Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz, Part 1

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We can’t see the forest for the trees.

Think high school cliques. Think think tanks that figure “us” out for us. In their equations, you’re either obedient, an adherent, or expendable / inconsequential. You’re in or you’re out. With us or against us. For as long as I can remember, what has made me bristle (I happen to think emotional response is an intelligence that I should consult now and then) are what I’ll dub “intentional groups,” made up of individuals who come together for their own common good, often requiring the denigration or dismissal of others: a closed and exclusive group.

Intentional groups create anxiety – they’re antagonistic to one’s sense of belonging, one’s positioning. Where do I fit in? Do I? Being the communal creatures we are, this divisiveness is a major point of vulnerability. When facing such groups, we tend to refrain from voicing concern or dissent out of fear of being excluded and considered “uncool” or marked for future fallout due to the positions of power they hold. What is at stake for me is the necessity of evolving a conversation that begins to examine our complicity in accepting, without critique, the establishment and perpetuation of closed groups as a base of social organization, including within the poetry world – where pluralities that might find ways of coexisting, cooperatively, are reduced to value markers and the capitalist order is reified.

This appears to be a reductive equation, but we learn it young and this is a Western world built on such dualistic simplifications, thanks especially to media and pop culture representations, so bear with me. This occasion has been long in the making, so onward – at risk of my own cool capital.

Speaking of capital, have you ever noticed how capital and poetry relate? When Vanessa Place recently inaugurated her corporation, VanessaPlace, Inc, the subheading of which is “Poetry is a kind of money,” I wasn’t annoyed because it’s not true; I was annoyed because it can be – if one chooses to package and employ it in the service of capital, in this case, the artist’s capital. From the vanessaplace.biz website, “CEO Vanessa Place, conceptual artist, writer, and attorney, cites the company’s motto as its mantra: We are what we sell, we sell what we are—It’s not the point, it’s the platform.” While I’m not so myopic as to think all conceptual poets and writers are doing the same thing, anyone peripherally conscious of this intentional group knows that Place’s biz motto resonates with the overall tenets of the Conceptual group. More on this shortly.

First, let me back up to my graduate school days at SUNY Buffalo. I was naïve. I used to wonder why Susan Howe would declare that she “is not a Language Poet.” I didn’t understand why, in each class I took with Charles Bernstein, a certain core of “po-mo” boys were permitted to dominate discussions every semester while new female students would populate the room’s fringes, dropping away after the first week or so. I didn’t understand how intentional groups premised on exploring poetics intent on engaging politically as the “avant-garde,” presumably to destabilize power, might also be complicit in reifying the overall capitalist structure in the process of their empire building, er, institutionalization.

FLARFNot until the Flarf Collective came on the scene did I begin to think a bit more consciously about intentional groups. That is, my gut registered aversion to their private, invite-only email listserv, where some poets I knew abandoned ship with sideways notes of exclusivity and pretension, and others I know and like very much remained. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and numerous poets exploring its use value through various means of engagement, I thought about the similarities of Gary Sullivan heading up a group that was collecting poetic techniques and André Breton gathering his all-male cast of Dada members to compose his manifestos. I realized that, akin to Breton’s aims, the Flarf Collective was formulating a list of techniques and engagements that would ‘liberate’ us from the lyric, as they defined it. They were going to show us the error of our lyrical ways.

When I engaged them on my blog regarding some cursory problematics of exclusive membership, specifically in the case of Jennifer Knox who was not a Flarf Collective member but was before-their-manifestation employing techniques now claimed by Flarf, as were others, I was distractedly schooled on my own susceptibility to falling victim to emotional conditioning via a poem penned for me by Sullivan about my grandma’s labia. I am easily distracted. But I still wondered, since many poets were and continue to respond to the Internet and its impact, why did one group, a Flarf Collective, try to own that?

The similarities, and limitations, of Breton’s Dada-cum-Surrealism are worth a side note here
for they speak to the risks of supporting and advancing intentional groups of this ilk. In a move towards recruiting additional worthwhile artists for his coterie, Breton laid claim to painters like Frida Kahlo (“’I didn’t know I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”), Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini (“Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me to become ‘a sheep in his gang’… I refused the label Surrealist.”). None became official members, and only by association are their paintings now read through the framework of Surrealism, often rendering limited, simplistic interpretations & even preventing the deeper engagement they deserve.

But back to Buffalo and forging intentional groups. In an interview at Wave Composition, Christian Bök aligns the “Conceptual School of Poetry” with Flarf at their inception, underlining the intentionality and performativity of their group as well:

When Kenny Goldsmith, Darren [Wershler], and I, first sat together in a bar in Buffalo concocting our ideas about what a school of conceptual poetry would look like, we could only hope to have some sort of contrasting school of writing that would provide a foil for our own activities. So Kenny has been very deliberate in his sardonic attempts to stage this contrast between Flarf and Conceptualism as a kind of “cold war” fought to the death—but really both schools partake of very similar sensibilities about writing in a culture now dominated by digital networks and demotic creativity.

Now crowned the descendants of Language Poetry, both of these groups have calculated and curated a lineage, garnering attention by using the capitalist pop culture tool of sensationalism, specifically a faux-conflict, curated imitative performances of artists who successfully achieved status via the cult of personality (i.e. consider the showmanship of a Salvador Dali via Kenneth Goldsmith or note Vanessa Place’s own alignment with Andy Warhol), along with prolific referencing, reviews, and applause for each other’s efforts. For example in “I is not a Subject,” Place affixes Goldsmith in the mainstream lineage, “…Kenneth Goldsmith a part of poetry history—witness his elegant performance at the White House, where it became immediately and institutionally true that there is this line from Whitman to Crane to Goldsmith—” What took the Language poets a few decades, these two groups have achieved within a fraction of the time: the paved road to institutional acclaim, centrality, and canonization.

As public knowledge, this intentionality is no revelation and can even be theorized away as an institutional embrace that they will use, as the argument goes, to change the definition of poetry from within. The justification of irony at work may be suggested, but as these members populate the stages of academia and the art world, one is forced to wonder when the irony will give way to destabilize those seats of power. When do we see actual shifts? Which brings me back to Place’s latest biz, “Poetry is a kind of money.” It can be boxed as such, as poetry can also be a million other things. Here’s the rub. One mode, Conceptualist writing, is premised on and requires the devaluation of other poetries, so that its purpose is contingent on the necessity of liberating us from the oppressive capitalism we inhabit, “All fine and good and true enough for ordinary inquiries and poetic ventriloquisms, but what conceptualism does differently is block the exchange of capital by that transference” (Place, “I is Not a Subject”). We are all mere participants in a poetry game that is exchanging capital, valuing “selves” and shuffling those selves about with no effect on changing the game itself. But there is a self-proclaimed “game changer.”

Vanessa PlaceIn short, Place does not generate content; she chooses to appropriate and re-present material and thus ‘hold up mirrors’ (“Because conceptual poetry as I practice it may have a surface as thin as glass, a surface with no allusive depths for plumbing or metaphorical fruits for plucking, but it is also true that such a surface, backed in lead, reflects and projects.”), presumably so that we might see the exchange of poetry parallel to how we consume everything else in capitalist-driven measure: as mere products in context. But moreover, another not-to-be-overlooked point is that, in the larger framework of our “status quo” culture, the employment of sensationalism via these declarations and performances foregrounds & sells the artist herself as capitalist product. A recent example can be seen in the boast of a press run of Place’s books comprised of twenty one dollar bills that sold out at $50 each – because “Vanessa Place” presents as a capital marker of value now to be cashed in on, symbolically and literally (“I reasonably expect to be offered a tenured position within ten years” “Notes on Conceptualisms”). Other Place-isms employ this sound-bite sensationalism, “Poetry is dead, I killed it,” “Poetry is now 15 minutes ahead of art,” again, calling attention to the artist (in conquering and competitive capitalist mode, no less), while aligning her with Warhol (conjured in the promise of 15 minutes of fame), etc. Both the assimilation of the poet in the aforementioned “poetry history” and as direct descendant of Warhol seats the artist in a central Establishment position. Without disruption, the seamless perpetuation of commodification continues, to the benefit of Place & Co. as evidenced by institutional reward.

Similarly, Kenneth Goldsmith popularizes this ascent in the canon via the institutions of academia and the art world by utilizing a reductive definition of “lyric” poetries, although he does offer a very brief and limited nod, “Encouraging, too, has been the Eco and Slow poetry movements that have worked to engage communities, both local and global … what I would term activist poetry.” But he does so primarily as an opportunity to reinforce the narrative of the aforementioned liberator again: “With the emergence of conceptual poetics, the possibilities for critical, self-reflexive devices have become somewhat commonplace,” an “evolution” that hinges on the implication that poetries before the conceptual group were uncritical, loping along without any devices for self-reflexivity. Indeed, he has coined the term, adopted and popularized by the group, of turning a “readership” into a “thinkership.” Again, we are to understand the readerly “I” as misguided by the cultural-conditioning of her emotions and unaware of how and why she receives and is affected by content (other poetries can’t foreground such notions presumably), and note that she is incapable of questioning as such (she lacks the self-reflexive devices). But a “thinkership” – having mastered one’s emotions and prioritized the intellect above all — can enable critical awareness, etc. “Thinkership” is implicitly premised on the Western mind-body split that values the intellect over the susceptible emotional life (which happens to be the symbolic feminine), and the shift away from that susceptibility has only been enabled by the Conceptual poetry group, or so the story goes.

Intentional or not, a common refrain has emerged from the Flarf and Conceptual camps that tidily boxes in and reduces the varied uses of “I” by a multiplicity of poetries to one long misguided, uninformed and even solipsistic “lyricism” (a clearer definition of this “lyricism” is all poetries written by people who do not belong to either group, including those non-members who have long used techniques these two groups have laid claim to such as repetition, reframing, appropriation, mimicry, etc.). This sentiment is put more succinctly in the Conceptualist-employed and popularized “snowflake” metaphor outlined by Place, “Are you not all walking citations? To the extent you see yourself and your Duracell soul as snowflakes, crystalline, fragile and exquisitely and individually wrought, recall that snowflakes seem quite different shoveled en mass on the sidewalk…” (“I”). We who write the “I” in poems are told how we see ourselves and consequently how our romantic vision will end with a shovel. There is a denigration and reductionism at work here that conveniently diminishes a long complex history of the lyric and its pluralities to a sopping wet mass of victims mired in our own subjectivity, desperately needing a liberator from pawn-status in the ‘game’ of poetry. These liberators are, of course, the advancing guards of Conceptualism & Flarf.

This is a revisionist history, one that purports to, according to Goldsmith, “reenvision cultural production” (Paris Review interview) and echoes Place’s claim that conceptual writing ‘blocks the exchange of capital.’ Except, who has registered the tidal wave or even a few ripples from on high yet? In fact, the embrace of these two groups by institutional structures has been seamless and expedient. Kenneth Goldsmith, in “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution,” evidences this fast-track by listing a number of prominent positions, awards and publications via Princeton, Columbia, and Poetry, noting, “This litany is not about bragging: what I find remarkable is these institutions’ embrace and acceptance of what they’re most often accused of dismissing and ignoring,” which is work he refers to as “innovative.” Boasting of the institutional embrace doesn’t inherently render the work radical or illustrate how capital production has been reenvisioned. It is imperative to ask what kind of institutional critique or capitalist unrest / disruption his practice causes.

For all of the claims to avant-garde gestures, including ‘institutional critique from within the institution,’ these institutions are the opposite of threatened, proceeding with business-as-usual and rewarding Conceptual group members in the process. I can’t help but consult Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” and wonder how Conceptual performances would hold up without the theory that explains and contextualizes it. Even more compelling, would the work sustain without the institutions they are framed in and supported by? The limited locus and demographic of this “avant-garde” also raises questions. With all of the talk about challenging poetry’s territories, when do they acknowledge that those challenges are not theirs alone, that there are poetries subverting and transforming beyond the institutions? When do they invite those poetries to their stages to disturb and redistribute power? What does Conceptualism look like without the academy and art world? Where are the Conceptual writer practitioners outside of the institutions? In “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” Aldon Nielson asks related questions:

Why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white? Is today’s conceptualism a sort of white masque? Is the enlisting of poets such as Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine and others in the anthology Against Expression a mask for that expression of whiteness or an act of acknowledging black conceptual poetics? If the latter, then why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white?

And then “The Emperor’s New Clothes” comes to mind …

Read part 2 of “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz” here


Of her most recent book from Litmus Press, I Want to Make You Safe, John Ashbery described Amy King's poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. The Missing Museum is forthcoming in 2014 from Kore Press. King also teaches English & Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, co-edits Poets for Living Waters, and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. More from this author →