From the well-known to the semi-forgotten, the literary isms of the early- to mid-20th century — from Dadaism to Surrealism to Imagism to Vorticism to Futurism to Objectivism — set a subsidiary classification template for all subsequent generations of writers. As each ism elucidated, the importance of delineating one’s work from the work of one’s contemporaries was paramount in terms of attention and accolade. Further, grouping with and against other writers was arguably as integral as the creation of the work itself. Simply, isms provided an immediate context of sorts for the 20th-century reader. In the end it little mattered, then, if said context was sanctioned by the writer herself; Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell famously had very different ideas about what Imagism was or could be, and yet both writers are probably read more today because of their enrollment in the school. Let’s be honest — whether one agrees with their inclusion or not, being a recognizable member of a literary school provides its participant with an attention and focus that the isolated outsider is rarely able to easily obtain. As Too $hort put it, get in where you fit in — and hopefully you do fit in somewhere.
Building off the ism heyday, late-20th and early-21st-century writers group themselves in similar ways — but there is a significant difference from their Modernist counterparts. For contemporary writers at least, the concept of “The New” seems to be one that needs parading. The New Sincerity. The New Brutalism. The New Narrative. Predating those examples a bit yet of a similar designation-based ilk, Ron Silliman’s concept of The New Sentence. There are poetry reading series’ entitled The New Privacy — what’s private is public too now, right? — and post-9/11 poems entitled “The New Intelligence” — after that atrocity, who we are and how we exist has fundamentally changed, evolved. (If one were so inclined, echoes of Virginia Woolf’s famous “On or about December 1910 human character changed” Modernist declaration might be proffered.) Further, regardless of the specific aesthetics of each group, the underlying onus seems to be that day in, day out, the world and its components are new and essentializing that fact is worth doing. The proverbial shock of the new seems to never grow old.
Perhaps it’s inconsequential, then, that the group of writers most commonly known for their sincerity actually characterized and defined themselves by a different name and set of artistic standards, or that, unto a specific group with specific notions about literature, the New Brutalist contingent of writers (of which there are different British and American factions) seem to be inordinately varied. Circa 2016, that single syllable, those three letters — the first proudly capitalized — is all that need be touted and with so many (wildly different) writers writing so much (wildly different) work, being part of a group nowadays is just as important as the beliefs that group espouses and/or repudiates. (In this sense it is no different than the ism-obsessed 20th century.) Get in where you fit in indeed.
In such a spirit of exclusionary inclusion, then, I’d propose conglomerating a group of writers I’d call the Nu-Audacists, ones whose central tenets, as I see them, are as brazen and arguably repugnant as they are nuanced or refined. For the poets of the Nu-Audacity do not believe in Poetry or at least not in the way that many of their contemporaries seem to believe in it. Their work displays an innate awareness to the shrill absurdity of modern life — but they are nevertheless not inured to such absurdity or hardened by it. The Nu-Audacists are largely uninterested in academia or assistant professor, tenure-track academic life. They are post-Internet, meaning that although they often utilize the World Wide Web’s myriad lurings they rarely feel the need to comment on that reality; e-poetry is poetry is Twitter. Broadly and luridly, they believe sex exists. Further, their work is not funny or whimsical; they do not affect poetic “poses” like “sincere” or “confessional” beyond those that they are seemingly unconscious of or uncaring about. For mothers the Nu-Audacity school has Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, and Anne Waldman; for fathers Bill Knott, C.A. Conrad, and John Wieners. Their great-uncles are Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch on Saturday night, talking excitedly after the movie before O’Hara goes to the bar and Koch goes home to his wife; their great-grandparents Antonin Artaud and Mina Loy. Finally and most importantly, many of the writers in the Nu-Audacity school would no doubt protest their inclusion in the group. To varying degrees, most are willful outsiders. They neither want nor need my or anyone else’s collectivist-inspired help. And that’s the point — by refusing to conform in a way that so much of contemporary poetry insists on, they stake their own defiant place in the game. And for the Nu-Audacists poetry is very much a game. Any consideration of getting down on one’s knees and praying to the Muse would be laughed at, scorned. After all, they’re just words, always, little and big, short and long. Besides those poets discussed below, I include among this group figures as disparate as Morgan Parker and Brandon Downing, Ben Fama and Saeed Jones, Sarah Jean Alexander and Danez Smith, Timothy Liu and Sara Sutterlin.
(Why “Nu”? It’s a valid question. Mostly because, as seen above, there never actually was a closely-cohered school of quote unquote Sincere or Narrative writers; such rigid designations are imaginary. Calling something New when its antecedent never actually existed in the first place is forever ironic and the school of Nu-Audacity exists within a similar deception — every worthwhile writer is audacious in some fundamental way and the term thus embraces its redundant nature while simultaneously refuting it. Additionally, most things that begin with the prefix Nu, like Nu-Metal — think Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park — roundly suck and such a premise would, I think, hold audacious hilarity for certain Nu-Audacity members.)
Roundly emblematic of the various Nu-Audacity attributes are Joshua Ware’s second and third collections Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention (2015). Per the publisher’s press release, as an artifact Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention is a tệte-bệche, which sounds fancy and (is) French. All that really means, however, is that the book is two books; turn the 69-page Unwanted Invention upside down and you’re faced with the 67-paged Vargtimmen. That, certainly, is a lot of poetry to foist on any reader; in this respect it’s much like Eileen Myles’s 2012 tệte-bệche Snowflake/ different streets. (In Vargtimmen Ware references this fact via the poem “Snowflakes Et Al.”) The major difference, of course, is where Myles, aged 67 and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other accolades, is to many poetry readers a living legend of a sort, one who possesses the necessary readership to publish two collections in a single artifact, Ware is at the beginning of his career. It thus takes a certain panache to assume the interest in Ware’s work is there to warrant publishing so much of it in one solidified volume. (Warranted or not, this confidence isn’t unique to Ware. Other recent multiple-collections-in-one books by younger poets include Dan Hoy’s The Deathbed Editions and Sampson Starkweather’s The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that other than Myles I personally am unaware of, young or old, any women who have recently published such weighty non-collected or selected volumes.)
Nevertheless, the work in Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention does hold its place, and, in droves, many of the aforementioned Nu-Audacity traits are prominently displayed. “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole,” the first poem in Unwanted Invention, begins:
fragments of a mustache spruce your upper lip
shirt unbuttoned mid-torso, suggesting amateur gay porn
or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse in NYC
its lone entrance tucked back in an alleyway behind a green recycling dumpster
Most days no one cobbles together Wyatt and Surrey
To write contemporary poems; instead, we pick-and-choose from whatever
our search engines offer us. I want to redeem an obsolete style
in an effort to create a new history that begins and ends
with the memory of something that never existed
It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention
For another poet a mustache might merely be hair on an upper lip, a “shirt unbuttoned mid-torso” simply designating the hotness of the weather, but for Ware both circumstances are steamily lascivious; they are rabbit holes that surface on “amateur gay porn/ or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse…” From that opening “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker makes clear their poetic composition method and its hopeful intent. These days reading and studying the work of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt—both 16th-century English poets, the latter of whom is credited with introducing the sonnet form into English –is beyond passé, near useless. Why do that when it’s far easier to “pick-and-choose from whatever/ our search engines offer us?” Because in the end, anyway, what will be eventually created will matter only in the way that nostalgia matters, as something that involves “the memory of something that never existed/ It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention.” Poetry is thusly an “unwanted invention” of the sort that, unbidden, invades the speaker’s life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean poetry or the poetic matters, at least not in the way it once did. It’s also worth noting that both the Wyatt and Surrey references are contained in the volume’s epigraph, one by John Ashbery. It reads:
And one is left sitting in the yard
To try to write poetry
Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,
Took up and put down again
Like so much gorgeous raw material,
As though it would always happen in some way
But where the speaker of Ashbery’s work seems optimistic with regards to poetry’s province and shelf-life elasticity — “…so much gorgeous raw material…it would always happen in some way” — “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker is anything but. Ware’s poem ends with the following lines:
…We wait and wait and wait and wait
and, while waiting, cry for that which we left behind
until we cry simply for the sake of crying
and the comfort habitual behavior affords us
In all reality, nothing changes
as drastically as we would like to believe
On the horizon, a dense mist hangs above the churlish sea
an infinite occurrence spelling wonder every time
“In all reality, nothing changes/ as drastically as we would like to believe” and this includes the reality of poetry. For a poet of the Nu-Audacity like Ware, no savior will be found via the imaginative word, no substitute for God or Satan, mother or father, gold or glitter. In “Kenneth Koch Is Dead,” a later poem in Unwanted Invention, the assertion is made that “The poetry bubble burst/ shortly after Pindar; since then no one’s really given a fuck” and this playful yet ceaseless fatalism is a central Nu-Audacist tenet. Further reference here can be seen via the entirety of “Prefaces” from Chelsey Minnis’s collection Bad Bad (2007) which, among (many) others, includes gold stars such as “Poetry is for crap since there’s no money or fast cars in it” and “A poet is not to be praised for anything/ If I write something then let me be killed.” Still more “unwanted invention” cynicism resides in the stanzas “I mean I love meaning but I hate words I like sounds/ I used to like words but now I hate them because I love them without reciprocity which means with every day I love them more and more because of hate,” taken from Laura Solomon’s “French Sentences” (contained in her 2011 collection The Hermit) and, found in her 2013 volume Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, the entirety of Jenny Zhang’s “Ya Done Cunt,” wherein, riffing in both the first and second persons, the poem’s speaker’s denigrates the way others write poetry, the way she herself possibly writes poetry and the vapid pseudo-profundity otherwise known as Poetry:
she doesn’t like the way you write
I know it is
that was her talking as you
Yah, she’s annoying
that was me talking as me
For the Nu-Audacists, being a poet is nothing to celebrate, at least not in any conventional sense. It’s neither an exalted vocation nor a divine calling. For those in academia it’s simply the means of (hopefully) getting tenure and outside those moldy ivory towers it’s merely a game, one that isn’t — or shouldn’t — be taken all that seriously. The fact that “[p]oetry is for crap,” that its “bubble burst” shortly after the heraldic utterances of the 5th-century Grecian lyric poet Pindar and since then “no one’s really given a fuck” isn’t cause for lamentation or grieving, though. Instead, it’s something to celebrate. The Nu-Audacity school reserves as sacred that which the academy — or at least those in the “professional” poetry world — disdain or revile. In Minnis’s Bad Bad an “Anti Vitae” is even included; entries include:
Poems rejected by Paris Review, Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, New American Writing, Fine Madness, Black Warrior Review, etc.
Sit outside local bar and flash cigarette lighter at firefly.
Intensely disliked by older female fiction writer.
Told that poetry is “loose” by future poet laureate
Commitment to waitressing questioned.
Don’t receive NEA grant.
Fail to send any new work to literary magazines. Not published in any magazines.
This is an “Anti Vitae” in name only, however; upon subsequent inspection it reads more like a humblebrag. And Minnis’s contention is clear — poets shouldn’t be overly concerned with where they publish or how much; what grants they do or do not receive; even the social and artistic perception of their persons by more established literary figures. Beyond all matters of status or livelihood, they should be preoccupied with writing poems, i.e. playing with words, canoodling with nouns, verbs and syllables. Because ultimately the more one professes to hate what they do the more it’s made clear how invested they are in the doing. (Hatred, of course, implies passion, concern, care. But never indifference.)
Featured in Vargtimmen, in the fifth section of his poem “Satanic Intervals” Ware too, like Minnis, articulates the social and market-based forces that seem to shape so much of contemporary poetry, writing:
A poem about money is merely an act of finding
what will suffice in the mouths of a creation that
has escaped its maker. By which I mean
“Satanic Intervals’” speaker later pointedly asks, “Where is the money in all of this?/ & why am I so poor?//The poem is merely a substitute for emotions not becoming of everyday speech. Nothing will suffice./ Everything outside of me is insatiable.” On the transparent face of things most “emotions not becoming of everyday speech” rarely involve money or prestige. Instead, they’re relegated to the fringe side of the street, where creative freedom exists but filthy lucre does not. To trot out an overused saw for the billionth time, “[p]oetry makes nothing happen” and for the school of Nu-Audacity that’s the point — it shouldn’t have to. It’s only when writing poems begets economic opportunities and social climbing and clout that poeming goes wrong. Or as Jenny Zhang writes in “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” “this is a poet’s poem/written by a degenerate/ illiterate/literal/piece of crap.” Every poet, however, should aspire to such illiteracy and crappiness; it’s the only way to know for certain that the reasoning behind what you’re doing is true, pure. And in our personal brand and self-promotion-obsessed culture that purity is truly audacious.
If the Nu-Audacists aren’t interested in climbing the corporate-academic poetry ladder or proselytizing about the glorious aims and scopes of their art, what are they interested in? The internet and sex, mostly. The former topic, then, they take as something that is as integral to writing poetry in the 21st century as paper was to every previous century. Its ramifications and merits need not be discussed — they simply are. And the latter reads simultaneously boisterous and clinical; lusty yet distant. In the words of the speaker of Mira Gonzalez’s poem “the main purpose of the heart is to make heart sounds,” as featured in her 2013 book i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together:
the next time you are driving your car
you will think about that day we had sex in my dad’s bed
when the bright sun was shining on us through the white curtains
and we felt comforted by the inevitably of death
Our digitally-enhanced Information Age is one that obfuscates artistic distinction and the two youngest poets of the Nu-Audacist School, Steve Roggenbuck (b.1987; 18.1K Twitter followers) and Mira Gonzalez (b. 1992; 23K Twitter followers), are paradigms for such expansiveness. For Roggenbuck and Gonzalez, poems can be tweets or YouTube videos; they need not exist on the physical page and if they do they certainly need not be published via any traditional means. Circa 2016 none of this might seem particularly audacious — and yet even today a substantial portion of literary publishing houses and magazines use their online presence as merely a way of touting what they have created in-print. They often tweet and post excerpts from their latest print issues; they host a (sporadically updated) blog featuring a medley of literary-craft based essays and occasionally new literally work. Yet for these outlets there is a wide divide between what they physically and virtually create; different submission processes for print and online publications and different standards for print and online publications. The prevailing cultural sentiment is still that a YouTube video cannot be a form of poetry, nor can a tweet; e-books are less substantive than actual physical artifacts. In essence much of our current literary climate believes, even now, that print is king, and that publishing a dead-tree based book is what every self-respecting writer should aspire to achieve.
Recent surveys have shown, however, that certain (younger) members of (1st world) society would rather have a smartphone or computer with a steady internet connection than a car. Meaning for so called millennials, aka the Internet Generation, physical transportation is less important than virtual. And although survey participants were not asked about their predilection for reading or viewing literature on the internet as compared to procuring it from a brick-and-mortal library or bookstore, one can’t help but think that favor would land in the Internet-sourced technological realm rather than its IRL binary.
Being destroyers of artistic distinction, however, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez would find the above Internet vs. print meanderings meaningless, moot, as for both writers there’s no such thing as “Internet poetry” or “e-poetry;” there’s only poetry. Or, thinking about it another way, Internet poetry exists in the same way as, say, pastoral poetry exists or poetry of witness; each holds a separate but equal stake unto a broader umbrella. Firmly ensconced in the digital present, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez’s work has little time for the wrinkled arguments of the past. “make something beautiful before you are dead” is the title of Roggenbuck’s most viewed YouTube poem and one much talked about. It largely consists of him yelling at a self-held camera (more likely his iPhone) while orchestral-by-way-of-electronica music ebbs, arcs and crescendos in the background. “make something beautiful…” features lines as varied as:
Two words, jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter
Back in my grandfather’s day they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO! We have to harness this gift.
I love hugging. I love hugging people. I love stars.
Rain is beautiful! Grass is beautiful! Cows are beautiful! Maybe you should stand in the rain. Maybe you should stand in the rain. You’re alive right now! You’re alive right now! I love the world.
In the middle of “make something beautiful…” there’s also, fittingly, a collaged video excerpt from the yet-still relevant film Dead Poets Society. In it Robin Williams (as the prep school teacher John Keating) illuminates his students to the fact that “…You are here. That life exists. And identity. That the power for play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” Older viewers might find Keating’s earnestness here maudlin or overwrought but for Roggenbuck it is something to savor and expound into. Because 27 years after the movie’s release life and identity do still exist; the power for play still does rollick on and so many of us still do hope to contribute a verse to it.
Other Roggenbuck YouTube videos are in a similar vein as “make something beautiful…;” they are over the top and irreverent; high-energy and enigmatic. Combining stream-of-consciousness riffing, overt sentiment and juxtaposed video footage of both Roggenbuck and others reading their work, some videos are more successful than others. But the best of them are mysteriously gripping and grippingly mysterious in the same way that, for instance, Weldon Kee’s “For My Daughter” is, or Hilda Morley’s “Sea-Map.”
In addition to his video and social media work, Roggenbuck writes “regular” print-based poetry collections and he’s also a relentless reader and tourer of his work. (Which isn’t to say he much believes in traditional poetry publication ordinances and processes; a Roggenbuck Tweet from July 5, 2016 states, “i support my individual friends who r poets but i generally do not feel that the small press poetry world is worthy of their attention/labor. for example i think ppl who put much of their writing directly on Twitt (@postcrunk @yunawinter) r making a more exciting impact… even books could still be great..but theres just so many stagnant tropes in poet land. we gota be free.”) But it’s Roggenbuck’s electronic presences that have gained him the most attention, both positive and negative. And just like the other Nu-Audacists the author of “make something beautiful…” simply doesn’t believe in Poetry — or at least not the kind that doesn’t take into account the fact that the century we live in today is vastly different than every previous one. For Roggenbuck being a poet in 2016 means availing himself of all possible technological stimuli; it’s the only way he’s able to fully inhabit his poetic sense of self. Twitter and YouTube aren’t, poetically or otherwise, things to scoff at. Instead, they’re fertile sources of creative abundance.
Mira Gonzalez’s latest volume is a shared collection with the poet and novelist Tao Lin. It’s entitled Selected Tweets and, unsurprisingly, the book wholly consists of selected tweets by Gonzalez and Lin. For a lot of contemporary writers this could be an aesthetic defiance of some fashion, but in her post-internet era Gonzalez rightly views Twitter as an artistic norm rather than an outlier. As she stated in a 2015 interview conducted with the magazine The Fader, “…this book shows how Twitter, and by extension the internet as a whole, is an undeniably valid platform for creative expression. No matter how trivial Twitter might become, the internet is now, and I’m confident it will continue to be, a place for people to display their writing in whatever form that may be. Anyone in your MFA program who is denying that now will probably feel really stupid in 10 years.” Gonzalez later goes on to assert in the interview “…I absolutely view Twitter as an equally valid platform as poetry or prose or fiction. With this book, I hope to show people that there really isn’t any difference in value between poetry and Twitter, the same way you wouldn’t say poetry is more or less valuable than a short story.”
We live in the world of now, a now where on average each American citizen checks her phone 46 times a day. (Or even more often, depending on one’s age group.) And what is regularly being checked are websites likes Twitter. Across the cultural spectrum it provides entertainment, art and information in concise, bite-size increments. Readers are found on Twitter and, by virtue of the existence and acclaim of Lin and Gonzalez’s book, eager readers at that. On the face of it, then, her 23,000 followers might not call Gonzalez’s Twitter feed poetry exactly — but she herself does and that’s enough.
Gonzalez’s Twitter account is where most people access her writing, but it’s her first book of poetry, i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, that initially gained her literary-based prominence. Like the other members of the Nu-Audacity school, the speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems are alienated by others and vaguely nauseated by themselves; victim of so many “unwanted inventions” that each must now attempt to make whole, wanted. A typical poem in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together deals with matters of isolation and profound anxiety. “ryan gosling,” the second poem in the book, reads:
I am becoming hostile and unsympathetic
social interaction makes me feel tired and irritated
I have alienated myself
I don’t have meaningful relationships
I don’t have romantic relationships
I read a lot of depressing books
I like being alone
I am a bland person
I am an afterthought
I am a bag of unsalted pretzels
I don’t know
I am constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal
I am not a mean person
I am not a bad person
I am only okay
Like the speakers of Minnis’ “Prefaces” and “Anti-Vitae” and Zhang’s “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” the self-loathing here is near suffocatingly thick. And is it of a confessional bent? An absurdist one? Suicidal? The “voice” of many of Gonzalez’s poem is so deadpan as to be crippling, and yet it also stings uniformly true. The vast majority of the world’s 7+ billion citizens are “only okay;” many of those citizens are also “constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal” that is largely devoid of substantive how’s and why’s. This, of course, makes us want it to achieve said goal — whatever or whomever it is — all the more. Gonzalez’ poetry has been accused of being “a paragon of flat writing,” containing an “ambivalence toward emotion.” More specifically, “Gonzalez’s desire to not have a feeling is leaky and uncontained. She attempts to write about the leakiness in an affectless way, trying to use tone and form of the poem to contain the shame of having a feeling. But the poem is itself a leaky vessel, inadequate to the containment or flattening of those messy feelings.”
Certainly the work in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together refuses to console its reader in any accommodative way. When, in “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” Gonzalez ends the poem with the line “I am concentrating on becoming 40mg of adderall right now,” she plays into a certain disaffected, apathetic, ostensibly “neutral” millennial stereotype, one very much focused on the singular syllable “I” and no one and nothing else. At the same time, however, Gonzalez’s poetry is deeply attuned to the fact that it is only during moments of extreme emotionality that we’re rendered “speechless.” The best poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together exist within an interstice of exasperation and exhalation. They are grandly luminous in their naiveté, repeatedly. In “symbolic interactionism” Gonzalez writes:
and we will understand that the phrase ‘alone together’ is not an
and I will resolve to never be happy enough to forgive you
and I promise that from now on I will only have emotions that can be
perceived as neutral
I wonder how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world
yet I am the only person on the planet
Here, the speaker of the poem is not an inhibited bystander but an astronaut of unfathomable capacity. During certain moments of great joy or despair all of us (consciously or unconsciously) contemplate “how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world” and yet our own indefatigable I is “the only person on the planet.” Certain excesses of self necessitate survival mechanisms that solely deal in neutrality and sterile isolation. Without acknowledging and commenting on one’s flatness of character — “I will only have emotions that can be/ perceived as neutral” — one will never be able to move constructively forward as a living, breathing human creature. (“I am neutral of love and neutral of death” writes Chelsey Minnis in her poem “F-Lute.”) Multi-dynamic and impossibly nuanced, our self is always, of course, our selves and Gonzalez’s best poems strive to negotiate the terms and conditions with which one must accept the malleability of being from mood to mood, minute to minute. Her poetry is a “leaky vessel” only in the sense that humanity itself is a leaky vessel—and that reality is something we’ll have to make a frail peace with until we grow up and die.
The speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together don’t know how or if to feel, what they truly want — but they do know what they’re interested in. And, baldly, that is sex. So when, in “heartbroken people with extreme personality flaws,” Gonzalez writes, “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” the feeling is not exclusive to “heartbroken’s…” speaker. Being largely concerned with the present era the school of Nu-Audacity is the school of sex tapes and “comefarts”; transparent sexual practices and liking to watch themselves liking to watch. They are unabashedly sex-positive in a way that is poetically refreshing. In this lack of sexual subterfuge they harken back to their poetic mothers and fathers. Eileen Myles’s “I always put my lover’s cunt/ on the crest/ of a wave/ like a flag/ that I can/ pledge my/ allegiance/ to. This is my/ country” (“I always put my pussy”) and John Wieners’s “I spit him out on the floor/ Immensely relieved/ After ejaculating/ Imagining myself up my lover’s ass/ he coming by himself” (“The Loneliness”). Frank O’Hara’s “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” and, excerpted from her Feminist Manifesto, Mina Loy’s “The fictitious value of a woman as identified with her physical purity — is too easy to stand by…therefore the first self-enforced law for the female sex…would be the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty.” Like those writers, the school of Nu-Audacity refuses to feel sexually ashamed and they further feel an obligation to impart the virtues of sexual freedom and curiosity to their readers.
One of the central themes of Ware’s Unwanted Invention is sex’s illusory nature and how the act is both ethereal and all too real. In his poem “Imaginary Portraits” he writes, “Bent over the end of a wood-paneled partition/ and wearing nothing/ but a pair of red cowboy boots…you cannot help but look at ourselves in the mirror/ when singular becomes plural/ and everything is/ double of what is double/ already: naked bodies entwining/ imaginary into real.” And in “Portrait” nine short pages later the red cowboy boots appear once again—but this time they are less a sexual document than a poetic one:
In a portrait
you wear the red cowboy boots
with intricate white-threaded designs
stitched into their sides
that I fucked you in
during a poem written weeks ago
in Nebraska. In a portrait
you wait for me, as I wait for you
while I write this poem
so we can fuck at noon
in a friend’s apartment.
In this case the poetic reality for the speaker of “Portrait” is also a sexual one; “I fucked you in…a poem written weeks ago” and “imaginary into real” both encounters are given the same weight. The difference between “making love” and just plain “fucking” also comes into play in “Portrait” — its ending lines read “In a portrait/ I document our love. In another portrait/ you document our love. In these portraits/ our twenty-first century digital urns/ we will live forever”– but the emphasis is on the physical act as much as it is on the romantic implications that are so often tied to it. Fucking can be making love and fucking can be fucking and the school of Nu-Audacity bears witness to both realities. “I show you my virtue when I come farting” is the opening line of Jenny Zhang’s “Comefarts;” midway through the poem the speaker imparts “I was wet because I was wet…I was wet and you didn’t notice it on your leg…I was wet and in my dreams I was wet/ I was wet and asked a stranger to jerk off onto my face.” Virtue is being honest with one’s lover about sexual habits, predilections and desires, coupled with a staunch refusal to mask the sexness of sex, its inherent fucking.
For Minnis and Roggenbuck, then, this circumstance is one of professional and personal bemusement. “…poetry//is a suck & fuck//there is a smell of horseshit//and it is so vulture//like you should jack it all off//like adjunct//and lick it up//for nothing like a stipend $” asserts the speaker of Minnis’ “Don’t Do It Some More.” Sardonic and satiric, “Don’t Do It Some More” again offers the valuelessness of academia-tainted poetry, but here a sexual element also pervades. Sure, the “suck and fuck” of poetry legitimately wretches, but it nevertheless is still worth engaging in and writing towards. As Minnis writes in Bad Bad’s “Preface 65,” “I can fail to be loved but I can’t fail to write this.” And even if a desire to fail exists — to scream to hell with it, “jack it all off// like adjunct//and lick it up// for nothing…” — that desire will be subverted by some innate poetic steadfast, steadlong.
Unto Steve Roggenbuck’s scope sexual activity is, like his poetry, playful, mischievous. Although his work is not transparently sexual in the same manner as the other Nu-Audacists, sex still plays a role, albeit one that is less erotic than exhibitionist. From his video “why i own a backhoe”: “sometimes I put things up my asshole. I’m like, that hurts in there. But then I just let it sit there for a little longer and…it starts to not hurt.” In order for pain to be felt, though, one must possess a willingness to put “it” up there in the first place—and having done so gratification, either poetical or sexual, might soon follow.
Finally, as touched on earlier many of the speakers of Mira Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together are fervently sex-positive; in this respect her work refreshes in the same manner as does that of Ware and Zhang does. Throughout i will never be beautiful… sex is mentioned in a variety of different ways — sorrowful and orgasmic, sometimes in the same poem — but noteworthy is the fact that Gonzalez’s speakers always couch the sexual as liberating. To be alive is to want to have sex and that want is powerful and seductive. Coitus in Gonzalez’s poems can be masochistic; in “induced-compliance paradigm” her speaker states, “I enjoy being bitten during sex/ because of the causal connection/ between the act of biting and/ the feeling of being bitten” and the flat assertion “starving to death during sex is something I would like to do this week” is the final line of “this friday I woke up at 2 pm.” Yet elsewhere in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together sex is investigative, poetically so. See the sly euphoria of the previously noted “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” and, taken from “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” the lines:
I am going to consume your entire body
by lying down on top of you and breathing very hard
and we will feel alienated by way of osmosis
would you please push your head against my head
until we can mutually confirm our place in the universe
did you know that I can only have an orgasm
when I am lying down on my back
also I have never seen snow
The sex isn’t always good in Gonzalez’s poetry, certainly. (In fact it’s often quite bad.) But even that failing is candidly, assertively discussed, sans moral judgments or antiquated male or female stereotypes. Sex is in your face in Gonzalez’s work because the same holds true in contemporary culture and to hide that fact or be ashamed by it designates a refusal of self, artistically, culturally, personally. And as Joshua Ware’s “Imaginary Portrait” puts it, “All that is new/ transforms into the marks of misguided lovers/ shaping themselves/ into another season’s aesthetic rituals/ to prolong the poem/ within sex sweat of bodies/ and the breath of wine-socked mouths.” Under perfect circumstances sex is new every single we time we do it and the same holds true for the writing of poems — the best poets write their first poems every time they sit down. In their most successful works the school of Nu-Audacity elucidates that phenomenon.
Recently appearing on the popular podcast Another Round with Heben & Tracy, Jenny Zhang read her poem “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love,” one that features lines such as:
I think fucking is P in V but later
my mom tells me there’s more
Is p pussy and v vagina, I say
You must try everything, she says
I say it too always striving
to be someone’s mirror
everyone tells me I am my mother’s mother
both of us were born with curly pubes
Discussing her work later in the show, one of the hosts asks about “intimacy” in Zhang’s writing, specifically if vis-à-vis her family’s reading of her work she ever feels bashful or “vulgar.” Zhang’s response is telling. In part, she states that, “Being shameless is kind of important [to me] because…as a woman of color in this world I’m constantly being told that I should be ashamed, like I should have some shame, I should…accept how other people see me as like someone who’s not much, who’s not worth much.” Not everyone in the school of Nu-Audacity is a person of color. But all of the school’s members do represent sex — in all its lurid, vigorous and ultimately positive, affirming and healthy actualities — in a way that suitably represents our current cultural climate; no matter’s one’s personal tastes or proclivities, sexual openness, honesty and transparency are paramount. The Nu-Audacists know that vague metaphors and similes are sometimes just lazy, especially when it comes to sex, when it comes to fucking. Better to name and, having named, empowered. If only every poet, then, could be similarly audacious.
Reviewing Susan Wheeler’s book Smokes in Boston Review all the way back in the netherera of 1998, Stephen Burt introduced the world to a school of poetry he dubbed Ellipticism; gaining prominent advocates and naysayers, it proved to be greatly influential. (The name comes from the grammatical ellipsis, the omission of an unnecessary connection or connections within a sentence.) To Burt’s way of thinking the Elliptical poets sought to “manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively “poetic”) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning “I am an X, I am a Y.” Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Ashbery, and/or W.H. Auden…The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”
Subsequently expanded on by Burt in his essay “The Elliptical Poets” in an Elliptical-focused issue of the journal American Letters & Commentary in 1999, Ellipticism got a great swathe of attention in the late 90’s and early 00’s poetry world. In Burt’s own words, taken from his 2004 essay “Close Calls With Nonsense:”
Some of the feedback I got was jazzily positive, even thankful. Some of the feedback was negative but attentive: readers pointed out (as my essay acknowledged) that some of the poets I grouped together were hardly friends, and that the books which founded the putative school had come out years apart. Outweighing both the supporters and the disputants, however, were the curious: students who planned term papers on the Ellipticals, academics who wanted to hear more about it, poets who wondered if they belonged in the school…I’m not sorry that I wrote “The Elliptical Poets”: if it created new readers for Mark Levine, or [Lucie] Brock-Broido, or [C.D.] Wright, it did what I meant it to do.
(In 2009 Burt introduced his vision for a post-Elliptical world, discussing the terse, epigrammatic lyricism he saw as poetically in-vogue in his essay “The New Thing.”)
I hash all this up now for several reasons, the first being the similarities and differences I see between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. Like the Elliptical writers — a group which also included Karen Volkman, Claudia Rankine, Mary Jo Bang, and Liam Rector — the Nu-Audacists regularly fluctuate between high and low poetic diction. Steve Roggenbuck’s work is hallmarked by his purposeful misspelling of easy-to-spell words — see his recent print collection Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-15 — whereas, High-Modernist inspired, Laura Solomon’s poems occasionally shift from English into French or Italian. Her poem “Nicola, Hello!” begins with the stanzas “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?// you don’t know me but we speak anyway” and ends with the line “that is the meaning.” (Unlike many of the Modernists, however, Solomon does provide the reader of The Hermit with an English translation at the end of the volume; “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?” translates to “when do you want to meet me?”)
Another shared trait between the two schools is the telling of “almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones.” Although all of the Nu-Audacists dabble in narrative, none of them could be called narrative poets; the half-stories told in their poems are devoid of firm beginnings, middles or ends and, like a Twitter feed, are perpetually rendered in media res. At the same time, however, the typical Nu-Audacity poem is never muddled down by obscure language. Even if one isn’t at all sure where or how she’s going, there is an identifiable poetic entrance and exit, a readerly way in and out.
The differences between the two schools are indicative of the changed cultural and poetical mores. The largest difference, of course, involves Burt’s contention that “[the Ellipticals] want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” Pre widespread usage of the Internet, in 1998 this Elliptical desire would have made perfect sense; entombed on the printed page, their work could not be television but ideally it could entertain its readers as thoroughly as that visual medium was once able to. For the Nu-Audacity school, however, their work has the potential to be or in fact already is the Internet; positively or negatively, no resemblance notions need be discussed. And this World Wide Web based reality is taken for granted by the school’s members in the same way that Wi-Fi access at your favorite coffee shop is taken for granted. There’s simply no use arguing for or against what already is.
The difference in utilization of a poetic sense of self is also markedly different between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. If for Ellipticism a major goal entailed the manifestation of “a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves,” than for the Nu-Audacists the opposite is the case; their work predominantly strives to be mask-less and gizmo-less. Writing in the midst of revelations by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, during an era where the private is public and every smartphone holds a thousand different selves, the Nu-Audacity poets offer their transparency as a badge of poetic honor. Their work insists that someone real, someone authentic, wrote the poems and that realness is not a pose or an affectation; it is an actuality. Unlike the Ellipticals they don’t wish “to undermine the coherence of [their] speaking selves” because to do so would be a poetic sabotage of a sort, one that puts more emphasis on artifice than art. In this regard they salute Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” specifically his belief that “the poem [should be] squarely between the poet and the person…between two persons instead of two pages.” Even at the risk of writing work that might be considered bad or maudlin, the school of Nu-Audacity desires their individual voices (and collective voice) to burn through.
Further, the inadequacy of their chosen art form simultaneously reinforces its essentiality. Because once upon a time poetry wasn’t wholly filled with “stagnant tropes” that all its practitioners consciously or unconsciously adhered to; it was “free” in the same way that Twitter is or YouTube or sex. The writing and publishing of it didn’t have much to do with “professional” success and that lack invigorated the non-rules of the word-game otherwise known as Poetry. Such a freedom is what the school of Nu-Audacity writes toward and believes in. “Poetry is, (and should be,) for the poet, a source of pleasure and satisfaction, not a source of honors… [it] is the gaiety (joy) of language” is how Wallace Stevens put it in his “Adagia” way back in the 20th century, and whether the Nu-Audacists look to Stevens as a sinner or saint his declarations are ones that they themselves hold.
Canonical poet Marianne Moore hated it almost 100 years ago and contemporary poet and MacArthur Genius Ben Lerner still hates it. In his aforementioned essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” Stephen Burt already noted that, circa 2004, so many poems also functioned as games, writing that such works are successful when “we can imagine a personality behind them. The poem carries, as people do, a social or regional or ethnic context; it leaps, as a person’s thoughts do, from topic to topic, and it lacks — as real people usually lack — a single all-explaining storyline or motive. Being like a person, such a poem can also ask what exactly makes us persons, how we know a person when we see one, or how we tell one another apart.” Poems and poeming existed on the Internet far before Steve Roggenbuck and Mira Gonzalez and graphic sex in a poem isn’t at all new either, to this millennium or any of the previous ones. Not everyone who writes poetry nowadays is in academia, not by a long shot. And in terms of audacity, 20th-century Surrealists like Benjamin Péret used to, spittingly, insult Christian priests to their face due to virulent hatred of the religion; the Futurists espoused destroying, among other things, “museums, libraries, academies of every kind.”
So what, in the end, makes the school of Nu-Audacity actually new, actually audacious? Simply this: these poets are writing in ways that embodies and encapsulates the frustrating, abhorrent and ultimately inspiring contemporary world, writing in new ways that no one has written before. And in this way they are Nu and in this way they are Audacious. As lines from Joshua Ware’s poem “I Believe In Everything” articulate:
For life to enter a poem makes a poem worth reading
but for a poem to enter life means
pronouns transform from pro-form to flesh
in ways we can never imagine…
A poem is not…disappearance
but a second life saturated with the ether of the real
always present as an invisible aura
As Jay-Z said, what more can I say? The poetry of the Nu-Audacists is filled with life “saturated with the ether of the real.” Happy birthday, beautiful ones. Never grow old, never grow up.
Image credit: Flickr user lookcatalog