Friday, December 15, 2006

 

For its 60th anniversary,
Chicago Review
has put online
work from its archives
including
seriously silly work of mine
from the 1960s,
plus pieces
by Al Young & David Bromige
from the feature
David Melnick & I
edited on poetry in
the SF Bay Area
in 1970

§

Check out also
the three items
excerpted
from the Spring1958 issue
that included
William Burroughs,
Jack Kerouac,
& Robert Duncan

(it was the fall number,
also including Burroughs,
that the university
suppressed)

(read Ginsberg’s letter
from the censored issue
here)

§

A history
of the Chicago Review
(PDF file)

§

Lyn Hejinian, Sharon Olds & Carl Phillips
have been elected
to the Board of Chancellors
of the American Academy of Poets

§

kari edwards
reads
(10MB mp3 file)

§

The Chicago Manual of Style
available by subscription
online

§

The Senate confirms
Dana Gioia
at the NEA
for four more years

§

The world’s first computer
is 2,100 year old!

§

Joshua Weiner
on
Kenneth Koch

§

Shelly Jackson
interviews
Vito Acconci

§

The painter is an ass
& thereby
loses his day job
as a teacher

§

Finding Borges
all over again

§

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

 

One of my kids was in the school play this past month, a performance of Reckless by Craig Lucas, but – and this says pretty much everything there is to say about life out here in Chester County – it was one of the other parents, herself a Conestoga grad, not the drama department director, who recognized that Lucas was likewise a graduate (class of ’69) of Conestoga High. Which is how my son ended up performing a couple of weeks back with the actual author in attendance. Later, Lucas spoke to anyone who wanted to stay, not just about the play and his subsequent career in the theater and film, but also about the isolation he had felt as a kid growing up gay, liberal, Jewish & adopted in Chester County in the 1960s. He and some friends had protested the war in Vietnam, for example, and been suspended from school. And he was not voted most likely to succeed.

But after Lucas performed in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim pushed him toward writing & Reckless did well enough as a play to end up as a film starring Mia Farrow (and with Scott Glenn & Mary-Louise Parker in the cast) back in 1995. Even before that, Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss had both been successful, both on the stage & on film, in each case with Lucas adapting his own play for the screen, Prelude securing a Tony nomination & running for over 400 performances. More recently, Lucas adapted Jane Smiley’s novel for the film, The Secret Lives of Dentists, a film I liked just fine when I saw it at the multiplex.

The Dying Gaul, Lucas’ first effort as director, played locally in theaters a year ago, getting fairly decent reviews, but audiences more along the lines what you would expect for an art house indie with a gay theme. It’s out on DVD & worth watching, but it raises for me troubling questions about the movies as a narrative genre.

I should note that I’ve always thought that narrative in poetry ceased to be necessary with the rise of the novel, particularly in the 19th century, but that narrative in the novel itself became problematic not only once the late realists & early modernists (especially Joyce) demonstrated that realism was just an effect, the predictable consequence of a series of devices, but also because cinema proved an even more effective narrative medium. So if, in fact, we find ourselves in an era in which the psychological dimensions of the “Oprah novel” have returned with a vengeance, when memoirs are a hotter genre among the trade presses than fiction itself, and when a poet like Alice Notley thinks to return narrative to poetry, it is – among many other things – a big red flag suggesting that something’s amiss at the movies.

The Dying Gaul is in fact three films in sequential order, albeit presented as if it were a single tale. The first is a psychological portrait of a film producer, played by Campbell Scott (who starred in both Longtime Companion and The Secret Lives of Dentists, and who co-produced Gaul), his wife portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, a terrific actress, and a young gay screenwriter, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard’s character has written a screenplay which the producer wants him to develop further, on the single condition that he convert its characters from gay to straight. But at the same time, both the producer and his wife are seriously coming on to the young playwright, who only a couple of months earlier lost his longtime lover to AIDS. This is by far the deepest, and most serious of the three plays in the picture. It’s a terrific relief to see three three-dimensional people in a motion picture, not a single thunderbolt or superhero costume in the crowd. It makes me long for the rebirth of Truffaut (who is even invoked by name) – we could imagine a long, lush gender-twisting variation of Jules & Jim and it would be a tremendous film.

But at this point one of the characters – I won’t say which – begins to play with the mind of one of the others by falsifying a chat-room identity. Why this occurs is never very clear – the ostensible reason in the script seems not that logical and its explanation so quickly passed over in the film that the three of us watching had to verbally check out that, yes, that was a discussion, all ten seconds of it, about using a private detective to check the background of one of the other characters, a detail never again mentioned. This part of the film is a psychological thriller, as the three characters find themselves increasingly deep in a mystery. Narratively, it moves the story forward, but it feels much thinner & less well conceived than the characters themselves. As a viewer, you begin to sort through the obvious plot options: A will do X to B, B will to do Y to C, etc.

There’s a twist of course, tho it’s been foreshadowed as heavily as a pistol on the mantelpiece, and it sets in motion the third, again very different movie, in which the stories come to their violent, lethal conclusion. Perhaps because character motivation in the second film seems so unclear, the third whirls past far quicker, as if the story had spun largely out of control. The conclusion ends the film or at least the sense of narrative motion, but hardly addresses the story.

One moment early in the film – when the writer is asked by the producer why the script is named for the famous sculpture – haunts me the morning after seeing the flick. The writer’s response is basically incoherent, although it seems clear enough that his screenplay is autobiographical, that the trip to Europe with the lover dying of AIDS did take place, and that the sculpture in some ways embodies all of his emotions of grief, despair & love. By the time we get to this film’s conclusion, one of the three characters will in fact “unwittingly” echo the posture you see in the image above, everything is narratively neat & tidy.

Which is precisely the opposite of life. And what is ultimately wrong with this film. The incoherent in situ response of the character who can’t get enough distance from his own life to understand its arc is a far truer picture than the chess-move-perfect closure of the final frame. Why is it that even an independent feature about how Hollywood changes scripts to pull away from reality must echo the very process it damns? Right now the triangle between film, narrative and life, at least from the perspective of Hollywood – and it would be hard not to think of Hollywood, or at least Malibu, in The Dying Gaul where 90 percent of the action takes place in this breath-taking pomo mansion, where the “infinity” swimming pool’s edge perpetually disappears against the Pacific horizon, much of the rest “at the studio” – feels positively toxic. This is hardly Craig Lucas’ problem alone &, indeed, his one real failure here is that his attempt to counter the system of plotwise irreality at the heart of the Dream Machine falls short, succumbing to the very disease it diagnoses.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

 

There is a wonderful, fascinating, even funny moment in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers when Alice Notley, in the midst of her profile, says,

I don’t have a poetics. I think that’s bullshit… I change my style all the time. I change the forms I use. The whole thing is in flux. I think that poetics is an industry.

Very clever to actually claim, as she does, one possible poetics right in the middle of that denial, and to do so in such succinct fashion.

There are of course hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poets whose process fits Notley’s depiction of a shapeless, unformed, perpetually haphazard oeuvre to a T, and there’s no particular reason to read any of them, bereft as they are of those dimensions in their work. So this is not, it is essential to note, an accurate characterization of Notley’s own actual poetics. What then is it?

Tone-wise, Notley’s claim reminds me of one of the poems or sections from Waltzing Matilda, a work I’ve always thought of as Notley’s breakthrough book, in the sense that no dunderhead from that point forward could ever again think of her simply as the bright young writing student who married Ted Berrigan. What I like about this poem, first of all, is how it opens with a sense of irritation, not so distant from “I think that’s bullshit”:

12/20

 

Here’s another scenario: He says

What we don’t need in America is peace & harmony

What we need is strife & revolution

But what he doesn’t realize is you need whatever peace &

Harmony you can get because most of your life is

Strife & revolution. What if he did distort the facts a

Little he didn’t distort them too much but he had a

90 thousand dollar house & that ended it with us

Right there. But him, when he’s confused

He says I’m confused & asks the advice of

A penniless bum poet, a poet whose poems he doesn’t

Really like, & whatever boy he’s sleeping with. That’s

Sense. Well we can settle down for at least a half hour now.

Are you in a position to sell ten? Go call Johnny.

I like society again, I think it’s all like in Charles Dickens

I’d been thinking too long it was like a Christopher

Isherwood book. Now I know I don’t have to save

The queers from the rich people just myself from the rich people. Poetry

Is totally bad for the brain. When I talk that way I can’t

Stand myself. I have hysteria. What the hell’s gonna

Happen tomorrow or any other day? I’m afraid I

Just blew my chances at the Nobel Prize. I won one

Of the prizes I give out. Do you think he

Still has fun? He has fun going for walks, say

On the way to the Ear Inn. He sees a girl’s dress

Fall off her & a dog run away with it in his mouth. You know

The kind of thing he sees, then he has fun.

                                                         What

Did you say?

                  I think most

Electrical appliances can be repaired via nipple,

Christmas tinsel & same old angel. You can’t

Do yourself right by yourself. No white

Shall ever see the tears of a Menominee. It was a full

Moon at 5 PM & pendant in the sky which wasn’t

Dark over the park, the same park where in

My dream of this morning the Martians landed.

A silver cylindrical aircraft that I knew was the

Martians because it could lower & raise itself

Absolutely vertically, so I ran into Marion who was rushing

Along looking happy Wait I said there’s the Martians

& I ran over by the bandshell & grabbed the kids

But then the spaceship really landed the Martians

Landed. Then I woke up. It was a good dream

Because it was the next day. The Martians had landed. I

Got up & ate a bialy & made myself a pot of coffee.

At one level, this poem demonstrates exactly the poetics Notley spells out in the Poets & Writers profile some 26 years later. The poem shifts topics right in the middle – it could seem aimless, or it could seem like the kind of diptych painting we used to see coming from someone like David Salle, in which one section of the frame has this brutal portrait of a poetry acquaintance, not particularly disguised (& remember, in 1980, $90,000 bought more than a crack house in a Midwestern ghetto), which segues into a narrative depiction of a dream. The transition between the “panels” of the poem, from “Well we can settle down…” through “Menominee,” takes up fully 21 of its 45 lines – nearly half. It’s fascinating to watch Notley attempt to negotiate that terrain. In one sense, that is the passage here that is closest to the writing of Berrigan pere, a poet concerned far more with notating immanence than Notley has ever been.¹ How do you negotiate that space in which writing continues, tho there is nothing to write? Notley in this poem twists uncomfortably this way & that – “I have hysteria” is not so far from on target – before getting (you can sense her relief) to her Martians.

2006 will be remembered as the Year of Alice Notley, what with her two major collections in one season – Alma, of The Dead Women, a new long poem – or series, which is how I read it, from Granary Press, and the dazzling Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005 from Wesleyan, bringing together material from most if not all of her more than 30 books.

Over time, Notley has emerged as a much more narrative poet – SPD’s website calls Alma a “poem/novel,” a term right out of Leviticus to my ear, tho there’s a truth to the way in which any of Notley’s mature works – my favorite remains Mysteries of Small Houses – invariably engages multiple genres, multiple forms, trying it often feels like to fathom out their boundaries, as tho she were inhabiting always two ghosts at once. Elsewhere in her profile, Notley says that before she went off to college (first Barnard, then Iowa City),

I grew up in this very small town in the Mojave Desert, and I thought people were only prose writers…. When I was eighteen or nineteen, I began very painfully writing my first stories, and I thought I would be, in the words of a T-shirt that someone once gave Larry McMurtry, a Minor Regional Novelist.

There is nothing minor about Alice Notley – and between Manhattan, England & Paris – she has obliterated most senses of the regional about her poetry as well. But there is, in all of her work, a deep loneliness – even when she’s living in the social whirlwind on St. Marks Place & raising small children – that is at the core of the “I” in her poems, whether in the autobiography of Small Houses or a consciously “regional” piece like “Species,” from Alma:

i have the eyes of a cactus and i have the roots of a crow

i have more pollen than anyone

i have the nose of an athel tree, i have the senses you can sense

i have the pollen of a black-chinned hummingbird

you can smell me in the rain

i have the pollen of a cottontail rabbit

i have the pollen of the busted iron chassis

i am talking to you in the rain i have the tongue of a desert willow flower

i have the nose of a tree i have the petals of a coyote i have the pollen of a snake

i have the petals of a coyote, i have the pollen of a jackrabbit

i fell apart i don’t have your parts and i never have to care any more

i have the pollen of a rattlesnake, i am all made out of dirt

you pluck me or throw a rock at me i fell apart i don’t car

i’m gravel that can hear you warbling

i fell apart, and so everything i am extends and you can smell me after the rain

i have the cream undersides of a person, i have the yellow throat of a person

i have all the words of tamarisk

i gave everything away all the parts you wanted me to have

i have the mind-extending-far of the rain

i have the mind-extending-far of a busted iron chassis

i don’t have who you said, i don’t feel what you said

i don’t have anything they said before, not who they said it was i don’t have that

Alice Notley has come a long, long way in her three dozen years as a poet, taking great care with every step, becoming somebody completely unlike either of her husbands, or for that matter anyone else at all. She may choose to deny that what she does constitutes a poetics, but that denial, it seems to me, is not just a part of that poetics (as surely it is), it’s also part of the conscious loneliness that makes Alice Notley’s work instantly unmistakable, regardless of the forms it may take.

 

¹ Which is why it has always made sense to group Berrigan with other poets of similar disposition, not just Phil Whalen & Anselm Hollo, but also Larry Eigner, who in more ways than either would have ever admitted was quite kin to Ted, whose sense of space on the page is perhaps the closest to Berrigan & who shares a very similar sense of being close to house-bound to the one that haunts Berrigan’s late work.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

 


Photo by John Tranter

It strikes me as bizarre that John Ashbery, of all people, never has received a National Medal for the Arts. The medal has been given out now for 21 years to 8 to 10 recipients per year, including both individuals and organizations. Of the more than 200 medal recipients, the entire list of poets ever to have received this honor is:

Anthony Hecht, 2004
Maya Angelou, 2000
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1995
Richard Wilbur, 1994
Stanley Kunitz, 1993
Robert Penn
Warren, 1987

Need I say just how pathetic that list is? Gwendolyn Brooks and the Five Dwarves represents the whole of poetry over, say, the last half century? It’s high time we rectify this nonsense.

The National Medal doesn’t need only to go to graybeards – Robert Duvall, Dolly Parton, Twyla Tharp, Ron (The Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days, The Da Vinci Code) Howard & Yo-Yo Ma have all received this acknowledgment of their lifetime achievement in recent years. Nor does it have to be only the most sclerotic practitioners – Wynton Marsalis has received one, tho Miles Davis never did. Nor did Anthony Braxton or Steve Lacy or Cecil Taylor. John Cage never received a medal, nor did Stan Brakhage, nor even Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. Nor, to come back to poetry, did Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Mac Low, Barbara Guest, Carl Rakosi or Robert Creeley. But Austin City Limits, Ralph Stanley, Buddy Guy, Rudolfo Anaya & Trisha Brown have all been named. Gregory Rabassa, the translator of Julio Cortázar, the great Oulipo fictioneer, was on the list in 2006. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott received one in 1998 in what was perhaps the medal’s single most interesting year, going also to Fats Domino, Agnes Martin, Frank Gehry, Philip Roth, Gregory Peck, Gwen Verdon, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and … Sara Lee Corporation (for its role as patron).

I believe that Ashbery would be among the first to acknowledge the hollowness of honors, as such, and there was a time – say, ten years ago when both Ginsberg & Creeley were still alive – when one could have had a rousing argument as to whom might be the most deserving of the New Americans to be the first to receive such an award. But time has settled that argument, and the social value of having any member of the New Americans – the single most significant generation of poets we have had over the past half century – acknowledged should not be under-estimated.

It may be worth noting that two-thirds of the poets named to date were chosen by Bill – “I had poets at both my inaugurals” – Clinton. Hecht’s appointment by George W. may seem pretty lame, but George H.W. managed to name exactly none.

All of the Objectivists are gone. There are at most a dozen of the 44 poets included in The New American Poetry still alive, half of whom one could argue are at least as deserving as any of the poets who have thus far received the medal. (Personally, I would love to see George Bush and Amiri Baraka together, but maybe that one’s not going to happen.) Poets from the generation after the New Americans – Joanne Kyger, Robert Kelly, Jerry Rothenberg – are now hitting their seventies. Recognition of America’s major literary tradition, the one that can trace its roots legitimately back not just to Pound but to Whitman, is overdue. Awarding John Ashbery this medal is an obvious first step. It’s long past time. Mr. Gioia, tear down this wall.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

 

The best reading I’ve heard in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the past couple of years took place last Thursday night, upstairs (and in the back – you had to know about it to find it, since there was zero store signage to indicate the event) at the Bryn Mawr Barnes & Noble. The readers were Jena Osman & Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Not counting the readers, there was an audience of exactly twelve. Maybe half of these were there at least partly to participate in the open reading that trails the featured readers. It felt odd to be in this bookstore within five miles of several great colleges (Bryn Mawr, obviously, but also Villanova &, to the south, Swarthmore, plus at least a half dozen smaller schools – this stretch of the western ‘burbs of Philly is second only to Cambridge in the density of high learning establishments) to have such great readers & such a small audience.

The reading wasn’t sponsored by any of the colleges, nor by any other public institution such as the Tredyffrin Public Library, where I’ve seen both Osman & DuPlessis before, in front of considerably larger crowds, albeit well outside of the “college belt” of the city’s inner suburbs. Instead, Thursday’s event was part of the Mad Poets’ Society’s (MPS) somewhat dizzying roster of readings. MPS has been around now for just under 20 years, having gotten started as a poetry support group in Delaware County. One way that MPS reaches the broadest range of people is precisely by not settling in on a single venue, but rather rotating between eight or nine locations. Nowadays, it sponsors readings everywhere from Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus all the way out to West Chester. There’s another network out in Reading, PA, that covers the territory from out there all the way up to Kutztown State University just west of the Allentown/Bethlehem metro. And there’s a group out in Harrisburg (and it would seem Lancaster as well). Indeed, I get the sense that I could stitch together a loose network of such reading scenes pretty much all the way to the Pacific. I ran a writer’s workshop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the late 1970s & while the participants may have been somewhat different than the folks in Bryn Mawr – I had drag queens & junkies & prostitutes, seniors who’d waited until they were in their seventies to escape from abusive marriages, plus all manner of everyday street people¹ – the scene itself was remarkably continuous with what I saw last week at Barnes & Noble.

These are, for the most part, people who write poetry passionately, but who don’t read that much of it, certainly not enough to establish a historical sense of writing over the past century, say – the young woman who introduced DuPlessis referred to George Oppen as George Open. That she mentioned him at all meant that she’d been diligent enough to do her hosting homework, but could she have talked about the role of Objectivism in American poetry, or of Oppen’s relationship to that? Unlikely.

There was a time – 1965, to be exact – when I was myself in just such a space as a writer. The open reading series on Sunday afternoons at Shakespeare & Company books in Berkeley gave me an opportunity to test out my new work and, perhaps even more important, to make contact with other poets who were not necessarily further along in their careers than I. John Oliver Simon & Pat Parker were occasional readers, and Gerard Van der Luen was positively a star in this environment. None of us grew up to be the same kind of poets as one another – Van der Luen was an editor at Penthouse for awhile before getting into the tech side of things.

It was when our open readings were pre-empted in January 1966 for a memorial reading for somebody whose name was entirely new to me, that I first heard of Jack Spicer, and where I first saw Robin Blaser. And it was through this series that I first connected with small presses that began to publish my work.

I stopped participating there after I’d gotten to a point where I knew that I could get the best possible reaction by putting jokes into my poems, and then began to worry about the poet as stand-up comic manqué. That wasn’t who I wanted to become and, as much as I liked humor, that wasn’t exactly how I wanted to use it in my work. I don’t think I could have articulated this all that clearly back then, but what I really needed to do at that point wasn’t to read aloud, but to read the work of others voluminously. And when I first got to SF State that next autumn and couldn’t get into all the classes I wanted, that’s what I did. I read the poetry section of the library literally A to Z. Even then I was blissfully unaware that Blaser had been the poetry buyer there and that, at that moment in time anyway, the poetry collection at SF State was remarkably complete, especially on the emerging post-avant side of things.

Osman & DuPlessis gave great readings last Thursday because they’re superb writers at the top of their game, and wouldn’t do less just on principle. Among other things, Osman read work for a libretto she’s writing & it’s wonderful. I can’t imagine how it would sound set to music (and, introducing the poem, Osman conceded that this was a mystery to her as well.) DuPlessis read two sections of Drafts, one literally built upon doggerel, both as form and institution, and it’s a loopy, daring, questioning & wise poem, perfect for this audience in a curious way, but even more well suited, say, to the Segue readings at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, where people would catch its neo-Brechtian layer, its relationship to the poems of Charles Bernstein & post-Saussurean linguistics. It was one of those evenings where the poetry sticks in your mind for days afterward, tho I wondered just how many people in that audience heard the same reading that evening.

 

¹ The late Eskimo poet & novelist Mary Tall Mountain was an active member of the Tenderloin Writers Workshop, and, later on, Roberto Harrison was as well.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

 

One museum opens
in a new location
while another
is perilously close
to flickering out

§

A review
of
Boston’s ICA
suggesting
that the architecture
outshines
the art

(You’re not alone,
SF MoMA!)

§

Bruce Langhorne,
one of the great musicians
of the last half century
needs your help
(a note from Jonathan Demme)

§

What Gerard Van der Luen
was doing
in December
26 years ago

(with an odd sighting
of old NY School poet
Jonathon Cott)

§

Look who wants
to extend
©
now

§

George W. Bush
announced on Friday
that William Safire
will be honored
with the
National Medal of Freedom
for
polishing the language
which raises the question:
how would Bush know?

§

No fan of
Project Runway
can fail
to note the passing
of fashion genius
Van Smith

§

Jack Krick
has been adding
new pages
to the
Electronic Poetry Center’s
roster of contemporary poets
(322 to date)

Some recent additions:
Charles North
Jimmy Schuyler
Lorenzo Thomas
George Oppen

§

A new collective blog
worth noting is the
International Exchange for Poetic Invention
(Charles Bernstein & Ton van 't
Hof, proprietors)

 

§

For all of the great books
by living authors
Green Integer
has published,
it would appear
that just one of its
best sellers
is by or about
a living writer


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