“I call for actors burning at the stakes, laughing at the flames.” – Antonin Artaud
Burn Book by Felix Bernstein is performative; the works in the collection act. Private thought, critique, and personal narrative reside within a hyper-fabricated structure that results in a drama felt burn by burn. Antonin Artaud once defined poetry as “a dissociating and anarchic force which through analogy, associations and imagery, thrives on the destruction of known relationships”. Burn Book comprises a series of burns that situate themselves in a realm of delighted destruction. More subtly, burning represents an intensity, an all consuming force that both brightens and annihilates. As much as Bernstein symbolically burns others, each with a dedicated section in the book, he also burns representations of himself, memory, representations of art and poetry, and representations of success.
In a series of poems titled “Make Your Own Gay Poem”, Bernstein calls out this influence in a rambling manner, imitating the critique he passes on and equally takes part:
We reference the celebrity, we parody the fact that all we can do is reference the celebrity, yet we remain trapped only being able to reference the celebrity because we think we are celebrities because we are so close to the cultural capital of fame that Facebook provides us and we know we don’t have to do work to attain it…
This critique is similarly advanced in his libretto, performed at the Whitney Museum in January of this year and titled Justin Bieber Bathos Elegy. In many ways Bieber perfectly embodies the social media-to-stardom version of the neoliberal dream, where with enough raw talent and careful marketing, you too could be selling out large arenas and designing your own brand at VFILES.
When considering celebrity and the art world, a strong social media presence becomes a way of achieving a level of cool and virality that influences tastemakers and opens institutional doors. Poets like Steve Roggenbuck fall into this category. Roggenbuck’s inclusion in the 2015 New Museum Triennial illustrates how performative poets with a large internet fan base are plucked from relative obscurity by institutions to handhold art lovers through the viewing of often cold, insider commercial art. Craft with depth is exchanged for extreme emotional performances and a high follower count.
Bernstein’s work makes clear that internet, social media, and celebrity obsession often combine and transform into unimpressive hysterics. Which is not to say that Bernstein does not also employ hysterics; Bernstein’s hysteria is not uncontrolled or authentic, but a fabricated tool meant to extend his critique through poetry. Bernstein’s hysteria is a constrained, dramatic interpretation of the poet in creative desperation.
so we are spoiled in a the sense of ruined as artists and realize that this state of being ‘spoiled’ by the culture can be evoked to seem as though it were an avant-garde gesture if we make occasional nods to the dandy’s of the past (Baudelaire, Wilde, O’Hara…we will even nod to the one’s who did this same gesture when it was already worn thin in the ‘80s) whose use of artifice and celebrityism was transgressive and inventive in that it was against the norms but in our case it is the norm…
Poetry as a valueless art form is not a novel concept, and has been rehashed as the art world continues to influence poetry in an exchange that is not necessarily mutually beneficial. Poets continue to buy into celebrityism where popularity is a currency used for access to a larger audience. Bernstein illustrates this tension most evidently by showcasing overzealous antics and the like while fully embracing the performative aspects of his craft.
Bernstein continues a poetic critique of the impact of celebrityism on creative work, and details the demanding charade of classed social negotiations that define much of what it means to be a successful artist. It is the duty of the individual to participate in a community where everyone is ultimately a fan and identity is formed on the basis of relationships to people, products, and institutions. To exist outside the hivemind would be both isolating and unpopular, but more personally and creatively satisfying. The libretto, poems and conversations in Burn Book reside enough outside of trend to challenge instead of celebrate the cultural moment in which poets find themselves.
Can’t I just stay in my room and jerk off, alone, without turning that into some sort of redemptive subcultural status. Please?
He refrains from referencing social media as an addiction, a bad habit, a sign of the times, or as a medium in which to work. These insights are personalized, but with purpose. Cory Archangel’s Working On My Novel and Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez’s Selected Tweets are prime examples of acclaimed collections built on personal narrative that rely on social media for their structure; Twitter becomes a vehicle to examine communication and identity, but these works swap a nuanced poetic architecture for an architectonics held up by commercial platforms.
Use of conversation throughout the collection cleverly thematizes communication and identity without overtly relying on the digital. Conversation with SEG reads like a critique of Burn Book itself, with FB volleying with SEG about which poems to edit, and “how long to cook” the collection. Context is notably missing from the conversations. In the Kathy Acker/McKenzie Wark email correspondence I Am Very Into You, where context is ample, we know when the conversations took place and with whom. These exchanges turn a private correspondence public. Conversation with SEG and Conversation with EI could’ve been text screenshots, chat or email logs, but Berenstein offers us something more artistically pure. The reader does not have insight into how or when the conversations took place. They could have happened in person, over the phone, or they could be fictionalized and never have happened at all.
FB: Perhaps, I could have you add corrections to Poem 4 that I would publish with it? It’s too long and I left it that way because it reveals gaps and fissures and problems in my timing that might be left vulnerable to some humorous and interesting critiques.
SEG: No. I don’t want to get involved with collaborating with you at that level.
FB: What do you mean at that level?
SEG: I’m already in the work enough, and that would overdetermine things too much.
FB: I see what you’re saying. In a way the craft I am purusing here is how little or how much to overdetermine things. How long to cook it, you know? And I think that…
SEG: Perhaps…this would work. If you changed my name. My name already overdetermines the text. But how bout you just write me yourself or abstract me in a humorous way? You’re so good at that.
When not offering critique in verse or conversation, personal, private thoughts make up much of the collection, and in its softer moments it reads like a private journal, or diary . Emma is the first burn in the collection and opens with a poem by Bernstein’s sister Emma Bee Bernstein who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 23. In a poem from the section titled EBB, Bernstein is in dialogue with her ghost. Once again critiquing his work from within the text, Bernstein calls “communicating with the dead” both “creepy” and “corny,” but the effect of the poem is quite the opposite: the bond between the two feels like “two sides of the same brain”. The poem cradles a relentless longing for an intellectual other half.
By the way, this was all just an
Obstacle course to find my dead sister
I win. Do you?
Memories surface from childhood to the present. In Miss Stone, Bernstein provides a tour de childhood of sorts, starting with pre-school in Room 102, and moving through elementary school where Bernstein gets to dance and twirl with children’s author Paula Danziger, “the first fag hag” he meets.
Baby lust concealed by
Central Park shrubbery
Look we’re casting a shadow on grandpa’s grave
His own Axe deodorant
Makes him horny for
Institutional boy culture
When measured up against Artaud’s vision of poetry, Burn Book is an anarchic force. The conversation around poetry and its relation to the visual and performing arts, has continued for some time. Each discussion comes to the same conclusion: none of the work is new. Poetry, no matter the influence of art or technology, is still a literary genre in and of itself. Nothing can truly excuse the poet of the merits of the poem, no matter how “new” the work may seem as it integrates with other art forms.
A melting pot of form is found in Bernstein’s work – none of it new . But what is new is Bernstein’s voice, skill, and intellect; his ability to choose subjects, and coherently combine forms into a collection with themes of childhood, New York City, life and death, un-heterosexuality, family psychodrama: tangled up, fanciful, and moving.
In her essay “Let’s Take a Very Fucking Poetry Lesson: Art’s Crush on Poetry “, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal writes, “someone needs to teach the art world a lesson about poetry”. I would extend her argument by suggesting that the lesson be taught by a poet who understands the transdisciplinary nature of poetry. Burn Book is ultimately an extraordinary collection, a balancing act of critique and poetic gesture that provides that lesson.
**You can purchase Burn Book from Nightboat books Here.
Kalliopi Mathios is a librarian and writer living in Queens, NY.