Sunday, April 23, 2017


                              A telephone rings
                    I answer it and a woman’s voice tells me
                                        “I can’t leave if I don’t break
                                        with the enemies that I’ve

                    I hang up the phone and walk across the street
                    to a boarded up liquor store
                              above it is an apartment building
                              with blown out windows
                              I climb the fire escape ladder
                              to the top floor and crawl inside
                                        and shed my fear

                                        The room is full of women
                                        we talk and laugh
                              planning        discussing
                                        some in a corner of the room
                               fucking            but not separate
                                        as they add to the conversation

                              This is the reality of participation—
                              how to be separate   but not a spectacle
                              how to be included but not a spectacle of appearance

                                        We all feel the threat of narrative
                                                  the weight of our bodies
                                                  the not          that holds our
                                                            ecstatic refusal
                                           held by a stress       unbearable
                                        an anxiety produced       in waiting
                                        resonant querulous reports
                                                  small family groups
                                                  scuttling        their soft vocalization
                                                            WHERE are YOU?

                                        We wish we knew of better ways
                                                  to help each other
                                                  of better ways to fight
                                                  what is this social truth
                                        we know formed by the absence of life
                                        a caricature of resistance
                                        we dance around
                                                  we talk about the weather
                                                  its pheromones undetected
                                        afraid to destroy this one space of recognition

                              Our body sinks down to a radical emptiness
                              dread wells up around          this production
                                        to counter     we learn configurations
                                        we use our force with each other
                                                  in a skillful balance
                                   of resistance                and capture
                                                            how to destabilize
                                                  but we never put it to use
                                                  against each other
                                                            to hold each other in
                                        a tender suspension of violence
                                                            compelling meaning

                                        We place our bodies
                                                            on each others
                                                  they are full of erotic potential
                                                  redirected rather than ignored

                              How to build without producing
                                                    each day   another set of obstacles
                                                  linked into commonality
                                                  a pleasure shared
                                                            to never be alone again
                                                            to cross it all out

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cruel Work: Chris Chen Interviews Wendy Trevino

This is the second part of an interview published in The New Inquiry.

Chris Chen: I wanted to ask about how you see your writing navigating an often unacknowledged and sometimes quite stark divide between what could be called a politics of culture versus a culture of politics. Your recent chapbook seems committed to puncturing the myth that the collectivities organized by and through race are politically homogeneous—an assumption that’s partly the legacy of older cultural nationalist movements in the US. You write, “So much violence/Changes relationships, births a people/They can reason with. These people are not/Us.” Nevertheless there’s a transient, migratory “we” that’s threaded through the poems and seems to flicker in and out of view. Could you talk a little bit about that “we”?

Wendy Trevino: I think it’s important to understand that the racial categories we’re talking about are historically a European colonial imposition first and foremost, a “we” defined not by us—who might have less in common than not. These categories made “us” legible to colonizers, slavers, capitalists, the state—whoever or whatever enforces this “we” from the outside and often through violence. I can’t help but think about how the transatlantic slave trade abducted groups of people who spoke different languages, with different religions and traditions, and imposed on them—those who survived, that is—a single identity that didn’t exist in that form before the trade.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. This “we” is also negotiated by us, too. In 2014 when Latinos in Salinas, CA rioted after police killed three migrant workers in three months, and other Latinos representing local unions and nonprofit organizations responded by forcefully suppressing even anti-police slogans in an attempt to control who and what was represented—these are the kinds of negotiations I’m talking about. For those on whom a particular identity is imposed, “we” will encompass people with shared and opposed interests, friends as well as enemies, and intra-group relations of power. All of this plays a significant role in determining who represents “us.”

So “we” is negotiated internally within groups, but these negotiations are tied to externally imposed categories and expectations that change in order to maintain existing relations of power. I think culture can often obfuscate the politics of those negotiations. This is a serious problem if our aim is the eradication of racism.

CC: Cristina Beltrán has recently argued that older attempts to organize Chicanx politics around a vision of pre-political cultural unity has often come at the cost of painting political disagreements within the movement as the result of contamination or tokenization by whiteness. “In the Chicano movement, feminists were consistently accused of representing a destructive force coming from outside the community,” Beltrán writes, “In other words, Chicana feminists were not simply wrong about gender relations—they were falsas (false ones), no longer legitimate members of the community. Accused of being cultural traitors creating conflict and fragmentation, Chicana feminists were often on the defensive.... The belief that shared culture could produce a unified political perspective was compellingly inclusive, but it turned disagreement into betrayal.” Beltrán is writing about 60s and 70s-era US political movements, but I wanted to ask for your thoughts on how you see literature and art as a site of conflict around the promotion of racial authenticity as a political ideal.

WT: Recently, a mural featuring gay, lesbian and trans Chicanxs was destroyed by arson in San Francisco’s Mission District. On social media, one of the arguments against the mural was that it was an appropriation of Cholo culture, downplaying the homophobia earlier expressed with posts like “Keep that shit in the Castro” and attempting to delegitimize the Chicanx, Los Angeles-based artist, even as the Chicanxs online used words like “n***a” the way Latinos in the Valley use the word “guey” to refer to each other. I think there were good arguments to be made against relatively upscale art galleries as a leading edge of gentrification and the artists who agree to show work in these galleries, but those were not the arguments that were being made here.

CC: This raises the question of the role that art, literature, and music might sometimes play in “artwashing” gentrification or commodifying past social movements. The closing of the nonprofit art space PSSST in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles after a coalition of locals mounted a campaign against galleries that, despite showcasing Chicanx art, were seen as driving up rents in the area—a process some have called “gentefication.”

WT: I think a little background on Galeria de la Raza, the art gallery that installed the Mission mural, “Por Vida,” might be helpful. The gallery has been around since the early 70s and rumor has it that it is currently having trouble securing a new lease. I don’t mean to suggest that the gallery is incapable of facilitating gentrification or commodifying political movements. I just mean to say the position of Galeria de la Raza is different from that of The Broad and PSSST. At least in the sense that the latter are new to the neighborhood so to speak and well-funded—in the case of The Broad, by a real estate mogul and in the case of PSSST, by a “secret investor” suspected to be more interested in real estate speculation than art.

I also want to point out that paintings, sculptures and installations in art galleries are quite different, in terms of how works of art are owned, displayed and preserved, from a mural in a neighborhood. It’s a lot easier for a person who lives in a neighborhood where there’s a mural she finds offensive, to appreciate or destroy it, while there may be artwork in a neighborhood gallery of which the person never becomes aware.

I think you could say that what happened to the “Por Vida” mural in the Mission demonstrated a refusal to think about or consider gay, queer, and trans cholos. It is sad to me that the idea of gay, queer and trans Latinx (specifically Chicanx) being part of cholo culture was so offensive that a person would burn representations of them and be supported by so many in doing so on the grounds that there are no gay, queer or trans cholos. And that there would be this assumption that “obviously” the artist must have appropriated cholo culture. Nevermind that cholo culture has roots in Southern California, where the muralist was from. Nevermind that the appropriation of Latinx and Chicanx culture in the form of food by establishments like the Taco Bell and Gracias Madre, both in the Mission, which exploit mainly nonwhite workers—almost all Latinx in the kitchen. These establishments pay them nowhere near enough to live in the neighborhood, but this hasn’t yet resulted in them being burned down.

CC: Finally, I wanted to ask about what you’re reading, watching, or listening to these days. Also, are you working on any new writing or publishing projects?

WT: I’m currently working on a manuscript for Krupskaya Books called Cruel Work, after a 2014 conference, by the same name, at Mills College. Like Brazilian, the entire manuscript is made up of sonnets, but this time, the sonnets focus on feminist organizing and racism and there will be multiple sequences. I’m also reading books like Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and S/He by Minnie Bruce Pratt. I keep coming back to Lucy Parsons.

I’m still not done with the kind of reading I was doing for Brazilian. I still want to read The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz, for instance and I’d like to learn more about the 21st century border, which involves the cartels in a way it didn’t in the 90s when I last lived in the Valley.

I read contemporary poetry pretty regularly. I’ve really enjoyed the work of Tongo Eisen-Martin lately. What he does with the “city poem” is incredible. I’m lucky enough to be friends with Oki Sogumi and Laura Martin—their work “speaks to me” in a way that always makes me want to write back. I feel similarly inspired by my friends in general—there are too many to name here. Also, I really liked Daniel Borzutsky’s Memories of My Overdevelopment, Diana Sue Hamilton’s Universe, Raquel Salas-Rivera’s oropel / tinsel (especially the title poem) and Jasmine Gibson’s Drapetomania. Hannah Black’s Dark Pool Party is really really good, I must say.

Finally, me, Oki Sogumi and Josh Baltimore have been talking about starting a press for the last year and we are finally getting started. The name of the press is Spoilsport Editions. We have a few manuscripts that we’re looking to publish including work by Josh Baltimore and Laura Martin. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Christine Stewart

Dear Brian, you wrote that you were interested in my perspective on the post-crisis period from Treaty 6 Indigenous territory and wanted to know more about what I “feel like needs to happen” as I wrote following our seminar. As you state, connecting various territorial perspectives is a motivation for the series, and so you are interested in my question: “What does it mean to write about a post-crisis poetics from Turtle Island, from Treaty 6? The Arab Spring, the European ‘movement of the squares,’ and the Wisconsin occupation are inextricably part of our context, but do not manifest here with us in the same way.”

I want to address your invitation by considering the labour required for being here, on colonized land, and how might people who are not Indigenous work inside Indigenous intellectual and legal systems, and not only within Eurocentric concepts of resistance and liberty? That is, when colonial governments and rebellions function, as Hupa, Yurok and Karuk scholar Cutcha Risling Baldy writes, in total “ignorance to Indigenous intellectualism and thought” how can we acknowledge and work within Indigenous systems of law, and learn what is required of us to understand where we are when we say we are here?1

I accept that Jeff Derksen’s concept of sincerity as an existing social relation between people might help us work through this ignorance,2 and I am curious why it is that, as Rob Jackson notes, so many North American Marxists don’t see the immediacy of local Indigenous issues as sites of struggle that are also struggles against capitalism and colonialism and as places in which life as a site of existing relations is affirmed.3

I have always wondered about this, but especially after moving to Edmonton, and engaging in the Occupy (2011-2012) movement. Why was Occupy such a white movement? It did not tend to attract other activists who otherwise had a history in socialist activism. It did not, for example, attract the Indigenous activist who so fully engaged and animated the subsequent Idle No More (2012-2013) movement.

What kinds of relations are required here? What kind of militant sincerity? If, as Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald says, colonialism is the denial of relationship than how might we affirm relationship?

Outside of Peterburough, in Eastern Canada, in the province of Ontario, on Pigeon Lake, on Anishinaabe land, there is a wild rice harvest each fall, and settler cottagers in the area attempt to disrupt the harvest. In response to this, Hayden King, a Gcgi’mnissing Anishinaabe writer posts on his twitter feed on Aug 29th, 2016, the latest billboard by the Reclaiming Renaming Project OgimmaMikana: Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha #OgimaaMikana.4 It translates into “wild rice is Anishinaabe law.”5

Thinking through what it might mean for wild rice to be law is difficult from a Eurocentric perspective. But it might be true that until we can, until we are willing to exert the unthinkable labour that learning a very different legal system requires, we cannot know where we or what is expected of us when we are here, and we cannot help but embodying and reproducing the violence of colonization.

Here, where I am, there is no wild rice. There is a different material reality. There is sweet grass, and a few buffalo. There are different nations, and here on Treaty 6, I need to understand different forms of law. This is not social work. It’s not charity, and it’s not community service work. It is paying attention, and being differently educated, listening hard, creating difficult alliances, igniting rare and sometimes awkward moments of solidarity, expending exhausting labour in the hopes of creating new, sometimes, usually, fleeting social subjects.

In my teaching I work collectively with nêhiyaw Elders, knowledge keepers, young Indigenous students and artists and scholars from some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Edmonton. The nêhiyaw make up one of the nations of this place. Their people were at the table when Treaty 6 was negotiated in 1876, and, in 2016, Treaty 6 still matters to the nêhiyaw people—because of housing shortages, incarceration rates, homelessness, endemic illness, high rates of suicide, land theft, water theft, unmitigated resource extraction, poverty, hunger, police brutality, genocidal provincial and federal administrative policies and the ongoing revanchist gentrification of the city of Edmonton that criminalizes the long standing street communities.

As a settler person, living in Edmonton, I need to understand what it means to live on Treaty 6 land. It is a question that I often get asked, do I know that I am on Treaty Land, and do I know what that means? I mostly hear it downtown, outside of the hospitals from folks smoking cigarettes in hospital gowns, from people out on the street, bumming change, from folks who live in the local shelters.

In particular, I am asked to understand the meaning of Treaty 6 as it was negotiated and agreed to by the nêhiyaw, Nakota Sioux, Dene, and Saulteaux—not as it has been interpreted by the Crown (the relationship of the Métis people to treaty is a matter of some debate. See Adam Gaudry’s “Are the Métis treaty people?,” for example). As I have learned, Treaty 6 was and is understood as a necessary nation-to-nation relationship of reciprocity and sharing. According to nêhiyaw oral and written history, there was no surrender of land to the Crown. The treaty negotiations in 1876 were made with the understanding that land sharing and close kinship connections were both possible and essential at that time in history.6 And the nation-to-nation treaty proposed by the Indigenous nations of the area with the Crown is based on thousands of years of treaties that existed between the Indigenous nations.

But I don’t know much, and what I do know I have learned from different elders, knowledge keepers, scholars, students and colleagues. I am indebted to their guidance, and I am grateful for it. From them I have been slowly learning the extent of my obligations to the land I live on. Through them I have been learning about my treaty obligations.

I am learning slowly and painfully that upholding the Treaty agreements is as much my responsibility as it is of the nêhiyaw, Dene and Nakota Sioux nations. I am learning that it is my work to give back what has been taken, to restore the kinships, and the balance that is necessary for all life. I am asked to understand how I continue to contribute to the injury and displacements of Indigenous people here and elsewhere, and how I might instead become a good relation, a good ally to the complex communities of this place. And I am only coming to understand the extreme labour required in this task, that it is uncomfortable work, impossible, painful, necessary and infinite.

I have been taught that the human-to-human Treaty 6 was founded on the original treaties, agreements that existed between the human and the non-human or more-than-human world, agreements on which important legal systems were based. That is, as nêhiyaw Elder Bob Cardinal relates it, Treaty 6 is based on the original agreements of reciprocity that were made and that have existed since the beginning of time, agreements of reciprocation that were made between humans and animals, between humans and air, between humans and water, humans and plants, humans and rocks.7

For Elder Bob Cardinal, this is the most important thing we can know when we begin to consider treaty. That is, that these original treatise are the basis for the survival of all life on this planet, and they lie at the heart of the treaty making process for the nêhiyaw people. That is, that all subsequent treaties between Indigenous nations with Indigenous nations are based on these original and sacred covenants formed by humans and their more-than-human relations.

These original treaties hold the blueprint for all subsequent treaties.

As a result, when it came to the Treaty 6 negotiations with the Crown in 1876, the Indigenous nations were well versed in treaty making and in maintaining the complex and extensive familial alliances that treaties required.

nêhiyaw lawyer, Sharon Venne’s article “Treaties Made in Good Faith” reflects this, and nêhiyaw lawyer and founder of the Idle No More movement, Sylvia McAdam’s description of the negotiations for Treaty 6 illustrates this history and the fact that those primary relationships are embedded in Treaty 6. In her recent book, Nationhood Interrupted: revitalizing nêhiyaw legal systems, McAdam describes how integral the okihcihtwâw iskwêwak, the nêhiyaw women lawmakers, were to the treaty process. She notes how the British representatives could not conceive of women as lawmakers and so the women were not invited to the Treaty 6 negotiations, but that the nêhiyaw men continued to bring the treaty terms to the women for their approval. According to McAdam, traditionally, the women lawmakers made all the decisions about the community. They had jurisdiction over the land and the water. And so the Treaty 6 negotiations could not go on without them. McAdam’s description of the women’s role in the process of Treat 6 reminds us of the original human-to-more-than-human-treaties and their integral role in the more recent process of making Treaty 6.

She writes this:

“During the time of the treaty negotiations, a ceremony was conducted by the women law makers for four days and four nights asking the âtieyôhkanak (spirit keepers) what must be done. During this time the women prayed and some fasted, as is the custom. An understanding was made and was taken to the men.

Further, during the ceremony âtieyôhkanak entered the lodge the women. There were many who entered but five made a declaration. The first âtieyôhkanak that came was pîsim (the sun). The sun told the women, “I will bear witness to this exchange and I will stand by it for all time.” The second and third was the âtayôhkan was the the nipiy (water), but it was the male and the female nipiy that came in and they too stated, “We will bear witness to this exchange and we will stand by it for all time.” The fourth âtayôhkanak was the wihkask (sweetgrass); the grass told the women, “I too will bear witness to this exchange and I will stand by it for all time.” The final âtayôhkanak was the grandfather rock, who stated, “I too will bear witness to this exchange and I will stand by it for all time.” The grandfather rock is the pipe used to seal the exchange in what is now considered a covenant.”8

McAdam explains that this is why the saying “as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow, and the grass grows” from the numbered treaties is so critical.9

Here, in amiskwaci,10 by the river, kisiskāciwanisīpiy,11 on this bend that has always been a meeting place, as a settler person, I am expected to know this story of the treaty and of the story that lies behind the original treaty. I am expected to honour this river and its history, to consider the significance of the river to all life and to this particular place. Despite the shrinking Columbia Glacier that feeds the river, despite the heavy traffic that surrounds it, despite the shit that runs into it, the river flows, and as long as it does, the Treaty holds.

nêhiyaw lawyer Sharon Venne shifts this a little to say that she has been taught that the water refers to the birth waters—as long as the birth waters break, as long as women give birth and the birth waters flow, the Treaty holds.12 For Venne, this is how we are all bound to the totality of water, through our bodies, through our mothers. Its life is our life, and our obligations to it are simple, and infinite.

This understanding of the treaty suggests that if I don’t honour these integral relationships, I am not abiding by my treaty obligations, and I am putting important, life sustaining and familial relationships at risk. That is, I am here illegally, outside of nêhiyaw law, and outside of the original sacred agreements made by humans and the more-than-humans.

In “Selfcare as Warfare,” Sara Ahmed argues that “[w]e have to walk differently: it is not that those behind come to the front, but that staying back gives you the time to question, to ask rather than tell. A politics of the rear is still a movement.”13 And here, on Treaty 6 land, non-Indigenous people have been asked to walk differently, to be quiet and to listen to entirely different systems of law.

The Elders and the knowledge keepers of Treaty 6 stress the importance of paying close attention to the extended and particular systems of kinship within which we are imbedded. They stress two central nêhiyaw terms that express these concepts of kinship: wiichitowin and wahkotowin: wiichitowin expresses a human-to-human connection/kinship and miyo wiichitowin means good relations. wahkotowin expresses a wider sense of kinship, one that extends to animals, air, water, rocks, plants, stars. miyo wahkotowin means to be in good relations with all of your relations.14 miyo wiichitowin and miyo wakkotowin also reflect the original treaties and are radical and rooted concepts of respect, interconnectedness and balance.

Here, in Treaty 6 territory, I am called on to be in good relations with these extended kinship systems on a local and global level. I am asked to be rigorously attentive to where I am and how I am here. This requires a rigorous engagement with and respect for Indigenous legal systems across North America and beyond. This is what is being asked of us at Standing Rock.

Without a militant sincerity, without a commitment to these legal systems, any acts of resistance will always, at the very least, reproduce and perpetuate current and devastating systems of colonial violence.

1 “Coyote is not a Metaphor: on decolonizing and renaming coyote.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 4, No 1 (2015), 6.
2 Jeff Derksen, “Militant Sincerity.” Toward. Some. Air. Banff Press (2015).
3 Email (May 2016).
5 Hayden King,
6 See Sylvia McAdam’s Nationhood Interrupted. Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems. Saskatoon: Purich Press, 2015; Sharon Venne’s “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 34.1 (2007): 3-16, and Jim Kâ-Nîpitêhtêws ana kâ-pimwêwêhahk okakêskihkêmowina: The Counselling Speeches of Jim Kâ-Nîpitêhtêw. Freda Ahenakew & H.C. Wolfart eds. Winnepeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press (1998).
7 Elder Bob Cardinal, in conversation (Oct. 17 2014).
8 McAdam 57.
9 Ibid.
10 Edmonton.
11 North Saskatchewan River.
12 Sharon Venne, “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” 3-16.
13 Sara Ahmed, “Selfcare as Warfare.” Last modified August 25, 2014.
14 These teachings are from different sources across Treaty 6: Elder Bob Cardinal, Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald, nêhiyaw lawyers and scholars Sylvia McAdam and Sharon Venne, Elder Pauline Paulson, nêhiyaw instructor Dorothy Thunder, Papaschase knowledge keeper Reubin Quinn and nêhiyaw knowledge keeper Gary Moostoos.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Oki Sogumi


In the nightmare I wake up in the middle of the night, to a quiet rustling. At first, I think it must be the glimmering remnants of a dream, the edges of an animal video I watched before falling asleep, charming and affirmative in its antics. But then it is chattering and a stain appears, turning the opaque sheet clear. I sense there is a squirrel and the wetness is piss. A light is attached to my eyes and I swirl it around the room. But the movement is not in sync. The front door is open, outside it impossible to see, and hard white flood lights and hard white pebbles line the ground. No wonder the animals came inside.

Friends have joined me to lure the animals away, with each animal they touch, my debt grows. In a wide-mouthed vase of water, a duck sits motionless, a few hummingbirds float on the surface next to her. I go outside to the dark side of the house, to dump their bodies out. I want to keep the hummingbirds, they almost fit perfectly into my cupped hand. It’s strange how much larger an animal seemed when their circumference came into contact with domestic proportions. Hummingbirds swell to be just right.

I wake up in the dark. No bodies move here. I’m relieved. I check my phone, and in the glow, I can see the room contains no animal remainder. Just some dirty dishes, a full hamper of laundry. My body seems to disappear behind its symptoms. And there are no warm bodies there, I’m not cold exactly, but my hand cups into the shape of a hummingbird.

My unconscious life is circular. No wonder I want things to burn. Burning has a beginning and an end.


Am I doomed to have a shitty time at holidays because I didn’t celebrate any growing up? I fear I don’t approach them with an open familiarity that would invite the universe’s auspicious and festive graces. I’m spending Thanksgiving in bed, sick with a bad head cold. It’s not the holiday that tugs at me, but wanting to see Melissa and write together, as we try to do. She’s the one who suggested that I write about Gail Scott. I gravitated to the novel Heroine, but periodically I glance at the stack of other Gail Scott books wondering if I will read them too. Then, I could talk to Melissa about them. This is a driving motivation for many books I read, they become touchstones for friendship, for triangulating what is or isn’t shared between us.

I remember a rare Thanksgiving at my great uncle’s house and eating bulgolgi and watching a Lord of the Rings film. My great uncle used to be a billboard painter, until forced retirement, and he started doing portraits at the mall. Light filtering through their curtains, a picture of him in front of a billboard, flower patterned things. Immigrant aesthetics—sort of late 70s meets grandma meets dorm room logic meets vaguely “executive” looking objects.

All my memories are getting mixed up, in particular the living rooms which orient my sense of interior space. These living rooms like books help place my relations. My parents never really furnished their living rooms, all my memories are of laying on the floor or sitting on office chairs. In the old house the carpet was a bright ugly mauve. All over. Like a muddied Pepto Bismol pool. That’s all over these memories too, like a disturbing puke. I spent a lot of time on it, I think it’s permanently soaking things.


What if all my desires are illegal.


It’s not even thin skin, it’s the feeling of having no skin at all, a monstrous creature, socially made. We are all made from society’s shit. Yet to get on with life you learn to deal. Society offers a skin. A projection surface. A suture spot. Hold still, let it happen. Stabilize a sense of self, narrate a map, act generously on the assumption what you need matters. But you get obsessed at the suture, pick at it. Bend into several skins at once. To be this way you take up and give up many disciplines. You are used to being penalized, it almost becomes a skin of its own, and more a way of being. Fidelity is rewarded, an Anglo-Saxon sense of balance. Your sense of balance is more about burning things. Flames pass easily through your not-skins, or through the many skins you keep bending into, they burn easily. When crisis surfaces it feels like finally, other people feel the skinness of skin. How nothing really adheres. There’s a flapping sound of air passing in the gap.


In immigration narratives, to speak about feeling in-between becomes a cliché and one must find a way to make it interesting. Performing in-between too much or too little will be a problem.

I keep returning to Rey Chow’s book, The Protestant Ethnic (the title makes me laugh, the way I do when the speaker admonishes herself in Heroine with don’t be such a Protestant):
If an ethnic critic should simply ignore her own ethnic history and become immersed in white culture, she would, needless to say, be deemed a turncoat (one that forgets her origins). But if she should choose, instead to mimic and perform her own ethnicity in her work—that is, to respond to the hailing ‘Hey, you!’ that is issued from various directions in the outside world—she would still be considered a turncoat, this time because she is too eagerly pandering to the orientalist tastes of Westerners. Her only viable option seems to be that of reproducing a specific version of herself—and her ethnicity—that has, somehow, already been endorsed and approved by the specialists of her culture. It is at this juncture that coercive mimeticism acquires additional significance as an institutionalized mechanism of knowledge production and dissemination, the point of which is to manage a non-Western ethnicity through the disciplinary promulgation of the supposed difference of its literary and cultural tradition (117).
Similarly, Vassar Kaiwar writes in the essay “What is Postcolonial Orientalism and Why Does it Matter?” (2010), critiquing academic subaltern and postcolonial studies apolitical positioning:
One becomes, by default, a living representative of one’s community, either properly authentic—which in the immigrant context of the USA means advocating the stock positions of postcolonial studies, including notions of hybridity, in-betweenness, place-based specificity, untranslatable into any higher terms of political solidarity—or somehow inauthentic to the extent that one still thinks in terms of structural contradictions, and the terms that are now derided as defunct and passé.
So this is the rock and the hard place the “ethnic” navigates and perhaps hopes to not to get hopelessly trapped in between (haha). There exists a consistent possibility for both self-betrayal and self-exotification, and for either mistake the ethnic critic/writer will be scrutinized.

But in feminist narratives, or a certain kind of feminist narrative (I suppose I’m implying whiteness), doubling is even more interesting when paired with boredom. The everyday life of a feminized person can be dragged out into infinity. I feel my complaint rising, and wonder if it is interiorized misogyny. I love this writing but I am too torn apart to take a bath. In the shower I make the water run as hot as possible. I rub the dirt off my skin and remember the intimacy of going to the neighborhood bathhouse with my grandmother. She would scrub my back and it was always surprisingly dirty. I would scrub her back in return, her back seemed spare and odd. Like a nun.

Resentment makes one ugly, that’s a recurring motif in Heroine. The speaker strives to be beautiful, but resentment is built into her position, into the power plays between so-called comrades, and resentment happens because she is attuned to things, and makes herself vulnerable to them. In the process, she gets hurt, and then resentful. The beauty she wants is a fantasy; she projects confidence onto other women. Her sensitivity to this confidence is not exactly a lack in herself, but an understanding of how her qualities become undermined, skewed by attempts at male attention. That is, her confidence is displaced and replaced with a different object.

But am I resentful of her ability to write resentment? Her resentment confirms small moments of unhappiness at parties, or in moments of a fading romantic connection within the context of an incestuous political scene or art community. It confirms the abject realness of those moments and links them up into a chain of affect. At the very same time, these other chains of affect appear as shadows, the ones that cannot be aestheticized to be ugly-beautiful.

I might have a political stake in insisting that some of these chains should not be aestheticized in such a direct way. I want to think through experience with troubled, not easy relation to representation. I want to be very clear that representation is not an end goal, and not even a particular effective means towards the things I want to see happen in the world. I keep writing into anonymous projects, but this too is not really point. The world doesn’t have room for the kind of existence I want. What I want will sound too utopian, too post-human to spell out. Does it matter? For now, political commitments remain in the real space of pushing up against the bare limits for what we find ourselves dealing with—so often that real is very brutal and contorts us with the absence of the people we need, the basic material needs, access to life.


I keep wondering if it is enough to be aware of one’s complicity, and to treat this performance of awareness as a critique that is adequate. I keep wondering about the figure of the Black tourist in Heroine. When he finally speaks, we still hear it from the speaker’s point of view: “The Black tourist says: ‘You tell me: How would you treat me in a novel? Among other things, I bet at every mention you’d state my colour” (78). His engagement in the text still serves to bring the narrative back to her novel in progress. He exists as a kind of zero in the text, a visual figure that represent both radical negation and distance. He is a perspective point. He is a built in critique that puts into relief the politics of the F-group, their gaping blind spot. But this is mostly utilized to bolster the much more fleshed out critique of their gender and class politics as they are lived in everyday life. They are perhaps so segregated that one assumes whiteness as a unifying and universal basis. After all, national liberation may not include immigrants, the ethnics, and indigenous peoples. But as “revolutionaries” they are interested in white people from other countries who share a condition of the oppression of the left.


“It was a stupid thing to say. But I was trying to control the darkness so I wouldn’t do something terrible” (26).

There is a great desire to weaponize language, because it is so effectively utilized and manipulated and gendered, it seems right to get revenge. But with great desire comes risk. What I mean is

Cathexis: my own sticky spot has become this figure of the white woman artist. I can’t be her. I don’t want to be her. It’s a secret shame because I think it is facile and beyond my politics. But that’s how jealousy and resentment work.

You see what I mean when I say it is dangerous to get too caught up in your resentment, you give power to it—you absolve your own work and life of serious questions.

But maybe it is in part, that resentment, and the recurring embarrassment that helps drive me away from myself. A necessary thing to begin. Even if later you say: look how far I am from my site of resentment!


But then again, things like this keep happening:

at a poetry reading a white woman asked me to get a glass of wine for her, the room was crowded but also clearing out, i was closer to the table by about three ft

“if i pass you my glass can you pour me some of the pink wine” she said and i looked at her blankly

“pink wine?” i stared at the table like i couldn’t fathom wtf pink wine could possibly mean in this context

long pause

she stared at me and said “never mind, i will get it myself”

“sorry” i said and shrugged, like i had developed an inability to pour pink wine, but had made peace with that and was totally ok with never doing it again


I’m over-reading another micro-aggression. Discussion of micro-aggressions and the focus on them can be a kind of class indicator, to align oneself with more life and death oppression, without necessarily sharing the same risks. (Like that entire story is about wine).

Or maybe it is a rhetorical strategy to talk about but around the shadow stories. The other stories, the shadow stories weigh on me here. There are stories I have no right to write, but they bear on my life nonetheless, through proximity of pain, fear, imprisonment, death, injury, and betrayals I cannot fathom

The moment stuck with me, not just because it was a moment of putting me in my place, but because it really heightened the way the entire room felt. For all the talk of poetry community and its openness, the room was very overwhelming white and the readers were overwhelmingly white. This was at the East Bay Poetry Summit. Subsequent narrativizing of the incident, which involved me laughing about it had my friends asking me “Who was it? Can you remember?” Which seemed to me a little beside the point. I even felt ambivalent about their show of support. What I was trying to indicate was my ambivalence about being in that room, even with all these people I thought I could trust, also mingling and drinking the pink wine. But this is how relationships go sour, instead of directly communicating this (for what reason, with what demand?), I continue to tell you these stories with a dash of wry humor to take some of the edge off. The ambivalence is also about what is built around that room, who its keeps out and under what circumstances that room is meant to be soothing, psychically un-painful and sheltering.

Later I conclude it is better not to pay too much attention to this room over many other rooms. Yet, I might be upset if there are chilling effects to not paying attention to the room. Resentment might be about the desire to have it both ways.


I’ve fallen again into the loop of describing scene politics. I wish I could stop doing that, but reading Heroine made me remember it all. The communist-anarchist political scene was a kind of home, into which I was ushered in and inaugurated by sexual violence. My involvement in interventions into the poetry scene also seem to consistently be about gendered violence.

Many of the political people I met are poets, and some of the poets come over to the political meetings and street demos. There continues to be cross pollination, and as the politics died down, the poets had many political things to say. But again I feel a kind of ugly resentment. Some of them were not around very much, but they describe events like they were in the thick of it. These descriptions are romantic, they aren’t dragged down with skepticism and sorrow, but the joy does not seem precise enough either. Our joy relies on illegality, and to some extent, destruction. And the destruction doesn’t only occur in the thick of things but continues to unravel in the days when less people are watching.

I don’t want to fetishize the joy part. Comrades go to prison. People break down. The joy is in spite of this. Because we are already being destroyed. But I want care to resonate as well. Care: long term support and mutual aid to each other. Not in opposition to destruction, blockades, and other ‘adventurist’ actions, but continuous and parallel with these actions and ways of being. The shared intimacy of these actions and care cannot be ignored, they inform and conspire together. Thinking and planning around care, or reproduction of ourselves, is also a way out of a nostalgic relationship to real events. When do work through the aftermath, and must continue into a kind of futurity (not necessarily a stable, but futurity with room for contingency and change).

The weight of wanting this intimacy between action and care often gets translated into or appears as exhaustion. In Heroine, the speaker seeks both romantic love and collective solidarity but finds blocked entrances at every turn:
We’re not scared. Just exhausted from wanting to change the world and have love too. Anyway, a heroine can be sad, distressed, it just has to be in a social context. That way she doesn’t feel sorrier for herself than for the others. We’re all smarting from retreat. Two steps forward, one step back. The trick is to keep looking towards the future thus cancelling out nostalgia (84).
In her present moment, writing the heroine is the narrator’s access to futurity. She feels betrayed by other women almost as much as she feels betrayed by her male lovers. She is alone in the bath, and dealing with her pain mostly alone or with a therapist. There’s that wry sense that the insistence of the group over the individual may simply mean the isolation and abandonment of the individual. Attention drawn to mishaps takes on a collective sense of failure, the shared fate of accomplices, and that this collective model of might point to a future that “cancels out” a wounded attachment to the past.

During the aftermath of the sexual assault which inaugurated my entrance into the radical scene, a group of future comrades and some that I already knew, many who knew and had been friendly with the perpetrator, worked on a letter to him to listing their grievances. The decision to write this statement had been decided either during or soon after a very confusing and awkward meeting I had with the group, during which I had to recount the story to a group of mostly strangers, and someone asked me if I wanted a “support group centered on the survivor,” and most of the meeting was a discussion of his patterns of his behavior and psychology. The letter was a placeholder and midpoint between doing nothing, and pursuing some kind of revenge. As it happens, sometimes the placeholder becomes the thing itself. I decided to stop attending the meetings and was assigned a liaison who would check in with me. After many weeks and several meetings with the liaison, during which I stressed my desire for a collective response (not just a letter), that is, a real change in the gender dynamics in the scene moving forward—I was sent a draft of the letter.

But how had I stressed that desire for a collective response? And to what ends? Was it ultimately interpreted that I cared more about their political scene than my well-being? What I meant was that my well-being seemed now, against my will, to have interwoven destiny with the collective response of the scene.

I read the letter. I read it several times and the letters blurred. I didn’t cry. But reading was hard. I didn’t find what I was looking for, and it became immediately clear in its absence that I was looking. I was hungry and looking for food. Finally, I had to ask them to say something about the impact of his actions on “the survivor’s life.” The letter was mostly about how his actions really impacted them as a group, their ability to organize with women of color, etc. I signed the letter, already feeling sorry for making them edit the thing after so much effort. Later, my own sorry feeling came back to haunt me, to be the seed of resentment.

Yes, the comrades had worked hard.

Yes, I still felt resentment.

It was the feminist comrades that allowed me my resentment, didn’t let me drown in it. I learned kindness and care. I learned paranoia. I heard so much gossip that I wanted to vomit, as if I experienced a kind of vertigo from seeing things too quickly. Everything took on the appearance of bruises. We dyed our hair together and ate noodles from the Chinese restaurant below my apartment, the one that the perpetrator told me our comrades went to after the riot. I was living in his apartment; I had taken over the lease. I lived there the whole year and tried to fill it with different memories, different affect. In the feminist friends I was looking for heroines who did not represent futurity, but cancelled out the past’s constant return with their present support.

I don’t want to over idealize this part either, as the years passed, there would be many times that the comradery and trust I put in feminists would be betrayed, sometimes in crushing ways. Waking up with bruises on my face where her hand had made contact. I would learn new resentments, and at the same time these moments opened up new forms of contact. Each time I was injured and filled with resentment I tried to find hidden chambers, and eagerly I would allow the meeting of strangers to lean again toward friendship, though at the same time the sealed off chambers also grew into their own vast kingdom covered in a terrible mist.


It’s not that the complaints aren’t real, but do they fulfill a genre expectation, a gendered expectation, a racialized expectation, to be such an individual who embodies self-respect they must be buoyed by complaint. Some people are allowed to not complain and their words are allowed to stay still for long time on their own legs. Sometimes a complaint will come along and kick those legs.

The complaints are real. I wanted stop speaking for a while and wait until finally the words came to me, wading through the texts, scanning history, parsing the decisions. I want to point at the invisible spot on the film we have been watching all along. I want to project the film into some weary possibility, hidden marshlands and seascapes at night that refuse to speak. My hands want to grip the complaint; my eyes fill up instead with the burst of sidewalk glass.

Let me be unpeaceful.

Lobna msgs me, saying I made her cry with some words, in the middle of Cairo traffic.

“But I love you.”

And look, that’s my unpeace that finds some stillness in me.


I needed an addressee. Virgil, Melissa, and I talked this morning about our writing habits and the importance of having an audience or a clear addressee. The importance of an audience is very palpable in politics too. This leads some to comment on the performativity of political acts, sometimes towards gains in an individual’s or a group’s social capital. Heroine certainly contains this critique. From the very beginning of the text, the narrator tells us about the middle-class comrades who dress up as sex workers to be in “solidarity” against their criminalization. Meanwhile, they are simultaneously flirting with the radical men in the bar.

It’s hard not to cringe while reading this book.

It seemed right, writing into a space that would make me cringe. I want that cringe to be more than a kind of recognition of complicity. When we address someone or an audience, what do we want to see happen? I think about the problems of empathy, of reproducing a subject position, with all the weird details of a life or an event that can’t possibly translate. A text can fail when it fails to transmit. A letter can fail when it doesn’t know who it is addressed to.


What is the difficulty of writing, in the absence of communities of care, or how can you find your “affinity group” when you feel alienated? How do you write for an audience that doesn’t quite exist yet, or is no longer present?

How to break out of the traumatic loop?

How to write in and out of the traumatic loop?

How can there be new collective bonds, which don’t just replicate the loop?

How can the loop become exploratory? How can the loop contaminate, and rove wildly?

Experiment (with other people)—

1) Rewrite your biography, the story of yourself that you tell yourself, or to others

2) Write the biography of the desired space of future collectivity, or a space where your rewritten self could live

3) Share/exchange these writings, pick one

4) Find ways to take care of the writing, its contents, questions, body, and narrative—whatever that might mean

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mg Roberts, a zeppelin, a blossom

i want to belong, to never belong
to orient is always to suffer
in corrosive regression rusting through us
rusting audience as transparent as water
I mean smoke
always smolders white

i want to begin, to never begin
hold thumb to set evasion in upward or downward direction
see FAQ map
wet limbs, cut and flung into a ditch like pieces of sky
the innocence of a racial faux pas you overhear
trade wet for dry barometers
stolen geography, stolen tense
metal pressured in earth concealed in threshold
apology bruising
some blossoms don’t get to: reappear

i want to forgive, to never forgive
minerals pressurize under earth
does a tree fall in the forest surrounded by blossoms and or limbs?
flight-summoned you appear with activated wings
all scale & boneslick
you are at the center of blossoms
apple-picker, lung breather, coffee-drinker:

is this about tending to the room or the orchard?
a wet garden with the twinkle of toxic metals in peripheries, a
place where one day a loft will grow or something like this

the shine of feathers
a seed planted in mica light
all this talk of violence
hot air

the cry of something pressing into skin
undermined wing & breastbone ache
take flight in codes rewritten

i want to believe, not to believe
is this a game?
verbs rise in tones
some blossoms don’t somatize
cells & webs hold fast to the function of organs
the narrowing through the function of “or”
all the ways to dislodge insistence

if you move your body you can change the
atoms breathe

scatter light
what else to witness for wolves?
meme as distance, meme of song
snakes write everywhere
click here                               to strike from a distance
a thumb, a name, a vertebra
aggression, daylight, territory, extermination

failed gardeners dig, failed headlines are
written everywhere

watery lines in our lined mouths line me branches
through user-generated keywords

i want to imagine a space in which this is possible: forgiveness

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Robert Andrew Perez, On Productive Ambivalence, Or Liminality, Or 27 Notes on Butch Kween Poetics

As I muse on (American) gay poetics and anti-racist poetry in an era that Brian Ang so astutely conceptualizes as post-crisis, that is post the 2008 economic crisis, I couldn’t help but interrogate how—or whether or not—I engage queer identity and anti-racism in my own writing. I began to ideate about this topic last week while I was concurrently in the throes of planning my Folsom Street Fair look/lewk/lqqk. Regarding my outfit, I was filled with, not an anxiety exactly, but an ambivalence around how I wanted to present gender-wise. I had bought a gold lamé dress and had barely dipped into my drawer full of virtually unused make-up for drag, yet conversely a part of me wanted to engage in a hyper-masculine version of myself, too. I desired to be pretty but this was complicated by my desire to be desired, which, is tied to a gay community that largely champions certain antiquated notions of masculinity we’ve been gifted by dominant culture. In this ambivalence, I was constantly unsettled by my cis-privilege (for instance, I can make these decisions about my gender presentation and remain relatively safe) and was beholden to the social insistence that masc(ulinity) makes one hotter; I couldn’t disentangle my competing impulses from toxic programming. The leather fest in astounding ways challenges and reimagines many of these social systems and opportunes stages for a variety of subcultures that push back on them, but in ways the kink community is still a very white community, so add on top of this waffling of markers of gender my stereotype threat (the fear a member of a certain social group has that he or she is fulfilling a stereotype of that group). By feminizing myself, was I de-sexualizing myself thus enacting the role of a submissive Asian man or Asian man devoid of sexual potency? Don’t I have to be extra-masculine to read as having any masculinity (white mediocrity)? How is this stereotype refigured for Filipino gay men? These calculations, though intensified by Folsom, are always present. They keep my identity, my consciousness, in a liminal flux. I am always between things.

Of course, then, my poetics are informed by my daily psychic negotiations with culture. My book, the field, opens with this poem:
my friends are writing poems for/about their kids, and here i am
still writing about fucking guys and fucking losing guys and fucking
loser guys and fucking loose guys, fucking losing loose, loser
guys. i do write about milk, but not breast milk. i’m more like
that dancing milk carton from the coffee and tv music video—at the end
i float to heaven with a strawberry milk carton, underscored by organ
music, except it’s hell. pre-fire, that is to say before the kiln, the shape
of the vase fully formed. formed fully and undone, my state, figuratively,
is pre-fire. i carry the threat of combustion; all i need is sapphire.
let’s think back to seeing nicole richie in a papasan in the westwood
urban outfitters. she corroborates my impulse to buy a blue jacket
i’ll never wear, but in that moment i feel the burn of stardom. no one
knows me or nicole anymore. the preeminent callipygian, kim kardashian,
smatters minstrelsy on paper. destiny’s progeny has a name for this:
jelly. we eat pulverized bone because purple is a flavor and grape is never
funny. with everything falling apart, why can’t the monolith of patriarchy?
just because i care, i can never write a good poem for womyn. i watch
shonda rimes because i care about race and gender. because i love soap.
to drop it. before i knew erasure did it first, i assumed wheatus wrote
the lines: i try to discover a little something to make me sweeter.
oh baby refrain from breaking my heart. anything successfully invisible is
also indelible. therefore i love him not. something partly loved, then,
is able to be smeared and eventually wiped clean away. the children
i never have and the poems i never write, therefore, i fully love them.
My poetry often lacks the vestiges of poetry that tackle race and queerness head-on, but race and sexuality is something that the speaker in this first poem is preoccupied with in his betweenness—between guys, between failure and potential, between student loan payments, between the trivial and the not-so-trivial. The speaker dies, goes to heaven which is hell, and hell is earth, so he never really dies—purgatory, the original liminal space. The speaker bemoans his romantic life and lack of success which spirals into his resentment for the patriarchy. It’s glib and dim, but there’s a hopefulness there. Watching television helmed by women of color provides the speaker with hope. Admission of failure engenders potential, breeds resiliency.

Some of the worst poems I’ve written were when I was trying to say something about race and/or sexuality; I think I sounded too didactic or preachy or jargonistic for my aesthetic. That is not to say there isn’t room in my writing or reading practice for discursive impulses, rather I recognize a failure in myself to be artful the moments I succumb to the seductive trappings of discourse. I believe it’s just a matter of tempering these impulses with strangeness that defamiliarizes the language—to make the truth ring louder by alienating it from a dull and safe semantic casing. For instance, Chris Nealon’s Heteronomy is a testament to one way of estrangement, with its digressive, essayistic limber lyricism. He writes in a newer poem, You Surround Me, featured on PEN America:
To feel surrounded – to be shot through –
Freud called it paranoia: fear that all the labor of the making of your unitary body could be undone
Undone by the river of desire – “river” here in general meaning homosexuality –
          That was 1922
By 1968 Guy Hocquenghem is having none of it – homosexuals aren’t paranoid, queerness is relief from paranoia – from the fear of not being normal,
          It’s waving not drowning,
And it prefigures the undoing of hetero and homo both– perversion universal – the end of capital
          That was 1968
But the jokes are still funny – “No one ever threatens to take away your anus” –
See how his intellect dances and how pop culture, chatter and theory rub up against each other? This is also liminal poetry.

Which brings us back to the question of gender. I learned a phrase this past year that resonates with me: Butch Queen/Kween. The origin of the phrase can be traced to Ball Culture (competitive black queer drag houses) as far back as the 60s and has colloquially evolved to mean a gay man who represents both masculine and feminine simultaneously or more masculine or more feminine from moment to moment. I believe there is an elasticity to the term that extends this to more gender queer and trans individuals than just gay men. So the question is: what is a gay poetry that is adequate to the present (post-viral video, post-police body camera, post-drone, post-Pulse night club)? I believe the hope is nested, braided into this notion of Butch Kweendom. Why is this distinction—gay poetry as opposed to Butch Kween Poetry—important? Because Mark Doty can’t turn off his orientalist impulses without kicking and screaming. Because trans folk of color experience violence at horrifically disproportionate rates. Because Black Americans are murdered by the state. Because we need a new gay poetry that rejects the whiteness it has historically favored and refigures its middling queerness.


The Butch Kweendom is intersectional.

The Butch Kween Poet knows that liminality is the lifeblood of the poet, like most poets should know, but knows liminality intimately as a daily practice. The BKP knows poetry is upper limit music and lower limit speech. The BKP knows how to text with emojis. That texting is upper limit speech, lower limit prose. Texting is cousin/cuzzin to poetry.

The Butch Kween Poet knows to have a body is to know betrayal.

The Butch Kween Poet is concerned with the body but like many poets insistent on its dematerialization. The disembodied voice is a hope, an aim for the speaker in Butch Kween Poetics. However, the Butch Kween Poet knows that the poetics of disembodiment is the poetics of privilege because the Butch Kween is interpellated, hailed.

The Butch Kween Poet knows repressive apparatuses. The Butch Kween Poet knows institutional apparatuses. The Butch Kween Poet is a bad subject. The Butch Kween Poet sees the state. Spits in his face.

The Butch Kween Poet is barred from the Academy. Or the BPK was born and thus expelled from the Academy.

Butch Kween Poet knows she’s abject. Knowledge of that abjection is a consciousness that empowers her.

The Butch Kween Poet can be discursive without falling into its traps. The BKP is always political. She’s nasty.

One cannot alienate or disassociate the racial valences of Butch Kweendom from the Butch Kween Poet.

It is yet to be determined that a Butch Kween can be white but she rejects whiteness. Traditional gay poetics harbor the orientalist and traffic in the fetishism of bodies of color. The BKP has no time for that.

The BPK has no time for Kenneth Goldsmith.

The Butch Kween enters a white space to contaminate it with fabulousness. The discomfort is tea, is a mirror held up to whiteness. Rob Halpern might say the Butch Kween Poet makes the secrecy of private life perceptible to make the secrecy of state violence perceptible.

Darrian Wesley is a Butch Kween Poet. Read this Butch Kween Poet’s poem, Butch Queen Shade:
Forthrightly, I could not risk missing
another flight home from ATL after
the unofficial pride weekend so I made
my cheeks clap clutch as a tucked BBC
until boarding time. Every fasting bottom
gets hungry after deep south dick. Those
pounds of candied yams and fatback
collards that didn’t stick to my bones made
my bowels fleet like a draining pot
of macaroni. I got on the plane timely,
carryon strapped, with Group C while a first
flight eye witness steward was fracturing ice
with a coke bottle. We’ve all interrupted
that religion with the imminent career
question, “Where’s the bathroom?” That Butch
Queen’s dagger eyes drew, voice rumbled:
“To the left. Hurry-up. We can’t take off
until you’re out.” I know enough not to
drop a bomb before the flight takes off.
But I dropped one anyway. Yes, and flushed two
times to signify I was not shitting around
with anyone’s ego. I synchronized
my hands in soapy water like a Pentecostal
preacher before communion, left the lid up
and shantey-sashayed to my first class seat
so all but me could smell my Soul Food cooking.
The Butch Kween Poet is a soothsayer. Phillip B. Williams is a Butch Kween Poet. This BKP wrote:
What we don’t like we consider
an intrusion in our life. [Such is skin],
no place for a boy to go, strange culture
that takes our sons. Let it kill him.
There are Butch Kween Poets awakening (woking) all the time like slayers.

Langston Hughes was a proto-Butch Kween Poet.

Women can be Butch Kween Poets.

The Butch Kween Poet might be poor. Might have student loans. Despises neoliberalism.

The Butch Kween Poet of color knows white supremacy enacts violence over non-black POC differently than it does black folks. The BPK sees anti-blackness and stamps it out.

The Butch Kween Poet is between states. She straddles barriers. The dreamscape is a liminality (to be woke is to once dream). The psychedelic trip is a liminality. Being mixed-race is a liminality. Being an immigrant is a liminality.

The Butch Kween Poet knows identity is iterative. Gender is performative. The Butch Kween has read Judith Butler or at least knows heterosexuality presupposes homosexuality.

The Butch Kween Poet may have lived outside of America, therefore can see America for what it is. The truth is the BKP is always outside America because she has been dispossessed by America. The Butch Kween Poet is also a colonized subject.

The Butch Kween Poet has been discriminated against on Grindr. The BKP is too fat. Too fem. Black. Asian. Latino. Combinations thereof.

The Butch Kween Poet contains multitudes, but knows though an abolitionist Walt Whitman was definitely still racist af. She sees his democratic-vistas-ass. #next

The Butch Kween Poet knows the golden girls. The girls of Set It Off. The girls of Steel Magnolias. Both versions. She knows all the girls she is and the girls she’s been denied to be.

The Butch Kween Poet is a codeswitcher. Butch Kween Poetry can move between registers. The BKP is dualistic.

Dematerialize the body. Body jump. Live in the body. Die in the body. The Butch Kween Poet’s body is always in emergence.


This list is ongoing, perpetually in negotiations. It isn’t a manifesto, it’s a byproduct of middle being, being in the middle. It is a list necessarily changeable.

Don’t we deserve a gay poetics that acknowledges the daily traumas the queer body of color endures? A poetics that problematizes the psychic and physical violences the queer body has to navigate around/through that traditional gay poetics tacitly disavows? Butch Kween Poetics as I’ve started to conceptualize here is a space in which the troubled gay writer of color can reassemble subjectivity in a tradition that has been predominantly cis-white. The Butch Kween Poet was killed in Orlando and wrote about that death. What if we had a poetics that acknowledged the body’s corporeal limitations only to vanquish them with ferocity? Read: a poetics that slays, henny.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Chris Nealon, The Matter of Capital in 2016

I think what’s struck me most about poetry and capitalism since I published The Matter of Capital in 2011 is how much more explicitly anti-capitalist poetry has been published in the last five years. Also, of course, we’ve had five years to deepen our understanding of the global coordinates of capitalist crisis, as well as the way long histories of racial exploitation and colonialism continue to shape the trajectory of capital down to this day. There has been a wave of exciting new scholarship on these questions. And of course there have been fresh waves of struggle since 2011, too.

Just to start at random – five years ago we didn’t yet know how to say “undercommons.” There was no Commune Editions, which has since published a range of great anti-capitalist work, and received wide notice. There was no Citizen – not itself an anti-capitalist book, but one that expands Claudia Rankine’s study of media spectacle and racial violence in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely to include the trope of the micro-aggression – which to me, at least, allows us to think about how day-to-day life exists in immediate proximity to deep histories of capitalism’s manipulation of race. The pushback against police violence and the prison-industrial complex, meanwhile, has been accompanied by a new round of scholarship linking early American capitalism to the profitability of slavery. Whatever the limits of this scholarship (of neglecting earlier work on this question, or of not quite grasping the specific dynamics of capital), it has given students of the history of American capitalism much to work with, as we try to make more emphatic and historically grounded connections between the histories of racism and of capitalist accumulation.

Then there’s just the sheer number of poetry books published since 2011 or so, across a range of styles and left political orientations, that have turned explicitly to the destructiveness of capitalism. I have hardly been able to keep up! There are books by well-known writers like Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot; or books by emerging writers like Sandra Simonds, whose Steal it Back has several masterpieces in it. Then there’s something else, a whole sea-change that allows certain fleeting gestures to appear in a poem and be legible as part of lyrical speech, for instance. Just the other day I was reading a poem online at PEN America by Alli Warren, called “Scrambled Eggs,” and came across this cluster of lines:
The earth bows under no geographic surveillance
Unemployment is built into the fabric of the wage relation
Flyknit health core, green juice purgatory
I love this little run of lines (as I love the poem as a whole). Their contemporaneity, if you want to call it that, is interesting, too. The movement from line to line is downstream from the “new sentence” of the language writers, of course – where “the new sentence” was “new” partly because of the associative variety a ways sentences could move from one to the next. You see it here especially in the way the metaphorical “fabric of the wage relation” gets literally realized in the “flyknit” of the latest Nike shoe construction technology. But there are a few things here that I rarely saw in the new sentence of yore – the unabashed romanticism of the first line, and the unconcerned with ironic torqueing in the second. The candor of those lines is part of another sea-change in post-crisis poetry, in which avant-gardist techniques are no longer seen as necessarily anti-capitalist, even as they remain in affectionate, enthusiastic use in anti-capitalist poetry. But the very 80s “critique of the subject,” along with a critique of romanticism that the language writers shared with much more conservative writers – this has fallen away.

I can also say that my own understanding of capitalist crisis has deepened since I wrote The Matter of Capital. I’ve heard it said that that book “isn’t Marxist,” and I think I understand what that means – I quite deliberately kept my frame of reference centered on a reading of how poets thought about capitalism, remaining largely descriptive – I really just wanted to point out that there had been a long and persistent tradition of writing poetry about capital, one that had gone un-named. I kept the further task of asking whether poets’ sense of capitalist crises matched up with a Marxist one off the table. So there is no Marxist analysis of crises of accumulation in my book. But in the meantime, I’ve been lucky to read around in classic and recent scholarship on just this question, and am glad to be able to pass on whole syllabi to others, now, who are getting up to speed. The excellent books and articles are too many to name, but I would say that I find it most productive to read and write out of a triangle formed by 1) histories of capitalism in a Brennerian vein, including histories of the recent past that lay emphasis on the possibility of a secular stagnation in capital’s ability to expand; 2) value-theoretical writing that supplements the Brennerian mode with a study of the challenges to value-production, with the abstraction amped up just enough for us to see commonalities across different national capitalisms; and 3) feminist and anti-racist scholarship that re-opens the question of the relation between capitalist accumulation and older or other modes of social reproduction. Twisting the dial among these overlapping bodies of scholarship – especially in reading with friends and students – has helped me develop the beginnings of a picture of capitalist history that doesn’t fall prey to the stark either-ors (either theory or history; either “class” or “identity”) that bogged down anti-capitalist thinking in the past. I am hopeful that a generation of us (or, really, a generation younger than me) will get the word out about this more historically capacious, factually accurate, and politically flexible way of studying and opposing capitalism.

A final note – I was on a poetics panel at the MLA in Vancouver in January 2015 with two fantastic scholars, Joel Nickels and Margaret Ronda, and as soon as we finished presenting, the conversation with the audience – composed largely of very young people – kicked off with questions about Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century, as though it were perfectly normal to think about poetic history and poetic form alongside detailed histories of the ebb and flow of capitalist accumulation. We’ve come a long way!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

T.C. Marshall, A Secret Agent, a Spaceman, & a Talking Bear: A Theory of Doubling the Stakes in Poetry

“ONLY YOU,” is boldly printed there above a drawing of a bear dressed like Smokey; beneath the picture, it continues: “CAN RESIST FASCIST LIARS.” Maybe you saw John Weir’s cartoon putting new words in a bear’s mouth. If you look closely at it, you see that the name on the hatband is “Wokey” not “Smokey”; this must be his cousin, awakened, and she is calling on us to awake.

We have entered a new era of resistance. From marches to postcards to interruptive demonstrations, some slumbering giant has awakened and made the middle class take up tools they haven’t handled for awhile. Smokey’s mattock has met Wokey’s wild words. The crisis is with us. The money has pushed us up against the walls of our lives, and given us common purpose.

What do we, the poets, do for this moment? If we check our tools, what do we see at the ready? The words (and their friends the spaces) can raise an image, evoke characters, tell a story, suggest a thought, shape a mask, carry info, stir a feeling, make pattern & variation show, or play a rhythm for ear or body. We can make truth dance or raise a devil and slap him down. We can express ourselves and our community in image, song, or drama, in impersonization or abstract thinking, in analysis or evocation.

Our aesthetics drive us, but how far can they go? Knowing our tools and our goals gives us impetus, but what limits us? Why can’t all the world hear? Do we swell only the same old crowd? Where is the impasse? Can the middle-class listen beyond its historical addiction to sempiternal sincerities of truth and beauty? Are our newly awakened allies “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”? Can we work with the energy of tensions instead of the certainty of resolutions? Can you get to “the Undercommons” from here, and who is there when you get there? These pressing questions push for a critical look at the aesthetic, and some place from which to take that look.

We live and work in what one French guy has called “the aesthetic regime.” This is the regimen of rules and expectations for art that is focused on and thru “the aesthetic.” Right there, the word “aesthetic” gets historicized and rescued from the blandness of including all art and the tastes of all times. It is not just a term for the artsy but a term with a specific social history, erased or blurred by the blurring of the word.

It might help us to see this if we use the term “aesthetic art” to remind us that not all art has been or will be “aesthetic.” That French guy, Jacques Rancière, has provided us with an abstract history of how the aesthetic concept freed art to do new things beyond the previous representational mimetic framework. In the same recent decades, Englishman Terry Eagleton provided an analysis of the big guy thinkers of the last couple of centuries and showed the aesthetic basis of their major concepts. Both of these historicizations help show how aesthetic art may already be unfolding into something else.

The aesthetic asks certain things of its artists and audiences with which we are all familiar. Because it was derived from a regime in which art made models for following The Good (Rancière’s “representational regime”), it adapted what had been in vogue then toward the new bourgeois vogue focusing on the individual and on the freedom and responsibility to shape one’s worldview. This freedom was opened to the artist by partly lifting the responsibility to reflect the world “as it is.” 

“The aesthetic regime of the arts,” Jacques Rancière tells us in his book on The Politics of the Aesthetic, “did not begin with decisions to initiate an artistic rupture. It began with decisions to reinterpret what makes art or what art makes” (20). Rancière’s historicization of the aesthetic begins there and shows us how the shift from a previous regime of mimetic representation could happen. What made art before, in that old regime, was what Rancière calls “forms of normativity” like “partitions between the representable and the unrepresentable; the distinction between genres according to what is represented; … the distribution of resemblances according to principles of verisimilitude, appropriateness, or correspondence; etc.” What art had been making was models for our understanding that had worked by “global analogy with an overall hierarchy of political and social occupations” to show us where we might fit into the world around us (17). Now, art could come from “the imagination” and work toward an ideal transcendent to this world. Part of its power lay in admitting that it did not reflect “the way things are.” Another part of its power came from inserting itself into the world on an equal basis with the forms of this world. This allowed art to claim some force for its shape besides reflection. The aesthetic regime tried to free art from its hierarchies “by destroying the mimetic barrier that distinguished ways of doing and making affiliated with art from other ways of doing and making.” This “simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself” (19).

The trick to this switch is that, in the aesthetic regime, form works as though no one were working it. The artist becomes a secret agent whose effort appears effortless. In fact, Kant insisted in the early days of aesthetic theory that art must have a “purposive purposelessness.” We encounter “the power of a form of thought that has become foreign to itself: a product identical with something not produced, knowledge transformed into non-knowledge, logos identical with pathos, the intention of the unintentional, etc.” (18). As Rancière puts it, this “identity of opposites” shapes “a pure instance of suspension,” of the content of the artist’s message, “a moment when form is experienced for itself” which is “the moment of the formation and education of a specific type of humanity” (19). How to make the good bourgeois good, that was the program without a program—operating through a whole weltanschauung. Herein lies “the contradiction constitutive of the aesthetic regime of the arts, which makes art into an autonomous form of life and thereby sets down, at one and the same time, the autonomy of art and its identification with a moment in life’s process of self-formation” (21). We are trained thereby to see art unfolding as a “total life programme” (sic, 25), what we have tended to call “the artist’s vision” that springs forth fully armed.

This is not to say that we are all writing something as huge as Brian Ang’s The Totality Cantos; haiku also carry a worldview, and so do “lowku” (or “low coup” as Amiri Baraka called them). These visions may move a reader. They may even move the world. Rancière says they do so through offering a new “distribution of the sensible”(89). This is the key term in his discussions of the arts and politics. He puts a very interesting twist on the political. “Politics is generally seen as the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved: the organization of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimizing this distribution.” Rancière chooses instead to call this “the police” and to “reserve the term politics for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration” of representable voices—taking or presenting “the part of those who have no part.” It tests equality and “makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise” (Disagreement 29-30). The new allocation of voices versus the old distribution is the political core of the arts. Each voice is expected to seriously present itself, and yet it is not the contents of what they say but the very fact of participating in the discourse that makes for change.

Rancière’s concept of the political side of art being its “distribution of the sensible” goes hand in hand with his concept of “policing.” Its essence is a distribution of the sensible that precludes or represses true “politics,” that protects the hegemonic distribution of who speaks and what can be heard. Policing can exist in the form of art. Politics depends on a kind of aesthetic, a distribution of parts. This “aesthetic” aspect of politics is Rancière’s main thrust toward a politics in the aesthetic. It is not necessarily always a progressive one. ‘The modern emergence of aesthetics as an autonomous discourse determining an autonomous division of the perceptible is an emergence of an evaluation of the perceptible that is distinct from any judgment about the use to which it is put.” What we progressive poets make and what audiences make of what we make is “a world of virtual community—of community demanded—superimposed on the world of commands and lots that gives everything a use” (57). Kant’s “purposive purposelessness” can be turned toward “constituting a kind of community of sense experience that works on the world of assumption … by revealing a mode of existence of sense experience that has eluded the allocation of parties and lots,” simultaneously “freeing up the norms of representation” (58). The aesthetic allows us this purpose and the freedom to put it to use, but then the arguments of taste begin.

As we choose and argue over our ways of making art, over the uses of our tools, we re-enact the policing of the world at large. Heriberto Yépez has laid this all out sharply in his provocatively pointed “Notes on art’s crap.” In this part of his work “Against the Police-Concept of Art,” Yépez delightfully excoriates our dominant art world and indicts its aestheticisms. He has taken ideas like Rancière’s to the next level, and outdone him on all counts. The re-incorporation of severed parts of society may have been Whitman’s game, as the telling it slant was Dickinson’s, and the reaching to include other mindsets was Rimbaud’s and Mallarmé’s, and all are praised as “politics” by Rancière in his literary criticism, but art polices itself too—through us, the artists. Art’s function, Yépez says, “is to sabotage individual discontent and prevent violent collective explosions” by balancing our work against the art-world games of being heard and choosing what to hear, just as the management of finance tries to do with the other crises in our world through devaluations. It is our accounting of the world that polices it. As Heriberto writes: “Every element of art polices the others,” and “Police is the ruling concept of art.” To assert that artworks “are part of the pacification apparatus” where “you are supposed to be the detective who finds additional meanings in art and never finds the police and the crime” is almost funny in the way it frames us, but it leads him to an abrupt fierce conclusion about our arts:
Art will not change. Art will not change art. Art will not change the world. The world needs to destroy art. The transformation of the world will involve the destruction of every form of art. Art’s self-destruction is not enough.
If we look around ourselves at other arts, we may see some of this destruction in the shift of focus away from high art values. If we look at an anthology like Anthony Downey’s Art and Politics Now, we can easily see the engagement of our contemporary film and gallery artists with globalization, labor issues, citizenship issues, police terrorisms, environmental degradations, and more. They employ techniques that give new voice to the silenced, but they also invert the old relationship to The Sublime and The Beautiful; we are challenged to be better people by seeing the ugly monstrosities of daily life hidden in some lives around us. They turn the subjective ideal of an art that teaches through aesthesis toward an experience of noesis. Objectivities of various sorts have been employed; final conclusions have been eschewed; material concerns have been shifted into the place of transcendent ones; the languages of oppression, advertising, and policing have been framed to expose themselves; and laughter has been invited to throw light. Purposefulness has returned with a vengeance, like a repressed urge, and it has learned to come at us “slant”—from outside our own aesthetic sensibilities and common sense, though it is art’s old tools that get used for this.

What this art asks the audience to do is to engage the new information and the voices raised, sometimes to add our own and sometimes just to hear and digest. The trick that turns against us in this lies in the “rejectable” quality of these works. In today’s atmosphere of “alternative facts,” this is a major factor. Preaching to the choir may inspire them, but it is both self-limiting and policing in its way. The enemy has a capacity for tolerating our existence and using our voices as proof of something like democracy. Any simple stance can be both accepted and opposed without anybody being moved at all. We need to effect more pressure than merely pointing things out or handing the microphone or megaphone around the circle. A single-pointed stance is locatable; you can point to it and see where it’s at. Whether it’s Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side showing us interviews with Mexican migrant workers and Americans commenting on their risks and rights, Santiago Serra’s giant NO on a global tour, or the self-mutilation of Mike Parr as a reference to that of detainees in Australia in indefinite incarceration, each work can be illuminating for some and something simply to turn off for others (all in Downey). It all falls back into policing in a way. There’s got to be a larger perspective that we offer and ask for from audiences, or the bourgeois habit of picking and choosing will prevail. We can offer more than a shopping cart.

If we are not going to be producing just more stance-oriented work, we probably need to re-conceive the relation to how we make art and what art makes. We can offer more than a vision or a stance. We can ask more engagement with themselves from our audience, not just a take-it-or-leave-it choice to believe us or our informants. We can make works that double the stakes of engagement by asking for something like “triangulations” as a more complex kind of location, or even providing oscillations between positions like the physicists say about unlocatable particles. There are artists who have been doing these things for awhile, and a quick look at them might shape some new ways to use our old tools.

The prime examples for this extension of artistic activity make good use of the old tools and depend on their audience’s recognition of longstanding aesthetic principles and approaches. The element that they add is formal and performative. They play good piano or tell jokes well, they move us to emotion or have a point, they batten onto familiar attitudes in us, and they blend things we already know into fresh cocktails. They are stage people, and they use who they are in their act.

The first of these I’ll discuss is the younger of the two. I shared a stage with her myself at Sushi Gallery in San Diego, a town where she honed her skills. Caryn Elaine Johnson became Whoopi Goldberg there. I remember her at a party just watching people, and when I asked what she was doing she said, “Homework.” The moment when I saw her deepest artistry was on that night when we joined other locals in a benefit. One of Caryn’s bits showed the detailed homework she had been doing. It was a perfect portrayal of a surfer girl, a stock character in the real life of San Diego. At one point, she did the hair flip that all the beach chicks had down: hang the hair forward and throw it back over the shoulder with one motion of the neck. You could almost see water come flying out of it, see its full blonde length, sense its lightness and shine. But what was shining were Whoopi’s eyes, and her skin—which was as black then as it is today. She had caught us in admiration of her mimetic skills, making another being appear in the same space where we saw Whoopi. It wrenched my head. Where her hero Moms Mabley had made us see a black body for what it is, Whoopi had made us see one for what it isn’t or was not supposed to be. Where Moms had somethin’ to tell us, Whoopi shows us our contradictions.

Herman Poole Blount did much the same every time he took the stage as Sun Ra. This forerunner of Afro-Futurism became a highly renowned composer/arranger and jazz pianist. He could play it straight and beautiful, moving people to tears with Ellington or a Disney tune, or play it avant with chord changes some people are still trying to explain. He also wrote and published poems and essays, but his writings were not his main focus. He developed a stage act that included costuming for him and his bandmates, designed on the basis of popular images of spacemen and classical Egyptian gods. He purported himself to be from Saturn a messenger sent to bring us new ways of peace and wisdom—what he called “myth-science.” Ra’s mix of space myth, mostly from movies and TV, and classical Egyptian myth from the books he had assiduously studied was a new way of being black in America. You could not quite tell if it all might be a joke, but it was designed to not let you dismiss it too quickly. A viewer, white or black or otherwise, was confronted with a set of contradictions in this man and his act. There were plenty of ways to just enjoy the music. There was much wisdom in the patter and the poetry. And there was fun in the pretense. In America, though, it was dead serious to be black and have a message. His message was a critique of a lot of accepted knowledge: there are no real spacemen, Egypt is dead and it wasn’t black anyway, music is just music and nothing more, wisdom in blacks comes from Uncle-Remus-style acceptance, and space travel is for scientists. Ra’s use of the combination of mythic materials and modern liberation language made him either a fool or a genius, or both maybe. He was a challenge to figure out. It was tough to place him. That allowed him to assert a lot of things that might have earned him a fierce reputation more like Malcolm’s had he played it straight. All of his aesthetic talents were purposefully packaged in a “ridiculousness” that could hardly be ridiculed because it included such serious matter. That crazy combo made him an all-or-nothing kind of deal, filled with contradictions that came from us. “Door of the Cosmos” was no joke if you looked at it right. “Móre than lífe / Interésted me só / That I dáred to knóck /At the dóor of the cósmos,” sang the band with a nod to the rhythms of Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.”

That “door,” of course, is metaphor and image. The thought that there’s more to life than “life” itself is a call to that feeling of adventure in each of us, and the kind of conundrum that a zen koan carries. That “knock” is an action, dramatized. And Ra’s delivery as “Ra” is as if there’s someone who knows this is the way to go, a cosmic messenger with a telegram to us. (See this character at the beginning of his film A Joyful Noise). It’s simplistic poetry worthy of hippies, on one level, and a sophisticated history of poetry on another level. Part of the “form” of this work is its delivery, and the “person” delivering it is part of that. This person may be self-effacing or identity-focused, or the interesting combination that Ra creates by denying his earthliness. No matter which one, either way this person is part of the form on paper or onstage.

“Impersonization” is one of our tools that I listed earlier. I meant then for it to include all the ways of putting a personhood into the poetry, from Browning’s “Sordello” to KRS One’s “edutainment.” It is one element that can use all of poetry’s angles. I’d say, for the professorliness of it, that there are four main angles and some pairings and oppositions among them on a sort of square of axes. They come from the history of our craft. The poetic image includes all that we learned from the task of making something appear before the six senses; this labor is “iconic” and may serve to bolster hierarchy or worship, or as “iconoclastic.” The mimetic dramatization of actions came from another phase of our history, telling stories with a lesson; the lesson of The Bourgeois Gentleman in Molière is a spoof on this and Shakespeare’s oeuvre an apotheosis with spots of spoofing too. Those two are joined in making models for us, and opposed in that the one is more subjective and the other more objective. The subjective appears again in the aesthetic that depends on shared feeling-perceptions, putting us through an experience to gain wisdom. Its partner is an opposite in that it swings outward into objective considerations, and yet it continues the idea of experiencing for ourselves through questioning. It is noetic, a kind of critical thinking. Ra works with all four, even in that verse from “Door,” and his impersonization or “de-personization” is a key to making this stuff stick.

The audience is asked to accept that he is a spaceman embodying wisdom from beyond. The audience also cannot ignore that he is black, and (though there well may be blacks in space) we can see the marks of earthly existence on him. The groove of the tune draws any music fan in, its rhythms link it to John Coltrane’s great hymn, but the contradiction of what we can see and what we’re asked to believe is a lot like it was with Whoopi. The questioning rises from there: we know “Stars Fell on Alabama” one night, but did they leave this fellow behind? How does his message of cosmic love sound from that black mouth? How does a fantasy (like Perkins & Parish’s “Stars” lyric: “I never planned in my imagination / A situation so heavenly, / A fairy land where no one else could enter, / And in the center just you and me”) speak to this world in any way beyond the aesthetical? Am I being hustled? Is this all just entertainment? When She & Him sing that song, it’s all romantic; is there more to it with this man? When the Motor City Drum Ensemble does “Door” as house music with techno imagery in the video, does it lose something Ra put in? What truth be told here? The noetic dimension lies in all such questions, and it’s put there by this guy who gets around in a Nova:

There’s no reason for us to give up the tools of the poetic iconic, mimetic dramatic, or aesthetic experiential angles; however, they all can be revivified if we take up the noetic critical angle to embrace them. Ra is beyond parody; he is not just goofing on the goofs of this world. He is beyond threnody; he wails for life beyond life. He is beyond psalmody; what he praises is both “not of this earth” and rooted in this life. His thinking is analytical and critical but delivered through iconic, dramatic, and experiential means—not simply by bland-faced professorly lecture nor even simply by poetry.

Like all the arts, poetry has used all four modes with different emphases over the centuries and over the miles around the globe. Poiesis is the shaping of forms, image used as iconic; mimesis imitates the world of action with dramatic images; aesthesis emphasizes feeling-perception to create sharing of sensual experience; and noesis puts a critical thinking dimension into the act, setting images into play in ways designed to emphasize social contradictions. The inclusion of, and emphasis on, the noetic dimension also makes use of all the other approaches. We, as writers and readers, can better appreciate the efforts in these directions over the centuries and in the near future if we look at all four dimensions. Our historical moment calls for acts of resistance that double down on what can be achieved under “the aesthetic regime.”

There are many poets adding noetic dimension like this to their work these days: I suppose I saw it first in the simple “low-coup” of Amiri Baraka, taking the haiku form and using it to speak of the “low” end of life and mind so that we engage the contradiction. Part of the joke is that maybe we even start thinking about a “coup.” Part of the presentation of these poems is illustration that helps bring out the joke. Other poets have also added pictures: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen uses them for one kind of illustration of ideas; Mark Nowak’s use of Ian Teh’s photos in Coal Mountain Elementary provides another kind of illustration of experience. Concrete visualization is present in a different way in Karen Weiser’s recent use of typography and the image of slave manacles in Or, The Ambiguities. She shapes a haunting visual dimension to extend the impact of her poems and show her reading of Melville’s Pierre character in its historical context of the contradictions in American slavery. Scott McFarland made the human microphone practice of the Occupy movement into a technical device for doubling the voice in his O Human Microphone. David Lau’s Still Dirty has its ways of making words and phrases carry both sides of the question at hand. This, too, is a kind of doubling that allows us to re-appropriate terms like “crisis” (v. my review in Galatea Resurrects #27). Ron Silliman’s Against Conceptual Poetry uses a transcript of Julian Assange speaking about the politics of outing secret government texts to subtly connect that world with poetics through common terms, linking free speech with fiscalization for example. Stephanie Young’s critique of The University and poetry world politics is composed by enjambing her revealing diaristic notes with critical reflections on a famous poetry conference or two and on “this thing that I made that failed,” a neo-benshi piece on Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART cop (v. my review in GR #21). Eileen Tabios and j/j hastain have carried doubling into a collaborative text that combines her “sense of physicality” with hastain’s trans identity and “the idea of the poem as also a body,” all while working with her adopted son’s school life and the condition of orphaned bodies (v. my review in GR #20). This seemingly labyrinthine combination was for her “a useful scaffolding for managing personal biases and emotion so that they did not get in the way of creating the poem.” She ends this book with “A Poetics Fragment” that expresses the belief that a poem is “completed elsewhere” by others, beyond the poet’s realm of control, and that “one poem can have many different completions.” This is the essence of the noetic, where questionings and contradictions put off conclusions.

The readers we are after are no longer just each other. If we try to take all our readers to one location, to bunch them up, we defeat ourselves, even if that location is the transcendence built into aestheticism—the higher plane. Going low with Baraka gets us further amongst people:
“In the Funk World”
If Elvis Presley is King,
Who is James Brown?
That poem contains multitudes in its stance. It is readable by almost any American. Its doubled dimensions are in music, pop culture, the money wrapped up in music, the funk beyond the music, and race. Baraka’s live delivery of these “low-coup” often included scatting or a band. The whole history of jazz would hover, suggesting things about how to read the questions that were raised. On the page, these poems also got illustrated:

The point is fairly blunt here with Baraka, but the approach recalls the subtlety of Moms Mabley saying, “I got sómethin’ to téll you.” Her toothless grin and bug-eyes challenged audiences to find out that this “little old lady” had some angles on things that we could use, for a laugh and some truth—for the truth in a laugh. As Whoopi told it in an interview, Moms had a joke about being asked by a cop why she drove on a red light. Her reply was sublime: “Because I saw the white folks going on the green, I thought the red was for us.” You can see what she’s saying; whether you hear or see or know her blackness, it shows us all “somethin’.” She is not just being aesthetic; she is freely drawing out provocative contradictions.

The aesthetic regime has offered an attempt at a steady state of “freedom” for the artist, though it is the bourgeois freedom of “free play.” The artist is given this freedom to create forms and enter them into life’s struggle to form itself through this world’s dialectic. The artist herself is given recognition, but the art comes across as a whole “vision” of a world of perceptions. The audience is asked to swallow it whole, or not. The audience is asked to find in the poem, in its images or story or voices, in all its elements, a composition as a whole set of feeling-perceptions located where they can be “experienced” and “shared.” The art world reifies and commodifies this set-up. All the bourgeois satisfactions are there. The morality of alignment with The Truth, for both artists and audiences, hovers.

The gratifications of a “buy-in” are involved, just as they are for a “start-up” business. The “sales pitch” is the art itself to some extent, the product that speaks for itself, but also the theory around it or in it—each work implying a world and its explication, a “lifestyle” as it were.

As aesthesis has unfolded in this now-old regime, and as resistance to the bourgeois world has arisen through life’s forms and in the arts, we have begun to shift perspectives on artists and audiences. Audiences are not unified subjects or objects; they require a variety of angles. In what might be beginning to be a new regime of noesis, the arts can be about raising questions and focusing through contradictions. The framing of any image, story, or voice gets doubled that way. The artist shapes a form that is less monolithic, an “ad campaign” or theory that is more interrogative and tentative—with nothing to “sell” that isn’t already there in society’s contradictions. The audience is asked to ask themselves if they can sustain these tensions and what “price” they are paying to do so. The artist and audiences meet in a form that is built of relations. A set of shifting relations between writer and world, between writer and audience, between audience and world, triangulates all positionings with an outside angle that defers settling on any one “deal.” The “security cameras” of taste are turned off or broken or made as irrelevant as reality TV, in the heads of audiences and artists alike. A collaboration between artist and audience can take place.

Poets can use this extra dimension of the noetic as a way of sharpening all our other tools. We can call up “the future” like Ra did to add perspective, but the rehearsals of past and present contradictions do not lead to any simple resolution in any perfect future we might campaign for. Rancière insists that the difference between the mimetic and the aesthetic is that the aesthetic “incessantly restages the past” (Politics 20). This follows from his claim that the “leap outside of mimesis is by no means the refusal of figurative representation” (19). It is a leap instead from rational sequence to a focus on “raw presence” in the leap from story to “the invention of new forms of life on the basis of an idea of what art was, an idea of what art would have been” if it had kept going under that old regime. The newness made for the future is based in a sense of what the past would have led to. This is what we’re working on with the move from the aesthetic to the noetic. It explores in a little more depth what Marx was talking about about Europe’s new future in The Eighteenth Brumaire:
The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions require recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead. There the phrase went beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the phrase. (18)
We can read this with the “was” and “would have been” as about the aesthetic regime and the noetic angle as the leap into form beyond the content. When Moms or Baraka say “let the dead bury the dead,” the positioning of that statement shuffles between the “B.S.” called out in the low-coup and another joke Moms liked to tell:
Man bought him one of them new-fashioned guns and decided he was goin’ quail huntin’; you know. So, he was walkin’ all through the woods. He didn’t find no quail, but he wandered into a graveyard; you know. After awhile, he seen a big flock of quail, so he aimed his gun. His gun went off and kicked him back into an open grave. He was down there, and he says, “It’s COOOOLLLD down here. Phew. It’s COOOOLD down here.” So, a wino decided he’d take a shortcut through the graveyard. He’s walkin’ through there, and he hears somebody say, “It’s COOOOLLLD down here.” He look around, and look down, and he say, “No wonder you’re cold; you done kicked all the dirt off ya.”
Whether the man in the grave is as white as most fools in Moms’ jokes and the wino is black or not, the wisdom of false naiveté is the same and it underscores the distance between the living and the dead—between really being alive in “raw presence” and being dead to this world. Its insult to the dead (and dead ways) is its true sharpness, emphasized by Moms’ look that doubles our laughter by making ironies abound.
Doubling perspectives engages the noetic and releases us from the aesthete’s conclusions. You can’t nail it down with no coffin lid. It’s living in the future, and challenging us to go beyond our words—beyond worlds we have known. Right now, it seems like double or nothin’.

I wish I could tell a good joke here about “A Secret Agent, a Spaceman, & a Talking Bear” walking into a bar and settling down for a card game, but I haven’t got one for you. I’d like to have the bear’s desire for honey present the sweetness and light theory of art from poiesis, the spaceman’s perspective present the higher plane theory of art from mimesis, and the secret agent’s thrilling hidden actions present the “other-side-of-this-life” theory of art from aesthesis, but I can’t think of what the bartender would say in the end about those three except “Looks like you guys ain’t got no aces.”

Ang, Brian. The Totality Cantos. In progress. Pieces are in ARMED CELL 2 ( and elsewhere (like
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