Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fugazi's "Turnover"/Wars Abroad, Wars at Home

Fugazi, pride of Washington D.C., plays "Turnover," around the time of the first Gulf War (1991), under an ominous sign that reads: "THERE WILL BE TWO WARS." How often has one war led to another? In recent history, our foreign wars--and the false unanimity that it brings on the homefront--have ended when disaster strikes at home, demonstrating the racial and class inequities that oppress and divide us. Vietnam abroad, conflagrations in our northern cities. Gulf War abroad, the L.A. riots. The recent wars on terror, New Orleans. Fugazi's song, "Turnover," as with so many of their songs, tests the limits of inner violence and tries to end its nightmarish hold over us.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

"Behind the Lines" review in PEACEWORK

This is the first review of Behind the Lines, by Michael True, in PEACEWORK Magazine, affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers).

True wrote an influential book, An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature--which was an early touchstone for my understanding of how poetry and writing might contribute to the cultural work of peacemaking.

In a way, that book's generous breadth--one of its great strengths--turned out to offer a lot of avenues of further inquiry. We differ, for example, on what constitutes "anti-war rhetoric." For True, Levertov, for example, is the model of a successful poet who melds peace activism and poetry; for me, I see her as both enormously important from a cultural point of view, but whose poetry was deeply problematic and divisive in all sorts of ways.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Guided by Voices' "Everywhere with Helicopter"

Guided by Voices, the brainchild of indie savant/graphomaniac/outsider artist/former grade school teacher Robert Pollard, performs "Everywhere with Helicopter," a song written "in the wake" of 9/11. Unlike most of their songs, which are wrapped in the postmodern mythos of Pollard himself--trash-compacting classic rock heroism into two minute nuggets of indie rock gold--this song is infused with the amphetamine high and blindness of righteous rage that so many felt after the towers were struck. Rock and roll has a way with dramatizing such feeling so much more easily than poetry, somehow, but great rock songs contain within them a kind of self-subversion, as this one does. When Pollard sings, "we know the answers," we know he knows we're lost.

"Everywhere with Helicopter"

Eyeline [I line] the driveway
Eye [I] black the door
Sky all around me
Levels life from roof to floor

Trees and knees are lovely
Seek it, find the core
I have grown to life
Like all in silence
Wait for more

Everywhere with helicopter
Hard to follow/swallow
When I'm slow
Everywhere with helicopter
Sending off where lightning goes
(censor of the lightning ghosts)

I will try to fight them
I will let them nowhere [know where] to go
Try escape the pace
I'll say "God bless you"
Let me know

We know the answers
We fill us in
I do not diminish
Start to finish
Front to end

Everywhere with helicopter...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Some Thoughts on "Operation Homecoming"

I've been of two minds about "Operation Homecoming," the National Endowment for the Arts' initiative to hold writing workshops for American soldiers, from which an anthology has now sprung.

On the one hand, this project enables a unique opportunity for U.S. troops to articulate and give form to experiences that they might not otherwise; it also enables those of us on the homefront a way to listen to these stories, from writers who want to tell them. Obviously, soldiers in the modern era have played a critical role in representing war in ways that have made the politicians' doublespeak about its glories less tenable. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, Michael Casey, Yusef Komunyakaa, and recently Iraq War veteran Brian Turner (among many, many others)--all of these poets have contributed critically to our understanding of war, with poems that are beautiful and terrifying. Clearly, the NEA has scored serious patriotism points along the way.

On the other hand, I'm wary that such stories will replicate, too often, what Miriam Cooke calls the paradigmatic "war story"--the kind of story told from a young male perspective which privileges certain accounts of war that end up making it tidier, less bloody, and more masterable than war actually is, for the vast majority of those who experience it. Will this writing make war ultimately more exciting and glamorous than it may be?

I was particularly pleased to see, on the recent story on npr, that a soldier's mother was one of the writers included in the project--because if we believe that war is, as everyone from William James to Paul Virilio suggests, "the endless preparation for war," then we need to look at the "homefront" experience.

Yet will the writings of "Operation Homecoming" enable us to understand Iraqi experience any better, or will it perpetuate the Orientalizing representations of inscrutable irrational otherness that haunt war accounts of colonized powers?

Finally, how will soldier-writers, once they have done this writing, be received by fellow-soldiers (not to mention the Defense Department), particularly if their writing explores painful, difficult, or even illegal experiences? Is there a place for dissident writing in "Operation Homecoming," and how might writers be protected to explore the full range of experiences and issues that those experiences raise?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mark Halliday's "Fort Brag"/Why Do "Git 'Er Done" and Vietnam almost rhyme?

Mark Halliday, coiner of "ultra talk" and one of its principal progenitors, wrote a poem some years ago that, as far as I can tell, has never been published--even though it has always made me laugh. Apropos of the question, "what would a New York School war resistance poem look like," "Fort Brag" takes on the peculiarly American discourse of hypermasculine cocky effectuation with great elan. Everyone has had a coach or teacher or boss or father who sounds like this. In a sense, it gets at what is one of this nation's gifts and banes--our boundless, and thus reckless, optimism in our own abilities to "git 'er done." Listen to Mark read "Fort Brag" and other poems at his John Carroll University appearance.

"FORT BRAG" by Mark Halliday

It was cold outside so we built a fort.
We hauled insulation on barges and camels
and we hoisted joists. Maybe the spanners would pop a strut,
maybe the G-men would call in a shrapnel jockey but
it was fourth down and goal to go
and no amount of raggin’ was going to fix the wagon
so we heaved one more time and Bonzo thudded over
and he tore up his thigh but we scored.
We put the numbers up where they can’t be jimmied off.
It was hot so we harnessed rivers to make ice
and packed up the cakes in hard cubes,
one squad per ten cubes, it was an all-day job
but what was was

and we knew that like we knew our own cashews
so when our biceps twanged like busted gut
we bent at the knees and took the stairs saying
“Watch the corner” and “Let me just shift my grip” and “Heuh.”
What we had to get was our ground beef
like what is chopped by the thick chopper at Foxie’s Deli
who knows to chop and charge because he has to support his thighs
that want new molecules like our own thighs
so we blew sweat off the tips of our noses and said “Heuh”
as we hunkered and yanked. Because

as explained we did have to get our ground beef
so we have yanked and pumped and piled things up at the fort.
If we have lots of piles at the fort, and we do,
it has been for the ground beef and that’s how it makes sense,
as Yogi Stengel once said “When the mudhen flies south
all the badger lips point north” – you hear what I’m saying,
you grasp the thrust of my remarks.

So thus and forthwith as a result we have this fort
such that nobody else gets in
but still we had better stack up some 500 more sandbags
just in case of the unforeseen eventuality
because inside we have some 500 packages of ground beef
punched into slots, and wouldn’t those squirmy Beagle Boys
from Shoshone Creek adore to get their mitts
on such burger materials? You better bet they would.
The situation explains itself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

World Leader Pretend/"PeaceMaker" Computer Game

(image by David-Baptiste Chirot)

"In the video game 'PeaceMaker,' my character is the Prime Minister of Israel. And a suicide bomb has just gone off in Jerusalem..."; so begins Robert Smith's piece on the new video game, PeaceMaker.

In the other story on npr, Steve Inskeep also took the role of the Israeli Prime Minister, and guess what? suicide bomb in Jerusalem. (See the transcript below). At first, I was a little annoyed that, per usual, our fearless reporters could only imagine (and we, by proxy--that they could only imagine that we would understand) being Israelis. And that those nutty Palestinians are always making trouble and suicide-bombing "us."

But actually, the story comes around to suggest that the makers of the game (one of whom was an Israeli soldier) created the game, in a sense, to attempt to understand the Palestinian side of the conflict--and what might need to happen to create peace.

If only our fearless leaders were as creative as gamers.

(some transcript)

INSKEEP: News report: suicide bomber kills 18 and injures over 100 in West Jerusalem. We have a picture of a burning bus.

Mr. BURAK: And you can actually watch the event, so we have footage from, you know, past events like that. And again, you get the idea that this is a game, but a game about current events, about real events, and it's not only about two sides. You got the public, you've got the settlers.

INSKEEP: The people who have moved and done settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. BURAK: The U.S.A. and the Arab world. And next to each one of them there is this thermometer.

INSKEEP: Oh, showing how tense or how engaged or unhappy they are at the moment.

Mr. BURAK: With you, with your policy.

INSKEEP: Oh, okay. Let's figure out some things that we can do. Let's not do the most extreme thing.

Mr. BURAK: Let's do something that is...

INSKEEP: We got to get some troops out on the street.

Mr. BURAK: Yes. Security, but kind of more moderate. And by the way, you have advisers.

INSKEEP: Oh, okay.

Mr. BURAK: So let's look at them.

INSKEEP: We're thinking about sending army units and - oh, I have advice from a hawk and a dove, so to speak.

Mr. BURAK: Right.

Mr. BURAK: What do they say?

Mr. BURAK: Each one of them will try to pull you in another direction. So the hawk will tell you definitely send the army because it will raise your security. But the dove will tell you that the presence of troops will actually hurt the Palestinian quality of life.

INSKEEP: Okay. Not because it's automatically a good idea or a bad idea, let's do it because we want to proceed and see what happens with the game.

Mr. BURAK: Let's try to do that and let's send army units to - we can choose different objectives. Let's do something simple as securing the area.


Mr. BURAK: Now time passes.


Mr. BURAK: So you kind of...

INSKEEP: Several days just went by.

Mr. BURAK: Skip the week, yeah.


Mr. BURAK: Yeah. If you look at the score, that's interesting. We don't have only one score. We have two. So on the Israeli side, we got actually positive score because people approved of our action.

INSKEEP: Are we trying to get to a hundred points? Is that what we're trying to do to win?

Mr. BURAK: On the two sides.

INSKEEP: On the two sides. So we've got four points. We got a good start. And on the Palestinian side, we're at negative seven.

Mr. BURAK: Right.

INSKEEP: We've lost a bunch of points.

Mr. BURAK: So yeah. And I want to show you something that in Peacemaker it's - we made it so it's not - I mean, you see the complexity in a way that is counterintuitive. So for example, if a naive user just did what we did and sent the army and got this response from the Palestinians and says, oh, you know what? Let's send them aid.

INSKEEP: And try to buy them off, that will make them unhappy.

Mr. BURAK: Yeah. Let's give them, you know, directly medical aid.

INSKEEP: Okay. Let's send them some aid and see what happens. See if we can improve our opinion among the Palestinians. Your request rejected.

Mr. BURAK: Yeah. Because...

INSKEEP: They don't want it.

Mr. BURAK: Because yeah, the game has a memory in the sense that you just did something that is perceived as a security action.

INSKEEP: No one believes that such an effort is genuine, it says

Mr. BURAK: Yeah. And they just don't believe you.


Mr. BURAK: Because of what you did just a week before.

INSKEEP: So I got nothing; although I got another point of the Israeli side.

Mr. BURAK: Right.

INSKEEP: But the Palestinians aren't happy.

Mr. BURAK: Right.

INSKEEP: So I'm starting to get tense. What can we do now? I don't like to lose. All right. Help me out here. Give me an idea. We've clearly - I clearly lost control of the situation. There's more red dots all over the map, more terrible things happening. How would you get out of this situation? How do you ever get out of this situation?

Mr. BURAK: I mean, one thing that happens with Peacemaker a lot is that you'll play it several times and the first time that you play it you will probably lose the game. Part of that losing is part of the lesson, you know, to see that frustration and lack of control that you have. I mean we played it for five minutes. You can't win in five minutes something, you know, 60 years is - you can't really solve.

INSKEEP: I want to ask because you're an Israeli. You're an Israeli army captain. You must have played this game any number of times from the Palestinian point of view.

Mr. BURAK: Right.

INSKEEP: Have you learned things you didn't know?

Mr. BURAK: Yeah, definitely. I mean, not only by playing it but actually the process of working on the game; and we used Palestinians, people that helped us in writing the content and translating it. I mean it was a huge thing for me because what I realized is that the first time that I actually talked to Palestinians and understood their perspective was when I came to the U.S. after 33 years. So that's a big deal.

INSKEEP: When you came to the U.S., because when you were in that tense situation...

Mr. BURAK: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...it was hard to...

Mr. BURAK: It was very hard to communicate with Palestinians. It was very hard to see their perspective. And I think it's true for almost any conflict. I mean if you're in a certain place, what you get through the media is a one-sided - even though you think you get the objective story, you don't get it.

INSKEEP: That's Asi Burak. He and a colleague, Eric Brown, invented the computer game Peacemaker.

Monday, July 23, 2007

David-Baptiste Chirot's "See Scrawls"/Where Poetry and Visuality Collide

David-Baptiste Chirot's collage work, it seems to me, is an attempt to bring a poetic sensibility to the visual image--while the images seem to confront us with the incommensurability of our language to describe the new conditions of "Pure War," of the "War on Terror," they offer something close to a new lexicon, a way of naming by showing.

"Homeland Security" by Halvard Johnson

I love how this poem uses the language in which we talk about the Iraqi government to our own.

"Homeland Security" by Halvard Johnson

Large tanks marked PROPANE, lying in rows in the sun.
You’ve watched the scene in commercial satellite photos
with an aim of splitting the opposition, doing the dirty work

that needs to be done. A near-earth fly-by deflected
suspicion onto certain of our neighbors whose names you may
know or may not, refusing to believe that any court

could be objective in this matter—our zero percent market share in
gasoline pumps. The government/industry test execution team
says our new government should be a federal democracy, and money

should remain the state religion. Does that sound familiar?
Most of the delegates have been in exile for decades,
their heinous crimes against humanity almost totally forgotten.

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile petrochemical
corporations to their coming decline—those are our aims.
Sites near the town of Jumpstart, Nevada, were of a type that could

be used for making nuclear weapons, links to your future, and ours.
Visits there never complete without souvenirs from the gift shop—
you know, something for the wife and kids.

"Murder Machine" by Kurt Schwitters

How does power itself become its own justification? How does property itself become a will to violence?

"Murder Machine" by Kurt Schwitters

Welcome, 260 thousand cubic centimeters.
I yours.
You mine,
We me.
And sun eternity glitter stars.
Suffering suffers dew.
Oh, woe you me !
5,000 mark reward !
A crate is crooked, especially your crate.
There is no more property, only communism still
acknowledges property.
I wilt the reed, for there is no more reed.
I left the clock, for there is no more clock.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, seven.
Sunday greens warmth.
The elephant.
The fat elephant.
In case more than one person should lay claim to the
reward, we shall retain the rights of distribution
admitting of no appeal.
The magistrate of the royal capital and residence.

I. V. Weber

--Kurt Schwitters

tr. Harriet Watts

in Three Painter-Poets: Arp/Schwitters/Klee
[Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974]

Edward Dougherty's "Speaking for Myself"

This is from Edward Dougherty's chapbook, "The Metal of My Mouth" and the forthcoming full-length collection Observing Silence. In 1993, Dougherty went to Hiroshima as a volunteer director of the World Friendship Center where he and his wife stayed for two and a half years, witnessing the fiftieth anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though many of his poems attempt to probe for an imagination of peace, part of that probing necessarily means confronting the bomb inside.

"Speaking for Myself"

The supreme political fact of our lives is the atomic bomb. Am I wrong? It is enormous; it occupies the whole world. It is not only what it is but also the concentrated symbol of all hatred and injustice in every social and economic sphere. Speaking for myself, I have lived in fear of it for fifteen years, fear that it will go off, one way or another, and kill me and my family, or render our lives so intolerable that we won’t wish to go on. Maybe I am more timorous than most people; I believe there are actually more Americans who never think about the bomb. But poets?—Hayden Carruth (1961)

I am writing the bomb. I am always
getting bigger because I am writing
the bomb in my belly, the targeted,
the locked behind a whole series
of coordinated commands bomb.
Am I more fearful than most, more
fearsome or troublesome? Am I
rolling in my hands a fact,
making a mountain
out of a footnote? I am writing
the history of a metal, a filling
in my mouth throbbing
with threat. I want to grab you
by the scruff of your threatened neck.
I want to take you by the hand.
I want more than is possible?
What is possible inside this
ruling? A crooked measure
of what’s good to eat, what to wear
against the wind, the snow
that is so much like a drift
of ashes. The white shadow
on my X-ray, Kodak knew
was coming. In a locked drawer
in Pennsylvania’s low mountains,
the black plains, the dark sheets
of film spotted, as if spores
of fungus blew in
through the many black holes
in the telephone. Another voice
calling for an appointment
with Doctor Bomb. Prescribe
the bomb, write it down before
it goes off. Again. Write it. Here,
take my testimony: we knew.
All along, we knew. All along
the glittering rivers of Hiroshima
when the Army doctors
paraded those little girls to take
their clothes off for the camera,
when the desert air crackled
with scriptures, when the silos
hollowed out an enormous tube
in the great prairies of the earth,
when a report sighed as it slipped
out of the manila envelope
only to be sent away Dismissed! with words
it could not grasp. Next! I read about
one man’s fear and that primitive
longing to write himself into—...
and out of the bomb comes
a burning wind, a dark wall
that rolls over the civilized miles,
writing rubble in the cities
and writing on the living things
What have we done? Oh my God
I am heartily sorry for having
this bomb inside me
and for the thoughts
for which it stands, one policy
underground, one last stand
selling hot dogs outside the stadium
and the crowds inside
already cheering, thumping
on the bleachers, a blinding white
page and the sky is as blue
as ever and the autumn day
as crisp as a crimson maple leaf
and under my head my fingers
go to sleep inside the droning
of a single plane overhead
from the county airport
its white trail writing
my history. Again. Write it.

Re-Thinking the Homefront/"War Zone" by Maggie Hadleigh-West

Amy King recently posted a link to a short version of "War Zone" by Maggie Hadleigh-West, and it brought back for me how long it took me to listen to my own sister's feminist discourse around our dining room table, when she was both empowered by and hemmed in by the Dominican nuns at her high school. When we think of our own streets not simply as a "homefront," but also as a kind of battlefront, we begin to reconfigure our sense about where and how the violence "over there" is also eminently "right here." In this clip, you'll see how quickly the men shift from anonymous aggressors to embarrassed and stunned objects of attention.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Kenneth Koch's "The Pleasures of Peace"/The New York School and War Resistance

In Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941, I discuss Kent Johnson's poem "The New York School," and how it confronts the limits of New York School poetics for war resistance:

The poem ["The New York School"] thus links the poetry wars—where experimental poets and mainstream poets are seen as bitter enemies in a feud over the soul of poetry—with the nation’s conflicts. This poem suggests that, for Johnson, the almost universally-beloved New York School poetry most embodies our own Americanness—its nerve, its vivacity, its bawdy humor, its celebratory evocations of commercial and popular culture—offers little in the way of direct resistance to or confrontation of the exploitative relationships with the Global South that undergirds the American way of life. No doubt, there is something to say for Ashbery’s defense of escapism as a mode of resistance, or O’Hara’s poetics of ecstasy, or Koch’s poetics of parody. What Johnson suggests and what the poem implies is that it is not enough. This poem, despite its obvious self-lacerating (or maybe because of it), succeeds, ironically, by employing the very strategies of the New York School poets that it seems to critique—the vicious humor, the playful surrealism, the verve of naming names and shout-outs to friends—all pillars of New York School poetry.

Part of what lay behind this assertion was my own vexed enjoyment of New York School poetry. On the one hand, so much of the poetry O'Hara, Koch, and Ashbery (to name at least three principals of NYS) is just pure pleasure to read. On the other hand, the poets seemed oddly silent on the war that consumed the 1960s--not to mention the host of other social movements from the period. I paraphrase John Ashbery's rather simplistic retort to criticisms of silence: "every poem is a poem against war." Andrew Ross' Jamesonian critique of O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" dresses down the poem for its blithe consumerism. More recent takes on O'Hara and others--I'm thinking of Mike Magee's Emancipating Pragmatism's chapter on O'Hara and his relationship to Baraka and progressivism--have situated these poets as more complexly progressive in their politics. To wit: in an email, Andrew Epstein also wrote: "I think the NYS poets all have a quite complicated relationship to the whole idea of a poetics of dissent and protest, but one that's much more interesting than simply dismissal or a blithe embrace of art-for-art's sake." In a sense, the more recent generations of New York School-related poets--and here I'd invite the Flarf Collective as at least in part post-NYS--have answered the question I'd posed in the book: "what would a New York School poetics of resistance look like?"

But I'd neglected Koch. When I was reading his Collected Poems, I came across "The Pleasures of Peace," a poem explicitly engaged in thinking about his own relationship to the peace movement and the anti-war struggle.

From an interview by John Stoer, published in City Beat, Koch contextualizes that poem:

CB: You had been working quite a bit in the '50s and '60s, and by 1970 you had gotten a job teaching at Columbia University. Did the student uprisings affect your work or make you reconsider anything?

KK: It affected my work, but then it wasn't the main thing that did it. Do you know a poem of mine called "The Pleasures of Peace"? It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but I found I couldn't write very well about the horrors of war. It ended up being a celebration of the peace movement, which was very exhilarating.

It's too bad you have to have a horrible war to find that you have a lot in common with other people. You know, it was really exciting for us to suddenly feel that what one had to say might mean something and be helpful to people.

But (writing political poetry) is difficult. The best remark I ever heard about writing political poetry was made by Bertolt Brecht. He said, "You can't write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen."

Here are a few lines from "The Pleasures of Peace," in which he refuses to enter into the protest poem that needs to represent the war:

So now I must devote myself now to The Pleasures of Peace--
To my contemporaries I'll leave the Horrors of War,
They can do them better than I--each poet shares only a portion
Of the vast Territory of Rhyme. Here in Peace I shall stake out
My temporal and permanent claim. But such silver as I find
I shall give to the Universe--the gold I'll put in other poems.

The poem, on the whole, has a lot of fun not only with peace, but with those who take war resistance so seriously that they threaten the peace in their own way. Koch reminds us that if peace is the goal--A.J. Muste once famously wrote, "there is no way to peace. Peace is the way"--then we should enjoy our getting there. The Vietnam War brought out a great desperation in war resisters--for some very legitimate reasons--but it also damaged many people along the way. Koch, a veteran of World War II, also wrote a moving and subtle poem on that war, "To World War II."

See also William Watkin's reading of the poem

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Lemonheads' "Let's Just Laugh"/Evan Dando Going Political

I've been an indie rock (rokk) fan since my buddy Jim Doppke snuck the Replacements' "Pleased to Meet Me" on the other side of a requested tape by Pink Floyd, and I've never gone back. Jim and I formed Wrist, put out a few basement tapes, and mostly just assaulted our eardrums in total bliss. The Lemonheads have been a guilty pleasure, since Evan Dando always courted total pop celebrity, even as he crafted the soundtrack to my lovelorn years (listen to "Mallo Cup" and "Half the Time" to get the picture). On my run yesterday, I almost stopped in my tracks to hear on the latest Lemonheads release, "The Lemonheads," Mr. Dando sing "Let's Just Laugh." This is a song that is doubtlessly political, doubtlessly about our President and the war, and seems to invite violence against said head of State: "two more years to kill/if you won't I will." Dando has always had fun with words--"we're just aphids on hell's half-acre" and "she is driving me/out of her mind" (from "Paint"). This one also executes a jarringly acerbic tonal shift between verse and chorus. The song must be heard, not read, because the lyrics really need the song, and he flirts with alternate readings of the lines, but here are the lyrics anyway, to get you started:

LET'S JUST LAUGH (E. Dando/B. Stevenson)

I say out with it, you're not drinking
I say out with it, you're not drinking
It's not for me to know what you're thinking
'bout people staying home locking windows
Outside the basement
A texan stranger
With a rope and a straight razor
Is getting impatient for something major
It's in his nature

Two more years to go
Then you're supposed to know
How to get back home
Someplace near Waco

Let's just laugh
We can never do anything about anything, anyway
Whatever will be, I guess we'll see
So let's just laugh

War is sacred as rape and hatred
And we're just aphids in hell's half acre
In the dark and on TV fires
Just a country on rims for tyres
Excuses tired

Someone fetch the piano wire
I hope you're tried and fried before you're finally fired

Two more years to kill
If you want I will

Let's just laugh
We can never do anything about anything, anyway
Whatever will be, I guess we'll see
Let's just laugh
Let's just laugh
We can never do anything about anything, anyway

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mahmoud Darwish's Return to Haifa/"Identity Card"

I've been thinking of Mahmoud Darwish as he returned to Haifa, the place of his birth, this past week, during yet another troubled time for Palestinians. Darwish holds a unique place in Palestinian culture; the unofficial poet laureate of Palestine, one time member of the PLO, he has given voice to the Palestinian cause through a poetry that has spanned the gamut from stark realism to visionary prophecy. An early protest poem that I frequently teach is this cobbled-together translation of "Identity Card"; it gives voice to a working class Palestinian who must go to the "authorities" to be recognized as human. The refrain, translated either as "record," or "register me," "write down," or "write this down," is suggestive of the desire of Palestinians to be heard, to be written into the histories that have excluded them.

"Identity Card"

Register me.
I'm an Arab.
--Card number?
Fifty thousand.
Eight. The ninth
Will be born next summer.
--Are you angry?
Register me.
I'm an Arab.
Stone cutter.
I must cut bread
And clothes and books
For eight children.
I'll never beg at your door.
I'm an Arab.
--Are you angry?

Register me.
I'm an Arab.
Color of hair: jet black.
Eyes: brown.
Distinguishing marks:
Kuffiya and ighal on my head
And hands baked like rock.
Favorite food: olive oil and wild thyme.
Address: a forgotten quiet village
Where streets have no names
And men work in fields and quarries.

I'm nameless
And patient despite my anger.
I struck roots here
Long before the olive trees and poplars.
I'm a descendant of the plow pushers;
My ancestor was a peasant;
My home is a hut of mud.

You've stolen all my vineyards
And the land I used to till.
You've left me nothing for my children
Except the rocks.
But I've heard
You'll take away
Even the rocks.

Then register me first:
I hate nobody
And I don't steal.
But if I'm made to starve
I'll eat the flesh of my oppressor.
Beware of my hunger and anger!

Here's a recent story about Darwish's return to Haifa, where his family lived before they (along with about 800,000 other Palestinians throughout Palestine) were expelled in 1948.

Here's Amal Amireh's translation of Darwish's notes on the recent troubles in Gaza.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Andrew Epstein's "Poem Beginning with a Line from George Bush"/A Look Behind the Lines

Andrew Epstein recently sent me a poem that he'd published in the Mississippi Review in the Fall 2004 issue. One of my longstanding complaints with anthologies of political poetry--particularly anti-war and war resistance poetry--has been that the poems tend to lose their local and, to cop a phrase, "actionable intelligence," when they appear in the homogenizing space of an anthology. We are almost never given any contexts that bring the poem into its multiple dimensions (as a text that comes from somewhere, and goes somewhere, that attains multiple lives through its readings and iterations). That's one of the reasons why I needed to call my book Behind the Lines, because it's not just about the lines, but about how the lines emerge and what they lead to. Andrew sent me this, along with the poem:

Just anecdotally, thinking about the "cultural work of poetry," when I read the poem at a Save Darfur event here in Tallahassee last year, there was a Colonel there who was also presenting. He had commanded forces in Rwanda, and was writing a memoir about working in Africa and human rights, etc., which he read from, before I read. As I was halfway through my poem, he and the 3 people he was with, who were all in the front row, got up and more or less stormed out in protest. Who says poetry makes nothing happen?

Andrew's poem, at that moment, included the abrupt departure of a Colonel. Here's what caused all the fuss:

Poem Beginning With a Line by George W. Bush

This has been tough weeks in that country.
I sit, back to scorching sunlight,
wondering how to write the day
from my post on the far edge of
a dying, gnashing empire.
The assertive growl of hot coffee in hot sun
with the tragic NY Times blaring yet again
how dire these straits are
we navigate rudderless.

The Soldier:
Specialist Silva said he had swung his gun around,
aimed, fired and watched the
enemy fighter come apart.

‘He just exploded,’ he said.

Strings of Chrismas lights unlit on the awning
in daylight, in May, a pleasure, still.
Bodies of schoolchildren burning inside the bus.
At the read-in, I recite “Dover Beach,” “Dulce Et Decorum Est,”
“The Second Coming,” and “The Pleasures of Peace”
outside the administrative building to protest
our own VP master of war, who’s debasing
the language just a grenade’s throw away, as
mortar-boarded blond co-eds
snap pix by the big happy fountain in Florida.

Sure, poetry makes little happen but the relief
is palpable as we read and I
think of Kenneth Koch protesting
outside Hamilton Hall
in the backward abysm of insane ’68
and dream of my own
meager odyssey here and feel absurd
(which reminds me of brave Allen, whose
“America” I read too, feeling the kick
of its acidic grinning lines, so strong that
when we hear helicopters thwack-thwacking
through the blue sky noon, we laugh that
they still have his spirit under surveillance)
and Kenneth was surely right about
“the whole rude gallery of war” paling
next to the pleasures of one stick of
pink mint gum, and it’s no surprise
I almost wrote “gun”
given how the language of war
infects us these days.

The Historian:
The Cold War was a time when
official utterance
had become synonmous with deceit
and obfuscation.

This has been tough weeks in that country.
Fern fronds reach into hot light, symmetrical, regal.
Bodies burning in the skeleton of the shattered bus.

The Colonel:
With a heavy dose of fear and violence
and a lot of money for projects, I think
we can convince these people
that we are here
to help them.

I see 5 coffins in the picture, an aerial shot. Some are too small
to bear. Just outside Gaza, they shot her dead in a car,
8 months pregnant, along with four young daughters, their
toys strewn across the bloody backseat.
The shattered Dad tells the news:
in her tummy (like yours) a potential boy.
Meanwhile I learn
bonobos are the hippies of the forest –
their philosophy: make love, not war.
When anxious, they have sex, frolic, kiss, feel better.

The President:
Have I made any mistakes?
I wish you’d have given me this written
question ahead of time so I could
plan for it…
You just put me under
the spot here and maybe I’m not quick
as quick on my
feet as I should be in
coming up with one.

This has been tough weeks in that country.
The blather beyond out of control,
naked bodies heaped in mounds.
Yesterday the sky defined blue all over again
but I’ve come to expect the overwhelming.
Time to note the lack of wind, the soft muzak
our brains use to wipe
away the plaque that festers, the misbegotten tripe.
The way pretty she with the stud glinting in her nostril
drops coins in my palm, the two made-up blond
women with time to kill
and painted nails chatting over lattes in the courtyard
as loud as possible about friends’ foibles.
But America how can I write an autobiography
in your awful mood? In our name
they bring “democracy”
with a broomstick in the rectum at Abu Ghraib,
our My Lai. This skein of words would love
to start to undo your lie, that lie, this lie.

The Detainee:
The soldiers handcuffed me to a bed.
“Do you believe in anything?” the soldier asked.
‘I believe in Allah,’ I said.
“But I believe in torture and I will torture you.’”

Palm trees and brick in a furnace of sun. Tallahassee
and Fallujah are one and are not one.
A mind and a country are one and are not one.
A poem is the weather.
Over there
the leader lives in a mansion numb
behind iron gates.

The Soldier:
Ideally we would kill them all. But if they choose to
change their mind and flee,
there’s not much we can do.

We have been trying to kill
anything that is moving
towards the city.

On a trip north I see


spraypainted on train station steel pillar:
dissent in my quiet hometown, New
Jersey, from where we used to
smoke and look at the twin towers
twinkling at dusk from your deck
perched on the cliff.

The Captain:
You have to understand
the Arab mind. The only thing
they understand is force –
force, pride, and saving face.

It is painful to watch an empire stumble,
or crumble, from the inside.
Liberation gibberish eaten like licorice.
For months, for 2 years, I’ve been waiting
to see a crack in the lunacy, a brake
at least on the torture
of language. The war is kill. The war
is freedom fried. To dream the neocon dream.

The Poet:
It is necessary to shake yourself free from the soot of words.

The pleasures of schlock and maw applied
like steroid cream on the itch of a nation.
The telescreen cannot be eliminated.
I weep for nuance, for nuance is dead.
Our platform:
to stamp out ambiguity and deliberation
wherever they rear their vile heads.

The Citizen:
Until recently when I spoke of the US
government I said ‘we’;
now I say ‘they’ and feel disgusted.

To unseam the impossible seam: tear open the bag, Dad, and
you can make Pandora’s box look like a dream.
I just love pre-emptive warts, justified by imminent treats.
I weep for nuance, for nuance is dead.

The Poet:
There is only one way out: to speak against words.
Drag them along in shame where they lead us,
and there they will be disfigured.

He was a bad man, the man to bag, a bag dad, a bagged man.
They are dead-enders, just remnants, revenants.
They hate free dumb. They hate limber trees.
They hate the mockcracy.

This has been tough weeks
in this country, in that country,
in this country, in that country,
tough weeks, tough weeks, tough weeks,
in this country, in that country,
tough weeks, tough weeks.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"The End(s) of Russian Poetry: An Interview with Dmitry Prigov" by Philip Metres

Here is my interview with Dmitry Prigov, taken in 1996. It illuminates Prigov's project, first and foremost, but it also provides a glimpse into the landscape of Russian poetry, art, and culture from a postmodern perspective. Prigov's postmodernism was not a desiccated version of Western postmodernism; it was entirely his own, and, for this young writer, completely eye-opening and generative. On a political note, one of the prophetic moments in the interview is when he discusses how the new "other," the new enemy for Russia that would replace the "capitalist," will be "the Chechen." He says: "I think that the enemy has shifted to the Muslims-they will now be accused of being the devil."

"The End(s) of Russian Poetry: An Interview with Dmitry Prigov"
by Philip Metres

Why did you begin writing poems and making art?

Well, I’m a sculptor by trade—at first I made sculpture, and I began poems...well, the fact of the matter is that as contemporary art drew closer to conceptualism, it seemed that a great part of the artistic sphere became verbalized-using verbal language very much. So I happened to be on the border between literature and visual arts—it was interesting to me how these ideas conceptually related. What did literature means to me? Russian literature, in terms of its social status, its role in culture, and the feelings of the poet, it was similar to the poetry of the 19th century.

This was in the sixties?

Yes, this was the last of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. So if you were to compare visual art and literature, in terms of their poetic ideas and their meaning of the role in society and the meaning of writing, the distance between them is a whole century. So it was interesting to me how literature could actualize contemporary ideas, which were later called “conceptualism,” or what Sorokin called postmodernism. So I began to use texts in objects, like on cans, and I wrote at the same time. Actually, I wrote earlier, but it was accidental, I really began to write intensively thanks to these ideas.

Have you been influenced by other poets and artists?

There weren’t any influential poets because I didn’t come out of poetry, but visual arts. I studied visual arts so long ago, and so my favorite artists helped me developed. If I began with the early twentieth century, my favorite sculptors were Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti. From more contemporary art, of course, I arrived at visual art when it was a recognizable international process; strictly speaking, I felt closest to the generation of “pop art” and conceptual art—names like Andy Warhol, Joseph Boyce, Fluxus-—everything connected with post pop art and conceptual art.

I read somewhere that you said you work with "images." What’s the origin of that word—of course it’s not a Russian-sounding word—and what do you mean by it?

“Image” is in general “obraz,” but since when you speak of “obraz” in Russian, it’s too closely connected with academic literary study, as in “the image of Onegin.” “Image” is a term more suited for the era of mass media. And it means that a way of acting for the present situation. Since Russian culture, especially in poetry, is very fixed and overdetermined, marked by definition-there are social poets, lyric poets, avant-garde poets, women poets. So it’s very easy to work with images. In what sense do I work with images? I take a certain image of writing and collide it with another image. And with that technique one can bear some type of writing matter because each piece of writing is very anti-social, totalitarian. Any discourse, any kind of speaking, is potentially totalitaran. It tries to take possession of the whole world—and if it tries to possess the whole world, then it certainly tries to capture man completely, presenting itself as the truth. Some great discourse like Marxism or Freudianism, having grown from a small sphere of activity—the psyche or the economy—then tries to describe the whole world with its terminology and seize the whole world into its penumbra. And then people, especially of younger generations, think of it not as a discourse but as the absolute truth.

My aim is simply to deconstruct any discourse, any piece of writing, as writing, as language. I began working with Soviet discourse, which presented itself as divine truth, but now I’m trying to return to signs of language, discourses, trying to take and uncover any “totalitarian languages” and return to them a feeling of living, natural, easy language. Well, that’s the strategy, which is not necessarily confined to Soviet language, and second, not necessarily confined to a method of irony. There are different methods, since I use many methods in different images-I wrote as a woman poet, a homosexual poet, absolutely lacking in irony. Because it’s not entirely correct to say that irony is an aim of my method [as I had mistaken said earlier during our meeting]. Irony is an external effect, from the unfamiliarity of a comparison, as it were, of uncompared discourses. That is, when we look at the surrealists’ work, a light feeling of irony, of gaiety even, arises. Actually, it’s a derivative effect, because irony as such is another type of activity entirely. Irony is the activity of a poet presenting and knowing the truth. So for him the object that is ironically described is an object without truth.

But in my activity, there’s no opposition even if I’m describing some “knowing” language, a language leading itself untruthfully-I try to contrast that language from within the language itself, with a truthful “modus” of that language and its possibility as untotalitarian. My aim differs from the ironic in that the ironic is closer to the anthological, not the gonosological and the metaphysical. By and large, poetry, especially from the beginning of the century, is anthological—-the first unit of text, say. My aims are metaphysical and gonosological, and perhaps epistemological, concerning the problem of truth—well, not truth itself, but the truth of utterances. But you know this kind of philosophy—the contemporary French philosophers—

Lacan, Derrida, etc.

Yes, yes, because in general Russian literary critics may explain poems well, but these ideas barely exist for them, if at all.

You’ve captured the spirit of the Soviet age, especially Soviet consciousness—what direction will you go now? Perhaps there’s a “New Russian” consciousness, or a [General Alexander] Lebed consciousness?

I work with the mainstreams of culture, and so any culture has this consciousness. You knew that I worked with Soviet language, then by the laws of classical poetry I would be working on that for the rest of my life-except I was working with language and with methods. The principle mistake imposed upon me is one of the customary associations connected with poetry. So I will work with the mainstream and it makes absolutely no difference to me whether it’s Soviet, democratic, patriotic-fascistic, liberal mainstream mass media, consumption, etc. In this way, I’m the phenomenon of a strategy of conduct and not of texts. So a person who writes texts—Gandlevsky, say, he writes good texts in good language and produces them as if they were good texts.

For me, any text is good if it is well-written within its axiomatic, as it were. A well-written text of an advertisement and a good poem by Gandlevsky are absolutely identical for me. So, for me, what’s Khlebnikov, what’s Brodsky, what’s Blok, or if someone works well within his axiomatic language. They are all my personages, as it were. I love them all identically-Brodsky, Khlebnikov, Khruchenov, the Oberiuty, Gandlevsky, Nekrasov—they are all personages of my activity. I write like like they write. But in principle it’s already less interesting to me, because this discourse is already well-known. This kind of writing, artistic writing. For example, one could paint matryoshka dolls very well, but there’s no risk in it, to write like Malevich or like a matryoshka or like Akhmatova, or like an impressionist. They are all good texts but there’s no strategy in it because the ideal boundaries of this writing is well known, the conduct is well known—all of it is well known in principle.

If you were born in America, say in Chicago, what would you be doing now?
It depends. I would either be engaged in culturology or social anthropology, or with strategies of computer research.

With computers?!

Yes, yes of course. I work with strategies of conduct, not specifically with texts.

Some American postmodernists have said that postmodernism is, more than anything, a nostalgia for the present, for the real. Can you distinguish between Russian postmodernism and this kind of postmodernism?

Well, first off, the thing is, postmodernism, like anything else, is not a monotypical concept. Nostalgia, or some other type of writing...postmodernism is a sum total of such markers. There’s, let’s say, the person who’s defined the postmodern direction and there’s the person who’s simply lost in the epoch of postmodernism. For me, postmodernism is in no way a ostalgia for the present or real (whether it exists or not). Postmodernism is-especially in art and literature... if the fundamental aim, the problem of the avant-garde was to find a personal expression [lichnoye vyskazivanie], then in postmodernism the problem is different, not a problem, but the problematics of personal expression. Does personal expression exist, if it’s not an illusion, the illusion of personal expression?

In this way, postmodernism is an exploration of the possibility of individual expression, each time, each activity, it seemed to you that you found a personal expression, later you find out that the personal expression either is not personal or instantly alienates itself in cultural expression. This is the constant existential drama of the problem, the problematic nature of personal expression. As a rule, for me that’s the definition of the postmodern artist. Because the artist who is satisfied with his texts, that they have a layer of personal expression, is not a postmodernist, he’s a modernist. For him the problem of personal expression is located in personal expression, and he’s proud, peaceful, etc. The postmodern artist does not have this tranquility in the world. This is generally what I know of American postmodernism.

In Russia very little is written about or by postmodernists. I’m not speaking of the usual definitions of postmodernism-as irony, the use of “shock,” sex, rape, all these things—these are all constant things. Actually they are all characteristics of the search for the tragedy of personal expression. It’s all closely related to the problems of the French philosophical cultures inquiries-[Roland] Barthes’ poststructuralism, the type of discourse, the problem of discursive writing, the problem of automatic writing, the problem of simulacra. All these problems are really the problems of postmodernists in their artistic activity, trying to reveal some new drama, when time will reveal the dramaturgy and drama of the artist. As a result, they later become the cultural conduct with their etiquette, which is not a personal drama, but a customary drama. That’s how the artist who writes and conducts himself considers the problem of “the poet and the crowd”-it’s customary.

Postmodernism also has its problems, its dramaturgy, its problematic, its heroes, its personages. I think that the time has already come when postmodernism is the cultural etiquette of conduct. But in principle, since it’s still living, some other kind of conduct has not yet arrived which could estrange postmodernism in its personage. If another artist came and put the postmodernist in his personage! But until then postmodernism will control all the personages. Just like in an animal farm-the animals need to be alive in order to conduct research, but really it may be possible to do this research without any animals at all.

You’ve lived through much—what do you make of the economic and political changes here?

If you take my situation in life, strictly speaking, then my status has changed fundamentally. Under the Soviet government I was an underground man, as it were. I had a complicated relationship with the regime, with the KGB, I was imprisoned, summoned to the KGB office, I could not publish anything, could not go into anything, could not earn money with my art, could not travel abroad-—I could not be a normal artist and writer. So for me, of course, as an artist everything has fundamentally changed. If I look at the historical changes...I don’t have any special faith in what’s going on now. Because I suppose that Russia has no functional time—just a natural cycle, as it were-spring, summer, fall, winter, and again spring, summer, and now we’re in fall. So it’s neither bad nor good. It’s a kind of phenomenon of this culture, of this geographical and national place. I don’t think that Russian is becoming part of a homogenized culture. It will be it’s own as it was before. Different, perhaps from the Hindu “frozen” culture-that there is some circular movement but it’s illusory. It’s difficult to say whether it’s good or bad.

Russia has two possibilities-have you heard of Kipling’s Mowgli, whom the animals stole? In Russian folklore as well, there are wolves and monkeys that steal children and raise them as their own. Then people find them and return them to their human parents—but if the child has lived for more than five years with the animals, then it’s already impossible for him to speak, use utensils while eating, etc. It seems to me that Russia, from the point of view of Western culture, has already passed that “five years,” it’s already unadapted to enter into Western culture, although it always has a segment that has the tendency to find its way to Western culture. These children can hold a fork and spoon when they eat, and this is the intelligentsia. But as soon as the external influence leave, or when some terror comes, then it begins to walk on all fours again, and loves natural ways, not connected with a simulacral existence. Actually, this is connected less to technology and more to the “communal body,” which transcends some general ideas and correlates with it. “Privacy,” a particular life, seems like it will appear and then does not. But it can, for a certain layer of the population, at the expense of the rest of the population. Thus it organizes a manorial society-nobles, freedmen, slaves—-each has its own laws and does not bother the other. A neo-estate society now organizes itself—one segment of society can live by its own laws, say, and another by its laws. In essence, there’s now this tendency to a neo-estate society. Whether it’ll be successful or not is unclear, because each time an estate society develops, it ends in revolution.

Speaking of animals, Americans and Russians looked at each other like exotic wild animals—-I’m thinking of your poems about Reagan and the American elections. Do you think this relationship has changed or will change?

The thing is, this is a surface reading of my poems, because this culture creates these metaphysical enemies, these devils. What that devil is called—Reagan or not Reagan—is not important. Concretely, it’s about the relationship to Reagan per se, I wasn’t writing political poems. Simply, the enemy was Reagan, the American president. Actually, these are not political-critical poems they are mythological—it was a Soviet myth with all of its devils, it Manicheistic, dualistic culture. It could have been Napoleon in another age. There are also positive heroes, protagonists—the “Policeman,” Pushkin, but they have also changed. So really the concept of the enemy still remains, but now it’s not Reagan, but, say, a person of Caucasian nationality, a Chechen for example. The rigid membership of our enemies is hierarchical and since they myth has died, it has actualized itself as “ours and not-ours.” Since the concept of global pretensions has left Russia—not left entirely, but has weakened, fatigued somewhat for the time being-the idea of Americans as the enemies also went away.

Although, it’s true, sometimes the notion reappears in the population, that America is the fundamental enemy, an imperialist power, especially regarding the problem of NATO—that has reawakened the image of the devil as America. I think that the enemy has shifted to the Muslims-they will now be accused of being the devil. I think that for Russia to stabilize itself, stabilize its inner problems, it will find the image of an external devil. So when I was writing about Reagan, it was just the simplest, most superficial, anecdotal level of how people not used to multiple layers of meaning reacted to him. Traditional Russian poetry thinks homogeneously—as if I write that which is the singular truth, and that the relationship between the author and the text, the relationship within the text is one of layers. For them, especially from Khlebnikov to Mandelstam, the fully esoteric text, which is identified with the author, the bounds of the text can only be understood by the author.

Speaking of the “Policeman,” I was recently going to meet someone and was stopped and detained for an hour and a half by a policeman because I had not registered my visa. I waited for hours, standing in line with a bunch of drunks, and apparently the policeman wanted a bribe—I told him, “let’s go to the station, I’ll pay the fine.” Later he tells me, the fine is $50,000 rubles [about $10 at the time—so I paid him off and left. It was an interesting moment, because I don’t think that would have happened three years ago—

Not three years ago, before perestroika. The “Policeman” that I wrote about was a symbol of the government-even more than that—he was the representative of a divine government. On earth, he was a cultural hero, suffering to pay a divine government, and since it’s impossible to pay a divine government, he’s a suffering hero—a kind of mediator between heaven and earth. A normal mythological hero—it was a singular myth. But now this mythological hero is entirely different-at first he became a trickster and then a dark power, a devil, a Baba Yaga. Now the “Policeman,” once a mediator between heaven and earth, has become just dishonest.

A businessman, perhaps?!

I don’t write about the concrete, for me that’s less interesting. I write structurally, the transition from the cultural hero to the trickster. Why should I write about the Soviet regime? Whom does it interest? In this way, the “Policeman” is a completely normal mythological hero whose concrete existence is not important—mythological discourse is always a constant in society.

Have you any other new heroes emerging in your work?

You know, the thing is that no great myth exists now in which a hero could appear. I have written other discourses-the liberal-democratic, the national-patriotic, the contemporary homosexual, the mass metaphysical—these are big discourses—but it’s not necessary to write about heroes. One could just describe a kind of writing. Then there’s the very complex problem of self-presentation-as poet not existing in quantity of poems but as “manipulator.” I have a big project which is about images—I have to write 2,000 poems per year, 24,000 poems overall. It’s also a project that is a type of poetic conduct, more than anything. So I don’t have any problem finding material—some people just don’t understand the structure of this work.

Are your “images” like masks?

An image is more than that. An image is a kind of existence. I must, first, understand it, then enter into it and live. A mask, generally speaking, implies that another person exists behind it. But I, as a person, cannot exist. Behind a mask, one can act like a director, but a director can never substitute for an actor. A traditional poet like Brodsky or Gandlevsky goes out on stage and writes poetry, and his aim is completely connected to his texts. I have a different aim. I can go out on stage as an actor and I myself am not there. So I am by way of virtual expression. I am insofar as they act. I am personally like a director, not on the stage but existing in every point of action. So that’s why I say that all poetic conduct involves personages. I’m not in my texts but at the same time, just as the director is not on the stage, I am the play. I am the structure.

In America, postmodernism opposes our mentality of identification with a work of art. Isn’t that problem for one’s audience?

I deconstruct any totalitarian language as a language. I presume a multicultural world. Any consciousness, any poetic consciousness wants to think of itself as the only one. In principle, it’s just one language, no more than that. There are others in the world. My mode of deconstruction affects high culture, because high culture is also totalitarian. That is one of the signs of postmodernism-it opposes high culture, the dominating culture. Any succeeding generation that arrives also opposes the hegemonic culture. But everything depends upon how. Postmodernism is a repetition, but it opposes itself against high culture not as another high culture but as a culture that makes equal all other marginal cultures. When Futurism came, it also said that culture is terrible but opposed itself as a better culture. Postmodernism comes not as a better theory, but as a better type of conduct.

It seems that you relate to your images like Lacan’s “empty mirror” to his analysands-it’s intriguing, but also terrifying for the audience.

Lacan’s is just one way. But I relate to these images like animals in a zoo. I like them. Like a leech, that used to be used for healing purposes. I take this image, put it on myself, and when it’s done drinking my blood, there’s a poem, and then I take it off me. So in principle, Lacan was correct, with his Lacanian writing, because in his writing when one looks askance one sees a way. There ought to be many descriptions, however. Each French philosopher describes his own postmodern problem—for Barthes, for Derrida it’s writing, for Deleuze-Guattari it’s schizo-conduct, all of it’s correct, all of it in sum is postmodernism. I don’t reject Lacanian writing per se, but accept it as a complement to the others.

About your plan to write 20,000 poems—



Yes, one poem per month for 2,000 years. Now it’s a project for 4,000 years. Now an acquaintance goes on the Internet each month of this 4,000 years and posts one poem—it’s a problem of time of course. I stand, as it were, in the middle—it’s quite postmodern—and I live at the same time 2,000 years behind and 2,000 years ahead.

Does an avant-garde exist in Russia today?

It depends how much you invest in that word. There is the general concept of avant-garde, but it’s a perspective of hindsight. The avant-garde is everything after what precedes it. Then there’s the concept of defined style of 1920’s art. Avant-garde now is some type of conduct of the avant-garde artist. Avant-garde is a name for people who can work in many entirely different styles. So the identification the avant-garde requires a strict definition of what avant-gardism entails. If you ask whether there are people who work as the avant-garde did in the ‘20’s, then I’d say there are many. If in postmodernism, in that specific manner, then there are very few.

What role does today’s avant-garde play in society at large?

Generally, as social culture, it’s very insignificant. First, it’s a small number of people. Second, all culture in Russia was always centralized and immediately connected to political power. Since all power is social and administrative, all these cultural people raised on socialist realism, the sixties generation, they consider the avant-garde to be “shock” and they don’t accept it. Also, this new economic and financial establishment has been brought up on a connection to the Western world, and they see the market of contemporary Western art as a region of financial exchange. Only through external imitation do they try to have a contemporary avant-garde. So the avant-garde is not influential in social culture and is just the lot of a small circle of intellectuals and artists, although in terms of its connection to Western culture, it is a fundamental zone where a connection between Western and Russian art takes place. In this way, the border, the passage, the customs house is very influential. But only in this very specific way.

The tradition in Russian poetry, that a poet in Russia is more than a poet, is diminished. Does this epoch seem sad to you?

In Russia, especially in Stalinist Russia, there was a hierarchical kind of culture, like the 19th century, where the hierarchy of culture and art were connected. But in principle, this change could not happen instantly. All ideologies of contemporary art are founded on entirely different interrelations between cultures, artists, and markets. They all have their different problems. It’s like when you leave school and go out on the street-school has its own hierarchy—teachers, good students, bad students—but when you go out on the street, there’s an entirely different world, comprised of different laws. So it’s difficult to say for whom is this value of the poetic position and problematic. But in the sphere of visual arts, which has long since departed from these 19th century problems, even in Russia--these poetic problems are simply laughable, just absurd. For me it was never a problem and really since I developed in a different problematic, that is a problem for my personages, not for me.

Have you been to America? Have you seen “Beavis and Butthead”—two teenagers who sit on a couch and watch television and comment on it.

No, I haven’t seen it.

They’re very primitive, but they’re very interesting as well—they watch rock videos and when they don’t like something they say, “that’s cool,” and if they don’t they say, “this sucks.” I think these two could be good personages, images of our culture.

That’s true, but it’s a matter for me of an insulting consciousness. I also have personages like them, but I prefer to describe a multicultural situation. They are, if you take them as singular, becoming a totalization of some kind of consciousness. For me, there is a fundamental principle of not discovering my consciousness, not finding it absolutely. That is, many critics of contemporary American life correct detect their limitations, but they absolutize their critique and immediately become a counterbalance to totalitarianism-say “mass consciousness”—and they themselves become a totalitarian consciousness. So for me, both consciousnesses possess elements of totalitarianism. I want to deconstruct this kind of consciousness as just a discourse, and not as absolutely just. Because with totalitarian consciousness, I could deconstruct at any definite moment the Soviet myth, the homosexual myth, the consumption myth, the mass media myth. Myths that want to swallow the whole world, if they become successful, becoming a dominating myth, act aggressively against the world.

How can the critic deal with these questions of totalitarian consciousness?

Generally, there is a strategy—where the critic describes not the elements of consciousness, but the structure of thinking. He understands that a person’s consciousness is inclined to totalization. First, he describes the structure of that consciousness with some mechanism of testing. He can test any cultural consciousness as Foucault did. But in my consciousness there are also elements of totalitarian consciousness. You could describe each consciousness as either an absolute total consciousness, or as a consciousness not rising to discourse, or as a consciousness working strictly within elements of other totalitarian consciousnesses, or as a consciousness equal to your own. This is a definite theme.

The thing is, the whole difference between the position of contemporary poetry and the new traditional poetry-the traditional poetic consciousness is fixed, at peace, with no doubts about its own discursive position. The postmodern consciousness, of course, is subject to these doubts. The tradition of Russian poetry is hierarchical—-Mandelstam, Pasternak—it doesn’t subject itself to the doubts of the position of the poet. As if it were the truth. All contemporary poetry, basically speaking, believes that it’s telling the truth, not just speaking with poetic language. Namely, of the problematic of one’s own expression. Doubts about another’s expression is completely normal, but to one’s own writing—that’s a cultural shock. They assume that poetic expression is truthful utterance. For them, it’s absolute truth, transcends into heaven.

I remember an interview I did with Gandlevsky. He says to me, about poetry, “of course it’s good.” I said, “how can that be if the reader is bored?” I told him, “the problem is that what makes you happy might make me bored, and vice versa.” If you’re interested in chess, then the board is an expanse of beauty. If you’re interested in soccer, then chess seems very complicated. “It’s your problem” kind of thing. But for the person who plays it, “how can you think that? It’s the only truth.” There’s no concept of conventional discursiveness in Russian culture.

You know, I want to think that Gandlevsky is right, that there’s a reason to write poems.

Of course he’s right, but the thing is our time cannot reflect on his position. He’s right, but he ought to know why he’s right. In his type of writing, there is no position from which it looks at itself. They don’t develop that position. It’s nonsense to them. So each time it’s shocking when someone refuses to accept his idea of poetry, and he immediately takes it as opposition. When I qualify his work as discourse, he doesn’t understand that I’m neither for nor against it, I’m just qualifying it. In this way, he can write this kind of writing, but as a personage. There are all kinds of motives. One can paint matryoshka dolls for one’s whole life, but that’s a motive of contemporary culture, because there’s no concept of artistic conduct. It’s just handicraft. He can do that kind of writing, but it’s handicraft—writing like Malevich, Khlebnikov, it’s neither bad nor good. So when a person who paints matryoshka dolls says, “I create beauty. And you, devil, what do you create?” They are different things, it’s not the same art. For me, I can use this man among my personages. But he cannot respond to me as a personage. For him, the author is transparent, transcendental. My relationship to Gandlevsky is neither bad nor good. He is a personage in his artistic behavior, and contemporary culture for him is transcendental.

Of course, there are motives for writing-you can have any motive you wish. But if you enter into and think about the categories of high culture, then you ought to understand it to the end. The person who paints matryoshka dolls has no pretensions to high culture, he knows that he is a craftsman. And that’s his greatness. He instantly understands his place in culture. But as soon as he begins to think that he’s making great art and from that art that he can save the world—that’s from an unchanging culture. And that’s not principled professionalism. My pretensions are not how they [the traditional poets] write, but how they orient themselves in the cultural situation. But unfortunately that level, that organ is absent in people of that type of conduct. Take a radio with a dial-when it’s not on the right frequency, it’s just noise. One could explore this phenomenon-that’s noise there, noise comes from this point, etc. I can describe various parameters of noise. For me, their behavior is completely clear, as artistic conduct, but for them, my conduct is just noise. They look upon my behavior as “wrong.” And my poems as “incorrect poems.” But I don’t write poems. So it’s a difference between cultural activities...motives for writing exist, of course, as do motives for watching television, walking in the forest. I don’t judge whether they’re bad or good.

If it’s no secret, how do you earn money these days?

Now I earn money in different ways. First, through publications, through there’s no money in it of course. I earn money through visual arts, either by selling pieces or when a museum pays me to do an installation, or I do musical performances. I’m a “musician.” It’s a “sound performance.” A type of mantra, very loud, alluding to church services, but I write the texts. From the surface, when you don’t see the texts, they’d remind you of mantras, that type of activity, but it’s totally different from that.

Are there any poetry clubs in existence today similar to the ones that existed in the ‘70’s?

“Clubs” as an institution, ended-it was a general system of the old cultural structure, financed by government sponsors. Now, since that funding has ended, clubs have ceased to exist. Now there are places where people can read poems. In Moscow, they are generally libraries. With changes in the economic situation, the whole cultural system also changed. The old functional system collapsed and a new system has not yet been born. Perhaps because an academic system doesn’t exist. All over the world, academic institutions organize around themselves some kind of literary exploration. In Moscow, there are two huge universities, but they don’t study contemporary literature there at all, and if they do, then they don’t have any money, don’t organize anything or have any readings, etc.

Today, a system of grants and awards doesn’t exist. There’s no system of “creative writing.” There are almost no “festivals.” There is no market for avant-garde literature or visual art, but you could say that visual art is included in the Western market. But literature, in this way, seems to be an activity not included in culture. There are places where people read, but it’s a very marginal activity. If before the activity of poetry was prestigious, social, if you were a writer you could live on your publications, and by tradition it was culturally prestigious, then now that prestige has been destroyed and the most talented and energetic people went into more prestigious spheres, either business, or politics, or mass media, or pop music. Poetry is now marginal activity, so we’re the last generation to arrive into poetry during its prestige. And we are still the last people attracted to it to have actualized ourselves in it. If I were a young person today, I would probably say I wouldn’t need poetry—-why should I-now people like me who could actualize themselves in poetry are leaving poetry. To poetry come less energetic, weaker people now. But when the sphere of poetry finds its niche, then talented people will be drawn to it again and practice it. A person who goes into poetry cannot at the same time make an academic career because it’s neither customary nor easy, since an academic career is also neither prestigious nor pays well, and has also become marginal.

Do you have any prognoses for the future, culturally and politically?

Well, culture depends on the political and social structure. If we have a market economy, then that means that culture will organize itself by the principles of the market. If there will be a mono-culture again, not economic but governmental, then culture will be like it was under socialism, or possibly like in India—half of culture serves the urban population, and an opposing culture serves the village or peasant population. Something like that exists here already—a market, pop culture serving the urban population, and another culture serving the village population. But generally, I began such a long time ago and any change....

At first, an artist enters into his period in the bounds of the dominating style. Then, when he grows, he begins opposing the contemporary styles, and then a third style—-he is already the producer of the next type of style and direction. Then, he creates his own language, which sets him apart from this style or direction. Then there’s his own myth—for the remainder of his life, he works with his myth, which is appreciated. And later, he’s interesting as a launching pad for other artists. And he, say, Renoir, during WII and mass hysteria was all about, he wrote his women. When in the bounds of myth of Renoir it’s not important who’s also painting women at the same time. He entered into culture during postimpressionism and afterwards, his whole life, he was “Renoir.” I think that I am old enough that I have gone through different changes that I think I’m playing with my myths. So I don’t think that future changes with concern me somehow fundamentally. I don’t enter into situations thinking of myself as a tragic poet or artist.

Three years ago, in an interview with Gandlevsky, I asked him if he’d been on the barricades during the August coup attempt in 1991. He said he’d been helping his father-in-law making some shelves and couldn’t leave him. Later, [poet Timur] Kibirov and said he should go, but it was already past the crisis. Where were you at the time?

Well, first, I just wasn’t in Moscow. But if I were, I wouldn’t have been making a shelf. I would’ve gone to the barricades. For me, as for an American, there were some interesting social meanings in those events. As for Gandlevsky, I think his explanation is not a matter of shelves, but the traditional poetic consciousness-“poet and crowd.” He is very conventional, his themes are mundane existence: “for me a shelf is more important that the world.” It’s a Pasternakian notion—”my shelf is much more important than these political events—it’s an ideology of conscious action. For me, these events were interesting in every way, first as a citizen. Poetic values don’t cover everything. I’d have gone there for many reasons. Gandlevsky’s poetic is arrogant, but it’s typical of that poetic conduct.

Has freedom of artistic expression changed forever the Russian relationship to the Word?

The concept of freedom of artistic expression affects only a small circle of people in literature. Critically, for the mass of people, “freedom of expression” is not yet salient. If a person has the right to critique something out loud, that’s doesn’t mean it’s freedom, a person could yell out something else—the discursive relationship to any expression is not yet personal. A person, in the paradigm of freedom of expression, doesn’t necessarily accept a different “expression,” he’s just allowed to express a kind of totalitarian discourse. So it’s not just connected to problems of the freedom of expression, but also with problems of cultural and economic strata. It’s a whole mentality that generates verbal expression, so it’s not just a problem of verbal literary expression, it’s a problem of any expression.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov, Soviet-Era Avant-Garde Poet and Artist, Rest in Peace

Eugene Ostashevsky sent me an email yesterday with news of the passing of a great poet, artist, and cultural laborer, Dmitry Prigov. One of the great innovators and tireless experimenters of his generation, Prigov's massive poetic and artistic output (he once promised to write 25,000 poems) has yet to receive full acknowledgement or readership in the United States. As far as I know, the only full-length collection of his poems to appear in English has been Fifty Drops of Blood, translated by Cris Mattison and published by Ugly Duckling Presse. In honor of his life and work, I'm posting a few Prigov poems I translated a few years back. Tomorrow, I'll post an interview of Prigov that I did in 1996, versions of which appeared in COMBO. He was electrifyingly intelligent, hilariously gesticulating, and humanely generous to me, a young American stuttering his Russian and misunderstanding the scope of his project.

Some Prigov poems:


In Japan I would be Catullus
And in Rome I would be Hokusai
And in Russia I am the same guy
Who would have been
Catallus in Japan
And in Rome, Hokusai.


The plumber goes into the winter yard
He looks: and the yard is already spring.
It's the same way as with him now--
He was a schoolboy, and now he's a plumber.

And the farther the more--farther is death,
And before that ripe old age
And before that, and before that,
And before that--as is now, a plumber.


In the cafe of the house of Literators
Poliseman drinks beer
Drinks in his usual manner,
Not even seeing the literary workers

But they all look at him.
Around him it is light and empty
And all of their different arts
In his presence don't mean anything

He represents life,
Appearing in the form of Duty.
Life is short, but Art is long.
And in the battle Life wins


Here is the Poliseman standing in place
Watching everything, remembering
Everything around and here is his pride
The ambulance dressed all in white flies up to him
Raises a fan of spring splashes
Hands entwined they're walking together
The heavens above them melt
The ground disappears in this place.


It's not important the recorded milk production
Cannot be compared to the real milk production
Everything that's recorded is recorded in the heavens
And if it will come to be not in two or three days
Nevertheless it's really important when it will
And in some high sense it's already come true
And in some low sense everything will be forgotten
And it's nearly been forgotten already

Monday, July 16, 2007

Halvard Johnson's Call for Poems on the War for BIG BRIDGE/Milosz's "Dedication"

Halvard Johnson put together a mini-anthology of poems on war for Big Bridge last year, and he's doing an encore for poems responding to Milosz (pictured left). See Hal's message below.

"For a second mini-anthology of poems, this time inspired by/responding to/related to
Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Dedication" and/or the various wars/insurgencies/etc. going
on in the world today, please send 1-6 poems to me at halvard@earthlink.net with the words "Big Bridge" followed by your own name clearly in the subject line. Please, when sending attachments, send all poems in a single attachment. This mini-anthology (approx. 30 poems) will appear in the January issue of Big Bridge, and I'll consider submissions of work received before the end of November."

Halvard Johnson, halvard@earthlink.net

"Dedication" by Czeslaw Milosz

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

K. Silem Mohammad's "Peace Kittens"/Flarf and its Dissident Contents

K. Silem Mohammad, part of the Flarf Collective, and author of a number of poetry books including Deer Head Nation and A Thousand Devils, was the first of the flarfers I read, before I really knew what the hell flarf was. Deer Head Nation was and is, to deploy Mohammad's oft-dropped word, spooky, for its recycled language nonetheless feels like a kind of prosthesis by which Kasey could feel his way around the cultural matrix of the post 9/11 cyberstates. To phrase it another way: the project's kitsch exterior (employing the gamey gamut of language from the internet) actually forms a core around a terrified subjectivity, unspoken and yet formed by its negation. "Peace Kittens" is an apt demonstration of this.

Listen to Kasey's reading of poems from Deer Head Nation, including "Peace Kittens," at SUNY Buffalo, courtesy of PENNSOUND.

"Peace Kittens" by K. Silem Mohammad
originally appeared at litvert.com/ksilemmohammad.html
from Deer Head Nation

Peace through Superior Firepower
... did not seem unusual given the context
... peace is good for business
... my cousin "practicing" on kittens at home
... is that what sex is like
... an ear, three boys, seven kittens, twelve roses
... -ance, -ence, -ity
... act as a noun or a verb
... starts piece h- prison based sooner crack driver
... refrigerator Taurus lemon categories
... doll caged relaxation Christians
... yep, I nearly had kittens

Accused of Beating Kittens
... no language on Earth has ever produced
... a joke which can't be taken out of context
... I murder kittens and smear their blood over the walls
... snap their necks in one fluid movement
... greet the day with a mouthful of dead kittens
... eating kittens is just plain
... heartless, mean-spirited
... shame about the live kittens in microwave ovens
... how many kittens must die
... I said I was drowning kittens
... I was just messin' with you snow kittens
... you've twisted the events all out of context
... my "eating kittens" quote
... persecution of Jews in any form
... they aren't funny out of context
... here's a random picture of the kittens
... the kittens that were protected in the blazing oven
... sleeping in heaven, surrounded by song

I Want Kittens
... the NATO-led Kosovo peace-keeping force
... prefers a good hoax to world peace
... I threw Tony the peace sign and went to sit down
... a pregnant cat jumped in and had kittens
... had wild shoats and hogs
... twisted the events all out of context
... in annulo four pairs of kittens couchant respectant
... reborn into an era of peace
... it's usually in a Bill and Bonnie context
... "oh no, not a neutron beer!"
... Abba Airplane Albion
... you know from the context totally usually toward
... strong English range various living believe density
... contour kissing kneecap control kinsman
... roach coach genteel canteen settles Betty's battery
... eternal free kittens strange world nice girl
... who loves kittens and flowers
... smell the roses and pet the kittens
... described thusly: "raindrops on roses,
... and whiskers on kittens"

I Love Quoting Things out of Context
... mini-bubbles full of stray kittens
... catch the bubbles, thus leaving the parents in peace
... I got back on the floor with the kittens
... "peace," said Park Ranger Smith
... well said Dad, I love you
... muting in between the measure who you are exposed
... wires culled alert showering
... in a Guns 'N Roses T-shirt
... so you don't even have context

Going to War with Iraq
... hard for kittens
... if we could just get everyone to close their eyes
... and visualize world peace for an hour
... imagine "Free Kittens"
... make it look like a peace sign
... I could see us taking our kittens
... their threat to peace, stability, and the state
... find the right moment to leave the kittens behind
... kittens rustle in false peace in the form of a fragment
... "they're Klingons, not kittens"
... there was no context
... just killing time between wars
... the code phrase is "extra biscuits"
... we're safe as kittens