Pleasure and Provocation: Kay Gabriel Interview with Jordy Rosenberg
Jordy Rosenberg: Can you speak a bit about your formation as a poet and a Marxist? You’ve founded (at least) two different poetry collectives – Negative Press, “a gay Marxist poetry collective,” and Vetch, a magazine of “trans poetry and poetics.” How does your own work relate to the work of collectives-forming and the practice and labor of being part of a collective?
Kay Gabriel: It’s compelling that you put it that way, “my formation as a poet and a Marxist.” I sometimes think narratives of poetic development can lapse into a navel-gazing account of one’s Bildung in pursuit of a private aesthetic taste. That’s antithetical to how I approach poetry, as a cultural activity coextensive but not synonymous with (say) theory. If Marxism is the name for the related series of theoretical endeavours adequate to a critique of capital, and I believe that it is, then I approach poetry as a medium capable of co-theorizing this critique. That sets a horizon to my work—the working-through of a solidaristic project of left politics—which is probably scandalizing to, oh, anybody who thinks literature is there to be, like Mayakovsky sneered, “dished out as dessert.”
On the other hand, I’m transsexual, gay, a hedonist: I believe that poetry secretes a kind of pleasure that theory can’t, and I believe that pleasure always carries a political charge. That’s a different way of adumbrating the relationship between poetry and Marxism: poetry can leap extravagantly into those zones Marxism tends towards—totality, solidarity, utopia. So I approach the two as a tandem activity in which neither collapses into the other.
As to the collectives—yes, I’m an editor for Vetch, and one-fifth of Negative Press (@MinorInternet). The other four-fifths are A. B. Robinson, Cam Scott, David W. Pritchard, and Zachary LaMalfa. We believe that poetry should be by and for everybody, even if it currently, direly, isn’t. Let’s say collaboration is the technique by which we displace the locus of poetic thinking and writing from the private into the social, a cultural mirror of political movement. There’s something scandalous here too—that’s the gay part. We talk about desire, affection, and sex out loud, and we write it together, or back and forth to each other, and that in particular antagonizes the ideological realm of the private.
JR: I love this so much: “I believe that poetry secretes a kind of pleasure that theory can’t, and I believe that pleasure always carries a political charge. That’s a different way of adumbrating the relationship between poetry and Marxism: poetry can leap extravagantly into those zones Marxism tends towards—totality, solidarity, utopia.”
I feel sure I will turn to these words on many occasions. Your response raises a question for me about the relationship between writing poetry and writing theory. You’re also a doctoral student in Classics at Princeton, and so I am curious about the difference (and/or similarities?) for you in writing theory and writing poetry. I think I share your sense of the political charge of pleasure, but then I find myself worrying: well, Nazis probably feel pleasure too. When one is writing a more straightforwardly scholarly piece, it feels easier to (I don’t want to say “control”) direct or guide any pleasures that are induced by the text simply by dint of the fact that that kind of work can be explicit about its argument. Or, that kind of work has an argument, in a way that we recognize as such (I’m trying to tell myself that poetry or prose doesn’t need to have an argument – or, it has an argument, but it doesn’t need to be “right” in the same way that one might seek to be “right” in writing theory) .
In his amazing book, About Writing, Samuel Delany says fiction is a process of “creating a false memory with the force of history.” For Delany, it seems it’s not a question of communicating to the reader what is in the author’s mind (as perhaps one might seek to do with writing theory), but of summoning within the reader a “series of micro memories. . .that infix, join, and connect. . .so that, in effect, [the reader has] a sustained memory of something that never happened.” So this question of the pleasure of the text: well, with poetry or prose, I feel it is perhaps more complicated than with theory-writing, in that you have to leap into an unknown space in the reader, and can only hope to summon some sort of radically unknowable response. First of all, I welcome you to dispute any of the claims I’ve embedded here; they’re provisional. But more importantly I guess what I’m wondering is: do you separate having an argument from writing poetry? How might any of that be related to the pleasure-effect one hopes to generate?
KG: I do and I don’t. Here’s a provocation: literature is never not a matter of taking sides, no matter how fervently it attempts to operate in terms of aesthetics alone. This is a little clearer with fiction, as the Delany you quote suggests: narrative corresponds however distantly to concrete actual social relations, and within a certain ideology of form fiction is taken to be the most adequate medium of narrative while poetry does, oh, something else. Of course I think it’s more complicated than that. All poetry engages the social texture of the world, with a stake in its struggles and outcomes. Here I’m repeating the argument in the first chapter of Jameson’s Political Unconscious—with a critical difference insofar as Jameson, an uneven reader of poetics, emblematically displaces the burden of social signification onto the novel.
This is a long way of saying that poetry always makes an argument—or, better, can always be translated into an argument, and the gap between those two formulations is where interpretation rushes in. Sometimes this is as straightforward as Amiri Baraka’s “A New Reality is Better Than a New Movie!” Baraka’s poem offers a superbly demystifying gesture in giving its argument away in the title for free. But even a direct poem demands interpretation—which also means you can’t skirt the problem of open-ended interpretation just by writing agitprop, because form always introduces a third term between a reader and even the most would-be immediate political content.
Actually, this kind of address to a pre-existing social world is one way of responding to the unease you evoke in “leaping into a reader’s unknown space.” (Actually, that sounds thrillingly intimate.) Poetry doesn’t so much freefall into an anything-goes hermeneutic anarchy as stage a series of encounters with the social signification that’s, effectively, already present. So take a couple of examples: porn on the one hand, satire on the other. I write both. Each requires, I think, a pretty keen traversal of pre-existing social codes, and addresses them by actively delimiting its audience. That’s another way of saying that standpoint is a means of enabling interpretation, an idiom I prefer to “control” or “direct.” Here I follow the New Narrative writer Robert Glück in the desire for a literature articulated to a community. “At several Movement readings,” Glück wrote in a talk on caricature delivered at the New Langton Arts Center in 1983, “I was interested to see members of the audience come up afterwards and say where the writer had got it right—as in, ‘That’s my life’—and where the writer had got it wrong. I’d like to see this in contrast to the audience admiring the writing as if it were a piece of Georgian silver, goods to be consumed.”[i] In my case I address myself to queer and trans people, to comrades, and to anybody else who cares enough to keep up.
JR: I notice you’ve taken a side against my “free-fall” theory of writing fiction! I accept your correction, comrade. I seem to have forgotten my commitment to form (aesthetic, social, etc.) for a moment. Ahem.
In any case I’m thinking of your poem “STOFFWECHSEL” (see below). I am so deeply curious as to some of the argument, as you see it, in this poem. For my part it seems to me to be bringing together Marx’s concept of metabolism, and superventing the current debate between Foster and Moore around the “metabolic rift.” This debate has something to do with whether or not we can simply describe capitalism as expropriating nature, according to Foster, or whether or not we need to understand capitalist production as “in nature” and as mutually mediated by it, according to Moore. I am very much reducing this debate, but in both positions the question of the body and sex/gender are not explicitly addressed. I see your poem as sublating this entire debate into something much messier and massively generative, some concatenation of pleasure, sex, pain, and chronicity – all of which is given form in, say, not an equivalence so much as a polemical equivocation: “a wedding or a sickbed.” See, here you’ve turned the “centerpiece” of a Frankfurt-School style Marxism into a concrete, edible (ingestible) cake. The “dreamt”/”dreamed” toggle interests me (especially how it is given an intensity of location – “U.S. English,” which reads to me almost like the naming of a warship). Are you referencing Benjamin? If so, then I’m inclined to read the “tumble” out of the dream later on in terms of Benjamin’s arguments around “waking” and proximity to dialectics. In any case, this “dreamt”/”dreamed” toggle, as I read it, suggests the concrete abstraction of Marx’s “metabolism,” its absorption by the psyche and the body – despite the poet’s claim that she “metabolize[s] nothing,” in response to the repeated injunction to “INGEST YOUR THEORY.” And all of this hurt(le)s toward the question of metabolism via anality – which is, in a way, referenced in both Foster and Moore to the extent that much of the argument between them has to do with the question of waste. In Marx, Stoffwechsel, in part, has to do with the rift of urbanization that produces a non-return of waste products of consumption to the point of their production, and how that leaves fields fallow due to a dearth of excrescence, etc.. Bellamy and Moore get into it over the significance of this. But what you’re doing, to my mind, exceeds the terms of their debate, because you return, again, this question of waste and metabolism to the body, specifically the anus: “I metabolize nothing it comes right back/out with a child’s persistence.”
Can you say more?
rudely I am, Andy, addled with cold and this is an occasion
say for naps and dreaming as it turns out I dreamt about you,
the occasion of my poem, which is the reason for telling you
the epiphany of a poem called STOFFWECHSEL
this poem was by you in fact it was penned in your hand
it showed the evidences of your formal niceties say
deliberate refusal to break the line on
a fifty-cent word like “niceties”
indeed the cheeriest philologues could have
established to a skeptical audience it was indeed
your poem written by you
which you read to me by my feverish bed
in which I dreamt (U.S. English “dreamed”)
of things like STOFFWECHSEL
the Frankfurt am Main wannabes’ theoretical
centerpiece I’d prefer at a wedding or sickbed
Andy get ready for the good part
though I pause in relating the poem
to take Advil and water to continue relating the poem
called “STOFFWECHSEL” in which you intoned
GET UP POET IT’S TIME TO INGEST YOUR THEORY
the capital letters hammering even on the Starbucks
windows of my stuffy nose GET UP POET you said again
IT’S TIME TO INGEST YOUR THEORY
at which point conveniently there appeared in the poem
Advil and a glass of water to hand
the debt to Eliot is clear, even those
cheeriest of philologues agree:
Andy, your poem is superior
Eliot chose not to supply the reader with any
non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs at all
or acetaminophen, yours is an apothecary
more receptive to business which is how it comes that
this poem “STOFFWECHSEL”
is among other things manifestly yours not Tommy’s
David’s or even Kay’s
not written by the four-piece suit
I metabolize nothing it comes right back
out with a child’s persistence
Andy I tumbled out of the dream into the insistence
of a whole bottle of Advil I will never again have a headache this Feb.
a month in any case when I shall bear up in hopes of
the epiphany of your poem redux
the instructions on the bottle stipulating it is to be taken with food
toast eg or flavored ice or oyster crackers, say
in the Stoffwechsel of the age I’m feeling good enough to hurry up
KG: Gladly! Like a lot of my work, its object is social reproduction. So you’re right to locate the site of its argumentative critique in sex, gender, and the body, specifically its metabolisms or failures to metabolize the products of intellectual and manual labour, the theory and Advil respectively—more on this below. The poem’s philosophically in conversation with Neil Smith’s thesis of the production of nature, which antedates Foster and Moore but I think offers some resources to antagonize them both. Theoretically I riff on Smith’s claim that “nature” is effectively the ontological sphere that capitalism secretes ideologically as other than itself for the sake of accumulation. My variation is that gender, too, is an accumulation strategy, so the poem obsesses over the domestic sphere, the body, sleep, illness, food, sex, shit (well observed about the anality). Here I share the broad commitments of a Marxism attuned to social reproduction—only I depart from several of its canonical formulations insofar as social reproduction theory has largely failed to grapple theoretically with transsexuals and the different relationships we bear towards childrearing, the family, and sex work.
This contours an immanent critique of Foster in particular by fixating on the constitutive gendered unevenness of social metabolism, Marx’s category of Stoffwechsel. Marx in the section on the labour process in Capital vol. 1 effectively claims that labour is categorically metabolic: “Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” So Marx’s Stoffwechsel effectively shares in the social fate of labour as such. This matters for, effectively, the communist horizon of I think all of my poetry whose explicit object is gender: a disalienation of mental and manual labour that takes the specific form of superceding a gendered division of labour. To say this with a bit more punch, I’m interested in using poetry to pose the question of what it would mean for gender to be continually joyous rather than an accumulation strategy.
JR: This is an amazing response and you’ll forgive me for posing some more specific questions to these prismatic formulations. Can you say more about what you mean by gender “as an accumulation strategy”? I am excited to hear your thoughts on this, specifically your departures from social reproduction theory. I’m thinking of Federici’s argument that gender – the compartmentalization of the body into gendered work-capacities – is a kind of primitive accumulation. I’m thinking also of Kevin Floyd’s argument about Fordism, wherein masculinity functions as the “performative embodiment of an emergent instrumental reason.” This is Floyd’s way of describing the transformation of masculinity in the transition from a situation of formal subsumption, when workers had more control over the temporality and pace of their labor, to Fordist factory production, where the temporality of labor is very much outside of the control of the worker (unless a work stoppage is performed). The temporality of factory production, for Floyd, entails also the performative temporality of masculinity which “mediates the means and ends of production,” reconciling “technical knowledge and physical labor.” Here, the “body would be deployed as an accumulation strategy.” I suppose I’m thinking also of Angela Davis’s claim, in Are Prisons Obsolete?, that “gender structures the prison system.” If we see the intensification of the prison-industrial complex as an accumulation strategy and as a spatial fix (according to Ruth Wilson Gilmore), then in this sense, too, gender is an accumulation strategy. But I’m wondering how you see it. Also, connecting with the Smith piece you reference, in that work – “Nature as Accumulation Strategy” – Smith argues that nature is intensified as accumulation strategy in response to the crises of global capitalism in the ’70s and ’80s, which structure the kinds of financialization and marketization of nature that Smith is tracking. So, a couple questions: do you see gender being inflected as an accumulation strategy as a response to certain crises? How does your concept of gender-as-accumulation strategy line up with something like Floyd’s study, which is so very focused on masculinity (cis-male masculinity) as accumulation strategy? In what ways does your thinking depart from/build on Social Reproduction Theory?
KG: My fidelity to SRT lies in the premise articulated by Silvia Federici that the production of the sphere of unwaged reproductive labour grounds the formal subsumption of labour as a species of ongoing primitive accumulation differentiated via gender. In your own highly generative phrase, this sphere is capitalism’s “hiddener abode.” Entering it signals the theoretical attempt to articulate determinately the constitutive unevenness of the social. But on the one hand Federici fails to theorize the problem of scale—the historical relation, for instance, between colonialism and the ideological gendered division of labor in the imperial core, or their continued articulation in the present. This is just to say that to invoke unwaged labour in the Americas is always to initiate a confrontation with the history of chattel slavery and its reverberations in the present—say in the form of the mass incarceration of black men. On the other hand, Federici slams into the theoretical limit I broached above, the relationship that transsexuals bear towards both labor and the reproduction of labor-power. I think a rejoinder to both these limitations of this particular form of Marxist feminism can be found in a commitment to theorizing how the social and economic positions of some women depend on the exploitation and immiseration of others, which also serves as a rebuttal to the residue of transphobic feminism that obstructs this kind of theoretical endeavour in the first place.
This also points up a reply to your question about crisis and gender as accumulation strategy. The problem with attempting to account for the development of trans identity as a possible category of social being in tandem with capitalist political economy is that to do so you have to traipse over the corpses of prior bad-faith efforts to accomplish the same: Janice Raymond’s transphobic conspiracism comes to mind, as does Paul B. Preciado’s poorly theorized Testo Junkie. Against facile attempts to link the development of trans identity to capitalist political economy I cleave to John D’Emilio’s claim that the formal subsumption of labour is the key historical operator that enables the development of gay identity—both as a social process by weakening the structure of the nuclear family as a unit of production and as a spatial one in facilitating the development of the industrial and post-industrial metropolis. I view the development of trans identity as effectively a tandem and related process whose critical difference is the lumpenization intensified by material need and social abjection. Trish Salah observes on this point that “transsexual women’s most consistently lucrative form of employment, sex work, constitutes a participation in an economy of exchange that operates through its opacity as exchange,” and that “this scandal that requires that women, including transsexual women, who engage in sex work be symbolically abjected, without value beyond their sexual labour, and treated as disposable in relation to it” (Salah 2013, 178)[ii]. So to offer an example for your provocative question, if lumpenization in the imperial core is one hallmark of the post-80s conjuncture of capitalist economic development, the proliferation of transsexual subjects provides a cheap and disposable resource for reproductive labour, (and/or as sex work).
JR: I do think your location of transsexual identity in terms of the widespread intensification of surplus labor and disposability in the 70s/80s is so key, and then to build from there to surmount the til-now constitutive aporias of Social Reproduction Theory (rooted in Federici’s at once prismatic insistence on the a priori division/gendering of the body into work-powers as a component of primitive accumulation, and the necessary occlusions attending the unspoken essentialism of that model), is just so rich. I wonder if part of the problem with Preciado’s model is that it aims for a genealogy of trans that is (at least in part) rooted in trans-masculine standpoint epistemology (except the standpoint is that of the [transmale?] molecule), and perhaps it needs to be said that trans-masculinity cannot be the universal signifier of trans-ness.
If, rather than masculinity, the feminized field of reproductive labor is an analytic and conceptual starting point for thinking through trans-ness, I want to excerpt part of your incredible poem, “Peripheral XO,” here, and ask you a bit about it. I’m very much wanting to know if the drama you stage within it could also be thought in terms of a kind of turn on the intersection of transsexuality and labor/the reproduction of labor-power. But here you’re bringing in some of the questions, kind of implicitly I suppose, around geopolitics and imperialism that you’re gesturing to in your response above. I think you’re doing this, in part, through the dramatis persona of TURNER specifically – obviously you’re invoking Capital Vol III. Turner who inveighed against/whined about the problem that the East India company promulgated and embodied: that of the British inability to advance money when it was tied up in production and fixed capital overseas. This is the problem that forms of credit seek to circumvent (annihilate), obviously. I suppose this is how I (dogmatically, unartfully) read the line where Turner orders “anything” that is “prone to liquidation.” This (liquidation) is his fantasy about capital in constant motion. I can’t help but also hear the “anything” as a nod to fungibility as the logic of that motion.
So the setting of all this in the bar – this site of queer “leisure” and also the reproduction of the queer self – I think perhaps (?) figures the hiddener abodes we’ve been discussing: as a quasi-domestic space for queers, the bar also doubles as a site of reproductive labor (i.e. sex work). That the queer bar confounds the so-called distinction between the field of production and reproduction, is, I suppose, the most direct way of saying this.
I have so many more questions about this poem, but I suppose I’ll start with that.
PERIPHERAL XO (excerpt)
TURNER Are you two dating or just BFFs who show up at the same parties?
MME. LA TERRE I am always by his side, at Red Lobster, in Port-au-Prince, in an oil flume.
M. LE CAPITAL And I by hers though I rearrange them day, night and weekend.
TURNER Your mustache looks familiar, have we met before? You look as if distorted by a screen.
M. LE CAPITAL You will have encountered my deputies in the Bureau of Aesthetic Difficulty. You may be deputized yourself.
TURNER I don’t quite follow.
MME. LA TERRE He means tenure, short stop. What can you get in this watering hole?
TURNER Anything with a twist. Anything with cinnamon or bitters. Anything prone to breaking so long as it is also prone to liquidation.
MME LA TERRE [rapping on the bar] Tonic water sloshed over a cherry. His tab.
M. LE CAPITAL Naturally. [Explaining] We cut loose after hours.
TURNER I remember now. You walk your dog Träger on the Home and Garden network. He has his own cooking channel, his own tree in the park.
LYLE [shrugging] Little pets. [Then.] Am I on glue or is that a chorus of middle management?
TURNER Probably, it’s the right zip code. Round that bend there’s a peripheral utopia except the springs run continually with matcha.
[MME LA TERRE lifts herself from her stool. She unwraps her caftan and removes a miniature chapeau, from which cascades a tangle of impeccable finger-waved curls. She resembles an object of Touchstone Pictures intellectual property, simultaneously vengeful and implicated.]
JESSICA RABBIT You never know when you’ll need backup. Only here the content denatures the form. I’d like a martini, very dry, and a seat for my personal saxophonist.
LYLE You two make for mildly suspicious company, more an object of envy than opprobrium.
TURNER At least until your roots start to show.
JESSICA RABBIT Don’t start with me, you little monkey. You’d kill for this ass.
[Turner’s continual smirk melts off his face and goes on vacation. He is replaced by a toy.]
TURNER As it should be, I feel much more casual. Who wants to take me for a spin?
LYLE I’m out. The doctors turned up with a new speculum I am just yawning to try. [To M. Le Capital] Get me a cab?
TURNER Don’t strain yourself. Anyone else?
MIA INTEREST, THE TOY Me! Or actually I’ll ride shotgun.
TURNER And I drive stick. Beyond that bend a ribbed morain, a recess of gay villainy.
PERIPHERAL UTOPIA First I was a blank extension in an office. Then I was an institution, divided against myself with rail lines, much of it reserved for freight. Then I was a much admired site of abject physical beauty, fishes without smell, collectives without guarantees. Totoshka never made it back from Oz, and my devouring earth conceals his dung into the present.
JESSICA RABBIT Party.
KG: It’s as good a place to start as any! “Peripheral XO” is an excerpt from my manuscript-length serial poem A Queen in Bucks County, so for context I’ll spell out some of the poem’s formal and thematic principles. Broadly speaking, Bucks Countyconcerns gay social space, immiseration, displacement, and—I’m in a Marxist publication rather than a poetry journal, so I can say it—uneven development. It takes the form of a series of letters written by Turner, an alter-ego. He’s a little camp, he gets around, he shuffles between hollow imperial core and suburban semi-periphery and he writes letters about it. Sometimes the letters break into other forms too—the dialogue you’ve excerpted here, for example, Turner has a flair for mise-en-scène.
You’re not wrong to suggest that Bucks County thinks about trans identity too, even though that’s not really the manifest content of the poem. Partly that’s because Turner is, for me, a drag act. But it’s also meant as a gesture against some of the presentism, covert homophobia, and implicit proscriptions of that institution called trans literature, which sometimes tends to ignore or disavow the historical relationship between trans identity on the one hand and gay and lesbian identity on the other in pursuit of authentic trans personal narratives. Viviane Namaste writes in her highly instructive Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (2000) that “autobiography is the only discourse in which transsexuals are permitted to speak.” A couple decades or so after Namaste made this assertion, it remains punishingly accurate. Writing as Turner enables a coy deflection of autobiography, a perversion of its demands.
Meanwhile I make no secret of my attachment to gay male culture and social space, which I pursue partly as matter of affinity, partly in solidarity and partly because to a certain kind of homophobe there’s a negligible difference between trans women and gay men. So Bucks County is a literary attempt to confront that shared standpoint through certain key junctures—public sex, for instance. “Peripheral XO” lingers over gay- and trans-coded spaces of social reproduction where this kind of casual intimacy prevails tenuously. So—consonant to your reading of the poem—I’m interested in how this intimacy militates against the public-private division that splits the productive from the reproductive sphere.
That said I’d part ways, somewhat and in comradely fashion, with your reading of that exchange between Turner and the clumsy allegories that wander into the bar, Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre. You’re right to point to Capital volume III as the source of this reference. Tellingly for my fixation with critical geography, Marx advances this fake allegory in his analysis of ground-rent as a means of realizing profit: “the bewitched, distorted and upside-down world of Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are at the same time social characters and mere things” (1981, 969) is a mystified, ideological inversion of this analysis, a moment of satire that Lukács treats with palpable glee in the Reification and Class Consciousness essay. But I wrote this scene less to think about Turner leaping into bed with credit, so to speak, than as a satire of the spatial imprint of speculation and financialization as it appears in the gentrified urban core. I want to provoke questions of and about the spaces of gay leisure: who are they for? What social struggles do they allay, forestall, or respond to? What sheen of militancy do they present?
JR: Further to this theme of “sheen[s] of militancy,” would I be amiss to understand you as supplementing Marx’s satire with a “fake allegory” of your own? I’m speaking of the animation of “Peripheral Utopia” as a character who attests to her (?) own transiting through a variety of what appear to be petit-bourgeois embodiments.
I’ll say I’ve no idea how to interpret the enclosure of the scene at Riis beach (I’m assuming you’re referencing the informally-known “queer” beach here?) by the two inhabitations of “Peripheral”: one the satiric animation, as described above, and the other yet another transformation of “Peripheral” into a – oh what would be the proper poetic term for this? – in any case, the transformation of “Peripheral” into a signature. I have no idea how to interpret it, that is, but I love how the successive transformations of “Peripheral” make me feel. Am I degenerate? Don’t answer that. In any case, I get tangled up in my own literalness, I fear, because, when considering the “spatial imprint” of financialization, I am at first tempted to read the “Peripheral” here as an invocation of the periphery, but instead it seems to have more to do with a certain bureaucratic anomie, the suburban, and middle-managerial? And then it becomes a loving address to — who? And also: in what manner are you invoking utopia here?
KG: If you’re degenerate, thank god, me too! But I suppose there’s two ways to reply here. One is to contextualize the spatial setting that forms the backdrop to Bucks County—the withering suburban corridor between New York and Philadelphia. There’s a slogan here in the accidental resentment signposted on the bridge linking Trenton and Morrisville: “TRENTON MAKES—THE WORLD TAKES.” The hyper-affluent college town where I work but can’t afford to live on my graduate student wage is surrounded by prisons and gutted semi-urban landscapes—Trenton, New Brunswick. This suburban immiseration appears as the verso face of a yuppified and yuppifying cityscape. So—and to a certain extent I want to avoid doing a “reading” of my own work here for fear of foreclosing on a reader’s interpretation—where an allegorized Peripheral Utopia speaks in the dialogue it’s part of my attempt to register the spatial imprint of this oppositional movement.
The other is to clarify the stakes of the genre I’m writing in—letters, hence the loving address. I think there’s an ideological fixation, generalized through the professionalization of poetry in MFA programs, with the lyric as the most adequate genre of intimacy: as if a short poem with an I, a you, and a feeling excretes a tidy capsule of human experience! So on the one hand the letters as I write them—messy, discursive, paratactic—stand against a kind of aesthetic prescriptivism of delicate phrasing and significant line-breaks while digesting and repurposing the lyric dedication into an epistolary addressee. On the other the letter invokes, tautologically, spatial and temporal disjunction, so the epistolary represents already an attempt to think social space on the level of form. So it returns to the problems of queer intimacy we’ve been canvassing, its various enunciations and expressions in public, registered in the scandalous leap of a pornographic letter through space.
Taking these concerns of political program and genre together, A Queen in Bucks County confronts the romanticism that attains to the aesthetic of something like urbanity: slipping through urban space with uninterrupted ease, in such a way as to feel unqualifiedly good about your cultural and social personae, that’s just a fantasy of the white and wealthy. In the hands of queer people it’s a homonationalist fantasy too. On the other hand, “pleasure” isn’t just an ideological effect, it’s also something like an organizing principle of gay life as we struggle to manifest it. It’s almost trivial to note that this kind of pleasure has a concrete spatial imprint. So it isn’t accidental that Bucks County is also largely concerned with the feeling-tone of being gay in the ‘burbs—namely, debilitating isolation. The letters in Bucks County foreground that spatial distance, and attempt to redress it through a kind of extravagant intimacy. “Peripheral XO” wrestles with the contradictions of pleasure, not to negate it ascetically but to revolve it into a more militant position.
This brings me to your final question: in what sense am I invoking utopia? The risk with any kind of poetics that takes gay pleasure at the urban scale as its content is collapsing into a hollow optimism, all the more hollow for its deliberate refusal to comprehend the city as so many ongoing social struggles. That’s one after-image of New York School poetics, and it’s one I want to contest. So “utopia” here I want to insist doesn’t name any kind of affirmative content, a particular scene or location: it’s a way of thinking that canvasses some future temporality out of the ruins of the present, its object is overcoming the world at hand. Poetry isn’t good for a lot more than the ferocious activity of that imagination.
[i] Glück, Robert. 1983. “Caricature.” Quoted in Ron Silliman, “The Political Economy of Poetry,” in The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1989), 24.
[ii] Salah, Trish. 2013. “Notes Towards Thinking Trans Institutional Poetics.” In Trans/Acting Culture, Writing, and Memory: Essays in Honour of Barbara Godard, eds. Eva C. Karpinski, Jennifer Henderson, Ian Sowton, and Ray Ellenwood. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier. 178.
Kay Gabriel is the author of the chapbooks Elegy Department Spring / Candy Sonnets 1 (BOAAT Press, 2017) and, with David W. Pritchard, Impropria Persona (Damask Press, 2017). She’s writing her dissertation at Princeton University on adaptations of Euripides in modernism and the avant-garde. Find her recent and forthcoming writing in the New Inquiry, Lambda Literary Poetry Spotlight, TSQ, Tripwire, the Believer, and elsewhere. Twitter: @unit01barbie
Jordy Rosenberg is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of Confessions of the Fox (June 2018, Random House US/Canada; July 2018 Atlantic Books UK/AUS/NZ), as well as Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion. He is the co-editor of Queer Studies and the Crises of Capitalism, and The Dispossessed Eighteenth Century, and has published theory and fiction in Theory & Event, PMLA, Fence, Avidly, The Common, GLQ, World Picture Journal, and other places.