Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Every once in awhile, I come across a magazine or website that just reeks of the poetry of the future – it’s like accidentally opening the door to a furnace you hadn’t realized was there. The heat given off is palpable & feels more than a little dangerous. At the same time, you now have a sense of just how much energy lies behind that door. A particularly excellent example of this is tripwire 6, edited by Yedda Morrison & David Buuck out of San Francisco. Subtitled almost too narrowly a journal of poetics, tripwire 6 is all about community, defined large.

The ways tripwire confronts this issue are several. What drew me into the issue at first was an essay by Heriberto Yepez. Yepez is a Mexican poet whose work I didn’t know until Jonathan Mayhew made me aware of Yepez’ superlative blog, The Tijuana Bible of Poetics! (T-BOP) T-BOP is one of the finest weblogs related to poetry & poetics, and offers the considerable value of approaching these issues from perspectives that are, for me, completely new & fresh. After becoming a complete T-BOP addict, I also discovered a series of fascinating sign poems in both English & Spanish up on Joel Kuszai’s Factory School website.

Yepez’ piece in tripwire, “What About the Mexican Poetry Scene?” describes post-Paz Mexican poetics in terms completely accessible to readers who, in fact, are clueless on the writing to our South. Yepez does this through a series of quite savvy comparisons with the poetry scene we do know – our own U.S. hodge-podge. Thus:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>With the death of Octavio Paz, Mexican poetry lost its center; U.S. poetry has no ascertainable center.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“In Mexico, writers have . . . real power and use it up front.” “In Mexico, Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout would have to (even be pressed to) periodically speak on current issues on the Mexican equivalent of NBC’s evening news or Nightline.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>This social power “makes it impossible for even a radical poet to stay for too long” in Mexico.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Mexican poetry’s orientation toward innovation & experimentalism “resembles the self-understanding of black innovative tradition,” balancing progressive impulses with conventional forms.*
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>There is “no hard mainstream in Latin America . . . simply because in Latin America the avant-garde won.” Yet, paradoxically, “Octavio Paz established the idea that after surrealism no avant-garde could be possible again.”
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“Voice and performance have been protagonists of American counterpoetics from the Harlem Renaissance and the Beats to today’s San Francisco and New York poetry scenes. In Mexico, this is not the case. We are wed to a text-based composition.”
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“Another big difference is that current American poets are more domestic than we are. They can feed each other. In Mexico, for example, there is now a growing discussion on using English and getting in touch with contemporary American poetics (experimental and mainstream).

A major concern of Yepez centers on speculation as to the future of Mexican poetry, post-Paz. Will a new center form to monopolize the whole of literature? Will it evolve into something similar to the two traditions that have waged cultural war in the United States since at least the 1840s? Or will it devolve into something much more fragmented & chaotic, the way the post-avant U.S. scene seems to many observers today? Yepez notes the emergence of new modes of writing that have, as yet, to be incorporated into the broader Mexican cultural fabric – bilingual Indian poets & vizpo, as resistant to the historic frames & constraints of Mexican writing as this transnational counter-tradition appears to be in almost every other culture.

How accurate is Yepez’ characterization of the Mexican scene? I can’t say & I’m naturally wary – I can recall James Breslin’s depiction of the U.S. scene in the early 1970s as a series of peaceful suburbs with no urban center (the approximate role that Paz plays in Yepez’ model) against which to be defined. Yet Breslin taught in the same department as Robert Grenier, David Henderson, Richard Tillinghast & Denise Levertov when he penned those words, a department that was abandoned by Louis Simpson only a few years earlier with a public outcry that there was no room for his kind of poetry in the Bay Area literary scene in the wake of the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965.** Because Yepez’ depiction of the U.S. scene is generally reasonable & accurate – more so than any I’ve read by Ms. Vendler, let alone Breslin – I’m inclined to accept his portrayal of Mexican poetry. But even more than this, Yepez’ article makes me realize how much I need to buy Across the Line / Al Otro Lado, Harry Polkinhorn & Mark Weiss’ anthology of the poetry of Baja California, and how much I need Jen Hofer’s forthcoming anthology of poetry by Mexican women, Sin puertas visibles, due in April from the University of Pittsburgh Press. .

* But but but what about Robert Creeley, Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown? All three could be described in exactly such terms. A poet such as Helen Adams, or Edwin Denby, could hardly be described otherwise.

** Breslin was a classic example of the well-intended poetry critic who never attended a reading that was not sponsored by his own English department – a travesty in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, as indeed it would be in any region, even Wyoming.

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