Sunday, September 17, 2017
Reading the absence of references in Harmony Holiday's Hollywood Forever
By Laura Vrana
I was focused on researching the “notes” sections appended to recent black poetry collections when I paused to read Harmony Holiday’s latest Hollywood Forever, published by Fence Books in January. Her prior collections—Negro League Baseball (2011) and Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues (2014)—had captured my (and others’) attention, extraordinary meditations on black music, historiography, and subjectivity in sinuous sentences that defy lyric interpretation. I had wondered before why Holiday is not more widely recognized. She adheres to some of the patterns that are generally enabling success for black poets: she has an M.F.A. from Columbia and is sometimes affiliated with academic institutions, and her first collection won Fence Books’s Motherwell Prize.
Hollywood Forever, though, defies virtually all common poetry interpretation methods. It makes those unassimilable elements that were present in her work yet more nascent—as in the inclusion with Negro League Baseball of a CD, or the websites that accompany her texts—explosively unavoidable. The work cannot be summarized, given its wide-ranging considerations of race, gender, celebrity, and appropriation that address Dr. King and Billie Holiday, Kanye and Beyonce. (This LARB review provides a pseudo-overview.) So I take as my angle of entry that which was preoccupying my mind upon first reading: the fact that this work, with its dizzying array of borrowed materials, contains no paratextual apparatus.
Asked in an interview “Why did you omit references and citations for the images and borrowed texts?,” Holiday replies: “That choice was equal parts aesthetic and political. . . . This book is meant to be a performance, an experience that occurs viscerally and is not interrupted and corrupted by the academic tendency to seek authority.” This condemnation of references seems a fruitful lens into the contemporary black poetry landscape, where including paratext has become virtually mandatory for major success. (Think of Native Guard, Life on Mars, Olio…)
Holiday’s resistance to the interpretations occasioned by notes, then, forces us to read Hollywood Forever in wholly new modes. She layers poems atop newspaper articles, blurry screenshots, photographs, an oft-repeated poster declaring “Don’t Let Your Children Buy, or Listen To These Negro Records” (with its note at the bottom, ironic in context: “Permission is granted to re-print this circular”) and myriad others. These documents even render it difficult to read her verse.
It might feel tempting to situate this experimentation within something like Conceptualist practice (especially given that absence of references), as a comment on the white noise, lack of originality, or nonexistence of “plagiarism” today. But to do so misses much of Holiday’s message, one that came into focus once I realized what this practice recalled for me: black women writers’ scrapbooking in the long nineteenth century (see Ellen Gruber Garvey). Anna Julia Cooper had a fascinating take when she layered her own articles atop an extant text, creating a palimpsest in which the still-visible “background” texts are thrown into relief by what is pasted atop them, a discordant dialogue that highlights issues of commodity capitalism, racism, and misogyny in an era where citation/plagiarism registered quite differently. (Thanks to Shirley Moody-Turner for showing that scrapbook to my graduate seminar years ago.)
As such, we must evaluate Holiday’s “poems” alongside the “distracting” materials they are layered over/surrounded by. To end on an example, one page includes the headline: “New window tint designed to prevent police brutality” (66), atop pictures of a smiling elderly white couple. The “poem” beneath that headline/title speaks: “I must warn the reader that we may not share an understanding of such common words as . . .” and proceeds to list dozens of terms, including “Trayvon Martin,” “sainthood,” “freedom,” “discipline,” “money, and many, many, many other words, and unless we get on the same page regarding the meaning of these terms and their related objects, and concepts, this work will not be fully useful to the reader.”
It is difficult to imagine Hollywood Forever as “fully useful,” but it should make us determined to try to “get on the same page” with this project that focuses less on poetic originality or citation/research than on sending our gaze/ear elsewhere entirely.
Laura Vrana is a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University who researches contemporary African American and multiethnic poetics.