Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Early Morning, April 4" (1)

Corrine Fitzpatrick read with Geneva Chao two Wednesdays ago in North Portland. (Janet and Kate will be glad to hear the Concordia now rolls out a flashing mothership of a PA head to mike the barbaric yawp.)

Geneva Chao’s work was new to me, though it sounds like we overlapped in San Francisco, where she has a new chapbook coming out with Suzanne Stein’s Oakland-based TAXT Press. Chao opened by reminding us it was the anniversary of the King assassination; she asked how many of us knew that date, like her, from U2. (At first I thought she said ‘YouTube,’ like TMZ had a clip up or something, which shows what high-speed Internet’s done for me.) Her work, too, seemed to push serious political content through the confetti shredder of pop culture; “politics like pixie sticks” sweetened for emergency distribution to the masses.

The pieces she read on Wednesday were structured by a repeating series of shifting identity statements—“I’m the type of person who …;” “I’m someone who …;” “We’re the kind of people who …;” “In America, we …;” “We stand united, meaning …”—that managed to graft Whitman’s sprawling democratic form onto the flattened self of the focus group or MySpace page. The armature was flexible enough to support a range of familiar contemporary reference (“I wish there were only one kind of Dorito;” “When I’m feeling homesick, I get the kung pao from Panda Express”) while attending to the ironies of America’s recurring dream of itself as a post-racist, prelapsarian ‘cittie on a hill’ that seems most durable where we’re most banal: “America, your pure products have perfect skin and non-functioning gonads.” “I’m not racist—I love Thai food and basketball.”

What struck me about the work Chao read wasn’t just the ‘message’ carried by its individual voices, but what it implied about the larger cultural space they unfold in. Without directly referencing the culture of the Internet—the blogs, banner ads, chatrooms, breezy online quizzes, and viral social networking that increasingly shape our public expressions of selfhood—Chao's work suggested for me that what’s changed about America isn’t so much the yawp itself as the room it has to echo in now, where so many registers of discourse bump up against one another without the standard social filters. Chao’s intentions were clearly parodic, but I was drawn most to the moments where the language came untethered from the irony to explore the more ambiguous pleasures of the sound bite: “Culture is what keeps your intestines clean;” “We’re the kind of people who are superior in our levity if not our gravity;” “This is America: the country that took the ‘ugh’ out of ‘donut’.”

Still, in asking us to imagine the social spaces where lines like these might be taken straight, or even look good on a bumper sticker, Chao's reading reminded me how the word “we” may be the sharpest parody of all.

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