Saturday, February 05, 2005

 

Folks who have traditionally written to me via either my GTE.Net or Verizon.Net addresses should know that my version of Outlook “blew up” a few weeks ago. I can get mail in, but cannot respond and also I lost a lot (3,000+) of old emails. So if there is something to which I’ve not responded, please try me at the address I use with this blog: silliman@gmail.com.

 



Friday, February 04, 2005

 

 

 

I was reading & rereading the new Robert Creeley book, surprised actually at the turn his new poetry had taken, working out in my mind just how I was going to write about it here, crafting sentences, rereading passages, enjoying myself completely, when I woke up & realized that every bit of this was a dream.

 



Thursday, February 03, 2005

 

When I was reading Truong Tran’s Within the Margin last week, a curious echo – I’m not sure that’s the right word, really – sounded of another book I’m still in the process of consuming, Eli Drabman’s The Ground Running, the latest offering from Michael Cross’ Atticus / Finch Press. Drabman’s book poses some of the same questions as Tran’s, tho in a radically different way. Here is just one example.

 

[The music gets faster as]

mechanical horses crash

on through the sphere I

have been saving for my

second childhood night-

mare (I would then own

not the air, but the texts

in which air is described

as not sharp or pointed,

not smelling of Cornelia

unless having passed as

wind through the mouth

or hair of Cornelia, given

as she is to frequent fits

of vigorous outdoor exer-

cise) when I might wake

to find myself pinned by

the sharpness all around

the many angles closing

down around my elbows

and neck, and prey for a

steed with silver-flashing

blinders, with gears hung

to protect one innocence.

My first thought, typing this today, is that there is a fine line between precision & just being persnickety &, reading Drabman, I can’t tell which one of us is wavering on that razor-thin border. At one level, the words here have a bang together quality – listen to that great second line – that suggests an almost projectivist’s sensibility of the poem driven by sound & rhythm. On another, the lines seem so thoroughly predicated on being roughly 25-characters wide that it harkens back to the kind of shaped verse experiments one associates, say, with John Hollander, the utter antithesis of that first level. It’s all one sentence, turning no less on a verb prey that conceivably could be a typo. Finally there’s a level of condensation – consider the absent ‘s in the last line – that gives the writing a sense of pressure, knowing that with pressure comes power. That is, frankly, an awful lot of stuff going on simultaneously without even getting into its perfectly referential – if somewhat mysterious – content.

 

One result of all this is that my experience reading The Ground Running is almost antithetical to Within the Margin: while I virtually danced through Tran’s book in a single sitting – rare for me for a book of any size – the individual poems or pages of Drabman’s completely exhaust me. I read one, then I read it again, then I read in it some more & feel quite thoroughly exercised to have done so. I should note that I am trained (over thousands of books of poetry these past 40 years or so) to trust the second experience more. I often think of poetry as being reading’s version of weight-lifting: if you can’t feel it, it hasn’t amounted to much. Tran I think challenges that assumption very effectively. Drabman, on the other hand, brings me right back to it again. In some sense, The Ground Running feels more like Olson, dense & with all excess, all air, extracted, than almost any volume of poetry I’ve read in some time.

 

Virtually every page in The Ground Running is like the one quoted above, 24 lines long, a single sentence headed up by a line in brackets, save for a couple of exceptions that make an active use of space. Each poem (again with one exception) is one page long, always using some mode of lines that are roughly equivalent in width, generally in the range quoted above (tho a couple are, shall we say, fatter). If Tran’s approach flattens the reading process until it glides along almost effortlessly, Drabman’s does exactly the opposite: it compacts one’s reading experience. Viz again:

 

[Fists and rifle-butts flying,]

the blur of Will and Repre-

sentation is still the stiffes

t corpse on the block, still

stinking up my morning of

hell-as-banquet, O harmon

y of faux-elegant business,

O, These Men Have Come

Again, The Rugs Are Wet

W/ Their Spittle, Our Cas

tle of Leaves, All Crushed,

but it’s only a methodles

s darkness, a way to pro

ve the smallest hoax, thus

letting a spark glide throu

gh without real abandon,

throwing the harness aside

to get the horsies earnestly

friendly with absolute upp

er & lower limits, verses of

musical therapy cutting the

selves wide and threatening

bubbles in the bathtub as if,

in the living room, no calm.

 

One has the sense (I have a sense) that this shouldn’t work, but it does, powerfully. The core of Drabman’s magic trick is that he sends off mixed signals, densely packed. The eye sees a text spatially constructed, but the ear (mind) hears something very different indeed. An important consideration here is that these poems are, in fact, not justified – the right margin isn’t the slack continuous thread of a prose line, but rather a hard edge even more rigid than a traditionally enjambed line would imply.

 

I wonder just how such texts would go over with different audiences – that analogy I made a few days ago to visual kids vs. oral (or aural) ones. That Drabman knows just what he’s doing here is palpable – he even writes about it! – but the mad-gyroscope effect is so strong that you end up wondering just how does he do it even as he tells you, joking with a word like horsies. These are, as a result, exceptionally emotive texts.

 

Atticus / Finch Chapbooks can be contacted by writing to michaelthomascross@hotmail.com.

 



Wednesday, February 02, 2005

 

Larry Ochs

 

Mark Tursi just keeps firing questions:

 

Is the inertia you speak of related in anyway to Olson’s notion of “projective verse”? i.e. one perception leading immediately and directly to a further perception . . . energy transferred from where the poet gets it to the reader. I really like this idea of a poetics of intertia that you seem to suggest. It’s like taking Olson but expanding the “percussive” and the “projectile” aspect and letting the “prospective” just happen. This would seem to gel with your surfing/snowboarding analogy and this idea of shaping motion while in motion. And, hearing the sound and signification in your head first certainly must be a kind of roller coaster of rhythm. And, I’m trying to connect this to something else that has really intrigued me: that is, the way in which you really situate the writing of a poem in a very specific moment in time and place. As in your previous answer, even, and the description of your office – very specific, very detailed. You also do this on your blog quite often; i.e. where you talk about exactly where and when a poem was written, who was there smoking a cigarette or drinking coffee, what the weather was like, what OBJECTS were in your vision. This is really fascinating, I think, when connected to the way a poem happens—musically—in your head. So, I’m wondering about two things: 1) how do you begin a poem? from an image, a sound, the context or the image into sound? or something entirely different? and 2) how does the particular context (place, people, time, objects, etc.) actually become processed into this inertia or motion or “unfolding of meaning in time”? from visual to sound, image to sound, or a different route?

 

Last week I read at Moe’s in Berkeley from the opening of Zyxt, the final section of The Alphabet, which includes, among many other things, the following line:

 

I step into Pangaea, a dark little Cortland Street club down the block from Have-a-Lick’s, stepping up the small bleacher seating to the upper rear left corner, pulling out a notebook from my black Danish book bag, letting the competing, compelling saxophones (Ochs, Ackley, Gruntfest) lead the rhythm of the writing

 

In the audience happened to be Larry Ochs, the great saxophone player from the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, so I was pleased indeed that he was here to hear his name (it occurs in one or two other locations within The Alphabet as well) & recall that particular context. What had not occurred to me, however, was that Ralph Gutlohn, the one-time owner of Have-a-Lick’s, a great little ice cream parlor that is (or was) a Bernal Heights institution, would also be there. But he was, so I felt doubly fortunate indeed. After the reading, Larry asked me if I had had that sentence written down somewhere for 30 years (a slight exaggeration on his part, but only by about five years) & I had to tell him, no, only the image/sense impression floating around in the back of my mind all that time, just waiting to get written down.

 

Part of being a writer, at least for me, is constantly having all this material inside one’s head, so to speak, ready to pop up when the best possible moment arrives. I think that one reason many writers – myself definitely included – tend to be, if not loners exactly, people who appreciate solitude is not only because writing goes better in peace & quiet, but rather because we’re always processing all of this material from our lives – it’s a constant, never-ending churn of data.

 

When I’m thinking about starting on a new project, whether it’s a new section of The Alphabet or an entire new project to come along after The Alphabet, I tend to proceed in very much the same way I do with a single line or phrase or combination of sounds. I sort of worry it to death, then begin to make notes, write it down. If I’m lucky, or at least if I’ve gone about it the right way, one thing does indeed lead directly to others in something of an Olsonian fashion – I love those early theoretical statements of his not so much for their prescriptive tone (Olson so literally loves to throw his weight around, rhetorically speaking, that one can only imagine what it must have been like to have had him as a teacher, with that 6’9” presence right in front of you – I can imagine being terrified if I had been a teen at Black Mountain circa 1953 or ’54) as for their intuitive grasp of the feel of the writing process.

 

Zyxt is a case in point. The title is the second person singular indicative of the verb to see in an obsolete Kentish form of English: literally, you see. It is, more importantly, the final word in the OED &, as a conjugation of the verb sight, an important echo with my favorite of all recent literary collaborations, Sight, jointly written by Leslie Scalapino & Lyn Hejinian. Now The Alphabet already has its own collaboration – Engines, which I wrote with Rae Armantrout – but what I was interested in with Lyn & Leslie’s book was its use of what I would call integral elements, or distinct passages. Lyn & Leslie went so far as not only spatially separate out their contributions, but to initial them as well. I was intrigued with the idea of that kind of autonomy of the element & the possibility of establishing something more akin to an internal dialog. The result is that many of the surface elements of Zyxt might look familiar to a fan of Sight. For example, there are not only a fair amount of passages floating in white space, I use a heavily indented line that runs rather as if it were a paragraph instead of the traditional hanging indent of the poetic line – the only place in all of The Alphabet that does this without being, in a strict or usual sense, prose as such.

 

Now the very opening passages of Zyxt are:

 

Thus an abrupt

 

 

 

Faces phase into vases, an illusion of space fills in at the margin, merges an urge to turn (the line loops in on itself

The French aversion

The merchant of images forgets

 

That first passage – a single phrase truncated so that an adjective carries much of the weight & function of a noun – borrows very directly from a radically different source than, say, Lyn or Leslie. It’s an aspect of what I would characterize as the eruptive writing style I’ve long associated with Faulkner – if there is a secret novelist in my stylistic sauce, it’s almost always him – and this is a phrase that, in various forms, I’ve been thinking about literally since my days in college. There are poems in Crow that are contemporaneous with when I first began contemplating this line. But I never could quite see or hear how to use it, even as it nagged & gnawed at me, until I read several books by one of my other favorite Southern voices, Forrest Gander. Forrest’s use of vocabulary & ability to position individual words is a revelation. He made me realize that I really needed to confront this line in a way that I had never conceived of before.

 

The second stanza, to my mind – and I’m open to the idea that all this is just my hallucination – takes as its first line a series of moves I’ve made so often before that they’re almost a tone-setting gesture, not unlike the way an orchestra “coughs” its notes warming up just prior to the work getting under way – only here I’ve brought it inside. And already the lines here are beginning to address the formal questions implicit in the poem – it’s going to be over 120 pages long when I finish typing it – and opening up to let in some half-glimpsed referential material.

 

To all of this, I should add that Zyxt is rare for me in that it has an epigram¹ —

 

Fra il dire et fare

che il mezzo delle Mare

 

— which is something an old friend, Mario Savio, used to say: between speech & action lies half the sea. When I was working in the U.S. Post Office in 1967 & ’68, Mario was laboring as a longshoreman across the street at Pier One (not the retail store, the real thing) along the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Since our wives knew each other, we became friendly & would have a cup of coffee together in the morning before starting our jobs. At the time, Mario struck me as something of a tragic figure. Just two years before, he had become world famous, the personification of student activism in the United States due to his work as the spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. But he had found the glare of celebrity – very much the same thing I discussed a couple of weeks ago with reference to Bob Dylan – to be horrific, the U.S. government was breathing down his neck, he’d already had a baby & had I believe finished his undergraduate degree in philosophy. 1967 was still a time when he would have been arrested if he had even jay-walked, so to say that he felt claustrophobic in those days would be a great understatement. By comparison, I felt quite free even tho I was working in this dank three-storey warehouse² only because of utter necessity – Shelley had been “in hospital” as the Brits would put it & we needed every cent to get by, so just floating along on student loans wasn’t going to do it. Mario & I were both working alongside the water of the bay, but neither of our jobs promised to a setting out on any great journey, so Mario’s slogan – I guess it’s an old Italian folk-saying – had an especial ironic aspect to it. Now several decades later, as I was beginning to work on this poem, Mario – by now a philosophy professor at Sonoma State – passed away from a heart attack while moving furniture in his house. So that saying just popped back into my head & fit here perfectly. There is a lot of stuff going on during the opening of this poem.

 

I should note one other thing. I knew I was working on all these things during the weeks & months before I actually started writing Zyxt. At one point, I went out to the King of Prussia mall & purchased a large journal-sized notebook in which to write the poem. It’s still the only time I’ve spent over $100 on a notebook, but since this was the end of The Alphabet, I let myself run a little wild. So that volume, which has a tan leather binding & a gilded trim to the paper, was sitting there, getting larger & emptier up until the time I actually started writing, on December 29, 1998. The notebook has, in fact, a title page in which I’ve written title, dedication & epigram, so they were all finally in place in my head before I started writing.

 

Now this may all seem to be quite a long walk around the block, but if you ask me what it is I do & think when I start a poem, this is pretty typically the kind of stuff that enters in & how.

 

 

 

¹ Tho The Alphabet has both an epigram at its beginning & what I think of as an “echo-gram” at its conclusion, about which I shall not say more here

 

² The building has been razed to make way for some tennis courts.



Tuesday, February 01, 2005

 

Kevin Thurston has asked me to discuss my “ideas that distinguish 'plotless prose' from 'prose poetry'?” I could, I suppose, dip back into the works of Viktor Shklovsky who first employed that phrase, but since it’s a term that I use on an everyday basis, it makes more sense to unpack what I’m thinking whenever it pops up in my conversation.

 

I should note first that plotless does not mean non- or anti-narrative. Nor are all – or necessarily many – prose poems themselves plotless. The parables & tales one finds in the work of Russell Edson, for example, would be nothing without their little plots. So there are a series of distinctions to be made, perhaps along the lines that Geof Huth suggests in his attempts at creating a vocabulary for discussing visual poetry.

 

Narrative is the unfolding of meaning in time. This occurs before that, X before Y, etc. One can find narrative in any work by Bruce Andrews or early Clark Coolidge – they’re rife with meaning & passionately in love with time, so it’s a rich engagement. But they tend to avoid plot, which exteriorizes narrative onto a signified landscape that lies vaguely out there beyond the limits of syntax. That’s an important distinction. The fundamental “realist” trick of language is that it gets us to experience the integration of linguistic elements through syntax up not into higher levels of language at all, but rather outside of the materials at hand into this posited exterior world, into character & plot. The pleasures of the text are thus ascribed to these hypothetical objects & events. It’s a wonderful bit of magic that I recognize most often when I read aloud to toddlers. Babar in particular is a fabulous demonstration of this, because not only is it a parable of French colonialism, but some books retain elements of a larger frame tale (full of improbable elements, such as the ability of the elephants to walk from their country all the way to Paris), while others vary key features – see how the rhinos are portrayed from volume to volume, for example. Not all of the creatures are “feasible” either, but that’s another story.

 

There are, of course, works of fiction that themselves flirt with plotlessness – Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren or some of Thomas Pynchon’s later novels, especially Vineland and Mason & Dixon, present all the joys of tale-telling without much sense that tales themselves – which in these cases thoroughly entail character & event – ever need to go anywhere. It’s the telling itself that is the point. They raise really interesting questions between the elements of this exterior posited world and a compulsive sense of direction. I know some readers who find these projects tedious precisely because they never seem to go anywhere, get anywhere. Exactly!

 

The prose poem is a different critter altogether, tho it can certainly intersect with plotlessness. The prose poem originally – like when Baudelaire & Ducasse were elaborating its possibilities in the 19th century (it is one of that century’s three major innovations, along with free verse & the dramatic monolog) – originally had to do with the interpenetration of the dynamics of poetry with those of prose. As is invariably the case with any of these formal developments, there were antecedents well in advance, leading not only toward what we eventually knew as the prose poem (as in the case of Bertrand), but also toward directions not taken: I would argue, for example, that the poetry of Alexander Pope is a lineated prose. In what ways are those not prose poems?

 

In the 20th century, it is curious that the model of the prose poem proposed by Max Jacob should have been the one originally imported into English & America, especially since there were several far more interesting versions available in French: Ponge, Segalen, St.-John Perse. Nonetheless, there are today – finally – a full range of possibilities available to any writer in English. One is limited only by one’s imagination. Often these works have little to do with any boundary issues betwixt poetry & prose &, if anything, this might be exactly the prose poem’s oncoming crisis. It will, in fact, have to stand up on its own feet going forward.

 

What does this have to do with plotlessness? Not, I suspect, a lot. That would appear to be just one possible dimension of the poem that can come into play. Would it mean that the prose poem was then anti-narrative? Not in the slightest, tho one can arrive – as Clark Coolidge does in Polaroid & The Maintains – at moments in which narrative appears to be self-canceling even as it continues to go forward. That is part of what makes those works such extraordinary events – they’re the extreme cases that allow us to suddenly take in the whole range of what lies between “normal” verse & their practices. Are Polaroid & The Maintains plotless? Only in the trivial sense that they resist referentiality’s trick projections of character, object, event. But that’s not really what’s interesting about them as texts.

 

I could probably even sketch these relationships out spatially so that it would look something like this:

 

This is a little schematic obviously, but this may give you a better idea of where I slot such terms in my head as I go about the chores of the day.

 



Monday, January 31, 2005

 

I’m not particularly a fan of the Academy of American Poets, as bland a gathering of information on poets, good, bad or indifferent, as one might imagine. I’ve often wondered about what it takes to make a great subject tepid, but whatever that soporific elixir is, it’s been poured into the waters there.

 

Lately, tho, the Academy has been trying to shake itself awake, which is always a good thing, and is using its Poetry Almanac for one month of actual opinion. It would be wonderful if this were to become ongoing if only because there are seven or eight pieces in the January roster really worth reading & thinking about further, even if the background landscape continues to be painted in the pastel hues of the School of Quietude. A few months of this and we might see something more truly akin to the vast gumbo that is verse in these United States.

 

It was, in fact, one of the more conservative pieces – David Groff’s January 26th tome on the “Peril of the Poetry Reading” – that drew me to the series in the first place. Groff’s examples may stretch all the way from A (Richard Howard) to B (Billy Collins), but his underlying thesis is worth pondering nonetheless. There’s an essential – even obvious – correctness in the observation that what a reader can take in through hearing is very different from what can learned from the page. Anyone who has observed how children variously absorb information – this one visually, that one aurally – can see that these distinctions are not trivial. Such kids, even when they’re siblings, live in very different experiential worlds & that we can occasionally communicate at all can appear to me to be a miracle. I have at times thought that various genres in poetry might have at root just such learning styles and experiential orientations.

 

Groff and I have obviously have different aesthetics – the slow, breathless presentation of a narrative that yields what he calls the mmmm of an approving audience is, from my perspective, a flag of bad poetry, a uniformly embarrassing moment. Readings punctuated by such moments are to my mind cringe-a-thons. Likewise poets who read slowly strike me as pretentious and insincere, dumbing it down for an audience for whom they have no respect. It’s the signature gesture of dishonesty in a reading. But what if it is the only way some readers (and writers) can relate to the world?

 

Groff is certainly right that there are elements of the poem that just cannot be had by a member of an audience at a reading – I’m always painfully aware of how some elements of multiplicity flatten out when read aloud, the visual rhyme, say, between shamus & Camus. And there obviously is room for vast variation. One of the more interesting elements of attending any poetry conference in Russia is to discover poets who consciously avoid the theatrical declamatory reading styles associated with the Russian tradition – Arkadii Dragomoshchenko or Alexei Parshchikov, for example – right alongside somebody who takes that oral tradition to the max like Ivan Zhdanov. If you think of the flowing Miltonic chords struck by Robert Duncan’s verse in the 1960s alongside the halting enjambments of Robert Creeley’s poetry during that same period & keep in mind that both were perceived by just about everybody as instances of the “Black Mountain School,” you can get just a little glimpse of what I mean. So long as one actually engages the materials, it shouldn’t ultimately matter how one goes about writing. Groff is welcome to all the mmmms & aaahhs he can get.

 

If nothing else, someone like Homer ought to keep us page-bound wretches from becoming too glib about the advantages of print culture, as such, just as the flash tectonics of recent vispo reminds us that there is more to the eye than mere syntax. I of course want all of it – I think that Whitman gets that part of it right, exactly. But in the same moment, I know also my own limits. It seems improbable that any part of my new project, Universe, is going to entail flash technology or saxophones, unless it is strictly as a presentation setting. I can envision writing for a technologically enabled ink on smart paper so that simply reading the text literally transforms it. But I can also envision that technology being viable for about 20 years before it’s superceded by whatever wowzer comes along next. That’s the crux of my Blake Test & insistence on platform independence of the text. The poetry reading is itself a platform – it can never be the whole of poetry. But one literally can say the same about books.

 

So my quarrel with somebody like Groff wouldn’t be that he wants to read as slowly as he imagines his readers must think but rather that, in choosing a prescriptive approach to the question, he shuts off the possibility of alternate routes. I keep going back to that problem of how a visual kid is ever going to communicate with an aural one, keeping in mind that one aural kid may well focus on syntactic integration where another approaches everything first from the perspective of sound, so that one finds, finally, styles within styles within styles of relating to the world.

 



Sunday, January 30, 2005

 

And the 250,000th visitor is . . .

 

SiteMeter & SquawkBox concur. Michael Harold was the 250,000th visitor to the website. Special thanks to Shanna Compton for the tip vis-à-vis SquawkBox’s logging of recent messages. On the question of the “false positives,” my best guess is that these were the clicks immediately prior to the actual number but that Michael’s click had been registered by the system before that part of their screen was completely “drawn.”



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