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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Craig Perez:

My Michael Magee and the Frontier of Democratic Symbolic Action

This piece is about 24 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Craig Perez and Jacket magazine 2007.

paragraph 1

We must realize our rhetoric and rituals.
               – Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The Fortune of the Republic’

I feel compelled in the face of this [support for Bush] to interrogate dumbness, ridiculousness, stupidity; to work undercover in the middle of it, to pretend to be if necessary, all the while reporting back to the reader. I have in mind, always now, Frederick Douglass’s words, ‘At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument is needed.’
               – Michael Magee, ‘Afterword’ to Mainstream

‘Me Chinese, me play joke, me put pee-pee in your coke.’
               – Micheal Magee, ‘Dear P.’

Drastic F(r)iction: Emancipating a Pragmatist Flarf


On April 28, 2006, Micheal Magee read three poems from his collection Mainstream (Blazevox, 2006) at David Buuck’s house in Oakland, CA. Although there were only about 30 people in the audience, Magee’s poem ‘Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ caused a stir in the online poetry community that generated more than 500 pages of commentary and spanned the entire summer of 2006 (you can read an archive of the discussion at


This essay situates ‘Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ within the context of Magee’s critical work Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing (The University of Alabama Press, 2004). By sketching Magee’s more subtle and contoured reading of Emerson, I hope to suggest that Magee’s Emerson functions as a founding father of a “Pragmatist Flarf.”


In Emancipating Pragmatism, Magee locates the roots of an experimental, American Pragmatism in the abolitionist writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Magee argues that Emerson attempted to subvert the “devious rhetoric” of slavery by re-visioning cultural texts (the Bible, the Constitution, and The Declaration of Independence) and symbols (freedom, America, and democracy) that were often used to justify slavery.


These subversions depended on a “view of language as the malleable reflection of logical space and cultural belief” (10), proposing that how words generate meaning has social ramifications. This “pragmatist view of language” as “symbolic action” emphasized the functional rhetoric of culture in creating the rituals of culture:


Emerson believed that his job as political symbolist (symbolic activist, we might call it) was to re-read and re-vision the cultural structure – the style, logical implication, and meaning of the cultures symbols – in such a way that it would be moved as far away as possible from the social structure. The more friction he could create between them (via an expansion of his proposed symbolic economy), the more likely was real social change in the direction of his egalitarian desires. (8)


My Michael Magee inherits Emerson’s job as symbolic activist / political symbolist; in turn, the project of a Pragmatist Flarf takes up the Emancipated Pragmatist re-reading of cultural texts and symbols to expand the “symbolic economy” and create enough friction to encourage social change.


To imagine Magee amidst the Google search results for ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ as a reflection of Emerson amidst the racist speeches of Everett or Webster and the text of The Fugitive Slave Act isn’t as absurd as it seems when read within an emancipated pragmatist context. Magee, armed with a “pragmatist view of language” and a desire for egalitarian social change, hopes to subvert the devious rhetoric of ritualized prejudice on the internet and propose social change through the remaking of social discourse.


To begin reading ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ as a politically symbolic poem, we must also examine its impetus. Magee’s title is a homophonic translation of the last words of Yeats’s poem “Lapis Lazuli” (“their eyes, / their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay”), written in 1936. The poem explores the poet’s role in a time of political upheaval:


I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.


According to “hysterical women,” poets must abandon their gaiety and do something drastic to prevent war. Yeats, in response to the impending violence, claims that we are actors on the stage of historical tragedy, and our job is to “perform [our] tragic play”:


There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.


The worthiest actors are those who “do not break their lines to weep” because “they know Hamlet and Lear are gay” and that “gaiety [transfigures] all that dread.” History, according to Yeats, is only the inevitable rise and fall of civilizations, and even the greatest artists are powerless against history because “all things fall.” The poet, unable to prevent history’s violence, can only transfigure dread into an emancipating reprieve of gaiety.


In the ‘Afterword’ of Mainstream, Magee describes Flarf as a “poetry of exasperation and/or panic masquerading as (to the extent that it makes room for its own salvation and even defiantly, anthropomorphically becomes) glee.” The motive for translating the end of Yeats’s poem as the beginning of a new poem seems clear: Magee hopes to show that a Pragmatist Flarf inherits Yeats’s conception of a transfiguring gaiety and incorporates this gaiety with an Emersonian imperative of democratic symbolic action. Magee parallels Yeats’s conception of “gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” but as a pragmatist Flarfist, he also attempts to transfigure the social structure through democratic symbolic action. Thus, the poet, while maintaining gaiety, creates a drastic f(r)iction that can potentially change history.


‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ (Stanza 1)

Ten years and this will be just another big Asian city, like
countries and let the Empire swallow them for their own benefit.
Brutus and Ajo look at me, pity in their eyes. Maybe the thin
Asian chick, burgundy car coat, Hong Kong chic. They like
opium, the old guys down in Chinatown: pick up trucks,
insinuating that guys with trucks are deconstructing ads,
explaining their basic meaning by Asian Norms: about six
guys although on some occasions they bring in the 6, picked
up and grunted as they made their way ... Asian Santa is 7” tall.
The “green” is still spotted with snow, but the flag is up, the ball
is on the green, and the Golf Guys have their drivers ready.
You always hear about sleazy guys who get blowjobs matching
their spectacular looks to Kimmy, a 21-year-old Asian cutie.
Young ladies dial a number on their cell phones – I understand.



I’m Mike Magee, author of the poem under discussion here. I’m majorly hesitant to weigh in here and realize I have not an ounce of good faith built up. I do have a certain amount of good faith built up with Asian American writers I’ve published in my magazine Combo, a number of whom I’m close to and who are poets I find vital, people like Brian Kim Stefans, Jessica Chiu, Mytili Jaganathan and Suyenne Juliette Lee. I mention them because I very much had them in mind when writing the poem, in the sense that I wondered what they would think of it as it was being written and afterward.


I think the relationship to the Yeats poem has been somewhat overstated, likely my own fault. I said that Yeats’s orientalism was “operative in” my poem. That’s true, but it hardly closes the book on what’s going on there. Indeed, I don’t know myself what exactly the poem is, or does. I suppose I thought of it when writing as a “writing through” (not “via” but “into and out of”) racist and homophobic language generated by a Google search on the frivolous, punning language of my title. The question I was trying to explore and perhaps answer was, given a culture where all this vile language exists, what does a language-maker like myself “do”. Ignore it? That doesn’t seem viable to me. Condemn it? A poem doesn’t condemn anything very successfully. If I were going to condemn it, as I condemn racism from the rooftops in my critical work EMANCIPATING PRAGMATISM, I would use prose. So, does a poem engage at all with racist language, with the “slur” and if so how and why and what for? These were the things I was exploring. What you might call “the poethics of the slur.”


The poem risks being terribly wrong headed. But again, it proceeds from this situation: I am in the middle of racist language; what do I do to get out? “Getting out” in this case involves working “with” the language at hand, since there is no space “outside” of language. In this case innovation [...] is the only response (from within the logic of the situation at hand). One way to think about the poem, if you care to, is to imagine the poem itself, lined-up next to pages and pages of its source material from Google: material which can be awful to read indeed. That just might, and this is my hope, indicate to you how a mind was at work improvising a counterpoint or counter-narrative.


Now, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to say, well, you shouldn’t have done that Google search in the first place, it was callous and trite to search ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay.’ I might respond that making the “guys” glitter instead of their eyes (as in the Yeats version) was a way to interrogate what John Dewey calls “the spectator theory of knowledge” – glitter (as on an Las Vegas costume, and unlike Yeats glittering which is sentimental description) is a Brechtian distraction of the kind Charles Bernstein describes in “The Artifice of Absorption.” But this doesn’t necessarily deflect the charge of callousness.


Likewise, its reasonable for someone to react by saying, you don’t have a right to work with this sort of language at all. In both cases I would defend myself and the poem but I recognize these positions as perfectly valid. But in either case the argument has nothing to do with the poem as such – indeed it barely needs the poem at all to make its case, one or two lines from the poem would be sufficient. The poem itself is a complex experience born from the concerns and questions I’ve noticed above. If it is irritating, hurtful, confusing, bewildering, annoying, frustrating, icky, absurd, laughable, even boring, this does not necessarily speak to its failure “as a poem,” whatever it may lead you to conclude about its author.

Michael Magee

(Roger Pao’s Asian-American Poetry blog, May 15, 2006)


“Makes Soapy Mess”: The Praxis of a Pragmatist Flarf


Magee’s analysis of Emerson’s formal techniques helps us understand the praxis of a Pragmatist Flarf.


In Emancipating Pragmatism, Magee describes Emerson’s methodology as “a tactic of disruption whereby he would deconstruct how a particular word was being employed [and] propose radically new definitions for those same words” (8). Emerson’s use of formal disruption embodies his desire to disrupt hegemonic, racist narratives and open the definition of America to the re-invention of America. This leads us to the essential idea that form (syntax, grammar, poetics) expresses rhetorical content (political, social, psychological, economic).


Within a pragmatist paradigm, formal discontinuity calls into question “the hierarchical grades of value on which the rhetoric of fascism depends” (16). Monologic discourse becomes “trumped by the flexibility, creativity, and productivity of the polyvocal” (16), which promotes social and racial pluralism in a “broadly collaborative model for the creation of the American vernacular” (10). This allows “the nation’s various vernacular communities (makers of new slang, metaphors, idioms, ‘oddities’) to effect changes in the beliefs of the larger community (their sense of lawfulness, correctness, truth) by way of linguistic or symbolic intervention” (my italics, 13). Emerson encouraged the maintenance of the “vocal diaspora” through “a rhetoric that emphasizes its improvisational, experimental qualities [thus] acting symbolically in favor of an improvised republic, a nation whose ‘grammar’ is flexible enough to allow it to revise itself” (19).


In addition to describing formal improvisation, discontinuity, and polyvocality as “vital tools at work in the central dialectic of the American vernacular” (25), Magee draws our attention to dissonance, as practiced by jazz trumpeteer Booker Little:


[Little] refuses to make a priori judgments about right and wrong in regard to the notes
being played; right and wrong are decided in the course of integration. In the process of integrating the dissonant notes, one achieves the ‘bigger sound,’ the polyvocal effect of ‘more horns’ (representative, I would say, of ‘more constituents’). Integration involves the accommodation of new varieties of shading. (25-6)


Returning to the Emerson/Yeats haunted image of my Michael Magee amidst a flowing stream of Google generated source material (its slang, idioms, metaphors and oddities), I imagine Magee preparing to put his linguistic (thus symbolic) “intervention” into practice. Magee improvises the “notes” (source material) without judgment, conscientiously integrating the dissonant material into a flexible grammar to create a discontinuous, polyvocal narrative that achieves a “bigger sound” and shades the American vernacular (and thus, symbolically, the American republic) with more horns! more constituents! more pluralism! In this jazz-shaped “blow,” Magee becomes the epitome of the Emancipated Pragmatist cum White Jazz Flarfist.


‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ (stanza 2)

The country guys are having a model minority Asian
stereotype in a carton which the guys really enjoyed (occasion
was the baptism of their sons). I don’t want to sound stereo-
typical, but most Asian people I HAVE MET, are pretty short.
Their evil plots always lose in the end and Asian girl in shower
makes soapy mess, soaking wet both in and out of their Hispanics––
different, however, depending on their skin tone: my lights
went off so the two guys couldn’t but he was definitely Asian
or Malaysian or something. The 2000s may well be the Asian
century, a fantasy world where even the bad guys are beautiful.
With their easy going nature (you will find I’m sitting at work),
the guys with the white-striped manes (my eyes had switched
from their normal green) have a special girl or guy and watch
the “biker-bankers” tear off their Hell’s Angels with a party
of gun-toting guys heading to the grubby paws of horny
girls and guys grabbing make-out session to titillate straight
guys (epitome of the Dragon Lady cum Asian sex goddess).


Hi Pam,

Thanks for your continued, thoughtful participation in this discussion. I understand that you are frustrated by what you see as a “a fundamental lack of understanding about racism.” But I would humbly suggest that the final moments of dialogue in the Limetree discussion, between Chris Chen and myself – where we are essentially trading interpretations of the poem and discussing the upshot of the difference – does represent a genuine and very useful dialogue. I am taking very seriously the points Chris is making about audience relative to the poem. And, if I’m reading him right, he is taking seriously my own take on how the poem does in fact provide for a position outside of its stereotypical and racist content. In particular, there was this moment of agreement on how the poem “might” work. Chris said:


An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking about tomorrow” is my favorite line in the poem. The movement to that “tomorrow” later on, where the speaker has disappeared, is chilling [...]


Chris does go on to say that that “move” in the poem doesn’t necessarily save the poem from the charge that it doesn’t really take potential Asian American readers into account. That it can still be read as an anti-racist “exercise” for a white readership – and that the very idea of such an exercise is itself subject to the charge of racial insensitivity. Again, I’m very earnestly thinking about Chris’s perspective as I continue to think about the poem. I’m especially struck by what you say here, Pam:


we cannot be glib about racial discourse in actual practice and jump right ahead to addressing racial discourse in the linguistic abstract. attempting the latter – without first demonstrating a clear, compassionate, and sincere comprehension of the former – seems to me a hollow and ultimately demoralizing exercise.


I would only ask, to what extent do these “two” things need to be done in a single poem? I think I have been “demonstrating a clear, compassionate, and sincere comprehension of racial discourse in practice” for a long time. In my critical writing (Emancipating Pragmatism takes racial discourse as one of its central subjects), as a publisher and editor, and as a friend and citizen.


It may be that it is simply impossible to build up enough a priori context to support a poem like “Their Guys” as I hoped it would be read. There will after all, always be readers out there who come to it without knowing a thing about me. And this is a complex problem for me as a political writer.


Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I am listening and I am learning.


(Pamela Lu’s Open, June 6, 2006)


“Who Spoke Little English”: The Collaborating Reader

In addition to re-visioning the role and technique of the political poet, Emancipating Pragmatism also re-articulates the role of the reader. This helps us further define how we might engage with the poetry of a Pragmatist Flarf.


An emancipated Pragmatist foregrounds the “radical contingency of language” (61) to establish a radically democratic relationship between writer and reader. The indeterminacy of the poem invites the reader to develop a new reading strategy “in which the onus of connection, logical systemization, and analogy is felt to be squarely the responsibility of the reader” (51). Cultural symbols and texts remain dead objects without the “collaborating reader”:


a reader who [takes] advantage of the contingency of language could, in a sense, [turn] reading into a form of writing. Likewise, a writer could encourage this possibility latent in the act of reading by emphasizing the contingent nature of his or her writing. The result would be a text that functioned like a symbolic republic (49).


By foregrounding its formal contingencies, Magee encourages us to collaboratively engage in signifyin’ ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay.’ Just as Emerson believed that the debate over slavery was also “a debate highly dependent on theories of reading, on the interpretation of cultural documents and cultural myths” (71), the online debate over ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ reflected this collision of dissonant reading theories. Even the various blogs where the discussion occurred functioned rhetorically as symbolic meeting halls for the vocal diaspora to engage in symbolically democratic debate on a symbolically equal playing field.


Participants in the online discussion questioned whether the poem takes into account an Asian-American reader (or was the intended audience a white audience?). We can best answer the question of Magee’s implied reader through his formulation of Emerson’s implied reader (those who might answer the emancipated pragmatist call).


Emerson, by encouraging a radically democratic form of reading, hoped to arm citizens with collaborative reading skills that would allow them to resist devious rhetoric. Emerson was not “stoopid” enough to think that he could actually affect slavery advocates or Northern apologists through disjunctive writing (no matter how convincingly symbolic his linguistic intervention was). More pragmatically, Emerson believed his symbolic activism would affect an emerging African-American reader, what Magee calls a “fugitive reader”:


the fugitive-turned-soldier-turned-reader was the representative American genius because he was fighting for freedom under a new set of rules that put mental and physical symbolic activity on the same playing field (battlefield), a set of rules that made the liminal self agent in the proposal of a liminal nation (89).


These new readers, uncorrupted by a “spectator theory of knowledge,” could potentially develop an emancipated reading that would allow them to contribute to Emerson’s dream of an accommodating, albeit dissonant, symbolic union. Through his emancipated writing, Emerson could encourage the latent potential of the fugitive reader, a relationship that would function like a symbolic, paternal pedagogy.


My Michael Magee is no such pedagogue. He is not stoopid enough to think ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ will affect those citizens stoopid enough to believe in and perpetuate an online discourse of prejudice and racism. Nor is he stoopid enough to propose that his implied readers are Asian-immigrants-turned-citizens-turned-readers who need Magee to nurture their latent potential as collaborative readers.


To save Emerson from being portrayed as a paternal pedagogue, Magee quotes this passage from Emerson: “It is the vice of our public speaking that it has not abandonment. Somewhere, not only every orator but every man should let out all the length of all the reins; should find or make a frank and hearty expression of what force and meaning is in him” (Magee’s italics). His reading of this passage is dizzying:


If every orator should let out all the reins, then doesn’t ‘somewhere’ in fact mean ‘everywhere’? [...] then might ‘every orator’ and ‘every man’ be read as ‘some orator’ and ‘some man’? And, lastly, if we make this leap, changing ‘every man’ to ‘some man,’ don’t we deconstruct the logic by which we made ‘somewhere’ stand for ‘everywhere’ in the first place? This dizzying circularity has a point: it makes moot any discussion of who Emerson’s implied reader might be. (95)


Any sense of who Emerson’s implied reader may be is lost in Magee’s circuitous logic. This circularity has another point: by disappointingly making moot any discussion of an implied reader, Magee saves himself (and Emerson) from being portrayed as either a condescending, paternal pedagogue for a fugitive / Asian reader, or as a minstrel performing only for a white audience. Magee puts no limit on who the implied reader of ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ might be; truly, someone! everyone! anyone! might answer the call of a Pragmatist Flarf.


‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ (Stanza 3)

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking
about tomorrow. They expected to see an Asian in the
remote areas. Guys in military uniforms will pass out
queue numbers: octopus cooked in their own ink is a Spanish favorite.
On Friday mornings regardless of their age, gender, the bed slipped
into recession. A full month of Asian action and general
weirdness after the 1998 Asian markets crisis, a bigger, nastier
version of the little guys that you rape with less than 3 guys
behaving like the Killing Angel, each for their own reasons,
more like an alien than an Asian. An Asian business man rips off
his coat, revealing a glittering, Vegas style. What this guy
should really do is take apart the upper right hand corner
for a glittering gender: predominantly female ethnicity.

Hi Tim,


This is a very persuasive reading of my poem. Though I wince at words like “condescending” and “disappointing” its clear to me how you arrive at them [...] I’m quite sure that over the course of this conversation I’ve offered a number of contradictory opinions about the poem. As I’ve said often, in this after-the-fact act of interpretation I’m more of a reader than a writer: I can say with some clarity HOW I wrote the poem, and I can say in general terms WHY I wrote it; but as far as what it means I’m hardly more authoritative than any other earnest interpreter. I still believe that the best “reading” of the poem I can provide is implicit in what I said long ago now in one of the Limetree threads:


Flarf’s relationship to the OBJECTS of the internet is, so to speak, objectivist. As Gerald Bruns puts it in his new book (he’s talking about Ponge not about Flarf), the relationship is “accusative, not if the poet were someone who is porous with respect to things, suffering or enjoying them but also, in some way, addressed or obsessed (in the etymological sense of being besieged) by them.” Okay? This is the ethics of Flarf, such as it is; its sympathies and empathies are more extensive than you believe. They just don’t fall into the tired old patterns.


[...] The poem risks failing; it has to. Whether it fails long term – as it has failed for some readers who’s opinions I respect very much – is unclear. That you see the poem as having “already partially...acknowledge(d) that there may be an Asian “reader” out there, one who is something more than an object of orientalist discourse” gives me some heart – although I believe (and you may well see this as the fundamental mistake of the composition) that the poem “presumes” the existence of Asian readers and writers outside not only orientalist discourse but outside the machinations of this poem. The lines “An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow” which you read as condescending is NOT representative of Asian speakers or readers generally, nor certainly of Asian poets.


Here I think the flarf method matters, for it consistently undermines language’s aspiration toward metaphor. Nor is flarf a particularly useful tool for expressing “vague shared human aspiration.” In a way, for your reading of my line as “so na_ve” to make sense, one also has to imagine a reader “out there” stupid enough to be taken in by it, and not all by itself, but in the context of all the other shit going on in the poem [...] So, to sum up on this point: this is one single Asian woman referenced by someone, somewhere. I think of “her” as both particular and vague. The reason her disappearance is chilling (as Chris Chen and I agreed it was) is because much of the rest of the discourse in the poem can’t accommodate even this level of particularity (as opposed to stereotypicality).


[...] I can’t stress this enough: outside the one line discussed above, there are no speakers from the Asian diaspora in this poem; in fact there are no people from the diaspora represented in it at all and obviously no Asian American poets. There are only characterizations being wrenched, severed and stitched. HOWEVER, whether this matters to anyone or to a reading of the poem or not, the existence of people from the Asian diaspora “and their ability to speak for themselves” is very much presumed. Moreover, my own relationship to the objects of which the poem is composed [...] is significantly impacted by my own history with Asian-American poets and poetry.


[...] Why is this history important? Because I think it should probably be brought to bear on some of the critiques you levy here: in particular, that the title lacks “any critical awareness...of how the images [I] deploy might signify in a particularly Asian American context.” And that my “self-critical” mode (I think “community-critical” might be a more accurate term) “neglects the proliferation of more complex [Asian and Asian-American] subject and reading positions” [...] I was very aware when I made up that title as a homophonic translation of the line from Yeats that I was wading into cultural muck like the details “Gay or Asian” feature. And I waded in anyway, because there I was. [Flarfists] know well how words and terms are playing outside the narrow confines of educated or liberal or white or (name your ivory tower term) because (aside from whatever everyday exposure they have to non-white cultures) they are searching those words and phrases in all sorts of permutations. So the potential awfulness and the potential for what you as a writer would consider a misreading of what you are about to undertake is all there in front of you. And you do it anyway because there you are. Perhaps that compulsion has an ethical dimension, I dunno. I tend to see it as ethically neutral until a poem emerges from it.


I think I came up with the original play on the Yeats line out of a sense that critiquing HIS orientalism would be a mere academic exercise at this point (and in that sense my earlier claim that my poem “directly engages with the Orientalism at work in Yeats’s poem” has become a bit of a red herring); it’s a critique that’s been done by poets and theorists smarter than myself – and I recognized in my homophonic phrase the way in which innocuous terms (“Asian,” “gay,” “guys,” terms I use all the time as having positive value) could, would in the alchemy of Google, dredge up the lousy, ridiculous, menacing, lunatic side of internet speech. Try this: search “women” on Google. Now search “Asian women”. The difference HAS to be dealt with, I feel.


[...] You write that Asian American readers have “recognized” in reading the poem “that the ‘structure’ of the stereotypes had not been altered, even if the wording had been muted”; that “the use of ‘Asian’ throughout actually made the stereotypes worse.” Yes, I think that’s right, but I see this as one of the conclusions to be drawn from the poem, not as something I have failed to register. The notion that my use of the word “Asian” was a “strategy” I was employing to “get the poem past most Asian American readers” seems, I confess, absurd to me. Why in the hell would I want to get anything past Asian American readers? And, even if I did, wouldn’t I have a higher regard for them than to use “that” lame strategy [...]


As for the critique that the poem “neglects the proliferation of more complex subject and reading positions” – this may sound nuts, but I think the poem, rather than neglecting them, actually presumes them. That is, it takes as obvious the fact that there are innumerable complex readers, writers and speakers from the Asian diaspora outside the poem. One option I may have had in the course of writing the poem or in revision would have been to quote the actual speech or writing of, say Asian-American poets I know, or I could have interspersed writing by Said, say, or something more contemporary and specific to the poem’s language [...] My own take is that this a) might have come off as even MORE condescending than Tim takes me to be (in the “Asian woman who spoke” line; and certainly it would have FELT a lot more condescending and manipulative to me); and b) it would have completely-deactivated the negative language in the poem by telling all my readers exactly how to read it: as in, ah, he’s read Said; then this poem is about how bad Orientalism and hate speech are, I get it.


[...] I think when the dust clears the aspect of this conversation about my poem that may be of enduring interest is what you say here:


In any conventional sense, then, the poem is at best neutral toward its racist material, since it has denied itself the luxury of ironic distance; the images are not framed in some coherent way. Indeed, I would extend this point further and see this self-denial of irony as something like paradigmatic for flarf itself: flarf is precisely that writing that refuses to take an ironic, high-handed position with regard to its “degraded” and “offensive” materials, but gets right down in the muck with those materials, exploring both pleasure and disgust, while being profoundly implicated in and by both. If I’m wrong about that, then perhaps I just don’t get it.


Interestingly, when you say “the poem is ‘at best neutral’ toward its racist material” you are close to Thomas Basboll’s take on the poem and on flarf generally [...] But I also agree with the way you modify the above, “in any conventional sense” – maybe only time will tell whether the poem can or will be read as anti-racist in some non-conventional sense [...] Or the poem might be read as if its ethical dimension existed only in the tracings left by engagements between the poet and the language he encountered [...]

Yours, Mike

(Tim Yu’s Tympan blog, June 19, 2006)


Give it up! I was president of the computer club at Mineola Prep”: An Open Reading

In Emancipating Pragmatism, Magee locates the roots of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” in
American Pragmatism and experimental jazz. “Personism” then becomes an intermediary inheritance between Emerson’s emancipated Pragmatism and Magee’s Pragmatist Flarf.


Magee describes how O’Hara’s conception of poetic speech as telephone chatter renders “all speech as fundamentally colloquial”; even the nature of the telephone “suggests that the poem is dialogic” (139). The poem, created through a jazz-shaped “nerve,” exists between two people and facilitates “a kind of collective improvisation that represented for O’Hara democracy in aesthetic action” (143). Magee points to how O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems emphasize personal address and the act of doing to “set the writer and reader dynamic in motion” (142).


Despite the obvious parallel, Magee’s “Personism” is more of a “Virtualism,” where the poem doesn’t exist between two people, but between one person, the computer, and the virtual world. Moreover, Magee does not write “I do this, I do that” poems, but he writes what I call “I read this, I read that” poems. You just go on your server, so to speak.


In the ‘Afterword’ to Mainstream, Magee writes: “I would search Google for two disparate terms and, using only the quotes captured by Google (never the actual websites themselves) would stitch words, phrases, clauses, sentences together to create poems.” Even though this methodology doesn’t utilize the actual websites, it’s interesting to see what this process includes and excludes.


The first line of ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ (“Ten years and this will be just another big Asian city, like”) comes from an article titled “Vietnam: Ghosts of the Past” (Kansas State Collegian 10/11/97) written by Kevyn Jacobs, a student enrolled in a semester-at-sea:


A couple of hours upstream, we arrived at Ho Chi Minh City. While small when compared with the other ports we’ve visited thus far, it was obvious that they weren’t intending it to stay that way. In another 10 years, this will be just another big Asian city, like Shanghai or Tokyo.


Getting off the boat, though, we learned quickly that this wasn’t Japan or China we were dealing with. The signs of a 20-year economic embargo were evident. In the shadow of the glittering new high rises and Pepsi advertisements was a crumbling infrastructure, run-down buildings and an astounding amount of poverty.


Since Magee’s method doesn’t address the entire article, ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’, he misses an opportunity to critique Jacobs’s lurking “imperialist nostalgia” (Rosaldo, Culture and Truth, 1989). The second line (“countries and let the Empire swallow them for their own benefit”) comes from an email by “Autumnleaf” (11/1/98) on a listserve dedicated to Mercedes Lackey’s fantasy novel, Storm Rising:


I guess Misty created Tremane to show us that you cannot paint the world in black and
white. [...] From the Empires view, Tremane was the good guy who tried to conquer other on countries and let the Empire swallow them for their own benefit: the Imperial Law, the advanced technology, all the amenities the Empire had – they considered those things worth having. I’m at the beginning of Storm Rising now (first read) and in fact, I still have trouble seeing why the Empire should be so evil. But maybe that was just what Misty intended: let them think about why it would be bad for Valdemar / Karse to be conquered by the Empire. So, in my opinion, Misty gave us characters which were created after real life.


Similarly, ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay,” fails to question Autumnleaf’s imperial justifications. So, in my opinion, Magee gives us characters created after real life without engaging with the further rhetoric of these characters.


The most widely discussed sentence in the poem (“An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow.”) comes from a “9/11 narrative” on the Wheaton College website (10/8/01) by alumnus Kiki Black:


At the Staten Island St. George Terminal a lady in a white suit wanted to get back on a boat for a job interview in Brooklyn. She’d missed everything because on the trip to Manhattan she’d been in the ladies’ room. I told her to go home. There would be no interview.


An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking about tomorrow. I said, “Forget tomorrow. Go home.” I tried several times to call work. No phones worked. Pay phones were 10 people deep. I walked out across the street to Borough Hall. Many watched Manhattan from the wall and steps at Borough Hall [...] I sat on the wall a long time and talked to a few ladies who wanted to go home but couldn’t stop staring at the smokestacks.


Black’s refusal to engage in any dialogue with the Asian woman or with tomorrow is analogous to Magee’s non-engagement with his source material. The “Asian woman” doesn’t even warrant a response from Magee (this silence is truly chilling) because he’s always “a step away,” reading towards the next textual smokestack.


This forces a pragmatist Flarf to rely on its formal content to provide a further symbolic engagement. Since the form of the poem (its dissonance, polyvocality, and disjuncture) always already presents anti-racist content, there’s no need to “break up their lines to weep.” It would be a “tired old pattern,” as Magee puts it, to engage with the source material at the level of contentual content (since form also expresses content, we should differentiate between formal content and contentual content, or content’s content).


This move away from contentual content in ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ subverts any attempt (or desire) to construct a “master-narrative”; similarly, the poem overthrow any subject position quicker than you can say, “I get it.”


Inspired by the Shakespeare references in Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli,’ I imagine the subject position in ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ as Macbeth’s “walking shadow.” The pragmatist Flarfist is “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,” and the poem is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Act V, Scene V). This shouldn’t be read negatively: by signifying nothing, Magee subverts the “tyranny of the signified” with the indeterminacy of the signifier and creates a contingent signified in dialogue with the collaborating reader who engages in continuing signification.


Let’s return to Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’ for a moment. Yeats dedicated the poem to Harry Clifton, who gave Yeats an 18th century Chinese carving (from the Ch’ien Lung Period, 1739 – 95) for his seventieth birthday. The carving depicts a bird, temple, trees, paths, and three men climbing a mountain.


The last two stanzas of ‘Lapis Lazuli’ consist of Yeats’s medi(t)ation of the carving. He describes two “Chinamen” walking behind a servant who is carrying a musical instrument. The timeless scene, however, doesn’t escape history:


Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows


Despite inevitable ruin, the three men continue to climb towards what Yeats describes as “the little half-way house” (a resting place? a temple? an Irish pub?). Yeats imagines the men sitting “on the mountain and the sky,” staring “on all the tragic scene.” Then the servant-musician plays “mournful melodies,” and the old men’s “ancient, glittering eyes, [become] gay.” Yeats’s motive for describing the musician as a “serving-man” seems clear: the artist’s job is to serve the world by transfiguring dread and panic into gaiety. The orientalist depiction of the “Chinamen” articulates Yeats’s conception of the poet’s “role” in a time of war.


I delight in imagining the musician as Magee with his symbolic trumpet, masquerading our anxieties into a disjunctive, jazzy glee. However, Magee deviates from Yeats by drastically climbing back down the mountain (the Google determined path) into the virtual depths of the tragic scene. He g(r)azes “undercover in the middle of it all” as a walking shadow (probably sweating a lot by now), knowing that a tired, mournful melody will not be heard within the sound and the fury of a post-9/11 world.


This suggests that a Pragmatist Flarf not only offers an emancipating gaiety, but also aims to re-visions social discourse and propose egalitarian social change. Poetry gives pleasure and drastically matters.


I also delight in imagining Magee as a Ch’ien Lung sculptor (why not, Flarf is often described as Google-sculpting) carving his material into a re-visioned, emancipated ‘Lapis Lazuli.’ With its racial “discolorations,” its syntactic “cracks and dents,” and its multi-narrative “water-course” (or “mainstream”), ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ becomes Magee’s semi-precious gift to us.


Despite the generosity of such a gift, many readers objected to the poem’s objectionable content and Magee’s disinterest in re-deploying racial (often racist) discourse at the level of contentual content. Many readers (fugitive and otherwise) have condemned the poem as being always already only symbolic; that is, its democratic symbolic intervention failed to adequately revise the rhetoric or rituals of its source material.


Although Flarf established its symbolic republic in the linguistic territories of the awful, wrong, Un-P.C., pornographic, and fucked-up, as these once exotic territories become incorporated into the mainstream, it becomes increasingly necessary to seek out virgin territories and expand Flarf’s symbolic economy.


In our time of increased imperial democracy, I wonder if a Pragmatist Flarf will continue to expand the frontier of democratic symbolic action into other racialized, linguistic territories, or if the resistance against ‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ de-territorialized the symbolic republic enough to create a discouraging impasse to this frontiering (ad)venture. If not, I wonder if a pragmatist Flarf will reconsider its methodological deployment of racial discourse and develop a non-conventional way to re-deploy such discourse at both the levels of formal content and contentual content (a more perfect union), without falling into the tired old pattern of relying only on formal content to express anti-racist, anti-imperial rhetoric.


In the spirit of collaboration, I am asking about tomorrow. What can we expect from a Pragmatist Flarf? (This is getting good isn’t it?) Will a Pragmatist Flarf “break up their lines to weep” and protest more fully? Or is Flarf too new, too vital a movement to promise anything, something, everything? Is Flarf, like America, on the way?


‘Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay’ (Stanza 4)

Tomorrow, the English guys are drinking: enjoy engaging
with their culture caught in between two guys while a video
camera mounted in the wall behind their couch OH NO! NOT!
jams mint into her mouth. Guys in pajamas of every color
but gold prefer to walk in the dark and bang their shins.
“Are you guys alright?” There was no response in that communiqué.
The hungry and naked spend their lives doing only this;
they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much ... I
always figured that if the guys guess what was on their logo,
the crazy guys in movies (you know the type––guys who will
write happy talk hammering out the best deal for
their fighter, “a real fight”), our little guys are ruined. The others
turned to see one of their men had fallen. Indeed, despite his glittering
blues, greens, and silvers (“As we retreated two white guys on
bikes appeared...”) they had him tied up in their old Frontier.


Hi to all,

Well, consensus now seems to have been reached, in the context of this particular discussion, that the poem is a complete disaster. Once Chris, for instance, starts saying stuff like “the defenders of the poem seemed more interested in reflexively circling their wagons around the poem, and around Flarf in general, as though there was some sort of market share or territory that needed to be preserved,” I think an impasse has been reached.


To characterize the interpretations offered by Kasey Mohammad and Anne Boyer in this way (two people who know a thing or two about poetry and about being marginalized) is to completely discredit them as serious, earnest critics. And Brenda (hi Brenda) has seemed to offer a sort of reader-response interpretation of the poem which marks it as enacting (if I’m reading her right) what the New Historicists used to call “non-antagonistic rhetorical dualism.” I can’t tell if she reads this as my intent but, brother, it feels bad. I had thought to perhaps address the thread that Pam and Teemu had started, questioning whether the poem might be speaking only to a white audience and whether this could be figured as having positive value.


But the upshot is I don’t believe I can say anything further about the poem or my activities outside of the poem that will affect opinions one iota at this point.


So, I think that’s it for me. Thanks to everyone who has participated, it’s been a serious education.


(Tim Yu’s Tympan blog, June 19, 2006)


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