I, and I imagine many Korean Americans, were offended when first hearing about the movie The Interview. A “buddy movie” that merely takes advantage of the average American’s lack of interest in Korea — by which I mean North and South — didn’t seem like a great idea. Given that we lost over 36,000 soldiers in the Korean War, and that there has never been a the sort of public soul-searching that we’ve had many times in films over the Vietnam War — think of Platoon, Born of the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. — I always thought we should move the other way: learn more about what created the present conditions, not turn what is a truly awful, desperate situation in the North into caricature.

What was especially offensive, to me, was the poster for the movie in which the Korean written language, Hangul — something all Koreans take immense pride in, a symbol of their resistance to the Japanese attempt at genocide — was merely deployed in an uninspired Shepard Fairey-esque pastiche to signify the “other” with what are, when you read them, not particularly comical texts. Add to this the film’s money shot, its fist-bumping selling point, is when the two hapless, apolitical (read: “relatable”) heroes get their wish and kill of the acting leader of a state. This movie isn’t The Great Dictator, The Mouse that Roared, Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog but a pretty dopey attempt to take advantage of the fact that all anyone knows about North Korea’s dictator concerns his haircut and that he is overweight.

Of course, none of us have seen the film, but from the likes of it, it seems to fit more into the Fu Manchu / Charlie Chan tradition of depicting quirky, inscrutable, all-powerful (if wily) Asians with funny accents — our version of the African American tradition of minstrelsy in white American cinema that Spike Lee (and before him Marlon Riggs) did so much to critique. From what I’ve seen in the trailers, Randall Park’s depiction of Kim Jong Un is quite charming, and I probably would have enjoyed the film on many levels. But I do wonder about the turn of events after the Sony hack.

First off, why are no Korean or Asian Americans being asked their opinions on these occurrences? After all, we have huge Koreatowns — in which Hangul is ubiquitous — in many major cities. We have immigrants (and sons of immigrants, like myself) who have been paying attention — with our hearts in our throats — to events on the peninsula for our entire adult lives. Why are the only people who seem to be cited as somehow offended by this (Obama an obvious exception, though he’s fallen quickly in line) white men of privilege? George Clooney, Judd Apatow, Sean Penn, Steve Carrell, Bill Maher — all seem to be speaking up about how “un-American” it is this act of “expression” is being “censored.”

As far as I can tell living in Hollywood (or just reading the news), self-censorship is par for the course — no one in the major studios wants to make a movie that won’t make lots of money, and very good ideas are always being sidelined for the bottom line. So this hack will install a new regime of “self-censorship”?

Hollywood bends over backwards not to make movies that insult African Americans, Christians, Jews, gun-owners, straight people (when they make “gay” films), gay people (when they make “bromance” films), etc. — as well as Asian Americans (and the Chinese, if there’s a market). I’m not complaining, it’s great folks are sensitive if only for filthy lucre, though I miss the days when visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce were censored because they were offering new principles to society, not merely taking advantage of someone else’s hard fought battles. Even Chris Rock has recently lamented (“Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means,” Vulture, November 30, 2014) that comedians can’t be as challenging as they once were due to social media.

The real story here, finally, is not about censorship — no one’s seen the film, so we don’t know if it’s Birth of a Nation (unlikely) or Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (in which GWB is allowed to be a quirky, goofy, approachable guy but is not, indeed, killed at the end). The chest-beating by these macho “creatives” about freedom of expression — that it is “un-American” to “censor” works of “art” — misses the point that these types of attacks will happen between several types of countries with very different relationships to the notion of “freedom of expression.”

There are two major historical parallels here. The first is the outbreak of Islamic riots — a version of “censorship” from abroad, but through action on the street — following the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006 of degrading images of Mohammed, which was just a dumb idea and could have easily been avoided. The long-gestating, expensive ad campaign for The Interview (not the movie itself — no one’s seen it!), was coyly playing with such incitements, especially with the use of Hangul.

The second concerns cyber-warfare, namely that the United States’ insertion of the Stuxnet virus into a Iranian nuclear plant in 2010 to literally destroy their reactors (see “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran” in the New York Times, June 1, 2012) set a precedent for non-retaliation that the North Koreans (or whoever) must have misread. There was no retaliation by Iran for the latter act nor international condemnation (James Franco certainly didn’t voice an opinion), even as NATO determined that the Stuxnet virus — which was developed over three years under close White House supervision, and which escaped to infect computers worldwide — was considered an “act of force.” (“U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran was ‘act of force,’ NATO study found,” Washington Times, March 24, 2013).

This attack on Sony sets a new precedent, but it’s not the one of a foreign state “censoring” America — otherwise, not caring about repercussions, we’d have legions of films in which two lovable goofballs knock off acting world leaders of a variety of races and creeds. Rather, it is that an act of cyber-terrorism attributed to a nation-state might find its way into something like a “real” war, one folks on both the left and right (“North Korea brokers peace between Republicans and Democrats,” MarketWatch, Dec 19, 2014) are beginning to see as a “just” war.

I’m not convinced North Korea is behind the attacks. As the media seems to have forgotten, the first emails to Sony from the hackers asked for money, and the hackers stole something like six films. It was only after the media speculated — due to the standard sabre-rattling response of the North Koreans to the imminent release of the film months earlier— that the “Guardians of Peace” decided to use that as the main motif of their complaints (see “The Evidence That North Korea Hacked Sony Is Flimsy,” Wired, December 17, 2014). The image at the head of this post does not look like the work of North Korea but a bunch of bored teenagers passing the bong (“Today’s Tom Soyah…”) in a basement in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

The chest beating about “trampling on our first amendment rights” (as if any other country signed on to that), the demonization of a foreign leader (not hard to do in this case, but still), and the history of American intervention in Asia (the first armed merchant ship from the U.S. landed in Korea in 1871 and was promptly destroyed) with no clear dissenting voice in the media is alarming. Add to that the singular lack of knowledge most Americans have concerning the Korean War (1950-53) along with the money, talent, influence and occasional good looks of the macho men pulling for retribution in Hollywood — where McCarthyism claimed its greatest victims — to the point of transforming a “resurgent” President Obama into a mere parrot of their views (isn’t it cool he spanked Sony?), both nauseates and frightens me.

Brian Kim Stefans
Associate Professor of English
Poetry and New Media
University of California, Los Angeles

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I found these poems (or lines of poems) in my papers, typed on index cards. I don’t know what I was planning to do with them or when I wrote them. Probably at least ten years ago. I recycled a few lines for “Provincial Hack” which appeared in What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (2006). So it has to be earlier than that, Sherlock.

One set has something to do with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The others are little Raworth-style Language -centered ditties. None of this is genius but kind of fun to look at these years later. Surprisingly, no typos!






Below are all the links to the various texts that were written by poets and writers giving close(ish) readings of Kristen Stewart’s poem published last month in Marie Claire. If there are others out there, let me know!

Kismetly I Rear and Wonder
Kazim Ali 

UCLA Prof Blames “Beatniks” for Kristen Stewart’s Poetry
Stephanie Nikolopoulos

“My Heart is a Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole” (annotations)

25 Points: Kristen Stewart’s “My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole”
JD Scott

Kristen Stewart’s heart is a wiffle ball/freedom pole, according to ‘embarrassing’ poem she wrote
Hilary Busis

Kristen Stewart, Secret Poet, Shares Her Art With ‘Marie Claire’
Tess Lynch

The The Kristen Stewart Debates: Poetry, Taste and Mass Culture!
Johannes Göransson

Open Letter to Kristen Stewart
Brian Kim Stefans

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Here’s a paper I wrote at Bard in 1990 or so for no reason at all concerning artificial intelligence. Surprisingly, it’s not entirely wrong, just not very scientific. Lots of spelling errors, too, but as you can see, it was written on a primitive, by our standards, computer.

BKS-artificial intelligence cover_Page_01


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How many people out there have the special, limited “Broken Glass Edition” of the iPhone?

Celebrating the ephemerality of the material and the translucency of the medium, this limited edition — a literal “delay in space” — is being specially authorized by the late Marcel Duchamp, an important French artist, while supplies last. Each phone is individually smashed by one of Duchamp’s spectral henchman doubles and is unique of its kind; no pattern repeats, and each is guaranteed to change through time with or without use of device. The BGE iPhone (the result of a timely recent collaboration between Apple visionary Steve Jobs and U2) remarkably accrues greater value when it ceases to operate and is left in a corner to “breed” dust. Fifty percent of profits are immediately donated to Amnesty International.

If you don’t have one yet, I know where you can get one, cheap.

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Joseph Beuys, “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974)


Dear Shia LaBeouf,

I and several other poets in my circle have been following with great interest the recent controversy concerning the accusations of plagiarism that have been leveled against you. We find it all very interesting, and believe there’s really no reason to feel ashamed. I thought to offer you some advice.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

But most importantly, keep doing whatever it is you are doing. It’s great!

Brian Kim Stefans

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(Poet and actor Antonin Artaud.)


Dear Kristen Stewart,

I’m a poet and professor at UCLA, and thought you might be interested in what some of my poet friends (most of whom also teach and are otherwise very accomplished) and I have been writing on Facebook about your recent poem published in Marie Claire. This is partly to address the apparently universal opinion by journalists – most of whom seem to not know anything about literature – that this is a terrible poem.

My own initial post went like this: “The second stanza isn’t horrible. Worst part of the poem are those awful adjectives! Stupid Beats.” What I meant by this was that the words “digital” (applied to moonlight), “scrawled” when linked to “neon” (neon is a much overused word by poets who want to sound like Beatniks) and “abrasive” (applied to organ pumps) weren’t working for me. I also didn’t like the word “ubiquitously” especially since everything up until that point was in the singular – ubiquitously seems to suggest some sort common element among many parts. Not a big fan of “Whilst” either.

But I thought the second stanza was very delicate with sound play – “parked” and “Marfa” are good off-rhymes (I heard the word “barf” in there somehow) and there is some nice alliteration in “Devils not done digging / He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle / and this pining erosion…” etc. And I like the broken syntax and quick movements in perspective – there’s little to no punctuation and most people can’t pull that off. And the line “He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle” is very evocative to me – and seems to explain some of the eccentricities of syntax and vocabulary in the first verse!

Anyway, so some of the other comments that came in here quite interesting. I’m not going to give the poets’ names since I haven’t asked their permission for this (I’m writing this quite quickly), but a female poet in New York wrote: “I don’t think it’s bad at all. It’s better than 90 percent of the poems in the first batch of my intro to creative writing class. I just read three different poems about a football game. Three different young men.”

Another poet here in Los Angeles – he studied linguistics and works at Google – wrote “For someone who never went to high school, I think ‘Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps’ shows a pretty promising imagination.” I think what he means is that there is genuinely Surrealist element in the first stanza – “abrasive organ pumps” could have been written by Antonin Artaud – and has some real shock value. This same poet wrote (in response to some negative commentary on the FB feed):

Not sure why folks are hating on this poem. It’s young, but the more I read it, the more I like it. For someone just starting out, it isn’t overly freighted with expectations of what a poem should do or be. If it’s ‘beat’, it’s more Bolinas or young Bernadette than hortatory elder beat. That first line is weird and inspired. And moonlight strafing the foothills, nicely observational.

[“Bernadette” is Bernadette Mayer, a prominent New York poet associated with the Lower East Side.]

Another poet wrote: “I like the title!” That’s pretty cool since I’m not sure if I can get behind the title (unless I read it as extremely pop/campy in that Jeff Koons way). He actually wrote earlier on his own FB feed that he liked the title (that’s where I learned about your poem).

The defenses continued to roll in, even for the unusual adverbs. One poet, a teacher at a prominent college and co-editor of a major publisher of poetry, wrote: “Hm. I actually like the weirdness and energy and if you’re going to have an adverb at all why not go with ‘kismetly.’ I say go for it Ms. Stewart.”

This same poet later wrote – in response to a post that compared you to James Franco (Franco’s writing took a lot of digs on our feed, with no defenders): “No, honey, this is yards better than the few Franco pieces I’ve seen. But there’s lots of different types of poets and poems in the world.”

You found your strongest defender in a poet, editor and teacher at a major university in the Midwest. She wrote:

I actually think this poem is TERRIFIC. I guess there’s something wrong with me. It has a great punchy energy, it’s strange, and I never know where it’s going next. I would put stars all over this poem if it were turned in in my class… Also the language isn’t boring – kismetly and ubiquitously have a nice feel to them. I think this is pretty great.

So you see, there are a lot of qualities to your poem that really come out when you think about them. I’ve come around to liking your strange adverbs, and love it when people invent words. (The great Russian poet Mayakovsky once wrote that the creation of a neologism is a revolutionary act.)

My advice would be – if you really want to do something with poetry – is stay away from that terrible tendency in Hollywood (not just among actors writing, but mostly) to litter your poems with decadent sex and booze stories – Charles Bukowski is not the only one to have ever written a poem, and happily, much as I like him, your poem has none of his qualities. It seems that a lot of male actors in L.A. when they get down to publishing – and they usually publish way too much – seem to think they have to prove they know what a bad hangover or an abusive relationship is.

I would also suggest that you read a lot of crazy shit – i.e. look at the Surrealists and even earlier French poets, some of the more “experimental” work in the U.S. (I could help you with that), read philosophy if you have the time, books about insects and ancient cultures and Japanese horror movies and roofed bridges and, well, anything – it can all go into a poem provided you really care about what you are reading. Conversely, don’t be afraid to be small – William Carlos Williams wrote a major poem about a cat that was only 27 words long.

And lastly, don’t be hung up with trying to make your poems make too much sense. Yes, you don’t want to sound deranged (necessarily, though Arthur Rimbaud argued for just that – but he wasn’t being trailed by paparazzi) or like you have no control over the language. Actually, it’s good to have language have some control over you – I think that’s what we all liked about this poem, you were really going with it.

With enough revision, you can make a poem that has a clear emotional intent without necessarily telling a story or having a clear “message.” An American example would be Hart Crane – many of his poems would (to a journalist) appear completely impenetrable and gibberish, but those of us that love him know exactly what he means. But you can find a lot of examples of this in the movies – David Lynch, obviously, was never kept up at night wondering if everyone understood what his movies were trying to “say.”

I think you were really brave to publish this poem, especially in a magazine in which you can’t merely hide behind their literary credentials to help it pass. Keep going!

Kismetly yours,
Brian Kim Stefans (and a bunch of other poets)

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I’m writing in response to Juliana Spahr’s and Joshua Clover’s self-nomination to the presidency of Poetry Chicago. I was especially struck by how they noted that the outgoing president was critical of MFA programs and the fact that poets often got jobs in universities these days. The letter got me thinking of ways to spend their money to provide some at least temporary support for poets who are otherwise working in non-academic fields, how to decentralize poetry in the U.S. and move it away from the major cities on the coasts, and, how to get poets from other, less-visited countries over here and vice-versa. Most these are, I think, pretty original ideas with the exception of the last. I’m serious about all of this, by the way (no snark today, sorry)!

1. Travel grants for poets to non-European countries
What are the poets in Ghana doing these days? I’m a little surprised at how American poets gravitate to Paris for their big cultural sojourn, as if it were still 1917 and the frontiers of Europe lay along the Swiss Alps. I think it would be far more interesting if poets, especially those interested in politics, travelled to Africa, Asia and South America – many of the countries there are in what one might call “transition” periods, and if anything provide a more dynamic view of globalization (not to mention capital) in the present times. England, France, Germany and Italy (though this last, being a semi-permanent basket case, still has something to offer) don’t provide much of a contrast to how things work in the States, and we have access to their literary histories through tons of translations and visitors from abroad. The Clash might have been bored with the U.S.A., but I’m bored with the E.U. I just think it would be more interesting for poets to travel to the frontiers of their cultures, where things are broken or breaking down and something of the world  system lies exposed, than travel the paths they are expected to travel, being sophisticated beings, and which are often already gloating over their recognized achievements. For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly care for poetry that is inspired by beautiful places, it’s often quite self-involved, since what is there to think about in beautiful places than one’s self? Consequently, tickets to places like Senegal, Peru and Thailand are super expensive compared to the tickets to Europe, and there is not much coming back from the other end in terms of invitations or grants, so a poet would especially need help there. I also wonder why political radicals from the left travel to Paris, as if May ’68 were still flowering in the boulevards, rather than places that have had revolutions much more recently. Is it really that much more interesting to read Badiou in a Parisian café than at home?

2. Seed Grants for semi-commercial poetry/arts organizations in non-major U.S. cities
One of the success stories in New York has been Bob Holman’s Bowery Poetry Club, which combines a heavy list of readings, music concerts, and other events with the commercial income of a bar and coffee shop. I think that could be a model for similar organizations in cities that don’t have a lot of funding for their native literature and art scenes and which are in need of places where poets and artists can socialize, kick back, get to know each other’s work and love or loathe it, etc. This organization – perhaps housed in some small building on some weird, forgotten edge of town that is sketchy but safe, but still inexpensive – could also serve to help bring poets in from out of town, or maybe act as a link in the chain of places that poets travel to when they do book tours. I have no idea who I would call if I were to do a cross country tour, or whether it would be worth it at all – driving to Austin for 12 hours to have 3 people show up? This organization could keep a few rooms on the second floor as crash pads for travelling poets, or even have residencies like they do here at Machine Project, having a poet come to stay for a month or so to give workshops or just be part of the scene. It would be great if New York were not the only place poets gravitate toward (or are encouraged to gravitate toward) after graduating from college (or high school, or whatever). Why couldn’t it be Pittsburgh, Lawrence or New Orleans? I imagine that the proposals for these grants would spell out a 5 year plan, including costs and income. There would not be any requirement to describe how the organization could last in perpetuity – I just don’t imagine any poet really wanting to run a business for the rest of his/her life – just how it would last for 5 years, to get something in going in said small city.

3. Upgrade internet knowledge and distribution of books
The Small Press Distribution site is really incredibly useful, and certainly an improvement over the days when you ordered books from them by telephone or mail. But what I’d really like to see on the site are some new features that allow those of us who never get to see these books browse with some knowledge of what’s inside them. I think it would be great if SPD made available at least 5 pages of all of their books on their site, thus facilitating browsing, and also creating something of an unedited, ever-expansive online anthology of contemporary poetry. Presses would just get in the habit of including a short sample PDF when sending their information in. SPD’s bestseller lists, for example, often contain poets I’ve never heard of or worse, the same poets that I’ve heard of who have appeared on every SPD bestseller list. The blurbs and press information often are completely non-informative, and having staff picks is nice, but still, I often don’t know the staff. I often buy tons of SPD books when I see them at book fairs, but almost never, unless for classes, from their site. And poets don’t always write the same way they did in previous books — imagine the disappointment fans of the “Waste Land” felt when they opened their copies of “Burnt Norton.” I just assume that every time I publish a book, people just think it’s another Free Space Comix and say, nah. I also think it would be great to have a part of the site (or maybe just a separate site) that is entirely automatic for presses that are so small that they can’t even afford to pay the nominal fee it requires to be distributed by SPD. For example, if I were doing a press run of say 50 copies of such and such a chapbook, I could go to the site, fill out a form, upload a cover image and sample pages and a link to the website where I could purchase the book. All SPD would have to do would be to somehow make sure that no one just uploads pure garbage, pornography, links to sites selling bogus hair growth tonics, or even just links back to blogs for those self-promoters, etc. and also that old entries that link to dead sites are deleted.

4. Grants for poets from other countries to travel to the U.S.
Once again, I’m interested in having poets from non-European (or at least the more or less affluent European countries) come to the United States to study, get involved with a poetry scene, publish or translate their work, share the work from their own respective country, etc. Even poets in Mexico find it incredibly expensive to spend even a few weeks in New York city, so you can imagine what my imaginary poet from Libya, Georgia or, the Philippines might feel. One of the great things about living in New York was being able to meet so many great artists from other countries – one of my favorites was an Israeli butoh dancer named Boaz Barkan, whom I met through the remarkable and terribly missed Stacy Doris – and though I occasionally have the opportunity to meet artists (but mostly students) from other countries in Los Angeles, it’s obviously with far less frequency. I suspect that there are forms of this sort of grant, but my guess is that they involve some sort of research aspect, whereas I think these poets should be able to come to the States based purely on their creative achievements. Another thing I would like to see which is somewhat related are grants for non-English speaking or writing residents of the United States. There is a whole network of South American poets here that might be receiving support from their respective home countries, but are often (I sense) not feeling terribly integrated into the U.S. scene. This grant wouldn’t operate as a way to make a living, but more as a fund to get work translated into English, to travel, to create community, much like what is outlined above. It would be great to foster non-English U.S. poetry if only to provide a more realistic, less homogeneous, image of what this country is. I would imagine that in the Korean American community, for example there are some pretty good poets over here writing in Korean who wouldn’t be able to published in Korea but who should be read, somewhere.

5. A permanent “poets in need” fund
This is certainly my least original suggestion, but I’ll describe it (at length) anyway. As it is, those of us in the poetry community periodically receive requests from the group Poets in Need for donations to be given over to a usually older poet who has fallen on hard times. In some cases, there are direct appeals to the community on behalf of someone who is pretty well-known and beloved. This is all really great, though I know that, in the past, when second parties have made appeals on behalf of a poet, said poet was not always so happy to see their misfortunes advertised, and/or were too proud to accept donations from their friends. I think it’s great that the network of poets could help each other out, but quite often the poets being appealed to are not themselves all that rich. Consequently, I imagine there are many poets that simply don’t have that sort of network, or who might be are not necessarily “beloved” – I just mean poets who are anti-social and don’t get out much, or poets who are simply to young to have published much but who have, say, become desperately ill and have no insurance – or who simply do not like to make public their personal problems or finances. There are poets who are also pretty much in a terminal state of poverty due to illness and age, but who cannot foresee themselves appealing to the community every time the gas bill needs to be paid. I think a grant or some sort of social security for poets who have significant publishing histories or have otherwise proved their commitment to poetry (through translation, editing, rabble rousing, etc.) should be able to have a place to receive some funding should they hit upon hard times. A corollary to this could be an education or training grant for poets who either don’t have any skills in anything more than, say, word processing or copy-editing and want to get themselves out of a hole.

Well, that’s my fifteen cents. I’m sure I’ll think of more just after publishing or posting this, but hopefully there is something to chew over here and Poetry Chicago will respond. I really want them to, since they really are in a position to do something really radical and interesting, but I’m afraid they’re just going to throw their money at the usual places, like fostering more small presses, or get poetry into the schools type programs, all of which is good but in the end doesn’t make poetry more interesting (and Pound, who you see above, was all about making poetry more interesting, not simply getting people to read it).

Notice that none of the above has anything to do with affiliations with poetry schools, movements or well-established poetry “wars.” If anything, I’d like to see a situation where more poets unconcerned with, however much informed of, the familiar partisan battles are engaged in writing, editing and publishing. I don’t think it’s a required element in the education of a poet to suddenly become aware of the largely inane bickering about the mainstream or “school of quietude” and some sort of avant-garde. Let these “political” ideas, some of which are useful, come after the exposure and engagement with the work, not before. I mean, having an opinionated poetry clique is a nice way to make friends and foster one’s self-education, but  can sometimes set irrational boundaries on what one is expected or not expected to read.

Also, none of this has to do with selling or making poetry more popular with the “masses.” I hate those campaigns to somehow save poetry from obscurity and showing the public that poetry is something that can be a part of their lives. The poetry that I generally like will most likely never be very useful to your average American, just as I’ll never see a Gang of Four song covered on American Idol. Just let the poetry get written, get out, and if it finds its readers, great, if not, then let it rest for a few decades to be rediscovered by someone with taste! Poetry’s not dying, it doesn’t need resuscitating, it doesn’t need help by well-intended people involved in more lucrative industries who often simply don’t know what they’re talking about. And please, let’s get rid of the position of Poet Laureate!

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America has known a lot of great vocal stylists: Patti Smith with her girlish, demure speaking voice erupting into volcanic fusillades from hell when she starts to sing; George Carlin’s loopy, hippie lilt, eventually crackling into the idiosyncratic, linguistically obsessed crank of his later years; Marilyn Monroe’s whispered “Happy Birthday” to JFK in Madison Square Garden, her only hit single, but a wonderful translation of the decidedly constructed ditzy-sage demeanor of her films; Johnny Carson’s nasally, Midwestern twang, crisp as freshly ironed slacks, punctuating jokes, good or bad, soft-balled from the guest couch; Allen Ginsberg’s mischievous Jersey Jewish channeling of Blake and Whitman in “Howl” and UCLA Alum James Franco’s equally mischievous Jersey Jewish channeling of Gisnberg in Howl; Axl Rose’s noxious screech, Kurt Cobain’s gargly drones, Bob Dylan’s messianic yawps, and Al Jolson’s Jolsonesque “Mammy” in blackface in the first talkie; Ronald Reagan’s authoritarian jocular basso profundo pouring forth casually from a throat swathed in white cravats, while William F. Buckley lisps complaints from a couch in WWOR-TV Studios in Secaucus, NJ, and Jimmy Carter retreats into the 90s; Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce, Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey, all pairs all connected by osmotic DNA over the reach of years (and telephones); Eddie Murphy doing Eddie Murphy receiving a phone call from Bill Cosby chastising Murphy for using dirty words on stage, Murphy then doing Murphy calling Richard Pryor and Pryor saying to Murphy: “Tell Bill next time to have a coke and a smile and shut the fuck up!

Charles Bernstein—who, by the way, is the Donald T. Regan Chair in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania; the publisher of something like 12 full-length books of poems, most recently All the Whiskey in Heaven, his selected poems published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; the author of several collections of essays such as Content’s Dream (published right here in Los Angeles in 1986), A Poetics, which contains his oft-cited, seminal essay “Artifice of Absorption,” My Way, which contains one of my favorite essays of his, “Poetics of the Americas,” and most recently Attack of the Difficult Poems, of which no doubt today’s performance will be a substantial new salvo; editor or co-editor of countless volumes, journals, and digital archives such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the 70s with Bruce Andrews, the PennSound archive at the University of Pennsylvania, and a recent edition of the poems of Louis Zukofsky for the Library of America with its distinctive light cerise/puce cover; television and movie actor in such film as Finding Forrester where he played Dr. Simon and a series of hilarious Yellow Pages commercials with Jon Lovitz (where he school Lovitz on the art of improvised comedy), or as himself articulating the literary virtues of the latest postmodern post-author literary fad, the telephone book (R.I.P.); a prolific librettist, having composed three operas with Ben Yarmolinsky and most recently an opera based on the life of Walter Benjamin called Shadowtime with British composer Brian Ferneyhough; Director and Co-founder of the Poetics Program at the SUNY Buffalo, where he taught from 1990 to 2003; father, husband and Jew, this latter apparently contested category according to a fantastic long essay in Attack; and lastly, perhaps leastly, but not insignificantly the creator of several audio works that he recorded spontaneously over the years (all of which are collected on such as a now infamous one in which he reads the numbers 1 to 100 in order and quite dramatically, which I invite you to check out—is a different matter entirely. But I’d rather not tell you what he sounds like, you’ll learn momentarily.

As for Charles’ importance as a poet and theorist, I can only say that writings of his have had immense importance to me as I was “growing up” to be a poet. For instance, when in high school and college, Ezra Pound was really my guide, my “master” if you will—creator of crystalline poems, writer of daring, timely and certainly confident essays that I could use to chart out Modernism and basically all that came before (I was just some kid in the Jersey suburbs, my mother raised during the Korean War, quasi-working class, certainly no one around me was going to help). Pound’s anti-semitism, the radio broadcasts, or his generally complex conservative / libertarian politics never registered as anything I had to deal with—it was all aesthetics—and when they did I was quite troubled for a time. Pound became this big roadblock historically—you had to have an answer about Pound to make sense of all that came after: his generosity to younger poets, the profound flood of new forms that proliferated in the wake of the Cantos, etc.. Anyway, it was actually an essay of Charles, “Pounding Fascism,” that appeared in Artifice of Absorption that kind of did the trick for me; if anything, the essay permitted me—poets are all about the “grand permissions”—to assimilate Pound’s contradictions (the overdetermination of his political views with what seemed like an indeterminate poetics), his unfortunate crossing over into “history” proper—poets won’t try that anytime soon!—and the fecundity of his artistic ideas.

I think many of us poets in the academy have something of Charles’ “program,” if you will, within us. There’s tremendous anxiety among poets in the academy that they’ve sold out, are living in some other universe that can have no bearing on the “world,” partly because so many of our friends—some of whom we consider better poets than ourselves!—are working day jobs, are largely unrecognized by the literary world, are working only very slowly due to insecurities and lack of critical attention, etc. I think this is another problem that Charles has helped me solve, which is that he’s turned the academy itself into a subject—he works within it, critiques it, activates it, acknowledges its place in the world and hence is able to articulate its potentialities. To quote from one Charles’ essays, the job of the teacher is to work in the “vertical of the social not the horizontal of tradition.”* I think he does that all the time—which is why he, and his poetry, are so damn difficult.

* I actually couldn’t find this quote in Attack, where I thought I had read it. Someone might have written it about him, and this might not be the exact phrasing; nonetheless, Charles approved the quote before I read the introduction, so we’ll just consider this a collaboration.

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[I was recently asked to be a respondent at a small panel — two papers, one by a student and one by a professor — at UCLA. This what I wrote. It ends as a sort of polemic about the “artist” and “society” today (the language almost sounds quaint, but I was trying to write in a “public” way, which I haven’t figured out how to do) but it gets at a few points I’d like to try to elaborate on later.]

These papers both seem to strike right at the heart of certain issues of aesthetics and ethics, and a discussion of either could easily spill over into an entire meditation on the role of the artist in society, particularly as it concerns society when it has failed us: in the former case, during the AIDS crisis, a relatively unprecedented failure of US leadership to even acknowledge a decimating epidemic (though we can look at instances such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments as antecedents of government sponsored or endorsed disease inflicted on a minority population, or even before that, the ignorance or exploitation of smallpox and other diseases in the Native American population in the colonial years), and in the latter, a very specific instance of war – the Israel war in Lebanon in 1982 – but also war and “violence” (the former cannot entirely be reduced to the latter) in general.

The both share issues concerning witness – how to observe, record, convey, and memorialize incidences that most of us in our “everyday” lives never experience (one must assume that there is a “normalcy” that runs in counter to the extraordinary events of AIDS and war). They also ask how to create action, or “change,” from this witnessing – how does the elegy interact with an “ethics of activism,” how does a “war film” become an “anti-war” film and then an “anti war war film” (acknowledging, as we should, that there is a such thing as a “war film” just as there such things as “war poems,” such as the Anglo-Saxon “Battle of Brunaburh,” the epics of Homer and Virgil, and our own national anthem).

A running (not unexamined) assumption in both essays is that the artist is a participant in these events – even a “victim,” as they are not ever depicted as being in control of fate or the forces governing them – and that the artist wants to do good: the artist is aware of what a normal, full human life is – filled with love, compassion, responsibility to others, etc. – and uses this general sense of humanness as a foil for the aberrant conditions of the fatal, swift-acting processes of disease and of war. The trick or game is how to preserve the “human,” synonymous with the “good” in this relatively un-ideological formulation, as well as how to “keep alive” the events that prompted these works of art, rather than merely offer them for simple consumption.

In both papers, this leads into questions of technique. In the former instance, the question centers on how maintain the dynamic nature of very particular gay relationship – between the poet, Paul, and his late lover, Rog – and not let it fade into the “general” genre of elegy, not surrender “Rog to the past” (Aaron states it much more eloquently, but I can’t find the quote). In general, the poems become political by their very resistance of their particulars to submit to the “public mores” and their “utilitarian” nature, which (though it’s not quite stated, I think) quite obviously has failed them. There is some variation on the Galatea myth here: a poet, who knows his lover has died, nonetheless will continue to animate this body on the stage of the poem, which he is aware is entering a contested, politicized forum.

In the Israeli war films, an excellent case is made that both Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon made clean breaks with naturalistic filmmaking to such a degree that they in fact become meditations on war and cinema themselves. In the former, the spectacle of war – which is to say, the violence of battle (and not the spectacle of speeches and conferences), are kind of auto-critiqued by the very dream-like, vivid and beautiful nature of the animation, as if beauty and violence, or maybe dream and witness, were engaged in some intellectual counterpoint. In the latter, all hints of the spectacle are dropped (including non-diegetic music) in favor of the colorless boredom of life in a small tank – it’s always interesting when films refuse certain absorptive techniques, like in the films of Dogme 95 – though meditation on the mediation of cinema itself still makes its presence in the form of the cross-hairs in the gun sight (if anything, more poignant now considering our nation’s recent addiction to Predator drones).

I’m taking the long way to making my basic point, which is that in none of these cases do these artists present their works as assays – as tries, as intellectual workings-out. In the art works themselves (as opposed to the paratextual materials of interviews, postscripts, the author’s other work, or history as its been recorded, etc.) there is no thesis or grounds for argument presented, nor do there seem to be the operations of clear dialectics that would seem to actively request intellectual – as opposed to emotional, or even ethical via vicarious participation – engagement by the viewer. The artist him or herself is generally supposed to remain more or less invisible in the work, or if visible, only in nuances of style, editing choices, word choices, punctuation (or lack thereof) – the marks of the auteur – or as, importantly, character in this act of memory. Outside of that, the artist (in these cases, self-consciously responsible artists) does not, or more or less refuses to, interject what one might call editorial or intellectual content into their pieces concerning the aesthetics of depiction – the artist, as presumably the viewer or reader, are simply subject to events, just like you and I.

(I am reminded of a piece by British artist Fiona Banner, a huge book called The Nam for which she viewed six major American films about the Vietnam War – Platoon, Apocalypse Now, etc. – and conveyed what she saw as if she were there, almost thereby insisting on the centrality of an editorial vision in the apparently transparent, absorptive depiction of war.)

Maybe this is an obvious point. But it strikes me that a lot of the theory that we rely on with which to discuss the ethical implications of contemporary works of art – Benjamin, Adorno, Debord, Jameson, etc. – in fact relied on the work of certain artists who made this issue of artifice and “reality” – specifically the absorptive nature of filmic spectacle – central to their work. I am of course thinking of Bertolt Brecht, who, despite what appears to be a revival of a “pure” form of Marxism in the academy, does not seem to be suffering a revival himself – nobody calls themselves a Brechtian today. But it seems to me, for instance, that had Brecht made a movie like Waltz With Bashir, there would have been no mistaking the element of media critique in the movie itself (which I haven’t seen, I’m just assuming this critique wasn’t foregrounded enough, since so many failed to see it). Lebanon sounds like it possesses some anti-absorptive properties, though it sounds like the “sentimental” dialogue was expressly conceived to nullify any sort of cognizance on this level.

I do think some “anti-war” films, especially those of Stanley Kubrick, take into account this Brechtian possibility; though Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket often lapse into mere absurdity or outright nihilism, they are mated enough with some analysis of the machinations behind the scenes, and leave so many issues open, as to suggest this “assayistic” quality. (Bertolucci’s films about the war share some of these qualities, and I think the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan are pretty unique in being relatively free of narrative, given over entirely to conveying the physics of battle, to nearly traumatizing effect, as if a short avant-garde film were tacked on to in the first twenty-minutes of an otherwise standard Hollywood feature.)

I couldn’t help but think of Frank O’Hara’s amazing elegy for Billie Holiday when reading Aaron’s paper. It seems to me to address a lot of the issues that Monette was concerned with – how to maintain the dynamics particularity of a relationship in a monument offered up to time. I think O’Hara’s poem suggests a middle-ground between the lyric (which he seems to posit as some sincere effort at communication) and the monologue (which is implicated by its very details into an historical situation). O’Hara was always adopting voices to tell you something of himself and his time; there is an entire suite in the voice of Mayakovsky, for instance, one of which is called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” Rather than Brechtian scheme here, I see a sort of elevation of the activities of a single human to status of high artifice; there is a relative lack of a case being made for the poet as “good,” as “natural,” even as “human” – the first stanza of “The Day Lady Died” is replete with numbers and schedules, and “Having a Coke With You” is largely a catalogue of things. O’Hara simply doesn’t fit in with “public mores” as much as the latest issue of the New World Writing didn’t fit in.

I guess I’m making an argument for unnaturalism in art – not “acting,” but also no pretending to merely “be.” Or maybe if the artist is to “be,” that the artist not be human – our trusted friend, “authentic” – but powerful, in full awareness of its seduction – to stand against, or perhaps in place of, those awful forces (of fate, of politics) to which we are all supposed to be unified in being victims of. If we’re going to subject artists to such readings as involve the politicized uses of emotional valences – “protest mourning” as Aaron terms it, or the staging of trauma as a public catharsis in Gil’s description of Waltz with Bashir – the artist might as well get in on the game! I guess I wonder why (and here I’m really getting polemical), for all the hundreds of poets and film directors we have in this country and elsewhere, in what is arguably one of the most liberal periods of expression, and with film production getting cheaper and cheaper, and with film and pop cultural criticism getting more and more sophisticated (though that, indeed, might be at the heart of the problem, too) and the academy willing to engage with pop culture, there are fewer assayists – Voltaire types, people that offer their works specifically as contributions, even discursive contributions, to the public sphere, rather than merely as fodder for other people’s works – than ever. (Lars von Trier, Oliver Stone, Peter Handke and Claire Denis might be filmmakers who clearly critique the artifice of film in their feature-length fictions.)

I might summarize my point here by suggesting that artists who offer their works to a critique involving the judgments of human behavior – who offer their works with a sense of a transcendent justice – that placing the artist central to the vision presented, not as invisible auteur but persuasive author, is merely the honest thing to do, since the artist him or herself, who would co-opt history and transform the realities of others, is nearly always doing the work of politics, and is never simply “innocent.” The scales of justice are only truly activated (one assumes these artists wanted these “scales” regarded) when the artist is frank in offering him or herself to be judged.

I’d like to quote from a song by Morrissey – never one to avert trouble, he recently attacked the Queen again – which is not a comment on these works themselves so much as the problems facing the artist in society today:

No it’s just more lock jawed pop stars
Thicker than pig shit, nothing to convey
They’re so scared to show intelligence
It might smear their lovely career

What keeps them from doing so? I can’t speculate – perhaps it’s our culture of high surveillance, perhaps it’s just money – but it’s a bad time when “intelligence” and careers seem to run completely counter to each other, in entertainment as elsewhere.

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