Saturday, April 26, 2003

 

Pores calls itself an “avant-gardist journal of poetics research” & is edited out of Birkbeck College in London by founder Will Rowe along with Caroline Bergvall, Robert Hampson, and Sean Bonney. It’s the most well-considered and thoughtfully edited web publication for poetry since Jacket. The second issue has just been posted with superb work from Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Gilbert Adair, Alan Gilbert, Allen Fisher, Alan Halsey, Carolee Schneeman, Brian Kim Stefans, Maggie O’Sullivan, Hazel Smith & more. I ran Habib Tengour’sOpération jumelles” through the French-to-English translator at Babelfish &, while it no doubt made a hash of it, as it always does anything that is not the most normative of texts, it gave me a result that I found fascinating (& just a hint further as to why you should be reading this webzine):

 

Operation binoculars

 

The shortly after September 11, I should have awaked me American. The metamorphosis did not have anything of surprising. It arrived! In Paris. In Copenhagen. In Ankara... Alchemy of the loan to be carried. But me? To find me in my bed, similar with the day before, had what to worry the neighbors. I touched myself. What arrives? What arrives to us? However, I looked at television. Like everyone. I did not take down a settee. Like everyone. And like everyone, I did not believe my eyes of them. Impossible! Impossible! The film passed and passed by again. Without stop. The advertising page jumped. Deferred series. Not question of fiction. Documentary incredible. INOUI! It is the direct one. In my agitated sleep, it passed to the idle. The two binoculars subsided on my chest. I started. I relit television. That started again. By interval, the camera angle changed. I was sounded by the catastrophe. The images ate me the glance. Diabolic puffs raised me the heart. What arrives to me?

 

I test difficulties of finding the formula for saying what occurs. Analyses abound. With carries part. The words do not miss. And of the neologisms. The newspapers provide us each day of it. The metamorphosis developed. And me? Despite everything my efforts and a goodwill with the top of any suspicion. But perhaps had I unconscious reserves to cooperate. That requires a thorough examination.

 

The third day, I pété leads. Name of God! My cranium bursts. Inside, it is a pulp. It is necessary that that ceases! Move yourself! I trifouillé the meter with a nail-clippers. Clac! Roasted the cathode ray tube. I rub the hands. I did not metamorphose myself but I acquired mischievousness. It is perhaps frustration not to be American like everyone. That taps me. The pile of newspapers to the dustbin. I would never have time to read... What a relief!

I became insane. To bind.

As this character of Gogol which loses its nose while crossing the street. Fortunately, I had a strong cold. A respite...

- Now that the tele one is ruined, you are satisfied! me engueule it. With what that does advance you? If you are not rotten to even make the share of the things!... I warn you: you repair it or you buy another of them! And fissa!

...

The lexicon is treacherous... One can say what one wants. But when you do not awake like everyone, there is what to be alarmed. It is much more serious. The neighbor of stage does not say any more hello. They all are there in front of, to await the elevator; and you, you take the backstairs. What changed? How to know? You broke the tele one... There is average, the radio functions. The emissions are more intelligent. The voice does not puff out the brain like the image.

I calm myself. I do not include/understand what is told. It is not with me that one speaks. Return to me the words of a reader: "It is your language. But you do not write the language of yours. In addition, you live outside! How thus think you of contributing to an unspecified national avant-garde?" A little brutal, hypocritical reader ...

"the avant-garde, told me If Nacer, these were six gray sheep that one renewed with each crossing of the Maurice line. Bigeard had discovered the trick. During the operation binoculars, it sent shepherds as a scout systematically.   "... I often thought of this thin herd. No monument celebrates their sacrifice with the fatherland. Very early, this anecdote sowed suspicion in my spirit.

However, I made the barricades!

It is Stratis the sailor who saved me drowning. It trailed me with a bar of the Bastille. To speak, one is better. The salted almonds untie the language. Of goal in white: "Then? Does the policy, that really interest you?... The praxis? Of course! But this deserted policy public places. The raï makes fury. Drop all that. You are conspicuous. And a man of the past! You, you do not require that clogged companions attach you to a mast to listen to the song of the sirens...

By bits. Glanant per Ci. Jumping by there. Advancing straight. Turning over me. Forking. Fragmentation of the thought. That turns in round.

"This sudden passion is equivocal", said Kateb. With Malek, we looked it with recognition. Something in the intonation. We were alone to seize the nuance. That put balsam in the heart to us. But here is an inaccessible event. I did not find words to transmit it. Not facts. In oneself, without interest. But magic of the situation. Kateb, if worthy...

_ this order me ravit. Thank you, unknown friends, to have made me sign. Thank you in you, Pierre, to have communicated my address... It said in the mouth of the wolf . Eh, well? Where is the need? It is always a question of form.

Sénac, cut out holes in its books to him. "With time, the world, one carries it inside oneself. One has very few words to make fly." I represent our discussion. Because the body was not there any more. The revolution abhorred its stripped plaster boards of management. Which fault made voiceless our following days?

I learned how to work. With me to conceal. The poet must be erased.

Not to choke the poem.

What arrives? One spends time to see it. More one supplement to realize some. Baghdad was shaven. Grenade fell. And Jerusalem  ? The dates run up against the wickets. Rotted pot of the memory... Since the beginning, the Arabs remember a radiant future hopelessly. To two range of arc. This great nation resulting from the son of the maidservant is made type on the fingers. And that lasts. Is this genetic? How all that programmed is? Too much, it too is!

The friends die in a number. Also those die which I do not know. To funerals, the faithful ones follow the procession in cash. Far from the world. Progressively, their number is reduced. They train a small family. With the variation, the corner of the street. One serves a tea or a coffee with the choice to them. They take some dates. There is always to tell the same stories thousand times told.

...

"the time of the Arabs..." sighed Emile.

 

Habib Tengour

The Kremlin Bicêtre August 2002



Friday, April 25, 2003

 

Nick LoLordo, who teaches at UNLV, had several thoughtful comments about my take on Emily EakinsNew York Times article concerning Critical Inquiry’s conference on Critical Inquiry in the 21st Century. Other than correcting the spelling of Eakins’ name, I’ve made no edits to the body of the letter – the ellipses are all Nick’s.

 

Dear Ron:

 

“Long time listener, first time caller,” as they say on the radio. Some thoughts on today’s blog. (If you're swamped by angry messages from profs disagreeing with you, does that affect your argument? – I'm not one of those hypothetical angry profs, but I do think you're setting up a straw man.)

 

Why trust the Times? [I know you apologize for your source, but you then go on to assume its accuracy in the polemic that follows...] Would you trust their account of contemporary non-quietudinous poetry? When Emily Eakins tells you that they didn’t talk about literature at that meeting, this, I think, is code: she’s scolding them for “not teaching Shakespeare,” for not sticking to their job description, a rhetorical strategy that is part of a tradition of conservative criticism in the media going back to the culture wars, Roger Kimball, etc...

 

On your account the only way for theorists to encounter the contemporary world is through contemporary writing, because that’s the field that defines their professional existence.

 

I agree entirely with you that the academic “neglect” of contemporary poetry is real, is a problem, has consequences within the institution in that certain types of intellectual work get ignored or misunderstood – I noticed it as soon as I got to grad school, and I got to grad school not knowing much at all about contemporary poetry and yet knowing a lot more than most of my peers.

 

[An aside here: your move with the Frost book seems unfair; the alternative, say, Mary Margaret Sloan’s recent piece in Talisman that under various categories lists groups of poets in huge slabs of names (borrowing your strategy from In the American Tree), seems also inadequate: there are always more names .... why would Frost choose to cite every writer you named? If she cited half of them would that be enough? Respect for those writers one admires and the desire to be inclusive, if reified in the form of huge lists, are not entirely unproblematic...]

 

But I don’t completely understand your remarks about academics moving away from literature to talk about what they’re not qualified to talk about. English departments have been focal points of interdisciplinary work for quite a while now; the causes and effects of that are complicated. In what sense is Jameson not qualified to talk about politics? Because he read Perelman badly?

 

As for your larger argument against “theorists”, surely any such argument applies to all academics. Academics by definition can’t exist widely through the society – they exist in the academy. The diversity you ascribe to poets is that they are employed by a wide range of institutions while all identifying as poets. [Of course, some poets who work in the academy aren’t comfortable identifying as academics....]

 

Any social efficacy of poets re. the war surely had/has to do not with their variety of job descriptions but with the shared identity of “poet” and an ad hoc organizational strategy; poetry becomes a site of symbolic resistance to the war because of a history of spontaneous organizing linked to the fact that poets aren’t professionals – both the praise and the dismissals of Hamill’s project assumed the “amateurism” or “purity” of poetry. Poetry is mediated, just like every other kind of writing.

 

Finally, I don’t understand your conclusion. Whether or not it admits great living poets, the discipline doesn’t achieve social impact without being mediated through the university. If you mean only to suggest that the discourse of academic literary criticism doesn't “matter” in the sense that some other activities do matter (achieving visible effects within whatever timeframe we call “the political”) I’d probably agree with you; so, with varying degrees of sorrow and glee, would many academics.

 

But that doesn't mean that nothing a professor of lit, or anything else, can do “matters.” I’d even argue that there are many things I can do within the university that ultimately have an effect in what (some) academics call the “real world.” If I go to the humanities librarian and convince her to order 100 contemporary poetry titles from the SPD catalog for the university library – many of which will be the only copy of that book in Las Vegas – will those books necessarily become “schoolwork”? Separated from the avant-garde communities in which they were produced, will they fail to bear the values of poetic experimentation that nourished them, and become mere commodities, losing their street cred? (Too late – I did it!) A sociological argument (Bourdieu; Steve Evans) greatly oversimplified might look something like this: the literary field is a system of shifting differences where the avant-garde is defined against both the mainstream and the academy – but there’s no necessity that this particular set of oppositions will remain adequate....

 

Which leads me to a final question. What would happen if academic critics of poetry generally demonstrated, to your satisfaction, an adequate grasp of the contemporary moment?

 

I appreciate your blog, and learn from it constantly; In The American Tree was just about the first avant-garde work I ever saw. Thanks for writing...

 

– Nick

 



Thursday, April 24, 2003

 

I love Shakespeare, whose 439th birthday was yesterday. For the past quarter century, I’ve seen maybe one of his plays year. Since I’ve lived out in the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia, I’ve mostly attended shows from People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, a company whose work I’d heard of even back in the San Francisco Bay Area. My favorite of their productions to date has been one of Coriolanus, a text I’ve always loved but never seen performed before. Not too long ago, I caught a great production of As You Like It put on by The Acting Company to a nearly empty auditorium at Great Valley High School. The largest single contingent in the audience were a group of young adults from a group home for the developmentally disabled, and they left at the intermission.

 

I also think Shakespeare can have a positive influence upon almost any writer’s work. It’s precisely the influx of Shakespeare on Melville’s prose that transforms Moby Dick from his previous merely excellent work. I also think that this is what Olson takes from Melville, both in his critical prose and in his poetry, up to & including the creation of the Falstaffian persona Maximus.

 

So I wonder just a little how come I find it so deeply creepy that Dana Gioia’s big initiative at the National Endowment of the Arts should be a $3 million program to bring Shakespeare to “100 small and midsize American cities in all 50 states?” In fact, The Acting Company, originally founded by John Houseman with Margot Harley when they were at the Julliard School, will be one of the beneficiaries of this program.

 

My problem is this. The NEA, which has very limited funding, is using a substantial chunk of its resources – $3 million from a total of just $116 million – to promote the work of a foreign author. Not any old foreign author, mind you, but one whose values for poetry just  happen to coincide, at least in Mr. Gioia’s mind, with the aesthetic program of new formalism.

 

It would appear that there is no American author or play that could compete with the Bard of Avon for such federally subsidized dissemination. Imagine, if you will, Angels in America in Missoula and Bozeman, Einstein on the Beach in Fresno and Redding, August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, Sam Shepherd, Ntozake Shange, maybe a little Def Jam right there in Crawford, Texas. Rattle off your own examples here – almost any would do, even Rent, Chicago or Urinetown.

 

Theater as practiced in the United States is already the most conservative of the literary arts & the one most thoroughly enmeshed in a Eurocentric frame. Now we have the federal arts program placing at the center of its agenda a project intended to reinforce the impression that theater in America extends from the British Isles, rather than, say, Noh theater of Japan, the puppet theaters of Southeast Asia or the performance traditions of any of the world’s other peoples. The ultimate purpose of this project is not to open America up o theater, but rather to concretize the narrowest possible definition of what theater actually might be. At its heart, the Endowment’s endorsement of Shakespeare is a profoundly anti-democratic concept, which will no doubt help to endear it all the more to the likes of Hilton Kramer, Bill Bennett & Mrs. Cheney.

 

Fortunately – and there is some good news here – fortunately, Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Even the worst theatrical bungling can’t completely obliterate those elements that Melville & Olson found in his work, the restless always inventive destroyer of limits, an intellect who would no doubt treat the New Formalists for the Myrmidons they are.



Wednesday, April 23, 2003

 

Dale Smith asked me if I had any theories why “the day book, dated poems and journals became so important” to the New Americans. It’s a good question & especially fortuitous that Dale thought to include dated poems as an element in the sequence. What follows isn’t an answer so much as a series notes that I would follow up if I were to try to develop this line of thinking further. But I see the concern for the daily, or however you want to characterize it, as a specific moment in a larger sweep of changes within the poem – one that begins in the 19th century and which continues onward well after the New Americans discovered their own versions of FiloFax and the Day-Timer.  For example, one immediate beneficiary of this phenomenon was, I would argue, Clark Coolidge, particularly with his early long poems Polaroid & The Maintains.* Let me explain.

 

The issue as I see it has to do with what the poem is about. Or, perhaps more accurately, with the problem of aboutness. It’s worth noting that the very same 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads that initiates, for English, the discussion of the role of speech in poetry – and which anticipates the prose poem** – also opens the question of what poetry should be about:

 

It has been said that each of these poems has a purpose. Another circumstance must be mentioned which distinguishes these Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feel therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.

 

The word feeling no doubt serves crudely as an umbrella category for a wide range of meaning effects. Yet the distinction being drawn between poems that proceed from meaning & those for which meaning is imposed from the outside remains a fairly reliable demarcation between all the various alternative traditions on the one hand, which can trace their roots back to Wordsworth, Coleridge & Blake, and the all various schools of quietude that, to this day, attempt to perpetuate the 18th century in verse.

 

This impulse arrives in America somewhat over a half century later in the twin guises of Whitman, whose cumulative project Leaves of Grass to this day challenges our definition of the book, and Dickinson with all her untitled poems. Not that, for any of these writers, the move away from meaning-giving master narratives was accomplished either entirely or all at once. One sees the same struggle repeated over & again throughout the 20th century. The Pound of Mawberly – the Pound begrudgingly acknowledged by the American school of quietude – versus the Pound of The Cantos. Yet one can play this same scenario this way: Pound’s Cantos (&/or WCW’s Paterson) vs. Zukofsky’s “A.” & one could play different sections of “A” off one another likewise.*** Stein, living in a nation in which Lautréamont & Rimbaud had already moved at least as far as Zukofsky by the 1870s, never had trouble with this issue. She got it, day one – which is why, in part, it took so long for her to be incorporated “seriously” into American literature. More than a few parallels might be drawn to Joyce, whose Ulysses has often been interpreted as a “making heroic” of a single day of plebian life, but might just as easily be read the other way around, as a trenchant satire on the nature of heroic narrative. And whose wake could not be misread in such terms – its narrative dimension is at best a game.

 

This issue of aboutness had been roiling around in unfinished, incomplete modes for nearly a century by the time the New Americans show up in the early 1950s. If it’s most often visible in the large undertakings of the major modernists, it’s also often there in a deeply conflicted way. Thus Crane’s The Bridge can be read only as an extreme of the problem, not radically dissimilar from, say, The Cantos, The Waste Land or the later Paterson. Thus H.D. uses Grecian images & themes to “write about nothing” almost as insistently as Stein, but in such a way as to appeal constantly to a certain readerly nostalgia. With the New Americans, however, several now elements come into play more or less simultaneously:

 

§         Olson’s interest the poem as documentation of the thinking process

 

§         Kerouac’s interest in the poem as documentation of the writing process

 

§         Asian influences, at first through Rexroth & later Snyder & Whalen, introducing a tradition in which various diary-modes had long existed

 

§         An interest in modernist literary diaries through Duncan (Anaïs Nin) and the NY School (Ned Rorem)

 

§         The impact of the late stages of Pound’s Cantos & Pound’s life, the latter in particular demonstrating all too clearly why a master narrative is invariably a totalitarian one

 

§         A visible critique of ego beginning to show up in music, from Cage’s uses of chance to Harry Partch’s appropriation of hobo graffiti for texts

 

The poem of dailiness becomes the perfect – if temporary – expression of this convergence.

 

Frank O’Hara first uses a date to title a poem on October 26, 1952 – the title even gives the hour “10:30 O’clock.” Duncan follows suit starting with some of his Stein imitations in 1953. Whalen does it in 1957. Olson, whose epistolary mode of public letters in Maximus could be read as an alternate model – one to which Duncan was at least partially drawn – doesn’t use a date in the title of a Maximus until the very end of ’59.

 

The journal consolidates this interest. The first instance I can recall of a New American project that proposed itself explicitly as a journal, thus acknowledging that form as such, was Ted Enslin’s New Sharon’s Prospect and Journals, published as a special issue of Coyote’s Journal+ in 1966. Enslin’s work linked both prose & verse. As his later long poems, really meditations on the possibility of the line, would make evident – Enslin, something of a late comer among the New Americans, arrived at a point in his writing where any interest in a master narrative, an overarching meaning into which all other meanings roll up, was simply of no interest.

 

The journal presents a model for writing that borders on, if not always fully engages in, plotlessness in a format that readers will inherently recognize. That is, I think, both its strength & its curse. That’s also why it passed through a late phase of the New American movement rather in the manner of a flash flood. And why the logical next step belongs to Clark Coolidge, moving writing to a point where the question of self-actualizing meaning suddenly becomes the issue for form. Interestingly, Blackburn, whose published journals begin in 1967, as well as Coolidge, then writing much more like a young Phil Whalen, appeared in Coyote’s Journal immediately prior to Enslin’s New Sharon’s Prospect and Journals.

 

 

 

 

 

* A comic take on the phenomenon of numbering in titles can be seen in Kit Robinson’s newest book, 9:45, in which every poem has some form of numbering system for a title.

 

** ”It may safely be affirmed, that there neither is, not can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”

 

*** Eliot’s stock among the quietus set fell demonstrably after the publication of the drafts of The Waste Land in which it became clear that – if you could excise all of “Gerontion” & still yield the larger text – TWL was not nearly so committed to any master narrative at all, but functioned rather as a series of inspired riffs

 

+ Easily the most under-documented, under-acknowledged little magazine of the 1960s. It was the model for Caterpillar , for example. Coyote’s Journal  came about, as did Big Table in Chicago, after a campus magazine in Oregon was shut down for printing the Beats. Coyote’s Journal’s editors were James Koller, Edward van Aelstyn & William Wroth.  

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Tuesday, April 22, 2003

 

Relying on information second hand, even from The New York Times, is invariably risky. But Anastasios Kozaitis posted this story from the Times to the Poetics listserv on Saturday. chris cheek then forwarded it to the British Poets list. The idea of a conference to discuss the irrelevance of theory is just too cute – and cuteness is no doubt precisely what Critical Inquiry had in mind in hosting the conference at the University of Chicago. This is the academic equivalent of a Jeff Koons porcelain puppy.

 

All the usual suspects appear to have been present – Stanley Fish, Homi Bhabha, Skip Gates, Fred Jameson, W.J.T. Mitchell, Catherine Stimpson, Sander Gilman – plus of course an audience of 500. The premise of the discussion, to be only slightly reductive, is that theory has no direct impact on politics, ergo cannot stop the depredations of George – “the most dangerous president ever” – Bush, ergo is impotent.

 

I wasn’t at the conference & don’t have access to the various comments speakers made. But what was notably not present in Emily EakinsTimes report was any reference to the domain about which all these theorists were trained to theorize. To wit: literature.

 

This, it seems to me, is no accident. Over the past thirty years, normative academic theory – save for a few infamous instances, such as Jameson or Andrew Ross slumming among the language poets – has shown almost no concern whatsoever for contemporary literature. If anything, it has shown a combination of fear & ignorance. Thus Stimpson once characterized the MacArthur Fellows – she was then the director of that program – as “pushing the envelope” on the very same day that a Fellowship was granted to Richard Howard. Sealing the envelope would have been more accurate. Normative theory’s famous penchant for the 19th century has had much to do at least in part with the fact that dead writers tend to be safer – they don’t talk back & are less to write & publish something in the future that will embarrass the critic. A discipline that was itself once blindsided when Paul DeMan was shown have collaborated with the Nazis in Belgium might develop a sense of caution.* Ever the practitioner of the self-congratulating artifact, Fish’s own public distrust of theory dates back to that period.

 

Not surprisingly, theory’s antipathy for contemporary writing has less to do with fears that Lee Ann Brown or Brian Kim Stefans will join the Bush administration than it does with institutional positioning. To direct literary theory toward actually existing contemporary poetry & fiction would be to suggest that writing is, in fact, what literary theory might be about. Current writing & the future of writing. Contested writing. A practice that is by no means contained in the Bantustan of the academy. That is not what contemporary theory has been about – it is about, & virtually all it has been about, at least in the United States, is institutional power. Which for this coterie of theorists means the institution of the academy, not the broader, diverse, motley field of poetry. Thus there is as yet not one substantive work of theory by an American academic not already thoroughly integrated into the poetry world that has had a substantial impact on poetry.

 

One downstream consequence of this is to intellectually (or at least academically) fortify even well-intended critical applications of theory from feeling any need to actually understand the field such works presume to discuss. Thus, for instance, one can find a theoretically sophisticated text such as Elisabeth Frost’s The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry and discover, in its index, not a single citation – not one – for Helen Adam, Paula Gunn Allen, Rae Armantrout, Julia Blumenreich, Lee Ann Brown, Tina Darragh, Jean Day, Diane Di Prima, Lynne Dreyer, Judy Grahn, Fanny Howe, Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Sheila E. Murphy, Alice Notely, Pat Parker, Joan Retallack, Chris Tysh, Cecilia Vicuña, Anne Waldman, or Diane Ward. Do you honestly think that a text that cites Barthes, Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva, Freud – it even mentions me twice – but excludes all of these core examples of its own alleged topic is going to have any street cred? But street cred with poets is all too obviously not the point. When you have theory, who needs to know the subject?

 

Indeed, we have seen plenty of universities – UC San Diego is a perfect example – where a system of adjuncts and visiting poets has been used literally for decades to ensure that there are not enough creative writing faculty tenured to take over the literature program from an otherwise theory-driven faculty. That’s academic malpractice, no doubt, & the future of literary history will deal harshly with the tenured few who permitted that to happen. But would you, if you were Stimpson or Fish, hand over the reigns of your discipline to the likes of Bob Grenier, Bob Holman, Amiri Baraka or Hannah Weiner? The truth is – tho you know it would make for a better department, a livelier program – you would not.

 

So theory generally treats contemporary writing disdainfully if at all. The problem of that approach, however, is that it cuts the normative theorist off from any relevance to the world. To turn their attention to politics, or psychology or economics or film or urban planning, is roughly akin to turning their attention to basketball – it keeps them occupied, but the fantasy that they could have any impact in any of these fields demonstrates considerably less contact with reality than Hannah Weiner ever had. 

 

What this conference on the relevance of theory, or lack thereof, comes down to, I suspect, is actually a curious case of Sam Hamill envy on the part of both organizers & participants. Hamill, by virtue of his refusal to participate in tea with Mrs. Bush, set off a round of attention to the fact that poets were & are against U.S. aggression & an imperial state. Theorists, by comparison, for all their impeccable institutional connections, are far less able to generate that kind of response & they no doubt must wonder why. Poets, it is worth noting, generally take Hamill’s project for the small beans it is, well meant but poorly executed, an almost comic case of unintended consequences. But poets – good, bad, indifferent – exist far more widely throughout society than do theorists. Only a tiny fraction of poetry is wedded to the university system – even less to the clique of trade publishers – & by no means is this fraction necessarily any better than that which, for example, works for computer companies or as librarians or as health professionals or in temp jobs in various cities.

 

Theory, at least as a normative academic phenomenon, lacks that same social base. A theorist who tried to function outside of the university system – think of Walter Benjamin – would be in deep weeds today.** There are no coffee house theory series, no Bowery Theory Club. And what recent theory has existed outside of that system – Steve Evans’ work in the early ‘90s would be a good case in point – has been closely connected to an actual aesthetic practice, such as contemporary poetry or film.

 

So, having thus insulated themselves from letting the likes of a Robert Duncan or Ted Berrigan take over the very discipline in which they exercise their power, these same normative theorists now find themselves reminded by an event as simple as Mr. Hamill’s refusal to come to tea that they have also successfully sealed themselves off from any possible societal impact. They don’t matter. At least they got that right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Those who envision the field of theory more broadly to include people trained in politics or economics were likewise left in problematic circumstances, to say the least, when Louis Althusser murdered his wife.

 

** Exactly the fate that greets those who don’t get jobs teaching.



Monday, April 21, 2003

 

Hotel Amerika is the strangest new magazine I’ve come across in some time. Published out of the English Department at Ohio University, Athens, the first issue – dated Fall 2002 but only recently turning up in my mailbox – has a cover image by David Wojnarowicz, part of the late artist’s Rimbaud-in-NY series. It is not, however, the famous image of a junky shooting up while wearing a mask of Rimbaud, but a far safer scene, man in a Rimbaud mask standing at the edge of a body of water, a fishing trawler foggily silhouetted against the horizon. As it turns out, this dynamic between edgy, innovative artist and famous name-safe scene is a drama that is enacted throughout the entire issue.

 

Hotel Amerika appears expensively produced, but the visual decisions have a quantitative feel to them, as though more were always better. The logo has a professional design look to it, but is a little busy for a work employing just 12 letters – Hotel is san serif, the larger, lower Amerika is not – the k always is shown in a second color, for example as gray when reproduced in black-&-white. The same impulse to excess applies to interior page design as well. Outside of work titles, the logo is always the largest type on the 8½ by 11 page. Even more disconcerting, however, is the presence of the author’s name vertically down the outside margin in lower case italics:

 

n

a

t

h

a

n

i

e

l

 

m

a

c

k

e

y

 

This distracting & difficult to decipher device is skipped on the title page for each work, where the author’s name appears above a gray bar in which the title is set in drop-out type. If nothing else, the design should be an incentive for future contributors to submit their most concise pieces.

 

The contributors to the first issue are no less overdone. Poetry from John Hollander & Charles Wright, but also from Nate Mackey & Rachel Blau DuPlessis. As well as Diane Wakoski, John Ashbery, Susan Griffin, Hugh Seidman, Jean Valentine & Colette Inez. Fiction from Guy Davenport & Alyce Miller. Essays by Charles Bernstein & Andrea Dworkin – that’s a combination worth thinking about – as well as by Carol Bly & Phillip Lopate.

 

Finally, there is a category in the table of contents called Prose Poetry / Short Prose, which includes Lawrence Fixel, Eduardo Galeano, Rosmarie Waldrop, Tom Andrews & Killarney Clary. As a grouping, this is the one category in this issue that makes sense. Not because Clary or Galeano are doing anything remotely similar to Waldrop or Fixel or Andrews, but because the parameters of the genre (at least as defined here) are such that it raises issues that one can see being worked out in consistently interesting, if different, ways.

 

Given where she usually publishes, Clary might be seen as part of the new quietude, but in having to work through her impressionistic & deeply personal pieces in prose rather than verse, she forces herself to a formal rigor that’s uncharacteristic of that scene:

 

As she woke from her screaming dream she heard her voice – a weak, worthless gasp, little more than air. On that seam she heard herself before her shame – an odd shame in the dark alone as she was – before leaving into sleep, before leaving on the liner from the quay with her parcels. We test goodbye new every time, to tear out a few stitches, to measure what enters.

 

Andrews is the sort of comic poet who would have done fabulously living in New York City, hanging out with 3rd & 4th gen St. Marks poets, but who instead did the small city MFA & tenure route until he died way too young from a rare blood disorder. The curious result is that Andrews is a well-known poet, but not by the readers who would probably have appreciated him best. It would be interesting to see his work set alongside the likes of, say, Joe Brainard or Tom Veitch or an Actualist such as Darrell Gray.

 

Lawrence Fixel in some respects is the really great presence in Hotel Amerika. At 85, Fixel has been a quiet – indeed almost silent – presence on the San Francisco scene for at least five decades, coming to readings, sitting in back, saying little or nothing, leaving as soon as the events were over. His own prose works, which have appeared in little magazines & small volumes also for decades, may have started out of an interest in surrealism but have evolved into a meditative terrain all their own. In some respects, Fixel, who is characterized as a “guardian spirit” by David Lazar in a prefatory editorial note, may be the one poet included in this issue not because he (or she) was a “name.”

 

Andrews has five works in Hotel Amerika while Fixel has four – and, if anything, the magazine would have been stronger had it included more of their writing & had fewer cameo appearances by more famous names.

 

From the perspective of a reader, the disparate hodge-podge of writers comes across as a lack of editorial vision. The absence of an articulated aesthetic stance most clearly impacts the poetry. On the plus side, Hotel Amerika includes Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ “Draft 53: Eclogue.” It’s absolutely worth reading – this is true for every section of that work – and is reprinted in full on the website. And it’s good to see Hugh Seidman & Diane Wakoski given ample space for their poems as well. But John Hollander’s offering of what can only be called an Armand Schwerner imitation, “Antique Fragments,” is a howler even by Hollander’s standards. Here is the VIIth  and final section:

 

This boat that holds us near the edge of the lake

Has quickly run over the evening water

Now [ . . . ] at rest [ . . . ] rocking [ . . . ]

I am in your arms [. . . ]

Our lives in the arms of the waves.

 

If the sentimentality of those final lines are intended to be satiric, they fall so far short of Schwerner’s far more comic, erudite & pointed Tablets as to be embarrassing. What is even more startling, I suspect, is the idea of Hollander imitating Schwerner in the first place. It has even occurred to me that Hollander might not be imitating Schwerner, however badly, & that maybe Hollander doesn’t know Schwerner’s work. That would be a far more damning conclusion.

 

As is often enough the case when new journals start with a burst of name writers & no clear direction like this, it may be that Hotel Amerika’s actual aesthetics won’t become evident for a few issues. Looking at the table of contents for the second issue posed on the website, only one of the ten or so names I recognize, John Latta, isn’t associated with the school of quietude unless one includes the right-wing author, Mario Vargas Llosa. All in all, it’s a curious mix, even more so perhaps because George Hartley is on the masthead as a contributing editor.

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