Rodrigo Toscano's Collapsible Poetics Theater and Other Poetic Concerns

Mark Nowak wrote a post last week in which he asked, “How does poetry address a working world that is not so stringently nation-bound?” This is an issue that I constantly think about. I feel compelled and I admire poets (in temperament, aesthetic or subject) who critique and respond to the careening forces of Globalization as well as the destabilizing forces of digital media by expanding the barriers of poetic expression. We’ve seen that in the procedural approaches of Flarf poets but more politically so in poets published by publishers like Action Books, whose manifesto calls for a kind of “internationalism” in poetry. This is why a term like “Post-Avant” is such a weak placeholder. It’s an assumption that history has stopped, that the measuring stick for innovation has been lopped off during the 70’s and from here on out, it’s all just embroidery all in the name of indeterminacy. As Johannes Goransson (one of the co-editors for Action along with Joyelle McSweeney) wrote in his blog, “Post-Avant” seems like a relic of static, binary Cold-War rhetoric.
Rodrigo Toscano’s newest collection, Collapsible Poetics Theater, which won the National Poetry Series, is a radical book. I was caught by a quote in the back of Toscano’s collection in which the summary asks “can the poem be tested any further?” Perhaps this isn’t quite new, but there’s been quite a lot of experimental poetry that’s been rending verse by traversing into other genres. In Toscano’s case, it’s theater and poetry. Generally, I’m drawn to writers who skirt the borders between playwriting and verse, such as Mac Wellman and early Suzan Lori Parks. Verse plays lend itself to the tenets of the avant-garde. The text is not a script for voice, but a script for performance, underscoring its artifice. I’d say experimental poets in general (oh okay, it’s only those who I admire) have returned to voice, but rather than the lyric voice, the emphasis is on the artifice of voice, the voice in drag, masque, ridiculous impersonation. The voice is both synthetic and serves as a synthesis of hybrid languages. (See also Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg’s manifesto on Gurlesque Feminist poetry when the anthology comes out sometime next year).

Toscano’s poetry is perhaps one of the few that “innovatively addresses the current economic clime.” It's infected with the language of Globalization and consumerist culture. It's meant be heard as well as read. There is bilingualism (Spanish in Toscano’s case), but there is also tech-speak, ad-speak, and business-conference room-speak. In the case of the first piece, “Truax Inimical: A Trans-Modern Masque for Four Voices,” the piece is a script for four different disembodied voices which shoot out rapid fire responses. The way it’s structured on the page resembles a multiple choice test, kind of like this:
(1) Very Liliputian
(2) Adorable
(3) Snuggly
(4) Secretive
Toscano’s scripts question the totalizing effects of Global Capitalism on individual choices. It informs us that faced with the market monolith, there are no choices, even though we’re led to believe that we’re inundated with them. The voices are mordant, thorny, and rife with tech writing language that can both appeal and repel. The regimented action of internet surfing, like a rat pushing a buzzer for a pellet, studs the text throughout: “(1) Scrolling (4) Pointing (2) Clicking (3) Selecting.” There are whiffs of Richard Foreman, Brecht, Carla Harryman, but his style is utterly his own. “Balm to Bilk: A Poetics Dialogue for Two Voices” is a satirical look at two poets’ bumbling call to arms (or misguided quarrel) for more radical action in poetry. This piece satisfies sonic pleasures with its tongue-twister alliterations and mixes the demotic with specialized academic jargon, wavering between nonsensical baby blather to a jab at agonism and “massified praxi” (for some reason, I hear this and I think, maxi pad commercial).
Many of his works share a troubling relationship with the collective: in one sense, the mass subsumes into corporate groupthink, but in another sense, the collective is necessary for political action. Throughout the book, the individual is never specified. Voices are anonymous, neutered groups like “Zero Friends,” “Players” or simply numbered to imply that there is no differentiation between person and product, person and property, person and the labor force. They are simply anxious actors programmed to put on a “happy pappy face” in the great determining system of Capitalism. (O those days when we are forced to put on a happy pappy face!)
I feel like I just stripped the fine, top layer epidermis of this collection and there are more rigorous thinking and surprises ahead as I dig further in. Toscano is an atypical poet, one who resisted the well-trod paths of academia, and who made the decision to work as first a social worker and then in the Labor Institute in New York City. In an interview, he said, “I found myself recommitting to being an activist within culture, as through culture, because of an overall, comparative calculation as to its effectiveness in expanding our social horizon.” His latest collection upholds that ideal. “Collapsible Poetics Theater” resists comfort and categorization; it’s dense, comedic, and utterly necessary.

Originally Published: January 14th, 2009

Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo'um, (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2007), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; and Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the...

  1. January 16, 2009

    Toscano's multifarious tongue goes Russian when it wants to, I've heard, but tri-lingua doesn't register American as of now... And his overalls HAVE been in the east river.

  2. January 19, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Yes, Toscano is REALLY good.

  3. January 19, 2009
     Tyrone Williams

    I concur completely with your comments even if they are, as you note, an essay toward a more thorough analysis of Toscano's work. You have identified what I too find compelling and troubling, the reduction and ab absurdum logic of the "voice" to a collective--that is, the way the collective turns out, in its more vulnerable moments, to "be" an assemblage of disembodied voices. Yet, and this is the radical nature of his work, that dynamic (which is not a dialectic) is also the promise of another future, a trans-nationalism at the edges, if not outside, of the consumerist/globalizing markers of identity--and "identity politics" is far too reductionist (and parochial)--with which, in which, we find ourselves, so to speak...

  4. January 26, 2009

    Hey Tyrone,
    I also completely concur and I would include your work as part of the "trans-nationalism at the edges."