A Response to Foulipo

Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr’s “Foulipo” is awash in nostalgia, the type of which is sweeping younger artists these days. It’s a nostalgia for the 60s and 70s avant-garde. While it’s not clear exactly which avant-garde everyone is nostalgic for (it seems to vary depending on age group, geography, gender and agenda), it’s safe to say that there is a hunger and interest for what happened in the arts from, say, the mid-50s through the early 80s. I think that the current nostalgia has to do with a complex group of factors — social, economic, and political — that add up to the fact the cultural landscape, say, of the early 70s is gone forever, never to return again. Jerome Rothenberg, in “How We Came Into Performance” (2005) describes this “golden” age:

… Allan Kaprow, whose name was then synonymous with Happenings, was increasingly available, and Carolee Schneemann made an extraordinary entry into New York in the early 60s. As I recollect it now, in fact, the amount and level of avant-garde performance activity seems both incredible and early enough into it so that any performer, any artist, might have the illusion of being a first discoverer of the work at hand. (I take it that this is a marked difference between then and now.)

I would like to pause here and mention some of the others who were into forms of performance that involved poetry or the manipulation of language in ways resembling Jupoetry. In doing so, I will largely limit myself to the 1960s and 1970s (with some spillover into the 1980s), while realizing, even so, that I only scratch the surface. — In theater, Julian Beck’s and Judith Malina’s Living Theater was rooted in poetry from its early repertory days to epic or monumental works like Frankenstein and Paradise Now, and a similar poetic presence informed groups like Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Also a number of poets close to us — Michael McClure, Rochelle Owens, Amiri Baraka — were for a number of years as much known for their theater work as for their poetry.

Language-centered musical works, as a near approach to poetry, were composed by musicians such as Cage, Charles Amirkhanian, Robert Ashley, Steve Reich, and Charlie Morrow. Later jazz- and jazz-related poetry came from poets like Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez, and still later rock and pop crossovers included Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, supplementing in that sense those like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, whose lyrics, taken as poetry, came from outside the poetry nexus as such. — Others who were near and available to me include, in no particular order, poetry ensemble performers such as The Four Horsemen and The Fugs, or solo performers such as Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, Richard Kostelanetz, Armand Schwerner, or Anne Waldman, whose performances went beyond solo performance as such [.… ]

The opportunities for performance were thus immense, and for poets like me they opened into an exploration of what our poetry could be — what we could make it be — as an art of sound and gesture.1

We read this and salivate. How different things are today. There was a time when everyone was, literally, in the same room. But gentrification and real estate diasporas across the country have blown apart the concept of traditional artist communities, scattering artists across the globe. I think it’s fair to say that today, for example, New York has become like Paris: a place where great things once happened.

I trace this situation back to the late 70s and early 80s. With the rise of Reganomics began a time in the arts when, if you could articulate what you did, you stood a chance of making some money at it. Suddenly, painters stopped playing in bands and focused exclusively on painting; sculptors stopped writing concrete poetry and went back to making objects; and dancers left the rooftops and returned to the proscenium stage. Terms like “intermedia” and “avant-garde” were declared dead.

In poetry, too, we saw a shift away from what Rothenberg calls “forms of performance that involved poetry or the manipulation of language in ways resembling poetry”; writers flocked back to the page. Even in the most progressive forms of writing (e.g. Language writing), sound, performance, and visual works were almost entirely excluded.

Foulipo looks back fondly on this golden age of intermedia, breaking down influences for a group of current writers by gender: art world-based figures such as Schneeman, Abramovic, Kobota, Ukeles, Piper, Horn, Mendieta, Wilke and Export for the girls; and constraint-based Oulipo for the boys. Foulipo’s attack on the issues of constraint and gender seem to be a smokescreen, behind which larger questions lurk, reflecting across-the-board generational anxieties for all of us working in ways that would be termed “innovative.”

One question Foulipo raises has to do with the writer’s relationship to the body. To paraphrase Barbara Kruger, yes, the body is still is a battleground, particularly in writing. Having spent the first half of my career teaching in art schools and the second half in English departments, I can pretty much break it down this way: art students function from the neck down. They need to touch, experience, do — it’s all hands on, but often lacks a head. The writing students, on the other hand, generally function from the neck up; there is no body involved. The ideal pedagogy, I think, attempts to re-attach the head to the body. This is what Schneeman, Abramovic, Kobota, Ukeles, Piper, Horn, Mendieta, Wilke and Export — as well as men working in the period like Chris Burden and Vito Acconci — all accomplished magnificently: smart, bodily work.

It appears that Foulipo’s call for a consistent politically charged, pro-body poetic is not fully-formed yet in either men or women of the current generation. The writers they cite — Jena Osman, Nada Gordon, Caroline Bergvall, Joan Retallack, Johanna Drucker, Harryette Mullen, (Young and Spahr), Christian Bök, Jeff Derksen, Rob Fitterman, Craig Dworkin, Darren Wershler-Henry (and myself) — I tend to think of as formalist innovators first and foremost. Very few of them — including the female poets — invoke the body in their work consistently. Of all, Caroline Bergvall stands out, but the example that is given by Young & Spahr is “About Face”; once again, literally from the neck up.

While most of the current generation would agree with Foulipo’s statement that “[W]hen it came to the body, we felt we needed … moe options … but eally not enough change on a govenmental level. Abotion was still at isk. Family values still set ou politics”2, I’d imagine that few feel that their work — charged as it is — has directly influenced the state of abortion, family values or the state of the war in Iraq. Instead, most innovative writing sets its own formal agenda as the agent for resistance and change as a form of page-bound praxis, extremely effective in its own right: think John Cage rather than Allen Ginsberg.

The Foulipo manifesto on the page, I think, demonstrates this. Reinsert the “r’s” and you get a more conventional political piece. Obfuscation makes it a better piece of writing, though arguably a less politically proactive piece. However, in performance, I applaud Young & Spahr’s physical reinsertion of the unclothed body into the space of poetics. While stripping in an academic conference hall is a far cry from entering a public subway train wearing crotchless jeans and carrying a machine gun, it’s a surely a step in the right direction.

Another question Foulipo raises is the idea of canon-formation. The piece expresses a great deal of anxiety over the fact that the boys are perceived as a group — unified by gender, dress and age, and loosely by aesthetics. But a closer look will reveal that like most “movements,” this too is a fiction. The photo to which Dworkin is referring was presumably taken at the E-Poetry Conference in Buffalo in 2001. What brought this group together was electronic writing, not constraint-based work. In fact, Rob Fitterman didn’t even attend the conference. Dworkin’s reportage — apparently loosely based on memory — is marred and overstated but was accepted by Foulipo as truth, bringing into question Young & Spahr’s notion of a unified male grouping.

This male group’s writings, too, are every bit as diverse from each other as the grouping of women that Foulipo invokes. Writing The Weather — a simple unaltered transcription of a year’s worth of radio weather reports — was an act of hands-off, appropriation; Eunoia, by contrast, is a highly-processed, feat of athleticism. Furthermore, I find as much camaraderie in, say, the work of Kim Rosenfield or Caroline Bergvall or Hannah Weiner, as I do in Christian Bök. Really, gender has little to do with it. Finally, I find it remarkable that body-positive, feminist-oriented critics would accept and invoke a critique based on lookism [“all in a line, all basically the same age, same stocky build, same bad haicuts, and black t-shits”3].

While I realize that Young & Spahr’s piece was written for a conference on Oulipo, I find their attacks on Oulipo to be over-reaching and ultimately misplaced. Oulipo, a mid-century movement whose limitations — political and otherwise — has never been embraced by many writers the way Young & Spahr assume. As for myself, Oulipo was more of a formal toolbox than anything else, a set of permissions that I never assumed to have any sort of political or social agenda. Likewise the body art of Schneeman, Abromovic, Acconci & Burden, while remarkable for its time, strikes me as wildly dated — every bit dated as Oulipo. So much water has passed under that bridge that its impossible to consider the work in ways other than washed in nostalgia.

Even if Foulipo’s attacks ring of truth on a meta-level, separating the sexes strikes me as the wrong approach. Things are much more complicated than that. I’m also not sure if the antidote to constraint is the body, or even if the two have much to do with each other. Perhaps integration of the two strikes me as a more potent mix. As demonstrated by writers like Acker & Burroughs, where the body meets formal innovation, magic happens. But Acker & Burroughs happened long ago, which leaves me to ponder what work, if any, remains to be done.


  1. 1. Jerome Rothenberg, "How We Came Into Performance: A Personal Accounting", 2005. http://www.ubu.com/papers/rothenberg_performance.pdf
  2. 2. Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr, "Foulipo" http://www.stephanieyoung.org/blog/?p=58
  3. 3. "Foulipo"