Saturday, October 20, 2007

 

Ron Silliman

Windsor - Detroit Reading & Talks

 

Thursday, October 25

7:30 to 9:00 PM

Informal talk:
Recognizability
as part of
The Transparency Machine Series

Ambassador Lounge,

Salon C, 2nd Floor, C.A.W. Student Centre,

University of Windsor

Windsor, Ontario

Free & open to the public

(Download materials
under discussion
here)

§

Friday, October 26

1:00 to 2:30 PM

Informal talk:
Poetry, Blogging & Critical Discourse

English Department Conference Room

Wayne State University

10304 5057 Woodward Avenue

Detroit

Free & open to the public

 §

Friday, October 26

3:00 to 5:00 PM

Reading with
Tracie Morris

Welcome Center Auditorium

Wayne State University

Warren and Woodward Avenues

Detroit

Free & open to the public

§

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

 

Laura Moriarty’s An Air Force, just out from Hooke Press, is a beautiful & terribly sad memoir of the author’s youth as an “air force brat,” the daughter of a Vietnam era jet mechanic. Beautiful because Moriarty is a master of the sparest of styles, as the book’s opening passage makes evident:

I am born in the Air Force.

Preexisting condition

Eternall War

1 body

Will the force of the air create global cataclysm and despair?

In 1946 Tom Moriarty enlists in the Army Air Force at
Fort Snelling in Minneapolis. He is 17.

Jack rabbits on the runway in waves

Where the periwinkle sky gives onto

Pictures of a childlike father in uniform.

I wait for something to happen that makes sense. Our neighbor is killed in
Vietnam. He leaves a son behind who is my age. I am 12. It is 1964.

Excessive casualties with no strategic payback now as before.

Orders

Ordinance

Stoicism

We move to Otis Air Force Base from
St Paul when I am 3. My parents have never heard of Cape Cod. They look it up in an atlas. Mae is a secretary for 3M, then called Minnesota Mining. She quits when she has me. Tom is a sergeant and jet mechanic. At Otis he will be a flight engineer on the C-121 Constellation, flying for the 961st Squadron of the Air Defense Command. His job is to keep the plane in the air. The version he flies, customized with a radar dome on top and an undercarriage full of surveillance equipment is called a Pregnant Connie.

Reconnaissance

Permanent change of station

Creative destruction

Cold War

Promotional opportunity

Roughly the first two pages of a 25-page chapbook, Moriarty here moves between the deeply personal, the coldly objective & the linguistic detritus of the period.¹ It is this latter feature, the absolute banality of so many terms & phrases, that colors this text in the monochromes of any military base. In the sequence above, we have one term, Reconnaissance, whose French roots track its history in military theory, terms that reflect their own internal contradictions (including here importing Joseph Schumpeter’s Creative destruction from the field of economics), focusing finally on the personal dimension a jet mechanic might see in such circumstances.

In the very best of times – peace – the life of an enlisted family compares with that of one living on welfare in the projects – not only are pay bad and living conditions marginal, but the constant movement of personnel prevents any cumulative sense of place or identification with community beyond one’s “branch” of the military. In war, these same people become blood sacrifice to the great machine of policy. The same public brutalism that channels such a large portion of our black men into the criminal justice system has few qualms about sending young men & women into harm’s way halfway around the world if the alternative is to appear “weak” at election time. All the rhetoric about the military representing our “best & brightest” is patently hypocritical – if they were as alleged, the very last place they would turn to would be such indentured servitude.

It’s not clear how Moriarty’s parents got to the Air Force in the first place – their lives here present a horizon. From another perspective, of course, they could have been the center of this mystery. What made them expendable? What we have instead is the truncated perspective of any coming of age tale, one where the men philander & beat their wives, where neighbors are shipped abroad never to return. Somehow in this barren military housing landscape, one young woman found poetry, or it found her, initially in the form of Vachel Lindsay & A.E. Housman.

So this is, at one level, the most personal of stories. It is also, in the same moment, a fable, a tale of caution. What happened to the Moriarty family during Vietnam could just as easily occur today in the context of Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Iran. Wherever men & women of limited economic prospects are channeled into opportunities to gain a career & see the world &, most of all, just get the hell out of Dodge. Tom Moriarty was not the only man to make a life out of getting beyond Minnesota. Wherever. Viz, for example, the whole New York School of Tulsa.

Moriarty has always been a writer of great economy – even her most lush writing often feels austere, as tho she disapproves of excess in all forms. The closest antecedent I can think of is the work of George Oppen – not a minimalist in the sense, say, of Creeley or Armantrout, but avoiding anything anywhere that might be taken for padding. An Air Force feels especially stripped down, as if this in itself were the point.

In contrast, Moriarty’s other new book this season feels large & rich. A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975-2007, just out from Omnidawn, gathers work from all of her previous poetry collections (there have been two novels), and – unless I am mistaken – a couple that have yet to appear as well. At 220 pages & with 12-point type, it’s the sort of impeccable cornucopia I suspect any one of us wants our own selected poems to be. It’s one of those big books that, not unlike Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets, let you know that this author is well past the “promising young poet” phase and has emerged as one of the master writers on the American stage.

You can see how her spare style can build texts of astonishing density & luster, such as this, an uncollected work that leads off this book:

Waking from
Sleep a Thousand Miles Thick

The blue crack as the snow
Unfastens the house
Sheer moon section white leaf
eyes beaming drip
with salt-heavy
silver coin sleep
Heated air tired 
seeps out of flesh
I wake each morning velvet
eared from night’s wine
Listen for the child
Our animals nestling
Count themselves mumble
Calm stars fading
Energy bristles from tight
Foreheads, eyes
Violet shadows like spirits
Leap between house and barn
The day’s whir begins
The sun’s lip
enfolds the horizon

Blouse crumpled my
breasts unbuttoned into sleeping
lips The spirits handspring October
white apple smell nostril
quivers Sugar taste
The dream pours into the listening
room Petals bunch into
eyes closed against stark
light golden, speeding Our room
winged mother-of-pearl within its
tough clam bright car merging
onto a swift freeway at dawn

                                Using 44 words from
                                Bruce Conner’s “Tables and Cards”
                                Hansen-Fuller Gallery Nov 1975

If she didn’t tell you at the end that she was using a procedure, I don’t think you would notice. That she’s decided to employ material from a work of funk artist Bruce Conner – whose heyday was the 1960s, part of a West Coast scene that was an adjunct to the rise of the Beats & the New Americans generally – others included George Herms, Ed Keinholz, Jay DeFeo, Robert Duncan’s partner Jess, William T. Wiley, David Gilhooly, Viola Frey – tells you considerably more. What often appear to be straightforward textual surfaces are often, in Moriarty’s work, the consequence of complex cumulative methodology. Only the result looks simple.

This is an approach to writing that both values its audience and, perhaps even more so, the privacy of the artist regardless of how much of her life she bares. One sense that I always take from her writing is just how much pleasure there must be involved in its creation, but I’m not always sure that this is the side of it that she wants to share. This duality is something that I sense as well from a number of other women writers, especially around the Bay Area – Bev Dahlen, Leslie Scalapino, the late Barbara Guest. One result is that Moriarty, like these others, is somebody I can read profitably repeatedly, focusing on very different aspects of the work with each reading.

A Semblance does not appear to be edited in strict chronological order, which I always find a little frustrating (as I did most recently with Tom Pickard’s Hole in the Wall for the same reason). Yet the great risk of any selected or collected edition – think of Williams, whose writing was quite pedestrian until he reached his late 30s – is that the early work will be weakest & that readers might never make it to the great later pieces if they must plow through 20 or 50 pages of juvenilia first. But if there was any period of Moriarty’s life in which she produced less than mature works, it’s been complete erased from this volume. This book sings from cover to cover.

 

¹ The double l of Eternall is not a typo – Moriarty occasionally will set a word or phrase off at an angle like this, just enough torque to ripple the surface.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

 

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

 

PENNsound
has added pages of MP3 files
for the magic twins
of Philly poetry,
Frank Sherlock & CA Conrad

§

CA Conrad’s account
of the
Bob Cobbing celebration
at Writers House

§

Susan Howe
& the
”Joy of Sects”

§

Poetry inBurma
in a time of crisis

§

The future
of the past tense

§

Laura Ulewicz,
who declined to be in
The New American Poetry,
has died

§

Javanese poet & translator
Toto Sudarto Bachtiar
has also died

§

Of Doris Lessing,
Nobel laureate

§

The New York Times
calls Alice Notley
many names,
including
a Language poet

Alice
has won this year’s
Lenore Marshall Prize

(No word, tho,
on why this prize,
which was given for decades
by The Nation,
has shifted to
the Academy of American Poets)

§

The day
J.K. Rowling
won the Nobel Prize

§

Ange Mlinko
reviews
David Shapiro
in Poetry

§

Is the Web
good for writers?

§

An ezine
that focuses
on the review
of first books

§

How far off the grid
is Joe Plum?

§

Poez
returns

& so does
Dylan Thomas

§

100 years
of
Korean modernism

§

Reading Victor Segalen

§

“Margaret Atwood
&
empty space

§

The book market
in the
Czech Republic

§

The Frankfurt Book Fair

§

Oscar Wilde turns 40

§

A portrait of Edmund Wilson,
the lion of Quietude

§

Bringing Brodsky home

§

A poet runs for mayor

§

A tense interview with
Linton Kwesi Johnson

§

Talking with
Margaret Gibson

§

Talking with
Mitchell Kaplan,
bookstore owner
& head of
the ABA

§

Poetry in the streets
is divisive
in
Jerusalem

§

Reading Christian Wiman

§

My Poet

§

Waiting for the publisher

§

A profile of
Richard Wilbur

§

Robert Pinsky
on
Anne Bradstreet
&
Philip Freneau

§

Wittgenstein’s Longfellow

Sudbury’s Longfellow

§

 

“One ought really
to do philosophy
only as a form
of poetry.”

§

Jimmy Santiago Baca
at The Big Read

§

Growing old
with Anne Stevenson

§

Slammin’ in Bahrain,
just slammin’ in
Bahrain,
what a wonderful feeling,
I’m happy again

§

Talking with
Ishle Yi Park & Bob Holman

§

Reading report:
Ada Limon &
Michael Cirelli

§

Remembering
Archie Ammons

§

Tampa’s
poet laureate

& the laureate
of
Warwick, Coventry

§

More silliness
about
who wrote
Shakespeare

§

An anthology of
Alabama poetry:
It’s not dense
and obscure

§

Ned Snell,
Utah’s
Poet of the Year

§

A history of
The New Left Review

§

Kara Walker
at the
Whitney

§

Peter Schjeldahl
on
Richard Prince

§

A one-woman show
by
Jay DeFeo,
a painter
active among the Beats

§

A profile of
Louise Bourgeois

§

“the most popular
and most successful
American artist
who ever lived”

§

Museums as
terror targets

§

The fate of Dia Beacon

§

Debating the future
of British art

§

Collaborations from Hell Dept.:
Leonard Cohen & Philip Glass

§

Dalí & Film

§

This blog
had 1659 visits
on Monday,
the most ever

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Monday, October 15, 2007

 

A word about naming. Naming really matters. When the Declaration of Independence stated some 231 years ago

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed,

Thomas Jefferson and his fellow framers may even have intended the word men to include, as my grade school teachers insisted in the 1950s, all people without regard to gender, color, age or property. But it wasn’t an accident that African-American men were commonly addressed as “boy” regardless of their age well into the 20th century, or that women did not have the right to vote until 1920. Using man as the unmarked case for person did a lot to obscure all the ways in which men generally, and white male heterosexual property owners more specifically held a monopoly on state power until well into the 20th century. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all white male heterosexual property owners are created equal” doesn’t have quite the same lofty ring as the original document, but it is in fact what Jefferson’s words meant in practice. An awful lot of pain & suffering would occur over the next two centuries as that one “unmarked” word, men, got itself unpacked, socially. The problem of the Declaration is just this – in the way in which Jefferson used this phrase, there is no such thing as men. Mistaking a subset for the category of the whole – people – distorts everything. There are real consequences.

In an almost parallel, if less critical, mode, there is no such thing as a poet. There are only kinds of poets. The idea that a visual poet, a sound poet, a conventionalist who writes in rhyme & meter, a soft surrealist, a post-language poet, an identarian of any specific ethnicity or sexual orientation, a slam rapper or a cowboy poet, are somehow doing “the same thing” is so vague & confused as to be ludicrous. Yet there is one coterie of writers who insist they are just poets. They are, they contend, the unmarked case. Everybody else is marked in some fashion: gay poet, language poet, NY School, haiku poet, flarf poet, Southern poet, Filipino poet, whatever.

I realize that there are many poets, most in fact, who prefer to think of themselves as poets, period, rather than as this or that type of poet. I’m sympathetic, since I’m really no different in this regard. But I’m reminded of Marx’s adage that people make history, but not as they please. This is precisely the point where our lives as writers intersects with the social. So it’s not surprising that whenever I bring this topic up, I can always count on some response such as the quasi-anonymous Jason last Thursday, so angry that their words in the comments stream are positively sputtering. If they can just kill the messenger, they must think, this will all go away. But it won’t.

This past week’s National Book Award nominations for poetry are a scandal that should get somebody fired, not so much for the poets who were chosen – most are credible examples of the same small school of writing – as for the selection of the panel who did the choosing. Charles Simic, Linda Bierds, David St. John, Vijay Seshadri, and Natasha Trethewey may be diverse in terms of gender, race, even age, but all five represent the same neophobe movement in American letters. There is not one post-avant, not one third-way, visual, slam or other kind of poet. Imagine a National Book Foundation panel that included, say, Jack Hirschman, Antler, Diane DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Janice Mirikitani, all poets associated in some way with the Beat scene, and that they chose a list of possible recipients that included Eileen Myles, David Meltzer, Jack Foley, Michael Rothenberg & Amiri Baraka. There would be howls of outrage, as there were in 1979 when the National Endowment for the Arts attempted to redress that agency’s historic neglect of “marked case poets” of all kinds all at once. If there are not screams & speeches before Congress at the output of this year’s panel, it’s not because the panel represents a broader spectrum of the world of poetry, but only because it represents that tiny sliver that fancies itself as being “just poets.” This panel’s selections reflect not only aesthetic sameness, but all are white, four are published by big trade presses, all but Ellen Bryant Voigt have Ph.D.’s and teach for a living. Voigt, obviously the rebel in this scene, got her MFA at Iowa City. Oh, she too teaches.¹ At 57, Linda Gregerson is the baby of the group. As a cross-section of American poetry, this doesn’t stretch even from A to B.

For the past five years, my response to situations like this, and to the underlying conditions that permit such blatant favoritism, has been to systematically mark the unmarked poets, to name them. The phrase I’ve chosen, School of Quietude, is a term that has its roots in the correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe, who had to deal with the direct ancestors of this very same cabal of poets back in the 1840s & didn’t much appreciate the experience either. But whether I call them the SoQ, conventionalists, neophobes, “cooked” – a 1950s word borrowed from the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss that was used during that decade to distinguish the likes of Donald Hall, Robert Pack, Louis Simpson, Robert Lowell & Richard Wilbur from the “raw” New Americans – the one term that shouldn’t apply is “mainstream.” They are no more mainstream than anyone else – that is like calling the Bill O’Reilly Show a “spin-free zone.” It’s calculated to misrepresent the facts.

Historically, the most salient features characterizing this literary movement, from the days of Poe to the present, is a backwards-looking approach to aesthetics combined with a fiercely held monopoly of the major institutions relating to poetry.

The clearest example of this monopoly is the Poet Laureate program of the Library of Congress. In its seventy year history, there have been 47 people invited to serve as the laureate or, in its early days, as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The number sometimes is given as 48 since Louise Glück served two discontinuous terms, one of them as part of a three-person “shared” laureateship during the Y2K celebration. 46 of the 47, a mere 97.9 percent, have all been card-carrying members of the School of Quietude. Indeed, you’d be better off as a traditionalist who is only marginally an American poet, such as Stephen Spender or Joseph Brodsky, than to be anywhere along the Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky lineage, even tho that is also the Whitman-Dickinson lineage & indeed has been the site of most of the important poetry in American history. In reverse order, the following writers have been invited to be our poets laureate:

Charles Simic
Donald Hall
Ted Kooser
Louise Glück
Billy Collins
Stanley Kunitz
Rita Dove, Louise Glück and W.S. Merwin
Robert Pinsky
Robert Hass
Rita Dove
Mona Van Duyn
Joseph Brodsky
Mark Strand
Howard Nemerov
Richard Wilbur
Robert Penn Warren
Gwendolyn Brooks
Reed Whittemore
Robert Fitzgerald
Anthony Hecht
Maxine Kumin
William Meredith
Robert Hayden
Stanley Kunitz
Daniel Hoffman
Josephine Jacobsen
William Stafford
William Jay Smith
James Dickey
Stephen Spender
Reed Whittemore
Howard Nemerov
Louis Untermeyer
Richard Eberhart
Robert Frost
Randall Jarrell
William Carlos Williams
Conrad Aiken
Elizabeth Bishop
Leonie Adams
Robert Lowell
Karl Shapiro
Louise Bogan
Robert Penn Warren
Allen Tate
Joseph Auslander

Only one individual ever invited to serve has declined – William Carlos Williams, the one non-SoQ poet on the entire list. So in practice, our laureates have been 100-percent neophobes now for seventy years. Williams was offered the position in 1952, at a point when his health was already deep into the 15-year cardiac slide that would eventually kill him. His correspondence at the time shows him to have been ambivalent about the program at best – in his mid-sixties, he’d already suffered a lifetime of condescension and neglect from his generation’s traditionalists, the very same New Critics who took over the academy in the 1930s & ‘40s.

One might argue that Gwendolyn Brooks borders on the post-avant, or that Rita Dove doesn’t show the same Anglophile traits that are the commonest denominator on this list. Their presence here, however, demonstrates one of the least attractive neophobe traits, akin to plantation liberalism: African-Americans (but only African-Americans) are given greater leeway to stray from conventionalist writing styles. It’s not, as a result, any accident that two of the most recent post-avants to be nominated or win major literary awards should be Harryette Mullen & Nate Mackey. They richly deserve the accolades, but their selection is consistent with the most cynical of interpretations about the governance of these institutions.

But it is true that, as the number of publishing poets in the United States has grown from a few hundred in the 1950s to over 10,000 today, neophobes have lost their stranglehold on some literary institutions. Not only have counter-institutions grown up, such as the poetics programs at New College and Naropa, but a number of degree-granting institutions – from SUNY Buffalo to Mills to Brown to Bard to Penn to UC San Diego – have become known as sites of the post-avant. Even Iowa City – never quite comfortable with the Anglophile New England scene that dominates the trade presses & awards – now has a diverse faculty. Over the past 18 months, The Nation has begun to publish poets like Rae Armantrout, Jordan Davis & Jennifer Moxley. This year's Lenore Marshall prize went to Alice Notley . . . without a single post-avant on the selection committee.

It’s not that there are no great neophobe poets – Robert Hass, one of this year’s NBA finalists, & Wendell Berry are as good as any post-avant alive, as were Elizabeth Bishop & Thom Gunn. But the School of Q is just one scene among many and for it to exercise the kind of hold it has had on an institution like the Poet Laureate’s slot should be embarrassing to everyone. As for the National Book Award process, this year’s honey pot simply reveals the degree to which the National Book Foundation is just a marketing tool for the major trade publishers & distributors, who have always been the captive of one this little scene. The name of this game isn’t who picks the winner, but rather who picks the judges.

 

¹ Keep in mind that if each of the 450 degree-granting writing programs employ six poets as professors – a number that is certainly high – fewer than 3,000 of the 10,000 publishing poets teach in such programs. At least seventy percent do something else.

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