Saturday, June 07, 2008

 

My point in posting so many links on Thursday there were 122 sections, many with multiple links – was not to overwhelm you, but to indicate rather just how much is now going on in poetry. These represent just five days' worth of activity on the web of news stories, noteworthy blog comments & interesting new web sites. And it’s not “National Poetry Month” anymore either, which artificially pumps up the number of events and stories in the “regular” media concerning the existence of poetry. I’m sure that I missed many other items, especially blog notes, as interesting as those I chose to include. Plus there were at least as many other stories from newspaper sites that I didn’t include, either promoting a slam next Friday night or that a tenth grader has won the local poetry contest or whatever. I do include such items on occasion, but only when an aspect of the story illuminates something or the promo piece contains a substantive profile of the headline poet.

My point is that the problems of poetry today have, at least in terms of what’s going on, very little to do with scarcity & much more to do with hyper-abundance, a condition that poetry’s traditional institutions – schools, the publishing industry, arts programs in general – institutions that, at best, represent overlapping concerns that sometimes touch upon poetry, are ill-equipped to handle.

Consider publishing. There were last year over 400,000 different titles published in the United States, maybe 4,000 of which had anything to do with poetry – that’s actually one percent of all titles. Sixty years ago, when these things began to be tracked in earnest, there were a total of 8,000 titles of all kinds being published, only two percent of today’s number. But there were probably no more than 100 poetry titles in any given year, which is just slightly over the one percent of all titles we see today. The explosion of poetry that flowed from the New American poetries of the 1950s, the expansion of creative writing programs from a couple into a full-fledged industry, all that has not changed the ratio of poetry titles to all book titles overall.

One the other hand, in the late 1940s, there was one book title for every 18,750 Americans. Today there is a title for every 750 Americans. This suggests a far more crowded marketplace and it’s no wonder that the economics of book distribution have gone wonky. What percentage of this year’s 4,000 poetry titles are on the shelves of your look book merchant? In my case, if I look to the local Barnes & Noble superstore, it's less than one percent. If I go about twice as far, and in a direction I seldom travel, I can get to the Chester County Book Company, which can brag – legitimately – that it carries maybe three percent. Unfortunately, its proximity to West Chester University, home of the most conservative poetry conference in the country, tends to skew that three percent heavily to the School of Quietude. It’s not the three percent I want or need.

Somebody joked in the comments stream the other day that he was the only poet in America not sending me review copies of his books. In fact, a look at the current catalog from SPD shows that I seem to be getting at best twenty percent of what’s out there. I also get lots of chapbooks & odd press products, like poem cards inside of envelopes, formats that SPD actively tries to avoid, since there is no way it will ever convince a book store to stock them. There are lots of those sorts of items, and they have no distribution mechanism of any sort beyond the mailing lists of their publishers.

I don’t think it’s any harder today for a young poet to get published, it may even be simpler than it was when I was a pup. I do think it’s more difficult, considerably, for young poets to develop audiences sizeable enough to enable them to do such things as a serious national reading tour. That one book title for every 750 Americans – at a time when people are reading fewer books per person than ever before – suggests that the audience per book is going to be proportionately smaller than it was 20, 40, 60 years ago. The overall audience – what marketers like to call the total addressable market (TAM) – may be larger, even significantly so, but it’s just such a crowded marketplace.

This is where the institutions of poetry come into play. Art programs can fund readings that pay well enough to fund the travel of writers. Schools sometimes fund travel, especially to conferences. Awards generate attention & sometimes even a little distribution for their winners. Control the institutions & you can channel a lot of access. That’s why this year’s Lambda Awards are so disheartening. The Lambda Literary Foundation is, in its own words, “the country’s leading organization for LGBT literature,” the acronym standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender. This year’s winner, Henri Cole’s Blackbird and Wolf, was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan’s literary brand. The former executive director of the Academy of American Poets back when it focused almost exclusively on School of Quietude poets, Cole is not only one of the most conservative of the finalists – the others were Rachel Zolf, Reginald Shepherd, C. Dale Young, Carol Potter & Dawn Lundy Martin – but the one finalist with a trade press book. Zolf is the only one of these poets who could truly be called post-avant. Some of the 45 poets whose books were entered but who did not make it even to the short list were Eileen Myles, Nicole Brossard, David Trinidad, Nathalie Stephens, Amy King, Ellen Bass, Edward Field, Forrest Hamer, Joan Larkin & Adrienne Rich. Overall, there were 35 books nominated by small presses, 7 by university presses, and 3 by the big trades. On the short list, one book was by a trade, two by university presses, and three by independent presses. In practice this meant that a small press book had a one-in-ten chance of getting onto the short list, while both trades & university presses had roughly one chance in three. Now these numbers are obviously too small to be statistically significant, but this is a scenario that we have all seen far too many times in the past.

Lambda doesn’t list its judges, but says on its web site that there were 80 of them – “writers, journalists, booksellers, librarians, professors.” The web site doesn’t indicate how many of each, or whether they subdivided the 21 categories amongst themselves, four judges for this category, five or that, or if they voted on them all as a group. Nor does the web site indicate how the short-list was developed. But it strikes me, looking at these lists, which get progressively less interesting as they proceed from long list to short to winner, that structurally this award is doing exactly what it was set up to accomplish – to promote gay-identified commercial projects within a distribution system for literature where all books are product. The award reinforces precisely the business model that enables GLBT bookstores in major metros, but it also is the model that has given us Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Lambda’s goal isn’t to change the model, merely to ensure that gay-identified merchandise has a little better representation in the marketplace. In that regard, Henri Cole could not have been a better choice.

So think of these as alternative logics – one a process of winnowing everything down to a single book from a trade press, and that long list of links here Thursday as a counterbalance intended to suggest that the world of poetry is not like this at all.



Thursday, June 05, 2008

 

Aggression:
the conference blog
(many, many presentations & readings)

“Oh my god, it was like the best conference ever

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John Ashbery & Robin Blaser
win the Griffin Prize

What inspired the finalists?

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They all write alike

young emerging writers…don’t get a lot of exposure or coverage”

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Talking with Ish Klein

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A reading of Legend:
Andrews, Bernstein, DiPalma, Silliman

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The “patriarchs of flarf

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Lora Moriarty on “Women of the 70s

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Blazing tongues at Calabash

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Poets’ Theatre

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Poetry Question Stumps McCain

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Michael McClure on the influence
of the Six Gallery reading
today

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Susan Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract

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Saving American languages

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Yusef Juma, Uzbeki poet & political prisoner

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A tribute to Ed Baker

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Roberto Bolaño:
The
Caracas Speech

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Henny Youngman with a Powerpoint:
Charles Bernstein at the
Conceptual Poetry Symposium (PPT)

Charles Alexander’s report on the Symposium

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Belinda Subraman’s
podcasts with poets

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Uncle Milty at 400

& compared with Shakespeare

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Trying not to disturb Willie’s bones

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Close-reading (aloud)
Jerry Rothenberg’s “Paradise of Poets”

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Hanif Kureishi:
creative writing departments are
the new mental hospitals

Plus reviving liberal humanism

Martín Espada confesses

§

obscure figures like Lew Welch

The Poetry Bookshop of Hay-on-Wye

The literary festival from hell

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A wonderful profile of Jonathan Williams

Williams the photographer

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Robert Creeley & Twitter

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The Jane Austen Hair Club

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The Pound Error

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Hemingway, the poet

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Derek Walcott doing the dozens
on V.S. Naipaul

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The “Indian Shakespeare

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Emily Dickinson after 9/11

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David McFadden on why he hates prizes

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Frank Wilson retires
as book review editor of the Inky
& this is the thanks he gets (PDF)

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Ten years of editing a book review section

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Have e-books reached the tipping point?

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On-demand books fuel the increase
in overall titles

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A computer model of how
the brain makes meaning

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Talking with Eva Salzman

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Remembering Jason Shinder

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Shann Palmer pulls together links
in memory of George Garrett

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Talking with Gore Vidal

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A “new” Nabokov story from 1924

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Amy King’s Kiss Me with the Mouth of Your Country

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Check out IndieBound

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Jay Parini on Edwin Muir

The Parini Punishment

Parini: why poetry matters

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The “lyrical correlative”:
talking with Katie Ford

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Luis Omar Salinas has died

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Elaine Feinstein’s Russia

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American war poetry

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William Stafford, false witness

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A profile of Gulzar

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Hearing Kerouac read

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The book collection that devoured my life

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The virtual bookshelf

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The bookstore with a secret address

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Dickens’ desk

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Underground poet’s post at minimum wage?

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Major Jackson on poets & their birthdays

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Michael Cirelli’s Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard

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Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American

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Ron Padgett among some quietists
coming to
Pittsburgh

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Talking collaboration with
Leah Browning & Ira Joel Haber

Under Construction” (PDF)

§

A bibliography for famous Seamus

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Bill Knott pleads of FSG to
”Let my poems go!”

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What is a “failed poet”?

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“I read poetry about as often –
and with about as much enthusiasm –
as I jab sharp sticks into my eyes

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Poetry: read it when you’re drunk

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Calling Mary Jo Salter

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The threat of reader-supplied content

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Looking for change at BEA

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The price of free art

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Microsoft’s exit
won’t slow book digitization

Libraries ponder the future

Research libraries opting for e-books

What else they spend money on
(registration may be required)

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Amazon bulking up
on e-book stock

& on Kindle

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The Digitalist:
Macmillan’s blog on all things e-

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Bye-bye backlist

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All Things Considered on Indiana’s attempt to
kill all bookstores

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Talking with David Foster Wallace
about his book on John McCain
(may require subscription)

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It’s not easy being green

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Which way the memoir?

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A profile of Wendy Cope

I don’t want to be laureate

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What about Clive James?

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A novel of Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Saginaw celebrates Roethke

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The Enchantress of Florence

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Talking with Timothy Gager

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Ethnographic titillation

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Mick Imlah’s The Lost Leader

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The importance of blurbs

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In the U.K. authors puke on the idea
of “age ranges” for kids’ books

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History found in poems

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Boswell’s Johnson

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Talking with Roger Lloyd Pack

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Poet & painter in Luminous Mud

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Restoring the farm of
Byron Herbert Reece

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Edward Hirsch’s Special Orders

§

Talking with Andrew Motion

§

Plumly’s Keats

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The John Stuart Mill of Brazil

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Will blogging replace newspapers?

§

But blogging is good for you

§

Adorno, genius & nationalism

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How to control randomness

§

Why economists should not rule the world

§

The actor is a poet

§

Remembering U. Utah Phillips

§

Talking with Ravi Shankar (MP3)

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Trying to parody John Cage

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The Soloist

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Talking with Billy Bragg

§

Close-reading Amy Winehouse

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Two artists of the Harlem Renaissance

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A room in yellow light

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Defending Bill Henson

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Nan Goldin at the Tate Modern

§

The problem with art criticism

§

Twombly vs. Banksy

§

Street art at the Tate sans Banksy

§

The fate of the Barnes

§

Armed guards for Hirst’s lamb

§

“the greatest painter you never heard of”

§

Alton Kelly, a founder of the Family Dog,
has passed away

§

Commercials by Errol Morris

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

 

A quick note. I’m getting 300 emails a day in my life, not including spam, maybe half related to my day job, but fully a third related to this blog. Many people send me poems they hope I will read & perhaps comment on, articles – I get a lot of links this way – cartoons, and questions from students. I have no secretarial support and a job that can easily run to 70 hours per week. I also have a family. I’m over a year behind in updating my blogroll, and have a growing list of requests related to that. If you sent me something and I haven’t responded, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t necessarily looked at it, or that I hated it. Often it does mean that I don’t have the time to give it the attention I can see it deserves.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

 

Brian Henry’s The Stripping Point is a book containing two longish poetic sequences. Yet I could imagine, say, David Markson or Carole Maso writing something not so terribly far from this and calling it a novel, or perhaps two novella – whatever the plural of that might be. It’s a fascinating, difficult, daring project and Henry, whose poetry I didn’t know before this turned up in the Poetry Society of America’s cartons of William Carlos Williams contestants (I’ve been aware of his work as critic & editor for some time), Henry basically pulls it off.

In an interview on Counterpath Press’ website, Henry describes the longer of the two sequences – “ More Dangerous than Dying” – as having its origins in a narrative sequence, or at least a sequence that he had written some ten years earlier, in which the poems were connected by their protagonists. When he picked up the sequence again in 2005, he revised the work, as I understand it, to meld characters, making the poem less of a narrative but actually more cohesive in that the perspective now is much more that of an interior subject, old friend “I”. I wonder if this isn’t also when he decided to balance each (or nearly each, the sole exception is the first poem¹) with an epigram placed on the facing page.

The epigrams are an interesting feature, and serve the work as a whole in more than a few ways. They comment on, or even against, the text of the poems themselves. And tho they’re not identified in the main body of the text (there is a four-page “sources” note at the poem’s end), they serve also to place the action of this scrambled narrative – it’s about a paper mill apparently, tho it could as easily be an auto plant or any sizeable manufacturing operation – within a larger community of voices. Henry’s choices are as interesting & reflect as much thought (and a lot of close reading) as every other part of this work: Louis Zukofsky & James Schuyler, both used three times, J.H. Prynne, Tom Clark, Donald Revell, Peter Gizzi, John Yau, Andrea Brady, Jean Donnelly, C.D. Wright (twice cited), but also James Merrill & Henri Cole. One might argue that this is almost a “third way” pantheon, that attempt to meld the history of post-avant poetics & that other of the most traditional poets in the language. What virtually all of these writers hold in common is a tendency – one sees this in Henry’s own writing – toward fine distinction, exact detail, a sense of the lushness of sound, tho the details presented often are as gritty as any Ben Shahn painting:

A top-down directive
requires a shuffling of cubicles

Farewell faithful smokestack!
Farewell tower of the freshly cut!
Air redolent of pulp and death!
Farewell farewell farewell!

Eleven rows of cars my new vista
their gleam and window glare
their histories laid bare to me
my Daily Journal of Heretofore Unknown Events

No one to ignore me
when I’m through

Across the page to the left, we read two lines from Zukofsky’s “A”-8: The company is constantly / experimenting on its own people. All of Henry’s quotations are in italics, albeit unidentified until the end note, so that they never quite seem on a par with the ongoing text. It makes the poem twice the length it might otherwise have been, but also works to make it feel almost airy & light. There is a lot of white space here, and it is all content.

The title poem works very differently. It lets you know this almost instantly, the first line being Decide on deciduous or remain ever green. Five lines later we find Vanishment in ravishment will produce a. At which point the stanza & page come to their conclusion. If there’s an antecedent for such verse, it’s in the work of Robert Duncan’s prior to The Opening of the Field, when Duncan was willing to incorporate not just sound, but sound as pure sensation, the most deliberate of debaucheries possible with the poem. Henry is willing to dive just as deep:

A blanket of blankets swarms the bed
Ten degrees and cropping    six sheets to the wind
The door frame chipped and tawdry
Who succumbs to coming    twice in an evening
Tram or bus     tram or bus     tram or bus     tram
Or bus     tram or bus    tram or bus     tram

Which version of the verb to come here is the pun, since both are in play? The terms tram and cropping hint at the fact that Henry was living in Australia when first he wrote this text. Unpeopled – or more accurately, absent any narrative characterization – The Stripping Point is perhaps closest thing to classically defined langpo as I’ve seen in awhile – I can see this piece right alongside Clark Coolidge, Zukofsky’s “80 Flowers” or the work of Stephen Ratcliffe, all writers & works very much governed by the ear & written without fear.

The sum of all these inclinations won’t shock anyone, I suspect, who reads Verse, or who has read Henry’s earlier books. People like to point out that there is no such thing as “third way” poetics, that mythic midpoint betwixt the School of Quietude and post-avant writing, that the writers – with certain exceptions – aren’t really in touch with one another, that they don’t hang out as a gang, let alone have the constant communal contact that people around St. Marks Place have, or that my colleagues on The Grand Piano project maintain by email. But the reality is that there is a poetry here that does mix & match, almost at will, and that some of it – such as this work by Henry or poetry by C.D. Wright, Ann Lauterbach, Cole Swensen or Forrest Gander – is breath-takingly good. The idea that a book like The Stripping Point could have come out of anywhere other than San Francisco or New York would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago, let alone 50. So it’s a real marker of how poetry in America is changing, not just formally, but geographically even. And it’s very good news indeed.

 

¹ Tho the poem as a whole has an epigram, which may almost serve the same purpose, or at least points to that possibility.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

 


From Children’s Tape by Terry Fox, 1974,
a work not on Ubuweb

An Ubu Top Ten (1973 Edition)

Kenny Goldsmith asked me to program a “top ten” list for Ubuweb in June, ten items from its archives that I thought would make a good “playlist” for inquiring minds. The list is up on the Ubuweb site & I thought I’d write a little about why I chose what I did here.

The instant Kenny asked, I knew three works – the first three below – that simply had to be on my list. For personal reasons, they’re my favorite items in the entire Ubu archive. When I realized that all three were from 1973, I decided to look more closely at that year, to test – so to speak – just how good an archive Ubuweb actually is. I decided that I would list those items that spoke to my own work both then & now. What could I find that related to my world from 1973? Ubu’s search feature turned up 149 possibilities, tho there does seem to a certain amount of duplication, multiple ways to getting to certain files. Some of the folks from that larger list that I didn’t include here would be Guy Debord, Vito Acconci & Jacques Lacan. Their absence has more to do with who I am than the Ubu archive itself.

On the other hand, this slice of the Ubuweb pie made me painfully conscious of just how few early language poetry resources can be found here. And how very few women. (Basically I put in every one I could justifiably include, and there are only two, both of them collaborators with others.) The list below includes a Jackson Mac Low gatha for Kathy Acker – then using the public persona of the Black Tarantula – but relatively little by Acker & none from this important period of her work is available on Ubuweb. I also wished that I could have found more performance art from the West Coast from that same time frame. You can find Terry Fox or Tom Marioni, but not from that year & only a few items. Fox was the closest thing to a performance art superstar I ever saw in the context of the Bay Area, & Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art (MoCA), the ironic name he gave to his loft above the fabled Jerry & Johnny’s tavern – all now gone & replaced by the Marriott Jukebox a block from the Moscone Convention Center – was an important antecedent to all things conceptual, including Ubuweb itself.

In 1973, Richard Nixon was still president, the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January. The mayor of San Francisco was Joe Alioto, the second in a string of eight consecutive Democratic mayors. George Moscone, who would be third, was still a state senator, a solid liberal but a man known often to be bleary-eyed after lunch. Harvey Milk owned a camera store on Castro Street. Tho he’d only lived in San Francisco for a year, Milk first ran for the Board of Supervisors in ’73. The Oakland A’s, led by Reggie Jackson, who led the American League in homeruns with 32, defeated the New York Mets in the World Series in 1973.

I was living on Sacramento Street near Laurel on what is now shrink row, paying $67.50 for my half of a three-bedroom flat. A few blocks down Sacramento was Rae Armantrout & her husband, &, two doors off Fillmore, Ronald Johnson, who lived in a household he referred to as the Vinyl Vatican. Barrett Watten had just moved back down from Mendocino, where he’d been living after graduating from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. David Melnick may have still been in graduate school in Berkeley, but many of the poets now routinely associated with San Francisco in the 1970s – Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian were just arriving or not yet on the scene. The only ongoing reading series in town were at SF State out in the fog mid-day (I was working in San Rafael & could never get to those) or at Intersection in North Beach on Tuesday nights, save for a short-lived series in a bookstore/print shop high over Noe Valley called the Empty Elevator Shaft. Barry & I gave a reading at the Shaft, our first reading together, and The Black Tarantula came up afterword to give me the latest chapter of her work-in-progress, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac Imagining.

Over the next half dozen years, that world would change entirely. This list is a blast from that past.

  1. Frank Film (1973), Frank and Caroline Mouris. An early & great anticipation of animated vispo that actually received the Academy Award for Best Short Subject. Seeing this in a festival of short subjects showed me just how easily the mind can hold onto multiple trains of thought. Ketjak and the other works that flowed from that would not have come into being without this example.
  2. The Name (1973), Robert Creeley. Creeley read this poem at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco on August 31 during the very first poetry reading I ever organized, a benefit for the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ). I have no idea who made this tape, nor the one following, but I’m grateful that they did.
  3. Recollections of Grande Apachería (1973), Edward Dorn. Dorn, who insisted on arriving late so that he would not have to talk to either Creeley or his other co-reader, Joanne Kyger, closed the same evening with Apachería. It was the first time I’d seen the book or heard the work. And, tho I wouldn’t actually meet her for another four years & 28 days, one of the 400+ people who attended the reading was Krishna Evans, now my wife.
  4. Reading at Goddard College (1973), Robert Creeley. Creeley gave this reading three days before his 47th birthday. With the death of Charles Olson in 1970, and of Ezra Pound in 1972, Creeley was now unquestionably the dean of post-avant American poets.
  5. Carnival The First Panel: 1967 – 1970 (1973), Steve McCaffery. Even more than bp Nichol, Steve McCaffery is the writer who brought language writing & what was then being called concrete poetry together. Carnival was the first major statement of this intent that I ever saw right back when Steve & I were first getting to know one another.
  6. Black Tarantula Crossword Gathas (excerpt) (1973), Jackson Mac Low. Mac Low’s reputation had taken a great leap forward with the publication of Stanzas for Iris Lezak in 1972. The Black Tarantula was the name then being employed by San Francisco novelist, Kathy Acker. It was Acker who first got me interested in attending performance art events around town.
  7. A Vocabulary for Sharon Belle Matlin (1973), Jackson Mac Low. Other voices include Susan Musgrave, George Macbeth, Sean O'Huigin & bpNichol. One of Mac Low’s more famous works – you can see the text here. Caroline Mouris & Susan Musgrave (presumably the Canadian poet) are the only two women on this list.
  8. Heavy Aspirations (1973), Charles Amirkhanian. In 1973, Charles Amirkhanian’s music program on KPFA radio was a staple of everyone’s morning – and everyone’s music education. I’d actually taken a wonderful class that Amirkhanian team-taught with choreographer Anna Halprin & poet Brother Antoninus at San Francisco State in 1967. I knew Amirkhanian best as a composer, but his polymath ways took him also to sound texts such as this.
  9. Armand Schwerner (1973), Phill Niblock. Schwerner reading in an orange windbreaker on a blustery day (Staten Island?). Schwerner was part of the scene around Jerry Rothenberg & Jackson Mac Low, a connection to the important journal Caterpillar. His Tablets are a fun moment in the use of satirical palimpsests to construct authorship. I think of them, along with Ed Friedman’s Telephone Book, and the early works of Bernadette Mayer as being important antecedents to conceptual poetry. Niblock I knew principally as a composer, part of the larger scene I came into contact with through Kathy Acker, Peter Gordon & Chris Berg (Clay Fear).
  10. High Kukus (1973), James Broughton. Filmmaker & poet Broughton, seen here in both roles, was one of the few presences of the old San Francisco avant-garde that existed immediately after World War 2, before the Berkeley Renaissance took the F Train across the Bay & the Beats came to town, still active by the early 1970s. Broughton taught at the San Francisco Art Institute for years (the same job Bill Berkson has today) and did much to bring those art worlds together. In 1973, Broughton was younger than I am today.

So I think the question of Ubuweb as an archive is mixed. What’s there is actually pretty terrific. What’s missing is large to the point of disturbing. That’s probably to be expected from what amounts to a one-man operation, and it suggests that a major future question for Ubu, as well as for other similar archives, such as the Electronic Poetry Center, Eclipse, PENNsound, or Modern American Poetry, just to name a few, will be how to institutionalize (and thus make systematic, complete – whatever that might mean – and permanent, or at least long lasting) the riches they do hold.

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