Saturday, December 03, 2005

 

New poetry & poetics blogs are coming along these days at a pretty steady clip. But perhaps the most interesting recent addition to the blogroll on the left belongs to none other than Charles Olson, dead now just about 35 years, but nearly as hard to keep in the grave as he was difficult to control during his relatively brief six decades among us. At 1:00 p.m. today, some of Olson’s current generation of comrades & friends will hold an event at the Saint Marks Poetry Project that co-hosts Ammiel Alcalay and Michael Kelleher are calling an “open forum.” Among other events, this will include, at 4:00 p.m., the New York City premier of Henry Ferrini’s film, Poet and the City: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place.

The blog itself is just the start of something, or so I hope, for if ever there was a poet whose spirit foretold the bricolage process that is the internet, it is Olson. I hope that Michael & Ammiel continue the process of adding both the personal reminiscences that are on the site now, as well as the materials that are building up as a “documents archive” for the event at the EPC website. Just as the Olson Society has become a clearing house for a retrospective project, OlsonNow could as easily become a literally projective project, taking the work forward into the contemporary moment & beyond.

One of the very best aspects of the materials gathered for OlsonNow is their diversity. Olson is not, by any means, a Rorschach, or available to all points of view, but his restless imagination & commitment to a personal rigor (even as it often enough must have appeared to be utter chaos to those closest to him), give him more hooks into what is happening now, not mention what was happening, say, three or six thousand years ago. Ammiel Alcalay, for example, starts his “Republics of Poetry” by focusing on Olson’s work on Iraq. Alan Gilbert contributes a close examination of the parallels between Olson’s life & work with that of painter Philip Guston, and the influence of Popular Front artists on Olson’s writing. Don Byrd, on the other hand, considers what became of the next generation of projectivist poets – something I’ve written about here more than once – and likewise looks at Olson’s political work & its role in his later poetry. Byrd also contributes a fascinating, and deeply pessimistic, piece on Olson & Duncan’s relation to cybernetics.

As you go through these pieces by Don Byrd, Pierre Joris, Clayton Eshleman, Alan Gilbert, Jonathan Skinner, Andre Spears, Douglas Spangle, David Meltzer, Anne Waldman & Ramsey Scott, you catch glimpses of Olson the historical figure, Olson the friend, Olson the poet, Olson the communications theorist, Olson the historian, Olson the archaeologist, an Olson that might seem retro & nostalgic & another that really is only beginning to emerge as possible today. For example, Olson in his own life I don’t think ever connected up his work with breath as the central organizing element of the poem with the millennia old wisdom traditions extending out of South Asia, yet there is a rich interchange there just waiting to happen & waiting likewise to include contemporary neurobiology. Somebody like Anne Waldman would seem perfectly positioned to pick up on this facet of Olson’s project, which makes it all the more interesting to read her writing instead on the destruction of Mayan civilization & equate that to Rumsfeld & Cheney & the sacking of Iraq.

Given Olson’s death 35 years ago next month, when the United States was in the nadir of the Vietnam debacle (a disaster that would drag on another five poisonous, murderous years), the parallels to the contemporary Iraq situation are probably inescapable. If you follow Olson chronologically, the drift is inevitably apocalyptic. And it is certainly the case that there is no credible scenario for the future of Iraq that does not devolve into outright civil war, a tri-furcated collapse that would bring Iran, Turkey & other nations in the region into direct conflict, a failed state sitting atop the third richest pool of oil in the world. Bush’s current plan for “victory” is to push off World War 3 as long as possible in the hopes that the implosion happens on the next guy’s watch. Good freakin’ luck.

But this is just one of many Olsons waiting to be uncovered & carried forward in any number of directions. OlsonNow strikes me as a useful next step, although a part of me remains convinced that the real next generation of Olsonians has yet to be born.



Friday, December 02, 2005

 

One great consequence of this weblog is that people send me books & magazines that they want me to see. Some are just so-so, a few are real cringers, but I’m struck at how high the overall quality is – many are much more than “merely competent.” People who decide after all to tackle this most difficult (& deeply underappreciated) art form really do, to appropriate a sports phrase, put themselves out there, leaving everything on the page. That is one reason why I’m such an optimist about poetry, and why I can say with confidence that we have more good poets active right now than ever before, especially if I frame that clearly, say, for example, within the United States. On top of all this a few books just jump out at me & really rock.

I started this week off by turning to a book by a young poet, Laura Sims, whose poetry I first read as a direct result of doing the blog. Her book is flat out terrific. I’m happy to finish it in a parallel fashion, turning to another great new book by another poet whose work I first saw as a direct result of blogging. Joseph Massey’s Bramble is not only a joy to read – I’ve already done so more than once – but it’s unusual & remarkable in several ways. The most important of these is the writing.

Bramble is a collection of some four dozen lunes, a haiku variant that first came to light in a book entitled Lunes written by Robert Kelly, and published, together with Jerome Rothenberg’s Sightings, by Jerry’s Hawk’s Well Press back in 1964. Lunes are so called because their format most often three lines with five syllables, three syllables, and finally five syllables again suggest that the right-hand margin will carry the appearance of an open parenthesis – ( – mimicking the shape of a waning moon. One doesn’t think of Kelly as a miniaturist, and it’s not surprising that the form has carried on most often in the hands of others, such as Jack Collom, who categorizes the lune as one of a broader number of “teeny-weenies” that abound in the poem..

Massey, however, is a miniaturist, as technically fine & intellectually sharp as any we’ve got this side of Bob Grenier. Like Grenier, Massey really understands how small form poetry magnifies all that it touches:

     a snail’s vacated
shell lies next
           to a wad of gum

This poem partakes not only of daily observation, close attention to the actual, but one could point also to its historic relationship both to haiku’s Zen roots and an American art aesthetic visible in the Ash Can school of painting & the Objectivist poets. This is an interesting double dynamic that pops up throughout the book, most explicitly in a poem entitled, literally, “in Cid’s voice”:

    you think there should be
more, but this
           this is all there is

An insistence that shows up elsewhere in the book in a text that audibly harks back to Robert Creeley’s work (& indeed to the Creeley most directly impacted by the short poems of Louis Zukofsky):

     when you say it, say
it – what’s there
           to be said – what’s here

Massey has been known to bridle at my occasional obsessiveness over literary genealogy, and yet these poems – the book starts off with an epigram from Kelly – form an act of allegiance as willful, even devout, as anything I’ve seen in ages. Yet Massey is not, repeat not, a retro-ist, content with demonstrating his ability to replicate the great dance moves of the past. There is one sequence in the book of four poems that each begin with the same line, and yet move in very different directions:

     remembering, as
a snail-streaked
           calla lily sways

         *

     remembering, as
the tarp whips
           against the fence post

         *

     remembering, as
rain slants in-
           to my coffee cup

         *

     remembering, as
traffic takes
           another long breath

There are instances here – as in the last line of that second poem in the sequence above – where the constraints of the form strike me as a limit: I very much want to begin that last line with the word up even tho it would “violate” the genre. Yet what really hits me here is how many different ways that first line – a hint of being not in the present, in contrast with the Zen “be here now” assertiveness implicit in the form – can send a poem. I don’t think it’s possible, frankly, to craft a better poem than that last one.

Each time I’ve gone through Bramble I’ve emerged with different favorites a lot of this has to do with Massey being fully dedicated to the particular, and also with his excellent ear. At 250 copies, Bramble is an unusually large run for a fine press printing, although it is Massey’s largest edition to date, following the 50 copies of Minima St. & 200 for Eureka Slough. At 52 pages, with sewn binding, Bramble is a gorgeous book object, right up there with work from presses like Chax & Cuneiform. What we really need, tho, is a big book – 100-plus pages – with a press run in four digits and halfway decent distribution (which, for poetry, is very very good). Joseph Massey is writing some of the best work of our time, and it’s accessible to boot. He’s a post-avant even Ted Kooser should be able to love.



Thursday, December 01, 2005

 

Some time back, I started receiving – pretty much daily – a series of emails whose header always included the phrase “Daily Treated Spam.” My first thought, before I deleted the message, was “Truth in Advertising.” After awhile, tho, that middle term “Treated” got under my skin & I actually opened one. Voila! Somebody was taking their spam and turning it into a poem of what appeared to be mostly found language. I still pretty much deleted them every day, but now I was reading them first. As somebody who can get 200 legitimate emails on a given day, the whole idea of spam makes me crazed with rage. The idea of turning spam into found works strikes me as a resourceful bit of “if you’ve got lemons, make lemonade,” maybe, an instance of what I take to be Kenny Goldsmith’s idea of “uncreative writing” & not-too-distant a cousin from flarf. But the whole idea of spam’s sleazeball sludge of discourse, the lowest rung of marketing, invading poetry seemed more like an instance of the invasion of the bodysnatchers than anything else.

But then I realized that I was liking these poems, against all my better judgment & deep instincts. Rob Read, of whom I’d never heard before, has a sense of humor that shines right through whatever material he has at hand:

>Subject: DISCOUNT BRAND CIGARETTES

DISCOUNT BRAND CIGARETTES
is the way out

Fleeing:
Harim catanzaro bemyfriend:
Navas lupus adelphi eatathome graftFriction:
Passover robgeider sap campervan

SSince I hhad no moonney,,
and I didnn’t ffeeell liikke scrounging in garbage
I wwiished the sunn
would set sso I could ffalll asleep aand forget
hunger.. And maybe
wheen I woke upp,
I’d be outt of this crazy dream.

Rob is right that this is how some of the language in our lives looks right now – the use of deliberate misspellings & psycho punctuation intended to throw off electronic spam catching programs. Here, however, it’s become a narrative of its own design. Others offer a more precise sense of construction:

>Subject: Freedom at last scamrnjyr

Will the company pay to relocate my horse.
Does your health insurance cover pets with a torch.
On display? I eventually had to go
Down to the cellar to find them.

Others could remind you of Robert Creeley crossed with Ted Berrigan, such as this untitled work:

Lose
Wink
Look
arse
with
Hydro.

Act
and
you
can
get
fine
lines.

While others are almost sociological statements on the genre of spam itself:

>Subject: TraÒmadoÒl

StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney

StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney

StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney

syphilitic.u
slanderous.us

By now, I was saving all my Daily Treated Spams & had figured out somewhere that Rob Read was a Canadian poet, tho I still didn’t know much more until finally, this past week, I received my copy of O Spam Poams: Selected Daily Treated Spam from the inimitable BookThug, Jay MillAr’s press. The book’s “dust jacket” wraps around in the manner of a label on a tin can, so that you have to slide the book in & out (this is somewhat sensual & naughty if you don’t like having to bend a book to reinsert it). In addition to over 100 pages of bright work – these poems often remind me of “early Tom Raworth” – Read has added an excellent afterword that shows, among other things, that he knows about more spam poetry projects out there than I ever could have imagined. And he knows how to ask, in fact, the right question: What’s to make this book any better?

Well, for one this is not novelty verse, it’s verse that happens to have an aura of novelty around it. The poetry in this book is poetry.

In fact, Read is too modest: it’s poetry that will ensure that you’re going to read Read’s next book too. Tho, as always with BookThug, the production is impeccable, but the press run is ridiculous – 300 perfect bound copies. Hopefully, the mass success of this book won’t cause Read to shut down what has become one of the favorite moments of my day. In addition to buying this book, which you should, I suspect that if you drop a note to readrobread AT hotmail DOT com, you could get added to Rob’s daily list.



Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 

Perhaps nothing could be further from the swell of extras, computer-generated effects & dizzying pace of Harry Potter than Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, a (mostly) Korean film written & directed by, and starring, Ki-duk Kim, available now on DVD. The film is a fable of five seasons in the life of an infinitely small Buddhist hermitage, a one-room temple set atop a houseboat in an isolated mountain lake. There an older monk is raising a child to follow in his footsteps. In the first of the film’s five segments – each “season” framed by the mountainside’s foliage &, in winter, with snow & ice – he teaches the boy to discern safe medicinal herbs from deadly ones and, when the boy plays a cruel game with some of the neighborhood wildlife, teaches him what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a prank. As the seasons progress we see the younger monk as a young man setting out into the world, then returning once at 30, then returning again much later to take over from the now deceased older monk, himself being left with a child to raise, and finally teaching some of the very same lessons. There is a lot more that goes on in these various stages than I’m conveying here – some of it violent & with some fairly graphic movie sex – but I don’t want to give away more details since this is a film all about the details.

There are eleven actors in this film only because four different ones play the younger monk at different stages in his life. Young-soo Oh plays the older monk with a stillness that is a keynote for this film. The remaining six work mostly in pairs, a woman who brings her daughter to the monk for a cure, two police detectives, and finally a woman who has come to abandon her infant son to the monk. But, save for the daughter, played by Yeo-jin Ha, and just briefly that second mother, this is a film almost entirely about the two monks, their interactions & their own inner lives. There are, toward the end, some scenes of contrition by the younger monk that will last longer with me than anything in any of the Harry Potter films.

There are long passages of this film that are entirely silent. Not one of the characters has a name. With just one exception (that may be deliberate), every actor deliberately underplays each scene. And every scene is within walking or rowing distance from the floating temple. Parts of this motion picture are utterly predictable – which itself is the point. When we see the younger monk, now aging, with his new toddler acolyte in the final scene, we feel certain that we can see just what their futures may hold, and the seriousness within the older monk lies in the fact that he understands this also now.

But parts of this motion picture are utterly unimaginable until you see them on screen. Ki-duk Kim spent some formative years studying in Paris & the image of the second mother in the winter passage draws upon a classic surrealist trope that is stunning to see fitting in “naturally” within the context of this fable on a remote mountain lake. It is, in fact, flat out breathtaking right at the moment when you imagine that all of the drama – the sturm und drang of the young monk’s life – are finally behind him.

This film makes a powerful device out of doors – inside the temple, there is a door between the monk’s sleeping quarters and the main area, but no wall. Similarly, there is a door to the mainland, but again no connecting wall. At first, this seems like a quirky little detail, but by the film’s end the acknowledgment of invisible limits seems like an objective correlative – can I use that term in this blog? – for the tale as a whole. Ki-duk Kim has woven together a masterful act of cinema.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

 

Coming out of a showing of Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire the other evening, the film that my mind free associated over to wasn’t any of the earlier trio of Harry Potter (HP) flicks, but rather the Star Wars sextet. The new HP had, I felt, achieved something that always escaped George Lucas in his space operas, something that The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) only occasionally glimpses – a serious perspective on life itself. It’s hardly news that Harry Potter, in addition to its many other aspects, is a coming of age story, the tale of an orphan boy right out of Dickens, but this time with wizardry as a backdrop. But Goblet of Fire suggests that a reasonable comparison might not be so much Oliver Twist, such as in the recent Polanski retelling that got decent reviews but which sank instantly at the box office, as it might be darker films about the transition to adulthood, say, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the 1993 film that starred Johnny Depp as a troubled teen with a morbidly obese mother & developmentally challenged brother (a role that won Leo DiCaprio his first Oscar nomination) or Spanking the Monkey, a less widely seen film from that same year about a boy (Jeremy Davies, best known now as the gun-shy translator in Saving Private Ryan) trapped in an incestuous relationship with an alcoholic mother. All three are films about kids caught up in worlds they did not make just at the moment when the double-consciousness of adulthood begins to hit. There is a horror at the heart of Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire that comes far closer to Grape & Monkey than it does to LOTR or Star Wars. That horror is the secret & heart of this film.

Like Star Wars & LOTR, however, Harry Potter is as much a franchise as it is a tale. Goblet of Fire introduces the series’ third director (one who envisions Hogwarts on the edge of a fjord that has not played much, if any, role heretofore), Mike Newell. In addition to the film’s primary stars – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint & Emma Watson – whom the audience has by now watched grow up in these roles, and of course master mind J.K. Rowling (whose books both of my boys swear are “infinitely better” than any of the films), the most consistent & important presence to date has been screenwriter Steve (Wonderboys) Kloves, who is about to take a one-picture hiatus from the series to work on some of his own projects when the next episode is filmed (piloted on the screen by David Yates, a British TV director) for release in 2007. Michael Goldenberg, screenwriter for Contact, the Jodie Foster-meets-her-father-as-a-space alien film, will handle the screenplay.

Such franchises have been relatively rare in cinema history, rising first out of Saturday afternoon fluff aimed at kids, such as the Bowery Boys or Our Gang comedies, serials (Flash Gordon) & adult crime genres (Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, the Thin Man series). James Bond & Indiana Jones still reflect those origins, the latter playing to its retro roots in ways that are not so interesting. Like LOTR, presumably, Potter is predicated on a story with development toward an end, which may well save it from the intellectual exhaustion that have reduced Bond films to their weary formula, and which exposed Star Wars as a phenomenon whose sum was increasingly less than its parts.

In a way, the Potter films depend now far more on their main actors than the Bond series ever has on whichever smooth Brit is reiterating that surname to whichever new “Bond girl.” The new Potter shows us 15-year-olds portraying 14-year-olds, a gap you catch in Grint’s arms, just starting to show the musculature of adulthood & in the way Watson – the best actor among the three – fills out a gown. But Matthew Lewis, whose character Neville Longbottom plays an important part here, has taken that teenage growth spurt that renders him all limbs, albeit still very much with a boy’s face. And Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry looks less & less like a boyish Everyman with each advancing film. In the next installment, we will see 17-year-olds portraying 15-year-olds, and nobody knows how old they might be by the time the seventh volume has been published & converted to the screen.

All of which sets up the sixth installment, due in 2007, as one fraught with danger for the film series as film series. With a new writer as well as an untested film director, and with actors increasingly old for the roles they’re playing, will the next film understand that dark vision that is at the pit around which everything else revolves. It is quite a bit more – and other – than just Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, dolled up in a slicker & slightly damp version of his old English Patient burn.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

 

Practice, Restraint just may be the first book of poems ever to list, on its acknowledgements page, “My co-workers at Home Savings Bank.” It’s a lengthy list of acknowledgements, actually, including a ninth-grade English teacher (not identified as such), & uses the word “community” freely. That strikes me as telling, given that on the surface Practice, Restraint is a book that has come to market as a prize winner, in this instance as the winner of Fence Books 2005 Alberta Award. My own sense has always been that prize winning volumes are more apt to be the work of relatively isolated writers, a problem that most contests don’t do much (if anything) to alleviate. So Laura Sims may be the exception that proves the rule, or she just may be the exception to pretty much everything.

It was Sims who caused me last February to sit down and take a little zine called Six by Six, bound by naught more than a rubber band, seriously. As the cliché goes, her work literally lept off the page and I ended up quoting half of her contribution in my blog. The poems there, several of which were written from the point-of-view of a teller in a bank, were “a series called Practice, Restraint.” “There is,” I noted at the time, “a spareness to these poems that does not, as a result, surrender anything in its ability to reach beyond the obvious or referential. There is also, as I think all three of these samples demonstrate, a wry, shaded wit that is just a pleasure to read.”

What that publication didn’t do, however, was prepare me for the scope & emotional scale of the series as a whole. If you read the all-star series of blurbs Practice, Restraint has, you might conclude that Sims is by nature a miniaturist: “Brilliantly spare,” Cole Swensen; “engages the lyric critically on its own ground,” Rae Armantrout; “the terrible isolation of words,” C.D. Wright. Each section or poem may in fact tend deploy a minimalist’s vocabulary, but the scale reminds me – perhaps more than anything else – of H.D.’s poems from World War 2 onward. This really is an epic project told with extraordinary discipline. Consider the first poem of the book’s fourth section. The section is entitled “War Book,” and the poem’s title is its very last word:

In mercy a notion of the finished form

like others before them

    in rabbit holes

What was that ruckus in the other room?

When you tire

the stone bottle placed on a dune –

milk at dawn

religion at lamplight

Inside it’s a furnace. The boys drink Turkish tea

straight from her lips. Gaily dressed,

this block

resembles my back yard

in Africa

This is a poem that angles & angles & angles, each new facet offering a fuller vision, but without ever “giving away” its subject. As a writing strategy, that’s an exceptionally difficult project – the temptation to slide into abstraction is the risk taken at each point. Sims’ ability here to never lose control is impressive. Nor are these spaces betwixt lines arbitrary, but part of a larger articulation of form (mercy?) that starts, for example, on the very first page of the book, whose title, “Winter in You,” includes those quotation marks:

Have I seen such a tower

 

Her fleshy, spectacular hand

Would the dogs not find

 

A tower of ash when the hearth wound down

What it costs

 

to put winter in you?

Her nails cleanly sculpted, bare

 

And the autumn?

One buys tires for life

 

Ablaze—

          Then her hair falls down

Her hand

Is the winter

 

lost, little innocent people?

All the way to the book’s last, a poem first published in Indiana Review & then online by Madison’s Mad Poetry website (one of the best regional poetry websites around, by the way), entitled simply “Poem”:

This is the park where flowers were fitted in spaces and fed.

I myself have been grimacing back.

Comprenez-vous? I offer to pencil you into my Book on Color.

This is the park where trees hang under the lake.

What did I offer you then? A vial of red? A little pressed boy in a cap?

Pencilled myself into beauty.

This is the park where Gladhands rummaged the lake.

Back into girlhood. How would you know him?

I myself have nicknamed the fountain's shades: Pumpkin, Honey-Bun, Witness, Sorry, and Sloth.

Do you remember him dying into the lake? He came up littered and silly.

Look for your name under "Table of Colors."

This is the park where

This is the park beauty
hangs in the lake and the needle-pines point

You will be featured on page 35 under "Salmon Pink."

back into beauty, girlhood, his cap. He was small and fit snugly into the dive.

You might hear an echo of Michael Palmer, someone whom Sims lists as a favorite poet, here. But it’s very nearly the only such echo in the entire book. Far more important, to my eye, ear & mind, is the degree of exactness evident everywhere, and how it sets up scale as a dimensional presence. The perpetually recurring figure of girlhood – quite a different category, say, than childhood, palpable in the allusion to Lewis Carroll in the first poem above, audible in the volume’s final line – is, I think, a key to the reading. Imagine Alice Pleasance Liddell’s perspective on her relationship with Charles Dodgson, if you will, and the tale you get might not be Through the Looking Glass at all. A question I find myself asking, throughout the book, is just whose war is this? Which is what I hear, say, in the volume’s next-to-final poem, a chilling piece entitled “Paperback” in a section called “Paperback Book”:

so many

dead girls

in this shit-hole

 

cave,

 

Batman,

says Robin,

his ward

left in charge

of the lot

 

of their streamlined

monotonous

fairy-tale

island-whore

getaway

Get Practice, Restraint not because these are the brilliant lyrics of a great new talent – tho that is true enough – but because this is one of the most substantial books you will find in this or any other year.



Sunday, November 27, 2005

 

I can tell when a post of mine – like yesterday’s – is problematic. One clue is that one of the smartest (albeit briefest) responses gets withdrawn by its author, who apparently decided against raising the question of class & poetry after all. But, yes, that question is what that litany of schools raises for me as well.

Tho I would note that some students at Berkeley – Rae Armantrout & myself, to name two – got there despite having come from the lowest reaches of the working class. In my case, I was a miserable high school student, a C+ student overall and that only because I was incapable of anything less than an A in English & Soc. But that C+ was enough to get me into SF State in the mid-1960s, which enabled me to transfer as a junior back across the Bay. And, further, I would wonder just how many of the poets listed yesterday were so-called legacy students wherever they went – I think the answer will be very close to zero.

So that the question of class then gets to be how it contributes to the creation of a cohort of young high achievers. And then what it is, or might be, that takes these folks & turns them instead toward lives involved in the most uneconomic of all adult activities – poetry. Let’s face it – most poets will make less from writing than C.A. Conrad’s mother did shoplifting. So what is the better career choice?



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