Monday, October 06, 2003
Aaron Tieger, the editor of Carve & himself a blogger, sent me the following email that, among other things, contrasts the reading style of poets in Boston with those in (or from) New York.
I'm never sure whether to use the comment box or email (or my own blog) to respond to blogs, so I'll send you this and if you feel like posting any of it then do so, and if not, then do not.
First, thanks for the CARVE mention.
And personally, I rather like that
Anyway, I think I've said all I can think of to say. Enjoyed the post. Hope you like the magazine.
Best, Aaron Tieger
"You gotta brush your teeth with rock and roll" (Peter Wolf)
"There is no them and us, there is only you and me... We need to find the 'self' that can truly be the authority that it is... The exponent of Karate does not aim at the brick when wishing to break it, but at the space beyond." (CRASS)
comments remind of the observation that New York poets made (or used to make,
as I’m not certain that this distinction is still true) that San Francisco
poets in the 1970s & ‘80s came to New York and read for long periods of
time—45 minutes & up—the idea being that SF poets went on more or less endlessly
in contrast with the more time efficient New Yorkers. And it is true that at
least at venues like
however, a logic to it that, I think, played out
Similarly, I recall other discussions from that same period that suggested that the tendency toward sound poetry & other performance-centric genres in Canadian poetry was at least partly the result of the fact that the Canada Council supported performances to a degree that it did not the solitary poet isolated off in that room of one’s own.
Russian poets of my own generation, I know that some of these same dynamics
remain at play, as several poets such as Arkadii Dragomoschenko & Alexei
Parschikov adopted a deliberately low-key, non-performative reading style in
reaction to the theatrical declamations of what they felt had been the
compromised older generation of Yevtushenko & Voznesensky. Yet Ivan
Zhdanov, a contemporary of Arkadii & Alexei, but one whose roots are in
All of which is to suggest that there can be multiple strands at work in the creation & context of a reading style. Pound’s trilled “r”s in the recordings of him reading, or Williams’ failure to heed his own line breaks sometimes jump out at us to remind us how very different their world of poetry was from our own. I honestly can’t say if there is a “Boss Town Sound” or reading style, one that is, say, more low key than that of New Yorkers. But I’m open to entertaining the idea.
* Co-started, really, with a poet named Mike Bono, who soon dropped out of the process.
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No blog mañana. I’ll be traveling on business.
Sunday, October 05, 2003
Saturday, October 04, 2003
do you get to hear the significant poets in your region? Once
a year maybe? That number has always seemed about right to me, but it
varies considerably depending on how many active reading series there are, how
many poets & of course how many poets in whose work one is genuinely
interested. Writers in
I must have
So I was more than happy to hear her Thursday night at Temple’s central city extension site, literally in an office building a half block from City Hall. It’s been a few years since I last heard her read & it’s always an illuminating event. Thursday was no exception.
Scalapino read from four works: Zither, It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, The Tango and a new as yet unpublished manuscript called Can’t is Night. At the outset, she said that she had a musical structure in mind when picking which works from which to read. & I could hear it, more so than I had in the past, which made me wonder how much Leslie had changed since I moved east in 1995, how much I had, or maybe how much the world of poetry had so that my expectations were different. It was aurally the most fascinating reading I’ve been to in years. So much so in fact as I drove west out to Paoli afterwards, I tried to think of another reading that had struck me in just that fashion &, in all honesty, the one that came to mind was a trio of Friday night readings Robert Duncan gave in Berkeley around 1970 in which he read all the sections of his long poem Passages that had been written to that point.
Which made me think of how few poets – unless they’re explicitly doing
sound poetry, another kettle of fish altogether – foreground the syllable, the
grainy surfaces of consonants or the clear tones of vowels to the degree that
And I think that the answer really may be that since
But as I
said much more is always also going on. The one work I had in front of me as
Scalapino read from it was It’s go in / quiet illumined
grass / land, -- that’s the kind of complex, multi-line title one
normally associates with the late Larry Eigner. In it, the stanzas or passages
function as individual units, sometimes one to a page, more often two or three
separated by just enough space so that the eye instantly registers the
individuation. It’s the same sort of spatial separation that generally divides
sections in the booklength prose poem Sight the Scalapino did in
collaboration with Lyn Hejinian – flat out my favorite collaboration ever.
There I thought it had been a part of their strategy of keeping their individual
moments in the
wall standing rose could just
as evening in the middle of
and so no space even there
freezing pale night at wild (only)
‘there’ only, no rose even so can
the day there being no people
Only one place is a thought that I can’t quite shake from a stanza like this, as tho solving a riddle by combining the key (or at least reiterated) terms into what, for me, makes the most sense.
This is a sense of stanzaic form I can’t recall ever having seen before. It’s not the kind of interlinear textuality that might make one want to have two separate readers, but rather a model that permits both one-words lines and longer ones that tend toward six words (there’s one of five, another of seven). But how account for the moments when there is only one one-word line between the longer ones as distinct those where there are two?
Contrast this sense of line & stanza with this sentence, which opens up Bob Perelman’s “Driving to the Philadelphia Poetry Festival by the Free Library,” which to my delight I found on DC Poetry website the other day.
Emerging from the middle
of a donut-shaped dream, I rolled out of yesterday like there was no tomorrow, turning left
with its consonants and trees,
right onto the not necessarily bitter irony of Mt Pleasant, which goes both up and down,
like life they say
but maybe not.
passages here are predicated on the tension of long vs. short line, but in
Scalapino’s there is an ambiguity as to how much “turn” the reader should here
In Perelman’s work, the line is visual & almost inaudible, the normative syntax unfolding as though the text itself were perfectly ordinary, a register of ironies not unlike Mt Pleasant, smooth as a ride on an elevator.
One source for Scalapino’s form here must come from her collaboration with sculptor Petah Coyne (visible in the book in only a single print).* Coyne’s drip wax sculptures are the upper limit of sensual surfaces in contemporary three-dimensional art & I see that relation in the shifts between lines, for example, in the sample of Scalapino’s work above – it’s a feature that I think you can hear if you just read her work aloud roughly the way she does, slightly faster than one syllable at a time.
I’m not quite sure what I make of it all, but this isn’t a statement of ambivalence in the slightest. Rather, I’m going to need to absorb it, as I did Sight (and as I am doing her Autobiography), knowing that it will come to almost in a generative fashion, in waves in the days & weeks ahead.
* My nephew
Dan & I saw a Coyne exhibition in
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I want to
note something else that the Temple Writing Series does that I think makes
great sense. Before each “visiting” writer reads in their series, a student in
the writing program reads a short set of their own work. They almost always
pick somebody whose work has something simpatico with the visiting writer &
it’s often a very interesting balance. I first heard Pattie McCarthy “open” for
Friday, October 03, 2003
Yesterday, I characterized Fanny Howe’s booklength verse drama Tis of Thee as a “completely narrative work” that “focuses on parallel stories of interracial love, a birth, and a male child given up to others, once in the 1890s, once in the 1950s.” This is accurate enough so far as it goes, but it hardly goes far enough. Narrative in the hands of Fanny Howe, who has written more than a few works of fiction since publishing her first collection of short stories, Forty Whacks, in 1969, is no more “ordinary” in her hands than in those of, say, Kathy Acker.
Tis of Thee entails three voices, one of a white woman, two those of black men, describing, in Sherwood Anderson-like soliloquies, twin tales of emotional devastation that result from racist reactions to the question of “mixing.” Most if not all of the philosophical, historical & social consequences of crossing this barrier that exists, not biologically, but politically, between races are examined in a way that is, on the one hand, quite methodical, & on the other driven first of all by & through emotion. There are subplots as well, not simply giving away the child & the inner death that must entail for the “abandoning” parent, but a second one involving the female figure & the most important unvoiced persona in the drama, that of her father. (At some point, a serious critic is going to examine that “substitute the father” syndrome Howe suggests might drive one to first transcend whatever social taboos one might internalize. It’s a powerful force & one that is not resolved in this text.)
If the voices represent historic figures, they don’t quite exist as personas, as each must inhabit two roles – that of the 19th century tale, the second occurring in the middle of the 20th century.* Indeed, they have no names & are merely identified as X, Y & Z. If, on the CD, for example, it’s never necessarily clear which woman Stephanie French is giving voice to in a particular stanza, it’s precisely because Howe isn’t after that. What matters here is not how the voices are individuated, so much as how they are not. For it precisely the trap of social category, gender as well as race, that is being etched verbally:
Across one century, and into the next, I became the mother of his child—
Twice at least—but let each child be taken away from me.
Naturally I grew nauseous from loneliness.
By night-fits and shadow-language of the trees I tossed
my knees this way and that—my bed a raft on a sea ill-lighted and deep.
My cries were dry.
The leaves rattled the glass.
Outside sirens would invent the whole city’s anthem,
a tune of anonymous personal pain,
and trash cans smashed against teenage hands. Now I would see
reflections like stains in a clear swamp . . . . White lilies cupped by greens.
Trees twinned and echoes on a grassy pond.
It was really a mirror for me. My birthright with its clear glass tables
in livingrooms—except where the cocktail left a circle—or the peanut a shower
of salt—was never to be mine again.
I had stepped outside a magic circle.
And I couldn’t take care of myself
even though I could talk eloquently about many liberating subjects in 1890.
And yet again in the middle of the 20th century.
It’s worth noting, in the section above, which sentences are given their own lines for emphasis & which are embedded into larger structures.
This passage, I think, makes clear many of the strengths of the work, but also some of its limitations. The writing itself is terrific, but the dramatic monolog as a form confines the text, especially here when in fact it is more than one woman speaking in a single voice. As the CD makes all too evident, this is especially a problem for the two male roles in this play. Because their multiplicity renders it impossible to individuate them linguistically (one speaking more “correctly,” say, the other using slang), it becomes almost impossible – and more than “almost” if one doesn’t have the text in front on one when listening to the recording. After hearing the CD five times over three days, I still cannot tell the two male voices apart at all. Only part of the problem lies with the actors or the director – the real issue is textual: “transpersonal” voices don’t so much articulate positionality (which is what I think Howe is after) as they do dissolve “personality.” Yet there is an opacity in the latter that is utterly essential for the question of positions.
category, not the person, is the problem & the problem should not be underestimated.
When I was working in the prison movement in
But for all of its power & sadness, Tis of Thee only partly confronts the depths of this problem. That it event attempts it is a testament of its power & of Howe’s fearlessness as an author. Yet rather than articulating the three positions—male, female & offspring—that Howe has written, what I hear instead is a different triad: black male, white female, absent (but controlling) father.
Miles Anderson’s score, which ranges from Henry Cary’s 1740 Thesarus Musicus (from which both “America” & “God Save the Queen” are derived) & something I could only characterize as Phil Glass lite, is unobtrusive when it needs to be & in some places quite lovely.
* The text implies, although it never really addresses, the question of how might these dynamics all play out today, as far removed from that second tale as it is historically from the first. Do younger people have more freedom in this respect? I certainly hope so, although one sees the same dynamics worldwide cast in a thousand different forms, Serb & Croat, Hindu & Muslim, Arab & Jew.
Thursday, October 02, 2003
There is a
motto that has stuck in my head for a quarter century that says “Aspire to read
more than what comes in the mail.” The source for this is a statement made by
my late friend Jim Gustafson in the anthology None of the Above. His version is wordier – typical enough for Jim
– but his point is exact. But then his mailbox isn’t my mailbox – and it’s not
1975 any more, either. When I went out to the end of the driveway, I came back with
three separate envelopes from greater
Carve, Issue 1, edited by Aaron Tieger,
with work from Gregory Ford, William Corbett, Joseph Torra, Dorothea Lasky, J. Kates, Sara Veglahn, Eric Baus, Noah Eli
Gordon, Nick Moudry, Travis Nichols, Michael Carr,
Mike County & Del Ray Cross, a chapbook from Pressed Wafer
composed of County’s Three Deckers & Cross’ Poems. I have no idea where County lives,
though I’m vaguely aware that Cross lived in the
There is also a letter from Larry Fagin, suggesting (as have a few emails from others) a correction to my piece on Paul Blackburn’s “Ritual XVII.” The idea that O’Hara ever wrote any of his lunch poems on a department store typewriter (or anything like that) is, in Fagin’s words, an “old wives’ tale”: “There was an Olivetti dealer in the MOMA neighborhood, with a sample machine bolted to a stand out on the sidewalk, (I tested it once, myself, being an inveterate Lettera 22 fan) and while it’s tempting to think so, none of Frank’s poems issued from it.”
the mailbox under several computing magazines is a thicker package from
Tis of Thee, by
Fanny Howe, a booklength verse play, complete with CD. This completely
narrative work focuses on parallel stories of interracial love, a birth, and a
male child given up to others, once in the 1890s, once in the 1950s. After
several years of teaching at UCSD, Howe has returned to
· Poetical Dictionary, by Lohren Green, actually (as I read it) a sequence of works written as dictionary entries, a preface that is itself a meditation on the dictionary as form, complete with some strange tables and great illustrations by Robert Hullinger. Currently a San Franciscan, the globe-trotting Green joins writers as diverse as Armand Schwerner & Clark Coolidge in engaging the dictionary as discursive model.
So far as I
can tell, Green has no visible connection to the
Boston-related items in one day’s mail, though, gets
my attention. In my own mental map, the
are more heavily identified with one side or the other of the Great Divide
betwixt post-avant & quietude. And I have to admit – having just seen the
most cloying preview of Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in the forthcoming
biopic Sylvia –
what might be said about
But as the
Stinking, dreaming out loud
in balloons overhead
Handle arcade change like
peep show quarters;
ate for years, but
wouldn’t put lips to food.
Nowadays he reads from
the Collected Charles Whitman,
spray paints his own poems
to a canvas stretched
with old cinema screens.
to drive both parents through.
complex, intense little poem, one that expects readers well-read enough to
recognize the name of the Texas tower sniper of 1966.* It exists in a world rich
with meaning & intention, a
* One of whose victims, 18-year-old Thomas Eckman, was the son of poet Frederick Eckman.
Wednesday, October 01, 2003
recounting his visit with collagist Wendy Kramer on the Philly Sound website, CA Conrad mentioned
of Jonathan Williams that
“so many writers my age and younger seem to be ignorant of the man and his
press.” This may well be true, but, if so, the loss belongs to these younger
writers. Williams has been, from the beginning, a one-of-a-kind renaissance
tucked down there in the western mountains of
Among other things, Williams is not only a master punster, but the first of the Black Mountain poets – and him you can legitimately call such, since he not only went to that august but dishabille institution, but has lived nearby most if not all of his life – to understand that Projectivism’s rigorous scoring of the line for sound could be used with a much sharper sense of satire than, say, Pound’s mere mocking of southern accents in The Cantos. Williams ear, as well as his wit, turns out to be far sharper. Here, almost at random from the earliest book of Williams I have, Amen / Huzzah / Selah, published as Jargon 13 in 1960, is “Hojoki”
If you can keep straight you will have no friends
but catgut and blossom in seasons.
Bunting, from Chomei at
no loot, no
lust to string a catgut
in a banjo
or holler into
too effete to
in trochaic feet
all’s quiet at
It’s hard to imagine a poem in English more organized around the regional possibilities of h, u & t, not to mention ch, as this. That last line echoes long after – indeed the whole poem has stuck in my head for at least 35 years.** Conrad or someone is sure to point out that the word “straight” in Bunting’s poem here is heard as a binary pair to the unspoken “gay” by Williams’ own text & that this poem invokes the particular problems of cruising in the rural south of the 1950s, a circumstance I can’t even fathom in that era of institutionalized homophobia.
Within a decade, Williams’ work would appear to be everywhere – a selected poems, of sorts, from New Directions, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, a booklength long poem, Mahler, from Cape Goliard/Grossman & a large, fabulously daffy collection, The Loco Logo-Daedalist in Situ, as from Cape Goliard/Grossman** & then another, Blues & Roots, Rue and Bluets: A Garland from the Appalachians. But as Projectivism itself receded in the 1970s after the death of Olson & divergences by Creeley, Dorn, Baraka, Levertov & then Duncan’s long hiatus, the context in which Williams work had first been received itself seemed to dissolve. Since then, Williams has been one of poetry’s great secrets, central to almost anyone familiar with the work, but apt to be bypassed by less careful students of the form’s heritage.
Fortunately, he seems to keep writing and his press, Jargon, has proven critical over the years – giving us Lorine Niedecker’s work, for example, at a time when it could be found nowhere else. Williams is himself also a master photographer. I’ve had the Gnomon edition of Portrait Photographs since Jonathan Greene first published it in 1979 & Williams’ photos of a young Robert Duncan & Louis Zukofsky, torn from a Poetry Society of America publication, stare down at now as I type. Check out this history of the press and, while you’re at the site, marvel at the galleries of photographs.
Back in 1999, Sylvester Pollet published Amuse-Gueules for Bemused Ghouls in his Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet series. It’s the most recent Williams I have on hand. As I read “La Grande Cuisine Corniche,” I’m happy to report that, as that one line poem aptly attests, Williams unique combination of ear & wit is as vigorous as ever:
soggy ratty tatty oggy
* Indeed, it
was recognizing the Jonathan Williams’
influence that first made it possible for me to really get into Coolidge’s
work, realizing that it was not, as
** In my mind, I inevitably pair it with Grenier’s famous ”Wintry,” which ends
oh vell I, oh well, I
well I don’t know
oh, vell, I don’t know
a sod hut
*** Check out the options for Daedalist in Microsoft Word’s spell check!