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The poet who read Michael Brown’s autopsy report


A couple of weeks ago, Kenneth Goldsmith, walked up to a lectern at Brown University and read the autopsy report of Michael Brown. Brown was the black young man who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri last year. The event was…a poetry reading.

Kenneth Goldsmith is as public a figure as poets get these days: for a poet, he’s a big deal. A controversy erupted immediately online. Critics attacked for him for what they called the racist exploitation of a black man’s dead body for conceptual poetics. Dasha Lisitsina reports the controversy turns on whether words really do matter or whether they’re just 1s and 0s on the internet.


GOLDSMITH: Once Duchamp upturned a urinal and put it on a pedestal, then we were given permission to say anything is art if I say so. And I can see the world as being entirely an artistic project if I say so.

Goldsmith is talking about the moment in 1913 when French artist Marcel DuChamp allegedly exhibited a signed urinal at the prestigious Armory Show in New York. That was the birth of modernist conceptual appropriation as we know it.

That’s not Goldsmith because he publicly requested that Brown University not make a recording of his reading public. This is not the first time he’s courted controversy. After 9/11 he published a poem called American Deaths and Tragedies that weaves together text of what was broadcast on the airwaves during seven American tragedies including the assassination of JFK and 9/11.

Goldsmith says all he does is takes pre-existing texts and re-casts them as poetry. Once he read traffic reports to an audience at the White House. But with the Brown reading, some of his critics think he went to far.

KEMBREW:  I think the poet was rightly criticized.

That’s Kembrew McLeod, a professor of Communications Studies at Iowa. He’s written books on intellectual property and plagiarism as a creative practice. He’s also a multimedia collage artist who practices appropriation himself. But he thinks when Goldsmith engaged in this particular piece of cultural appropriation he was oblivious to the sensitivities it touched.

KEMBREW: There is a very important ethical dimension that really needs to be discussed when you have white people appropriating the music and art of either African Americans or in this particular case a very tragic circumstance surrounding the death of an African American at the hands of a police officer.

Last week the New Yorker published apiece he wrote on the subject. Appropriation or plagiarism as a creative practice is the idea behind Goldsmith’s version of what’s known as post-internet poetry. One of the things that unites the poets he touts in the piece is their use of crime narratives. One, Vanessa Place, took court transcripts sex offenders testimony and published excerpts as poetry. Zultanski says he found criminal confessions on the internet and incorporated them into his latest book-length poem Bribery.

ZULTANSKI: It’s not really about crime being an interesting material in and of itself. It’s more about an experience of guilt that comes with living complicitly with the world that we’re in.

Goldsmith says the internet has shown us that’s already too much text in the world.

GOLDSMITH: It’s the way in which we reframe and recast these pre-existing texts that give them a new meaning.

Kembrew McLeod says the internet has changed the nature of appropriation.

KEMBREW:  Before appropriation techniques were limited to a very small select avant-garde, and now it’s very much mainstream. And I think these poets are responding to the fact that cut and paste culture is part of everyday everybody’s culture.

In other words, the intellectuals who first practiced written appropriation are trying to claim it back as their own.

Dasha Lisitsina, Columbia Radio News.


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