Saturday, May 14, 2005

 

Ben Mazer, editor of the Berkeley Renaissance feature in Fulcrum 3 and the Landis Everson feature in Jacket, and Landis Everson himself, have added comments to my note last Wednesday, that are absolutely worth going back & reading. That’s Ben in the tie in the photo above.



Friday, May 13, 2005

 

Hugh Steinberg’s response in the comments log to Monday’s note triggered a thought. He was surprised that I hadn’t gotten into Taylor Brady’s work previously – “He's been an important figure in Bay Area poetics for awhile.” I had heard something along those lines when I was in the Bay Area last fall & in January, which is what motivated me to buy the book when I saw it on the SPD list. But it reminded me that, although I’m often associated with the SF writing scene, it’s now been ten years since I last lived there.

Given that I tend to count everything & note all manner of anniversaries, it struck me as odd, or at least noteworthy, that I hadn’t marked that date here with a note when it occurred on May 1. In part, that’s because it’s an ambiguous date. I began working in Pennsylvania on May 1, 1995, when I was hired by a Technology Service Solutions, a joint venture then owned by IBM & Kodak. But my family didn’t follow along for another month – I spent a good part of the first few weeks not only as the guest of Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw while getting to know my new job, but also running around looking at every three & four bedroom rental out in the western suburbs that had some kind of yard suitable for toddlers. Krishna got to see my four of my top five choices – one had already been snapped up – on Mother’s Day weekend, and we moved in two weeks later into a duplex just four blocks from where we ended up buying at the end of the year. I’ve actually owned my current house longer than I’ve lived anywhere since I got out of highschool in 1964.

I’ve long since stopped thinking of myself as a Bay Area Poet, tho I don’t always feel entirely integrated into the Philadelphia scene either. When I note that I live in Chester County, Pennsylvania, I mean that very literally – I have access to, but not immersion in, the Philly scene. For example, I suspect that I spend far less time in the city limits than do either Samuel R. Delany or Charles Bernstein – and they both live in New York City, commuting as needed to their jobs at Temple & Penn. There are also a number of poets who have grown up in Chester CountyPattie McCarthy, Jenn McCreary, Ange Mlinko – but it’s also worth noting that none live here now.

When we lived in the Bay Area, Krishna & I noted that many young poets follow a pattern of spending a few years – sometimes as many as 20 – in one of the two major literary centers of the U.S., NY or SF, but then dispersing outward again, either to an immediate suburb (hence Bolinas, suburb of poets) or further, either to where they originally grew up (Ken Irby & Ron Johnson back in Kansas) or else following a career, especially if that career should be teaching. Perhaps because I’d grown up in the Bay Area, it hadn’t occurred to us that we would be part of this same gathering-and-diaspora process that perpetually renews both literary communities, but sometimes can leave the ex-pats feeling a little stranded.

The economics behind such moves are pretty much unassailable. New York – even Brooklyn – is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. San Francisco is even worse. Not that DC or Boston are notably better, necessarily, but in Philadelphia one sees younger poets actually buying homes without coming from significant inherited wealth &, over time, that’s going to have a shaping impact of the continuity of the literary community.

I’ve noted before that I’m not certain I would have accepted the job here if it hadn’t already been clear that the web was transforming the geographic equation for literary networks in the U.S. quite dramatically. In 1995, that meant the Poetics List, the much maligned ur-listserv of the post-avant world. (Indeed, many of that list’s well-documented shortcomings can be traced back to the simple impossibility of running a listserv with more than one thousand active members – discussion beyond announcements devolves into incoherence at that level & those who do post constantly become Rorschach patterns for the rest of us.¹) Today the options are far wider & a poet in Arkansas or wherever is no longer simply stuck with whatever the local scene has to offer. The rise of an actual scene in North Carolina, for example, is something that either has rarely happened before in my lifetime, unless you include Ted Berrigan & some high school kids in Tulsa fifty years ago & maybe the folks around Frank Stanford & C.D. Wright in Arkansas, or else has happened only in settings where the local stayed local, so that hardly anybody at any distance ever got word of it.²

It’s possible over time that the web’s capacity for connecting people at a distance will erode the importance of the literary centers, tho I’m skeptical of that. I think there is enormous good to come from face-to-face feedback in a community setting, whether it’s at a bar or coffee house or over somebody’s kitchen table. That’s why readings are so important – they aren’t where literature itself happens (save maybe for all the scribblers in the front row) but they are poetry’s back office. The few poets who shun readings & reading scenes do so at great risk, not so much in terms of their social connectedness – tho that shouldn’t be underestimated – but even more so in terms of its impact on the quality of their writing. One of the things that made langpo – at least in the Bay Area – so vital during its heyday in the 1970s was how very hard on one another the poets were, tho I know that this sometimes intimidated newcomers to the scene. There’s no substitute for that on the web, not even with online zines & the rise of audio. Writers really need somebody who will look them in the eye and say, you know that second piece you did tonight, I didn’t buy that at all. Not that these people will be right all the time, but there is great value in having to defend one’s own aesthetic, and criticism from a friend or simpatico poet is very different than, say, hearing that Billy Collins can’t read you.

So I look back at the Bay Area scene with great wistfulness at times, not just because of the great views & good bookstores – which in fact are mediocre bookstores in a nation where a good one doesn’t exist – but because there can be a level of resistance in such a community as that, where this same level of push-pull is far more fragile even in a city with as lively a scene as Philadelphia. In the past decade, the closest we’ve come here – and I can claim zero credit for any of it – was PhillyTalks, Louis Cabris’ brilliant attempt to get different poets to address something in common. If it had a weakness, the series’ concept of always involving at least one out-of-towner meant that everybody was at their most polite, when that isn’t always the most useful approach.

The Bay Area scene had already evolved away from that sort of confrontational poetics long before I moved east, but simply because of the critical mass one finds in the Bay Area, it’s something that can erupt there almost at any time. In ten years here, I haven’t seen the same willingness on the part of younger poets to goad one another toward sharper self-definition, even tho I think that the underlying supportiveness for it, an absolute pre-requisite, exists in the scene. I think that must be why I value Linh Dinh so much – of all the poets associated with Philadelphia, he’s the person most willing to ask an impossible question after a reading or talk – and it’s the impossible questions that make better poets of us all.

 

¹ Why, for example, Alan Sondheim uses listservs rather than a blog for distribution of his texts, is beyond me, unless it is because it is harder for readers to opt out of seeing them on a list. It still doesn’t mean that they get read, but it has reduced at least one list, ImitationPoetics, to a kind of Sondheim-driven silence.

² Black Mountain College in the 1950s wasn’t the same sort of thing at all, since – with the notable exception of Jonathan Williams – it involved no local participation whatsoever. It could have happened wherever those displaced northeasterners elected to gather & could just as easily been the Ojai or Bisbee or Clovis or Marfa or Woodstock or Berkshire scene as it was that of Ashville, NC.



Thursday, May 12, 2005

 

Glenn Gould

 

Although my interest in classical piano is very close to nil, I’ve been meaning to see 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould for years &, through the miracle of Netflix, I finally did. The film, directed by François Girard in 1993 – the one film he’s completed since then was The Red Violin in ’99 – is a biopic of sorts, told not as a traditional narrative, but rather through a series of vignettes, each with its own title – “The L.A. Concert” – some of which are remarkably abstract for what is, behind the facets of this disjunct presentation, a reasonably linear tale. One is nothing other than a close shot of the strings and hammer’s of Gould’s piano – its serial number CD 318 – as he performs what will be his (unannounced) farewell concert at the age of 32. Another is an excerpt from Norman McLaren’s animation Spheres, Gould’s piano as both score & logic as the floating balls of the title subdivide, rotate, recombine – just the sort of thing that never could have been incorporated into a “straight” presentation, Hollywood style.

The film is of interest to me on two levels. One is Girard’s strategies as a film maker – I don’t have to be told that his approach is not dissimilar from the one I took in Under Albany – and the other is the question of Gould the person. At one level, there is nothing particularly Gouldesque about breaking the tale of a lonely (and relatively short-lived) savant into thirty-odd three-minute segments. If he had stopped performing at 29, would we have a shorter film? The film itself does nothing to point up the parallel between its sections & Gould’s biography.

Rather, I think the structure – which absolutely works as cinema – forced itself on the film. Not only does it enable Girard to bring in disparate elements as self-contained segments (one is nothing other than the image of a Gould soundtrack on film itself, others are interviews with Gould’s colleagues, such as Yehudi Menuhin), but it also solves the narrative problem of a film about a man who had few friends, no major relationships, and an isolative career. Gould may have been an unparalleled musician, but one doubts that he was a lot of fun to have around.

Gould is often presented as an example of how an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome, a variation of autism, can achieve great success – Einstein is another. To the film’s credit, it never addresses the issue of a diagnosis nor tries to collapse Gould’s obsessions into an extraneous explanation. It’s actually less interested in pathologizing him than The Aviator is with Howard Hughes. At the same time, 32 Short Films presents Gould as a textbook example of how a gift can be as much a curse as a blessing.

Gould’s retreat from performance is a case in point. Gould (played by Colm Feore to an almost spooky likeness) describes how much he hates the random acoustics of different venues, the barely acceptable pianos, the idea that different members of the audience will come to the event with less than adequate music backgrounds. His ideal relationship to music is a performance in which there is no audience & in which the control freak in him can pin down every aspect of what is heard. More than anything, Gould is shown not performing, but listening – playing a 78 of his just arrived record for a bewildered German chambermaid, running through a playback of a recording, conducting an invisible orchestra of the imagination, whether in his loft in Toronto or home in the north.

Indeed, the finest single scene in the film – it’s worth renting the movie for this alone – is called “Truck Stop,” in which Gould – apparently a regular at the diner in question (the waitress asks if he wants “the usual”) – does nothing but listen to other conversations all around him, as they evolve from a simple tale of a trucker picking up a female hitchhiker into a symphony of human voices & tones. It is exactly the same impulse you find in Apollinaire’s great poem, “Lundi rue Christine,” composed entirely of overheard conversation. The scene lasts only two or three minutes & isn’t done nearly as well as it should be, but you know just what the implications of this are. It’s one of only two or three scenes in the entire film – and the only one representing Gould’s adult years – in which the music on the soundtrack isn’t his, but rather Petula Clark’s jarringly upbeat Downtown. The very next scene shows Gould listening to – and “air conducting” – The Idea of North, one of his aural sound compositions for Canadian radio. Out the window, all we see is a view of ice to the horizon.

Music and Asperger’s, the film seems to argue, are not two separate things. Gould’s oeuvre as a performer may have been all the same old classics, attacked with a knowing verve that gives his sound its signature, but Gould himself was trapped in a purgatory closer to John Cage’s world – he was doomed to listen, to hear, in a world full of sound. His desire to live in the dark above the arctic circle makes utter sense in that context – he was trying to get beyond all that humming, buzzing stimulus.

The commitment any person makes to an art form necessarily entails sacrifice – it’s always a question of how much & to what end. Gould’s radio broadcasts are not Ezra Pound’s radio broadcasts, but ultimately each was an index of just how far beyond the point-of-no-return the artists had gone. Robert Grenier’s scrawl works often strike me in this same way – nobody else in my generation has ventured into writing quite that far, perhaps because there’s no guarantee you can get back again. And that may be why people who really get Grenier’s writing are so deeply devoted to it, whereas to the casual eye it can seem so obtuse.



Wednesday, May 11, 2005

 

Writing of Ronnie Primack here last month, I kvetched yet again about the lack of an anthology of the Spicer Circle and its various off-shoots. My one comment on the Berkeley Renaissance – the pre-history, if you will, of what would become the Spicer Circle at Gino & Carlo’s in North Beach (& in the Magic Workshop at the Public Library) – was to ask “where does one situate the third member of Jack’s Berkeley Renaissance trio” – Robin Blaser being the second – “from his college days at the University of California, Robert Duncan?” This provoked a few notes in the comments box to take a look at Jacket 26 – still technically the current issue – where an extended feature on Robert Duncan includes five pieces concerning Landis Everson & the Berkeley Renaissance, including poems of Everson’s from 1960, some new poems, a portfolio of photos, an interview by Kevin Killian & a review by Killian of the Berkeley Renaissance feature in the new issue of Fulcrum. Further comments to my blog from Simon DeDeo and Mark Lamoureux resulted in that issue of Fulcrum arriving finally at my door.

It’s a big beautiful issue & over one-fifth of its 500-plus pages are given over to Ben Mazer’s work resurrecting the Berkeley Renaissance. I don’t know Mazer other than as the editor of the Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom, not a project that I would have expected to have led up to this. But, together with the feature in Jacket, Mazer has done an amazing job of recreating the outlines of a literary community that functionally has been forgotten for nearly fifty years. If the two features – Fulcrum & Jacket -- have the feel still of an archaeological dig, this may be because our own connections to that lost world have become so tenuous in the intervening half century. Landis Everson – the key in some sense to this Berkeley resurrection – stopped writing at some point in the 1960s, tho lately he has taken it up again (to good effect, if the poems in Jacket are any evidence). Mary Fabilli, who has work in Fulcrum, lives still in Berkeley, but is 89 and hasn’t been active in recent decades. And Robin Blaser – for reasons I don’t quite understand – is unrepresented in these materials save for two early poems. But Mazer hasn’t been thwarted in his efforts to sketch out the larger scene, starting with Duncan’s arrival at UC Berkeley in 1937, a point when Duncan was still using his adopted name of Robert Symmes, & fell in with a group of young poets that included Fabilli & nascent film-buff Pauline Kael. Mazer’s introduction to the Fulcrum feature is the best history of the Berkeley scene in the 1940s & early ‘50s that I’ve ever seen.

In addition, the feature includes poems from that period by all of its key participants, including an collaborative “Canto for Ezra Pound” by Spicer & Duncan with Hugh O’Neill, Jo Frankel & Fred Fredman. In addition, there are some extraordinary pieces by Spicer that include an early essay on D.H. Lawrence, poems from high school & even a letter to Ezra Pound. It also includes a Charles Olson letter to Richard Stone, a member of the Berkeley who had later moved to Boston. One of the more interesting elements of Mazer’s introductory history is his tracing out the first interactions of Olson with Duncan in the 1940s, before Black Mountain or even “Projective Verse.”

I’ve noted with regards to the Canadian poet Louis Dudek – a modernist of the same generation as Duncan – that his work sometimes reminds me of how Duncan’s poetry might have evolved from similar roots – one part Pound, but an even larger part Yeats – had it not been for the confrontation with Olson & the ways in which Duncan’s poetry then expanded to become what we now think of as the mature Robert Duncan. Reading the materials in both Jacket & Fulcrum – not just Duncan’s but everyone’s – Spicer’s, Blaser’s, Fabilli’s & Everson’s – remind me very much of that same sense. That these poets were involved in a modernism that had not yet connected with other strains of American writing that would soon give rise to the New American poetry. The gap, if anything, is Williams – utterly absent in these materials – and behind him the Objectivists.

Yet we know today just how important Louis Zukofsky’s work would become for Duncan (and how he in turn would lead Robert Creeley to the same enthusiasm during their period together in Majorca in the early 1950s). So these pre-LZ materials always have a curious tint for me, like seeing photos of familiar streets printed on “antique” postcards. If Mazer’s materials don’t really speak to the moment when Duncan came into contact with Zukofsky’s work – hard to find generally in the 1940s, which was the pit of the period in which Objectivism had disappeared from print – his essay does address the first moments of contact with Olson.

These are important materials, tho even by themselves they are not yet enough. Hopefully, Mazer will gather these into book form at some point, perhaps with a healthy selection from Duncan’s long-out-print The Years as Catches, and certainly with work by Sanders Russell & Virginia Admiral, neither of whom are included (save for a Russell poem quoted in Mazer’s essay) in these materials. I agree with Kevin Killian that Mazer wants to change our sense of what the Berkeley Renaissance was – putting Landis Everson right into the center of the discussion – tho I’m not entirely sure how well that fits. Fabilli’s remark that she really wasn’t a part of the Renaissance group because she was a woman needs to be heard. She was absolutely & vitally a part of Duncan’s world, yet her relation to some of the others seems far more tenuous, underscoring what is invariably the case whenever one looks at literary cabals like this – that it never was one thing, but rather was a series of overlapping social networks, which did not fit neatly together in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle.

Fulcrum 3 is available in the U.S. for $15 from Fulcrum, 334 Harvard Street, Suite D-2, Cambridge, MA 02139. Foreign subscriptions are $20. Make checks payable to Fulcrum Annual.



Monday, May 09, 2005

 

Did you ever have the experience of opening up a new book by somebody you had never heard of, or maybe just barely, and in flipping through the pages for less than a minute thought, “Whoa! This person is doing something major.” That’s not an experience one has often – the association I make to that concept is how I felt seeing Bernadette Mayer’s Studying Hunger for the very first time, before I’d even begun to read. I knew instantly that this was somebody I was going to have to take completely seriously forever.

I had this sensation again the other day, opening up Yesterday’s News by Taylor Brady. News could be called a book of poems – at 260 pages it certainly is that – but it could also be called (more properly, I think) a single work, composed of many parts during the year 2003. It’s not a diary exactly – most of the poems have titles, tho Brady hasn’t been consistent with the graphics of his titling, a strategy that is not, I think, accidental. The first poem I actually read all the way through lay deep in the book, on a page whose header contains the date October 21-22:

THE DUST CLUSTERS

 

Look, here’s a face, if

you lean in close you
can see congealed labor, plasma

knitting brows in concentration

that has decayed to fourteen hours’ sleep.
In the folds and flaps it smells
like peanut oil inside the head this

is the image of an elbow joint
blocked by hair.

Not so much the getting wasted
as the waste you get. Being ill-disposed

to buildup’s full, like time.

One could argue that this has all the elements of a traditional lyric – it’s constructed around a relatively coherent – if decidedly off-kilter – image – yet it really is the gyroscope of that frame that is the point here. Not only does the reader “see” the image first from the outside, then from the perspective of the figure in the poem, but it moves then not to resolution or synthesis, but rather spins off away from that – the last line’s “referents” (to call them that) is primarily to the vowel-consonant combinations of the last-half line of the previous stanza. Which is to say that it mimics in prosody what the previous lines have offered as scene. All of which in turn echoes the difficulty one has in focusing with, say, a hangover. The poem starts with a disjunct command – Look – and ends with an equally disjunct analogy, something that cannot be, of itself, seen: time.

That’s a lot to accomplish in just one dozen lines, on top of which it has a post-grunge surface texture that is quite unlike anything I can now think of being written. Five or six pages this good per year and you get to be famous, at least as far as poetry fame goes – but 260?

Let’s, just for the sake of the test, try another Brady poem at random. The hand stops flipping at page 97, which the header indicates represents May 4 – 5:

At Your Desk, a Highly Leveraged Zero

Every day is ground hog day
in the Cargill pork-processing unit.

An elite team of registration pros
can stretch your penumbra with size, snow cut
with small islands, marsh, ophitic structure
coiled about the flesh-stamps. No sweat, just twitch.

It’s written that the knife-hand often slips,

close to $50 idle protein all the long way up
to your command of standard stencils

in spilled blood and vermiform manure
over cereal monoculture in the new periphery,
to write in tiny burps and gags. Looks
as if the enemy of coordination looks like
futures, more bright winter glare on ink.

A sonnet about globalization with a slaughterhouse feel? On one level, this poem is not so radically different in approach from the close-up of the wasted person in “THE DUST CLUSTERS” – both use recognizable verse form strategies to present imagery that is completely – completely! – from outside of the received domain of literary imagery. But there the similarity stops. The rapid shifts in perspective of the first, which is all angles & fragments, is here a distant, cool objectivism, the one real bit of collage the comparison of cut flesh to mineral form. If the first poem feels like the cover image to a Kurt Cobain homage CD, this echoes the kind of literary ultra-leftism one might associate with Brian Fawcett or Kevin Magee.

Let’s try this test again, just flipping to the next page, the bottom half of which contains an untitled piece:

I’m probably more like a sand flea.

Without prehensile toes

the mathematical sublime
subtends whatever patch of skin
your post-whatever-else erosive

crabbed praxis of the gouged-out
decorative gesture on
the body of a spun

commodity can’t scratch.
Party over here, party over

there, nowhere the question
of the party. In bleached leisure
I’m all up in your skin, pus in pleasure,
salt in waistband. In English that
might rhyme. Here it’s rash, and flares.

Not, to my ear, as successful as the first two, but still superb – that long second sentence’s ever delayed pay-off has been done before, but the kick at the end still applies. If I have a hesitation, it’s that the disparate elements of this collage seem unmotivated – they don’t pull against one another strong enough. Still, the two meanings of the word party in that one incomplete sentence is something I’ll remember for a long time, that someone even wants to jar that particular set of possibilities strikes me as inherently exciting.

I can tell already that this is one of those books that I’m going to have to read slowly – it will almost inevitably take me longer to read than it did Brady to write. But that’s okay. Just as it’s okay if his sense of the line’s complexity isn’t the equal say, of Eleni Sikelianos, or the jarred juxtapositions aren’t as sharp as Graham Foust. What I see in Taylor Brady’s Yesterday’s News is a comprehensive intellectual ambition on a scale that I virtually haven’t seen on the part of younger poets in ages. It is completely awesome.



Sunday, May 08, 2005

 

Monday, May 9, 7:30 PM

11th Street Bar

510 E. 11th Street

(betwixt Avenues A & B)

Manhattan

 

Anselm Berrigan

Matt Hart

Ron Silliman



This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?