Perhaps the article in tripwire 6 that
most directly tackles the question of community is K. Silem Mohammad’s “Creeping
it real: Brian Kim Stefans’ ‘Invisible Congress’ and the Notion of Community,”
a critique of sorts of Stefans’ “When
Lilacs Last in the Door: Notes on New Poetry,” an overview of younger poets
that Stefans initially undertook for Poets
& Writers – specifically for
Michael Scharf’s “Metromania”
column – moving it over to Steve Evans’
webzine, Third Factory after the P&W editors rejected it.*
Stefans’ article proposes
the existence of a new literary tendency that he literally calls The Creeps,
after the Radiohead song. In his article, Stefans quotes from the song – “But
I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / what the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong
here” – to “explain” why he chose such a consciously anti-attractive moniker to
assign to the fortunate few he so characterizes. Pointedly, Stefans neglects to
include the lines that lead up to this chorus, perhaps because they articulate
his position a little too plaintively:
Stefans also lists 19
writers & 21 books to pin down if not what, then
at least who (besides himself) he
<![endif]>Caroline Bergvall's Goan Atom
<![endif]>Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse
<![endif]>Miles Champions' Three Bell Zero
<![endif]>Kevin Davies' Comp.
<![endif]>Tim Davis' Dailies
<![endif]>Jeff Derksen's Dwell
<![endif]>Dan Farrell's Last Instance
<![endif]>Robert Fitterman's Metropolis
<![endif]>Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 111
<![endif]>Lisa Jarnot's Some Other
Kind of Mission
<![endif]>Adeena Karasick's Dyssemia Sleaze
<![endif]>Pamela Lu's Pamela: A Novel
<![endif]>Bill Luoma's Works and Days
<![endif]>Jennifer Moxley's Imagination
Verses and her chapbook Wrong Life
<![endif]>Harriet Mullens' Muse and
<![endif]>Rod Smith's Protective Immediacy and In Memory of My Theories
<![endif]>Chris Stroffolino's Stealer's
<![endif]>Rodrigo Toscano's Partisans
<![endif]>Darren Wershler-Henry's the tapeworm foundry
That’s an interesting – if
not particularly coherent – roster, ranging from the constraint-driven
formalism of Mullen & the Canadian post-Oulipo experimenters to the
epistemology-centered Moxley**, to Pamela Lu’s poignantly retro novella, a
retelling of sorts of Catcher in the Rye as
filtered through Ashbery’s Three Poems, to
several poets with visible post-langpo & post-NY school concerns.
If Stefans’ initial piece is
itself an instance of post-langpo counter-canon formation, parallel in purpose
if not specifics to the claims underlying the O•blēk ”New Coast” anthology & subsequent Apex of the M editorials or Sianne Ngai’s “Poetics of Disgust,”
what seems to interest Mohammad most about Creepy poetry is a claim that I
don’t think Stefans actually makes:
The eyebrow-raising element
here is the claim that Creeps want to break out of the community model of experimental
writing, a model that has held indomitable sway for decades, notably reinforced
and codified in Ron Silliman’s passionate introduction to In the American Tree.
Given that, as per Sartre,
the alternative to the group is serial formation, a phenomenon that is
synonymous with the atomizing principles of capitalism – & nowhere more
visible in literature than in the sales-driven approach to books of the New York trade publishers – that “break out” would more
accurately be characterized as a surrender, if in fact
it were the case. The adjective Creepy would acquire a whole new (or, rather,
very old) set of meanings. But I don’t think this is what Stefans was driving
at in his original piece.
The passage that Mohammad
cites for this eye-brow elevation is the following:
all the Creeps share . .
. a surprising desire to communicate, to perform, to create social interactivity, and to expand beyond the
small communities that have been their inherited legacy from previous American
avant-gardes. They are often experimentalists, but have no interest in
experiment for its own sake, at least if the results are not something like a
public, often very entertaining, form of poetry, a sort of deviant form of
street theater itself. The Creeps are almost universally very funny,
though why there has been such a turn to humor in their poetry is matter for
This anxiety about
communicating with a broader constituency of readers fits in perfectly with the
high-school discomfiture articulated by the Radiohead lyrics, but it’s a
considerable leap – very nearly a rocket launch – to suggest that any, let
alone all, of the lucky Creeps want to make the leap to appearances on Oprah or
even Jim Behrle’s poetry spots on NPR’s Here and Now.
Stefans’ argument can be
framed as making a case for a return from trobar
clus, the consciously difficult poetry that the 12th century
troubadours wrote for each other along with the complex melopoetics
of tobar ric, back
toward something akin to trobar leu or plan,
the more open-ended & simpler poems composed for less literate audiences.
This I would agree with Kasey is eye-brow raising, but
mostly because it so closely parallels the argument offered by Dana Gioia in Can Poetry Matter? The
logic that one could theoretically arrive at a more popular poetry is sometimes
put forward to justify the existence of a Billy Collins or Deborah Garrison or
Sophie Hannah or Wendy Cope. Clearly, none of the Creeps are involved in
anything remotely that creepy.
The problem – which in fact
is the question of community itself – of belonging, as such, cannot escape history.
History teaches what history teaches, which includes the inescapable detail
that even as these genres were already subdividing amoeba-like nine centuries ago, the arrival of
post-12th century modes of story telling, ranging from the novel to
cinema to reality TV, have occupied – for good reason – the social space
previously taken up by trobar leu. In fact, if one looks to those contemporary
societies in which poetry has occupied something akin to a truly popular genre,
such as late-Stalinist Soviet Russia or the remoter districts of Yemen, there are inevitably & always specific historic
circumstances that have thwarted or diverted the narrative genres that absorb
these spaces in the post-industrial West. We don’t need Homer precisely because
we already have Homer Simpson.
If Stefans was, as I
suspect, doing some creative mischief-making for the institutional context of Poets & Writers, Mohammad attempts
to spin this rather wispy daydream into a far more formidable theoretic
construction. Mohammad asks:
So how does Creep turn away
from a community-based poetics? Only to
the extent that it rejects the notion of a safe enclave, a privileged
brotherhood of artistry in which the problems of the outside world are, after
all, outside, and at least there’s that.
It does this by raising the quixotic possibility of intercourse between
experimental poetry and mainstream culture . . . .
Mohammad’s evidence for
this, which goes on for a couple of pages, is entirely a list of literary
devices associated with language poetry. This suggests that an important part
of literary formation is, or at least might be, creative amnesia – and on this
question I’d probably concur, noting how Robert Grenier’s great “break” with
speech in 1970 was directed precisely toward the poetics toward which he felt
himself most deeply attracted. Three decades hence, langpo finds itself drawn
into this same quandary of being configured as an impediment rather than a
foundation even as the evidence duly displayed directly contradicts the charge.
Plus ça change. . . .
Perhaps the most problematic
part of Mohammad’s construction is that he pulls back from it at the end, not
unlike Chaucer’s deathbed apology:
exactly what I find attractive about Stefans’ Creep (anti-) aesthetic: it’s a
movement that is formed within the mind of the reader, not the designs of a
self-articulated community. Stefans’ apprehension of Creepiness comes from his
own Creepy imagination, his own desire to oversee a troupe of invisible,
flea-like verbal acrobats.
Now there’s an attractive
proposition! How would you like to be both invisible & flea-like? Sign me
up, Kasey! Not.
However, Mohammad is almost
certainly accurate in his next (and final) assertion:
That the poets [Stefans] names are
readily conformable to such a desire says something about their shared use of
certain techniques and their common concerns as postmodern artists, but more
about a simultaneous resistance and porousness in their work that encourages
progressive (but diverse) notions of community to be constructed from the
margins outward (inward?) – there is no Creep manifesto, only an ever-growing
passenger manifest, the names on which can be shuffled according to the needs
of an equally various and multiple collective of readerly sensibilities.
Sure sounds like Sartre’s
vision of serialization & capitalist atomization to me, a series of
infinitely substitutable parts that can be popped out of a box or anthology –
like a chess set composed entirely of pawns – and dropped into any theory one
wants. This goes right back to the suppressed lyrics of the original Radiohead
song, “I want to have control.” This is a vision of a generation of poets who
have no clue what that might feel like. And don’t understand that such “porousness”
is as much a lethal threat to themselves as it is
astronauts on the space shuttle.
To the degree that Stefans,
or Ngai or even the Apex / O•blēk gang make efforts to
challenge that porousness, their attempts, however partial & one-sided,
align them with the angels of history, for which they all deserve our thanks
& support. But to the degree that anybody imagines a community of rugged
individuals – which is what the post-community monad most certainly is – as a
possibility, these poets can only continue to ask themselves “what the hell am
I doing here?”
asks that links not be made to Third
Factory, which is why the link to Stefans’ piece goes to a linked
bibliography of Brian’s that does have an apparently authorized link.
claims, using Moxley as his “evidence,” that “Creeps . . . are not . . .
greatly concerned with epistemological issues”!?!
the test of Stefans’ claim here is, or should be, Jennifer Moxley’s poetry.
I’ve argued here before that this would be a total misreading of her work.
Labels: K. Silem Mohammad, Kim Stefans, Radiohead, tripwire