…if we change the words, do we change the thing/s?

PERSON: email to a friend: Century of the Self: charting development of the kind of radical individualism in which freedom of the individual is more tied to individual (unconscious) desire than to individual action. The freedom of the individual (democracy) can be strangely disconnected from individual bodies through nifty slogans or brands? We can certainly pretend. (IN THE NOW: And I sometimes like shopping. Fluidity sings the various and varying ones. And wearing my tweed Stuart Weitzman ankle-boots does put a sexy spring in my stride until the white boy walking behind me yells “Nigger Hair” into his phone and at the side-back of my head, and the spring becomes a (imagined) kick.)

I’m haunted, as are all words and things and bodies and selves—breathing and not. And thoughts. Round these, Saidiya Hartman’s project in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Transatlantic Slave Route-- “to comprehend how a boy came to be worth three yards of cotton cloth and a bottle of rum or a woman equivalent to a basketful of cowries.” How a s/he becomes an it, devoid of agency. (Aside: Read the blog in which I was translated into a blackamoor devoid of sense or point.) Disconnect between democracy as a matter of individual desire rather than of individual action seems to be most evident in those moments of greatest difficulty, those times when more and more of us (what circles are drawn up by pronouns?) are under strenuous economic and social pressure, those times when “society” comes under pressure to deal (less/more equitably) with specific (individual and grouped) bodies (types) from whom/which democracy is most energetically and increasingly disconnected. Reconstruction USA; industrializing USA; after each World War, black soldiers were attacked. (At the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. incarceration of citizens increased rapidly; bodies that might have been called up were instead locked down.) Yes Virginia, identity is a construct, but that doesn’t mean it has no material consequences.

@Terreson: Yes, I’m with you that human histories are pretty shitty tales. They’re not only shitty. Even so, despite our septic systems and deodorants and perfumes and wastebaskets, there’s no getting away from the stench. Glad you point to “Strange Fruit” and its refusal to be “transcendent” in its perspective or attention. Meeropool’s refusal to leave the muck behind; metaphor as incision rather than ornament or distraction. Is the song (its central metaphor—bodies as the fruit of labors) more affective because of the unexpected ways some bodies are gathered like fruit for market? Is it because the metaphor outlines the irrational and murderous space around which we sometimes gather in fanciful assertions of agency and belonging? Am often asking friends “who exactly gets to transcend”? And what does it cost?

ASIDE & CENTER: A Kentucky Census Worker
Hanged. Bill Sparkman Found with “Fed” On His Body. (Somehow lynching remains as a kind of political declaration, referencing the historical and the contextual.)

@ Terreson: interesting that you mention Antonin Artaud—his military service, physical illnesses, emotional difficulties, his attention to Rimbaud lead me (in thinking) to one of our home-grown writers—New Orleans’ Bob Kaufman—the 20th Century American, as the French frame him, Rimbaud. Poet and Vietnam Vet, Kaufman was arrested in New York for walking on the grass in Washington Square Park. Now Kaufman had been arrested before, but it’s during this arrest for walking on the grass, as David Henderson describes it in a transcription of a talk Henderson gave on Kaufman at Naropa, that Kaufman is subjected to electro-shock therapy. Kaufman is thereafter “not the same.” What the technology does to/with material/particular bodies. Now sure one plays (can play) with constructs for the fun of it and maybe in the hope that the play impacts the matter or says something about how we perceive. But are we back to descriptions?

What are the (other) links to poetry? (Yes, I beg the question.) To poetics? To ideas of community and self that poetry/poets model, perform, perpetuate, circum/in/vent? What do we turn away? The other day, Erica Hunt juxtaposed her hope for language and for her language-work (clearing constraints to agency; something new) to the luxurious nihilism of those for whom there’s nothing new under the fun of the sun. (Is this those just a group of straw men like the scarecrow, only cooler?)

INSOMNIAC: Bernays’ claims that the essence of democracy is the engineering of consent.
What’s the essence of poetry? (Does anyone talk of essences? Aside from flower essences and essential oils?)

@ Stephen: is essence just another word for data, for what’s ghosted by the word? So “collateral damage” for bodies and buildings? For murder? For absence of intention? For irrelevance? For waste? (There’s something, I think, for poetry here, for what particularity doesn’t abide.)

@Evie: Right on, about collateral—an important term in the military and in finance (those conjoined siblings), where it refers to the material guarantee of intent to repay. It’s what one loses in the default. And yes collateral damage and collateral (in finance) are all about “containing” unintentional consequences. Ghosting and abstracting bodies. “All the new thinking is about loss?/ In that it resembles all the old thinking.” (Robert Hass) (On the movie, Miss E, it’s only Helen Keller if Annie Sullivan is doing the signing. Anne Bancroft grabs Patty Duke’s hands. ;))

By engineering consent, can one engineer the consenter? The agencies of agencies. What does poetry/do poets engineer? To what do we/i give or demand consent? According to W.H. Auden, quoted so frequently out of the contexts of his bodies of work—“poetry makes nothing happen…” (Rebecca Galvin’s post “Conversing With the World: The Poet in Society” addresses the complexities of pointing to that phrase as indicative of Auden’s view of poetry’s place.)

@ Aaron, am liking your Clinton Poetics of Triangulations=. Would love to put that on a t-shirt. Clinton’s such an optimistic southerner. Though, I’m not so sure that his effort to change a definition worked. (The only thing that stuck was on Lewinsky’s dress.) But I can certainly get with changing definitions; though I tie that to changing definers, a change up and a change within. I tie it, in my thinking, to Nathaniel Mackey’s claim that in order to highlight the “dynamics of agency and attribution by way of which otherness is brought about and maintained,” it is important to understand “other [as] something people do [my italics], more importantly a verb than an adjective or a noun.”

In trying to understand how a boy comes to be worth three yards of cotton cloth, Saidiya Hartman takes up Mackey’s project of othering. In terms of narration, she makes othering one of the initial and central recurrent actions of the text. Again and again, Hartman describes how others differ from her as well as how the she that she may be might be perceived by others. Shifting between and among subjectivities of the reseacher, the traveler, the stranger, the daughter, the child, Hartman, in Lose Your Mother, performs a kind of subjunctive outreach of changes.

PETOWNER: There is a locust in the living room of my third floor apartment. Catone and Catwo are eager to hunt and kill it. I can’t stop wondering about how it got here and what it’s eating through. Am trying to find out what kind of locust it is. Maybe it's just a futile exercise in trying to measure the potential loss. Is it just a garden variety cricket, or an endangered locust?

STUDENT: Edward Bernays (author of Propaganda, father of the field of public relations) was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays combined research on/ideas about crowd control with his uncle’s ideas about human behavior and desire, psychoanalysis. For Bernays the mass was a body with a single (collective) mind and psyche that could be could be plumbed and understood well enough to manipulate. Ivy Ledbetter Lee, Bernays’ chief competitor in the public relations field was the uncle of William S. Burroughs. What story does lineage tell or dictate?

POET NOTE: For my work on A History of the Bitch: Bernay’s advice to a ‘20’s cigarette company executive wanting to promote more smoking among masses of women—In an old and certain accent: The cigarette is a phallic symbol. In order to get women to smoke you must make smoking the cigarette a way for women to have their own phalluses, their own power. The cigarette must become a symbol of rebellion. Switch to my own slow intonations: Bernays enlists a “group of young debutantes” in a publicity stunt at a parade. The hatted debutantes march as a group. Each has strapped a small case of cigarettes to her lower thigh. At Bernays’ signal, they all reach for and then light up cigarettes. Photographers snap photos that make the newspapers. Bernays leaks to the papers a description of the “debutantes” as protesting suffragettes. The sale of cigarettes to women skyrockets. As one colleague reminds: You’ve come a long way, baby! Power as fire and inhalation, and smoke. “Power” as ghost.

…democracy as the kind of radical individualism in which freedom of the individual is more tied to individual (unconscious) desire than to individual action…

YES to George O’s uncertainty:
from “A Language of New York”

… If one captures them
One by one proceeding

Carefully they will restore
I hope to meaning
And to sense.

He/We can only hope. And can only hope I hope can again mean or connect to some sense, I guess.

Emily Dickinson seems appropriate here, largely because she comes so quick to mind:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

The problem with hope, as Sandra Cisneros maps it in The House On Mango Street, is that it demands waiting but not necessarily action. Hope, in a desolate place, can be a taunt rather than a promise. (Or both, of course.) Dickenson, increasingly agoraphobic, immersed herself in a domestic interior. (Was she afraid of what the public, the social would do to her and her odd little poems?) In Cisneros, the domestic interior is conditioned by the neighborhood. The personal interior is a social encounter.

To say that poetry is political seems pretty obvious.
Audre Lorde: Poetry is not a luxury.

@Stephen: Which America? The nation-state? The geographically specific (sort-of) mainland? The barrio? The hood? The suburban lawn? (Lorna Dee Cervantes writes that whenever someone asks her which part of Mexico she’s from, she answers “California.” I love her response for many reasons, primary is Cervantes' refusal to be neatly de/contextualized.) The ideology of a confederation of states joined for the “common good”? An embodiment of democratic ideals? Or the language of America, so neatly compartmentalized as it often is?

Turning over and through some of the thoughtful responses to my first blog.

@ Terreson:
Yes, Yes! New Orleans is South of the South. That’s what I tell friends by way of
explaining accent and sensibilities. And yes, I’m from New Orleans, which is both a location and a way (of and path through). The first large group of African slaves and the first major wave of European (French, German, and Swiss) immigrants arrived during approximately the same early 18th century time frame—1719 to 1721. Mississippi mouth to an imagined interior brought into N’Awlins broadly ranging immigrant populations. And yes the city, the State of Louisiana was known for its violence (mano a mano and also nature a mano, though nature is, not is against or with) even well before Reconstruction. I do wonder what kinds of violence get remarked upon. What kinds of violence get recorded? Isolated out from many forms of violence? New Orleans was one of the only cities in the U.S. in which slaves were permitted to congregate—Congo Square, the only city in which the drum was not outlawed. What the transfer of Louisiana, and with it the city of New Orleans into Anglo-American hands meant was an intensified focus on the specifically anti-black sentiment that is a hallmark of European immigrant transformation into American. In New Orleans, that process of focus had been somewhat slowed/modified by French and Spanish influence. And as a result, other kinds of cultural spaces and discourses were created in and by that city.

I mention this because I’m thinking that the ways that we categorize violence parallel the ways that some of us categorize language and discourses. And yes, poets make work, whenever, whatever, but never alone, even Emily. At least that's my hope.

Originally Published: October 19th, 2009

Tonya M. Foster was born in Bloomington, Illinois, and raised in New Orleans. She earned a BA from Newcomb College, Tulane University, and an MFA from the University of Houston. Foster is the author of the poetry collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna*, 2015) and coedited the book Third Mind:...

  1. October 19, 2009
     Krista Elliot

    I went searching for David Henderson talking about Bob Kaufman--sounds fascinating--and found all of the Naropa stuff on the Internet Archive. I will now (happily) put my headphones on for a few years. Thanks, Tonya.

  2. October 19, 2009

    Amazing powerful stuff. Do you think "randomizing the flow of paths" (Robert Farris Thompson) can maybe thwart continual movement toward plantation economy? I'm not sure. Tonight I'm in a rage over simulacra: book cover at St. Mark's imitates burnt book; pages artificially sooted black. Subversion is reverse: suffragette is debutante indeed. What to keep away from advertisers/commodity wardens anymore?

  3. October 21, 2009

    Whoa nelly, Tonya Foster! This is thinking with protein to it. This is thinking looking to get inside things and words and images and categories... and the mutually agreed upon projections we all conspiratorially make in order to keep experience at a safe distance. You said you had more to say. I've been wating. I do love it when a poet looks to get inside the nature(s) of things.\r

    It being a worknight I got a few notes on your blog. I hope I can come back later and riff more on your themes.\r

    About Par. 1. A historian, one time Marxist and life long conservationist, said a good fifteen years ago that the only freedom left in America is to choose between which brand name products to buy. It took me another fifteen years to come up with a rejoinder. And I told him there is still the freedom to love. But I know he is still partially right. Gays and lesbians can still not state-sanctioned love. Nor can a white woman and a black man in Tangipahoa Parish it would seem. So I get his point and maybe yours too. Our freedom has become defined by what we consume.\r

    Par. 2. "Disconnect between democracy as a matter of individual desire rather than of individual action..." This is exactly what I take from Shelley's always political poetry. Democracy, in fact, is essentially a matter of the freedom to desire.\r

    One last thought for now. Your essay also brings to mind something de Beauvoir and Sarte brought to the table. They said there was a new character type on the scene. They said he (she) was an American product. They called him the organizational man, the product of corporate culture. I say the type has found its way into the poetry scene, which so hurts the heart.\r


  4. October 22, 2009

    With a second reading and being not so tired.\r

    I think your thesis is this and, if it is not, this is what comes through most clearly.\r

    "…democracy as the kind of radical individualism in which freedom of the individual is more tied to individual (unconscious) desire than to individual action…"\r

    It is also true, in my view, that a whole bunch of forces get mustered against the expression of individual desire because they understand the threat. The tool these forces use is categorization, labelling, grouping, whatever you want to call it. The forces are historical, nation-state, ideological, ethnic, clannish, communal, racial, and, you bet, they are tribal. (At the expense of seeming impolite today's poetry scene is equally as culpable.) The threat involves a stand against the group, which would be intolerable and amount to a taboo.\r

    When you talk about the price put on an African slave brought to America I think about two things. I think about the history of slavery going back to the Egyptians (who were black), to the ancient Greeks (the creators of democracy), to the Romans, and to the Turks (who by then were Islamic in faith). In all cases the notion of owning another person was a matter of property rights: 'I bought this person, he or she is my property, I have the right to ownership priveliges.' The history of slavery doesn't start in 19th C America. It dogs civilization. My second thought would be this. Your notion of the democratic expression of desire keeps radical. It always has and it always will I think.\r


  5. October 24, 2009

    Tonya Foster, I've read your essay, what more accurately could be called an assay, several times. Yesterday in a bee yard I finally remembered what your procedure, your way of going, made me think of. It is something Cocteau said in an essay on writing.\r

    "To cultivate one's thoughts - to learn to shape and handle it - is to cultivate one's style. Looked at from any other point of view, style merely makes for obscurity and acts as a drag."\r

    Pretty cool huh? And, I think, all-time relevant. How one cultivates the how of how one thinks determines the writer's style and makes for originality. And you got to love how the boy pulls on a gardener's metaphor. And I say Cocteau had in mind what makes for originality because further on he says this:\r

    "We are worried when we cannot make comparisons. Our whole system of pleasure is based on comparisons. If we are satisfied with our own work, it is probable that it bears some resemblance to other works with which we are preoccupied. But if we produce something really new, as this novelty is not based on any recollection, it leaves us as it were, with one leg in the air, alone in the world. We are as much disconcerted and disappointed by it as the reader will be."\r

    Your essay's got style.\r