Contemporary Poetry Reviews #29
Each edition of this contemporary poetry review series selects one or more poetry collections published in the last ten years to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than two thousand supplied and already-held contemporary poetry books. A full list of books reviewed and a partial list of titles held can be found here. Publishers and poets interested in submitting review copies to either this series or the Best American Experimental Writing series can contact the author of this article using this form. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a ten-year period.
Roggenbuck, Steve, ed. The YOLO Pages (Boost House, 2014). [Info].
The term "alt-lit" has gradually devolved into meaninglessness, much like the term "indie music." In practice, the "alt-lit" designation merely signifies that something is really good, yet underappreciated; or delightfully quirky, but with few financial resources behind it; or obscure, but with no desire to become any less so; or edgy, but not unlovable; or some combination of these qualities. But "alt-lit" no longer accurately describes any authorial tendency, no more than the mere fact of a musical release being orchestrated by an independent label tells you what type of music you're about to hear. Lately, certain literary avant-gardistes have taken to using the term "alt-lit" to describe works of fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction we otherwise would call "metamodern." Avoiding the term "metamodernism," while publicly prizing metamodern literature, is an easy way for late postmodernists to avoid acknowledging that their day--or, at least, their hegemony--has ended. Such misreadings do no favors to the works so mislabeled, however.
With The YOLO Pages, an anthology no reader could in good conscience term anything but metamodern, perhaps this sorry trend of postmodernists co-opting metamodern work and refusing even the term "metamodernism" has ended. Certainly, anthology editor Steve Roggenbuck has managed to put together a slough of texts which, no matter who you are or what your agenda is, are almost certain to make you laugh out loud and fall in love with literature all over again.
That The YOLO Pages is filled to the brim with Twitter feeds, doctored JPGs, and Internet-friendly screeds truly gives the lie to the "alt-lit" label so many of its authors bear proudly, as these literary forms are very much the common currency of the Internet Age, not its outliers. Moreover, we find almost no evidence at all of unadulterated poststructuralism in The YOLO Pages, nor even much evidence of that purportedly novel tendency last-gasp postmodernists are now calling "uncreative writing." What we find, instead, is a thin slice of the MetaMod-lit pie, but a hearty enough one that it still behooves us to consider The YOLO Pages the most important literary anthology Generation Y--the first metamodern generation--has yet produced. The anthology distinguishes itself, even more broadly, as being the first that almost any person who suffers from an Internet addiction (which, these days, is most of us) might enjoy, whether or not they're avid readers of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. The YOLO Pages is that consistently humorous, generous, surprising, and relevant.
Ezra Pound wrote his never-finished modernist magnum opus, The Cantos, in part as a way of trying to show that a universe of disjunctive information can in fact cohere for one human. While he himself ultimately deemed the experiment a failure, it's worth noting that Roggenbuck begins The YOLO Pages with evidence of a similarly High Modern inclination, albeit one infused with populist rhetoric: an epigraph from James Baldwin that reads, in part, "[T]he poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen...perhaps it can't be done without the poet, but it certainly can't be done without the people." In other words, we likely need a literary genius to light the path for us, but she must, in time, find a large and credible following or else risk irrelevance--as did Pound when he chose a fascist radio program as the vehicle for his wisdom.
While the unbridled optimism about what a single author can accomplish that illuminates every page of The YOLO Pages would ring bells for any High Modernist--and alarm bells for any uncompromising postmodernist--we can term nearly everything in The YOLO Pages "metamodern" because it requires both High Modernist authorial inclinations and a skeptical postmodern eye to enact its many delights. Indeed, the one thing that can be said about almost every entry in this 205-page anthology of metamodern verse is that it requires a postmodern reader to achieve its optimal effect. That is, the sort of unvarnished optimism, naivete, and sincerity evident in every tweet, faux-article, captioned photo, and DIY poem in The YOLO Pages only escapes damning accusations of being those very things--optimistic, naive, and sincere, each an affective phenomenon pedigreed postmodernists do not abide--because postmodernism has trained contemporary readers to mentally erase vestiges of these traits in any printed or online materials they admire.
Per the postmodernists, either an optimistic, naive, and/or sincere work is qualitatively bad writing (which means that its optimism, naivete, and/or sincerity is unadulterated and thus uncompromised) or it is a potentially interesting work that is, consequently, optimistic, naive, and/or sincere in a reflexive, self-aware way. This inclination among contemporary readers--to rescue otherwise "bad" writing by presuming it to have some ulterior motive beyond optimism, naivete, and sincerity--is a postmodern one, though the effect it finally produces, an ambiguity of affect and tone and intent, is entirely metamodern. Put simply, there are many who believe that to achieve the transcendent ambiguities for which metamodernism is known, one needs a modernist text and a postmodern reader. This fact alone makes it easy to think of certain texts, for instance the texts of The YOLO Pages, as postmodern, when in fact only readers choosing to approach them that way makes them appear so.
It's worth looking at some excerpts from The YOLO Pages to see how all of this plays out; first, however, one needs to have a sense of where postmodern lit is at right now. Succintly put, today's most widely discussed avant-garde/post-avant literature tends to appropriate texts in bulk and then denominate them "Art" merely by moving them from one context to another. Thus a weather report might become poststruturalist lit, or a transcript of appellate proceedings following a rape trial, or a print-out of a small percentage of the Internet's numberless webpages. What these so-called "conceptual" projects have in common is their desire to destroy the hegemony of affect and ego in contemporary literature, and, moreover, the author-figure as a celebrity uniquely qualified to acquire an audience. Whether the source material used in such experiments is found online or offline is immaterial; the most important requirement, in fact, is simply that it hold no native emotional interest for the author who employs it. The first-person singular is disallowed, as are any indicia of "self-expression." By way of contrast, the metamodern lit of The YOLO Pages is categorically affect- and ego-laden, and, in carefully crafting authorial personas designed to delight readers, is very much invested--in fact some might say singularly invested--in figuring out how to turn obscure "alt-lit" authors into overnight, gleefully self-expressive celebrities.
In other words, two bodies of literature could not possibly be more distinct than are metamodern lit (a la The YOLO Pages) and postmodern conceptualism. But with postmodernism at the end of its period of dominance, there's a hope among postmodernists that the most exciting literary phenomenon in America today--one embraced by no less august persons than James Franco, Shia LaBeouf, Wes Anderson, and Stephen Colbert--can somehow become a lifeline for drowning avant-gardistes. On this evidence, that's unlikely:
"I can't open my mouth because I will cover you with stars"
"Every time I am away from the internet I wonder if I am loved"
These are just two instances of the radical sincerity evident in The YOLO Pages, "radical" because it is, for the postmodern reader, impossible to credit. "Did s/he really believe it--or really feel it--when s/he said, '______________'?", is a question one is likely to ask again and again in reading this anthology. But elsewhere one finds content whose ambition is more obviously to entertain (in much the same way social media's inanity sometimes does):
"I CAN'T COME TO DINNER MOM IM SOLVING HOMOPHOBIA
ON THE INTERNET"
"I am releasing a book in the shape of a pizza"
--Santino Dela, from "This Is How I Will Sell More Poetry Than Any Poet
in the History of the Poetry" [sic]
These tweets or tweet-like articles (the latter is presented in a stanza, the former in a tweet, though we quickly see, as the anthology urges us to see, that the forms are interchangeable) are humorous in part because they contain a kernel of truth and in part because they are, on the face of it, preposterous. We do often think, contrary to the evidence, that our online dialogues help solve things; we know that banalities sell far better than sublimities in America; but we also find ourselves incredulous at the notion that anyone thinks they can solve homophobia online or popularize poetry through cannier advertising. This hybrid optimistic/cynical material shares page-space, in The YOLO Pages, with content that is unambiguously "uplifting":
"BE PRESENT BECAUSE THE WORLD NEEDS YOU" (written over
a pixelated photo of Earth)
"I am like mark wahlberg in boogie nights / but instead of having
a giant penis / I have a giant heart"
--Joshua Espinoza, from "If You Don't Think Crying Is Poetry
You Can Go **** Yourself"
One finds oneself alternately thrilled and exhausted that someone is writing like this; alternately heartened and unnerved that someone is writing like this and getting widely read while doing so; and alternately amazed and annoyed that such writing has thus far been so lightly theorized that postmodernists can claim it for their "camp" merely by noting that they, like the authors, have an Internet connection.
At its best, however, The YOLO Pages is to be commended, and for more reasons than can readily be recounted here. Most notably, it offers America an opportunity to joyfully rediscover literature, and to encounter the Internet as a place where reading and imagination thrive rather than merely degenerate. The YOLO Pages also refocuses our attention on Generation Y authors, whose native cultural paradigm--metamodernism--stands in stark contrast to the milieu of the three generations preceding them, which generations now seek (through some of their most institutionally patronized scions) the colonization of a sphere of literature they sadly have had almost nothing to do with.
Indeed, if there is a variation in the metamodern quality of the texts in The YOLO Pages, it is that we find some of the older authors featured therein attempting to perform metamodernism through the lens of postmodernism--that is, in works that are still self-consciously coy, ironic, and deconstructive of meaning, affect, and ego--whereas in the Generation Y authors of The YOLO Pages we're more likely to see authentic metamodernists and metamodernism at work. These latter poets and texts do not wink or nudge, but merely exist in the world as unfathomable (respectively) personas and objects.
A metamodern poem tends to raise, as one of its primary lines of inquiry, "Is this for real?", and then, secondarily, "What the hell?" For instance, when @weird_bug tweets, "humans are basicly just really smart plants" [sic], does account owner Catalina Gallagher intend the typo as irony, an emulation of sincerity, or merely an irrelevant formal blip endemic to Internet discourse? Is the content of the tweet "real" content--that is, does it mean--or merely a simulacrum of content? The reader doesn't know, but can readily credit interpretations at either end of these spectra, and for this reason (says the metamodernist) is hypnotized into attention (paradox intended). This stands in contrast to postmodernism masquerading as metamodernism; such texts are more likely to judge and/or "problematize" linguistic phenomena from a safe distance, rather than enact the way certain language praxes have become fully integrated into the praxes of contemporay living. Thus Sharon Mesmer's excellent but defiantly not metamodern "I Am So Into My Mom," whose speaker drips with postmodern ironic detachment: "Mom, I am now your infant overlord; surrender now or I'll poop in your lap." However entertaining these and similar lines may be, they produce no affective or semantic ambiguities in the internal atmospheres of readers, nor do they exhibit metamodern works' tendency to oscillate between poles and thereby permit the temporary transcendence of polar spectra. Seeing such lines in this particular anthology--quite apart from making any comment on their value as literature--does tend to encourage the erroneous view that Internet Lit is Internet Lit, and that postmodernists are right to imply that any literary projects that acknowledge the existence of the Internet are basically co-extensive and co-equal.
None of the above is intended as criticism of the older authors in this anthology, who are earnestly trying to recreate the New America using the tools of the Old, and whose poems are no less imaginative and intelligent for being "late postmodern" rather than "early metamodern"; nor is it a criticism of The YOLO Pages editor Steve Roggenbuck, who was wise to try to memorialize a continuity between the Old and the New, even if the linkage feels, at times, rather attenuated. Still, as scholars and artists deeply invested in postmodernism are unlikely to pay much if any attention to successors who posit their own work as a radical break, young metamodernists do well to acknowledge that postmodern thinking is often critical to the oscillations that define their oeuvre.
Criticism of The YOLO Pages, from a metamodernist's perspective, would likely take the following form: These texts continue to use the instinctive postmodern bent of their scholarly and popular readership as a crutch, and in this respect perform only ephemeral simulacra of metamodernism, not the autonomous genuine article metamodernism strives toward. It would be unfortunate if readers of The YOLO Pages believed, on this evidence, that metamodern literature is dependent on the generosity (or lack thereof, given postmodern cynicism) of readers. It simply isn't so. While metamodern transcendence can be replicated using texts that exploit readers' natural skepticism, it is equally possible--and from the metamodernist viewpoint, preferable--to generate texts whose autonomous qualities would generatively bewilder a readership of any era or cultural bent.
Autonomous metamodernism is less likely to rely chiefly upon humor or the absurd, though in fairness it's often both absurd and humorous; it's also less likely to be as focused as the works of The YOLO Pages are on marketing themselves to an audience--as juxtaposing sites of production and distribution makes it more difficult for authors to create works that shock, offend, or challenge readers. One might argue, too, that the more literary artists blur the line between production and dissemination, the less spiritually fulfilling they're likely to find their own writing lives. Metamodernism is not a celebration of capitalism or technology, after all, but an exploitation of each to express a structure of feeling common to our Age. That its early manifestations often do juxtapose sites of production and distribution is best explained, one supposes, by the fact that we're currently in the throes of the Program Era--a time when the academic discipline of creative writing encourages high schoolers, undergraduates, and graduate students, through its "workshop" pedagogy, to think of themselves as always-already in juxtapositive creative-performative public spaces.
The YOLO Pages is an absolutely critical first step--in fact, from an anthologists' viewpoint, the very first step--in ushering in the era of metamodern lit, one reason that such studious efforts are being made (already) to co-opt its roster of authors and position them as a gaggle of late postmodernists. (One hopes they will resist the temptation; the understandable yearnings of artists earnestly seeking a popular audience and the respect of the Academy propose a different outcome, however. Already, some of the "alt-lit" authors of The YOLO Pages are planning leaps to the big New York City trade presses, whose interest in marketing has historically well outstripped their interest in Art, some notable exceptions notwithstanding.)
While some of the works in The YOLO Pages still try far too hard to please, and still do too little to displace readers' expectations regarding non-consequential Internet-fueled zaniness, there is more than enough genius evident here to say that this anthology single-handedly heralds a new age in contemporary American literature. And how can we possibly ask any anthology to do more than this? Scholars may fight over intellectual ownership of the difficult literary work being done in The YOLO Pages, but readers, as ever, will be the final arbiters of whether this anthology is the last gasp of one generation or the first joyful shriek of another. Whatever the Academy and scions of the late postmodern may say, this reviewer would bet all he owns on the latter outcome.
A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. A regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014, and whose second and subsequent editions will be published by Wesleyan University Press. He is presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Follow Seth Abramson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sethabramson