Saturday, March 19, 2005

 

 

You can now download an MP3 of my talk on Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book from the PENNsound site. The talk lasts an hour & a half, with Q&A, and the file clocks in at around one megabyte per minute, so I wouldn’t try it with a slow dial-up connection.



Friday, March 18, 2005

 

While toodling about in my motorcar the other day, I heard Garrison Keillor broadcasting Prairie Home Companion from St. Catherine’s University in Minnesota, providing all sorts of arcana about that school, but not mentioning – least while I was listening – that it is the home to XCP, the cross cultural poetics magazine. A future double issue thereof will be devoted to keywords, Raymond Williams’ concept of words vital to public discourse. The editors wanted to focus on words that should prove critical for the 21st century, but I chose instead to pick one that just might disappear.

 

Journalism

 

A nostalgic term from the last century meaning the presentation of news & analysis through media. From journal, a French-derived term that means literally daybook. In an age of blogs & wikis, journalism as an institutional practice is being transformed from below. In an age in which the current U.S. regime does not recognize either the legitimacy of news or the historic role of the First Amendment, journalism is being attacked from above. The release of ersatz “newscasts,” the presence of mock reporters using phony names to pose friendly questions, the patent hysteria of cable news does more damage over time than the prosecution of reporters for protecting sources. Yet the greatest threat to newspapers comes through changes in advertising. Contemporary papers live off two categories of ads – classifieds and full-page display ads from department stores. The internet is rapidly eroding the role of classifieds; Wal-Mart – which does little advertising due to its “Everyday Low Pricing” strategy – is eliminating the number of viable mass merchants. Gone are the Emporium, Capwells, Hinks, Wanamakers, Hechts, Gimbels and their kin, the very organizations that funded the golden age of print journalism. The number of profitable daily newspapers is dwindling, the remaining independent, locally owned papers even more so, & it is only a matter of time until a major metro is without a daily paper altogether. Local coverage will soon be reduced to Happy Talk News, focusing on over-hyped weather & if-it-bleeds-it-leads “live remotes” from today’s murders. Film at 11:00.

 



Thursday, March 17, 2005

 

 

One of the positive aspects of the use of a standard set of questions in Lance Phillips’ Here Comes Everybody interview blog is that everyone responds to the same inputs, and some of these replies tend to surprise. Stephanie Strickland gives some great responses to the questions of (a) what is something “non-literary” that she reads that may surprise her colleagues and (b) how important is philosophy to her writing, to which she answers “Not as important as mathematics or poetry.” All the adrenalin receptors in my brain picked up at that remark. And it made me realize that I needed to rethink my presumptions about Stephanie Strickland and her poetry.

 

I had an impression of Strickland that must have been 15 years old at least as a typical School of Quietude poet, apt to appear in Prairie Schooner, likely to publish books with university presses, etc. Amidst the several thousand actually existing poets now at work, I had tucked her in my backbrain into the middle of a fairly large stack that must have a sign on it indicating “No Need to Read.” Wrong!

 

Strickland must have always been interested in mathematics, tho nothing I’d ever read before had indicated that. But sometime in the post-1990 timeframe, this interest began to manifest itself in poetry that could not only appear on the web, but which might exploit its features directly. Usually, I think of web-enabled work as coming out of an aesthetic that includes Oulipo, the writing of Jackson Mac Low & just possibly an historic interest in Fluxus & zaum beyond that. Not your standard Prairie Schooner material.

 

But when I looked at the examples of her writing linked to the Here Comes Everybody piece, it didn’t look much like Prairie Schooner either. This is from my favorite sequence of her work directly accessible on the web, from the second issue of the online zine Drunken Boat. The work is number 19 of Strickland’s series entitled “WaveSon.net”:

 

and that it tilts. The thought
of such knowledge, hard to gain,
how to keep, we have lost,
except for the Rabbis who copy the Talmud,

 

who know by G[ ]d no scintilla
must change, not by unconscious slips,
not "corrected" by sages, not in 26,000 years—
me, I take what I get

 

from the Navy’s lunar Web Page,
but I should go to Tarot: 52 weeks, 4 season
suites of 13 (moon-months, 14 x 2 days) [364] are not
enough: "a year and a day," [365] will (nearly)

 

fit the sun in, that’s the Joker,
and in the Leap, fourth
Year, a year-and-a-day and another

 

You will of course have caught the pun sonnet in the title, just as you will have duly noted that this poem has 15 lines. The discourse continues as if with no interruption at “WaveSon.net 20”:

 

day, then the long counts begin. After one-hundred
and twenty-eight
years, the need to take a day out
as the osprey pulls a salmon from the sea

 

or the knave steals a tart. Penelope, star
undoer, keeps 128 suitors
at bay, while her husband cycles.
At Arthur’s table, 128 Knights.

 

26,000 years
for the pole to "precess," to draw its circle
in the sky and return to the star
where it started out, while the Zodiac belt

 

slips backward through its signs.
2000 years ago we came
to the Age of Fishes, rising horizon at the vernal

 

What I want to note here is that Strickland’s language is always absolutely precise – something I never associate with the School of Quietude – and that her sense of the line is quirky & alive, again not something for which the SoQ is famous. If anything, the work this most reminds me of is Jackson Mac Low’s Light Poems, in that it manages to simultaneously do a dozen interesting things in what seems on the surface to be a fairly straightforward discourse.

 

This work also to my ear passes the Blake test with great ease. Like Christian Bök, but not – for example – the English versions I’ve seen of the writing of Young-Hae Chang (to whose website Strickland directs our attention), Strickland’s poems are inherently interesting as writing, regardless of how they might be realized on the web. Chang’s work is interesting in the way that writing in the art of Barbara Krueger or Jenny Holzer is interesting, which has everything to do with its context & little if anything to do with the writing per se. Not so Strickland.

 

Strickland’s work is sufficiently interesting to make me wonder – and I know I’m not the person who could answer this – if it is possible to arrive at interesting web-enabled poetry without at some point going through that interest in Oulipo, zaum, Fluxus & the rest. Maybe Strickland is even the poet who proves that, I’m not sure. But now I realize I’m going to have to go back & read the work with more attention. She’s earned it.

 



Wednesday, March 16, 2005

 

Amidst the backwash of Alyssa Lappen’s attack on Ammiel Alcalay in a rightwing online zine called The American Thinker, reprinted by the equally rabid but more widely read Campus Watch, Lorraine Graham posted a note to the Wom-Po List that pointed out that when

 

Ron Silliman and Leslie Scalapino gave a reading at Georgetown University in early February and there were two spooks there! They weren't even trying to hide the fact that they were clearly FBI agents. I'd temporarily forgotten until I saw them in their nice "hello, I work with a government security organization" suits that Silliman is a former editor of the Socialist Review. Both of them sat and took notes all through his talk on H.D., and Leslie Scalapino's talk as well. And they sat and took notes during the reading...Really, it was quite amazing…. I wonder if Silliman is used to it.

 

“Used to it” is a strange category. Actually, one conclusion that I’d drawn differently from Graham’s was that I had not assumed that these fellows were “clearly FBI agents.” There are more than a dozen intelligence agencies, with the FBI & CIA simply being the most widely known. Also, I had not presumed that they were there necessarily for me. Leslie's antiwar work has been both visible and articulate.

 

Surveillance is one of the ugliest aspects of American life & yet we know that it’s gone on for decades. When I was in high school, my ninth grade social sciences teacher was “named” by the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a “person of interest” they would like to talk to on some future occasion because he had a very retro jazz program on KPFA, the Pacifica radio network station in Berkeley. The local rightwing politicians who controlled Albany, California, politics at the time hounded him as a result until he quit his job in disgust.

 

My first conscious direct experience of it came in 1974, when I was working with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), a prison movement organization headquartered in San Rafael. After a year as a caseworker at CPHJ in 1972, I’d been loaned to the larger coalition of prison movement organizations – it was called the Committee of 2600, after the statute in the California Penal Code that declared that felons retained no civil rights while incarcerated – and was one of the organization’s lobbyists in Sacramento, where I successfully kept the construction of new prisons out of the state budget for several consecutive years. After heiress and UC undergrad Patty Hearst had been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, as confused a gaggle of ultra-leftists as ever existed, Hearst’s family had put up a “ransom” by starting a large food-to-the-impoverished program that it called People in Need. However, Cinque, the head of the SLA, had released audiotapes criticizing the program, which was in the process of collapsing into chaos, and the folks around the program, including the Hearst family and Patty’s then-fiancé Stephen Weed began to look for other alternatives. When Weed contacted the American Friends Service Committee & the Prisoners Union about the idea of redirecting several million dollars to the prison movement in general, red flags went up everywhere. The coalition decided to assign one person to act as the conduit to Weed & this idea and since Weed was a grad student in philosophy at Berkeley, I was the “logical” candidate.

 

So here I was with Stephen Weed coming to my front door on Missouri Street in San Francisco, which was also being visited by such folks as Popeye Jackson of the United Prisoners Union, a more radical prison movement group half-sponsored by Bruce Franklin’s Vinceremos Brigade out of Stanford.

 

My roommate and I began to hear old phone conversations when we picked up our phone. In those days, you only had one line hardwired into the wall, without any fancy answering machines, let alone recording services available. Sometimes these were conversations one or the other of us had had days before. This was, we presumed, what was known in the intelligence trade as an “open tail.” Somebody wanted us know that we were being watched, just to see what we would do. Yet we were never questioned about our activities in the slightest, tho we reminded each other that should the FBI ever come to the door, we should step outside and close the door behind us, so that they couldn’t come in and claim they were invited. Every activist in the 1960s & ‘70s knew that.

 

I spent the better part of a week with Weed, mostly at a flat over in the Marina that belonged to a professional race car driver buddy of his, but his plans collapsed after the SLA robbed a bank in the Sunset District in which Patty herself was photographed holding an automatic weapon.

 

Two years later, after Sara Jane Moore, an FBI “stringer” who had infiltrated the United Prisoners Union, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, I got a call from the FBI. My name and my phone number at CPHJ had been in her address book. I explained over the phone that I presumed my name & number was in the address book of everybody in the prison movement in Northern California & that ended that conversation.

 

But that incident made me stop & wonder just how much the FBI did have on me, so I used the Freedom of Information Act to request all intelligence files relating to me. I expected to see that phone conversation & the stuff about Stephen Weed & possibly something relating to an incident in 1970 when I had been briefly stopped by the Berkeley police after a bank robbery occurred on Solano Avenue. I lived a block from Solano and had stepped out of my house on my way to meet my first wife & a friend for dinner when a cop running down the street comes to a halt & draws his gun on me. I was spread-eagled against a parked car & the officer told the little microphone on his epaulet that he had “got him.” The FBI showed up in about five minutes, dressed in the 1970 equivalent of business casual. They wanted to know where the money & gun were & I told them I had neither, thank you. Once the bank’s manager came out to identify me, everything got straightened out. The cop had only heard a description that the suspect was a hippy with long blond hair, but the branch manager noted that the suspect was also a woman. At which point I was allowed to take my hands off the parked car and relax. But the FBI agents wouldn’t let me leave until they had checked my draft status & found that I was not wanted for evading the draft.

 

That is what I expected to find, but in fact none of those three events was mentioned even once in the 130 pages I received back, mostly from the FBI, with a few pages actually from the CIA. Most of what I got back related to my application for a conscientious objector’s status with the Selective Service. The FBI had gone around and talked to the janitor at my mother’s apartment & to the professors of classes that I had dropped in college (tho not, apparently, to professors whose classes I actually took). A lot of this looked to me like a federal government with too much money & too little to do until I noted the CIA material. The CIA had a stringer, someone who turned in reports & got paid apparently by the piece, in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Although his name was blanked out, I could tell exactly who it was – a grad student in the same apartment complex my wife & I had lived in during 1968-69. He had identified me as being involved in rallies during the San Francisco State student strike that fall. They were trying apparently to see if there was a larger coordination of student radicals between Berkeley & SF State & I was a likely candidate. In fact, I had been a grunt during all those political events, far too focused at the time on learning about poetry to want to get diverted into the venal realm of full-time politics.

 

Sometime after I got my files in 1976, they disappeared from the collective household I was living in on California Street in San Francisco. If it was a burglary, those files were all that were taken.

 

After working in the prison movement up through ’76, I worked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin as an organizer for the next five years, then shifted my work – after a year of teaching at SF State & UC San Diego – becoming a grad school administrator for another five years, doing political work basically on evenings & weekends with the Democratic Socialists of America, until I was selected as the executive editor of the Socialist Review. The CIA actually had multiple subscriptions to SR, but so did the Ethiopian air force and the premier of Greece. After three years at that job, I shifted into working in the computer industry. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be able to afford a family & the combination of non-profit wages & Bay Area housing prices made the private sector a necessity. My job at SR has always been on my resume & it never once proved the slightest detriment to getting hired by companies in the industry, including IBM.

 

Working in the industry, though, I have gotten to know some former spies. Market intelligence departments of large corporations – especially the pharmaceutical industry – have a fair number of these people and once they get used to the fact that they no longer get company cars and have to work from cubicles like everyone else, they’re pretty much the same as any other co-worker, except that they tend to gravitate toward high-adrenalin recreational activities.

 

This blog gets a steady trickle of readers from dot gov & dot mil addresses. Some of them may in fact be interested in the poetry – after all, from Christopher Marlowe to Basil Bunting & Roque Dalton, spying & poetry have intermingled. Once, when I read at the Ear Inn, I had a table full of kids in military haircuts right up front. When I read the line “Your haircut’s too political,” everyone at the table laughed (you can hear them on the Live at Ear recording, available now via PENNsound). It turned out that they were a group of cadets from West Point who had been ordered by their English prof to go into Manhattan to hear some live poetry. Since the Ear Inn was on a weekend afternoon and offered beer for sale, this was the perfect assignment.

 

Anyone who has read my work at all closely – spooks included – will note that one constant, dating all the way back to my days as conscientious objector in the mid-1960s, has been a serious & close reading of the U.S. Constitution & Declaration of Independence. If I’ve been an advocate for any principles, you will be able to find them enshrined there. Documents that you will note never once mention capitalism. But there are certainly periods when a serious reading of the Constitution will put you at odds with the government. The Nixon administration was one of those times & the current regime is another. My strategy has always been to be completely above board about what I do. But if/when they ever show up at the door, I’m stepping outside and closing the door behind me.



Tuesday, March 15, 2005

 

Presence is the center of attention. The old admonition Be here now literally is accurate. It is also exceptionally difficult. At or very near to the heart of Michael Rothenberg’s forthcoming book, Narcissus, is a 14-page linked poem annotating daily life as the poet criss-crosses America, starting from Colorado going southeast, then up the coast to New Jersey before turning west all the way to California. It’s a remarkable hymn to detail, a chorus in the great American tradition that starts with Whitman & still has so far yet to travel. If the poem has a direct antecedent, it’s Phil Whalen – no surprise there, given Michael’s work with the late Zen master – (and, behind that, Williams) but it has cousins in many different places, including Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Paul Blackburn’s Journals, work of Ted Berrigan & Anne Waldman, even, I dare say, the French writer Michel Butor’s great American road book, Mobile, which may or may not be a poem. Rothenberg’s poem is entitled “Narcissus Journal” and here is the entry for July 29:

 

Massapequa

Suburban circa 1940's house

Blue hibiscus

Red geranium

Europe from window of bus

Replica of Eiffel Tower

London scenes on black velvet

Bavarian mugs

Model of Concorde

Commemorative dishes of Coliseum

Hand-painted scenes of winter in Vermont on a crosscut-saw

Ship in a bottle

Tourist map of Bermuda 1609 in wood frame

 

Narcissus in white shorts, white shirt

Red hair

Cheeks aglow from riding about childhood haunts

in a rented convertible

 

*

 

Narcissus putting on make-up

 

Do I have sneakers to run?

11 a.m., I'm not ready yet

 

Sip second cup of coffee from a Florida palm tree coffee mug

Take another cup of coffee outside, sit beneath an umbrella

look down in a plastic pool. . .

Narcissus

 

*

 

We sit on a concrete bridge

The reflection of two faces turned in opposite directions


Rothenberg oscillates between the dramatized figure, literally a mask, and the specificity of particulars, but it’s the latter that flood the work with life, immanence, that now now now quality that keeps you absolutely riveted to the text. Whether we think of this as the poetic journal or simply a linked verse text, my own sense is that you can divide examples such as those I gave above into two basic categories – those who approach with a reading & sympathy for the work of Phil Whalen, who brought an understanding of the Japanese literary tradition to the mode, and those (like Williams & Butor & to some degree Blackburn) who approach it almost entirely from a Eurocentric background. The Whalen-Berrigan-Waldman-Rothenberg line I suspect will prove hardier over time, because it situates the daily in a philosophical frame to which the mode is ideally suited. It’s a genre that I expect we will still be reading one, two hundred years from now.

 

One reason I focus on Whalen & his influences is because of the other major poetics tradition that centered much of its work on particularities that isn’t represented really by any of these examples, so much so that its absence is telling: the Objectivists. I don’t think there’s a way here to trace influences back, say, from “Narcissus Journal” to Of Being Numerous, even if each is an instance of linked verse. The Objectivists were every bit as particular – indeed, that’s their strength as a group – but they weren’t daily. The notational or even occasional is really outside of their ken, they just did not get it.

 

Happily, tho, there are poets that do. One of these is in fact Michael Rothenberg. His is a generous, open, joyous voice, even when he’s being contemplative or angry. Narcissus will be published by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed). One of the poems, in fact, is a collaboration between Rothenberg & Kervinen. Once the Spring 2005 list goes up on the website, you will be able to download it for free.



Monday, March 14, 2005

 

 

I have sometimes said that at least part of the reason why Jack Gilbert has been so vituperative in his rejection of language poetry is because, were he but a bit younger, he would have been a language poet himself. I was thinking of this reading the profile of Jack in the current issue of Poets and Writers. In some ways, the article suggests that Jack hasn’t changed a bit. But the romantic posturing that looks sweet & foolish in a young man seems completely embarrassing in someone turning 80 & the piece left me depressed for days.

 

I first met Jack in the fall of 1966. I was his student at San Francisco State the following spring &, eleven years after that, we read together at the Poetry Center. We’ve always gotten along personally, tho we’ve always argued. The very first time I met Jack, I was sitting on the sloping lawn of the quad on campus with some friends exclaiming at how terrific the work of Louis Zukofsky was. Jack listened to this, then announced that he had just published a review of Zukofsky saying that what was wrong with the man was that he didn’t write poetry that a teenager could appreciate. I was out of my teens at the time by about all of eight weeks.

 

What I liked most about Jack was his utter commitment to writing – he would rail at the other faculty members in the creative writing department at SF State who wouldn’t walk 100 yards down to the “gallery lounge” to hear Allen Ginsberg or George Starbuck or Carolyn Kizer or Lew Welch. For a kid who’d grown up largely without male models for anything, seeing a grown man with this degree of commitment for the poem was enormously helpful. It was in Jack’s class where I first met Robert Duncan & George Stanley. Gilbert had been something of a protégé of Stephen Spender, but had arrived in San Francisco in the 1950s in time to take Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop, a detail he never neglected to mention. He must have been the oddest character in a group that could have blended into a bar scene in Star Wars. And his commitment to his students was equally complete: he organized a birthday party on a psychiatric ward for my first wife, who was hospitalized at the time.

 

Four years before I’d met him, Gilbert had won the Yale Younger Poets prize, back in the days when the brand still had some meaning. But it was a poem that he published in a special issue of Genesis West also in 1962 that had the greatest influence on me – it certainly had a fair amount to do with opening me up to the possibility of language poetry when I first met Bob Grenier a few years later. And it’s what I mean, frankly, when I say that Jack could have been exactly that.

 

The Genesis West feature is very much a Gilbert phenomenon, in that his poems for the most part are printed on the right-hand page with extravagant salutary statements on the left, after the obligatory photograph highlighting his intense good looks (in those days the comparison would have been to Montgomery Clift, but in actuality he looked more like a younger, shorter Jeremy Irons). The very first such quote comes from Kenneth Rexroth, but on the next left-hand page are four more from F.W. Bateson, Dudley Fitts (who had picked Gilbert’s manuscript for the Yale series), Theodore Roethke & Muriel Rukeyser. The next quotation, the longest one, is from Denise Levertov. After that, one from Stanley Kunitz. Then, broken into lines, a cable from Stephen Spender. Finally a quote from The Times, tho it is not clear whether it is the New York or London publication. There are just eight poems surrounded by all this praise, followed by a 12-page interview conducted by Gordon Lish (who would go on to become the quintessential New York trade press editor). It is worth noting just how carefully the New American types are contrasted with the School of Quietude in that sequence.

 

The poem I’m thinking of faces the Kunitz comment & it’s the first two lines in particular that point directly toward langpo. The title is “Singing in My Difficult Mountains”:

 

Helot for what time there is
In the baptist hegemony of death.

For what time there is summer,

Island, cornice. Weeping

And singing of what declines

Into the earth. But of having,

Not of not having. What abounds.

Amazed morning after morning

By the yielding. What times there are.

My fine house that love is.

 

With four decades' hindsight, I can see now the degree to which Jack’s strategies in this ten-line stanza are derived from the influence of Gilbert’s old Pittsburgh homeboy Gerald Stern: the use of incomplete sentences, the mid-line periods. Yet what really strikes me is the Olsonian element of those first two lines (and, not coincidentally, the last line as well). Helot for what time there is / In the baptist hegemony of death. The language is deliberately torqued almost to the point of absolute opacity – the two nouns that are not selected for their strangeness are – no accident here – time and death. If Jack was interested in communicating here, he would have written something more along the lines of Slave for what time there is / In the pure onslaught of death. But he didn’t, he gave the language what I suspect he may have thought of as a Shakespearean twist both there & in the deliberate inversion of the last line that puts its final emphasis on not just a verb, but the least active verb there is, so that it must absorb the weight of what’s come before.¹

 

Two pages later, Gilbert’s next poem is an imitation – I’ve heard Jack himself call it that – of Robert Duncan, whose title is its first line:

 

“Perspective,” he would mutter, going to bed.

“Oh che dolce cosa e questa

Prospettiva.” Uccello. Bird.

 

And I am as greedy of her, that the black

Horse of the literal world might come

Directly on me. Perspective. A place

 

To stand. To receive. A place to go

Into from. The earth by language.

 

Who can imagine antelope silent

Under the night rain, the Gulf

At Biloxi at night else? I remember

 

In Mexico a man and a boy painting

An adobe house magenta and crimson

Who thought they were painting it red. Or pretty.

 

So neither saw the brown mountains

Move to manage that great house.

 

The horse wades in the city of grammar.

 

The earth by language…the city of grammar. Gilbert can almost feel it, but he can only talk about it & that coming right to the edge of language writing without ever getting there is sort of the tantric sex of this & so many other of his first-rate works. I remember at the time thinking that the phrase “Or pretty” juts out there so awkwardly, it functions almost as a scar of sincerity on the work itself.

 

These are in fact fine poems, especially if you can get past the yawning sentimentality that is at the heart of so many of his heroic-tragic images – there is a side of him that is very much Jeff Koons without the irony – but they aren’t language poetry so much as a demand that it needs to exist. Having studied with Jack – and a Jack Gilbert who very much directed my reading towards the likes of Duncan & Spicer – it seems obvious to me in retrospect that when I finally got it, could see not only writing about language but through it, I would have to take that path. The great tragedy is that Jack himself never took that step.

 

 

 

 

¹ The passive verb of being is very close in kind to the incomplete sentence itself, two devices that are often frowned upon by undergraduate English teachers, but on which an enormous amount of contemporary literature rests. No one has written more intelligently about this phenomenon that Barrett Watten in his great essay on the work of Larry Eigner. If you look at how Gilbert uses these devices here, you can also see how it reflects of another poet almost as deeply an isolato as Gilbert: William Bronk.



Sunday, March 13, 2005

 

big

 

Didi Menendez offers this version of a portrait, much more flattering than Jim Behrle’s. I was never this good looking.



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