“…rape and murder, it’s just a shot away.”
— Gimmie Shelter, Jagger/Richards/Clayton, The Rolling Stones
“Today’s poets don’t reach into the public consciousness that way.”
— Bob Dylan, The Rolling Thunder Revue
Mohammad al-Ajami is a poet from Qatar.
Or, at least he used to be.
Several years ago he was arrested by the Qatari dictatorship for ‘insulting” the Emir of Qatar in a poem. In a second poem found to be offensive he spoke hopefully, about the (brief) Arab spring.
He was tried in secret, and sentenced to life in prison. After serving several years including time in solitary confinement, he was pardoned by the Emir and released.
The poems in question were written while he was a student in Cairo. Recorded and uploaded to social media things took a Kafka-meets-Orwell-meets-your standard fascist turn of events and al-Ajami was seen off the pitch.
While on trial (and that’s trial in its loose provisional totalitarian sense as the only lawyers allowed to speak worked for the royal thugs) al-Ajami said he did not mean to insult the Emir who, he said, was a good man.
Plenty of poets with a gun to their head or a blade to their neck have recanted.
Others have not.
Castro’s show trials in the 1970s were a heady mix of both and included one poet, both smart enough and brave enough to confess to anti-revolutionary writing, while simultaneously sending a message in a Nabokovian bottle denouncing the gangster regime under which he was being tortured.
There’s no way to know if al-Ajami is a Quisling or was just trying to save his neck and really thinks the Emir is a goon.
It would be easy to cast al-Ajami as a noble freedom fighter but being against the Qatari thunder dome of oil fueled decadence depravity and using wage slaves as slaves, and construction fodder, doesn’t mean you’re in favor of freedom.
In fact for all we know al-Ajami is against the goons because he wants to replace them with his own goons.
Or he might be in favor of freedom for everyone.
We don’t know but we do know that locking up poets because they write poems that offend the government is a sin.
All of which brings us to Diode poetry journal and its editor, Patty Paine.
Diode is curated by poet and editor, Patty Paine and the University of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
It operates out of Qatar and Virginia.
UCV is not alone.
Any number of prestigious US universities have satellite campuses in Qatar and other hot spots of ecumenical goodwill and religious tolerance and political freedom, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
We are of course being sarcastic.
The Qatari regime has spaffed a billion and a half in petro dollars to pimp UVC, Northwestern, Texas A & M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Cornel, and put them to work in an educational brothel in “Education City” in Qatar.
Its an interesting situation. Not withstanding that “Education City” sounds like a cross between William Gibson taking aim at Singapore* and Hunter S. Thompson coming down from an ether binge.
And so to Patty Paine and Diode.
Diode is fairly typical among contemporary poetry rags in that it claims to be interested in diversity, and then publishes essentially the same two or three poems, in the same two or three anti-styles you can find in hundreds of other small-ish magazines and even in the pages of senile heavy hitters full of safe urban glory like, The New Yorker, which should have been fitted for an adult literary diaper years ago.
In the case of Diode the only poem we could find that at any point in the last decade, that has spoken about politically charged issues, and would, we are sure have raised Qatari hackles had it been noticed, was by the established “edgy” poet Kim Addonizio. It’s called Grace:
“Let go & let God is my witness father
salvation in his heaven & all’s
in the details bless my Bushmaster .223 rest
your soul nowhere in the green earth
helping those that help our troops
kill anyone who doesn’t believe Jesus
was calved from a virgin & then ascended
to his penthouse & will raptor down
to smite Jews abortionists niggers
Muslims fags Obama the Antichrist SATAN
WAS THE FIRST TO DEMAND EQUAL RIGHTS
outside the Knoxville Baptist Tabernacle
while a boy puts his tongue in another boy’s mouth
& they lie down together shy & barely breathing”
To be clear, in case it’s not clear, the poem is against things like bigotry and needless wars, and sexism and so on.
Stylistically it’s about as sophisticated as any other rant from any other angry person fed up with things, and who starts screaming they’re mad as hell and yada yada yada.
It gives the plebes a fix and Diode something approximating street cred (at least until one of the new Woke cadres starts screaming about a White lady, writing a poem for a magazine run by a White lady, in of all places, Qatar, who says “nigger.”) but also sets off an enormous neon sign flashing “IRONY” because what could be more ironic than yelling about tyranny from the ramparts of a magazine being funded by oil barons, who support terrorism, and think its god’s work to torture people who don’t agree with your vision of god.
And of course then there’s the added irony of how so many indigenous American universities are funded by local oil mafia tycoons and are in bed with all the benign elves from DARPA.
But, we digress.
As we’ve mentioned previously contemporary poetry is dominated by a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which joy has been exiled, happiness is viewed with terminal suspicion, heterosexual eros is viewed as a thought crime, and being miserable and/or angry are the required default settings.
The world is bad, say the poets, and poetry must be full of bad things written with earnest sincerity to convey how the poets are doing their part in the fight against bad things.
A survey of the rest of Diode’s back catalog confirms that. It’s full of earnest poets writing earnest poems for earnest readers who all agree everything is awful – not a completely unreasonable if still highly problematic point of view – and that the only legitimate response is to chew iron bolts and spit blood.**
Without of course actually doing either but instead doing second rate imitations of an authentic literary trouble maker.
No one with any sense is going to confuse anyone in Diode with Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Ginsberg and City Lights. Or for that matter, Darwish or, al-Ajami.
But additionally the poem and the magazine raise uncomfortable questions.
Diode is of course a collaborationist rag.
In a slightly different context Paine and the magazine and the university and all the other universities would be viewed the same way reasonable people viewed writers like L.F. Celine and Paul de Man, for working with the fascists.
Consider, for example, that Ezra Pound spent nearly twenty years in the psych ward of Saint Elizabeths because he had spent the war doing radio in Rome extolling the virtues of Italian fascism and how everything was the fault of the Jews.
The problem with that of course is that plenty of other people who never saw the inside of a hospital let alone a court room said the same things and made money from saying it.
Mussolini was after all on the payroll of British intelligence during the 1920s and 1930s and was praised by Winston Churchill as the man appointed by fate to hold back the dismal tide of Bolshevism. T.S. Eliot, a fascist and a genius, who believed the safety of the world required Jews being locked up, was another big fan of Italian tyranny. He, just like Winston, won the Nobel for literature.
Winston of course received a state funeral when the time came and Pound received a one way ticket back to Italy.
To refine the issue further one might consider, that if we are to view Diode and Paine as collaborators with and apologists for tyranny, then one has to logically hold America’s tax payers accountable as well – America’s political class from right wing evangelical goons to “Democratic Socialists” – they’re all covered in someone else’s blood. (we type on our slave manufactured government sanctioned tracking device).
And one could make the case that by setting up a satellite of a free thinking university and a literary magazine inside an otherwise closed country where torture is SOP, religious persecution is encouraged, support for terrorism is a state enterprise, and the people in charge make delinquent Roman emperors look tame in comparison, is all for the better.
Sort of like the argument about how only Nixon could go to China and engaging China with Coke, Pepsi and the wonders of the “free market” would convince them that Mao was a punk and Wall Street is god.
Looking at the looming death of Hong Kong, and the industrial scale effort to teach China’s Muslims how to sing the Blues, one can conclude, in this the anniversary season of Tiananmen Square , how well that turned out for everyone.
And so back to Patty Paine and Diode.
Diode unlike many small-ish magazines is quick (they squirt their rejections within 48 hours) to spaff up a form rejection note which contains the usual boilerplate one expects from rote magazines run by rote editors engaging in rote collaboration with tyrants.
Consider that Paine is also an editor of an anthology of contemporary Gulf poetry – minus, “trouble makers” like al-Ajami but full of “poets” who one assumes have nothing bad to say about torture, censorship, terrorism, imperialism, or the sadism of the local regimes. Or conversely anything good to say about, sex, homosexuality, lesbians, non-Muslims, or freedom.
But other than that the anthology is probably right up their with the back catalog of The Olympia Press.
Consider then when Paine rejects a poem via a form letter, she says: that while they enjoyed reading the submission “it does not meet their current needs.”
We of course know this because we submitted poems both under our name and under a pen name, using lines that were a pastiche of poems already accepted by Paine.
Rather than actually explaining what they currently do need, the editor can hide behind what appears to be a thoughtful answer, while exercising both terminal authority and a lethal vagueness.
And being vague, while giving tyrants a (metaphoric) hand job, is crucial.
“Current needs” is both as solid as a block of lead and as elastic as silly putty. The perfect tone for the perfect collaborationist and postmodern literary Quisling.
One assumes that Diode does not need anything about al-Ajami because a poet critical of the local gangsters is bad for business.
And Diode is all about the local business.
And so are the universities doing business locally.
And speaking of the local economy, consider that estimates range from several thousand to tens of thousands for the number of slave laborers who are going to be killed getting Qatar ready for the World Cup.
Consider that FIFA is a corrupt sham of an organization and that every corporation buying adds and sponsoring the World Cup is no different than a company selling tobacco and cotton out of Georgia in the middle of the 19th century or diamonds from South Africa during the first half of the 20th or electronic components from China right now.
10,000 dead slaves, should be considered mass murder and some sort of crime against humanity.
Don’t hold your breath.
Consider that a literary magazine is essentially a sword and shield for freedom as vital to a free society as the allegedly free press, and that offering angry poems plucking low hanging fruit may make some people fee better, the same way a sugar rush to the amygdala makes you feel better but, in the long run, being a collaborator, normalizing gangsterism, torture and locking up poets marks you as a Quisling and some sort of moral hermaphrodite.
Or, in the case of Diode, a giant pygmy of talent and a ripe turd in the hall of literary glory.
See Diode here:
For PEN’s response to al-Ajami see the following:
For a look at issues around Qatar and American universities:
For a look at dead on arrival propagandistic boilerplate about the anthology, see the following and take note of everything that’s missing – you know, irritating things like freedom of expression:
*For a look at Gibson’s magisterial deconstruction of Singapore:
** We could have missed a poem or five that discuss the tragic realities of Gulf State depravity and tyranny but we doubt it and even if there are a few, along the lines of the one we quote, exactly how does a poetry journal justify taking money from a regime that tortures poets?
and: Here’s an interview with the editor. Would have been interesting to see a question about torturing poets. Which in turn reminds us of a story by Roberto Bolano in which the guests at a dinner party spend a happy evening eating and talking while people are being tortured in the cells below them.
There are hundreds of small literary magazines and perhaps over a thousand in the US alone.
Most are labors of love or obsession and power, sadism, masochism and authentic faith in the power of poetry and short stories. Or a combination of all of those.
Most are shit.
That’s just how the odds work out with most people having little sense and even less talent.
It is a mug’s game to assume you have the entirety of the writing scene figured out and found wanting. There’s always something and someone you will miss.
But a survey of the poetry magazines reveals poems in their hundreds if not thousands that are all as we’ve said previously, not just boring but worse, boring in exactly the same way.
MFA programs follow templates because agents follow templates because publishers follow templates because the accountants who report to the board of directors follow templates. The little magazines are remoras inside that truth.
No one is going to confuse these people with Harriet Monroe.
You cannot teach people to write because you can’t teach someone how to live and how you live is how you write.
There’s an idea popular in writing circles that writers are lone rangers within the machinery of the empire.
Some of them are.
Most are not.
Some poetry – precious little – is alive on the page displaying a kind of word-magic that shoots off sparks by combining words in patterns that you have never seen before and which, when encountered, set your spine on fire with flowers and a juke box.
But mostly there’s a wrote tone that is indistinguishable from a book report or bad journalism. These pieces are predictable and dull in their predictability.
It goes down the page and maybe there’s some extra white space so you “know” it’s a poem but it is entirely devoid of word-magic and is desicated.
And then there are the poems that scream “poetry” because they are inscrutable; foggy renditions full of imitation word-magic but so choke full of mist and BIG IDEAS that criticism of them is met with bewilderment and then contempt – as if, you ordered a soda to go with your fine meal at a Michelin stared restuarant.
Years ago Herb Caen, then of the SF Chronicle, went to war with some of the cities’ powers that be over a sculpture by renowned artist, Richard Serra.
Serra had been commissioned by the city to place a work in front of the Beaux Art Legion of Honor Musem.
Serra offered a large undulating set of rusty iron slabs, intended to (we paraphrase) force you to reconsider your relationship to space.
While we note that a car on cement blocks rusting away in your front yard has the same effect what matters here is that Caen made the point that the work did not fit the venue.
He was of course accused of being a philistine and while no one ever placed Caen in the pantheon of America’s journalistic intellectuals or critical savants, he was not a dope, understood Serra’s aesthetic and rightly said, it fit in front of the museum with the same grace as a turd in a martini.
Our criticism of the contemporary writing landscape is similar.
Publishing is a pimp and MFA programs are brothels.
Small magazines are all that remains of independent authentic writing and most are awful – dominated by ideology and cultish spite with all the flair of a bucket of horse piss.
There’s no escaping the fact that everyone and everything is tainted by the toxic systemic corruption of the dominant systems – the corporate dictatorship is a Borg Cube and everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of assimilation.
Some however are more assimilated than others and the results are obvious.
The poems tend to be dull, repetitive, angry in place of passion, devoid of eroticism, (specifically male centric eroticism directed at hetero women) depressed and depressing, and political in the sense that they demand allegiance to a narrow political view without any complexity, and minus any language that might stir anyone anywhere to some sort of action – though they offer a pale imitation of a call to action.
And they are in truth, cynical but dishonest even about that.
And this should of course surprise no one.
Consider this biographical note for a contemporary poet with work appearing in all the round up the usual suspects big magazines:
“A former lawyer, she now teaches poetry at Princeton University.”
Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company and Eliot worked in a bank. But while plenty of people can throw a baseball, hardly anyone closes game 7 and nothing says banal conformity quite like being a lawyer who now teaches “poetry” at an establishment institution.
Perhaps next, a former dentist who now teaches modern dance at Julliard?
Anything is possible but we’ll take it as read.
The rest of the country has been colonized by the Borg and writing has not escaped.
Resistance may not be futile but it sure as fuck is difficult.
We’re adding Drexel University to our list as they sponsor/administer, Painted Bride Quarterly – a literary journal – with offices in Philadelphia and, The United Arab Emirates.
And for a look at “freedom” in the UAE:
Of course Freedom House has an odd way of defining “freedom” as it describes the United States as follows:
“The United States is arguably the world’s oldest democracy. Its people benefit from a vibrant electoral system, a strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties.”