Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 29, May 2013)

Eileen Myles
Painted Clear, Painted Black

I feel like the back story of Marjorie’s avant garde mandate is mourning. I think Perloff has sustained an enormous amount of loss in her life and along with her championing of avant garde practice in her criticism she’s also deeply engaged in controlling the emotional climate of the room she’s in. Who gets to feel what when, and how! And that’s a problem because poetry is a community not an institution and we’re always at multiple purposes here in this room. When she opens her piece with Jed Rasula’s assertion of the problem of there being too many poets I wonder why neither of them notice that in the mainstream there aren’t any poets. We’re mainly hearing that no poets are being read. That there’s no understanding of poetry today. Then the writer, whoever cites something they used to like or understands as poetry. Anything will do because poetry has no relevance. The enterprise that all of us take part in is for all intents and purposes absent in public life today. Poetry is the absolutely denied body of free and democratic exchange. Poetry’s where men get to feel like women always feel. Cause we’re really just not there. I agree with Marjorie that what gets rewarded is mostly pretty damn boring. But that’s because there is no scene. No excess. It just doesn’t get any public ink. And this denial seems to be the empire moment. And it’s why it doesn’t matter to me how many poets there are. The most visible poets, the most rewarded poets are literally the ones who aren’t. So in Perloff’s response to Matvei’s response to her original piece in Boston Review which was originally in Virginia Quarterly Review (and that’s what she meant) she bothers to declare me to be a contemporary example of “transparency or feigned transparency” in poetry and I think if what she means is that my front story (unlike hers) is mourning she is absolutely right. In theory transparency used to mean that one could in some ways witness the process of the person writing. The writer was including the reader somehow. Later it referred to a kind of aha moment when the writer revealed an authentic self that showed all too well the workings of empire. Is that what she means that I do? In my empire of the heart. While feigning or not?

To reflect on my own writing I arrived on the scene in New York in my 20s (okay I already wrote a book about this) landing very deliberately in the avant garde where it seemed everyone I met took it upon himself to pass on to me ze avant garde canon as he saw it. There were so many approaches and rightnesses and because I already came from a doctrinaire catholic background I wasn’t so open to learning from some man of my age or older “the truth.” My avant garde then & now was composed of a shaky imagined grid holding a multiple of approaches. I did a magazine called dodgems that exemplified that. I published Charles and I published Alice Notley and I published Lily Tomlin. And I am always negotiating feeling and the day. Feeling lets me know when to duck and take space. How to edit. I think of the reader as somebody who deserves something other than a recitation from the long phallic night of my heart whether that recitation takes the form of personal expression or a wily conceptual sound poem. I like an author who is aware of reception and the body. If I think of transparency it’s the text revealing the author, it’s the text responding to the political environment, it’s a distressed recording of the history of sexual violence on women, a map of mourning and a borrow from each thing I’m reading that has some impact on how writing stops and starts and what entirely it could do. There’s also kind of an ethnic class-based regional bicycle I ride, which is a very familiar but always updating kind of speech pattern that feels to me like home. I know “we” hate speech but also we don’t. Nobody hates speech. That’s hyperbole. When I first read Gary Snyder I saw that his pacing was very particular and it reminded me in its way of the bodily traces in the speech balloons of comic books and I knew I could do something similar and I do. As a writer one is always thrifting. The works that Perloff ultimately loves are triumphs of that approach. Interestingly in the theory world outside of poetry feeling is hot stuff. Lots and lots of books. And it’s true in the tier of poets that Matvei cites to Marjorie that she sneers at (academics are sort of like landlords. I’m not coming to your tiny apartment today. I’m working on this.) but in fact CA Conrad, Ariana Reines, Daniel Borzutsky, Jenny Zhang, Dana Ward, Dottie Lasky, Simone White, and Karen Weiser just to name a few are all doing unabashedly postmodern work that is free wheeling and exacting in its deployment of emotion. We eventually get there (to the emo place) in Perloff but it’s a question of the right feeling which makes me deeply uncomfortable. I think Marjorie’s naming of my own transparency has to do with sort of an easy reading of what I do and even missing that it’s multiple pronged not single so that I don’t clock you with my devices. I surround you and use them. My work has a chameleon quality in which it feels the room and changes. I write to hold the music of the room. If the poet wanders in her studio and that is the text then one can pause while the siren outside blares or even incorporate it into the poem. One of the most important things I know about poetry is that the words don’t need to be heard. They aren’t ever. Not all of them. And I think of that as an emotional truth. Poems are not made out of words. They’re made out of emotional absences, rips and tears. That’s the incomplete true fabric of the text.

At the outset of Perloff’s original piece she sneers at the “lyric speaker” (supposedly from the other team or stream but maybe me) who “really feels the pain… of the death of a loved one.” Which just seems so macho and destructive. In Perloff’s universe one needs to access feeling (we’ll gets to this later) in an avant garde way. The difficulty is that when you put it that way it’s no longer aesthetics. You’re talking about class. When she describes language poetry as having “provided a serious challenge to the delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech…” I feel bad for the limp wristed word delicate because it sure takes the hit of Marjorie’s contempt. In a bit she will explain for us how she traded up to conceptualism because (sigh) by the 90s language poetry “felt [my emphasis] compelled to be more inclusive with respect to gender, race and ethnic diversity,” and then, “it became” (exasperated) “difficult to tell what was a language poem.” With Conceptualism’s arrival we have the bracing clarity of Vanessa Place’s very untransparent (so Perloff says) Statement of Facts which appropriates accounts of sexual violence from Place’s work life as a lawyer and which she uses in Statement of Facts to “force the reader to revaluate the meaning of seemingly simple propositions” and even begin to “wonder whether we can trust any of the ‘factual’ statements we are given in police reports and court testimony.” And really? Is that what most of us would naturally think about here:

Dorothy C. began crying, the man would threaten her again; at some point, he put his mouth on Dorothy C.’s breasts and neck, and asked her to put his penis in her mouth. She orally copulated him, a minute later, he turned her over and put his penis in her vagina, ejaculating outside the vagina one to five minutes later…

I think it’s actually very emotionally evocative and even transparent material and yet the author and the critic’s request be that we merely evaluate it seems like a seriously traumatized (and privileged. This hasn’t happened to me!) response to these materials. And of course there’s the old fashioned use of the word transparent. I mean the traditional mode of conquest of the art or literary world by a woman of every generation is always to use her body sensationally. The naked woman will always find her way in the art world. And after all it is her body. Here Vanessa is showing the body she has access to which is the underclass violated body. The worthless body of the victim. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong of her to do this. I totally get it. But it feels wrong somehow. And for me the biggest problem comes when Marjorie reminds us that this work is not transparent. Cause it’s both awful in terms of how it feels in the room to hear these materials used that way (I feel violated) and it’s transparent in the old fashioned way I began to say earlier which is that “Vanessa’s so transparent.” Sexual violence remains the highroad to success. (This work has a lotta legs.) But back to how it feels “in the room.” I mean since one in three women in this country (myself included – fuck here I go being transparent again!) have experienced sexual violence I think many readers would have to have a wide variety of responses to these materials rather than being merely “forced to reevaluate” as one is singularly being instructed to do here. Whose courtroom in what state are we in anyhow. “Feeling” will always interfere with the advised (and really I mean masculine) reading of such texts but feeling (how about we try substituting “being female” for feeling just as a stunt) is always a problem (a good one) in literature and feeling, and if you remember, feeling, i.e. “feeling compelled” was language poetry’s (for Perloff) downfall. And still I want to know who or what was compelling language poetry to feel that way. The women already in the language poetry room? New Narrative writers in the Bay Area. The fact that people wanted grants or jobs or just realized they looked bad. Maybe something great. That’s possible. But all of it gets compacted in Perloff’s aesthetic (whenever she has to dispense really swiftly with “others” she tends to say “and so on” as if unwilling to recite the interminable list of outsiders clamoring) as identity politics or the politically correct. Which is stunning language for a scholar to use. It’s media speak. It’s transparent speech. Because while not self-identifying one as a sexist, racist or homophobic it does offer a way to speak over the fence to those who know what you mean. But what do you mean? Do we know? Among language poetry’s sovereign powers Marjorie nostalgically cites: it “demanded an end to transparency.” Meaning the refusal of the direct and indirect speech that women and people of color and queers and assorted weaklings of the underclasses have always employed so they don’t bump into each other, die of boredom at work or get killed.

Later on when Marjorie discusses the work of Peter Gizzi, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe she gets to the point which is that each of them people have undergone recent personal tragedies. And I’m feeling wary (now because I’m about to be told about the avant garde way of mourning. And we’ve already learned that avant garde poetry might initially exclude certain people, certain kinds of direct statements, certain bodies and later by means of appropriation, pastiche all of which everyone has been using for decades but now Marjorie tells us that Conceptual poets are really using these tools. Conceptualism I think is the first school of poetry that has appropriated previously known tools (like appropriation)) to tear the veils from the eyes of (I guess) of other poets who already knew about these things. Maybe Conceptualism is not for other poets. Conceptualists (I mean the ones that call themselves that) might finally and actually be making the avant garde accessible to the masses. Because the masses are not about reading and neither is conceptualism. Yay.

Perloff finally holds up three very wonderful poets (who do not claim to be conceptualists, she says) each of them as “an example of the power of other people’s words to generate profound emotion…” Which is obviously the party that language poetry could have hung in for. It’s an interesting thought.

When Charles Bernstein’s poems verge on bathos (actually they’re funny and that jerky excess of “wrong feeling” is for me how they spill over into profound feeling) Perloff claims they are actually recuperated by means of “echo” which is what I think Peter Sloterdijk means by “an amorous bell,” a kind of deep connection involving sound that also engages on a compassionate level. Later Peter Gizzi’s goofy (goofy good I mean) lyrics are explained in terms that suggest they are a sort of drag. Which would have been a great and gendered way to describe it but why do that when Marjorie can just reach for misogyny instead. The mythic “Echo” in Gizzi’s poems is apparently learning to “communicate in her restricted state (O Conceptualism!) with far more personal purpose than her earlier gossiping…”

The work Marjorie is describing here is important, beautiful and profound. And appropriation has always been the most traditional way to mourn or mark a moment. Most people don’t write. And in this writers are people too. We use texts for all our purposes, being human. To illustrate I think of a large reading that took place it seemed only days after 9-11 at St. Mark’s Church. There were a wide range of approaches each poet, or performer took when they got up to the podium. Most read somebody else’s work. One woman intoned a single note from the back of the church and walked up the center aisle humming with it, only ceasing when she got to the front. She faced us then in silence and it was like she had measured the pain in the room with that one note. It seemed obvious that the shock of what had happened in our city was so huge that hardly anyone had written a statement. But everyone could find a text to read that they were feeling through and wanted to share. Each one of the poets Perloff discusses is rising to an occasion similar to what I’m describing here but in their own lives. But I wind up feeling troubled by Marjorie’s informing us about the Pygmalion process achieved in conceptual writing where the once womanly transparent feelings are now successfully marshaled into order, stuffed into the echoaic format. The difficulty of reading Perloff’s criticism is that the work she’s touting is held aloft like these are the poster children for better suffering while Rita Dove’s sad marionettes are stupid, the poets in that book think they are experiencing suffering, bah! Perloff’s dismissiveness feels way other than entirely formal which becomes the problem with her entire argument. Language poetry didn’t lose its shit in the 90s because the PC police were banging down the door. Feeling is an inside and outside gong. It’s history. But Perloff’s busily backing someone out of the lot, rolling in the next ones, shit happens she shrugs, and as informed readers we’re supposed to go uh huh and get on with helping her buff up the new statuary. The need for feeling in poetry is of utmost importance to Perloff, but what I come away with is that it’s the quality of the feelers (meaning whose) that’s the thing most important and true. Which is very postmodern, incredibly elitist and certainly transparent to boot.