Poetry Against Neoliberal Capitalism in Ali Alizadeh and Melinda Bufton

By | 1 October 2020

Interestingly, though, much of Towards the End circles around the figure of the poet as the receptacle for systemic pressures. In ‘Alphabet City’ the encounter between writing and capitalism plays out in the gentrification of a Melbourne suburb and its impact on the poet’s sense of place and self. The speaker identifies a ‘force’ that destroyed buildings during his Iranian childhood which he then maps as the same process bulldozing buildings in Northcote. Alizadeh names this force ‘M–C–M’, Marx’s conceptualisation of capital circulation (Marx 146) where the C commodity is either ‘oil/war’ or ‘land/property’ (Alizadeh 14). In both examples the process generates ‘Money (more of it/profit)’ (14) while displacing people associated with the respective commodity. This force from his childhood comes into direct contact with the poet again when it began tearing down buildings tied to the poet’s identity:

the Northcote café (you remember) called
Alphabet City
                  you stupid fuckin’ poet, found it so poetic
that name, & hid in its backyard (Coke, coffee, Pete Stuyvees
Reds, when you could afford’em) & re/connected with
something
                  like personal ontology
after nights of despair, dirty booze & doubt (15)

In these places the poet combated despair, self-doubt, and feelings of being ‘useless, penniless, unloved’ (15). Now, though, much more powerful forces (capitalism, property development, gentrification) have further destabilised the poet’s sense of self and connection to the written word as similarly powerful. The poem ends on a self-reflexive question:

                                                now
                                    that the sites of your youth have been
                        ‘developed’
                                                into dumpsters for oligarchs’
                        excess wealth, what
becomes of you? Still
                                    call yourself a poet
brother? Can you
            (really)            with just an alphabet and no
city? (16)

In a way, the poet becomes a stand-in for displaced people, people who have been victimised by the ever-growing forces of capitalism and greed. His self-questioning about his role as poet reflects a phenomenon of late modernity where an increase in levels of economic and social insecurity have ‘prevent[ed] individuals from investing their identities in any one specific site, particularly a job or a profession’ (Budgeon 280). This is further exacerbated in creative industries which require a particular kind of person: ‘flexible, networked, adaptable and entrepreneurial’ (Conor, Gill and Taylor 11). All of these practical concerns are then tied up in the literal and metaphorical poetry of the encounter between language, represented as the conduit poet, and money. The poet compares the weight of words against capital and finds himself lacking.

While the power of language seems quite individual and personal in the image of the poet, Alizadeh’s poem ‘The Academy’ confronts the institution of literary academia and the particular performativity of intelligence and political engagement. Immediately the university is labelled ‘a farce’, followed by punning in the ‘instant / -ly undrinkable coffee’ that establishes the speaker’s sarcastic disdain (Alizadeh 11). Depicting the university as a meeting summarises the institution as a business and acknowledges contemporary conceptions of academic capitalism which, through corporatisation and privatisation, has reframed the study of people and culture in economic terms (Gill and Donaghue 92). While the academics pontificate with exclusionary language like ‘Dreary métier’ and ‘jouissance’, even the students are caught out as ‘bamboozled brats’ who ‘feign intelligence / or its appearance’ to complete the performance (11). In this poem, Alizadeh draws two clear dichotomies through the performance of academia. First, Alizadeh addresses the irony of self-identifying as a proletariat ‘behind a ‘professor’ nametag’, asserting a distinction between the elite professional class at the university and the working class who are excluded from the same classrooms (11). Then he creates another division along lines of artistic authenticity in the poem’s close:

I think I’ll become
a hologram, my heart to dispense
blood inside a hollow machine

pure, job-satisfied. (11)

The speaker identifies the distinction between himself and his colleagues as the difference between flesh and metal when he juxtaposes the heart and blood associated with life, humanity, and passion against the image of a hologram, a hollow machine which lacks the literal and metaphorical heart of the writer. This juxtaposition compares the concept of a body without a heart to words without meaning and teaching without care. In this line of argument, Alizadeh echoes a complicated conversation amongst writers and other artists about the value of their work. Bridget Conor, Rosalind Gill, and Stephanie Taylor identify the artist who is driven by passion or the ‘Do What You Love (DWYL)’ mentality as a powerful and damaging stereotype in the creative industries that leads to the undervaluation of artists and their labour (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2). The DWYL artist feeds into the perception of creative work as positive, special, flexible, and self-fulfilling while sidelining consideration of the demanding high workloads and lack of financial security which allow creative industries to remain elite and inaccessible for disadvantaged workers (Conor, Gill and Taylor 5, 11). Thus, while he argues for passion and freedom in art, Alizadeh undermines the position of artists as labourers and perpetuates the DWYL mentality that makes them vulnerable to economic disadvantage and exploitation. This contradiction in Alizadeh’s writing about writing (about writing) must be reconciled between his poetic and political idealism and the economic reality for artists.

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