Wendi Bootes (University of California, Berkeley)
The Optics of Marginality: Langston Hughes, Dziga Vertov, and the Uzbek Unveiling Campaign
In 1932, when Langston Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union, he was actively participating in a by then well-established tradition of international racial pilgrimage to post-revolutionary Russia. During the first few decades of the Soviet Union, numerous black Americans—primarily artists, writers, and intellectuals—ventured to Russia and other Soviet republics in the hopes of seeing and participating in a newly formed regime that publically eschewed racial segregation and economic inequality. While in Soviet Central Asia, Hughes, fascinated with the racial minorities of the former Russian empire, meditated on the Soviet Union as an imaginative site for constructing a modern revolutionary identity within a space of (purported) racial and gender equality. His memoir, I Wonder as a Wander, published in 1956 (several decades after his travels), suggestively advances the idea that Hughes, as a black man, is uniquely positioned to understand the transformative Soviet experience in Central Asia because he observes such changes “with Negro eyes.” Two years later, in 1934, the experimental Soviet film director Dziga Vertov released Три Песни о Ленине (Three Songs of Lenin), a tribute to Soviet industrialization and progress on the tenth year anniversary of Lenin’s death. Vertov’s film, like Hughes’s travel writings, is particularly attentive to the transforming situation of Muslim women under the Soviet regime, articulated within a celebratory discursive framework of liberation. Hughes and Vertov, though literally and metaphorically worlds apart, travel to the peripheries of the former Russian empire to re-conceptualize the shifting modern politics of marginalized identities, constructing the Soviet periphery as an imaginative site of overcoming gender and racial segregation.
This paper will investigate how Hughes’s and Vertov’s focus on the Soviet unveiling campaign of Muslim women in Uzbekistan enables an exploration into the constructed myths of liberation at the intersection of race and gender. In mapping their projections of liberated identity, both figures reveal an abiding investment in exploring the relationship of vision to marginality. I therefore propose that we understand the Uzbek unveiling campaign through a framework of vision, arguing that Hughes and Vertov rely on a particular optics of marginality in negotiating the imbrication of racial marginality with gender inequality. In this paper, I will explore how such optics of marginality are paradoxically predicated on a fundamental blindness: vision in Hughes and Vertov reveals a tense instability that limits perception and displaces marginality even as it promises unbounded freedom. This tension is aptly echoed in the visual relativism that Hughes posits—that one must possess “Negro eyes” to fully understand the situation of racial minorities within the Soviet Union—which reasserts the opacity of marginalized identity even as he simultaneously imagines racial commensurability.
Aaron Coleman (Washington University in St. Louis)
Necessary Apparitions: Supernatural Access Points into Radical Vulnerability
Hello sliding chairs. Hello vicious whispering shadows.
I’m a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable
as something hanging a dozen feet in the air.
– Terrance Hayes, “Black Confederate Ghost Story”
21st century poets of color in the United States are increasingly crafting lyrical subjectivities that embrace their othered selves as embodiments of the supernatural. Exemplifying the potential of such supernaturality in the poem excerpted above, Terrance Hayes reclaims and recodes a lynched subject. Through the simile that concludes the poem, “I want to be as inexplicable/as something hanging a dozen feet in the air” Hayes imbues the poem’s speaker with a ghostly, enigmatic ontology that simultaneously haunts – and lives – even as it suffers – and embodies – a lynching’s violence. Taking into account certain well-known destructive and problematic conceptualizations of people of color as the mythical Other (i.e., Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s testimony that teenager Michael Brown was like a “demon” with “superhuman strength”), this counter-appropriation can at first seem misguided, if not particularly at risk of perpetuating myths of black inhumanity. But contemporary re-appropriation of such supernatural ontologies appears to serve as context and catalyst for a radical vulnerability that, from perspectives of both author and reader, might not otherwise be achievable. Poets of color from a range of U.S. regions and considered to be at the helm of contemporary U. S. poetry have taken advantage of the possibilities for radical vulnerability via supernatural personhoods in magically realistic contexts. Radical vulnerability in this sense might be understood as a means for expressing complicated, nuanced emotions that portray a paradoxical victimhood; one that simultaneously contains elements of dejection and despair, ruthlessness and rage; ultimately: a precarious state of resistance and terminal agency.
In order to better understand this burgeoning trend, analyses of poems from collections published since 2009 (which have been recognized with awards including The National Book Award, The Pulitzer Prize, The American Book Award, among others) such as Terrance Hayes poems including “Black Confederate Ghost Story”, Natalie Diaz poems including “My Brother at 3am”, Jericho Brown poems including “Homeland”, Tracy K. Smith poems including “Museum of Obsolescence”, and Roger Reeves poems including “Samba in San Cristovao, or Temporary Flight” will be discussed. These poems utilize supernatural conceptualizations of vampires, ghosts, devils, possessed objects, and the apocalypse as subjectivities (or, in the two latter cases, contextualizing realities) that allow these poets to delve into a radical vulnerability that often holds paradoxical power and hopelessness. Rereading and complicating Stephen Slemon’s “Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse” and Lois Parkinson Zamora’s “Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. and Latin American Fiction”, published in Magical Realism: Theory, History, and Community (1995), the role of this magically real supernaturality in the 21st century shares common impulses with past iterations, yet it is responding to a particular shift in the cultural awareness of violence and identity upheaval in our contemporary cultural moment. As U.S. poets of color struggle to articulate the emotional realities of the perilous state of life in the U.S., this discussion will seek to explore what the supernatural provides that might not be found elsewhere, namely: the prototypical manipulation of constricting realities that traditional magical realism affords, but perhaps, invaluably, the production and publicization of a black psychological flexibility that allows for new valences of social and emotional resistance.
Jess Cotton (University College London)
‘Migratory passings to and fro’: Wallace Stevens, Picasso and Multiple Forms of Nothing
Picasso’s influence on the evolution of Stevens’s poetry has long been noted, though commentary has generally been confined to ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ (1937), the emergence of abstraction or the cubist practice in Harmonium (1923). My interest in this paper is less with that poem in particular than it is in charting the influence of Picasso’s interiors on Stevens’s images of domesticity, thinking about how Picasso creates work that neutralises and expands the square edges of an interior, just as Stevens creates stanzas that, though seemingly formal, are marked by an incessant vacillation between ‘rationalist’ and curvaceous or ‘luminous flittering’ forms.
Stevens characterises the collaborative relation between the poetic and visual arts as ‘migratory passings to and fro’. In this paper, I draw upon that migratory metaphor to suggest how the poet and painter alike create an oscillating movement between the abstract and the particular, between pleasure and its negations to create forms that are constantly in the process of becoming something new. This movement enables them to transform their earlier technique so as to as to avoid the entrapment of any one particular style. Through close readings of ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’ and ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’, I consider how Stevens negotiates Picasso’s still lifes and portraits in poetic form and suggest how interiors become increasingly constraining sites in modernism for the subjects who move within them. I contrast these early interior settings with the ‘insider-outsiderly’ position of ‘Ideas of Order’ which, I suggest, is crucial to Stevens’s development, as it is to Picasso’s, for whom the balcony becomes a crucial site through which to negotiate interior-exterior space in 1920s.
Far from being seen as destabilising influence on Stevens, as he later came to see Picasso, he was, I argue, a vital figure who provided him with a vocabulary to think through the relationship between art and interiors, the body and space, reality and melancholia in a world that was increasingly tinged in Picasso blue. This paper suggests that rather than being seen as a ‘pure’ American poetics, Stevens, as Robert Rehder writes, ‘needed Europe in order to define America’, and his work is constantly in dialogue with the ways in which Europe is being shaped and reshaped pictorially between the wars. The final section of the paper considers why in spite – or because – Stevens never visited Europe, he was constantly reimagining it in ways that had important implications for the development of his verse, for his sense of how ‘French and English constitute a single language’, transforming the ‘simplified geography’ of a ‘New Jersey Epicurean’ into a world in which ‘The look of things, left what we felt // At what we saw’.
C. O. Grossman (Stanford University)
The “Difficult Miracle” of State-Funded Poetry
In 1973, the US State Department wrote to embassy officials in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana asking for their impressions of poet Nikki Giovanni, who had visited the countries two years earlier: “[WE ARE] SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING POSSIBILITY OF AWARDING GIOVANNI A GRANT FOR VISIT TO AFRICA,” the cable said, “BUT WE DO NOT WISH TO DO SO IF THERE IS LIKELIHOOD THAT SHE WOULD BE EMBARRASSING TO THE US GOVERNMENT.” If policy is, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have said, “the new form command takes as command takes hold,” we can begin to reinterpret or at least call into question the motives of state institutions that take a particular interest in black writers amidst US-Soviet contestations for power. Giovanni was one of several poets associated with the Black Arts movement to be recruited by the United States Information Agency (USIA) for overseas lectures. In this paper, I read Giovanni’s lyrical accounts of state violence and unfulfilled diasporic identity in My House (1972) against a narrative of previously unexamined diplomatic cables and Congressional hearing transcripts from the early 1970s. While in earlier attempts at reaching Pan-African audiences, policymakers had glossed over the so-called ‘race question,’ a decisive shift in soft power tactics now depended on conveying “the seamy as well as the bright side of life in this country,” as one congressman put it. This paper places Giovanni’s eight-country tour within a longer history of US literature working in and against the neoliberal state as the state attempts to (strategically) disclose its own forms of dispossession.
Matthew Holman (University College London)
“in Spain they said nothing for foreigners”: Frank O’Hara in Madrid
The poet and curator Frank O’Hara arrived in Madrid on 10 August 1958 to begin research for the New Spanish Painting and Sculpture exhibition, which was later held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in July 1960. It was his first visit to Europe (and first outside the United States since the Second World War), and – as was typical of the poet when dispatched from New York on business – his initial reluctance gave way to enthusiasms for the topography and flavours of a foreign city: late-night drinks in the bohemian Justicia district, monuments to Cervantes, gallivanting to the El Escorial with his lover-translator, Oscar. But it was his encounter with the Spanish avant-garde, emergent after long years in the wilderness during the repressive aftermath of the country’s civil-war, which was a revelation. In the radical art of Antoni Tàpies and Eduardo Chillida, O’Hara recognised gestures to the ‘lingua franca’ of transatlantic abstraction he so delighted in back in New York. And yet, O’Hara writes, ‘they remain[ed] different, aristocratic, intransigent, articulate.’
Where they differ was in their recovering of the Spanish past, its history and its art: from the ‘thick golden halos of fifteenth-century Catalan saints’ revivified in Modest Cuixart’s painting to the grim humanism of Goya’s Black Paintings, which held a marked influence. But in much the same way as O’Hara identifies ‘the actuality of an intensified historical atmosphere present quite tangibly in the works’ of the Spanish School, a comparative historical attention can be traced in his poetry and art criticism. This paper will provide an account of O’Hara in Madrid, what he did and what he saw, and offer close readings from the neglected corpus of his poetry which deal with the Spanish past, including ‘Little Elegy for Antonio Machado’, ’Now That I am in Madrid and Can Think’, and ‘A Little Travel Diary’ which recounts his adventures with John Ashbery in the Basque Country. Particular attention will be placed on his ekphrastic poems to Goya, and the ongoing presence of ‘two Spains’ divided by civil-war memory despite, or perhaps because of, the political reintegration of Spain into the international community by the late fifties.
John James (Georgetown University)
Poetry of Surveillance in the Middle Eastern Diaspora: Philip Metres’s Sand Opera and Solmaz Sharif’s Look
For many of these poets, the prismatic nature of diasporized subjectivity—ruptured technologically and geographically—is expressed through increasingly fragmented poetic forms, permitting such poets to interrogate surveillance by adopting and re-implementing the linguistic tools of their observers: to “pin” privacy “down in language,” to quote Deborah Nelson, when it becomes “so unfixed in space” (xiv). Solmaz Sharif’s Look (2016) adopts language from the United States Department of Defense to redefine the DoD’s narrow denotations, used to strip victims of their agency: “You are what is referred to as / a ‘CASUALTY,’” she writes (“Personal Effects” [8-9]). The DoD Dictionary maintains multiple definitions of “Casualty,” nearly all of which emphasize typification and categorization, dividing human life into distinct compartments (“hostile”/“nonhostile”) and classifying it not by ethnicity but by mode of death (“killed in action,” “died of wounds,” etc.). The title of Philip Metres’s Sand Opera (2015) is erased from “Standard Operating Procedure,” and his poems redact the testimonies of Abu Ghraib torture victims, C.I.A. interrogation manuals, and journalistic sources to probe the mediating impact of language itself. These fractured forms at once give voice to the voiceless—to torture victims in Abu Ghraib, for example—and splinter authorship to establish privacy: readers cannot discern who writes or speaks the text.
This paper analyzes the formal ruptures in Metres’s Sand Opera and Sharif’s Look, exemplary interrogations of this perpetually shifting surveillance paradigm, drawing on Michel Foucault’s and Frederic Jameson’s theories about panopticism and postmodernism. In their ability to adopt and repurpose language from the observer, the ruptures in these poems introduce total visibility, an autoreferential mirroring beyond panopticism that functions in direct opposition to the “guarantee of order” Foucault reads in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (Discipline 200). Building on scholarship by Nelson, Kamran Javadizadeh, and Lytle Shaw, I consider how the bifurcated nature of total visibility, with its simultaneous potential for oppression and empowerment, refigures privacy in light of burgeoning technologies. I go on to compare how these poetic representations respond to the implementation of surveillance technology domestically and abroad and to explore how they probe the permeability of transnational identity in the wake of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEER) and the Muslim Registry proposed by Donald Trump. Ultimately I argue that, by repurposing the observer’s language and establishing privacy through splintered authorship, Sharif and Metres—and poets of the Arab Diasporic avant-garde—resist the persistent surveillance that all but eliminates private space in the global Panopticon.
Jeremy Miller (University of Arizona)
Unincorporated Territory: Rethinking Postcoloniality Through Craig Santos Perez
In this paper, I will consider how the term “unincorporated territory,” used to designate land controlled by the United States but not considered a part of it, if removed from its legal framework, might help us rethink the geographical boundaries integral to colonial, postcolonial, and neocolonial studies. My hope is that “unincorporated territory” will account for situations of effective, or de-facto, colonialism, created by globalization through the weakening of economic borders and strengthening of physical ones, that exist not only in the Global South but throughout the world, and the literatures that emerge from them. I will ground this discussion within Chamorro poet, Craig Santos Perez’s multi-book project from UNICORPORATED TERRITORY. In his poetry, Perez explores the possibilities of excavating the material remains of Guam’s (Guahån’s) and his own history that has been buried by its unincorporated status. Presently, US Air Force and US Navy bases control thirty-six percent of the island. Towering hotels, serving primarily Japanese tourists, line the remaining beaches. On the interior of the island, bells, ringing atop Catholic churches, call the local Chamorro population to prayer. As Michael Lujan Bevacqua suggests in “The Exceptional Life,” the Chamorros are left with “nothing save for that which America has or will provide” (43). Emerging from this unincorporation, Perez’s poetry strains both geographical and literary boundaries. It addresses questions such as where does one locate Guam? Does one locate it in the United States, the Pacific, Asia, all three, or none of them? Where does Perez’s project fit into American literature, World literature, postcolonial literature? By using Perez’s poetry and Guam as an example, I hope to open these boundaries, wider than they have already been, to new alliances and possible assemblages between other places of unincorporation as they are surrounded by the shifting currents of globalization.
Hayley O’Malley (University of Michigan)
Museums, Movies, and Toni Morrison: Bridging Worlds at the Louvre and in Home
In 2006, Toni Morrison guest curated a multimedia exhibit at the Louvre called (in translation) “The Foreigner’s Home.” It was a particularly timely theme, given the anti-immigrant riots in Paris earlier that year, but the exhibit also built on Morrison’s career-long interrogation of citizenship and community, Otherness and alienation. By pairing museum artworks with contemporary media and live performances, Morrison brought to life themes from her fiction and challenged visitors to view art and culture within global and transhistorical networks.
In this paper, I explore how her Louvre exhibit serves as a transnational and cross-media foundation for Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, a story that probes the possibility of bridging worlds – past and present, home and away. This chain of influence from exhibit to novel chimes with Morrison’s long engagement with visual culture, from her critique of mainstream media in The Bluest Eye to her use of photography as a narrative catalyst in Jazz. But I also argue that in her museum exhibit, Morrison experiments with new ways of relating to visual art, especially film. She screened a number of non-Hollywood films at the Louvre, and she seems to use those films to think with, rather than against the medium, arguably for the first time in her career.
In particular, Morrison screened multiple films by the LA Rebellion director Charles Burnett. I argue that Burnett’s camera is consistently fascinated with children, treating them as windows into imagined worlds and as models of how to play flexibly between worlds, and I argue that Morrison shares this interest in a child’s-eye (and camera-eye) view. In Home, Morrison crafts a series of child-centric vignettes that suggest that children bridge disparate worlds in a similar way to Burnett’s camera and her own multimedia curation for “The Foreigner’s Home.” Through her Burnett-mediated engagement with children, Morrison wrestles with questions of sight, surveillance, violence, and ethics that are vital in our hyper-mediated modernity, and she sketches one form of flexible subjectivity for such a world.
Christofer A. Rodelo (Harvard University)
Exhibiting Latinx: Maximo and Bartola, Travel Narratives, and the Aesthetic Brown Body
This paper queries the aesthetic formation of blackness and brownness through an examination of 19th century Latinx and Afro-Latinx performance cultures. As of now, performance studies, while innovative in its theoretically-rich and archivally-grounded exploration of the 19th century, has yet to fully consider the breadth of minoritarian formations in this time period. Moreover, the relationship between literary, performance, and aesthetic forms (especially for historical subjects) merits further exploration. In tandem with the minoritarian turn in 19th century American literary/cultural studies (and especially in Latinx literary studies), this paper indexes the formation of a hemispheric black/brown performance culture throughout the 19th century. I argue that these cultures both align with and disengage from normative formations of U.S. blackness and brownness to produce a transnational and relational aesthetic practices. This practice, I suggest, is formed between the subjugation and emancipation of the racially-indeterminate performing body. Moreover, I embrace the often-messy overlap in embodiments and textualities replete in historical performances, advocating for a methodological situatedness between literary and performance critique.
To clarify these points, my paper utilizes a specific case-study: the story of freak-show performers Máximo and Bartola, coercively brought to the United States from their native El Salvador in the 1840s. Stricken with encephalitis, the two individuals were forced to perform as “Aztec Children” by numerous owners for the majority of the 19th century. Through examining a key text of their performance archive, the 1850 travel narrative Memoir of an Eventful Expedition into Central America, in relation to broadsheets, photographs, and other forms of textual and visual ephemera, discourses, my study fuses the interpretive scales of literary and performance studies to more elastic ends. Thinking with with Máximo and Bartola, I seek to understand not only how black and brown bodies were racialized beyond the black/white binary in the nineteenth century, but also how an aesthetic of black brownness emerged amidst the political climate of slavery, war, and minority discourses.
 See Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press on Demand, 1997; Moten, Fred. In the break: The aesthetics of the black radical tradition. U of Minnesota Press, 2003; Brooks, Daphne. Bodies in dissent: Spectacular performances of race and freedom, 1850-1910. Duke University Press, 2006; Ochieng’Nyongó, Tavia Amolo. The amalgamation waltz: race, performance, and the ruses of memory. U of Minnesota Press, 2009.
 See Wilson, Ivy. Unsettled States: Nineteenth-century American Literary Studies. NYU Press, 2014; Coronado, Raúl. A World Not to Come. Harvard University Press, 2013.
Simona Schneider (University of California, Berkeley)
Walt Whitman’s “Salut au Monde!” in the World
Walt Whitman’s long, serial poem “Salut au Monde!” first published in the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856), addresses the peoples of the earth through an anaphoric pre-cursor to the “shout out” followed by description. These proto-cinematic scenes of bodies set in motion likely result from Whitman’s imagination coupled with travel photographs circulating at the time. Whitman stages the industrial revolutionary view of a teleology, while allowing his lines diverse temporalities in their length and meter, giving breath to various temporalities of labor and ritual rather making the standardized ones of the trains and steamships in globalized trade networks. Nonetheless, visually, his speaker, “Walt Whitman,” obtains his authority from a higher power and hovers above all his visions, even while this higher power needs Whitman’s senses as information. Whitman’s vision becomes a mechanism for surveillance, even as his voice relishes the ragged line endings.
This presentation will look at Whitman’s poem as it appears in two radically different contexts in the 20th century. First, Soviet filmmaker-poet Dziga Vertov’s film A Sixth Part of the World (1926) appropriates the poem as a main structuring mechanism and, second, the Moroccan literary magazine Souffles seems to reference the poem in a transnational political manifesto expressing solidarity with the Black Panthers, “Salut aux afro-americains.” In these two contexts, we can see how the leftist international logic attempts to reimagine Whitman’s poem beginning with the voices of the people he initially addresses in his descriptions, to varying effect.
Looking at the three examples, I will ask how Whitman’s lyric negotiates the epic mode of nation-building and how the returned gazes in filmic adaptation complicate and enrichen the poetic project. How does setting Whitman’s poem into motion both in the world in moving images allow for a turn back onto Whitman, the spectator? How does its salute (rather than a salute to a flag, for instance) unleash intersubjective play?
Interrogating the borderline lyric-epic mode herein contained, when a heroic, self-celebratory subjectivity, singing of itself by invoking not the other, but precisely the absence of the other, does the dream of dialogue that lyric would seem to offer falter? How does the loose prose reference to the poem take the mantle of Whitman’s privileged voice (as if they were indeed, coming to his side in a sense) but reject the form of its address. These interventions return Whitman’s poem to its “native” context a century later and much changed.
Sara Gabler Thomas (University of Wisconsin–Madison)
Derek Walcott at Standing Rock: The Indigenous Archipelagic Americas
The confluence of Caribbean and US Plains Indians and the figure of Catherine Weldon in Derek Walcott’s poem Omeros (1990) are exemplary of what Édouard Glissant calls a poetics of relation. In Omeros, the sea itself mobilizes this poetics of relation both materially and metaphorically. Take for example, the word, “Omeros,” that when broken into its syllables reflects the open and latent form of the island of St. Lucia: “O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was / both mother and sea in our Antillean patios, / os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes.” Alongside the poem’s investments in the West Indies’ colonial past and present, island ecology, and the sea’s history, a surprising series of narratives emerge: the decimation of the Plains Indians of North America and the story of a white woman named Catherine Weldon, who in 1889 moved to Standing Rock, North Dakota to become an aid to Sitting Bull. This paper argues that the haunting of the Caribbean tribes—the Caribs and the Aruacs—and the Sioux of North Dakota contribute to Walcott’s rejection of an Afrocentric poetics in favor of a more cosmopolitan and archipelagic consciousness.
This paper investigates how Walcott’s cosmopolitan poetics challenge US continental exceptionalism by looking laterally to shared histories of settler colonialism from the West Indies to the Sioux of North America. This project is also motivated by recent scholarship in transnational American studies that seeks to challenge US continental exceptionalism. This paper asks how it is possible to decontinentalize American literary studies through the island poet who looks to the continent, but not as one looking toward the empire. Walcott’s sensitivity to the archipelagic Americas opens up the possibility for periphery-periphery relations and mobilizes an archipelagic solidarity in the face of global warming, conflict over land and water rights, and neoliberal advances that increasingly trouble the flourishing of persons in St. Lucia and Standing Rock, North Dakota.