Poetry News

Lauren Levin Is Preoccupied with the Vital Demystified Art of Stephanie Young and Anne Boyer

By Harriet Staff

lauren levin

Just up at Lana Turner: a terrific essay by Bay-area poet (check out her new pamphlet, Song, from The Physiocrats) and co-editor of Mrs. Maybe and the Poetic Labor Project, Lauren Levin. "Preoccupation: Notes on Anne Boyer and Stephanie Young" makes us feel like we're in on the conversation (we are).

We’re asking each other how to empty and fill this space. As Anne Boyer says in My Common Heart, “I prefer the teeming crowd of souls to the teeming soul itself…How an individual, alone, can do almost nothing. She cannot make children or be a poet alone.”

As Stephanie Young says in a new prose work, “But I wanted to make so many others visible and audible in the room, wanted to drag up every pressure or gift or fortuitous encounter that helped me think, or hurt, or pushed me over edges into other edges.”

When I set about writing on these two poets’ work, I wanted to think how their writing manifests the struggle for new forms that has been such a hallmark of the Occupy movement. I wanted to think what a demystified art looks like, how art acts when it’s part of socializing emotional experience.

Levin writes about Young and Boyer individually, keeping in mind "the group," as "these two artists are deeply allied to the horizontality and openness that, in forms drawn from anarchism and feminism, has invigorated Occupy." And she makes a poem's relationship to social and physical architecture quite clear, writing that "[o]ne way to describe the vital demystified art: building structures of feeling together. To make it possible to gather in a plaza or a square, you might build those structures first in the imaginary: dream up a thought experiment in a prose block or a poem." More:

But what I’m describing as utopianism is only one aspect of My Common Heart, which is also resolutely impure, vulnerable, conflicted, and pained. If we are to (again from “The World Is Restored”) “assume no totalitarian premise,” whatever premises appear will have to open and open again – to tweak genre.

It is telling that the title of My Common Heart comes from a poem, “I Keep It In My Empire,” on the queasy interweaving of self and despotism:

“I keep in my common empire my heart also common

the empire is spoiling the loot of the body

and also the loot of the flourishing body”

It’s telling, too, that in “My Vital Demystified Art,” the demystified art is described as “consisting of sobbing mostly”. (As Yosefa Raz puts it in her MANIFESTO ON WEAKNESS: “if there’s no tearjerkers it’s not my revolution.”)

And of Stephanie Young's work, Levin writes that it "could be viewed as a sustained interrogation of cruel optimism":

...how to cope with the fact that the things one loves--experiences of pleasure, group affiliations, the habits of persona – are possibly damaging to oneself and, through their connections to an imperialist system, even more damaging to others.

Two powerful moments from the piece show her working through this idea in reflections about the murder of Oscar Grant and about a gender performance of “girlish enthusiasm”:

“In the upside down world of a holiday, BART runs all night. The murder of an unarmed African American man occurs when the truth of that world reveals its overwhelming force. In the upside down world of a holiday, the mostly white poets I am and hang out with are across town, in a beautiful house that’s difficult to reach by public transportation.”

Levin also looks, interestingly, at Young's beginning with failure "as the occasion for a new form":

A failure is an attempt that, precisely because it could not be received, reveals the conditions and limitations that prevented reception: “I think I might have been trying to say something about gossip as an event which hides other events. And the thing I made that failed wound up doing this exactly. The gossip came through the tube loud and clear, but not much else.”

Read more about how these two writers imagine a body--a social, poetic, and corporeal one--and Levin's take on what new values, forms, failures, encampments, and spaces their work suggests here.

Originally Published: January 18th, 2012