Saturday, June 26, 2004
Friday, June 25, 2004
A final excerpt from Lance Phillips’ Here Comes Everybody mass interview:
What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?
The simple answer is that, over time, both are getting larger. But that’s not the real answer because the body’s relation to the act of writing is invariably intimate – one cannot write without extending the body in some fashion, whether scribbling by hand, typing away or reciting spontaneously (or not) into a microphone or before a crowd. A poet who composed by cutting words from weekly magazines and pasting together “ransom note” style texts would have the process of cutting & gluing, but also of arranging and of browsing or scanning the magazines for appropriate text in the first place. What is your process? I do a lot of work on my Palm Pilot these days, but I also write by hand into notebooks. If I don’t have the energy to work in my Palm Pilot, whose “handwriting” system, which it calls Graffiti, requires some concentration, then in fact I don’t have the energy to write. I must be some kind of Projectivist because for me writing is not only speech (or thought) but is also always the dance of the hand.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
This question from Lance Phillips’ Here Comes Everybody questionnaire struck me as fun:
How would you explain what a poem is to my seven year old?
It’s something that makes your dad pretty crazy. But beyond that, all art forms are extensions of our senses, how we see, feel, touch, hear or otherwise interact with the world. If dance is the art of your body in time, and music is the art of sound, and painting & photography arts of vision, then poetry is the art of language. Anything that language can do is appropriate as the material of poetry. Poetry’s role, in turn, is to fully explore what its medium can tell us about itself & the world. The role of any art is to explore what its medium can tell us of the world. When a dancer says of the Hokey Pokey, “That’s what it’s all about,” they aren’t necessarily kidding.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Yet another literary questionnaire, this one from Lance Phillips for his Here Comes Everybody interview blog. I’m not going to answer all the questions here – just a couple under the “William Burroughs First-One’s-Free” rule – to give you a taste of what I’ll be sending to Lance. Here is one:
What is something/someone non-"literary" you read which may surprise your peers/colleagues? Why do you read it/them?
I’ve been a reader of the Baseball Register literally for decades & a deep reader of baseball statistics since the Giants moved to San Francisco when I was 11 years old. I love baseball rather the way I do comic strips in the newspaper – because I live a reasonably stressful life & it’s valuable to have some interests that patently “mean nothing,” even tho they really do. Both connect me to habits from my childhood – and that in itself is also a worthy justification.
Baseball statistics have been a more conservative field even than School o’ Quietude poetics, yet in recent years stats – especially the “major” widely recognized stats – have been undergoing dramatic change. Were he to return to life, my grandfather would be startled to see pitchers being gauged by their WHIP numbers – walks plus hits per innings pitched – or to discover that on-base percentage has become nearly as important as batting average, which it may soon eclipse. Not to mention OPS, which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. The new stats for hitters only accentuate how much better a hitter Barry Bonds has become than any other player since at least Ted Williams.
These new numbers come out of the sabermetrics, the use of statistics to analyze anything about baseball that might be counted & measured. While sabermetrics has been around for over 20 years, it has only been in the past five years or so that some baseball teams have actually begun to use the new methods to make key decisions as to personnel. Although sabermetricians like Bill James are sometimes treated in the media as supernerds seriously in need of a life, their application of some basic analytic tools to something like baseball strikes me as the sort of thing we ought to be thinking about with many endeavors in contemporary life – and I definitely include poetry.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Monday, June 21, 2004
There is an almost Rexrothian feel to Joseph Torra’s new book of poems, After the Chinese that surprised me. Kenneth Rexroth, at least to my mind, is very close to being the archetypal San Francisco poet of a certain period (the first ten years after World War 2, to be exact), the man who first put together the functional elements of the Objectivists’ program (left politics plus an interest in the then-avant-garde) with Asian poetics out of which a whole range of literary possibilities would soon pour forth. Torra, on the other hand, is very nearly an archetypal Boston poet. And while these two cities have sometimes had what amounted to student exchange programs – Jack Spicer to Boston in return for John Wieners to the Hotel Wentley & 707 Scott Street – they are in fact radically different communities. For a long time, San Francisco was defined precisely by its distance from the East.* The Boston Poetry community was (and for all I know may still be) organized around the heaviest town-gown dynamics of any polis to have adopted the English language.
What Rexroth & Torra have in common, tho, is a hard-to-find conjunction of blue collar grit (more theoretical, or perhaps theatrical, in Rexroth’s case than in Torra’s) with global cosmopolitanism. Taking on a project that echoes more than a little of Rexroth’s writing, Torra’s poems here raise not only the obvious comparisons, but some others I had not thought of before. For example, Torra uses a soft, matter-of-fact linebreak that can trace its roots right back thru Bill Corbett – who is the archetypal Boston poet – to the work of a very different writer, Jimmy Schuyler. Yet Rexroth himself could be read as an antecedent practitioner of this particular device – he’s really the first of the late modernists to be comfortable with it.
Torra’s poems aren’t, at least for the most part, translations, not even by Rexroth’s loose sense of that term. Rather, they’re intensely personal poems “in the Chinese manner,” whatever that might mean. And that, in a very real sense, is what first drew me into this book. What does Torra think it means? Another way to say this might be, “what does thinking of something as Chinese – or ‘Chinese’ – permit or make possible?”
The poet invoked most often is the 11th century Mei Yao Ch’en, who wrote poems while serving as a minor government official. In addition to the poetry itself, Torra seems most interested in this early configuration of a poet with a day job, thus not a part of an official or courtly discourse. In this context, “the personal” functions as a refuge, a condition we find in the past century in a certain amount of Eastern European poetry – think of Brodsky’s lyricism as precisely a political statement, against not merely the state of the old Soviet Union, but against the compromised oppositionalism of the likes of Yevtushenko or Voznesensky. Or of all the intellectuals figured in the novels of Milan Kundera who choose a curiously Ostpolitik mode of yuppie eroticism as a way of bypassing a debased public world.
Often, Torra’s poems are descriptive, even depictive. Here is “Midnight”:
Worked all evening
too wired for bed.
Right hip aches.
wife and daughters
I fail daily.
At one level, this is one of those complex-simple poems, beautifully executed. The logic of the stanzas is not unlike that of a haiku: detail; detail; killer leap to a conclusion. And each stanza is remarkably contained, the first focusing in on the phenomenal world, the second bringing in the poet’s situation, the third invoking the greater context that gives it all meaning. For me, what carries this poem way beyond the ordinary it seems to be seeking is Torra’s ear especially in the first stanza.** While the rhyme of Sandal with Candle is clear enough, Torra is doing something quite a bit more complex with the end of these brief lines: there is a sequence of long vowels in rings, chimes, fumes & one that is reinforced – and the liquid m introduced – with the use of flame in the first line. All of which depends on that first line. But a first line that is not nearly as self-evident as it might at first look. It can be read either as a noun-phrase sentence fragment or as a remarkably compact complete sentence – as, not coincidentally, can both of the next two lines. It isn’t that they necessarily have to be read that way, but the fact that they can, again & again, sets up a second layer of possibility, perceptible but not exactly nameable in the first reading. On top of which, for me at least, comes the question that the first line is relatively opaque. Is it really referring to the halo of heat-distorted gases that envelope the flame itself? Or, and this is where the “full sentence” reading comes in, is Torra suggesting the quiet that enables one to hear a burning candle for the complex ensemble of sounds it puts right at the edge of audibility? Either is at least conceivable, although if we add an Occam’s razor requirement to the parsimony principle – that the least complicated interpretation should be adopted – my sense is that it is the visible, rather than the auditory route to be taken. But . . . and this I think is the whole point, Torra’s intense exploitation of sound in the first stanza demands that we not set this second meaning aside just because it may be less probable. He wants, I’m convinced, for us to hear & feel & see & think the whole range of what is possible all simultaneously . . . and he doesn’t want us to experience this as “difficult.”
A work like "Midnight" can be read as a negotiation between three realms – the senses in the first stanza, work in the second, family in the third. Only in the last, it is worth noting, does the word “I” emerge. Much of the book can be read as falling between these three discourses, with some ancillary ones – friends, writing, drink – figuring in, sometimes standing for one of these three roles, tho not always the same ones. Often the stance struck is, as in the poem above, somewhat distant – it is only through focusing on his wife & daughters that he can see his own shortcomings.
The exception to this lies in a few poems that take on a more public diction, mostly in relation to the war:
under whose role,
bones than soil.
Still, they come
Is this all, all
they can be?
How I wish that old army tagline hadn’t turned up in the last line! If only it ended on that first all! The flatness of this piece & the few others like it here contrasts dramatically with the poems that foreground the personal. In a way, it confirms Torra’s larger thesis of the role of the poem in the world.
* My favorite example is that well until the 1950s, the Pacific Coast League, baseball’s AAA minor league on the west coast, had many players who would have been stars in the big leagues the minute they were brought up by the Yankees or whomever – Joe DiMaggio is the great example – a situation that had some similarities with the exclusion of Negro League players during this same period. Indeed, Lefty O’Doul – who gives the banned-for-betting Shoeless Joe Jackson a run for “best player never to be inducted into the Hall of Fame – is excluded from Cooperstown precisely because he didn’t play enough games in the majors, a restriction that no longer confronts any Negro League player. Ironically, in the last years before the Giants brought major league ball to Baghdad by the Bay, the San Francisco Seals were the AAA team of the Boston Red Sox.
** For a poet who has written a lot of fiction, Torra is remarkably free of the traditional novelist’s deafness to language.