Friday, November 12, 2004
Another variant of micropublishing is the self-published chapbook intended solely to be distributed for free to friends. I’ve written in this blog before of the beautiful chaps done by David Gitin in Monterey & Jim McCrary in Kansas has likewise been doing such books for years, some with color covers & stitched binding, others simply saddle-stapled. There was a time when one needed a photocopy shop to produce such work, but nowadays even a halfway decent inkjet printer could put you in the poetry-as-potlatch business.
When I was in San Francisco, Tinker Greene, whom I hadn’t seen in years, handed me a copy of Man Going to His Doom: A Book of Pictures, which the verso notes was printed “on his computer in a flexible edition” in 2003. Tinker & I were roommates for awhile, over a quarter of a century ago. In those days, he was as much a translator as a poet, someone heavily influenced by surrealism & certain sides of the New York School. And indeed, he thanks Ron Padgett and “especially, Blaise Cendrars” among those poets “whose poems . . . influenced mine.” Yet Greene also thanks others, fellow travelers perhaps, but figuring a broader aesthetic than I’d noted back in the 1970s: Anselm Hollo, Joanne Kyger, Diane DiPrima and Bill Corbett.
What Greene didn’t like – felt was silly, perhaps, possibly even debasing to the fundamental act of writing for the sake of self-knowledge – was the hustle associated with putting oneself forward enough to publish. Being the peripatetic sort myself, I sometimes sensed a comradely disapproval on Greene’s part, a modest scrunching of the brow, at some of my own activities. Self-publishing is the perfect venue for someone who feels this way. &, if I look at it dispassionately, it’s as legitimate a path for the written art as any.
Illustrated on its cover with a drawing of a Day-of-the-Dead type skeleton in a black shroud, Man Going to His Doom is not the depressing work it might at first sound like, although this is poetry that is dealing with more than a few deaths – Greene’s brother, his son, poets, musicians, “a poodle / in heedless traffic.” That’s a heavy body count for a book printed on just four sheets of paper, a dozen poems (one of which, “What I Remember About 2002,” is a sequence of nine shorter works), a concentration of time – the poems are dated over a 15 month period – with a heavy emotional toll.
But the Tinker Greene of the 21st century isn’t a retro-surrealist of the 1970s – these are more depictive, even narrative poems, showing more visibly the influences of Hollo, Kyger & Corbett than Cendrars. If anything, they remind me somewhat of another favorite poet of mine, Jack Collom. Here is the fifth piece from “What I Remember About 2002,” one of the longest in the book, a poem that strikes me as being perfectly written:
We dedicated a memorial grove in Big Basin Redwoods
State Park in 2002 to honor Billy
my son, who was killed in 2001.
It’s an unofficial spot. I can give you a map
if you’d like to go there. At various times
throughout the summer one or the other of us will
hike out there to water the seedlings we planted to hold Billy’s soul.
You drive south along the overcast coast
about an hour from San Francisco, park
at Waddell Beach, spend another hour walking in.
On weekday’s there’s hardly anyone there. The occasional
trail bike might rattle past. All summer it is gray
and slightly muggy, and you are alone with your thoughts,
your breathing. On one
such pilgrimage, with exquisite
gradualness, a sound of
unintelligible raving and shouting somewhere
ahead came into my consciousness as if
arising from deep in my brain. Up the trail
a couple of miles from the road I came to
a cluster of fundamentalist evangelists
standing in a circle with bowed heads
holding hands, speaking in tongues.
I’m not going to tell you how to contact Tinker Greene, since it’s not self-evident that he wants to be sending these poems out to dozens or hundreds of people. But this is an excellent, gentle, nuanced book & if you know the man, you should hit him up for a copy. It’s well worth the effort.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
Micropublishing books has a long & honorable place in the literature of poetry. Editions with small runs & often small editions with small runs, never with a thought toward commercial venues of distribution, have always been a good way to publish work that has a specific audience in mind. As the roll of the chapbook in poetry has come to demonstrate, it can be the heart of the genre itself.
Micropublishing magazines is a trickier proposition. I’ve written positively more than once here about Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Chaplets, chapbooks really, printed upon a single piece of paper, folded into a pocket brochure format & sent hither to readers. A somewhat similar project is Primary Writing, co-edited by Phyllis Rosenzweig & Diane Ward – two poets whose work & aesthetic sense I like enormously – from Rosenzweig’s address in Washington, DC. To date, there have been 34 issues of Primary Writing, some as small as a postcard, the most recent flowing into the wild expanses of a second sheet of paper. Unlike Pollet’s venture, which mimes the chapbook, Primary Writing stresses the periodical nature of the publication, foregrounding – it’s the largest graphic detail – the month of publication. Both, however, typically feature one poet per number. If I favor Pollet’s design, it’s because I’d rather give my attention to the poet – in this instance Norma Cole – than to the month of October.
I’m especially pleased to see this issue, a series of ten poems, the first new work of hers that I’ve seen since Cole suffered a major stroke last year. She looked frail, but well on the way to a complete recovery, when I saw her in San Francisco last month.
I decide, reading these pieces, to set aside what I know about Norma, her writing, her education, her influences, her health, her work as a translator. But the very nature of these poems insists that we bring in data & impressions from the outer world, and it’s never easy to know where an appropriate limit might be. Take the first poem.
but the body is soft
“We write in sand”
nak ta ancestors
How much, for example, are we to hear the rest of the 17th century poet’s words:
"Poets that lasting Marble seek
Must carve in Latine or in Greek,
We write in Sand, our Language grows,
And like the Tide our work o'erflows."
Are we supposed to recognize the Khmer word for ancestor (literally “person grandfather”) in the next line? This works because the couplet that ends the poem addresses this question directly, suggesting (without, as I read it, really prescribing) an answer.
The parsimony principle – reading the text so that it makes the most sense possible – can be a terrible thing, precisely because it induces the reader to bring to the table “everything.” Yet in a text like this, that would suggest a reading layered not by inference or allusion, but rather by reading community. Here we have at least three possible variables that I can see – people who do (do not) get the Waller reference, those who do (do not) get the Cambodian connection & finally those who might (might not) carry this text back to the biography of the poet. There are at least eight different combinations of these variables possible, with god knows how many individual alternatives I’ve not even imagined.
Still, the poem works. That seems to me unquestionable. There is a sequence of cognitive schema that stretches out over body, soft, sand & in play that is always going to work, almost regardless of the inferential architecture we bring to the text. There is a tone here also that serves to cast an aura of unity upon these words.
The same general dynamics hold for all ten of these texts. If I read them as a series about recovering from the terrible linguistic isolation said to result from strokes, and that the allusions, early in the sequence, to the history of Kampuchea construct an allegory of illness & recovery on a broader scale, it’s because of what I bring to the text. Yet I suspect that this text would remain just as powerful if I had none of that information & read it instead as an existential text on the isolation of the subject.
This is some of the tightest & most powerful poetry Cole has yet written. I don’t know how many people get Primary Writing, so I don’t know just how many readers this series will have. It deserves to have a lot. You can subscribe by sending a $10 check made out to Phyllis Rosenzweig & send it to Rosenzweig at 2009 Belmont Rd NW, #203, Washington, DC 20009. Tell them you’d like to start with number 34.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
It was Rachel Blau DuPlessis at the Zukofsky Centennial who reminded me of the profoundly political nature of resentment – that this was what one often saw rising up out of the classic texts of A Test of Poetry. Resentment, anger, bitterness, three facets of a diamond that burns white hot at the center of certain personalities. Something that transcends & always predates whatever the immediate trigger, locatable no doubt deep in personal history, sometimes so deep its true sources might never be extracted. If used properly, this burning diamond might shine like a beacon, a lighthouse beam through the fog of the daily oblivion, calling out the like-minded, anyone with a grudge to bear.
It was always apparent to whoever read closely that Edward Dorn was such a person – there was something that cut deep & did not stop cutting. So many of even his lightest lyrics appear to have written through gritted teeth. And “light” is a term one uses cautiously when approaching the work of Ed Dorn:
In the State oyster
all particles foreign in it
surrounded by a grey mucous –
graveyards are filled with
the rotting pearls
that have been within its shell
those of heaven & hell
cremated or lost at sea
This first stanza of “An Address to the First Woman to Face Death in Havana (Olga Herrera Marcos)” appears in facsimile of its original typescript in the Chicago Review Edward Dorn American Heretic issue midway through a reprint of his correspondence from the very early 1960s primarily with Tom Raworth & LeRoi Jones. It is worth noting that Dorn may well have been the first poet to have noticed & recorded the murderous underbelly of Fidel’s liberation of Cuba from Batista’s even more corrupt regime.
Dorn was a man with some self-knowledge – his comment that “From near the beginning I have known my work to be theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of inherent tone” is accurate, figuring the work’s blind spots as well as its strengths. Slinger divided the younger poets who were just then glomming on to Projectivist poetics precisely because that’s what Dorn wanted – it was a work at once both within its heritage & in the same moment one that rent asunder whatever temple Olson had thought himself building. Can you write serious philosophy in the mode of a comic book narrative within the framework of the American longpoem, with its ever so self-important tone (at least as set out by Pound & Olson, tho here I think Dorn’s assault misses Olson’s own humor, the degree to which Max is also déjà toujours the absent-minded professor)?
Dorn’s later battles, most notably siding with Tom Clark against the folks at Naropa in his own final home town, isolated him from large portions of the post-avant community. All of the later books, including Yellow Lola, High West Rendezvous, Chemo Sabe & Captain Jack’s Chaps, or Houston/MLA appeared in small editions, none above 500 copies, most of them just half that. The manifest racism & homophobia that accompanied the Naropa poetry wars were appalling & left a bad taste that lingers to this day, yet I think that Dorn’s role in all that was not entirely unlike his own stance years earlier when the likes of LeRoi Jones & Meg Randall were first becoming so smitten with varying modes of communist revolution, simply to ask if this is so great, why does it have execution squads?
So American Heretic captures at least one side of this anger – tho anger was not all of Dorn & a good part of what this extraordinary compilation of documents presents are the other facets of this diamond: 75 pages of correspondence, memoirs by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, Alistair Johnston & John Wright, essays by Dale Smith & Keith Tuma, a 48-page interview of Dorn reprinted from a 1993 issue of Chicago Review & a selection of the later poems, especially those from Chemo Sabe, composed during Dorn’s final battle with pancreatic cancer. The volume is generously illustrated & the copy I got even has a color postcard photo of Dorn with ever-present cigarette to pursed lips. Because so much of Dorn’s late work is hard to get – according to abebooks.com, the only available copy of High West Rendezvous costs $200 – Tuma’s overview of it is especially valuable, at least until a truly complete edition replaces the Collected that appeared 25 years before Dorn’s demise.
I had only one serious interchange with Dorn, back in 1973. I had been charged with putting together a poetry reading as a fundraiser for a prison movement group that I was working with in Marin County, so I wrote letters to Dorn, Bob Creeley & Joanne Kyger, the combination I thought would draw the largest possible audience to the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco. I’d never put on a reading before of any kind, so was obviously in over my head even if I was, just as obviously, starting at the top. Creeley & Kyger said yes instantly, but Dorn wanted me to come by & talk, to explain to him in detail what I was doing with this group, what the group – the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ) – was up to, & what he might be endorsing by thus participating. So I hitchhiked home from San Rafael one afternoon & then caught a Muni out to where Dorn was living in San Francisco’s Sunset District. He asked probing questions at length before saying yes & had one “non-negotiable” demand – that he be allowed to read last so that he wouldn’t have to talk with either Creeley or Kyger. Tho the demand struck me at the time as creepy to the Nth degree, I accepted it in order to get the lineup I wanted. At the time, I’d had no idea of his intense feuds with so many other poets. Before I left, Dorn wanted to seal the deal by rolling a doobie the size of small – oh maybe not so small – baseball bat. I remember later having to work very hard indeed just to remember where I lived as I rode the bus back on some complicated route from the Sunset to the flat I shared in Pacific Heights. At the event itself, on August 31, Dorn arrived as advertised, late, and lingered pacing in the back of the large sanctuary (Creeley & Kyger were seated up front), as if examining the crowd of 400 who turned out. When it was his turn, he came up & read from a then-new & still unpublished work, Recollections of Gran Apachería. Someone (not me) had the wits to record the event & an excerpt of Dorn’s reading later appeared on John Giorno’s selection of Dial-a-Poem poets: Disconnected, available for listening & downloading now via Ubu Web.* Five poems, not in the order of the finished book that came out a year later, printed on “comic book” stock with a cartoon cover by Michael Myers, nor, for that matter, entirely as printed (lines & phrases were added, it would seem, none subtracted)
Dorn would have made a great blogger – his journalistic impulses, first with Bean News & Zephyrus Image, later with Rolling Stock, anticipate the form. And certainly blogging’s a mode well suited to someone whose instinct is to stir the shit. Indeed, when I opened up my copy of Gran Apachería, out dropped an old Ed Dorn bumper sticker: “RECREATION / wrecks the nation.” Who else might have thought to do that?
* This record, originally a vinyl LP, also contains one of Creeley’s poems from the same event, as well as a treasure trove of other poets of that time.
Monday, November 08, 2004
When I wrote last Thursday that the New York School was still evolving, I was thinking not only of Ron Padgett’s lovely new memoir of Joe Brainard, but also Ruth Altmann’s first book of poems, across the big map, fresh out from United Artists. It might seem odd to characterize someone’s first book in 2004 as an instance of the New York School, but just listen:
Seventeen Things I Touched Today
Soap, my wet soapy body all over.
Steel wool, an iron frying pan,
cool coins, green paper money,
rough and torn from use, the radio,
potato chips in clear cellophane,
a glazed pottery mug of hot coffee,
the round glossy hard typewriter keys,
sheets of smooth white typewriter bond,
a paperweight, a Block Island stone
a child painted a face on, a telephone,
the black serifed typeface of Jimmy Schuyler’s
The Morning of the Poem, the poems, a friend’s
anger, rain on my face and in my eyes,
your hands hair lips velvety eyelids.
A list poem. One can almost imagine this as an exercise in a workshop at the Poetry Project & very possibly it was. Yet it also is something entirely different from a mere imitation of a given form, for Altmann has a sense of detail that is infinitely specific, a great sense of balance when it comes to varying the focus of referential attention – consider that sequence of money moving from the general to the specific, then out to the general again with “the radio” – one can in fact construct a narrative out of this sonnet easily enough, from the poet showering at dawn of day through to an assignation, leaving the reader right at the height of desire. Altmann may have appropriated the form alright, but there is nothing about this piece that is a mere copy.
I pointed out to Kasey Mohammad in my response to his comment re the Brainard review on Thursday that a form like this is really the horizontal axis of language – to borrow Jakobson’s orientation for a moment – putting all of the writing on the vertical axis, the selection of words, phrases, etc. Yet Altman also shows here how important the dexterity of combination can be in making this work. So, yes, the mode here is the horizontal axis at one level, yet in addition to her absolute deftness with the vertical, Altmann is demonstrating a second superimposed horizontal axis. Is one of them the image, the other the ghost? It’s an interesting problem and suggests some limitation about Jakobson’s model I’d not noticed before.
This is the first poem of across the big map. The very last piece in the book, “Things I Miss,” returns to this same complex of writing dynamics. The mode of the poem superficially replicates Brainard’s I Remember, but with more emphasis on absence (one could argue that Brainard’s work is also about absence, albeit more obliquely). The work of course is much shorter, just six pages and its individual strophes / lines / paragraphs are generally longer – Altmann, whose memory goes back quite a bit further than Brainard’s, lets you know why she misses X, a list that includes more than one body part.
There is, here as in “Seventeen Things,” a balance in the poem that articulates its own integrity & which is distinct from any of the original NY Poets – there is a sense of propriety, if you can imagine such a thing in a book that includes detailed pieces on one’s mother’s attitudes toward fucking (both word & act) as well as a memoir, for want of a better word, of Altmann’s longtime addiction to speed. It’s all in how she sees things, how images & phrases are organized – think of that sequence in the poem above from potato chips to paper, it’s priceless in its exactness. If anything, it reminds me of the precision in the work of Charles Reznikoff & its sense of that is – in relation to the NY School – not unlike Rezi’s compared with the other Objectivists.
The result is that this book doesn’t across like imitation New York School work at all. Rather, it would fit perfectly well right alongside any of the early books that were coming out in the 1950s, bringing an erudition & worldliness to the collective project that one finds only in Edwin Denby or perhaps NYS antecedent David Schubert. And there are works here also that exist at some great distance from traditional NYS tactics – a rhymed poem on the death of Garbo &, the most fabulous works of the entire volume, a series of letters to teachers as intimate and spooky as any Jack Spicer ever wrote to Lorca, save that these are addressed to Robert Penn Warren, Alan Tate, John Devlin & Lewis Warsh (this last being the speed memoir). The pieces to Warren & Tate are worth the price of the book itself.
across the big map is easily the best first book I’ve read all year. This is one of those volumes that makes you wonder why you haven’t known these poems & this poet all your life. Now that you’ve read them, Altmann will seem as much a part of the landscape as Mount Rushmore. And to seal the deal, she has the flat-out sexiest come-hither author photo on the cover of any book since Chris Tysh’s Pornē. But did I mention that Ruth Altmann was born in 1920?