Saturday, December 10, 2005

 

Kate Greenstreet is the 700th participant in the blogroll to the left.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

You can watch Harold Pinter give his Nobel Prize address by clicking on the arrow under the photograph in this BBC story.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

You can hear poet & former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center Norman Fischer discuss who listens & who hears in a podcast here. Perfect for listening to while meditating.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

A lot of good arts organizations hold auctions at this time of the year – Space 1026 in Philadelphia tonight for one, New Langton Arts in San Francisco just last Thursday. None, however, does more for poetry than the jewel of the Twin Cities, Rain Taxi. Better yet, Rain Taxi doesn’t require you to slog into town for the event because it’s virtual.

 

Rain Taxi’s Tenth Anniversary Auction on eBay ends Sunday at 10:00 p.m. Pacific time. There are a ton of great items available, from Richard Brautigan & John Ashbery to Jonathan Lethem & Steve Martin to Gary Sullivan & Anne Waldman. Perhaps the most esoteric item available is Maria Damon’s Rain Taxi Shawl. Definitely one of a kind!

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

Displaced poets from New Orleans also have through Sunday to complete a survey being conducted by the New Orleans Cultural Committee. The committee is trying to quantify the impact of Katrina & its aftermath on the lives of artists from the Big Easy, which can be a useful tool in helping to get funds pried out of various federal and institutional kitties. And there is still a link on the left-hand column here, just below my bio, to the American Red Cross. That’s still a good idea.



Friday, December 09, 2005

 

 

What about all this writing?

O “Kiki
O Miss Margaret Jarvis
The backhandspring

Named references in poems have variable half-lives, as their cultural signification both erodes & fossilizes. I have been told by people in a better position to know than myself that “Kiki” & Miss Margaret Jarvis in these famous lines from William Carlos Williams – the opening to the very best poem he ever would write – are in fact two separate people. There is no apparent way to know that in 2005 from the text itself. Any more than it is possible to deduce from the text of what may be Charles Olson’s most famous non-Maximus poem, “The Librarian,” the answer to the two questions on which it ends:

(What’s buried
behind
Lufkin’s
Diner? Who is

Frank Moore?

Dear Chris, we’ve read your name in Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets for so many years now, we feel that we know you, and we’ve been told that there are human beings that really do. But if Ted’s use of names is intimate, Pound uses them to intimidate – Pound expects us to know, in Canto LXXXIV, that Angold is a British poet who served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot, but who in the 1930s sometimes wrote on economics, Pound’s obsession, in the New English Weekly, just as Pound expects us to know that τέθνηκε means, in Greek, than Angold is dead. But even Pound’s more “obvious” references, members of the U.S. Senate such as Bankhead & Borah, have faded almost entirely from memory in the six-plus decades since both men died. Of this can work in the other direction as well, as William Carlos Williams learned including correspondence from an unknown poet in Paterson by the name of Allen Ginsberg.

I think it’s open to question whether or not the New American Poetry’s introduction of what can only be called pop culture references in the 1950s & ‘60s was more of an innovation or simply an acknowledgement that a certain region of public space, public discourse, was becoming branded around personalities, from Daffy Duck to Lana Turner to James Dean. Nor was it just an affectation of the New York School’s affection for pop art – Amiri Baraka’s turn toward Mao in the 1960s often reads in his poems as a turn toward television as a field of reference.

Since then, the gates have been open. At one extreme, you can find a work like Ray DiPalma’sPeople Out On the Lagoon,” exploring the opacity of nameness itself, a place where words are most objectified. Words in this context have the same gaudy ornamentation as Christmas tree decorations. At the other, or at least an other, extreme, Rachel Loden’s ongoing engagement with Richard Nixon is an almost Dante-esque attempt to construct a mythological (if secular) vortex around which to elaborate her work. Aaron Belz partly echoes Loden’s strategy in his own new chapbook, Plausible Worlds, engaging the E! True Hollywood Story version of Americana as a landscape. Here is “In Bed with Meryl Streep,” which first appeared in Jacket 28:

Hard to believe your first movie
Came out in 1977 — you are timeless,
Like a Dracula statue in the rain:
And now, as you rub my shoulders,
Wearing that flowered nightgown,
We hear actual rain, or is it wind,
Rushing around our Buena Vista condo.
You flip off Cheers. I know what’s next.

Timeless is the word indeed. Our recognition of the layers of irony in this poem have much to do with just how long ago we imagine 1977 to be & whether or not Cheers is perceived simply as a television show or as an endless staple of syndicated reruns, a debased television show. Like the way Frank O’Hara never once names Billie Holiday in “The Day Lady Died,” Belz’ poem depends on our own prior knowledge of what these referents mean. There will come a day in which no reader understands who Meryl Streep was, nor what Cheers implies. There may even come a day, tho we won’t live to see it, when the Dracula reference here demands a footnote.

It’s interesting to imagine what a text like this can mean when the referents have been corroded by even just one century. Imagine, instead, “In Bed with Sarah Bernhardt”:

Hard to believe your first play
Came out in 1862 — you are timeless,
Like a Dracula statue in the rain:
And now, as you rub my shoulders,
Wearing that flowered nightgown,
We hear actual rain, or is it wind,
Rushing around our Milan pilazo.
You put down Bovary. I know what’s next.

It’s hard to imagine what a 1905 equivalent of a “Dracula statue” might be, given that I don’t think Belz is inferring Vlad III of Walachia precisely. One might even wonder if “flowered nightgown” doesn’t hold some temporal increment that will seem oddly quaint a century hence.

In fact, the erosion of reference in names flags the general – and constant – transformation of language itself. There is already a sizeable quantity of verse from the first decades of the last century (for example, much of the work of Adelaide Crapsey, George Sterling, Ina Coolbrith or Witter Bynner) that sounds, at best, irredeemably quaint, not just because they often chose forms that were already sclerotic, but also the specific language they used. Thus, the “dusking land” that pops up in Crapsey’s “Hypnos, God of Sleep,” tells us less about the time of day than it does the time of century in which that phrase was employed. In a somewhat similar fashion, Belz is taking a risk when he writes, in “Famous Palindrome,”

My girlfriend has a freaking weird name: Eman
Driewgnikaerfasahdneirflrigym.

that “freaking” won’t sound every bit as quaint a few decades from now as “dusking.”

I don’t sense that he’s worrying too much about this, which itself reflects an approach to art, to the idea of the poem & the role it plays in the world, that changes (or at least becomes, to use Belz’ word, plausible) with the New Americans as well. Pound certainly intended for his poetry to be read a millennium from now, intelligible or not – I doubt that Williams felt much different. But deep at the heart of Frank O’Hara’s “personism” is a very different sense of the poem – its use is personal, even intimate. When he refers to Bill & Joe & Jane & Ashes, O’Hara really means it. He wasn’t writing it for thee or me. If the poem should last & have other uses later, great, but that is hardly what writing is about for O’Hara. Or Belz. Indeed, I think that one could even say that part of the choice Baraka himself was making, turning away from his first cohort of Black Mountain-in-Manhattan compadres, was also a decision to make his poems more relevant in the moment, albeit to a different audience.

Belz writes a clean sort of post-NY school poem with a dry wit that belies his MA in creative writing (with Galway Kinnell as thesis counselor, no less), his current Ph.D. studies at the University of St. Louis (Devin Johnston nearly as improbable as his dissertation director) nor his graduate certificate in theological studies. With Jonathan Mayhew & David Perry, one might even start to detect a kind of trend here – writers with strong NY or NY School aesthetics all across the southern half of Missouri. With a nod to Black Mountain alum Arthur Penn, I think of them collectively as the Missouri Linebreaks. It would be interesting to think about why this, why here, why now, but mostly what I do when I read Belz (or Perry, or Mayhew) is enjoy, which so often does appear to be the point.



Thursday, December 08, 2005

 

Julie Mehretu, “Excerpt (Suprematist Evasion),” 2003

 

Don Byrd sent an email in response to my note on OlsonNow that I think deserves a wider readership. The Olson blog continues to grow as does the related documents page at the EPC site, now with material from the event in New York itself.

Ron—

You are right, I think, that the next generation of Olsonian's are still unborn, or I hope, just born or just coming into their active work. We probably do not have much time.

One cannot expect a change of the size Olson claims responsibility for (as one claims responsibility for a bombing) to happen in a lifetime. Since the species began to transmit large parts of the necessary information from one generation to the next by signs, poetry and poetics have been fundamentally involved in the evolution of complexity on the planet and the survival of Earth's most complex, if not most, admirable creatures. Poetry, that is, is not only a physical object—marks, breath, and so forth—it has a profound biological function.

Olson saw the death camps and the A bomb as the end of one evolutionary arc. Neither Johnson nor, to date, Bush have equaled Truman in casual murderousness (though Bush’s crimes are more numerous). There was no reason to believe that the 1914-1944 war was other than the implicit violence of a cultural order of generalization and empire that began with the Greeks. Olson quit the Truman administration in disgust. What is at stake in Olson's work is nothing less than the transition out of something that is larger than a politics. The Church and the empires from Greece to the US are manifestations of an evolutionary strategy of generalization—we call it globalism in its present form— that figures in Olson’s history as the subjugation of the Titan’s by Olympians—that is, the replacement of evolution of local forms with the evolution of universal and social forms. Truman’s A bomb was Zeus’ lightning bolt.

If, however, the project of producing complexity on Earth (the other honorable project is to find, like the Galapagos turtle, a viable niche and stay with it) is to continue, generality will no longer suffice. Knowing, acting, and constructing environments—these acts of communication and negotiation—are constituents of physicality as much as matter and energy.

So Olson brackets the history from that moment obscured in preliterate history that Hesiod records to 1910—what he calls the revolution of the ear—not as a mistake, but as the form of a necessary human migration and generalization into Earth’s spaces as possibility. Its value was always tension, and its breakdown was always violence, but now something else—radically something else—must happen and in the most fundamental formal sense.It is necessary to understand not just how writing is material but how information is physical.

The vested interests in language are so vast that it has proven difficult to make much headway on this problem with poetry. Painting hit the same wall (though I recently saw some new paintings by Cy Twombly at the Madison-Av Gagosian that hold their own). Only music continued to deal with the formal issues in serious ways. I think of Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and the scene around Thirsty Ear records, for example, and some of the turntablists, such as Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky). Kodwo Eshun’s, unfortunately out of print, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, is an unerring guide to this music, and one of the most important books—conceptually—I have read in the last decade.

But it does seem to me that serious things are beginning to happen. There is a 35-year-old painter named Julie Mehretu, who has moved into new territory. What’s happening at the Stone—the new music venue on Avenue C—is certainly news. I talked to some brilliant younger writers at the Olson event on Saturday.

Bush and these people are barbarians. I hope things happen quickly.

Don



Wednesday, December 07, 2005

 

An image set by Ray DiPalma
from the East Village Other

The new Chicago Review is out, continuing its recent run of issues so first-rate that you can’t believe the journal has any connection to a school. My understanding is that in recent years at least that relationship may have largely been one of benign neglect, but in this instance that has proven to be an incredibly good strategy. The issue has several of my favorite writers on the planet – C.D. Wright (with a 30-page poem!), Alan Bernheimer, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Merrill Gilfillan, Devin Johnston, Peter O’Leary & Paul Hoover are all people one should read as much of as one can get one’s hands on. Important island folk such as Geraldine Monk, Peter Larkin and Medbh McGuckian can be found here as well.

But the contribution that makes me happiest, at least on first reading, is a lovely six-page work, “After Midnight,” written by Ray DiPalma & dedicated to Gilfillan (whose own poems follow immediately thereafter). DiPalma is another poet who deserves to have a honking huge selected or collected poems out, bringing together work from his 30+ previous books, and making evident even to the most dunder-headed what an important figure he is, and has been, now for some 35 or so years. The book as I imagine it would have to be at least 400 pages to give even a decent hint of everything DiPalma has written.

In recent years, DiPalma has given as much energy to his visual art works – he has pieces, often involving stamp work and collage, in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others – and to his teaching at the School for Visual Arts in New York, as he has to promoting his poetry. In fact, I know a number of younger writers around New York who tell me that they’ve never seen him, although he’s lived in the city for at least three decades. This has earned him something of a reputation as a recluse, yet his appearances in little magazines and the arrival of small press books have been ongoing. My take has been that he’s a compulsive art worker, and somewhere along the line decided that the work itself took precedence over the scene. I can appreciate that point of view.

When I was teaching that same class at SF State in 1981 I mentioned on Monday, one of the interesting aspects of the course was that, for almost every one of the 16 writers we covered during the term, there was at least one student who was willing to stand up and argue militantly against their writing – Bob Perelman was “too slick,” so was Michael Palmer, Hannah Weiners’ journals were an attempt to “cover up that she couldn’t write,” and so on. In fact, there was only one poet whom everyone in the class liked – Ray DiPalma. (The text we read, Planh, is excerpted in In the American Tree.) I remember being struck by that at the time – the fact that I can recall it 24 years hence suggests just how deeply the impression imprinted – because there’s nothing about DiPalma’s work that’s particularly easy – he often presents surfaces as elegant as anything you will find in Palmer or Perelman, but often more densely, without the scenic backdrops that are hinted at in Palmer’s work, or the underlying thematic engines that motivate Perelman’s.

“After Midnight” – the name just happens to be that of a rubber stamp products company – reads on the page like a single text, at least until you realize that it is a series of ten sonnets, composed of self-contained free verse couplets with longish lines that read more like a ghazal:

Without a fixed designation, as a matter of form,
bargaining notations, mnemonic targets, omertà

A third signature, distraction’s forward gaze,
pale abbreviations, the limits of a compass turn

Assertion is within the exclusion and without the inclusion,
I can remember neither the lament it prompted nor its novelty

There are no false alarms, no after effects honorably offered,
no obscure etymologies, arias, no discernible debt

A typefont peculiar to negotiations, constant measurement,
a block of salt, spilled shapes, blank inlays, a German wife

Rain shadows, red seeds, the heft of blue serge,
no want to material display, the game continues

Misled by thought, refractive, invisible commotion, eye for one,
only panorama, muled from place to place, interrogated

That is the third of the ten sections or sonnets here & while I chose it as “most typical,” the whole idea is a misnomer – there’s a tonal development that starts at the poem’s very beginning – all seven couplets of the first section are lists –

Partially filled notebooks, a stopwatch,
green candles, a Chinese screen, knives and forks

– but not, as you can see, obvious ones. The last sonnet shuts with a ring of closure as sharply etched as the old “Mark VII” production company logo at the end of an episode of Dragnet. Yet between points A & B, does anything really “happen?”

That’s the wrong question to ask, of course, because the answer will always be both yes & no. No in the sense of the traditional trappings of narrative discourse, but Yes in that the richness of text pulls one in instantly & moves one along – one is reluctant to have the work end. DiPalma is a master of textual surfaces – one could read him for that aspect of his work alone & learn an enormous number of useful lessons.

Because DiPalma has been published almost entirely by small presses throughout his career, it’s difficult for anyone but the most dedicated fan to get a sense of the reach of his overall project. His poems are not nearly so much objects as they are environments, lush worlds, sensual & crowded. You enter them & can wander endlessly – tho in fact his scale is mostly, as here, quite contained. It’s a world we should all visit often.



Tuesday, December 06, 2005

 

The elements for greatness were all in place, but also all a little out of kilter, when Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet played International House last Saturday in the Ars Nova Workshop’s ongoing tribute series to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). In part, the I-House room, which had worked effectively enough for the Anthony Braxton Sextet a month earlier, swallowed aspects of Smith’s quartet. When he spoke, Smith himself was inaudible from the fifth row without the aid of the mic, which he resorted to only once. In part, the amplification of instruments was to blame, as John Linberg’s bass disappeared whenever the volume of the quartet rose. And in part, Nasheed Waits, sitting in on drums for the ailing Ronald Shannon Jackson, didn’t quite gel with the rest of the quartet. As astonishingly good a drummer as Waits is – and you have to be to keep up with this superstar ensemble – he ignored hand signals from Smith at least a half dozen times during the course of the 80-minute concert, mostly to lower his volume or even come to silence. Waits played blithely on as Smith glowered & Lindberg & keyboard player Vijay Iyer waited patiently. One sensed the degree to which any ensemble playing is inevitably a collaboration, even in a group with a strong, directing leader like Smith, by the ways in which the seams showed, not so much a cohesion as a handing off one player to the other.

This version of the Golden Quartet differs from Smith’s earlier group of the same name, composed as that was of his contemporaries Malachi Favors Magoustous, Anthony Davis & Jack Dejohnette. In addition to Waits, whom I was told was the son of drum great Freddy Waits, Iyer & Linberg are a generation removed from Smith, one of the great trumpet players of the past half century. The influences in such a circumstance are inevitably different. Smith is a peer of bassist Dave Holland, who had Lindberg as a private student in the 1970s. Lindberg’s own website focuses as much on his own career as a commissioned composer as it does his performances & recordings. Smith is part of that first generation that began to join jazz, world music, “contemporary classical,” and even pop into a hybrid of intellectual & compositional resources. Like Braxton, Smith now teaches for a living, in Smith’s case at Cal Arts. Lindberg, Iyer & Waits are all beneficiaries of this pioneering work.

Where someone like Braxton – who recorded with Smith during the heyday of the AACM as part of the Creative Construction Company – relates to his sextet almost as tho he were the conductor, Smith’s Golden Quartet has much more the old-style jazz feel to it, with Smith decidedly the front man, the remaining musicians there to support the overall structure. Braxton records & performs jazz standards, but segments it from the rest of his music. Smith is more apt to quote the music in the middle of a larger improvisation – the result is more open ended & I might even prefer Smith’s approach on a night when it all came together.

Other differences between the events of the two groups are instructive, even perhaps worrisome. It is not just that this space – a large auditorium one block from Penn – was 90 percent full for Braxton’s group, at best two-thirds full for Smith’s, but that whereas Braxton’s audience was at least 30 percent female, women in the audience for the Golden Quartet made up less than ten percent of the crowd, which was evenly divided between whites & blacks. In such a strangely gendered environment, it also quickly became visible just how old this crowd was as well – the average age had to be around 40, maybe higher. How much, if any, of this could be accounted for by the fact that this was Smith’s very first performance ever in Philadelphia? If anything, I would have expected the crowd to have been enlarged by a first opportunity to hear the legend here. As it was, there were poets who drove up from as far as Washington, DC, to attend the event.

Jazz was the most popular music in the United States up through the Second World War, but has seen its audience both decline & age since then. Where a militant conservative like Wynton Marsalis seems to blame this on the increasingly intellectual nature of jazz improvisation from bebop to the present, one can make the argument that jazz itself never grew up until Charlie Parker & John Coltrane & their peers came along to demonstrate what a serious art form was. It’s hardly any accident that the great younger musicians opt consistently for the cognitive rigor of pomo music, but it’s distressing to see a scene evolve in which only John Zorn gets to be a star. Frankly, musicians like Iyer, Lindberg, Taylor Ho Bynum or Jay Rozen ought themselves to be able to film a room the size of I-House. They have the music, the presence, even the CDs - Lindberg has played on over 60. In addition to the New York String Trio, which he co-founded, his own John Lindberg Ensemble includes Smith as a sideman, along with ROVA’s Larry Ochs on sax & Andrew Cyrille on drums.

The situation for poetry over these same generations has not been so terribly dissimilar. Indeed, one hears with some regularity from the likes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti & others of his generation that it has fallen on hard times in spite of the fact that there are more good poets now than at any previous time certainly in the history of this country. But in the late 1940s, there were only some 8,000 titles of all kinds published in the U.S., of which the number of volumes of verse was at most a couple of hundred. Yet today Poets House can gather over 2,000 titles of poetry alone that were published in 2004 – the book industry as a whole published over 150,000 titles. Look at it this way – the U.S. population has roughly doubled since the forties, but the number of book titles has risen at nearly ten times that rate. Correspondingly, the audience for any given book has declined¹, and reading audiences have followed suit. Yet the audiences for poetry are still predominantly young. The idea of, say, a Michael McClure reading to a crowd as old as the one that showed up for Smith on Saturday is unthinkable.

Expectations & the definitions of “success” change when art forms relate to audiences in different configurations from one generation to the next. Today, any reading with an audience of 30 is an unqualified success. Wadada Leo Smith & the Golden Quartet easily had ten times that crowd last Saturday, and yet this genre’s future may be considerably more in doubt.

 

¹ The situation is even worse than I’m making out, since one consequence of the increase in titles & concentration of bookselling into the hands of a relatively few large chains is that “best-seller” culture has tipped heavily in one direction. Book sellers no longer speak of the 80-20 rule in which 20 percent of the stock generates 80 percent of their sales, but of a 90-10 rule or worse.



Monday, December 05, 2005

 

I seem to have amused Matt Lafferty. In the comments stream to my reading of Rob Read’s work, he quotes my line

But then I realized that I was liking these poems, against all my better judgment & deep instincts

commenting, “now that's a poetics.”

It made me think of the large role that expectation plays in reading. My dislike of spam predisposes me to think little of the intelligence of the marketing bottom-crawlers who dream up the crap & therefore to pay perhaps not as much heed as I might to their uses of language, and what that might reveal to us both about language itself, infinitely malleable thing that it is, & the lurid reality that lies just under their promise that, say, size really does matter, obsolete revisions of popular software programs are available cheap, and that the widow of some Nigerian potentate needs to stash their millions in my account.

So to see somebody who can actually read the stuff did, in fact, surprise me. And his ability to turn it to his own purposes, sharp, aesthetically pleasing, witty, definitely impressed me. Precisely because I know that his creative response goes against the grain of my own when confronted with the daily onslaught of the same sorts of messages. Rob Read shows me a more creative way forward. I was surprised by my reaction, and said so.

Surprise has been a recurring theme in my responses to certain works of literature, often very important ones, throughout my life. It’s a register, no doubt, of the degree to which I do take some things for granted that I should not, but it’s also I think just a process of ongoing recognition, as one of the things literature itself does is to perpetually broaden its scope, responding to the changing nature of the society in which it occurs by taking in new elements, facets, features &, as Ez put it, making it new.

Some of the writing I can think of that struck me as “beyond the pale” when I first saw it, or heard of it second hand, that later proved itself to me to be completely valuable would include Richard Brautigan’s novel Trout Fishing in America, Clark Coolidge’s early poetry, especially the books Ing & Space, and the early novels of appropriated materials by Kathy Acker. More recently, something like Mark Peters’ Men and some of Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative” writing projects have struck me in a somewhat similar way, but not nearly so much so, partly because I’ve come to recognize this process of surprise in myself and so have developed a second not-quite-instantaneous response of not dismissing the new outright, but giving it a more of a chance to persuade me as to its vision.

My take on Brautigan, whom I knew just well enough to be struck at his deep shyness, was that he was a guy taking the palette of Jack Spicer & using it to write these sweet, half-funny, half-sad lyric poems, a project that struck me as derivative & minor. When I first heard him read from Trout Fishing in America, at a long gone bookstore on the edge of North Beach, I heard it not as fiction but as prose poetry. Here at least was an attempt to do something different, and interesting enough, with a form that, at that point, I really knew mostly from the dreadful predictability of Robert Bly & Russell Edson. It did not even occur to me than anyone would take it as a novel. So when I started to see copies of the book, first published by Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation, definitely a small press, in the hands of people I didn’t already know, I could tell that Brautigan was starting to have some kind of crossover success I didn’t quite get. Then, in 1970, I moved briefly to Buffalo right at about the time that the Delacorte mass market paperback was issued & I could not get on a bus there that summer without seeing somebody reading the book. I had completely misjudged Trout Fishing because I’d allowed my preconceptions to set my reaction.

My reaction when I first saw Clark Coolidge’s abstract word works in Ing, published by Angel Hair in 1968, was not so terribly different from Robert Sward’s famous dismissal of the 1970 volume Space as “psychedelic word salad,” an instance of avant-gardism for its own sake. It wasn’t until Barrett Watten sat down with me one day and went through a few texts, consciously showing me the humor (which, as it turns out, has roots in the influence of Phil Whalen & Jonathan Williams on Coolidge, two poets one might not automatically think of when first confronting those clusters of disjointed phrases), that I had the “aha” experience that suddenly transformed my reading from resistant incomprehension to suddenly seeing foreground, background, all sorts of shape & shading that had been, in fact, there all along.

This transformation, from complete resistance to being able to see into the work at hand, is I think one of the major symptoms of how our own reading & experience changes us. When I was teaching a graduate seminar at San Francisco State in the fall of 1981, one of the tasks I set for all of my students was to keep a journal of their reading, and of the poetry events they attended during the course of any given week (I’d set a target of attending two off-campus readings per week). One student, who shall remain nameless here because she’s gone on to publish some very good books, wrote of how she found the writing of Rae Armantrout, whose book Extremities was the class’ first required reading, incomprehensible. In the following week, we’d had an experience in class, reading Bruce Andrews’ Sonnets: Momento Mori, aloud only to discover that some students – all grad level folks, half of whom are now publishing poets – had trouble even telling when the poems began & ended even with a table of contents. This student really struggled with that. The following weeks, reading books by Bob Grenier & Hannah Weiner, were no less relief. But then when she got to Steve Benson’s Blind Spots, the work suddenly seemed sensual, coherent, cogent in ways that she had not anticipated. She went back to the earlier books on the reading list – I’d assigned 16 books for this course – and now discovered that they also really made sense, as of course they do. There was one funny passage in her journal, in which she worried that what I was doing as a teacher might be brainwashing students, but from that point forward she was no longer the silent presence in class that she had been for the first few weeks.

Some eight years before that, Kathy Acker had been, from my perspective, just one of the faces on the San Francisco poetry scene that one remembered because she was, literally, the first woman with a freshly shaved head I’d ever seen. Once each month, she would hand me these self-printed chapters from her ongoing work in progress, a novel entitled The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, this last phrase which she was then using as a pen-name. In 1973, I was still reluctant – some six years after having made almost the same mistake with Trout Fishing – to imagine the novel as anything other than the corporate plaything of trade presses. Acker’s attempt to build a genre that was, it seemed, equal parts plagiarism & pornography, yielding from that mix autobiography, struck me as very weird indeed. Publishing chapters monthly, handing them out to friends, struck me as deeply romantic, going right back to Dickens as a model for the form, yet also extraordinarily brave. By the time, Acker began her next project, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac! Imagining, I was persuaded of the importance of her work for writing, tho I still discounted the idea of going after the novel as a project in itself. The courage of Acker’s actions was an important impetus to me, especially during the writing of Ketjak & the other poems of The Age of Huts, in some ways more than her writing.

In each case, my resistant reaction to a work that fit outside my received view of what literature might or could be proved instructive. It wasn’t that I was inherently opposed to the new – I had no such similar response to the writing of Gertrude Stein, Jackson Mac Low, or Bob Grenier, for example, when I discovered them – but rather that my idea of what the new might be seems to have a lot of ought built into it. When something outside of my experience fits into my notion (it’s too impressionistic & intuitive to call an idea) of how a given genre ought to develop, then I have no difficulty.

Nor do I have a hard time segregating out what I think of as less than great work done among the various avant-(and post-avant)gardes. No amount of theoretical framing is going to render the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly or texts of Richard Kostelanetz interesting. John Cage’s work with words is a kind of literary tourism at best, well intentioned buy painfully sentimental. Cage’s work with sound, however, suffers from none of those faults.

But when something – like Rob Read’s spam poems – manages both to be new and to point to ways in which my own take on writing is not, a priori, entirely accurate, that I need to go back & revise some thinking somewhere along the line, then I know from experience I can be less than a good reader. And over time I’ve learned to gauge my response & recognize this reaction when I’m having it. And learn from it.

So the answer is, yes, Matt, that is a poetics.



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