by Jen Besemer
I talk a lot about my methods of making poems and images from source materials I collect and alter. But I don’t say much about what happens when I set out to write a poem. These days I tend not to make poetry without the aid of some kind of tangible source, but when I do, I’m often surprised that it comes out looking and sounding much the same as the sourced poems! What’s going on there? Is it something to do with the way my brain works? Does my mind just naturally…collage?
There’s nothing unusual in pulling one’s material from words and phrases that are “in the air”–where does absorption end and appropriation begin? I believe that all poets do this to varying degrees, and that work coming from “inside” or from “personal experience” is actually–or is also–a result of an extended collage process. The difference is in the degree of emphasis on that process, and in the degree to which the product preserves the traces of that process. Plenty of poets who work from collage-mind disguise its most obvious residues. I’m not one of those. I like to cast my collage-mind in high relief, and I like my finished work to retain that glorious bumpiness.
To a large degree my poetic process is curatorial. With use of source texts, the arrangement of letters, words/phonemes and phrases and the synthesis of a new poem both take place outside of me–the thinking is mine and internal, but the action is external, and my ability to influence meaning (or, more accurately, the audience’s experience) is lesser. For collage-mind written poetry, the processes of curation and synthesis of a new whole take place within me, and–perhaps because I do not have the intermediary of a source text–feel more directly accountable to the audience. I don’t mean that I’m any more concerned with accessibility or legibility in this work than in the sourced work. I mean that text-only poems operate on fewer dimensions than purely visual or hybrid text/image (etc.) poems. My conscious involvement in the audience’s experience is more direct in text-only written poems because there are fewer variables at work in that experience.
My unsourced poems often take the forms of different types of “functional” or informative text. The mimicry of this type of text, and the appropriation of its formal characteristics for other (poetic) purposes, are parts of a deliberately subversive process. I mean to expose the artificial nature of such text. Functional/informative text is privileged in our current social moment, and it is the subject of relatively little cultural critique or analysis. My mimic-poems pretend to occupy the same authoritarian language territory as the model texts. Currently, most of my mimics sit in sites of academic authority–word problems, bibliographic citations, captions. But I increasingly appropriate (or seem to appropriate) language of capitalist authority within the academic forms. For instance, I may employ the cadence and rhetoric of ad copy in a citation poem. This type of blended mimicry points to the extreme saturation of academic authoritarian language by the language of capitalist authority–through the priorities, paradigms and purposes inherent in such language.
Opening the mimic poem process up to collage-mind allows me to more fully destabilize those standardized forms. This is my version of the concern for “accessibility” in poetry; I deliberately craft texts that push audiences out of their bodies of knowledge. Audiences encountering a word problem poem bring to the encounter a wealth of previous experience with genuine word problems, both positive and negative (or indifferent). The training they may have received in approaching such texts may kick in, determining their expectations of the piece. Such expectations are soon shattered by what they find (the probability of encountering velociraptors while dumpster diving; philosophical and social considerations of tea consumption and carbon monoxide poisoning in the Russian rail system; wasp-infested canoes). By tweaking the expectations we share–our consensually-constructed sociocultural limitations–I hope to encourage myself and my audience to ask why we set these limits in the first place–and how they work, if they work at all.
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Jen Besemer is the author of several attractive and fuel-efficient volumes of poetry, ranging from compact to full-sized, including Quiet Vertical Movements, Ten Word Problems, Telephone and Object with Man’s Face (both forthcoming late 2013). Jen’s recombinant poetry projects are also represented in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. For more information, visit www.jenbesemer.com.
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