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Zach Savich: “Easy, Durable Dreams: Notes on Poetry and Social Media”

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In June 2014, poet Mathias Svalina promises to operate a Dream Delivery Service. “I will write the dreams, without consultation with the dreamer, & deliver them daily,” Svalina writes. “Each dream is unique to the dreamer/subscriber.” Subscriptions cost $40 if you live within three miles of Svalina’s house, $55 for everyone else.

Dream Delivery Service as social media.

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Svalina is an editor with Octopus Books. A while ago, another Octopus editor, Zachary Schomburg, started posting portraits of his friends on his blog, The Lovely Arc. He’d honor each as “Person of the Week” and write a brief profile. “Jesse got Clyde Drexler’s autograph three times between fifth and seventh grade,” Schomburg wrote. “He went to a Waldorf school from kindergarten through third grade, so he learned to knit, crochet, paint with watercolor, sculpt beeswax, play the recorder, and count in German before he learned arithmetic.”

“Person of the Week” as social media.

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Discussions of social media and poetry often focus on poetry’s absorption of—or reduction to—familiar virtual modes. In Josef Kaplan’s tiresomely notorious Kill List, for example, one reads a series of statements that recall both formulaic status updates and the vague agitations of a Twitter troll. One stanza, characteristic of the poem’s fifty-eight pages, reads:

David Antin is a rich poet.
Rae Armantrout is a rich poet.
John Ashbery is a rich poet.
Amiri Baraka is comfortable.

It’s mildly interesting to think about the shifting valences of “rich” and “comfortable” in this work, and, reading it through, I’m intrigued by the ways in which “is”—fulcrum of the scrum—becomes the poem’s most live site; the other elements start to seem inconsequential, interchangeable, comparable to flipping through a click-baiting blogicle to see who else might be included (“will my city be listed among the best places to own a puppy? will Lyn Hejinian be called rich or comfortable? keep reading to find out!”).

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How quaint those name-dropping New York School poets seem when everyone is bound in my screen.

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Some have taken the title of Kill List very seriously. Barrett Watten, writing in Jacket2, says that titling the piece Kill List “implies some kind of threatened outcome to the bearers of these names, likely on the basis of the represented economic status. It is a short distance from there to the list of leftists who may be identified as working for the State Department in the 50s, or a list of enemies maintained by a president in the 70s, or a list of targets for some sort of violent action in the present. One critic of the poem felt that the point offered a form of self-criticism necessary for those living in privileged economic circumstances to imagine the terror of being targeted in acts of actual violence such as drone strikes.”

I find the conceptualism of the title less notable. Sure, I guess it suggests things about fame, capital, how we read, the ways in which po-biz can seem most interested in prestige, power, whatever else one might wish to discuss about all that: right. But it reminds me of receiving, when I worked for The Iowa Review, a would-be-provocateur’s submission of blank pages, under the I-dare-you title of “This Poem is Too Revolutionary for You to Publish.” In each case, the title might let us talk about the work differently, but it doesn’t make the work more than it is.

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A couple years later, watching Cocteau’s Orphee, I remembered that poetry submission. In the café, Orpheus is shown an edition of the magazine Nudism: the pages go bare.

Café as social media? Oh, for the innocently diaristic blogs of my youth!

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Or there’s James Wright’s “In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems.” A demur, tender blank page.

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Kill List relies on a mechanistic form; it’s hard for me to understand why, in order to access some fairly minor and familiar ideas, and given the possibilities of language and argument, one would prefer its approach. Champions of social mediated poetics sometimes sound gleefully dystopian about such loss. “We’ve all been flattened to virtual handles and data,” they say, “so literature should be similarly flattened.”

We could catalog what I’m calling flatness, in contrast with, um, poetic language I prefer.

There is the flatness of detached affect. Wry deflection. “Sincerity” that presupposes boredom and the inability for nuanced response, extrapolating the old anti-intellectual belief that language is more authentic when it’s most simplistic. As in some of the prose of Tao Lin. As in some types of “alt lit” or online fiction.

There is the flatness of pious conceptualism.

There is the flatness of unqualified exuberance. Rote positivity. Central to some writers’ online personae. And to their writing. Especially when, as in some of the work of Steve Roggenbuck, the writing is inseparable from the persona, the brand, all of it only le meme.

Upon encountering such shallow positivity, one might think of Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, describing those who “protect themselves” from the “uncertainties and disappointments” of complex love by “transforming the instinct into an impulse with an inhibited aim,” ending up with a form of love that, by lacking discernment, “forfeits a part of its value” and does “injustice to its object.”

In any case, to say that because social media can flatten thought, simplify interactions, make all into data, favor a large and insignificantly ebullient network that’s reverent mostly to its own conventions, and therefore poetry should reflect that flatness—that seems like an injustice, a forfeiture of value.

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Other kinds of flatness. From time to time, for example, I see that someone is writing poems about a celebrity. Often, the poems aren’t really about a celebrity; they just use the name, meme-like, while offering less insight or artistry than a gossip blog or magazine article or, in many cases, the celebrity’s own work. Read your celebrity poem at a bar. People will laugh. Not from the humor but from hearing a name they know. A social media reaction? Was I tagged in this poem?

Compare such poems to Kiki Petrosino’s poems involving Robert Redford in her first book, Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). Here’s the beginning of “Dread”:

On a broken day of thundersnows, Redford watches as I gather my afro into a plain elastic hoop. This is how I pull it back: both hands, a ballet circle of turned elbows, my own putting-off crown. Is this he asks how your mother wears it? He traces a soft cross at my  nape. I tilt my head to look at him. Not even close I grin. She doesn’t keep it natural.

Redford is characterized, not just referred to; he remains iconic, yet becomes a more complex icon through the encounter. And although I’m more familiar than I wish with arguments that suggest other ways to evaluate writing, I’m unashamed to call this passage, simply, good writing. There’s the appealing three-clap cadence of “plain elastic hoop,” repeated through a distinct idiom at the end of the next sentence (“putting-off crown”). There’s the fleet evocation of a ballet dancer, not through comparing the narrator’s motion to a dancer’s, but by, wonderfully, making her arms the dancers. There’s the slick vowel music of “soft cross at the nape.” This attentive care for language is matched by intent engagement with a scene that, yes, is concerned with identity, with gender, with race, with the political, but not narrowly.

If one values such moments in writing, one might sometimes feel as though social media hasn’t contributed much to such moments in writing.illustration 2
Q: So what has social media contributed to poetry?

A: “The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse” (Geoffrey Hill)

A: It has served as a training ground.

Example: “A line like ‘what if hot dogs were the cut-off horns of meat unicorns’ can be interesting on Twitter,” says Mark Leidner in an interview with Blake Butler on htmlgiant, describing how Twitter has helped him think about aphorism. “But copied & pasted into the literary form of the book, it becomes much more boring…because while briefly interesting, its central juxtaposition doesn’t target anything I more than superficially care about.”

A: It has provided forms.

Example: Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things about Me Too (Les Figues, 2012), which constructs a compelling, incisive memoir through the completion of 100 “25 Random Things about Me” posts on Facebook. Using those lists as a supple form, Viegener’s book resembles what he writes about Joe Brainard’s I Remember: “Memories are cumulative and Brainard’s book proves the futility of linear narrative in relation to the past. Each entry thickens and complicates Brainard’s life or his ‘identity.’”

Not flattening, not reducing, but thickening, complicating.

A: It has provided modes of consciousness.

Example: Juliana Spahr’s This connection of everyone with lungs (U. California, 2005). Demonstrates a consciousness composed by the ways in which “the news refreshes every few minutes on the computer screen and on the television screen,” so that one who is attempting mindfulness absorbs the rapid stream of “the six-hundred-year-old Spanish Haggadah now in Sarajevo” and of “the release of Saaduddin Ibrahim and his twenty-seven employees” and of “J Lo [giving] Ben a prenuptual demand for sex four times a week.”

Spahr’s book tries to “tie it all up and tie up the world in an attempt to understand the swirls of patterns” even though she knows “there is no efficient way.” Thus, it is a text of saturated overload, tuned to the impossibility of truly taking it all in, while remaining tender, endeavoring to speak of a lover’s thighs as though to do so–to love one, to honor an intimate other’s life–is also to speak “of the British Embassy being closed in Kenya and the US urging more aggressive Iraq inspections and the bushfire that is destroying homes in Sydney,” those distant, mediated others.

Example: Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [guma’] (Omnidawn, 2014). Incorporates public comments from Draft Environmental Impact Statements that connect to the militarization of Guam (“DEIS Public Comment : ‘This bothers me so much that I am typing this response at midnight with my cellphone’ // DEIS Public Comment : ‘I don’t think I’m allowed to say that I’m against the military buildup because both of my parents are for the build up, and my dad is in the Air force;”). Incorporates search engine patois (“Do all seven McDonald’s restaurants on Guam feature SPAM on the menu? Welcome to Guam, let [us] present you with the gourmet luxury of SPAM at your birthday, wedding, and funeral. A culinary legacy of American troops stationed in the Pacific during World War II, SPAM is also popular in Hawai’i, the Philippines, Okinawa, and South Korea”).

Example: Alex Dimitrov’s works such as “Night Call,” a “multimedia poetry project through which he reads poems to strangers in bed and online.”

Not removing the personal, not distancing eros, but making social media more live.

Not merely reflecting conventions of social media, but advancing, extending, reorienting them.

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Other potential connections:

– Social media is good for lists, distributing lists, making lists, reading lists, and isn’t poetry really just a list? So social media is moving consciousness toward poetry?

– Social media is good for starting and stopping, for open-ended suggestions, and poetry is made of starting and

– Social media is, like, this giant collage, so when one reads poetry that makes use of collaged bits, the model for it is no longer a scholar snipping and citing or a flaneur assembling impressions but just the daily experience of interruption and divergence that we may or may not perceive as fragmentary.

– I mean, do we even experience juxtapositions as juxtaposition in our mediated lives, a photo of a meal next to an ad for Toyota next to a post about a friend’s illness, or do we attend to all of it separately and at once, actively not-seeing the mash-ups, so one role of poetry in the age of social media could be to help us again see juxtaposition as meaningful?

– And the weirdness of seeing austere poet X’s gabby online persona, what does that do to the “lyric I?”

– And choosing not to read poet Y’s book because he promoted it so much online. “Being a poet” serving as a marker of social identity, distinct from aesthetics, writing, poetry.

– And starting to feel like online poetry journals are just extensions of Facebook. That the entire internet will become a kind of Facebook, that will be the kind of platform through which we access anything.

– On the illusion of “real time.” A different nature and measure of time.

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Social media posts I considered making while writing the above list:

– Does anyone have a memorized copy of Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended?”

– I do more before 2 PM than most people do between 3 PM and 4 PM

– Trying to eat more sour.

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I enter the comments in medias res. Do I click “see more?”illustration 4

 

Zach:

No doubt you saw this [profile of Patricia Lockwood in the NYT] making the rounds last week. This, and Seth Abramson’s “metamodern” move, and response thereto. An e/ventful week. Wanna tack on an addendum to your essay?

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All right.

On May 25, 2014, at The Huffington Post, shortly aftr the mass shooting in Isla Vista, Seth Abramson posted a poetic “remix” of “each and every word” in the killer’s final YouTube video. “Can hateful words be turned against themselves and become, instead, a vehicle for amity and compassion?” Abramson wrote. “The aim here is to rescue language from a perversion of language.”

As though language needs to be “rescued.”

As though a “perversion of language” were behind the shooting.

As though a response using “each and every word” the killer happened to use in one video would be more meaningful than a response that used other words, or hardly any.

“Of. Of. Of. / Of Of. / Of,” concludes Abramson’s poem.

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“Artfully repurposing a murderer’s words as poetry can replace glib assumptions with a considered probing of human consciousness and crime,” wrote Laura Sims at the VIDA site (her book My god is this a man uses related methods). “But not when the poem, like Seth Abramson’s HuffPo remix of the latest mass murderer’s words, merely mimics the glossy, insubstantial output of the media machine.”

The moral insult of Abramson’s poem, I’d venture, isn’t its method or its timing but its failure of craft, which might come from mistaking method and timing for craft which is too bad, since Abramson’s poetry and commentary can be very good. This failure probably also extends from the simplistic hope of rendering language associated with violence into “compassion and amity,” turning assault into affirmation, rather than “probing human consciousness and crime” with complexity that, if deftly executed, would likely be more unsettling–and more revelatory–than Abramson’s piece.

Think what Frederick Seidel, for example, would have done with a similar concept, the layers of monstrosity and culpability and disquieting sympathy he would have revealed. Or go reread Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White.”

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The most troubling thing to me, though, about Abramson’s piece: seeing maliciously personal, moralistically smug denouncements and attacks of Abramson by my social media contacts, including some who usually project only blithe positivity (they like their friends, they agree nice things are nice, they are excited about poetry’s “community,” they photograph sandwiches), people who usually seem unconcerned with politics, media, literary discussion that does more than announce, announce, announce, and promote.

I suppose that social media’s algorithms favor the most inflammatory posts, making them seem like the general atmosphere, and I suppose that the rapid loss of nuance in online disputes means that such posts set the terms, without nuance, for subsequent responses. But it was enough–can you believe it?–to make me turn off my computer.

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“Displaying outrage in the face of a something outrageous is an easy moral act, but morality is not necessarily ethical,” wrote Donald Dunbar at htmlgiant. He summarized the personal backlash against Abramson:

It turns out, Seth Abramson is almost certainly the most vile person to ever write a poem, or write about poetry, like basically ever. As I followed the links to friends’ and “44 mutual friends’” profiles, and as I dutifully investigated the Twitter “conversation,” I found over and over testimony that not only is Abramson a self-promoting, hate-filled “douche,” but he is the “douchey-est douche” to ever hijack a national tragedy not only for his own ends, but because—and this is almost certainly a clinical, untreatable evil—he can only understand the plight of white men. Worst of all—and really, I was thinking he couldn’t get worse!—Abramson is a fucking NERD.

Don’t get (us) wrong! Abramson’s problem isn’t that he reads lots of books—we’re that kind of nerd. And it’s not even that he obviously cares deeply about poetry—that’s okay too, mostly! Seth Abramson is the kind of nerd that thinks nerdiness is okay in the real world. He’s the kind of nerd who will try and explain his nerd-dweeb ideas to people who aren’t reading a Nerds-Only website. He’s that kind of nerd who will try and explain his nerd-dweeb ideas in the first place! And—again and again I saw this—he’s the kind of nerd who makes us look bad.

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I imagine how I might be represented online for using a term like “failure of craft.” What retrograde standards do I have in mind? What makes me the decider? Fine critiques, fine critiques Though I sometimes worry that, because of or enchantment with and anxiety about critically fashionable ideas, we have relinquished close consideration of actual technique in poetry. Poetry, instead, becomes a stand-in for social allegiances, the social world of particular literary affiliations, the party one hopes to attend.

Am I even talking about poetry right now or only about its sociological structures, its gossip?

What’s notable about contemporary poetry, anyway?

YOU WON’T BELIEVE HOW I’M THRILLED TO HAVE TO BE ABLE TO ANNOUNCE MY GRATITUDE AT HAVING AN ESSAY IN THE NEWEST ISSUE OF CLICK POETRY NORTHWEST FOR MORE INFORMATION

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The Isla Vista shooting led to another social media flare: discussions of gender, misogyny, and the #yesallwomen tag.

Despite what I suggest above, these articles and posts seemed to bring nuance to collective thinking about gendered experiences, at least for a moment, at least in some corners of the internet. This coincided with splashy attention from the mainstream press about Patricia Lockwood’s latest book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, which includes her poem “Rape Joke,” a viral internet hit, as well as many poems that draw on online experiences and habits (“Search ‘Lizard Vagina’ You Shall Find,” reads one title).

This mainstream attention, the majority of which, initially, was written by male reviewers, was criticized on social media and elsewhere online by commentators who championed Lockwood’s work further, sometimes in alternate terms. At The Toast, for example, Mallory Ortberg criticized Adam Plunkett’s New Yorker.com review of Lockwood’s book (“Don’t Worry So Much: How Not to Review Women’s Writing”) using pointed paraphrase. “The woman is overrated. The woman has produced only one really great work of art,” Ortberg wrote, rendering Plunkett’s review into language that suggested gendered dismissal. “The woman can’t even really take credit for her one really great work of art. That credit goes to Twitter, which is already diminishing the value of her work.” Ortberg sees Plunkett’s review as obtuse and reductionist, as her reductionist paraphrasing makes clear. (Ortberg’s review of a review–commenting on commentary, with an adversarial tinge that piqued me to click the link, with a style of paraphrase that, while critically relevant, offers contention via reduction–seems fitting in social media’s hall of mirrors.)

Similarly, at Slate, Jonathan Farmer speculated that his discomfort with Lockwood’s work, which makes him feel “slow-witted and over-serious, clumsy, credulous, and uncool,” has “something to do with [his] advantaged standing as a straight white male in the culture she handles with such imaginative disregard.”

Social media, we know, can support distasteful, coercive forms of community policing: if you write a review that’s not wholly positive, you’re likely to be branded as a not-with-us-but-against-us naysayer. When the measure of poetic assessment is largely social, when we’ve relinquished close consideration of craft in favor of more social functions of poetry, there’s little that a reviewer, especially a reviewer like Farmer, could say about Lockwood’s work that wouldn’t also reflect social identities, social values, social structures.

That seems unavoidable and right to explore, but, of course, it doesn’t nullify Farmer’s ability to review the book, as I’ve seen some people suggest online, no more than a review of Lockwood’s book by a woman would necessarily be more trustworthy and astute in its discussion of gender or anything else. Nonetheless, the commentary surrounding Lockwood’s book–about how books by women are reviewed, about how reviewers read–seems heartening. After the Abramson blow-up, with its tabloid-style smears, it made me feel mildly optimistic that social media could aid intent analysis, not just promotion and spats.

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When I say “close consideration of craft,” I mean that craft and aesthetics are ethical. A student turns in a story with a racist depiction. Its ethical failure is usually tied to its technical failures, of characterization, of conflict, of exploring a world I want to have both discussions.

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Lockwood’s book is the only one I’ve mentioned that is published by a major New York house.

It is the only book I’ve mentioned that I learned about from major media outlets.

The rest of the books mentioned here, I learned about from friends, emails, readings I attended, social media.

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But let’s say I’m also intrigued by social media’s relationship to the imagination, its status as a kind of dream delivery service that offers the immediacy of poetic fancy. “Already with thee,” Keats exclaims as soon as he envisions his bird, the famed lifetime between thought and expression collapsing into instant communion, which of course soon flees. That’s a classic facet of poetic experience: the absent or the fictive becomes present for as long as one can keep—to borrow a figure from Tyler Meier—the beach ball of imaginative reality aloft. Think of Yeats’ Innisfree, which is affecting because he “hears” the isle through the intricate intensity of his longing “on the pavements grey.” The fundamentals of poetic craft, thus, aren’t decorative mechanisms of representation but instruments for procuring a present, for traveling where you can’t except in song. You keep talking so you can believe yourself, for a line or two, and then you address the inevitable skid. Fled is that music. I was just saying something. Did the wi-fi fail? The presence gains significance through its fading.

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In contrast, social media makes absent stuff present both more facilely and, in some ways, more durably. I could be looking at a picture of Innisfree or Tyler Meier right now, easy. Preserving that fancy doesn’t depend on the slickness of rhyme; Tyler’s face could be my screensaver forever. So, I don’t need heightened language to make the absent present, only the most approximate search term. I can hear the nightingale’s song, and any song by Neil Young, whenever I want. Control F a lunar eclipse.

In the poetic structure I chart above, however, intensely conjured presence is followed by its loss, a return to the world, changed, charged, hardly reconciled. No matter your imaginative flight, you return to your day. The beach ball falls. Look at it there in the sand. This motion brings me back to myself. But if myself is already involuted into the screen, which contains my imagination (made of others’ imaginations). And if it takes nothing to scroll there endlessly. Where do I return to?

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In the seemingly effortless imaginative presence of social media—constantly broadcasting, easy conjuring—do we lose this return, the fading back to an ordinary street, unsure if we wake or sleep, and so the deep heart starts to feed blithely at the surface, on surfaces?

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I go online. I see a photo of a Brooklyn poet in a necklace. I see someone is “SO excited to be reading tonight” at a bookstore. I see “one of the best presses on the planet has a spanking new website.” I see “GRAHAM FOUST’S BROADSIDE IS OFFICIALLY AVAILABLE.” “I’ve had a six word haiku selected for publication in an online anthology.” Media cycles on. We’re cosmic spam.

Occurs to me now that we may be producing, practicing for life in, reflecting our lives in a surveillance state, through the micro surveillance states of social media. You used to have to write a confessional poem. Now everything you do is a confession.

Can you see me now? Am I a poet yet?

Zach Savich is the author of the poetry collections Century Swept Burial (2014), Full Catastrophe Living (2009), Annulments (2010), and The Firestorm (2011), as well as a book of prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand (2011). He teaches at the University of Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.

This essay appeared first in the Summer & Fall 2014 issue of Poetry Northwest. Want more Savich? Listen to our 2014 interview for The Subvocal Zoo podcast.

image credit: illustrations from an original by amypalko via photopin cc