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]] and other 9/11 Works (Introduction)

September 9, 2011

I’ve been obsessed with looking back on 9/11 recently, what with the 10 year anniversary and all. Watching the Internet Archives summary from their amazingly comprehensive archive of television news footage of the attacks and from the days before and after 9/11/2001 has helped me a great deal to remember my feelings of that time period. You can view that here: Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive. It was a time of political awakening for me, and I was probably as disturbed by the general American responses to the terrorist attacks as I was by the attacks themselves. Looking back at 9/11 poetry from the year or so following the attacks, as well as essays and retrospectives written in the 10 years since, I am fascinated by how unusual and generally empty the poetic responses to 9/11 were. (There are some obvious exceptions, Charles Bernstein’s and Juliana Spahr’s poetic responses coming quickly to mind.)

I won’t write anymore about it here. The Introduction posted below outlines most of my thoughts and the aesthetics and processes involved in the three works I will be posting over the next several days. These are revised but probably incomplete drafts of these works, but I figured I’d get this out here while interest is high.

Here we go…


That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, – this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it. If one does not take that into account, the event lost all symbolic dimension to become a pure accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But we know very well that this is not so. Thus all those delirious, counter-phobic exorcisms: because evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire. Without this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions, and without doubt, terrorists know that in their symbolic strategy they can count on this unavowable complicity.

— Jean Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism”


where does the evil of the year go

                                                                 when September takes New York

and turns it into ozone stalagmites

                                                                    deposits of light

Frank O’Hara, “Poem (Kruschev is coming on the right day!)”



Post 9/11 was in some ways a quiet time: jets across the country were grounded, American flags were flapping everywhere in the breeze, and critical and rational voices were either buried beneath propaganda, calls to military action, or bigoted, ignorant rants against the Islamic threat to Western Civilization that lived in our very midsts. It was mostly the wrong voices that were amplified at a deafening volume.

And poems were being written and published everywhere: on buildings, poles, sidewalks, and all over the Internet. By and large, though, the responses to the events and the significance of September 11, 2001 were simplistic and founded in knee-jerk reactions, as though “first thought, best thought” was the mantra of the time.

But there were deeper and darker issues at play—histories of colonialism and exploitation; military, economic and cultural imperialism; international politics and its relationship to global profitability; religious zealotry and bigotry; even the desire among people for a disaster to watch. Or maybe for an enemy and a war to bring us together again as a nation like Pearl Harbor had.

Many public responses were simplistic, and it was poetry that was chosen by and large to express a deeply felt need to not use our own judgment, to not use our own eyes, to have the interpretation be packaged for us to remix and repeat across the Internet and all over the streets. To be part of “what we know to be true.” No serious investigation is required, no introspection is necessary. In fact, to have insisted on such things seemed to amount to contemporary heresy.

Nothing is unspeakable but that we choose to not say it or listen to it, and to condemn or ignore it when it is said. How we are allowed to understand is the issue, that we were not allowed is the issue. Anything can be pointed at, examined, described, even if our efforts are not wholly accurate or adequate to the task. To insist that it must be perfect or not said at all, that something which is so political, which should be in the realm of serious and open public debate, is too sacred to voice questions about, amounts to little other than enforced self-censorship in a supposedly liberal democracy.

10 years later, I have decided to look back at the poems and essays that came out of 9/11 and think back on that period of time, the moment of my first real political awakening at the age of 19. I was terrified at the populist reactions around me on the streets, on the radio and on the television. I was confused by an official narrative of events that seemed dubious and by dozens of conspiracy theories which seemed even more dubious, relying as they often did on rehashed anti-semitic, anti-catholic, military-industrial-complex, or spooky secret government theories that were, again, too simplistic, not really attempts to understand the true spectacle and Event of 9/11. And it only kept getting worse with the launching of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I chose to commemorate this 10th anniversary by tearing off the prefabricated, ready-to-consume narrative of 9/11—full of holes like Jason’s horror movie hockey mask—and peering into the darkness behind. Let us know it as a tragedy, yes, but beneath that, around that, beside that, maybe we can discover something more complex and more profound.

In Part 1: Choosing Sympathy Poems and Words of Comfort, I am calling into question through deadly playful mockery the urge of many to make poetry (and art more generally) serve primarily the role of comforting a generically imagined American or even international audience of readers traumatized by the events witnessed in person or via CNN on September 11. Many thanks to Alkalay-Gut’s very helpful article on 9/11 poetry for helping me to better frame what has bothered me about the underlying sentiment in the Poetry Foundation’s essay series, “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” The heart of this issue are a few other questions: Must it do so? And if it responds differently to the disaster, will this be taken as a crime, an offensive act? A look back at the reaction to Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” is very instructive on this point. I thank Mark Doty as well for providing me with such a well-written and thoughtful response to the Poetry Foundation’s question. I do not mean to cause any offense with the poem, to Doty or Symborska; the first section of his essay merely provided the most interesting and usable source material for my work.

In Part 2: ]], I am digging through the debris of 9/11 Internet poetry, cut-up by the Gnoetry 0.2 computer poetry program. I have collaborated with the program’s output to generate and re-mix this source material into something that speaks to me as more authentic, that feels true to me. It’s a personal thing, I suppose. The websites that I drew source texts from are: Poems After the Attack;; American Memory from the Library of Congress – September 11, 2001 Documentary Project; and America’s Tragedy – September 11, 2001 Poems, Letters, Inspirational Items.

In Part 3: Google News Search: dead OR died OR killed, 9/11/01 – 9/11/01, I use Google News search to isolate every report of death on that day in newspapers published in English and available through that vast resource. It is an act of investigation and curiosity which, far from intending to reduce the fact of the many innocents who did lose their lives on that day to the terrorist attacks, instead aims to expand our vision of death, to educate us on the tremendous (and disturbing) variety and number of deaths that occur daily, to place the public spectacle of a terrorist attack among what is too often the background noise of deaths which are a profound fact of life and that we tend to overlook in the course of our living.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 12:46 pm

    Wow. This sounds like a great and important project. 9/11 influenced my work a great deal as well. If not for fundamentalists on both sides controlling all the moves in the game, I would have not inquired into literality in the same way. Like you, I was more concerned with what our response would be, the culture of fear that happened in the wake of it, and what was allowed to happen as a response to that fear. The debt we incurred under Bush for the two wars. We haven’t recovered from it. 9/11 didn’t just happen in the wake of the attacks it continues to happen. But this sounds like a really great project and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it turns out. Thanks for sharing.

    • eRoGK7 permalink*
      September 10, 2011 1:30 am

      Thanks, David. I hope it will resonate with others too. And I agree with you that “it continues to happen,” and every Septermber 11, it seems like a reminder of this.

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