In·ter·punct shares book reviews, art news, lit theory and daily musings from the intimate lives of writers. It seeks to highlight, in an edgy and sprightly fashion, the poetic moments that punctuate our lives.
10/14/2019 0 Comments
Meaning to set aside the obvious point—that prophecies of the imminent Maschiach, Second Coming, and “Twelfth Knight” (or what-you-will, depending on your individual faith) have yet to prove themselves true for those of us condemned to live on Earth among the realities of nature and science—could it be the case that, well beyond the ranks of prophets and angelic messengers confined to canons of religious tradition, there might be a whole range of writers, artists, musicians who have been guided by a vision of a future to come, hopeful or impossible, that defines ourselves around not solely a “Redeemer,” but the possibility of a world transformed?
Were it true, of course—were it revealed to us, in time, to be true—the scholarship of a Messianic Age will certainly be greatly enlarged (if nothing less than entirely transformed) by a retrospective examination of fairy tales, poetic epics and the bodies of art produced by a host of visionary figures who, up until this point, have not generally themselves to be prophets. And in keeping with that future, a range of artists and poets (not the least James Merrill, 1926-1995, in whose work I made a fascinating discovery in 2004, with a book long in preparation) will undress before us, like Nudes descending a Heavenly Staircase, revealing torsos, archaic but shockingly modern, hitherto completely unsuspected.
Joseph Campbell, among others, has shown this redeeming hero myth to be a commonality across many cultures and historical periods. Could it all be wishful thinking? Setting aside a rehash in particular of Campbell, I will suggest—in this blog entry and in entries to follow—that a doubled vision of our future, a path that might go either way, may well be the most circumspect way (for now) to look on the
prophetic content a range of literary and artistic works.
“For the miraculous birth, there always must be / Children who did not specially want it to happen”, as the poet W. H. Auden grudgingly admits in “Musée des Beaux Arts”, his celebrated 1938 poem. And indeed, were to enlarge our understanding of visionaries to include poets such as Auden, Blake, Milton and Dante, or even my own beloved James Merrill, wouldn’t the devil already be “on it,” and there to thwart whatever value such celestial guides might have toward our understanding of what’s to come?
To inaugurate this series, why not begin a modest proposal, an examination of The Wizard of Oz as it was originally conceived by L. Frank Baum?
2/12/2019 0 Comments
“Scattered Grains: From Africa to Haiti and Beyond” is a series of six paintings, acrylic on canvas. Color is a facet of light, surroundings, beholding, and its vibrancy ushers consequence. The iridescent paints chosen for these works of art allow viewers to experience something new from each angle. But most importantly, the overlaying shapes are symbols of that which is united within reality: parts of the body, and the spirit we recognize as humans, animals, and plants. The symbols are there so that we may read their active resistance, but they also more simply exist in spite of reality’s cruelness and dullness.
The role of surrealism in Haitian art has been well-documented, whether the story goes that French writer André Breton urged Haitians to incorporate European surrealism in their daily resistance during his visit to Port-au-Prince or that Breton was moved by the art he witnessed there in such a way that surrealism itself was revitalized through contact. Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier famously observed that Haitian artists found “marvelous in the real.”
Haitian surrealism is distinct in the sense that it does not bring real objects and subjects together in a construction of surreality, but rather it presents a lineage of reality which is also surreal.
The history of Haiti informs us of sophistication and cunningness in the face of adversity. And, in the paintings, so do the calm expressions on these women’s faces, for whom identity and resistance is a matter of fact. Many visitors of Haiti have sought answers to questions on the psycho-social phenomena that is the diaspora of African peoples, the dispersal of communities due to violence and forced migration.The series offers its viewers a way to mediate those questions through the luminous landscapes, fragmented bodies, and--somehow, despite it all, a featheriness in approach via its use of airbrush. “Scattered Grains” is bold in its gracefulness and beautiful in its painful allusions.
“One out of Ten Americans Is a Poetry Lover” by Shayna S. Israel
The next time you go to the grocery store, look around: For every 10 people you see, one of them is a poetry lover. The National Endowment for the Arts found that poetry readership, in the last half decade, doubled . In 2012, 6.7% of Americans reported reading a poem, and now, in 2017, that number has climbed to 11.7% (Survey of Public Participation in the Arts).
Colin Dwyer, in an article for NPR titled “Poetry Is Making A Big Comeback In The U.S., Survey Results Reveal,” writes that in order “to find a comparable interest in poetry, you have to reach back to 2002, when the number of adults reading poetry narrowly cleared the 12 percent threshold” .
Many have attributed the rise in poetry readership to social media, particularly the proliferation of Instapoetry--poetry done on Instagram. The Academy of American Poets remarks that poets are amassing tens of thousands of social media followers. That includes poets like Rupi Kaur (2.7 million Instagram followers), Clint Smith (220,000 Twitter followers), Sarah Kay (67,600 Twitter followers); Andrea Gibson (38,600 Instagram followers), Kaveh Akbar (27,300 Twitter followers), and Danez Smith (24,300 Twitter followers) . (See Plurality Press’ earlier post about the popularity of Instapoetry).
I, too, would agree that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have contributed to a resurgence of poetry among mainstream audiences. Yet, may I add this one point of consideration: Is it that social media made possible poetry’s resurgence or is social media a marker or imprint of an already increasing desire for poetry in our modern lives?
With so much of our media being relegated to echo chambers, there could be a feeling of protracted isolation in how we make sense of our lives and the world around us. Poetry makes sense then. It’s communal. It’s a meaning making place where we all can, once again, meet.
May I add one other thing: For the last 20 years, poetry has been recycling back into our lives--after a couple of long stints in the academy--via the efforts of everyday people and advocacy groups who refused to believe poetry was a dying art.
Sarah Trombetta, in “Poetry Is More Popular Than Ever…,” writes, “Social media poets aren’t the only ones helping to revive the art form,” and that there are also a number invaluable organizations and programs dedicated to sharing poetry and increasing its interests among readers . That groundswell of effort, I believe, is part of what social media is helping to mark.
Social media also marks the efforts of another invisible caste--small publishers and your friendly neighborhood poetry reading.
So, to all of you reciting poetry to your friends in your dorm rooms, buying your neighbor’s book of poems that took him 15 years to write, going to monthly spoken word events--thank you. The new poetry readership stats, marks a victory for poetry lovers everywhere.
"Instapoetry & the Economy of Language & Form" by Menda “Besha” Francois
According to Google, “poetry” is defined as “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature” .
According to Merriam-Webster’s definition of the same term however, poetry is defined as “metrical writing: verse; b: the productions of a poet: poems; 2: writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm” .
Perhaps it is this difference in the two definitions that is characteristic of the way in which we are understanding currently the shift(s) in the poetry landscape today and the chasm which exists between traditional forms of poetry and the emergent Instapoetry.
Instapoetry. Even if you are not quite able to define this new (sub)genre of poetry, you have likely come across it on the internet while scrolling through various social media platforms, read about it online or heard mention of it from a colleague or fellow intellectual/academic.
That Instapoetry carries the prefix “insta” says much about the genre’s salience and/or presence on social media. Social media behemoth Instagram, which was bought out by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion dollars in April 2012 , hosts 1 billion users as of June 2018 . Instapoetry, which can be viewed as a subgenre, or perhaps an extension, of poetry whose distinguishing features lie in its directness of messaging and brevity of form and structure.
That Instapoetry carries the prefix “insta” says much about the genre’s salience and/or presence on social media. Social media behemoth Instagram, which was bought out by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion dollars in April 2012 , hosts 1 billion users as of June 2018 . Instapoetry, which can be viewed as a subgenre, or perhaps an extension, of poetry whose distinguishing features lie in its directness of messaging and brevity of form and structure.
While the gatekeepers of the literary and poetry communities might harbor feelings towards Instapoetry that are far from irreverent, the reality is that, convention be damned, Instapoetry has and continues to influence how the masses (even based simply on the sheer number of Instagram users, 1 billion, half of whom use the app daily) both access as well as consume poetry in today’s modern society and economy.
In this new era of Instagram, and social media on the whole, there is a premium placed on an economy of words and also an economy of thought.
Share your thoughts with the world on Twitter so long as it is no longer than 280 characters. In the time of Vine, you could do virtually anything and go viral at anytime--as long as you did so in six seconds or less. And on Instagram, one can share their beautiful pictures, savvy services and words of wisdom with the universe, so long as they are not long winded about it. And this is especially true for poetry on Instagram where an economy of language is crucial.
Crafting a message in a way that is both heartfelt and concise is a skill required of Instapoets for the mere fact that on the platform, space--and consumer’s attention spans--is always at a premium.
“Instapoems tend to be short enough to fit neatly into a single Instagram photo [1080px x 1080px or 2048px x 2048px] (often in pseudo-typewriter font) and simple enough that readers can instantly grasp the meaning while scrolling on their iPhones. They are a shot of vulnerability among all the curated snapshots of friends and influencers” .
Just as an economy of language is crucial, so too is an economy of form--Instapoetry has done well to suss out that abstract and opaque is not necessarily better and does not need to be revered. Part of this may be attributed to the fact that Instagram is an app designed to be accessed and engaged with via your smartphone--there are still many features one cannot access from a desk- or laptop computer. As such, the poems readers are engaging with have to be accessible and lucid to a certain degree--after all readers are very unlikely to be able to print and annotate these poems in order to analyze, dissect and meditate on their deeper meaning(s).
Put differently, poetry on Instagram possesses a depth and complexity that often leaves readers with something (or many things) to contemplate and consider without leaving them feeling unnecessarily confounded or perplexed by the mechanics of writing or technicalities of writing.
“Yes, Instapoetry may lack the subtlety and complexity that literary-minded poets and highbrow critics usually prefer, but its deeply confessional, heart-on-your-sleeve ethos is resonating with fans” .
The straightforward nature of Instapoetry is what makes it popular.
Its accessibility is what makes it so consumable.
And the writers who master the art of form within this medium--paying close attention to the economy of language but not at the expense of meaning-making or emotion--thrive. They amass major followings and are able to connect with their audiences, thanks largely to the app’s features such as comments and the ability for people to direct message one another, in way that poets in past years were previously unable.
Instapoetry and its economic use of language and form has ruffled quite a few feathers within the academy and amongst the gatekeepers of literary thought. Some argue that Instapoetry, because its conventions are looser or do not hold fast and true to the traditions of the genre, is not truly poetry. But I would argue that as with any literary canon, as time continues and society evolves, so do genres, and Instapoetry is the manifestation of the evolution of poetry genre. In today’s highly stylized, social-media and tech-savvy society, Instapoetry has found a way to give new breadth and depth to the genre that had given some life and light to us all for many a generation.
To return to the matter of definitions, for that is the premise upon which this article began, the heart of the matter may lie with how we as a people or how you as an individual are defining poetry. The former definition, provided by Google (est. 1998), provides a more holistic view of what poetry is: bodies of work as characterized by expression of emotion, rhythm, style, etc. The latter definition on the other hand, as provided by Merriam-Webster (est. 1828), provides a slightly more technical definition of poetry, one seemingly as rigid as its counterpart’s is broad – the first definition provided is “metrical verse: verse” and the second definition is: “productions of a poet: poems.”
What makes a poet a poet? Who decides who gets to be recognized as a poet or who gets to recognize themselves as a poet? And is it wise to presume that simply because a poet is “producing” a work that it is in fact poetry? It might actually be prose.
And also this issue of “verse,” such a technical thing by nature – my first instinct is to Google it!
It would seem to me that these two definitions, posited by two institutions radically different in nature yet both viewed as fully credible sources within our society, accessed daily for the purposes of data-sourcing and fact-checking information and the like. One a stronghold since the 19th century and the other a powerhouse of the 21st century. Their verbiage is reflective of their worldview. In a world that is rapidly changing and evolving, where things are in constant flux, entrepreneurialism is on the rise and new economies are being formed, deconstructed and restructured all the time, Google understand that nothing is fixed. Fluidity is it. And it shows in everything, right down to how they define terms, a term as known and yet perhaps as unknown, as poetry.
The academy would to take note of this. The alternate definition at hand here is helpful and has it usefulness. It comes in handy in the context of the classroom I am sure, but poetry is about real life and as in life, growth is inevitable. Evolution is necessary. Instapoetry is manifest of this truth.
As readers and consumers of poetry, we must not limit ourselves only to the Merriam-Webster definition of poetry, for that would do the genre, and ourselves as people, a grave disservice. We must realize that the ways of viewing the same work or bodies of work is not in opposition to one another but complimentary.
So, let’s acknowledge that poetry in all its forms, is poetry, is poetry, is poetry.
“Poetic Form Is Already a Marker of the Social” by Shayna S. Israel
How many forms of poetry can you name? Sonnet? Villanelle? Free verse? Rhyming couplets? What about a Titter poem? A poem written within the 280 character limit. Would you consider a poem written on Twitter “real poetry”? If, yes, fantastic! If, no, why? By its nature, form poetry is a poem written within some kind of specified constraint.
A haiku, the reputable haiku, is written within a 17-syllabic count. Haiku master Matsuo Basho’s translated poems are on average 41 characters. Content-wise, a poem on social media may be different than a haiku, which typically remarks on nature or landscape. Yet, in form, they both respond to some kind of constraint.
Earlier this summer, I became aware of a new form of poetry called Instapoetry. As with any new happening, there is a lot of buzz. Is it a fad? Does it have substance? Is it going to make “more traditional” poetry irrelevant?
Instrapoets have followers in the tens and hundreds of thousands, some even have over a million followers. Rather than a conversation pitting one form against another form of poetry, I am more interested in what do the emerging forms of poetry say about the human condition--how we read, how we live, what we care about.
Istapoetry in its touted accessibility and widespread reach is really a genre within poetry rather than art form against poetry. Instapoetry in “going viral” is highlighting an inherent feature of poetry: It’s social-ness.
Poetic form is a social form. It was created with the future in mind. It’s commemorative feature, plus its structure (think of nursery rhymes) helps people remember. By its memorability, it already understood itself as being able to reach something larger than itself, beyond its moment of creation. Any distinction made between instapoetry and “more traditional” poetry is not a “low brow” versus “high brow” poetry. It is a really about issues of access and societal tastes.
Rupi Kaur has become the beacon for what instrapoetry can be. Tariro Mzezewa, in Rupi Kaur is Kicking down the Doors of Publishing, writes: “For a long time, poems have been so difficult and rarefied, and along comes Rupi Kaur, who is the age of her audience and seems to be flouting convention. Her readers can understand what she’s talking about” .
Mzezewa in her article keenly recognizes that the “mixture of social media celebrity and simple beauty” that Kaur displays reaches mass audiences and “breeds devotion.” Just a thought: Since the days of Basho in the late 1600s, how many audiences has the haiku reached? Almost half of a millennium worth.
Even the definition of spoken word poetry is beautiful and interesting; “it is as oral art that focuses on the aesthetics of word play and intonation and voice inflection”. This particular form of art is one of the oldest there is and if you have seen it in person, you know the passion and intensity that it carries. Spoken word used to be found in the small hidden places of the city but it is now accessible to many, rather to any with Internet access.
As media sites (such as YouTube and Vimeo) grow, so grows the audience, as well as the amount of poets reciting their words creating more voices that can be heard. I originally wondered if there could be any negative ramifications with such a deal. Is this change a bad one, or is it simply a change?
Before going in depth with the change, let's first dive into the similarities. For their core is identical; humans speaking on humanity and their unique perspective on the universe. In all realms, the person the page and the pixels, no topic seemed to be too much. After many nights spent at the Nuyorican Poets Café I believe I have heard it all (Okay, that’s not entirely true and thankfully so or else my conquest in the world of art would be over, and I’d end up forcing myself to take up an embarrassing hobby like making macaroni necklaces). I was screamed at, sung to, softly spoken to, and enchanted by the beautiful insights and grimy secrets given to me by complete strangers.
Out of the media sharing sites, Vimeo holds the most magic when it comes to poetry and spoken word pieces. Mixing the worlds of poetry and imagery and doing it beautifully. Poetry and film makes for a truly beautiful marriage, as so much possibility lies in it. For centuries poetry has been the chosen language of many and as its words falls onto the audience images take form in their head. Now, artists decide to display these images in their own way and use them as a vital part in their vehicle of expression. This turns a happy stanza into bird of flight. It wraps a hopeless word with a dark forest. A small whisper of desperation is the sky peaking between the lines of tall treetops. Suddenly, you don’t just hear the poem, even more then feel it, and it seeps into your consciousness and plants itself there. Strong images burnt into the back of your eyes for your brain to see.
There is another distinct difference between live performance and a short film that cannot be overlooked. Community. And what makes up a strong community other than people, an audience, big or small but always intent? Hanging on the poets every word, the audience offers themselves to be fed upon and used; as a mirror, as a punching bag, whatever their performer needs. While this experience is such a unique one there is something incredibly intimate about watching a spoken word short film on your screen. In this instance, the audience is free to react in whichever way they need without being seen. The creator also feels more freedom in being anonymous and spared from face-to-face judgment (a very cutting kind).
While putting their most vulnerable thoughts out into the world, some find it safer to do so by piecing together their words alone in an environment of their own. For those who film their own videos, the camera becomes an extension of their thoughts. The same goes for animators; the pen and the lens both carry the special power it takes to explain any given emotion. In the spoken word film “APE” posted on Vimeo by Julie Zammarchi, the animation is used in a surrealist and slightly abstract fashion to fit the strangeness of the poem thereby making it easier to understand and less jarring than it would have been alone. In contrast, Henri Gander’s spoken word film “Alone” features clips of city streets looking as cold and isolated as his words describe him.
Not only is there a beautiful process that goes into the making of a spoken word film, but media hosting sites also have a community of real people that give and take from each other, that offer feedback and criticism and are there to listen at whatever time of day they choose. They start important discussions and contribute just as much as the poets at your local bookstore doing a reading.
“For those who film their own videos, the camera becomes an extension of their thoughts. The same goes for animators; the pen and the lens both carry the special power it takes to explain any given emotion.”
Therefore, maybe change isn’t inherently bad, it’s just different. And in the world of art, different is not something to shy away from.
The Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was first written by Christina Rosetti in 1872, before it was set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. The carol was popular with World War I soldiers. One can imagine that the carol’s lyrics – Rosetti’s poem – held poignant meaning for the soldiers in the trenches and for the veterans who returned from the front with memories of fallen comrades in the snow.
War has paralleled civilization. The oldest surviving piece of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has often been cited by modern day military historians as having described the constellation of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And the world’s first author known by name, Enheduanna -- daughter of Akkadian Emperor Sargon who, in turn, appointed her priestess – has among her surviving poems a “Lament on the Spirit of War”:
You hack everything down in battle….
Modern day military poetry was popularized by the likes of World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Isaac Rosenberg, Alan Seeger, and Charles Hamilton Sorley, to name a few. But military poetry has been there even before these 20th century luminaries first entered the literary stage. Consider Stephen Crane’s “War Is Kind” (1899), Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867), Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” soliloquy” from Henry V, Act IV, scene iii (1599), and even as far back as the Old English heroic poem “The Battle of Maldon” (written after 991 AD).
Like Christina Rosetti’s poetry, many military poems have similarly been encapsulated in ditties and songs. The Greeks of Antiquity traditionally wrote in poetic verse, to celebrate a military hero or military event, that would then be transformed into a dirge. The English bard-minstrels, and French troubadours of old followed suit, with two examples being “Wulf and Eadwacer,” an Anglo-Saxon ballad (circa 960 – 990 AD) as well as Marie de France’s “Song from Chartivel” (late 1100s AD). Not surprisingly, therefore, are the well-known American classics of “Yankee Doodle,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Francis Scott Key’s now-famous “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Meanwhile, in the East, both Chinese martial artists and Japanese samurai warriors were encouraged to develop alacrity in writing poetry. Chinese and Japanese warrior-poets were groomed to see poetry and war as complementary pursuits, where poetry would illustrate combat’s glory and horrors while concurrently portraying the honor and virtue demonstrated by the warriors who fought. For these warrior-poets, too, nature was a theme – perhaps because the return to nature was akin to a psychological rejuvenation assisting with the recovery from war’s after-effects. Besides, the exercise of poetry promoted good form – or, good order – of the mind, which was vital to the warrior-poet’s spirituality and meditative life. Just as the martial arts eventually become a way of life for the practitioner, so, too, do both Zen and poetry become ways of life – punctuating every aspect of the practitioner’s lifestyle.
Also for these Asian warrior-poets, poetry was appealing for its brevity. The skills of thinking as a poet with an economy for words was, for a warrior, similar in discipline to the thought-training about deployment of limited resources and battlefield decisiveness as a strategy. Additionally, poetic succinctness was a type of simplicity interwoven with nNature. And this simplicity was sought to balance the fog of war's confusion and the chaos of the battlefield. Some might say that for the warrior-poet, poetry became a means to convey the enlightenment and deepened Zen understanding received from the battleground’s revelations.
Take Basho, the illustrious Japanese haiku master who lived during the Edo, or Tokugawa, period. The Edo period was a time when the Tokugawa shogunate stabilized the country with their “no more wars” campaign, that simultaneously encouraged the growth of the country’s arts and culture. Basho’s brand of poetry, the haiku, grew in prominence because it leveraged the stillness of Zen, attention to detail, meticulousness in word-choice, and utilization of Nature as motif. There are scholars who deem Basho as the Wordworth of Japan. Both Basho and Wordsworth emphasized exposure to nNature as intrinsic to spiritual development, wherein a good relationship with nNature assisted in connecting the individual to his soul, thus making nNature a therapeutic means to de-stress and regain authenticity.
Contemporary society’s industrialized, urban purview makes the return to nNature somewhat difficult. Even Wordsworth recognized that, which was why he wrote poetry about nNature so that his readers could remove themselves from the “artificial social conventions [and] the squalor of city life.” For Wordsworth, the reading of,, as well as the creation of,, poetry on nNature -- and by extension, poetry in general – assisted in relieving the loneliness, sadness, even the disillusion of society. Essentially, nNature transforms a person so that he re-accesses his mind, individuality, and uniqueness to help mitigate the pain or difficulty encountered.
Accordingly, Wordsworth drew correlations between poetry and the ‘self-actualization’ (think, Maslow) of the mind. Indeed, Wordsworth deemed poetry to be “emotion recollected in tranquility.” And scholars ultimately saw Wordsworth and Basho agreeing that the act of writing poems (or haiku) was soothingly restorative, consequently bringing the poet closer to some measure of therapeutic realization (Wordsworth) or Zen-like revelation (Basho).
Comparable to Basho, Wordsworth embraced simplicity. But Wordsworth’s was reminiscent of childhood, that “magical, magnificent time of innocence [when] an intense bond with nature [still existed],” and when children “[had] access to a divine, immortal world [that they then lose contact with when they] age and reach maturity.” The ache to return to that childlike wonder, innocence, and curiosity compelled Wordsworth to pen poems that celebrate idyllic childhood in the hopes of reviving that lost connection to curative nNature.
So,, as we reflect on those World War I soldiers having a fondness for the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” perhaps what they were finding comfort in is the Christ child being born in the manger – that innocent who would grow up to heal the world with his sacrifice. The symbolism is not lost on us of a tiny light in the world emerging in that dark stable, like that first spark in the darkness from which emerged the entire universe, and like that first ember of inspiration born in the creator-poet’s mind who has touched a bit of the divine to create and birth something of his own as well.
Do you hear that? That sound. The sound of commentators compressing the universe of art onto a 1996 USB. Once it was a whisper. Now it’s growing louder. Somebody gave it a megaphone and a million Twitter followers. And what does it say now that it has the audience’s attention? “Art is always political—by definition, you see.”
“By definition.” Is this true? The marriage of arts and politics does have its own Wikipedia page. A sure enough sign that the proclamation deserves at least the minimum of internet detective snooping. A few smacks on the keyboard, a quick click on “I’m feeling lucky,” and what do I find? A small list of names as recognizable as “Oprah” who have decided art is invariably political:
Who says intelligent people can’t say stupid things?
“Art is always political” is bullshit (in the sense of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s “bullshit.”) It’s a statement in which both parties would be happier after the divorce. Nonsense for Goodreads quotes. Nonsense that has chained the perception of art to a maze, as the minotaur. It declares that when the hurricane of politics fails to evaporate artists must have an umbrella for their mayor, congressman, president; typically in the shape of a middle finger—or a metaphor for one. Copy and paste ad nauseum.
The origin story of “art is always political” isn't as certain as knowing Star Wars movies will be released until the day I die (of old age). But history always offers clues.
It's no secret that 20th Century theorists couldn’t stop themselves from objectifying the world. How else could they believe they had arrived at eternal Truth? That meant reifying even the qualia of my individual experience: sacrificing the ineffable for the easy. As part of that plan, theory put art under the knife to fit it in a bow-tied box labeled with a crayon. “Cut off all that excess! This must conform to count!”
Therein lies what “art is always political,” says: that artworks are just highway markers leading to some intellectual statement, some neatly cataloged epiphany: propaganda with an agenda.
It’s a dangerous sentiment balancing on stilts made of yarn. Best served as spittle from the mouth of a pundit on Fox & Friends rather than any commentary about aesthetic appreciation. “Well, you see, Rivera’s Marxist tendencies…” It proposes that appreciating a poem is nothing more than marking your book with arrows pointing to references to The Decline of the West.
Talk about decline.
“Art is always political” ignores the fundamental experience of encountering any artwork: the evolving dialogue that escapes a definition buzzing around the word “is.” In reality, nobody (who’s human, at least) studiously sorts through symbols—unconsciously or consciously—to analyze a song, a poem, a painting, a building on their first encounter. Paintings aren’t hung in a lab. Political ripples aren't automatically plucked. That's not art speaking. That’s tarring and feathering the Pietà.
In reference to Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” A quote taken out of context so often, nobody knows the context; that being Eliot's preference for a childlike naivete. The less gravity I shove down artwork’s throat, the farther I can jump.
Hearing Debussy’s Claude de Lune or Biggie Smalls’ Everyday Struggle brings me into direct contact with my immediate experience, with the totality of my being. Now. Dasein. My cumulative reality. Something the political only shares a sliver of. Only the four windows of my sedan are privy to my pencil neck miming lyrics in traffic. Great art is the presence of Buddha: absorption in the entirety of the magic circle that is the game called life.
I often find myself when reading a new book or viewing a piece for the first time wishing that I could sit down with the creator over a cup of coffee and just have a simple conversation about what they have made. To find out the purpose behind word choice, if there is one. To discover the reasons for certain themes, or just meet the person inside the work. I want to share that luxury with you in my conversation with Jordan Alan Brown, a Buffalo-based visual poet who has recently released his first micro-chapbook, “Man as a Cactus.” Which can be found online at https://ghostcitypress.com/2017-summer-microchap-series/man-as-a-cactus.
So, I give you my perspective of that conversation.
Presumptions: His work presented in his new book Man as a Cactus and interweb scoping drafted a silhouette of a slightly pretentious run-of-the-mill, newly graduated hipster artist. I was intrigued, however, by a sense of humility that was presented on his social media platforms. That, coupled with the stripped down feel that his work evoked, got me excited for what was bound to be at least an interesting conversation.
First impressions: I look up from my phone to see a tall black man, shoulders hunched, making his exact height difficult to estimate. Dressed for the brisk Buffalo pre-winter weather, but in an effortless almost throwback way. His wire rimmed glasses fit not only his face, but his unassuming nature as well. As he lowers into the seat opposite me, his posture suggests a calculated ease. Introductions do nothing to calm awkward nerves; an icebreaker is necessary.
S: So, first off, most important question; Cocoa Puffs or Fruit Loops, I will judge your answer.
J: With surprising confidence. Cocoa Puffs, always been more of a chocolate person. Also, then you get chocolate milk.
S: Why intermedia? Why do you feel that visual and/or poetry aren’t enough separately?
J: I’m at a loss for words a lot of the time and I’ve always liked photography. Of course I think it looks nice, but also I feel that photography and poetry are very similar in the sense that you’re trying to capture a moment. It did start out as an aesthetic thing, but I did feel a responsibility as an artist to have some deeper meaning, something behind it. I think it's very hard to get people to read poetry that don’t normally read it.
S: I noticed that you have described yourself as a novice photographer, why is that?
J: It’s all shoot by the hip, I have a couple cameras but I would never feel comfortable charging someone to shoot them. It wouldn’t be fair for me to say I’m a professional photographer. Quality of photos, a lot of time, are left up to things not in my control. I’m no Ansel Adams, I wish.
S: Where does Man as a Cactus come from?
I feel that photography and poetry are very similar in the sense that you’re trying to capture a moment
J: So, I was at this party once and there was this guy, I was getting super weird vibes from him. So I was very standoffish and he was like, “Awe, man you’re like a cactus.” For him, it meant that I wasn’t like, warm or opening up to him at all. But then I thought about it, being drunk and under the influence of other things, I was like, “Yeah, I am one.” I kinda grew up in an interesting environment. My parents were super religious. My mom still is, my dad is dead; so he’s not anymore. And it just wasn’t conducive to growing personally. All growth was based on God and faith and very focused on that being the only way to be a good person. So when I left that I had to cut all contact with everyone that I knew.
S: Were you mormon?
J: Close, I was Jehovah’s Witness, very close; they’re very similar. They don’t think they are, but a lot of their ideals are similar. Mental health has always been a difficult thing for me. Being black, mental health has always been hush hush, a very taboo thing to talk about. I was directed to, “Just pray about it.” That doesn’t work. So, there were just a lot of things. I felt like I was living in this desert and that I was trying to regroup and grow from that. Yes, cacti grow in deserts and they’re defensive in a sense for themselves to live, but they are also beautiful signs of life in an otherwise barren place. I think a lot of people can relate to that. It just kinda stuck with me and this book is my journey in to that.
S: Do you feel like grief is the most prominent cohesive thread throughout the book?
J: So there’s the grief part of it, but also coupled with the feelings of the strained relationship with my mother. Which is just something else to deal with on top of the grief. So I would say that grief is a large part of it, but also the healing from that. It’s normal, but it never feels normal. It will be a year this week that my father passed away. Like, I still want to pick up the phone and be like, “Hey what’s up?” What it has done has allowed me to focus the good qualities about my dad outside of the religion, being able to focus on his good qualities and now, I guess I have a different view on my dad then I did before.
S: So what’s next? Do you have another project in the works?
J: I’m working on something now, I’m hoping to have it done by the end of this year. I’ve been talking to Kevin at Ghost City Press. I asked him logistically what would he need to make a tangible book. He gave me some pointers, so that’s what I’m working on. I have like 15 pieces that are unpublished right now, that I haven’t put anywhere. I’m not sure what I’m gonna call it, I have some ideas kicking around.
S: Do we get any of what’s kicking around?
J: Look me up when you’re home. A lot of the pieces are about being away. Whether it’s physically or emotionally. I suppose a lot of the themes are much more forgiving, but there are some really heart-loving poems. I try not to be too thematic, but I think there is always a string you can find in there. There are some pictures from a recent trip to Paris that I’m hoping to incorporate.
The boarding pier for an orange-and-white boat, Star Ferry IV, is in one of the busiest and noisiest districts in Hong Kong where people walk down the street like Richard Ashcroft in ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ The boat ride itself passes weighed-down barges and massive bridges while airplanes and helicopters zig-zag through the sky. Roughly 30 minutes later, when the boat’s engine finally putters out, and the Star Ferry IV lightly bumps into the alighting* pier on the island of Cheung Chau, it doesn’t seem like it’s possible that you’re still in Hong Kong.
The only vehicles are ambulances and police vans. Locals and tourists saunter between meandering bicycles and vendors leisurely chew mango moji, or deep-fried potatoes spiraled around a skewer. The tallest buildings are two or three-story, traditional houses either overlooking the fishing boat-packed bay or tucked away in alleys between locally-owned noodle shops.
I arrived early in the morning, 30 minutes before the Cheung Chau Wave Arts Festival was set to begin. I wanted to make it to the first event on time with my daughter and her extended family. It was a family-focused yoga session lead by a smiling and talented American, yoga teacher: Tina Wojewnik.
After an hour of breathing like we’re cooling hot chocolate and letting my daughter climb on me while I attempted a downward dog, we meandered down the tight, walking streets in search of something to eat. Where we stopped was not your typical place to eat; except for perhaps in Hong Kong. I bought a significant portion of curry squid in a bowl, and next to that we had a bowl of cubed cow lung and intestines, and a few dotted eggs from birds I’m not familiar with. Expert foodie tip number one: it tastes much better if you don’t think about what it is you’re eating.
The afternoon was filled with kung-fu tea, tai chi demonstrations, more unique foods(?), and an intriguing talk by Elizabeth Briel about eunuch singers within Chinese culture and allusions to shark fins being chopped off for soup. To be fair, the talk left my mind with some disturbing images, but it also helped shed some light on how people come to accept themselves and live their lives to the fullest despite the cruelties they’ve suffered in the past. Side note: the sharks don’t survive.
After a jam-packed morning and afternoon, dinner bells rang as the main event was due up while the sun set behind the silhouette of the sleepy island. Just as well; we were hungry. Though the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Center and Windsurf Bar had closed its kitchen almost entirely, they had left the deep-fryer on. Thus, chicken wings, French fries, and spring rolls covered our table in a speckling of light and dark brown platters.
The sun sets quickly in Hong Kong, and a bright, almost-full moon was glowing behind a microphone overlooking the sea. Poets and spectators filled the restaurant, some sitting in small groups and chatting in more languages than I understand, others sat alone, waiting intently for the spoken word event to begin.
Finally, the organizer for the poetry event, Laurence Genee, stepped up to the microphone, seated next to her was Graeme Morris, strumming his guitar lightly and accenting the entire poetry event.
Introducing poets and musicians from Hong Kong, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (including myself), Laurence kept the microphone stacked with talented wordsmiths. I sat back and absorbed the sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes lewd poetry in just as many different accents while I munched on crunchy, deep-fried delectables.
From people returning to Cheung Chau in remembrance of time they had spent there in the past, to poets who frequent a weekly poetry club in Hong Kong known as the Peel Street Poets, two hours of this poetry-burger was filled with saucy syllables and beefy words. Swallowing it all, my heart was full, and the delightful aftertaste remains today.
Upon its conclusion, as I packed up my things and made some small talk with attendees on my way out the door, I looked back at the almost-full moon. I locked in its image as a reminder that I must return next year for another calming day of yoga, art, music, and best of all, poetry.
*’Alighting’ is a term you will frequently see in Hong Kong that is used to describe the exiting of a motorized vehicle including boats, busses, airplanes, and trains.
For more information on the festival, go to www.cheungchauwave.com.
The holidays are a great time to buy a loved one a beautiful book of poetry. One of the most powerful poetry books of 2017 was Depression & Other Magic Tricks by up-and-comer Sabrina Benaim. Benaim shows that new voices offer some of the freshest perspectives, especially in regards to emotional disorders. In Depression & Other Magic Tricks, she gives us breathtaking prose and striking images through her words and gives us a look into her life—a life ridden with depression. This book was moving, heart-wrenching, and incredibly raw. It was a book where the poems spill out of the pages, and the author has everything pouring out of open words. It was about the excitement you feel on a first date (and the way we tend to ramble when we get excited), everyday struggles, the raw truth of pain, and living with depression.
The poems in Sabrina Benaim’s Depression & Other Magic Tricks are gorgeous and poignant; they will leave you breathless, your heart racing deeply, and your lips mouthing “wow.” You will find yourself thinking about your own life and relate to the words piling into your head. You will be warmed by the fact that you find a friend in this book—one you can turn to time and time again—especially if you are also someone who struggles with an emotional disorder, particularly depression. It is also a helpful book to those who want to better understand depression and what it is like for those who live with it every day.
I loved Benaim’s use of prose and short sentences that make you take breaths between thoughts, and the way she portrayed such daunting subjects with such simplicity and beauty. The gravity of her words fall within sentences and well-placed line breaks, while images are created in the way the words are physically placed. I loved how unique each page looked with its different poetry forms—it looked like art in and of itself. The unique way this book was written spreads beyond the beauty in the words alone. Pay attention to the punctuation, the capitalization, the line breaks, and the way the words are placed; you will find visual art hidden beneath gorgeous words and images within your mind.
Some of the most moving pieces were only a few lines long, but they moved with such grace and tenderness that they packed an even more powerful punch. The following poem in the book was a personal favorite of mine; it encapsulated the freshness of Benaim’s perspective and the creative way in which she expressed what it is like to live with depression:
“the slow now”
this morning said
do not press snooze
you pressed snooze
while brushing your teeth,
your reflection in the mirror also said:
to every cotton swab in the blue box
& blue seashell on the shower curtain
you filled your kettle with cold water,
set it on the hot stovetop, to boil
this morning said,
on your bed
watching YouTube videos
of Amy Winehouse
singing back to black
for thirty-six minutes
you rummaged through a drawer
found a bra
put it on
you put on black tights
tried on four dresses
finally decided on the black & white flowers one
nineteen minutes later
you put on a sweater
& you sat
on your bed
for five minutes more
you say hello to afternoon.
if you have eaten anything,
if you plan on leaving the house today.
you pick up the phone
i am starting the pills again
i have a doctor’s appointment
first thing in the morning
your mother responds,
didn’t I tell you to do that two weeks ago? (Benaim, pp. 4-5)
If you are looking for a phenomenal gift to place under your friend or family member’s Christmas tree or just want something beautiful for yourself, Sabrina Benaim’s Depression & Other Magic Tricks is a rich book of depth and demons that will give any reader a new perspective on life and struggles with depression. The best part of this gift is that you will never get tired of re-reading its pages. Each time you flip through it, even for just a poem or two, you will feel deep cuts of emotion strike you to your core and goosebumps prick up your skin. Benaim gives us such passion in so few words, showing that this rising star is far from slowing down.
In·ter·punct shares interviews, expositions, poems and daily musings from the intimate lives of writers. Like the interpunct, which is a middot used to separate syllables, this blog seeks to highlight, in an edgy and sprightly fashion, the poetic moments that punctuate our lives.