A recent email of mine begins:
--- On Mon, 12/21/09, Philip Metres
Thanks for your poem, which is doing some very interesting things with voicing the other, but also moving into more poetic language.
Apropos of this strategy, I'm going through another serious revision of SAND OPERA, which needs some help. I had a good talk with a friend and poet, an editor at a good press, and he wanted me to "cool down" the stridency of the work. In our talk, I got to the place where I could understand a dilemma of documentary/investigative poetry--that the poles are 1) objective and cold as Reznikoff, and 2) aestheticizing and exploitative, but self-consciously so, in a way that threatens to destroy the aesthetic impulse. I suppose that SAND OPERA began as an attempt to be #1, but rapidly has moved to #2, or at least alternates between those modes. In any case, if
it tries to split the difference, what happens is that you rely on documentary without moving beyond the facticity, or you exploit the documentary without questioning your own positionality...
Happy New Year!
Revisited your PMLA article ["Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry," October 2008] on the train -- and once again found myself pondering those same questions you raise. How can one document injustice without exploiting it or partcipating in it? (I'm thinking here beyond just war to any of the myriad corners an investigative poetics might explore.) I like the notion of a "disturbatory" art -- though perhaps one that makes real not a subjective reality, but that from which we turn away in the normal course of leading our Western industrialized lives... or, as you say, one that makes the invisible audible.
I'm still grappling with the proper relationship between documentation and creation, between artist and subject. It seems to me that the actual, real thing (event, injustice, etc.) is necessary to such an enterprise... but equally necessary is some artistic movement beyond it.
My wife found this quote in the book Remix by Lawrence Lessig which seems to address at least part of this issue -- he's quoting from Negativland's Mark Hosler on why the band uses sampled clips:
"We could have taken these tapes we got of Casey Kasem and hired someone who imitated Casey Kasem, you know, and had him do a dramatic re-creation. Why did we have to use the actual orginal... the actual thing? Well, it's because the actual thing has a power about it. It has an aura. It has a magic to it. And that's what inspires the work."
Clearly, these documentary artifacts we've been working with have a power of their own, a currency. What power then does the poet bring? (And what responsibilty?) How is that power different? What relationship do they have?
I'm thinking here of images like the following where cultural commentary, satire and further exploitation get blurred: http://www.elastico.net/archives/iraq_ipod3.jpg
I'm OK with not having immediate answers to these questions and letting the artistic process itself -- the search for the answers -- be enough for now.
Hope you're well.
More from Ian:
Date: Sun, 10 Jan 2010 15:48:44 -0800 (PST)
From: Ian Demsky
Rereading Brian Tuner's "Here, Bullet" after reading your essay and after reading "Poetry & Ethics: Writing About Others" by Natasha Saje in the December Writer's Chronicle, I'm hyper-sensitized to the projection onto and objectification of the Iraqi (and sometimes American) Other in many of the poems.
In my reading response notes, for example, I wrote:
Ethical questions raised by “In the Leupold Scope.” Turner (in the voice of the poem, at least) seems to not recognize his objectification of the woman viewed through the scope. The woman hanging laundry is “dressing the dead,” he tell us. “She is welcoming them back to the dry earth” as “[s]he waits for them to lean forward / into the breeze.” There is nothing here that betrays the soldier/narrator’s awareness that he is romanticizing the woman (her vulnerability, her poverty, her experience of war) even as he trains his weapon on her. The deadly power dynamic is not only unremarked, but seems beyond the conscious thought of the speaker. The disappearance of the I after the second line is too convenient and prevents the speakers from acknowledging his role/relationship to the (objectified) woman.
It is one thing to record the actions of others, to bring to life anecdotes and incidents. It is another to give voice to the other, to show them in the full depth and breadth of human lives, to pull them into relief in opposition to flat, objectifying portrayals (insurgents, etc.). But it is yet another for the outsider to impose romanticized, idealized, stylized thoughts and feelings on this other. The narrator stands in place of that person, fills them in, rather than standing in relationship to them. Is this not another form of Western hubris? Of occupation? In many of the poems, the role of the American observer in the misery and suffering he sees is deflected or unacknowledged.
Ian, I couldn't agree more; because Turner accepts the frame of the "war poem," the poems from HERE, BULLET--even when they are beautiful, even when they are humanizing--nonetheless perform a parallel cultural labor to military occupation. That's not to say that they are the same as military occupation, but they do not worry the frame of occupation. Yes, we might need war poems, but I have never taught this book because it doesn't challenge the frame. (If you've read my critical book, BEHIND THE LINES, I discuss why I did not include soldier poets in my study--it goes along these lines).
Thanks to Ian Demsky for permission to reprint our conversation. Let's continue, and add some voices!