Saturday, December 5, 2009

Blogging (with) Tyrone Williams, _On Spec_

It's too early to perform valedictories on the semester, although the shape of Form & Theory (English 410) seems clearer now than it did in August. The ways in which syllabi morph from "hope" to "experience" to "history" is perhaps worthy of its own entry, but not on this clear, cool morning. Instead, I'll talk about particulars.

The two books assigned for this course were Rothenberg and Joris's Poems for the Millennium, volume one and Tyrone Williams's On Spec (Omnidawn, 2008). I was using the former for the first time in a decade, and the latter I included more on a hunch than anything. But the books enter into call and response. The anthology considers native chants and Duchamp's urinal to be more or less of a piece, while Williams's book re-appropriates the avant-garde in the interest of (among many things) an American culture and history that is largely African.

Millennium One makes an argument I like (that texts not usually considered to have affinities do have them) in a way that makes me uncomfortable (by placing them together in a big book as if the conversation were over already). Surely there are necessary differences in intention, in context, between a native chant, a blues song, and F.T. Marinetti! I'm reminded of a video I watched at the Museum of New South Wales in the mid-1990s, which looked into the rage for aboriginal art that had swept the New York art scene. Aboriginal paintings were seen as "abstractions," and drew enormous prices on the market. But, when asked what their paintings were about, the artists said they were maps of the land they lived on. So, while it's not necessarily a problem that westerners love the work for its "abstraction," it is a problem when the works are not adequately historicized and acknowledged as coming from a very different impulse. Intention matters. And culture provides the necessary context for any artist's intentions.

Tyrone Williams's On Spec provides a provocative bookend to Millennium One. Williams appropriates the European avant-garde to his own purposes. His book is more exploratory and experimental than conclusive, more a record of process than a set product (this is not the say the poems are not sturdy constructions). He puts a microscope to the language we use when we talk about American history, race, sports, art. He employs vocabularies of economics, the law, legislation, music, and many more to peel layers off the scab of bad faith in language. As he wrote to one student on our class blog:

I use "experimental" the way most artists do--not as a way of confirming something I already know or suspect (as a hypothesis) as a scientist would--but as a way of testing the limits of language itself, how far one can push the envelope until one enters "noise." And since noise is the current name for a type of ambient music popular among adventurous DIY "musicians," I think even language that is noise might be interesting as a form of communication...

One of the ways in which Williams's poems operate is through allusions to language that is not included in the poem. Poetic allusions grow increasingly difficult to discuss in the classroom, as students lack a commonly held canon of texts in which to lower their buckets and pull up lines and images. But even more difficult are non-literary allusions such as those Williams makes in "To To Speak," the tenth section of a longer piece, "Ask-Vubba: A Decalogue." A poem that begins from "Eecchhooeess" contains a chamber of them:

The concave dish of reason for a few waves
Convoluted, licentious ears. Eecchhooeess

from now. A hand-set type. Letters rise up
against the word but remain embedded in their plates

of relative license (cf. Freedmen's Bureau): collagen,
silicone and lipowhite: Resolution 1195: "a leader

in the quest for civil rights and justice"
[scale and base invariant]. A see-and-feel-

through Voice
for Good. (119)

"Licentious" echoes forth as "license," sonically. The "Voice" emerges from dishes, as from type faces. Williams takes poetic license to make his poem echo outward into history, where the parenthetical "Freedmen's Bureau" enters literary and cultural history in the echoes emanating from W.E.B. DuBois's 1901 essay on that organization. That essay begins, famously, with the sentence: "The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line." Many pages later, it concludes with the same sentence. Once the color line rises from the page, the reader is met with a triad of beauty products, which render the skin younger looking, or "white," as in "lipowhite." Without transition, we are referred to (Georgia House) Resolution 1195, which you can find here, passed in 1996, honoring Ola Mae Quarterman (what a figurative name that is), who was sentenced to 30 days in prison in Albany, Georgia in 1962 and expelled from Albany State for sitting at the front of a public bus and purportedly using the word "damn" to the bus driver. In the language of the resolution, she is a "leader / in the quest for civil rights and justice" (119). The "see . . . through" "Voice / for Good" evokes the seeing-through Williams has just shown us of the language of race and recompense in the 20th century American South. Echoes grow outward, but do not "solve" problems, just as Resolutions in state legislatures cannot resolve not so ancient histories of racism. There is little restitution in recognition; I quote from Resolution 1195. Williams leaves this language out.

1-26 REPRESENTATIVES that the members of this body recognize and
1-27 commend Ola Mae Quarterman-Clemons for her bravery, for her
1-28 leadership, and for the important role which she has played
1-29 in the history of the civil rights movement in Albany and
1-30 the State of Georgia.

Williams here is quoting without quoting. To one of my students he wrote that he considers quotation to be "a form of homage." But not all homages are equal; in the poem I just cited the quotations (both there and not there) are sometimes honorific, as to DuBois, and sometimes ironic, as to the authors of Reolution 1195.

In one of his responses to my students, Williams wrote about place. He began by talking about the place of poetic tradition. Then he moved to physical places, including his home town of Detroit. What he does in the comment that follows reflects ways he investigates language as place, words as places, and how he works to unname and rename places that have been known. To "know one's place" is a loaded term for any African American person:

The moment we think we know our "place," the moment we accept the names and histories of a place, we have framed, bound, that place and some--not all--of its properties. What remains "outside" our frames is precisely what we cannot know. That non-knowledge is, fortunately, if "we" are lucky, the space of future definitions of a place. Thus, "my" Detroit is not the Detroit of others, contemporaries (like Susan) and young relatives (my nephews and nieces).

Definition as possibility rather than as point of fixity. Non-knowledge as potential rather than absence. That Williams's work looks so far forward in its stripping back of language is perhaps what I most admire about it. On Spec is not easy; my class and I came to several screeching halts after extensive discussion. But the book is extremely valuable, both as a much-needed move in the history of avant-garde art and as a gesture forward.


tyrone said...

well, thanks forthe opportunity to engage your students, Susan--I kearned a a lot about reading, a lot about On Spec, from them...

Paul said...

Susan M. Schultz, you are quite amazingly wonderful.

susan said...

I wasn't at all sure I should "accept" this comment, Paul, but at least you're not trying to sell me something!