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 Berkeley devoted to poets associated with that city.

 

I was exceptionally lucky to have been raised right on Berkeley’s northern border. There were few books in my own house as I was growing up, but the idea of books & of the possibility of writing was literally right outside the door. One of my teachers in high school, Ken Davids, had had a novel accepted by Grove Press, The Softness on the Other Side of the Hole, tho I don’t think it appeared until after I’d graduated (& after he’d moved on from this “student teaching” assignment). Berkeley in 1964 & ’65 was in a period of extraordinary turmoil & creativity. Studying at the University of California were a number of young writers mostly associated with the New American poetry, such as Ron Loewinsohn, David Bromige & Kenneth Irby. There was an active “street poet” scene on Telegraph Avenue – the South Street of Berkeley – with the likes of Charlie Potts, Richard Krech, Jon Oliver Simon, Pat Parker, Pat’s husband Bob, Alta, Andy Clausen, Gerard van der Luen (later an editor & then IT manager for Penthouse & a blogger these days with a libertarian point of view), Martin Abrahamson, Paul X, Steve Schwartz, Wesley Tanner (later of Arif Press & now teaching fine press printing at the University of Michigan, I think) and john thompson (later to become known as the music critic, john poet). Older writers, such as Robert Duncan & Kenneth Rexroth were around, tho mostly in San Francisco. During the fall of 1964, the University of California exploded with the first major student movement of the decade, the Free Speech Movement, triggered when the UC Regents, trying to placate the rightwing Republican senator Bill Knowland, who also owned the one daily newspaper in Oakland, by forbidding organizing for civil-rights pickets and actions on the UC campus. One student, Jack Weinberg, volunteered to be a test case and set up a card table in order to get arrested, but when he was put into the patrol car, instead of letting the cops take him downtown & book him, several thousand students surrounded the car and kept it from moving for days! This led to a sit-in in the school administration building with over 400 arrests & much hoopla for the entire school year. I wasn’t even a student, but just hanging out on Telegraph Avenue one got swept up into the events of that year, and I ended up getting to know an enormous number of those folks. Among the young writers I got to know during that period were Barrett Watten, still a senior at Skyline High, Rochelle Nameroff – my first wife – who was a volunteer secretary for Jerry Rubin as Rubin coordinated the first Vietnam Day Teach-in the following spring, and Krech, who first published my work in a mimeo’d sheet called Community Libertarian & later in a little magazine called Avalanche. In the summer of ’65, the Berkeley Poetry Conference on the UC campus brought the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley & Ted Berrigan to town. Paul X was having a little thing with Peter Orlovsky & through their auspices I was able to sneak into events at the conference that otherwise would have been way too expensive for me.

 

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 Barrett Watten through, David Smith-Margen, was part of the scene at Pepe’s & somebody  I might have described back then as a dealer, but he was also a friend, an exceptionally intelligent & creative kid with all the classic ADHD signs. His death at the age of 16 in an auto accident in the spring of ’66 felt like a huge blow & I still miss him 38 years later.  

 

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 Telegraph Avenue, I went to a memorial reading there in January 1966 for Jack Spicer, about whom I knew nothing. That was where I first saw Robin Blaser. Duncan must have been there that day as well, although by then I already knew who the owl-eyed man with the white mutton-chop sideburns was. I met Rochelle Nameroff first through the picket lines sponsored by the Congress of Race Equality (CORE), but it was she who convinced me that attending the creative writing program at SF State made sense – and it did, in a way – and it was through her that I met more than a few other poets, such as Rae Armantrout & Aaron Shurin. Nameroff – whose birthday is today (Happy Birthday, Shelley!) – also convinced me to submit my poems to the Joan Lee Yang Award contest at UC once I’d finally transferred there in 1970, through which I then met its judge, Robert Grenier. I first met David Melnick hitch-hiking home from a reading given by David Bromige & Harvey Bialy at the Albany Public Library, literally in the same room where, a few years earlier, I had first discovered the relevance of poetry to my life in a copy of William Carlos Williams’ A Desert Music. The host for that series, Paul Mariah, was the editor of what then was the only little magazine devoted both to poetry & the gay community, Manroot. Paul’s work was essential in keeping the poetry of Jack Spicer in view during the ten year period between his death & the publication of the Collected Books. Melnick & I, as it happened, knew people in common – most notably Iven Lourie, the former poetry editor of the Chicago Review – and had similar, tho not identical, tastes in poetry. He immediately recruited me into his plan to bring the UC poetry magazine – Occident – at least far enough into the modern world to consider the likes of David Shapiro, David Bromige or even some of its own former editors, such as Duncan & Spicer.

 

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 Vietnam experience, this is very much what I’m getting at. My own experience was unique to me, but not at all exceptional. Everybody always had a story.

 

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 & Barrett Watten & Bob Grenier first published This. But this was the broader environment in which I saw whatever I was doing fitting in. It made sense to me then & tho I am a very different person at 57 from the one I was at 17, it still makes a fair amount of sense to me now.



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 U.S. literary scene for at least 15 years. But also Jim Behrle, Del Ray Cross, Katie Degentesh, Cole Heinowitz & Max Winter. With all of the books of poetry that are stacking up everywhere in this house – I have begun to use the Eastern-most lane of the stairways here as additional bookshelves – how are these people slipping through the cracks?

 

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 Kathleen Fraser telling me that she had anticipated relatively open hostility from male avant poets & acceptance from relatively conservative feminist writers of the Gubar & Gilbert persuasion, only to discover that her expectation was exactly the reverse of the reality.

 

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 & Jim Behrle. Behrle is rightfully well known for his blog – a cartoon social commentary on contemporary poetics that isn’t as facetious as it pretends to be – and for his work as part of the Boston poetry scene. Neither aspect of which happens to be his poetry, per se. So it’s a pleasure, frankly, to see that the man can write too. There is an energy & roughness in his pieces that is quite consistent with the Behrle one finds in his weblog – it’s something he’s in touch with that produces a predictably good result wherever he puts it to use.

 

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.

Slumming time.

 

This is a poem that inhabits a space between two very different masters: Barrett Watten & Jack Spicer. In Gilbert’s hands, it becomes something different from either & yet I’m not sure I would have seen the points, if not of comparison then at least of correspondence, between those two poets had Gilbert not found this space.

 

Spicer shows up as well as an influence in the only poet in this collection to have been accorded more pages than Gilbert, Del Ray Cross. It shows up in Cross’ bus poems – the book has multiple examples – plus poems whose titles mention Spicer or start off with a visibly Spicerean flourish:

 

(I want a love)

 

precise

as Kubrick

 

(like in) the movie

we watched

that night

 

Kar-wai Wong’s
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, Chicago Review, etc. Hopefully, Surfaces – published by what is surely one of the very best small presses we have in this country, Flood Editions – will spread the word much farther. Tipton has, as the musicians put it, serious chops as a poet & this is a terrific book.

 

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 Davis of Sketches of Spain. For many – and there are moments when I might be among them – that of course is the finest of Davis’ myriad personae. Yet it is a curious aspect of a work as ambitious & accomplished as this that its own aesthetic preferences seem so hushed.

 

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

convertible.

                    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 Easter Island

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 Kent State University in Ohio, and has adopted an institutional look to its booklets that is, as is this one, very 1940s. If I hadn’t been reading Rubinstein, I’m sure that I would not have made it past the cover here, especially as I’ve never heard of either this series or press before. Of the other 31 volumes in the Wick collection to date, I recognize the name of only one poet – Thomas Sayers Ellis. If there is a press that does a worse job of getting the word out about its writers, almost by definition I haven’t come across it.

 

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:

 

XVII.

 

If anyone asks for me,

I’m in Chapter Ten.

 

XVIII.

 

This is a label.     What is it?

A libel, a labia, a lust, alleluia.

 

XIX.

 

And this?              A table.

Some bread and a plea.

 

XX.

 

Please.

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.

 

XXI.

 

Goodbye, dear friends.

I wish you every success.

Have a safe journey.

Please stay.

 

XXII.

 

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.”

 

Robert Creeley picked “Ashberries: Letters” for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2002 after it had first appeared in the New England Review & you can see why instantly. The poem’s literalness heightens the “hidden” metaphor immeasurably. Here is the first of the poem’s four sections:

 

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 Barrett Watten’s Bad History in Postmodern Culture that strikes me as entirely free of this, even though Watten’s own confrontation with Russian poetry & poetics is an important dimension of so much of what he does. So I think the jury is out on this with regards to Metres. I’m certain that I want to see more of his poetry – much more than the 28 pages gathered here – while I try to figure out what somebody teaching at the local Jesuit college in Cleveland is doing pulling together all of these different threads from the contemporary literary environment.



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 Russia & the other nations that have emerged out of the old “actually existing socialist” Soviet bloc are still putting the pieces of a new order together.

 

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 something now?

 

 

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 juxtaposing numbered lines in as consciously anti-narrative an order as seems doable, & then playing with the question of order:

 

          17

it would diagonalize out of our conversation



          18

how often we have spoken of branches in winter



          19

they made arrangements for the end of marriage



          20

she would hear him sobbing in the wake of the last scene



          21

the previous statement is false



          22

someone spoke each metaphor



          23

he has a book of all possible utterances



          24

bottle is a phonic section



          25

if I say ‘market’ this becomes a political poem



          26

oaks & oxen & crows



          27

everything depends on the size of the sample



          28

it snows



          29

M. Bourbaki writes a poem with arbitrarily long lines



          30

carve brittle leaves of wood



          31

& puts his cats in a sentence



          32

At most, fifty-one of these are about themselves, or they all are



          33

this line is called the violence of the market



          34

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 Iowa City – reminds me more than a little of Foetry, a curious little act of literary muckraking. Foetry’s argument is simple enough – many literary contests either are rigged or might as well be, given the numerous points of contact between judges, hosts & winners. While the website’s thesis falls apart somewhat when it gets down to specifics, its deeper premise is even more true than I think they themselves imagine. Because poetry is social – not, repeat not, individual – all poetry contests, awards, prizes, fellowships, you name it, are always rigged all of the time. That’s not the important distinction. Some of them are competently done and others are not – that’s one important distinction. Certain groups of human beings have organized themselves more tightly around such institutions than others – that’s another point worth discussing, tho it’s not quite the same thing.

 

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 Chicago or Out of Africa means that these celluloid dogs can dance? It’s the same for the Pulitzer.

 

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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