Monday, June 07, 2004
There is a heft to Lisa Lubasch’s To Tell the Lamp – not the 120 pages of the book so much as its shape, which is square, 8½ inches in all directions – that reminds me of how a lot of poetry books seemed to be made in the early 1970s by presses like Station Hill or Pym-Randall where attention was given first of all to the spatial requirements of the text – a long line demanded a wider page. It’s an amazingly comforting feeling to hold a project like this book, just out from Avec Books, in which it is the poem that dictates the form, not vice versa.
Not that long lines per se cannot be done in a standard width – hanging indents work just fine much of the time. But this is manifestly not the case when the long lines have wide gaps in them, the page being very much treated as tho it were a field of composition in the classic Duncan-Olson sense, as much a canvas as it is a page. There is really just one poem in To Tell the Lamp that fits this description, “Ordering Things,” the sixth & final section of the book. But the commitment involved in building the book to accommodate its most difficult poem, physically speaking, just speaks volumes about the integrity of the publisher. Conversely, holding this in my hands made me aware also of how seldom this is the case today, of how often we justify compromise in how we go to press. Praise be to someone who still designs books the old-fashioned way.
Over the years Lubasch has evolved into something of a formalist, in the sense that one might characterize Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan & Robert Kelly as formalists. One senses that she hears the poem – at the very least hears its pacing – before, above & even after all else, as tho it were some form of transcendental pulse.
One consequence of this is that Lubasch writes more in the first person plural than do most contemporary poets:
Letting words go
Tearing them from the path
Some point us toward
Water, lead us directly into
The past, like an act of consciousness
Will often split
Away from us.
Everywhere we go,
We see it, parting.
This is, in its entirety, the first poem of the book’s second section, “Much Beyond Us Gets Inside.” It’s a poem, like a fair number here, that I think readers will divide over – either you will like it a lot (which is where I fit into this scheme) or you will find it completely off-putting. A device as small as the choice for caps at the left margin gives the poem a sense of order, even of self importance, that can be sustained only if you make the connection between the way a boat or swimmer moves through water & the way we experience language. The first line of the second stanza is one of those hinge moments, as it can be read as completing the statement of the first stanza &/or as initiating a new statement that continues. It strikes me as self-evident that and is the better interpretation, rather than or, that all enjambment in the first two stanzas (and none in the last three) is intended precisely to set up that experience of, as Lubasch characterizes it, parting.
A work this tightly governed can read as a set piece, almost too well wrought. Yet the very next poem in that section – as indeed the longer work in the first – shows Lubasch as a poet perfectly willing (& able) to take considerable changes. This piece, “The Sum of Things” (a fabulously Pongean title) is built up out of short passages that read in places a little like the work of Rae Armantrout –
A belated gesture
Keeps composing us,
Motion, within ourselves
– although the sum, to call it that, is broader & more indeterminate than Armantrout’s hard edges would find comfortable.
Lubasch is manifestly her own poet – these comparisons are clumsy at best, although hopefully they give some sense of where she has found what already exists to be useful. What seems most evident to me is that she’s spun them into something quite different from anything any other younger poet is doing today without in any way becoming simply an echo of her elders. Lubaschism is post-avant in tone, neo-classical in spirit. It wouldn’t shock me, ten years out, to discover that a lot of younger poets have found their way there.
Saturday, June 05, 2004
Friday, June 04, 2004
I received this email the other day & it caught my attention because the question it asks is a good one & the answer I might immediately think to give — “form a community with your peers” — is one that has already been received & found wanting. I’ve made a few edits to render the letter functionally anonymous at the request of the writer.
I don't know if you respond to personal emails or not (& I have no idea how much email you might get on a given day)* but having looked at your blog relatively regularly for over a year I wanted first to say thanks (it — your blog — turned out to be a lot more educational than grad school turned out to be) and then ask a Jeff Clark-related question, which amounts more or less to the same old thing: what's a young writer to do? I mean this in the most naive and literal sense.
I tried grad school, where I was encouraged to write fiction & where I had the opportunity to have awkward, brief meetings with publishers both large and small. Editors, at least the ones I met, don't seem all that interested in reading and/or writing. Nor did my writing professors at the up-and-coming (they think) grad school I attended for a year. Nor did most of the students, either. (This wasn't the case at all in the other half of my studies, which are in the visual arts, so it seems writing-specific.)
But all of that money, time and awkwardness has amounted to scratch. The best (i.e. only) advice the teachers there could give me, in terms of advice, was to "form a community with your peers" but I'm not the community-forming type, especially when my "peers" are all straight and young and in an entirely other tax bracket.
The older I get (and I just turned 27) the more I think that the Emily Dickinson model is the way to go. Publishing seems like a function of knowing the right people — which, then, why bother?
Not to be (too) cynical but to sum this up (and I'm operating on the assumption, here, that my writing is "publishable" in the first place), any general thoughts on the subject?
Sorry for the long and rant-laden query, but judging from your blog it seems like you're in a position to have an opinion on this. Any thoughts?
I’ve written in the past that one of the primary distinctions between fiction and poetry lies exactly in the relationship these historic — and social — genres have to the question of community. From my perspective, if publishing isn’t part of the process of community forming, then what is it? And what is publishing?
It is not an accident — not even close — that the rise of the novel & that of the trade publisher as a particular niche capitalist enterprise occur in tandem. The poet’s audience is, for the most part, a community. But, with very few exceptions, the novelist’s audience is a market. And while I may joke from time to time about the ways in which market dynamics enter into the poetry scene — the brand equity in a name, for example — I do believe that the differences between these two realms are huge. That is why, I think, we have seen the rise in my lifetime of something that could be called the poet’s novelist — stretching from Jack Kerouac in the 1950s to Pamela Lu & Dodie Bellamy today.
The concept of the poet — or novelist — writing without any interest in community is of itself not necessarily foolish. That critical — hypercritical, most often — audience of one is a legitimate target for a person’s writing. Poetry has been used as a tool for thinking by many over time, and there are ways in which those of us who do publish promiscuously may even envy the individual whose concentration goes entirely into the notebook, never again to emerge. That is a kind of focus whose value should not be underestimated.
Yet we should notice that even those poets we think of as isolative — Dickinson in her century, possibly Niedecker in hers — reached out. It is only because Emily D shared her writings that we have come to know them at all. What nobody knows is just how much else poetry of interest &/or value — to us, that is, as readers — remains to be discovered. & how much has been irretrievably lost.
But if publication is the fundamental literary act of community formation, the question of which community & how it is to be defined opens up another range of consideration. I hear this writer noting his sense of alienation along lines of sexual orientation, age & class — although to my 57-year-old ears, it is hard to imagine someone 30 years my junior characterizing his “peers” as being — in a negative sense — “young.” What this reminds me of even more pointedly is the steady trickle of emails I get from genuinely young writers (for this argument, anybody born after 1964) who live anywhere other than in a big city, especially if it is some distance from either coast. Try, if you will, being the language poet of Rock Springs, Wyoming, or the lesbian poet of Crawford, Texas. There is lonely & then there is lonely. Yet the internet strikes me as a unique resource of our time, not because it lets you do flash animation on your vizpo, but because poets in Norway, Turkey & Singapore need not be that terribly far from one another. If you can’t reach out within your geographic community, you don’t need to let geography constrict you.
What I don’t hear in this letter — and it may just be because the writer wasn’t focusing on it at the moment, tho it’s an absence I note a lot when I hear the “where can I publish?” question — what I don’t hear here is a sense that this writer is a reader also. Literally, I don’t sense any enthusiasm for an already existing community of poets or novelists or quick fiction crawdaddies whom the writer is aching to have read the work. What I tell poets – I don’t usually get the question from fictioneers – is to ask the question “Where do the poets you most admire publish?” Rather than scattershot your work among the literally hundreds of hardcopy & online publications, it makes far greater sense to focus on two or three mags whose table of contents most excites you. After all, the writers who appear in a publication are, at the very least, the best proxy for its readership one might find. Better to submit – even to be rejected – ten times from a great publication than to disappear among the contributors to ten indiscriminate journals whose audiences never overlap one another.
So my response to the query, “What’s a young writer to do?” comes down to this: read more, read better, read with a passionate intensity & focus your energies there.
* On any given day, the answer is several hundred email messages, not including spam & listserv discussions.
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Jordan Davis posted a comment in the Squawkbox for Monday that got me thinking:
Not really here to take the bait, Ron, but curious why you'd go along with my (and Jeff's) contemporary Jollimore's framing of Kenneth's work in terms of negative superlatives. Does anyone want to start discussing Barrett's worst poem, or Bob P's? Not much. Nor for that matter is working out what someone's best, or single most representative work, worth the effort, unless we're anthologizing.
Hopefully, I’m misreading Jordan, at least in part. I was not subscribing to Troy Jollimore’s claim that When the Sun Tries to Go On is Kenneth Koch’s worst poem. In fact, as Kenneth well knew (because we’d corresponded on this very topic), I think that When the Sun was Koch’s very best poem, that moment in the heroic phase of the New York School – i.e., the period when it was reaching out to see just how far it could reach, a phenomenon that would include Ashbery’s “Europe” & O’Hara’s “Second Avenue” & “Biotherm” – when these still-very-young-at-the-time poets sketched out directions & possibilities that poets even today are still finding fruitful, even as most of the “mature” work of the first gen NY School itself never fully again came so close to that horizon (there are exceptions, of course, most notably Ashbery’s finest work, Flow Chart).
But, having said that, there are other points worth thinking through further in Jordan’s note. First, every mature poet will have what I think of as his or her “Van Buren Cantos,” those works that, while consistent with the poet’s project understood at its deepest levels, can really only be appreciated by “completists,” who must read everything that poet ever wrote. This is quite apart from juvenilia, which is another problem altogether, although each, as such, could teach a careful reader a great deal about the poet.
I have written quite critically about projects from poets whose work I like very much, including Bob Perelman & Jerome Rothenberg, but it’s not a practice I do routinely or without giving it a lot of thought. As I commented just the other day, life is too short, and interesting, positive projects in the world of poetry all too often go without comment, & that generally strikes me as what I should be doing with my life. It really only makes sense to get into the sometimes quite painful interpersonal realm when something larger is at stake, as I felt it was when Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, came out with its implicit argument that Fluxus had been the central artistic movement of the last half of the 20th century, a claim I don’t think anyone can make out loud without bursting out into giggles. That in turn led to bizarre & troubling omissions that rendered the collection far less representative & useful than its predecessor volume. As somebody who was included in Vol. 2, I felt I had a special responsibility to speak up. But I sure didn’t enjoy it.
It might be an interesting project – and I’m sure we would all learn a great deal – to discuss what the least successful projects are of all our favorite poets. I have a sense of what my own Van Buren Cantos might be. But I’m not going to share that here, and I don’t think, really, that it’s possible to have a broader public discussion of that kind of issue in the still very charged & partisan universe of poetry that exists in the real world. Similarly, it would be illuminating to think about which avant or post-avant poet has been the most over-rated – John Cage would be my vote – but I think that the benefits of such a discussion would be disproportionately minimal to the energy it would require to explore it adequately.
When I was first contemplating this blog back on Brier Island a couple of summers ago, one of the ideas that drove my thinking was the sense that we – I & other poets – needed a place in which we could discuss the most minute literary issues – say the space between two words & how that gap might function differently depending on what the words themselves are, & thus how silence & absence are far from neutral or unshaped. Papers given at academic conferences struck me then (& strikes me now) as precisely where one doesn’t want to conduct such a discussion. The blog, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the occasion.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Herewith please find the response to question 6 of the next round of the 9 for 9 project:
Poet Lee Ann Brown writes about an assignment to search for a New Muse. If you were to take this assignment, where and/or how would you look?
My first muse was a nightmare. Not that she meant to be. My grandmother was still in her teens when she first began having “spells” that made it difficult & later impossible for her to work. My great grandmother, a single parent with eleven children – there had been 13 but two had died – needed contributions from every able-bodied child. Indeed, if one of the boys got drunk on the weekend & came home & forced himself upon his sisters, it was not commented upon because his salary was essential. My grandmother grew up in a world in which girls learned to lock their bedroom doors at night & four of her sisters had had abortions before World War I. My grandfather, steady & quiet, must have seemed a mode of rescue when he proposed, and he was, but the “spells” never entirely went away.
“Spells” is decidedly a pre-medical diagnosis for what would now be identified as chronic depression with psychotic features. But “spells” is what my family was still calling this process when I first experienced her raving, pacing, incoherent & unprovoked fury, growing up in my grandparents’ house in the early 1950s. My mother, her youngest daughter, had divorced young & returned to live with her parents, creating a makeshift arrangement (my mother literally sleeping on the sofa bed in the livingroom) that would last until I finished high school. Since stress was the primary trigger for my grandmother’s episodes, three generations in a two-bedroom, 1100 square-foot house was a set up, guaranteed to maximize the craziness that ensued.
Life with my grandmother was dysfunctional in all the ways that life with a mentally ill always is. One didn’t invite friends over to one’s house, for example. And while some of the more traumatic incidents – being chased around the house by a woman waving a steak knife, for example – didn’t occur until I was a teen & better able, literally, to take of myself, the most important aspect of her condition – what really made her my muse – was the linguistic manifestation of her worst breakdowns, long periods – months even – when she would begin sentences & stop, leaving them unfinished. Often she would return to these broken sentences, sometimes hours later, to complete them. I think that my brother & I in particular received training in listening under extraordinary conditions, one that left me hyperconscious of the nuances of words, between words & around them. And about what happens when the syntax stops.
Much of coming into my own as a poet certainly was learning how to apply the lessons I had gained in childhood to the world at large, learning how to listen in a larger way, one that gradually became free of the specific associations it might once have had to my mother’s mother, who passed away 18 years ago at the age of 90.
A new muse to my mind would mean – and would require – a new way of hearing, literally a new way of being in the world. Well, what would that mean? It would require, at minimum, growing up in the language. Not just learning it – as tho I might begin writing now in Russian or French – but going through that childhood process of babbling immersion through which one learns categories-of-the-world as one learns simultaneously the words & order of the language. The language is not like throwing a sweater over the topography of referents. Rather it is like light, without which color itself would not be possible, let alone shape, perspective & a whole host of other features. Our language & what we know of it is not separable from the world that shines through.
I have one son who is colorblind, a condition that hampers him a little on certain board games, but not otherwise. I often wondered what, if he cannot distinguish orange from green, trees really look like, say an orange tree. Certain categories of the world that I take quite for granted he consciously has to negotiate. Once I worked for a marketing director who was, he said, entirely colorblind, seeing everything in gradations of gray. I was one of two employees in on that secret, because when he had to consider which design to go for when making an ad buy – and we spent a few million on print advertising each year – he would say “What do you think of that color scheme” & I and the other person in on the secret knew that regardless of how many other people were in the room, he wanted us to tell him if these colors were “okay.” Did I ever tell him that my wife thinks I draw the line between blue & green a little strangely, that I always err on the side of blue?
Where is that muse? I’m not much of a proponent for such things as reincarnation – if you can’t remember your past lives, what good are they? – and anything actually short of this sounds rather like the Maoist mode of re-education, which I will decline politely, thank you. So rather I have but one muse & I will have to learn to live with that, even tho its personal source is now long since dead. But what I choose to hear, at least to listen to, with what I have been given, that still seems to me a universe of possibility, and I but a boy just starting out.