Talks on Metamodernism with Seth Abramson:
Part 2 of 3
by Kirsten Clodfelter
This post is part of a three-part series exploring metamodernism and its use in American poetry through discussions with the talented poet and teacher, Seth Abramson. Find part one of our series here.
Kirsten Clodfelter: What role do you find metamodernism playing in your own work as a teacher, poet, and academic?
Seth Abramson: Last year I had an interaction with the author of the Metamodernist Manifesto, Luke Turner, and a point of disagreement we encountered was whether metamodernism offers us a long-term “way out” of polar spectra that hinder our development as human subjects—whether, to use the language I prefer, metamodernism can permit the unification of the praxes of Life and Art, which was the primary aim of the early twentieth-century avant-garde in Europe. Turner implied that it did not, whereas I felt strongly that it could, and in so insisting did feel myself to be somewhat typically “American” as to my insistence on self-empowerment and subjective “wholeness.” But if there is something uniquely American about the take on metamodernism I see developing in the States, it’s that American metamodernism doesn’t entirely reject either creativity or self-expressive intent or transcendence and isn’t shy about using uncomfortably intimate data to reify metamodernism as a cultural paradigm. We might attribute this to the popularity of creative writing as a discipline in the United States, or to the extraordinary popularity of confessionalism and postconfessionalism in recent U.S. literary history, or to the fact that the United States is one of the world’s leading exporters of popular culture, or to the emergence of the Digital Humanities in American academe.
Whatever the reason, I think the American take on metamodernism has thus far manifested—at least in verse—as the use of modernist and postmodernist techniques and maxims to navigate the Internet Age, popular culture, and one’s own subjective development in real-time. In other words, it features the use of metamodern poetry as a data-processing praxis for information that otherwise could (and indeed does) fracture both our subjectivity and our sense of there being a single, coherent plane of reality. But I think metamodernism also manifests here, as elsewhere, as a distinctly political paradigm, as it challenges our cultural presuppositions by challenging our conventional reading (or, in the other arts, “seeing” and “hearing” and “feeling”) technologies.
KC: Can you point us to authors who you feel are doing this in their work? Would you say that found poetry/erasures are often examples of metamodernist work? What about writing like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, or the work of Thomas Pynchon? Or would Wallace and Pynchon be considered more postmodern, with the authors who are remaking those texts into new pieces of art, such as Jenni Baker’s Erasing Infinite project, taking the helm as metamodernists?
SA: I think the most important thing to note here is that poetry is coming to all this a little bit late—about twelve to twenty-four months late—which, while I regret it, is less tardiness than (for instance) we see in Conceptual Writing’s self-circumscription on the basis of craft techniques that were considered played-out in the visual arts by 1960. That sounds a little harsh, but I make the distinction to emphasize that poetry is not so far behind the other arts in terms of internalizing the metamodern paradigm that it can’t shortly match or even outstrip all the others in the ingenuity of its metamodern investigations.
Having said that, I can’t claim any deep knowledge of metamodern fiction—though the Europeans who write for the main website associated with metamodernism have written quite a lot about how writers like David Foster Wallace may well have been metamodern in inclination and execution—and I don’t know that I find any poets who are consistently enough exploring metamodernism that I want to call out their entire oeuvre in this way. I also don’t want to cite found poetry or the erasure as special loci for metamodernism, because I think this would play into the myth that metamodernism is, like Conceptual Writing, more or less a series of quantifiable craft techniques. Found poetry and the erasure are (like the re-mix and the mash-up and the cento) techniques that could, like hundreds of others, lend themselves to metamodern verse, but I don’t think it’s anything innate to those techniques that makes this so, so much as how those techniques can and have been directed in poetry.
I can definitely note some landmark moments in metamodern art, however: in multigeneric performance, we find the metamodern in Reggie Watt’s “Why Shit So Crazy?” and Bo Burnham’s “What.” [sic] (both available as streaming downloands on Netflix); in photography, in The Flying Japanese Girl and the work of Chino Otsuka; in animation, in nearly the entire “Adult Swim” lineup on Cartoon Network (e.g., this episode of Rick and Morty); in social media, in the “Vine magic” of Zach King; in cinema, in films like Leos Carax’s Holy Motors; in popular culture, in the way Shia LaBeouf handled allegations of plagiarism against him by plagiarizing his apologies for those plagiarisms. There are many other examples—and a non-exhaustive, cross-genre list is now in the works by several people I know—and I’ll be exploring others in my “Metamericana” column for Indiewire. But I think anyone who looks at the media and links above, as well as some of the poems I’ve published on Ink Node (for instance, “White Privilege”) will get a sense of what we’re talking about here. For what it’s worth, I’ll say that in my work on Ink Node, I’ve tried to be more explicit about my motives than I normally would be, as I’m trying to conspicuously explore how the metamodern intersects with verse at a time when the very term “metamodernism” is not explicitly recognized by the American Academy—nor by many working artists, either, even those whose art is clearly drawing strength from the paradigm.
This last observation is one reason I’ve been appending Statements of Concept to nearly all my metamodern poems: I want the work being done by the poems, if any, to be encountered on its own terms, and even more importantly I want the methods employed in the poems to be available to all. This emphasis on democratized Art, echoed in the Metamodernist Manifesto as a commitment to “democratized history”—in other words, to the same phenomena being seen simultaneously and beautifully yet differently by untold millions at once—also feels unique to what’s happening in American metamodernism right now.
When I’ve lectured on metamodernism over the past year, I’ve often been asked by students whether they can use the same methods I’ve used in my poems to translate the hard data of their own lives. I always answer with an emphatic “Yes!” But it’s this very reproducibility—what I suppose Derrida would call an iterability of technique—that I know makes metamodernism somewhat unpalatable to the Academy and outright dangerous to the intellectual hegemony of the contemporary American avant-garde. What happens when avant-garde Art introduces reading and writing technologies that can be used by all, and are not merely the sacred province of (as with language poetry) those few who have deeply studied continental literary theory? What happens when a work so succinctly details its operative functions that at least a portion of the usual scholarly synthesis and exegesis is rendered superfluous?
KC: This is really interesting and also generous and empowering in the way that metamodernist poets—or at least as you’re describing metamodernist poetry here—seem to have a vested interest in making poetry/art something that’s accessible to the entire community, even if the paradigm of metamodernism itself isn’t something everyone might be able to immediately recognize or identify. In some ways, metamodernism feels a little like an “Occupy” poetry movement.
SA: I think any paradigm that seeks universal unification of the praxes of Art and Life, rather than keeping them separate and distinct—or capable of unification only in the hands of a choice, institutionally patronized few—is by definition generous and empowering. And I do think metamodernism in particular is not afraid, like so much avant-garde art seems to be, of being co-opted by popular culture or “non-artists” or any other collective or individual entity. The reason for this is that, as a paradigm rather than a series of craft techniques, metamodernism can’t be co-opted; there isn’t, as in Conceptual Writing, a small and discrete number of practitioners who’ve been green-lighted by arts institutions to make their Art as part of a sanctioned cabal of “Conceptualists.”
Every public instance of the metamodern strengthens awareness of the paradigm and entrenches it further in the collective unconscious; meanwhile, if everyone were suddenly successful in publishing their own word-for-word transcriptions of NPR interviews (or other public tracts), it would not only infuriate the Conceptualists but bore the rest of us. I say that because there’s a conspicuous pedagogical element in metamodernism that wants—that is driven—to be shared and spread and widely appreciated. That’s not true for a craft technique whose proponents say you shouldn’t even be reading their writing. I guess what I’m saying is that for too long, avant-garde art has jealously guarded its rhetorical underpinnings in the interest of supporting a scholarly class—and certain scions of American literature—in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. None of this is to say that Art produced under the sign of postmodernism generally or (say) Conceptualism specifically isn’t at times brilliant and engaging and even inspiring, or that Contemporary Poetry Studies hasn’t done yeoman’s work in uncovering the felicities and infelicities of postmodern verse, simply that “generous” and “empowering” and “democratic” and “imminently political” are not adjectives I’d often append to these endeavors.
American metamodernism’s sort of populism has a special place in American history, even as I think it mirrors precisely the return of the praxis of Art to the praxis of Life that the historical European avant-gardes (but few of our current breed in America) were so invested in.
Having said all this, the conceptual component of metamodern verse is undoubtedly sufficiently complex that it taxes admirably both artists and scholars alike. By insisting that metamodern verse is inherently and uniquely pedagogical—echoing what Michael Davidson once said about the poems of the San Francisco Renaissance—I am not saying it is easy. Those who’ve tried their hand at bringing this particular cultural paradigm into the many forms of poetry know that it’s not.
Metamodernist poems from Seth Abramson:
James Franco by James Franco by Seth Abramson
I am a teacher,
with wires you can’t see but feel.
You were all those things from before
obstacles, pollution, and debris.
In the pool we went at it.
You got big and drunk and weird,
corroded by my love.
I knew by then
my character was the teacher.
I was once the young brooder,
unhappy. I was more interested in me
riding her from behind
like when a hurricane comes
through and takes out houses.
It was the sweetest thing
from today’s celebrity age,
but that world is unwieldy and can hurt you.
Think of that, son:
Because one of the babies fucked her,
guys like grown men
take over. But sometimes
the materialistic demons
along the shore, the trash
pushes them downstream
and leaves them in the ocean
as if they were cardboard.
They are the manmade things.
(It was their first sex scene,
they had taken shots in their trailer.)
I assume things will pile
in life. Could you comfort him
and pile until the piles
become frail and busted?
When his face was readjusted
your dad said not to worry:
You have a bunch of mice at home,
you can handle anyone at that school
(every once in a while they drag you out
between takes, while they reset the lights
and fill you with such pressure
things are washed clean).
I’ve done fifteen years of movies—
huge black ones that you never saw before—
not knowing why.
But now I know
everything she loved about my work:
The girls were drunk
to be in a movie that critiqued
“the beautiful blonde one”;
the actresses were enthusiastic
half her size, with barely any hair.
They were so happy!
Their world, rather than added,
stayed in my arms and told me.
All You Ploughboys *
Young men and rural life
have a romantic tone, the vocabulary
of another era. My question is,
do we need to know more, or less?
Regardless, it’s electric and unsettling
and delights me.
(Like two sides of a coin,
lines seem to connote violence,
So many things point to an unnamed act
of violence. I think of murder
over and over. (The voice is strange
declarative love hinges each transition.)
The only question is: Do something horrible?
Tell too much? Something’s missing here,
and this sets me up. Guilt? Conceit?
get recycled. I struggle mostly
I can’t connect to. (Ending
seems too forward; the tone
I’d be curious to see
is something sick.)
A dislocating moment unsettles
linguistically. More interesting than this,
I think the repetition of
“I am now to do something”
could really affect
small moments. Work becomes integral,
gestures (with a lower-case “g”)
one hundred percent. Until the final
when elements previously functioning
Love! The inversion
where I feel like there’s a literal
as well as figurative movement
I can’t quite get a grip on,
which to me is a large part
of the appeal. Patterns of repetition
create a hypnotic texture—
re-purposing language suggests a world
that is inventing and re-inventing itself.
(The speaker declares himself capable.
Anything hinged is compelling.)
Whatever the speaker sees is underlying this.
I’m dying to know what it is. (I’m not sure
I should.) Rhythm seems like odd wording,
perhaps because it pollutes. Generally,
an object is implied,
a kind of nausea. (“Should I be reading this?”)
Sex? A play? Houses? The horrible act
of visualizing? A few clinging clothes?
(Make us believe! I want to see you! Push farther!)
I’m not sure this is working,
unless the “horrible thing” is having your way
with cows. (Kidding! I really like
all the reversals in this poem.)
This is strange enough, relatively innocuous,
maybe sweet. Lovely
how the meaning changes. (Could also be,
solved.) I don’t know if this is sinister.
Fatalistic phrases function as euphemism
or metaphor. (Callous violence, destruction?
I pause here—shift tone—and it helps me
make sense of it.
Seth, carrying a sense of inarticulate isolation
a vaguely conflicted motive—
a boy in a swamp—
has a way of avoidance. (Conviction
is constructed style.) Circle the emotion that
4. “wind blowing over a lake”
Make it strange! Father and mother as words
carry weight. You are describing stars
naturally—a part of the scene—but defamiliarize years.
I’m not sure if I’m being clear enough:
DO SOMETHING HORRIBLE.
BE A GOOD SPEAKER.
MUDDLE. ALIENATE. POINT BETWEEN LINES.
FORCE “STATEMENT” TO END.
The secret to “the middle of there” is, lose momentum
somehow. In the middle.
You’ll enjoy it, once it gets more sinister.
Author’s Note: This poem is an erasure of workshop comments received on the poem “All You Ploughboys,” from Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). Eight pages of workshop comments from a University of Wisconsin-Madison course were used; each stanza in the poem above comes from a discrete comment sheet, though most comment sheets contributed more than one stanza to the erasure.
Each of these pieces appeared originally at Ink Node and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Read the third part of this discussion.
Seth Abramson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery(University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, andNortherners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. A regular contributor to both Poets & Writersand Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, the first edition of which is forthcoming from Omnidawn in September 2014. He is presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo