Saturday, July 16, 2005

 

Terrain.Org is conducting a comprehensive survey about the online reading & publishing habits of poets. Go here and fill out the form.



Friday, July 15, 2005

 

(L-R) Stan Lombardo, Kenneth Irby, Jordan Davis & Judy Roitman
at the
Hall Center on the Lawrence Campus, 3-29-04
photo by Jonathan Mayhew

 

If the editor’s first function is to offer context, then Black Spring’s Winter 2005 “Lawrence Issue,” jointly edited it would seem by Steve Tills & Jim McCrary, demonstrates exactly how much context can contribute. Indeed, Black Spring is almost a test case, given just how quirky its production is. The publication has no masthead, nor issue & volume number, so I’m drawing the conclusion that Tills is the co-editor and publisher here primarily on the facts (a) that Tills has a weblog by the same name (which he “shares” with Menno ter Braak, a Dutch essayist & fiction writer who committed suicide in 1940), (b) he’s in the issue, (c) the publisher is listed as theenk Books, the first word always lower case, a neologism that shows up in the URL to the weblog, and finally (d) the press lists an upstate New York address, which is where Tills lives. McCrary at least is mentioned as co-editor in the contributors’ notes.

But if the journal’s editorial structure has to be fathomed out, its editorial focus is crystal clear – virtually the entire issue is devoted to the poetry scene of Lawrence, Kansas, the college town 40 miles west of Kansas City. As the Lucifer Poetics group in North Carolina seems to be experiencing right now, it is perfectly possible to sustain a vibrant poetry community at a considerable distance from a major urban center. The scene in Lawrence demonstrates that such a community can thrive for decades, and can do so without the conscious support of major institutions (such as the University of Kansas). Just three of the issue’s 16 contributors teach at UK, and only Kenneth Irby – begrudgingly given tenure after decades of adjuncting – does this in the English Department. The others are in the Spanish & Math programs. At the other end of the scale is Hawkman, who is described in the contributors’ notes as living “’off the grid,’ in and around Lawrence.” In fact, several of the issue’s contributors don’t live in Lawrence at all, but in Austin (Dale Smith), Bolinas (Robert Grenier), Milwaukee (David Baptiste-Chirot), Morrisville, VT, (Stephen Ellis), Portland, OR, (Maryrose Larkin) & Albany, NY (Susan Smith Nash) & have been drawn in here to write about Lawrence & its poets.

A sociologist would probably identify this scene as revolving around three poets in particular – Ken Irby, Jim McCrary & John Moritz – who share close ties with the post-avant tradition in general & the projectivist side of the New American Poetry in particular. But it also revolved, for awhile at least, around Tansy Bookstore – the Olson allusion is no accident – originally run by Moritz & later by visual artist Lee Chapman & others. It’s worth noting here that Kansas has always had strong ties to the avant & post-avant worlds – Langston Hughes was a boy here & William Burroughs spent his final years tending his garden in Lawrence . . . & targeting boards with shotguns as an art practice.

The post-avant – and especially the projectivist orientation – I think must have had a huge impact in inoculating Lawrence poets generally from any anxieties as to the indifference of the university – an inescapable institutional presence in a town this small – since it was self-evident that a small & continually collapsing alternative phenomenon like Black Mountain College had far more impact on the arts in America than, say, Harvard & Yale combined.

Now, with some “new blood” in town in the form of Jonathan Mayhew & Judy Roitman, it seems quite clear that Lawrence has legs to go forward as a serious scene for the next couple of decades as well. This is what Black Spring documents.

In general, the issue divides into poetry by the Kansas poets, and critical pieces by the Auslanders. There are three pieces on Kenneth Irby and his work (by David Baptiste-Chirot, Stephen Ellis & Robert Grenier), three on Jim McCrary (by Ellis again, Susan Smith Nash & Steve Tills), one on Moritz (by Dale Smith) & one on Roitman (by Maryrose Larkin). I would not be surprised to discover that this was the most extensive critical consideration each of these poets has thus far received.

The other feature that jumps out at a reader – it’s so distinct that it can’t possibly be accidental – is how personal these critical pieces are. Baptiste-Chirot feels compelled to tell us that he’s never been to Lawrence, Dale Smith recounts his trip there, Grenier’s piece – reproduced directly from a typewritten manuscript with holograph revisions – at one moment declares:

Mr. Irby, then, is not an oyster, any more than I am what I may have sometime, allegedly, ate.

And yet, staring at him, straight ahead . . . the ‘massive brow’ . . . those ‘curly locks’!! –- the eye, the eyes, the ‘almost human’ . . .

underline & ellipses in original

Grenier goes on to consider the ways in which Irby is like or unlike a bison. At the same time, Grenier delivers a perfectly serious & deeply insightful reading of Irby’s work, concluding

One result of Irby’s writing will be that people are going to have to read Bryant & Whittier again, & even Longfellow –- i.e. include a lot of stuff shut out by recent snotty Europeanizers as right here, weirdly present (‘symbolist’) American mainstream.

I would argue that this conclusion, while not unwarranted, dismisses a little too easily all of Irby’s work translating Pasternak, that there may be a bit more of the “oyster” here than meets Grenier’s eye. Yet where I agree completely¹ is that Irby’s use of sound, silence & sentence structure will force a close reader to reconsider, reimagine, everything:

silence in the world is what is most characteristic -- the inwardness of objects not apparent as ‘proprioception’ in human beings . . .

Because of such deeply personal considerations, I’m struck with how different Irby appears in Grenier’s piece, in Baptiste-Chirot’s & in Ellis’. I don’t, in fact, think that any of them are wrong, but rather that such personal reading turns up facets that have as much to do, not with Irby per se, but rather with how this poet & poems interact with different readers. The sum is quite a bit more than just three separate readings.

One could make, I think, the same argument with regards to the three readings given McCrary’s poetry here as well, although the tone – at least for Ellis & Smith Nash – is a little more formal, perhaps because they’re making the case for this writer who is largely not known to the wider world – McCrary’s books in recent years have been mostly, if not entirely, self published & given away. Which leaves Tills in something of the same position as Grenier with regards to Irby, the teller of the deeply personal reading.

Regardless of which McCrary you confront, he is the author of texts that are clean & stripped to essentials in a way that one might associate with such NAP figures as Phil Whalen, Cid Corman, Joanne Kyger or Larry Eigner:

Suddenly

From another direction

The wind is confusing

The text printed here, “Notes from Isla Holbox – 2004,” is a journal of a trip to Quintana Roo, yet more directly it is an account of attention:

How can you possibly

Define a

Visit

Was it the

Weight of the

Air

 

Is that worth

Mention

Any community that can generate poetry of this order will never have to worry about being vibrant or healthy.

 

¹ Indeed, our enthusiasm for Irby’s poetry was one of the key agreements around which Grenier & I first came together some 35 years ago, every bit as much as our shared enthusiasm for Zukofsky, Stein, Creeley or Watten.



Thursday, July 14, 2005

 

My blog for the day isn’t here. It is at Tom Beckett’s blog, E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S, where Crag Hill & I have just interviewed vispo Geof Huth. It was both fun & instructive. Here is a work of Geof’s entitled “The Letter Bagpipes”:



Wednesday, July 13, 2005

 

Another magazine that has emerged as one of the better publications of our time is Kiosk, published out of the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo, tho it is clearly a project of its three editors – Gordon Hadfield, Sasha Steensen & Kyle Schlesinger – & not at all your usual college-sponsored creative writing mag. It’s younger than The Poker, having just released its fourth issue (front cover at the head of this note, rear cover at the end), but it has one of the most distinctive visual presentations of any journal I’ve ever read – 30 years from now, someone will mention Kiosk & everyone will think of its impeccable design in much the same way that people do Locus Solus today. But Kiosk is also one of the best buys in the world of letters as well – just $5 for an issue of 250 pages plus, in number four, an audio CD that includes, amidst other delights, a complete 51-minute reading by the late Robert Creeley – an utterly fabulous event recorded originally in Plainfield, Vermont, in May 1998 that made my heart ache all over again at the idea that he’s gone.

If I look at Kiosk in the same framework as I have Jacket, How2 & The Poker, there is a little less both of poets I would characterize as masters – Creeley, Ken Edwards, Michael Davidson, Rae Armantrout (an interview conducted by Eric Elshtain & Matthias Regan), Bruce Andrews – and those who are midcareer – Cole Swenson, Jessica Grim, Craig Watson, Michael Basinski (both textual & on the CD) – but a lot more who are either younger, like Ben Lerner or Brendan Lorber, or are more or less new to me – such as husband-wife team of Robyn Schiff & Nick Twemlow, who a little Googling reveals are part of the post-School o’ Quietude (SoQ) Iowa City wave of younger poets.

But Googling is, in fact, necessary. Kiosk’s one serious failing is its editors’ reticence toward connecting the dots. This shows up in the curious use of page numbers, which are given only at the start of each selection – a format I associate with annual reports prepared by corporations for their shareholders – and a total lack of contributors’ notes. Now contributors’ notes are often the most banal things in the world, but for readers coming across writers for the first time, this can make a serious difference. How else, for example, might someone who doesn’t read contemporary philosophy know that Alphonso Lingis isn’t just another grad student? Or that Eliza Newman-Saul comes out of the MFA visual arts program at Rutgers & currently has work on display at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts?

Indeed, Kiosk’s disdain for context obscures not only larger potential frames for reading these works, but obscures the fact that the journal contains some 88 pages of critical opinion, including a terrific piece on Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days by Jon Thompson. Not to be confused with Tom Thompson, another member of the post-SoQ Iowa City gang, working now as an ad exec in New York, who has two poems in the issue. (Unless, of course, it’s the Australian poet Tom Thompson – there’s really no way to know.)

If an editor’s first responsibility is to provide the best possible context for the work s/he publishes, Kiosk’s argument might be that it wants readers to take on these works & authors totally fresh, as tho we never heard of Rae Armantrout or Cole Swenson before. That works just fine if you’re Armantrout or Swenson or Bruce Andrews, but it seriously compromises anyone’s experience of new writers, such as Thompson & Thompson, Newman-Saul, Twemlow or Schiff. A total absence of context isn’t, ultimately, the best possible presentation, regardless of how terrific the visual presentation might be.

My frustration here is not unlike my reaction to Chain’s unwillingness to impose anything more meaningful than the accidents of last names as an ordering principle. Kiosk, like Chain, is a magazine that is soooo close to being truly great, its refusal to take the last few tiny steps is maddening. Chain at least understands that page numbers & contributors’ notes have a function & gives each issue an overarching theme. Kiosk, in contrast, just wants to look great.



Tuesday, July 12, 2005

 

Writing about ezines Jacket & How2 last Thursday, I ended with this question:

Where is the journal that steps up to looking at the world with such rigor, but from the framework of poets age 35 & under?

One possible answer to that question, certainly, lies in The Poker, Dan Bouchard’s journal out of Cambridge, MA, settling now into its own adolescence of sorts with issue number 6 just out. Like the five issues that have preceded it, numero six is impeccably edited, combining work by newer poets (Nancy Kuhl & Deborah Meadows, both of whom are new to me), lots of well-known mid-career writers (Joe Elliot, Rodrigo Toscano, Lee Ann Brown, Bouchard himself, Bill Luoma, John Latta, Jennifer Moxley, Mitch Highfill), some American masters (Jackson Mac Low, Rae Armantrout, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Keith Waldrop), plus a serious swath of critical writing (34 pages of essays, roughly a third of the journal, none of which could be called a book review, tho Steve Evans’ “Field Notes” does include a little omnibus blog review of sorts & touches on recent books as well).

Bouchard clearly understands that an editor’s first function is to offer context – Evans’ notes are deservedly legendary for the work they do in this regard, critically, for example. Here, in addition to Evans, Bouchard includes Ben Friedlander’s selection a poem by Fitz-Greene Halleck, a neglected 19th century American poet associated with the Knickerbockers, the major School of Quietude (SoQ) group prior to the Civil War, who has not had a volume published since 1869. Friedlander’s introductory essay makes a decent case for this conservative poet – something the current SoQ is notoriously poor at doing.¹ Similarly, Jackson Mac Low’s poem, “Feeling Down, Clementi Felt Imposed Upon From Every Direction,” a late piece from last year, is followed by a brief appreciation of Jackson by Mitch Highfill, an appropriate commemoration of Mac Low’s importance to American poetry over the past half century. Waldrop’s contribution to the issue consists of translations from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, one of the first great texts of what would turn out to be the avant-garde tradition.

Print journals have a materiality that an ezine can never match, of course. You can put it in your backpack & read it at convenient moments all day long as you travel about the city. On the other hand, there are limits to any print journal’s distribution, and print lacks the potential for readily accessible archives that ezines have (tho not all e-journals take advantage of this, to my constant & utter dismay). Bouchard’s commitment to print extends to his refusal to look at manuscripts sent electronically, a little Luddite touch that The Poker might just be the last journal to employ.

With the Mac Low, a new Drafts by DuPlessis & what may be the title poem of Armantrout’s next book all included here, it’s really worth noting just how much important verse Bouchard is able to get for a publication that includes just 65 or so pages of poetry, including both Baudelaire & Halleck. It is apparent that many poets now act as tho The Poker might just be the closest thing we have to a poetry journal of record in these United States. Given the comically bathetic narrowness of, say, Poetry, which has not performed this function since Henry Rago died while on sabbatical in 1969, it would be an interesting project for a sociologically minded critic – Alan Golding? – to trace just where poets have turned in the years since in the absence of such a journal. In 2005, however, it would seem clearly to be The Poker that takes on this responsibility.

 

¹ Since to do so would require confronting a literary history about which they are mostly in denial. So much better to pen another appreciation of Rilke than to investigate their own tradition’s roots & by-ways.

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Monday, July 11, 2005

 

A curious fact that I’ve known now for nearly 40 years – I am constitutionally incapable of taking in more than one longpoem at a time. Right now, for Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts, a project that I find as rapturous in execution as it is awesome in its concept, this is just fine. I’ve been working my way through it very slowly now for two years at least, and at the rate I’m going it will be another two years before I complete Drafts 39-57 Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis. In fact, I’m still in the final stages of Drafts 1-38, Toll. Perhaps by the time I get through the later volume, the next stage of Drafts, 55-77, will be ready for press.

While this works just about perfectly for my experience of Drafts – a poem I frankly never want to end – this is not such good news for Anne Waldman’s Iovis or Robert Fitterman’s Metropolis, both of which will have to wait their turn. I’ve tried to read more than one longpoem at once, and finally decided that it does a disservice to the poems as well as to my reading. It’s as if there were a particular segment of my brain set aside just for such projects, and it doesn’t allow multi-tasking, even tho it seems to permit me to read an almost infinite number of shorter books & poems, even somewhat large ones.

There is a difference between a longpoem and a large one, I’ve learned. Kenny Goldsmith’s various “uncreative writing” projects are large, as is Vernon Frazer’s Improvisations, a 700-page poem that takes up all of its 8.5-by-11-inch pages, but which took just five years to write. The same is true for several of Peter Ganick’s booklength projects. Indeed, although no one to my knowledge has yet written the work that will prove this point, I suspect that a longpoem need not be a large one at all, for what makes it long is not page numbers so much as time of composition, the compression of years onto the page. Think of the nine-line poem that Francis Ponge writes over & over during a two-month period whilst hiding out from the Nazis in 1940, recorded in The Notebook of the Pine Woods (available in English, I believe, only in Cid Corman’s out-of-print volume of Ponge translations, Things). Imagine this same process now carried out over 20 or 60 years. It’s certainly an imaginable project, at least in the same sense that the glass bead game in Magister Ludi is an imaginable game.

Happily, I do seem to be able to read what one author of a longpoem has written about another, even if the essay is, literally, in verse, as is the case with Fitterman’s fabulous 1-800-Flowers, the text of a talk given at the centennial celebration of the work of Louis Zukofsky last fall at Columbia. Subtitled “Inventory as Poetry in Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers,” Fitterman’s critical poem has just been released as a chapbook by porci con le ali, with offices in Bangor, Maine, & Catania, Italy (the press’ title translates into Pigs with Wings, sort of a stockier Pegasus).

Fitterman’s interest here is not so much in close-reading 80 Flowers, tho he does so at one point, persuasively & with great élan, as it is in understanding the why of Zukofsky’s strategies, ultimately to the idea that

one composes with what one
finds already there

which leads to an art that may appear depictive when it is really constructive. Fitterman’s reading & presentation are brilliant, tho finally LZ brings him to the point one so often comes to in Zukofsky’s work, that instant when the surfeit of meaning simply boils over into a cornucopia of possibility. Fitterman’s garden ends up, literally, in deep weeds.

What is of extraordinary value here, to my ear at least, is how Fitterman gets there. He describes it himself in a piece that appears to be titled “Constraints”:

Because this catalogue of strategies
drives
80 Flowers this piece
1-800-Flowers is a critical discussion
sod in the same constructive
verse 8-line 5-words-per-line structure updating
several of Zukofsky’s sources 1-800
corporate histories how-to gardening relying
on Zukofsky’s own books indexes

I love it that Fitterman chooses to replicate Zukofsky’s own favorite formal cheat: letting a complex construction such as “5-words-per-line” count as a single term. To this, Fitterman adds one of his own (tho, in fact, we’ve seen it before, even just this past week in Aaron Kunin’s Floating Ruler Star) of having titles to segment the text into poems when, in fact, the text itself is continuous, not many poems but one. More so than Kunin, these titles are key terms themselves in the argument & flow continuously into the text (and out of the prior one). The titles range in length from one word to six, so that they literally regulate Fitterman’s ability to stay within his own set constraints.

By means of no accident, Fitterman traces 80 Flower’s origins as verbal collage back to many other Zukofsky works & books, right back to the dedication to “Poem beginning ‘The.’” The key book, however, at least for Fitterman, is a chapbook selection of short poems that is never mentioned in the big Johns Hopkins edition of Complete Short Poetry. This is a 43-page stapled edition from 1964 entitled Found Objects: 1962-1926, published a dozen years ahead of the composition of Flowers. I have actually never seen a copy of Found Objects, which Fitterman calls “this miniature / manifesto reflecting backwards an art / in found objects language predicting / the later 80 Flowers dioramas.” Published by Blue Grass Books, we find Fitterman still alluding to it in his essays second portion, called “Through,” a demonstration more of method than the argument of the first half, “About”:

Vanity Numbers

I dreamed I saw St.
Augustine Decline (SAD) arise arise
as you are or aries
Kentucky blue flux ablaze flog
a new flushing meadow’s no
private reality is and is
all in the station-to-station directory
Europe newsreels markets across being

This, to my mind, is the most active reading of another’s work I’ve confronted in a very long time. It’s even great poetry, by no means a requirement for it also to be a superb essay, which it is. Fitterman’s folly may be fraught with friction, the scrape of consonants (continents) everywhere active, but its value lies precisely in the light it casts into every crevice of Zukofsky’s garden.

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

 

Michael Palmer
Photo by John Tranter

 

Robert Pinsky’s column in today’s Washington Post focuses on Michael Palmer.



 

It would be great if everyone would check their link on the blogroll to the left. Let me know if there are mistakes or old URLs lurking about. In general, I try to follow a few simple rules:

·        List only blogs – web zines, archival anthologies, personal websites sans blogs will quickly make it all unintelligible, tho they all have their role & can be as – or quite a bit more – important than blogs. If you have a personal website for your works or books, but no weblog, sorry. However, if the only way to get to your blog is through your personal website (cf. Zoketsu Norman Fischer), I will list that.

·        List all blogs by the real name of the author, tho I’ve made exceptions in cases where people plead for a pseudonym or it’s a collective blog. I do list the blog of The New Criterion as Olde Quietude, but that’s just truth in advertising. In the case of multiple (most often Spanish) surnames, I try to discern & list the blog under the one that would be most immediately recognized by one's readers. Thus Garcia Lorca would go under Lorca, not Garcia. Let me know if I got yours wrong, and I will correct it.

·        Drop blogs that have gone more than three or four months without a post, unless the author asks me to keep it up or it’s a site that represents a particular body of work (viz the work of my favorite sock puppet poet, Lester, or the ongoing flarf anthology, Mainstream Poetry, listed here as Flarf). One result of this rule, tho, is that some blogs disappear only to return a little later (Welcome back, Laurable & Tony Tost).

·        No more than one individual blog listing to a person.

·        In general, the blog should be about poetry or poetics – I have made exceptions for blogs that have particular value with regards to politics (Eric Alterman) or the social uses of technology (Dave Winer, Lawrence Lessig, Steven Berlin Johnson), but I do so very rarely. In the past six months, I’ve only added one link – Doug Ireland – that is outside of the poetry/poetics territory.

One other thought – if you start a weblog and have only one or two entries, please don’t ask me to list it yet. Wait until you have at least a week or two of posts, just so I don’t take the time & effort only to discover that entropy set in after your fourth message.



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