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Just discovered this amazing review on Sustainable Aircraft of my polemic, Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Assessment. It manages to say some poignant, provocative things about the state of “avant-garde” literature in the US and Canada.

I did actually put it back up on Lulu (free download), but took down the WordPress site since it seemed redundant. Bank of America changed their fee policies soon after I posted this, but certainly not because of me. I’m pretty sure that my assessment of their website still stands, though, but I’ve moved my account to Wells Fargo, which has a much more helpful, unadorned site.

Thanks, Marie, this very thoughtful and, in many ways, encouraging.

Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Evaluation
Brian Kim Stefans
Citoyen Press: Los Angeles, 2010
Review by Marie Buck

Last January, the poet Brian Kim Stefans released a pamphlet entitled “Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Evaluation” as a series of posts on his blog Free Space Comix, on a WordPress site, and as a downloadable file or purchaseable print copy on Lulu. (The WordPress site and Lulu page seem to have been removed, but the pamphlet is currently available as blog posts here. As Stefans writes in the press release, the pamphlet “argues that the great portion of the bank’s revenue accrued through overdraft fees is often the result of the deceptive and confusing nature of the online banking site.” Over the course of an introduction and ten brief chapters, Stefans demonstrates that several specific aspects of the website—which Stefans notes is in fact a software program which ought to be compared to other handier and better-designed software programs—are arranged to give misleading information, to advertise the ease of the site to customers (who are, in fact, already using the site) rather than warn them of potential hazards, and to obfuscate information that might help customers avoid overdraft fees. Stefans also crunches some numbers and suggests that the average person making less than $100,000 a year incurs $145 in overdraft fees each year.

Over the course of the pamphlet, Stefans implies that in continually insisting upon its own ease, the Bank of America website not only likely garners millions in overdraft fees, but also suppresses customer conversation and outrage about the fees. The site—containing such cutsey and condescending phrases as “[w]e’re all guilty of overspending from time to time, even though we know we shouldn’t”—is designed to make customers feel guilt, even shame, about overdrafts incurred when the site itself actively obscures information that anyone with a small balance needs in order to ensure s/he does not overdraft. The only ways to have all the information you need to make sure you don’t overdraft are to keep an old-school checkbook (when one function of the site seems to be precisely to replace such a checkbook) or to make sure you never let your balance get low—basically, to have a decent chunk of money in there at all times, to compensate for holds on your account and the like. In other words, to be wealthier.

Clear and well-researched, the pamphlet is recommendable for the information it provides about online banking and about the rhetoric of software and web design. However, it is also recommendable to read the pamphlet as an intervention into the contemporary poetry community of which Stefans is a part. The pamphlet begins with a Frank O’Hara quotation—“I go on to the bank / and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) / doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life…,” suggesting that Stefans might have poets in mind. And given the pamphlet’s avenues of distribution, it’s safe to assume many of the people who have read it are poets. (I, for one, started reading it thinking I was beginning some sort of conceptual poem.)

There is, I think it is safe to say, considerable cynicism among those of us writing and reading the kind of poetry that might be called avant-garde. The notion of the avant-garde assumes a politicization of art and an oppositionality to the mainstream. I think that few poets would seriously endorse the idea that their poetry is going to disrupt bourgeois aesthetics and incite some sort of revolution. At the same time, it seems like a lot of poets invoke this position, even while it’s likely that they don’t believe—as they shouldn’t—that that kind of disruption is really possible or effective at this historical moment. At the same time, the basic implicit claim that language is inseparable from the various pernicious ideologies it articulates still seems right on. The solution clearly isn’t to start writing lyrical poetry, or no poetry at all.

I do not want to suggest here that poetry isn’t incredibly important—but after reading Stefans’s pamphlet I was struck by the stubbornness with which poets tend to stick with the genre of poetry. Using myriad genres might well expand and enhance the conversations taking place among poets. Some poets who are also academics tend to drop academic jargon into their poems, suggesting that the poems seek to be in conversation with other types of texts that use the same jargon, but still there is an insistence on experimental poetry as the best medium. If a poet is writing in a different genre, the text is, indeed, most likely an academic book or article, also intended for a highly specialized audience. Poetics texts, another likely genre, tend to be generally unclear and experimental, closer to poetry than prose, sometimes frustratingly so. While Stefans’s academic background figures into this pamphlet, the pamphlet’s audience seems to be both poets and academics—who, I think, are the likely readers of his blog—but also anyone whose ear he can get.

While addressing poets is not the primary function of the pamphlet, Stefans’s critique of Bank of America’s lack of clarity addresses poets as well: obviously, no one wants Bank of America to mess around with language in the way that it does on its website. We want straightforward clarity; that’s what the context requires. This suggests that perhaps we should do away with the implicit notion that there is some sort of principled stance in fucking with language, in avoiding straightforward, direct, informative language. Poetry written in such straightforward language might be boring as hell—but why have such a large number of poets and/or academics, people who think deeply about how language operates and who are often trained to be able to usefully dissect the rhetoric of something like the Bank of America site, marooned themselves in styles of poetry and prose that are in themselves often pretty great but that are also completely unsuited for certain kinds of communicating?

I recently heard Christian Bök give a interview of sorts with some undergraduates at Wayne State University. In their excitement about Bök’s Xenotext project (in which Bok uses a genetic code to implant a poem into a living organism, making the poem potentially able to last forever and be discovered by alien life forms) the undergraduates got very concerned about what the alien life forms might think of humans based on Bök’s poem. Bök rather generously clarified that his interest wasn’t really so much what effect his poem would have in the distant future; rather, he was interested in making an intervention in the contemporary poetry community. He said that he thought poets should be more ambitious. [i]

While Bök’s project is certainly ambitious, its main function, as Bök articulated, is still to intervene in the contemporary poetry community. Stefans’s pamphlet does something quite neat in that it both intervenes in the poetry community and enacts for a much larger audience precisely the sort of ambitious and non-poetic writing that it is implicitly advocating to poets. In the context of contemporary poetry, the pamphlet suggets that poets ought to do away with the fantasy that clear language and weird language are politically opposed to one another. The way language functions depends on context, and poets’ insistence on encoding into poetry ideas that would sometimes come through better in another form, often results in a kind of dull poetry that is also uninformative. Those of us who are trained in analyzing rhetorical logics, or who are unusually aware of and excited about the weirdness and power of language, or who want to write politically meaningful work would do well to give up our early-twentieth-century-based fantasies of pure oppositionality and, like Stefans, think more creatively, more ambitiously, and with less heroic posturing about how to use language.

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[i] Christian Bök, ‘Reading from conceptual writings, including excerpts from The Xenotext Experiment, followed by student-led discussion” (discussion and reading for Regions of Practice: Poetics Across Languages, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, October 20, 2010)