Saturday, February 25, 2006
In the midst of the flarfest on Thursday, Jee Leong Koh became the 800th member of the blogroll to your left. Among other recent additions is Charles Bernstein. More than 99 percent of the blogroll’s participants are writers or people interested in writing, however obliquely. The other one percent, give or take, are people in whom I think writers should take an interest.
Friday, February 24, 2006
I knew that I was going to like World Jelly before I even opened this slim, elegant 24-page chapbook whose back cover admonishes put this poem on your shoulder. It has one of those perfect titles, the sort of combination only a few poets – Allen Ginsberg, Ron Padgett, Gregory Corso – could have imagined. And the attitude of that back cover tagline ain’t so bad either. Here is what I find on page 1:
The animal about the blossoms
sang for them in the drifting
who also matter to us
You will receive yours
beneath the blanket
It is rising rude tinting
too late to cut the year in half
Come here and help me
with your lamb
There is a wandering before me
now my burdens
I believe the crazy face
Resist the successful statement
a nail in the wall
there hang the bearings
So that is what I do
Riders finding joy in the sunlight
on the face of the earth
the animal behind
write this down
The stanza is almost equated with the sentence. But not quite. There is a disequilibrium in that not quite that works wonders in keeping the poem supple as it proceeds. The first four stanzas do actually operate as sentences, but not the fifth one. Then two that are such short fragments that they leap out at you. Then the most opaque stanza of the poem, again multiple sentences, maybe two, maybe three (I can read that both ways and do, instantly). Then a one liner that is so straightforward that it casts every other stanza in this work as stylized: So that is what I do. Followed by three extremely different, confident, effective stanzas. Right down to the snarl in the next to last line, this is a poem with an exceptional sense of its own movement.
As it turns out, this is pretty typical – if there is a single word I would think of for this book, it would be elegant, a terrific combination of grace & compactness throughout. Tony Tost, of whom I’ve been aware for a few years without ever really reading closely, makes it look effortless. And, in a funny, it probably both is and isn’t. A single sheet folded into four pages that comes with the chapbook explains that
The title “World Jelly” was created by the Guided By Voices Song Title Generator…. Thanks to Tim Botta, with whom I had a very productive conversation about noun strings in GBV songs and Ginsberg poems.
And this same sheet of paper notes every appropriation, even the anti-appropriations, as with “Speech hates you too” of which Tost writes:
Perhaps this line should be in all caps. Thank you Robert Grenier.
Such care in attribution is very anti-flarfy, as we’ve been saying here of late. Tost’s post-avant is not ignorant of such tendencies (indeed, he popped up in yesterday’s comments stream), but they aren’t where he’s going, at least not quite. Although the notes sheet indicates that the book
was intentionally patterned after the poems of Chris Vitiello, the lyrics of Robert Pollard & Bob Dylan, and the haikus of Jack Kerouac
what I hear includes elements of Michael Palmer, early Ed Dorn, some flipness that I would associate with the
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Sometimes, like yesterday, the comments stream is a lot more interesting than the blog note that provoked it. Some of Nada’s comments – that my own poetry could be examined along the axes of those four questions I asked concerning flarf and uncreative writing – were both pointed & to the point.
Still, I found it beyond fascinating that a discussion that could include the first list I’ve ever seen of flarf books – 17 to date – included not one example of uncreative writing, so-called. The only comment I could detect as to why these two literary tendencies – which in some respects appear to have so very much in common – are not instances or faces of the same larger social phenomenon appears to be a question of joy? As in Flarf is fun, Uncreative Writing is not? Let’s take a third literary tendency – Canadian Neo-Oulipo, an example of which might be Christian Bök’s Eunoia – and just think how they run up against these four questions (warning - generalizations ahead):
One set of questions has to do with systematization, the use of computers, games, any sort of gimmickry in the construction of the poem
Uncreative Writing utilizes systems ruthlessly to achieve its goal, such as every weather report for the year 2003, or all of the New York Times, or the uses of thongs in Google.
Flarf uses systems sometimes – Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson would seem to be the clearest instance – but more accurately utilizes Google sculpting in a variety of ways to come up with texts, and need not use systems to achieve its effects.
Neo-Oulipo employs systems, but where uncreative writing does so with the eye of an historicist, focusing on the origin of the content, Neo-Oulipo tends to focus on the system itself.
A second set of questions has to do with the anti-aesthetic, the deliberately awful, the troubling.
Flarf is interested in the idea of poetry as kitsch, as well as poetry as linguistic disaster – it’s desire to reach the “so bad it’s good” stage, what I think of as the Ed Wood effect, is not unrelated to some aspects of New York School heritage.
Uncreative Writing is interested in social uses of language on display and seeks, as Kenny Goldsmith has written, to be boring. This seems to be a test of sorts, but it’s a radically different mode of awful than flarf.
Neo-Oulipo is unafraid of beauty. Eunoia has become the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history precisely because it is so aurally gorgeous.
A third set has to do with the appropriation of non-literary materials.
All art does this to some degree. The Russian Formalists saw it as the historic imperative of new art, to show what has emerged in society.
Uncreative Writing is interested in the non-literary as social documentation. Again, this is the poetics of New Historicism.
Flarf is interested in the non-literary as language – these poets mostly deploy anti-literary discourses, but do so with an aesthetic frame that is fine-tuned to the level of word and phrase. Uncreative Writing might see that as a residual form of creativity and as something to be stamped out.
Neo-Oulipo seems neutral on the issue of social language as a source for its work, but fascinated in identifying new ways of using language that are not necessarily within the traditional frame of literature.
A fourth set has to do with the role of acquaintance & friendship in the creation of literary tendencies.
Flarf came into existence because of the internet – its sense of what is possible here has been fueled by the ways that the web is reorganizing social space. Flarf is not centered around a single strong male personality, such as Bök or Goldsmith.
Uncreative Writing rose earlier and seems only peripherally involved with the internet. Its practitioners are spread out geographically, however, but have made less use of the web in establishing their sense of group identity.
Canadian Neo-Oulipo is the most old-fashioned of these groups, in that it can be placed with regards to specific cities in a way that neither of the other two modes of writing can.
One might argue further that all of these are, to one degree or another, an outgrowth of a broader phenomenon, conceptual poetics, essentially the incursion of conceptual art into poetry. Tho, from John Perrault & Hannah Weiner & Steve Benson, there have been precursors, tho perhaps more performance oriented. Kathy Acker once did a piece that consisted of sending three of her current & former lovers to discuss her. Jim Rosenberg “published” an oscilloscope print-out of one of Pound’s Cantos. He put words on clear plastic that could float in a swimming pool so that readers could paddle from one word to the next. But none of this work took on the quality of literary movement or tendency. But in
Interestingly, while conceptual art was making a large splash in the visual arts world in the
Now, however, we see a similar impulse popping up in group formations, but from the impoverished side of the visual art/poetry border. Nada is not wrong to wonder
And frankly, the endless reification and echoic verbiage on all sides is to me at once totally annoying and utterly flarfy. Like... how did this happen? From
That, Nada, sounds exactly right.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
I put my foot in it the other day when I listed Madeline Gleason as “the founder of the
Madeline Gleason (assisted by Rexroth and Duncan) founded the
You can also find claims that the very first reading at the
An essay in the emerging 29th issue of Jacket by Dan Hoy on the subject of flarf – Hoy’s generally opposed – has set off far larger waves of dissent & discussion, especially on the Lucipo and HumPo listservs. Everyone - well, maybe not everyone - tends to think that Hoy – who defines flarf narrowly as poetry generated at least partly through Google list-searches, a process sometimes known as Google-sculpting – gets it wrong. But, and this is the interesting thing, nobody seems to quite agree as to what it would mean to get it right. Certainly flarf does make liberal use of search engine methodologies to gather in at least raw material, as is visible in this definition of flarf from Gary Sullivan:
Flarf: A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness." A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. "Not okay."
Flarf (2): The work of a community of poets dedicated to exploration of "flarfiness." Heavy usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays, etc., though not exclusively Google-based. Community in the sense that one example leads to another's reply-is, in some part, contingent upon community interaction of this sort. Poems created, revised, changed by others, incorporated, plagiarized, etc., in semi-public.
Flarf (3) (verb): To bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text.
Flarfy: To be wrong, awkward, stumbling, semi-coherent, fucked-up, un-P.C. To take unexpected turns; to be jarring. Doing what one is "not supposed to do."
On HumPo, there was even a discussion as to whether or not Linh Dinh’s work, at least in places, to be deliberately flarfy, although so far I know, none of it is derived from Google sculpting nor what Hoy characterizes as collage. Linh Dinh, for example, at times will use a version of English recognizable for its social origins in instant messaging, and often aims at discomfort.
Yet Hoy’s point, which seems reducible to the claim – which I don’t think anyone disputes – that search engines are not neutral, but carry within themselves a set of values that correspond to what their software designers were trying to find (page ranking, for example), doesn’t really address this larger side of flarf, which in turn raises all kinds of questions as to what it is, what it’s not, and maybe where one might go to find its roots.
For me, one of the question it raises is flarf’s relationship to what Kenny Goldsmith calls uncreative writing. Googling clearly has some relationship to the aesthetics of collecting (to employ Peter Balistrieri’s term), which places less emphasis on the arrangement of gathered materials & more, in fact, on the gathering process itself. It’s one thing for Mark Peters to Google the word “men” or the word “thongs” and construct works from this, yet Peters’ work, like Goldsmith’s, has a level of consistency to it that aestheticizes as it anesthetizes the reader. Goldsmith’s The Weather, which echoes the uses of reportage David Bromige first used in “One Spring” nearly a generation ago, is almost beautiful in a debased sort of way. Does that make it flarfy? What about the computer generated works of Brian Kim Stefans or Alan Sondheim? Or, lets go back further, Jackson Mac Low’s use of system – there’s that ancestor of Googling – and insurance texts – there’s that social appropriation of the deliberately awful in Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Which of these poems is flarf and who gets to determine this? What about works that are just dreadful but don’t realize it? Are Ted Kooser & Billy Collins & Stephen Dobyns’ flarfy? Aren’t they, in some sense, Ur-flarf, the way Jeff Koons’ puppy dog topiaries might be considered a visual arts analog.
Hoy’s complaint is that the randomizer employed by flarfonauts ain’t random – tho I don’t recall anybody claiming that randomness was what they were after, especially – which leads away, I think, from the more important question of Why this, why now? If we want to understand the answers – or at least possible answers – to those questions, it seems to me that we will have to confront the actual value of flarf and its related poetries:
· One set of questions has to do with systematization, the use of computers, games, any sort of gimmickry in the construction of the poem
· A second set of questions has to do with the anti-aesthetic, the deliberately awful, the troubling
· A third set has to do with the appropriation of non-literary materials.
· A fourth set has to do with the role of acquaintance & friendship in the creation of literary tendencies.
All of these have complex social histories that are quite distinct. Both flarf and uncreative writing intersect all four questions in different ways. That both are doing so at the same time is what I find fascinating. Why?
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
I only caught three of the four dance pieces put on by the Seán Curran Company at Bryn Mawr the other evening. The large room of Goodhart Hall is not a great place for dance – with the audience in the sort of lumpy stuffed seats one found in 1950s’ cinemas (some of them bearing handwritten warnings that the chair was broken). With no slant to the room, the sight lines are dreadful and the high cathedral ceilings swallow the sound. I’ve been to at least one reading & a couple of dance events here over the years and never seen the room more than half full. It takes a tremendous performance to rise above the sense that one has wandered into a cavern.
This is not the first time I’ve seen a choreographer and lead dancer here who is (or at least seems) discernibly older than the other dancers & who once was a lead dancer for a nationally known company, surrounded by younger participants of varying skills, but terrific bods. The college dance circuit really is cluttered with such companies – of all the things an older dancer can take on, this must be the most challenging.
Curran was once a dancer with the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company & was an original cast member of the off-Broadway hit, Stomp. His p.r. material (both on the website & in the handouts at Bryn Mawr) likes to note that as recently as 1997, the dancers were paid with subway tokens for rehearsals and a meal after each public performance.
If Curran didn’t have a recognizable style, late modern dance with touches of the Judson Church scene & more than a few hand movements that are reminiscent of Steve Martin “doing the Egyptian,” I might well have felt that the three works were the product of different choreographers altogether. It may be a sign of Curran’s range, but over the course of three works, what I couldn’t find was where these works connected.
There was one piece I liked, and another I absolutely hated. The first of these was St. Petersburg Waltz, danced solo by Curran in a pork pie hat & three-piece suit sans jacket. Set to a piece of the same name by Meredith Monk, Curran is whimsical, light on his feet & effective as a dancer. The work I despised was Aria/Apology, danced by five members of the company to a track that alternated by opera arias by Georg Frederic Handel and recording from The Apology Line, a phone project that enabled people to call in anonymously and simply apologize for whatever they wanted. Five of the dancers are working through relatively somber pieces as we hear callers apologize for rape, murder and incest, literally, alternated with Handel at his most bombastic. There is literally no way to view the dance as anything other than as an act of mourning, which rendered the entire project a mawkish bit of bathos with all the subtlety of Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard in Iraq. The one comment I can make on the third piece, Metal Garden, is that, five days after viewing it, I can recall only the music, a work by Peter Jones & Tigger Benford that centered around prepared piano & percussion that mimed gamelan.
Maybe I caught this troop on an off night, or my arriving late or the terrible room had something to do with it. Curran’s list of current and forthcoming commissions suggests that a lot of people take him seriously. Thinking about
Monday, February 20, 2006
Of the four women included in the Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the one who has been least celebrated & least widely read has to be Madeline Gleason, the founder of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, and, in 1947, the director of the first poetry festival in the United States (where she read with William Everson, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, who had just turned 22, & Muriel Rukeyser). Ed Foster at Talisman House, one of the publishers dedicated into seeing that no good poet goes neglected, has issued a Collected Poems: 1929-1979. I’ve ordered a copy from SPD, but until it comes, the one volume of hers that I have at hand is the one that was perhaps most visible in small press book stores during the 1960s & ‘70s, Concerto for Bell and Telephone, published by Alan Brilliant’s Unicorn Press in 1967. Or at least this seems to have been the case, as Unicorn is listed on the cover and on a taped line on the cover page that covers over a “San Francisco 1966” line with no publisher listed. It’s not the only anomaly in my copy – page 6 directly faces page 11 as the signatures were collated incorrectly – I have to hop about to make certain everything is here (which, happily, it is).
Gleason’s writing in Concerto reminds me a great deal of the work of Robert Duncan’s prior to his confrontation with (and transformation by) Charles Olson. Her work in this regard has a lot in common not just with Robert, but with other members of the Berkeley Renaissance, Blaser & Spicer and Mary Fabilli, but also with that other duck who strikes as an instance of late modernism in the Western Hemisphere growing out of Yeats, the Canadian Louis Dudek. I sometimes think that, had not the New Americans stormed the scene in the 1950s, specifically Olson on the one hand, Ginsberg on the other, might not the U.S. avant scene – which was right at that moment sliding into a post-avant universe that no longer saw literary tendencies in such military analogies, but rather by communities, might not the post-avant world have developed in two lines, one following Williams on the East Coast, with an upper limit of Objectivism & lower limit of the NY School, the other on the West, following Duncan & Rexroth, with this post-Yeatsian poetics as its primary mode?
Here is the title poem of Concerto:
Ting ting for bodiless, farnear voice.
heartheart, where you are in spirit.
Ting ting tong ting.
Ring short, sharp, insistent,
wakes cat asleep near sound box.
Will you answer?
with tones of unbelief:
is it you?
can it be you?
where are you dear?
Take it in the garden, on the extension.
What is there to understand?
Madam, withouten many words
I dangle my seaweed draped on rock.
Sing bell. Ringing home. Calling . . .
At Land’s End, sea swells
blue flush on rock’s edge;
gulls sport over water.
There was home in the sea cave
where you combed your hair;
waves wheeled up carnivals of blue green:
home is where love was born.
What is there to say?
Madam, withouten many words
If with a beck ye should me call . . .
Ting ting bodiless
Is it you?
Is it you?
Where are you dear?
Here in the dark, holding the receiver.
You were once the receiver, the dial tone,
free to reach you, speak gardens to you,
bays to you; golden gate of a bay
letting in treasure. I am not your sea:
no longer flow into you. I am only a hand
holding the receiver.
Where are you
Love is a phone. Ting ting.
Calling. Cold. Coming.
Hear to telling. No voice
in my eucalyptus grove. No big bear
Come tell me so.
Love is a phone. Ting ting.
A bell rings. Calls you home.
It is nothing to worry about.
Jack, put our your eye,
you see too much.
A bone is a bone,
not a relic.
Look, Jack, call up Esther.
A date will lift the weight
from your mind. There’s no devil.
in the backyard. That’s Mrs. Hunter’s
black wolfhound. Jack, Jack, hear me?
Are you there? Where are you Jack?
Devil, devil behind the hedge,
I watched you grow immense,
swollen with invitations to temptation,
false courtiers; lies-in-waiting.
You smacked your lips over the fallen away
who cannot find the way to
heartheart. All days without love are the
backyard devil swollen with renunciations
How to explode you!
BURST your hideous gut!
Put devil on the wire,
I’ll tell him he’s a liar.
If there were love enough
to go only half way round,
I’d let him grow large in the eye.
But there is always, always,
more than we can.
Hearthheart. Where you are in spirit.
Ting ting for bodiless voice. Ting tong.
Swim back to shore, you’re too far out.
Comb your hair in the cove.
Bury devil in a backyard grave.
Madam, withouten many words,
the bell rings. Calls us home.
In some ways, this feels like one generation before the New Americans, even as it was written in the 1960s. And Gleason, born in 1903, was after all one year older than Louis Zukofsky – she is the oldest poet in the Allen anthology. Yet if you look at the work in that great epoch-making collection, you will note that the early poems of Robert Duncan & Jack Spicer there both feel very continuous with this – if there ever was a San Francisco Renaissance (a point on which I’m a skeptic), this clearly was it.
Both Duncan & Spicer moved on from this space, albeit in different directions, Robert towards an Olsonian view, Spicer deeply antithetical towards that. In fact, reading Gleason here with nearly four decades hindsight, I sense other correlations – people whom it would be interesting to read alongside her work – such as Theodore Roethke or John Logan (&, through
Sunday, February 19, 2006
At some moment during every episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, host James Lipton is going to ask the evening’s celeb to identify another occupation that they would have liked to have tried. What was the road not taken? I know in my own case I came very close to going to law school. You can probably tell that I’m the argumentative type. As it was, in my first job out of college I ended up helping to rewrite – and for the most part getting enacted into law – some 3,000 sections of the California Penal Code. The only problem with going to law school is that I would have ended up being a lawyer – that was the catch I could never get beyond in my own thinking about what to do next.
But that’s not really I might respond if, perchance, I ever found myself on that New School Stage being interviewed by Mr. Lipton. No, the alternative career that I probably really would have enjoyed pursuing is that of a fashion designer. When I was in high school art classes, I obsessed at questions of color & texture. The whole idea of using the human form as a canvas for such an obsession always has struck me as one of these tremendously, deeply satisfying arts.
There were, of course, a gazillion reasons why I didn’t pursue fashion. For one thing, you really need to understand how to make garments & how to sew. Even in high school I had the manual dexterity & fine motor skills of a pony – and a Clydesdale at that. Then there is the problem that fashion is the gewgaw of the super rich. The whole idea of designing fine clothing for the likes of the Hilton sisters really is disgusting. Finally, there was the problem that I think has always tended to keep hetero young men from pursuing that field – right at the age where they have to commit themselves to the process, women’s bodies seem radioactive with sexuality. How can you work when you can’t even think straight?
There are of course further issues that stand in the way, such as what will the family think. Pretty much what they think about the idea that you’re going to write poetry: you’re serious about this? I was fortunate perhaps that my dad was long gone & my grandfather was a study in non-presence. Some of my great uncles were bad enough. My approach was simply not to discuss poetry, and I don’t think anyone outside of the immediate family knew that I wrote until I started publishing books.
All of this feels like a million years ago to bring it up now. Except that I’ve discovered something that puts me very much back into the mindset I had in highschool all about fabric, texture & color & their infinite possibilities. This is the reality TV show, Project Runway, a Wednesday night staple on Bravo. I don’t watch much TV to begin with, and my general take on so-called reality shows is that as a category they’re beneath contempt, yet here is one with really talented people pursuing an art they’re all generally good at, doing really creative things. It’s also one of the most interesting shows on television for its presentation of a cross-section of humanity. The winner the first season, Jay McCarroll (whose final collection is pictured above), is that beyond-the-margins phenomenon, a gay man from rural
One of the contestants this season, Santino Rice, seems obsessed with proving that gay men can be every bit as much of a jerk as any straight person. If so-called reality shows seem to need their villains, it’s hard to imagine just how hard Santino has tried to fulfill that role. And, for him, it’s worked. He’s been kept on more than one occasion when his design – always too cluttered & over-the-top, badly sewn & ill fitting – should have gotten him eliminated in the weekly contests. He stays because he makes great TV.
The premise of the show is this – you start with 16 beginning designers, some just out of fashion school, others with some more experience (one fellow this season was already a successful men’s wear designer, one of the contestants last year was doing outfits for Queen Latifah even before she got picked for the show) and eliminate one or two each week until you get to a final three who have the chance to show a full collection at New York’s Fashion Week.¹ The winner is picked after the show, and receives a full spread in Elle magazine, a year’s mentorship at Banana Republic, a car & cash with which to launch one’s own line of design wear.
If the show fudges on who gets eliminated, it does so modestly. The three finalists this year have each won multiple challenges – indeed, they represent eight of the eleven winning designs. Two, Daniel Vosovic and Chloe Dao, are graduates of the Fashion Institute of Technology in
I’ve already decided – weeks ago in fact – that Vosovic, who until recently was a competitive gymnast on the national level, is the one who should win. If he doesn’t, it will be because Dao – who was born to Vietnamese parents in
¹ There is a trick in this. Since Project Runway has not yet aired the show that arrives at the final three when Fashion Week itself is held, the fourth-place contestant also gets to do a show, but is not included in the final judging. Narratively, the show acts as tho the fourth person doesn’t get the opportunity to show – an opportunity that is limited to just 70 designers in the world.
There have only been a couple of sports I’ve been interested in enough to try to get to one or more of its pinnacle showcases. The obvious one would be baseball, where, after a childhood of playing the game maybe 300 days a year for five or so years, I’ve managed to make it to a couple of world series games, one all-star game, and a handful of play-off contests.
A little less predictable sport for me, I’d wager, is figure skating. My own life experience on ice skates consists of around one-half hour, relatively little of which was actually spent on my feet. But the combination of athleticism and artistry in the best skating can be breath-taking to watch, even if my experience of viewing a quad toe loop jump never carries with it the same muscle memory that I get watching an outfielder throw straight through to home in order to catch a runner.
This year watching Coatesville’s Johnny Weir skate himself out of medal contention in the Olympics was hard to do, because you could see him fighting himself all the way. With Evgeny Plushenko, easily the best male skater now going, so far ahead, Weir committed the same blunder that has cost Michelle Kwan more than one Olympic medal – he skated “safely” which then meant that he skated poorly as well. Trying only not to make mistakes, he made more than ever.
There is a lesson in this for poetry. When I say, as I have more than once, that there are more good poets now writing than ever before in our history, I don’t necessarily mean that more great poems a la ”The Waste Land” or “Howl” (or whatever your iconic preference might be) are being written at this moment, tho that’s not inconceivable. What I mean is this: there are more poets who are not making Johnny Weir’s mistake – they are putting everything they have into the poem, not at all holding back. That to me is the test of a poet, regardless of which school they aspire to. Do they give everything to the poem? If the answer is yes, then I don’t see how you or I could ever ask anything more of them. Let’s just marvel at the effort.