Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I am now going to the RNC march on Monday and you should too

To be honest, I was not sure which RNC-related events I was going to attend and if I wanted to put myself in harm's way. I have a lecture coming up that is part of my graduate exams that I need to pass. My first day back at teaching is on Tuesday. And quite frankly, I just don't always have the stomach for dealing with Republicans. I once made eye contact with Pat Buchanan and I felt that I had been psychically slimed. Even tonight, walking around downtown Minneapolis, looking at all these grimmacing Republicans, many of whom look either angry or afraid, I felt nauseous and angry myself.

But now that the police have decided to participate in tactics of intimidation and fear with their constant raids of activist homes throughout Minneapolis (and St. Paul, but largely over here), I HAVE to go. We all do. We HAVE to stand up to this and show that we will not stay home out of fear. For every activist that is hauled off to jail with no charges filed until Tuesday or Wednesday, like the Cerebus, five more need to spring up and attend the marches. An even greater show of strength must be brought about. And besides, they can't arrest tens of thousands of us at once. I encourage anyone who was unsure before about whether or not to attend the Monday event at the Capitol, anyone who cares about free speech, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, to come to the Capitol at 11 am on Monday and say NO to intimidation and brutality.

Love and Peace


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry

In the introduction to Feminist Critique of Language, editor Deborah Cameron cites a quote by Shoshona Feldman on language that particularly resonates with me and my work on poetry, language and liberation.

Shoshona Feldman (1975)

“The challenge facing women today is nothing less than to reinvent language . . . to speak not only against but outside the structure . . . to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of male meaning.” (In Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron, p. 8)

Cameron elaborates further upon Feldman’s idea, discussing briefly the work of French Feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous and a search for a “feminine writing” and “women’s language.” (By the way, I highly recomment Cixous. I have not delved much into Irigaray, but to me her work seems very much grounded in some rather complicated Freudian and psychoanalytic theory. Cixous is lively and quite readable.) Cameron also raises the other side of the debate, citing Elaine Showalter’s position that the issue for women is not so much a male-based “prisonhouse of language” (props to Jameson) but the very fact of access and entitlement for women to speak. The issue is not the inadequacy of language, or as Judith Butler would point to, the way in which language performs, enacts, speaks into being our condition (from the moment the declaration is made “It’s a girl” Butler tells us, a whole universe of implications is set in motion.). Others reject an essentialist strain that says that women need different language than men to express their lives, their realities, their psyches, their thoughts, etc.

To me the core issue here is that all marginalized, disempowered people, need access to a language of imagination. Not a replacement language per se, but a paralanguage, a language that works, functions on a completely different level than the ordinary, the quotidian, the banal, the mundane, and (consequently) the hegemonic uses of language. The language as it is now practiced, even if it is not inherently structured to protect and maintain power, it has certainly been subverted to that use, propagated in contemporary life, by the constant onslaught of mainstream media—advertising, news, the normative values promoted by almost all television programming and many movies (look at the glorification of the police not only through shows like Cops, but through shows like CSI that glamorize police work, or the nuclear-family centered values of most sitcoms, etc.). In insidious ways we are constantly being told what to believe, what to buy, how to act, how to be moral, how to be patriotic, how to look a certain way, how to fit in and belong in American society, etc. etc. How is one to rethink the world, remake the world, the government, the neighborhood, the culture, the communities we come from and live in, our own very daily existence, among the onslaught of images that perpetuate someone else’s vision and serve up to us only the world as we already (think) we know it?

Resistance is possible through the remaking of language, of finding new, creative, imaginative linguistic practices to sustain us, to help us move toward our visions, to help us have visions we never even thought possible. I am talking here about a language that speaks outside of the dominant discourse, whether racialized, patriarchal, class-based, etc., an un-discourses or non-discourse, a paradiscourse, that brings with it the chance to step outside, run alongside, that does not attempt to use the tools of power that already exist, but to forge new tools that could create new structures, new edifices not previously imagined. The techne, the tool, in many ways proscribes what can be built. We know that with new technology new ways of thinking emerge. So why would we not want new mental and imaginative linguistic tools of our own? As Sol Lewitt says, rational thoughts repeat rational thoughts. The way we think perpetuates itself, we continue to think only in the ways we’ve always thought. I’m not looking then for a feminine language per se, except insofar as it might offer a resistive language, a paralanguage that we can frolic in and search for something unknown, a Dada language a non-sense that leads to sense a zaum a de-formed formalism that will birth new forms.


It has to be said, lest it sound like I am proscribing something equally restrictive and repressive . . . I am not arguing against any type of poetry per se. I do not want to create a monolith of styles, themes, as restrictive as a Marxist insistence on social realism. I do oppose the stilted reification that much slam work has fallen into. But I also do honor and acknowledge the word of identity formation, community building, and progressive values that many forms of poetry can participate in. But I want to ask, then what? NOW what? Where do we go? After at least a century of searching actively for a revolutionary function of poetry, (why) have we given up? (why) have we abandoned the incomplete experiments of the past? Where and how can poetry function uniquely, in other words, what are the unique functions of poetry, as a revolutionary practice?

In the term avant garde, where avant garde falls into elitism, is in its very accepted (if perhaps unofficial, naturalized) definition that the avant garde is ahead of, “anticipates” and in many ways, is therefore, more advanced and “better” than mainstream art, culture, society. And art, culture, and society need only to “catch up” Then of course, in the catching up, the mainstream has then co-opted the avant garde, misusing for commerce or entertainment, for style, failing to recognize the true substance, the original intent (as contemporary Surrealists are famously wont to lament).

I prefer instead to think of the avant garde as the “first wave,” the ground work of consciousness, preparing the field. The change of consciousness, overused and virtually emptied of meaning as that idea may have become, is what necessarily must predate genuine social change. It is not up to poets (or even activists, politicians or “leaders”) to proscribe where that change needs to go, but to empower the imaginations around us to imagine something new, to dream our way out of the current world, which works only for a very few people.

Education is the watchword and it has a very important role to play, but as an instrument of “instruction” and propaganda, it is subject to the same pitfalls that all other forms of discourse and communication fall pretty to. Religious missionaries often (almost always) accompanied or came fast upon the heels of conquerors to ensure that hears and spirits were converted while trying to enforce a new culture and a new rule upon the conquered. Poets must see themselves as missionaries of the imagination, not as propagandists.

To restructure language is to restructure thought, to restructure possibilities. To scramble, if not permanently, which is impractical and will not lead to the world we want, but temporarily, the world as we (think) we know it, the language that binds us to the now, to put new ideas, new juxtapositions into play, new planets into orbit. This is the revolutionary work of the poet.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Patricia Smith reading in Minneapolis - April, 2008

Hey all. These are my notes, ramblings, reportage and observations from a reading by Patricia Smith here in Minneapolis. I had some fantasy that I would shape this into a narrative, but shaping things into narratives just isn't my forte these days. I need to be a free spirit, I need to be wild. I want to be free . . . the butterflies are free . . . And I have two papers and 40-minute lecture to write. So um, yeah, here's my rambling notes. As always, please post your own comments, reportage, and observations . . .


Patricia Smith Reading – April 8, 2008
Plymouth Congregational Church
Sponsored by the Literary Witness Program at the Church

The place is packed. Why are all of these people here? What drew them to this event? How does such a "traditional" reading structure draw in this many people, including a number of people I've never seen at any other reading event in town, as well as some of the usual suspects. The audience is skewing a bit older than a slam, lots of people in their 50s-70s. But a few young people and literary types are here. At first the audience seems to skew more white than African-American but eventually that balances out a bit more.

She calls herself a reporter and poet. An interesting combination of course, based on an idea of poetry as observation. Again, this is not a blurring of roles that I always care for or think serves the cause of poetry – which is to say, the potential of poetry, the uniqueness of it. But I like her and she has a good energy and I'm rolling with it.

Patricia says that she starts all readings with the same poem as a way of rooting the reading.

I can already in the early part of the reading see and hear some aspects of slam in her reading style, but not in the usual formulaic way. The rhythm is appropriate to the lines rather than bending the work to fit a certain style.

Moreover, I can hear the roots of "testifying" in the work.

It's still very storytelling/narrative in style, progressive politics in the themes – personal and political.

"Can you teach me to remember my mama?"
Child "asks me for the words to build her mother again."
Teacher says first time she "admitted her mama died."

Some nice poetic turns of phrase in some of the work.
"full of breast music and finger songs"
"cursing the trees for their teeth"

She introduces her "persona poems" which she says are written from "bad movies"

Medusa – from "Clash of the Titans" in which Smith says that Medusa "hooked up with the wrong guy" while her body is going through the change into Medusa.
The performance of Medusa is very breathy with use of anxiety and silence at the end.

Smith says "I'm very aware of being in a pulpit" where she is reading form and says that she feels anxiety over the Medusa poem and the parallel to defiling Athena's temple.

"The Blood Sonnets"

How to be a lecherous old black man . . .

Invocation of the Blues

Lots of humor in her performance – playing to the crowd. Again, I can see in that the slam ethos, the entertainment aspect of the performance. Not bad per se and she handles it well and it doesn't feel like pandering the way it can in slams.

She does some Katrina poems that are part of the book coming out from Coffee House Press. She tells the story of reading these poems at a conference at Palm Beach, which was obviously not a good experience. She explains "never enter a poetry reading with a Bentley parked outside."

The Katrina piece she reads is in numbered sections that function like snapshots, partial pictures, a mosaic of images and emotion. The images are very powerful, I think (of course, since this is my aesthetic anyway, but nonetheless, I like to be proven right) they more powerful in their partialness, in the flash, snapshot, than if this were a coherent narrative. The performance itself is no different really or necessarily greater than in the other pieces she's done so far. But this is the one that makes my own urge to poetry start to come out, that loosens the logjam of images that can get stuck in my head.

One section is blank/silence, but still has personas, first person, the partiality, the interrupted narrative . . . perhaps a story so overwhelming that the person/a still doesn't quite know how to tell it, how to sort it out and make sense of it, only to give an image a though a moment here and there, to convey without being able to explain. If this were a visual piece, it would be collage, a Hannah Hoch piece, a Mina Loy . . . I want to cut a picture for each section and glue it together to make a new face, body, map, geography from it.

"They left us to our god but our god was mesmerized elsewhere."

34 pieces – a fragment now, it could be the title of a poem, but I believe it's the number of segments in the Katrina poem. A segment poem – all collages.

There is prescription, of course, even though I have my preferences. To write a prescription would be to reify, as dead and stiff as the slam form as become as social realism, but to keep in mind what poetry is inherently and uniquely.

Even as a narrative, there is a tear here, a rip. It does not give you the whole picture, leaves something for you to fill in. How do poems like this fit my thesis?
I have to think about it.


"Emily whispered her gusts into 1000 skins."

Variations of the poems themselves

A litany like Kerouac of names on hurricane list

The numbered poems, collages, narratives

Soldier poem – collection of images. Could not be put into paragraphs. To do so would be a prose poem, but never a short story.

There is a notable lack of the usual I/me in the poems. Even when it's personal or clearly about her in some way, she does not move herself into the central subject position.

"Musical" poem for John Coltrane
Again, here I can see the speed/energy that would set the tone for slam aesthetic, although it shows more variation than the genre currently allows for.

She is not the most famous poet in the country. The truth is, I don't actually know how famous she is or is not outside of slam. I never know how "ordinary" people know certain poets. So I know her from slam, but I don't know how or where others know her from. But this church is half full, possibly as crowded as a Sunday service on a warm morning, maybe more attended than vespers? Certainly gives the lie to the nobody cares about poetry angle. It seems with the Literary Witness Program that this audience is as geared to the progressive/social justice angle, which goes along with my belief that we need to get the hell out of the bookstores and the literary ghetto that is the poetry reading and get to wider audiences where they live, where they congregate. This, as I know from my own work, doesn't mean that one still can't do experimental or avant garde work for these audiences. It just means that the mountain has to come to Mohammed. Smith has brought out a combination of work. Some is more "experimental" than others. Some of it, like parts of the Katrina poem or the jazz poem, might be considered experimental to an audience that only knows a certain type of poetry, but maybe not to someone like me or someone from the "literary community" if such a think can even be said to exist with a straight face. None of the work is out of the reach of the audience. But then again, I don't believe that experimental work is out of their reach. They're just taught not to understand it.

Smith's work does run a gamut of styles and voices and approaches and I respect and appreciate that.

And she has a great fantastic and generous energy and style.

The evening ends with a standing ovation.

In the Q&A Patricia jumps right into taking about her early involvement with the slams. She explains that when you're writing in that environment you're not really writing for yourself. The poetry is more "recreational" and she saw the slam then as "recreational poetics." It took a while for her to read a poem that felt like "her" poem. If even in the early days of slam it was hard to find your voice, how much more difficult could it be today, in these days of the reified slam voice and style, in this Def Poetry Jam era?

She speaks of a mistake in drawing lines between genres. There is always a story to tell, whether it's in a poem, a play, a short story. As opposed to my work which is a swirl of images, intended to elicit a feeling, Smith talks about writing poems "about" things.

Her commitment to the live aspect inherent in poetry is evident when she says it's not so much about reading as much poetry as you can, but to listen to as much as you can. There's something that happens "when the poem hits the open air." Open mics are very important to her, in particular non-poets and people who come to open mics to tell their stories. The poem is always meant to be heard "not just stuck on paper." The audience was likewise interested in the issue of orality in poetry. She traces her own interest in writing to her dad's stories and the way he used language.

She talks about shattering kids' pre-conceived notions about what poetry is. "I never knew what poetry could be." She told a story about poetry commandos, busting into classrooms and reading.

At the same time, she also talked about the importance of self-publishing and chapbooks as from the community she came from. She says that she ultimately got published because she was visible.

Patricia's persona poems, she says, allow her to explore other people's realities, to get into other people's business. Poets start out with themselves and then go out into the world and come back to themselves. Of course, this can also be the justification for a lot of bad, self-indulgent navel-gazing poetry. But that poetry fails to transcend the self, to get out of the poets' self. Smith's Katrina poem, for example, clearly transcends her and gets into other people's realities while anchoring/grounding the piece to herself, showing her ability to relate to someone outside of herself without having to make it about her. Few poets these days can do this.

I think of Kristeva and the narrative vs. the text. In narrative the patient's first elaboration/reconstruction of history comes in the form of narrative and the meaning within narrative forms such as the novel express the subject's positioning within the family structure, the first formation of identity. The "matrix of enunciation" in narrative is focused on "I" or "author" replicating paternal/patriarchal role in the family, although the I is changeable and able to take on any possible role inside or outside of the family relations. This mode, in which most poets work today, is not and cannot be revolutionary, but is rather a part of how we come to form ourselves and our identities and link to one another.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Notes from the conceptual poetics symposium

For those who might be interested, these are my notes from the Conceptual Poetics symposium in Tucson this past May. I'm not going to go into a lot of reformatting here, so hopefully this will all work out and be readable. And of course, these notes reflect my understanding, interests in, and interpretation of the weekend's events. But I post them in the hopes that they might be of interest to someone out there and that some of you might post some thoughts engendered by these discussions.


Notes from the conceptual poetics conference – Laura Winton

Cole Swenson - as opposed to/against a poetry taken over by subject matter
Emphasis on the everyday at the expense of rhythm or other poetic aspects
Poetry/visual art ties
Rhythm, repetition, compositon

Craig Dworkin Reading:

Piece one:
From the 19th century grammar book How to Parse

Reading directly, very quickly, not slam, but quiet and fast, not meant to get every word, but maybe how rules and rules of grammar are absolute, rules of grammar might actually sound to student, to us as moderns, to those who throw out or reject or don’t adhere so much to traditional rules of grammar.

Piece two:
Sentences replaced with grammar elements rather than specific words.
Ex: pronoun noun comma adverb period. Etc.

Piece three:
Other piece: To publish the unpublishable week’s worth of subject lines from spam.

Piece four:
Used personality inventories to create poems. I am . . . etc. to create confessional/expressive poem

Piece five:
Using only the true/false answers and his occasional modifying comments to a quiz.
Note: I could take my Dante quiz and call it “How I Ended Up in the 8th Ring of Hell: with a nod to Craig Dworkin.”

Kenneth Goldsmith:

We shall reminisce about the time when human beings wrote poetry for other humans. (As opposed to themselves??)

Cole Swenson – Civil Disobedience/poetry
Tracie Morris:

Goffman – giving vs. giving off, in black poetics
Undermining typification
Phyllis Wheatley – negotiating neoclassical work w/ black aesthetic

Black “transgressive” speech – doubledness, double-consciousness, double-entendre

Ringshots – uttering of noises, use of codes
African linguistic traits interacting with everyday speech of American vernacular

Morphology of language
Uniquely African constructions

Standard American Vernacular is incorporating more and more of Africa and African speech patterns

Of corse, sampling = collage, per Duchamp, Hoch, etc. Found Art. Kenny Goldsmith in favor of appropriating, stealing, etc.

Missy Elliott—Minimalism, embellishment & futurism
Interesting clip from “The Rain”
Supa Dupa Fly

“bling” as a transgressive act

Saturday morning/pre-lunch roundtable

Jasper: -

Cognitive interruption
Beyond detournment, tqactics of situationists
Re-reading earlier works through the lens of conceptual poetics
Activist archivists – reframing works
Editorial aesthetics/poetics

How is the idea of poet/ry as solitary act/person complicated by new work, by conceptualism, by borrowing, pastiche, collage, found work, etc.

Conceptual Poetry as the ready-made. “It’s all already there. I just have to write it down.”

Beckett: Cascando (but also Krapp) “I turn the recorder on. I turn the recorder off.”

Irrelevance of “le mot juste”
My new style of strike out/parentheses= a hedge against “le mot juste”
Trying out/on different words, several simultaneous

Chance Operations

Duchamp – Art – Canned Chance
Cage – music
Judson /Cunningham – dance

Trying to cut out subjectivity. But there’s still a canned subjectivity – the subjectivity within the random/chance. Decisions be made. But is it subjectivity in terms of choices, or in terms of personal-ness, perspective, me-centered poems. Of course, choice is where the subject matter begins – setting up the parameters, the texts, the beginning and ending points, etc. Is there an unsubjective subjectivity?

My notes (already used??) Chance vs. emotion

Avant garde actually has a more democratic impulse than high modernism were we employ metaphors: x=y. (metaphorical mathematics). Where x and y are fixed, a cryptogram to be unlocked, footnotes to poetry, the need for cliff notes, a dictionary to be used side by side with the poem, the desire of vernacular/convessional poetry is the same as the desire of an avant garde, to put out surfaces, straightforward work of a way, but confessionalism still relies on a private set of meanings/references, but assumes that through commonality and sentiment the code can be unlocked.

Bok/Dworkin/Goldmsith –which one of them did the cryptogram poems, a parody of this idea of unlocking??

De-emphasis on meaning per se through choice/collage/found materials, etc. Attempt to unlock the cryptogram, meaning of high modernism, eliot, et al.

Charles Alexander

Social, political import of this work. Does it make it to activism?
Kenny Goldsmith: Sacred space of the poem for transgression.
Panelist: Can it be taken out from there?

Physical pleasures of poetry (see my notes from Friday night on pleasure and transgression.)

Tactile through speech act
I think it can be sexual too

Brian Reed:

Critic working on a book on visual/verbal links

Genres become confused over time
Derrida’s law of genre
My contention that genres become confused and under that weight, give birth to new genres, like the mixing of atoms that create new elements when mixed. Hydrogen and Oxygen combined make water, a new compound, rather than remaining discrete.

Christian Bok Presentation:

I. What is “intentional” in Conceptual Poetry?

Disarming literary mandate of self-expression
Erase evidence of lyric style, the “normative” style
Suppression of subjective aspects

American Conceptualists like LeWitt

Kinds of manifestos (started to type meanifesto!), adherents, this is an avant garde, and one looking to an art-form, not simultaneous as with Dada, Beat, etc. but not merely homage or writing about, but taking up, just as Gysin said—we are not about 40 years after first burst of conceptualism, so maybe we are catching up—also in performance art, Judson Dance, etc

Poem as an art object.

II. What is expressible in conceptual poetics?

The I with a colon atop instead of a dot.
William tell, a novel. – the apple(s) on the head
Minimalist and conceptual. A world in an image. A story in a letter.

Contrasting to contemporary literary ctitics
The genius of the self
Convincingness of the poem, the lyric, the imagery
Poet’s mastery of self

Against criticism
Against workshop criteria

Death of the Author
Poetic despot
Trial of comprehension
Overthrow the unjust tyrant
In Barthes birth of the reader occasioned by death of the author

III. What is conceivable in conceptual literature?

Tyrant Writer
Victor Reader
Savior Letter

Lyrical style – cognitive aesthetics
Self-conscious and self-assertive simultaneously

Concepts of writing possible – according to Bok



Autobiographic investigations
Author adopts Subjective Persona
“Authentic” voice


- Expressiveness
Self-conscious but not self-assertive

Ex: Oulipo

- Intentionality

Still some self-assertion
Unwilled self-exhibit
Surrealistic – Schwitters to Breton to Ginsberg
Self speaking to self without thinking about self

- Intentionality
- Expressiveness

Authors forfeit control
Dadaist – Tzara, Cage, Maclow

Poetics of a traffice report, its own internal grammar, poetics, lyric?

Bernstein: Saturday, 5/31

“Foolishness is its own reward” – line from poem
“from there to there is enough to blow up in anyone’s face.”

“Attack of the difficult poems”
“The answer is not in our technology but in our poetics.

Benjamin and the uncanny – Arcades project made up entirely of citations

Bernstein’s “Recantation” on poetry page
After Galileo
Therefore, is it forced?
Is it sincere?

Several mentions (typos = almost emotions, emanations, emntions . . . ) by Bernstein & Bok of “detourning” poems. J

Platonic idea – meaning as an ideal that exists outside of the social
Puritan ideal – that meaning should be available, accessible in the poem

“My quest has been to be a normal person, a self-help project toward normalcy. . . . When I become normal I will be a poet in the (normal) world.”

“Theory of Flawed Design”

Dea%r Fr~ien%d

Performed with all sounds, symbols, stops, & verbal struggles

“Poems (themselves) are less important than what they allow us to do in the pereceptual world.”

Progressivist model of replacement is flawed – go back and read things in a different way. How poetry exists within social space that it is written in.

“Singing/chanting ot newscasters to self.”

“A pixilated man”

Panel discussion: (Friday evening???)


Intellect rather than emotion
Is Conceptual Poetry the New American Poetry?
Having a “urinal” moment”
What constitutes such a speech act/provocation in this “post”-everything era?
Does Conceptual Poetry have a spiritual resonance?

Charles Bernstein:

Showed conceptual poem and talk (not reading poem) simultaneously
Seems somewhat similar to the Performance Writing people

Christian Bok:

Problem of “lethal” seriousness of the avant garde. The pleasure, play, jouissance is reserved for the poet rather than the reader/audience.

“post” = a gesture to newness in the avant garde, parallel to neo, which
is actually retro, revisiting of the old
Post = our impatience for transcendence
“More of the same, only worse”
Work is good when it creates provocation, more ideas, etc.

Tracie Morris:

Perloff: normativity of language experimentation
Meaning of sonic performance as a script
Replacing idea of consistent speaking position of an “I”


Enigmatic bewilderment
Raise issues for as rather than reinforce what we already know – is this my comment or his???



Social/Cultural difficulty
Textures, ambiance (vs. the difficult of “high modernism”)
One person’s difficulty is another person’s pleasure

Final Panel – 5/31/08

Barbara Cole, Editor, Open Letter

Wystan Curnow:
Forms & History

Bernadette Myer

Gracia Capinha

Who owns (the) language – paraphrase of moral/story in “official”languages
Poetry and art does matter
The fear of governments and dictatorships toward art proves that it matters, that it has power, can be dangerous
There is no language unless the emotional part of your brain works, according to neuroscience
Modernist project – enlargement of consciousness, non approved, yet to be proven, yet to be known, discovered

Thingness – object = repetition of market

Stephen Fredman

Appropriation in music, sampling
The mix
Creativity rests in how you recontextualize the work of others
Language poetry and its emphasis on discourse cut poetry’s ties to othr art forms
Subjectivity vs. emotion

Vanessa Place

Words as things
Words = what fills up mainstream boxes
Barthes & the evacuation of language/meaning
But language is also procedural
Responding to poems created by machines
“robopoems for a robofuture”
“bankruptcy of image & text”

Final & most heated conversation (did not document who started it, but was the final panelist) – why only 2 women writers in the Ubu Anthology of Conceptual Poetry???

Presented by someone who had done an informal survey of 50 women before the conference regarding their ideas/opinions/questions regarding conceptual poetics/

Some questioned her own “methodology”

Marjorie Perloff – impatient, suggested that not everyone needed to be included in every movement, that then we’d have to worry about why not enough latinos or African-americans, etc. and then having to weigh and watch every single thing.

Batted back and forth – why are we still asking this question in 2008 and why do we have to still ask this question in 2008

Some of the better and less combative comments included a suggestion that sometimes inclusion is a matter of definition. How you define something determines who is included.

My private note—interesting that the conference was at least ½ women and the presenters at least ½ women. Some noted this as a defense or corrective, rather than criticism, of the lack of women in the anthology. See how many of us are here now???

Another good discussion --- nature of something like Conceptual Poetics to grow out of small groups of people who form affinities, begin to define themselves and give name to what they’re doing. Indicated that Goldsmith/Bok/Dworkin constituted such a grouping.

Dworkin himself said that the online version was not meant to be “official” and representative (although some questioned that, given the “The” aspect of the title out on Ubuweb.) He said that there is a print edition planned that will likely be much more inclusive.

My private note: replication of Corso and others’ discussions of why women ignored in Beat anthologies and histories for 40 years (except for a couple who were unignorable like DiPrima). Aren’t all of these always the arguments? Question of definition seems the most pertinent. How you define the “movement”, the “artistic moment” without watering it down to include, but making sure the feelers are out to embrace those whose work does fit in, does have an affinity, etc.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Found/cut Up poem

From lines heard and misheard and contemplated at Kenneth Goldsmith's reading at the conceptual poetics conference on Friday night, May 30, 2008.

High Grade Geranium

High grade geranium
useless for making bombs
useless for making poems
on the floor in a glass jar
wrapped in plastic
enough to make a small atom bomb
shark attack
arsenic strict standards
drinking water suspended(suspected)
September 10, 2001.
How much (morning) television can one nation watch.

Poetry and liberation

I'm at the conceptual poetics conference in Tucson right now and fled the panel discussion to type up the notes I've been accumulating all day, set off by work by Tracie Morris this morning. These will be more organized I think later, and I have some quotes to look up but I really wanted to put this out there for you all now.

Thoughts on Poetry and Liberation


Thinking about African Americans and avant garde work, about the use of language in hip hop, which influences and infiltrates poetry slam, while at the same time poetry slam is my example of a highly reified form of performance poetry. Is African-american poetry inherently avant garde and experimental? The work has had a way of becoming normative but just as avant gardists themselves make their way into broader culture and no longer remain marginal, that is, not irrelevant, but a set of margin notes, corrections, editorials, on the mainstream, on what is "inside the box" or margins. The way that marginal work gets taken up in the mainstream is criticized as co-option, but the reality is that avant gardes are often about bringing about changes -- in consciousness, in acceptable art practices, in language, etc. So is it truly that the avant garde, and by extensino, that subcultures must constantly change to "stay ahead of" or outside of mainstream culture? to be sure, the danger of the mainstream in capitalist culture is that the mainstream carries with it commodification. And the mainstream also carries with it a tendency to reify, to take the new that it has found, and make it normative. Thus the danger here is that the freedom that the subculture has sought becomes lost and so the constant shifty or need to shift is the attempt of a subculture, avant garde, etc. to be constantly searching for freedom, for the ground of greedom, to maintain a stance, a space carved out.

It is not, as is often charged then, elitism, but rather the desire to stay outside the boundaries, under the radar, where freedom can be tried on, tried out. I believe that those on the margins, once they feel their own liberation, develop the best intentions and want to pioneer a freedom that can be shared with all, passed on to the masses. Breton believed that the liberation of the imagination, for example, was not merely for the poet, but for all, for actual social and revolutionary liberation. As Comte Lautremonte wrote--poetry must be made by all.


John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols said in The Filth and the Fury "I was never very good at violence. Words are my weapon." Richard Schechner once wrote about the fact that if the actual revolution he and others from the 60s spoke of, were to come, he, as a white academic, would be the first under attack and it would completely disrupt his life. Gil Scott-Heron wrote that "niggers are scared of revolution." The truth is that most of us are. most of us in the west have much to lose, even many of the poor and the working class have been led to believe and do believe that they have much to lose. In fact, they have the most to gain and to lose as they will be the front line, they will be the avant garde of suffering, of foreclosures, job losses, food on the table, money for basic pleasures like theatre and books and movies and cable television and a night out at a restaurant. Perhaps the Marxists who attacked surrealism were right in a way and that poets are armchair revolutionaries, comfortable revolutionaries, not willing to risk.


But I don't think so.


We could argue, as Breton might suggest, that poets are truly the avant in the avant garde of society, the first line of the revolution, those who pave the way, create the consciousness, create the restlessness, the vision outside of the safety of the known, the mystical vision, if you will, that brought the Jews through the desert that makes the mystic survive the extreme asceticism needed to get to the next stage of their existence. Not to ask the ordinary person to sacrifice unnecessarily, but to create the consciousness that will allow them to move from away the devil that they at least know and toward something unknown of which we have given them a glimpse. How do we create this space for all outside/before reification/commodification. Perhaps we do not bring the avant garde, the margins to the center, but move everyone out of the center, where, as in Richard Schechner's Rasa Boxes acting technique, the center box remains largely empty, Shanta, which he says is both all and nothing. Moreover, maybe the center doesn't need to shift so much as we need to take everyone out of the center, to the margins where feeling exists where imagination flourishes.


The avant garde has a democratic impulse, as opposed to what we call the High Modernism of Eliot et al, where we are taught that metaphors are virtually mathematical, constant, we only need to learn the language of poetry, which functions as a kind of cryptogram where one word or letter = another, an inside secret language of the educated, the need for cliff notes, cheat sheets, crib notes, a dictionary side by side with the poem. The desire of the vernaculr in poetry comes out in several ways. First in confessional poetry, which has a similar desire as the avant grade, to put things out on surfaces, present itself in a straightforward manner. But confessionalism still relies on private meanings, but assumes that through commonality and sentiment that the masses will be able to decode the work without their crib notes.


Kenneth Goldsmith here has talked about stealing/borrowing/appropriating in work and this of course, does give the lie to the idea of originality and newness that is so fetishized in the avant garde. Of course ready-mades and collages are not original or new per se. It is in the concept, in the re-vision that newness comes out. It is in the criminality/thievery that the newness of the avant garde can exist. If the tired old saw from Plato has any truth whatsoever that every poet is a thief, is every thief a(n) (avant garde) poet? Do we dare romanticize criminality in this day in this point in time? Yet do we note de facto romanticize the pirate, the renegade, the robin hood who liberates materials from the rich, the bourgeois, the masters, for those who need it or even just plain desire it? Is a ready made, a collage, a found poem, a "liberation" of materials for those who need it--materially, creatively--and for those who desire it, with the desire for liberation of all things at its core.


Why does stealing matter? Because things matter? I think it's because of the breakdown of relationships and trust. The center will always protect itself and its property. more police. more cameras. But we borrow, we try to stay out of the vision of the lens, we try to appropriate and liberate what will set us free--the machines that will open the chains, break down the fences, keep the margin safe.


Probably more to come.


Please comment.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Googled for the wrong reasons!

Ok, friends. So I was checking on the website stats for my personal webpage (SHAMELESS PLUG: ( and among the stats you can check are how people came across your site. I was pleasantly surprised to see people driven by various blogs and links, and even that several people in the past month have Googled me. (Ticklish sound here . . . )

Now, this is the really weird, possibly disconcerting part. One person got to my site from a Canadian search engine by using the following phrase:

"she had her hand inside her panties"


Upon further reflection, I realized that this is one small line out of my draft of what is unfortunately, part of a novel, but which fortunately, I will probably never finish, because then that would make me one of those pretentious mofos working on "her novel" and I hate to even say something like "my novel" but then again, knowing that it has a line like "she had her hand inside her panties," doesn’t that make YOU want to go out and read "my novel" out on my website? (THAT ADDRESS AGAIN . . .

I mean, really. Of all the things to be googled for . . .

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I need to . . .

to leave town or drop acid.

I need something to change my consciousness, complete the reach, the gesture I felt last night listening to Greil Marcus and the Mekons talk about punk in a nearly dark theatre I need to live in a nearly dark theatre not just a dark room with the sound off but a dark theatre with a stage that smells like wood and polish and empty seats full of once-bodies and once-again bodies but liminal in its dark I couldn’t really live there very long but i could hang out there, come and go, like I come and go at home and eventually because i couldn’t actually sleep in a dark silent theatre because i can only sleep where there is light and noise because the pressure of falling asleep in dark silence is more than i can bear but there’s a heartbeat, a strain maybe like a heart attack waiting to happen to push you over to the other side to push you to something unknown but it’s not as dark as maybe you might think it’s a potential, it’s a tease, it’s something you can’t have you can only glimpse it but i need to hold it for a second i need to understand and grasp it and then come back i need to go somewhere unknown . . . that’s what it is unknown in time or mind or space or geography but somewhere unknown where there’s no expectation and no clock and maybe no comfortable familiar bed maybe but someplace

Avant Garde Poetry

In the US, a mass society with a large university-educated population inevitably breeds an “official verse culture” (Bernstein 1986: 246-49) – a culture whose discourse is as conventionalized as any other mass discourse from advertising to political campaign rhetoric to legal language.” (Marjorie Perloff, 21st Century Modernism, 155)

“The tradition has always been that you may more or less describe the things that happen but nowadays everybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not really interesting, one knows it by radios cinemas newspapers biographies autobiographies until what is happening does not really thrill any one . . . . The painter can no longer say that what he does is as the world looks to him because he cannot look at the world any more, it has been photographed too much and he has to say that he does something else.” (Gertrude Stein, “What Are Master-Pieces” cited in Perloff, 162-3)

“Writing is 50 years behind painting.” Bryon Gysin.

In 21st Century Modernism, Marjorie Perloff takes up the virtues of a literary avant garde, arguing that despite its seeming absence, despite declarations that the avant garde is a purely modernist beast murdered at the hands of post-modernism, that the avant garde of the early 20th century was only an infancy, a beginning, and that it remains relevant today, that is post-modernism that in a way, and I am massively paraphrasing, perhaps even projecting my own opinion here, wore itself out. I think of the metaphor, growing up in Illinois, of a tornado in a valley, a destructive force to be sure, but moreover, one that eventually wears itself out because it has nowhere to go, so it spins and spins until it has no more strength. The point here, and I digress, is not to engage in a debate on post-modernism vs. modernism, a debate that I am not really ready to settle at the moment. But I am very distrustful of the proclaimers that all that came before me is now dead and over. Further, my own personal take is that postmodernism itself is not contrary to the avant garde, but emerges from it. That if Futurism, for example, with its embrace of a fascistic nationalism, can be seen as the ultimate form of a modernism that is born of enlightenment values, emphasis on apparent rationalism, and the rise of the nation-state, then Dadaism, with its embrace of ir-rationalism, of nonsense and it’s highly inter- and anti-nationalism, along with its progeny Surrealism with its interest in the dark occult and the unconscious, make up the beginnings of the post-modern, of the multiplicity, of the backlash, and that therefore, modernism and post-modernism are temporal but contemporaneous to one another.

Perloff’s assessment of an unfinished literary avant garde, aborted, perhaps before it could be fully realized, when it was merely quickening, is near and dear to my heart then. If we take Bryon Gysin at his wise word that writing is 50 years behind painting, then we can look back 50 years ago to see Abstract Expressionism, particularly of the Pollock strain, all form and accident, lacking not only representation, but meaning itself. What is the meaning inscribed into a splatter painting? A chance operation? If meaning is created, if it is gleaned somehow by an audience member, it is nonetheless, not a meaning that can be “read” infallibly, deciphered authoritatively by a critic. It is an accidental meaning, a meaning created by a subconscious connection to a form or element or color within the piece, a synaptic pre- un- sub- conscious meaning, not a semiotic meaning to be read.

Where is the abstract expressionist poetry? Even a pre-splattering, Surrealist Pollock, a poetry of images to evoke imagination, idea, fully over meaning, story, intent? For all of her avant garde sympathies and apologetics, which are mighty, Perloff still spends much of her time explaining the meaning of things with a reading of poetry that still seeks to explain, that is about metaphor and enjambment and all of those things that matter most and maybe only to graduate students in English, not readers or audience hungering for the liberations (even if they don’t conceptualize it that way or don’t know that they are hungry yet) of imagination, of images. Watching her decipher a poem by Charles Bernstein, ironically, can make it harder for me, personally, to distinguish it from the non-avant garde poetry she sets up as contrast. Is it because her own avant garde of today is Language Poetry, a poetic avant garde immersed in and engaging with semiotics and teories of meaning in ways that, at the end of the day, still engage more with rather than subvert, semioitics and the tendency to “read everything as a text?” After all, if everything can be read as a text, is it possible to create a text that is not meant to be read, but felt, experienced, understood on a different level? Can we have experiences outside of language, and in particular, can we use language to create experiences outside of language? A heady question (pun appreciated, but not intended), to be sure.

Even Craig Dworkin, whose work on the avant garde I greatly admire and who has influenced and supported my own ideas immensely, has, in some of his writings on Zaum (To destroy language”, Textual Practice (18)2, 2004, 185-197) still focused on meaning. Dworkin describes the work of zaum’ as a utopian activity that seeks to circumvent what he sees as “totalitarian” desires to fix meaning. Using semiotic analysis, Dworkin suggests that zaum’ actually can be read not through the usual system of differences, but through chains of similarities and through linguistic and syllabic innuendo. In his reading, Dworkin shows that the “problem” to be solved with zaum’ is not that of making meaning, but the difficulty of limiting the number of possible meanings within each work. He places zaum’ within a matrix of nondiscursive literature including children’s nonsense rhymes as well as lettrism and experiments with concrete and sound poetry. Nonetheless, the very basis of his work shows that we have a hard time talking about poetry, even the avant garde, outside of semiotic analyses. While his work may be about “limiting” meanings, it still assumes that with enough imagination, we can learn to “read” the short syllables of zaum, to somehow understand them. To talk about them on the rational level of academic discourse seems to make it difficult, if not impossible, to talk or even think about them outside of that discourse. Is this the same criticism that writing about performance faces, that it potentially kills the very thing it seeks to examine? Is the avant garde, even a literary one, not always inherently performative, a performance, in the way in which the reader and audience must individually, privately engage with the piece, even if not necessarily on a private or personal level, the way they would with a piece of confessionalism?

Of course, I do not mean to belittle the great work and thinking done by Dworkin and Perloff and others. But it is to say that few people have been able to truly rethink poetry and language and the functions of language. If, as Perloff says, poetic culture has conventions just like advertising or journalism or all other forms of writing, and if as Stein says, those forms of writing make the “reportage” function of poetry are dated and irrelevant (100 years ago in Stein’s day—let alone today in our over-mediated cable television clear channel CNN You Tube etc etc world) then what is the new function of poetry, the Dadaist post-modernism of a poetry that is about freeplay and free association of language to generate its own pictures of a 1000 disjointed words to make the picture of a Pollock, quite outside of story, narrative or even (c)overt attempts at meanings, outside of any attempts at something that can be fixed, understood rationally, something to stimulate both left and right brain simultaneously, not only one or the other separately or sequentially.

“If we could change our language, that’s to say the way we think, we’d probably be able to swing the revolution.” (John Cage, M 210)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Skanksta: You Heard It Here First

Ok, so last year I coined this term, hoping to get the neologism of the year, but I didn't really work hard enough to circulate it. So, please circulate and prolifically employ the word Skanksta. You don't really need me to define it for you, do you?

Basically, it comes from my bad Reality TV habit, which only gets worse with every new show. (Celebrity Rehab? Celebrity Apprentice? Anyone . . . )

After two seasons of Flavor of Love (now in season 3), two seasons of that train wreck I Love New York, and of course the Flavor of Love Charm School with Mo'Nique, you can surely imagine how I coined the term Skanksta. I actually coined it to describe Miss New York herself.

(If you've never seen these shows, you've missed an amazing cultural experience, believe me. Truly.)

So anyway I beg you, be fruitful and linguify. And don't forget to give credit where it's due. I suffered through these shows. I deserve the credit.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Conceptualism and the Politics of the Art Object

“The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding ‘the notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic.’ This should be great news to both artists and apes.”

--Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”

As we move through the art of the 20th century (and beyond), from Dada forward, we move increasingly toward the dematerialization of the art object—from breaking apart the object in Cubism, to abstracting it in Abstract Expressionism, to eliminating it as a criteria altogether in movements such as Fluxus, which favored experience over the sacredness of the object, and Conceptual Art, which favored the idea of the object over its actual execution of lack of.

As with many “movements” within art, there is some contestation around Conceptual Art, including its origins and its time lines. Charles Harrison, former editor of Art-Language places Conceptual Art within a very specific time frame of 1967-1972, during which time he sees the existence of a “critically significant conceptual art movement.” (29) A 1998 exhibit, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, organized by the Queens Museum of Art, placed the movement globally within a much broader frame from the late 1950s into the present day. Likewise, Harrison traces the inception of Conceptual Art back to minimalism, with its anti-formal tendencies, a claim that Sol LeWitt, in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” denies by saying that no one he knows will admit to being a minimalist.

Dick Higgins’ “Intermedia Chart” is a useful reference, because it shows a number of contemporary cointerminous art movements and the way in which they intersect with one another. In it, we see Conceptual Art linked with both Fluxus and Happenings, and indeed, a number of artists’ work did fall into both Fluxus and Conceptual art, most notably Yoko Ono, whose performance pieces such as “Cut Piece” and “Piece to Hammer a Nail” emphasize the interactive, experiential nature of the work to the audience, whereas works such as the “War is Over! (if you want it)” billboards and Grapefruit fall into the realm of Conceptualism. In fact, I would alter Higgins’ chart to bring concrete poetry, visual novels, etc. closer to Conceptual Art in the matrix.

Without getting too bogged down in debates over origins and timeline, however, we can look at the tendencies that define historical and contemporary Conceptual Art, particularly as set forth by LeWitt himself in his “sentences” and “paragraphs” on Conceptual Art as well as looking at some of the politics of the dematerialization of the art object itself.

At its most basic, Conceptual Art privileges the idea over the object. In fact, according to LeWitt, whether the object is actually ever created or not is incidental. Point 10 of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” asserts that “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” While talking about an art made of ideas and language may at first blush sound very cerebral and based in logic,
LeWitt is quick to emphasize the intuitive nature of Conceptual Art and desire to work against “rational art.” The logical exists only to be subverted.

“Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation, such as logic vs. illogic.”

While there are many examples of objects created by Conceptual artists, including the prolific LeWitt himself, pieces that have come to be known as “instruction pieces” such as Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, or text pieces with few, if any, visual elements that we have come to associate with “art” are what we generally reference when talking about Conceptual Art. In fact, textuality plays a major role in Conceptualism, both in the art works and in the works of the artist. At the most basic level, Conceptual Art works have a tendency to be include text. “Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use an form, from an expression of works (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.” (Sentence #15). “If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.”

Harrison calls Conceptualism a movement of “artists who write” and there is a strong anti-critic streak within the movement. Even though LeWitt acknowledges that the artist may or may not fully understand his or her own work, LeWitt also criticizes the “secret language of the critic” [13]. By conceptualizing the art from the outset, the artist becomes a sort of self-critic, eliminating the critic as mediator between the audience and the art. Writing about the art was as important as creating it and vehicles such as Art News, where Lewitt’s sentences and paragraphs were first published, as well as Art-Language, offered forums for conceptual artists to show themselves as critics. Even using a format such as sentences and paragraphs which sets up a grammatical, language-based approach, rather than invoking the form of the manifesto, which previous avant-garde movements relied upon, shows a break with past ideas of art objects as separate from language.

Conceptual Art reacted against Abstract Expressionism as not pushing art far enough away from the object, still privileging the art object as self-contained and as more concerned with its internal relationships than with the object’s relationship within the world. Abstraction, then, questions the image, but not the architecture of positions or the social relationship of the object. (Harrison, 31) Seeing painting, sculpture and traditional art forms as rigid and hegemonic, signs of an imperialist culture (41), Conceptual Art, as a movement of opposition, was self-conscious about its position among historical avant garde revolutions. Moreover, according to Harrison, the artists were not so much concerned with overthrowing, but to “reformulate and revalue modernism so as to validate their own enterprise as artistic . . . . clear[ing] a space for themselves to work.” (42) In fact, he contends that modernism needed to be current in order for the Conceptualists to establish themselves as avant garde. (42)

It is on this critique of the art object and of the architecture it inhabits that I would like to linger and focus for the remainder of this piece. Among the hegemonic institutions that Conceptualism was reacting to was the art museum itself. I’d like to go out on a limb and borrow from Peggy Phelan’s ideas about the politics of representation to talk about the politics of the art object and of removing the object from the gaze of both spectator and critic.

LeWitt distinguishes, first of all, between perceptual art, being art for the eye, and conceptual art, in which the concept is the most important aspect. Art that exists for the eye alone is subject to “the gaze”. Harrison describes the art object as “something contained within the ambient space of the stationary spectators gaze, its means restricted to whatever that gaze could pick out and animate.” In Unmarked, Peggy Phelan describes “the institional effect of the gallery” as putting the art object “under house arrest, controlling all conflicting and unprofessional commentary about it.” In this way, the gallery is able to maintain a degree of critical control over the work, and through controlling the placement and architecture of the piece, directing the gaze in certain ways.

In discussing art and representation within a feminist frame, Phelan suggests that “it can be effective to politically and aesthetically deny representing the female body imagistically, psychically, to bring about a new form of representation itself.” (164) 1 I contend that we can substitute the art object for the “female body” as a way of looking at the art object in this context of politics and representation.

Phelan draws a link between the gaze and commodification, and here, there can be no denying that Conceptual artists, concurrently with artists in Fluxus and other parallel movements, were indeed reacting against commodification of their work, and consequently, I would argue, against the gaze of institutions that wield power. As we can see in current political conditions, art is frequently on the front lines of political battles, either standing with or in opposition to, powerful institutions. Phelan describes an aesthetics of representation as offering a “pleasure of semblance and repetition [that] produces both psychic assurance and political fetishization.” (3) She further describes visibility politics as “compatible with capitalisms relentless appetite for new markets . . . The production and representation of visibility are part of the labor of the reproduction of capitalism.” (1)

Harrison talks in a parallel way about beholding as problematized by Conceptual Art. Specifically, how is the “beholder” qualified to view and judge the art object, to what end does “beholding” lead, and under what conditions is it taking place? (33) This gets to the heart of the gallery/critic system, in which experts decide the architecture and placement of the work as well as its aesthetic and critical interpretation. Indeed, this is what situates the gallery as a hegemonic, anti-democratic institution from which art had to be freed.

By emphasizing the idea of the object as primary over its execution, Conceptual artists bring into question the “value” of every piece of art that hangs in a gallery or museum. Sometimes refusing to create objects at all, they then sidestep the commodification of their ideas and their creativity. Some artists set up tables and sold small items themselves, including “selling” intangible objects or concepts for whatever their “buyers” were willing to pay for them (Camnitzer) and in the process, democratizing and subverting the system of selling art altogether.

Of course, it is the nature of the capitalist gaze to create commodities, which fits hand in hand with the nature of artists and their movements to want to be remembered. Consequently, Conceptual Art has not been able to completely escape the traps of representation. While they may have initially confounded the gallery system, the writings of many original Conceptual Artists and the textual nature of the work lend themselves to book publishing, and what objects do remain from previous moments of Conceptual Art now find their way into museums and traveling exhibitions. This is a tension that the avant garde has not been able to free itself from completely as it moves from present moment to retrospective. Nonetheless, Conceptualism has provided the opportunity for visual artists to challenge the very bases of their work: both the gaze of the spectator and critic, and the gallery system in which they encounter the art object. In its current practice, Conceptualism remains an art form that through its use of text and idea, lends itself easily to political and activist contexts and in doing so, continues to struggle with and confront these very issues.

1While I don’t know that I am willing to argue that the art object itself is inherently female at this point, it cannot be denied that the subject of many masterpieces has in fact, been the feminine form. Thus the art object in those cases becomes directly implicit in the relationship of the gaze to the female body. And in fact, a number of feminist artists have turned to Conceptual art to produce works that confronted the male gaze outright. See Camnitzer et al.


Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson. Conceptual art : a critical anthology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.

Camnitzer, Luis, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss, László Beke, Queens Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, and Miami Art Museum of Dade County. Global conceptualism : points of origin, 1950s-1980s / foreword by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss ; introduction by Stephen
Bann ; essays by László Beke .. New York: Queens Museum of Art : Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1999.

Harrison, Charles. Essays on Art & language. Oxford [England] ; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1991.

Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

LeWitt, Sol. “Sentences on Conceptualism”, Referenced February 25, 2004.

Munroe, Alexandra, Yoko Ono, Jon Hendricks, and Bruce Altshuler. Yes Yoko Ono / Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks ; with essays by David A. Ross, Murray Sayle, Jann S. Wenner ; contributions by Bruce Altshuler .. New York: Japan Society ; Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Addicted to Liminality: The Ritual Year of the Mexicas

Performance, Peggy Phelan insists, is ephemeral, leaving us only traces of the original event, whether that trace is the documentation of the event, the recreation or repetition of it, or merely the memory of its occurrence. Consequently, that places performance as focused on the now, on the present moment,

When the mode of performance is ritual, or religious ceremony, its temporal intention can be different. Ritual and religious ceremony serve not only in the present moment, but also as commemoration as well as what Inga Clendinnen calls “primitive technology,” a desire to influence the future. In the case of pre-conquest cultures such as the Mexica, this technology was tied to a deep level of anxiety over their very existence, over fears of the extinguishment of the sun, of the cataclysmic end of cycles of life. Consequently, ritual held a central place in the life of the Mexica.

In his study of ritual across cultures, Victor Turner describes the process of social drama, in which breeches occur, followed by a period of suspension, and then reintegration. This period of suspension he calls liminality, and it is in the liminal period of time, the liminal space, that change and transformation occur. Ritual and ceremony, including sacrifices and divination, fall directly within liminal time. The Mexica, with an almost constant cycle of rituals, maintained a continual sense of liminality, that space of suspension and transformation and this, we can argue, may have been one of the strongest appeals, the most enduring trace of Mexica ritual—and addiction to the liminality of performance.

The Mexica maintained two separate calendars. The solar calendar, or calendar of the seasons, consisted of 365 days, just as the contemporary western calendar. The Tonalpoalli, or ritual calendar, made up 260 days, nearly 2/3 of the solar year. Everyone in the community, regardless of social position or wealth, had roles to play in these ritual celebrations, from the small to the elaborate. The months of the Mexica calendars were divided into 20 day segments, and many elements of Mexica ritual and preparation were encompassed periods of months or even a year. The feast of Hitzilopochtli, the sun god, lasted for 20 days. According to Clendinnen, fasting by both priests and laymen would occur for periods of 20, 60 or even 80 days—up to four months in the Mexica calendar, and “warriors who had pledged themselves by eating the flesh of Huitilopochtli, the austerities endured for a full year.” (256)

Communal preparations for rituals and feast days included creating objects such as ritual costuming and robes, creating images and likenesses of the gods, which the European consquistadors later mistook for idolatry, focusing on the final product rather than on the process of its creation, cooking, including the making of seed dough and of certain types of bread. In fact, Clendinnen suggests that the rituals created a “bridge between high ritual and domestic action,” (246). Thus for even the most ordinary Mexicas, their lives were permeated by ritual. “Access to ritual excitements was not,” she says, “an occasional grace note, but an enduring part of the rhythm of living . . . ritual generated experience and . . . knowlede[,] . . . opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative.” (241) It is this sense of transformation that I want to linger on for a while, to remain, if you will, liminal, suspended.

Clennnendin describes the use of objects in rituals as dislocated from their ordinary contexts. In the same way, the very lives of the Mexica, when engaged in rituals, in fasting, in preparation, were also dislocated from their ordinariness. In this way, the rhythm of life offered a degree of pleasure that kept the Mexica engaged in these contstant performances. It may seem odd to talk about pleasure when we think of the nature of some of the rituals—human sacrifice, the flaying of the victims and the wearing of their skins, strict fasting and sexual abstinence, ritual piercing and bloodletting, and endurance performances, including all-night or multi-day dancing, storytelling, and other performances. To a modern culture such as ours, devoted to pleasure and to the avoidance of pain, it might seem absurd to talk about these forms of participation as pleasurable.

There is, however, what we consider to be a shamanistic element to these practices. We certainly know that there are physical effects of exhaustion and starvation, which can include visions and hallucinations as well as the changes in the way our bodies respond to stimulus and to the world around us. Thus even the most ascetic, difficult, and painful practices take us out of our own bodies, again, suspending us from ordinary life. Clendinnen describes the long isolation from routine in these periods as well as describing the rituals themselves as “a calculated assault on the senses.” In what has come to influence our current conception of ritual as merely proscribed, repeated behaviors, Freud hypothesized a connection between obsessive behavior and ritual practice. And so repeated performance of and immersion in these practices, combined with their psychological and physiological effects create an addiction of sorts to the rituals and an anticipation for those feast days and celebrations which provide temporal liminality, periods of life in transformative suspension.

In a more literal sense, Mexica practices of representation allowed participants to live the lives of others. In some cases, victims who were to be sacrificed were to assume the persona of the god being celebrated. In the celebrations of Tlaloques, those who were to be sacrificed y drowning would first impersonate the water deities. Often in cases of embodying the gods and goddesses of the feast, the “actor” would be revered, treated as the deity. The sacrificial victim then spends their final days in a suspended, liminal zone in which “the preparation of the body and the doing of appropriate regalia moved one away from one’s social being and for some [such as the Ixitplas who were to die] eclipsed it permanently and altogether.” (Clendinnen 258) In the same way others participating in the rituals were also able to transcend their very identities and existences. Sahagun describes in detail the ritual costumes that crossed the line between animal and human, man and god:

“[H]e went garbed in the costly cape of precious feathers. The quetzal feather device went places on him. He had bars painted upon his face, he had the star design painted upon his face . . . He had a turquoise nose rod. His was the hummingbird disguise.” (Sahagun Part II)

Similarly, those who had been sacrificed were flayed and their skins worn by members of the community—including the warriors who had captured their victims, and those to whom they loaned the skins (as in the case of beggars or the lowly within the community). And so for many participants in the rituals, from the sacrificial victim to the poorest in the community, to the revered priestly and warrior classes, there was a very literal suspension, even elevation, out of their ordinary lives and identities. For most, there was Turner’s eventual reintegration back into the community, but understanding the nature of liminality, along with theories of religious experiences, possessions, trances, etc., we can imagine that the reintegration came with a sense of change or transformation upon the individuals.

Finally, the very spatial relationships within Mexica cities created sites of liminality. The wealth of public space, including squares and temples, provided gathering places that anticipated the events to take place there. Joseph Roach describes “vortices of behavior” public, what he calls lucid, spaces, that allow for and encourage community participation. Their very presence within the city serves as a constant reminder of the rhythm of life, of the permeation of ritual in Mexica culture. They are designed specifically for the events that they contain, such as being designed for the ritual sacrifices, to allow for the flow of blood, the positioning of the victim, and visibility of the ritual to those who are present. They are not ordinary spaces, but spaces of perpetual liminality, spaces that have been set aside for specific functions and when stepping into those spaces, participants understand and anticipate what is to take place there.

There are, of course, a variety of other functions to the varied and extensive ritual performance practices of the Mexica culture, including Clendinnen’s “primitive technology,” as well as state-building functions and those of political power. But I don’t know that these rituals would have survived and enjoyed the level of participation from all members of the community, if there were not a “payoff” beyond alleviating the existential fears of the people. The idea of liminality, of suspension from ordinary time that celebration and ritual affords, combined with the promise of transformation, the idea that life will never quite be the same, offers one way to look at that “payoff” and to understand the devotion to these rituals and willingness to participate, despite their often difficult, painful, ascetic nature.


Appel, Willa, and Richard Schechner. By means of performance : intercultural studies of theatre and ritual. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs : an interpretation. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

de Sahagún, Bernardino, Arthur J.O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General history of the things of New Spain : Florentine codex. Santa Fe, N.M.; Salt Lake City, Utah: School of American Research; University of Utah, 1950.

"Mexica/Aztec Calendar Systems." [cited 2004]. Available from

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Roach, Joseph R. Cities of the dead : circum-Atlantic performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


This is from a paper I wrote for a seminar this semester and is going to work into my dissertation. The idea is to look at the roots of sentimentalist philosophy and politics as it informs contemporary artistic practice and in particular, poetry slam.


There is an approach to poetry that takes inspiration from the idea that “the personal is political” and combined with a trend toward confessionalism in contemporary poetry, posits itself as political in showing and celebrating the lives of “ordinary" people or marginalized groups and individuals. The most highly visible form of performance poetry these days is poetry slam, and in the vernacular understanding, poetry slam is in fact, synonymous with performance poetry. If spoken word and performance poetry, specifically the work seen at poetry slams, can be said to have a consistent political activity to it, it is in the maintenance of what is known as identity politics. It is a common lament that “playing the race card” or the “gender card” or pulling out a sentimental story will win you a slam. That lament is often uttered as a contrast that “good poetry” rarely wins slams as much as sentimentalism and identification with the plight of the poet. Regardless of your aesthetic or political bent, it is obvious to even the most casual observer or attendee of these events that the conventional logic does ring true. The “cliché” then is that identity politics rule the day—that poems dealing with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or angry politics in general will do better in poetry slams than a piece of surrealism or a poem about flowers or puppy dogs. (Unless the puppy dogs are owned by a Latina lesbian who was just released from prison after a long sentence for drug charges, in which case the puppy dog poem may do quite well.) Through the baring of deeply personal experiences, even trauma then, the politics of these works draws on a sentimentalist assumption that social change can be brought about by empathy, by affective identifications.

There are some inherent dangers of misusing sources within this project. One way in which this manifests is the danger of citing anthologies whose editors and “spokespeople” attempt to place context and offer commentary and that ultimately both intentionally and unintentionally lead to reification of the works themselves. We might end up giving the appearance of a unified ideology where none exits. There is also the problem of attempting to cite a few particular poems or lines out of the thousands of slam and performance poems that have been written and circulated over the years, whether from performances, websites, or anthologies vs. that of citing none and being seen as too vague or general. Will four lines of one poem within this paper lend credence to the claims herein? Will ten? Will five lines from six different poems? Trying to find something that is “representative” in this way can be a dangerous venture. Out of the wealth of material published and performed, available in anthologies, at open mics, on public access television, internet blogs, MySpace sites, CDs, etc., there are any number of pieces that could be used to justify many, if not all possible theses on politics, aesthetics, identity, etc.

What does exist is a largely unspoken, subterranean set of assumptions by which the culture at large of performance poetry (particularly in its easily identified category of slam) can be seen to operate, to adhere and which plays itself out between performers and audiences in relationships of identification, affect and satisfaction. Talk to anyone who has been to a poetry slam and there is a knowing nod that there is not only a reified form that the work takes, but that there are certain predictable themes that will emerge and that these themes center on identity and on trauma. And so instead of citing poems, I have decided to refer to a vernacular reference point, Poetry Slam Bingo. This parodic piece, playing off of popular knowledge of slam has been widely distributed throughout the internet and can be found at the site, which also features the work “Def Poet” Big Poppa E. The “bingo sheets” contain a variety of poetry slam “clichés”, including:

Feminist Rant
The Revolution
Guilty White Guy
Didactic Poem
Gay Marriage Reference
I am . . . I am . . . I am . . .
Anti-Bush Poem
Pimping Pain for Points
Popular Culture Reference
Identity Poem
White Guy Trying to Prove He’s “Down”
Conspiracy Theory
Poet Cries
My pain! My pain! My pain!
Current Events Reference
Slam as Religion
Childhood Sucks
Politicians are Bad
Didactic Poem
History Lesson

Represented here are a variety of themes that involve history, politics, identity, and sentimentalism, many, if not all, of which may overlap and intersect throughout a given piece. In other words, the clichés do not fit into discrete categories, which the “rules” for poetry slam bingo reinforces:


1] When a poet fulfills one of the above categories, mark out the square. When you fill a row, shout “BINGO!” If you black out the entire card, shout “SUPER BINGO!”

2] Do not ever shout “BINGO” during someone’s poem. That would be rude. Wait until the host has returned to the stage after a performance to shout “BINGO!”

3] Keep track of who does what and when because you will have to defend your categories in front of the audience. If the audience does not agree with your choices, you will be disqualified from Slam Bingo, so be sure you can defend your choices.


Central to contemporary progressive politics is the concept of identity—those groups and subcultures the individual identifies with in any given situation—which plays out in both of these realms—sentiment and memory. The individual’s self-identification will determine how effective the affective forms of address will be and the shared assumptions, history, memories, etc. they will engage in. Political organizing along lines of identity remains a common practice, reinforced by commonly held beliefs about art and political efficacy. 1970s feminist consciousness-raising groups operated on the assumption that the act of telling one’s story was an inherently political act, one that would empower others to come forward, to bring injustices into the light of day. The belief was that once these stories were told, they would inspire compassion and lead to social change. This belief continues 30+ years later as activists and artists alike speak of the “power of story.”

Nonetheless, identity politics has taken a hit at the hands of many theorists from a variety of fields. It is has been criticized as highly limited, reifying and re-essentializing notions of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. It has been cited by a number of theorists, including Peggy Phelan, as falling into capitalist commodity fetishism. And yet, in his own critique of identity politics, Is Identity a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept? Richard Handler suggests that:
“to distance ourselves epistemologically from ideologies of identity is a politically delicate task, for many of the claimants to collective identity whose cultural philosophy we may dispute are nonetheless peoples whose struggles for social justice we support.” [1]

While critics of identity politics question the reification of identities, it is possible for our purposes to talk about a politics of identity in which identity is not necessarily a fixed category, but fluid and multiple. In fact, acknowledging the fluidity of categories may be more useful, as this fluidity allows us to approach the very sense of “community” that is presumed in this type of work. If, for example, an audience member can identify as Black and Latina, as a feminist and as a lesbian, for example, then her subject position allows her to cross lines and borders, to empathize with a wider range of “other” identities. While multiple identifications may also impede political progress at times by creating conflicts of interest where “discrete” identity categories come into conflict, the concept of fluid identities may also facilitate sentimental identifications and their moral and political exhortations.


“[T]he heritage of tragedy may well be more effective than that of triumph: suffering in common unifies more than joy does.”[2]

In The Culture of Sensibility, G. J. Barker-Benfield traces the rise of sentiment in 18th century England through medical and scientific theories (based largely on gender) through moral reform, and the rise of sentiment(ality) in the then newly-emerging genre of the novel. Barker-Benfield discusses the use of sentimental(ist) theories in reforming male manners and behavior and improving the “morals” of English men. These reforms included trying to keep men out of ale houses and other locations of “ill repute” and discouraging wanton male sexual behavior. Reforms such as these were seen to benefit women, particularly by improving conditions for women within home and family life, arguments which will find some resonance a century later in the domestic melodrama. For my purposes in looking at the political uses of sentiment, Barker-Benfield’s discussion of religion and ethics are of particular interest. This passage from The Spectator offers an insight into early assumptions about the role of sentimentality in religious and moral conversion that still has echoes today in assumptions about the nature of story and narrative in their capacity to evoke empathy:
“[S]tories of calamities . . . melt our hearts with compassion . . . since we can neither see nor hear of, nor imagine another’s grief without being afflicted ourselves.”[3]

In her work on a politics of compassion, Lauren Berlant describes the way in which such “testifying moral functions of suffering” are assumed to “authorize the reader to imagine changing the world.”[4] Preachers of the day, including John Wesley, utilized such stories as well as particularly emotional styles of preaching, which Barker-Benfield characterizes as “[t]he first revolutionary technique” which Wesley (and others) employed to:
“produce emotional effects in his listeners. . . . Whitefield wept at nearly every sermon. Tennent writhed and fainted. They wrought their spellbinding speech with a mastery of ‘stylized emotionalism.’ Whitefield’s oratorical ‘pathos,’ his ability to get his congregation sobbing, was admired by [actor David] Garrick. Implementing very similar techniques in the theatre now aiming to reform its audience by making them weep, Garrick invoked similar responses. . . . Edwards, having read sentimental fiction, in his sermons used ‘all the weapons, conscious and subconscious, verbal, emotional and sensuous, of the [sentimental] author at his best.”[5]

The relationship here between religion and literature is undeniable. The sentimental novels of the day prepared audiences for the type of emotional appeal that Wesley and his contemporaries employed. Religion and literature at this time worked together to unite emotion and compassion with moral, ethical and religious conversion, a kind of intertextual citationality. Centuries later, in the realm of politics, civil rights movements from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, have appealed inherently to the moral imperatives of their causes while also employing the language of their respective religions.

Now, think back to our Poetry Slam Bingo for a moment. One of the bingo boxes is “Poet Cries” while others include “Preach!” and “Poetry Slam As Religion,” bringing together at the very least, the performative and the evangelical aspects of 18th century moral and religious sentimentalism. Alex Ogg’s history of rap cites “linguistics of signifying, testifying, schoolyard and jailhouse rhyming”[6] and John Szwed locates the sermons of black preachers among the roots of rap performance in the way they would “sing the word” and also in what he calls the “high” oratory of black leaders from Martin Luther King to Muhammad Ali. [7] Dr. King himself employed a very rousing and emotional oratory style that was intended to appeal to the morality of his listeners, much as Wesley and his fellow evangelicals. Given the large numbers of African Americans in Methodist and evangelical denominations in America (including the African Methodist Episcopal Church), the link between 18th century sentimental preaching and 21st century “slamming” cannot be easily ignored or dismissed.

In the 19th century, the relationship between sentiment and politics continued to be played out through the theatrical form of melodrama. In particular, melodrama was used to tell the story of the working class in England and in both England and the United States and the domestic melodrama was pressed into service for the women’s suffrage movement. One of the unifying goals or ideologies behind melodrama is the creation of a group identity and the exhortation toward the theatre’s audience to understand, sympathize, or even identify with that group. Pulled to the right or the left, for revolutionary or conservative ends, melodrama is never outside of the politics of identity nor is it ever without ideology.

“[T]the melodrama served as a crucial space in which the cultural, political, and economic exigencies of the century were played out and transformed into public discourses about issues ranging from the gender-specific dimensions of individual station and behavior to the role and status of ‘the nation’ in local as well as imperial politics.” [8]

Berlant interrogates the imperative placed upon “the modern incitement to feel compassionately – even while being entertained.”[9] While melodrama may attempt to “authorize the reader to imagine changing in the world,”[10] Berlant sees the risk of replacing social transformation with a “civic-minded but passive idea of empathy.”[11] The criticisms leveled against melodrama’s political potential focus on ideas of escapism, arguing that the neat and tidy endings of melodrama satisfy the audience’s desires in a way that allows life outside the theatre to continue unchanged—admittedly, a common complaint against many forms of political theatre. For Ilsemann, melodrama’s crime is the irrationality it produces in the audience’s response, the emphasis on clear cut ideas of hero/villain and good/evil which forecloses the kind of rational response that would be required for create political consciousness and ultimately inspire action. What we see in this critique of melodrama is not the pairing of sentiment with rationalism that Barker-Benfield describes as the foundation of early 18th century theories of sentimentalism, but the squaring off of these attributes as opposites that neutralize the power and potential of both. Instead, what the audience experiences (according to Ilsemann) is “a corrective dream world . . . that confirm[s] the integrity of the spectator’s moral feel and the self-esteem derived from the wholeness of being.”[12] And so, if we are to believe Islemann, the moral imperatives directed at the audience do not inspire conversion or change as Wesley and his fellow evangelicals sought, but mere complacency.

Peter Brooks is more optimistic about melodrama, asserting that “[w]hile its social implications may be variously revolutionary or conservative, it is in all cases radically democratic, striving to make its representations clear and legible to everyone.”[13] Melodrama’s apologists and critics alike have debated and interrogated claims that melodrama helped to spread ideas about modern subjectivity and even expand our ideas about how the identity of modern “subject” is constituted through ideas of compassion and representation found in the forms and subgenres of melodrama.

For Brooks, the “social melodrama,” elevates the quotidian and gives it a heightened importance with its focus on “representation of man’s social existence, the way he lives in the ordinary, and with the moral drama implicated by and in his existence.”[14] He sees social melodrama as an attempt to make “the ‘real’ and the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘private life’ interesting through heightened dramatic utterance and gestures that lay bare the true stakes.”[15] In doing so, the personal does in fact, become political. For women denied full access to participation in public life and whose domain had been identified as the private sphere, bringing the home, the private, the domestic interior, into the very public space of the stage serves to blur the two, foregrounding the role and concerns of women. The stakes of (female) representation are not only laid bare, but are also heightened. Whether or not genuine social and political change necessarily follows is a more contentious question. The more important question here is the way in which the domestic melodrama would become an attractive vehicle for feminists seeking to represent their (heretofore hidden) struggles within the public sphere. Suffragists like Harriet Stanton Blatch were very willing and eager to adopt the tendencies of melodrama to the suffragist cause, believing that “the actress’s powers of persuasion – her capacity to move the hearts and minds of the audience – made her vital to the suffragist cause. . . . ‘People must be appealed to through their emotions.’”[16] A case in point is that of the British actress and playwright Elizabeth Robins, who used her work in the 1891 production of Hedda Gabler in London to construct “a new female political subject in her campaigning on behalf of the suffrage movement.”[17] Robins also wrote her own plays, including one entitled Votes for Women, illustrating what Berlant suggests as the “particular place that femininity has played in maintaining optimism around sentimental pedagogy in and about the U.S.”[18]

While the domestic melodrama was seen as appealing primarily to women, for suffragists and political crusaders, the audience was much more expansive. Garnering sympathy from male audience members, who could vote and who could turn the tide for the cause of suffrage, often meant “translating the display of female political assertion into theatrical images that were palatable to male members of the audience, the press and the Broadway establishment.””[19] Given the ultimate success of the women’s suffrage movement itself and the movement’s use of sentiment on the stage and in the political arena, it’s easy to see why tactics that combine affect with an appeal to morality would be remain attractive within the political and aesthetic imagination, through second wave feminism and the liberatory movements of the 1960s and 70s and into today. Indeed, according to Brooks melodrama remains a “central fact of the modern sensibility. . . the search for meanings and symbolic systems [that] provides a model for the making of meaning in fictional dramatization of existence.”[20]


“The possibility that through identification with alterity you will never be the same remains the radical threat and great promise of this affective aesthetic.”[21]

The Nuyorican Poets’ Café on New York’s Lower East Side represents itself as the “Real McCoy” of spoken word. It is the “Mecca” that all traveling spoken word and slam poets must make pilgrimage to when they go to New York. Both in the “Open Room” and at the poetry slams, the work at the Nuyorican draws heavily upon sentimental politics in a variety of ways, self-consciously contrasting personal identity to national or citizen identity or social/political power. For example, one of the poems the night I attended the slam began with:
“I do not pledge allegiance to a dream deferred.
Anti-American? There is no America.
Money rules.”[22]

The second piece focused on a woman’s story of teaching a struggling inner city student:
“Her eyes are filled with the hope of Amazonian warriors. . . .
“Her soul must have tripped over her words . . .
“I told her, ‘You are special.’”[23]

Another piece that night told the very moving and disturbing story of a rape. A poem from the open mic night started with “I am not your Spic” and went through a litany of racial stereotypes (of various levels of offensiveness) about Latinos. Each of these assumes some level of identification with or sympathy for the poet and/or the subject of the poem and possibly shame or embarrassment on the part of those whose racial identities would align them with the “oppressor.” (Remember the “Guilty White Guy” from our Poetry Slam Bingo.) While “warming up” the audience and giving the judges their rules or criteria for judging the slam, the host the night I attended asked “How do you put a number on someone’s pain and expression?” Regardless of the scoring of the pieces, the highly individualized and sensitive soul of the author/performer, combined with the politically and socially charged subject matter of the pieces, leaves the audience with only one appropriate emotional response. On a ten-point scale, no poems that night scored below an 8.5.

Finally, perhaps because of the close identification of the performer with the text in performed poetry, the use of sentiment also leans toward a “confessional” ethos. For Foucault the confessional mode is “one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth,"[24] and indeed, many spoken word poets cite “truth telling” as an aspect to what they do, whether the work is overtly political or whether it leans more toward personal details. David P. Terry elaborates:

"For Foucault, the impulse to reveal our "true" selves stands as one of the central figures of Western civilization and one of the central ways in which power enacted in micro relationships produces and reinforces macro socio/political structures."[25]

Terry sees in this confessional mode, “a . . . kind of self-expression that is supposed to bear a special stamp of sincerity and authenticity and to bear witness to the truth of the individual personality . . giv[ing] the illusion of addressing broader social/political ills . . . .”[26]


“The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”[27]

Many memory theorists such as Olick, Beim and Zellizer discuss the relationship of memory to identity construction both within the contexts of maintaining ethnic and cultural identities and within the context of creating a nationalistic American identity. On the surface, these might look like dissimilar, even opposite operations. Yet I believe it might be argued that these are in fact, similar complementary operations in which one is a step in the process toward the other. In this case, it may be seen that the collectivity, although maintaining its group identity, seeks to be brought into citizenship together as a whole, rather than merely through its individual members. This is, in fact, the underlying assumption behind mass movements – civil rights, feminism, etc. Thus, the presumed American tension between the group and the individual is here erased, effaced, resolved dialectically, at least for the duration of the struggle for acceptance, acclimation and ultimately assimilation – ie citizenship.

Toward this end, these collective identities of race, culture ethnicity and ultimately national citizen identity, are constructed through shared experiences and shared memories – shared understandings and expressions of collective memories. Some of these may be specific incidents – such as the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the New York Police Department—and others may be more general—as in memories of growing up in Harlem or the description of a sexual assault, which others may relate to. In the rubric of The Personal is Political, it is assumed that the personal story will touch off a collective memory, which will help unify the community from which the speaker comes and at the same time, create sympathy, possible even a form of affective identification, from those outside of that community, spurring all of those who have been addressed by the work to act for social change.

In our highly mediated world, the sense of belonging created by shared (cultural) memory no longer belongs exclusively to any one group. Through film and television, any audience member may believe that they understand, for example, what it is to grow up poor in Harlem, and when this mediated memory is combined with the presence of a live performer speaking passionately about the experience, (and with the skill of the evangelical preacher or the weeping poet, moving the audience to tears) the sentiment that is felt from the performance may combine with that mediated “memory” so that the person in the audience may come to believe that they fully understand how it feels to grow up in Harlem. The memory and the identification may no longer be particular to the community from which the performer originates, and from which he or she speaks. This may sound “inauthentic,” and the irony here is that while authenticity is one of the most highly valued attributes of identity politics, this type of empathetic identification is critical to sentimentalist political assumptions. Is this experience, then, a mis-identification? For a sentimental or affective politics to be effective, there must be a degree of universalism, an understanding that no one can be excluded from the moral charge that is presented by this work.

Aaron Beim explains such an operation when he describes Jeffrey Shandler’s work on Holocaust images in television. “Shandler argues that since television has brought the Holocaust into the homes of millions of Americans, it transformed the event from a deeply disturbing yet otherworldly event into a personal tragedy. Television transformed watching the Holocaust into the morally changed act of witnessing the Holocaust.[28] He continues:

“Now let us say that some . . . Jews . . wanted to produce a documentary about the Holocaust. To produce the object, they would by default call on their Holocaust collective memory schemata to make sense of the Holocaust for themselves and thus to operationalize the topic for film production. Once produced, this film would in turn influence how other groups give meaning to the historical event and thus would begin anew the cycle of Holocaust collective memory production.”[29]

Sentimental politics combines here with first person confessionalism here through the sharing of memories that might be either personal or individual (being called a racial epithet at school) or collective (the riots after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles).

One of the claims of poetry slam is that it builds community, and if this can in fact be the case, it is not simply by bringing a collection of people together into one room (that would merely be a crowd, and not a community), but through creating a sense of identification that can transcend the boundaries of identity and create, perhaps, a new identity within the particular space and time of the event. Beim discusses the idea of collective memory, which he describes as “largely the cognitive by-product of social interaction. . . . Collective memory . . . naturally stems from social structure through the interaction of individuals with institutionalized collective memory objects (like a memorial, film or a reputation).”[30] It’s not that the audience members are having false or inauthentic memories necessarily, but that they are brought into the community through the hearing of stories that have become familiar to them through mediated forms or popular culture rather than through the actual experience of the event. A large, mediated tragedy such as September 11th offers one of the best examples of this. Even people who were not directly involved in the events of that day (ie on the planes or in the World Trade Center or Pentagon) have intense memories of that day through television news and documentaries. Most people who witnessed the event in this way can be said to have a memory of the event and an emotional response to the event. Does if follow that one can have a memory of a smaller or less traumatic event, such as growing up poor in the 1950s, through repeatedly watching documentaries? Many memory theorists describe the importance of collectivities in generating and stimulating memory. If as Olick suggests, “only individuals remember, though they may do so alone or together,”[31] we do so in conversation with what Barbie Zellizer calls a “community of memory”[32]. She cites George Lipsitz in suggesting that “popular culture has precipitated a crisis of memory, in which all identity construction comes to rest at least in part on memory work.”[33]

According to Zellizer, collective memory is always political and is always about the establishment of identity and community before issues of “truth” or accuracy:”
“[C]ollective memory refers to recollections that are instantiated beyond the individual by and for the collective. . . the collective memory comprises recollections of the past that are determined and shaped by the group. By definition, collective memory thereby presumes activities of sharing, discussion, negotiation, and often, contestation. Remembering becomes implicated in a range of other activities having as much to do with identity formation, power and authority, cultural norms, and social interaction as with the simple act of recall. Its full understanding thus requires an appropriation of memory as social, cultural and political action at its broadest level.” [34]

“[C]ollective memories help us fabricate, rearrange or omit details from the past as we thought we knew it. Issues of historical accuracy and authenticity are pushed aside to accommodate other issues, such as those surrounding the establishment of social identity, authority, solidarity, political affiliation.” [35]

If this is the case, then memory, whether it be “personal” (autobiographical or vernacular) or “political” (official), can be a powerful tool in building a sense of community and collective identity, particularly when paired with sentiment.
As a tool for transmitting memory as well as emotion, performance poetry is well-positioned historically. Zellizer points out that:

“ . . . the earliest expressions of a community’s collective memory have tended to be language-based—chants sung by tribes during cattle round-ups, sagas of the Icelanders, Homeric epics of the Ancient Greeks. . . Some scholars have argued for memory’s fundamentally oral nature, and for the fact that early forms of remembering were associated with oral sources and the oral tradition. . . .”[36]

While there are many criticisms of identity politics, the political uses of sentiment, and of the confluence of these factors in performance poetry and poetry slam, it is important to understand where the political assumptions behind this work comes from and the foundation that artists and activists alike seek to build upon. Sentimentalism combined with collective memory has had its political successes, as well as its limitations. In his introduction to Listen Up!, Yusef Komunyakaa asserts that “[t]he voices in Listen Up! are personal and public, and they also speak on behalf of others. . . This is a poetry of engagement and discourse. It celebrates and confronts.”[37] He suggests that the personal is political and vice versa, not in overt didacticism or sloganeering, but in the subtle assumptions that underlie the work, that the “voices” represented therein speak for others (or possibly in some cases, Others).


Anglesey, Zoe, Ed. Listen up! New York: One World/Ballantine, 1999.

Barker-Benfield, G. J. The culture of sensibility: sex and society in eighteenth-century Britain. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Beim, A. "The Cognitive Aspects of Collective Memory." Symbolic Interaction 30:1 (2007): 7-26.

Berlant, Lauren Gail Compassion. Essays from the English Institute. New York: Routledge and Net Library, Inc, 2004,;;

Berlant, Lauren. “Poor Eliza.” No More Separate Spheres! Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds Durham: Duke University Press , 2002, 291-323.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination : Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Glenn, Susan A. Female Spectacle : The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Handler, Richard. "Is Identity' a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept?" Commemorations: the politics of national identity, edited by John R. Gillis. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1994, 27-40.

Hays, Michael and Anastasia Nikolopoulou. Melodrama : The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Ilsemann, Hartmut. “Radicalism in the Melodrama of the Nineteenth Century,” Melodrama : The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, eds. London: Macmillan, 1996, pp. 191-207.

Lowenthal, David. "Identity, Heritage, and History," Commemorations: the politics of national identity, edited by John R. Gillis. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1994, 41-57.

Ogg, Alex and David Upshal, The Hip Hop Years: A History of Rap. Philadelphia: Trans-Atlantic Publications, Inc., 1999.

Olick, J. K. "Collective Memory: The Two Cultures." Sociological Theory 17:3 (1999): 333-348.

Olick, Jeffrey K. and Joyce Robbins. "Social Memory Studies: From "Collective Memory" to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices." Annual Review of Sociology 24:1 (1998): 105-140.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : The Politics of Performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Szwed, John F. “The Real Old School,” The Vibe History of Hip Hop, Alan Light, Ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999, p. 3-10.

Terry, David P. “Once Blind, Now Seeing: Problematics of Confessional Performance.” Text and Performance Quarterly, 26:3 (July, 2006): 209-228.

Townsend, Joanna. “Elizabeth Robins: Hysteria, Politics and Performance.” Women, Theatre and Performance : New Histories, New Historiographies. Women, Theatre and Performance.

Maggie B. Gale and Vivien Gardner, eds. Manchester ; New York: Manchester University Press,
2000, pp. 102-120.

Zelizer, B. "Reading the past against the grain: The shape of memory studies." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 204-239.


[1] 38
[2]Lowenthall, 50
[3]Barker-Benfield, 68
[4] Berlant, 2002 301
[5] 72.
[6] 39.
[7] It is difficult, if not impossible, to untangle rap and hip hop from contemporary performance poetry and poetry slam. Rap and hip hop are often used interchangeably by scholars and historians, as well as by some practitioners. Likewise, poetry slam and hip hop styles of performance are seen as difficult to distinguish from one another. There is definitely a trajectory from rap into poetry slam and contemporary performance poetry.
[8] Hays and Nikolopoulou, viii
[9]Berlant 2004, 5
[10] Berlant 2002, 301
[11] Berlant 2002, 297
[12] 202
[13] 15
[14] 22
[15] 14
[16] Glenn,135
[17] Townsend, 103
[18] Berlant, 2002, 297
[19] Glenn, 149
[20] 13
[21]Berlant, 2002, 303
[22] Laura Winton research trip notes June, 2006
[23] Laura Winton research trip notes June, 2006
[24] Terry, 210
[25] Terry, 210
[26] Terry, 217
[27] Olick & Robbins, 122
[28] Beim, 2007, 13
[29] Beim, 2007, 20
[30] Beim, 2007, 8
[31] 338
[32] 228
[33] 229
[34] 214
[35] 217
[36] 232-233
[37] xii-xiii