Friday, October 23, 2009

 

I have always thought of Summer Brenner as a poet who sometimes writes fiction, so I was surprised to see in the front matter to I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex, that Brenner has published six novels to just two volumes of verse, and that she hasn’t published a book of poems in 32 years. Having now read – and completely enjoyed – I-5, I still think Summer Brenner is a poet, but one with notable narrative skills & a deep commitment both to her characters & to justice. I-5 is an effective novel, tho certainly not perfect, and one that would translate easily to the big screen. It has all the elements: a tough-as-nails hooker heroine who is also the protagonist & very much the “good guy,” plus a variety of secondary characters, minor Russian mafia wannabes, other prostitutes, a trucker with an illicit cargo, prison guards with their own demons & secrets, and a villainous capitalist trying to control everyone in his orbit. It has an ending that is both very much what the reader will be hoping for & yet almost entirely a surprise.

I-5 follows the path of Anya, a young Russian woman kidnapped into the world of involuntary sex traffic, shuttled from brothel to brothel in the United States. The premise of the book is that she’s being moved from Southern California to Oakland where Mr. Kupkin, her “owner” very much in the tradition of slavery everywhere, plans to expand his empire of young women, duped or stolen mostly from Eastern Europe. To get there entails a ride up I-5, the great (albeit boring) north-south highway of the West Coast. As they proceed north, Anya, her immediate boss & pimp Marty, a comic thug alternately called Pedro & the Tarantula & a nameless young woman who will be delivered to a new owner along the way, they get caught in the Central Valley’s infamous tule fog as well as the valley’s one growing-like-gangbusters industry, prisons. Things happen, people get separated & we get to see Anya’s complex (and ambivalent) relationship to her own slavery. More things happen & Anya & Marty reach Oakland, though not as they’d intended. More things happen still.

This is one of those books where you know from page 2, if not page 1, what Anya’s fate holds in store, though certainly not the what & how of it. Publishing the novel in a deeply noir format – Roderick Constance’s cover image is ironic without being comical – underscores what is predictable here, which is actually part of the fun of the book (how will Anya do it?). And Anya is the character here to whom Brenner is committed. To some degree, every other character in I-5 is defined by her, or at least by their function in her story.

If there are any weaknesses here, they’re relatively minor. Brenner gives us what amounts to a lesson in the history & meteorology of the Central Valley, setting up both the fog & the scene at the prison. This isn’t something Anya knows or understands, any more than she understands the back story of the young guard or of what Kupkin’s life is like in Atlanta. Brenner tells us all this & more because she wants us to know and in these postmodern times, nobody is worrying all that much about ontological or narrative consistency. If anything, Brenner makes great use of indeterminacy in the later chapters to reveal not just what happens but what can happen. But reading of the nature of tule fog or of the expansion of California’s prison system¹ feels disruptive – it was the one moment in the book where I could imagine becoming dislodged from the story itself.

Years ago, when she was writing the book that turned into The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, Kathy Acker & I had a long conversation about the nature of character. The great trick of narrative or figurative literature, of course, is that the language on the page integrates syntactically not into a greater argument or expository structure, but instead to a displacement, an invocation of a referred world. A character represents a particular configuration of this referred world, and the difficulty of this displacement is such that we commonly acknowledge that the highest compliment one can pay to a character is that he or she is “believable.” Anya certainly is believable, but she also is a cipher, a symbol of the thousands – millions, if we think of sex traffic on its worldwide scale – of young women who submit to rape everyday. Brenner wants us to see this world through the eyes of one woman, someone young enough still to remember what hope is, even if old enough now in experience to understand just how difficult this is. I-5 is in this sense a political novel, though Brenner never lets this obstruct our view of her character. Anya is someone you will never forget.

 

¹ In my work in the prison movement, 1972-77, I was the lobbyist responsible for stopping funding for new prisons and was successful in each of those years. But it was already evident that the Department of Corrections, the guard’s union and far right rural legislators were bringing together the unholy alliance that would see the system explode from the nine joints I had to deal with in the 1970s to the 33 of today. The Department of Corrections is now the second largest police agency in the United States, second only to NYPD.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

 


David Bromige reading in Seattle, May 2003

Today is David Bromige’s 76th birthday & it will be the first time in many a decade that I won’t have the opportunity to call or at least email him to wish him well. David’s baritone has long been a touchstone for me, one of those familiars that immediately bring comfort, no doubt because I associate it with love & wit. Thanks to PennSound, I can revisit that voice whenever I need to, as no doubt I will today. The latest addition there, I think, is a talk David gave in Bob Perelman’s talk series in 1977 on “Poetry and Intention.”

Last Friday, I traveled to Manhattan to participate in a memorial service for David at Poets House, now ensconced into its Battery Park City home with something akin to a 70-year lease – the venerable organization has room to grow, but also happens to be in the one place on the island that actually is hard to get to without walking several windy rainy blocks along the Hudson River. Joel Lewis, the bard of Hoboken, joked that it was easier to get to from New Jersey.

The following roster will give you some idea who spoke & what they read. Stephen Motika, who’s just finished working on a Collected Poems for Leland Hickman, was the organizer & moderator.

Kathleen Fraser: taped remembrance of David

Ron Silliman:"First" and "The Final Mission" from The Ends of the Earth

Nicholas Piombino: "Soul Mates" and "The End of The Stranger" from Desire

Gary Sullivan:  first two pages of the piece My Poetry

Bob Perelman: from My Poetry

Geoffrey Young: from My Poetry

Charles Bernstein: "My Daddy's at His Office Now" from "American Testament 4"

Laura Sims for Rachel Levitsky: comments and poem (I forgot to note which)

Corina Copp reading from "Joy Cone" from Hills 9 (1983)

Taking Amtrak’s Keystone Special up that afternoon, I’d thought this would be a terrific, joyous event, with no sense of sadness at David’s passing. The work is just so damn great & I’d never had the opportunity to read these two special poems in public before, almost as tho they were my own. But the instant I started to talk, I could hear my voice break – just a little – so I cut my palaver short & dove directly into the joy of the work.

Because we were asked to keep our remarks generally to 7 minutes each (to keep the reading to a reasonable [by NY standards] time – even with nine readers, it ran to 90 minutes – neither Bob Perelman or I were able to read our sections from the forthcoming 9th volume of The Grand Piano, both of which deal with David. It was interesting – and proves a long-held hunch of mine (or at least is evidence for same) – that My Poetry was the work most often cited here. It is, as I note in my piece for the Piano, David’s iconic book, even though it appeared only in an edition of 650 copies and was never reprinted. Geoff Young, who published My Poetry, conceded that he too has just one copy of this great book.

For my reading,I turned to earlier work – the premise of the order that night (at least after Kathy Fraser) was by the chronology of David’s writing – two poems that I heard David read on the night that I first met him in 1968. But since I didn’t get to read it at Poets House, here is my section from the next Grand Piano, which should be out in a week or two.

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Furthest Up the Trail

SOMETIME AROUND late 1967, a then recent graduate of Bard, David Perry, arrived in San Francisco State’s creative writing program & he & I quickly discovered that we shared an enthusiasm for the work of Robert Kelly & the many poets Kelly had been teaching, basically The New American Poetry. David also knew all the recent Bard College grads who either lived in the Bay Area (John Gorham, Harvey Bialy) or were visiting (Tom Meyer, still then a teenager I believe). One day very early in ’68, David convinced me that we had to go to the Albany Public Library to hear Bialy read. It was the very place where I’d first discovered poetry some six years earlier, but I hadn’t set foot in that building on Solano since I’d left home, so for me the reading was already laden with symbolic power before Paul Mariah, who curated the series there, introduced the readers. Bialy was fine, maybe a little quieter than I’d expected, but it was the poet reading with him, somebody I’d never heard of before, who blew me away. David Bromige was tall with a long face, a resonant baritone, a mastery of syntax that I had not found anywhere, even in the work of Robert Duncan, & a ready, almost twinkly wit that gave me the impression that had Charles Dickens been alive and a New American poet, he would have been very much like this fellow. It was a stunning, eye-opening performance & I vowed to get to know this poet.1

At thirty-five, Bromige was a grad student at Berkeley, writing a dissertation on the Black Mountain poets, far more widely read than I & just a little suspicious of the motives of twenty-one-year-olds. He lived in a cottage apartment with his then-wife, fiction writer Sherril Jaffe, just north of the campus, not far from Josephine Miles’s place & a short walk to Serendipity Books, which in those days encompassed not only the rare books business it is today, but a bookstore & the distribution operations that subsequently evolved into SPD. I would meet David at his place or at Serendipity, or we would walk over to a beer & pizza den on Shattuck just off University & have long discussions, part gossip, part theory.

Our positions in those days were not at all equivalent. Having already had poems accepted by Poetry, TriQuarterly, Chicago Review & the like, I was full of myself, hyperconscious of my status as a “published poet,” which was somewhat unusual among undergraduates even at San Francisco State. But I was also painfully aware of just how hollow all of that truly was & appalled—daily!—at how little I knew & how much I had yet to learn. Not that I would have admitted that to anyone, least of all myself. Compared with David Bromige, I was an absolute beginner.

As the 60s gave way to the next decade, the grand pooh-bah of poetry in the Bay Area was manifestly Robert Duncan, who was only too happy to remind you of this himself. Of all the poets around him, David was by far the most accomplished, most published, most widely read. David already had four books: The Gathering, The Ends of the Earth, The Quivering Roadway & Please, Like Me. Two of these volumes were from Black Sparrow Press, a “big” small press publisher that aimed to be more to be like New Directions or City Lights than, say, White Rabbit or Oyez.

To read more, pick up the 9th volume of the Grand Piano.

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1. Nor did this prove to be my only important discovery that evening. Hitchhiking back to my apartment by Lake Merrit in Oakland, I caught a ride with someone who recognized me from the reading—David Melnick. Forty-one years later, I’m actively involved in editing the collected works of both Davids.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

 



Lenore Kandel

1932 2009

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Nancy Spero

1926 2009

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

 

Burying Mr. Poe

Poe sites in Bal’more

Poe house & museum

§

Rosmarie Waldrop
on the two directions of American poetry,
metaphor & metonymy

§

Nov. 12 in NYC:
Wittgenstein’s Voice
with Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Perloff,
Tom Pepper, Sissi Tax,
moderated by Jean-Michel Rabate

§

The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis

§

Charlotte Mandell,
reading her translation of
Matias Énard’s Zone
(part 1 of 7)

§

Steven Fama:
“I have seen the future of poetry on Blogger
and it’s name is”
Stephen Ratcliffe

§

Sexism in British culture

§

Parting the nightgown of the poem

§

The impact of poetry on pea soup

§

Veronic Forrest-Thomson:
Poetic Artifice
(reg. req.)

§

NY Times obit for Raymond Federman

§

Carter Monroe:
The Spicer Series

§

Lynn Behrendt & Ann Lauterbach

§

James Joyce 2010

§

Kurt Vonnegut:
“Look at the Birdie”

§

Philadelphia, Oct. 22:
Rae Armantrout

§

Philadelphia, Oct. 24:
Jena Osman, Michael Gizzi, Craig Watson

§

The Internet as Playground & Factory

& its poetry panel

§

Does the brain like e-books?

§

Digitizing rare Chinese books

§

China at the book fair

“Not a book fair but a rights fair

§

Paul Zukofsky re-invents “fair use”

Wikipedia on fair use

The U.S. © office on fair use

U.S. © law

§ 107, the fair use statute

Stanford’s © & fair use site

§

Libraries lend e-books

So you want to borrow an e-book

§

Nov. 9 at the 92nd St. Y in NYC,
Orhan Pamuk

Nov. 16,
reading Nabokov’s Laura
with Martin Amis et al

Nov. 30,
Paul Auster & Javier Marias

§

Jonathan Lethem on the Upper East Side

Procedure in Plain Air

§

Talking with Joan Houlihan

§

The Language Moment

§

Conceptual poetics in Britain

§

About Britain’s “favourite poem

§

A new edition of Gary Snyder’s Riprap

§

Ben Friedlander:
“Marianne Moore is the center of modernism”

§

The Kerouac Big Sur film
is being shown in many cities this week,
most often tonight

A profile of “little Jimmy Sampas

§

Bill Sherman on Jean Rhys

§

Atwood’s Flood

§

Sherman Alexie:
serious writer, funny guy

§

Talking with Craig Raine

§

The wordlessness of haiku

§

Chimamanda Adichie:
the danger of the single story

A discussion of
Half of a Yellow Sun
(part 1) (part 2)

§

Shakespeare’s collab
with Thomas Kyd

UCLA gets $2M
Shakespeare collection

§

That obscure object of
the National Book Award

Siglio Press’ Keith Waldrop page

§

Co-author a story with Neil Gaiman on Twitter

§

Clive James:
poetry + showbiz

§

A poet in the Peace Corps in Mozambique

§

50 years of Naked Lunch

§

A book a day

§

A word quiz worth contemplating

§

The Valparaiso Poetry Review
turns 10

§

Padgett Powell’s
The Interrogative Mood

§

Tom Leonard’s Outside the Narrative

§

Anselm Berrigan favorites

§

Walt Whitman’s
astrology chart

Walt Whitman
the puppet show
(with F. Garcia Lorca)

§

Kara Candito’s Taste of Cherry

§

Robert Sheppard
introduces Cliff Yates

§

The Electro-Plasmic Hyrdocephalic
Genre-Fiction Generator

§

What to do with used poems?

§

Books for soldiers

§

What will Kindle do to territorial rights?

§

A color screen for B&N e-reader

§

Meet Alex

Is Alex the B&N e-reader?

§

Kindle killers?
The boom in e-readers

§

Google deal debated

Will Google sell ads with each book?
It’s not ruling it out

§

Google Editions:
“Buy anywhere, read anywhere”

§

The electronic backlist

§

The Number 1
roadside rhyme in America is….

§

Robert Wells’ Collected Poems & Translations

§

Talking with Edmund White

§

Queer writing in surreal space

§

The era of email is over!

§

Charles Bernstein:
Futurist Manifestos

§

A blast from the past

§

Bruce Sterling:
“design has more to offer fiction
at the moment
than literature has to offer design”

§

Talking with Meena Kandasamy

§

Cheever’s demons

§

Albert Huffstickler’s Soul Gallery,
now an e-book

§

The History of English Poetry

§

4 reviews by
Susanna Childress

§

The last poet to win the Nobel Prize

§

Walter de la Mare
through fresh eyes

§

Carol Muske-Dukes:
3 quietists

§

Faber New Poets

§

Rawi Hage’s Cockroach

§

In Hartford, CT,
Nov. 7,
Marjorie Perloff
@ the 14th Annual
Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash

§

Remembering Henry Gibson

§

Talking with Paul Siegell

§

Back when poetry & science mixed

§

Talking with Galway Kinnell

§

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

§

Charles Wright’s recent books

§

Talking with Renée Alberts

§

Patti Tana,
Long Island Poet of the Year

§

Oct. 24 & 25:
Seattle Bookfest

§

The War That Killed Achilles

§

Kaja Silverman
talking with Judith Butler & Anne Wagner
Berkeley, Oct. 29

§

Stubborn bookstore hangs on

§

Modern = not ugly

§

Aronowitz & Bernstein’s Girldrive

§

Dylan’s defiance

§

The autobiography of Ralph Stanley

§

Decoding music

§

Auggie Kleinzahler
on the new Monk bio

§

Corn flakes with John Lennon
(Part 2)

§

Willem Defoe is Richard Foreman’s
Idiot Savant

§

If only they’d known
Polanski owned
a chalet
in Switzerland
declare the Swiss….

§

The Tate caves

§

Suzanne Fiol has passed

§

Talking with Maurice Sendak,
Dave Eggers & Spike Jonze

Eggers, mucking up Sendak

§

Nothing doesn’t exist
(micro-sculpture)

§

What is an Andy Warhol?

§

What to see in London

§

Damien Hirst’s latest work

Hirst’s “blue period”

A slide show of the new paintings

§

Man Ray, African art & the modernist lens

§

Jeanne Suspuglas’ Home

§

Robert Bergman at the National Gallery

§

1,250 Nazi garden gnomes

§

But what’s with the black face photo shoot?

§

Play this article to the tune of
Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town

Cleaning up is hard to do

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