Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Book of the Year

It's time for year-end lists, and the good people at Partisan have not neglected to provide one.  Along with William Logan, A.E. Stallings, Daisy Fried, Jonathan Farmer, and others, I was asked to contribute.

I chose Karl Larsson's Form/Force, out from John Yau's Black Square Editions in a translation by Jennifer Hayashida, who is one of the great translators of experimental writing in Swedish.  I liked the book so much I wrote something more extensive than this about it, which should be out in Boston Review come January.  Until then, here's the text for Partisan:
I’m not really convinced there’s such a thing as a “best book” of 2015 or any other year—some are good for one thing, some for another. But my favorite book of the year is Karl Larsson’sForm/Force , translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida, who, along with Johannes Göransson, has the distinction of being the main conduit bringing Swedish experimental writing to the Anglophone world. Larsson’s book is presented as poetry, but it’s hard to know what to call it, really. It’s a collage, a writing-through, a meditation in found text about embodiment, borders, and the power of ideology over the body. It takes us from a man sewn into a car seat in an attempt to cross the U.S./Mexican border, through the prison writings of the Baader-Meinhof terror faction, to the destroyed Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan via bootlegs of New Order records, finding in each instance a way to think about how power works its way over the spaces we share. Best book of 2015? Well, pick it up and I’ll guarantee it will be the best book of Swedish trans-generic experimental writing you’ve read in some time.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Kafka Sutra: On Amazon and Live at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop

Hot news! The Amazon listing for my new book of poems and literary oddities, The Kafka Sutra is now up and running.  Just in time for the launch of the book, along with two other new titles from MadHat Press, tomorrow at the Grolier  Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Mass.  

Here's the text from the Amazon listing:
What if Franz Kafka, that master of frustration, failure, and despair, had written the ancient Sanskrit sex manual The Kama Sutra? Robert Archambeau explores this question in the illustrated series of parables that begins his collection The Kafka Sutra. Other questions behind the pieces in this book concern glam rock, fatherhood, Afro-Caribbean and Belgian Surrealism, Conceptualism, Hiroshima, the sad lot of the English professor, and similar vital matters of these, our troubled times.

And here's my severed head, advertising the book launch.  See you there!

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery

Hot news! The glorious new issue of Prelude magazine is out in print and online.  It includes many fine things, (new work by Rae Armantrout, Felix Bernstein, Anne Tardos, Katy Lederer, Rusty Morrison, and Kaveh Akbar, and—oh boy oh boy oh boy—Anthony Madrid on rhyme in Wallace Stevens, just for starters), and an essay of mine called "Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery."  The essay takes a look at how a decade in France shaped Ashbery's poetics (his isolation mattered, and his exposure to the French literary tradition).  It also looks at how the triumph of French theory in American literature departments back in the day prepared those departments to appreciate, and canonize, Ashbery.  The essay is online here, and starts like this:

“I regret,” intoned the solemn-eyed boy, climbing the steps of the school where he attended kindergarten, “these stairs.” Many years later, when the boy had become perhaps the most lauded poet in America, he would tell an interviewer that he’d had no idea what the word “regret” meant back then, but it seemed resonant to him. What is more, by saying the word he discovered that he did, somehow, regret those stairs. Language delighted him without having to be useful, and language held the key to unexpected truths. Small wonder, then, that four years after he declared his regret, the boy would fixate on a Life magazine feature on Surrealism, the first mass media treatment of that movement in America. Poring over images of Réne Magritte’s art and a description of André Breton’s automatic writing, the young Ashbery declared himself a Surrealist at once. The moment is, to the best of my knowledge, Ashbery’s first profound encounter with French culture. And it is France that made Ashbery—that made his poetry what it is, and made, in a roundabout way, his American reputation.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Meeting That Saved Modernism

You're probably wondering how San Francisco streetcar consolidation in the 1890s helped make modernism happen, and speculating on how much of the legendary Paris of the 1920s would have disappeared if Michael Stein, Gertrude's older brother, hadn't shaken railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington's hand firmly and without perspiration.  Find out in a short essay I wrote for Partisan, "The Meeting that Saved Modernism," available online!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The State of Poetry Criticism: Perloff, Archambeau, Logan & More

Good news for those interested in the state of poetry criticism: there's a feature on that very topic just now available in the latest issue of The Battersea Review.  It includes contributions by...

...William Logan

...Marjorie Perloff

...Mike Theune

...David Bromwich

...and my own contribution, "The Work of Criticism in the Age of Mechanical Recommendation"

As usual, The Battersea Review feels like a great party, with all sorts of guests.  Outside of the symposium on criticism, the focus of the current issue is on French-language writing, and there's too much to list, but as a longtime lover of all things Tintin, let me point to Alexandra Kulik's piece on the life of Tintin's creator Hergé, "Tintin and the Well of Dissatisfaction."

Friday, October 30, 2015

Rhyme, Rimbaud, Harvard, and the Future of Poetry: An Interview with Ben Mazer

In a couple of weeks I'll be reading at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Ben Mazer and Stephen Sturgeon, at the launch for the fall list of books from MadHat Press.  I interviewed Ben, and the results, which will appear as the afterword to his book The Glass Piano, have been posted at Todd Swift's site Eyewear.  Mazer talks about the writing process, the little-known works of Landis Everson, the meaning of rhyme in contemporary poetry, Rimbaud, Harvard outsiders, and the future of poetry.  Check it out here!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Downfall of Kenneth Goldsmith: One Final Speculation

I’m no better at predicting the future than you are (a fact which hasn’t stopped me from trying to do so in public) but let’s, for the sake or argument, pretend that I am, that I have a secret crystal ball and I’ve been using it to peer into the Kenneth Goldsmith’s life in the year 2021.  Let’s pretend that what I saw in that crystal ball confirms Goldsmith’s speculation, at the end of Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article “The Poet Who Went Too Far,” that he will leave the poetry world and return to the art world, where he will be accepted.  What would such an acceptance signify? What would it tell us about the differences between the poetry and art worlds?

One wonders, immediately, about he question of race.  It was, after all, outrage over race—specifically Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy of Ferguson police shooting victim Michael Brown’s autopsy—that ignited a firestorm of criticism and, in our speculative future history, drove Goldsmith out of the poetry world and back to the art world.  Could it really be the case that the art world cares less about race and racism than the poetry world? It seems unlikely. One imagines both worlds embody roughly the same level of institutionalized racism: the subtle but nevertheless significant kind one comes across in predominantly white, progressive circles.

Alec Wilkinson reports that Goldsmith feels the art world is simply more “accustomed to outrage and turmoil” than the poetry world, and this, I think, is significant, but in a subtler way than we might expect. It’s not that the art world would shrug off a controversial performance about race.  It’s that the art world does not contain many people alienated by Goldsmith’s posturing about the importance of Conceptualism, and the poetry world does. This alienation seems to have played a role in the way justifiable criticism of Goldsmith caught on so quickly and traveled so far.

I want to be careful here, so let me be clear: I think that the most charitable thing one could say Goldsmith’s autopsy reading is that it was a monumental act of insensitivity on a topic where sensitivity is needed—and many have argued for saying things far sharper-edged than that.  I think critics of the performance have generally been in the right, and I recommend Cathy Park Hong’s essay in The New Republic as a good place to see many of these criticisms articulated (along with criticisms of how Wilkinson’s New Yorker represents the controversy). But I think that Goldsmith’s earlier posturings in the poetry world quite probably magnified the impact of his actions.  After all, other recent race-based controversies in poetry—the Tony Hoagland/Claudia Rankine affair, for example—resulted in less widespread criticism.  We didn’t find Hoagland thinking of abandoning poetry for some other, more welcoming realm.

I think the kind of controversy the art world has seen much more of than the poetry world is the controversy over new movements and the claims made on behalf of them. “The art world’s been through counter-movements, counter-revolutions, and then counter-counter-movements” says Goldsmith in Wilkinson’s article, “people’s idea of art is infinite… Poetry is such an easy place to go in and break up the house.” But Goldsmith may have underestimated how angry he would make people in the poetry world when he attempted to break up the house with notions of unoriginality. And that anger, while not the source of the criticism he received about the autopsy reading, created a very fertile ground for the reception of that criticism.

It’s not that there haven’t been new movements and controversies in poetry, but compared to the art world since, say, the days of Impressionism, we’ve seen very few. We’re less used to them, and have fewer antibodies with which to handle the overblown, partisan rhetoric that accompanies them.  At the very least, we’d have to go back a generation in the art world to find people as alienated by the claims that a new style has rendered old styles irrelevant as people in the poetry world were by Goldsmith’s claims for Conceptualism.  What Leo Steinberg said of the art world in his 1972 book Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art seems to me entirely true of the poetry world in 2015.  When we are asked to “discard visual [read “literary” or “interpretive”] habits which have been acquired in the contemplation of real masterpieces,” wrote Steinberg, we may find ourselves experiencing “a feeling that one’s accumulated culture or experience is hopelessly devalued.”  And this will lead us either to despair or smoldering rage. “Who,” we might ask, “is this interloper who tells us the ways we’ve learned to read don’t matter? They goddamn well do matter! Fuck that guy!” And when the interloper commits an actual, and very public, act of monumental insensitivity, his critics will find that the flames of their anger meeting with plenty of dry kindling. The fire will be bigger and hotter than it would have been if more people in the field were inclined to view the person favorably, the outrage spreading to those who might otherwise have shrugged it all off.

None of this is to say that there shouldn’t have been a fire, that the criticism was at all unfounded—quite the opposite.  I’m just wondering if it would have burned brightly enough to melt the wax from Goldsmith’s Icarian wings.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The End of An Era: Cathy Park Hong and Kenneth Goldsmith

If you're inclined to think that active controversy about poetry in the mainstream media is a sign that things are going well for the art, then we're living in a very auspicious moment indeed. Poetry isn't just being tepidly reviewed in magazines whose pages aren't filled primarily with poems: it's being debated with considerable heat. Take, for example, the current issues of The New Yorker and The New Republic: if you'd told me in, say, 2009, that these journals would not only be covering, but participating in, serious debate about Conceptualist poetry, I'd have replied by saying "sure, sure: when pigs fly and a socialist is leading in the Iowa primaries."

In The New Yorker we find Alec Wilkinson saying "Kenneth Goldsmith's poetry elevates copying to an art—but did he go too far?" while in The New Republic Cathy Park Hong takes issue not only with Goldsmith but with Wilkinson's representation of the controversy surrounding Goldsmith's reading, as a poem, of a modified autopsy of the slain Michael Brown.

For the record, I'm inclined to sympathize with Cathy Park Hong's largest point—that the American poetry world, including the avant-garde, is no more immune to institutionalized racism, subtle or otherwise, than any other part of American society. I think she's right, too, about how Wilkinson's essay, despite gestures toward objectivity (such as including parts of an interview with her) presents Goldsmith in a far more sympathetic light than it does his critics. And while I have no x-ray vision to see into Goldsmith's soul, I suspect she's on to something when she says that Goldsmith's reading of the Brown autopsy had something to do with a desire to keep such spotlights as shine on poetry pointed at him. Some time ago, long before the Michael Brown controversy, I wrote about the desire for fame being likely to bring unhappiness to Goldsmith, and that unhappiness seems to have come to pass, at least for the moment.

But I'm not writing to weigh in on the controversy about race and Conceptualism. I'm writing to point out something that most people interested in the controversy will think of as a very minor point indeed: a point of apparent agreement between Cathy Park Hong and Kenneth Goldsmith.  They seem to agree, in a broad way, about the dynamics of literary history. That is: each is willing to present claims about the end of one era and the beginning of another—a view that implies a clear progression in literary history.

Here, for example, is a passage from Kenneth Goldsmith's essay "Flarf is Dionysus, Conceptual Writing is Apollo":
Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry.
He's declaring the death of the Language movement and Elliptical poetry, and the birth of a new, Conceptual era. Co-existence and overlap? Forget about it. Your game is over, Charles Bernstein. Step aside, C.D. Wright.  It's all about Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place now—or so we are meant to believe.

And here's the ending of Cathy Park Hong's essay in The New Republic:
The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement.
However vast the gulf may be between the two poets on a variety of issues, they both seem quite sanguine about the rhetoric of historical division, about obsolescence and relevance, about the beginning and ending of eras. As rhetoric, it's stirring stuff. It certainly got Goldsmith a lot of attention—although one wonders if some small portion of the criticism he's been subjected to has been reinforced by schadenfreude from those whose work he so cavalierly dismissed.

If Cathy Park Hong's closing words draw attention to the BreakBeat poets and the people published by Action Books (to name just a few of the groups she mentions), I'll be grateful for the result.  But as literary history, I can't get behind the concept of clearly demarcated eras, no matter where it comes from. I'm with Theodor Adorno when he says "the concept of progress is less directly applicable to art than it is to technical forces of production." Which, unlike the declaration of a new era, isn't a particularly rousing way to end an essay.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hating the Other Kind of Poetry: Now Online

Whatever you think the "other" kind of poetry is, and whether you hate that kind of poetry or not, I hope you'll take a look at my essay "Hating the Other Kind of Poetry" in the latest issue of Copper Nickel.  It's also available online here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Top Ten Metaphors for the Heart & Other Notecards: The List Poems of Andy McGuire

You’ve got to be kidding me. Really? You haven’t heard of Papirmass? Don’t worry, people, I’ll fill you in. Papirmass is sort of like a literary journal, if a literary journal were an art gallery.  They send you twelve nicely made art prints a year, of variable size and ready to frame, and in one way or another include something literary along with it—a chapbook sometimes, or poems, sometimes on the verso side of the print. It’s a grand idea, and if it were based in Brooklyn rather than Canada you’d have been hearing about it for a long time (they’re on their 69th issue). I’ve been thinking about the current issue because it’s managed to deliver something quite rare: a list poem I actually like.

I don’t know why I’m a hard sell when it comes to list poems—maybe it’s because they’re such a staple of the creative writing classroom that I’ve seen too many that are either merely workmanlike or strive a little too hard for novelty. Certainly there are exceptions—if we’re calling Joe Brainard’s I Remember a list poem, then I’m a fan of at least one large scale list poem. But generally, when I sit down with a list poem, the thing is considered guilty until proven otherwise. I know. It’s not fair. But Andy McGuire’s set of four list poems in the latest Papirmass (printed on the back of “Reflet,” a photo by Sarah Bodri) overcame my resistance. I think I understand why.

To begin with, there’s what we see at first glance— McGuire’s lists take advantage of Papirmass’s ability to present the written word in a visually interesting manner. The lists appear on old library index cards, yellowed and ruled in blue and red, with holes punched for the old catalog box rods. There’s a nostalgia value, even for my generation—I am of that unfortunate generation that came of age with the microfiche library catalog, a brief transitional technology between the card catalog and the fully electronic index, but we still used the card catalog when all of the fiche readers were engaged, and the sense memory of how it felt to thumb through those old cards is real enough. It’s not just nostalgia that we get from the images of lists on these cards, though—there’s a kind of pathos, especially since McGuire has chosen to have the text appear handwritten.  We get something like the feel Wes Anderson works so hard to give us in his films, where a character like Dignan in Bottle Rocket will reveal large binders of handwritten, naïve life plans—there’s a sense of how hopelessly outgunned we are by the world when we attempt to impose order on it. For Wes Anderson, the maker of plans andlists seems like a lost child grown old. It’s an important part of the Wes Anderson aesthetic, and more than incidental to the feel of McGuire’s list poems. They’d lost a lot if they appeared conventionally printed in an ordinary literary journal.

But McGuire isn’t out to show us a sincere attempt to order an unruly world. Instead, his lists work more like Jorge Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, a fictitious text described in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” Here, Borges shows us a set of asymmetrical categories of knowledge. The Emporium seeks to list and classify all the world’s animals, but instead of a system of mutually exclusive categories (say, “land based animals,” “flying animals,” “water-dwelling animals” and “amphibians”) it gives a muddle of overlapping categories:

Those that belong to the emperor
Embalmed ones
Those that are trained
Suckling pigs
Mermaids (or Sirens)
Fabulous ones
Stray dogs
Those that are included in this classification
Those that tremble as if they were mad
Innumerable ones
Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
Et cetera
Those that have just broken the flower vase
Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The idea is to show the confusion of ideas, the variety of ways knowledge can be structured, and the failure of consistency in the application of those varieties. Borges makes fun out of the very idea of categorization.

In a different way, Andy McGuire makes fun out of the idea of rankings. Rankings, after all, are meant to be rankings of things in terms of the same criteria—but he presents overtly non-comparable things in his rankings. In “Top Ten Places I Have Seen a Swan,” for example, we get locations where an artificial swan might be found (“Souvenir shop”); places where what one sees isn’t a swan but a drawing of a swan (“Book of bad drawings”) (here the “bad” is sort of egregious, which is wonderful); places where what one sees may or may not be a real swan, and may or may not be there because people want it there (“Art opening”—how avant-garde is the show?); places that are plausible but nevertheless incongruous for a goose (“Stuck in a doggy door”) and places that must be somehow surreal (“Under a tongue”). In a list poem, everything is about selection and juxtaposition, and McGuire’s juxtapositions are uncommonly clever, even charming.

We get similar a similar feel from McGuire’s “Top Ten Things Not Meant to Be Carried.” When he tells us a bird isn’t meant to be carried, it feels right—those things squirm and really don’t want to be in your hands. But when he tells us a hologram or a lawn are not meant to be carried, the rightness of the assertion that they aren’t meant to be carried is predicated on different grounds (immateriality and non-portability, respectively). Then there are other items that simply don’t perform their intended uses if carried (balaclava and parachute). What we’re really getting is a kind of demonstration of the variability within our language—how “not meant to be carried” can apply to many different states. To rank these things implies that they are comparable (same in kind, different in degree), but the variety of things chosen shows how the same language applies to things that are not comparable. If I were a grad student, and it were the early 1990s, I would go on for paragraphs here about linguistic slippage, dropping the names of as many French theorists as possible. But you get the idea.

“Top Ten Miscellaneous Metaphors for the Heart” is a little different, since it deals with figurative language, and in a sense the listed items are comparable. What’s nice, though, is the freshness of the metaphors, and the variety of ways in which each is accurate.  Yes, the heart is a windsock, being blown this way and that, and yes, it is the national debt, owing ever more and more, and yes, it is a polygraph, on which the truth of our actions is proved, and yes, it is a flea market, full of random accumulations and broken things. McGuire is so sure footed here that I’m sure there’s a way the heart is an “Alpha mule,” too, though I’d first have to find out just what one of those is to confirm it.

The final list, “Top Ten Places to Report From,” also shows the multiple senses of the seemingly simple language of the category. The place can be visually designated (“vanishing point”) or a matter of time (“seconds before”—there’s a nice implied narrative in that one) or ambiguous (“wherever the weather comes from”).  It can also be an “art opening,” the penultimate item in this, the final list—and a nice call back to the initial swan list, giving a satisfying sense of formal conclusion to an already satisfying piece of writing.

If this is your kind of thing, and you’re ready to be surprised with a new art print in your mailbox a dozen times a year, give Papirmass a try.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Hating the Other Kind of Poetry

Hot news, people—the latest issue of the reborn Copper Nickel has arrived, fresh from the good people at the University of Colorado.  It has Tony Hoagland, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, John Koethke, Kevin Prufer, and translation portolios by Yi Lu, Christina Hesselholdt, and not one, not two, but three poets from Uruguay.  Who could want more? No one! But there is more, including an essay I wrote called "Hating the Other Kind of Poetry."  It deals with sectarianism in the poetry world.

Here's a section from near the end, in which I talk about the attempt (and it can only be that) to get beyond our own assumed values and habitual tastes as readers: 

Conquistadors and anthropologists

            The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski once wrote with apparent sympathy of a group of people who believed fervently in their own ideals and disdained those of others, saying:

A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region.  Often in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike with the image of the Emperor.  I said to him, ‘you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior it is because we are indifferent, both to their civilization, and to our own.’

Kołakowski was, however, playing devil’s advocate—since, for him, the better angels of European civilization were not the conquistadors, but the anthropologists.  “The anthropologist,” Kołakowski writes,

must suspend his own norms, his judgments, his mental, moral, and aesthetic habits in order to penetrate as far as possible into the viewpoint of another and assimilate his way of perceiving the world.  And even though no one, perhaps, would claim to have achieved total success in this effort, even though total success would presuppose an epistemological impossibility—to enter entirely into the mind of the object of inquiry while maintaining the distance and objectivity of the scientist—the effort is not in vain.  We cannot completely achieve the position of an observer seeing himself from the outside, but we may do so partially.

Like the scholar C after he heard my irritating paper at the conference years ago, when confronted with that which is alien to our sensibilities we may make the attempt to stand outside ourselves, and in doing so see something other than an object of disdain.  Indeed, we may get a kind of doubled or even tripled vision: we’ll know the thing we’re looking at—a poem, say—on something like it’s own terms, as well as on ours.  Moreover, we might discover something about our own assumptions—our assumptions and, one hopes, ourselves.


There's more.  The essay is in Copper Nickel 21, Fall 2015.  A modified version will also appear as the afterword to my book The Kafka Sutra.

UPDATE:  The article is now available online here.

Cover by Mark Mothersbaugh. You know, from Devo.