Floyd & Uyen Against 'The World'
So, we're still at the Comet, perhaps thinking through an atmosphere that I described before, a dazzling sky of unknowable pleasures & speeds, losing control while also piloting wild dirigibles of affect & thought. We're at the Comet right here in Cincinnati, & as such we're in The World, Capital's temporary regency that yields up this brutal & intoxicating airspace. I'll begin there with a memory, a local memory of an early encounter with the most famous poem ever written in our little city, one that's gone rocketing through all those airs, a poem now known the world over.
It was an ordinary weeknight at the Comet. I was just up there hanging out. Floyd "Fresh Daily" Johnson (pictured above) was still working in the bar's kitchen then. We were outside smoking together, shooting the shit, when he told me had something to show me. He popped down to his car & opened the trunk & brought over a new pressing of one of his "Ohio Against the World" t-shirts. It looked splendid although I'd seen them before. They were already something of a sensation around town. But somehow, that evening, the poetry of it really hit me, & I realized then Floyd was onto something big.
Seeing it that night was like reading "In A Station of the Metro" for the first time. Much as Pound's little poem is both a demonstration of & an advertisement FOR Imagism, so Floyd's poem both performs & encapsulates an aesthetic worldview. Pound meant for Imagism to be a movement & that's Floyd's ambition as well. Both meanings of "movement" are operative here. Motion of course. Also, a cause, one that in this case means to organize sensibility toward an occasion of consumer solidarity with Floyd's poetics. This is articulated in a youth cultural dialect spoken rather widely at present-- booster-ized entrepenurial micro-capitalism. Let's suspend our disgust for the ugly side of consumerism as aspect of a world-system brooking no difference, & examine, in Floyd's work, an engagement with its dynamics that gives us something penetrating, elegant & fast. A form of its poetry. Perhaps we could say that Floyd's art accedes not to the logics of dominion but touches opposition through embrace? It is "Against The World" after all.
But first, what is Floyd posing against the world here? Ohio. Here I read Ohio as the block, the local scene, Ohio a particularly backwater place in our world-city metaphor. Floyd's art understands that the everywhere/nowhere of internet life has in no way erased the local's specificity but has instead enriched it through more ultimate relation. More on that in a bit. In the meantime, we see from the start that his poem takes up an underdog, adversarial position, one Floyd comes to by way of personal experience & also through his mindfulness for anyone's experience of that in a small mid-western city that maintains something of a complex about it's non-coastal status. Floyd wants to turn that feeling of inferiority into a seed, a beginning. He wants us to read "Ohio" as a synecdoche for anyone's sense of exclusion, anyone being on the make & confronting endless obstacles, of having the site of your struggles & pleasures ignored by the dominant frames. His brand could be your life.
Still, I always wondered why "Ohio" & not "Cincinnati"? Here's where Floyd's poetic intelligence arrives. Cincinnati is an interesting word to be sure, a word of curves & arches. It's also four syllables & ten letters long. Floyd's page is a t-shirt. Speed & iconic viability are the first principals of composition here. "Ohio" is another kind of word all together. Vaporous & exhorting. An amalgam of greetings & sighs in the ear. A hello lodged between two exclamatory Blakean bookends. It's perfect for the poem's sound & sense. Plus, it has three syllables, which neatly splits the syllabic difference between Cincinnati, & Floyd's other site of poetic departure, Brooklyn.
Let's address ourselves to Floyd's gift for appropriation. The look & phrasing of his poem are taken from an old Nike t-shirt that read "Brooklyn Against the World." Here, his poem's excellence expands as additional layers of meaning open out. The poem seizes its grammar from a corporate entity in a moment of piracy that belongs, by way of legacy, to a line of such plundering we know quite well, as such moves are just part of how we speak to one another, daily now, online & in our art. The move may be familiar but it's substantiated here by Floyd's finesse & conceptual rigor. The poem locates itself as a node whose radials branch to touch 1) A global brand, Nike, of particular importance to urban youth culture, one that has attempted & often succeeded in writing large portions of an urban street wear ur-text, & 2) Brooklyn, an iconic space in the hip-hop imaginary, & a place now synonymous with gentrification, a process emergent (with a body count) in the Cincinnati Floyd & I share in present, & 3) Floyd's own life on the come-up in this city, sick of being broke & ready to take on The World in order to achieve a sense of self-determined beauty.
Let's look now at its line breaks, like this-- "Ohio/Against/The World." "The World" as the sign for global capital leaps to mind, the way its totalization overwrites other ways the word "World" might signify & mean. It's like, I don't know, even as eroding ghost, the nation-state form is nearly impossible to think, at least for me. In my casual, daily imagination I barely consider "America" now. I hold our little city & its surrounds. From there thought leaps directly to The World. Whatever that middle-place was, that nation thought, has been dispersed in its malignancy, its bank. So-- "Against/The World," not only an underdog-adversarial dynamic, inheritor & appropriator of Golden Age Brooklyn, but also, in this poem, a thought that goes directly to the heart of how we site & imagine ourselves as people existing in history. "Against" then as in "framed by," globality first, having jettisoned more incremental contexts because, when they obtain, it's as war or frail detention. Floyd's poem locates its meta-music in the speed & deftness of his thought--the ceasuras give us a schema like this: anybody's local struggle (Ohio) framed (Against) by global-sitedness (The World). It's the apparition of our faces in the local-global city as letters on a soft, black shirt. This is how Floyd puts on for his city.
Another memory. It's the summer after Vivian was born. Sarah's just recently back to work after maternity leave. We're not doing a whole lot of sleeping as Viv has other plans for the overnight hours. I'm bedraggled in the morning. I throw on whatever clothes, hell they're probably dirty, pulled right from the hamper. I pack Viv up with the stroller & we drive downtown to at least get out & walk around the city. It's a nice summer day but as I said I look like hell. I run into Floyd who of course looks amazing. He was doing an all-black thing then, fitted blazer & jeans, black button up with black buttons, high gloss shoes, & a spike studded belt. Visionary & accessible. His art. The "Fresh Daily" part of his name is a promise. Anyway, we catch up for a bit & then go our separate ways. At first, I despair over my sorry appearance. But soon I remember I've got it all wrong! Here's where Floyd's spiritual refinements are apparent. When I say Floyd means to put on for his city, I mean that quite literally. You can rely on him! On those days when you're feeling ragged out, when you don't give a fuck, or even when you want to destroy the whole universe of fashion & appearance, you can count on Floyd to be holding down the beautiful side of it all, the side of play & wit, intelligence. Floyd's picture of glamour is worldly of course & that's exactly why it feels homemade. Encircled by The World it's both of & against it, and registers that tension as an anthem. His looks are all about dreams coming true. The generosity alive in his mode of being is what gives his poem an empathy for anyone's struggle. That's the source of its now viral fame. One more thing then, a happy sort of triumph that belongs both to Floyd & to our little city, by virtue of the way his art binds the two together.
Floyd has created lots of other gear besides his now famous t-shirt. One is a hat, equally elegant, equally brilliant, in which he's taken knockoff hardware from a Canal Street Hermes bracelet & fixed it, gilded knocker on the door of the mind, to the front of a black leather hat. Again, I can only marvel at his intelligence & restraint in such creations. But anyway, through some friend of a friend sort of thing, the hat got passed on to none other than Rihanna! Who is more of The World we've been describing than Rhi-Rhi? Her limitless vault of global hits, her ferocious life that bleeds into ours, a life that, when we think it, gives us no quarter, entangling us in the bruising mess of everything, a life lived in that air where we began our rumination, turbulent & bright, sky shaking & shattered by abuse, echoing with fuck you's & swagger, deluxe purple flower clouds burning our chest, hyper-vivid colors to breathe the double bind of autonomy & fantasy while flying. Music & drama. Money & sex. O Rhianna!
Floyd of course was thrilled she rocked the hat. I wasn't there, but Paul saw him the night he got the photo. He was beaming. When I heard that I smiled. Not just for Floyd as a friend, but for our little city, to see him & it consecrated in globality so thoroughly & truly. It hit me like a beam of light reflected off that Hermes gold. That's just how Floyd's poems go. Forged in lived experience & dream, refined by intelligence, they go shooting with appropriate alacrity from a trunk outside the Comet then settle on the crown of a star.
The thought of that trajectory is thrilling, the happiness it offers complex. There's no vacuum, no quarantine, no place for its sequester. It glows where it was born, in The World. So then I look to other poems to organize, consider & pressure such feelings, involve them in always unfolding relation. When I think of happiness occurring in the sky where we've been flying & falling, when I think about Floyd's art, & Rhianna's, & The World, I start looking for grapples & hooks in my reading, someway to deepen that sited-ness we spoke of. I can think of no poem better fit for such a task then Uyen Hua's glorious "The Remix."
As you can see above (though better to see here) the poem arranges celebrity names, brands, nations, & other variously scaled cultural phenomenon (from chili fries to gender theory) in a schematic whose logic was for me initially & weirdly unclear. It became blindingly obvious later, as it probably is to you at first glance, & I slapped my head when I finally found it out. What follows then could begin as Taylor Swift begins that record-- "Once upon a time/a few mistakes ago." When I first saw the poem I got a big, blissful hit of ostranenie. It took me some time, & some help, to recover certain faculties to use in my attendance. At first its correlations were alchemical. I was spellbound which for me means being off & on at once. The poem simply so good that perhaps, like that famous thing where Jay & Bey & 'Ye's majesty demands occult attribution, I needed baroque explanations to accommodate my dazzled response. My blindness & the dreams of sight occasioned in its wake will carry us forward as a story for awhile.
At first glance, the piece referred me to visual poetry, challenging distinctions of reading & looking. I delighted in being called to both, trying one & then the other on a whim. I'd ride the overall look for awhile & hit on different analogs (except, as I said, the correct one!), feeling this kind of Mondrian flowchart, a visual music of particulars branching that felt true to my life, no second thought. Slowing down & moving close, I'd trace my finger from line to line comparing nodes, smiling or despairing over what had been constellated where, & by way of what beginning, happy to be lost in this wonderland-labyrinth. Still I hadn't figured out the "why."
Maybe I just didn't want to know? The things she's arranged are so familiar that when organized via "mysterious" logic, this stuff felt refreshed & renewed. I felt certain things coming back to me again after years of having lost them to my sentiments or habits of mind. For my thought it was a fountain of youth. Too, the poem seemed like something almost anyone could try. Funny. I pictured an analog route. I wanted to cover my floor in butcher paper, sit down with a Sharpie & begin, compelled by intuition I guess, to arrange things the way that Uyen had. I sensed that by engaging these weird symmetries & groupings I could find out new things about the world. About how culture moved. Perhaps how money moved. As a practice it would offer me a way to map that sky that we've been falling in & flying, someway to better see & locate Floyd's work, make happiness legible, draw it nearer say to Cathy's, bring things toward proximities I'd not thought before. In that way Uyen's poem does indeed belong to a line of hyper-enabling forms, things like "I Remember," where anyone can get in on it quick. Still Uyen's original held somehow as personal, seemingly specific to her life. In that way it's like "I Remember" too. The poem's called "The Remix." Maybe what was being remixed was her life?
So I was giddy & inspired yet nagged by this question of the "why." It was all just so wonderfully puzzling. Why is Robert Downy Jr on the same line as Akon? Why do they lead to Jadakis, Enron, & Sales Tax? That little section alone, in the poem's top-right, was rich enough a ground for associative thought a book of speculations could flower. Hitting on the word "speculation" I began to wonder if the poem's logic were somehow related to finance. The unknowable velocities, those famous flows impossible to picture. Could the poem's "hidden" logic be one that meant to draw us into speculation's eddies & tide pools, each reader called, in their own way, to rehearse financial logics & transpose them as kind of perverse reader-response theory, wherein we would feel in our body the gambles & bids that had wrought the world we live in? I was thinking of Mark Lombardi's work as a visual rhyme for Uyen's. Also, maybe I was being crazy.
Another thing that had to be addressed were those lines. They point & drag, lead & scatter the eye. But part of the poem's emotional power was rooted in the fact that nothing touched. Everything existed in relation there, suspended in delicate coordination. In this frame I read the poem as an essay on the ways in which hyper-relationality & irrelationality are wed in our experience. "Bjork—our Pasts" branching to flower as "Kurt Cobain--the pluralized--John Mayer." I thought of a mobile above me, one where possibility, art, tragedy, disgust & ingenuity are frozen & suspended in a fearsome-brilliant way. From there I asked after occasions that had yolked these things together while feeling the sadness generated by watching them float in so far yet so close animation.
I was excited, dubious about some of my thoughts, & tending to half-confirm others. Then I found a recording of Uyen reading the poem on line. Finally, it all fell into place & boy oh fucking boy did I feel dumb. When she reads the poem those lines that connect but don't touch make a sound. Aloud, the lines read as "begat." My head fell. I laughed a little. "Duh jesus christ it's a fucking family tree. How in the HELL did I not see it before? OMG duh it's a goddamn family tree." I went on like this internally awhile. Embarrassed but ever more excited about how the poem works. Each parentage unfolds a counter-lineage unsettling our sense of historical & cultural causality, un- & re-hierachrizes, substitutes & levels, these various phenomena & our sense of their relation. "Reggae & puppies beget the earth."
Despite the macro-blundering, a few of my initial thoughts were generally confirmed. Certainly my love of the poem was magnified once my dumb ass came around. Her performance of the work is giving because she keeps it flat. Even when the seemingly most absurd lineage is read she doesn't get involved via vocal peaks or valleys. She's faithful to the poem's generosity, leaving it to us to determine our sense of what's occurred. Some causal attributions are heartbreaking, plainly-- "the self portrait & the self portrait begat the birdcage." Others erupt as grotesquerie, leveraged by gender disasters & money-- "super lotto & William Shattner beget premature ejaculation." Others are just fucking hardcore-- "Angelina Jolie & Africa beget the Gap." Some linger, inscrutable cultural math ("bons bons & Picasso begat Heidi Montag"), whose solution engages & eludes the discursive at once, (poetry I guess) then it hits like the pre-figured spaceship that's taking us early toward a knowledge-form of someplace that exists which we have not yet heard or understood. Suddenly I feel in my bones the way bon-bons & Pablo give us Heidi. In that moment it's the only way to say it. The poem moves the light of thought through a methodical stain glass avalanche. Refract's affect's history rainbow back at you. The colors calmly falling on your head as broken glass.
The poem's title is "The Remix." It's an ultimating title isn't it?-- the not a. Again, family tree thing now firmly in place, this leads to subsequent questions. What's being remixed? Bio-geneology broadly? The cultural logic of whatever/late neo-liberal capital recognized as overwriting our bloodlines as background? Really at that point I was just trying to live through the questions I could hear, no longer sure of my own sense of the thing, bewildered & head over heels for it. It felt kind of free. Still this remix kept pressing. What kind of remix? The constituent elements of this geneology would be pretty familiar to a lot of us. If we're of a certain time & place I guess. Again, it makes me think of "I Remember," using the family tree's branch & cascade instead of parataxis to illuminate cultural rudiments. In this case, they're things familiar to someone born in what...let's say the global North near the end of the 20th Century, acutely aware that as a person they've been leveled as effluvia & edged into our century now.
The poem, in the best way, begs questions, culling meta-euphonies of trenchant speculations whose harmonic ideal keeps expanding toward broader horizons after each interrogation. Maybe a poetic geneology of this sort gives us the hyper-dimensional cartography needed to map that violent sky. The anachronism of the family tree form being apt is something that makes the poem sing. The Old Testament sound of our Pop Life unfolding. Things really do unfold in that sky, calmly violent, dead on, perfect un-foldings that exceed our common sense. The terror of reproduction lives there. Agency slams into loss of control, celebrities mate & evolve into mayonnaise, the trivial combines with the most searing import to breed some fucking monster. "A park bench & Liv Tyler beget lavender." Sigh. The economic logic that has totalized the world is involved in this bludgeoning dance with our specks. We scatter & connect & catch fire in that sky, we get off, our heart's stop or surge, reproducing that logic then not, thrilling to it, trying to see faces in that sky. Seeing only faces in that sky. Her poem's architecture freezes with the ironies of that. It's haunted & enlivened by a gorgeous step-by-step. Simultaneous. The poem stays cool though. It's overall feeling is The World from the vantage of my life as lived when I can't think it all alone. Maybe that's why I'm called to its arrangement as a resource. Everywhere I go I see its face.
By that I mean the poem's look is iconically pervasive. Polyvalent. It just keeps lunging out as substituion where rumination & feeling are engaged by different maps of huge conveyance. It's like it's almost already all over the place. Can't you see it? Instead of landing on Rhianna's head it goes like this--Printed in the back of the inflight magazine instead of flight paths of planes & their cities? Appearing instead of those baffling (to me) subway maps in the trains or glassed off in the stations. Written over the server maps & streams of information, the shipping routes, the maps that chart the movement of disease across the world. Wouldn't it make the best wall hanging ever? Or done up as a plush rug of faux fur to wallow & weep there? I can see it hung in a cloister for religious meditation, taking up its questions there in a moment of solitude, organizing & transposing your own bafflements & logics. Too I like the idea of shrinking it down to a tiny thing to slip in our pockets, a "fuck you" to those would carry the US Constitituion as an emblem of their horrible pretensions. But finally I see it as a dance floor. Can you picture it? Laid out. Enormous on the floor of some club. I imagine each nodal point is wired like the tiles of the Billie Jean sidewalk. The floor full of dancers, the world's heaven dance music moving their bodies, the floor so full & crowded no point is untouched. It just light everywhere, radiance bleeding & engulfing all the people in a moment of abandoned where for better or for worse it somehow feels like there's nothing left untouched in that occasion. The light of a historical surround.
Let's pretend the song that's playing is HYFR by Drake & Wayne. There's a little haiku in there I love:
Do you love this shit?
Are you high right now?
Do you ever get nervous?
Hell yeah fucking right to all three. I think about another, related genealogy. A family tree of tentacles. Another way to organize that sky. I keep hearing Uyen's poem in my mind & I do my own version. Not as artful but about my own imperial entanglements. Lilly Money & Dana. Lilly Money & Dana beget some New Tires. Lilly Money & Dana beget Interrogative Dreaming. Lilly Money & Lilly Money beget The World. The World & New Tires beget Interrogative Dreaming. Do you love this shit? Are you high right now? Do you ever get nervous? From there it just goes on & on. I remember. It's like Anne Boyer's essential "Questions for Poets." Anne keeps giving us these questions for mutual location. Interrogative life amid the tentacles & branches of The World. Its systemic geneologies (our lives) & a picture of the present. What time is it at the Poetry Foundation? What's the light like in Beijing? Are you having a meltdown on Twitter this morning? Is your undoing like a necessary strike against the pernicious tranquility & lies? If you don't give a fuck is your nihilism hot? What hoard of privation is behind you? Why are we pitted against one another? Oh we all know don't we know? Which tentacles do you perpetuate, exhausted & trapped by demand? Where are you in the plunge & the glide of that sky? How do you protect your heart? Can you bear this compromise, not that one, & why? Do you despair over pieties expressed in consumerist ethics that pretend toward overcoming via shopping? Do you scoff & mock? For you, when you write, are the stakes high or low? Do you reject such evaluative measures out of hand? What's the life of the deepest most meaningless kiss? How bad is your myopia? What's the party like beyond the intramural graveyard? Can you really bring confetti back from there or does it melt in your mouth before you say it like "I love you?" How many tentacles bloom when you sing? Do you regard with horror & affection the largeness of the small attempts to live in these impossible conditions? Do you adore being gentle, not adding to heartbreak? If so do you think you're pretty good at that or not? Do you dive fearlessly into that bristling sky, uncovering infinities, fantasies of rarest ingenuity & depth like Kate Durbin with a parachute of lace & blood & mind? What are you thinking about? What time does Blue Ivy go to bed? Does she sleep through the night? Am I too sentimental? Are my considerations here not rigorous enough? Are my metaphors bizarre, re-mystifying, wack weak & sorry? Do I even know what I'm talking about? Do you ever think "just be ok for me tonight." Can you breathe when you think of people starving, being slaughtered, imprisoned, raped, neglected, beaten, thrown into the cold? Oh we all know don't we know? Still nothing fucking changes? Do you ever think today all I can do is just get over, get the money, hold it down for me & mine? What drugs are good for you? Is someone you love sick? Do they have insurance? Could they even pay the co-pay if they did? Do you ever wonder how much money is a billion dollars really? Do you ever feel like fuck that pretty building? You'd like to avoid any imperial entanglements well that's the trick isn't it? And it's going to cost you something extra. Why do we sit around, with everyone at once yet still alone, haggling & weeping over all these awful tentacles? Why do they consistently appear in the form of our lovers our family our friends? Why are we at one another's throats? How did we end up like this, pitted against one another so ruthlessly it's like just hanging out? I mean we know don't we know? I know I know right? Floyd's poem, Uyen's, Anne's-- they put us exactly where we are don't they? We can see it plainly can't we see? All these tentacles? We absolutely know don't we? The only thing to do is kill the octopus together. After all, what it refuses to relinquish is our lives.
Mandelstam famously said--“I divide all works of world literature into those that are authorized and those written without authorization. The former are scum, and the latter, stolen air.” Floyd & Uyen & Anne give me ways to respirate that air, to keep breathing a felonious attempt to hold The World. To be for it & against it, of & with it, all at once.
See Floyd up there giving the finger? The photo's caption on his Tumblr reads "Fuck the clock." I'd like to leave you with a thought of that, & when I get back, I'll have one more thing to say via thoughts of this bar, about that little clock, & its other. In the meantime Floyd's right. Fuck the clock. Kill the octopus. #OATW forever. See you soon.
Poet Dana Ward is the author of a number of chapbooks: New Couriers (2006), Goodnight Voice (2008), The Drought (2009), Typing ‘Wild Speech’ (2010), and the full-length This Can’t Be Life (2012). Influenced by the work of Alice Notley, Jack Kerouac, and others, Ward’s poetry is densely patterned and highly...