Saturday, May 06, 2006
Daniel Green does some counting and comes to an obvious conclusion:
From a Business Week article on small presses:
Eschewing the large press penchant for concentrating on the hits with huge print runs like The Da Vinci Code. . .or the latest James Patterson novel. . . small presses are championing new voices, focusing on niche markets or subjects and genres that have either been ignored by the big houses or simply deemed unprofitable – such as poetry and foreign authors. They are creating whole businesses by reissuing out-of-print classics and maintaining the tradition of printing literary fiction.
Moreover, while the big publishing companies have been merging, the number of small presses has been increasing, creating a commercial critical mass. According to a survey by the Book Industry Study in 2005, Under the Radar, there are some 63,000 small presses generating $14.2 billion in sales. By comparison, as a result of industry consolidation there are about six large publishers today. And according to the Association of American Publishers, based in
$14.2 billion out a total volume of $23.7 billion. That's more than half. Isn't it thus time that a majority of book coverage – and book reviews – concentrates on small and independent presses rather than the big six?
Link provided via Bookninja.
Amen to that.
I guess I should stop calling the big trades The Gang of Eight. From now on, the Gang of Six it is. And thanks to Herb Levy, for directing my attention to Green’s blog.
Friday, May 05, 2006
I’ve been reading – rereading mostly – interviews with poets from the early days of the Paris Review¹. Creeley, Kerouac, Olson, Williams, Marianne Moore. I’m just starting the one with Auden at the moment. I download the PDF file onto my Palm TX & carry it around with me wherever I go.
When I first read these interviews, in the libraries at SF State and UC Berkeley in the 1960s & in the journal itself pretty much up to the time when Tom Clark got fired as poetry editor & one no longer needed to read the Paris Review to find out what was going on any more – mostly because reading it no longer could tell you – I was still a pup insofar as poetry goes, trying to make sense of the tradition as it then existed, when the likes of Creeley & Ginsberg where the “new, young” poets according to more journals than just the Paris Review. I always knew that that couldn’t be true – they were both born the same year as my mother, a year before my dad. Nobody my parents’ age could possibly be “young.”
Reading the early interviews, in particular – Pound’s was published in 1962, Williams’ in ’64 – one is reminded of just how recent the form of the interview itself is, and how rapidly it’s evolved. Creeley’s 1968 interview, patched together from a session with Lewis Mac
We are now as far from the election of JFK as that event was from the start of the First World War. In 1914, Ezra Pound was still working for William Butler Yeats in London, H.D. had not yet met Bryher, Williams was still imitating Keats, James Joyce was just publishing Dubliners, Faulkner was a teenager, Zukofsky just 10, Moore was teaching at the Carlisle Indian School in South Central Pennsylvania, making faux Europeans out of children taken from their tribes, Russia was still ruled by the czar.
I think it’s hard for anyone in my generation to fathom just exactly how far we have come, as a species, as a nation, as a poetry community over the last 90 years. You can sense it in the interviews of the modernists especially: their idea of American literature is a scene about the size of the one we have in
Louise Bogan said that The Dial made clear “the obvious division between American avant-garde and American conventional writing.” Do you think this kind of division continues or has continued? Was this in any way a deliberate policy?
As I read this, Hall is hoping Moore will challenge that division – the same impulse that later led him to recommend Tom Clark as his successor at the journal – but Moore, knowing New Yorker poetry editor Bogan’s commitments in this “obvious division,” dodges the question:
I think that individuality was the great thing. We were not conforming to anything. We certainly didn’t have a policy, except I remember hearing the word “intensity” very often. A thing must have “intensity.” That seemed to be the criterion.
That’s a response that echoes very differently, post-Althusser.
The Review is starting with its first decades and intends gradually to work its way to the present. Whether the present stands up to these interviews from the past may well depend on whether you think J.D. McClatchy, Geoffrey Hill, Richard Howard or Robert Bly to be the equals of Pound or Williams. In fact, it’s all information, part of the landscape & at least partly how American poetry got to where it is now. One thing that surely has changed, tho, is that poets today understand better what they’re getting into when they say yes to an interview. Kerouac’s alcoholic stupor, Auden’s ample self-regard or Olson caught between the bottle and the cancer that eventually would kill him, all are pretty much laid bare for all to see. The interviews are free (tho not all authors or estates have yet agreed to make them available online) & certainly worth a look.
¹ The site has been up & down the past few days.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Turning the corner and suddenly coming into its space, I had the sensation of meeting an old friend. It is, in fact, the least impressive of the four Robert Smithson pieces on display at Dia:Beacon, Dia’s factory-sized museum located just off the Hudson River in southern Duchess County, New York. Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust consists of a dozen mirrors roughly a one yard square each. Half of these are laid side-by-side on the floor right at the edge of the gallery wall, with the remaining six are fixed to the wall right at ground level, so that without anything else being present, it might appear to be some sort of mirrored hinge. However, atop each of the six mirrors on the floor is a small mound of gravel.
I had first met this work, one of Smithson’s Site/Nonsite series, decades ago at a retrospective of the late earthwork artist at the University of California Art Museum in Berkeley. It looked every bit as humble there as it does here. You have to actually sit on the concrete floor to really get a decent view of the thing, otherwise you might not notice it at all, save to check out the reflection of your shoes from its mirrors. Many of Smithson’s indoor works make use of some combination of earth, variously defined, and mirrors. Such is the case, sort of, at Dia.
Leaning Mirror, which was created in 1969, the year after Gravel Mirrors, consists of a large mirror, maybe six feet square, jutting out of a mound of dirt at something like a 60º angle. It looks, in a sense like a wing, or perhaps a crash (anticipating, ironically, the sense of jutting from Ant Farm’s iconic Cadillac Ranch).
Closed Mirror Square (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) consists of a mirrored box – with a clear glass roof – set into a mound of rock salt from the Cargill mine in Pennsylvania.
Depending on your height, you can see a part of your reflection inverted & reflected on the walls of the interior box.
Map of Broken Glass differs from the other three projects only insofar as the “mirror” has morphed into glass and is the material being used in a gravel like mound itself, everything from large shards to relatively small slivers (although, I should note, the glass itself is fairly thick, what I would think of as an “industrial window” grade – the barefoot viewer is less apt to get glass in one’s feet than they are to deal with flecks of dirt from Leaning Mirror or rock salt from Closed Mirror Square, both of which had specks starting to travel along the gallery floor).
In the Dia:Beacon galleries, this is the piece that looks spectacular, although I must say that it doesn’t really need to in order to create its impact.
Peter Schjeldahl, trying to prod me a little, once asked me if I didn’t think that the only serious thinking in the arts “these days” (this was the mid-1980s) occurred in the visual arts. While I understood what Peter was getting at – we’d spent the day visiting galleries & were back in his kitchen – I responded in kind, saying that I sometimes felt relieved when I saw a piece of visual work that had any ideas at all.
With Smithson, who died in his mid-30s in 1973 when a plane he was using to view the ongoing construction of Amarillo Ramp crashed, you never have any question about this at all. He is perhaps the clearest,. and deepest, thinker of any of that generation of conceptually oriented artists. And I find that I respond to his work not unlike the way I do when I’m Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – I feel I’m viscerally in the presence of a great questing mind.
It’s interesting to have this reaction – it’s positioning within the 300,000 square-foot recesses of the converted box printing factory that is the Dia facility is off to one side and in back (not unlike the location where most bookstores hide poetry) – yet Smithson’s work resonates with more critical intelligence than much of its collection overall.
The cohesiveness of the collection is remarkable. Basically, it’s the work of major artists in abstract modes between 1960 and the present. Even an Andy Warhol, who is represented by a large sequence of paintings, virtually identical but for their various neon colors, is here unveiled as a formalist of abstractions – the core image for the sequence, entitled “Shadows,” is exactly that, a shadow impossible to project backwards to an object. Indeed, the work suggests that Warhol is as intense a thinker about the role of color as any of the abstract expressionists, possibly even more so.
But when you look at artists who lack the rigor and formal imagination of a Smithson or a Warhol – Blinky Palermo, for example, looking for all the world like the love child of Josef Albers and Ellsworth Kelly, or Dan Flavin’s fluorescent lights – all shine & no illumination – you realize what the real constraints on this generation proved to be: how to think when the palette is reduced neoformalist variations on minimal materials. If the result is good, as it is with Sol Lewitt or Donald Judd’s wonderful wooden boxes – the best work of his I’ve ever seen – it can be extremely powerful. But when it’s not, it just sits there. Fred Sandback’s string pieces, framing large rectangular spaces in “canvas-like” positions actually reiterate a project I did for a show in Seattle some 34 years ago. Seeing such a narrow concept literally spun into a career ultimately is depressing. It suggests that art is little more than identifying possible brand positions within a market economy.
I was struck by a couple of artists whose work I’d never looked at that closely before. One was Walter De Maria, whose uniform pieces, a circle & a square on the floor, in his Equal Area Series demonstrate a commitment that modest variations of a Sandback or ersatz glitz of a Flavin just doesn’t get. For some reason, I’d never realized that De Maria was born in Albany, California, my home town.
Another very-close-to-homie turns out to be Michael Heizer, born in Berkeley. Heizer has what I saw as two very disparate projects here. One is a series of geometrical shapes on the floor – Ellsworth Kelly gone to boards or whatever – that is extremely predictable. Click on the link on his name and you’ll see. But Negative Monolith #5, a gigantic – like 20 foot high – stone tightly wedged into a vertical rectangular slot in a wall is brooding and powerful. I found myself liking the fact that it doesn’t all work for him, as indeed it doesn’t for John Chamberlain. His signature piece here, The Privet (again, click that link), is a sculpture of metal that appears to have escape from a humongous shredder. It is a solid wall all its own, yet incredibly delicate, as if auto bodies could be reduced to confetti. But next to it, many of his smaller projects look like sketches, sculptural doodling.
And that’s perhaps why I like the Smithson pieces here best of all. In his brief life, Smithson made some of the most striking visual images of the past century – Spiral Jetty is a work worthy of a Duchamp in making you see the world completely differently – and yet the power of the image is never ever what the work is about. The tension in these four pieces – between smooth & rough, shiny & opaque, natural (poured) vs. cultural (square), beautiful & ugly – is simply unending. After three dozen years, they’re as powerful as ever. In some sense, perhaps even more so.
The other thing that struck me as I moved through this space was just how quickly this collection is going to seem frozen in time. For one thing, an enormous number of these visual artists are dead now: Smithson, Warhol, Palermo, Flavin, Sandback, Judd, Agnes Martin, Joseph Beuys. If you thought that MoMA seemed like a time capsule from the not-so-recent past, you won’t believe Dia:Beacon in ten years – someone like Kara Walker is going to seem like – indeed, be – a voice from a completely different century by comparison to this cool commitment to formalist abstraction encased in a museum that feigns being a loft space (serious fin de siècle nostalgia in that alone) alongside the Hudson, gently flowing.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
CBS News took notice of Saturday’s note here. Now if they’ll just do some good investigative reporting….
A week ago Monday, I noted what I took to be a curious claim in the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry in America study, that “The Poetry Foundation’s primary concern is with the reading and listening audiences for poetry.” It is, in fact, the closest thing this report has to a topic sentence, and it appears toward the end of the discussion of key findings. The entire paragraph is worth quoting:
The Poetry Foundation’s primary concern is with the reading and listening audiences for poetry. However, stakeholders and participants in the qualitative research phase of this project felt it was important to collect information about people’s experiences writing poetry. We asked all participants about their experiences writing poetry as adults, and we asked those who wrote poetry about their experiences performing their own poetry. Their responses are summarized in Table 8. Thirty-six percent of all readers have written poetry as adults. Poetry users are significantly more likely to write poetry (45 percent) than are non-users, fewer than 1 percent of whom have written poetry as adults. Just over one-quarter of the adults who have written poetry (27 percent) have performed their own poetry in public.
This assertion explains a good deal of the 113-page report: why it asked certain questions and not others. But those relatively high percentages of poetry writers and performers suggest that the Poetry Foundation’s primary – and never fully articulated – assumption may in fact be false. With it, many of the premises surrounding not only this study, but its sponsors, the editors and publishers of Poetry magazine, dissolve pretty quickly. Indeed, it accounts for a good deal of the pathology at the heart of the Poetry magazine project.
The focus of Poetry in America is neither poetry, nor poets, but a third category it identifies as “poetry users,” a group it breaks into further subsections of readers & listeners & “former poetry users.” As the introduction states,
1) What are the characteristics of poetry’s current audience?
2) What factors are associated with people’s ongoing participation with poetry?
3) What are people’s perceptions of poetry, poets and poetry readers?
4) What hinders those people without a strong interest in poetry from becoming more engaged with this art form?
5) What steps might be taken to broaden the audience for poetry in the
But “participation with poetry” only incidentally means actually writing it. This study isn’t about poetry, but its “current audience.” The chapter headings set forth the primary research concerns:
* Demographic characteristics
* Understanding how people spend their time
* General reading habits
* Early experiences with poetry
* Later experiences with poetry
* Intensity of engagement with poetry
* Perceptions of poetry, poets and poetry readers
* Benefits and barriers
* Incidental exposure to poetry
* Opportunities for exposure to poetry
* Favorite and long-remembered poems
Thus when, in the chapter on later experiences with poetry, the researchers ask what kinds of poetry “users” currently read, the categories they offer are contemporary and classic, as tho they were brands of Coke. Interestingly, contemporary proves more popular than classic, as the graph below sketches out, giving possible responses and the percentages assigned to each. Some 31.7 percent read contemporary poetry, which might be Billy Collins & might be Geof Huth & might be Kari Edwards – we have no way of telling further, to just 19.2 percent who only read classic.
In fact, these numbers weren’t those given by the raw data. The
Over a third of current poetry users define the type of poetry that they read as “something else.” We asked respondents to specify what they meant by “something else.” Their responses were reviewed by project staff and the data were coded for those responses that appeared most frequently. Many of their responses did not fit into any category; however, there were four that repeatedly came up in the pool of ‘other’ responses: personal, friend’s or relatives’ poetry; modern poetry; children’s poetry; and inspirational poetry. While modern poetry could clearly be classified as contemporary poetry, the other categories and verbatim responses did not fit into either designation – classic or contemporary.
The question of how might Poetry – as distinct from “poetry” – serve “users” better isn’t one ultimately about writing, but about distribution. Nor is it just any model of distribution that is being contemplated. The report’s final section – “What Steps Might be Taken to Broaden the Audience for Poetry in the
* Develop programs for teachers
* Help libraries and book clubs foster participation
* Increase poetry’s presence on the internet
* Create new opportunities for incidental exposure
* Challenge people’s perceptions
* Evaluate all programs
The first three suggestions are all deeply institutional. “Develop programs” is the sort of phrase that neocons twitch at whenever they hear the words coming from the mouths of the likes of Teddy Kennedy or John Kerry. And libraries, as at least one publisher I know likes to complain, are government institutions that, by concentrating books for sharing on a serial basis, theoretically may undercut the sales of publishers.¹ Underlying the first three suggestions, and just under the surface in most of the others, is the report’s ultimate presumption:
Poetry is an expert discourse written by professionals, distributed to, and read by a larger group of non-specialists.
It seems like a reasonable premise if the question you are asking is to reaching an audience whose list of favorite poems – from a survey that began with over1,000 people – turns up just nine poems that were listed by five or more respondents each and these were (in this order):
Written in 1936 by a 14-year-old, Mary Stevenson’s “Footprints,” a staple of inspirational verse, is the most recent text on the list.
Similarly, the report’s recommendation to increase poetry’s presence on the internet, reads tres retro:
Adult readers have access to the Internet at rates higher than what is seen in the general population. Currently, few poetry users turn to the Internet to access poetry or to find information about poetry events. However, as the Internet evolves, ever increasing numbers of people are using it, and the Internet is increasingly becoming the source for all kinds of information. There is no reason why poetry should be the exception. Websites devoted exclusively to poetry will most likely be visited by people who already are involved with poetry. But, even if relatively few poetry users visit poetry websites, poems are shared. Surprisingly high percentages of people who do not identify as poetry readers were sent poems via email or because someone copied them out for them. The Internet can deepen participation for current poetry users who will use it to search for poetry, and their social networks will broaden participation.
The use of the Internet for poetry has broader applications beyond developing websites devoted to poetry. Poetry is already part of solemn and special occasions. Placing poetry at sites devoted to these kinds of private ceremonies can help make people more aware of poetry’s role in commemorating important events.
These paragraphs could have been written a decade ago. And while their overarching generalities keep this passage from being wrong, as such, the nod that “surprisingly high percentages of people who do not identify as readers were sent poems via email…” returns us again to a world in which Caroline Kennedy’s anthologies of poetry, and those of Garrison Keillor, seem perfectly appropriate fare.
As a one-time contributor to Poetry, I know that this doesn’t touch my world in any meaningful way. But here’s my question: does it touch the world of Christian Wiman and the current generation of old/new formalists he represents? If it does, how very sad for him. If it doesn’t, one wonders just how much money the Poetry Foundation sunk into this project. One can imagine the New York trade publishers funding this sort of research, because it really has more to do with their use of poetry as coffee table and Christmas gift-ware, what to give to that sensitive but strange niece, that sort of thing. But as a study of the sociology of poetry, what is most remarkable is just how far it misses the mark.
More than anything, this study reminds me of the one time I found myself passing the offices of Hallmark in the
¹ This is, I think, nonsense, but the point of view is worth acknowledging.
Monday, May 01, 2006
For the past few months, I’ve run a link on the blog roll to the U.S. Senate campaign of Chuck Pennacchio. Two weeks from tomorrow, Pennsylvanians will go to the polls and if Chuck gets much more than ten percent of the vote, he will be having a very good day indeed. The reason is that the state Democratic Party, led by Gov. Ed Rendell, has decided to put its troops, funds, endorsements & energy behind Bob Casey, Jr. Rendell went so far as to push much more viable alternatives like former congressman Joe Hoeffel out of the race to prepare the red carpet for Casey, who will go up this fall against incumbent Rick Santorum, who just might be the most right-wing member of the U.S. Senate. I’m appalled by all of this, and think that Rendell’s machinations just might come back to haunt him.
Casey, as they say, has name recognition. His late father, also named Bob Casey, was a conservative Democratic governor here a few decades back & the kid has used that brand identity to run successfully for a pair of lower echelon state offices, auditor general from 1997 until last year, and then last year state treasurer. Casey actually ran against Rendell in 2002 for the Democratic nomination for governor, but Rendell edged him out, in large part by being pro-choice and a liberal – the term actually fits the ample former mayor of
Rendell’s argument in pushing viable candidates aside was that Casey ran ahead of Santorum in the polls months ago, a fact based almost entirely on Santorum’s increasing visibility as a nutjob and Casey’s name recognition. It may also have been payback for Casey’s support of the governor in his general election campaign four years ago – Rendell is that rarest of creatures, a governor of
Besides Hoeffel, the other potentially significant candidate who chose not to seek the Democratic senate nomination this year was MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews. Matthews served as an aide to Tip O’Neill but has been drifting rightward for years. Matthews comes from
The catch in all of this is that Rendell, who squeaked through four years ago and has governed, with a Republican legislature, largely on the theory of do-no-harm, accomplishing little to show for his tenure, presumed that he would have an easy ride to re-election. Then TV commentator & football Hall of Famer
The only argument one ever hears made for Casey on the Democratic side is that his numbers suggest he can win. The logic is this – only 65 percent of Republicans favor Santorum, whereas polls suggest that 77 percent of Democrats favor Casey. In a state that is roughly 40 percent GOP, 30 percent Dems and 30 percent independent, that would translate to roughly a dead heat among the partisans in a year when independents are expected to swing Democratic.
But Santorum, who has twice the cash in the bank that Casey has, has won as an underdog before. He’s doing all the things you would expect a vulnerable incumbent to do to move ever so slightly toward the center, to the point that when Bush came to Philly recently, he met with Santorum behind closed doors so that Senator Rick wouldn’t have to be photographed with this very lame duck. While the Democrats are right that Bush is a huge liability to the GOP right now, it should be remembered that (a) with the very notable exception of gas prices, the economy right now is humming along, and it’s always the best predictor of electoral success, and (b) an incoherent Democratic slate is not calculated to maximize the number of Democratic voters. As bad and inexcusable as the
So this turns out to be a dispiriting election cycle in
So I’m voting for Chuck Pennacchio, a historian who has worked as an aide to Alan Cranston (ah, but long after Charles Olson did the same) & to Congressman Ron Dellums (long after I wrote a a speech or two for the man). He’s not the only good “protest” candidate on the ballot, but he’s the best and most well organized. If
Sunday, April 30, 2006
On Monday evening, I will be reading at