Home is the First and Final Poem (Review 31)

Review 31 is an online journal founded in 2011. Since then, it has gained recognition for hosting intelligent reviews of nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. Recently, Review 31 published my review of Les Murray’s On Bunyah (Carcanet, 2016). The article aims to create a full and coherent picture of Murray’s childhood home and his poetic responses to place.

“The rural home of poet, editor, and critic Les Murray lies around three hundred kilometres north-east of Sydney, Australia. The area known as Bunyah – a native word meaning ‘bark’ – is a hilly landscape with dense forests, expansive paddocks and farmland. Bunyah Creek, which becomes the Wang Wauk River before reaching the Pacific Ocean, cuts across this landscape and sources many of the sandy lakes characteristic of the area. The place Murray calls his ‘spirit country’ is unquestionably ‘the bush’: an area wild, undeveloped, remote, and isolated – only one gravel road runs from the Pacific Highway to Bunyah. The 82 poems and 29 photographs collected in On Bunyah give readers special access to this isolated area and makes clear its biographical and historical significances. The collection, made up of a selection of poems spanning Murray’s entire career, reveals just how Bunyah has provided the poet with the essential material of his verse for over 50 years. While On Bunyah does confirm what Murray writes in ‘Home Suite’ (originally published in 1992’s Translations from the Natural World) – ‘Home is the first / and final poem / and every poem between / has this mum home seam’ – it also does these poems an immense disservice: it presents them in a manner too careless to be worthy of their particular expressiveness and craft.”

You can find the article here.


Header Image: Les Murray’s first childhood home. via ABC.net.au news

Interview: k-the-i??? [“Kiki” Ceac]

In the interview below, Emmanuel “Kiki” Ceac–otherwise known as k-the-i???–speaks of two “modes of creativity”: his “da Vinci code style” and his “exorcism form.” While the former is cryptic, difficult, and underground, the latter is personal, intuitive, and social. In k-the-i???’s music, these two modes of creativity clash to create a kind of paradoxical acoustic space: his music is at once chaotic and melodic, his lyrics both enigmatic and expressive. While holding these opposites in a tensional balance, his music–unable to handle its paradoxical elements–malfunctions, implodes, or glitches. k-the-i???’s musical mainframe, in other words, acts out as it becomes overloaded and unable to process the inputted information. The signs of these “glitch-moments” are the mechanical sounds of static, repeated loops, kaleidoscopic effects, industrial sounds, and sheer noise, all of which distort–delay, speed up, layer–a song’s lyrical and musical rhythms. At k-the-i???’s most experimental, the mainframe seems to take on a “de/form/ed” life of its own, glitching until it overtakes a song’s constructed rhythms and leaving it in near-ruins.

Meanwhile, the person of k-the-i??? presides over this domain–he remains in control.

To listen to k-the-i???’s music is to be presented with the difficult task of processing and decoding the information outputted by this overloaded and often malfunctioning machine. The procedure is not always pleasant and, while some listeners prefer to avoid the difficulties of k-the-i???’s music altogether, others find its difficulties the site of intrigue. For k-the-i???, intrigue in the face of difficulty is the first step towards an important ends: a “higher knowledge” hidden from “us” by our human nature, its illusions, and our general distaste for extended periods of introspection. k-the-i???’s music both simulates and stimulates the difficult experience of coming to understand (or at least struggle with) the hidden or the unknown. The process involves a confrontation with the conflicting experiences and emotions involved in being “human” and, in turn, to uncover an unsettling truth about reality: that, beyond the illusions of the human, the cosmos–including the human himself or herself–is really a computer-like mechanism.

The uncovering of this truth does not solve or settle, however. At one instance, to become aware of the computer-state liberates us from human illusions and constrictions. At another, it threatens us with its infinite and mechanical power. So, is such an end really worth the difficulties of the process? Well – listen…

Generally, listeners have been quiet–at least in a “written” context–about k-the-i???, his music, and the interpretive experience his songs and his persona invite. In the interview below, I ask k-the-i??? a few questions in an attempt to elucidate the nature of his musical output and his persona. His answers demand attention not only for the light they shed on the dark and difficult parts of his music, but also for their reflections on the nature of human experience in “the digital age.”


For an an extended introduction containing some personal and draft reflections on k-the-i???’s music and its form, click here: “Esu, Ifá Divination, & The ‘Limping Form’ of k-the-i???”


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Emmanuel “Kiki” Ceac (aka k-the-i???) is a rapper, beat-maker, and producer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started making music in 1995 and eventually released two small-issue records: Teletron 1 (2003) and Fair Weather Under the Surface Negative (2004). He released his first studio album Broken Love Letter in 2006 to critical acclaim in rap’s underground. His follow up records Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (2008) and Synaesthesia (2011) were released by Mush Records and Fake Four, Inc. respectively. He has innumerable side-projects—including Youth:Kill and 1000 Apes in a Room—and  collaborations. You can find him on: Twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Instagram.


INTERVIEW: K-THE-I???

AA. We’ve heard the story of your name (cf. interview from 2011). It’s both personal and cryptic. Is the “hidden identity” or the “cryptic” a concept consciously at work in your music, your raps, or your persona?

KC. Most definitely it is. Being cryptic and personal is 100% my persona and it most definitely reflects in my music. In general I love making people think. On one end I’m personal and cryptic but I’m also a people person. Though I tend to be an open book sometimes I force you to read thoroughly until I allow you to move on to the next chapter. da Vinci code style lol.

AA. You have a massive discography, but a lot of your music is also very hard to find. You put your fans into a kind of never ending treasure hunt. Is this in any way a response to the over-accessibility of mainstream music, or to the mainstream’s tendency to give a select number of songs repeated airtime? Do you see yourself responding to the mainstream?

KC. Funny you say that. This is also a part of my da Vinci code element. Sometimes unintentionally I make my music limited and difficult to find unless it’s one of my major underground releases. Like…Broken Love Letter (Mush), Yesterday Today Tomorrow (Mush/Big Dada), Synesthesia (Fake Four). I will say this… I’m working on a series of 7 inch records that will be released limited but I plan to promote them and they’ll also be released digitally. Usually when I do a limited release I never allow them to gain any legacy. This time around they’ll be a full roll out of my limited releases (vinyl, digital, tshirts, stickers etc…). Not to mention I plan to re-release everything all in one place so that my fans find everything. As for the mainstream I feel like what I’m making now a days is more palatable to everyone even though everything my hardcore fans have grown to know me for and love is still applied to the craft. I guess my music is a little more mature. I was totally making music for a specific set of people when I was younger lol.

AA. What we know (for certain) is that you started in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, you were associated with “The Lost Channel,” “Rebel Alliance,” “Komadose,” among others. In the early 2000s, you moved to LA. Just by listening to your early recordings, it seems that, by the time you got to LA, your sound was already developed. Is this true? I mean, your musical output is insanely coherent—a k-the-i??? song is always recognizable as a k-the-i??? song. Your later stuff may be a bit more “precise” or, at times, “avant-garde” but that is all. Do you feel that, at any point, your music went through a drastic shift? Or is your musical trajectory based on a few ideas you’ve held from day one? If so, what are those ideas?

KC. I was associated with all those crews but Lost Channel and Komadose were some of my high school homies from Cambridge so it was more personal. I moved to LA early 2007 and by that time I felt way more developed and less random, because at one point of time my verses were so avant-garde and weird that the direction of my lyrics were random and had no direction what so ever. Just free flying complex poetry on beat. My music changed but remains to have its core still intact. So I wouldn’t say drastic but I no longer rap about ninjas, robots and aliens. Well not as much as I used to and if I do I mask it way better.

AA. What is your creative-process like? In one song you mention that “you wrote this in five minutes.”; yet, in an interview, you mention that your music tends to “build” meaning over time. Do you start “intuitively” or in a rapid state of creation and then hope your work  picks up meaning (slowly and overtime) after its completion? How do songs start and end for you? What about lyrics?

KC. It depends on mood, spurt of thought, and emotion. I read a lot, I watch a lot of documentaries, movies, etc… So I have a bunch of stored information. Sometimes thoughts spew out of my mind at light speed. These are the days it’s pretty much a written freestyle and I let my body take over. I call this my exorcism form lol. Not really but you get the concept.  And other days my mind is relaxed and I just dive deep into my subconscious to create crafted verses that are way more in depth. Musically sometimes I do the writing first then make the beat and match it or other times I create the beat first or already been given the beat and allow the beat to guide. My creative process changes all the time. I’m just now noticing how weird that is. Haha.

AA. The song “kollidoscope” has an almost mythic story-arc. You (or your persona) goes from “you’re driving me crazy / let me out / I’m held captured / locked in myself, vortex” to “my eyes are more open now with three-dimensional scenery / a liquid-based polygon, computerized entity.” You seem to suggest that “freedom” comes with a transformation from “human” to “computer.” As I mention in my introduction, the “personal” and “human” in your music is often associated with confusion and conflict, while the “computerized” and “alien” represents a freedom from those human difficulties. Are you, in fact, employing this mythic story-arc in your work? What do you find in the computer-world that is different from the human?

KC. When I look at the computer world compared to human world it runs opposite in contrary to most people’s belief. Mind you I wrote kaleidoscope my senior year of high school in 1997 way before movies like The Matrix stated the world we live in isn’t real. I kind of always felt that way since I can remember being able to remember. In 1997 I think reality really hit me and I started noticing that it’s not about just living your life any longer and that we’re about to switch to a technically advanced world where they’re going to start programming us and we’re not even going to notice it, but I noticed it all and it upset me. Not to even sound crazy I remember experiencing weird signs of euphoria that would allow me to see things that weren’t there. As if an entity from a parallel dimension warns me and feeds me knowledge. All my research reflects within my music. Basically my senses are always on alert and open. The conflict between the digital, the spiritual, the multidimensional has always been an everyday battle for me. The computer world is the truth, the actual world that we’re living in, while the human world is the complete opposite and just plays the role of a shell for the computerized world.

 

AA. In an ‘a capella’ rendition of your verse from “kollidoscope,” you mention that the song is a kind of experiment in language. “This is my vision of words [through] a kaleidoscope,” you say. Can you explain a bit about what that means? What are you doing with language that makes it “kaleidoscope-like”?

KC. It’s a language to the other side,  as well as the understanding in what he hides. There are many layers and in all actuality it shows that the rabbit hole is to be infinite. The language and understanding that when someone says something it is more in depth then what it appears to be on the outside. Hence how people who let my music grow on them tend to have a different understanding of a song of mine 5 years later because the language was layered and coded. And like we, all kaleidoscopes turn, rotate, show angles, are layered, as well as colorful but here is the thing… What you see inside isn’t what is actually on the outside.

AA. My impression of your idea of “words through a kaleidoscope” is a kind of “glitching” on rhyme. The turning of a kaleidoscope seems akin to a series of mental associations precipitated by rhyme. Here are some lines from “Lead the Floor”: “Correct me if I was meant to attend Hailey’s Comet / No comet comment concurred referred validating maintenance / It hasn’t been the same since / Before the bulldozer moved over the hands of time to obtain / You couldn’t look under a rock to find history of my name.” Each line doesn’t really stand alone. Instead, each line “flows” into each other by means of “rhyming sounds” more so than by your own agency or control: “comet” leads you to “comment” and you don’t really have much say in the matter. The process is almost computerized, or automatized rather than it is existential or expressive of a process of “individual genius.” Am I getting close to your take on rhyme and “words through a kaleidoscope”?

KC. Yes totally my dude. You just narrowed it down and understand – as metaphorical as words through a kaleidoscope may appear, there’s so much truth to the core of the matter. Like really…We say we can trace our lineage but what if our lineage is a lie and we come from an unknown planet? We’d have to rethink life. This is a different subject but I feel like there’s more to the beginning of humanity then the theory of 2 rocks colliding creating life. I feel like someone is not telling us everything but I’m starting to be infused with knowledge.

AA. Your music is futuristic and genre-defying, but its also in heavy dialogue with the culture and traditions of rap. “Glitched-out” sounds will often clash with classic boom-bap beats. Is this the result of you putting your influences together, in a mish-mash? Does this confluence reflect your own tastes in music? Are you consciously putting your influences together in your music, or does your sound just “come to you”?

KC. Totally!!! I’m a genre clasher. I’ll mix together what I feel will make sense from all sounds of music and my influences or sometimes – it’s just cool random record finds to be used in my music. It comes to me as well. Digging for records attaches that element. Sometime I buy records from artist I know since I have a large understanding of all genres from the 50’s on and sometimes I buy records that have awesome covers and just hope it’s good. And for the record I can sample and use anything. Like anything!!!

AA. On the topic of the tradition of rap, you often collaborate some heavy hitters in the world of rap. From myka 9 to busdriver and nocando (of Good Life, Project Blowed legacy); and from Bigg Jus to Orko and Thavius Beck. I’m especially interested in the tradition that comes out of the Good Life/Project Blowed. Can you tell me a bit about working with those guys and how they contributed to your musical vision?

KC. Being from the east coast there wasn’t many west coast artist that influenced me growing up aside from NWA, Hieroglyphics, and The Good Life/Project Blowed homies. So when I moved to LA I reached out to a few of the homies to collaborate since at this time we’ve gained respect for each other and built individual relationships with a few of the homies. Working with these dude came easier for me than most.  It was almost like I was from LA. Everyone took me in with open arms. I’ve did short run tours with Aceyalone, Myka 9, Abstract Rude in Germany (2010), I met NoCanDo and Kail in 2003 at Scribble Jam. A gang of us rappers were staying in the same hotel (Budget Host) and I remember being the only rapper not jumping in cyphers and I can clearly remember NoCan asking me if I rapped I told him I did and he asked me to kick a verse. I did. He was impressed. He kicked a verse. I was impressed. We were cool immediately. I was a black weirdo rapper from out of no where. Cambridge Massachusetts at that. Weirdo black MC’s were a thing back then… we were deep, lol. Met Busdriver in 2006 at SXSW playing the Mush Records showcase with him. So I, as you see, throughout the years I built individual relationships with a gang of the homies so when I moved to LA working with them just seemed right. These dude contributed to my records by adding the element of styling… I was making abstract shit and the only set of cats that were as abstract as myself that understand what I was doing was The Blowed.

AA. The “Youth:Kill” project is especially experimental. Are there any particular ideas you’re working with on this project? It’s absolutely incredible stuff. 

KC. I love that project. Last year we recorded a 15 minute song with my homie OptimisGfn but we lost the file. It was about to be released on vinyl. But I’m always with Walter Gross when I’m in Berlin so we’re planning at some point in time to sit down and make something. We’ve done improv shows people really loved so people really like the Youth:Kill sound and energy and I feel like we should create new music when we can. Funny thing is I’m on my way to Berlin to his new place as I’m writing this lol.

AA. “Glitching” seems to have a dual function in your work. On the one hand it is a kind of means to be humble yourself. In “Electrobug” you say: “wait for her / To apply data / Oriental it / Must be in my mental operating system / Glitching / I’m not completely / That mad.” Your conflicted emotional state, here, is figured as a kind of “glitch” in your mental operating system. On the other hand, your “glitching” teaches. It demands a heightened attention from your listeners, a real concentration. The listeners need to adjust themselves to these difficult forms of sonic communication. Can you define “glitching” and your understanding of its function?

KC. Glitches were major for me then. I just couldn’t get over the emotional depression so I looked at it like a flaw in my system. Not be able to get over an emotion, stressful or a depressive situation was considered an error to functionality. I would eventually get over things but the second I’m reminded of the mishap here come them glitches, system shutdown, and socially antisocial mode is initiated. And once operational I need to avoid diving deeper within my subconscious. I’m a heavy thinker. Glitching out wasn’t the healthiest. Everyone should be aware of the way they operate. I’ve studied my actions so I’m well aware and informed enough to relay the message to the masses. Refrained from system failure by properly scanning my data base for errors.

AA. With the popularity of groups like Death Grips and clipping, do you think there’s more room for the kind of music you’re creating? Will you forever be underground?

KC. Funny you say that. As far as performance goes, rap wise I get compared to Death Grips. I think it has a lot to do with that the aggressive energy. I was asked to open up for Clipping last year in Hamburg, Germany. To me it’s all with marketing. And content creation. Hard works pays off. I’ve been in no rush to become an industry dude. Respect from my peers goes a long way with me and I’m respected by them all. To be honest though… this year and so on I’ll be putting in major work to get my music to more people so we’ll see what happens. I thinks it’s officially time to upgrade my legacy. I’m ready to remove myself from the depths of the basement and replace it with a sliver of the attic. Then we can work on rooftops. I’ve built my foundation a while ago so yeah… it’s time.

AA. Lastly, anything you want to plug?

KC. First of all, thank you for reaching out. I am working on some newness that I can’t officially plug until the paper work is concrete but be aware that I’m working and you’ll notice a series of content, music, videos, podcasts, and so forth this year so if anything… Just stay tuned in. Peacers.

 


Header Image: k-the-i??? live via Facebook

Twentieth Century & Contemporary Literature Graduate Seminar (2017)

In the 2017 calendar year, me and two other PhD students convened the Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature Graduate Seminar for the English Department at the University of Cambridge. The role involved inviting speakers, preparing a calendar of events, and hosting the speakers. Below you can find more information about the Graduate Seminar events:


Twentieth Century & Contemporary Literature Graduate Seminar website: https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/seminars/twentieth.htm


CALENDAR OF EVENTS

Michaelmas 2017

to be announced


Easter 2017

Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature Research Seminar - Poster

 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017 (Week 2):

Graduate Symposium

David Grundy, “John Wieners and ‘the only one who ever mattered'”

Aoife Byrne, “Evadne Price and the uses of pastiche”

Ananya Mishra, “Re-Imagination of Contested Spaces in the Indigenous Literatures of India, Australia, and North America”

Abstracts

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 (Week 4):

Prof. Finn Fordham (Royal Holloway, London): “An Anatomy of Moments”

Abstract

Monday, May 29, 2017 (Week 5):

Prof. Vincent Sherry (Washington University): “Bare Death: The Failing Sacrifice of the Great War”

Abstract          Introduction

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 (Week 6):

CANCELLED: Prof. Keston Sutherland (University of Sussex): “Poetry’s Specific Pain”


Lent 2017

Thursday, January 26, 2017 (Week 2):

Ned Allen (University of Cambridge): “How to Read an Earworm: from Twain to Tarantino”

[Joint seminar with the American Literature Research Seminar]

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 (Week 6):

Jon Day (Kings College London) – “Novel Sensations: Modernist Fiction and the Problem of Qualia”

Thursday, March 9, 2017 (Week 8):

Sandeep Parmar (University of Liverpool): “Nancy Cunard’s Poetry”

[Joint seminar with the American Literature Research Seminar]

An Enclosure Not of Imprisonment (Review 31)

Review 31 is an online journal founded in 2011. Since then, it has gained recognition for hosting intelligent reviews of nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. Recently, Review 31 published my review of Alex Wong’s Poems without Irony (Carcanet, 2016). The article navigates the difficulties of Wong’s first collection by focusing on the formal aspects of its poems and considering its moral demands on the reader.

“…though the collection does not gratify, explain, or solve, it does ultimately ‘respect’. Poems without Irony never devalues its readers; its poems rarely speak from the perspective of someone who has ‘something to say.’ The poet does not treat his readers as unlearned, unwise, or – as is common in much contemporary literature – either entertainment-hungry or coldly academic. Instead, Wong tries his best to give himself up to the disinterested (but complex) zone of art and culture. Though labyrinthine, this zone of art is a possible site for ‘humane’ interaction: a real sympathy or even empathy between writer and reader. To fail to return the efforts of the poet (so clear in his poetry), then, seems like a moral misstep.”

You can find the article here.


Header Image: The cover of Poems without Irony (2016) by Alex Wong via Carcanet

From Swing to Afro Futurism: A Series of Film Screenings (Films – Jan & Feb, 2017)

From Swing to Afro Futurism: A Series of Film Screenings is an event done in conjunction with the exhibition, Reclaiming the Legends: Myth & the Black Arts Movement. The screening aims to both elucidate the music dimension of BAM and, more importantly, to contextualize the poetic endeavors, of its writers.

Location: Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, English Department Building (basement)

Time: 7.15 – 9pm


Tuesday, January 31:

Imagine the Sound (1981) dir. Ron Mann

The first screening will be of Ron Mann’s Imagine the Sound (1981). The film profiles four jazz musicians: Archie Shepp (saxophone), Cecil Taylor (piano), Bill Dixon (trumpet), and Paul Bley (piano). The film looks back at the “New Thing” (free jazz) and contains incredible live performances by Shepp, Taylor, Dixon, and Bley

– Introductory Remarks: One

Tuesday, February 7:

“The Cry of Jazz” (1959) dir. Ed Bland

“The Last Angel of History” (1996) dir. John Akomfrah

The second screening will be of two short films. “The Cry of Jazz” (1959) is an important documentary directed by Edward Bland. The film makes a strong case for the structural identity between black life in America and jazz music. It also traces the history of jazz and includes performances by a young Sun Ra & his Arkestra. In “The Last Angel of History” (1996), John Akomfrah explores the literary and cultural aesthetic known as Afro-Futurism.

– Introductory Remarks: Two

Tuesday, February 14:

Space is the Place (1974) dir. John Coney

The third screening will be of John Coney’s Space is the Place (1974). Space is the Place is an afro-futurist, blaxploitation film featuring Sun Ra: a music-messenger and prophet from outerspace. After landing his spaceship in Oakland, Sun Ra spreads his word of an “alter-destiny” in outerspace to the black youth of the area. The movie also contains an incredible live performance by the Arkestra.

– Introductory Remarks: Three

*All films may contain strong language. “Space is the Place” contains nudity.


Film Screenings Poster.jpg


Header Image: still from Space is the Place (1974) via Showroom Workstation

Reclaiming the Legends: Myth & the Black Arts Movement (Exhibition – 16 Jan-17 Feb, 2017)

As of today (16 January 2017), Reclaiming the Legends: Myth & the Black Arts Movement has gone up on the first floor lobby of the English Faculty Building. The exhibition explores the place of myth in the poetry, novels, and music of BAM.

Please find two informative PDFs below. One is an extensive description of the exhibition and the objects on display and the second is a short handout visitors can pick up at the exhibition:

Reclaiming the Legends: Myth & the Black Arts Movement [Extended Information]

Reclaiming the Legends: Myth & the Black Arts Movement [Short Handout]


exhibition-poster


Reclaiming the Legends
Myth & the Black Arts Movement

16 January – 17 February, 2017
English Faculty Building, First Floor

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    Dropping his history books,
    a young man, lined against the horizon
    like an exclamation point with nothing to assert,
    stumbles into the dance.
– “Death as History” by Jay Wright

Reclaiming the Legends: Myth and the Black Arts Movement finds inspiration in the anti-historical world described by Wright. Its mysterious dance is the “cabinet of curiosities”: the defiance of categorical boundaries, the assembling of varied objects, the powerfully mythic rather than the historical, the rhythmic rather than the calculated. The exhibition also “plead[s]” like Wright’s dance. It asks visitors to abandon traditional epistemologies and participate in the microcosm it has created. This exhibition-world is a miscellany of anthropological & egyptological studies, revisionist histories, spiritualist & esoteric writings, books of poetry, and music record. It intimates some organizational principle, but finds time operating synchronically. Traditional chronology, here, is corrupted: Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Lorenzo Thomas, Bob Kaufman, Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Marvin X appear alongside Gerald Massey, George James, and Theodore P. Ford. Like Wright’s dance, its form is ritualized and its theme is mythical.

Although the exhibition looks above and beyond “history” (“visionary-wise”), it is from there where we begin. The symbolic birth of BAM occurred in the spring of 1965. Not long after the assassination of Malcom X, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka] (1934-2014) moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Harlem, where he, Larry Neal and others co-organised the Black Arts Repertory Theater / School. BAM (its artists, journals, and institutions) would soon spread across a number of major American cities—Detroit, Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and New York—; however, under repressive government measures like COINTELPRO, President Nixon’s strategy of pushing Black Capitalism as a response to Black Power, and an ideological shift towards Marxism, BAM began to decline by around 1974.

Although BAM was largely a decentralized movement, its artists and thinkers did have a common political foundation: nationalism. James Edward Smethurst writes, “the common thread between nearly all the groups was a belief that African Americans were a people, a nation, entitled to (needing, really) self-determination of its own destiny” (15). BAM’s socio-political concerns bespeak of the radical significance of their historical moment. Yet, perhaps unexpectedly, “history” (as such) did not figure in the poetry and drama of BAM. In fact, many of BAM’s thinkers equated history, as Wright states, with “death.” History was the story and culture propounded by the tyrannical power of the white-West. BAM and Black Power politics wanted to change or, better, to drop “history” altogether. Neal writes, “the cultural values inherent in western history must either be radicalized or destroyed.” What was needed, Neal continues, was “a whole new system of ideas”: a system that would be alternative, black, and “mythic.”

The poetry and drama of BAM often served to build this alternative myth-world. In BAM’s literature, allusions to Akhenaten, Moses, Zipporah, warriors, gods, spirits, and orishas appear with more frequency than figures of recent history (Patrice Lumumba and Malcom X included). Symbols like the ankh or Egyptian hieroglyphs can often be seen integrated in artworks or poems. Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia regularly appear as the settings of a prosperous black past, now suppressed by white historians. If “history” distorted and oppressed, “myth” empowered. For BAM, this mythic past was also as an image of the future. Time, in the alter-world, functioned synchronically: its occupants could freely move backwards (to the glory she/he once was) or forwards (to the glory she/he will be). In infinity, as Sun Ra states “it doesn’t matter which way you go”—you will find free and everlasting life in all directions.

Reclaiming the Legends: Myth and the Black Arts Movement is a journey through the synchronic alter-world of BAM. The first display case (The Past Made Present) decides to position itself in the past. On the far left of the display case lie two books: Gerald Massey’s The Light of the World (1907) [1] and George James’s Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (1954) [2]. Both Massey and James’s texts reconsider the accepted history of Western tradition, concluding that a number of its philosophical and religious ideas have ancient Egyptian origins. As Massey and James’s texts assert the cultural influence of Africa, the three works in the middle of the display case encourage their readers to use this African knowledge as a means of self-empowerment. Theodore P. Ford’s God Wills the Negro (1939) [3] ends with the call to find strength in “the accumulated folk-wisdom and social experience of a hundred centuries of civilization.” Amiri Baraka, in his interview with Austin Clarke, [4] makes a similar gesture when he encourages the “black man” to repossess his ancient “life-force”—the force that made Egypt, Ghana, Timbuktu—and flourish as he used to. In “The Bathers” (1981) [5], Lorenzo Thomas aims to describe this life-force at work. Set in the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights demonstrations, a young boy, hit by a high-pressure hose, “[transforms] into a lion” whose powerful “tail is vau the symbol of love.”

The most influential example of ancient myth being used as a means of self-empowerment occurs in jazz music. On the video monitor beside the first display case, the visitor can watch musical performances by Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago as well as readings by Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Askia Touré. Many of the performances find their energy in ritual-like percussion or rhythmic phrasing, dance, and costume. Turning back to the first display case, the visitor sees three objects of a similar theme. Henry Dumas’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (1974) [6] tells the story of an ancient horn so powerful that it kills a group of uninitiated white listeners. In “East Fifth Street (NY)” (1965) [7], Bob Kaufman describes jazz as having the capacity to cause “time” to “[cry] out” from “the skin of an African drum.” At the very end of the first display case is Sun Ra & Henry Dumas’s The Ark and the Ankh (1966) [8]. During the course of their interview, Ra describes music as a bridge to a world beyond death, destruction, and time.

Following Ra, the exhibition’s second display case (Looking Ahead, Visionary-wise) positions itself in the future. On the left hand side of the display case, the visitor sees three texts that explore the theme of death bringing about new life. E.A. Wallis Budge’s translation of The Book of the Dead [1] contains a series of “magic spells” with the capacity to determine the afterlife of the deceased. In “Egyptian Book of the Dead” (1970) [2], David Henderson uses metaphors like magic spells to transform a deceased New York City into an Edenic ancient Egypt. In his ode to the legacy of Malcolm X (1968) [3], Marvin X turns Malcolm’s assassination into something affirmative, bringing with it strength, hope, blackness, and black power. While death brings about new life, myth and magic provide models of what that new life may look like. Reed’s “Neo-HooDoo” mixture of fact and fiction, history and myth, in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) [4] provides the reader with an aesthetic and cultural model antithetical to the West’s. In “The True Way to Life” (2006) [5], Sun Ra uses intuitive logic to reinterpret history, de-code biblical scripture, and reveal the secret path to everlasting life. In Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1968) [6], Amiri Baraka provides examples of how sensationalism, surrealist symbolism, and mythology can be placed in the service of political protest. The exhibition ends with two explorations of what may be called the future-present. In “to Morani/Mungu” (1971) [7], Sonia Sanchez puts “peace” in the hands of a loving mother and has her assert that it is in the present that African Americans—particularly children—can actualize their dreams. Lastly, Space is the Place (1972) [8], is a musical exploration of Sun Ra’s space world. After journeying through cacophonous horns, off-kilter piano, and energetic percussion, the album ends with the electronic beeps and bops of Ra’s spaceship taking off for another voyage.


Items on Display

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VIDEO MONITOR

Pharoah Sanders – Live (1968)
Amiri Baraka – “Wailers” (1981)
Cecil Taylor – Live (1984)
Nikki Giovanni – “Nikki-Rosa” (2006)
Albert Ayler – Live (1966)
Backstage at the New Lafayette Theatre (late-1960s)
Archie Shepp – Live in Algiers, with Touareg Musicians (1969)
Askia Touré – “A Few Words in Passing” (2015)
Sun Ra & his Intergalactic Arkestra – Live (1972)
Art Ensemble of Chicago – Live (1983)

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FIRST DISPLAY CASE: THE PAST MADE PRESENT

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◦ STOLEN LEGACIES ◦

1.Gerald Massey, “The Jesus-Legend in Rome,” The Light of the World (1907)

Gerald Massey (1828-1907) began his adult life as a poet and scholar devoted to reform movements of the nineteenth century, namely Chartism and Christian Socialism. After 1860, a growing interest and faith in spiritualism monopolized his attention. Massey began to devote his studies to Ancient Egypt, which he believed to be the source of many modern spiritualist ideas. In “The Jesus-Legend in Rome,” Massey makes one of his more controversial claims: the Jesus-legend has roots in the Egyptian Horus myth. Massey’s work would later be cited by BAM writers such as Lorenzo Thomas.

2. George James, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (1954)

George James ([?]-1954) was a scholar from Georgetown, Guyana. After a long period of academic study, James took on a number of teaching posts at notable American universities. During his posting at the University of Arkansas, James published the controversial Stolen Legacy: a pseudo-historical study of the Egyptian origins of classical Greek philosophy. Irrespective of its verity, his outwardly afrocentric (re-)examination of the western philosophic tradition inspired a generation of black thinkers, namely Lorenzo Thomas and Sun Ra.

◦ RECLAIMING THE LEGENDS ◦

3. Theodore P. Ford, God Wills the Negro. An Anthropological and Geographical Restoration of the Lost History of the American Negro People, Being in Part a Theological Interpretation of Egyptian and Ethiopian Backgrounds (1939)

While some scholars link the name Theodore P. Ford to Wallace D. Fard (the founder of the Nation of Islam), the authorship of God Wills the Negro has yet to be confirmed. The book is typical of mid-century afrocentric texts. It draws a series of links between the ancient Egyptian and the modern African American, finding similarities in their appearances, myths, and rituals and creating pseudo-historical links between them. The book concludes with a call to find strength in “the accumulated folk-wisdom and social experience of a hundred centuries of civilization” and to respect “the will of god.”

4. Amiri Baraka, “An Interview with LeRoi Jones by Austin Clarke, 1968,” Conversations with Amiri Baraka (1994)

Amiri Baraka [formerly Le Roi Jones] (1934-2014) was a poet, playwright, and essayist. After moving to Harlem in 1965, Baraka became one of the major architects of BAM. His projects, Totem Press and the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, supported black artists by giving them publishing and performance space. This interview from 1968 exemplifies the spiritual discourse of much Black Arts rhetoric. Strongly influenced by the Nation of Islam, Maulana Karenga’s philosophy of Kawaida, and afrocentric histories, Baraka urges the “black man” to repossess his “life-force” and determine his own future.

5. Lorenzo Thomas, “The Bathers,” The Bathers (1981)

Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005), one of the leading members of the Umbra Workshop, was born in Panama and grew up in New York. “The Bathers,” the title poem to a collection published in 1981, concerns the brutal police treatment of black protestors during the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights demonstrations. Thomas juxtaposes this treatment with images drawn from Christianity, Islam, and ancient Egypt to tell of an ancient life-force which, like Baraka’s, is both combative and transformative: it reaches into the past, challenges the inequalities of the present, and encourages change in the future.

◦ AN ANCIENT MUSIC ◦

6. Henry Dumas, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Ark of Bones & Other Stories (ed. Eugene B. Redmond) (1974)

Henry Dumas (1934-1968), poet and short story writer, was from Sweet Home, Arkansas and grew up in Harlem. After being discharged from the U.S. Air Force, Dumas studied, worked a number of jobs, and taught at Southern Illinois University. His life was cut short when a white policeman shot him dead in Harlem’s 125th Street Station. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” tells the story of a group of white music-fans who finagle their way into a Harlem jazz club. Inside, one of the musicians plays an ancient horn that “[vibrates] the freedom of freedom.” After it is done sounding, the white listeners are found dead.

7. Bob Kaufman, “East Fifth Street (NY),” Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness (1965)

Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) was a poet and performer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Although he never directly involved himself in BAM, many of the Movement’s writers posited him as one of their forebears. “East Fifth Street (NY),” describes the music of a jazz club in the Lower East Side. The music is religious and black: it is “Jacob’s song” with a “Caribbe emphasis.” It is also natural: like a stone, wind, or waves. The music, returning from this journey into the world of metaphors, comes back as an echo. The echo, once conflating space, now conflates time. We listen as “TIME CRIES OUT, ON THE SKIN OF AN African drum.”

8. Sun Ra & Henry Dumas, The Ark and the Ankh [LP] (1966)

The Ark and the Ankh is a meeting of minds and mediums: music and writing. In 1961, Sun Ra (1914- 1993) and his band moved from Chicago to New York, where he would influence poets such as the members of the Umbra Workshop and participate in Baraka’s Black Arts Theatre experiment in Harlem. In this recording of Henry Dumas (see 6) interviewing Ra, Ra describes music as a bridge to a world beyond death, destruction, and time. For “the black man,” this music-bridge may take him to either the past or the future. In infinity, Ra states,“it doesn’t matter which way [he goes],”: in either direction, he will find free and ever-lasting life.

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SECOND DISPLAY CASE: LOOKING AHEAD, VISIONARY-WISE

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◦ LIFE & REBIRTH ◦

1.The Book of the Dead. Trans. E.A. Wallis Budge (1895)

E.A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934) was an egyptologist known for his career in the British Museum’s Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which Budge translated in 1895, is made up of a series of illustrations and “magic spells.” The spells serve a number of purposes related to the fate of the deceased. They also equip their owner with a unique power over both life and death. For thinkers associated with BAM, the book’s African origin as well as its idea that language can determine a speaker’s environment made it a critical part of the Black Arts imagination.

2. David Henderson, “Egyptian Book of the Dead,” De Mayor of Harlem (1970)

David Henderson (1942 – ) is a poet, scholar, and former member of the Umbra Workshop. In “Egyptian Book of the Dead,” New York and ancient Egypt appear as one. The city’s rooftops are “old testaments” and a “tribe” of people drink “wine from palms” and beer “from bananas.” Here, death is beautiful. It comes in a “blaze of trumpets” and a “blossom of fire” to free the people from a world of “incarnate computers.” Though it speaks of death, the poem brings with it new beginnings. By using metaphors like magic spells, the speaker brings a deceased modern city into an Edenic afterlife.

3.  Marvin E. Jackmon [Marvin X], “That Old Time Religion,” Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing [ed. Amiri Baraka & Larry Neal] (1968)

Marvin X (1944- ) is a poet, playwright, and essayist from Fowler, California. While attending Oakland City College, X met Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (founders of the Black Panther Party) and became involved in Black Power politics. X went on to become one of BAM’s major architects, co-founding two of its premier West Coast venues: San Francisco’s “Black Arts/West Theatre” and Oakland’s “Black House.” “That Old Time Religion” is an ode to the legacy of Malcom X. The poem turns Malcom’s death into an affirmative. His death, X writes, brings with it life: blackness and black power now shine over the land.

◦ MYTH & MAGIC: MODELS OF THE FUTURE ◦

4. Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

Ishmael Reed (1938- ) is a novelist, dramatist, poet, and essayist from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As the clearest articulation of Reed’s “Neo-HooDoo” aesthetic, Mumbo Jumbo mingles fiction and fact, history and myth, to turn the text into a kind of spiritual artifact. The resultant artifact is a satiric deconstruction of Western culture, that also provides the reader with an aesthetic and cultural model antithetical to the West’s. The novel is set in 1920s New York. An “anti-plague,” Jes Grew, is infecting Americans. Two all-white secret societies set out to stop Jes Grew with doses of monotheism, cold reason, and European values.

5. Sun Ra, “The True Way to Life,” The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets (2006)

The mid-1950s was a period of intense musical and intellectual exploration for Sun Ra (1914-1993). After moving to Chicago, Ra met Alton Abraham. In addition to forming many musical ties, Ra and Abraham started Thmei Research: a book club dedicated to religious and esoteric ideas. “The True Way to Life“ is one of the many pamphlets and broadsides printed and distributed (in Chicago’s Washington Park) by Thmei Research. The text is typical of Thmei’s thinking in its use of intuitive logic to decode history and biblical scripture and in its central message of ever-lasting life.

6. Amiri Baraka, Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969)

Four Black Revolutionary Plays is a testament to Amiri Baraka’s political seriousness—manifesting itself as pain and, often, anger in these plays—as well as his commitment to linguistic innovation and aesthetic revolution. In “Experimental Death Unit # 1,” “A Black Mass,” “Madheart,” and “Great Goodness of Life,”, Baraka provides examples of how sensationalism, surrealist symbolism, and mythology can be placed in the service of political protest. In “A Black Mass” (1966), for example, Baraka uses the Nation of Islam’s Yakub myth—in which white people are created by a mad scientist—to explore issues of racial harmony, religious responsibility, and sexual corruption. The play ends with a “call to arms”: a holy war against white supremacy.

◦ A NEW DAY ◦

7. Sonia Sanchez, “to Morani/Mungu,” It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs (1971)

Sonia Sanchez (1934- ) was a strong female voice in the male-dominated BAM. In 1972, Sanchez converted to the Nation of Islam, leaving three years later over their position on women’s rights. Already showing signs of NOI-sympathies, Sanchez begins her poem with a greeting of peace. Unlike Ra in his broadsheets or Baraka in “A Black Mass,” Sanchez does not displace “peace,” but puts it in the hands of a loving mother. Here, the Edenic future is not something to be longed for. Rather, it is the present that is the space in which African Americans—particularly children—can actualize their dreams.

8. Sun Ra, Space is the Place [LP] (1973)

Space is the Place—an exploration of the outer reaches of jazz—is one of Sun Ra’s clearest expressions of his space age philosophy. The title song is a 21-minute hymn that transports its listeners into a world of electronic beeps and bops, cacophonous horns, and energetic percussion. Having arrived in the infinity of space, the album freely moves back and forth in time: “Images” and “Discipline” harken back to traditional big band, while “Sea of Sound” visits the future sounds of free jazz. The album ends with “Rocket Number Nine”: a dizzying chant that culminates in Ra’s spaceship taking off for another voyage.


* Find extended information at: http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/cmt/ *


Instagram Video:

A brief video taken by the University of Cambridge School of Arts and Humanities about Sun Ra & Henry Dumas’s album.


Event
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FROM SWING TO AFRO-FUTURISM:
A Series of Film Screenings

Tuesday, January 31:
Imagine the Sound dir. Ron Mann (1981)

Tuesday, February 7:
“The Cry of Jazz” dir. Edward Bland (1959)
“The Last Angel of History” dir. John Akomfrah (1996)

Tuesday, February 14:
Space is the Place dir. John Coney (1974)

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Location: Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio (Basement), English Faculty Building
Time: 7.15 pm – 9 pm


Header Image: The Egyptian Book of the Dead via Wiki

Five Questions: Steve Roggenbuck

In my previous interview, the name of one poet consistently crops up: Steve Roggenbuck. At one point, Leo Mercer writes of him, “[he’s] the only person I feel is one step ahead of me in the things I’m concerned with.” Any number of “internet poets” would espouse a similar sentiment. Roggenbuck is undoubtedly one of the major figures associated with internet poetry. I came to know him after Kenneth Goldsmith—poet, founding editor of UbuWeb, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and MoMA’s first poet laureate—praised Roggenbuck in a New Yorker article titled “If Walt Whitman Vlogged” (2014). Goldsmith’s comparison, an internet poet to Whitman, is arresting; but, oft-repeated. The New York Times, Gawker, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and the Atlantic have, if not made the same comparison, made equally praiseful comments: Roggenbuck is inspiring, hypnotic, hilarious.

They also speak of Roggenbuck as the embodiment and expression of a 21st century sensibility. Along with Tao Lin, Mira Gonzalvez, Spenser Madsen, and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Roggenbuck is one of the leading proponents of that sensibility’s artistic corollary: “Alt Lit.” In the New Yorker article, Goldsmith describes Alt Lit as a literary style “marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity.” Alt Lit’s lyricism often outweighs its craft; but its poems do contain some consistent formal characteristics: “lowercase letters, inverted punctuation, and bad grammar.”

Another thing journalists will often mention is that Roggenbuck and the other stars of Alt Lit adopt a counter-cultural, do-it-yourself ethic. The DIY ethic of the Alt Lit community, Roggenbuck mentions to me via e-mail, is “an extension, evolution, or continuation of the punk DIY ethic.” In a fashion reminiscent of Ian Mackaye (let’s say) making and distributing LPs via Dischord Records, Roggenbuck  printed and mailed over 1,000 free copies of his first chapbook, i am like october when i am dead (2010), from out of his own home.

In addition to punk, the Alt Lit ethos has another relative: the internet tabloid. Whereas a limitation of punk is its exclusionary nature (anti-mainstream, anti-masses), the internet tabloid is inclusive, social. Alt Lit poetry does its best to appeal to the general public and to adopt the speech of the common person. Take this poem from Roggenbuck’s DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011):

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“FINAL DESTINATION 3…” from DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011)

The poem seems democratic. It is understandable to just about anyone pop-conscious in the mid-2000s and is so for two reasons: first, it alludes to a popular movie; second, it uses the syntactical structure of that movie’s advertising slogan. The poem, in other words, is democratic because it adopts not only the contents of consumerism, but also the language of consumerism.

The language of consumerism, I want to claim, is a formal issue. It’s the syntax that marks “Buy the iPhone 7 now!” It’s easy, slogan-like, accessible. And it’s a far cry from the ideals of democratic language.  To speak with the ease and accessibility of advertising is to speak without personhood. It is to hand over your agency and language to the tycoon. “Speak for me now,” you say to Him as He lifts a spoon to feed you more of his plastic excreta. My worry is not that Alt Lit poetry endorses consumerism, but that it’s forms do. You don’t need to consume to speak like a consumer.

In my previous interview, Mercer gets close to addressing my worry. At one point, he speaks of Roggenbuck and Sam Riviere as poets who have “branded themselves.” About the former he writes, “I feel like Steve’s now marketing a grandd, and defiitely noble, vision of life which he wants to persuade you to aspire to” [sic]. Before he completely weaves Roggenbuck with corporate interests, Mercer clarifies: “Also, its not true what i said about steve, his work includes powerful look-in-the-mirror-statements such as when he saysin his characteristic vocie that he’s sure that we can achieve for free the happiness that corporations are trying to sell us” [sic]. Mercer’s second point is beyond true and, here, I want to repeat it: Roggenbuck does not endorse corporate interests! …at least thematically.

In an e-mail to Roggenbuck, I mention the issue of “branding” as the general topic of my interview. He immediately responded:

SR. My immediate thoughts: I think there is a sense in which everyone inevitably brands themself, even just your family and friends, even people who are not public figures. for example, your dad might have an awesome beard that he is known for, and then one day he shaves the beard, and it feels really weird and like he is a different person now, because the beard seemed like a symbol of who he was. The little external detail, the beard, became a symbol or almost a “logo” of what your dad is all about. You obviously dont need to call this “personal branding” to understand it, but i think it’s the same principles at work. I think it’s a potentially fun way to understand how the little details of what we say/do, how we present ourselves, are what we become known for, and how we can intentionally affect the image/associations that other people have of us. You can adopt a catchphrase if you want, and a few months later, your friends will think of you anytime they hear something similar being said by someone else. You can be the “cat person” in your family, simply by expressing your love of cats all the time, and then everyone will start getting you cat-related gifts on the holidays, and sending you cat pictures on facebook.

Roggenbuck’s response is valid: personal branding and corporate branding are similar in principle, but obviously different in scale and effect. But, what if personal branding and corporate branding align? What if your dad’s  beard is a lot like the beards worn by American Apparel’s male models. And what if my catchphrase sounds a lot like a McDonald’s catchphrase – not just in content, but in form?

Forms mean something. The medium is the message. Forms carry and embed themselves in the meanings a speaker/artist/advertiser is trying to convey. Forms and meanings have a symbiotic relationship. Forms carry meaning even if they don’t contain the contents of that meaning. Forms mean something.

I want to propose one thing before I move forward: perhaps difficult and boring poetry (the type Alt Lit may reject) is, in fact, more democratic than the easy and corporate? What if formally complex poems give the reader his or her personhood back – stops him or her from being programmed, a talking-android? A difficult poem has the capacity to make a reader dwell on words (semantically or phonetically) or lines (syntactically). The reader may pull out his or her dictionary, discover a word’s meanings and associations, and then realize that word’s linguistic possibilities. The reader begins to develop a handling of language that is precise. Language and its forms become tools at the reader’s command, not vice versa. The reader speaks for himself or herself again!

But…

After all of this, I have not convinced myself. The talk of forms embodying consumerism, though perhaps valid, mean little when considered in the context of social change. Roggenbuck aims for change and does so outwardly.  What does form matter if the language of consumerism is used as the means to a good? Can’t you write like an advertiser, but advertise a plant-based diet, for example? If the reader becomes a vegetarian or vegan, then why worry about form? With these questions in mind, I reached out to Roggenbuck for an interview. I asked him if he’d like to speak about the poet’s relationship to consumerism, form, and the poets’ relationship to corporate interests. These questions always need unpacking. One of Roggenbuck’s own poems captures this difficulty in but a few lines. I’ll end my introduction there:

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“I MAY GO INTO ADVERTISING…” from DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011)

*   *   *

Steve Roggenbuck (1987- ) is an internet poet, video-maker, short story writer, and vegan activist. He has currently published six books, the most definitive being Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-2015 (2015). He has performed at over 300 live events across ten countries. He is also the founder of “boost house” (a small poetry press) and “plant liker”(a podcast about plant-based diets). You can find his work here: www.steveroggenbuck.com; Twitter; and Instagram.


FIVE QUESTIONS: STEVE ROGGENBUCK

1. Personal

AA. Your life story is well known: you were born and raised in rural Michigan, you played drums in a death-metal band in high school, and then, while at Central Michigan University, you turned your attention to writing and publishing poetry. You then enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. You didn’t like the program, dropped out, but, while you were there, published your first two collections of poetry, started making videos, and became more vocal about your veganism. In 2012, you traveled and continued to build an internet following. A year later, you moved to Chicago and started boost house press. You’ve since spent your time traveling and doing poetry readings. Also, you’re a Buddhist and you like Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, and Lil B. I’ve read or heard this story a few times now. This is not to say that that’s a bad thing; but, do you find yourself self-mythologizing? Are you in some way fabricating an identity or is this just the way you relate your life-story? Is self-mythologizing is an inevitable part of being a poet of such visibility?

SR. i don’t think i would say my life story is “well known,” but yes i do have most of this info on my website, and certain details from it have come up repeatedly in interviews. i think there have been a few reasons behind my sharing of this information.

in some cases, sharing my story, like the bit about dropping out of my MFA program and touring as a poet, has served to inspire others who are also interested in unconventional life-paths which emphasize artistic practice. for me, art is often about how to live, so discussions of these life-paths are relevant in my opinion. on my Plant Liker podcast, the format is usually Q&A, and so i sometimes get questions from young artists who are interested in how i’ve built an audience, booked tour dates as a poet, or made some money from my art. i don’t necessarily shy away from discussing these things because, after all, we live in a capitalist system where shelter and food cost money, so we are all forced to make money somehow. if possible, i would love to help these artists find ways to keep making art and build support systems for their practice, even in this world which tends to be hostile to artists. telling my story helps illustrate one real-life path that i personally took.

i also find that, for me, the person behind the art is important to some degree. i want to know and trust the person whose art and ideas i’m feeding myself with. that trust doesn’t necessarily need to come from hearing every detail of their life story, but i do think that art is sometimes about finding and connecting with like-minded people. if i read someone’s funny poem in a literary journal, i might be more interested in looking up further writing by that person if their byline mentions that they’re a vegan or a socialist too, or something else that suggests to me that we have similar values. you could maybe view this process as “branding,” name-dropping these terms in a first impression like that, but i think calling it “branding” might cheapen what is in this case actually a very positive thing. i want to make it easier for people with similar values to find my work, because that’s who i think my work can usually help the most, and that’s who i most want to build community with.

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“I LOVE YOU SO MUCH…” from Crunk Juice (2012)

2. a. Form

AA. Journalists and critics frequently mention that you take a lot of your inspiration from the internet. One poem may read quickly (like Tweets); another may advertise the personal (like Facebook or Instagram); another may contain lots of “jump cuts” (like gifs); another may be extremely catchy (like the stock music you find on YouTube videos). To me, the forms that emerge from the internet are inextricably linked to forms found in advertising. It’s no wonder retail stores now post their advertisements on Youtube before they’re even advertised on television. While your poems don’t endorse capitalist interests, do you worry that the form or rhetoric of your poetry does?

SR. the influence of capitalism is hard to escape, and i’m not going to claim that my work has totally evaded that influence. i’ve become much more aware of this issue in the past couple years, but it’s still difficult to know where all your impulses are coming from when you’re working from your heart as an artist. so, it’s an interesting question for sure.

but i also think it’s important to remember that many of the ideas and forms that corporations utilize, they did not invent; they merely appropriated them. corporations are always trying to insert themselves into processes that are at least partly biological: they exploit and distort our inborn drives for food, sex, safety, etc. they also try to associate themselves with anything that is already popular. the language of advertising is constantly evolving as it continually appropriates youth culture, especially african american vernacular english (AAVE).

when discussing the internet forms themselves and their relationship to capitalism, of course it’s important to acknowledge that social media has transformed the way corporations advertise, and that the social media platforms themselves are huge corporations. but it’s also important to recognize that these tools have transformed anti-capitalist and anti-oppressive struggle in amazing ways, too.

twitter has been a medium through which news can effectively be spread, even when mainstream media refuses to cover it. two of the most visible hashtags used for political organizing have been #Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter, but there are countless more which have been used to connect activists and empower people to resist. queer culture has also exploded on social networks, especially on tumblr: queer kids who are isolated in their hometowns can now find community online, be affirmed in their identity, and find sources that further educate and radicalize them.

thinking about the politics of artistic form can be interesting; i remember an anthology called The Politics of Poetic Form (edited by Charles Bernstein) which i read back in college and which i remember liking. but sometimes i find arguments about the meaning of form to be a little impressionistic. for example, you said you think internet forms are “inextricably linked” to the forms of advertising. but what does it precisely mean for them to be “linked,” and is it even problematic if they are?

the bottom line for me is that corporations use internet forms because they are effective forms through which to grab and hold people’s attention. as an artist and poet, i also want to grab and hold people’s attention. how is your poetry going to transform someone, or even just help them laugh, if they aren’t reading or hearing your words at all?

2. b. Form

AA. I frequently come across statements like “Alt Lit writers can’t write” or “Alt Lit writers lack craft” or “Alt Lit is hyper-lyrical.” The verity of these statements doesn’t concern me. What does is that they eschew any critical engagement with the formal aspects of your poetry and, also, any attempt at uncovering your “poetic.” In one poem, you do say that a poem is simply something the poet loves, i.e. that poetry is intuitive. Nevertheless, there are formal techniques that you use repeatedly: lowercase letters, visual rhyming, typographical experimentation, mispelling, play with punctuation, the cliché, repetition. Do you consciously use these techniques? What do you find in them?

SR. there may be several different functions served by the lowercase letters, misspellings, improper punctuation, and cliches in my poetry, but there’s at least one main function they all help in serving: they make it clear that i don’t want to appeal to respectability. i want people to read my poetry because they actually like it or feel moved by it, not because it’s earned the respect of gatekeepers and institutions.

the boldest misspelling i’ve ever published was on the cover of my fourth poetry collection. i used the incorrect form of “you’re” in the actual title of the book: “IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE.” i’ve seen so many times when someone posted a picture of themself with the book on social media, and the first comment is someone correcting the spelling: *you’re.

the thing is, it’s really easy to follow conventions, to spell correctly and to use proper punctuation. in my opinion, it’s boring. and yet, people are judged every day for having “bad grammar” or whatever. it’s a form of pretentiousness and judgment that i just don’t respect at all. i feel like poetry and art are spaces where you should be able to follow your heart and do what you feel. the rules that teachers and editors come up with can be so arbitrary and stifling sometimes. i had an idea once to go through a prescriptive grammar handbook, and make a point to systematically break every single rule in the handbook in my poems. maybe i should still do that…

3. Creation

AA. Does the act of creation matter to you more than the product?

SR. what matters most to me is the reader/viewer experiencing the work. creation is sometimes very fun, and it often helps me work through my ideas and feelings, but i wouldn’t find nearly as much purpose in making something that i couldn’t show to anybody else.

4.a. Metamodernism

AA. Have you come across the term metamodernism? From what I know, its the artistic use of an insincere means to communicate a sincere message. Your videos, for example, tend to begin with some improvisatory dialogue (or monologue) and end with statements akin to “carpe diem.” The dialogue is, for the most part, ironic: you’ll drop the names of celebrities or make a silly comment. The closing statements are usually sincere, but they too are said with some irony or cliché-ness: appreciate life, appreciate nature, appreciate your friends. Do the terms ironic and sincere apply to the relationship you have to your work? Is metamodernism something you connect with?

SR. i do think most explanations of “post-irony,” “post-postmodernism,” and “metamodernism” are relevant to my work, but i don’t like how calculated those terms make the process sound. when i’m creating, i’m not consciously thinking, “ok, i’m going to use an ironic means to communicate a sincere message” or anything like that. it’s a much more intuitive process. i think the term “playfulness” is more helpful, because it captures the attitude behind the work, speaking in goofy voices, mixing jokes into heart-felt messages, and sort of undermining your own seriousness, while still communicating an overall warmth and positive intent.

4.b. Metamodernism

AA. In my opinion, your poetry doesn’t always do well when it has to stand on its own. They, instead, get a lot more weight when they are in multi-media type contexts. In your videos, for example, you have the linguistic, the visual, and the musical. Your choice of music is especially powerful: usually post rock. But the whole formula feels a little unbalanced. I see it in Lil B too. His lyrics do absolutely nothing for me when alone; but, in the context of a Clams Casino beat, they sometimes do. The cliché or unpoetic gains weight only because it has a more serious and formally exploratory (though this can’t always be said about post-rock) art to lean on. Do the words of your poems, alone, matter? Or is it about the “total art”? If it is about the latter, does the imbalance of artistic seriousness matter at all?

SR. i don’t have a great answer for this, but definitely my videos have seemed to have a bigger impact on most people than my written work. i’ve said before that i’m not actually sure whether the videos “are poems” or not. they are simply what happened when a poet started making youtube videos. maybe poetry is only a piece of what’s happening in the videos, maybe it is “applied poetry.” the categorization of the work can be interesting to discuss but it is ultimately not of critical importance to me.

5. Social

AA. What does all this talk of poetic form matter when your message is positive? You promote veganism in your “Plant Liker” podcast. You promoted less-visible poets in your “Read Poetry and Eventually Die” podcast. You publish poets through Boost House. You are supportive of the LGBTQ community. You’re encouraging. You communicate with the people who reach out to you. Do the details of your poetic really matter? Do “high-caliber” aesthetics matter when you visibly promote change? 

SR. i’d never assert that the questions about the implications of form are totally irrelevant; they are interesting and may have real consequences. but i do think there are other actions we can take that are often more important in terms of leaving the world a better place than we found it. i do think sometimes criticism can focus on nit-picky details of poetics, but if the poet is raising money for oppressed people or putting their body on the line standing with striking workers, that probably has more impact in most cases. i’m not claiming a moral high-ground in any of these places. i try to use my platform responsibly, but there is still a lot more i could do in terms of political organizing too.

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“attention people…” from LIVE MY LIEF (2015)


Header Image: Steve Roggenbuck via Vox Populi