1. Well that was awesome! After a fun stretch in Kansas City, I made the very short flight to Chicago. I read with Daniel Borzutzky that night at Judith Goldman’s house and it was terrific. Looking forward to seeing Daniel’s book when it’s out! I saw Jen Scappettone, Patrick Durgin, Nicole Pollentier, Logan Ryan Smith, Kari Freitag; I met a bunch of new people, who were all warm and interesting. The people in Chicago laughed a lot too, so, even though nobody bit the bait before, maybe it’s true that we’re humorless clogs in the Bay Area. I called Chicago “the Chi” about a thousand times, to the detriment of my reputed charm.
The next day it was pouring rain all day, so I spent nearly the whole afternoon at the Coffee Studio in Andersonville drinking way more coffee than I’m used to and reading poetry. I read Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip and Kyle Buckley’s The Laundromat Essay. And got wired. Then we drove up to Milwaukee and Judith and I read in the Salacious Banter reading series, hosted by Karl Saffran and Mike Hauser. It’s in Karl’s massive loft in what I think is downtown Milwaukee. The reading was super, even though I found myself having to defend Rihanna quite a bit afterwards. Karl makes all this delicious food for the readings and this evening it was two kinds of potato soup, a vegan version and a gorgonzola-y version.
I really wanted to go check out the Heartland show at the Smart Museum, but was dissuaded by the aforementioned drizzle and long travel times to Hyde Park. John Beer did tip me off to this, which looks terrific. Apparently it is somewhat derived from Beyonce’s appropriation of Bob Fosse immortalized in the “Single Ladies” video. Which, in case you haven’t heard recently, is one of the best videos of all time.
2. What I want to start to talk about this week is difficult if not impossible. Or, it may be impossible but yet I might not fail in making a little progress. If you’re dismayed by the lack of formal thesis by the end of this talking point, well, might I suggest you reconsider what dismays you! Seriously! Okay, so as part of my conversation with Anne Boyer in Kansas City about conceptual writing, she said “not failure, but impossibility” in reference to the several iterations of the term “failure” in Notes On Conceptualisms. I’m trying to elaborate the difference or trouble the difference—not just in conceptual writing. All our writing. Are impossibility and failure necessary tropes for contemporary poetics?
Failure appears in many different forms in NOC, but it is clear that failure is not only revealed as an element of the conceptual writing process itself, or as a judgment on the object produced by those processes, but moreover is valorized as the goal of those writings.
On one hand, failure functions to differentiate classic or pure conceptualism from the neo- or post-conceptualist writings described—and practiced—by Place and Fitterman. “I have failed miserably—over and over again.” The terrific singularity of the “I” that writes these Notes here implicates both of its authors, and the writings which they’re attempting to make more legible.
On another hand, I read the citation of Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art in this context as a portrait of the maxim “embodiment = failure,” a maxim that Fitterman and Place must ultimately reject as patriarchal and “masterful.” For after all the vital form of failing is the “assassination of mastery.” I want to read “mastery” in all its nuance; hegemonic political power, closure to aporia and errancy, a virtuosic index of dominance over prosodic potentiality and methods of its distribution to an audience.
“Failure” is thus not a simple trope in the aphoristic, non-systematic universe of NOC. But it does seem critical to contemplate if we accept its status as the ambition of the works described by Place and Fitterman—and partly that must mean that if there is such a thing as “failure” then there must be such a thing as “success” or “achievement.” So does “success” = “mastery”? I know this sounds a little sophistic. Oops!
Essentially I am interested in non-finalities. Aporetic thinking. In conceptual writing, yes. But also in embodied modes, “lyrical” and lyric modes, unnameable modes especially.
The art historian Terry Smith describes as a fundamental characteristic of contemporary art that it is “an art of small gestures, slight interventions, imagined transformations”.
I read Smith’s “imagined transformations” alongside Place and Fitterman’s “hallucinated repair,” and yet I do consider some works of contemporaneity in poetics anyway as concerned with other kinds of transformations.
Alongside the emerging canon of conceptual writings are works whose ambition is to invite non-hallucinatory repair. Because they operate in such a way as to provoke aporetic thinking, and the results of aporetic thinking cannot be predicted, the judgment of their “failure” or “success” corresponds to the ambition of the text. However, if the ambition is not to create a terrestrial paradise or whatever; that is, if the ambition takes as its premise the impossibility of its own object, there is a way in which it can wildly succeed, even if “simply” by way of provoking an aporetic experience that transforms its audience.
I can think of other works that envision a repair that is not “hallucinated” or “imagined” but activate rather real-world changes, in somatic ecologies as well as macro-political ecologies.
I mean, look, I love artworks whose ambition for “intervention” is concerned with surface somatic transformations, i.e., I like to laugh, ya’ll. I like to “be moved” by performances of uncanny musics. These are in the realm of the aporetic too.
3. Ambition itself has come up in a lot of conversations I’ve had recently.. I wonder if contemporary poetics is marked by a post-iconoclastic relation to the great epics of (white male) ambition that Modernism produces. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that ambition is only legible by means of girth. Even in quite long works we could note the radical condensation of attention. “All of history” or whatever vs. one day, to use an example that annoys even me. It might be interesting to consider in this context that some of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets at this stage in their careers are more and more repeating the attention to breadth performed by high Modernism.
I think, for me, I can say quite honestly that almost nothing in The Cantos or whatever means anything to me except for some isolated prosodic flights and the unfinished poems that perform a lyric recognition of the entire project’s failure at the end. I know that not everybody feels this way.
I don’t want to foreclose on the basically infinite possibilities of ambit—I’m curious what people think.
4. The jam I want to bring your way this week is old news, in the slavishly condensed attention span of pop music, but you poets! I worry about you sometimes! And if this one slipped past your radar, it’s time to plug the headphones in.
You know how in the Mabinogion there’s always a knight who’s “the bravest man in the world” and a princess who’s “the most beautiful maid in the world”? Well, the same operation survives old Welsh saga and emerges in Drake’s massive jam, “Best I Ever Had.” True, Drake doesn’t suggest that his beloved is objectively the “best” to all people at all times—Drake isn’t Ezra Pound finally and thankfully—but rather it’s qualified by his experience alone. That said, one should assume that Drake’s experience when it comes to affairs of the heart are indeed vast. This was the jam of the summer in part for its simple tender colloquial expression of something approaching awe combined with a braggadocio that gleams more by virtue of its transfer to another.