BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP is a nameless constellation of poets, artists, and scholars whose work operates at the crossroads of documentary and lyric poetries.
From The Work-Shy
BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP
We seek to occupy sites where dialects of the broken and furious language of confinement may be found: the Psychiatric Clinic in Heidelberg, Germany (home of the legendary Prinzhorn Collection), a repository of art and writings of the insane confiscated by the Nazis in 1933; the Breitenau Workhouse, turned into a Concentration Camp, also in 1933, its first prisoners an assortment of drifters and runaways, idlers and troublemakers, beggars and daydreamers, culled from the streets. We also remember the New York State Training School for Girls, where the fifteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald was confined in 1933 and marked as “ungovernable” (a prelude to sterilization) before she escaped and went on to fulfill her musical destiny. We return to the Farm Colony of the Brooklyn State Hospital, founded in 1912 and later to become the vast Creedmoor Psychiatric Center (where a teenage Lou Reed underwent electroshock “therapy” in 1959) and where the death of a disturbed inmate in the Secure Unit brought public scrutiny in 1983.
In taxonomies of social deviance, mental illness is a category of subnormality distinct from delinquency, feeblemindedness, or degeneracy. Yet the procedures and nomenclatures binding these apparently disparate populations are intertwined. The ideological equation of the deranged and the delinquent discloses the overlapping social fate of these two modes of waywardness. The sterilization mills of California were as likely to neuter the lunatic as the derelict. And in Nazi Germany in 1937, artifacts produced by the insane (drawn from the Prinzhorn Collection) were displayed alongside examples of “degenerate art.”
Seizing upon the dialectical surplus of this equation, one discovers that the writings of the insane, which sometimes call to mind episodes of “speaking in tongues,” testify with perfect clarity and specificity to the aggravating deprivations of confinement, the generosity of worklessness, and the disposition of revolt. From this perspective, the gibberish crafted by the insane harbors, as one might expect, fiery complaints but also lucid testimony.
In locked asylums for the chronically insane, “Confinement,” as Avery Gordon and Ines Schaber assert in their investigation of the Breitenau Workhouse, “is a means by which unwanted people, threatening ideas, and impermissible fellowships are outlawed and made invisible, inaccessible, illegible, and illegitimate.” At the same time, an archive that once served the ends of repression “confines or encloses the very ideas it is designed to silence or make invisible”; it preserves “documents of a fugitive knowledge”—a record of incarceration that also yields a garbled treasury of infidel culture. The evidence of confinement is thus haunted by testimony directed towards history in presentiments, in flash-forward–by wishes as yet unoccupied. And this fugitive knowledge contains “a feeling for justice.”
In reference to what the poet Susan Howe calls “the telepathy of the archive,” the poems of The Work-Shy contain “a deposit of a future yet to come.” To say that a record of confinement may harbor an intimation of justice or hope implies that the documentary shadow it casts is also pointing ahead, undischarged, premonitory—one of the peculiar hiding places of anticipatory consciousness. Ernst Bloch’s conception of the “ontology of not-yet-being” helps to revise our sense of the potentiality of language, deeds, and daydreams that have not achieved full expression in the past but now point towards a still unrealized future: a utopian surplus. Nothing happens only in the time in which it first appeared, Gordon and Schaber explain.
In our investigations, we are also trying to account for the halting movement from “transcription” to a way of making poems that veers towards charlatanism and fraud, towards the teacup business of the ouija board—towards the “we-position” of translation. Yet when translation circles from English to English (from base texts that have sometimes already been translated from German or French), what exactly are we doing? Could we say that we are listening—closely, actively—to internees, inmates, to those who have been “turned in” for their actions or beliefs, to those on the inside?
Yes, we are listening, and seeking permission to listen, under a powerful constraint: these poems render solely the voices of inmates, apart from the killing language of the overseers. We are listening to the inside of the outside. “We are practicing the art of talking about what we have not yet experienced,” Gordon and Schaber affirm.
It may be useful to call these translations “variants” or “variations” of the base texts—writings by inmates of American and European asylums between 1909 and 1980–of which the originals were written mostly in prose, varying in length from two to ten pages. “Turning” the base text called for steep compression and careful assemblage, grafting samples to form a chain of ragged soliloquies, kenning and keening, riddles and rants. But the basic verbal constraint is unyielding: every word of these poems is borrowed or begged from obstinate texts, from the writings of individuals held in asylum. The names are real.
These highly condensed variants could also be called versions, since they convert the base text (usually prose) into verse—another kind of constraint: winnowing, built, broken, controversial. Following intuitions shared by documentary and lyric poetries, the versions presented here retain the typographical anomalies of the base texts: misspelling, faulty grammar or syntax, underlining, use of capital letters, and so on. Despite such eccentricities, the original texts were not usually conceived as art by their authors; they were diary entries, treatises, tabulations, prayers, rants, testimonials, letters undelivered. They are witness to asylum.
As variants, these poems “translate” the base texts out of the discourse of solipsistic madness (a framework that isolates the lunatic—in most peoples’ minds—from society) into a wider field of social conflicts and correspondences. We “turn” the base texts away from madness in order to reveal how the writings of the insane document the social conditions of confinement, the unrest of idleness, and wishful thinking about a better life. As “concise ornaments of utopian substance,” these translations crystallize feelings and thoughts (found in the base texts), which could rightly be mistaken for the scribbling of the unsettled, of misfits, wanderers, and blasphemers.
CREEDMOORBLANCA, the title of this group of poems, is a word coined by Samuela Joy Blank, who was an African-American inmate at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.
My code Whorizons larst yere
awl those carves the cold woz in Tents
when eyewash in daws
the souls of mye pheet
wurr perry shin soak tins punk.
Mye bruthiz cunt tay kit
I’ve brung mye cell foff
timon timon gayne.
that swye the prossy cuter
reely hazzit infamee
Mye purr purse in right ing Ister
tellyew a thinger too bean ayble to stay putt
aint summink the lyksa yew kandoo
Ive lost tutch with mye selph
Ide bee blyged iff yoo
cood spair a pockit hanker cheef for Jools
Tooby plucky saye Hang
onn Eye cood Boase toff havin skraipt
throo bye the skinner mye teath
mye syst her througher alms
surround mye nekk Yore syst
hearse herb itch Getcher sell foam
Ellsyle Screem fore help.
Migh pokkit adder nole innit
sew the butta nopen dupp
it woz Perry Shin Coal
and mye danda juss droopt.
Mizz triss Owe shuns sheap sheap
mye poop eel aint lye kew.
The woodz cum rite down inter the orch idza
long the paive meant.
Eye wenter the howse ter sea
ware the figher woz Ide herd sum won crigh nowt
figher mye alms broak mye lex herd
doan choo shout noh lowder
else aisle lok yupp
Jen tall men Imer batchel ler
wen Eye git Ohm
ittlebee boy lingott
Ime loo zing bludd Inn ear
Our words are like people.
We talk and react to words
like crowds in the streets
as they look up at the big lightbulb
clock, the six changing to seven, the seven
rapidly adding a curved bottom
and a rounded top
to become eight.
This is the destruction of time.