As my situation of Juliana Spahr alongside the other poets of my dissertation (namely John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Duncan, and even Denise Levertov) suggests, Spahr is writing both in and from a tradition of experimental poetry that has long been preoccupied with the eradication of the self. But, owing to the fact that Spahr is writing quite a bit later than the aforementioned poets, her work is also highly influenced by the Language school of poetry that saw this eradication of individual subjectivity as one necessarily grounded in semiotics, in form and language itself. It is precisely this preoccupation that Katy Lederer points to when she writes in her review that Spahr in Response is “a poet unwilling to clutter her writing with the signs of her own subjectivity” (140). And, it is inarguable that Response marks a clear grappling with the issues of subjectivity and the self. But, rather than removing any sign of authorial subjectivity, as Lederer would have us believe, Response marks the initial moments of Spahr’s ongoing interest in a startling paradox of subjectivity in the experimental poem: that in order to be truly communal, we require individual subjectivity; that, in being truly communal, we disrupt and disfigure our individual subjectivities. This paradox, I argue, is central to the notions of community and the common that permeate her work, most noticeably in her collection of poetry, thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, and in her critical text Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Response, however, demonstrates Spahr’s first forays into this paradox, which she eventually satisfies via her use of this project’s titular [generic pronoun].
To begin looking at the paradox of subjectivity in Response, we must first look to Spahr’s concept of authorship, which recalls Mac Low’s arguments in my earlier plateaus about the author as an initiator. In “A, B, C: Reading Against Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein,” she outlines a concept of the author as an initiator of choices rather than the controller of a text, thus including the reader in the production of textual meaning on a radically communal level. “An author,” she writes, “is the person who originates or gives existence to something” (284). As initiator, the author needs to involve readers in the production of meaning, and, as such, leaves much of the process of meaning-making incomplete. In a radical poetics that embraces inclusivity, the terms of author and reader need, in some way, to be conflated, and the boundaries need to be blurred. Spahr sees this enacted in Stein’s work, which she terms “confusion”: “Here is a confusion of subject, address, and identity. Here a new poetics of the subject is scripted” (286). This scripting of a new, radical poetics of subjectivity is enacted, for Spahr, in Stein’s work par excellence, and fittingly, too, as Stein has become a notable spectral presence in my own project. Spahr writes that in Stein’s reliance on readers to engage in meaning-making themselves, she relinquishes some of the authority of the author. Rather than a controlling presence imposing meaning upon the chosen words, Spahr observes that “[i]n Stein’s work the authority of the author is hiding behind the door, is translated, is denied” (287). Let us leave, for a moment, the finality of a term like “denied” and focus instead on Spahr’s diction in “translated,” a term that defines Stein’s approach to authorship as at once purely linguistic, moving, and altering. This concept of authorship as movement has been a feature of my project frequently, and will come up again momentarily. In contrast to this, “denied” is final, perhaps, but it also acknowledges the persistence of the lyric “I” in poetry, a persistence we must resist, must shut the door upon, must deny. The authorial subject in poetry seems to demand representation; a postanarchist reading practice, like the one Spahr proposes, seeks to unsettle these demands. That is, her poetry may work to deny authorial subjectivity, but she also knows that, like the previous poets in this project did, the completely unegoic is impossible.
Indeed, if Response teaches us nothing else, it shows us that the construction of the subject is evitable. In fact, the collection takes this for granted, rather than grappling with this knowledge as Cage and Mac Low did. The unnamed speaker of Response states, plainly and conversationally, “we know we are all constructed” (“Responding: V” 8), as if the social construction of the self is a widely accepted (and easily accepted) truth. Once the text accepts social construction as a starting point, it is then free to move, supporting a conception of the individual subject that is in flux, always in motion, recalling the transformative suggestion of authorship as translation above. Supporting this reading, Spahr suggests, also in “A, B, C,” that “reading is an act of transport. Transport is a word of instability” (283). Recalling the ekstasis that so intrigued Mac Low, or the shifting point-of-view that destabilized Levertov’s political poems, Spahr here proposes a self as fold, turning in on itself and moving beyond. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the image of the woman in “thrashing seems crazy,” collected in Response, with multiple personality disorder, who comes to believe that one of her alternate personalities, a man, is stalking her. The image displays both the inherent splitness of the self, and the political import of physical bodies. The section displays perfectly Spahr’s dual comprehension of selfhood as “self turns on self / the knife enters at a point that the self could not have reached but did” (31-32). Both identitarian politics and the complete refusal of identity are too easy for Spahr, and lead us into the same political problems that anarchist activists on both sides of the argument would seek to avoid.
A way out of this binarism is proposed by Sophie Mayer in “Aggregators: RSS (Radically Subversive Syndication) Poetics,” wherein she discusses Spahr’s approach to subjectivity in poetry and politic. Of course, the disruption of the self, Mayer is quick to note, is not new, and Spahr’s tools themselves are not new either. That is, Mayer observes that “Spahr … disperse[s her] lyric “I” through postmodern poetics of quotation, repetition, and bricolage” (48), three of the mainstays of postmodernism that, in 2013 when I write this, have become tired and ineffectual as a poetics (and as a politics, too). What we need, Mayer argues instead, is a rethinking of the self, a concept she draws directly from Response[i]: “as we rethink our selves, the political enters / and the issue twists to become about our ability to touch information / to make our own decisions” (“testimony: V” 33-35). That is, for Mayer, in an effective and effectual radically political poetics, we “need to ‘rethink our selves’ in light of the radical tropes of alienation and connection highlighted by global war and global media” (49). Supporting this, Mayer defers to Judith Butler’s concepts in Precarious Life of a politics of interdependence and interconnectivity: “we’re undone by each other, … and if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23). Thus, Mayer observes that in Spahr’s poetry, poetics, and criticism, the “[r]eader, poet, and subject are interdependent, made vulnerable (in Butler’s term) by ‘shock and awe,’ by the rending violence that gently informs … Spahr’s swift changes of focus” (50). The very movement implied by Spahr’s shifts in subjectivity, in point-of-view, in authorship serve to disrupt the ordered, taking a particularly obvious page from Stein’s own mandates. And this process (of flux, of movement) is more valuable, for Spahr, than an identitarian politics could ever be: “more than identity our attraction is to puzzle / the lineage” (46-7). But, none of this answers the question Response asks so persistently. That is, “how much self can be removed and the self remain?” (“witness: V” 5). Or, can we disrupt subjectivity in order to expose a more useful conception of selfhood as interdependence?
In the end, for Spahr, it’s a question of pronouns, themselves literal representations of selves in language. Pronouns preoccupy Spahr throughout Response and well after. In 2005, nearly ten years after Response is published, interviewer Michael Boyko poses a question to Spahr about subjectivity in her work, and she responds tellingly: “I keep thinking pronouns all the time. Somehow pronouns have become the most loaded parts of language for me.” Pronouns obviously get complicated in Response through their turn to complete generic states, but it is important to note that the genercization of the pronoun is always complicated. For example, in “Responding: 1” Spahr writes of a “[gendered pronoun]” who “wanders in this place / [searching / [waiting” (2-4). Despite the almost humorous lack of specificity, the [gendered pronoun] is able to move between the localized “this place” and the flux of open movement denoted by “wanders,” “[searching,” and “[waiting.” And, even more importantly, the latter two progressive verbs are bracketed without close, implying even greater instability. They still represent transport, movement. And, of course, the example that is my entire project’s namesake, “[generic pronoun] creates” (10), demonstrates that the blurring of subjectivity is, can still be, productive.
I would like to end by noting that Spahr’s approach to the pronoun sees a dramatic shift in the nearly ten years between Response and thisconnection, where the pronoun “we” is used frequently in an almost Steinian repetition. Spahr explains this turn to “we” to Boyko in the interview, which I quote at length:
I started with “we” because I wanted to start with together. […] And I wanted everyone to be there in the poem. I wanted “we” to include those who read it. And then I wanted when I turn to “I” to talk about how that moment of becoming individuals, becoming distinct and disconnected, is part of the problem. And I wanted more specifically to talk about my own complicity with this. […] I guess I felt I had to stand up and take responsibility and be there in the poem at some point. That I couldn’t hide in the “we.” And I also wanted the reader to think about their individualism with me.
In sum, Spahr suggests in this passage, and throughout Response, that we need subjects in order to connect with other subjects, to be interdependent, complicit in eachothers’ individualism. That’s the core paradox of Response, and of Spahr’s work more generally. In recognition of selves, we blur lines: rethink, translate, transport, read.