Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Boyer, Anne. Art is War. Lawrence, KS: Mitzvah Chaps, 2008.

The center-piece of Anne Boyer’s chapbook Art is War is the manifesto “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry,” which was originally presented at the 2007 AWP conference in Atlanta. Within the text, Boyer lists twenty ways in which to publish one poem a year in a “difficult, but not impossible” manner; of course, one quickly discovers that her projects go “well beyond the parameters of the possible.” For example, take the seventh difficult way to publish poetry:
Become skilled at computers. Hack into the main traffic control system for a community that needs some poetry—say, Sacramento. Cause traffic lights to blink out poems for Sacramento in Morse Code.
At first blush, such an endeavor appears preposterous and the list, in its entirety, could be easily written-off as nothing more than an absurdist diatribe by an avant-poet. But further consideration of the work provides the reader with not just a deeper understanding of the list, but of poetry in general. In his elegy to W.B. Yeats, Auden famously wrote: “For poetry makes nothing happen”; but due to the truncation of the poem through quotation, what follows more often than not is forgotten, or missed entirely: “it survives/ in the valley of its making where executives/ Would never wanted to tamper.” The latter half of Auden’s quote, it seems, alters the rhetoric of his verse a great deal: poetry makes “nothing happen” in a cultural world driven by revenue streams and products engineered as intentionally disposable so as to intensify consumption. Poems, or “projects of no interest to anyone in general,” function outside the sphere of consumer-culture and thus escape what Adorno described as a monopoly wherein everything “is identical” and there is “nothing but business…used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce.”

But this, of course, is a far too reductive reading of Boyer’s manifesto. For, indeed, the title of the piece is “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry” (my italics), and thus engages the question of how an art form created outside of the mainstream production-cycle attempts to enter directly into it. This becomes no clearer than in difficult way number fourteen, “Haters & Fakers”:
Invite the fakers to a “creative writing” conference that promises to lead to tenure track positions and glossy perfect bound books. Invite the haters to an anti-conference with keynote speaker [xxxx xxxxxxx] and panels on hating chapbooks, hating perfect bound books, hating flarf, hating anti-flarfs, community, anti-communities, capitalism, anti-capitalism, the internet, the material world, poets, nonpoets, people of color, people without any color, women, men, the lyric, the anti-lyric, etc. Make these the same conference in the same Hilton ballroom. Have gang of thugs lock the door and strong arm haters and fakers into reciting poems before a video camera.
A not-too-covert-reference to the AWP conference, Boyer questions the validity of writers who seek to monetize their art form, ostensibly transforming themselves from artists into unit-movers, or more damningly, from never-weres to unit-movers. The heart of the problem resides in one’s desire not to create poetry, but to secure a bourgeois existence through “tenure track positions” and “perfect bound books.” But considering that the poet herself published a “glossy perfect bound book” with Coffee House Press and, indeed, first presented “Difficult Ways” at AWP, how are we to reconcile such a paradox? Do we need to? Perhaps, perhaps not. What does need to be noted, though, is that Boyer’s manifesto refuses to promote a negative critique of the “professional” writer because to do so would necessarily align one with “the haters.” A “hater” is no better than a “faker,” made apparent by the fact that both groups are lock into a Hilton ballroom with a “gang of thugs.”

What, then, is the most appropriate way to for a poet to proceed in a world where it appears so easy to be caught in a double-bind if one desires to create poetry that operates within a community greater than the self? For Boyer, it seems, one need look no further than the material object that is Art is War. Printed on plain white paper, bound by hand with string, fly-leafed with a newspaper advertisement, and publish in a limited run of 100 by her friend, poet Robert J. Baumann, the chapbook is a labor of love[1] that circulates through a small, self-generated community of writers for a fee that likely is no more than production costs ($6 US). As Noah Eli Gordon states in his essay “Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book,” the chapbook “allows the poet to enter into a shared life of the imagination while swerving around the dominant paradigms of economic and social space”; in many ways, Art is War does just that. Of course, and this should come as no surprise, such a reading is far too reductive of Boyer’s manifesto. The importance of Art is War is the fact that Boyer’s chapbook thoughtfully calls into question both the purpose and utility of poetry in a modern world overrun by consumer-culture. Far from being an absurdist rant, “Difficult Ways” (and the entirety of Art is War) can provide the writer and communities of writers with new ways of envisioning their art form and its distribution.

[1] Not coincidentally, the "heart" character-symbol appears several times throughout the chapbook.

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