Saturday, April 12, 2003
Live at the Writers House is a radio program that has been produced out of the Kelly Writers House at Penn from its earliest days – back when the building was a comparatively funky shell of an old cottage with little more than folding chairs, a couple of PCs & a student coordinator who slept on-site to make sure that the PCs didn’t disappear. XPN, the Penn radio station, functions less like a college station & more like a music-centered NPR outlet – its motto is “true musical diversity,” which in practice translates into 90 percent alt-Americana post-folk music – and, through affiliates, has a reach that extends from northern Virginia up into north-central New Jersey. Having won a “Best of Philly” award from one of the local weekly papers its very first year, Live has evolved over seven seasons into a remarkably tight & well-crafted event that is now produced by the poet Tom Devaney & hosted by Michaela Majoun, one of the most widely recognized names & voices on the Philadelphia airwaves. The final show of the current school year airs this Sunday evening, April 13, at 11:00 PM. You can pick live XPN programming on the web here. And soon enough, the broadcast will join the web-accessible archives that are in the process of being made available here.
The secret to Lives’ success these days lies in
Devaney’s careful curating of poets & balance with the music. For the April
13 show, Devaney brings together six fairly different, yet consistently
post-avant poets: Jenn
Sherlock, Joshua Schuster,
Zitcer & your humble correspondent. All are local to
In addition to the poets, Need New Body, a rock band that to this untrained ear is situated somewhere between Pere Ubu, the Sun Ra Arkestra & The Police, performs three high energy, exceptionally witty & listenable songs. In addition to his lead vocals, Jeff Bradbury plays an amplified banjo that at different points – & I’ll be curious to hear if this comes across over the radio – sounds like everything from a sitar to a balalaika. It’s quite a tour de force tucked inside this sextet . One thing radio listeners clearly won’t be able to make out is the mask that drummer Chris Powell wore during the first song. Composed of a black stocking with shards of mirror glued atop it, rather like a disco ball, it wasn’t immediately evident to those in the Writers House Arts Café that Powell could even see those drums, but he certainly could feel them.
One of the curious phenomena of the radio form is that you do a run-through of the show, make whatever changes people deem appropriate – I added a second poem, for example, & Need New Body switched two of their three songs. One of the things that in-person listeners can do is to hear the same event twice in the space of only a little more than two hours. Talking with Jagannathan, Bradbury & outgoing Writers House director Kerry Sherin afterwards, one thing we all agreed on was that the simple fact of the run-through transforms everything. The readings the second time are all smoother, more confident. I’m not always sure that smoother is better in the case of my own poetry, but I was happy not to stumble the couple of times that I did in my first reading. I wasn’t happy to be asked a question by Majoun in between poems that I hadn’t prepped for & which wasn’t included in the rehearsal. My answer is the verbal equivalent of air guitar – you can see (or hear) me flailing away, but don’t look too closely for any content.
Of the five other poets, McCreary is the one whose work I know best, having just finished doctrine of signatures. She & Jagannathan are the most complete & self-assured in their presentations – each sculpts meaning almost effortlessly. Hearing them together – Need New Body & Andy Zitcer come in between – I realize that to someone unfamiliar with post-avant strategies, these two poets might seem superficially similar. Both use relatively short units – phrase, line, sentence – to construct elegant & powerful works. But their writing is, in fact, radically different from one another. McCreary’s bias is toward formal strategies, Jagannathan moves more thematically. Each is interested in the social, but I’ll wager that they have a fairly dissimilar idea as to what that means. Because I went first & McCreary immediately thereafter, I didn’t have the wits about me to take notes during her reading, other than to register the fact that the work read was more recent than doctrine, generally more open-ended shorter pieces. Several of Jagannathan’s phrases from a piece that’s still in progress (holograph edits were evident on the page) are still ringing in my imagination: “spoonful of cellophane,” “orchid feverishly wants aloe” – that sounds like a terrific header from a personals ad – “crouch is a gesture to readily understand,” “if name is temporary password,” “I don’t want powerless no more” – there’s not a missing word there, which makes that gap all the more dramatic.
Andrew Zitcer is, for want
of a better description, a community organizer
of the arts, in the process of getting an M.A. on Planning in the Arts at
La Tazza co-curator Frank Sherlock reads “Night Margins,” a sequence that you can find in the first volume of the ixnay reader. A series of long-lined couplets – the second line is always indented – paired at the very top & bottom of the page with a horizontal dividing line that gradually moves down the page as the work progresses – there’s no decent way to represent this work adequately within the limitations of the blog format. Nor can you hear this aspect of the work when read aloud. Though the format visually references the divided page of Jack Spicer’s Heads of the Town up to the Aether & Sherlock is fond of the Projectivist shorthand for with – “w/” – what I hear most clearly in his work is a surrealism in which the emphasis falls on that word real. It’s a witty, challenging piece & I like it a lot.
Josh Schuster was one of the
first poets I met when I moved to
(a) take several years – I’ll bet on at least a decade – to really turn into Schuster’s “own thing” &
(b) look like none of his influences once he’s arrived.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that many of Schuster’s peers shake their heads at his work – it’s so consciously anti-poetic – not at all unlike the way Benjamin’s friends rolled their eyes at his grand failures & incomplete ventures. But, over the years, I’ve come to trust very much the artist who puts all their cards on the table & Schuster right now is taking as many risks as any poet I know. “Anatomy of Public Safety,” the piece he read here works & doesn’t work & works again on whole other levels. I’m fascinated & would love to see into the future to find out just where all this is going.
Again, let me note that you can hear all of this “live” Sunday night at 11:00 PM Eastern here on radio XPN.
Friday, April 11, 2003
Each April, Alfred A. Knopf,
once an independent publisher but now just a “brand” at Random House, sends out
weekday emails that “celebrate” National Poetry Month by advertising Knopf
volumes of poetry. The Knopf list is generally a roster of the tradition to
which alternative traditions seek to be an alternative: Hirsch, Hecht,
Hollander, Levine, Merrill, Merwin,
“A Fragment: the Cause” is the poem that Knopf issued Tuesday, April 8, by Edgar Bowers. Because I expect that I would get a letter from the lawyers if I were to quote it in full, I’m going to link to the poem here – I recommend that you right-click on the link & open the poem in a separate window. This poem is actually the work that Knopf posts on the website as an example of Bowers’ verse. For its April mailings, Knopf at least partly chose this poem because of its presumed relevance to the issue of the devastation of war.
If the clichés don’t get you – “Rapt murmuring,” “the cry profane,” “spent bitterness” – the sheer overwriting will – “mask of numbness,” “silent foreign call,” “Medicinal hope’s spent brevity” – this is such an intense little catalog of bathos that one almost wonders if the poet is, perversely, making fun of the dead.
“A Fragment: the Cause”
would be a dreadful poem even if turned in by a college freshman – that it
appears at all in Bowers’ Collected
Poems is an indication that he had no editor who cared very much about
the man, a sad comment really. Not unlike having a publisher’s website that
tells you that Bowers “now lives in
What does it say about Knopf
& its poetry marketing prowess that they would send this howler out to
hundreds, perhaps thousands of poetry readers? At one, very basic level, it’s a
confession of illiteracy from the heart of the trade publishing industry. No
news there – Carcanet’s
attraction to the soft porn of Sophie Hannah demonstrates that this isn’t
That this may be deliberate is worth thinking about, especially when we consider that roster of poets in the first paragraph. Bowers’ poetry, after all, has been described by no less than Harold Bloom as being “in vital form, in accuracy of perception and sensation, in a vision at once original yet profoundly representative of the American imagination at its most eloquent maturity.” Today, in fact, there will even be a conference on Bowers at UCLA. The participants that may be most recognizable to readers of this blog are Turner Cassity, Timothy Steele and Robert Mezey. We envision much rapt murmuring and cries profane.
Thursday, April 10, 2003
A letter from Chris Stroffolino. I’ve left it unedited, save for the addition of two footnotes:
Having recently read your blog in which you ask us to note the excision of your historical analysis in the comments attributed to you by Gary and Nada for their (nefarious?) “Blank Generation” feature, it occurred to me that my response might have been significantly different had I been aware of the elided passage, and so would like to take this opportunity (especially in the rocket’s red glare of events that “have substantially rewritten recent history”) to consider some of these points.
Taken in your “slightly broader” context, the comments
consider in turn two particular historical moments that seem to
have significance in one way or another for many of us, 1989 (roughly) and
1974. Ultimately it seems you argue that 1974 was the more crucial year in
terms of the “depoliticization” you’ve noted. Whether the increased
deterioration of “shared point of agreement as to the goals of the left” was
primarily due to the U.S. exiting Vietnam, “identarian tendencies,” the resignation of Nixon, the “Oil Crisis,”
inflation, or other less easily pin-downable factors
(such as, for instance, the so-called “coming up age” of many of the baby boomers at that time; the
co-optation of symbols of rebellion by the dominant culture, or the burgeoning
For the present purposes, I am especially interested in the question of demographics. The fact that the baby-boomers had a significant numerical and demographic advantage viz-a-viz their elders (and, surely you would agree that some of the excesses and “mistakes” of the weather underground, etc., related very specifically to the idea(l) of an “alternative youth culture”) had much to do with both the “shared point of agreement”; and that, by definition, could not be sustained without being reconceptualized as many began the slow-march toward “dropping out from the drop outs” with age. At the same time, many of us born in the 60s found that one of the major disadvantages we had was that we would not be heard. Over and over again in the 80s, whether at Nuclear Freeze or “U.S. Out of El Salvador” rallies, or in hard-core punk mosh-pits, there seemed to be ample evidence that, no matter how we organized, no matter what little victories we were able to achieve locally, that we couldn’t affect the public sphere, couldn’t access the airwaves, largely because the demographic doors had been shut on us. This was not so much “an incentive not to organize,” --and certainly, for many of us, REAGAN (as well as Bush I) was A PRIMARY SHARED POINT OF AGREEMENT—but there definitely was a developing politics of “cynicism and disgust” as you put it---even amidst the attempts to organize. Basically, as you probably know already, many of the “underground” or “punk” (or whatever term you wish to use) of the 80s developed a strong aversion to working within the system, a DIY ethos*, to some extent out of necessity, but to some extent it was an attempt to WILL the “marginalization” that had been forced on many of us — to make a kind of separatism a virtue. Surely there were some heroic exceptions, for instance Act-Up circa 1990, with its poignantly comic post-yippee media interventions, but, for many, a kind of “purism” reigned---words like “sell-out” were perhaps even more common currency during this time than they were during the 1960s (for instance, some of the punks in the squat in which I lived called me a sell-out for 1) taking an adjunct job rather than continuing to be a trash picker or 2) for wanting to play melodic music rather than simply bang on metal like the local (Philly) “industrial band” Sink Manhattan. I could quote many more examples of others….).(As a sidenote, I should probably add that in many ways in subsequent years I’ve found such dynamics of political “purism” also played itself out in much of the avant-garde poetry scene I began to become more involved with after that New Coast conference in 1993. The parallels are striking, and so when I read your use of the word “disgust” here, it’s hard not to think of Sianne Ngai’s essay** in which she argues for the continuing of an elitist, er, marginalized, post-language coterie as “political”….and thus I concur with you, at being disgusted by this ORGANIZED disgust, whether seen in squats or Stanford professors---although, I TOO don’t want to make such a charge in any kind of dogmatic way, since, as you say, events have substantially written recent history.)
Anyway, since “my” generation had, compared to yours, a relatively protracted adolescence (due to economic and demographic factors at least as much as the lack of a 10 year anti-Vietnam movement), I wonder about those born in the 1980s who are now in their teens and early 20s. The 1980s baby boom, we’re told, is numerically larger than than the late 40s---50s baby boom (though, still smaller demographically---no one’s predicting that half the nation’s population will be under 30, as it was in 1967 I think, any time soon). So there may be an opportunity for this generation, coupled with those of my “protracted” generation (many of us still floating in a temp-economy with no health-benefits, and thus not as easily seduced by the patriotic rhetoric of “privilege” as many who were our age [late 30s, early 40s] in the late 60s), to actually “successfully negotiate” whatever “reconstruction” may very well be recurring in the coming times. It’s, as you say, still to early to tell---but working against the hope of an anti-war (and anti-“homeland security,” etc.) movement even as effective as the one in the 60s remains the large degree of media censorship, whether it’s Clear Channel banning the Dixie Chicks for making anti-war statements, to the more salient, if not benign propaganda of Teen People, to get the youth hooked on materialism much more effectively than ever (though this itself may very much parallel 1950s America much more than the 1980s was---though it bugs me that one of the things the press—well at least that dares reports on anti-war activities today somewhat favorably, keeps saying is “unlike the 1960s, it’s not a bunch of shaggy drop-outs. No, it’s respectable business people who protest the war” as if the reason for that isn’t because so many are forced to dress and look more ‘respectable’ in office-like ways now than at any time in American history! Ah, health!)
Ah, I remember how so many of us thought the 1980s was LIKE the 1950s and so therefore the 1990s could be like the 1960s, and for a second there, around 91, 92, it seemed not unrealistic---but the 1980s, though politically conservative, were perhaps not socially conservative enough to be a seed-bed for a 1960s kind of life affirming opposition to the military-industrial complex. For instance, Madonna, who many of us had contempt for, was still speaking sexual liberation to some extent, even amidst AIDS, While the far more sanitized pop-acts today may be much closer to Pat Boone, etc.
To return to your original point----
Although I therefore don’t think 1974 effected a depoliticization of younger people generally (though it is a convenient year for marking the depoliticization of many who had been young in the 1960s; the next “crop” of young was very political, just less heeded), I am willing to grant the significance of 1989—1992 as time in which I witnessed a substantial depoliticization, a breakdown of much of the underground political and artistic networks of the “youth culture” of my generation---whether it was the “Clinton Democrats” or the Major label co-optation of the vital potential of the 80s underground music scene, the 90s was such a cynical time (in its alleged economic prosperity that never quite trickled down) that I found myself in many ways nostalgic for the late 80s, even though in the late 80s I, and others born in the 60s, felt “things can’t much worse than this!” Furthermore, in terms of socialism, some of us tried to make the argument that NOW THAT the Stalinist Bloc has collapsed, actually we should be in a position to make a BETTER case for socialism or communism because, as you point out,
Those so-called communist countries weren’t communist---but ultimately this argument got lost in the shuffle of so-called 90s prosperity, and even (if not especially?) in the poetry “world,” such class-based arguments fell on deaf ears amidst identarian tendencies and an over-obsession with the politics of poetic form (which, however useful a counter strategy in the 70s, seemed to be thoroughly bourgeois-ified by the early 90s…). Whether the current war, as well as the “war-on-terrorism” will begin to be articulated in terms of class remains to be seen, and I do not want to too giddy for a shared point of agreement as Bush/Chaney/Rumsfield et al, for I am very suspicious of becoming too much like The general and majors who always seem so unhappy unless they got a war (as that 1980 song puts it…)
One last thing, speaking of 1974---
I recently read a poem by Jeffrey McDaniel (b. 1967) that begins like
this--- I’ve a hunch it not be your thing, but here’s how it starts.
“Nixon fell in ’74, like a painting off the wall,
and we busted out the lighter fluid, the marshmallows,
danced around the bonfire of him, ripped off
our paisley blouses, made love so cosmically
even the sun came, birds squirting in every direction,
but when the drugs wore off—what had changed?
When they said WATERGATE (italics), we expected an ocean,
A river at least, to irrigate sunflower seeds of protest.
Not Gerald Ford in a see-through apology….
all best Ron,
keep on bloggin’
* Do it yourself.
** “Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust,” Open Letter, Tenth Series, No. 1, 1998; also in Telling It: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, edited by Marc Wallace & Steven Marks, U. of Alabama, 2002.
Wednesday, April 09, 2003
James Wagner is a practitioner of compactness. The poems contained in The False Sun Recordings, a forthcoming book that will be published by 3rd Bed – a publishing venture that evolved out of the little magazine that Wagner co-founded* – are for the most part short, generally 14 lines or fewer, but they’re all exceptionally dense, as, for example, this first stanza from “Dolphy / At the Five Spot, Vol. 1”:
Lunafish, drugged on the alcove, flickers in a dim
limitation, like an eye obscured by bone. So, toxin,
encrusted, ambivalent, fallow. On a loan spoken for
got. Ten rides on the chigetai, no one broke in
the talc room. Let’s admonish small minerals,
pinch and crimp, loiter with whip and a tune.
The Eric Dolphy reference in the title is apt, if only because Clark Coolidge, the originator of this word-by-word mode of literary abstraction, is himself an accomplished drummer very much inspired by the syncopation & strategies of post-bebop jazz. Yet Wagner’s poetry is a far cry from Coolidge’s – it’s more worked, more determined by possibilities of image than sound, though with an ear that is genuinely gifted.
There are, in 2003, any number of poets who work with referential abstraction. Wagner seems quite unlike writers who generate texts sometimes in great quantity through such strategies, like Sheila E. Murphy or Peter Ganick. The poet who, in fact, Wagner most reminds me of is Tan Lin. Like Lin, he seems almost the polar opposite of a Coolidge, who used such practices as a mechanism for taking poetry somewhere it never previously had been. Wagner (again like Lin) appears far more concerned with the crafting of terrific literary objects using roughly the same set of devices, which are known rather than new. The result is an ornamentalism rather distant from the improvisatory flourishes of Coolidge.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but rather a distinction between the projects of writers from very different generations who operate with superficially similar palettes. Coolidge is & always has been about the discovery of color, for example, whereas Wagner focuses on its application. There are an exceptional number of solid pieces in The False Sun Recordings, lots of crunchy delights for eye, ear & mind. It may, in places, be more lush or more tightly torqued than anything you’ve read before – but it’s not new.
* Wagner departed during 3rd Bed’s little magazine phase, before it started doing books.
Tuesday, April 08, 2003
Physical hill still my will.
Mind’s ambience alters all.
Another poem, the title piece in fact, so closely approximates prose that Creeley does something quite rare for him – he capitalizes the first letter at the left margin to emphasize the line & enjambments: “We were waiting to get our / Hands stamped and to be given a 12 pack / Of Molson’s.” The next to last work, “Memory,” imagines Allen Ginsberg (located as “Somewhere”) “recalling his mother’s dream / about God.” The content of the dream itself is roughly identical to the old Joan Osborne song, What if God Was One of Us, beyond which the poem moves literally into a consideration of the poet’s prostate. I wonder, reading it – it’s one of my favorites in this little volume so full of gems – how a reader/poet in their 20s might respond to such a work. On the subject of age, Creeley is as unblinking in his depictions as any war journalist. My own sense is that one’s conception of time becomes much more cyclical & far less linear at a certain point – the rhythm of the seasons, for example, become more palpable as the years accelerate, which they invariably do, if only because the percentage of your life that is contained in one such cycle becomes less with each reiteration. Creeley is as articulate a commentator on this transition as we have had, precisely because he shows us both the moments of closure & its lesions.
The final work is
particularly spooky, entitled “Remember” & dedicated to Keith &
Rosmarie Waldrop, asking them to “Remember when / we all were ten . . . .” Yet
Rosmarie, eleven years Creeley’s junior, hardly was in an Eden-like setting at
that point in her life, the moment when the Allies were bombing her native land
back in the general direction of the stone age &
rounding up those leaders who didn’t commit suicide or flee to
At one level, this is a
volume with just six poems, although two are sequences of the sort that Creeley
has explored since the publication of Words.
That’s part of the marvel here, watching a master do so very much in such a
compact space. Although the volume has a 2002 copyright date on it, it’s so new
that it’s not yet listed on the Chax Press web site. I got my copy through
Monday, April 07, 2003
Between his New Direction
As well it does. These pieces are among the very best of Creeley’s recent work, which means that as a reader I’m virtually hopping up & down with excitement at each new poem. Viz:
As I rode out one morning
just at break of day
a pain came upon me
As I thought one day
not to think anymore,
I thought again,
caught, and could not stop –
Were I the horse I rode,
were I the bridge I crossed,
were I a tree
unable to move,
the lake would have
the sweet, soft air
So I hear, I see,
tell still the echoing story
of all that lives in a forest,
all that surrounds me.
Like John Ashbery – the other poet forced to put up with “greatest living poet” expectations – Creeley has sometimes been criticized in recent years for failing to continue to revolutionize poetry in all the ways he did during his first 30 years of publishing. As I’ve noted with regard to Ashbery, I think this is a bum rap, in that it makes his writing about us, rather than seeing it for what it is, his writing. Spicer’s model of the poem as a tool for investigation for the poet is exactly on point here. Having spent 30 or so years creating a space in which to do his work – a process that just incidentally revolutionized poetry – Creeley continues to demonstrate the extraordinary agility & acuity with which he still explores this terrain.
The poem above, the tenth
section of a sequence entitled “Pictures,” makes the point perfectly. Like his
All of which sets up the remarkable effect of the last line, when the mind waits in anticipation to hear the rhyme of the previous stanza’s sounds only to discover that it turns up embedded in the next-to-last word surrounds, which either recedes if the reader hears the line as a whole or else bumps noisily onto that final disruptive me. Yet this is in fact exactly the self-involved, compulsive process that is described with great care in the second stanza of the poem. Far from slamming the door of the poem shut with the total closure of a terminal rhyme, Creeley has set the form up as a lesson to us all, that it doesn’t close & that it never ends.
The poem at one level is a little Zen parable. At another, being brought to self-perception through a sudden pain – common enough experience that that is – is virtually the definition of proprioception, a term with extraordinary history & implications for Projectivist poetics. I find myself thinking – as so often I do when confronting Creeley’s texts* -- how does he do that much & make it look so simple? I’m simply grateful that he has.
* Oddly enough, I first really connected with Creeley’s poetry not through the Allen anthology, nor even the Kelly-Leary Controversy of Poets, though by then I owned both books, but rather through a single poem of his that was used both as epigraph & for a title in Jeremy Larner’s ‘60s campus novel, Drive, He Said. The simplicity of Creeley’s poetry can be quite deceptive &, at first, I was among the deceived.
Sunday, April 06, 2003
No blog today. It’s my anniversary & I’m doing other things.