Manifestos and sodas

Lit Crawl 2008: Joshua Clover wrangles popular poetry and the poetry of pop

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INTERVIEW Joshua Clover is probably just as well known as alter ego jane dark. It's the pseudonym under which s/he writes sugarhigh! (, which makes equal space for dialectical thinking, pop and country music, and film. I've spent time talking with friends about his criticism and his two books of poetry, 2006's The Totality for Kids (UC Press, 76 pages, $16.95) and 1997's Madonna anno domini (Louisiana State University Press). On the page and in person, he radiates the kind of information-density that encompasses everything from Gossip Girl to Karl Marx, Taylor Swift to John Ashbery.

Clover grew up in Berkeley, went to school there and graduated, then went to Iowa and graduated, then spent a period as an "indigent, unskilled worker" before the first, extremely limited-run issue of sugarhigh! landed him a job writing for Village Voice and, soon after, Spin. Which he did for a couple of years, until he didn't like it anymore and began teaching at UC Davis. When I approached him about this Q&A, he — perhaps slightly jokingly — agreed on the condition that we talk about the economy.

SFBG You've written about the value-density of art — as the economy has gotten less stable, works from a Damien Hirst or Francis Bacon go for record prices. This makes me think of the value-density of poetry relative to visual art, and what Wittgenstein wrote about poetry not being involved in the "language-game of giving information" that's connected to the functioning of capitalism. Is poetry's struggle for a popular audience connected with the fact that it explicitly undermines the structure of capitalism?

JOSHUA CLOVER That's a very noble way to frame poetry that's politically righteous — like it can't be swallowed by the maw of capitalism and spat out. But one of the best-selling books of poetry in the 20th century, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, is an explicitly brutal critique of different kinds of domination, including economic domination.

The sad fact about poetry in the US [today] is not that political poetry cannot be swallowed, but that it can be swallowed quite easily. There are always a couple pages in Poetry magazine set aside for left liberal carping. Poetry is having an event for the 100th anniversary of Filippo Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, asking various writers to write manifestos to be read at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The obvious irony is that any manifesto worth its salt would be a manifesto against Poetry, the kind of poetry they publish there, their $150 million [donated by Ruth Lilly], and their alliance with MOMA. It's a lovely museum, but it lives because manifestos died.

We haven't had many famous manifestos since the great ironic manifesto that is Frank O'Hara's "Personism" [1959]. The period of famous, powerful, persuasive, well-known manifestos — from 1905 to 1925 or 1930 — was an age of desperate terror and unhappiness at the historical victory of the bourgeoisie. That victory is complete now.

Political poetry is popular in other countries not because America is apathetic or has forgotten how to read poetry, but because those are countries where political closure hasn't happened, where social relations can change. From the right and the left, there are poets who've filled coliseums in Poland in the '80s or in South America now. If people want politically powerful poetry that's popular, they have to produce situations of political openness — then poetry that was true all along will have its opportunity to be true on a mass scale.

SFBG Here's one question I've long wanted to ask you: is there any chance of convincing you to write a 33 1/3 book on Cupid & Psyche '85 (Warner Bros., 1985)?

JC I would think about it.

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