Saturday, October 21, 2006

 


Uli’s swimwear
was the top-rated outfit
in this year’s finale
according to viewers

The television equivalent of a print ad’s mouse-type, the small print at the bottom of the page that the advertiser needs to include (in pharmaceutical ads, it sometimes shows up literally on the verso of a full-page spread) but doesn’t really want the prospective customer to read, the credits that roll at the end of a show just as the first commercial pops up starting the bridge to whatever show is next, is especially interesting for a reality-based series like Project Runway (PR), where it indicates that judges make their decisions in consultation with the show’s producers. That little detail explains at least one, and possibly two, of the hit shows major surprises at the end of its third season.

The first of these was a decision not to eliminate one of the contestants in the second most important challenge of the season, and thus to present a Final Four at Olympus Fashion Week instead of a final three. The second may have been the actual decision as to the winner of the series itself.

In actuality, there have always been four contestants showing work at Fashion Week. The timing of the show’s airing requires it or else the live audience at the event will know in advance who the final three challengers are, which is certain to get out. During season one, this caused something of a stir as several fashion world commentators preferred the collection shown by Austin Scarlet, who turned out later to have been the one already eliminated.

On September 6, I correctly predicted just who would make it to the final four, but felt convinced that one of the two women on the show – Uli Herzner, an East German native now soaking up the sun & Cuban colors endemic to Miami, or Laura Bennett, the statuesque architect whose preference for classic evening wear suits her perfectly in designing for older women, not exactly TV’s favored demographic – were destined not to make it to the final challenge. In retrospect, I think that the judges were ready, and planning, to eliminate Uli at this next-to-the-final challenge when she threw a spanner into the works by clearly winning the challenge, putting the judges into the (for them) untenable position of having to choose between fan favorite Michael Knight and this season’s villain, Jeffrey Sebelia, the one-time junky & alcoholic who specializes in costume wear for overage rock stars. Since the show’s narrative in its third season hinged on this epic, if thoroughly artificial, joust between good and evil, it would not do to resolve it two full episodes before the grand finale.

The solution, tho, was simple enough. Just announce that no one was disqualified and send all four to Fashion Week. In reality, what this meant was simply not airbrushing the number four finisher out of the final episode. Problem solved.

The more troubling possibility is that this same concern with narrative, rather than with fashion, may have altered who actually won Project Runway overall. I say this on the grounds that the ultimate winner, Sebelia, makes sense only narratively, and not in terms of the twelve outfits he showed at Fashion Week. Now there are obviously people who think the world of Jeffrey and his vision of style, just as there are people who think Desperately Seeking Susan, a 21-year-old motion picture that presents the retro-avant clothing of lower Second Avenue as somehow fashion forward, is a documentary of the 21st century. These are the same people who think they just invented dressing all in black.

To underscore that this is not just me feeling sour grapes – after all, my favorite designer, Michael Knight, was the first eliminated at the finale (albeit with some reason) – it’s worth taking a look at the actual ratings of dresses in the Fashion Week show by fans on Project Runway’s website. Rated on a scale of 1 to 5, Jeffrey’s highest score was, as of Friday morning, 3.89, making him the only designer among the four not to have an outfit with a score above 4.0. On the other hand, he had four outfits with scores below 3.0.

Michael, the first eliminated, had one outfit rated at 4.10 and just two outfits rated below 3.0. Statistically speaking, his scores for his outfits outpaced Jeffrey’s. Now it’s true that Knight’s collection was disjointed and over-the-top, with at least two pieces that were just variants of one of his winning challenges. The two challenges he won in the series both came in situations where Parsons School of Design chief Tim Gunn had seriously criticized what Knight was in the process of putting together, and he listened to these critiques & improvised effective tho more modest outfits at the last minute. The youngest of the final four, Knight seriously needs this kind of direction and the two months on your own to create a collection of twelve pieces left him to his own devices.

Again as of Friday morning, Laura Bennett, the second challenger to hear the dread “You’re out” from PR host Heidi Klum, had one outfit rated at 4.02 and just one rated by viewers at below 3.0. Her collection was for the most part predictable but impeccable & that seems to be her special curse. As one of the judges put it, “when you buy one of her dresses, you know you will keep it forever.” But her range is narrow & she definitely is not aiming at Paris Hilton as the ideal customer. Still, her overall ratings from the show’s fans were higher than Sebelia’s.

So it was Uli Herzner who ultimately should have won Project Runway. Her collection was more coherent than Sebelia’s, and she had the top-rated (by the fans anyway) outfit of the entire Fashion Week extravaganza, a shimmering gold bikini with one of her patented print dresses, which on Friday morning had a score of 4.35. In fact, six of her outfits – half of her entire collection – had fan ratings higher than Jeffrey’s best score. Her lowest rated piece received a 3.51 (that would have been Jeffrey’s second highest score). She was also the only designer to have more than one piece with fan ratings over 4.0.

The problem, from the perspective of the show’s narrative, is that Uli herself is bland. She’s shy and her English isn’t perfect (tho I suspect that it’s better than she thinks it is). Last season’s winner, Chloe Dao, was likewise an American immigrant escaping a Stalinist country who came across as fairly bland on television. You can envision the producers squirming at the idea of giving the grand prize to the same story twice in a row, especially after so many viewers concluded that the second season should have been won instead by Daniel Vosovic (the second season’s representation of goodness incarnate), so many in fact that he kept popping up in a Saturn Roadster (how did he get that? he wasn’t supposed to have been given one, since he didn’t actually win) during commercial breaks this year.

Now I don’t want to presume that fan ratings on the show’s website should be viewed as anything objective. But in the world of fashion, unlike any other creative endeavor save possibly for the movies & rock & roll, success has everything to do with a popularity contest. And objectively, based on the individual ratings of the 48 different outfits shown at Fashion Week, Uli trumped everyone else with her scores. Jeffrey, on the other hand, had the lowest. Further, with the exception of zippers as a design element in a green-and-white striped dress, none of his other pieces showed much of his wannabe edgy side. Like the second season villain, Santino Rice, an acquaintance of Sibelia, Jeffrey’s strategy for the final show was to tone his style way down and come across as much more “normal” than he really is. Unlike Santino Rice, he actually seemed to pull it off. Yet many of his pieces commit the worst of fashion faults – they’re bland, predictable & retro in a Woolworth’s sort of way, which is not retro-avant in the slightest.

One of the most important moments in the history of Reality TV as a specific genre came at the end of the first season of Survivor when Richard Hatch, the so-called naked guy & future tax outlaw, the villain of that season, ended up winning the million dollars. I think the producers were betting on the future of Project Runway and concluded that it made far more sense narratively for the “bad guy” – the contestant whose rudeness to everybody was unrelenting & who actually made the mother of one of his competitors cry – to win PR this year, even if his collection didn’t warrant it. The reality is that all four of the final collections were sufficiently unique as presentations, so that they could make a plausible case for whomever they picked. But the dead fly in this soup is that they noticeably picked the worst. And as much as a couple of the judges – Nina Garcia of Elle magazine and Michael Kors – irritate the heck out of me, I would love to see how each of the four judges actually scored the final four. I’ll wager that the raw scores are not how the show itself turned out.

Are the producers within their rights in intervening, if that is what happened? Of course they are. Fortunately, winning isn’t everything on this show. Anyone who finishes in the top six is pretty much guaranteed fast-track entrée into the fashion world at whatever level they are prepared to handle. For one thing, they’re already famous. Several of the shows at this year’s Fashion Week, itself a competition to earn one of the seventy spots available during the week, were presented by former PR contestants. Indeed, Malan Breton, who made it only through the second challenge this season, was himself able to mount an official show this same year. Uli declared herself completely satisfied with the final results of the contest and she may be the biggest winner of all. She wasn’t, after all, supposed to be there among the final contestants. But it’s her outfits that fans (and future shoppers) will remember the best.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

 

Publication announcement and subscription offer!

THE GRAND PIANO
An Experiment in Collective Autobiography
San Francisco, 1975-1980

by Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson

THE GRAND PIANO is an on-going experiment in collective autobiography by ten writers identified with Language Poetry in San Francisco. It takes its name from a coffeehouse at 1607 Haight Street, where from 1976-79 the authors took part in a reading and performance series. The writing project was undertaken as an online collaboration, first via an interactive web site and later through a listserv. When completed, THE GRAND PIANO will comprise ten parts, in each of which the ten authors will appear in a difference sequence.

Like the early avant-gardes, the people who gathered at the Grand Piano developed not only an exacting and liberating poetics, but also a way of living-in-art. Its chronicle here is many things, among them a deeply human and amusing map to building community through literature in this most unlikely of times.

– Cole Swensen

Part 1 is scheduled to appear November 2006, with subsequent volumes to be published at three-month intervals. Subscription to the entire series of ten volumes is now available for $90 (individual volumes for $12.95  each) directly from Lyn Hejinian, 2639 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94705.  For subscription order form:

http://www.english.wayne.edu/fac%5Fpages/ewatten/pdfs/gporder.pdf (color)
http://www.english.wayne.edu/fac%5Fpages/ewatten/pdfs/gporderbw.pdf (black and white)

Designed and published by Barrett Watten, Mode A/This Press (Detroit), 6885 Cathedral Drive, Bloomfield Twp., MI 48301. Distributed (individual orders and trade) by Small Press Distribution, Inc.,
1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94710- 1408. ISBN 978-0-9790198-0-X (part 1), 80 pp., wrappers.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

 

I make use of a lot of bots, automated web tools and searches that bring me things in which I might be interested. For example, a good percentage of the various overseas web stories about poetry I sometimes link to here come from a daily search of all news items tracked by Google. Once you peel off the clichéd pieces that seem to pockmark the world’s media – Local Author’s Work Accepted for New Anthology (almost invariably one of the vanity press publications that Gary Sullivan was targeting when he first invented flarf) – and the usual gaggle of book reviews (it is startling just how few newspapers bother to get decent writers for their reviews of poetry), a significant portion of what remains will give you a perspective on the world of poetry you might not otherwise come up with on your own.

Likewise I have standing “keyword” searches on eBay & elsewhere for work by writers & musicians in whom I have an interest. It was in that connection a couple of weeks back that I came across a Louis Zukofsky item that I had never before seen firsthand, and at a price that was notably lower than any of the copies listed as available on Abebooks.com. The item, Zukofsky’s Found Objects, is a chapbook issued in 1962 by H.B. Chapin as Blue Grass no. 3  from Georgetown, Kentucky.

The subtitle of the book, 1962-1926, offers a sense of its organization, reverse chronological order, something I think I’ve seen elsewhere only in Early Days Yet, the collected poems of Allen Curnow, the late (& definitely great) New Zealand poet. It’s a slim volume, just 44 pages, only eleven poems, tho the poems include “Mantis” and “Poem Beginning ‘The’” among them. At the time, only one of the poems here, “The Ways,” had not yet appeared in any book. The “book of origin” for every other poem here is duly noted at the end of each text. (But, in the Johns Hopkins edition of Zukofsky’s Collected Short Poetry, Found Objects is not credited as the source book for this poem, but rather After I’s.) Typed rather than typeset, Found Objects reflects a particular moment in Zukofsky’s career, the instant before he becomes – after four decades of work – widely read & influential.

Like all of the Objectivists, Zukofsky went through a “quiet period,” going ten years between books between 1946 and 1956. This hiatus echoes – it’s what a financial analyst would characterize as a “trailing indicator” – the eight year break Zukofsky took from the composition of “A” between 1940 and ’48. Other Objectivists, including Carl Rakosi, George Oppen & Basil Bunting, all went through even deeper periods of silence & non-writing. At the time Zukofsky “went dark” publishing, he had had just three real books, his curious critical tome Le Style Apollinaire; 55 Poems, published in 1941, a good 13 years editing the Objectivist issue of Poetry, and Anew, published in 1946.

The seeds of Zukofsky’s eventual success lay in some typed pages of his poetry – this was literally pre-Xerox – that Robert Duncan took with him to Majorca in the early 1950s where he shared them, and his boundless enthusiasm, with new acquaintance Robert Creeley. By 1954, both had gone to teach at Black Mountain & were actively promoting Zukofsky and his writing to almost anyone who would sit still & listen. It was, in fact, one of the Black Mountain students, Jonathan Williams, who would publish the book, Some Time, that would return Zukofsky to print in 1956. But it is worth noting that Williams’ Jargon Press did so with just 300 copies hors commerce, plus another 50 copies numbered and signed.

Zukofsky’s two books in the 1940s, 55 Poems, published in 1941, and Anew, published in ’46, had at least been published by one of the more prolific publishers of poetry in the United States, James Decker of Prairie City, Illinois. Virtually unknown today¹, Decker was the Sun & Moon of its generation, publishing August Derleth, William Everson, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Henri Ford, Norman MacLeod, Edgar Lee Masters, Clark Mills, Edouard Roditi, Selwyn Schwartz, David Ignatow, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth & Parker Tyler in addition to a magazine & several anthologies during its 13-year run as a press.

Zukofsky’s first book with the press went through several bindings, if not multiple print runs, and thus probably got more visibility and distribution than Some Time received 15 years later. Indeed, Barely and Widely, Zukofsky’s next collection, printed in 1958, probably his best known volume prior to the publication of his collected short poems under the title All and the emerging publication of “A,was functionally self-published – the publisher is listed as Celia Zukofsky – again with an entire press run of just 300 copies.

If Zukofsky couldn’t get his poetry to stay in print, he could at least recycle poems in chapbooks to keep his work in front of readers. In 1962, two years before Found Objects, Celia edited a collection called 16 Once Published, containing works from Anew, Some Time, 55 Poems & Barely and Widely, published by the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn press. It wasn’t until 1965, when “A” 1-12, which had been initially done in a limited edition by Black Mountain fellow traveler Cid Corman in 1959, was reprinted in the U.K., and then Denise Levertov (again a friend of Creeley & especially Duncan) brought out All in two volumes from Norton, that Zukofsky’s poetry finally became widely available (if barely understood).

Found Objects needs to be read in the context of this history, and its simple production values suggests that this volume had a limited distribution, at best. Zukofsky himself, tho, who once proposed a “scientific” definition of poetry, would be the first to disagree. His introduction to Found Objects reads as follows:

With the years the personal prescriptions for one’s work recede, thankfully, before an interest that nature as creator had more of a hand in it than one was aware. The work then owns perhaps something of the look of found objects in late exhibits – which strange themselves as it were, one object near another – roots that have become sculpture, wood that appears talisman, and so on: charms, amulets maybe, but never really such things since the struggles so to speak that made them do not seem to have been human trials and evils – they appear entirely natural. Their chronology is of interest only to those who analyse carbon fractions etc., who love historicity – and since they too, considering nature as creator, are no doubt right in their curiosity – and one has never wished to offend anyone – the dates of composition of  the poems in this book and their out-of-print provenance are for them, not for the poets.

 

¹ Decker’s press had a tragic history. After sinking an initial investment into the press, Decker and his sister Dorothy were able to publish books at first using the revenues from their earlier books, in part by continuing to live with their parents. By the end of World War 2, however, authors were being asked to help subsidize their volumes by buying in advance as much as half of the print runs. Decker eventually sold the press to one of his authors, E.H. Tax, staying on as an employee. A year later, however, Tax discovered irregularities in the books & dismissed Decker, who then left town with his parents, leaving Dorothy to work with Tax. In 1950, however, she shot & killed Tax before committing suicide.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

 

Former Congressman Gerry Studds died last week, the victim of a blood clot in his lung. The first out-of-the-closet gay member of Congress, Studds had been in the news of late, as defenders of Mark Foley, the Republican chickenhawk who was playing at cybersex with House pages, pointed out that Studds had himself been in a similar situation back in the 1980s and had been voted back into office several times afterwards. But Studds didn’t come from the party of homophobia, and therein lies a difference. What killed Foley’s career was not pedophilia, but hypocrisy.

If the Foley story is noteworthy primarily because it has helped to reveal what everyone but the Christian right has known since Roy Cohn was an aide to Senator Joe McCarthy, that there are plenty of gay Republicans, then the most interesting thing about the 1,490 stories I was able to find Sunday on Google’s news tracker concerning Studds is that over 400 were reprints of either the Associated Press or New York Times version of his obit, both of which referred to Dean Hara as Studds’ husband.

On the other hand, Headline News, CNN’s peripatetic network for the ADHD audience, called Hara his “partner,” which is true enough in the general sense, but fails to note that Studds & Hara were in fact married in Massachusetts, a state that permits gays to do so. Whereas over 400 newspapers could care less about such a distinction, Headline News cared enough to write story in a manner that didn’t ask & didn’t tell. The news is that, at least with regards to obits, this Victorian & ultimately homophobic approach is in the minority now.

So how does change come, finally, in the world? In part, it’s just in the ordinariness of a noun phrase, as at the end of this opening sentence from Damien Cave’s piece in the Times:

Gerry E. Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress and a demanding advocate for New England fishermen and for gay rights, died early Saturday at Boston University Medical Center, his husband said.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

 

In 1979, Michael Andre – perhaps best known now as the impresario of the Unmuzzled Ox listserv (technically it’s a Yahoo group) – published a special issue of his journal by that name devoted entirely to The Poets’ Encyclopedia, which was exactly what it said it was, “the world’s basic knowledge transformed by 225 poets, artists, musicians & novelists.” I’ve always been fond of that edition, perhaps because I had, literally, the last word, Zyxt. Part of what made the encyclopedia work was its irreverent tone throughout. Here is Hugh Kenner’s entry for Encyclopedia:

A compendium (using the alphabet for a filing system) of statements that seem not to depend on other knowledge. Aardvark is independent of Mammal, Angel of God. The unit of the Encyclopedia is the Fact. A fact is a corpsed deed; from L. factum, done, but with the residuum of accomplished action subtracted. Facts lie there pickled and are generally wrong, scribes’ minds having swerved from the continuum of action. Guy Davenport notes that the Britannica “has Waley sending Ez off on the trot to translate Cathay, unruffled by picturing an event of 1917 causing an event of 1915.” Shun all encyclopedias but this one.

Nor is this the sole entry on Encyclopedia in Andre’s volume, the Canadian poet A.M. Fine also offering his own in a font that mimicked a schoolboy’s printing. Under Sex you will find two entries by Jim Quinn, one of which reads, in its entirety, “The clitoris is found in all Carnivora,” plus an entry by Anne Waldman, along with a couple of photographs of Ms. Waldman mostly au naturale by the late Joe Brainard. You will find entries for Barf by Kenward Elmslie and Baseball by Senator Eugene McCarthy. It is, in short, a document of its time & an excellent encapsulation of what was going on in the arts scene, especially in & around Manhattan, in the 1970s. The lengthy piece – a poem really – on B-Girls by Jackie Curtis, perhaps the most famous of any of the Encyclopedia’s entries, seems remarkably in place. Underneath, however, it wasn’t just a 1970s compendium, as such, since many of the entries in Andre’s collection were co-authored by Armand Schwerner & Donald M. Kaplan, taken directly from their 1963, Domesday Dictionary, Schwerner’s one commercially successful publication from a trade press.

All of this comes back to me today, as I thumb through the first volume – of a projected five – of Encyclopedia, the first publication of the Encyclopedia Project: as Yogi Berra would have put it, it’s déjà vu all over again. There are a few differences between Andre’s Poets’ Encyclopedia and this, tho it’s worth noting at the outset that both volumes clock in at just over 300 pages. For one, this first volume of the new Encyclopedia goes only from A to E – thus the last word here is Morgan Adamson’s entry for Exposition. Unless you consider a portfolio of more than 30 color plates, illustrating many of the earlier entries, Competition and Domesticity most of all. Another is that the 8.5 by 11 inch page size of the new Encyclopedia offers twice the area of the page in Andre’s book, and thus is printed in two columns with an impeccable page design.

Like Andre’s book, this new Encyclopedia is a superb time capsule of current perspectives in the arts, although if the earlier volume was NYC-centric, this one tends more toward Providence, RI, where the editors – Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, Kate Schatz and Joanna Howard – all first met,  and immediately beyond to that ring of elite academies known at the B-Schools:Brown, Bard, Boulder (Naropa campus), Buffalo & Berkeley. Contributors include (but are not limited to):

Susan Bernstein
Rebecca Brown
Barbara Christian
Jaime Cortex
Brenda Coultas
Brent Cunningham
Samuel R. Delany
Rikki Ducornet
kari edwards
Mikhail Epstein
Thalia Field
William Gillespie
Michael Gizzi
Robert Glück
Laird Hunt
Carol Maso
James Meetze
Talan Memmott
K. Silem Mohammad
Eileen Myles
Kofi Natambu
Alice Notley
Akilah Oliver
M. Nourbese Philip
Deborah Richards
Lisa Robertson
Jocelyn Saidenberg
Carolee Schneeman
Gail Scott
Prageeta Sharma
Christopher Stackhouse
Fred Wah
Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop

With slightly less than half the number of contributors as Andre’s Encyclopedia and twice the amount of content – spread out here over five letters, not all twenty six – the actual feel of this new Encyclopedia is quite different. Here, for example, the primary entry for Encylopedia is Jorge Luis Borges’ eight-page parable, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” There are no entries for either Barf or Baseball, but Padcha Tuntha-Obas has a great entry on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, editor Schatz has a great one on Celebrity (as 2006 a concept as you can get), balanced by Diana George’s entry on Bondage & Kasey Mohammad’s on Authenticity. It’s worth noting also that there is a broader range of genre forms at play in these entries – George’s piece is a narrative, Schatz’ a play of sorts (albeit one scripted for some version of poets’ theater), Mohammad’s is an essay I think, tho written in long lines with hanging indents and numerous lines or bars at the end of paragraphs (or stanzas).

Carolee Schneeman is the one contributor I could find who is in both books.

Thus this new Encyclopedia is much more multi-cultural than its predecessor, and generally less satirical – or at least its humor is not the pratfall mode of the NY School at its most flamboyant, which is pretty much what you find in Andre’s volume. Both volumes are transgressive in their own ways, but the new one will give you an essay by Talan Memmott on Georges Bataille where the earlier book offered Anne Waldman’s tits. The new volume includes an entry on Kathy Acker – a delightful rebus/narrative by Anna Joy Springer – where the earlier volume had an entry, Slavery,  by Acker herself. From such differences one could surely articulate a history of the evolution of the arts over the past 27 years.

The new volume, regardless of its wit & its transgressiveness, is always much more serious in its tone. The web site even offers a teaching guide for use of this book in classrooms (Like that’s gonna happen!), which begins:

The Encyclopedia Project is at once an international literary journal, an anthology, a reference book, an art book, an art object and an educational tool. Its hybrid identity is a boon to educators, as it encompasses many forms and functions, and reflects the rapid cultural blending and transformation of our times. This gives Encyclopedia all the more versatility as a teaching tool in English, literary criticism, creative writing, modern culture, and contemporary arts coursework. 

Ultimately, this push-pull between straightforward seriousness & post-avant impulses comes across as a mode on uneasiness. If Andre’s collection is perhaps a little too self-satisfied with its relationship to the world, this new book seems always a little uncomfortable, a little unhappy. Perhaps it’s because of the difficulty of getting together such a massive hard-copy project as this in the age of Wikipedia, which, before long, is going to dispatch the Britannica itself into the dustbin of history, let alone all these mockers thereof. This is one encyclopedia you can almost bet will never see the letter Z. This uneasiness comes out everywhere here, in articles, in its too perfect portfolio of color plates, its too exact seven-point reading guide at the beginning –

TITLES are centered, in small caps, and italicized. In some cases, the entry name is the title.

– as between the almost pornographic contrast set up by Jim Meetze’s elegant page & type design and Jason Pontius’ spectacularly ineffective cover, pink & teal, a combination fit for a child’s nursery (but only if you have mixed gender twins) that renders the typesetting on it all but illegible. The design of the Encyclopedia website, also Pontius’ work, is so much more effective that I’m driven to conclude that the cover is intentional.

Discomfort, like a bad conscience, like writing poetry while contemplating Adorno’s admonition that lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, is integral to certain states. If there is a thesis that inscribes Encyclopedia, I think that’s it. I’m not quite sure what to make of this, whether or not, for example, it’s like the aggressive abdication of editorial perspective Chain used to demonstrate by organizing issues around themes, then leaving everything within to the accidents of alphabetical order. My gut sense, tho, is that these phenomena are linked.

For what it’s worth, both encyclopedias contain entries for Anxiety, a word worth noting given this editorial stance, but both strike me as dodging the question, Andre’s version reprinting Schwerner & Kaplan’s entry from the Domesday Dictionary, a volume that was a clever way to pose an anti-nuclear tract with a Freudian tone, while the new book has a jokey piece by Praba Pilar that reads, in part,

“A” is for Afro-Geeks, the mind meld meeting of cyberloving media masters spewing forth on technophobia and the technophilia of the left out, knocked out, or dropped out. All they really want to know is: Are you in, or are you out?

The new Encyclopedia is out now, at a cost of $25 for the first volume or a subscription of all five for $300 (these are not math majors here). It’s available online or from a list of exactly eight bookstores, six of which are in Providence.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

 

I would say that I’m in Dutch again for something I’ve written but, the way things have been going lately, I’d start getting all kinds of complaining email from readers in the Netherlands. The offending statement is the following, from my note on Gael Turnbull October 4th:

There are gems like these everywhere throughout this book. Small, brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed poems, with an unmistakable ear. This last feature is especially worth thinking about, given just how different accents are in the U.K. compared with the United States. The number of, to use Charles Bernstein’s apt phrase, island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four – Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher – whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level. But I do think it’s an enormous advantage in the pure accessibility of the work.

The offended this time are British poets. I’ve received angry emails as well as snide ones, and been treated to a general thrashing on the UK Poetics listserv. Yet as I thought, foolishly I suppose, I had made perfectly clear, this wasn’t a comment at all on the relative quality of the work of any of the poets named above, but rather on how dialect can aid or hinder reader reception elsewhere. Or perhaps, and I think this may well be part of the question, on the relationship of dialect to representation thereof upon the page. This is not an easy issue to discuss, simply because what is “transparently clear” to one reader may well be opaque, or at the least translucent, to another. I probably should have covered myself better by writing “this Yank auditory canal.” But I didn’t.

The best example I know of this issue is the writing of William Carlos Williams. Once, some 36 or so years ago, David Melnick & I were talking with Josephine Miles on the UC Berkeley campus, where she had been teaching for many decades, becoming the first woman to receive tenure in the English Department there in 1947. We were discussing Williams, who at that moment was the iconic figure of plain speech in verse form. Not only was Williams the key poet behind the Projectivist or Black Mountain writers of the New American poetries of the 1950s, he served a very similar role for the Objectivists, who at that moment where just then coming back into print & prominence after a hiatus of nearly 30 years. The New York School plainly loved the late doctor, especially Frank O’Hara, & as for the Beats, Allen Ginsberg had virtually been his neighbor as a kid in New Jersey. He’d gotten Williams to endorse Howl really before any other established literary figure had, and Ginsberg himself had appeared as a character in Williams’ opus, Paterson. Further, with the then-current release of the Frontier Press edition of Spring & All, Williams seemed to be the most avant-garde thinker then going in the area of poetry. And, over on the School of Quietude side of the playground, one whole new tendency, just then coming to the fore, of poets who rejected the formally closed Anglophilia of the Boston Brahmin poets, likewise took Williams as an avatar for what they were then calling “open,” “naked,” or (my favorite) “leaping” poetry. In short, just seven years after his death, there was nobody in American poetry (save perhaps them Brahmins) who didn’t profess love for the doctor from Rutherford, NJ.

Thus, to pick from The Wedge, the 1944 book of Williams that most directly influenced the young New American poets who were just then coming of age as readers, something like “The Yellow Chimney” was the utter apotheosis of speech itself deployed in verse:

There is a plume
of fleshpale
smoke upon the blue

sky. The silver
rings that
strap the yellow

brick stack at
wide intervals shine
in this amber

light – not
of the sun not of
the pale sun but

his born brother
the
declining season

And a poem such as “The Poem,” also from The Wedge, suggested that Williams himself knew this:

It’s all in
the sound. A song.
Seldom a song. It should

be a song – made of
particulars, wasps,
a gentian – something
immediate, open

scissors, a lady’s
eyes – waking
centrifugal, centripetal

So it surprised me at least – I can’t speak for Melnick here – to hear Josephine Miles, age-wise closer to the Objectivists than to the New Americans & active in the world of poetry since the early 1930s, tell us that “we couldn’t hear him. When we started to read Williams, not just me but everybody back then, we didn’t know how to read those poems. They appeared shapeless and alien.” But to someone 15 years younger than Miles, Robert Creeley, it seemed immediately & instinctively obvious how these poems should be read, how they should be sounded aloud. And, indeed, Creeley’s own early style extends almost directly from the poems of The Wedge. Even now, I myself tend to follow Creeley’s own model for reading aloud when looking at these poems of Williams, pausing audibly at the end of each line.

Now this was at a moment relatively late in the consolidation of the New American poetry (Olson had just died, Spicer & O’Hara had been dead five and four years respectively, Blackburn & Lew Welch were soon to follow, Grenier would write “I HATE SPEECH” in the first issue of This this same year). Among other things, among the Projectivists there were disagreements as to the settled nature of the role of the linebreak as an indication of a pause, giving each poem its distinct syncopation. That same season, Denise Levertov had invited David Bromige & I to come into one of her creative writing classes at Berkeley to show the students there what “young poets” were up to, only to get into a huge argument with her when she insisted that a comma was “worth two linebreaks” when it came to a pause, whereas David & I both felt that the visual drama of line’s end & the turn back to the left margin dictated exactly the opposite conclusion – a comma inferred a small pause, a linebreak something bigger. This same year also Robert Duncan gave a reading in Berkeley over two nights of all of the sections of Passages then written, audibly counting to three at the end of each line in a whisper before reading the next.

Yet later I would hear, on more than one occasion, Creeley himself say that he was “stunned” to discover that Williams read his own poems with no particular audible annotation of linebreaks. Tape recordings of Louis Zukofsky, just seven years older than Miles, reveal him pausing at the end of every second line, treating one linebreak as a kind of a silent caesura, the next as a more audible stop.

So while we youngsters were then rebelling against some fixed & prescriptive conception of the relationship between writing & speech, our elders were sending us some very mixed messages as to what that prescription was supposed to be. No wonder Grenier concluded that the key to moving forward lay in overturning the prior paradigm.

I note that of the four U.K. poets whom I listed, three are from the north, with only Raworth having been raised in London, although what that means exactly I couldn’t tell you. Scottish English in particular fed into America’s Southern dialect, which then spread further after the Civil War wrecked the southern economy. But when I gauge my own version of American dialect, one dominant mode is “General American English” (35 percent of my responses), especially when accompanied by its closest cousin, “Upper Midwestern” (another 10 percent). Only 15 percent of my answers correspond to “Dixie,” less than half of the percentage (again 35) recognizable as “New England.” While none of my ancestors ever lived in New England, both of my maternal grandparents, who for the most part raised me, were first generation Americans, their immigrant parents having come to the North Oakland/Berkeley border more or less directly from London. Although neither showed a trace of accent that I ever detected growing up – does any parent? – they salted my vocabulary with enough of the London lexicon with which they had grown up, which is to say that I get that aspect of my language from the same city from which New England also drew many of its regional terms.

This leads me to think that it’s not so much the dialects of Bunting, Raworth, Clark or Turnbull that generate this response from me as it is the ways in which they tend to represent their language on the page. Specifically, the impulse of each is toward a shorter line. It may be as simple as that – when I look at something like Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems, I note that there some poems of his I hear much better than I do others. Almost without exception, the ones that make the most sense to my ear are those with shorter lines. But when he calls something with a longer line – maybe ten words per line – like “The Journey,” a prose poem, it makes a peculiar sense because I can’t hear it any other way. Similarly, it’s the short lines, especially in American Scenes, I can hear in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry, but when he shifts into a longer line it feels suddenly slack & unfocused. There are instances in his Selected Poems on which the two modes appear literally on facing pages (cf. “The Moment” beginning on page 144, versus “Writing on Sand,” starting on the next page). My immediate reaction is almost disbelief – how can someone who can attain the crystalline measure of

hints there
of a refusal
to bare oneself
to the elemental,
a pacing parallel
to the incoming onrush, a
careful circuiting
of the rock pools:
the desire to stay
dry to be read
in the wet dust

write on the facing page (and seemingly of the same experience) something as flaccid as

Watching two surfers walk toward the tide,
Floating their boards beside them as the shore
Drops slowly off, and first the knee, then waist
Goes down into the elemental grasp,
I look to them to choose it, as the one
Wave gathers itself from thousands and comes on:
And they are ready for it facing round
Like birds that turn to levitate in the wind.

It’s not that Tomlinson has changed his perspective – the same overblown claim of “the elemental” turns up in both poems – but when he needs to insert the pointless And at the start of the next-to-last line of the bottom passage, that poem’s puffiness passes beyond the point of no return. It’s not just that I could read “Writing on Sand” aloud & derive considerable pleasure from the experience & that I couldn’t read “The Moment” aloud at all (I’d dissolve into giggles), but rather I can’t hear its measure. It feels like so many pots & pans banging about in the kitchen.

Now I can make one of two assumptions from this experience. One would be that Tomlinson is an uneven poet, wildly so. But the other is that there are elements of language that cause him (and by inference whatever the ideal audience for that poem might be) to experience “The Moment” quite differently than I do. My guess is that at least half of the answer to this problem lies in that second assumption. And that in turn means – or at least I think it means – not that British poets who use shorter lines “are better,” but rather that there is some aural element to the language there, with all its many dialects, that I can’t get unless it’s delivered to me in relatively short lines.

If this is true for poets for whom the model of literary discourse is the spoken, it certainly should be true also for authors who are willing, a la Allen Fisher & J.H. Prynne, to expand their sampling of vocabularies & to go beyond speech itself as a template for language in their work. And that is the point I was trying to make when I got myself in trouble.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

 

When I think of Shirley Kaufman
I think of a poet
who attended
San Francisco State
roughly the same years I did,
not of somebody
who is 83!

§

Reading
Mahmoud Darwish
in Hebrew

§

Imagining
poets without notebooks
because they can’t
write longhand

§

More anxiety
about the web’s
impact on writing

§

A review of Sony’s
ebook reader

§

Selling off
one of the great libraries
of medieval manuscripts

§

A School of Quietude
poem
that I genuinely like

§

Koch fiends
thrive on instability

§

The next inescapable
book series
about to be transformed
into mega-movie
extravaganzas

§

A “former Dutch colonies
arts festival
in
Zambia
includes lots of poetry

§

Nate Mackey & H.L. Hix
are among
the poets on the shortlist
for the
National Book Award

Which was, for once,
not announced
in
New York

Ever the optimist,
I’m betting on Nate
to become the
first post-avant
to win such an award

§

Maya Angelou
outpolls
Garrison Keeler, Billy Collins,
Mary Oliver & Pablo Neruda
to win
the Quill Book Award
for poetry

§

“There is no such thing
as performance poetry”

§

The depths
of
the Nobel Prize

§

But this year’s winner
seems much more
promising.

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