Saturday, October 25, 2003
trying to imagine the best way to respond to
Which gets us to
only quoted three lines of
· 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
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
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
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
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
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 . . .
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
… 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
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
* Brambu Drezi has the
distinct advantage of being very easily Googled, yielding more than 150 hits,
every one to
Friday, October 24, 2003
published a negative review of Another
South, I expected to hear back from its editor,
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
Another criticism I expected Another South to receive at the pens of “establishment” or “conservative” critics is of this variety:
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
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
More clouds of gas
That need their picture took
Lorenzo Thomas has more going
on in eleven lines than
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.
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 –
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”
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
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.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
George Stanley is reading today at Writers House, at Eastern. It will be webcast live by Writers House – for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
most successful reading that
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:
- You grew up in
, but went to college in San Francisco . What in 1952 takes a young gay male poet to such a place? How did that affect you? Salt Lake City
- And then you went into the Army? Did you think about the seminary as well?
- Having finished your military
service & enrolled at UC Berkeley, you first met Jack Spicer in 1957
in a bar called The Place in
. What was it about Spicer that made him the right teacher for you? What made Jack stand out? San Francisco
- 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?
- You are often mentioned in
conjunction with the Spicer circle & likewise what Americans sometimes
think of the post-Spicer diaspora, the migration to
between 1966 and 1971 by yourself, Robin Blaser & Stan Persky. And you’ve spoken of the influences of Canada 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.
- Living in
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? Canada
- The very next poem in Girl, “Pompeii,”
is one of the most powerful poems to come out of
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? San Francisco
- “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?
- 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?
- I want to ask about
collaboration. Poets in the
renaissance tradition appear to have done much less of it than their peers in the San Francisco . 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? New York School
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 ? Do you even need one? Vancouver
- On of the symmetries of Girl that seems noteworthy is that
it begins & ends with titles that evoke
, “Pablito in the Corrida” & “Vera Cruz.” Elsewhere in your poetry, there are references to Mexico & Scotland . You’ve lived half your life in Ireland & the second half in western San Francisco . In the fourth part of Canada you write: Vancouver
sometimes the mind
is just aware of its
dumbness – the skull – the unnerving
pathos (unjustified, yes, I’ll always
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?
- The first two sections of
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 Vancouver , for example, another long poem with a city for its name. What’s your vision for this poem? Paterson
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
Also missing is post by Kathy Lou Schultz on my “hotbed of leftism” comment that I don't think ever showed up:
When I read Ron’s blog and see
the phrase "that hotbed of leftism" in relation to "
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
At the retreat I brought up my
experience of organizing during the first Gulf War as evidence of real
grassroots opposition to
Sometimes I’m profoundly saddened by my
experiences as an organizer in
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
Kathy, my father comes from
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.
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 –
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)
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
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
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 –
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
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
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.
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.
different ways, Allen Grossman and
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 “
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.”
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Moxley noted that we think we can bring “the modern world” or the present to
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,
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.