I’d start talking about mutated texts with the first thing to my mind. First thought, best thought, said Ginsberg. I’d start with the divide between high art—winners of prizes like the Pulitzer, National Book Award, Nobel Prize—and low art, trashy books, popular culture, stuff you can pick up at the rack at Safeway or Target. In 1962 or 1963 at my house Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, was a discard from my parents’ stack of sci-fi books and it was my job to burn the trash. I literally pulled it out of the fire, liking the starkness of the cover—black and white sketch of disproportionate men struggling, depiction in smudged shades of grey, all on a white blank background. Incendiary literature? Hardly. Published 1954, height of the Red Scare, year of Brown vs. Board of Education. Genre? It’s a last-man-on-earth novel. Made into a bad movie three times—Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, Will Smith. Last man on earth and everyone else is a vampire. Something happened and our hero, Robert Neville, attempts to figure out what that was, the basis for his adventures and the world’s adventures since the apocalypse. Worldwide epidemic, everyone became a vampire, but how come? He ponders and struggles and studies the science of it but it’s a voice at the window near the end of the novel with the answer—
He looked into the eyepiece for a long time. Yes, he knew. And the admission of what he saw changed his entire world. How stupid and ineffective he felt for never having foreseen it! Especially after reading the phrase a hundred, a thousand times. But then he’d never really appreciated it. Such a short phrase it was, but meaning so much.
Bacteria can mutate.
Mutated texts? I’m a writer but also an editor and, in recent years, a judge of literary contests. I’ve worked with others in those latter categories and in judging in particular I’ve been thrown in with people who, as people will, value certain practices over others. We do this. But in my public work there’s a phrase I’m used to hearing—“That’s not poetry.”
I’ve heard it more than a few times in my life as an editor and more recently—over the last few years—in my life as a judge. In a recent situation Anne Carson’s brilliantly various Nox—her compendium of discoveries and readings and documents around her brother’s death—was dismissed as “an ugly box” by a fellow panelist and it got more taut as we discussed Craig Santos-Perez’s book Saina, which documents the relationship between the U.S. and Guam (where the author is from) and makes ample use of found materials such as the measurement of U.S. Navy barracks. Saina, the book title, means “parent, elder, spirit, or ancestor”; it’s the name of an outrigger canoe, built in 2009 to ancient specifications. “That’s not poetry,” said a fellow judge.
But it’s a good example of a mutated text, one that gets all outside the familiar and agreed-upon ideas about the genre, the territory. It’s impure and I’m a big proponent of the impure.
At the University of California I publish an annual called Mixed Blood. (It was actually begun at Penn State, where I worked for the ten years before I came west; William J. Harris, Jeffrey Nealon, and I called it into existence after several Fridays of conversations at Whiskers, the company bar.) We’re interested in “difficult” writing—the sort of stuff that the “not poetry” label might get applied to—that crosses racial lines. The annual is itself a mutating text. From the boilerplate: “The series is quite unusual in its emphasis on literary innovation and its deliberate and very aggressive emphasis on race and the languages of and about race; it’s also an unusual series because it pairs talks by poets with their readings.” Number 3, just out, features Wayde Compton, Brenda Coultas, and John Taggart.
William Burroughs famously said, “Language is a virus.”
From a website about Avian flu:
Mutation allows viruses to get past the body’s immunity to the virus. Suppose a virus strain infects someone, and the person’s immune system fights the virus off and develops immunity to the specific strain of virus. The virus could mutate (through antigenic shift or drift), and infect the same person again. Because the virus mutated, the person’s immune system would not recognize the new virus strain, and therefore would not have immunity to it.
A question: how do you feel about mess? How do you feel about stuff that doesn’t add up? How do feel about incoherence? How do you feel about unpredictability and mutation? And overlap? How do you feel about the uncertain, the stuff that can mutate.
I claim no religion but a writer I admire, Graham Greene, was a Christian, a Catholic. In an essay—“The Lost Childhood,” a gift to me from Mitch Breitwieser—Greene wrote about his early love for popular novels and the discoveries they led him to. Using the common if problematic color terms for good and evil, he wrote, “Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.”
How do you feel about the grey?
Charles Olson said, in Human Universe: “The trouble has been that a man stays so astonished he can triumph over his own incoherence, he settles for that, crows over it, and goes at a day again happy he at least makes a little sense.”
And Theodore Roethke described poetry as “the long journey out of the self.”
I read I Am Legend at 12 as a screed about paradigms. The hero Robert Neville lives in a fortified house and spends his daylight hours hunting vampires and dispatching them with stakes through the heart, burning their bodies, etc. And studying in libraries and labs, trying to make it all make sense and getting, finally, to “bacteria can mutate.” At the end of the book the vampires capture him and prepare to execute him and, as he looks out at the crowd that has come to watch his death, he realizes that “normalcy”—Warren G. Harding’s signature in American English—is “a majority concept.” Matheson writes, “Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces—awe, fear, shrinking horror—and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with.” In his cell, awaiting the end, he coughs, chuckles, and speaks the title of the book.
Later I borrowed Fahrenheit 451 from my parents’ stack of sci-fi and remembered pulling Matheson’s book out of the fire.
On a blog, Craig Santos-Perez wrote,
Poetry helps me understand my own experience of being from. Poetry maps the visible and invisible lines of my cultural identity, helping me navigate my life in the diaspora as both “indigenous” and “immigrant”—as “Pacific Islander,” “Asian American,” “Latino,” and “Native American.” As “Chamorro.” As “Chamoru.”
In 2012, the Horror Writers Association gave I Am Legend the special Vampire Novel of the Century Award.
Mutated Text (Improper Informalities/ Strange Writing/ Eclectic Ties), U.C. Berkeley, 6 April 2012.