plagiarism/outsource by Tan Lin
(Zasterle, Canary Islands, Spain, 2008)
I am ever positively-disposed to Tan Lin, partly because back in 1996 or so, when I had just begun paying attention to poetry, he didn't show any derision at my belatedness when I asked him, "What is Language Poetry?"
Instead, he patiently answered. I've since met many poets who are most eager to show their smarts and who sometimes do so by displaying contempt at those not in the know of what they know. I share this because that lack of derision indicates something, it seems to me, about Tan's world-view and how such affects his poetry. It seems to me that Tan is willing to pay attention to anything and everything. And that though he clearly has opinions about what he experiences, he tries not to bring judgmental preconception to initial encounters....in order to fully engage such. He is open to a lot, and that openness doesn't lend itself to the kind of derision from someone who is concerned about showing his smarts.
But of course Tan Lin is smart. His conceptualization of projects like plaigarism/outsource shows a non-facile understanding of the subjects at hand. For example, his explications of ambient sound -- which is a logical offshoot of distancing from the authorial, personal, fixed "I" as displayed in his first book LOTION BULLWHIP GIRAFFE (Sun & Moon, 1996) -- reflects a consideration of notions of privilege and authorship and ego. Still, I perhaps would not have bothered to write an engagement for Galatea Resurrects if I hadn't heard him in a Conversation with Charles Bernstein at PennSound. Click on the link yourself and listen, I enthusiastically suggest. Do you hear the same thing that struck me when I listened to him? That is, Tan is talking (in part) about ambience even as the very sound of his voice is smoothly....ambient; Merriam-Webster's definition of "ambient" includes "music intended to serve as an unobtrusive accompaniment to other activities (as in a public place) and characterized especially by quiet and repetitive instrumental melodies".
Tan's voice is, as they say, soft-spoken: you can fall asleep to it. It's not obstrusive. Which is to say, it doesn’t raise attention to itself. The poet's voice manifests the poems' voice: form = content.
(I wonder if he's always sounded like this. After all, when he began as a poet, he won a national contest sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine, if my memory is correct. I wonder what he sounded like when he was writing in the more traditional narrative vein: did he grow into his current tone-sound partly due to his poetry's development? In our very first encounter, I had asked him how one reads out loud a language poem and he said something along the lines of, for himself anyway, trying to read a poem without displaying emotion.)
I actually can probably blather on and on about plaigarism/outsource. But let me just note the generativeness of Tan Lin's work in order to observe something else about the brilliance of plaigarism/outsource. You see, I wrote the first draft (okay, only draft) of this review (or the first half of the review) weeks after I first read his book and without opening it again. (Upon returning to the review which I then continued,) I didn't expect -- though am not surprised -- that his book would stick like a piano note permanently elongating after it was struck from a neighboring building. It's paradoxical, of course -- the text seems like notations from various backgrounds. The words don't present something that believes in being in the foreground of attention. They seem plucked from margins, from outside of what is the center of some frame. Yet they dig into your mental skin and, weeks later, you haven't forgotten them -- in fact, are rather irritated by their stubborn demand for your focus.
The effect, however, makes sense if one is to consider plaigarism/outsource to be a manifestation of ambient noise. If these are notations for the ambient, defined as all-encompassing, what we learn from plaigarism/outsource is that there are things happening beyond what may be taking majority focus at the moment -- and that such happenings can be equally compelling. That says something not just about reading/writing poetry but about how one might experience -- how one might live.
By not consciously privileging (or mostly not privileging) one topic over another, one can become more open to many topics. And one also thus widens one’s expanse: in his conversation with Bernstein, it’s worth noting artist Jorge Pardo’s influence on Tan (who’s mostly influenced by visual artists). Tan mentions how Pardo, for one exhibition, simply renovated a house -- “when you look at the art object, it’s not clear that it’s an object instead of just part of the environment … but the difference between the art object and the environment in which the object is found has been blurred.”
It thus follows that Tan would be interested in something like a “book [that] would no longer be contained within the book…transcended the covers” (to quote again from the conversation with Bernstein). In this sense, all of Tan Lin’s books have demanded a deep engagement by the reader in order for the works to be effective. What is note-worthy about his type of call for reader-response is the freshness of his approach (e.g. the integration of internet reality to the page or the use of Powerpoint to “flood” the screen with text) in order to uplift the book which he considers (without being dismissive) “old technology”.
plaigarism/outsource is one manifestation of what happens when one expands one's vision. One becomes more lucid....and at times the result is Poetry.
Okay, at another future point in developing this review, I opened the book for some excerpts to see if my above thoughts have any accuracy or relevance based on my memory of first reading the book. Here's an excerpt:
There are over a thousand footnotes in the
printed text that were
added by the editor. Most of these are very
and similar notes, and have been inserted into
the etext in square
brackets close to the point where they were
What do you know? Tan Lin pays attention to footnotes -- those things, I belabor, in the margins and background. But I also draw attention to how the lines are broken in the above. These line-breaks don't seem to me to have been the author's choice. It seems like Tan cutnpasted the above as they appeared from whatever source text. You see this sometimes when you copy-and-paste from certain emails into, say, a non-email from like a Word document: I don't know how the line-breaks get translated but it seems to me that Tan Lin didn't bother to change them -- he just accepted them as he found them. (This is the truth: I wrote this paragraph before stumbling across, in the back of the book, "A Note on the Design" which confirms that Tan Lin, as designer, did indeed import text from the internet into Microsoft Word and deliberately did not alter inherited formatting. I hadn't read the Note the first time I perused his chap.)
Another excerpt--this reference:
i, genre: UNREAD NOVEL
followed by text that seems to be an outline/description for said novel. But it's telling that it's titled "UNREAD NOVEL" because of course as the book unfolds the novel becomes read. (I've read Tan Lin's ambience is a novel with a logo (katalanche press, 2007) and I'm not willing to believe that a description of something cannot be the thing itself in the Tan Lin universe).
Or how about the section that's titled "NOTES" followed by the page remaining blank? This implies to me that there's no need to differentiate (privilege) subject matter between a topic and then background to such topic. Or is it an invitation for the reader to author the "NOTES", in which case "NOTES" becomes ever-shifting depending on the reader and occasion of being read?
It makes sense, too, that the section called "Bibliography" is a replication of various handwritten, autobiographical (or seemingly-autobiographical) notes by other people.
No derision. No preconceived privileging of topics (plaigarism/outsource smoothly references a multiplicity of seeming unrelated subjects, ranging over Pepys Diary, Heath Ledger, a history of recent performance art, a legal defense of plagiarism, the diary of a poetry workshop, an MP3 protest song, and an examination of SMS and GMS technologies as distribution networks). Acceptance. Openness. All this is why Tan Lin's poetry always interests me -- because his poetry has a huge brain and, in that pleasingly poetically paradoxical twist to the more obvious surface of dispassion, an equally big heart.
(Editor/Author's Note: This engagement was written before Galatea Resurrects was informed of the submission of the interview with Tan Lin, nor was this engagement changed as a result of the content of the interview.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere: Joey Madia's review of Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole over at New Mystics, and Aileen Ibardaloza's (and Aileen's mother's) engagement with The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes over at OurOwnVoice. Oh hey! And she just released her first novel (grin) : NOVEL CHATELAINE!