Friday, November 17, 2006

 

The only
Thomas Pynchon
reading
you may ever hear

§

CNN’s film
of Pynchon
walking down the street

i n
  s l o w m o

(Winner:
Creepiest Analysis Award)

§

On finding a letter
by Pynchon
in the Library of Congress

(What is Elmer Fudd
doing in
Against the Day?)

§

The New York Times
weighs in
on the anniversary
of Howl

§

The Nation
arguing for
”the last antiwar poem”
prefers
Wichita Vortex Sutra

(it is a better poem,
but that’s not the point)

(the online version here
totally screws with
spacing & linebreaks)

§

Philip Glass’ setting
for
”Wichita Vortex Sutra”

§

On the
Downtown
literary scene
1972-92

(Note the use of Ginsberg
as a Times photographer)

§

Alan Ansen has died,
a curious link
between Auden & the Beats

§

Reading not much of anything
in
Tehran

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

 

Nate Mackey
has won
the National Book Award
for Splay Anthem

§

Norman Mailer
in
Texas

§

A letter from Günter Grass

§

Poetry & the politics
of the
Middle East

§

Dos amigos
(Bill & Sam)

§

Eric Bentley at 90
(not about to
write a novel)

§

Jack Williamson has died
after a sci-fi career
of 80 years

§

Dalkey Archive
& U. of
Rochester
cancel the wedding
(with a great quote
from Richard Kostelanetz)

§

 The man who saved
the NEA”

§

Hiding public art

§

What is the name
of this (
§) mark?

§

How can you tell
if a poem
is iconic?

They throw one
freaking
birthday party
after another
for it
on its 50th
birthday!

(Name one other
American poem
that has received
this treatment?)

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

 

Sometime today, the National Book Awards will be announced. Among the nominees in poetry are Berkeley’s Ben Lerner & Nathaniel Mackey of Santa Cruz, both fine writers. Also nominated are H.L. Hix, Louise Gluck & James McMichael, the latter two both representing FSG, the largest of the poetry advertisers.  If I have a personal preference in this for Mackey, it’s only because his decades of superb writing – groundbreaking poetry, groundbreaking fiction – and his work as an editor of Hambone over all these years raises his nomination to a level that none of the other poets on the short list can touch.

Lerner, tho, is also doing good work, and NO, the bi-annual journal he co-edits with Deb Klowden, is a positive joy to receive. Issue number five is a recent arrival at my door and it’s no exception – it may be the best issue yet. It’s a generally brilliant combination of design & editing with a great sense of focus that relatively few poetry periodicals ever achieve. Its trick, to call it that, is to be generous in the amount of space given to each of its contributors. The current number has 300 pages for just 27 people, at least counting by those listed in needlepoint (!) on the back cover, tho I notice that it doesn’t include the credit given to Judy Dater for her photograph of Barbara Guest or Che Chen for the needlepoint.

Contributors include a broad range of mostly familiar names with an orientation that reflects Lerner’s roots coming out of the writing program at Brown: both Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, C.D. Wright, Dallas Wiebe, Rae Armantrout, Clayton Eshleman (both as poet & as translator of César Vallejo), Barbara Guest, Kevin Killian, Aaron Kunin, Jacqueline  Waters, Tan Lin, Mark McMorris, Erín Moure, Lisa Robertson, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Juliana Spahr. There is also a complete opera by Robert Ashley called Empire that is at least partly a history of tomato sauce (I’m not making that up!). The CD enveloped on the inner back cover makes for an interesting, just slightly up-tempo meditation track.

But the person who gets my attention first, and most deeply, on my first reading is someone of whom I’ve never heard before, Amanda Nadelberg. What I know about her is that she used to live in Boston, but is in Minneapolis now and that Lisa Jarnot picked some work of hers for a chapbook award. Lisa’s instincts are right on. Here is the first of Nadelberg’s two poems, “Peninnah”:

There’s so little for
this place. A few
sandwiches and
some coffee and
free refills and then
her church (was
Catholic) and my
church consisted of
a dark room of sad
people. Do you
like my picture
map? I bought it
for myself with eight
dollars. We went to
Greenwich Village
where we did not see
any of my heroes.
We saw some
people but none
of them smiled.
Teeth in that
city can be
more special the
most special of
anything. Wear
them in your
mouth or find them
in the sink of a
fancy restaurant’s
washroom. That
bitch punched the
other one’s teeth
out and left them
in the sink right there.
Who would try
smiling after that.

Two things about this poem completely win me over. First is that it handles that radical shift in tone (and back again) with what I can only call complete élan. The second is its use of what I think of as Alan Dugan’s linebreak. Contrast this – or for that matter, the following poem of Nadelberg’s, “Rella” – with something like Dugan’s famous poem, “Poem”:

Whatever was living is dead
and a lot of what was dead
has begun to move around,
so who knows what
the plan for a good state
is: they all go out
on the roads! Wherever
they came from is down,
wherever they’re going
is not yet up, and everything
must make way, so,
now is the time to plan
a
new city of man.
The sky at the road’s end
where the road goes up
between one hill and ends,
is as blank as my mind,
but the cars fall off
into the great plains beyond,
so who knows what
the plan for a good state
is: food, fuel, and rest
are the services, home
is in travel itself,
and burning signs at night
say DYNAFLO! to love,
so everything goes.

Dugan actually makes less use of enjambment here than does Nadelberg – there are other works of his that use more – but the essential formal premise of both is of a linebreak so very soft that it is barely audible. If Charles Olson (to pick a polar opposite) were the linebreak equivalent of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, Dugan & Nadelberg are Satie & Messiaen.

The other work in the issue that feels especially worth noting is what amounts to a sizeable chapbook entitled The Kansas Poems by Dallas Wiebe, who like the Waldrops (&, later, Bob Perelman, Tom Clark & Jane Kenyon) comes out of the writing program at Michigan. In fact, since most pages in this segment of the journal have two poems, this could easily have been a full-length book, tho many of the poems are two or three lines long (and some shorter). Just as Dugan used to title a lot of poems “Poem,” virtually half of Wiebe’s book consists of poems with the simple title “Tornado.” As in, to pick three from different places not quite at random:

In Cincinnati
I long to see one.

*

After the storm,
oatmeal tasted awfully good.

*

Come again.

As is often the case with Wiebe’s work, I find myself wanting to like these poems a lot more than I finally do. A good contrast to these poems might be the work of Robert Grenier, especially his writing from Sentences to A Day at The Beach, where individual poems often operate at the same length. Grenier’s work almost always invoke dimensions of language & of the ear (or, occasionally, the graphemic), whereas Wiebe’s seldom do, opting instead for little social insights. The result is that Wiebe’s poems too often feel flat & one dimensional, in spite of their almost infinite good nature.

No is hardly a perfect journal. I’m not at all persuaded of the idea of different types of paper for different sections – which the length of the libretto for Ashley’s Empire isn’t able entirely to fill, for example, leaving blank pages mid-journal as the design feature from hell. Geezers like me will be reminded of the old magazine Trace from the 1960s and this didn’t look good then either. Similarly, the combination of contributor’s notes with the table of content yields the front material all but unfathomable.

But overall the work transcends the limits of the production. I’d much rather have No take a chance with Dallas Wiebe and fail, then not take chances at all. And again & again here, from Rae Armantrout to Kevin Killian, from Jackie Waters to Lisa Robertson, No’s editorial instincts prove solid.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

 

On Wednesday of last week, there was a book party & reading for Charles Bernstein’s latest collection, Girly Man, at Kelly Writer’s House. It was instructive to get to hear Bernstein & Barrett Watten in something akin to a back-to-back format to get a sense of just how very wide the range of poetries can be that are known historically as language writing, for while their deepest long-term goals are quite similar, their strategies as poets could not be further apart. Nor are these the only two poles of difference one might find among the langpos – take Clark Coolidge, especially the early work, & Rae Armantrout as two others & maybe you will start to get a sense of just how radically wide – or perhaps widely radical – langpo truly is. Maybe add another axis with Hannah Weiner & Tina Darragh as its “logical” pair of opposites. You could take any five of these examples & then pose the question about the sixth, Why is he/she a language poet? and it would almost feel like a plausible question.

Of all the language poets, Watten is perhaps the closest to the tradition of the troubadours, and especially of the concept of trobar clus, a literature that pulls out all the stops & tries to be all that language might be, that makes conscious demands on readers & expects them to actually want these demands, & to understand the pleasure that comes in reading a dense (if not “difficult”) text. The experience at the end of one of Watten’s works, especially those that go more than a single page, is not dissimilar from the feeling one has at the end of a good workout in the weight training facility, or perhaps great sex – one feels the muscles used, there is a “burn” that lingers, an exhilaration integral to the event. The ambivalence and irony that circulate about the title of Watten’s masterpiece, Progress, operate on so many different levels, for example, that one never fully exhausts them: it is true & not true at a dizzying rate.

This approach places Watten into a literary tradition that has clear antecedents in the work & life of Louis Zukofsky, with some aspects of Ezra Pound, with the Williams of Spring & All, and beyond them with the critical writing – and the role of critical writing – of Coleridge. If Watten is a troubadour, he is most definitely an Enlightenment one. He comes closer to Habermas’ model of returning to modernism – Watten’s preferred term is constructivism – and this time getting it right than any other poet I have ever met. As a result, Watten is the ideal test case for an argument – my argument, anyway – that langpo ultimately is not post-modern, but rather an argument with modernism & postmodernism alike.

If Watten’s approach to the reader is in your face, Bernstein comes from virtually every other direction. He is the most Brechtian poet America has yet produced, concerned not with demonstrating everything language can be (indeed, there is a deliberate slightness to his writing), but rather unveiling all the social processes through which we process – and by inference misprocess, dysprocess, malprocess – all the language we consume. I sometimes imagine Watten’s poems as being not unlike the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’re inescapable & force readers to confront the Other. Bernstein’s poems, in contrast, are more like the deadpan (but deadly) computer HAL in that same flick: I’m sorry, Dave. I cannot do that.

I think it’s easy – and this is the primary risk in Bernstein’s work – to mistake him for, or take him merely as, a “funny poet,” the hip version of Billy Collins. It’s possible to read Girly Man just this way, consuming it straight through because it goes down as easily as a comic novel. In fact, a good reading of this book would prove to be almost the antithesis of that. Take a look, for example, at this close reading I did more than three years ago of “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” one of the key poems collected in this edition. It is, of course, completely possible to read that poem straight through, to sense the ironies, and to move on. But to actually read the poem takes an effort of a whole other order. And the poem doesn’t necessarily let you know that.

I vacillate as to whether Watten or Bernstein has the much more reader friendly model for poetry. In one sense, you can get there, wherever there might be, either way. But it is possible – I know because I’ve heard people make the argument – to say that Watten writes only for those willing to make the effort to get deeply into his poems & that to others his work can seem intimidating. However, Bernstein writes in a way that allows some – how many is anybody’s guess – to think they’re reading him when they’re not getting it at all. That is exactly the point being made in “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” but how many will really follow through, acting on the implications of that text? Watten comes as close as is humanly possible to ensuring that nobody who attempts to read his poetry seriously is going to misread it. Bernstein flirts with that result all the time.

One consequence of this is that I know readers who love one of these poets & despise – basically just don’t get – the other. My argument would be that you need to understand, to really “grok” in Robert Heinlein’s sense of that term, the logic within each path. Both, I would argue, are absolutely necessary.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

 

Barrett Watten was in town this past week and, as the trope would have it, was taking no prisoners, offering two dense, high-energy events open to the public under the auspices of Temple University, the first on Thursday at Temple’s downtown center near City Hall, the other the following night at the Slought Foundation gallery out in University City. The first was billed as a reading, the second as a talk. Both used text, discourse, & visuals – the talk went beyond PowerPoint & html to include a video replay of Bruce Andrews having his way with Fox attack dog Bill O’Reilly as well as the post-velvet tones of Wolf Eyes, a noise band that I would characterize as Iannis Xenakis meets Sonic Youth or perhaps Pere Ubu filtered through the ears of Brian Eno.

The subject was negativity and the endless problem of how to avoid subsequent incorporation into the omnivorous culture that commodifies, recuperates & tames all that enters its yawning maw. Tho Watten mentioned Dylan only once in his talk – to note how the Malibu troubadour’s recent work continues to reflect the restlessness that has been that singer’s edge now for over 40 years – the tune I couldn’t get out of my head began

When you're lost in the rain in Juarez
An' it's easter time too
An' your gravity fails
An' negativity don't pull you thru
Don't put on any airs
When you're down on rue morgue avenue
They got some hungry women there
An' they really make a mess outta you.

which is the first verse of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” just possibly my favorite set of lyrics in the entire Dylan canon. That title is so typically Dylan as well: not, pointedly, Tom Thumb’s Blues, but rather just like them, so that there is a reference to something we finally never quite get to see.

This peek-a-boo effect bedevils all modes of radical particularity as well. Some innovation in the field of art comes along – paintings of soup cans, the new sentence, the use of “raw” sound in music, uncreative writing – and within three decades you can better believe it will be all thoroughly bracketed by gobs of buttery art theory, just one more ounce of frosting on the layer cake of the real. Noise music as a genre traces its roots back to John Cage & comes pre-packaged with its own protest group, Mothers Against Noise (MAN). Recuperated avant la lettre? You bet.

The problem of recuperation, of one avant-garde after another perpetually “selling out,” has ultimately to do with that preposition out. Not unlike the old sixties shibboleth turn on, tune in & drop out, avant-gardes soon learn that there is, literally, no outside, no out position, that it is always already a location inscribed well within whatever the social field might be. You want to avoid working for a living & getting by on SSI & food stamps? Be forewarned that you will turn very quickly into what the phrase “SSI & food stamps” implies. Dylan himself once ventured that “to live outside the law you must be honest,” which only barely conceals the deeper reality that to live outside the law, you must nonetheless reside within the criminal justice paradigm.

I have used the term post-avant to suggest that there is a further possible condition, one that doesn’t so much erase the problem of permanent negativity as to step beyond getting caught up in the debris field of habitual recuperation. It does this not just by abjuring the more nonsensical elements of the avant garde’s historical origins within a military metaphor, but even more by focusing instead on the process of recuperation as such. If, say, the negativity of a band such as Wolf Eyes is always already doomed, the act of giving a talk at a space such as Slought on the domestication of noise bands carries within itself a residual radicalism that the Ann Arbor band cannot reach.

Andrews’ confrontation with O’Reilly is one possible example. Not only is Andrews not willing to accept the simplistic red-baiting that is O’Reilly’s primary – indeed only – critical move, Andrews demonstrates (repeatedly) that O’Reilly has not read the book in question, that O’Reilly does not understand the context of the class in which the book is being used, that O’Reilly does not understand the perpetually contingent process of pedagogy itself. And that O’Reilly is willing to proceed willy-nilly without such basic levels of comprehension, the logical equivalent of a chain smoker in a fireworks factory.

Watten’s own critique is another such example. Indeed, what may have been most powerful about Watten’s two events in Philadelphia was the degree to which they manifested & confirmed the importance of the critical as a key dimension of the creative. It is that, more than anything else, that separated out language poetry during its heroic moment in the 1970s from all the other modes of post-New American writing. Nobody gets that better than Watten – it is what he & Andrews have most in common – and nobody does it better than Watten either.

So this is where negativity’s negation – positivity, the positive – relates directly to its cognates position and preposition. Out’s role as the latter, as a device for making possible the process of positioning itself, is at once both decisive and false. This is why the new always occurs at the margin, a disruption from the barbarians rather than an innovation within. Yet it is only by pre-positioning out’s place as somehow beyond an imaginary limit that it can function as such. If in fact out is understood as an ascribed position – this is not poetry, this is not a pipe – then its move clearly is one within the system. And it is only by acknowledging this that this system itself can start to come into view.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

 

An interview with Ben Lerner

§

Ellen Willis
has died

§

Those who have drunk the Kool-Aid
wait for it
to take effect

§

Reader’s digest
(literally)

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