Conceptual Coda / Vanessa Place

Vanessa Place: Stating Authoritatively

The first book in Vanessa Place’s Tragodía trilogy, Statement of Facts, has—like the Goldsmith text of my last section—caused quite a stir in the poetry community. Place is a poet who works her day job as a lawyer representing sex offenders, and Statement of Facts sees her reframing the narratives of her work, appropriated from official court documents, as conceptual poems. The result is that these narratives of trauma are repositioned in a manner that dramatically changes their audience and their purpose. As Goldsmith says of the text in Uncreative Writing, “[b]y shifting the context from law to art, and by stripping the language of any legal purpose, we suddenly see these documents in ways impossible to see them before” (103). But, what exactly do we see as the newly intended audience of these texts? And, how does this repositioning of legal documents as art pieces alter the way we view the authority of the author of a conceptual text? I include this piece in my project now, after not having intended to include it from the outset, because I think it says something unique about the authority of conceptual authorship, and about what the formal properties of the conceptual text do to our reception and interpretation of the piece in question. Place has authored these texts in more ways than one: she presides over them with the authority of a lawyer in their original state, and as formatter and author in their state as conceptual poems. And, perhaps obviously, these pieces are clearly intended to be affective and emotionally disturbing in a way that the other conceptual pieces in my project are not. I will look to affect more specifically in my second plateau on Statement of Facts. Right now I am primarily concerned with the authority provoked by this text, and in particular with the way that font and typeset affect the way we understand the authority of it as well as its producer.

The question of authority in Statement of Facts is especially salient in terms of both literature and sexual politics; in conceptual poetry as in sexual offenses (and rape especially) the question of authority is frequently contested and used by dissenters to discredit the speaker. And yet, the author’s position in both scenarios affords her a certain credibility and authority that is unavailable to other less-privileged speakers. Place as lawyer is granted legal power and social credibility ab ovo; Place as acclaimed poet with such well-known peers as Goldsmith and Perloff (who are both thanked on the copyright page) is considered important and valuable prior to the reception of her book[i]. But, it also bears noting that removing these texts from their original legal context puts Place as their “author” in a precarious position, both claiming a kind of ownership over them and placing her at a distance from her original position as legal defender of the accused. From the form of the text and the physical properties of the book itself, it is clear that Place articulates a discomfort with her authoritative position in this discourse, namely through her decision to record the text-proper in a sans-serif font.

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith records Place as calling serifs “those little epaulets of authority” (104), arguing that this in particular is why she has chosen to remove them from the original court documents. While I haven’t been able to find this wording anywhere else save Goldsmith’s transcription, I find the concept quite interesting. It would seem as though the idea that serifs denote authority is taken uncritically here by both Place and Goldsmith. It is true that those publications—and I use this term purposefully—that are considered to have authority are most frequently printed—another purposeful term—with serifs: court documents, print books and magazines, newspapers, even digital versions of texts that desire credibility and authority like academic journals. Printed collections of poetry also almost always employ a serif font. Alternatively, due to issues of size and graphic design, electronic texts—like blogs—typically do not[ii]; the fact that this project does is a conscious choice on my part to suggest the authority of the traditional print-based thesis. And yet, there is nothing particularly authoritative about serif fonts themselves. It is generally accepted that print is more legible with serifs, and electronic text the opposite, but some cursory research into the field of typography reveals that studies on the legibility of either serif or sans-serif typefaces are largely inconclusive[iii]. Place herself even concedes that it is possible for serifs to be populist and anti-authoritative in her review of Rachel Khedoori’s Untitled (Iraq Book Project) for X-TRA.Nonetheless, frequent use and typical context mean that the reader can be expected to associate a serif font with an authoritative speaker, and a sans-serif font with an average or typical speaker. This is what Charles David Legere notes in his doctoral thesis, Reading Close Reading: Twentieth-Century Criticism, Twenty-First Century Poetry in his discussion of the use of serifs in Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal (58-60). It is with this in mind that I would like to draw attention to the fact that not all of these epaulets of authority have been removed from Statement of Facts.

Indeed, while the entirety of the body of the text is written in an Arial-style sans-serif font, all of the paratext, including the book’s cover, is written in a serif font. By proxy, the serifs lend authority—at least for Place—to the author’s name and the book’s title, to the review blurbs (one of which is provided by Goldsmith), the copyright and publisher information, the table of contents, and even the page numbers. The result is that while Place looks to remove a legal or juridical authority from the court documents, the very form of the print book and its own legality (via copyright) are stressed; even if these serifs are an inescapable element of the publication process, this fact is hugely important. If the repositioning of these documents begs the question of who speaks and who is heard (and why), then the paratextual serifs here suggest that this question is not being asked of literariness as well. The copyright page does not even provide a caveat or an admittance of irony as we will see in Darren Wershler’s the tapeworm foundry. Instead, I’d like to argue that these paratextual serifs lend a literary credibility to the piece; they suggest the genuineness of the appropriated legal documents therein at the same time as they assure the reader of the literary value and conceptual radicalism of the documents’ appropriation. This process is re-inscribed by the footnotes also reproduced with the documents (sans serif).

The footnotes lend credibility to the text as both a legally truthful and apparently impartial reproduction: a “statement” of the “facts.” Sometimes these footnotes are clearly authoritative about the genuineness of what is included, an important feature of legal documents and a strange inclusion in a poem. For example, a footnote on page 278 indicates that its referent is “[t]aken from the transcript admitted as People’s Exhibit No. 12. (Supp. CT 20) The transcript of the May 3rd chats, one from 3:52 p.m. to 4:02 p.m., the other from 4:05 p.m. to 4:27 p.m, where RDJS and WBG13 discuss possibly meeting tomorrow morning, are not included here as they were not introduced into evidence. (Supp. CT 23-25)” The result here is that the reader is both assured about the genuineness of the evidence provided and reminded of his or her distance from the text (and the case) by only being privy to that information “introduced into evidence.” At other times, the footnotes suggest a fact-checking and impartial third-party voice (is this Place?) intermediating the subjective and biased possibilities of testifying in a trial, as when a footnote provides the caveat: “It is not a diagnosis recognized by most practitioners. (RT 9:1826)” (98). To whom are we meant to assign the speaking voice of these footnotes? Whose voice is being heard now?

In the end, what I’d like to suggest is that Statement of Facts allows these issues to remain as impasses, accepting that the questions of who speaks and how, who is heard and why, are complex and determined by social inequity and a politics well beyond the scope of her project and my own. This position is confirmed by Place’s refusal to represent the intent of her project following the outpour of angry and politically frustrated responses to Perloff’s comments about victim and accused voices in the text[iv]. Statement of Facts leaves things at the level of complexity and conundrum, refusing to take a side. It brings up the issue of the genuineness of the source texts (made credible by the legal authority of the author), forcing us to interrogate issues of genuineness and affect in traditional poetry. It brings up the issue of facticity, forcing us to wonder if it’s possible to “state” a fact without making a “statement” about it. It brings up the question of the impartiality of the legal system, asking us specifically to look at who speaks and who is given authority in rape and sexual assault cases. But, for better or for worse, it does not seem to take a side on any of the above issues, further demonstrating a discomfort with (but not a refusal of) authorial authority.

Indeed, as Goldsmith is quick to note, appropriation actually involves “dozens of authorial decisions” (Uncreative Writing 118), and the formatting issues (of serifs and footnotes, for example) are some of the most telling authorial decisions Place makes in the production of Statement of Facts. These decisions, intentionally or not, draw attention to what Steven Zultanski describes as “the social structure which grants an erroneous truth value to certain acts of language as a means of control” in his review of Statement of Facts for Jacket2 in 2012. But they also do their part to re-inscribe the text’s literariness as a “truth value” itself, asserting a control over the reception and interpretation of the text that severely limits the possibilities of reading it by virtue of the clear and authorially determined framing. As I will look to in my next plateau, the authorial control denoted by these formal elements is made all the more powerful when one looks to how they govern affective readership in the text.


 

[i] I have encountered a number of interested individuals who find Place’s work valuable and interesting without having read her work or seen her read, for example.

[ii] Because electronic text is typically presented in a smaller-sized typeface, serifs are typically understood to decrease legibility and are, as of the last ten years, not usually recommended for electronic (and especially online) use.

[iii] For more information on the legibility of serif and sans-serif fonts, see Alex Poole’s very popular survey of the literature, Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces? published on his website: http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/.

[iv] If I am talking around the uproar surrounding this debate here it is because I would like to save much of that discussion for my second plateau on Place.

5 thoughts on “Vanessa Place: Stating Authoritatively

  1. When you write, “in conceptual poetry as in sexual offenses (and rape especially) the question of authority is frequently contested and used by dissenters to discredit the speaker. And yet, the author’s position in both scenarios affords her a certain credibility and authority that is unavailable to other less-privileged speakers,” I’m not entirely certain about what you’re trying to say.

    On my first reading, I thought Place was putting herself into the position of the victim, possibly because of the phrasing around “dissenters.” I took it to mean that the accused person (or the lawyer working for him or her, which I guess would be Place) denies the charges. Which also brings up cases of rape where the assault is mitigated by the authority of the rapist (priest, coach, teacher, etc.). But now that I realize that Place is writing from the position of “accused’s lawyer,” I’m also interested by the authority of cultural narratives, the old “she was asking for it” story so often mobilized by the defense. I’m not suggesting that these are Place’s tactics, but in the conflict between authorities (hers, as author-lawyer, and the cultural narratives’), the latter seems to undermine the author’s “certain credibility and authority,” whether in terms of originary power (if she channels them) or of having to work against them (if she’s trying to create her own story of what happened).

    Both readings (author-as-victim-stand-in and author-as-accused’s-lawyer) raise questions of power, since the first action, as far as the legal case is concerned, is that of the rapist: as Place distances herself from the latter role, does that shift her position towards the former? I’m not suggesting an equivalency between the victim’s trauma and the poet’s discomfort, but both are defining themselves against Place’s former client.

    And swinging back around to literature, it’s interesting how Place’s self-restriction to the materials included as evidence aligns her readers with the juries: yet another form of authority that both the lawyer and the poet are deferring to, even as she invokes her own authority in speaking to them.
    Complex stuff here.

    • “I’m not suggesting an equivalency between the victim’s trauma and the poet’s discomfort, but both are defining themselves against Place’s former client.” — yes, this temptation is a dangerous one, as you point out. And it’s pretty close to what Marjorie Perloff said when she got herself in heaps of trouble. But, I think your point still stands. The discomfort of speech, and of “truth,” is something the text is playing with throughout.

      I hadn’t thought of aligning the audience with the jury, but I think this is a productive line of thinking, too. Of course, the jury is supposed to be representative of the “public,” but I think we all understand how silly such representation is. I wonder if, by opening these documents up, Place does work to break down the inadequacies of representation and move towards a common that resists being represented in such limiting ways — by the very process of placing limitation on herself!

  2. I really like this plateau, and Jonathan has mentioned a lot of interesting elements. One thing in particular that interests me (and this might be something that you could work through a bit more explicitly) is the relationship you imply between silence and authority: “Statement of Facts leaves things at the level of complexity and conundrum, refusing to take a side.” This silence on Place’s part, a refusal to contextualize her text, is interesting in terms of authorial power. It might also be worth discussing this silence in relation to Cage’s silence in his mesostics for Cunningham. Having said that, I suppose that is a big topic–but maybe you can gesture towards it a bit?

    • Yes! Place’s relative silence here (it’s complicated, and different from Cage’s, but still) is definitely articulating a politics of nonengagement like we saw in Cage. I hadn’t made that connection before, but I think it’s one well worth making, even if I won’t be able to do the discussion justice. Sounds like a potential article, too…

  3. Pingback: State What: The Anarcho-Conceptual Syndicate’s Politically Responsible Conceptual Writing |

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