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"A kind of friction in the midst of frictionlessness."

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Felix Bernstein in Conversation with Vanessa Place

I first met Vanessa Place a year ago, when I performed alongside her and Cecilia Corrigan at a reading. The grouping couldn’t be odder: Corrigan started the evening out, playing a bubbly femme David Letterman with Place and I as her guests. Then I came on cloaked in black, and perversely sang along to a collection of strange YouTube videos that projected behind me. And finally Place dryly read from The Scum Manifesto, changing the words “woman” to “man.” After the show, I went over to Place, offering an eager compliment for her brilliant, fastidious study of criminal law, The Guilt Project. In response she seemed indifferent, superior, and cold—as sinister as her mythic press photos: Conceptual poetry’s dark woman, Vanessa Place CEO, never smiles in pictures, dresses sleekly in black, and speaks only in Lacanian riddles.

Place is, without a doubt, dark: her magnum opus Statement of Facts is made up of appropriated material from the kind of rape cases for which she serves as a defense attorney. This work was controversial both with critics and sensitive audience members, who walked out during performances. Corrigan must have gotten the same vibes as I did: soon after that night we both published critiques of Place’s work. Many critiques of Place dismiss her instantly, finding her appropriation tactics to be point blank: hostile, sexist, racist, classist, or masculinist. But Corrigan and I were both intrigued by Place as a powerful and complex innovator, whose breadth comes with interesting and generative flaws. Many works that we pass over as morally acceptable and progressive never have us thinking a thing, but Place forces even her sharpest critics to think, and forces all of us to wrestle with our complicity with negative social values. We are too quick, on the left, to think ourselves free from oppressive systems (i.e., capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, the prison industrial complex, coterie, name dropping, social climbing, media whoring) and Place won’t let us off so easy.

Even as, in my Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, I critically spar with many of the proclamations she and Fitterman espouse in Notes on Conceptual Poetry, I do it not merely with that old proverbial “love” or wide-eyed reverence or coterie-building friendliness but, more crucially than any of that, with respect for an ingenious provocative mind. Which is why Place and me decided to take what started as a private Facebook chat into another agora, one which could also prompt another kind of phobia.

—Felix Bernstein

I. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING AFTER THE ORGY?”

FELIX BERNSTEIN: I’ve always had a campy fascination with your presence, though I’ve had many serious critical reservations. However, your rabble-rousing Facebook antics sweetened the cup. When you appropriate self-promotional statuses by poets you no longer implicate merely the lyric subject or the naïve consumer of poetry but you implicate all your “friends.” We are all implicated, (as the community that pretends to transcend community or be non-normative): the point being (as with the logo that runs across your face on one of your memes): “I Am Social Capital.”

VANESSA PLACE: Yes.

FB: And such status appropriations make us all (in the “poetry community”) squirm a bit. Because here we all are, using Facebook as a self-promotional vehicle: and nothing gets more “likes” than a nice promotion.

VP: Yes.

FB: A problem I had with your work when I first encountered it was the repetitions of tropes that had become stale art world clichés that triggered the popular October journal 1980s debates: “is the neo-avant-garde as important as the first avant-garde?” However, aesthetically, your repetitions become eerier over time. You become sort of like Marlene Dietrich: statuesque and unrelenting. 

VP: Yes. This is rather fun. 

FB: The self-consciously statuesque is the absolute opposite of what I grew up with: a father whose topsy turvy postmodern play would hardly admit that it could congeal into any sort of authoritative persona. And yet it was the withholding of the statuesque, the law, the phallus, which was so torturous. So I find perhaps more than just aesthetic delight watching you live as a statue. I find it psychosexually comforting, because it is seems to be what I was never given: A father who admits to being the father. Of course, this is problematic: any of the feminist critiques of Lacan can be applied to your practice (it continually reinscribes the law and the master in a supposedly generous gesture but in the end becomes a foil for incomprehensible tyrants to dominate without any checks or balances). However, one critique that I have leveled against you that does not stick is that your work is overly proscriptive and dogmatic. When in fact, you of all the conceptual poets, are the least likely to produce a “school of followers.” In fact you make that nearly impossible. You have none of the persuasive sweetness of Kenneth Goldsmith. You seem like a dark alien in the poetry world. And I still think that despite the validity of the claims that there is nothing “punk” or even idiosyncratic about institutional critique, you are the bizarre case in which, somehow, you always seem to stand-alone, as this weird dark alienating enigma that remains even after you are toppled over through critique and thrown out as “trendy role model.” In other words, you are so passé that you should simply vanish. But the more passé you grow the more towering becomes your inferno (the more inches it gains, as you would say).

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VP: Well, at least I’m consistently lesser and redundant, and certainly appreciate the confirmation of my lack of “persuasive sweetness.” That would be a horror. And it’s doubtless true that our current complaint is against the postmodern rather than the modern. We’ve got no problems with the modern—why should we? After all, who doesn’t secretly adore a grand narrative, especially about ourselves? Otherwise, what would be the point of “liking” anything? And still the thing that remains is what one could term the Real, which is immune to proscription. I am never proscriptive. Critical, yes, but never proscriptive. And so, why are the two of us on Facebook?  

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Erika Anderson on Cheryl Strayed

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The first time I read Cheryl Strayed I was sitting at a plastic table for four in a studio in Geneva. It was August. I had left my husband in July. Living alone for the first time in my life, I found a lot of time on my hands. I would spend mornings before work reading the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, a thick book I kept on the plastic table, which stood before a sliding door, which stood before a balcony wide enough for one small, dead potted plant.

I found Strayed on page 500. She begins, “The Love of My Life” by describing the intensity of her attraction to a dangerous man in a coffee shop. She could tell that he would destroy her the way she wanted to be destroyed, the way the intensity of her grief over her mother’s death was destroying her. I recognized this desire. Not because my mother had died, but because she was barely there. She’d divorced my dad when I was ten; she had been largely absent before, almost entirely absent after. I hated needing her. It made me feel powerless and small. So in my teens and early twenties I learned how to toy with people, or let them toy with me. I wanted to be a doll in their arms because it was safer to be a doll than a person. Sometimes I wanted to destroy them, sometimes I wanted them to destroy me, to break off my porcelain nose.  

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On the occasion of two our of three members of Pussy Riot being freed

There’s a drone in my thread I’m learning to ignore.

I thought about writing a poem and then I Tweeted this.

All the best lines have been written by Topless Jihadis.

Feminism can fit between any two syllables.

Everyone thinks the Hudson Bay is cold but it’s not it’s la Baie Hudson and it’s freezing.

Anyhow, it’s still December and I have some socks to warm.

I lost two pounds thinking of that Tweet.

Shit. There they are again.

Don’t make it new make it lighter.

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