Friday, May 16, 2008

 

Laynie Browne is conducting a survey about poetry for the forthcoming symposium on Conceptual Poetry in Tucson. Here are my responses to her questions.

1.  What is conceptual poetry?

I see it as a specific move within the larger possibility of the history of writing, one that requires (a) the pre-existence of conceptual art and (b) writers whose concept of an avant-garde which they believe still exists and to which they feel committed is predicated on the desanctification of the aesthetic object (a la Duchamp’s moves within sculpture nearly a century ago). It is thus an avant-garde that is widely accessible precisely because (a) it is retro & nostalgic and everyone can recognize it, and (b) anyone [in theory] can do it. Its tell-tale sign is that it usually removes some or all of the normal tasks of reading & interpretation from the process of consumption. The point isn’t to read the work so much as to “get it.” Having said that, some of its practitioners are exceptionally talented.

 2.  Can poetry be non-expressive?

Yes, absolutely, but to be non-expressive is a series of specific moves within the possibilities of language and poetry. Which is also to say that there is more than one way to get there.

3.  Is there such a thing as a “direct presentation of language”?

Yes, and for very much the same reasons that language can be non-expressive. It occurs as the result of specific moves within the creation of the poem.  

4.  Intellect rather than emotion? 

I reject the either/or nature of this question. I am only interested in both/and, thank you.

5.  Dismantle this line-drawing


Untitled, Eugene Andolsek, American Folk Art Museum
from the show Obsessive Drawing

 6.  What is the purpose of form and formlessness?

To differentiate themselves one from the other. To create foreground & background & a million effects such as shape.

7.  Distinguish between procedural and conceptual

One category of conceptual is procedural (think of Kenny Goldsmith’s works, such as Fidget), but a lot of poetry is procedural without being conceptual. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are entirely procedural. So are Ted Berrigan’s.

8.  What formal restraints do you practice every day?

The common ones of ablutions. The first thing I eat in the morning is a banana. I’m writing a poem in which each “sitting” is determined by how long it takes my six-year-old PC to boot up. I always go to sleep lying on my left side.

9.  What is the responsibility of the writer?

To respond.

10.  Why are women virtually excluded from the UBU web anthology?

There are two answers to this question. The first is generational. The gender bias of the institutions of literature (as distinct from literature itself) have only begun to seriously bend and open during my lifetime. In spite of the decisive role that certain women – Gertrude Stein, who is present in this anthology; Bernadette Mayer, who is not; Lucy Lippard, who is not; Hannah Weiner, who is not; Barbara Krueger & Jenny Holzer, who are not; the Guerilla Girls, who are not; Juliana Spahr & Jena Osman, who are not – have played in making conceptual poetry possible, indeed inevitable, they have generally been underrepresented all along. To the degree that this short list (just 31 items) tries to represent a few key moments in the history & pre-history of conceptualism, it invokes several periods when women did not make up half the world of writing, which is quite recent. One might likewise ask why are Dada and Russian Futurism under-represented here. Indeed, where is Dmitri Prigov, who coined the phrase “conceptual poetry”?

The second answer is more concrete: you ought to ask Craig.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

 


Paul Blackburn, by R.B. Kitaj

The Paul Blackburn page at the Electronic Poetry Center has gone live. Jack Krick’s months of effort have finally born fruit. I’m here to tell you it’s a major event.

The first serious critical article I ever wrote, outside of a couple of theater reviews & a report of a Cid Corman reading for the Daily Californian during my days at UC Berkeley, was a review of Paul Blackburn’s The Cities for Meg Randall & Sergio Mondragon’s El Corno Emplumado, which was still being published in those days in Mexico City. I’ve long since lost my copy of the issue, but the journal didn’t survive much longer as its editors’ political activism in the run-up to the 1968 summer Olympics (and the police massacres that “cleaned up” the city for the event) turned them into targets. The police kidnapped their kids & Meg as I recall had the hardest time getting them back before deciding that safety required a hasty move to Havana.

Blackburn himself didn’t survive all that much longer either. Four years after Grove Press made his poetry widely available in the United States for the first time, he was dead of esophageal cancer, passing away the same day as the ill-fated Attica prison rebellion in New York. I only got to meet Blackburn once, at a 1969 poetry conference at Mills College. I was surprised – shocked actually – at how short he was, having I guess a sense that my heroes all must be outsized human beings, rather in the way that 6’9” Charles Olson appeared to echo Pecos Bill. Dressed in a cowboy hat & vest, with goatee & moustache very much as shown in the R.B.. Kitaj portrait at the head of this note, Blackburn seemed to be continually juggling four objects at once: a beer, something from a flask he kept in his vest pocket, a cigarette & a doobie. It was quite a performance, actually, but it also put a screen of motion between himself & anyone to whom he was speaking.

Because Blackburn died at the age of 44 – and because, with the sole exception of one translation reissued by a university press, he has not had a book of any sort now in 19 (!) years, both the Collected and Selected Poems coming from the relatively modest Persea in New York – his importance as one of the defining poets of the 1960s has receded in the public consciousness. In a way, his narrative is not so different from that of Joe Ceravolo and Ceravolo’s relationship to the New York School, 2nd generation, at least before Coffee House Press put out The Green Lake is Awake in 1994, in that demonstrating knowledge of Blackburn/Ceravolo’s work is a way of letting people know you’re seriously engaged in the relevant literary context. In Blackburn’s case, that context was the projectivist vision of Black Mountain poetry. In the 1960s, it was always interesting to see who people would list as the 4th major projectivist figure after the triumvirate of Olson, Creeley & Duncan. Of the candidates who were mentioned – Blackburn, Dorn, Baraka & Levertov – Paul’s name came up most often, at least in the circles in which I traveled. There were I think three reasons for this.

First, Blackburn was the most important translator of poetry born in the 1920s. He’s the only poet in the entire Allen anthology for whom this is a major mode, Ashbery being a rather distant second. Of the four major translators who turn up in the next decade – Clayton Eshleman, Rosmarie Waldrop, Anselm Hollo & Jerry Rothenberg – the three males have at least some pretty direct connection to Blackburn’s work. Blackburn was an early translator & advocate for Julio Cortázar, his translations from the Provençal are the standard for that literature, and his translation of El Cid is by far the best ever done of that text. (Read it alongside Dorn’s ‘Slinger some day.)

Second, no poet came close to Blackburn’s dedication to the idea of poetry’s relationship to speech & the byways of spoken language. Many of Blackburn’s poems seem to be entirely about the language employed, such as “Ya Lift a Cold One (That’s the Commercial),” a 1964 piece that is all about the “missing” preposition in its final line:

Schultzie?”

Yeah.

“The game’s over?”

Yeah.

“The Yankees lost?”

Yeah,

“Good you got any melons up your house?”

Notice the acceleration the poem gets moving toward that long last line because the third Yeah is punctuated with a comma rather than a period. This concept of poetry as linguistic documentation, something Blackburn shares with the late Jonathan Williams & Phil Whalen, is all but a lost art. The only poet I can think of right now who still seems capable of this would be Anselm Hollo, all of 74 years young.

Third – and definitely related to the other two – Blackburn is the unquestioned master of using the visual page as a score for dialect and tone. Anything a typewriter could do was fair game, with a diligence not unlike how Cecil Taylor treats a piano or Jimi Hendrix handled a guitar. CAPITALIZATION, s p a c e d letters, variant leading between lines, punctuation that sometimes wandered some distance from the nearest word, and of course spelling. Thus you can get a line such as this first one from “Shoeshine Boy”:

S U B W A Y   S T O P     at Wall Street,

which captures the sign as well as sets the scene for what follows. Or the first line of “Two Flowers,” the very next poem in the Collected:

T h e   g o d     sits staring helplessly

In the former example, spacing the letters lends almost a collage kind of concreteness to the image, but in the second it helps to make the subject feel more ethereal, precisely the opposite effect derived from the same device. I can read Blackburn’s poems repeatedly, just for the utter pleasure in watching / hearing a master at work. I can’t imagine any poet who wouldn’t benefit from doing the same.

I can imagine some poets who might not always enjoy that experience, however. Blackburn is very much a man of the 1950s when it comes to some of his attitudes toward women – not that dissimilar from Kerouac, Snyder, Dorn or Creeley – and that word “Boy” in the title of that poem I referred to above certainly is reflexive and uncritical. But if you grant him the blinders of his time & place (and keep in mind that it was a nephew of Armand Schwerner’s, certainly a part of Blackburn’s social network, who was one of the Mississippi Three, murdered by the Klan for trying to register voters in 1964), you can learn an enormous amount about the possibilities of poetry from close reading all of Blackburn’s work.

Which brings me to the question of the availability of his poetry. Only one of the seven copies of The Collected Poems that can be found via Abebooks.com is priced at under $100. Even the copy priced at $175 is well worth the money. The Selected Poems are more accessible, with over 30 copies to be had, only a British copy of which is priced over $30. But seriously folks, isn’t it time for a good paperback edition of The Collected Poems? As it is, the EPC website now becomes, on day one, the best single source for Paul Blackburn’s poetry on the planet. But until the time when you can get Blackburn’s work at Bridge Street, or through SPD or at Woodland Patterns or even, god forbid, Amazon, we are really short changing Paul Blackburn, literary history and ourselves.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

 


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

 

Král Majáles

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Putting poetry readings out of business in Chicago

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Louis Zukofsky died 30 years ago yesterday

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Tony Wood on Daniil Kharms

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Sarah Ruden’s Virgil

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Edward Byrnes on Gary Snyder

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Ten questions for me
(not to be confused with
12 or 20)

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Ten questions for Toni Morrison

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Peter Gizzi
talking with Charles Bernstein on Close Listening (MP3)
& reading his poetry

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Frank Wilson on Frank O’Hara

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Jordan Davis on Rudy Burkhardt

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The future of English

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Open source language learning?

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The “Imperialist Ear:
poetry, sound, geography

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Gallese & Lakoff:
The Role of the Sensory-Motor System
In Reason and Language (PDF)

Other papers by Vittorio Gallese

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1958: war of the intellectuals

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Geof Huth responds to the question
of sentimentality

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A poetry quiz by Linh Dinh

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Doris Lessing:
”the Nobel has been a disaster”

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Ocho 14,
which I reviewed here,
is now available free
as an online download (PDF)

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Chase Berggun,
”the young Robert Creeley”

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Brenda Iijima
reading (streaming audio & video)

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In memory of Jonathan Williams,
a recipe for Hopping John

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High school class argues over
Aram Saroyan’s
Complete Minimal Poems

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Lorenzo Thomas:
a reading on video & mp3

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Reading Error:
Palmer, Bernstein, Hejinian

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George Bowering & Stuart Ross
in New
Denver, BC

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Franklin Marshall Davis
the poet in Obama’s life

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Challenging John Hollander’s racist vision

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Craig Boyko,
the “next great Canadian author”?

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Prose poems from California

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Contending views of poetry

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Bloodaxe turns 30 In Person

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Is grand Arabic poetry still possible?

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What is Arab-American poetry?

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The Moral Resonance of Arab Media

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PBS Newshour on Israeli & Palestinian poetry

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Robert Redford & Wendell Berry

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The poet writes a best-seller

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There will be no new print editions
of the OED

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© orphans

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Bridesmaid revisited

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Sky high poetry from Singapore to London

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Thomas Wyatt, modernist

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A profile of Mike Barrett

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The Wordsworth of Kashmir

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John Donne & the Sopranos

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Hard times for lit crit?

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Southern California
gets its 3rd laureate

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Killing the Minnesota Review?

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He got a Nobel Prize for Literature
for a ghostwritten work

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Tone maps for reading aloud

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David Orr on Vendler’s Yeats

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No Bukowski in the Wash Post
poetry issue?!?!

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The most objectionable book in America?

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Loving what you ridicule

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“Resistance Poetry Night”
comes to Tehran

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A profile of Adam Kirsch

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Designing book covers for the airport

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Postcards from Larkin

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Mary Karr & Sarah Harwell
doing the Mother’s Day theme
with a twist

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World’s longest poem?

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I won’t write about this

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Resurrecting John Stuart Mill

& remembering “Dick” Rorty

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Remembering things that never happened

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Contesting Said’s Orientalism

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Doubling arts audiences in Philly?

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Talking with Steve Swallow
(in part about Bob Creeley)

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Howard Mandel’s complete review of
George Lewis’ A Power Stronger than Itself:
The AACM and American Experimental Music

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Art Lange on Steve Lacy

Bill Shoemaker on Lacy

Brian Morton on Lacy

Lacy in Europe

A roundtable on – you guessed it

Memories of Lacy

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Can Bruce Springsteen be art?

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Because art is context

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So what is painting now?

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Public art should be picked democratically

Or maybe not

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Is Richard Serra the most popular
Flickr artist?”

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The rise of street art

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MF Husain beats “obscenity” charge
for the seventh time

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Suze Rotolo speaks up

LA Times review

Salon

Rotolo’s book art

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Gerhard Richter & Sigmar Polke
in the cathedral

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12 films documenting
this year’s Pew Fellows

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Hanon Reznikov has died

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Monday, May 12, 2008

 

Lisa Fishman is a writer who works – confidently, brilliantly – in close-up, often phrase to phrase, building texts that knock you over with their rhythms & insights even though it would be very difficult indeed to paraphrase what she’s doing. I tried to find a poem in The Happiness Experiment that was in any way contained, just a “simple lyric” that I could use to discuss how she focuses in on the world & this piece, entitled “Prelude,” was the best I could do.

A sickliness beginning:   mud new wet ground
and the air gone mild
suddenly / gradually     green shoots somewhere
trees beginning    in the twilight
ground softening
heart sickening to begin    continuous
body pressed against garment
girl carrying pitcher     ground softening to give
way to be climbed in the
sweet dreaded air

Spring & all, so to speak, all these images of new life, the environment softening. Yet there is this counter thread – sickliness, sickening, dreaded – what is that about? It’s like that dichotomy – suddenly / gradually – how resolve that? I’m not sure that you can or do. You simply have to go with it. Having just gotten over a month-long bout of pneumonia, I can relate to this commingling of spring with illness, the push-pull of that, but there’s a third layer here that involves gender & just possibly coming of age, body pressed against garment / girl – is that what’s coming through? Am I to associate all these shoots and trees beginning with puberty? I think it’s possible to read it this way, but I also think that’s probably the wrong way to read it, that it’s far too constricting, that what Fishman is after isn’t a denotative residue, but rather quite the opposite. What fascinates her are all the myriad associations.

How else explain “Narcissa Luna” just two pages earlier:

The pool appeared to keep on
coming away from.

A moonlight read its absence in the sun’s face,
crying Mirror Stage.

When we knocked on the door of the neighbor
he stuttered through his moon-read lips

that we were in the wrong place: he had no sheep,
no rubies, no hay. No other

was he then, no made-up name.

That first couplet is one of the great openings of any poem ever – that she can do this with two lines that end on liquid consonants after short vowels is just flat-out stunning. There is also that syntactic twist, which torques what looks to be the simplest thing all the way up to the max. And yet mirrors & moons here are everywhere – it’s a fable or almost sounds like one, even as Fishman lets the humor twinkle: moon-read lips indeed.

Fishman is even better with her longer works, such as the sequence that opens the book, “Midsummer,” or the eight-page piece, ”Creature,” that is the next-to-last of the book’s six sections. But trying to talk about them in the space of a blognote would just leave too much unsaid. The only way to read this book, really, is to close-read it, not for the sake, say, of annotation, but rather to enable all the sounds & associations flow over / through you. In that sense, reading The Happiness Experiment is an experience not unlike, say, reading Robert Duncan’s Opening of the Field. Which is to say that this book is one of the very best reading experiences you can have.

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