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Just Published at LARB: An Open Letter from Matvei Yankelevich to Marjorie Perloff

By Harriet Staff

Very, very interesting and necessary reading at the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps of the over-and-over vein. Matvei Yankelevich responds to Marjorie Perloff’s recent Boston Review essay, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” which we remarked upon, as did Sandra Simonds. Cathy Park Hong says on Facebook, “Mash up Jay-Z and the Beatles, you get The Gray Album. Mash up Perloff’s polemic, you get Yankelevich’s ‘The Gray Area.'”

“The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff” opens matter-of-factly: “I am writing to you publicly, because I feel it’s important to complicate the generally black-and-white debates in current discussions around ‘Conceptualism’ in contemporary poetry. I hope that a friendly argument will offer an alternative to the re-staging of an old ‘culture war’ and bring some other things that have been going on in contemporary poetry into the discussion.”

Yankelevich does so, engaging the topics of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s conceptions of truth and artifice, briefly; as well as Russian Formalism in light of its poetic forebears, the Futurists, and Conceptualism’s current modes worth casting light upon–rather than Bernstein, Goldsmith, et al., Yankelevich suggests, might Perloff look at “the complexly lyrical strategies of writing and appropriation in the work of Conceptually aligned poets such as Steve Zultanski, Lawrence Giffin, Cecilia Corrigan, Mathew Timmons, and Diana Hamilton, to name but a few, or the “messy conceptualism” of Fitterman, Josef Kaplan, and others, or closely-related conceptual projects of Heimrad Bäcker, UNFO, etc.” More on that:

These “sick readymades,” where the materiality of the text infects the extra-textual Conceptualist discourse, may be better read in connection to the grotesque (against the tendency to assimilate them into Conceptually-theorized notions of allegory or the baroque). They may also open up opportunities for more productive comparisons to the practices of plagiarism employed by Lautréamont and Nougé, or Situationist tactics of détournement, which sadly have been expunged, revisionist-style, from the Conceptualist discourse, where its purist practitioners — not surprisingly — keep the floor.

Furthermore, the received notions of literature called into question by Conceptualist works are not held as givens only by producers of transparently worded epiphany poems in irregular lines of verse. To hark back to the Russian Formalists once more, the very notion of “literariness” — and the resulting linguistic definition of poetry as the type of text which most foregrounds its literary markers — is itself called into question by “uncreative writing” as theorized by Goldsmith, et al. The poems of Gizzi and Bernstein, and even Cage’s mesostic appropriation of Ginsberg, wear their literariness on their sleeves in a way that Place’s Statement of Facts or Fitterman’s Bacon and Egg on a Roll on Bleecker Street do not. The “assassination of mastery” inscribed in the practice of Conceptual writing, according to Place and Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms, is absent from Gizzi’s masterful lyric “Gray Sail,” nor is there any failure of poetry in Bernstein’s “pseudo-folk ballad.” And though you invoke Craig Dworkin’s beautiful discussion of echo and its Oulipian functions in Against Expression, we would be hard-pressed to find in Gizzi’s Threshold Songs any trace of procedural writing. Echo, after all, is older than the Oulipo. (Moreover, the Oulipo-connection is a bit of a red herring itself, for Oulipian procedural practice differs sharply from Conceptualist techniques at least as far as the status of the resulting text is concerned.)

And here we have what Yankelevich calls the “gray area,” “a whole swath of writing between Conceptualism and Conservatism … in which, buttressed by home-grown American tendencies and European Modernism, ‘traditional’ ideas of formal/aesthetic quality are still the background for interesting things (among some not so interesting things) to be happening.” More:

In this ever-expanding intermediate space, forming a margin that is almost as large as the mainstream, one can find derivations of New York School writing infected by politicized Language-oriented poetics, the meme-culture of Flarf put through the meat-grinder of the New Sentence and spiced with Personalist coterie code, new mysticisms (somatic writing, etc.) alongside new Surrealisms, new Objectivisms tuned through sound poetry, new Confessionalisms entwined with new Feminisms, and all their infinite permutations. (I’m not naming names; the lists would be too long for this context. If compiled, their sheer length would help make the case for abandoning canon-formation altogether. A number of journals — among them Lana Turner and the recently defunct Supermachine — offer a good glimpse of these combinatory directions.) At worst, this variety may suggest the stylistic supermarket Arthur Danto foretold for art after the End of Art; poets can pull a praxis of “reception” from Spicer, a fragmented subjectivity from Scalapino, a bit of vernacular from Schuyler, and so on, and may at times deserve criticism (along the lines indicated by Steve Evans in the now decade-old Fence controversy) for not taking into account the political positions to which these various aesthetics were tethered. Yet this Babel-like mixing makes for a much headier, pluralistic, less aesthetically delineated (and therefore more socially fluid) gray area of poetry than that of previous periods characterized by the rigidity of schools, movements, -isms, and political positions, which led (and still lead) to nothing but power-grabs and culture wars. The poets residing in this gray area (hybrid or not) are often receptive to the influence of Conceptualism, making interesting use of its precepts; in other cases they are directly antagonized by it, or antagonistic toward it, antsy about what they perceive to be a call to abandon “writing” for web-based appropriation. In any case, the majority of small press publishing in the United States focuses precisely on this gray area.

For all these reasons, the binary opposition that you set up between Conservatism and Conceptualism needs to be re-examined, if not abandoned….

Yankelevich also delves into concepts of performance and presentation:

Performance has become an exceedingly important aspect of Conceptual writing, as it was for Conceptual art, where the ephemerality of performance worked to perpetuate the dematerialization of the commodity-object of art. After all, theater (as you have written before, in The Futurist Moment, for example) is what the avant-garde strove for: the theatricalization of art brings the work out of the rarefied “art world” and into everyday life, in such a way that it has to be approached within a political context rather than as an aesthetic object to be contemplated, bought, and sold.

Is this theatricalized critique of commodity and institution the reason for the professional garb of Vanessa Place (who may arrive at a dive-bar poetry reading dressed as though she had just come from the law office), the well-pressed designer clothes and rehearsed professorial vocals of Christian Bök, or the 80s-showman’s suits — reminiscent of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s bright yellow jacket — favored by Kenneth Goldsmith, whether performing at the White House or at the Brooklyn Book Festival? Is the performance of an outsized persona (for example, the way Goldsmith intentionally mines and mimics artists of the past — Warhol, LeWitt, etc. — in his public statements and appearances) intrinsic to the project of Conceptualism? If so, then shouldn’t we define the differences between Conceptualist performance and the highly performative “hipster” reading styles of new (“soft”) surrealists such as Zachary Schomburg or Heather Christle, or the popular pseudo-conceptual performances of gender by Ariana Reines or Jon Leon (who, according to HTMLGiant, insists on “living… [as] the character in his works”)? The performative aspect of these overlapping but seemingly opposed directions in the current poetry suggests a larger field of gray areas that is important to consider, if only because of these poets’ simultaneous rise in both academic and “art world” contexts, and their popularity among serious or experimental poetry readers (if one takes Small Press Distribution’s bestseller list as a significant indicator). Note also the recent involvements of Place, Dworkin, Bernstein, and Reines in the Whitney Biennial, and the appearance this spring at MoMA of the Conceptualist group Collective Task only six days apart from Reines in the same program. Does the fact that performance (and the development of charismatic personae) plays such a key role in the advancement of these poetic projects suggest anything about the status of the texts themselves, about their dependence on context, or on the charismatic posing of the authors?

Read it all here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, July 16th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.