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July 20, 2009

I brought two wonderful literary magazines with me to the cabin—The Poker #9, edited by Daniel Bouchard, and New American Writing #27, edited by Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff. Both are worth spending hours with.

Juliana Spahr’s cheeky “Clear-Dark” leads off The Poker with a preface describing its composition: “[L]ast year, I began a project with my co-conspirator Stephanie Young to co-write some poems that we would then submit to the NEA.” They were spurred on not only by the fact that “the pack of poets that I tend to run with” had been shut out from the NEA grant winners in 2007 but because “Despite reading several books of poetry a week for at least the last ten to fifteen years, I had read none of the winners before. I knew a few by name and reputation. But most of them I didn’t even know who they were.”

Not willing to leave it at that, Spahr and Young undertake to read books by some of the grantees. “[T]here was no work in the modernist tradition at all in the ones we read. And there were no poems in other Englishes. And no poems of resistance or revolution. And there were no poems about the war at all. These are things I think anyone who follows the poetry prize circuit expects” (italics mine).

The impulse to reverse-engineer the NEA process is familiar—maybe it’s as prevalent as the impulse to see whether the International Library of Poetry would ever reject a poem (the impulse that in part gave birth to Flarf). And despite Poets & Writers’ querying headline (“Can Flarf Ever Be Taken Seriously?”) the fact is that is has been, and is (though one wonders whether the NEA would agree). I think of Spahr’s enterprise as a kind of adventure with flarfy overtones, though there are of course differences. She is careful to keep mockery out of her work, and writes with a sincere attempt at a “quiet” voice—though she kind of sabotages her enterprise by writing about war, a verboten in the NEA’s crop of grantees. She also admits to not being able to shed certain modernist techniques, such as lists (in her poems, lists of soldiers’ names).

And the results? Well, no, Spahr was not given an NEA grant on the basis of these poems. (She did get a handwritten note suggesting she reapply.) But the poems are not intentionally bad, either. They’re not, in my judgment, anywhere near as interesting as Spahr’s last few books, but they remind me of Jørgen Leth’s films born out of Lars von Trier’s “assignments” in The Five Obstructions: given what might seem absurd constraints to anyone else, her artistry asserts itself regardless.

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