Running with Scissors: Dispatches from the Delete Key

muske-dukes copy

By Found Poetry Review Book Reviews Editor Douglas Luman. We borrowed the words in the word cloud above from poet Carol Muske-Dukes.


Each time a new attack is mounted against the concept of “unoriginal genius,” the resulting fallout becomes a point of particular interest to the Found Poetry Review. Obviously, we have a stake in the academic and public sparring that takes place—we are editors for a publication that relies entirely on appropriative methods as its plank, the so-called shingle that hangs outside the entrance to the Found Poetry Review as its nom-de-guerre.

As practitioners of the art that poet Carol Muske-Dukes marginalizes in her recent interview (“Those Who Hope Not to Be Erased: An Interview with Carol Muske-Dukes”) in the The Paris Review, this militant opening is an outward sign of an inward thing, the fatigue of fighting a never-ending battle over whether or not the work that we and others do in erasing, remixing and finding new texts from extant works does speak to a current moment, publically or personally. Much like any artist, we often question the significance of what we are doing, why we do it and how to judge others’ appropriative practices. Standards for evaluating the value of poetry are no different for appropriated works. Other than the mechanics of cutting a page or using a computer to erase a text, we never really think about using scissors or pressing the delete key as a primary issue in creation. We evaluate a found poem on the merits of the original, finished piece as we would any other poem.

So, it stands to reason that the issues raised in this interview elicit a strong personal response. Muske-Dukes raises several salient points, some being issues with which we and all journals contend. What constitutes a piece that we want to publish and hold up as a contribution to the enduring corpus of poetic works? When is appropriation more than merely a slick sleight-of-hand?

Works of appropriation respond to our current cultural moment

One of the many problematic attitudes venerated by some in the the academy is Muske-Dukes’s belief in the clichéd “writer in the garret,” isolationist, appropriation-as-apocrypha perspective—an unwillingness to embrace the current moment, one of near-constant connection in which culture moves fast, and engagement with it is intense. Though we may turn off our phones, computers, and televisions, we cannot escape the overwhelming amount of information broadcast daily, making its way into art in more than a passing, fragmentary way. Muske-Dukes accepts the traditions of Susan Howe and others who have added to a rich poetic history of appropriation, but not the developments made by Tom Phillips or Ronald Johnson, whose works have found a wide critical audience. You can’t have it both ways. While a majority of appropriated work might not reach an enduring artistic level (as a majority of any type of art may not endure), to deny the worth of all such work is to discourage the spirit around it.

Muske-Dukes acknowledges the inevitable intrusion of data and its strong insistence on our lives when she says “we’re bombarded with images and information,” but is fundamentally wrong in assuming that “images and information are not knowledge—and they’re certainly not poetry.”

Words by themselves do not constitute poetry

To see where we disagree, let’s start where we might agree: Muske-Dukes says “we live in a time when language matters.” Certainly true. Poetry has never been about anything but language. Language is information manifested in and by words, and poetry built on lines. If lines are the information arranged, words are the information to be arranged. So, if Muske-Dukes and her supporters will follow, unassembled words don’t constitute a poem any more than scattered bits automatically make up an image. These bits, the words, have integrity in themselves and can be assembled to make a more meaningful whole, no matter their source. But words by themselves do not constitute poetry any more than disconnected scraps of information constitute poetry. In appropriative art, the writing mode takes on a new dimension of curation that does not supplant the other roles of writer, but expands it.

Artists often make meaning from association, reference, and citation

Jeff Griffin’s Lost And would not be what it is without the curating hand of the author who makes image and information a form of poetry in his interpretation of the act of writing— the making of meaning from textually-based data. From a theoretical point of view, it is no different than Wordsworth using charged bits of language contemplating his poetic vision in “Tintern Abbey.” Both are collages of images and words sequenced by the poet in the service of meaning. And Mary Ruefle and Srikanth Reddy’s experimentation with language through erasure is fundamentally no different than Wordsworth’s — they are creating meaning in a world where association, reference, and citation make just as much meaning as words that constitute Wordsworth’s “thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect / the landscape with the quiet of the sky.”

Strangely, Muske-Dukes seems to accept other art (such as hip-hop music) wholesale without considering the art of reference that pervades and informs that genre.

Art that appropriates ideas wholesale is not art at all

Muske-Dukes’s resistance to a poetics of sampling possibly may be rooted in a deeper assumption that assigns ownership of language to a sacrosanct right of the author. Her opposition to “unoriginal genius” insists on it: while she will accept some citation, she suggests that appropriation shows the lack of an original idea.

Such a stance relies on authorship being attached to words, on authorship as ownership, defining appropriation as “borrowing the words of others,” as if others’ words were really any different from our own. As participants in a creative exchange, writers are interested in ideas as currency, not words. Art that appropriates ideas wholesale is not art at all. But to write negatively of “borrowing the words of others” is to mask the real issue with appropriation that vexes us as appropriative artists and editors: the “regurgitation,” and the “summarization” of appropriated sources. We don’t celebrate art that is done without mindful attention to craft. Appropriative art faces the same pitfalls as other forms, with similar examples of lower-quality work that many teachers of creative writing can summon without much difficulty.

The more poets the better

Is this resistance to appropriation a kind of academic fear? A response to the opposition raised by Marjorie Perloff when she asks “what happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?” Including more practitioners of appropriation in the world of poetry will certainly introduce more poets and their nuanced voices to the ecosystem. And many are not polished or trained. Perhaps that scares the academy. Kenneth Goldsmith described this fear when he tweeted that “the democracy of poetry is what freaks people out—that anyone can be a poet.” And when anyone is a poet, inevitably we experience the mixture of the good, bad, and ugly. Poetry is a culture governed by taxonomy and gates. It may be that those reacting against the democracy of poetry are merely gatekeepers attempting to stem the flow of new voices. As Mike Chasar points out in the Boston Review, the “glut” (his term for abundance) “is problematic for anyone who benefits from an economy of scarcity.” But at the Found Poetry Review, our experience has shown us that conversation benefits from a surplus of people talking. It may be difficult to hear every individual voice, but a cacophony is preferable to silenced voices—the worst erasure of all.

 

2 Comments

  • July 26, 2014

    Mark Herron

    I’ve been thinking about this for some time and it is a frequent topic/concern in the ModPo (Coursera.org’s MOOC from UPenn: Moderna And Contemporary American Poetry). I think is a matter of perspective (plus the labor theory of value comes into play). I sometimes look at it like this:

    There are only 26 letters – we appropriate and exploit them all the time – we have to! (They have no investment though, like raw materials, trees (or types of trees) one might find in the forest.)

    Words (our vocabulary) are the branches from trees we’ve chopped down. We have some sweat invested in them.

    Lines and phrases (arrangements) are the pieces we’ve whittled, carved, turned on this lathe. Note our craftsmanship.

    Authorings or compositions (poem, paragraph, essay, etc.) are the furniture or fixtures (like a staircase) we’ve assembled (using our – and others’ parts, if we appropriate – building a chair, table, bannister, etc. you could use all your own work or you might also use and/or cite parts from others, maybe spindles from another craftsman, research from another authority, maybe their name).

    Collections (books, anthologies, etc.) are the finished rooms, decor provided, and built houses. Far from the 26 letters, twigs and branches in the forest, and table legs on the shelf, we have so much invested now, we sell them and squabble over who may hold, what cost, who uses, and who moves or even moves in.

    Seems like a decent way of approaching it. -Mark

  • July 27, 2014

    Lewis Oakwood

    Here Comes Another Fable

    Maybe lately you thought
    To rant dull about the world.

    Here comes another fable
    Re-routed from history –

    Bathe not in endless bitter water,
    impervious to what’s imaginable.

    ~

    The above piece was composed of words taken from ‘Like This’ a poem by Carol Muske-Dukes. The poem can be read at Academy of American Poets.