Friday, October 22, 2004

 


A copy of The House that Hijack Built, by Adeena Karasick, is going Harry Thorne of Long Island City, who was the 200,000th visitor to this site. House has the unique distinction of being the one book that I appear to have acquired three times.

 

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Some people have asked, so I ought to note that the rest of the 40-odd duplicate books that turned up when I put together my new bookcase will eventually find their way to the library at Kelly’s Writers House.

 

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The box from SPD arrived and I was right – there were two new duplicates in that shipment. In one instance, tho, I profess blamelessness. I received the book from the publisher directly earlier this week, then the second copy arrived in the very battered box that SPD used. Happily, ‘twas the box that was battered & not the books inside.

 

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One of the things you learn – or should – when you’re scrolling among the various blogs out there is that if you’re going to post a comment, especially if you have multiple blogs open on your screen & have the impulse to post a comment to more than one, you ought to slow down & try not to overdo the multitasking thing. Otherwise you might post the comment to the wrong blog & sound even less coherent than you really are. Somebody out there has a really weird note of mine that would seem much more sensible if it was only attached to Tony Tost’s blog.



Thursday, October 21, 2004

 

It is often the case that the baseball playoffs are more exciting to watch than the World Series to which they lead. And it may turn out to be the case again this year. But anyone who is a fan of baseball will have to admit that the past week has been one of those transcendent moments when what is humanly possible in sport is on display so clearly that even the most casual observer would take notice. Since we’re rooting for everyone & everything from Massachusetts for the next several weeks anyway, we’re quite pleased.

 

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Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle should win some kind of award for most extravagant mixed metaphor in attempting to describe the Sox-Yankee series:

 

They were tamed by pitchers who, in an era when arms are more delicate than orchids, worked like Iditarod dogs.

 

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Plus I like how they snuck in a plug for one of my books in this wallpaper display.

 

 



Wednesday, October 20, 2004

 

Mark Tursi is working on a dissertation & sent me a question, which follows. He warns that, if I post my response to this blog, any commentary thereon in the Squawkbox tool might also become part of his process:

 

In The Chinese Notebook, which was just recently re-released online by UBU Editions (2004), you suggest, “Perhaps poetry is an activity and not a form at all.” I find this a particularly interesting proposition in lieu of the various forms throughout all of The Age of Huts: Sunset Debris which is all questions; 2197 which is largely verse form with a few sections of prose; and, finally, The Chinese Notebooks which is enumerated prose paragraphs. There has, of course, been a lot of critical writing that argues that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry is largely concerned with process rather than product, and you yourself suggest in the Afterword to the 2002 edition of In the American Tree that writing is “a means of thinking, an active process” and “shared thinking.” But, I wonder, to what extent your writing is concerned more with activity rather than process (or form or product), as you seem to suggest? That is, I think there is a slight nuance in meaning here that is rather revealing. On the one hand, your work seems to a reveal an obsession with form (e.g. The Age of Huts and The Alphabet), but on the other, you seem more concerned with writing as an act (activity), first and foremost (esp. your blog and The Alphabet perhaps!?), rather than as a form existing outside of the act itself or even the process (procedure), except how it actual comes to exist as an intentional and self-reflexive act. And, if the ‘intention’ and ‘the poetry’ are identical which you suggest a few lines later in The Chinese Notebook, isn’t the act and the form one in the same? And, back to your suggestion and following question: “Would this definition satisfy Duncan?” I wonder if you could elaborate a bit more on these distinctions (or lack of) between act and process, act and form?

 

I have a couple of different, possibly conflicting reactions as I read this – indeed, that latter sense has delayed me from responding to it for quite some time – but the strongest & most immediate one is a distrust in the way that the term “form” is being applied here, which I read as “exoskeletal pattern.” The description of 2197 is the give-away here, precisely because it is so inexact. The work consists of 13 poems, all constructed from the collision of 169 different sentences with one another – the title refers to the number of sentences in the work as a whole. When sentences “collide,” the grammatical structure of one is used to house the “content” words of the other. 2197 thus comes closest to the conception of form you pose, yet it is the one that is – to my reading of your question – the work in The Age of Huts that is least recognized as such.

 

Yet how much of that poem is that reiterative structure – which is not without its problems – and how much of the work’s “true” form is my own experience of working on it in notebooks – one of which contained nothing but the numerical plan of which sentence was to serve as the syntactic domain here, which as the source for signifiers? How much is involved in writing it specifically in coffee houses, especially the Meat Market, an establishment that exists (or used to exist) in an old butcher shop on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, where at least 80 percent of the text was crafted? How much of its form, for me, also is involved with living in a collective household on California Street in San Francisco, and with my various roommates there, a particularly intense & close household? I began the poem while working on the other sections of The Age of Huts – the first of which is Ketjak, published separately from the Roof Press edition – but did not complete it until I was well into the writing of Tjanting, another work that required rigorous planning and a careful structure laying out which sentence went where (and which also, taking directly from 2197, almost always involved revision as essential to the reiterative process).

 

You can get a better sense of how 2197 is put together if you follow a single term throughout the work, for example “lion.” Thus in the first poem, “I am Marion Delgado,” we find two consecutive sentences with it:

 

Lion I’d bites.

A specific lion, mane, bites for the peach-headed.

 

In “I Meet Osip Brik,” we find

 

The lion is full of grapes.

 

In “Rhizome,” lion & grapes again appear, but a different sequence:

 

Lion made the grapes

of my peach-headed man.

 

In “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap,” we come across the combination again:

 

Anything lion do is made for many grapes.

 

And so on. My idea in writing this was that it should work on several levels. Whether or not it does, I guess, will depend both on what different readers experience coming across these individual sentences in very dissimilar (or what I hoped were dissimilar) contexts and on how well I may have executed my initial impulse(s).

 

My own sense is that form in the poem is all of these things – that one cannot dissociate exoskeletal structure (the “patterns of deployment” in 2197 are an alternating sequence of three different formats – a “one sentence / one line” mode with heavily indented lines that I took directly from work Barrett Watten was doing at the time, a prose poem paragraph, and a “stepped line” derived partly from the late work of William Carlos Williams & partly from Mayakovsky) from the actual processes of writing. Attempts to do so always strike me as artificial distinctions, which can be tactically useful, but quickly become sterile if carried out toward “logical conclusions.”

 

Another way to examine the same question would be to ask what the formal relationship of my titles to the textual bodies beneath them might be. 2197 is really where I think I worked out my sense of the modularity of that process. Each title in the sequence is exemplary (at least in my imagination) of a certain genre of title. Thus “I am Marion Delgado” is at one level a typical “autobiographical title,” and yet I am obviously not Marion Delgado, nor does the sentence mean precisely what it suggests. It was the “code” phrase used by Mark Rudd as he got up to the podium to speak to signal to the other members of what became the Weather Underground that it was time to bolt the SDS convention in 1969. Marion Delgado was, in 1968, a three-year-old toddler in the Fresno area who inadvertently left a tricycle on some railroad tracks and derailed a shipment of war material bound for Vietnam. Similarly, “I Meet Osip Brik” – a more active variant of the autobiographical title – suggests a history that I do not have (I am not, for example, Mayakovsky & while I have stood outside Brik’s apartment in what was then Leningrad, I never met the man who died some 18 months before I was born). “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap” is a scenic title derived from the history of painting – I think of it as being particularly Ashbery-esque. Alternately, “Invasion of the Stalinoids” has a sci-fi feel to it, although “Stalinoids” is a term derived very much from the left in-fighting of the far left in the 1970s. “Turk Street News” was the name a porn theater where I once watched Kathy Acker on the big screen having sex with several men, one of whom was flogging her with a head of iceberg lettuce. So there seems always to be two things going on in these titles, for me at least, one of them being a relationship to title-ness, the other something that is far more personal & probably inscrutable to the reader. Neither, it is worth noting, has much to do with the mathematically determined sentences that appear as the “named body” beneath each title. Titles for me are very much about that arbitrary element that occurs in naming – what would become of a child if you named him Orlando or Arkadii instead of Jesse or Colin?

 

I recently had a fellow overseas who got very angry at me over just such a relationship between the title of one of the sections of VOG in The Alphabet and its textual body. He wanted there to be a clear referential frame between body & title where I want to explore as many angles in & around that relationship as is humanly conceivable. And he’d allowed the parsimony principle to convince himself that the body of the text had a single, nameable content, something that is virtually never the case with my work.

 

So where does form end & process begin, or form end & either “the world” or “content” begin? I’m not convinced that such boundaries are real, tho we can from time to time foreground elements that seem to suggest otherwise. In ”Revelator,” the first section of Universe – the work that comes after The Alphabet – I’m working with a five-word line as a constant & the physical size of a notebook as boundaries to the text. Yet if you were ask me what the formal engine of the text is, my instinct would be to point to the role of sound, rhythm and the levels of phrasal concentration that a line of that size literally dictates. Bob Perelman prefers a six-word line, and has said that he does so precisely because it doesn’t call for such concentration, which he sees as getting away from the looseness of speech & coming across as excessively literary. I don’t think that either one of us is “right” in which way to proceed, but we do at least understand the implications of making specific formal choices, so that I might do what’s right for me, Bob what is right for him.



Tuesday, October 19, 2004

 

My comments yesterday on how to organize one’s thinking about the surfeit of good writing by younger poets when faced with absolute constraints on one’s time & attention generated a few interesting responses as well as, I’m afraid, some predictable ones as well.

 

To the implication that if I think there are hundreds, possibly even thousands, of competent, interesting post-avant poets now writing in English, I should adjust my critical horizon upward until it fixates upon some attainable quantity of “great” writing, I think that view manages to miss – precisely! – what is different about the current poetic age.

 

The social role of poetry in the English speaking countries is changing & attempts to retain a sense that one might be able to encapsulate just the best-of-the-best in anthology-sized collections, for example, is only a method of pretending that this transformation isn’t happening. What it means is that the relationship of the individual poet is changing with regards to his/her audience, to the role of the book, the role of the literary journal & the function of specific poetic communities. One consequence that I can see – although it is far from complete or uniform as a social effect – is that the hardcopy literary magazine has declined dramatically in importance & value. Only part of this is due to the rise of web-enabled journals. An equally important side-effect is the rise of the chapbook – the chapbook may in fact the be the primary literary “unit” vis-à-vis poetry right now. It’s a publication that has zero chance of making it into the book chains and save for a few poetry-centric bookstores (most notably Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee), you can’t get it retail. Even City Lights & Open Books in Seattle tend to have very few chapbooks. My new 84” bookcase is filled with them.

 

Rebecca Loudon responded in the Squawkbox commentary tool* to my line that

 

" I’d love to figure out how younger poets are handling it "

 

What, exactly, do you mean by younger poets? Chronological age? Emotional age? Years of writing? Number of publications? Do you have no interest in how the older poets are handling it? Curious.

 

Which is an excellent point. By “younger” I mean anyone who hasn’t been writing & publishing books for a quarter of a century, whatever their chronological age. My experience has been that younger poets are actively attempting to make sense of the world, and especially the world of poetry, “in real time,” with all the chaos, change & indeterminacy that implies. “Older” poets have largely already figured out what their poetry is doing and have a tendency to stay focused on the world of writing as they understood it when they were younger poets. What is so remarkable about an older writer who actively manages to stay current with all that is changing in poetry – Robert Creeley is a great example of this – is that it is so very rare indeed.

 

I don’t think that this is an indictment necessarily of anybody who can’t keep up with Robert’s restless imagination & his ability to absorb so much of what’s new. I just think this is a natural part of the “gravity” that occurs as part of the aging process & that one has to work actively against that winnowing process that results in older writers seeming “out of touch” or “interested only in their friends & those younger poets who imitate them.” Or worse.

 

As aggressive as I try to be about that myself, the greatest surprise to me in starting my weblog two years ago was exactly how much even my own reading tended to focus largely on the work of my immediate peers, poets born between 1940 & 1955. One person who is getting (re)educated as a result of this blog is therefore me. And it’s been a useful process indeed.

 

Dan Bouchard sent me an email pointing out Steve Evans’ article in the fourth issue of The Poker, which addresses this same issue. Sort of. As is so often the case with Evans’ work, the piece considers many aspects of the phenomenon without ever taking a clear stand in behalf of one particular strategy. He achieves this by framing the discussion as a look at “four dissimilar strategies.”

 

He sort-of-warns against “outsourcing” our “taste” to the various prizes, which attempt to sort out “the best”  – or at least to lend that rubric to various School o’ Quietude friendship networks. He presents various “constellations” of his own gradually evolving reading list (he’s as slow a reader as I am). He thinks about the relation of writing to the world & especially to our current debased mode of political discourse. Here at least he ventures a conclusion – that Bush should be beaten. Evans then lists 232 reviews that appeared over ten months in four journals – The Boston Review. Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi & Poetry Project Newsletter – and notes which presses got the most reviews:

 

10 reviews: Norton


9 reviews: FSG, Graywolf, Verse


8 reviews: New Directions


7 reviews: Coffee House, Wesleyan


5 reviews: Knopf, Krupskaya


4 reviews: Flood, HarperCollins, Kelsey Street, Penguin, University of Georgia

 

Evans doesn’t discuss what it means, in relative terms, to have a review in Publishers Weekly vs. one in the Poetry Project Newsletter, let alone The New York Times or Poetry. Nor does he indicate which titles may have received more than one review. Thus the piece feels like an incomplete update on the sort of research that Jed Rasula did in The American Poetry Wax Museum or Hank Lazer did in Opposing Poetries.

Yet what feels most “contemporary” about Evans’ take on all this is exactly its failure to take a stand, adopt a topic sentence, draw conclusions on the wall. Thus ultimately it’s his lists of “constellations,” titles of eleven books each that he was in the midst of reading at different moments over the last 18 months, that one reads as the clearest presentation of a point of view. And here it would be interesting to see which presses his constellation represents – and possibly even to see some discussion of what it means for a book to continue to stay on the list for several consecutive months. Is that a good thing or just the opposite?

 

It is worth noting, I suppose, that of the 14 presses listed above, five are New York trade presses & at least three of the independents (Graywolf, Coffee House, New Directions) publish enough books annually to function as if they were trade presses. Just two are related to universities. Three of the presses – Kelsey Street, Krupskaya and Flood – might truthfully be said to be small presses. But none to my knowledge publishes chapbooks.

 

 

 

* Which was down for awhile yesterday & even appears to have eaten at least one comment.



Monday, October 18, 2004

 

While I was in California, Krishna bought a couple of 84” bookcases – one for each of us – to upgrade the four-foot high ones in our bedroom. I moved one of the latter down into the study and have spent much of the past weekend converting stacks of books on the floor into some semblance of order. Unread books of poetry takes up almost all of the new case in the bedroom, with just enough room for some of the unread critical texts that still won’t fit into the shelves in the livingroom.* It’s been nine years since we’ve added any new bookcases & I have not been on a book-buying moratorium of late.

 

One thing that always turns up when I engage in a project of this sort is some kind of snapshot of what I’m buying, but which I haven’t gotten around yet to reading. There’s a lot of John Ashbery & Clark Coolidge in the new bedroom bookcase – about five books of each. A lot of Mark Wallace (almost all in little chapbooks), lots of Leslie Scalapino, lots of Alice Notley. In some instances, like Wallace & Scalapino, this is really an index of how prolific each writer is at this point in their careers, but with Ashbery it’s more a sign of how very long it’s taking me to get around to his books. I’ve been struggling with Flow Chart since the summer, wanting it to be the transcendent long poem that seems to be locked up somewhere inside there, but which doesn’t ever quite get through the slack surfaces that seem to predominate that text.

 

An even more troubling category for me is the snapshot of those books that I’m buying over & over, and still not getting around to reading – I’ve come across second copies of at least 40 different books, tho thus far no third copies. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten the carton of items I bought when I was at SPD in Berkeley yet & I know already that one or two of those are duplicates of books already here. In a number of these cases, the situation is one where I buy the book only to receive a copy from either the author or publisher later on (in at least one case, it’s very clear that one Canadian publisher sent me two review copies, complete with press release & warm personal note from somebody I’d never heard of before). But as the SPD box will also prove, sometimes I really am just buying the same book over & over.

 

The most shocking discovery for me was just putting all of the books I’m currently in the middle of side by side – it takes an entire shelf! All the time I was in the middle of Flow Chart, I’d forgotten that I was halfway through Chinese Whispers. Next goal: cut the number of “in progress” books by half . . . or more.

 

This raises for me a question I’ve posed before, but one which feels more pressing as time goes by. I’d love to figure out how younger poets are handling it (or, for that matter, avoiding handling it): the absolute number of decent-to-great post-avant poets right now is literally in the several hundreds, if not thousands, without even delving too terribly deeply into parallel or similar traditions in other languages worldwide. It’s more than any human being can possibly handle, certainly not if one has a family and/or job.

 

Obviously, one solution is jettison wasting any further time on those tendencies in poetry that long since turned into dead ends, even if they continue to replicate themselves all over again in ever more self-parodic modes (e.g. the Mabel Dodge Festival). Farewell to the School of Quietude!

 

But the world of poetry I came into back in the mid-1960s was largely one conditioned by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry & the re-emergence during those very same years of the Objectivists – and if I try to read every poet whose work could be traced back to these traditions alone, it would be an inconceivable task. Even if I try to restrict it to only those books that are excellent or better – how can I know that in advance? – there are more books than I will ever be able to read. Yet I really am interested pretty much in all of it, so the idea of how to carve out an intelligible niche, a subsegment of this wealth of writing, is one I ponder a lot.

 

The tendency of so many younger poets has been to be militantly anti-group formation, yet in a field of literally hundreds upon hundreds of younger poets (say, under 40), it seems very clear that this strategy serves almost none of them well at all. At the same time, this isn’t something you can fake, although the mock movement of new brutalism does a better job than most of denying their cake & having it also. The last attempt at something more rigorous or serious – the Apex of the M crowd, circa 1990 – seemed to dissolve the minute everybody groaned at its lack of good humor.

 

So what is to be done? Read only one’s friends? Read only “the larger” independent presses – as if they did a better job of selecting “the best” than does, say, FSG? How does one map the landscape? If ever there was a time when a Donald Allen could step forward and, with about three good ideas, completely shape the world, this is it. Just as clearly, that individual can’t be one of us geezers. It’s going to have to come from within – but the longer it takes, the more atomized & impossible the reading list(s) will become.

 

Finally, I can’t post a note like this without registering some kind of dismay at what I consider aggressively clueless behavior in book production. My favorite candidates for this are chapbooks with no words whatsoever on their covers – a great way to ensure that the writer inside never gets read – and oversized books that won’t fit reasonably into any ordinary bookshelf. Books that are 13 inches high or 11 by 4¼ inches aren’t reader friendly, and if they stick out, it’s in a pejorative sense. Weird bindings that injure neighboring books come next on the list – my Situationist Scrapbook, which has a sandpaper cover – think about that for a moment – sits atop a case where it mostly gathers dust since out of sight really does lead to out of mind.

 

 

 

* The critical books are in the livingroom not because we give an ascendancy to them, but because a poetry collection is visually chaotic, with all manner of chapbooks, oversized volumes & unique (if not downright strange) bindings. The critical texts tend all to be university or trade volumes and have that homogenous feel I ascribe to Barnes & Noble or Borders (tho, in fact, neither carries nearly enough critical texts). I have a plan to move the Harvard Business Reviews – about a decade’s worth – down to a rolling wire bookcase in the study. I don’t refer to them that often, but every once in awhile it’s important to track down something Michael Porter or Clayton Christiansen wrote. That will make room for the next generation of critical texts, so that the final volumes of the Benjamin Collected don’t need to be stacked atop the cases.

 



Sunday, October 17, 2004

 

Then, every once in a while, somebody really seems to get it. Really get it. And one feels read.

This is the best review I have received in years. Thank you, Magdalena Zurawski!

 

 

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Somebody this week will be this blog’s 200,000th visitor. I can’t believe it either. If it should happen to be you, let me know – it’s even better if you can send a “print screen”  of the number on the page – and I’ll send you a prize.



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