I have been exploring the offerings of academic presses and looking for books that offer new approaches to literature and reading in general. A few weeks ago, while browsing on the website of Cornell University Press, I came across the webpage for the book Nobody’s Business Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics by Brian M. Reed. Being a rather nosy person by nature, I took the title as a challenge. Nobody’s business, eh? We will see about that! I wrote to Mr. Reed asking for an interview about his book and this is the result.
First of all, Brian, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. You start off your book with an interesting first sentence, “Around the turn of the millennium, I began to run into poems that infuriated me.” You even use quotations marks at one point around the word “poems” and mention seeing such things circulating around the Internet. Can you be more specific? Were they on blogs? Poetry-focused websites?
The book begins by confessing that, when I first encountered the kinds of poetry that I discuss in Nobody’s Business, I responded negatively. You see, anyone interested in contemporary poetry is forever seeking out and sorting through masses of text in multiple formats, as well as attending innumerable readings, downloading terabytes of sound files, and otherwise functioning as a kind of human search engine, hunting for quality work worth reading and sharing. However hard you try, though, there just isn’t time to read everything, so over and over you have to make quick decisions about whether to devote the whole of your attention to this or that writer, this or that journal, and so forth. And, around the year 2000, it turns out that my instincts misled me.
I started hearing about — via e-mail and listservs mostly, but also via the Australian ezine Jacket, SUNY-Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center, and plain old word of mouth — poetic experiments that struck me as bad ideas or in poor taste. (Blogs were part of the mix, too, but they didn’t start to play a major role in discussions of contemporary poetics until a slightly later date. Ron Silliman’s Blog was one of the first well-known and influential poetry blogs, and it debuted in August 2002.)
I was particularly surprised that writers whom I had met in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1990s, such as Kenneth Goldsmith and K. Silem Mohammad, seemed perversely intent on publishing work that misrepresented their talents, skills, and erudition. I knew Goldsmith, for instance, as the author of the elegant artful visual poems that appear in his collection 73 Poems (1994), and I knew Mohammad as a fellow Stanford graduate student who was also a brilliant young Shakespearean. I had a hard time recognizing “my” Goldsmith in No. 188.8.131.52-10.20.96 (1997), a book which mechanically, unvaryingly organizes hundreds of pages of found texts by, first, grouping them according to syllable count and, second, by putting them into alphabetical order. He included trivial, even offensive material, such as section XCIV, which ends, “Shit more learn more. Earn more shit more. Shit more earn more. Learn more earn more shit more. Earn more shit more learn more. Shit more earn more learn more. Earn more burn more shit more. Burn more shit more earn more. Shit more earn more burn more.” My initial reaction to this kind of thing was to say “no thank you” and move on.
Back then, I felt confident in looking elsewhere when trying to divine the present and future of the art form. For example, at a panel in February 2000, I argued that the poet C.D. Wright’s Southern-regional revisions of 1970s and 1980s San Francisco-Bay Area Language poetics represented some of the most cutting-edge work being written. I still admire Wright’s books Tremble (1996) and Deepstep Come Shining (1998), but I was wrong to present them as avant-garde. They are early examples of what I now call a “hybrid” or “new consensus” style, whose hallmark is the adaptation of formerly avant-garde techniques to serve more conventional lyrical ends.
You are frank in your discussion of the distance between your students and you about the merits of this new turn in poetry. You write, “I was surprised, and more than a little humbled, to discover that I had intuitively sided with tradition and reaction against the “joyfully self-destructive” activities of a nascent avant-garde.” I am interested that you say “self-destructive” rather than simply “destructive.” Isn’t much of this movement about destroying things one does not like (like the market economy) rather than destroying oneself?
“Joyfully self-destructive”: I’m repeating Matei Calinescu’s definition of avant-garde writing from Five Faces of Modernity, which I discuss a little earlier in the preface. Calinescu is talking primarily about 1910s dadaism, and he has in mind the fact that dada writers and artists in Paris, Zurich, and New York at times behaved nihilistically, opposing and undercutting everything in sight, even the institutions and conventions that enabled them to claim to be artists and writers in the first place.
My usage here of “self-destructive” also hints at the irritation I felt circa 2003-2004, during the first phase of the Iraq War, when students insisted that the (deliberately) vulgar, asinine, and juvenile writings associated with Flarf (which I’ll talk more about below) represented a meaningful response to the American political situation.
I couldn’t think of anything much more self-destructive for a MFA candidate to do than to start churning out poems with titles such as “I Am ‘So’ Stupid,” “Lick My Face,” “My Kangaroo,” “Everything Nice Has a Crafted Satin Finish,” “Squid Versus Ass Clown,” and “Juan Valdez Has a Little Juan Valdez (i.e. Energy Cannon) in His Pants.” Such titles are, well, just plain bad. They evoke a suburban twelve year old’s fumbling misguided attempts to shock her parents. In an MFA thesis, they would suggest a Holden Caulfield-ish contempt for the adviser and the program. You’d never get published writing this kind of stuff, I thought to myself, and you’d certainly never get a job.
There’s the rub. This poetry committed the cardinal “sin” of laughing at a literary world that esteems virtuosity, professionalism, and craft for their role in advancing a career. When my students advocated Flarf and similar avant-garde poetries, I became uneasy because I intuited that they were disrespecting the institutions that propped up, that validated, my own sense of vocation.
The preface tells the story of how I gradually became more aware of this poetry’s aims and ambitions. A key episode is the year I spent teaching in Germany in 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar. I kept trying to introduce Germans to the full range of contemporary American poetry, and, no matter how I presented the material, they zeroed right in on the avant-garde poetries that I discuss in Nobody’s Business and wanted to know more. These audiences were quite literate; they knew their European and American poetry canons much better than the average English major in the United States, and they saw more readily than I did where meaningful innovation was underway.
You use the intriguing phrase, “this aesthetic of incapacity and self-impoverishment.” Could you elaborate on that?
I have in mind the way these writers selectively fail to live up to the expectations of their readers. If they decide to use rhyme and meter, they do so sloppily. Asked to hold our attention, they supply hundreds of pages of monotonous, repetitive prose. Assumed to tell us revealing things about their interior lives and intimate experiences, they serve up instead quotations from a psychology textbook — or record every last word that they speak for a week — or in the case of Holly Melgard’s Black Friday (2012), go for maximal expressiveness, 734 pages of nothing but black ink entirely covering the page. She crams it all in, so to speak, leaving no room for a single word more.
In short, these poets defy (or lampoon) normative assumptions about craft, taste, and decorum. In so doing, they challenge (market-driven) assumptions about what (credentialed, prize-winning, successful) authors write and say in our society.
These writers, I hasten to add, are not illiterate nincompoops. As Rosalind Krauss once said, avant-garde art gains its power from the strength of the acts of negation that it undertakes. To paint abstractly because your teachers and friends all do so is not an avant-garde gesture. It’s too easy, it’s just going with the flow. But to smear paint randomly across a canvas after you’ve spent many long hard years training to be a portrait painter — such a decision has the force of a Grand Refusal. Most of the writers highlighted in Nobody’s Business are highly educated and unusually talented. They could write with consummate taste, impeccable polish, and urbane wit (and sometimes do). But (mostly) they opt not to do so.
Could you tell us what you mean by “the distinction between literature that strives to be au courant and ends up imitative of contemporary corporate culture — and poetry that resists such complicity by strategically embracing anachronism and obsolescence, particularly in its choice of medium”?
There are different ways of responding to your historical moment. One way — which is often interpreted by contemporaries as innovative and forward-looking and “cool” — is to update your chosen genre so that it is visibly and immediately in dialogue with ongoing shifts in the economy and in society.
Consider, for instance, David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996), which contains an avalanche of hilariously digressive footnotes. It is hardly coincidental that the novel was published during the first phase of the World Wide Web’s explosive growth. The footnotes are a print analogue of the manic, disorderly “hypertextuality” of the early Web. Back then, popular search engines such as AltaVista would mechanically and in no particular order churn out links to everything relating to a word or phrase. Ever since Google’s PageRank algorithm went live in 2000, it’s easy to forget just how random movement around the Internet used to be. You never knew whether a link would lead you to a useful or irrelevant site. By writing a novel that mimics the anarchic nonlinearity of a new information ecology, Wallace produced literature that felt very, very up to date.
In Nobody’s Business, I single out Young-hae Chang Heavy Industry’s animated piece Dakota as a 21st century instance of this dynamic. I analyze how, as both a product of an international team (one member of YCHI is American and the other South Korean) and as a virtuosic deployment of Flash’s multi-media capabilities, Dakota registers as wholly, energizingly contemporary. It is truly exciting work. It also mimics, is caught up in, and does not oppose the breathtaking and sublime spectacle of the marketplace’s octopoid swift expansion into new regions of the world and new areas of life. YCHI has screened its animated work at museums and festivals around the planet.
I contrast Dakota to a book of poetry, titled Human Resources, by Rachel Zolf. It includes, among much else, chunks of text lifted from a site that keeps track of the frequency with which particular words are currently being entered into popular online search engines. Such data is accurate only for a very short time. Zolf also monkeys with that data, collating it and dispersing it, so that it doesn’t even serve a reliable documentary function, that is, record the details of a passing moment for later reflection or delectation.
In short, Zolf gives readers bad, old information via a format, the print codex, in which it will circulate slowly and reach many fewer readers than YCHI’s web site. Given her particular use of Internet sources, she couldn’t have written Human Resources before the advent of Web 2.0, so her long poem is undeniably a commentary on the present moment, but she also chooses, via her choice of medium, to fall out of step with that moment. My book explores why she makes that decision. I argue that, backing away from the virtuosity, globe-wide instant distribution, and “tiger-team” efficiency exhibited by a collective such as YCHI gives her an opportunity to formulate a more oppositional stance. Once time is out of joint, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, she has the time and critical distance needed to imagine the world otherwise. These instants of insight are precious and hard-won in the era of the always-on cell phone and the 24/7 press of news and entertainment and email and cat photos.
Also, what do you mean by “complicit with contemporary corporate culture”? After all, millions of people work in the corporate sector and many of them actually read and enjoy poetry. And many of the tools that the Young Turks of this avant-garde produce their works on are Apple products, Microsoft products, etc. Could you address these matters vis-à-vis the media these artistic rebels employ? It is not as though they live in huts and write with quill pens, after all.
Exactly. They are complicit with corporate culture to varying degrees. Who isn’t? I agree with Branden Joseph and Johanna Drucker, who have argued that, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, there remains no viable “outsider” position from which to judge and denounce the capitalist economic order. You could assert that the era of the avant-garde is therefore over. There is only one God, the world financial system, and Steve Jobs is its prophet.
World systems though are uneven, improvised, inefficient, and unreliable. Just like a cell phone network. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. You don’t have to be an outsider to that system to impede or interrupt its jerry-rigged gerrymandered operations. If you are careful about when you speak, how, and where, you can locally short-circuit the smooth functioning of the corporate global order. And, as Graham Harman likes to remind us, the moment a thing fails to function as per normal, people get cranky and start to think about how it’s supposed to work and why. As a consequence, instead of vanishing into the background as “just the way the world works,” global capitalism’s weird creaky plumbing becomes visible and thinkable, and therefore potentially something we can rethink, too.
I want to throw in a disclaimer here: I am not arguing that all good poetry has to work in this manner. This is only one approach to conceptualizing how formally innovative poetry might pursue socially transformative ends. Other critics and poets will inevitably offer different perspectives. Also, being avant-garde does not automatically make a body of work significant. Such poetry can be blah, ineffective, predictable, etc. Similarly, when I talk about “new consensus” poetry, I do not intend to set it up as a rhetorical straw man. I genuinely like — indeed, I rush out to buy every book by — writers such as Mary Jo Bang, Timothy Donnelly, Peter Gizzi, and D.A. Powell whom I would put into that category. Poetry, like any genre, can serve many purposes and provide many pleasures. Nobody’s Business examines one variety of poetry being written today, but I would also invite people to seek out the full spectrum of what’s available.
Please explain what you mean by “post-poetry” and how might that relate to post-print culture. And isn’t this a depressing sort of regression to barbarism?
“Post-poetry” is my shorthand for a range of different kinds of work in many different media that make a point of echoing, incorporating, or extending poetic precedent without in fact presenting themselves as poetry. In the book I mention examples drawn from dance, installation art, and cinema.
I don’t see this as a judgmental label, or as one that implies a teleology, a movement “beyond” poetry. It’s a way of capturing a certain kind of multi- or mixed media experiment in which aspects of poetry, as conventionally defined, feature prominently. Yes, this relates to “post-print culture,” in the sense that much art, literature, and performance today makes use of digital technologies to mash-up or otherwise combine preexisting texts. But this is a shift in emphasis and frequency, not necessarily a qualitative change or a rupture. The video game Dante’s Inferno (2010) is an example of post-poetry, but one could apply the label equally, I suppose, to Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s fantasy novel Inferno (1976), which was published back before the first of Steve Wozniak’s Apple II microcomputers was available for purchase.
You mention that you made a deliberate decision to discuss the works examined in your book as poetry proper and not as conceptual art. Could you elaborate on why that was such a key decision in the writing of your book?
That decision relates to one particular variety of avant-garde poetry that I discuss, so-called “conceptual writing,” which often involves the large-scale appropriation and redaction of preexisting texts. When I first tried to discuss Goldsmith, the most widely known and most controversial of the conceptual writers, in scholarly articles around 2005–2006, peer reviewers were Not Amused. They uniformly pronounced that his works fall outside the bounds of “real poetry.”
I anticipated that kind of push back. It occurs whenever one talks about avant-garde work that fundamentally challenges an institution’s or a profession’s founding assumptions. I didn’t foresee, however, the repeated insistence that I was committing a category error, confusing conceptual art with literature.
While it is true that Goldsmith and other conceptual writers do have important (and freely confessed) debts to 1960s and 1970s New York-based conceptual art, those debts take the form of a repetition with a difference. They typically target the poetry world and the composition of poetry for their interventions and ludic play, and poets and poetry readers have served as their chief audience. When, for instance, Goldsmith read at the Obama White House in 2011, he did so explicitly as a poet. That framing provokes a set of expectations and summons up a range of intertexts that powerfully influence how one experiences and interprets such an event. In Nobody’s Business, I take this framing seriously and explore its ramifications and consequences.
Of course, when writing about contemporary literature, especially when writing almost in the present tense, you have to be ready for things to change virtually overnight. Since I finished writing my book, Goldsmith appears to have become too big a name (e.g., he appeared on The Colbert Report in July 2013) to continue to be easily dismissed as “not really a poet.” The battle lines have shifted. The focus is now on quality, not category. Polemics have appeared that accuse him and similar writers of being emotionless, derivative, careless, and otherwise poor craftspeople.
You also mention that you chose the term “avant-garde” rather than “neo-avant-garde.” Why?
During the 1980s and 1990s, art critics such as Hal Foster popularized “neo-avant-garde” as a way of referring to post-World War II attempts to revive and revise the practices and techniques associated with the marquee avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 1920s such as dadaism, futurism, surrealism, and constructivism. “Neo-avant-garde” implied a returning to an earlier moment and thus was intended to convey a sense of both rediscovery and belatedness.
The term was also used in the context of a specific academic argument traceable back to Peter Bürger, who maintained that the “historical” avant-gardes sought (unsuccessfully but vividly) to abolish any separation between the spheres of art and everyday life. As their self-appointed heirs, neo-avant-gardists reprise techniques originally intended to destabilize the boundaries of “art” — collage, montage, and assemblage — but they choose to deploy these devices firmly within what Vito Acconci has called an “art context,” that is, in galleries, museums, art schools, and art history journals. They thereby demonstrate that the provocative, estranging devices favored by the dadaists and others in the 1910s and 1920s can in fact be wholly contained and defanged, rendered part of business-as-usual within the international art world.
In my earlier books, I favored “neo-avant-garde” as a label for post-World War II poetry movements that modeled themselves on the “historical” avant-gardes. I wanted to register a discontinuity between these two eras. Also, frankly, I hesitated to use the label “avant-garde” to refer to contemporary writing. Ever since I first arrived on a college campus in the late 1980s, I have heard unceasing scorn directed toward even the possibility of a contemporary avant-garde’s existence. “That’s so yesterday. It’s been done. It’s a dead end. Great poets might go through a period of infatuation with avant-garde aesthetics but, like Czesław Miłosz, they outgrow it and become universal.” The term neo-avant-garde enabled me to talk about poetry that stubbornly persisted in positing a causal correlation between formal experimentation and social transformation — while also permitting me to introduce a saving sliver of skepticism. Oh, this poem might be so gauche as to imitate futurist models, but I agree with you, dear reader, that Marinetti, Stein, and their ilk are old hat, and I agree that we, the jaded and sophisticated set, shouldn’t pay too much attention to these poets’ naive claims.
Why, though, rush to prejudge anyone’s poetic experiments as doomed to fail? One of my mentors in graduate school, Al Gelpi, repeatedly warned me against the arrogance that leads literary critics to assume that they are smarter than or ethically superior to the authors that they study. To write Nobody’s Business I could not keep the poetry at arm’s length via a “neo” prefix. I had to read it sympathetically and with an open mind so as to tease out and understand its premises and its aims.
I had never heard of Flarf until I read your book. Could you please tell us about that? Is it simply a form of burlesque of merely passing interest or does it have real staying power?
Flarf is the subject of my book’s fourth chapter. It is a literary movement that crystallized in the aftermath of 9/11. Its original participants belonged to a listserv intended for the sharing of truly awful verse, as bad as bad could possibly be. Its anarchic humor proved to be a tonic and stimulus to writers who were feeling oppressed by and angry about the melancholy and sense of powerlessness pervasive in progressive political circles in the years 2001-2003.
The Flarf collective first came to national attention because of its members’ habitual use of search engines to help them compose poetry. They would, for instance, choose two incongruous terms, perhaps “squid” and “ass clown,” run them through Google, scrutinize the results page, and stitch together a lyric out of whatever turned up. This process of composition quickly became known as “Google sculpting.”
Using computers to help write poetry is not in itself especially new or newsworthy. There are analogues in the work of, for example, John Cage and Jackson Mac Low as early as the mid-1950s. I was drawn to Flarf for two reasons: its capacious incorporation of widely divergent varieties of vernacular English and its experiments with tone. Poems such as K. Silem Mohammad’s “Bring Me the Head of Celine Dion,” Sharon Mesmer’s “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” and Rodney Koeneke’s “Pizza Kitty” are so over-the-top, so adolescent, so un-PC, that audiences often end up laughing (as you can hear for yourself if you look these titles up on YouTube). But then you also soon begin to feel queasy or disturbed by your own laughter. Flarf poems are often downright mean spirited, recycling racist, misogynist, homophobic, and other kinds of hateful speech. What does it mean to laugh at cynical lines about murder and rape? Flarf poets are skilled at holding up a mirror in which we see reflected back our worst sadistic petty impulses. Therein, I say, lies their politics: they want to tick people off. They hope to reenergize their intended audience, young urban hip leftist culture workers, who are feeling apathetic and disempowered, entirely shut out of the political process.
Is Flarf a form of burlesque? Some of the Flarfists, especially Nada Gordon, do actively draw on burlesque traditions in their writing. Flarf shares quite a bit, too, with another avant-garde movement, called Gurlesque, that I sadly did not have time to cover in Nobody’s Business. Gurlesque explicitly claims burlesque as the inspiration for its feminist-activist poetics. Among the best-known authors associated with Gurlesque are Brenda Coultas, Matthea Harvey, Cathy Park Hong, Ariana Reines, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Catherine Wagner.
Does Flarf have staying power? Most movements lose impetus qua movements after a while. The original participants in the Flarf collective are pursuing somewhat independent paths these days. Some have ceased active involvement in the poetry world altogether. Mohammad, for one, continues to evolve as a writer. While his Deer Head Nation (2003) will be remembered as a defining example of Flarf, his more recent work, as represented by Sonnagrams 1-20 (2009), exhibits a different, more restrained sensibility. Those poems are all anagrams of a peculiar type. To write one, he takes a Shakespeare sonnet and rearranges all the letters in it to spell new words.
You write that poets “often confront the reality of the digitally enabled communications revolution by persisting in what they do not simply despite but because of its obsolescence.” Doesn’t that make poets reactionaries and not members of an avant-garde?
Reactionaries retrench. They reflexively defend old ways of life, prototypically because they fear losing their privileges, possessions, and security.
Visionaries assess new developments and decide what to accept and what to reject. If necessary, they then propose alternative, superior routes forward. And, at the present moment, the only way forward is decidedly not a linear narrative of technological progression, as stage managed by Silicon Valley and global corporations.
While studying at Stanford during the height of the dotcom boom I relied on participation in focus groups to supplement my meager stipend. Once, during a focus group run by a Fortune 500 company, I had the temerity to ask why all the photos of potential users of their product showed nothing but white people. A flustered marketing czar immediately ran out from behind a one-way mirror and stopped everything and sent us home. I had apparently “poisoned” the event by introducing a distracting and obstructive “extrinsic variable” to the discussion.
Sometimes it’s necessary to put on the brakes on progress, as one group defines it, for progress of another kind to occur.
You write, “by insisting on its status as a print- and book-based discourse, poetry can gain critical purchase on the push toward mass digitization, the compulsion to reduce all communication to intangible, infinitely portable ones and zeroes.” But it says on the webpage for your book, “This book is also available as an ebook from the iBookstore and Amazon/Kindle.” Any contradiction here?
The book ends, of course, with a chapter about Danny Snelson, a young poet who primarily works with digital media. There I demonstrate that a poetics that selectively embraces obsolescence and impoverishment is also fully reconcilable with the composition and distribution of e-literature. The sentence you quote here comes from the first chapter, when I’m concentrating on Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources as compared to YCHI’s Dakota.
As regards my own practice: I’m not a poet. I’ve tried to write Nobody’s Business in such a way that it can be read and appreciated outside of a narrow specialist audience, but I certainly didn’t sit down and try to produce a formally innovative prose work. I am a fairly old-school literary historian and a critic who wants to share with people information about what’s happening in contemporary literature. It’s hard to live fully in the present, as Gertrude Stein once put it; so often we confuse what is new to us with what is genuine news. Young men in Seattle nowadays are wearing red trousers and preening and looking smug, as if they were breakthrough fierce fashionistas. But you saw men in Paris wearing exactly the same thing twenty years ago.
I want people to read my book and then put it aside and seek out the poetry to which I’ve introduced them. Then I want them to search out more and newer poetry. I want my scholarship to be a gateway drug. And if that means making my writing readable via a Kindle app? Maybe the undergraduate who reads my work today will tomorrow be writing poetry of a kind and order that I’ve never imagined.
What do you mean by “an implied redactor of found language?” Examples, please.
Redaction is a kind of editing. You take material from different sources and produce a single document.
Poets today (like DJs, like filmmakers) engage frequently in second-order composition, that is, the selective quotation and remixing of preexisting materials. And avant-garde poets often engage in very large-scale acts of appropriation and transcription. An example would be Chris Sylvester’s Pokemon Yellow Version Text Dump (2013). Sylvester downloaded all possible text that could appear in the course of a cartridge-based video game from its ROM (read only memory), pasted it into a Microsoft Word file, and put the results into thirty-point Monaco.
Sometimes avant-garde poets “redact” and combine preexisting texts, too. In Nobody’s Business I talk at length about Goldsmith’s The Weather, which consists of a year’s worth of weather reports. These reports all originally occurred on different days, but he’s included them one after the other with no seam or transition, as if there were a single voice droning on and on uninterruptedly for several hundred pages.
When I mention an “implied redactor,” I have in mind an updating of the old literary-critical concept of the “implied author.” When you read a literary work that has obviously been redacted from prior materials, such writing tends to encourage speculation about the motivation of the person who’s selected these particular texts, perhaps altered them, and then placed them in this particular order. Who the devil would want to transcribe a year’s worth of weather reports? What is he trying to say?
Sometimes an “implied redactor” comes across as a character or persona markedly different from the implied author. The Aeolus episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses appears to have been pieced together by someone working in a newspaper office. This “editor” interpolates headlines and otherwise messes with the telling of the story. He or she, in other words, interferes with the implied author’s efforts to keep the plot moving.
You write of some of the works discussed in your book, “Such poetry often strikes readers as a waste of time — and that is precisely the point. Its writers refuse to collaborate with others towards fruitful ends. They make a spectacle of their wasted labor. And in the age of digital reproduction, they publish print-based books.” But wouldn’t most rational people respond, “If you glory in wasting my time, do I as a reader have any obligation to read you poems or buy your books or subsidize libraries that purchase them?”
Obligation? Poetry can rarely oblige us to do anything.
In essence, you’re asking why anyone would want (1) to write bad poetry or (2) to read bad poetry. All evaluative judgments of art follow from a person’s expectations and values. When we say that a poem is good or bad, we are implicitly saying that it is good or bad for a particular purpose. If you want a poet justify the ways of God to you, Paradise Lost is a much better choice than “Little Boy Blue.”
The poets whom I feature in Nobody’s Business are selectively challenging commonplace assumptions about the nature, function, and purpose of poetry. They also defy one or more of the canons of taste and standards of value current in the academy and in the literary establishment. The book explores why they commit these violations of and departures from normative expectations, in other words, why they would want, seemingly perversely, to write “badly.”
My second and fourth chapters offer a political explanation. If you are interested in literature that furthers a socially transformative political agenda, here you go, here is a corpus of poetry that presents itself as working toward that end.
My third chapter asks if this body of work could be justified not politically but aesthetically. I outline some of its characteristic formal features, such as its frequent recourse to repetition and variation as an organizing principle. Read straight through, poems by the likes of Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, and Dan Farrell can evoke 1970s musical minimalism, as exemplified by Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
My fifth and sixth chapters outline ways in which avant-garde poetry today is responding creatively and dynamically to the contemporary mediascape. It is actively seeking ways of reasserting individual agency in an era of 24/7 information overload. Some poets, for instance, are thinking about how to balance extended immersion in a single work with the more distracted manner of reading characteristic of Web surfing.
Overall, I would say that these writers fulfill the old Horatian injunction that poetry should both instruct and delight. The instruction is partly political and partly practical. The delight comes both from the strange new experiences that the poetry offers as well as from its freedom to broach topics and to quote sources that Important Frequently Anthologized Poets such as Rita Dove, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham would never permit themselves.
Goldsmith has distinguished between “unboring boring” and “boring boring.” The former, as he puts it, is “fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy” because, once we are denied our usual readerly pleasures, we wake up, become more attentive, and frequently discover truths and aesthetic possibilities that we typically and habitually overlook. In contrast, “boring boring is a client meeting; boring boring is having to endure someone’s self-indulgent poetry reading; boring boring is watching a toddler for an afternoon; boring boring is the seder at Aunt Fanny’s. Boring boring is being somewhere we don’t want to be; boring boring is doing something we don’t want to do.” I would say that Nobody’s Business relies on a similar binary between “good bad” poetry and “bad bad” poetry. “Good bad” poetry thumbs its nose at High Toned Professionals and farts in the general direction of the first book prize. Its antics (or its emptiness or its vacuity) nonetheless has ulterior motives and pushes readers toward new insights. “Bad bad” poetry offers you mediocrity pure and simple.
Recently I read Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse (2013), a book-length verse drama. On one level, it’s icky. It’s a punk retelling of the Little Mermaid story that can’t seem to go more than a few lines before tossing in gratuitous references to shit, genitalia, and kinky sex. It was quite literally difficult to read. I kept wincing. But that badness is intentional. Pop Corpse is a discomfiting fantasia of pain, longing, hate, and ecstasy from the point of view of a teenage girl at the onset of puberty. Amid the gross-out humor and the relentless skewering of Disney Princessdom, there are scenes of rare power, such as the mermaid’s mutilating her tail in front of a webcam and a play-within-a-play that involves a handful of actors tied to a floating corpses. Glenum gives us a world where the passage from childhood to adulthood appears to be so traumatic, so shattering, that adolescents cannot help but be numbed, vicious, and adrift. Implicitly, of course, this nightmarish undersea kingdom is really an allegory for America in the Obama era. Talk about “good bad” poetry!
You have the rather funny line, “Everyone seems to be working on a Project.” What do you mean by that?
Poets today are under a tremendous amount of pressure, like all white collar laborers, to prove that they are flexible, skilled, and insanely productive. The “project” has come to the fore as a means of proving one’s worthiness as an employee and entrepreneur. Your “project” is something that you can write about in grant applications, job letters, and tenure narratives. “I am writing a crown of sonnets based on the life of Alfred the Great.” “I am reading through police surveillance reports of women’s lib organizations from the 1970s and assembling a documentary collage.” “I am researching Benjamin’s last days and plan to write a mock epic in ottava rima that will be sung by a multi-ethnic choir of school children from Ecuador.”
Like all other aspects of the contemporary poetry business, avant-garde writers target the Project for criticism and reinvention. They pursue bizarre, wrong-headed, self-defeating, or impossible projects, often for the purpose of reminding audiences just how inhuman it is to demand that we justify our every creative act as contributing to an overarching profitable “strategy” or “agenda.”
What do you mean by the term “Twitter-pated?” Are you on Twitter? If so, do you follow any avant-garde poets on it?
“Twitter-pated” comes from the film Bambi, which I adored about age six. It refers to the giddiness and dopeyness that goes hand-in-hand with the arrival of spring and a corresponding upsurge of erotic desire. I had in mind the excitement with which people adopt new technologies and plunge into using social media. I also was envisioning a typical day on my university campus at twenty past the hour when classes end. You’ll see a horde of people spill out of doors and then simultaneously pull out their smart phones, never look where they’re going, and bang! bang! bang! collide with each other like billiard balls. Ah, youth.
My handle on Twitter is @bmreeduw. I follow a number of avant-garde writers as well as presses, journals, and web sites associated with experimental poetry. I also follow assorted museums, the Electronic Literature Assocation, a large number of “digital humanities” sites and specialists, and newspapers from around the world such as Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza and South Korea’s Choson Ilbo. I recently completed a Twitter-based experiment in criticism. Once a day I boiled a Shakespeare sonnet down to a single tweet. I called the exercise Shakespeare Tweeted Daily, STD for short, because the tweets could always go viral, and you could share them with strangers.
I have no particular allegiance to Twitter as opposed to any other possible social media platform. For the time being, though, its popularity and arbitrary length limitations (no more than 140 characters!) offer possibilities for inventive play. Vanessa Place’s ongoing conceptual poem Gone with the Wind by Vanessa Place is an example. She is retweeting the whole of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. She is doing so, it appears, once a day and roughly a page at a time, broken up of course into 140 character-length fragments. Each new installment takes the form of a cascade of tweets that suddenly fills your inbox, crowding out and overlaying everything else that might be in progress. Another, less intrusive example of “twitterature” would be Teju Cole’s Small Fates, an update the French tradition of faits divers (very short newspaper stories).
Could you tell us a little about the publishing process for this book? How did you happen to choose Cornell University Press as the publisher?
I approached Cornell University Press because its editor-in-chief, Peter Potter, has a long-standing interest in work by and about experimental poets. Also, trusted colleagues at the University of Washington had very positive things to say about their experiences working with the press.
Much of new avant-garde poetry seems to grow out of a love of simply stringing words from radio reports, Google searches, etc. and its politics seem to be fairly exclusively left in tone and, as you point out, it targets not only predictable figures like George W. Bush but also disdains the hipster left. I was rather surprised that there was no mention of the Occupy Movement. Was that because little study has been made thus far of the literary legacy of that movement? Did any poetry of note emerge from it? Would you say that the Occupy Movement is the political manifestation of the ideological framework of the new avant-garde poets?
Thank you for asking this question! This is an obvious and unfortunate gap in the book’s discussions of contemporary politics. I don’t talk about the Occupy movement because the book was largely written in the years 2009 to 2011, before Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park and began to receive national attention.
After the book was in production, though, I wrote a kind of sequel, an essay that responds both to the Occupy and Tea Party movements. I concentrate on the question of populism, that is, the effort to oppose the power of “elites” in the name of an irate citizenry. A populist self-presentation — a stand on behalf of “the 99%” or “the silent majority” — can clearly empower today’s grass-roots activists to intervene in American politics in substantive (and sometimes quite disruptive) ways.
Drawing on recent discussions in political philosophy, I compare the populism of contemporary insurgent politics to the stance adopted by certain conceptual writers, particularly Goldsmith and Robert Fitterman. Instead of portraying themselves as alienated outsiders, they set themselves up as “mavericks” who challenge elite cultural institutions by refusing to produce the highly crafted, erudite poetry that those institutions typically value. Instead, they pass along, virtually unaltered, material lifted from popular culture, or alternatively they transcribe chatty conversations about popular culture conducted by everyday people via reviews on Amazon, Yelp, IMDB, Facebook, and other readily accessible forums.
Of course, now I’m waiting for that essay to be published (print can be so SLOW), and events keep occurring, and poets keep writing. There are a cornucopia of debates happening right now among poets about how literature can or should relate to progressive politics in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, which means it’s impossible to speak in anything approaching a summary manner.
Here’s one example, however. Joe Milutis, a poet and video artist, participated in Occupy Seattle during its most active and visible months, while it sustained a camp at Seattle Central Community College in the Capitol Hill neighborhood (October to December 2011). He helped with the community’s archive and library, and he offered impromptu classes on subjects such as the writings of Walter Benjamin.
Recently, as part of his ongoing project Twenty Beloved French Poems, Treated Poorly, Milutis started reediting movie trailers. He retains the overblown thunderous soundtracks typical of the genre but replaces the voiceovers with himself reading eccentric translations of French symbolist verse. One of these pieces — available on YouTube — is Arthur Rimbaud’s Dark Knight Rises. It ends with a sequence of three messages flashing up on the screen: “Coming Soon / OCCUPY MAUDIT / this fall.” The reference to the Occupy movement comes out of nowhere, and it interrupts in all caps the familiar phrase “Coming Soon / this fall.” And where we would expect a place name — Ottawa, Rotterdam, Oakland, Seattle, etc. — instead we encounter “maudit,” as in poète maudit, or “accursed poet,” a conventional label for writers such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine who defied French nineteenth-century social norms. At the end of his revamped trailer, Milutis wants readers to think about his deformations of both Hollywood cinema (a Tom Cruise movie) and the literary canon (a Rimbaud poem) as calculated, forceful gestures of “occupation.”
What does it mean to reinscribe the tried-and-true technique of appropriation as occupation? Is he conflating or confusing the composition of poetry with a recapturing of public space? Is he advocating mass protest against the limits on artistic expression associated with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1996)? Trying to answer these questions would require another essay, at the very least.
So — has “poetry of note” emerged from the Occupy movement? Absolutely. But identifying which poetries are most “notable,” and discerning what “notes” they seek to strike, will keep critics and readers busy in the coming years.
How will these poets manage to support themselves given that they regard corporate life as inherently evil and don’t have any use for academia (even supposing the job market for poets in higher-ed were to miraculously improve)?
No economic system is “inherently evil.” That’s the language of theology, not critique. Every economic order consists of multiple systems and sub-systems, and they variously promote and inhibit forms of agency, both personal and collective.
American neoliberalism, for instance, is a way of organizing social and economic relations that very much encourages the present-day push toward legalizing same-sex marriage. That is, it licenses people to think of themselves as free agents in a marketplace, able to associate with anyone they wish. So why not redefine marriage to maximize individual choice? For the gay male couple standing at the altar, global capitalism can look like a pretty good deal, a system that underwrites their freedom to live according to their individual desires. Even as, on another front, it might be constraining that freedom by, oh, outsourcing their jobs or pricing essential medical procedures out of their reach.
Better than “inherently evil” is Benjamin’s adjective “barbarous,” as in his claim that “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarity.” You can’t take the good without the bad. Nothing, naturally, prevents you from favoring one outcome over the other, or dreaming of an alternative way of arranging human interactions that would, on balance, be more just and equitable.
If you start from the assumption that everyone is complicit in some fashion in the current economic organization of society, then yes you can write avant-garde poetry while working in a corporation or teaching at a university. Why not? All jobs are “tainted” to some degree. What matters is how you make use of your situation. You can always act in anarchic, disorderly, or creative ways. Often it is an insider who knows best where the cracks are showing and where the bodies are buried.
Of the poets that I discuss at length in Nobody’s Business, three are professors and one is a graduate student in an Ivy League PhD. program. For some readers, that would disqualify them from consideration as being “authentically” avant-garde. It would make them “academic” poets, shallow sell-outs. But who else these days, besides universities, is going to pay poets (and poetry critics) to devote themselves part- or full-time to their artistry and their obsessions? The government won’t do it. Foundations will pay for a small number to do so, on occasion, grudgingly. Prizes free a handful of others to loaf, laze, and sprawl. But really, to be a poet — and have health insurance? To be able to feed yourself, your kids, and your cats? Who except an ideologue is going to tell a young writer that she should deliberately make her life more difficult so as to remain “pristine” and untouched by academic or corporate influences?
In the Fire Sermon, Buddha says if an arrow strikes you, you pull it out. If you are in a burning house, you escape. If a poet is starving, she goes where there is food, even if that means (oh no!) taking a tenure-track position. Thanks be to Buddha that the academy still, however partially and infrequently, provides a haven for the quixotic few who resolve to write verse in a society that undervalues their efforts.
Given the rise of crowdfunding, do you think that that some Web-based projects will be financed in that manner?
Short answer: yes. I’m sure they already exist. I probably have seen or heard about several, too, and I’m just having momentary amnesia. Readers, give us links!
More interesting answer: Contemporary poetry often operates within a gift economy. That is, people exchange it for free online. You download it from curated sites such as Ubu.com, self-publishing sites such as Lulu.com, and small press sites such as Gauss-PDF.com. You can find some of the most exciting avant-garde poetry right now on the Troll Thread collective’s Tumblr feed. This gift economy is entirely dependent on people devoting (donating) their time and labor (and hardware and software) in the name of art (and community-building). Partly as a consequence, there’s a downscale look to much of this work; most people just don’t have the resources and capital necessary to create a polished glitzy product. And Nobody’s Business explores how this “impoverishment” can be flipped and turned into a political tool, a way of critiquing or resisting pressures to create appealing commodities that will circulate frictionlessly in a market economy. Who wants to buy “shoddy” goods?
Crowd-sourcing would certainly provide another means for poets to circumvent the traditional publishing world. Of course, small presses and little magazines, poetry’s old print-based biome, have always been a kind of crowd-sourcing anyway, almost wholly dependent for their continued existence on the love and generosity of a highly dedicated but small fan base. But the new Kickstarter.com variety of crowd-sourcing could, via social media magic, direct and aggregate funds from a far-flung community of good will and raise the dollars needed for technicolor shmancy excess.
Based on the lurid bouncy book Mall Witch (2012) the Wonder collective — Ben Fama, Andrew Durbin, and Paul Legault — represents precisely the kind of internet-savvy avant-garde coterie that could kickstart their way to a tacky assaultive baroque poetics that incences (some) readers by conspicuously frittering money away on fluff, bells, whistles, and days at the spa. Theodor Adorno once argued that poets could fight the baleful side to modernity’s march by anachronistically styling themselves as feudal aristocrats. Why shouldn’t there now be a retro-dandyism, an avant-garde that registers its contempt for the marketplace by burning through cash to no purpose, to no profit?
Who are the leading critics of the new avant-garde? I was interested that you discuss at length the work of Craig Dworkin not so much in his role as a scholar, but as the author of the work, Parse. How would you characterize that work? A work of scholarship? A take-off?
Parse (2008) is a fascinating, frustrating, rewarding long poem. Dworkin took a nineteenth-century classroom guide to parsing grammar and parses its grammar. Sort of. He tells you about the syntax of every sentence in his source textbook, from the title page onward, but his attention eventually wanders, and, as I describe in Nobody’s Business, things become increasingly peculiar and unpredictable.
Dworkin also happens to be a first-rate critic. His essays are among the best possible introductions to contemporary avant-garde writing. Especially good are his prefaces, whether to anthologies such as the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2003) and Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) or to books published by Information as Material such as Simon Morris’s Re-Writing Freud (2005).
Other writers identified with conceptual writing have also produced terrifically useful criticism, for instance Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011) and Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualism (2009).
Where else to look? Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010) is essential. Michael Davidson’s On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (2011) is another top-flight study. Charles Bernstein’s 2009 special issue of the journal boundary 2 on American poetry since 1975 gathers together important statements by a range of different critics, as does Davidson’s special issue of Contemporary Literature from 2011 on poetry since 2000. Online one can readily find excellent essays and commentary by the likes of Jeff Derksen, Rob Halpern, Tan Lin, Sianne Ngai, Jennifer Scappettone, Evie Shockley, and Timothy Yu. For critics who are more skeptical of avant-garde experimentation yet respectful of its ambitions (and just plain smart to boot), you could check out Robert Archambeau, Jennifer Ashton, Steve Burt, and Oren Izenberg.
You write, “some twenty-first-century avant-garde writers position themselves in relation both to the immediately preceding generation of experimentalists and to an influential contemporary variety of verse, ‘hybrid’ or ‘new consensus’ poetry. One could call hybrid poetry the new mainstream, but such a label would be misleading since it is neither ubiquitous nor universally esteemed.” Could you please give us some names of those in the “immediately preceding generation of experimentalists” and representatives of the “hybrid” or “new consensus” poetry — and are the latter two terms synonymous?
In this context, “immediately preceding generation of experimentalists” refers primarily to the East and West Coast branches of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and 1980s, named for the influential journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1982), coedited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. Other well known participants in the movement include Steve Benson, Rachel Blau duPlessis, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Michael Palmer, Bob Perelman, Joan Retallack, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. They are best known for their explorations of unconventional syntax and fractured narrative as well as their advanced knowledge of Marxist and post-structuralist philosophy. Insofar as one can make generalizations about such a large and heterogeneous group, one can say that they are deeply suspicious of the old presumption that lyric poetry depicts a voice speaking in isolation about its private thoughts and innermost feelings. They endorse instead a decentered subjectivity in which the speaking “I,” if present at all, represents a momentary intersection of economic, social, political, and other discourses and forces.
Over the course of Nobody’s Business I also discuss such late twentieth-century avant-gardes as the Cambridge School (from Britain) and the Kootenay School of Writing (from Canada). Then there are any number of important figures who belong firmly to no one school or tendency, such as Anne Tardos and Rosmarie Waldrop.
My book portrays these movements and individuals as providing the literary context for the appearance, reception, and interpretation of new twenty-first-century developments in avant-garde writing. A phrase such as “previous generation” can make it sound like these writers are all now consigned to the distant past and have become of merely historical interest. Hardly! Many of the poets still remain quite active, indeed in some cases continue producing better work today than ever before.
What has changed is the rest of the poetry scene. Disjunctive devices that enraged the literary establishment back in the 1980s have, through repetition and prominence, become popularized, even clichéd. One of my former students, for instance, who is now working towards a MFA at an elite Northeastern university, reports that his adviser, a winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, regularly tells her classes, “When in doubt, make things more fragmentary.” A mode of writing that could bring down the Wrath of God circa 1985 has in the last quarter century devolved into a default, neutral style.
In the late 1990s, a number of poets and critics — among them Stephen Burt, Steve Evans, and Susan Wheeler — began commenting on this “mainstreaming” of heretofore experimental techniques, especially the frequency with which they were being deployed toward conventionally lyrical ends (expressing emotion recollected in tranquility, confessing personal torment, striving for transcendent beauty). The label hyrbid, for instance, is not my own. I’ve taken it from American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John. For them, “hybrid” suggests a kind of grand synthesis, an overcoming of more than a half-century of squabbling between countercultural/experimental/avant-garde writers and their bourgeois/traditional/establishment opponents.
I agree that a synthesis has emerged. But I also believe that this synthesis has itself become something of a hegemonic mode of composition, praised and valued by today’s institutions and gatekeepers and tastemakers, in other words, a “consensus” style. True, it may not be the only kind of verse being written or winning prizes or receiving good notices in the Times Literary Supplement, far from it, but it has become an entrenched, widely esteemed mode against which stylistic alternatives measure themselves (see, for example, Tony Hoagland’s essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment”).
If someone wishes to read well-wrought, ambitious, intellectually sophisticated poetry that satisfies many of the demands and desires that have long led people down the rose-strewn path to poetry addiction, then this “hybrid” or “new consensus” mode has a plenty of attractions. I would heartily recommend poets such as Dan Beachy-Quick, Terrance Hayes, Ange Mlinko, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Srikanth Reddy, Donald Revell, Prageeta Scharma, Robyn Schiff, Brian Teare, Elizabeth Willis, Monica Youn, and Kevin Young. A particularly good example is Reginald Shepherd, who may have died tragically young in 2008 but who, in addition to writing six books of amazing verse, was himself perhaps the premier critic to define and defend a hybrid style via his activities as a blogger at the Poetry Foundation, as an essayist (see his book Orpheus in the Bronx ), and as an anthologist (see The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries  and Lyric Postmodernisms ).
One irony of literary history is that an erstwhile avant-garde writer can abruptly find herself the toast of the literary monde. Arguably, this has happened with Rae Armantrout, who was a founding member of the West Coast branch of Language Poetry back in the 1970s but whose book Versed (2009) is the most honored publication of the new century, winning the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as narrowly missing out on winning the National Book Award. She hasn’t changed what and how she writes over the decades. She has been remarkably consistent, in fact. Rather, the country has simply caught up with her and a consensus formed that her work represents a standard of quality and accomplishment by which one can judge whatever one encounters in workshops, prize competitions, and glossy magazines.
What is the average age of a member of the new avant-garde?
The age of most of the writers I discuss falls between twenty five and fifty. I do not, however, believe that youth correlates automatically with a drive or ability to innovate. A few Language poets keep popping up in Nobody’s Business in the “avant-garde” column even though they published their first major works back in the 1970s because they recognize that what constitutes a literary mainstream shifts over time and have made corresponding adjustments in their tactics and outlook. New strategies for new circumstances, in other words. Bernstein merits special mention because of his ongoing growth and development as a writer and thinker. Much of his recent work, from Girly Man (2006) to Recalculating (2013), responds directly to the provocations of Flarf, conceptual writing, Gurlesque, and other post-9/11 avant-garde movements.
The final chapter of Nobody’s Business spends a long time examining continuities between Bernstein’s audiotape collages of the 1970s and Snelson’s born-digital poetries of the 2010s. I suppose one could say that we’re still living in the Bernstein Era.
You write, “Delay, pauses, belatedness, and obsolescence grant, if not critical distance, then moments when one can seize agency and dream of utopia.” Is that a poetic stance so very different from that of poets for millennia? Is that somehow unique to the new avant-garde?
I devote a fair amount of the book’s last two chapters talking about the concept of utopia and its recrudescence as an academic and literary topic in the new millennium. If the 1990s was (for the humanities) the decade of critique, since 9/11 the problem has more often than not been the search for something we can believe in. We know what we oppose, but what do we stand for? You hear the phrase “social justice” quite a bit these days, but how can you put your time and energy into advocating “social justice” unless you have a vision of what a more just society would look like?
Utopian fantasies have, yes, played an essential role in the long history of poetry. One could include under that heading everything from medieval dream visions to the third part of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” when he calls for the doors of all prisons and mental hospitals to open and people to flood the streets and join together in ecstatic communion. Even a work such as Frank Bidart’s “Second Hour of the Night” (1997) — which is about the inevitable soul-destroying mismatch between our desires and the constraints of the given world — can be called utopian, insofar as it strives to redeem suffering by making it the occasion for the creation of a beautiful poem.
The utopian dimension of contemporary avant-garde poetry could be instructively compared and contrasted to previous iterations of utopian thinking. Specifically, you’d want to think about the utopianism of the historical avant-gardes. Velimir Khlebnikov, for instance, was a Russian futurist who prophesied the wholesale abolition of the old literary and political order and the ushering in of a new era. William Carlos Williams, in Spring and All, describes the complete and total destruction of the world as we know it and its rebirth as something wondrous and unprecedented. Today’s avant-garde writers do not have the sublime self-confidence that you will find in these antecedents. They acknowledge that the utopianism of the likes of Khlenikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Ezra Pound goes hand-in-hand with totalitarian urges, both right- and left-wing, to remake society, which has often led to brutal abuses and mass death.
What can these contemporary poets do instead? They intervene selectively, carefully, and variously in the systems that govern daily life, and they take advantage of the only apparent total victory of global capitalism to strike out for, to light out for, the promised lands that they glimpse (or conjure up) (or invent out of whole cloth). They pursue what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari once called lines of flight. Maybe they won’t make it very far. Maybe they will. When in the scifi novel Logan’s Run (1967) the protagonist flees for his life, he has no idea if he’ll get to Sanctuary, and he has no inkling that Sanctuary will turn out to be a space station orbitting Mars. He still makes it.
Do you think there will be a backlash to the rather sophomoric, anti-establishment, anti-craftsmanship tenor of the new avant-garde? Are there any good, gifted poets who identify as conservatives, for example?
There’s already a backlash. It’s come from several different quarters. Some partisans for and participants in late twentieth-century Language poetics have expressed strong misgivings about these twenty-first-century movements that intermittently claim to be building on and superseding their precedent. Supporters of more conventionally lyrical poetry, too, have published attacks, especially since Marjorie Perloff published the short essay “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric” (2012) in the Boston Review. Calvin Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” (2013) is a sample of what’s out there.
Are there any gifted poets who identify as conservatives? There certainly aren’t many who would publicly identify as conservative in a political sense. Answering why that is the case would take a long essay. Suffice it to say that there is not really a continuous American tradition of post-World War II poetry that wishes — or dares — to affiliate itself with right-wing causes or parties. Can you imagine the collective disdain that would greet the publication of a Miltonic epic that cast George W. Bush and Condaleeza Rice as heroes and lauded them as defenders of the free world?
There are, though, without a doubt, tremendously gifted young poets writing in what one might call a “throwback Thursday” mode. Timothy Donnelly, Michael Robbins, and Adam Fitzgerald, for example, demonstrate that one can still successfully mine 1980s John Ashbery for inspiration. The modernist free verse of William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, and Lorine Niedecker informs not only Armantrout’s Versed but also such other triumphs as Joseph Massey’s Areas of Fog (2009), Pam Rehm’s Small Works (2005), and Shannon Tharp’s Vertigo in Spring (2013).
Are there class or regional differences between hybrid poets and those of the new avant-garde? Are female poets more heavily represented in one group than men are?
Class differences? Goodness, there are far too many poets involved to generalize. It is probably safe to say, however, that, whatever their origins or backgrounds, most of the poets discussed in Nobody’s Business belong to the amorphous category of middle class, although you would have to stretch that heading to include retirees, part-timers, adjunct faculty, and graduate students whose annual take-home pay sometimes falls below the official U.S. poverty line ($11,490 in 2013).
Regional differences? All the poets I treat probably congregate on the coasts, in the big cities, though the moment I type that I start thinking about Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, and then about the poets who work at colleges in rural areas or who are loving life out in Humboldt County, California, or Placitas, New Mexico, not to mention the expatriates in London, Prague, Tel Aviv, and Hong Kong, and then I have to give up. Too many people and places. (All, crucially, somehow wired and online, though.)
According to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “Numbers Trouble” (2007), contemporary American poetry of all stripes remains statistically dominated by men. I was acutely aware of their arguments and tabulations while writing Nobody’s Business, and I strove to maintain a roughly equal balance of male and female voices. More importantly, you’ll find that throughout I try to be attentive to questions related to race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality. In doing so, by the way, I am not somehow “imposing” a set of concerns on the material. These poets are all actively addressing the burning concerns of their day, and what could be more urgent in the post-9/11 moment than thinking about how democracy functions (or fails to), as well as who counts as fully vested with the privileges of citizenship?
Spahr and Laynie Brown have argued that at least one component of the contemporary avant-garde, conceptual writing, is inherently a boy’s club. Whether that might have been true circa 2003 it certainly isn’t the case in 2013. There’s an anthology titled I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (2011), and any comprehensive coverage of conceptualism would have to include (at the very least) Caroline Bergvall, Sarah Dowling, Mónica de la Torre, Angela Genusa, Holly Melgard, Yedda Morrison, Vanessa Place, and Divya Victor.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you, too! I appreciate this opportunity to talk about my scholarship with such a close and careful reader. I hope this interview helps to start further conversations about some of the most provocative writing in the new century.