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 British Empire. Another sporting event that does so around here is the annual Radnor Hunt, which only this year decided not to continue, caught between suburban encroachment – the old farms & estates immediately south of us are being swallowed by McMansions & custom executive homes – and a decline in an interest in pretending that we’re still living in the Victorian era.¹ One can still go fox hunting here in Chester County a couple of days each week. Foxes are not unheard of in our back yards, tho deer, rabbits & the occasional woodchuck are more common.

It’s odd. I grew up in a town, Albany, California, that economically depends to this day on the tax revenues generated from its horse track, Golden Gate Fields, but the only time I ever spent out at the track was a very drunken high school graduation party in 1964. Never once did I see the horses run there, tho back when Krishna & I were living on Albany Hill in the late 1980s, sometimes, if the wind was right, you could hear the noise from the track. My only real experience of watching horse racing in person is the shorter races of the Alameda County Fair – it was a lot of waiting around followed by one minute of intense adrenalin. The horses themselves are tremendous creatures & the idea of controlling one during a race is not unlike trying to straddle a rocket ship & control that. Jockeys are among the most courageous athletes imaginable.

Chester County has had a couple of winners in the Kentucky Derby over the past few years, both Smarty Jones & the tragic Barbaro. Unless golfer Jim Furyk, skater Johnny Weir or Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Bush kick it up a notch – Furyk has the best chance – the best athletes in the county are horses.² There are a couple of Chester County horses in the Derby today³, but the one that is going to win is the one pictured above, Hard Spun, born in Malvern, a town I can walk to if I want, tho raised & trained in Delaware. You read it here first.

 

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 Chester County, save for the occasional re-enactment of the Battle of the Brandywine (which, frankly, is pre-Victorian in its perspective). The preservation of the 19th century is in your hands.

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 Chester County native is Sam P.

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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 Thames, Festival Hall, during that season’s poetry festival. Ann and I for some reason came late. In the massive lobby, bewhiskered guards in costume – were they wearing the distinctive medieval costumes of the Tower of London – did they have pikes or am I imagining it? I remember uniforms and rows of military medals. Very imposing. The reading had begun and one of the guards, a handsome, strapping, paternal figure, motioned us into a small foyer between the main lobby and the vaulting hall itself. We were asked not to push into the hall until applause signaled that one of the poets had concluded and another was about to begin. Three were two huge gleaming nickel chrome cuspidors filled with sand, of a kind that mostly harbored cigarette butts but were originally spittoons. As the foyer’s leather doors, studded with brass nails, closed leaving us alone, Ann suddenly hoisted herself up on one of these spittoons, lifted her dress and “went to the bathroom.” I looked away – afraid we were going to be hauled off to the Tower. The applause broke out before anyone else joined us and we pushed into the hall to hear Bob read. As I glanced back, I saw two long turds sitting in the sand.

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 & School of Quietude poetics over the past half century. Mirsky cites Roger Angell

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 Black Mountain crowd came from “money” when compared to the likes of Lowell or Angell or Sexton. When you think about it, it makes sense that the School of Quietude has a class orientation – it’s precisely their relationship to Olde Money that links them to the trade presses – and it explains why some people can go to Harvard or Yale & come out with just an education, while somebody else gets fast-tracked through Slate, The New Yorker & the Paris Review, & has their first book out from FSG at 31. Angell, an editor at The New Yorker as well as the most over-rated sports writer of all time, is the quintessential figure. Creeley, like Olson or even Frank O’Hara, never had his Pygmalion moment, never got straight which fork goes where in the place setting. Mirsky contrasts Angell’s breathless idealizations of athletes with Creeley’s own last mention of a baseball game, having the mustard spilled all over him. (Mirsky could have added George Plympton’s arch-rich kid stunts as a faux athlete while editing The Paris Review to this contrast as well.) The anglophilia of the Brahmins fits this context like a glove, a white glove or perhaps one for riding.

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.

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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 Estonia, one of three Baltic nations swallowed whole by the Soviet Socialist Republics during its sweep east into Germany at the end of the Second World War. As best I can pick out the key narrative elements from the palimpsest of materials Magi gathers, Eduard Magi was born September 6, 1897 in Tartu, his wife Liisa one year earlier. They had three children, one of whom is the author’s father. Eduard had a rudimentary public school education until he was ordained as a Seventh Day Adventist, a decision that would eventually lead him and his family to seminaries in Newbold, England and Takoma Park, Maryland, escaping through some harrowing experiences during the height of World War 2. On her trip back to post-Soviet Tallinn, the poet takes with her a notebook – literally sewn together in places – recounting Eduard’s life. There are sections typed in a rough English, handwritten portions in Estonian, hand-drawn maps, not all of which the author thinks are accurate. Individual pages are reproduced, functioning halfway between illustration & text. Some pages are torn, so that we the text flowing into that of the surviving page beneath. Thus we find ourselves with two narratives, both told through multiple fragments, moving in exactly the opposite directions. The grandfather and his family moving out of Estonia, escaping both the Nazis & Stalin’s army, coming toward the present. The grand-daughter moving back in time, trying to fathom the lives of her immediate ancestors. What kind of life did her grandparents have & give up (or, more accurately, have wrested from them)? What kind of world did her father experience as a boy? Not easy questions. She knows no Estonian and is not herself baptized in the Adventist Church (nor, I gather, any other). Reading parts of this book reminded me of my own emotions on seeing for the first time a photocopy of my great-great grandfather’s wedding certificate, realizing that by signing his name with an X he could not read or write, and is listed on the form as a fishmonger. I was born only a little over a century later, but on a different continent & into a completely different world.

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.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

 

Amy King
is the 2007
Poet Laureate
of the Blogosphere

§

The Washington Post’s
big
”Celebrating Poetry”
Book World feature,

with everything from
John Donne,
Mandelstam & Herbert
to
David Shapiro
&
Ken Rumble

§

How
to
read
now

§

Charting British poetry
since WW2

§

Allen Ginsberg’s
finest poem

§

A poetry festival
in Lorca’s home town

Festival Program

§

Talking with
Lydia Davis

§

A new record
for the world’s smallest book

§

Six word short stories
(Hemingway was right!)

§

Talking with
Tao Lin

§

The Pulitzer for music
continues to bear fruit

§

Talking with
Natasha Trethewey

§

Of Isabella Whitney,
the first woman
to publish
a book of poems
in English
(1573)

§

Judith Malina,
”femme fatale

§

Newspapers
are cutting their own throats

The newspaper
suicide pact

§

One Million Poet,”
the game show

§

The Shakespeare riots

§

Calvin Bedient
on Hart Crane

§

Ashraf Osman
has tagged me
as a
Thinking Blogger

Now I must tag 5 others
who likewise
inspire me
with what they write
& how they focus
their blogwork:

Eileen Tabios,
who is creating a new literary audience
in part through her blog,
& for translating kari edwards
into Ilokano

Zoe Strauss
for never blinking
at what she sees

Mark Scroggins,
a scrupulous literary scholar
who doesn’t take short cuts
even in his blog

Stephen Burt
& Jessica Bennett
,
for their integration
of literature & life
(tho basketball is neither)

&
Geof Huth
for using the form
to create
a critical language
for vispo

§

“’to be a writer of contemporary verse,
there’s really no place better
than Minnesota
,’ says Stephen Burt.”

You need to get to the sidebar
to find out about
the job
at Harvard

§

The Lettrist

§

Art of the blurb

§

Once
they took E.A. Robinson
seriously

§

Poetry and bread
in
New Haven

§

Another Irish poet
beloved
by the School of Quietude

§

Who needs more
of the novel?

§

Another poet
at Virginia Tech

§

Palestinian poet
Taha Muhammad Ali

§

A biography of
e.e. cummings

§

Audios from the past
alas

§

One more review
of Bill & Sam

§

Ooga-Booga
finally
wins a prize

§

At 31,
Meghan O’Rourke
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
(from FSG)
is reviewed in the
New York Times

§

Donald Hall
on
All Things Considered

§

Writers workshop
sounds alarm

§

Cruising for culture
with Lincoln Kirstein

§

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
(Slavoj Zizek of course)

Check out
the reading list

§

About to become
the top-grossing
visual artist
of all time

§

Emotion’s role
in thought

§

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

§

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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 School of Quietude (SoQ) or post-avant, has to do with what good Marxists once would have called the National Question. Are these U.S.-specific categories? Is it possible, for example, for a British poet, regardless of how conservative, to be a true anglophile in the same way that many U.S. SoQ poets so clearly are. If Anglophilia is a defining feature for SoQ poetics in the U.S., what does one make of the recent “Irish turn” in SoQ letters? And how does one address the question of such post-avant poets from Britain, such as Jeremy Prynne or Allen Fisher or Thomas A. Clark or Redell Olsen or or or? That list is rather endless, suggesting that the anglophilia of U.S. SoQ writing isn’t abject subservience to British writing per se, but rather to a certain cultural tradition that is only one strand of what U.K. writing truly is – and, if the Irish turn means anything, a waning one at that.

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 “Black Mountain” poet, tho he never once set foot there, because he followed the prescriptions of Olson’s toward a speech-based poetics. Of course, at the time, the severely palsied Eigner was barely able to speak at all. The New York School & the Beats were pretty explicit in putting community first & the San Francisco Renaissance really had no meaning at all other than community.

So how does this play out in the United Kingdom? Are we to read the work of Eric Mottram and others as attempts to create a parallel phenomenon in Great Britain? Or is it simply that Mottram, Stuart Montgomery, Tom Raworth, J.H. Prynne, Tom Pickard et al represent a poetry as attached to the literary history of the United States as Edward Hirsh & Dana Gioia are to the literary history of Oxbridge? Having seen Britain only from the air, it’s impossible for me to know.

Tony Trehy is a poet from Manchester, one of those cities in the north of England about which geography-deprived Americans tend to be terribly ignorant. Those who have heard of it probably think of the name as an adjective, describing the noun United. (Or, if they were around in the 1960s, perhaps the noun Guardian). Trehy has been doing interesting things in & around his home grounds, most recently publishing a book entitled 50 Heads. Or, to be exact, 50 Heads, just out from Apple Pie Editions. The front cover has no lettering on it whatsoever, simply a close-up color photo of the side of a high-rise building. The binding is the kind of stiff-cover paperback that one finds from publishers aiming to place all their stock on library shelves. The interior feels almost as austere: 49 (not 50) one-paragraph prose poems, each with a one-word title, each beginning with a 0, then a period, then a sentence with no capitalization, concluding a few sentences later with a colon followed by the number 1. The poems are presented almost in alphabetical order, the first being “Content,” the next-to-last being “Yggdrasill.” Seeing that the 49th & last of these prose poems is entitled “Apology,” one turns to it out of sequence, anticipating perhaps some explication:

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 U.K. who are close to langpo personally – Tom Raworth in particular – there has never really been anything you could call a language school, as such, in Britain. I hear this equally as a techno descendant of someone like Prynne, a concept that strikes me as very odd indeed. And a sign that Trehy isn’t really like anyone else at all.

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.

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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 post-NY School poem is perhaps the closest thing we have in the 21st century to a normative poetry in the United States. There literally are thousands of post-avant poets out there. The School of Quietude (SoQ) has managed to retain something of a stranglehold on the trade presses – and on certain public awards – that it is loathe to give up, but it is evident now that the MFA program whose students graduate without knowing just who John Ashbery is, for example, or Bruce Andrews or Geraldine Kim, are simply committing malpractice. As is the class in technique that does not take time to seriously discuss flarf. Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe appear in the New Yorker. Nate Mackey wins one of the major awards & has to compete with Ben Lerner to do so. There are dozens of writing programs openly open to post-avant perspectives. It’s a different world than the one in which Allen Ginsberg & Anne Waldman had to start the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics because the only existing outlet for their kind of poetry, SUNY Buffalo, was just too much of a post-Black Mountain affair. The idea there should be so many poets betwixt the post-avants & the SoQ that this third way itself could itself become one of the driving forces in contemporary poetry was just unthinkable two decades ago. Today that seems a perfectly reasonable proposition.

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
nationwide guarantee

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.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

 

Ron Silliman: Spring Readings

Philadelphia
Friday
May 11

7:00 PM
, Last Word Bookshop, with Christina Davis, a Mad Poets Society event, hosted by Leonard Gontarek, 220 S. 40th Street (near Walnut),  215-386-7750

Baltimore
Saturday
May 26
8:00 PM,
i.e. reading series, with Tom Mandel, at Dionysus Restaurant & Lounge, 8 E. Preston Street, 410-244-1020

Washington
Sunday
May 27

7:00 PM, Bridge Street Books, with Tom Mandel, 2814 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202 965 5200

Philadelphia
Sunday
June 3
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. 108 S.13th St., 215-735-9600

New York City
Sunday
June 17
7:00 PM, Zinc Bar, with Jessica Smith, 90 W. Houston, corner of LaGuardia Place, 212-477-8337

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