Burt takes in much of his criticism and the basic assumptions of which he reiterates in his response to my piece. “What the dominant order calls ‘progress,’” Lyon tells us, “the manifesto aims to expose as aberrancy or mythopoesis or hegemonic opportunism” (Lyon 16). This is what I hoped to show in my reading of The Flamethrowers: what looks like a work that eschews formal distinctions can turn out to be a work that is very much about the continued need to highlight points of aesthetic and ideological disjunction, not to affirm the experimental and criticize the accessible, but to ask us to take pause before we celebrate the waning of such distinctions. 

 


[v] For another recent experiment in this vein, see the Manifesto of the V21 Collective.

 

Works Cited

Lyon, Janet. Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. Print.

 

Rachel Greenwald Smith is the author of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and editor of American Literature in Transition: 2000-2010, under contract at Cambridge University Press. Her essays have appeared in journals including American LiteratureModern Fiction StudiesMediations, and Twentieth-Century Literature. She is currently Assistant Professor of English at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on contemporary literature, environmental literature, and critical theory. 

 

Guest Criticism Editor Davis Smith-Brecheisen is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His areas of research include American literature, the history of the novel, literary theory, and economic thought. 

A Theory of “Here”

Criticism / Lee Konstantinou

:: A Theory of Here ::

About halfway through Here, the experimental cartoonist Richard McGuire opens a window—well, a panel—onto the year 10,175. This far-future scene is layered atop a larger image that takes place in 1775, somewhere on the east coast of what will become the United States, showing a cryptic conversation about the pending Revolutionary War. By now, we’ve learned how to read Here. McGuire’s book—it would be a mistake to call it, as many have done, a graphic novel—scrambles the normal logic of comics narrative. Instead of creating juxtaposed sequences of panels that together tell a unified story, Here’s pages show the same location in space at different times. The book features a sequence of lushly colored double-page spreads, each one set in a different year (indicated with a tag in the upper-left corner of the page). Smaller panels often hover over the main double-page frame, depicting the same location either before or after the dominant year. Mostly, we observe the corner of a nondescript room, seeing how it stays the same or changes across the years, observing its various human inhabitants at different ages and in different states of health. These panels have, by the midpoint of the book, largely focused on the past and the present; McGuire has rendered times before the house was constructed, has dramatized encounters between the indigenous population and newly arrived settler-colonists, and has even let us see the year 1,009 BCE. We have also already peeked into the house’s future, observing humans who inhabit the year 2016 (residents of this distant future seem very much like us), as well as people using holographic interfaces in the year 2050. So the attentive reader has probably already anticipated that McGuire will show us the ultimate fate of the house—perhaps letting us see far beyond. And he does. But what we see of the year 10,175 is far stranger than we might have expected.

Fig 1-2 Theory of Here

Figure 1: McGuire’s far-future marsupial

This unassuming panel, about the size of a playing card, opens onto an animal, a marsupial of some sort, maybe the lovechild of a large possum and a small kangaroo, standing on an empty field. It’s not any animal that exists today, and not an animal we would expect to see in the American northeast. The creature stares straight at us, as if it knows we’re watching, suggesting that it might be more intelligent than your average marsupial. The animal’s confident gaze is initially unsettling and comes to seem alien precisely because the animal itself is so ordinary, so unthreatening. With this innocuous panel, McGuire opens up a new continent of time, suggesting that the second half of Here will more fully explore the ultimate fate of the house. And again, Here does not disappoint, showing us the house’s frightening destruction by (presumably global-warming-related) flooding, taking us as far forward as the year 22,175, where new dinosaur-like creatures roam the earth. And yet there is something uniquely affecting about this particular marsupial, something about it that is even stranger than the later dinosaur-creatures, something about its haunted eyes that gives us access to the larger, unnerving significance of McGuire’s masterwork. This little animal perfectly illustrates how McGuire uses comics to explore the relationship between time and space.

McGuire first published “Here” in 1989 in Raw, an avant-garde comics magazine created by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. Only six pages long, the original “Here” electrified the tiny world of experimental comics. It was warmly received by long-established Underground cartoonists like Justin Green and, most importantly, hugely influenced younger cartoonists like Chris Ware. [i] The French comics critic Thierry Groensteen has been extolling its praises for years, writing one of the first analyses of “Here” in 1991. [ii]

Fig 2

Figure 2: A page from McGuire’s 1989 “Here” 

The 1989 version of “Here” is superficially similar to the book. Each panel features a dominant image of the corner of a room overlaid with smaller panels displaying other images, images of the same room in the past and the future. Like the book, the panel-windows jump around in time and, taken together, don’t tell a unified or straightforward story, though we do get to see the whole life of a character named William, born in 1957, dead in 2027. Instead, McGuire tells the story of the room itself (much like Ware tells the story of a single building in Building Stories). More importantly, “Here” has a story to tell about the relationship between time and space. In McGuire’s experiment, space and time together form a unified four-dimensional block, and “Here” gives us interesting cross sections of that block. We may experience time as a mundane sequence of moments, McGuire seems to argue, but we should not forget that other times are equally real, existing where (if not when) we stand. What has made this six-page comic so appealing to form-conscious cartoonists is, I think, the brilliantly simple device that McGuire devised to communicate his core idea. Panels within panels: before you see what McGuire does with it, you wouldn’t have expected such a simpleeven obviousdevice in the cartoonist’s toolkit to be so powerful.

Panels are, if you think about it, a pretty strange weapon in the cartoonist’s representational arsenal. They depend on creating two types of representational confusion. First, the individual panel creates an illusion of opening onto a scene without obtruding into it. It invites comparison to the cinematic frame, and one often finds critics using the visual vocabulary of film staging to describe particular moments in comics. Like the photographic image, the individual panel can seem to render frozen instants of time. But, as Will Eisner notes in Comics and Sequential Art, the panel is much more than a technical device. It is “part of the creative process, rather than result of technology” (38). The panel is just as much an iconand requires just as much thoughtas the cartoon figures within the panel, and the best cartoonists know this, manipulating panel shape, size, and border weight to create different moods and aesthetic effects. Moreover, as Scott McCloud shows in Understanding Comics, time works in a funny way within panels (96). Any seemingly still moment within a panel is actually internally divided, consisting of a temporal sequence. But in order to read comics, we often suspend our awareness of this sequence.

Fig 3-3-2Theory of Here

 Figure 3: Scott McCloud on Intra-Panel Time

The sequential arrangement of panels invites a second helpful confusion: the confusion of reading comics with reading text. It is easy to participate in this confusion because panels are usually organized roughly into reading order, from left to right, top to bottom. We are invited to imagine that the order of reading corresponds to the progression of a film strip, that every new panel, with the exception of flashbacks and other overt breaks in linear storytelling, moves us inexorably forward in narrative time. And most of the time, this is the case. Avant-garde comics, however, such as those collected in Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics anthology, tend to challenge the assimilation of panel order to reading order. 

Fig 5 Theory of Here

Figure 4: From Ibn al Rabin, Cidre et Schnapps, reprinted in Molotiu’s Abstract Comics

Panels continue, in many of the comics that Molotiu collects, to create a rhythm of reading (and without this visual rhythm it would be hard to differentiate these abstract comics from painting). But Molotiu’s anthology also draws our attention to the fact that the comics page can achieve design effects that transcend those created by reading panels in a strictly linear sequence. This is the property of the comics page that Groensteen calls “iconic solidarity,” which he defines as the capacity of comics to create “interdependent images that, participating in a series, present the double characteristic of being separated . . . and which are plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia” (18). Panels in sequence, panels that seem to portray time’s movement, can actually become meaningful in terms of their spatial relations. It’s as if all of the panels on the page were occurring at the same time or momentarily transcending time. So time and space have a funny relationship on the comics page. Static moments seemingly captured by the panel always necessarily contain their own past and future; and temporal sequences across panels always necessarily form larger spatial units of meaning that transcend the succession of time. But to read the overwhelming majority of comics, we are required to forget these truths, or at least temporarily to suspend our awareness of them. What McGuire’s panels-within-panels do is make the unintuitive commingling of time and space on the comics pageand the falseness that characterizes a surface-level reading of comics narrative techniqueexquisitely clear, turning this commingling into an object of aesthetic pleasure. This is the genius of the core device of “Here.” Twenty-five years on, McGuire’s book-length update to his revolutionary six-page comic raises a variety of questions. If the original had such a huge impact, what is left for the book to do? Does Here move beyond “Here,” or simply bring the shorter comic’s brilliance to a wider audience (which would itself be a worthy goal)? Does McGuire deepen or reconsider the temporal philosophy of the original “Here”? And if comics are a “way of thinking,” to paraphrase Chris Ware, what exactly is Here thinking about? (Ball and Kuhlman xix) 

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Fig 5-3

 Figure 5: A double-page spread from McGuire’s 2014 Here

One thing Here is thinking about is the relation of comics to digital technology. We might say that Here teaches us that comics isor at a minimum is becominga newly digital medium. Discussing contemporary notions of textuality in Digimodernism, Alan Kirby brings together two senses of the term “digital,” noting “the centrality of digital technology” for contemporary artists as well as “the centrality of the digits, of the fingers and thumbs that key and press and click in the business of material textual elaboration” (51). This might seem like an unfortunate pun (and it is), but it’s a pun that is nonetheless helpful to keep in mind when reading the new version of Here. After all, comics is nothing if not a finger-obsessed medium: it invites manipulation by our digits: flipping, folding, pointing, fondling, stroking, even ripping.

The reader’s capacity to touch pictures, the physical weight of the book in our handsthat is, the haptic dimension of comicsis part of what has historically distinguished the medium from other representational art forms and is one reason comics can so successfully combine the visual urgency of film with the emotional intimacy of the novel. It is only slightly an exaggeration to say that comics is an art of touching. And the best comics have often sought to activate our awareness of their haptic materiality. At the same time, comics is also becoming digital in the technological sense. Like every other art form, it is being subsumed by digital technologies, butagain like every other artit is becoming digital in its own strange way. There’s even an iPad version of Here, which allows readers to manipulate panels showing different times.

Fig 6

Figure 6: Richard McGuire’s recent New Yorker cover

But Here’s concern with digital computers is not just a matter of its (seemingly inevitable) digitization. Rather, digitization is visible even in the dead-tree version of Here, in the form of concepts drawn from the history of graphical user interface (GUI) design. At least since Vannevar Bush first described the possibility of his imaginary Memex machine in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly and Ivan Sutherland, inspired by Bush, created the influential Sketchpad program in 1963, the history of digital computers has been, in part, a history of the schemas, metaphors, and mediating concepts that have been designed to guide our relationship to technical systems and to mitigate the intimidating abstraction of the machine. 

Fig 7

Figure 7: Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad

As the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson has pointed out, our dominant operating systems have long relied on metaphorsmostly visual metaphorsto make computers accessible (3). So it should come as no surprise that concepts developed for the design of graphical user interfaces can migrate onto the pages of comics and (in the case of the iPad version of Here) back again. And indeed, one of the original inspirations for the 1989 version of “Here” was the windows-based GUI popularized by Apple and then by Microsoft, which was in turn inspired by (or you could say stolen from) Xerox PARC’s groundbreaking Xerox Alto, the first computer to use a desktop metaphor to govern user interactions.

Fig 8

Figure 8: The Xerox Alto

(The Xerox Alto itself drew on concepts previously developed in Douglas Engelbart’s oN-line System. Take a look at Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” if you want to see how genuinely non-innovative modern UI design is). All of this design engineering was, of course, an important part of the history of computation, but it was arguably even more important as part of the history of what we might call applied epistemology. How, GUI designers were forced to ask, can the abstract world of the machine, the impersonal realm of the microprocessor, be made accessible (especially to non-engineers)? But when we begin thinking of GUI design as applied epistemology, it quickly becomes clear that visual metaphors do not eliminate abstraction but rather substitute one kind of abstraction for another, one representation scheme for another. A term like “accessibility” is a deceptively simple word, whose seeming transparency obscures important assumptions about the relationship among persons, machines, and the world. As has often been noted, the metaphor of the desktopor the notion of storing data in discrete objects we call “files”encodes all sorts of norms guiding how humans and machines interact, suggesting that the personal computer is first and foremost a work machine, a machine for people imagined as workers. 

The figure of the window, meanwhile, is a spatial translation of human-machine interaction, compartmentalizing user attention, imagining the user as engaged in a workflow of switching between windows (discrete attention-states), bundling together tasks that software designers decide belong together, and facilitating user multitasking. Though software designers influence what we see, what tasks we are meant to associate together, the windows metaphor invites us to imagine that we users have a certain kind of agency, that we have the opportunity to manage our own attention, that we can simply look out of this or that window, by choice, whenever we want to. Windows evoke our existing sense of volition (we feel we are choosing to look out this window rather than that window) while also reifying the technical systems we’re encountering along particular lines (the contents of the window in question are naturalized, like the landscape or cityscape we observe from the comfort of our home). So at the same time that UI research addressed itself to the problem of giving humans access to a seemingly impersonal, technically unwelcoming realm, it also shaped that interaction toward particular use cases and has invited us to accept what the machine serves up as given, natural, and beyond our ability to change outside prescribed bounds. The machine becomes both more accessible andas anyone who has too many windows or too many tabs open right now knowsquickly overwhelming.

One of McGuire’s original insights was that these technically implemented figuresmetaphors designed as the solution to problems of human-machine interactionwere portable and fungible. “Here” appropriates the windows metaphor for new, but related, ends. In McGuire’s hands, windows organize another sort of inhuman vastness: the incomprehensible vastness of time. Where windows-based GUIs unintentionally lead the user from a feeling of mastery (one window open) into a feeling of drowning (way too many windows open), McGuire’s little windows pile up individually accessible, even semi-autonomous moments that in aggregate snow the reader under the hideous size of time. In the original “Here,” Deep Time comes in hand, becomes digital. Today, our technologies of human-machine interaction have shifted and so too has McGuire’s approach to the digital potential of comics. The most significant transformation of human-machine interaction since the creation of the modern GUI is almost certainly the rise of ubiquitous mobile computing. Bush described his Memex, after all, as “a desk . . . primarily the piece of furniture at which [the user] works.”

Today, we carry our tiny, sleek desks inside our pockets. We wear them on our wrists. And we may, soon enough, slap them onto our faces. This mobile revolution builds, of course, on what already exists. Our little pocket desks, running iOS and Android operating systems, still depend on various desktop-like and windows-based metaphors. We often still work with “files” that we occasionally toss away into the “trash” or a “recycling bin.” What is different, though, is the increasingly salient possibility that mobile devices might build a layer of information atop reality, that visual figures designed to interact with machines might profoundly reshape how we figure other dimensions of reality. As one character announces in William Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, cyberspace is “everting” or colonizing the world (28). Whereas Gibson’s early novels focus on hacker anti-heroes who enter the machine, navigating its sublime, unnerving datascapes, his more recent books have been focused on how machines have transformed his characters’ modes of embodiment within what we used to naively regard as the reality outside the computer. In the near term, this set of transformations may give rise to full-blown augmented reality systems that use various visual metaphors to layer data dynamically atop the world. Whereas once upon a time we looked out from our comfy rooms through clearly designated “windows” onto something we could well mistake for an outside world, today the room and the world have almost seamlessly merged. The world itself has become our office, and we are now, forever, chained to the desk. This, at any rate, seems to be the new ideology of user-interface design.

This idealthe confluence of ubiquitous mobile computing and augmented realitybecomes the new digital horizon for Here. The book features several sequences set in the twenty-third century, in which a hologram or android leads a group of tourists on a tour of the site of the now-destroyed home. The tour guide has a fan-like device that projects holographic windows showing the past. The members of the tour group are ethnically ambiguous but visually resemble the Native Americans who were previously displaced by white settler-colonists. This tour becomes, to some degree, the motivating narrative device of the book. What the tourists are experiencing is nothing other than a version of Here itself.

Theory of Here Fig 9

Figure 9: The Fan

We might read this tour not as the triumph of the ideology of mobile computing but as the restoration of what was lost, as a return of the indigenous population to the land that was taken from them after the rapacious civilization that displaced them inevitably destroyed itself. But our consolation (if we find such a violent fate consoling) does not last long. Though we get a glimpse of what might be some sort of utopian future, Here’s human story ultimately stands against a stark background largely devoid of human presence. That is, a yawning cosmic indifference bookends the life of McGuire’s little house. Beginning from the affordances of our own primitive augmented reality technologythe iPad on which we might be reading Here itselfMcGuire wants to give us access to what we might ordinarily find difficult to keep in view: the non-human background upon which life unfolds, the inanimate world upon which life finally depends. McGuire wants us to imagine comics as a sort of mobile device that opens up temporal vortexes, digitally extending the human mind, helping us confront the universe’s indifference to us. Comics might train us to adopt habits of mind, an orientation toward the world, that brings the past and the futurethe extreme past, the extreme futureprecipitously into the present.

Fig 10

Figure 10: The Marsupial

This is, I think, the ultimate significance of McGuire’s bizarre marsupial. It’s an imaginary creature that helps us enter into something like a relationship of recognition with the vastness of the nonhuman world. If this is true, it would not be too pretentious to say that, in the eyes of McGuire’s alien animal, we observe the deconstruction of time. 

And I do not mean the term deconstruct loosely here. Rather, I have in mind Martin Hägglund’s provocative reconstruction of Derrida’s thought in Radical Atheism. Hägglund describes a temporal logic, which he regards as filling out Derrida’s understanding of the relationship between time and space, in which all presenceeverything that is seemingly presentis necessarily divided within itself. Kant’s transcendental categories, space and time, are always, in Hägglund’s view, co-implicated. Time always becomes space and space always becomes time, a process that Hägglund prefers to call the “spacing of time,” which is in his view “an ‘ultratranscendental’ condition from which nothing can be exempt” (19). Any “here” can only be “here” by virtue of its extension in time. Any “now,” likewise, is divided between a past moment (visible as a trace) and the future unmaking or transformation of that trace. Time can only be registered by the spatial means of the trace, and all traces are necessarily destructible, which implies that the future is radically open, that all positive structures or values can become negative.

“To think the tracing of time as the condition for life in general,” Hägglund writes, “is to think a constitutive finitude, which from the very beginning exposes life to death, memory to forgetting, identity to alterity, and so on” (79). This notionthe notion of “autoimmunity”holds that “everything is threatened from within itself, since the possibility of living is inseparable from the peril of dying,” and that, moreover, “[w]hatever is desired as good is autoimmune, since it bears within itself the possibility of becoming unbearably bad” (9) It is a destructibility thatbecause it depends on the concept of the spacing of timeuncannily mirrors the imbrication of time and space within and between panels that I reviewed above. I am not, I should make clear, suggesting that McGuire was familiar with Hägglund or Derrida but am rather observing a family resemblance between their understandings of the relationship between time and space. More so than the original Raw six-pager, the book version of Here dwells on the radical (because intrinsic) destructibility of life.

McGuire’s interest in his marsupial, I would finally insist, isn’t predictive, any more than any other future scenario in the comic is predictive. He’s not telling us to expect odd kangaroo-like future animals but is rather asking us to think differently about what we might call the logic of temporal succession. If time is radically open, if everything that is good or desirable might beby necessityrevealed to be bad, it is not at all clear how we might (or should) relate to this anteater creature that chews on our remains, or how to feel about the flood that destroys our home, or what to make of the tour group looking back upon us with the help of a holographic fan. In this way, McGuire cuts against the optimistic, technophilic assumptions that governed the original GUI engineering he was, however indirectly, inspired by. After all, the ultimate promise of windows-based interfaces or augmented reality is a happy reconciliation between human and machine. Good design supposedly makes what is alien, inaccessible, or abstract come (often literally) into hand. It promises to domesticate an unruly non-human reality. But these promises seem hollow in McGuire’s hands. Instead, his user-friendly windows open onto the ambivalent logic of autoimmunity. In Here, here always slips away, necessarily only ever exists in relation to various nows.

Such a way of understanding the relationship between time and space does nothing to obviate what we understand to be our ordinary or everyday experience of life. It doesn’t mean that we should look forward to our own destruction by climate change or throw up our hands despondently. What Hägglund calls “radical atheism” should therefore not be mistaken for quietism. Nothing, as far as I can tell, follows politically from this philosophical position except the sensible view that no political struggle comes with guarantees. Indeed, one might argue that the very possibility of caring about the future, of being invested in one outcome over another, depends on a prior condition of destructibility, the necessary truth that we can lose everything. On this view, our awareness of our inability to inhabit these larger temporalities or historiesour awareness of our own destructibility, the necessary destructibility of everythingis the very basis of mourning. 

Mourning, Hägglund writes, is “a force that cannot be overcome and that emanates from the love of what is mortal” (110). Whether or not we find this account philosophically compelling, it is precisely such a love of mortalitythe persistence of this love not despite but because of the possibility of self-destructionthat McGuire’s art elicits. Here is, I think, most emotionally gripping when it compels us to realize how (forgive the pun) comically small-minded our normal, habituated understanding of life is, how out of touch we are with historical forces (or with non-human temporalities), and yet how little guidance Here’s grand view of Deep Time offers to the necessary, daily project of avoiding self-destruction. It is a bracing, deflating insight that comics, in the hands of a master like McGuire, is uniquely suited to argue for.

 


Notes

[i] See Chris Ware, “Richard McGuire and ‘Here’—a Grateful Appreciation,” Comic Art 8 (2006): 5-7.

[ii] Thierry Groensteen, “Les lieux superposés de Richard McGuire,” Urgences 32 (1991): 95-109.

 

Works Cited 

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think,” The Atlantic. July 1945. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1985. Print.

Gibson, William. Spook Country. New York: Putnam, 2007. Print.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Les lieux superposes de Richard McGuire.” Urgences 32 (1991): 95-109.

–. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.

Hägglund, Martin. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. Print.

Kirby, Alan. Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.

Kuhlman, Martha B., and David M. Ball. “Introduction: Chris Ware and the ‘Cult of Difficulty.’”  In The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. Eds. Ball and Kuhlman. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

McGuire, Richard. Here. New York: Pantheon, 2014. Print.

–. “Here.” Raw 2, no. 1 (1989): 69-74. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Molotiu, Andrei. Abstract Comics. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2009. Print.

Stephenson, Neal. In the Beginning…Was the Command Line. New York: William Morrow, 1999. Print.

Ware, Chris. “Richard McGuire and ‘Here’—a Grateful Appreciation.” Comic Art 8 (2006): 5-7. Print.

Figure 1: McGuire, Here, n.p.

Figure 2: McGuire, “Here,” in Raw, p. 70.

Figure 3: McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 96.

Figure 4: Ibn al Rabin and Cidre et Schnapps, “N’ergotons plus, je vous prie,” Les Éditions Atrabile. <http://www.atrabile.org/ibn-al-rabin/Fanzines/fanzine.php?titre=CidreEtSchnaps&page=17>. Rpt. in Abstract Comics, by Andrei Molotiu (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2009) 63.

Figure 5: Here, n.p.

Figure 6: Richard McGuire, “Time Warp,” New Yorker 24 November 2014  <https://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/CoverStory-Time-Warp-Richard-McGuire-872-1200-13173805.jpg>.

Figure 7: Ivan Sutherland, Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System <http://www.wired.com/2013/01/grandaddy-gui/>.

Figure 8: “Xerox Alto”  <http://toastytech.com/guis/altost1.jpg>.

Figure 9: Here, n.p.

Figure 10: Here, n.p.

 

Lee Konstantinou is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (Harper Perennial, 2009) and co-edited with Samuel Cohen The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (University of Iowa Press, 2012). He recently completed a literary-political history of American irony after 1945 (forthcoming from Harvard University Press) and has started a new book project called “Rise of the Graphic Novel.”

 

Sarah Sillin, Guest Criticism Editor, received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is currently a visiting assistant professor of American literature at Gettysburg College. Her book project, entitled Global Sympathy: Representing Nineteenth-Century Americans’ Foreign Relations, explores how writers envisioned early Americans’ ties to the larger world through their depictions of friendship and kinship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and Literature of the Early American Republic.

Zac’s Haunted House, Chapter 1

Fiction / Dennis Cooper

:: Zac’s Haunted House, Chapter 1 ::

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From the writer

:: Account ::

I think the animated GIF is a super rich thing, mostly unintentionally? For the novel, I thought of them as these crazy visual sentences. But unlike text sentences, they do all the imaginative work for you. They render you really passive. They just juggle with your eyesight, and you’re basically left battling their aggressive, looped, fireworks-level dumb, hypnotizing effects to see the images and the mini-stories/actions they contextualize. I think, ultimately, they’re mostly rhythms, or they reduce their imagery and activity, etc. to illustrative components of these really strict rhythmic patterns that turn the eye into an ear in a way.

My idea is that if you make a novel out of them, the visuals in the individual GIFs can serve double duty in the same way that the instrumentation and vocals in music samples do. They become just the texture of the loop’s rhythm, and that somehow seems to isolate the GIFs’ content from their source material. When you combine and juxtapose the stacks, if you do it carefully, you can break or disrupt their individual rhythms in a way that makes their imagery either rise to the surface or become abstraction. Basically, you can then use their content and appearance as sets and actors and cinematography in a fiction. They can hold their references, if you organize them to do so, and you can use those associations to create shortcuts to some idea or emotion you want to get across, or they can become quite malleable and daydream-like, or you can empty them until they’re just motions that are as neutral as a text.

The really exciting thing for me is that the narratives can be as unrealistic or abstract or senseless or trivial or abject or unreadable as you want, and they will always remain inherently pleasurable.

 

Dennis Cooper is a novelist, poet, and critic. His ten published novels include The George Miles Cycle (Grove Press, 1989 – 2000), an interconnected sequence (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period), and The Sluts (Da Capo Press, 2005), winner of France’s literary prize the Prix Sade. Additionally, he collaborates regularly with the French director Gisele Vienne. Like Cattle Towards Glow, a film made in collaboration with Zac Farley, will be released internationally later this year.

Church Camp Romance, Age 14

Nonfiction / Anna Joy Springer

:: Church Camp Romance, Age 14 ::

Springer 1
Springer 2
Springer 3

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These three pages from the longer piece, “Church Camp Romance, Age 14,” are maybe the most pointedly abject in content and form—they are something like comics with no cartoons, bubbles, or frames. Whose plea does the “Do you hate me now?” become, now thirty years old on toucan stationary? As a smudged surface of weirdly controlled and controlling impulses that also stage a gendered and compulsive submissiveness, the slanted, drunken, handwritten text evokes contagion, like the toxic vapors described at the beginning of a history of madness. It contains actual lies to make me seem “worse.” I was daring God in a plea to be my servant and marry me, intervene and save me from men, from being their thing, from the obvious narrative outcome. And do I dare God, now, confessing this? What happens to dried-up old scanned-in abjection? Does it continue to leak even as it seems static, already past? Does the digital surface whereupon this picture of a real letter appears have a sanitizing, historicizing, archival effect? Does it transform its reader into an unchanging object, a coolly disengaged “not-it?”

 

Anna Joy Springer is a writer, visual artist, and teacher. Her books are The Vicious Red Relic, Love (Jaded Ibis, 2011) and The Birdwisher (Birds of Lace, 2009). Anna Joy has created many recordings with the bands Blatz, The Gr’ups, and Cypher in the Snow, and has performed throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. She works as an Associate Professor of Literature at University of California, San Diego and lives in Los Angeles.

Toe Separators

Nonfiction / Kerry Leddy

:: Toe Separators ::

Kerry_M_image

One of our jobs those first days after my daughter Sarah died was to create a program for her memorial service. For the cover we decided to use a portrait of her as a baby, which Sarah painted when she was fourteen years old. She had recently told me how she loved this painting because it reminded her of a perfect time in her life. There was a small piece of her beloved “mommy blanket” affixed to the painting. I, too, love this painting.

Sarah’s paintings, without ever studying the period, were somehow reminiscent of the early modernist German Expressionists. Her brush strokes were expressive, done in what appears to be long, sweeping movements. Bold colors, often applied in startling combinations, capture facial features, hands, or arms. But in most of her paintings, the eyes are the dominant feature. She painted friends, family members, or ordinary people found on the street, placing them in settings that revealed something about their lives or who they were. She never wanted her portraits posed, nor made to look too perfect, appreciating the beauty in flaws and imperfections. I couldn’t imagine her fretting over how someone should sit.

Instead she would work from instinct, painting the figure on the left or the right side of the canvas, never in the center, shifting the balance of the image to keep it more interesting. This is true in all of her paintings—that is, except for that self-portrait of herself as a baby. Here she sits in her diaper, front and center, filling the canvas. The subtle shading of her arms, legs, and torso allow you to see the musculature of her ribs and joints. But, as always, it is the expressive blue eyes that grab you. Even at such a young age you can see there is more to the picture, a greater depth of thought and feeling, something on the tip of her tongue she wants to tell you. Her brown derby hat, which belonged to her Aunt Karen, sits poised atop her head. She tips her hat to you.

To me.

My sister Karen suggested we bind the program with colorful yarn, because Sarah often wrapped her dreadlocks in a rainbow of yarns. But a day before the service, we ran out of yarn and couldn’t finish the pamphlets. My sister Carol offered to go to the neighborhood store to buy more yarn. I was like a lost dog that had found a master. I was afraid to be alone, afraid I’d be lost, afraid of what I might feel if actually left alone. So when Carol jumped up, I rose too, numbly, and followed at her heels.

Carol and I headed to Bruce Variety, a store brimming with everything from craft items to underwear to hammers and nails. If Carol went up one aisle, I went up the same aisle. If she turned back, I followed her back down. If she stopped, I bumped into her back.

Maybe around the third or fourth aisle, I came across a large display with the words “toe separators” written in bold letters across the top. I stopped short, reading the description of this new product over and over. I even allowed Carol to walk out of my line of vision. I couldn’t move on. Here was a truly amazing product—toe separators. I had always been a little unhappy about my close-set toes, especially the two that overlapped. Now, here was a product I hadn’t realized I had been waiting for all my life. Some part of my brain must have remembered the hours my sisters and I had spent together, painting our toenails outlandish colors of purple or blue, admiring each other and then carefully separating our toes so as to not to damage our handiwork. Footie work. In the moment, though, it was as if I had never seen them before.

This was salvation in a small plastic-wrapped package. Yes, I, too, could now have straight toes! I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

I called out, “Carol, quick, come see. Look! Toe separators. See? Aren’t these amazing?”

She found me and looked quizzically at the display, then at me. Her voice was soft, the voice of a kind parent who’s holding tight to a pebble a child plucked from the ground.

I told her all the wonderful things these toe separators would do for me, even quoted the package: “‘One size fits all.’ ‘They gently divide and cushion your toes.’ ‘These soft, foamy toe separators are made from a vitamin-enriched gel which absorbs pressure and friction.’”

 “Yes, they are amazing.” Carol sweetly kept replying to each of my proclamations.

 “Look—it says right here they help relieve pain and discomfort.”

“Perfect for you,” she said.

“Oh, may I buy them?”

 “Yes,” she said, “you should get two pairs,” as she pulled a second one off of the display. I tagged along to the register, stood in line next to her, hardly able to wait for the cashier to ring them up so I could grab them before losing them to the bag.

We traipsed back to our car. Carol was barely in the driver’s seat before I was unwrapping the package, chattering away. “Carol, just look at these!” I pulled off a shoe and then a sock, placed my foot up on the dashboard and slipped on my new, very own, toe separators!

“Look how they fit right between my toes. They really are incredible. Have you ever seen anything like them before?”

Oh. I peered down at my feet and suddenly saw these ridiculous pink spacers between my toes, making me look like a webbed-footed pelican. I noticed the burning heat of the black dashboard under my feet, then a dog loudly barking in the car next to us. I took in the people passing by in front of our car. I blinked slowly, as if the sunlight had been turned a notch too bright. It dawned on me that I was out in the world—a world I barely recognized anymore. I couldn’t take in the life that was brimming all around me. Seeing people do ordinary things—going to lunch, shopping, walking dogs. As if life were exactly the same. Didn’t they know it wasn’t?

I turned to my sister and said, “Boy, now I feel better. So much better.”

Carol, still not sure if I had returned to myself, gave a tentative laugh.

I wriggled my toes. I wriggled more. “Much, much better,” I said.

Now we were both laughing.

Carol backed out of our parking space and headed down Goldsboro Road with the two of us exaggerating how good life now was with toe separators. I started to do an infomercial: “Have you had tragedy, are you feeling down? Well, Toe Separators are here to help.”

We laughed the entire fifteen-minute drive home. Doubled over, wiping the tears of laughter, or so I thought they were. My husband, hearing us from the house, came out to see what the commotion was. He stuck his head out the door—what disaster was this? He saw Carol and me, red with laughter, as I held on to her arm waddling along in my toe separators.

He grinned. “Don’t you know people are in mourning here?”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In writing “Toe Separators,” excerpted from my memoir Ghostmother, I am trying to capture the initial disorientation I experienced after the death of my daughter, Sarah. At that time, my thoughts and feelings were a jumble, my brain flooded with overwhelming and chaotic torrents of emotion. My mind, refusing to accept or integrate such an event, kept saying, “This can’t be.” I wanted to portray this state of confusion, where I felt caught between two worlds: in one, Sarah was still there, a specter just out of reach, and in the other, the world was irrevocably changed and rendered nearly, unrecognizably void. I also wanted to bring in the idea that even in moments of desolate grief, humor can provide solace.

And maybe, most importantly, I longed to find a way to bring Sarah’s art into my writing so that a reader could not only know my loss, but also see for herself Sarah’s creativity and talent.

 

Kerry Leddy is a psychoanalyst and writer in Potomac, MD. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Zone 3, Washingtonian Magazine, and Voices. She is the co-author of Wearing My Tutu to Analysis and Other Stories (Columbia University Press, 2011) and editor/author of The Therapist in Mourning: From the Faraway Nearby (Columbia University Press, 2013). She is currently working on her memoir, Ghostmother.

13

Poetry / Isobel O’Hare

:: 13 ::

THE STRUCTURE OF RIME V

Among the bleeding branches I hear sentences of my solilo-
quay. Have you heard the broken limbs of the world-tree knock-
ing, knocking? Here, joy is sternest accuser, a fire that tortures
the wet wood.

I tried to die, one wretched voice declared. There is no death.
I left my body hanging behind me, I sought the void. My body
hangs before me, immortal image. Men still remember. Their
prayers rise from the ground and hold me to the everlasting
promise, to the Adam!

Obsessd poet! another cried. Your desire devours my heart, a rat
tearing at its mate in the rubble of the world. Let us go! The
giant Adam must not awaken, for he would claim even our
ravaged bodies from the consuming black.

Do you not see that dread as well as joy lights the lamps of his
uplifted form? stretchd upon a geometry that rips the wounds
from which, black blood, we flow?

          The Geometry, I saw, oblivious, knew what? of these sunder-
ings? arranged its sentences intolerant of black or white.

No! No! Say that there are two worlds, a man declared. I shot
half my head away.

A woman cried, No! There is but one. I live in one world, and it
is black.

My soul, the man said, swings on hinges of destroyd face. Have
you not seen Yggdrasill, the Abattoir? The human meat is hang-
ing from every bough. Have you no pity that you count the days
of Man?

          You took my life, the woman said. You will not let me die.
Your aroused fire leaves shadows in my heart that whisper to the
black into which I go.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

hinge, my erased title of Robert Duncan’s original book The Opening of the Field, is a project that began when studies of the poetics of breath led me to Duncan’s writing. I started working with his book Roots and Branches, the title of which I erased to Roar, and I quickly became obsessed.

hinge has taken many forms over the past nine months as I have experimented with various methods to visually represent the erased text and the book as a physical artifact. After playing with white-out, printed transparencies, and cut-up versions of the pages, I settled on this simple black and grey layout that allows the original text to exist in conversation with the erasure.

This work is also heavily influenced by the knowledge that Duncan and the poet Charles Olson had a close friendship, one in which they developed a mode of poetic practice they referred to as “field composition.” It struck me during my work that many of their ideas about the composition of poetry are as highly relevant today as they were in the mid-twentieth century. In our culture that is increasingly saturated with “content,” and where poets find themselves in a constant battle between art and financial stability, it seems that the field has been forgotten. It is my hope that, in some small way, hinge will serve as a reminder.

 

Isobel O’Hare received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Oakland, California, with two cats and another poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Map Literary, FORTH, Dirty Chai Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Numero Cinq, and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Myron Michael

:: Our Bodies Are Meant to Cross the Line that Draws Breath from Us ::

          (upenyeru kufema tanise)

Shona, Shona, Shona, Shona, Shona. 
I call on it as if it is a woman,    

phonemes and parable: but watch the lover 
pack his bags then drown in a river   

while he tries to cross it carrying everything  
that was in his house. “Put down your things and this way,”   

disciples say with gospel up their sleeves.  
“From thy parents to thy wife,” the Lord agrees   

looking toward godly vengeance
through his holy and hole-punctured sacrament.  

The lover concedes; and she, one thing at a time, 
removes weight from his corpulent tongue.

 

:: Listening to Oliver Mtukudzi at Leisure ::

He can’t fly off the cusp with rugged syllables, 
bv, dy, and r: his palate catches like carpet under nail.  

“It’ll get easier,” she shrugs, drying a plate with napkin. 
“Waswera sei?” His day was a swollen knuckle of negritude

that he beat out on a counter—at times music is all he feels. 
A new entry entered the glossary of his learning  

:zvakanaka. Which means “alright,” but has the “almost 
there” quality of determination: a man determined to move  

from one platform to another with a suitcase of sounds 
noted for their high or low tonalities that mean one thing   

or similar. When listening to elders, or recalling great nations, 
or addressing heirs who kept breathing over all that ocean,  

I fold my hands and offer gratitude, as Tuku 
and the Black Spirits make a metronome for their feet.

"32"

Michael, creation myth (1)

"Key of Life"

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I was listening to Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi while reading essays written by Octavio Paz, The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, which pointed me to Plato’s The Symposium. From The Symposium I took the concept “the path of absolute beauty” to reference as a framework for a heptalogy in progress titled The Plentiful and Readymade World. The poems that make up my submission are from book two of that heptalogy, When a Snake Swallows the Moon, a collection of walking poems about love and mythology inspired by the title of Peter Godwin’s book When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.

I heard Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi for the first time in graduate school. My ex-girlfriend introduced me to him through his album Paivepo (Once Upon a Time). After hearing him sing “Pindurai Mambo,” which is a song that questions why life is prosperous for some but impoverished for others—and because I love the musicality of consonant sounds, and Shona is a language composed mostly of consonant clusters—I decided to acquire the language; my ex-girlfriend who is Zimbabwean and speaks Shona was a valuable resource to have close. Before I wrote the poems that make up my submission, I bought a Shona-English dictionary; though Shona is primarily spoken in Zimbabwe by Zimbabweans, to my delight I found one online. Though the narrative of the poems is about a relationship that ended a decade ago and progresses through the telling of a creation myth, the memory of the relationship lives on, and so every time I study the dictionary, I am made nostalgic by remembrance of it. But soon after, I am made content by the growth of my vocabulary for I hope to speak Shona fluently, and every lesson brings me one step closer to acquiring the language.

 

Myron Michael’s poetry is anthologized in Days I Moved through Ordinary Sounds and Another & Another, appears in print at Toad Suck Review, and appears online at Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine and Rivet. He collaborated with Broadside Attractions/Vanquished Terrains for the text + image installation “Vertical Horizon” (2012) and Microclimate Collective for the exhibition “X Libris” (2012), and he is a 2015 Best New Poets and Pushcart Prize nominee.

Selected Calligraphic Moon Writings

Visual Poetry /Dan Ivec

:: The Last Acrobats ::

Dan_Ivec-logo10 (1)

:: The Empty Sky, The Lonely Kitchen & The Endless Forest ::

Dan_Ivec-logogram8 (1)

:: Only One Room Has A Star Ladder ::

Dan_Ivec-only_one_room_has_a_star_ladder (1)

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The language is written in a script that includes many logograms. It is a combination of words that refer to standardized speech sounds and also recurring images—many of them birds—which represent ideas and emotions, like in a hieroglyph. This language is mostly read on the moon and in other outer space climes. I have included some images of poetry written in this language. I will not attempt to translate these works as it saddens me to revisit them. I will, however, briefly allude to the contents of each poem.

The first image is of “The Last Acrobats” and it takes place on a distant star. You can see some creatures holding on to a sun and using it as a type of Ferris wheel. Two others walk on a wire above the whole town. And there is a chaotic little sea on this star that is dancing so wild by itself below the buildings. The constant commotion on this star caused it to fling itself further and further into deep space, and it has not been visited in many years. That is the context of this poem, and it is written in a sad, elegiac mode.

The second poem consists solely of symbols and no script. A very terse and strained work, it is really just a short list of troublesome feelings. It is called “The Empty Sky, The Lonely Kitchen & The Endless Forest.” In between jobs, I once spent a year wandering through the forests in the “lost” province of the moon. This poem really captures that time.

The final work, “Only One Room Has A Star Ladder” tells of a famous district in my favorite city. This is the city where I once lived. In some buildings, the occupants have affixed to their windows enormous ladders that go nowhere and are only used for sightseeing. Climbing such ladders is great fun and, to be honest, is still the only thing I really want to do.

 

Dan Ivec is the author of On the Stairs (Meekling Press, 2014). He currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Two Poems

Poetry / CM Burroughs

:: To Keep a Dialogue ::

She asks if my nipples are pink. During which my body arrives to barter, 
shifts from hand to hand. I give what egg I have and break into a jigger of 
pins. 

Pull charred wick with my fingers then fingers to my mouth. My blackened 
tongue. Narratives for consumption marked by a heedless draw toward 
currants. I can’t know it yet, but I will guard my arc and charter. A bird will 
sing me thus. I will be so shearing. 

Thirsted to and paraded from. Often, I give my form to be made. Gall and 
intention when turning metal in my mouth. My saliva threading its marrow.
I am filled with songdark and ask to be choked. Become hungered and talk
about it for days. My feeling I am owed my little dark. 

 

:: When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive ::

I kiss it, eat it up. Tastes like nothing. I could do forever. Iron enjoys a hang
~ how I know I’m having myself. “Bind,” a slippery trick, history, holdings, 
so even while I’m doing it—erasure, erasure “she keeps on passin,” sampling
myself, as course, to black tie, black bottom, black box, black-eyed, black ass.
Up and aint I aint I aint I aint I anti- ant I anih-

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I composed these poems at a time when I was trying to answer questions about desire and what desire could enact in the female body. These questions, as you will understand by reading the poems, relate to arousal and approach ideas of power between the I and the Other. These concepts are tightly wound within lyric verse, but the vacillation between certainty and uncertainty of what the speaker wants, what she can control versus what controls her, is palpable. The verbs are one signal of this, as in the first stanza of “To Keep a Dialogue” we have moments including: “ask,” “arrives,” “give,” and “break.” Through to its end, “To Keep a Dialogue” presents the speaker in positions of negotiation, and none that is simply resolved.

While “To Keep a Dialogue” demonstrates a speaker who wavers between her power and a passive or active relinquishment of that power, the second poem relishes in gratifying desire. This speaker wears her desire, which is self-directed and self-satisfying, and this quality enables her to gaze widely at her body as historical/object/black/blackened/erasured. Just now, I feel somewhat devilish gathering this into five lines, but this is the kind of poem from which my most captivating speakers grow. My work needs this speaker’s attitude and self-searched cockiness as much as it needs a speaker in flux between overwhelm and want.

 

CM Burroughs is Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia College Chicago,
and the author of The Vital System from Tupelo Press (2012). Burroughs has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the Cave Canem Foundation. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing, Court Green, jubilat, Ploughshares, and VOLT. Burroughs is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Story of the Door

Poetry / derek beaulieu

:: Story of the Door ::

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From the writer

:: Account ::

Oscar Wilde argues, “lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” In his 1891 essay “The Decay of Lying: An Observation,” he embeds within his Socratic argument a tale of a fictional character who is the victim of an uncanny accident, which conflates Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

Shortly after Mr. Stevenson published his curious psychological story of transformation, a friend of mine, called Mr. Hyde, was in the north of London, and being anxious to get to a railway station, took what he thought would be a short cut, lost his way, and found himself in a network of mean, evil-looking streets. Feeling rather nervous he began to walk extremely fast, when suddenly out of an archway ran a child right between his legs. It fell on the pavement, he tripped over it, and trampled upon it. Being of course very much frightened and a little hurt, it began to scream, and in a few seconds the whole street was full of rough people who came pouring out of the houses like ants. They surrounded him, and asked him his name. He was just about to give it when he suddenly remembered the opening incident in Mr. Stevenson’s story. He was so filled with horror at having realised in his own person that terrible and well-written scene, and at having done accidentally, though in fact, what the Mr. Hyde of fiction had done with deliberate intent, that he ran away as hard as he could go. He was, however, very closely followed, and finally he took refuge in a surgery, the door of which happened to be open, where he explained to a young assistant, who happened to be there, exactly what had occurred. The humanitarian crowd were induced to go away on his giving them a small sum of money, and as soon as the coast was clear he left. As he passed out, the name on the brass door-plate of the surgery caught his eye. It was ‘Jekyll.’ At least it should have been.

Compounding the uncanniness of Wilde’s fictional retelling is the fact that his paragraph-long summarization of one of the most shocking incidents in the novella can be found embedded within the very letters of Stevenson’s original. As I have exhibited, Wilde’s text can be found, in order, within Stevenson’s. Much as the text of Hyde is found encoded inside the larger narrative of Jekyll’s life, these two texts nest within each other, ready to be unleashed. “The Decay of Lying: An Observation” predates Wilde’s 1895 conviction for gross indecency and sodomy—pataphysically we can connect the encoded lifestyles of the “Black Mail House” on “Queer Street” (despite the contemporary use of the word “queer” not entering the lexicon until 1900) in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the coding of one text within another. Alan Turing’s infamous code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park coincided with his revealing of his sexual orientation to his fiancé and the subsequent cancellation of their pending nuptials. Turing’s encoded, closeted sexuality would eventually lead to his own 1952 arrest and conviction for gross indecency and court-ordered hormonal therapy including injections of stilboestrol (a synthetic oestrogen), which bodily changed Turing’s appearance. Shortly before his death, Turing wrote, in an uncanny echoing of Jekyll: “no doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.” Wilde’s own Stevenson reference can be found within Stevenson himself by procedurally erasing irrelevant letters from the initial chapter of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; with each unveiling we get closer to the enigma.

 

Dr. derek beaulieu is the author or editor of sixteen books, the most recent of which are Please, No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) and Kern (Les Figues Press, 2014). He is the publisher of the acclaimed No Press and is the visual poetry editor at UBUWeb. Beaulieu has exhibited his work across Canada, the United States, and Europe and is an award-winning instructor at the Alberta College of Art + Design. He is the 2014 – 2016 Poet Laureate of Calgary, Canada.

Three Works

Art / Jay Bolotin

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

There is always a discomfort when asked to write a statement about one’s own work. I have avoided it, thinking that the work either stands or falls on its own—like a bastard child let loose in the world (proudly) to fend for themselves. And yet, there are some words I have returned to over and over. They are from William Blake’s prophetic poem, “Milton.”

Judge then of thy Own Self: thy Eternal Lineaments explore;
What is Eternal & what Changeable? & what Annihilable?
The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself!
Affection or Love becomes a State, when divided from Imagination.
The Memory is a State always, & the Reason is a State
Created to be Annihilated & a new Ratio Created.
Whatever can be Created can be Annihilated. Forms cannot.
The oak is cut down by the axe, the lamb falls by the knife;
But their Forms Eternal exist, forever. Amen! Hallelujah!

These words, these questions, have been my friend—accompanied me on any path I’ve attempted—like a touchstone one returns to when the path is uncertain.

 

Jay Bolotin was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1949. He now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is included in many public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The Australian National Museum, and the Smith College Museum of Art. Several exhibitions are being planned surrounding The Book of Only Enoch, a portfolio of prints completed in 2015 and a central element in the narrative of a motion picture in progress.

Three Erasures

Erasures / Jenni B. Baker

:: You–Boy ::

BSA Handbook - You, Boy (2)

 

:: Kind ::

BSA Handbook - Kind (1)

 

:: Tiny Town ::

Tiny Town (2)

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

As an erasurist, I feel I need to account more for my sources than I do for my poems.

First, I spend an obscene amount of time inputting odd combinations of search terms in sites like HathiTrust and archive.org: “temporary wharf lodging,” “fallout shelters,” “butchering,” “mimes.” I’ll spend hours hunting down just the right source texts, ones with unique vocabulary and interesting syntax. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out sources where illustrations accompany the text, adding another layer of context and interpretation.

“You—Boy” and “Kind” are part of a larger series of pieces sourced from the 1965 Boy Scouts of America Handbook. As soon as I unearthed this text during my search, it was impossible to ignore. In addition to invoking a sense of American nostalgia, the handbook is beautiful and filled with colorful, retro graphics. The graphics, like the messages in the text, are a weird sort of earnest, cheerfully unaware of their ability to brainwash unassuming boys into a singular vision of what it means to be a man. My pieces manipulate these outlooks into alternate depictions of what it’s really like to be an adult.

“Tiny Town” comes from a 1951 book, The Boy’s Handbook of Play Ideas and Things-to-Do by Caroline Horowitz. Each page contains an activity idea accompanied by an illustration, a list of required materials, and a set of directions. Similar to the Boy Scout pieces, this piece takes a text originally meant for children and turns it into something much more adult. Instead of a tiny town, the child crafts a burial box. What elements from our childhood do we bury as adults?

 

Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review. Her poetry—mostly found, some not—has been published in more than three dozen journals and publications. Her Oulipo-generated chapbook, Comings/Goings, was released by Dancing Girl Press in March 2015. Always a fan of a good project, she is currently creating erasure poetry from David Foster Wallace’s 1079-page novel Infinite Jest, one page at a time, at http://www.erasinginfinite.com.

Poetry Comics

Poetry Comics / Bianca Stone

:: Bliss ::

Bliss

 

:: Bliss ::

Bliss (1)

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Some questions we have about life—no doubt we want them answered. The experience of bliss, in particular, that never comes when we seek it out, but comes uninvited—these images meditate on this anti-pursuit. Little empathetic nightmares that aren’t so bad; the pink women are a chorus; others are green and white in the chaos waiting for bliss to come back. It’s because my brother gave me a book by J. Krishnamurti Commentaries on Living. And that fused with Brassaï’s Paris Nocturne, and it all happened on my coffee table, covered with my evening things. The missing final panel should say: empathize completely.

 

Bianca Stone is a poet and visual artist. Her books include the poetry collection Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), and Antigonick, a hybrid collaboration with Anne Carson (New Directions, 2012). She is co-founder and editor of the press Monk Books, and she runs the Ruth Stone Foundation in Vermont and Brooklyn. The Selected Poetry Comics is forthcoming from Pleiades Books.

Beside the Tall Brick Buildings

Poetry Comic / Sara Wainscott

:: Beside the Tall Brick Buildings ::

needsfixin

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This project plays with creating hybrids of existing texts to stretch their metaphorical contexts. The vehicle for these pieces is Winsor McKay’s hundred-year-old comic strip “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” In their original versions, each strip recounts a dream—or perhaps nightmare—of a different character who has eaten rich food before bed, usually Welsh rarebit. For this project, McKay’s comic is used as a given form and placed in conversation with retellings and readings of dreams; text sourced from online dream forums and interpretation sites fills the speech balloons.

In the resulting combinations, I’m not always sure what’s happening. Words and images maintain parallel relationships, yet there’s an interplay between the defined action and the depicted action. Is this friction? Symbiosis? In any case, this experiment thrives on metaphor that resists logical comparison, and to that end, I delight in the absurdities that result from combining these texts. These poems give a nod to phobia, desire, anxiety; they acknowledge incongruity; they recognize the need to tell each other what we see in the dark. I find this all kind of comforting.

 

Sara Wainscott’s work has appeared most recently in RHINO, Poetry Northwest, Requited, The Journal, and The Columbia Poetry Review. She co-curates Wit Rabbit, an inter-genre reading series, and teaches writing at Columbia College and Oakton Community College.