Friday, October 29, 2004
How do I decide what’s right for me?
As quickly as possible, with as little thought into the decision as I can humanly muster. It’s better, for me at least, to feel it rather than to think it. One of the major reasons that I work in notebooks the way I do is that the process of using ink & pen in a bound volume minimizes the opportunities to scroll around & contemplate larger structures. From my perspective, the most important moment in a prose poem is that which occurs between the period of one sentence & the capital letter than initiates the next. No two blank spaces are alike & there are moments when I think of the sentences primarily as a way of setting those spaces up & as if it were the spaces that were the true strokes of the painting. I can, when I am really in the zone, when I’m writing & sometimes when I’m in a reading as well, literally hear those spaces just as I do the softer ones between words, let alone the half-hidden ones you can find within words if you just listen closely. Silence is so much a part of noise yet we so seldom give it heed.
I am very much a sound driven writer. Ketjak, my first really serious work, was above all else an argument with Gertrude Stein over the sweetness of her tones. I wanted to pump her texts full of insulin, bring down the ding-dong quality, secularize those consonants, deflate the vowels. And it’s not because I don’t love her writing.
Sound is very much a liquid. We’re immersed in it, bathed in its waves. Even if you’re in an anechoic chamber – and I’ve been in a few of them lately – it’s never silent. One’s body hums right along, synapses chime, the clatter of bloodflow is as loud as the subway. Yet that is the closest I will ever get to “pure” silence. I’ve approached it only once in the real world, so-called, on a cold February morning in 1978 near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. It’s like trying to see the night sky without the light pollution of cities – you have to go a long way to do it.
So if I say I go with the flow in deciding what’s right for me, I’m not being facetious exactly. Rather the only way to get to those spaces I’m after, literally the blank spaces, is to move very quickly. When I sit down with a notebook if I start to slow down, I know it’s over, the sitting is done. It was Steve Benson who first made me conscious of the sitting as a unit of writing, possibly he got that from Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Articulating that space is really what Paradise is all “about.” One sitting, one paragraph. That’s even the meaning of its title.
When I work with larger structures, what they really are, at least when they work, are territories in which I can get to these spaces, these moments. I bring in larger thematic elements as much because they’re pleasurable & because I’m an obsessive thinker, my wife complains that I’m never “off.” It’s almost as if I build a playground and I can spend an enormous amount of time thinking through possible forms before I begin writing. But I know very quickly whether or not it’s working. And if it’s not, I can discard it.
But if one’s life is one writing – and I really think it is – then the evolution, articulation of that writing has to be capable of incorporating change, growth, even contradiction. Not every form can do that. Living one’s life by 30-line poems perfectly designed for writing contests isn’t a way of approaching that unless one operates by a very specific discipline.
I’m right now in the earliest stages of Universe. I have a dozen or so pages of Revelator, a hundred or so other sentences on my Palm Pilot that eventually will be deployed in another work, a couple of short pieces that are part of a third one – these latter two have no names as yet, it’s too early, I’m not even sure what the form is for one of them. Originally I’d contemplated Revelator as part of a quartet – one way of approaching Universe might be to think of it as 90 such quartets – and yet I’ve begun to realize that there are other possibilities of relation that might be articulated across a 360-part structure envisioned as a single turn, and I’m beginning to wonder how Revelator might be able to bring those potentialities up to the fore. Yet when I’m writing in my notebook, all I’m ever writing is this word, that word, this.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
It’s another question from Mark Tursi!
So, how do you decide what’s right for you? And, I don’t mean to be glib – I’m thinking about what Jack Spicer says about not getting in the way of the poem and the poem as dictation, and how this connects to what you think about the origin of a poem. He says this in a variety of ways:
“That essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring—because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem” (7).
“I do think that if you keep your ideas closed and your mind open, you have a better chance by and large (i.e. of creating a good poem)” (18).
“The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us – not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is – but not in relation to the single poem. There is really no single poem” (61).¹
Basically, it seems to me, Spicer suggests ‘getting out of the way’ of the poem so the ‘Outside’ (whatever that may be) can dictate the poem to you (or through you). And, the last quotation I use here involving Duncan seems particularly close to your work. Does Spicer’s idea (via Duncan) about letting the writing explore its own path conflict with your ideas about the origins and process of a poem, or is it consistent in some ways? And, I’d like to try and connect it to my original question about “what is right for you.” That is, how is “what seems right” as a way of proceeding linked to where the poem comes from?
And, finally, I see a link between these ideas emerging from Spicer and something you said in a previous interview: “I consider what I write to be prose poems but not fiction, partly for formal reasons and partly because I’m not interested in ‘making things up.’”² That is, if the poem isn’t made up, where is it coming from?
At first blush, these strike me as being two separate questions, perhaps more, that swirl like a rather ethereal Venn diagram around a particular territory. The territory includes – but is probably not limited to – the relationship of any given poem to poetry. But if that is the horizontal axis of this question, the vertical is the relationship of the poem (or of poetry) to the person who is the poet. You don’t mention it, but of course there are ancillary issues about these relationships to and among readers, listeners, anyone who has a relationship to the poem but who did not him or herself write the damn thing.
But let’s just stick with what we’ve got in front of us. The word poet comes of course from the Greek word for “to make,” but there is a radical difference between making and “making things up.” What I’m NOT interested in is a fictive realm, one that posits all of the writer’s creativity along some referential dimension & which treats all of the other five functions of language (addressor/addressee, contact/code, signifier) as though they were transparent or unimportant. A literature that does not understand the implications of that kind of anesthesia is of no interest to me.
I would agree with Duncan – I do agree with him – that there is “really no single poem.” I usually state this as “I’m interested in poetry much more than I am in poems.” Now there obviously are great poets, really great poets, who work exclusively (or almost so) in the short poem form, so just as obviously there is something there that is, in their work, what we could call a “poem.” Robert Creeley & Rae Armantrout are the two examples that come most immediately to mind, or maybe Graham Foust. I see that sort of writing as highlighting specific aspects of a much larger process and that light – think of the prison tower’s klieg light as a visual analog – is what I see the individual poem as. This is very different – antithetical – from the sort of writing that just assumes that there are (or might be) boundaries and that one can fill a space with so much language & call it a poem.
My own bias is of course for those writings, from Melville or maybe even The Prelude to the work of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, that take on all six of the functions of language, and which do so on a scale that suggests a major life commitment. Yet I would still list Armantrout, Creeley & Foust among my dozen or so most favorite poets, even as I read them as specific instances in which something like The Cantos or “A” is the norm.
To return for a moment to Spicer’s terminology, which is one way among many to discuss these kinds of issues, the poet is a “counterpunching radio” principally to the degree that he or she is capable of counterpunching. The writer has to be open to anything coming into the poem – which is one reason I suspect that all of my poems, even those with the most predetermined exoskeletal structures, have always surprised me, taken me to places I had not anticipated when I began the writing (why, for example, the first poem in Universe insisted on being called Revelator, rather than Witness as I had planned). Call it negative capability or listening for the Martians, whatever. Nothing will cause the poem to go dead faster than setting out to write “about” X, something that gets proven over & over.
What I look for in the poem, any poem, mine or others, is that engagement with all of what Jakobson calls the six functions of language, not just sound (which lies on the contact/code axis) nor story (the life of the signified). Think of how in his very best work (Language, Book of Magazine Verse) individual lines in the poetry of Jack Spicer function almost as a kind of shrapnel, not as parts of discourse or argument. Thus, for example, “They will never know what hit them,” a sentence that takes up the latter half of the third line of “Smoke signals / Like in the Eskimo Village” in the Thing Language section of Language – which, as we are told point blank is “a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy” – returns at the very end of “Transformations II” in Transformations : “The Trojans / Having no idea of true or false syntax and having no recorded language / Never knew what hit them.” What then is the content, let alone the origin, of such a phrase? The capriciousness of fate? The horror of history? Where is, in such a target rich environment, the Outside?
Tomorrow I’ll address that initial question: how do I decide what’s right for me?
¹ All these quotations are taken from The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi. The lectures were presented over several months in 1965.
² Gregory, Sinda. “A 1982 Interview with Ron Silliman.” Modern American Poetry.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
My first thought when reading K. Silem Mohammad’s “A Language Poetry Dossier” was that Kasey had, a la some Mark Peters’ projects, run the phrase “language poetry” through Googlism & used that as the basis for constructing the later sections of his piece. But when I attempted to replicate the experiment, or what I thought was the experiment, the results of which follow this preface, it instantly became clear to me that Kasey’s piece is far deeper, more methodical, funnier & more sinister than that program can achieve. Yet doesn’t that first sentence in this list show up verbatim in Kasey’s text? (It is taken in its entirety from Eleana Kim’s “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Making of a Movement” in Gary Sullivan’s ezine, Read Me) Doesn’t the second? Doesn’t the third? That fourth item is of greater interest to me if I think of “q” as “Q,” the recurring character on Star Trek modeled after Milton’s Satan.
Ultimately, my itchiness over all this really has to do with my own discomfort at statements of agency ascribed to any abstraction or group noun. I cringe when W tells us what terrorists or “evil doers” or even “old Europe” are thinking & I cringe at any other assertion that “Group noun is X,” regardless of what Group noun or X might be. In the truest sense, every single sentence in Kasey’s text is wrong. Simply & completely wrong. Yet a number of them are, in the same moment, in some sense, often qualified or partial, also true – that is what is so creepy.
Then I realized that what Kasey had done wasn’t Googlism, but Google itself, searching the phrase “Language poetry is.” That yields some 524 hits, notably better than Googlism’s 51, and closer to the number of sentences that actually occur in Kasey’s work. And isn’t Google what Mark Peters did also, now that I think of it?
Then I thought to myself – why is Kasey focusing on a phrase that is over a quarter of a century old? What is this obsession with those of us “of a certain age?” So I try it with “New Brutalism is” & it’s true, I get only 32 hits, two of which also come from Kasey’s site, but none better than another ascribed to, of all people, Rob Lowe: New Brutalism is like chewing aluminum foil.
Which brings me back to my old feeling that anti-group behavior has never served any younger poet well. It’s not simply that this retro-rugged individualism is a part of the (literal) anti-commun(ism) that accompanied the rejection of the left after the 1970s (tho that’s a side of it also). You just can’t discuss what you can’t name, regardless of how much you may brutalize a concept like langpo in the process. And if you can’t talk about it, does it even exist?
Googlism: language poetry
language poetry is constructed as a niche market
language poetry is seen as political act in the deepest sense
language poetry is futile without publicity
language poetry is q
language poetry is about going beyond the boundaries “traditional / conventional" language usage places on notions of meaning
language poetry is a movement of convincing authority in contemporary poetics
language poetry is concerned
language poetry is its meticulous
language poetry is one in which there is a number of established poets operating in diverse ways
language poetry is held out to be one of the poetic modes of the present moment
language poetry is indicated in the only epigraph in the book
language poetry is also often seen as elitist because it never dealt adequately with issues of race
language poetry is all about the sound of the words together
language poetry is a cryptic and highly theoretical literary form grounded in philosophical discourse
language poetry is to meet some actual examples of it
language poetry is relatively recent
language poetry is academy
language poetry is not "literature
language poetry is vibrant
language poetry is highly structured
language poetry is said to be at the intersection of literature and graphic design
language poetry is in its heyday
language poetry is highly personal
language poetry is his attentiveness to the texts
language poetry is wordplay
language poetry is iambic pentameter
language poetry is
language poetry is something of an artistic dead end
language poetry is also provided
language poetry is a way of expression open to anyone who chooses to use it
language poetry is twenty years
language poetry is heir to
language poetry is essentially no different from any other formal poetry
language poetry is in for one helluva ride
language poetry is its sophistication
language poetry is written in iambic pentameters
language poetry is correlative to no object
language poetry is undoubtedly the most self
language poetry is shit or that it is the shit – and no doubt that will be educational and maybe even fun sometimes
language poetry is diverse
language poetry is always the one you can feel more intensively
language poetry is tae hae its first owersettin intae chinese
language poetry is autobiographical at its fundament
language poetry is no harder to "get" than cubism; the other weird thing is that it's lasted as long as it has without the support of
language poetry is in 839
language poetry is normally recited
language poetry is influenced by theory
language poetry is ordered by production rather than reproduction
language poetry is much more philosophically
language poetry is here evoked
language poetry is often
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
An idyllic tale of a young man’s search for himself & the need for peasant-led communist revolution is so not 2004, particularly out in aptly named King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, that I wanted to check the year feature on my watch by the time I left Motorcycle Diaries. It’s a sweet little road movie, visually breath-taking, a kinder, gentler Easy Rider, albeit one that sees the harshness of the lives of the people whose land the protagonists ride (or, more often, push) their ancient Norton 500 through . . . at least until they sell it for scrap & take to traveling by foot, by thumb & by raft.
Maybe it’s because Walter Salles’ previous motion picture, Central Station, was a minor cross-over hit, or because Gael García Bernal starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien, much more than a minor crossover success, as well as Amores Perros, or perhaps it’s because Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, Motorcycle Diaries’ protagonist, evolved “in real life” from the wide-eyed asthmatic med student of this film into “Che,” itinerant revolutionary & ultimate t-shirt icon, but somebody has an idea that this movie is going to do fairly well here north of the border. Maybe.
Films like this – and this is a good one, well executed – operate through the elaboration & extension of genre clichés that everyone in the audience always already knows – there are some scenes in the tougher physical climes of the Andes in which one swears that one is watching Frodo & Sam on one more climb, one more trek through the snow, the motorcycle itself turning into an ever heavier ring. At other moments in the film, tho, the ring’s role is played by $15 in U.S. currency Che has been given by his rich girlfriend on the off chance that this 8,000 mile trek through South America should lead them to the United States & the possibility of fashionable swimwear.
Rodrigo de la Serna’s Alberto is more Falstaff than Sam to Che’s Frodo, however, which creates something of an odd arc for the narrative as the quest for booty turns, once our lads have gotten into Peru & especially once they’ve arrived to do a three-week internship at a leper colony high in the Amazon, into a quest for social justice. Salles uses the region’s stunning beauty to soften what are really agitprop appearances of coal miners & communists & campesinos thrown off their land in the name of “progress.” This Frodo, it is worth noting, gives the ring – or at least the $15 – to the communists.
The film’s third act, the internship at the leper colony – real Hansen’s patients appear to have been used as actors here – is itself a set piece, complete with a nun in the role of Nurse Ratchet (or maybe Nurse Ratchet-lite – her worst punishment is to withhold meals to those who fail to attend mass). The patients are kept on one side of the river, literally, while the doctors & staff live on the other – the Amazon is no mere stream. The film’s climax comes on Che’s 24th birthday, which he celebrates by giving a political speech in the form of a toast to the doctors & staff (and it is to Salles’ credit that he makes it quite clear by the reaction shots of the colony’s staff that only Alberto has any clue what Che is actually saying), followed by a swim across the river to the colony itself, a lengthy & treacherous venture made no easier by Guevara’s asthmatic wheezing.
Perhaps the very best part of this movie – beyond the dramatic uses of scenery – are the little touches that Salles & García Bernal give to Che. When a leading expert in leprosy – Guevara’s prospective specialization in med school – hands him a book manuscript to read, Che tells his benefactor that it’s cliché ridden & badly done. This bluntness is both a virtue & a curse.
Guevara’s sense of propriety & lack of ease with himself (he's in denial over the severity of his ashtma attacks, he can’t dance, he can’t get his rich girlfriend to go beyond the simplest backseat fondling in the family car & he certainly won't lie just to be polite) just barely covers a rigid side – one that Alberto likes to tease & prod – that the audience knows will combine later with his idealism & anger in ways that are at once “liberating” & more than a little toxic. Are we intended to catch the irony when Che tells the doctor to “stick to what you know best?” The film doesn’t answer that, exactly, but Salles wants us to know that this question didn’t go unasked.
Monday, October 25, 2004
Okay, so where Goest Cole Swensen, exactly? Her book of that title itself presents a text in three sections, the first & last of which form short brackets (Of White and On White, respectively) around a longer sequence entitled A History of the Incandescent. At one level is this a long or serial poem, at another an exceptionally well thought out sequence of independent works. There is a sequence in Of White – “Five Landscapes” – that has an exact parallel in On White. Likewise balanced is a work entitled “The Future of Sculpture” in Of White, largely taken from the words of Cy Twombly, and a work entitled “The Future of White” in On White, likewise derived from Twombly.
The middle & longest section of this book is a sequence of 20 poems, virtually all of which have to do with first things. “The Invention of . . .” appears in eight of the titles. Other titles include “The First Lightbulb, “ “The History of Artificial Ice,” “The Origin of Ombres Chinoises,” “Things to Do with Naptha,” “The Lives of Saltpeter,” etc. A second way to look at this sequence is to focus on what precisely is being invented, discovered, evolved, or whatever: in addition to those already mentioned, we find streetlights, the hydrometer, the mirror, the weathervane, automata, Bologna Stone, etched, engraved & incised glass, the pencil and natural gas. How does one suggest ethereal? Evanescent? There is, in fact, a version of this book to be written within the framework of a history of the sublime – the sort of thing someone like Rob Wilson might write. And that is, I suspect, not too far from what Swensen herself is pursuing here – this is the kind of writing one might characterize as abstract not in the lazy sense of that word, but in the literal, almost philosophical sense that conveys out-of-traction, suggesting in the same moment a hue beyond color & a gravity that understands weightlessness not as a condition so much as a gateway & what fascinates me most about what Swensen is writing here is not this focus nearly so much as the rigor & intensity of her pursuit, which can only be described as marvelous.
Let me give an example. Here is the first poem from the series entitled “Others,” which appears in the opening section Of White:
You walk into a house
in which several people are sitting in the dark
around a dinner table, eating, drinking, laughing.
This simple text has, a careful reader will recognize instantly, a history & a context as well as several decision points, not one of which occurs casually or out of habit. The use of the second person invokes an entire tradition of “dream writing” that would include everyone from Kafka, the Russian absurdists, Max Jacob, Lydia Davis among more recent Americans & the work of Russell Edson. Swensen’s work stands up well – better than “well,” actually – alongside these other works. This is due largely, I think, to two decisions that occur in the final line – the first to omit the “and” from the list of actions, the second to include the period to a work in which it might not otherwise appear necessary.
Omitting the “and” destabilizes the list’s sense of completeness. It also gives the third line a sense of claustrophobia (through condensation, the ur-device of poetry) it could not otherwise have. The claustrophobia is reinforced through the presence of the period, which closes the image posed by this single sentence. Together, the two give this text a menacing air that is not visible at all through Swensen’s selection of words – unless we consider the second person itself to be “menacing” (a real possibility) – something I don’t think I’ve ever seen demonstrated so clearly before in a poem.
This degree of engaging the reader’s expectation only to undercut it is characteristic for this book. Similarly, for example, the sentence that wends river-like through the lines of the first stanza of “The Lives of Saltpeter” – “Glass made its first appearance / on the shores outside of Belus / when sailors placed blocks of saltpeter under cooking pots / causing the sand to fuse along the entire edge of the sea / ran another sea that refused to move” – sounds as if it was set up to articulate that fissure of syntax that occurs just prior to the last line until (and only until) the eye crosses over the stanza break to the first words of the second strophe –
– sounds as if it was set up to articulate that fissure of syntax that occurs just prior to the last line until (and only until) the eye crosses over the stanza break to the first words of the second strophe –
has been proved false.
– again inserting an exceptionally forceful piece of punctuation. The reader whose attention flags during these shifts will lose his or her way quickly in these poems.
Another review that needs to be written of this book is one that contrasts the seeming openness of so many of its “transparent” subjects & the closing – indeed, constricting – forms that Swensen gives to these pieces. Even the idea of a central sequence bounded on either side by parallel brackets, prelude & coda, sets this book up very much against the apparent open-endedness of the American long poem.
Swensen is completely conscious of these stresses in her work. In addition to its title, with all of its layers, the book takes for its cover image a photograph of Running Fence, the site work constructed by Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude throughout Marin & Sonoma counties in Northern California in 1976, 18 feet high by 24½ miles long. To a poet’s eye, this endless “sheet on a clothesline” is nothing other than the line – including of course the line of the poem – made palpable & manifest. But to enter into it meant nothing less than taking a ride in the country, something a bit alien to lots of art lovers in that disco-defined decade. In some sense, the book behind this cover does something very similar, but reversing these exact dimensions – where Christo’s fence made closed form infinitely indeterminate (it ended only when it went, literally, into the ocean), Swensen wants to show us how the form of the poem seems able to close off the infinite power of light itself. The result is a book that is an immensely powerful experience.
Sunday, October 24, 2004
Potential World Series Piece
I told Ron Silliman yesterday that I’d be writing a piece about the 2004 World Series, so I guess I should start one. Mirabelli just doubled off the Green Wall. Ron and I have been talking about the efficacy of using names in poetry, as I frequently do in my own; he warned me that such historical referents as I’ve used (for example, Pedro Martinez) have the risk of getting “stale” some years later; he cited as an example Kato Kaelin, with which of course it was hard to disagree. I countered, however, with Charles Olson’s interesting poem “Place; and Names,” his transcribed reading of which in Muthologos, Volume One (at a panel discussion in Vancouver in 1963 with Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Philip Whalen) I find persuasive. Ron then allowed as how he, too, had used, in his long poem The Alphabet, not only actual names, but the names of obscure baseball players like John Montefusco and Will Clark. (Readers who, at this point in the narrative, experience an obscure allusion to “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges can’t be faulted). After giving up three runs in the bottom of the third, making the score 7-2 Red Sox, the Cardinals have loaded the bases with nobody out and the count is three and two to Mike Metheney . . . wait, wait, Tim Wakefield “lost it in a hurry” and the score is now 7-5. This might be the time to bring up the question of what, exactly, “Who’s Your Daddy?” means; I have yet to understand its peculiar efficacy. When Pedro Martinez said, the other day, “Just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy,” it seemed clear he was issuing a criticism of his own masculinity. But when men – who might be making love to women at the time – ask this question, do they really mean to suggest that they want to be these women’s daddies? Probably they just want to be thought of as having power, so long associated with patriarchy. CBS News, meanwhile, has been running a horrific story about the electoral possibility of California overturning its medieval “three strikes” law by showing tearful videotape of the victims of eleven-year-old crimes that led to it; their governor, too, seems to be in favor of retaining this law. CBS follows this with another horrific story about Margaret Hassan, the valiant Irish-Iraqi woman who was recently kidnapped in Iraq and who, like several other formerly human beings, has been threatened with having her head cut off. “Remember that guy . . . the guy they used to call ‘Wild Thing’?” “Yeah, Mitch Williams.” Actually, the most encouraging piece of official video I’ve witnessed lately was a recent interview of Fran Lebowitzby Chris Matthews on Hardball; Ms. Lebowitz asserted that the world has been going backwards, and that the existence of such words as “beheadings” on the Evening News and the blurring of the boundaries between church and state were its symptoms. “Who’s Your Pápi?” Edgar . . . Renteria! (He didn’t do anything journalistic yet, I just needed to fill that line). “He . . . went; it’s a two-two count.” And then he DOUBLES! MAJESTICALLY! (Sticklers for historical accuracy can repeat that line in the eighth inning). I’ve discovered my allegiance in this Series is to the St. Louis Cardinals, led by animal-rights manager Tony LaRussa, whom Ron and I first got to know about when we were both living in Northern California. “That’s a fair ball; that’s going to tie the ball game!”(until the Bosox get two off Tavarez, and win Game 1).