In a scene from Grizzly Man, we see director Werner Herzog wearing a pair of headphones and sitting with his back to the camera, listening to the recording of Timothy Treadwell’s violent death (he was eaten by one of the grizzly bears he had devoted the latter part of his life to protecting), while a teary-eyed Jewel Palovak, Treadwell’s friend and executor of his estate, looks on.
The sound is kept from the audience. After Herzog takes off the headphones, he tells Palovak that no one must ever hear the recording he has just heard.
In this scene, Herzog is calling attention to himself not only by literally focusing the viewer’s attention on the man behind the camera, but also by exposing the power the director has over the audience, precisely by showing the viewer that he, the great Herzog, can disclose or hide at his will. And in this instance he is also, simultaneously, forcing the viewer to question the grounds of the genre — he’s insisting we continue to ask that tired question of whether objectivity can exist in the documentary, as though no answer has yet been adequate.
But above all, he wants the viewer to be unsettled, and he does this by taking on the role of the unsettler, the provocateur. In other words, by pointing to himself as a problematic element within the film, he is trying to get the viewer to reckon with the problems of the medium.
By calling Inbox a reverse memoir, an autobiography composed using only others’ words, Noah Eli Gordon is, like Herzog, calling attention to himself, not to the unnamed correspondents who have provided the text of the book. His introduction to Inbox, in the form of an emailed permission note to all those involved in ‘authoring’ the text, he states
Of course there’s something awfully self-aggrandizing to a project like this, and I’m fully aware of it, which is why I’m thinking of it as an autobiography. (4)
The ‘why’ in this sentence is especially curious. It’s like saying, ‘The ice-pick jammed in my forearm really hurt, which is why I shoved it in further.’ The ‘why’ seems to intensify the self-aggrandizement, rather than downplay it. That it can only be assumed this self-aggrandizing gesture is intentional on Gordon’s part highlights his Herzogian stance. Yet where Herzog points to himself as problem in an attempt to jolt us into questioning the medium through which we receive him, Gordon’s self-pointing is done in an attempt to get us to question what is around the medium — the communities around contemporary (specifically ‘post-avant,’ if you will) poetry.
A continuous prose block composed from the body-text of emails that happened to be in Gordon’s inbox on 9-11-04, which were addressed specifically to him (no forwarded or listserv emails), and which are arranged by Gordon in reverse chronology, Inbox calls to mind the ‘uncreative writing’ of Kenneth Goldsmith. Yet it is the content — what Gordon calls ‘dinky pobiz stuff’ — that makes the book compelling. In ’s words, most of it is him
hashing out the shape of chapbook manuscripts I’ve published, or will publish, directions to readings, etc. (5)
Throughout, there are names upon names upon names of mostly contemporary, mostly American poets, books, magazines, presses, reading series, and so on. For one who recognizes a good amount of these names, a game of ‘Can you guess who’s writing this email?’ seems a natural reaction (or was for this reader) while reading the first pages of the book. As the reading goes on, though, it becomes clear that a major dimension of the experience of the book is a testing of readerly endurance, precisely because so much of it is ‘dinky pobiz stuff,’ as is seen in this fairly typical passage:
Thanks for the reminder. Did you want issue 1? I’ll send you that right away. Issue 2 is still in the hopper, somewhat delayed. That was me. It IS a little odd being out of the MLA loop and attending readings, rubbing elbows with no one familiar, which is kind of nice actually cause I can come listen and have little social obligation. Still must apologize for not saying hello, self conscious amidst so many twitching ears, ya know? Waddya think of that reading? (57)
Dinky pobiz paranoia aside, there are many passages throughout that demonstrate the collision of voices that Gordon offers in his introduction as the reason he finds the text of Inbox compelling, such as
Yep, I meant “toothless....” To be tootless is a far worse fate. Great–hope the book is picked up, picked out. Terrific blurb! Are we going with this one, or were you going to get another? (This would be fine on its own, since it’s so long.) am horribly remiss in my reply to you & have some bittersweet (but ultimately good) news. I am off to LA on Saturday. (38)
Or, to take a particularly humorous collision:
My best advice is that you continue to publish in magazines and search out small presses and publishing opportunities. This is probably one of the weirdest things I will ever send you but I just read this mornings newspaper and figured you would just think I was a little nuts. (77-8)
Quoting from the book in this way, highlighting the disjunctions between the voices, gives another spin on Inbox’s challenge to a reader’s endurance: when faced with a long, brambled block of prose, a reader’s predilection to skip around the text, picking out passages here and there, can take over, and can be a legitimate way of reading the book. In light of this, there is a passage about 2/3rds of the way through that stands out as a particularly Calvinoesque moment of self-reflexivity, as if it could be a stray passage from one of the lost novels in If on a winter’s night a traveler:
That’s interesting, how it’s backwards chronologically... I’ve only read from the first half, really, so I’ll be interested to note any change. I think with someone like Coolidge, who’s so prolific and consistent the danger always exists that it gets too abstract after a certain point, but that’s really only the case, for me, at least, if I fool myself into trying to treat the work as a “normal” work that asks to be read from start to finish. I like that such work totally frustrates our inculcated reading habits, scrambles them and rewards the reader for not paying a particular attention that one’s supposed to bring to reading.... I like a lot of work now that I can dip into at any point and know I’ll get something good out of it... (54-5)
This passage also sticks out for another reason: out of 78 pages, it is the most intricate, articulate discussion of poetry (though, of course, we’re not sure what exactly is being discussed). In BlazeVOX’s press release for Inbox, the book is described as ‘Part conceptual memoir, part chronicle of the social realities of a working poet.’ This latter description, given what actually constitutes the majority of the book’s content, raises a lot of questions: Is this really representative of the social realm around poetry? If so, where does serious discussion happen if it’s not happening in a serious practitioner’s inbox? In the comment fields of Ron Silliman’s blog?
But let me back up a bit — Gordon might actually be raising some serious questions about the state of the social scene(s) around post-avant poetry in the U.S. Obviously, email, blogs, social networking sites, and online zines are all connective — and all fairly new — devices for poets. By taking the most common and mundane of these devices and constructing an autobiography entirely out of the social materials made possible through that device, Gordon may be asking us to take a long, hard, 78-page look at what the current constitution of a poet’s life (or ‘life’) is. And there might not be anyone better than Gordon to ask such a question right now.
Inbox was composed at the moment he was receiving many accolades for his first book, The Frequencies, while his second book, The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, had just been picked as the winner of Ahsahta Press’s 2004 Sawtooth Poetry Prize (there is constant mention of both books throughout); and Inbox has been published at a time simultaneous with even more of his prize-winning books. So, coming from a poet who is currently very visible, Gordon’s intentional self-aggrandizement, his pointing-at-himself a la Herzog, forces us to question the communities — or should we say networks? — around poetry.
At a time of proliferation of literary prizes, MFA programs, and the enticing possibility of an academic career for many a post-avant poet — along with much dispute as to whether ‘careerism’ is ruining the communities of poetry — how capitalistic attitudes have influenced the social formations around poetry, and how these attitudes in turn influence and determine a poet’s work and life, are questions any serious poet should be asking. While none of the myriad voices of Inbox directly enter into such debates, Gordon is offering his (perhaps unavoidably) contradictory response by demonstrating that his ‘autobiography’ as a poet is to be enmeshed in ‘dinky pobiz stuff’.
Joseph Bradshaw is the author of The Way Birds Become (Weather Press, see weatherpress.blogspot.com). His poems and reviews have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cannibal, Cranky, Cultural Society, Denver Quarterly, Shifter, the tiny, Zafusy, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa (or Portland, Oregon).
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/34/bradshaw-gordon.shtml