The Poet’s Materials

{NOTE: Other versions of this text were submitted to Anna Lundh as an essay for her book Visions of the Now, to Angelo Plessas as a contribution to the Eternal Internet Brotherhood, and to Prof. Jacques Lezra as part of a paper for his seminar on Lyric & Abjection. In spite of all that it is still very much a work in progress and in flux.}

What happens to poetry when it meets the internet?

It seems to become fascinated with the materiality of language.

Kenneth Goldsmith offers an explanation for this in Uncreative Writing, with a genealogy that connects the work of conceptual poets (including himself) to the typesetting experiments of Mallarme and Apollinaire, and the later experiments of concrete poets. Language’s materiality was the object of modernist experimentation a hundred years ago but, as Goldsmith says, it is more apparent than ever in these times, thanks to word processors and other agents of language’s digitization. Everyday speech is bound to screens and devices. The accumulation of it generates the construction and expansion of server farms, where deposits of language build up like geological sediment.

In uncreative writing, authorship is the embodiment of copy-and-paste software functions. The selection of material for appropriation is the primary task of the writer. “The context becomes the content,” as Goldsmith’s slogan goes. Language is material and in operating with it the poet becomes a machine. What results from the poet-automaton’s work is a stack of pages. His labor of aggregation replicates in miniature the physical accumulation of information in libraries and server farms. His books mimic the monumental architecture built to house data. And his readers browse the text as if they were wandering through the stacks of a library, or surfing Wikipedia—skimming rather than reading. Goldsmith is to poetry what Rem Koolhaas is to architecture. He litters the landscape with linguistic junkspace and theorizes the autonomy of the body and mind from it. Everything he makes is a surface and he invites his readers to skim over its endless continuity.

This is all very interesting but it entails a limited understanding of what material is. Goldsmith’s metaphors cast language as inorganic and mechanical. Language is concrete—an unnatural mongrel of rocks and clays, a favored foundation of junkspace. But there is another way of looking at it: Language is material because people are material. Our bodies touch, eat, digest, and excrete the world around us. Language is part of how we participate in the metabolism of the world. New habits like checking Twitter while taking a dump (and tweeting about pooping) or vacuuming crumbs from a laptop’s keyboard reflect the incorporation of telecom into the body’s day-to-day cycles. They remind us that utterances issue from the body like abject emissions. They remind us that language is a basic material aspect of our being in the world.

There’s another kind of internet-oriented poetry that implicitly takes this understanding of language and the body as its foundation, and it is known as alt lit. Here’s a poem by Crispin Best as an example:

<begin poem>

*that noise from the start of ‘circle of life’*

hello, assholes

so i am having my first snowball fight of the year

and holy shit it is awesome

tonight i want to tell you that the moon is my favourite kind of indirect light

but instead i’m 5 years old throwing snowballs like i’m 5 years old today

my internal monologue says “nothing rhymes with orange”

and i’m like “wow dumbass no it doesn’t”

i throw a tiny snowball and you catch it in your mouth thirty feet away

so yes i am the spooky janitor character in the direct-to-video movie of your life

and no-one has leaned over and kissed me for a long time

with your gloves on your ears now you are the world’s rarest moose

but i throw a snowball directly up and close my eyes

please god jesus let it land on my head

it doesn’t and you walk over laughing and i feel sad

you take the snowball out of my hood and smash it into my face

snow is cold as shit when you’re 5 and i love it

the last time someone kissed me i could feel their mouth smiling

and i don’t know if that is good

but ok i am a power station in your goddamn countryside tonight

and on a scale of alive we are alive

<end poem>

Hello, assholes! Best starts by turning the body upside down. Greetings come from the mouth and are addressed to other faces but Best redirects it to the ass, to the site of material egress from the body. Of course, “asshole” is an ordinary insult that performs this inversion all the time. But it’s a funny way to start a poem! Seeing that at the top of many lines of text, addressed to everyone who comes across it and yet no one in particular, makes me think of the greeting “Hello world!” that was found at the top of old web sites or HTML documents. It’s like Best is saying that the world of the web is a world of asses. Networks and bodies are equal as ways of connecting to the word. The blog that the poem is on plumps like a booty.

“hello assholes” is a nice prelude to the lumpy fluidity of time and space in the poem that follows. Best is a little boy and at the same time he’s a little man. He’s remembering something and he’s alive in the memory (“i am the spooky janitor in the direct-to-video movie of your life”). The “tonight” of his present merges with his childhood in the telling, which is delivered in a tone that is both naively child-like and youthfully insecure, a tone that easily accommodates both the description of the snow on his face, “cold as shit,” and the account of a recent instance when he was kissed and felt a worrisome smile on the woman’s mouth. The sensations of the distant snowball fight are so crisp that he feels them as viscerally in the “now” of the poem as he did in his childhood. Affect hugs physical feeling so hard that the shapes of them blend and become indistinct from each other; the coldness of the snowballs coincided with his earliest feelings of attraction to a girl, and that is what brings the coldness to the skin as he writes a love poem now. Sensation, memory, and poetry fuse in a single experience, an experience permeated with the feeling of being doubly alive.

*pause*

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith talks about a question he found in a popular magazine: Who could be the Andy Warhol of poetry? He promptly dismisses it. Warhol was unique, and he belonged to a specific historical moment. And yet Goldsmith follows this dismissal with an in-depth discussion of Warhol as a genius of unoriginality, a guru of appropriation that conceptual poets should emulate today. The implicit argument is that uncreative writing is literature’s Pop art, and Goldsmith is its Warhol. I wish he had stuck with his original dismissal! The conditions of culture have changed too much for Warhols to be of much importance now. In the sixties it was exciting for people to become machines, to coolly reproduce images and affects, to artfully mold their self-presentation. “I want to be a machine,” Warhol famously said, and he did this by making his body artificial (wigged, made-up) and untouchable, rarely eating or expressing emotion in public. He conceived of ways for people to consume brands and to be consumed by brands through the production of personal branding. His ideas captured the popular imagination and saturated it. Now Warholian self-design has become part of everyday life. Cool people want to have personal brands. LinkedIn members perform a zombified corporate version of the same act.

Why is it interesting for artists and poets to mechanically operate words and signs in a time when we carry computers in our pockets to do this for us? What’s more interesting is how that constant proximity to machines generates a visceral flow of language in and out of them all the time. Our material engagement with the world and with other people is mediated by networked computers, and yet it’s not fully determined by them. Our modes of engagement aren’t exactly equal to the computer’s. The constant proximity of machines reminds us that we’re not machines—that we’re weird and hungry and messy and queer and lonely and gross in ways that they (the machines) can’t be.

This is why self-design is less interesting than the selfie. Self-design makes a big, legible version of the self, while the selfie is its diminutive. It is the abject residue of personhood’s digital molting, images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin. With the selfie, social media sites facilitate a naked openness of the self as it changes and grows. The personal brand flounders and drowns in the swampy reality of personhood. The poetry of Steve Roggenbuck is the literary voice of selfie. If there is a Warhol of poetry today then it’s Steve, who invigorates literature by being Warhol’s opposite.

Roggenbuck’s early poems—such as his online chapbook i am like october when i am dead—mix utterance, physical sensation, and affective impulse in their representation of the urgency and truth of feeling, as in Best’s poem above. But what really boosted Roggenbuck to prominence was not so much the poems themselves as his social media presence, amplified by the videos he put on his YouTube account. The first videos were documents of him reading his own poetry to the camera with some background music. Later ones had a life of their own as short films. this is how we live in this world (NICE.. THIS VIDOE IMPROVED MY WORLD OUTLOOK) shows Roggenbuck in the bedroom of a suburban home, like so many teen vloggers who make themselves the object of their webcams in their search for an audience. But he distinguishes himself from the masses of YouTube confessionalists with his rapid editing and his weird, weirdly self-abasing invective. YouTube makes him an object and he eagerly makes himself abject. “whip me with a shop dick,” he shouts, whatever that means. “bleach my cock pubes white. [...] i want lightning to come down and strike my dick.”

There are cuts from the house to the Target—from the standard, angular white walls of suburban domesticity to the organized aisles of big-box commerce. Through editing the two spaces blend together. It’s all junkspace. But unlike the uncreative writer, who skims over the surface of junkspace on a cloud of conceptual wit, the alt lit poet writhes and jerks around in it, confronting the differences between junkspace and the body. (In the last third of “this is how we live in this world,” Roggenbuck falls silent, and he joins a couple of friends as they run through a meadow near a lake and the wind tousles their hair—bodies playing in nature and feeling it on themselves.) Roggenbuck edits a lot, and he’s clearly aware of the complex relationships between the rhythms produced by the editing software and the rhythms of his audience’s bodies, between the lens of his camera and his audience’s eyes. But he’s not trying to make the machine functions blend seamlessly with the actions of the body, like Goldsmith does when he makes conceptual poems. Roggenbuck is pushing them apart, so you’re not looking at the effects of the machine. You’re left looking at life.

Mira Gonzalez, another alt lit poet, tweeted: “i want to pee on a lot of things, which would be problematic if i was a dog bc dogs pee on things for ownership & i don’t like owning things”. I actually don’t think this would be problematic. Dogs aren’t capitalists. Dogs don’t think of owning things like we do. Maybe for dogs, peeing is like tweeting. It marks an affinity to the peed-on object (the words) but what matters more to the dog is that the affinity is public and known to other dogs (it’s online). Gonzalez (or Roggenbuck, or Crispin Best) doesn’t want to own her tweets—she wants to emit them in public space of Twitter. Alt lit poets are like dogs who shit and piss in a public park.

Alt lit is caca poopoo. Seriously—a lot of it is really bad. But so what? Roggenbuck wrote in a manifesto: “what we are doing is bigger than and aside from abstract ideas of literary merit. we are making each others lives better.” Alt lit’s social priorities (which exceed, or are equal to, its aesthetic priorities) are articulated in Roggenbuck’s ideas about “boosting”: The purpose of making art is to incite other people to make art. Poetry only matters insofar as it impels others to join a community of poets. The notion of “creativity” has been appropriated wholesale by the industries of advertising and marketing to designate the rearrangement and repetition of formulas for selling products and services (and I think the corporatization of creativity is partly responsible for Goldsmith’s revulsion toward the concept). But alt lit recasts creativity as a primal urge to make something beautiful, not just for the sake of making it but for the enjoyment of it in the context of social being, for the sake of feeling alive. When Roggenbuck tweeted “I LOV TO APRECIATE THE ANIMALASPECT’S OF LIEF SUCH AS SEX, POOP, AND EAT” he wasn’t just making the abject reality of his body (of life) an aesthetic object, worthy of loving appreciation; he was making writing a reality of his abject body.

Uncreative writing—in the monumentality and deliberate boringness of the texts it produces—is always referring obliquely to the unreadability of the internet. The bigness of the appropriated text in the work of an uncreative writer discourages readers from actually reading the work, just as the internet is too big to ever be read in full, and we have to filter through it with algorithms and hierarchies and other conceptual apparatuses of organization. Language is a material detritus to be “shovelled, reshaped, hoarded, molded… discarded,” as Goldsmith writes. The concept is what’s left.

Alt lit has its own kind of unreadability. The output of it is massive, and most of it is lost in the vast and unwieldy non-archive of social media—all those status updates, tweets, and Tumblr posts occupying bytes in some remote server. Alt lit only matters if you’re online and reading it as it happens—just like the way that conversational speech only matters if you’re physically present when it’s spoken. Alt lit thrives in social media, and it invigorates social media by amplifying the feeling of presence and participation in it. It’s the poetry of bodies engaged in technologically mediated social being. Living in and against the networks that support it, the creativity of alt lit appears as an everyday bodily function, as regular and as vital as sex, poop, and eat.

2 Comments

  1. Edward Leicester
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It might have been good to discuss Flarf (which is where alt lit comes from) in this essay.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flarf_poetry

    • culturetwo
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I actually wrote a paragraph comparing Flarf to alt lit and decided to cut it, but you’re right, it is an important precedent. I’ll bring that paragraph back in another post and let you know when it’s up.

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