Sunday, August 15, 2010

Poetry from the Law (part 5)

Vanessa Place
Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts

(Los Angeles: Blanc Press, 2010)
9.25" x 6.5" / 427 pages
[a publish-on-demand book]

No poetry book this year will be more disturbing – upsetting, unsettling – to read than Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts, by Vanessa Place.

Statement of Facts is in one sense, and perhaps mostly, a conceptual work: its text is entirely borrowed from another source and presented as poetry essentially as it was found. Such appropriation and re-purposing is a well worn and easy trick, especially in visual art (see Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, 1914/1964) but even in poetry, and for those reasons the “conceptual” in these things almost bores me.

But a re-purposed object or – since I focus here on poetry – text can still make for a compelling experience for the viewer/reader. For example, I with only minimal reservations rave for Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports (2008), his entertaining poem that’s “but” the radio broadcast transcript of the longest (time-wise) nine inning major league baseball game.

Place’s poems in Tragodía aren’t about any game, and fun isn’t anywhere around. The poems here – 33 of them, in prose, each ranging in length from a few to around two dozen pages – are mostly accounts of human cruelty to each other. More precisely, and to cut the inappropriate in this instance de-gendered vocabulary, the poems with only rare exception concern male violence, mostly sexual and brutal, against women and children.

More specifically, the poems are re-purposed “Statement of Facts” taken word-for-word (names and other identifying information apparently has been changed) from legal briefs written by a lawyer and filed in the California Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted criminal defendants appealing their felony conviction(s). That these particular fact statements were all written originally by Place – she in other words self-appropriates her own legal work here, re-naming it poetry – isn’t at the readerly level as important as the nature of what the text actually is (and was).

My point being that it is legal writing, done pursuant to rules, traditions, and presumably considered strategy. And so compared to much else you will ever read, the prose of the Statement of Facts poems often turn prolix and turgid. I’m not just referring here to the frequent (and required in the law) citations to particular volumes and pages of the court reporter’s verbatim transcript of trial testimony.

In addition to the citations to the reporter’s transcripts, the sentences and paragraphs themselves sometimes are a slog. A part of this is the requirement that the lawyer present in all the evidence adduced at trial, resulting in all sorts of things having to be crammed into what might otherwise be a more stream-lined presentation. And there is also strategy at work, I think: it would appear in some cases that Place decided (and this is an acceptable and sometimes necessary legal strategy) that the interests of the client were best served by keeping the most vicious of the facts, and/or the most compelling evidence of guilt, as far away from the foreground as possible. In these situations, facts and facts and more facts swirl up from the language. The central facts of the crimes, or of the culpability of the named defendant, are not entirely hidden but seem more or less pushed towards the background amidst the factual swirl. Although this is an effective legal strategy, it makes for lousy prose poetry.

Still, the horror of the events that are central to each statement of fact – the crimes and pain suffered – is what comes through in Statement of Facts and that likely, and should, deeply disturb any reader. Quoting from the book isn’t necessary, I don’t think (besides, a lengthy segment is available via an on-line pdf, here), because a simple summary, essentially repeated from above, is shocking enough: the poems here are mostly about men raping (and/or committing other forcible sex offenses) against woman or children.

Awful may be just about the only word that comes close to describing what I felt after reading these re-purposed legal statements of facts now called poems. Awful as in ugh and puke grim nausea and what about kindness and exactly how much of this is there in this world and what about tenderness and even just one of these cases, even just one of these assaults, is too many and what the heck will or can change any of this?

All that, those feelings and questions and ideas, plus more, hits the gut and comes to mind while and after reading and piecing together the narratives nested in this legal prose. The first word of the book’s title – Tragodía – which presumably refers to the anglicized Greek word for an epic tragedy, a story with an unhappy ending – is entirely apt. It’s a very powerful, a very disturbing experience.

Another part of the experience of reading Statement of Facts arises from its paragraphs, scattered throughout the various statements, that recount evidence not directly about the actual criminal acts, but of matters relevant to the proof of their commission, including the mental state of the witness-victims. There is, for example, detailed information about Battered Women’s Syndrome, pimping strategies, the symptoms, treatment, and transmission of genital herpes, Child Sexual Accommodation Syndrome, sexual assault exams, the science and theory of DNA identification, theories for assessing the credibility of children, the techniques of on-line child predators, the effects of alcohol and other drugs, and street gang dynamics.

These matters are typical in sex crimes trials, but maybe not so among readers of poetry. The interest here, frankly, is educational, even didactic. Yes, some of it is not much more than trivia (e.g., “quintillion” has eighteen zeros) or the merely numerical (e.g., there are approximately 6.5 billion people in the world), but other evidence turned prose statement turned poetry strikes me as substantive information that everyone should know, or be reminded of, and think about. Battered Women’s Syndrome, for example, including the spectrum of abuse that can be inflicted and the disassociation and flat effect that can develop as a defense mechanism in cases in which extreme trauma is suffered, or the theory (and seemingly common sense notion) that there is no typical way for a child to disclose sexual abuse. In this way, Statement of Facts might help create a slightly more enlightened world.


I want to return, perhaps more directly, to the question of whether Statement of Facts is poetry. As discussed above, the text isn’t at all poetic, at least in any traditional way, in terms of its use of language or the way the subject is presented, and of course its words were written for another task entirely. Some might deem it uncreative, or unoriginal, and thus not poetry.

However, Place calls it poetry, and she’s entitled to do that. As for the rest of us, and what the world-at-large might think about whether it’s actually a poem, consider please the following statement once made by the late great artist Bruce Conner. It concerns visual art, but its principles are entirely applicable here:
I was working under the spaghetti theory of art. If you want to know if the spaghetti’s done, you throw it on the wall or ceiling, and if it sticks, it’s done. You put something in an art environment, you call it art, and if it sticks, it’s art.
And the same is true, I believe, with regard to Place’s book: she calls it poetry. I bought it and read it as such, and of course write about it as poetry here. So I’m in. Whether it ultimately continues to be called poetry, of course, depends on whether it sticks, with you dear readers of the glade, and everyone else, from here on out.


That I call Statement of Facts poetry doesn’t mean that I consider it a great work. As stated above, it is disturbing, powerful, and important. But even limiting myself to poems from the law I find Place’s book, compelling as it is, a lesser accomplishment by several magnitudes than the other poetry that similarly arise from or are more directly taken from legal texts, and which I’ve previously written about here in the glade (Poetry from the Law, parts 1 through 4, respectively). Those are (if you care to read my posts, click on each phrase that follows):
-- Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (two volumes of objectivist poems based on the facts of particular court decisions);
-- M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (a book-length work that both makes poems out of the language of an infamous 18th century British court decision concerning the deaths (read murder) of slaves aboard a ship;
-- Rachel Loden’s “Affidavit” (a poem that distills and re-arranges the language found in a court-filed declaration of a detective in a murder case); and
-- Loden’s “Last W & T” (a poem that incredibly pares down (while preserving the original order of) the language in Richard Nixon’s Last Will & Testament) .
Call me old-fashioned, but the work of the hand and mind of the respective creators of each of these four above-listed books or poems from the law impresses me far more, inspires me to read closer and re-read more often in much greater ways, than the simple act of self-appropriation that brought Place’s poems into being.


The text on the front dust jacket flap of Tragodía asserts that, “[b]y copying her briefs, Place does not violate any formal ethical standards or professional codes of conduct: all appellate briefs are matters of public record, i.e., could be found or read by anyone, as are the transcripts of the trials themselves.”

This might be right; I’m no expert in formal standards and codes of conduct. However, the dust jacket statement doesn’t seem to directly address a concern I have about what Place has done, which involves the question of whether the re-purposing of her legal work gives rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest.

A lawyer has a duty to serve (to zealously advocate) the interests of the client. Place’s re-purposing in Tragodía of her client-advocacy work as poetry raises for me the question of whether she had in mind, at the time she wrote the statements now-turned to poetry, any thought of how they would read as creative works. That question suggests the possibility of the appearance of a conflict: was Place the lawyer working in the best interests of her clients, or in any way, even partly, in the interests of her work as a poet?

Let me be clear: there’s nothing intrinsic in the Statement of Facts texts that suggests Place wrote these statements with re-purposing as poetry in mind. It’s the appearance of a conflict that concerns me, the possibility that others might reasonably wonder if two projects, the legal and poetic, were going on simultaneously. It’d be entirely different, of course, if Place had appropriated any of the thousands of similar fact statements written by other lawyers that are in the public record. In any event, the question about the appearance of conflict is one that can be, should be, addressed by Place and her clients and her and the courts or others that appoint her to these cases.


Place also alluded, in an e-mail to me several months ago, to the relation of her Statement of Facts to the discussion of statements and discourse in Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (English translation 1972). I’ve waded through the Foucaultian prose in that book more than once, including his discussions of positivity, totalities, transfers, and methods of systematizing already existing propositions (italics all his), and I’m sorry I can’t bring much of it through the keyhole here. However, I mention it because it may bear on Place’s intent here. Perhaps those who work well above my pay grade here can make something of it.


Let me close with a few words about Marjorie Perloff’s recent pronouncements about Statement of Facts, and her remarks about the book in a three paragraph blurb or mini-essay that Place and her publisher print on the back of the book. Perloff’s words are important to consider, both because in certain ways they are outrageously wrong and even offensive (and thus shocking coming from Perloff, a respected reader-critic), and because they serve as a way to further discuss certain aspects of Place’s work.

In June, Stephanie Young reported that Perloff at a conference remarked that Statement of Facts shows that the rape victims written about are “at least as bad as or worse than the rapists.” Perloff subsequently explained that Place’s book shows that “the culture of rape is largely a socio-economic problem” but she reiterates that the rapists are “not always «worse» people than those in the larger network involved.” Perloff also exhorted, “Read the book!”

Well, I have read the book, several times, and I still find Perloff’s views outrageously off-base, whether as apparently originally uttered or as she elaborated on them. The idea that sexual assault victims are as bad as their attackers, either as a general matter or in the particulars presented by Place, suggests either an ultra-retro or extremely misguided thinking that I find shocking. I also don’t get Perloff’s claim of rape as a socio-economic problem; she fails here to understand that Place’s cases necessarily reflect a limited sub-set of sexual assault matters, since Place is appointed to represent those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Place was very recently asked about Perloff’s statements. Place indicated she found it interesting that it was expected that there was something for her to clarify, and then remarked that Perloff’s comments “neatly [. . . ] prove[] the point that whatever is in the text is brought there solely by the one experiencing the text. The text is simply a conceptual portmanteau . . . .

Well, I don’t buy that counsel, or poet. As Duchamp suggests in “The Creative Act” (click here to listen to a mp3 of him reading his text) a work is created in the dynamic somewhere between the maker and the viewer. And so, I say that both the lawyer poet and the reader here create Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts. On top of that, this work isn’t simply a “pormanteau” for a concept such that its substance can be ignored.

Still, when faced with the troubling comments of Perloff, I can understand Place not wanting to say anything. Silence is an effective and polite way of keeping one’s distance from a cluster-fuck like this.

But this case is not so simple. Place it seems to me has largely hooked her Statement of Facts wagon to Perloff’s star: she and her publisher give the top half of the rear cover of the book to comments from Perloff. Unless we assume Place was wholly ignorant of what Perloff wrote (impossible, I think, since Place also thanks Perloff at the front of the book), she, the poet, has some responsibility for how her book is being put out there in that back-cover blurb / mini-essay.

In that regard, some of Perloff’s rear dust-jacket comments are perplexing. Perloff begins by quoting directly from one of Place’s statements, a case involving foricble sex crimes committed against two females, a seventeen year old named Amanda G. and that woman’s mother. Perloff suggests that statement is an example of how the book raises questions regarding what is a fact, what is fact and interpretation, and what is truth.

Of course, ontological questioning, asking what really happened, and how we know, or think we know what we know, given the subjectivity of perception and the riddles of memory, are crucial concerns. And these concerns are no less important in cases of sexual assault and other serious crimes. Rashomon, anyone? Plus, there are factually innocent and wrongfully convicted people in our prisons, and questions regarding guilt must be carefully considered.

The problem, however, is that there is really not much if anything that suggests real doubt in the statement about the testimony of Amanda G. and her mother (it’s at pages 107-120 of the book) cited by Perloff in her rear cover mini-essay. There are a few inconsistencies in the testimony of the mother, but overall, the testimony of the female victims is persuasive and compelling about what happened to them, particularly given certain biological evidence and the contradictory and inculpatory statements the defendant made after arrest. I also didn’t find reasons to doubt victim testimony in the vast majority of the other statements presented as poems in Place’s book. As such, Perloff’ comments about the nature of facts and truth in Statement of Facts a kind of academic over-reaching, a theory or construct entirely or largely imposed.

(By the way, being the curious sort, and to double-check what I concluded after reading the Amanda G. statement, I looked up the court decision in the case for which Place wrote this particular statement of facts. This was easy via WestLaw, a standard computer-based research tool for lawyers (I also in this way quickly found other decisions involving other poems in Statement of Facts). In the case involving Amanda G. , People v. T[. . . ], the appellate court affirmed the defendant’s convictions for multiple sex crimes and upheld the sentence of 77 years to life. No claim was made on appeal regarding a lack of evidence or witness veracity. It is mentioned that at trial the defendant pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of the mother, but as I’ve indicated above, I think that could not have been a particularly strong argument based on the factual statement Place wrote.)

Perloff in her rear-cover blurb/mini-essay also characterizes as “surreal” the description that Place provides of the sexual assault scene involving the teenager. Look, I can’t deny Perloff her reading response, okay? But I’ve read a lot of surrealist texts, original and neo-, and I can’t fathom what she means. The description does not at all seem hallucinatory like a dream, a fantasy, or in unreal. For me, the reading of this text resulted in exactly the opposite impression. Place’s statement/poem, with its details about a man with a knife holding it against the neck of a teenager/young women, forcibly licking her vagina, with the teenager pleading and crying and then subsequently vomiting after identifying the assailant for the police, seem very, very real.

Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminancy (1981), and many other books she has written, long ago established her as an important reader of and writer on post-modern, avant-garde, and/or experimental poetry. I’ve been led to a lot of wonderful places in poetry through her ideas.

As such, her mis-steps here with Statement of Facts are disappointing. I hope they do not signal a period of inconsistency, similar to the great Willie Mays’s painful-to-watch-given-how-he-used-to-be stumbling with the New York Mets in 1972 and 1973. We shall see. Perloff has a new book slated for later this year, and what do you know it’s called Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. I’d wager good money that Place’s work, and much else similar and related to it, will be discussed at length. Once again, we shall see (read).


[Addendum, August 19, 2010: responses to the latter part of this post from Marjorie Perloff and Vanessa Place can be found in the comments, below (user names “Anonymous” and “VanessaP,” respectively).

Additional comments on Perloff’s written explanation of what she said at the conference, including by Juliana Spahr, David Buuck, Heriberto Yepez, and others, plus additional comments by Perloff herself, can be found here (click to go), beneath a post by Stephanie Young on her blog. Some of the responses there to Perloff’s written comments are fairly characterized as scathing.]



D Hadbawnik said...


thanks for this attempt to wade through not only place's work, but perloff's curious response to it. in my mind, the symbiotic relationship between perloff and the conceptual poets she champions has made me take her less and less seriously over the years... I mean, i'd agree she's an important critic, but lately she seems given to making outrageous statements rather than actually exercising her formidable critical acumen...

as for place, she read here last year, and indeed it was very disturbing and compelling. probably the most disturbing and compelling reading i've seen in a long, long time. for that very reason it probably IS important, but playing the game of whether to call it art just leads in circles, doesn't it? where do you draw the line? is holocaust art and this not? how so?

and the ethics of the project are fuzzy at best, troubling at worst. i don't blame her for distancing herself from perloff's statements, but claiming "there's nothing to see here" just feels like a cop-out. and this is a big problem with conceptual poetry in general, if you ask me. and then, to use other remarks by perloff to help promote the work... well, it just makes you wonder about that relationship.

John Olson said...

I, too, find myself utterly perplexed, disturbed, baffled and flummoxed by Perloff's comments that "the culture of rape is largely a socio-economic problem" and that the victims "are at least as bad as or worse than the rapists." I haven't read Place's book, so it might well be that I am making wrong-headed assumptions about Perloff's remarks. But what is implied in her statements is that rape is an epiphenomenon of the lower classes where life is inherently brutish and violent, and that the victim is partially responsible for their misfortune, that the rape victim is somehow abetting their victimization. The sense that the victim must somehow have done something to provoke the assault. I find this attitude deeply hurtful. Maybe this is a way of feeling safer, of distancing or insulating oneself from such evil. It is also a means to holding the view that we live in a just world where there is a coherent pattern of good and evil things based on one’s behavior. The idea that fortune and misfortune are arbitrary is reason for dread. It is to court the very discouraging assumption that we live in a universe of utter chaos where ideals of virtue are vain and futile. Social psychologist Melvin J. Lerner has done a fascinating study about what he terms the “just world phenomenon” in which we cling so strongly to the idea that the world is just that there is a tendency to see the victim has somehow complicit in their misfortune. It occurred to me that this may be in part what has motivated Perloff's odd comments. However, as I said, I haven’t read Tragodia. My apologies to Perloff if I have totally misconstrued her perspective with regard to Place’s book.

Steven Fama said...

Dear D Hadbawnik.

Playing the Holocaust card is rarely a good move. And here, I respectfully don't know what you mean when you ask about it.

No killing people isn't art, especially entire peoples, and I don't think anyone's seriously asserted otherwise. And if you think Place's work is anything close to that, I wouldn't believe it.

And surely you don't mean that people can't make art of the events of the Holocaust. I say that because people have, and I'd call some such works GREAT, unreservedly: for example, Reznikoff's Holocaust (poems made from Nuremberg Trial testimony and records), Weisel's Night, and Shoah, the documentary that's much more than just that.

Place's Tragodia is akin to such works, in the way it "uses" or presents its subject matter.

As for what's art or poetry in general,and where the line is drawn, I can't add to what I alluded to or stated in my post: see Bottle Rack, and see Bruce Conner's "Spaghetti Theory." I think the latter is it, period. If Place's work sticks on people's bookshelves, it's poetry. Period.

Your feelings and thoughts about conceptual poetry in general, I understand, but disagree with, and big-time. The boat of conceptual poetics, as in the world of art in general, and in novels (or ANY creative work, sailed a long, long time ago, and is journeying even as I type this into seas that neither of us, and nobody else, thank goodness, yet know.

D Hadbawnik said...

dear steven:

i was talking about reznikoff's poem holocaust, not the holocaust itself -- sorry if that wasn't clear.

as for conceptual poetry, and the issue therein re. 'cop-out,' i was mostly referring to your quote from place in response to perloff that her statements “neatly [. . . ] prove[] the point that whatever is in the text is brought there solely by the one experiencing the text. The text is simply a conceptual portmanteau . . . .” about which you yourself say 'i don't buy it.' so unless I'M missing something here, we seem to be in agreement at least this far, though i do feel it's a pretty standard move by SOME poets working in the conceptual mode to make these sorts of claims -- and to me that's a problem. no time right now to go into why but i'd be happy to develop it further later...

i have no problem with conceptual art in general. i love bruce conner, bill viola, etc -- don't need to list all the bona fides now but believe me, i'm pretty aware of developments in the world of art over the past century. so again, sorry for the misunderstanding re. 'holocaust,' and thanks for the response.



Anonymous said...

It is astonishing how everytime my "comment" at the Rethinking Poetics conference is repeated, it gets wose. For the record, I DID NOT SAY, the victims "are even worse" than the rapists; what I did say is that, in this particular milieu, there is often not much difference between the two. Some of those raped (young boys) have at other times perhaps been rapists. That's the record. Forget the conference: I do stand by my words on the blurb; please refer to these rather than hearsay. I think "facts" are amazingly ambiguous and Vanessa's book shows this beautifully. Marjorie Perloff

VanessaP said...

Just for the record, it seems that Marjorie's remarks were both misreported and misunderstood. In the context of the collection in the book, her observation is entirely accurate. What is most interesting is how the "hearsay" around the book has become part of the project itself--a "fact" about "Statement of Facts."

Steven Fama said...

Dear Readers of the glade:

I've just (August 19) added an addendum to the main post, in which I direct readers to the comments of Majorie Perloff and Vanessa Place, that are published directly above. The addendum also includes a link (which I repeat here) to an additional discussion of these issues, including comments by Juliana Spahr, David Buuck, and Heriberto Yepez and Perloff herself here, in the comment section of a June 17, 2010 blog post by Stephanie Young.

Ed Baker said...

one thing about the InterNet it is so quick to
hit and miss and move us right&wrong along.

try a little.... Joyce Mansour like , say her 'Cris

maybe, even, take a short-cut through the Surrealism and Women book edited by
Caws, Kuenzli, and Raaberg...

meanwhile I am adjourning to (Dylan's)
Blood on the Tracks

Anonymous said...

As a victim of sexual assault, I have grown increasingly angry about this whole situation -- and nothing has raised my ire more than this post by Steven Fama and the comments that follow. As a young adult I was haunted by the fact that many members of my own family – aunts, cousins, and my grandmother who wished to remain neutral in order not to be estranged from her other grandchildren – either did not seem to believe me, or simply wished to ignore that anything had happened, despite the fact that a conviction and severe sentencing had taken place. As a young adult I went about my own fact-finding mission: were those presents really exchanged at that Christmas party? Did he really have a friend named? That sort of thing. The establishment of facts is almost always secondary to what one wants to believe or prove, except in the best kinds of criticism. And so it goes that people already prone to certain jealousies and biases against conceptual work will condemn Perloff and Place based on their own kinds of “facts” – such as the statements that Perloff made at the poetics conference, which even in their misquoted form I find to be far less demeaning than the self-important moralizing of Fama et al. I might add that Perloff was not always a supporter of Place’s work – in fact, she did not believe that Place was a significant poet until works such as SOF convinced her otherwise. What really angers me about these comments is that Perloff is one of the few critics left who upholds the great tradition of criticism; these accusations of conspiratorial favoring are petty at best. I am a lover of conceptual poetry for the things that it can do that cannot be done by any kind of lyrical mode. And Perloff’s interpretations of SOF are hardly off-base; in fact she in fact hits upon what is deeply meaningful about the piece. I have grown quite sick and bored of the careful and self-congratulatory tone of everyone’s criticisms of Perloff and Place. Perhaps this is my own misreading, but I find Place to be a fascinating complement and counter to Hannah Arendt – because often morality can be far more banal than evil.

Steven Fama said...

Dear Anonymous,

As you see above, I've published your comment; it was the last of six identical comments you submitted within several minutes of each other today. Comments here, because of spam-robots, are moderated. I have to manually check a "dashboard" on Blogger to see if there are any comments that have been submitted, and then manually publish each one. I don't do that but once or twice a day, especially on the weekends. In any event, sorry for the slight delay in getting your comment on-line. I did not publish your duplicates for obvious reasons.

I may mis-understand a part of your comment, and if so, I apologize in advance, but I don't condemn Place as perhaps you suggest I do. To the contrary, I strongly endorse the idea of conceptual work and emphasize the power of Statement of Facts to move, to effect, readers.

I do criticize Perloff, and so too have others (see especially the post I link to in my comment above). Perloff mis-read the book in my opinion, and/or imports into her views unfortunate presumptions about sexual assault in our society. My opinion is the same if only considering what Perloff has written about Place's book, regardless of what was or was not said at a conference. This includes what's written on the back of the book itself.

I'm sorry my response strikes you as self-important, but it is my response, considered and come to after: (1) paying $45 for the book, (2) reading it close more than once, and several parts several times, (3) considering what I felt and thought, and (4) writing it up (which further clarifies thinking, for me).

I understand you have a different view. It may well be that part of the power of Place's book is that it can evoke disparate thoughts and emotions, all of which are -- as with you and I here -- strongly held.

Thank you for coming by, and taking the time to write a comment.

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the multiple submissions. The system kept giving me a kick-back notice. I felt that critical responses to this matter warranted an equally heated response. Thank you for posting another point of view on this. This is my general response to the entire matter which found a home under your blog post, which I must add is more even-minded in its consideration of Place's work even though we do have our disagreements. Thanks.