Friday, November 30, 2007

 

Photo by Ben Friedlander

Steve Evans

This is the time of year when newspapers that still have book review sections – a dwindling fraternity – run their “notable books of the year” feature in hopes of gaining a spike in advertising from publishers who hope to supplement sales with a few Christmas gift buys. In short, there’s a list for the same reason that this is the time of year when you can count on a big new coffee table book on some theme related to The Beatles, another to railroads, a third to covered bridges, etc. Most of these projects, like the one that will run in the New York Times on Sunday, are little more than attempts to move perfectly exchangeable product – there may be some great writers on the list (Rae Armantrout, Lydia Davis, Roberto Bolaño), but they’re there mostly to legitimate the rest of the roster.

Much more interesting is the fifth annual Attention Span survey conducted by Steve Evans. Evans asks roughly four dozen writers – mostly poets – to chart “their current interests in poetry and related fields” and then simply compiles the lists. One might be able to fault Evans for not having a perfect electoral college here – it sure is white & about two-thirds male – but he manages to include writers associated with everything from The New American poetry (Bill Berkson, Pierre Joris) to flarf (Kasey Mohammad) to even new formalism (Annie Finch). He includes Canadians & Aussies & generally ends up with a more democratic look at what contemporary English-language poetry looks like than almost any other cross-section I know.

This year’s contributors listed a total of

486 books, chapbooks, songs, films, magazines, websites, exhibits, and other cultural phenomena in their lists (the number increases significantly if titles embedded in comments are counted).

To give you some sense of scale, the whole of the Academy of American Poets website lists just 560 poets, stretching from Homer to Tony Tost. While Attention Span is capturing titles rather than individual poets, its focus is just one year of attention. Even there, it’s probably picking up only around 12 percent of the total number of titles published (even less, once you consider just how many of the works mentioned were published earlier), representing no more than five percent of all publishing English-language poets. So Attention Span suffers the curious problem of being both comprehensive and just the tip o’ the iceberg (pre-global warming).

The primary message here is diversity – less than four dozen readers nominated more than ten times that number of items, and exactly three books were listed on five separate lists, just over ten percent of this nominating committee. In a landscape that might be likened to Kansas, where even the smallest hill gets christened Mount Oread, these three books can claim to be the dominant works of poetry for 2007. They are:

Jasper Bernes, Starsdown, from Ingirumimusnocteetcconsumimurigni.

Juliana Spahr, The Transformation, from Atelos

Hannah Weiner, Hannah Weiner’s Open House, from Kenning, edited by Patrick F. Durgin

Unless you think this is entirely haphazard, consider that Juliana Spahr had the second highest total in 2005. Lisa Robertson has twice finished first – in 2006 and 2004. And Evans’ list of nominators demonstrates that this isn’t an accident of him using a cloistered group of respondents. These lists pass the sniff test and, by being public with individual lists, Evans also manages to bypass most of the methodologically dodgy aspects that would drive something like Foetry into conniptions. If somebody is being very strategic in thinking out his or her answers this year – viz. Meredith Quartermain – it’s perfectly up front.

There is a rather perfect symmetry in these three choices – one a first book by a grad student at Cal, one the midcareer masterpiece of a poet in her prime, a text that situates precisely at the intersection between memoir, essay and the prose poem, and the selected writings of someone whom the WOM-PO list would characterize as a Foremother. Perhaps the more amazing feat is the size of these three presses – Atelos, founded by Lyn Hejinian & Travis Ortiz & operating mostly out of Hejinian’s house in Berkeley, is by far “the most institutional.” Try walking into your local Barnes & Noble and asking which books they carry by Ingirumimusnocteetcconsumimurigni – if, that is, you can pronounce it.

Another way of looking at this list is to consider that FSG and Ecco/Harper – the two presses that hold down three of the four poetry slots in the New York Times list – are not nearly as influential as they might want to believe. FSG is mentioned seven times, which ties it for eighth place with Atelos, Factory School & Couch House. Ecco/Harper doesn’t even make the list of the 71 presses mentioned more than once. In short, all the editorial, distribution and PR muscle of Ecco/Harper cannot match even a fraction of that of Ingirumimusnocteetcconsumimurigni. This makes perfect sense of course if you look at the New York trade presses and their poetry lists for what they are – a small press scene no different from any other save for the one minor detail of vast amounts of capital magnifying everything out of proportion.

Five presses were listed ten or more times and it’s instructive to note who they were: New Directions, the University of California, Wesleyan University, Dusie and Subpress. The first three, which were also listed in double digits last year, for all purposes are the elite poetry publishers in the United States, with decades of experience and major backlists that are kept in print. If prizes were allocated by value, rather than by advertising or ideology, New Directions, UC & Wesleyan would pretty much dominate the poetry awards year after year.¹ That they don’t is one good metric for the role capital plays in such hoo-hah. Subpress is a collective, and I believe that Dusie may be as well. That these smaller ventures can obliterate such badly managed competition as Knopf is perhaps not surprising. That they can, in a good year, hold their own alongside these three other well-run institutional houses is even more impressive.

Unlike the trade presses, which are driven by profit, and the independent small presses, many of whom want to change the world of poetry to better fit their own vision(s), university presses often see their own role as one of stewardship, so it is not a surprise to see UC and Wesleyan in the top five repeatedly. But not all university presses are equal and one has to drop down to a large tie for 19th place to find the likes of Chicago, Duke, Iowa, Yale or Stanford on the 2007 list, each mentioned three times. Pittsburgh and Louisiana are completely absent from the multiple mentions list. Again, quality of editorial vision has a huge impact here, and it’s not evenly distributed among college publishers.

One very good way to use this list is for shopping at SPD or Bridge Street Books or Woodland Pattern. But another is to recognize what the patterns here are suggesting – the currently literary scene is very flat in the sense that no one literary tendency dictates what everyone is reading. That’s both a plus and a problem – the absence of a shared literary culture is an issue with potentially serious consequences. The other is that if you write the right book, you are just as well off with Factory School or a Dusie chapbook as with any of the major trade presses. FSG may be able to get a few copies of any printed matter onto the shelves of Borders, but it can’t actually get those same items off those shelves and into the brains of people who actively read and think about poetry. And who write it themselves.

 

¹ In fact, Rae Armantrout’s Next Life, from Wesleyan is on the New York Times’ notable list as well as being the lone book in the National Book Critics Circle “best recommended” list that is not from one of the New York trade presses.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

 

Charles Bernstein
on John Ashbery’s
Rivers and Mountains

& Bernstein
on speed

§

A.L.I.C.E.
is “not completely sure
about her answers
to my questions in
Sunset Debris

§

Boog City
interviews
two generations of leadership
at the Poetry Project

§

On
Stephen Vincent
& Pat Reed

§

A profile of
Robert Hass

§

Douglas Manson
on
Robert Creeley’s
last books

Marjorie Perloff
on
Robert Creeley

& Douglas Barbour
on
Marjorie Perloff

§

Remembering
Gene Frumkin

§

Pound
and his enemies

§

The National Book Critics Circle
best recommended” lists
for 2007

§

Domanski, Ondaatje
win
Governor General’s awards

§

Two Lives:
Gertrude and Janet

§

Wordsworth
and his ego

§

Picasso & women

§

Blake’s Bible

§

Reading Stephanie Strickland

§

Talking with
Jim Bertolino

§

What constitutes
a canon?

§

Why contemporary art
is not
left wing

§

Adalaide Morris
on
How to Think (with)
Thinkertoys

§

The further adventures
of the
tiny tour

§

Norman Mailer
vs.
Gore Vidal
& Dick Cavett:
Norman responds

Mailer wins
one last prize

§

The Oregon Book Awards
poetry finalists

§

Remembering
Hassib Mroue

§

Chris Funkhouser
reading
The Electronic Literature Collection

§

Missouri
to would-be
poets laureate:
Show me!

§

A profile of
Natasha Trethewey

§

“The last great
Arab classical poet

§

collaboration is key

§

Ted Hughes’
paper trail

Building the myth
of a substantial poet

§

Miss Congeniality
on the Governor General’s
shortlist

§

A reading series
in Qatar

§

“Poetry Days
in the Desert

§

Saud Usmani
&
contemporary Urdu poetry

§

More on the Hollywood
writers’ strike
here
&
here & here
& the flip side here

§

Deadlines,
war & fiction

§

Censorship battle
in the Hamptons

§

The world’s worst book title

§

Tenure
as a form
of hazing

§

Gravestone poem
held as evidence
133 years

§

The most successful playwright
of all time
is not William Shakespeare

§

Proust was not really
a neuroscientist

§

Is the library
sustainable?

§

Carnegie Mellon
has scanned
1.5 million books,
only one quarter of them
in English

§

Here is the new
Shorter OED

§

Why read?

§

Modernism
for the masses

§

The first usable
e-book?

§

Poetry
as a healing art

§

19th annual
Cowboy Christmas
poetry reading

§

A reading
in
Malaysia

§

57,554
attend relaunch
of the
Detroit Institute of the Arts,
home of the
finest single painting
in the
United States

But at what cost?

§

The well-tempered Glenn Gould

§

Politically correct
Beowulf?

§

Walter Benn Michaels
on the films of
Christopher Nolan

§

Julian Schnabel
blinks

§

All 19 essays
in the
electropoetics thread
of the
Electronic Book Review
edited by
Lori Emerson

(Check out
the other threads
as well!)

§

The Lawrimore Project

§

The Flynn Effect

§

Garrett Lisi:
why math?

§

Parallel worlds?

§

James Turrell’s
Roden Crater

§

Underground Chinatown?

§

Ainu culture
plus hiphop?

§

Saving modernism
at Yale

§

Why are we
in
Vietnam?

§

A job
for an American Lit Specialist
in
Basel, Switzerland

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

 

Recently Received

 

Books (Poetry)

Maram al-Massri, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor, translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa, Copper Canyon, Port Townsend 2007

Taylor Brady & Rob Halpern, Snow Sensitive Skin, Atticus/Finch, Buffalo 2007

Elena Karina Byrne, Masque, Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT 2007

Ron Charach, Selected Portraits, Wolsak and Wynn, Hamilton, Ontario 2007

Mark DuCharme, The Sensory Cabinet, BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo 2007

Mark DuCharme, The Crowd Poems, Potato Clock Editions, Boulder, CO 2007

Noah Falck, Homemade Engines from a Dream, Pudding House Chapbook Series, Columbus, OH 2007

Peter Ganick, recent text., folder press, Puhos, Finland 2007

Matt Hill, The Cloud Reckoner, WingSpan Press, Livermore, CA 2007

Will Hubbard, The God is Quiet That Would Have You, Cap Gun Press, Brooklyn 2007

Charles Jensen, The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, New Michigan Press, Grand Rapids, MI 2007

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Aquiline, Printed Matter Press, Tokyo/New York 2007

Richard Krech, We are on the Verge of Ecstacy: Selected Early Poems, 1965-70, Green Panda Press, Cleveland Heights, OH 2007

Joel Lewis, Learning from New Jersey, Talisman House, Jersey City, 2007

Karyna McGlynn, Scorpionica, New Michigan Press, Grand Rapids, MI 2007

John Newlove, A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems, edited by Robert McTavish with an afterword by Jeff Derksen, Chaudiere Books, Ottawa 2007

Marthe Reed, Tender Box: A Wunderkammer, Lavender Ink, New Orleans 2007

G. Emíl Reutter, Stirring Within: Poems and Tales from Mount Caramel, BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo 2007

Hugh Seidman, Somebody Stand Up and Sing, New Issues, Kalamazoo, MI 2007

Ulf Stolterfoht, Lingos I-IX, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop, Burning Deck, Providence 2007

Mathias Svalina, Creation Myths, New Michigan Press, Grand Rapids, MI 2007

John Tipton, Four Fables, Answer Tag Home Press, Chicago 2007

Christine Wertheim, +│’me’S-pace: doc. 001b, society for cUm│n’ linguistics (scum), Les Figues Press, Los Angeles 2007

Paul Wilson, Turning Mountain, Wolsak and Wynn, Hamilton, Ontario, 2007

Vincent Zompa, Jacket of the Straits, New Michigan Press, Grand Rapids, MI 2007

 

Books (Other)

George Robert Minkoff, The Weight of Smoke, McPherson & Co., Kingston, NY 2006

Tony Trigilio, Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics, Southern Illinois UP, Carbondale, IL 2007

 

Journals

6x6, no. 14, Brooklyn 2007. Includes Prabhakar Vasan, Lori Shine, Douglas Rothschild, Randall Leigh Kaplan, Corina Copp & Fred Schmalz

Cap Gun 2, Brooklyn 2007. Includes Lynn Xu, Anna McDonald, Jackie Delamatre, Bronwen Tate, Tao Lin, Rodolfo Hinostroza, Sam Adams, Jackie Clark, Joshua Edwards, Will Hubbard, Eric Gelsinger, more.

Conjunctions 49, A Writers’ Aviary (Special Portfolio: John Ashbery Tribute), Annandale-on-Hudson, 2008. Includes Howard Norman, Anne Waldman, Arthur Sze, Merrill Gilfillan, Forrest Gander, Diane Ackerman, Rick Moody, Nathaniel Tarn, John Kinsella, C.D. Wright, William H. Gass, Martine Bellen, Sven Birkerts, John Ashbery, Kevin Killian,
Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Graham Foust, Eileen Myles, Marjorie Welish, Jed Perl, Ron Silliman, Ben Lerner, Cole Swensen, David Shapiro, Susan Stewart, Marcella Durand, Brenda Hillman, Anselm Berrigan, Joan Retallack, Robert Kelly, more.

filling Station, thirty9, Calgary 2007. Includes Changming Yuan, Ingòlfur Gíslason, Haukur Màr Helgason, Jaspreet Singh, Eirikur Örn Norđdahl, Hye-Seung Jung, Kevin mcpherson eckhoff, more.

Open Letter, Thirteenth Series, No. 4, Fall 2007, Strathoy, Ontario. Special issue on artists’ statements and the nature of artistic inquiry. Includes Tracy Whalen, Frank Davey, Marsha Bryant, W.F. Garrett-Petts, Michael Jarrett, Henk Slager, Ashok Mathur, Si Transken, more. Includes DVD.

Poetry Project Newsletter, #213, December 2007/January 2008, New York. Includes Ted Greenwald, Hoa Nguyen, Simon Pettet on Joanne Kyger, Camille Roy on Jocelyn Saidenberg, Miles Champion on Tim Atkins’ Horace, Bill Kushner on Barbara Henning, Bob Perelman on Ben Friedlander, more.

 

CDs/Other Media

Walter Wego, Come Sunday, vocals by Steve Benson, mix by Parker Waite, WERU-FM, Blue Hill, Maine 2007 (double CD)

 

All items received since November 7.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

 

When Jean Valentine’s Dream Barker won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1965, the award was at its height of legitimation – Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, John Hollander, Alan Dugan & Jack Gilbert had all won in recent years, James Tate would soon enough inaugurate soft surrealism with The Lost Pilot in 1967. Regardless of what your allegiances might be in the “raw” vs. “cooked” debate of the period, many (most?) young poets would automatically buy whatever new volume came out in the Yale series and mull over what this new voice would mean for American poetry. Again, this was a time when the number of publishing poets in the U.S. was still under one thousand, a tenth (or less) of what it is today.

The Yale prize was – still is – thoroughly a creature of the School of Quietude, dating back to 1919 with the lone choice of Ashbery in 1956 as a true exception. Yet several of its selections, particularly during this mid-century period, were noteworthy for how they stood out against that grain – Dugan’s dogged anti-formalism, for example, or the fact that Gilbert when he won was still as much a creature of Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop as he was the protégé of Stephen Spender & Gerald Stern, Tate steering something akin to a new (for 1967) Third Way between the Boston Brahmin crowd around Robert Lowell and the more apostate ex-Brahmins around Robert Bly, Bill Merwin & James Wright.

In this context, Jean Valentine’s poetry seemed at the time almost entirely out of place – it was linguistically interesting, for one thing, not really confessional or narrative, clearly not an instance of post-Brahmin formalism, yet just as distant from anything one might then have typed as New American. The part I kept coming back to, both there & in confronting her work mostly in journals in the four decades since, was her focus on linguistic surfaces. She wasn’t the only poet of the period who stood out in this way – Eliot Coleman down in Baltimore was fascinated with fragmentation while Donald Finkel in St. Louis had his own unique vision for the longpoem – but such writers seemed very few & far between. I never had any sense that they were in touch with one another, or ever needed to be. Each appeared to be entirely spun from their own devices, with their own concerns, sharing mostly their disconnectedness from the whole shebang.

Valentine has gone on, of course, to have a successful – her collected poems won the National Book Award in 2004 – if relatively subdued career. In over a quarter century of visiting New York, where she’s made her home, for readings, talks, conferences, I’ve never – not once – heard a New York poet ever mention her name. For her sense of “presence” there, she might as well live in Montana.

Yet Little Boat this year from Wesleyan is a true delight. It’s always readable, often brilliant, thoroughly consistent with the author of Dream Barker some 42 years before, and yet now calling out in ways that bring other, very different names to mind than the ones I might have thought of back then – Louise Niedecker, Fanny Howe, Rae Armantrout. Maybe even Graham Foust & Joseph Massey. That, frankly, is great company.

Here, for example, is a poem that strikes me as perfectly constructed:

The Look

Pain took me, but
not woke me – no,
years later, your
look
woke me:
each shade and light:

to earth-love then
I came,
the first
beach grasses.

Trying to pin this poem down, narratively or figuratively, is simply not possible. That very first word, Pain, can be understood in so many different ways as can the other key noun in the first four lines, look. The poem is figured between an I and you, but you are superimposing your own interpretation even to suggest that there are two people here. What isn’t an imposition of the reader’s fantasy life, however, clearly is this text’s sense of motion: the use of enjambments, twists in the first three lines setting up a sonic entrance of considerable conflict, under which the softer sounding of the paired off-rhymes took/woke look/woke lead the reader right to the first of two colons: each functions as a gate enabling the reader to pass only in one direction. It’s no accident that each of the four words in the first stanza’s last line starts off open (each/and) or soft (shade/light), ending on a harder sound – that won’t happen again until the third line of the next stanza when the halt at the end of first sets up the echo of each in beach, opening to the final almost dreamlike sounds of grasses. I still have no clue what pain or which look might be intended here, but – as is so often the case with Rae Armantrout’s best work also – I find myself wrapped in total belief.

Yet where Armantrout’s poems seem continually to be testing for God, sounding in search of that echo, Valentine strikes me here as being closer to Fanny Howe – one of the texts borrows from Howe’s work & Valentine has dedicated at least one other poem to her prior to this book – in that she takes on the Christian frame very much as given:

Blessed are those
who break off from separateness

theirs is wild
heaven.

reads one untitled piece in its entirety. Or this more mysterious poem, “Eye of water,” from the book’s final sequence, “Mary Gravidas, Mary Expectant”:

I have nay ben nn
To keep nn safe
I cannot keep them safe

If nn tway
If nn thee

Keep them
Eye of water

Those double ns – four sets of them in the first five lines amaze me. If there is an “ordinary” explanation for such opacity, I don’t have the reference. Yet they function perfectly clearly, like a radio in a movie that gives off static & in so doing tells us into which decade this narrative fits. The poem alternates between despair & prayer – the third line makes clear what the first two enact, yet the ns of the second stanza operate differently altogether, almost as if the poem were coming up against a blind spot, or point beyond which words could not pass. The echoes of Scots & the nearly biblical thee serve to reinforce this.

Valentine often gathers these poems into sequences, yet for me what is so special here is how each never loses focus, never seeks to defer elsewhere. After reading Little Boat straight through, I actually found myself enjoying it more the second time, jumping around from page to page, not trying to construct larger frames. Again & again, Jean Valentine is an argument for the particular. She does it with exceptional grace.

Labels:



Monday, November 26, 2007

 


(from left: cris cheek, Matthew Abess, Dr. Marvin Sackner, Maggie O’Sullivan, Charles Bernstein, unidentified)

Photo courtesy of Derek Love & PENNsound

Bob Cobbing:
Sockless in Sandals
(PDF)

Plus
Bob Cobbing at Penn
(last 3 weeks)

Plus plus
Bob Cobbing archives
at PENNsound

Plus plus plus
Bob Cobbing archives
on Ubuweb

§

Richard Owens responds
to my review of
Damn the Caesars

§

Howard Junker
reads Paul Muldoon
as editor
& has some interesting
observations
(why I call this
neophobia,
part 1)

§

Al Filreis
on anti-modernism
in 1960

(why I call this
neophobia,
part 2)

Al Filreis
on responses to
The Grand Piano

Al Filreis
bookmarks

§

The New York Times’
list of “100 notable books of 2007
contains just four volumes of poetry,
including one by Rae Armantrout

The three others
continue the hegemony
of what I once called
the “Gang of Eight
(This year it’s just FSG & Ecco/Harper)

§

Erin Mouré’s
Transparency Machine
exhibit

§

Two books
from George Bowering

§

After 73 years
of publishing poetry,
Ruth Brin
tries a novel

§

Celebrating John Ashbery
in utter bafflement

§

Charles Bernstein
& Susan Bee

collaborating in 1971

§

Jim Harrison
on
Charles Bukowski

§

Vernon Scannell.
”drunk, boxer, and Army deserter,”
who “emerged a poet,”
has died

As has
Bloomsbury poet
Paul Roche

§

Kindle me this

§

Talking with
Kim Addonizio

§

Worth attending:
in
Lowell,
Geoffrey Young
reads
The Riot Act,
December 1

§

Worth attending
in
Berkeley:
Big book
party/reading
for
The Collected Poems
of Philip Whalen,
Dec. 4
@ Moe’s

§

Worth attending
in NY:
David Shapiro
in conversation with
David Lehman
Dec. 11
@ The New School

§

Poets against the war
on the Monterey Peninsula

§

250 attend
marathon reading
in Traverse City, Michigan

§

In Boulder,
20 years of poetry
at the Laughing Goat

§

22 poems
by 17 men
with one thing in common:
Guantanamo

§

Israeli verse
written in
European languages

§

A profile of
Nasreen Syed,
a Canadian poet
writing in
Urdu & Punjabi

§

Scotland’s only
African Asian Scottish
performance poet

§

Short profile of
Pham-Tien Duat

§

Slammin
down under

§

From Pakistan, the question
Is English a foreign language?

§

A little YouTube vispo
from Nico Vassilakis

§

Cambridge’s first
Poet Populist
isn’t an academic

§

Bringing Gulzar
to Bollywood

§

Bringing Western writing
into Arabic
at last

§

Performer murdered
during play
in
Nepal

§

A profile of
David Solway

§

W.S. Merwin
at 80

§

Seamus Heaney
on the poetry
of
Japan

§

Britain’s
year of Quietude
(plus Galway Kinnell)
in review

§

Andrew Motion’s
Christmas recommendations
find Ted Hughes’s world
”as compelling as Yeats's,
but more instantly sympathetic
and approachable

§

Very bad poetry

§

Robert Pinsky
offers
Merwin’s Neruda

§

Norman Mailer’s work
in the
New York Review of Books

§

Software
to guide you
through your
paint-by-the-numbers
novel

§

Jenny Holzer
gets literary
and
political

at Mass MoCA

§

Barry Schwabsky
on
Kara Walker

§

Ian Keenan
on
Alain Badiou

§

In a land where
the few hundred
publishing poets
of the 1950s
have begat
over 10,000 today,
the rise of arts culture
is inescapable

§

Peter Gay’s
pop modernism

§

The ghost
in the machine

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