Open Letter to the New Yorker


Dear New Yorker,

I’m writing to you concerning the racism of the 6,000-word profile of Kenny Goldsmith titled “Something Borrowed.”

The racism expresses itself structurally: understanding that some readers will already be aware of the controversy around Kenny’s work, and that those unaware might be turned off when it’s revealed that Kenny is “beleaguered” due to the uproar around his reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report – revised to end, consequently, with a note on the “unremarkable” nature of Brown’s genitals – as a piece of “avant-garde” art at an Ivy League arts conference, the author sets the stage for a sympathetic reading of this obscenity by demonizing those who would critique it. The author seeds the text with subtle denigrations, largely through negative characterizations, of non-“conceptual” writers, targeting particularly Asian Americans.

The first seed: in paragraph three, the poet Cathy Park Hong is noted as speaking “resentfully” about Kenny’s career. The quote from Hong is neutral (“He’s received more attention lately than any other living poet”) and is not characteristic of Hong’s thinking as expressed in several recent articles – that is, anyone could have said it. The only reason this sentence exists is for the final adjective: resentfully. The author could have quoted any of the established older white (male) poets who are brought in later in the essay like C. K. Williams, Charles Simic or Dan Chiasson, familiar to readers of the New Yorker, to serve as a hook for, or easing into, the article. Instead, he chose the relatively obscure female poet with the Asian name to set up the big reveal. Hong is depicted, if slyly, as barbarian No. 1.

About 3,748 words into the essay (a little over halfway), no mention yet being made of the Michael Brown piece (“beleaguered” floats as an indeterminate tease), this remarkable sequence appears:

Goldsmith’s hegemony as a conceptual poet… has led a number of other conceptual poets to feel that he monopolizes a territory that excludes them. Many of these writers identify themselves as poets of color. A poet named Tan Lin wrote me, “The conceptual program, as it has been developed and codified by critics in the past ten years or so, and I am really talking about the institutionalization of conceptual poetry in academia, has focused mainly on the work of white authors.” Dorothy Wang, a professor at Williams, said that poets of color have grown “pissed off by the stranglehold white people have on avant-garde poetry.”

This is a classic non-sequitur; what prompts the entry, after the first sentence, of “poets of color”? Why have the white conceptual poets been excluded form this set of “other conceptual poets” of whom the huge majority, lets say 99%, are white? Tan Lin is, indeed, a poet of color – he’s Maya Lin’s brother – but one could hardly identify him as an identity writer, nor does anyone consider him a “conceptual poet” in any of the ways described in the article. The quote from Lin, consequently, doesn’t even mention Kenny or hegemony – Lin even qualifies his statement by noting that he is speaking of “critics” and “academia.” Dorothy Wang, on the other hand, is not a poet at all – she’s a scholar.

The adjective “many” is used to describe a mere two, and “of color” simply to describe Asian Americans. How did this get past the editor (presuming the editor wasn’t Donald Trump)? The writer suggests that black, brown and yellow hordes are storming the barricades in a thrust against “hegemony” but in fact, in this article, the hordes, like Trump’s murderous Mexican rapists, never appear. (Tellingly, the author, like Trump, merely pivots to scapegoat Asians.)

If Wang is being brought in to vouch for the poets of color making this argument about the “avant-garde” – which is also not synonymous with Kenny or conceptual writing – Hong’s own words could have been employed here since she inaugurated this argument in her controversial polemic, “The Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” which appeared in the journal Lana Turner nearly a year ago and is readily available on the web. Any journalist with integrity would have tried to trace at least one more of these “many” writers down. Lin and Wang are barbarians No. 2 and 3.

But the sheer ill will – I have to call it racism – doesn’t stop there. Your author continues:

Some poets of color feel that Goldsmith is subtly denying selves that they wish to assert and explore. Only a white person, these writers say, has the ability to shed his or her identity or to wear it casually. Their experience is that to be a person of color in America is to be constantly reminded of who you are. Dorothy Wang feels that identity in conceptual poetry “is a code word for racial or ethnic identity.” She says, “Often, the assumption is that good experimental avant-garde work is bereft of identity markers, and that lead-footed, autobiographical, woe-is-me, victim poetry is minority poetry.”

We still don’t know who the hell are “these writers” are? Of the two mentioned, Tan Lin could hardly be said to be wishing “to assert and explore” his “self.” Lin writes in Seven Controlled Vocabularies, an exploration of “ambient” poetics: “A poem or painting or landscape is beautiful at the moment it is forgotten, when it subtly accentuates a style or mood without drawing attention to itself, like drapes or a shade of paint.” This is hardly the battle cry of an ethnic essentialist; Lin has read his Kant, and is well aware that the “self” is a tricky thing. Once again, Dorothy Wang – not a poet – is brought in as somehow representative, this time not of the “many” but of the “some.”

At this point, not a single black or Latino author has yet been mentioned (which is to say, employed like pawns in this sophistic circle jerk). African American poet Tracie Morris (brought in at around word 5,468) is situated as one of the “few” to defend him, while Mónica de la Torre is permitted to offer something like a distinctive, nuanced comment – “The problem is that both positions are equally flawed” – that spares her, like Morris and unlike the resentful Hong, from being a barbarian. Morris and de la Torre are brought in after the big reveal, in fact, to somehow help mollify (if unwittingly) the obscenity of Kenny’s reading at Brown University.

A general argument is proposed: Kenny’s Michael Brown piece illustrates that there is only a narrow, worthless discourse – or perhaps a compelling ethical dilemma – concerning who is able to “speak for people who have been harmed or who have suffered.” The trick is that entering into this debate will always result in the conclusion that Kenny’s piece worked, even if in Mephistophelean ways, for the cause of “good.” Art, unlike, say, a train bombing, can always in retrospect be considered a goad to greater understanding even if it “hurt” the people who first witnessed it. A rabbit hole opens leading not to nowhere, but to the canonization of Kenny’s piece in the inevitable tomes devoted to the major events of 21st century “poetry.” (The travails of this journey are alleviated because, in this article, the barbarians have already been depicted as classic philistines, “politically correct” Jihadists with no understanding of this Faustian gamble.)


The real issue with Kenny’s Michael Brown piece, to my mind, is the general awfulness of Kenny’s artistic production, including the lameness of his public persona, over the period of time since that Buffalo conference. It’s this very awfulness that he took into the auditorium at Brown University in his attempt to perform (he claims) an elegy – he was really just trying to revive the Kenny G brand – for the person about whom several thousand people had just rioted and rebelled.

Take one example: Kenny’s book Head Citations from 2002, an “irreverent and amusing collection [that] consists of over 800 ‘misheard’ song lyrics” according to the press release, was merely a recycling of the method of ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy: And Other Misheard Lyrics by Gavin Edwards, a novelty book published 1995 by Touchstone Books. It would take quite a mental acrobat to link the monastic integrity of Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art” to this juvenile bauble. I’ve heard Kenny read from this several times and it always struck me as incredibly dumb, not to mention cloying. Nonetheless, like Seven Deaths and Disasters (which I thought Colbert had lethally exposed as a mere stunt) and potentially the Michael Brown piece were it to have been published (“the eighth American disaster”), it makes for a perfect MoMA stocking stuffer.

Another example: anyone who’s heard the Kenny reading at the White House (available on YouTube) can hear that he really doesn’t know how to read poetry. He massacres the bits by Walt Whitman and Hart Crane (used to set up Traffic) with that smarmy, shit-eating Adam-Sandler-meets-William-F.-Buckley voice that was so potent and fun on his radio show for WFMU but couldn’t be banished enough for occasions requiring some gravity (which no doubt contributed to the awfulness of the Michael Brown reading, the audio and video of which, as your author mentions but with different verbiage, Kenny suppressed.)

Kenny never read even his best work (such as No. 111) very well; now that he’s added salmon-colored shirts, mismatched socks and a Tolstoyan beard to his product, the impression is that artistic integrity has long since departed, any note of “critique” being replaced by simple market logic. (For what it’s worth, I’m not alone in this opinion: many of my poet friends – and, yes, white friends, not only your enfeebled “poets of color” – have been embarrassed for Kenny by this turn of his toward outright charlantry.)

A final example: it’s noted around word 5,567 that “Goldsmith makes a substantial part of his living from readings, and over the summer he was concerned that fewer places would hire him.” This occurs after the unusually long note on his familial heritage. Kenny’s lived, for as long as I’ve known him, in a huge, at least 6,000-square-foot apartment (I don’t know anything about real estate and my eyes are bad – this is a wild guess) in Manhattan in the 20’s between 5th and 6th Avenues (I think his parents bought it for him after graduating RISD). His only other income, from what I know, is from his lecturer position at U Penn. But even if Kenny lived in a broom closet or fish bowl in Chattanooga, how much cash could Kenny possibly draw from the poetry reading circuit – a not particularly flush segment of the civic population – to make a “substantial part of his living”? Does he subsist on water, oats and Chef-Boyardee?

“Before Goldsmith became a poet, he was a text artist,” your author writes. Though he might play one on TV, Kenny is not a poet. Kenny doesn’t even like poetry (bravo that he’s read Ulysses several times; and Chris Christie has never missed a Bruce Springsteen concert) and has always been disdainful of poets. (It’s a weird irony that the Language poets wished to be known as “Language writers” and yet are not, while conceptual writers are being called “conceptual poets” despite, on the part of some, their overt hostility to the art – marketing is certainly everything.) I can accept that some of Kenny’s work itself is poetry, but Kenny is a poet in the way that a person who has fallen down the stairs – in the meantime exploring, if unwittingly, some unique, compelling human configurations, the cell phone video having received a million hits on YouTube – can be called a dancer or choreographer. (Insert Chevy Chase reference here.)

But my concern isn’t with Kenny, to whom I wish the best. I’ve known him personally for some time, even contributing material to back in the day, though I withdrew from any communication with him years ago (largely because of his insufferable ego and terrible ideas about art). I’d like to say that the author of “Something Borrowed,” Alec Wilkinson, was well intentioned – but I can’t. Wilkinson, better known (I believe) as a music critic, has no doubt been an admirer of Kenny since Kenny’s days as a music critic for the New York Press back in the 90s – “bromance” is written all over this article.

No Seymour Hirsch, Wilkinson seems willing to publish whatever garbage Kenny fed him, including inventing a new origin myth, necessary for any proper hagiography, revolving around some clandestine meeting in a bar in Buffalo, which is pure horseshit (I was there, and know all the actors well). I’m also sure that it was Wilkinson who, clever man, threaded his article with such subtle, but clearly potent, racism to frame Kenny’s catastrophe in the best light. Wilkinson’s list of barbarians eventually grows to include CA Conrad (who if anyone could expose Kenny’s claims to be an “outlaw” as pure narcissism), Ken Chen (Asian American!) and the self-styled Mongrel Coalition (no fans of mine, by the way), quoting from one of their scattershot tracts. These poets are depicted as unfortunate victims of their own misunderstanding of the purity of Kenny’s desire to “provoke” in the name of the “avant-garde,” of the obsolescence of the discourse on ethnic identity, and of a narrow conception of poetic form, human creativity and the ubiquity of algorithmic culture (lyricists “allergic” to procedural poetics).

As much as Kenny would like to figure himself as the extension of tradition of Mallarmé, Beckett, Cage, Warhol and others, one would have to ask: when did the “avant-garde” tradition make it their business to target minorities? (Granted, in this tradition, anti-semitism and the exploitation of African art was commonplace, but this, I presume, is not the tradition Kenny or his supporters are identifying with; pictures of Pound, Eliot or Celine do not appear on When did it become the job of the enlightened “avant-garde” artist to fuck with the minds of people of color (and not their classic targets, the bourgeoisie)?

André Breton, one of the greatest provocateurs in the history of art, went to Haiti and endorsed the first publications of the Négritude in a sincere effort to encourage political change, to foment revolution, to transform the social order – now it’s the job of white artists to play vicious pranks on minorities for the mere sake of continuing a tradition, or just as something to do? Kenny G states: “I’m an avant-gardist. I want to cause trouble, but I don’t want to cause too much trouble. I want it to be playful.” That’s the artistic platform one takes into “appropriating” Michael Brown’s autopsy report?

(As a side note: no negative comments by black authors are recorded in Wilkinson’s article, even as they proliferated on the internet in the wake of the reading. John Keene is particularly notable in this regard in his writing on “the limit point of certain conceptual aesthetics.” This is mere cowardice: Wilkinson was quite aware that any screw-up by the New Yorker concerning African Americans would lead to a backlash from several quarters and puncture any possibility of redemption in the profile, whereas a backlash by Asian American writers has been traditionally easy to brush off as an extreme form of “identity politics.” The solution – to simply exclude black writers from a discussion of Michael Brown – is telling of how much he hoped to get away with.)

I’m far from a moralist when it comes to art, and I’ve tried as much as anyone to create an “expanded” notion of poetry, but the perversion of values in this article is nauseating. Who was this article written for? Are we actually back in the 80s? Is this Pee-wee’s Playhouse?

Wilkinson notes that Kenny “was paid five hundred dollars for his reading, and he gave the money to Hands Up United, an organization that called, among other things, for an investigation of Michael Brown’s death.” It’s the definition of corporate shilling when a journalist uncritically repeats Kenny’s attempt at damage control – think of the Vatican giving money to victims of sexual abuse for the sake of the press – to massage away the reality of his utter nihilism. Did Wilkinson ever humor the idea that Kenny, who has never exhibited any concern with social issues in his work or person, might have been insincere? (And is Kenny really making a living giving $500 readings?)

Wilkinson seems quite happy to have shoveled whatever pabulum Kenny sent his way and cut-and-pasted it into his article. “My books are so boring that even the copy editors can’t read them,” he claims that Kenny “said recently” – this has been a pretty common line of Kenny’s for years in interviews. As for common sense: does Wilkinson really believe that any of Kenny’s works had copy editors? Absurd formulations that have long moldered – “The modernist project… had always been to deconstruct language to its smallest shard… [L]anguage got so atomized that there was nothing left to do” – are given new life in Wilkinson’s blinkered attempt to write a compelling art hero into existence for the New Yorker, one who is, as if to order, both transgressor and victim.

But Kenny is not the victim. The proof is right there in the article. Perhaps the most revealing passage occurs around word 3,972, just before the big reveal, when Wilkinson writes:

Flogging this conceit [of being an uncreative writer], however, had led to conceptual poetry’s being regarded as unfeeling and as interested only in formal problems. The perception that the field had discovered its boundary had led to its being less well attended. “We held the stage for fifteen years as the most challenging movement in poetics, with a form of expression that many people hated,” he said. He wanted to hold the stage a bit longer.

What would help, he thought, was to find “a hot text.”

This would almost have been a redemptive passage – laying bare the machinations of Kenny’s carpet bagging, imperialist mentality – but one misses the saucy, editorializing adverbs Wilkinson favored in his quote from Hong. How about:

After “Sports” he “got bored with being boring,” Goldsmith said banally. His work had traced “a trajectory that starts with the driest copying, where I trumpet being the most uncreative writer on the planet,” he said megalomaniacally. “We held the stage for fifteen years as the most challenging movement in poetics,” he said blindly. What would help, he thought delusionally, was to find “a hot text.”

Wilkinson also decided not to mention what every follower of this controversy has long known, that the notion of the conceptual “hot text” had already been broached by Vanessa Place, a writer (and self-styled Mephistophelean) who had used, for example, the “statements of fact” that she wrote defending sexual offenders in her day job as a lawyer (published as a book in 2010). Place has also been also recently been embroiled in accusations of racism for a project in which she republished the text of Margeret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 140-character tweets, using for her profile photograph a picture of black “nanny” and a “coon” drawing of the period, a project she claims is overtly anti-racist but which others have understood as akin to the exploitation in Kenny’s Michael Brown piece.

Kenny was, no doubt, emboldened by Place’s Statement of Facts. But Kenny’s (or Wilkinson’s) claim that conceptual writing was moving beyond merely “formal problems” with Seven Deaths and Disasters is completely wrong: that book, and the Michael Brown piece, was a testing of the properties of conceptual writing on intractable material that would inevitably create a stir but in which the artist had no investment. To that extent, the Michael Brown piece was paradigmatically a formal experiment: how to take the act of plagiarism and “give it legs,” in journalistic parlance, in a time in which the conceptual writing brand (or Kenny’s career) was growing thin. Wilkinson’s note about the hubris of “wanting to hold the stage a bit longer” doesn’t approach the monstrosity of the means of doing so: invading a territory to extend or expand the life of an artistic prospect or career regardless of who actually occupied that territory (or who else made art concerning Michael Brown), a sort of Lebensraum philosophy of maintaining and expanding an individual’s cultural capital.

There is no reason a white artist can’t make compelling, disturbing art concerning Michael Brown’s death. There are many reasons why this shouldn’t be done merely to test a product, illustrate the robustness of the “avant-garde” tradition or revive interest in a flagging (white) artist’s career, especially with the legacy of sheer buffoonery that had characterized Kenny’s career to that point. Imagine “Weird Al” Yankovic publishing a funny song about Whitney Houston’s death, claiming (after suppressing the song and donating his earnings to charity) that he had been simply tired of the “Weird Al” formula and wanted to test it:

His phone rang, and it was Marjorie Perloff, telling him to ignore a spiteful post that had appeared that morning. Weird Al paced as he talked to her. When he sat down again, his face looked drawn. “Sometimes I think I might be headed back to the world of novelty recordings and Dr. Demento,” Weird Al said ruefully. “I don’t deny that possibility. They still seem to like me there.”

Poor baby.

The kind of people who think it’s cool to take the SAT’s on acid because they’d “already deconstructed and critiqued the culture” are not the same people who protested the shooting of Michael Brown. If Brown (whose high school graduation photo was projected as the backdrop to Kenny’s piece) had taken the SAT’s on acid (yuck yuck yuck), he would have been caught, then safely ensconced in a prison somewhere on August 9, 2014, and would not have been shot on the streets of Ferguson for shoplifting cigarillos. Nothing of his life would have been available for recycling or exploitation by an “avant-garde” artist, even a good one. After release, Brown would have been burdened for the rest of his life with a prison record limiting his job prospects, no higher education at 25, most likely a despairing attitude and the poverty from which he and his family had already suffered. The thought of making a career change by turning to republishing “boring” or controversial texts for the tourists and art groupies who shop in the MoMA gift shop couldn’t have crossed his mind.

I’m sure the pages of the New Yorker have gushed on occasion with some remorse for the persistence of racism in the United States and for the “tragedy” of Michael Brown. In that case, the presence of this article points to a raging hypocrisy among your editors and readers. But I am a barbarian; I am most likely missing something. Perhaps remorse for Michael Brown’s death, a condescending and scapegoating attitude toward Asian Americans and all writers of color, and the need to bolster an individual’s flagging artistic career regardless of the value of his work (so long as it sells copies and confirms the elitist tradition depicted on the famous 1925 cover reproduced above) are all non-contradictory in some elevated – and eternally elusive to the hoi polloi – world of ideal forms, in which case 2+2=5.

Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and Associate Professor of English at UCLA.    Send article as PDF   

Ronald Tanaka, “The Circle of Ethnicity”


Here is something a little strange: a scan of a series of essays by poet Ronald Tanaka (1944-2007) about Sansei (second generation Japanese American) identity — or even the possibility of identity — published in the Journal of Ethnic Studies in, I think, the late 1970s. I haven’t been able to locate bibliographical information.

It starts as something like first person sociology, moves through a logic section, incorporates bits of poetry, drama and calligraphy, and ends with a series of Wittgensteinian mediations, parts resembling the Philosophical Investigations, but finally descending into a series of numbered single sentences resembling the Tractatus.

18.6. Yuck! (As Shino would say.)

I wrote about Tanaka a bit in “Remote Parsee” a long time ago but really didn’t know what to make of him. Thanks as ever to Walter Lew for bringing this to my attention. I think I have more tools with which to get a grip on this now.

Ronald Tanaka (Wikipedia)

The Circle of Ethnicity    Send article as PDF   

“Freedom of Voice” — Unless We Mean “Freedom of the Virus” — Is Not the Issue


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    Send article as PDF   

Why “The Interview” is Already Garbage


In lieu of the fact that there are no substantial Asian American film actors or politicians or athletes (outside of Tiger Woods), or at least ones whose political opinions might matter to the average filmgoer — or if there are, no one seems to have bothered to ask them — I’ve gone ahead and written my own reasons why The Interview is already a stupid movie. I’ve had these ideas ever since I saw the poster several months ago, but thought to finally write them given the Sony hacks.

1. They use Hangul, the Korean written language, in the poster. But it isn’t there because they think Koreans will actually read it — in the mind of these guys, there aren’t any Koreans in the United States. Either that, or Koreans are genetically humorless and would never understand why it’s funny to have the words “We Will Start a War” painted on bombs. The Hangul characters are merely a stand-in for a generic Asianess, or North Korean-ness, regardless of the fact that South Korea does, indeed, use Hangul. As one commentator (link below) points out, several film projects in the past started with China as the baddies, but switched to North Korea at the last second because, well, there simply isn’t a market there. But splashing Hangul on a poster, with the assumption no one can read it, is like making a movie about Hitler and littering with quotes in French and Spanish simply because of the similarity of their alphabets. Granted, it’s hard to make a movie poster that will be funny in two languages, but this Shepard Fairey pastiche, using Hangul merely as a decorative device that is encoded to read “Bad North Koreans” (just as the hammer and sickle signified bad communists in the past) just states what Koreans (not to mention Asians) already feel about the mainstream media: we have been deleted, we don’t exist. (Koreans are, by the way, fiercely proud of their written language, invented in the 15th century under the guidance of King Sejong. That, and kimchi.)

2. North Korea is a live situation. North Korea isn’t a country blanketed by the mists of time, nor is it an Orientalist fabrication or (as in past, much funnier political comedies, like The Mouse that Roared) an amalgam of several countries, but a complex, frighteningly opaque political entity that — most especially to Koreans — feels something like a wound that won’t heal. Half the population of the Korean peninsula is starving; North Koreans are incurring genetic changes due to the near-constant state of famine, and many of these North Koreans have close relatives in the South. The movie is a cheap shot about killing the leader of a country that most Americans only know about through other media (films, video games, occasionally the news). Most Americans can’t even name the years of the Korean War, nor even know that 36,000 Americans died there (and something like 2.5 million Korean civilians). There still hasn’t been a substantial movie, soul-searching on the level of say Apocalypse Now or Platoon, about the Korean War (unless MASH, which I really liked, counts). (There are a lot of conventional war movies that take place in Korea up to about the early 60s, then MASH, then nothing.) I don’t mind harsh satires about evil people; I just don’t see the joke in one about two bumbling Americans killing him because he can’t speak English without an accent (guaranteed, though I haven’t seen the film, Kim Jong-Un speaks with a terrible accent).

3. It stars James Franco. This might not seem like a big deal, but I can’t help that that smug grin he wears (or which he wore during most of the terrible Academy Awards) when he thinks he is engaging in some great meta-artistic project — some high concept video, for example, where his insider status as a star somehow provides us plebs with insight into Three’s Company or, even more perversely, some pseudo-intellectual take on someone a bit highbrow who he claims has impacted his work, such as the poet Hart Crane — infects this project as well. While I doubt he will be performing fellatio in this film (that, actually, would be genius), I can’t help but sense his utter tone-deafness to the nuances of pop art in the film poster. But there is a more obvious point to be made, which is that he’s a terrible actor — usually pretty good, if overdetermined, in technique, but no good at working with scene partners. He sucks the air out of nearly every scene he’s in with people (for instance, for my money, while he was great eye candy in Milk, he was way out of league on the same screen as Sean Penn, who was simply generous and helped Franco look good). Maybe that’s why people liked him in that movie where he is entirely alone and cuts off his forearm. But he has never really been truly funny as far as I know (he was just very handsome and likable in Freaks N Geeks, kind of a Fonz for the Dawson’s Creek age, but let the others get the laughs). He’s no Robert De Niro. If I thought there were a chance for humor in this movie as there was (though not tons of it) in Team America, I’d be far more lenient.

Well, just thoughts that have been circulating in my head for a while. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned any of this in the press.

Here are some related pages:

“Why Do Filmmakers Keep Trolling North Korea?”

The Poster For Seth Rogen And James Franco’s New Comedy Is Filled With Anti-American Propaganda

Hangul (Wikipedia)

So, in the end, I’m totally in favor of the Sony hacks — it’s like a Christmas gift for me. And the fact that their executives are being revealed as racist and misogynistic — all great. I’m hoping that it’s some spin-off of Anonymous or LulzSec rather than North Korea doing the hacks. I just don’t understand why, in a time of inspired political comedy (like on the Daily Show, etc.) this is taken as interesting. I wasn’t much of a Borat fan, either, maybe I’m too sensitive to ethnic stereotyping of that nature much as I love to speak in funny accents.    Send article as PDF   

Index Card Poems

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!












index_card__0005    Send article as PDF   

“My Heart is a Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole,” The Collected Criticism


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    Send article as PDF   

“Broken Glass” Limited Edition iPhone


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.    Send article as PDF   

Open Letter to Shia LaBeouf


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    Send article as PDF   

Open Letter to Kristen Stewart


(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)    Send article as PDF