Saturday, February 01, 2003
Robert Grenier’s Sentences, much discussed previously on this site, most
24, are now up on the net at the Whale
Cloth Press web site. There is also a link on the Grenier page at the
Small Press Distribution, incidentally,
lists Sentences Towards
Birds, the 1975 L Press selection, as still available at $15. This
selection of about 50 cards differs from The Box in part also because of the
typeface, a crisp Times Roman rather than the blocky Courier of Sentences. However, as only 100 copies
of Sentences Towards Birds were
printed & the SPD website characterizes it as a paperback when in fact it
is a pack of cards in a specially printed manila envelope, I would call SPD
directly before I ordered that item: 800-869-7553 (free phone call within the
Labels: Robert Grenier
Friday, January 31, 2003
It’s an old joke among writers that the two ways work can get into a publication – submission & solicitation – entail terms whose sexual connotations are (a) unmistakable & (b) not necessarily representative of free play & mutuality. The problem with the joke is that it isn’t funny. The power imbalance between publisher & the would-be-published remains absolute & more or less unbridgeable: alternatives over the years have certainly been tried – Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling simply asked contributors to send in a specified number of pages, 8 ½ by 11, which were then merely collated – yet the only one that has ever had any serious impact on literary culture has been self-publication (viz. Whitman), & then only very rarely.
These are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read a comment by the Australian poet Alison Croggon on the British Poets listserv on Tuesday:
Examining the New Penguin Book of English Verse, a compendious tome edited by Paul Keegan, it seems to me that women are rarer than modernists in late 20C English poetry.
I might amend Croggon’s plahn ever so slightly to postmodernists (or, more accurately, post-avant), but a glance at the table of contents for the work covering that past 30 years or so does seem mostly to be Eavan Boland & the Boys, save for one appearance by Denise Riley – albeit there are some Gaelic names there whose work (& gender) I do not recognize. So while Bunting pops up more than once in the table of contents, names such as Raworth or Prynne or Oliver or Pickard or Harwood sully not its pages for a period whose theme song I imagine must sound rather Wizard-of-Oddish: Muldoon & Heaney & Gunn, Oh My, Muldoon & Heaney & Gunn. Fiona Templeton? Not hardly. Geraldine Monk? Nope. Veronica Forrest-Thompson? Wendy Mulford? Grace Nichols? Hmmmm….
point is on target but hardly limited to anthologies. Her observation got me
scrolling back among my emails to a note I’d gotten awhile ago from Annie Finch. She had written to
the editors of a certain
really surprised to hear them say that submissions from women are low in journals committed to the innovative aesthetic, especially considering the (unusually high) significance of many well-known women poets to innovative poetics.
This is not encouraging, coming from a journal three of whose four editors happen to be women. In the words of one of its editors,
We've discussed the predicament with a couple other editors of innovative work, and they commiserate with the lack of diversity and low volume of women among submitters.
We decided in this issue to stick with our aesthetic vision regardless of the gender of the poets, but put out an extra effort to reach out in the next issue.
This is where my impatience with the aesthetic passivity of younger post-avant writers &, in this case, editors just starts to boil over. In 2003, with literally hundreds of interesting & accomplished post-avant poets of all stripes actively publishing & reading, why would any journal – & I do mean any – rely on submissions to shape what it will publish?? It’s one thing to accept interesting work that does show up when & as it does, but quite another to depend on it to create your own editorial statement. A journal that hasn’t gone out & actively solicited a good portion – 75 percent or more – of what appears in its pages can hardly speak of having an “aesthetic vision” beyond opening the mail.
A•Bacus, edited by a male, has managed to have seven of its last 15 issues written by women authors, suggesting that the approach of going out to find the writers proves to be more inclusive than waiting for the writers to find you. It also enables A•Bacus to create a public presence that articulates its aesthetics vision coherently to a readership in a way that is far harder if one is depending erratically on the unpredictable.
Yesterday, Dan Featherston commented on his concern about the “balkanization” of post-avant poetics. From my perspective, that could/would occur only if & when different tendencies refuse to seriously consider one another – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they also need to publish one another, although there will always be interesting possibilities to pick up on writers who demonstrate cross-tendency characteristics. I frankly don’t see balkanization as a danger today nearly so much as I do atomization, hundreds of small press rags publishing good, even great writing will become indistinguishable if they don’t set – and fulfill – readers’ expectations through some mode of aesthetic consistency. That’s why, with all its design flaws, the crumpled issue* of House Organ that turns up in my mailbox is so often a breath of fresh air. It has a point of view.
Annie Finch asked me if the circumstances of
this little magazine jibed “with my experience” & if I had any thoughts on
why this might be. It has, of course, been over two decades since I edited Tottels &, two years before I
printed the first issue I was soliciting the work for it, so I ended up using
very few submissions – most notably some from
It doesn’t need to be the case.
* There appears to be a lead poem by Clayton Eshleman in the current number, but I can’t tell you anything about it, because a good portion of the body of the text did not survive the adventures of the U.S. Postal Service.
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Dan Featherston, who edits A•Bacus these days, has some thoughts on the question of editing & shape in today’s far different literary landscape:
the diversity issue you raise is something i've been thinking about a lot viz editing. i think that despite the great number of people published in a.bacus, there was an aesthetic stance under peter [ganick]'s editorship (1984-2000): primarily (though not exclusively) language writing.
i've tried to expand this aesthetic ("language-influenced," "non-language influenced," "translation series," selection fr lisa jarnot's duncan bio, etc.) in order to bring into the fold a greater diversity that reflects, i think, the many trajectories of "innovative" writing over the past, say, 15 years. i've also tried to focus more on younger/lesser known poets. next year, for the 20-year anniversary of a.bacus, i'll be running issues guest-edited by past contributors.
of course, all editing involves exclusion as well as inclusion, but as you seem to point out, diversity can be a euphemism for "lack of vision, lack of stance." having studied several years ago under [clayton] eshleman, i take from him (for better and worse) the importance of making a strong aesthetic/political stance, though i think this has become much more complicated and difficult since, say, the period when he was forming an aesthetic/political stance in the 1960's qua caterpillar: aesthetics and politics have, it seems, become more balkanized. also, there is now a blizzard of print and on-line journals devoted to innovative poetry, which wasn't the case 30 years ago.
from my historical perspective (34-years-old), i see the aesthetic/ political positions a lot more balkanized today than, say, 30 years ago, so the difficulty gets grafted onto editing. part of me resists the sort of "fence" approach (i.e., no stance) to editing, which can, i think, devolve into a kind of epcot approach to terrain – "it's all here in miniature!" and another, lesser part of me resists being too partisan / narrow in my editing decisions.
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Another new-poet-to-me in Bird Dog 2 whose work
catches my eye is Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, a Tibetan-American poet who grew up in
exile communities in
He writes a language still unknown to him. Looks up each word
in the dictionary when he cannot use his hands to show what he really means.
He can lick the surface of her skin, taste its tingle and wonders what good words
would make of the gesture. That he could want more is impossible. He wants
more. In the end his words are more or less. In my heart, he says, are many rivers.
They all flow in the same direction. He sits at a desk every night in case he is needed.
This is his job. Still waiting to become happy – night after night at the desk watching
TV. He does not wish for the good when so much else is closer. Once after a cup
of chocolate, he pushes his tongue against hers to show he is the greatest. He counts
the seconds. Imagines everybody climbing stairs into their rooms to hide a secret.
The lines here are so long that I have to think about whether or not this is a prose poem when I retype it here. Because the first line is noticeably shorter than the others, I decide that it most likely is verse. Long as they are, the lines are still shorter than those I find in the review section at the back of Bird Dog.
There is a gentle surrealism here, so quiet that it seems possible to miss it as such altogether. Its most evident in the leaps this small fable takes – from using the dictionary to licking “the surface of her skin,” from sitting at the desk to not wishing for good, from counting the seconds to hiding secrets. All these little leaps are very much in keeping with the ambiguity between prose & verse.
What is even more
interesting, from my perspective, is that a surrealist impulse should show up
here at all. In my own mind, I can never fully dissociate surrealism from its
Arriving in the
I was a caring husband. I bought socks for my family.
My swarthy wife liked to wear these thick woolen socks that came up to her milky thighs.
I had a lover also. People could see me walking around each evening carrying a walking stick.
My most vivid memory, looking back, is of a pink froth bubbling out of my infant’s mouth.
Not everything was going so well: one morning, malnourished soldiers marched down our tiny street, bringing good news.
When good news arrives by mail, the cuckoo sang, tear up the envelope. When good news arrives by email, destroy the computer.
When an old friend came by to reclaim an old wound, I said to my oldest son: Go dump daddy’s ammo boxes into the fragrant river.
To reduce drag, some of my neighbors were diving headfirst into a shallow lake.
We were rich and then we were poor. A small dog or maybe a cat now pulls our family wagon.**
Here surrealism invokes
precisely the colonial tone & history of
Nor does Dhompa.*** Hunting
around for more of her work on the web, I came across a piece in Vert
that excites me even more than the two pieces in Bird Dog. It’s entitled “City of
Politeness prohibits saying what I really think.
Viaduct: a code for a feeling. Like mauve,
over the street of tarmac: a grave summer day
offering clean streets and a leg longer by perspiration.
Or gannets in sight. That women are said to speak so much
of feelings; as though to clarify would mean its end.
It never is. Clarification I mean. To indicate trust I tell you
the fish is who I look at most these days. For love, for love.
Endings happen. Words I use because I like who I become.
Summer resolved of mysteries. Give me nothing. Tiny, tiny
pebbles used as prop. Tilted and tinted glasses. City
of my desires has lines rigged at the waist. One minute
of sleep at a desk might bring it all down. Words you find
under my nail. (S)wallow. Some night owl effusion.
I love the rapid changes in this piece, the way in the last line wallow emerges from swallow, “s,” “w,” “o,” & “l” all reappearing in “some night owl,” perfectly setting up that final word. The Creeley allusion (For love, for love) leads not to the literary, but to set up the later use of reiteration: Tiny, tiny. One can still see the evidence of a surrealist impulse here (the fish is who I look at most or Words you find / under my nail), but it’s just one layer here among many.
More than a few poets of my
own age cohort have demonstrated a considerable interest in (influence by) the
* Tatsuji’s classicist
approach led to a poetry that was at once surreal & yet completely devoid
of European allusions. The relationship of
** This poem comes from the exquisitely designed chapbook a small triumph over lassitude.
*** & yet Dhompa has been criticized by in the Kathmandu Post for a desire “to forsake the local for the sake of pleasing the global communities of the world.”
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Nico Vassilakis writes a very clean line:
The posture of an event is directly
Related to the posture of its participants
For instance, we are slaves to our lawns
Photosynthesis laughs at us
If you adjust the rabbit ears just right
You can receive your next door neighbor better
Meanness is allowed to fester
And it will ruin the spine
The pilgrimage is made
To reassert the definition’s truth
Glorious water, but even it
Falls victim to gravity
Winding its way down to the feet
The head ponders the fascinations of light
The birdsong of ancient typewriters
Chattering in the background
Vassilakis’ language is quite direct, needing only two commas in these sixteen lines, taken from “Talk is Parting of a Problem: first aspect,” in Bird Dog 2. The line itself is accentuated by the capital at the left margin, but only lightly so. Look at how gently that first line is enjambed, remarkable in that it occurs right in the middle of a verb phrase interrupted by an adverb. The mid-stanza linebreak occurs on, or even in the middle of, the verb phrase four times & two other times at clear moment of syntactic gear shifts.*
Part of the secret here is the relationship of the line itself to the couplet ** – of the eight stanzas here, at least six can be read as complete in themselves, although the syntactic hinge between gravity & Winding is deliberately ambiguous (that first line could as easily be read as attaching to the stanza above as to the line below). But it would be a mistake, I think, to view these lines as halved couplets – too many of them get their effect precisely through the way one sets up the next: the bivalent Winding is only the most pronounced example.
A clean line in poetry is a
rare thing. Only a few poets seem ever able to master it consistently –
There are, of course, as many reasons to not want a clean line as there might be to desire one. Like rhyme or the tub-thumping metrics of iambic pentameter, the form insinuates a vision of unmediated & harmonious existence that is patently a lie. Vassilakis does a superb job in the section quoted above of using just such possibilities against themselves. Sort of an anti-Moxley, Vassilakis’ irony meter has arrived at a throbbing red maximum. “Meanness is allowed to fester / And it will ruin the spine” is an absolutely fabulous moment in this regard. It is difficult to imagine how an individual could ever hope to write much better than that.
* At the end of the dependent clause in the third stanza & right before the conjunction in the fourth.
** Only the opening line in this poem – or at least in this “aspect” of the poem (the title suggesting that there might well be more) – is not part of a couplet.
*** Another poet who has done so at times appears in this issue of Bird Dog – Spencer Selby – although his work here is not particularly an example of that side of his writing
Monday, January 27, 2003
Two, no, three things this
morning have me thinking about the value of the local. The first was a dream I
was still in the middle of when I woke up – I was visiting some old friends
whom I had not seen in several years,
The second was reading some
poetry in the second issue of Bird Dog, a
self-described “lo-fi” magazine edited by
Nico Vassilakis is living in
My son Colin didn’t seem at all scared when I read it to him, merely furrowing his brow in the way 11-year-olds do when Dad is being weird, saying, “What?”
Two of the new poets whose
work I’ve similarly liked in little magazines of late, Thom
The third thing that made me
think of this was a web site, a blog actually, Paper Bent, by a young
writer who is using the internet to create her own scene as far in the
Virtually everywhere I’ve
traveled as a poet, I’ve found other writers doing good work, supporting other
writers in their community, helping to create whatever local scene might be
possible in a circumstance of scare resources. Over the years I’ve come across
people such as D.F. Brown in Houston or the team of Chris & George Tysh, Glenn
Mannisto & Kofi Natambu in the
A poet such as Gil Ott is
appreciated widely for both his poetry & fiction. In addition to his own
writing, his publication of such poets as Harryette Mullen &
Like the poet-teachers who find themselves as beacons of light in out-of-the-way small colleges, these people are the very heart of writing. Poetry literally could not survive without them. The genre would very quickly dissolve into a phenomenon of a handful of cities & from there would shrink into some kind of bizarre antiquarian behavior, the very thing that it is sometimes caricatured as by non-poets. The reality is that every last one of us is a local poet first & whatever else we might be as writers only after. Some of these people are responsible for local institutions, a reading series or small press, but in many instances they simply function as an example & by way of the verbal encouragement they offer to others.
When I was in Russia in 1989, the painter Ostap Dragomoschenko gave me a parting gift of an old Soviet medal that read, in Russian, Hero Worker. I was to keep it for a month, Ostap told me, then to pass it on to somebody whose efforts in some field inspired me, with these same instructions to pass it forward another month hence. I gave the medal to Michael Rosenthal, the senior member of the Modern Times Bookstore collective in San Francisco, who has managed to keep the vision of a politically progressive bookstore alive in a city that is surprisingly inhospitable to good bookshops*, who in turn passed it on to someone else (I forget who) with the same instructions. I’d like to imagine that, 14 years later, that medal is still circulating. I would love to award each of these poets just such medals for their efforts.
* Yes, I’m
sure it’s worse in your town than in SF, but that doesn’t make
Sunday, January 26, 2003
The poetry of John Ashbery
is all about surfaces: the text glides, line by line, from image to image,
subject to subject, seldom permitting readers to go deeper into any envisioned
landscape. Other poets who have written texts with a high surface textuality –
think of Coolidge’s Quartz Hearts or The Maintains,
Not so Ashbery. Reading his
poetry is like finding cotton balls, children’s toys & shards of glass in
your oatmeal. One proceeds with caution, an anticipatory anxiety all the more
curious given just how affable almost everyone you’ll meet along the way will
turn out to be. A really good case in point is “
The poem begins with one of the most extended schemas in Chinese Whispers, the image atop of a cocoa tin:
How happy are the girls on the cocoa tin,
as though there could be nothing in the world but chocolate!
As though, to confirm this, a wall stood nearby,
displaying gold medals from various expositions –
to reward the noble chocolatiers. All love’s bright-bad sweetness
gleams in those glorious pastilles.
Ashbery here employs a
cinematic trope, starting with the static image, then
entering into it. All is literal sweetness & light, although the careful
reader will already have picked up on the set up the parallels “as though…/ As
though,” sending, as these phrases do, shivers of foreboding through the
But the empathy’s valve’s
shut by someone – a fibrous mist
invades their stubborn cheeks and flaxen hair.
Time for the next audition.
At one level, the cinematic trope is carried further & trumped as the reader recognizes that “the girls on the cocoa tin” are little more than models or aspiring actresses, shuttling about from shoot to shoot. At a second level, the language in that first sentence is positively bizarre – empathy itself is alienated by having it capped with the article the; an impossible image is offered, fibrous mist, followed by a curiously awkward one, stubborn cheeks. This sentence demonstrates exactly what I mean about Ashbery’s surfaces – if he wanted to carry the trope through with flair, all the deliberate awkwardnesses here, as though the writer himself has suddenly discovered English to be a second language, work against the intention. But that in fact is this sentence’s very purpose, sabotaging the very schema within which it finds itself.
The next stanza, a mere couplet, changes the frame, perhaps:
Who to watch? What new celeb’s dithering
is this, commemorated in blazing script?
Does Ashbery intend for us
to continue the cinematic trope beyond the stanza break, to see the portrait on
the chocolate box as a mere incident in a celebrity bio, the latest E! True
If this couplet has been the shard of glass in the oatmeal, the next stanza offers the whole toy store. Notice how, in these opening lines, Ashbery offers the reader possible connectors to the rapidly receding schemas that have come before.
The torches are extinguished in marl.
Were there torches in that initial cocoa tin image? Not impossible, but . . . .
I live in a house in the middle of the road,
it says here. No shit!
It says here could in fact take us back to the celeb’s dithering in blazing script. But it’s a link that goes nowhere, precisely as intended. With the expletive, the focus now shifts onto the speaker, where it continues.
What did I do to deserve this? Who controls
this anger management seminar? They’ve had their way with me;
I am as I was before. Thank heaven! If I could but remember
how that was.
This is classic Ashberyan technique: sentence after sentence undercuts what has just gone before. All that coheres is the presence of a speaker, however comically crazed he might appear.
This passage is followed immediately by a long sentence in italics.
Always, it’s nightfall
in a wood, some paths are descended,
and looking out over the ropy landscape, one sees
a necessity that was at the beginning.
This sentence also has an antecedent, although only rhetorically. It’s the passage about the empathy’s valve toward the end of the first stanza. As before, awkwardness is its own virtue, the use of commas where others might have employed periods, the “ropy landscape,” the vast generalization of the last line. All of it in an italicization that will depart as abruptly as it arrived.
When the stanza continues, reverting to roman –
Further up there is fog.
– we have no means of locating this positional statement. Are we figuratively in the wood, in the middle of the road, back on the cocoa tin? There is no way to tell. We have arrived, as we almost invariably do in Ashbery’s poems, in a landscape that is filled with character, yet indescribably abstract. Ashbery now reinvokes the presence of a speaker, acknowledging the listener for the first time:
But it’s nice being standing:
We should be home soon,
dearest, a dry heath awaits us, and the indulgence of sleep.
What if I really was a drifter,
would you still like me? Would you vote
for me in the straw polls of November, wait for me
in the anteroom of December, embrace the turbulent, glittering skies
the New Year brings? Lie down with me once and for all?
As with pastilles above, the instant at which Ashbery starts to undermine the intimacy of this discourse is marked as sharply as if a bell were being rung, in this instance with the terminal word of the fifth line, vote. The rhetorical questions continue, only blown up to comic proportions. Even before vote, the use of dearest suggests a degree of privacy in this communication that Ashbery has already long given away.
We pass now over the gulf of the book’s binding to the next page, to what may in fact be a new stanza (both tone & shorter line lengths suggest as much):
The radio is silent, fretful; it bides its time
and the world forgets to consider. There is room to tabulate
the wonders of its sesquicentennials,
but the aftermath’s unremarkable, picked
clean by a snarky wind.
Again, this passage is entirely about surface tone – the poem is coming to its conclusion, even as it has become impossible to discern what that conclusion might be. Instead of action, we get aftermath, forgetfulness, silence. Everything but that irritable snarky suggests closure – and it is snarky’s task precisely to undercut the gesture.
But the poem isn’t over yet. It has one more one-line stanza, all in italics:
Then I became as one who followed.
Because we have had the figured speaker before, the return of “I” is plausible. The line itself suggests an event that has thus prefigured a change, but events are precisely what we have not found in this poem, only tone & attitude. The most important word in this last line turns out to be as, which both qualifies the assertion – he’s not saying that he’s one who follows, only “as one” – and harks back for the first time since the opening stanza to the parallel uses of as in its second and third lines. As turns out to be what finally “holds the poem together,” to the degree that anything here might.
Ashbery’s poem is thus significant moment to moment & formally very cagey, yet overall it’s a self-canceling (not to say self-devouring) artifact, all superstructure & no base as old retro Stalinoids might put it.
It’s intriguing, perhaps
even shocking, that Ashbery should turn out to be the great cross-over hit of