1. “Feminization of the problem of lived time” -Myung Mi Kim.
2. I started writing this review of Stephanie Young’s URSULA or UNIVERSITY in the middle of wild or unforgiving Florida July. “I have to begin with this failure. This thing that failed” (January 2011). I was still looking for a teaching job / still living off $$$ I saved doing catering gigs during my MFA. “I guess it’s too late to live on the farm” (Essay). We had taken our friends to the airport in Orlando and were driving home through a muscle-y storm. I read the poems in Young’s book (the book I’d been reading / reading) out loud to N while the lightning spread across the sky in thick threats. “I guess it’s too late to enter into the darkened room in which a single light illuminated the artist stripped from the waist down, smeared with blood, stretched and bound to the table” (Essay). As soon as we got back, I tried to sit down and write this. I forget what N said a few weeks later, reading what was (then) in paragraph form / what I had struggled to write, his face gentle as ever. Something like, / I think you are too close to it right now. Give it time to find its own air / flowers. “Was that it? I faced you. From the edges of a very dark and scary crater” (January 2011).
3. I sometimes take days to write reviews, maybe weeks, but it has never been months / of revisiting / of so much thinking. The wholeness of this book / the book, the radical, important length of it (186 pages) makes me want to respond in these complex fragments I’ve attempted to assemble / in utterance after utterance which chokes on the blood in gold flecks. “Most of the writing we do is actually a performance of stuckness,” says Lauren Berlant.
4. To truly respond to this book requires a book / the book. There is no exaggeration there / in me / when I say that. I cannot afford exaggeration in this world. So many people think reviews are a place for falsity or for canon drills. I cannot think of a more radical space outside of the poem / than the review. Extension / the roots of the forest speaking to each other, that is the birth of language in a culture that refuses to see language / as a weapon too often used to kill / capture / corner. “But I felt some dread while reading this book because Paul told me earlier this year that I tended to think in metaphors, but this wasn’t one, the experience of my body wasn’t a metaphor” (The Fast). Young’s book is a book about the pain of witness / the pain of becoming a part of a system you can’t help but believe in, despite the fact that you’re watching it tear itself / and the bodies inside of it / to pieces. THE UNIVERSITY IS IN FLAMES. We all know this, I think, reading Young’s book again, a couple of months later in my concrete adjunct office. The University that is in flames is also the University that gave many of us the power to understand what flames were in the first place. It gave many of us the ability to understand what power was and how we could see it for ourselves or as a subversive part of ourselves. “[Paul] described the book I would write, it would be called URSULA or UNIVERSITY. Ursula is a female witch who steals voices of others and/or turns them into statues. University is sort of where I work” (The Fast). How does the University infiltrate a life / if it does? How does institution infiltrate a life constantly? What does it do to a person? How can a person be in it and genuinely resist it at the same time? I am being serious. What does it do to a woman? What does it do to a woman interested in bringing imperative questions of gender and race to the University / to the University in flames? Can we not grow here / at all? What does it do to a woman not interested in traditional, patriarchal expressions of the word? What part of the University is safe or experimental and what part of it is (increasingly) a business / funded by the Koch brothers / distorted by special interests / that have no interest in protecting intellectual activation / thriving / bodies?
5. The other side of Young and her book is the medium through which thought / process emerges. Poetry / is URSULA / the medium / the sea bitch / roiling. Poetry is the medium through which all of Young’s thoughts and concerns ventilate or twist into poems / which are essays and become essays, / but are also, / first and foremost, / a poetry. A poetry is / A Startling. Poetry, that thing closest to thought, says Hannah Arendt. “Is that even true? Lil Wayne says, ‘I stink because I have a lot of shit on my mind,’ and mine was obviously full of thoughts about poets. My relationship to other poets. Poets and conferences, friendship and generosity, envy and betrayal. Wages and discipline. Bohemia lost. I found it difficult to think of much else” (Mutual Aid). Poetry is a community or magic that renders Young / a person vulnerable / exceedingly raw to institution. Poetry makes Young / a person able to see the institution’s capability to shatter a person / all persons it sees as deviant / a difficulty / “a potential problem.” Poetry is a community or magic that allows a person to continue as a thing / that survives / or as a thing / determined to survive. “Also [Quoting Henri Meschonnic] ‘A poem = a continuity, an action, not an object*. A straying’” (Repoport). To survive / or to insist requires people or a language you love. You document it and you try to understand if poetry is a community or magic or another institution or all of those things.
*Isn’t a thing the ultimate undecipherable object? Isn’t a thing something that crawls out into territory that has no language for it?
6. “I write a question somewhere in my notes, maybe it is me thinking this question? How might we better understand the nature of our antagonisms. I say back to myself, the bruise, bruising channels of invisibility. I say back to myself, echolocation” (Repoport).
IS IT A COMMUNITY OR A COMPOUND?
IS IT A STATUE OR IS IT SECRETLY ALIVE? I HAVE ALWAYS WONDERED.
(Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled No.2”)
8. Poetry and poems and poets are often sharply separated between those who are academic and those who are not. Those who have an MFA and those who do not. (Increasingly, there is also: Those who have a PhD and those who do not.) Problematic critical writing and stereotypes / a particular literary history (the barbed wire wrapped around a rhetoric of restraint = Horace’s Ars Poetica circa 10 BC, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy in 1597, Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” in 1864, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, John Crowe Ransom’s Criticism, Inc. in 1938, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, Helen Vendler’s Soul Says in 1995) populates / permeates these reductive separations. What I appreciate about Young, what excites me about Young’s voice and presence, is that Young is decidedly uninterested in determining which of these angles (Academic or Non-Academic) is better for her or most flattering. “I was both sides of something,” says Young in “Mutual Aid.” Young doesn’t use her book as a means to position a conversation about those separations in a way that makes her come off as superior / makes anyone feel bad about belonging / feeling at home in either place. (I think of a poet friend who chastised me for going to AWP / for using my “fancy university” to pay for it / when, in actuality [which I suppose doesn’t matter, but does], I had no ability to use my university to pay for it. I think of the insidious assumption that writing papers is a boring, useless thing or a bastion of inactive privilege for poets / artists, that there is no radical, urgent space there. Writing is thinking, I tell my students. This is how you can have movement. This is how you can make / create a living.) Rather, what Young does is make clear what our conditions are. These are the conditions we must attend to and see ourselves ventilating our poems through. What is acknowledgement? What is engagement? Young’s book is an ongoing attention to poetic environments and what / who arises within them. It is a movement. A processing which gathers as largely and gently / rigorously as it can. A processing which revises, which revisits and returns and repeats itself, though each revisiting or returning or repeating is an extension, a breath added to and attending to the pattern. It is movement / postmodern and conservative and experimental and lyric and conceptual and narrative. It is a movement / our mess / our mass.
9. Jerome Rothenburg (On Poem Talk #10, “Portrait, but of whom”): “[Gertrude Stein] takes movement to be a characteristic not only of this time but of all time. I just want to read a little from one of the lectures where that takes her because apart from all the domesticity of the imagery there’s a kind of bigger project in mind: [Quoting Stein] ‘I remember very well first beginning to be conscious of this thing. I became conscious of those things. I suppose anybody does when they first really know that the stars are worlds and that everything is moving. That is the first conscious feeling of necessary repetition and it comes to one and it is very disconcerting.’”
10. Young goes to the academic conference (she has an MFA, but not a PhD, she has an adjunct job, but not tenure) because it contributes to her work / her person. It’s the same reason she goes to the poetry reading. To hear artists / laborers speak. However, Young not firmly landing on one side or another (which seems to be more about giving the reader / other people / other identities space more than anything) shouldn’t be misconstrued as neutrality. The last thing Young is / is neutral. Rather, Young enacts refusal / a refusal to enter into an intellectual discussion or an intellectual environment or an intellectual future via patriarchal / traditional (departmental) means which value domination over conversation or use conversation as domination. The formal beauty of refusal (I’m thinking of / reformulating N quoting Daniel Katz saying, re: Spicer, “the possibility of disagreement for its own formal beauty”) is her long poem / her long poem that is also an essay / the long poem which shatters the epiphany for something more rhizomatic / more layered.
“I kept saying to myself and others that the curating at such a rethinking poetics conference needed to be so much more ruthless with itself, by which I mean the powers who constructed, those who held the reins, needed to be more ruthless with themselves. Maybe it will sound stupid, but numbers obviously continue to count if such a conference could construct itself in such a homogenous way. It seems like homogeneity is a big problem. At the academic poetics conference, sure, but in lots of non-academic poetics contexts, too, and not just in who gets invited to speak/read/participate, or even who feels welcome and invited in, but also who shows up to listen to who.
Also what Jen talked about during the panel on materials. I can’t stop thinking about it and maybe this is the wrong place for its quotation, the wrong place in this mess I’m writing, but it was something like: not so much making the invisible visible, but bruising its channels of invisibility. Location via the bruise, the damage. And how is this in relation with Jean Osman’s ideas around echolocation, locating the unseen via speech, via writing, via sound. Or Sherwin Bitsui, on the question of not speaking, the gentle ruthlessness with which he asks this question of his work, what will be evoked if I write this, what should not be written.
Barrett Watten Poetics R Us.
Monday at 1:09 pm • Comment • Like”
The idea or recording that repeats and repeats to the point that it acquires a motion that grows on its own is quality of each / every poem. The sentence that grows / wild or unforgiving or unraveling, but also is exceedingly traceable*.
*There is an appropriate word for this quality of trace that I read in Lisa Robertson’s new book, Cinema of the Present. Sillage: the degree to which a scented trail follows a fragrance wearer, based on the French word for “wake.”
11. (White) Men / Volleyball Games* dominate both scenes. Possibility / Discussion dominate both scenes. Adapt to the impossibility, says N, when I say I don’t want to be writing this review anymore, when I say I don’t want to be acknowledging my failure anymore, when I say I feel like I can’t capture what it is to read this book / URSULA or UNIVERSITY / to see the permission it grants to explore the poem / what is about ignite into slow, purple / explosion / bruise / flower.
“To envision the poem as constituted through cycles of erosion and accretion.
The poem undertakes the task of deciphering and embodying a ‘particularizable’ prosody of one’s living.
And in that process, inside the procedures of work and of work proceeding, note: node and pressure point, song making and song gesture. Track: descant, sedimentations, tributaries in any several directions. Show stress, show beat, show changes and alterations in pitch and accentuals. Syllables or tempo stored, ruptured, emended. A valence of first and further tongues. A fluctuating topography, a ringing of verve or nerve–transpiring. Elements of the lyric and its mediations. The duration of the now, the now occurring, that is necessarily expressive of a time before. Differentiation as it negotiates complications of temporality. The poem as tending measure” (“Anacrusis,” Myung Mi Kim).
N studies / works at Florida State University. This summer (while many of the students were conveniently gone), the university searched for a new president. There was a scandal when the firm hired to be part of the search suggested a Republican politician with no academic credentials, John Thrasher (who hadn’t even applied or showed any public interest in applying), should be the only person considered for the job. Even after the firm removed itself from the search and the faculty senate took a vote of no confidence in the search process, Thrasher remained a choice the search committee (made up of only three-four faculty members and three students) seemed determined to push through. N and I went to a public meeting meant to entertain the idea of resetting the search or hiring a new firm, etc. I nervously blew on my free coffee / wrapped in a garnet and gold embossed napkin. The man in charge of the meeting was, of course, not there in person. He spoke on the phone through large speakers. He joked that another absentee committee member, who was on a booster cruise in Europe, was “helping out in other ways.” Faculty member after faculty member got up and pleaded and spoke eloquently. A student got up and screamed, “NO, THIS ISN’T RIGHT,” as the committee voted to hire another firm / to keep Thrasher as a viable candidate. I had never witnessed so much willful pretending. No one would acknowledge that the opposition was there, pleading. Driving home, I thought of all the young people and their parents handing over their money. I thought of how much I trusted the University when I was 18, how little I would have been able to suspect at that point in my life, how little I still know re: bureaucracy, an endless purgatory of politics + $$$$$ + backchannels + business. Driving home, I turned to N and said, Maybe this place isn’t ever safe (my experiences in the University have never been perfect / they have, in fact, been unmentionable or unspeakable occasionally / but I still always felt like / I could work here / that my art or work could be alive, maybe even respected, here). I’m naïve or maybe not, I think, driving home, when I realize I’m heartbroken. When we got home, and I sat down to write, I saw that Young posted on her Facebook that she and a co-worker, Cheena Marie Lo, had been fired from Mills College, the private college she writes so much about in her book. The speculation then was that their involvement in adjunct union organizing may have been a factor. It may have also been budget cuts or something else. I’m not sure. I do know, now, that Thrasher is the president of FSU. I know that FSU’s star quarterback may have raped a woman and it’s likely he won’t be punished for it. I know I see Thrasher’s Mercedes sometimes when I, often heartbroken after a day of adjuncting, pick up N from school. (White) Men / Volleyball Games* dominate both scenes. Possibility / Discussion dominate both scenes.
*Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds, a predecessor to Young’s work and a part of Bay Area poetry, oscillates largely around a volleyball game played at a Marxist academic conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Frederic Jameson, we imagine, spikes the ball. A woman is targeted.
12. In a poem, “Bay of Angels,” Young recounts reading books collectively authored by the group Tiqqun on her own (Raw Materials for the Theory of the Young-Girl) and as a part of a reading group (Theses for a Terrible Community). This poem and the books become a particular jumping off point or hinge through which Young allows an emphasis on the female experience in the poetry community to unleash / howl. “I didn’t feel very nice. I was a terrible community. A stinking cunt” (Bay of Angels). If Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette is meant to be a crucial feminine rethinking of the epic poem, then Young’s is meant to be a crucial feminine rethinking of the conventional essay. URSULA or UNIVERSITY performs female impossibility on top of the framed work, the perfected or still or predictably enjambed work of the conventional / neoliberal male genius*. (Here is that word movement again in Helene Cixous’ “Laugh of the Medusa” (Medusa = a mythical sister of Ursula / another stone cold bitch), “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement”). In this particular poem, Young heavily critiques the sexism in Tiqqun’s text while interweaving her difficult, personal observations of women’s bodies and women’s differences within the living literary scene.
“So often we said nothing when he called her trashy or dominated the conversation or lied to his girlfriend or dismissed her as not very smart. We cringed and winced at the casually ironic racism in her poem. We complained in private but continued to attend the series that presented mostly white male writers. We heard that he hit or slapped his girlfriend but performed at the event anyways**. We laughed uncomfortably as he said with a wink that lots of men in the department would be very happy if she entered the PhD program. Is the joke about misogyny, or is it just misogyny? And shouldn’t you be able to tell which it is?” (Bay of Angels).
The text of the poem or of the essay becomes interweaved with Young’s continuous self-consciousness (It is a self-consciousness that is its own thought, though. It is a self-consciousness that means to suggest that Young is aware of text as animal / as always subject to change / as always open to her failure) about her own book. The critique of the Tiqqun book and other books and her own book get lost in this designation, “the book.” It becomes increasingly difficult to tell which one Young is referring to. It’s a stunning maneuver that allows Young’s book to be sewn to other books, even those she critiques, even as she grows “irrational[ly] and unfair[ly]” angry at her reading group for finding merit in the Tiqqun. “As I am trying to narrate this from the future in such a way that takes into account something I cannot see. I wonder how it was I took this ridiculous writing so seriously—how, on the way to communisation, the sharing of needs, no, on the way to just reading about it, I stumbled over this book” (Bay of Angels). I can never experience enough women like Young, who give me so much energetic room to be the monster I am, a monster or a woman who insists that she has a right to a bigger future. Fuck the enclosed stability you want me to take gratefully, is sometimes what I say to the University. Nothing about the book is enclosed stability. Nothing about the women Young admires / talks with in the book (Alli Warren, Juliana Spahr, Shelagh Patterson, Dodie Bellamy, Hannah Weiner) is enclosed stability. Nothing about that stinking cunt Ursula is enclosed stability. There is just movement, the word “or” in the title connecting glittering pathways and torrents in the between, a propulsive refusal, a series of revisions, an attention to how continuously truth / the present changes, a female voice allowed to flex and age / grow, a female voice surrounded by the whole / rather than a hole ready to swallow her up into a cruel culture.
“Seizing up around the wounded part. I took something personally, something ripping or tearing in the body, in the family, the home sort of, in the guts. When I pull my hand away from the bandage and look down, the opening is very small. Healed over. Run my hand across the rash. A mountain that gave birth to a mouse. A song and dance about nothing. A struggle against part of myself. The low body with a new voice full of desire and fear. I look and see my friend is equal. A type of strike that involves the whole life. We need to change ourselves. I wanted nothing short of the movement that could potentially contaminate anyone. My body full of you, we struggled against ourselves together. I don’t know. The sound nobody recognized. Over and over” (Summer 2011).
*Young is so incredibly good at layering, at quoting, at alluding to other books / bodies in the most personal / warm / intelligent way. It is all so inseparable from her life and makes her astute critiques simultaneously solid and appropriately gentle / malleable. Bruce Boone, who I mentioned above, for example, shows up in this poem, “Bay of Angels.” Young nods to him while also making an apt observation in terms of what it means for women to be constantly inheriting men’s work and to be constantly taught to imitate men’s voices. It’s far too easy to forget that when women study history save for maybe the last 50 / 100 years (debatable / given the current state of women), they study a frozen kind of time / a time that burns the bodies and voices of women up. They study a lack of movement / a lack of speech.
“I started reading Bruce Boone because some of the mostly leftist poets I am and hang out with were reading his work at the time. My friends were learning something from Bruce Boone’s writing, and I wanted to learn too, which lead to sometimes slipping into similar habits of—voice? The book where Bruce Boone is at a Marxist conference and tracing thoughts presented there by Frederic Jameson. ‘Following Althusser—I think, but I’m no expert here—’ When I adopted this tone I tended to sound not so much conversational or intimate with my reader but rather like a young girl. That Boone’s book is particularly addressed to some problems of a male and heteronormative Marxism made me want to adopt his tone all the more. I was interested in the way that some mostly male heteronormative poets adopted Bruce Boone’s habit of—voice? in part to critique male heteronormativity. I loved this writing. But inhabiting such a voice, sloughing off authority, operated quite differently when the culture accorded one a certain amount of authority to begin with. What did it mean to take up authority? To slough it off? You could see what a relief, how generous it might be. To slough it off. If you had it to begin with” (Bay of Angels).
**What is important about this passage in “Bay of Angels” is that time has already revised it. I recognize here, in Young’s words, the feeling of a “provisionally complicit resistance” that is the harrowing question or thick shadow for those in academia / in the non-academic poetry scene. Or is this passage a demonstration of fear, the real fear of what those in power will do / considering they are already so trained to / overpower? Or is it exhaustion? Fred Moten, in his essay “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” is powerfully paralleling some of the undercurrent of this passage, when he says, “And this, perhaps, is where the tension comes, where it is and will remain, not in spite of the love but in it, embedded in its difficulty and violence, not in the impossibility of its performance or declaration but out of the exhaustion that is their condition of possibility.” In this part of Young’s poem, there is critique and giving in, but the future that this passage sets us up for is one where communities of poetry take action against the kind of behavior Young lists. So many women came forward this year with heinous reports of abuse, drugging at poetry readings, sexual harassment, rape, etc. I told my friend on the phone, Women are so often told to make the horror done to them a part of their / our bodies. We are supposed to take the pain of our horror and hold it and be poisoned by it until the situation can be appropriately dealt with. We are told to do it so men can remain comfortable / so men will not have to face disruption. This year, female poets have been holding community meetings in cities all over the country and demanding change / space / recourse / vigilance all over the country. “More happens. Information constantly expands,” (January 2011) says Young quoting Chris Kraus. The page gets bigger and begins or continues to soak up the blood (period).
“A poem is a particular of life thought of for so long that one’s thought has become an inseparable part of it or a particular of life so intensively felt that the feeling has entered into it. When, therefore, we say that the world is a compact of real things so like the unreal things of the imagination that they are indistinguishable from one another and when, by the way of illustration, we cite, say, the blue sky, we can be sure that the thing cited is always something that, whether by thinking or feeling, has become a part of our vital experience of life, even though we are not aware of it. It is easy to suppose that few people realize on that occasion, which comes to all of us, when we look at the blue sky for the first time, that is to say: not merely to see it, but look at it and experience it for the first time having a sense that we live in the center of a physical poetry, a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that lives there” (“The Figure of Youth,” Wallace Stevens).
It would be easy and dismissive to say this book can only be read by poets or those who know many of the names and ideas Young folds herself through. That doesn’t have to be the recognizable part of the experience. A reader doesn’t need to get all the references, a reader just needs to be there with the book’s presence, it’s receptive rhythm. What is recognizable, regardless of your position or experience, is Young’s thoughtfulness, how she talks to you and cares for you via a language she explores constantly. This book, URSULA or UNIVERSITY, taught me something about what it means to let a book map itself and fold in on itself (a constellation, a clusterfuck, a Kraftfeld / Walter Benjamin’s conception of the force field). It taught me something about what it means to carry a book around with you. It taught me something about what it means to fail to capture what that carrying around felt like and what it continues to feel like. It taught me how much movement a book and that word “or” can hold. I broke down / I deleted my review / and I tried to build it back / up with the expanding book as it continued to reveal itself.