Friday, December 28, 2007
Marjorie Perloff on John Ashbery
Carol Bly has died
slashes book section
Jenny Holzer opts for
”other, better poets”
New reading videos
by Paul Hoover & Mark Young
A prize that should go
to Joanne Kyger
Time to start thinking
about your campaign for
Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere
portraits of American poets
Credit crisis goes
from bad to verse
covers the world of poetry
all the way from A to B
”keeping his cool”
polls his readers
The Maltese poet Dun Karm
finally makes it into Italian
Michael Dirda on Peter Gay’s Modernism
A different model
for a poetry marathon,
this one in Chennai
Plus a January 1st marathon
Thursday, December 27, 2007
One reason that it seems clear to me that language poetry needs to be understood as a moment, rather than a movement, is that for many years now there has been nothing even remotely approximating a language poetry journal. Tottel’s, This, Roof, Hills, Temblor, Big Deal, A Hundred Posters, Doones, Oculist Witnesses, Streets and Roads, miam, Qu, The Difficulties, even L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E & Poetics Journal are all long gone. The last of these to go, Poetics Journal published its tenth & final issue in 1998, but that was after a seven year hiatus – the ninth & eighth issues themselves arriving on a two-year schedule, a marked decline from the first seven issues, which took just six years to come out. In reality, I think it’s difficult if not downright fanciful, to characterize anything as language poetry after 1985, and particularly the Vancouver Poetry Festival of that year. Still, as that roster of mags above suggests, that was a lot of energy to be concentrated into just 15 years or so, which also meant that there was a substantial vacancy to be filled going forward. In spite of some spirited attempts – the New Coast festival in Buffalo & the Apex of the M push circa 1990 were the most visible, memorable to many for a Mike Huckabee avant-la-lettre agenda – what has emerged instead is far more decentralized & pluralistic, a poetics suitable to a globalizing planet, multicultural & increasingly transnational. Some of the most important sites for American poetry, for example, now take place in
This may suggest why I felt such a jolt coming upon Ocho no. 14, the latest of the many ventures produced by Didi Menendez. Available in print & online versions – specifically one just for Amazon’s new Kindle – Ocho 14 is guest edited by Nick Piombino, the poet, critic & analyst. Nick is one of the original contributors to In the American Tree, my anthology of language poetry first published in 1986 (tho edited for the most part four & five years before). Of its 40 contributors, Nick was one of just two – Jackson Mac Low being the other – who appear only in its critical section. That’s because, when the collection was being edited, Nick was still known primarily for his critical writing, a circumstance that has happily changed over the years. And now that he’s retired from a long career as a psychological counselor in the
The jolt I felt was as tho I had a new issue of a language poetry journal in my hands for the first time in years. It was like a huge rush of adrenalin as I looked at its table of contents & began to dive right in. It’s a terrific issue, with nothing but good work from cover to cover. After reading it, tho, I realized that my jolt, or at least my sense of this as the latest thing in langpo, was something I brought to the occasion. For as good as Ocho 14 is, it really is something else.
For one thing, only three of its fifteen contributors are traditionally identified as language poets – Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies & Ray DiPalma. Piombino does make a point of putting them first, in that order, which I think must have triggered my response.¹ In fact, 13 of the 15 live somewhere within the confines of New York City, so somebody else might come across this same issue & see it as the current generation of the New York School, tho only five of the contributors – Elaine Equi, Mitch Highfill, Brenda Iijima, Kimberly Lyons & Jerome Sala – have ever been even loosely associated with that side of New York’s writing scene (and in each instance with some considerable qualification). Two are former
Piombino himself stresses the regional focus, enough to make me wonder if Nico or Mark ever lodged time in
Of the trio of Tree vets, Bernstein has the simplest & shortest contribution, a seemingly tossed off text (in fact, if he used a spread sheet or, worse, Word, it must have been excruciating to produce), a catalog of the 428 most commonly used words in his work, Girly Man, in descending order. This is cute for a few seconds but no one, least of all Bernstein, actually expects you to read it. It has a different relationship to the page than that and on that level is the most radical work in the issue.
Davies, on the other hand, offers a wide range of works, including some (textually) discrete poems, a long critical work that organizes itself as an a review of Anne Waldman’s Outrider, then a series of excerpts from a longer text – it seems too limiting to call it a poem – entitled This is Thinking. Davies hasn’t been publishing a lot in recent years & to see this much work at once, this much first-rate work, is completely bracing. He hasn’t lost a step & is every bit as uncompromising as ever. This actually can make Davies a difficult read at times, but it never is complexity just for the sake of showing off. He continues to be the Diogenes of the
There’s a reason for this. In spite of the fact that it has many more contributors than, say, President’s Choice, Ocho has a lot more pages, 180 to 64, which means that Piombino is able to give roughly a dozen to each contributor – every single selection is substantial. It would take 15 chapbooks to get this much writing from this many contributors otherwise – making the hard copy price an absolute steal, the Kindle contribution a virtual potlatch.
After Davies’ raw philosophical investigations, Ray DiPalma’s suave sense of verse form comes across instantly. Although they’ve lived in the same town & known one another for decades, Davies & DiPalma almost represent polar extremes of what langpo might mean. For Davies, form is always provisional & the quest for truth the obsessive center of any activity. For DiPalma, form is entirely sensual, his poems are elegant much in the same way good sex is, everything fits together just right. His books are always master classes in how to write & there’s a wit in his generally serious tone that comes over as inclusive & generous. I remember in my graduate seminar at SF State in 1981, the one that served as a first draft for In the American Tree, that DiPalma’s work – we read Planh – was the only one of the 16 writers we read who was enthusiastically liked by every single class member. At the time, that surprised me, but I think my class – which included Cole Swensen & Jerry Estrin among others – were ahead of me in seeing this side of DiPalma’s poetry. Over the years, he’s proven them right.
Elaine Equi follows DiPalma and, as has often the case for me with her poetry, she catches me off-guard & surprises me. The first poem, “Daily Doubles,” dedicated to Harry Crosby, appears to be couplets composed entirely of the names of race horses –
Too Much Zip
I don’t know if that’s where she actually got these names, but a search of Google does indeed turn up a horse named Runaway Banjo. As a poem, it works, is lively & fun, tho not to the degree of the sequence that immediately follows, “At the Cinema Tarot,” nine short works predicated on the random drawing of cards, not from a tarot deck, but rather postcards of movies from the mid-century. Hence
#4 The Girl Can’t Help It
(Jayne Mansfield unbuttons her blouse)
Marilyn Monroe wasn’t Jean Harlow.
Jayne Mansfield wasn’t Marilyn Monroe.
Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t Jayne Mansfield.
Thankfully, there is only one Britney Spears.
But know, whoever you are,
whatever your gender, hair color, physique,
within you there does reside an unhappy blonde
archetype with enormous breasts.
It is her you need to contact.
The films included range from this b-movie bon-bon to a film classic like Black Orpheus. This pop-art deployment of media culture icons is a
Gordon often deploys known elements like this, but what’s really interesting in her poetry is the way in which poems transgress, that instant when they go willfully (deliberately seems too contained a word) out of control, off track, over the line. A poem beginning with Marianne Moore’s pseudo-dismissal of poetry – “I, too, dislike it” – turns very quickly into a litany of other worse things one could dislike:
I dislike that Elvis never bought ME a Cadillac
I dislike using “upscale” to describe something because it is a lazy way of describing something, even this upscale poem.
This move toward the transgressive goes quite a bit further, up to
a nuthatch perhaps, that has perched inside one’s urethra, like
elephants pushing into
a weak vulva or
a wild horse learning
how to sing.
The irony of ending a list like that with a simple period is clearly intentional.
The play between control – Gordon is deft craftsperson – and the over-the-top impulse is a continual see-saw in these works. Her longer piece, “Feminists Like To Blow Things Up / (And Then Cry As The Pieces Rain Down),” both extends this dynamic while ironizing her own self-knowledge of her impulses as a writer. Overall, Gordon’s selection is one of those powerful moments when, if you’d never read her work before (which might be the case, say, if you’re reading this in
If there is a problem in Gordon’s text, it’s really Mitch Highfill’s, who comes next. He’s an inherently quieter poet & turning to his first page is like going from Green Day to Erik Satie – not everyone’s going to manage that transition. If they do, tho, there’s much to like. Actually, Satie is too strong a contrast. If Mei-mei Berssenbrugge were to be Satie, Highfill is closer to Rufus Wainwright. Highfill is not without his own hijinx here:
I have seen the future and the future is flarf. The streets are filled with regret. Is that a watermark or a stain? Prophecy a function of memory. I want to see my stunt double. I want a copy of the scrub list. The tea leaves settle where the broken hearts stay. In search of the heaviside function.
But even here, the palette is subdued compared with Gordon’s. Highfill in a way strikes me as raising what I think is one of the primary – if usually unspoken – questions confronting contemporary poetry in the
Many of the other poets in Ocho are contending with this same question. Brenda Iijima, a little like Gordon, has the capacity to move from the flashy to the more deeply contemplative, a range that stands her well.
Of the later works in the issue, the one that jumps out at me – see tapdance on forehead metaphor in paragraph above – is Nico Vassilakis’ 15-page poem, “Lowered & Illuminated.” Vassilakis is somebody whom I know primarily as a visual poet, one of the best in the country. This however is pure text, quatrains separated by more than a little space from one to the next. They work beautifully, each quatrain not quite a work in and of itself, their lines often making the reader wonder if they are to be read singly – as four distinct entries – or in conjunction, running on:
This becomes involuntary finally
Eschewing some combinations otherwise
Dormant thrust into quasars
Detached and tungsten its sole benefactor
One’s mind’s eye goes back & forth here, trying to decide where the hinges in this text might fit. It’s possible, I suppose, for an unsubtle mind to just plow through, but what a loss that would entail. An awful lot of the music of this stanza is predicated entirely on the number of syllables involved in each word, the longer, noisier terms of the first two lines giving way to the stanza’s last half in which only the very final term has more than two. Like a lot of abstract work in poetry, this looks casual at first until you start close reading, which then begets an experience not unlike vertigo as you start to recognize just how many other dimensions come into play.
In sum, Ocho 14 is a great read, the liveliest number in this series’ exceptionally diverse & risk-taking issues to date. It’s worth noting that Didi Menendez is quite willing – actively trying, I suspect – to pick guest editors no one else would think of to put into the same sequence. The result is that each number is an exceptionally strong argument for a different aesthetic. And Piombino’s is the strongest argument to date.
¹ The reality is that this issue is strictly alphabetical, but I wonder if Nick picked his contributor’s with a sense of how that would play into the narrative of reading, front to back. The last two contributors are also the two Auslanders in this otherwise New York City-centric collection. Can that be pure chance?
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Films can succeed a million different ways, but when they do, each is entirely different from one another. The three best films I’ve seen all year – John Carney’s Irish alt-folk musical Once, Sean Penn’s riveting character portrait, Into the Wild, and Doug Block’s family documentary with a twist, 51 Birch Street – are alike only in the completeness of their directors’ vision. It’s not that there aren’t influences (Hard Day’s Night, for example, on Once), but that’s really all they ever seem to be. Films that don’t completely succeed, however, often feel like anthologies of homages to other, better films. Atonement, Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, falls into this latter category. It’s not a bad film, but it doesn’t completely gel – there are moments when I felt I was watching a remake of The English Patient, followed by every Merchant-Ivory spectacle ever made. Then Saving Private Ryan showed up.
My favorite moments turned out to be the very first – 13-year-old Briony Tallis (played by Saoirse Ronan¹) finishes her play and runs throughout the manse looking to tell her mum & gather unwilling participants for an evening performance, the sounds of her typewriter fitting perfectly into the simple piano score of the scene itself along with her own shoes clattering across the parquet floors – and the very last – Vanessa Redgrave, also portraying Briony Tallis, now facing death & dementia, not in that order, giving one last interview, a pseudo-Brechtian moment in which Britain’s most famous Trotskyist gives a master class in acting just by showing with her mouth & eyes the continuity of character back to that same disturbed 13-year-old girl. The first scene is one of several moments in the film in which the sound composition is absolutely magisterial – this is one motion picture you could literally “watch” with your eyes shut.
But you would of course miss all the sumptuous visuals if you did, the camera lovingly lingering over doorways, mantels, tables, the same pleasure one takes in doing house tours of the ruling elites anywhere, and of course the costumes, in particular Keira Knightley’s green dress. There are scenes – more than a few – in which the green dress is the one instance of brilliant color anywhere on the screen. If ever a dress deserved a best supporting actor nomination, this gown is it. It almost makes you forget just how terribly underweight Keira Knightley is, dangerously so, a detail that periodically takes away from her terrific performance throughout. There is not a scene in this film in which she appears where she doesn’t own the stage, center the action, sometimes so subtly you don’t even quite catch how she does it. A lot of it actually seems to be in her spine & shoulders, which stiffen with anger or arch with arousal. Considering that she is the not the person who was wrongly accused, nor the accuser, it’s remarkable the degree to which Wright makes this a film about her. That may be just the formula for chick flick success, but it creates problems in that it’s not actually the story as given. And since Wright doesn’t make this a film about Knightley’s inner life, the narrative structure comes down like a pile of blocks in the game of Jenga. Had the movie kept the courtroom material of the original book, that might have been possible. But here it’s not.
James McAvoy, as the servant’s child who grows up to be his mistress’ lover – at least until Knightley’s younger sister intervenes – does a decent job himself, though the weakest part of the film is his traipsing through the French countryside, separated from his forces, during the earliest moments of the Second World War, working his way back the northern port city of Dunkirk in hopes of evacuation back to England.
That segment of the film – when it goes from Merchant-Ivory and the doomed romance of The English Patient to wishing it were Saving Private Ryan – leads up to a long single shot sweep of the Dunkirk beach, filled with the wounded & miserable in the ruins of an old amusement park that feels like it lasts five minutes (watch the fellow in the deep background literally hanging from the ferris wheel – it almost feels like a Kara Walker cutout in action). It’s a fabulous scene – right out of Brueghel & Bosch by way of Spielberg – but it does little if anything to advance the action. Because of what director Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton have already excised from the book, it’s a detour on the scale of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings, tho to less purpose. It ultimately undercuts everything that came before & what little remains of the film.
Which may be why Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in the final sequence with its twist of a surprise ending doesn’t feel so out of place – by this point, you’ve given up on the idea that this is a seamless reality, and at best are watching a series of short films ostensibly about a single set of characters. This of course requires that you completely give up on them as characters. Which is why I haven’t bothered to call Knightly Cecilia or McAvoy Robbie.
So many wonderful elements, so little cohesion. One wonders how & why the director lost his way. Was it
¹ About to become a huge star after the opening of The Lovely Bones, which Peter Jackson has been filming about three miles from my house. She’s quite good in a difficult role here.
of Hannah Weiner’s Open House
Philadelphia vs. Ho Chi Minh City:
a 2000 interview with Linh Dinh
Talking with Steve McCaffery
“Wall Street Inferno”
from the 19th Century Brazilian epic
from the ezine
Number of my solo books
that Jacket has reviewed
over its entire history:
who documented the Hopi language,
Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy
The two sides of Robert Pinsky
on the cusp of the 17th century
The ten books
of the T.S. Eliot shortlist
“a very great poet –
incomparably the greatest we have
on this side of the
The two poetries:
Lowell vs. Ashbery
“modernist poetry in English was launched
by a pair of Americans living in
who had little but contempt
for the complacent, hide-bound literary scene”
Using your own name
in your poems
on Inger Christensen
& Punjabi poetry
TV brings poet brothers back together
A Yiddish poet
better off dead?
How many poets use
performance enhancing drugs?
The King of Sentences
A profile of Paul Portugés
Gordon Lish as Freddy Kreuger?
The Cutting of Raymond Carver
Letters from Carver to Lish
A review of
Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile
Pudding & trifles
Mann Booker Prize jury
This year’s buzzwords
The selected poems
of Breyten Breytenbach
From poetry to Slanguage
The poetry paintings of Barry Spacks
The first-ever translation
of Hungarian poetry into Punjabi
talks with Thom Yorke
about the theory of distribution
Charles Shere on
The LA Times obit for saxman
Peter Schjeldahl on
junk art at the
among the butoh dancers of
for emerging artists
The third marathon
of the winter season
is of course
the granddaddy (& grandmother)
of them all,
from 2:00 PM until the cows come home
down 2nd Ave
at the Poetry Project
at St Marks Church, New York
is there anyone who will be reading
at the MLA offsite,
the Woodland Pattern January Marathon
& at St Marks?
are there any other poetry marathons
taking place between
Christmas & February 1?)