Thursday, April 30, 2015

If I Were A Freudian this Post Would Be Called "The Mother's Penis": A Note On Daisy Fried

"Hot damn!" I thought, "it's Daisy Fried!"  I was paging through the May issue of Poetry, and there, on page 138, was Fried's poem "The Girl Grew and Grew, Her Mother Couldn't Stop It."  I've never actually met Daisy Fried, but I've been reading her forever, and we both spend too much time hanging out on Facebook.  One reason I feel closer to her than I do to many of the poets I read is that we both have small daughters, and post about them with some frequency (actually, the fact that we're both on Facebook a lot, rather than dizzily pouring ourselves off some barstool somewhere, is also probably a parent thing).  Anyway, I was happy to see a new poem by her, and doubly happy to see that it was on a topic close to my own experience.  The poem's first line nails something very true about being a parent:"The girl grew and grew," writes Fried,  "her mother couldn't stop it; it terrorized."  The phrasing seems like something out of a horror story—where some kind of Frankenstein's monster grows too strong for its master and runs amok.  But the terror here is subtler than that: its primarily the terror of losing one's small child, the inevitable result of successful parenting: they grow up, these children, they grow away from you, and you, acutely aware of their vulnerability, let them go.

What follows is, for a time, a nicely-drawn and keenly observed catalog of children's experience, a world of play and crafts and school projects, behind which we sense the child's ravenous acquisition of skills and symbolic codes—geometry, biology, systems of writing, fine motor skills, and the like: 

     What would the finger-dance do?  Kindergarten art a buffet of markers
gluings of stuffs to seasonally-keyed paper, Elmer's pools drying clear.
     A stapling and testing of cylinders versus spheres versus cubes
for kinetic and entropic possibilities, stuffing balled newspaper
     into paper dragons, two sweet silver elephants with heads too small
and trunks too long, situated off-center, snuffling flowers.  And silver rain.
     And 16 silver hearts stacked vertically and strips of masking tape, colored
in reverse rainbow.  Unnamable tendrils diffusing to scribbles.  A bird.
     Another bird, more rain, peace signs, a horse with sideways-flowing mane,

I enjoyed this as I read it, but wondered where it might go, how (if at all) the poem would turn.  And then there was this:

and knowledge: that the sky's full of blackstruck Ms and Ws, drifting
     clouds; that her kitty cats watch sunsets; sky doesn't reach
down to meet the earth;

Okay, I thought: we're getting a bit of a generalization, after all those particulars ("knowledge"), and we're getting a sense of the child's difference from the adult, the way the sky isn't represented according to the canons of adult realism.  But then something really interesting happened: the final half of the final line comes along, with an end-word that turns the poem so sharply in a new direction that I'm surprised the page doesn't emit an audible shriek of squealing tires:

                                     mother shrinks to the size of a penis.

What to do with this?  Well, okay, there's the literal to consider: we're talking about a kid drawing something, and in that drawing the mother could indeed be the size of a penis.  And we are invited to think about the diminishing importance mothers play in a child's life as that child grows up—the same diminishment that was so terrorizing at the beginning of the poem.  But one could have said "doll" or "crayon" or, for that matter, "vagina."  Why say penis?  It's such an incongruously masculine word to apply to the diminishing role of the mother.

One thing that's in play is simply surprise and novelty: it's an incongruous image, by being so masculine in a poem about motherhood, but there's a rightness in it too, in scale and in having to do with reproduction and therefore parenthood.  And then there's a real sense of disempowerment that you wouldn't really get, at least not in the same way, with another image: the penis is so connected to connotations of power that whole schools of psychology, from Freud to Lacan, use the term "phallus" to mean something like "empowerment" and "castration" to mean "disempowerment." We get a sense of the mother's disempowerment as the child, through all of the innocent and sweet seeming play and craft-making detailed in the poem, grows beyond the mother's control—and putting the word "shrinks" near the word "penis" gives us a sense of the detumescent loss of power or potency.

There's more than this, too, I think: there's also the simple fact that the penis, here, becomes not just another iteration of the traditional symbol of power and potency: it becomes an image of smallness and disempowerment.  There's something feminist in this, a reversal of the old Freudian model of masculinity as power and femininity as disempowerment.  In a way, then, the poem isn't just a mother's lament for her loss of authority in the life of her growing child. It's that same mother's intervention in the realm of symbolism, aiming to undo some of the patriarchal imagery that still contributes to the disempowerment of women.  It's a mother's attempt—as her daughter gains independence—to make the world that daughter will enter into a place less hostile to her.  The mother works hard to help the daughter grow into strength and knowledge and independence—and, in the end, she also works to make the world itself a place better fit to receive that daughter.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fanaticism! Intolerance! Disinterest!—Toward an Aesthetics of Camp

I recently had the privilege of looking over the proofs for the next (and, sadly, the final) issue of the great Prague-based journal VLAK, set to be unleashed on the world in 600-page splendor this September. It's a wonder: Charles Bernstein! Jerome Rothenberg! Lyn Hejinian! Vanessa Place! Rachel Blau DuPlessis! Clark Coolidge! Philippe Sollers of Tel Quel fame! And my own essay, "Fanaticism! Intolerance! Disinterest! Toward an Aesthetics of Camp." Which begins like this:
Camp remains one of our most poorly theorized aesthetic categories. It has a certain status in queer theory circles, to be sure, but is rarely a part of a more general discussion of aesthetics—in effect, it is a ghettoized term. The continued centrality of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” shows how narrow the discussion of camp has been: her important but provisional notes remain the most authoritative poetics of camp we have. I don’t propose to offer, here, an aesthetics or poetics of camp. But if I may use a term so ponderous and out of keeping with the lightness of camp that it practically comes out the other side as camp itself—I do hope to offer a prolegomenon to such an aesthetics or poetics. If camp calls for fun and elegance, I fear I will provide precious little of either—and, since I am confessing shortcomings, I suspect I will provide less by way of evidence and argumentative coherence than one might wish. What I do hope to offer, though, is a rationale for understanding aesthetic experience in terms of camp, and a sense of what is at stake in camp as a category of aesthetics. It is through an aesthetics of camp that we can go beyond a dichotomy that has long divided the aesthetic field into a dominant Kantian tradition based on dispassionate, Apollonian contemplation and disinterest, and a reactive counter-tradition based on (to take some words from Asger Jorn) “fanaticism,” “intolerance,” and a Dionysian disavowal of disinterest. Both the dominant tradition and its other lie open to forms of ethical and political criticism from which an unlikely hero—camp—promises deliverance.
The essay  ends like this:
Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of ludic and aestheticizing attitude that is also a kind of deep commitment. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. 
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on Camp” where she writes: 
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization. 
2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical. 
Sontag goes on to add:  
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content, ’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’… 
So far, Sontag has framed camp as a form of disinterest—involving an Apollonian distance from its object. Framed in these terms, it lies open to the same sorts of criticisms Nietzsche, Jorn, and others have leveled at the tradition of Kant and Schiller. But even as camp involves a kind of Apollonian aesthetic distancing, it also—contradictorily—embodies the Dionysian impulse to break down the barriers separating self and object. “Camp taste is a kind of love,” writes Sontag, and it “identifies with what it is enjoying.”  The serious involvement of which Isherwood wrote is, in fact, an identification of self and object, a breaking down of the barriers of aesthetic distance, a Dionysian act of participation. 
What camp offers, then, is Apollonian and Dionysian, disinterested yet interested. It breaks past the pallid individualism of the dominant tradition of aesthetics, but at the same time provides a kind of distancing from the potentially dangerous enthusiasms of those who seek in art and play an expression of the general will and general desire. This play of distance and identification has been best documented when camp addresses gender, but one can see it in broader terms as well: the camp misanthropy of a Philip Larkin or a Frederick Seidel, to the camp patriotism of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and far beyond, camp creates a play of interest and disinterest that awaits its full analysis. Camp’s pioneering theorist, Susan Sontag, ends the opening essay of the book that contains “Notes on Camp” with a call for an “erotics of art.”  What aesthetics now cries out for is a poetics of camp.

In between those two parts there's a lot of Schiller, Adorno, and Situationism, and a note or two about the camp and the queer.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Emergency Index: The Wake of Fallon McPhael

Trixie Sparx begins the burlesque portion of the Wake of Fallon McPhael

One of the thousand reasons Ugly Duckling Presse numbers among the most exciting small publishing ventures in America is the annual appearance of Emergency Index, a compilation that documents performance pieces large and small across the country and around the world.  It's a democratic assemblage, with big names and big-budget spectacles sitting side by side with the unknown, the marginal, and the full-on freakish.  The nature of ephemeral nature of performance makes something like the Emergency Index incredibly valuable: just paging through the 700 pages of the thing broadens one's sense of the possibilities for what kinds of events could be put together—and awakens an appetite to put on a show of one's own.

The latest volume of Emergency Index, #3, edited by Sophia Cleary and Yelena Gluzman, includes an entry on a performance I helped produce, along with Larry Sawyer, Valerie Archambeau, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas: The Wake of Fallon McPhael, a fake wake for a non-existent poet, including tributes to the late, fictitious man by his former associates as well as audience participation, presided over by the Revered Pat McDonald, and concluding with an invasion of the stage by male and female burlesque dancers, as per McPhael's final will and testament.  It was, I'm proud to say, a TimeOut Chicago pick of the week, in a city with a lot of staged events from which to choose.  Here's the Emergency Index entry:

You will note the image of two unsightly mourners, Larry Sawyer and myself.  Frankly, I'm surprised the editors didn't go with a shot of the burlesque dancers, Saucy Jack and Trixie Sparxx, for reasons that should be evident in these photos by Valerie:

Saucy Jack near the climax of his act.

Trixe mourns Fallon McPhael's passing.
Saucy Jack in manly tribute to the late poet.

The grand finale.

Here, from the photographic archives, are a few more shots of the assembled mourners:

Kathleen Rooney and Virginia Konchan console one another.

Mourners consumed with sorrow.

Mourners grieve.

Palpable sorrow.

Surprise appearance by the late Jim Morrison.

Barbara Barg recounts her exploits with the late McPhael.

The view from the lectern.

The same crew of miscreants is hoping to stage a similar event this summer.  Working title: "Hollywood Pitch: Apocalypse Now Meets Mean Girls."  More as things develop!

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Proud Men in Their Studies: On Mark Scroggins—New in GHR!

Rejoice! The new issue of Lou Rowan's always-too-cool-for-school Golden Handcuffs Review has dropped from the skies.  Poetry by Fanny Howe and Joseph Donahue and Jerome Rothenberg!  More poetry by Susan Schultz and Mark Scroggins!  Fiction by Ken Edwards!  Lost work by Reginald Edward Morse, edited by Rick Moody!  George Economou on translation!  Peter Quartermain on Jerome Rothenberg! And more! More! Including a little thing I wrote about Mark Scroggins' Torture Garden called "Proud Men in their Studies."  It begins like this:

"Poetry, drawing away from the collective life of the court, can only withdraw into the privacy of the bourgeois study, austerely furnished, shared only with a few chosen friends, surroundings so different from the sleeping and waking publicity of court life that it rapidly revolutionizes poetic technique.  Crashaw, Herrick, Herbert, Vaughn — all the poetry of this era seems written by shy, proud men writing alone in their studies… Language reflects this change.  It is a learned man’s poetry." 
 That’s a passage from Christopher Caudwell’s 1937 book Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry, in which the young writer — who’d have proved a second George Orwell, had he not been gunned down in the Spanish Civil War — describes the formal changes that came about when English poetry stopped being a public game played at court and became the pursuit of solitary men among their books.  No longer something for public declamation, poetry became learned, private, knotted with a kind of profound cleverness that, requiring time and erudition to appreciate, wouldn’t have pleased much as a glittering gentlemanly accomplishment at court. 
Certainly 21st century America has little enough in common with England in the 17th century, but when I read Mark Scroggins’ Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles, Caudwell’s passage on Crashaw, Herbert, and company came immediately to mind.  Why, though?  It’s not as if anyone would confuse a poem like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” with Scroggins’ “Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh”:
 Animus deploys nurses exceptionally diligent
attention finely tuned skills culture
of detachment unreliable deceptive the
law of the negative everlasting
Nay structures of determination truth
of the labyrinth quasi-persons reeling
in customized systematic reeling pain.
But despite the very different texture, and the eschewal of reference and discursive meaning, Scroggins’ poems have a lot in common with the English 17th century as described by Caudwell: they are learned, private, written for the few rather than the many.  And, like the works of that greatest poet of 17th century England, John Milton, they are angrily at odds with the dominant culture of their time. 
To begin with, there are the matters of form and allusion....

Well, it goes on.  But you don't want to stay here.  You want to get your hands on GHR posthaste.