“Who’s that over there?”: A Response to Communal Presence: New Narrative Writing Today
University of California, Berkeley, October 13–15, 2017
This is Miss Lang, Miss V. R. Lang, the Poet, or
The Poettess. Bynum, would you introduce
Someone else as, This is J.P. Hatchet
Who is a Roman Catholic? No. Then don’t do
That to me again. It’s not an employment,
Its a private religion. Who’s that over there?
—V. R. Lang, “Poems to Preserve the Years at Home”
Many of the events I attended during the conference Communal Presence: New Narrative Writing Today posed questions related to collectivity, to the kinds of collective subjects that experimental practices of writing can body forth. So we talked about name-dropping and common feelings, groupthink and juicy gossip, inclusion and exclusion, as we basked in the glow of luminaries such as Eileen Myles, Dennis Cooper, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Boone, Robert Glück, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy…. The list could go on. Despite the fact that we all wanted to insist on hybridity and experimentality, the distinction between “artist” and “academic” would often make itself felt in and around the panels and presentations that we were attending mostly in UC Berkeley classrooms. Michael Amnasan pointed out the way standard academic practices can create a feeling of belonging to the only world that really matters, ultimately leading to a sense of “us” and “them.” Fair enough. But what about the artistic coterie, I grumpily wondered. I heard one poet say resignedly to another, “Alright, let’s go listen to our lives get historicized.” En route to a campus coffee shop, I heard another famous poet taking a phone call, explaining that it was “an academic conference,” which unfortunately required “thinking” and “listening.” I’m an academic and I’m exhausted too, I wanted to say, let’s go have a drink instead. On other occasions there were apologies for papers that were felt to adhere too closely to academic conventions. We were ambivalently bringing together the ivory tower and the avant-garde in the apocalyptic haze of the smoke from the wildfires wreaking havoc nearby.
I tried for the first time to embrace risk as some of the artists in the audience had been doing for decades, adding some theatrically performative elements to an otherwise straightforward academic paper on the artistic impersonations of Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus. (Of course, my efforts were on a much, much smaller scale.) I found myself constitutionally ill-equipped for such vulnerability and after the panel quickly retreated to the safety of my own conference in-group, anchored by Hannah Manshel and Jean-Thomas Tremblay. The affective resources required by experimental or hybrid practice led to a reentrenchment of “us” versus “them.” This was my experience, in any case. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.
Later the same day the question of hybrid cultural practice and coterie reemerged as Jean-Thomas and I prepared to participate in a presentation of Poets Theater pieces. Along with Laurie Reid, Ismail Muhammad, Suzanne Stein, and Karla Milosevich, we joined Kevin Killian in a reading of The American Objectivists, cowritten by Killian and Brian Kim Stefans. After passing around a preshow flask of whiskey, we were a motley bunch of new and old friends playing legendary acquaintances. I read the part of V. R. “Bunny” Lang, written by Killian and Stefans as a comedic figure whose attention is divided between John Ashbery (Tremblay), George Oppen (Muhammad), and Lang’s no-show drug dealer Jeeper. I did my best to drape myself on Jean-Thomas/John Ashbery although really I have never been good at draping myself on anyone or anything with fewer than three drinks in my system—I’m a repressed academic, after all. I could see Eileen Myles looking out at us (impassively?) from the audience.
Good thing amateurism is part of the point of Poets Theater, as I understand it: its generic hybridity and embrace of the unrefined and unrehearsed puts pressure on the well-sedimented categories of “artist” and “audience.” This erosion of boundaries makes Poets Theater a somewhat horizontal social space that might allow for “the community to take its own temperature,” as David Brazil and Killian put it in their introduction to The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater. Sometimes, they point out, such self-reflection also creates an enduring work of art inextricably bound to the social context that produced it. In other words, it creates the possibility of an artwork that lives or dies according to the values of the counterpublic, and not those of the mainstream.
The historical V. R. Lang may or may not have ever known someone called Jeeper. Her legacy has largely been overshadowed by that of her more famous intimates like Frank O’Hara. However, she can be credited as the founder of the Poets’ Theater at Cambridge in the early 1950s. As biographer Alison Lurie explains, “Bunny was involved in every Poets’ Theater show, as actress, director, writer, designer, and producer.” Lang attended the University of Chicago and was once editor of Chicago Review. Lang presided over the journal at a time in the late 1940s when a shortage of funds forced it to switch from a pamphlet to a tabloid format, but she nevertheless managed to use the journal—and a new reading series aligned with it—to connect the University of Chicago to the main lines of avant-garde literature in the US and Europe. She once invited Anaïs Nin to give a reading at the university on what turned out to be a very snowy evening in 1949. Nin would remember the event for the party that followed, given in her honor; she stood in the snow and watched the festivities through the window of an apartment she couldn’t find a way into. Lang’s experience at Chicago apparently left her with little appreciation for academia. Lurie reports that when the Harvard faculty began to finally show some sustained interest in Lang’s Cambridge scene, she responded with “spitefulness”:
I always dreaded the moment this would happen and I always knew it would come. Professors, by definition, always have a play in their bureau drawer… We were not GOOD ENOUGH TO DO THEIR PLAYS. Now everything is changed. If we don’t do them, they will tell their classes and all of their influential friends that we are capricious and undergraduate and Not Serious. If we do them, we will all die of boredom. (Lurie, 15)
As I’ve learned, the Cambridge iteration of Poets Theater that Lang was such a significant part of would inspire generations of New Narrative writers to embrace the theatrically performative, and their bold experiments, in turn, would inspire new modes of academic engagement. And yet, even as we explore the new creative universe that Lang and her cohort helped to open up, we see categories like “artist” and “academic” chafing against each other as they are forced into proximity. Am I/Carmen/Bunny part of the community taking its own temperature, or am I rather inhibiting the development of new standards of aesthetic success with my institutionalizing presence? Maybe I should stop throwing myself at John Ashbery and sit down in the audience. Or, might the enduring friction, the resistance, between the academic and the artistic, yet generate some real heat?
Ernesto de Martino and the Drama of Presence
Who remembers the “people without history”? This epithet encapsulates Europe’s ambiguous relation to its own version of modernity. On the one hand, it has long been deployed as an explanation of European superiority and a justification for colonization. At the same time, the words were frequently uttered with a touch of nostalgia, a longing for the simplicity of “happy isles” where Time stood still. As the pace of life in Western Europe seemed to accelerate exponentially and anti-imperialist movements gathered steam, the pressure to resolve this contradiction became evermore intense. Modern anthropology was one response to this pressure. So was Fascism. 1922: Bronisław Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s Primitive Mentality hit the bookshelves and the Blackshirts marched on Rome. 1925: Marcel Mauss published The Gift, a groundbreaking investigation into the meaning of “total social facts.” In March of that same year Giovanni Gentile referred to Fascism as a “total conception of life,” and within a few months Il Duce was speaking of the “totalitarian” State. To sound the absence of serious diachronic analysis in European discourses about “the Other,” we have to learn how to think through these synchronies.
The beginning and the end of the American poet Anne Boyer’s “Questions for Poets,” first published online on May Day 2014, are as follows:
What is the direct trial that is today? Is it to end the 20th century or end the 21st century or to end all centuries? Is it the trial of survival? Is it austerity? Is it surveillance? Is it the terrorist-romantic relation? Is it the wage relation? Is it the unwaged relation? Is it the furnace of affliction? Is it the womb of fire? Is it the grim work of mimesis, the paralysis of speculation, the soft disappointment of prefiguration? Is it culture, capital, borders? It is how to collapse a structure that will fall on our heads?
For in what other day can we issue forth no answers, but only a set of questions? And by which rhythm can the questions ensue? Should they charm, or bore, or test, or enrage, or captivate? Should they aggress with their own insistence and against custom and with the repeating that is a question we can ask with our bodies? Is the trial of the poet that is today an arena in which we perform only in fidelity to the tradition of what is unanswerable? And how in this shall we in the arena of today make the new arenas, who must always stare in the eyes of the police?
Boyer’s text, composed entirely of such questions, begins by tapping a line from Walt Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass—“The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today”—and draws heavily throughout on the swathes of erotetic urgency that characterize Whitman’s vision of the citizen-poet and his task.
In Memoriam Juan Carlos Flores
The tragic loss came in 2016. Stop-motion images of death compete unnaturally with his poetics: his poems swivel, cycle, gesticulate, perform.
After death the poems hold their ground in an aesthetic awareness of home, one marked with speciﬁcs of life in Cuba, where Juan Carlos Flores lived in a public housing community that rose out of the ground in a way that could only have happened in certain decades following the 1959 Revolution.
But his poems still move. Readers of international poetry will recognize homes that Flores built in other sorts of space, the kinds of homes he shares with Pierre Reverdy, René Char, Paul Klee, John Cage, and an array of other writers, artists, and musicians who elicited his admiration.
Flores dedicated his major poetic trilogy to Alamar, his town on the eastern outskirts of Havana. Its ﬁrst volume is titled Distintos modos de cavar un túnel (Different Ways to Dig a Tunnel) (2003), the second El contragolpe (y otros poemas horizontales) (The Counterpunch [and Other Horizontal Poems]) (2009). The third and ﬁnal volume is unpublished and its fate is unclear, but parts were circulated by Flores before his death.
It was not his birthplace that mattered in the poetry so much as the community that became his childhood home—and years later the location of his now-storied death. On October 29, 1962, Flores was born in Mantilla, located south of Havana where the city met the country. His earliest memories were of living in a one-room house with his parents, two brothers, and a sister. When he was around nine years old, his father joined an amateur micro-brigade unit dedicated to the construction of a new “self-help ” housing community in Alamar. Located in eastern Havana, Alamar gradually ﬁlled with identical apartment buildings. They provided housing for underprivileged and displaced peoples, including many impoverished Cubans, as well as refugees and migrants from other nations. After eleven months of construction work in Alamar, Flores’ s father earned an apartment for his family in Alamar’ s Zone 4, overlooking the ocean and the nearby town of Cojimar.
Over the course of his adulthood Flores survived periods of transience and addiction, anchoring himself anew during periods of stability. Two of the apartments most important to him as an adult and a mature poet were also located in Alamar. The ﬁrst was the ﬂoor where he lived for years with his partner Mayra López, composing handwritten drafts of poetry in the company of their dog, Luna.
The other was his ﬁnal home, an apartment in Alamar’ s Zone 6 where he lived alone. On September 14, 2016, he hanged himself in a bright blue shirt, in full view of the neighborhood, on his balcony. The imagery of his death is overpowering. Flores had barricaded the door, so it took hours for anyone to get inside to take his body down. As he hung above the community, his death was discussed and reported in graphic terms, which rapidly made their way onto the Internet. Onlookers took photographs on phones.
In the face of that event it is all the more important to say that, in Alamar and in cultural circles around Havana, Flores remains a subject of admiration for his brilliant poetic accomplishments in performance and on the page. He is remembered as an intense thinker. Testimonials from friends acknowledge his sometimes challenging personality; people who didn’ t really know him admit they sometimes found his intensity unsettling. Flores is also remembered as a survivor of family violence. One of his brothers killed their father in the family’s original Zone 4 apartment. After release from jail two decades later, that brother killed himself in the similarly ill-fated Zone 6 family apartment.
Flores is remembered as someone who suffered illness throughout his adult life, passing through better and worse periods, a part of his story now magniﬁed due to the manner of his death. Flores had been diagnosed with schizophrenia many years earlier. But, more speciﬁcally, in his ﬁnal months he alternated between his tremendous, characteristic lucidity and powerful hallucinations, which hounded him until he could no longer tolerate his fear. By then he was living in Zone 6 and told his friend and fellow poet, Amaury Pacheco, that his dead brother would come to him in the night and goad him to hang himself.
On the morning of his death, a Wednesday, Flores told a disbelieving neighbor that he was going to pick up some ﬁnal cigarettes and then would hang himself after his morning smoke. That is exactly what he did.
In recent years Flores had shown poems from the manuscript intended to close his trilogy, Trapiche, to various people. Poet Reina María Rodríguez had hoped for its ﬁrst publication with her little press, Torre de Letras. But as his symptoms worsened, he withdrew the book. By the time of his death, Flores had broken with his family and caused confusion by describing his invalid mother as already deceased. He distanced himself from all but two friends living nearby.
It now appears that Flores destroyed a great deal of his work, probably over the course of months. He also destroyed copies of his papers that López had collected and left with him in hopes of starting an archive of his work. However, people have expressed determination to recover what they can from the materials Flores gave them in better times, items saved in their own collections.
Looking at his books that did see publication, it is time to call attention to the quality of Flores’ s poetic legacy. I write this reﬂection having translated Flores’ s collection The Counterpunch (and Other Horizontal Poems) into English. In some ways I selected Flores and this book, having heard testimonials for years that convinced me to work around the difﬁculties attending his truly marginalized existence. But I again highlight his lucidity, the deliberate way in which Flores made choices about his poetry. In this sense he picked me, and I cannot quite believe my luck, for there is no one writing poetry like Flores, swiveling between local and international touchpoints. I will never have the privilege to work with a writer “like ” him again: iconoclastic, insistent to the point of becoming overbearing, and yet routinely warm and appreciative, too—a great collaborator for me during our work together. Flores was intuitive in the most human and aesthetic of ways. These qualities were palpable in the poetry he left behind.
As a writer, Flores emerged onto the national scene in Cuba after many years of dialogue and participation in the more informal aspects of the literary community. His ﬁrst full book, Los pájaros escritos, won the 1990 David Prize, dedicated to emerging authors. Flores continued to develop his aesthetic, moving toward what he described as a form of minimalism, which comes to the fore in his Alamar trilogy. The ﬁrst entry in the trilogy, Different Ways to Dig a Tunnel, won the 2002 Julián del Casals Prize. Both prizes are awarded by the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC), the very writers’ union that Flores disdained to join in his deliberate rejection of all things ofﬁcial, nationalist, and academic in literature.
The Counterpunch, second in the trilogy, includes the manifesto-poem “The Diver, ” on the wiggling of creativity at the margins of the margins:
Whether The dumpster diver be occupation one exercises or horizontal real estate or foolish son of the homeland or child feeding from bottle (areas thick with grass, there are unused wastelands, where pedestrians from the neighborhood throw debris from their daily lives and among weeds, the ﬁrst mushroom rises for a new civility, not yet included on maps of the counterculture)
Flores brings a carefully parsed sophistication to his apparent simplicity on the page. The poem’s “horizontal real estate ” refers to the modular, uniform apartments reproduced throughout the hundreds of buildings constructed by the microbrigades who built Alamar during Flores’s lifetime.
Flores only traveled outside Cuba once in his life, on the occasion when excerpts from The Counterpunch ﬁrst appeared in English translation. Travel was hard. It upset his daily routines, so essential to daily survival. Although the Americas Society wanted to host Flores in New York, it required not only an invitation for the US but some kind of Cuban professional status and funding tied into visa processing, which is usually enabled in Cuba by membership in UNEAC. After unsuccessful in-person appeals from Rodríguez, Julio Ortega of Brown University submitted a formal letter of invitation. Ortega had met Flores in Havana through Lizabel Mónica. Authorities eventually consented to support Flores, and he traveled to the northeastern US in 2011.
Flores visited Rhode Island, New Jersey, and ﬁnally New York, where I joined him for the launch of a special issue on Cuba by the Americas Society Review. Flores seemed continually surprised to be in the heart of the megalopolis. He ﬁgured out that he liked a daily breakfast of plain bagel, later followed by spaghetti with tomato sauce, translations of the meals López prepared for him at home. He strictly refused to jaywalk like the New Yorkers around us, pointing out police and worrying that as a Cuban he might be arrested. He retreated periodically to battle hallucinations from his hotel room, where I sat with him and he told me about hearing voices from a curled-up fetal position on the bed. Despite the extraordinary pressure on his psyche, Flores delivered a strong reading to close his New York visit, his nerves steeled by morning smokes.
His travel to the US ended early. López recalls: “His visit to the US marked the beginning of the ﬁnal stage of our marriage and the end of the little drive for life he had left. I had planned for him to stay for three months. He had another invitation to visit the University of California, Riverside, […] and our friend, the poet and history professor Drew Elliot Smith, had invited him to stay in New Jersey for some time so that he could rest and visit places. He returned to Havana in two weeks. He never recovered from the realization of his inability to cope with the real world, and he entered a deep depression and apathy that lasted for the rest of the time we lived together—through 2013, although we had been separated since 2012. ”
In the time remaining before he withdrew from the world, Flores sent me a selection of poems from his unﬁnished collection Trapiche to begin translating. Most are quite short and demonstrate his ability to compress image, repetition, and variation into a condensed space. I translated several and placed some in magazines before Flores retreated, at which point, like almost everyone else, I lost touch with him.
While Flores did not leave a large number of books behind, the work he published has been widely reprinted in anthologies representing the best poets of his time. Meanwhile his work in performance ampliﬁes his legacy inside and outside the island. He had collaborated at times with an arts collective known as OMNI Zona Franca, based in Alamar. During his lifetime Alamar also became known for music, a ﬁeld of no small interest for Flores, who integrates the repetition and styling of popular music into his work.
I conclude with a passage from “Child of Chernobyl,” one of the orphaned poems he left behind with me:
The children of Chernobyl aged prematurely, the children of Chernobyl, their stares, the sad stares of the elders, the children of Chernobyl, their heads, the dysfunctional heads of the elders, the children of Chernobyl, their bodies, the dysfunctional bodies of the elders, the children of Chernobyl, their skin, the scaly skins of the elders, when the children of Chernobyl speak, they display nervous tics of the elders.
(I who was born here in Havana and who lived always in Havana am also a child of Chernobyl and I aged prematurely)
His literary colleagues campaigned for special funeral laurels, a routine recognition of cultural importance from the state. Their request was denied. His ashes were scattered by the sea at a local beach that Flores had often visited, a place where he liked to write.
In Memoriam Michael O’Brien
Patrick Morrissey, Poetry Editor
“To live high, up among the cornices, from exception to exception, hearing an earthly music.” Since Michael O’Brien died on November 10, 2016, these words, from his elegy for his friend George Quinan, have been on my mind. Now that Michael is gone, they seem somehow to elegize him, too—to describe a way of life he sought in poetry, a state of heightened attention, mobile and light, on the wing yet always down-to-earth, every syllable attuned to the music. Not the poetry of extraordinary sights and elevated feeling, but rather a poetry uncannily alert to the most ordinary details: Michael’s attention could make anything exceptional. Waiting for the subway:
the patch of
on the tiles
the station’s mouth
A tree in spring:
pressed into flower
The person waking is
not the one in the
dream the one with
another life who now
on the stair forgets
you as you forget him
Sea and sky:
Blade of the sea
that clouds withdraw
a glimpse, a flash
of the world without us
eye counting its rooms
in the imageless dark.
Michael’s ways of wording the world are so memorable that I often find myself forgetting that the phrases are his and not my own. These are the words of a friend quietly pointing out the things you’ve always seen but hadn’t yet registered; he shares his attention gently, without possessiveness. To make experience articulate without insisting on himself—that’s the rare gift Michael has left us. His poems are spare and exact, but everywhere they remind us of earthly abundance: “here where there is everything instead of nothing.” He liked Lady Murasaki’s answer to the Prince when he asked her why she writes: So there will never be a time when people don’t know these things happened.
Michael had a special affinity for resemblances. He loved similes, echoes, and puns. The word “likeness” appears in his poems again and again. He catches the flicker of resemblance in “Streets,” a very recent poem (published in Chicago Review 60:2, and available here). With wit and tenderness he talks us through the work of making distinctions:
Moving fast, the eye
works it out that
they’re a couple, he
reaches out to
touch her cheek, no,
to take her cellphone.
From down the block
hard to tell a
spill of trash from
a sleeping man
until the eye,
the quick, patient
eye sorts it out,
sorts it all out,
the parts, the fit.
In streetlight the huge,
leaves of the caladiums are
ears, butterflies, ghosts.
In Michael’s poems, metaphors and similes name connections waiting to be discovered; likeness seems to be a property of things themselves, not just something the mind constructs. The confusion of one thing for another can be revealing if we’re patient with it, and Michael recognized human need in our tendencies to confuse and connect things. As one prose poem proposes: “The tug of likeness, its insistence. x=y. That fish-scale iridescence. Otherwise an unswerving rain. x=x. Boxcars.” Likeness is not sameness; likeness reveals difference, and it’s the differences between things that light them up, saving us from mindless repetition and a life without possibility.
For Michael, discernment was not only a matter of phenomenology. To work out the differences might allow us to live differently. There’s deep compassion in his poems. He understood despair and believed that something else was possible. As he puts it in one sketch of a homeless woman: “She leaves one cart, goes a few steps with the other, returns to the first, brings it up to the other; stops, sets out again. Like a defective purgatory no one remembers the point of, or how to turn it off. Like being hazed by one’s needs. By human practice. Which can change.”
The first book of Michael’s I read was Sleeping & Waking, which Flood Editions published in 2007, around the time I moved to New York City. It seemed to me then a secret guidebook to the city, and to this day I cannot walk the streets of New York without hearing Michael’s voice. I cannot imagine the city without him in it. We met in person a few years later, in 2009, when I introduced myself, his biggest fan, after a small reading at the now defunct BookCourt in Cobble Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, he seventy, but the difference in our ages was no problem. Over the years we became close friends. Michael and his wife, the painter Joan Farber, welcomed me into their home on 23rd Street for regular afternoon visits; we drank tea, walked the dog, sometimes visited a nearby gallery to look at art. I’d show Michael my poems; he’d respond with careful attention to the work, offering warm praise where praise seemed due, and honest, clear-eyed criticism when it was necessary, as it often was. Michael was a frank man—soft-spoken, but frank. He was my first reader, and I feel a little lost without him. Most of the useful things I’ve learned about poetry I learned from him one way or another, though he never assumed the attitude of a master teacher. He wanted to know what I thought about his poems, too; he took me seriously and steadied me when I doubted myself. He was a wonderful friend—generous, focused, droll, and wise.
After I moved to Chicago, our visits became less frequent, but we corresponded in earnest. Michael’s letters were treasures, full of notes on what he was reading or listening to, along with favorite quotations, tales from the past, and lively dispatches from his and Joan’s various adventures. You never knew what else he might fold in: a draft of a new poem, the program from a concert they’d recently enjoyed, a postcard of one of Joan’s paintings, a copy of an article he thought might interest me. Checking the mail is a drearier task now that he’s gone. It’s hard to accept his absence. I think of two lines from his poem remembering Thelonious Monk: “Who ever thinks the syntax will stop / the potlatch of the intelligence be dispersed.” Michael’s contributions to our collective intelligence, gathered in his books and dispersed now among his readers, are quietly immense. He will be missed, but we can remember him by the unmistakable syntax of his poems.