Anatoly Detwyler has reviewed Make It the Same in the latest issue of Modernism/modernity. I’m deeply grateful to him for his careful and astute engagement with my work and for carrying on the conversation about the copy in contemporary literature and culture. The review begins:
In Make It the Same, Jacob Edmond weaves discussions on the meaning and interpretability of copying into an original study of the cultural and historical development of literary copying. The study is motivated and made urgent by the centrality of copying in culture today, where copying has come to dominate not just the elevated world of experimental writing and art, but cultural expression, production, and circulation more generally. The central contribution of Edmond’s book is the articulation of this cultural “iterative turn” by tracing its development in poetry through the last sixty years.
This iterative turn coincides with significant changes in the availability and usage of read-write media: technologies such as tape machines and personal computers that not only “read” the information embedded in a media object, but also make it possible to record new information over the original. As such, media have become increasingly mobile and affordable, they have collectively lowered the threshold for reproducing words, sounds, and images. Coupled with technologies such as mimeographs or digital devices, these read-write media have ushered in an era of remix culture and small run publishing.
The proliferation and impact of these media on cultural experimentation, Edmond shows, is inseparable from the contexts of globalization that largely shape postwar history, such as postcolonialism, Cold War geopolitics, and the spread of late capitalism, under which consumption has famously become a form of production. This global scope is necessary, Edmond emphasizes, not just for the sake of continuing the critique of Eurocentric conceptions of modernity, but more specifically for demonstrating the multivalent and cotemporal development of copy culture. The device of copying has emerged as a cultural glue that holds different contexts together, where repetition is repurposed in different-but-similar ways for the sake of reflecting and even actively establishing different-but-connected subjectivities. To illustrate this point, the book’s case studies invite a number of poignant comparisons, for example, in the deployment of repetition to explore bodily and linguistic difference foregrounded in the experience of migration and diaspora (addressed in chapters three and four). The material and social conditions that make the iterative shift a global phenomenon also contribute directly to its aesthetics of multiplicity, helping to engender a “conceptual shift from the inviolate work born in one language, nation, and medium, to the multimedia, multiversion, multiauthor text” (6).
It was an incredible privilege to speak with Amber Rose Johnson, Huda Fakhreddine, and Al Filreis about Kamau Brathwaite’s “Negus” last November as part of the PoemTalk series. I’m so sorry that Brathwaite is not around to see the recording made public this week. It seems a long time since I visited Penn in November. It was quite a different world then with Brathwaite still alive and no pandemic to make travel to the US impossible. It was also before the latest wave in the ongoing uprising against racial oppression, an uprising to which “Negus” gives voice:
It is not
it is not
it is not enough
to be pause, to be hole
to be void, to be silent
to be semicolon, to be semicolony;
fling me the stone
that will confound the void
find me the rage
and I will raze the colony
fill me with words
and I will blind your God.
In the opening chapter of Make It the Same, I write about the same recording of these words discussed in our PoemTalk. I use this recording (of a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City in 2004) to illustrate how Brathwaite made each reading and recording an occasion for an artful reworking of his existing poetic materials. Brathwaite’s ability to rework his poems to respond to new situations perhaps explains why his poetry continues to be so relevant in our current moment.
In his chapter on Kamau Brathwaite in Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (2019), Jacob Edmond demonstrates how the Caribbean poet explored the aesthetics of copying, deploying approaches like “tape-based iterative audio practice[s]”, “tape recordings and transcriptions of oral stories and songs” (38), photocopied typescript—“a practice of print versioning analogous to the dub plate or the tape recorder” (53)—and, aided by word processing software, the Sycorax video style. For Edmond, these audio, print and digital technologies enabled Brathwaite’s efforts in decolonising English, manifested in works like The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973), History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1982; 1984; 1993), and numerous recordings of his readings and lectures, such as the ones at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club (2004) and the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh (1998). The Brathwaite chapter—with its confluence of close reading, historical contextualisation, media analysis and postcolonial critique—typifies the rest of Edmond’s book: Make It the Same shows the author’s globe-spanning grasp of emergent and established poetries, understanding of a combination of theoretical persuasions, and persuasive deployment of a range of interpretive methods.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.