aaaaaaaaaaalice by Jennifer Karmin. Flim Forum Press, 2010.
My review of Jennifer Karmin’s aaaaaaaaaaalice (Flim Forum, 2010) has been published as a “Friday Feature” in The Volta, an outstanding online journal edited by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. According to the website, “The Volta focuses on reviewing books of poetry, hybrid-genre work associated with poetry, works of poetics, and poetry criticism, as well as books of interest to the poetry community.”
The title of Karmin’s book reminds me of Steve McCaffery’s concrete poem “[Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa],” which appeared in a 1999 issue of boundary 2 (“An International Poetics Symposium”):
Here’s the first paragraph of my piece on Karmin:
Described as a “travelogue in 11 cantos” by Flim Forum’s press release materials and, alternately, as a “text-sound epic” (in the book’s concluding notes), Jennifer Karmin’s wonderfully eccentric debut volume provocatively yokes together a pair of unlikely genres. Epic, at least since Aristotle, has been traditionally considered the pinnacle of literary expression while the travelogue has often been marginalized as a quasi-literary, unambitious, and even ideologically suspect sub-genre. Paul Fussell, for example, in his study Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, bluntly suggests that travel writing has attracted “second-rate talents,” and Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, in their more recent Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, remark that the genre is “seen by some as essentially frivolous or even morally dangerous.” By linking one of the most esteemed literary genres with one of the most maligned (and—I would add—misunderstood), Karmin is asking us to radically rethink conventional and enduring notions of generic prestige. Moreover, she is drawing on the specific capacities of both genres to forge what Charles Bernstein aptly calls (in his blurb of the book) a poetry of “public address and private insistence.” Travel writing, which enables a special purchase on the relational dynamic between subject and object, the familiar and the foreign, the “I” and the “other,” seems to be the other of the epic, which so often embodies a “tale of the tribe,” a nation’s understanding of its own past history. If, schematically speaking, travel writing is a private and personal account of new cultural surroundings, and if the epic collectively expresses and defines one’s shared culture, Karmin’s work, then, explores how we can negotiate and absorb micro-experiences of strangeness and newness in an iterable and public form without domesticating such experiences in favor of a conservative cultural legibility. In short, aaaaaaaaaaalice is an inventive and formally daring book for our global age; it redefines (and re-genders) areté (heroic capability)—a defining hallmark of classical epic—to include how one ethically engages with foreignness.