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ROOF Books and the Xul Collective

by James Sherry

imageIn 1995, I first heard Ernesto Livon-Grosman and Jorge Perednik read from the magazine Xul at the Segue Poetry Series. I was immediately fascinated with Argentinean poetics and politics. My concern was intensified by the collapse of the economy there from a combination of crony economics and World Bank globalism. Soon after, Ernesto Livon-Grosman  and I decided to try to anthologize the 16 years (1981–1997) of the magazine into a Roof Book. Working for a year and half with Ernesto Livon-Grosman  as editor and Deborah Thomas as designer, Roof published Xul Anthology in 1997, edited to 135 pages.

First I think I need to say a word about Roof Books. In 1976, I published a magazine anthology of New York School Poetry from the Kerouac School of that summer. I liked the New York School and Beat Poets work, but found that my own work was more closely associated with another emerging group of writers of my own generation and I moved the magazine in that direction. The Roof Magazine was a success for 10 quarterly issues. I was aided in that process initially by Tom Savage, who really pushed me to do it, Vicki Hudspith, and then by Michael Gottlieb after the fourth issue. In 1977, I started Segue Foundation to help fund Roof, and Segue since has produced over 10,000 events of poetry, dance, film and other arts.

My close association with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and with support for both east and west coast proponents of innovative poetry, encouraged me to look at some politically-charged poetry groups outside the US. I wanted to see where there might be associations, globalization, if you will, of the ideas and realizations of our US publications promoting innovative poetics characterized by a combination of close attention to writing on the page and political frameworks of language. Roof has published translations to date of the eclectic works of Tarkos, the playful works of Cadiot, a new view of poetry translation by Yunte Huang based on classical Chinese texts, and a poetic novel by the amazing Nicole Brossard.

What attracted me to the Xul collective was a combination of its political resistance to the Argentinean junta and its interest in both innovative European texts and popular Argentinean poetry, such as the Argentinean Gaucho poem, “Martín Fierro” by José Hernández, and the non-Creole writing around Latin America that Xul championed.

But I have always been at pains to actually connect the material in The Xul Reader to the tendencies in the US. So I am particularly pleased that Ernesto Livon-Grosman  has asked me to write this short essay in order to account for my interests because I do find the relationship between Xul and Roof Books anomalous as well as exciting.

The set of interests that impelled language-centered writing—antagonism to New Criticism, seeking alternatives to the NY School reliance on common speech and a set of personal relations, writing based on political content and the formal politics of language use, and affiliations and a desire to summarize other innovative poetries from Mallarmé and Futurism to Surrealism and Situationism (as well as many other influences)—was far removed from where the Xul collective started. The Argentinean junta of the 1980s compelled a strange relationship between avant gardism and middle class survivalism. Because the Xul group was no Communard collective.

The Communist party in Argentina was ossified and tired. The Xul leaders wanted above all to establish a national as well as a Pan American poetic that could combat the junta without compromising what they considered to be inherent qualities of Argentinean culture: intellectual, bourgeois, liberal. These goals were far from the labor-orientation of innovative writing in the English-speaking world that supported Roof. What is obvious from this last statement is the language-centered phrase also supports, through the filters of post-modernism, a view of empire that is not inconsistent with a more bourgeois affiliation than we writers of language-centered poetry would like. My only defense thereof is that we start with what we knew in English and expand to the French, Spanish, Italian and eventually all the way to China to find what a writing centered on language means. But that is another topic.

American and European avant garde writing are not the same and have never been, so why should we expect Latin American writing to have the same roots or goals. Yet both parts of the Americas start their poetic writing with a desire to separate from Europe, the desire to establish a theory of solemnity as opposed to the European jouissance. This seriousness is true for the Xul project’s battle against the junta and North American writing in slightly different ways.

In the US we would write an attack on capital formation or the cult of the individual as in my book Our Nuclear Heritage (Los Angeles, 1991): “On the skin of burnt children, / there sheens a column of debit that if,…” The Xul collective was equally square in the face of the problem as in Jorge Perednik’s “Shock of the Lenders”, “The most beautiful concept of the mother tongue / Sabotage?” But the US version would more likely be couched in abstract language structures, even if the vocabulary were, as in Bruce Andrews’ work, a frontal assault on the “chicklets” of power or in Charles Bernstein’s work a parody of the writing styles of the hegemones.

And then the playful part of the American writing on both continents differs radically from the seriousness of European writing during the period of minimalism. Gaucho poetry or sexual frivolity in Silliman, such as the 50 pages of questions in “Sunset Debris”, “Can you feel it?” etc. Our continent has no interest for the hyper-serious Euro-poetries that exercise few of the complexities of the larger society in which they reside, seeking instead an essential human experience after the inhumanity of WWII from which European writing is only just emerging in the early 21st century.

At this point, several years after the wonderful experience of working with Ernesto Livon-Grosman  in creating The Xul Reader, I view the contrast and tropisms between Latin and English writing in the Americas as an environmental issue, different writing structures in the hands of different populations. The notion that America, North and South, requires a different articulation in space and time from other places is apparent from Whitman onward and is evident in the European colonial perception of America from Chateaubriand onward. But the colonial experience from which the US emerged quite differently from Argentina gives us both a common ancestor and a very different configuration of culture.

Xul was born out of a cultural resistance of a very practical order, a fight with vicious generals, while the North American writing culture was a far more sheltered, idealistic approach to politics born of the 60s and a less organized, but stronger, opposition. Both resulted in a great variety of writing strategies that were allied by a loosely coupled set of concerns rather than a single coherent meta-theory. Xul and Roof shared this loosely coupled sophistication, a resilience that gives them both lasting power and difficulty of definition.

Sometimes the loose coupling takes over as in Laura Klein’s “(of collateral all…)”, “it’s a bellyful, of a thousand makeovers / on empty coasts… // of collateral all reality…” On occasion the coupling takes place at the non-semantic level as in Nestor Perlongher’s “(degradee)”, “In mirrors you cross galleries with handmirrors”  / galleries, glassy, of glass and slime…” 

These examples from the Argentineans of difficulty of definition and loose coupling show an affinity for the US cousins. Silliman would have been more formal, Andrews might have been more strident, but the character of the writings has a high affinity for each other.

Further both Perednik and Livon-Grosman were involved in this prototyping of a new idea of the politics of language. XUL did not support the new romantics in Argentina (Último Reino and Diario De Poesía) who were interested in being as popular as possible while recognizing the romanticism of Marx de facto. Neither did the language-oriented writers support the political activism of subject-oriented poetries promulgated by the political left in the US. For US writing such extremism alienated the writing from political movements and opened us to charges of complicity with corporate globalism, a charge that was dealt with by several writers: Silliman’s “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” and with more direct association with Xul was Bernstein’s essay “Poetics of the Americas” in My Way.

The Xul group was leftist without being guerilla activists and the language-centered writers mostly never committed as Weathermen or Yippies, but the socialist activists would listen for five minutes before turning away for more “practical” matters. Not coincidently, however, Bruce Andrews has written for Socialist Review perhaps as much an outgrowth of his political science career as the poetry he writes based on diatribes concocted of news headlines and Dante’s Paradiso.

A tongue in cheek example from Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s own poem, “The Golfer’s Discourse” begins “Of the origin in question / they say to her they say / are they - now are they – were they?” This is both a general statement about affiliation and fear of the other as well as pointed at the very space of which we speak: who are these middle-class writers? Why are they not writing about themselves? If not, what is wrong with their lives that they eschew the beauties of poetry for this harsher reality that they do not live, do not want to live.

So how can we reconcile?

The writing supported by Roof had several other similarities with the Argentinean group. First an interest in abstraction. While the Xul collective wanted a popular voice, it also said things that pointed in many directions. Roberto Ferro writes, “a crack / has split / the white desert / defying / its power / linking / every silence / everywhere / threatening / to strangle / every mark / until it vanishes / a tenacious insistence / on the plains.”  The use of the words desert and plains make this abstraction image oriented, but certainly the Klein poem above has similar characteristics.

Second an interest in writing on the page as an image, obvious in Legend (see below), is mirrored in the Xul Reader selection of Jorge Lepore’s “Ifuelofnoforceps” as a page.

Ifuelofnoforceps

To fuel the fire of complexity both poetries used vernacular. Both Bernstein and I wrote poems that consisted only of the 100 most common English words. “Martín Fierro”, the poem Ernesto Livon-Grosman  insisted had to go first in the book, is a classic of popular culture in Argentina. This combination of vernacular and abstraction links the Northern and Southern innovators despite the differences of which we’ve already spoken.

Xul derived support from Paralengua who were interested in performative poetics, sound poetry, the people who were working with visual poetry and how poetry looked on the page. In a similar if more various mode, Roof co-published Legend with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. The varieties of visual poetry in Legend, written by Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman in set based on two, three, four, and five person collaborations expanded the vocabulary of visual poetry and established a clear path linking poetics and poetry, strangely another hallmark of the Xul collective of Argentina.

A couple of examples: Roberto Ferro’s “Eurydice Has Gone to the Agora And is Wearing A White Headdress” has the poem / essay quality throughout: “to discourse / to his hated (con)tent”. Or in Perednik’s “Shock of the Lenders” where he creates new tenses and says “Cards thrown down simulating an Order”, speaking both to the critical and meta-critical spaces at once in the guise of a poetry format. And Xul, the magazine had editorials quite specifically addressing current events and essays that we didn’t publish in the anthology that are analogous to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine’s articles.

The Xul collective directly addressed a political agenda in that they resisted an actual junta while the US poets, coming out of the New Left, spent far more effort resisting an idea of capital and its society of individual contentment. The Xul collective fostered a more complex political agenda than fighting. There were writers like Perlonger who supported this more complex political agenda than the usual anger at the ruling class. He was visible because of the tragic circumstances of his death and a desire of the gay community to promote him: “Decked out in prickly pears and gladioli: mother, how you whip those scenes / of candied bearcubs, those butter honeys: how you flourish…”

Beyond poetry and poetics, the problems of translation were critical to the success of The Xul Reader. Roof has tried on several occasions to create a new idea of translation. Christophe Tarkos’ Ma Langue Est Poetique uses translations that cross the borders between rewriting the poem in English and faithful renditions of the original French, thanks to the wonderful work of Chet Wiener, Stacy Doris and their collaborators such as Fiona Templeton. Yunte Huang’s landmark Shi truly extended the notion of translation beyond the poem itself by extending the beautiful Chinese poem of 8 lines into four pages of poetry, prose, and analytics: a perfect translation into English, a literal translation of the characters, a literal translation of the radicals of each character, as well as lists of what’s in the English and not in the Chinese and vice versa as well as historical notes. That level of completeness of translation provides the reader with a complete literary environment for understanding the translation and its context.

The Xul Reader was an attempt to translate an ethos, to capture the time of the resistance, to link continents and use the link to establish a hemispheric poetry. In some ways the book was a phenomenal success. In others I have been disappointed by the lack of interest outside the Spanish language community in anything beyond US poetry by US poets and readers of poetry. The failure of the poetry community to understand the obligation to counteract globalization with global labor and global art is similar to the complicity of the left with the current wars and conflicts. If we as US citizens are not also global citizens and global artists, we will always be following those who understand that our future as a species resides in the context of a global environment. Unfortunately, for now, those who understand that issue are not on our side and are driven by the effort to control global resources using contracts of affiliation that are linked solely to commerce and the marketplace model. The Xul Reader was intended to address that issue for English language poets and I hope this short piece can be read in that light.

Finally, I’d like to pass on theory for a minute and just talk about energy and execution. As a publisher of poetry I put one foot in the art world and one foot in the world of business. The Xul collective always appeared far ahead of the simpering poetlings cringing in their hovels as if they were part of some 19th century conspiracy to keep the industrial revolution alive. Not that I have had anything against Romanticism, I just have no intention or desire to extend it beyond its useful life.

Our problems now are reconciling a global corporate culture with a sustainable economy that secures six billion people in the context of the planet that supports them. Finding our common ground and exploiting it for purposes that combat zero sum politics is a critical function of art of all stripes today. Roof’s potential is limited only by the scope of its publisher and the people he can find to publish. I have been grateful for the energy and commitment of Ernesto Livon-Grosman  and Jorge Perednik in pursuing these goals through Perednik’s editing of the original Xul magazine and in their subsequent careers.