Saturday, May 05, 2007
There I was making a snide remark in the blog yesterday about riding gloves when one of my sons and I found ourselves behind a car with a bumper sticker that read Dressage in Devon, dressage being the competitive horse training sport in which the riders do indeed wear white gloves, top hats & tails. It’s an Olympic Sport, albeit one that visibly displays its roots in the aristocracy of the
It’s odd. I grew up in a town,
¹ Note to West Chester Poetry Conference: without the Hunt, you and the Devon Horse Show become the last remaining proponents of the neo-Victorian view in
² Oakland A’s catcher-DH Mike Piazza & former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda are really Montgomery County folk, tho both have some business interests here in the county, most notably Lasorda’s, an Italian restaurant & sports bar in Exton run by Tommy’s brothers.
³ The other
Friday, May 04, 2007
photo by Tom Raworth
We are no doubt going to see a fair number of books quite like Mark Jay Mirsky’s memoir, Creeley, published as a chapbook by Pressed Wafer of Boston. When someone who is important to a lot of people dies, the survivors stand around and tell stories – in eulogies, over drinks at wakes & later in memoirs. The stories are loving & a few of them might even be scandalous, as their point isn’t to discuss the poet’s oeuvre or career, but rather the person. And hardly anything humanizes an individual more than their flaws. Many of the New American Poets have been the subject of terrific memoirs, most notably Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara & Ted Berrigan. Creeley, who functioned more or less as the dean of American poetry for close to 40 years, is certain to have his.
The novelist Mark Jay Mirsky isn’t necessarily the person you would expect to be the first one out of the chute with such a venture, perhaps because his aesthetics don’t seem especially Creeley-esque, or because he seems such a quintessential New York guy, or just because he’s 13 years younger than his subject, young enough so that Bob was always going to be the Elder in that relationship. Elder brother, as it happens – Mirsky seems to have turned to Creeley as much for life lessons as for those concerning writing, and – like so many other younger writers – discovered a remarkably open & generous person, willing pretty much to share anything.
So we see Creeley very much in the mode that will be familiar to so many younger writers – and at 60, I’d include myself and anyone in my own age group there as well. Creeley was born the same year as my own mother, one ahead of my father, which means that he went through his life tasks pretty much at the same time as did they, although my own dad got through his three marriages much faster than Bob.
But we also get to see Creeley the drunk & Creeley the brawler, even more so than in Ekbert Faas’ abortive bio. This is a side of Creeley that I never saw personally, tho it was impossible not to hear about it in the 1960s. I recall one discussion among young poets in the 1970s as people tried to guess just how much Creeley spent on alcohol each month – the final consensus was something like $300. Mirsky’s take on this actually is much less lurid than the tales one heard – he describes Creeley’s friends in Bolinas getting out of his way at the bar as he tried to take on anyone who would fight, Creeley literally falling against the pool table, blackening his one good eye & only the next day discovering that nobody had clocked him one in legitimate combat.
For such a short book – just 24 pages – Mirsky is quite a rambler. Some episodes are here not because they’re about Creeley so much as the fact that they’re simply good stories. The best example of this is a tale involving the British novelist Ann Quin:
Bob was reading with Ted Hughes and, I think, Auden, at that grand theatre by the
Some years later, Ann walked into the sea.
Creeley may be the occasion for this tale, but it’s hardly about him. We never learn what he read, nor how he comported himself alongside such hobnobs of British conservatism as Auden or Hughes, nor functionally anything else about this reading. Indeed, not only is this not a book about Creeley the writer, but I’ve virtually never come across a memoir that shed less ink on that side of a poet’s life.
One area where Mirsky does cast new light concerns something I’d never thought of in quite this way before – the breach between the New Americans and the Boston Brahmins that was so central to the division between post-avant &
the quintessential Harvard man of a certain period, hair meticulously combed, suit and tie with the touch of modesty that bespeaks the glass of fashion
– being genuinely vicious about the country bumpkin Creeley. Creeley’s father had been a doctor, but had died when Bob was quite young, leaving the family pretty much in poverty with only the mother’s inadequate salary as a nurse to sustain them. Olson’s father had been a mailman. Indeed, hardly anyone among the
So Mirsky’s Creeley isn’t the whole of the man & doesn’t even approach the writing, as such. But it’s a useful – and voyeuristically enjoyable – road in to thinking about one of the two or three most influential poets of the past half century, and the elements that went into making him the particular poet he became.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
What I didn’t mention about Tony Trehy the other day is that he works as a visual arts curator – the hidden hand behind the Irwell Sculpture Trail – and that it is possible to read his work in ways that don’t invoke contemporary poetry at all. (This also has always been the unknowable element in a good deal of New York School writing, where beyond name dropping, the one palpably visible carry-over from the Pop Art of the 1960s seems to have been the use of cartoon iconography.) This positioning of poetry on the edge of writing only appears to be a fairly recent phenomenon – Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard, the first prose poetry of the 1820s – seems to be exactly the same sort of thing, something that became poetry only because the category existed & was able to move sufficiently far to incorporate this writing that, frankly, didn’t seem all that much like anything else at the time.
One aspect of the Permanent Avant is this sense of writing as simply a choice, and that it is the larger vision that is the central element of the work of art, which might as easily be expressed through sculpture, music, intermedia, theater, film, whatever. A writer who seems to me to fit this description is Jill Magi, whose new book Threads is just out from Futurepoem Books. One wonders if Magi knows – or cares – that Threads already is the name of a well known book of poems, David Bromige’s 1970 volume from Black Sparrow¹. Normally I might be appalled at something like that, but it’s not apparent to me that poetry is even the right framework through which to read this booklength, uh, poem. Even as the volume has blurbs from Juliana Spahr, Cecilia Vicuña, Ammiel Alcalay & Brenda Iijima (and, if you flip the front flap, Futurepoem as a project has a blurb from Charles Bernstein). Magi herself calls it a book of “prose, poetry and collage” & I find myself thinking of it as a project, a category from conceptual art.
The core of the project is a trip Magi made in 1997 to
Jill Magi has published a fair number of poems over the past decade or so, but none of the ones I’d read before prepared me for the power of this text. It’s spare without being minimal, moving without being in the slightest bit mawkish. I don’t know if it was the force of her project or whether Magi’s work took a transformative leap as she wrote (and it’s conceivable, of course, that one led to the other – which could have occurred in either direction) but there is no question that if you’ve read Jill Magi before and haven’t read Threads, you really haven’t read Jill Magi.
But Threads also makes me wonder what else lies ahead of her as a poet. Projects like this don’t come often, nor easily. The space she is writing in lies halfway between poetry as we’ve known it – I found myself thinking of David Antin’s Definitions for Wendy several times while reading the text, both for the philosophical dimension each book engages & the question of the text’s relationship to life – and the sort of documentary political poetry I associate with writers like Juliana Spahr & Jena Osman. One might trace such poetry back further, to Fluxus & eventually to Dada, but there is a seriousness of purpose, a quietness in the act of description that is quite unlike those genres. And the book has so many sides, so many faces. I made a decision early on in writing this note that I couldn’t really quote one or two passages here – there are so many different kinds that any selection would essentially distort the whole. You can find an excerpt here in the Brooklyn Rail and see pages from the notebook by continually following the links here. But there is quite a bit more to this project than those two excerpts suggest.
¹ Threads was also the name of a chapbook of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett done by Unicorn Press of Santa Barbara in 1968, something both Bromige and Black Sparrow publisher John Martin were sure to have known, as well as Jane Cooper’s 1978 volume of poems based on the letters of Rosa Luxemburg as well as Maria Landowska’s 1985 volume, subtitled Poetry from a Survivor of Auschwitz.
Labels: Jill Magi
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Charting British poetry
A poetry festival
in Lorca’s home town
Six word short stories
(Hemingway was right!)
Of Isabella Whitney,
the first woman
a book of poems
“are cutting their own throats”
“One Million Poet,”
the game show
has tagged me
Now I must tag 5 others
with what they write
& how they focus
who is creating a new literary audience
in part through her blog,
& for translating kari edwards
for never blinking
at what she sees
for using the form
a critical language
Poetry and bread
Taha Muhammad Ali
Audios from the past
has graduated from Yale,
worked for The New Yorker,
become culture editor of Slate
& poetry editor of
The Paris Review
O’Rourke’s first book
is reviewed in the
New York Times
All Things Considered
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
(Slavoj Zizek of course)
the reading list
All the news that’s fit to spin:
”BAGHDAD, May 2 – The Bush administration
is planning to withdraw
most United States combat forces
from Iraq over the next several months
and wants to shrink the American military presence
to less than two divisions by the fall,
senior allied officials said today.”
New York Times article
by Michael R. Gordon & Eric Schmitt
May 2, 2003
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
One of the questions I have about some of the categories I’ve concocted in my own head over the years, such as
Post-avant is no less problematic. The defining moment in the transition from avant to post- is, as I read it, the recognition that the so-called avant garde is itself a tradition, that it has communities & that community itself is a value. This shift becomes visible when Don Allen makes the decision to organize The New American Poetry around such communities¹, however loosely defined they might have been in that anthology. Indeed, of that generation, only the projectivists really put program ahead of community – Larry Eigner was a “
So how does this play out in the
Tony Trehy is a poet from
0. pollarded. Inert with targets. Told and giving up within the week is the easy Victorian option now; generally orchestra is diminished by the demand for youthful understanding – a case fatality ratio. Ragnarök partial orders merely travel change, the most successful vertebrates that ever lived. Time for irreflexivity: iff I can be the collapsing material straight away rotations are not commutative. Drippling to the end weakly, you don’t want to think any more. Hadja wished, it can’t be hermetically sealed: false to worldly, false but this equiconsistent with heroism, without being able to prove it(,) can always be commuted to not(,) waiting for the: 1.
This explains everything. That there won’t be any explanations in the usual sense of that word, for one. This text can be understood in so many different fashions. For example, with the word / sentence pollarded, my first thought was not of the pruning technique, but of the Israeli spy, his surname transformed into a verb. Similarly, I hear Ragnarök as the mythic Norse battle, tho the language into which it is imbedded suggests the commerce of software. How much of this is a montage of found language? How much of it actually constitutes argument, as such. What are we to make of the twin disruptions in the final sentence of the parenthetical commas?
I hear this writing as focusing very much on the cognitive movement from word to word, phrase to phrase, in that sense quite close to certain kinds of language writing – the work of Jean Day, for example, or Leslie Scalapino, but Bruce Andrews or Erica Hunt as well. While there are poets in the
Trehy is an eminently readable poet, tho you have to pay attention as you proceed through each work. He promotes this further with a vocabulary that is large and sometimes technical – auxetic discrete breathers, no two prosopagnosics are the same – but full of wit & more than a few echoes: Discrete breathers parametrise pseudogenes, But Vitruvian children stalk with charges of religious defamation tastier than a plateful of every number looks like nineteen.
Concerning Trehy and the concept of community: he gave a reading to launch 50 Heads just last Friday. Tho it was invitation only, poets other than Trehy did the actual reading of the work. Both, I would suggest, are pretty clear signs that he lines up as a post-avant.
¹ One might read the history of the Objectivists as an incomplete, perhaps thwarted gesture in exactly this direction, but it is worth remembering that when The New American Poetry was published, that community wasn’t visible at all in American verse.
Labels: Tony Trehy
Monday, April 30, 2007
One possible, if erroneous, interpretation of the term post-avant might be “not avant anymore.” It certainly is the case that there are as many poets whose work can now be traced back to traditions that, in the 1950s perhaps, were embattled, marginalized pockets of innovation, as there are of any other kind of poetry. The
So it is true that there are any number of post-avant poets, whether of the post-NY School, post-Beat, post-Objectivist, post-New Western or even post-Language varieties, who write now with no sense of themselves as embattled or oppositional to “Official Verse Culture,” just because OVC doesn’t seem that terribly oppositional to them. In & of itself, that’s goodness. Not being a second-class citizen just because you think the work in Ploughshares is unreadably turgid is not a bad thing. But this New Normal carries within itself something of its own double-edged sword: an increased risk that post-avant poetry could become every bit as entropic as the most self-satisfied modes of Quietism. So it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are still poets out there who very much stress the avant in post-avant.
One of these is Oakland’s Spencer Selby, whose name for 14 years has been synonymous with Selby’s List, the encyclopedic roster of experimental, innovative &/or otherwise post-avant literary periodicals. A big guy with a soft voice, Selby has been a poet, film critic & historian & vispo now for a few decades. Twist of Address is his eighth book of poetry, but first one in this century (he’s had one visual collection back in 2003). Even with an eight-year gap between books of poetry, the concerns and strategies of Twist will be familiar to anyone who has read Selby’s work in the past. Indeed, I think Selby expresses remarkably similar values in his visual work as well as his textual writings: he’s fascinated by surfaces & attracted to beauty. His sense of stanza ranges between the efficiently smooth & the completely stunning. Here’s “Barbecue”:
Little remove I straddle
as prehensile limb took
initiative with my own
Took gross tonnage by merit
suspended from price index
atavistic junkyard satellite
transmitting code announcing
that fifty years of pollution
is career enough to retire early
How else rate service when
the best oxygen has gone away
Little remove I straddle
by choice of lawn furniture
stained with catsup and blood
in equal parts I can’t tell apart
Creature comfort divine
on the grill but doesn’t
see the value daylight
never takes for granted
It’s luxury I do covet
in praise here now
of a faded frontier cushion
with gravy on the side
The writing here is entirely abstract, but the couplets are carefully crafted. It isn’t pulse driven, the way much of Clark Coolidge’s more abstract work can be, but occupies an aesthetic space halfway between the abstract meditations of Peter Ganick & the architectural stanzas one associates with Ray DiPalma. Other poets who show elements of this same sense of exquisite surfaces include Tom Mandel & Michael Palmer. I’m intrigued at the idea that none of these names here really fit together – Coolidge & Palmer were tight in the 1960s, but that was at least partly a consequence of their being among the very first poets among the post-New Americans to stretch beyond Olson’s dicta as to how a poem should be made. These almost coifed stanzas are the antithesis of “the organic.” The six writers mentioned in this paragraph were born over a nine year period bracketing the Second World War, with Coolidge the eldest, Selby the youngest.
Selby’s website includes a collection of 90 visual works that are no less committed to the idea that the abstract presents a focus that enables the reader / viewer to almost bathe in the materiality of the signifier, whether a complete word or the broken edges of a single syllable or a snatch of text. Yet texts appear against dense-if-luminous backgrounds that are as reminiscent of stained glass windows as they are of sunlight reflected off the grease on a driveway. The result is gorgeous regardless of what you think of the text. This is perhaps the one place in Selby’s work where I find myself hesitating, not unlike the way I do before the collages & sculptures of Robert Rauschenberg, and for much the same reason – it’s possible to luxuriate in these pieces even if you don’t get (or don’t agree with) any of their ideas. For the record, I find I “agree” with Selby more than I do Rauschenberg.
Selby’s writing falls into that social space I think of as the Permanent Avant, a writing that bridges, say, the language poetry of a Palmer, DiPalma, Mandel or Coolidge on the one end and vispo (and other “post-textual”) writing on the other. Some of the more familiar names in this space might include Sheila E. Murphy, Gail Sher, Peter Ganick, John M. Bennett, Jake Berry. It’s not clear to me that the Permanent Avant really represents a movement in the same sense that langpo did, or that vispo itself does today, or that the other Avantism that stretches from Kenny Goldsmith’s conceptual poetics of “Uncreative Writing” all the way to the post-Oulipo Canadians around Christian Bök do. Mostly that’s because I’m not familiar with a solid body of critical writing associated with it – which could be my fault, not theirs. This writing is a cousin to flarf, but hardly the same thing – flarf loves ugliness & this generally does not. Selby’s an excellent example of this writing because he’s rigorous in his sense of craft. Twist of Address is a solid book & a fun one to read. The six prose poems that make up “Cycle Synopsis” show Selby’s ability to think structurally in ways that New Formalists can only dream of. But ultimately, in his work, it’s the poems with fixed stanzaic forms I always turn to. I’m hardly ever disappointed.
Labels: Spencer Selby
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Ron Silliman: Spring
3:00 PM, Gil Ott Poetry Event, Robin’s Bookstore, with Alicia Askenase, Julia Blumenreich, CAConrad, Ryan Eckes, Kristen Gallagher, Eli Goldblatt, Chris McCreary, Jenn McCreary, Bob Perelman, Ken Rumble, Joshua Schuster, Frank Sherlock & yours truly. Tim Peterson will be honored for winning the First Annual Gil Ott Book Award for Since I Moved In.