Friday, May 21, 2004
Here is the next question in the 9 for 9 project.
QUESTION 5: How did you first come to enter the larger community of poets? Does that initial encounter affect how you relate to the community of poets you are a part of now?
Of the various honors I’ve received, the one that I’m happiest about is my participation in the Addison Anthology, a walkway of sidewalk tiles in downtown
I was exceptionally lucky to have been raised right on
The point I’m trying to make is that, for me, there was an absolute continuum between the poets I knew, the antiwar movement, the local hippie scene & the general circus of life. For a part of that period, I didn’t even have a home, but just stayed wherever I happened to be last on that day, often with one of the kids of KPFA Sovietologist William Mandel, sometimes with Krech who still lived with his parents, or with Wes Tanner. In the Café Mediterranean – the institution that was at the heart of Ken Davids’ novel – one could go in the afternoons & predictably watch Ken Irby, drinking lattés & writing in his notebook. More often, tho, I hung out two doors down, a Pepe’s Pizza, which had both a younger & more lumpen crowd than the studied bohemia of the Med. The person I first met
So I can’t stress the continuity of these worlds enough. Because I was taking part in a regular open reading series at Shakespeare & Company Books on
One of the reasons poetry worked for me, especially as a teenager, was exactly because it wasn’t some abstract practice – it connected directly to all the other worlds that I was then exploring. It was as real as the rent – and sometimes even more so. During much of this period as well, it is worth noting, every single male I knew was struggling with questions of the draft & the war in Vietnam – I’d received my own “Greetings” letter from the US Army in January of 1965 & was perpetually involved in a series of appeals over my conscientious objector’s application from 1964 through 1970, when – with the help of the ACLU – the government finally conceded, which is how I ended up two years later (bureaucracies are slow) working with prisoners. I can still recall my Selective Service Number – 4 46 46 196 – I might as well have it tattooed on my arm. When I say that there is an integral connection between language poetry & the
Now there was, fairly obviously, a gap of around six years from when I first began this process to when, towards the end of 1970, I began publishing Tottel’s &
Thursday, May 20, 2004
Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books is a relatively slender anthology, but an absolutely shocking one. Shocking because there are several people here whom I can’t believe have yet to have their first “real” book out, especially Alan Gilbert who has been a major presence on the
With 18 contributors dividing 130 pages between them – an average of 7.22 pages apiece – it’s difficult to argue what in fact its editors seem to deny: that this gathering constitutes anything other (or more) than a sampler of the writing that is available right now from poets who have yet to publish a book. A more interesting reading might be constructed from the two editors competing introductions, with Jordan Davis stressing the earliness of all this work – he actually characterizes the work as “the stumbles and the first felicitous phrases” of these poets – while Sarah Manguso argues for the more ambitious “terrible freedom of not yet having published books.”
I’m with Manguso here. What happens to a young poet as soon as the irrevocable first book appears is a market process that, while we may all be familiar with it, nonetheless gives a lot of writers the heebie-jeebies – the transformation of the self from a human being into a brand. Later on, this can create all kinds of havoc if said human has an impulse to stray far from the predictable confines of whichever market segment he or she has become a party to – imagine, for example, Gregory Corso shifting from the beats to the new formalists, or Gertrude Schnackenberg joining up with the language poets.
Perhaps the best real-world example I can think of for this process was the reaction to the start-up of the newsletter HOW(ever). I recall founding editor
Some of the poets in Free Radicals have been such strong presences already that they have elements of brand equity without having published books, most notably Alan Gilbert &
Gilbert already is, as I’ve suggested, a major poet & has been for some time. “Relative Heat Index,” the 23-part poem produced here, is the heart of this anthology. By itself, it could easily have been a substantial chapbook &, had it been one, would have been one of the best books this year. Viz the first section:
Everything is capable of being broken.
The mast of a miniature ship
snaps off beneath a fountain’s cascade.
Children are silenced by a desert
where steel shimmers in the heat.
Who called? What’s the address?
You hand me slivers.
You hand me over.
Storm clouds gather west of the west.
This is a poem that inhabits a space between two very different masters:
Spicer shows up as well as an influence in the only poet in this collection to have been accorded more pages than
(I want a love)
(like in) the movie
In the Mood for Love
Cross’ poems appear to be more of a selection than Gilbert’s, which is to say that they don’t immediately suggest a completed work or book. There is more of the lyric here also that one associates (counterintuitively, I suspect) with New Brutalism. It is evident that a 150-page collection by Cross would be a Major Event indeed.
Between them, Cross & Gilbert account for 40 percent of the anthology’s volume. It almost makes me wonder if the Spicer influence – the one thing they do seem to share as poets – isn’t an underlying principle here. One finds it again in the work of Tim Griffin and Tonya Foster, a poet whose work was entirely new to me. It’s fascinating that, some 39 years after Spicer drank himself to death at the age of 40, his presence among a fairly diverse range of younger writers should seem so palpable. That suggests that several things, most of which insinuate that whatever forces Spicer was in touch with have deepened in our society over the ensuing period. I’m sure that even Spicer – perhaps especially Spicer – would find that deeply disturbing.
For these writers, it’s almost more like reporting – it’s part of the landscape & a portion of it that is particularly hard-edged. One hears that edge elsewhere here even when Spicer’s hand (or his radio transmitter) feels faint indeed, in the work of Jeni Olin, say, a poet closer to the working-class focus one finds in the writing of a Rodrigo Toscano. Or in the poetry of Jennifer Knox, again somebody whose writing I had never before read.
It feels obvious to me that some smart small press should be jumping in here and literally taking these poets on – it would be a terrific series overall & somebody very soon is going to want to be known as the press that publishes Amy Lingafelter & Michael Savitz. In that sense, this book is not unlike a “scouting combine” used by a major sport – except maybe that these poets won’t be signed to eight-digit deals over the next six years. And that makes me realize that a book like this every couple of years would be a great idea indeed.
I have one lingering question & I’m sure it’s because my surname begins with an S. This book has a weird bias for poets whose names are in the first half of the alphabet – 104 of 130 pages go to them, with just three of the eighteen poets coming from the last 14 letters of the alphabet combined. There is no question in my mind that having a surname up around the “A”s & “B”s has a survival value – if you open any urban telephone book to its midpoint, you will find yourself in the letter L, not between M & N. But it’s so skewed here – the midpoint of this anthology puts you in G – that it makes me wonder if there wasn’t a longer manuscript at one point that got cut back almost in half because of the financial constraints of the subpress collective’s book project. I have no clue if that’s just a paranoid fantasy on my part or not. But the evidence of the table of contents makes me wonder.
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
I mentioned John Tipton’s Surfaces in passing yesterday, but the volume warrants a deeper look. Tipton’s a Chicagoan, at least as an adult – GI Bill education at the U of C & after – and many of his publications heretofore reflect those roots: New American Writing,
Surfaces is a deceptively quiet project. The title on the cover is not capitalized* and capitals in general are used sparingly inside. Tipton’s sense of the line furthers the muting effect – it’s predicated on a sense of balance that one can trace back, through, say, John Taggart’s poetry, to one side of Louis Zukofsky’s oeuvre: “A”-19, for example. Thus, “without reference” concludes with the following stanza:
paper pages ant fold thorns rain
ant paper folds thorn rains page
page ant thorns fold rains paper
With six-line stanzas appearing at the very top & very bottom of the three previous pages, I wonder just how many readers will even recognize this as a sestina? It’s very characteristic of the book as a whole – elegant, subtle, absolutely present in its attention to craft.
Like Taggart, Tipton is concerned with the philosophic implications of the smallest details of linguistic practice:
metonymy, he says, is a syntactic gesture
involving the lovely modulation of the type
though she insists on evaluating every letter
their sounds change from word to word
if numerals really were what they represented
if letters were more than a grid
alphabets are only an approximation of reading
it’s a process of writing called concatenation
And, again like Taggart, Tipton’s text often invokes jazz:
on the radio just past Exit 12
Sonny Rollins in goatee & dark glasses
squawking his way through Night in Tunisia
picking out the notes he finds salient
Yet “squawking” is not the word you would think of to describe this poetry. If he was a drummer, Tipton would be one who only employed brushes. If he were Miles Davis, he would only be the
I like this book, from beginning to end, but it reminds me very much of what Olson, I think it was, responded when asked the question as to what all the poets at Black Mountain College had in common – “Bird!” Which is to say the music of Charlie Parker – even tho this is patently not true when one thinks of Robert Duncan. But I do often think of Olson, still, as the closest literary equivalent to the music of hard bop:
The lordly and isolate Satyrs – look at them come in
on the left side of the beach
like a motorcycle club! And the handsomest of them,
the one who has a woman, driving that snazzy
Wow, did you ever see even in a museum
such a collection of boddisatvahs, the way
they come up to their stop, each of them
as though it was a rudder
the way they have to sit above it
and come to a stop on it, the monumental solidarity
of themselves, the
they make of the beach, the Red-headed Men
The line here speeds up, slows down, turns, stops, catches its breath – there is a rightness to the absolute weight of syllables that swell up in monumental solidarity at the end of that third-to-last line. Olson’s text, with its exclamation point, Wow & variant spelling of bodhisattva,is about anything about balance – if anything, it’s about motion & how motion in & of itself destabilizes the line.
As much as I like Tipton’s work – and it’s a lot – this finally for me is the true drama of this book. Because in going for balance, he goes against the grain of some of the deepest impulses in his writing. And I’d love him to confront it more directly – the way, say, Hart Crane’s poetry is a contest with its own formal demons. Because my sense is that Tipton’s real poetry, the work that is still inside him, is precisely the one that will go right through the beautiful bull’s-eye of Surfaces.
* Tho it is printed all caps on the book’s slender spine.
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Yesterday I looked at Lev Rubinstein’s Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres & Tatiana Tulchinsky. Metres himself has a new chapbook out, Primer for Non-Native Speakers, part of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Series Three. This series is published by
So this turns out to be a moment of some serendipity, because there are a couple of exceptional poems in this slender collection. One is the title poem, a 22-part poem that I’m certain is influenced directly by Metres’ confrontation with the modular poetics of Lev Rubinstein, but which – even with its explicitly Russian content – comes across much closer in the American context to, say, some aspects of the poetry of the late Ted Berrigan. That’s a connection I never would have made reading Rubinstein alone, but it jumps right out from Metres’ text:
If anyone asks for me,
I’m in Chapter Ten.
This is a label. What is it?
A libel, a labia, a lust, alleluia.
And this? A table.
Some bread and a plea.
What is it?
You are wanted on the phone.
There is no dial tone.
The telephone is out of order.
I’ll be waiting for your call.
Goodbye, dear friends.
I wish you every success.
Have a safe journey.
Let me introduce myself.
I feel sick.
How much must I pay
for excess baggage?
One might say that this is the side of Berrigan’s work that leads more or less directly towards that of Joseph Ceravolo, and you could see how somebody who is interested in Russian writing that has its roots in the absurdist tradition there would share sympathies with that world view. Yet even before one reads this poem, Metres has already demonstrated himself as capable of moves that Berrigan would never have imagined. The first poem in the book, which is about the act of translation, not just between languages but between any two humans in a relationship, is predicated on a literal understanding of its title, even as it screams to be understood on a meta level: “Ashberries: Letters.”
Outside, in a country with no word
for outside, they cluster on trees,
red bunches. I looked up
ryabina, found mountain ash. No
mountains here, just these berries
cradled in yellow leaves.
When I rise, you fall asleep. We
barely know each other, you said
on the phone last night. Today, sun brushes
the wall like an empty canvas, voices
from outside drift into this room. I can’t
translate – my words, frostbitten
fingers. I tell no one, how your hands
ghost over my back, letters I hold.
A poem as perfectly executed as this makes me literally tingle with excitement as I read it. I note that it, as well as each of the poem’s other three sections, both is & is not a sonnet. Indeed, one of the dramas here & in several of the other poems in this volume are the ways in which it both is, and is not, actively within the confines of the School of Quietude. Thus, for example, what may be the most straightforward poem in the book carries the Cavafy-esque title of “Days of 1993.” It’s not surprising to find a sestina among the book’s eleven works – it’s the one poem from this collection that you can find in its entirety on the web. Metres has an almost Borges-like attraction to tight, complex structures, close enough to make you think of the so-called new formalists except that, unlike Timothy Steele et al, Metres seems to be serious about it.
The other dynamic that is going on here is the volume’s “Russian-ness” – Akhmatova in particular hovers over the text, as do common every-day details (“The telephone is out of order” is almost a classic instance of this). It makes me wonder if either Metres has other manuscripts about that bring together a broader range of concerns – it would make sense, particularly given the title of this chapbook, if it represented not the whole of Metres’ work, but perhaps one side or aspect of it – or if he does indeed suffer from the translators’ disease of seeing everything through the frame of his engagement with another language. Metres has a review of Michael Magee’s Morning Constitutional in Jacket 22 that does indeed frame Magee’s work very much in Russian terms, but there is also a major piece on
Monday, May 17, 2004
Poets don’t reflect their societies directly, but neither are they entirely free of the societies in which they work. When those societies go through profound transformations, for good or ill, these upheavals reverberate throughout the work & careers of all of the poets affected. A century from now, perhaps, someone will be able to step back and see clearly just how profoundly, for example, the collapse of the old Stalinoid regime of the USSR played itself out through the work of a generation of superb Russian writers that was just then coming into its own. These poets – Alexei Parschikov, Nina Iskrenko, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Ilya Kutik, Ivan Zhdanov, Dmitri Prigov & more – had been the “victory babies” of the end of the Second World War, a war that had been waged on their land. They had grown up within a society that had evolved into an Alice-in-Wonderlandesque open-closed system under the concept of Perestroika, an elaborate façade of official, unofficial and “official-unofficial” publishing institutions that incorporated everything from the self-publishing of samizdat to mass runs of state-published poetry. Then, just as most of these poets were just reaching their early 40s, that world disappeared. Nearly 15 years later, everyone in
Americans can find a lot of echoes in the work of their Russian contemporaries – both countries are complex multicultural societies deeply ambivalent about their relationship to Europe, and both societies have brutal histories that are still playing themselves out in ways that are often appalling. Reading the best contemporary Russian poetry often feels like looking into a mirror in some sort of parallel universe – the parts are all there, but not as you would expect them.
Thus when a press proposes to bring out the work of several major contemporary Eastern European writers, it’s a major event. Ugly Duckling Presse, a small press collective that has also published books by bloggers Aaron Tieger & Mark Lamoureux, is doing just this in its still relatively new Eastern European Poets series. The volume I have in my hand – Lev Rubinstein’s Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, a selected poems translated by Philip Metres & Tatiana Tulchinsky – is impeccably printed & produced. It’s all the major work by a major poet, one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism, and aptly tanslated. There is no question that this is one of the “must have” books of 2004 if you have any interest in poetry.
Yet at the same time, I find reading it extremely frustrating, simply because Rubinstein’s poems were written originally for note cards & putting them down here on the page requires fixing them into a single unalterable order & one of the key elements in the work is precisely its many-sided potentialities. Consider the following passage, the first page of “The Hero Emerges”:
Well, what on earth is there to say?
He knows something, but won’t tell.
Who knows, maybe you’re right.
It’s better for you, and tasty too.
At seven, by the first traincar.
It goes on about the student.
Let’s go. I’m also heading there.
Have you decided somethin
I rode the bus to the very end.
Hey listen to what I’ve just written.
You go this way, straight through the yard.
Aren’t you fed up with him by now?
To accentuate the discreteness of the cards, the translators have numbered each one at the outer margin.* Yet almost invariably fixing them into any kind of order here transforms them into something very close to a narrative – you can hear, perhaps, a card that is “out of place,” such as Hey listen to what I’ve just written, which might in fact have appeared first had this been a “real” narrative poem, but the fact that you can identify something like out-of-place-ness only reveals just how much fixing the text into any order on the page generates narrativity & figuration. Perhaps this is more true for a poet like Rubinstein, who is closely attuned to the social aspects of the text (as distinct, say, from the more linguistic elements), but it’s an inherent risk in converting something like this from one medium – unbound cards – into another, a book.
When I was editing In the American Tree some 22 years ago, I had a devil of a time convincing Bob Grenier to let me excerpt 28 sections of his own card volume, Sentences. Grenier was concerned – rightly – that freezing an order on the page would insinuate a narrativity that he wasn’t so much arguing against in this work as he was simply looking beyond. He didn’t want readers to become distracted. In republishing the great “Chinese box” edition of that work on the web, Whale Cloth Press has done a great job of ensuring that the reading experience there replicates the “shuffling of the deck” experience of the cards themselves. No two trips through the sequence will be identical.
In “52 surfaces,” the not-quite-title poem of John Tipton’s Surfaces, he attempts something similar on the page directly, by juxtaposin
it would diagonalize out of our conversation
how often we have spoken of branches in winter
they made arrangements for the end of marriage
she would hear him sobbing in the wake of the last scene
the previous statement is false
someone spoke each metaphor
he has a book of all possible utterances
bottle is a phonic section
if I say ‘market’ this becomes a political poem
oaks & oxen & crows
everything depends on the size of the sample
M. Bourbaki writes a poem with arbitrarily long lines
carve brittle leaves of wood
& puts his cats in a sentence
At most, fifty-one of these are about themselves, or they all are
this line is called the violence of the market
the tulips have collapsed on the pavement
Tipton’s poem(s) could have been produced on cards, but this carefully calculated anti-narrative sequencing – note which ones begin with capital letters, for example – does a good job of both signaling their “jumbledness” as well as giving us some old-fashioned hits like the rhyme between 26 & 28. I wish, in retrospect, that Rubinstein’s translators had ordered their reworkings with more of this kind of eye. Or that Ugly Duckling** would note that a web version of several of Rubenstein’s key works already exists on BlazeVox, visually in the style of the Whale Cloth web presentation of Grenier’s Sentences, but there also in a fixed – and thus narrative -- order. Until a version that can be shuffled exists, however, it’s worth noting that Catalogue of Comedic Novelties is a book that is better read by jumping around in these complex, wry pieces than it is plowing straight through.
* To the right, after the text, on right-hand pages, such as the page quoted here, & to the left on left-hand pages.
** I’ve decided that name must refer to the hideous extraneous “e” in Presse.
Sunday, May 16, 2004
It is true, as somebody suggested, that I can figure out who is posting anonymously, even pseudonymously, to the comments section of this weblog. I’ve sent the fellow – you knew it was a guy, didn’t you? – who was railing on Fence this past week a note, but as he’s already apologized (albeit anonymously) I won’t out him.
His paranoia – especially with the conspiratorial tones regarding
What do I mean by this? First, that there is no method known to human beings to remove the social from a social practice, but this is what would be required to fully expunge personal preference from the process of identifying “the best” manuscript. For the most part, blind screening such as is done, for example, by that National Endowment for the Arts, simply inserts a filter of incompetence as a randomizing factor. But ultimately the judges, real human beings, will sort what makes it through this literary spawning challenge to select those texts to which they most respond.
The idea of prohibiting judges from selecting their students or former students or colleagues or spouses or even the cute kid they slept with at the writer’s conference last summer, however you want to define that, even maybe just the one they thought they wanted to sleep with, is the kind of pro forma rule you put in place precisely because you don’t trust the competence of the judge or judges in the first place. The most significant volume ever published in the Yale Younger Poets Series, John Ashbery’s Some Trees, was virtually recruited by W.H. Auden. It wasn’t even Ashbery’s first book. Yet one might point to it as an example of “the process” working at its finest. Auden picked the best possible manuscript by a young writer available, and did a better job locating it than the bureaucratic procedures put in place by the Yale University Press.
What seems to me more disturbing, actually, is the idea anyone would have that a prize, whether it’s the Nobel or Jimmy’s Crush List, represents some kind of “objective” or “impartial” validation. That isn’t how prizes work – it’s the other way around: the winner validates the prize. Or not, as the case may be. Consider, for example, the Oscars. Does anyone imagine that giving the Best Picture award to a film such as Rocky or
It’s this need for external validation that strikes me as sad, finally, though I’m sure I crave it just as badly as the next human being, maybe more. What makes it sad is what it says about how our culture doesn’t let us value the act of writing itself, for its own sake, as its own reward. And that craving, that index of our own lack of self-confidence, is what is exploited by contests, especially those that are intended not to find, say, publishable manuscripts, but just to raise funds. Are they any worse than the flood of writing conferences that the School o’ Quietude puts on each summer? Contests are cheaper & leave you with fewer mosquito bites. But you might enjoy a week in the woods with like-minded people a whole lot more.
So Foetry might be right in the most trivial sense, but it’s so completely missing the larger picture that it warrants the great So What. The real story about literary prizes isn’t who picks whom, but the larger anthropological question of how value is concentrated & assigned, both across society & within ourselves.
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Ron Silliman was born in Pasco,
Washington, although his
parents stayed there just
long enough for his mother
to learn that one could
step on field mice while
walking barefoot through the
snow to the outhouse, and
for his father to walk away
from a plane crash while
smuggling alcohol into
a dry county. Silliman
has written and edited over 30 books,
most recently Revelator from BookThug,
and had his poetry
and criticism translated into 14
languages. Silliman was a 2012
Kelly Writers House Fellow
at the University of Pennsylvania, and
the 2010 recipient of the
Levinson Prize, from the
Poetry Foundation. His sculpture
Poetry (Bury Neon) is permanently
on display in the
transit center of Bury, Lancashire,
and he has a plaque in the walk
dedicated to poetry in his home
town of Berkeley, although
he now lives in Chester County, PA.
In 2015, Silliman is teaching at
Haverford College & the
University of Pennsylvania.