I have told this story so many times it’s like a comedian’s schtick. It’s my trademark UCSDeez Nuts story. And while that’s not a classy nickname for a university, I feel justified in using it, as it was plastered across the back of one of the sailing team’s boats in big red letters. If we could look the Stanford boys in the face with that on our side, I feel I can refer to my alma mater as such in the august presence of you, the unwashed LJ masses. And when
It was a rare occurance that I was able to take a non-language instruction class in the heady rush of my years in Mistress Demetria’s Ye Olde Classics Dungeon, where we paid the middle-aged professors to flog us repeatedly and fit our mouths for Hellenic ball-gags. And so it was with some relief that I signed up for a course in experimental writing, which was taught by Rae Armantrout, a rather well-known poet of whose work I was at the time completely ignorant. (That’s ok, I don’t like it any better now that I’m not. She’s a language poet–roll your eyes with me, all ye lit majors. All ye engineering majors: that means she eschews silly things like, well, making any kind of sense. You see, language is arbitrary, so poetry should be, too…oh, who cares? Here. “Czechoslovakia green harbinger/ jostle lighthouse antecedent.” That’s language poetry. I wrote it just for you. Now we can all roll our eyes together. Inter-disciplinary unity is fun.)
Now, it turned out that “experimental writing” meant “experimental so long as you don’t freak out the professor or in any way deviate from the assignment in ways which might indicate, you know, creativity.” It also meant a lot of tedious book reports on writers deemed to be experimental. Like Kerouac and Virginia Woolf. I know I was shocked to find out that they were geniuses. Oy freaking vay. And since creative writing students cannot be trusted to appreciate poetry on their own, we were required to attend poetry readings hosted by the university or face failing the class. I can only assume this was the much-vaunted UCSD Center for the Humanities, since I never heard of any such wild and exotic beast while in attendance at my beloved alma mater, may she shine like a beacon for all generations to come. The reading I was priviledged to experience was held in a small, windowless, black-walled room furnished with sporting event bleachers and a microphone I highly suspect was nicked from a home karaoke machine. It was located in the hinterlands of south campus, where crocodiles and leopards run free, snapping at passing students and sunning themselves on last year’s visual art department final projects. Your humble narrator was not well-pleased. Her mood was not to improve.
The poet in question was Chris Kraus. I think that linking to her seminal novel, I Love Dick, a true story wherein she convinces her husband to stalk the man (Dick) with whom she is obsessed for her through a series of bizarre letters, and then assures her spouse that all of this is really, really deep in a postmodern kind of way, is likely introduction enough. I have it on good authority that Kraus was forty-one when I heard her read.
Putting aside the unfortunate alliteration in her name, this woman was the oldest forty-one I have ever seen. And my stepmother comes from carnival folk. A sizable portion of that 41 must have been spent drinking Wild Turkey at Nebraska truck stops and headbutting the condom vending machine when it jammed and wouldn’t produce the Purple Pleasure she needed. Everything about her was hard-used, hard-knocks, and hard-luck. On top of this, she sported a particularly spiffing Prince Valiant haircut and that angry expression so ubiquitous among the “you just don’t understand my art” set.
She only read three poems–or perhaps I only remember three and the others were mercifully erased from my memory by the roving bands of anal-probing aliens so common in that part of campus. The first, I have, thankfully, bleached the title from my mind, was largely about Ms. Kraus engaging in sado-masochistic phone sex. Take a minute, won’t you, and try to picture that. To quote my dear friend’s review in the UCSD Guardian: “I don’t know what that is. But I do know that after hearing this poem, I wanted to bend her over a chair and beat the shit out of her.”
And then, she used a phrase that no amount of bleach can ever remove. It remains, blazing in my brain, dripping crap everywhere and neatly removing from me the desire to ever have sex again. This woman, with a face that recalls dozens of rockin’, sockin’, don’t-come-a-knockin’ Chevelles parked in dozens of highway rest-areas, looked up at the audience as if daring us to dislike her immortal prose, and uttered the well-nigh Tennysonian phrase: my limpid cunt.
You could have heard a pin drop. If that pin had been dropped by 3/4 of the listeners who were too busy mentally applauding her bravery in using the word ‘cunt’ and making notes to use more swear words in their own poetry. I’m fairly sure the faint sound emanating from the back of the room was either my reviewer-friend vomiting or baby Jesus crying. Though she immediately launched into another poem, my mind kept screeching back, shredding its tires and turning into the spin. Limpid cunt?! Limpid, as in characterized by transparent clearness, lucid, easily intelligible? Christ on a stick, woman, maybe you need to see a doctor about that! If that’s what a BDSM phone sexed up cunt looks like, I’m turning off my long distance service and giving all my black clothes to Goodwill.
You know, when Ani DiFranco talks about her cunt, I feel vaguely empowered proud of my femininity. When Kraus talks about hers, I start looking up numbers for local sex-change clinics.
The other two poems, on the other hand, managed to offend an entirely different hemisphere of my brain. (Kind of an amazing feat, really.) They were about how much she admires Simone Weil. Now, influence is fine, and there are artists I adore. But all a poet can do, in the end, is to communicate their own experience of the world. That personal experience is intimate, it has value, it is unique. And here was Kraus wrapping herself up in Weil’s experience. There was something so sycophantic about her two extremely long poems exalting Weil, like she was masturbating on her knees in front of this woman’s corpse. It was incredibly disturbing. All the more so because in the middle of ruminating on a French Jewish woman’s search for God and meaning, my mind kept yelling LIMPID CUNT! LIMPID CUNT! like it had Turrett’s.
The next year, UCSD hired Kraus as faculty.
When I left that reading I never wanted to write poetry again. If the choice was between Czechoslovakia green harbinger and limpid cunt, I would just go read my Homer in a corner quietly, thank you very much. I could find all the edgy sex and naughty words I wanted in Aristophanes. This is what UCSD taught me: modern literature is a steaming pile of limpid pigshit, written by third-rate phone sex operators. I eventually got over that, but I had to go to England to get clean. The arts in San Diego are pretty much this–little Kraus-clones, dancing their happy dance of crap.
The punch line is that a few nights later I was watching Letterman and the guest was Ira Glass, who did an NPR show called This American Life awhile back, where he interveiwed the most crazified, screwball Americans he could find. While I was eating my dinner, Ira started to talk about his most recent interview–a woman who had written a book about how she convinced her husband to stalk a man for her through a series of bizarre letters…the only time in my life I have literally done a spit-take. It was, of course, Chris Kraus. And I think I will close this tale of the pustules and boils of UCSD with Mr. Glass’s comment, which is much more succinct than mine.
“Man, what a freak!”