Saturday, December 06, 2003
Re: Your crit of a new magazine striving for a little format sparkle.
This is going to sound really off the wall and irrelevant,
but I can still remember the day over 40 years ago when I picked up my first
The New Yorker on a magazine stand in
One approach that I have seen several little magazines take over the years has been the “anonymous” issue – publishing an entire edition either with no identification of the authors, or only with their names listed collectively, usually at the end. The point seems to be to demonstrate the value of a text sans the “prestige” (or lack thereof) of a given author’s name. This has never made much (any?) sense to me simply because context is always already a part of the content of the poem. The absence of context is rather like watching Gone With the Wind on a black & white TV. It’s one of those “yes, but . . .” phenomena. What does, in such context, make of the writing of a younger poet who has cloned or otherwise channeled the style of an elder, the way, say, Antler does Allen Ginsberg. What if one was to publish a newly found Ginsberg poem alongside one by Antler in such an issue? Would readers be able to detect whose was whose?
This is where I think the indoctrination of the well-wrought urn leads readers (and writers at times as well) astray. The history of poetry is not – and never has been – a history of the most finely crafted poems. It is rather, the history of poetic change – formal change, the transformation of literary devices. Precisely because this is the point where literature engages the history of society. So the perfect historical recreation of an Allen Ginsberg poem fails to connect with literary history in a way that that a discarded, decidedly imperfect text by Allen himself engages it. And that, I would argue, is a fuller definition of content than the New Yorker has ever offered.
Friday, December 05, 2003
on the edge of
If there is a divide between town & gown, there’s a second, smaller – but still very real & palpable – gap between any school’s graduate students & the undergrads. It’s not merely that the former are paid slave wages to teach the latter, a circumstance that both groups resent, but that grad students have made a conscious choice & considerable effort to be in this school & this department at this point in its institutional history, while the majority of any undergraduate class at anything less than one of the top schools happens to be there through a combination of chance & inertia.
in awhile, an undergraduate, occasionally even a townie, enrolled in a school
with a poetics or writing program turns out to be in exactly the right place.
David Gitin has spoken of his good fortune at finding Charles Olson among his
teachers at SUNY Buffalo, back before it was even a SUNY campus I think. More
Jarnot may have the
best ear of any poet under 40 –
– but reading Black Dog Songs, Jarnot’s newest collection from Flood Editions, I think the reality is that I was underestimating her poetry. A century from now, I suspect readers may think of SUNY Buffalo as “that place Lisa Jarnot went to study.” She has a straight shot at being one of the half dozen best poets of the 21st century. She’s so damn good it’s spooky.
Part of what makes Jarnot not just a fine poet but a great one is, in fact, her ear –
land in Israel
and snails are in a sea,
a real deal in a diner sails
as salads in a sea,
asides aside, aside asides
in salads in a sea,
aside in rinds in lines in lines
as diners in a sea,
a din in dine is in a deal,
ideal as red a sea,
as in in dins asides aside,
and and and land and sea.
It’s the first line of that third stanza that really clinches this poem for me – it takes enormous courage to write that simply, precisely because to do so risks being misunderstood as simple in ways that are socially coded. That’s the kind of courage in writing I associate with Kathy Acker’s self-published early novels or with Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
and Sea” also demonstrates, part of what makes Jarnot a great poet is this
fearlessness as a writer that I don’t think can be
taught – it’s an open question as to whether or not it can be learned
willfully. Part of it is also Jarnot’s ability to look at writing in the
broadest possible terms. I thought at first to write “outside of history,” but that’s not it exactly. Rather, I think that Jarnot shows a
willingness to take the whole of history on in even the simplest lyric. My
guess is that this is what she has taken from her lengthy & in-depth study
of Robert Duncan, whose biography she has written (the
The Flood Editions press release announcing the book calls it “Decidedly lyrical,” which is partly right. But it’s a dark lyricism, one that has more in common with Blake or Helen Adam than any of the usual suspects. The title poem, like many in this book, hovers between nursery rhyme – maybe in Jack Spicer’s daycare center, tho – and a pomo gothic gloom as “road kill” becomes an active agent & not only chickens, but cats end up on the griddle.
exception to this dark side right in the middle of this book is a series of
mostly prose poems entitled ”They,” which uses the verb love more sharply than it’s been employed since, say, the very
earliest lyrics of
They loved harmony they loved ant hills they loved food and cookies and harpoons they loved the sound of laces of the shoes and snow they loved the snow on Thursdays in the rain and when they met they loved that too and igloos and the trees and things to mail and chlorine and they loved the towels for the beach and hot dogs and the pool and also when the wind rose up they loved the ceiling and the tide and then they loved the sky.
The first of this series is entitled “On the Sublime.” Indeed.
Jarnot hasn’t been a prolific writer, or at least not a prolific
publisher of her writings. In addition to the
Thursday, December 04, 2003
You may have noticed that this blog won another award the other day – Blogger Forum listed it as a Top Ten Weekly weblog for Thanksgiving week. What that means in practice is that this was one of the top ten Blogspot sites identified as a search item by Google during the week. In practice, I get to post the mini-banner you will find beneath my copyright notice on the left-hand column.
It’s third award of this sort this blog has received in 15 months – it was the Blog of the Day back in December 2002 & was listed among Technorati’s “Top 50 interesting recent blogs” earlier this year. Given that Technorati tracks, as of today, 1,282,605 weblogs, all of this strikes me as reasonably improbable. This is, after all, not just a Silliman among the poets or post-avants vs. the quietude kind of thing, but really poetry amidst all of the other possible topics out in the universe. &, as Spicer admonishes, No one listens to poetry. And, has been noted elsewhere, “Silliman’s Blog” is perhaps the most uncool title one could conceivably give to a weblog.
All of this had me thinking about prizes & awards when the November/December issue of Poets & Writers crested at the top of the upstairs bathroom reading pile which, in addition to Kevin Larimer’s great article on literary correspondences – there are new volumes of letters forthcoming between William Carlos Williams & Kenneth Burke; between Williams & Zukofsky (with LZ critiquing WCW’s poems, rather than other way around); & between Robert Duncan & Denise Levertov – has a series of articles on contests & prizes by Matthew Zapruder, Diana Wagman & Ian Pounds. Zapruder’s in particular is worth reading.
was the statistics that dotted these articles as editorial “call-outs” that
caught my imagination even more deeply. Here are a few. As best I can tell, the
numbers apply just to the
· Amount of money awarded by sponsors of literary contests (2003): $8,896,857
· Amount of money awarded by sponsors of literary contests (2002): $6,757,101
· Number of creative writers who won literary contests in 2003: 1,019
· Number of those who are poets: 506
· Number of those who are translators: 21
· Number of literary magazines, small presses, and other organizations that sponsored contests (2003): 349
· Number of literary magazines, small presses, and other organizations that sponsored contests (2002): 256
· Number of books published as a result of literary contests in 2003: 121
· Number of those published as a result of “first-book” contests: 29
· Number of those first books that are collections of poetry: 22
· Percentage of 1,000 readers who believe the judge of a literary contest should be allowed to give an award to a former student: 41
· Highest amount of money most readers would pay to enter a literary contest that awards a $1,000 prize and publication of a book: $10
· When deciding which first-book contest to enter, the most important consideration for 35 percent of 1,000 readers polled: Publisher
· Percentage of 1,000 readers who consider the judge to be the most important factor: 9
With nearly $9 million on the table – the average award for the more than 1,000 winning creative writers last year was $8,731 – literary prizes are themselves a nice little cottage industry these days. Given the flat-to-negative state of the economy since Bush took office, the fact that the amount of prize money awarded rose by 31 percent in 2003, while the number of small presses, literary mags & sundry arts organizations sponsoring them increased by 36 percent, it’s worth thinking the implications of this out a little further.
The cover of the current Poets & Writers lists its contests feature with the following teaser – “Does the Best Writer Always Win?” With over 1,000 different winners this past year – I’m included as a recipient of an NEA fellowship – that word “best” transcends being merely problematic & becomes something genuinely ludicrous. Best at what, for what, for whom, etc.? As Zapruder takes pains to note, the economics of fee-charging contests are such that many (tho not all) are actually fund-raisers for their respective sponsors. If you are giving away, say, $2,000 in prizes ($1,000 for first, $500 for second, etc.) and maybe paying a judge another $1,000 for his or her efforts at picking a winner, you can do okay if you receive 500 applications each with $10 attached. And some prizes receive well over 1,000 applications. At one level, literary contests that charge an entry fee are not terribly different from the numerous School o’ Quietude summer writing workshops that are a social realm unto themselves, offering false hopes for a little cash.
I like social validation as much as the next person, maybe more. Yet I have to wonder what it means when more than 500 poets are winning prizes in any given year. Maybe I would think differently about this if a reasonable percentage of these writers were from the various post-avant traditions, but the reality remains that the School o’ Quietude controls a percentage of those funds quite disproportionate to the amount of poetry it produces, let alone poetry that will last, say, one decade beyond the life of the poet (which is when the School of Quietude tends to gets real quiet). But even if this disparity were not the case, the rationale underlying the process & proliferation of awards would warrant some skeptical scrutiny.
principle reason to give an award is bring attention to its winner, to alert
the wider community to a standard of excellence. But
the ability to do this is increasingly impaired simply by the clutter of
awards. Some awards, for reasons that have less to do with quality than
longevity or social positioning, manage to stand out – the Pulitzers, for
example, offer little money & a list of winners that is for the most part
laughable, but get covered by every newspaper in the
country, precisely because the awards are centered on newspaper journalism. Now
the National Book Critics Circle Award is attempting the same process – but
what they really represent are the advertising dollars publishers spend with
newspapers. The National Book Award is not much different. The politics of the
Nobel Prize may be somewhat different, but that doesn’t
make it any less political. And just as there have been any number of genuinely bad
movies to have the Oscar for best picture (Rocky?
Beyond the politics & clutter of it all, many literary competitions suffer from at least two additional fatal problems, both institutional in nature. The first is the definition of qualifying genre, which has nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening in literature, but which is perceived by some groups (almost always groups) as needed in order to know which category to consider a work. I’ve sometimes thought it would be fun to submit Tjanting to a contest calling for works “under 30 lines.” It certainly is that, even if it is over 100 pages long. The second problem is the nature of the screening process – most judges aren’t asked to view all submissions to a given contest, but only a set of predetermined “finalists.” Zapruder recounts the story of W.H. Auden, John Ashbery & Frank O’Hara that led to the publication of Some Trees in the Yale series as an instance of this problem. One could spin that story as an instance of a judge awarding a prize to a friend & abrogating the selection process altogether, yet what that story points out is that the knowledge of someone’s work that comes with a literary friendship is often – always? – a better indicator of lasting value than what can be seen from a stack of “blind” manuscripts. In such circumstances, the judging process can never be better than the screening process itself, yet very few organizations – the Pew is an exception worth noting – put much energy into assuring that the screeners are as qualified as the judges themselves.
Finally, the most serious problem that such awards pose are the ways in which they seduce younger authors in particular to produce “award-winning” manuscripts, be these of single poems or book-length collections. I certainly went through a stage in college of trying to figure out what it would take to win a prize, say, at UC Berkeley. Indeed, after friends counseled me to submit only my shortest poems to one contest there, I won the Joan Lee Yang Award. The judge was somebody I’d never heard of before – Robert Grenier – and it turned out to be one way to start a lifelong friendship. But what kind of poet would I have become had I spent my time & energy instead trying to figure out how to win the Yale Younger Poets Award, which still had some vestige of credibility back in the late 1960s? I shudder to imagine that fate.
Wednesday, December 03, 2003
back, I had a day in which my mailbox was filled
almost entirely with poetry & other work from
was that I got two packages, both filled with riches. The first was from Bob
Harrison, sending along “Counter Daemons,” the first section of a new long
poem, WYSIWYG. I’ve been a fan of Harrison, both as poet & editor, for quite
some time now, so this is the first installment of what I take to be a great
gift to us all. My first quick read-thru tells me it’s
full of energy, wit & pizzazz.
The other package, the first issue of a journal called Gam – the reference is not slang for a lady’s leg, but rather a “social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising ground” – is an all-Milwaukee affair, edited (the whaling reference is a dead give-away) by Stacy Szymaszek, herself the literary program manager of Woodland Pattern. Most of its poets, other than Harrison – you can find some of “Counter Daemons” here – and Szymaszek, are either new to me, with the notable exception of Steve Nelson-Raney, whom I think of first of all as a great saxophone player. (Indeed, much of this is being written to the literal tune of Nelson-Raney’s Summer 1994 CD.)
Gam’s poetry is
not unlike Szymaszek’s own: well-crafted, mostly
spare, alive to the ear. Given the presence of Nelson-Raney, Harrison & david baptiste
chirot, the issue comes across as a whole as less
experimental, say, than one might expect. In part, this may be an illusion –
the scarring inside
being derived from any process other than the human imagination & heart. Conversely, chirot’s “TO ABSORB DARKNESS UNTIL ALL THAT REMAINS IS LIGHT” – I guess he saves his caps for poem titles – looks experimental until one realizes that what the sections in caps are kin to a chorus, not exactly the newest thing in poetry (& executed very much in the same spirit as chirot demonstrates here by that old hound of convention, T.S. Eliot, once upon a time).
Readers of this blog will know that nothing quite makes me feel more optimistic than reading first rate work from poets whose writing is new to me. John Tyson & Drew Kunz both fit that description. And I could teach a class on Nelson-Raney’s “Badges”:
Ice stars some
early badges of beauty
affixed to glass
insert tiny singers
in cold morning
First we would discuss the career of the i, around which this poem is built, then the narrative line found in the o – its first three appearances are so soft one barely notices them, yet it dominates the latter half of the poem. That’s an overstatement, really – rather, the o is so strong in the fourth & sixth lines precisely to set up the i in the final three lines – the three phonemes it represents in the fifth line each echo one more time in the poem’s last lines. Then we would talk about the double b sounds in the second line, the role of s throughout, followed finally by the poem’s last line (noting along the way that every phoneme in the first word Ice shows up here as well). It’s a simple enough text at one level, but its formal resonances just go on & on. What a gift a good ear is.
Indeed, Nelson-Raney’s ear, along with that of Tyson, Harrison, Kunz &, in “Seblon after Querelle,” Szymaszek, has the effect of rendering Robert J. Baumann’s
the walk of cobble:
clumsy & unsubtle for my liking. In another setting, I might not have felt
that way, but whether it’s the
is a mixed bag, but its high points are so terrific that I would encourage
everyone to get it. Although, be warned, the issue I received notes a
publication run of just 100, not nearly enough for this quality of writing. My
one other kvetch is the clips with which this first issue is bound. Staples
would work much better. Gam is available, if at all, from 142 E.
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
wife nor I handle hospitals with equanimity. Back in 1989 when I was still
editing the Socialist Review, we went
So we’re both as nervous as cats (or worse) at anything to do with hospitals. At different moments yesterday, each of us relived some of that first trauma from almost 15 years ago and the whole event left me exhausted beyond imagination by the time I got to bed at 11 last night (which is to say, two hours early). If I seem more distracted & flaky this week, you’ll know why.
Monday, December 01, 2003
The new No is now. Which is to say that the second issue of this exceptionally intelligent – but bafflingly designed* – journal has arrived. As with its first issue, there are several features that entirely warrant the $12 cover price. Three that immediately come to mind are:
· An American Primitive in Paris, a sizeable portfolio of the paintings of Enrique Chagoya, whose artwork used to grace the page of Socialist Review back when I had the fortune to be its editor.
The American Rhythm, by Mary Austin,
with an intro by C.D. Wright, returning to print this 1930 document** arguing
for an American poetic measure predicated upon what
On top of
which there is a piece by Marjorie Perloff attempting to prove William Butler
Yeats to be
most interesting to me about
Langpo to some degree sidestepped the issue in good part by turning to prose, but the issue lingers on even more acutely I think for younger poets. The failure to create an adequate response is partly to blame for the resurrection of patterned poetics in the guise of a New Formalism (that was – & for the most part still is – terrified of form), always already guilty premodernists that they are. And it’s what enables Thomas Fink to call me on my analysis of Brenda Iijima’s “Georgic”: I have, in his view, identified all the ways she is not like X, Y, or Z, without really being able to describe what, in fact, her line break is about. What motivates it? What is the positive principle that determines that broken word stam- / pede? But as I confessed then,
this is what most mystifies me – because given those words, I just couldn’t do it on my own.
And I’m not
aware of anyone who has stepped up to attempt such a project, either with
regards to this
I do intuit at some level that the assumption that underwrites both Austin & Olson – that the measures of verse are contextually dependent – makes sense. But I don’t, even after writing & thinking about poetry for 40 years, feel anywhere near ready to say why or how. I would love to hear what readers of this blog think.
* The only
excuse for starting the first piece, an elegy by
** A second edition was published posthumously in 1970.
*** So I
read Irby’s work in this issue, written nearly 30 years ago, right at the height
of the “my linebreak / my zipcode” fever, yet written
in a wholly different context, having moved at that point to Denmark. And these are curiously the flattest lines of his that I
know, as if that
Sunday, November 30, 2003