Friday, December 28, 2007

 

The brand new image of
Melvin B.
Tolson

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Marjorie Perloff on John Ashbery

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Carol Bly has died

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Siv Cedering has passed away

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Merry Christmas:
Chicago Sun-Times
slashes book section

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Jenny Holzer opts for
other, better poets

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Amy Goodman
talks with
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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New reading videos
by Paul Hoover & Mark Young

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A prize that should go
to Joanne Kyger
by acclimation

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Time to start thinking
about your campaign for
Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere

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Didi Menendez’
portraits of American poets

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A new poetry web site
from Cuba

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Credit crisis goes
from bad to verse

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Sunken Garden
covers the world of poetry
all the way from A to B

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Granta publishes its 100th number
& includes some poetry

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Sir Gawain
keeping his cool

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Simon DeDeo
polls his readers

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The Maltese poet Dun Karm
finally makes it into Italian

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blah blah blah purple monkey dishwasher

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Looking back at 2007

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Magda Szabó has died

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Art jargon

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18th century moving pictures

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Michael Dirda on Peter Gay’s Modernism

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Baryshnikov’s Beckett

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Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson has died

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A different model
for a poetry marathon,
this one in Chennai

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Plus a January 1st marathon
in Baltimore!

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

 

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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 Australia, in the Nordic countries & on the Canary Islands. Even more significantly, this doesn’t seem strange in the slightest. Just try to imagine what “American poetry” will suggest twenty years hence.

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 New York public school system, he has the time & energy to embark on a project like putting together Ocho 14.

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 San Francisco poets who famously met over the internet after each had moved to a far distant locale (Japan & Minneapolis). I think of Tim Peterson as Tucson-Boston, tho he’s been more recently hosting the Segue reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club. Sharon Mesmer & Corrine Robins are two poets who have around New York quite a bit longer than Tim, but I’ve never associated either with a specific scene or aesthetic program. And Mark Young (New Zealand / Australia) & Nico Vassilakis (Seattle) strike me as part of that global thing I just mentioned. Vassilakis is also well known for his visual poetry, which makes his stark, simple quatrains here all the more noteworthy.

Piombino himself stresses the regional focus, enough to make me wonder if Nico or Mark ever lodged time in Manhattan or environs. But it’s putting Bernstein, Davies & DiPalma right up front, the first 53 of the issue’s 180 pages, that really gives it the old langpo air. If anything, Ocho catorce feels like an updated version of James Sherry’s mag, Roof, situating langpo within a larger range of writing in which New York was very much the horizon.

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 New York langpo scene. At the same time, Davies always comes across as sweet, vulnerable, friendly, somebody you’d love to know. I’d say that Davies’ contribution is worth the price of the issue alone, but I’d say that of well about Gordon, Vassilakis, Mesmer & several other of the contributors.

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 –

Inside Info
Runaway Banjo

Silver Knockers
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 New York School staple, of course, tho by now every poet must how to do it, at least a little. It turns up again in the very next poet, Nada Gordon, who chooses to intersperse a hypothetical discourse between Whitehead, Husserl & Heidegger with that peculiarly American philosopher, Julie Andrews.

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 Scotland or Norway), you’d be inclined to rush out & buy everything she’s ever written. That’s not a bad impulse. You won’t be disappointed.

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 U.S. How, in a realm of 10,000 publishing poets, does a good but not necessarily flashy poet get the audience he or she truly deserves? I think that’s an enormous problem confronting more than a few good poets right now. In Highfill’s case, he’s been fortunate in that he’s part of one of the most robust metropolitan scenes in the planet. But what if he were writing these poems in western Kansas? As it is, Highfill is long overdue for the robust, 200-page book that would make everybody recognize what a solid writer he’s been now for decades. The ample selection here makes me long for that book.

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. Lyons tho is very much facing the same problem as Highfill – first-rate writing, but of a subtle kind that doesn’t leap out and tap dance on your forehead to make you notice. Also like Highfill, her solution has been to live at the center of things in New York. Sharon Mesmer’s strategy is humor – there are a lot of laugh-out-loud lines in her work. Tim Peterson has used that strategy himself in times past. Not so much here, tho, just enough of the first person in drag to give you a sense that it’s Tim.

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?

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

 


Photo courtesy of Big Bridge


Vincent Ferrini

19132007

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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 Hampton’s script? He’s a serviceable writer & his own film, Carrington, twelve years ago showed him perfectly capable of doing a far better job with this same historic period. Actually, one thing that earlier film does better is make you believe you’re in England between wars. Atonement is so interested in its museum aspects that I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s, not the 1880s, or the 1780s for that matter. It would be interesting to put the Dunkirk scene here alongside the Omaha Beach sequence from Private Ryan. I think you would realize that they don’t even feel like the same century, let alone the same war. What, one wonders, was Joe Wright thinking?

 

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.

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Thom Donovan’s
epic review
of Hannah Weiner’s Open House

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Rod Smith’s Deed

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Philadelphia vs. Ho Chi Minh City:
a 2000 interview with Linh Dinh

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Jalal Toufic’s
Undeserving Lebanon
(PDF)

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Talking with Steve McCaffery

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Wall Street Inferno
from the 19th Century Brazilian epic
Wandering Guesa

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585 reviews
indexed
from the ezine
Jacket

Number of my solo books
that Jacket has reviewed
over its entire history:
zero

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Sandy Taylor,
founder of Curbstone Press,
has died

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Iranian poet
Jaleh Esfahani
has died

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Emory Sekaquaptewa,
who documented the Hopi language,

has died

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Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy

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The two sides of Robert Pinsky

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One-line poems
on the cusp of the 17th century

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The ten books
of the T.S. Eliot shortlist

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a very great poet
incomparably the greatest we have
on this side of the
Atlantic

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The two poetries:
Lowell vs. Ashbery

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“modernist poetry in English was launched
by a pair of Americans living in
London
who had little but contempt
for the complacent, hide-bound literary scene”

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Using your own name
in your poems

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Doug Messerli
on Inger Christensen

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Social networking
& Punjabi poetry

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Kaya Oakes’ Telegraph

§

Drive, he said

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TV brings poet brothers back together

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A Yiddish poet
in
Elkins Park

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Ted Hughes:
better off dead?

§

How many poets use
performance enhancing drugs?

§

Jonathan Lethem:
The King of Sentences

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A profile of Paul Portugés

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Bones of our wild forefathers

§

Gordon Lish as Freddy Kreuger?
The Cutting of Raymond Carver

“Beginners”:
Raymond Carver’s draft
Gordon Lish’s edit

Letters from Carver to Lish

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A review of
Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile

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Pudding & trifles
with the
Mann Booker Prize jury

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The anti-social Mr. Naipaul

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When Oulipo goes bad

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This year’s buzzwords

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Jamaican love poetry

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The selected poems
of Breyten Breytenbach

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From poetry to Slanguage
to theater

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The poetry paintings of Barry Spacks

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The first-ever translation
of Hungarian poetry into Punjabi

§

David Byrne
talks with Thom Yorke
about the theory of distribution

§

Charles Shere on
Stockhausen

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The LA Times obit for saxman
Frank Morgan

§

A history of history

§

Peter Schjeldahl on
junk art at the
New Museum

§

Pipilotti Rist
among the butoh dancers of
Japan

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Survival strategies
for emerging artists

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The third marathon
of the winter season
is of course
the granddaddy (& grandmother)
of them all,
January 1
from 2:00 PM until the cows come home
down 2nd Ave
at the Poetry Project
at St Marks Church, New York


(
Two questions:
is there anyone who will be reading
at the MLA offsite,
the Woodland Pattern January Marathon
& at St Marks?

And
are there any other poetry marathons
taking place between
Christmas & February 1?)

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