TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Whether as a gadfly to the bigger kids in communist Romania or as a teenager in Chicago, part of me always wanted to be hip, but another part always knew that it was too much work.

What does it mean to be hip? It means to be urban, wired, social, to occupy the latest spaces, to perform the most contemporary habits according to a precise code. If being hip means being urban, multinational, vanguard, does being unhip end up meaning that one has to be rural, nationalistic, or even parochial?

Speaking about downtown Los Angeles on BBC2 in the early 1990s, Dr. Edward Soja mentions how postmodern architecture can manifest as the feeling of de-centeredness quickly followed by a desire to submit to authority, any authority. How does this desire to find a center relate to the desire to lose a center? More precisely, as a first-generation immigrant American poet like myself who is interested in finding his place: how do the hardships of feeling lost play out in contemporary American poetry?

Recently, Swedish-American poet Johannes Goransson has suggested a link between the hipster and an excessive aesthetic on his popular blog called Montevidayo: “The hipster lets the art become excessive, lets art become “graffitiesque” (ie when art takes over the space of the everyday).” Perhaps hipster poets like Goransson, Ariana Reines, Sean Kilpatrick, and others, as practitioners of excessive aesthetics, offer useful responses to the moral-relativism articulated by postmodern urban spaces. Perhaps art is still that thing that helps us conceive of getting lost as an adventure.

What does it mean to take seriously the central lesson of the European avant-garde, via Tristan Tzara, that life is art? How can contemporary American hipster poets’ various understandings of excess help us understand the terrifying idea that life is an adventure and not a time-keeping instrument? What kind of self-expression or Romanticism is still possible after the death of the center?

Describing herself (and literature as such … since biography is written and, as well, it writes the self she describes), Ariana Reines writes in Coeur de Lion:

I don’t mean some internet-ready
self-reflexivity, self-irony, whatever
people call it, as if a self were so fixed
just ironizing “it” could constitute
a surge of consciousness. (7)

And here she is holding pop culture at a properly disdainful and therefore hip distance:

Apocalypto is a awesome title, we agree.
And Mel Gibson is like some kind of grotesque rendition
Of a stupid, stupid Georges Bataille
But his bloodlust, in its excess, is dull.
Its voracity runs too headlong
Into the carnage, or something, it doesn’t
Exploit the eros of violent possibility enough. (12)

Reflecting on the rather self-obsessed and confessional mode of the book, the same speaker writes:

When do you
decide you’re talking to
Literature too? It’s hard
To separate a body from
The words it lets fall.
And then the difference
Between what’s written
And what seems, outside
Of writing, almost just to be.
Writing has to do with
Time. It comes very close
After. Or
It can. This is very
Close after.
So close that it could
Scare me. I hope it
Will. I really hope it will. (50)

In his gothic and Google-age-surrealist book Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, Johannes Goransson writes: “His dingle-dangle is a strange fruit. Get out of here if you don’t know how to raise a child, how to save a child, from this disease. It’s a disease of language. I suspect I have it already. Shit.” (6)

In 1922, Tzara said: “Dada is useless, like everything else in life … Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions.”

Sean Kilpatrick’s sexual and aggressive book called fuckscapes offers a series of horrific images in a variety of textual shapes cutting up pith and anger and idiom and confession all with a syntax that implicates the reader in this apocalyptic mess. He writes:

Neat breaks of ammo stung the weather.
They played my father’s rigor mortis over the loudspeaker.
Doctors with poor eyesight wearing rubber boots
Through his carrion, with southern accents in his carrion,
On lunch break, the color of lotion, his carrion in tents,
Said, “toothbrush removes father.” They
Said, “he served us well, your daddy pile
Of Frogger super-genes gone splat. (24)

Americans like their personal space and the Internet would seem to offer the ultimate in disembodied connectedness with its main utopian offering of a self that promises to be everywhere, a ubiquitous self. However, because we conceive of the Internet as a kind of space-space continuum that is out of time, it performs Dr. Soja’s “spatial turn” in the Humanities as a modal default. Because of this aesthetic or modal default as a spatial trope, an uncensored Internet is the most powerful instrument in the Democracy 2.0 movement.

How does space relate to the cool poets? Contemporary American hipster poets comprise a network of agglomeration in urban centers and as a causal consequence of this proximity to one another they create the necessary buzz for the literary mutations we come to recognize as progress. Sure, progress is a myth in the service of colonial projects but it is also the way each generation understands the geography of the past.

If the hipster makes art that is everywhere, does the marginalized maker make art that is nowhere? If we are the ones who construct space in poems and in burnt out downtown districts, what is the role of the oligarch who sponsors building projects? When a city generates excess, this garbage or grotesque excess offers once again the primary lesson of the European avant-garde: life is art. Consider the terrain of mortality; consider performing life as a fellow traveler to death. After all: nihilism shows us the amorality of fashion, but only if that amorality is seen from a critical distance rather than just lived. How, then, do we exploit the eros of violent possibility so we may live our art to the fullest?

To get free latest updates, just sign up here

Gene Tanta was born in Timisoara, Romania and lived there until 1984, when his family immigrated to the United States. Since then, he has lived in DeKalb, Iowa City, New York, Oaxaca City, Iasi, Milwaukee, and Chicago. He is a poet, visual artist, and translator of contemporary Romanian poetry. His first poetry book is called Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX, 2010). Pastoral Emergency is his second full-length poetry book, which has generated several chapbook offshoots. Tanta completed his MFA in Poetry at the Writers' Workshop in 2000 and his PhD in English at the University of Wisconsin in 2009 with literary specialization in twentieth-century American poetry, first-generation American poets, and the European Avant-garde. His journal publications include: Ploughshares, EPOCH, Circumference Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Watchword, Columbia Poetry Review, The Laurel Review, and Drunken Boat. Presently, he is editing two anthologies of poetry, having recently returned from conducting research and teaching in the American Studies Program at the University of Bucharest in Romania as a Senior American Fulbright Scholar.

View all contributions by

  • Rain,adustbowlstory October 23, 2012, 1:19 pm

    Good point: there’s only so much energy. What is spent on appearance or self-regarding is lost to the work.

  • Greg Bem October 24, 2012, 11:28 am

    Disclaimer: I don’t usually use the word “hipster” because it is (even with your article) quite ambiguous and potentially offensive. Anyway.

    What is the consequence as claiming the hipster’s art is “everywhere”? When I read poets like Reines, I’m seeing so many more corners, so much more seclusion, a bending of everywhere being harnessed by a dampened American cultural vision. Perhaps there is a sense of “cool” that exists beyond our national ephemera, but I don’t think that universality, that cultural cooperation, is operating within the poets above. At the same time, however, how old are these poets? Attending a Flying Lotus show last night I realized the sake of “cool” electronic music is changing so rapidly that one must sacrifice their own passions for music to seek out the current hipness, the current trends. Are the poets hip right now actually hip from yesterday?

    I’m curious, also, because of your Tzara references, if you found any insights into the “performances” of the hipster poet. When living in Philadelphia a couple years ago, the coolest poetry readings also had the most disappointing “readings,” same going for New York. I would say that trimmed, cream-soaked fat of identity exists here in the lives of Seattle poets as well, but I’m blind to my own city.

  • Gene Tanta October 25, 2012, 5:35 pm

    Hi, Greg: I’m interested in the power of categories (both assumed, tacit and named, even marketed). Taking offense when someone engages with your work or with your author-function is like biting a chilli-dog and blaming the vendor for your taste in underpants. I don’t like analogies, do you Greg?

    Where was I? Ah, yes, logos: yes, being hip takes time and hipness is a performance. My question would be: what activity isn’t a performance? Why do we call teaching or acting or ballet a performance but not mopping the office floor or serving food or picking grapes as much a performance? We need to sharpen our tools, Greg, even if it means making others think about their allegiances or making a hammer sing.

Leave a Comment