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Poetry at the New Museum’s Triennial: Jenny Zhang, Brandon Brown, and Cathy Park Hong

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Talk Series: Brian Droitcour on Poetry at the New Museum’s Triennial with Jenny Zhang, Brandon Brown, and Cathy Park Hong

The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church

Friday, March 20, 2015

 

It’s not a stretch to say that the world of contemporary art, and its globe-trotting, future-facing festival programmers, have been paying closer attention to developments in poetry lately. The 2014 installment of the Whitney Biennial got it pretty right, featuring some heady and great poets like Etel Adnan, Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Susan Howe, cool installations by legendary ind. publisher Semiotext(e) and pan-literary art happening masters Triple Canopy. Curatorial force-of-nature Hans Ulrich Obrist has been championing an emerging generation that writes in-your-face, all-day-alive-and-online poetry, much of it awesome and extremey, smearing discourse and rhythmic “me stuff,” zoning out, coming back. It’s good to see, and these are just some easy examples. I really think it’s happening, more art people are looking at us lately, our complex, battling little world of poets.

Whatever auf der poetics, I’m not going to kid myself into believing that these moves, and they’re moves, have been executed to raise the work of poets to an equivalent social and economic standing with the visual arts, and that isn’t simply because today’s art world—at least, the one I view through the Vaseline-coated prism of New York—is pretty much a hedge funder’s Godzilla practiced by ruthless types in suspenders who sound like Christian Bale in American Psycho. Poetry money? It ain’t very possible. Still, I wonder if we’ve ever really belonged there, with them art shows. I remember going to see the amazing Tracie Morris’s turn in the 2002 Biennial, thrilled to see what they’d do, only to find her pieces largely relegated to closed-off performances away from the electricity of the gallery floors, though there was a small installation of some headphones off in a corner. But physically she might has well have been vapor, which was a shame. I probably came there with some distrust already, but it was hard to shake the feeling that the curators were window-dressing her, once again treating poetry like an exotic corner display of chinoiserie to be viewed from a safe distance at the Crystal Palace. Do not engage.

But this year we’re faced with a new entry into the festival blitz, the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, and while my easily-won cynicism about poetry in museum contexts would probably hold true here as well, there were some signs that this, finally, might be a little viable place for the poets. Video savant Ryan Trecartin co-curated the show—subtitled Surround Audience—with Lauren Cornell, the former editor of Rhizome, which you should look up if you’re not knowing about that. Neatly, the show itself is not shy about bringing poets directly into the mix either. Lovable nutcase Steve Roggenbuck runs proclaiming through woods, and challenging those woods, in poetry videos on three a-list flatscreens, downstairs, on their own floor. Classic. There's quite a few good poetry books in its spare and intimidating bookshop. Double-take. Hell, Andrew Durbin’s interview with the pretty amazing poet-everything Juliana Huxtable is in the center of the exhibition catalogue, published by Rizzoli. Tidy.

Overall the show’s so-so, to be honest with you: the work’s largely of the fetching far-flung iconoclastic-loner variety, and feels too spatially and idiomatically expansive to be all crunched together like it is in the New Museum’s awkward exhibition niches (arguably the worst narrow major art venue in the City since the Museum of American Folk Art got condo-d by MoMA). It might be more an architecture problem, because the curators did pick some great works. But more importantly for poets, the Triennial’s taken on a nice initiative. They’ve just now published a companion anthology of poets and language-driven visual artists, both in and not-in the show. And, as The Animated Reader is meant to operate right alongside the big traditional exhibition catalogue, I immediately checked the thing out. From which visit comes the enthusiasm of the above.

Anyway, this is a report, so I should probably get to it. As part of the Triennial’s events, and to celebrate The Animated Reader's publication, the volume’s editor, writer and translator, Brian Droitcour, hosted a panel at the Poetry Project a couple of weeks back, featuring three poets from the anthology, Jenny Zhang, Brandon Brown and Cathy Park Hong, all of whose work I know pretty well. In top of that, the panel wasn’t just a chance for them to merely “poeticize” observations on the Triennial itself, aka the great fortune of having their work set in this big new context, while at the same time questioning the gauche phenomenon of the institutionalism of the survey, whatever. This panel was going to focus largely on their respective approaches to translation. And I am all about new and difficult approaches to translation, which these three traffic in relentlessly. I wasn’t about to miss this event. I’m glad I went!

It was a big crowd, particularly for a lecture setting, and seemed evenly split between writers and visual art types, and while it wasn’t the world’s most smoothly-run panel (name one that is), and the folks I’m writing about had a lot more things to say than what I’m mentioning below, many ideas erupted out of their presentations, like heady and formidable things.

 

JENNY ZHANG

The first presenter was the Chinese-American poet Jenny Zhang, whose debut volume, 2011’s Dear Jenny We Are All Find (Octopus Books) was a pretty great mix of overt, dark-angel sexuality, set among splayed confusions of living among mixed, then remixed, cultures. I really got into that book when it came out. She’s also a powerful, and discomfiting, live reader. Jenny began with some striking and hilarious anecdotes from her teenage years, when her family relocated from a bustling, multi-ethnic enclave in Queens to a prosperous, nearly all-white bedroom community on Long Island. In the process she had her views as a young first-generation immigrant fully rotated, from her demi-American urban childhood to the full white effect of a suburban teenage dream. Her father warned her from the get-go: “don’t be like them,” like the white kids at school. She couldn’t even pronounce things right—she called a tunnel a “turn-el” and thought that beer was an animal in the mountains that could tear you limb from limb. Her teen acne could get so “pussy,” she told classmates, who stared at her like she was an alien.

Thing is, she was. Zhang literally had always had to check “alien” in all her official school documents and forms. (I wonder, why hasn’t a new official name for that status been rolled out?) When at school, her parents demanded she be “regular,” be “normal,” insisting that her white peers would never be able to see her as special, would never be able to accept her as one of their own. On top of that, she sounds like she was a willful, amazing little kid, forcing other children to sit and listen to her practice English words found in fairy tale books her Dad hauled back from his ESL classes.

As a kindergartner, on her first day at school, without knowing a word of English, she had screamed whenever her teacher approached, and the teacher asked her father if she’s a monster. It’s a questions she asked herself repeatedly through her life. Is she?

When your whole life is monstrous, and you have to clown it, and eat it, and regurgitate it, and translate it, so you can claw your way into a place where you aren’t the only monster who didn’t choose to be seen that way.

Which is a wild thing to imagine a young self thinking. It’s a sign for a big soul. At this point people might think they know where this story’s going maybe: she navigates the competing pressures of her striving, conformist parents and the nihilistic graces of the girls in the cheerleader gang. She has a way of taking the things waking inside her outside her. She runs away to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She wins the Booker Prize or whatever. The end.

Well, it’s not true, some of it’s true. She was sure it wasn’t only white people who would choose a career that makes no money, “something impractical, something that they actually like.” Jenny wanted to write. “Well, you can’t,” her mother said. “That’s a fact.” But she did find her way to Iowa. For those two years her mom told everyone her daughter was in Ohio, at a “really great school for writing movie scripts and TV shows and becoming a newspaper journalist”.

But it’s at Iowa, doing fiction, that Zhang first discovers what feels like an entirely new race, of a sort: The Poets. “I need some poets up in here,” the writer Jonathan Ames calls out at a reading party Zhang has hosted for him at the department. “Come on now. I can’t be the only one. I need my people,” which delivers her a delicious new irony: that even an entitled white male, in the land of his near-universal privilege, can, as a poet, view himself as part of a separate and obscure culture, gloriously impotent, and that’s where he locates his true identity. It strikes Zhang that there’s something fair and democratic about the world of poets, both “so inside and protected and vaulted and cryptic” yet also “worthless and powerless and valueless.” Zhang has been able to connect the alien-ness of “the poet” to her earlier existence as a not-fully formed teenager, to her “alien” classification. There are reverberations there. She’s drawn to the poets. She’s drawn to that race. No doubt. She’s a poet. In fact, she read, no, purred, a recent poem, and I have to give you a taste of what her work’s like. Here’s the beginning of it:

The last five centuries were uneventful

the stitches that melted

from my ripped open cunt

tasted like mint and changed color

when I peed

I peed with the door open

because this is bounty

the universe has a fat lip

we put every cock from China

inside it and splash

in the slippery oriental jizz

you feel like seppakuing because your butthole is unretractable

you feel like seppakuing because your butthole is too determined

you feel like seppakuing because one time a man was rejected by a woman

she said, You’re creepy

and he got a gun

and wrote a manifesto

against bikram yoga

against women with great bodies

against women who want to have babies with other men

against women who want to have babies with men who are not allowed to be part of their lives after they have the baby

against women who know they are good looking

against women who have died for knowing they are good looking

against women who loved women and mocked men for jerking off to the idea of a woman touching a woman

I have jerked off to the idea of a man

jerking off to the idea of a woman touching a woman

and that idea bought a samurai sword from ebay

and seppakued

 

Yeah, that’s some interchange there.

So it was back in New York City, years after Iowa, surrounded by this gigantic poetry community and huge readings and chapbooks and movement and parties, that some of those earlier insecurities begin to return, and I’m reducing and paraphrasing big time here, she realizes that scary often she’s the only woman of color in all-white person lineups at readings and events and on the literary magazines she’s in, that ask for work, etc. And so she moves with heavy discomfort around “my people,” the poets, such as it is. Maybe the race of poetry is just another white thing after all. When she hits the end, she comes full circle, to an agreement of a sort with herself: “That I am not like them. That I am not the only one.”

 

BRANDON BROWN

Brandon Brown’s two published volumes of innovative translations, The Persians by Aeschylus and The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, went two or three clicks beyond bringing the ancient works into modern idiom and flow. Through some talky, wrong magic, these books achieve something far more rare: you begin to feel the physique of the ancient playwrights a little, moving around a real city now, doubting, questioning, smearing, shit-faced, killing at karaoke. This is translation as habitation trading as an accuracy of spirit. If you’re really looking for direct translations of Catullus and Aeschylus you’re going to be (mostly) infuriated, but you’ll be infuriated anyway. And when he does a straight trans. it can get delicious. But the authorial wandering is never far away from a sweet boy’s masochism for the real work with the Greek. While Brandon is a longtime shared-name buddy and fellow-traveller, I was curious how he’d frame his projects in the wider context of a bunch of people who mostly didn’t know him. The cold open.

One of Brown’s hottest qualities as a live reader stems from his amorphous use of transitional devices: his timing is a bitch, and there is very little-to-no discernible cue between his gorgeous pratfalls of prefatory remarks and harrumphs—a stuttering, pretty-boy toast-master—and the poems themselves. He breaks the hell out of the fourth wall constantly, even shooting himself an eye when he lets out a so-wrong-it's right line, to go off onto some other exasperated tangent, and the effect tightly pulls listeners in. It’s really conspiratorial: You know he’s about to say another juicy, troubling thing.

He opened his talk with an anecdote gleaned from Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, where she wrote that everytime she sang the song Strange Fruit, she had to puke backstage afterwards. What first seemed a disconnected aside proved to be a kernel of his talk, as that willful, in this case unpleasant embodiment of the song (i.e. Holiday’s repeated "translation" of her most famous song) hits right at Brown’s operation poetics of translation as a “scene, or a drama” that occurs in the delay between an original work’s release and the appearance of the translation. This delay takes place in the body of the translator, and becomes part of the body’s own processes, the digestion or rejection of food, the regulatory chemical processes of the brain, intercourse, etc. The puking. Brown posits that this “drama” makes it impossible for a translator to aspire, in the Western tradition, toward invisibility or transparency, to disappear behind the essence of the original author. But this is a fiction. Every translation is conducted by a person or persons. Every syllable is theirs. There’s no way, literally, to hide the body of a translator, or the function of that body, and to believe otherwise is to perpetuate a big fake trope. The translator’s ideals—of “fidelity” and “debt” to its source, its master—are facile relics of Romanticism. The translator can never avoid “detection” within their translation.

To take on Catullus and Aeschylus in this new way, Brown tasked himself with way new procedural modes, actions and records of action that could foreground, rather than hide, the “delay” of the translator’s work, to push the sensation of his curious body as he went about his agonizing and/or breezy processes. What it felt like to be coursing through his apartment with Catullus inside him, say, to be at parties, to be within the breeze of the poetry scene in the Bay, the old then versus the new now there, the goddamn internet. He and the ancients go co-planar with their scandals; he’s subject to the gustatory revulsions of this; he’s going to puke.

Brown, was trying to translate not just the text of the The Persians, but equally its opportunistic, feminizing slander of the play’s namesake people by Aeschylus…a straight propaganda move, just as, at the time of its writing, a similar dehumanization of the former Persia was then occurring at the hands of the United States: Abu Ghraib, American soldiers pissing on Korans and enemy corpses, violating prisoners…the willful flattening of Iraqi society by our society. The overwhelming nausea he was made to feel from the parallel revulsions became an operative velocity behind his translations.

Brown next referenced a lecture by the Bay Area poet and translator Norma Cole, who, in discussing Beckett’s famous translation of Rimbaud’s Le Bateu Hivre, focused in on Beckett’s altering of Rimbaud’s “dix nuits” (ten nights) into English as a sonorous “nine nights,” and the impossibility of this rendition within the dictates of translation. It can’t be done, yet it can. This willful inaccuracy by Beckett is, in a sense, the key to the radical poetics inherent in translation. It’s wrong; it’s so wrong. But it sounds so right. This is a delicious disorder, one at the heart of Brown’s intentions and interventions with his sources. Similar emphases on the “delay” occur in Brown’s hilarious translation of Catullus’s Poem 81, which he read aloud. Where the poet’s former lover Juventius is ridiculed for taking a lover “from the sickly region of Pisaurnum, / paler than a gilded statue,” Brown writes of visiting Wikihow in order to learn how to apply Goth makeup to achieve a pale complexion, before tragically visiting a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District on a slow Monday night, trying to recruit a lover among the patrons—a new, not-smooth Catullus. He gradually becomes very, very drunk. He starts pulling moves:

When someone else in the bar played several Cure songs, I bit my tongue from singing along. Finally, I approached a young lover at the end of the bar and asked if I could sit in the adjacent barstool. They said their partner was in the bathroom and was imminently returning. They did not appear interested in being seduced by me.

So, no go. The bartender gives him a weird look. He stumbles home and wipes the white crap off his face. The poem ends. Ladies and gentlemen, Catullus.

 

CATHY PARK HONG

Cathy Park Hong’s poetry has stood out for years with its dazzling mash of cultural slang, multiple languages, heady alliteration, and mixed-signal codes. More recently, she’s aligned this sense of play to a no-nonsense critical approach that highlights the ugly politics and racism within the American Avant Garde and its standard-bearers. Fittingly, Cathy focused here not on the relationship of translation to her own writing, but instead foregrounded some of the "translating" effects of technology—namely, the internet and its limitless archiving of everything—on poetry, memory and ethics. The always-on, always-transcribing internet, “where real time is killing present time,” seems to flatten all history and event into an ordinary tedium of affect. History is seen as a kit of parts that can be endlessly pulled from, pasted together, used for kicks. A veneer.

This “flattening,” in turn, has been "translated" by practitioners of Conceptual Poetry—in this case, the most recent Kenny Goldsmith bullshit—as a form of permission, allowing him to turn the extraordinary murder of black teenager Michael Brown into an ordinary "digital file" by a flat reading of the boy’s autopsy report, culled from an online source. It’s Goldsmith’s curatorial neutralizing of his subject’s potency—flattening this horrific act into his own exhibition—that Hong convincingly paints as itself a racist act of violence, by reducing this young man’s body to a dare of privilege, directed at his audience. To see this event as just another rote medical examination, reduced further still by Goldsmith’s "daring" lack of feeling. The widespread reaction and revulsion to this performance, still unspooling in the poetry community proves that “history is not a grab-bag—”

History is very much alive, and throbbing, and what Goldsmith actually did was ot only reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering, but reinforce, and continue on, the master narrative of history.

Goldsmith’s “atonal flatness,” Hong argues, has long been the Avant Garde’s mode d’emploi, its standard reaction to avoid the wild tics of the lyric and the tyranny of voice. This flatness is constructed as neutral, as somehow more true. But it is always white men, she says, who consistently champion the music of this flatness. I straightened up in my chair when she brought up Eddie Murphy’s famous Saturday Night Live short where, donning white face make-up and a brown suit, he takes on a flat unaffected accent and wanders characterlessly into businesses where, coded as upscale white male, he’s given everything he wants for free. I remember the awkwardness of that short when I saw it as barely a teenager, how radical it felt as a move; and the way I reacted to it then, against the way I was reacting to it now. Eddie Murphy had done something. Hong wonders if the flatness at work in popular conceptual writing today—the Kill Lists, the Fuck Lists, the Big Transcribe—might signal a broader disease within poetry, caused by the way it’s largely being seen and read—online, on a flat screen, on Twitter, via Tumblr. Beyond poetry, our American speech is losing its regionalism, its accents, its spectacle, faster and faster in the information economy. It’s not like this is news. We should know and realize this.

English is becoming flattened, rid of its regional spoken vernacular, and is becoming standardized, shorthanded, emoticon-ed, tagged, search-termed, and captioned.

But in this new flattening, perhaps other avenues of expression can be opened outward at speed. Hong mentions the emergence and current hugeness of code-switching, the jumbling together of registers, vernacular, accents and genres in the work of pop-culture figures like Reggie Watts, or a thrilling 1977 Italian television production number performed entirely in percussive, American-sounding gibberish that became a viral sensation. While Hong modestly fails to mention the dazzling code-switches exhibited in her own work, she ties these effects to a lessening of national and linguistic borders brought on by the digital age, a new fluidity within fluency. While this flattening of globalism can never fully overwrite our traditional identity markers of race, sexuality and gender and culture, and I’m smearing her quote a bit here, Hong foresees great creative potential in the ways that identity can be re-worked within the fallout of this constant public global information exchange. That new languages might be developed out of these “transit zones of inherited cultures” that might counteract the flattening force of global capitalist culture, or as Hong connotes, releasing lovely steam, “the drone.”

That was where I was on Friday night March 20th. I haven’t even touched on a hundred other points those three brought up, so definitely listen to the tape if you can. The Q&A afterwards was also juicy and occasionally testy, as the poets discussed with each other and with us how the permutations of these new conditions (and the continued co-existence of racist social and institutional sensibilities of the 1880s into the twenty-teens—in way too many places) are fracturing and re-welding their respective communities of writers; but, well, maybe fuck community sometimes. Work alone, work out of the code, switch the code, do it fast, perform it at a wide divisive, cant, be alive in the fast mixing, be it new, be it now.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2015

Brandon Downing’s books of poetry include The Shirt Weapon (2002), Dark Brandon (2005), Mellow Actions (2013), and a monograph of his literary collages from 1996-2008, Lake Antiquity. In 2007 he released a feature-length collection of collaged digital shorts, Dark Brandon: Eternal Classics. He lives in New York City.