Posts Tagged ‘kathy acker


AWP and Prose Now

Last week was a big week for a small portion of America’s publicly literate. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference. While typing this, I happened upon a typo-induced neologism, ennual, which I take to describe something that produces ennui once per year. As for the conference, it was enormous. Unofficially, everyone came. Officially, I heard there were about 7000 registered attendees.

The event, which is called AWP and known by its host city (ie: AWP Chicago, AWP Denver, or, this year, AWP DC- kind of like ‘The Real World’), seems to have a perpetual identity crisis, as it is not sure if it wants to be an academic conference, an arts festival, or the literary equivalent of a Comic-con (I looked it up, it’s not ComiCon, although it ought to be). AWP has panels, receptions, parties, off-site readings and events, and, most importantly, an overwhelmingly large bookfair/MFA program trade show with well over 600 booths and tables.

There are two good things that happen at AWP: 1 You meet people, especially internet friends that you can now actually know; 2) You get books. I bought and/or traded for probably 20 different books and journals at a total cost of around 100 dollars. Since returning home, I’ve begun to work my way through them. So far I’ve read Michael Stewart’s ‘The Hieroglyphics’ (freshly released by Mud Luscious Press, who I was doing some book-selling for at AWP and who are putting out exciting exciting stuff), Joanna Ruocco’s ‘The Mothering Coven’ (strange, small book of witches, their favorite foods, a birthday, and their very charming neighbor), and Andrew Zornoza’s ‘Where I Stay’ (text and images that grew on me slowly and then stuck- the kind of book that might haunt). Am currently reading Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ (a book about an obsessional romantic love of the color blue, sort of, in numbered text blocks that could be called prose poems or fragments- need to read more but already know I like it). Amelia Gray’s ‘Museum of the Weird’ is on the nightstand and ready. And there are more and more, but that’s another post.

The upshot of this reading is that it confirms that there’s a lot of good, language-thinking, thinking-thinking prose happening right now. It’s maybe fiction, often something else. ‘The Hieroglyphics’ is based upon a book of completely inaccurate translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Both that book and ‘The Mothering Coven’ borrow from older texts, weave in source material without direct citation ala Kathy Acker (the key difference is that both Ruocco and Stewart make note of their sources in notes, they just don’t directly cite passages). Zornoza’s text might be fiction, prose poems, documentary, (or as suggested in the dedication) lies. What’s exciting is that this is the now of prose, genre-transgressive, hybrid, better described than classified.

To close, I want to leave a longish passage from ‘Bluets.’ It was chosen at random from the part of the book I’ve already read. It isn’t fiction, it isn’t quite critical or essay writing either. The passage almost reads like an excerpt from an article in Cabinet, but it comes immediately after several more personal and stranger passages. The effect is almost collage-like, shades of blue, images in relation to blue, with the numeration of the segments providing the only obvious marker of forward progression. In any case, I think it’s pretty great.

23. Goethe wrote Theory of Colors in a period of his life described by one critic as “a long interval, marked by nothing of distinguished note.” Goethe himself describes the period as one in which “a quiet, collected state of mind was out of the question.” Goethe is not alone in turning to color at a particularly fraught moment. Think of filmmaker Derek Jarman, who wrote his book Chroma as he was going blind and dying of AIDS, a death he also forecast on film as disappearing into a “blue screen.” Or of Wittgenstein , who wrote his Remarks on Color during the last eighteen months of his life, while dying of stomach cancer. He knew he was dying; he could have chosen to work on any philosophical problem under the sun. He chose to write about color. About color and pain. Much of this writing is urgent, opaque, and uncharacteristically boring. “That which I am writing about so tediously, may be obvious to someone whose mind is less decrepit,” he wrote.


I Am Thinking About Two Things

Thinking about worst things like worst schools, worst things that happen to people, worst people, worst things and people and things that happen to people in and because of schools.

Also thinking about what it is to read for diction and sentences and pacing. Thinking sometimes there needs to be that and then something else sometimes. This something is something that makes the diction and pacing and sentences ring themselves and estranged and special; that keeps them from getting pulled back into the bad-prosaic glut of their plots or subject matter.

More and more I am wanting sentences to add up as mass instead of movement. This is something I am finding in Robert Lopez right now. Because I am reading Robert Lopez right now and finding this, it is making me more aware of my desire for it. This is also making my days a little better than they would otherwise be.

What other books do this? I think Kathy Acker does this and this is why her books have magic logic. I think Diane Williams does this. That some books accrete mass as much as meaning or as a kind of meaning is how they have magic logic I think. I am not sure what magic logic is yet but it is real because you can tell.

(This is a thylacine. They are my favorites. I’m not sure of favorite what, but they are.)



From the draft of my thesis: Beginning #47- MASTURBATION

When deriding playful literature, word games, punning, acrostics and the like, it is not uncommon for people to use the term ‘masturbatory’. I’m reminded of a scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character hears a work of art dismissed as ‘masturbation’ and replies, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Perhaps in this lineage of playfully (yet not unseriously) taking up arms against derogatory usage, Harry Matthews wrote an entire book devoted to descriptions of self-love.

“Singular Pleasures” is in many ways a classically Oulipian text. The book is structured as a series of short (paragraph long) entries that each narrate an act of masturbation. Every entry in the book follows a series of rules which involve mandates to include the masturbator’s age, gender, location, and chosen method. I suspect there is some kind combinatoric pattern or device used to determine the details of each, but I am not entirely sure.

The triumph of Singular Pleasures is that its form and subject fit each other perfectly. Masturbation is essentially a process of repetition and variation, a mechanical and redundant act buttressed by a series of shifting fantasies. Like the act described, the scenes in SP are alternately (simultaneously?) erotic, dull, depressing, and enlivening. The mechanical nature of the construction feeds the production of Matthews’ self-interested self play about playing with one’s self.

The book also demonstrates another key characteristic of play (self and otherwise). In a number of the scenes, masturbation figures as a shared activity. For example Matthews describes a man and woman who no longer enjoy sex with each other, but have realized that they love mutual masturbation. They travel frequently and in each place they visit, they each find an emblematic local implement to aid their masturbation. In another scene, a man takes his pleasure watching his younger and more attractive partner masturbate at close range. These examples and others demonstrate the potential of play, even self-play, as exciting and pleasure-giving for an observer. Singular Pleasures also shows the potential for play by one to incite and entice play by another. Such a description can quite obviously serve to characterise the functioning of Oulipian works, as they can invite, impress, and participate in a communicative transmission with their readers.

Beyond the masturbatory and the self-pleasuring as subject, there is the masturbating subject. We should note here the practice of masturbation-writing, which, although technically outside of the ken of the Oulipo, maintains a strong a connection with Potential Literature. I’m writing specifically here about one of Kathy Acker’s favored writing practices, which consisted of masturbating and then ‘writing at the point of orgasm.’ At first blush, this kind of practice is wholly an-oulipian, in that it is a writing that comes from the surrender of voluntary control. The ecstatic climactic moment being of course the moment of the body’s victory over the conscious subject, it would seem that Oulipo proper would quickly reject ‘writing at the point of orgasm’ as an heir to the already-rejected Surrealist practice of automatic writing. Still, as I will argue elsewhere, situational, physical and especially body-centered constraints do maintain an important (if under-appreciated) relationship to Oulipian use of textual constraints.


‘Onanism’, which literally refers to the non-procreative spilling of sperm by the biblical Onan, has come to be a fairly common synonym for ‘masturbation’. Onan, and masturbation by extension, is condemned for the selfish act of spilling seed without intention of that semen being (re)productive. To Woody Allen’s “What’s wrong with masturbation?” the critic might say, “You are being too selfish in your love.” And yet such as response fails when put up against the Oulipian (and Acker-ian) conception of masturbation, in which the practice is indeed generative, productive, and sharing; not a mere spilling of seed but a spreading of love.

May 2020