juliana spahr's powersonnets
When some new writing by Juliana Spahr comes my way, I’m always surprised by how essential it is for maintaining poetic and moral sanity in various engagements with corporate, media & political languages. How did I ever get along in the office without her? Her latest, a small chapbook called PowerSonnets, is published as part of the Self Publish or Perish project of the Subpoetics email list. Such an independent publishing project is a particularly apt forum for her thoughtfully subversive “thefts” from various sources of art and power (statistics delivered by President Clinton, memos from an English Department regarding diversity, art reviews, interviews with rock musicians). By forcing these pieces of language into the sonnet form (the book opens with a quote from Paul Fussell, “The poet who understands the sonnet form is the one who has developed an instinct for exploiting the principle of imbalance.”), Spahr illuminates their strangeness in harsh and unexpected light, breaks and reforms them into unflattering structures, makes me read fresh their obsfucated intentions of power. My favorites are the sonnets with endless sentences stuffed awkwardly into the 14-line form. Particularly haunting is the sonnet, “After ‘What You Should Know About the Creative Writing Program Debate.’” The text of this poem was written in response to a “Revised Draft Resolution,” containing a provision “H” which states, “policies and practices to encourage ethnic and aesthetic diversity in the Creative Writing Program.” Here’s an excerpt:
The inclusion of ‘Part’ H is a validation,
and then an institutionalization,
of an unfair and false assumption
that remains unresolved. That this assumption should now become history in the form of a proposal that might be voted
upon is unacceptable. ‘H’ should be deleted, or proof of these allegations offered.
Words, words, words! So misused in the name of power. And power is nothing but paranoid. But Spahr is a formidable poet-figure who stands in the way of efforts to make language an ubiquitous carrier of suspicious opacity. By forcing such language into new forms, she restores to it its own essential translucency, permeability and elasticity.