Narrative Drive would make a good name for one of
those winding streets up in the hills around Los
Angeles. But for post-avant
writing, it’s a conundrum. Jena Osman proposes the category in her poem “Starred
Together.” I think it’s definitely worth
The blog asks
if the narrative drive that Jena
proposes is related to eros or the death drive or what. I don't know either.
But last week I was reading a book by the classicist Yun
Lee Too. Socrates, in Plato's Symposium, recounts a speech by the prophetess Diotima. Her story is about the birth of Eros:
the divine [drinking] party the deity Penia (whose
name means "poverty" or "lack") enters uninvited to find Poros (whose name means "resource" or "plenty")
lying in a drunken stupor. Contriving to remedy her condition as lack, Penia sleeps with the god of plenty and conceives and
begets Eros, the supernatural being (daimon) who
partakes of both his parents' natures. . . . Eros is accordingly a being of
middles and in-betweens. He is neither god nor mortal, but a daimon who moves between the immortal and mortal spheres. .
. . He is neither simply good and beautiful, nor for
that matter base and ugly, but something between these extremes. Daimonic Eros is poor . . . squalid, unshod, and homeless.
But in relation to others, he is resourceful, providing counsel to good and
beautiful people. He is brave, a clever hunter, a weaver of tricks, a
practitioner of philosophy, a clever sorcerer, and a sophist.* (66)
drive? For Lacan = Antigone.
Eros and Antigone? In a tree? The combination of barefoot in-betweeness and steely-eyed, suicidal refusal of Creon's tyranny? Not sure it's a drive. Definitely a story.
I searched around on the Net for references to narrative
drive but could find nothing that spoke of it in terms of psychological drives.
Most of what I found has to do with plot
fluidity, dramatic construction or character motivation in fiction or cinema, mostly
used in a judgmental fashion:
Distant Voices, Still Lives
had at least the central conflict between the
abusive father and his long-suffering wife and children to sustain audience
interest, The Long Day Closes
lacked even the rudiments of any narrative
drive. The result was self-indulgent and tedious, as well as a critical and
Where it does show up constructively from time to
time is on creative writing “how-to” sites & ancillaries thereof. Thus Literary & Script Consultants
offer, as one aspect of their screenplay analysis service, a critique that
includes this category:
sub-plots, and story dynamics - story holes - narrative drive, logic, and focus
- momentum - pace - theme - subject matter - freshness - narrative and
narrative drive and characterization are a novelist's basic tools; they must
always be deployed to the limits of their power.
But even in this frame of reference, nobody seems to
But if narrative drive is a category without
definition even in the best of circumstances – a James Ellroy
novel– what does it mean to apply the concept to Bruce Andrews or Clark
Coolidge or Lee Ann Brown? What, literally, motivates the eye – & the mind
behind the eye – left to right along the line & down again until the page
itself has been consumed? To use the category I borrowed from cognitive
linguistics in The New Sentence,
the Parsimony Principle, doesn’t seem adequate either.
The Parsimony Principle may well explain how the reading mind invariably will make
sense even from a phrase such as Wittgenstein’s “milk me sugar”***, but it
doesn’t speak to the problem of why the mind joins words in the first place,
moves through them, carries on.
What, I ask, is that about?
*Too, Yun Lee. The
Pedagogical Contract: The Economies of Teaching and Learning in the Ancient
World. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (New York:
I say that the orders “Bring me sugar” and “Bring me milk” make sense, but not
the combination “Milk me sugar”, that does not mean that the utterance of this
combination of words has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person
stares at me and gapes, I don’t on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect I wanted to
phrase can be entirely meaningful in a sexual context – one can hear it as a
line from a rap song without much difficulty. & that interpretation is even
more evident in the German where the capitalization of nouns – “Milch mir Zucker”
– insinuates at one level that Sugar is a nickname. Thanks to Alex Young for
bringing this passage to my attention (even though he was trying to debunk my “reading”
of Bruce Andrews!).
Labels: Jena Osman, literary technique, post-avant
Contrasted with the CD that
comes with the Short Fuse anthology, Arundo’s Triumph of
the Damned and Edwin Torres’ Please present
Arundo consists of Actualist
poet, G.P. Skratz and multi-instrumentalist Andy Dinsmoor. Skratz sent me Triumph to convince me that he was more
than merely popping “up in print from time to time” as I had suggested
in a “where are they now” discussion of Actualism. Given its 1999 production
date and homegrown packaging features – photocopied cover, the CD’s title
posted on a TDR CD-R disc via a mailing label – I’m not certain that I’m dissuaded
of the “from time to time” periodicity. But there is more than print to Skratz
alright. Triumph falls into the poems
set to a musical accompaniment vein, akin perhaps to Dwayne Morgan’s use of
bongos on the Short Fuse CD, or the
work there of Bob Holman, never quite going so far into song as Michele
Morgan’s jazz vocals. Dinsmoor ranges between guitar, recorder, sitar &
tabla, with Skratz coming in on a couple of tracks on tamboura and two members
of The Serfs, Ed Holmes & Bob Ernst, adding toy percussion, blues harp and
a backup vocal on a couple of pieces. Save for one collaboration by Skratz with
the late Darrell Gray and a translation from the poetry Hans Arp, the words – the back cover is careful not to call them
either lyrics or text – are all Skratz.
It would be easy enough to
dismiss Triumph – nothing here
strives to be a breakthrough – but it is just too enjoyable for that. These
pieces for the most part work quite well. Skratz’ droll wit rolls softly over
the soft raga backgrounds offered by Dinsmoor. Only the final piece on the CD,
the blues rock “Doorwayman,” comes across as more
energetic than arranged. A couple of the pieces seem too similar lyrically –
“Banana Ghazal’s” anomalous use of guitar & “Banjo’s” equally anomalous use
of traditional Indian instruments don’t really paper over the redundant
strategies of the poems – but as a whole, this is an excellent way to take in
Skratz’ poetry, including his work as both collaborator & translator.
an ambitious multimedia CD, one of three issued thus far by Faux Press (the
others are Wanda Phipps’ Zither Mood &
Peter Ganick’s tend. field). You put
it into your PC, not your CD player. Once you go past the opening screen (with
its own text, a much longer voiceover by Gina Bonati
& title graphics), you arrive at an ideogram with links in each of its
strokes. Depending on where you click, you will be led to one of five series of
poems (“City,” “Boy,” “Remote,” Time,” and “Love”), a play in twelve parts
(plus a prologue & epilogue) or section entitled “Media” that contains
documentation of eight Torres performances plus his bio.
Each section of the CD, each
set of poems, the play & “Media,” has an opening screen, a logo with its
own set of links. Each set of poems as well as the media section also begins
with a voiced over text read by Bonati. For the play,
we get a little bit of music in a truncated marching band vein. Most though not
all of the poems seem to have their own sound tracks, a few of which can be
seen as readings of the text. If Alicia Sometimes’ music seemed to play
against, rather than with, her own text on the Soft Fuse CD, Torres actively explores the entire range of
push-pull juxtapositions between sound and written language. Often these are
quite wonderful. Always, they’re playful & optimistic, qualities totally
consistent with Torres’ poetry. As writing, Please
is at a higher level, or perhaps at a high level with greater consistency,
than any of the other CDs I’ve considered on the this.
It’s a shame that there isn’t a collection gathered in a liner-note booklet –
as a book’s worth of work, they’re more straightforward pieces than the
typographic extravaganzas of his big Roof collection, The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker: the texts work just fine on
the screen even with the PC speakers shut down.
Like almost any web- or
screen-centric work, Please invites
bouncing around from link to link – while there is an order, the project seems
set up to undermine it. One doesn’t so much read as browse, homo ludens in total evidence. Overall, though, it can be as
engrossing as any front-to-back text imaginable. In fact, the one piece that
doesn’t fully work on the CD is the play, precisely because it requires the
participant to go sequentially.
There is an old rule of
thumb with technology, one that I first learned watching Jackson Mac Low
struggle with tape machines some 30 years ago: something always goes wrong.
There are inevitably a few “gotchas” on the CD – the
apostrophe often shows up as an umlauted capital O, there is at least one link
that doesn’t go anywhere, opening a dialog box in vain search of a missing file
on the CD. & the images are consistently too small throughout (a
consequence of another of my rules of thumb: QuickTime sucks). But these are
nits when taken in the context of the total project.
Overall Please pleases. It demonstrates the gazillion different ways Edwin
Torres’ poetry (& mind) can move simultaneously, always interesting, always
in the ballpark with something of value to add. He’s one of our great talents
& we’re lucky to have every manifestation we can get of his work.
Labels: Actualism, anthologies, Edwin Torres, Short Fuse Anthology
Write about performance
poetry and very quickly you will find yourself the possessor of a flurry of CDs
that relate variously to this side of writing. In the past week, I’ve received
the CD that accompanies Short Fuse: The Global Anthology
of New Fusion Poetry, a brand new multimedia CD from Edwin Torres
entitled Please, put out by Jack
Kimball’s Faux Press, and a slightly
older audio CD, Triumph of the Damned,
by Arundo, which consists of Actualist impresario G.P. Skratz and
instrumentalist Andy Dinsmoor (not to be confused with the Arundo Clarinet
The CD that accompanies Short Fuse is, in some ways, the very
best part of this complex & ambitious project*, offering 76:02 minutes of
work on the part of 34 contributors, ranging from Emily XYZ to Billy Collins,
Edwin Torres to Glyn Maxwell. With Bob Holman, Ian Ferrier, Fortner Anderson,
Charles Bernstein, Willie Perdomo, Richard Peabody, Lucy English, Mat Fraser, Tug Dumbly, Ulli K. Ryder, Michele Morgan, Guillermo Castro, Dawna Rae Hicks, Barbara Decesare,
Heather Hermant, Alicia Sometimes, Sandra Thibodeux, Rob Gee, Regie Cabico, Todd Colby, Corey Frost, Todd Swift’s Swifty Lazarus, Kim Houghton, Robin Davidson,
Irene Suico Soriano, Peter
Finch, Dwayne Morgan, Patrick Chapman, Ryk McIntyre
& Ian McBryde’s The Still Company, this disc
presents these oral/aural poets in their best light and hints of the
extraordinary richness to be found throughout the Short Fuse project. As a whole, the CD is great fun & hangs
together remarkably well given how diverse this collection of writers prove to be.
Trying to sort through this
cornucopia is an interesting project in itself. Twelve of the poets here use
music in the presentation of their work, ranging from mere background
accompaniment (Alicia Sometimes, Dwayne Morgan, Bob Holman) to complex
productions that transform their poems into something like the role normally
reserved for song lyrics (Edwin Torres, Michele Morgan, Ian Ferrier). This
latter strategy in particular raises once again the issues of performance on
the page versus aurally that I’ve discussed previously.
There is, I promise, almost no way for even the most inventive & flamboyant
reader to translate this passage by Edwin Torres from the
page with even a fraction of the flair that the poet’s own
Latin-flavored performance offers:
Much cha-cha? NO mucho, P-sycho
NOT cha-cha / cha-CHA
is the HER
with the HAIR of hay hay
in the HAIR
not the HER is the HEART
Torres starts off the CD and
gives it the feeling of any pop music disc, leading with its hit single. “Peesacho” is an extraordinary piece, the single best
recording I’ve heard yet of Torres’ own work**.
In fact, all of the pieces
on the CD that have the greatest impact use music: Torres’ “Peesacho,”
XYZ’s Arabic ode to an al-Qaeda pilot, Bob Holman’s
wry & ironic monolog, Michele Morgan’s jazz performance of a poem that can
be heard as a high-style homage to Beat poetry, or Ian Ferrier’s piece, with
its chorus right out of Dylan’s Nashville
Skyline period. Had the CD focused only on works that utilized music, Short Fuse might have set off a
revolution in poetic song, because the overall quality of these best works is startling. The musical pieces are what ultimately holds this disc together.
The two dozen texts that are
unaugmented by music can themselves be divided into somewhat overlapping
groups: straight readings of straight poems, recordings of live readings, one
piece by Charles Bernstein obviously chosen for its jabberwocky. Many of these
pieces simply document the poet’s reading of the text and some, such as
Guillermo Castro’s “A Deli on First Avenue,” do so quite well.
that stand-up comedy is a major formal referent for the spoken word movement
and there are seven clear examples on the CD: Rob Gee’s unaccompanied theme
song for “Viagra,” Corey Frost’s shtick, Regie Cabico’s sexual assessment of the Dawson Creek cast, Barbara Decesare’s
vicious impression of a nagging mother, Robin Davidson’s terrorism nursery
rhymes, Alicia Sometime’s funny song of a man’s love
for the female (I can’t say more without giving away the punchline,
literally), and Lucy English’s explanation of why she wants to be in “The
Company of Poets.” Only Gee’s would stand a chance at a competition in a comedy
Alicia Sometimes’ piece,
which uses music, does so in a way that has no intelligible relation to the
content of her poem, referring as the text does to a musical instrument. It’s
one of three works on the CD that comes off in ways that seem to be at odds
with the poet’s original intent, suggesting a level of risk in this kind of
production. The other two such works are both by poets not normally associated
with slam poetics, but who stand revealed when placed into such a context.
Billy Collins’ poem “Love” comes across very much like a Daniel Pinkwater essay for NPR radio, but less insightful, less
well written, not so funny & with a cloying last image that is to cringe
for. Even more pronounced in the unintentional humor vein is Glyn Maxwell’s
“The Stones in Their Array,” which explains why stones are special in precisely
the same kind of terms that TV’s Mr. Rodgers used to explain that you were special. It’s a howler and
anybody who confuses Maxwell with a serious writer should be forced to listen
interesting to note that the CD was edited by Rattapallax editor Ram Devineni, and not by Phil Norton or Todd Swift, who edited the paperback and
e-book. All Rattapallax books are accompanied by CDs.
Including his own CD, Please, which I’ll examine in more depth tomorrow.
Labels: Bob Holman, Edwin Torres, Glyn Maxwell, Performance, Short Fuse Anthology
Of all of writing’s illusive
qualities, none invokes more magic – at least in the sense of requiring a leap
of imagination that transcends all immediate physical evidence – than does depiction. It was
a dark and stormy night. You looked
into my eyes. Inside his vest, the
bomb exploded, shrapnel, blood, bone and flesh spewing
about the plaza. The apple rested on the table, next to the wooden mallard. All
of the homilies put forth by various library and publishing trade groups as to
the ability of literature to “transport the reader” to new & unimagined
places are predicated upon this capacity of language not merely to refer to a
world of objects, but to do so in a manner that is socially internalized (learned behavior) as an equivalent for
the process & experience of sight.
sight would be language’s privileged sense, it has also been a dimension hotly
disputed. It was Zukofsky’s thesis in Bottom:
On Shakespeare that the Bard of Avon was
responsible for the deep cultural linkage between the two:
Writing after Shakespeare few remembered:
eyes involve a void; eyes also avoid the abstruse beyond their focus. Today the
literary theologian reads Shakespeare and oversees his own spruce theology.
There is also the latest derivative verbalism after Shakespeare’s savage
characters – forgetting while it curses others’ intellect, in behalf of eyes,
that the curse has become the feigning eye of the black dog intellect. Clotens and Calibans,
Shakespeare’s tragic theme that love
should see flows around their words and shows them all the more their
sightless tune which does not find its rests so as to draw breath or sequence.
Note that “rests” is plural.
Today, there exists one
literature on the gaze, that penetrating look that entangles desire with power,
another on the spectacle, on all the roles of reification. & from Stein
onward, a new literature of opacity, of the immanence of the signifier, has
offered an alternative vision.*
is a three paragraph prose poem by Jena Osman that looks intently at the
process of looking & the concomitant phenomena of perspective & point
of view. The position it stakes out is unique & worth examining. That it
stakes out a position is itself noteworthy. Osman, as with her Chain co-founder Juliana Spahr, is a
writer intensely concerned with a poetry that has a critical function &
edge, the sort of text most likely to bring out snarling from “black dog
intellect” intent on saving poetry for the feigned purity of uncritical
But it is the role of the
person that is in fact at stake. The poem telegraphs the core of its concerns
in a terrifically condensed first sentence: “A glance hits an object or person
and pins it down like a star.” This sentence itself could be taken as a model
for the poem, as so many of the larger text’s devices and strategies are
employed simultaneously here. The most obvious is a Brechtian device that I
want to be especially careful in discussing, as it’s just the sort of thing
that a “dog intellect” would be most apt to misconstrue, perhaps even
willfully. Let’s call this device depersonification. The agent or noun phrase that is the
literal subject of this sentence, “A glance,” has been removed from any human
(or otherwise sentient) context, abstracted precisely so that it can be
examined as a process without our being distracted in the most literal sense by
some charming (or not) foible-ridden setting, the person. The implicit question
– who glances? – is not answered
because it is exactly not the point.
The verb, or rather the first verb, is notable for its implicit violence –
“hits.” Now one finds the person tucked into the conjunction that is the object
of the sentence: “an object or person.” It is no accident which item comes
first in that pairing. After the conjunction comes the
send verb phrase, “pins it down,” one that will invoke butterfly collecting for
some readers, wrestling for some and target practice for others. The final
analogy, however, is completely unpredictable given what has come before: “like
Like a star.
Incongruous as the phrase is in the context of the first sentence, it returns
us to both the title and to the Cecilia Vicuña epigraph:
constellation of darkness
another of light
A gesture to be completed
Light is what enables sight
to be embodied. In this poem, Osman will use the stars as light, as
constellations, as mapping tool and as repository of human narrative. She will
write, near the very end of “Starred Together,” “When you look at a
constellation, you draw the points together with your own lines.” But the
problem of the poem is that, as the second sentence states, “The actual moves.”
Between these two poles, Osman brings in other tropes: cinema, homelessness.
The poem constantly constructs the possibility of seeing only to undercut via
another perspective already inherent in what has been laid out.
The result is a remarkable
text, remarkable in part for its sheer density – Osman can get more complexity
into two pages than most poets get into 20. Reading it, I find two aspects that
push my own thinking further than it has previously gone. First is a concept
for which Osman makes claims:
drive is what clings to the actual moves; the narrative drive persists through
the fragmentation in which seeing occurs.
The narrative drive is a
concept that invokes psychology, but not one that I personally recognize from
that field. If accorded the status of a drive, narrative in this sense of
joining elements together to create coherence is much more (or perhaps much deeper) than the
parsimony principle of cognitive linguistics. Is it eros, the death wish, some
combination? I’m not certain, but the way Osman puts the concept out there in
this poem makes me want to mull it over in more depth than I have done before.
The second aspect is Osman’s
strategy, implicit but clear enough even in the first sentence of the work, of
deliberately avoiding any personification of the text. The word “I” never
occurs, replaced most often by “you” and occasionally “we.” In fact, the only
instance in the text in which we do “hear” the narrator function
self-reflexively, it’s in both quotation marks and French: “’Voyeur? – C’est
Here Osman is working
through the problem of sight, the gaze and that mutual penetration that is
recognition, but recognition in the Althusserian
sense of ideology**. That last sentence I quoted about “drawing the points with
your own lines,”***
leads directly to the end of the poem:
someone catches your eye in a direct grip, there are no more stars. You might
shake your hands at the sky as the light crashes in, we’re pinning you down.
You might shake your head to clear it, then step
“Starred Together” refuses
to escape the problem of Others. It’s a testament to
Osman’s integrity, that the poem doesn’t evade the problem. Nor does it offer
us a way out, easy or otherwise. “Inside” is exactly not a solution. The word
“Together” in the title is not there by accident.
I suspect that Osman’s
intellectual integrity on this question of the person is part of what creeps
out Seattle Times reviewer Richard
Wakefield. Characterizing “Starred Together” as “a belabored amalgam of clichéd
ideas and limp prose,” Wakefield
the first four sentences of the poem, including “While sitting in the box,
images from a window are stolen from the street.” He comments:
She doesn't, apparently, have the taste to
delete an excruciating line like that last one: What is "sitting in the
box"? Her grammar seems to say it is "images," but how can they
be "stolen from the street" WHILE "sitting in the box"?
Osman’s poem is hardly “limp
prose,” though Wakefield’s phallic trope is worth noting. Working through the
problems of representation within ontology could only be seen as “clichéd
ideas” to someone for whom the idea itself is off limits. In addition, the objectification
of interiority (housing, rooms, theaters, “the box” – Osman seems to omit only
Plato’s cave) is hardly the readerly conundrum that Wakefield pretends it to be. The idea that Wakefield cannot understand how images can be “stolen from the
street” – let alone recognize how delightful its play on scale is – suggests
that he will find “The perversion of your own observation,” the reference to
voyeurism, & “the corruption of your own detached look” later in the poem
It is true that “Starred
Together” may confound the willfully illiterate reader, so there is a perverse
poetic justice in Wakefield selecting it to demonstrate “why there are so few
poems here … (in The
Best American Poetry, 2002) that are even readable.” The poem is
focused right on the problems of taking responsibility for the pragmatics of
reference. Blaming the poems displays Wakefield’s position well enough.
Part of me wants to take Wakefield to task for such critical malpractice. But another
part would love to understand what it must mean to live inside a worldview that
could come to these conclusions, finding complexity more or less the way the
Amish do electricity, as though it were something unintelligible &
threatening. To claim that such work is
unreadable is to concede that you cannot read it. Some of the contributors of
the writers in this “unreadable” collection include Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Charles Bernstein,
Anselm Berrigan, Tom Clark, Clark Coolidge, Diane Di
Prima, Ted Enslin, Elaine Equi, Clayton Eshleman, Ben
Friedlander, Gene Frumkin, Forrest
Gander & Peter Gizzi, just to pick from the top of its alphabet.+ So what
is Wakefield saying? If you take him at his word, here is a professor of
literature who also is the poetry reviewer for a major American daily newspaper
who proclaims in print his own inability to read. His sad situation invokes the
very issues that Osman’s poem addresses.
* My own
essay, “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” in The New Sentence
can be read as a contribution to the history of this debate.
Shakespeare might call it love.
*** I can
imagine another reading of this work in which I would push much harder on the
idea of one’s “own lines,” given my own sense of how helpless most of us prove
to be in the context of our socio-historical positioning.
+ Truth in
advertising: I’m also a contributor.
Labels: Jena Osman, Juliana Spahr, New American Poetry, Zukofsky
I have mentioned Chain on several occasions
on this blog, for good reason – it is the premier hard copy poetry journal of
the day. My first piece
on September 11 touched a nerve in a way that hopefully has been productive.
Co-founder Juliana Spahr responded
to it on the 14th of September. Jena Osman, the other co-founder,
used the occasion of the First Festival of Literary Magazines in New York to respond to these issues. Here is her talk:
As a poet I have
long been interested in chance occurrences, in unpredictable sense created by
different languages meeting inside of a page-bound framework. My work has been informed by theater, in the
way that language performs in various contexts, in the relation of spectator to
stage and reader to page. I experiment with the collision of narrative and
anti-narrative strategies and take notice of the various registers of attention
that we bring to what’s before us.
I met Juliana while
I was a grad student at SUNY Buffalo. Some other younger poets in town when I
arrived included Peter Gizzi, Lew Daly, Pam Rehm and Liz Willis. We all had
quite various concerns, and I was interested in finding a way to create a
conversation through our work. At the end of my first year, I organized an
experiment called The Lab Book where
eight of us wrote poems and then each of us wrote responses to the poems
written by the other seven. The book that resulted began with a poem, followed
by the seven responses, then another poem, followed by seven responses, etc. I
was interested in the idea of writing as reading and reading as writing in
Such forms of
exchange and investigation are crucial to my process as a writer.
A couple of years
later (in 1993), Juliana and I decided to start a magazine. I don’t remember
the exact moment when we made this decision, but we knew it was possible, there
was a beautifully simple access to funds, and we went ahead with it. For me,
the idea behind the first issue was something of an outgrowth of the
conversation begun in the lab-book experiment in that the structure allowed for
a diversity of content. As we said in the introduction to the first issue, we
weren’t interested in making a journal where the editor was “objective talent
scout” controlling the content; instead, we were interested in providing a
forum for conversation, where we couldn’t predict what would happen when the
various pieces were placed side by side.
Such uses of
procedural form are important to my process as a writer.
In the introduction
to the first issue of Chain we said “It is ironic that in order for
dialogue to take place, conversational limits must be set.” And so for each
issue there is a limit—a special topic—around which a large number of writers
and artists gather. Sometimes the gathering is cacophonous, sometimes eerily
synchronous. In my opinion, it’s often a source of delight and surprise. No
matter how much time I spend with the contents—reading, selecting, typesetting,
proofreading—I never have a real sense of what the issue is until it arrives
from the printer, bound between its covers. And even then I can never know it
completely because it changes every time I sit down to read it.
This is often the
way I feel about my poems.
Each of the
limits/special topics of the magazine come out of concerns that Juliana and I
are thoroughly engaged with in our own work: documentary poetics, hybrid
genres, procedural writing, visual poetics, different languages,
subverting/converting memoir form, performative forms, etc. Because we both
actively investigate the relation of forms of life (aesthetic, biological,
cultural) to forms of writing, these organizing structures make sense to us.
The work we publish feeds us, further informs us about these areas we’re
already in. In many ways the journal is an investigation into what we want to
know, an attempt to find some answers to questions we have.
There are certain
pieces that we’ve published that continue to haunt my own writing. Looking back
at past issues, I’m amazed at how many have crept into my aesthetic
consciousness and stayed there.
In a recent web-log
entry, Ron Silliman critiqued Chain
for its policy of organizing authors alphabetically, rather than structuring
the book as a kind of narrative that could properly honor its writers. He
suggests that because of Chain’s
inclusivity, it lacks influence on the literary landscape—the birth of future
poets—and that the overall effect of the journal is one of muteness rather than
speech. He suggests that accident caused by alphabetic chance is perhaps of
less value than the deliberate and “heroic” arguments of past journals, and
that unlike Origin (which was
responsible for making Blackburn and Zukofsky major figures on the literary
landscape), Black Mountain Review
(responsible for Creeley and Duncan), Caterpillar
(which brought Antin, Rothenberg, Mac Low, Kelly, Joris, Palmer and Bernstein
onto the scene), Chain can not claim
such strong parenting skills because, well, who can name its progeny?
My interest in
hybrid genres is due in part to a disinterest in the perpetuation of linear
heritage. Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings
over, provide much more appeal than following respectful and respected maps of
canon-building. Conversation is not for canonical heroes. Can you really
converse with an unproblematized construct? Or can
you only listen?
I’m sure I’m not the
only one who noticed in Silliman’s list of heroic editorial gestures the lack
of women’s names (although he did make a weak attempt to remedy it by claiming
that the magazine However was
responsible for bringing Lorine Niedecker back into the world (but why was she
ever gone? and is that really what However
is known for?).
Silliman is part of
the Language Poetry movement that informs much of what I do as a writer. And
what I take very seriously from the writings of the Language Poets is that
there is a value to reader activism, to not simply consuming, but creating
through the act of reading. And I bring this idea with me to the forms that I
use when writing poetry or when editing Chain.
Chain is not about “making” writers by publishing them in its pages
(although its tables of contents list many writers—established and emerging—whom I believe to be of great significance). Chain is about providing a place for a
reader to engage with an idea—to think, to argue, to write in response. In
other words, it is putting the theory that informs my own writing as a poet
into practice in an editorial forum. Rather than what Silliman has called
“editorial muteness,” I believe that Chain
invites an animated conversation between reader and text that is generative in
its necessary unpredictability.
is also an invitation I hope my own poems deliver.
In closing I’ll
quote once more from the introduction to the first issue of Chain, where it all began: “any printed
text is a gesture toward conversation; it’s a presentation that invites
response. We’re trying to create a forum that takes that invitation seriously,
that is not just going through the motions of what it means to instigate
response; it requires continuation.”
Labels: Chain Magazine, Jena Osman, Juliana Spahr, Language Poetry
A third question posed by the
new anthology Short Fuse has to do with
the volume's underlying agenda. Its ambition can be gauged by the fact that
Swift & Norton's intervention works in two directions simultaneously.
First, the book attempts to situate oral and performance poetries, aligned in
this particular case most closely to the slam & spoken word scene rather
than to, say, sound poetry, well within the legitimated borders of text-based
work, placed alongside neoformalism, langpo & McPoetry as an equal, not
just something quaint done by wannabes at your local slam tavern. Secondly
& most ambitiously, Short Fuse
argues at least implicitly that oral poetries offer the "missing
link" between contending traditions of verse. Thus Short Fuse offers to transcend the poetry wars by placing itself
front & center.
Although Short Fuse is hardly the first anthology to suggest the breadth
& diversity of oral & performance poetries, it succeeds at its first
task. The book clearly demonstrates a phenomenon that is more global than any
other tendency within English-language poetry & with a lot more pizzazz
But to succeed at the second,
the performative poetries of Short Fuse
would have to overcome some serious limitations. This version of oral poetry
would have to become, for example, a genuine poetic tradition whose sense of
long term historical memory consists of more than the occasional Robert Service
/ Vachel Lindsay imitation.*
Close to half of the work
presented in this particular vision of oral poetries could be described as
stand-up comedy routines transcribed for the page, some better, some not.
Polysemy in such works is not only close to non-existent, it's often
counterproductive, in that this is a poetry aimed toward an audience that
doesn't identify as readers & which places at least as much value on
agreement & titillation as it does on meaning. Still, multiple levels of
signification are possible, as Guillermo Castro's wry, wonderful homage to
Allen Ginsberg, "A Deli on First Avenue," demonstrates. But as a rule it's
not evident that, in the context of performativity, richness in content
advantages the text.
I think it’s important to
note that Short Fuse as a project
represents one possible step toward just such an increase in depth & this
may be its major achievement. Oral poetries by their very nature tend to be
local. If you don't see what, say, Edwin Torres
is doing, you have relatively little access &, by itself, a
transcription on paper is seldom enough to suggest all the many layers that are
potentially active when the poem itself is understood first of all as a score.
At a party I attended for the anthology in the offices of CLMP, the Council of
Literary Magazines and Presses, one Toronto poet told me how much she
appreciated hearing the work from Montreal at a reading the previous evening at
the New School. The two scenes, according to this poet, seldom communicate,
even though both are involved in parallel activities within the same country.
In bringing together so many like-minded writers from different regions and
parts of the world, Swift & Norton may ultimately be taking the first steps
toward the creation of a performance metalanguage, a shared vocabulary that
would enable such writers to begin to build on what one another are doing
The absence of this vocabulary
is a major weakness in many of the oral poetries gathered in Short Fuse. It explains, in part, why so
much of this work falls back on the stand-up comedy routine as a formal
framework from which to operate – it’s something to which all these poets and
their audiences have been exposed. The lack of a metalanguage is precisely the problem
that has kept conceptual art in a position of always having to start over from
scratch with each new work, regardless the worker, regardless the scene. And
the absence of a true sense of tradition, of historical memory, is itself as
much a consequence of this lack of shared vocabulary as it is a cause. It is
precisely this absence that an oral poetics must overcome if it is to become
more than an adjunct to the text-based poetries of the day, interesting more as
sociology than literature.
All of which is to say that I
don't think that Short Fuse, the
anthology, is going to change the world of letters, not now, not yet, but that
by envisioning what such a project might look like, Todd Swift & Philip Norton have upped the ante for performance
poets everywhere. That is a huge achievement. And one from which we all benefit,
whatever our taste in poetry.
editor has read, for example, Sound
Poetry: A Catalogue, edited by Steve McCaffery and the late bp
Nichol (Underwhich Editions, 1978) or The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary
Compendium on Language & Performance, edited by Stephen Vincent &
Ellen Zweig (Momo’s Press,
1981), it’s not evident. The relative lack of sound poetry and Fluxus-inspired work
in the anthology – Penn Kemp is the notable exception – keeps Short Fuse from being truly definitive as a
gathering of oral poetics.
Labels: anthologies, Edwin Torres, New American Poetry, Short Fuse Anthology, Todd Swift