The American Poetry Review

September/October 2012


Vol. 41 No. 5

The Blurred, Visionary Promise of Hybridized Poetics.


reprinted from the Free Library at Farlex

Back in the late 1990s, when i was in graduate school, I signed up, with my friend and fellow MFA-er Christopher Boucher, for a summer class to learn how to use and incorporate computer and internet technology in our creative writing projects. Chris and I agreed that this was where things were headed, innovation-wise, in literature, and we wanted to feel comfortable, capable and capacious in what we saw as The Next Big Thing: our own work was skewing toward that slippery stuff between genres--prose poems, creative nonfiction, flash essays, found and collaged pieces and the like--and what could be more relevant and vital, we thought, than considering how to make our newly online- and computer-centered lives part of our art-making. Hybridity, we were thinking. 

Chris recently published his first book, the wonderfully hybrid novel-manual-memoir-metafiction (though non-hypertext-utilizing) How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. But it strikes me that what Chris and I thought was about to burst forth a decade ago in literature--a hybridized, intergenre literature that utilizes the vast network of technologies and book-objects now at the ready--has not happened. It's like watching The Jetsons and wondering whatever happened to the promise of flying cars. 

In this edition of this column, I consider a nonetheless delightfully challenging and provocative spate of recent hybrid-genre works of poetry. (For lack of a better term, since to call them "works of poetry" is perhaps oxymoronic to calling them hybrid-genre?) None exactly look like a traditional--or even "traditionally innovative" (goodness, the trouble with naming I am already getting myself into here!)--book of poetry, but I'm going to call them books of poems, because they look more like books of poems than anything else, and all of the authors are primarily considered to be, by reputation and interest and publisher, "poets." 

And when I talk about hybrid literature, I mean projects, like those discussed here, that cross or work between or shape shift through or otherwise "hybridize" genre, at both macro and micro levels. As books, I think of hybrid works as those which at least hover between nonfiction, drama, verse, performance, visual art and other forms; and within individual pieces or sections, poems that shift modes and form mid-stream. 

Take, for example, Marjorie Welish's new book In the Futurity Lounge/Asylum for Indeterminacy
. The very title hints at the liminal, a (architectural/ linguistic) zone between construction and deconstruction. This postmodern condition is represented through both form and content: the second poem in the book, "Consecutive Studios," begins with the line "Valiant folding screens doubling back to distinguish COMPLETE from COMPLETED," and we are immediately in a limbic state of folds, screens, doubles, distinctions and (in)completions. In this first section, the Futurity Lounge section (the Asylum section, we are told on the back cover, is a sort of free translation of/meditation on Baudelaire's "Correspondence," though I would not have known that), Welish often gestures toward the book as object--"the TABLE OF CONTENTS 'from top to bottom or from bottom to top'"--as if acknowledging the materiality of the project while simultaneously critiquing it. In the poem "Statement (Some Assembly Required)," Welish writes, "PLEASE TEAR ALONG PERFORATION between this wet and refreshed axis/and adjusted reading." And in "Dextrous": "The object/with standard staples: writing to be looked at, drawing to be read//in opaque questionnaires: WHAT DO I KNOW? obliges our doubling back to fractional skepticism toward normative universal attempts: FOLD HERE." 

Throughout, poems shift between lineated and non-lineated sections, employ strange capitalizations that smack of stage directions or newspaper headlines, insert footnotes, allow for lots of white space and fragments, and otherwise "make use of the whole page" in a way that has come to signify a certain kind of Language School (and post-) poetics. I found myself more challenged--and moved--by similar formal moves in Akilah Oliver's (sadly, last) book A Toast in the House of Friends. If one was to simply flip through In the Futurity Lounge/Asylum for Indeterminacy and A Toast in the House of Friends, with their similar use of varying line lengths, prose sections, white space and sentence fracture, one might presume some similar strands of lineage and influence ... and one would probably not be wrong. But the tones, voices and themes are quite divergent. 

Where Welish's book is deliberately and overtly theoretical, non-biographical and somewhat intellectually distanced from its emotional concerns, Oliver's goes straight for the heart, the soul, the 
jugular. A book about mourning--a beloved son, a beloved brother--the poems often devolve, or ascend, into prayer, or sometimes chant. 

From the poem "grace":

           by vocation i shall call my brother


          by desire i shall call my mother

   minor god,

          by birthright i shall call my father


The long, shape-shifting sequence "an arriving guard of angels, thusly coming to greet," which also includes a starkly gorgeous epistolary prose section to her son--"what do you wear out there? i wish you could have taken your new shoes with you. i'm so proud of you. i'm so sorry for the way you died."--as well as list sections, found text, and other experiments in form, offers this trancelike song:

    beautiful boys girls beautiful

   beautiful girls boys beautiful

   beautiful boys girls beautiful

   i'm extending to you this oh

   i'm extending to you this oh oh o ho

which continues on awhile further. I found these incantatory moments completely compelling and affecting. It is as if the grief, and the love, in these pages are too large to be contained by any kind of static or consistent form. 

(A book I discuss below, A Lily Lilies, a site-based collaboration between a choreographer and poet, also makes generous use of litany and repetition: Josey Foo's poem "Wishes"--"I wish for dissolving-in-fact.//I wish for micas of nights.// I wish for hued imagining; two occasions happening at once, the rule of three singular."--is followed on the same page by Leah Stein's dance note "A single movement is repeated over and over as the body seeks what is remembered and finds it each time.") 

Ultimately, though, as provocative as works like these can still be in 2012, they perhaps look, undeniably, like poetry: a certain strain of innovative poetry to be sure, but recognizably poetry. Poems like these--or, for another example, those in younger poet Darcie Dennigan's irreverent, rollicking, poppy second book, Madame X, with its use of prose forms and relentless ellipses--do challenge the notion of poetry as verse, but they do not seem more like any other genre than poetry. 

I am also somewhat disappointed in the lack of seized potential around collaborative hybrid literature. A lot of interesting stuff, I think, can happen in the gray area between boundaries of authorship and voice: if hybridized poetry seeks to upend notions of genre convention and exist in a more mutable, permeable territory, could it not also seek to upend notions of authorial voice, individual style, and fixed selfhood? 

So I am curious as to why, in a book I admire a good deal, A Lily Lilies, by poet Foo and dancer Stein--in which lyric lines appear alongside and mimic the abstracted, clipped cadence of notes and images of modern dance--the writers chose to make the distinctions between their works so, well, distinct. Stein's texts are, we are told, "notes on dance," and they are italicized throughout to indicate that they are by Stein. But they are every bit as lyric and literary as what we are told are Foo's "poems." So on the same page as Foo's "Witness," in which she writes, "I haven't slept for days. / return to things almost finished.//Picking up your shirt, taking off my shoes/to put away because transient things / will witness us," Stein's "notes" include these fascinating, and fascinatingly resonant (and "poetic"!) lines: "Is this my torso? Or is it fabric? / Repeat 'sleeves and collar' gestures over and over. / The rest shudder, unable to rest." 

Likewise, Foo's still life photographs are as interesting and necessary to the work as the pictures of Stein's dancers (the book includes reproduced photographs of dance performances, rivers, driftwood, and other images throughout). "Ultimately, we map each other," the authors tell us in the introduction, and the title of the book references the Navajo language, in which the words for an object and its action are conflated, or unified: "the sun is the shine, the wind is the blowing." But I found myself looking for more complex, beautiful evidence of this kind of overlap in the book itself. And while I loved the idea that this place-centered project--much of it is "about" the American southwest, and, more generally, "hereness"--in its "book form" is "a transportable 'site,'" as the authors tell us, it occurred to me that there must be ways, in our Age of Nook & Kindle & App, to make a book form more of a site, no? 

Another way I think of hybrid poetics manifesting itself is not just by existing between literary genres, but by seeking to echo the form and style of that which we consider to be resolutely non- or anti-poetic, such as screenplays, interviews, lectures, and other literatures with rather strict notions of form and convention; as well as work that incorporates visual, audio, and performative elements in the form of photographs, drawings, choreography, music, and other artistic media (like A Lily Lilies). 

There is a section of Oliver's book, in fact, that employs both of these strategies, called "the visible unseen," about urban graffiti: it "sounds like" a theoretical/critical essay (though it is very short, and occasionally lineated), and it is illustrated with uncredited color photographs of unspecified graffiti sites. If I could, I would lift text from "the visible unseen" wholesale and use Oliver's smart ways of describing how graffiti functions in the culture to define my notion of some other ways hybrid poetics can function. 

Actually, ok, I will do this: from Oliver: "I recognized in it an ugly ecstatic, a dialects of violence, a distortion of limbs, a hieroglyph." "As a form [it] is in a constant state of tension/shifting its nomadic position spatially/transiently." "[The work] upset[s/and reconstitute[s/the ... forms of public discourse .... it advertises difference and insurgency, illegality, vandalism, distraction not just in its placement, but in its aesthetic, in its attention to the shape of the emotion, to the act of naming." 

Yes! Yes! Where is the hybrid poetic literature that does this, that reaches an "ugly ecstatic" in a "constant state of tension" that "reconstitutes the public discourse"? This is perhaps what I am looking for most, what I see as the potential, in hybrid work. 

And this, thrillingly, is what can be found in radical poet-scholar-publisher-translator Joyelle McSweeney's latest book Percussion Grenade, and in the latest book by her life partner and fellow radical poet-scholar-publisher-translator Johannes Goransson, entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. I hope these two will not take offense at the discussion of their books together: I do so because they are partners not only in life but as editors of the press Action Books, the online journal Action, Yes and as members of the collective blog Montevidayo (all of which encourage and promote hybrid forms); McSweeney also appears as a character in Goransson's book, described as "my wife, wearing the 'pussy' made from Charlotte Bronte's gauzes." And although the books are not collaborations, they share much in the way of aesthetic leanings, social and cultural concerns, and form. 

As the titles suggest, both of these books are bombs: explosive, violent, owing much to Surrealism (especially the Artaud kind) and Dadaism but propelling these movements forward, via catapult, into a very 21st-century Theater of the Absurd. And they both play fast and loose with the form of theater: both begin with something like stage directions. In McSweeney, we are told "the pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud--a-LOUD!"; Goransson's book opens with the instruction, "The main scene should be full of ornaments and crime." 

entrance to a colonial pageant's array of monologuing characters includes The Natives, Father Firing Line, Miss World (who is played by a young boy), Trauma, and The Aftermath. The overall tone is vitriolic. "Can I kick you in the face?" asks the first character to speak, The Passenger, "Why do your spasms look infantile? Do you know how to break a radio?" Sex, nationhood, and domestic life are all treated as dystopian grotesqueries amidst a backdrop of cultural imbecility. The Girlfriend, we are told, speaks with "her body rioted, her clothes luxurious, her smile religious, her body anorexic, her gun warm, her reasons obscure, her fire ridiculously fake." 

Percussion Grenade spins through many formal modes, including a number of different serial pieces and text-and-image work by Douglas Kearney (whose own book was discussed in my first column, on African-American innovative poetics), but at least two sections could be considered theater or performance pieces. One is a play in three acts called "The Contagious Knives" (echoes of Edward Gorey's plays?), in which the character of Louis Braille, in "pink panties and a pop-star T-shirt from Target" opens the first scene with the lines, "Hi whores. I know you took my cell phone in gym class, but, whatever." The other is a series of monologues (in wildly inventive, time -traveling pun-dialect--"Just surviving this was a chitlin circuit flangebanged worth staggering the ranch"--that reminded me of the Nadsat slang created by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange) spoken by "Hannie" (or, in one case, "Hammie") "Oakley," like the lines "Here's a theory of performance for you: aim for the rafters. Shoot the room. Aim for the kids in the back," which could be seen as a sort of ars poetica for the project as a whole. 

Despite all this invigorating anarchy, however, McSweeney and Goransson's books are not as innovative in their use of the book-object as I was searching for in considering work for this column. Where are the books that follow the elaborately visual, typographical and shape-shifting narrative spaces promised by a work like VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula, which you can buy in a Lucite-encased "cyborg" edition and which comes with an accompanying CD? What about hypertext poetry, as practiced beautifully by Stephanie Strickland and represented in hard copy only by a URL printed in the center of her thrice-named book V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L'Una? What about the mother (to my mind) of all hybrid genre poetry collections, Dictee, originally published by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in 1982, which boldly and poignantly examines issues of migration, exile, womanhood in multiple languages and forms, as well as in maps, photographs, charts, found texts and more? 

And what of gender and race and ethnicity, of border crossing and marginalization? These concerns seem to almost demand, topically, a hybridized form, and there must be something to the fact that, when looking through stacks and stacks of new books in search of the hybrid, I came up with a pile of work mostly by women, people of color, and immigrants. 

All of this comes to fruition in Jennifer Tamayo's Red Missed Aches/Read Missed Aches/Red Mistakes/Read Mistakes: I have saved the best for last here, in my opinion. In this virtuosi tic debut (which name-checks Cha, along with McSweeney and Zucker, as some of many sources and inspirations), Tamayo stitches--literally stitches: three-dimensionally reproduced red thread, with all its associations (surgical, girly, corrective, domestic, spiritual) stabs through many of its pages--together a narrative/memoir/investigation of migration, family, language, and sexuality. "Play surgeon o seamstress," the book begins, under a reproduction of the Christ child held by Mary, a snapshot of the author's mother sewn onto the Virgin's face. In the poem "(Before, After)," Tamayo writes, "This is / a figuring & fingering / This is an utter a fuck a suture." 

This attention to layering, wonderfully expressed through the title, results in a gratifyingly complex work, full of textual and visual collage overlaps; intersections between languages, ethnicities, nationalities, generations and identities; mishearings and linguistic slippage in the forms of synonyms, heteronyms, patois and slangs; word and image erasures and ruptures. Tamayo's book winds its way, tightly and messily, like tangled thread, through issues of motherhood, mothering, motherlands, and mother tongues. "There is nothing clean about this writing," she writes in "(Dear, Lover)." Like Dictee, it's an ambitious and inventive project that at its core is deeply personal and evocative. 

But even so, even in looking at a book like Tamayo's that I'm sure can still shock, baffle and unnerve many readers of contemporary poetry, I wonder what is limiting us, as poets, in our utilization of the vast possibilities of genre and "book." Are we able to see a way to a literature that genuinely pushes past the page and into a performative, electronic, or otherwise uncontainable realm, while still deserving the ink and pulp to be read and reread?


Toward the end of Goransson's book, Ezra Pound speaks through a character called The American Poet ("wearing a hood"): "If a book reveals to us something of which we are unconscious, it feeds us with energy; if it reveals to us nothing but the fact that the author knew something which we knew, it draws energy from us." I suppose this kind of feeding energy is what I am looking for in all the books I discuss in this ongoing column: please be in touch to tell me about which recent, nationally published books of poetry are most feeding you. 



Darcie Dennigan, Madame X, Canarium, 2012

Josey Foo and Leah Stein, A Lily Lilies, Nightboat, 2011

Johannes Goransson, entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, Tarpaulin Sky, 2011

Joyelle McSweeney, Percussion Grenade, Fence, 2012

Akilah Oliver, A Toast in the House of Friends, Coffee House, 2009

Jennifer Tamayo, Red Missed Aches/Read Missed Aches/ Red Mistakes/Read Mistakes, Switchback, 2011

Marjorie Welish, In the Futurity Lounge: Asylum for Indeterminacy, Coffee House, 2012


Christopher Boucher, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (fiction), Melville House, 2011

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee,
 University of California Press, 2001 

Stephanie Strickland, V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L'Una, Penguin, 2002

Steve Tomasula, VAS: An Opera in Flatland, University of Chicago, 2004 and
 Chiasmus, 2009 

ARIELLE GREENBERG is the author of the poetry collections My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005) and Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009; to be reprinted by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2012) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is also co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of the hybrid genre nonfiction book Home/Birth: A Poemic (1913 Press, 2011).