Before Starting Over is an informal chronicle of several important developments in English-language poetry during the nineties and the turn of the century, most importantly Asian American poetry, digital poetics, and the changing face of poetry’s “experimental” wing. There is nothing pious about the approach: one chapter is a distillation of conversations and controversies that occurred on the internet via the author’s blog, Free Space Comix, while another is largely composed of playful and polemical “poetics” statements geared toward a popular – i.e. non-elitist or -insider – audience. Consquently, nothing is taken for granted, whether it be the efficacy of a central literary Tradition, or the primacy of the “marginal” or aesthetic “lineages” that are valorized in smaller writing communities identifying with either the “avant-garde” or ethnic minorities (or both). Included are several book reviews by the author that attempt to create a language for discussing the most “difficult” poetry of the past fifteen years energetically and engagingly, in a manner that is neither sugared up nor requiring a doctoral degree to decipher. Several interviews discuss strands of “digital poetics” that were not discussed in the author’s Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics, especially notions of “hacktivism,” internet publishing and the poetics of the anti-war blog Circulars. All in all, the experience of reading Before Starting Over is in which the reader is invited to disagree, to argue, but most of all to feel as passionate, troubled yet optimistic about poetry as the author, one of the more active and intelligent (uh huh) poets and critics to mobilize both the internet and journalistic print publications to examine and champion emerging strands in writing.
‘Brian Kim Stefans is an animator of poetic intelligence, of seemingly limitless curiosity and with an acuity to match. All channels seem to pass through the Stefans control centre, but the filters are finely engineered and reliable: the output is clear and attuned to the liveliest sources.’ —John Wilkinson
‘The wit and resourcefulness of Brian Kim Stefans' poetry has already marked out a new choreography for post-post-Structuralist writing: pivoting and leaping dangerously, the poet on the ice-polisher prepares a gorgeous track through the shavings of Eurocentric modernism, the invisible machine age, politics under a 'hologram President' and the virtuosity of the American consumer. In Before Starting Over, Stefans reveals the intense and committed critical practice which gets him in condition for his poetic samba. Whether he is treating Language poets, young Korean writers or the deacons of American literature to one of his searching reviews, Stefans gives both text and reader the gift of an admirably old-fashioned sense of the critic's responsibility – to inform and to delight.
The insights and the range of Stefans' investigations are constantly surprising. Discussion of Ammons, Williams, Rimbaud, W. S. Graham, Pound and the Situationists show his facility for reconciling contemporary poetic difficulty to an expanded European and American tradition, without constructing the pseudo-lineages which he rightfully distrusts. But he also offers equal consideration to 'Creep Poetry', writing by his contemporaries where 'the "I" is often situated beneath the economic stratum of commercial micro- and hyperactivity that digital technology has made possible.' Stefans is well-known as a critic of digital art and writing, and as the keeper of several essential blogs (including the now defunct anti-war resource Circulars, whose logic he describes at length). In this book, he investigates the consequences for writing of technology: not only the computer and the internet, but also typewriters, paper and sound. In his close readings, he reasserts the expressive potential of gaps, space, diction and assonance alongside the graphic innovations made possible by Flash and Quark. Though his own work might sometimes be assimilated into the Language movement, Stefans' alertness to the 'minority issues' which complicate Language poetry's critique of identity reminds us of the healthy pluralism of the younger generations operating in and on America's power infrastructures. Moreover, his approach to the ideological and formal challenges of anthologising Asian-American writing combines a sympathetic historical awareness with exemplary critical rigour.
Before Starting Over is a capacious, funny and provocative book, a model of versatility and committed reading. It is proof of the vitality of criticism, and of the critic's role in sustaining communities and the intensities of the labours of poetry.’ —Andrea Brady
‘This book may be the only reliable guide to recent poetry in English. Brian Kim Stefans's essays are erudite, stylish, sensitive, curious, never provincial, unintimidated by difficulty, full of statements that are both effortlessly elegant and provocative of serious thought. His range is astonishing. His "little reviews" are models of the form. I have learned a lot from reading these essays, and will continue to do so.’ —Aaron Kunin