Poets’ Problems

Zurich
02.04.14

Left: Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Right: Poet Karl Holmqvist and artist Julian Stalbohm.


“POETRY AS DRIFT, as presentation, not representation,” notes Norma Cole in a series of letters addressing the work of the exacting, exemplary French poet Emmanuel Hocquard. I was rereading Cole’s epistolary essay, titled “ ‘A Formal Type Of Work’: Rereading Emmanuel Hocquard,” recently on a train in Switzerland, which seemed right. Dérive, détournement, draft, etc. And something about this observation of a poetics of presentation, which Cole tersely ascribes as a practice of “assembling fragments, phrases. Arrange together equals syntax,” came back to me last week in Zurich, during the presentation-strewn opening days and fragmentary drifts of the “Younger than Rihanna” (Jesus having aged out) platform 89plus, and its project “Poetry will be made by all!” Or, more pointedly and poignantly, #poetrywillbemadebyall, as we were encouraged by the organizers to hashtag and brand our days.

The poetry symposium was held at the LUMA Foundation’s Westbau exhibition space in the Löwenbräukunst building, and was cocurated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Simon Castets, Conceptual poet and Ubuweb founder Kenneth Goldsmith, and Danny Snelson (with a side of film organized by Kevin McGarry). It lifted its name from the 1969 exhibition, curated by Ronald Hunt at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, “Transform the world! Poetry must be made by all!” The utopian promise of that 1960s-summer title rang strangely in the bright-white, corporate-concrete confines and high-art-market temple of Maja Hoffmann’s new LUMA space, built out here with specially commissioned bookcases by Atelier Bow-Wow. For if, at one point, Goldsmith would cry out fervently from the lectern that “Poetry has left the building!” (substituting poetics for Elvis in that equation, naturally) he would do so from a newly remodeled art-gallery complex funded by the billionaire heiress to the Roche pharmaceutical fortune and the president of Kunsthalle Zürich.

Left: Swiss Institute director Simon Castets and writer Kevin McGarry. Right: Poet Harry Burke.


But we wouldn’t hear anything about the cerulean-chip art context and Western class privilege conditioning this meeting. Not when Goldsmith would offer, during a roundtable held the second day that “the democracy of poetry is what freaks people out—that anyone can be a poet. What if anyone can do this? What if we don’t need the exclusivity of visual art?” It’s olde oratory, but relit in the laptop glow of digital poetry distribution and Conceptual poetry’s appropriationist praxis. Still, Obrist, texting nearby, likely felt the rays of irony bouncing off the physical and digital walls. Certainly some in the room did, with poets Andrew Durbin and Harry Burke voicing their discomfort with their inclusion in that rhetorical constellate. If the other poets present—Sophia Le Fraga, Trisha Low, Dena Yago, Steve Roggenbuck, for the youth; Tao Lin, Christian Bök, Karl Holmqvist, Caroline Bergvall, Tracie Morris, Etel Adnan, among their diverse mentor and/or elders—kept quiet, their disparate work addressed or curbed such platitudes with varying degrees of criticality and, yes, poetry.

But! The poetry. 89plus’s interest in a medium not often given to curatorial colonization was not totally curious, given the art world’s renewed attention to midcentury Concrete poetry and current Conceptual poetics (much of the latter due to Goldsmith’s applaudable efforts). See too the art world’s place as graceful economic host and beneficiary for so many other creative worlds in crisis (film, fiction, philosophy, etc.). But in Zurich the concern was with a specific slice of mostly English-language contemporary poetics—that which deals with post-Internet aesthetics and conditions of digital distribution and social networking, sound poetry, and performance. The social-literary “life,” performed via text and image, mostly online, of the poets born post–Berlin Wall, was what appeared to pull in the art investors.

Thus the first “reading”: a kind of writing. Also a kind of imagemaking. Two young women, Le Fraga and Low, hunched desultorily in their chairs, texting a (prerecorded) chat, beamed overhead, that turned the compressed infinitude of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot rhythms into adolescent digitally writ malaise: lol, wht are we waiting fr OMG, etc. It was familiar: As in the art world, many young poets glean the Internet’s advertorial rhythms and compulsive tonal shifts; the online language of health & fitness & sex & press; the manic performance of textual adolescence in social networking; and the urban/suburban fatigue of the global computer user-consumer. And not just the young: See Anne Carson’s latest, instructively titled red doc>. As we all begin writing (across digital platforms) more than we speak—and not just the writers—the literature changes, the surfaces change, the metaphors change.

Left: Poets Andrew Durbin and Trisha Low. Right: Poet Steve Roggenbuck.


But technology was not only youth’s harbor: Morris offered “Mahalia Theremin,” her expert mash-up of a Jackson gospel and the reedy, tech-y sound of the attenuated instrument, though it was all her. Anton Bruhin brought down the house with his Jew’s-harp melodies that evoked Laurie Spiegel and ’80s-era film sound tracks. Though Morris proclaimed later that her “relationship with sound poetry is fraught,” and compellingly suggested poets “decouplet rhythm from genres of music,” gestures toward pop and performance were the most overpowering overtures in Zurich. In between, Roggenbuck and Adnan—in generationally apposite turns—made everyone feel warm and wonderful, and then there were a few dulling departures. Still, though poetry was what we were ostensibly there for, discussions of language, of literature—not just the conditions by and under which it was being produced—seemed to be considered unsound, literally.

“In the poetry world in the past few years it became uncool to talk about language,” a New York–based poet born in the ’90s told me over beers in a Basel-based bar in 2014, in the Year of the Horse, post 89plus. Doubt seemed to stain the substance of his sentence even as he delivered it, though perhaps that doubt was only a projection of my own. That said, our collective doubt, now doubled, made us move onto topics less in doubt: Beyoncé’s recent triumph, visual album, feminist interstitial. Bey and pop music and feminism had not been irrelevant to our days of poetry in Zurich: Holmqvist had laconically lifted her best new line and move—“I woke up like this,” hands flip/shake—for the poem he droned, perfectly. Bergvall offered insistent refrains of “Keep it together,” in the trance-y tones of Patti Smith. Amalia Ulman whispered: “The house, the house, the house is on fire.” Ever necessary, ever uncool, the lyricism and spell-like syntax of the poetic tradition seemed to be accomplished here—less fraughtly—in the form of pop. A poetics of presentation, not representation. Or so it seemed at Longstreet, the Zurich bar where we made our impromptu afterparty, dancing to hits from the American wedding canon: “Scrubs” (twice), something by Stevie Wonder.

“The shock of the new is not only a modernist mantra or an art-historical slogan but an ever-present potential charge, if you are a teacher, a student, a baby, or peculiarly receptive to opportunities for derangement,” Maureen N. McLane writes for us babies in her fantastic literary hybrid My Poets. But there is still something embarrassing about the 89plus platform and its thirst for and fetishizing of youth, which the organizers confuse with the new, and which even they themselves could not convince themselves to keep to: see their deft inclusion of Adnan, Bergvall, Bök, Morris. Indeed, some of the poetry rang true—and light shone on it. Yet as the curators kept up the tinny boosterism—“I have seen the future of poetry and the future of poetry is…”—Gertrude Stein’s words from her Last Operas and Plays rang out across the middle school of my mind: “Ladies there is no neutral position for us to assume.”

Quinn Latimer

Left: Anton Bruhin. Right: Writer Caroline Bergvall.