What’s a successfully-trolled newspaper to do? On May 26, 2004, The New York Times issued an apology: “FROM THE EDITORS: The Times and Iraq.” As I type this here, maintaining the original capitalization of the print version, I note that it looks as if they are shouting. When I consider this act of contrition from the vantage of 2019, it feels like something out of a dream. I try to follow the logic of these bygone events: The Times has to apologize, because why? Oh yes, they have to apologize because they published tens of reports—this is my guesstimate—based on what, in the apology, they repeatedly term “fake intelligence.” The fake intelligence led to a deluge of unsubstantiated claims regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). And not just minor WMDs, like anthrax! The big ones, as Colin Powell swore, displaying a series of doctored photographs on February 5th, 2003, at the UN. The smoking gun. The aluminum tubes. The nuclear weapons. These were probably pointed at the United States from somewhere deep inside a country that had nationalized its oil supply two decades earlier.
In their 2004 expression of remorse, the Times noted, “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” The most egregious of the eager-beaver items is helpfully cited, should we wish to terrify ourselves by revisiting it. Co-authored by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, it was titled, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts” (September 8, 2002). And, yes, in hindsight, the aluminum tubes in question were not appropriate for uranium enrichment, although on the Sunday when this article appeared American network television (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC) was graced with not one, not two, but five members of the Bush administration’s inner circle, all of whom enthusiastically called viewers’ attention to the “A-Bomb Parts” article, as if it were a recently-released novel for which they had received an exorbitant advance.
I was alive and even nearly adult during this time—the period of lead-up and invasion—and I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve since tried to forget some of this. There were also things I tried to forget in the moment itself, although they were of lesser world-historical significance. Foremost among them were extreme low-rise boot-cut jeans, which exposed toned abs, lower backs, whittled hipbones, and the top curves of buttocks, all adorned with self-tanner, glitter, body chains, “tribal” tattoos. I do not know if this trend was the unique invention of Paris Hilton—one whose spindly frame was well-suited to pants that offered up one’s genitals, as it were, on a denim platter. Certainly, the hip-baring trouser was a key ingredient in her celebutante miracle. The style attached itself to numerous other female stars: Britney Spears, J.Lo, and Christina Aguilera, to name the most prominent. It apparently inspired a retinue of male counterparts in newsie caps, wide-leg warm-up pants, and square-toe shoes, with everyone in rimless sunglasses.
What I’m saying is, this era of nationalism was also an era of mixing aggression with sex. In the video for Jewel’s ludicrous “Intuition,” a brigade of firemen sprayed the singer down to reveal a previously unseen American flag bikini beneath her wife-beater. Justin Timberlake wanted you to “cry me a river,” as he filmed himself enjoying the charms of another woman in what was obviously a fictional version of Britney’s marble-appointed mansion. Maxim was out and about, and, alongside pro-war propaganda, every issue had a how-to guide to convincing your hook-up/girlfriend/wife she’s crazy.
It was a paranoid time and an angry time. It was a time of conspiracies, both real (see above) and imagined (e.g. The Da Vinci Code). As far as US foreign policy was concerned, it was a time of trolling for newbies—which category seemed, for a handful of years, to include just about everybody. I was, meanwhile, going to poetry school.
I thought a lot about language then, the names of campaigns, factions, weapons: “Shock and Awe,” “Coalition of the Willing,” “bunker buster.” Composed of common words artfully arranged in new and chilling ways, these synthetic designations reminded me of nothing so much as the collagist maneuvers of later twentieth-century American poetry—a claim I know I need to unpack.
A quick thumbnail: When I write “collagist maneuvers,” I indicate things done by such late-modernist heroes as John Ashbery, William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and Ted Berrigan—lines and sentences arranged through cut-up technique, which sometimes involved literal glue-and-scissors cutting and pasting—as well as the sort of interdisciplinary magpie culling by means of which, for better or for worse, Ezra Pound engineered his Cantos. When I was a poetry student, I did not try out these macho strategies myself, but I read the poets who did. This was a time when the Ashbery of 1962’s The Tennis Court Oath had come back into vogue; there was something so curt, minimal, and gorgeous about his weird linguistic combinations in that great old book that they felt new and stylish, in the same way that Cat Power/Chan Marshall’s disjunctive lyrics did. Hilton Als, writing in The New Yorker in 2003, described Marshall as having “found her voice in inarticulateness, the American way of speaking, and made it a powerful form of communication.” For Als, Marshall was a songwriter who “finds narrative cohesion in…shards.”
While these observations may have been more focused on Marshall’s albums of the 1990s than 2003’s You Are Free, what seemed to emerge along with the popularity of her music was a broader tolerance for the fragment, the non sequitur. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show joyfully embraced this sense that language was detritus in need of investigation and rehabilitation, satirizing many a Bush II bon mot. In my (admittedly academic) milieu, the two most influential books of the time were Joshua Clover’s Madonna Anno Domini (1997) and Joyelle McSweeney’s The Red Bird (2002), both of which contained a lot of collaging.
From time to time I made visual collages, but I still wrote in the old lyric mode. I was a fairly private person and sat on the sidelines, the better to observe. I kept watch as the internet gave rise to highly original poetries with no interest in original language: Flarf, so-called conceptual writing, K. Silem Mohammad’s formal masterpieces, Tan Lin’s ambient prose, and so on. Time dragged on. 2003, the year the United States bombed Baghdad and invaded Iraq, had been terrifying, but soon new eras were upon us. It wasn’t that I forgot that horrible year, but I had difficulty thinking about it with any coherence.
It was only later that I wanted to go back. I lived in a state of historical confusion that was compounded by an unshakable bewilderment about just what it was people were doing when they made writing and art—when they acted as authors. I read the famous literary theory and criticism on this—Barthes and Foucault on “the Author” and his demise, along with Molly Nesbit—but I couldn’t decide what it meant to me. People everywhere were getting paid, to a greater or lesser degree, for their intellectual property, which they touted under their names; yet they seemed less inclined to see themselves or others as truly infallible in their artistic goodness. It was, I supposed, a sort of erosion rather than an absolute death. Something chipping away at the notion of The One Great Author, even as everybody was extremely productive and less and less private. Anyone could, for example, review a book on Amazon for a significant portion of the world’s population to see.
I began to wonder: What if there was no difference between being an author and pretending to be one—which was to say, simply writing things on the internet when you felt like it? Did publishing online constitute authorship? And who certified it, if so? Sometimes authors online seemed (genuinely) “pretend,” as in fake; sometimes they seemed, if temporarily, earnest, even as they were clearly operating under pseudonyms. Not much was genuine, anyhow. I never read Judith Miller’s 2015 book on her Times “reporting” on WMDs, but I did see her appearance on The Daily Show, and watched Jon Stewart lightly banging his head against his desk at the end of the interview, demonstrating his despair at Miller’s refusal to recant, and at the magnitude of the damage she had done. She was despicable, yet it was worth trotting her out—it made for some great TV. And that is the hard part: when do you stop paying attention to an opportunist? Was Jon Stewart—a fake/real news anchor—not also an opportunist, if one of a more informative and reliably entertaining stripe? During the course of this appearance, one could be forgiven for thinking that Miller’s greatest crime was her incredible lack of charisma.
When it came to authors, I eventually noticed that it was not that the world was failing to live up to my categories, but rather that my categories were failing to capture the world. The author had not died but, rather, had multiplied. Authorship was more available than ever, even as authority seemed increasingly difficult to come by, at least where art was concerned.
I found myself composing a novel about a con artist—someone who “can’t write,” a hack—who cheats his way into poetry school by bringing along a person he can manipulate into writing poems on his behalf. I made this young confidence man beautiful and atrocious, moronic and brilliant, shallow and expansive, just the way authors seemed to me to be (this, even as I wondered if I was becoming one). And I began trying my own hand at unoriginal literature, using the text of articles from The Atlantic of 2003 and 2004—a magazine that had been graced by Robert Kaplan’s musings on the pragmatics of war, among other rhetorical insanities endemic to the time. Collaging, I created the poems “authored” by my con man. It turned out that The Atlantic was full of phrases one could easily understand as poetic, particularly once you took them out of context: “a cool, dim Easter basket,” “a gigantic concrete bowl,” “a resolute nonconductor,” “a two-planet species,” “a Napoleonic burst,” and so on. These descriptors were extremely detailed, and also depressing as hell. It was the weirdest form of history writing I have ever done.
The fake and/or fictional poems in my novel Loudermilk—like the one below—are thus strangely familiar nonsense, and at least one reviewer has wondered if I mean for them to be “good.” So, let me ask: do I mean for them to be good? Or, rather, “good”? Or, perhaps, “‘good’”? Here’s one answer: The poems would have gone over great in a workshop setting, circa 2003. At the time, they would have seemed extremely original.
The person was a civilian status.
He had no part in the creation
Of a mass grave near his home.
Like being in a cool, dim Easter
Basket, a gift for the unblinking self,
A one-way mirror was produced
And held up to the soul.
In an age of collapsed distances
There’s no such thing as might
Or day. He orchestrated
Their emotional surrender
With roving satellites
And hoods. The person was
Advised to disappear
And he has said he would—
To live among the best
Communicators, in a crackling
Mural of persuasion.