Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Stolen Glances

Terri delivers a fine video production on airbrushing
A questionable reading of Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis
by Lonely Christopher

As a poet who works extensively with “found” text and plagiarism as praxis myself, certain writers began recommending I discover the work of Rob Fitterman. Before I finally read him, he crept repeatedly into my life through such mentions and I even had a conversation with him, without realizing who he was (drunk party), about recent projects like Issue 1 that skirt legality by the unauthorized appropriation/use of intellectual property (that project, which notably incurred the blog-wrath of Ron Silliman, was edited by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter and not written by any of the listed contributors; text here). When I got around to picking up the three books that constitute his long form poem Metropolis, I was initially confused. From what I had heard, I presumed Fitterman produced massive texts (like Kenneth Goldsmith’s monolithic Day, which wasn’t even proofread let alone perused by an audience) that contained unending vistas of apoetic data (like Issue 1, which is over three-thousand pages --- although I think the work is computer generated rather than stolen). What I found instead, in the first through the twenty-ninth entries of (thin) volumes I and II, were crafted, poetic experiments of compositional variety. Consequently --- I should say: because, like a brat, I didn’t get what I expected --- I concluded Fitterman’s project was not engaging with the idea of plagiarism as profoundly as I was given to understand by his recommenders. Volume II provides a “key” to the individual processes of some poems: the mash-up techniques include splicing the journals of Lewis and Clarke together with a café menu, typing Petrarch’s The Dialogs into a search engine, and listing final sentences of books found around the poet’s house. Such approaches are valid and can be seriously analyzed, but I worried they couldn’t thoroughly constitute a poetics of appropriation (not to say that was the intent). The poems themselves were enjoyable to read --- I am told that Fitterman likes producing texts that operate within the idiom of uncreative writing but don’t overstate that position; the verse has a humanity that more didactic/extremist texts like Goldsmith’s eschew out of separatism. Some of the poems are way more about aesthetics than conceptual function, tickling the lizard brain that arty conceits can’t as often reach. Here is the first page of a poem from volume I (forgive the brevity of my quotation):

a may
vague &
various

to
be
left

a red
pear
compost

tray
of
disbelief

An obvious concern here is for material language swimming down a page --- meaning as the result of what words can do, not where they come from. I find it sexy. Questions of methodology don’t arise; the details of composition aren’t fundamental here. Conversely, writing that tries too hard to articulate a process is tricky. The above extract turns me on much more than this bit from the Lewis & Clark café menu poem: “a less rule-bound brandywine tequila / three Frenchmen in a canoe / Six Lettuce Towers observed / on the highest pinnacle[.]” The conceit nears vapidity --- some food then some history then some food mixed with history --- which challenges the whole stability and gets in the way of getting to like what it’s doing. This is not to say Fitterman, in the first two volumes, doesn’t have really engaging ways to find language, take it, and put it to a use shaped conceptually. My favorite piece from the first two volumes is also representative of Fitterman’s severest movement away from aesthetic expressivity and into systematic unoriginality. Each of the sixteen stanzas of an entry from volume II consists of a single brand name. Here’s the end:

K Mart
Taco Bell
KFC
Staples
J. Crew
Starbucks
KFC
K Mart
Taco Bell

K Mart
KFC
K Mart

I was pleased to reach the third volume of the project, Metropolis XXX: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, because it is a hardline project to develop the use of plagiarism as an instrument to shape the contemporary definition of poetry. Fitterman provides the structure of the book --- using the chapter titles of a history of Rome, from what I surmised --- but his treatment of the appropriated material that fills the volume is more curatorial than it is “creative.” Volume III doesn’t read like a creative adaptation, writing through, or even an erasure of apoetic sources; the point isn’t to liberate the source text by transforming it into art, the program is an arrangement of documents. The poet as plagiarist does not rejuvenate the lines he uses: his very act of using replaces that pretension. (Aside: grandiloquence about the poet’s gift to redeem anything is dislikeable rhetoric that encourages pompousness in us lowliest of unfortunates who still versify despite the futility of it all.) Fitterman presents the reader with a catalog derived from the hideous and boring pageant of our culture: promotional copy for a designer of miniature golf courses, website guest books, consumer reviews of products and services, questions from jury selection, poorly written religious tracts, &c. Each entry is a window into the semantic use of language in a capitalist society, a love duet for ungainly marrieds: the engine of consumerism and its fleshy bride, humankind. The accumulative result is a symmetrical architecture made from the non-poetry of everyday commoditization. It provides sociopolitical analysis without being embarrassing or preachy because it’s not a “mash-up” invested in the edginess of juxtaposing for resonance. It’s something like going to church in a small town and listening to a few hymns sung by a volunteer choir made up of a proud legion of tone-deaf ladies who drive two blocks from their houses to shop for tacky sweaters at Super Wal-Mart --- the voices of the ingenuously devout… untroubled by consuming uncritically, without irony. Maybe Metropolis XXX tries to frame this negatively (well, the epigraph tells us it’s “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind”) --- and it is incredibly terrifying --- but because these texts were generated by earnest and regular citizens (presumably), there’s a remarkable sense that this is also a celebration of the ethos of late capitalism: a birthday party in the parking lot where plastic rubs against blood and guts. I don’t want to end up arguing for the importance of authenticity here, since that’s not what this is about, but I was struck deeply by the way this book framed the consumerist experience. The first miniature golf entry (the volume is split as a mirrored diptych) describes a putt-putt attraction themed after the Bible: “The New Testament holes are sparsely decorated, looser, at least one featuring elves and men in lederhosen where an Apostle or leper might have done the trick.” This is the history we write for our culture through popular media --- on websites, in brochures, and with spam and junk mail. Fitterman captures it like Andy Warhol filming the Empire State Building. (Again, the use of plagiarism effectually avoids the self-important taint of some poet trying to insert his voice into a discourse that doesn’t even know poetry exists.) Fitterman’s work as a writer becomes managerial, which I think is much more honest in the 21st Century than supporting the invented authority of intellectual property. Consumer culture won’t find the utility in poetry --- so poetry should find the utility in the grammar of consumer culture.

5 comments:

Jarrod said...

Again, the use of plagiarism effectually avoids the self-important taint of some poet trying to insert his voice into a discourse that doesn’t even know poetry exists.

Nada said...

Oh wow, I love this sentence: "grandiloquence about the poet’s gift to redeem anything is dislikeable rhetoric that encourages pompousness in us lowliest of unfortunates who still versify despite the futility of it all"

I could not agree MORE!

Steven Fama said...

Dear Corresponding Society,

This is a most interesting but not very engaging essay.

I see three paragraphs, the first and last of which are exceedingly long (circa 400 and 600 words, respectively), with not too many short non-compound sentences in either.

In my view, blog and web writing is more akin to journalistic writing, if engaging with the reader is a desired. Blog posts are most effective, as I see it, when the paragraphs are kept short (though they need not be one-sentencers as in newspapers).

Your first and third paragraphs could each easily be broken into two. Thus, a total of five paragraphs in your post, resulting in something to read that'd be far easier on the eyes and brain, or at least mine.

Thanks!

Meg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meg said...

So...you are saying that women who don't wear Prada and instead invest themselves in bargain basement sweaters are conveniently either ignorant or innocent of the worth of art?

How very expected. How very, very expected.

The great thing about being down is the fact that one is constantly looking up.

The use of the word pompous is pompousness itself.

As for the worth of such excess and self indulgent text...well....we can all appreciate that.