Smart Piece at Jacket2: Robert Dewhurst Connects Dorothea Lasky to Penny Arcade

By Harriet Staff

Jacket2 is firing on all cylinders right into the New Year, having published a piece yesterday (originally printed in ON: Contemporary Practice) by Robert Dewhurst--Wild Orchids and Satellite Telephone--about the work of current Harriet Tweety bird Dorothea Lasky. He cuts to the chase, and in affective prose here:

Because her poems so dramatically reinhabit emotion, one of the most perfect lines Lasky’s ever written (from AWE) is “Conceptual art, you are dead / Language poetry, you know how I feel.” In a slow-learning poetry culture where the cool vacancy of writing based on these aesthetic currents of the 70s and 80s is still considered avant-garde, I think it’s taken an unbelievable amount of integrity for Lasky to make unironic and very public announcements like this one, or to say “I hate irony // I am only being real.” Although I’m friends with people who’ve misread her affective and unembarrassed realism as a kind of nostalgia, or “naive” (if put-on) reaction to things like Language writing and its attendant “critique of authenticity,” Lasky’s lines like these read so flatly because she’s not being defensive: her poems aren’t troubled by such poetics, but simply identify with an entirely different, more minor poetry/performance-art tradition (and one that’s never cared to promote itself with its own technical vocabulary). While she is thus endlessly confused by reviewers surprised at her “earnest sincerity” with the allegedly self-absorbed “confessional” poets of midcentury, for me Lasky has most in common with a stylistically diverse line of usually forgotten and mostly soulsick writers who’ve inhabited language literally, and risked using the poem as a kind of depersonalizing, radically signifying material. Reading Tourmaline and Black Life this morning, I think immediately of Arcade, Kraus, and Myles, Catullus, John Wieners, Ariana Reines, Tao Lin, Tracey Emin.

Connecting Lasky to a performance-art tradition is pretty stunning and corerct, especially with his take that we all are in the debt of one Penny Arcade:

One week this bitter winter I spent almost thirty hours transcribing an interview between Chris Kraus and Penny Arcade, recorded last June. It’s weird how transcription can blur into you, focus your attention on someone else’s voice so closely you absorb and internalize it. I wandered lost around an empty antique mall in Western New York sometime after New Year’s, thinking like Penny. In one place on the tape, she says this:

But I want to say, for younger artists … you know, because one of the things is that … you know, this has gone on for 20 years … people see me perform, they work with me, and I talk directly to the audience. Which was one of the things that I created, which now has like, you know, an actual academic name, which is “direct address,” right? And I started speaking directly to the audience because I was so ignored by the press and the art scene. And so I would talk directly to the audience. I understood that my relationship was with the audience. And so I developed that, and just got braver and braver and braver … because I’m a very frightened person emotionally … And so at any rate … a lot of younger people who’d work with me, they’d see me talk directly to the audience, and they’d go, “oh, I can do that,” you know? And they didn’t understand the level of integrity that you have to bring to talking directly to the audience. Because … it doesn’t work unless you’re really at risk.

Dewhurst also considers her work in the context of Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings, and mentions a small internet war over Lasky's feminisms as well. All worth investigating here.

Originally Published: December 20th, 2011