Mike Kelleher
Placeless Intro

How I Came to Inhabit the City I Never Built

The idea for this gathering came from three places:  a conversation with Robert Creeley, an e-mail correspondence with Scott Pound, and a thread on the poetics list.

When I showed him a poem of mine called Atopia, Creeley asked two questions: what does "atopia" mean? and what does placelessness have to do with your life? The word "atopia" is derived from two greek words: 'topos", meaning "place," and "a," meaning "lacking" or "without."  Thus my translation of atopia as "placelessness."  I have since found out that the greek term "atopos" in common usage actually meant (and still means) "out of place or unnatural." In other words, "weird."As to its relevance to my life, well, suffice to say I find the question "Where are you from?" vexing, to say the least.

I then found out that Scott Pound had given a presentation a few years back entitled, "Atopian Poetic: Forms of Community in Robin Blaser's Image-Nations." I asked him to send it to me and thus began a correspondence between us concerning atopia, placelessness and poetics. In the Blaser essay, Scott defines atopian space as  "the non-space of non-symmetrical reciprocity that exists between language and the real where the two orders participate in one another in the formation of poetry, community and cosmos." Elsewhere he calls it a "poesis of found space."

I'll come back to this in a moment.

The third source of the idea came from a discussion thread on the poetics list regarding the experience of receiving and reading web-based poetry journals. Having just begun to publish one, I was curious to know how web-based poety was received by the members of the poetics list.  What I found was that it was still a somewhat divisive and contentious issue for many who, despite the amount of time they spend reading and posting opinions to an electronic discussion forum,  seemed uncertain about the status of web-published poetry as opposed to print. One person claimed that poets should hate technology and another said that the lack of phyical presence, of a body and a voice behind the words, lessened the power of the word with a capital W. The other side of the debate, which I encountered within various books I was reading on the topic, had that faintly moldy whiff of utopianism in its claims for a form of "pure" democracy they thought the web represented. 

Which brings me back to Scott.

How I Came to Build the City I Never Inhabited

The literal translation of "utopia" is "no place."

In other words, place without presence.

What interests me most about Scott's notion of atopian poeisis, that which resembles most my own notions, is his careful effort to disentangle a atopian discourse from the often impossible claims of utopian discourses. Of Blaser's "Image Nations" poems, Scott writes that they are "atopian resistances to the idealized strategies of utopian discourse, and responses to the challenge of writing community in something of the form of its occurrence," a "series of events with a certain duration, pitch and movement."  Thus the placelessness of the poem is the state in which idealized discourse is discarded in favor of an active practice within what Barthes calls "a relation without a site."

In other words, presence without place.

My sense of atopian space stems from my experience on the web. The web serves, I believe, as the model par excellence of atopian space. It is a placeless locus of textual interaction whose principle feature, as opposed to, say, the physical presence of a book, or the sensual sonics of the spoken word, is movement. The experience of text on the web, though often professing to have modeled itself on real space, as in virtual cities, chat rooms, internet cafes, strip joints, doctorÝs offices or information desks, has as its principle dynamic that of movement as opposed to stasis, properties more closely related to time in the abstract than to physical space in the concrete.

What determines the experience of the text in cyberspace, whatever its "real-world" model, is the speed at which it is presented. Thus the experience of a chat room is characterized by the attempt to keep up with a text scrolling down the screen before the words of the interlocuter disappear into visual silence, whereas the experience of reading postings off a listserv is slower, more apposite of real time.  What characterizes both is a certain urgency to move forward to the next link or the next thread in the discussion, to respond quickly to what one is experiencing in the present. This movement has the dual effect of stimulating emotion and thought through active participation in the production of textual space, while simultaneously discouraging the slow, meditative perspicacity usually (and often correctly) associated with critical thought. It is not idealized democracy, but a democracy of human beings who, though not physically present in virtual space, nonetheless eat, drink, shit and say mean things to each other in real space.

The link to poetics is that the experience of the poem in the space of reading or writing, the "space of poeisis," is also the space of movement. To quote Kant on the sublime, it is as "the movement of the mind bound up with the judging of the object," be that object language itself, the romantic other, or the ever-so-placeless site of the self. The poem finds a place for itself in the world, real or imagined. It is not a place to be inhabited nor, to paraphrase Mark Doty, an imaginary Eden, "properly broken and marred," nor a vision of how the world could be if only human beings weren't in it. It is neither life itself nor a model for how to live it. It is the place in which words, through a certain innocence of movement, sometimes pass beyond the imaginary bounds of the place in which one lives, or hopes to.