Monday, February 22, 2010


Misora Hibari

"Everything absolutely has a tiny and flaring point which makes a person or a thing different from others, like the incalculable stars in the sky make concerted effort to emblaze the sky at night." --Chris Xinyu Chen

"Impurity's the watchword here; you get that the minute you step off the boat." --Rodney Koeneke

The fact is, everybody’s other. We’re all womb-apostates – exiles – from the get-go. The logical extension of everyone being other is that

1) everyone is linked by otherness, and

2) no one is really other, if you really sit and think about the nature of matter.

All the same, there are infinite grooves of perceptible difference, and that’s what this talk is about. It’s about consciousness of self as other and what we are calling “a winking exploitration (exploitation/exploration) of the otherness of self and other,” viewed through the various lenses of the elaborate artifices of cultural ethnicities.

If we lean further towards east and south Asia in our own exploitrations, it’s only because of our personal experiences and preferences. These concepts could probably be applied to any cultural extrusion – certainly even our “own” culture, if we could make it strange enough, and of course, we always/already do.

In this presentation, we will wallow around in different strains of strangeness as they make themselves manifest in music, film, dance, art, and, of course, writing. It will probably, if we are successful, add up to an ecstatic blur – our aim is to communicate our enthusiasm for the autré (the outrageous other) almost as if you were sitting in our living room.

For ease of presentation, we were compelled to break down our ideas into a fixed number of conceptual rubrics. The works we chose to fit under each rubric may actually fit into more of or all of them. There are certainly other rubrics which we could have explored but didn’t think of and others we chose to eliminate for the sake of time, like “the hybrid and macaronic,” but these are the five categories that seemed to clamor most for our attention:



REVERB (inappropriateness and cultural misprisions or “misprisions”)



We make no claims for the newness or originality of any of these concepts. The works themselves are so full of newness and originality, however that you may find yourself, at some point, weeping, or mopping your brow, or getting very excited indeed.

[Note: This talk was designed to be taken on the road, with local poets reading their own work. In San Francisco we had Stacy Doris, Rodney Koeneke and David Larsen come up on stage and do just that during the sections where we discussed them. Had we given this talk in New York, say, the line-up would have been different.]

Sunday, February 21, 2010


[Panel from "Pasha Noise" by Brian Kim Stefans and Gary Sullivan.]

Exaggeration defines Otherness even as it insults it. It is often a key element of racist portrayals & jokes, but it can also be important for language acquisition, in particular pronunciation, which requires a similar kind of—in this case, necessarily—ignorant mimicry.

One way to learn how to pronounce the distinctly American schwa or “R” sound might be to imitate a cowboy. The subtleties of Hindi’s non-aspirated retroflex consonants

can most easily be approximated by conjuring up an “Indian” voice in one’s head, and parodying it, exaggerating what is going on in your mouth. You have to exaggerate or you simply won’t get it. Because your mouth hasn’t done that before. That may in fact be why it feels like an exaggeration.

Exaggeration can also be used to define oneself, especially as “other”—if one understands the word “define” to mean something like “make stand out against.”

Among American pop musicians of the mid-20th century, few stood out as much as Jalacy J. Hawkins, aka Screamin Jay Hawkins.

Screamin Jay: “I did 'Don’t Knock the Rock,' but they cut it out—they even paid me for it, but they cut it out because I walked on naked with a loin cloth across here, white shoe polish marks on my face, my hair combed straight up, a spear in one hand and a shield in the other, like one of those wild Mau Maus and I was singing a song called ‘Frenzy.’ The movie people claimed it would be an insult to black people of the United States. I bet it would go over today. Again, I was trying to explain to them that I was different, I do everything different. Do you realize they banned ‘I Put a Spell on You’ because it had cannibalistic sounds? When they banned it, it had already sold a million. When they banned it, it sold another quarter of a million. I wish they’d ban every record I made.”

There were two versions of Hawkins’ song, one specially made for conservative radio, sans “cannibalism,” although it is unclear whether it was really “cannibalism” and the resulting fear of insulting African-Americans that kept the other version off the air. Another possibility is that some conservative white station managers and DJs may have simply found it a bit too “black”—Hawkins’ theatrical, liquor-inspired wildness perhaps playing into their “understanding” of what African-Americans “were.”

It is a decidedly popular song, especially around Halloween. “I Put a Spell on You,” has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, The Animals, Bryan Ferry, Joe Cocker, Marilyn Manson, and Notorious B.I.G., who sampled the bass line and sped it up for “Kick in the Door.” But one of the most interesting uses of this already exaggerated admission of voodoo and obsession—one might go so far as to call it stalking—is a club-friendly version by the Belgian-born, half-English, half-Arabic Natacha Atlas, who re-imagines Hawkins’ “cannibalism” in beladi rhythm and “oriental” strings.

The question arises: what is the “spell” and who’s under it? Atlas has far more of a European and American audience than an Arabic one, something few other Arabic artists can—or may want to—claim. One reason is simple: She is not a product of Egypt, or Lebanon, or Algeria, or Palestine, or Iraq. She once termed her music "cha'abi moderne,” a reference to Egyptian pop, but it’s really World Music, with a capital W—Arabic music whitewashed of some of the melodrama, the looseness of orchestra, and giddy “overuse” of synthesizers and other keyboards that makes a sizable chunk of contemporary Arabic pop unlistenable to many Westerners. (As a poetry critic we know once said of the great Oum Kalsoum: “To me it just sounds … amateurish.”)

Exaggeration is the defining characteristic of Otherness for many. Mambo for Norte Americanos was not Tito Rodriguez’s sublime “Mambo Mona (Mama Guela),” but Perez Prado’s exaggerated “Mambo 5.”

"I am a collector of cries and noises," Prado once told an interviewer, "elemental ones like sea gulls on the shore, winds through the trees, men at work in a foundry. Mambo is a movement back to nature, by means of rhythms based on such cries and noises, and on simple joys."

Born in Cuba in 1916, Perez composed for a number of Cuban bands in the 40s before reportedly being blacklisted for incorporating too much northern Jazz into his compositions. He ultimately made his way to Mexico City, where he recorded the work that would make him an international sensation.

Above is a live recording of his “Broadway Mambo,” ca. 1955.

Without the Silk Road, there would be no dandies, for there would have been no dye vivid enough, no fabric luxurious enough, to have created them. Beau Brummel, the original dandy whose name has come to be synonymous with dandyism, is of the most exaggerated examples of post-renaissance male stylishness. He once made the king cry by criticizing his outfit. Brummel was an obsessive-compulsive aesthete who would immediately discard an imperfectly tied cravat, leaving a heap of cravats to be tended to by the help, and he was said to have drunk champagne out of his boot. Brummel paved the way for the dashing figure Theophile Gautier, author of Comedy of Death, who was known not only for his extensive travels to exotic lands but also his flaming scarlet waistcoat, and whose dear friend, poet Gerard de Nerval, was known for walking his pet lobster about on a leash (if you believe Gautier’s stories) in the Jardin de Luxembourg.

The lobster was no doubt an influence on Jack Smith, who later chose to walk a (fake) penguin around as a kind of mascot.

In Rodney Koeneke’s Rouge State, you can hear the echoes of the footsteps of the ghost of Theophile Gautier walking a lobster through the grand opera of the poems. They are deeply dandified "hostile melodic situations", as "brazen as mariachis" and "fecunder than succotash." They are "delicate lorgnettes" that can see all of history happening at once, and "mentholated curlicues" full of "pterodactyl dactyls" and "hot pink verbs." The figure of the dandy, of course, most lately born into the media as the overcommodified metrosexual, represents the perfect union of the masculine and feminine principles, and is unimaginable without fine fabrics of oriental origin. Indeed, the attars of the mysterious "east" soak into every crevice of Rodney's poetry but laced with pungent irony and historical awareness, so that the story of an odalisque is also the story of how our own tabula rasa get written all over with learned desires:

We spill in the world into genders,
fall out like dirty turpentine
from an upset coffee cup --
at first abductees of the harem
refusing silk pillows and gold-tipped cigarettes
then gradually learning to simper and sprawl ...

In “The Story of Chinita Juanita Banana,” Sakura Maku exaggerates the typical immigrant narrative to stereotypes and cultural markers “appropriate” for people of Japanese/Indonesian decent—bombs named “fat boy,” “skinny boy,” and “normal one,” float over Japan along with a dozen bananas and Sakura’s grandparents. The family grows and eventually moves: “America: We arrived on a big banana. And glory sucked us in.”

"Home on the Range" gets nearly a full page.

Once the narrative shifts to New York, Sakura underscores her “alien” status with images of outer-space aliens.

She’s not the first to do this in comics.

Tom Hart’s Ramadan, self-published in 1997, emphasizes the “alienation” one feels in another culture by having an alien parallel the protagonist's experience.

In an e-mail to us last week, Tom described the circumstances that went into the creation of this comic. "The whole thing was written and drawn in Morocco, where I spent 5 winter months with a girlfriend. We basically spent it breaking up, I spent it going broke and trying to learn a little Moroccan Arabic and a little French. I tried to capture the emotional landscape best I could. So: two aliens, one worse off than the other, trying to navigate a world whose indifference was not aggressive, but was sharp enough to leave marks."

It almost goes without saying that Kathy Acker's work, especially mid-period books like Great Expectations, are exaggerated in their hyperviolent enactments of S&M.

To enact S&M is to play out the idea of "otherness" exaggerated to polarized opposites. As she writes in Great Expectations, "I made a list of human characteristics: every time I had one characteristic I had its opposite." This is not an expression of complexity, but of simplicity: the world reduced to polarized opposites: Everything and everyone become something or someone else's "other."

One of many memorable lines from the book: "She should put lots of porn in this book cunts dripping big as Empire State Buildings in front of your nose and then cowboy violence: nothing makes any sense anyway."

Acker delivers this over-the-top porn and violence in fits in starts.

We find a much more sustained version in the work of Japanese underground comics artist Suehiro Maruo. For reasons we've never been able to figure out, Maruo--who is not Jewish--takes the Star of David as his personal symbol: you often see it on the overleaf of the covers of his books, or directly under his name on the title or copyright pages. In his one interview in English--coincidentally in the Israeli comics anthology, DEAD HERRING, Maruo doesn't mention the Star of David, nor does his interviewer, Israeli comics artist Yirmi Pinkus, ask.

Very little of his work has been translated into English, but we picked up a dozen of his books while in Tokyo last year. They're filled with extremes of violence and sexuality, ranging from cannibalism, copraphilia, ritual sexualized mutilation. His fans are typically kids in their 20s, some of whom dress up as his characters, and send him photographs ... to which he reportedly does not respond.

This is from a short comic, "Planet of the Jap."

The hypersexual, hyperviolent, hyperweird imagery of Suehiro Maruo evokes other post-Hiroshima Japanese cultural phenomena as well – such as the plays and poetry of Terayama Shuji, one of whose tanka we'll quote here:

A fetus
preserved in alcohol
growing cloudy…
in my head
hydrangea blossoms

But more than anything, post atomic Japan evokes the moody strain of Butoh that emerged from the great Hijikata Tatsumi – the dark side of the twin founders of Butoh (Ono Kazuo represented the lighter, sweeter side). Hijikata spoke and wrote in extreme poetry, insisting that he could only address Butoh on its own terms and not from a critical discourse outside of it. Here’s a sample of his hyperdramatic rhetoric from 1961:

Sending hysterical works to the theatre has great significance these days. We have the right to ask for a guarantee of actuality among the random noise and bad taste that are the equivalent of almost raw materials. The sublime asceticism of crime. A totally empty face which endures torture. Young people who have cleverly acquired a nonsensical vitality. The pure despair that emerges before hope is crushed. My task is to organize these into a dance group and to make them into naked soldiers.

His most prominent protégé, Akaji Maro, has carried on Hijikata’s tradition by organizing the dance group Dai Rakuda Kan (which translates as, appropriately enough to the subject of this talk, big camel tent).

Maro, although slight of build, is one of the hugest stage presences I have ever seen. In one performance I [Nada] saw many years ago in Tokyo, he rode onto the stage on a giant Harley-Davidson (a real one – I recall the smell of the exhaust fumes) dressed as General Douglas MacArthur, but with Maro’s characteristically menacing kabuki-esque face makeup. As do many male butoh dancers, notably Ono Kazuo and Kasai Akira, he often appears in women’s clothing, and like his teacher Hijikata, Maro speaks in and choreographs with poetic language. Asked by an interviewer about the extraordinary verbal creativity of all of the butoh masters, Maro replied,

The body drinks in the words and they completely dissolve there, leaving only the state of the body, with its movements, and that state, or whatever you wish to call it, is all that exists. Even if you are just standing empty-minded, that is enough.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


[Panel from "Pasha Noise," by Brian Kim Stefans and Gary Sullivan.]

David Larsen, from "On Melodrama":

When the emotions expressed by a person are in excess of what a given situation appears to call for, that person is vulnerable to the charge of MELODRAMA. MELODRAMA is useful for dismissing a companion's reactions to a situation when these are inconvenient or unwelcome, suggesting as it does the bad faith of the theater and the overthrow of the companion's authentic behavior by some hackneyed cybernetic script. Its coercive force is transparent: MELODRAMA represents the accused as overstepping the bounds of whatever role the accuser has deemed him or her fit to play, and seeks to shame the accused into a more muted performance. "Don't act this way," act THAT way. Know your role. Stop crying."

To acquit oneself of the accusation of MELODRAMA is difficult. It obliges the accused to account for the expressive activity whcih has so displeased the accuser, and to demonstrate its proportionality to the situation at hand. Such a demonstration may involve complex information the accuser is unwilling to consider or unequipped to comprehend. In any case, the accused is rarely given the opportunity for self-vindication: MELODRAMA indicates that the accuser has small regard for the accused's experience of the situation, and already prefers mere BAD ACTING to whatever explanation the accused might give.

David recuperates the term "melodrama" from its pejorative connotations. We're ashamed to be thought of, seen as "melodramatic," which is a kind of admittance of inappropriate public display of emotionality. This prohibition is deeply etched into the social code, and I suspect it's one of the barriers that has kept most us from any real experience with the world's most productive, varied, and inspiring entertainment factories: Bollywood.

Indian popular cinema, like our own, is largely melodrama, but unlike ours it's undisguised, unashamed to be melodramatic, is often almost Brechtian in its self-awareness, except that the major foreign influences--at least on the golden age directors of the 50s--were the seemingly incompatible Cecile B. de Mille, Busby Berkeley, and Vittorio di Sica.

Raj Kapoor, the most popular director of Hindi cinema in the 50s, was affectionately known as "the great entertainer," and at his best was able to move fluidly in a single film from the stark realism of di Sica, the highly stylized song-and-dance numbers of Berkeley, the epic scale of de Mille, and the comedy of Chaplin, who Kapoor was often, for obvious reasons, compared with. Awaara, which Kapoor directed in 1951, remains one of the finest films anyone has ever made. We're going to watch the 9-minute-long dream sequence, which took three months to shoot, and which is as moving as it is beautiful as it is melodramatic as it is kitschy as it is surreal.

Singing master Giovanni Battista Lamperti wrote: “There is force inside your primal nature like that which ‘moves mountains.’”

Melodrama, radically speaking, is melos – music plus drama -- a double whammy. If we have come to use the term pejoratively, as LRSN mentioned in his poem-essay, it could be because we are afraid of the power of the combination. I can’t hear the word melodrama without thinking of the word “full-throated,” and I can’t hear “full-throated” without starting to muse on divas.

The term “diva” is often used pejoratively as well, when it is not used campily, as when referring to a man, or cutesy-petulantly, as on a tight pink t-shirt marketed to urban teens. But a true diva is like a fifth wind, an elemental force, at once complexly controlled and terrifyingly unrestrained.

The throat of Lebanese Christian diva Najwa Karam is truly a channel of wonder and her life was in many ways melodramatic. Successful early in her career, she was later plagued by scandals, including eloping at 4:00 a.m. one night with Yosef Harb, a Muslim music promoter living in Canada, who was several years her junior, and--much worse--being accused in Alkefah Al-Arabi of having told a television interviewer that she had named a pet dog after the prophet Mohammed.

After the article appeared, Karam filed a lawsuit, and assumed--as she didn't even own a pet--the matter would quickly be forgotten.

By early 1999, however, morally incensed busybodies were frantically faxing the story to magazines and radio stations throughout the Arabic world. According to a report in a March 1999 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly, Riyad Daoud, a former member of the Jordanian parliament, publicly called for Karam's death. She was banned from entering Jordan and Qatar.

The melodrama of the life, though, is dwarfed by the (full-throatedly non-pejorative!) melodrama of the voice. Here’s an excerpt from "Baladeeat":

Asala Nasri may not have had quite the melodramatic life of Najwa Karam, but this Syrian-born singer, daughter of one of the most important 20th century composers in the country, is one of few contemporaries whose expressive voice can give Najwa a run for her money.

The two images above, by the way, are of two versions of Asala's latest CD, Awqaat. The one on the left is the version available in Tower Records, the one on the right is the one for sale in all of the Arabic music places in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The biases here are not uncommon: selling an Orientalized Asala to the west, and an Occidentalized Asala to the east.

This is "Khalik Hena," from her 2004 live album, "A Night at the Opera," a song earlier made popular by Warda. This is one of few instances I know of where a singer wrings the maximum amount of expressive force from a passage by keeping her mouth closed tightly as she sings ...

[Gary's note: I was unable to find that particular recording online, but here she is singing "Khalik Hena" at another concert. Alas, it appears to begin just at the end of what would have been the mouth-mostly-closed section of the song.]

We can’t speak of autre divas without mentioning, if only in passing, enka singer Misora Hibari. Misora Hibari is a Japanese national treasure. In Arashiyama, in Kyoto, you can visit the Misora Hibari museum, where you can see her old album covers, her shoe and handbag collection, and a three-screen projection of one of her schmalziest videos, Kawa no nagare no yo ni.

Many years ago in Tokyo, I [Nada] was trying to learn enka, and even auditioned for a TV show featuring foreigners singing enka. I didn’t pass, but I met a woman named Chris Chavez who was obsessed with Hibari to the point of learning all of her songs note-for-note, and impersonating her on TV.

Here’s the original version of the song I heard Chris Chavez sing in Tokyo: Kuruma-ya-san. Notice how it weaves back and forth between eastern and western.

[Gary's note: Unable to find the original version, but here she is singing it live:]

Haitian poet Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes: "Haitian Creole, the only language shared by all Haitians, took—and continues to take—most of its vocabulary from French. Yet in many ways, its syntax is closer to various African languages than to French. Is Haitian an African or a Romance language? The correct answer is that Haitian language subverts the very categories from which it stems."

Haitian Creole literature is relatively new, beginning in 1953 with the publication of Feliks Moriso-Lewa's Diacoute.

Haitian poetry tends to be fairly politicized, with an often anthemic quality. Joj Kastra's poems are melodramatic in the full, or "radical," sense: Listen to the musicality of "San":

An n'al gade san koule,

pou yon fwa nan lavi,
se pa san moun k'ap koule,
pou yon fwa nan lari
se pa san bet k'ap koule,

se soley ki pral kouche.

Dambudzo Marechera, born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, wrote in English: "For a black writer," he said, "the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do."

Marechera was involved in student protests against racial discrimination at the University of Rhodesia, and reportedly marched--by himself--in protest of the government of Ian Smith. He was forced to leave the country for Botswana and then to England, where he studied English literature, hung out with Rastafarians, and wrote stories and poems, for what he called a "tarmac audience." Presumably, he meant an audience of no particular fixed place.

In the mid-80s Marechera returned to Zimbabwe, where he lived in friend's living rooms and on the street, and wrote the plays, poems, stories and journal entries that made up the last book published while he was still alive, Mindblast:

It's Disco Time at Scamps and Chantelles
You and I in platform boots and imitation Levis
Will mimic the hours in twirl and stomp
The likes of Gary Glitter;
Icecream hats and Rasta T-Shirts the emblems
Of our liberation's arrival--Guitars, trombones,
Ukeleles, harps, synthesizers, instruments of wind and air,
I think of Stravinsky (Soldier's Return)
And hibuscus/violets in the shadow of Great Zimbabwe.

Friday, February 19, 2010


[Panel from "Pasha Noise" by Brian Kim Stefans and Gary Sullivan.]

This brings us very nicely to Reverb. In the U.S., few contemporary artists embody the concept of intercultural reverb more than Mario, Gilbert, and Jaime Hernandez aka Los Bros Hernandez, the team behind Love and Rockets ...

perhaps the most successful indy comic book series of the 1980s. Which was a surprise to Mario, Gilbert, and Jaime, who almost didn't bother submitting their work when they started out. Who among regular readers of comics, they worried, would be interested in Jaime's stories of southern Californian Latinos

or Gilbert's stories centered in Palomar,

a fictional small town somewhere in Central America? To make matters more complicated, most of the, in both cases, huge casts of characters, consisted of almost exaggeratedly strong women,

many of whom, like some of their male counterparts, were bisexual. Add in a group of she-male strippers and a lot of cultural references--like figures from Mexican wrestling

or outre comics that mean nothing to most comics readers in the USA--and you can see why the Hernandez brothers were surprised to one day find themselves among the most influential comics creators of the 1980s and 90s.

In the context of The Autré, the term “reverb” not only signifies intercultural reverberations but cultural misprisions and inappropriacies (which Word informs us is not a word).

The 1977 Bollywood film, "Amar Akbar Anthony," directed by Manmohan Desai, is the tale of siblings separated in early childhood who are raised in three different families: one Hindu (Amar), one Muslim (Akbar), and one Catholic (Anthony). The plot, like those of so many Bollywood films, is too complex to recount here, but for our purposes, it’s useful to note that the film is set in the former Portuguese colony of Goa. Anthony, the Catholic, is played by Amitabh Bacchan, who is without question the most famous film star in the world, although many Americans have never heard of him. Watch as he, a Hindu in Bombay playing a Catholic in Goa impersonating a dandified posh Englishman, turns both colonialism and language on their heads:

Russian Futurist Alexei Kruchenykh was part of the scene that included Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky, but his work was so far out, he has since been all but forgotten. Contemporary Russian poets--according to Kruchenykh's translator, Jack Hirschman--think of him, if at all, as simply a failure, a model to be avoided at all costs.

Hirschman, however, provides a nearly 300-page glimpse into the still vibrant life-work of Kruchenyhkh, which reads more like something written today than anything recent I've personally read from Russia:


My glandule pined for a tartlik a salad
and knockwoodmen of cock-and-bull stories
and throwing over an inflammable hut
I rise up as a starchy songstress!
I've given memory up for a thirst for the new:
the smoke and hiss of a tubercular machine
a black man stoker dancing jacketlessly
naked ... hail! Turpentine!
soaring over the abyss like eddies of nautical bubblings,
and everybody's gathered here
fidgetty with juts of flesh
kneeing me down to the ground
softly shooting into my brow
kiz! zing!
a futuristiff!

Kruchenykh, by the way, is one of the first poets outside of the U.S. to have publicly acknowledged being inspired in part by American jazz--in 1930.

Let's turn to Sean Golden and Chu Chiyu's translations of Gu Cheng, the most outrageous poet of the so-called Misty school of contemporary Chinese poetry. Whereas most of the Misty school gained notoriety largely for breaking from a long-standing tradition in Chinese poetry of infinite echoing back through the Chinese canon, Gu Cheng went even further, in the creation of a poetry that, according to his translators:

"comes out of an attempt to recover the original childlike relationship with the words of a language one does not yet know. The poems are not an imitation of Gertrude Stein (whose work did, however, influence some of the translations) or a putting into practice of postmodern concepts of the tyranny of language and the need to break it down. This fact illustrates the futility of attempting to judge contemporary Chinese writing by purely Western standards."

Here's a bit of "Deedledeedee" from the longpoem Quicksilver:

At first you were happy to pass on
clapping hands
walking through the grasslands

leaves burst forth from the trees
words spring forth from your lips


you linger, start up the machine,
springing forth plunging into the mists

upturned bucket seen from afar
so many tiny slivers of fish
twisting in the air


fish carry the trees up into the air


fish carry the trees up into

brown trunks upright in the

Like the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, who is a kind of male Japanese Cindy Sherman, British-born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare

inserts himself into his work in the guise of ironic personae – here he is a 19th Century dandy in a flawless tableau. He also has made ingenious use of textiles to create gorgeous objects that reverberate with the history of cultural imposition.

He uses Dutch wax prints, a kind of textile which ironically is neither exclusively Dutch (the British made them, too), nor wax (the process actually uses resin), nor, technically, a print. The Dutch concocted them with the intention of undercutting the Indonesian textile business, but were unable to sell them to the Indonesians, whose batik fabrics were far more refined. The colonists then marketed the fabrics, with their characteristic veining and spotting, to the Cote d'Ivoire, where they became so popular that we now think of them as African prints. Here on the headless white mannequins, made up into the clothes of the colonizers, they look at once vivacious and culturally wrong.

Shonibare’s 3-D re-vision of “The Swing,” the already-outrageous rococo painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, is an autré delight to behold.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


[Panel from "Pasha Noise" by Brian Kim Stefans and Gary Sullivan.]

Stacy Doris’ Conference is a paroxysm of the imagination.

[Book cover of Conference.]

As an arabesque is the contortion of a straight line into bewitching intricacy, Conference is a contortion of the 12th century Sufi poet Farid-al-Din Attar’s poem, Conference of the Birds. In Attar’s poem, a group of birds led by a hoopoe set out on a pilgrimage to find their true king, and in doing so must pass through a number of valleys, one of which is the valley of love. Attar writes,

“To enter it one must be a flaming fire--what shall I say? A man must himself be fire. The face of the lover must be enflamed, burning and impetuous as fire…..In this valley, love is represented by fire, and reason by smoke. When love comes reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love; love has nothing to do with human reason.”

Think of the valley of love as Conference. Even before you read the first page, you can see in the list of characters that this is a book replete with the fiery love gas of impetuous unreason. That unreason dares to contemplate concepts never before seriously contemplated, such as drabness and candying. Events in the book occur as pulsings, like a cervix dilating and contracting.

... We or I are parts of incoherence, in an addition of organs, added on.

Flight is breath's temperature, adding organs. As I rise, breath separates my heart from its lungs, kidney from spine, self from friend, drab and [b]. Breath inflates my skull, sets it off from my brain. Inside, expands a desert. Roiling debris. If anguish comes from a loss of identity I'm carefree, since I've never been myself yet. Air alters around me, air and its problems, but if I'm inside. I'm part of air's becoming. I'm air's alteration. That's what I or we are. My false future is one in which I'd acquire your language and have none.

I'm any organ stretched into, pulled apart in flight. Fabricated in flight, a temperature, adjusting. Air breathes us. Go numb. And in breathing burns us. Feeds on ourselves, the molecules of others that we are at any time. Inhuman. Then: nothing mobile, nothing urgent, nothing cruel is to land, where land's void or nothing. From gliding, if I could, I'd see a city or a lake as a seed. In extension extinguished. I can't understand any expanse, except as some blind need, measureless ruler. Love is a form of drab where an order or center shapes [b]. There's magnitude then. Disordering the drab, only falsely, since love breathes in, breeds out and in, and so is drab. There's magnitude in its lack, a waft, a note from what my father sang, the feel of any vanishing. Turn out the light. Expansion is where I'd inhale in your or our language I can't speak. Where you and or others live in and among any acts. Any bird riddles (air) not in asking, but in forms of repetition. To repeat is to make and eventually to scar. A little girl wanting some ornament, a kiss or fish or a dress, hurts in asking, not in desire. Burning in asking, a girl burns. This is perhaps the fault of her language or expansion since endings are limited by words and, perhaps by extension, in all matters. Questions mark. Another in a distance wearing white is visibility. ...

Like Doris, Bollywood film director V. Shantaram

was possessed of a gorgeously paroxysmic imagination drenched with the imagery of Hindu mythology. Although his early films are social-melodrama in black and white, the films for which he is best known (and for which he was much criticized) are gaudy explosions of color and image, rife with transformations and zoomorphism (reverse anthropomorphism). Kids love them! Jal Bin Machli Nritya Bin Bijli, a 1971 film, stars Sandhya, the director’s third wife, as a woman who has recently been denied entry to a dance company. At the beginning, you’ll see the image of her dead mother reflected in a pool. Her dead mother had wanted to become a dancer, but her husband had forbidden her to dance, and forbade her daughter to dance as well.

For a rich man, a dancer wife or daughter would have been a disgrace. So she runs away to the dance company, having already forsaken her father. When the dance company director refuses to even give an audition to a rich girl, she performs this dance in the garden, thinking no one is watching. As you watch, please consider how she like the woman in the passage from Conference: “A little girl wanting some ornament, a kiss or a fish or a dress, hurts in asking, not in desire. Burning in asking, a girl burns.”

Adeena Karasick’s poetry’s form and subject is the contortion and paroxysm of language. Here’s how Adeena contextualizes her book, The Arugula Fugues:

Fugues (as in Aus den Fugen) to be out of joint. Disjointed. The Arugula Fugues: where meaning becomes unhinged. Is dislocated, disadjusted or discovers itself in an impossible system of disjunctive links.

“Unhinged” might also describe the pulsation of Stacy Doris’ love-gas language, and “dislocated” the modern goldfish puppet dance that Sandhya does in Jal Bin Machli. Adeena gets her language to contort and spasm on the page, certainly, but even more so in the mouth, where it trips over itself with the frothy frippery of dripping alliterative blisses and hissy fits and long sloppy kisses and astounding badass sonorous assonances. It’s like she’s playing a kind of linguistic twister, and not just that, but she does it while flaunting her outrageous otherness as Hebraic hedonist, Mae West reincarnated as Qaballa queen.

[Gary's note: Unable to find that video online, here is Adeena reading "Belles Lettres'" with film by poet and filmmaker Marianne Shaneen:]

Indian-American artist Chitra Ganesh has here taken pages from the Amar Chitra Katha series, India's full-color version of the Chick religious tract comic,

and cutting and pasting, and then redrawing when necessary in PhotoShop, has made an already surreal artifact much stranger.

The point of the original comics, of course, is educational, self-improving--and one might say the same thing of Chitra Ganesh's surrealist cut-up version.

The limited edition self-published comic book has the feeling of surrealism as the surrealists intended it:

a vaguely psychoanalytic window.