Saturday, January 06, 2007

 

For much the same reason why I can write an article on the half dozen major poets who died in 2006, but none for those who were born this same year, newspapers routinely give us the Death of a Bookstore article, but very seldom announce startups of independent books. There were, however, at least 94 bookstores that were created in the United States in the past year, according to Bookweb.Org, the website of the American Booksellers’ Association (ABA). Click on that link to see who and where they are.

These are bookstores that started and joined the ABA in 2006. There are almost certainly others as well. A few of these have taken storied names – Sanddollar, Shakespeare and Company – and at least one ersatz storied name, Shop Around the Corner, but more reflect the personal nature that an independent bookstore often manifests – My Father’s Books is my favorite.

These 94 bookstores will not reverse the trend that has seen the ABA’s membership decline from a high of 4,700 in 1993 to its current figure of around 2,500, but they do slow it down somewhat. Without 94 new bookshops last year, 90 in 2005, the ABA’s annual average decline of 169 stores would be more in the 260 to 270 range and America would be wiped clean of independent bookstores within a decade. That’s a sobering thought.

I have no idea how many – if any – of these stores meet my four simple criteria for maintaining a decent poetry section –

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.

And a sizeable majority of the books should be by living authors as well.

But wherever there’s life there’s hope.

It’s worth noting that just nine of the newbies are located in cities large enough to have a major league sports team of some kind (I’m not including Syracuse or Las Vegas, in spite of the recruiting practices of their college teams). One in Brooklyn, none in Manhattan, San Francisco the only city to have two. The only Philadelphia addition is in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Ninety percent of the new stores are located outside major city centers, either in second-tier or edge cities (Hello, Riverside!) or even further out into the vast American sprawl.

Suburban bookshops have different profiles than those of city centers, in good part because they depend on a more localized clientele – city centers not only have immediate residents in higher density, but also the suburbanites who come into town each day. There is a powerful psychological bias that says its easier to go into town than it is out into the ‘burbs – even out here in the boonies, people tend to focus their routines around an immediate radius of their homes & whatever lies between them and downtown Philly. My friends in Philadelphia act as if we live out in Amish country. Likewise in the Bay Area, event planners have known for decades that it is far easier to get people from the East Bay or Marin to come to San Francisco for something, but almost impossible to do the reverse.

What are the chances that a suburban bookstore would meet my four criteria for a decent poetry selection? Pretty close to none, tho Chester County Book Company in West Chester, PA, fails only because of its lack of small press volumes. It would be nice to think that stores that take on names of fabled venues that had a lot of poetry – Sanddollar in Albany, California was basically a poetry only shop, an outgrowth of the original Serendipity Bookstore in Berkeley that also gave rise to Small Press Distribution, which folded when its owners got involved with the start up of Black Oak Books¹ – or which have names like Literary Life or Raven, would do so. But I know that the odds are long.

Still, without these, the inevitability that the United States would be down to two major retail chains and their brand extensions (Waldens, Dalton’s, Borders Express) wouldn’t be something to worry about ten years from now. It would be a present reality. So here’s to the newbies. May some of them survive, and may a few even thrive.

 

¹ The current Serendipity in Berkeley, located in an old wine shop on University, represents only one aspect, rare books, of the original operation, which got started shortly after the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965 when Peter Howard & Jack Shoemaker took over the stock of the Unicorn Bookshop in Santa Barbara.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

 


Bill Knott

Three times in the past week, I’ve seen missives from poets that echoed one another. One was an email from a friend of mine, not a langpo, but somebody with a significant birthday this year and a big beautiful selected poems due out in a few months who is in despair that anyone reads him or, if they do, understands what he is trying to do. The second is the degree of alienation positively radiating from Jonathan Mayhew’s second blognote about things little known about him – he says that he hates poetry readings (he told me as much when I ran into him at the MLA, and he stayed away from the big group reading, tho many there would have loved to have met him) and is too angry all the time really to be the nice guy I know him to be. The third, and most extreme, was this New Year’s Day message on Bill Knott’s blog:

Once they get to a certain age, poets should be put to sleep; I don’t mean all poets, not real poets, successful poets: but poets like me, second-raters, third-raters, run of the mill whether SOQ hack like me or superannuated avant, we should get it in the neck. 

I know there is a significant correlation between depression and poetry, and that the holidays in particular can be especially hard, but it disturbs me that the social environment of poetry is such that it seems to reinforce these feelings. Bill Knott may not be my kind of poet, but one thing he is not is a failure. It’s doubly ironic, perhaps, that he is doing to himself precisely what he insists elsewhere on his blog the likes of Geoffrey Hill & Gjertrud Schnackenberg (whose aesthetic program Knott characterizes, not incorrectly, as fascist) do to other poets. But with Knott’s sense of satire – he was Andy Kaufman avant le comic – you never quite know.

Knott teaches – or has taught, I don’t find him on the current faculty roster – at Emerson College in Boston, Mayhew at the University of Kansas (his family lives in St. Louis) tho not in the English Department, my friend teaches somewhere in the New York area, tho like Mayhew not in a writing program as such. What each is expressing is an enormous sense of isolation related precisely to their writing. Both Mayhew & Knott talk about it in competitive terms – at least Jonathan hasn’t concluded that the game is over yet.

These seem to me terms predicated on an image of writing as part of a false economy, one dominated by schools &, to a lesser degree, publishers, where the absolute ratio of jobs (and books from the likes of FSG, Knott’s publisher) to actual writers is so severe that even the most successful feel cut off from the community of their peers. This is really directly related to the same issues as I discussed on Wednesday. Poetry may be, as that silly piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer insisted, “hot,” but these three poets can’t get beyond the incredible chill they feel.

The idea of the poet competing for the FSG volume or the tenured job in Lawrence may have made some sense in a world like, say, the 1950s, when the number of poets wrestling for such goodies was around 200. But in a world in which there are at least 10,000 U.S. poets, it can only lead to the conclusion that, even if you’re a winner, you’re still a loser. That’s sad at best & potentially tragic.

The distinction I always make between avant and post-avant poets has always been around this very recognition. The mythology behind the idea of a tenured elite or the card-carrying Surrealist are just flip sides of the same coin of exclusionary gate keeping. But the Beats and the New York School (and to a lesser degree even the Black Mountain poets & the Spicer Circle) seemed clearly to get it that they were a community first, individuals second, and that that was just fine. This seems to me the inescapable implication of reading the work of Frank O’Hara – it’s literally what “Personism” means – and Ted Berrigan. Jack Spicer, one example I cited on Wednesday, is famous for being a misanthrope, but his Lorca letters, his imitation of Creeley, the intimacy of Language and the literary games of Book of Magazine Verse are all, every single one, acts predicated on the importance of community. That’s why I wrote, on Wednesday, poetry is a community. It really, legitimately is. And if you hate readings, that says a lot about your relationship to that community. Why wouldn’t you want to see what your friends are doing, and check out their work? It doesn’t matter, finally, if the event is more social than focused on the literary – there is plenty of time for that elsewhere. And isn’t it an incentive to push yourself even harder when a friend is doing something interesting?

But if you think that beyond a certain point, the “failed poets” should be taken out & shot, Knott’s modest proposal, there is something seriously wrong. I feel about failed poets the way Larry Fagin & C.A. Conrad feel about “neglectorinos” or, to use one term I’ve employed in the past, “the disappeared.” That disappearance – usually from print first – is invariably tragic. It robs me of my heritage as a poet that I can’t find the work, say, of Gail Dusenbery on the web. I’ve already been robbed no doubt of many good poems by Weldon Kees, Lew Welch or Dan Davidson because they acted on an impulse not so different from Knott’s. I don’t want to lose one poem or poet more. One of the real long-term potentials of the Internet, and of archival programs like PennSound, Ubuweb, Eclipse & Project Gutenberg, is that “the disappeared” could be, can be kept accessible literally forever. That’s the goal we should be seeking.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

 

Tillie Olsen,
an icon of short fiction
who published her first book
at the age of 50,
has died

§

Alice Munro
says she’s done

§

Al Young’s New Year’s resolutions

§

The complete recordings of
William Carlos Williams
are now online

§

Profiling Nate Mackey

§

Nate Mackey talking with Tavis Smiley
(also: Cornell West & Buddy Guy)

§

Waldrop’s Baudelaire

§

A new CD
of work by
Anne Tardos & Jackson Mac Low

§

It’s the end of the world
as we know it

§

No, it’s really
the end of the world
as we know it

§

And this
certainly must be
the end of the world
as we know it!

§

Understanding hypertext cognition

§

Save bad poetry!
(Neil Astley’s call
to preserve
his type of quietude)

§

Auster’s Beckett
(not austere enough)

§

Reading the faux avant

§

The “cliché childhood from hell” of
S.A. Griffin.

§

Jonathan Mayhew follows through
with more than five things
you don’t know about him

§

So does K. Silem Mohammad,
who goes on
to tag five additional bloggers
(some of whom
have already tagged others)

§

This week’s
death-of-a-bookstore-tale
blames TV

§

But it’s not the only
bookstore
that’s closing

§

The OED wants you

§

Libraries dump books

This was how
I bought
Stanzas in Meditation
for less than a buck

§

Playing games with pricing
at Amazon

§

Academic bloggers
at the MLA

§

Britain’s bookmakers
are betting on
Voldemort
to kill Harry

§

How the web
is transforming
newspapers

§

Same story,
different paper

§

The oral poetics
of Richard Powers

§

Confessional opera

§

English language poetry
in Bahrain

§

John Heath-Stubbs dies

§

The man I once heard
Nelson Mandela
credit
with saving his life
is the new mayor
of
Oakland

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

 

To accompany the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Philadelphia, the local paper ran an upbeat article with the improbable headline “Creative Writing, Poetry are Hot,” indicating that

There were 69 available creative-writing jobs advertised across the nation in October, up from 52 in October of last year.

This should be ever so promising to the graduates of the more than 400 creative writing programs that are currently members of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). With, say, an average 10 graduates per program per year in all creative writing disciplines, some 4,000 new MFAs have a 1.7 percent chance of actually scoring a teaching job. Unless of course you consider the 4,000 still unemployed graduates from those programs the previous year, which would drop the prospective number down to around 0.8 percent. Unless of course you also consider the graduates of the year before & the year before that. You get the picture. A new MFA may have a better chance of getting hit by a car than landing a teaching job.

Hey, it could be worse. Try publishing a novel. The annual write-a-novel-in-one-month event in November is said to have started out with 80,000 participants this year and ended with over 13,000 having been written. Imagine exactly how many of those will see the light of day at FSG or Knopf.

AWP advertises that it represents some 28,000 writers. The circulation of Poets & Writers is currently 60,000. And there are 69 creative-writing jobs advertised. Such is the definition of “hot” in the current job market.

The meat market aspect of the MLA has always been its darkest side, and I glimpsed that in passing again this year, interviewers stressed out by watching people whom they know to be brilliant & creative “blow up” during the process, interviewees who, in the words of one, watch their opportunity “just lay down & die on the interview table.” Especially tragic are the members whose badges no longer reflect any institutional affiliation and who are doing one last round of interviews, wondering if this is the final year they will even get that far, beginning to recognize that having a Ph.D. or MFA isn’t ever going to get them a job. And that a life of adjuncting is the very best they can hope for.

Happily poetry isn’t about teaching or the academy any more than it is about the trade book industry. The Venn diagram overlap between these three worlds gets to be less every year, and we’re at that point now where these three circles barely even touch.

So how contrast that bleak picture with the great energy, joy & camaraderie that was manifest everywhere at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance for the annual offsite reading, an event that has been going on annually since Rod Smith started it in 1989 & which Aldon Nielsen likens to a "floating Burning Man of verse?" Tho the University of Alabama Press sponsored the event this year, it is held off-site so that all of the local poets (somewhere between one third & one half of all the readers) don’t have to pony up an MLA membership just to go to a reading.¹ One of the great things about this event is being reminded so palpably that poetry is a community. The great myth of the poet as operating purely in isolation, offered to us first as tragedy (Emily Dickinson) and then as farce (Jack Gilbert), is in fact just that: myth. There are a few poets who work better off by themselves, but so many more of us are not unlike Jack Spicer, who may have been a misanthrope, but thoroughly depended on his beloved circle, whether at Aquatic Park in the afternoons talking poetry & listening to Giants games over the radio, or at Gino & Carlo’s saloon, or at the various homes & locales where the group, as group, met, including the Hotel Wentley (now the Polk-Sutter apartments), 707 Scott Street or the San Francisco Public Library, site of the Magic Workshop.

Poetry obviously is not only a community – there is still that blank page, just waiting – but that it is also (always already as we used to say) a community as well is precisely the recognition that separates the post-avant from the old avant-garde formations (the latter admitted community only with rigid gating requirements, such as the membership invitation rituals both of the surrealists &, more recently, Oulipo). And when you’re in a room with as many people who know why they write what they write – which has nothing to do with jobs, schools or trade presses – the actual joy of the occasion is terrific.² This is the sense in which poetry truly is “hot.”

 

¹ Note to self: think through more carefully this year the role of those few academic presses, including (but not limited to) Alabama, California & Wesleyan, that show a serious commitment to post-avant literature. They are neither small nor trade presses, and their role is more complicated than just fitting “in between” those two worlds.

² Consider, for example, the “rejection sonata” presented by William Howe & his three collaborators at the off-site reading, a sound poem worthy of the ole Four Horsemen based entirely on “we regret to inform you” type language

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

 

Echoes in the mind’s eye after the 2006 MLA:

Somebody – I think it may have been Dan Waterman of the University of Alabama press – telling me that this was the “all-poetry-all-the-time MLA.” Then hearing ten other people tell me the same thing over the next two days.

Seeing oodles of old friends, meeting some folks for the first time (hi, Kirby!). Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Howe, Hank Lazer, Brent Cunningham, Jonathan Mayhew, Carla Harryman, Ben Friedlander, Laura Hinton, George Hartley, Michael Davidson, Norma Cole, Tom Orange, Linh Dinh, Laura Moriarty, & Tim Yu were just the tip of the veritable iceberg.

Finally meeting Kenny Goldsmith. Being introduced to Tracie Morris, whom I know, over & over. Meeting Aaron Belz, seeing Aaron Kunin. Hard to believe that, before Thursday, the only poet I’d ever even seen named Aaron was Mr. Shurin.

Seeing a spiral-bound mockup of The Age of Huts (compleat) in the UC Press booth.

Seeing Norma Cole read, the first time I’ve seen her do that since her stroke.

Seeing 23 poets read for the very first time among the 55 readers at the off-site event.

Sensing three concentric circles on the Pound panel: Ben Friedlander focused in on Pound, what he did or didn’t do, and why (looking closely at the economic motivation by the radio broadcasts, and asking how they fit in with the motivations of the Italian fascist regime, which did not, for example, particularly share Pound’s anti-Semitism); Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Jennifer Scappetone looking at Pound as influence, Scappetone with regards to Jackson Mac Low, DuPlessis with regards to herself & other contemporary poets; then Barrett Watten looking at Pound as symptom, reading him through The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al.), both with respect to the 1940s & the work in the 50s that led to that Frankfort School project, but to the present moment as well.

Opening the Philadelphia Inquirer to see a poem by Charles Bernstein on the op-ed page.

Barrett Watten’s poem, ”Dream of a Post-Soviet MLA.”

Susan Schultz calling me “old fashioned” when she came up to the podium right after my little one-minute reading.

Realizing that this wasn’t just the “all-poetry-all-the-time MLA,” but rather was the “all-post-avant-poetry-all-the-time” MLA. I never have seen an MLA where I couldn’t get to every post-avant panel because there were three and four going on in every single slot. Realizing that this was really the “Marjorie Perloff MLA” & she’d pulled out all the stops. (See Barrett Watten’s more in-depth analysis of this here.)

Richard Sieburth delivering a passionate 15-minute talk in a panel on the role of sound in translation on the role of the & in a 16th-century poem and the history of that device in later editions & translations, becoming more & more emotional as he spoke.

Tyrone Williams' close reading of Taylor Brady’s Yesterday’s News in the panel on poetics and cultural studies.

___ ______ leaning over to me in the audience to whisper, “Who is Taylor Brady?”

People just walking up to me to thank me for this blog.

Marjorie Perloff telling me that “even in San Marcos, Texas,” people are asking her if she agrees with “what Silliman says in that blog.”

Poets talking about their own practice & influences were for me a consistently high point of the meetings: Rachel Blau DuPlessis in the Pound panel; Carla Harryman talking about her work in poets’ theater & Poets’ Theatre; everyone on the sound in translation panel – a revolutionary concept for this particular institution, tho the poets in the room appeared to think it was a perfectly obvious & reasonable thing to discuss (as, of course, it is).

The poetics and cultural studies panel – which went straight after cultural studies for its failure to use poetry as anything other than a symptom, not to mention its rather incompetent fixation with narrative – was the best panel I attended. Alas, there appeared to be no cultural studies folks there, but then there were very few of them at this MLA at all. Jeffrey Nealon’s deconstruction of Fred Jameson is a tour de force. When Watten posts the papers, I’m going to have to close read that one in particular.

Realizing that, in 40 years, nobody will remember cultural studies if we don’t refer to it in our poems.

Seeing Rachel Blau DuPlessis sitting at the U. of Alabama Press booth in the exhibit hall as I left the conference on Thursday. Seeing Rachel Blau DuPlessis sitting at the U. of Alabama Press booth in the exhibit hall first thing on arriving at the conference on Friday.

Tim Yu thanking Bob Perelman for not organizing the offsite reading alphabetically by last name.

Yunte Huang noting the irony of having his name – coming as it does from a non-alphabetic language – put into alphabetical order by first name for the offsite reading.

Patrick Durgin introducing himself as Charles Bernstein. Yunte Huang introducing himself as Walter Lew.

Leevi Lehto teaching people how to pronounce his name in Finnish – Lĕvē Lĕchto – then introducing himself at the offsite reading both in Finnish and in “American” (Lēvī Lāto).

Leevi Lehto giving a terrific reading of a sound poem in “barbaric Finnish

Craig Dworkin trying to ask me if he could put Tottels up on the Eclipse website while I was trying to ask him, simultaneously, the same question.

Seeing Kirby Olson & C.A. Conrad in the same room.

Steve Benson, dressed only in a shower curtain, looking very young in a video clip of Third Man from Carla Harryman’s presentation in the panel on poets’ theater.

Carla Harryman acknowledging the importance of the work of Nick Robinson & Eileen Corder in the evolution of poets’ theater in the Bay Area (and realizing that I never thought I would hear that at an MLA event).

Tracie Morris’ gospel-cum-sound poetry reading at the offsite.

Walter Lew diving across the grand piano at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance at the start of his reading, playing a few bars of Miles Davis, then reading from the index of an Aldon Nielsen book he’d just bought, then lunging at Aldon & literally cutting Nielsen’s tie in half.

The look on Aldon’s face.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

 

My resolution for this year remains essentially the same one I’ve had for two years now:

Blog better, blog less.

There is, I think, a direct relationship between the two halves of this equation. But it is going to mean overcoming my own anxieties about blank space & silence. And maybe yours too.

There is, to my mind, no particular reason to revisit the same issues endlessly, tho I know I do have my own hobby horses. And there is no reason to write a five-page essay when a message this short can serve the same purpose.

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

 

It’s going to take 30 years at minimum, and 50 years is more likely, to get any fair sense of which major poets & artists were born in 2006. But we know that we lost a significant number of both. Among the poets whose passing this year I’ve noted on this blog were

Irving Layton
Barbara Guest
Ian Hamilton Finlay
Gilbert Sorrentino
James L. Weil
kari edwards

Of these, edwards is the one I knew best. I’ve written of kari here & here, and I plan to do more sometime soon. I’d met Barbara Guest briefly & superficially a few times in the last years I lived in the Bay Area. And I’d corresponded with Weil in the 1960s, when I was anxious about getting my work around & Elizabeth Press was one of the best small publishing operations going. He was generous to me, but my work lacked the discipline that was the hallmark of what he really liked. That’s probably still true.

Layton I knew primarily as someone Robert Creeley would mention from time to time. Among Canadian poets, he strikes me as someone who was, how shall I put this, prematurely New American, before it became fashionable & common north of the border.

Finlay seemed far away, geographically, historically, aesthetically. My impression is that he wasn’t the most gregarious of men & my only view of the British Isles has been from the windows of jets flying over. You can’t read the signage at Little Sparta from those heights.

Sorrentino is somebody I always thought I would meet & never did. I liked his fiction, loved his poetry & was thoroughly inspired by his critical writing – I’ve noted before that it is one of the models I’ve used in thinking about this weblog. But he was something of a recluse – when he went to teach at Stanford, which he did for over 20 years, I never saw him at a reading up in San Francisco, and I’ve known students of the writing program there who said that he was no more visible on campus. On the other hand, I know people who made the effort to seek him out, so I know that it wasn’t impossible. This was my failing, and now it’s something I can never undo.

Elsewhere in the field of art, some of the people who have passed include video pioneer Nam Jun Paik, sci-fi masters Stanislaw Lem & Octavia Butler (the latter due to a sad household accident, falling & hitting her head in her garden), and Allan Kaprow, who didn’t invent happenings, tho he seems to have been destined to work in that form.

2006 was also the year that Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley lost Cody’s, once a great bookstore & a model for so many others, which may yet prove a larger loss than we can now imagine.

§

Friday night’s MLA offsite reading can be listened to – or downloaded – here. Some photos of the event are here.

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