Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Kevin Thurston's latest project KEVIN IS RUNNING LATE TODAY BUT WILL BE IN is — as Lame House Press editor Gina Myers has noted — a project which fiercely resists the usual genre-based categories. It's hard to pin down precisely what the project is. Poetry. Performance. Dramatic comedic dialog. Sound assemblage. And it is precisely the location of this project in the spaces between genre which make it so compelling. What we do know for certain is that the project concerns itself with work, but even reducing the content or central theme of the project to work is to read it narrowly, to frame and fetter the project.

Perhaps a description of the project will do. The work is a writable CD-R, the title of the project scrawled across the face of the CD in what one can only hope is a permanent black Sharpie marker. This audio CD, which contains 26 tracks, is held in a DVD case. Printed on the white jaycard, which appears to be nothing more than inexpensive photocopy stock purchased at Staples or Office Depot, is the title of the project in black and, behind this title, the word "PAYCHEX" in blue. The color scheme alone suggests a nasty a shiner. And just as the project resists genre, all things concerning the materiality of the project — the packaging of the thing, the way it appears in the hand — are generic. The visual tone is flat, bland, unremarked. In fact, no imprint for a press appears on the jaycard, nor does any contact info for a press or the artist.

Bits of what appear to be interoffice phone dialogue between Kevin (Thurston or character) and Randy (a manager to whom Kevin appears to be subordinate within the space of an office) are stitched together with word and phrase clusters, the familiar language of middle management defamilairized and delivered in a somewhat fractured manner — cold starts, abrupt stops, incomplete or split words:
include proactive and reactive events previously listed. changes and revisions. all changes must be marked. and if necessary revisions must be designed to meet the work requirements. purpose. primary. to reflect activities and. mandatory that sufficient work. accomplish the required. and do so in an orderly productive and friendly manner. location. to be inside. at a known location easily viewed by. organization. readable. understandable. and color-coded. so as to avoid confusion. and misunderstandings. responsibility. the responsible. planning revising and maintaining.
There is something of Beckett's Watt in the cold precision of the language, but also in the way the language has been arranged and performed to work against itself. The materiality of the spoken language, like that of the project's packaging, is flat and generic, uncompromising and inflexible. And the collage-like juxtaposition of such pieces, most of which run between 10 to 50 seconds, against the casual and often lewd phone conversations underscores not only the inflexibility of this language, but also the uncritical acceptance of it by those subordinated to it.

University presses continue to bring out studies of what is often framed as a working class poetry or, more modestly, poetries concerned with work. Figures like Philip Levine — however fine a poet he might be — continue to loom large for critics and readers unable to let go of an idea of work which not only, at one and the same time, valorizes and condemns industrial labor, but refuses to let it go in the wake of its flight, in the moment after downsizing, outsourcing and deindustrialization. Poets like Mark Nowak have responded powerfully to deindustrialization, synthesizing ethnographic and documentary approaches in their work. Thurston's project appears to pick up where Nowak's left off, grappling at the intersection of the sociological and aesthetic with the culture of lower and middle level management, with niche markets, marketing strategies, with the isolation and madness of an office filled with middle-aged first-generation college graduates and/or dropouts grinding through the week and lusting for the weekend.

And here it's worth pointing out that both Nowak and Thurston are Buffalo-bred poets, both with shared roots in the city the Federal Census Bureau cited as the second poorest large city in America.