Saturday, May 13, 2006

 

Henry Theodore Tuckerman –
Tuckermanities” live on

 

I continue to get asked, primarily by newbies to this blog, about the phrase, School of Quietude (SoQ): did I invent it? what does it mean? why do I see a need for its use? etc. Joe Green’s Wikipedia site for the phrase isn’t 100 percent wrong. Here is how I would respond to the most common inquiries:

No, I did not invent the concept of a “School of Quietude.” Edgar Allan Poe suggested as much in the 1840s, a period when the Knickerbockers, a New York-centric group of writers committed to the idea that American literature should ape its European betters, were contending with the Young Americans, who felt that American literature might be more & other than a pale copy of what was in fashion in the British Isles. Poe had had “the Tell-Tale Heart” rejected by Henry Theodore Tuckerman and was told by Tuckerman that he should condescend to be a little more quiet, which is to say a little less rowdy. Poe’s response was that

If Mr. Tuckerman persists in his quietude, he will put a quietus on the magazine of which Messrs. Bradbury and Soden have been so stupid as to give him control.

Elsewhere, Poe dismisses “Tuckermanities” as an “arrant / Bubble.”

I first used the phrase in a discussion of the Robert Kelly/Paris Leary anthology, A Controversy of Poets, on October 9, 2002. The Kelly/Leary anthology was valuable in acknowledging the ongoing presence of this division in American letters in the 1960s, with Kelly selecting poets from the New American tradition, Leary those from the SoQ. Just last week, I quoted Louise Bogan (one-time poetry editor of the New Yorker) praising Marianne Moore’s work with The Dial, for making clear ““the obvious division between American avant-garde and American conventional writing.” This “obvious division” has been deeply engrained in America’s literary heritage & persists to this day – as a look at the publication lists of the Gang of Six major trade publishers, or of awards like the Pulitzer or National Book Critics Circle, or of the annual lists of “most notable books” of poetry in the New York Times will confirm, where Louise Bogan is far more apt to be represented than other women poets of her time, whether Lorine Niedecker or H.D. or Besmilr Brigham or Barbara Guest.

A good discussion of what I think the phrase implies appeared here on January 5, 2004.

One of the primary mechanisms of institutional power that the SoQ employs is the claim that it represents poetry – some tell-tale journal titles: Poetry, American Poetry Review – and everybody else just represents some niche poetics: Beat, Avant-garde, Postmodern, Language, Black, Women’s, Leftwing, etc. If that were true, then presenting the world of poetry as tho it were largely SoQ, with a sprinkling of others, would seem fair, reasonable, logical, rather than merely partisan.

Poetry magazine may have been inclusive and broadly focused during the last seven years of Henry Rago’s tenure as editor (1962-9), but it has since become a movement journal most closely identified with New Formalism, a literary tendency whose obsession with inherited patterns obscures a much deeper lack of interest in form itself. Given $100 million by a pharmaceutical heiress, the Poetry Foundation recently funded a survey that had nothing to do with the needs of poets & everything to do with the publishing interests of the Gang of Six.

The most useful thing any outsider can do about such tactics is simply to name them, to make them visible, to make their literary tendencies perceptible as such. There are, after all, some fairly major differences – the American Poetry Review has a different aesthetic than does Poetry or The New Criterion or Ploughshares – but we’ll never fully understand that if we pretend that they’re the unmarked case. Ironically, SoQ poets are far more likely to have a lasting influence on letters if they treated more accurately than is now the case. Today, the death of an SoQ poet is a virtual guarantee that in 20 years he or she will have receded from memory. Remember James Dickey? Recall when he was treated as the most significant of American poets? That was within the last half century. SoQ poets virtually all get to be neglectorinos, to use Larry Fagin’s word. They all end up as famous as Tuckerman. Whether that is because their poetry has no lasting value without the institutional power that foregrounds their work while they’re alive, or is an inadvertent consequence of approaching the world as if they have no real poetics, no inherent clustering tendencies or literary shape, that they’re “just poetry,” is open to debate. But they’re the ones who stand to benefit most from becoming identified, if not with the SoQ as such, then with literary tendencies that have names of their own choosing.

So I will continue to use the phrase in order to give militant conservatives like William Logan, Christian Wiman, Dana Gioia, Billy Collins & Ted Kooser what they need most: a label.



Friday, May 12, 2006

 

A couple of people have pointed out that the Times has posted a list of the writers, critics and editors the Book Review asked” – a total of 124 names, fewer than A.O. Scott says replied. Of the 124, 37 are women. One question I had not thought of before is the age of the judges - there are more than a couple here old enough to be my parents.



 

On Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a survey of “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” as to the “best work of American fiction” of the past 25 years. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the winner, but she also is one of just two women to have published a book that received multiple votes in the survey, the other being Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Housekeeping, it’s worth noting, is the one novel on the list never to have been reviewed by the Times.

In all, just 14 authors have novels listed by multiple respondents to the survey, tho Philip Roth has six books listed among the 22 to receive multiple votes. Don DeLillo has three, Cormac McCarthy has two (tho one is his Blood Trilogy). John Updike’s quartet of novels, Rabbit Angstrom is also listed. Nobody seems to have thought that short stories counted. Here, in alphabetical order, is the list.

  1. Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From
  2. Don DeLillo, White Noise
  3. Don DeLillo, Libra
  4. Don DeLillo, Underworld
  5. Richard Ford, Independence Day
  6. Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale
  7. Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son
  8. Edward P. Jones, The Known World
  9. Cormac McCarthy, Border Trilogy
  10. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  11. Toni Morrison, Beloved
  12. Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
  13. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
  14. Philip Roth, American Pastoral
  15. Philip Roth, The Human Stain
  16. Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
  17. Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater
  18. Philip Roth, Operation Shylock
  19. Philip Roth, The Counterlife
  20. Norman Rush, Mating
  21. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
  22. John Updike, Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels

Do we really think that more than one fourth of all the important novels over the past quarter century were written by one man? If so, do we honestly think they were written by Philip Roth? I’d poke my eyes out before I’d live on that planet.

Time Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus doesn’t list his sages, let alone their gender or ethnic breakdown, but this list suggests that he & they should both get out more, venturing further north than Connecticut, further west than Riverside Drive, further south than Gramercy Park. It wouldn’t hurt to meet women.

A.O. Scott makes an effort of sorts to throw some context around this mess, noting that just 125 of the Tanenhaus’ experts responded, that Morrison’s first place finish was predicated on all of 15 votes, that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest received no votes at all, that nobody voted for William T. Vollman. Scott does note the concentration of writers born in the 1930s in this list, but appears not to have noticed the proportion of women here is worse than it is in Congress. In fact, the real story about this list isn’t who is on it, but rather who the Times chose to make its selection. Who does Sam Tanenhaus consider to be experts? On that point, Scott & Tenanhaus are mute.

To those sages, I have just a few words of advice: Kathy Acker, Lydia Davis, Samuel R. Delany, Joseph Torra, Bruce Sterling, Pamela Lu, Mary Burger, Bob Glück, Carla Harryman, Nathaniel Mackey, Sarah Schulman, Lucius Shepard, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephanson, Paul Auster, Harry Matthews, Dennis Cooper, Gilbert Sorrentino, David Markson, Douglas Woolf, Walter Mosley dot dot dot



Thursday, May 11, 2006

 

When George Oppen & his wife returned from exile, they drove up from Mexico City with a young couple who were moving up to Berkeley to start a bookstore. Fred & Pat Cody opened up a small, crowded shop north west of the UC Campus on Grove. They named the store Cody’s. Three years later, Moe Moskowitz and some friends opened up a bookstore of their own at the corner of University & Shattuck right in the heart of town, calling it Shakespeare & Company. The site is now a MacDonalds.

The business strip that ran up Telegraph Avenue in those days – still a two-way street that led right through Sather Gate before curving right just past Dwinelle Hall, heading down to exit on Oxford at the West entrance to the campus – had no terrific book stores, indeed hardly any bookstores at all. There was one that specialized in texts for UC classes, and a small general bookstore at the corner of Durant and Telegraph. But the four corners of Telegraph and Haste included a Lucky’s Supermarket on the southeast corner, the Berkeley Hotel on the northeast corner, on the northwest a complex of shops that included a restaurant, a small market and the first movie multi-plex I ever saw, the tiny Studio Guild, two theaters, neither of which had more than 100 or so seats, owned by one Pauline Kael, a friend of Robert Duncan’s who turned her skill at writing blurbs for the films that were to show at the Guild into a long-running career as the film reviewer for the New Yorker. On the southwest corner was a gas station.

A couple of years later, I would start visiting Telegraph Avenue – at first to buy books for resale in the Albany High School library, one of my duties as president of the library club – then later to hang out and look cool at the Café Med, just down the street from Lucky’s. Which is where I would regularly see this blond fellow, a few years my senior, writing thoughtfully into a notebook, nursing a latte. He was, I was told, a poet named Ken Irby &, for a long time, that was my only “live sighting” of an actual writer of poems. What I knew about poets was that they spent their afternoons in cafés, writing in notebooks. But I was far too timid to go up and actually talk to the man – that would take me years.

Sometime around 1963 or so, Moe & company moved up to the corner of Telegraph and Dwight, opening a shop called The Rambam. Across the street, just down from the gas station, right where Moe’s currently is, moved Cody’s. At the same time, Lucky’s was in trouble with the community because it would not hire people of color to work as cashiers. After a lengthy series of political protests, the store actually shut down and was replaced by a second coffee house, this one called The Forum.

But the political protests of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 – really the first major on-campus rebellion of the 1960s – is what transformed the street. The gas station shut down business and by the fall of 1965, every kid who thought (or whose parents thought) that political protest in behalf of free speech was a dreadful idea had decided to attend college elsewhere. Every kid who thought that the political activity of Berkeley looked exciting had applied to UC. Suddenly there were dozens of young poet types hanging out on Telegraph Avenue. I met my first publisher, Richard Krech there, and the printer Wes Tanner of Arif Press (who was attending Laney College to learn how to set type at the time), and a senior at Skyline High by the name of Barrett Watten.

The Rambam started having open readings, which is where (with one exception) I first gave readings in public, learning how that felt, deciding, finally, to stop after a year or so largely because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of building jokes into poems just to get laughs, and it seemed to me that the venue rewarded poetry-as-standup comedy most of all. Some of the other regulars of that series included Pat Parker, Gerard Van der Luen, John Oliver Simon & his then wife Alta, Charlie Potts & Keith Abbott. One day in early 1966, they cancelled the open reading to hold a memorial “birthday” reading for a recently passed poet by the name of Jack Spicer. I’d never heard of him before, but the reading by his friend (of whom I’d also never heard, at that time), Robin Blaser, got me reading both of their work, something I still do 40 years later.

Cody’s flourished across the street from the Rambam and eventually bought the lot that housed the gas station in order to construct the two-story book emporium pictured above¹, at the time easily the best new book store I’d ever seen. Moe & his partners split, with Moe taking over the old Cody’s location, using his own name finally, while the Rambam reverted back to the Shakespeare & Co. moniker it had had before coming to Telegraph.

And, for over 40 years, that has been the nexus of the best book buying block in North America. Now Cody’s, which in recent years has opened up stores on trendy Fourth Street in the west part of Berkeley & on Stockton Street in San Francisco, has announced that it will be closing the Telegraph Avenue Store on July 10. According to owner Andy Ross – who took the business over from the Cody’s in 1977 after running a smaller store up in Cotati – the store is only doing half the business that it did in 1990, largely due to the internet.

The other factor, which I haven’t seen mentioned in either the Contra Costa Times or on the Shelf Awareness email letter that first apprised me of this sad circumstance, is the relationship of the University of California itself to the city of Berkeley. UC has grown dramatically since I was a kid, expanding south of the campus into the immediate neighborhood (most infamously setting off the People’s Park protests & riots in 1969, which resulted in Alameda County deputy sheriffs shooting and killing one bystander, blinding another²). By expanding, especially without building on-campus housing for its added student population, the University turned the middle-class neighborhood of the South Campus area – where my grandparents grew up – into a large swath of off-campus student ghetto housing. The North Campus area was distinguished only by having a larger percentage of graduate students living there, as residential homes were converted one after another to rental units. Without the economic base that had supported them, the shops on first Telegraph, and then later Shattuck and University transformed to support this newer, more transient population. Books are down, but T-shirt shops are booming.

Cody’s always had a large section of poetry, tho it tended to get one shipment of small press books by any given local author, picked almost randomly, & only consistently restock trade press editions. Moe’s, which has always had an excellent selection of used poetry – dating back to the days when Michael Malcom & Andrew Schelling worked there – has in recent years had a more well thought out selection of new books as well, which one suspects it may expand once Cody’s departs.

I recall how my grandfather used to resent the University – he was still very much on the town side of any given town/gown distinction – as it had rendered the city of his childhood virtually unrecognizable. But it’s been 35 years since he died & the city that was there in 1971 is itself morphing at an ever faster rate. The Cody’s on Fourth Street is undistinguishable from a Border’s in terms of its stock. Black Oak hasn’t changed much since the days when its founder declared that “language poetry is puke.” And SPD operates without a real retail outlet at all these days, tho you can get back into its warehouse & spend $200 awfully fast once you do. It’s certainly not the operation it was when it was just one aspect of Serendipity Books on Shattuck – tho there were far fewer publishers back then as well.

So here’s a tip of the rhetorical hat to the ghosts of the men, Fred Cody & Moe Moskowitz (& to Pat Cody, who is still going strong), who once made Berkeley the most book-centric city in America. Coming from a home in which books were largely absent, the idea of even a poorly organized used book shop like Shakespeare & Co. was more than I could have imagined.

 

¹ When, having sold my early archives to UC San Diego, I was finally able to buy a house in Berkeley, eight blocks from the one in which I’d grown up, the seller was the owner of the flower stand that has stood outside Cody’s now for decades.

² At one point during that event, I found myself in an English Department classroom in Wheeler Hall, watching the sheriffs, widely known in the 1960s as the Blue Meanies, firing shotguns into opaque windows of the Bancroft Library – there were no protesters at the library & anyone could have been standing behind those frosted glass windows.



Wednesday, May 10, 2006

 

Stephanie Young’s description of how she put together her anthology is worth looking at more closely:

I started with my friends, and then the writers important to my friends. I followed lines of personal relationship because I was curious what formal or tonal connection might emerge between those who share their affection. I tried to include both the known and the unknown, pairings and groups whose interrelationships are wildly complicated.

It sounds at first like a prescription for a closed – possibly even elitist – conception of what is currently going on in Bay Area poetry. And, as I suggested rather indirectly on Monday, the gathering of 110 current poets seems to have missed the School of Quietude (SoQ), almost entirely, as well as the neo- (or perhaps retro-) Beat scene. Interestingly, the book leads off with an untitled poem by Brenda Hillman, a poet who has sometimes been associated with the SoQ:

The lord is its shepherd and i

am its color captive

                    its color   color   color captive

in the tree that

has no
inside

One could hardly call that a traditional anglophile verse form, not even with that twist of prayer in the first line. If anything, the poem points toward a post-division poetics, neither SoQ nor post-avant, something more than a few of the younger post-avant poets have called for in recent years. Putting this poem first is perhaps this book’s most polemic moment, a call for the conception that Bay Poetics is also a new poetics altogether. Similarly, I take it as no accident that the collection ends with Kathleen Fraser’s work, using typefaces as large as 60 points, visually the most striking (most “experimental”¹) in the entire book.

Older poets working in newer forms, younger poets – like Stephanie Young, whose poem I cited on Monday – using combinations that haven’t been conjoined previously, a key element in Bay Poetics – indeed, the reason why it’s called Poetics and not Poetry – is an assertion, never fully voiced critically, that poetry in the Bay Area has arrived at (is arriving at) a new place altogether. When one looks at the influences that are visible among the 110 – New York School (multiple generations), langpo, New Narrative, echoes of the New Coast moment in Buffalo, the indelible (but distant) presence of Chain, the always surprising (and surprisingly gentle) after-image of New Brutalism – one confronts American poetry as it has evolved over the past 20 years, only here it’s got this dual focus of the Bay as well, which accounts for the stereoptic effect.

Earlier collections of Bay Area writing often begin with a myth of origin that usually dates the scene to the day Kenneth Rexroth arrived from Chicago, the same day coincidentally that George Sterling – then the dominant figure in the Bay scene – committed suicide. One of the relatively few critical texts in Bay Poetics is Andrew Joron’s calling this into question, looking back at Sterling & the less well known Clark Ashton Smith, the nexus of what was, in the 1920s, called California Decadence. Garrett Caples, in a piece that precedes Joron’s recalls that when Ambrose Bierce was asked whether Lincoln or Washington was the “greatest American,” replied:

I should say that the greatest American that we know about, if not George Sterling, was Edgar Allan Poe.

Bierce’s logic was that the work of Sterling & Poe would outlast that of Lincoln & Washington. It’s a sign of the School of Quietude’s near total amnesia of anything even remotely outside of the box that Sterling, whom one might read as an antecedent, say, of James Merrill, has been almost entirely forgotten over the past eight decades.

While there are a handful of critical pieces – by such folks as Bob Glück, Elizabeth Robinson & Eileen Tabios in addition to Caples & Joron – there isn’t any sense of a party line here. In fact, except for the fact that Caples & Joron are both touching on the history, almost the prehistory, of Bay Area poetry, there’s not nearly as much of a sense of a shared project in the critical writing as there is in the poetry, tho that also presents a wide range of generally post-avant possibilities.

So Bay Poetics falls into a middle ground – too broad & democratic to be representing a movement, Nouveau Brutalism or whatever, but not “all things to all people” either. In a sense, I think the situation, or scene, as presented by Young, is much harder for an individual poet than it was circa 1970 when you had just two regular reading series – one at SF State, the other at Intersection on Union Street – for the whole scene. If there are 110 interesting post-avant poets now active between Sebastopol & Monterey & as far east as Vallejo if not Davis – and I think a realistic number would be more like 250, especially if we included the neo-Beat scene & a broader swath of the Quietists – having one’s work stand out is a genuinely daunting project. In that populous – I want to resist calling it crowded – scene, the absence of more rigorously self-defined tendencies pretty much reduces the challenge to “every man & women for themselves.” That still feels like an interregnum to me, a waiting until the Next Thing shows up. But the grounds sure are fertile.

 

¹ Only in the narrow sense that vispo, or any poetry with a visual component, is historically “experimental.” I think that Fraser knows exactly what she is doing, and in that sense this work is the product of a master craftsperson, not an experimenter.



Tuesday, May 09, 2006

 

A read-through of Bay Poetics, Stephanie Young’s new anthology of Bay Area poetry, leaves one with a distinct impression that one possible impact of online typesetting is that the next generation in poetry is becoming much more hesitant about leaving the safe anchor of the left margin. While there are clearly exceptions to this – Chris Chen, Logan Ryan Smith & Dennis Somera stand out – most of the poets here who treat the left-hand margin as an option rather than a requirement are the likes of Joanne Kyger, Nate Mackey, Kathleen Fraser (working now also in variable type sizes as well), Larry Kearney, Susan Gevirtz.

One wonders what the longer term implication of all this might be. It’s conceivable that in ten years’ time the web will prove as resilient and easy to set type with the sort of point-by-point variations that Paul Blackburn adapted for his late work, but right now, frankly, it’s a pain & one cannot guarantee that what looks good in Firefox will look the same in Internet Explorer or Opera or what else have you. So younger poets are doing what seems obvious enough, which is returning to the margin or else never thinking really about departing therefrom. I sometimes have the sense of a generation of swimming students, afraid to let go of the edge of the pool.

But I’m clearly of the age of the typewriter. Ezra Pound was the first U.S. poet to make this machine – which evolved from an experimental piece of machinery to a much more standardized piece of equipment during the Civil War because it made reports from the field more readable and reliable (and no accident here that Remington, major manufacturer of rifles, was likewise one of the first major producers of this military product) – his normal mode of composition. Nor that Pound was the one who led American poets away from the left-hand margin. Make what you will of the fact that his finest single work, The Pisan Cantos, was written by hand on scraps of paper in a wire cage in the mud of a prison camp in Italy.

The New American poets – from Olson to Ginsberg to Duncan to Whalen to Blackburn to Snyder to McClure – were the ones who really moved away from the margin. A poet like Larry Eigner is unthinkable without the typewriter. To center his poems on the page, Michael McClure (and along the way a volunteer typist or two) had to count out the characters in every line and count backwards from the center space. Today, that’s a simple Control-C in Microsoft Word, so simple in fact that the practice appears to have declined in recent years.

I first learned to write poetry on a heavy manual Olympia typewriter that belonged to my grandfather. As a teenager, I’d haul the thing out from its stand in a corner of the dining room – the only use my grandfather ever gave it was to type up minutes for his Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings once in a rare while – and set it atop the kitchen table, typing away until it was time for bed. When I left home, my first pay check in my first job went not to rent but to buy a typewriter of my own, a little red Royal portable that cost, if memory serves, a princely sum of $125 back in the fall of 1964. When that puppy died – I dropped it in my apartment five years later – I immediately went out and bought a new one, preferring to give the landlord a complicated story and be a couple of weeks late on the rent. I had had to forego the machine for maybe three weeks back in 1968 when it was in the shop – a key broke off – and I tried to handwrite my poems on legal tablets. Later, when I typed up these manuscripts, they were almost all exactly one typewritten page long.

When I got my first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I immediately went out and bought a $800 IBM Selectric, a machine I had coveted for some time. This, I was sure, was going to last me for decades. I made a point of getting a three-year service contract and carefully selected three font-balls of type. Within four years, I had stopped using it for my poetry (tho I continued to do so for correspondence), heading in to my office at the California Institute of Integral Studies to use a PC there. When I finally got my own PC in 1986, I held on to the Selectric for awhile, tho I found myself using it only to fill out grant forms once a year or so. At last I gave the Selectric to my mother, until a combination of her failing eyesight and some necessary repairs caused her to junk it.

I don’t think of myself as a poet-of-the-typewriter, tho there are clearly sections of The Alphabet, in particular, that reflect the impact of the New Americans on my own sense of the verse stanza. But I can escape what I see in Bay Poetics: poets who treat the lefthand margin as an option are almost always “of a certain age.” And I wonder what the Norton anthologies of two hundred years from now will look like – will poets have all moved back to the margin? Or will the idea of writing for two-dimensional surfaces have become obsolete? The possibilities are worth contemplating.



Monday, May 08, 2006

 

Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics is a stunning achievement. The attempt to put together any kind of representative collection of Bay Area poets is inevitably doomed at the outset. It simply isn’t physically possible. Even with the 110 poets contained in these 500 pages, there are more currently active, publishing poets in the roughly nine county region that makes up the metropolitan region who are not included here than poets who are. For example, not one of San Francisco’s recent poet laureates – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Janice Mirikitani, devorah major or Jack Hirschman – can be found in Bay Poetics.

To her great credit, Young tackles this problem head on in her (too) brief introduction:

[S]ome people are missing. Older poets who have kept (not necessarily pedagogical) contact with younger writers are represented to a greater measure than those who have not. Even a preliminary list of those not represented here would exceed the bounds of a paragraph – today I am thinking particularly of Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Bob Grenier, Etal Adnan, Alan Bernheimer. The same is true of my peers, so much so that I won’t even begin a list.

So we find Joanne Kyger & Larry Kearney here, but not Tom Clark, nor Maxine Chernoff or Paul Hoover or Michael Rothenberg or David Meltzer. We find Brenda Hillman, but not Bob Hass. Yedda Morrison, but not David Buuck. Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson & Laura Moriarty, but not David Bromige nor Michael Palmer. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Truong Tran, Alice Jones, D.A. Powell, Edward Smallfield & Rusty Morrison all are missing. So are Judy Grahn & Aaron Shurin. Renee Gladman is not here, nor is Norman Fischer, nor Gail Sher, nor for that matter Curtis Faville. And virtually the entire local School of Quietude is absent: Eavan Boland, Morton Marcus, Alan Soldofsky, Joyce Jenkins, Richard Silberg, Dennis Schmitz, Joe Stroud, Robert Sward, Chana Bloch, Rochelle Nameroff. But so are Jack Marshall, Julia Vinograd, Richard Denning, Sotère Torregian, Jack & Adele Foley, Scott Bentley, Ebbe Borregaard, Harold Dull, Nina Serrano, and the California State poet laureate, Palo Alto’s Al Young.

It is, literally, an impossible task.

And Stephanie Young has tackled it very well indeed. Her description of her method is quite straightforward:

I emailed poets with my idea of taking a picture. I started with my friends, and then the writers important to my friends. I followed lines of personal relationship because I was curious what formal or tonal connection might emerge between those who share their affection. I tried to include both the known and the unknown, pairings and groups whose interrelationships are wildly complicated. They are roommates, collaborators, classmates, teachers, co-publishers. Some are married to each other. Others have worked together in offices or in the Bay Area’s many writing programs. And yet, among all this entanglement, I’m sure there are contributors who never have met one another.

The term picture is an interesting one. At one level, Young sought to, in her words,

take a photograph. Who is here now, and what are they writing?

But it carries a second layer as well:

I asked for poems but also maps, essays, lists, short fiction, poetic statements, neighborhood or walking tour reports, reading reports, manifestos, letters, diagrams, blog excerpts: notes towards the local expression of poets living in the Bay Area.

For what it’s worth, there are hardly any visual elements to this very text-centric book. Someone who seems to have taken Young’s request literally, such as Dana Teen Lomax, is the exception, rather than the rule. Tho one hears echoes of the idea in a title like Keith Shein’s “Rumors of Buildings to Live in” or in Young’s own “Poem for Small Press Traffic’s 30th Anniversary Reading”:

It’s 1974, quick, you are
getting born, also Leonardo di Caprio
and Jewel. Floppy disk drives, People Magazine,
Dungeons & Dragons, Happy Days, internet
Institute of Physics Library, Super Pong, Chinatown, Sterling Bank
Kate Moss, supermodel! Nobody gets the Pulitzer
for fiction or drama but Robert Lowell does.
Anne Sexton dies on October 4.
Karen Silkwood dies on November 12.
Nixon resigns.
George W. Bush is discharged from
the US Air Force Reserve. They’re putting
carnations in their guns in
Portugal and bombs
go off in pubs,
Dublin, the Tower of London, 107 meters
underground,
India’s testing a Peaceful Nuclear Explosive.
It’s all happening now
Patty Hearst with a rifle in her hands
John Lennon is still alive
the oil embargo is over
Sonny and Cher are over
but the Talking Heads are getting together.
Japan is getting together.
The Grateful Dead unleash the wall of sound
the UN grants observer status to the PLO
Rover Thomas and the Krill Krill songs
UPC codes
it all started way back in 1974:
walking for exercise
pipeline construction
over 12 million donuts
the barrier
the project
King Crimson
Sears Tower
the Australian Forum for Textile Arts
my Queen collection
the International WONCA news
grass Oil for Men by Javan
the NewMath, where one must be
wary of empty formalism,
be, being, multiplactors.

It’s worth quoting this poem, if for no other reason, than because Young’s methodology of selection through a rhizomatic network of friends & acquaintances almost by definition has to find ground zero in her own poetry. This is a poem whose spirit is easily traced back to the notational pieces by Frank O’Hara in the 1950s (&, ultimately, to Dr. Williams back into the 1920s), but the exact, even encyclopedic use of popular references isn’t something O’Hara himself would have done – that’s a Ted Berrigan effect, carried forward here through research¹ – something Ted never did – since Young herself either wasn’t here or at least isn’t old enough to remember any of 1974, the year Barrett Watten & I shared a flat on Missouri Street on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill & I wrote Ketjak. So Young’s poem looks very traditional, tho in fact it’s a hybrid of multiple tendencies & influences, a poem that could not have been written in ’74. Today it seems very much at home in these pages.

I think it makes sense to think of this poem as the book’s gravitational point, because Bay Poetics is very much a text of what’s happening in San Francisco & environs in 2006, not 1996 or ’86 (or the era that is the focal point for SF’s poet laureate program, rooted firmly in the sixties & seventies). Because Young is herself one of poetry’s foremost bloggers, it’s not at all surprising to find many writers here who likewise have (or have had) blogs: Del Ray Cross, Rodney Koeneke, Patrick Durgin, Brent Cunningham, Cassie Lewis, Tonya Brolaski, David Larsen, Pamela Lu, Magdalena Zurawski, Geoffrey Dyer, Eileen Tabios, Joshua Clover, Logan Ryan Smith, James Meetze, Catherine Meng, kari edwards, Barbara Jane Reyes, Stephen Vincent, K. Silem Mohammad, Alli Warren & Chris Sullivan. An even larger group of folks are those who were active in the SF scene even before I headed east in ’95: Brenda Hillman, Leslie Scalapino, Keith Shein, Larry Kearney, Joanne Kyger, Stephen Ratcliffe, Bill Berkson, Elizabeth Treadwell, Susan Gevirtz, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Andrew Joron, Lyn Hejinian, Juliana Spahr, Bill Luoma, Kit Robinson, Travis Ortiz, Stacy Doris, Elizabeth Robinson, Avery Burns, Bob Glück, Camille Roy, Vincent, Nate Mackey & Kathleen Fraser. To this, add the people who have come & made a big bang with terrific work in recent years – Mary Burger, Taylor Brady, Catalina Cariaga, Chris Stroffolino or Garrett Caples, for example – and you have the heart of an impeccably solid presentation.

Some of my favorite pieces here come from some of the “older” poets, people whose work I’ve lost touch with & am terrifically glad to see it again, looking so strong. One good case in point is the selection by Keith Shein, a tennis pro who was teaching at Dominican College last I heard (tho that may be many years out of date), living in the northern reaches of Marin County. Here is the fourth poem from the sequence I mentioned previously, “Rumors of Buildings to Live In.” It’s the first of his pieces in Bay Poetics:

The first time the hand goes out it’s only a hand,
when it comes back it’s only empty,
but when the hand goes out again, it’s an animal, hunted,.
and when drawn back, it’s the hunter himself.
She beats the child because she fears for him
and he won’t cry.
He takes the blows lifelessly though he hears her pleading.
He thinks, soon she’ll tire, then it will be my turn, and I won’t beg.
The street follows everyone home, even the homeless,
into rooms when doors open, beats on doors when they stay locked.
The street never ends.
He keeps his hands in his pockets. Not for the cold
though it is cold, for the dark where they might sleep.

Because I’ve known Shein slightly over the years, I see in his choice of the serial poem the influence of Gilbert Sorrentino (just as, in Sorrentino, I see the hand of Spicer). Yet here there is something that feels a lot like the kind of surrealism one gets in watery versions in Charles Simic or Andrei Codrescu. The edge in Shein’s work here feels so much sharper. Here is 14:

The TV is the national book, without pages or end,
which won’t close when you’re tired,
that reads itself to you while you sleep.
The TV is your own story told to you, for you.
The dog that growls, that’s you when you’re a dog,
which is often this hour.
But now you’re the man the dog chases, snapping at your legs.
You run, but are your equal, just as fast.
Before you die there’s a commercial:
you are a care owner, dabbing perfume, drinking a beer.
You’re thirsty, quenched, screaming as your paws scratch
you down, you growl, your jaws open for your neck.
Now you’re the doctor sewing your wound.
”You’re lucky,” you say, “lucky to be alive.”
You thank him, yourself.

Bay Poetics is a big honking book of fine work by some of the best writers around. It also just happens to be a possible portrait of one of the United States’ two great literary communities. You need to own this book.

 

 

¹ Echoing just possibly Juliana Spahr & Jena Osman &, behind them, diverse sources that would include C.S. Giscombe, Peter Dale Scott, Charles Olson, Ezra Pound.



Sunday, May 07, 2006

 

For the second time in three years, a Chester County horse has won the Kentucky Derby.



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