Friday, December 10, 2004
It was twenty years ago today that I last had a drink. Not that anyone’s counting. Well, as people who know me must understand by now, I tend to count everything, so why not this? I was seeing a therapist at the time, one Charlie Vella out at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco, & he suggested stopping “while we’re meeting,” but, once halted, I never went back. Something, curiously enough, I have in common with both Howard Dean and George W.
“Better to read Jack Spicer than to be Jack Spicer” is the way I’ve explained it to more than a few people over the years. That’s a sentence that’s underscored, in my case, by the coincidence that Jack Spicer & my father died on the same day.
When I was coming up as a young poet in the 1960s, there was still a romance to the myth of the hard-living poet, who drank ravenously, did drugs constantly & certainly did not practice what was not yet known as safe sex. I remember, when first I met Paul Blackburn, seeing him rotate a quartet of substances – beer, whiskey, doobie & cigarette – constantly in motion. He was always sucking on something. As it happened, I never met Jack Spicer, precisely because alcohol killed him at the age of 40. Never met Kerouac for the same reason. Brad Gooch has detailed, accurately I think, how Frank O’Hara’s prodigious drinking made it impossible to keep him alive after he was hit by a dune buggy. Who knows what the impact of their habits might have been in the early deaths of Ted Berrigan or Charles Olson? There are at least three contributors to In the American Tree whose friends despair of ever getting clean & sober. And every poet in my age cohort recoils at the memory of how Darrell Gray destroyed himself. This is a list that, once you start drawing it up, never stops. And it always cuts close to home. I have a half-brother who is late-stage alcoholic & there’s nothing I can do to counter that.
Over the years, I’ve had a few poets – three or four – tell me that it was important to them that I talked about this. So today feels like a good time to mention it here.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
Jackson Mac Low
1922 - 2004
It’s always a shock to think of Jackson as being of the same generation as my parents. For one thing, he came to publishing late. Or more accurately, publishing came to him late. When he was 48, say, the same year both This & Tottels were getting started, Jackson had only had four books published. Even tho he’d already had a transformative effect on so many art forms, from poetry to dance to music, he was still “too far out” for most small press publishers to imagine in print. I’ve always thought of The Light Poems as a kind of translation, making what Mac Low was doing intelligible for people who couldn’t imagine it otherwise. Happily, an entire generation showed up ready to read him precisely because he taught us how.
He saw / heard / felt language with the same dispassionate objectivity that, say, Jimi Hendrix had with the guitar: you could hear it this way; these words could do this! Once you heard it his way, it was (is) impossible to go back.
About five years ago, my family & I were driving back south from Nova Scotia & had been told by James Sherry & Deb Thomas that we could stay at the Roxy, the little converted hotel they have in upstate New York. They wouldn’t be there that weekend, but they told us how to get in & told us to make ourselves at home. They then told Jackson & Anne Tardos that they could stay there that weekend. But they neglected to tell either of us about the presence of the other. When I first came up through the basement into the kitchen, a startled Anne was looking around to see if there was a butcher knife available to protect her from this invasion. We recognized one another instantly, deflecting all kinds of awful scenarios. And we then had a wonderful visit, the height of which was watching Jackson playing board games with my then-seven-year-old sons. That was one side of him I had not seen before.
We quarreled about politics occasionally, but never lost sight of the fact that our goals were almost identical & we never lost a mutual sense of affection & respect. I am, as I’ve always been, in awe at his achievements. I’m going to miss him terribly.
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
Since 1997, The New York Times has listed 57 “notable” books of poetry in its annual Books of the Year issues. Of these, 84 percent of the books came from just eight publishers. Just under half of the “notable” books, 47 percent, were published by Knopf & FSG.
Over a quarter of the “notable books” were written by just seven poets. Two poets, Anne Carson & Glynn Maxwell, have been listed three times in the past eight years. Five others (Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes & Charles Simic) have been listed twice. For what it’s worth, only Collins & Graham were both born & live in the U.S.
It’s worth noting also that these selections are not just biased by publisher. Penguin Books in recent years has brought out volumes from Alice Notely, Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen & John Yau, none of which are listed here.
Edward Hirsch listed five poetry books in his own list in The Washington Post on Sunday, two from his publisher, Knopf, one each from Schocken, Wesleyan University Press & Zoo.
For the record, of the 5,000 or so poetry books I own, less than ten come from the list below.
NY Times “Notable” Books of Poetry, 1997-2004, by Publisher
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson
MEN IN THE OFF HOURS, Anne Carson
THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, Anne Carson
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF AMY CLAMPITT, Amy Clampitt
SKIRTS AND SLACKS: Poems, W S. Di Piero
LAY BACK THE DARKNESS: Poems, Edward Hirsch
COLLECTED POEMS, Donald Justice
NEW ADDRESSES: Poems, Kenneth Koch
HAZMAT: Poems, J. D. McClatchy
COLLECTED POEMS, James Merrill
THE RIVER SOUND: Poems, W. S. Merwin
SPRINGING: New and Selected Poems, Marie Ponsot
OPEN SHUTTERS: Poems, Mary Jo Salter
BLIZZARD OF ONE: Poems, Mark Strand
Farrar, Staus & Giroux (13)
COLLECTED POEMS IN ENGLISH, Joseph Brodsky
MIDDLE EARTH, Henri Cole
OPENED GROUND: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, Seamus Heaney
ELECTRIC LIGHT, Seamus Heaney
BIRTHDAY LETTERS, Ted Hughes
SELECTED POEMS, 1957-1994, Ted Hughes
COLLECTED POEMS: 1920-1954, Eugenio Montale
POEMS 1968-1998, Paul Muldoon
LEARNING HUMAN: Selected Poems, Les Murray
JERSEY RAIN, Robert Pinsky
GOING FAST: Poems, Frederick Seidel
THE PRODIGAL, Derek Walcott
WITHOUT END: New and Selected Poems, Adam Zagajewski
SELECTED POEMS AND PROSE OF PAUL CELAN, Paul Celan
AMERICAN SMOOTH: Poems, Rita Dove
AGAINST LOVE POETRY, Eavan Boland
SELECTED POEMS, 1960-1990, Maxine Kumin
THE COLLECTED POEMS, Stanley Kunitz
THE ERRANCY: Poems, Jorie Graham
SWARM: Poems, Jorie Graham
SUN UNDER WOOD: New Poems, Robert Hass
NEW AND COLLECTED POEMS: 1931-2001, Czeslaw Milosz
SHROUD OF THE GNOMES: Poems, James Tate
Random House (4)
NINE HORSES: Poems, Billy Collins
SAILING ALONE AROUND THE ROOM: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins
A WORKING GIRL CAN'T WIN: And Other Poems, Deborah Garrison
AFTER NATURE, W. G. Sebald
Houghton Mifflin (3)
TIME'S FOOL: A Tale in Verse, Glyn Maxwell
THE NERVE, Glyn Maxwell
THE BOYS AT TWILIGHT: Poems, 1990-1995, Glyn Maxwell
AN OCTAVE ABOVE THUNDER: New and Selected Poems, Carol Muske
VAIN EMPIRES: Poems, William Logan
Harcourt Brace (2)
THE VOICE AT 3:00 A. M: Selected Late & New Poems, Charles Simic, Harcourt
JACKSTRAWS: Poems, Charles Simic, Harcourt Brace
Others (one each)
POEMS SEVEN: New and Complete Poetry, Alan Dugan, Seven Stories
TRAPPINGS: New Poems, Richard Howard, Turtle Point
OTHERWISE: New and Selected Poems, Jane Kenyon, Graywolf
THE ENGRAFTED WORD: Poems, Karl Kirchwey, Marian Wood/Holt
SLOAN-KETTERING: Poems, Abba Kovner, Schocken
THE SELECTED POEMS OF HOWARD NEMEROV, Howard Nemerov, Swallow/Ohio University
SELECTED POEMS, Harvey Shapiro, Wesleyan University/University Press of New England
HARLEM GALLERY: And Other Poems, Melvin B Tolson, University Press of Virginia
TRANSFIGURATIONS: Collected Poems, Jay Wright, Louisiana State University
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
The reason The New York Times has never had a comics section is that it already has its book review. Last Sunday’s list of the “100 Most Notable Books” of the year is a case in point. Of the 42 items listed under “Fiction and Poetry,” there were just two books of poetry: Rita Dove’s American Smooth & Donald Justice’s Collected Poems. At least the two books don’t automatically resolve into an identical aesthetic, although they do, frankly, come from a single value system, that of the trade press. Dove’s volume was published by Norton, Justice’s by Knopf.
I don’t have a quarrel particularly with either book. I’ve always had a fondness for some of Justice’s work, tho I doubt I will ever own the Collected, tho maybe someday if I come across a good little selected in paperback in a used book store at a decent price I might be persuaded. But really, darlings, this is all that American poetry was capable of doing in 2004 that warranted being characterized as “notable” by the august NY Times? Just how pathetic is that?
I’ve acquired well over 250 books of poetry this year &, save for a couple of volumes in the Library of America & its companion American Poets Project series, the number I’ve bothered to get from American trade presses is exactly zero. And that is the story of American poetry in ought-four, I dare say. Not that it’s so terribly different from ’03 or hardly any other year over the past quarter century.
The problem that the Times book review has is the inherent conflict in its double mission as a publication. Its first mission is not to review the books of America, but rather books by its advertisers who are – surprise! – the trade presses. The second is to do it in such a way that the review conveys comprehensiveness to its readership. This latter requires not only that certain volumes appear and get “proper attention,” but also – and this may be its most important institutional mission – that the rest of the world also disappears.
Not that the Times is any different in this than, say, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune or San Francisco Chronicle. This is never so clear as when something like the Collected Lowell shows up and everybody, I mean everybody, has to review it. But how many of these same publications have taken notice of any volume by Graham Foust or Rae Armantrout, ever?
It’s enough to make you grind your teeth.
Now part of this problem is historical, a history that is changing right now in front of our eyes. The distribution network for poetry in America is something quite different than the distribution network for trade presses through bookstores. With the advent of the net & concomitant phenomena like PayPal, publishers of poetry are increasingly “going direct,” as we would say in the computer biz.
Little history lesson. In 1994, when Mosaic, the first graphical browser, was just getting wide distribution, the number one selling PC in America belonged to Compaq. Compaq had great relationships with PC stores, masterfully directly by one Ross Cooley. But Cooley also chose that year to take his options & retire. Ten years later, Compaq doesn’t even exist, save as a residual sub-brand for some HP product, & a catalog dealer that was only a nuisance to its competitors a decade ago, selling systems via catalog, magazine ads & telesales, Dell, now dominates the marketplace, having used the net to “go direct” & cut out the increasingly useless middlemen.
Poetry in 2004 is just now starting to “go direct” as well. Every small press with a web site represents a different experiment in how this might happen, and it’s well worth noting. Coffee House Press, for example, several of whose books deserve to be on any list of “notable 2004” volumes of verse, has been around for over 30 years and makes an effort to compete within the trade book business as well as remain relevant to the world of poetry (unlike, say, Knopf or Norton, who are concerned only with the former). When you go to the Coffee House web site & click on “Publishing Information,” it dutifully takes you to a link list of distributors, on-line resellers, and bookstores that can be counted on to carry some Coffee House product.* Yet when you click on any individual title, such as Anselm Hollo’s new selected, Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence – certainly a contender for a legit “best book” award – you will find mechanisms on the page itself to buy the volume, both in hard- & paperback, right on the site itself. That is the same sort of blended approach, using both retail & the web, that folks like HP are now taking in the computer industry. But a lot of poetry presses already just use SPD as a token means of acknowledging that once bookstores were meaningful & sell their own products via their own websites.
One result in this changing distribution environment is that it used to be a disaster if a distributor like SPD declined to carry your press. Today, that simply represents the most expensive & least efficient means of getting books to readers. If you can let people know of your books & get them to your web site, selling direct can be a far faster & cheaper way of moving books into the hands of the right readers, the readers who will really care about, say, new possibilities for the post-avant in the American south. Or who will understand the implications behind a category like “new brutalism.”
If there is a catch in all this it’s that too few presses take the web seriously enough yet. A lot of older poetry presses – Burning Deck, for example – simply give you information for SPD or Spectacular Diseases on their website. Even a new press like Qua Books makes this same mistake. A good rule of thumb is that every click that is required between the book’s own web page & the process of completing an order for the volume will reduce sales by 50 percent.
But over time, newer presses & micropresses & technologies like print-on-demand (the secret behind the extensive catalog already at Salt Publishing) will make the process of “going direct” & capitalizing a small press a totally different proposition than the one that exists even now.
A few years ago, I’d see something like the Times Book Review list, and I’d come away seething at the unfairness & disproportionate power an institution like that used to have. Today I see it differently. That list is a relic of a process that is rapidly becoming irrelevant & even now is mostly a sloppy & costly way to connect books to readers of poetry. Poets don’t need it unless, as might be true for Dove, the true audience for their work is people who mostly don’t read poetry. But if the poetry of Donald Justice holds secrets that young poets today need to discover, his Collected would be far better served by a nice review in Rain Taxi.
* Other publishers might note that this is the best list of these I’ve seen in one place, ever.
Monday, December 06, 2004
The Poker is back, issue number 5, demonstrating all over again what it is like to be shockingly good. Shockingly because the presence of an editorial vision not only gives the journal an impressive coherence, it also makes you aware of just how often it is absent, even from fairly decent periodicals. Along with John Tranter’s Jacket, which has many of the same strengths, The Poker is a how-to course for editing a magazine.
Editor Dan Bouchard’s secret is not just balance & order – those he demonstrates the virtues of these in practice – but also because he deliberately combines newer poets with canonically famous elders, both living (John Ashbery, Robin Blaser) and not (Laura Riding, Jack Spicer). In doing so, Bouchard is making an argument that Rachel Loden & Chris McCreary, Kevin Davies, Kaia Sand, Drew Gardner et al can stand as equals with any of the anointed. And for the most part, the work Bouchard prints makes the case for him. And he is making a case for a particular kind of context: these elders, these young’uns.
The issue begins, not unlike The Nation, with letters, in this issue from Nathaniel Tarn & the ubiquitous Kent Johnson, both in reference to Steve Evans’ “Field Notes” from the fourth number. This is followed by two suites of poetry from Loden & McCreary, followed by a longish essay by Riding on the subject of letter as a legitimate literary mode. This is followed by two new poems by Ashbery, and then a quartet of younger poets: Kevin Davies, Kaia Sand, Marcella Durand & Drew Gardner.
Then come five “new” poems by Jack Spicer, part of a trove of 100 or so lost works that have been discovered by Peter Gizzi & Kevin Killian during the process of their editing a compleat (as distinct from Collected) Spicer for UC Press. Like the others I’ve seen from the new ones, they generally don’t stand up to Spicer’s best work. On the other hand, they’re still the chilling, riveting poems of a deeply troubled guy who knew a whole lot more than he was telling. Thus, for example, “Blood and Sand” from 1958:
It is as if the poem moves
Without the poem. I have captured you.
Done all my will. Have done with all
There is something that bothers me about the poem
Not anything real. But a poem. Your body
The noise that nothing makes upon the shore of an ocean
The big without.
It is as if a poem moves
Without your reality. Your not being there
That defines a nice set of arms
Not holding what. An absentness of you.
This bed is there. Defines,
Without the poem.
This poem predates the opening poem of Language, “This ocean, humiliating in its disguises … “ by four years. Yet it is at least as tight & well written as anything in The Heads of the Town, Billy the Kid or Lament for the Makers. It makes you wonder why he didn’t publish this earlier, save that he probably then couldn’t have written the later poem, which has become (for better or worse) his signature piece.
Spicer is followed by Blaser, in this instance an interview (with a tiny elegy for Don Allen at the postscript). Then two more poets, one who is entirely new to me, Michael Carr, and one who is eminently familiar, Fanny Howe. Tim Peterson’s review of books by Brenda Iijima & Allison Cobb virtually ties a bow around the issue.
This isn’t a perfect magazine – I’d redesign the cover myself – and one can certainly argue that Bouchard’s vision gives too much weight to this or that (I might include more young poets, not to the exclusion of the older ones, but in addition). But when I contrast this with the bland bureaucratic mode of the alphabet-driven table of contents, it makes me painfully aware that any vision trumps none at all.
For reasons that are utterly obscure, this magazine has no web presence at all. Bouchard discourages submissions via email even. This may be the modern equivalent of Jack Spicer’s refusal to distribute the journal J east of Berkeley – it will limit the impact of Bouchard’s argument in a way that, say, a journal like Sulfur was not constrained. As Kaia Sand would say, that was then, this is now.