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Poetic Materiality Today

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Organizer: Hangping Xu

Co-Organizer: Nick Admussen

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In 2014, a poem titled “Crossing Over Half of China to Sleep with You” by Yu Xiuhua went viral online in China. Written by a rural woman with cerebral palsy and initially published on her blog, the poem represents a recent generation of poetic work that has developed around transformations in what a poem is physically and how readers encounter it. These poems are not always demonstrably globalized or translingual, but similar changes seem to be happening in poetry scenes, both popular and avant-garde, in many different places.

This seminar seeks to understand recent developments in the materiality of poetry: How have new media technologies changed the institutions of literature? What are the political economies of these changes? How have notions of authorship and reading practices shifted? What does it mean to read a poem? The seminar begins with an examination of the media in which poems are produced: topics might include the effects of the digital turn, transformations in poetic performance, new and shifting roles for the sinograph, poetry in films or as the subject of films, poetry on services like Wechat, Gendaishi Forum, and Twitter, historicizations of poetic mediality, or the reassertion of traditional poetic objects like the pamphlet, collection, broadside or calligraphic text.

With a rich understanding of the poetic medium, the seminar will engage the shifting fictions, solidarities, and technologies that allow poems to be read in relationship to specific bodies. From the rise of Chinese workers' poetry, in which the physical activity of the factory worker is integral to the interpretation of their verse, to the global movement towards disability poetics, poems are attaching themselves to bodies and making claims about bodies that evade, solve or ignore twentieth-century Euro-American positions about the body of the poet as unapproachable signified, and the poetic text as fluid signifier. In Yu Xiuhua’s poetic world, for example, the (gendered and disabled) body figures prominently. Yet the bodily experience also helps anchor or index political issues and matters of national concern. The body is at once materialist and discursive.   

By focusing on materiality rather than simply mediality, the seminar explores the political-social impact poetry can have now that it has exceeded the twentieth century’s printed page. Poetry performances at Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, Tokyo’s 2020 Paralympics preview ceremony in Rio di Janeiro, Pussy Riot’s dramatization of Dmitri Prigov’s heavenly policeman, and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake poems studied by Heather Inwood all demonstrate that poems are moving, organizing, and rearranging (political) bodies. Poetry’s role as social text and political act is, of course, as ancient as the undertaking itself, and as such the seminar welcomes contributions that draw on cultural studies (e.g. gender, sexuality, disability), formalism, structuralism, and hermeneutics.

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