Six Micro Essays on the Tenuous Public Body

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.


Let’s be real (though the injunction already admits a failure of reality which is the condition of our discourse): everyone likes looking at bodies. I choose that word—likes—with a certain care, certain as I am that ‘liking’ something is both the most generic libidinal act, and fretted with corporate power. Capitalism is engined by like(s): as Facebook reminds us, metaphor is money gone wild. And so the libido is a kind of economy, or the economy is a kind of libido. Not that the ‘or’ matters for those of us down here in it, who have it the American way, that is, both ways at once. Capitalism is the surveillance we delight in. Delight is surveillance itself. To watch and be watched, to like and be liked: this is the consummation for which a body is trained and shaped.


I am flexing my critical muscles here—a bad habit, but nonetheless revealing: of the thing that flexes; this body, in its critical acts, slouched at a desk in insatiable winter; swollen at the waist; irredeemably white and male, and therefore capable of disappearing into its language. Or, rather, appearing as its language: on Facebook, a major symptom of privilege will be the ability to appear as fossilized language, to delete the material and historical facticity of one’s particular flesh. A material and a history which is otherwise intractable and carnivorous, dismantling language, reducing authorship to the circulation of the body.


Leigh Stein, in her trenchant and necessary open letter to HTMLGiant, documents the casual violence through which women’s writing is reduced to the circulation of a body:

In the summer of 2011, I met with a team of Random House sales reps who would be responsible for bringing my novel and poetry collection to bookstores and libraries around the country. One asked me what kind of cover image I wanted for my novel.
“I only know I don’t want a headless woman on the cover,” I said. “I don’t want my book cover to exclude men from picking it up.”
“Do you really think a man would read your work?”
“Well, a lot of men like my poetry,” I said.
“Only because you’re cute,” I was told. By my editor.
I didn’t know what to say. I like to think that out of the 37 people in the world who read poetry, the men who read mine are finding some merit there, and not just jacking off to my author photo.

Such misogyny limits the female body to itself; it denies access to the means of literary production and circulation. Or (this or again an and), it seeks to reduce literary production to the traffic in women: the distribution of female bodies for specular pleasure.

Such misogyny, in its stupidity, its virulence, its violence, may be understood as a vigorous defense of the actual. If it seems hysterical, in (paradoxically) the pathological sense of the word, it’s because the mechanisms of literary production and distribution already organize bodies in rigid and misogynist logics—lending some the capacity to recede into text, and forcing most writing to circulate instead as the body of its author.


The mechanisms of literary community and circulation are structured by an underlying misogynist logic: the logic of liking and circulating bodies; of specularity, surveillance, and digital capital. Take, as an example, the poetry reading—a form which offers the display and specular consumption of bodies as one of its major pleasures, adjacent and often superior to its literary allure. To be an audience member at a poetry reading is simultaneously to engage in voyeurism and disciplinary violence: the pleasure we take in looking at bodies is, partially, the pleasure of limiting and shaping them with our gaze. In such a setting, the capacity to disappear into one’s text, to delete the body, is the capacity to evade discipline: which, in our country, is both the image and prime symptom of race and gender privilege. (Just ask William Zantzinger).


Let us therefore build better institutions, and critique the ones we have with a generous and collective care. And let’s celebrate the improvisatory and ephemeral practices of poets who critique the interpolation and discipline of their bodies with their bodies. In that spirit I turn to a recent example from a ‘reading’ given by the poet Emily Barton at the Red Rover Series in Chicago—in the belief that such interventions dizzyingly exceed this lame, safe act of internet, institutional critique, in both subversive potential and bravery.

I use scare quotes here because Barton refused to read or, indeed, to engage in any of the ritual pleasantries of the poetry reading. Instead, she sat on a stool at the front of the room and quietly read the New York Review of Books (a publication which has become notorious recently for excluding women from its pages). In the background, from a small iPhone speaker, a male voice (ok, full disclosure, my male voice) read her poems in a dreary monotone. It was a precise parody of the gendered dynamics of the poetry reading. Surrendering her voice, offering her body purely as a thing to be seen, Barton reenacted the reduction of female writing to the female body. (It matters too that it was my voice, since at the time of the reading, Emily and I had been engaged some three weeks: under critique is marital heterosexuality which, even with the best intentions, remains a ritual of patriarchy, not a form of but the traffic in women).

Barton’s performance, precise as it was in capturing the gendered dynamics of the poetry reading, was not a capitulation to their disciplinary force. The poetry reading is a scrupulous and decorous space—so scrupulous that its implicit regulations are rarely felt because rarely violated. The poet is expected, indeed compelled to participate in the ritual. To refuse to engage, as Barton did, is to express hostility to the ritual itself. This hostility was richly registered in the room: which became suddenly possessed by a physical sense of discomfort, accompanied by the special and diligent silence reserved for painful and awkward public situations. Here, I think, lies the full brilliance of Barton’s performance. It is one thing to parody the strictures of gender. It is quite another to make a room feel the critique as a loss: of certainty, of the grid through which (gendered) (aesthetic) experience is rendered intelligible. Barton’s reading did not point toward a solution to the gendered imperatives of the reading series—that would be simple utopianism, which we all should learn to avoid (desiring). Rather, she showed us—a fecund demonstration, open for imitation and critique—how the logics of the poetry reading might decompose itself.


Over the holidays, I spent a few languorous and pleasurable days reading about the history of the poetry reading—a mechanism of literary distribution which is really only fifty years old but, like gender, masquerades as the natural. I was disappointed to find that, despite the recent ‘performative turn’ in poetics, the poetry readings have only been very tentatively theorized. Peter Middelton, for instance, writes compellingly about the role of space in the aesthetics of the reading, but has little to say about its politics. As a card carrying member of the devil’s party, I believe it is better to know—however little knowledge actually helps us negotiate the rough imperatives of power. I think it is time, therefore, that we collectively come to grips with the politics of the poetry reading—rather, with the way that the reading inflicts politics unevenly across (our) bodies.

Ideally, such an account would be mobile and intersectional: a diffracted and kaleidoscopic model, which registers the way poetic power acts differently on different bodies. At a panel on “The Politics of Poetry in Performance” at MLA this year, for example, Kate Zambreno lamented the cultural injunction against women expressing anger—and posed her own angry language as a form of resistance. In a subsequent talk, Douglas Kearney noted that, as a black male poet, anger acts as an automatic generic demand on his writing: radically limiting its possibilities to a stereotypical form of racial experience. For him, the question becomes how to subvert that expectation without blunting the force of his anger. Poetry readings produce contradictory demands on different bodies. And so, any theory of the poetry reading must be supple enough to accommodate those contradictions. As an initial gesture toward such a theory, this little essay falls woefully short. Neither intersectional nor particularly supple, it risks (with much feminist work—especially by white critics) positing a universal white subject. I end with that failure, in hope of correction.

Toby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *