Saturday, October 15, 2005

 

Is this year’s poetry shortlist for the National Book Award a hoot or what?. Nominees include five white males: John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Frank Bidart, Brendan Galvin & Vern Rutsala. At 66, Bidart is the youngest. Apparently the days of including such nominees as Cole Swenson or Harryette Mullen were a fluke, not a trend. And I was sad to see Copper Canyon promote Merwin’s volume over the far livelier & more relevant Jubilant Thicket by Jonathan Williams, which it also published this year.

It’s an odd time in the history of the NBA. For one thing, the award’s traditional social function – to promote the role of trade presses in defining literature – has been undercut by the wholesale abandonment of poetry by the trades. Only Bidart’s volume, from FSG, truly qualifies. While Ashbery is the one great writer on this list, I’m rooting for Vern Rutsala, whose prolix, folksy verse & Northwest regionalism is at least something different.

The National Book Foundation will also be giving a special lifetime achievement award to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, more for his publishing than for his verse. At 86, Ferlinghetti will have to represent all that is new at this year’s ceremonies.



Friday, October 14, 2005

 

There are two poems in the new Cue that fascinate me. Both are by Janet Kaplan, of whom I had not previously heard. That in itself is something of a story. She has two books out, The Groundnote and The Glazier’s Country. Both books were prize winners & are published by respected presses, Alice James in one instance, Fordham University Press in the other, that may well get a few copies into the Borders and Barnes & Noble chains, but which virtually ensure that somebody like myself – who picks up as many as 500 new books of poetry, year in, year out – will never ever see them, never hear of them, never notice them being reviewed. She may well be, as Molly Peacock is quoted on the NYU site for The Glazier’s Country, “among the leading poets of the newest generation of American writers,” but to date her work appears to have been produced entirely behind the walls of the School of Quietude. The newer book’s sales rank at Amazon – 1,783,648 on Wednesday – suggests that this approach to publishing doesn’t reach even that many fans of Quietude. This is hardly the first time somebody has done interesting work in the context of schools, summer writing conferences & contests that matter only to their participants only to have the work largely hidden away from the rest of the poetry world – think Jean Valentine – but it would be a shame if Kaplan’s poetry doesn’t reach a broader range of readers.

One might think of the two poems, “Change” & “Meals,” as sonnets in that each is composed of 14 numbered prose sections, each containing somewhere between one & maybe ten sentences. Both poems have painting as a point of reference – “Change” has an epigram that reads “—after Gerhard Richter.” Here is “Meals”

“To be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal....”
                     Damiel, “Wings of Desire”

1.

Wide brushstrokes are meals, black and green and orange. They descend and encroach upon the blue limited plate.

2.
A poached egg that illuminates inward. And here on earth a light that doesn’t reach the foreground and is therefore not the cause of the colors one sees in these peaches. What is the cause? The painter’s mind, her own dual nature? Then there’s the skull.

3.
My father without his glasses? A girl reading sheet music? Some meals are like stills from a home movie, half moving, half still. Some are as lurid as newsreels. So many different kinds of meals.

4.
Two bowls of spaghetti. One is sharp but uneaten. The other is vanishing quickly and so the mind paints over it, actively malignantly abstracts it.

5.

The restaurant makes me ache for the wilderness because it (the restaurant) is too exacting. Isn’t that sandwich too particular? That cutlet too resolute?

6.
Yolks have cholesterol. Knowledge is elsewhere. What I’m tell you to do is make money, marry young, eat healthy meals. What I’m telling you to do has no depth; I don’t believe in these things. Where was I during the party? The back room full of violins splitting at their seams. Where were you when you should have been at work? The laundromat, watching Elsie’s potted plants shake on the spinning machines.

7.
How much is intentional and how much is chaos? Eggs equal gravity. Flour equals dominant subject matter. Mustard equals the disturbance, getting closer to or further from the disturbance. Wine vinegar means that the rectangle, though disappearing, is still very strong.

8.
When I paint I don’t exist. Then I eat.

9.
The lines use red – a streak of sun or ketchup. I think “ordinary” people already understand this. A child: “how’d she make that scribble?”

10.
Wind pushes the fork, rain sweeps away the knife. As in the development of any meal, we’re going to have to experiment. This is not the same as starvation. The children eat locusts in locust season. The parents know how much time between the bloating of the feet and death. Tick tock tick.

11.
Otherwise, one can like rain, not too little, not too much. One can admire the particular green of new corn. One can send seed packets and water tanks. One can ask, all one wants, Would I share my last kernel with my neighbor?

12.
One can like form or one can like chaos. A man was chosen to race against his own meal: “Go, man, go!”

13.
Is it terrible to enter the mind of the hungry man. And so he recedes and the meal gains the foreground. Convenient and appealing – solid, for something so small.

14.
The placement of the condiment is often a paradox.

There is a curious, perhaps even deliberate, inelegance to the writing here, the need, for example, to reiterate “the restaurant” in parentheses. There is also, just behind the surface of the writing, a figured landscape, a not quite identifiable referential frame. It is not a short story so much as it is a veil behind which one might just be taking place.

One can like form or one can like chaos. That is a wonderful sentence, one I’m going to remember for a long time. I find it interesting – and not at all obvious – that these two terms should be posed as opposites. Think, for example, of Jack Kerouac’s concept of wild form. It seems evident, reading these two pieces in Cue, that in this taxonomy, Kaplan likes form. But she loves the feeling that chaos is near. And it’s that dichotomy, exactly, that draws me so powerfully to this work. The reader senses it earlier, as well, in that fabulous eighth section. I for one am willing to put up with a lot in order to get to moments like those in the writing. They are what convinces me that Kaplan is the real deal.

Reading the two poems in Cue gave me the sensation that I was doing something akin to watching a potentially great & powerful swimmer, but one who is unwilling to let go of the side of the pool. I might prefer it if Kaplan were to spend less time at Yaddo and more closer to home at the Bowery Poetry Club or St. Marks. There are interesting things to be learned out in the deeper waters of the poetry community. But even if Kaplan holds back, I think it’s likely to be impossible for somebody with this much energy, intelligence & at least the desire for the desire for risk to be anything but fascinating to watch. I’m going to have to read more of her work.



Thursday, October 13, 2005

 

I have some new work in Cue, which subtitles itself A Journal of Prose Poetry. The type on the cover itself is all but unreadable, orange on white in a little patch of space that is not otherwise intensely (almost painfully) orange. Inside, however, it is all quite readable, tho it is worth noting that only a few contributors (Michael Schiavo, Deborah Bernhardt, Janet Kaplan) interpret the concept of “prose poetry” to mean something other than “Block O’ Type.” For the rest, “prose” = “paragraph.” Yet one possible, even plausible, interpretation of the prose poem would trace its roots back not through the eruption of paragraphs onto the page verse built (aided, no doubt, by the spatial or field compositional techniques of the likes of Pound), but rather syntactically & tonally to Alexander Pope, who may deploy all the exoskeletal features of verse, but whose tongue is prose indeed.

I also have some work and an interview in The Argotist, which has evolved over the years from a print magazine into a web site – which is to say that editor Jeffrey Side is more concerned with content than with periodicity. So he appears to have broken with the metaphor of the magazine on the site pretty much completely.

I’m ambivalent about interviews. I read those of others voraciously. Indeed, there are more than a few poets, including Quietists & some neo-Beats, quasi-Punks & slammers, where I would much rather read an interview than I would the work itself. At the same time, I feel intensely irritated by my own interviews. If one takes serious questions seriously – and I try to – it’s hard in that forum not to come off sounding like John Houseman, the essence of posturing, hollow authority. I can understand why somebody as intensely private as Bob Dylan tends to give out only b.s. to interviewers.

And one has to beware the hostile interviewer. I’ve certainly seen some that can be read as attacks, either through prosecutorial questions or, worse yet, questions that really are probes for personal gossip. In this regard, I’ve been enormously fortunate over the years. I think I might be an easy target for that sort of interviewer, but possibly I come across to them as just too dull for parody anyway. About the worst I’ve had to deal with were interviewers who had never heard of (to pick concrete examples) Charles Olson or Louis Zukofsky & who couldn’t spell Allen Ginsberg.

I once heard a newspaper interviewer up in Bangor ask Omar Pound, “So, what kind of commie was your father, anyhow?” The look on Omar’s face is something I will not soon forget.

Tom Vogler has been a good & generous reader over the years, and someone who knows the work is the very best kind of interlocutor, I’ve found. Even with Tom, as you will see, at least one of the questions (the last one) surprised me. But that is what comes from inside one’s own writing, one’s own head, all of your life. What seems obvious to you turns out to be a puzzlement to others.

I co-interviewed Geof Huth for Tom Beckett’s weblog with Crag Hill not so long ago, the first time I’ve been on the far side of this process. That was humbling, precisely because it made me conscious of just how much prep work is required to do this properly. I was fortunately in that, when Tom asked me initially about the project, I suggested doing it with Crag, whom I’ve known for over 20 years, and whose knowledge of vispo is encyclopedic.

Θ Φ Θ

 

I don’t always agree with Jakob Nielsen’s concepts of usability, which often confuse ugly with useable. Still, it would be not be the worst idea in the world for every web designer (and by inference, every blogger) to pay heed to his annual roster of worst web design mistakes.



Wednesday, October 12, 2005

 

Left to right: Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ruth Witt Diamant,
San Francisco State University 1958

 

This is a test. I want to see if I can use an online program entitled Writely to write a note in lieu of doing my first draft in Microsoft Word, then having to do a lot of HTML-patching in the Blogger editing tool before I post it. Just the idea of being able to get away from a Microsoft Office product is sufficient motivation. I've already converted from Outlook to Gmail &, at least for now, Yahoo mail as well.1 One problem that I see right off the bat is that the program doesn't offer a "print view" or "page view" version of the screen, a device I use to get a visual sense of how text will appear before I try loading it into Blogger.

All of which makes me think of the problems of platforms and electronic publishing in general. I've been mulling the subject some already over the past few days, ever since I downloaded the tenth issue of W, the literary mag of the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver. As you will notice if you download W, the publication is in Adobe Acrobat's PDF file format. That makes it portable - you can read it offline - and ensures that the look of it will be consistent across operating systems, an important consideration for some of the poems included in the 116-page issue, especially those by Leslie Scalapino & Jordan Scott, texts that take explicit advantage of the page's spatial potential. W (dix) is subtitled a Duncan Delirium and seven of the ten features are either explicitly by or about Duncan or by authors, such as Peter O'Leary & Lisa Jarnot who are closely aligned with an emerging "Duncan industry" that is only just now starting to take wing in the academy. The three remaining contributions, by Scalapino, Scott & Kim Duff, are all poems clearly in the spirit of Duncan's own work. For a journal that neglects to list any of its editors, W is remarkably well put together. For those of us who care about Duncan's work, this issue is a great gift.

But. Always with the buts here at Silliman's Blog, never the glass half full. One wonders just what percentage of people who visit the Kootenay site actually download the file &, even more, what percentage of those who download it then sit down & read the thing. It can of course be loaded online, but PDF through the filter of a browser is a great way of slowing down even a souped-up PC. Adobe doesn't help itself any with its basically gray formatting of viewing screen, perhaps the dullest & most boring presentation of any major software program out there -- I'm sure that they must think of it as "neutral." And it's true that in the corporate world, PDF files tend to have a lot of color. But most web publishers involved in poetry appear to follow the metaphor of the physical book, treating the cover as an opportunity to invoke color, but leaving everything else black & white. The folks at W go one step further. It consists of the five words in the issue's title, the school's (new) address & contact data & the Kootenay logo, the silhouette of what appears to be a bear (tho, in fact, it could be a woodchuck or some similar woodsy rodent as well - it's hard to say).

The result is that W (dix) is a terrific issue, but one likely to be read only by those who already know they're serious in thinking about Duncan, and in thinking about people who think about Duncan. I wonder just how many more readers this issue might have if it were run as a feature within, say, Jacket. Case in point: a quick search of my own hard drive turns up 1152 PDF files, perhaps half of which involve poetry & poetics, with the other half all over the place - the September 11th Commission report, Hardt & Negri's Empire, stuff I've done for my day job, documentation for software, the grand jury report on the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Philadelphia archdiocese for the past several decades. But do I ever, ever, scan through all these files the way one sometimes scans a book case looking for something interesting to read? Have I ever done that even once? Not even in the manner with which I've been known with a journal like Jacket or How2 to just scroll around & see what's there.

No, PDF publication is publishing in the technical sense only. It's really more like the small press publisher - I've had more than one of these - who thinks having a box of books in his or her garage means that the volume is published. And has no clue about the mechanics of distribution. Not that HTML publishing is perfect by any means - it exposes just how little some people know about graphic design & it too requires marketing, missives to the Listservs, etc. But I suspect that the chances of an HTML page being read must be about ten times what is ever likely to happen to an Acrobat file. In a way, PDF publication is not unlike the situation one finds in certain branches of the academy, where a book that is typed (versus typeset) can be "issued" at a cost exceeding $100 with the expectation that a certain number of professional libraries will still be compelled to buy the volume. It's there on the shelves for sourcing something should anyone track it down, but will it ever be read? Sigh.

So let me admonish you that this issue of W is worth the extra time & effort, that Duncan's talk on a "life in poetry," from the Vancouver festival of 1963 is absolutely fascinating, as is Pauline Buntling's memoir of Duncan's visits to Vancouver, that Leonard Schwartz, Stephen Collis & Miriam Nichols all add measurably to the critical work now starting to build up around Duncan, and that some of the poetry here (Scalapino, O'Leary, Jarnot) is first rate indeed. But you'll have to work to read it.²

 

1Yahoo is in the process of beta testing a new version of its mail program currently. It looks - and behaves - far too much like Outlook for me. Its output in "plain text" mode caused lots of hexadecimal garbage insertions when I tried using it to post to Listservs. Even there, however, it refuses to create truly plain text apostrophes, which leads me to some interesting wordings for posting a note to a listserv. Gmail, tho, is even worse in this regard. So I will continue using the current "old" Yahoo mail program until they rip it from my cold, dead fingers. Or something to that effect.

² As it turns out, I had to convert the Writely file into Word in order to get it to format properly. That might be something I could learn over time, but it’s not immediately obvious.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

 

Robert Grenier

Tony Trehy posted a message entitled “Robert Grenier at the Text Festival” to the British Poetics List, but what showed up in the digest version of the Brit-Po email was pure hexadecimal gaga. That seemed like an ironic comment all its own, given Bob’s commitment to the material signifier and his general distaste for computers. So I wrote to Tony to say Hey Wha? And, when he responded, I thought to post it here.

hi

Robert was great; we got on very well and he seemed to really enjoy this part of England. I wonder why it turned to code, it hasn’t happened before. This is what I wrote:

Earlier last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Grenier off the plane from San Francisco at Manchester Airport. Although having exchanged photos so we would recognise each other I thought to be on the safe side I would print out one of his recent drawn poems and stand with it opposite the arrival gate like people do with notices such as “TAXI – MR SMITH”. And something quite unexpected happened: virtually everyone who came through the gate paused to read the poem (without realising that it was a poem of course). I began to feel like I was doing a performance. One daft old American Fascist walked up to me, tapped me on the chest through the poem and said “I’m not Osama Bin Laden” - presumably mistaking Bob’s use of line with Arabic. But otherwise people seemed genuinely to be caught be the unexpected textual intervention. Another passing reader actually left the building and then returned to ask what it said. The start of a week of fathoming the meaning of Grenier drawn poems.

Bob (and his partner Sue) got off the plane last and we went for a breakfast of smoked salmon scrambled eggs. Probably you’re more interested in the ‘reading’ than my diary of the week, so I’ll truncate that to say that overall we recorded about 6 hours of interviews and conversations (which will be transcribed and put out into the world): Bob is a great talker and brilliant company. He was particularly pleased with the hanging of the nine-poems series we bought for the Festival which was alongside the exhibition “Different Alphabets”; in which he was most moved by Ed Ruscha’s “Time is Up”.

His remarkable ‘reading’ was more of a sharing of the experience of writing and reading. Bob sits in the audience and projects selections from a set of 64 poems spanning a year in his life in Bolinas, California. Imagining a reading where the first two ‘illegible’ poems took about 20 minutes working through, your heart might sink but the intensity of the works and Bob’s presentation style is absolutely gripping in a paradoxically understated way. His persona is self-effacing, warm, engaging and carries the gentle authority of the intensity of his investigation of his natural surroundings. The progress through the reading for both Bob and the audience is the process of grasping the thing itself, the actual experience he had at the moment of writing, not a representation but an approximation of Nature. The audience are actively part of the reading, invited to contribute and question throughout and developing ‘literacy’ in reading for themselves. Chiming with the theoretical position of the Text Festival, while rooted in the Poetry Context and often surprisingly lyrical, Bob sees his recent work as moving into the interstices between poetry and visual art. The reader can step over the fine line to simplistic ‘solving the puzzle’ and miss the thrill of the deeper experience of, for instance, AFTER/NOON/SUN/SHINE or the absolute approximation of birdsong in words.

The hot news is that Bob has been collaborating with a translator in Paris to create a French-English book edition of SENTENCES in which the mechanics of the original have been revisited and on occasion renewed through the lens of translation.

The gig was one of the key moments of the Text Festival and for those who couldn’t make it, I am happy to announce that I am starting to plan the next one, and finding the first very conducive, Bob will be returning with a very special exhibition and reading.



Monday, October 10, 2005

 

RESPONSE TO SILLIMAN AND OTHERS

I appreciate Ron’s comradely display in printing my poem, and urging others to read me.

However, by cocooning the poem in some negative personal comments, I don’t think he offered my work a level playing field. The D Alexander statement about the woman with the gun was made up by D, as he later admitted to me, at the time he mistakenly thought I had had an affair with his current girlfriend.

For Ron to say that he has never met anyone who agreed with me is ridiculous. Maybe he should talk to some of the two hundred or so people who have reviewed my work in a positive way over the years. As for my old obsessions still being in place: probably true, and also true for many poets who have remained vital in their senior years, like Blake, Stevens, and Zukofsky. I suspect that Ron has not followed my work in the 80s and 90s while it was being effected by my research on the origin of image-making via the Ice Age painted caves of southwestern France. It is true that I came into poetry with a roily nigredo, and probably true that there are streaks of it in whatever transformations I have managed to carry off over the years. But these are matters that deserve a closer inspection than a dismissive generalization.

As for the poem itself: the title of “Life in the Folds,” comes from Henri Michaux. I believe La vie dans les plis is the title of a collection of his poems. I encountered the phrase, relative to my use of it as a title, at the Malingue art gallery in Paris, on my birthday (June 1), 2004, where I spent a very happy several hours inspecting a Matta show, with paintings and drawings from 1936 to 1944. Matta used the phrase in a statement that was posted at the beginning of the show. After a half hour or so of looking, I began to write rapidly (though not automatically) in a notebook, drifting around the gallery, from painting to painting (or drawing to drawing), letting Matta’s metaphoric deep space constructions (that evoke the cosmos as well as the recesses of the mind) to impinge and flush out language. A few of my phrases, “convict of light,” or “panic suction of the sun,” are spontaneous translations of Matta titles.

Matta is indescribable in the way that late Arshile Gorky is, and is thus a delicious challenge to articulate, since any words one finds seem to come out of a collision between one’s own tapped subconscious and anti-illustrative forms. Since no single responder on the blog mentioned Matta (whose name is mentioned twice in the poem, signaling, I would think, a direct connection), I suspect most of the reaction was just that—instead of a careful, thoughtful reading that would test the poem against the Chilean master’s tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, and psychic frustrations. Had someone said: I know Matta’s work, as well as Eshleman’s, and frankly I don’t think the latter connected here, I might disagree but I would accept such a position as fair—at least it would have come with a context.

We all know that anyone can pull a few lines out of context and shit on them (there are lines in Whitman, for example, that taken by themselves fairly writhe with vanity). So I don’t have much to say to those who used my poem for pot-shots.

Southside:is it possible that I, unwittingly, sat down on your pet chihuahua, while I was in Dublin, summer of 2003? If so, and if you will crawl out from under your anonymity helmet, I will send you a new one.

Curtis Faville: what have clogged freeways to do with my 25 year investigation of Upper Paleolithic art? Would you say the same thing to Jared Diamond (who unlike me does, at times, live in Los Angeles, where I have not lived since 1986) concerning his research in New Guinea?

As for your complaint about my line with the phrase “cosmic dive,” why didn’t you at least google the phrase? If you had, you would have found out something that might have given you pause for years: it appears that the cosmic dive may be the oldest myth we still know of, as it seems to have been brought via the Bering land bridge by the first European occupiers of the Americas possibly as early at 15,000 B.P. Thus there is the possibility that it was part of European Cro-Magnon consciousness. In my book, Juniper Fuse, you will find a section which mulls over this possibility. To determine whether or no I used the phrase effectively, you would have to know what it meant!

As for not being able to have thing both ways: poetry, on one level, is about having things both or all three or all nine ways. A = not A. Tat Tvam Asi. Lautréamont wants to say hello.

As for my line “I am an American through and not through,” please note the preceding lines, which forcast the jet engine metaphor which so upset you. It is true there is a waver in these 10 lines (beginning with “enraged Iraqis” down through “Le Combel”), with some very fast counterpoint but if you can follow Olson or Vallejo when they move fast, you should be able to grasp the coherence here. For 50 years I have been suctioning “imperial drift,” in a way that reminds me of jet engines devouring birds. American governmental insanity and ravage blows in whether I like it or not. An American through and not through, I am responsible and not responsible as a citizen poet, as someone who sees himself as a figure always positioned against a ground.

Clayton Eshleman



Sunday, October 09, 2005

 

Jeff Twitchell-Waas sends the following note, which is indeed worth passing on:

Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky is a scholarly website, which at the moment primarily consists of a fairly comprehensive set of annotations to "A", more perfunctory notes on the Short Poems, plus various bibliographies and notes. Interested Zukofsky readers are encouraged to send back augmentations, corrections and feedback.



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