The following piece concludes the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.
“The best PT [Poetic Terrorism] is against the law …”
As a young student of poetics—a bushy-tailed, full-of-piss-and-vinegar-and-linguistic-angst youngster—I was immediately drawn to the classics of conceptual poetry, from the euphonic alphabetic cascades of Christian Bök’s Eunoia to the incessant yet irresistibly unpunctuated genius of Darren Wershler’s the tapeworm foundry. I was enamoured by conceptualism’s use of language as an appropriated object—one that we usually hold so precious but, when thieved from the coffers of ordinary meaning and use, is revealed in its arbitrariness. However, I must admit: as I grew into my grad-student boots—and grew more cynical in the process—such works were no longer ‘enough’ for me.
Okay, some real talk: what really did it for me, what broke the spell of conceptual poetic grandeur, was reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2008 collection Zong!. My love affair with conceptualism can be dated according to the calendar of B.Z. and A.Z.—Before Zong! and After Zong!. From the moment I held its broken fragments uneasily on my tongue and in my ear, I was irretrievably bathed in the waves of its subtle grace and choking persistence. After my first encounter, there was no turning back to those ‘great’ conceptual texts that seemed to use language in only a small-p political way.
Sure, in some sense, it is ‘enough’ to screw around with language and create art that floats inside a beautiful ether. But in the face of the continuing projects of settler colonialism—to which we are all subject, to lesser or greater degrees—I could no longer ignore the ways in which authors consciously use and abuse poetic material in their work. And yes, I am referring here to Kenneth Goldsmith’s and Vanessa Place’s very public shaming over such use of “found” material. After Zong!, I fell completely out of love with the brand of conceptualism I had grown up on—those texts by mostly white men that get lauded for being the best and greatest exemplars of the form.
After finishing my dissertation on experimental poetry, and after having spent some serious time meditating on Zong!, I fell—and fell hard—for an alternative brand of poetic conceptualism that I affectionately call Poetic Terrorism. These conceptualists use “found” poetic material to combat dominant scripts of his-tory and enact sociopolitical change on the ground of our contemporary reality.
I fell—and fell hard—for an alternative brand of poetic conceptualism that I affectionately call Poetic Terrorism. These conceptualists use ‘found’ poetic material to combat dominant scripts of his-tory and enact sociopolitical change on the ground of our contemporary reality.
I don’t wish, here, to embark on a diatribe about why one form of conceptualism is better than another—that is for another discussion. Instead, I want to narrate the trajectory of my personal love affair with conceptualism by looking at Zong! in conjunction with work by another of my favourite Poetic Terrorists, Jordan Abel. The list of my favourite PTs is always expanding, I should say, and it includes Harryette Mullen, Bhanu Kapil, Shane Rhodes, Rachel Zolf, and Mark Nowak, among others. But before I get to Philip and Abel, let me explain what I mean by “Poetic Terrorism.” I’ve appropriated the term from Hakim Bey, who uses it in T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone to describe fleeting liberation from statist codes of logic, propriety, and ownership by means of a poetic “game” that attempts to bridge the gap between material and imagined realities. Without defining poetic terrorism outright, Bey offers some examples of its execution:
Weird dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies. Unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Pick someone at random & convince them they’re the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune—say 5000 square miles of Antarctica … Later they will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, & will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.
Bey’s poetic terrorism emphasizes that the boundary between what is permissible and not is a rhetorical fabrication; for in this last example, to this someone, the right to land ownership is realized through the language and trickery of possibility. Bey resists defining this process fully, but he does note that Poetic Terrorism specifically involves “creation-through-destruction.” Bey’s use of “Terrorism” is light and fun, describing trickery and buffoonery that “goes against the State” rather than, as in the common usage of the term nowadays, senseless violence or religious zealotry. However, I want to use the term in a third way—both more literally than Bey (perhaps I’ve been listening to too many true crime podcasts lately, but I want the violence and “terror” of it) and with greater acknowledgement that active, communal resistance can have ethical, sensible ends.
Acts of Poetic Terrorism are meant to “shock” people out of their day-to-day lives by extracting different possibilities from aesthetic experiences outside the sanctions of law and state. So describes the work of writers such as Philip and Abel, who poetically terrorize historical and present discourse by unsettling the language and logic of the State, of the law, of the nation, and of codified language itself. In dismantling the authority of the “word,” these works offer a sustained and alluring inquiry into language’s colonization and liberation. The aesthetic processes and products of Poetic Terrorism may appear similar to those of traditional conceptualism, yet here’s the rub: in revealing the (mis)use and arbitrariness of language, and of his-tory writ large, social activism and aesthetic praxis are fused. Their poetic labour combines conceptualism’s interrogations of language and symbolic representation with a persistent concern for equity and social justice.
Acts of Poetic Terrorism are meant to ‘shock’ people out of their day-to-day lives by extracting different possibilities from aesthetic experiences outside the sanctions of law and state.
Jordan Abel’s 2014 collection, Un/Inhabited (as well as his 2015 work, Injun), engages with language as “public domain” and interrogates the ways in which land ownership and the knowledge of othered bodies become practiced through the violence of Western fictional romance. To create the text, Abel first copied the text of 91 Western novels from the Project Gutenberg digital archive and pasted them, in their entirety, into a single Word document, which he then cut up, sampled, and plundered. For example, to produce the first section, “Pioneering,” Abel used the Ctrl+F command to search the entire document for terms relating to land, territory, and property, such as “uninhabited,” “settler,” and “treaty.” He copied and pasted the sentences containing these terms into a new document and then deleted the search terms—B-movie slasher style—leaving gaps, or silences, in the text where the words once stood. By divorcing these original texts from their key words and contexts, Abel’s process ‘unsettles’ the space of the colonial frontier and the place of the Indigene within it. With the gaps left by his authorial erasures, he asks us to reimagine a landscape that has been, and continues to be, shaped by terror, interruption, and (un)permitted entrance.
In the section of Un/Inhabited entitled “Cartography,” Abel reimagines the pages as margin-less fields of uninterrupted text. As the reader turns these pages, lakes of white space spill onto the source text, interrupting and obscuring its authoritative presence. Visually, the borders created by the seeping whiteness begin to take the appearance of maps, with lakes and rivers of white cutting through textual land. The interrupting whiteness serves a double rhetorical purpose: it represents the invasion of white settlers upon the land and their attempts to control and permit access to it, and it also reformulates whiteness, controversially, as white space, a potential frontier of (un)meaning and an alternative borderland of creative possibility. By re-appropriating and reforming the textual ‘maps’ of Western fiction, which attempt to ‘manage’ and ‘know’ the place of the Indigene in Western cultural consciousness, Abel renders the cartography of settlement unreadable and unknowable. Rather than an impenetrable source of authority, Abel’s work is a demonstration; as he says in an interview with EVENT Magazine, “the public domain [is] a discoverable and inhabitable body of land.” In playing with the concept of the “common ground” of the archive, Abel challenges how the nation, as a multicultural “common ground” of identity and belonging, overwrites its historical erasures.
Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip and Un/Inhabited by Jordan Abel
While Abel looks to the popular romance genre of the Western to question and resist the cultural circumscription of Indigenous people, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! interrogates dispossession through a different archive of power: that of insurance law. Philip’s work cross-examines State rhetoric for the ways in which it has enabled and facilitated settler colonial relations in the (continuing) context of the North American slave trade. Zong! is written using the language from Gregson v. Gilbert, a 1783 insurance settlement case in which the owners of the slave ship Zong threw a large number of slaves overboard in order to claim insurance money for the loss of “property.” The decision of the court—the only public document in existence that testifies to the Zong massacre—cloaks the violence and injustice of the event in the logic of expense and proprietary loss.
Philip’s central poetic and ethical question, as identified in her “Notanda” to the text, is “What marks the spot of subaquatic death?” Her question refers to the resting place of the murdered slaves: there are no markers in the sea, which is presumed in our cultural consciousness to be a vast, empty, abstract, and placeless space. Without material graves, the vast sea is Philip’s only repository for the histories and memories of those lost. If Abel shows us that the common ground of ‘here’ is underwritten with an entrenched erasure of Indigenous presences, Philip suggests that, for black people whose origins in the West are in the Middle Passage, there is a common groundlessness, a ghostly trace that lies beneath the surface of the law. As the demolition of Africville, the attempted renaming of Negro Creek, the leveling of Hogan’s Alley, and the Zong massacre demonstrate, black life and death in the Americas is marked by a decided placelessness.
Philip’s text pits the compulsive rationality of the maritime law of the sea’s surface—the profitable order and balance of ship ledgers—against the fragmented poetic of its depths, which seeks to untell this silencing logic and uncover the voices and places of humanity lost within it. In so doing, her text situates the archive of the sea as a fluid and shifting site of living memory and history, despite the land and law’s attempts to silence it.
In playing with the concept of the ‘common ground’ of the archive, Abel challenges how the nation, as a multicultural ‘common ground’ of identity and belonging, overwrites its historical erasures.
Land is governed by nation-state structures of spatial control and containment, but the sea represents the undoing of such geographical determinism: with its uncertain depths, multi-directional currents, and uneasy history of passage, the sea records an alternative archive of place for those whose locale is unownable and, in many ways, unknowable by dominant structures of geographic knowledge. Although the sea is bound up in narratives of slavery and human injustice, it can be called upon as an autonomous place that presents a necessary correlative to landlocked Western historical narratives. Although Philip acknowledges the impossibility of retrieving bones from the sea floor, she nonetheless views her aesthetic interventions upon the law as an attempt to “re-transform” these bones “miraculously, back into human.” Her textual collages mark the place of loss and register the mayhem and disorientation of the tragedy, but they also reveal submerged human places of love and community. The voices of the families, friends, and lovers surface throughout the text to form a powerful, collective untelling of displacement, thus converting the rhetoric of impermissibility into one wherein love and community are not only permitted within the language and practice of refusal but created through it. As Abel does, Philip calls specific attention to absence as a creative space that can and must be occupied. These gaps are not silences but radical sites of organization and spoken protest.
Philip’s text is, indeed, against the law. In describing the writing process and working under the constraint of breaking the legal text, Philip recounts her own act of Poetic Terrorism: a doubling back on the violence caused by the slave trade, a complete destruction of the law to create something anew from its splinters. For her, this poetic process is akin to a massacre: “I murder the text, literally cut it into pieces, castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles, prepositions, conjunctions overboard … create semantic mayhem until my hands [are] bloodied, from so much killing and cutting.” These collages of murdered text interrogate the law by committing crimes of redress; Philip’s poetic fugues undo crimes of language by committing crimes against language, countering the logic and space of law and historiography.
These collages of murdered text interrogate the law by committing crimes of redress …
Philip’s description of her poetic massacre, as well as her creation of a complicit community of readers and writers, captures the spirit of Poetic Terrorism by creating sites of love and resistance out of ruins. As Philip admits in her “Notanda,” this process opens a communal yet complicit place in an already contaminated space:
In the discomfort and disturbance created by the poetic text, I am forced to make meaning from apparently disparate elements—in so doing I implicate myself. The risk—of contamination—lies in piecing together the story that cannot be told. And since we have to work to complete the events, we all become implicated in, if not contaminated by, this activity.
A little later in this passage, Philip explains that the language of the law document is already contaminated, and so the poem underhand “must not-tell itself in a language already contaminated, possibly irrevocably and fatally.” The legal text is “already contaminated” because its language and rule is inextricable from an oppressive system. There is a double act of contamination shared by both poet and reader: first, working with a “contaminated” document; then, contaminating it further through proliferation.
Using their vandalistic rhetoric of poetic action and response, manifest in the weaponry of wordplay, Abel and Philip commit Poetic Terrorism on historical and current discourse by unsettling the language and logic of the State, of the nation, and of codified language itself. Through resurrecting sites of communal resistance within language, they commit crimes of humanity against history.
And on that note, I conclude this chapter of my tangled, ongoing love affair with poetic conceptualism—how, for me, the practice is rescued by authors who use poetic materials as fodder for sociopolitical reform and social justice. Friends, what can I say: fucking around with language is cool—but murdering it in cold blood? Well, that’s simply irresistible.
Kate Siklosi lives in Toronto and just recently defended her PhD dissertation on experimental poetry and spatial theory. She is currently working on an edited collection of M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetic works and on a manuscript of experimental petro-poetry, Love Songs for Hibernia. Her academic prose has appeared in various journals throughout North America, and she has various interviews, essays, and poems strewn about the print and digital worlds, most recently in The Puritan and Hook & Eye.