This long-awaited debut from Harlem poet, performer, and sound artist Diggs dominated the Small Press Distribution bestseller list with its verbivocovisual mashups and its irreverent vernaculars. But Diggs’s playfulness don’t play. While TwERK evokes the work of poets who experiment with vernacular English (Douglas Kearney) and Spanglish (Edwin Torres), Diggs doesn’t just claim those languages that “belong” to her, that she has formally studied or is biographically enmeshed with (Spanish, Quechua, Cherokee); TwERK also lovingly and promiscuously appropriates Maori, Yoruba, Japanese, Urdu, Chamorro, Malay, Papiamentu and many others in a tangle of global souths. The result is not just the creolization of English but a rethinking of its position as what Édouard Glissant calls a “vehicular” language (the language of colonialism that travels well); Diggs’s remixes gum up the vehicle, revealing its porosity and fragility in the era of GoogleTranslate, and they push against the public/private language binary at the heart of liberalism. Of course, language is not the only site of appropriation here; New York City underground/club culture is oft-sampled throughout, and with it a largely Black and Latino/a drag culture (see the scattered references to the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race). The (90s feminist/ironist?) appropriation of drag’s gestural performatives (think crotch jokes) meets the Afro-futurist appropriation of hip-hop nation (itself an appropriation of 1970s P-Funked appropriations of Civil-Rights-era soul and R&B and their social bodies) in a mise en abyme of appropriations of appropriations of appropriations (echoing the organic yet eerie self-sampling and loopings of Diggs's live performances): "no appropriation’ of tongues jigga jigga HOO true you knew ja rule” (68). This is appropriation as a cultural politics of survivalist cool, close to what poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee describes in her essay “Shock and Blah” as conceptualist poetics (by people of color, women, etc.) that have to care (her term) about a social body and social history. Echoing Lee, I would say that Diggs’s work is not against expression (as in the title of Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin’s anthology of conceptual writing) but for and against or in and against expression. In limning the lingua, Diggs refracts the franca and its franchise, making us aware of the ambient noise of our networked (née-TwERKED) bodies. The beats are kitchen-syncretic (as in Missy Elliott covering Jayne Cortez) and the wordplay splices and displaces (as in Bob Kaufman, who provides an epigraph): “In Kentucky I formulated polar bear toe gazpacho” (62). Diggs’s gambit doesn’t always find its ambit; the exploratory shoutouts sometimes risk devolving into old-school ethnopoetic folklore (a final section called Oceania!?), and some of the Benihana/Unagi hijinks in the opening Anime section have a decidedly retro (even if by design) Wu-Tang outtake feel. Yet TwERK triumphs in its dizzying interplay between the vehicular and the vernacular; the poet here becomes a turntablist “mediator of media” (7) but also a turner of representational tables, mining the city in all its expansive histories and its whitewashed ones, as if to ask: can Harlem circa 2013 still provide a counter-politics of the local (the late Stuart Hall’s term) for globalization’s discontents? A tricky question. And yet, even as TwERK defers meaning it does so with the clarity of its eccentric eros –– “open your eyes baby shark […] I’m casting my net for you” (51-52) or, say, the poem “Sunspot” –– desiring its way to a language attuned to a body’s valences, violences, and silences. The title then is not a joke (for all the post-Miley mileage), or at least not entirely. With its uncertain folksonomy, its poetics of body metonymy, its Internet meme-ing, and its association with the creolizing/crossings of New Orleans, twerking problematically yet succinctly embodies the promise and pitfalls of a social-body politics in the Diggsian digital age. From the virtual belly of the beats (you dig?), LaT sings the blues, digging up our haunted digs: “I thought we were a biotope together” (44).

—Urayoán Noel

 
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