Thursday, March 17, 2011

Junk Shot 2! Jennifer Scappettone and The Eye of Disaster

(Junk Shot 2 continues our on-going conversation with Jennifer Scappettone on "The Poetics of Enormity")

Milutis: Given this poetry requires a lot of research, is there a sense of regret that such a signature is not enough, and that your filtration process leaves out material that could be used to educate or elucidate? Or does it? Again, maybe the issue is one of the perceived smallness of device: poetic versus, say, prose-journalistic. You’re at an interesting intersection between informational value and poetic value, which are many times seen as completely antithetical.

I notice, too, that your list of the comico-tragic solutions to the BP oil spill has the heading “a taste of regret.” Keeping the same sense of regret as above—the regret for what’s left out, for knowledge that cannot be framed because of constraints of temporality, medium, form—at least the first four terms in this list had the status of buzz-words, calculated as incantations of American can-do. Junk-shot. Corexit. Top-kill. Sea-Brat #4. How do we create our knowledge of an enormous event out of these arguably poetic terms? Or do they block knowledge? Similarly, there is the popular concept of the “talking-point,” which is another tool to wrench out meaning from an enormity. We could say that this phenomenon is something news media shares with poetry, if we think about talking points like “no ideas but in things.” You wouldn’t be able to play with that in "Poetics of Enormity," and activate an enormous dialogue with Williams in the bargain, if it hadn’t become this take-away line, and hence, ultimately, a kind of flat, unthinking piece of text passed around from agency to agency. So, are these blockages or do they have some enabling capacity? How do you conceive of what you call the “post-slogan?”

Scappettone (Sent March 15, 2011): I realize there is an alas pervading each snippet of the whole, now that you pointedly ask. The results of every stab at research into seemingly shapeless miasmata of data are bound to fall short of the sublime knowledge base necessary to address the current social, environmental, and speculative emergencies in a concrete fashion. I like your use of the term "signature," which however redolent of a predigital age, reminds us that we are after all still mere flawed human individuals, writing pieces that are in some way bound to ourselves, no matter how many operations we launch as artists to escape, kaleidoscopically, our own experience.

We suffer in fact from a superabundance of information and a deficit of knowledge. How do we trace the systemic triggers of such emergencies? We would need to perform an operation such as that of Dziga Vertov in the Kino-Eye newsreels, to trace the sources of the common hamburger in its bun back to the farms and the wheatfields and the people working there: to try clarifying the tracks of production in a context that forces us to lose our grasp on the path, umbilical, that yokes one source of nourishment or crisis to the next.

Since I began composing this answer, in bitter confirmation of the urgency of addressing such questions, an earthquake at sea has triggered a tsunami which has triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, of proportions that remain to be seen and clarified. I think about the memoirs of hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that I pored through when editing the translation of a collection aimed to halt nuclear development 15 years back, the most painful attention to language I've ever paid. All of the survivors of Hiroshima interviewed mentioned the Aioi bridge. The mothers, siblings, children that had been left on the other side. The water or food that had been isolated to the other side. The people jettisoning themselves into the water to seek relief from the pain of burning, floating. It was a shared point of trauma punctuating the whole hell of horrible memories resisting any form of organization or even elegy.

When I returned to the US after two years of living in Japan, I went to an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Enola Gay bombing. It was astonishing. I had imagined that even if apology were lacking from such an institution, a taste of regret would pervade the whole. Instead, what resulted (apparently following a huge controversy, I later learned) was celebration sterilized of any trauma inflicted on the ground. One walked in to find the T-shaped bridge, the target of the bomb, captured as a still from a bird's eye view. Then the triumphal recording of the flight crew as it struck. The aestheticization of horror.*

One aspect of poetry as vocation is, it seems to me, to seek justice in the present or a redemption of history by forcing these radically disparate points of view to cohabit, if not fuse. To testify to the material fallout of actions, ours and those from "on high," with the cultural breadth that we are trained to file down little by little in the service of professionalism. The bridge in a poetic text of the sort I'm talking about becomes a focal point of concentration in an environment that is apocalyptically hybridized, yet which does contain a logic to which we can point.

Poetry can, moreover, confront interested obstructions of knowledge by using the language of obfuscation against itself, its jingles and buzz-words and slogans and spins—returning the control of knowledge in the form of the take-away line to the page or screen as a shape palpably displaced, deformed—so that the fog of rhetoric, triumph and advertising emerges as just that, rather than as common sense. I am exceedingly interested in the performative power of lyricism, of sonorousness; and this work, Exit 43, cobbles choral texts together out of the most self-contradictory material—the voices of Victorian poetasters, the EPA/Superfund, corporations, Alices—so as to create jarring rhymes that one can "buy" sonically, yet which beg further attention as material falling short of sense. I've structurally sampled the "nonsense" logics of Lewis Carroll in the service of this effort.

I do believe, ultimately, perhaps naively, in the utility of such work with language, which is highly specific. I don't reckon that information unshaped can convey meaning as knowledge. And journalism, however critical, needs to form a narrative even when none has arisen, and also responds to a political climate with which it must nearly always compromise. Hence poetry, "unsponsored."

*It isn't necessary for every document of history to include every possible point of view in order to be responsible to the truth. Years later, I went to an exhibit called "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960," at the Brooklyn Museum. The fascination and dread surrounding the chemistry of biomorphic form in those years, a fundamental anxiety and ambivalence emerging from the United States, was represented with remarkable clarity by these curators.

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