The panel on language poetry and the body surprised me in that each of the participants had a very different take on what “body” might mean in the context of poetics. Some dealt with phenomenology and some with the performative aspects of gender, and only one of the essays, that of Bruce Andrews, connected body with the notion of a romantic authorial subject, and even then only as part of a spectrum more descriptive than prescriptive. The house was packed and I think the discussion went very well. I look forward to publishing most or all of these essays as a group in the next issue of EOAGH, which should be out in June or July, so you’ll be able to read the text in full sometime then.
Maria Damon’s essay traced connections through the work of three poets, Leslie Scalapino, Carla Harryman, and Nada Gordon and their different conceptions of the body. She used Benjamin to read Scalapino’s project as related to the question of how to endure shocks without suffering repression, and she saw embodiment here as chiefly an issue of bodies in spaces, a kind of phenomenological awareness. She looked at Harryman’s work through the lens of gendered bodies in history, the concept of bodies under the state. The dilemma that “as a lady, she cannot function as the word ‘lady’” brings up the question “is it possible to be both gateway and consciousness?” Damon looked at Nada’s poetry as a kind of ecriture feminine (!) in which you can feel the presence of the “hegemonic brigade in the wings of the burlesque show.” She aptly described Nada’s writing as “terrifyingly ludic femininity” and posited Folly’s approach to consciousness as a “utopian alternative to madness.” Then she compared aspects of Nada’s project to that of Leslie Scalapino, which is a comparison I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. Truly a lively and original approach to the topic.
In Steve Benson’s memorable presentation, the poet performed acts of reading, listening to a tape of himself reading his notes on the panel topic. These notes were being played back over headphones to him on high speed while he adopted the role of a reader responding to his own distorted writing, a listener who at times seemed to be something more: “Things are awful for me, speaking as the entire human body.” His hilarious and insightful performance was filled with the energy of improvisation and lively asides: “more on that later.” Benson walked around the entire space while making this talk, making vigorous movements and theatrical hand gestures, as if to illustrate certain points such as the physicality of words on a page, the physical experience of being at times within the page surface, at other times “zooming from me to you.”
Leslie Scalapino talked about the role of the hippocampus in experiencing the relationship between past and present and how memories are formed in the writing process. In a really amazing and thoughtful essay, Scalapino discussed some of the ways in which writing provides a locus for addressing and intervening in the relationship between past, present, and possible future: “it’s seeing in a space there not being cause-and-effects,” the action of the writing “being apprehending not forming events.” However, by apprehending the SPACE of events, one can change them and thus change the future. Unlike her example of an early langpo figure (not sure who) who stated that a poem about a man with AIDS was “merely emotional content,” Scalapino offered other terms with which to examine or re-frame that issue: “the relation is instead between the mind and experiencing.” She questioned Watten’s notion of langpo as being opposed to “expressive poetics” that supposedly reject modernism, saying that his distinction “precludes sensation and others’ perceptions as BEING political change.” Her approach of using “sound/syntax as thought-shape to apprehend mind-shape" came close to my own view on the subject in terms of the importance of phenomenology for writing and the inter-relation of body and mind, not to mention gender. There is something extremely daring and mind-blowing about Scalapino’s suggestion that we can “eliminate memory as basis or vehicle and thus change the social constructions that are part of us.” Perhaps particularly noteworthy in this talk is one of the first times I have ever heard Leslie Scalapino employ prosopopoeia or apostrophe in a moment of surprising and wonderful self-interruption: “Leslie, these things are affecting your body!”
Last but certainly not least, I was won over by Bruce Andrews very reasonable and effective essay “Body & Language,” which followed his earlier commentary on the topic (see his wonderful Alabama book) but proposed the situation as a complex sliding scale rather than as opposed, ossified binaries. Andrews began by addressing the accusation that language poetry is usually criticized as a disembodied writing practice, and pointed out that this critique only makes sense if we draw a parallel between the body and the author in the sense of the authorial “self.” Instead of “the preenings of author control,” Andrews offered inter-media analogoies such as the notion of creating a disjunctive surface as in abstract art. He pointed out that whereas most romantic poetry deals with traditional ways of “showcasing” embodiment through the “representation of bodies,” the goal of langpo is to resist such an outward pull of representation, creating a “surface that emphasizes the surface of the page.” Andrews argued that language poetry is not necessarily a disembodied form of writing and that there is always the chance for bodily experience in the emphasis on the reader, a)thinking, b)loving, c)politicizing. He asked the very useful question “what constitutes an expansive freedom for the reader?” as well as the poly-sci-inflected inquiry “which features of lit propose an imperialistic text”? The sliding scale here contrasted on the one hand the notion of an untroubled depiction of the authorial self, and on the other hand the notion of a language without reference, neither of which would be a desirable situation (“not phobic avoidance of meaning altogether”). Rather, these extremes lie on a spectrum. They are tools for use in thinking about the type of generic or particular representation taking place in a text, and how this method of representation might relate to “the body of an expansive reader.” Andrews ended his essay with an allegory which drew certain parallels between the concerns of language writing and aspects of the US policy of containment regarding the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
There was a provocative question-and-answer period afterward in which we had many wonderful questions from Madeline Gins, Bob Perelman, Wystan Curnow, and many others. I learned a lot from working on this panel and I look forward to many more such discussions at Segue in the future.