Friday, February 25, 2005

 

 

If William Gibson is the Wordsworth of cyberpunk fiction, Bruce Sterling is the Coleridge.¹ It was in fact Sterling who coined the term cyberpunk, some years back & it’s clear that he remains the phenomenon’s most serious intellectual thinker. Given the traditional atomization of novelists by the trade publishing industry, the idea of something akin to a movement of same – even if it amounted only acknowledging mutual interest in one another’s work – was an effective means of focusing attention on what makes this group of writers different. Tho they often use the speculative devices associated with sci-fi, they aren’t sci-fi writers in the traditional sense at all. Rather, they’re interested in exploring the possibilities of society, history & technology, broad categories of concern that can go in a lot of different directions. Sterling’s Islands in the Net remains my favorite example of the phenomenon, set as it is amid a world in which voracious pirate corporations operate in a post-state world.

 

Zeitgeist is the most recent Sterling book I’ve read & it’s pretty indicative of what’s often great, but also often frustrating, about his projects. The novel was published originally in hardback in November of 2000, with the paperback having been issued in August 2001. Zeitgeist probably should have been published even earlier than that – aspects of the reading experience would have been heightened, if not actually different, if this book were read, say, mid-1999. As it is, it’s a sign of Sterling’s general attention to the world that even having missed the Millennium & having gotten into print in advance of the 9/11 attacks, this is a book that actually includes Osama bin Laden (complete with calypso jokes about the Taliban), albeit at its periphery. One premise overall is that the new century will be radically different from the old, and that the “American century” just past will be supplanted by something quite different, fairly deadly, & far more apt to be centered not in New York or Washington, but in that swath of landscape that stretches from the Middle East to South Asia & reaches northward in to the peripheral republics of the late, unlamented U.S.S.R. In this sense, Zeitgeist joins James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage as an example of prophetic writing – the difference being that Sherry saw this a dozen years ahead of the attack on the Trade Center & Pentagon, while Sterling got his in just under the wire.

 

The story, such as it is, concerns one Leggy Starlitz, a cheesy hustler who manages a Spice-girls knock-off band called G-7, which has one girl from each country then participating in the economic cartel. Singing & dancing skills not required. The plan is to have the group tour through a series of countries starting with Cyprus & heading east. This gets complicated when the band gets basically taken over by rogue Turkish intelligence agents & Starlitz ex-wife, now a lesbian hippie beansprout communard in Oregon, shows up to drop off the 11-year-old daughter, Zeta, whom Starlitz has never met. But along the way more things happen than one might imagine, including a narrative interlude in Hawaii & a trip across the Mexican-US border to conjure up a sort-of-virtual grandfather who speaks only in palindromes.

 

As is so often the case in life, Sterling’s greatest strength – his rapid-fire, free-associating imagination – is the book’s primary weakness as well. The plot roars right along, but not so much in any one direction. It ends, but to call the conclusion satisfying or even a conclusion is overstating the case. In that sense, Sterling is not unlike Pynchon’s later work, filled with the devices of narrative motion but absent any strong sense of direction.

 

Sterling likes to complicate these narratives by having the characters struggle with ordinary aspects of family living, even as assassins are showing up & the body-count starts to mount. In this book, it’s the relationship with Zeta, who’s constant refrain, “Hey Dad,” virtually sets up the syncopation of the book. In Islands of the Net, one of the key characters had to do her thing while pregnant (not unlike the sheriff in Fargo).

 

It’s fun, fast, furious, full of things to think about with regards to the future configuration of forces in this world, and yet in the end it’s a literary cookie as well, digestible more than memorable. Oddly enough, given all its dystopic warnings & quick shoot-from-the-hip sociology, it’s both accurate in one sense – this century is already patently different from the previous one – and far more optimistic than events since 9/11 would lead anyone to believe.

 

 

 

¹ It’s easy to push this analogy too far. Lucius Shepard becomes the Blake & Neal Stephenson becomes what? The Shelley?



Thursday, February 24, 2005

 

It is my duty to report that Lyn Hejinian is writing the best poetry of her career right now. The bizarre thing is, I’ve been able to report that virtually continuously for nearly 30 straight years. Before that, I just didn’t know her work well enough.

 

I will offer as evidence Hejinian’s reading at Kelly Writers House on this past Monday. That link will take you to both streaming & downloadable versions of the event.¹

 

After reading from My Life in the Nineties, a sequel of sorts to her signature work, My Life, Hejinian turned to what she characterized as pages from The Book of a Thousand Eyes, a “night poem in many parts and an homage to Scheherazade,” followed by poems from a series Hejinian says she is calling The Unfollowed “currently,” a series of elegies for Charlotte Ellertson, the late women’s health activist who was Hejinian’s daughter-in-law.

 

Listening to Hejinian read these latter works aloud, which I’ve not yet seen on the page, I flashed for a moment on Chaucer, or on what I might call the inclusiveness of Chaucer’s language. The sense I have of Chaucer’s writing, especially in the original Middle English is “how can I not sit down & just listen?” One is drawn right in. Hejinian’s work has some of these same inviting qualities – it does a better job of bringing readers in than almost any post-avant writing I know. At the heart of this is not just Hejinian’s fascinating sense of the line – I could read her texts forever just to watch how & where she breaks lines (her mode is cognitive & a reader can watch her think in these breaks), yet that’s precisely one of the things you don’t get, can’t fully intuit, from a reading. Also at play, even more so when you are hearing it before seeing it, is Hejinian’s sense of the sentence, which is a very particular sentence, one that comes first from the age of classic English prose – that period that extends from Dickens through to Henry James. Which is to say that the grammar is straightforward, that there is pleasure taken in the ability to extend & capture the aside of a dependent clause, & that completion is something not only promised but delivered.

 

This also means that certain kinds of content enter into the work – the family is a passionate & ongoing theme, whereas contemporary jargon, politics, technology are hardly present at all. Or at least they’re not discussed in the heavily inflected vocabularies that attach to these discourses on the cable news stations.

 

Yet nothing about Hejinian’s writing feels even the slightest bit retro. She described the elegies as being composed entirely in non sequiturs to register her sense that “death is not acceptable.” The result is a combination of the familiar with the new that is unique entirely to Hejinian and it’s powerful in its capacity to take us as readers or listeners to places we’ve never before visited even as we feel entirely at home.

 

 

 

¹ The introductions to the event take nearly 15 minutes, followed by a reading of just under 40 minutes, complete with encore, so if you’re the anxious sort who can’t wait to hear Lyn herself read, use the downloadable version of the RealAudio file and go straight to the reading.

 



Wednesday, February 23, 2005

 

I was saddened, but not surprised, by the suicide on Sunday of Hunter S. Thompson. You can only play around with rum, hard drugs and guns for so long before the logic of that catches up with you. And Thompson, like Richard Brautigan, clearly bought into the Hemingway myth. Hemingway’s father Clarence committed suicide in 1928, the same year Farewell to Arms was published. His son the novelist died in 1961. Brautigan shot himself in 1984. Ernest’s oldest granddaughter Margaux committed suicide in 1996, tho at least she took pills. Who says this isn’t contagious?

 

I was never a big fan of Thompson’s writing. It struck me as too undisciplined, the wrong lesson to have taken from the work & life of William S. Burroughs, Thompson’s other obvious source of inspiration. Yet I felt that Thompson, more than any other single individual, was responsible for Jimmy Carter becoming president in 1976. Thompson was covering the campaign for Rolling Stone back when Rolling Stone still mattered. It was obvious that Thompson felt that all the other Democratic candidates were professional weasels, or worse. And yet here was this one-term Georgia governor who seemed to be the squarest human being on the face of the planet. That was the person who struck Thompson as an honest human being. Thompson’s reporting catapulted Carter into becoming something like the Howard Dean of his day in an era when the combination of “early capital” and cable news didn’t exist to overwhelm any outsider candidacy the instant the candidate made one mistake. What a weird model of Diogenes Thompson made.

 

In 1979, one of my two best friends, Elliot Helfer, jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. I recall at the time being struck at the emotional devastation his death left in its wake, on his wife & mother & friends. The idea that this was a victimless crime, a concept that was sometimes bandied about in the media, was patently a joke. Since then, I’ve had too many other occasions to relearn that same lesson.

 

I’ve noted here before, tho maybe only in the Squawkbox tool, that I think depression is the most under-diagnosed & untreated disease in America. This in spite of all the pills that the pharmaceutical industry throws at the problem, now augmented with ever so much television advertising. I still think that. I think we’re going about it entirely the wrong way. And this is the result.

 



Tuesday, February 22, 2005

 

Mark Tursi proposes what he calls a final question:

 

We’ve talked a lot about past poetic movements and current poetry, as well as your own poetic process. And this is, of course, the primary subject of your blog. But, I was wondering if you could speculate and conjecture a bit about the future of poetry in America – imaginatively, intellectually, critically—in whatever way you want. That is, where do you see us in 10 or 20 years? What will the poetry look like then? Where are we headed?

 

I’ve been wrong about this before, and in a big way too. When I was the editor of the Socialist Review, we published a feature of new poets & poetry which I prefaced with a note that remarked, in passing, that one reason why, in the late 1980s, so few poets of color had become involved with what I now think of as the post-avant was both social & historical. That economic & social marginalization placed people of color into a position in which it was more important to hear their stories told, even if they were the same old stories that had been told before for decades by other groups, the Irish, say, or the Jews of the Lower East Side, than it was for them to explore what story itself meant, what identity meant, etc. That was, I think, generally accurate in a crude way, but what I did not understand then was the degree to which a middle class of color had already risen in the United States & the impact that affirmative action was already having in educating a new generation of writers. For whatever I said circa 1987 was completely erased as a set of concerns one decade hence. And if I look around, I see that for every young post-avant poet of color who comes out of a class background not unlike my own – Linh Dinh or Rodrigo Toscano, for example – there are quite a few others who are the children of professionals, doctors, ambassadors. And the identity politics for people with that kind of family setting are extraordinarily complicated. Complexity around one’s own identity is, I think, the greatest predictor of what kind of poet one is likely to become, or at least sensitivity to that complexity. What I was suggesting then was already becoming obsolete & irrelevant at a rate much faster than I could ever have imagined. That makes me approach this question from a humbled position.

 

So rather than say what poetry two decades from now will be like, I think it makes much more sense to suggest the dynamics that I think will go into creating the new poetry, at least in the United States. Because it is clear that certain forces will have some kind of impact. The most obvious one is the absolute number of poets – and I mean competent, often brilliant writers – we live in a time of unequaled riches when it comes to poetry in the United States & the demographics are such that this should only expand. But there is a tipping point here, one that we may already have reached, where abundance transforms itself from being a good thing to something far more problematic.

 

I have at this point a good half century’s view on the history of poetry up close & personal, & the changes that have been wrought as a result of the sheer increase in the number of poets are several. In the 1950s – a time when the absolute number of books published in this society was only one-twentieth of what it is today – the number of poets was relatively minimal. I know I’ve remarked many times on Anselm Hollo’s comment that you could buy any small press book published in the United States in that decade in London, in good part because there were so very few. The Allen anthology represented the first major non-School of Quietude collection since Zukofsky had brought out the Objectivist Anthology nearly 30 years before. The 44 poets of the Allen anthology changed poetry forever – the benign neglect with which the SoQ had simply bypassed the likes of Pound, Williams, Stein et al for decades was now countered by an engaged position for which there was a substantive response among readers. This split was a phenomenon that can be traced back to the 1840s, when the Knickerbockers of New York dished Edgar Allan Poe because of his proximity to a group then known as the Young Americans, with the former attempting to replicate British models & the latter seeking something intrinsically new. And while there was continual potshots over the border over the years – think of Pound, for example – the first substantive, collective response doesn’t occur until 1960. We owe the poets of the Allen anthology an enormous debt for standing up to the status quo & changing it. Yet, of that group of 44, there are maybe a dozen who either did not go on to have substantial literary careers, or who only became very niche players. Bruce Boyd, Kirby Doyle, Richard Duerden, Ebbe Borregaard, Stuart Z. Perkoff, Edward Marshall. This is not a criticism of their poetry, necessarily, some of them just made life choices that took them away from publishing, if not writing altogether. Yet it gives you a sense of exactly how deep the roster was from which Allen had to choose. I mean there were obviously poets one could have argued should have been included & were not, but they tended to at the extremes with regards to age, either older & already more well known (Rexroth, Zukofsky, Rukeyser, Williams) or younger & just getting going (Joanne Kyger, Kathleen Fraser, George Stanley, James Koller, Bev Dahlen, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett). But if you accept Allen’s rationale for excluding the older writers on the grounds that, being already established, they were not by definition “new,” and that the younger ones hadn’t really started to assert themselves as much as yet as would happen a few years hence (Berrigan was a major presence at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, for example), then you realize that that revolution of the 1950s was really brought about by somewhat less than three dozen people. Three dozen, top to bottom. It’s an amazing number. On my weblog today, I have links to over 450 other poets, most of them American, most of them associated in some fashion with the post-avant world that grew out of the New American framework of the 1950s. And for every poet with a weblog, there are at least ten without. In one half century we have gone from less than 40 to several thousand practicing post-avant poets – not to even mention the School of Quietude, which itself has grown over the past fifty years, tho not I think quite to the same degree.

 

For a young poet, having a life or career in writing – for me at least those terms are really indistinguishable – is something very different if you plan to be one in one hundred, not one in five thousand. And if the rate of growth over the next two decades is anything like what it has been over the past three, then the problem is going to be far worse circa 2025 than it is today. You’re going to be a young poet looking at being one in 15,000. The chances of your work finding its best possible audience in such circumstances will be reduced to chance – or worse, to who you know, not what you can do. That tells me that this dynamic simply has to give.

 

Now obviously if you read around for awhile among today’s younger poets – those still under 40 – they are patently not all doing the same thing. Any possible combination of influences out of the New Americans & every other phenomenon since then is going on, in a variety of different ways. But it tends to be rather undifferentiated overall. You don’t find, for example, a collective like the poets who publish as Subpress advocating a particular aesthetic position. They’re by no means alone in this. And partly, because this particular cluster of folks represents an older subsegment of “younger” poetry, that may be a reaction to the bitterness that played itself out as the poetry wars of the late 1970s & early ‘80s, when the idea that change was constant came as a psychic body blow to a lot of then-younger post-New Americans. But it’s a stance that, long term, will not serve any of the writers who adopt it well, tho it may be a generational trait they’re just going to have to live with.

 

But I expect younger poets – the ones who are now only ten years old, who don’t even know they’re going to be poets yet – not to prove so passive in terms of their fate. Somebody – and somebody fairly soon – is going to have to stick a stake in the ground that has a terrific polarizing effect. It will reconfigure everybody’s sense of what it is that they’re doing & how this person’s work relates to that person’s, & how both of these poets relate to their own work, etc. I really have no idea what this polarizing event is likely to be, nor where it might be coming, tho it certainly won’t be coming from anybody born in the 1940s like myself. Will it be a new lyricism? Will it be a new anti-lyricism? I have no idea.

 

For what, really, is the alternative? If this doesn’t come about, then what we have is an increasing balkanization of poetry. The rise from 30 post-avant poets to 3,000 has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of readers of poetry, but not, however, in the number of readers per book. It may be a post-geographic balkanization – the internet really changes the role of geography, so we may not only have a gazillion little local scenes, tho we certainly shall have a lot – but it will be a balkanization nonetheless. Everybody will have their one hundred readers & for some that will be just fine. But that kind of scenario really will cast the role of poetry in a person’s life in a very different way. That would be a far more private, almost conspiratorial kind of poetics. It will be hard if not impossible for a younger writer to come along & take from the best of a lot of different kinds of poetry, simply because it will be almost impossible to find out about most of them.

 

Now I have a bias in all this, towards a tradition the Provençal poets called trobar clus, the idea of a poetry that spoke to the very best in poets & readers alike, that was composed with the idea that readers are no less sophisticated than are other writers, a writing that never ever dumbs itself down in the name of communicability. This gets trashed from time to time by outsiders as a mode of deliberate difficulty, but obviously – at least I hope it’s obvious! – difficulty for the sake of difficulty is ultimately not what it’s about. That sort of intellectual preening is really a form of vanity & is characteristic neither of the best, nor even the most complex, modes of writing. Such poetry tends to be entirely on the surface, where I think the best work always involves every possible layer of writing, which is why, say, Frank O’Hara turns out to have been a far better poet than Gerald Burns.

 

From my perspective, the best writing in any generation is always that which most clearly adopts the stance of trobar clus. Zukofsky & Olson & Ashbery & Hejinian all have this in common, tho they share very little elsewise between them. I don’t think that you can have a trobar clus in a world of infinite balkanization, so I tend to think that the polarizing moment in poetry – when it comes – is most likely to come from exactly that perspective. Which doesn’t mean that’s necessarily where we will see it first – Ginsberg had a broad readership in the 1950s long before Olson or Creeley, for example – but if you look at Ginsberg’s writing during that decade, the cross fertilization between Williams, Whitman, Burroughs & even Olson during that period is really fascinating. A trobar clus is a collective phenomenon, first & foremost.

 

So my gut tells me: look for the trobar clus, look for the polarizing moment. And try to be open to this when it shows up.

 

Now I should mention one other important element, which is that this cannot happen in a social vacuum. The phenomenon the New Americans in the 1950s & language poetry twenty years later were very specifically reflective of larger transformations going on in society. A major reason why we have not had this sort of transformative moment in poetry over the twenty years, tho, can be traced directly to the long rightward movement of North American society over that time. Richard Nixon, we must remember, was well to the left even of Howard Dean – we have come a long way since Nixon was driven from office, very little of it good. The right is counting on the idea that this can go on forever, but even the most cursory examination of history suggests that this is bunk & that we’re going to have some very interesting times ahead. It’s related to that where I expect to find the next new polarizing moment in poetry. I hope I’m still around to see it.

 



Monday, February 21, 2005

 

The cover is felt. The binding is one large rubber band. The page would be square except that it’s not four-sided at all, with a substantial diagonal notch taken off the upper outside corner. To reinforce the idea that that notch is not accidental, authors’ names are printed along it inside. Finally, the cover has no title to speak of – but rather a large number 9 over which is printed:

 

 

becomes

impossibly,

stupidly

hard

 

This can only be Six by Six, No. 9 – not, profoundly not, to be confused with Philly’s own former 6ix. The theory of Six by Six is that six poets will have six pages each – six poems for some, fewer for others. As if to tease us poor readers, the pages themselves would have been seven inches by seven inches were it not for that notch, Notchka.

 

This time around, the six poets are Erica Weitzman, Jon Cone, Dorothea Lasky, Phil Cordelli, Julie Ritter & Laura Sims. A couple of these are names I’ve seen before, but I can’t say that I’m familiar with the poetry of any of them. Do they all come, as does the magazine, from the great borough of Brooklyn? Nope – Jacket has a review of James Wagner by a Laura Sims of Madison, WI, in its 26th issue & it’s the same person – but wherever they come from, I like each of the poets’ work here, a surprisingly solid track record even for such a small endeavor as this zine.

 

The poet who actually got me to sit down & read this publication more closely was, as it happened, the last, Sims. I was flipping through & my eye landed on “Lake”:

 

 

“Girl Walks Home Over Water”

 

 

Under whose gaze, in what desert, etc.

 

 

 

*

 

 

She is glistening plain.

 

Lovely, returning her dead

 

 

 

In the spotless car

 

 

That completely got my attention. I had to sit down & read all of her work, all of which come from a series called Practice, Restraint, several of which are numbered pieces entitled “Bank.” Here is “Bank Fifteen”:

 

In every backyard

 

A peacock

 

Or some green nonsense

 

Refuting

 

What rifles report from her far-flung states

 

Also really worth noting is “Bank Seventeen”:

 

At the east branch –

 

 

 

one empty room

 

And another

 

Abandoned

 

 

 

By Spaniards

 

There is a spareness to these poems that does not, as a result, surrender anything in its ability to reach beyond the obvious or referential. There is also, as I think all three of these samples demonstrate, a wry, shaded wit that is just a pleasure to read.

 

Flipping backward, I come across a poem by Jon Cone whose title is a delicious send-up of the dry Midwestern surrealism that was practiced at one moment in history by Robert Bly & James Wright (& more recently as maudlin farce by Franz Wright): “Thinking of Chekov on a Snowy Day in Iowa City, Iowa.” The poem that follows, tho, isn’t strictly parody – it hovers on becoming a tart homage. My favorite piece by Cone is the poem that comes immediately in front of this, “Figuring”:

 

I got seven today, yesterday I got three and the day before it was five.

I think it was five, or maybe it was two. It was two, for sure.

 

A guy I know married a chick with a face like a saint she had fourteen

in one day. Fourteen! And then get this she had seventeen the next and

 

thirty-one three days later. But now she manages one or two a day.

They divorced.

 

My uncle would get seven every day for nearly all his adult life,

but that was forty years ago. He’s dead. Died of cancer of the brain.

 

My brother usually does good, ten or eleven. Like everyone else

he has his bad days: one or two.

 

I pray sometimes. How phosphorescent it would be if I could get

seventy-seven in two days or one hundred and ten over three days.

 

But I know it won’t happen. It just won’t.

I don’t remember what my mother got.

 

I know my father never got much

even on the best day of his life.

 

This poem is a demonstration of how the absent referent can torque a poem right up. It reminds me of the importance, once again, of the lost or hidden, something Robert Duncan has had me thinking about all week. It’s the same principle, really, that gives Sims’ ”Spaniards” its twist above as well. If Cone rushes into this space head on, Erica Weitzman (a Brooklynite, I believe, as well as a grad student at the New School) takes a position that manages to be at once both more in-your-face that Cone (because less coy) & more oblique than Sims. The first of her untitled ten-line pieces from “Break” also turns out to begin with the line (notched, so to speak, like the magazine itself) that is given that graphic treatment on the magazine’s cover:

 

becomes impossibly, stupidly hard

skin of the thighs, like a bitch hunger

 

this is what I am for, it says

the black space around that describes the un-

 

what. Derneath. Derstood. Speakable, saying, we have come

a long way just to come back again

 

and evade as quickly. I’d like, now

to shoot an arrow through something’s heart please

 

quivering, the quarry

it also

 

As should be apparent here, the poems of Six by Six don’t fit any uniform aesthetic stance. Phil Cordelli’s poems echo a stance that would be somewhere between late second-gen projectivism (think Jim Koller, Harvey Bialy, Chuck Stein, early George Quasha) & the Oppen side of Objectivism. Yet it is Julie Ritter who practices the finely balanced, exact free verse line. And Dorothea Lasky’s “Red Rose Girls” may allude directly to the modernists, but it sounds almost Beat in its rhythms & with its use of a thematic image, invoked in the first line of each section.

 

With a literal rubber band for its binding, Six by Six is not designed for mass distribution, nor for that matter for a long life on any bookshelf. To subscribe – or to check out any of Ugly Duckling’s other projects – link over to www.uglyducklingpresse.org.

 



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