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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.


Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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