31 December 2012

poems (a.k.a. Sauce)

SP CE is a Lincoln, Nebraska-based art and writing studio, conceived of several years ago by the poets Paul Clark, Kyle Crawford, and Justin Ryan Fyfe in order to promote a conversation between local writers and artists. The collective hosts readings, workshops, and, with the release of Rachael Wolfe’s first collection poems (SP CE Books, 2012), now publishes chapbooks.

Wolfe’s collection contains eighteen short poems, each of which are titled “Sauce.” But Wolfe makes sure to note that the “very repetition of sauce makes it somewhat meaningless as a title. [Its] function is similar to that of an asterisk or a number or anything else used to separate parts.” To this extent, the chapbook can be read as a sequence of interrelated poems that speak to and against one another.

More often than not, the individual poems work as a series of both absurd and witty non sequiturs, keeping readers off-balance through threadbare connections and associative leaps. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:
Gifts are a passive aggressive act
is the best insult you’ve ever come up with.
Do you change the color of a fabric
simply by touching it. Can you put something
like bless your heart in a document.
Your face is an oil slick.
The above passage, which is the third “Sauce,” opens with the aphoristic declaration that gifts are “a passive aggressive act.” After the second line, though, readers discover that the first line is not an aphorism delivered by the speaker, but an “insult” leveled by an unnamed “you.” Afterward, two seemingly unrelated interrogatives give way to the absurd observation that your “face is an oil slick.” In this sense, then, the randomness of each syntactical unit produces a tension that works in contrast to the repetitive (thus expected) invocation of “Sauce” before each poem.

But Wolfe does not limit the push and pull of difference and repetition to the interaction between her recurring title and dissociative units of speech. She accomplishes a similar task by employing the same source material to create drastically different aesthetic products. For example, Wolfe mentions that “Sauce” five and eight are both interpretations of “the same dream.” They are as follows:
In a big thunderstorm the dead
come to you. Your grandfather’s
fallen away. He’s flailing
and saying I’m deaaad I’m deaaad.
They lock you in a closet until you agree.
Ok. I’ll marry the caviar king.
Everyone’s pulling up roses
instead of the weeds
we were gonna be pulling.
Get me out of here. At least before
You put them in the ground again.

They bring him out in a casket. He’s sort of
pulsating. Tells me he’s dead. At the funeral,
he’d been pumped full. Artificial
and smooth. That had all fallen
away. I think this means “the dead
are always with us.” I think this means
“the dead can speak in dreams
but only to say they are dead.”
While both poems address the death of someone’s grandfather, the shift from second to first person calls into question the identity of the speaker. Likewise, the first version’s use of dialogue and focus on horticulture offers a much different experience than the second version’s attention to embalming and internal monologue.

At the conceptual level, Wolfe intensifies the tension within these poems meta-poetically by putting pressure on the overall “healthiness” of her project. The twelfth “Sauce” begins with:
Sorry I dreamt of your wife
last October. There’s a sickness
in me. I see serials. Don’t
write them down.
The speaker of the poem believes the “sickness” inside of her stems from (or is somewhat related to) the fact that she “see[s] serial” poems and admonishes herself not to “write them down.” But she does write them down, even though they articulate her self-diagnosed sickness and make public the oppositional forces raging within her. The meta-critical juxtaposition manifests itself further when the speaker of the tenth “Sauce” says: “Disappear / before we all become real / poets.” Of course, with the publication of poems, the speaker finds an outlet for her voice, which renders such as a disappearance less possible.

24 December 2012

Nervous Device

In the introductory notes to Catherine Wagner’s fourth full-length book of poetry Nervous Device (City Lights Books, 2012), the author writes:
When Jem Sportsman interviewed me about audience and what is the bounding line, at some point I discussed my tilted cervix…then I stuck out my fist and had him put her figure inside it which freaked him out though not as much as if I’d offer her my vagina to put his finger in…I wanted to imply to the audience that we was putting his finger in my vagina and touching my cervix
The notion that the audience is “putting [their] finger in [her] vagina” while reading Nervous Device signals one of Wagner’s primary thematic concerns in the collection: the complex relationship between poetry, sex, desire, and the body.

In the first iteration of the poem “Rain Cog,” from which the title of the collection is taken, Wagner writes:
Think cold and genial

Someone whose symbolic
Presence makes the
Liquid flush from pores in
My vaginal skin. There.

And it works reversely—
Sure, seek source.

A nervous device, a communicator
The juice waits stupidly

Not shiny, because my pants are on.
The juice in shadow. (9)
At the most basic level, the poem explores sexual fantasies and their ability to affect the body. To this extent, a “symbolic” (or imagined) someone induces a “Liquid flush from [the] pores” of the speaker’s “vaginal skin.” This “Rain Cog,” then, is a liquid “communicator” of desire; but while the speaker’s mind produces the “symbolic / Presence” of the imagined someone, the “juice waits stupidly.” In other words, the “juice” or “Liquid flush” communicates sexual desire in a non-intellectual manner (i.e. stupid). It is corporeal and primal. It is affective and intuitive. It is poetry of sensation.

The book, though, does not cast the stupid and fluid communication of this “nervous device” in a negative light. In fact, affective communication appears to be the goal. In the third iteration of “Rain Cog,” the speaker asks and answers a question integral to the audience’s understanding of these poems:
I emerged from postlanguage

What’d I say?

Green clamp pulleywamp

Dallying open the silversound
That is the body’s eon-noise ecology (27)
Emerging from (or looking to escape) the confines of “postlanguage” poetry, the speaker embraces the “body’s eon-noise,” or a sound (not language) emanating from the corporeal self: a song composed by and in service of the physical/sexual realm as it sings its “Green clamp pulleywamp / Dallying open the silversound” song outside of meaning. To state this claim a bit differently, Wagner writes in the poem “Pressed Go” that the “body’s eon-noise” articulates the “choice between action and understanding” (2). And it would appear that, for this book, the choice is simple: all action all the time.

But just because Nervous Device abjures meaning for the sake of sensation, does not mean the poems therein are inscrutable. In fact, the speaker of “Unclag” states:
I would like never to be obscure. I understand why I was: explaining
is a bore, and flattens lang, so, it takes experience to write a real poem
that is well-lit. Which is not the same as clear (10)
In an effort to compose an affective poem of/from the body that excites (while simultaneously avoiding the bore that is explanation), the speaker argues for a “well-lit” but unclear text: something both finely wrought and visceral, yet not bogged down with cerebral intellectualism that so often shackles the feeling of a poem to a disembodied mind.

What happens, though, when one discounts or fails to access the body and its sensations? The second iteration of “Rain Cog” answers this question in the form of a cautionary tale:
One who could not smell came up to the other’s apartment (threw pebbles at the window) after the other had masturbated. The other not having washed her hands brought on a beer. One was intimate with the other’s smell and wanted to be intimate with the other and was and did not know it. That old factory. (25)
The “one” character desires and wants “to be intimate with the other” character. But due to one’s lack of smell (i.e. one’s failed olfactory (i.e. “old factory”) sense), one does not smell the juice of the other’s nervous device and the sexual desire it attempts to communicate. Thus, one does not take action. Yes, if one wants that “swanky love” (16), one must voice the body’s eon-noise bound up in the “not-word” (57) and feel.

17 December 2012

Letters to Kelly Clarkson

The overriding conceit of Julia Bloch’s first book Letters to Kelly Clarkson (Sidebrow Books, 2012) is a series of epistolary prose poems addressed to American Idol cum pop star Kelly Clarkson. And like other collections that follow a similar form (e.g. Spicer’s After Lorca or Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy's), direct address to a cultural figure or entity infuses the book with a certain amount of levity. But the humor inherent in this imagined correspondence does not negate the more serious theoretical concerns of the book. In an interview on rob mclennan’s blog, Bloch states that Letters explores “representations of female celebrity, the female body as a spectacle, reality TV as a profit machine that we feel emotionally attached to, our relationship to pop culture, our desire for and fear of intimacy.” Take, for example the following letter:
Dear Kelly,

Clutched in femininity’s dystopic embrace as if it were a big clammy hand from the deep, I watch the bright box, forgetting to blink, I know I should be turning to the book and reading and writing but the images keep coming, trafficking my sense of the real and the room. The screen is sometimes described as an eye or a tube filled with celebrity jelly. I can’t see any of your pores; I know I shouldn’t but I want you to be a real girl, muscular, with a hair shade that doesn’t make a sound. (43)
“Clutched in femininty’s dystopic embrace,” the speaker foregoes her work-related tasks of “reading and writing,” even suspends normal body functions such as blinking, in order to “watch the bright box” of television. And the images the television provides distort her “sense of the real” by slathering them in a “celebrity jelly” that erases all trace of naturalness (e.g. “pores” etc.) from those who appear on the small screen. Yet even though her sense of reality has been distorted, the speaker still yearns for Clarkson “to be a real girl.”

The problem, of course, is evident: if we desire something “real,” but television alters our fundamental perception of the “real” through fabricated imagery, what is it that we desire? A previously false and fabricated image, or some long-lost image that predated mass media and consumerism? Trafficking between our new, fabricated realities and some lost authenticity, then, produces a compelling tension within Bloch’s book. On one hand, the speaker informs Clarkson of her need to “write to you in consideration of subjectivity” (24), but knows the difficulty of doing so when viewing the world through the “great eye of public” (5) and its “aesthetic of the shitty” (65).

The speaker of Letters to Kelly Clarkson, thankfully, does not sound overbearing or didactic because she imbricates herself with the public and its shitty aesthetic. In one instance, she confesses that: “I try to dignify myself on the pale couch, writing these notes down, but inside I abandon myself to the next huge dream…Girl you sure were swell up there, backlit and startling” (7). The speaker tries to maintain an objective distance by “writing these notes,” but inevitably abandons herself “to the next huge dream” produced by the image of Clarkson “up there” on a televised stage, “backlit and startling.” In another instance later in the book, Bloch writes: “On television, we can see each curve of your skull; you live in a land of light gels and leg doubles” (38). The use of the first-person plural revives the notion of the “great eye of public,” in that we all “see each curve” of Clarkson’s “skull” in unison; moreover, we see it in a world of artifice becoming reality: “a land of light gels and leg doubles.”

How, then, should we proceed in this world of mass-produced and contrived subjectivities? Toward the conclusion of the collection, Bloch writes:
I think I should like to be erased, like a certain word is from these letters. No: I think I’d like to hold a certain feeling like a cut thing, with the light shining all around your forehead and the last failed years toppled over at the entrance to 101 on Bayshore. (75)
The speaker’s first inclination is for complete removal from our cultural landscape, to be “erased” like a word from her letters. But such a response is self-annihilating and, ultimately, futile, in that it does not produce an affirmative reaction to a problematic trend within our contemporary times. No doubt understanding this fact, the speaker immediately negates her initial response (but does not “erase” it from her letter) and, instead, desires to “hold a certain feeling like a cut thing” in the “light shining all around” Clarkson’s head. Perhaps we can interpret this as some oblique reference to Adorno’s belief that: “The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant,” and her recognition of that entanglement offers “the infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such.” Yes, the speaker is wholeheartedly part of the “failed years” and does view it through the great public eye; but, she is ever mindful of this knowledge, which provides her an “infinitesimal freedom.”

10 December 2012


j/j hastain is a performance artist, photographer, musician, and writer living in Boulder, CO, as  well as the author of several books and chapbooks of poetry. j/j's most recent collection cadences (Triton Books, 2012) explores the confluence of language and the body in order to “invent then arrange” the “infinite refractions” both through a series of longer poems and lyric essay that read as “strange, misty sequences.” hastain kindly took some time via email to answer some questions for me about the book.

In the afterward to cadences, you mention that the book works with "language in an attempt at making new constructions that refuse binary norms and enable multiplicity." Could you explain, perhaps in a bit more detail and pointing to particular instances, how specific language in cadences achieves this goal?

Thank you! I would say that as much as cadences attempts this goal of enabling multiplicity and refusing (torqueing, altering) binary norms, it “achieves” it. I would love to explain how the attempts/intents work/ed for me.

First off, the entire book is a large scale progression from what could be termed poetry to what could be termed prose. By poetry (called “divergent virago” in cadences (eg: “shared/we are/coming/to identify as a realm wherein/the vivid feels”)) I mean, pages whose obsessions include line breaks. By prose (called “cultivating cadences to invert the given creed” in cadences (eg: “on that brink or this one, compressed and drenched feathers are often mistaken for human blood”)) I mean pages whose obsessions include the flow of language, the elongation of lines into stretches in a continuity. There is a middle section of the book (called “in desperate pursuit of non-vaginal virginities or “now that we are here what other ways are there for us to cross”” in cadences (eg: “It helps to not be able to see the sky or the ground. Instead such concentrated elaborate mid. A marsupium unearthing. We/ eat phallic shapes/ in public”)) that blends both of the above stated obsessions. I see the mid-book as a location that expresses a healthy refute/alternate to the poetry/prose binary.

cadences was composed in the above stated regard intentionally, in order to provide and establish a path (parallel) to enable embodied examination of the binaries of masculine/feminine and male/female. It was important to me that the poetry/prose binary be turned into a poetry-third thing-prose place (the seeming poles brought together and connected by something of more duration than a hinge (as is often at the middle of a binary). I wanted to create the sense of a ‘third thing’ holding space, a boat (that thought it bares the historical weight of having two ends) that had enough (a blend) of both poetry and prose obsessions in it for it to offer realm, croft, a hearty, meaty middle (as opposed to it offering only a hinge and the poles on either side of that hinge).

Much of the content of cadences is artful undermining of the traditional masculine/feminine and male/female binaries (“a completely sexless body/with projections and holograms/of both unforeseen/adams and eves over it” and “you whisper to me/ tell me to slide back onto your/strapping/but only when I am ready/I slide/slowly/backward/feel you filling/that this is a gender is a sex/is a grandeur/far/beyond/frill” and “is woman to man at times a mistaken carcass?”). This is definitely my intent/attempt. I had a dream the other night that to be part of the ‘cult of beauty’ (whatever that means? I remember the actual phrase from the dream itself) is to embody beauty’s capacity to include many varying particulars. For as far back as I can remember I have longed for particular forms of public space which include the variances (and thereby are capable of accurately addressing the needs) of the queer body. My work to have the content of cadences be inclusive is my effort to compose and reify just such public space I have long yearned for. I am learning that it is better (for me) to compose and generate the spaces that would most hold me (if they were offered to me by another) by way of my being an active agent in such spaces’ generation.

One of the ways that I am an active agent for inclusive/queer space is through sound. I mention that here, because to me, sound is the great substitute for any either or (binary) scenario. In cadences I approached sound by both ear and content and provide the following examples: ear-“which means/always amidst/a stratum of mixed” and “poppet in need of being translated” and “to be an askew averting,” content- “this makes us royalty based in tactile sibilance.”

What is the opposite of sound? The answer?—NA: not applicable. It is much more applicable to query the purposes of sound. If sound is itself the queer alternate to binary norms, and sound is the combination of many different frequencies within a large scale movement or event, then perhaps sound is multiplicity enabled. When you read the book do you feel the sound loops gently rocking you on the boat? I do. My soul is sound, and I will consider your soul as sound too, if you choose to self-define in that way.

You mention that one of the ways that you are "an active agent for inclusive/queer space is through sound." But when attempting to vocalize (perhaps) a trans body or persona, the speaker of the collection, at times, is unable to sound. I'm thinking specifically of the passage: "This more than woman or man or _______________________" (179). Likewise, there even seems to be a desire not to sound, as in: "perhaps after the work of books and forms and bodies / we will find a hushed place to play" (30). Could you address these excerpts in relation to your concept of sounding as space creation?

Ah yes, thank you. This is an inviting question. I would say that the speaker in cadences (when they use the dash to communicate (179)) is attempting to have a sounding space (the book) inclusive enough that there be room enough for a you to feel at home there. I consider the dash in reference more as content than as gap or blankness, actually. It was something I put there to court out and into the book (by way of a you, a reader) what else exists besides woman or man. Sort of like, please, fill this, make this moment studded, plethoric (based on your own experiences of divergence). Sort of like a clarifying, stone mandala that remains in an environment, a public space that a you can visit at any time, in any season, in any mood. In other words, fill this dash in with your own sound, please!

In regard to the quote you referenced (30), this is interesting. I see “a hushed place to play” as somewhere that is not at all not sounding, but perhaps alleviated from external noise, meaningless chatter, T.V. static, historicized dogma, the radiating hum of traffic, your parents yelling at you because you are telling them for the fortieth time that in order for you to come to Thanksgiving they have to call you by a different pronoun than they want to, etc. I want to hear the flag blowing in the gentle wind. I want to be able to attend to the subtle buzz of the growing plants, to know when to water them before they show signs of their need.

Perhaps more than anything else though, the above referenced quotes and examples are sites (in cadences) that articulate the human wish for reprieve (which re cadences is definitely not found in some void or in silence or in lack).

Your question also makes me want to mention that the space of the book is not my property (just because I work as agent within it does not mean I am writing it for “me”). cadences is the sensory property (as a feeling space, a somatic ashram) of the commons.

I do think it is important that as sounding agents, we consider what to do with gaps or limits or voids--the ethics involved in that. I see it as integral to consider how to make bridges out of our own skin or volition.

The poems or lyric essays of cadences are rather long; and, as an audience member, I read them as “strange, misty sequences” that explore the intersection of language and the body. What does composing a longer piece offer to you, as a writer (and to the reader as well), that shorter texts cannot or do not provide?
First off I want to say that the comment that will follow is not a comment against shorter texts. The length and the mists of cadences are not in any way opposite to short works. Opposition is not their nature or their agenda. Let’s just get that out of the way.

I agree with you that the poems or lyric essays are strange, misty. I guess that the fact that they are longer, wandering, stretchy, ellipsis-like has to do with my wish for a lightning flash to remain with us longer than it does. I wish with passion on behalf of the lightning flashes that would keep the sky open and validated for a bit longer than what is thought to be usual.

Alchemical inductions of enigma, nourishments of enigma, the body being courted, cultivated and counted on as the materiality of enigma; all of these are what I am offered when composing longer, misty work.

Your bringing in the notion that the work is an exploration of “the intersection of language and the body” feels very accurate to me. As a queer person who writes and makes things, the two (language and body) are indelible priorities of mine. I hope that cadences sings by way of them!