Art, difference and pluralism

deciBel Series 1
Edited by Pam Brown
Vagabond Press, 2014

It seems to me that in thinking about art and politics – that is, either in thinking about art and politics at the same time, as parts of the same regime, as Jacques Rancière might have it; or as ontologically separate conditions, as Alain Badiou would have it – one of the key themes is the rapport and/or divergence between diversity (in an artistic sense) and democracy. How does a presentation of a variety of aesthetic approaches correspond with or challenge the dominant ideal of modern politics? Is artistic multiplicity an expression of the people or the problematic suturing of two separate conditions with a host of ideological ramifications? In short, how do art, difference and pluralism relate?

The new series of poetry chapbooks edited by the Australian poet Pam Brown (a former poetry editor of Overland, among many, many other things) provides an excellent opportunity for thinking about these questions. The ten poets included in the first instalment of Vagabond Press’s new deciBel Series are unlike one another in many ways, and they convey a range of possibilities for an innovative, neo-modernist poetic practice in the early twenty firstt century. And yet, they participate in a common (communal?) desire to express the poeticity of the late modern condition. Despite their variety of poetic and referential features, these ten slim books do convey a discourse: a belief in the possibility of a transnational – dare I say, universal – contemporary modernist poetic.

The standout chapbook in the series is Petite Manifesto by Don Mee Choi. Like many other poets included in the series, Choi is a native of one place (Seoul) and the current resident of another (Seattle). Such transnationalism is one of the key features of this series and, if my view that this series could be seen as an artistic manifestation of contemporary sociality is anything to go by, the movement between places, across linguistic and cultural demarcations, is hereby presented as an aspect of what it is to be modern. (Or postmodern, or post-postmodern, or whatever.) In Choi’s case, this movement also entails the practice of translation, not only of poetry – Choi is known as the main translator, from Korean into English, of the poetry of the wonderfully provocative Kim Hyesoon – but of various kinds of knowledge (subjective, gendered, historical, political, etc) from their particular contexts into the near-universal medium of the contemporary poem and one of its most persistent formats, the prose poem.

Petite Manifesto alone is worth the purchase of the entire chapbook series. A fascinating, insightful exploration of the theme of the economic and conceptual exploitation of Korean women during and after the Cold War, Choi’s poems are direct interventions in the representations of Asianness and femininity and their economic and political consequences. Through the voice of a figure named Betty – which strikes me as less a fictive construct than a negative mask for the poet’s own voice – Choi addresses, for example, the US loan mortgage corporation FHLMC aka Freddie Mac:

 Dear Freddie,

Print your money! More and more and more and more and more and more and Betty=Bitter=Butter=Better=Batter=Better=Butter=Bitter. This is real savings. Bail out Betty better is historical historically Betty batter history triple B Betty is butter Betty history batter is historical consolidate bitter. Your exact better will depend on the date you lock in your rate.

It should come as no surprise that Gertrude Stein is among the references noted in the chapbook’s footnotes. But unlike some of the other chapbooks in the series, Choi’s Petite Manifesto does not perceive Stein’s and other modernist influences as ends in themselves. Choi seems much less interested in brandishing her ultra-modern stylistics than in encouraging her reader to think about the relationship between gender, commodification and language.

A similar desire to investigate the connectivity of things via poetry can be seen in another terrific chapbook published as part of this series, Susan M Schultz’s Memory Cards: Dogen Series. Schultz too is something of a diasporic writer – born in Illinois, she’s currently a professor at the University of Hawai’i – and she also shares with Choi an interest in the prose poem. But whereas Choi uses satire and subversive intertextuality in an explicitly political direction, Schultz is more interested in the potential of the prose poem (or of the non-lineated sentence) for including the divergences of experience.

This attempt at inclusion is what I see as central in the discourse that unifies these ten chapbooks – and much of the self-consciously progressive Anglophone poetry of the last two decades – and I see it as a poetic enactment of the politics of plurality. While Schultz is clearly a follower of the anti-lyrical, disembodied vocality of twentiethh century American poetic modernism – from the emphasis on simple ‘treatment’ in Imagism to the preoccupation with a supposedly autonomous linguistic materiality in Language – she is also interested in affect, emotion and memory. The prose-poetic paragraphs of Memory Cards include both phrases as images/signifiers and as representations of thought, trauma and, indeed, feeling. In her work, as she writes in one of her ‘cards’, ‘abstraction trades place with the particular.’

That in a good number of the chapbooks under review refreshing, modernist language use does not lead to abstraction is significant, and this is most evident in the Cairo-born, Seattle-based Maged Zaher’s Love Breathes Hard. The second section of the publication brings to mind the jagged texture of Danielle Collobert’s fragmented utterances, but the contemporary Egyptian-American is much more interested in presenting a pleasant, light-hearted sequence on love and desire than disordering the speaking subject through brutal self-negation a là the suicidal Frenchwoman:

I want to love a woman – more than anything in my life actually – I am slowly learning how and why – my boundaries are a mess – I am terrified of taking a chance – actually in this slightly drunk state – I am loveable – and I think parts of you are softening up for me – asking me to tell you a story is your way of saying I am opening up for you – I am vulnerable – I like you – is this true or am I delusional?

That a contemporary poet can reject both the wordiness and pretensions of the traditional lyric as well as the artificiality and indeed pretentions of the faux-avant-gardist anti-lyric is a breath of fresh air. Of the remaining chapbooks in the series, those by younger male poets – Anselm Berrigan and Toby Fitch – strike me as more or less straight applications of previous, more or less canonised modernist schemata (a Frank O’Hara-esque elasticity in Berrigan’s case, visual poetry in Fitch’s) and the key figures of American poetic modernism are the subject of the poems by Americans Jaimie Gusman and Rachel Loden, and some are named in The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon by the Melbournian Ann Vickery, whose work includes poems written after Ted Berrigan (Anslem’s father) and O’Hara. If inclusivity or the expressivity of a social milieu is one aspect of this chapbook series, then the aesthetics and names associated with the twentieth century American poetic scene may be said to be overrepresented.

One may also grant, however, that the literary scenes/cliques evoked by Gusman and Loden deserve much of this attention, considering the impact of the founding mothers and fathers of US post/modernism on contemporary English-language literature, as can be seen in the last but not least of the chapbooks under review, by antipodeans Angela Garner and Stephanie Christie. The syntactic parataxis of Christie’s work and the thematic expansivity of Garner’s both seem to owe something to the work of the Black Mountain poets. That said, I feel some of the chapbooks could have gone beyond the contours of what is seen as ‘innovative’ – and the rather problematic assumption that literary innovation is an inherently good thing – to engage more intensely with what it is to write and to be a writing subject in the space comprising artistic contemporariness and social plurality. The weight of the legacy of Stein, O’Hara, Olson and Ashbery is, in final consideration, something of a hindrance to the new artistic practices arising from a contemporary space of inclusivity and transnationalism, as seen in the best instances of new poetry made available via this exciting chapbook series. These slender publications make significant contributions to the continuation of a democratic impulse in contemporary poetry.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

More by Ali Alizadeh ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I like the bit about writers “engag(ing) more intensely with what it is to write and to be a writing subject in the space comprising artistic contemporariness and social plurality”. I worry a bit though about such terms as ‘transnationalism’ (read imperialism) as I do about ‘poetry’ as a portmanteau term for ??????.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.