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Joyelle McSweeney’s vision of poetry’s “future”

Joyelle doesn’t see a future for poetry. She sees a NOW. The end is not imminent; it is connected to this moment.

Johannes Goransson was good enough to post a transcript of Joyelle’s address from the Minnesota Book Festival a few months ago up at his blog, and I’m going to repost it here, because I think more people should read this. Thoughts? Questions?

The “Future” of “Poetry” (an address by Joyelle McSweeney)

1. Becoming a mother made me a goth. Becoming a mother, and nearly dying in the process, and wondering for 10 months if the body inside me is alive or dead, and, concomitantly, if I would also kill myself if I learned it was dead, then holding it and realizing what a very minor and insubstantial gate a six pound infant is onto some kind of Hades—well, it rendered life on earth a kind of Hades. A kind of vista on death. Now I have a vision of the present tense in which every moment has its opening on death, has its interface with death. In fact the present tense might be an interface with death

2. The future of poetry is the present, and it has already arrived. The present tense rejects the future. It generates, but it generates excess without the ordering structures of lineage. It subsumes and consumes pasts into its present , erasing their priority. It’s self-defeating; its rejection of survival into a future may be infanticidal.. Without a concern with past or future it necessarily negates many of the values which come with Western literary tradition, including stability, well-craftedness, elegance, restraint, timelessness, humanism. It is concerned with the media through which it moves, flimsy concerns and flimsy conceits, superficiality, errata and (likely) ephemera, flexibility, instability, unevenness, but it also partakes of a non-productive productivity typified by bombast, excess and overproduction. This art often involves failure and ‘bad fits’—the ‘bad fit’ of one genre into another, the bad fit of one media into another. Its modality is violence, frequently a self-violence against the text itself, so that text is something that explodes, exhausts, breaks down, flounces around, eats and/or shits itself, is difficult to study or call a text at all.

3. Goth, noir, fantasy, speculative fiction in which the premise is as flimsy as a video game, video culture in which the video world is like a death world, is usually a space of death and has its literal interface thereon, its own glowing portal, virtuality in all its forms. Awesome and terrible books of poetry, like the nearly unreadibly excellent Alma or the Dead Women. Artforms which are already dead. Occult art. The ludicrous, the unjustifiable, the death-dealing. The films of Kenneth Anger in their recent DVD release form, piled-up, fragmentary, and degrading into commentary whose only accounting is either a) gossip, of which disparaged modality see Dodie Bellamy, and b)an accounting of failure (often fallacious or at least suspect, such as the account of the making of Invocation of my Demon brother which expands to include the Manson murders, etc).

4. Ryan Trecartin’s video art without an ariel view. In Trecartin’s I/Be area, which you can watch on YouTube, his characters, Wendy and Pasta, look like decaying cheerleaders, like Laura Palmer had she stood up in the plastic to direct Twin Peaks. They snap back and forth:

Life reproductions on top of shit/always in the moment/always/always/always/right now/so cool/never in the past/we show you your life/but better/thread edit/thread edit/because we know right now/and we know how to make contemporary/right now.

This sounds like an ars poetica, rendered, as it were, poetically—less so when snarled from a tiny glowing box by two crayon-hued, violent, aggressively bewigged heroines cavorting with actual pre-teens until spectra and spectre of simulacrum, copies of copies, become snaky, contaminatory, dirty, and contemporary.

5. The present tense, rejecting posterity and art’s endurance, insists on the artifice of creation and proposes children not as units of the future but as vulnerable portals between death and life. Children are death in life, their numeration and nomination the place where text happens.

In his late Fragmentations, the cuntphobic Antonin Artaud renders himself an ultra mother, without lineage: “Out of the motherless cunt I shall make an obscure, total, obtuse and absolute soul.” Artaud’s vision is of daughters whose bodies are a portal on violence and death—a portal which makes the body present and which becomes a kind if infinite catalog, life and death’s indeterminate co-extension:

“I saw the meningeal syphilis of my daughter Catherine’s legs, and the 2 hideous sweet-potatoes of the vats of her inflated kneecaps, I saw the onions of her toes blistered like her sex […] I saw a skullburst like Annie of the ‘holy’ throat, and I saw her blood’s crown of intestinal thorns flowing from her on the days she wasn’t menstruating.

“And I saw the nicked knife of Neneka, my other daughter, and I felt her moving in the opium of the earth,

And there were also Yvonne, Catherine, Cecile, Annie, and Anna with Neneka [etc.]

[Trans. David Rattray]

6. A similar efflorescence of dead women and girls, an inverted and deathleaning and unnatural fecundity, makes up the decomposing and reforming body of Notley’s Alma or the Dead Women—even the math of that title exposes its flexing crowdedness, death’s revolving door, the fitful instability of multiplicity and individuality, a resulting instability in the syntax, and the twin conditions of scarcity and a useless excess this doubling creates:

“Alma is turning over again groaning in her stupor saying i am the unknown and all these you’s. i say i know you too are i and i am no superficially, for i’m whatever superficially, sad because of my body to age so i am let’s see Myra? too many names. well there are millions more of dead women not just he few you are hey nonny. i damned well can’t remember Nonny, though i remember Gracie, Marcellina, Irene, and others. I have shot up, in effect, and Alma’s tone is the boss tone here she is god.” [17]

7. Hiromi Ito has been called the ‘poet of childbirth’ in Japan, which is ironic given that her most iconic poem is titled for infanticide and themed with both infanticide and abortion. Her daughter’s name is Kanoko, and this poem in English is ‘Killing Kanoko’, (also the title of the Action Books volume now available, Ito’s first English-language edition.) In the title poem,

Without melancholy, without guilt

I want to get rid of Kanoko in Tokyo


Congratulations on your destruction

Congratulations on your destruction


Congratulations on your abortion


Congratulations on your abortion


Congratulations on your abortion

Congratulations on killing Tomo-kun


How about getting rid of Nonoho-chan?


Was the fetus a boy or a girl?


It’s about time to get rid of Kōta-kun

Let’s all get rid of them together

All of the daughters

All of the sons

In this passage, the ‘begat-‘ logic of linear generations is reworked, as ‘generations’ are obliterated by abortion and infanticide; instead of patronyms, given names and pet names overpopulate the text, so that the effect is multiplication rather than subtraction, and we are left with an ecstatic simultaneous omnigeneration of killers and ghosts. Death of the child is the same as generation of the child, is the site and the incitement, what each line does with its address, as each name appears in the text and is neither removed from it, nor made productive.

8. Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.

10 thoughts on “Joyelle McSweeney’s vision of poetry’s “future”

  1. This is great. Thanks for posting John. It makes me think of the life course scholar Bernice Neugarten’s work on “off-time” and “on-time” (http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/neugarten-bernice-l) – how we have preconceived schedules for when events should occur in a lifetime. McSweeny’s idea of a “bad-fit”, where poetry rubs up with another media or genre, a growing pain as it were, is great. Better to be a good ‘bad-fit’, then a bad good-fit.

  2. …I don’t know enough about the history of poetry or poetry criticism to understand where this fits in it, but the Queer critic in me digs the embrace of the temporal, unstable, flexible, excessive, superficial, “copies of copies” (hi Judith Butler), etc.

        1. It’s decided, then. Poetry’s future is the Internet.

          John, you should let Joyelle know we’ve figured it out. She’ll be happy she can put the issue behind her.

  3. This is a provocative speech, to say the least.

    I understood it to be a personal manifesto, or maybe a kind of temporary container of McSweeney’s artistic motivations. It reads less to me as prescriptive or proscriptive and more as definitive, that is definitive of her notions of heterogeneity, of art unmoored by canonical concerns, since “[w]ithout a concern with past or future it necessarily negates many of the values which come with Western literary tradition, including stability, well-craftedness, elegance, restraint, timelessness, humanism.”

    I think that the piece itself mirrors the kind of hybridities it celebrates, or perhaps recognizes is the better word.

    Also, the Mick Jagger soundtrack for Anger’s piece is incredible. It reminds me of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, stuff from La Monte Young and Glenn Branca.

  4. Yes, I would say it has a lot of queer theory. That’s just about the only thing we read in the Action Books headquarters. Lee Edelson’s No Future for example. Also, the Internet yes.


  5. my brain exploded.

    and it is safe to say, without shame, “I don’t get it”. Not I don’t get it as in big whoop, but as in, I’m confused. It seems like one can infer what she means… but… can anyone nutshell? I think I might like it if I understood it.

    I believe in the power of the nutshell. It simply means an idea is condensible, however complex. You know, that ol’ nutshell of the complexity of simplicity…

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