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Amy King and the poetics of not playing it safe

If one literary response to the 21st century cultural dislocation rooted in big data and its disruptive technologies is a "conceptual" poetics that brands itself as "uncreative writing" and sees its principal mission in terms of a kind of low-level guerilla warfare against intellectual property rights, then another, perhaps more demonstrative poetics would be one that is no less analytical in its approach to language and power, but identifies itself as an active force of resistance, a non-algorithm in the prison-house of language.

That latter approach approximates the activist poetics of Amy King, who is the featured reader of Just Buffalo Literary Center's "Big Night" event this evening at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.) in Buffalo.

Among her generation of poet-critic activists and educators, King's work stands out as perhaps the most self-reflexively lyrical and linguistically hypertropic of the group: a poetry that grows out the critique of meaning, reference, and the literary subject implicit in "language" writing, yet still retains much of the grammatical immediacy of confessional poetry, along with the idiomatic fluency of the New York School.

No small part of King's singular self-confidence and seemingly boundless proclivity for the figurative capacities of language owe to her riffing on the memes of pop culture, her skillfully provocative interpolations of gender, identity, social class, and, paradoxically, the haunting self-awareness of her own vulnerability in the process.  "Into my stomach an explosion of stars/ where I rely on myself, my government name, bony letters/ of fingers that tunnel your bisected heart, skyward with dark," she writes in "Butterfly the Gnarled" from her most recent collection, "I Want to Make You Safe" (Litmus Press, 2011).

In an interview archived at the Poetry Society of America website, she responds to a question about specific historical and geographic influences that play into her work by noting:

I can offer no pat reply to this intimidating question – what doesn't factor in?  In fact, my filter settings are too low for some folks:  I want and make poetries that let the kitchen sink in and the plumber drinking beer beneath it and the canary squawking out against the half-closed window while the oil spill makes its way up the Gulf and through my brain.  I may edit a bit later.

I like Virginia Woolf's dictum, however true or false, that goes along the lines of 'Nothing has happened until it has been written down.'  Call me transparent, but the mind is a messy place.  And I want to capture it all.  I use words on the page to work through so many issues, almost in real time and certainly with real fearlessness, however imagined in the moment.

Perhaps even more to the point is King's answer to the question of what her hopes for American poetry over the next century were:

Speech requires means and distribution to be heard, and poetry is one of the most dangerous forms of speech as, ultimately, poets are not beholden to the status quo.  Poets who do the difficult work of language do not simply reflect the culture, but seek to change it.  (Poetry has always spearheaded change from a peripheral position.)  American canonical tradition primarily reflects a limited array of white male voices of mostly European descent, which is a pretty homogenous majority when one considers the true range and experience of people by gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, class experience, etc. writing in this country.

King, who grew up in Baltimore and Georgia and  holds a BS in English and Women’s Studies from Towson University, an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, and an MA in Poetics from the University at Buffalo (where she studied with both Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein) is the  author of four chapbooks and four full-length  volumes of poetry: “Antidotes for an Alibi” (2005); “I’m the Man Who Loves You” (2007); “Slaves to Do These Things” (2009); and “I Want to Make You Safe” (2011), which made several shortlists of the best books of poetry published that year.

In 2006, she founded the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry, which she continued to curate until 2010.  The recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry, she was named “Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere" in 2007.  Currently, she is a professor of English and creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, co-edits Esque magazine with Ana Božičević and Poets for Living Waters with Heidi Lynn Staples, and conducts research and interviews for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.   She is also at work on a book of interviews with poet Ron Padgett.

Also on the BIG NIGHT program tonight is a presentation by ethnomusicologist/record producer Ian Nagoski, music by Pam Swartz, a performance of surrealist René Daumal’s 1926 theatrical text “Mugle” by the ensemble OOooOO [pronounced “üüüüüü”], comprised of sound artists Lisa van Wambeck and Neil L. Coletta, and food by BlazeVox Books publisher and gourmet chef Geoffrey Gatza. Admission is $5, $4 for Just Buffalo members, college students, and members of Just Buffalo's affiliate organizations.

--R.D. Pohl

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