115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Seeing Concept; Seeing Culture

Maria Azar, California State University, Los Angeles

Through an examination of form in Vanessa Place’s “Miss Scarlet,” this project observes how conceptual poetry uses appropriation to uncover new ways of seeing and identifying contemporary power dynamics, by forcing the reader to a form that resists traditional “reading.”


In an essay published in Poetry Magazine titled “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins addresses the use of contemporary poetry and pop music as tools that equip the
cultural psyche to negotiate ontological crisis and mediate the shared collective experience through form. In the essay, Robbins presents poetry as the key that unlocks a state of acceptance, not resistance, to the condition of perpetual unrest. However, Robbins’ idea that poetry and pop music provide the necessary tools to accept our own humanity is predicated on the notion that poetry and pop music are, as the adjective denotes, popular culture. To think of the study of poetry as the study of popular culture is, in Ray Browne’s words, to study everyday life –implying that it has a purpose, place and value. Poetry, then becomes not only a coping mechanism but, as Robbins originally puts it, a tool to console our own existential crisis.

            While Robbins maintains the scope of his essay to the relationship between poetry’s aesthetic and cultural value (I cannot speak to the content of his forthcoming book as of today since it will be released next month), this project seeks to contribute to Robbins conversation by focusing on the role and purpose of Conceptual Poetry. Like Pop Music and Poetry, conceptual poetry harnesses the power of every day not as coping mechanism but as an affective lens that aims to disembody familiarity and through form and repetition. For example, when Kenneth Goldsmith records his movements during an eleven-hour period and calls it poetry (Fidget), he is also writing about everyday life. However, Goldsmith’s form is drastically different from that of other standard verse poetry or pop music. Goldsmith’s poetry forces the reader to reconsider form, readership, and the medium itself. Through the insistent boredom of repetition, action driven language, block paragraphs and the mimetic act of reproducing the movements onto the page, Goldsmith forces a reading that resists any coping. It asks us to find the human within the action-repeating automaton speaker. Goldsmith’s conceptual poem disembodies the quotidian, the everyday, the self, forcing us to question whether the self can be sifted through the boredom of the quotidian and, therefore, recovered. Can we then think of Conceptual Poetry as Popular Culture? What would be the implications?

            Directly working with a post-industrial production that is closer to the more popular definition of popular culture, Vanessa Place’s poem “Miss Scarlet” phonetically transcribes Prissy’s words from the film Gone With the Wind. Arranging the dialogue to reframe the character “unreliable” slave, Place appropriates Prissy’s speech, asking whether such recuperation is possible when the original copy is a ventriloquized version of race, especially when the writer counterfeiting the original false copy of race is herself in the position of privilege and ownership. Taking into consideration the original text as a staple of Americana and, therefore, popular culture, this project examines how form in Place’s poem allows for a reconsideration of medium that opens new ways of seeing and identifying the relationship between race, authorship, and ownership. In materializing Prissy as an irrecoverable character through her relationship to slavery, Place’s poem provides a new set of tools to negotiate the ontological forces present in the poem, tools that resisting the original form and its contemporary and still very traditional reading.

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