[from] What It Means to Be Avant-Garde

This is an excerpt from the middle of a longer poem. The full poem is in Moschovakis’s forthcoming book, They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This (Coffee House Press, 2016).




The government [should] subsidize struggling museums, theaters, and artists.

I [am] troubled by the eroding distinction between entertainment and marketing.

Protesters cause [more] good than harm.

A person [cannot] be truly spiritual without regularly attending church or


Something like [the theory of natural selection] explains why some people are


If countries are unwilling to cooperate with our military plans, we should treat

them as [enemies].


I feel guilty when I shop at a large national chain.

Social justice should be the foundation of any economic system.

People shouldn’t be allowed to have children they can’t provide for.

I would defend my property with lethal force.

The world would be better if there were no huge corporations.

Professional athletes are paid too much money.


The separation of church and state has demoralized our society.

The ‘Word of God’ exists only as human beings interpret it.

We need stronger laws protecting the environment.

I would feel better if there were video cameras on most street corners.

It should be legal for consenting adults to challenge each other to a duel.




I took a break from my condition to start translating a novel — a

story about neo-Nazis in Paris, France — it’s set in the late

’90s, when I was living in Paris — the protagonist and I lived

on the very same street — sometimes a place moves to the

center of a life — the author of the book is politically on the

left — my father lived through the occupations of Athens —

three times his home was taken over by soldiers — the novel

makes an argument about slippage at the extremes — how it’s

possible to move effortlessly between far left and far right — it

offers as an example one Jacques Doriot — communist mayor

in the ’30s of Saint-Denis — a suburb of Paris at its northern

fringe — my father didn’t talk about that part of his childhood

— I never could be sure that my impression of it was real —

there was one story he liked to tell about that time — the story

of Apostolos Santas, aka Lakis — who scaled the Acropolis

in April of ’41 — tore down the Nazi flag and put nothing in its

place — a symbolic act for which he was sentenced to death in

absentia — Jacques Doriot turned fascist in 1936 — he wore

the SS uniform into his grave — Saint-Denis hosts a campus

of the University of Paris — in 1991 I took some classes there

— the students it attracted were the self-described fringe —

the graffiti on the walls has been painted over since then — I

signed up for a class with a man named Vuarnet — the title of

the class was Philosophy and Art — the name of the professor

was spelled like the sunglasses — at the time you could smoke

and drink beer in the classroom — Vuarnet kept his inside a

brown paper bag — Apostolos Santas did not act alone —

he captured the flag with Manolis Glezos — who later led the

Coalition of the Radical Left — Apostolos died in 2011 —

a recipient of medals from the Greek state — Manolis was

arrested by Athens riot police — as recently as October of

2012 — when I was at Saint-Denis I kept a low profile —

Desert Storm was in force and I was still an American — I

marched for peace and wages with the thousands in the streets

— but nothing brought them out like the loss of March

the second — Lucien Ginsburg, the French-Ukranian who’d

changed his name to Serge — sometimes a voice moves the

center to a halt — when Lucien was a boy he wore the yellow

star — when he tried to be a singer he was mocked for his

nose — in the years that followed he moved as if inevitably

toward the center — in ’75 he made an album that satirized

the Nazis — there’s something I haven’t told you that has to

do with my condition — the night Serge Gainsbourg

died I heard all of Paris weeping — when I cry I cry for these

imperfect things




If someone is crying, you [Avert your eyes]


If you think someone’s ugly, you [Tank top and shorts]


If someone picks up a lost purse, you [Tell them that you trust everyone]


If your friend asks you who you trust the most, you [Only if the situation

required it]

If you are going to church, you wear [10–15 times]


If you are very religious, and someone who follows a different religion

preaches to you, you [                       ]

In average, how often do you lie a day?


Would you tell a white lie to make someone feel better?


What saying would you say you most often follow?


Which of the following is the correct definition of ‘moral’?




My condition is rare but it still affects thousands — it’s easy to feel

like I’m being punished by god — not believing in god can

have damaging consequences — the source of punishment

tends to revert to the self — self-punishment is the base of

many social dynamics — a sense of conscience can be wielded

from within or without — the Gypsies hold a Kantian belief

about ethics — this according to the European who spent his

youth among them — wherein stealing is judged permissible

according to intent — it is possible that I can make peace

with my condition — if I can convince myself its intent is

benign — there’s a mediation technique called nonviolent

communication mm conventionally known as NVC — I try to

use it in relation to my desire to be cured — the goal is to

do away with judgments of value — and focus on everyone’s

needs being met — the relation of the ‘Gypsy code’ to Kant is

as follows — for Kant a right action is spoiled by impure intent

— this aligns well with the NVC model — in which an act of

generosity is immediately voided — if revealed to be spurred

by resentment or guilt — for the boy’s Gypsies, stealing was

morally neutral — as long as nobody’s needs were denied —

take one chicken from the farmer but not the whole coop —

there are many ways to think about dessert — this neutrality

was voided if greed entered the picture — NVC holds a broad

understanding of violence — it would encompass even my own

relation to my condition — my conscience tells me empathy

for the self is undeserved — the website contains an inventory

of needs — which are neatly divided into seven subsections

— that begin with connection and end with meaning — this

positioning of meaning calls out my condition — my needs

are out of date


is the author of You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake, winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone, a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award and a selection of the Poetry Society of America's New American Poetry Series. Currently, Moschovakis is a freelance editor, an active member of the nonprofit publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse, and a visiting professor in the writing program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. 'What It Means to Be Avant-Garde', excerpted here, is one of three poems in her forthcoming poetry collection, They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, which will be published later this month by Coffee House Press in the United States.


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