Friday, September 15, 2006

 

 

Tonight in New York City, The Mad Hatter’s Review & Anything Goes Poetry Series at the KGB Bar, Samuel R. Delany, Debra Di Blasi & Ron Silliman. Starts promptly at 7:00 PM.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

 

For the second time in three years, Lisa Robertson has been the poet whose book has been mentioned most often in Steve Evans’ annual roundup of what is currently interesting to a roster of contemporary poets. Steve has been running this project, which he calls Attention Span, off & on, since 1998, and it’s not hard to compile from Steve’s list a multiyear roster of those whose books have been mentioned multiple times in any one year. What is so remarkable about Robertson’s repeated top showing – her book, The Men, shared the honors this year with Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat – is that it’s unusual for any writer to show up with multiple mentions more than once, period. Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture finished first also in 2004. In contrast, the book cited most often in 2003 was Rodrigo Toscano’s Platform. Toscano has never been cited more than once in a year since.

In spite of some methodological limitations, Evans’ annual list is a fascinating look into the dynamics of contemporary poetry. Ever since he expanded his list of invited contributors from maybe three dozen to something more like 50, he’s gotten back lists that routinely itemize between 374 and 480 items. In general, he asks his contributors to list up to 11 books – CDs and other items are also possible, but not very commonly mentioned – of what is currently interesting to the respondent. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily their favorite books, it could even be the most troubling, and Evans’ methodology may have a bit of the snapshot problem of catching audiences right when a lot of people have ponied up for the hot new book – would Evans get the same list three months before or after? Almost certainly not. So I wouldn’t necessarily conclude from these annual lists that Lisa Robertson is indubitably the most popular poet, even in Steve Evans friendship network, nor that Rodrigo Toscano was a one-hit wonder. But there is no question that when either publishes a new book, it generates a lot of interest right away.

Perhaps more than anything, what I see in these annual exercises is a sense of just how rich our contemporary poetry scene is – year after year, we see that the most interesting books, if we define interesting as “being of interest” to more than post-avant poet or critic, are different – there is an incredible, almost overwhelming diversity here. That I think is one of the great strengths of the current moment in poetry, but it’s also one of its great challenges as well. With 199 books mentioned more than once over the past four years, I can find only one poet who has been so listed in each of those years – Elizabeth Willis, who even had two books on the list in 2005. Robertson, Juliana Spahr and Lisa Jarnot have appeared three of the four years – further evidence that the old days of poetry as a boys’ club are long past.

Evans’ invitees tend to be skewed toward his own interests – no big surprise there – so that respondents are most often younger post-avants and what they’re reading. But one conclusion I would make from these responses is not only are the big trade houses really small presses with good binding, but that they aren’t particularly effective distributors of their own poetry. In the past four years, only one title by FSG – Jeff Clark’s Music and Suicide in 2004 – and one title by Knopf – Charles Mann’s 1491, cited twice this year – have ever received more than a single vote. Wesleyan University Press, by comparison, appeared eight times in the same period, Ugly Duckling ten times, UC Press seven times, Faux four times, Krupskaya seven times, Atelos five times, New Directions eight times, Subpress four times, and Edge five. Two larger independents closely associated with the trades – Graywolf and Copper Canyon – have each had just one book on the multiple mentions roster in the past four years. It may come as no surprise that presses like FSG and Knopf are spectacularly irrelevant to contemporary poetry, but it’s worth noting that younger post-avant poets would generally be more likely to reach receptive readers by going with certain university or small presses – the only effective trade press at all would seem to be New Directions.

I’ve noted these dynamics before. In the late 1940s, the U.S. had a population of rough 150 million people and saw in any given year the publication of roughly 8,000 book titles of all kinds. There were maybe 200 publishing poets in the U.S. The U.K. and Canada were distinctly different markets in those days. Today we have 300 million people in the U.S., and last year there some 174,000 different titles published (a drop, actually, of about 16,000 from the previous year), of which perhaps 4,000 were books of poetry. There are at least 10,000 publishing poets and the borders between markets have become fully permeable in the age of the internet, where the most influential online zine for American poetry is published by John Tranter in Australia. Finding an audience is a far more daunting proposition for a new poet, even if she or he gets a book published. Discerning any shape to the overall landscape may simply appear impossible. Indeed, I think one reason my post-avant/school of quietude distinction rankles many is (a) more and more young poets find themselves borrowing bits of influence from both and (b) it may seem like an argument waged most clearly in the 1950s, but overrun by the tsunami of emerging poets since then. In that reading, disaffiliation has trumped a lingering historic phenomenon. There is no doubt some truth in each of these arguments.

But even in such a cacophonous polyphony as that put forward by the absolute sum of today’s books, somebody like Lisa Robertson, a Canadian poet living these days in France, is able to reach a larger number of readers, not once, but twice, than any other writer. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment. And it suggests (once again) that this whole poetry scene is ripe material for a good anthropologist or sociologist. Especially as it transitions from the clubby coherence of a scene composed of a few hundred poets into a new century peopled by thousands.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

 

Stephanie Young has been having one helluva time lately. Not only is Bay Poetics almost certainly the best anthology of new poetry we have had in 20 years, but her own Telling the Future Off, published last year by the San Diego press Tougher Disguises, is itself a classic “break-through” book of poetry. This puts Young in a position with regards to verse right now not unlike the one Scarlett Johansson has toward film or Ryan Howard has toward baseball. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, from this point forward, Young is going to have be much tougher on herself, since she can no longer count on others to be reliable editors or critics. Since she is going to be able to publish anything that has her name attached to it, only Young can see to it that it’s the best possible work. The other good news is that, based on both of these books, she looks quite up to the task.

Trying to describe the poetry of Stephanie Young is not easy. If anything, Telling the Future Off reminded me of Larry Fagin’s desire to read without expectation since just because you’ve read one poem by Young, you can’t presume that you know what’s going to happen next. It’s not just that she exhibits range from poem to poem, but that she shows a lot of range within any given piece. Here for example is “Things I Learned Among the Waters of Oblivion”:

Among the forms of recognition
I chose the depressive’s headache
or heavy food & adolescence, loving you
as a doctor in the opera, i.e.
bring the energy back now
into your third parent.


The taste in the scene was coming from my mouth.
It was previously. Nothing ever went ‘all the way’ inside.
If I went there for one thing (apples)
I’d come away with another (pages)
or a buttonhole of what appeared:
all that youngsome fleshiness
subsumed within the higher education,
one snake devouring another snake
with a logo on their back of the tower
at 57th & International.

Hours later, think to yourself how it all appears
in the WRITERS NOTEBOOK,
& tearing your hair, with a great gnashing of teeth
why must we say slip and
among the forms of recognition?
Unless we are actually giving him the slip.

The man lodged in my middle section
always describes the girl out loud.
It the part I remember most bitterly:
hair up in a clip
here it comes
very pretty.

The ocean doesn’t care if it is August
then it is August. How we decided on
the tower’s make & then the radio
went up in strips of orange colored cloth
moving around in the air.
What about this DOESN’T strike you as a hobby?
The woman in the landscape
bares her chest as well. Or straps
fluorescent bulbs to her arms
and goes out fighting. All production
a magic production.
A line
through the forms of protest,
the civic duty of having great tits
and splendidly hard as rocks.
Poles for legs to demonstrate
what’s been done to the forest.

When only scale changes: roses around the mailbox,
my hand rendered with the same imprecision
attaching itself to the mail, a soft focus
to save us from being drawn
again and again into the tail of an event
we have seen depicted but cannot ourselves depict.

Young represents a kind of poetry not really possible when I was in my 20s, drawing as it does from language poetry & the New York School both, using multiple tones or something very close to discursive coloring in a way that is, at once, both painterly & politically conscious. There’s not a single source for what is going on here – you can trace a great little sequence of allusions to Jack Spicer, for example in this passage –

very pretty.

The ocean doesn’t care if it is August
then it is August. How we decided on
the tower’s make & then the radio

The first line echoes Spicer’s own quotation of the Peter, Paul & Mary hit, Lemon Tree, the first line of the next stanza from Spicer’s own,

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry.

From which Tougher Disguises takes its own name. The last line comes from Spicer’s theory of dictation & the idea that a poet is a little more than a radio, albeit a counterpunching one. Writing like this requires a fair amount of knowledge on the reader’s part to be intelligible, as does the segue in the next two lines to Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates project in Central Park. But do you need to know all, or any, of this? I think not. It is as easy to read, for example, “the tower / at 57th and International” as a generic reference to the uptown galleries in Manhattan as it is as the address of the Alameda County Computer Resource Center. Or, as Young writes in “The Age of the Mercenary,” the one longer (or serial) poem in the book, “

The usefulness of W.D. Snodgrass to this very poem
I anti-deny it

which, frankly, I seriously doubt. References like these function by invoking a level of specificity, but it’s the level, not the specific, that is the point.

If there is an ur-spirit behind this writing, it might be Ted Berrigan, a member of the New York School 2.0 who also taught a number of the language poets, at both Yale & Iowa City. While certainly Pound, Williams & Zukofsky all demonstrated how to incorporate multiple voices into their poetry (much as Apollinaire did in France), Berrigan’s stance toward the possible plasticity of tonal color is uniquely his contribution. In the introduction to his Collected Poems, Alice Notley writes

Ted’s poetry is remarkable for its range of tones of voice. He actively studied both “tone of voice” and “stance,” the range of attitudinal play in human discourse and the projection of character. Here Ted’s professed model was Frank O’Hara, but I often find Ted more mysterious and more intense in both tone and stance. Not having O’Hara’s education or “class,” Ted therefore couldn’t be as traditional. He couldn’t call on a tone of voice from another decade or century as if he owned it, even though he knew exactly what Whitmanesque or Johnsonian was. He had to reinvent it for himself, from his working-class background and University of Tulsa education and ceaseless self-education.

Like Louis Cabri, whose poetry I’ve written about before as an extension of Berriganian techniques into politically engaged poetics, Young both gets this & moves further down the line. She is not as overtly or conventionally “of the left” as is Cabri, but I wouldn’t call what I read here any less politically conscious than Louis’ work, even if more politically suspicious.

Young’s titles often sound like the captions in a kid’s book, or as a chapter title in a particularly episodic novel or film. “Today I Pull the Curtain on My Unseen Audience,” is the title of the piece the directly follows “Waters of Oblivion,” and before you’ve gotten into the body of the text, already an echo, this time of a transformed Wizard of Oz, is at play:

back you go
through the low nineties of radio

lower than miscellaneous
for quick review

low girls
in a low car

bouncing the horizon
or spanning time

you can smell
with your forehead

in the room of perpetual action
and I bright blue

I as blue as blue looks
but never was.

Blue as a piano truck
of anecdotal evidence.


Evidenced in parts. Tired,
hateful saying of things

you should be too, of looking.
”if he was going to marry anyone”

in a falsified appearance
of the word niggling

where there was none
Sally in my arms

moved
and talked of mom

to leaving the window open
with moms in evening view

reminder: moms: consumption
a fine rot across the upper arms

so the mom can come in and out

This is a radically different poem, even type of poem (one senses the possibility of flarf here, tho flarf, as ever, is difficult to prove) from the other. It’s a poem that appears to start in the middle & end there also (albeit the latter suggests a joke, comparing mom with a cat) and where individual passages have almost the integrity (and malleability) of clouds in a spring sky – the low passage, the blue one, the v sounds that appear to invoke mom, the truncated sentence about parts. Young is no less agile in her moves here than in the previous piece, but the end result is of a whole other order.

Is Telling the Future Off a master-work? Not yet, tho it’s temptingly close. As I’ve written here before more than once, I respond positively to ambition, especially intellectual or aesthetic ambition & Young makes me think of a great juggler who is already handling butcher knives & flaming torches & has decided to add tigers to the mix she is going to keep in the air all at once. It’s thrilling to watch her try, and it makes me hungry to read what she does next.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

 

Maybe from down in Tribeca or Battery Park it looked majestic, but from midtown Manhattan, where I found myself on business yesterday, the two shining beams of light rising up from Ground Zero seemed tepid, reminding me that, outside of Tokyo perhaps, Manhattan is the number one source of light pollution in the night sky. A more visible reminder that yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the attacks was the presence of every off-duty fireman in the New York region, all in uniform (sort of, a lot of the jackets & shirts were literally falling off) wandering in & out of the bars. Seeing that many snockered firemen was surreal. I turned on the news on the fancy flatscreen TV in my room at the Westin Times Square, but watching Bush & Rumsfield & Cheney & Tom Ridge work their respective crowds so cravenly sickened me, so I shut it off. I couldn’t even turn the sound off & just appreciate how the letterbox presentation stretched all of their features just a little.

I hate being right, sometimes. I got into all kinds of trouble in the fall of ’01 when I noted on a listserv that I thought a war with, or for, Afghanistan was inevitably the consequence of U.S. soil having been attacked. I couldn’t think of any president in history who would have responded otherwise. The populace would have torn an incumbent limb from limb who didn’t do exactly that. But I also wrote that being led into war by the worst president in American history, not only the least competent, but the most shallow, dishonest & malevolent as well, was not the prescription for a happy outcome. Boy, was that an understatement! Not only have the Taliban resprouted like a perennial that just lay fallow in the soil through a winter because we failed to follow through with the nation-building basics – roads, schools, electricity, hospitals, economic alternatives to harvesting opium, etc, etc, etc – that remain a prerequisite for success in even the most narrow, reactionary terms. But, to go further, we’ve positively rewarded al-Qaeda by giving them a huge bonus called Iraq, complete with its own failed state. As a result we have given them resources (in Iraq, al-Qaeda controls everything west of Baghdad), intensive training, and a means for motivating every disaffected young Muslim in the world. And we tossed in uncritical cheerleading for Israel’s insane adventure in Lebanon because there wasn’t enough salt in that wound already.

Even if one imagined that the neocon fantasy of a democratic Iraq would transform the Middle East, there is no way to accomplish this and ravage the public trust at home by continuing to transfer wealth in our society to the superrich. Bush lost Iraq – irrevocably – because he was never really committed to winning it. The problem for his successor, regardless of their party, is that al-Qaeda really is going to benefit enormously from having an even bigger, potentially wealthier (all that oil!) failed state to call its own, regardless of what jerry-rigged parliament is put in place. Which means that the world will be a nastier, more brutish place. And I don’t expect the next president, again regardless of party, to do much to improve the current assault on civil liberties. Presidents in war time want to get their hands on every lever of control they can conceive of – it was Lincoln who suspended habeas corpus, after all; Roosevelt who authorized the work on the atomic bomb.

I first heard someone say with certainty that they thought the two main opponents in the next world war would be the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists in 1989. The speaker was an anthropologist who served on the flood control commission of what was then called Leningrad. Islamic fundamentalists had, after all, defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. Defeating the other superpower didn’t seem such a challenging prospect from that point of view. His point was that I should see the collapse of the Soviet system as a (partial) consequence of that defeat. I’m still not sure that I'd go that far, but the rest of his prediction has been true enough. An enemy that doesn’t believe in a state is like capturing mercury with chopsticks. I know only this – Iraq will continue to be a source of trouble because we made it so. Worse yet, there is no way we can be part of the solution. All we can do is to stop pouring gasoline on that fire.

So the empire has dug itself a hole over these last five years. One from which it just might not be able to climb out. Especially with an infrastructure in such decay & global warming moving well beyond the point of no return. The 21st century is going to be one hell of a ride, but I don’t think you’re going to be able to call it the American Century – we had ours & now we’ve squandered it.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

 

I began reading Fanny Howe’s On the Ground in the summer of 2004 when the family decamped for a couple of weeks to the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. I read it off & on, often rereading the same poems – there are only ten in the entire book – repeatedly. Finally I finished it – or perhaps it finished with me – when I was in Delaware two weeks ago. It’s a wonderful, profound, wrenching experience, Howe at her very best. I think you could read this book in a sitting, but I actually prefer my way of going about it. Howe is one of those intense writers – an intense individual, actually, and it comes through in her writing – and what appears simple enough on the page, such as this first page of my favorite poem here, “Kneeling Bus” –

My church the bus
is padded with shadows

Wing-colors in winter
Sky like fractured smoke

So many corpses
to cope with
The white sheets
Infirmities bandaged

Wool-capped heads
and wheelchairs
in the back of the M11
February 2003.

A billiards bar
where a forest was
a nocturnal factory

past the Petrossian
restaurant building
snow white stone work

A mitten is pressed
by a nanny at 67th and
Columbus.

– is anything but. Howe writes with a compression here that I associate with a poet like, say, Rae Armantrout – but does so for 21 pages. The inherent torque of Howe’s own writing – you can sense its depth best when suddenly a detail does away with it, such as the line that just states the month & year – is even greater coming at the very end of a book of poems each of which, as this does, deals in some fashion with the horrors of September 11th 2001.

There is an implication in the title, one of its many connotations, that a bus enabled to carry the disabled is somehow involved with prayer, and if we didn’t get that from the boldfaced type above the body of the poem, its first line underscores the analogy. But what follows is the furthest thing from a depiction of the bus as Christian architecture. Indeed, the first four stanzas are powerful in the way that a painting by Brueghel or Bosch is powerful, evoking the walking (or not walking) wounded, with echoes that some minds would associate with the Manhattan skyline when the towers collapsed. Howe doesn’t need to say it, nor does it even have to be a major connotation anywhere but in the phrase “Sky like fractured smoke.” But that line doesn’t have to be/mean that at all – and it’s in the precision with which Howe sets up that ambiguity I find myself most awestruck with Howe’s craft. Similarly, it’s not just Howe’s capacity to see the long-devastated forest where now stands a billiards bar or nocturnal factory, but the very proximity of same to something as elegant as “the Petrossian / restaurant building.” Note the one-syllable words in the last line of that stanza – the three adjectives might as well be nouns the way they are placed there. Thus in two stanzas we have present, past, and the two great extremes of life in Manhattan all carefully contrasted & present, the lone verb in a dependent clause, so that we can sense the stillness in this image, a quietness I don’t frankly associate with Manhattan save perhaps as it shows up in the paintings of Edward Hopper or photographs of Rudy Burkhardt.

That last couplet is especially ambiguous – is this a sight from the bus? – and leads to a second-level mystery: does this section end here or on the next page? There are many sections of this poem that continue maybe only halfway down the page before stopping, the next section taking up on the following page. There pages with section breaks equivalent to five lines of type and yet others where page after page runs fully to the bottom, so that you read them as a continuous sequence. My first impulse here is to note that the stanzas all appear in pairs – two of two lines, two of four, two of three, etc. – which suggests, since the first stanza on the next page also has two lines, that the poem continues without a break. Yet after that first stanza comes one of just one line, followed by three couplets, then a slightly larger stanza break before a single last line. Yet if I use the evidence from later in this poem (or, for that matter, from earlier in the book), I conclude that the text on the first page did not run all the way to the bottom, merely 85 percent of the way there or thereabouts. Again it’s an ambiguity that hinges on balance – I’m convinced, frankly, that Howe wants it both ways. Here is the next page:

Twins of anything are frightening
They ask for it

Morning white night

A fistful of snow or crack cocaine
Two buses sigh into a single stop

One driver unzips the door
and lowers the lift outside

Artificial light is staring
at two eyes weeping inside the bus



You see, parts don’t add up when love is missing.

That first line doesn’t have to be about the towers of the World Trade Center. And yet you know at some level it is. Again the image of whiteness – the palette of this poem is carefully monochromatic. And again the absolute contrast between impossible conditions: Morning and night. Also again – this is something of a characteristic strategy of Howe’s poetry, starting off with something bordering on the opaque only to introduce a stanza or two sufficiently literal as to ground the text overall. This is followed by a stanza that sounds literal enough, but which – because of the emotion evoked and the way in which Howe refuses to position those eyes (whose are they?) – operates almost entirely on an allegorical level. Then, after the break, a summation stated almost matter-of-factly, but introducing weighted terms – love, missing – that haven’t been introduced at all previously. I experience this last line not unlike a kick in the stomach.

Going back & forth, reading & rereading just two pages like this can easily, for me, constitute the whole of a day’s reading. It’s one of the reasons that I’m such a slow reader, I’m certain, this sense that I have to immerse myself in a text if, as this one does, it feels overpowering or at the least overwhelming. This is less than one-tenth of “Kneeling Bus,” which itself is just one of the ten poems here, albeit the longest one.

I think of Howe as a Boston poet, even when she’s living in England or California, but On the Ground is indisputably a New York book, a profound meditation on the events that happened there five years ago today. With Michael Gottlieb’s Lost and Found and James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage¹, On the Ground is one of the great literary works related to that day. Yet if Sherry’s tone was that of a warning & Gottlieb’s elegiac, Howe has moved to yet a further voice, one that mixes compassion with elements of wonder & grief. Indeed a key poem, the one immediately preceding “Kneeling Bus,” is entitled “Medjugorje,” after the small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina where, in 1981, at the height of their troubles, six villagers beheld a vision of the Virgin Mary. In Howe’s version, the parentage of Jesus & Mary is reversed. And we meet Yogananda. This is, in short, a book about New York in the age of globalization, as well as both before & after. A book in which Satan appears without irony & without the ideological frame given both by Bush & Bin Laden. It’s wonderful, simple, terrible, and unfathomably complex. And if you read this book in anything less than two years, you’re merely skimming.

 

¹ Published by Sun & Moon in 19-freaking-91 and an act of prophesy that turns out in retrospect to have been painfully on target. One fears that Sherry’s massive (unpublished & perhaps unfinished) apocalyptic ecological text, Sorry, will share the same fate.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

 

This Friday, September 15, in New York City, The Mad Hatter’s Review & Anything Goes Poetry Series at the KGB Bar, Samuel R. Delany, Debra Di Blasi & Ron Silliman. Starts promptly at 7:00 PM.

§

The following Tuesday, September 19, in Philadelphia, Inverse Poetry Series at the Bubble House, 3404 Sansome Street, Eileen Tabios & Ron Silliman;musical guest Craig Bickhardt. Starts promptly at 7:30 PM and seating is limited, so come early.

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