[REVIEW] “Iteration’s Itineraries: A Review of Jacob Edmond’s Make It the Same” by Vincenz Serrano

{Written by Vincenz Serrano, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media, Columbia University Press, 2019. 360 pgs.

Make It the Same Poetry in the Age of Global Media Jacob Edmond

In his chapter on Kamau Brathwaite in Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (2019), Jacob Edmond demonstrates how the Caribbean poet explored the aesthetics of copying, deploying approaches like “tape-based iterative audio practice[s]”, “tape recordings and transcriptions of oral stories and songs” (38), photocopied typescript—“a practice of print versioning analogous to the dub plate or the tape recorder” (53)—and, aided by word processing software, the Sycorax video style. For Edmond, these audio, print and digital technologies enabled Brathwaite’s efforts in decolonising English, manifested in works like The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973), History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1982; 1984; 1993), and numerous recordings of his readings and lectures, such as the ones at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club (2004) and the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh (1998). The Brathwaite chapter—with its confluence of close reading, historical contextualisation, media analysis and postcolonial critique—typifies the rest of Edmond’s book: Make It the Same shows the author’s globe-spanning grasp of emergent and established poetries, understanding of a combination of theoretical persuasions, and persuasive deployment of a range of interpretive methods.

Make It the Same, in the main, is a book-length exploration of the aesthetics, methods, ethics, and politics of copying; “iterative poetics” and the “iterative turn,” for Edmond, are overarching terms that describe the capacity of poets to make “generative use of existing text,” the “repetition of the same text across multiple media,” and the stance that “iteration can enable an open-ended form of both textual practice and cultural identity” (119). Make It the Same’s coverage is capacious. Apart from the chapter on Brathwaite, Edmond considers Dmitri Prigov’s samizdat publications; Yang Lian’s and John Cayley’s works, individually and in collaboration, in Chinese and in English; Caroline Bergvall’s works, which span, transmedially, from print and digital to performance; disputes, charged with race and class issues, surrounding the performances of Kenneth Goldsmith, publications of Vanessa Place, and manifestos of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo; and the poetry of Brandon Som, Jonathan Stalling, Hsia Yü, among others, whose works lay bare issues and prospects of translation in an era of global languages.

Make It the Same is located, however uneasily, within the contact zones of world literature, critical theory, postcolonial studies, critical race and ethnic studies, media studies, translation studies, and institutional critique. The introduction outlines the theoretical principles and interpretive protocols that undergird the succeeding chapters. There are three features that make the book’s theoretical and methodological armature distinctive. Firstly, Edmond draws from, yet finds limitations with, currently fashionable world literature theories. For Edmond, world systems theories highlight the “unequal power distribution that drives peripheral literatures to copy the centre”; by contrast, circulation theories underscore the “non-hierarchical movement of copies of texts and literary forms across languages and cultures” (8). Make It the Same, however, refuses the polarities of these positions; instead, Edmond’s readings—particularly of texts by Brathwaite, Yang Lian, Som, Stalling, and Hsia Yü—reflect a disposition that “privileges neither origins nor centres, as in world systems theory, nor diversity and heterogeneity, as in circulation or relational theories of world literature”. Put differently, Edmond views poetry informed by the iterative turn as a site of contestations and negotiations: poetry is not an index of the authority of advanced cultural centres acting on a marginal poet worrying about being belated and derivative. Nor is poetry a demonstration of the unfettered agency of a dispossessed poet claiming triumphant singularity. Rather, iterative poetry negotiates between these two positions, and is characterised by a restlessness akin to Brathwaite’s tidalectics: “moving outward from the centre to the circumference and back again: a tidal dialectics”. Thus, by interrogating “concepts that inform literary study on a global scale, including originality and belatedness, national location, and the boundaries of literature itself, which now blur” into other cultural and media forms, Edmond widens the scope of his analysis. His engagement with world literature theorists such as Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, and Itamar Even-Zohar results in a genealogy of iterative poetry whose geographical trajectory “does not pass through New York, Paris, or London but through Kingston, Moscow, and Taipei”.

Secondly, Edmond shows a generous understanding of literary, cultural, and media phenomena in which copying—as a principle of production, reception, and dissemination—has been central. This understanding is grounded in an awareness of the historical development of various print and cultural media. Edmond traces the shift from an understanding of the singularity of the work—“born in one language, nation, and medium”—to the plurality and openness of a “multimedia, multiversion, multiauthor text,” often in translation. For Edmond, technology opens up possibilities for versions: machines such as the typewriter and carbon paper, the translation programme, and computer software enabled poets like Prigov, Hsia Yü, and Yang Lian and Cayley to subvert “existing forms of authority”. Brathwaite, in addition, used radio and tape recorders to explore “alternative[s] to the cultural institutions and art-making practices of the former colonial powers”. Put differently, technology is a force that enables the pivot from innovation to iteration: “This technologically driven focus on reproduction represents a shift in poetic practice from the production of new texts to the remixing and reiteration of existing ones”.

Thirdly, Edmond proposes that modernism should no longer be viewed from the vantage point of newness and originality but rather from the perspective of iteration and insistence. Edmond questions the condition of “mimetic desire” (Rey Chow’s phrase) which places practitioners from the margins, unwittingly, at a disadvantage: “non-Western imitation of Western literature,” which stems from a desire for “legibility” and “recognition” by the West, results in a perceived belatedness, a situation described by Eric Hayot as a “historical lag” that “requires one invariably to be ‘behind the times’”. Edmond questions these assumptions between metropole and margin and proposes that “copying and mimetic desire are not signs of [inferior] derivativeness” on the part of non-Western poets, but are “qualities shared equally by non-Western and Western modernism”. Hence, Edmond counterpoints the well-worn precept for innovation, “Make it new,” against a call for iteration: “Make it the same.” Conceptual commodiousness—plus the clarity of style to express such capaciousness—informs Make It the Same: the book’s theoretical contact nebulae (to remix Karen Laura Thornber’s phrasing) enables Edmond to expand the geographical range of his primary materials, open up analysis to works that include transmedial and translingual features, and critique established accounts of periodisation.

Chapter 1 focuses on Kamau Brathwaite’s contributions as cultural worker and poet; the chapter proposes that Brathwaite’s “iterative practices”—across multiple platforms like radio, archives, performance, and print publications—“can be understood as a search for postcolonial media”. Edmond argues that “Brathwaite’s conception of voice and orality” is constituted by, and helps consolidate “his interest in new media technologies and the poetics of remediation”. He shows that longstanding phenomena and theoretical preoccupations associated with postcolonialism were thought through during Brathwaite’s decades-long engagement with the prospects and limitations of the “phonograph, radio, tape recorder, photocopier, and computer”. Chapter 1 analyses Brathwaite’s work as a “poet, historian, editor, and theorist” ; the chapter focuses on, but does not limit itself to, Brathwaite’s key texts, including The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands); Afternoon of the Status Crow (1982) (which introduced Brathwaite’s concept of tidalectics); and Barabajan Poems (1994) (which features Sycorax video style). Edmond portrays Brathwaite as a writer and cultural worker whose aesthetics of iteration and efforts at decolonisation were developed in conjunction with emerging technology: “phonograph, radio, tape recorder, photocopier, and computer”. For Edmond, technological affordances were crucial in Brathwaite’s writing process: Brathwaite composed Rights of Passage (1967) using a combination of “recording, listening, rewriting, and rerecording”. The orality of Brathwaite’s approach enabled him to explore relationships between Caribbean rhythms and cultural identity: “an iterative poetics that, like dub music, is ‘mutable and modular,’ in which each poem or series of poems can be reworked, rearranged, and remediated”.

Chapter 2 considers the work of Dmitri Prigov from the perspective of samizdat poetics. Samizdat texts typically consist of “small-scale multicopy reproduction[s]” and are “constituted by overlaid iterations of a single text”. Samizdat was a way of circumventing “restricted access to formal means of publication (official publishing houses) and to technologies of reproduction (printing presses and later photocopiers) in the Soviet Union”. Instead, samizdat authors would use typewriters and carbon paper to produce texts. Prigov’s iterative approaches engaged with “the problem of authority in late Soviet and post-Soviet culture and its intertwinement with media authority”. In texts such as Deletion and Growth (1977), Poet’s Draft (1977), and Facsimile Reproduction of Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov’s Self-Made Book “Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin” with Drawings on the Margins of the Work by Alexander Florensky (1998), Prigov used samizdat approaches to address “the larger instability in political authority and media certainties in the late Soviet period”. In addition to theoretical and methodological sharpness, Edmond shows a facility for describing aesthetically challenging materials. His analysis of Dmitri Prigov’s Eighteenth Alphabet: Stone and Circles on Water (1985) involves a clear portrayal of the work’s operations: Prigov “depicts a stone dropped in a pool”, and shows the movement of the stone through the air, hitting—then descending through—the water. The stone’s movement is rendered in “five carbon copies—each with a circle of increasing diameter cut out” which “overlay the original typescript”. The original is seen “only through the smallest hole in the centre”; this clear section is “surrounded by circles of increasingly blurred carbon copies and framed by the nearly illegible fifth copy”. Turning the pages gives the effect of “smudged carbon-copied letters gradually coming into focus”. Edmond’s capacities for historicising and explicating are manifested. His explanations are brisk, substantive, accessible, and theoretically on point—“we might define the samizdat principle as the intersection of mechanical reproduction and cultural repetition with the aesthetics of the singular work of art”.

Chapter 3 focuses on Where the Sea Stands Still, a long poem written by Yang Lian in 1993, published in a bilingual edition in 1995 by John Cayley’s Wellspring Press, and then repurposed in 1997 by Yang Lian and Cayley into a work for HyperCard, HTML, and live performance. For Edmond, Yang Lian’s and Cayley’s works—individually and collaboratively—offer ways to re-examine prevailing views of world literature, such as wave and network theories. For him, the “iterative framework adopts the metaphor of modernist waves but rejects the dichotomy of sameness and difference and static notions of Chinese and Western”. In other words, Edmond proposes that Where the Sea Stands Still “is neither the product of a singular Chinese modernism nor simply the reproduction of a European modernism form”. The long poem and subsequent collaborative work complicates easy, often reifying, ways of characterising how innovation moves from metropole to margin. In Edmond’s account, Where the Sea Stands Still is “about the problems and possibilities of imagining places and cultural positions in terms of waves and interferences and is itself an example of a text produced out of a complex set of iterations, locations, histories, and media”. Where the Sea Stands Still is emblematic of “many intertwining and mutually interfering waves of literary history” that trouble fixed interpretations of modernism’s origins and destinations: Edmond illustrates the “difficulty of pinpointing a text’s—and modernism’s—geographical, cultural, and media location”. Yang Lian’s 1995 text, for Edmond, explores the dividing line between place and placelessness—the poem offers a “dual sense of fixity and movement” and moves from specificity to ever expanding and indeterminate areas. Using iterative strategies, Yang Lian troubles boundaries; even if key words and phrases such as “where” and “the place where” signify location, the incessant repetition of these terms—“cliffs,” “sea,” “waves”—renders indeterminate whatever precise locations, such as “King Street,” “Enmore Road,” and “Cambridge Street,” are established. For Edmond, it is not just the centre that is unstable; the margin to which the centre turns has itself loosened and cannot hold. Edmond proposes that identifying origins and destinations is secondary to problematising about movement, and working through the changes that the itineraries of iteration bring. “For where,” Edmond asks, “is the original site which a work like Where the Sea Stands Still circulates: Beijing, Sydney, London, Hong Kong, or the World Wide Web?”

Regarding Caroline Bergvall, Edmond considers her career within the context of performance writing—a mode of production which was interdisciplinary, yet responded and adapted to neoliberal demands. Chapter 4 traces the emergence and ascent of performance writing using as focal point the numerous projects of Caroline Bergvall, which include “Goan Atom (Doll)” (1999), Flèsh a Couer (2000), and Middling English (2010). Edmond locates performance writing within the intersections of “digital media and the network economy, and in response to neoliberal reforms, including changes in tertiary education, workshop practices, and the cultural industries”, all coalescing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drift (2014) embodies these intersections. Drift draws from a horrifying account in 2011 of 72 people who left Libya for Italy in a small rubber boat. The migrants thereafter “got into difficulty and began to drift,” their “appeals for help going unheeded”. Bergvall recounts the migrants’ story alongside a rewriting of The Seafarer, an Old English poem about exile and hardship at sea. Drift was subsequently produced across multiple media: “as a print book, a film, and a live performance for voice, music, and projected images and text”. Edmond shows ethical dilemmas that inform aesthetic strategies involving iteration. He demonstrates how Bergvall uses affordances from documentary poetics, projective verse, intermediality, among others, to render narratives of maritime atrocities. In the printed version of Drift, Bergvall portrays the condition of hafvilla (being lost at sea, a term originating from the Norse sagas). In one passage, Bergvall removes letters from the word “boat,” until only the letter t remains, which she then replicates over a spread, “producing a page of crosses that resembles a field of graves”. These letters are voiced in her performances as a “series of voiceless alveolar stops, or /t/ sounds”. Be that as it may, Edmond argues that repetition reveals the limits of representation: there is a likelihood that Bergvall amalgamates (when she should exercise caution in doing so) “her playful textual repetitions and her own relatively privileged though no less singular position—as a lesbian, French-Norwegian writer of English” with the migrants’ narratives of tragedy. Put differently, Edmond’s take on Bergvall’s multimedia poetics raises questions of the ethics of rendering atrocities: he interrogates the limits in which the aesthetic resources of poetry (in Bergvall’s case, a “multilingual, multinational, multimedia extravaganza for print, stage, and screen”) can conceivably show “the singularity of each person” and at the same time lay bare the “systemic causes” that endanger that these singularities.

Chapter 5 examines how iterative practices by white US conceptual poets, particularly Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, sought to comment on, and attracted charges of, racism. Edmond analyses controversial works such as Goldsmith’s performance in March 2015 at Brown University, where he read the autopsy of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri on August 2014. Edmond also examines Place’s Gone with the Wind project, which “involved a variety of reproductions of part or all of Margaret Mitchell’s text,” including a retweeting, begun in 2009, of the novel. Edmond shows the interventions of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, a collective of poets who used sampling and remixing to critique Goldsmith and Place; the Mongrel Coalition’s campaigns eventually resulted disruptions of Place’s career: in 2015, she was taken out of the organising committee of the American Writing Programmes (AWP) conference, and the Berkeley Poetry Conference, where she was going to read, was cancelled. Edmond portrays Goldsmith as a prosumer libertarian, a poet whose copy works such as Soliloquy (1997), Day (2003), and Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2013) signalled utopic prospects of post-identity. However, these strategies were considered problematic when viewed from the vantage point of racial tensions in the US—copying was seen as extractive and appropriative, especially when done by white poets for their fellow white poets, as what happened in Goldsmith’s controversial reading of Brown’s autopsy.

By contrast, Edmond considers Place’s work as dystopic; as opposed to the more libertarian tendencies espoused by Goldsmith, Place works from an assumption of entrapment: a poet’s position is always already consigned by race and gender, and the poet is resigned to replicate these asymmetries and unequal relations—as what Place does with her tweets and copy works. She professes self-awareness of the implications of her work and has pointed out that her appropriations, disseminated online, explore a “poetics of radical evil”. In response to Goldsmith’s reading and Place’s copy works, the Mongrel Coalition produced “The Best Conceptual Poem of the Year: Interrupting the Maintenance of White Supremacy” (2015). “Best Conceptual Poem” contained an explanatory manifesto, audio file, and a montage of images. The manifesto announced the coalition’s aims and protocols: “THE DESTRUCTION OF WHITE SUPREMACY AND ITS ‘AESTHETIC QUESTIONS,’” which the coalition sought to do by “ACTIVELY INTERRUPTING THE MAINTENANCE OF WHITE SUPREMACY, BY USING THE OPPRESSOR’S TOOLS TO BURN DOWN THE HOUSE.” The audio file contained remixed samples of laughter from the Goldsmith reading, speeches from the rallies at Ferguson, and an onstage response from Killer Mike immediately after an unfavourable legal decision. “Best Conceptual Poem” also included a montage of images from Makode Alexander Joel Linde’s Painful Cake (2012) and photographs from the protests in the wake of Brown’s shooting. The chapter thus implicates conceptual poetry to long-standing race-related issues and often-repeating protests—as evidenced by the current upheavals in the US sparked by the killing of George Floyd—in the US. For Edmond, iteration-driven conceptual poems are indexes of how US poets struggle with problems of race: iteration can replicate, however deliberately, this impasse, or can show the ways forward.

Edmond’s heuristic for Chapter 6 is “critical translation,” a process which analyses the “interference patterns in the pathways of exchange”; the previous perspective, critical regionalism, emphasised location, whereas Edmond’s critical translation distributes cognition over networks of exchange. Edmond characterises poems that use critical translation as poems that “deploy repetition and translation to undermine the cultural location of tradition and the radical particulars and mot juste of modernism in favour of rewriting, versioning, and exchange”. For Edmond, the radical particularities of language and tradition, on the one hand, and the homogenising capacities of globalisation, on the other, are modes of entrapment. The poets in this chapter employ strategies of rewriting, versioning, transliteration, digital cut and paste, and machine translation in order to explore ways out of this aporia—the “crisis in the conditions of knowledge and authority engendered by the intertwined forces of new technology and globalisation”. The chapter focuses principally on Brandon Som, Jonathan Stalling, and Hsia Yü, among others. Brandon Som’s “Oulipo” which forms part of the collection The Tribute Horse (2014) involves 18 quatrains of Li Bai’s “Quiet Night Thoughts” rendered into English using homophonic translation. Edmond points out that “Oulipo” refers homophonically to “Ou Li Po” (rough translation: “where Li Po”) as well as “Oulipo,” a group of authors who constructed literary works out of rules and constraints. Hence the puns and homonyms signal bidirectionality: on the one hand, the poem gestures to the classical Chinese tradition, on the other hand to the Euro-American tradition. A third possibility, involving the lipogram, is pointed out by Edmond.

The lipogram addressed questions of absence, what is left out; Edmond links these absences to a back story of Som’s grandfather’s migration from China to the US. In Yingelishi (2011), Stalling “appropriates an English phrase book for Chinese speakers,” taking the “characters used to represent English sounds and replacing them with other homophones in Chinese”; afterwards, Stalling translates these new Chinese words into English. In other words, “each phrase in Yingelishi appears first in Chinese, then in English translation, then in a Mandarin pinyin transliteration of the English words, then in the same transliteration of the English using idiosyncratic Chinese characters, and finally in an English translation of this strange Chinese transliteration”. Stalling’s approach raises questions of repetition and translation. By using the phrase book as a source text, Stalling “comments on English as a language of global communication” and critiques the prejudice that “to write or speak in Chinese is merely to repeat, not to understand”. Hsia Yü’s Pink Noise (2007) shows the problems and possibilities of machine translation within the context of a global digital network. Hsia Yü’s first step was to compile phrases in English (and one in French); she then subjected the materials to machine translation. The book itself was printed on acetate sheets, with the English and French parts left-aligned and in black, and the translated counterparts right-aligned and in pink. For Edmond, Pink Noise demonstrates how on the one hand machine translation results in failures of cognition and perception. On the other hand, Pink Noise shows how automatic estrangement opens up possibilities for defamiliarisation and for laying bare the dynamics of global digital networks, confluences and asymmetries between global languages, and the problems and prospects of machine translation.

Despite the impressive archival work, historical grounding, and lucid analysis, one notable shortcoming is the limited explanation that distinguishes Make It the Same’s key concept from other terms that were, and possibly still are, valid and usable. Although Edmond situates copying vis-a-vis longstanding notions such as “mimicry, creolisation, hybridity, echo, or repetition”, there is hardly any discussion of possibly similar terms and gestures such as pastiche, intertextuality, appropriation, and adaptation, as well as extreme gestures like plagiarism and forgery. Theoretical terms are not just heuristics that enable understanding of the formal capacities of texts; they can also be indexes of specific historical contexts and political commitments. By “crossing the fault lines of stylistic, cultural, and political commitments” in order to “reveal the common cultural logic underlying … seemingly contrasting practices”, Edmond risks making “iterative poetics” the master term that explains too neatly a diverse set of literary practices emerging from, and responding to, specific historical conjunctures.

To look at one example, Edmond locates Brathwaite’s efforts within the contested space of Caribbean neocolonialism: Brathwaite was “aware that he had equally to contend with radio as a figure for authoritarianism, for the imperial domination… of the London-based BBC”, when he was working out aesthetic solutions to postcolonial problems. Brathwaite’s gesture seems to be more than just technology-based iteration and dissemination. The menace of mimicry appears to haunt these efforts at seizing cultural sovereignty, a menace Edmond himself recognises: he cites in an endnote British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s observation that Brathwaite was “rude / an rootsy / an subversive”. By smoothing out fault lines and subsuming the plenitude of gestures and historical moments under “the global master trope” of the copy, Edmond risks downplaying, say, the rudeness of Brathwaithe’s postcolonial subversions, or the brash and abrasive tactics that undergird the Mongrel Coalition’s assaults on white conceptual poets.

Be that as it may, Make It the Same is a book that draws from and responds to concerns and conflicts in the contemporary global moment. It participates in—and will initiate—conversations regarding poetry and its intersections with world literature, race and ethnic studies, translation studies, and media studies. Make It the Same resonates with recent publications such as Rebecca Walkowitz’s Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (2015), Diana Roig-Sanz and Reine Meylaerts’s edited volume Literary Translation Mediators in ‘Peripheral’ Cultures: Customs Officers or Smugglers? (2018), Warwick Research Collective’s Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (2015), and special issue on poetry and race, edited by Jahan Ramazani, in New Literary History (2019). Edmond reorients the discussion of poetry to new directions: towards poetry’s intersections with print, digital, and performance technologies; towards geographical spaces such as Taipei; and towards the view that poetry should not just be innovative but also iterative. In Edmond’s persuasive and dense analysis, 20th and 21st century global poetry has continually been making itself legible, audible, and visible, though not without controversy and interferences, to a wide range of audiences, readers, and social contexts. If in the 20th century, poetry’s primary hubs were New York and Paris via “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London,” then in our time poetry can be rerouted through Beijing, Sydney, Kingston, Moscow, Taipei, and, where I’m writing this during the pandemic, Manila. For Edmond, the aesthetics of the copy accounts for the copiousness of contemporary poetry.


author photo Vincenz Serrano

Vincenz Serrano finished his PhD at the University of Manchester (UK) and is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of English in Ateneo de Manila University (Philippines). His article on the baroque historiography of the Filipino novelist Nick Joaquin was published in UNITAS (2018). His poetry books are The Collapse of What Separates Us (2010) and When a map is folded cities come closer, when clothes are unpacked cities fall apart (2016). He is the editor-in-chief of Kritika Kultura.


3 thoughts on “[REVIEW] “Iteration’s Itineraries: A Review of Jacob Edmond’s Make It the Same” by Vincenz Serrano

  1. Pingback: Make It the Same reviewed in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal – Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media

  2. Pingback: proof of life | Short Walks

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