Saturday, July 23, 2005

 

Friday afternoon, this site received its 400,000th visit. My reaction to this level of response is pretty much what’s it been from the start – I feel amazed & humbled & awed. When I started at the end of August 2002, what I had in my mind in terms of readership was an average of 30 per day or so, the equivalent of a successful reading anywhere in the United States (& I’ve seen plenty of successful readings with an audience only one third that size). My real goal, then & now, had to do with articulating my own thinking.

The first time I visited Charles Bernstein at SUNY Buffalo, he made a comment about the poetics program there that resonated because it was, almost word for word, something Jack Gilbert had said to me in the 1960s about the creative writing program at San Francisco State – “this is virtually the only opportunity many of these students will have to stop and consider poetry, and to discuss it with people as passionate about it as they are.” This, of course, is something that poets in any urban scene have at hand, if only they’re willing to do it, whether formally through talk series, or informally, after readings at bars or over coffee or in bed. The academy, of course, offers this in a heavily mediated way to students. The difference between a talk series & a college lecture series is not unlike the difference between a spring day and a spring day under the influence of a heavy head cold or allergies. Or so it’s always seemed to me. For faculty at colleges, the mediation gets even a little more convoluted, since it’s rare for writers sympathetic to one another to be employed on the same campus at the same time – teachers must become conference junkies if they want to have regular discourse with peers, or else settle for discussing poetry with bright young kids who may be interested, but whose background can’t possibly match the depth of their own.

Blogging, it seems to me, offers an interesting middle ground here. It can be as informal as the bar or bed chat – less so, even, if we use Jim Behrle as our yardstick. Or it can be quite ambitious intellectually, or somewhere in between. And that degree of engagement can vary day to day, depending on what else might be going on in one’s life.

I was moved by – and generally concur with – CA Conrad’s defense of the internet as a mechanism for erasing the disparities of geography, which he gave as a comment to my note listing the Terrain.Org survey on poetry & the net. Some of the very best bloggers do so at a great physical remove from any of the mainstream literary centers of our (or any) time. And the fact that several of the best also happen to teach for a living underscores what I suggested above about the isolation of the faculty post-avant.

One thing that has surprised me, thus far, is that the gradual expansion of readership here hasn’t yet maxed out – I keep thinking that it’s inevitable, that the curiosity reader will eventually tire & go away & that the people who read this blog just to feel outraged will gradually find somebody new to go pick on. That may happen, but it hasn’t occurred yet. Indeed, the number of visits per day has doubled since last February. That’s a faster rate of growth for this site than it had during the same period last year, by quite a bit.

If this is journalism, it is so only in the most literal sense of the word, the ongoing pursuit of the values of a journal. To date, writing here has caused the following things to happen:

  1. I’ve been able to sharpen some vague thinking into much clearer concepts: post-avant, School of Quietude, the idea that editing’s first task is to offer context
  2. I’ve had to become more rigorous in my reading, to actually think a little about what to read next & why
  3. My mental map of contemporary poetry has changed profoundly
  4. I’ve had to acknowledge the presence of an entirely new generation of poets & recognize that they really are the “poets of today,” however you might care to define that. Their concerns are quite different from those that preoccupied me & my friends when we were in our 20s & 30s. I’m really happy to concede that the world of poetry is neither as white nor as male as it used to be. This is one of those great results, not unlike being able to live in a world in which the gay community is comfortable being themselves & not hiding in the closet. As a straight white male, I’m deeply enriched by such developments.
  5. I’ve met, online & sometimes later in person, a huge number of interesting new people & gotten to know several folks I’d already met quite a bit better
  6. My correspondence has gone up dramatically
  7. So has the arrival of books in the mail – twenty books in one week is not uncommon. Some of these are books I would have surely bought, but many others are by people I might never have heard of otherwise – including some real gems, like Mark Truscott, Laura Sims, Joseph Massey or Graham Foust.
  8. Three folks are currently sending me a new poem via email every day.
  9. I’ve had to recognize the growth & maturation of vispo in the United States, which has evolved well beyond the ghetto of concretism it was in during the 1960s.
  10. I’ve become much more conscious of how many different modes of English there are – not that I didn’t know this already, but I didn’t have to see it & think it & read it every day. One trip down the blogroll to the left will cure anyone of any fantasies concerning homogeneity.
  11. I’ve been able to spread the word about some poetry I care about a lot.
  12. I sometimes come up against other people’s expectations in ways I hadn’t expected. For example, the idea that one would think of anthologies in terms of teaching seems completely foreign to me. Probably because I don’t teach & don’t use such books in that fashion.
  13. My own poetry is being solicited at a much greater rate than I can possibly manage. One of my biggest failings over the past three years has been the haphazard nature of my responses to this.
  14. I’m being invited to read more often – so much so, in fact, that I’ve learned to say No for the first time in my life. I’ve turned down trips to Oregon, Finland & several places in between as a result. (I have had to seriously rethink the economics of readings also, especially since honoraria have not risen at all during my 40 years of reading in public, unlike the cost of everything else. I don’t make a penny on a reading if I’m not making in excess of $500 per day for every day I’m away from home, with all expenses paid – I think that’s true for almost any poet who doesn’t teach for a living. Too many readings would be not a boon, but a disaster, financially. The same economics apply to conferences as well, which is why I attend so few.)
  15. Writing here has pushed my own poetry forward in ways I would not have expected & which I don’t think (yet) I can fully articulate. As I type up the manuscript for the last of The Alphabet, & as I work on the first two sections of Universe, this seems as plain as the nose on my face, but that actually makes it harder, not easier, to discuss.

All of this is just a preface to my saying thank you for dropping by. I hope you find some value here each time you visit.



Friday, July 22, 2005

 

The day my piece on the PIP 5 anthology runs, what do I get in the mail but a package from Joshua Kotin, managing editor of the Chicago Review, sending me a reminder that once upon a time I also co-edited something akin to a regional anthology, a 63-page feature entitled Fifteen Young Poets of the San Francisco Bay Area, which appeared in the Summer 1970 issue of ChiRev. My partner in that project was David Melnick, during that relatively brief moment when we were both students at Berkeley.

When I first met David in 1968 – hitchhiking back to Oakland after a Harvey Bialy-David Bromige reading at the Albany Public Library then on Solano – we discovered that we both knew Iven Lourie, then the poetry editor of ChiRev. Melnick, who had studied at the University of Chicago, had been a roommate of Iven’s, whereas I’d been one of Iven’s “discoveries,” poets he’d consciously decided to promote aggressively in the review. (Some others in that group included William Hunt, Dennis Schmitz & Robin Magowan.) Melnick recruited me on the spot to join him in his attempt to bring the UC Berkeley magazine Occident into the post-avant world (where its roots could truly have been said to belong, with such prior student poets as Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer & Diane Wakoski having all been active with the journal).

As success wasn’t immediate in that campaign (we gradually had a little, but only after I’d transferred over from SF State to Berkeley), we decided to pitch the idea of a collection to The Chicago Review. I think we may have posed it as a special issue in the mode of the great second issue of the Evergreen Review. That proposal promptly hit a brick wall, but Iven had agreed to take over as the general editor for one issue before he graduated & for that issue he proposed a scaled down version, which is what we ended up editing.

When I look back with 35 years of hindsight at the list of poets we included –

D. Alexander

Harvey Bialy

David Bromige

John Gorham

Kenneth Irby

Joanne Kyger

Robin Magowan

David McAleavey

Rochelle Nameroff

David Perry

Anthony Shonwald

George Stanley

Julia Vinograd

Paul Xavier

Al Young

– my immediate thought is that we didn’t do half bad. Al Young is California’s Poet Laureate today & several others – Bromige, Irby, Kyger, Stanley – have achieved some measure of recognition. David McAleavey just published the biggest & most ambitious book of his career, Robin Magowan has recent books out that are well worth reading & Julia Vinograd is something of a Berkeley institution, “the bubble lady” who wanders the streets selling her chapbooks of verse.

D. Alexander died far too young, Harvey Bialy went off to Africa & appears to have only recently gotten back into being a visible presence in print. Shelley Nameroff – my wife at the time – published one excellent book with Ithaca House (the editor there was McAleavey, who proved to be an early force in bringing the language poets into print, Melnick & myself both as well as Ray DiPalma & Bob Perelman), but Shelley moved away from her post-avant youth toward a more conventional mode & has appeared only in journals since then. David Perry is not the poet David Perry who seems these days to be calling both New York & Kansas City Home, but rather a one-time student of Robert Kelly (along with Bialy & John Gorham) who last I heard was a therapist in upstate New York. Gorham dropped out of UC Berkeley & became a freelance writer. The last time I saw his work in print was in Forbes a couple of years ago. I never have found out what’s become of Paul Xavier – he was calling himself Paul X much of the time back when this was published – like Vinograd very much a street poet. It was Paul who had gotten me (and quite a few other people) into the Berkeley Poetry Conference back in ’65. By the time we edited the ChiRev feature in ’69, Paul was working as an aide to a member of the Berkeley City Council. Tony Shonwald, on the other hand, was the one person in that selection whom I felt certain would be a constant presence on the scene, co-editing a journal on those days called Cloud Marauder that was, with George Hitchcock’s Kayak & Robert Bly’s The Sixties, a mainstay of School of Quietude surrealism. At 21, Shonwald was the most ambitious & aggressive young up-&-comer on the entire poetry scene in the Bay Area. But, once Cloud Marauder shut down, Shonwald seemed to disappear – I can find his name only twice through Google, once (misspelled) in a memoir of these same years by John Oliver Simon in Poetry Flash, the second time among “missing alumni” from the Class at 1965 at his old high school, Lowell, in San Francisco.

Melnick & I tried to represent all of the active formations we saw around the Bay – we wanted the best School of Quietude (SoQ) poets & thought Magowan & Shonwald met our criteria. We knew we had other options there – Chana Bloch was literally my next door neighbor in Berkeley, I’d known Stan Rice for years out at SF State, Arthur Sze was a visible presence on the Berkeley campus. Joe Stroud had just finished up at State. Had we stretched our definition of the Bay Area to include Sacramento, we would certainly have added Dennis Schmitz. In retrospect, I think we showed where our hearts were in having as many street poets as SoQs.

If Melnick’s particular contribution to the overall tone of this project had been his insistence on the street poets, mine was the circle of writers who were either former students of Robert Kelly (Bialy, Gorham, Perry) or else visibly around the magazine Clayton Eshleman published with Kelly’s assistance, Caterpillar (Alexander). A part of me finds it odd & a little sad that that scene evaporated as completely as it did, tho it may have been my own wishful thinking back then to have called it a scene in the first place. Alexander was a fairly isolate character, as was Perry – I don’t think they ever even met one another. Gorham’s departure from poetry was one of those larger scale rejections, disapproving of the progressive politics that were virtually universal among poets during the Nixon years. (Only a couple of years earlier, he’d been the one to drive me to the hospital after I’d been beaten by the Berkeley police during an anti-war demonstration on the UC campus.)

But, as I’ve said more than once here, the first & best test of an anthology is invariably what’s missing, and I cringe at the realization of what’s not included in our ChiRev feature. First, there were two poets whose work Melnick & I both liked a great deal, but it wasn’t at all clear to us in 1969 that there might be any sort of scene evolving around such writing – Rae Armantrout & Robert Grenier. In retrospect, I think it was as much our lack of self-confidence as well as not being able to see the forest for the trees that kept us from proposing their inclusion. Grenier’s poems were already telescoping down to the miniatures that would make up Sentences. Armantrout had not really begun to publish, tho frankly neither had David Perry or John Gorham. Melnick & I discussed both at length & came to the wrong conclusion each time.

The other major omission is any clear representation of the women’s writing scene, as such, in the Bay Area, especially Judy Grahn, already a major poet in 1970 but one who was only then beginning to move beyond the early chapbook versions, say, of Edward the Dyke. There were other possibilities here as well – I’d known Pat Parker since we’d read together in the open reading series at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley in the mid-60s, Susan Griffin had been in classes with David Perry & me at SF State, Alta was just then making the transition from being one of the street poets in Berkeley. Melnick & I weren’t able to take that critical step back & see how all these separate poets & events were part of a larger picture.

There were other poets whose work we might have included – Aaron Shurin was a poet we thought about, but we weren’t sure that he’d arrived at his own writing yet (we were right). Others like Steve Ratcliffe & Michael Davidson were around, but not showing their work to anybody. Barrett Watten & Curtis Faville – two other poets we knew who weren’t showing their work to anybody yet – had gone off to the Writers Workshop in Iowa City.

On the other hand, the Chicago Review was a major publication – at least in terms of distribution – for all of the poets we did include & one of the first such instances of this for all of the poets there. Bromige, Irby, Kyger & Stanley really were the center of the feature, tho I’m not sure that David or I fully appreciated that at the time. Bromige & Irby were clearly the major young poets in the Berkeley scene, both already nationally recognized in New American Poetry circles. I think that we thought at the time that Stanley represented San Francisco & Kyger the writing scene that was just then starting to emerge in Bolinas (within the next year or so Robert Creeley & Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Lewis MacAdams, Tom Clark, Phil Whalen & others would all be living in that town of 300), tho in retrospect what I really see is how deeply the old Spicer Circle had become the visible force in the writing scene in San Francisco, just five years after Spicer’s death. Indeed, it is Al Young in the issue who directly addresses the influence of Spicer.

So we got some things right even as we had a couple of major misses. If we’d edited the feature just one year later, Armantrout & Grenier surely would have been included & we might have opted for a different SoQ poet than Shonwald. Would we have included feminist poetics? I’d like to think that the answer is yes, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. Another couple of years beyond that & all the langpos who had moved into the Bay Area – Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman – as well as the returned Watten & Faville – surely would have been there.

It’s interesting how one can sort of peel back the layers on an almost year-by-year basis like that. Even tho it came out in 1970, the ChiRev feature is a snapshot of the scene in 1969 – it would have looked so totally different by 1974 that it’s almost unimaginable. I can only wonder if younger poets in the Bay Area have the same sense of the scene as evolving with such rapidity now.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

 

Early Saturday morning, Jesse started (and finished) rereading – skimming really, even for him – the fifth Harry Potter book in anticipation of the arrival later that morning of HP6. It didn’t show up until a little before noon, and that was pretty much the last we saw of him until sometime around sundown when he completed it. He was so upset by the ending that he took a long walk around the neighborhood to calm down.

Colin, who’s a more leisurely reader than Jesse, was by then just finishing his rereading of HP5 & it took him until something like 9 pm on Sunday to finish the new volume. He too was staggered by the ending, declaring that Harry Potter should no longer be considered children’s literature & that he wasn’t sure he would let a ten-year-old read this volume. Colin & Jesse are both 13. And both have been reading Harry Potter books since they were seven.

It’s interesting & moving to watch them be so moved by a book. I’ve tried, sans success, to convince myself to wade through the rather bloated prose of that series, but I’ve known for some time that my boys have suspended all disbelief with regards to these characters long ago. So where the Harry Potter experience for me principally has been one of the movies – in which most of the characters have been played by the same actors film after film (the notable exception being Dumbledore, a role taken over by Michael Gambon after the death of Richard Harris) while the directors have begun rotating, giving the last film at least something of a Rashômon effect as the stylistic paradigm changes just a little as the cast goes on, the films are mere commentaries for my kids – the books are the real deal.

I didn’t read Lord of the Rings until I was a jaded & cynical 21 years old & I never did get to The Silmarillion. Never read Narnia tho I suffered some through an audio version on a long summer’s trip to Nova Scotia many years back. At my boys’ age, I was making my way through Ray Bradbury & gradually easing into a John Steinbeck period. In fact, quite without any encouragement from me, they’ve taken to devouring Bradbury’s books themselves, along with Isaac Asimov & Philip K. Dick (“That’s the right age reader for him,” Samuel Delany once told me). But they don’t connect with any of these books the way they do HP. Even if, as was the case for Jesse, he read the last novel – all 800+ pages of it – the day it came out & didn’t pick it up again until last Saturday morning.

As a younger reader, I had gone through a short spate of Hardy Boy novels – the formulaic plots & execrable writing of all the contract authors who became “Franklin W. Dixon” drove me away pretty fast. Better were Walter Brook’s Freddy the Pig series – think Animal Farm sans politics, tho these came first & may have had a hand in setting Orwell’s imagination toward the barnyard – and, immediately thereafter, Howard Pease’s Tod Moran adventures. If there was any character in literature that I had an imaginative relationship with even remotely kin to what my boys have with Harry, Ron & Hermione, it was Tod Moran. Tod Moran is halfway between Ishmael & the Hardy Boys, solving mysteries wherever he traveled, invariably by tramp steamer. The Tattooed Man, Ship Without a Crew, The Black Tanker, The Jinx Ship, Captain of the Araby & others were available at the Albany Public Library whenever I wanted in the 1950s. It didn’t hurt that Pease, who’d been a school teacher before he was able to support himself through his writing, knew how to craft sentences & paragraphs either.

But they were end of kid’s literature for me – Bradbury, Steinbeck, Lovecraft & others replaced Pease & the Moran novels before I even recognized the difference. Now, you can’t find them anywhere, save on Abebooks.com. Once, in the early 1970s, I went to give a talk on criminal justice reform at a highschool in Marin County only to discover that my host, a soc. teacher, was Pease’ son. His dad had already retired from writing by the time I got to the books, but he was still alive then, so I told my host just how much those novels had meant to me & asked him to thank his dad. I hope that he did.



Wednesday, July 20, 2005

 

The average age of the poets in The PIP¹ Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 5: Intersections: Innovative Poetry in Southern California is just under 56 years old. Or would be, if they were all still alive. Douglas Messerli’s collection of 28 poets of Southern California offers an interesting, valuable, and deeply problematic view of the poetry scenes in Los Angeles & San Diego. Only three of the 28 are under the age of 40 and it’s worth noting that, of these, Catherine Daly is a relatively recent transplant to coastal SoCal, having already spent more years of the 21st century there than she appears to have done in the one named in this anthology’s lugubrious title, Franklin Bruno is probably better known as a musician, and Standard Schaefer recently moved to San Francisco.

Having said that, the work here is consistently good, much legitimately great, with some famous names like Jerome Rothenberg, Harryette Mullen, David Antin, Will Alexander, Rae Armantrout, Wanda Coleman & Michael Davidson representing fully one-quarter of the whole. Plus some others who should be famous, such as Leland Hickman, Diane Ward & Martha Ronk. Even the writers whose work is entirely new to me – Martin Nakell, Barbara Maloutas & Thérèse Bachard – are all quite solid. But there’s that generational thing again – I don’t expect two-thirds of the “new” poets in an anthology to be older than I am, not at my age, but they are here.

Actually, I think it’s great that newer poets can be 60 years & up – I think even that it’s a characteristic of my generation that more than a few late starters have found it possible to carve real careers of lasting value – that’s a huge improvement over the way things were a few decades back. But, on the other hand, if I were looking to this anthology for signs of what the post-avant poetry scene of coastal Southern California will look like ten years hence, I might be hard put to find signs of it here.

Scene in fact may be the wrong word to characterize whatever formations poetry arise out of a region with a population in excess of 15 million people. With a population that large, one might expect to find not one or two, but several overlapping literary communities, as one does New York. In PIP 5, however, one doesn’t find that at all, but rather writers who appear more to have genial arms-length relationships with one another, but who – with only one or two exceptions – really work by themselves. Perhaps the closest thing to a formation here is the lifelong friendship & support David Antin & Jerome Rothenberg have given one another. But their writing has very little in common, even when, as Messerli does here, one restricts Antin’s writing to his pre-talking text works. There are three well-known language poets – Rae Armantrout, Diane Ward & Michael Davidson – but one is hard put to find similarities there. They appear no closer to one another than Will Alexander, Harryette Mullen & Wanda Coleman, who collectively could hardly be called a black literary scene.

This may, in fact, be the real message of this book. Years ago, Leland Hickman used to complain that he caught flack from local poets whenever he published authors who lived north of Santa Barbara or east of San Berdoo. Yet for all of the work that he, Bill Mohr & others poured into the local literary community in those years, it seemed at a distance as if the only identifiable L.A. style was a kind of post-Beat writing, surrounded by lots of relatively isolated poets, some of whom (Michael Lally, who only recently moved back east, Lewis MacAdams, James Krusoe, Ron Koertge, Excene Cervenka, Steve Kowit, Henry Rollins, Holly Prado, Robert Peters) probably ought to be here, but aren’t. Indeed, one doesn’t see evidence here of more recent movers & shakers, such as August Highland, Mark Weiss or Paul Naylor, let alone younger poets like Noah de Lissovoy.

The poet whose presence really underscores this for me is Leland Hickman. It’s great to see Lee’s work in print in any venue, and I won’t fault Messerli for his selection of Hickman’s work here either – the discrete versions of texts are anthologizable in ways that the great mess – I mean that term positively & affectionately – that is Great Slave Lake Suite is not. Yet Lee died 14 years ago. His inclusion in an anthology of innovative writing really casts the book into a retrospective mode, as tho this were the major SoCal poetry of the past 20 years, not of today & certainly not going forward. Imagine, by way of contrast, an anthology of New York poetry that similarly included Ted Berrigan, but not Anselm or Edmund. That’s pretty much what this book seems to be. PIP 5 tells you where SoCal innovative writing has been, not where it’s going.

One alternative might have been to not give each poet the roughly 12 pages they have here, and to have increased the number of writers included. Yet, reading Messerli’s introduction – the best explication of his editing strategies he’s ever done – I’m glad that each writer is given room enough for us to really gain a sense of the writing. And Messerli has also prefaced each poet’s selection with a brief bio-biblio note, giving context in just the right way to each contribution. This approach to an anthology plays to Messerli’s strengths as an editor in ways that a broader book (or one focused on just younger poets) would not.

In general, the PIP anthologies have struck me as unfocused, save for the Brazilian volume (tho I really don’t know enough about Brazil to have any picture of how well or badly it represents the space). This volume, however, is not only the most coherent in the series, in many respects it’s the finest anthology Douglas Messerli has ever edited – which is saying something considering that From the Other Side of the Century is a very good book indeed.

 

¹ Project for Innovative Poetry.



Tuesday, July 19, 2005

 

Rod Smith

 

I was shocked when the Robert Creeley reading – one might even call it the Robert Creeley evening – ended on the CD that accompanies the latest issue of Kiosk. It is one of the fastest, most completely engrossing 51 minutes I’ve ever spent listening to anything, and I was nowhere near ready for it to end.

Then, the next day, the next CD that went into the player was Rod Smith’s Fear the Sky, at just under 71 minutes a full length recording with production values that would make an indie band weep with envy. Smith is the perfect poet for such a project, as he has the most active ear of any writer of his generation & he’s a great – if decidedly deadpan – reader of his own work. Listening to this recording feels like it takes 20 minutes & one is totally engrossed the entire time, as Smith demonstrates a range of affect far wider than I’ve heard from him before, all the way from the devastatingly ironic, more or less his signature move, to the utterly straightforward (commenting on the death of his son). If Smith’s recording doesn’t feel as warm as the Creeley, it’s only because Fear the Sky is, in fact, a studio event, where one feels Creeley’s give & take with a live audience.

Back to back, so to speak, the two recordings reminded me of one of the basic truths about poetry – the one-hour reading, or something relatively close to it, is always preferable to the 20 minute one. As an experience, the differences between the two are not unlike the differences between the major motion picture and a 30-minute sitcom on TV.

I’ve often been amazed at how brief public readings are in most cities – three poets in less than one hour is not impossible & it’s rare for three to go over 90 minutes. One feels at times as if the audience can’t wait for the reading to end so that everybody can rush to the bar & spend the next two hours drinking & gossiping. I don’t object to the drinking & gossiping part – they have their place – at least so long as I can get a club soda or mineral water. But there have certainly been readings where I’ve felt that the event was little more than a formal excuse for the partying afterward.

How you hear a poem & how you hear a reading are two different things, unless of course the reading consists of a single long text (which may be why I’ve given so many readings that have been just that). Some of the tracks on Smith’s CD are as short as 23 seconds. They echo in the mind, but by the time one absorbs the words, the poem itself is long gone. (This may explain why such diverse poets as Robert Bly & Bob Grenier have a tendency to read a short poem multiple times during a reading.) With a longer reading, on the other hand, the reader settles in, begins to hear nuances & themes, tonal changes, as well as whatever content might be flowing past. With a longer reading, you can almost hear the moment at which the audience relaxes into the text – it always occurs somewhere after the 15-minute mark, sometimes after the 30 (and, often, you’ll hear two such moments). At 40 moments or thereabouts, I’m so tuned into a reader’s sense of time & the formal scope of the text that it is as if a vista opened up. Only from that point forward can I really hear pretty much everything the poet is doing.

And no two poets, at least no two decent ones, have anything like the same timing – it’s as particular as fingerprints. If I find that I resonate with some aspect of that timing, a reading can act like a spell – I’m totally enveloped. But if I find that I don’t resonate, sometimes the reading itself can seem very alien, as if we’re translating across not just languages but beings or species. That can be even more interesting if I can tell that the writing is very good, but operating on planes that don’t feel at all familiar or intuitive to me. Indeed, some of the readings that have had the most lasting impression on me – Alice Notely as well as the late Douglas Oliver – fall into exactly this category.

The lone advantage then that I often find reading in a college setting is that so many university readings are solo affairs in which one has the opportunity to “go long” if one wants. But I wish more reading series in cities followed suit, or else proposed something akin to “two poets, two hours” as their stated model, like the grand old double-bills we used to take in at the Times Theater in the Chinatown of my youth.



Monday, July 18, 2005

 

Somebody awhile back suggested that, since I had been thinking out loud about what a selected Zukofsky might include, and had noted the problems that greeted Grenier’s Selected Creeley, that I might turn my attention to a larger scale & imagine what a Selected 20th Century American Poetry anthology might look like. It’s an intriguing question. Having worked on one anthology, plus three mini-anthology-like features for journals as different at the Chicago Review, Alcheringa & Ironwood, I have some idea just how complex & difficult the process itself can be. One’s awe – I really can’t think of any other word – at Jerome Rothenberg’s ability to produce so many interesting & valuable anthologies over his career – some of them paradigm shifting in their impact – deepens dramatically when one realizes just how much like scaling Mt. Everest in t-shirt, shorts & flip-flops editing even a single anthology is. In the American Tree, focusing on writing that I already knew really well & aided by the fact that so many of its contributors were dear friends, presented almost limitless difficulties. Just U.S. writers or beyond? Just those who fit the somewhat sociological definitions of appearing multiple times in “language poetry” venues or a broader definition? What about those poets, such as Bev Dahlen, Jerry Estrin or Leslie Scalapino, who more accurately could be described as intimate critics of langpo? What about those, such as Larry Eigner or Bill Berkson, who fit my appearances criterion but already had firm public identities antecedent to language writing? Because I wanted to give writers room enough to show some of their range as poets, I ended making almost every decision on the side of a narrower book. As it happened, there were just three U.S. poets who fit all my formal criteria, but who for various reasons I left out: Abigail Child (on the grounds that she was a film-maker first – this was my largest single mistake), David Gitin & Curtis Faville (on the grounds that both had stepped back from publishing altogether during the early 1980s). And I wish I had a dollar for each time I’ve been told that leaving out Canadians, such as Steve McCaffery, or British poets, such as Tom Raworth, was not the most brilliant strategy. Countering that it wasn’t just Steve or Tom, but the next dozen perfectly wonderful poets one immediately had to consider the instant one made the first such exception is an answer that is reasonable, but always disappointing. And none of this touches on the questions of friendships that get strained (or worse) in such a process because X doesn’t have as many pages as Y, or isn’t the first person on the first page, or whatever, the dark side of editing. One contributor to the Tree once wrote to me a few years after it was published to accuse me in the harshest terms of deliberately picking works intended on discrediting her as a poet – only when I sent her a photocopy of her original correspondence years earlier, which spelled out just what I could use and in what order (to which I’d adhered), did she back off.

So the idea of submitting myself to the same degree of torture over a field so broad as “20th Century American Poetry” is enough to fill me with literal physical nausea. You’d have to lock me up it Gitmo (but with a really good library) to try it.

There is one book that did attempt this level of a project with some serious integrity – Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us, first published as a mass market paperback original in 1970 & republished a few times since then – it’s still listed as in print. Subtitled American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, the 722-page volume contains 135 poets beginning with Robert Frost & continuing through to Joel Sloman, one of only two poets included born as late as the 1940s. Although the volume includes only 21 poets born in 1930 or later, Carruth is quite meticulous about including not only lots of the New American poets but also writers around such journals as Coyote’s Journal & Caterpillar, such as Ronald Johnson, Clayton Eshleman, Robert Kelly & Diane Wakoski. This is a book that puts Bob Kaufman between Donald Justice & Carolyn Kizer, and that puts Archie Ammons between Jack Spicer & Paul Blackburn. It’s not that Carruth’s editorial eye is perfect by any means – Rakosi & Oppen are missing among the Objectivists, the writers around Caterpillar excludes Rothenberg & David Antin, all of the 2nd generation New York School is absent, the Spicer circle is reduced to just Spicer – but, overall, this remains the most successful attempt anyone has made of this kind of project. Three & one-half decades since its publication, Voice remains an eminently useable & teachable book. Indeed, its largest constraint is that Voice affords contributors an average of just five pages apiece, hardly enough to get much sense of a poet’s worth.

But the deeper problem in trying to replicate something akin to Voice for the whole of the 20th century is that the number of active practitioners – accomplished, publishing, having some degree of impact – has tended to rise exponentially with each new generation. The sum of post-avant poets visible in the 1950s & ‘60s, while sizeable when contrasted with the handful of Imagists or Objectivists in earlier decades, was relatively small compared with the number of poets active in the 1970s & ‘80s – indeed, some of what the poetry wars around 1980 must have been about (tho no one I knew at the time seemed to recognize this, myself included) was the serious discomfort involved adjusting expectations as the next generation of poets (my own) gradually realized that the resources available for publishing, jobs, recognition, was not going to expand to meet the larger number of poets then competing for such rewards. If one were simply to take the Carruth anthology, correct a few of its omissions, bringing the number of contributors up, say, to 150, one would still have to then add another 150 poets just to comparably represent the poetry of the seventies & eighties. Like Moore’s Law, this problem only repeats itself – one would have to add close to another 300 poets to represent all the comparably accomplished (an important qualification) poets practicing now, two decades hence.

Thus, simply attempting to extend Carruth’s project out through the end of the 20th century would require an anthology containing something like 600 poets. Even at the same impoverished five-pages-to-a-poet allotment (& in practice Carruth shows his own taste in letting some writers, like Frost, go up to 20 pages, leaving others with only a page or two – biographical note included), such a book would entail 3,000 pages. This book would be three times the size of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, four times the size of the existing Carruth (or, if printed instead as a trade paperback, Pound’s Cantos), closer ultimately to the old Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, a seven-pound behemoth of a book that appears to have finally defeated even its publisher.

Certainly one could be “more selective” than Carruth, whose 135 poets includes David Lawson, Patricia Low, William Anderson (a brilliant but little published African-American poet heavily influenced by his friendship with Jack Gilbert), Hy Sobiloff, Hyam Plutzik, Winfield Townley Scott & others whom one could argue about easily enough.¹ That of course is the logic that ultimately lets an anthologist represent the 18th century with just Alexander Pope – the 20th century reduced just to Gertrude Stein – but it’s a logic that ultimately leaves out too much of value for me to imagine pursuing. My first question whenever I open an anthology, really the first critical question that has to be asked, is invariably Who’s missing? And anything under 3,000 pages for the 20th century United States would get to embarrassing exclusions pretty damn fast.

So, like the Baseball Encyclopedia & its competitors (Total Baseball) that were driven out simply by the scale of what had to be done, a decent anthology of 20th century American poetry is the sort of thing that maybe can happen only on the web. If then.

 

¹ Carruth also noted that he was unable to get permission to use the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson.



Sunday, July 17, 2005

 

Lee Herrick is the 600th member of the blogroll to the left – his blog focuses on Asian American poetry and activism. Welcome aboard!



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