Death to the Speaker: A Provocation

self

Two months ago while his muffler was broken I sat in the back of a friend’s hatchback and wrote 2,855 words that I made public a few days later. These words dealt with a period of 744 hours in my life, during which two major relationships were coming undone and my (quote) life as a poet was groundswelling. I wrote this piece after the inverse relationship between my well-being and my writing had reached a disorienting pitch. I was working harder than ever—giving readings and publishing work and engaging more poets in correspondence than ever before—but the more I kicked up dust in the no man’s land of poetry, the more my personal life seemed to crack and buckle around me. I was lying on a floor one morning when it occurred to me: the only face I believe the public wants to see is the face of my triumph. Does this mean the face of failure belongs nowhere? And where do the faces of bitterness and self-destruction belong? I’m certain these faces exist, because I watch them decompose in the mirror each morning. And I felt it crucial to refuse this feeling in full view of anyone who would witness it. So I wrote a piece in which my failings at love, my pettiness, my anxieties, self-medicating, impulsiveness, and antagonism were laid out like a cold meal. 

Amidst an unexpected and overwhelming response from strangers, poets, colleagues, and friends, if you were Danniel Schoonebeek on the day this piece went live, there was a moment in the morning in which nine words appeared in your hand as you held your phone: quit using my life as fodder for your blubbering. If you were Danniel Schoonebeek, these words were written in a library and sent to you via text message by a woman you’ve loved for many years, the initial of whose first name, like everyone’s in the piece, was not altered under the false premise of protecting her privacy. This woman added that she doesn’t care to read your work and only bothered to express her anger because her sister, currently living in Bosnia, had read the piece within a half hour of it appearing and sent it to her in an uproar.

At this time if you’re still Danniel Schoonebeek, you’re holding up traffic a few minutes later and standing in the middle of Broadway without any recollection as to why you’ve hailed a cab. While cars honk behind him, a man is shouting hey boss you coming or what boss. Inside the cab you speak these nine words back to the man, quit using my life as fodder for your blubbering, and hand him three dollars (quote) for his trouble and exit the cab. From there you return to your job, where you hear this same sentence the rest of the day, only now it’s your voice and the traces of the woman who wrote it have vanished: quit using my life as fodder for your blubbering.

 

 

Early in the first book of his six-part autobiographical epic Min Kamp, Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard turns away from himself and focuses on Self Portrait at the Age of 63, a work painted by Rembrandt in the final year of his life:

                               [A]s far as Rembrandt’s person is concerned, his good habits and
                               bad, his bodily sounds and smells, his voice and his language, his
                               thoughts and opinions, his behavior, his flaws and defects, all the
                               things that constitute a person to others, are no longer there…so
                               what is depicted here, what Rembrandt painted, is this person’s very
                               being, that which he woke to every morning, that which immersed
                               itself in thought, but which itself was not thought, that which
                               immediately immersed itself in feelings, but which itself was not
                               feeling…

Apart from hijacking the title of Adolf Hitler’s 1925 autobiographical book of fascist ideology, Knausgaard’s saga drew fire in Norway for the degree to which it (quote) exposed the lives of his relatives, friends, wives, and children. What’s absent from public discourse about the book is the degree to which Knausgaard not only exposes himself but demands to be seen as a person—in both youth and adulthood—who is grotesque, corrupt, and warrants our disgust by way of stating the barest facts of his life. As a teenager the young Karl Ove obsesses over the bend in his dick. He drinks himself blackout and deceives girls. Knausgaard writes plainly about growing up and shaking his children as an adult, a time during which he is withdrawn and critical. And among the first feelings that arrive when he learns his father has drunk himself to death are overwhelming relief and absurd laughter. 

Naked tonight while I lie in this ninety-degree apartment and sweat as I mull over this word, this exposure, I too feel absurd. There is one definition here in the room with me: lack of shelter from the weather, as in, to die by exposure. But another is present: an instance of unmasking, as in an impostor, crime, or fraud.

What I want to know is this: when we (quote) expose another person, who do we expose them as? Or better yet: what do we expose them as, and what is this absence, this lack to which we expose them?

 

 

When you’re a student of poetry you learn the rules fast or you drown while your peers perform the proper strokes around you. A young man behind you says, I think what Pound is trying to say in this poem, and everyone in the room starts licking their chops. The professor has a beautiful skull, like a witch doctor, and now now he says, let’s remember that a poem resists our urge to psychologize the author. The young man apologizes. He corrects his stroke. The speaker of this poem, he says, and everyone in the room with a sneer of disappointment puts their tongues back into their mouths.

To this day the strokes I’ve learned fail me. Speaker of the house, I think. The speaker has the floor. What I resist is any relationship where we tell ourselves a poet is speaking because he is speaking from a place of authority. To hear a voice in the wilderness is not an act of indignity. But let’s not commit the indignity of pardoning any poet who would hide behind the scrim of a speaker for the reason that his speaker steals food, thinks dirty of god, wants to die on occasion, drinks too much swill, despises his kin, or names names. A poet who would attempt to veil himself like this is an impostor and the face of his powerlessness needs to be exposed as equal to our own.

 

 

In Privacy, Garret Keizer builds one argument for American privacy on the grounds that we’re a nation born out of revolution and founded on a bill of rights, and it’s thus that we resist, on the level of resisting corrupt government, any intrusion upon our privacy. Intrusion is a devil of a word in this instance, and Keizer contradicts himself beautifully a few moments earlier: “while privacy is the prerogative of the powerful,” he writes, “secrecy is the resort of the less powerful.” I’m stressing the words intrusion and resort here deliberately, as Keizer makes the mistake of believing the (quote) less powerful among us desire to live a life in which we’re afforded the luxury housing of those in power. These words also smack a little too true of empire for me to swallow, and Keizer’s insistence that the less powerful resort to secrecy smacks a little too true of Stalinist Russia for me to stomach.

Where poetry is concerned, the speaker of any given poem, with his own resistance to witness and disclosure, ought to be resisted by poets for the very reason that such a relationship between poet and listener is one of subjugation.

The walls of such a speaker’s empire deserve to come down.

 

 

Since we’re talking empire, we have to talk Edouard Levé, the French writer whose 2005 book Autoportrait, composed of a single paragraph made up entirely of declarative sentences, exposes Levé to such a degree that it makes Knausgaard look like a writer of character-driven fantasy. Levé’s approach: a barrage of statements about his whims, prejudices, boredoms, fancies, quirks, memories, and judgments. The result of this is a work in which the speaker, along with the very concept of (quote) Edouard Levé the author, becomes erased by dint of Levé’s extreme closeness to us and the candor upon which he insists in the conversation we’re having with him. He is almost too present to be visible as a man. And as such he renders himself nothing more than a voice in the wilderness.

What’s troubling about reading Autoportrait in 2013 is the staggering number of times the word like appears in the book. I border on amazement when I remember how recently world culture became dominated by this word, when I remember that the like button was only introduced into a certain blue website with all the trappings of empire in early 2009. To give you a taste of what I’m talking about, here’s a forkful of Levé’s sentences:

                                I like to say thank you. When I’m sure I like an article of clothing
                                I buy a few of the same one. I like museums, mainly because they
                                tire me out. I like, in order of preference, swimming in the sea, in
                                a lake, in a creek, in a pool. I don’t like narrative movies any more
                                than I like the novel. I would like to hum in the street if I were
                                alone. Since I like listening to people talk about themselves, I have
                                no scruples about talking about myself.

As a student I remember a professor of media studies telling me that America has become a nation of collectors: we scour for singles, he said. We make playlists, roam and travel, capture life instantly. We make photo albums, overhear strangers, quote them online. We weave them into our presence, quote the best lines, skip to our part of the video. We show the world those pieces of our collections that are the most beloved in our world.

 

 

If you’re Eileen Myles, you respond to Marjorie Perloff’s claim that you’re a poet of (quote) transparency or feigned transparency with the following observation and question:

                                [T]ransparency used to mean that one could in some ways witness
                                the process of the person writing. The writer was including the reader
                                somehow. Later it referred to a kind of aha moment when the writer
                                revealed an authentic self that showed all too well the workings of
                                empire. Is that what she means that I do?

This aha moment is the one in which it occurs to us that we’re hearing a speaker whose authority is supposed to be beyond our reach in a poem. Like a coat pulled back to reveal a pistol stuffed in the belt, this is the moment where the hidden face of our powerlessness is revealed to us. We’ve been collected and bent to a relationship where our work is in service to a power in conversation with itself. We’ve been called upon to further the reach of the empire.

 

 

The most bastardized manifestation of American collecting and empire-building that I can think of comes to me from a friend. One day Caitlin passes along a listing written by a man, a certain Chad Leslie Peters, who is searching for a female participant to help him write the sequel to a novel he calls The Affair: A Thirty Day Experiment in Love. In his treatment Peters writes:

                                I plan on writing a nonfiction version of The Affair. The book will
                                detail every aspect of a mutually-agreed to romantic affair between
                                myself and a young FEMALE lover (perhaps you), experienced over
                                30 days, as in the novel. The difference between the first book and
                                this one will be verite: everything in this new volume will be the truth
                                as both participants see it. If you agree to participate in this project,
                                you will keep a diary of all of your thoughts, impressions and memories
                                of the thirty day affair that we will share. I will then combine your
                                written thoughts with my own to present the reader with two versions
                               of the same erotic story. One love affair, as seen separately by the man
                               and woman.

Here is a man attempting to build an empire of the self. He has shoved the very question of exposure and privacy out of the way in order to focus on the more urgent task of consuming you. He wants to thresh you into himself. To collect what you like, dislike, what you do and do not understand. It doesn’t matter who you are, or who he is, because he will understand both of these lives for you. It’s as Knausgaard writes in Min Kamp: “we understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.”

Wonder with me for a moment what a woman would say if Chad Leslie Peters spoke these words to her. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe this woman has a sister in Bosnia who sends her the listing. Maybe this woman is sitting in a library one morning and writes him a message that says quit using my life.

 

 

What I’m calling for in poetry is the death of the speaker. Like all calls to arms I applaud those who will immediately refuse me. But refuse me in your voice, with the words that have eaten their way into your life, into your failings and love, into your triumphs and anxiety and grotesqueries, the very person to which you wake up every morning. Hiding yourself from the people you most want to hear you is itself an act of collecting and empire-building, no matter if it’s one that collects you away from the world. I likewise refuse the premise that speaking about my life toward the people who have entered it is an act of indignity. The work for which I believe the public is hungry is not the work of magpies and foragers. Enough history comes to bear each day that is the ongoing history of men who are starving for empire. I am calling for those walls to come down in poetry as they ought to in life. I’m calling for poets who are so present that they no longer exist within the walls of the other. And in this same way I am calling for an end to the self. I want poets to be so present in our flaws, habits, opinions, constitution, defects, exposure, scruples, corruption, whims, loneliness, crimes, boredom, sex, terror, and camaraderie that the self is disappeared. What will remain in this instance is the voice, powerless as we ourselves are powerless and calling out in a wilderness with no empire to speak of. What will remain in this instance for poetry is to hear this voice with no empire to hear of.

To this end I have quoted no poetry in this provocation.