Saturday, May 15, 2004

 

In the comments section that accompanies my kvetching last Monday about Blogger’s unannounced – and underdocumented – “relaunch” of its service with a spiffier look, but buggier code, two people – David Nemeth and someone named eddie – both asked quite reasonably why I would continue with, as eddie put it, “this crappy free service.” It’s a good question & deserves an answer.

 

When I started this weblog back at the end of August 2002, one of my goals was to explore the possibility of a form that could lead to a wider discussion of contemporary poetry & poetics, especially outside of an academic context. When I began, there were, I am now aware, two already existing serious literary blogs – Joe Duemer’s Reading & Writing and Laura Willey’s Laurable.Com. The blogroll to the left of this note now has some 290 weblogs, over 250 of which belong to practicing poets & their peers. There are post-avants of all stripes, new formalists, neo-beats, cartoon Jimmy & more than a couple of people on that list who think I’m the most painfully pompous person on the planet. But the simple fact that there are over 250 strikes me as a good thing. And it’s worth noting that even the academics among them – some excellent ones too, like Tim Yu, Chris Murray & Kasey Mohammad – produce these blogs not out of any professional advantage it might afford them – if anything, there is some risk to the contrary – but from of a love for the language arts.

 

I’m fortunate in that in as the number of weblog choices available to readers has grown, so has my own blog’s audience – I’m currently getting an average of 350 visits per day, with readers generally looking at 1.5 pages each time. So, while this is not the most widely read literary weblog – Mark Woods’ lot holds that distinction – it gets enough readers to make me realize that its impact, socially, must extend beyond its function nearly two years ago in helping to spark the concept of the literary weblog.

 

And that is what keeps me at Blogger, deficient though it surely is. The fact that it is free & that any teenager could figure out how to use it – and mostly do a better design job than I have, in the process – is precisely its value. This is what I call – and I know I’m not alone – the “Yahoo effect.” Yahoo! succeeded as a web tool & as a company not because it was well designed, but because it was not. It was, as I used to joke back in the days when it was still just some kids at Stanford, the way my mother would organize her way around the web, tho my late grandmother might have been the more apt analogy. In those days, the most proficient & cool search engine was HotBot, powered by Inktomi, which had the first truly advanced search function. The handful of choices that enabled someone to limit their search to one country, one file type, one language, let alone word &/or phrase, made HotBot the favored search tool among geeky types, but it also limited HotBot precisely to those folks. HotBot intimidated people who did not know if they wanted a JPG or PDF file. Google,when it first arrived on the scene, wasn’t any more powerful than HotBot, but it masked the relative complexity of its operations far better.

 

Poetry is an art form that can be conducted with a pencil & a piece of paper, even less if need be.* That is, to my mind at least, one of its primary attractions – indeed, there have been more than a few successful poets who could not have worked in any form that demanded either a greater degree of technical sophistication or the ability to play well with others. If I want to encourage others to take up the idea of talking & writing about contemporary poetry in a context like this one, then it behooves me to do so in the closest thing to the “beginner” software I can find. The not-so-hidden message is this: you could do this too. 

 

And the world will be richer if you do. All these weblogs, especially in their interconnectedness, point to something that is seldom discussed about poetry, but which is nearly as important an element as its technological simplicity – that it functions, at least in the United States, primarily as a community. This has enormous implications theoretically, and I’m up for exploring them all, even the negative ones like the paranoia & backbiting. The positives outweigh the other many times over & it’s a better use of my time (yours too) to think about that.

 

Thus, to pick a not entirely arbitrary example, Matthew Shindell complains that “Ron Silliman still has not told us about his first experience with Mail Art.” It’s not that I’m not paying attention, nor even that most mail art reminds me of Jim Gustafson’s great dictum to aspire to read more than what comes in the mail. It’s a quandary as to how to think about this question. I believe I may have gotten some pieces from Davi Det Hompson back in the 1970s, maybe even the 1960s. But those pieces never dented many of the brain cells, frankly. A more playful piece I got once was a literal poetic license from some Los Angeles performance artists who called themselves, if memory serves, Le Petite Bon Bon. I had that tacked up on the wall for quite awhile.

 

Yet when I really think of what this question must actually mean, underneath all else, two postcards from poets, one very early one from Allen Ginsberg responding to something I’d sent him when I was just literally out of high school, encouraging me but, in response to an allusion in my text to Dexedrine, telling me to cool it on the “dex.” My mother misread Allen’s cramped penmanship & was not at all sure what to make of this admonition to, as she read it, cool it on the “sex.”

 

The second was a post card from Louis Zukofsky circa 1970, after I’d written to propose an Objectivist Casebook that would have combined the Objectivist issue of Poetry with the later Objectivist Anthology, plus some critical material. The card read as follows:

 

No,

 

 

            But,

 

                       

                        Sincerely,

 

 

                                                LZ

 


 

 

 * I recall Abigail Child telling me, way back in the mid-1970s, that once she had sunk an enormous amount of money into an early film, tArgarden, the only art forms she could afford to practice for some time were poetry & dance.



Friday, May 14, 2004

 

Here is Question 4 in the 9 for 9 Project, along with my response.

 

NEA chairman Dana Gioia has recently implemented a writing program for U.S. troops to write about their wartime experiences in Iraq. Boeing (a leading defense contractor) has donated $250,000 to the program. Gioia is quoted as saying, "I have noticed a lot of similarities between the military world and the literary world. Both are highly specialized and highly professionalized. And when that happens, you tend not to see a lot of things outside of your immediate world. I'm hoping this program will make a difference." Keep in mind that this comes at a time when the NEA has slashed funding for organizations such as The Poetry Project at St. Marks, and Woodlawn Pattern in Milwaukee, as well as many others. Write Dana Gioia a letter responding to this new NEA program.

 

Dana, baby, you trickster! You

know as well as I

 

that pens & keyboards in

the hands of “’Murica’s finest”

 

is like giving camcorders to

the MPs of Abu Ghraib,

 

flash memory of the oppressed,

flesh pressed into service, all

 

these young vols, young Rimbaud,

young Monroe, wide-eyed latent

 

young Timothy McVeigh, give him

a pen, what then? If,

 

as I live & breathe,
you understand this elaborate con

 

as one intervention for peace,

I’d be glad & shout

 

out laughter that big Boeing

was just who bought it,

 

Ron



Thursday, May 13, 2004

 

Question 3 in the next round of the 9 for 9 Project is as follows:

 

The U.S. presidential election debates between Bush and Kerry are forthcoming. You have been chosen to compose three questions for one of the debates, what are those three questions?

 

My first question is for Governor Bush: Governor, perhaps the most important single sentence ever written in the history of this nation was the very second one, crafted as you know by Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

At the time that sentence was written, and for many decades thereafter, it was interpreted as not including many categories of human beings, such as women, slaves, and even white men without property. The history of this nation since 1776 can very easily be characterized as an ongoing confrontation with the possibilities figured in Jefferson’s language, as each new generation comes to understand precisely what is implied by those unequivocal words all men are created equal. Looking back at history, at those who sought to preserve slavery, to prevent women from voting or participating in the workplace, and those who attempted to bolster racial segregation, whether through the courts or through violence, it is also evident that those who would constrain the possibilities implied in the Declaration of Independence not only lose in the long run but also shame the very ideals of this nation. Sir, why have you offered support for an amendment that would cast bigotry into the U.S. Constitution by restricting the rights of gay and lesbian Americans to be treated as equals under the laws with regards to marriage?

 

My second question is for Senator Kerry: Sir, you voted to support the use of force for the invasion of Iraq at a time when many Democrats were extremely skeptical of what we now know to have been fraudulent claims regarding the possession of weapons of mass destruction, compounded in part by equally fraudulent claims concerning the relationship between the Hussein regime, terrible dictatorship though it may have been, and Al Qaeda. Subsequently, you have been critical of the ways in which the current regime has used the very same blank check that you and your colleagues in the Senate gave them. Can you explain why you were taken in by such patently bogus claims in the first place & what you would do as president to ensure that future administrations cannot rush the nation into unilateral wars of choice?

 

My third question is for both Governor Bush & Senator Kerry & concerns some of the root causes of terror: Gentlemen, of the world’s 6 billion people, more than 1.2 billion currently live on less than $1 per day, 60 percent of them in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These parts of the world have also seen a rise both in the number of failed states & in the export of the problems of failed states, one of which happens to be terror. To date, neither the United Nations nor the United States nor any other body has come up with anything like a program to address the problems of failed states. What would such a program look like, who would run it, what kind of power would it have, legally, economically, politically & militarily, & what role, if any, would the United States play in ensuring its success?



Wednesday, May 12, 2004

 

There is a sureness in Prageeta Sharma’s writing that is so straightforward that it’s disarming. Particularly after the signaled complexities of Martin Corless-Smith & intensity of Catherine Wagner, the other two poets whose Fence Press Books I’ve been reading this week, Sharma’s The Opening Question almost feels easy & relaxed. But then trying to settle on something akin to a “typical” poem to focus on, I get stuck on the realization that there is no such thing here as a prototypical Sharma piece & that the range of this relatively slender volume is in fact extraordinary. In this sense, but perhaps in this sense only, she reminds me of two other poets with great technical ability & a will to explore huge swathes of the literary landscape – Cole Swenson &, going back a bit, Curtis Faville’s work in the 1970s. Neither of whom write anything remotely like Sharma, nor like one another.

 

Like Faville, tho, Sharma has an evident interest in the New York School, even as her take on it intersects that literary tradition at a later historical moment. A poem could begin, for example:

 

My sweetie’s underpants have argyle on them and grip his thighs.

O his European underpants with pastel colors,

how they illustrate his unassuming ways.

His secrets are feasts and traumas

and he is sometimes the loneliest under blankets.

 

Or it could, in fact, be an “Ode to Badminton,” precisely as advertised. Yet consider the three-part compression that operates in “Performance Test”:

 

There is subtle sad aggression

Is it self-defeating or congratulatory

a trashy venue or damn good success

Now consider peaceful animal life

 

What appears on first impression to be two simple, possibly unrelated statements yoked together by the four alternatives posed in the conjoining rhetorical question is ultimately remarkably complex assertions: subtle sad aggression is one of those phrases that, once it gets into your mind, hooks on & won’t let go. It has an intuitive rightness, a fit, that immediately invokes an enormous payload from within the reader’s experience. You might not even notice its constructed – i.e. cultural – element until you contrast it with its counterpart in the fourth line: peaceful animal life. The way those latter schema blend effortlessly is precisely what is being contrasted with that first phrase. Thus what is most important about the four options posed in between is not how they fit, but rather how they don’t: if the affect of contemporary urban experience is what is being tackled here, what matters most is how all of our explanations for it fall short. That, by the way, is why this poem bears this particular title. Imagine, if you will, something like the four alternative “answers” contestants must face on a television program like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Here, each alternative presents a conundrum, not a solution.

 

The risk in such poetry is not unlike the one that Frank O’Hara took in his. One reason that it was Ashbery & not O’Hara who was first invited in by the institutions of the School o’ Quietude had to do with the recognizability of Ashbery’s project. The equations Ashbery = Auden, O’Hara = Williams are way too facile, even though Ashbery benefited greatly precisely because of that association, whereas O’Hara had to overcome his. It’s not evident that Sharma, two generations later, will have to struggle against such biases. Yet it is worth noting that the apparent ease at the heart of Sharma’s poetry is not unlike, say, the grace in the dancing of Ginger Rogers – who did everything Fred Astaire did, just in high heels & backwards.



Tuesday, May 11, 2004

 

I’ve been in Boise exactly once in my lifetime, although it’s not so terribly far from where I was born in Pasco, Washington. The year was 1970 & my first wife & I were moving east to Buffalo where we planned to attend SUNY. Since neither Shelley nor I drove in those days, we hitched a ride with some friends from Berkeley, Andy & Frannie Blasky, the four of us crammed into a sky blue VW bug,literally, with all of our worldly belongings. The day before we headed East, the four of us went over to SF to see Easy Rider. The shootings at Kent & Jackson state universities were less than two months old. We had a sense that we were about to cross over some perilous territory. We only encountered one genuinely scary moment on our trip, but that was in Boise, where we’d gone into a hotel restaurant/bar in search of lunch. Andy, noting how everyone was dressed in there, plunked a dime in the juke box & played Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee. Far from being taken as a gesture of friendship, three or four guys in tall hats took notice of us and, after we finished our meal, followed us out of the hotel & then followed our car in a pickup truck, circling us once just to let us know that they were not amused. Images of Mickey Schwerner & Jack Nicholson went through our minds, but after they’d had their fun we were able to head east.

 

So when I toss out, half in jest, the phrase the Boise Renaissance, it’s with that image still floating around in the back of my mind. But there are cities with populations several times the size of Boise’s 185,000 that don’t have two good poets. So a renaissance it most certainly is. And if Martin Corless-Smith & Catherine Wagner pull up stakes & move to Memphis, say, or Las Vegas, or to Banff, then that renaissance will travel with them.

 

Martin Corless-Smith is not what you would expect to find in Boise, frankly. Although his studies included stints at Southern Methodist University, the University of Iowa & University of Utah, Corless-Smith is a British poet very much in the sense, that, say, Allen Fisher is a British poet. The look-&-feel of it are instantaneous:

 

In here perfect silk she comes to thee   {me}

The Rose The Lily and The haw

Are garments of her spring attire
Which she disrobes at summers door

The to soak in her fecundity

Whereon the golden gown of her maturity she

takes    before the Wheat as field as her crown before

             The autumn fades[illeg. struck-through] begs her to retire

              disrobed once more upon the threshers millers floor

Where as she steps outside her gown She

Is no more

                            as we acquire

                                                      our store

and thus eternally


She dies as we acquire our bread her seed


Where as she steps outside herself she

dies in faith of her own seed

which is our need bread

 

This is the opening section of “nature’s fecunitie,” the shorter of the poem’s two halves. Here is “The Bee”:


From beds and borders bordering external waste

Our delving truth nods into everyness

Plain truth inticing as a spic’d perfume

To the paint the desert a lush wilderness

 

I’ve complained before that I don’t always hear the lines & tones in contemporary poetry, but that’s never a problem for me with Corless-Smith, whose work has more in common in this regard with Tom Raworth or Basil Bunting than, say, Fisher or J.H. Prynne. In fact, I hear in Corless-Smith a distant echo from, of all things, that previous Boise Renaissance, the late Edward Dorn. Like Dorn, who got it from Olson, Corless-Smith’s Nota strikes me as obsessed with place – what we get of the bee is the tracing of its pollen’s path. But it is, as that title pretty much pins it, a notational sense of place – thus the mockumentary use of strikethrough text.

 

It would be interesting to put this book alongside, not Catherine Wagner, nor Alan Halsey nor Dorn nor Paul Metcalf, but someone like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who is similarly obsessed with space, but whose sense of the text & of the line especially is painterly – painterly in the sense of structure & process – rather than notational. Reading Nota alongside Berssenbrugge’s Nest is disquieting precisely because the latter book reveals just how deeply sentimental notation itself must be, post-Olson.

 

Yet Corless-Smith, who himself trained as a painter as well as a poet, isn’t given to sentiment, per se – his work is as much informed by the cool observations of a W.G. Sebald as it is by the panting Olson – and he confronts these questions directly:

 

What I’m drawn to again is a register of intent and presence

 

“It was the kind of thing that was moderately meaningful to a microscopically small percentage of the population at a particular moment”

 

“Someone witnesses something amazing, but what matters most is not ‘out there’ . . . but deep within, at the vital emotional centre of witness . . .”

 

“If one understands that when we speak of gardens we are asking ‘how shall we feed ourselves.’”

 

“an ideal dependent upon the work of man an the corruptible contingency of nature.”

 

“The amorous thrills of the thrushes as though immanence were ceaselessly reworking and remodeling transcendence to the point of vertigo.”

 

So that no one, because of the thick leaves could see me through them

 

All we can do is imitate sorrow

 

we will always wonder what made the horse shy in those empty fields

 

The qualities of emotion, then, varying as one bird song from another. Sorrow and elation separated by the slight tonal shift. A chord is struck and imagines itself. One bird song often constituted a fraction higher than another. If attuned one can attend the gathering of emotion as weather percolating out at sea . . . for the changes in atmosphere affect the subtle gravities and geographies of the brain.

-- S. Dorking, The Humours of Physics

 

                sings                us

The robin [sang] to make [me] gay

the mournful dove marks our decay

the chafinch busies through her day

the magpies heart in disarray

-- Lady Jane Kempsey, Pieces for Lydia

 

The medium of Propehcy is rightfully words. Meanings that unfold in time . . . [a] cluster of signification out of which we must read our meaning. Either the cluster remains meaningless to us . . . or we accept our prophecy . . . as the words are our prediction. Let us not muddy such waters with fantasies of embracing that which has yet to happen . . .  prophecy names the next chapter, the roots of which might naturally enough be seen in our current, temporary fixations . . . We ask of Prophecy a resolution which is only this: an opportunity
to read.

-- William Swan, The Apocrypha of Being

 

This is an untitled piece in the midst of an untitled suite – indeed, in a section where pagination no longer exists. Maybe I should invert that observation. Nota is a book in which just 12 pages have numbers, albeit not the first twelve. As should be immediately apparent, theory & doxa lurk about the work. Does it function as more than source material? It’s hard to say – Corless-Smith’s sense of what to appropriate for tone & feeling are so certain, that one senses those dimensions taking priority. Considering just how deeply language poetry got bashed for its interest in theory, there really isn’t anybody among the first generation language poets with the possible exception of Steve McCaffery as thoroughly immersed in it as rhetoric as one finds here. There’s a 15 year difference between Corless-Smith & the younger langpos & it may be that a more appropriate comparison in that regard would be with some of the writers around Chain, such as Jena Osman, theory proficient, but also always theory-pragmatic as well.

 

Clearly this is a major poetry as well as a problematic one – very possibly the former condition is itself what demands the latter. Nota is a project on at least the scale, say, of Ronald Johnson’s Book of the Green Man, another volume that confronts place, time & meaning – tho Corless-Smith strikes me as having more three-dimensional ambition than the then-younger Johnson showed. Where Corless-Smith is headed with all this is what strikes me as the great question. Certainly not to reiterate “the masters,” whomever they might be. Nota is a book that makes you almost anxious to see what Corless-Smith is writing 20 years further on – I believe we’re in for a great ride.



Monday, May 10, 2004

 
Blogger "launched" a new version this morning without giving any of its users fair warning. It doesn't handle code as easily as the old version -- which makes a difference with the variable spacing and typographic elements in poetry -- and, although there was a period this morning when I could see all of my old posts in an editable format, that seems to have subsequently disappeared. All of which is to simply give a warning -- things here might be a little rough looking over the next few days (weeks?) as I learn the features of this. Chalk this one up to Stupid Vendor Tricks.


 

I took Fence up on its special three-fer offer: three of its books, normally priced at $12 each, for a mere $25. I picked up Catherine Wagner’s Macular Hole, Prageeta Sharma’s The Opening Question & Martin Corless-Smith’s Nota. As bargains go in the world of progressive books, this is one of the best deals around.

 

Wagner is a poet who Rae Armantrout first pointed out to me as someone well worth reading & her earlier book, also from Fence, Miss America, proved Armantrout right. With her partner, Corless-Smith, Wagner might be said to make up the Boise renaissance. Here, for instance, is “Scary Ballad”:

 

My eat, little girl, like a bed collapsed in

My eat nervous like for your life

And when the pie was opened
What a pretty

Sandpaper bird

Yellow cloth hole in the ocean
Rash skinny song and a dancing man
That was the cord I held

 

Who gave that little girl cold medicine to eat
My thighbruise made up to look pink
Nobody knew because nobody saw
Everyone walk down the street

 

This is one of those texts that just screams out for a close reading, the kind of attentiveness that will allow its many layers to peel themselves back into its core insight – the proximity of nursery rimes to transfigured memories of child abuse. If this poem has a spiritual ancestor, it is less the Brothers Grimm or Lewis Carroll & more closely the darkest side of Jack Spicer. Which is compounded by the fact that while, on the one hand, Macular Hole appears to be simply a collection of poems – the volume has three sections whose presence is not acknowledged in the table of contents – the book also functions as a single, masterful, often terrifying argument. Spicer meets Plath, perhaps, albeit the real Plath, terrible & frightened, not the puffed-up cliché that Hollywood & the School of Quietude want Plath to have been. Thus, for example, this untitled piece from the second suite:

 

God was not personal to me

 

 

 

God would become personal to me when I
thought I was so sexy


which was craven.

 

 

God was neither personal nor impersonal, it was a
questionnaire.

 

 

I drew a picture for the questionnaire
of a man in flared
    trousers, & there was

    me, wearing a fuckable mighty.           That was my answer.

 

 

The questions were inside
            like candy.
Passing “Salmon la Sac”

 

That first "G" should be a drop cap, but Blogger is not cooperating.

 

The other poet Wagner reminds me of – because she’s the only other poet I know in their 30s who seems capable of asking these huge questions point blank – is Lisa Jarnot. Is “mighty” in that next-to-last stanza a typo for “nighty”? Or are we supposed simply to hear one within the other – given the dazzling effects that Wagner tosses off with astonishing ease in her other poems, I’m inclined toward the latter. For Wagner, the difficult is effortless & the impossible only a little harder. And that is a huge feat.



Sunday, May 09, 2004

 

Philadelphia

Progressive Poetry Calendar

v2.24

 

 

May

 

13, Thursday, 5:30 PM: Samuel R. Delaney, Giovanni’s Room, 1145 Pine Street

 

15, Saturday, 7 PM: Linh Dinh & Kathleen Miller, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut, 215-922-7322



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