- No Offense by Jia Tolentino in Jezebel
- The Unsettled by Jessa Crispin in The Outline (first person reportage/non-fiction)More than 230 million people live in a different country from the one in which they were born, far more than at any other time in history. We come up with different words for the same experience, based on whether these people are undesirable (brown, poor, Muslim) or desirable (white, upper-middle class, European). The undesirables are migrants or refugees, the desirables are expats or cosmopolitans.The difference is in the level of choice, whether the person is fleeing war or abject poverty, or simply boredom and Brooklyn. Western migrants are often portrayed as being desirable because they come with money, but they come with other baggage, too. If you place a large population of transient workers with a lot of disposable income in an urban area, that area will inevitably change…There is a difference between development and gentrification, as gentrification means the displacement of a local community by a more affluent outside demographic, rather than the influx of money to an already established community. There’s also a difference between gentrifying your own country or city and the kind of colonial gentrification that takes place in the global South. Here colonialism is remixed, with money replacing guns as the method and things like an idyllic, exotic setting and local labor replacing rubber and copper as the resources to be stripped….It’s not just Western money that is part of the colonial gentrification process, then, it is also the Western way of life.And while many of these cosmopolitans may say they travel in order to meet new people, experience new cultures, and have new experiences, studies have found that these new global elite tend only to encounter other global elites.But there has for centuries been tension between this rootless cosmopolitan class who resists traditional societal structures and the more firmly rooted. That tension is not only about morality, but often merely who is allowed to profit from the new world order….“[M]ost human beings,” he writes, “temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment.” He continues, “The worldwide dissemination of an individualist [Western] culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite,” in George Santayana’s words, “a ‘lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence.’”But it’s easy to talk about what the world can offer to the traveler. A more difficult and tricky question is how much the traveler takes without giving back to the world, and perhaps what he or she should be doing with that debt. What Roam and other facilities like it should remember is how easy they can make it for their clients to forget that debt even exists.
- An Interview with Jenny Zhang in Office Magazine
Because I shuttled between worlds, and specifically because I immigrated to the United States when I was a young kid, there’s been ways in which my body has become a site of critique; a site of conflict; a site of spectacle; a site to gawk at; a site to mock and to discuss without my consent. I find it impossible to not talk about the body.
…With double consciousness you also get to be a double agent. In these stories, I write a lot about being able to exist at the boundaries. I feel really lucky to be able to exist in several different worlds. I do wonder if other people who have marginal identities feel the same like why do I have to live in this body, or identity, that is so misunderstood and so little is known about it? I have to constantly translate, explain, announce myself. There’s that element of pity. In return, you get an imagination that’s really vast. You are able to care about something that doesn’t involve you. You are able to imagine a protagonist that might hate you, and actually wish violence upon you. You’re able to have insight into those stories in a way that I don’t think you can if you live in the world completely comfortably, without ever being required to accommodate others. I did want to celebrate that, and be really decadent about, that aspect of my imagination.
…There’s a unique kind of mythmaking with narratives. Girlhood is a story of desire; innocence; fall from innocence; being desired; being not desired; being desired by the wrong people; by dangerous people; by the right people; by excitingly dangerous people. There’s so much storytelling in girlhood. There’s so much revision in telling it. There will always be something special about fiction. So much of my girlhood was fictive. I lived in my mind. I made up the girl I thought I was. Whether that’s delusional or not, I really felt the happiest and safest in my fictional girlhood. I think the girls in these stories are the same way. There’s the story of their lives, and there’s the story that they’re telling.
- Interview with Ocean Vuong in Lit Hub
“It’s the biggest reward that I didn’t know one could get as a writer, to be translated. To struggle so much in your life crossing borders, whether they’re national borders or class borders or even community, spatial borders—that all of a sudden, here are your words in Italian, and in Spanish, or what have you—that’s the most surreal gift.”
Then there is the story of his name, which is so perfect as to seem to have ordained his future as a poet. Born Vinh Quoc, his mother renamed him Ocean after learning that it was a word whose referent joined the United States to Vietnam. “She actually thought it was just the Pacific,” Vuong adds, that “the Atlantic would be called something else.” By age three, he had been rechristened, and his mother was calling him Sóng, the Vietnamese word for “wave,” and a near-perfect homonym for sống, which means “to live.” “I love that so much,” Vuong says. “Her translation, it’s a little off, right? It was just perfect.” Later, she offered to let him give up his name—unsurprisingly, it was made fun of by his schoolmates—but Vuong decided to keep it. “What happened there was that she found pleasure in discovery and relating language to meaning. I just thought, well, she’s proud of herself. And it’s a rare moment for someone like my mother to be proud.”Throughout his life Vuong has watched people regard his mother as unintelligent because of her illiteracy. This has made the interaction between the written word and its absence “vital” to his work. It informs his fondness for the ampersand, because it functions as a pictorial. It even overpowered his leeriness about the idea of including an author photograph in the back of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, because that way his mother could show it to the customers at the nail salon where she works. But he also rejects the impulse to turn his background into an “exotic story.” His family’s experiences of war and immigration and Vuong’s own growing up poor and queer were, to him, normal—not only for himself but for the other immigrant communities in Hartford, “the Haitians, the Puerto Ricans, and Armenians.”When Vuong entered the literary world, his life suddenly acquired a “rarefied” aspect, “this social capital of scarcity.” But he regards that as “part of the unchecked elitism of the literary world,” where those who can enter are often middle class and so middle class narratives proliferate. “The fact of the matter is that displacement, immigration and war are some of the most common factors of human history, so I always insist with a little mischievousness that I’m writing something very normal, very common. In fact, perhaps the middle class story is the exotic, is the rare, privileged gem that very few people get to experience.”Vuong’s poetry is energetically recombinant of all the forms, questions, and events—public and private, past and present—that have forged him. Night Sky is a writing into being, the production of a personal mythology from the brink of disappearance.But if the collection exhibits a rough chronology, from origins that precede existence to young adulthood and tentative, then assured explorations of queer sexuality, it is not to suggest that time is either tight or linear. Vuong’s point is precisely that war does not end simply because forces withdraw and the dead are buried. It persists in memory, in PTSD, even in inheritance.” Every attempt to speak is also a grieving of the voice that never arrived.”In a 2013 interview, he described being plagued when writing poetry by the question: “Could I be doing something better with these hands?” In the “macro sense,” he says, he no longer has this question, in that poetry has become “a career, a life . . . I teach, I have a salary,” a kind of solidification for which he is grateful. “You know, this is it. In a way this is all I got.”
It is true, however, that the “act of writing is always haunted by what I know my family does to live. When I give a reading and I get a check . . . I look at that and sometimes it’s their week’s work, it’s their month’s work. And that never goes away, this awareness that the value of work is still so elusive and abstract to me.” It is, he says, “a haunting and grinding effect. But, again, I gave myself permission to go forward because now as opposed to before I’m committed to this. There’s no turning back.”
For myself, optimism is not the sort of blinding, delusional, hope for the best, pull yourself up from the bootstraps and go for it—that very manifest destiny, machismo American spirit.” For him, it “has to be grounded on actual possibilities. When I think about what it means to be an optimist, I think about the work that can happen and the bonds that can happen when I commit to this work…I didn’t know I could be a writer and publish. It took optimism, optimism grounded in compassion, grounded in service.”
Vuong admits that some days he does “feel hopeless,” but that he is “smart enough now” to know he has to wait out, because acting on hopelessness only leads to self-destruction. “I think that no matter how difficult it is we have a choice of what we hold for ourselves,” he says, an approach that for Vuong lends itself to the day-to-day as well as it does to one’s approach to “the complicated, violent Western canon”. “What does it mean when we talk about peace, when we talk about the safety of black bodies, of POC bodies, of trans bodies? When we celebrate our country with the spectacle of destruction, what does it mean?”
- In Australia by Timmah Ball in Westerly Magazine
- Worlds within Worlds by Cher Tan in Kill Your Darlings
Niche communities were found and formed, introducing networks to the outside world. Within these, I discovered the early do-it-yourself and feminist publishing movements, tumbling down a rabbit hole of history and theory I otherwise would not have had access to.What was this thing called a zine and what sort of possibilities did it open?For the uninitiated, a zine is a labour of love – a self-published collection of words and images carefully put together. There are no hard and fast rules. Zines are not only just typewritten, photocopied and stapled manifestos of personal affect, art and theory; they’re screenprinted, the size of your palm, an A0 piece of board folded into ten. They contain linocut prints, glossy pages and letterset type. They are fancy and peculiar and stylised and wonderful….
My introduction to zines in the early 2000s gave me the language to carve a reality outside the ones that were most readily accessible… Of course, youthful idealism is the same story told countless times, but nonetheless the mantra felt like this: within this world, another world was possible.In theory, the internet should have killed off interest in zines completely. In our age of late capitalism, where attention has gradually become an economy in itself, who has the time to savour earnest, carefully-crafted paper missives? The web, after all, is right there, redolent with snark. ‘Content’ in this instance becomes a double entendre, a non-stop stream of affect that results in an unfillable vortex of need: the need to always be entertained, the need to always be on the lookout for new ideas, the need to always work. We’re tired, but we can’t stop scrolling. The internet in 2017 is a beast that never seems to sleep – amidst the clutter it can feel like a struggle for ideas to stand out and sink in, making it difficult to properly process the range of perspectives offered.But it is perhaps these conditions that have allowed zine culture to continue to poke its head out, leading to resurgence after resurgence. Zines never truly went away – there have been times where it seemed like they were only relegated to the smallest corners, a secret only the committed and fanatical were privy to. But then something shifted: a rapid grasp for nostalgia, a renewed appreciation for DIY objets d’art and a new deluge of zines that continue to stretch what its definitions can entail.
Explaining that one is more likely to return to a good zine than a good blog post, her personal goal with zines is to make available content that ‘makes people feel less alone in their identity,’ and ‘educates other people about what it’s like to have that identity.’
Unlike periodicals and literary journals, zines exist in a liminal space between traditional and new media where there are no gatekeepers; zine-makers answer to no-one but themselves. There are no limits as to what one can possibly dream up, no endgame in which one aspires towards profit. As a result, zines have always been kept affordable, their aesthetic varied, and their content inexhaustible. And as the internet shifts further and further away from its decentralised beginnings, zines can feel like a respite against the curated Instagram feed and promotional Facebook post. With zines, platforms are created to suit the work, not the other way around.
To many participants of zine culture, zines can feel like a necessary pushback against cultural norms which can sometimes dictate or impose how certain identities are received. Every zinester I spoke to described the liberation of setting their own terms – unlike online media, there is no comments or analytics, no second-guessing whether your output will garner enough likes or follows, thus influencing the sincerity of your work. The care and intentionality behind zine-making also often coalesces in real-life engagement that can feel less fleeting. Once a zine is out in the world, there is no turning back.
- How Is the Artist or Writer to Function (Survive & Produce) in the Community, Outside of Institutions? by Sesshu Foster in Poetry Foundation
one of the beautiful things about art or writing can be that it comes from you, represents you in the crowd, bears your handprint, it tells your story, it’s personal in the indifferent universe, it’s fun in such grim times, the hopeful thing that is your own gift to give. when you survive as an artist or writer, you will produce art and writing that will help you to survive.so:
- meet the artists and writers of your community. talk to your elders. tell them why their work has been important to you. to do that, you must find out why their work is important to you. who are your predecessors? find out how they did it. ask them how it went for them.
- meet the people in your community. talk to the elders. find out how they have used intelligence and creativity to survive as human beings, which is to say, how did they survive creatively, intellectually? you want to survive as a human being, with creativity and intelligence.
- which is also to say, how do artists and writers relate to and depend on people in the community? how do artists and writers relate to the tamale lady, community activists, labor organizers, busybodies, gossipers, to the executive secretary-treasurer of the los angeles county federation of labor, afl-cio, to homeless people, to the store clerk (to the video store clerk who wants to be a poet, and his co-worker, the video store clerk who wants to be a sculptor), to ghosts, to secret and forgotten individuals of the past, to kids (who in a few years will be completely different people)? how do artists and writers relate to members of informal underground organizations, gangs, to businesses, to soccer coaches in the city parks and teachers at the nearby school, to the retiree who grew up around here before there were houses, who used to teach judo in boyle heights and whose sister is a well-known artist, now he has alzheimer’s? many of these people know the secrets of survival and how to create community. their survival and their triumphs show that. the life of the community shows that, vibrating on those frequencies. in short, i suggest that you must develop community, you must create for yourself community, beyond just a “support network.” recently, in the typical superficial style of l.a. magazine, like all such booster magazines devoted to only the glossiest, most superficial view of the city, a former l.a. times writer, scott timberg, wrote an essay called “leaving los angeles,” in which he mourns the cumulative effects of reagonomics and the destruction of the “middle class” in l.a., and particularly, his own deteriorated status. “as much as i like los angeles,” timberg writes, “which has been ‘home’ longer than my maryland hometown was—i’m no longer willing to be a third-class citizen here.”(i say that america has always treated its artists and writers as third-class citizens.)perhaps you, like timberg, grew up believing that you could move to any community anywhere and due to your education, your whiteness, your privilege, you could engage in a “middle class” life (where every activity is a business transaction allowed by your money and monetized skills, neatly performed within the snappy ideologies of capitalism) and generally not have to consider the struggles of people in your community—and specifically, the struggles of people who made the community more liveable for everyone, labor organizers, unions, community activists, peace activists, public service workers, intellectuals, artists and writers who came before you (from maryland or wherever). but those things that were good, those people who were good, who greeted you when you showed up, they worked for all that.
…you, young artist, young writer. go anywhere you like. but know that a community was there before you—this land was not a magically unpeopled wilderness to be colonized but a place of history, secrets, struggles, heroes and issues. what made it a community was not magic, but labor. maybe if your labor and your work relates to them, if your aesthetic process is open to that community, your work will not be superfluous. your work might be useful. you may not have to suddenly flee, like a tourist from the off-season. as an artist or writer anywhere, you’ll need community to survive. your community-building not only helps you survive, it helps you produce.
this argues against the artist or writer as tourist, as parachute journalist. you can develop more organic sources.
- Is Writing a Way of Life? By Frank Moorehouse in Meanjin
For some of us the literary life also required the adoption of an attitude or relationship to the state, to politics and to ‘the bourgeois life’. We quoted Cyril Connolly’s book Enemies of Promise: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway’. A pram in the hallway: an enemy of the life of the arts, of a freewheeling life, free of the perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes of the property-owning, conformist classes…Literary authorship is characterised by a special orientation to or relationship with society—different from that of, say, social scientists, journalists or scholars, it is sometimes described as an internal exile (an expression taken from the condition of some writers in the former Soviet Union). This does not mean that a writer does not work within a society or occupation, or live within a family—although time out of these social and personal structures is often considered important; sometimes writers feel they need reclusion or retreat.
The American critic Lionel Trilling said that the primary function of literary writing, and all art, was ‘to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture … to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception …’ It can also (but not always) experiment with language, form and genre.
Hemingway, who more than most writers took an interest in the methodology of fiction writing, advised that one should try to write 1000 words a day. But Hemingway revised those 1000 words a day many times—10 to 20 times—so it took, say, 10 days to write 1000 finished words at least. And there is the question of momentum in writing a novel. It demands that once started you continue until you finish the day, exhausted with a big bourbon in your hand, capable of very little else. Even when someone like me has, theoretically, all their time to write, it takes me about five years to write a novel.
…I know people who have followed the artist’s oath of truth to their art, who have worked hard for many years, for a lifetime, but who have not achieved a readership or even publication. I spoke at the funeral last year of an academic anthropologist, Ian Beford, who neglected his academic career to spend years writing novels—his first was published by a mainstream publisher but the other novels were rejected and finally he self-published, the books never reviewed or distributed beyond his friends.
Literary writers who eschew sales as an ultimate validation live by the legends of those writers who were wrongly dismissed by critics, whose first book was rejected by 100 publishers, and cherish the belief that their talent will be recognised after death. It is also a characteristic of many literary writers to be ignorant of the economics of our vocation—some have a disdain for concerns with copyright, even publishing contracts or publicity.
I see literary authorship as the activity of writing that aspires to use and meet the intellect and the imagination at the highest level one can reach through a committed practice over a long period, usually a lifetime (although not necessarily as a full-time occupation—surveys show that about half of Australian writers do not wish to write full time), although the history of literature shows that the practice of serious writing can be begun at any time in life.
The Western literary tradition is concerned with artistry in communication, that is, the use of the power of language, its use with appropriateness, precision and beauty, in a compelling and entrancing way; it is audacious, it uses the tools of experience in its imaginative enquiry and, usually, it is not trammelled by the taboos of conventional society.
Stories for children, family histories, pornography, the detective novel, the romantic novel: all genres have produced great writing and the Australian Society of Authors includes many, many different types of writers. Yet when people talk of ‘writers’ these people are sometimes forgotten. We think only of the literary prize winners, the literary icons.
Publishers or serious literary writers sometimes talk about ‘the cook books and the gardening books and the how-to books’ in a humorous way. Some literary writers think these sorts of books exist only to make profits to subsidise the more serious writers, but they tell us how to make and design our lives, to travel well, to cook creatively, to garden creatively, to design our homes aesthetically, to raise children, to weave, to sew, to knit; all of which goes to make up the texture not only of the good and civilised life, but also of cultural variety and richness.
These books, these writers, are part of a great change in the contemporary Australian ways of pleasure and fulfilment—they help form the growing art of connoisseurship, by which I mean a sensual quest and an ongoing curiosity towards the world of experience. They also form the subsoil of literary writing: they are used by other writers as reference books—it takes many books to make
There are some things all writers confront. In the last 20 years there has been an increase in the size of marketing and publicity departments of the larger publishers but it has always been a part of publishing and the publicists and sales representatives are vital pivots in moving ‘the chain of conviction’—that is, the belief in the book in the publishing house—to the outside world of media, bookshops and, ultimately, to readers.
At any given time there is a loose grouping considered to be ‘the important contemporary writers’—this group evolves from reviews, literary commentary, public discussion, conversation among readers, and from academic discourse—criticism, teaching. Above all, writers among themselves evaluate other writers, often somewhat perversely.
Among those who do this grouping, there is always a jostling for the right to anoint a new writer or to position writers in an ever-changing hierarchy—for control of the authority to make writers. For example, conservatives try to co-opt the ‘literary tradition’ and the left has its own pantheon—the desire to establish a canon. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes there is consensus, at least for decades or more. Political influences, ideological fashions, censorship, media crazes and publishing cults are part of this jostling, but it goes on in a self-correcting, critical way, and at its core has
Never before perhaps has there been so much evaluation of books—not only in traditional media, but especially on the internet—there are always people who assume the authority to compile lists of the ‘best books/authors’ of the culture, the century, the decade, the year.
The objective in all writing is to connect with an authentic readership (this may not happen quickly). Another characteristic of the literary author is the influence of the work on other writers and on other art forms because the literary author is sometimes working at the innovative edge either in thought or form and has a degree of originality either in form or coming from the personality of the author expressed through unusual style. How-ever, some important writers work within the recognisable conventions of form and genre.
Most writers set out to be Shakespeare—or Rowling—and then as our books are published and people react and the books are critically assessed, we find where we fall within the ever-changing, multifaceted branches of literary reputation and income.
Ultimately writers and readers accept that in writing there are many different categories of ‘success’. Some of these categories sound better in French: succès d’estime(reviews, scholarly interest); succès de commerce (sales); succès de scandale; succès de culte. Others include: to be named as a leading regional writer; ‘best of her generation’; best gay, best Greek-Australian; ‘our most interesting young writer’; best ‘emerging writer’; one of our ‘eminent’ writers; a ‘much loved’ writer; and as a serious writer with a small but devoted readership. There is nothing we can do to determine how we are evaluated at any given time.
It is a bona-fide, continuous, affined readership (not necessarily a large one) that the literary tradition seeks. And of course, some books remain as a valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on, over a lifetime or longer, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral bestsellers of the day (although not all bestsellers are ephemeral and some are considered literary). As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, ‘Fit audience find, though few.’ But how few?
I tell student writers that the literary writer has four ever-ongoing negotiations in their life by which they gain the privilege of a literary vocation, that is, the privilege to write what they want to write, in a way they wish to write it, and to spend most of their time doing it at their own pace.
These negotiations are with the public sector, which includes the Australia Council, universities and other funding bodies; with the commercial sector—publishers, magazines, film and other media; with private patrons—people who believe in your work (friends also become patrons); and finally, in your personal relationships—with partner, family, for income, time, space and negotiated absence, and for the resources to write. Relationship partners are the most important patrons of the arts in Australia and this is not always a just imposition, especially if your partner is also in the arts.
… The young literary author (and even mature authors) setting out to write seriously, makes no attempt to calculate the return on the work. The book is begun without much idea of how long it is going to take or how much it will ‘cost’ to create in accounting terms, let alone in terms of life—in blood, sweat and tears. As Hemingway said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
This is not wholly a romantic attitude. It is not possible for even an experienced publisher to clearly predict what a book will earn in the life of an author and least of all, in the life of the book (books go on earning for 70 years after the death of the writer). For the publisher it is a continuously speculative venture. For the writer too it is, unconsciously, also a speculative investment—often of their life.
By gift economy I mean the traditional, almost pre-economic recognition of the work of writers, which is distinct from the market-place transaction and is expressed through private and public patronage, prizes, fellowships and residencies. The term itself and the formulaic expression of the gift economy are adapted from anthropological studies of gift economies first described by the French scholar Marcel Mauss in 1924 and elaborated on in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1976).
Mauss describes the gift economy as ‘the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, the obligation to reciprocate’. It is an economic, moral, aesthetic and mythological custom existing in many societies.
…More needs to be done to define the economy of writing—to make the real economy of the book visible by measuring and compensating for the hidden or social use of the book. I use the term ‘social use’ to describe the wider value of the book in the daily life of a society beyond the first reading by the original buyer of the book. I sometimes think we should measure a writer’s merit by the number of times they or their books come up in a) conversation, b) in people’s thoughts and c) in people’s dreams. This is fantasy, but shows the very special nature of the book in the life of the society.
The book is important because so much of the activity of the world and the other arts depends upon the book for knowledge and ideas, for the exploration of intricacy, and we depend upon the telling of stories for our personal growth through imaginative delight, enquiry and engagement and for our stability as a person and as a society.
…Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.
—Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny
Literature is not a closed, self-reinforcing loop. It seeps through the society, as nutrients seep through the soil to nourish plants. In the community at large, while some books may not be widely read, they represent a secondary influence on the shaping of the society through reticulation by opinion leaders (with books, all enthusiastic readers are opinion leaders)—good books with small sales can bring about changes in our perceptions of reality: they deeply influence those people who come to influence us—public figures, journalists, commentators, comedians, teachers, mentors, friends, a stray remark by a stranger on a bus.
Western societies have believed for centuries that it is healthy—even necessary—for the culture to have a band of writers unattached to institutions, independent of the control of the state, and able to command resources to do their work. Connected with this idea of a band of independent writers is the nineteenth-century notion of art for art’s sake. Perhaps art for art’s sake is the imaginative equivalent of pure science, that is, to follow enquiry wherever it may lead. So with the notion of writing as a way of life, to write whatever it is the spirit dictates and for a writer to commit one’s life to it.
Serious fiction entertains the intelligence through storytelling and is concerned with the drama of ideas, the drama of philosophy and history and, centrally, the drama of the personality, the drama of the species. Literary authorship draws on intellectual research as well as personal observation as a source and as a testing of the beliefs of the author and of prevailing beliefs and ideologies of the society, untrammelled by other authority systems—to be untamed, to live by its own ethical system.
- Speak No Evil Forum Response: “MFA vs. POC” (Jennifer Hayashida)In one of the poems I continuously return to as a writer and translator, “Ing Grish,” John Yau writes, “The authority on poetry announced that I discovered that I was Chinese / when it was to my advantage to do so.” John was my teacher in graduate school, and to this day I feel like I owe him—what, I don’t know—for teaching me that experimental forms can be some of the best containers for writing about identity and experience, that the subject of race—and racialization in particular—makes fine fodder for an experimental, non-narrative…An arts education for people of color would teach you to never take form for granted, to not succumb to the gravitational pull of linear narrative when the catastrophic experiment of race is anything but linear, narrative, figurative, or lyrical. If there ever was a form suited to the fucked-up experience of living in a racially and socioeconomically stratified “first world” nation, it would be an experimental poem, the non-narrative found footage film, the silent sound piece. Although “experimental” cannot, and should never, be reduced to the singular.
…An arts education for people of color would stress the possibilities of taking the “whole fragment” (a concept articulated by another teacher, Ann Lauterbach) as a sharp instrument for writing about race and identity, and writing about it better. In another context, responding to what she thinks is “American About American Form,” Lauterbach also writes about the experimental not as an aversion to form, but as “an aversion to conformity.” And here is where I feel an opening to say that experimental poetry, poetry that refuses to conform, is the perfect vessel to show (and tell) identity, and here, race in particular.
…I am not drawn to narrative order or lyrical beauty made out of the chaos that I see in U.S. histories of empire, racism, sexism, and subjugation of people of color, the poor, queers, and all the rest of us mutts. As I see it, violence and oppression frequently arise out of fictions of order—contrived systems of imagining the value of self and other—so I feel nothing but mistrust for art that somehow attempts to organize the chaos of racialized experience.
An arts education for people of color takes for granted that art is not just a lens on the world, but the world itself. Art is not dead, art is not ineffectual, art is not ahistorical or de-politicized or purely conceptual. And, if it truly is the world, art—here, poetry—needs to reflect the destruction wreaked upon the bodies and consciousnesses of people of color. Destruction, in my mind, cannot be constrained by grammar, poetic form, legibility, or aspirations to beauty. What happens in an experimental poem must do more than point to: instead, it must embody.
- Toward a Poetics of the Whole Fragment by Ann Lauterbach“…it is precisely out of the flaw or excess in an equation that meaning springs” Barbara Johnson “Disfiguring Poetic Language”
When you pick up a piece of old crockery in a second-hand shop, often there is a
white tag on which the price is written, along with the phrase “as is”. “As is”
the object, say it is a cup, has a flaw: a crack or a chip or some other anomaly
past use. If the object in question is a textile, say a slip or a sweater, “as is” indicates
or a stain. As is suggests the distance from perfection from which the object has
through the course of time, its fall from Platonic grace or virgin purity; “as is” is a
of “as if”, the way in which desire ineluctably turns into fulfillment or
in that turn, “something” is simultaneously lost and found. As has become
clear, and not to overstate the obvious, contemporary poetic practice negotiates this
terrain and its
recapitulating dualities — presence/absence, materiality/tranparency,
and so on, more insistently than any other current human activity.
The lost/found place of “as is” thus could be seen as a poetic methodology, through
might revise the modernist “fragment”. The poem now is rendered as an address
eschews totalizing concepts of origin, unity, closure and completion, and is
construed as a
series of flaws or openings through which both chance and change register a matrix
discontintiuous distributions, where contingency itself is offered as an affective
the “is” as is. Meaning is rendered as an unstable relation to objective and
subjective value. The reader/listener participates in the construction of significance
not by filling in the gaps and elisions, but by appropriating whatever fragment is
“useful” to her. The hope is that the relation between epistemology and power is
When President Clinton remarked “It depends on what the meaning of the word Is
unwittingly allowed us to witness the flaw between the reified “is” of
an imaginary but knowable present and the imperfect or furtive is of the actual as
is. Between the
first and the second “is” is —however inadvertent on the President’s part — an
acknowledgment of chronic interpretative vigilance which
the generation he and I (we) share came to understand as the only possible
negotiation with reality
and the ways in which language pictures or captures it.
For a while I have been interested in the notion of a whole fragment. This fragment
one in which one laments a lost whole, as in Stein, Eliot and Pound, but which
acknowledges the fact
of our unhandsome condition, where we suffer from having been being, and in that
acknowledgment foreground, or priviledge, what is: the abraided and indefinite
accumulation of an infinite dispersal of sums. In this construction, meaning abides
or arises exactly at the place where “use” appears, use here as both pragmatics
and as wear. It is my desire or intention to construct a poetics in which meaning is
within the terms of such a vagrant contingency.
The consolation of a distilled or stabilized “reality” is nothing if not an illusion of
syntax, where syntax stands for any logic of recognition. I share a love for this
a normalizing stability, but I recognize its habit of formulating, at the least impulse,
categorical imperatives which obscure and resist the actual conditions, posssibilties
complexities in which we find ourselves.
The world constellates significance out of habits of congruence, continuity, and
These signifiying terrains elude and evade my own sense of being on a flexible and
indeterminate boundary or frame, even ones which eschew frames and boundaries
to “celebrate” upwardly mobile margins.
I think world presses on language and language on world at every point, and by
world I mean material,
spiritual, political and cultural presence,
a continuous flux of is recouperated as is.
- WAYS OF WRITING, READING AND TRANSLATING: GENRE-CROSSING IN THE 21ST CENTURY by Ouyang Yu in Peril Magazine
- No dogs, no fruit, no firearms, no professors by Maria Tumarkin in Right Now
You take a dive. You start from scratch. You are at the bottom looking up. That’s what being a migrant is like for most people moving to the West. No one has asked you to come here. And no one here thinks you are fabulous, not straight off the bat anyway. That’s the experience. First-generation migrants everywhere, those lucky enough to get their noses into a professional set-up of any barely tolerable kind, take directions from superiors who have a fraction of their know-how. They bite their tongue, bide their time.
Socioeconomically it looks something like this: countries are not using the skills or expertise of many of their new citizens even as these same countries pledge half a kingdom and a horse to remain “competitive in the global marketplace”; the unemployed or underemployed migrants face a loss of livelihood, status, cultural cachet, skills (which get degraded through non-use), self-respect and authority; these losses, in turn, disfigure social relations and eat away at families and communities.
Here comes the madness bit: and in it lies another, quieter, sadness, and this one cannot be pinpointed socioeconomically. People come to a new country with deep knowledge of something – the human body, soul, music, machinery, history – and find there is no place for their knowledge and no thirst for it. The thing about knowledge is most people who have it have a fundamental need to use it. Also, to pass it on. Must be some kind of an evolutionary thing. When the knowledge remains trapped inside the person, unused, unrequired, unwanted, when it withers (no, I won’t say like a foetus) away, well, it’s a tragedy for the person and for the culture that let it die.
People sometimes attempt to define what kinds of rights migrants should automatically be afforded. The right to professional recognition and employment is always up there. But when does anyone ever talk about the right to contribute, to pass on knowledge, to use expertise in a meaningful, socially significant way?
To be clear, the people I speak to in this essay are not meant to represent migrants as a whole, or their respective communities, or some inter-ethnic intellectual underclass. Enough with this burden to represent! To be seen as individuals is also a fundamental right.
“An Asian scholar or intellectual in this country,” Ouyang says, “is only able to talk about certain kinds of things.” Ethnic things: racism, human rights (maybe), refugee policy. “Why,” – is what Ouyang Yu wants to know – “can’t we talk about literature, language, love, society, history?”
…Of course you and I (and Ouyang too, if he was that way inclined) can dig and strain and find examples of first-generation migrants who broke through. And you and I can paint, with words elegiac and rousing, portraits of these half-forgotten trailblazers. No, fuck it. The fact is that for the vast majority if you come from another place but do not identify yourself with it, and if you aspire to not be a professional Greek, Somali or Chinese but to be an intellectual, the owner of a non-ethno-specific voice that can take on politics, love, art, mortality, good and evil, the state of science or of the universities and do so in a critical, questioning, public way, well, mate, you’re dreaming. Migrant, for god’s sake, know thy place. Your children can, and will, do it, just not you.
It’s different for those who immigrate as children, teenagers – for the first generation that is not, quite, adult on arrival. They can absorb the new country’s ways through their breathable frog skin, adjust without breaking their brains. At least theoretically. I was 16 when we immigrated. And though for a long while I did feel like a mermaid coming ashore, every step a knife through muscle and bone, over time I’ve mutated enough for the pain to mellow. I have become a new kind of creature; most fully formed, mutation-resistant adults can’t do that. They are already fundamentally who they are.