From the technology of printing to the economy of grants and the politics of academia, literary culture exists in complete continuity with the rest of contemporary society. It is susceptible to the same virtues, biases, limitations, and power structures. Thus it’s no surprise that the fiercest debates within our semi-isolated community should mirror those of the world at large. In her already-infamous essay at Lana Turner, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde,” Cathy Park Hong writes:
The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history.
Behind her critique lies an essential conflict, which has upended and reformed modern society for centuries: what is the value of the individual within a power structure? What is the role of an individual voice? It is the Papacy against the preacher, the Tory against the Jacobin, the police against the protester: and today, within poetry culture, two traditions in conflict over the same basic paradigm.
On one hand, identity poetics assert the primacy of original individual experience, and narrative, in forging society. Most are lyric poets of witness, often autobiographical, often foregrounding race and gender; writers such as Kiese Laymon and Leigh Stein. On the other hand there are the uncreative writers—conceptualism and flarf, or language poets—who are skeptical about whether individual lyric identity can affect social power structures, and whether they can react to the current moment. These writers, like as Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök, appropriate texts to mock or undermine basic cultural paradigms of ownership, production, and identity.
Both camps align themselves with some form of leftist politics, but where identity poetics opens space for marginalized cultures and values, uncreative writing refutes the importance of identity (lyric and authorial) altogether. There’s a striking similarity between this partition and the schism between non-communist liberals and true believers around mid-century.
These are only the roughest outlines of each tradition. Neither picture captures all the nuances and variety within each. And the most well regarded writers tend to employ some techniques from both. Depending on one’s taste or politics—what is the difference?—both traditions could be counted among the avant garde.
Uncreative writing, however, performs a deeply conservative critique of culture and society in contradiction with the views of its practitioners. Refusing the value of identity in poetry redraws the boundaries of acceptable discussion within the literary community. Race, religion, culture, class, gender, etc, are allowed to be dismissed by serious writers as déclassé. The void that’s left by this active omission is naturally filled by the voices and values of those already empowered.
“The choice or machine that makes the poem sets the political agenda in motion,” conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith has said, “which is oftentimes morally or politically reprehensible to the author.” The project must take precedent over the individual, even over the preferences of the author. Adding marginalized voices presumes original lyric production, but that premise undermines the critique of the uncreative project. As Mark Bauerlein puts it in his recent diatribe at The New Criterion, “conviction demands more than inclusion.”
Perhaps that’s why Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice: Poems 1998–2008, recently published by Wave Books, is so heartening to read. Situating linguistic construction within a recognizable geo-political space, Nguyen accepts both the skepticism of uncreative writing and the need for marginalized identities to find voice in a politicized context. Red Juice explores not the validity of the lyric self, but the idea that the self is struggle.
In Nguyen’s work, the embodied persona—the one which remembers and asserts and reflects through time—exists as a tense frisson among an array of other powers. The unconscious obviously plays a major role, through dreams and free association, as well as domestic concerns, the jargon of labor, political propaganda, economics, the natural environment, journalism, and the military. All these forces vie for prominence within the self’s mercurial presence.
In his too-brief introduction to the volume, Anselm Berrigan quotes Robert Creeley when he writes that Nguyen, along with the rest of their writing circle in the mid-1990s, was attempting “to regain authority for the innate coherence of whatever it is that we propose as life.” This feels counterfactual at first glance—Nguyen’s poems appear to be more constructed than authored. The poem “No Sleep,” for instance, opens with a flat observation of insomnia and then moves through a Gothic maternal vision to the myth of Mena (the Roman goddess of menstruation), environmental toxins, ecological change, a folk song, a quote on the climate crisis, and then into a memory of the speaker’s son blowing a plastic imported whistle—all in nineteen short lines.
The screaming pace, juxtaposition of tangential themes, obscure quotation, and an incomplete premise: these are the hallmarks of postmodern collage, intended to disrupt unity rather than form it. But a thematic narrative does take shape over the short space of the poem. Her technique recalls montage more than it does collage. While avoiding any prosaic language, the irregular stanzas of “No Sleep” provoke a gut anxiety about global capitalism and its attendant environmental catastrophe. Like Rae Armantrout, Nguyen disarms the reader with a familiar lyric register as the density and juxtapositions in her poems inflect upon the hypertextual world in which we live. Consider “Cupid of Rocks and Flame:”
He wants to say desks and whisks
we are laughing at the glass
table that language isn’t asks
how the tongue makes hiss with a clatter
of consonant spits Who are we
to make these noises to heed
I do he does too We are silly
poets a little drunk The night is
almost over The night won’t be
over until you fall asleep Silly
Would you like a K sandwich?
We wisely keep these thoughts
This typically brief poem contains at least three separate voices, a Vietnamese cuisine, some broken grammar, one self-contradiction, and a lovely piece of music in “how the tongue makes hiss with a clatter / of consonant spits.” The closing couplet resists the artistic impulse that led her to write the poem. Despite these complications the poem projects a casual sensibility, as if it had been jotted down on the back of an envelope, an element that recalls Dickinson or O’Hara.
Nguyen’s treatment of subject may be her most challenging trait. Many poems beg to be unpacked, others present themselves as casual speech-acts. There are thematic elements that appear and reappear across collections. The grackle—an omnivorous scavenger bird whose groupings are known as a plague or annoyance, native to North America—figures in at least nine poems across all three collections included in this volume. There are poems dedicated to Charles Olsen, Rachel Loden, John Keats, Bernadette Mayer, and Edwin Denby. Ecopoetic themes, mostly the conflict of society and ecological balance, arise again and again, as do motherhood and the female body.
One hesitates to use any of these elements as a cipher, however, and is challenged to make them cohere into a philosophy or theory. Attacking Nguyen’s poetry as a series of puzzles only leads to frustration. Rarely do they offer any kind of closure, and those that do are not her most effective works. Twice, a specifically anti-didactic approach to her work is suggested: “I don’t know what I’m learning / ‘That’s the point’.”
Meta-commentary further disperses the spell of ungrounded lyricism, turning the focus away from context and content to remind the reader that an embodied person wrote these lines. “Ode” halts midstream to ask, “What kind of ode is this?” and hardly suggests the answer. “Washington” begins by clarifying that “Washington (George) is not in / this poem,” a reference to the author’s childhood hometown of Washington, D.C.
In asserting the authorial presence, Nguyen foregrounds the work in “work of art.” Her meta-textual interruptions always relate to the production of a poem. One thinks of the Spike Jones film, Adaptation, about a neurotic writer who drafts the screenplay of the film as it unfolds before the audience. By drawing the reader’s attention to the text itself, it distracts from the thematic content. The simple fact that “I don’t know what I’m learning” doesn’t propose that the poem contains no intelligible meaning. Take, for example, “The Earth is in Me”:
The Earth is in me I’m old
and clay nameless
“grass” with tiny yellow flowers
More mucus this morning to feed warm sperm
The Earth is capable and heals you
You have friends among the weeds
Reddish “sugar ants” next to the mudwort
I had this idea stubbornly
Dog still barking
Write something “new” about the national tragedy
The premise becomes an afterthought, almost a postscript, and another opportunity for metatextual address. The technique disperses the poem’s density of allusion and image. “The Earth is in me” may reference the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz. And it is impossible to read an American free-verse poem with mention of “grass” (in quotes, no less) without thinking of Whitman. But why is sugar ants in scare quotes? Why is new? Who is speaking, from what text is she drawing?
John Ashbery has said that poetry is “limited by what the words mean, whereas in music, the message is exact and intelligible but without being paraphrasable like language.” There’s a sense of ethical inquisition in these lines—but the poem only gestures toward that sensibility; it refuses to outline any kind of lesson. All of Nguyen’s most interesting poems play these games with identity, metatextuality, political sentiment, and intelligibility. “Mercury is the figure of the poet,” she writes, “always moving very quickly / and teasing you with absurd knock-knock jokes.” The poems challenge and cajole, question and refuse, suggest and disrupt, but then, somehow, they also cohere.
The work falters when it becomes overly essayistic, venturing too far into prose and clear argument. Nguyen’s natural enemy is clarity: these well-worn themes and anxieties don’t carry much weight without the formal ambiguity. A number of her early poems, such as “Ritual for Attracting Money,” are also too clever, almost gimmicky. They might have emerged from creative writing prompts. But these poems only represent her style’s early development, a style that matures quickly and remains remarkably stable throughout her career.
In “Up Nursing” Nguyen asks, “Why try / to revive the lyric.” Like uncreative writers, she’s not asking how to revive it, or whether to do so—but why bother. The metatextual devices, fragmentary structures, and use of found texts serve to sharpen that skepticism. And yet, her lyricism cannot be denied. Cathy Park Hong writes that poetry should be “a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response.” She could be describing Hoa Nguyen’s poems in Red Juice.
Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame.