A Defense of Poetry by Gabriel Gudding
Winner of the 2001 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize
University of Pittsburgh Press (www.pitt.edu/~press) 2002
Reviewed by Dale Smith
I've always liked loud bean farts in public places and strange body odors in professional meetings. Maybe that's why I like Gabriel Gudding's poems. Or maybe I don't like them at all. I want to like them. I will like them. Don't I want to be smart too? I should like them very much then. But I'm so tired. There's a snail on my boot. Dirt on my shovel. The world has disappeared but it has been reconfigured, or reimagined. It has been gently massaged, propped up and powdered, little red welts on its wide buttocks. And the postmodern world just got more postal here. Sly, mischievous, sophisticated little pieces, Gudding can really ham it up. He defends poetry but in the process lets everything else go to seed, rotting. The filth of the world that's left is everywhere but in these poems. Well, no, that's not accurate. I feel my eyebrow lifting. Here's my professorial chuckle. Ah, ha. I am tender with these little ravishings. Should I smother the pages or press myself upon them? Chuckling at times, my old lady rising in my pants, I get enthused over certain phrase turns. He plunges surprising word alchemies into his cartoon poet's theater. Here's an exaggerated though nominal example:
Rin Tin Tin of Titicaca,
There are a lot of bells and whistles. Some song and dance numbers too. Elegant panache and elderly flatulence. In the tradition perhaps of Apuleius, our hero is an ass or, more specifically, a butt. It shits and spews and barks—quite fun. This obsessive butt-figuring, hyper-conscious verse debunks and satirizes the Grand Old Traditions of The Western Practice et cetera of Making Art etcetera, ad nauseum, Kar-Plunk!
Well, okay, Gudding knows his stuff. No doubt. He works masterfully with all the tools in the poet's kit. Great ear. Excellent prosody and diction. Surprising lines. Insightful references. There's a brilliant, mechanistic element in his writing whether it's prose or verse. And it's vibrant, with great levity, humor and negative inspiration, or an inspiration of inversion. (Maybe it's expiration—all farts and gas). It's Apollonaire-like, reaching for genius. And sometimes, quite by surprise, poems step out of the mace can of this Defense. "To an Oklahoma in Winter" is an accurate commentary on the fucked out condition of American destiny. Using "Indian Territory" as the geographic setting, the poem addresses that displacement, "abandonment, oil and corn," reaching a final, realizing rub:
In corn: your Yankee rapine, your Union rapine,
for the broken-backed bin of children, the extended
hole and bin:
for your Iowa, Oto and Kickapoo. Thee
for the death of the Arapaho.
for the truckbomb exonerating.
How that last line redeems an otherwise OK poem, uploading it into the psychic, refractive recoil of national payback and justice. It's almost sympathetic.
"Adolescence" wickedly and playfully pitches the lusts of youth through the language bin. "The duck is attacking Humpty Dumpty," he writes. "She / is brutalizing him." The poem charges through the oedipal goo, I mean glue, to its raging climax.
Then the duckling's snot head periscoped
around and dumped its beak into the pot of Humpty's head.
And kicking the bottom out of him, the duckling finally orgasmed
itself from the warm shards and faced it mom. And the mother,
in an arpeggio of duck noise,
ran to embrace
her true child. (47)
This spiritual wedding is one of the underlying themes, by the way. If one is patient, as I am not, there's plenty of rot in Gudding's undercurrent. A marriage of opposites is at stake. Might there be a union of the sacred and profane? I guess it all depends on what you see….
The other poem to mention is called "For Quintus Laberius Durus, Who, Because of a Javelin in His Lungs, Died Near Kent, In Early August, 54 B.C." It's a wonderful thing, rich in language, humor and history. The blunt statements of fact are rather unique here, giving power and insight through what might have remained a mere exercise.
Even Caesar remarked
that the popping sound of his chest
when the javelin struck
and punched daylight through him
was uncommon. (64)
That's so lovely I've read it over and again tonight. And so too the final stanzas:
What bugs me
is that his last breath
went through the air chuckling
for his friends, without his wife, in a field he did not know,
near some river they call the Thames,
and lingered against the sky, winding with the herons,
a nine word sentence. (65)
Other pieces, like "Bosun," are quite delightful, but I'm stumped by some, or just indifferent, or angry, or plain stupid. Someone please help me. A poem to Robert Duncan called "Poem About My Strabismus" shows a weakening line of defense in Gudding's work. "I think I am crosseyed because my eyeballs are trying to see up my nose's skirt." After reading it I began looking for a Larry Eigner poem, with wheelchair and the palsy shakes. Nor could I find a Creeley poem, singular peep-hole to spy from. And what about a loony John Wieners piece, while you're at it? Well, there's enough flatulence in "Robert Lowell" to occupy cultural-shopper-conscious readers.
Gudding makes great lines and sentences and he can be very funny. But there's not much tonal or emotional range. I revel in the perversity and scatological values, of course. Such vision saves the book. But Gudding's Defense is a cold, cerebral thing. Do I want to be entertained? Sometimes. Do I like surprises? Of course. And sometimes I want to pull irony's iron thorn from my chest. I should take this defense and burn it in my little wood stove, then scatter its ashes to this cold north wind. I should be ungenerous, hard and demanding. I should threaten to give Gudding a thrashing for turning his poetry into a kind of hip, distracting amusement park ride. But the recycling of images and words and phrases into a hierosgamos with present diction and cultural psychic energy cools the steam whistling from my ears. This isn't a defense, it's a prayer—goats roasting on an open fire—to ancient energies that are alive, that poetry forgot or lost in some dream of a pious present. Gudding throws big branches onto the poet's career path. May they all stumble as I have into those limbs, writhing in agony as the match ignites said twigs. Here is my heart, my lungs, my legs. Here, take my head, my skin is bubbling under these brands. Thank you Gabriel. Thank you.
we were in the city for the feb 15th march against the war--it was amazing, I learned about the strong arm of this administration first hand (of course nothing like the bombs we're going be dropping soon; nukes if you believe Daniel Ellsberg)--you know how the city tried to discourage the gathering by denying the permit to march, offering an alternate site that holds 10,000 only, and then issuing the code orange to scare people into staying home with their rolls of duct tape--well United for Peace (organizers of the event) estimate that 500,000 showed while the city puts it at 100,000--the city can justify that number because they most likely counted those on first ave only, and probably only those in the 10 or so blocks they divided into barricaded pens one block long each (larger sections further up town)--counting those on first ave only overlooks the hundreds of thousands the police barricaded at 70th st and forced to remain on second and third ave--
at noon we arrived at 42 and Lexington, 13 blocks from the stage at 51 and 1st--police blockades forced us to walk 28 blocks up 3rd to 70th st--we enjoyed the walk which was initially restricted to the sidewalks--by about 50th st and 12 45 pm our numbers had grown so that we started walking in the street alongside the crawling cars and buses--by 55th st there were no more cars, people filled all lanes of the street plus the sidewalk and the feeling was ecstatic--this was huge with positive energy; people carrying smart signs: "bush has misunderestimated the american people," duct tape bush mouth," "empty warheads found," (a picture of w's head shaped like a nuke with the nose cone open and nothing inside) ours saying "the french hate us because they're free" hijacking the bush mantra on al quaeda to make the point that the french oppose us because they’re free to think critically (sorry but some people asked for an explanation; a couple of French let me know they didn't hate us (a sure sign they lack a sense of humor Josh said)--people were on top of telephone booths and trucks to get pictures, to take in the huge crowd--we saw people on rooftops and in windows looking down--we saw a stationary helicopter between two skyscrapers--later we read there were snipers up there as well--occasionally the cops would send a police car blaring up through the middle of the crowd to intimidate us and get us psychologically prepared for (habituated to) the stronger obstacles we would be facing further north
all the while we wanted to get two blocks east to 1st ave to walk south toward the stage, but the cops kept preventing right hand turns telling us to head uptown to 61--by the time we got to 61, the cops had barricaded that and sd go on to 64--meanwhile, we noticed many marchers coming away from 1st ave along the barricaded side streets--we didn't realize that these people were discouraged marchers who had made the turn eastward earlier only to find their progress blocked all along 1st avenue--at 64 we were told to go on to 69, at 69 it was 70 and they were just closing that off when we rushed through past 2nd ave and turned right onto 1st ave at last (later I read that they eventually forced people all the way up to 74 before allowing the eastward turn)--we moved two blocks south before hitting a complete blockade at 68th a full 17 blocks from the stage and the speakers--now what was the purpose of that except to pour cold water on the protest per order of the mayor via direct orders from our administration, no record of which we'll find for years to come if ever--
it was a scary scene at 68th st--the positivity turning to anger--we could see a large group ahead of us, so people had passed through but how?--we were chanting "let us through, let us through" and arguing with the cops who said if they let us through we’d crush each other down there (presumably at the stage still 17 blocks away), in fact people were pushing right there, some jumping the barricades and onto the sidewalks (reserved for local residents and the media--this became our strategy for avoiding the penned streets: jump the side barricades, advance along the sidewalks, cross the streets [the sidewalks being open whereas the streets were barricaded at the intersections] then join the main flow of marchers in the street or back on the sidewalks depending on which group was moving more quickly)--
the police were not cooperating so the crowd broke through the barricade at 68th st--I saw two old women hit the pavement as the crowd rushed ahead, the cops picked up the metal barricades (they look like metal bike racks) and shoved them against the swell of people—I saw a guy from Easthampton get it in the face--some cops were holding their billy clubs but I didn’t see any swinging--we had gotten through, and after trying to get the cops to open the gates by pressuring them from behind, we moved on trying to get south leaving a huge crowd stranded (we regretted it later; the majority of people were right there; we should have stayed to help them through—the crowds just got thinner as we headed south)--it must have been about 230 then--maybe around 60st on 1st ave the cops were clamping down on people trying to jump between the sidewalks and the street--I got grabbed by a guy in a Notre Dame jacket who turned out to be an undercover cop--he forced me back over into the unmoving crowd--it was the responsibility of the people at the front of these pens to pressure the cops into opening a hole in the barricade--we could see the cops looking up the ave at the penned, segmented crowds then down at their watches and then opening a gate on their own schedule, letting some through before sealing it again and discouraging those who remained into leaving via the side streets (also barricaded, but it seems if you promised to go, they'd let you out)--the intervals of waiting got longer and longer until at 53st no more progress was allowed; we were 4 blocks from the stage—the rally ended as we stood there asking to move ahead into the remaining half-empty blocks
it's important to note that with our jumping back and forth between street and sidewalk we left thousands and thousands of people behind--of course not everyone wanted to reach the stage--starting around 60th st there were speakers set up to broadcast the speeches--significantly this kept a huge number of people listening and watching a big screen TV beyond the bridge and rise at 59th st as seen from the stage at 51st looking north--even the picture on the cover of sunday times is taken from this vantage point giving the impression of a rally that filled all of 8 blocks--a proper tally could be made using footage shot from that helicopter we saw hovering above 3rd ave--
of course the insult following the injury of the 53 block barricade was Condoleeza Rice's Sunday morning talk show performances telling the nation that the beautiful thing about democracy is people have the right to protest (as if the city of New York hadn't just spent big money [5,000 overtime officers] to limit the expression of that right by 1/2 a million people—a focus group in Bush’s mind, a mind ready to think of individuals generically as collateral damage
Basra Exceeds Its Object
by Kent Johnson
Come off it, Tha’lab, you faker, you kadhib,
yes, very funny, but for goodness sake, just
put back those purple bowels in your tummy,
you’ll be late for work!
Make haste, Safia, you little scamp, you pig-tailed qasida,
put that fat flap of scalp back on your crown,
now’s not the hour for teenage pranks,
it’s time to go to school!
Ah, quit moaning Miss Al-Sayab, you muwashshara,
we know that fetus hanging from your bottom is a rubber trick—
we’re not stupid, you know, so cease being crass,
and get ye to market!
Cut the crap, Nizar, you iltizam,
pick that torso up and put it back on your dancing spine—
we know that old box and mirror trick,
now get thee to prayers!
Hey, Rashid, you al-nahda,
we know you love the special effects of Hollywood movies,
but it’s not safe to make yourself into a geyser of fire—
and anyway, you’re supposed to be accompanying the inspectors!
Say there, little Samih, you shirnur,
six-month-olds aren’t supposed to be able to fly—
so get down from those power lines and gather
your legs and head on the ground here, you naughty child!
Listen, Tawfiq, you tafila,
OK, so you’re a sorry-assed academic with a Ba’ath mustache,
but put your brains back into your head, you can’t fool us by calling
it’s time for class and your students are ablaze!
Yo bro, my main-man Bashad, you tardiyyat,
you’re as if dead and white as marble, but there’s not a scratch on
quit fucking around, the mosque is rubble,
make the siren light flash and spin on your ambulance!
Greetings Ahmad, you badi-kamriyyat,
put your face back on and also that water pipe hose thing back into
you’ve been a joker since you were five,
but now you’re a father, so pick up that basket of combs and gum!
Good morning, Mrs. al-Jurjani, you madin,
author of four essays on postmodern currents in American poetry,
what are you howling and wailing like that for, hitting your skull
against the flagstones like a mechanical hammer?
A horse is a horse, and if a horse is dead, a horse is dead—
More so, you are naked, which is unbecoming of a lady your age
Like Hamlet, your emotion is unconvincing, for it exceeds its object.
Therefore, we beseech you: Put a plug in it.
Monster Fashion by Jarret Keene
Manic D Press
Somewhere deep inside we all wish every day was Halloween. In Jarret Keene’s debut collection Monster Fashion that certainly seems to be the case, though whether this is a good or bad thing cannot be so easily determined. Take the first poem, "After Watching a Local High School Stage Production of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead," which I reprint in its entirety since it anticipates the basic themes explored throughout the rest of the book:
Dressed in decaying suits and ties, wrinkled zombies
threaten the shiny-faced and hiply-attired.
The kids are all right, the living ones anyway.
They’ve locked themselves in a room.
With grunge rock and a plastic axe,
they repulse the flesh-eaters clawing at the door.
Momentarily, the music seems to help,
until the monsters start mashing to the beat,
mocking it, turning the teens’ noise against them.
It’s ugly to watch, this corruption, this soiling
of what was once fresh, if a little petulant.
For all the good it did, kids might’ve blasted Welk.
Sure, the stage creaks, lines are mangled, and the effects
are less special than in the original no-budget 1968 classic.
But the ending haunts me: Upon being partially devoured,
the young rise up, features dulled, arms extended,
jerking like the other rancid puppets,
in love with death as only the young can be. (11)
The poem quickly cuts to the sudden horror of the scene: Youth and pop culture’s blissful obliviousness to their own passion for destruction, however playful or staged—the high school production is symbolic of the larger situation—and the process by which their beauty and innocence can be co-opted, corrupted and turned against them. In "Ava Gardner, Queen of Earthquakes," the author concedes his own contradictory role in this process: "Yes, I want you to die, Ava, in a Pana-vision of doomsday / Los Angeles"(24). Keene’s conflicted sympathies lie in the outer limits of popular culture (call it indie, underground, low), residual more so than emergent ("1930 to 1970," he joked to me in conversation), which are constantly on the verge of being absorbed, "partially devoured," by forces out of their control, forces with no interest in preserving or protecting, only in selling: "a miserable dimension where / Everything is for sale and / Everything is an endless cure"(59, "Cut-Rate Liquor"). Monster Fashion’s cover just about says it all: A Jack Kirby-drawn female superhero named Big Barda (and how subconsciously we associate the seductive aspects of mass culture with the female) clings to the edge of a cliff while holding off with her blaster the evil Darkseid, whose outstretched reptillian arms are poised to grab her or push her over the side.
Fortunately, Keene is not playing a pulpit-bound role in some culture war game. There’s no putting on airs in this book in which Mad magazine marries T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song of Alfred E. Neuman." He doesn’t offer his nostalgic examples of a less cynical, more enchanting pop culture as escapes from harsher contemporary realities but, like an archaeologist, records their passing, wonders at their histories and weirdness, locates their meaning amid the present debris. The surrealists sifted through flea markets for objects that would act as portals to other cultural time zones. In Spicer’s Martian anecdote, it’s not the Martians themselves (which were "just a word for X," he said) that are so strange, but the objects they used to communicate with the poet: children’s alphabet blocks. In Keene’s poetry, an apocalyptic highway church sign, comic books, the song "Louie-Louie," Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, the childhood memory of a haircut, Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and a pair of X-ray specs, serve the same function: crystal ball-like objects and clues into which the poet-as-fortune teller-detective gazes for what hidden messages they might contain regarding our past and future. Sometimes, as in the case of the X-ray specs and the "Stop, drop, and roll won’t help you in hell" church sign, they reveal nothing or function as opaque reminders of our helplessness. In short, Keene, in the spirit of the New York School, believes that popular culture can, like any mythology, provide us with the symbols and forms to interpret our lives, even as he is pessimistic about its fate in the wake of its systematic obsolescence and reproduction (staged resurrection).
Born in 1973, Keene grew up at a time when TV and movies, pop music and music videos, arcade and video games, cartoons and computers became an all-encompassing consumer spectacle (i.e. Smurfs in your Happy Meal; win the Superbowl, go to Disneyland), so much so that, for many of us now, that is our childhood, our home, our memories. It was a surrogate family and it connected us, or gave us the utopian illusion of some connection. (Oh, what a sick feeling I get when I read those Chris Ware comics mocking the frustrated lives of 40-year-old action figure collectors). During our adolescence, some of us turned to other, less visible means of connection: punk and rap music, art and poetry. Keene came of age precisely when alt-cultural rebellion, as at the end of the ’60s, became neutralized, mass-marketed and hijacked by corporate interests. Goodbye Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, hello Quentin Tarantino, Woodstock 666 (for "Generation KKK," he muses in the poem "Punk Rockers") and Extreme Cooking channels. Revolt, difference, queerness and perversity, and even rage, became a pose, and profitable, too. (Please try to ignore the William Trowbridge blurb on the back, which would make this book out to be a symptom of that appropriation of subversiveness). For these reasons, I believe, Keene feels compelled to look back to earlier cultural sources, if not for more authentic connection, then at least for some means of understanding the present.
Indeed, what Keene sees in the past appears no less brutal than today. "Upon Visiting the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum" begins with the question, "How did this place save anyone[?]," and lists the medicines no longer employed: "creosote inhalers," "needles as long as your / forearm," "pile salve," "anti-bilious worm powder," and "heroin." "Though at times cruelly incompetent, / bayou-variety Victorians were also / ingeniously humane," he writes (with perhaps a little too much commentary), ironically pointing out the "cleft- / palate pacifier" and "cyclopean monocle." The pharmacy performed a cultural, humanizing function: "the pharmacist / made your make-up"... "he served as your witch-doctor." Similar to the first, this poem, in describing a push-pin doll, ends at the symbolic crossroads of innocence and experience where the gross-out thrills give way to quiet realization: "Her skirt is a red handkerchief fringed / with lace. Her smile is thin, wary"(38).
Keene’s poetry seems less rooted in any notion of the ‘workshop poem’ (which is becoming less and less definable) than in the story-telling quickness and reassuring humor of colloquial speech and its clipped expressions. His fondness for mixing images of sacred and profane (or mundane), amusement and horror, recalls one of his acknowledged influences: Charles Simic. Some of the book’s weaker moments occur when Keene indulges in surreal or mock-surreal displays for their own sake, as in "Funeral Speaker" ("Orator of the damned, / Goat-faced auctioneer, / Perched atop a battered stool, / Pinching the fleshy waitresses, / Daring the world’s most depraved fry cook / To eighty-six your chili dog".... "The counter might double as a an Altar of Sin"(48)); in "Cut-Rate Liquor" and "Ava Gardner" where he uses superficial phrases like "a devil’s streetlight" or "the devil’s testicle"(58, 22); or in "The Yoganaut," which depicts Jennifer, his wife, in a yogic posture: "she gave a demonstration by sitting on / her heels, leaning forward, and sticking out / her tongue as the hot damp of the jungle / rose in the room and the lesser animals / cried out in terror, in desire"(71).
More often than not, Keene succeeds in his attempt to merge a gaudy, pop-surreal aesthetic with more serious concerns, whether political or personal. "Lab Animal Newsletter" shows how the sadistic use of technology in animal testing also traps its human participants without their knowing ("Everything listed contains a current far below / The threshold of an animal’s sensitivity"(57)) and "A Love Story" portrays the love of a U.S. air force pilot for the picture of the Varga Girl he dreams of copying to his bomber’s arsenal ("she drops / from the sky, smiling, sinuous. Angel of light without mercy"[31, his italics]). The intimate "Heart, You’re a Hospital Now," "So Loved the World," "Questions I’ve Yet To Ask My Father, a Fireman," and "Gifted Students," reveal a religious undercurrent provoked by an awareness of the nearness of disease and death, and perhaps are the book’s most moving works along with the adorable "After Reading Harold’s Purple Crayon," in which the narrator draws himself into a page of Harold’s adventures, ending at the moment when he finds himself reading the book to his future child.
After a few readings the religious impulse running through Monster Fashion becomes harder to ignore, making the parts that border on an almost gothic melodrama difficult to swallow, though I remain undecided on this question. Calling a handgun "Hitler’s rock-hard / brush"(45, "Black Revolver") seems silly, except when one considers that Hitler was driven to pick up the gun, so to speak, after being denied entrance to a Vienna art school, after figuratively putting down his brushes. "Interior Monologue of My Plane Crash" also flirts with a kind of slick metaphorization that cannot but fail to contain the meaning or feeling of the experience it evokes: "All flight long the stewardess played nurse. / She fixed me up. So that when we started / our descent everything felt / like the swipe / of a cool, moist cotton ball / just before the needle"(32). I can’t help but think that no amount of alcohol would make that descent feel as routine and familiar as a wet cotton swab before an injection, but then again Keene says he was "one of four rugged / adventurers who miraculously survived a plane crash"(75, "Graduate Student Gets Drunk After Reading Critical Terms for Literary Study"), so he might have a better idea than me. Such moments point to a tension in his work between trying to avoid the grand gesture and yet wanting to instill a gravity and intensity that lie in experiences we identify with the religious and out-of-the-ordinary.
This tension also emerges from an uncertainty about the poet’s role – an ever-awkward position in America – which veers in the book between superhero or star and fool or self-sabotaging victim, perfectly symbolized by Ava Gardner and her "disaster flicks" and "parables / of glamorous discontent"(24, 24-25), often making it difficult to tell the two states apart. In several poems—"Writing Against God," "The Poet’s Bad Faith," "A Bright Future for Poets," "Ventriloquism," "Captain America at Home," "Hangover Remedy" and "The Conversion of Aubrey Beardsley"— Keene explores his ambivalence and doubts about the artistic vocation with its sacrificial demands, sacramental experiments and salvational expectations. He pokes fun at himself ("I wore comedy the way a priest dons / His investment, dutifully"(52, "Ventriloquism")) and his ambitions "(The stakes are enormous. So just write long. / The outline alone can snuff your best years. / In the next room, your poor wine-drunk Mom"[47, "Writing Against God"]). I feel uneasy, however, when he glorifies the fantasy or myth of the hero-poet to the point of parody, a move which doesn’t so much rise above the sideshow role poetry occupies in this society as pay homage to it, thereby cheapening the experience: "Makes one / a cheerleader for natural isolation; / for manic, sorrowful drug experiences; / for out-of-body love affairs; / for the ecstasy of agony. It traffics / in oppressive forms of linguistics. / It is a slave ship of slavers, drifting, delinquent. Still, / everyone climbs on board"(80, "The Poet’s Bad Faith"). The irony of the last line only becomes apparent when referring back to the title: the poet thinks he or she is a star and therefore transforms into the fool.
Monster Fashion seems a very complete book and Keene has already made himself at home in his fast, punch-lined language and subject matter, exposing the slapstick unconscious of a culture in which the line between sex and violence, childhood and adulthood grows thinner and thinner, and the fake blood often turns out to be mixed with the real for serial killers here dress up as clowns, priests or businessmen. The question is where can he go next, now that he’s moved to Las Vegas, Funhouse Capital of the World? With a vision equal parts party and funeral, Keene knows that "dream and reality, each provides its own / pain,"(38, "Aubrey Beardsley"). I imagine that the answer to that question, like a stiff drink or good hangover remedy, won’t be long in coming.
Friends--we need $3,000 to $5,000 this year to continue operations at Skanky Possum. Issue 8 is now available. A new chapbook by Anne Waldman and Tom Clark will be available at the end of the month. Other projects are in the works but are in jeopardy unless we find alternative financial sources. If you believe in a Skanky Possum Poetry vision, send us your money. It will be used wisely to serve our community of poets and readers. Please make checks to Dale Smith or Hoa Nguyen: 2925 Higgins Street, Austin, Texas 78722.
Statement for "Poetry is News" conference
St. Mark's Poetry Project, NYC, 1 February 2003
I am both pessimistic and optimistic about what's happening and briefly, or not so briefly, I'd like to say why:
First, I take the word "politics" in a very narrow sense: that is, how governments are run. And I take the word "government" to mean the organized infliction or alleviation of suffering among one's own people and among other peoples.
One of the things that happened after the Vietnam War was that, in the U.S., on the intellectual left, politics metamorphosed into something entirely different: identity politics and its nerd brother, theory, who thought he was a Marxist, but never allowed any actual governments to interrupt his train of thought. The right however, stuck to politics in the narrow sense, and grew powerful in the absence of any genuine political opposition, or even criticism, for the left had its mind elsewhere: It was preoccupied with finding examples of sexism, classism, racism, colonialism, homophobia, etc. -- usually among its own members or the long-dead, while ignoring the genuine and active racists/ sexists/ homophobes of the right--and it tended to express itself in an incomprehensible academic jargon or tangentially referential academic poetry under the delusion that such language was some form of resistance to the prevailing power structures-- power, of course, only being imagined in the abstract. (Never mind that truly politically revolutionary works-- Tom Paine or the Communist Manifesto or Brecht or Hikmet or a thousand others-- are written in simple direct speech.) Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was completely dismantling the social programs of the New Deal and Johnson's Great Society-- creating the millions of homeless, the 25% of American children who live in poverty, the obscene polarization of wealth, and so on. (And the poets, typically, were only moved to speak up when he cut the NEA budget.) Clinton might have had a more compassionate public face, but essentially the political center had shifted so far right that today the Democratic party is to the right of any European conservative party, and the Republicans just slightly to the left of a European national front party. We may never live to see an American president as left-wing as Jacques Chirac.
The main result of almost thirty years of these so-called politics on the left is that there are now more women and minorities in the Norton anthologies, and we all know how to pronounce "hegemony"-- surely a great comfort to the 6 million people, predominately black men, currently in the prison system, or the teenage girls in most places in America who need an abortion and there's nowhere to get help, or the parents and babies who create the statistics of by far the highest infant mortality rate among the technological nations, or the 20% of high school seniors who can't find the U.S. on a world map.
The good news about the monstrosity of the Bush administration is that it is so extreme and so out of control that it has finally woken up the left, and once again we're talking about politics as the rest of the world knows it, about people getting slaughtered, people being hungry, and people deprived of basic human rights-- and not about language as a capitalist construct or queer musicology. The best news of all is that very young people-- the generation of the Zeroes-- after the decades of MTV and Nintendo somnambulism, are being politicized by the collapsed economy, the prospect of a reinstituted draft, and the realization that their sneakers are made by child-slaves in the Third World. Every political youth movement has its own culture-- look at the 30's, the 60's, or radical Islam today. It will be extremely interesting to see, and utterly unexpected to find, what culture this youth movement produces: What will be their ideals and practices, their music and poetry, or even their dress? I have a feeling that we won't have a clue, and that their response may well be a sort of iconoclastic asceticism, not unlike radical Islam, impervious to corporate takeover, and completely alien to their parents. [One of the hardest things for people my age to understand is that this is not 1967 all over again, that things are going to be very different, and that, if we don't learn to listen, we are going to end up being, as our old formula goes, part of the problem and not part of the solution.]
I take this gathering as a kind of union meeting-- the union of writers, mainly poets-- and it seems to me the primary question for us is: things are going to be happening with or without us, are we going to be part of it, or are we going to continue to talk about essentialism at the MLA and finding your voice at the AWP?
Poets in times of political crises basically have three models. The first is to write overtly political poems, as was done during the Vietnam War. 95% of those poems will be junk, but so what? 95% of anything is junk. It is undeniable that the countless poems and poetry readings against the Vietnam War contributed to creating and legitimizing a general climate of opposition; they were the soul of the movement. And it also resulted in some of the most enduring poems of the 20th century, news that has stayed news indeed.
The second model is epitomized by George Oppen, who as a Communist in the 30's, and a poet uncomfortable with the prevailing modes of political poetry, decided that poets should not be treated differently from others, that the work to be done was organizing, and so he stopped writing and became a union leader.
The third model is César Vallejo, another Communist in the 20's and 30's. He refused to write propaganda poems-- he wanted to write the poems he wanted to write-- so to serve the cause he wrote a great deal of propaganda prose.
The first model (political poems) is the most common, and no doubt the one we'll be seeing the most, and frankly it will come as a relief from all those anecdotes of unhappy childhoods and ironic preoccupations with "surface." Oppen, of course, was a kind of secular saint-- and most of us are too egotistical to take a vow of silence. But it is the example of Vallejo that seems to me the least explored.
People who are poets presumably know something about writing. So why does it never occur to them to write something other than poems? There are approximately 8000 poets registered in the Directory of American Poets-- are there even four or five who have written an article against the Bush Administration? Most of us can't get onto the Op-Ed page of the Times-- we'd never displace Condoleezza there-- but most of us do have access to countless other venues: hometown newspapers, college newspapers, professional newsletters, specialist magazines, websites, and so on. All writers have contacts somewhere, and all these periodicals must fill their pages. Even poetry magazines: Why must poetry magazines always be graveyards of orderly tombstones of poems? How many of them in the 1980's, for example, even mentioned the name "Reagan"? How many of them today have any political content at all?
I've been writing articles since Bush's inauguration for translation in magazines and newspapers abroad and, if nothing else, they at least help to demonstrate that the US is not a monolith of opinion. Foreign periodicals can't get enough of Americans critical of Bush-- which is why the collaboration of such supposedly antiwar poets as Robert Creeley and Robert Pinsky in the recent State Dept anthology was so grotesque. If, as they claim, they wanted to give Americans a human face, there was no end of other forums abroad-- they didn't have to do it as flunkies for Bush. More tellingly, the only public condemnations of that anthology have come from foreign newspapers-- American writers were either indifferent or afraid of alienating a future prize jury.
In English, I send my articles out via e-mail. It's one of the best ways, and certainly the easiest, to publish political writing in this country. Send it to your friends and let the friends, if they want, send it on. Let the readers vote, not with their feet, but with the forward button.
The last time I was here at St Marks, in 1994, I was practically laughed off the stage for saying that the major organizing force of political opposition in the future was going to be the internet. Now of course, it's a banality. The internet has completely changed all the rules. It's how the like-minded instantly find each other; it's the one national and international forum that has been-- so far-- impossible to control; and it's practically the only source of opposition information and opinions from everywhere in the world: not only immediate access to the foreign press, but also-- if you really want to give yourself nightmares-- to the endless reports available from the Dept of Defense and right-wing think tanks. That still-unrecognized prophet, Abbie Hoffman, said, almost 40 years ago, that if you want to start a revolution, don't bother to organize, seize a television station. With the internet, we are all our own tv stations and publishing companies and newspapers. The potential is limitless: Trent Lott was brought down by a weblog; all the doubts about the war that are seeping into the general public began online; and just this week even lovely Laura's Poetry Tea got canceled thanks to an e-mail petition.
There are 8000 poets in the Directory, and Anne Waldman and Ammiel Alcalay, a month ago had trouble coming up with a list to invite to speak here. One eye may half-open when, like Laura's party, it directly involves them, but most American writers have lost the ability to even think politically, or nationally, or internationally. In all the anthologies and magazines devoted to 9/11 and its aftermath, nearly every single writer resorted to first-person anecdote: "It reminded me of the day my father died..." "I took an herbal bath and decided to call an old boyfriend..." Barely a one could imagine the event outside of the context of the prison cell of their own expressive self. (Or, on the avant-garde, it was a little too real for ironic pastiche from their expressive non-self.)
We are where we are in part because American writers-- supposedly the most articulate members of society-- have generally had nothing to say about the world for the last 30 years. How many of those 8000 poets have ever been to a Third World country (excluding beach vacations)? How many think it worthwhile to translate something? How many can name a single contemporary poet, not living in the U.S., from Latin America or Africa or Asia? In short, how many know anything more about the world than George Bush knows?
After thirty years of self-absorption in MFA and MLA career-mongering and knee-jerk demography and the personal as political and the impersonal as poetical, American writers now have the government we deserve. We were good Germans under Reagan and Bush I; we were never able to separate Clinton's person from his policies and gave him a complacent benefit of the doubt; and the result is Cheney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and Perle and Wolfowitz and Scalia and Rice and their little president. They can't be stopped, but I do think they can be slowed down.