Contemporary Poetry as Cephalopod

1280px-Octopus3I had never thought of contemporary poetry as being like an octopus before, but the following, from a review of Make It the Same in Choice, made me think again:

Edmond . . . provides a fascinating look at what poetry is becoming in the 21st century: it is subversive and regenerating like the tendrils of an octopus, always alive and seeking more ideas.

LRO reviews Make It the Same

Make It the Same: Poetry in the age of global media is an important, fascinating and timely discussion of poetry of the iterative turn. Via a finely curated selection of poets and their work, Jacob Edmond compares the ideas ‘original’ and ‘copy’, offering insight into the iterative work of particular socio-geographical contexts that highlight, but do not necessarily capitulate to, the prevailing capitalist system.

So concludes Tasha Haines’s review of Make It the Same. You can read the full review in Landfall Review Online.

Verse Versus Virus

Laurie Anderson Language is a virus music video still
Still from a pop song video by Laurie Anderson in dialogue with William Burroughs

“Language is a virus from outer space,” wrote William Burroughs. It might seem wildly inappropriate to invoke this bizarre statement at a time when a real virus is infecting and killing thousands worldwide, upending the everyday lives of millions, and unsettling the global economy. And yet Burroughs gets at something important: certain ways of using language are infectious and can affect our reality, including the current global pandemic. Real viruses spread—or don’t spread—because of political and social decisions that are shaped by language; and their impact comes not just from their spread but from the infinitely faster way news and fear of their spread moves around the globe.

For the past ten years I’ve been writing about a form of literature for which Burroughs is especially known: texts made from other texts, or what I call “copy literature.” “Copy literature” come in all shapes and sizes. It might be made of lines from pop songs, phrases from online restaurant reviews, or snippets from news articles. It includes, for example, Bill Manhire’s found poem “written out of comments in the Visitors’ Book in Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royd”; the late great Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite’s moving adaptation of a West African drum ritual; Tobagonian Canadian poet NourbeSe Philip’s poem about the mass slaughter of Africans on board the slave ship Zong made entirely from an eighteenth-century text documenting the atrocity; and Brion Gysin and Burroughs’s works made from cut-up newspapers.

Though it may seem farfetched, these seemingly obscure works of copy literature actually have something significant to teach us about contemporary culture and about the situation the world finds itself in today as it faces a new global pandemic… Read the full article at the Newsroom.

A tribute to Sean Bonney

sean bonney
Photo by Frances Kruk

With the world’s attention turned to the Covid-19 virus and to the mass sickness and death that it is causing and has the potential to cause, I want to pause briefly to dwell on the singularity of each life and in particular the life of the poet Sean Bonney, who died in November last year. David Grundy has recently published a moving tribute to Bonney on the Poetry Foundation website. I was lucky enough to meet Bonney a few times, including at the Poetry and Revolution conference that he co-organized and which Grundy mentions in his piece. Based on my encounters with the poet, I can attest to the revolutionary energy that he displayed in his life as well as his poetry.

I write about Bonney in the conclusion to Make It the Same, where I contrast the political energy that drove his rewriting of Rimbaud with that undertaken by Canadian poet Christian Bök:

On March 26, 2011, tens of thousands of Londoners took to the streets to oppose government cuts in public spending and to voice their outrage at the bankrolling of wealthy elites in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Some protesters turned their anger on prominent businesses, such as Topshop, HSBC, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, breaking shop front windows and clashing with police. The next day, Sean Bonney celebrated the protesters’ efforts to “smash the Ritz” hotel in a poem entitled “Communique— (After Rimbaud).”

Around this time, the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud appeared in a series of English versions by another prominent avant-garde poet, Canadian Christian Bök. Bök and Bonney are almost exact contemporaries. Born in 1966 and 1969 respectively, they belong to the generation of poets who came to maturity during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period that brought a new wave of globalization, the spread of the World Wide Web, and the rise of the poetics of repetition. Published within a couple of years of one another, Bök’s and Bonney’s versions of Rimbaud illustrate the copy strategies that had over the previous two decades become commonplace. Their purposes, methods, and resulting texts are, however, worlds apart. Bök demonstrates his linguistic virtuosity in his “Five Translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles.’” He included the translations in a revised edition of his best-known work, Eunoia, which uses a different single vowel in each of its five chapters. In Eunoia Bök deploys the lipogram constraint popularized by Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition (1969) and by other Oulipo writings. Bök also takes inspiration from Rimbaud’s sonnet itself, whose associations between vowel and color are literalized on the multicolor cover of the revised edition of Eunoia. Bök’s translations of Rimbaud extend his book’s emphasis on writing under constraint. Each of Bök’s five translations is written according to a different set of rules. The first preserves “the rhyme scheme of the original, while enforcing the rigorous, syllabic contours of the alexandrine line.” The second is a homophonic translation, and the third a “homovocalic” translation, in which Bök uses exactly the same vowels in the same order as the French original but changes all the other letters. The fourth is an English anagram of Rimbaud’s French text, and the fifth is simply all the vowels of the original with all other letters removed. Bök exemplifies the connection between iterative practices— such as algorithm, constraint, and translation— and new technologies and media. He used painstakingly compiled word inventories to write Eunoia, and he has elsewhere experimented with genetically encoded poetry. He has claimed that “technologies of information-processing are going to become the medium for all forms of cultural expression” and that artists therefore should participate in fields such as genetic and computer engineering. In poems such as Eunoia and his Rimbaud translations, Bök takes up this challenge, producing virtuosic technical solutions to poetic problems that both celebrate and render absurd the techno-scientific world.

By contrast, Bonney makes repetition a tool for contesting political authority. Whereas Bök’s versions of Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” (“Vowels”) focus on sounds and graphemes, Bonney is more interested in how Rimbaud’s disruption of grammatical and linguistic certainties relates to an explosion of political, social, and economic structures. For Bonney, Rimbaud’s “‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses.” Bonney’s versions appear in Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud and form part of the rewriting project that also includes his Baudelaire in English. In Happiness Bonney rewrites Rimbaud to tell the story of the protests against the existing economic and political order that took place in London in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the global financial crisis. Much of Happiness first appeared on Bonney’s Abandonedbuildings blog, so the book functions as a retrospective archiving and framing of poems written as news, as part of and in response to a movement for revolutionary change.

Yet for all their immediacy, Bonney’s poems are reiterations: they come “after Rimbaud” and echo the revolutionary moment of his poetry. Happiness begins with an epigraph from the preface to Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871: “They who tell the people revolutionary legends, they who amuse themselves with sentimental stories, are as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.” The problem is how to retell revolutionary history without transforming it into mere fodder for the culture industry, like the commodified revolutionary chic of those endlessly reproduced Che Guevara T-shirts or Lenin and Mao icons. As Bonney’s Baudelaire in English concludes, “The poem is in danger of becoming an overly smooth surface fit only for the lobbies of office buildings and as illustrations / expensive gallery catalogues, that kinda bullshit.”9 Bonney stresses and redoubles this problem by echoing past texts— like Rimbaud’s and Lissagaray’s— and events like the 1871 Paris Commune. Lissagaray’s statement opens the entire collection, but Bonney repeats it in the final part of a poem that fuses Rimbaud’s “Vowels” with a description of repetition as a prison: “We invented colours for the vowels, rich people live there: a mobile holding cell where reality would go on reproducing and representing itself endlessly where we could not exist, a systematic & carefully charted series of political assassinations.” For Bonney, Rimbaud’s revolutionary poetics has become like those lobbies and catalogues: a place for “rich people” to live. Though Bonney explores how echoing Rimbaud might be revolutionary, he also cautions that what look like revolutionary “political assassinations” could in fact be “false charts”: a “charted series” of repetitions that assassinate the political—as Bonney might read Bök’s formalism.

Kamau Brathwaite, 1930–2020

brathwaite_kamau

I am stunned and saddened to hear of the passing of the great Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite. His work was pivotal to Make It the Same, and it continues to shape and change the way I think about poetry, media, culture, globalization, colonialism, imperialism, and history. Despite the recognition that his work received in his lifetime, I continue to believe that it deserves much fuller and wider attention and that there is much more to say about his enormous contribution to Caribbean culture, history, poetry, and, perhaps less recognized, media practice and theory. Others are much more qualified than me to me to write about his contribution to Caribbean culture, and it will take me some time before I can add to what I have already written about the relevance of his work to worldwide changes in poetry, literature, media, and culture at large. For now, my thoughts are with his family and friends. For those who knew him primarily through his extraordinary work, we at least have the comfort of being able to continue to read his writings and to listen to his voice.

Svend Erik Larsen reviews Make It the Same

scaled-0x200_larsen_svendSvend Erik Larsen has just published his review of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media in Orbis Litterarum. He begins the review by asking:

Can extremely formal contemporary poetry, working with the minute material details of language, function as a cultural intervention addressing such burning issues as race, gender, migration and social equality in globalised cultures? Can the poetic use of media that per definition work with copying and iteration, such as digital media, transcend the iterativity of the media and open up a new vision of poetry in a globalised media world and of that world itself? Jacob Edmond’s book Make It the Same offers an affirmative answer to both questions.

Through an innovative and thought‐provoking string of arguments it develops those answers by way of detailed scrutiny of poets from China, the Anglophone world and Russia from the last decades, together with shorter references to poets in other languages and from other places; it is framed by a generalising introduction and conclusion that invite readers to look at modern poetry with new eyes. Poetry has often been neglected from a world literature perspective, based on the assumption that the linguistic intricacy of poetry makes this cluster of genres more local, inclusive and even untranslatable than global. The possibility of copying and the potential of multiple variations of copying, translation as rewriting or quoting included, stand out in the book as the basic condition for literature from a world literature perspective.

Larsen concludes that Make It the Same:

triggers new ideas and makes way for new comparisons. This review aims primarily to demonstrate this potential in Edmond’s inspiring volume.

The full review can be read here.

Make It the Same at the Kelly Writers House

The wonderful people at the Kelly Writers House have posted a video of last Wednesday’s lunchtime discussion of the Make It the Same with Josephine Park and Kevin Platt. I’m very grateful to them both for an excellent dialogue and to Al Filreis, Jessica Lowenthal, and the rest of the Kelly Writers House team at the University of Pennsylvania for enabling and archiving the conversation.

Upcoming US talks on Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media

kelly writers houseOver the next couple of weeks, I’m giving a number of talks related to Make It the Same in various US cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. If you happen to be nearby, I’d love to see you there. Here are the details:

Monday, November 18, 5 to 6:30pm, Barker Center, Thompson Room, 12 Quincy Street, Harvard University: “From ‘Make It New’ to ‘Make It the Same’: The Poetry of Repetition in an Age of Global Media”

Tuesday, November 19, 6 to 7:30pm, IRWGS Seminar Room, 754 Schermerhorn Extension, Columbia University: “World Iterature: The Work of Poetry in the Age of Global Media”

Wednesday, November 20, 12pm to 1:30pm, Kelly Writers House, 3806 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania: “Poetry and Global Media,” a lunchtime discussion about Make It the Same with Jo Park and Kevin Platt. Lunch will be served.

Thursday, November 21, 4 to 5:30pm, Department of Comparative Literature, 1010 East 59th Street, Classics 116, University of Chicago: an informal discussion and Q&A session on Make It the Same with Haun Saussy. Drinks and nibbles provided.

Friday, November 22, 2 to 3:30pm, Bunche Hall 10383, UCLA: “Make It the Same: Rethinking Cultural Relation through Sinophone and Anglophone Translation Poetry”

And finally on Tuesday, November 26, I’m giving a paper at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies 2019 Convention in San Francisco. The title of my paper is “Modernist and Conceptualist Legacies in Contemporary Russian and US Avant-gardes” and it is a contribution to a panel on “The Media Politics of Russian Digital Poetry” organized by Dirk Uffelmann and Henrieke Stahl as part of the DFG Project “Lyric in Transition.”

“a supremely creative and passionate scholarly approach”: Times Higher Ed. on Make It the Same

THE logoMartin Dyar has reviewed Make It the Same for Times Higher Education. The review begins:

At first glance, the poetry that Jacob Edmond has written about in Make It the Same could appear to be precariously inclined towards abstruseness. And a significant number of the poets whose work is explored here have not been previously granted such thorough critical attention. But Edmond draws his subjects out brilliantly, revealing abundantly relatable dimensions of meaning and achievement within worlds of textual, visual and sonic density and, most importantly, worlds of poetic copying. With great detail, and in an impressive historical and biographical narrative mode, which serves to balance a broad theoretical range, Make It the Same catches and amplifies the nuances of individual poems, setting down supple paraphrases and interpretations based on oftentimes breathtaking levels of attunement to 20th-century and contemporary poetry.

And it concludes:

The flexibility of his approach, his uncanny ability to extend the meanings of writing and reading, and his willingness to participate in the numerous digital frontier forms that poets in recent decades have sought to explore bear rich fruit. In addition to developing an illuminating vocabulary for the discussion of the ever-presence of the internet and the global digital economy, he accesses profoundly the often forgotten element of lyrical substance in postmodernist, avant-garde and multimedia work. He achieves this while speaking for the foothold that poetry has maintained since the advent of online life, even when it is combatively immersed in a new world that tends to disregard its claims to freedom, not to mention its continuity with the oldest impulses of literature itself. Only a supremely creative and passionate scholarly approach could have yielded such a timely vision.

You can read the full review here.

“a radical contribution to poetry studies”: LARB reviews Make It the Same

larbThe Los Angeles Review of Books has just published Walt Hunter’s review of Make It the Same. The review concludes:

Edmond’s book makes a radical contribution to poetry studies. For Edmond, the agent of poetic change is not the individual, but rather the shifting collaboration between technology and politics that produces different kinds of copies. Poetic style has sometimes been read as the development of a poet’s mind as it self-consciously struggles with the conditions that shape it. In Make It the Same, the history of poetry comprises a large cast of nonhuman actors. The implication is that the poetry scholar might not know in advance all the factors that contribute to the emergence of poems. Poems, in turn, might reveal more about the political laboratories of globalization than has been widely understood. The publication of Make It the Same should be celebrated not only for what the book does well — its subtle analyses of poems, its detailed knowledge of technology, its easy movement between English, Chinese, and Russian — but also for what it makes possible for scholars of poetry to do next.

Read the full review here.

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