QUEENZENGLISH.MP3, a poetry | philosophy | performativity anthology edited by Kyoo Lee, reviewed by Ben Tripp

Most publishers now are more risk-averse than ever. And this while also, globally, we are led to believe that English still reigns somehow more or less undisputed as the one language that; as Kyoo Lee writes, “everyone comes to inhabit … [everyone] gets enmeshed Englishly, how, when, and where does it grow?” The answers presented here in the new anthology Queenzenglish.mp3: poetry | philosophy | performativity—published by Roof Books in December of last year and edited by Lee—come largely in the form of many possible alternative poetics. They come not only in typical verse forms, but often appear as short essay-like prose compositions as well, sometimes with images in accompaniment … by over fifty various living authors, scholars and artists. The book encompasses an unusual diversity of not only languages and their derivatives but also real lived histories, presences, protests, litanies, confessions; or, as Lee best and most simply dubs it entirely: “polyphonic futurities.” It is a collection embracing risk by way of its experimental framing and contrapuntal mentality overall, its non-transparency … flaunting the ostensible lack of expected being “about” something usual; it is more self-reflective. It looks at the process or, even, ideology, if you like, of contemporary English-ing itself. The anthologist confirms in the introduction, how it may sometimes appear mercilessly opaque, but it is always a devotedly collaborative workshopping against and through a certain way of looking at the world: “… the self-colonializing idea that knowledge and success are premised on the mastery of the English language, a bio-politicized notion that confines learning environments, where anglogocentrism often remains powerfully literal ….” Lee adds, “The systems that instill this ideology tend to set conformity as a prerequisite for inclusion.”

The poems may finally begin to take on a life of their own, manifesting themselves beyond the traditional confines of so-called “self-expression” or further yet “proper English” à la the Queen’s. This bold exploration of many possible millennial post-Englishes—including many already existing mongrelized English sub-genres, like the doggerel of legislation, state acts, rules, amendments and state-enforced manuals/guidebooks—brings to mind Hito Steyerl’s discussions of “International Art English” in her 2017 book Duty Free Art. Echoing Lee’s statement in the introduction to Queenzenglish.mp3; it would also appear that success in the newly globalized art world is predicated on a mastery, or surrender, if you will, of/to the English language. An artist who can’t speak English might as well not even bother, never mind where on the globe you stand. “International Art English” is a kind of lowest common denominator language used for artist statements, press releases amid international art fairs and other unpaid gallery internships activities: “[it is] a skewed English full of grandiose and empty jargon often carelessly ripped from mistranslations of continental philosophy. This was shown by statistically comparing press releases against the British national Corpus, a database of British English usage.”

The poem “Education Acts” here by poet erica kaufman reorganizes the language of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, and subsequently also, former California Senator S.I. Hayakawa’s 1982 speech aiming to reverse it; Hayakawa in effect wanted to help cement English as the official language of the United States. kaufman’s poem may actually effect a certain deconstruction of the masters’ house using the masters tools:

meaningful disaggregated retractions promenade
towards punctuation and other inappropriate shifts
in proficiency across a rash of umpires likewise
privy to ignition prophecy mattress clashes

scaffold comprehension across rascal policy
rapture of ultimatum and discourse and idyll play
in thematic armor across composite reform
matters idioms articulate matter rank in referral

It embodies one of the goals of this poetry collection, along the lines of Steyerl’s “uprising of images” for English to go beyond its being a mechanism of oppression, war, policing and conformity overall, against the idea of hypocritical, draconian standards that perpetuate a false value, often in realms of knowledge such as standardized education. Steyerl speaks of a possible emancipatory moment when the tools of oppression would almost seem to become self-aware and overthrow their rulers: “Screens turn into dead objects … iPhones and target telescopes turn into dead rocks.” Likewise, with this anthology there arises a new notion of the image of the poem itself also gaining some kind of new autonomy of its own, perhaps a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation: the legion of broomsticks rising up, refusing to do the dirty work any longer … growing beyond utility.

Jonathan P. Eburne delves into the top-down hierarchical class dynamics of English, recounting some of his personal experiences in his home-place of literal England, where mythical promises of upward social mobility would seem to go hand-in-hand with getting away from “… the innits and oys, the long oily vowels of the shopkeepers …” It is often a sharp turn to get to the Queen’s English: a place advertised as some sort of mythical linguistic promised land, transformative. If you don’t speak English properly, you are a weed in society, to be pulled out by the roots. But the reality of the British upper class is something else, as critic Marjorie Perloff aptly deconstructs the edifice of the royalty as it appears to be depicted in popular mainstream media. It is actually more of a foundering institution, built on seriously shaky ground, and populated with essentially inbred, ignorant cretins, this is according to Netflix. Reflecting on her experience of watching the TV series The Crown, which chronicles the goings-on of Queen Elizabeth II and her cohorts circa the 1950s and 60s, Perloff expounds on how the royals, from whom the Queen’s English is supposed to come from, are in fact illiterate, politically naive, and can’t even do math: “Its speakers are mostly dull, unintellectual, snobbish, racist, sexist, homophobic—you name it. They are presented as a nasty lot of spoiled, self-centered children …” Oddly, in 2021 many Americans still tune in to consume a flurry of other media/articles concerning this or that royal activity, marriages or divorces or other social blunders of some kind, jubilees, etcetera; but then also there is the alternate version of royalty, homegrown via our own reality TV stars. The banality of everyday family life somehow gets put on a pedestal in any case. Perloff further surmises regarding The Crown how “the elegant and ‘correct’ language of the royals turns out to be mere form, learned, like the bow and curtsey, in early childhood from one’s elders.” The Crown may be evidence of a certain timeless ongoing celebrity-obsessed anglophone culture, and how that informs more classical kinds of feudalism. Truly abandoning monarchial thinking probably requires multilingualism.

Perloff makes two more observations: one, that the TV show is, in addition to be “richly detailed and researched” also actually rather “ambivalent” towards the royals, or even “not unsympathetic” towards them overall, considering perhaps the amount of pathos on display on behalf of the characters; such that we might feel we can relate, even though we’re most likely nowhere near royal ourselves. Perloff further notes how dissimilar the formal language used in The Crown is when compared to the purportedly “realistic” speech of other well-known shows like The Wire or, as Perloff generally calls them, any other “up-to-date crime serials” which of course also traffic in a certain ambivalence in regards to their subject matter, but with police instead of royals. Another poet in Queenzenglish.mp3 has a more autobiographical essay about how they had a different experience of contemporary policing, first-hand, in real life, based on a true story, prescient, or dare we say topical? But it is more philosophical than that … Dina Al-Kassim in their entry called “tell me everything” recounts an experience of being arrested at a presumably non-violent protest somewhere “… in this northern epicentre of global finance, land banking, and scorched earth gentrification …” while Al-Kassim’s arrester, named “Nadia” as the obligatory name-tag denotes; this cop also turns out to be Persian, or at least Al-Kassim has gathered as much by this point after seeing from the officers’ accoutrements that this officer actually has an Arab name. Then the officer, feigning a kind of unusual politeness, perhaps, given the situation; as the officer puts the ‘cuffs on, does confirm the author’s supposition, and furthermore indulges the author in a little chit chat about Arab and Farsi at large. It turns out the cop doesn’t actually speak Farsi or Arab, they say, after adding also the highly patronizing commenting that “[Al-Kassim]’s family must be really proud of [them]” for protesting. English is just lot more convenient, it would seem. The denouement of this experience, and the core experiment of the piece, is, as Al-Kassim concludes, the realization of the fact that “Our mutual exposure as neither lawless criminals nor lawful enforcers tightened the bonds between us in that theatre of phonies and fakes where no one spoke the queen’s English.” Major media platforms like Netflix, are in English, and the three most-watched script shows in 2019-20 were all CBS crime serials, often in which the cop protagonists save the day by breaking the rules. This is a hagiography of policing similar to the ambivalent hagiography of the royals, or likewise with whatever new shows are always appearing with FBI agents as main characters, or doctor shows that put a movie star’s face on the bureaucratic disfunction of our healthcare system or lack thereof. Interestingly, 2020 saw among other things major television networks recanting of numerous cop shows after the George Floyd protests. So then it may only be a matter of time before any/all kinds of these not-unsympathetic-ness and ambivalence become unacceptable. Not only did the eponymous Reality TV shows Cops get cancelled, and then also Live PD, but by the Fall of 2020, the Washington Post reported that the group 21CP Solutions, a police reform organization normally tasked with remaking actual police departments in real life, was beginning to work under contract with a number of big TV providers to help them remake their cop shows in accordance with the public outcry. This could be considered a mea culpa issued by companies like Netflix, they may have realized the destructive influence they can have.

James Sherry writes elsewhere in the collection how “Individuals do not thrive alone,” perhaps like the English language itself; which might newly be understood in this context as merely one equal player in a larger team of language activity meant ultimately to just make meaning however possible and as much as possible to try and bring about a more just society for all. English is conglomerate, not a monolith. English arises from the ongoing historical combination of many other languages, it is more like a melting pot, as Kit Robinson also writes; giving us the ingredients that brought us English, which are of course on the one hand Latin and Greek, while in fact “The romance strain of English is a relatively recent phenomenon.” And even more recently, it would appear that Mandarin or Cantonese has become for many the preferred lingua franca of global commerce, but really it’s anyone’s guess. No matter what your prediction or political disposition, Robinson makes clear, no matter where you look you’re likely to find at least some English anywhere in the world: “… the writing is on the wall” as Robinson offers, however “… it doesn’t sound like the Queen’s English.”

The New York City borough of Queens may also serve as the perfect model for a kind of diversity and inclusion. In this way in Queenzenglish.mp3 we see the specter of older so-called New York School poetics rising up again to haunt this new collection, with the poetry of the place names from the city appearing: Roosevelt Avenue, Northern Boulevard … some of the most long-lasting English to be found in the borough. Queens is believed to be statistically the most diverse borough in New York, so naturally the diversity of ethnicity encompasses a diversity of languages, and yet another difference is that in Queens unlike Brooklyn there are many more dashes in the addresses, as they are in Steven Alvaarez’s piece also, a simultaneist poem that might well serve as state/borough prayer of the county:

lujosos—eyes from buildings—
chances of today’s rain—
sea breeze Queens unheld—mark it—uncold
telo rígido ahuecando
su bombear—correct—de los ojos—

Like residents in the borough of Queens, we are all in a simultaneity, an ongoing diversity, temporal; if one would record all the languages other than English that may be heard on one busy street corner for a certain amount of time, it would be a worthy poem here. Lee Ann Brown, also, perhaps thinking of the old World’s Fair, secularly christens Queens as “[the] World Borough” in her poem: it is a place consisting mainly of “… bodies of language in connection same-soundishly imagining what it is we might be saying.” So there never was any such thing as undivided attention, as poets find themselves existing in a new attention economy competing against media like Netflix, which may remain distracting. There also never was any such thing as pure English, no control or constant that we may measure our variable existences against.

Queenzenglish.mp3: poetry | philosophy | performativity, edited by Kyoo Lee. New York, New York: Roof Books, December 2020. 176 pages. $20.00, paper.

Ben Tripp’s writing appears in Eratio, Full-Stop, Hyperallergic, BOMB, and Brooklyn Rail. He also blogs at benjamintripp.wordpress.com.

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