Allen Ruppersberg: You & Me, billboard next to the High Line Park, 2013, photo by Mónica de la Torre.

I get a lot of press releases at BOMB—a high quotient of them art-related. Often those using hyper-theoretical discourse reach Borgesian levels of critical absurdity that make them come across as found poetry, à la Flarf, say. I am thinking, for instance, of Borges and Bioy Casares’s collaborative sendup of critical discourse in the Chronicles of Bustos Domecq. The mere dedication of their collaboration, their last, published in 1967 and supposedly penned by a critic named Bustos Domecq, gives you a sense of the parody to be found in the book’s pages: “To those three great forgotten ones: Picasso, Joyce, Le Corbusier.” Or, take Domecq’s notes on a work by the fictional author Juan Carlos Loomis: “The text in Cot, exempli gratia, consists exclusively of the word cot, fully surpassing the fable, the epithet, the metaphor, characters, suspense, rhyme, alliteration, social disputes, the ivory tower, engaged literature, realism, originality, the servile aping of the classics, and even syntax itself.” (my translation)

Apropos of the fuzzy boundaries between fiction and purportedly objective criticism, and poetry’s intrinsic power to enact a critique in part through the framing of language events, consider this excerpt from a rather lengthy announcement for a show that took place earlier this year in Los Angeles: “This exhibition puts linguistic syntax at the literal center of the equation, like genitalia. […] Like Pop-revisionist takes on Twombly, or a slasher flick villain’s attempt at modernist abstractions, the paintings are a sinister interior decorator’s wet dream.”

An increasing number of announcements, however, are being written by artists who seem to deliberately want them to read as poetry. These idiosyncratic texts move associatively, and through unexpected semantic juxtapositions and leaps, plus a more or less convincing performance of artistic temperament, they—at least theoretically—thwart the very purpose of press releases. A form of institutional critique, perhaps, they refuse to ventriloquize the pseudo-critical marketing template that prevails in most communications of the kind, and provide artists with yet another stage on which to rehearse their roles of high capitalism’s renegades.

The text for a 2011 show of Emily Sundblad’s installation and paintings at Algus Greenspon Gallery—it had the best title: Que Barbaro—is a good example. In particular, the final section, with its alliteration, line breaks underscoring the shifts in register and voice, and allusions to art and literature:

The Hills are alive, The City is on.
/ I have a boner.
/ Odilon Redon.
/ The dove in the bathroom window at Reena Spaulings broods her egg. We use the toilet carefully when we see her angry eye through the glass, so she won’t fly away.
/ You had better get $10 000 so you can freeze your own eggs, Miss. /
Djuna Barnes would have barfed. She favored bestiality over child bearing. / Thelma Wood knocked her teeth out. Sometimes violence clears the air. I’m coming for you, bitch.
/ That creep! Yuck. How could you?
/ But wait, you are gorgeous, out of control, disappearing down into the subway, which is also possessed.
/ Hetero-normativity, My ass.
/ Darling, save yours.

David Antin’s definition of a poem as a commercial that isn’t selling anything comes to mind. Is this language a sales pitch, though? It is and it isn’t. You could say it is the branding of an educated, quirky, gender-shifting, urban subjectivity whose polymorphous desire defies heterosexual social mores and resents the capitalist order, where even reproduction comes with a price tag. It is consistent with the Romantic notion of the artist, played out in a text that, if anything, is prescient of the currency that poetry is now enjoying in the rarified confines of the art world.

Just in the last year or so, poetry has been appearing in other contexts outside of the ones typically provided by poetry’s channels and institutions. I won’t go into the ones that have already gotten a lot of play (Kenneth Goldsmith’s MoMA residency as Poet Laureate in 2013, or the 89plus exhibition and series of readings at the LUMA Foundation in Zurich this past winter). Other instances that stand out for me are: Susan Howe’s letterpress prints Tom Tim Tot, shown in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as well as the inclusion of the independent publisher Semiotext(e), which participated in the biennial by commissioning booklets by twenty-eight authors, among them poets Ariana Reines, Dodie Bellamy, and Eileen Myles.

Even more remarkable perhaps, for it brought together communities that rarely overlap, was Adam Pendleton and Joan Retallack’s Supposium: Beyond Default Geometries of Attention at MoMA this past March. The symposium featured six presenters of “thought experiments beginning with the word suppose”: Retallack, Pendleton (a conceptual artist and poet), poets Anne Carson and Fred Moten, the Bethlehem-based architect Sandi Hilal, and simulation-theory scholar Peter Krapp. Audience members—artists, curators, scholars, and poets—were instructed to take notes during the presentations and then break into groups. Each group literally compared notes and then collaboratively swerved them—by collaging and reinterpreting them—in order to produce a joint response. The last part of the event, in which all the responses were delivered before the attendees, was very much like an Oulipian poetry reading: because of the directives we followed, all the texts produced on the spot had almost the same language, but reconfigured differently. You could recognize a bit of Carson’s poem braided with a quote of Pendleton’s on black speech and a phrase of Moten’s on Miles Davis, or a thought of Retallack’s on John Cage’s notion of noise combined with something Hilal said on the architecture of Palestinian refuge camps, for instance—the subtleties of each permutation drawing your attention in a direction different to the one you’d already gone in when first listening to the presenters. The irony of this happening in MoMA’s Founders Room did not escape me. Months later, at Pendleton’s first exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, I’d see the presenters’ names silkscreened onto a few very handsome silver canvases in the back room of the gallery.

The incongruity between context and content reached new heights back in the fall of 2013 when Performa, the New York-based performance art biennial, commissioned the project To Breathe Is Not Enough, a “concert” in which artists Will Holder, also a graphic designer and publisher, Karl Holmqvist, and Angie Keefer performed close readings of poems. I missed the event, but I heard that Will Holder chose Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” for the occasion. I can imagine a sleepy, half-empty lecture hall at a university had this been presented by an English Department instead of Performa.

There are many more, but I’ll end with a more recent example of poetry’s currency in the art world. The summer issue of the art journal frieze boasts the following tagline on its cover, among a few other ones: “ART & POETRY NOW.” Besides featuring Jeremy Sigler’s selection of work by fifteen American poets (full disclosure: myself included)— John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Alan Gilbert, Ann Lauterbach, Frances Richard, Anne Waldman, Matvei Yankelevich, John Yau, and others—it devotes pages to an article titled “Art Hearts Poetry” by Quinn Latimer, and to a piece on “sincerity via poetry and art” by Matthew Rana. A proviso: if Latimer’s essay opens the issue, the actually poetry appears crammed, in the back of the magazine. Lip service?

Latimer, at least partially, seems to share my skepticism on the phenomenon. She writes, “Like capitalism, contemporary art is hungry and omnivorous; it devours and assimilates everything. […] Poetry embodies the need to use language in a way that is not useful, in the conventional sense. […] Perhaps artists are tired of use value. […] Or perhaps, conversely, art’s turn toward poetry is about poetry anxiously attempting to join the market.”

The way I see it, what we’re witnessing is not necessarily indicative of a return to past fecund collaborations between artists and poets, à la New York School—as is the case with painter Amy Sillman’s collaborations with poets for her animations, which I hope to discuss with her in a forthcoming post—but an appropriation of poetry’s discourse by practitioners in the field of art. The playacting of artists as poets is at the expense of poets, and involves their displacement. The epitome of artifice: poetry conferring authenticity, street cred, the stamp of the “real deal.”

But wait, I see unwanted territorialism cropping up in my thinking. We’re in the post-discipline era, and anyway, don’t we want poetry to be “made by all,” as Lautréamont would have it?

Originally Published: July 9th, 2014

Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...