Monday, November 05, 2007

 

Where is the body? In the North American version of the old game of Clue – Cluedo in its original British setting – Mr. Boddy, two Ds, is the only given in the game (in the U.K. he’s Mr. Black) – you have to puzzle out who did it, where they did it & with what weapon. It might even have been yourself. Playing the game as a kid, it was always a mystery to me how we could always know there is a body without actually knowing where the crime occurred. Nowadays, with the benefit of CSI, such possibilities proliferate into a cornucopia of potential false clues & wrong turns. Even when the body is present & fully opened up on the morgue slab – such a far cry from the tales of viewers vomiting as they fled Stan Brakhage’s film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes mid-screening – it’s narratively rich, capable of telling any number of different stories.

Where’s the body in the text? That’s a recurrent question in poetry, one that I think is at least implicit in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads over two centuries ago & which turns up explicitly at last in the work of Charles Olson & the Projectivists. They are, after all, the first writers I can think of who actually theorized the text’s relation to the body that created it. The whole idea of the line as a tracking of the poet’s breath, the break that pause needed to inhale only to set forth again anew, very much suggests that each set of lungs will beget something different. In recordings, you can hear Olson’s scale, all 6’8” of him, wheezing as he reads into the mic. A much smaller man, Robert Creeley had shorter more hesitant lines. You can hear the tobacco clouds in his lungs as well – decades of smoking brought him to emphysema.

Among the Projectivists, Robert Duncan was different. He emphasized not the lung, but the hand & often employs the figure of the dance as an allegory for his own creative process. I must say that I never saw him truly dance, and can’t quite imagine him actually doing so. My own memory is of a man most at home sitting down. Even when he wore his cape publicly, its effect was to enshroud the body. The one period in which he did emphasize the line in his readings – the presentation of the complete, at least to that point, Passages over a couple of readings in Berkeley in 1970 or ’71¹ – Duncan audibly counted to three between each line of text, whispering the numbers as he went.

My own personal image of the Projectivists & the body is of Denise Levertov, the MC at a large, vastly overcrowded anti-war reading at Glide Church in San Francisco, getting genuinely hysterical onstage at the sight of The People’s Prick, an attendee who turn up in a six-foot tall bright pink terrycloth dildo costume. She threatened to shut the evening down on the spot and it took several of her peers to talk her down from this position, her own body visibly trembling with anger. She did not view this little bit of agitprop attendance – a direct antecedent, I suppose, of the panda who showed up at my reading last month in Ashland – in the spirit of women going topless at rock concerts, common enough at the time, but rather in the sense of the penis as an ever-present assault on women. Where is the body in this sense fragments almost instantly into questions of which body, where body, how body, and ultimately whose body is it? What might have happened had The People’s Prick been any other color, even blue?

In 1967, in an undergraduate writing class taught by Jack Gilbert at San Francisco State, two dancers suddenly burst through the door stark naked, did a short duet that was only vaguely erotic & dashed back out across the hall where presumably their clothes were waiting in another classroom. Jack had us each write down what we saw. The remainder of the class consisted of a demonstration of how different the experience was for each, that the eyewitness version was hardly neutral or objective.

That same year, in another course taught by George Hitchcock, he argued repeatedly that any author of a play needed occasionally to act, if only to understand that you had to write from the perspective of the actor, that you couldn’t give the actor things to do that were physically impossible. In 1970, I heard that same argument being made in an undergraduate drama class at UC Berkeley – I forget that teacher’s name – but this was a class in which some students actually had sex on stage. This was, I suppose, a logical next step after Michael McClure’s The Beard, which had been prosecuted a few years earlier largely because of the simulated act of cunnilingus that occurs during the play’s climax. The one time I saw The Beard performed – at the Fillmore Auditorium to a sizeable audience – the performers had mics, which rendered the physical & practical process of Billy the Kid proclaiming his lines from between Jean Harlow’s thighs problematic, to say the least. The class at Berkeley may have been notorious, but it was never busted, tho perhaps that was because, in the year of Kent State & the way UC, among so many other campuses, responded by transforming into fulltime antiwar machines canceling all else, teenagers having sex in front of their peers was the least of anybody’s problems.

I’m reminded that Steve Benson once played Billy the Kid in a production of The Beard, tho it’s not clear to me quite where or when. Before I knew him certainly. Steve is the person I think of first when I hear the question where is the body asked in connection with language poetry. All of his performance pieces seem rooted in the body, such as improvising onstage while listening to a work of classical music over headphones. So much of what actually occurs, way beyond what you can see in the later printed text, has to do with his own body language, full of hesitation & literal twitches, even tho he is one of the most graceful men I’ve ever known. As wonderful as Steve’s texts are, those that replicate his performances function to my mind as documenta – the “real” occasion is the performance itself, in real time, not replicable as such.

One step – and only one step – removed from this is the work of the language version of Poet’s Theater, and especially the writing of Carla Harryman, both there and in her other work that continues to this day.

Hardly any accusation about language poetry makes me more furious than the one that it had (has) no relation to the body. One hears this in different forms – two that I’ve come across recently were that the language poets never mention sex and “language poets can’t dance” – neither claim is even remotely true. It is no accident that the first poem in The Age of Huts, Ketjak, alludes both in its title & formal structure to the Balinese “monkey chant” by that name, nor that Ketjak is the name of the larger cycle of which The Age of Huts, Tjanting, The Alphabet, and Universe are parts. One need only hear the David Lewiston recording to find out exactly where I’m coming from as a poet. On the question of sex in my poetry, just spend a few pages reading Sunset Debris (PDF), also in The Age of Huts. Nor is it coincidental that the vast majority of my poems are originally written by hand, in notebooks. In The Alphabet, only my collaboration with Rae Armantrout, Engines, was first composed entirely on a keyboard.

One could, I think, go through the entire roster of contributors to The Grand Piano and discover much the same all through the list. Indeed, I responded to an earlier generation of this same insinuation about the lack of eroticism in language poetry, in that instance from Jeff Hansen, with the following on February 10, 1996:

Geez, Jeff,

I think there's lots of eroticism in most all of my langpo friends. Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian's collaboration The Wide Road would be an obvious place to start, but Bob Perelman's early 11 Romantic Positions wouldn't be bad either (tho it's a more fugitive work). I've been criticized for having too much in my own writing. So your question puzzles me

Nor was I alone. Douglas Messerli, Rae Armantrout, Joe Amato & Rod Smith all offered their own suggestions. Rae’s brief note pointed out that

Carla Harryman and Ron Silliman’s work (just for starters) is very much engaged with the erotic.

I’m reminded of this today because of reading in the big pink anthology, The noulipian Analects, which is an anthology that might be said to report on, cover, and/or have been provoked by, Noulipo: The Conference, held October 28-29, 2005, in Los Angeles. The anthology itself describes the event (on p. 149) as follows:

The purpose of noulipo was to examine the legacy of Oulipian constraint-based writing among Anglophone writers. Organized by Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim, the event consisted of five discussion panels, a summary panel, and two evening readings.

I just happened at this same moment to be reading a series of reports about the Politics of Constraint panel at this same event, specifically Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young’s attempt to spell out what they called Foulipo, which must stand for Feminist Oulipo, much in the way that noulipo signifies an Oulipo + n, at least theoretically an unknown, a supplement, a transformation to a new stage. The conference itself appears to have been interesting, even if hijacked to some degree by the success by scandal of Spahr & Young, who stripped during their presentation & were joined by three other naked performers, and who made claims made about the nature of Oulipo & the body, especially women’s bodies, that turned out to be controversial. A lot of this was documented in the eighth issue of Drunken Boat, one of the better webzines around. Of particular interest are the text of the event itself, Kenneth Goldsmith’s scolding response, which begins (not inaccurately)

Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr’s “Foulipo” is awash in nostalgia….

Also worth noting here are Young’s brief report of the event, which she uses as a lead-in to the paper itself, and Joseph Mosconi’s far more reportorial essay, presented on his blog. An edited version of Mosconi’s piece appears in The noulipian Analects under “Politics of Constraint: The Panel.”

I have to admit that I concur with Goldsmith’s judgment here – Spahr & Young had taken some potshots at Fidget – and that the whole conference as presented in this anthology reminds me of Rae Armantrout’s joke that she has to bring her very worn copy of the Rolling Stones LP Let it Bleed to school at least once each year to let certain undergraduates know that they did not invent nihilism, punk, dressing in black, whatever. Oulipo itself represents but a minuscule fraction of constraint-based literature – one can trace it back well past the trobar clus of the troubadours to the invention of rhyme itself – and to note that a conference on constraint-based literature that so fetishizes Oulipo, as this one did, has already gone off the tracks avant la lettre.

In the actual instance of Young & Spahr, the constraint placed on their piece on the body & writing was not the omission of the letter r from portions of the text nearly so much as it was historical amnesia. They’re permitted to discover that they have bodies by virtue of forgetting that everybody else got there first. At one level, this is not unlike children who cannot imagine the erotic lives of their parents.

By comparison, the body in language poetry occurs not only in Steve Benson’s performances or Poet’s Theater – they’re just the obvious places. Steve Benson once wrote a work that was composed in a notebook while he waited for his computer to boot up each date. How can anything that entails time not entail the body? What else is there, after all, through which to experience this? In Paradise, each paragraph was written while on a lunch break, most of them sitting in Dolores Park. Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps was composed entirely on public transit. Dare I say likewise for BART? What’s perhaps unique about Spahr & Young’s definition of the body in the work of art is that they mean the body as an object of the gaze, which is something quite a bit different – and far narrower – than the body as such.

Language poetry came into being in San Francisco within a literary community that had included Kathy Acker (Noulipo conference co-convener Matias Viegener, Acker’s literary executor, must know this) and that her works were as important for their use of procedures as they were for her formula that pornography plus plagiarism equals autobiography. Acker went so far as to work in the sex industry, making low-end porn flicks that would play in the Tenderloin back when I still worked there. Her work in that context has to be seen in the broader historical framework that included, for example, the existence of both the Cockettes & the Angels of Light, the post-Stonewall pre-AIDS explosion of gay sex-positive culture, a large infrastructure of bath houses in San Francisco where relatively anonymous sex was not uncommon, including one or two bath houses aimed at least partly at the straight community. It’s in this frame that I would argue, happily, that what was/is revolutionary about Kathy Acker was not that she was a writer who was willing to fuck onscreen, or to kiss & tell in her writing, but that she breached the bad girl, post-Burroughs genre of the novel using procedures. This is, after all, a dozen years after works like Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy.

It’s true that in the 1970s poets who were then younger & single, or at least not yet fixed in their life partnerships, did more, and more various, things than these same people do today turning 60. When I first met X, that New York language poet, he was living as part of a threesome, an arrangement that has roots in literature back to Mayakovsky & the Briks, or to H.D., Bryher & Kenneth Macpherson. But this is really no different than learning that my octogenarian neighbors here in suburban Chester County, Pennsylvania, were actively swapping partners at parties during that same period. Language poetry is not only more of a moment than a movement, but it likewise is very much a creature of its time. One might characterize langpo precisely as a writing that took place between the last years of the Vietnam war & the shock of AIDS in the early 1980s. Oulipo is itself no less an historical phenomenon, bounded in time & geography, with constraints as to gender as well as textual practices. Spahr & Young may well be on safe ground critiquing the absence of women as card-carrying Oulipo members. But their critique collapses when they attempt to expand this frame rather ahistorically outward. And Noulipo’s own frame, derivative rather than new, tends to obscure the degree to which many of its conference presenters, listed by novelist Vanessa Place here Saturday as including

Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, Johanna Drucker, Paul Fournel, Jen Hofer, Tan Lin, Bernadette Mayer, Ian Monk, Joseph Mosconi, Harryette Mullen, Doug Nufer, Vanessa Place, Janet Sarbanes, Juliana Spahr, Brian Kim Stefans, Rodrigo Toscano, Matias Viegener, Christine Wertheim, Rob Wittig, Stephanie Young

are much more interesting to think about not for what they’re doing that’s oulipian, but rather what’s new.

 

¹ I’ve donated my tapes of those events to PENNsound, but much remains to be done digitizing them, making them audible, getting permission of Duncan’s estate, etc.

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