Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

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Attention Span 2011 | Brian Kim Stefans

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Simon Reynolds | Retromania | Faber | 2011

I’m still halfway through this one. It’s a balm for those of us who have no idea why pop music is so terribly uninteresting today—lots of incredible talent with nothing to say—and a bomb for those who thinks it’s all rosy. I’m having my students read it for my L.A. Post-punk/DIY class (a freshman seminar), along with Lipstick Traces and We Got the Neutron Bomb. Reynolds’ book Rip It Up and Start Again, on English Post-punk, inspired the course. I was happy to discover he’d moved to LA some months ago, and have since met him and his wife, Joy Press, whom some of you might remember from the days of the Voice Literary Supplement—and I thought the name was a pseudonym! I met Billy Idol the day I met Simon Reynolds. Oh, yes, the book. It’s very accessible but dense—allusions to Badiou, Bourdieu, Benjamin, Kittler (I think), the fall of Rome, etc.—and is largely autobiographical as he charts his ineptness with, and reservations about, new technology. I think a lot of you have already bought your copy of this book.

Roberto Bolaño | Nazi Literature in the Americas | New Directions | 2008

The Savage Detectives was the best novel I had read in a long time, at times Dostoyevskian in its grandeur, scope, generosity and addiction to visionary pain, and always threatening to have “magical realist” elements (that might have just been me), but never making good on that threat. It ends with the discovery of a concrete poem—who would have thunk? This collection shows the Borgesian side of Bolaño, though never with that ‘pataphysical hook that makes Borges so addictive. I enjoyed it but read it quickly; it’s actually become the model for my anthology on Los Angeles poetry, as I’m realizing that I should really tell stories, rather than convince with keen analysis, in the volume—people might actually read it. I think the issue of what makes these writers “Nazis” might have more resonance with Latin American readers, as some chapters merely touch on this connection.

Alain Badiou | The Communist Hypothesis | Verso | 2010

This was actually a quick read. Badiou will be spending next year at UCLA doing whatever, and I’ve never gotten around to his headier tomes. Some of it is archival—he includes a longish essay he wrote in the late 60s—and some new. Involves new interpretations of the Paris Commune, Mao’s cultural revolution (which he limits to a very short period early on when theory and action seemed aligned, prior to the descent into chaos) and, of course, Paris ’68. It ends with a light recount of his famous theory of the Event, and has a useful critique of the cult of individualism in the States versus living according to an “Idea.” I don’t want to go into it much deeper, except to note that I’m increasingly (ok, I have been for a while) wary of the fetish about of May ’68. I think we should just give it up, start afresh. It’s an attractive moment, when intellectuals (many of whom were great writers) and labor seemed aligned, and the ensuing chaos—contained, in the end—brought a violent poetic spirit to the everyday—but now it merely survives as a tone, a prose style. Ok, that’s dismissive. I also bought a trio of books edited by Zizek, his “Revolution” series, but have only finished Virtue and Terror on Robespierre (I had seen this in a bookstore in Paris and wanted to buy it then, but I wanted to “live in the present,” not fill the place with the ghosts of Danton and Saint-Just). I’ll leave it at that.

Junot Díaz | The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Riverhead | 2007

I don’t read a lot of fiction. I’m teaching Only Revolutions, by Mark “House of Leaves” Danielewski, in my contemporary American poetry class, so I should probably read House of Leaves. I’m also teaching the first section of the Changing Light at Sandover and Alice in Wonderland (the class is subtitled “The Ludic Turn”). Anyway, this was a beach read; I read my stepmother’s copy while I was visiting them in Long Island. I actually did read some of this on the beach. Díaz is obviously talented and very smart, and it didn’t feel like what it is, Bolaño-lite. There is sex, sexual addiction, political violence, abusive cracked parents, picaresque descriptions of overseas travel, and something like tragedy. The major annoyances were the little eye-wink inclusions of academic jargon (it’s a very “teachable” book in that way) which was couched in a pseudo-hipster Latino American speak, to make it go down easy. It’s meta-identity literature, but not meta enough. He created a pretty interesting synthetic language that could accommodate the various audiences he was trying to reach, and deserves credit. In any case, I enjoyed it pretty much. I’m sure Javier Bardam will have a role in the movie.

McKenzie Wark | The Beach Beneath the Street | Verso | 2011

I read none of this on the beach, unless it was the beach beneath Los Angeles counts. Ken lived two doors down from me in Williamsburg, which I only discovered after I was asked to review a book of poems by this Australian guy for PW, Googled him, and discovered I’d been bumming cigarettes off of his wife for a few years. Wark is an advocate of what he calls “low theory,” which is what he described (somewhere) as theory that you don’t need a Ph.D. to read; his previous two books, both excellent, are written in this style as well, and I admire that effort. The book covers many of the figures of Situationism who are major though overlooked—I especially liked the bits about Jorn’s aesthetic theory and the narrative of Alexander Trocchi, though would have liked to learn more about Alice Becker-Ho. Isidore Isou figures prominently, but there is nothing really new about Debord or Vaneigem here. Of course, the fetish of Paris ’68 rears its weird head, but Wark, unlike some, doesn’t fly off the handle with crypto-Marxist, Debordian rhetoric that is always interesting as a style—I’d love to write that way, at least for a day—but ends up, for me, seeming to advertise its impotence. I think Wark’s struggle for a new language is actually a very interesting project I’d like to write about; his Hacker’s Manifesto went so far as to introduce a new class, the Vectorist Class, though I don’t think anyone’s quite picked up on that, and I don’t know how serious he was about that.

Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds. | Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing | Northwestern | 2011

I gave my author’s copy of this as a going away present to an Italian art historian friend who was staying with me for a month earlier this year—she’s stopped returning my emails. I ordered a desk copy, which I then gave to my sister’s boss, thinking he could plumb it for ideas for outdoor text/light installations—my sister was laid off a month later. This is a dangerous book. It ruins lives, but only slowly. That’s why I’m ordering five more as potential gifts for people I would like to quietly run out of my life. Seriously, the brief introductions to the work are great, and I suspect it’s quite economical and “interesting” given the piles of empty text it is attempting to condense. I can’t offer any intelligent commentary until I order a new one.

Julia Boynton Green | Noonmark | Redlands, California (no publisher listed) | 1936

Green is one of the “lost” Los Angeles poets I’ve been researching for my series of essays, “Chapters in Los Angeles Poetry,” for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She was born in the 1860’s, published two books late in life (her first, This Enchanting Coast, is largely devoted to writing about plants and the landscape, as per the dominant mode at that time in L.A.), and had some excellent anthology appearances. Her satires on technology are quite brilliant, and though quite conservative, she published a lot of poems in Amazing Stories and Weird Tales (which I haven’t seen) probably because of her critical but rich evocations of the promises of science and technology. She’s my great find, but I have no biographical information about her. Nora May French and Olive Percival are the other two poets (can’t find any males that earlier on) of my pre-WWII section.

Walter Benn Michaels | The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality | Metropolitan | 2006

I don’t know anything about Michaels, though he spoke at UCLA last quarter and I had lunch and dinner with him—a very animated guy, I liked him a lot, but suspect that he thinks he’s a bit smarter than he is. (I only say this because he went out on a limb about all sorts of matters regarding contemporary poetry and minority literature, but when pressed, his knowledge of the fields was pretty shallow). The argument in the book is pretty basic: that institutions like universities would be better off aiming for class diversity rather than ethnic diversity if the idea is to truly achieve a more egalitarian society with wealth spread equally across a wider range of people. Americans don’t like to talk about class—we pretend that upward mobility is an actual living promise—and so divert some of these anxieties to discussions of race, which he says doesn’t exist (not in the way culture exists). Of course, I agree, but then again, I don’t think he’s travelled much, at least not as a black or Asian person. As he did in his talk, there is recourse to statics and charts, but very lightly; he is quite frank, in his afterward, that he wrote this book to make money, and it’s clearly aimed at the same class of people who thought The Closing of the American Mind was a serious statement on the decline of American culture. I like his arguments generally, but I think he loses wind when it becomes apparent that he’s probably written this book about fifteen years too late. I don’t think the cult of diversity is quite as strong as it once was.

Doug Aitken and Noel Daniel | Broken Screen: Expanding The Image, Breaking The Narrative | Distributed Art | 2005

This is a fairly light read, just a bunch of interviews with artists and other folk who are dealing with image and narrative, particularly “non-linear” narrative. I discovered a handful of new artists in this one, some I’d never heard of, some whose works I’d seen but simply didn’t know who made them. I can’t find my copy right now, so I can’t tell you who they are—Herzog, Gehry and Baldessari I remember (of course, I’d heard of those guys). Aitken doesn’t ask terribly probing questions—he always brings it back to non-linear narrative, which I don’t think is that interesting, just like I don’t think appropriation is all that interesting these days, but Aitken lives in L.A., as I do, where we are quite oppressed by an obsession with cheese-ball, leaden, over-determined narratives. You know what I mean. He really aims for conversations and shop talk, which is ok but it let some of the artists “phone in” their contributions. The question of the screen—what is happening now with digital technology, how the photograph, the film, the machine and animation are folding into a single genre—is a question I’m probing, and this book doesn’t quite get there. I’m reading a lot about photography: The Photograph as Contemporary Art (World of Art) by Charlotte Cotton and, finally, Susan Sontag, On Photography—I’d always thought this book was quite boring when I tried to read it before, but got through it this time. I have big chunky books about Thomas Ruff and Sam Hsieh on my table right now.

Jacques Brel | Songbooks

I can’t find these either! But I bought them during my three week stay in Paris, which was filled, appropriately, with heartache, desire, elation and lots of walking around penniless (or at least with a credit card howling with pain—food, hotels, telecommunications). I bought a ukulele in Paris also, and recorded a few songs on my iPad, including a version of the Smiths’ “I Won’t Share You.” I made my debut as a pop singer at a small conference on British Poetry—Keston, Emily, John and Sam were there. Harry Mathews was giving a reading a floor below. Prior to going to Paris, I started writing songs again; Brel’s work, along with the Weill/Brecht collaborations (I also bought sheet music for those) are my guides, along with the Smiths and Scott Walker. I was also reading Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (Howard edition) and the poems of Arthur Rimbaud (Fowlie edition). My French seemed to have gotten worse as the trip went on—starvation for fluid conversation, I believe. It was quite a trip. It rained a lot.

Joan Brossa | Furgó de Cua (1989-1991) | Quarderns Crema | 1993

 I’m not reading Brossa—who writes in Catalan, and is one of the great, largely untranslated Spanish poets of the last century—so much as looking at the language. He was both a concrete poet and creator of text objects and a high formalist—a large part of his oeuvre consists of sestinas and other invented, intricate structures. I’m trying to find someone to help me translate his work. Know anyone? Since I don’t have much to say about this one, I’d like to tack on…

Mark Zuckerberg | Facebook | The Interweb | 2004-2011

Yes, I think he writes all of it. Facebook is the TV of today. Facebook makes nothing happen. It’s all trivial, and makes many of the people I admire appear quite trivial, which of course isn’t their faults. I just don’t need to know what you eat. I like it when people “like” me, which I don’t like. I’m off Facebook. I was reading it too much. I use Twitter.

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Brian Kim Stefans is the author of five books of poems including What is Said the Poet Concerning Flowers (2006) and Kluge: A Meditation (2007), along with Before Starting Over: Essays and Interviews (2008) and Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (2003). He teaches new media and poetry in the English Department of UCLA. Digital works include “The Dreamlife of Letters” and “Kluge: A Meditation.” Recent projects include a column, “Third Hand Plays,” for the SFMoma blog on digital text art, a ten-part column for the Los Angeles Review of Books on the history of L.A. Poetry, and a “freeware” compilation of Los Angeles D.I.Y/Post-punk music.

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