Sunday, June 3, 2007


The July issue of Jacket magazine includes an interesting essay by Craig Perez on Mike Magee's controversial poem — the one that caused a shitstorm about a year ago — "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay." Perez approaches the poem within the context of Magee's critical work on Emersonian symbolic action, suggesting that the poem is "armed with 'pragmatist view of language,'" which it takes up against the "devious rhetoric of ritualized prejudice on the internet [to] propose social change through the remaking of social discourse."

At the same time, Perez's article demonstrates — inadvertently, if not unconsciously — the ways that the discourse surrounding poetry has been changed by the internet. The change does not come in the form of a new critical approach to poetry or a new set of terms, but the fact that the publication and critique(s) of, and response(s) to, "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Eyes" happened almost immediately. As testament to this, Perez presents the poem alongside Magee's commentary, written during the controversy as direct response to his critics. Of course, criticism has often brought authorial explanation (e.g., letters) to bear on a poem's interpretation. But two factors are different here: the immediacy with which Magee's commentary (as well as that of his critics) was made public, and the extent to which this act of explanation and defense has occurred in full view of an incredibly wide public.

The effect is that the poem's boundaries are extended. "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay" is not limited to the poem itself, but almost necessarily includes the entire text of its controversy — if not all 500 pages, at least all of Magee's side of the discussion. We can, in a sense, read Magee's responses to his critics as part of the poem, at least inasmuch as they clarify, amend, and (arguably) revise the poem. As public texts, they complicate our sense of the poem's scope, not in the sense of what it chooses to address, but in the sense of its own boundaries as text. As revisions, Magee's comments may not change the text of the poem proper, but they are, in a manner of speaking, part of the poem.

For Perez, the poem is democratic in its relationship to its source materials, the rhetoric it seeks to call into question through its "scorching irony," and particularly in the attitude towards language that allows for such to be regarded as political action. I'm tempted to say that the effect of this extension of the poem's boundaries constitutes a democratization of the text, such that "authorship" (perhaps broadly conceived) is extended to include not only the particular act of authorship, or the commentary Magee follows it with, but also the commentary of the interlocutors. This is not especially unique — poets have always written within a social space, have always modified their writing based on the suggestions of peers, and in response to the economic and aesthetic pressures of publishers, etc. But, again, the fact that this happens here within view of a theoretically limitless public does seem to mark a change of some sort, even if it is only of degree. (This is perhaps reiterated by Perez's invitation at the essay's close to weigh in on his blog; unfortunately, the link does not currently work...)

In the end, I'm not certain that this is so significant a change, or whether it does imply the democratization I've hinted at. It seems to me, in fact, that it potentially raises more questions than it answers. Or it could be that the case of "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay" is not at all different, that the questions one might apply to it are in fact relevant to any act of writing, of explanation, of controversy. That it is, in other words, an example of the ways texts have always worked within the social realm, where this case simply plays out the dialectical author/reader relationship within a broader and more visible social space.

[NOTE: Much of the discussion of Magee's poem is included or linked here. The original blog — the one to which Perez's essay refers — appears to be defunct; my link is to a cached version of the page.]

[ADDENDUM (a few hours later): Another way of thinking about the last issues I raise is, of course, to suggest that an insistence on regarding Magee's defense of "Their Eyes..." as part of the poem reasserts authorial control — along with attendant notions of authority over the text's meanings. Nonetheless, the fact that these defenses are given over to the interlocutors, inasmuch as they respond directly to their charges, shows the poem to exist within a direct relation to the critiques raised in the controversy.]


csperez said...

hi nathan,

thanks for commenting on my essay. i apologize that the link to the blog doesnt work, but the blog was deleted when the essay was published (i had no managerial control over the blog--my blog is i also didnt bother to ask the editor to fix the link because any further discussion on this topic will probably emerge organically anyways, from blog to blog ;)

i def agree that one of the most fascinating aspects of the discussion (besides the discussion itself, of course) was the immediacy of which the discussion took place and the fact that Magee was actively engaged in the discussion.

one thing that read true to me was that Magee's reading of his own poem was only one possible reading among many contesting readings--at times the most convincing reading, but at other times the least convincing reading. which was the impulse to the "My Michael Magee" in, i'll show you MY Magee if you show me yours ;)

in turn, one thing i hoped to present in my essay was MY reading of its theory, the poem itself, and then Magee's comments / defense to show how the three are intricately engaged, but also to show the gaps between them.

anyways, i linked to your post from my blog. and i am of course always interested in continuing the discussion.

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