Monday, June 19, 2006

Those Glittering Asian Guys (II)

An unexpected trip to Boston, plus a cold I picked up there, pretty well knocked me out for the past week and a half. Meanwhile this discussion has gone a few more rounds and should perhaps be left alone. But it's surprisingly persistent. In my last post I tried to outline two modes of using Asian stereotypes in contemporary poetry--the ambivalent and the ironic--and I do still want to see if there is some "third way" that Magee's poem is pursuing.

Let's go back to the beginning. "Their Guys" got its initial round of attention not because of an uproar from Asian American readers who stumbled across it, but after being featured at a Bay Area reading, where it caused a stir (among a presumably largely white audience) and provoked a first post on the topic over at Minor American. And in looking back at Maggie's initial post, I'm struck by the impressionistic language she uses to describe the poem's impact: talk of "ruffle[d] feathers," being made "uncomfortable," a poem that "felt as if it were written for a campus audience at the height of identity politics." But Maggie, not having the poem's text in front of her, could only remember the poem's central epithet: that of the "Asian Chick" (who in fact only appears once in the poem, although "Asian cutie" and "Asian girl" do also appear).

It's that immediate, visceral reaction that seems most important in the audience's discomfort with the poem--and it's also, I think, the major factor for those who have critiqued the poem, as well as for me. It's this visceral reaction to what I can only describe as the poem's surface that I think has not been given enough attention in the earnest attempts to probe the poem's ostensibly more complex intention. And I think that visceral reaction needs to be attended to in any understanding of how the poem "works." Because racially charged language, at least in contemporary usage, is precisely that which lacks depth; used as stereotype or slur, it acts a veil or as a weapon, meant to short-circuit thought and debate or to substitute for it. Any self-conscious use of that language has to take this into account, especially if its goal is to overcome this short-circuiting of thought.

As I was first trying to get up to speed on this debate, I found the poem and read through it quickly--skimmed it, really--to see if I could also get a "feel" for it. Normally I would not really report the results of such a first, preliminary reading. But I want to do so here because it strikes me as relevant to the poem's effect--and perhaps as analogous to the experience of hearing the poem read, once, in a crowded room, grabbing what words one can as it passes. What I got from my initial read-through--what I "heard" of the poem--might look something like this:

.........Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay

Ten years and this will be just another big Asian city...
.................let the Empire swallow them.........
..................................................the thin
Asian chick, burgundy car coat, Hong Kong chic. They like
opium, the old guys down in Chinatown....................
.....................................Asian Norms............
......................................Asian Santa is 7" tall.
You always hear about sleazy guys who get blowjobs matching
their spectacular looks to Kimmy, a 21-year-old Asian cutie.
Young ladies dial a number on their cell phones--I understand.

The country guys are having a model minority Asian
................................. I don’t want to sound stereo-
typical, but most Asian people I HAVE MET, are pretty short.
Their evil plots always lose in the end and Asian girl in shower
makes soapy mess, soaking wet both in and out of their Hispanics––
different, however, depending on their skin tone...............
.........................................he was definitely Asian
or Malaysian or something. The 2000s may well be the Asian
century, a fantasy world where even the bad guys are beautiful.
........................the Dragon Lady cum Asian sex goddess).

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking
about tomorrow. They expected to see an Asian in the
remote areas. Guys in military uniforms ..............
.....................................Asian action ................
..................the 1998 Asian markets crisis..................
...............the little guys that you rape with less than 3 guys
more like an alien than an Asian. An Asian business man rips off
his coat, revealing a glittering, Vegas style................
...................................predominantly female ethnicity.

Tomorrow, the English guys are drinking: enjoy engaging
with their culture caught in between two guys while a video
camera mounted in the wall behind their couch OH NO! NOT!
jams mint into her mouth. .................................
they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much ......
................................our little guys are ruined.........
................................(“As we retreated two white guys on
bikes appeared...”) ...........................................
You may argue that I'm being profoundly unfair to the poem--just grabbing on to the most provocative, inflammatory, "naughty" parts. But I think there's some logic here. First, I think my telegraphic version may well reproduce the experience that many folks seem to have had in hearing the poem read aloud and reacting to its most uncomfortable sections. Second, if I give Michael Magee the credit for intention and intelligence that I am trying to, I cannot do otherwise than assume that creating this discomfiting, attention-grabbing, even "offensive" surface is part of the intended effect of the poem, a means of seizing hold of the reader in a certain way (with the presumption that one will then go somewhere else from there).

But the third, and most important, point has to do with my position as an Asian American reader. For as an Asian American reader, I am hailed by these images in a very particular way; the passages I've highlighted are precisely those that I cannot turn away from or skim over. (It's a curious paradox of racial address that the broadest stereotypes can be so personally felt, as if they were addressed solely to you.) And in this version of the poem, as seen by an Asian American reader, we have what amounts to a review of the hoariest stereotypes of the Asian: short effeminate dope-smoking men, sexualized and degraded "Dragon Lady" women, the financial and political Yellow Peril.

Is it any wonder, then, that an Asian American reader might not wish to "get past" these images--that such a reader, having experienced the surface of this poem as a barrage of stereotypes directed at him or her, might simply turn away in disgust?

It's the position of this reader that the poem, I think, fails to take into account. And I'm going to argue that this failure--the failure to imagine, not an Asian American speaker, but an Asian American reader--is what ultimately keeps the poem as a whole from achieving what it ostensibly intends.

And what does it intend? To what end this deploying of base stereotypes? In what way are these stereotypes framed--is there some clear way in which they are not expressions of racism, but (as many have claimed) critiques of racism?

The first thing that's clear to me is that neither of my first two categories--ambvialence and irony--can be applicable here. Though others might disagree, I will take at face value Kasey's claim for "the absence of any coherent subject-position that can be said to operate throughout." If that's true, then we simply cannot call the poem either "ambivalent" or "ironic" in its use of stereotypes, because both those labels (as I'm using them) depend on the identification of some kind of speaker or subject whose attitude toward racist material we can gauge. If we cannot find any such stable subject-position, we can't (for instance) assume that the poem is a dramatic monologue by a racist speaker who is ironically distanced from the author.

This cuts both ways for the poem, as Kasey notes: although it may in some sense insulate the poem from a charge that it is coherently "racist" (in the sense of proceeding from a "racist" speaker), it also prevents anyone from coherently claiming that the poem is somehow "anti-racist" (proceeding from a speaker who is clearly opposed to racism). In any conventional sense, then, the poem is at best neutral toward its racist material, since it has denied itself the luxury of ironic distance; the images are not framed in some coherent way. Indeed, I would extend this point further and see this self-denial of irony as something like paradigmatic for flarf itself: flarf is precisely that writing that refuses to take an ironic, high-handed position with regard to its "degraded" and "offensive" materials, but gets right down in the muck with those materials, exploring both pleasure and disgust, while being profoundly implicated in and by both. If I'm wrong about that, then perhaps I just don't get it.

If the poem's use of stereotypes is neither ambivalent nor ironic--if it can't partake of either of those labels--then what is it? The best label I can come up with for what the poem seems to want to do in using those stereotypes--based both on my reading of it and on subsequent discussion--is:

3. Self-critical. Rather than taking a position outside racial discourse, the poem seems to want to deploy, explore, and even amplify that discourse in the hope of breaking it down, turning it against itself. It's impossible to think of a "speaker" in this sense because if the gambit works, it's the discourse itself that will "speak"--and, hopefully, speak damningly. It's an idea somewhat like that put forward by Adorno in "On Lyric Poetry and Society," which suggests that in great lyric works it's not some individual who is speaking, but "language itself" that "acquires a voice."

One of the "target" discourses is obviously orientalism, as indicated by Magee's title--a punning allusion, as he and Kasey noted, to lines from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli": "Their eyes, / Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay." The "they" here are a group of "Chinamen" that Yeats imagines "carved in lapis lazuli." Magee asserts that his poem "directly engages with the Orientalism at work in [Yeats's] poem". And Kasey: "Yeats' poem uses its precious gestures of chinoiserie as a means of rendering a racial other manageable, comfortable, reassuring. Magee's poem 'translates' those gestures via debased chatter and social noise into anxious, offensive tics, but at the same time burlesques some of their seductive formal effects." In this reading, Magee's "Their Guys" is an exposure of orientalism, paradoxically, through an updating of orientalism, translating Yeats's modernist orientalism (with its aesthete Chinamen, their plum-blossoms and mournful music) into "our" own postmodern orientalism (fears of Asian economic domination, sexual fetishization of both the male and female Asian).

But this kind of historical contextualizing doesn't account for the full impact of Magee's images on contemporary readers--and certainly not on the contemporary Asian American reader, whose existence orientalism cannot possibly imagine. Think again to the title, which for Magee is an echo of The Tradition, and also a critique of it. Now I didn't hear that allusion until Kasey pointed it out. What I did hear--and what I suspect almost any Asian American reader would hear on first reading--is "Asian guys...are gay," which conjures up not Yeats but a whole contemporary hot-button context of denigrated Asian masculinity, exemplified by wretched artifacts like Details magazine's infamous "Gay or Asian?" feature. (The point being, of course, not that one cannot be gay and Asian, but that in this conception both "gay" and "Asian" are abject positions located outside the "norm" of white male heterosexuality.) What I don't see in Magee's title is any critical awareness of this context, of how the images he deploys might signify in a particularly Asian American context.

Here's the risk of the self-critical mode: that in trying to make the discourse of orientalism "speak," it can become nothing more than that discourse speaking to itself. Critiquing the discourse of Anglo-American orientalism from the inside alone neglects the proliferation of more complex subject and reading positions; the Asian American reader is both subject and object of orientalism, and the "other" created by orientalist discourse is also, for the Asian American reader, a distorted and perhaps unwanted vision of "self."

I have to dispute Magee's claim that his poem must be read as "dystopian," as well as Anne Boyer's assertion that the poem is "relentlessly and complexly anti-racist." For both of these assume that the poem produces a stable position of critique, from which one could look at the poem's imagery and say, "These images are sick and wrong." If I understand Kasey's reading at all--if I understand flarf at all, which I'm starting to think I don't--the whole point is that the poem does not produce such a position, that by its very nature it cannot. It can't be "relentlessly" (i.e., consistently) anything, certainly not as coherent a thing as "anti-racist."

Here's a perverse argument: for me to accept the "dystopian" reading--the idea that the images Magee employs are so inherently sick and wrong that I could only attribute them to an evil civilization (and not to Magee himself)--the imagery would actually have to be far worse than it is. What do I mean? Well, note for example that Magee has stopped well short of including any actual racial slurs in the poem; comparisons to "What's up my N____?" notwithstanding, there are no "chinks," "gooks," or "slants" to be found anywhere in "Their Guys." In fact, Magee has quite pointedly undone one epithet found in his source text; Magee is obviously quite aware (unlike those folks on the Poetics list who still like to say "Jap") that Yeats's term, "Chinamen," is no longer used in polite company. So he replaces it with the pan-ethnic, politically acceptable, post-1970 term, "Asian." For those of you who have seen the poem as a satire of political correctness, guess what? The poem is itself politically correct!

My point here is that Magee, far from seeking to expose the discourses of orientalism and racism at their dystopian worst, has in fact quite self-consciously pulled his punches. What we see here is not the ragged and ugly face of unadulterated racism, but a muted, sculpted, even aestheticized version of that discourse that can be incorporated into a poem. Imagine that Magee's poem started like this: Ten years and this will be just another big Chink city... That Bay Area audience wouldn't have been grumbling; they probably would have been throwing things and walking out. But the use of the relatively neutral, "PC" term "Asian" throughout blunted the edges of these images enough that many readers could actually get through the poem and even like it, while still scratching their heads.

But this strategy couldn't get the poem past most Asian American readers, who largely reacted as if the slurs were there anyway. Such readers recognized that the structure of the stereotypes had not been altered, even if the wording had been muted. In fact, from my point of view there's a sense in which the use of "Asian" throughout actually made the impact of the stereotypes worse; since these images are couched in language that shows the author "knew better," I can't attribute them to ignorance. Thus my response is less that of anger than of profound disappointment.

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow. Magee argues that this is a turning point in the poem, "a fairly sophisticated line" that "departs from the lanuage that comes before it" and says something about "the urgency to communicate." My reaction: Is this how the poem imagines my speaking, my halting but ultimately noble desire to communicate? Must the subject position of the Asian remain not only outside discourse but outside the English language? If the language of this line differs from that of the rest of the poem, this is not because it is so "sophisticated" but because it is so naive, implying some kind of vague shared human aspiration (cf. "Iraqis want to be free") while excluding the speaker from any kind of full hearing. If that's the glimmer of hope that "Their Guys" offers me in this roiling discourse, I'm not particularly interested.

If this poem is supposed to have a salutary effect--the message that "everybody needs to wake up," as Magee puts it--the sense I get is that I, as an Asian American reader, am not included in that "everybody." Not just because, on this subject, I'm already wide awake. But because ultimately what we see in this poem is orientalist discourse talking to itself--indeed, white orientalist discourse talking to itself. I, too, find the conclusion of the poem chilling in a way, but not because I take away from it some steely-eyed denunciation of racism and imperialism; it's chilling precisely because in the final lines the Asian has disappeared entirely ("they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much"), replaced by "two white guys." I can only maintain the Asian presence in the poem if I assume that "our little guys" and the "others" who "turned to see one of their men had fallen" are still marked as Asians--in other words, if the poem is in fact speaking for Asian characters, precisely as Kasey and others claim it doesn't. I agree that it doesn't, and that these "little guys" at the end "don't really look Asian"; they have become unmarked, allowing white power to engage in a discourse with itself.

Do I expect this poem to try to speak for Asians? No. But I do expect it to follow through on what it has already partially done: to acknowledge that there may be an Asian American reader out there, one who is something more than the object of orientalist discourse. An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow: this to me is not the most optimistic, but the most unpleasant line in the poem. Not because of its "offensiveness," but because of its condescension.


Gladys said...

hi tim, lurker surfacing here. i'd been waiting for this post since Part I, waiting to find out the "third" option, and i just wanted to say that i thought this was an excellent, well-crafted, and really grounded reading of the poem that was able to express the reasons for my discomfort and fatigue as an asian american woman reading the poem and the subsequent debates around it. thank you for your thoughtfulness and your expert commentary about the nature of racial language and stereotypes (orientalist or not).

TM said...

Is it possible that the poem can work for a white audience in a positive way and still fail for an Asian American reader? Let me explain: I'm Finnish, so I have no real knowledge of these issues that have been raised, so I can't in any way contribute to that discussion, but I was reading the poem just now and thought that it does get to _me_; it makes me think about my own (white?) hidden symbolical racialisms (symbolic racisms?): there is a nagging sense I get that the speaker's tone is somehow elegiac, smooth, gentle, aspiring to a kind of sad wistful beauty, and yet the speech is about these stereotypical situations where white country people do awful things to or think awful thoughts about Asian people - and that the speaker fails in the attempt to be coherent, which somehow is at the same time, in a deeply threatening way, endearing and disgusting, because is talks about images of desire in a somehow nostalgic way (using the submissiveness and exoticism of asian stereotypes as figures for domination which white people have lost etc.), that are very seductive and yet deeply wrong. I think this is the Yeats-thing that people have been trying to find in there?

Anyway, I feel that the poem works for me, but you have to be face to face with your own reactions here, it obviously opens a wound or a taboo, this poem, like Calvino's myth-maker, collaging until bricolage hits a painful spot, and since an Asian American isn't included in that mythology as a maker of it, this poem wouldn't or couldn't relate to the hidden impulses of said reader. Could this be the problem, what you are talking about, that there isn't an Asian American reader scripted into this poem? Because then I would understand completely what you are saying and agree 100 procent.

I'm just trying to understand, and in conclucion want to say that I really sympathise with your feelings and I'm sorry if this comment is confusing - I mean the language - agh, English just isn't going very well for me today.

Kirby Olson said...

I liked your analysis but what I see now is that the poem is a tar-baby. Ultimately the whole blog-world could get stuck to it, but it's nothing more than that. I think you're right to say that Flarf IS a reaction to the identity politics of a certain era. And this is the poetry of that moment, it refuses to engage in either a critique of racism, or to move beyond it, it shows us what an endless tarbaby it is, and this poem ultimately is what it critiques. Good luck getting free of it.

The Unfortunate Traveler said...

Hi Tim,

You’ve produced an incredibly nuanced and fair critique of the work, modifying and correcting many misperceptions, my own included, that were tossed about during the heated polemics. Great work.

My example of the differential power of the N- word, should probably be modified to suggest that epithets, which aren’t on display in the poem, are simply part of a larger racist imaginary. “Cadillac-driving, welfare queens,” in the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, is just (perhaps even more so) as effective in its ideological intent.

I think your point about the absence of any coherent subject-position raises a host of thorny issues. I appreciate how you’re trying to follow this logic, at least provisionally, to the end in recognizing that the poem is thereby “insulated from a charge that it is coherently `racist’…[but] it also prevents anyone from coherently claiming that the poem is somehow `anti-racist.’” Given the premise, I’d have to agree, but there’s something about this assertion that doesn’t quite square with my sense of the relentless sameness of the kinds of discourse, orientalist and otherwise, in the poem—which seems like an integral part of what you called orientalist discourse “speaking to itself.”

The collage techniques at work in “Their Guys” isn’t jarring so much as seamless and tonally (no doubt intentionally) homogenous, sutured. The sense of closure is profound. It doesn’t seem entirely satisfying, to me at least, to argue that the poem “can't be `relentlessly’ (i.e., consistently) anything, certainly not as coherent a thing as `anti-racist.’” It’s precisely this hypostatization of indeterminacy, a kind of “circulating absence” in the words of Arif Khan, that functions as a kind of unacknowledged racial trope, for whiteness itself, in the poem.

Which is to say I’m not so bothered, after the deluge, by how the poem’s images “might signify in a particularly Asian American context,” (poorly, everyone would probably agree by now), but by how the poem continues to reproduce, in a formally unself-critical manner, the historical construction of whiteness as “empty, defined only negatively by what it is not, a rule or norm established only after the phenomena that it came to define as inadequate or abnormal. Accordingly, in its most historically effective forms, whiteness does not speak its own name. It may be nothing more than the principle in relation to which all (other) races, nations, and peoples are classified and hierarchized.” This is Warren Montag. Not only has the “structure of the stereotypes” not been altered, but the essential absence or objective “neutrality” of the European male viewer, is recirculated.

But this is taking the postmodernist logic at face-value. “When I hear that there is no longer any real subject to a poem,” a friend of mine once asserted rather flippantly, “That’s when I know that the mystification of subjectivity is complete, and that we are writing only for the conscious mind.” There do seem to be two places where the material is framed in a way that breaks the spell of immanence, if only momentarily, by gesturing toward the historical genesis of the poem’s tropes. I’m thinking of the reference to the “Asian markets crisis” in the third stanza, “A full month of Asian action and general/weirdness after the 1998 Asian markets crisis, a bigger, nastier/version of the little guys that you rape with less than 3 guys.” And the other moment in the poem would be its conclusion, “They had him tied up in their old Frontier.” What do you think about those moments?

I have to admit, my attachment to the line about the “Asian woman who spoke little English [who] kept asking about tomorrow” ignores the less savory aspects of its typicality, but probably because it’s a type of utterance that seems to emanate from say the more traditionally lyric mode of Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli”—the tragic historical trajectory of a shared aspiration, now rendered inert, and, disturbingly, feminized.

I’m concerned about how the need for a representation of a more active Asian speaking subject might short-circuit the more fundamental need for self-definition in the poem. Which is to say, I’m not sure how such positive examples could ever fully escape the charge of condescension, structurally speaking.

Of course this is a pretty minor question in relation to your fantastic reading, a reading that, for me at least, highlights how there is no getting “beyond” the racial questions raised by the poem except by going through them.

Chris Chen

pam said...

Seriously well-said, Tim.

I'm interested in this notion that the poem cannot but fail for an Asian American reader, because it does not fully take into account the context of such a reader. Of course by now it’s obvious that I agree with this claim. But at the same time, I’m also interested in TM’s question about whether the poem might “fail” for an Asian reader and still “work” for a non-Asian (presumably white) reader. Part of the reason why I was reluctant to enter the discussion in the first place was exactly this: I suspected on some level that the poem wasn’t meant for me and was meant instead for a white audience (specifically white liberals) to examine its own uncomfortable reactions to objectifying orientalism and neo-chinoiserie. I was worried that by inserting myself into the debate, I would throw a wrench into the process of white readers trying to make sense of their own reactions, free from the influence of an intervening Asian American perspective to nudge them this way or that. Oh well, the wrench has been thrown. Although Michael Magee has stated that this was not his intention, I still think the poem is most compelling when read in the way that TM describes—as a surface that blends nostalgic, elegant seductiveness with disturbing bytes of imperialistic violence and sexual domination. On days when I am less myself and more able to think myself into the position of a hypothetical white reader, this confounding blend of the beautified (not beauty in the classical sense, but more the pleasure of the incongruous language sculptings) and the dominated is the main “value” that I get from the poem. Orientalist discourse and orientalist gesture talking to themselves, in a relatively neutral documentary mode; a sort of documentary on current-day orientalism. I wonder how much further TM’s reading might be taken, and what other values might be culled by a non-Asian reader, outside the context of an Asian American interpretation.

pam said...

Note: When I talked about Michael Magee's avowed intention in the comment above, I was referring to a statement he made at some point during the discussion where he denied that the poem was written with only a white audience in mind. Whereas TM seems to be proposing that the poem gathers more value when it is read in a limited context where Asian readers are not included in the audience.

Not sure if I was entirely clear about this in the comment above.

Tim said...

TM, I think your comment gives a fair sense of one possible implication of my argument: that this poem could "work" for a white reader (who can see it as a self-critical take on orientalism) while failing miserably for an Asian American reader (who will see only a circular discourse from which she/he continues to be excluded).

Some folks have claimed that this is a legitimate function for the poem to have--whiteness interrogating itself. It's possible--possible--that I could agree with that, at a great intellectual stretch.

But as Pam points out, Magee and other defenders of the poem have largely disowned this possibility--that the poem is written from a "white" perspective for a "white" reader. Thus when Kasey argues that Magee's poem is "a matter, for the poet, of choosing between experiencing [racist language] as aesthetic material over which some control is possible and experiencing it as a paralyzing infection"--that the writing and reading of the poem has, in effect, therapeutic value for the author and reader--I cannot imagine that he means to restrict this aesthetic experience to white readers only. This argument only makes any sense for me if it is truly generalizable (if it is, as Kasey argues elsewhere, about the condition of contemporary language itself); and if a whole class of (easily anticipated) readers are excluded from this process on the grounds of race, that hardly seems like much of a triumph for the understanding of race.

Chris, you raise some excellent and incisive points (as you have throughout this discussion). As you observe, in my analysis I am really bending over backwards to take the poem on its own declared terms, to give Magee full credit for what he claims to have been trying to do. If I drop that position, I can see exactly what you're saying--that despite the claims for the jagged edges of the collage method, the poem is in fact distinguished by what I've called a muted tone--a relative evenness of surface and, as you say, a strong move toward closure. Perhaps another way to say this is that the poem is actually (as I understand the term) bad flarf (is that possible?), because it does not sufficiently signal the gaps and asymmetries in the discourses it samples.

The two moments you point to--the "Asian markets" and the "old Frontier"--are indeed interesting. I think you're right that the "Asian markets" line is a moment of potential in the poem, where it seems like a link might be made between fear of economic domination and sexualized violence against Asians--but I don't think that potential is really realized.

"Old Frontier" to me is a little more complicated. As I suggested, I think Magee wants this to be a jab at imperialism--that the "two white guys" are to be seen as having "tied up" one of the "little guys" (i.e. us Asians) in their "old Frontier," their dreams of westward expansion. The problem is that I don't buy that the empathetic gesture that would have to underlie this interpretation is present. In part because the only position available for the Asian within the poem seems to be that of victim. Perhaps that's what happens when orientalist discourse talks to itself, even tries to flagellate itself. But I don't think it opens up any kind of space for an Asian American reader; I'm not sure it even opens up a space for truly critical thought.

As I said in my post, I don't think that what I'm doing is advocating for some kind of more obvious "speaking position" for an Asian in the poem--for some kind of "better" or more "positive" representation. Rather I think I'd want to see the poem be more complexly critical (as it surely would be if its target were, say, commodification, mass culture, video games, war, the music industry, etc.). For me, when flarf works it does so by showing how discourse is not completely relentless, how it may allow multiple and complex subject positions. Perhaps the problem is that "Their Guys" really presumes only one: that of the white orientalist gaze.

drfranzkafka said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael said...

Hi Tim,

I haven't read the most recent comments here from Pam, Chris and others. I'm anxious to but wanted to first respond simply to your post.

This is a very persuasive reading of my poem. Though I wince at words like “condescending” and “disappointing” its clear to me how you arrive at them (and of course whether I personally wince at them or not shouldn’t really matter to anyone involved). I’m quite sure that over the course of this conversation I’ve offered a number of contradictory opinions about the poem. As I’ve said often, in this after-the-fact act of interpretation I’m more of a reader than a writer: I can say with some clarity HOW I wrote the poem, and I can say in general terms WHY I wrote it; but as far as what it means I’m hardly more authoritative than any other earnest interpreter.

I still believe that the best “reading” of the poem I can provide is implicit in what I said long ago now in one of the Limetree threads:

Flarf’s relationship to the OBJECTS of the internet is, so to speak, objectivist. As Gerald Bruns puts it in his new book (he’s talking about Ponge not about Flarf), the relationship is “accusative, not nominative…as if the poet were someone who is porous with respect to things, suffering or enjoying them but also, in some way, addressed or obsessed (in the etymological sense of being besieged) by them.”

Okay? This is the ethics of Flarf, such as it is; its sympathies and empathies are more extensive than you believe. They just don’t fall into the tired old patterns.

I can imagine any number of critiques of what I say here and I can imagine the further accusation that I am being condescending (“tired old patterns” etc). But this description of Flarf is one I imagine I will continue to defend.

The poem risks failing; it has to. Whether it fails long term -- as it has failed for some readers who’s opinions I respect very much – is unclear. That you see the poem as having “already partially…acknowledge(d) that there may be an Asian *reader* out there, one who is something more than an object of orientalist discourse” gives me some heart – although I believe (and you may well see this as the fundamental mistake of the composition) that the poem *presumes* the existence of Asian readers and writers outside not only orientalist discourse but outside the machinations of this poem. The lines “An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow” which you read as condescending is NOT representative of Asian speakers or readers generally, nor certainly of Asian poets. Here I think the flarf method matters, for it consistently undermines language’s aspiration toward metaphor. Nor is flarf a particularly useful tool for expressing “vague shared human aspiration.” In a way, for your reading of my line as “so naïve” to make sense, one also has to imagine a reader “out there” stupid enough to be taken in by it, and not all by itself, but in the context of all the other shit going on in the poem. I don’t believe the reader exists that could share in the “vague shared human aspiration” of that line; and I rid myself of vague shared human aspirations long ago, though I still have plenty of practical democratic aspirations if anyone’s interested. So, to sum up on this point: this is one single Asian woman referenced by someone, somewhere. I think of “her” as both particular and vague. The reason her disappearance is chilling (as Chris Chen and I agreed it was) is because much of the rest of the discourse in the poem can’t accommodate even this level of particularity (as opposed to stereotypicality).

Your comparison of the line to “Iraqis want to be free” neglects, in my reading of the poem, to take into account what the two sentences actually do: 1) the “Iraqis” line throws up a smoke screen to enable a land grab – the people who read it as “shared human aspiration” are dupes (some of them tragically so but dupes nonetheless) it works well because it is repeated over and over in isolation from any potentially dissonant sentences; 2) my line is surrounded by dissonant sentences and, again, couldn’t dupe the proverbial village idiot. It tends, judging from our ongoing conversation to provoke: a) curiousity about its particular origin on the internet; b) a certain “chilling” effect resulting from the disappearance of its proposed thread from the poem; c) total annoyance and disappointment, as in your response. Apologies for all the numbering and lettering.

I can’t stress this enough: outside the one line discussed above, there are no speakers from the Asian diaspora in this poem; in fact there are no people from the diaspora represented in it at all and obviously no Asian American poets. There are only characterizations being wrenched, severed and stitched. HOWEVER, whether this matters to anyone or to a reading of the poem or not, the existence of people from the Asian diaspora *and their ability to speak for themselves* is very much presumed. Moreover, my own relationship to the objects of which the poem is composed (“suffering or enjoying them but also, in some way, addressed or obsessed [in the etymological sense of being besieged] by them”) is significantly impacted by my own history with Asian-American poets and poetry.

This is something I tried, clumsily, to address very early on in the conversation over “Their Guys” – at that time Lee Herrick interpreted what I said as the typical “Hey, some of my best friends are Asian!” defense. A perfectly reasonable misinterpretation but a misinterpretation nonetheless. So, I’ll try again. At THE formative moment in my development as a poet in the mid-90s I can think of maybe 5 or so peers whose influence on me and my writing were all-pervasive. Three of those poets were Asian-American writers: Mytili Jagannathan, an activist in the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia who is also active in the gay rights movement there and elsewhere (we met as grad students who were both involved variously with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union); Jessica Chiu, my former student who I was publishing often in Combo magazine at that time; and Nate Chinen with whom I shared an abiding interest in jazz (Nate is a jazz drummer and critic for the Village Voice and Jazz Times; he and I collaborated on the poem “Trading Fours” which is in my book _MS_). Of course our myriad middle-of-the-lazy-day and half-drunk-late-at-night deep conversations (we were in our twenties after all) included significant talk of what it meant to be an Asian American person and poet. They ran the gamut from dealing with stereotypes and oppression; to employing (in life and writing) aspects of inherited Asian rituals, writing and art styles, music, cooking, philosophy; to dealing with coercion from within Asian and more specifically Asian-American cultures (especially around gender and sexuality); to studying and employing Asian political models; to the complexities of the Asian diaspora (as you can partly surmise from their surnames Jagannathan is of Indian descent, Chiu of Chinese descent and Chinen of Okinawan/native Hawaiian descent). I cannot overestimate the impact that they had on me at this time. I hope this statement doesn’t meet with a cynical response.

I don’t believe in clear demarcations between self and other. I recognize violent, asymmetrically enforced demarcations between people, and condemn them, in print and on the street; I recognize acts of strategic essentialism from within oppressed groups of people and understand them as sometimes necessary, clarifying and/or buoying (though, as Harryette Mullen said in the interview I quoted earlier, I also see them as potentially coercive: the “inability” to be gay and Asian which you cited earlier being an example of an essentialist position enforced from both outside and at times from inside Asian communities). But all that being said I can’t escape the fact that the distinction between self and other is a philosophical ruse, perhaps at times strategically necessary, more often just a cudgel to wack people over the head with.

I see my own identity as evolving within the context of an improvisational collective (itself always evolving). In this formative period I’ve been discussing that collective prominently featured Jagannathan, Chiu and Chinen. Since that time I’ve gotten to know, often through publishing their work in Combo or inviting them to read in whatever series I was running at the time, Prageeta Sharma, Linh Dinh, Summi Kaipa, Brian Kim Stefans, as well as the work of Juliette Lee who I’ve just published in Combo 14/15 and the work of Theresa Hak Jyung Cha, John Yau, Pamela Lu, Sawako Nakayasu, Myung Mi Kim, Xue Di and you yourself, Tim, all of whom I have read assiduously over the years. I didn’t ask any of the Asian American poets I know well to read “Their Guys” before I published it. Maybe, probably, I should have. I think they would have given it a sympathetic reading. Their sympathetic advise may have boiled down to: “bury it”. I don’t know. I did show it to, among other members of the Flarf Collective, Kasey Mohammad, who has himself been the object of hate speech over the years and who I trust on the matter of poetry (among many other things) completely. Trusted at the time and still do.

Why is this history important? Because I think it should probably be brought to bear on some of the critiques you levy here: in particular, that the title lacks “any critical awareness…of how the images [I] deploy might signify in a particularly Asian American context.” And that my “self-critical” mode (I think “community-critical” might be a more accurate term) “neglects the proliferation of more complex [Asian and Asian-American] subject and reading positions”. For the record (and I’m not sure this makes me look any better personally, in fact it may convince people that I’m a complete jerk) I was very aware when I made up that title as a homophonic translation of the line from Yeats that I was wading into cultural muck like the Details “Gay or Asian” feature. And I waded in anyway, because there I was. This is something I think could be made more clear about flarfists generally. They know well how words and terms are playing outside the narrow confines of educated or liberal or white or (name your ivory tower term) because (aside from whatever everyday exposure they have to non-white cultures) they are searching those words and phrases in all sorts of permutations. So the potential awfulness and the potential for what you as a writer would consider a misreading of what you are about to undertake is all there in front of you. And you do it anyway because there you are. Perhaps that compulsion has an ethical dimension, I dunno. I tend to see it as ethically neutral until a poem emerges from it.

I think I came up with the original play on the Yeats line out of a sense that critiquing HIS orientalism would be a mere academic exercise at this point (and in that sense my earlier claim that the my poem “directly engages with the Orientalism at work in Yeats’s poem” has become a bit of a red herring); it’s a critique that’s been done by poets and theorists smarter than myself – and I recognized in my homophomic phrase the way in which innocuous terms (“Asian,” “gay,” “guys,” terms I use all the time as having positive value) could, would in the alchemy of Google, dredge up the lousy, ridiculous, menacing, lunatic side of internet speech. Try this: search “women” on Google. Now search “Asian women”. The difference HAS to be dealt with, I feel. Flarfists (I hate to speak for such a large diverse group but here I go) tend to feel compelled to jump into such frays. As such your reading of my use the term “Asian” as evidence that I was “pulling my punches” is incorrect. The phrase “pulling his punches” suggests that I actually would have preferred to use a word like, in your example, “chink” but thought better of it. But that is not at all true. In my translation “ancient” became “Asian” and I knew full well what I’d likely be negotiating from that point on. You write that Asian American readers have “recognized” in reading the poem “that the *structure* of the stereotypes had not been altered, even if the wording had been muted”; that “the use of ‘Asian’ throughout actually made the stereotypes *worse*”. Yes, I think that’s right, but I see this as one of the conclusions to be drawn from the poem, not as something I have failed to register. The notion that my use of the word “Asian” was a “strategy” I was employing to “get the poem past most Asian American readers” seems, I confess, absurd to me. Why in the hell would I want to get anything past Asian American readers? And, even if I did, wouldn’t I have a higher regard for them than to use *that* lame strategy, which is the stuff of knuckle-headed white ad execs on a second dates?

As for the critique that the poem “neglects the proliferation of more complex subject and reading positions” – this may sound nuts, but I think the poem, rather than neglecting them, actually presumes them. That is, it takes as obvious the fact that there are innumerable complex readers, writers and speakers from the Asian diaspora outside the poem. One option I may have had in the course of writing the poem or in revision would have been to quote the actual speech or writing of, say Asian-American poets I know, or I could have interspersed writing by Said, say, or something more contemporary and specific to the poem’s language like Laura Kang’s "Compositional Subjects.” My own take is that this a) might have come off as even MORE condescending than Tim takes me to be (in the “Asian woman who spoke” line; and certainly it would have FELT a lot more condescending and manipulative to me); and b) it would have completely-deactivated the negative language in the poem by telling all my readers exactly how to read it: as in, ah, he’s read Said; then this poem is about how bad Orientalism and hate speech are, I get it. I’m not interested in covering my or anyone else’s ass in this way, -- whatever that may say about me as a writer and/or as a person. I still believe that the best critique of the poem is the simplest, offered by Lee Herrick and, with more nuance, by Chris Chen: namely, that I’m simply a dick for subjecting people to it, Asian Americans in particular. It’s an argument I disagree with but one that I cannot answer via a reading of the poem.

I think when the dust clears the aspect of this conversation about my poem that may be of enduring interest is what you say here:

[In any conventional sense, then, the poem is at best neutral toward its racist material, since it has denied itself the luxury of ironic distance; the images are not framed in some coherent way. Indeed, I would extend this point further and see this self-denial of irony as something like paradigmatic for flarf itself: flarf is precisely that writing that refuses to take an ironic, high-handed position with regard to its "degraded" and "offensive" materials, but gets right down in the muck with those materials, exploring both pleasure and disgust, while being profoundly implicated in and by both. If I'm wrong about that, then perhaps I just don't get it.]

Interestingly, when you say “the poem is *at best neutral* toward its racist material” you are close to Thomas Basboll’s take on the poem and on flarf generally. I think you’re probably right and I agreed with and really enjoyed your piece on the flarf poems in Combo 12. But I also agree with the way you modify the above, “in any conventional sense” – maybe only time will tell whether the poem can or will be read as anti-racist in some non-conventional sense. Katie Degentesh’s mind-bending poem “The Popsicle” which you liked so much includes a (as I read it) comic but unironized, unflinching description of some unnamed man who “stuffs EZ-Cheez up his daughters nostrils / and rapes her with a Loving You Barbie”. I can imagine many, many readers finding this simply too much to take, starting with incest survivors. But I can’t sustain a reading of the poem or of Katie without describing them both as “feminist.” Katie’s work actually pays off the comparison to Sarah Silverman more than mine – and I would say that Silverman’s infamous “Joe Franklin raped me” bit in “The Aristocrats” is feminist in a similar way. Silverman’s joke is completely dependent on its positioning among the tidal wave of incestuous rape fantasies offered up by male comics in the film telling the joke “The Aristocrats.” It’s a bizarre performance of self-erasure (no room finally for the “Sarah Silverman telling a joke” whose appearance you keep waiting for) that somehow functions as a giant fuck you to all those male comics AND as refusal to participate in television patterns of witnessing and victimization. And in order to “get it” one has to be cognizant of the world OUTSIDE it. Just so with flarf. As Kasey has argued in regards to my poem, this has to do with the fact that in flarf poems the scars and stitches speak as loudly as the “content.” A related observation would be that, though the poem, I agree, has no “coherent subject-position that can be said to operate throughout” this doesn’t mean that various subject positions can’t be identified and in some way or another attributed to me. Or the poem might be read as if its ethical dimension existed only in the tracings left by engagements between the poet and the language he encountered.

An honest and important question: what does it mean for a flarfist to be “proundly implicated in and by” her exploration of disgust? I don’t have a clear answer.

An honest and sincere prediction: flarf may turn out to be the least condescending poetry imaginable.

Thanks Tim, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken with the poem and the conversation surrounding it.



Michael said...

Tim, One other thing very briefly: I continue to think it matters that I never intended this poem to be read in isolation: in Oakland it was preceded by three other poems including "Mainstream Poetry" wherein the speaker (in that poem semi-coherent) proposes among other things a poem called "Kissinger--Bloody Hands". "Their Guys" was read in that context. Elsewise its in the book MAINSTREAM which people can get at SPD. It's there by itself on the website only so that people could read it after Maggie's initial comments about the reading.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

Excellent. Thank you Tim. And, thanks, too, perhaps, from those of us well weary from having to serve as the can opener. I've more to say on this, but my garden needs watering.

One thing I do want to say, I think it's more a phenomena of the space for discourse, a meeting of event-horizons, that can occur on Kasey's blog, Minor American and others, that allows the life of this discussion -- not so much the phenomena of the poem itself. Unlike, say, the poetics list, where I lurked for years, finally abandoning the pontoon when you did.

And, I find nothing "simple" about anything Lee has said -- it would take a whole course of study to fill in the gaps.

Thanks, Tim, Michael, and all.

Arif said...

First off, I would like to thank Tim, Pam, Chris, and others who have been engaged with the language of “Those Glittering Guys.” I’m sitting here at my keyboard, wondering what I could possibly add to the trenchant critiques of the poem, flarf in general and the predominantly male, white avant-garde, in general. I am sitting at my keyboard, anger drained out of me with a profound sense of exhaustion and disappointment; with a feeling that I need to defend myself any longer; with a disappointment at the circularity Magee’s argument and liberal arguments in general. I never engaged the poem at its own level, because the premise never seemed right in the first place; because whiteness never confronted its own historicity; because pastiche seems to take me back to Jameson’s argument about pastiche as an aesthetic mode that “eclipses parody.” What is this complex juxtaposition of fascination and revolt of the orientalist stereotype if not a subtle re-erection of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized? This would require a psychoanalytical essay which I don’t have time for.

I would have to go deep into Jameson to find a critical language does not solely arise out of a critical impulse, but out of lived experience. I could argue, for instance that the pastiche mode, presumes the death of the subject - predictably the death of the white subject and his/her/and all others! new and almost supernatural ability to enter other identities. I could start to rail on and on about the anti-historicism of postmodernism; the ways in which it is haunted by modernism; the ways in which we idealistically believe that when every thing is stripped, the true and right word will emerge. This would have to play on Kermode’s discussion the tendency of postmodernism to move towards fascism, but I would not adopt the humanist episteme as an alternative. In other words, I see a real need to incorporate the language/ideas/modes of thinking of conservative scholarship, just as the right has started to use leftist terms. I would start to rethink how two epistemes, let us say, Sufism and humanism, create a whole new episteme all together when they “sleep the night.”

I would have to re-think the limits of liberal empathy and the need to move towards an anti-capitalist transnational poetics. I would have to rethink Jameson altogether and the “death of the white subject” unable to examine himself/herself and emerge out of a living ordeal - and it is an ordeal - with some living word; with some sense of his/her own absence in relation to my over determined presence; living within the terror of that absence and emerging from it with a new language by which to reconstitute a white ontology that has anti-racist roots/routes. Race is simply discursive: a floating signifier that latches itself onto ever shifting contexts, you say. Then why are we haunted by it? And who is going to theorize it for all four worlds? What new languages can depict our experience and get beyond the bathetic, sentimentalizing tendencies that are on display for a white audience, that go beyond a victimology? What of diaspora in this dialogue? And why have we placed the lyrical impulse in the (post)modernist closet? We are still at the beginning.

In this sense, I feel no need to engage with the argument; feel no need to give any more attention than the poem has already garnered by these discussions except insomuch as I can direct people to Pamela Lu’s blog and her last post for the summer, which clearly articulated some of my issues.

Michael said...

At this point it might be wise for me to save any comments I have for long posts but I can't help responding to Arif here: first to say, Arif, the critical exploration you propose but don't intend to follow through on seems pretty damn worthwhile to me. The questions you ask in your penultimate paragraph are profound.

Secondly, just to clarify: I don't believe race is a free floating signifier; I'm not a Derridean. My standard bearers are William James and DuBois, and with them I think of race as, yes, a discourse but not a discourse that floats. Rather it is a discourse employed variously as a tool. Often, in the case of race, as a cudgel; sometimes as a buoy; and in other ways. So, language floats right up until the moment someone uses it at which point it gets momentarily specific. Repetition of a specific use is called "tradition." I'd say we are haunted by race because it sometimes seems to us to admit to no other use but that ordained by the cudgel tradition. My poem is haunted.

I appear
not to be
on the


The Unfortunate Traveler said...

If one were to conduct an autopsy of the conversation that occurred over at Lime Tree, many of us would probably agree that there were several significant moments of disconnect. I want to sketch out a few, from the position of someone who has been critical of the poem.

I think that critics, on the whole, were sympathetic with the poet’s intentions, at least at first. I think that this generosity was gravely taxed when many of us realized that the defenders of the poem seemed more interested in reflexively circling their wagons around the poem, and around Flarf in general, as though there was some sort of market share or territory that needed to be preserved—rather than engage in an open dialogue about race. Every imaginable defensive permutation was offered, from the fact that the poem was the “only alternative to white silence,” to the “anti-intellectualism” of poets of color who called theory into question, to the early assertion that none of the defenders lacked “understanding or caring” about the racial issues at hand, all while critics were precisely calling into question the defenders’ “understanding” of the hurtfulness of the language. How could respondents not view this assumed preexisting total comprehension as an act of bad faith?

I can understand why such a hermetic military posture was immediately adopted—since Flarf generally has come under such withering attack in the last year—and because of the misperception that poets of color were massing on the horizon to stage an assault on Google procedures. But, and this is pure speculation, I could imagine a discussion where defenders of the poem immediately owned up to the fact that a tactical error had been made, and that they would be more than happy to imagine alternatives with poets of color and go back to the drawing board. It wouldn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the poet, or on Flarf in general. Considering the generosity of the respondents, I doubt, with this initial concession, that the conversation would have taken such a bitter turn. I’m also cognizant of the fact that few poems could withstand the resulting sustained critical and political scrutiny that “Their Guys” has been subjected to.

Tim’s most recent post highlights the complex role that intentionality played, and continues to play, in defenses of the poem. At one moment, the poet embodies a terrific amount of “ethical” agency in sculpting what he or she finds in the culture, “without taking any responsibility for the ugliness in it”—i.e., I don’t hold these ideas, I’m just an interpreter or arranger etc.

At another moment, the poet has no agency, after the poem has been criticized, is simply “decentered,” dead, refined out of existence—or worse, absolutely complicit, abject, but in a “conscious” manner, not as something the poet “has failed to register.” “Readers who are `taken in’ by the reactionary elements in the work are naïve.” So a symptomatic reading by critics is immediately recuperable as the product of anti-racist “intention,” when and where it is strategically useful to do so.

There is this contradictory assertion of editorial power and passivity, but when the criticism becomes too searing, the racist material “is only bearing the trace of its source,” and diasporic identities are presumed to exist outside of the frame. I can’t help but think much of the “frame” has been articulated by poets of color here. To assert that this "frame" already existed prior to the discussion seems, again, troubling. Finally, the author returns with a vengeance in the reminder of personal relationships with other poets of color, publishing histories etc.

“So the potential awfulness and the potential for what you as a writer would consider a misreading of what you are about to undertake is all there in front of you. And you do it anyway because there you are. Perhaps that compulsion has an ethical dimension, I dunno. I tend to see it as ethically neutral until a poem emerges from it.”

I want to question the deracinated, ethical “neutrality” of the simple subject before the screen, who feels compelled to collage racist material and then perform this activity in a public setting. I’ve tried, in more recent posts, to make the case that the political implications of this general position is legible within the poem itself, within its very form, and thus can be subjected to scrutiny through close readings. Which is to say, I share Arif’s desire to stage a racial critique of white postmodernism.

The shifting status of intentionality continues to show up in claims that the poem’s language has been simultaneously, “activated” and “deactivated.” Which is why I’m worried that simply changing the ratio of negative and positive representations of Asians in the poem doesn’t get at the more essential question of white subject formation. After all, Asian Americans aren’t categorically “ethically neutral” either. This involves us in some 90s identity battles that I think almost all of us want to move beyond. No one’s wearing a white hood here.

I don’t think collaging in quotations from Said necessarily solves the problem either, but not because it would moralistically deactivate “the negative language in the poem by telling all my readers exactly how to read it,” but because construing Said in this way misses the “real meaning of the orientalist project,” the construction of white subjectivity itself.

Chris Chen

Arif said...

Re-post, with a few edits. These are simply a few ideas that don't have much to do with the poem, but possibly point towards new ways of looking at 'race' and poetics, using this discussion as a starting point. Please understand that this is thinking in process and I hope that it's alright to think aloud here. Obviously each line/claim here, demands an extensive essay, which I don't have time/energy for.

First off, I would like to thank Tim, Pam, Chris, and others who have been engaged with the language of “Those Glittering Guys.” I’m sitting here at my keyboard, wondering what I could possibly add to the trenchant critiques of the poem, flarf in general and the predominantly male, middle class, white avant-garde, in general. I am sitting at my keyboard, anger drained out of me, with a profound sense of exhaustion and disappointment; with a feeling that I have no need to defend myself any longer; with a disappointment at the circularity Magee’s argument and liberal arguments in general. I never engaged the poem at its own level, because the premise never seemed right in the first place; because whiteness never confronted its own historicity; because pastiche seems to take me back to Jameson’s argument about pastiche as an aesthetic mode that “eclipses parody.” What is this complex juxtaposition of fascination and revulsion of the orientalist stereotype if not a subtle re-erection of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. This would require a psychoanalytical essay which I don’t have time for. I would have to go deep into Jameson to find a critical language does not solely arise out of a critical impulse, but out of lived experience. I could argue, for instance that the pastiche mode, presumes the death of the subject - predictably the death of the white subject and his/her/and all others! new and almost supernatural ability to enter other identities. I could start to rail on and on about the anti-historicism of postmodernism; the ways in which it is haunted by modernism; the ways in which we idealistically believe that when every thing is stripped, the true and right word will emerge. This would have to play on Kermode’s discussion the tendency of postmodernism to move towards fascism, but I would not adopt the humanist episteme as an alternative. In other words, I see a real need to incorporate the language/ideas/modes of thinking of conservative scholarship, just as the right has started to use leftist terms. I would start to rethink how two epistemes, let us say, Sufism and humanism, create a whole new episteme all together when they “sleep the night.” I would have to re-think the limits of liberal empathy and the need to move towards an anti-capitalist transnational poetics. I would have to rethink Jameson altogether and the “death of the white subject” unable to examine himself/herself and emerge out of a living ordeal - and it is an ordeal - with some living word; with some sense of his/her own absence in relation to my over determined presence; living within the terror of that absence and emerging from it with a new language by which to reconstitute a white ontology that has anti-racist roots/routes. Race is simply discursive: a floating signifier that latches itself onto ever shifting contexts, you say. Then why are we haunted by it? And who is going to theorize it for all four worlds? What new languages can depict our experience and get beyond the bathetic, sentimentalizing tendencies that are on display for a white audience, that go beyond a victimology and narrow identity politics? What of diaspora in this dialogue: how does it intersect and overlap with gender, race, class and produce startling new configurations: think, for instance, of deculturation and Fanon’s stunning image of the (post) colonized individual whose leg gets caught in quick sand as she struggles with her previous mimetic self and is unable to separate, remaining forever in-between? Fanon calls these decultured individuals “a race of angels.” If you can live this stereotype and write about it, what new avenues does this open? Dionne Brand begins to trace a Map of No Return grounded in history with a balanced few of a fluidity that is historically rooted and not a concocted pseudo-numinous ability which we call “empathy”. Why have we placed the lyrical impulse in the (post)modernist closet? We are still at the beginning. In this sense, I feel no need to engage with the argument; feel no need to give any more attention than the poem has already garnered by these discussions, except insomuch as I can direct people to Pamela Lu’s blog and her last post for the summer, which clearly articulated some of my vague thinking-in-process. There is a need now, I believe, for new transnational avant-garde comprised of racialized writers across borders. This is the only way that I see myself continuing to write in a stifling climate. There is a need to provide a genealogical account of the avant-garde, or to locate the existing scholarship about it and to discuss it. I am frustrated with the “excited Tantric statues” in the work of one of my mentors. I am frustrated precisely because I see these statues from many angles, rooted in a different way of knowing that cannot simply be deemed mythical. I am frustrated because I live both positions and understand tantra. I suppose that this lack of ontology within, say Foucaudian thought, can be useful. But a racialized person's lack of stable ontology comes from a different source than fragmentation caused by globalization. I think that we need new languages for the struggle. Because it's easy to say that we should just forget ontology altogether and celebrate a free-floating difference. The fragmentation of a diasporized and racialized individual cannot be conflated with those of a white globalized identities. We're in two historical moments here, altogether. And gender and class and queer theory make the issue tremendously knotted and hence ripe for exploration. These are prelimary thoughts on the issue and they are not clear precisely because they are emerging inside-out. But I'm guessing that a long dialogue will help me to clarify some of these thoughts. If a new avante-garde is to emerge, than let it emerge from the margins and let the margins "rebuild the new kind of universalism" (strongly grounded in a variety of critical theories) that Papastergiadis writes of. I am thinking that whiteness itself could be deconstructed by white poets, and that poets who are interested in such a project, could link up with discussions later. This, in itself, would be a massive project, requiring much study in critical theory. At any rate, my two cents.

On another quick note before I leave the door: Said had a notion of "latent orientalism." I wonder how that notion could be applied to the poem in question, as well.

drfranzkafka said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
drfranzkafka said...

"An honest and sincere prediction: flarf may turn out to be the least condescending poetry imaginable."

Wow. Did the author of this poem really say that at this point in the discussion? I have only one thing to say and it's really only directed at myself: let go and let God. Each of us can only do so much in the effort to be heard or understood with another person. It's very important and powerful to express our individual truths, but it's up to the other person to decide whether or not to hear those truths. That's a choice and no one can make it for anyone else. Peace to everyone who has participated in this discussion, some putting in a lot of time and effort. I see your work as beautiful and a success, whatever the outcome. Take care, and adieu for now.

Kirby Olson said...

Is there a fear on all sides that a kind of ethnic cleansing is about to take place? Is that the fear?

Is this poem going to help in the sense of a new Bosnification of the humanities, or is it going to deconstruct that possibility before it happens, or is it just going to laugh at that ultimate eventuality?

It seems that poetry or criticism should create friendship. It should create deep affiliations.

This poem does the opposite. It creates deep divisions.

In that sense it is like a corporation. Bland, anonymous, and ultimate terrifying to everyone.

I wonder why it is doing that.

Perhaps part of it is the refusal of the author to take any clear sense of responsibility for it. Something along the way that a corporation will not take responsibility, but will then point to its lawyers (in this case its critics, or its sources).

I find the way in which this poem is creating such a sense of terror to be fascinating. Without a human subject, or a soul, something along those lines, perhaps we don't know how to affiliate. Why do some poems create a deep sense of community?

I'm interested in the way my church creates that sense. Farmers, bankers, everyone feels they love each other at the end of the service, and the feeling lasts all week, and then becomes a kind of community.

This poem is doing exactly the opposite. It's creating fear and loathing among the people who are reading it.

And then, like a corporation, it asks you to buy into it, via the book. No thanks.

Brenda Iijima said...

This poem comes across as a form of pornography. Its goal is a certain kind of agitation or incitement—distanced, toward objects. The poem is presented as an infallible cultural object. Its intent and meaning are continuously justified (deemed significant, deemed to be free of problematic racial mechanisms—that is, beyond how it was consciously framed as an aestheticized poetic form). The justification follows a particular pathway—that its aesthetic maneuvers are seemingly fully-(self) consciously enacted. Such a stance is only possible when there is a condition of complete control, when the level of awareness can encompass all possible interpretations, all possible reactions. Once this position is established it a staked out, resolute. There seems to be nothing more to know about the poem. The fact of its artistry is somehow immune or distanced from the way it is received socially. There seems very little openness toward those offering critiques—those that are challenging its terms. It doesn’t involve conciliatory gestures. The poem becomes about “getting it” (sharing the author’s intention) or “not getting it”. Any glimpses of a contrary position of interpretation (which involves receiving, interacting and reacting) are deflected. At a certain point, the poem itself becomes moot, its sensationalism has reached its last effect—dulled out by what is more volatile: the human relationships conducted in real space and time in the form of the dialogue surrounding the poem. The poem aggressively seeks to agitate but the conversation surrounding it must be maintained by levels of calm—there isn’t room for emotional interpretation—all consideration must be given over to the intellect—what feels to be the most palpable response must be subsumed into another mode of expression. Conventions for discussing difficult social scenarios kick in and could become unstable—this is the ultimate threat.

Michael said...

Hi to all,

Well, consensus now seems to have been reached, in the context of this particular blog discussion, that the poem is a complete disaster. Once Chris, for instance, starts saying stuff like " the defenders of the poem seemed more interested in reflexively circling their wagons around the poem, and around Flarf in general, as though there was some sort of market share or territory that needed to be preserved" I think an impasse has been reached. To characterize the interpretations offered by Kasey Mohammad and Anne Boyer in this way (two people who know a thing or two about poetry and about being marginalized) is to completely discredit them as serious, earnest critics. And Brenda (hi Brenda) has seemed to offer a sort of reader-response interpretation of the poem which marks it as enacting (if I'm reading her right) what the New Historicists used to call "non-antagonistic rhetorical dualism". I can't tell if she reads this as my intent but, brother, it feels bad. I had thought to perhaps address the thread that Pam and Teemu had started, questionng whether the poem might be speaking only to a white audience and whether this could be figured as having positive value. But the upshot is I don't believe I can saying anything further about the poem or my activities outside of the poem that will affect opinions one iota at this point.

So, I think that's it for me. Happy to continue discussing this or anything else backchannel. My email's . Thanks to everyone who has participated, it's been a serious education.


David Lau said...


As my friend Chris Chen has invoked me as his "friend" (viz. subjective authoring, and the mystification that any claim to have escaped it always is), including quoting me from an email I sent to him several weeks ago—I've decided to wade/weigh in, though the water here seems alternately too cold or hot for me, or just plain Lethean.

First, though I regard Tim's post here in good light, I want to start by disagreeing with him: Tim spake, "It's the position of this [asian-american] reader that the poem, I think, fails to take into account." I would make the opposite objection; it is in fact the limitation (atrophied spirit) of this poem and of flarf generally (despite my admiration for certain of the poems and poets in said movement) that they have indeed imagined and written for the reader. We, all of us, Asian American and otherwise, are the intended audience of this verse. We know the law and we know its transgression. But a good poem does not do this, in a strict sense. I’ll bring Stein in here, from "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There so Few of Them":

“It is very interesting that letter writing has the same difficulty, the letter writes what the other person is to hear and so entity does not exist there are two present instead of one and so once again creation breaks down. I once wrote in writing The Making of Americans I write for myself and strangers but that was merely a literary formalism for if I did write for myself and stranger if I did I would really be writing because already then identity would take the place of entity.”

She goes on with a concrete example:

“I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation.”

Following Stein: to foreground the reliance on tropes of supposed perverse, offensive, etc. material assumes a reader coming along and finding those said tropes offensive, like a good normative bourgeois subject would… is to succumb to ‘identity’ in a work, and foreclose the possibility of ‘entity,’ because the work imagines the participation of a reader as its necessary supplement. What Stein is committed to, in the absolute, is the autonomy of the work of art, in the non-participation of it. This is to say, that of course we all have our responses to works of art, we like/we dislike/we kinda like/we used to like (or in Lacanese, we’re supposed to like), but these responses have nothing to do with what makes the thing art. The art object is not just an object (not just base material, an objection I make by channeling Yeats), but one not reducible to component to parts, nor to its method of assembly, the never before valorized, and thus all the more priviledged mode of composing a poem: in this case using google sculpting and fixing the content as what should repulse a bourgeois subject. It should be remembered that there is no unvalorized process, there is no free lunch, and that what counts in art is not the process, but the thing in and for itself. Discussions of process remain fatally and merely interesting, like this poem, which fails to transcend the spirit of these times, thus sacrificing hope on the altar of solace.

And to further the last point there: in an earlier post Kasey spake: “All I can do is look at the exception you make in passing: although you're joking, I suspect, in talking about the violence you submit to in watching 24, I don't think the basic idea is that different. In both cases the reader/viewer engages unpleasant subject matter but finds a way to derive enjoyment from it.” This is perfect because the experience Kasey isolates is literally hegemonic for just-past-bedtime capitalism in terms of our obsession with enjoyment, bliss, jouissance (Zizek convincingly argues that “enjoy!” is the new superego injunction). Indeed, 24 like Flarf wants us to “feel good about feeling bad” (Louis-Georges Schwartz), to remain comfortably in our pocket of sorrow, or to produce works for ‘others’ in a kind of “lukewarmness of sharing” (Badiou). This is the formula Hollywood’s ‘political’ cinema relies on: see Crash, Clooney’s recent flicks, etc. Our I feel bad response is part of the game. This sentiment speaks, I think, to the decay of our ‘spirit’: that we confuse the ‘enjoyment’ sought by flarf or 24 with the experience of art, which “affirms the rights of the inhuman” (Badiou), be they beautiful or sublime, which wants nothing to do with us, a prospective audience. Guy Debord, a tough soul, for instance, notes that poetry is worth fighting for because it resists the easy digestion of commodities like TV, in that it calls up all of our faculties to contend with it.

Art, post-romantic art, that is, is no longer a question of taste, of liking or disliking, as is Giorgio Agamben’s argument in The Man Without Content. It’s anti-classical. The man of mode, of taste, the critic, who ordains what is or is not art, dies. Phew. But as we are without content (“always in for or filling some other thing” (Keats)) the problem of art becomes more acute, one that no single mode of critical procedure has yet proved itself adequate to (except, and here I’ll show my cards, maybe Blanchot’s “impersonality” or De Man’s anti-historicism or Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s in The Literary Absolute, where they remind us that “literature is that which has no essence even in its inessentiality.”) The work of art for today—I would argue, following Badiou—the work of art for everyone is the work that leaves everyone (experts, flarfists, moi, Chris, etc.) confounded. I agree with another friend, Cal Bedient, in his looking for work he can’t make anything of.

I also want to ask what is perverse beyond ordinary offense about racism, sexism, etc.? Of course there is the visceral internalization of certain preordained sentimental responses (for those of us who’ve been called wetback, for instance); but for me it is thinking itself, always raising its objects to the level of the universal, which is truly perverse, not racist clichés, sexist ones, etc. Write a poem as perverse as the master slave dialectic, the dialectic of phrenology, etc. That would be perverse. It should also be remembered that monsieur transgression Bataille wanted a conservative society to remain in place so that he could continue to shock it with accursed excess.

Now, since I’ve brought up Hegel, and since I have to make my friend Chris Chen uncomfortable by way of my persistent idealism, let’s talk about Spirit. Here I turn to Barbara Guest’s talk “Poetry the True Fiction”:

“Vision is part of the poet’s spiritual life of which the poem, itself, is a resume. The “spirit” or the “vision” of a poem arises from the contents of the poet’s unconscious. Let us say the vision of a poem has above it that “halo” you see in religious paintings when an act of special beneficence is being enacted. . . . The poem is our act of special beneficence and the poet is rewarded this halo. . . . The halo has detected the magnetic field into which the energy of the poem is directed. . . . I want to emphasize that the poem need to have a spiritual or metaphysical life if it is going to engage itself with reality.”

Naively I ask, what the spirit would be of the poet if we took this poem to be its resume. A withered one I would argue, or a technical one at best.

Later Guest invokes Coleridge:

“Fancy is delightful, evocative, alas charming, but with fancy you leave those words on the page. A good many poets are endowed with a lively fancy, many more than those who live in the Imagination. Fancy is useful and can shake people up and present itself century after century as the new. But it is not art: it is games.”

(Relatedly Yeats, who few seem to have read, sees the circumstance of the poem as a precisely the “empty tomb” honoring a spiritual entity. And by the way, what happened to the poem as “this dance of non-discovery,” or “the fragile Utopia of reconciliation in an image”?)

So I would assert that this poem does not transcend, nor do I think it intends to, the level of a game. It is missing this “halo,” or let’s say the syncretic gestalt (catachresis) of what it would assimilate and accumulate, long the hallmark of modernist poems, isn’t at all singular; it is the clichés it proliferates. When Tim elucidates the poem in light of the author and the collective’s claims about it, he is doing the only thing he can do to read the poem, because there’s just not much of a spiritual force field to the poem, or the one that’s there gets a real thrashing, is nearly eviscerated. I also appreciate Tim’s attempt to point out that poem is an example of “bad” flarf. So…

I’ll conclude by agreeing with him in his setting up what appears to be a way out of reading flarf the way we’re supposed to: “Perhaps another way to say this is that the poem is actually (as I understand the term) bad flarf (is that possible?), because it does not sufficiently signal the gaps and asymmetries in the discourses it samples.” Indeed this is not one of the interesting poems of the movement, nor is the other oft-mentioned “Chicks Dig War.” But what Tim sees here is a way in which these poets are establishing a possible auto-exegetic symbolic vocabulary (like those of Mallarme and Yeats) where the signalling “gaps and asymmetries” of the sampling lead beyond the formally novel accomplishment of a given process to a poetry that never stops giving up, if I can put it that way. By escalating its gamesmanship to brinksmanship and forgetting (in the waters of Lethe) its humble google origins, flarf becomes more than itself. It becomes dissatisfied with the things it does and the ways it does them. It does something else. The flarf which goes this far, some poems of Kasey’s come to mind (I’m thinking of the one in Sapphics), is not (quite as) assailable as just or merely offensive content, google-sculpting, or a process of composition. The unconscious is there in these poems, rather than an “unlimited condition of the will” (which according to Benjamin necessarily “leads to evil”), by which I mean a poem where we are not only presented with a work of art, but also with the critical discourse explaining the mode in which we must experience the work as work. Call me naïve, but I think this is no way to read. If we assent to these conditions, the readerly imagination has been executed.

Lastly, I want to read poems that have the full force of their convictions in their language, without devolving into sincerity. J.H. Prynne is the exemplar here, from “Star Damage at Home”: “And what is the chance for survival, in this / fertile calm, that we could mean what / we say, and hold to it”; “we must mean the / entire force of what we shall come to say”; “we desire what we mean /& must mean that & and consume to / ash any simple deflection”; and “We live here / and must mean it, the last person we are.”

TM said...

I'm rather perplexed (is that the right word?) by this discussion. I'm not sure I understand all of the motivations, and it seems to me - please forgive me for my intrusive idiocies, and my tone is to be thought friendly throughout - that there are more things here than are "dreamt of by our philosophies".

Initially I thought that what was at issue was that the poem was upsetting to people on grounds that are quite understandable: it uses foul language. The poet's intentions were rightly questioned; he explained them, allowed for the poem's being a failure to some readers, and convinced us that his intentions weren't evil. Other people vouched for him, some also people of colour. I think this much is clear to me.

What I don't understand is why some people won't accept Mr Magee's explanation. I may be wrong, but maybe the poem isn't at all at issue (perhaps evidenced by the fact that so few have actually even talked about it)?

What got invoked was actually an aesthetic disagreement maybe inherent in your American poetry communities? Something to do with the phenomenon that identity poetries and avantgarde have existed fairly uneasily together? also, an ongoing very strange attack on this "flarf" (yes I do know quite a lot about it, as we Finns invented it, ha ha, just ask Leevi Lehto, I use scarequotes to remind all that it's just a few people writing stuff - even I can do it, just like I can do "beat" or "N+7", it's just names for things we do as poets).

Very mixed up! But in the end all escalates to a theoretical war about what is good poetry, where no one can ever win, because these wars always hide these uneasy questions of institutional merits, rewards...and because people just don't like each other at that stage very much...although they might like eachother really, in life, beyond this digital curtain.

But the real perplexion (is that a word) of mine is that what this discussion won't and cannot tolerate is the fact that you cannot legislate for me, as a reader: you theorize, and therefore presume to know how and what I feel; but if I tell you that the poem works for me, that it does this thing called analyzing the white subjectivity, that I am facing that part of me here, my guilts and pornographies, inside me, that this feeling is cathartic in a way that I have an experiential history to prove that it is a good, healing feeling, and therefore that I am facing this poem in a positive way, you cannot explain that away with theory. It works for me.

Therefore, the reader's imagination is NOT deflected or killed by "flarf". I have it. I imagine. I am living proof. As are all readers who went opposite: the readers who got upset: they imagined, they felt. We feel. We talk. This is art. This is community. This is what it does. We are here, being together (and not buying guns like the official NRA branch of Finland they just put up which is really enormously stupid to me). Therefore, if there is a sense of the poem causing a community to question itself, I think that is a measure of the community's own problems with itself, but not a fault of the poem. A poem exists in the valley of its way of being, a mouth; "All deities reside in the human breast".

It's a difference of breasts, then. What we are left with is a tragic feeling of not seeing eye to eye. But it's not a feeling we can live without, in both the two senses of "can": "Without Contraries is no progression."

I have liked reading your heated discussions, and have reported it to Finnish readers. Have fun, dear Americans, and be good to each other.

Kirby Olson said...

Heippa hei ja hyva Juhannus TM.

The poem is one that HAS engendered a lot of discussion, and somehow won't go away.

I thought about it again last night and thought, what if Magee was an Asian? Would his poem then have been more acceptable to the Asian community? What if the poem were exactly identical to what it is now, but the only difference being that he's Asian. Would at least some people find it more acceptable if his last name was Lee?

Instead of the presumably Irish last name?

I'm still not sure that would create the conditions for a real community beyond the skin-deep identification or alienation which lasts for about three seconds when you meet someone.

If the above were the case that simply Lee for Magee would change the reception entirely of the poem, then I think we have a deeper and more superficial problem here.

But if the problem is the lack of a spirit -- Hegel (Lutheran) points out, then I do think we're on to something that at least I would accept.

That we are subjects, sure, but only insofar as we are also regarded and regard as neighbors, subject to God.

The notion of individual human dignity which many argue for (implicitly) which is seen in its absence (this might be Michael's point), and the nausea of seeing one another not as neighbors but as surfaces, surfaces without spirit -- one could find a way out not through postmodernism or through a return to Marxism but maybe through Reinhold Niebuhr's positions (he was a powerful Lutheran theologian who has somehow disappeared from discourse but he was a friend of Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and many other poets in the fifties).

I had read a lot of Niebuhr but then came across a great article by Jennifer Leader in 20th Century Literature (journal) from Fall 2005. She's an untenured scholar at Duquesne. "Marianne Moore, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Ethics of Engagement"

"the deficiency of both bourgeois and Marxist social theory... is derived from their common effort to understand man without considering the final dimension of his spirit: his transcendent freedom over both the natural and the historical process in which he is involved..."

Maybe the notion of a spirit so widely decried is in fact a good critical term to bring back in to discuss the poem and its ethics of engagement. Hard to do that without taking on a belief system that many would find difficult to accept...

"The self can not be tuly fulfilled if it is not drawn out of itself ito the life of the other" (Niebuhr cited by Jennifer Leader)

TM said...

Oh, oh, are you that Kirby Olson who was a professor at the University of Tampere? I was there in 1996! I almost took your classes! :D Anyway, I switched to Comp Lit and now I'm doing my PhD... And yes, it's going to be a great midsummer, the blackbirds are singing in the garden and we're building a huge bonfire...

Kirby Olson said...

TM, I'm sorry we didn't meet in Finland!

Midsummer was my favorite event in Finland. My wife's family is from near Seinajoki. I remember the endless marigold fields at 3 am still lit in the midsummer sun. I used to love to ride an old bicycle for hours to stay in front of the mosquitoes. You'd go on completely empty dirt roads for hours and hours along the Kyronjoki (river) past farm houses. The only problem were the polar bears (I'm kidding).

Would you mind sending me your address via I mean, your street address? I want to send you something.

Good luck with your Ph.D. and I think you were right to switch to Comparative Literature. Professor Pekka Tammi is still there?

Moi moi. Minun perheeni on Suomessa nyt.

Ok, nice to make a contact. I think my remarks alienated everybody else, or maybe what's been said, is enough.

Congratulations to Michael Magee for truly stirring (up) the (melting) pot.

It would be nice to know who everybody was that chimed in here. I was especially interested in Chris Chen's comments. Quite articulate. Professor somewhere?

Tim said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments, which have been so rich and complex that any further response from me would seem unnecessary. But that's never stopped me before.

Mike, I do appreciate your remarks here, and I hope that you will continue to follow the conversation, whether or not you continue to participate. I'm not sure there is much I can say in response that Chris has not already said better, but there are a few things I'm still pondering.

First, I continue to be puzzled by the tension between the purportedly "objectivist" method described in Mike's remarks and the heavy reliance on authorial intention evident in his discussion of the poem. Doesn't this (as Chris has already observed) rather attempt to have it both ways--to attribute that which is uncomfortable, offensive, "bad" to the materials of discourse that the author encounters in his searches, while stepping back into the realm of intention to make political and ethical claims? This is a real question; perhaps I simply don't understand the relationship between "objectivism" and intention Mike is laying out here.

For me--and I would hope this would have been clear from the start--there is a world of difference between Mike's own attitudes toward race and the position staked out by the poem. I have no reason to doubt that Mike is acutely conscious of the experiences and speaking positions of Asian American writers, and that he may very well have been thinking of these writers as he was composing the poem. But it does not necessarily follow that the resulting poem, in the logic it develops, presumes or accounts for the presence of an Asian American reader. That's the possible gap I'm pointing to.

It's for this reason that I, and an number of others, have been rather frustrated by Mike's lists of Asian American writers with whom he has commiserated and collaborated. I have no doubt that these reflections are heartfelt. But can they really be meant to rebut the claims that some readers have made against the poem? I could say, for example, that my most important poetic mentors, colleagues, and friends have been women; yet that has not prevented me from writing poems with images that female readers have rightly pointed out as sexist.

I would think this gap between intention and execution would be something that the flarf method would make one even more strongly aware of. But now I really do wonder. What does it mean that a poem that employs disturbing images of Asians can only be defended to Asian readers by appealing to the author's own extratextual intentions and relationships? Doesn't this kind of defeat the point?

I suppose this has been especially troubling to me because I believed--wrongly, apparently--that I could attempt to understand this poem on its own terms. That I already "got" flarf and could discuss and critique the poem from within that framework. What I feel like I've been told in this discussion, though, is that I do not "get" it, since those who have defended the poem have continued to repeat explanations of flarf that I thought I already knew. When I then challenge the poem from what I think is within that framework, I then find myself being told that the ground has shifted.

You cannot imagine how disheartening I find this. I have spent more or less the past decade--my entire academic career--believing that "Asian American" and "avant-garde" are not mutually exclusive terms, and trying to argue this point wherever I could. I have continued in this discussion for far longer than I ordinarily would for precisely this reason: I cannot bring myself to believe that on this issue I simply seem to be talking past people like Mike Magee and Kasey Mohammad, people whose work I like and respect--that somehow we are not hearing each other.

Perhaps the most dispiriting thing to me, then, in Mike's comments is this remark: I still believe that the best critique of the poem is the simplest, offered by Lee Herrick and, with more nuance, by Chris Chen: namely, that I’m simply a dick for subjecting people to it, Asian Americans in particular.

I hope I misunderstand this statement. Because as I read it, it seems that Mike would actually prefer that I say, This poem is crap and Mike Magee is a jerk and be done with it--that this would be a more defensible position, somehow stronger than the laborious work I've done constructing my three rather arbitrary categories, trying to get "inside" the poem's objectives, and accounting for my responses to the poem rather than simply condemning it. I also wonder whether Mike's remark is meant to suggest that Chris's similarly detailed (and, I think, generous) attempts to explain his own position should ultimately be reduced to "you're a dick." Even Lee's rejection of the poem is hardly as simple as that. Is Mike implying that really the only response to this poem is one of polarization: those who properly "get" it (flarfists, I guess) vs. those who hate it (many of whom are Asian American)?

Ultimately this is just one poem; empires, so to speak, will not rise and fall based on whether it's successful or not. But for me there is something more at stake in this conversation; for me it is a question of whether staking out the position of an Asian American reader, as I understand it, is compatible with being a part of a conversation around avant-garde writing. This blog wouldn't be here if I didn't think so. But I have found my confidence in this idea deeply shaken, finding myself weirdly on the outside of a community I thought was mine.

K. Silem Mohammad said...


I'm not sure why you mention me as one of the persons you feel like you're "talking past," as I haven't commented on your remarks yet at all, except to point out that you have made them.

I hear everything you're saying. And I don't think that you "don't get" flarf.

Anyway, I thought your post was really stimulating and useful, even if we have differences of perspective on some particulars (I've started a post of my own in response but have been having a hard time with it because of how sensitive the entire discussion has become).


Kirby Olson said...

I don't think there has to be unanimity. Marianne Moore's poem "In Distrust of Merits," that Kasey and I once spoke on at the same conference, has provoked a lot of hostility (Randall Jarrell hated it), while W.H. Auden loved it. One sd it celebrated war, which he thought was sick, and the other said it celebrated war in certain circumstances, which he thought was good.

Ethics/Aesthetics. It seems that most are disturbed by the ethics of the poem. How do the ethics and the aesthetics work together. I don't think anybody really has a clear sense of this, but that the poem is forcing us to stumble toward a better definition is a good thing, probably.

Brenda Iijima brought up the flattening of pornography.

I don't think Michael M. is a "dick," but maybe Flarf's principles could be seen as deadly by other communities.

I hope people keep trying to refine their aversion to the poem. I think the pornography idea of Brenda's is a good one. Two-dimensionality.

I also think the idea of "spirit," or the introduction of another dimension is a good idea.

Both these ideas are better than anything I've heard on Silliman's blog, where Risk is the only criterion I've ever seen mentioned as the criterion of a good poem.

The idea that "Michael" is bad I don't even think is being discussed (no one seems to have even met him but me, and my passing encounter lasted all of three minutes). It's about the poem, and the intentions/goals/reception of one specific poem.

drfranzkafka said...

"Congratulations to Michael Magee for truly stirring (up) the (melting) pot."

Forgive me Tim for popping in here again. I just feel compelled to respond to this comment from Kirby in which I respectfully disagree. So far, I see three flarf arguments that we need to come to terms with as readers or reviewers of flarf poetry, and I'm not sure if any of us have done so yet in this discussion. Or, I should simply say that I'm not getting a sense of where each of us stands on these points.

(1) Flarf says that an author isn't responsible for every word in his or her work.

Does any one of us really believe this to be true? What other community has allowed an author the freedom to put out literally anything he wants under the guise and safety net of poetry (and more importantly without consequences)? This is synonymous to me of an author saying that he isn't responsible for the words he uses because those words also appear in the dictionary or thesaurus.

(2) Flarf says that an author can claim that he or she is writing for another group of people altogether, as indicated or implied by the title of Michael Magee's book "Mainstream Poetry."

Can an author or group of authors ever really write for someone else, let alone the large group of people that this book is implying it represents? I don't think so. If the title of Michael Magee's book was "One Flarfist's Poetry," I think we have hit upon the truth. And for me at least, this dismantles the widespread fear and other types of responses this poetry can generate.

(3) Flarf says that an author deserves credit for the discussions surrounding his or her work.

Under any circumstances, can any one of us take credit for the work of others? I don't think so, in particular when the effects of one's work (notice I didn't say intentions) is harmful. Isn't that like an arsonist burning down a forest, and then taking credit for the work of the fire department, clean-up crew, and those who replant the trees?

Tim and others, I'd be interested in hearing where you stand on these points.

The Unfortunate Traveler said...

Hi Tim,

Nice post, again. After so much debate, I share your need to imagine that avant-garde writing and Asian American writing aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive categories, but a work in progress. It’s an incredibly generous idea to devote an academic career to, tracing and envisioning a mutually beneficial relationship. I can imagine future collaborative efforts, for example.

I think that my speculation about the Flarfists circling the wagons was taken as harsher than I intended it to be. It’s silly not to acknowledge that defenders’ contributions were sincere, which, of course, doesn’t mitigate the need for critical responses.

I also want to clarify that some of my more recent observations tend to focus more on conversational dynamics than on the poem itself—an effort to explain to myself the increasing contentiousness of the exchange and raise the possibility of future discussions where different routes could be taken.


Tim said...

Kasey, you're right that my sense of "talking past" you was not a result of any direct dialogue between us; more, I think, a sense that I was trying very hard to reconcile your reading of the poem (which, in the abstract at least, made some sense to me) with what I was seeing in it and not having a great deal of success, and feeling frustrated. Perhaps I was also imaginatively projecting myself back into some of the discussions over at lime tree--seeing others making points that I likely would have made had I been participating at that point, and not quite understanding why they seemed so at odds with your own take. I didn't mean to imply a lack of responsiveness on your part, or to suggest that you are somehow obligated to respond to my reading, especially since you've already given a great deal of time to this discussion. I would, of course, be very grateful to hear any thoughts you do have.

Kirby Olson said...

Mao's Aesthetics:

If the worker wins, it's a good story. If the boss wins, it's a bad story.

Positive depictions therefore of our homies is what Maoist aesthetics demands.

Michael was trying to get beyond that, I believe.

But I agree with whoever it was that brought up Hegel: it might be a good thing for everyone to reread Hegelian aesthetics. It's only 900 pages long, and it's very fun to read in parts.

Arif said...

Boy, it seems like the night before Christmas in here.

Jameson writes: "....this is the moment at which pastiche appears and parody has become impossible. pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there still exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody etc. etc."

I would think that the "blank parody" implicit in certain forms of pastiche becomes really problematic when it employs racially charged language. It is the neutrality of the narrator, existing as an absence from the text, that introduces problems/risks with the pastiche form as it is employed in flarf.

I think that it is parody which can actually deny the racial stereotype, whereas I think that pastiche results in a disavowal (in a psychoanalytical sense, a disavowal allows for the affects of the racially charged language to continue in the text, because of its seemingly ambivalent relationship towards its subject matter.)

I'm probably restating what has already been stated clearly above. In the least, I wanted to just say hallo, and would any one like a gin tonic?

And dear Flarfists, I'm glad you're doing what you're doing. It ain't my thing, but I respect a lot of the work from a couple of years ago...

Kirby Olson said...

This last bit helped place the whole thing for me. Thanks. Does Magee know this Jameson quote, and does he approve of it?

drfranzkafka said...

Cosmo here, please. Just want to pop in one last time to announce my departure from this discussion, unless there happens to be a sudden, unexpected turn in its course. (And I don't just mean the discussion moving to another's turf, which I think is a turn in the wrong direction entirely...)

For me, the fact that the terms of flarf are built upon false arguments is very key here. Being an English grad. who is now studying psychology, I would take it even further and say that the terms of flarf are psychologically abusive to readers. The main subject (or target) of flarf poetry appears to be those referred to as the "mainstream," a derogatory term in and of itself. In Michael Magee's poem, the "mainstream" are being portrayed as people who are racist towards Asian Americans (something along the lines of look at how racially unconscious most Americans are compared to those of us who create flarf poetry; the irony being that the flarf poetry is created by flarfists and no one else). Thus, the racially charged language towards Asian Americans in the poem is secondary, not primary, to the poem's meaning. If an Asian American gets the sense that there is nothing in the poem for him or her except being confronted with this racially charged language, and then walks away from it feeling more confused and used than anything else, I can see why.

As I see it, once we agree to the terms of flarf (perhaps out of our goodwill to honor another art form's aesthetics), we have already put ourselves in a compromised position. This compromising of ourselves happens well before we examine the content of the poem, racially charged language or otherwise. As an admirer of all the Romantic poets (Blake in particular), I have to ask: when did aesthetics and ethics become mutually exclusive? Peace to all.

drfranzkafka said...

Just one quick clarification to my last post. By saying that the racially charged language in this poem is secondary to its meaning, I'm not saying that the effects of the poem on Asian Americans are somehow lesser than the effects on those being defined as "mainstream" by any means. In this particular poem, I see the effects on Asian Americans as even more damaging.

Gary said...


Shortly after the partition, Saadat Hasan Manto left the Bombay film world, in which he had flourished as a staff writer for a number of Urdu-language film magazines of the 1940s (e.g., Mussawar and Karwan). Finding himself blacklisted in Lahore, Pakistan after writing short stories about the partition, he turned to writing “light” pieces, memories of the film stars he’d hung out with and loved in Bombay.

These “light” pieces were received as anything but, and Manto began receiving letters from angry readers. One such letter took him to task for his portrayal of 40s film star Shyam, a somewhat notorious boozer & womanizer. Here is an excerpt from Manto’s account of the letter (published in English in Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940s):

“When ‘Murli ki Dhun,” my piece on Shyam, was published, one woman, a Nayyar Bano from Sialkot, wrote a long letter to the editor which made me feel very sorry for her. Here are some excerpts from it:

I do not consider going to the movies a cardinal sin; neither do I wrap a bandage over my eyes when I look at pictures. I have five children and I wish them to grow up to be virtuous. […]

Now please read ‘Murli ki Dhun’ once again and tell me what you think of it. Regardless of how far a person has strayed from the path of virtue or how morally depraved he is, surrounded by his wife and children, and regaling them with the experiences—it does not matter whether they brought him pleasure or whether they brought him disgust—that you have described? He would not do it, no matter how much liquor he had drunk; he would not do it even if he had emerged from a booze pond. […]

He would never talk about women as if they were mere condiments spicing the main dish. How is it then that whenever the word woman has come to Shyam’s lips, it has invariably been prefixed with the epithet sali? How come that when he finds his bed without a woman, he sets it on fire? What service to mankind or public morals is being performed by printing such things in newspapers? […]

After all, this world is not the sole property of men that they should wallow in filth and contaminate not only themselves but the innocent as well […]

What kind of world, what kind of a society are we moving towards! Just think about it. I for one can’t stop thinking about it and the more I think the more I burn.

When I read this letter, I swear to God I was deeply affected. I felt pity for Nayyar Bano and her mental condition. […] I have no doubt that Nayyar Bano is among those sick and morbid people who should be pitied. In my view, there is only one way to bring them back to health. They should be forced to witness thousands of bottles of liquor and their contents poured into a pool. After that one should put dust in one’s hair, pull them out in big tufts, scream every obscenity one knows—and if one can’t do it oneself, men should be hired for the purpose—read aloud every filthy advertisement for aphrodisiacs and remedies for private male and female ailments from magazines such as Shama, Beesween Saddi and Roman, not once, but repeatedly. And if this medicine does not result in a cure, then Saadat Hasan Manto should be asked to pick up one of Nayyar Bano’s old shoes and beat himself repeatedly on the head with it.”

Arif said...

Gary posted this Manto piece on my blog and I was baffled to find it here as well. How does Manto relate to this discussion? I have responded to Gary, both on my blog and on his blog, as I happen to have studied Manto's work and will surely study it more closely in future.

This is someone who lived through the Partition riots of 47; someone who was writing in-between subjectivities, someone whose writing never re-circulated orientalist stereotypes; someone who could write a powerful short story. I am interested in how Manto relates to this discussion, Gary? He was accused of being sexist, but if you actually read his texts closely and read the scholarship surrounding his text by certain feminist writers, you'll get a better understanding of Manto. These two situations are completely different and I'm slightly offended that Manto's subject position (we're talking about someone who went through the most traumatic migration of humans in history) is even comparable to what is being discussed here.

At any rate, I don't have much more to say on this. If someone would clarify why Manto is here and how he is even comparable to what is being discussed here, I would much appreciate.

In the meantime, I wanted to thank all participants: Micheal Magee (much of his work, I admire), Kasey (whose work I am ordering) and others. It's not that we have to agree with Jameson; I think he offers one angle by which we can texture some of these debates.

I'm pretty much through with this debate and I await more info about the list serve.


Arif said...

sorry if my critiques have sounded harsh and definitive. As I said earlier, I am interested in the possiblities of flarf, in using other subject positions in my own writing - but in a different way.


The more I get into these debates, the more it seems that we are not here to form rigid calcified lines, but to open a kind of "third space" where many aesthetics can be questioned and reworked. As such, I see this discussion as a kind of nodal point - an indication of health and I generally find it counter productive if we're simply tip toeing around each other.


You see it's much easier for me to say this because I belong to no school, have no agenda etc. I'm only interested in creating/re-thinking an aesthetics of resistance. We don't have these sorts of debates available in Canada, on the web. I think poetry wars are indicative of health and should lead to a deeper sort of listening and learning.


There's a lot more unhealthy postmodern cynicism here. (I think it was Wilber who coined this concept of the "postmodern mean green meme". One strain of postmodern thought - one which infects Canada and probably infects me a bit, but for different reasons than the white suburbanite.) I rarely go to readings here, in part, because I refuse this notion of insularity. Poetry should be connected to larger political movements and not simply emerge out of the academy. What the hell is the use of it all if it doesn't connect to these other Deleuzean machines, those machines which activate it in the first place, which make it refract in all sorts of directions. The place where the word becomes dialogically entwined with other words and admits something alien. I am jinxed because I stand no-where. And if the racialized aren't visible in a reading, I wouldn't go at all. In some sense, I am happy to be unknown, to be on the side-lines, to be unpublished and to have my say. If only there was this sort of critical and accessible debate etc. in Canada. I actually like poetry wars. I think they're suggestive of health/critical reflexivity - especially when they're made accessible to all.


That's all. And someone tell me what's up with Manto. And why is Silliman so interested in alterity now? I have issues with him and with postmodernism in general, as I've said.


Today Silliman wrote: "Today, younger poets find themselves in exactly the inverse position of the one I confronted 40 years ago, seeking not so much their Voice as ways out of it, seeking not their Self but their Other. But what does that mean? I think it’s at least as nebulous as the concept of voice. My own goal for this week is to explore that dividing line in as many ways as possible." Ok, but you can't know your own alterity until you know your self. Those two are intricately linked. And alterity is as layered a concept as self. Goggle-sculpting can't really take us deeper into the concept of self-alterity as a living process. This is where postmodernism has failed me. To know ones alterity, you need roots/routes. Postmodernism will not grant one roots in history, or in any sort homogeneous notion of self. What does this mean for people who are colonized and just beginning to reconstitute their sense of self, after years of fragmentation? If you want to find your own alterity, you have to go back to ontological notions, not goggle sculpting, or anti-writing. Coming to know ones alterity is like coming home to darkness. It's a journey, a process, an unfolding that often leaves one without an anchor anywhere - it is made almost infinitely complex when you throw in diaspora and culture. So yeah, goggle sculpting can't expand on alterity as an organic process: to do that requires a descent, an intense search, an unpacking of contents in consciousness, until alterity remains and the self is simply a tracing. This is where mystical thought and living traditions become guides - in some sense. So: 1) self-alterity are inseparable. 2) selves/alterities are inseparable. 3) alterity is closer to homes, on many levels that I'm still figuring out. 4) the lost woman is usually closer to being(s) and hence dynamic becoming(s). 5) one needs to descend in order to know the other(s). Is there a ladder yet? I have never thought of self as a singular concept. When I saw myself reflected back, I saw fragments always already floating in a nebulous darkness. And I claimed the darkness in the plural rather than the petty fragments. It was the darkness that caused the fragments to come together and gave me the illusion of what you called self. But I began in fragments, unnursed by the gaze of a mirror or a country.

I have to re-read Silliman's Olson posts.


Ok, so how then do we move on to link up empathy to the self-other dialectic as a layered concept. The poststructualist notion seems to be that we can imaginatively inhabit and understand other identities. How does this notion become problematic, especially when we realize that postmodernism has an aversion to depth? To reconstitute anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc. anti-hegemonic ontologies, do we have to start re-thinking this notion of depth and what it can mean and how it can be deployed in art for political purposes? If we are caught in rhizomatic statagies, and accept that Deleuze is correct in his methodology, doesn't this translate into an infinite movement across surfaces of selves, without the necessary plunge which allows us to be the poverty of our own being and hence understand alterity in a different way/contexts than a rhizomatic strategy would normally allow us? How does empathy in a poststructualist context ultimately become banal when it is linked to liberalism? This is something I noted when I watched the discussion on the poem. (We can note some similar problems in post-development theory which uses Foucaudian approaches...). Identity means nothing any more in this context, it would seem. Any one can have access to identities if they are always fluid. That means you have access to my colonized history as a white man and even speak for me. I find a weird sort of facism in such a regressive understanding of fluidity. What we now need to think about is post-ontologies, IMHO.


What would a text look like that works through one ontology, only to disown it and move on to another? Is this similar to Deleuze's nomadic approach? And how do we parody our priviledge to be nomadic when there are people in the South who have to live this way because of us? In other words, how do we become more globally conscious in our art? Also, I'm very interested in other ways of knowing, for instance yogic and sufic ways of knowing. How can those be deployed to confuse dominant postmodern memes?


Can we begin as authors and disown our authorship in the same breath?


Many questions. I'm wondering if others are thinking along similar lines/non-lines, arches or fractals?


In the meantime (while I await radical critiques of postmodernism) I will bake some saffron cookies.


So without taking bodies into account, I think a Foucaudian approaches to identity prove to be rather idealistic. Which is why M's theory about identity in relationship to "Those Glittering Guys" prove to be problematic, bordering on a kind of subtle fascism. This is not to say that M is fascist. I'm simply saying that we need more sophisticated models to theorize identity. The problem is not symptomatic of Flarf, or necessarily M who has good intentions (although one senses the greed underlying the debate, the book, flarf in general). It is something else entirely, it is that we see in M's and others debates, the limits of postmodernism to answer the questions of alterity, to answer the questions of a living art, or an art of resistance, the questions of globalization.

And Kasey's theorizing is way too abstract, IMHO. There has to be explosions like this, or there will be no newness.

Gary said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gary said...


This was not meant to be comparable subject positioning, but rather a comparable impasse between two sets of approaches to "moral."

The impasse itself had nothing to do with the partition; it had to do with Manto's portrayal of film stars of the 40s in a book I was reading this morning for a project I'm working on.

I'll step back out of this public conversation now; e-mail me if you want to talk, garypsullivan at gmail dot com.


pam said...

hey Gary, I think two earlier commenters have acutely described the true "impasse" in this discussion:

Every imaginable defensive permutation was offered, from the fact that the poem was the “only alternative to white silence,” to the “anti-intellectualism” of poets of color who called theory into question, to the early assertion that none of the defenders lacked “understanding or caring” about the racial issues at hand, all while critics were precisely calling into question the defenders’ “understanding” of the hurtfulness of the language. How could respondents not view this assumed preexisting total comprehension as an act of bad faith? (Chris Chen)

The poem is presented as an infallible cultural object. Its intent and meaning are continuously justified (deemed significant, deemed to be free of problematic racial mechanisms—that is, beyond how it was consciously framed as an aestheticized poetic form). The justification follows a particular pathway—that its aesthetic maneuvers are seemingly fully-(self) consciously enacted.... There seems very little openness toward those offering critiques—those that are challenging its terms. It doesn’t involve conciliatory gestures. The poem becomes about “getting it” (sharing the author’s intention) or “not getting it”. Any glimpses of a contrary position of interpretation (which involves receiving, interacting and reacting) are deflected. (Brenda Iijima)

How is this comparable to Manto's "moral" dilemma? What am I missing here?

Gary said...

Hi Pam,

I was reading that passage from Stars from Another Sky this morning and it just hit me there are, in that passage, two radically opposed ideas as to how one ought to write about the world.

The two ideas seemed to be "at impasse" with each other, and did so along similar lines to this discussion, at least how I'm reading the discussion.

On one side, one writes what one sees, or is compelled to see, in people, in behavior. On the other side, one does not add to the misery or corruption of the world by re-presenting it, in writing.


Arif said...

Gary - Manto is an interesting writer, although I don't quite understand his relevance here. You can contact me as well, whenever you want: I'm busy as hell right now, trying to write an autobiological novel. I'm trying to make fun of the white, male avant-garde. What would happen if the avante garde was drained of its sap? Whiteness talking to itself - as in the poem.

Perhaps I have been too kind above.

Perhaps I promise too much.

Perhaps I know that the racialized can carve their own ingenious path.

PS. This means I will be taken off your blog roll. As I said, I belong to no school. I belong nowhere, and I'm certain that nowhere has a tongue; that we have the resources to shift the course avant-garde writing.

I'm young, naive, idealistic. Perhaps, what I've said will fuck up my chances of getting published. I don't give a crap anymore.

Ok, done. Now let the objectivists enter.

pam said...

Arif, thanks for your generous mindflow. There's a lot in what you say to come back to, and embark from. Keep it coming. Not giving a crap is the only way to begin.

Gary, thanks for your response. That makes more sense to me now.

Actually, this statement from Gary—-

On one side, one writes what one sees, or is compelled to see, in people, in behavior. On the other side, one does not add to the misery or corruption of the world by re-presenting it, in writing.

--reminds me of something Dr. Franz said earlier:

The main subject (or target) of flarf poetry appears to be those referred to as the "mainstream," a derogatory term in and of itself. In Michael Magee's poem, the "mainstream" are being portrayed as people who are racist towards Asian Americans (something along the lines of look at how racially unconscious most Americans are compared to those of us who create flarf poetry; the irony being that the flarf poetry is created by flarfists and no one else). Thus, the racially charged language towards Asian Americans in the poem is secondary, not primary, to the poem's meaning.

I think the Doctor may be breaking some new ground here, in terms of how to look at this particular poem and the conversational dynamics surrounding it. If I understand Michael's project correctly, he is indeed writing what "one sees, or is compelled to see, in people, in behavior." He's engaging in a modified (flarf-ified) form of realism, a modified form of documentary. In his case, he's particularly interested in the field he calls the "mainstream":

The mainstream is the scary global video game we live in, everyday, and it has nothing to do with some absurd publishing scam within which a few bloodless surrealists and failed classicists and Tools of the Homespun False Consciousness get to define what is normative.
-- from the SPD catalog description of Michael's book _MAINSTREAM_ (quoted from either Kasey or Michael himself, it's not clear who exactly from the context of the blurb)

The video of Michael reading "Mainstream Poetry" in NYC fully supports this definition of "mainstream." Okay, so if we take up Michael's suggestion to look at "Their Guys" in the context of other poems from the same book like "Mainstream Poetry," then "Their Guys" becomes another, more pointed version of channeling and/or critiquing and/or pastiching and/or mocking the "mainstream." Maybe this "mainstream" includes the (presumably white) golf guys or office guys who stand around the water cooler and trade quips about the latest "Asian cutie" on a porn website. Or the oriental-fetish guys who cruise Asian boys in the bars of [insert name of your favorite urban gay ghetto neighborhood]. Or the shock radio DJs who like to toss around Asian slurs and insults for entertainment value. Or the listeners who find value in that entertainment and bring revenue to its advertisers. Or, or, or... just about anyone can be implicated in this "mainstream," anyone who comes across this pervasive language on the Internet or in the general media and looks away (a move that Michael and other flarfists might want to characterize as hypocritical and passive), or anyone who comes across this language and decides to re-present it as modified, aestheticized documentary realism (a move that might, in its most socially conscious moments, take after agitprop).

But does an author who falls into the latter category see himself as part of the "mainstream"? Or does he see himself as above it, an arch-critic of the field, someone who can claim a superior position because he wallows in the mainstream muck, but wallows in it self-consciously and artfully?

I don't have the answers to my own questions. If the author does in fact implicate himself in the very "mainstream" that he wants to critique, then it becomes interesting. It starts to approach the exploration of one’s own identity (in Michael’s case, white American, possibly Irish-American, male) that Arif and many others in this discussion have called for as the necessary first step before one can begin exploring the Other in ethically meaningful ways that don’t wind up (advertently or inadvertently) replicating the power dynamics of old-school colonialism and orientalism. To briefly quote Arif:

you can't know your own alterity until you know your self. Those two are intricately linked. And alterity is as layered a concept as self.

In the poem “Mainstream Poetry,” I sense moments where the author condenses into at least a partial identification with the “mainstream” memes of “Brit Britney fans” and “subway poems like Awwww Yeaaaah.” These are not moments of stable identification or stable subject-position by any means, but they are moments of crossing where the author’s self resonates with the noise of the poem’s surface, with the “scary global video game we live in, everyday.” This is an interesting identification to me, because I recognize myself in it. As a regular American (race and gender notwithstanding), I recognize myself in that identification. I surf the Web, I buy stuff, I read People magazine, I watch tv, I generate waste, etc. I’m a part of the “scary global video game,” which is scary precisely because the adjective “global” serves as such an easy and automatic stand-in for “mainstream American media.” It is mainstream American pop-culture that has gone global here, that is America’s primary export and “face” to the rest of the world. There’s something kinda empty and shameful about this, something I’d like to disavow by saying I listen to public radio and count myself a member of the “liberal elite,” but the truth is, it’s important that I don’t disavow it. And the moments of resonance in “Mainstream Poetry” give me a temporary handle on my own anxiety, euphoria, and hysteria around the proliferating, hyperreal mainstream American media machine that I’m implicated in.

If this is what Kasey means by “a space of profound empathy... a powerful poem of witness and testimonial whose core is one of raw emotion, of slightly hysterical laughter in the face of global insanity,” then I can see what he’s talking about, in reference to “Mainstream Poetry.”

But not in reference to “Their Guys.”

What’s going on in “Their Guys,” if we look at it in relation to the “mainstream”? I have much to say on this topic, but I’m also about to keel over, so for now I’ll just mark this already long comment as “to be continued,” tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow...

drfranzkafka said...


I'd like to respond to you, in case you're still around. First, I'd like to share that I appreciate you entering the discussion in whatever way felt right to you at the time.

From the passage you selected, it sounds like you may be at least partially identifying with Manto who was interested in doing something lighthearted in a time of relative darkness for himself and others. And that he then received angry letters from people who didn't take what he did in a lighthearted manner. In any interaction, I think there's a difference between the intentions of someone who does something to another and the effects on the other person, and I think that both contribute to what is true rather than one cancelling out the other.

In looking at the passage, I do want to say that I think the woman who wrote to Manto has a right to her anger (because it's what she's feeling, and a person's feelings are valid in and of themselves). By the same token, I want to add that Manto has a right to his anger, perhaps not directed at this woman (I don't know the whole story) but in general. The difference to me is that the woman is recognizing her anger and directing it at what she believes to be the source of it, whereas Manto is dealing with his anger quite differently. He doesn't seem to recognize his anger at all and communicates it indirectly to the woman, by dismissing the woman's anger as having nothing to do with him, pitying her, and even taking it so far as to suggest that she needs to get drunk.

It's along these same lines that I look at the act of mocking others, which I admit to having done in the past myself (with regret). On the surface, it appears to be lighthearted, people have smiles on their faces, are laughing, and so on. Then when we encounter those who we have been mocking, we may become struck by the anger and hurt on their faces. Perhaps we even think these people are taking it all the wrong way and say something to that effect. But I think something different is going on entirely for anyone of us in this position. When we mock others, we are doing it to release our own anger, often at people who don't deserve it. It's an indirect outlet for our anger that brings grief to everyone involved... eventually.

Take care.


Arif and Pam, I just want to express my appreciation to you for your posts.

Gary said...

Hi drfranzkafka,

Yeah, I’m still here—eh, why not.

I actually chimed in a few times earlier in the discussion, first on Maggie’s blog, where the discussion began. There, I thought it might be useful to consider Michael as an Irish American poet reading through the rather famous Irish poet, Yeats. What I had wanted to say was perhaps too complicated for a quick comments box reply, having to do with the ideas that have come up of “whiteness” and erasure and I suppose a “white” sense of self-invisibility that we, as “white” people, supposedly operate out of.

Because I’m always aware that that—call it an assimilation into “whiteness” perhaps—has come at great cost to the Irish, culminating in the 20th century with the near-erasure of the Irish language (and thus Irish culture, or anyway a language through which to write of or speak of Irish culture as something other than “other”) earlier last century. Note that Gaeilge will only became an “official” European language in 2007—literally, *next year*. (According to the most recent census, Gaeilge is spoken every day by a mere 350,000 of the 4.3 million Irish living in Ireland.)

This is all to say nothing of the more than a million Irish who were starved to death as part of Britain’s colonial policies in the 19th century, which involved exporting food out of Ireland and keeping the Irish too poor to buy it back, resulting in the death of some 15% of the Irish population at the time. Though this is only tangentially related to what I was describing, its traces are certainly there as part of the general program to homogenize the cultures of the U.K.

My point was that Yeats wrote about the Irish and Asians, in his poetry, in similar fashion, as an always already “other,” in great part by virtue of the language he wrote (and thought) in: English. (Swift, too, wrote in English, and one thing that never seems to come up in discussions of his famous pre-Irish famine “Modest Proposal” is that the language he is using is English. There’s something kind of brilliant, or at least perfect, about that, I’ve always thought, even despite the fact that English was the default language for his creative writing. My theory—merely a theory—being that you couldn’t convincingly “go there” in Gaeilge. In one sense, albeit a “poet’s” sense, “A Modest Proposal” is a satire *about* language, if that makes sense. It is, in every imaginable sense, a *product* of the English language.)

Yeats’s poem, which Michael’s takes off from, provides traces of Orientalizing or let’s call it “othering,” which, as I said in my post on Maggie’s blog, was rather par for the course for Yeats even—and perhaps especially—in his poetry about “the Irish.” This to me is an interesting irony not just about Yeats, but I suppose about any sort of “culturally defining” project, which of course Yeats was a part of early in his life, and especially one that does not use the culture’s “mother tongue.” (Murat Nemet-Nejat is an interesting writer on poetry in the U.S. and the idea of English as something other than the “mother tongue,” immediately or historically, that U.S. poets write out of. English is, in a sense, for most of us, a “step-mother” tongue.)

I have my own ideas about otherness and cultural projects, which are touched on in Nada Gordon and my talk on the “autré,” which is meditation on “otherness,” three sections of which are online at:

Section One:

Section Two:

Section Three:

I am not sure, drfranzkafka, what “mocking” has to do with Michael’s poem or with my own participation in this ongoing dialog.

But I of course do see Manto mocking Bano in his response to her letter, and if that’s merely what you were referring to, I agree. A minor point: Manto does not seem to suggest that Bano drink alcohol; more that she witness alcohol being poured into a big pool. It is indeed an aggressive position, and not one that I support in all social activity. My point in posting that was, in fact, not to side with Manto, but rather to point, by analogy, to what appears to me to be a central impasse of this discussion.

That said, I’ve really enjoyed and have learned much from this discussion, especially from contributions from Chris Chen, although I’ve learned from everyone else here as well.

I am disappointed every time someone says that this discussion isn’t resolving, because I suppose I see that it may not be resolvable, and that that’s actually okay. I don’t, for instance, expect to have my ideas about poetry and transcendence changed by Kirby Olson, much as I admire his commitment to the Lutheran religion. It’s just that it is not my religion. And I don’t see poetry as transcendent. That may be because I’m an atheist. But it also may have something to do with my subject position (Irish, not “white”) vis a vis the English language, our medium. My relationship to it, and to “whiteness” itself for the reasons explained above & more, being unstable, problematic.

I don’t think anyone in this discussion is going to do a 180 in their approach to poetry. Contrary to Brenda Iijima’s assertion that people have not been granting the critics of Michael’s poem anything, my sense reading through all of this is that people—myself included—*have* admitted that this poem is problematic, and possibly even a failure. But, no, we haven’t made any radical 180 shift in our general approach to poetry or art, and I don’t think that that is necessarily something we can expect to happen immediately as part of this or any other discussion. I know Brenda somewhat—she is German, btw, not Japanese, for those keeping subject-position tabs—and have the feeling from some her Segue introductions that her sense of any proper way to proceed vis a vis cultural criticism and my own are not necessarily ever going to resolve into some comfortable compromise.

Anyway, I know that all of the above is nowhere near as clear as it should be. But, I offer it for whatever it may be worth.


pam said...

As I mentioned earlier, I have yet to give my detailed reading of "Their Guys." I think it's an interesting reading, but I'm not sure if it will add anything to the discussion at this point, so I'll save it for another time, another place.

I think Gary's reading is an interesting one too. Other than the reference to Yeats, it's hard for me to locate the trace of "Irishness" that Gary says he sees in "Their Guys," but I still think it's a promising way to approach poems in general, possibly Gary’s own poems for example.

One question pops out at me as I follow Gary on his reading of "Their Guys": If you’re going to investigate the “otherness” of your own identity (in this case, Irish), is it okay to do so at the expense of another “other” identity (in this case, Asian)? In other words, is it okay to engage in a form of art that simultaneously powers up the Self and powers down the Other? This is just another formulation of the core impasse of the discussion. One side says this power imbalance is okay; the opposing side says it’s definitely not okay. I don’t need to restate which side I fall on.

Tim said...

Gary, thanks for your post on the "impasse," which I take as a generous gesture of validation for both "sides" in the debate over "Their Guys." I do, though, share some of the puzzlement about the precise nature of the analogy you're trying to make already voiced by a few others, and I want to see if I can clear that up a bit.

First, I presume that Manto's position--which you paraphrase as "one writes what one sees, or is compelled to see, in people, in behavior"--is meant to be analogous to that of "Their Guys," and by extension to the position of those readers who believe it is a successful poem. The position of Nayyar Bano--which you describe as "one does not add to the misery or corruption of the world by re-presenting it, in writing"--is presumably analogous to that of critics of "Their Guys."

I don't think this analogy is accurate, because I think it represents critics of "Their Guys" as essentially censorious--regarding the racial stereotypes deployed by Mike Magee as "filth" that should not be repeated in public. (I think Mike himself implies this when he imagines Asian American readers of the poem saying: "bury it.") I realize that this dichotomy--"writing what one sees" in the face of impulses toward self-censorship--has become paradigmatic for flarf, but I don't believe it is a fair account of the much more nuanced critiques of the poem that have been offered. I certainly don't believe my own critique of the poem can be reduced to the idea that Magee (or anyone else) should not have been permitted to utter these words; rather, I take issue with the way in which these words have been uttered and framed, and for me, they have not been uttered in such a way that provides a sufficiently critical context for their reading.

I have to agree with drfranzkafka that the exasperated/mocking tone of Manto's respose makes this analogy a little unpleasant for those who are being positioned on the far side of it, but I will assume that you did not intend it to be so.

Actually, what troubles me most about the analogy is the very idea of an "impasse"--that what separates those who like and don't like "Their Guys" is an unbridgeable moral chasm, analogous to that between the Lutheran and the atheist. I suppose what I'd been assuming throughout my comments--the reason I took such pains to take the framework of flarf into account--is that we've been having a discussion about aesthetics, in which various parties disagree about the success or failure about a given work or a given set of poetic strategies. Obviously one lesson of this discussion is that aesthetics and politics are never far apart. But what I value about the realm of aesthetics is the way in which it can (sometimes) avoid the essentialism of the moral realm--the point at which one says "well, you just believe X and I believe Y, and there's nothing more to say."

This is not to say that this discussion ever can be, or should be, "resolved"; I doubt Mike and I, for instance, will ever agree about whether "Their Guys" is a successful poem or not. But I'm weirded out to think that what separates, say, me from you in this discussion is that we simply have different moral outlooks, which determine what kind of art we think is successful. Isn't it possible, as Pam has suggested in one of her most recent comments, to accept the necessity of "writing what one sees"--and even to accept the particular form of that kind of realism that flarf stakes out--while still disagreeing about whether a particular poem does that effectively or well?

Perhaps all of this is to say that throughout this discussion, I've tried very hard to think of myself as a friendly critic, one who is deeply sympathetic to the aims of much of Magee's work and that of his colleagues, but who just sees this particular poem as a misstep. It's quite possible that I have not succeeded in coming across that way. But I am wondering if your analogy, Gary, suggests that my critique places me in the camp of flarf's implacable opposition. I have no interest in being there, but perhaps that is where disliking this poem places me.

drfranzkafka said...

Hi Gary,

Glad to hear from you again. To answer your question, I was talking about mocking in my last response to you because it does occur in the passage you shared with me and others here. I also wanted to bring this issue up in general because some people have found certain flarf poems to be mocking of themselves and others, which concerns me. Perhaps you don't find any flarf poetry to have this aspect to it, I'm not sure.

Going back to this particular poem, I've been interested in coming at it from an ethical approach, rather than an aesthetic one. Frankly, I find that it simply doesn't leave room for me to come at it from an aesthetic one, and that for me indicates how problematic it is. Considering the responses of some of the participants in this discussion, I doubt I'm alone in this.

With this in mind, I've been disappointed that we haven't been able to address the ethics of this poem here. During this discussion, I've gotten the sense that this particular poetry community may forbid it on some level, as if bringing in ethics may limit the poet and that the poet deserves to have all the aces in his hands so to speak, while the readers are left without a full deck of cards. Personally, I don't like to play cards that way. If I'm the author and I win this way, I didn't really win, did I? If I'm the reader, I simply feel held back, mistreated, and set up to lose.

I probably won't participate much more in this discussion, as it's gone on for a while now. But if you have anything to share about how this poem works or doesn't work ethically, I'd be interested in hearing it. I have to be honest though that I'd simply really like to hear someone from within the flarf community say that this poem doesn't work ethically (not because of the author's intentions which isn't for me to say but from the negative effects it has had on others).

Gary said...

Tim, very quickly, I was thinking of that particular impasse more in regard to Drfranzkafka, Brenda, and Kirby. I wasn't going to participate further in the discussion b/c it was just more interesting to sit it out and read others, but as the conversation began to shift toward the idea of "spirit" in poetry, I thought I would throw the Manto passage up there.

I do see the impasse as fairly analogous w/respect to that portion of the dialog, but no, it breaks down as a simple one-to-one analogy when thinking of earlier participants in the conversation, although it's "poetically" resonant, at least for me, as just an indication of "something unresolvable," which does seem to be possible here.

I thought the passage was kind of funny, b/c it's always funny to me to watch someone acting out of frustation, and that's indeed what Manto is doing. I recognized that in myself, in other words.

More later, b/c I don't think that (a) you are opposed to Mike's poetry and (b) you'll note that I haven't yet technically defended the poem, anywhere, and the reason for that is that I am still undecided about it. I have been thinking around it, and not through it, mostly thinking of other (historical) examples, and there is a reason for that.

I've been thinking a lot about Swift's Modest Proposal recently & tho I know it's English 101, it's been a long time since I've thought of it, or even read it, and was surprised at what I found there, and what it may offer, if not for Mike's poem, for the discussion, perhaps.

drfranzkafka said...

Hi Gary, I just want to say something as briefly as I can, in case it's helpful. I get a sense that the issues between me and some of the participants here may be more about how each of us relates to others interpersonally than what our actual differences may be with regards to interpreting this one poem.

If your note of impasse was directed at me, I want you to know that that wasn't entirely okay with me. I do accept where you were at at the time. You said that you were frustrated, and that's okay with me. However, it still didn't feel good to me to be a recipient of an impasse. When you did that, I felt disappointed that you may consider these issues unresolvable, because I don't think things have to be that way (between us or any of the other participants here as well). I think disagreeing over a poem that's attempting to say something about racism is to be expected, and that each of us needs to be allowed to express our own individual truths (rather than trying to reach some general consensus).

When I behave in a way that others find harmful on some level (no matter what my intention was and how many justifications I think I have), I acknowledge that my behavior was harmful in their eyes and I apologize. Therefore, if you felt frustrated when I shared something earlier, I'd like to say that I'm sorry for whatever behavior on my part caused you that frustration.


To all, I think I'll have myself an iced tea and some angel food cake now. If needed, you can reach me at (Oh, please note that for various reasons, I'll most likely choose to keep this identity by e-mail as well.)

Kirby Olson said...

I imagine there was a similar reception among some of the Irish who were scandalized, but still there is a difference. Swift stood behind his work and in a sense guaranteed it.

Magee doesn't quite do that. He never indicates where his thought begins and ends. This is part of the problem of Flarf as I see it. They are trying to get around censorship (I recognize that no one has said that the poem should be censored exactly, but that the contents deserve censure).

Swift's piece builds to such an ultimatum that his message becomes at least to me a clear burn of the English mentality toward the Irish.

I'm not sure that Magee's poem is meant to be a clear burn of the Irish mentality toward the Asians.

I still don't know what it is.

It falls into the category of found object to some degree (Duchamp), but Duchamp said he stood behind his found objects. They were readymades.

Magee on the other hand distances himself many times from the work -- arguing that it is not his from the title, Mainstream P.

I think it brings back the question of whether or not there must be a subject in a poetic work. Roland Barthes said no. Foucault said no.

Pound said yes.

Pound said that the poet had to be sincere.

Tim said...

Gary, I think the "Irish" reading of Magee's project is rather interesting, but I am not sure that I buy it as a way of interpreting "Their Guys." So far as I can tell, reading the poem as an engagement with Irishness depends solely on two factors: Magee's own presumptive identity as an Irish American writer, and the engagement with Yeats that seems to have sparked the poem.

But where does it go from there? The idea of Yeats seeing both his "Chinamen" and his "Irish" as "other" is certainly interesting, but I don't really see "Their Guys" extending this doubleness. Perhaps (this is something I am extrapolating from your comments on Minor American) one could argue that the "Asian" has become a kind of placeholder or catchall "otherness" in Magee's poem, but that would seem to push the issue farther away (toward exoticization and externalization) rather than critically closer (toward the author's own "Irish" position)--less complex rather than more.

It also strikes me that this interpretation relies far too heavily on presumed biographical fact, i.e. that Magee views himself as an Irish American writer and wishes to engage in a exploration/critique of that subject position. Isn't part of the point here that the poem doesn't presume any given subject position--that it is, in fact, rather methodologically ill-suited to the critique of a given speaking position? If we simply assume that the author has a subject position we can call "Irish American" and then proceed with our interpretation from there, that would seem to me to foreclose a lot of the destabilizing of subject position flarf is supposed to be doing.

Swift's "Modest Proposal" is an interesting touchstone here (though I would argue that it relies for its effect on a carefully layered irony, rather than on the destabilization of irony that flarf presumably intends). A historical quibble, though: I don't believe that Swift had any real knowledge of Gaelige, so his writing in English is not precisely a conscious decision (although one can certainly see in it a forced "choice" imposed by English imperialism). Swift was born to an Anglo-Irish family and his relationship to Irishness was complex to say the least. Here's a bit from a Guardian piece on Swift by Derek Mahon:

The Anglo-Ireland to which he returned in 1714, after the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tories, was a rackety place. Swift inhabited a social and linguistic ghetto: beyond the English "pale", and even within it, lay the alternative, indeed the "native Irish" culture, largely invisible to the urban eye; though Dublin was a bilingual city, with Irish-speaking poets in residence. Swift would have known little Irish, but something of the Gaelic spirit got through to him.

Gary said...


Just fyi it's Gaeilge not Gaelige (very easy typo to make, don't sweat it), and though I'm very rusty on my Age of Reason studies, I seem to recall reading somewhere that Swift published translations into English from it, so it's possible he was not thoroughly ignorant. Yes, he was indeed English Protestant, and so his position vis a vis the Irish, the Irish Catholics in particular, was as colonizer to colonized. (His sympathy toward the Irish notwithstanding, he HATED the fact that he had to, later in life, live in Ireland.)

There are some people in this discussion--not anyone talking at the moment--who would have disqualified Swift from writing about (or "on behalf of") the Irish on that basis alone. And in fact, I think at least some of the people upset in the early 1700s when published it (anonymously, as a pamphlet) did indeed have that subject-position power-balance inequality in mind.

His *ethical* position, however, was not easily reducible to colonizer to colonized, although people who read "A Modest Proposal" at the time were not convinced of that, despite the fact that Swift, elsewhere in his life and writing, was pretty clearly sympathetic to the Irish Catholic situation.

Anyway, I'm not interpreting Mike's poem when I bring all of this up (Yeats, Swift, the colonization of the Irish, the English language, the homogenization of UK culture, etc.), now or before. As I said before I have not really even addressed Mike's poem yet--and may not, ever.

What I'm doing, rather, is going where the ideas that come up for me reading the poem and even moreso reading the discussion surrounding the poem are taking me.

Perhaps I should have been clearer about that from the beginning. It seems both you and Pam think I'm interpreting the poem, here, which I'm not doing, nor intending to do, and I definitely apologize if I've misled people on that account. Pam, this is why I'm having a hard time answering to your very clearl statement about powering up one subject-position at the expense of another--because the powering up is not happening in Michael's poem, it's happening as part of my reading and admittedly free-form thinking after the fact. So I'm to blame for that, at least the powering up part.

Anyway, it's Saturday, and it's beautiful out, and I'm meeting an avant-garde comics artist from Romania in a couple of hours, and that thrills me to the point where pink and blue bubbles are coming out of my ears nose, whereas my own talking here, blathering on & on in one attempt to clarify one moot point after another, is boring the living hell out of me.

You people are NOT boring me, however. I really have been enjoying and learning from your readings of the poem, of culture, of power relations, of everything. But I'm boring myself, it's a beautiful day, and I'm off before I die in front of this computer screen, and everyone laughs at the idiot slumped over the keyboard while outside birds are singing. I will keep reading you, however, later, and may return after the long weekend to blather endlessly about Swift, subject-position, ethics, and the like.


Gary said...

The pink & blue bubbles are coming out of my ears AND nose, although they may well be coming out of my ears nose, too--I just haven't checked that closely.

pam said...

Hi Gary, Tim, et al,

It's Sunday now and a dazzling day too on this coast, and the bubbles here are mostly orange, flecked with tiger stripes occasionally. Yes I see now, Gary, that you are thinking around "Their Guys" and not directly on it. My thoughts on power relations were sparked by my projecting your ideas about Irishness onto a strict interpretation of the poem, which was jumping the gun a bit on my part.

But setting the Irish reading of "Their Guys" aside for the moment, I still think it's useful to approach the poem from the perspective of power relations. There's much to unpack here, I think, that would shed light on why many readers reacted the way they did and why there were disconnects in the conversational dynamics. If I go back to drfranzkafka's idea that the poem primarily addresses issues related to the "mainstream," then I now have to partially agree with Thomas Basboll's earlier remark that the poem doesn't have anything to do with Asians at all. Rather, the "Asians" in the poem are being used as a tool (or a "can opener," to borrow Lorna Dee Cervantes' term) for getting at the real target, a certain ugly segment of mainstream culture. This relegation of Asians to tool status was exactly what bothered me most when I first reacted to the poem on Roger Pao's blog (though I wasn't able to fully articulate my predicament then).

This goes back to Tim's argument that the poem fails to account for an Asian American subject position. I would go one step further and say that the poem actually requires the nonexistence of such a subject position (Mike, if you're reading this, I'm saying that the poem does this, not that you yourself are doing it). In order for the poem to work, a reader has to buy into the Asian tool status, as a means of getting at the real meaning of the poem (as critique of the mainstream, as investigation of loaded language constructions). So when commenters bring up issues of orientalism, imperialism, and racism from an Asian American perspective, their views are simply incompatible with the function of the poem as an art object. The poem requires that the spectral Asian-- the stereotyped Asian, the "Asian" created by the projections of an orientalist mindset-- be privileged over the actual Asian; it's in this way, by exerting the power of aesthetic logic over the power of social, corporeal, and historicized beings, that the poem enacts a kind of micro-fascism.

The discussion seems to be bifurcating again in an interesting way. There's a) the continuing discusion of the specific poem, and b) the comparative discussion of other works that employ possibly objectionable content. With respect to b), it would be interesting to look at what is different about works like "A Modest Proposal" and the photomontages of John Heartfield. I think the clear authorial positioning that Kirby brings up is definitely key here. Also, the positioning of these works as satire (as opposed to pastiche; see the Jameson passage quoted earlier by Arif). It would be interesting to look at exactly how the spectral beings depicted in each work (Swift's cannibalized Irish infants, Heartman's cannibalized Jews) relate to their actual counterparts who are being championed, in a heavily ironized sense, by the artist. A la Jameson, there is a "normal" (or at least hoped for) state of things that is being alluded to by the distortion of these works. Perhaps what's unsettling about "Their Guys" is that it requires the suppression of such a state; like the author says, it is dystopian to the max.

I'm also interested in the comparison to Sarah Silverman, who seems to hit closer to the button-pushing function of "Their Guys." There are definite similarities, and differences too. What are they exactly?

hyperpoesia said...

this is the first time i've actually read through the discussion i've been reading so much about elsewhere. i have to say it's one of the most sustained and intelligent and passionate conversations about poetry i've been privileged to read/overhear in i don't know how long. i feel really moved that everyone is acting in good faith even when there seem to be impasses. it gives me hope, even if the "poem itself" (which i think most folks have been careful not to fetishize as "the poem itself") cedes to other content which is, after all, more globally and ethically important. thanks to all who have enjoined this serious effort.

Kirby Olson said...

I think I was puzzled about one thing in regards to the poem, and its reception. It seems that Orientalism, after Ed Said, is a taboo. That is, to sexualize the Other is wrong.

However, doesn't everyone do this?

I mean, isn't it somehow the basis of Romanticism, and the basis of sexuality, at least for heterosexuals?

And in doing it, don't we always stereotype? Isn't it true that the sexual brain (back brain, limbic system) is somehow not terribly subtle. I think men think in terms of breasts, women in terms of butts, at least at some deep limbic level.

Now suddenly it's forbidden. Of course to reduce someone else simply and purely to the image of them is icky, but I think it's a limitation of the back brain (as opposed to the more cerebral front brain) that is kind of a complaint that perhaps can't be helped.

I think in sex nobody actually thinks, at least not cerebrally. That's why when you count backwards from ten you always kill that impulse (handy in some cases).

Franz Kafka himself was very busy with the babes of Prague (he couldn't speak Czech and somehow this was a turn-on as part of the minority German population, and a double minority since he was also Jewish).

If you flip through the pages of porno journals for just about every demographic (I haven't done this, but I can imagine it) I think the images are fairly stereotypical.

I'm not sure anybody can get excited about a real person in all their history and specificity. The back brain requires something simpler, just an outline.

Of course it's best if you have both: the outline, and the real person that you actually like. But to segue between them both is mysterious and fascinating.

Are we supposed to be bored by the Other? What exactly is the PC response to the Other?

I've heard some gay guys tell me that they actually get off most by looking in the mirror at themselves. Perhaps this is more PC for some reason but it struck me as narcissistic when they told me (although I didn't say anything because I too have limits in terms of what I'll say, esp. in person).

Is the poet permitted to be excited about another demographic group? I can imagine a Democrat getting all excited about a Republican, or vice versa. I suppose race would work for that, as would sex, or class.

Perhaps language would work.

Different kinds of personality might work for some.

It seems that PC wouldn't allow this to happen.

I'm quite suspicious of Ed Said because he didn't have much of a sense of humor in his writing.

I prefer Sarah Silverman. In fact I like the Jewish sense of humor generally. I do think a sense of humor in terms of the contradictions we face every day (even in terms of different parts of the brain trying to deal with one another) makes things sort of interesting because irresolvable. I liked the poem finally because of how it was so hard to resolve the tensions in it.

But I'm still not buying a copy.

But I'm closer to buying a copy.

drfranzkafka said...

Gary, I'm interested in why you've decided not to look further at "Their Guys." You've mentioned it a few times now in your posts, and I imagine it would be of interest to others here as well.


Kirby, Forgive my directness and the possibility that I've misunderstood you, but are you asking Tim and other Asians in this discussion for permission (for yourself or others) to objectify people who are Asian? Sadly, I don't think anyone needs permission to objectify anyone else these days. I doubt though that those who are objectified ever truly appreciate it.

When we think of another person as "other" (also known as objectifying or dehumanizing, depending on where you stand on these issues), I think it's a sign of where we're at psychologically and emotionally. Someone who is secure doesn't do this, while someone who is insecure does. I think those of us who are insecure seek out romantic relationships with people who we don't think of as real, so that we don't have to go through the pain (rejection, abandonment, and so on) that's part of any relationship.


To all, Happy Fourth!

Gary said...


Part of my reluctance to continue, despite what I find to be an open and welcoming attitude with respect to discussion by most of the people involved over the last week or so, is the acute sense of how my participation is being read outside of this discussion.

Please see:

where you will find the following passage:

"Flarf will never 'end' because too many of the flarfistes are at best mildly talented poets with very little knowledge of poetry, history or politics. [...] Their recent apologetics for racism at various blogs prove their inability to perceive one of the most fundamental aspects of our culture."

and further:

"If you think that wriggling through one reactionary position after another in defense of your own ignorance is a sign of intelligence, go for it. If you're incapable of admitting you've been wrong or have made glaring mistakes; if you're so arrogantly assured of your own theoretical infallibility that you're incapable of apologizing for being a reactionary asshole, even if you didn't realize it, go fuck yourself."

I know that this is not the attitude of those currently involved in the discussion, but I am, again, acutely aware of how any participation on my part, any attempt to articulate any position vis a vis this poem (or for that matter "flarf") will simply be dismissed as per the above.

That said, I've been thinking a lot about, and taking to heart, things that Pam, Arif and Tim have said over the last several days, and will respond shortly, despite my I hope understandable reluctance.

Kirby Olson said...

No, I'm not asking for permission to allow me to objectify Asians.

I'm just saying that this kind of objectification is probably an aspect of the older limbic system in which the sexual imagination resides, and I'm saying IT CAN'T BE HELPED to some degree. That the outlawing and censure of it, is like saying that from now on, people will not be allowed to eat or breathe.

The purity that PC demands disallows the fact of our fallen nature.

PC demands that we become saints.

However, this is not possible.

Jesus said that the chaff must grow alongside the chaff. And poetry therefore must be allowed to explore evil along with good, or else poetry itself (life) will be snuffed out by the need to live up to a saintly but inhuman ideal.

Therefore I now think it's not only permissable for the poem to exist, but for other such poems, on all sides, by all kinds of demographic groups to exist. In fact, I am encouraging this.

The sanctimonious gestures of PC are destructive of life.

As soon as someone posits the notion, "I am good," I think we should instantly blow the whistle, and say instead, that this is an evil move.

One of the things I like about the Magee bit is that it declares life to be evil, but it does stay above the fray, and doesn't quite say, I AM EVIL TOO. If it did that, I would endorse it, and buy the book.

That is, if it did it in a sense of humility and shame.

Instead, it seems to be triumphant -- Yeats is evil, the mainstream is evil, but I am part of a saintly minority that is not.

That's why I am still not buying the book. I don't think it's quite honest.

Kirby Olson said...

But I would add one thing: I don't think any of the Asian-Americans are demanding that I ask permission to speak, or that Magee's poem should be banned. We live in a country in which the First Amendment guarantees the liberty of everyone to speak.

And this will mean that there are therefore factional differences, and rivalries.

I don't think anyone is setting themselves up as a despot of what others should be allowed to say. We are only discussing divergent responses, not permission itself, unless I am mistaken.

I of course grant everyone the right to say what they like. Isn't this true for all Americans?

I realize that in Europe certain countries do not permit freedom of speech (Germany and France have banned "hate speech" for instance). But this is unconstitutional in the U.S. Some college campuses have attempted to ban certain forms of speech, but in every case where such things have been tried in U.S. courts the campuses have lost.

Some campuses have tried to deny certain groups the right to speak (for instance, Christians are often targeted), but in every case that this has gone to court, the campuses have lost.

So I don't think there is any question of anyone "allowing" someone else to speak or not. The constitution guarantees it. Naturally there will always be someone who is offended. That's a given. Intellectual diversity is almost mandated by the First Amendment and except for certain conditions in which this Constitutional Right is abrogated by a given authority, this remains our right within the US.

But I don't think anyone here is trying to abrogate this right, or reserve it to themselves or their faction, unless I missed something.

jolly said...

it's sort of funny to see this sophisticated discussion degenerate into good/bad, evil/good (& variations of the same) as though the whole point(s) and subtlety of tim et al. arguments have been completely missed/dismissed. if people want to defend a poetics, let us see the same sophistication in argumentation rather than good/bad. gary, i see what you're saying, but hell with it. express what you must if you feel passionately about it. of course there are going to be people who call flarf rubbish, but that doesn't mean that flarf cannot be defended and that doesn't mean that magee's poem has to be equated with all flarf. no one is suggesting that there shouldn't be debate. he is only suggesting that we avoid such simple interpretations of flarf/anti-flarf and also leap over any sort of ambiguity that would leave a final position indeterminate. no one will attack you. he is not suggesting that the limbic system is not always already corrupted. does that mean that we get stuck in limbo? the whole "we are all complicit" argument...or the we must be a saint to adopt a certain political stand-point is is our right to dream and to attempt to base our actions/lives on a position that is not ambiguous, but well thought out....kirby, think of john of the cross, those who walked on a cloud of unknowing. still, think also that christianity is the dominant meme in current us politics/policies. must we feel sorry for its marginalization? has it really been marginalized or has it simply shape shifted? and how can we make an comparison between the so-called marginalization of christianity and what's going on with 'race' and bodies. there's a huge difference...this doesn't mean that you are not allowed to speak. however your current posts show that you have learned very little from this discussion, or that you are angry, feeling marginalized yourself. it is strange position. imagine living that day to day.... i think your voice is emblematic of the strange ways political correctness has been absorbed by the right, so that white middle class christians begin to imagine that they're marginalized.

Gary said...


I'm puzzled by your assessment of how this discussion has gone. Good/evil? Where did I pitch this?

And, I'm sorry, but forgive me if I don't want to continue a discussion that hinges so much on subject-position with a group of five or six people, two of whom are signing in anonymously.


Kirby Olson said...

Yeah, I felt your summary of the conversation was really tilted too.

Geez, Jolly, lighten up.

drfranzkafka said...

Gary, Just want to write in real quick to say that I'm sorry if my anonymity has been a deterrent in any way to this discussion. I see anonymity as helpful at times for enabling a more honest exchange; it gets rid of all that political positioning within a community and so on that can prevent not only honesty but positive growth and change (something I value a lot for both myself and others). And I do appreciate you answering my question. It sounds like you decided to not look at this poem further, because you don't want your position on it to upset others in this community further and affect you in ways that you don't want. I understand.

Without talking about your situation directly (which isn't my place), I think there are things any of us can do to work on resolving a misunderstanding or conflict with another person, so as to bring peace to ourselves, the other person, or even better both. I know that I've already talked about my take on intentions and effects, how there's always a difference between what we intend and how our behavior affects another person. I'd just like to add that I think when this difference is vast, it's a sign that we have some work to do on becoming more aware of ourselves, more aware of the other person, or both. I don't say this from some higher place, which would be false. I think all of us have work to do in these areas throughout our life, and that most definitely includes me.


Kirby, Just want to respond to you real quick, too. If I got it right this time, it sounds like you really value people recognizing that they're multidimensional, in particular seeing the parts of themselves that wouldn't be considered good in certain societies (or politically correct), because that's what you see as the truth. I agree with you. I really value people being honest about who they are and being able to share what's true for them.

But I also think it's important to recognize that not all environments allow for this level of openness, and that's okay (in fact, even necessary for our society to function). I think political correctness isn't meant to stamp out people's thoughts or feelings, which are ours alone to define as individuals and don't belong to anyone else (not even a church, in my book). It's meant to protect individuals who are being attacked in public environments, such as the workplace. For example, some of the laws in America that protect people from sexual and racial harassment are simply there so that some people can get a job and function at work without trauma. These laws are there to protect people of all genders and races, including men and Caucasian Americans.


Some days, I'm reminded of these lyrics from the Smiths song "I Know Its Over." Peace to all.

It's so easy to laugh
It's so easy to hate
It takes strength to be gentle and kind
Over, over, over, over
It's so easy to laugh
It's so easy to hate
It takes guts to be gentle and kind
Over, over

Gary said...


I appreciate what you say, and I don't think you've abused your anonymity, but posting anonymously is itself an act of dishonesty, so I don't see how honesty will necessarily follow from that initial dishonest act.

Take a look, for instance, at Jolly's "blog." It's pretty obvious this person has some personal vendetta, and I'm not going to engage with such a person, nor participate in a conversation that includes someone like that, especially when right out of the gate they're completely misrepresenting my own participation. All it means is that I will, along with saying whatever I have to say about poetry, simultaneously have to answer to all of their BS charges, charges they simply wouldn't allow themselves to make if they were posting under their own name. I don't want my time, or others', wasted on that.

Kirby Olson said...

Mr. Kafka,

I think the thing to remember is that inside of PC there is incredible violence. Just as there is inside of any church. Those pretending to be saints often demonstrate an immense will to power, even when it is done ironically through the medium of victimization.

Ginsberg was the classic case. His career begins when he writes on the wall of his dorm at Columbia "Kill the Kikes" and tries to stir up trouble but is caught and expelled. But the rest of his career is spent trying to formulate the aberrant actions of his enemies -- from the mysterious phrase "Moloch," under which he somehow subsumes America, to the mugging of himself by Puerto Ricans outside of his apartment on E. 12th St. (which he then proceeds to use as a cover story for molesting the children).

This is a hilarious tactic, but you see it all the time, although rarely documented so carefully as in Ginsberg's case.

It's good to be kind, but you have to also watch and observe how kindness itself is often a demonstration of the will to power. See how kind I can be. But you're not so kind so you should be murdered.

One of the things I like about Magee's poem is that it gives up that specific kind of will to power and so it puts into operation a new kind of language game.

But then there is no responsibility taken for it.

EM Cioran's book Tears of Saints (that's close to the title I think) is a quite insightful book on how piety is used among the saints to knock their rivals cold.

This is part of the reason that Luther outlawed sainthood. It's a crock, and is too often a con game, like race, gender, and class. The idea is to present one's victimization, while in fact in reality playing gimme.

There are on the other hand real victims, but we will never hear from those. What we will hear from instead are too often operators who are seeking leverage and using any guise imaginable to get it.

drfranzkafka said...

All, In some cases, people have wronged us and it's important to identify and examine those wounds, so that we can begin healing. However, I think it's equally important to identify and examine how we have wronged others.

As adults, we often treat others in the same way that our parents treated us. Sadly, if our parents neglected and abused us, we can end up treating others in our lives with neglect and abuse, often unwittingly especially if our own pain and anger from our childhood hasn't been processed and healed.

Looking at our own behavior by *really* listening to how others respond to it can begin an important process of healing within ourselves. How we treat others and how we treat ourselves is very closely connected. For example, if we as a rule don't accept anger from others (by treating it with dismissal, judgment, and so on), guess what? We're also not accepting it in ourselves.

Take care and bye for now. My e-mail address is Thank you, Tim, for the time here. I look forward to reading your future posts.

Kirby Olson said...

The big problem I see with Flarf was a problem that extended to the discussion of Flarf: an amazing sense that the "I" does not exist, that personal responsibility is no longer necessary.

This is a world problem or so it seems.

When the soccer player Zidane head butted the Italian defender in the World Cup final he argued that it was Allah's will.

I get a similar sense reading the Magee account of Flarf's influence on his poem. That whatever he takes or finds on the internet is Allah's will. I even get the sense that the internet is God for the Flarfists.

And that the Flarfists possess no free will.

Then reading the responses, they aren't individual responses but responses from the viewpoint of a race (as if such things exist), or from a group, and finally from many people with invented names, invented identities.

No past, no parents, no grandparents, no communities in which they were raised.

Displaced persons.

It's shocking to me how widespread this phenomenon was in the discussion on almost all the boards.

The problem of free will and individual identity, and the problem of God, and the Internet as Allah, and then all the displaced persons. Franz Kafka appropriations, pirate appropriations.

It was a good discussion but to my mind it remained quite superficial throughout and it didn't get down into the deeper philosophical problems that I think this new generation of poets has to confront if they really want to become Republicans.

radio said...

“When the soccer player Zidane head butted the Italian defender in the World Cup final he argued that it was Allah's will.”

What good fiction! I'd like to see the source where Zidane made that claim. But I agree with you somewhat, Kirby. The notion of free will should be present. But Magee himself states that the poem must risk failure. Isn't that the very nature of free will: to decide/act knowing that there is no one to defer to and knowing that you could be wrong?

Poetry raped me. But it's my fault.

radio said...
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radio said...

Why is it that so many people constantly assume that poetry represents the writer's thoughts, beliefs and/or voice? Frankly, there will always be censors (just as Baraka was pursued after "Somebody blew up America").
And in most cases, it is in every artist's best interest to pay them no mind.

Kirby Olson said...

It's because it does.

Barthes was wrong, as he was wrong about Mao.

The best way we have to understand writing is by understanding the writer.

It's still true.

Once you read Marianne Moore's biography, her poems make ten times more sense.

The same is true for almost any writer you can name.

pam said...

I don't remember any of the critics of the poem ever calling for censorship. The discussion has been about whether people think the poem works or not. Everyone acknowledges the controversial nature of the poem. It's healthy and natural for people to have strong feelings about a controversial topic. Free speech also guarantees the rights of readers to criticize and even object to a poem. These kinds of criticism do not equal censorship. Maybe some people assume that because the criticism involves the issue of race, political correctness with its apparatus of institutional censorship automatically comes into play. That's an unfortunate legacy of PC's heavy-handed approach, a heavy-handedness that may once have been necessary as institutional policy because many individuals lacked the power to make their viewpoints known in their respective communities. One positive result of PC is that these viewpoints have now, for the most part, been absorbed by the general culture. But what also remains is the perception of the policing aspect of PC, or perhaps more important, the cultural *memory* of the policing aspect of PC as it has been deployed in recent decades. It doesn't surprise me that some artists and media pundits are now reacting to the policing aspect of PC, reactions that were generally suppressed during PC's heyday. That these reactions are coming out now, some 10-15 years after the fact, signals to me that the police phase of PC is pretty much over and repressed feelings can now be released. These releases are probably necessary for our evolution as a society. The tricky thing for me, and probably for everyone really, is distinguishing between those releases that signify a pure distaste of PC’s repressive legacy, and those that signify a desire to roll back the clock to an earlier, less equitable society. Often the dividing line is intentionally muddled as part of the reaction itself—a big fuck you to PC’s desire to define clear categories of “correct” and “incorrect.” One can be a critic of certain aspects of PC, be vehemently opposed to the reactionary desire to roll back the clock, but still flirt with the dividing line in an effort to provoke and challenge one’s audience. The problem here is that the flirtation may actually reignite larger social debates that have already been furiously fought in the past and seemingly put to rest. I think everyone in this society is still “recovering” from PC: opponents are recovering from the smart of all the hand-slapping they’ve gotten, and beneficiaries are recovering from all the battles they’ve fought and, in many cases, won. On the other hand, maybe it’s too early for recovery; maybe we still need to have these larger social debates because, ironically, PC has actually *prevented* these debates from reaching their full and cathartic conclusion. I can definitely appreciate this point of view. But it also saddens me that these debates have to happen in such contentious and potentially injurious ways. Like others, I’ve really appreciated the many intelligent and passionate arguments that have been made by people during this debate, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with those arguments. But I’m also saddened that the intellectual and emotional momentum of the debate has thrust me into the position of arguing about the issue of race with people who, I believe, essentially *share* my views on race and racial justice. If this debate had been about a social issue rather than a poem, I don’t think things would have gotten to this point. Much as I appreciate the passion and rigor of poetry blogs and the poetics community in general, I’m not sure if the large-scale, public-debate dynamics of this community makes it an effective forum for dealing with issues like race. Our language is clumsy. I may say or imply something in the process of trying to say something else, and injure somebody I never wanted to injure. For that, I am sorry. I am also perplexed by the unavoidable and sometimes necessary conflation of what I say as an individual with what I say as a representative. As an Asian American—a member of a group that represents the “newest” racial minority, that has experienced the least (which is not to say no) physical trauma in relation to other racial minorities in the Americas, and that is, statistically speaking, most integrated educationally and economically—I feel like I get called into these debates as a sort of litmus test for the issue of race in general. I accept this burden, which is not to say I don’t also feel tired of it. And again, I worry that the record of this debate may leave some readers with a skewed impression of the state of race relations in this community and in American society at-large. This debate has articulated many significant intellectual, aesthetic, and ethic positions, but it hasn’t addressed the historical wounds of race that can really only be addressed on the interpersonal level, through simple, daily micro-attempts to understand and respect differences and possibly make a friend or ally in the process. That goes for me along with everyone else. And it’s clear to me that everyone who’s contributed thoughtfully to this debate is actively engaged in this process in their regular lives.

radio said...

Yes, the poem works. It works to generate discussion, review, analysis and more. It rabble rouses about as much detritus and muck as one could expect from a poem about Asians, lube and 13 year olds all hanging around the frontier.

Kirby, objectifying groups within work has been done since there was literature: from the aristocracy to meatpacking, a object must be objectified to be solidified in written form. Furthermore, merely citing instances of where you have found an understanding of the writer to lead to a greater understanding of their work (an assertion with which at times I would agree) wasn't what I was getting at. I ask pardon. Rather, that the way in which themes are delivered within a poem doesn't necessarily reflect the stance of the writer, i.e., using Asian stereotypes and internet flutter (not flarf) to generate a poem does not essentially place the writer within a belief structure that subscribes to those stereotypes.

In brief, claiming that a book isn't honest before reading it is hypocritical at best. (Wouldn't someone in your case have to KNOW the writer before making any claims as to his/her honesty or dishonesty?

Sometimes a poem works better when it's bullshitting, i.e., subverting the very "truth" we are asked each day to believe.

radio said...

Kafka quips, "All, In some cases, people have wronged us and it's important to identify and examine those wounds, so that we can begin healing."

This is a distinctly "American" (read, US) viewpoint, fabricated by the media: that we must cope with wounds.

Doll up of Neosporin and voila! Ready to blend into the skin, akin to use of an alias to post.

radio said...

ps... Pam, I couldn't agree more the your statement:
"One can be a critic of certain aspects of PC, be vehemently opposed to the reactionary desire to roll back the clock, but still flirt with the dividing line in an effort to provoke and challenge one’s audience."

How and where to draw the line and how can one foresee, or work to hone, a better understanding of the roots of offense. I.e., to strike a word whose mere existence is to insult isn't true censorship. Most wouldn't decry its destruction as a further lack of freedom of speech: There are either alternate demonstratives that more accurately depict the subject. The majority of cases involving "PC" cooption of words are those in which the original word or term merely "stood" for a inaccurate depiction of said subject, a flagrantly deceptive shortcut that gets us to the wrong neighborhood. It is a cheat, a fraud of a descriptive term and a lazy misnomer at best.

Since Magee's poem engages in that it seeks to work and address a socio-political failing or quarrel by no means decorative, the language in the poem is not merely for show, nor is it there by mere laziness. It's existence comes not from the speaker's laziness, but from rather from the writer's desire to comment on terms, on language.

Kirby Olson said...

Pam's note is intelligent and helpful.

I still feel that PC is unnecessarily essentialist in terms of the way in which it selectively enforces its agenda.

If Magee had been Asian, for instance, no one would have said a word. Had he been an Asian woman, he would have been given an award.

But now he's on the hot seat.

In some ways of course that works for him as he gets publicity that those who fit into the PC agenda would not.

I'm not sure if after PC we can see a common humanity throughout the globe. Now it seems we see people through the lens of race, gender, class, and they can't escape this designation no matter what they do or say.

The spirit of the thing is evil, although the letter of it is beneficial, at least to certain constituencies at least for the nonce.

In the long run PC Balkanizes. Now on every campus you have a center for African Americans, one for Asian Americans, one for Gays & Lesbians, etc. etc.

There is no longer a center for the Humanities.

It's been Balkanized. Or if you will, it's become a Tower of Babel.

I recognize that people have fought for this.

I recognize that it's been won, but I see it as a loss for humanity to some extent.

Something's missing -- it is perhaps compassion, though that's a rather flatulent term that reminds me of sick hippies smoking dope and pretending to be nice in the name of Love.

I think what's missing is the idea of a common humanity (a universal concept) and that we shouldn't be fighting for just our constituency, but for everybody, and for some basic standard human rights throughout the globe.

The big picture is fuzzy, but I think Pam is basically right in a lot of places.

The other people don't have names so it's increasingly hard to even sense where they are coming from after all this, and it seems ridiculous to write to somebody called Radio or somebody called after a dead German modernist. But thanks to Pam for her response.

I think we should be fighting for universal human rights.

But what PC did is split up everybody into warring factions.

And I see a lot of the discussion as Michael transgressed the New Pax Americana in which no faction may insult or downgrade any other faction, although they may downgrade or insult their own (although even that is heavily discouraged), and now he must pay.

A pox on that pax.

I'm not sure that this new outlawing or even pooh-poohing of destructive commentary is constructive. It may feel good. It may lead to new levels of self-esteem and so on, but I think it's finally just a way to silence all meaningful discussion and to create a sort of psychological warfare that is at least as belligerent as Michael's poem.

Michael's poem is at least American.

It's somehow divisive in the name of unity. It's a very clever thing because you can't quite catch it by any given hold. I love it. I also hate it. And I am totally indifferent as well as quite interested.

radio said...
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radio said...

Being in the hot seat in a PC-peer trial is about as dangerous as dunking. It relies on one's own sense of shame and memory. Luckily, there are strong movements against PC to be found in the strangest of places. Many of my peers and slightly younger are taking gender identity to a new level: they're ignoring it. It no longer figures into the problematic picture of what is really biting at us. Offense is for dinosaurs.

As for monikers, I would also question the absurdity of writing to one named "Kirby" as well as "Kafka" or "tm" or "Gladys".

Call me "Ryan" if you must.

Kirby Olson said...

Ryan, do your friends also ignore race and class? Give some examples. If yes, How is this done exactly?

You say that to ignore gender is a good thing, or you seem to imply that.

Do you think this is a good thing?

You are confusing me.

So does the poem of Magee appear to be a dinosaur poem to you about dinosaur issues?

drfranzkafka said...

Just looked at this topic again to read Pam's post, which I heard about and appreciate. And I wanted to make a few brief replies to the other participants.


Kirby, I don't appreciate the way in which you're continuously discounting what I've shared based on my use of an alias, and I'm going to ask you to not do so in the future. It's very common for people to use aliases in internet discussions, and I believe I may have shared more about myself in previous posts than anyone else so far. Frankly, you're giving the impression that you *need* to discount what I wrote for some reason. And since what I shared was a call for personal responsibility towards others in this discussion, then I have to ask if personal responsibility towards others is something that you need to avoid for some reason.

As an aside, I find it interesting how you continuously call for personal responsibility on the part of others towards yourself (from the poem's author and many of the participants of this discussion including me), while your comments towards others in this discussion often lack basic courtesy, not to mention empathy. If you continue to treat me in this manner, I simply won't engage with you further here or elsewhere online.


Radio, My comment about people wronging us was in response to Gary and Kirby. It was about the ways in which I felt that they may have been approaching this discussion (by looking at the ways they may have been wronged by others in this discussion), not about the poem itself. Instead of making assumptions about me and then dismissing what I shared based on those assumptions, I'd appreciate it if you could take a moment to either read the discussion in depth or ask me a question so that I can clarify my position first. Thank you.


All, From my point of view, looking past or ignoring gender, race, and class can be used as the basis for two arguments. The first argument is that looking past these qualities elevates us as a human race by enabling each of us to recognize that we as a people are one. The second is that ignoring these qualities allows us to ignore the realities of gender, race, and class, and how they operate in our society. Sexism towards both men and women, racism towards all races, and classism towards all classes is a reality. While I agree with the first argument, I can't agree with the second, and I really don't think we should confuse these issues by merging them as one.

Kirby Olson said...

Franz, you have no compassion at all for Mike Magee and are willing to roll up his first amendment rights.

But if he was Asian, or any other minority, you would go in the other direction.

Political correctness comes out of Maoism. The Maoist red guards practiced it. And your version of justice is just as blind and just as berserk, even though you think you are compassionate.

Pol Pot continued to believe that he was compassionate, too, until the day he died.

The Killing Fields notwithstanding, political correctness has cost millions of people their lives in Asia. In America it's cost hundreds of thousands of people their jobs. That is mostly over for now -- the most belligerent part of political correctness is over.

But it's compassion is one-sided, militant, quick to judge, and slow to understand irony.

pam said...

I still don't see Franz or anyone else calling for a clampdown on Michael's 1st Amendment rights. Franz and other critics are simply exercising their own free speech rights under that same amendment.

If "Their Guys" had been written by an Asian author, we'd be talking about self-deprecating irony, internalized racism, and reappropriation. People would still be debating about whether the poem worked or not, and whether its effects matched its intentions. Most of these people would probably be Asian American, and not all of them would agree on the merits of this kind of reappropriation.

A better analogy is if an Asian author wrote a Google-generated poem that used language demeaning to white people. If the language were as pointed as the language in "Their Guys," I would hope to see heated responses, questions about race and racism, analyses of the historical and sociological context of Asian=>white aggression-- in short, I'd hope to see an analogous debate erupt in response to the poem. I wouldn't want to see readers giving the poem a blank pass.

Kirby Olson said...

But they would.

Perhaps you could try it and see.

Not even the slightest eyebrow would arch is my bet.

But I owuld love to see the experiment done, just to test the nature of the thing. I think that under the same term "toerlance," such a poem would be "tolerated," and no one would as much as blink.

I know that I wouldn't.

The poem would have to be released in a double-blind atmosphere in which readers who were not aware of the discussion of Magee's poem, or even aware of Magee's poem, would be able to comment.

I doubt if more than three thousand people know of Magee's poem. That leave another 300 million Americans to experiment upon.

But since the poetry audience is more like maybe a 100,000 tops --

It still might be difficult.

Could you write such a thing, Pam?

Kirby Olson said...

Another problem: how to translate the poem exactly into Asian-American, or translate it into any of the other minority viewpoints, exactly?

That is, how to make the poem proliferate in exactly the same way?

What would be the equivalences?

This in itself would be interesting to view.

It would make a difference I think if a woman were to write it or a man, and ...

But I still say that only almost completely uneducated whites would bother to respond.

Whereas only the most educated people of other groups would respond.

But it's a question that remains to be experimentally tried for the answer to appear.

Lee Herrick said...

Was there actually a comparison drawn linking North American "political correctness" and Pol Pot's time/actions? I have been to Phnom Penh and know a fair amount about Hun Sen, Pol Pot, and the Cambodian genocide, and Kirby, there is a vast difference.

I'm certain we will (hopefully and respectfully) agree to disagree on our views of political correctness, a loaded term appropriated and mocked by the conservative right decades ago when it was introduced. To me it means accuracy. i.e., flip history on its end and imagine all cops, since the beginning, were women. They just were. They were called, therefore, policewomen. But one day, Joe and Juan and Mike break through the ranks, defy the odds and history itself and become policewomen. After some years of being called a policewoman, it might occur to them that they might be better described as "policemen" or perhaps even "police officers." Silly, or just precise? What's wrong with precision? It worries me when I hear people say, "Oh, just relax. I will call you what I want."

At least ten years ago the Modern Languages Association published its list of non-sexist language guidelines, which I think is significant and worth taking seriously. Don't worry---the argument goes much deeper than simple labels. It correlates to the 17% I'll mention in a minute. It correlates to a number of other sociological factors (abuse, health, income) that warrant our respect, and particularly it should be considered for those in the 83%. But let me connect this with race.

Some feel it "polices" people's language and thought. Kirby claims it has cost "hundreds of thousands" people their jobs. The economic impact argument doesn't hold water, in my opinion, just as the recent immigration backlash doesn't make me believe for a minute that Mexican or Chinese immigrants are the main source of our tanking economy. For example, if you look at the Forbes 100 wealthiest (north) Americans, there are approximately 17% women. There are much fewer minorities of any kind on that list. Just as in other institutions (government, judicial, education) the significant majority of people in power (if we can consider these institutions to be those of power) are Caucasian. Further, it should be noted that during the time of Affirmative Action, the group who benefitted most from those policies, with regard to employment, was Caucasian women. And rightfully so, since they (in the early 70s) were not in the workforce nearly as much as they are now. It's a good thing. But where does the backlash reside? Against minorities---supposedly taking jobs and keeping good, "more qualified" people of law school after law school. Please. Those policies, btw, also helped a number of people with physical disabilities.

The point? When I read poems like Magee's or Kirby's recent baiting tactics to get Pam to write a poem like Magee's (although maybe it isn't baiting at all and Pam would gladly write such a poem)---essentially positions that ask the question, "Why can't Caucasian males [typically the ones who raise these issues] do and say these things [use racist language without repercussion]?"---I am reminded of the discomfort some people have when "power," even that over language as it has traditionally been used, is threatened. I am reminded that some people think these facts are conditions of our Darwinian culture and nothing else.

For example, a student of mine (who was not Black) once asked, "How come Black people can use the word 'N.....r" and I can't?" The question was not asked in the spirit of learning, of course, but in a confrontational manner. I thought for a moment and replied, "The real question is---what does that person think they are missing out on? And why would the person want to use it? Why would the person want the green light to use it in a pinch, or write it, or own it?" The student wrinkled his eyebrows and quieted down, and left the class thinking, I think.

I'm not saying this to annoint myself Sheriff of Racist Langauge County or tell anyone how to speak. Go for it, people. But I wanted to throw in my two cents.


Kirby Olson said...

Lee, the question I guess would be "whose accuracy"? in relation to the Magee poem. Now he claims he doesn't use these words in his own voice, but that they are found off the internet. This is Flarf.

Do the words and phrases accurately represent somebody's thinking?

Are they permitted to accurately represent their thinking?

Pam says yes. You say yes.

Everybody seems to say yes.

But now you imply that isn't accurate. It may not be accurate in terms of the people who have been represented. Perhaps they would like to be represented in the way in which they see themselves.

But is someone else allowed to represent them the way that they subjectively perceive them?

I think that the first amendment says that this is permitted.

The question of whose accuracy is then to be the question.

I haven't been to Cambodia, but I've read several books on the Killing Fields and on Mao's Cultural Revolution. While not strictly linked there were diplomatic ties, and the link could be established through the French avant-garde (Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, the Tel Quel group who visited Mao's China -- sollers actually translated Mao's poetry into French, that this is the strongest influence on contemporary American academic political thought -- SdB's book on Mao, Kristeva's book called Chinese Women, -- it establishes a very strong nexus that continues to prevail even though many of the principles that started the movement are now superannuated or dead, and virtually no one would stand up and say that Mao's Cultural Revolution was a good thing.

It goes without saying nevertheless that today we are all Maoists in one way or another.

Even if we are not yet to the degree of the Killing Fields it's the same style of thinking.

If we can correct the culture, we can correct the society. That was the thinking.

But it came at the price of freedom.

And freedom to write even our most violent and wobbly thoughts or to depict them as we like is what I think Flarf stands for, as do I, and I think pretty much everybody else here is in agreement.

Even you, right?

So perhaps a new post-Maoist phase is beginning where we are returning to Madison and to the principles outlined in the Bill of Rights.

Is that happening?

That's why I'm here. I'm trying to find out.

Many people seem to be fatigued with the Maoist moment.

But no one seems fatigued with the Madison moment. So it appears that the flag is still there.

pam said...

Kirby, I've got no interest in writing such a poem.

If what you're concerned about is reverse racism getting a free pass in the name of "evening the score," I absolutely agree with you. Ultimately, I think responding to racism or anti-anti-racism with more racism is mega-counterproductive.

I want out of that cycle. I also want out of the cycle that I described earlier, where an unhappiness with the harsher aspects of PC gets transferred into a belief that minorities and women are to blame. There has to be a way to critique the problematic aspects of PC without trashing the entire multicultural-awareness project, which I feel has been beneficial in many quantitative and qualitative ways.

For example, I can now walk through the streets of my hometown without the persistent fear of being harrassed, shouted at, pelted by empty soda cans, etc.

If you feel like you've only been hurt by PC and all of its effects have been deleterious, you have a right to voice that perspective. But somehow I suspect your views are not that extreme.

There has to be a way to talk about these things without reactivating entrenched, polarized positions that only promote more impasse. That's why I've only been responding to those points in your posts where I can sense some common ground. I see that Lee has posted a thorough response to some of your other points.

But I'm coming up to my exit door now, where I see a pile of neglected DVDs (comedies mostly) waiting for me...

Kirby Olson said...

Oh, and one other link that I musn't forget: Pol Pot studied in Paris at the time all those ideas were being fomented.

He was a very good student apparently, and he took the ideas he had learned to their logical conclusion. Or so that's the way I've always read the Pol Pot story.

Is it accurate?

At least I'm trying to represent accurately the links I've traced.

I had help from a book in French called Maoisme et Feminisme a travers Tel quel, Esprit, et ... by someone named Ieme van der Poele. I can't seem to locate the actual person existing under this name.

Lovely book! All of Tel quel was inspired by Mao! Tel quel: Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Sollers, Barthes, etc.

You could also watch the street scenes in the great film Madame Butterfly. The street scenes in
Paris. The French youth were mad for Mao! Tel quel's Sollers actually wore a Mao uniform and learned Chinese to translate Mao's "poems".

pam said...
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Kirby Olson said...

Oh, one last thing: I don't think anybody thinks it's a good poem.

That is, yes, it's about topical subject of political correctness.

Yes, yes, he's allowed to do it.

But I don't think anybody has argued that it is a good poem.

I won't remember it, as I would remember Frost, or Basho, or Soupault.

It doesn't have any lyrical quality. No beauty.

It's ugly.

But it's smart in making us think about what counts in poetry and why politics perhaps is a boring subject. But we haven't really talked about it aesthetically.

We all agree that it has THE RIGHT to exist.

But I don't think it will have any half-life, at least not in my imagination. I never think about it except when I am arguing about whether or not it has the right to exist. Now that we seem to all agree that it does, I think we also all agree that it's ultimately as boring as the Maoist cultural revolution in itself, and just about as wrong-headed.

Lee Herrick said...

I agree with you here often, Kirby. I believe wholeheartedly in anyone's right to write what they want, as they want. And yes, I agree that we have the "freedom to write even our most violent and wobbly thoughts or to depict them as we like." I believe, however, that certain violences ought to be brought to light.

I think we share a lot of common ground on our views of the poem itself.

It would be interesting to discuss Cambodia further, but I suppose another time and/or place would be more appropos. Yes, he was a student of language and persuasion as most "leaders" of his stripe are. When he and the Khmer Rouge rolled through the city in tanks, they took people to the countryside and, no surprise, killed the intellectuals first. Loung Ung writes about this in her powerful memoir about life in and around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh during this time. Some estimates put the killings at approximately 25% of Cambodia's population. To correlate or draw a similar analogy to the U.S. would be difficult, because while it (political correctness) has ruffled some feathers and created some discomfort and definitely affected people's lives, it has come nowhere near such devastation (that would equal over 60 million Americans). At this point (although the clock seems to be ticking) we can still speak out against the government. Maybe that's what you're talking about...the seeds of a Maoist state. But I'm off topic...sorry.


radio said...

Congrats mike. Your poem hits hard. I wouldn't compare it to the Khmer Rouge, but that's a good thing.

Kirby Olson said...

Pam, I appreciate your constructive approach. I do think that PC has helped broaden awareness of the plight of minorities who have been stupidly harassed in the country. America is a mad experiment to mix the people of the world and to say, ok, now party. It mostly works except when it doesn't. But what's neatest is that it's our strength.

I will say that in some neighborhoods the reverse still isn't true: I can't walk through Harlem, for instance. I tried once and was politely told by an elderly black man that this wasn't my neighborhood and if I wanted to maintain my health I should get in a cab and go below 110th.

I never feel that way in the various Chinatowns.

I think it's ultimately bad for business in Harlem to allow such an attitude to prevail. Anger usually hurts the people who possess it.

Thanks to Lee for further broadening my awareness of the Cambodian moment under the Khmer Rouge. Who was the African philosopher Pot studied with in Paris? I cannot recall the man's name.

In terms of America -- and Michael Magee's poem -- it has raised interesting questions -- putting the first amendment on the line (we all agree on this), and yet at the same time, the merits of the poem, amount to a bit of fluff (flarf is farcical fluff perhaps in terms of its etymology?).

I can't get on here except once a day or so. The kids are always on playing games. So apologies if it looks like I was responding to Pam when I wasn't. I had posted a bunch of things when she had apparently posted simultaneously.

Enjoy the comedies!

There are principles to be taken from the whole conversation but it is too hot here to try to tackle or enunciate them. 90 degrees, and 80 percent humidity.

Best wishes.

Lee Herrick said...

I can't recall the African philospher's name.

But like you two, I am chilling out to hopefully beat the heat. It was scorching in Fresno this week.

Stay cool.

Kirby Olson said...

I wanted to try and announce a principle: the subjective I is the first criterion of a good poem.

Without it, it's very hard to either take the poet or the poem seriously unless the poet stands behind it as their creation.

I am not blaming Michael Magee or Flarf for this -- the principle of the I is a problem found throughout postmodernist thought, but esp. in the works of Foucault and Barthes. They want to trash this subjective I. Increasingly I think that that in itself is the problem with a lot of postmodern discourse, and with the internet itself that grew up in the midst of that -- and iwth all the monikers that have arisen almost as a masqued ball.

To get out of that Kafkaesque depiction, I think the I is necessary. I'll cite two sources: Reader's Digest, and the Dalai Lama.

In the august 2006 Reader's Digest there is a good article on how to spot a liar. "Liars tend to use fewer first person pronouns -- words like I, me, mine -- than truth tellers. It's as if they're putting psychological distance between themselves and their sories; they don't 'own' their message. 'The paperwork was sent yesterday,' is an example, as opposed to the direct and personal, 'I sent it yesterday.'"

I realize that few besides me will look at the Reader's Digest as a particularly exemplary vehicle for a new poetics, but I see in it a kind of common sense that is missing in most revolutionary quarters, and in all the nonses emanating frmo Paris.

The second authority would be the Dalai Lama. Perhaps he's somewhat more of an acceptable figure here. In Seattle in 1994 I visited the Kingdome when he was speaking and it was packed. Somehow I was unable to ask him if he had read French theory and if he had, what he thought of the disappearance of the subject. but the next day a friend of mine got into a small audience with him and asked, so I have this second-hand -- but it's good. After a long translation by his aides, he laughed, and said he was living in France, and that he had in fact read Foucault and other French theory.

He said there are four axioms to have a decent community:

1. The personal I exists --
2. Causality exists
3. Every living thing suffers
4. I am responsible for every living thing

My friend asked him to elaborate on the notion of the I and he said it was a fiction but without it the community would have no sense of responsibility.

At any rate, I think this is what is particularly difficult about the Magee poem. It denies the I, it denies causality, it denies pain, it denies responsibility for others. At the same time, through its very absence of these qualities I think it kind of brilliantly deconstructs itself, and asks us to remake the world of poetry from the ground up, and to try to build new principles.

I think there is just one more comment until 100. Perhaps it's time to stop, but I am wondering if anybody would agree with this principle that the subjective I, while a fiction in that it can't be located (like the soul) is nevertheless the leaven in the lump.

csperez said...

YES! i posted the 100th i get a free set of steak knifes?

i will argue that magee's poem does have a relatively stable, subjective I.

Kirby Olson said...

You have to give examples of a stable I in order to get the steak knives, plus you have to state what you mean by a stable I.

What I mean is an AUTHOR.

Magee said he IS NOT the author of most of the phrases in the poem. He found them on the net.

So you have to give examples of what you mean, I think, at least, so that we can see the evidence.

csperez said...

ah, you mean an AUTHOR. too bad AUTHOR is quite dead. sending flowers is always a nice "gesture." did i say stable I, i meant "subjective I", like you said.

there is a stable, subjective I in Magee's poem. the evidence is the poem itself!!! yes he didnt "write" most of the phrases from his own imagination, but that is such a romantic position anyways.

Kirby Olson said...

I believe in romance!

I don't see it in Magee's poem!

Poetry to me is romantic!

I still believe that beauty exists!

jesse said...

i guess that where i'm from it's safe to call something like that "a pile of shit," and leave it at that.

how do we feel about aesthetics, who's next?