A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Digital Poetics

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Digital Poetics

Michael McDonough
Before Starting Over
Brian Kim Stefans
Cambridge: Salt, 2006.

Michael McDonough reviews Brian Kim Stefans’ book of poetry Before Starting Over, asserting that Stefans is concerned with the redefinition of critical discourse in the face of the loss of the singularity of the work of art. Stefans is not out to substitute an ideology of surface and take our deep meanings away. He mines contemporary poetics with an encyclopedic attention while resisting dogmatic assertions.

Lori Emerson:

Stefans’ ebr essay “Privileging Language: The Text in Electronic Writing” is likewise concerned with the issue of text and meaning and the reduced terms with which these are both approached in electronic writing.

Lori Emerson:

While this review concerns itself mostly with Stefans’ bookbound reflections on digital poetry, a range of cutting-edge ebr-authors such as John Cayley and John Zuern have written on Stefans’ digital poetry.


Brian Kim Stefans’ Before Starting Over presents a wide-ranging overview of contemporary digital poetics. The pieces collected here appeared in a variety of print and digital formats, reflecting a variety of occasions. Stefans chose not to rewrite them to create a seamless whole, and not to use his introduction as a retrospective summation. Despite Stefans’ modesty about his aims, I am struck by the cumulative effect of reading this restless and breathless collection. This effect might even be mapped alongside the reading of Zukofsky’s encyclopedic yet highly personal Bottom: on Shakespeare.

In his introduction to Bottom, Bob Perelman states that commentators tend to neglect the complex ways the book undercuts the simplicity of its oft-repeated equation “Love is to reason as eyes are to mind.” “Attempts at summarizing Bottom need to be troubled by the complexity of the book itself.” Perelman points out that “Zukofsky’s own fanatic care for language constantly troubles the reflected definition of perfection he wants to see in Shakespeare.” He cites Zukofsky dismissing interviewer L.S. Dembo’s question about the book’s epistemological argument with a brusque tautology, yet later disarming Dembo with a self-deprecating joke about a similar point. As Perelman points out, this tactic can be seen as cutting off debate or providing false clues, but it can also be seen as enacting a complex and ambivalent relationship to his literary influences. (Perelman, ix-xii) In drawing this parallel, I hope to highlight the similarly productive ways Stefans’ critical practice troubles itself.

In the acknowledgements, Stefans modestly hopes that the variety of genres represented in his work, from blog entries through book reviews to formal academic essays will help “demonstrate the virtues of each mode.” He also explains that he sometimes cites the same text, most obviously Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” in different essays to make a similar point, attributing these “infelicities” to his “struggle to be original.” (Stefans ix) Such simple statements are belied by the size, scope and somewhat obsessive nature of the book. Anticipating a counter argument, or referring to elaborations the author would make if he had the space or the time is standard short-form practice, as is repeatedly alluding to a range of critical theory without actually summarizing it, but by page 360, the reader can legitimately ask what is going on. The book shows signs of being rushed, including a fair share of typos. An index to this highly allusive work is not provided. Granted that these pieces were meant to stand alone, to attribute the allusive leitmotifs and grab-bag nature of the book solely to the exigencies of writing, editing and publishing occasional pieces is still to beg the question of what to make of the book as a whole.

Each of the pieces in Stefans’ first collection, Fashionable Noise could be seen as playing a game with a source text, whether by rewriting Eliot’s “Reflections on Vers Libre” to make the text discuss cyberpoetry, or rewriting Blake’s Proverbs to discuss the interface of programming and art. The frame of the source text made each piece self-contained, and the rules of the game were easy to understand. Some of the pieces in Before Starting Over have a similar game-like aspect to them, including a rewrite of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (I, too, dislike it…”) in order to critique blogs, but this time the rules have gone screwy. His review of Carol Mirakove’s poetry improvises various argots, echoing Mirakove’s own freewheeling practice, and highlighting new trends in writing- enacting contemporary chaos while recalling the excitement of Beat manifestos:

“Some kind of argot-
not entirely given over to the track star at Mineola prep model - these poems are worked - but nonetheless somewhere in the sprawl of William Gibson’s Necromancer, jacked-in but running freely through the night that could be day - “muscle a language / monumental / & free” - trying to move forward - avoiding the snipers - scanning the roadside - refiguring the spectacle less as a saturating, unlocatable ethos but as an array of robotic effigies, the divisible choruses of ad agents, secret agent men, agent oranges, and agency debilitators choked up by the nefarious database and becoming Senators - I guess one might suggest she turns it [the language game, or Debord’s game of war] into a video game, L.A. freestyle, fusing Flash sprites from this heraclitian noise - but she’s hired the best animators(pals of David Choe),best screenwriters…and her software has pledged strict allegiance to grassroots copyleft principles - the anxiety of influence of choice for software developers once known as “hacks” - … (Stefans, 201)

Once Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is brought in with “Howl”-like verve, we know we are in good hands, and that it’s OK to move forward without forgetting how we got there. Pleasures like these are a large part of this collection, but Stefans is too restless to stay in one mode for long; though he loves juggling contemporary buzzwords, he is aware (to the point of self-conscious irony) that digital poetry is still defining itself, leading him to keep these terms at arm’s length.

For Stefans, the instantaneous nature of electronic discourse creates a critical challenge that needs to be met. With materials and methods this fluid, we may not have the luxury either of a long critical overview or staying in permanent attack mode. When surfing the Internet, the original context of a work of art has a way of being subsumed in the flow, morphing into other forms, and being sampled in various contexts having nothing to do with what the artist intended. Instead of bemoaning this centerless state, Stefans lets “Before Starting Over” be a similarly multi-centric, recombinant site. Dissatisfied with ideas of critical privilege, Stefans’ nervous and nervy prose is a rhizome-like take on contemporary poetics, from the level of the sentence to the structure of the book.

Stefans’ allusive leitmotifs reinforce themselves in intuitive ways. Even if the connections don’t always pan out, they clarify and expand the reader’s sense of modernism without obscuring it with a new critical vocabulary. If we had not been primed by glancing, appreciative references to projective poetics, we would find it easy to think that Stefans is dismissing Charles Olson by writing in a review of “Dwell,” by Canadian poet Jeff Derksen, that “both the official Canadian and Olson’s understanding of the local are similar, in that both subsume the other they want to contain - in Canada’s case, the disparate entities of its population, in Olson’s case, women and Mayans - in a quest for the completion of a self that is unified and uncomplicated.” (Stefans, 184-5) The restless nature of Stefans’ mind ensure that this is not all he has to say about Olson’s work. Elsewhere, Stefans posits a potential “Poetics of Virtuosity” as “disembodied, that is it doesn’t respond to the accidents of pains, of the touch and spasms of the poet’s own body, but rather plays the body like an instrument, one which is general enough for ownership by almost everyone.” (Stefans, 135) A later essay also uses the metaphor to describe Pound’s work, noting that the poet plays his sources “like a bow does a viola.” (Stefans, 162) We have also been primed to see the string and the bow as a metaphor for Zukofsky’s poetics. In a diversionary gesture, Stefans denies being an authority on these authors, despite mounting evidence, but his glancing references to large swaths of literary history are easier to look up than Zukofsky’s and encourage readers to make comparisons for themselves.

While Stefans states that he is largely in agreement with the poetics of Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, the major theorists of Language Poetry, he objects to their assumed air of authority, and the assumption that there can be any last word in these matters. Stefans presents his side of an exchange on Ron Silliman’s blog, expressing frustration with Ron’s offhand dismissal of Robert Lowell, and Ron’s response accusing Stefans of advocating “a third way,” an accommodation with mainstream poetics that does neither side any good. While admitting that his overall level of disagreement with Silliman is small, Stefans responds by emphasizing writing that is built to last and writing that is built to strike, clarifying the difference between polemic and practice. Neither side of this exchange will go down as a model of critical perspicacity, but Stefans’ willingness to include blog entries and other writings regarded as ephemera can be seen as an attempt to hold electronic communication to the standards of print - “at least in terms of prose style,” Stefans writes, but it is apparent that, for Stefans, style includes the level of argumentation and how the author makes herself accountable to readers. Does she appeal to some overarching literary ideology, or to the judgements of individual readers? (Stefans, 234-5) For Stefans, no feat of critical legerdemain can substitute for encouraging readers to think for themselves.

His sense of accountability often adds an ironic or defensive edge to Stefans’ tone. When considering the pros and cons of labeling a group of emerging writers after the Radiohead song “Creep” (“I can create interesting literary movements at the drop of a hat”), Stefans expresses frustration that he has to do this in order not to define these writers in terms of the Language Poets, since he feels they have “absorbed almost everything interesting into their particular critical vocabularies.” (Stefans, 156-7) His critique is not a personal grudge. Throughout “Before Starting Over,” Stefans resists his own capacity for critical reductionism, pointedly noting that “after all, it was Pound’s didactic urge and ability to assimilate cultures that led to his adoption of fascism.” (Stefans, 170) The two longest essays in the book come down to statements about literary influences that have a rather charged and ambivalent relationship to their own interpretive authority.

In “Remote Parsee,” an essay on contemporary Asian American writers, Stefans disclaims exhaustiveness in his treatment, preferring to concentrate on explaining the limitations of previous critical interpretations of Asian American poetics. However, by the end of the essay, it is Stefans’ thoroughness that makes his point: “as the variety of writing considered in this essay demonstrates, no single thread of discourse exists to which an Asian American writer feels obliged to conform or argue, as there may have been in the early seventies…, but rather a system of discourses that only becomes abhorrent to the racialized writer once the progressive liberalism of its purported content reduces to abstraction (or distraction) the singularity of the writing itself - a curious position indeed.” (Stefans, 97-8)

The sentence is indeed a knotty one, but my point is not that it is difficult to understand. By a series of parallels breaking up a long, comma and dash-spliced sentence, he shifts the terms from concrete to abstract, from ostensible transparency to knotty paradox. “Asian American” becomes “racialized writer,” and “single thread” becomes “system of discourses,” while “progressive liberalism” cancels itself out, and the irony of “abstraction (or distraction)” is more humorous and informal. The sentence seems designed to point out its own rhetorical seams, perhaps even to self-destruct once inside your brain. Stefans concludes the essay with a deliberately mixed metaphor about “a dissenting tomato in the Asian American arena.” In a delightfully vexed transaction, he makes a posited Ginsbergian question “Does a tomato have an angel?” demonstrate the type of writing that attempts to unchain Asian American writers from the terms that have previously defined them, thus opening a space for cultural negotiation. (Stefans, 97-9)

Another long essay explores a potential “Poetics of Virtuosity.” Stefans posits two main ways of dealing with literary canon using the examples of Hopkins and Rimbaud. He explains how Hopkins emphasizes the singularity of his poems and how Rimbaud would boast of the sheer weight of his. He writes that in this case, the distinction might be between a poet “who engages in a new act of literary creation” (a singularity) and one that views the poem more ironically as permeable discourse, who “holds an ironic candle to the idea of original composition, and who is looking for an “accurate impulse” to put him through to the “highways of communication with which he is already familiar” (Stefans, 111-4) Stefans takes care to point out that poets can cross from one side of the list to the other. Stefans offers other ways to look at the split, all designed to explore the direction he sees digital poetics taking, but ultimately the essay is about basic assumptions by writers and readers as to what constitutes good writing, and how this writing is to be received, assumptions that are getting a lot of attention lately.

In his 2006 collection Under Virga, Joe Amato is also concerned with the contract between writer and reader. In “epilogue,” Amato rewrites the contract by rewriting Biblical exhortations and pseudoscientific assertions, both invoking and questioning their authority. The rewritten epigraph asks the reader to compare it with 1:Peter 5-7. The lines of the poem are numbered like Bible verses, but sequenced so as to assign a number to the blank spaces between lines, turning exhortations into a party-game parody of a Platonic dialogue between life and art that bears comparison to Robyn Ewing’s recent Mad-Libby romp, “Odd Swallows:”

4       Turn on your self-cleaning PH electrode

          Do not let Me be in charge of your life and all that concerns you.

8        Rely on your continuous monitoring level transmitter.

          Do not let go of doubts, anxieties, discouragement.

12       A vibration switch reduces costly downtime on rotating machinery.

         Do not let go of any suggestion that it is up to you alone to figure
           out every answer to life’s questions. (Amato, 106)

The same questioning, impish spirit can be found in Stefans, who, like Amato, will not solve all your problems for you, but will help you find your own way. The jostling genres and the irreverent textual games of “Before Starting Over” remind us that, as Amato put it in Industrial Poetics: “art is a judgement call. Today we can rely on neither connoiseurs of taste nor eternal verities to make that judgment call for us. But if you have do-it-yourself art you must have do-it-yourself criticism. The function of do-it-yourself criticism at the present time is to foster the production of better art at the present time” (Amato, 1). Ultimately, this is Stefans’ concern as well.

Writing about Susan Wheeler’s appendices in her book, Source Codes, Stefans states that “the presence of the poem as a series of singular marks on a page is undermined by its source, hence banishing forever the image of Coleridge merely transcribing Kubla Khan from his repressed, universal memory: first a series of scribbled over drafts of the poems in the book; second, a splash of HTML that (as any programmer could see) wouldn’t work; and last, a series of drafts for earlier poems.” As Stefans writes, “Wheeler is likely obsessed with art in a time when the art object has lost its singularity and direct relation to work and always refers to something else - a time when poems can literally be created by computers or be the product of text dumps from the web.” (Stefans, 355-6)

Stefans is concerned with the redefinition of critical discourse in the face of this loss of the singularity of the work of art. While he admits a tendency to view the poem as data, he is not out to substitute an ideology of surface and take our deep meanings away. He mines contemporary poetics with an encyclopedic attention while resisting dogmatic assertions. In the same way that Zukofsky’s Shakespeare cannot be seen as consistently avant-garde or conservative, Stefans is uncomfortable with any simple statement of politics or prospect, or even a single level of critical discourse, whether academic or playful. It is hoped that Stefans continues to provide such cross-disciplinary pollination across the often fractious print/digital divide.

Works Cited:

Amato, Joe. Industrial Poetics. Iowa City: U Iowa Press, 2006.

Amato, Joe. Under Virga. Tucson: Chax Press, 2006.

Perelman, Bob. “Introduction”. Zukofsky, Louis, & Zukofsky, Celia Thaew. Bottom: on Shakespeare. Middletown: Wesleyan, 2002.

Stefans, Brian Kim. Before Starting Over. Cambridge: Salt, 2006.

Stefans, Brian Kim. Fashionable Noise. Atelos, 2003.