Poetry, Spring

Mongrel Cry: The Possibilities of Mongrel Poetics

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By Kenji C. Liu

Often, to write about something in English is to attempt to circumscribe it, to make of it a describable thing. So when asked to write something about “mongrel poetics” I wasn’t sure how to do so and I’m still not sure. But that’s fine. So let’s start this by saying outright that this is a tentative tract about something that has existed, changed, and continues to mutate. This is a strategic bracketing that will necessarily need to be unbracketed.

By now, many poets who spend time on the internet have probably noticed the Boston Review’s series on racism in US avant-garde poetics and the anti-racist/anti-colonial poetry manifestos of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG). Both are critiques of the self-centered longevity of racism and white privilege in US avant-garde (and certainly other kinds of) poetry, whose most recent and tiring manifestation was seen in Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy, a white appropriation of Brown’s corpse.

The basics of the Boston Review conversation can be found online, so no need for me to repeat what has already been knowledgeably said. What I really want to look at is MCAG, or rather the possibilities their manifestos open up. Of the MCAG’s messages, these can be found at their website, Twitter feed, and Harriet the blog.

MCAG employs the strategic use of high intensity critique to interesting effect. In my view, it’s a recognition that more polite forms of engagement often go unheard. Politeness and respectability are the entry fees to middle-class whiteness, preconditions one must meet before whiteness deigns to listen. It’s a privileged refusal to listen unless the other submits to civilized (colonial) terms of conversation. MCAG is a refusal of that refusal, as well as a firm, sharp poke into the nest.

What might “mongrel poetics” look like? Is there a connection to feminist avant-garde poet Mina Loy and her poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”? Perhaps. Loy’s manifestos and don’t-fence-me-in life seems to echo a found-familial relationship with MCAG. Elizabeth A. Frost, in her chapter “Crisis in Consciousness: Mina Loy’s “‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’” in The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, describes “Loy’s mongrel poetics [as an attempt] to breed feminist politics from racist and patriarchal rhetoric…. [a]dopting overwriting to mock.” There seems to be a lineage here of some kind.

Like much of Loy’s writings, some avant-garde poetics takes as its task the interruption of dominant and oppressive language and institutions through the innovation of language interventions. The practitioners of these interventions often have feminist, anti-racist, and/or queer commitments—for example, Myung Mi Kim or Bhanu Kapil. For an excellent scholarly consideration on this topic, see Nest and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (2015, Kelsey Street Press).

What I appreciate about MCAG is that they open a space for a kind of non-prescriptive ferocity for anyone who wishes to take it up for themselves. In a recent panel called “Mongrel Poetiks” at CalArts &Now 2015 conference, the four presenters were extremely varied in their approaches, ranging from trauma release-based exorcism to vibrant academic mic drops. Whether gentle or militant in tone, this ferocity is immersed in anti-racist, anti-colonial politics.

Of course, there are those who are put off by MCAG. The problem with the way whiteness generally “reads” anti-racist tracts, no matter what the tone, is that it takes everything as a personal attack rather understanding itself within a system of institutionalized ugliness. So no matter how nuanced the analysis presented, whiteness whispers “you’re being called a horrible human being” and the conversation is over. This then allows everything from basic defensiveness (assertion of personal innocence or goodness) to refusing to be outraged that a black man is shot and killed every 28 hours. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to have actual substantive conversations.

So rather than the question of whether the MCAG is right or wrong in its approach or whether their critique is somehow a personal attack, how about a more interesting question? Assuming we believe racism, colonialism, and other oppressions should end (one should never assume), what does a “mongrel poetics” call for in our writing? If we hold ourselves accountable to an unjust system that impacts everyone asymmetrically—in many cases, through various kinds of death—how must our poetics change and erupt? Can we radically push language and form without losing ourselves in post-modern relativity and irrelevance? To riff off of Bhanu Kapil, can our writing generate, in whatever way possible, a deep “mongrel cry?”

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kenjicliu

Kenji C. Liu‘s writing appears in The American Poetry Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Pinch, Asian American Literary Review, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, RHINO, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, and several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and Community of Writers at SV, he holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation.

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Poetry, Review, Spring

Review: On Hours by Mark Rahe

On Hours Front Cover

Reviewed by Kenji Liu

On Hours by Mark Rahe is like the poetry memoir of a religious hermit, but one who doesn’t mind living a little closer to town than usual.

There’s a focused, contemplative quality to the narrator’s general orientation to the world, observing what’s directly in front of his face and never straying too far from that starting point. Each poem is complete in its capture of a particular moment, often ending with a quirky tangent that lands the narrative in a surprising place.

Many of the poems feature gentle yet remarkable shifts in relationship between observer and observed—a turn where an object is lightly animated, personifying a desire. For example, “The Cloud of Promise” seems to describe a plateaued period in the narrator’s life, for example by using a negation (“The door is closed. There is / no door”). But then the poem turns in the final line, declaring “This cloud is promising[,]” introducing an inanimate object that offers a way out of the preceding tension.

Like “The Cloud of Promise,” the poem “Down” interjects an unexpected quality that retroactively evokes new meaning. “Down” takes us down a tub drain with a visual and descriptive swoop, carrying the reader through a compost-pastoral to deposit us into “While my fan oscillates. // While my sweaty chest is bare of you.” — suddenly casting the previous stanzas in an erotic light.

For me, the highlight in this collection is “Man at Baseball Game, Alone.” It’s a great study in how the environment in a story is its own character, with peanut shells, wax paper, popcorn, setting the stage of what for many people is a day of relaxation. Then, with a single observation, the poem shifts:

The cuffs

of the father
are the return of a hand to your face.
The ballpark is the place

where he never bruised you.

After this painful turn, the preceding pleasantness of baseball game sounds are reframed as if a mute button has been released—suddenly “Everyone yells, everyone spills / trash.” The final sentence, “You came here to find / something gentle” becomes a plea.

The attention On Hours brings to the minutiae of life is basically gentle and non-judgmental, and many of the poems in the first two sections are almost a Bashō-like travelogue, though not because a lot of physical movement happens.

Still, these poems are not without want or need. The third section shifts into a few harder topics, such as death or alienation from a loved one—though it doesn’t stray too far from the quirk of the previous sections. Here, the collection’s matter-of-fact tone works by serving as a scaffold on top of which feelings unfold. The emotion of it is contained, but a kind of passion still radiates from underneath, demonstrating how affect can be evoked without being too obvious.

On Hours is relaxing, like following the familiar wanderings of your own mind during a warm afternoon. It’s low in drama, but high in interesting turns and shifts, making it a quick but rewarding read.

The characters animating Rahe’s poetry become interlocutors and sounding boards for the narrator’s tangential musings, all of which eventually return to land in just the right place.

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KenjiCLiu

Kenji C. Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey, now in Southern California. His writing and art arises from his work as an activist, educator, artist, and cultural worker. A Pushcart Prize nominee and first runner-up finalist for the Poets & Writers 2013 California Writers Exchange Award, his writing is forthcoming or published in The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, The Baltimore Review, RHINO Poetry, and others, including the anthologies Dismantle and Orangelandia. His poetry chapbookYou Left Without Your Shoeswas nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. A three-time VONA alum and recipient of a Djerassi Resident Artist Program fellowship, he is completing a full-length poetry book. He is the poetry editor emeritus of Kartika Review.

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