La crisis de la poesía gringa se expande / Heriberto Yépez

The Crisis of North American Poetry Expands

               [Tweets by the poet Cassandra Gillig to Kenneth Goldsmith, March 2015]

What’s been happening in North American poetry these last few months?

Unlike national poetries like Chilean or Mexican (which are unitary, grouped in a single polemical field), North American poetry is segmented, primarily, into “mainstream” poetry, poetics tied to cultural identity and experimental poetry (which is relatively multicultural but dominated by white poets).

This experimental current, because it continues the avant-garde and postmodernism of the 20th century, influences other “innovative” national literatures today.

And this is the sector that’s suffering a great crisis.

Up until this year, conceptualism was its most well-known current, imitated and respected (inside and beyond the United States). But in a matter of weeks its two leaders (Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place) fell from grace in scandals related to racism and a great portion of the experimental field withdrew its support for them.

It’s pretty obvious that the rise of conceptualism ended in 2015.

But the crisis isn’t limited to conceptualism and instead, different agents (semi-anonymous groups, women writers and social media) extended the questioning, for example, to institutions such as Naropa and Berkeley and to writers such as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the now canonical avant-garde (post and anti-Beat). They have been called out for being complicit with the white-patriarchal domination (and “demon”) of experimentalism.

This great crisis is serious because of its critique of racism and the fact that it doesn’t involve just one group but the entire structure in intense (electronic) battles that are unprecedented. And this happens within the context of the strong social movements now taking place in the United States; it’s the crisis of the streets entering North American literature.

The collapse isn’t merely aesthetic (one avant-garde attacking another in order to replace it, as is usually the case internationally) but rather it is an ethical crisis, one of credibility.

Through social media fights, links and rumors, old allegiances and friendships have been broken. The experimental network is being fragmented by these discussions.

As the history of the avant-gardes has taught us, the effects of this crisis in North American experimental literature will soon be felt, in an invisible manner or simply in forms of restructuring, in other literatures, especially in Latin America and Europe, where the influence of North American experimentalism hasn’t stopped growing.

But suddenly, North American experimentalism went from being considered cool to being racist; from being a network with high levels of internal agreement to being divided into guerrilla groups.

Everything indicates the crisis has only just begun.

No one knows what will be left standing and what will be swept away, buried, damaged, replaced or made impossible.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of North American experimentalism? Maybe.

But this could go further. Or be interrupted. Or extend to other literatures.

The networks will define it.

{ Heriberto Yépez, Archivo Hache, Milenio (México D.F.), 6 June 2015 }

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For Internet readers I’ve elaborated this


Social antecedents: 2014 and 2015 have been marked in the United States by protests against police brutality and racism. The most famous case has been that of Michael Brown, the young African-American murdered by the Ferguson police. But the protests and the discontent are generalized because North American racism is truly delirious.

Literary antecedents: Cathy Park Hong publishes an essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” where she argues that the (North American) avant-garde has been constructed from a base of white supremacy. This essay generated a great deal of debate and support. I recommend reading it; a key essay.

13 March 2015: At a literary event at Brown University, the leader of conceptual writing Kenneth Goldsmith (the most recognized experimental North American writer of the 21st century) read an ironic poem (a malicious appropriation) elaborated from the autopsy of Michael Brown (the young African American man murdered by the police). Immediately the literary social media condemned the act as racist and from then on Goldsmith has kept a low profile and has been marked as clear evidence of the white supremacist values that have silently built the scene of North American experimental poetry.

26 March 2015: At the poetry festival @Now 2015 the panel “Mongrel Poetiks” is presented, made up of Lara Glenum, Bhanu Kapil, Eunsong Kim, Lucas de Lima and Jennifer Tamayo (http://andnow2015a.sched.org/event/f270323bb038f9f76be6f186a5ba05bb#.VXLBuKY_7-N). It’s important to note that these poets don’t claim to be members of the Mongrel Coalition. But their decision to present themselves as “Mongrel Poetiks” inevitably associates them with that group.

3 May 2015: Through their Twitter account, the Mongrel Coalition appears, a semi-anonymous collective (they call themselves anonymous but they actually reveal some of their members at different levels of the organization). The Mongrel Coalition is a collective with a pro-minority agenda, focused on defending this cause within North American (experimental) poetry. They are radical, violent, equivocal and, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting movements of North American poetic activism, despite their mistakes and authoritarianism. I recommend following their activism.

18 May 2015: After an Internet petition asking for Vanessa Place to be removed from her position on a subcommittee to chose tables to present at the 2016 conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), the AWP decides to remove her from her position (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2015/05/awp-removes-vanessa-place-from-2016-conference-subcommittee/). The reasons behind the petition are the racist projects of Vanessa Place, that are added to the Kenneth Goldsmith scandal for the same reasons, although, strictly speaking, Place’s projects began several years before Goldsmith’s.

29 May 2015: The Berkeley Poetry Conference that had been planned is cancelled due to many of the invited speakers pulling out in protest of the presence of Vanessa Place (although others cancelled for various reasons). This congress sought to celebrate the 50 years of the 1965 Berkeley conference where poets such as Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, among others, presented, and which became a (polemical) symbol of that decisive period in North American poetry. The fact that the 2015 conference, organized to update the discussions that took place at the first one, has been cancelled adds to the general crisis of experimentalism. However, the organizers have announced they will restructure the conference so it centers on the question of race, and they’re inviting poets of color. At this date, it’s not clear who the new speakers will be and what the substitute conference’s definitive program will be (scheduled to take place between June 15-19).

Polemics: This crisis can’t be understood without the polemics centered around canonical poets of experimentalism, for example, the ones that emerged in response to texts by Ron Silliman and the sour comments by Barrett Watten on Facebook and his website. They are two of the main targets of criticism because many poets consider that Language poets, along with conceptualists, have collaborated with maintaining white hegemony within innovative North American poetry.

The Present:
As I’ve said in my column today: the networks will determine what will happen. Inertia means dominant white groups will try to prevent the crisis from growing (for it not to “escalate”) and that elements of discontent be co-opted so as to go back to business as usual; the white tendency seems to point towards turning the crisis into a (genealogical) moment in which a few movements (Language poetry, conceptualism) are replaced by other movements and names. But the crisis is strong and something more substantial could happen.

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