Friday, September 29, 2006

 

The Sony Reader
will start out
October 1st
offering 10,000 ebooks,
all from the Gang of Six

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A poet from Kurdistan

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Blogspot
is routinely blocked
in some parts of the world
(The People’s Republic of China,
 
India, Pakistan)
but people there
can find Silliman’s Blog
here

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Naropa’s
Study Abroad program
in the Bowery

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Michael Bérubé
culture war profiteer?

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Shin Yu Pai & Daisy Fried
are two reasons
to attend
the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
this weekend.

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Amazon’s new plan:
sell video downloads
& gain the “right”
to monitor & modify
customer PCs

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Beating film critics

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A poet laureate
for children
& they missed
Maurice Sendak??

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What goes up stays up:
Chomsky’s
Hegemony or Survival
goes thru two
additional printings

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The NEA’s Poetry Pavilion
at the National Book Festival
will include
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
of
Oklahoma?

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Robert Frost’s
new
flurry bird of war

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

 

Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is further west from Philadelphia than New York is to its north. Home to Dickinson College & the one-time site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School – where Marianne Moore taught from 1909 until 1915, back in the days when Jim Thorpe was the big man on that campus & his football coach was Pop Warner himself, Carlisle is not necessarily where you’d expect the best big poetry event of the fall to occur. But there you have it. On Saturday, the Flarf & Dusie collectives will kick out the jams big time at Dickinson College.

Reading from the Flarf gang will be Jordan Davis, Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Michael Magee, Sharon Mesmer, Rod Smith, and Gary Sullivan. Dusie’s doozies will include Mackenzie Carignan, Scott Glassman, Mark Lamoureux, Marci Nelligan, Boyd Spahr, and Dana Ward. Drew Gardner will do something I don’t understand with Alarm Will Sound, a musical group at Farleigh Dickinson & Joey Bargsten will have multimedia works on display. Brandon Downing will show a film.

This event starts at 7:30 PM in the Rubendall Recital Hall at the Weiss Center for the Arts on High Street. That’s it in the photo above. This event is free.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

 

What if, instead of a jazz combo, Kenneth Rexroth had sat in the 1940s with a mandolin player instead? That’s a thought I sometimes have, and one that returned to me the other night when I finally watched a DVD of a performance by Minton Sparks entitled Open Casket. Minton Sparks is a poet who is really more of a story teller than anything else – her shows look like a cross between a standup comedy routine & that of a country singer – she has a touch of Minnie Pearl in her backwoods persona, even if Sparks’ occasional rhymes remind you more of Elizabeth Bishop. She’s played the Bowery Poetry Club, and opened at the Bowery Ballroom for Ben Folds, and Sparks’ has gotten more than a little attention for her work, given that she’s never published a book and had relatively few things in actual print. A Grammy nomination for one thing, as well as a “Spoken Word Record of the Year” award for This Dress, her second of three CDs. She’s collaborated on these CDs with everyone from Waylon Jennings to Keb’ Mo’. But tho she’s taught in high schools & prisons in Tennessee, this adjunct psych professor from Vanderbilt largely has built a career by making her poetry – which is the absolute center of her craft – more or less invisible to her audience. It’s an intriguing proposition.

Open Casket is a series of 16 short works all told as little stand-up monologs with musical accompaniment – it ranges from mandolin to accordion & keyboards – organized around the idea of describing who might have come to a relative’s funeral. Each work tends to be the portrait of one or another wayward & idiosyncratic soul – the most significant exception is one of three pieces in the “Deleted Scenes” portion of the CD, where Sparks has tucked some of her best work, apparently out of the fear that the material might prove offensive to, say, PBS audiences in the Deep South, which is where this DVD seems targeted.

On the page this would look a lot like Spoon River Anthology, albeit a bawdier version with more rhyme than was used by Edgar Lee Masters. But on the stage is where this work is really aimed, and where Sparks herself reigns with the ease of a veteran of standup comedy competitions. She uses props – that purse in the photo above deserves a supporting actor’s nomination – and is an effective square dancer when the occasion calls for it. But these really aren’t comedy routines & Sparks seriously wants you to hear the rhyme when it occurs, luxuriate in the language because that’s what language is for, & you feel certain there’s not one of syllable of improvisation on the disk. Sparks goes beyond the sort of memorized presentation one expects from, say, Jane Miller (or a Russian poet like Ivan Zhdanov, for that matter). It’s a routine, the musicians actually have music sheets, nothing is left to chance.

Is Sparks a great writer? Hardly. But she’s not that far from being a great performer & she’s got the savvy to know this about herself. If placed into some backwoods Poetry Slam, she would blow the likes of Robert Bly right off the stage. So she’s set about reviving – or maybe just “viving” in the first place – the spoken word format, as such, without the slightest hint of any relation to Def Jam or hip-hop poetics. Hearing her is a reminder of just how vast & regionally diverse this country still is. If you should get a chance to see her, you might be bemused, you might be mystified, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

 


Tracy Grammer & Dave Carter
(Photo by Jeff Bizzell)

I was talking with Craig Bickhardt during a break at our reading / event with Eileen Tabios last Tuesday night. Craig is a singer-songwriter who works the folk/country border of music – what alternative radio jocks these days call Americana – and has written number one hits for the Judds, Pam Tillis & Ty Herndon, had platinum hits sung by Martina McBride & Trish Yearwood, as well as having songs recorded by B.B. King, Ray Charles, Kathy Mattea & Alison Krauss – he did some of the music for Robert Duvall’s Tender Mercies awhile back. It’s a genre that I’ve been following, at least vaguely, for decades now since it evolved out of the folk festivals I attended in the 1960s.

My own instincts for that music tend more toward what I think of as the Austin sound, that aspect of country-folk that emerged from the work of Willie Nelson & especially Townes Van Zandt, whom I’ve written about here before. The person who really introduced me to that sound was Nanci Griffith, whom Krishna & I first heard at a memorial concert for Kate Wolf in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago. We had wanted to have Kate sing at our wedding, but she was already too sick with the leukemia that would eventually cut her life short. We ended up going with the Good Ol’ Persons, Kathy Kallick’s bluegrass group that is still playing & recording two decades later, sounding as crisp as ever.

Where Van Zandt & Nelson were songwriters who’d attempted to break into the tight-knit scene in Nashville, only to find their hippy ways didn’t fit well with the neo-George Wallace types at the Grand Ole Opry, & thus returned to Austin to create a scene there more to their liking, Griffith grew up in Austin listening to their likes along with other local bands like Buddy Holly’s old outfit, the Crickets. Tho she’s a great singer & has long been a touring & recording success both here & in Ireland (where she spends several months each year these days), Griffith like Bickhardt often describes herself as a songwriter first & as a singer only of necessity. Like Wolf, Bickhardt & Van Zandt, the very first thing you note about her music is that it has a level of literacy about it that is a steep step above normal country or folk fare.

Another songwriter with Texas roots whose work I always point to as an example of what country-folk can be at its very best, and very most literate, is the late Dave Carter. Next to Townes Van Zandt & Bob Dylan – his two greatest influences – Carter was easily the best songwriter I’ve heard over the past half century. Carter, who grew up primarily in Oklahoma & Texas & whose partner, Tracy Grammer, still refers to him as ODC for Oklahoma Dave Carter, a nickname he still used when they first met in Portland.

Dave Carter released only five albums – four while he was alive, the fifth (this year’s Seven is the Number, presently the number one folk album in America) is largely a reworking of his rejected first effort, which had been released before Carter learned the nuances of record arrangement & production. The song “Crocodile Man” was a huge hit circa 1999 on the Americana charts – with Tracy singing the lyrics even tho they’re figured as a man’s words – and Carter found himself suddenly an “overnight success” after must have been decades of effort. He was 46 at the time & only would live to be 49 before a massive heart attack killed the rail-thin vegetarian after a morning run on the road in 2002.

Carter was raised in an evangelical family but whose own spiritual commitments broadened considerably & are best captured by the title of one of his albums, Drum Hat Buddha – the title’s juxtapositions, which sound exactly like NY School poetry, gen 17 (think of Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat, which came out four years after the Carter-Grammer album) – gives you some sense of what makes Carter so special as a writer. Here are the lyrics to “Ordinary Town” from that CD:

Common cool he was a proud young fool
In a kick-ass Wal-Mart tie
Rippin’ down the main drag
Trippin’ on the headlights rollin' by
In the early dawn when the cars were gone
Did he hear the master's call
In the five and dime did he wake and find
He was only dreamin’ after all, cause . . .


This is an ordinary town
And the prophet stands apart
This is an ordinary town
And we brook no wayward heart
And every highway leads you prodigal back home
To the ordinary sidewalks you were born to roam


Rock of ages, love contagious
Shine the serpent fire
So sang the sage of sixteen summers
In the upstairs choir
So sang the old dog down the street
Beside his wailing wall
"Go home, go home," the mayor cried
When Jesus came to city hall, cause . . .


This is an ordinary town
And the prophet stands alone
This is an ordinary town
And we crucify our own
And every highway leads you prodigal again
To the ordinary houses you were brought up in


Raised on hunches and junk food lunches
And punch-drunk ballroom steps
You get to believin’ you're even-steven
With the kids at Fast-Track Prep
So you dump your bucks on a velvet tux
And you run and join the dance
But your holy shows and the Romans know
You're just a child of circumstance, cause . . .


This is an ordinary town
And the prophet has no face
This is an ordinary town
And the seasons run in place
And every highway leads you prodigal and true
To the ordinary angels watchin’ over you

There is a lot of rhyme in these lines & some extraordinary word choices – ages / contagious / sage of is my favorite – here, as well as a remarkably pictorial eye. I can’t read these words without hearing Carter & Grammer’s arrangement – it feels completely inevitable to me, which is one test of the success of joining words to music.

At one point Carter attended the California Institute of Integral Studies where I was the director of development & outreach, although we didn’t meet until later & I’m not 100 percent certain that our time at the ‘Tute overlapped.¹ Krishna & I once heard him & Tracy perform at an outdoor concert that was driven indoors by a thunderous downpour to the King of Prussia township council chambers – as inauspicious a venue for sound as you can imagine – where they played sans benefit of any amplification. They made it sound as intimate & welcoming as a house concert. And if it wasn’t the biggest venue we ever saw them in – that would have been the Philadelphia Folk Festival – nor the space with the best sound (that would have been The Point, the late lamented folk club in Bryn Mawr, the last place we saw Dave before his death) – it’s probably the place I’ll remember longest & best, simply because their strengths as people as well as singers shined so brightly that evening.

I’ve been listening this past week a lot to Seven is the Number. When Carter died, he and Grammer had planned at some point to rework his early Snake Handlin’ Man album into what Carter – who obviously was a perfectionist – would have considered an acceptable arrangement. Grammer, who started out as his accompanist on violin & voice & has emerged herself as one of the best folksingers alive, has done a terrific job with this. Every one of Carter’s albums is well worth owning – indeed, they make great presents too – and both of Tracy’s post-Carter solo albums have lots of his songs on them as well. Lucy Kaplansky, Chris Smither & the Kennedys have all recorded some of his songs & Joan Baez has included “The Mountain” in a number of her concerts (she once sang it for the Dali Lama). If you have even a remote interest in folk or in the singer-songwriter genre, you owe it to yourself to own all of Dave Carter’s music.

 

¹ Carter’s Wikipedia article refers to the influence of Joseph Campbell on the singer after a visit to his school. That was, in fact, one of my projects at CIIS. Campbell died in 1987, a year after I’d left to edit the Socialist Review.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

 

Beverly Dahlen is the most enigmatic American poet since Laura (Riding) Jackson. Not that Dahlen is unnecessarily difficult or obtuse, but that – like Riding – she writes brilliantly, but has also proven exceptionally reluctant to letting her work into print. She first arrived in San Francisco, I do believe, in the very late 1950s, drawn to the intellectual & cultural ferment around North Beach, the Beat scene & the Spicer Circle, all of which she seems to have internalized but stayed carefully apart from – those worlds were anything but woman friendly & very few people proved to be as hardy at “playing with the boys” as did Joanne Kyger. Thus it wasn’t until Stephen Vincent published Out of the Third in 1974, with cover art by William T. Wiley (then the hottest West Coast artist alive), that people actually got to see a book of Dahlen’s work. Two of the sections of “Tree,” the longest poem in that book, are addressed to members of the Spicer Circle who, after Jack’s death in 1965, moved up to Vancouver, one to George Stanley & this presumably to Stan Persky:

Dear Stan,

I DON’T WANT TO BE
THAT WOMAN, ART

that never got her nose broke

That’s a tone consistent with Spicer & his followers, but hardly what you might expect from this quiet & thoughtful woman if you were to meet her in person. There was a second book, A Letter at Easter: To George Stanley, two years later, which somehow I either did not get or have long since lost. I do however have The Egyptian Poems, published in 1983 by Hipparchia Press of Berkeley in a tiny, fine press edition of just 175 copies, with an afterword by Robert Duncan. Its first poem, “The Opening of the Mouth,” is worth quoting in its entirety:

The dead are our children and we must coax them to eat.
Ah     Ah     Ah     Ah     pointing to the mouth, touching
the food: the bull’s leg, the heart.

The dead are our gods. We must pry open their mouths.
They cannot live without our sustenance.
We bring hammers and chisels.
We crack their throats.
Our words fly open above our heads:
stone clouds of owls, lines of water
rippling, geese.

The gods are our children.     Eat.
Eat the heart, the leg, the thigh,
all the parts.     Take into the darkness of your mouth
this eye.     It will be enough light.
It will light you
forever.

It is, I think, impossible not to hear the influences here of Spicer & George Stanley & of Duncan likewise. But if what impressed Duncan most, at least as evidenced by his afterword, was his own reflection –

These are poems evoking, and in return belonging to, a mystery

– it is worth noting that Dahlen is going somewhere very different in the poem above. The gods, she says literally “cannot live without our sustenance.” The mystery, to call it that, she is exploring here isn’t the theosophical “secret doctrine” of transpersonal unity, but rather that other one, a mystery less attached to names like Blavatsky than to names like Freud, Kristeva or Lacan.

By the time The Egyptian Poems were printed, Dahlen had helped to co-found HOW(ever) (now How2) and was already well into writing A Reading, an “endless” – the term she has used more than once – poem that is, to my mind, one of the masterworks of the 20th century. To date, there have been five volumes published from this project, the most recent being A Reading 18-20, just out from Instance Press of Boulder, Colorado. This is a slim enough volume, just 64 pages, and none of it was written after August, 1986, which means that this work is 20 years old. That is a considerable period of time to wait & let work come into print, but that’s Beverly Dahlen. I sometimes wonder if there are a thousand pages of poetry tucked away somewhere I don’t know about, and that won’t emerge for another few decades. My main problem with this is that I might not be here to read them, say, in 30 years. And I definitely want to read every word.

A Reading 18-20 contains three sections of Dahlen’s project, each in turn being composed of several segments – I almost want to say of several poems or works. Thus 18 begins with a series of prose poems, of which this is the third:

terrorism out of context, a story of murder as light reading. the civilized way to call it a day. when people meet at the end of a workweek, the context of their speech is the oppression of the boss. who was that masked man? the industrial décor of my favorite restaurant, the heating ducts painted red. it would be difficult to name the timeless values when gas pumps had become sacred relics. worshipping at a bowl of gelato. how do you do.

history repeats, the second time around as farce. the third time’s the charm. marigolds banked on a slope as part of a scientific plan for erosion control. I don’t understand you. read up on it: here’s a booklist.

content is what’s swallowed: junk food.

here’s a list. light up the sky with your faith, everything goes into the memory bank. the bombs bursting in air. it’s no more difficult than saying you’re going to live till you die. forty-five minutes. where does this road end? somewhere beyond the bird observatory. Rasputin held an onion in his right hand. deadlocked.

Gonick made history. so do I. so do you. drink me.

At some level – I frankly can’t tell which – this passage references a series of four bills enacted into law at the behest of President Reagan, establishing rewards for informing about terrorism, setting penalties for sabotaging airplanes or taking hostages, and prohibiting organizations from “engaging in terrorism,” or “supporting or cooperating” with such groups.¹ Yet this is just one pole pulling this text, as are the cartoon collections of Larry Gonick, the Star-Spangled Banner, references to Marx. This is not atypical of the disparate elements Dahlen puts into play. After a fourth prose poem comes a section in verse:

all that it’s not to deprive one
No man shall be an idiot for purely external reasons.
interiority to flux, crime shamefaced
reaches for a larger napkin to cover the wound.
the definition expands, the lunatic fringe
becomes the entire cloth
I is another killer
where shall we
take the place of that noun that common thing
the third person, the world
the world equal to x
or any letter which may stand for the unknown
a great loss, a damnable mystery
sold for a mess of pottage

and you
impossibly sleeping across the table from me
to secure for ourselves and our posterity
the blessings
how shall I shifter shifting shiftless
be one
a hole a number
any letter might take its place
any pronoun armed to the teeth an absolute construction
any thing
having been buried in a mass grave
how shall we name it the third person
the ragged world
the tattered fronds of the holy ghost

Referencing Pound (“No man…) and Creeley (“I is…), Dahlen focuses here on what she clearly envisions as the disruptor between I & Thou in any communication, “the third person, the world / the world equal to x / or any letter which may stand for the unknown / a great loss, a damnable mystery.” It’s a concept that recalls the epigram to her very first book:

One becomes two, two
becomes three, & out
of the third comes
the one as the
fourth.

Dahlen turns now back to prose, to a prose poem in the mode of a letter – a form favored by Duncan & Spicer alike – addressed presumably to Michael Palmer, which begins:

Dear Michael

It was one of my ideas to speak of the third person as if that stood for the world. In another sense it’s a sign of the holy ghost. These two are one: “world without end.”

Then I was reading a recent essay of Barrett Watten’s which begins: “The world is structured on its own displacement.” That seemed to me to be true, and also much of what follows in Watten’s piece seemed irrefutable. I read it again and again. I tried to imagine using it, going beyond it. All I could really imagine was quoting it in its entirety. What did I want? the negation of a negation? Watten’s work reminded me of all I know to be true: that the world, the self and the other are created out of absence, lack, desire; that “desire is the desire for meaning itself” (I don’t know where that quote comes from), that desire is that which by definition can never be fulfilled.”

Dahlen returns to this again in the next segment, again in prose, albeit so short that it almost calls that into question:

The third person is Eros, who never appears. It is, as Robert Glück has written, the referent, “ the guest who doesn’t come.”

The next segment is also worth quoting in its entirety, perhaps most of all for its directness:

The desire for meaning, to produce meaning, fills me with dread and anxiety. We do not want to hear of another’s anxiety; there is nothing we can do with it, nor about it. Anxiety, Freud observes, “corresponds to a libido which has been deflected from its object and has found no employment.” An unappeased ghost, incessantly circling. The parodic and diminished double of all that was holy.

“What is originally holy is what we have taken over from the animal kingdom – the bestial,” Engels wrote in 1882, and since then the hundred years war against what is never quite adequately translated as ‘instinctual nature’ has brought under the domain of repression the very notion of ‘the bestial.’ It is slanderous thus to describe the activities, for example, of death squads in El Salvador. We live in a posthumous world. “Nothing can be compelled from the site of the speaker except the outlines of her form.” (Watten)

This poem has another seven sections, ranging in length from a single sentence (or perhaps a sentence fragment, since its first word is “Or”) to more than a page of verse – and is then followed by a bibliography.²

If a long poem like Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts can be read as a post-Poundian palimpsest, each text swirling around a theme or series of questions, Dahlen’s approach strikes me as something closer to that of a stalker or perhaps a detective. Each section of A Reading is close to a dossier or case file on its topic. The relation of parts to wholes and of genre forms – verse, prose poem, letter, meditation – are all in play & their meanings change from section to section. This makes sense given that Dahlen’s approach is to call this project A Reading rather than A Writing.

As I noted above, every piece here is at least 20 years old. But, as Dahlen’s comments on terror or on the writing of Barrett Watten demonstrate, this work also feels completely current. In a sense, Dahlen’s strategy of being slow – glacial – to let things into print puts the “news that stays news” challenge to the test. Now if someone would just gather the five volumes of A Reading into a single volume, if Vincent’s Momo’s Press would re-issue Out of the Third, if Chax or someone would issue a trade edition of The Egyptian Poems and if we could just get a bunch of the remaining work into print! I don’t know if anyone has re-issued “Something/Nothing,” Dahlen’s 1985 talk on Laura Riding & Julia Kristeva – my copy is little more than a mimeograph with a clip to hold the cover together, published in that form by Africa O Malley – but that would be worth having back in print as well. Every time I’ve ever asked Dahlen about new work, she has always indicated that there wasn’t any, but then a new book appears. That may be a maddening (to me) process, but I hope that at least it continues on & on.

 

¹ Bizarrely enough, a few weeks after Dahlen wrote A Reading 18, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh deliberately contaminated the salad bars of several restaurants in Dahlen’s home state of Oregon, one of the first high-profile bio-terror incidents.

² The Watten material comes from “The XYZ of Reading: Negativity (& Diane Ward)” in Jimmy & Lucy’s House of K, #1 (Oakland: May, 1984). It anticipates, but is not part of, the great discussion of negativity in The Constructivist Moment. Indeed, it might be read as the bridge between the essays of Total Syntax & Watten’s later work.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

 

Gabriel Okara
at 85

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Poetry in Iran
from Hafez
to O-Hum

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