Saturday, May 20, 2006

 

Pam Rosenthal / Molly Weatherford

 

Thanks only partly to the New York Times Book Review, people have lists on their minds. Beth Quittman, whose blog is called Book of the Day, is building an alternative “top 25 list” of recent American fiction. You can submit your lists to her via email or in the comments section to her blog. Ted Pelton has compiled a list of 113 plausible alternatives to the Philip Roth-centric Times list.

Meanwhile, Pam Rosenthal writes to note that Molly Weatherford (Pam’s porn pseudonym) has her first novel, Carrie’s Story, on Playboy’s list of the “25 Sexiest Novels Every Written,” situated at number 12 right between Lolita & Fear of Flying. Harry Matthews’ Singular Pleasures is also included on a roster that contains everything from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye to Peyton Place. Pam notes that

The new notoriety thus far not reflected in Amazon sales. Feel free to fulminate on the ridiculousness of the list – in fact, I'm hoping somebody fumes and fulminates loudly and publicly; it's not really a book best-of list unless it meets with shrieks of contempt and hoots of derision.

We note that a list of the 25 sexiest novels ever written that includes not one by Kathy Acker does indeed deserve “shrieks of contempt and hoots of derision.” No Dodie Bellamy? No Dennis Cooper? No John Rechy or Hubert Selby, Jr.? No William Burroughs? No Samuel R. Delany? But to get instead Harold Robbins, Erica Jong, Grace Metalious, and Norman Mailer at his very worst? Heff must have worked on this list personally – it certainly has that octogenarian touch. How Weatherford & Matthews managed to make it onto this list is an utter mystery.



Friday, May 19, 2006

 

 

 

Gilbert Sorrentino

1927-2006

 



 

On Wednesday, Andrew Schelling noted the importance of the Christmas broadsides that Moe’s Books published during his days (1982-90) working in the store. This is one tradition that may continue to this day, although Andrew also noted the poetry reading series Owen Hill has started in the store, which has grown in a relatively short time into being one of the two major reading series in the East Bay (the other being the 21 Grand series in downtown Oakland).

Broadsides, chapbooks, memorable reading posters are indeed all excellent re-enforcers of any marketing effort to get readers to grasp your commitment both to poetry and to quality. In recent years, quite a few reading series – and at least two different talk series that I can think off – have begun to add some kind of material companion to the event itself. I’ve had several wonderful broadsides done for readings that I’ve given over the years. One – a letterpress version of Albany done by Chax Press for a reading at Woodland Pattern in April of 1989 – has been framed and up in various prominent positions around our house for the past 17 years. MultiPlex was published by Wild Honey Press of Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland for a reading that Karen Mac Cormack and I did at Stanford University, at least 6,000 miles away.

Commemorative materials need not represent the high end of fine press printing, as both of those projects do, to show ambition & have an impact. One of the most impressive programs of such reading-related work in the U.S. belongs to the Belladonna reading series in New York, whose pamphlet series is rapidly approaching its 100th volume. The one I have in front of me today, Fetch, containing the latest work of Rae Armantrout, is number 92.

Fetch contains six poems, nine pages of actual work – right within the range of six to twenty pages favored by the Belladonna series. Here is the title poem:

    1

Was it a flaming mouse
that burned Mares' house down
or was it just the wind?

On Tuesday Mares and his nephew
stood by the original version.

Is this plausible?

Fire Chief Chavez said Tuesday
that he thought so.


     2

Let's see

your itty-
bitten specificity
fetish,

your mom's phantasmic
what's-it

held conspicuously
under threat.

Day hoists its mesh
of near
approximations,

(its bright
skein of pores.)

Eyes fetch thrown
shadows

Readers of this blog will know already that Armantrout is one of my half dozen favorite poets of all time & this poem is full of evidence as to just why this should be so. The first section is descriptive with that clean, hard edge one associates with the likes of Williams & Oppen at their very best, tho what is here depicted might as easily be the plot for an episode of the X-Files. The image of the flaming mouse is hard to shake once you’ve read it & impossible to see as just setting up that internal rhyme of the second line. The poem’s second section has the familiarity of a New York School program – even that favored pronoun, you – but said here with a tone that is far closer to the deep sarcasm of a Spicer. The shift to bitten where the reader anticipates bitty in the second stanza is critical to the edge in that sneer – the use of the internal t, always preceded by a schwa, then alternately followed by long e, short e, long e, short i sounds in that stanza is as amazing a sound sequence as I can think of in any poem since Zukofsky – you’ll hear the internal t echo again in phantasmic before spiraling outward into what’s-it & threat, which in turn sets up the vowel-rhyme of mesh, etc. The whole second section seems calculated to turn the three one-syllable words of the next-to-last line into the sharpest possible individuation, accentuating the contrast with that last word shadows. That is as good a poem as I’m apt to read all year.

Fetch was released last week, when Armantrout read in the Belladonna series with Laynie Brown and Marjorie Welish, both of whom also have new chapbooks out in this series (tho I’ve seen neither). Overall, the Belladonna series is, and has been, a who’s-who of post-avant women poets: Fanny Howe, Eleni Sikelianos, Kathleen Fraser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Norma Cole, Carla Harryman, Tina Darragh, Chris Tysh, Jennifer Moxley, Alice Notely, Eileen Myles, Lydia Davis, Elaine Equi, Maggie Nelson, Summi Kaipa, Anne Tardos, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Leslie Scalapino, Nada Gordon, Catherine Daly – the list just goes on and on. It’s not an accident that American poetry in my lifetime has made the transition from being a male dominated art form (think of the Allen anthology in 1960, with just four women among its 44 contributors) to one in which women hold up more than half of the sky (think of the new Bay Poetics anthology, 59 of whose 110 poets are women). A series like the Belladonna has been both instigator and beneficiary of this transformation. Its chapbooks are small editions – there are just 126 copies of Fetch – and yet 74 of its first 93 books remain available.

It’s also been an excellent week for Armantrout overall, who became, I do believe, the first contributor to In the American Tree to have a poem in the New Yorker, of all places. I take that as a sign, not unlike the fact that my district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly two to one, just elected its first Democrat to the Pennsylvania State Senate in over a century. Spring really has arrived.



Thursday, May 18, 2006

 

New Directions founder James Laughlin in his office, 1941

 

One day later, I got a second note from Andrew Schelling, which, in addition to giving me permission to run the first email here on the blog, included this meditation on the history of New Directions.

I went into a sidetrack this morning and thought further about New Directions. Their almost single-handed support of the Pound-Williams-HD lineage (I don't know what else to call it) & New Americans ended in the crucial years from 1968-1975. I don't know the details (is Bill Corbett still working on his ND history?) but they let go a number of writers in the early seventies. 

Last titles ND published by these poets:

Duncan 1968, when he calls moratorium on publishing.

Pound's Drafts & Fragments 1968.

(Williams and HD are dead by now, also Patchen, & Pound in '72)

Everson 1968.

Rakosi 1971.

Snyder 1974.

Oppen 1975.

You could also say that Levertov begins to represent something quite different after the mid-seventies, and is decreasingly read by experimental poets. Black Sparrow picks up some of the ND cast-offs: Everson, Rakosi, Oppen.

1968-75 seems a turning point in history & emergence of a recognizable new generation of writers. It takes ND twenty years to see how things have changed. So after a gap of two decades ND resumes with D. Hinton's translations ('89), E. Weinberger, B. Mayer, S. Howe ('90), M. Palmer ('95).

One could go deeper into the opportunities New Directions has missed over the years – the one has always boggled me is the failure to bring out Spring & All as a separate volume, perfect for students to carry around in their pockets – it would still be the single best book of poetics ever published (also the single best book of poetry). That’s not only failing in your commitment to authors and readers, it’s leaving serious money on the table.

The one poet who seems clearly to run counter to this history is Robert Creeley, whom New Directions began to publish in 1978, with Hello, a relationship it has continued to this day.



Wednesday, May 17, 2006

 

My comments regarding the forthcoming closing of Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue brought me several responses, including this wonderful note from Andrew Schelling.

Dear Ron,

Thanks for the news about Cody's closing. And for the good, & very true comment that Telegraph Ave. is (or maybe was) the best book-buying block in the universe. I'd extend the span just a bit to get University Press Books & the bookshop at the BAM in as well.

Moe's continues to have a terrific selection of poetry. When I worked there with Michael Malcolm, it was I who worked the transformation in poetry. Michael was really the guy on the third floor, devoted to Eastern Religions. He and I both had worked at Shambhala Books next door, in the seventies. Now that Shambhala has had to close – same reasons as Cody's – Phillip Barry who owned Shambhala for the last ten years or so of its existence carries on the Eastern section at Moe's.

I think the reason the USED poetry selection got so good was that by developing a smart, well stocked NEW selection we proved a commitment to poetry. This brought many poets (& students &c.) in, who swapped their good titles. The used selection can only be as good as the intelligence of the bookstore's customers.

It was fairly easy to develop the poetry section. I should also note that its location in the store was what in terms of marketing psychology is a choice spot – in other hands it would have been dominated by crappy bestsellers. Dead center on the first floor, where everyone who walks in the door drifts. Another way of putting it is that you can't help walking direct to the poetry section. By contrast, in Cody's if you don't know where the section is you'll probably need to ask a worker to point the way.

When I got to Moe's, 1982, it had the familiar hopeless little shelf of new titles. Here's the formula I used, good in the eighties & probably instructive for booksellers still:

New Directions first of all. You keep in stock all titles by the poets. Bookstores fail by thinking one Pound title, one of Williams enough. But you stock everything by: Pound, Williams, HD, Rexroth, Oppen, Creeley, Levertov, Snyder, Duncan, Everson, Rothenberg, Paz, Weinberger's essays, Hinton's Chinese translations, Rakosi, McClure, Ferlinghetti & Patchen. Simply by doing this you bring serious readers of poetry in. You have covered the widest swathe possible of ca. 1913-1972 or thereabouts. Plus by late eighties ND cautiously added S. Howe, Palmer, B. Mayer, and a few others.

Book People then gave you Black Sparrow, so you add: Reznikoff, Rakosi, Dorn, Bukowski, Wakoski, Eshleman, Blackburn, Kelly... and so forth. From Bookpeople you also got North Point (Palmer, Scalapino, R. Johnson, W. Berry).

Consortium in those days handled Copper Canyon, Greywolf, and a bunch of other presses. This was about the only necessary distributor for what you now call SoQ.

A trip every two weeks to SPD (which carried Sun & Moon as well as most City Lights poetry titles) and you had virtually everything else you could want: Roof, Tuumba, This, Potes & Poets, & 400 more. From them also journals: Sulfur, Temblor, Hills, Poetics Journal, ACTS.

In the eighties this was all you needed to bring poets into the store every time they walked past.

The other important touch was the free Christmas season broadsides, so on my watch you could get (printed by Wesley Tanner, most of them) Duncan, Whalen, Niedecker, Oppen, Rexroth, Alice Walker, Pat Reed, Palmer (worth noting the generosity here of New Directions which never asked any money).

To create this kind of friendliness for good poetry required two things. The first is easy: an enthusiast or poet on the staff. The other is rarer: an owner, Moe Moskowitz, who trusted & loved his employees, respected their interests, paid them well, gave them free reign, & cared for the interests of his customers, his city, and its citizens.

When I left in 1990 Owen Hill took over the poetry. Our tastes vary at points, which is as it should be. He has continued to respect my understanding of poetry – leaving the basic feel of the selection much as it was when I was there – augmenting it with his own intelligence. He has added a regular reading series for poetry in the small press world.

I have seen only one or two selections of poetry that rivals Moe's in over twenty years. Most bookstores are hopeless in their poetry offerings.

People outside the book world may think Cody's closure is good news for Moe's. It is not. People came from all over the world to that stretch of Telegraph Ave. because of the rich selection of books. Every lost bookstore is the loss of essential richness. I hope the citizens of Berkeley, and readers of poetry, recognize how important it is to support Moe's. An honorable person will buy a book every time he or she walks past.

Hope this is of interest to you!



Tuesday, May 16, 2006

 

I’m intrigued by the fact that Allen Ginsberg’s interest in what he identifies rightly as the gap of meaning that can open up between words occurs, at least partly, as a result of his interest in Cézanne, a fascination Ginsberg dates to 1949 & which certainly lasted with him through the composition of Howl in 1955. At the very same time – and in the very same town – as college student Allen Ginsberg was looking to impressionism for a means of breaking through in his writing, painters were instead discarding the referential folderol of depiction in favor of a more direct looking at the world, one in which what one sees on a canvas is paint. The disjunct between the two practices reminds me very much of a response that Ginsberg once gave to an interviewer who was trying to provoke him into saying something dismissive about language poetry. “One generation points at the moon,” Ginsberg replied, or words approximately to that effect, “The next generation notices that they’re pointing.” In fact, Ginsberg’s comments quoted here yesterday, and the gist of that long reply to Tom Clark in the Paris Review interview back in 1966 shows Ginsberg himself very much noticing that he’s pointing, very consciously tearing that process apart & “reconstituting” it, as Ginsberg quotes Cézanne saying, in Howl.

Today, we understand a phrase such as “hydrogen jukebox” very much in the light of Mark Turner’s theory of cognitive blending, a standard process of conceptual integration. In the diagram below,

hydrogen represents the first input, jukebox the second. The process is no different whether the phrase is hydrogen jukebox or green tree or, for that matter, green furiously. What Ginsberg is interested in here – and associates with Cézanne, Shakespeare & Blake (all of whom he mentions in this regard in the Paris Review interview) – is the point at which the domains of the two inputs are sufficiently dissimilar as to set up what he calls a “gap between the two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence.”

That “sensation of existence” sounds to my ear one hell of a lot like what you hear when you listen to John Cage’s notorious 4’33” – whether it’s literally the sounds of the local environment plus the constant two rhythms of one’s own body (the low pulse of the blood, the high whine of synapses firing in the brain), or whatever. What Ginsberg is trying to do is to get through whatever blocks this perception, so that one sees completely the world as it really is, without entanglements, without even history or knowledge. Ditto Cage.

To get you to see this, Ginsberg attempts to get you not only to see with language, but understand where it ends & the referential world beyond begins. Thus Howl is filled with such phrases as negro streets, angry fix or starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But this widening of the gaps – and understanding, at least intuitively, the right cognitive schema to juxtapose against one another – isn’t the only mechanism Ginsberg uses to make this palpable to the reader. Take for example the larger segment of

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz

the use of the word poverty at the start of the second line deliberately tilts the syntax away from grammaticality – impoverished and in tatters – showing us the schema, rather than the normative application of it. It’s an instance where the pointing at the moon & the process of pointing are allowed each to become visible. And it’s infinitely more powerful, more real even, than the same phrase would be in standardized grammar. Indeed, a secondary effect is to mimic a speaker so excited as to be stumbling over words as he tries to convey his message – a definite feature of Howl & something that differentiates it from almost all prior American poetry.

Ginsberg is so often treated as the hippy guru, part wise man, part clown, that we tend to forget just what a meticulous craftsman he was, how deeply schooled in classic verse – I once saw him teach a class on Herrick at Naropa – and how conscious he was of everything he was doing. It’s no accident that on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Howl, newspapers across the nation have taken notice of the impact of this simple little book. For many Americans, unaware of how deeply poetry had changed over the previous century, Howl was a wake up call, showing them what a contemporary verse might be.



Monday, May 15, 2006

 

A device that is often associated with language poetry – and with surrealism – the conjoining of words from dissonant discursive schema is something that shows up as well in the work of Allen Ginsberg, right from the beginning. The phrase “hydrogen jukebox,” from the 15th line of the first section of Howl is a case in point. The line itself reads:

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

The phrase has been used for everything from Peter Schjeldahl’s selected art writings to an opera by Philip Glass that incorporates many of Ginsberg’s writings as its libretto. The phrase has its own page on Wikipedia. It’s the name of a rock band in Philly, a poetry series in the U.K., and who knows what else. Given the phrases that use aspects of this same device even in that one line of Ginsberg’s – submarine light, desolate Fugazzi’s – this particular pairing of words has taken on a life of its own quite beyond the initial impulse of its creator.

In his Paris Review interview – conducted by Tom Clark fresh out of the University of Michigan & living for the time in the U.K.¹ – Ginsberg traces the roots of this device in his work not back to the surrealists, but to an interest in Cézanne. It’s a remarkable interview for many reasons, one of them being that Clark asks very simple, straightforward questions & Ginsberg goes on endlessly in response. At one point, Clark tries to ask a simple follow-up question only to be told that Ginsberg hasn’t finished answering the previous question which then goes on for two more pages..

What actually triggers the discussion is a question – Clark doesn’t even get the chance to pose it fully before Ginsberg is off & running – about the idea of petite sensations of experience in Cézanne’s work and a comment Ginsberg had made elsewhere about its relevance to his own poetry. He explains at great length (five pages in fact) not only his interest in the great impressionist’s experiments with recreating optical phenomenology on a two dimensional canvas, but the precise sequence of revelations – which passage in which book, where he saw certain watercolors, going to Aix to stand where Cézanne stood to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire. Of particular interest to Ginsberg is how Cézanne creates the impression of space without the use of lines to bind or divide objects.

The last part of “Howl” was really an homage to … Cézanne’s method, in a sense I adapted what I could to writing…. [J]ust as Cézanne doesn’t use perspective lines to create space, but it’s a juxtaposition of one color against another color (that’s one element of his space), so, I had the idea, perhaps overrefined, that by the … juxtaposition of one word against another, a gap between the two words – like the space gap in the canvas – there’d be a gap between the two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence….

I was trying to do similar things with juxtapositions like “hydrogen jukebox.”

This makes great sense, at least from a certain angle, and should serve as a reminder of just how much someone like Clark Coolidge actually was able to get from Ginsberg, that the origin of Coolidge’s practice – which Robert Sward once infamously characterized as “psychedelic word salad” – was not derived entirely from Dada or surrealism. This question of a gap, of course, takes on new dimensions with language poetry – primarily through the extension of this use of disparate juxtapositions & between statements in the “new sentence.” It is precisely the cognitive dissonance between the schema hydrogen (science, bomb, technology, etc.) and jukebox (style, youth culture, music, sexuality) that Ginsberg is ultimately writing. Underneath is the implication – I’m not even sure that Ginsberg himself sees this – that these two phenomena are expressions not of two realms that have nothing to do with one another, but of a third common schema of which each is but an part, that the youth culture of the jukebox is predicated upon the power of the hydrogen atom. Ginsberg is writing in 1956 what will become explicit in the work of social theorists like Herbert Marcuse & others a decade later.

 

¹ Still going at that point, 1966, by his University of Michigan name of Thomas Clark, but not to be confused with the great British neo-Objectivist, Thomas A. Clark.



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