Friday, May 28, 2004
Ray Bianchi is the hidden hand (or maybe not so hidden) behind a couple of the more exciting websites related to Chicago poetry these days, such as Postmodern Collage Poetry and Chicago Postmodern Poetry. The latter site has a growing roster of interesting poetry interviews or, as the site calls them, profiles. With the exception of the Charles Bernstein interview – Charles opted for cutesy replies throughout – I’ve found the profiles illuminating. There is a brand new one from Pierre Joris, as well as others by Catherine Daly, Jen Hofer, John Tipton, Sawako Nakayasu, Brian Clements, Simone Muench, Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy & Kerri Sonnenberg. Here are a few of the answers from my own as-yet-unfinished profile. You’ll have to wait until Ray posts the whole thing to read the rest. This tidbit is offered here as part of the William Burroughs “The-first-one’s-free” Act….
1) Where did you grow up? Was poetry and writing part of that mix?
While I born outside of the Hanford Nuclear Reactor facility in the Tri-City region of southeastern Washington, my parents moved back to my mother’s home town of Berkeley when I was maybe 10 months old. They separated when I was two and my mother moved in with her parents in Albany, just north of Berkeley, where I and my brother shared a two-bedroom house with two other generations until I graduated from high school. There were a few Readers Digest condensed novels and an encyclopedia – The Book of Knowledge – but very few other books in the house. I read poetry in school but did not “get it” until I discovered William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music in the Albany Public Library when I was 16. From that moment forward I knew that I was a poet, even if I wasn’t very sure what that meant.
2) Who are your poetic influences, favorite poets, writers, artwork, other things that inform your work?
Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Robert Duncan,Williams, Zukofsky, Creeley, Pound, Stein, Bob Grenier, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout have all been major influences & are to this day. The question of other media is interesting. In painting, there was a time when I really loved the early work of Frank Stella & I once saw a great retrospective, going from that period into the “fuzzy protractor jut from the wall” later work at the Pompidou in Paris. Beyond him, tho, Hans Hoffman & Pollock among the abstract expressionists. A lot of the performance artists of the 1970s were important to me, especially Terry Fox. And in music everything from Balinese gamelan & Ketjak choral singing to (again early) Steve Reich & the minimalists to the jazz of the Chicago Art Ensemble, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Steve Lacy & Anthony Braxton. I’ve never seen the Watts Towers in person, amazingly, but Simon Rodia’s ideas about making art have percolated in my head for decades.
3) When did you 'become' a poet? When did poetry become part of your everyday life?
I’ve written about that before in “The Desert Modernism,” so don’t feel much of a need to go into it here. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that I knew I was a writer very young, at the age of ten. The question then became one of what would be my form. That was the question that my encounter with Williams answered.
4) Where were you educated? Was this important?
On the streets of Berkeley in the 1960s as much as anything else. I did take classes at San Francisco State, most usefully with Jack Gilbert, George Hitchcock & Wright Morris, and studied for a year-and-one-half at UC Berkeley, most usefully there with Robert Grenier, James E.B. Breslin, Jonas Barrish & Dick Bridgman, who was right in the midst of writing his Stein book at the time. But I was 20 when I started college & already was very self-directed, indeed already was publishing, so I paid relatively little attention to the prescribed program, which is one reason I never got around to graduating. I didn’t get into all the classes I wanted when I first started at SF State, so I used the time instead to read through the library’s poetry collection, A through Z. Robin Blaser had just left his position there the previous term, so it was, for that brief moment, a great collection. And it was as useful as anything I did in a classroom, maybe more so.
5) You are a West Coast person who is now in Philadelphia: what are the biggest differences poetically?
In the Bay Area, poets make many life decisions because the economics of housing are so horrific there. Pennsylvania is quite affordable, by comparison, although I think that a lot of younger people in particular distrust it for that reason. If you’re 24 and a poet in Philly, why aren’t you in New York? Although, with the internet, I think that the distinctions of where one lives and with whom one “hangs” as a poet may finally be breaking down. Another aspect that is quite different is that Philadelphia has some arts institutions that could really only exist in an older city. The Arts League, for one thing. Or a private museum like the Rosenbach.
San Francisco has always benefited enormously from its Asian & Spanish heritages. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is a city in which men actually made a revolution & it is something to stand in the room at Independence Hall where George Washington became the first secular sovereign to peacefully turn over his office to John Adams. I think that has to create a sense of scale for a young poet that is enormously liberating, and it’s not simply tourist hoo-hah.
5.1) You are a prolific writer and blogger, your blog is one of the most important meeting places for innovative poetics in the USA: how do you keep it fresh? How do you keep it interesting?
I can imagine some folks (Kent, Henry, Gabe)who might want to challenge the assumption that I do keep it fresh. For one thing, I don’t write it every day, and I often go off on little tangents that can take me three or four days to roll through. By the time I’m done, it feels as if it’s been ages since I’ve done anything else. But after 21 months, I’ve written over a half million words on the blog and I’m conscious of not wanting to repeat myself. Fortunately, American poetry – not to mention the poetries of Canada, the UK, the rest of the English speaking world & those other poetries with which I have enough interest & knowledge to say a little something – are so very rich & so very diverse that I worry more about how much I’m missing.
6) What is your favorite food?
7) Sports Team?
The San Francisco Giants. Following the Dodgers, Horace Stoneham moved the team out from New York when I was 12, just the right age for a lad to take on a total obsession. I must have listened to 130 games on the radio each year for the first three or four years. I once saw Leon Wagner hit a home run clear across 16th Street in old Seals Stadium, got to watch Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal & Willie McCovey in their prime, saw all the National League stars &, because my grandfather managed to get tickets, saw some American League ones as well in the 1961 All-Star Game (Mantle, Maris, Berra, Killebrew, who hit a homerun that just tipped off the glove of leftfielder Orlando Cepeda). That was the game in which Stu Miller was famously blown off the mound by a gust of wind & which was won in extra innings as Roberto Clemente drove in Willie Mays.
I can still name the lineup from the 1958 team: Catcher, Bob Schmidt; Cepeda at first; Danny O’Connell at 2nd, Daryl Spencer at short; Jimmy Davenport at 3rd; Mays in center; Felipe Alou in left field; Willie Kirkland in right. There were some interesting guys on the bench: Whitey Lockman, playing his last year, Hank Sauer, Leon Wagner, then a rookie. Jackie Brandt & Bill White got cups of coffee in the outfield. Backup infielders including Ray Jablonski & Eddie Broussoud. And the incomparable Valmy Thomas as the backup backstop. Johnnie Antonelli was the ace of the pitching staff, with Mike McCormick the young lefthander full of promise. Rueben Gomez started the first game I ever saw in person, but walked the first four batters, possibly on 16 pitches – and was yanked for Paul Giel, a long reliever who had actually once been a student of Jack Spicer’s at the U. of Minnesota. Giel pitched out of the jam and ended up winning the game. Stu Miller was the relief ace.
8) Vacation Spot?
Brier Island, Nova Scotia. It’s the spot to which I keep returning. Several of my in-laws own cabins or homes there. It’s a speck of an island off of Digby Neck with a year round population of about 300, most of whom are fishermen or else work in the D.B. Kenney fish factory. As the fishing industry has declined, compliments of pollution, over-fishing & global warming, some of the locals have figured out that they can make as much money if not more doing whale & seabird tours out in the Bay of Fundy. By the way, I have a very simple definition of vacation. It’s someplace where I do not have any computer larger than my Palm Pilot.
9) Curse Word?
I once gave a reading – with many other poets, as part of the Short Fuse anthology launch – on the same stage at the New School where they shoot Inside the Actors Studio & had the wits about me to ask that of another poet just as she was standing up to read (but not, alas, the wits about me to remember who). My mother-in-law, who comes from rural North Carolina, uses this one with such intensity that it is the most obscene word I’ve ever heard: Sugar!
10) If you could have a dinner party with 4 people alive today who would they be?
My mother, my wife & my sons.
Thursday, May 27, 2004
I heard Peter Gizzi at Writers House quite a while back (as in pre-blog) & was taken both with how many echoes there are in his work, and also by how much I liked it/them. By echoes, I don’t so much mean influences in the ordinary sense – say, the way John Taggart has influenced John Tipton – as I do a sense that every form, indeed almost every nuance, seems to arrive in Gizzi’s poems bearing the weight of all of its historic baggage.
Picking an example of this from Gizzi’s new book, Some Values of Landscape and Weather, is difficult, not because there so few good instances of this, but because there are so very many:
to think that I have written this poem before
to think to say the reason I came here
sound of yard bird, clinking lightbulb
to think the world has lasted this long
what were we hoping to say:
ailanthus, rosebud, gable
saturnalia, moonglow, remember
I am on the other side now
have crossed the river, have
through much difficulty
come to you from a dormer closet
head full of dark
my voice in what you say
at this moment you say
wind through stone, through teeth
through falling sheets, flapping geese
every thing is poetry here
a vast blank fronting the eyes
more sparkling than sun on brick
October’s crossing-guard orange
This poem, “The ethics of dust,” is a part of the book’s opening movement, itself entitled A History of the Lyric. But if the lyric is the poem of presence, of immanence, a history is by definition an account of that which is not now & which, in so many ways, can never be present. So also every poem in the sequence raises the issue. Hence the opening lines of “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”:
they are right next to you
in the lanes, hugging a shoulder
they twitter in the rafters
calling down to your mess
in rays, crescents
the white curled backs
of snapshots tucked in a frame
eyes of the dead
Or the opening line of the single-stanza poem entitled “To his wife far off in a time of war”:
that you are not among the winter branches
Or the first stanza of the title piece:
I lost you to the inky noise
just offscreen that calls us
It isn’t just that these are the lyrics of the living dead, but rather that they offer evidence that presence is always elsewhere, the details in front of us overwhelmed with rot & decay. There is more than a little of Jack Spicer here, more than a little of Walter Benjamin & just a twinkle of Charles Addams.
To watch Gizzi explore ambivalence with almost the detachment of a scientist, trace the logic in “To his wife far off in a time of war”:
that you are not among the winter branches
the door opening
a trapezoid in deep gold light
I awoke to water in the distance
rushing loud as traffic on High St.
more real than traffic on High St.
if you were to come now
hair draping your shoulders
were to kiss my neck
bending to clip the flower
a happy lover might be
known to run to excess
but tell me am I happy
No punctuation here, hence no question mark. That absence underscoring all the other possible ways that final phrase might be heard. It is, at once, literal, sarcastic & several other things, not all of which I think I could name. What in this context could “happy” possibly mean?
Or think of how Gizzi maximizes the pressure on the final couplet in “Coda,” the last poem in this first sequence in the book, as melodramatic as anything Matthew Barney or Nan Goldin ever dreamed:
When the sky came down
there was wind, water, red
When the sky fell
it became water, wind
a declaration in blue
When the end was near
I picked up for a moment, joy
came into my voice
Hurry up it sang
in skiffs and shafts
Selah in silvered tones
When the day broke open
I became myself
standing next to a door
In my dream you were alive
This section takes off from a simple & very accurate observation: the single most important word in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is when. That poem is referenced clearly only once, in the fourth stanza, yet its positioning within this larger sequence recasts A History of the Lyric very differently. Eliot may very well be the model of this entire poem: High Street is indeed the banking center of London.
It is not self-evident that Gizzi’s references & allusions should be read as approval of a given source. Poems are written “after Albert Pinkham Ryder” & “after John Livingston Lowes,” the author, in 1919, of Convention and Revolt in Poetry, a book that argued the idea that poetry is about expectation, which in turns depends on convention, with one set of poets attempting to fulfill expectation, another attempting to disrupt it. There are poems amed “Hawthorne,” “Edgar Poe”, “A Film by Charles Baudelaire” & “Beginning with a Phrase from Simone Weill.” The phrase, incidentally, is “There is no time better than the present….”
You have Spicer’s jadedness, Benjamin’s sense that the whole of history infects every word, a panoramic view of the whole of literature combined with the claustrophobia of the carrels & an echo of something that I hear at times in a very different kind of poet: Charles Bernstein. It’s that obsessive quality that both poets have combined with a sense that every sentence, each word, must mean not only what it says, but something else altogether as well.
To say this work is “bookish” is like protesting that Rimbaud is French. In the words of Homer, “D’oh!” Haunted is much more like it. Yet at the same time the book is an extended elegy for presence & direct communication. To say that it’s grief is arch is not to say that it’s feigned.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
There are those Dylan lyrics again, running through my head:
When you're lost in the rain in
When your gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” certainly is one of my three or four favorite Dylan tunes of all time. I’ve always wondered if the allusion to that other great work of
This is not news. There were always more readers for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E than for the poetry publications it discussed, just as there have always been readers who seem to think that perusing reviews* in the New York Review of Books is the same as, if not better than, reading the books. Plus controversy never hurts. Write a bad review & the rubberneckers gather very fast. In general, I don’t write very many negative pieces here – life is too short & there are too many good books & poets who don’t get discussed nearly enough as it is. The last one, I think, was my piece on
Some people do want the world divided up into the All Good & the All Bad. That sort of moral certainty may be associated with the political right, but it’s a thread that runs through everybody’s psyche at some level. Complexity & ambivalence are more difficult to contemplate & to articulate. One of John Kerry’s very worst traits as a campaigner is giving complex answers to complex questions – the Bush campaign is already running footage of some Kerry’s responses in its ads – and yet you know that is a side of Kerry that would make him a far more competent president than W.
I don’t think this is necessarily less true in poetry, even though the world of the poem is filled with people who value complexity & even find the squirminess of ambivalence a little autoerotic. If Music and Suicide doesn’t work as a book, does it follow that
Ambivalence – or multivalence of any kind – is even more complicated. There is an enormous amount of work that has built up, in poetry, in critical studies, in fiction, over the past 20 years relating to borders & border conditions of all kinds – nomads of the morning or however you want to think of them – & polyvalence is an active element in every one of these situations – writing from multiple points of view, a perspective that I think is inherently uneasy simply because it’s unstable by definition. One poet strikes me as almost a test case for ambivalence in his writing, so I’ll tackle his most recent book tomorrow. That person is Peter Gizzi.
* Half of which are “think pieces” on the same general topic & barely discuss the books “under review.”
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
sent me a note scolding me (but very nicely) for failing to mention all of the other elements of the Boise Renaissance, including other writers thereabouts, herself among them, the presence of an active MFA program at Boise State University & the 30-year history of Ahsahta Press. Don’t get me started on the relationship of MFA programs to anything that might be likened to a renaissance – you don’t want to hear it any more than I want to hear another English professor telling me that he or she is “too busy” to write. But Ahsahta Press is definitely an interesting & worthwhile project, begun as a small press & then taken in by
Then, just two years or so ago, the press seems to have broadened its focus somewhat, publishing Lance Phillips’ Corpus Socius & Aaron McCollough’s Welkin. More recently, Ahsahta has published Graham Foust’s Leave the Room to Itself & it has just announced that the winner of the 2004 Sawtooth Prize, the same series that included the McCollough & Foust volumes, is Noah Eli Gordon, another name that will be readily recognizable to bloggers & readers of contemporary verse.* This is goodness in & of itself, but the publication of these poets who may have wider audiences may even lead readers into the Ahsahta backlist, a benefit that is not to be underestimated.
Foust is a poet whom I first became fully aware of when I reviewed 6, a Phylum Press chapbook, in May 2003. Since then, Foust has had a book from Flood Editions as well as Leave the Room to Itself, as good a year as any writer gets to have. As in the other books, Foust’s poems in Room are spare, incredibly tightly composed pieces that combine a unique worldview, one part Wittgenstein, the other part William Burroughs:
In my listening
There is always
a fugitive meat.
Or, literally on the facing page:
The other night I was looking
at pictures of successful businessmen.
Near dawn, the pictures became
an increasingly distorted
and pornographic hedge.
Then something ate something.
Then something ate everything.
This is the end (hint hint) of the animals.
There is not (quote) my own (unquote)
in how I’m summoned.
Somewhere there’s a monkey
who grooms all and only
those monkeys who do not groom themselves.
There is more than a little suggestion of the sinister tucked among the truth tables here. Consider how in the following poem, “Skull,” the words scars & lack join with the title to set up a tone of dread that completely takes over what might otherwise be a very non-ominous final sentence:
Such a white planet.
And what scars
the eyes are,
what page the lack of face.
in a house.
Foust has the condensare part of dichtung = condensare as down as any poet since Creeley & Armantrout, the acknowledged masters of density in small packages. Where he differs from either of them, it seems to me, is in a vision that is far bleaker. It’s not that there’s no humor here – there is actually a lot – but that it’s located in concepts like “a fugitive meat,” hardly an innocent idea.
I was fortunate, I think, in coming into poetry at a time when Creeley had just published For Love & the appearance of each new work was greeted by readers as a major event, each new book an occasion for reassessing everything we thought we knew about poetry (& books like Words & Pieces required a lot of rethinking – I recall poets at SF State getting into huge shouting matches over the relative worth of those volumes). That is very close to how I feel about Foust’s books right now. His diamond-hard concision is something that never gets old. And it can’t be faked either – there are lots of writers of short poems (e.g. Cid Corman) who never can get to that. When it happens in poetry, it’s like lightning in a bottle & you can’t really explains how it comes & goes, why a Creeley should relax, if that is the right word, after Pieces, how an Armantrout can do this decade after decade. Foust may be in very good company here, but there’s no way to know where this might go ten, twenty years from now. What is evident is that right now nobody is writing better than Graham Foust. Nobody.
* Readers of this blog will remember the March 2003 hullabaloo over Gordon’s exclusion from an Amherst-area anti-war reading on the grounds of intelligibility as well as the discussion of Frequencies, his first book, in the infamous “anonymous” readings discussion here earlier this year.
Monday, May 24, 2004
Every few years one of the “major” trade presses identifies a young poet who might be thought of as post-avant in some manner or other & starts to print them long before they are “always already” famous. Often these poets stick out awkwardly amid the list of writers the press generally prints – the way Kenneth Koch did for years at Knopf, the way August Kleinzahler does at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG). If the writer is a social animal, well situated within a literary community, as Koch was, this may have relatively little impact over the long term. But if the writer is already something of an isolato, being published by one of the major trade presses might actually increase one’s disconnectedness. Kleinzahler, for example, may have terrific distribution for his books, but I would wager that he is read – seriously thoughtfully read – less often, and with far less sympathy, than he would be if his books were, say, published by Flood Editions instead of FSG. That is because the people who would like Kleinzahler best would never think to pick up an trade book of poetry unless it’s by an older post-avant poet who has been incorporated into the list just to help legitimize all the bad
That is the context in which I see Jeff Clark’s Music and Suicide, newly out from FSG, which has also reissued
Consider the first stanza of the very first poem in
The phosphorous cheeks of an ailing jester fallen that day
from an alien haze over jade lanes
to blades arrayed in ribboned mazes
created to flay a dilated spirit hole
He was a chaotic boy with phosphorous cheeks
and a glistening sphinctral sanctity
a violet fallen alloy of a Medium
and a gigolo to sleep
He was white waste of nebula-scented hours
fallen that day an alien length
to a place of stale rain and that day
to craw crying to the side
was to harvest no more eggs of fantasy strewn out horizontally
and found by following a hare that could be a guide or a lie in fur
He was ugly when he ate the eggs, and in a trance
a chocolate and a mantis sat on his thigh
and said that Even broken or swollen
hysterical inside long boxes or on wires
or swallowing gray fay lures
to take and decompose both your lapel rose and the hose that fed it
you must offer a mantis your hand, a chocolate your tongue
then never again ill use or even dream to curate
fake faces or oases or their words
What is unfortunate about this stanza, which reads as if penned by somebody who discovered Bob Dylan’s songs during the previous 48 hours, is that there really are things going on here worth noting, particularly in the deployment of long ā sounds in the first several lines, then echoing periodically later, even up to oases. Or in the way the stanza builds up to that long last sentence. But if “phosphorous cheeks on an ailing jester” is meant to be deliberately badly written – sort of a Jeff Koons effect – there is no “set up” in the work to contextualize it or distinguish it from the gazillion of other phosphorous cheeks of ailing jesters that get submitted to every vaguely hip publication in the universe almost on a daily basis. Rather than an effective display of clichés, this is simply writing unable to demonstrate enough control to make itself interesting, even if there are “elements of interest” throughout.
There are, as I noted, some good poems here, but they’re generally short & quite fragile, such as “
We can burn it
fields, records, our fruit
water, mosques, it casts inordinate shadow
I have a lighter, you have fuel
Hatefully designed, well-defended, it kills, sells
We won’t try to climb, we douse
the perimeter, flood the subfloors with fuel
We drench the lobby
White tower that sodomizes horizons
As with the reiteration of phosphorous in that first stanza from “A Chocolate and a Mantis,” the redundancy of fuel in the third-to-last line rings out like a cracked bell in the tintinnabulum. The effect is like watching a dancer stumble in classical ballet. It’s the only wrong note here, but it’s embarrassing. It deflates the poem right at the point when it should be launching into what is potentially a rousing ending. This shouldn’t be the strongest poem in the book, but it is.
So what is going on here? Almost certainly if Clark was working with any press whose editors read his poetry at all sympathetically, they would have made suggestions, even demands, that would have resulted in a far stronger representation of his skills. His first collection, The Little Door Slides Back, is a genuinely good book: this could have been as well. As it is, Music and Suicide reads like a conscious attempt to discredit