Saturday, October 25, 2003

 

I’ve been trying to imagine the best way to respond to Bill Lavender’s open letter & am not quite sure that there is a best way, finally. Some of his statements – “This is the sort of statement I would expect to see in Georgia Review” – don’t really constitute a rebuttal on his part, but rather a complaint that the rules of engagement with a text have not been suspended just because us post-avant types are among friends here. But Lavender doesn’t show or even suggest, either here or in Another South, what the new rules of engagement should be. Hank Lazer, in his introduction to the book, makes a valiant effort to do so under the rubric of kudzu textuality. But Lazer’s definition of kudzu – “rich, generative, polyvocal, over-determined, hybrid” – foregrounds the weakest work in an already problematic collection.

 

Which gets us to Jake Berry, the poet I invoked as the clearest example of what doesn’t work with the kudzu way of writing. Lavender makes three specific complaints:

 

·         I only quoted three lines of Berry’s text

 

·         I compared his work to Lorenzo Thomas, a poet with a visibly different aesthetic

 

·         I failed to compare his work with an appropriate writer, such as Blaise Cendrars or Frank Stanford

 

As far as they go, these seem reasonable enough positions. None really constitutes a defense of Berry as such, but the implicit suggestion seems to be that addressing these would remove some, if not all, of my original objections. Fair enough.

 

Here’s a complete stanza further down the same first page of Brambu Drezi, Book III, as the one I quote before:

 

Overwhelmed in this spiraling  jet of ancestors

   that seize the levees and drag them

                 back to the mountains

                and drag the mountains into the abyss.

      Their pulsing flesh-blue fingers dominate

         the boundless sky that lies between the vertebrae

      whose long electric veins

             pour a half-ape angel into old winds and hollows.

 

I picked this stanza because it isn’t directly accompanied by one of several ink drawing illustrations & in some sense should be standing on its own. You can find other excerpts of Berry’s longpoem on the web here, here and here.* At least this way, Lavender can’t claim that I’m deliberately picking unrepresentatively bad lines, which he seems to insinuate was my tactic in the review (though why the first three lines of Berry’s anthology piece should be so vulnerable to malevolent citation simply begs the question of the work overall).

 

Here, for the sake of contrast, is a passage of Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, a passage I’ve quoted here before to exemplify Stanford at his most surreal (my exact words were “delightfully over-the-top”):

 

God has lost so much blood now he can’t speak he had to go to giving

hand signals like a deaf and dumb man

all was silent as a winter pond silent and untrue like a featherless arrow

like a shaft of sleeping wine beneath a tree the rotting teeth

and the dreaming knife and my dreams still ricocheting so close

and so far apart like journeys into space like the fast madness

of butcherbirds like field mice and toads and grass snakes all of them

with holes in their head have you seen that bird beating the minnow

against the branch he’s got him by the tail the eyes of the minnow like rubies

tin lids with their duets under the creek in the moonlight

like planetoids who never make it weep for the children with their bellies

buzzing like a hornets’ nest full of snakeskins made by the sparrow

the pieces of stars passing my ship

so slowly I can reach out and touch them if I could

I lay in slumber charged with death

stuck like a sword in a battleground giving its aria

like a dancer coming to life

in the solar ditch I ask the sailor of space touch one

finger with the other like a symphony the blessed legend in the void all over

again o how we died

centuries

ago we slept friends I tell you I heard the oboes that belong to the wolf

the opera two steps from the blues the light years boogie all the

time I heard the blind tiger guitar so that is how it goes how my dreams

those sad captains

treat me the unkept rendezvous with the void which is black the pocketknives

I lose in infinity those blades of grass that cut you in the dark

 

I chose Stanford rather than, say, Cendrars just to avoid any question of a translator’s intermediation. Both Berry & Stanford use surreal imagery in these passages – Stanford’s is even more excessive than Berry’s in this regard. Yet the primary difference for me between these two writers is that Berry’s imagery is vague & stale (boundless sky, long electric veins) where Stanford’s almost never is (stuck like a sword in a battleground giving its aria). I’ve seen & heard Berry’s images before – too many times before, in fact, & it makes me thankful that I haven’t done more teaching, simply because images like these have more to do with creative writing workshops than with surreal or dream imagery. What comes across is not any sense of freshness, but the very opposite. It’s musty without intending to be so.

 

The question of the excessive image, the over-adjectivized noun, is an interesting one that I’ve never seen fully explored. I was thinking of this on Thursday when I listened to George Stanley read at Writers House. One text that Stanley did not choose was the opening poem of his selected poems, “Pablito at the Corrida,” the text he initially showed Jack Spicer in 1957, therewith gaining entrance first into the Magic Workshop & into the Spicer Circle itself. The poem, which Stanley characterized as drawing upon his reading of Lorca (an influence Spicer could be expected to approve of, though in fact Stanley seems not to have known that in advance). For all of its values – I actually like the poem – it has some of the same problems of Berry’s text above:

 

Instance found him bronzing

in the fat veal country

whittling on reeds

 

and brought him on this suddenly silent stage,

his hungry knees cried underneath

the gilded starch . . .

 

The problem of the text is not that the images aren’t grounded in a realist rhetoric, but rather that they’re predictable – suddenly silent stage, hungry knees cried – the passage (and poem) rescued as much by Stanley’s ear as anything else. Yet, within a few years, Stanley is able to make use of the over-the-top image as a tool, rather than merely be dragged along by it. This is a passage from the poem “Attis”:

 

… you mentioned you had never looked at

the poem about Attis, and neither had I

 

nor at where in a poem feeling dries up –

A waterfall-filled Sierra canyon damned

Hetch Hetchy of our spirit.

 

Hetch Hetchy being the actual name of the damn in the Sierras used to collect San Francisco’s drinking water. Those last two lines are given over to a single, complex noun phrase, the density of the language itself modeling the emotive blockage of the discourse. That’s a level of control that Stanford only occasionally reaches in Battlefield – he’s a far less disciplined writer than Stanley, but Stanford makes up for it in the incredible reach of his poem. Again, the dead give-away here is the specificity of Stanley’s language, even more so than Stanford’s. Nowhere in Berry can I find anything remotely like this.

 

Is this a Georgia Review type of distinction, or more of a drivers-exam type of question: would you let a writer who can’t operate at that level of control take the wheel of your text? In Berry’s case, I have real questions. I’d love to see somebody do the kind of extended close reading that his work should be capable of, just to see if that’s possible & what turns up. I would happily post such here on the blog.

 

 

 

 

* Brambu Drezi has the distinct advantage of being very easily Googled, yielding more than 150 hits, every one to Jake Berry & his long poem.



Friday, October 24, 2003

 

When I published a negative review of Another South, I expected to hear back from its editor, Bill Lavender. I didn’t get anything until this past weekend, but it’s evident that Bill used the time well to marshal his arguments.

 

An open letter to Ron Silliman regarding Another South:

I expected Another South to provoke some criticism when it came out. Much of it I have enjoyed. I am rather proud, for example, to have edited what is to my knowledge the only book ever to receive a negative review in the Books section of The Times Picayune. The reviewer there, Sonny Williams, was the first to voice one of the criticisms I had anticipated from the southern, and indeed the northern, establishment:

-----------------

Despite the claims of being avant-garde, however, this type of writing has been going on for some time and is connected with the rise of the academic critical theory of the '60s. L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, the aesthetic predecessor of "Another South," has been around for 30 years....

-----------------

 

For those of us who actually know what Language poetry is, of course, this analysis is quite off the mark, especially since this paragraph is specifically an elucidation of one of Joel Dailey’s poems. Joel’s work comes out of the Objectivist and New York School traditions, with scarcely a nod to Language. Likewise, the relations of the rest of the work in this anthology to the Language movement are at the very least complicated, sometimes complimentary, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes there is no relation at all. One might wonder, for example, how anyone could call Language the “aesthetic predecessor” of Andy Young or Lorenzo Thomas. Still, I anticipated this very criticism because for some in the broad community of poetry Language is simply the symbol for everything that “doesn’t make sense.” It’s remarkable how many critics use the term without having any knowledge whatsoever of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine or anthology.

Another criticism I expected Another South to receive at the pens of “establishment” or “conservative” critics is of this variety:

-----------------

...Jake Berry’s excerpt from the third volume of his ongoing longpoem Brambu Drezi, the first lines of which read:

 

      In the clutch of blind embryo

       madness is a tongue robbing death

       in the matted black hair of darkness

 

That’s about as dense a cluster of overwriting & cliché as I’ve come across in a long time.

-----------------

 

Now “overwriting & cliché” are tried and true terms of the MFA workshop and the editorial back rooms of magazines like The New Yorker. This is the sort of statement I would expect to see in Georgia Review, or New England Review, or one of the many journals of that ilk. What’s a little surprising to me is that this was written by you and posted on your blog (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/-- September 25 and 26, 03).

You go on to argue:

-----------------

How contrast this against the likes of a poem like “Flash Point”:

 

This useless clairvoyance

Is embarrassing

What good is it to know

The motives behind manners

 

And worse, the so what stares

Of those upon whom you manage

To inflict this wisdom

 

There is more space

Awaiting exploration

More clouds of gas

That need their picture took

 

Lorenzo Thomas has more going on in eleven lines than Berry does in seven pages. Think for a moment of the frame set up by the terms useless & embarrassing in the first two lines & how each reacts off a term such as clairvoyance. Then think back to madness is a tongue robbing death. The most generous possible reading of that latter line is one-dimensional to the point of being flatline.

-----------------

 

Obviously there is much to be admired in Lorenzo’s work, but why give this thorough and complimentary reading to an eleven-line poem and mention only three lines of Jake’s seven pages, if these two works are to be the crux of your comparison? You give “Flash Point” the reading it deserves, but Brambu Drezi is dismissed as we might expect it to be in Southern Review. Jake Berry obviously needs to be read against a surrealist tradition, against Cendrars or Breton or Frank Stanford’s long poems, not the English tradition of concision and subtle wordplay, like Dickinson. Comparing these two poems is a bit like calling Joel Dailey a Language poet, because the comparison simply doesn’t tell us anything. Why not read Jake against Cendrars? No doubt he could still be framed to come up lacking, but at least he would have been compared to a poet whose work bears at least a passing formal resemblance to his own. Or read him against Andy Young, later in the anthology, who like Jake draws upon the southern folk oracular tradition. Or indeed read him against Hank Lazer’s extensive reading of Brambu Drezi in his essay. Any of these options are ways into the text that could offer critiques of real value, whatever the polemic, but the comparison to Lorenzo’s poem simply makes no sense.

One of the things I was trying to do in this anthology was present a collection that was not selected according to the criteria that we normally see these days in anthologies of southern lit, like the recent Norton. As I said in my introduction:

-----------------

...I chose to invite only writers currently living in the South.... According to the standard “academic” definitions of Southern Lit., the South isn’t a place, but a genre. Instead of physical location the emphasis has been on heritage, and this emphasis, seen as an editorial rule and as an element of the writing itself, has been the most profound way the mythic southern identity has been preserved. (xii)

-----------------

 

My goal in the work was to present a snapshot, as it were, of work outside the southern academic canon that was being produced in the geographic region at a particular time, specifically 2000-2001. I thought I made this clear in the introduction, and for that reason I was surprised that you introduced the topic by saying:

-----------------

It was John High, poet & one-time editor of Five Fingers Review, who explained to me that it was his own Southern heritage that had first attracted him to Russian writing & translation. “We both understand failed civilizations,” were John’s more or less exact words, equating the collapse of Czarist Russia – this was before the later collapse of the Soviet one – with the South’s defeat in the Civil War.

 

That’s only one of several frames that one might apply to this collection of 34 post-avant poets.

-----------------

 

This image of the South as a society formed from the collapse of a mercantile slave economy and nostalgia for bourgeois gentility is exactly the sort of clichéd “frame” I was trying to avoid. I’m heartened that you seem to think I failed in assembling the sort of regional unity that could be properly haunted by imagery from Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, but disheartened (and frankly mystified) by your framing this accomplishment as a failure. Was I supposed to follow the stereotype and seek out poems of faded glory? Perhaps the Civil War does still lurk among us southerners in subtle, almost magical ways, causing, every so often, some wandering soul to pause and gaze wistfully at the peeling facade of an old mansion in New Orleans or Atlanta, but the issue, at least for me, is not the ruminations of the nostalgic soul— it is rather the condescension with which the image of the hypothetical southern individual has been framed. The “South’s defeat in the Civil War” may be “only one of several frames” possible, but it is the only one mentioned here. What are some of the others? Contemporary urban landscape, wrongly stereotyped as “agrarian”? Elsewhere you note:

----------------

Further, over half [the contributors] live in exactly two metropolitan areas – New Orleans & Atlanta – suggesting that the South is just as scene-centric as the rest of the nation. & suggesting that the “agrarian” framework has little to do with what this volume rather unabashedly calls “Experimental” writing.

------------------

 

Where did this terminology come from? I don’t even understand why “agrarian” is in quotes, unless you mean to indicate its value as cliché. As I say in my introduction, “No doubt the notion of the South as a predominantly rural region was always formed more of prejudice than fact, but it is at best a century or more out-of-date.” What gave you the idea we’re posing an agrarian framework? Again, I appreciate that you acknowledge our failure to re-present the stereotype, but I am genuinely baffled that as enlightened a reader as you are criticizing us for it. I’m not trying to convince you to “like” Jake Berry or anyone else in the book, but if you’re going to critique it, critique what we’ve done and not the cliché of what is usually done.

As to the use of the term “experimental,” I agree that the term has been overused and overdebated until it has become all but trite. Still, it has not been completely drained of meaning. Would, for example, terms like “avant garde” or “outsider” or “post-avant” be more precise, or aren’t they subject to the same fuzzy polemical shifts as “experimental” or any other term we use to reference a field of writing? In the public and academic milieu of American poetry, “experimental” has a social/political connotation that has nothing to do with lab coats or indeed the OED, and I think that connotation does indeed apply to much of the work in this book. Again as I said in my intro:

------------------

It may be that “experimental” means something different in the South than in the rest of the USA (not to mention the world), because the South has its unique sets of boundaries, stereotypes, and editorial proscriptions, and one of these boundaries might be the notion of regionalism itself. (xi)

------------------

 

I don’t take issue with your questioning my use of this terminology. I question it myself. That’s why I devote a quarter of my introduction to defining or defending it-- hardly the stance of someone who is “unabashed.” You make no reference, however, to my comments on this subject, nor to Hank’s in his essay. Really, isn’t it you who uses the term unabashedly when you say, elsewhere in the blog, that “there is nothing experimental” in the book? Does no one else have the right to use the term with its over-generalized, vernacular meaning? Is it now the sole property of Language poets?

 

Another South isn’t a perfect anthology, by any means. Productive criticism or engagement might be directed along any of several avenues-- the question of what actually constitutes a region, for example, and how regional anthological groupings have been used, especially in the South but in other areas also, to promote various political and literary agendas. It continues to amaze me how deeply the southern caricature has been ingrained by this process.

 

In a way I feel I have been forced to staunchly defend something that raises more questions, for me as much anyone, than answers. The text-milieu of contemporary southern writing, in terms of both poetics and editorial practice, is quite complex, and quick dismissal is not going to help us investigate either the writing or the place. What would probably be more fruitful, and what I and I’m sure others would welcome, would be to engage a discourse based on reading and inquiry rather than summary judgment.

 

 

Bill Lavender

bill@lavenderink.org



Thursday, October 23, 2003

 

George Stanley is reading today at Writers House, at 6:30 PM Eastern. It will be webcast live by Writers House – for more information, email whstanley@writing.penn.edu. But you better do so pronto. The reading is an exciting event, in many different ways. I haven’t seen George read in some time, but I’ve never heard the man give anything less than a great reading. He is one poet who I’ve been reading for over 35 years who has never bored me for one minute.

 

Perhaps the most successful reading that Tom Mandel & I ever put on during our tenure as the curators of the poetry reading series at the Grand Piano in San Francisco was a joint Ted Berrigan/George Stanley event. For one thing, the two readers packed the place – I remember stopping counting at around 110 – the place could reasonably seat 80. For a second, each poet brought roughly half the audience, an ideal balance for a two-person event. And, finally, many (perhaps most) in each part of the audience had never even heard of the other reader. Berrigan was the hotshot star from out of town, of course, and at that moment in the mid-1970s, there were plenty of Actualist poets (in addition to more than a few langpos) who had been his students, mostly at Iowa. But George was the local hero, returning home to give a reading after nearly six years in Canada, meaning that he brought out an older audience, one much more tuned to the San Francisco renaissance. Both poets gave terrific performances.

 

My happy task today is to introduce George &, after the event itself, to lead a discussion with the man. With that in mind, I’ve been rereading both A Tall Serious Girl and At Andy’s, as well as reading Barry McKinnon’s 1998 interview from It’s Still Winter, the excellent webzine of Canadian poetry. I’ve been thinking up questions as I go along, knowing full well that I will get to ask very few of them. If you join the webcast, you should call or email & contribute some of your own. Here are some that have been percolating in my head as I read:

 

  1. You grew up in San Francisco, but went to college in Salt Lake City. What in 1952 takes a young gay male poet to such a place? How did that affect you?

 

  1. And then you went into the Army? Did you think about the seminary as well?

 

  1. Having finished your military service & enrolled at UC Berkeley, you first met Jack Spicer in 1957 in a bar called The Place in San Francisco. What was it about Spicer that made him the right teacher for you? What made Jack stand out?

 

  1. Let me ask that question in a different way. You’ve said that the first poem that you showed to Spicer was “Pablito at the Corrida,” the first poem in A Tall Serious Girl.  What do you think it was that Spicer saw in that poem? In many ways, it doesn’t seem far at all from the other poems in the first section of Girl. What were your influences at that point, given that you’d been writing since you were 16? Where you even aware of the New Americans yet?

 

  1. You are often mentioned in conjunction with the Spicer circle & likewise what Americans sometimes think of the post-Spicer diaspora, the migration to Canada between 1966 and 1971 by yourself, Robin Blaser & Stan Persky. And you’ve spoken of the influences of Robert Creeley & Louis Zukofsky. Yet you have also invoked another very unusual trio – Eliot, Olson, Lowell – as being your decisive set of influences. Why? How? In what way? This list seems incommensurate, to say the least.

 

  1. Living in Canada for 30 years, you have had to teach Canadian literature and even become Canadian literature. What does that mean to you? Are there Canadian influences that a discriminating reader ought to hear? Do Al Purdy & Earl Birney or Louis Dudek enter into your work? What about younger Canadian poets?

 

  1. The very next poem in Girl, Pompeii,” is one of the most powerful poems to come out of San Francisco in the 1950s, which is saying quite a bit, what with Ginsberg composing “Howl” on Potrero Hill & both Duncan & Spicer nearing the peak of their careers. How much time is there between it and “Pablito?” What were you doing & going through that caused such a concentrated work so early in your career?

 

  1. “Pompeii” sounds as though it were at least in part a response to some of Robert’s work, especially his poem “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom,” written about the same time. Did you see it that way? Did he? Is this an aspect of the poem as communication, possibly even a challenge?

 

  1. Of Spicer, you’ve said that you “got drawn … into these wars that he would have with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser where [you were] always on the wrong side, the losing side.” What were some of those wars & why were you always on the losing side?

 

  1. I want to ask about collaboration. Poets in the San Francisco renaissance tradition appear to have done much less of it than their peers in the New York School. One notable exception to that is the Carola Letters, written jointly by you & Joanne Kyger. Robert Duncan is said to have tried to light at least one manuscript page of that project on fire during a reading. What was Robert so upset about?

 

  1. Writing of your work, Stan Persky has identified a trend or movement he calls “Aboutism.” What is that? How does it differ, say, from the writing of Allen Ginsberg, or Jack Spicer, or perhaps the younger poets around the Kootenay School of Writing?

 

  1. Of all the major writing communities of the 1950s, the one that has been least well documented over the subsequent decades is the Spicer circle. Your work and that of Joanne Kyger is in print, and Ebbe Borregaard has a small but loyal following as the result of his presence in the Allen anthology, but others – such as Jim Alexander or Ronnie Primack or Harold Dull – have largely disappeared. Are readers & younger poets – I’ll include myself in that last group – missing anything in not being able to get our hands on a good solid anthology of that whole scene? If so, what?

 

  1. You were very much a key figure in a major “scene” in the 1950s & ‘60s. Then you moved to Canada, all the way up to Terrace, which I presume to be fairly remote & northern compared with, say, Vancouver & Burnaby. You spent something like 15 years in Terrace – did you have or maintain, even at a distance, any sense of a literary community. Do you have one now in Vancouver? Do you even need one?

 

  1. On of the symmetries of Girl that seems noteworthy is that it begins & ends with titles that evoke Mexico, “Pablito in the Corrida” & “Vera Cruz.” Elsewhere in your poetry, there are references to Scotland & Ireland. You’ve lived half your life in San Francisco & the second half in western Canada. In the fourth part of Vancouver you write:

sometimes the mind
is just aware of its
dumbness – the skull – the unnerving
pathos (unjustified, yes, I’ll always
scream –


is that all, just
location, location, location

Can you talk about the function of place in your poetry & life? Is it all “location, location, location?” Do you have an Olsonian sense of this, or some other?

  1. The first two sections of Vancouver can be found at the end of At Andy’s. I’ve now seen sections up through number 9, mostly online in It’s Still Winter. That passage I just read goes on to invoke Paterson, for example, another long poem with a city for its name. What’s your vision for this poem?

 



Wednesday, October 22, 2003

 

Here is a Squawkbox conundrum. Some people have posted comments that I can see in the Squawbox management tool but which do not seem to be appearing in the comments section. Henry Gould's showed for a while, then disappeared, making him fear the worst. Here is his comment as it shows in the Squawbox tool:

 

I appreciate Ron's hard work in parlaying so much conference information.

 

My immediate reaction is that there ought to be a gathering under the heading "Poetry and Self-Righteousness".

 

The difficulty with these literary interest groups made up of like-minded people is that, on some level, the judgement has already been made on the facts of history & politics & contemporary reality. Because minds have already been made up, the main work of poetry - which is to explore & weigh & present phenomena without jumping to quick conclusions - has been avoided. I realize that several differing viewpoints have been presented, re "hermeticism/race" etc., but all of them are developed under an umbrella of general like-mindedness.

 

You might learn more about the relation between poetry & politics by hosting a conference including both pro- & anti-"Bush etc." parties, and insisting that the participants try to come to some mutually-agreed-upon conclusions (even if the conclusion is that opinions differ mightily) about what poetry is & does in the context of political realities.

 

In this context, I'd like to point to a historical parallel which took place in London around 1850. A group of literary figures who opposed the Crimean War gathered in a downtown hotel to discuss "Poetry & Empire". Many substantial & weighty aesthetic & political issues were chewed over. A group of pro-imperialist poets tried to crash the party, but were successfully restrained. After 3 days of intense dialogue, the Association of Anti-Crimean War Poets issued a major manifesto, which basically stated that there were many avenues which literary persons could follow in opposing the War; it suggested what some of these ideas were; and concluded that, while styles & techniques & political viewpoints differed in many ways, everyone agreed that poetry & literature could have a decisive impact on the cultural climate relating to the war issue. The conference was followed by a large banquet at Pierre's Fish & Chips Shop somewhere southeast of Saville Row, I believe.

 

Also missing is post by Kathy Lou Schultz on my “hotbed of leftism” comment that I don't think ever showed up:

 

"Nebraska" is often used as the punchline to refer to a place that is simultaneously banal and completely unimaginable—other—and therefore hilarious. For example, when I first went to New York City when I was 18, McDonalds was running a TV commercial that ended "even here in Kearney, Nebraska." Even here in this unimaginable, hilarious place at the end of the earth. But in ignorance the TV announcer pronounced the name of the town as KEAR-ney, instead of how it is actually pronounced, CAR-ney. I know this because Kearney, Nebraska is my hometown.

 

When I read Ron’s blog and see the phrase "that hotbed of leftism" in relation to "Nebraska," I hear the laughter of irony. At times this laughter of irony feels like it is coming from the mouths of those laughing at my parents, seeing them as those poor, stupid, uneducated Midwesterners who do poor, stupid, uneducated things like supporting the Gulf War (I and II).

 

Let me stop here to say that Ron has never given me any indication that he thinks that my parents and me, or people like us, are poor, stupid, or uneducated, and I’m not pointing a finger at him personally. Rather, I’m making an observation about how "leftism" or "activism" are configured.

 

It is very easy for leftists on the coasts to project an idea of the hopeless "them," the people who believe CNN, who think ransacking one of the poorest countries in the world is good for democracy, etc. "They," in this case, often takes the face of an imagined, let us say, schoolteacher from Nebraska. This is where I quibble.

 

"Those people" in Nebraska worked hard from the grassroots to oppose and prevent the first Gulf War before it started. Schoolteachers, preachers, farmers. The same folks are currently working in solidarity at Whiteclay with Native Americans, working to expose how the control of the meat packing industry by agri-business exploits both Mexican workers brought up to work in the plants and Nebraska farmers who can’t make a profit because of a corporate monopoly on the industry, and on many other issues that lefties would care about if they knew about them.

 

At the retreat I brought up my experience of organizing during the first Gulf War as evidence of real grassroots opposition to U.S. policies like blowing up the Middle East to stabilize it. Evidence of opposition from Middle America (look on the map: Kearney, Nebraska, it’s as middle America as it gets).

 

 Sometimes I’m profoundly saddened by my experiences as an organizer in Nebraska: if even those people who are supposedly the bedrock of the Republican Party came out by the hundreds to oppose the war, why couldn’t we stop it? But in the long view I know that each intention does ripple outward.

 

I think about a Mennonite farmer I know, now old enough to have been a conscientious objector during WWII. He has driven in a caravan to Latin American to take school supplies to children, he does not stand up in his small community to say the Pledge of Allegiance because he doesn’t believe in it, and he has actively protested each act of U.S. aggression. He has lived his faith. Each intention ripples outward.

 

 

Actually, Kathy, my father comes from Kennewick, Washington, part of the southeastern corner of that state and a region with more than a few parallels I suspect to life in Nebraska. Indeed, I have cousins & uncles & aunts still there, where the family business is a seed & gardening store called Farmers Exchange and whose motto is "seed, feed, and farm needs." Nowadays I'm told it does more of its business supplying gardening equipment for the engineers who work at the Hanford Nuclear Reactor. Like Michael Amnasan, I was born in Pasco, the next town over. The third city in the "Tri-City" configuration (separated by the conjunction of the Snake & Columbia rivers), Richland is famous for commemorating the bombing of Nagasaki (the bomb was constructed at Hanford) by calling its high school team "The Bombers." Now I haven't lived in Kennewick since 1947, but whatever sense of irony I may have about "prairie populism" – a long tradition that predates most of imported forms of leftist thinking – is double-sided at minimum. Indeed, the first night of the retreat, I read a poem that alluded to my father's own experience in Nagasaki, a month after the bomb was dropped. My father worked as a cop, a roofer, a milkman & an electrician before being burned to death as the result of an explosion in a paper recycling plant in August, 1965. He was 38 years old.



 

Here are some of my notes & reflections on the Poetry & Empire retreat. While John Koethe at one point commented that I seemed to be taking verbatim notes, I absolutely wasn’t, but was noting things down very personally, for the most part according to what had the most resonance for my own practice as a poet. So I need to start with a disclaimer – one could easily come up with a Rashomon-like effect, given how many different perspectives were in the room at once. I don’t want to pretend to have been the recording secretary. I’m conscious, for example, that I captured very little of what the quietest participants in the room said, such as Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s discussion of pesticide, and that the quietest people over 48 hours also happened to be Asian participants, including Mei-mei, Jo Park and Bernie Rhie. So that is a self-criticism avant la lettre. If any other participants want to add, comment or counter anything I’ve put here, I will be happy to post it on the blog.

 

The retreat itself began Friday evening with 30 people sitting, tightly packed, in a large circle in the Arts Café section of Kelly Writers House. In the center stood a microphone on a stand, sort of half way between a totem & a giant phallus, that may (or may not) have picked up everything everybody said. There were some people in the room whom I had known for 25 years or more – Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein (along with Susan Stewart, two of the retreat’s conveners), James Sherry, Erica Hunt, as well as others, such as Saskia Hamilton, Tracie Morris & John Koethe, whom I had never met before. On the first evening at least – tho only on the first evening – people tended to cluster by gender, three or four males or females in a row, with only one person, Charles Bernstein, situated between two members of the opposite gender.

 

The purpose of the weekend, loosely enough stated by the organizers in convening the retreat, was to discuss the relationship between poetry & empire & the possibility for a post-invasion poetics. The premise of the initial evening was simply to read poems that people had brought in response to what had been made available in advance of the event itself:

·         the original set of six questions, discussed in some detail here last week

·         a link to this blog (some had never seen it before)

·         another to Peter Middleton’s “Five Ways of Saying ‘Poetics’ and ‘Politics’ in the Same Breath” a third to Josh Schuster’s “Notes on War Aesthetics” (which will download as an RTF file if you click here)

 

A decision was made to proceed counter clockwise around the room & Al Filreis spun a bottle of branded water that determined that Jena Osman should go first. Some poets used the occasion to read works that directly addressed the Iraq debacle, including some, such as Erica Hunt’s reading from Piece Logic, that appear to have been composed in advance of the war. Others, such as John Koethe, who read a work entitled “Collected Poems” about Robert Lowell’s most recent book, picked work whose connection to the conjunction between poetry & politics was more oblique – I would put my own work among this group. Still others focused on other events & acts of empire that spoke to the same general dynamic – case in point being Greg Djanikian reading from his still-in-progress manuscript of poems about the 1915 Armenian genocide, in which the Turks slaughtered some 30 percent of the Armenian people. Between, say, Koethe’s measured lines – one can really hear the Stevens/New York School influences that people mention when they discuss his writing, but he approaches it with a calmness that is markedly different from either – and James Sherry handing out PowerPoint slides that diagrammed such dynamics as an “Environmental View of Humanity in Nature” as an adjunct to reading from his epic-length long work Sorry that strives for an environmental poetics of the city (or which at least includes the city), the range of work was spectacular. Herman Beavers & Mark McMorris have very little in common as poets, as one might also say about Djanikian & Rachel Blau DuPlessis, or between myself and art critic/poet Michael Fried. Tracie Morris & Susan Stewart do not sound remotely alike. And nobody sounds quite like Charles Bernstein.

 

After reading our works & having a relatively brief discussion thereon, the 30 poets had used literally 3½ hours & adjourned until Saturday morning. If anyone in the room interpreted the second Iraq war as anything less than a disaster, they never spoke up. While there were differences voiced both in the poems & by the poets – Is George W. dumber than cow poop or really quite smart to have gotten away with stealing an election, undermining the juridical basis of society, destroying American foreign policy & trashing the Middle East while merely appearing dumber than cow poop? Is the project at hand an activism for today or a larger undertaking to bring some mode of transformation in the future (cast in spiritual, rather than Leninist, terms)? Is the Bush regime a crisis for democracy or merely the latest installment of the same old hegemony that has been obliterating people since 1492? Just how political is the personal (& vice versa)? – the sense was (and it held throughout the entire weekend) that any differences in individual poetics were not sufficient reason to keep people from exploring the problem(s) collectively confronting us right now.

 

Saturday morning found the ranks of writers in the room had grown by two as Allen Grossman and Bernie Rhie joined the 30 already in attendance (pushing the circle to beyond the room’s basic capacity & causing it to take some odd detours into an alcove in order to maintain connectedness, a strategy that meant in turn that several people did not have a line of sight connection with every other writer). We decided to begin first with people who had prepared some kind of statement or had something to read as we began this “working” session, starting with Al Filreis who had declined to read on Friday on the grounds that he is “not a poet” (he was one of four people making such a claim over the weekend) began by reading Mervyn Taylor’s “A Mistake,” a poem dedicated to Bob Hass that came out of a recognition that Taylor had misspelled Hass’ last name as Bob had misspelled Taylor’s first. It’s an interesting choice to contemplate as a political poem – the Brooklyn poet from Trinidad (or is Taylor a Trinidad poet living in Brooklyn?) commenting upon the former poet laureate on the subject of spelling, the reality that both have names that are easily misspelled.

 

Peter Middleton countered this gentle binary, if that’s the right word (supplemented? triangulated?), offering an advertisement from a 1974 issue of Scientific American in which a pre-Bhopal Union Carbide promised that “Today Something We Do Will Touch Your Life.  Rodrigo Toscano asked what political poems & similar expressions – he called them “charms” – have achieved in the past. James Sherry warned against getting trapped in the “narcissism of small differences” & the “tyranny of taxonomy.” Then Saskia Hamilton gave an extraordinary reading – extraordinary in part in that all of these comments people were making took less than five minutes apiece – of Emily Dickinson, showing had Dickinson was able to articulate a politics literally in breath & line.

 

Rod Smith wondered if the level of agreement in the room wasn’t dulling a critical edge that needed to be sharpened. He offered to start by “making fun of people who believe CNN.” At the same time, he warned against assuming that any one focal point – such as George W. – was the sole source of the problem. Noting that he preferred Wittgenstein to Marx, Smith commented that “nobody is in the driver’s seat.” Against this, he proposed what called submodernism, which he defined as “modernism gone underground in plain sight.”

 

Rachel Blau DuPlessis wanted to probe “the notion of do,” which she saw as the problematic aspect of the question “What can a poem do?” She expressed what many seemed to be feeling, “that we have lost the republic” & are in a “proto-fascist period.” “I want,” she said with great fervor, “to be the hegemony!” Although she immediately bracketed that claim, there was a lot of comment from people who understood precisely what she meant.

 

Greg Djanikian discussed the roots and problematics of his project on the Armenian genocide. For example, since most people don’t know about it, or have forgotten it, or don’t even know where Armenia is, the poem is forced to carry the weight of presenting the facts in a way that, say, a Paul Celan poem is not. Djanikian as a result has looked a lot at the work of Charles Reznikoff in thinking through this project, both Holocaust and Testimony.

 

Erica Hunt countered Rod Smith’s “nobody is in the driver’s seat” by admonishing – as she did more than once – that we needed to “follow the money,” as Deep Throat once told Woodward & Bernstein. Hunt also posed Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “seed time” – the distance between the planting of an idea & its fruition.

 

Fanny Howe, on the other hand, spoke of the Franciscans as revolutionaries and argued that we needed to be able to distinguish between a process-driven search for knowing and a more proprietary interest in knowledge. At one moment she defined Logos as unknowability.

 

Tom Devaney posed a dimension for people to consider in everything that is currently being transformed in society – scale. To which I later countered we needed also to recognize speed. The left has moved at a far slower pace than capital over the past thirty years, creating a huge imbalance. But I also noted that Bush & his buddies are not capital, but rather a reaction to capital, even as they shovel some of the margins into their own pockets. The issue for Mark McMorris was acceleration. “The curve is becoming steeper.” A lot of different politics can be interpreted via the frame this give to this phenomenon. “Are things coming to an end or to a new location?”

 

John Koethe spoke “against audience” & wanted to look more deeply into Harold Bloom’s conception that Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy is tantamount to the invention of the human & that so much of poetry, both mainstream & avant-garde, can be read as a mode of “self talk,” a term pointedly appropriated from psychology.

 

At this point, typing up my very cryptic notes, I feel overwhelmed at the degree to which my description of these statements flatten out & thus misrepresent every person cited above, but I am trying at least to give a sense of the dynamics as they evolved over the day, a three-hour morning session followed by lunch & a three-hour afternoon session – broken only by a fire alarm break (we never did figure out who lit up a smoke in the bathroom – the smokers were all in the café when the alarm went off). But as the discussion evolved, it layered rather than ping ponged. There were possible disagreements – Herman Beavers, perhaps the one poet in the room to actively use personae in his writing – characterized Bloom’s conception of soliloquy as “crass humanism.” To which Koethe readily agreed, demonstrating how he was trying to draw the distinction precisely behind one that was “crass” & another that in fact valued the human. Simon Weil & Joan Retallack & Hardt & Negri were invoked. Tracie Morris spoke of the Abrahamic tradition & the ontology of science fiction. Jennifer Moxley posed Sappho as an example of the political. 

 

In very different ways, Allen Grossman and Bob Perelman both noted an inherent conservatism in poetry itself. “How old fashioned our means are,” Perelman complained. “How failed our poems are.” This inadequacy, he suggested, is crucial to poetics. He reminded us of the traditional functions of the poem: to teach & delight. Kathy Lou Schultz was hearing a distinction in all the various positions between “poetry & activism” and “poetry as activism,” and discussed her work during the first Gulf War organizing in that hotbed of leftism, Nebraska.

 

Al Filreis built on Kathy Lou’s comments, noting the importance politically of what he called the non-conjunctive And, the use of the word to literally join two incommensurate phenomena. Thus “Iraq and Afghanistan.” He noted the degree to which this trope has been used by the current regime.

 

In a move that would be reiterated by more than a few people over the next two days, Herman Beaver used this moment to suggest that even as we speak we have to interrogate our default positions, for example “interrogating the idea of whiteness.” He drew a distinction between “having church” & “doing church,” arguing that the latter was the more active mode of engagement. He also discussed the function of jazz in the black community. On his notepad, I could see the cross-hatch of a quadrant diagram: on the horizontal or X axis, he’d written the word “jazz” & on the vertical or Y axis, “church.”

 

At this moment, Michael Fried, perhaps better known as an art critic & historian than as a poet, told a tale about his good friend in college, the painter Frank Stella & how, after living for a few years post-Princeton in New York, Fried would find Stella muttering over his obsession with the jazz musician Don Cherry, and how he couldn’t get Cherry’s music out of his head. A few years later, Fried noted, he read an interview with Cherry somewhere in Cherry spoke of this painter in New York, Frank Stella, who was drawing “straight black lines” and how Cherry just couldn’t get that image out of his head.

 

Tim Carmody raised the figures of Brecht & Orwell for the first time, asking us to distinguish between the laughter of shock & that of recognition, noting that these are two radically opposed modes of humor. The Silent Majority of the 1970s, Carmody argued, wasn’t silent in that they let Nixon & his posse speak for them, but rather because they wanted everybody else to tone it down & to return to a quieter civility than had been evident in the previous decade.

 

Post lunch, Frank Sherlock noted that the economy of poetry was directly linked to access & commented that the reason the one part of the news most people remember is the weather is because “it’s the only news where you can do something useful as a result.” “Relevance,” Jennifer Moxley admonished, “happens when you least expect it.”

 

As a whole, the afternoon built on the terms & images put forward already in the morning – for example the exchange between Beavers & Koethe over crass humanism. Charles Bernstein argued that aspect blindness was an important part of the political – all the things we don’t see because they seem always already obvious. [Note to self: this is virtually Althusser’s definition of ideology.] Moxley asked why poets so often use painters as examples or models when painters so seldom use poets in that same way. Peter Middleton offered a definition of Blee. * Tracie Morris demonstrated how hip-hop uses all the traditional devices of poetry.

 

Erica Hunt posed the possibility of an Idea Bank, which as I understand it would be something akin to Bernadette Mayer’s list of experiments, only for political action. This was an idea that people came back to on several occasions. It corresponded, Bob Perelman noted, with a social rhetoric, topoi.

 

Rod Smith thought this might be useful in particular because “poetry happens in groups.” Saskia Hamilton then posed the question of Group Iconoclasm vs. Individual Iconoclasm, with the Situationists being posed as an example of the former.

 

Michael Fried noted that his greatest frustration with the rise of the right was its cooptation of Christianity and how it had defined the church as something authoritarian and oppressive, compared to the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement. Without the church as a force for change, he felt that we had arrived at a frozen politics. “We have to unfreeze,” Erica Hunt said. “Follow the money.” To which Bob Perelman replied, “follow the poetry.”

 

At this point people broke off for dinner and it’s worth noting how many of these discussions continued in clusters of two & three as we ate Indian food & got ready for the reading at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. I’m not going to do a précis here of the reading as it will eventually be available on PENNsound, a new project Bernstein is heading up at Penn. It was, for a large reading, exceptionally crisp, as, by my count, 29 poets read in just under two hours. This in turn was followed by a reception that was still going strong when I headed back to Chester County sometime after midnight.

 

By Sunday morning, the number of participants had dwindled somewhat to 21, as a couple of the out-of-town folks headed back to their lives elsewhere and a couple of local participants needed to respond to family emergencies in other states. This shifted the gender breakdown of the group somewhat, from the 19 men, 13 women of Saturday, to 15 men & six women on Sunday. One of the questions that Erica Hunt, now absent, had communicated on several occasions the previous afternoon & evening, reinforced by James Sherry and others, was a need to commit to something so that this energy doesn’t all turn into so much discursive smoke, post-retreat. A discussion was held at the outset about the need to build & some consensus was reached to expand on the retreat website at the very minimum.

 

Susan Stewart framed the morning discussion that followed by noting an inherent balance between the twin impulses that she characterized as Contentiva & Activa. Jennifer Moxley then introduced a discussion that she had been having with some Josh Schuster & others about one of the issues that had come up earlier in the year at the Social Mark conference around the question of reference & hermeticism. Poems that name names – simply to pick one mode of the hermetic –

can exclude readers, yet many of us (myself certainly included) use names regularly in our work. John Koethe discussed Frank O’Hara’s use of names & how their presence in his work contributes to an openness, rather than a closing off of the reader. Readers may not know the individuals, but they sense the positioning of the work within a community.

 

Rodrigo Toscano argued that this was a question of how you use information within the poem. “Do you put the info out first?” he asked. Other examples were raised, ranging from Amiri Baraka to Alexander Pope. Understanding what to do with references, Charles Bernstein reminded us, has to do with literacy, who knows how to read, which is not distributed evenly in society. It’s a question, Mark McMorris noted, not of how you refer, not that you refer. For Rachel Blau DuPlessis, this raised the image of George Oppen & the Objectivists, and the integrity of a poetics based in sincerity. Herman Beavers noted that this was almost an annual theme at Cave Canem, the annual summer conference of black poets.

 

At this point, James Sherry suggested a new quadrant diagram for values in a poem, with a horizontal axis of temporality – “my poem will be understandable today, but in 50 years nobody will remember Rumsfeld & Cheney” – ranging from the immediate to the long-term & a vertical access along the psychological (I don’t think James spelled out the terms here, but I suspect it must range from the most private at one end to the most communal at the other).

 

Tracie Morris noted that consciousness is indeed a question of communities, communities of reference. People feel more disenfranchises in an interpretationist perspective, because it sets up an intermediary between reader & text.

 

Rod Smith then wanted to know why hermeticism was a problem. Tim Carmody then noted that making people feel uncomfortable is an important function of literature and that this is the Brechtian reading of the third term in the triumvirate that Perelman had only partly articulated previously: the purpose of literature is to instruct, delight and move, and that discomfort was indeed a move.

 

Peter Middleton then noted something that seemed apparent the second he said it (and implicit in some of what Tracie Morris had been saying), that the entire discussion of hermeticism was “doing a lot of cultural work here,” standing in as it did for a tremendous amount of anxiety about the different levels of education in the U.S. (reflected in the room with its various PhDs as well as folks whose terminal degree is a high school diploma, such as Toscano or myself) and how these reflect divisions of class & race. 

 

A more pointed discussion of the critique of hermeticism itself then ensued, starting with Herman Beavers’ elaboration of pop culture quotations (“the Woody Woodpecker song”) in the music of Sonny Rollins & followed up with John Koethe’s account of John Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath, which only looks hermetic. Tracie Morris reminded people that hermeticism also serves another purpose, as a protective code to ensure survival. Frank Sherlock noted that we need to know why we are being hermetic. Josh Schuster wanted to insert the idea into the Speed vs. Scale discussion of the day before, arguing that hermetic terms function as interruptions and that interruption directly intervenes in the Speed/Scale nexus.

 

Rodrigo Toscano proposed a typology of speech act-like tropes for any interaction, including a text: flirt, truce & a third that he alternately termed hostility or aggression. Confusion occurs whenever you get interactions out of a predictable order, going, for example, directly from hostility to flirt without an intermediating truce.

 

We have evidence of a considerable will to destruction to overcome, Tim Carmody reminded everyone.

 

Jennifer Moxley noted that we think we can bring “the modern world” or the present to Iraq, as if Iraq’s world were not already fully in the present. There is a great series of blind assumptions in such presumptive behavior. One that leads to reactions that we (“we” being the state) do not expect simply because we don’t envision other ways of viewing the world.

 

Which is the point at which my notes stop, and essentially the end of the retreat. It was simultaneously exhausting, thrilling and frustrating, as events like this always are. Allen Grossman, who only stayed during the day on Saturday, complained at more than one point that we were only talking about what we agreed upon, that we could talk about Bush but dare not discuss the implications of one another’s poems. There may have been some truth to that, but, if so, I think it applied almost entirely to the Saturday session and not to Sunday. In retrospect, I suspect that we were simultaneously finding out common voice that first full day and a half – given just how radically dissimilar some of our poems are. At one point, Rachel Blau DuPlessis noted that she had never imagined herself to be involved in a project that was at least partly parallel to that of Greg Djanikian, but it seemed to her here that clearly this was the case. I had a similar sense of the relation of my own work to that of Herman Beavers. And I suspect that more than a few others had similar reactions.

 

Where any of this goes from here will depend really on the 30-plus members of the community. And the others who get involved.

 

 

 

 

* Other words that were defined during the day because not all were familiar with them included blog, flarf and flash mob. You will have to look up Blee in the OED yourself, although I warn you the definition is not quite as funny as Peter Middleton tells it.



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