Thursday, February 27, 2003

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’sMetromania” 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:

I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice
when I’m not around
you’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

Stefans also lists 19 writers & 21 books to pin down if not what, then at least who (besides himself) he means:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Caroline Bergvall's Goan Atom
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Miles Champions' Three Bell Zero
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Kevin Davies' Comp.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Tim Davis' Dailies
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jeff Derksen's Dwell
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Dan Farrell's Last Instance
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Robert Fitterman's Metropolis 1-15
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lisa Jarnot's Some Other Kind of Mission
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Adeena Karasick's Dyssemia Sleaze
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pamela Lu's Pamela: A Novel
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Bill Luoma's Works and Days
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jennifer Moxley's Imagination Verses and her chapbook Wrong Life
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Harriet Mullens' Muse and Drudge
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Rod Smith's Protective Immediacy and In Memory of My Theories
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Chris Stroffolino's Stealer's Wheel
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Rodrigo Toscano's Partisans
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![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 debate.***

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:

this is 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?”

* Evans 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.

** Stefans claims, using Moxley as his “evidence,” that “Creeps . . . are not . . . greatly concerned with epistemological issues”!?!

*** Again, 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.

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