Tuesday, October 30, 2007

 

Jordan Davis and Chris Edgar know the secret of editing a magazine that is ordered alphabetically. It helps to get work either from a Rae Armantrout – as they have done with the seventh issue of The Hat – a John Ashbery (who led off its fourth number), an Anselm Berrigan (issue number two). It’s those little touches – like knowing how best to title an untitled poem on the page – that shows their experience & intelligence. The result is a journal that is always worth reading. Still, I came away with questions after reading the current issue that made me wonder just where both poetry and the institution of the magazine might be headed.

I don’t think there is any publication more dedicated to the work it presents than The Hat. Like most if not all strengths in life, this is also its weakness. It’s not simply that there is no embellishment, no art work, no commentary, no contributors’ notes, a minimalist design that stretches from the cover to the idea of having only author’s names in a san seraph that contrasts with the roman type of these texts on the white, white page. Even to the alphabetical ordering, The Hat lets you know in every way possible that it is precisely – and only – a repository for texts. Each issue is a small archive. Tho, oddly perhaps, the journal’s website fails to pick up on this, simply replicating the minimalism of the print edition, listing names without actually posting work. This raises the question: would this work better online? Wouldn’t these poets even ultimately become more accessible if this were online? The first five issues would appear to be out of print & hence out of sight. Is this a way of distributing the work, or of limiting distribution? I think you can make a good argument in either direction.

Because of its deliberate plainness, the almost Mennonite severity of its approach, it can be hard to discern the very active editorial intelligence that is at play here. When you have 64 contributors with 99 poems and one story (or is it 98 and two if we place Anne Boyer’s prose suite on the side of narrativity, if not fiction as such?) dividing 152 pages, point of view can difficult to convey – that’s partly what is wrong with most campus literary magazines. Here The Hat excels – it offers work that mostly falls in such a distinct range that its personality as a publication is almost instantly apparent. If you like the writing of the folks whose poetry you already know – Armantrout, Jim Behrle, Aaron Belz, Anne Boyer, Jesse Crockett, Vincent Katz, Wayne Koestenbaum, Reb Livingston, Rachel Loden, Catherine Meng, Andrew Mister, Charles North, Ken Rumble, Gary Sullivan, Chris Vitiello – you are very apt to like the writing of the people who are completely new to you. Thus Jason Koo turns out to have one of the most exciting pieces in the entire issue, tho it’s remarkable just how close Koo’s recounting of lost loves feels, in practice, to Gary Sullivan’s broad satire of a help desk call center for poets or to Rev Livingston's more collage like list of “What There Wasn’t Time to Mention.” Since there is no contributor’s note, I can’t tell you anything about Koo that you can’t find out by googling.

Editorially, a project like this turns on three or four decisions: who goes first? is there to be a consistent tone, and if so, what? which contributors get the most space? In general, you might characterize this tone as post-NY school, although there are exceptions like an Armantrout or a Koestenbaum, Rumble or Vitiello who don’t quite fit that picture. Still, the poet who has the most work here is Gary Lenhart so that it is his work, and the long story by Dale Herd, that ultimately define the issue.

Herd is a prose writer who, some 35 years ago, was loosely associated with the poetics of the Bolinas mesa, which brought together Creeley and Bobbie Louise Hawkins with Joanne Kyger, Richard Brautigan, and such NY School exiles as Lewis Mac Adams, Bill Berkson & Tom Clark. Herd’s prose in those days was part of the broader tradition of fiction for poets that Creeley, Hawkins & Brautigan all practiced, along with the likes of Douglas Woolf, Fielding Dawson, Michael Rumaker & Jim Dodge. Herd had three books (Early Morning Wind, Diamonds and Wild Cherries) in eight years, two of them published in Bolinas, the third in Berkeley, and then nothing for over a quarter century. So “The Dream” published here is a real coup – the sort of piece another journal would have put up front, rather than burying between Anne Heide and Claire Hero. It appears to have been written if not very recently, at least well after his early books, and its tone is more straight forward & less stylized than his earlier writing. As narrative, it’s masterfully simple, with not a single wasted move or extra word that I could see.

Lenhart has always been one of the more affable members of the New York School’s third generation and the poems here all fit comfortably into that mode. They are well written, personal and contained. Which may be why they set the tone for so much else in this issue. Imagine, if you will, walking into an art gallery and seeing a show by five dozen or so painters all doing smallish still lifes in the style of Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud himself is a wonderful painter, but dozens and dozens of such works with dozens of names attached to them would frankly be exhausting. That’s a little how I felt reading The Hat – poem after poem that I liked but very few that I actually could say I loved. Perhaps just Armantrout’s, Koo’s and a piece by Wayne Koestenbaum. Koestenbaum, the archivist of beatitudes and the Bettie Page of situationism, the Cal Arts of maple syrup & the Beresford of bilge, is somebody whom I’ve been reading for years without getting particularly excited. But “Possessiveness,” his piece here, which lists 29 “X of Y” constructions such as the four I’ve just deployed, strips the poem of everything but figurativity and feels like a bucket of Gatorade in ice dumped over your head after some 80 pages of warm, cozy Other. His two other pieces here are superb as well.

It’s the contrast that Koestenbaum creates, coming as he does deep in the issue, makes me worry about the future of what I think of as post-NY School writing. It very much feels here as tho the tradition, to call it that, is at risk of being conquered by its own domesticity. It reminds me that Davis himself has (or has had) a project called a Million Poems, an idea that has always made me wonder. His own poems are always well-made, but the premise suggests its own problematic – who needs a million well-made poems, regardless of how friendly and bright they might be? It is of course just another way of slicing the Whitman-Zukofsky “the words are my life” longpoem approach to one’s work, but it’s a strategy that privileges containment, discreteness, segmentation. The world wrought small. It seems to me that The Hat comes very close to being an argument for such a poetics, while at the same time revealing precisely what the risks must be.

This is where the personality of the journal, one of its best features, is a weakness – there is no visual poetry here, and no poetry that would suggest anything on the order of a broader aesthetic perspective. You can’t imagine Lyn Hejinian here, nor Barrett Watten, nor Nate Mackey, nor Will Alexander. David Antin would be as much of a shock as Richard Wilbur, Kenny Goldsmith as much as C.D. Wright. In reaching out to other aesthetics that don’t disrupt its tight frame – Armantrout, Herd, Koestenbaum, Rumble, etc. – The Hat ultimately feels timid. Disruption is precisely what it needs.

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