LEAKY CULTURE // MINOR LITERATURE
All of the poets these articles will discuss are active, in a community sense, as magazine editors, publishers, translators, and critics. They offer not only a glimpse on how aesthetic trends erupt, but how taste making and art production (and marketing) happen in an industry whose speed of change has kept pace with that of technology. A press or journal might introduce a new aesthetic, burst onto the scene, and burn out just as fast. But out of the ashes of the dead, several new journals and presses will be born. If a head is cut off two will take its place! Take, for example, the now dead HTMLGIANT, out of whose dying body Queen Mobs, EntropyMag, and the Fanzine were born. We are in the exciting non-hierarchal, Deleuzian, horizontal, present-obsessed, phantasmagoric “plague grounds” of contemporary poetry, a term Joyelle McSweeney coined back in 2009. This is a poetic movement of seemingly infinite movements, and in its multitudes it has avoided being labeled or co-opted into a larger narrative or frame.
This article and the ones that follow aim to serve as simple introductions to just a few of this generation’s poets and their work. As Benjamin wrote, “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Perhaps it is too late for ConPo, but for the rest of us the lesson has to be learned that literature is not insulated from politics or society, not separated from social discourse. Simultaneously we have to resist the forces of history that pulverize the multiple lived experiences of the everyday into a unified “national” or “cultural” narrative. Even if that narrative, like Best American Poetry, claims to represent the best of America in all its diversity. There is no one America. We do not live one national or social or cultural reality, but multiple realities, and in our multitudes we are not born out of the explosive rupture from the corpse of tradition, but working within a tradition itself— a tradition that aims to provide quasi-messianic interruptions that shake people out of the habitual repetition of the everyday practice and language of consumer culture. An anti-tradition tradition. A tradition of poetic interruption. By interrupting a discourse, we claim the right to participate and even change that discourse. That is the power of modern literature, as Ernst Bloch put it, that real reality is an interruption—not something passed down, but a reality that must be seized from moment to moment, ripped from the “official” corpse of historical space and time. It is with that spirit in mind that the following articles were gathered and written. Not to promote an idea of poetry togetherness, but to show how lovingly we are frayed.
COMBAT POETRY // DECOLONIZING THE SELF // JANAKA STUCKY
Writing about the colonized poet’s task, Frantz Fanon, in his essay On National Culture writes, “We cannot go resolutely forward unless we first realize our alienation. We have taken everything from the other side. Yet the other side has given us nothing except to sway us in its direction through a thousand twists, except lure us, seduce us, and imprison us by ten thousand devices, by a hundred thousand tricks… It is not enough to reunite with the people in a past where they no longer exist. We must rather reunite with them in their recent counter move which will suddenly call everything in to question; we must focus on that zone of hidden fluctuation where the people can be found, for let there be no mistake, it is here that their souls are crystallized and their perception and respiration transfigured.” If the Occupy movement and the Arab spring have taught us anything as a globalized society, it’s that the reach of the militarized police-state, the scope of police surveillance, and the tentacles of empire are no longer limited by national borders. The great letdown of the Obama presidency is that gains like limited social healthcare and gay marriage are accompanied by the wide-scale indiscriminate drone bombing of civilians, the imprisonment and intimidation of government watchdogs (Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden), and the continuation of conservative economic and environmental policies that have left us in an even more tenebrous situation than the end of Bush presidency. All the while, if poetry is a barometer of where society is headed, it seems as if there are several new poets who are breaking away from the postmodern aesthetic of personal language, broken syntax, and pastiche that mirrored, or even supported, the language of late-capital (as Fredric Jameson once argued). Borrowing from Frantz Fanon, I would argue that this new aesthetic functions as a kind of Combat Poetry, one that attempts to reclaim the historicity of our political present by utilizing religious and historical symbols that might have seemed passé or cliché ten years ago. Instead of reproducing the language of capital through formal innovation, however ironically, this is a kind of poetry that inures itself in the substance of content rather than in the art of imagery. It is a poetry that is not as interested in the machine of language, but the state of the man behind the machine. One such poet who embodies this poetic movement is Janaka Stucky.
In a recent interview with Writer’s Bone, Stucky says that he writes “from a kind of trance state” in “a kind of waking meditation.” “The goal,” he says, “is to become empty, not to write something in particular. Whatever exists on the page at the end of the meditation is a poem.” Like Paul Celan who described writing in German as passing “through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech”, Stucky’s poems often engage in an erasure of the self, trimming down excess, arriving at a form of pure, substanceless being. Working within a diction pool that relies heavily on the power of loaded symbols, this kind of poetry begs the listener to accept ambiguity and contradiction. Vacillating between mourning and comfort, loss and reconciliation, Stucky is unafraid to take huge leaps. Like a mobius strip painted similar shades of black on both sides, or a Janus coin, there is no difference between front or back, and even suffering is a kind of pleasure. This breaks the oppositional structure inside the Manichean machinery of dialectical thinking, the same machine Celan broke by breaking into German. However, whereas Celan wrote as a way of surviving the memory of “the graves in the air” of the Holocaust, where God has absented himself from a history of death, “No One kneads us again out of earth and clay. . . Blessed art thou, No one”, Stucky often invokes death as a threshold toward an immortal, spiritual consciousness. In that sense, if many of the poems in The Truth Is We Are Perfect ring similar to Celan’s project, which reimagine language as a way to survive death, Stucky’s poems use plain language to reimagine death as the path to spiritual reincarnation. Here, notice how ash becomes a site of departure in Stucky’s poem, Bask in the Eternal Flame of the Eye of the Immortal:
If you chop the tree down
Burn it to stay warm
If you move then burn it while standing Bask
In the eternal flame of the eye of the immortal
Let your empty hands remain empty
Let your footsteps begin with ash
Lay your future head upon the pillow I wove you
Of all the matter we stripped from light
The movement from the ash of the tree to the head is reminiscent to Celan’s “Death Fugue”, where he compares the “golden hair” of Germany to the “ashen hair” of Shulamith (from the Song of Solomon). Celan never put the dead to rest, descending the abyss of “that which cannot be named”. Stucky, on the other hand, drags the subject through a portal of death to become reborn. The ash of the tree becomes a sacrificial site for spiritual rebirth “let your footsteps begin with ash”, a cleansing through dispossession “let your empty hands remain empty”, in a world where matter is both, contradictorily stripped (taken from) and stripped (without) from light. The symbolic turn, achieved through the sacrificial death of the tree, happens between the mortal and immortal, from the superficial, physical world toward a deeper, spiritual enlightenment— we are returned to the pre-birth/after-death, “Bask / In the eternal flame of the eyes of the immortal.” And thus, life is intertwined, always, in the flame that duly marks its birth and death, or as Allen Ginsberg writes of passing cars in Europe, Europe, “ I know where they go / to death but that is OK/ it is that death comes / before life.” In this way we can say that Stucky fulfills Celan’s philosophy that with art the poet must “go into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free”.
Stucky, who gives the impression of living several lives at once, has much to offer us. We are living more and more within a society that demands us to inhabit the consciousness of what Douglas Rushkoff has called the “Present Shock” of digital schizophrenia, where the virtual chronicling of life has usurped the value of actual lived experience, where narrative chronicity has collapsed into a constantly updated, present-virtual state. Stucky’s exploration of the immortal through dispossession provides us with an opportunity to realize the potential poetry has to be the antidote to “Present Shock”, how poetry can expand the breadth of our presence through the deepening of our spiritual consciousness.
Counter to all the gadgetry and noise and blah-blah of daily life (instagrammed cats in strange places, Facebook babies making Facebook faces, Donald Trump), there is a poetry that chooses to embrace symbolism versus pastiche, a poetry that aims to return us to a narrative of human spirituality, a poetry birthed in the fallout of postmodernism. It’s true: every day is a blessing if you choose to embrace it. All symbols are dragged through a cliché in order to become icons. As the title of Stucky’s new book suggests, The Truth is We Are Perfect. So, from your selfmost straits, set yourself free.
(Conducted partly by Jake Levine over e-mail and by Erika Lastovskyte, in person in Vilnius, Lithuania)
JL: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
When I read your poems I sometimes feel the chilling sensation of being thirteen and buying a new cd and reading all the lyrics in the lyric book/pamphlet in the car on the way home, and imagining the music accompanying the words, the real-life scenario that gave birth to the lyrics, the story behind the music. In an older interview you did, you described yourself as having several lives at the same time, as a poet / publisher / undertaker/ burlesque performer / pugilist / horror aficionado / spoken word artist / anthologist, etc… how do all those different lives, lived or being lived, affect your work?
JS: I think managing all those different lives, as well as code-switching between professional and artistic environments, comes down to balancing the mundane and the sublime. I was actually just talking about this with a friend of mine who is a visual artist, fairly prominent occult figure in New York City, as well as an accomplished professional in her “day job.” So to me it’s not so much about how the different lives affect my work, but rather how my work fits in with all the different lives. The best approach I’ve found so far is to put a certain spiritual intention at my core, from which everything I do can spring. The work then is to be mindful of how every action I make–creative, professional, personal–is either harmonious or discordant with that spiritual core. If my actions are harmonious with the core, then in some way they will manage to be complementary to each other–if even as distant cousins.
JL: Maybe it is a weird comparison, but reading your work I am reminded of Mahmoud Darwish. Maybe it has something to do with your use of articles, that you very often use the definite article and elevate your nouns into symbols. The use of loaded, biblical metaphors. It is often a symptom of MFA programs that students of poetry are taught to move away from “big” subjects. I think of your nouns, in “I Was a Teenage Symphony To God” alone, volcanoes, blood, hair, water, fire, plagues, the world, wings, etc… are all huge. At any point in your career, did you ever feel pressured from working away from certain subjects or language?
JS: Hah, yes. I felt that pressure while working on my MFA actually, and immediately afterwards as I was trying to assimilate into the contemporary U.S. poetry scene. It’s not as true now but back then, 10-15 years ago, sincerity itself was generally considered suspect in favor of irony. I was in fact told by the editor of one prominent magazine that some of my poems’ elements were untenably “goth.” At that time I was working as an undertaker so a lot of my poems were very intimately about death, so maybe it was true… In any case, I have an aesthetic paradox I often wrestle with–where I appreciate the zen-like restraint of great imagist poems but am also drawn more deeply into the really dense and dramatic images of German romantics, French surrealists, and the “Silver Age” of Russian poetry. My favorite artwork contains both elements: a simmering restraint at play with explosive catharsis.
EL: As the publisher at the small press Black Ocean how would you say small independent presses are important in the vibrancy of cultural media and publishing or cultural strata in general?
JS: From a cultural perspective, small and independent presses are vital in the United States. Larger publishers tend to be more conservative in their aesthetic—because that is the nature of the corporation, which seeks to cater to the broadest demographic possible in order to maximize profit. Occasionally large publishers will discover a “breakthrough” writer, but that is rare because corporations are very risk averse. Meanwhile independent publishers have the opposite strategy, seeking to cultivate niche audiences and publish new and exciting voices. Not only does this promote aesthetic diversity but it also creates many more publishing opportunities for the next generation of writers. But it’s not just about young vs. old, or new vs. established.For instance, last year Black Ocean just worked out an agreement with Tomaz Salamun to publish all his future English works in the United States. In this case, he was an older, very internationally established poet who decided to publish with a small independent press because there is a mutual admiration and enthusiasm for an aesthetic outside of the homogenized, safe “mainstream.”
EL: What does the existence of the small indie press mean in terms of contemporary writing? (In other words, would you agree that the more there are small presses the more good writing is produced and discovered and vice versa?)
JS: I think it’s hard to say with certainty that there is a concrete cause and effect between independent publishing and important new writing. However, it is undeniable that independent publishing promotes a more diverse conversation within the arts—and I believe it’s through conversation that new, important work develops.
EL: There are many factors that keep the indie press world so rich and lively. They produce exciting content, which is not only print media, but also interdisciplinary work that that is questioning traditional forms of cultural media. Their work is informed by the contemporary culture, social and political realities. What would you say are the essential conditions to create a favorable environment for such cultural and intellectual potential?
JS: This is a small question with an enormous answer. One could probably write a whole book on the anthropology of what makes any art scene come to fruition. At a high level, I see a number of diverse factors when it comes to creating the successful environment for both my own press, Black Ocean, and others with whom we are aligned—many of which depend on each other to exist. So it’s hard to say “If you have X you can then get Y, and once you have Y you will then get Z.” For instance, let’s talk about having a “community” because in the States there is an incredible community of contemporary poets, especially in the younger generation. Having this community both creates a larger readership and also creates a larger pool of talent to publish—but which came first? I think they grow together. And there are so many factors that play into the cultivation of that community: the higher education system and the growing number of creative writing programs; non-profit funding from both the government and private organizations or individuals; and then the backlash to all those factors as well. There are people who work in a vacuum outside of the structures that created other successful indie presses to do their own thing. What it boils down to are a relatively small group of dedicated, disciplined, passionate individuals who make great sacrifices to help disseminate art on a profound scale, regardless of social conditions. You find your own path, as long as you seek it.
EL: How do you see e-publishing in relation to indie presses? Is it helping or reducing their print volumes?
JS: Overall, what I hear from other indie publishers who do e-books is that e-publishing sales are in addition to physical book sales, and not replacing them. That said, for poetry, the demand for e-books is little-to-none. Although advances have been made, the technology is still not great for representing poetry because the text does not reflow well on mobile screens. Additionally, as a publisher I am not interested in e-books. I am not just a lover of literature; I am a book fetishist. For me, reading is a sensual experience—and that is tied to the physical artifact. I gain pleasure from holding and handling books and that amplifies the pleasure I gain from reading. Much of the literary audience in developed countries have professional occupations that require them to stare at glowing screens all day long—then we stare at them some more for television or movies. I am happy for the reprieve from glowing screens when I read a book. It’s funny, because aside from running Black Ocean I also work for one of the largest academic publishers in the world—and for that job the focus is entirely on e-publishing. But even the people I work with there prefer reading physical books when it comes to literature. I think e-books are great for certain applications, but they lack sensuality. In that sense, e-books are perhaps more suited for the aesthetic of larger publishers, while indie presses may be concerned with a more specific experience of reading that inhabits the body as well as the mind.
EL: Being a writer and a publisher at the same time, how do you think these two distinct activities work together in your career?
JS: They inform each other, for sure. It makes me more sympathetic to publishers as a writer, and it makes me a fierce advocate for my own authors as a publisher. My bottom line isn’t profit; it’s readership, and by that extension sustainability—and profit is a byproduct of those goals. My duty is to my authors; to make them beautiful books and then to get those books read. Consequently, as an author, I expect the same from a publisher, and that makes me very discriminating about where I send my work! Probably too discriminating sometimes …
EL: What would you say are the trends and tendencies in the small indie press world?
JS: This is a hard one to answer because the indie press world is so large and diverse. I will say that one trend I’ve observed is an increased focus on making beautiful books. When I started Black Ocean ten years ago one of my goals was to produce finely designed and manufactured books because so many publishers were making cheap and/or ugly books. Since then I think a lot of people have stepped up their game when it comes to book making. It’s interesting to me because before Black Ocean I came to indie publishing from the DIY punk/zine culture—and I organized an annual zine fair in Boston. I saw the same trend there over many years, moving from information-based zines with extraordinarily low production quality, toward lovingly handmade artisanal books. Perhaps it’s trickled up to indie publishing from there, and is starting to infect even bigger publishers. It may be a correction of sorts, an increased emphasis on physical quality in an increasingly digital experience of the world—a balancing between the body and the mind. Everything seeks equilibrium, both physical and metaphysical.
 See Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
 See Astradur Eysteinsson’s “Realism, Modernism, and the Aesthetics of Interruption” in The Concept of Modernism
 Each of these articles appeared in Korean in the literary webzine “Munjang”
 Fanon, Franz. On National Culture. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. P.163
 Celan, Bremen Speech 395
 Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. W.W. Norton, 2001. P. 157
 From “Back In the Eternal Flame Of The Eye Of The Immortal”, Stucky, Janaka The Truth is We Are Perfect
 This reading of the poem was mostly taken from John Felstiner’s ““Apostate Only Am I True”: Paul Celan’s Poetry and His Devotion”
 Celan’s euphemism for the Holocaust
 Ginsberg Europe, Europe
 Celan, Meridian speech 411
Janaka Stucky (born Jonathan Stucky, March 23, 1978) is an American poet, performer, independent-press publisher, and impresario, based in Boston, Massachusetts. The founder of Black Ocean, an independent press, and publisher of its journal Handsome, he is also the author of three collections of his poetry: Your Name Is The Only Freedom (Brave Men Press, 2009), The World Will Deny It For You (Ahsahta Press, 2012), and The Truth Is We Are Perfect (Third Man Books, 2015). Janaka’s home online at http://janakastucky.com/