A Poetics of the Americas

Ernesto Livon-Grosman

Yale University


In the surprisingly wide use of the term "The Americas" I believe one could find the strength as much as the weakness of what is already a truly new area of studies. The idea of the Americas seems to cut across languages and history in a way that complicates the simplicity of boundaries thought as clear landmarks between literatures and cultures. The field can, in what I believe is one the its more interesting venues, question the notions of South and North that helped create a reductionist view of culture and literature by appealing to a rather rigid, but reassuring, sense of identity. This polarization that proved useful in the past for political mobilizations became reductionist by appealing, once again, to the well-known notion of Us vs. Others. This is a point of view that in the best possible scenario equates mass cultural productions to foreign policy on one side and popular culture to political critique on the other without accounting for other manifestations of resistance. It is enough to look at the increasing Hispanic and Chicano presence within the US to realize that those neatly dividing lines have ceased to offer the only radical view that can provide a better understanding of the present cultural affairs. A present that also includes a strong cultural critique that questions, among other issues, neocolonialism as an extension of neoliberalism but that more often than not, rehearses time and again the dispute between the political and the literary avant-garde.

Even though the field has been in the make for many years, from Jose Martí's "Our America" and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo to Bell Gale Chevigni's and Gary Laguardia's 1986 Reinventing the Americas, and more recently through a multiplicity of talks and essays, the specificity of the Americas takes on a new and interesting challenge when one places the discussion within the frame of globalization. Is it possible for the discourse on the Americas to upset the homogenization associated with the cultural consequences of transnational capital? Is there a proposition for the Americas that would cut across the demolishing effect of culture as synonymous of non-local, debased literary productions while presenting anew a point of view capable of integrating an interest for the vernacular while projecting itself outside its boundaries? In other words, could we develop a critique of cultural imperialism while pointing at common concerns in the literary production of the US and Latin America? Those are, I believe, the kind of questions that could help us to redefine literary studies in a dynamic way while avoiding one more canonical list that is not on the shelves because it has no shelf life.

One of the most traditional views of the Americas is one of disjunction, made out of the confrontation between South and North, pushing for a consolidation of each of the terms in a rather contrived way: the South becomes a more or less uniform block from Rio Grande down to Tierra del Fuego. The North, usually equated with the US and Canada, is the northern term of the opposition. This view brings us to the solid discursive consolidation of both sides, reinforcing in a perverse way a series of nationalist discourses, stumbling blocks in any attempt to understand difference not only in relation to each other but also within each of those supposedly seamless blocks.

A possible way of rethinking a poetics of the Americas would be, then, in the intersection of common issues and different languages. Instances in which some concerns, not their outcome or resolution, could be recognized as a shared moment. A case in point would be the connection between Thoreau and Guillermo Enrique Hudson or Waldo Emerson and José Martí, writers who were dedicated to establishing a common ground between writing and the new territory they thought as a defining feature of the Americas. Their works carry out a displacement of the state's sovereignty toward the community's independence in search of a sense of autonomy from Europe, an orientation that made them foundational texts. It is not enough to move away from Europe, or for that matter from the US; it is also necessary to make room in order to constantly reposition oneself within the spectrum of active readings and open the critical view to new connections that ultimately echo the richness of those texts instead of constraining them to a discussion of experimental literature that emerged in Europe under different circumstances. We ask for a day off when we could take over the factory.

A similar case could be made for the avant-garde in the Americas during the early 1900. It might now be more interesting to look at the Americas' vanguards in regard to the way in which they both, northern as well as southern, tried to differentiate themselves from Europe through their emphasis on vernacular language and mestizo culture, as is the case with, the north American William Carlos Williams, and the Peruvian César Vallejo. That is acknowledging topics that were never part of the other experiences. It is also possible to read from this alternative perspective, a non-aligned Americas the formal experimentation as political resistance that appears in magazines like the Argentine XUL and the US L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, both of them committed to investigating an experimental poetics as another form of political critique and very much aware of the cultural politics that surrounded them.

I would like to take a close look, although brief given time limitations, at some elements of these two magazines that I believe could work as a possible model for a definition of the Americas as a field of study.

The Argentine magazine XUL appeared for the first time in 1981 and is still being published. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E started in 1978 and ended its publication in 1982. XUL emerged at the end of the military dictatorship that started in 1976 and ended in 1983. XUL criticized that military dictatorship as well as the cultural politics of the regimes that followed, and although the magazine never stopped its criticism of the state it did not conform to the general expectation of aligning itself with the cultural agenda of the traditional left. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, in the aftermath of the political disillusion that followed the Vietnam War and the dissolution of the traditional left. Both magazines worked their own poetics within the frame of writing as a political critique.

A first element in common is the capacity of these magazines to present themselves as non-groups, to take apart the notion of literary circle and with it the implicit need for self-defense that comes together with a sense of territory. The anti-institutionalization of these journals was implicit in their effort to remain a space open for the discussion of similar concerns instead of the promotion of a program. This resistance to a fixed identity adopted different ways in each of these journals. For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, one of those strategies revolved around the problem of naming by making it truly difficult to establish a relation between the name of the magazine and a closed set of references. The effectiveness of its elusiveness could be seen in the fact that even today, two decades after Language magazine was first published, critics and reviewers continue wrestling with the idea of how to explain that there is no such a thing as a collection of canonical documents that could represent L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E; instead there is a set of interests that could be shared and explored from different perspectives. Less programming makes more room for exploration.

XUL's resistance to labels is better seen in several collective issues dedicated to publishing contemporary poetics that, even though there were all formally experimental, included multiple strategies dedicated among others things to reread the traditional canon and create at the same time a genealogy of present and past works. For XUL poets like Oliverio Girondo and Juan L. Ortiz helped to create a common ground, a meeting place for poetics as diverse as sound poetry, visual poetry, performative poetry and not just a new literary order.

Equally substantial to the exploration of these magazines was the fact that both were committed to considering the reader as an active participant. Jorge Perednik, one of the founders and editors of XUL, maps Argentina's poetic scene as well as a rather larger politic landscape when he writes for the XUL Reader (Roof, 1997):

Poetics can be explosive or implosive; the explosive, whose movement goes out from the poem, in search of an author or the propagation of a meaning, and the implosive, in which the outside is attracted by a centripetal force, where the reader implodes toward the poem. An explosive poetics is in some way an expansive, conquering poetics, and this is what dominated in the 60s and the beginning of the 70s when the desire was to use poetry for a political cause. And a poetics that inserted itself in the play of the spectacle also attempted this. Conquering the people, conquering the market, conquering the attention of the critical establishment - these provoked the epigraph of an editorial in the magazine: "Enough conquests, we're tired of winning." (p. XX)

Perednik's characterization is not only a discussion about institutional politics but also a comment on the politics of poetic practice. It is at this point that poetic experimentation and political subversion come together for both magazines through the questioning of the limits of representation. In both cases, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as well as XUL, it is a matter of bracketing the concept of representation as a natural option and bringing attention to the materiality of the word. Bruce Andrews, one of the editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, addresses the issue when he writes in "Constitution/Writing, Politics, Language, the Body":

Words/were/what/were/whole/want/waiting/whose. More than a prop. the words fit awkwardly into the context.

This paradigm of language as a medium of representation, or pointing, is open to challenge. Most notably, a structuralist view of language can challenge it, setting out a number of assertions in boldface that need to be assimilated. Do filter something words before filtering means? Language ceases to accept its subordinate role in a program of writing taken as representation, invisible ink. Unnaming . The medium is no longer a stand-in for 'the world' but the mechanism by which we thought the world was being represented. and the containers always the containers . ocular proof abandon . Not language as a neutral collection of discrete (and discreet) pointers, each with its own relationship to some 'pointee'. Copies a copy .

Instead: language as a relatively autonomous system. (Open Letter p. 157)

For both magazines poetry implied the possibility of a political praxis that permitted, without the demands of commercial publishing houses, a revision of the criteria around which the community was organized. Whatever the case, whether it was to address the regulations proposed by the Spanish Royal Academy of Language; the appropriation of language that took place during the military government or the general but pervasive normalization of language, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and XUL proposed a critique of a system of signs, an experimental poetics, as political resistance. As Bruce Andrews states: "The critique of power - in society and in writing - must acknowledge how insinuating this pattern of domination actually is, while confronting it". (Open Letter p. 161)

These virtual intersections became visible with the first personal encounter that took place in 1995 in New York City during the Conference on the "Poetics of the Americas." From then on some of the participants of both magazines have been involved in several joint projects, the most recent of which is the latest issue of boundary 2 "99 Poets/1999. An International Poetics Symposium" Traveling and translation constitutes the latest formats of the exchange. It goes without saying that both, traveling and translation, are instrumental for the dialogue that ultimately constitutes key strategies in the ongoing effort to create a different kind of exchange within globalization, one that could subvert the hierarchical relation between North and South, as we know it. Translation, in particular, is at this point one of the political strategies available to undermine those rigid notions of Nation as identity and actively subvert the boundaries of national literatures, American as well as Latin American.

Latin American literature is a case in point. The monumentality that has characterized until recently Latin Americanism overlooks the specificity of works that do not illustrate the idea of a literature that transcends regional specificities, proposing a kind of national literature for all of Latin America. This vision of Latin American literature limits the possibility of reading canonical works in relation to other works, other literatures, within and outside of the same language forgetting that the notion itself of Latin America is not a natural product but a political construction that started in the 1700s with Francisco Miranda's proposition of unifying the former Spanish colonies. The conflict does not arise from the necessity of replacing canonical works with another reading that is equally definitive and hierarchical but in understanding that this monumentalist interpretation suppresses by definition the self-critical gesture out of which it constructs itself as though the reader were not dealing with a single interpretation among many; as if it were not from the beginning and in all circumstances simply a possibility, as if the a priori that determines any national literature program were a natural product and not yet another cultural artifact.

The sense of unity that pan-Latin Americanism proposes was, in its most strict sense, attained at the exclusion of Portuguese, aboriginal languages, French and Caribbean English and, up to some extent, the dialectal variations of Spanish found throughout the continent. And if Chicano literatures can extend the definitions of what is Latin America, so must Brazil. After all is it possible today to think of a "Latin American literature" without Brazil?

Even if one assumes that a nation could be defined by its culture, a notion less definable and predictable than the literary canon suggests, how can we understand the rigidity of national literatures except as a result of the institutional violence with which the university defends them? Why not consider literary studies in terms of a practice of a pedagogy of limits? Why not open up the possibility of studying the many moments of resistance and criticism of the literary establishment with a continental scope and do so not only as a coincidence but also as an active possibility? In the context of globalization, understood as a perspective that tends to erase differences, we could counter-read the literatures of the Americas as one opportunity among many to think anew the boundaries of national literatures, to redraw the map from the perspective we want to give it and not only from a notion of nation that was formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries.