Saturday, June 10, 2006

Becoming Exile

Benjamin Hollander offered one of the more productive responses to my “Preliminary Notes”. Pointing to the final quote from Landauer, he asked whether or not poetry can help us rethink our relationships between others, suggesting that history is but one element. And of course, if you know Benjamin’s superb work, you will know that this is often his own project, particularly in RITUALS OF TRUCE AND THE OTHER ISRAELI. It’s a piece of prose essentially, what might be called creative non-fiction, with biographical elements. Benjamin Hollander as born in Israel and frequenty goes back. He has a book of creative non-fiction called THE RITUALS OF TRUCE AND THE OTHER ISRAELI. It kicks ass, and from the title alone suggests he will take on specific, political content. He does so with what a more pretentious thinker might call Radical Humility, a call really for multiple types of listening across cultures. It’s a very powerful challenge and nuanced addition to the question of who gets to speak.
Benjamin turned me onto Semezin Mehmedinovic, a Bosnian exile now living here. In NINE ALEXANDRIAS writes about traveling across America from the exile’s point-of-view. It’s subject centered work, but in contrast to the techno-confessionalists—those who vomit back the worst of our culture, the very language of domination—the experience of reading it is more truly challenging to our comfortable, privileged point of view. His characterization of our banal and insensitive notions of violence seems particularly distinct from those who merely appropriate for us that which is unfortunately already ours.


When the guy sitting across from me straightens up
I catch sight of a guillotine with a lightning flash
Against a bluish knife blade sketched
Hyper-realistically across his throat.

In the culture of poverty I come from
Tattoos are always and only the result of dull needles
Taken up in solitary.

In spite of the pain, I yearned
To inscribe messages on my body
But I never took the plunge before the needle,
Something I attribute to the
Cause of antifascism:

In a society still sensitive to the tenderness of the skin
Memory of the holocaust still lives on.


And here is one of this responses to 9/11:


I’ve already been sitting in the garden at the café
For hours before I spread the book out in front of me
Jack Spicer’s Language
So I can transmit what I’ve just read like it was
News, not something that
Happened half-a-century back:

“The 50 penny German postage stamp
Depicts a small chapel and an oak:
If you look real closely
You can see Hitler’s face come together in the crown of the tree,
And at the Bundespost the Reichmeister says:

We know what it is we’ve designed and it doesn’t represent Hitler.
It doesn’t speak very well for the German people
If they see Hitler everywhere.”

I particularly like the “We know what it is we’ve designed” line as it is sort of beside the point. Whether or not the big H is really in the image, he will be perceived there. That’s a line I take as possibly ironic, one that goes to questions of intention, and one that adds some nuance to the basic question of perceiving evil as total.

I have to say that what attracted me to writing, to becoming a writer was the way it seemed to lend me a new subjectivity, what I've called temporary autonomy, but which is perhaps better called "becoming exile."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Too long, I fear, but something of a first response to Dan Hoy's question about autonomy, from a paper I gave a few months back

Voluntary History: Memory as Performance

For a conference on poetry and memory in April, 2006 at Occidental College, I was asked to write a very short statement on how “memory” functions in my poetry. What follows below is that statement though it is bound to infuriate a few of my peers due to its overly general terms (due to the word count requirement), and especially its rather unfashionable stand against poems made through interactions with computer search engines or collages based solely on pop culture. I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in personal memory or psychology when I write. I’m more interested in memories that are really “voluntary histories” as opposed to involuntary memories or the monumental, “great man” histories. Tipping my hat to Aristotle, I make a distinction then between retention and recollecting.

For Aristotle, retention belongs to those who have quick minds. These minds are good with names, dates, and anecdotes. But recollecting is slow memory. It takes work and is self-inflicted. Recollecting, for Aristotle, involves not simply recounting a set of perceptions or conceptions but also reflecting on the lapse of time itself as one re-experiences an earlier time not in the mind but in presentation. This is the terrain of voluntary history.

In fact, Aristotle insists that a memory must be presented to even exist. Without a “presentation” intellectual activity is impossible because memories remain in abstract forms, like proofs in geometry. I would add only that until presented memories are largely reactions, and poets, no matter what else, must be interested in construction.

Aristotle insists that our ability to reflect on time sets us apart from animals that have memories, but not real consciousness. He then goes on to talk about how dwarves can’t remember well because they have large upper bodies that exert too much pressure around the memory organs. So Aristotle only takes us so far.

But the question of duration that Aristotle raises is crucial to poetry. Poetry is not blogging or surfing the web: it requires more extended concentration by both poet and reader. And this is compromised if the work resembles too closely the visual culture we live in. To me, poetry should avoid being too frivolous, too superficial, especially if doing so only reproduces the type of consciousness created by the larger culture. For me, machines already monopolize the larger culture, already demand too much of my attention. I go to poetry that, almost like humans themselves, is capable of thinking, of constructing new associations, of rejuvenating our powers of concentration.

With that in mind, I tried highlight seeming coincidences in my Water & Power. One poem explores 1948 in the context of Los Angeles, particularly the relocation of the poor from Chavez Ravine in order to build Dodger Stadium. And I mention “Truman’s Resurrection” and “the invention of Israel” both of which took place in the same year. The suggestion is that loss of various types of common space, mental and physical, along with rise of a war economy are more connected than we tend to realize. The book tries to suggest how the history of Los Angeles more than Walden Pond encapsulates the national character.

The idea is to use local history to illuminate common but difficult questions. Even if we don’t have strong ties to Israel/Palestine, we can ask, Do we really want to approach the problem in the same way that Dodger Stadium did? Even in poetry that addresses the quotidian we can see how these voluntary histories illuminates what of the quotidian we choose to value, what we choose to repeat, what infelicities we are repeating.

It is possible to think of “The Tempest” in this light too. I’ve recently “re-written” the play, if you will, to include the fact that Shakespeare got much of his information about Caliban from letters from the Virginia Company that described how the natives lived in Bermuda. The Virginia Company shipwrecked and the indentured sailors mutinied because it was a tropical paradise that grew its own food and there was little need for work. Shakespeare himself was an investor in the Virginia Company and that intrigues me, because he could have interpreted this news of paradise in another manner. Shakespeare, the first author to be marketed and branded in the modern sense, relied on the letters from abroad to fuel his imagination, and this means he is writing not only from a privileged position, but from a position that combined privilege with history to create the modern imagination. The imagination is exploitative. And it is worth asking as poets who and what we want to exploit, fully aware that we always complicit with larger culture.

Now my poem goes on to investigate the role of the artist who lives in his head and makes things up as the world goes on beyond him. And I try to implicate myself as an heir of Shakespeare’s tradition in the long dismissal of certain themes of inheritance, work, otherness, and I don’t hide from the fact that Shakespeare is also pop culture. I could have grandiosely employed historical details to trace the long arc of capitalist modernity, but I don’t. I only suggest that writing itself has integrated some of capitalism’s biases, particularly its emphasis on scarcity and by extension competition as the engine of progress. Perhaps like the mutinied sailors who tried to embrace their newly found paradise, there is a rather obvious cooperative side of history that’s been lost. It’s true, for example, that prior to Shakespeare credit for play writing was usually shared among the participating members of the cast. The point is that history is always context and content. It is a source many types of knowledge that have been lost. And while poets may not be able to resurrect that knowledge fully, we can draw from it, exploit it. In doing so, we affirm not only that knowledge and beauty are connected in the Keatsian way, but also we can affirm that the world itself remains a place of abundance and not scarcity, that writing is still a question of redistributing and reorganizing knowledge, and not just an ornamental activity.

Some poets attempt to shun the personal or the solipsistic by drawing almost exclusively from pop culture. But pop culture is about speed. It’s about a corporate enclosure of the public sphere. To write from primarily from pop culture is to assume that scarcity is complete, and that there is only an abundance of too familiar ideas and phrases. It demands of the reader to be retentive only, quick-minded as Aristotle said, and it depends on a false newness that itself is dependent on sheer speed, a fake accessibility, a fake immediacy. Only superficially can it gesture at the heightened relevancy of community.

An artist who draws overwhelmingly from pop culture or collages from technological means is an impoverished artist. It makes no difference if the artist believes herself to be a critic of that world, some maverick roaming the boundaries of what Adorno called The Culture Industry. Reliance on pop culture, like reliance on personal memories, affirms the notion that there is a scarcity of ideas or experience. It does not offer a site of commonality, but the illusion of commonality, an alienated form of humanity.

Hyper-mediated critiques of hyper-mediated culture reinforce the idea that things human and vital are inaccessible. Often this absent vitality leads to an aesthetic of reaction, even offensiveness that both the left and the right celebrate. Hate radio and the poetry of disgust—particularly that which attacks political correctness only in order to reform the very same terrain —suggest that the more wildly we stab at the void, the more alive we are. Some of these poets celebrate these avowedly futile and superficial gestures because they believe it reflects the ironic substance of our lives. A poet who can draw on history criticizes more forcefully and expresses a desire for change. He or she can seduce and inspire, not just seduce or deliberately offend. To affirm history then is not just to affirm old conceptions such as the narrative of inevitable progress or the narrative of catastrophe or the “survival of the fittest.” It also affirms chance and contingency, all the vital flux that makes being vibrantly human still possible.

For me, history and poetry are the search for sustainable ideas. Thinking of history as a set of voluntary, self-inflicted memories sets it apart from simply reacting to the quotidian. To be clear though, I am not suggesting poetry should be as opaque as Ezra Pound’s is often said to be. But I also do not believe poets need to include explanations of all their historical references. They can include historical details that don’t necessarily fuel the theme, although to some this too will appear superfluous. But all of it is done to encourage readers to slow down and think. Poetry is a place where people can go to reflect on their times without so much blinking and buzzing. It’s a semi-autonomous zone, quite temporary, like the one the sailors attempted in Bermuda. But from within it, one can see the value of looking at things from the point of view of abundance and collaboration as opposed to scarcity, competition, and individualism.

If I can be abstract out of brevity, I would argue that poetry, memory, and beauty intersect with knowledge, and that at this point of intersection all the categories become muddled. The kind of poetry I try to write seeks to follow the contours of this intersection and offer it to the reader as one possible assemblage of knowledge. If this is done without dogmatism, all the better. Should the knowledge be of any value to the reader it will be because it is not Aristotle’s knowledge, but more like David Hume’s who placed belief in its place. By investigating the conditions that legitimate belief, he set out a theory of probabilities. And what is memory or history but a probable depiction of events, tendencies, habits?
The consequences are important: if thought is belief, it has more reason to defend against illusion than error. To write from history is to write from belief. To write from belief is naturally to flirt with error, but it doesn’t have to be solipsistic or tied to the illusion of scarcity or accept the type of beautiful illusions our times so fervently collude to convey. Of course, someone will say all of this sounds rather heady, even pretentious. Certainly it can be. However, I believe writers should try to avoid the trap of anti-intellectualism if they are inclined to see their work in opposition to the status quo. In America, it is usually our masters or our masters’ minions who voice objections to intellectualism, substituting common “horse sense” or American pragmatism as an allegedly more democratic mode.

Whenever intellectualism is championed by our masters, as it often is in the universities, a writer might do well to ask, Do I want to be any less intellectual than those who would use it against me? If the answer is no, then we are led back to history because
history is only a set of associations and allows us to ask about relationships between people and ideas. With Hume as our guide, what appears contractual or natural is revealed conventional. History, unlike memory, requires no theory of the mind, only an understanding of how tendencies among individual people or ideas become habits, for example, the habit of saying “I” or the habit of rejecting intellectualism out-of-hand. Using “voluntary” history in writing is to illuminate habits and investigate their legitimacy. It is also to resuscitate the sustainable ideas and rescue history from the dead, to restore it as a resource for the future, one that encourages active involvement not just with the literary world, but within the other terrains of our lives.

None of this is to suggest that, for example, we should reject a poet like Frank O’Hara simply because so much of his work is devoted to pop, nor am I saying that history alone is the source of any real rejuvenation of society or the arts. All I am saying is that writers who what to affirm “the commons” as opposed to the “enclosures” of humanity will be, as Aristotle said, performing an act of memory-- in the potential service of others. That performance can inspire others who want to stand up against the enclosures of life and the mind, the sealed-off and stagnant notions of what politics can be. The more work we have that expands the realm of knowledge and beauty, that refuses to affirm the corporate, technological and state-oriented enclosures of speech, thought, and experience, the larger the commons become.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Still Howling After All These Years

Lenni Brenner had this at Counter Punch over the weekend about Allen Ginsberg.

Here's an excerpt:

I clerked in Eli Wilentz's Eighth Street Bookshop in 1972. It had America's biggest selection of contemporary poetry. Allen frequently came by. One day he told me that he was for George McGovern for President. As I knew of murders committed by Democratic administrations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Indochina, I challenged him. "McGovern stopped coming to antiwar rallies in 1969 so that he wouldn't scare the public into thinking he was a red." Allen was glum for a couple of minutes, until a youth interrupted us to ask him a question about poetry. He excused himself, saying he'd be right back. In nothing flat he was happy, chatting with a fellow poet. Then and there I decided not to pull him away from what he was good at, to attend to politics, where he was as useless as the tits on a bull. After all, it is hard to envision Buddha voting, much less voting for a party that killed over one million people in Indochina, most of them Buddhists.

If you believe that the goal of life is to escape from it, that victories and defeats are equally meaningless in the end, you tend not to bother to learn from either. But, as a sensitive person, he wanted the Indochina horror to end. Voting Democrat was what such touchy-feelies did when they came to the blank in the questionnaire where it asks, "what are you doing about it?", and they hadn't a clue as to what to really do to build the antiwar movement.

Life was a photo-album. Snapshots on the road to death. "What's the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else? Built-in dumb show." If the antiwar movement invited him to speak, good, that would be a photo in his album. If not, good, there would be another in its place. With such it is as with the apostle John: "In the beginning was the Word." But in life it is Goethe who got it right: "The deed is all."

Not sure I agree entirely about Brenner's characterization of how Buddhism affected Ginsberg's thinking, but it was a corrupt version of Buddhism, as Gabe Gubbing as discussed at his blog. Nevertheless, I was never a fan of the Big A so will refrain from commenting on the poetry, except to say there was an awful lot of mediocre stuff just cranked out for what seemded like no reason. One could say the influence of the movement was democratic: hey, anyone could write that stuff. But given that it dumbed down the politics and the poetry...

What interests me here is the way activism is positioned against Spectacle and poetry. Fair? In particular I wonder if what Ginsberg failed at was using his fame to produce better counter-spectacles at those rallies. Did the message get obscured, iterating little more than a very simple "Peace" message.

But you have to hand it to those beats. The only poetry movement to get their own museum. So far...

It's now currently moving to an even larger building in North Beach.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Some things are maybe best not transgressed.

There is such indignity in speaking for others.

I will not ask my fellow experimental writers to embarrass themselves by attempting to characterize my allegedly conservative positions on transgression, literary politics or other such matters. The comments I made at A Tonalism are comments on writing within a tradition, largely about the politics of writing, and why I think a certain humility is in order when trying to shift registers into the politics of living. I’ll say more about this, no doubt, but for now I just want to say that I don’t want to start anything at A Tonalism that will diminish the quality of that space for other contributors. Therefore, I will blog in my own name here, despite my extreme reservations about how such things contribute to a poetics of personality. Hopefully this will start to settle any confusion about how I appear to have "suavely come around" to certain positions.

Some thoughts or positions I’m interested in discussing include the following: someone walks into a room and screams “I can fuck all night.” The room is full of experimental poets. Moments earlier, this someone was introduced as an experimental poet and knows that the audience is full of experimental poets. How is this transgressive?

I would contend that it is not very. In such a context, you reinforce everyone's sense of how progressive they are that they can tolerate such an aggressive and yet totally mundane idea. If that is politics, lord help us.

Now, I have been accused of condemning such poetics as not having political efficacy, of saying an art movement that has no political effect in the larger world is not meaningful.

In fact, it is the other way around. I’m alarmed that given all the political dissent and resistance going on globally, that more American experimentalists seem to have little connection to any of it. Several have said to my face, “Oh but nothing ever comes of it” or they think it doesn’t have much import if eventually it comes to an end. Others seem to think looking at some nutty mixed genre stuff on the page will help them “imagine” what kind of world is possible. But, it seems to me, there is a long discourse on that topic by activists and revolutionaries, some of which I think are sufficiently “intellectual” to seduce the theory-heads. I know I haven’t exhausted what can be gained from those sources. Is it possible to say going to poetry for one’s politics is about a suspicious as going there for “the news”?

Personally, I have met in my life many radicals of various stripes, some well-known and others not, some crazy, some remarkably sane, all impressive, many successful beyond all odds. They have inspired my own involvement in movements and in my personal interactions. Many that I have met have found a way to reclaim a form of life, a dignified if not utopian life, and they have done so in away not sufficiently understood by “cultural studies” types, especially those primarily interested in producing criticism.

The radicals who have inspired me have challenged powers that I feel are far more repressive than those of political correctness. In many cases, these real radicals (not progressives) act out of sheer necessity, perhaps. Still, I consider my own involvement in struggles against repression far less valorous. And my poetry though often written out of compulsion is a relative luxury. For this reason, I do not make any claims about my poetry in terms of politics. In my poetry, I do not wish to appear that I am speaking in the name of some “progressive” movement or idea, that I am performing a radical speech act when in fact I know that whatever a poems “achieves” it does in a certain context, at a certain time.

Such times are often in contexts we cannot control. It was quite by chance that I had Douglas Messerli in an undergrad writing class and yet I am indebted to him for having affirmed my love for odd ball texts and for gradually expanding my horizons whenever I later visited the Sun & Moon book store. It is possible a book of experimental writing accidentally ends up in the hands of someone who “needs” it and their life is changed. This is certainly a micro-political event.

That does not mean, however, I don’t think about politics and that those thoughts don’t influence my poetry. They do. But I don’t hold any hope for what such moments will mean to a reader.

When I have criticized a lack of politics in avant-garde movements, it is really their lack of connection to the often radical political contexts to which the historical avant-garde has been tied. The artists were often quite involved in those movements or refused to take part in movements that they felt undermined the object of their critique. For example, art movements organized around opposition to representation and mimesis were often connected to political movements that challenged the legitimacy of representational politics. Others simply, refused to make demands of their opponents, to win some gift, and attempted an autonomy from the mainstream.

Now I will run the risk of hypocrisy and say something about American experimental poets.

Overall, in the US at this time, experimental poets are classical liberals. They value free speech often over free living because they rightly fear state reprisals. Their politics are often quite rearguard. They lament events in electoral politics instead of challenging the validity of electoral politics either as they occur or as they are conceptualized. They want kinder, gentler politicians to run the state more efficiently and with fewer intrusions into their lives. Those that claim radical politics often feel this can only mean “overthrowing” something once and for all. They rarely acknowledge the dignity of those who have found a third way between reform and political revolution.

Social movements, especially those with anarchist elements, especially in the wake of neoliberalism have attempted to find solutions to their dilemmas outside of the state, outside of some appeal to authority. Many simply realize that making a demand of some authority ultimately keeps them tied to an untenable system. The landless peasants movements in Brazil, various segments of the anti-globalization movement in general, the worker-controlled factories in Argentina sought a kind of autonomy. The Zapatistas never sought either to takeover the state or to seize the means of production. They sought an autonomous zone, as autonomous as could be, and only tenable through the support of other local movements abroad, so tied in solidarity to those seeking a similar solution, whether meant to be final or not.

Other more aesthetically driven micro-movements such as the Security Camera Players performed Alfred Jarry’s UBU ROI and George Orwell’s 1984 in the cameras are more suggestive to me about what is possible in the way of using art as a contestation. It is also quite funny. It is not, however, the whole story. Probably not even the best model for the sort of poetry that interests me.

It is equally valuable to see one’s own experimental writing as a “technique of the self” or as place to recharge before reengaging with the larger community. This is especially true if one has spent time among social movements and found them to be more satisfying personally than spending an afternoon in an auditorium while a world famous avant-garde poet (also independently wealthy) laments that he or she cannot get grants from the state of California.

Why do we need poetic vanguards? To create a turf? And don’t vanguards have a tendency to impose some hegemonic thinking (some tendency at the very least)? Don’t they sometimes suggest things like, “If you don’t get it, it’s because you’re conservative or unhip or not very smart.” I’ve had all three said to my face over the years.

Why do poets need turfs and why must they defend them so thoroughly? Why not challenge the whole notion of turfs even in some recondite manner such Laura has done with the A Tonalism.

Lastly, I would like to address the fact that I have been called an anarchist. Really I only aspire to such a thing. But I should say that I am not interested in the 19th Century notions of individualism that many anarchists held. I have however very much an interest in anarchism’s late 20th and early 21st Century confrontation with post-structuralism, autonomist marxism, micropolitics, radical feminism. So there is truth to the charge, but I won't be speaking for anyone here except to convey perhaps my sense of the terrain: postanarchism, posthegemony, deeply unconvinced about the role of science in capitalist modernity, and reasonably sure we need to think a bit less about the “politics of demand” or “the politics of recognition” and more on the “politics of affinities.”

To, those who argue that experimental poetry creates a political vision, helps us imagine another society, I can only offer this quote from Gustav Landauer (the link between Nietzsche-Anarchism-and-Poststructuralism):

"One day it will be realized that socialism is not the invention of something new but the discovery of something actually present…”

Of course the most inspiring examples are not molar, not state-oriented, not connected to notions of “universal liberation” as guys like Negri-Hardt often seem to want. (I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way, but you know, I “wait without hope/ For hope would be for the wrong thing” as TS Eliot says.

Landauer also said this:

"One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but those are idle talkers and credulous idolators of words who regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another."

Plug in “party”, “vanguard”, “mainstream” for “state” and maybe the language will start to suggest some intriguing possibilities. Or just find out what the real radicals said and did in the first place and go from there.