EMA / Language Poetry / Sincerity / Spirituality / Meaning It
A couple things I’ve noticed around this week (leading to Rae Armantrout and Mary Jo Bang by way of EMA and shopping carts)
First, an interview with EMA (Erika M. Anderson):
This is the part that interested me the most, as it rhymes with something I’ve been hearing from some in the experimental poetry community lately:
Altered Zones: Why do you think lyrical songwriting is so uncommon these days in experimental music?
Erika M. Anderson: I don’t know. I feel like the pendulum has to swing back at some point. I’ve always really liked lyrics, and I’ve always really liked vocal stuff, and playing a lot and going to noise shows, I’ve felt in some ways unwelcome. There’s this unwritten rule saying, "You can’t use lyrics that people will understand." I thought there were supposed to be no rules. [Noise] turns into the most codified, regimented form of music, which is not what it should be at all. When Gowns first started off, some people didn’t know how to take us. They were like, "This band might be cool if they didn’t sing."
I wonder if it's something about the idea of masculine, abstract sound experiments, and not allowing a range of emotions to come through. For a lot of people who are doing experimental music, at some point it becomes like, "I built this Max patch that does this." It's about the experiment, and the set of parameters. You’re supposed to be tuning out everything but your ears.
I did make a record before I made Past Life Martyred Saints that was a conceptual record. It was about deconstructing American folk music-- departing from the premise that a lot of folk music is being made on a computer right now, and seeing how this technology intersects with the idea of folk music. I spent a lot of time sending this off to people, and I really felt the two worlds collide. I would drop it off with noisers, and they would be like, "Yeah, but you sing. I like the feedback, but what’s with this vocal harmony?"
I would bring it to more folk-oriented labels and they would be like, "We love 'Kind Heart,' but can you make a five-minute version?" I really felt the rules on both sides. In pop, people aren’t necessarily used to listening to long-duration pieces, or to feedback, so I could understand why that was challenging. But I do get shocked sometimes when people reject experimental music because it has elements of tonality, or because it has elements of humanness.
. . .
This is remarkably similar to what I heard around the publication of Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, and then again around Rae Armantrout’s Versed. It’s people working through a different way to treat content.
And why can’t one have it all? We can be noisers and we can have lyrics that are about things. Because really, when I’ve talked with experimental poets who are going through their version of this process, what they say is that they’ve always talked about things. Rae Armantrout’s always talked about things. Mary Jo Bang. We’ve always meant it. It isn’t simply hollow language games.
It’s an interesting time. I feel we’re in the midst of an artistic realignment. From what to what, though, my auguries fail me. In the end, I’m still thinking about these new ways of approaching sincerity and spirituality that is my ongoing summer topic.
A second, similar thought, goes along with the first. All musicians have noise elements (sound). All musicians who make vocal music have content, if they’re using words. Where people fall on the spectrum of each puts them into categories. What EMA is working through—and what Mary Jo Bang presaged for experimental poetry in Elegy—is how to move the levers to a place where one is still using all the “experimental” moves, doing the things with language that play and investigate the borders of what language can do . . . to have the content of the poem be “about” that border, while at the same time have that not be ALL the poem is about, to also have a THERE there, as we’re so fond of saying these days (Thank you, Gertrude Stein).
This is an important aspect of both the new (bah, I hate this name) new sincerity and the new spirituality. Or just, as it’s descriptive, the new way people are working with sincerity (meaning it), and the new way people are working with spirituality (meaning it). Meaning what they say, even as how they say it interrogates spirituality and sincerity. Aesthetic affiliations are under pressure in this economy, which will bring all sorts of detractors to the fore. But I’ve long thought of aesthetic affiliations as largely brand loyalty anyway, more than being reflective of any real criteria of inclusion / exclusion.
A good case in point is calling Rae Armantrout a Language Poet. If Rae Armantrout is a Language Poet in some outwardly identifiable sense, then “language poetry” doesn’t describe much. I think she’s a brilliant poet, by the way. What I’m saying here is not a value argument. Language Poetry, much like Surrealism, Deep Image, Objectivism, and on, is a historical category, not a method. Right? Or mostly? Or after the first couple years?
Likewise, a lot of what passes for the content of art, or, rather the interpretation of that content (kitsch, irony), can quickly become spirituality and sincerity. “Sincerity,” over time, becomes sincerity. What’s key is that the work itself need not change—it’s how we read it that (might be what) changes.
Rae Armantrout is a Language Poet because we read her that way. And then Dan Chiasson or Stephen Burt comes along to read her differently and so then we read her differently. We read backwards, as well, and so suddenly she’s always been something else. Who knew?
This is why I think it’s important to continue to talk about poetry, because what we say about it changes it (for a time, until some new thing comes along, to, ahem, change it). How many different poets has Emily Dickinson been, for instance?
It’s always about access and pre-conceived notions (and unexamined prejudices, yes). If Rae Armantrout has always written this way, which is something some reviewers have said, then why didn’t she win the Pulitzer 20 years ago? Because the right people weren’t on board yet. (The same argument could be made for other poets as well, Kay Ryan, for example, but I’ll leave that for others to make or not.) This is one more reason what is published where matters, and why what we call it matters. It’s not just about awards. (Pfui on awards.) It’s also about audience, who will be allowed to be seen where. And who will be seen becomes what is seen. What is available is what is. Examining what we’re saying and doing and believing is fundamentally important.
Here’s what EMA does with her version of "in the midst:"