Are immigrants better at putting deconstruction to work?
As an immigrant myself, I think I understand Jacques Derrida because he was also an immigrant. The immigrant experience—mine, to be sure—is one of becoming decentered and of finding one self in a foreign place where one has to introduce one self (and to be introduced) as a representative abstraction of another culture and as a brief (and textual) identity. If deconstruction acts as the de facto method put to work by many postmodern (or hipster) writers, then dislocation acts as a biographical trope for the radical multiplication of readings.
To strategically essentialize based on my experience, I would agree that ESL poets see and hear English from the outside as a strange and awkward medium because learning to communicate with a new language demands more sensitive attention to its materiality than it does for native speakers. The shock of the idiomatic phrase delights the foreign tongue because the foreigner hears (as does John Ashbery) in the wisdom of slang and clichés the horded culture of a people, a zeitgeist or an essence of a place in time, a myth of origin. The foreign poet takes delight in these loaded everyday dictums and listens with his tongue. (Tanta 29)
Poetry is dead. Rumors of poetry’s still being alive have been greatly exaggerated and greatly promulgated in the service of war profiteering. The future of poetry is Creative Nonfiction. Verse or the breaking of lines into discrete acoustic, visual, semantic, breath, or idiomatic units is as over—and as quaint—as the villanelle was to Walt Whitman. Having said the above, the quicksand of narrative with its immersive pleasures—readily commodifiable by glocal capital—stands bloated and waiting to be exploded by the raw teeth of form. Content comes and content goes, but only form will break the bones of our assumptions.
Musing on our mania for the new, Andrei Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) Codrescu’s critical observation points to the troublesome wedding between kinds of aesthetic progress (that feeling of forward motion in cultural time) and profit-making schemes.
Deconstructing the host language and host culture and host food ways, the newcomer waffles between acculturation and assimilation. In banal and extravagant ways the immigrant has to choose between remaining a kind of billboard for national excess and blending in. The immigrant poet has to choose between representing and ignoring her or his location-trouble. Somehow, the immigrant is forced to be hip in that she or he has to create a network in order to survive, to thrive, and eventually to erect a white picket fence around a set of habits commonly known as an identity.
Performing the categorical violence in deciding what’s hip and not hip remains today—as it ever was—relative to the degree of innocence afforded by various conceptual and material comforts. In the end, the choice of contemporary American hipster poets to be aware or innocent of the difficulties of mindfulness has got to be left with the individual.
Codrescu, Andrei. “The Poetry Lesson.” Princeton UP, 2010.
Tanta, Gene. Unusual Woods. Buffalo: BlazeVOX Books, 2010.