May 18, 2007


For me, Gary Sullivan's poetic comic book, Elsewhere # 2 (2006), sparked not only a renewed interest in combinations of text and image but also possibilities for reading New York. The 24 page comic book features poetry by Nada Gordon and black and white cartoons by Sullivan. In it, the authors riff off their experience traversing Brooklyn's Coney Island Avenue, a road which runs from the suburbs of predominantly white middle-class Brooklyn on the "right side" of Prospect Park, right through the heart of immigrant Brooklyn, to end in the predominantly Russian Brighton Beach neighborhood. While there is no progressive narrative to follow in Gordon and Sullivan's kaleidescope of images and words, you certainly get a sense of a journey through immigrant worlds - glimpses through shop windows and chainlink fences, the rhythms of conversations half-overheard in languages half-understood.

Gordon's poem is an homage of sorts to Frank O'Hara's 1953 poem "Second Avenue", perhaps the most surreal of his poems and certainly a long way from the anthologized O'Hara of first-person narratives. In "Second Avenue", O'Hara riffs off his experience of sights and sounds in 1950s Manhattan: "actually everything in it either happened to me or I felt happening (saw, imagined) on Second Avenue,” wrote O'Hara about the poem. The result is a pastiche of narrative, documentation, autobiography, literary references and mythology, provoking a constant slippage between street imagery and the surface of language. O'Hara's opening lines from "Second Avenue":

"Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours,
celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures,
as if proximity were starting at the margin of a plea..."

are echoed in Gordon's opening lines:

"Beans and pumpkin, seeming to lend ingenuity
to the otherwise concrete garden, coil up lavishly
out of immigrant yearning mixing pleasure & labor as if
vegetables were hovering at the margin of a curry."

Sullivan's accompanying cartoon style is similarly eclectic, ranging from documentary snapshots cropped from the street to quirky characters that could have been culled from the newspaper's funny pages - that is, from serious comic book "art" to self-consciously amateur doodles to surreal collages combining both. Each frame is unique with little narrative flow, producing an effect in images that complements Gordon's fragmentary poetry both in its techniques and its subject matter. As with O'Hara's "Second Avenue", there is a slippage between documentation and imagination, but here O'Hara's Abstract Expressionist surface gives way to Sullivan and Gordon's poly-vocal collage.
In Elsewhere #2, Sullivan and Gordon distill fragments of the sights and sounds of a cosmopolitan city - snatches of Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Urdu and Bengali appear in Sullivan's cropped signs and advertisements, as well as in Gordon's text - linguistic details that highlight the heterogeneity of 21st century Brooklyn. Taking a step beyond O'Hara, Sullivan and Gordon retreat from autobiography almost completely and let the streets speak in their various languages, the roving consciousness of cartoonist and poet shaping the rush of New York's immigrant topography. They evoke an "elsewhere" New York, the hub of a global network characterised less by financial flows, than by flows of languages and cultures.

Elsewhere #2 seems to be a continuation of an ongoing project by Sullivan, begun in Elsewhere #1 (2005). Subtitled "Japanese Notebook", this comic book was composed during a trip to Japan. In it, Sullivan appropriates and transforms images from the streets of Japan and combines them with fragments of Japanese-English, the language typically found in advertising and packaging, or on signs and t-shirts. This mutant version of English, reowned for its butchered syntax and sentimental phrases, exposes the awkwardness of a non-native speaker, but also produces unexpectedly evocative and humorous results (that could even be described as "poetic"). Sullivan uses saccharine lines such as "There's always someone doing one's best" juxtaposed with a cartoon of a cute talking cellphone character, or just plain "bad" English lines such as, "I can give a rainbow the smailing or come across as one's mind." As well as tracing along the edges of language where it frays into nonsense, Sullivan's poetry here highlights the hybrid nature of English, a language in constant flux, contested (literally, in this case) from "elsewhere". Both the imagery and the text are again appropriated from vernacular culture - Sullivan quotes the language of the streets rather than "high" Japanese art and literature.

Sullivan and Gordon are well-known for their co-founding of the 21st century literary phenomenon known as "Flarf". While there has been much commentary on Flarf already (see links listed below), what seems to me to be most interesting about Flarf is not its ironic silliness, the search-engine methodologies or fetishization of technology that critics have thus far focused on, but the possibilities of new mutant languages and hybrid forms that Sullivan and Gordon suggest in Elsewhere. The collaborative nature of much Flarf work and its virtual community dedicated to creating and proliferating such dissident languages in a highly conservative culture are also heartening.

Indeed, Flarf and its exponents are not all fun and games. The cover of Elsewhere #2 is particularly politically provocative in an American context (see above), and though it may immediately make one think of wars currently being waged abroad, the setting is not the streets of Kabul or Baghdad but of Brooklyn. To make the local-global connections clearer, Gordon writes later in the comic book: "Who is "they"? The Westerners, of course, the tumbling vipers aware of history as rods stippling the dip of an imperialistic road map." If these are reminders of contemporary American military operations overseas (elsewhere), the book's focus is actually more specifically local, providing a glimpse at the "elsewhere" within.

The "melting pot" is a common cliché used to describe New York City. The term, popularized during the first great wave of the city's immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, held the promise that the hordes of Irish, German, Italian and Eastern European immigrants could be stirred up in the pot and come out as Americans. The melting pot is also an image that serves to conceal New York's ingrained ethnic and racial tensions. The second wave of immigration in the late 20th and early 21st century, predominantly from the Middle East, the Caribbean and Asia has once again brought the melting pot cliché to the fore. The paranoia evoked by 9/11 seems to have exacerbated the tension between an image of unified America ("United We Stand" says the bumper sticker) and the New York reality - less a melting pot than a cultural mosaic of disparate immigrant communities with no common culture, disconnected from each other and from mainstream (that is, predominantly white middle class) America. In contemporary New York, as in America generally, English is struggling to remain the common language and "American" the common culture.

Sullivan and Gordon bring to light these tensions with their provacative "elsewhere" at the heart of New York. Their poly-vocal English is constantly disrupted from without: "suspended by telephone wires from moons in alternate cultural systems: electrical analysis of pistachios, desi kulfi, tortillas at the good luck deli." And this kind of acknowledgement of American cultural heterogeniety seems extactly what is needed in an remarkably insular mainstream culture. In Elsewhere, the without is in fact, within, the elsewhere is here - all we need do is begin to listen to voices like that of Iraqi pop star Kazim Al Saher, "his chorus forever tracing the marvelous alarms of the sonic, the doum and the tek and the doum doum tek a tek doum tek a tek."

Further links:
Rick Synder, "The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf", Jacket #31 (October 2006)
Flarf feature in Jacket #30 (July 2006)
Gary Sullivan Elsewhere (blog)
Nada Gordon ~~ululations~~ (blog)
My own appropriations of mutant Asian Englishes, Book of Poem!, reviewed by Timothy Wright in Cordite (2005)

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