A weblog focused on contemporary poetry and poetics.
Saturday, October 19, 2002
Todd Swift's work in the poetry-music duo Swifty
Lazarus allowed us to pose the question of how well intermedia presents
writing as writing. Now the anthology
he has edited with Philip Norton, Short Fuse lets us turn
the question around and ask just how well the printed page can represent poets
whose work is primarily turned towards performance.
is hardly the first book to pose this issue. The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker, by Edwin Torres (Roof, 2001)
is an in-depth collection by one of the most brilliant performance poets alive,
but I couldn't work through its use of typographic pyrotechnics until I had
actually heard Torres for myself. In ways that are not apparent from the text,
or at least were not to me, that experience opened up the work — I could hear it, even in poems that I had not
heard Torres perform.*
Some of these same issues
bedevil Short Fuse, but principally
for those poets not represented on the book's companion CD. The disc contains
roughly 70 minutes of work by an exceptionally diverse selection of writers,
from Torres and Bob Holman to Charles Bernstein to Simon Armitage to Billy
But Penn Kemp, to pick one
example, is a superb sound poet & enormous fun to see on stage. Her texts
on the page offer no sense of the extraordinary phonemic overload that comes
with her words. Ditto, tho more in a jazz vein, AdeenaKarasick.
Even though there are
performance poets whose work can be adequately represented on the page, such as
Holman or Willie Perdomo, Short Fuse is wise to include the CD even though it only contains
34 of the project’s 175 writers. But what it points to is the probability that
the future of representing such work may not be on the page, nor on the CD, but
rather in the fuller (tho more costly) medium of DVD.**
* In retrospect,
this reminds me of something Josephine Miles once said to me about William
Carlos Williams, that writers of her generation literally did not know how to
read him at first, they could not hear
his poetry, its foundation in speech, which seems self-evident to somebody my
age, was not at all apparent. Yet over a couple of generations, Williams
literally changed what poets understand as “clarity.”
**Indeed, Ram Devineni, the publisher of Rattapallax Press,
tells me that if the anthology gets a sufficiently positive response, he and
its editors have discussed a bi-annual journal that might come out with a DVD. Rattapallax
already issues a CD with each book it publishes.
Short Fuse is an extraordinarily ambitious project.
In addition to the 400 page book released this week by Rattapallax Press is a
CD and a supplementary e-book that one can download with a password found in
the hard copy. Edited by a Philip Norton, a performance poet now in Australia
who was matriculating at DePaul University when Marc Smith's Green Mill poetry
slam events in Chicagokicked off the
slam scene in 1987, and Todd Swift, a Canadian poet with intermedia impulses now in Paris who makes
a living as a television screenwriter, the 175 poets gathered into Short Fuse represent an attempt on the
part of its editors to jump start what they characterize as Fusion Poetry.
What is Fusion Poetry? Given
that at least 130 of the 175 poets in Short
Fuse come out of the spoken word / slam / performance poetry communities of
different English speaking countries, plus a smattering of poets from diverse
traditions -- Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell represent the most conservative
tendencies of British neoformalism, Charles Bernstein & myself represent aperformative side of langpo, and even Billy
Collins is on the CD to incorporate that side of the plain-speaking McPoem
tradition that can be enjoyed asstand-up comedy-- it would seem
to be an attempt to place oral poetries into a broader & perhaps more
legitimated context. At its most grandiose, Short
Fuse may be an attempt to overcome the various skirmishes in the poetry
wars by proposing performativityas the
glue that would bring all these other aesthetics together into one world-wide
happy family. The book even promises to donate "a portion of the
proceeds" to UNICEF.
Time will tell how far the
editors can take that agenda, but it certainly doesn't want for lack of scale.
What it may do, however, and this would be unfortunate, is to obscure just what
a wonderfully global collection of performance poetry the editors have put
together. Canada, the U.S., the British Isles, Australia, and the Anglophone scenes of several
other countries are all represented. From the U.S., you have a good representation of the
slam scene: Patricia Smith, Bob Holman, Edwin Torres & some of the more
stellar poets who came out of the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe scene, such as Willie Perdomo and Guillermo Castro. While there certainly are
some glaring omissions, especially among the older, more established
performance poets (Steve McCaffery & his fellow Four Horsemen, Hazel Smith, the late Bob Cobbing, anything with a taste of Fluxus*), Short Fuse can be read as an Olympian
panorama of performance poetics, one that stands up on these terms quite well,
with a curious sprinkling of "performance-like" poetries out of other
more page-based traditions.
* There are
moments when, reading Short Fuse and
listening to its editors, one has the eerie sense that this what it might be
like to want to be Jerome Rothenberg if one had never heard of Jerome
Michael Rosenthal came to
visit last weekend – he is the senior member of the collective that runs Modern
Times, one of the four large independent bookstores that remain in San Francisco. That’s a preciously small number, and it pushes me
to think of my situation here just south of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
When I first moved here in
1995, there were three independent bookstores in the immediate region large
enough to carry new volumes of poetry – Genes in the King of Prussia Mall, a
reasonably large and well-stocked bookstore that took up the space normally
allotted to a sporting goods emporium in that vast mall, which also had a
couple of Daltons & Waldens tucked in among its
365 shops; Forum Books, your classic overcrowded jumble in a hole-in-the-wall
bookshop in otherwise very chi-chi downtown Wayne; & the West Chester Book
Company in a mall on the outskirts of that small city. The West Chester Book
Company is a sprawling emporium literally connected to a decent Cajun lunch
place and a Rainbow Records outlet. It’s the kind of store that a couple of
years ago had a visible campaign (displays in the windows & in the store)
for National Poetry Month in March.
When I asked why not April, one of the employees said that they’d set up the
displays before they’d realized their error, but then just assumed none of the
customers would recognize the difference. Unfortunately, their poetry selection
shows that same attention to detail. The only other new bookstores in the
region in 1995 were a pair of Encore Book outlets, a chain that specialized in
Encore suffered the fate of
any small chain forced to compete against megachains – the middle market just
gets squeezed out of existence. A couple of years ago, the couple that owned
Genes decided to retire and closed their shop. The store was apparently
modestly profitable, but they were unable to find a buyer and if there was any
attempt on the part of the workers to buy the store, it wasn’t visible to the
casual consumer. Then about a year ago, the owner of Forum Books passed away.
The store continues to operate much as before right now, but those of us who
shop there are holding our breath. It’s hard to imagine Forum lasting forever
amidst that row of jewelers and expensive restaurants. Its poetry section is a
table top with books piled together into stacks that are modestly alphabetical.
John Krick tells that he discovered language poetry in that bookstore years
ago. My last “find” there was an audiotape of Beowulf and other old English
texts in the original, read by J.B. Besinger, Jr in the Caedmon Audio series. It’s enough to cure you of
the Seamus Heaney version that reads like the sports section of your newspaper.
To the mix, however, have
come a Barnes & Noble in Devon the size of a supermarket, which also happens to be
one of the few places in the region where one can find a cappuccino or latte.
The King of Prussia Mall has recently added a Borders,
less than two miles from B&N. The new Borders is
roughly twice the size of the old Genes. Both of these chains carry the larger
independent presses in a maddeningly inconsistent fashion. Smaller poetry
presses like Chax or micropresses like Skanky Possum are simply not to be
found. What’s particularly frustrating about this is that one cannot depend on
the independents to do much better. Like so many poets outside of the Bay Area,
I too depend a great deal on Rod Smith’s
email poetry lists from Bridge Street Books in Washington, D.C.? But what if Rod didn’t exist or decided to do
The biggest problem
confronting independent bookstores today, according to Rosenthal, is
succession. The ones that have survived the advent of the megachains have done
so because they focus on customer service, know their customers, and can market
to a local audience with much greater precision than some centralized buying
office. However, most of the owners of independent bookstores tend to be
boomers who are now starting to think about retiring. The question is how to do
so when your business is a bookstore. Finding people who want to compete with
Borders and Barnes & Noble is hard enough but banks and other lenders have
concluded that independent bookstores themselves are doomed investments, so
they’re seldom willing to lend the necessary capital. This puts the owner into
the position of having to finance any sale of the store in order to keep it
alive. Some people will be able to do this, but many others, like the owners of
Genes, will not. What this means is that the next round of contraction for
independent bookstores will be a serious one, driven less by profitability and
more by the problem of how a retiring owner can exit the business.
If you look at the history
of many of the independent publishers of the past, the way that they got sucked
into the publishing conglomerates was basically through the same problem.
Random House was once just two guys. As we saw earlier this year when Black
Sparrow sold the rights to three of its authors to Ecco Press, a division of
HarperCollins, its Wyndham Lewis books to Ginko and
rest of its stock to David Godine Press, that problem has
not abated in the slightest. Godine is now responsible for the future
availability of Jack Spicer, Charles Reznikoff, David Bromige, Eileen Myles
& Tom Clark. It’s impossible at this point to know what that will mean a
decade or two out.
Most small presses publish a
few books and then disappear. Even if the press stays around for awhile, such
as Geoff Young’s The Figures, individual titles are seldom kept in print once
the initial run is exhausted. Those few independents that do go on and become
substantial operations, from City Lights to Coffee House, are themselves
already exceptions to several rules. The bottom line?
What is available today might not be tomorrow. For readers of poetry, that is a
law that subtly governs decisions as to which books to buy. For writers, it
creates a landscape of risks and probabilities that must be negotiated.
The market theory behind all
this of course is that the supposedly best poets may start out with small
presses, but when their work demonstrates its ability to reach a consistent and
profitable audience, it eventually moves “up” to a trade publisher who ensures
that it both stays in print and reaches the broad distribution it deserves.
Thus Bukowski to Ecco, Ginsberg to Harper (which in
turn owns Ecco as it does the Caedmon Audio series and many other “imprints”).
Many trade presses also often have their own house poets whose work they
promote – there is a trade publishers’ scene that is functionally indistinguishable
from any other small press scene in the country, save for the distribution that
these writers get for their early efforts. Some of these poets can be excellent
– Ann Lauterbach or Jorie Graham would be good examples – but many more are forgettable.
However, because they are published by presses that routinely run advertising
in daily media, house poets are far more apt to be reviewed by those
publications. Add to this the poets who get published for entirely non-literary
reasons – from Leonard Nimoy & Eugene McCarthy to
Jimmy Carter & T-Boz. It is perhaps an irony that
Allen Ginsberg eventually gets to have the same publisher as David St. John
& James Tate, but a far greater one that all three are also part of the
same publishing program that includes Jewel.
Ultimately, the problem with
the trade publishers is not so much whom they publish as it is whom they do
not, the degree of control they exert over the stock one sees on the shelves of
both the chains and the independents,
the over-concentration of reviews devoted to their books in major media based
not on quality or prominence but on advertising dollars (though, frankly,
relatively few of those dollars are ever actually spent on poetry directly),
and the various awards that are built up around this very same chain of
advertising – as are both the Pulitzers and National Book Critics Circle
Awards. Each link in this chain of concentration exacerbates the problem,
narrowing the rich & vibrant gumbo of American poetry down toward a relatively
thin gruel of Dead Poets’ Greatest Hits. How is a reader in this environment
ever going to find out about a book by a great new poet such as Pattie
McCarthy’s excellent bk of (h)rs
(Apogee Press, 2002), even though McCarthy herself grew up in the very same
triangle one might map around Forum Books, the West Chester Book Company and
the King of Prussia Mall?
I’m going to New York for a few days for the readings
to launch the Short Fuse anthology &
won’t be taking my laptop. Since my Palm Pilot isn’t web-enabled, the blog
shall be silent until Friday at least.
Two of the books I shall be
taking with me will be Your Ancient See
Through by Hoa Nguyen and Clean and
Well Lit by Tom
In the meantime, U.S. readers should participate in the Dialect Survey.
It consists of 122 questions concerning vocabulary, pronunciation and usage,
every one of which is worth pondering. I am of course reminded of the
linguistic geography of the United States that Jack Spicer worked on some 40 years ago. This
survey, I suspect, is a descendant of that research.
Contemplating for a moment
Question 103 –
103. What do you call the thing from
which you might drink water in a school?
b) water bubbler
c) drinking fountain
d) water fountain
I’m reminded that Rochelle
Nameroff identifies “bubbler” as an aspect of the language of her native city, Milwaukee. It is, as she likes to put it, “’M'waukee talk.”
Which, in turn, leads me to Boontling, the most radical
of regional American dialects. Boontling, short for Boont lingo, Boont standing
for Boonville, a town in the Anderson Valley of Northern California, roughly
two-thirds of the distance north from San Francisco on the way to Mendocino.
Quite isolated in the 19th century, the teenagers in Boonville,
Philo and Anderson developed a code some time around 1890 that enabled them to
talk salaciously in the general vicinity of the elders without invoking
censorship or retribution. But of course the teenagers all became adults and in
that region during that period, relatively few of them left for the wide world
and just as few newcomers moved into the community, so by, say, World War I,
boontling had become the daily discursive mode of the region. Boontling held
reasonably contained and coherent until after the Second World War when first
radio and then television finally reached the valley. Now the only speakers
left apparently are adults who learned it from their grandparents. Sometimes
you will see a Boontling speaker at a folk festival, telling a familiar tale in
that all but impenetrable variation of English.
It’s been years since I’ve
been to Boonville, but even in the 1980s, pay telephone booths were labeled
Buck Walter (literally: nickel phone).
Charles Adams wrote a most useful volume, Boontling:
An American Lingo, with a dictionary of Boontling that the University of Texas
press published in 1971. The dictionary alone is over 100 pages long. Copies
can be found through abebooks.com,
though the hardback prices strike me as a little pricey. Most of the websites on
the topic are pretty limited. The one link I gave above comes from a regional
brewery site, but it’s the best short introduction I’ve encountered.
Vocabulary fascinates me.
Individual writers often have very distinct styles that are identifiable entirely
through the words they choose. Often working in longer lined forms that provide
a maximum of freedom & context for the specificity of his selections,
Forrest Gander unleashes his expansive vocabulary with a deep love for the
sheer clutter of the polysyllabic:
The solid given upward, hemorrhaging
into air, the vista
tinged Merthiolate and twisted
Or, elsewhere in Science & Steepleflower,
(New Directions, 1998) “The land arborescing,” a verb
Gander has employed on multiple occasions, more I suspect
than any of the rest of us could say. Gander has a naturalist’s bias toward a vocabulary not only
of exacting detail, but with an ear turned towards that heritage of lush
Latinisms lurking & available for a given depiction. If I read Ken Irby for
his inexhaustible ear, the absolute pleasure it affords, I do Gander likewise for his word choices. They seem fabulous,
in every sense of that term.
poet with an exact sense of which words to use and why is H.D. In her work, each word stands walled, a brick:
O my soul,
of the red sand of Crete;
think of the earth; the heat
burnt fissures like the great
backs of the temple serpents;
think of the world you knew;
as the tide crept, the land
burned with a lizard-blue
where the dark sea met the sand.
In this first strophe of the
poem “Phaedra,” all but four words of its fifty are built with but one sound.
The four with two are placed with great care. Not one term has three or more
sounds – it would push out of the line like a shock to discover one. No clutter
here. But that is H.D. to the max. Count the sounds per line: 4-6-6-6-7-6-6-6-7. H.D. loved that great clean sense to
her work, perhaps even too much.
I’ve made caustic comments
here about a few poets whom I’ve associated with the tradition I’ve
characterized (to borrow from Edgar Allan Poe) as the school of quietude, that tendency within American letters
that envisions poetry in the United States as continuous with (& mostly
derivative from) verse in the British Isles, and especially from the most
conservative elements there. So the question naturally arises: are there
conservative poets whose work I genuinely like?
The answer is yes. I think
Hart Crane’s The Bridge a master work
of American poetry. There are aspects of Wallace Stevens
work that I like, even though he suffers from being so overrated by his
advocates. Ditto the early Eliot, though the canonization process is not nearly
what it was when I was in college, mercifully. I’ve been reading Jack Gilbert
and Robert Hass with interest & even passion for over 30 years*, have
always thought Berryman’s Dream Songs,
Logan’s Zigzag Walk and even Merwin’sThe Lice
admirable. There are elements in Robert Lowell’s best writing that suggest that
he had the potential to have been another Frank O’Hara had he not been so
horrifically dysfunctional, aesthetically as well as emotionally. Alan Dugan is
a guilty pleasure. And Wendell Berry is a poet for
whom the term conservative should be understood literally, in the very best
sense. The values he espouses in his poetry & life seem to me to fit
together seamlessly. So when I come down harshly on a poet such as Richard
Wakefield, it’s because he writes so ineffectively: his sense of metrics could
only be characterized as plodding and bungled.
On my desk is a manuscript
for a book entitled Calendars by
Annie Finch that Tupelo Press will be printing sometime soon. It’s a marvelous
manuscript by a poet who could easily be taken for one of the New Formalists,
in the Timothy Steele vein, but who is also, I would argue, a formalist in the
tradition, say, of Bernadette Mayer & Lee Ann Brown. Which is to say: she gets it. Her commitment is to the
language, even as the strategies she deploys are most often taken from oldest
playbook there is. At times, as in the poem “Moon,” her work reminds me of H.D.’s sense of timing, so very deliberate & ordered:
are you the dense everywhere that moves,
the dark matter they haven’t yet walked through?
(No, I’m not, I’m just the shining sun,
sometimes covered up by the darkness.)
But in your beauty – yes, I know you see –
There is no covering, no constant light.
That supplemental yes in the last couplet, the fact that
the final syllable in each line articulates a phonemic openness, except for the
last, even the use of the capital letter at the start of the final line (but
not in the final line of the other stanzas), all demonstrate a control over the
materials at hand that is extraordinary. That yes functions as though it were a sigh, modulating & redirectingthe
timing of the work away from dialog & toward conclusion. It’s a device that
I’ve often been suspicious of – Josephine Miles, another traditionalist whose
work I take seriously, too often incorporated such asides just to even out meter or complete an end-rhyme. Finch uses it
here to halt the flow of the text, to gather the language up into an expression
of breath. It is no accident that every word in that aside uses exactly one
syllable** or that there are no hard consonants there – the only moment in this
six-line text where either of these conditions applies. I love it when someone
can demonstrate such mastery in such a compact terrain.
I want to quote one other
short poem here, my favorite, because of the way in which it blends an
over-the-top sense of language’s lushness with a tone so soft it all but
whispers. It’s called “Butterfly Lullaby.”
wild indigo dusky wing
my mottled, broad-wing skipper,
a sleepy, dreamy dusty wing,
flying through my night.
My northern, southern, cloudy wing,
my spring azure, my crescent pearl,
a silver-spotted, sweet question mark,
sleeping in my sky.
A tiger swallowtail, harvester,
moving through my hours,
an eyed brown in the redwing dark,
wrapped softly in my words.
We haven’t had a poet so
capable of combining control & excess since the young Robert Duncan.
* I have a
theory that Jack’s animated & public distaste for langpo has to do with the
fact that he himself, were he younger, would have been
one. This is, after all, the man who once wrote (quoting from memory here):
“Helot for what time there is in the baptist hegemony
Ron Silliman was born in Pasco, Washington, although his parents stayed there just long enough for his mother to learn that one could step on field mice while walking barefoot through the snow to the outhouse, and for his father to walk away from a plane crash while smuggling alcohol into a dry county. Silliman has written and edited over 30 books, most recently Revelator from BookThug, and had his poetry and criticism translated into 14 languages. Silliman was a 2012 Kelly Writers House Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and the 2010 recipient of the Levinson Prize,from the Poetry Foundation. His sculpture Poetry (Bury Neon) is permanently on display in the transit center of Bury, Lancashire, and he has a plaque in the walk dedicated to poetry in his home town of Berkeley, although he now lives in Chester County, PA. In 2015, Silliman is teaching at Haverford College & the University of Pennsylvania.