Friday, December 22, 2006
From an article in the New York Times about yet another bookstore closing:
There are currently about 2,500 independent bookstores in the
At this rate, which I actually suspect is still accelerating, the number of independent bookstores in another 14 years will be well below 1,000, maybe even less than half that.
Now let’s ask the next question. How many of these bookstores have a decent poetry section? And what do I mean by decent? That’s one of those questions like defining obscenity – you know it when you see it – but I think it tends to have a few obvious characteristics:
It’s not the furthest most back corner of the store.
It’s more than a single section of one book case.
Most importantly, a majority of the books are from small presses. University presses, by any definition, are not small presses.¹
And a sizeable majority of the books should be by living authors as well.
Beyond that, I think it becomes a question of taste, of which books as much as the mere presence of them.
So just how many of the 2,500 independent bookstores in the
City Lights in
I’m less certain that Open Books in
So the only other store I can think of right now that comes close to fitting my definition of having a decent poetry section might be Moe’s in
I’m sure – or at least I hope – that I’ll get a lot of comments today from folks about other bookstores that fit my four criteria. But I’m not going to hold my breath.
I used to feel that authors who put links to Amazon on their websites for their own books were being somewhat traitorous to independent bookstores. After all, if poetry distribution were up to Amazon & the two big chains, we’d all be reading Garrison Keillor anthologies or swooning at the latest translation of Rilke. But the question really is which independent bookstores. I can’t direct readers to my books at Modern Times because it won’t have them. Woodland Pattern doesn’t sell books online & Open Books does so only on a token basis. Indeed, tho it has a lively enough website, targeted mostly at events, exhibitions and fundraising, I could only find one image on the web of the outside of Woodland Pattern at all, on Bob Arnold’s website, which I’ve put up at the top of this note. That’s Cid Corman on the left.
So my links for my own books go first to the publisher if it has any kind of decent page for the item, and, if not, then to SPD. I’m always happy to support independent bookstores. But, frankly, if they can’t meet those four simple criteria, supporting independents bookstores feels pretty hollow. If they were all to disappear, we would have to get over any lingering delusion that poetry and “the book industry” have anything other than an incidental relationship with one another. And that might even be healthy.
¹ Think about it. There are at least 4,000 books of poetry now being published each year in the
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Sometimes the best things come in small, even mysterious packages. The envelope at first looked like a Christmas card. That’s what my wife and I both thought it was. Instead of a return address, tho, there is only the word, printed on the envelope, all in bold caps: VIGILANCE. The cancellation over the stamp read
What I know about Rob Halpern is roughly zero. He had a book published by Krupskaya a couple of years ago which received this review in Jacket, but is still sitting, with several hundred other volumes, in my “to be read” bookcase upstairs. He read at some point at Moe’s, where the fuzzy photo above was shot. The confluence of Moe’s, Krupskaya and blurbs for Rumored Place from Bob Glück, Camille Roy & Taylor Brady suggests that he lives somewhere in the Bay Area. A quick check of Google Desktop and I find that he & I are both on the same mailing list for a reading series in
I can see why. This is a gorgeous little work, hand-sewn on lush paper, the cover with a deckled edge at the bottom, as perfect a volume as you can imagine given that the text inside, from cover to cover, is just 38 lines long. I could, were I the perverse type, print the entire book right here. But I’ll restrain myself – I want you to have to figure out where to get this book & then to do so. But here is a single page’s worth – two of the work’s 12 tercets, plus one of its two single lines that I think of as floaters. At the head of the page is a large period, a section divider as I read it. And there is one at the head of the following page as well.
Then his voice just petered-out becoming
Strands of pale blue smoke he was gaunt
As an old crane and just as wild as what
I’d be anything to wind you back around
Reacquaint ourselves with lost sensation
Invent a world to save us from the world
Just feel this –––– damaged roadside fridge
The line is clearly neither New American in the “imitates the breathing patterns of spoken English” sense nor the deadened drumbeat of traditional meter. Earlier we have seen “tho” and, in italics, “phynance,” suggesting an almost Poundian sensibility at play. But the way statements begin he was gaunt midline suggests a very different ear at work altogether.
I would hesitate to say that there is imagery at work, at least no more than is visible in the lines above, tho what there is of it calls to mind, more than once, the devastating hurricanes of ’05 (there are two visual analogs to the word crane above, both of which apply here). The sense of being constructed, almost hammered together, is reinforced by using the four-en-dash system here. The one in the section above is the eighth in the book.
What makes all this work, of course, is how the section builds up to the concreteness of its final phrase, one of those absolute moments of identification where you know exactly what the author is implying by this image, tho never before have you ever read these words precisely together before: damaged roadside fridge. Tho Halpern’s aesthetic feels quite different, if I can venture so broad a judgment based on less than 40 lines, his sense of concision here reminds me of the best of Joseph Massey & Graham Foust, our contemporary masters of minimalism. There is no waste anywhere.
This makes for a powerful little book, every bit as sad & sardonic as its epigram:
No ‘force of nature’ did this.
I want to argue that Disaster Suite is a must-have publication. But unless author or publisher send me contact data¹, the gulf between must-have and have may just remain absolute.
¹ I won’t use his email address from that list without Halpern’s okay.
Labels: Rob Halpern
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Perhaps this is a question for Gary Sullivan, someone who knows in some depth the world of the graphic novel &, behind it, the several generations now of comic book artists since The Yellow Kid who have contributed to popular culture. While I was a reasonably serious consumer of comics as a kid – Leslie Scalapino & I were both dedicated fans of the Classic Comics series, which did more for education than, say, the No Child Left Behind act – I can’t say that I’ve paid that much attention later in life. Yet with Pulitzer-Prize winning Art Spiegelman having been all but formally anointed the official graphic novelist of the New Yorker & more than a few summer movies each year deriving from the genre – the last one I saw was V for Vendetta, moderately entertaining as yet another vehicle for the curious acting career of Hugo Weaving, but American Splendor a couple of years back was in fact delightful – I bit when one of my sons made the pitch to me that I seriously needed to read Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, which won a Hugo and, as it notes on the bright yellow cover, was once listed as “one of Time Magazine’s 100 best novels.” To which I can only reply: consider the source.
There is no question that Watchman is important historically, simply because it established the graphic novel as genre, and that it clearly wanted to be taken seriously from day one.
At one level,
Now we close in a little more. All we can see of Quatermain now is a sliver of his profile over to the left of the panel, looking away from us with widening eyes and an expression of dawning mute shock towards the background, across the other side of the counter. To the right of the middleground, we can see the Si Fan guy looking angry and agitated as he waves the half-melted brush under Shen Yan's nose. We can't see much of Shen Yan, since he is nearly off the right of the panel here, but what we can see of him looks abashed and apologetic. More to the left centre of the middleground, the door behind the counter has now swung open even wider. Looking through it we see a terrible, bizarre, and at first confusing scene. Sitting on an ornate stool with his back to us, wearing a long and magnificent looking robe and a mandarin's pillbox hat, his pig tail hanging down the back, we see a rear view of our devil doctor. In his right hand he holds up a paintbrush. The tip of it, thick with paint, is smouldering. Standing on the floor to our right of the seated doctor we see a kind of raised pot or brazier. Smouldering in it is some sort of thick and caustic liquid. The doctor pauses with his brush in hand as if he were an artist considering his next stroke. In the background beyond the seated doctor, hanging with his wrists bound together and attached to a beam above his head, we see a terrified and agonized looking Chinese man who is stripped to the waist and facing us over the top of the doctor's head, which is turned away from us. There is a gag in the man's mouth, so that he cannot scream. His black hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat, and sweat stands out in beads on his brow. This is Ho Ling, a minor opium trader of Limehouse mentioned in Thomas Burke's "London Nights" if you're even remotely interested. He is quite a big man, maybe running slightly to flab. Painted in a vertical row down the middle of his naked chest are a number of Chinese characters (again, I'll have to wait until I've consulted Steve Moore before I can tell you what they actually are). All of these characters are smoking and smouldering. They are painted onto the man's chest in some sort of terrible acidic, caustic goo that the devil doctor is using instead of paint. Over to the right, the Si Fan guy and Shen Yan continue their Chinese conversation.
If the tale itself in Watchmen reads like a storyboard for a film, the instructions to the artist from this other project come closer to a 19th century novel. But as the casual, off-hand tone (“if you’re interested”) of these instructions suggests, Moore’s focus here isn’t on literary style, nor even in laying out all of the details, tho one senses, both from glimpses into his process as well as the values expressed through his characters, that Moore personally is quite the control freak.
Particularly spooky, given that Watchmen was first published in 1986-87, is not just that it envisions all this occurring with an act of terror in Manhattan (and with a pretty direct connection to Afghanistan, no less), but that – just like George, Rummy, Cheney & Wolfie – the volume ends with no vision at all as to what happens next? As in, what happens when it turns out that old habits come back and the unifying moment of pacification devolves back into the same ol’ same ol’?
The arguments one wants to make here – for example, that there is no voice anywhere in the novel for a democratic (small d) perspective – are of the order one sometimes one wants to make after seeing, say, a Philip K. Dick novella turned into a movie – think of Total Recall, whose political ideas director Paul Verhoeven once suggested were there just to make the film intellectually crunchier. Stylistically,
So Watchman & quite a few other graphic novels want to be taken seriously, but end up as fodder for B-movies while nobody suggests making films out of the far more serious novels of David Markson, Paul Auster, Carole Maso or Gilbert Sorrentino, or even a best-seller like Don DeLillo’s Underworld. To what degree are graphic novels storyboards for film projects, and to what degree not? And where, precisely, is the writing?
¹ This may have been
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Heck of a job, Gracie!
who made The Nation,
America’s oldest progressive journal,
a hotbed of neocon poetics
& the home room
of the School of Quietude,
has left her position
as poetry editor there
after 34 years
will replace her
on Hart Crane’s
In addition to
the Electronic Poetry Center,
& the British Electronic Poetry Center
as centers for gathering
links & data
about the poets of a given nation,
there is also the
Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library
The supermarket in California
where Allen Ginsberg
once saw Walt Whitman
”A Supermarket in California”
will become the site
of a supermarket
“Two Buck Chuck”
Making the white space
in the language
(of many good)
to my note yesterday
is this item
from the MailBucket
but it’s truncated
& I have no idea
who wrote it!
A tale by
“and, now, the wizened poet”
The Washington Times
with Lemony Snicket jokes!)
A contemporary Indonesian poet
is translated into English
Review of a grim bio
of William Burroughs, Jr.
Monday, December 18, 2006
I’ve been reading The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan for what must be the sixth or seventh time. Not only does reading this series every few years never get old, my experience is that, for me at least, it has never been the same book twice. Reading it now in the sumptuous UC Press edition of Berrigan’s Collected Poems, I am struck with the air & light & infinite good humor that is at the heart of these poems. I’m particularly taken with the first two qualities, reinforced as they are by the large fields of white space the 6-by-8 UC format extends to the text. I agree with Alice Notley’s assertion in her introduction to the Collected that “The Sonnets, in fact, could reflect no other setting than”
I like to beat people up
absence of passion, principles, love. She murmurs
What just popped into my eye was a fiend’s umbrella
and if you should come and pinch me now
as I go out for coffee
… as I was saying winter of 18 lumps
Days produce life locations to banish 7 up
Nomads, my babies, where are you? Life’s
My dream which is gunfire in my poem
Orange cavities of dreams stir inside “The Poems”
Whatever is going to happen is already happening
Some people prefer “the interior monologue”
I like to beat people up
Ellipsis in the original, as they say. If there was a better sonnet in the 20th century, more complex & subtle, more full of human emotion or life, more well crafted, it’s somewhere else in this same sequence, but it’s of course always open to debate.
There are 79 poems gathered into this particular edition of The Sonnets, a few from as early as 1961, the bulk from 1963. That’s 13 more than appeared in the first two editions, but still nine less than Berrigan actually wrote. Given that he used cut-up or splicing techniques, some of them in such a way that you can’t miss the device – the same lines pop up over and over – and that some of the source material was his own very first “not-so-good” (to use Notley’s own judgment here) poems, I’ve wondered – during maybe three of my read-throughs – if a devoted scholar could reconstruct the “uncut” poems, the translations from Rimbaud, the miscellaneous additions that, in fact, make these so much more than verbal collages.
The very first work in The Collected Poems, The Sonnets is in some ways the most radical poetry Berrigan would ever write. Notley calls it, rightly, “Ted’s most famous book.” It is probably the work through which more poets have learned the core strategies of abstraction in language – it doesn’t have to be “non-referential;” a line, a phrase can go in one direction, the next one along an altogether different path; the whole itself will pull together disparate elements to construct “a voice,” etc. – than any other single text.
There was, in the late 1960s & throughout much of the 1970s, some dispute among younger poets as to who might have been the actual source for such procedures in poetry. The core of The Sonnets was constructed in 1963, one year after John Ashbery published “Europe,” the work of his that most clearly “predicts” the poetry of Berrigan (and not just The Sonnets), one year earlier in The Tennis Court Oath. William Burroughs, in his 1965 Paris Review interview with Conrad Knickerbocker (which I’ve also been rereading this week), assigns credit to Brion Gysin, but does so in a way that is carefully hedged:
A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in
The argument thus goes: Gysin did it first, tho maybe there were others, and in any event there are antecedents dating back to the high modernists, so does it really matter? What counts is that Gysin blew my mind. Burroughs makes a similar claim at the start of his essay, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin:”
At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara the man from nowhere proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. A riot ensued wrecked the theater. André Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement and grounded the cut-ups on the Freudian couch.
In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin painter and writer cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. Minutes to Go resulted from this initial cut-up experiment. Minutes to Go contains unedited unchanged cut ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose. The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point) had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.
The Wikipedia article on cut-up techniques largely replicates the Burroughsian view. The “as far as I know” qualification of the interview, however, suggests that, even by 1965, Burroughs had begun to hear of the cut-ups and chance techniques of others, such as the work being done in
Cut up, an analogous technique used, more occasionally than supposed, by William Burroughs, himself British-based for a while in the 1960s, was practised by Cobbing as far back as the 1950s. The procedural and permutational works of the Oulipo movement, founded in 1960, and still active, suggests another relationship, one seen in Cobbing’s sideswipe at the inane figurative play of much contemporary British poetry when he generates lines such as ‘rock ’n roll makes me feel like roly-poly / a little lechery makes me feel like spotted dick’ from Liz Lochhead’s ‘a good fuck makes me feel like custard’.
Jackson Mac Low, forever attentive to documenting his forays into new territory, notes in Representative Works: 1938-1985, that his initial two “biblical poems” were “the first works I composed by means of chance operations (
In /_____/ /_____/ wherein the /_____//_____/
/_____//_____/ eat lest they /_____/ and taken /_____//_____/ the
A text that appears to predict Armand Schwerner’s later The Tablets.
Earlier even than Mac Low, however, is Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On, written originally in 1953. Like Berrigan’s The Sonnets a decade later, one could argue that The Sun is Koch’s most radical, even his best work. However, because The Sun didn’t come out in book form until Black Sparrow brought it out with a Larry Rivers cover in 1969¹, long after Koch’s role as the straight clown amid the gay
Bong! went the faery blotters; Ding Dong! the
Country of Easter! shore! each toes
The marriage-bin, shouts of “Conch!” “Ruthie” “Lurks
Behind the ‘pea’ is basement’s
Obtuse radio-lithograms!” “Coptic!” and “Weak Beddoes
Less-us-the- shirt!” Ran behind me-Vishnu, all
Summer. Closet of how it seems! O bare necks
In October, closest apparent “film star” of the
Pier condescension. O haughty chapter how
Clear was as apparent cruelty, bonnet,
List, tackles the lace. Hump chariots the summer
Either desires. Ether, so tall
As ice, sees her cuckoo hooves at desire
Margin. Amour dodo cranberries. There
”Art,” “blamelessly,” cashes, D’s, weds hat’s
HEADS! Joyous , different clams!
Oh the word “flotation”’s cosined beaver rotation beneath
The “seelvery” dog-freight cars, mammoth
Stomach-quiz-raspberries we parent
Cuckoo Mary coast-disinterest verst of “cheese” diversed
Flags of the “comma stare” rewhipped
Of pale “plates,” the bitter “nurse” soothing “ha”-green “stangs” forward!
Clearly Koch is using more than just cut-up materials – his ear forwards the play along in several places – there is even the alphabet (”Art,” “blamelessly,” cashes, D’s). But if Koch is being less systematic than, say, Mac Low, I think it’s impossible to imagine just writing this, say, as it came to him. That really doesn’t become possible, so far as I can tell, until sometime in the early 1970s, most probably in the work of Clark Coolidge, specifically after he dropped the idea of the long poem he’d embarked on after Polaroid and The Maintains, works that equally problematize normative syntactic integration into units of meaning, but do so using systems throughout. Look, say, at Quartz Hearts instead.
So either Koch is 20 years ahead of everyone, but then does nothing with this discovery, a scenario that makes no sense to me, or more likely he is just ahead of Mac Low, Cobbing, Gysin & Burroughs, this same disrupting methodology getting invented repeatedly over the course of one decade.
Another way one might look at all this is in terms of proprietary anxiety, the cut-up as intellectual turf. Here it seems that you have Burroughs at one extreme – it’s not really his move, but Gysin’s, but you Burroughs promoting it from that point forward – and Mac Low clearly is interested as well, tho taking a much wider view if you look at the whole of his career (he’s a veritable engine of different ways of disrupting the ego in the process of writing), while at the other extreme you have Koch, Berrigan & Ashbery, commenting very little if at all on their work in this vein, doing one major piece, then moving on to other work. Cobbing & Gysin work on a third level, people who didn’t go around making major formal claims, but whom others chose to single out as inventors of this exact device.
Ultimately, it’s always the same move – get away from the continuity of syntax & tale & suddenly the reader is plunged into the presentness of what is in front of them. It’s always present, always demanding to be negotiated, interpreted & never getting easier even if you can. Individually, the works that rise out of this breakdown in the narrative chain are all quite different – Berrigan’s “I like to beat people up” isn’t a line we would associate with Ashbery & it’s a lot cheerier than a number of similar statements that occur in Burroughs. But a lot more important than figuring out just who should get credit for cutting up & folding in is fathoming just why this move at this exact moment in history.
¹ Having appeared in a format that telescoped all 104 stanzas down to just 19 pages in Alfred Leslie’s 1960 one-shot, Hasty Papers.