Whimsy & the Void

Professor of English Maria Damon examines the weave of experimental play and trauma in art-making.

Image of Maria Damon
Professor of English Maria Damon is a provocateur for play. For her, playfulness is a way to effect defamiliarization--that is, seeing the world anew, writing the world anew. She offers canny insight on the comic Lenny Bruce, the Marx Brothers, and goofy search engine-derived poetry, among other nontraditional subjects, in her 2011 book Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (University of Iowa Press). And she takes annual enjoyment in introducing students to the disorienting, frolicsome works of Gertrude Stein.

"They think, 'Oh my God, nothing in my past reading has prepared me to be able to cope with this,'" Damon reports. "To show them that it's fun, that's one of my favorite teaching moments. . . . It's like people who are afraid of the water, you show 'em how to splash around.

"You do something to the text," she explains further, "and it does something back, or it does something to you and you get to do something back--like being in the ocean. It's an element you can enter into and have a relationship with. And like the water, it's scary and deep and overpowering--there's reason to be scared--but there's also tremendous delight and sustenance. You know that line, that Conrad line: 'to the dangerous elements, submit yourself'? Because he writes so much about seafaring, I always thought he was talking about water, but he's talking about language."

Damon's approach is award-winning: in 2007 she received the highest honor for graduate level teaching at the University, the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Postbaccalaureate, Graduate, and Professional Education. One of her former students, American Studies alumnus and current Smith College associate professor Steve Waksman, attests to the influence of what he calls Damon's "unique insight into the power and the flexibility of language as an expressive medium."

He adds: "Maria generated great conversations, not just among students but between students and the material they read, and between different kinds of material--poetry conversing with prose but also with music and other cultural forms, theory conversing with literature, spoken word conversing with written word."

Damon grew up in Boston with a second-generation Jewish-American anthropologist father and an immigrant Lutheran Danish mother; she attributes her prankish approach to the word in part to her father's love of the pun, the vernacular joke, and in part to her family's two spoken languages. As she says in a faculty video on the English website, "I think [bilingualism] exposes people to the idea that there's more than one way of saying something."

Damon Postliterary America 200.jpgIn Postliterary America, Damon writes with typical questing curiosity about, on the one side, her father's cool embrace of the Gentile mainstream--his children attending "Mayflower contingent" private schools, Unitarian church on Sunday--and, on the other, the eruptive pleasure he took in a Yiddish phrase or pun. The link she makes between his wordplay and suppressed trauma resonates in her continuing interest in disruptive outsider writers such as Bruce, African American beat poet Bob Kaufman, and Jewish Canadian scholar and poet Adeena Karasick.

"I wouldn't call it a theory," Damon speculates, "but in my mind there's this kind of three-part braid of experimentation, trauma, play. That interweaving or spectrum or set of relationships generates a lot of the writing that I'm interested in, and those are the axes or the vectors along which I think about how a piece of writing comes into being. What is the writer playing with? What are the wounds, social or otherwise, from which this piece of writing comes? What's this writer doing that's new, for the writer, for the reader, for history?"

A revelatory writer for Damon was/is Jean Genet, whose novels she read for the first time as a 13-year-old on the recommendation of a "hip Danish cousin." She tracked down Our Lady of the Flowers at the Newton Public Library, sampled the erotic story of a Parisian drag queen and her abusive lovers, and was powerfully confused. And enthralled: "It seemed to talk about such difficult and unbearably intimate psychological wounds in language that was almost religious in its perfection and in its aspirations. And that was very appealing to me."

The Beats were another early interest, as Damon transitioned to experimental Hampshire College, in Amherst. "This was the seventies," Damon recalls, "and if you were a woman, a girl, who wrote poetry, people would say, 'Well, you know what happened to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.' And those were the models." At the same time, Damon was finding her literature classes electrifying: "It was sort of the cusp of theory; I think I got a lot of second-hand structuralism, because my teachers were from Yale and Cornell. They didn't use arcane language, just pitched things at a very high level, and they really made me excited about thinking very, very hard about literature."

Damon considered getting a Master's in Divinity or possibly graduate study in medieval literature. Instead, she was accepted into Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program. There she was "steeped," as she puts it, in cultural studies, the new ethnography of Renato Rosaldo, early theorists of aesthetics Kant, Hegel, and Schiller, and pioneering popular culture analysis. Her dissertation in part grew out of a seminar paper on Bob Kaufman, who as an African American poet was an outsider among Beat outsiders. Minnesota hired Damon in 1988, the year she received her PhD. She published Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry (University of Minnesota Press) in 1993.

Since then, Damon has published three books of poetry co-authored with e-poetry pioneer mIEKAL aND, drawn from their online hypertext collaborations (such as Literature Nation). And she has helped lead the charge in bringing together poetry and cultural studies--which is to say the investigation of poetries within (or alongside) their social and cultural contexts. In 2009, Damon co-edited with Ira Livingston Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader (University of Illinois Press), the first book to attempt to forge a discipline out of the various strands of activity in this area.

As the latest book title suggests, part of this project is to expand the category of poetics to include both literary poetry and postliterary or paraliterary poetry, the latter a "loose and capacious" grouping of micropoetries that might include, as she writes, "Ephemera, doggerel, fragments, 'weird English' [the phrase is Evelyn Ch'ien's]. . . poetries that fly beneath the radar of accepted poetic practice, which foregrounds objects over processes." In Postliterary America, Damon plumbs the meaning of elegiac poems by non-poets, spoken word poetry by beginning poets, deliberately bad poetry by literary poets, and the poetry of literary poets experiencing mental illness. She's less interested in determining the quality of the poems than in--as she notes above--listening to what the writer is playing with, what pressure or wound may have instigated the writing, and how the work in its social context creates an epiphanic moment--a shattering of the world, and a remaking of it.

As she acknowledges in the book, such a focus could be seen as condescending: the term "micro" for a start, but also the danger of reducing a piece of writing to its writer's circumstances. Damon responds that aesthetics--the nature and appreciation of form--has never been separate from history. Literary classics are not immune from the questions she asks of a graffiti. Take Jane Eyre, another classroom favorite. "You can teach it as a moment of emergent bourgeois feminist individuated consciousness," she observes. "Here's someone leading this quiet existence, and she's absolutely seething underneath. There's that long internal monologue where she says, 'Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot.' Then you hear the [madwoman's] laughter. And you think of Brontë's own life.

"A beat writer, Alexander Trocchi, has a title 'Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds'; you don't think of Alexander Trocchi and Charlotte Brontë in the same breath, but they both express that idea of super-charged interiority wanting to burst through the social fabric and do something new. . . ."

Image of Terra Divisa/ Terra DivinaIn the past few years, Damon has begun taking that social fabric more literally: She's cross-stitching as a literary practice. She learned needlework and weaving through her Danish mother and aunt and never stopped. But now she fashions designs based on, say, vintage English children's samplers while incorporating visual puns, letters, and symbols pertaining to current interests, such as flamboyant rock singer Iggy Pop. The cross-stitch Terra Divisa / Terra Divina: (T/E/A/R) was featured in Professor of English Paula Rabinowitz's latest work, Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I, edited with Cristina Giorcelli (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). More examples here.

"I know enough people who do these crafts that may appear to be very pretty and decorative and domestic, and there's a lot of turbulence and a lot of wildness and a lot of complex depth under that," Damon reveals. "Somehow the crafts are a self-soothing mechanism of sorts." As for Damon's own needlework, it recalls how she once described Lenny Bruce's comedy: "a whimsy that's kind of teetering on the edge of the void."

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on December 6, 2011 11:31 AM.

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