Arielle Greenberg The Blurred, Visionary Promise of Hybridized Poetics

A Column


ac k in t he l a t e 199 0 s , w hen I wa s in graduate school, I signed up, with my friend and fellow MFA-er Christopher Boucher, for a summer class to learn how to use and incorporate computer and internet technology in our creative writing projects. Chris and I agreed that this was where things were headed, innovation-wise, in literature, and we wanted to feel comfortable, capable and capacious in what we saw as The Next Big Thing: our own work was skewing toward that slippery stuff between genres—prose poems, creative nonfiction, flash essays, found and collaged pieces and the like— and what could be more relevant and vital, we thought, than considering how to make our newly online- and computer-centered lives part of our art-making. Hybridity, we were thinking. Chris recently published his first book, the wonderfully hybrid novel-manual-memoir-metafiction (though non-hypertext-utilizing) How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. But it strikes me that what Chris and I thought was about to burst forth a decade ago in literature—a hybridized, intergenre literature that utilizes the vast network of technologies and book-objects now at the ready—has not happened. It’s like watching The Jetsons and wondering whatever happened to the promise of flying cars. In this edition of this column, I consider a nonetheless delightfully challenging and provocative spate of recent hybrid-genre works of poetry. (For lack of a better term, since to call them “works of poetry” is perhaps oxymoronic to calling them hybrid-genre?) None exactly look like a traditional— or even “traditionally innovative” (goodness, the trouble with naming I am already getting myself into here!)—book of poetry, but I’m going to call them books of poems, because they look more like books of poems than anything else, and all of the authors are primarily considered to be, by reputation and interest and publisher, “poets.” And when I talk about hybrid literature, I mean projects, like those discussed here, that cross or work between or shape shift through or otherwise “hybridize” genre, at both macro and micro levels. As books, I think of hybrid works as those which at least hover between nonfiction, drama, verse, performance, visual art and other forms; and within individual pieces or sections, poems that shift modes and form mid-stream. Take, for example, Marjorie Welish’s new book In the Futurity Lounge/Asylum for Indeterminacy. The very title hints at the liminal, a (architectural/ linguistic) zone between construction and deconstruction. This postmodern condition is represented through both form and content: the second poem in the book, “Consecutive Studios,” begins with the line “Valiant folding screens doubling back to distinguish COMPLETE from COMPLETED,” and we are immediately in a limbic state of folds, screens, doubles, distinctions and (in)completions. In this first section, the Futurity Lounge section (the Asylum section, we are told on the back cover, is a sort of free translation of/meditation on Baudelaire’s “Correspondence,” though I would not have known that), Welish often gestures toward the book as object—“the TABLE OF CONTENTS ‘from top to bottom or from bottom to top’”—as if acknowledging the materialSEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2012

ity of the project while simultaneously critiquing it. In the poem “Statement (Some Assembly Required),” Welish writes, “PLEASE TEAR ALONG PERFORATION between this wet and refreshed axis / and adjusted reading.” And in “Dextrous”: “The object / with standard staples: writing to be looked at, drawing to be read // in opaque questionnaires: WHAT DO I KNOW? obliges our doubling back to fractional skepticism toward normative universal attempts: FOLD HERE.” Throughout, poems shift between lineated and non-lineated sections, employ strange capitalizations that smack of stage directions or newspaper headlines, insert footnotes, allow for lots of white space and fragments, and otherwise “make use of the whole page” in a way that has come to signify a certain kind of Language School (and post-) poetics. I found myself more challenged— and moved—by similar formal moves in Akilah Oliver’s (sadly, last) book A Toast in the House of Friends. If one was to simply flip through In the Futurity Lounge/Asylum for Indeterminacy and A Toast in the House of Friends, with their similar use of varying line lengths, prose sections, white space and sentence fracture, one might presume some similar strands of lineage and influence . . . and one would probably not be wrong. But the tones, voices and themes are quite divergent. Where Welish’s book is deliberately and overtly theoretical, non-biographical and somewhat intellectually distanced from its emotional concerns, Oliver’s goes straight for the heart, the soul, the jugular. A book about mourning—a beloved son, a beloved brother—the poems often devolve, or ascend, into prayer, or sometimes chant. From the poem “grace”:
by vocation i shall call my brother parachutist, by desire i shall call my mother minor god, by birthright i shall call my father salesman

The long, shape-shifting sequence “an arriving guard of angels, thusly coming to greet,” which also includes a starkly gorgeous epistolary prose section to her son—“what do you wear out there? i wish you could have taken your new shoes with you. i’m so proud of you. i’m so sorry for the way you died.”—as well as list sections, found text, and other experiments in form, offers this trancelike song:
beautiful boys girls beautiful beautiful girls boys beautiful beautiful boys girls beautiful i’m extending to you this oh i’m extending to you this oh oh o ho

which continues on awhile further. I found these incantatory moments completely compelling and affecting. It is as if the grief, and the love, in these pages are too large to be contained by any kind of static or consistent form. (A book I discuss below, A Lily Lilies, a sitebased collaboration between a choreographer and poet, also makes generous use of litany and repetition: Josey Foo’s poem “Wishes”—“I wish for dissolving-in-fact. // I wish for micas of nights. //

I wish for hued imagining; two occasions happening at once, the rule of three singular.”—is followed on the same page by Leah Stein’s dance note “A single movement is repeated over and over as the body seeks what is remembered and finds it each time.”) Ultimately, though, as provocative as works like these can still be in 2012, they perhaps look, undeniably, like poetry: a certain strain of innovative poetry to be sure, but recognizably poetry. Poems like these—or, for another example, those in younger poet Darcie Dennigan’s irreverent, rollicking, poppy second book, Madame X, with its use of prose forms and relentless ellipses—do challenge the notion of poetry as verse, but they do not seem more like any other genre than poetry. I am also somewhat disappointed in the lack of seized potential around collaborative hybrid literature. A lot of interesting stuff, I think, can happen in the gray area between boundaries of authorship and voice: if hybridized poetry seeks to upend notions of genre convention and exist in a more mutable, permeable territory, could it not also seek to upend notions of authorial voice, individual style, and fi xed selfhood? So I am curious as to why, in a book I admire a good deal, A Lily Lilies, by poet Foo and dancer Stein—in which lyric lines appear alongside and mimic the abstracted, clipped cadence of notes and images of modern dance—the writers chose to make the distinctions between their works so, well, distinct. Stein’s texts are, we are told, “notes on dance,” and they are italicized throughout to indicate that they are by Stein. But they are every bit as lyric and literary as what we are told are Foo’s “poems.” So on the same page as Foo’s “Witness,” in which she writes, “I haven’t slept for days. / return to things almost finished. // Picking up your shirt, taking off my shoes / to put away because transient things / will witness us,” Stein’s “notes” include these fascinating, and fascinatingly resonant (and “poetic”!) lines: “Is this my torso? Or is it fabric? / Repeat ‘sleeves and collar’ gestures over and over. / The rest shudder, unable to rest.” Likewise, Foo’s still life photographs are as interesting and necessary to the work as the pictures of Stein’s dancers (the book includes reproduced photographs of dance performances, rivers, driftwood, and other images throughout). “Ultimately, we map each other,” the authors tell us in the introduction, and the title of the book references the Navajo language, in which the words for an object and its action are conflated, or unified: “the sun is the shine, the wind is the blowing.” But I found myself looking for more complex, beautiful evidence of this kind of overlap in the book itself. And while I loved the idea that this place-centered project—much of it is “about” the American southwest, and, more generally, “hereness”—in its “book form” is “a transportable ‘site,’” as the authors tell us, it occurred to me that there must be ways, in our Age of Nook & Kindle & App, to make a book form more of a site, no? Another way I think of hybrid poetics manifesting itself is not just by existing between literary genres, but by seeking to echo the form and style of that which we consider to be resolutely nonor anti-poetic, such as screenplays, interviews, lectures, and other literatures with rather strict

music.” — ROBIN BLACK. including a number of different serial pieces and text-and-image work by Douglas Kearney (whose own book was discussed in my first column. is what can be found in radical poet-scholar-publisher-translator Joyelle McSweeney’s latest book Percussion Grenade. into a very 21st-century Theater of the Absurd. but at least two sections could be considered theater or performance pieces. distraction not just in its placement.” “As a form [it] is in a constant state of tension / shifting its nomadic position spatially / transiently. as well as work that incorporates visual. As the titles suggest. vandalism. thrillingly. what I see as the potential. Yes and as members of the collective blog Montevidayo (all of which encourage and promote hybrid forms). via catapult. Buddhaland Brooklyn stirs n from the very first page.” Yes! Yes! Where is the hybrid poetic literature that does this. as practiced beautifully by Stephanie Strickland and represented in hard copy only by a URL printed in the center of her thrice-named book V: WaveSon. Miss World (who is played by a young boy). I will do this: from Oliver: “I recognized in it an ugly ecstatic. And they both play fast and loose with the form of theater: both begin with something like stage directions. Father Firing Line. that employs both of these strategies. Actually. her smile religious. described as “my wife. Aim for the kids in the back. There is a section of Oliver’s book. and domestic life are all treated as dystopian grotesqueries amidst a backdrop of cultural imbecility. bustling New York—and also the universal truths of human life. audio. Shoot the room. speaks with “her body rioted. illegality. “Hammie”) “Oakley. “The main scene should be full of ornaments and crime. a distortion of limbs. forms of public discourse. violent.” entrance to a colonial pageant’s array of monologuing characters includes The Natives. in one case. One is a play in three acts called “The Contagious Knives” (echoes of Edward Gorey’s plays?).notions of form and convention. and other artistic media (like A Lily Lilies). a dialects of violence. called “the visible unseen. in hybrid work. and form. that reaches an “ugly ecstatic” in a “constant state of tension” that “reconstitutes the public discourse”? This is perhaps what I am looking for most.” “[The work] upset[s] and reconstitute[s] the . author of If I Loved You. Despite all this invigorating anarchy. “Can I kick you in the face?” asks the first character to speak. whatever.simonandschuster. vivid novel. . it advertises difference and insurgency. . her clothes luxurious. . wearing the ‘pussy’ made from Charlotte Brontë’s gauzes. . the online journal Action. drawings. McSweeney and Göransson’s books are not as innovative in their use of the book-object as I was searching for in considering work for this column. . ok. owing much to Surrealism (especially the Artaud kind) and Dadaism but propelling these movements forward. but in its aesthetic. This is an entertaining and edifying meditation on the meaning and rewards of true acceptance. in which the character of Louis Braille. . The Passenger. her body anorexic. Trauma. I know you took my cell phone in gym class. however. I hope these two will not take offense at the discussion of their books together: I do so because they are partners not only in life but as editors of the press Action Books. The overall tone is vitriolic.nets/Losing L’Una? What about the mother (to my mind) of all hybrid genre poetry collections. and The Aftermath. . and it is illustrated with uncredited color photographs of unspecified graffiti sites. nationhood. Göransson’s book opens with the instruction.” Percussion Grenade spins through many formal modes. in its attention to the shape of the emotion. . and in the latest book by her life partner and fellow radical poet-scholar-publisher-translator Johannes Göransson. to the act of naming.” The other is a series of monologues (in wildly inventive. social and cultural concerns. and performative elements in the form of photographs. I Would Tell You This Also available as an eBook. originally pub- FROM THE INTERNATIONALLY BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF The Hundred-Foot Journey A lively. but. The Girlfriend. Where are the books that follow the elaborately visual. in “pink panties and a pop-star T-shirt from Target” opens the first scene with the lines. I would lift text from “the visible unseen” wholesale and use Oliver’s smart ways of describing how graffiti functions in the culture to define my notion of some other ways hybrid poetics can function. McSweeney also appears as a character in Göransson’s book. we are told “the pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud—a-LOUD!”. an isolated Buddhist monastery. her gun warm. they share much in the way of aesthetic leanings. “Why do your spasms look infantile? Do you know how to break a radio?” Sex. both of these books are bombs: explosive. time-traveling pun-dialect—“Just surviving this was a chitlin circuit flangebanged worth staggering the ranch”— that reminded me of the Nadsat slang created by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange) spoken by “Hannie” (or. Dictee. If I could.” like the lines “Here’s a theory of performance for you: aim for the rafters. “Hi whores. which you can buy in a Lucite-encased “cyborg” edition and which comes with an accompanying CD? What about hypertext 22 THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW . in fact. on African-American innovative poetics). In McSweeney. and occasionally lineated). And this. | www.” And although the books are not collaborations.” about urban graffiti: it “sounds like” a theoretical/critical essay (though it is very short.” which could be seen as a sort of ars poetica for the project as a whole. we are told. a hieroglyph. her reasons obscure. entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. choreography. her fire ridiculously fake. typographical and shape-shifting narrative spaces promised by a work like VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula.

as poets. All of this comes to fruition in Jennifer Tamayo’s Red Missed Aches/Read Missed Aches/Red Mistakes/Read Mistakes: I have saved the best for last here. 2009. 2012 Josey Foo and Leah Stein. and sexuality. 2005) and Given (Verse. www. University of Chicago. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. along with McSweeney and Zucker. 2012 Akilah Oliver. to be reprinted by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2012) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan. Melville House. s Books Discussed in This Column Darcie Dennigan. I wonder what is limiting us. spiritual) stabs through many of its pages—together a narrative/memoir/investigation of migration. In this virtuosi tic debut (which name-checks Cha. a hybridized form. topically. language. “There is nothing clean about this writing. and mother tongues. results in a gratifyingly complex work. even in looking at a book like Tamayo’s that I’m sure can still shock. Fence. full of textual and visual collage overlaps. 2009 Call 800-650-7888. and there must be something to the fact that. corrective. Coffee House. ethnicities. nationally published books of poetry are most feeding you. “Play surgeon o seamstress. 2003). “This is / a figuring & fingering / This is an utter a fuck a suture. mothering. 2011 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Tamayo’s book winds its way. baffle and unnerve many readers of contemporary poetry. family.” I suppose this kind of feeding energy is what I am looking for in all the books I discuss in this ongoing column: please be in touch to tell me about which recent. ext. like tangled thread. Madame X. with all its associations (surgical. 2004 and Chiasmus. of the hybrid genre nonfiction book Home/Birth: A Poemic (1913 Press. religious. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (fiction). through issues of motherhood. We offer: • low prices and many options • production time of 20 days • low minimum of 100 books • a committed staff to assist you from start to finish Arielle Greenberg is the author of the poetry collections My Kafka Century (Action Books. She is also co-author. with Rachel Zucker. A Lily Lilies. intersections between languages. Lover). motherlands. 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv. Ezra Pound speaks through a character called The American Poet (“wearing a hood”): “If a book reveals to us something of which we are unconscious. Nightboat. But even so.lished by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in 1982. A Toast in the House of Friends. 2011 Joyelle McSweeney. electronic. Coffee House. people of color. as some of many sources and inspirations). Tarpaulin Sky.morrispublishing. 2011 Johannes Göransson. generations and identities. word and image erasures and SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2012 23 . entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate.” Are we able to see a way to a literature that genuinely pushes past the page and into a performative. and immigrants. 2002 Steve Tomasula. when looking through stacks and stacks of new books in search of the hybrid.” Tamayo writes. In the poem “(Before. Tamayo stitches—literally stitches: threedimensionally reproduced red thread. as well as in maps. Christopher Boucher. or otherwise uncontainable realm. which boldly and poignantly examines issues of migration. 2011). photographs. 2001 Stephanie Strickland. domestic.” Like Dictee. tightly and messily.” the book begins. charts. found texts and more? And what of gender and race and ethnicity. After). Penguin. self-help. Red Missed Aches/Read Missed Aches/ Red Mistakes/Read Mistakes. V: WaveSon. exile. 2011 Marjorie Welish.” she writes in “(Dear. Dictee. Canarium. In the Futurity Lounge: Asylum for Indeterminacy. poetry.nets/Losing L’Una. under a reproduction of the Christ child held by Mary. womanhood in multiple languages and forms. heteronyms. in our utilization of the vast possibilities of genre and “book. I came up with a pile of work mostly by women. if it reveals to us nothing but the fact that the author knew something which we knew. mishearings and linguistic slippage in the forms of synonyms. nationalities. wonderfully expressed through the title. 2009 Jennifer Tamayo. University of California Press. a snapshot of the author’s mother sewn onto the Virgin’s face. it draws energy from us. girly.” This attention to layering. 2012 Also Mentioned and Recommended Publish Your Book! We print all kinds of books – fiction. in my opinion. Switchback. APR9 for a FREE Publishing Kit. patois and slangs. it’s an ambitious and inventive project that at its core is deeply personal and evocative. while still deserving the ink and pulp to be read and reread? Afternote Toward the end of Göransson’s book. of border crossing and marginalization? These concerns seem to almost demand. it feeds us with energy. Percussion Grenade. and non-fiction.

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