Saturday, April 30, 2005

 

The real Pere Ubu: Kenny Goldsmith

 

News that stays news: Ubuweb & Dial-a-Poem in the New York Times, oh my.



 

Jack Spicer’s back. But this time he’s an “evil boy genius” with “his custom-built robot army” in the anime TV series, Xiaolin Showdown. The series’ website goes on to call Spicer as a

wannabe bad guy that dresses in goth clothing and is bent on world domination. He has a bad attitude, and will always chew out the people who don't agree with what he thinks is best.

Sounds about right, tho the clothing is a bit stylish. Co-incidence or in-joke? On a show whose title is that prosodically cool? The series runs, so far as I can tell, on WB Kids.

My thanks, if that’s the right word, to George Kalamaras, who first found it & passed it on to Kent Johnson, who sent it here.



Friday, April 29, 2005

 

As I noted yesterday, Diane Wakoski’s question wasn’t just about the importance of our early social networks in creating the grounds for our work as poets – offering us publishers, readers, feedback – but, in her own words,

So much cross pollination that when received innocently can be used to its best purpose – to allow us to find our unique and richest voices.

Voices is the word that stopped me. This is, I suspect, the point where Wakoski is, at some deep level, still a projectivist, closer to Ed Dorn & Charles Olson & even Amiri Baraka, than, say, to Bruce Andrews or Charles Bernstein. I, on the other, hand reverse those dynamics.

Over the years, I have spelled out my objections to the concept of voice, save in the sense that music theorist Peter Yates once proposed, that of aesthetic consistency. But I know what Wakoski is driving at here, and in fact her point is not necessarily at odds with my sense of aesthetic consistency, so lets try to tease out a little what it suggests or implies.

What it might mean – if she or I were Billy Collins – would be an aesthetic consistency that resolves simply into a single psychological entity: you could give it a name & put a hat on it. Wakoski does make use of persona & character, but with an edginess & depth you’ll never find in one of those poems Ted Kooser vetted through his secretary to ensure that she "understood" it. Charles Olson used persona as well – Maximus is all persona, as elaborate & fascinating as any in 20th century literature. But that’s not what Wakoski – nor really even Olson beyond her – means by voice.

Voice rather is the instinctual palette of devices through which a poet hears, feels & thinks through his or her work. Earlier in that same paragraph, Wakoski calls it a poetics:

how our poetics really are shaped by the people who are our friends when we are young writers. I think it's putting together the aesthetics/poetics of our friends and making some connection with our own, the we shape ourselves.

The four people she cites for her own example – Jackson Mac Low, Thom Gunn, Jack Spicer & Jack Gilbert – are all radically different from one another, and from Diane Wakoski. If there is anything they have in common beyond using English in which to write, it’s that each was an uncompromising writer, perfectly comfortable as the only example of whatever it was they were doing, regardless of trends throughout the rest of literature. Indeed, the pair of Jacks in this hand have each become quite regarded as cranks for their obstinate refusal to participate in the politer games of the writing scene.

I never knew Spicer – the Killian/Ellingham bio suggests that we were at the same party once during the 1965 Berkeley poetry conference, but I was the utterly clueless teenager in Allen Ginsberg’s posse at that point, unaware that the big guy in the room must have been Charles Olson, while Spicer was only a few weeks from his death from alcoholism – but Gilbert would show up on my own list as well. In my case, what I took from Gilbert – especially important in my having grown up with virtually no male model for how to be an adult – was his passionate commitment to poetry. There is also in the best of Jack’s early poetry a radical commitment to the materiality of language. As I’ve noted here before, that is still the only way I can account for lines such as:

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

Island, cornice.

This is, Google tells me, the fifth time I’ve quoted at least those first two lines in this blog – it’s a passage I’ve returned to again & again, as or even more often than any equivalent passage I can think of in Creeley or Spicer. Between the use of unexpected terms in the first sentence & the logic of that list in the second, this passage seemed as clear a demonstration as one could want as to why “accessibility” is almost never preferable in poetry to opacity. It was an “Aha” experience for me, but not one that I really could use for a few years, until I got to know Bob Grenier at Berkeley. Even then, I remember being slow to generalize from what I could see Grenier doing – his writing in those days was quite public, he would literally sit down at a party and start writing, reading aloud as he scribbled. I was aware of Clark Coolidge’s early books, Space & Ing, but my sense was that Bob was focused on language, Clark more on sound patterns, bop prosody, etc., until another friend, Barrett Watten, literally sat me down & pointed out the humor in Coolidge’s work, something that Clark in turn got from Jonathan Williams & Phil Whalen. At which point, Coolidge’s poetry suddenly opened up for me.

How much of that is (or is not) visible/audible in my own “voice”? Another factor for me – one that lies beyond the terrain of personal connections – was Faulkner’s prose. I remember that literally for years I would work in blank “sketch pad” notebooks attempts at figuring out what was so compelling for me about the opening of The Sound and the Fury:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.

Much of The Sound and the Fury strikes me as an imitation of Joyce’s Ulysses, but not the section that is told from the perspective of Ben, the developmentally disabled – Faulkner doesn’t use that phrase – brother. It’s precisely because the character cannot distinguish what is or is not meaningful in any given scene that he tells it as he sees it. It’s a fascinating presentation – and from the perspective of literary trompe loeil, something that cannot be replicated in any other medium. Grammatically, the sentence pans from a close focus on the frame to the golfers who the young man observes. To carry it on for a sentence or paragraph or page is hard enough, but Faulkner manages it for 92 pages in my Vintage paperback.

One serious difference between the poets I was talking to – David Bromige, Rochelle Nameroff, David Melnick were all centrally important to me during these years – and my interest in Faulkner was that there was almost nowhere for me to go with that obsession. It wasn’t as if these writers hadn’t read Faulkner, or didn’t think about his work, but there was nothing like the community of discussion one could find for the work of Creeley or Zukofsky or Clark Coolidge. I was just beginning to realize that prose & poetry were not only formally different, but that they were socially different as well.

Yet the question for me, reading Faulkner, was never how to write novels or even fiction, but rather how to bring into the poem what I sensed there in his prose, and in that of very few other fiction writers. That felt like an unanswered question for nearly five years. Having studied with George Hitchcock at San Francisco State, I was aware of the tradition of the prose poem that was being propounded in his journal Kayak & elsewhere, the Max Jacob-inflected prose poem as whimsical miniature, which always felt like the cheap side of surrealism to me. That was obviously not a solution.

The keys to answering my question came from a very different direction, three other friends – Barrett Watten, Bob Grenier & Kathy Acker – each of whom had distinctly different things to teach me. Watten, more than anything, showed me how a commitment to poetry as passionate as Gilbert’s made much more sense if only one understood it as an intellectual project. Where Jack’s work struck me as stuck on the surface, captured in his rhetoric of truth & beauty, romantic “truths” that are in fact fatal attractions, it was Watten who demonstrated, in his poems & in his person, the depth of possibility that lie in the poem.

Grenier & Acker, in very different (but complementary) ways, showed me that one’s work could force one into a position where one had – absolutely compulsory – had to write that which had not been done before. And that you needed not to worry if it looked weird or bizarre just because it was unfamiliar territory, to you as well as to any possible readers.

Which I did not get to, in my own poetry, until that day in 1974 – I was waiting for Rochelle Nameroff to come have lunch in some diner near then world-headquarters of Bank of America, watching that building’s workers pour out through its revolving doors – that I began to set things down in prose, but not a traditionally narrative prose. The sensation was quite instantaneous – I was 28 at the time & had been publishing for nine years, but I suddenly felt as if I had begun to do my own writing, my writing, for the very first time. The poem evolved into Ketjak.

That, I think, is what Diane Wakoski is driving after when she uses the phrase “our unique and richest voices,” and while I would never choose those words – I still have an aversion to the metaphor of voice – can hear that. And I can’t argue with her about the role of friends – there is no way I can discuss the evolution of my own poetry without them – this sketch just skims the surface of a far deeper debt than I ever can acknowledge. I thank them all.



Thursday, April 28, 2005

 

Diane Wakoski wrote me the other day:

I'd like to read on the blog, should you care to write one, your dissertation on how our poetics really are shaped by the people who are our friends when we are young writers. I think it's putting together the aesthetics/poetics of our friends and making some connection with our own, the we shape ourselves. Jackson Mac Low influenced me deeply in those days, though my work doesn't overtly show it. Spicer, of course. Thom Gunn, naturally, because I studied with him. Jack Gilbert, because of our talks. So much cross pollination that when received innocently can be used to its best purpose – to allow us to find our unique and richest voices.

And then somebody asked me – a question I get a lot – To whom should I send my manuscript of poems? Who will publish me?

I wrote that person, as I almost always do, that the truth is that you probably already know your first, second, third book publisher. They may not yet know they’re a publisher of books yet, but someday they will be. And when they do, the people whose work matters most to them will also include the people who themselves matter most to them. And almost invariably they will do the very best job imaginable getting your work out to the readers who actually want to know you exist. Building those social communities is what the poetry scene is all about – indeed, it’s why there can be so many productive & fruitful participants in the scene who themselves maybe don’t publish poetry, or do so hardly at all. When was the last time Larry Fagin had a big book out? Never is when.

That advice is a bit of overstatement of course. Some publishers do print people – even largely unpublished people – whom they themselves do not know, or whom they know only slightly. Laura Sims has had work in Fence magazine – that’s one way to get to know people – but I really doubt that the publishers of Fence Books could be called friends. Still, the word on the street is that a book is forthcoming. That’s good news, but it’s still one of those exceptions that proves the rule.

Then, on another blog, I saw a link to Chris Hamilton-Emery’s hard headed and generous essay on “Making Poetry Submissions” on the Salt website. His advice is slightly different than mine, but not really – his admonition to get involved in the literary community is exactly correct. The reason so many young poets run reading series, edit magazines & even publish books is that it gives them enormous access into a broader community & it’s out of that social network that writers find their publishers and their readers.

But it’s not always easy or without pain, as Gary Norris underscores in his comments to my blognote on Shiny. Gary’s note reminded me, in particular, of a period in my life when I had distinctly schizy reactions to the literary scenes in my life, precisely because they struck me as disconnected in different ways. This period was the early-to-mid 1970s in San Francisco. At the time, I had been publishing in small press publications since 1965, & had appeared in some strange places (Poetry, TriQuarterly, Southern Review, Poetry Northwest) as well in journals that I took far more seriously, such as Caterpillar & This. Yet during the period I’m thinking about, say 1971 through ’75, I found that if my work appeared in a journal that was published anywhere beyond the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area (which included The Chicago Review & Alcheringa, but also Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling anthologies, Baloney Street, Roy Rogers, Gum, Salt Lick, Shelter & Diana’s Bimonthly), it was as if nothing had happened at all. Certainly none of my friends in San Francisco seemed to read these publications, unless I gave them one of my contributor’s copies. At the same time, virtually nobody outside of my immediate circle of friends in the Bay Area seemed to have heard of This, L or Tottel’s, published respectively by Barrett Watten (with Bob Grenier’s assistance on the first issue or two), Curtis Faville, and yours truly. Language poetry was already in full flower in these latter journals, but nobody outside of us seemed to recognize it. Yet at the same time I was getting positive feedback – publishing, the most concrete kind – from the larger literary world. But these two social realms hardly knew about one another, and it would take a few years for them to really commingle. And much longer for them to feel comfortable with one another.

So I hear what Diane is saying. But I hear what Gary is saying also. Both sides of this equation are true, I think. You really do depend mightily on your friendships – when I talk about poetry & community, that first inner rung is central. I will always have been advantaged, greatly, by the fact that by the age of 24 or thereabouts I already knew Rae Armantrout, Barrett Watten, David Melnick, David Bromige, Robert Duncan, Robert Kelly, Jack Gilbert (somebody who shows up on both Diane’s list & my own, tho neither of us write anything remotely like him) & many others. I’ve had very different relationships with each of these individuals – Kelly & I have only met in person a few times, for example – but the impact of each has been profound. David McAleavey, who published my first book, came out of this same social network, someone I met at first through David Melnick, as we tried to convince the UC Berkeley literary magazine Occident to start publishing the likes of Bromige or David Shapiro. Ray DiPalma, who published my second book, was also somebody whom McAleavey had published at Ithaca House (as he did Melnick & Bob Perelman as well), which is how I first met Ray. Of all my books, I’ve known all but three or four of the publishers well in advance of the project of the book itself. Of the exceptions, one was Rosmarie Waldrop, who published nox because she supports the idea of new writing from unknowns, and the others were all people who knew who I was first: Manuel Brito, John Byrum, Tom Bynum.

I first met Bromige when I went to hear Harvey Bialy read back in 1968. After the reading, I was hitch-hiking back to my apartment in Oakland when I got a ride from somebody who recognized me from the reading, which was how I met David Melnick. But he had been the roommate in Chicago of Iven Lourie, who had published my work in Chicago Review. Paul Mariah, who I wrote about a few days go in relationship to the Spicer Circle, was the MC that night, a reading in the very same two-room library where, six years earlier, I had discovered William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music & realized I was going to be a poet. Melnick still tells me that my reading style is taken directly from Mariah’s (I deny it).

That seems to be an awfully concentrated amount of good luck. As a kid who functionally didn’t move from his home town until he was 48, I was fortunate in having my home be the SF Bay Area. The world of poetry came to me. For somebody born & raised on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, that same set of circumstances could feel like a crippling disadvantage. Today at least the internet erases the geographic gap if one makes the slightest effort. That’s still a big if.

Tomorrow, I want to address the other side of Diane’s question, which wasn’t about publishing at all, but about voice.



Wednesday, April 27, 2005

 

Curtis Faville, as you must have realized by now, is an old friend, someone I’ve known since we attended UC Berkeley together circa 1970. Curtis' selected early poems, Stanzas for an Evening Out remains one of the great books of the 1970s. If he had not abandoned writing (temporarily as it turned out) at the time I was editing In the American Tree, his long poem “Aubade” would have been included. Nowadays, Curtis runs Compass Rose Books, a rare book business.

RealPoetik is an email poetry zine sent out, I think, once a week. Along with Halvard Johnson’s Poems by Others, the one other email zine I read regularly, it’s been a constant source of interesting work over the years. RealPoetik has been edited by a number of folks over the years. These days it’s in the able hands of Kirby Olson, who first got to know Curtis through the comments boxes on my blog. To get on the RealPoetik list, drop a note to owner-realpoetik@scn.org or to Kirby directly at olsonjk@delhi.edu.

Here is the RealPoetik Faville issue, which was published on April 21.

 

Curtis Faville is known to many in the poetry community as an articulate and erudite discussant on Ron Silliman's enormously popular blog – http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com – many have never seen Faville's own poetry. Here are a few recent pieces he agreed to let me publish. After the poetry is a brief overview of his life and career. – Kirby Olson

 

The Wheel

The unconceived stand ranked as if in gallery
lobby to be realized, love¹s abortion
that left them along the way, unrejected
Platonic in barren infinitesimal spaces

The game fixed by chance, we hardly imagine
their agon, brief as mayfly daydreams
that hover whirring above the wimpling
stream, windswept cylinder of flux

Dreams of the same rehearsal fascinate
divert the curse of nations, migrations
through winters of compulsion
to a simple lust: the word made fresh

__________________


Near Alencon

Hovering traceries of maple cloister
the misted grey air north of
Alencon. Depth recedes as we trudge a
spongy track at meadow¹s edge
towards medieval fastnesses, forest echoes.

.

Stones of Normandy, release your wobbling
riddle: How placed in tandem
to earth and force, the cradle of
valor was thrust up amongst peasant
and peregrine equally to a pitiless aftermath.

.

Light clings to covert among smooth
boles, occasional bird whirrs
crisply at day¹s edge, autumnal burns
flickering along a doomed horizon as
nearer we draw even¹s conjuring fire.

___________________

 

These are from the first bound copy of my new book, called Metro [Privately Printed, 2005].

These are chosen at random from that book:

___________________


GIN LIKE WATER

 

gin like sound


.

 

materiality, the fly

 

is BLACK &

 

FUZZY


.

 

S P E L L I T

 

spills from the box


.

 

  C    H    I    N    E    S    E

 

brush       strokes      on       water


.

 

ORANGE AS

 

persimmons in season bitterly sweet

 

yet cloying


.

 

     S I L V E R   H A L I D E S

 

hay barn dust thru boards' particled light


.

 

FIJI

 

lip liner on the sunset


.

 

WILDE WILDE WEST

 

imagine Oscar in St. Louis


_________________

I graduated from Berkeley in English in 1970, MFA Poetry and MA English from University of Iowa, Master's Certificate in Landscape Architecture from Berkeley. 27 years with DHW in San Francisco. Large format photographer. Landscape Designer. Composer of music for keyboard and guitar. Erstwhile writer of poetry (abandoned novel Dominique, or Chance Regained). Gourmand and connoisseur of fine wines, single malt scotch, and the well-made cocktail. Three Siamese cats. One wife of 36 years. Alfa Romeo convertible. Presently full-time antiquarian/rare book dealer specializing in modern firsts, poetry, photography and gastronomy, genres. Widely traveled in U.S., Europe. One year in Japan (1985). Born 1947 (Leo). Midwestern parentage. Father was a conscientious objector, architect. Mother was photographic retoucher, manuscript typist (for Jessamyn West, Arthur Hailey, and M.F.K. Fisher). Grew up in Napa, California in the tame and shorn 1950's, the wild and woolly 1960's. Lapsed Presbyterian. God forbid.

Curtis Faville
Kensington
California



Tuesday, April 26, 2005

 

Erica Hunt

 

Erica Hunt & Christian Bök gave a great reading last Thursday. It wasn’t, however, the same reading – Hunt was at Kelly Writers House, headlining a celebration of Carolina Wren Press authors, Bök was at Temple University’s reading series. The two events were, however, timed so that the ambitious among us could hear both. And their co-readers, for the most part, were excellent as well. Betwixt the two, it was three hours of great listening. And it reminded me that three hours of top-notch poetry beats a three-hour movie any day.

Hunt read with Evie Shockley & Andrea Selch, two poets whom I had never heard of nor read before I arrived at Writers House. Shockley has an interesting history – she started out as a lawyer before making the very uneconomic decision to move to poetry instead. Yet her work, at least as evidenced by her reading & the poems in The Gorgon Goddess felt tentative to me. She has something of a tin ear – an unusual problem for a poet – and seems much more interested in the stories she’s telling, especially in the characters being portrayed, than in how this is being conveyed. Yet a number of her poems were about people whom she knew only through the media: Michael Jackson, Anita Hill. That’s a writing strategy that always feels like a trap to me: using what the audience already knows about a character to develop interest, rather than in the details themselves. The result was that the poems themselves felt timid & bland. Not once in her reading did she use a line break for an enjambment, or for any effect at all, even in the works employing rhyme. Listening to her, I had the sensation that I was hearing somebody who was not yet a novelist, but who was heading there, toward a genre more suited to her interests & skills. But she’ll have to start writing about things & people she knows first.

Like Shockley, Andrea Selch is a poet whose orientation one might align with the School of Quietude. But there is nothing very quiet about Andrea Selch. Her poems, even the most conventional ones, show a wonderfully rich vocabulary & a real sense of how tease out the tension between syntax and the line. The first stanza of her Carolina Wren Press volume, Succory, shows her ability to generate & control complex effects:

Slow, the green came, weaning
the white bud from its tight swaddle of leaves.
Below, the slim stalk hardened;
each evening, stark against the muggy pane,
its veins drew closer in and spined like bark,
and you moved about the room, oblivious.

I hear this stanza as an extended strategy, deploying vowels to invoke responses not otherwise articulatable in words. The lo combination of the first word sets it up: we’ll find it again in both Below and closer, their combined reiterations preparing us for the o-rich final line, and especially that key sonic reversal of the phonemes that shows up in oblivious. To ensure the effect, she uses long e and a sounds in the earlier lines, plus those two bright long i sounds: tight & spined. As the stanza develops, the dominance of the vowels in the first lines opens up to enable the sharp contrast of the k in stalk, stark and most importantly bark (whose end-of-line power is accented by the foreshadowing in that same line at the beginning of closer). Thus to be presented at last with a line entirely governed by different uses of o has an impact as powerful as being thrown into a swimming pool. You feel immersed in this very different kinesthetic environment.

Selch’s chapbook from Carolina Wren was published five years ago, and maybe half of it finds its way again into her more recent Startling from Turning Point. There, they’re accompanied by a wide range of new poems, including one group of acrostic poems about sexually transmitted diseases, e.g.,

Cautious in all things she always has been;
Hardly aware of how it makes her seem that she
Lists among her daily errands even
”An unexpected kiss” as if exact apportionment of love
Might afford this graying marriage a youthful glow.
Yet no prophylaxis – emotional or otherwise – can
Delay the onset of midlife dalliance:
In theory, infidelity is instinctive.
And now, catcher herself about to scratch, she knows it.

If you’ve read the leftmost letters of each line vertically, you’ll know this poem is entitled “Chlamydia.” An even more complex group of poems, “Euphonics,” though not always as successful as the works I’ve quoted here, deploy individual letters across their texts in ways that recall the strategies of Oulipo.

Of the original contributors to In the American Tree, a few have proven quite circumspect about the amount of writing they’ve gone on to publish. Hardly any has written as well over the past thirty years as has Erica Hunt, with only a few too-slim volumes to her résumé. Part of this no doubt has to do with Hunt’s extraordinarily active professional life. She is the President of The Twenty-First Century Foundation, one of the few endowed, black governed foundations in the U.S; the Vice Chair of the Board of NYRAG, the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers; the Secretary of the Board of the National Center for Black Philanthropy; and a member of the program advisory committee of Changemakers, an organization that supports community-based philanthropy. She is also a parent, a spouse & one hell of a poet.

Hunt uses discourse, rhetorics, social tones in her work the way Selch uses vowels & consonants. Hunt’s poems – the majority of which are in prose – are complex weavings of carefully heard tones, a highly cognitive & even political music. Hunt read from Piece Logic, including the riveting “House of Broken Things,” as well as from a new work, The Mood Librarian, a series of aphorisms or aphoristic-like texts. It will be interesting to see these on the page. A marked affect of the best poetry is that you can’t take it all in aurally – you’re trying to think about this line & that image as the next three are already going by. If you can get it, you find your ability to hear/think/feel expand in the process. This is a characteristic feature of any Shakespeare play & it’s one you’ll find in Erica Hunt’s work as well. The self-containment strategies of Librarian (what an Olsonian word that’s become!) at least present the possibility of getting “all of it” in way that is hard to accomplish with her more layered texts. Writers House recorded the readings &, I’m told, PENNsound will eventually post them to the web. When they do, Hunt’s reading falls into those must-listen-to categories. The richness of the work is sometimes belied by the ease with which she reads, the confidence I think that comes from knowing that she’s at the top of her game.

The reading at Writers House had an audience of maybe 20 people, giving it the feel of an intimate jewel – our collective secret. Afterwards, several of us (including Selch, Hunt & Carolina Press poetry chapbook editor David Kellogg) made our way two miles north to Temple University’s City Center site (locally known as TUCC), to the fluorescent glare of a large classroom in which Brennen Lucas & Christian Bök were to read. The room was packed, with about 120 people in attendance, an index of the rock star-like effect Bök brings out in readers.

Lucas read first & in the Temple tradition of always pairing up a “student poet” with the featured reader, went quickly, reading the final passages of a booklength manuscript, entitled Guide to Poetry. This text, or at least the portion of it I heard at TUCC, is almost apocalyptic rant constructed out of an exceptional flow of parallel constructions (interwoven with sonic undertones a la Selch & more than a few puns). My instant reaction was that this might have been like the experience one would have had to go hear William Blake give a reading. Indeed, it would have blown many another “featured reader” (including yours truly) off the stage – everyone would have gone home talking only of Lucas.

Bök, however, is not just any other featured reader – he may be the best living oral presenter of poetry we have, which is not an accident since he is the man who has demonstrated, along with his Canadian colleagues The Four Horsemen & Penn Kemp, that sound poetry is not nostalgia for Zurich in the 1920s, but continues to evolve & can be a genre in which great work is produced. Whoever paired Lucas with Bök – Jena Osman, I believe – had the genius of putting Lucas alongside one of the relatively few performers whose reading wouldn’t seem a faint after-effect in contrast.

There must be a rule in the sound poet’s union that one is forced to perform some Kurt Schwitters & Hugo Ball at any given presentation & Bök is a member in good standing, in fact a brilliant re-enacter, but it’s really in his own works where the event takes off. Indeed Ball & Schwitters serve almost as aural palette cleansers between courses of Bök’s own texts. Inevitably, Bök read a substantial portion of Eunoia, the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history, a notable feat in land of Leonard Cohen. As its title suggests, the poem is indeed filled with beautiful thinking. Bök’s style is to read rapidly, yet emphasizing every word. It sort of sounds like this:

BÖK’S! STYLE! IS! TO! READ! RAPIDLY! YET! EMPHASIZING! EVERY! WORD!

Listening is, at once, exhilarating & draining. It is also, for anyone who has ever given a reading or even an oral presentation in front of live human beings, completely awe inspiring. One text, which Bök characterized as “a rondeaux inspired by drum machines” and which includes only sounds made by the tongue and lips – like a jug band soloist – leaves one quite aware that this is something one should never try without an enormous amount of practice – and a lot of confidence. It’s sort of the X-game version of a poetry reading.

The two readings together could not have been more different: one intimate, the other bordering on a circus, with four of the five readers offering radically dissimilar and complete visions of what a rich & complex poetics might look & sound like. As I made my way toward my car down 15th Street, I felt as if I’d just seen all three Godfather movies back to back. As a scene, I thought, Philly is doing alright.



Monday, April 25, 2005

 

Nothing, literally nothing, angers me more than overt intellectual dishonesty. When Jacques Derrida misrepresented Roman Jakobson’s work in Of Grammatology, conflating it with a crude version of Saussure, simply so that Derrida could then “knock off” everything else Jacobson stood for, it told me that Derrida was interested much more in power than in the integrity or value of his argument. One need only read the excised passages from Jakobson’s source texts to realize that Derrida was doing a cut-&-paste hatchet job. From that moment forward, every word I ever read of Derrida’s was colored with distrust. Read but verify became the order of the day.

Imagine if you will, then, my reaction at seeing in the introduction to a relatively new poetry anthology entitled 180 More, edited by Billy Collins, former poet laureate, the following claim:

Here is how an inaccessible poem begins:

Streamline to instantaneous
voucher in / voucher out
system.

Collins is defending his preference for allegedly accessible poetry, ostensibly mediating a dispute between Dana Gioia & Auggie Kleinzhaler. These lines are, as he notes, from Rae Armantrout’s “Up to Speed,” the title poem of her most recent book & the very first piece one finds upon opening The Best American Poetry 2002, edited by Robert Creeley. But this is just the first stanza from a poem written in five sections. Let’s pull our editorial camera back just a little to bring the entire first segment into view:

Streamline to instantaneous
voucher in/voucher out
system.

The plot winnows.

The Sphinx
wants me to guess.

Does a road
run its whole length
at once?

Does a creature
curve to meet
itself?

Whirlette!

Even in the fourth line, the “difficulty” of the first triad is contextualized. The third stanza presents the situation again, this time angled into a more overtly humorous tone. The fourth stanza presents it rather in the manner of a Zen koan. So does the fifth, calling up the image of a dog perpetually chasing its tale. Which is precisely what is named (or characterized, take your pick) in the final one-word strophe.

What is the subject of this “inaccessible” passage? Accessibility!

Or – because Armantrout is a far more subtle poet than this – it’s about the push-pull between the intractability of meaning (what I might call opacity tho a philosopher might prefer immanence) & a consumer’s desire to have it all, right now! You can bet Armantrout’s making fun of that impulse! And setting up the first stanza in procedural terms, a discourse of process rather than image, is precisely the distancing effect needed to act out this dynamic, the reader trying to identify just which system has been streamlined into an “instantaneous voucher in / voucher out.” The stanza is the process that it’s talking about. It would be hard to be more literal than this. Inaccessible? One can only wonder, dumb struck, at the literacy level at which this becomes inaccessible.

Here is what Collins has to say on the preceding page about the subject of accessibility:

I would suggest, “accessible” would mean “easy to enter,” like a building. An accessible poem has a clear entrance, a front door through which the reader may pass into the body of the poem whose overall “accessibility” – i.e., availability of meaning – remains to be seen and may vary widely. This more restricted use of the word would remove it from the stone-throwing argument between the camp of Clarity and the camp of Difficulty and require those combatants to come up with more specific and illuminating terms. After all, we may not be able to concur on the aesthetic worth of an architectural structure, but we can all agree that the building in either open or locked.

To pick as his example of inaccessibility a poem that – in perfectly literal terms – makes fun of his own position means what? That Billy Collins can’t read? Or that he can’t tolerate disagreement? I’ll wager that he imagines himself to be a part of the “camp of Clarity” in spite of his own self-obtuseness here.

Which bring me to Collins’ own, government sponsored website, Poetry 180, to which the anthology with this mind-boggling exercise in self-canceling logic is related. The premise is simple enough, to offer one poem for each day of the school year, targeted at high school students. Yet, far from being above the fray of the two camps envisaged by that paragraph above, a look at the actually existing poems included on the site shows Collins to be an exceptionally militant master of ceremonies. Consider the current table of contents. Of the 180 poems, composed by 139 writers, there are exactly two by contributors to the New American Poetry, one by Edward Field, one by the late Paul Blackburn. There is one poem by Richard Brautigan & another by Ron Padgett. That is the entire representation of the post-avant tradition, clear, opaque or polka-dotted, unless one wants to toss in my one-time student, the late Eskimo poet Mary Tallmountain, whose poetry, nonetheless, is perfectly consistent with the School of Quietude’s historic aesthetics. Collins’ own preferences show up most clearly in the twenty-five poets who have more than one poem included on the list. They, and their number of poems included, are the following:

·        Mary Oliver 5

·        Eamon Grennan 4

·        Robert Bly 3

·        Dana Gioia 3

·        Mark Halliday 3

·        Mac Hammond 3

·        Jane Kenyon 3

·        Ronald Koertge 3

·        Steve Kowit 3

·        Ted Kooser 3

·        William Matthews 3

·        Linda Pastan 3

·        Miller Williams 3

·        David Berman 2

·        Laurel Blossom 2

·        Martha Collins 2

·        Doug Dorph 2

·        David Ignatow 2

·        Julie Lechevsky 2

·        Phillis Levin 2

·        Thomas Lux 2

·        James Reiss 2

·        Kay Ryan 2

·        Charles Webb 2

·        Robert Wrigley 2

Even as a representation of the School of Quietude, that’s not a particularly wide roster. And, for what it’s worth, the list has absolutely no overlap with the 13 living “most frequently listed authors” from Poet’s Bookshelf’s lists of “essential books.” Eamon Grennan's inclusion so prominently here simply presents an Irish variant of the same Anglophilia that is the School of Quietude's historic obsession with "fitting in" to British letters.

Overall, Collins’ choices are not necessarily bad – he tends to pick the better poems out of his particular tradition – but it hardly is representative of American poetry. (The balance is only slightly better in the new anthology itself, with two Padgett poems, two by Kenneth Koch, and one each from Tom Clark, Tony Towle & Charles Bernstein.) And Collins' justification for the hard-line stance is, as his own “evidence” demonstrates, frankly nonsense. That’s okay, too, as far as I’m concerned. What gets me is the tone that suggests that he is above this historic argument when in fact he is a fundamentalist on a jihad. Is Billy Collins above the stone-throwing he allegedly deplores? Hardly.



Sunday, April 24, 2005

 

Your Linguistic Profile:

55% General American English
35% Yankee
5% Dixie
5% Upper Midwestern
0% Midwestern
What Kind of American English Do You Speak?

That zero percent Midwestern makes some sense. I had virtually no contact with my paternal grandmother, who is the only Midwesterner in the family tree. That 35 percent Yankee, tho, is more likely the residual effect of my maternal great grandparents coming over from the U.K. I'm still apt to call a sofa a chesterfield, for example.



 

Geof Huth, NZXT

 

Geof Huth considers his role as the first real theorist of visual poetry. Except that he doesn’t give himself the credit he deserves. Which is one reason why dbqp is one of the best blogs, and perhaps the only one that has the potential to change poetry.


Φ Θ Φ

 

I know just how Opus feels. Jim Behrle has collected all his Ron is Ron cartoons onto a single website.



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