Friday, December 16, 2011
"Hot content in a cool container": Martin Glaz Serup on Vanessa Place and Franck Leibovici
Hot content in a cool container
A note on Vanessa Place and Franck Leibovici
By Martin Glaz Serup
Elsewhere I've written about documentary and pseudo-documentary in what I call postproductive witness literature. In short, the article is concerned with how some poetry works with the testimony through its use of post-productive strategies; how, through the use of various documents, it develops a certain type of investigation of history, place, voice and site. I believe that the documentary versus the pseudo-documentary approach could show to be two main traditions within the post-productive witness literature. The documentary post-produces already existing cultural material by making new paths and readings through the sources; which, for example, could be court records, newspapers or different texts found on the internet. The pseudo-documentary post-produces material from events that - based on all we know - easily could have taken place, but didn’t necessarily. It is so to speak, post-producing an already accepted, recognizable and recognized cultural discourse. What both approaches do - amongst other things - is examine our conceptions, prior knowledge of and expectations to the sites and phenomena being (pseudo-)documented.
Examples of the documentary tradition, that I'll focus on here, count amongst others the American writers Charles Reznikoff and Vanessa Place, and the French writer Franck Leibovici. The same year as Orderbuch was published in Sweden, Reznikoff's Testimony was published in two volumes in America. The book is based on court documents documenting stories of violence in the United States between 1885 and 1915. Reznikoff edited the original documents, added linebreaks, omitted parts, but he (almost) didn't add anything to them. Ten years later, in 1975, he famously published Holocaust. Holocaust is basically using the same formal strategies and methods as Testimony and is based on courtroom accounts from the Nüremberg Trials and Eichman's trial in Jerusalem.
Franck Leibovici is himself referring to Reznikoff as one of the major figures in what he calls this pretty unknown tradition, which is the tradition of refusing to write 'creatively,' choosing, arranging, editing instead – in order words: post-producing. Leibovici names this tradition one of Poetic documents.
When I was in Paris in September for the Poets & Critics @ Paris Est-seminar on and with Vanessa Place, I also reread Leibovici's Chinese portraits (2007). The sourcematerial of the book is taken from different media reports about hostagetaking in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It consists of excerpts of newsstories, newstelegrams and first person accounts from survivors, cut up in different ways providing many angles, many kinds of language, all of it presented fragmented and in flux with big parts left out and others repeated several times, not following a conventional chronology, not supplying a proper background for 'the story' or the persons in them, not always clearly marking who’s talking and from where and why and to whom. But all of it pertains to an overall context of (at least) two specific mediated conflicts and not the least: to the form in which the media are covering these conflicts. Leibovici's text necessarily distributes the readers' attention towards the way these conflicts are mediated and how little is really needed to be told before we already know the narrative; the readymade mechanisms and stories that present themselves to us in relation to hostagetaking in Afghanistan and Iraq at the beginning of the current century; almost as if this specific kind of mediation and narration was the neutral, objective way to see and understand this conflict. One of the things that we become very much aware of, when encountering Leibovici's work, is that the mediation have their very own aesthetics and that this aesthetics is not only tied to the time in which it's produced and to the technology that brings the stories to us, but also to the content itself. Each topic, if that's not too vague a word, is given a specific kind of tone or voice, almost a certain sentiment, and that's one of the reasons, I think, that all the literary empty space in Chinese Portraits, the white pages, everything that's not there, carry as much information as word-filled pages; the voids are telling but what are they saying? I think one of the major effects of Leibovici's work is to distribute a certain kind of attention - or maybe just attention, to begin with - towards the form through which a certain context, a certain set of facts, manifests itself. Hence the possibility to ponder upon an empty page.
Something similar happens in Statement of Facts (2010) by Vanessa Place. Here it's the language of law that's being scrutinized; the language of the court. Statement of Facts is the first part of Tragodía, a planned trilogy where Place, herself an appellate attorney, appropriates her own legal writing and republishes as poetry her speeches for the defence of different sex offenders. What we have is radical transcripts; everything is there, including legal notes and references like "(RT 2:677-680, 2:687-688, 2:690-691, 2:1541, 2:1554-1555. 3:1812-1813, 3:1831-1832, 3:1852-185)" and "(CT 26-37)". Only the names of the victims and certain details that could identify them too easily have been altered. Transferred from the courtroom to the poetrybook, the rhetoric of witnessing is no longer performative, at least not in the same manner as before; what is it then? Reading the book calls for many questions; maybe the first and foremost should be: what is a fact? And what does a fact actually tell us? When is it important? Whose decision is it? It might be true that a particular appellant is unemployed, for instance, but is that relevant to mention in a case that's about alleged sexual assault? And what exactly does it suggest when such fact is being presented prominently as the very last thing being said in the presentation of the events, the so-called statement of facts?
Martin Glaz Serup was born in 1978 and has published six children’s books, most recently an illustrated story entitled When granddad was a postman (2010), three chapbook-essays, as well as six collections of poetry, most recently the long poem The Field (2010), also published in the USA (2011) and forthcoming in Finland and Sweden (2012). Serup is the former founding editor of the Nordic web-magazine for literary critism Litlive and the literary journal Apparatur; he is the managing editor of the poetry magazine Hvedekorn. He has been teaching creative writing at The University of Southern Denmark and at the writer's school for children's literature at The University of Aarhus and is now writing a PhD at the University of Copenhagen. In 2006 Serup received the Michael Strunge Prize for poetry and in 2008 he received a Gold medal from The University of Copenhagen for his dissertation on Poetry and Relational Aesthetics, now a book due to come out with the University Press of Southern Denmark. He is blogging at www.kornkammer.blogspot.com and www.prmndn.blogspot.com.http://artsandculturalstudies.ku.dk/staff/?id=213860&f=3&vis=medarbejder