Hold On To Something: On New Sincerity Poetics and Julie Doxsee’s The Fastening
Julie Doxsee. The Fastening. Seattle: Black Ocean, 2022. 58 pages.
There was a time, between 2008-2016, perhaps long enough ago now to be considered unimportant to an official narrative of twenty-first century literature, when a certain strain of poetry, to a certain strain of young initiates to poetry, felt vital. Even if it did have its historical antecedents, it nonetheless felt like the only thing worth reading. It came from two institutional sets: MFA students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Creative Writing Ph.D. candidates at the University of Denver. This poetry scene had blog presences (The Volta, HTMLgiant), presses (Octopus Books, Flying Object), and highly regarded literary journals (such as jubilat), which also bolstered their prestige. Though there was institutional overlap—normal in any era of literary culture production—in which some student poets attended both programs, to an outsider it seemed that such overlap, ironically, spelled the end of the poetry world’s insularity. A new formula, the MFA track, which had only really taken off in the previous decade, presented different possibilities for literary sociality outside the traditional publishing market. As Ken Chen writes in the incisive essay “21st Century American Poetry: Against Loneliness:”
While other academic programs focused on a research project, the creative writing MFA served as a laboratory for its own norms, creating a surge in self-consciousness: poems about poetry, blogosphere debates about poetics, and grousing about this new hiring system’s fundamental nepotism (“Pobiz”). The social site of poetry became the workshop, a competitive atelier that required ever more tricks to teach, more ways for students to strut their stuff, and for instructors to differentiate themselves in the hiring pool. (8)
Tomaž Šalamun, the sage-like hero of this burgeoning scene, had a very optimistic—or should I say sincere—take on these developments: “America is a wonderful place to be a poet. There are so many publishers, so many poets” (Deweese 2015). Although it would certainly take more than one endorsement to remake poetic taste. With the aforementioned literary journals, these poets and editors infused their moment through cross-institutional affiliation, though more impactful was their gathering in the new non-place of social media. After a certain point, you didn’t even have to attend either of the universities to be part of it; if they liked you, they published you, then you were one of the family: raved about on the blogs, circulated, friended. They understood, however instinctually, that the internet was a site to express a desire for community outside of educational institutions, and outside of the workshop. That is, rather than becoming swept up in awards competition, competing for tenure, or even for the respect of the Pobiz establishment, a veritable scene developed.
Drawn together by a new stylistic attentiveness that expressed an emotional sincerity which had been recently neglected in an art form that had come to either valorize delayed gratification or the objective correlative above all, these poets, inspired by other cultural models popular at the time created or joined up with what had come to be known as The New Sincerity. Combined with the avant-garde leanings of the aforementioned universities, the curation of absurdist theatrical technique and explicit interpersonal attachment made for a sometimes uneven, if compelling affective mixture. In a clear rejection of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop style, defined and distinguished by its adherence to traditional forms and content, as well as the myth of zero-latency celebrity production upon graduation from that program, the new group championed the poetry of first, their teachers (such as James Tate, Dara Wier, Bin Ramke, and Eleni Sikelianos), and then each other, most of whom were in MFAs themselves, though some, as mentioned above, arose from within the online milieu. The early stage of online sociality—prior to the selfie-form, mind you, and the ubiquity of the “like”—allowed poet-posters to center around each other’s content contributions while being likewise positioned outside of the academy, the workshop, even the open mic night. The newly “social” internet set poetry at light-speed.
Skimming one of the early blog posts by Elisa Gabbert (a three-book alumna of Black Ocean and current New York Times poetry columnist), one could came away with a handful of new favorites. Janaka Stucky’s editorial discoveries at Black Ocean—books like Brandon Shimoda’s The Girl Without Arms and Joe Hall’s Pigafetta Is My Wife—felt like the candid footnotes to the previous century’s interests in Joycean hypertext, a European Modernist trend that hadn’t quite made it yet to U.S. poetry. Zachary Schomburg, author of The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007), was arguably the brightest, most gravitational, star. Schomburg, along with poet Mathias Svalina, ran Octopus Books, a spiritual companion to Black Ocean and equally as influential. Together they formed something like a small academy. These presses became reference ledgers for a younger generation of innovative poets and introduced many to the possibilities of poetries in translation. Much like some U.S. poets of the mid-twentieth century, those who, if it was not for the example in the work of French, Russian, and Spanish speaking poets, might never have tilted aesthetically away from rhyme and meter toward free verse, these presses published and called back to work in other countries alongside their friends’ work. The internet, not least because it expanded access to new forms of archiving, was allowing for fresh rearticulations of what poems could look and feel like, even if this poetry was not totally welcomed by conventional aesthetic standards of the time. We were still uncertain about the aesthetic status of the prose poem.
For the New Sincerity poets, form followed an unexamined formal instinct. Simple formulas worked: there was light, frequent plaudits of “the new X,” quite a lot of birds, and surreal scenarios recounted flatly, spared of too many introspective flourishes. “Someone once told me that people are animals under spells,” begins one of Schomburg’s poems (“The Animal Spell,” Fjords Vol. 1 15) . “OK. OK, you are / a bird,” ends one of Julie Doxsee’s (“Plane Ticket,” Objects for a Fog Death 44). Where the previous generation would have required receipts of influence, now, chintzy, ciperhal images satisfied, even delighted. Repetitions of the following that should not have worked did—birds, heat, hearts, moons, houses, lights—as part of an accessible, if emotionally reductive, idiom of the early aughts internet aesthetic. The eclectic no longer needed to be “earned,” as per the typical MFA-poetics parlance, and the “personal” was no longer confined to the confessional, nor to the documentary or the overtly pained. But these were not, mind you, the dream displacements of a lost generation. At the time, these individual dreams felt like the only thing that mattered. Meanwhile, the big workshops in Iowa and New York continued to ask: “if The Atlantic won’t publish it, why write it?”
If the valorization of a more contemporary individuality had been one of the only ambitions of this poetry, its political convictions would appear paltry to our contemporary, necessarily politicized eyes and ears. Those years did have their politics, though: following the inauguration of Barack Obama, much of the moment’s art reflected a liberal, peaceful contentment with a job well done. Poetry of this period—post 9/11, pre-Trump—may seem to have found itself incapable of speaking to a readership pondering what the post-Obama world might look like, but in reality, there was no need to think of such a future if it seemed inevitable that good things would remain. Though so heavily inspired by the French Surrealists, these New Surrealists could not muster up such an enemy as a World War against which to react. It wasn’t until the sexual misconduct and harassment that had developed initially in the online literary community because public that the scene’s tacit apolitics began to tremble. And when some poets started speaking out, their poetry followed suit. Though this generation—whether one calls it New Surrealism, New Sincerity, Alt Lit, or Poetwee—redefined what brought poetry close to the heart during those early twenty-first century years, amassing a whole new audience for poetry through their commitment to readability and emotional accessibility, as well as the approachable DIY ethos of online community building, galvanized by a new visibility of violence and tragedy, that audience abruptly required a poetry of less universalized immediacy, and more specific focus on real events. Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric shook the poetry industry out of Obama-era senescence. Not only was it prose, but it was tuned in directly to a political anger that had been occluded from American poetry for decades. It was sincere, yes, and to top it all off, it was a runaway bestseller in the way few “lyrics” are. Although the independent poetry market, thankfully and thoughtfully, then began publishing a broader range of voices, it did not entirely spell career ruin for the poets, overwhelmingly white, who came to fame during the New Sincerity years. Many of them still publish poems. Most presses, of those that have survived, still publish books from their peers, although the rapidity of exchange, and surety of acclaim, which defined the community online has slowed quite a bit.
Julie Doxsee, whose latest book The Fastening came out in May 2022 from Black Ocean, has had all five of her books published on Black Ocean or Octopus. Over the years she has moved to Istanbul and back, working as a teacher. Throughout her books, we can trace a singular, though still emblematic path taken by one of the most exciting of that sincere set. Her third book, The Next Monsters, a threat-laden and expansive book of prose poems, came out on Black Ocean in 2013, and although Doxsee has never returned to the prose form with as much dedication since, it certainly marks a transition into darker themes that continue to compel the poet even into this latest collection. The Next Monsters might have disappointed fans of her first two collections, (Undersleep, 2008 and Objects for a Fog Death, 2010), whose minimal yet kaleidoscopic lyrics paid uncharacteristic attention to syllabics and which, while symbolically hermetic, utilized parataxis—wild jumps between sentences—as its prime catalytic. Take the beginning of “Xylem” from Objects for a Fog Death:
unyellow as they fall,
hollow out a song
to fill with splinters… (67)
Syllabically, it hews toward an emblematic formula: short (2), long (6), then a rhythmic couplet (5). This formal adherence, however unanchored, provided the structure against which the poems’ idiosyncrasies could bounce. Though short, they stacked parallels so tight that the lines threatened to overflow their already arbitrary boundaries (the “l’s” in bells, unyellow, fall, hollow, fill, splinters): a mouthful.
The poems of The Next Monsters were definitely more in tune with their 2013 contemporaries, if too late. “What a man and woman say after hello could be liquid glare. What a man and woman say after hello could be a fragile echo funneled through the very first megaphone,” begins “Note to a Spirit Seer” (9). Many of the early 2000s Black Ocean trademarks are there: the cipheral man and woman; the deliberate void of “liquid glare,” offset in italics to help the reader synthesize its a-semantic role; and finally the superlative “very first,” which does not do much other than tenuously gesture at allegory, signaling not much more than period-specific cuteness.
Then came What Replaces Us When We Go (2018), composed upon the poet’s return to the United States after nearly a decade in Turkey. These poems set a new tone for Doxsee's work, ever matured from the naively optimistic poetry of her milieu. The book returned to the stylistic intentions of Objects, but with greater stamina for sentences. The quirky refusal of specificity returns a bit. From "Me:" “Somewhere someone gives a haircut to a baby goat and spells ME in the desert with what’s shorn off" (25). Marked by the revolving loss of placement and the inevitability of one’s own eventual extinction, the poet guides us, through a familiar landscape. For the persevering millennial survivors of economic onslaught, that landscape is all-too familiar. And to Doxsee’s longtime readers, it is confirming—though the news is bleak—to see the old tricks being employed in such a way to touch our contemporaneity.
They send some arrest
warrants to her so why
be a no-show
shadows to figure. (“What Replaces Us When We Go” 73)
So reads the title poem, with a new, possibly obtruded moral weight. Never had the inevitable felt so final, foreclosed at the outset, but it was upon this foreclosure the work nonetheless had to take a stance. The use of this language we have been given comes at the price of violence. Where the gulf between the word and its referent grows, eventually “even the sun goes tornado” (71).
The Fastening, thankfully, further engrosses itself in this inconceivable Real. Pushed to an ever more elegiac pitch, it elaborates specifically on our persistence in the grasp of a reality no less real in its immateriality. Memories are photographic, never concealed by allegory. In the book’s opening poem, “Hoyran,” titled after the Lycian ruins in Turkey, there are no sudden pop-Ovidian transformations, no overt affirmations of the speaker’s power over the material. Instead, the voice pivots to a powerless internal placement, becoming descriptive of the outside that overpowers, offering dark, timely, diagnoses: "The sea; the sea can infect you. The / moonrise over it, the gritty skin it leaves" (2). One imagines these the poems of an end-of-her-rope Mary Ruefle, a poet who, admittedly dumbfounded by the digital world and its ever-burgeoning aesthetics, finds room for the occasional cherry blossom tree in her depictions of the oftentimes cruel-looking natural occurrences. Whether by lack of patience or Rueflian strength, Doxsee does not.
Primarily, Doxsee’s “I,” which had always grasped activity to an often unsettling intensity, has taken a step back. Like the ruins described in the poem, an irremediable distance asserts itself between what really is, and what is only possibly or metaphorically there. “I could see…;” “I had moved…;” “I was never there…;” “I did throw…;” “I don’t remember…” It is not as if active verbs have been shunted entirely, but placed next to the past participle, the auxiliary, the negation, and in that the majority of the active moments in this poem are reactive, verbs here withdraw their authority.
…I did throw
my poems into the sea and walk to
the bus stop. I did ride a bus
further and further inland
till my hands found a cold
doorknob to wrap around. (2)
These lines speak as if they are meant to reassure themselves of their role, in some sense, to attest to an extra-linguistic world in which the speaker exists past the poem. However, it is this world where not only the future is being consumed, but also and perhaps especially the past, the future’s loam, from which many poems in the collection grow. “This is the story of when / people got too old / to confess their sadness…” she writes in “Fall Scene with Tracks” (8). The poem, neither a laboratory of delights, nor an obtuse confessional, can at least be a record.
“There’s always a ruin in my / gut…” Doxsee writes in “Bang Emoji.” Continuing with what could be the defining statement against poetry ever returning to its lush pastures, salvific in their surrealism:
I don’t want
a time machine that asks me
to bury my long-ago heart
into a fine-silt on the lukewarm
The poems in this volume move forward by, rather than imagining how things could be (recall “OK. OK, you / are a bird.”), finally and dejectedly describing how things are. There is not enough space to store, or energy to run, any kind of time machine when everything has been economically decided at the outset. Running it towards the future would only confirm, it seems, what has already been put to paper.
Yet for some the deterministic world still has its moments, even as they might feel it difficult to find any more strength in sincerity. The speaker of “Maps Are You” recounts the admission of a student who thanks “his shooter for the bullet / in his rib,” and relents to the poem’s addressed subject that to care “is why women / love you and trace you” (30), rather than why, we assume, they would have recourse to call bullshit on such uncritical vulnerability. That the amor fati displayed by one must, in the contextual space of the poem, necessarily be formally similar to the luck of another whom “gallery owners / let [you] live in their galleries / to make crunchy, crashing art,” shows Doxsee’s unwillingness to let a silver lining exist untarnished. Since Doxsee’s career began, terrorism has intensified, peoples have revolted against their states, Alexa has cackled or malfunctioned, all up and down in rapid paroxysm without memory. Perhaps the next monsters have always been there, “next” in the sense of their perpetual rebirth in different forms. And while social media certainly helped to connect poets at the beginning of the millennium, the 24/7 feed certainly has not contributed to changing many of the structures of power, only making them visible. With what force does poetry, then, truly , compare? The poem “Craters” recalls the late career Frost of “To Earthward,” writing that it is the “feel of rough stones” and not mud that “[forces] / the heart back into / its tight container” (20). Soft or hard power, a body’s limits begin at sensation; and maybe, after all, poetry can only ever feel at that limit.
The poems collected in the two final sections of the book could almost be outtakes from Undersleep and Objects for a Fog Death. Take the opening few lines of “Odyl:”
Her eyes took it
When, she, eight,
fingered the flashbulb,
a little round sunup
mothering mini-planets iced her.
The poem relishes in clausal ambiguity, stacking syllable pairs and infinitesimal internal rhymes, then ends “rattling in the open” (54). Ironically, it is this poem, conspicuously without an “I” and set in the past, that feels most descriptive of this volume’s strivings, as the “she” mentioned earlier pockets “lint from / a bird nest” for no other purpose, we surmise, than to gird against
she always felt
she was lugging toward (53-54)
The reasons why the poems keep finding themselves written in Doxsee’s universe remain, on the whole, private, while the reasons for what would oppose them do not. The whole book ends, in fact, just a few pages later, on such a clue:
We’re older. The world
brings us to burn
and keeps bringing us. (58)
In such violate times, which simultaneously urge our poets to produce while cheapening the product, it can be difficult to come back, after even a short time, to the labor. Many of the poets, whose work helped classify the New Sincerity in a time of real excitement, have either seemingly refused or been unable to develop their style. Many have simply stopped writing. With The Fastening, Doxsee returns with a necessary sobriety, replete with a not-unhealthy skepticism with the whole project that in turn elevates poetry’s task of catching and releasing parts of the world back into their light by its acknowledgement of writing’s constitutive impossibility. In this collection, Doxsee has stripped away what had begun to feel comfortable in her writing, remainders from a wayward, if surviving school. Finally forgoing the orbit of influence, she has routed a different trajectory that—though it includes some mutilation of the spirit—ultimately feels like an escape.
Chen, Ken, “21st Century American Poetry: 4 Essays,” Lana Turner Journal, no 13, (February 2021): pp. 5-24.
Deweese, Christopher, “Stars Will Fall On Your Head: A Tribute to Tomaz Salamun,” Real Pants, 2015, https://realpants.com/stars-will-fall-head-tribute-tomaz-salamun/
Doxsee, Julie, Undersleep. Lincoln, Nebraska: Octopus Books, 2008.
——— Objects for a Fog Death. Boston, Massachusetts: Black Ocean Press, 2010.
———The Next Monsters. Boston, Massachusetts: Black Ocean Press, 2013.
———What Replaces Us. Boston, Massachusetts: Black Ocean Press, 2018.
———The Fastening. Boston, Massachusetts: Black Ocean Press, 2022.
Gabbert, Elisa, “Like Life,” Open Letters Monthly, 2009, https://www.openlettersmonthlyarchive.com/olm/stephanie-young-like-life?rq=elisa%20gabbert
Schomburg, Zachary, Fjords Vol. 1. Boston, Massachusetts: Black Ocean Press, 2012.