Wednesday, February 06, 2019


Walt Whitman often is characterized as an apotheosis of the American cult of individualism with Song of Myself presented as exhibit A – Stephen Mitchell, for example, writes
Certainly the poem embodies an outrageous egotism, an “I” so shamelessly naked that even a bodhisattva can admire it[i],
but I hear something different. It may be because I have been teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons at the same time that I have been rereading Song, in Mitchell’s faux version of the 1855 first publication in Leaves of Grass that presented the text as a single unbroken long poem, in a truer version of the first edition[ii],  and in the 1891 “deathbed” edition that replicates the 1881 final variant, broken now into a suggestive 52 sections and using a title that did not settle on the text until 1876. Song was published in six different compositional stages during Whitman’s life, with Mitchell’s 1993 edition representing what he himself characterizes as a “conflated version”.
Preparing my notes on Stein’s prose poems, I’m reminded that while Whitman was dying in Camden, an event reported on by the US press on a daily basis, the 17-year-old Stein[iii] was in Baltimore preparing to attend Radcliffe and certainly was aware of America’s most famous and thoroughly out gay poet. Matt Miller has written of Whitman’s influence, for example, on The Making of Americans[iv], a title that fairly screams it out and whose scope recalls the ambition of Song if not the whole of Leaves of Grass. 43 years ago, G. Thomas Couser observed that:
two of our most eccentric writers and autobiographers – Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein – seem to share many intriguing similarities.[v]
True that. But where Couser locates these similarities in time and identity, what I hear instead is a tic in number, very nearly a drumbeat of the plural.

In the original 1855 edition, it jumps right out in the sixth line:
Houses and roof perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with perfumes
By the deathbed version,  two additional stanzas had been inserted into  the poem, pushing this line into the second section while converting Whitman’s four-period ellipsis into a comma, and trading in roof for the rhyme of rooms, a revision that spells out the primacy of sound in this text:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes
Rooms also has the advantage of being plural. The number of multiples in just the first few pages of the poem are stunning:
·         Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers
·         green leaves and dry leaves
·         darkcolored sea-rocks
·         belched words . . . . words
·         A few light kisses . . . . a few embraces . . . . a reaching around of arms
That is a page-and-a-half from the Mitchell. In addition to having composed a 50-page poem that favors exposition over narrative,  Whitman has written one in love with the plural:
Do I  contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain  multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh,
The conversion of roof to rooms is fortuitous, as Rooms is the title of the third and final section of Tender Buttons, the chapter of Stein’s book that is not a series of short, witty prose poems but very nearly an  essay (in Stein’s unique manner) on method. Buttons likewise concentrates “toward them that are nigh” as the world it conveys is very much that of bourgeois women of pre-First World War Paris, poem titles filled with hats, coats, umbrellas, and “a long dress,” with relatively few references to men beyond soldiers and that “white hunter.”  
Plurals categorize right where creative writing workshops argue that one should focus on the specific. In theory the singular is concrete, the plural general. It’s not an accident that we target in on the wheelbarrow, sensing a softer, almost fuzzy focus on the chickens. Yet as that shipwreck of the singular, George Oppen, reminds us at the start of Of Being Numerous,
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
That is very much what Stein is getting at with her invocation of familiars throughout Tender Buttons. And it is also what I hear throughout Song of Myself.
Whitman’s language in this sense is the antithesis of Pound’s, whose preference is for specifics drenched in historical & sometimes mythological connotation. Which also was what Williams heard in The Waste Land:
Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit[vi]
O stars of heaven,
O suns . . . . O grass of graves . . . . O perpetual transfers and promotions
Lists like this from the 49th canto of the deathbed Song lack Stein’s percussive alliteration, but, once stripped of the romantic “O,” the major difference is between Stein’s invocation of an interior world, household objects and food, over Whitman’s wider ranging, often more abstract or “transcendental” categories. Whitman’s plurals can be concrete, as with the twenty-eight young men observed splashing in the water in the 11th section or the
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests […]
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms
Overhand the hammers swing, overhand so slow, overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place
He’s closer here to Williams than Stein, employing the plural to set up a close-up. Looking at the following famous stanza, you will see that even the singular nouns other than “I,” categorize. They may be singulars but they’re plurals at heart.
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these and all I weave the song of myself.

First presented at the Five Up on Walt pre-birthday celebration at Kelly Writers House, Feb. 5, 2019

[i] “Editor’s Preface,” Song of Myself, edited by Stephen Mitchell, Shambhala, Boulder, 2018, p. xi.

[ii] Online in a Roslings Ditgital Publications PDF available from the Western Illinois University website:

[iii] The same age I was when William Carlos Williams died in 1963. It was Williams who opened the door of poetry to me through his poem “The Desert Music.”

[iv] Miller, “Making of Americans: Whitman and Stein’s Poetics of Inclusion,” Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, Autumn 2009

[v] Couser, “Of Time and Identity: Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein as Autobiographers,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 1976

[vi] Unsigned biographical essay on Williams on the Poetry Foundation website.

Friday, January 11, 2019

This coming Monday

The Fab Four

come to the
Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant
247 S. 17th Street

7:30 - 9:30 PM

Monday, January 07, 2019

Ben Friedlander jokingly introduced me at the 2017 National Poetry Foundation conference on the poetries of the 1990s by saying that that decade had been “the period between language poetry and Silliman’s Blog.” Later, in one of those hallway conversations that proves so fruitful at events like this, Ben and I talked more seriously about how one would periodize language writing, if one wished to do so. It’s a little like asking if Beat poetry still exists today, given that Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are still active. I said at the time that I had been serious in my characterization of it in the introduction to In the American Tree as more of a moment than a movement.

But I had betrayed that assertion in how I had edited that collection, including only those who had appeared enough times in works by publishers and magazines so thoroughly associated with langpo to thoroughly bear its stamp. And, as I’ve stated a few times since then, I did so thoroughly enough that there were just three poets who fit my criteria whom I failed to include: Curtis Faville, David Gitin and Abigail Child. The first two had withdrawn from publishing by 1981-2, the period when I put that book together, and I had misread Child as a committed filmmaker who wrote much as she also danced and did performance art, a misreading on my part that I have regretted ever since. If I had really edited that volume to articulate the moment, I should have included first-rate writers who were quite critical of language writing, such as Beverly Dahlen and Leslie Scalapino, or who were off doing their own thing without much if any reference to what was taking place at the Grand Piano, the Tassajara Bakery or the fledgling Ear Inn readings. This would have included people openly hostile to some of langpo’s investigations into language itself, such as Darrell Gray or Andrei Codrescu, but it also would have included the likes of Norman Fischer, CD Wright, Joan Retallack, Doug Lang, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joseph Ceravolo, Judy Grahn, Michael Lally, Lorenzo Thomas, Jim Brody, Simon Ortiz, and Nathaniel Mackey. Edited by a white guy on the West Coast, In the American Tree is very much a(n imperfect) record of a movement and not a moment at all.

Plus a nearly five-year gap occurred between editing and publication, the result of the original publisher, Ross Erickson Books, struggling financially. Had the collection actually been edited close to its publication date, younger writers who had subsequently emerged, including Charles Alexander, Laura Moriarty, Ted Pearson and Harryette Mullen, surely would have been added to what was already an unwieldy number. In 1986, when the National Poetry Foundation finally got the 1982 manuscript into print, Tree already some of the same time-bound features I had noticed earlier in Donald M Allen’s The New American Poetry, which presents the early Jack Spicer and not the later writer whom we think of today, the Edward Dorn who is clearly a lyric student from Black Mountain, not the pop-art philosopher-poet with the problematic politics. Indeed, Amiri Baraka was not yet Amiri Baraka when he appeared in the Allen anthology. One could argue the same for Denise Levertov as well.

Standing in the hallway in Orono, I told Ben that if I had to do so, I would agree that language poetry was not a literature of the 1990s, and that the poetics of the New Coast Conference, held in March of 1990 and later gathered into a double anthology by the journal Oblēk, had in fact accomplished what it set out to do, which was to announce a generational shift to a younger cohort of poets, a group notably more diverse in race and gender than that figured just four years before by Tree. The Oblēk anthologies never got the distribution they deserved, and, perhaps because of the hostility by many of the participants of the poetry publication to assertions given prominence in the theoretical one[i], the collections have never been republished or brought out in book form.  

I also had already given langpo a starting date, the appearance of Robert Grenier’s essay “On Speech” in the inaugural issue of This in 1971. Even 48 years later, that still feels right to me. There certainly were earlier manifestations of what would come to be known as language writing in journals such as joglars edited by Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer (dating back as far as 1963, when Charles Bernstein would have been just 12 years old, Erica Hunt only eight), 0 to 9, edited by Bernadette Mayer with Vito Acconci, and even my own Tottel’s, which beat This into print by a matter of weeks. But Grenier’s epic overstatement, “l HATE SPEECH,” had the concentrated effect of an announcement every bit as much as Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl in the Six Gallery, October 7, 1955, had announced the New American Poetry, no matter that it came five years after Olson’s essay on Projective Verse and even after Black Mountain College itself had closed down.

Real life is messy like that. A significant amount of the hostility to language poetry in the 1970s and ‘80s came from poets like Codrescu and Tom Clark, who had been too young for The New American Poetry and yet felt excluded by a younger map of the territory that no longer followed the familiar terrain set forth by the Allen anthology.[ii]  The Oblēk anthologies suggested that the debate was already irrelevant. I think it’s open to question whether I’ll Drown This Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, edited by Caroline Bergvalle, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody & Vanessa Place, or Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, edited by Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad & Gary Sullivan – the current pretenders to the short-lived Iron Throne of contemporary poetics – represents an extension of the New Coast poetics put forward by Oblēk, which is how I read them, or something altogether new. The documentary conceptualism put forward by Chain was clearly a part of the New Coast phenomenon and, nearing 20, flarf likewise is long in the tooth, and if the cover of that anthology is any evidence, also in need of a haircut.

What’s next? as President Bartlett used to say back when the nation was governed by the sane. The question of articulating any movement of poetry in a world in which there exist some 50,000 publishing ones is one hell of a lot harder than it was when the number was 2,000 or so just 30-plus years ago. Even the neo-Edwardian strain still exists, although if Terrance Hayes and AE Stallings are any evidence, they’ve had a serious rebirth of wonder since the days of Lowell and Wilbur.[iii]

My concern is that without some shape, younger poets have nothing to push against, no old guard conveniently tottering and about to be tipped into the dustbin of history. The turn to politics on the part of recent poets may be occasioned by how much more visible the depredations of capital have become, but the difference between langpo and the poets of Chain was never a question of political/non-political, but closer to which political and how. You can’t say that Terrance Hayes isn’t writing politically, even if his sense of caesura can be breathtaking. I was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America on the day when the New American Movement first merged with the Democratic Socialists’ Organizing Committee to form that organization and my membership is still current, thank you. As I’ve tried to make clear here and on Facebook and Twitter, I think we’re all in this together.

But poetry is governed by seasons – what gave birth to the New American Poetry was a hiatus occasioned by World War 2 when the number of books being published in the US was curtailed by the cost of paper and ink, and the absence of males from the continent. As it was, the number of books of poetry published in the US shrank from around 100 per year to just half that until well after the war. The old world had been an argument between the neo-Edwardians led by the Benet brothers and Robert Frost[iv] and the moderns led by Pound, Williams and the Objectivists. The publishing world was aligned with the neo-Edwardians and thus, as a result of the war’s impact on publishing, many Objectivists stayed out of print until the 1960s after the arrival of Ginsberg et al. Since the New Americans, we really have had just two other generations of poetry, albeit with much haziness at the margins.

It seems that we are now ripe for a third. From my perspective (in the dustbin of history where we are making room for the conceptualists and flarfists), I’m searching out for new shoots, wondering just where they might take us all. I for one am ready for the ride.

[i] Basically that a lack of spirituality was a defining feature of language poetry and that a return to religion would thus be a hallmark of poetry going forward, two decidedly inaccurate claims.

[ii] Which was a notoriously untrustworthy map. The absence of the Spicer circle was no doubt Duncan’s influence – Robert claimed that he had told Allen whom to include – just as the fiction of a San Francisco renaissance was his mechanism for getting older poets like James Broughton and Brother Antoninus into the book. Allen’s pointed comment in the introduction about Zukofsky’s exclusion suggests that a line was being drawn – Robert was allowed to dictate the San Francisco scene, but not the whole shebang. The 1967 A Controversy of Poets anthology, where Robert Kelly selected the New Americans and Paris Leary chose the neo-Edwardians, includes Zukofsky.

[iii] The brief interregnum of the Gnu Formalism can best be understood as an admission that the poetry wars, if not set off by the Allen anthology at least marked by it, was thoroughly won by the New Americans. The argument against this would basically be that the social upheavals of the 1960s disrupted everyone, and that the rejection of the New American paradigm by the likes of Dorn, Baraka and Levertov were no greater than the turn away from rhyming pentameter by  the likes of Bly, Merwin, Plath, Wright, Hall et al. The curious thing, reading anthologies of the New Formalists, is the near total absence of poets born in the 1930s. Hayes was born in 1971, Stallings in 1968.

[iv] Between them, Frost and the Benet brothers had 7 Pulitzer prizes by the time Stephen died of an early heart attack in 1944, including those for that year and the two preceding ones. Stephen also controlled the Yale Younger Poets award, the only other prize in US poetry to get significant critical and news coverage.

Friday, January 04, 2019

China has to know by now that it can seize Taiwan any time it wants and that Trump has so ravaged the US’ ability to mount a coalition in opposition to anything it would be a done deal. The Taiwanese have to know this also. Remember the second Kennedy-Nixon debate when Nixon accused JFK of being unwilling to use nuclear weapons to defend Quemoy & Matsu? Do you think Trump has even heard of these islands?

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is power a function of speech? That, in essence, was the core of the Supreme Court decision we know under the deeply cynical – but curiously not inaccurate – name of Citizens United. Limiting the right of the wealthy to spend limitless sums of capital on political campaigns was curtailing their right to speak about issues that matter both to them and the polis.

But capital is not speech – it’s power. Consider the example of Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos.  The company employs 613,300 people, roughly twice the number who worked at IBM when I was employed there in the late 1990s. Amazon actually earned $171 billion in revenue in 2017, with an overall net income of $3 billion, assets worth $131 billion and a stock valuation of just under $28 billion. Thus the equity per employee of Amazon was a smidgen over $45,000. One could argue that the company was and is a good buy at its current price of around $1500 per share. There is a lot of value in its activity that is not captured in a stock price that low.

That value is divided, of course, not among its employees, but rather its shareholders, the largest being Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Not that Bezos depends entirely upon undervalued Amazon stock for his wealth. His early investment in Google (a mere $250,000) for example, is now worth more than $3 billion and Bezos owns a lot of other stuff, including a space exploration company and, through a limited liability corporation called Nash Holdings, The Washington Post, an asset that makes him a target of angry tweets by President Trump. Overall, Bezos is said to be worth over $150 billion, slightly ahead of Bill Gates, but considerably ahead of you and me.

Whether Bezos is the richest man in the world, as Wikipedia and Forbes, assert, or not depends on part on how one values the wealth of some off-the-books types, such as Vladimir Putin ($200B, give or take[i]) or the 2,000-members of the Saud family said to be worth a total of roughly $1.4 trillion, a significant amount of which is controlled by a handful of elders. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the one country named for its ruling family.

A few years ago, when Bill Gates first became the “richest man in the world,” it was a title that  could be had for $30 billion. The subsequent growth in these numbers reflects a fundamental tendency of capitalism to accumulate and concentrate. If all the money in the world (currently somewhere around 255 trillion US$) were divided equally among the eight billion people on this planet, everyone would have a net worth a little under $32,000, which is about one year’s tuition at an Ivy League school. So the likes of Bezos, Gates, Putin and Mohammad bin Salman represents quite a bit more than their “share” of the world’s wealth if we look at the planet as something akin to an asset that belongs to us all.

Which means that these disproportionate concentrations of wealth represent serious distortions of power, including the power to concentrate food, shelter and physical wellbeing. That is what politics is all about. In terms of wealth, Jeff Bezos has 4 million seven hundred thousand times that of the average human being. Dividing Amazon’s HQ2 50,000 future employees among the residents of northern Virginia and the Bronx is just one way to ensure that Bezos’ absolute economic influence in the metro DC and New York City regions will be magnified by significant voting blocs of people for whom what is in Amazon’s interest translates into their own welfare. It’s the old “What’s good for General Motors” formula updated for the internet age.

So the protection of wealth as speech – again, the essence of Citizens United – is intended to ensure that the concentration of capital will be protected by the US Constitution. It’s a neat trick that Lewis Powell first foresaw when he suggested the weaponization of the US legal system in his memo to the US Chamber of Congress in August of 1971. Since then, the US right has organized systematically to take over the courts, a process that has required diligence, organization and a reasonably singled-minded focus for 48 effing years to accomplish its goal with beer-boy Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the Senate’s wave of confirmations of Kavanaugh knock-offs to fill a wide range of lower court vacancies that built up during the Obama years, complements of Mitch McConnell.

By way of contrast, future Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was so appalled at the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972 that he founded the Democrat Leadership Conference to ensure that Democratic politics in the next generation would not be weighed down by any socialist-leaning ideas from the American Left. Clinton’s vision of a Democratic Party working in unison with liberal aspects of corporate America has governed the party pretty much until this last election. Even now, the Democrats find themselves with Chuck Schumer, a US Senator who represents exactly one city block of lower Manhattan, and Nancy Pelosi, a committed centrist, running the party in Congress, plus a passel of disparate candidates hoping to run for the presidency in 2020, exactly two of whom (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) might be characterized as “on the left.” Most, although not all, of the rest seems to be following the Obama formula of looking progressive while operating as centrists – no “out” centrist has won the Electoral College since 1996. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic Congressman who often voted with the GOP and who can be characterized as a progressive only when contrasted with the likes of Ted Cruz, is more typical of the field.

In short, we have a relatively organized American right, currently being held captive by a politician who demonstrates that party’s contempt for professionalism in politics, against a  broad array of candidates most of whom actively do not want to challenge the Democratic party’s symbiotic relationship with Wall Street, Hollywood and tech billionaires. What an appealing choice! Further, the longer the Republicans can control the Senate and the executive branch, the more damage they can do and the longer it will take any bottom-up mass movement of Americans to overturn the right’s stranglehold on at least the judiciary.

And did I mention that climate change makes the problem more urgent every day?

It’s enough to make a Chomskyian out of a sane person, if only because Chomsky’s complaints about the rapacious nature of capitalism tend to be reasonable. The real problem is how to undo what has been done and overturn capital’s stranglehold on the polis. If you don’t break that stranglehold, any short-term fixes will prove as fragile as Barack Obama’s progressive heritage.

I think that the answer to the first question has to lie in a series of Constitutional Amendments, the first of which declares that money is not speech. But I wouldn’t want to call a Constitutional Convention in the present political climate, would you? Handmaid’s Tale, here we come.

Long term, it will take at least the single-minded focus that the GOP has demonstrated since 1971 and a degree of organization that is the equal of the Republican right. One aspect of that organization has to be a consistent never-ending critique of capital’s role in society, precisely its capacity to concentrate power.

It is that disequalibration that underpins all the ways that capital empowers every form of privilege that exists: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, age privilege, you name it.

If I look at how Jeff Bezos employs his wealth, he seems innocuous enough. Amazon’s corporate contributions have skewed slightly Republican, but not significantly so, and Bezos himself has mostly supported establishment Democrats. His ownership of the Post has been hands-off  in pointed contrast with the Murdoch clan, allowing professional journalists to do their jobs, even if a lot of Post contributors clearly suffer from inside-the-Beltway conventional thinking. Bezos’ more important political contribution has been a $10 million gift to With Honor, a non-profit cofounded by GOP strategist (and never-Trumper) David Gergen to elect more veterans to Congress. Not all veterans are conservatives – Ron Dellums was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as a former Marine. But the overall impact of such giving, like hiring some 50,000 employees in two key districts on the East Coast, seems poised to ensure the well-being of Amazon itself as it remakes the commercial sale and distribution of products in a web-driven world.

And progressive-sounding politicians who do nothing to ensure the election of progressives at the state and local level, as was the case with Obama, or who do nothing to disengage US foreign policy from the interests of international corporations – as was also the case with #44 – do little more than ensure that the worst immediate consequences of capital may be inhibited while the deeper stranglehold of wealth on history and privilege continue unabated. I think it’s arguable whether or not Obama made the ascendancy of a racist and fascist to the presidency inevitable, but he certainly helped to magnify the damage that man can do while in office. Voter suppression campaigns in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere, are a direct result of Obama’s abandonment of state and local politics while in office. The disarray of US foreign policy reflects the reality that Obama’s international vision amounted to little more than continuing the use of US military might (this time with drones!) to bolster a global order tailor-made by and for US corporations[ii]. When Trump came to pull that house down, it was already in considerable shambles.

The same year that Lewis Powell penned his infamous memo to the Chamber of Commerce, he was nominated by Richard Nixon to the US Supreme Court where he would serve for 16 years. He died finally in 1998, some twenty years before the Kavanagh nomination ensured that a nation that leans to the left will have its laws interpreted for a generation by a court that leans markedly to the right. That’s a vision of a long arc, a vision the left has lacked for a generation. With the growing threat of global warming sure to push ever larger numbers of people to increasingly desperate acts, it’s really now or never.

[i] A problematic figure suggested first by Bill Browder, the Russian investment oligarch son of former US Communist Earl Browder, and man most likely to grip a poisoned doorknob for his opposition to Putin.

[ii] Henry Kissinger’s corporate sponsor throughout his career was Nelson Rockefeller. His Democratic counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was in turn sponsored by David Rockefeller. The company the Rockefellers inherited was Standard Oil, the global predecessor to Exxon. Kissinger and Brzezinski ran foreign policy during the Nixon and Carter years, and were replaced  during the Reagan era by Casper Weinberger and George Schultz, both of whom ran divisions at Bechtel. Reagan’s vice-president was the only CIA official to ever own his own oil firm, George  HW Bush. Oil’s tight control of foreign policy fit right into the rise of the automobile in post-WW2 America, as well as the automobile’s greatest achievement, the American suburb and the physical remaking of every metropolitan region in the nation. Why are the Saudis our friends? What’s good for General Motors?

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Today in DC

Sunday, September 30, 6PM

2814 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC

Readers in addition to co-editors Silliman and Krick will include K. Lorraine Graham, Ryan Walker, Buck Downs & Rod Smith

Friday, September 28, 2018

Realized today that I have attended something like 4,000 poetry readings in my life. What a great gift that has been.

And, yes, the Bromige reading at Saint Marks, was probably the best of the entire bunch. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

David Bromige:
Posthumous World Tour

The tour continues.

We are celebrating the life and poetry of David Bromige (1933 - 2009), the London-born, Canadian-American poet who began as a star pupil of the Black Mountain poets, emerged as a major language writer, and evolved into a fiercely independent voice from deep within California’s wine country.

And we are introducing if wants to be the same as is: Essential Poems of David Bromigewith generous selections from each of his published books of poetry (including the complete My Poetry) plus the never published epic American Testament. Edited by Jack Krick, Bob Perelman & Ron Silliman with an introduction by George Bowering.  

Tuesday, September 25, 6 PM

3805 Locust Walk

Readers will include all three editors, plus Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Steve Dolph, Ryan Eckes, George Economou, Eli Goldblatt, Tom Mandel, Crhis McCreary, Jason Mitchell, Frank Sherlock, Charles Bernstein & Orchid Tierney

Wednesday, September 26, 8 PM
St. Marks Church
131 E. 10th Street
New York City

Readers will include all three editors, plus Bruce Andrews, Steve Benson, Charles Bernstein, Lee Ann Brown, Abigail Child, Brian Carpenter, Nada Gordon, Michael Gottlieb, Erica Hunt, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Stan Mir, Nick Piombino, & James Sherry

Sunday, September 30, 6PM

2814 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC

Readers in addition to co-editors Silliman and Krick will include K. Lorraine Graham, Ryan Walker, Buck Downs & Rod Smith

Friday, October 12
Details to be announced
Vancouver, BC

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Where We Are Now

When I was a young man, I wrote law. I was not a lawyer, having no degree beyond my high school diploma, although I had attended a few colleges as a creative writing and/or English major before dropping out from UC Berkeley to perform “alternative” service as a Conscientious Objector to the military. That service I performed as a volunteer case worker for the Committee for Prisoner Humanity and Justice (CPHJ),  headquartered in San Rafael, California, a couple of miles from San Quentin State Prison. My “alternative” service obligation ended abruptly at the end of 1972 when Rep. Ron Dellums (D  - Berkeley) forced the Selective Service to concede that the induction of COs at a time when the army had stopped inducting draftees was illegal.

That determination had multiple consequences for me. The most important personally was that I was able to convince CPHJ to hire me as a full time employee, and that I be permitted to work on more substantial projects than just casework. I soon became the director of education at a lofty salary of $235 per month and spent the next four-plus years working to end the indeterminate sentence in California. I was one of a half-dozen or so active authors of the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act that then-governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 1977, the purpose of which was to render punishment less capricious, less political, less racist.

The other active participants in that legislation, which effectively rewrote the sentencing portion of some 3,000 felonies that you could commit in California, did include lawyers, most notably Michael Salerno, a staff member who worked for state senator John Nejedly (R – Contra Costa). Nejedly was a former district attorney of Contra Costa county who actively promoted his self-image as “Iron John Nejedly,” a bad-ass pro-law enforcement type who had come out against the existing law (in which every sentence for a felony in California was slotted into one of three categories: six-months to 50 years; one year to life; and the death penalty, which at that moment was on the books but not being carried out due to having been declared unconstitutional [temporarily] by the US Supreme Court). Nejedly conveyed what he thought of the existing law by always wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. He knew that the existing structure was racist and being used politically by the California Department of Corrections. He simply wanted the law to mean what it said. Radical notion, that.

It was Nejedly who sponsored the legislation, but it was a motley coalition of legislative staffers and outside volunteers from the prison movement who actually wrote it. One, Frank Smith of the Prisoners Union, was an ex-convict. Another, Clarence Williams, who worked for the speaker of the Assembly, Willie Brown (D – San Francisco), was intending to go to law school, but at the time his expertise was that he had the trust of the most powerful legislator in the state. Salerno himself was still attending UC Davis law school and had not yet passed the bar. Valmar Schaaf, a Marin County civil engineer who was the chair of the board at CPHJ, was another major contributor. Beyond this inner core were a large number of other commentators, ranging from Jan Marinissen of the American Friends Service Committee to Popeye Jackson of the United Prisoners Union, Fay Stender of the Prison Law Project (and better known as George Jackson’s attorney in the Soledad Brothers case), Eve Pell and Patty Roberts of the Prison Law Collective, Willie and Patty Holder of the Prisoners Union as well some of their attorneys, Jim Smith and Michael Snedecker.

Rewriting some 3,000 separate statutes in a democracy is a messy political process. One consequence of the too-many-cooks nature of drafting this legislation was that the bill as finally enacted misspelled “forcible” in the rape section of the law simply because Salerno was not a great speller. Although this was pointed out to him at the time, he refused to correct his preferred “forceable.” I believe the error was later amended in a “clean-up” bill that was passed long after I had left CPHJ for work at Hospitality House in San Francisco.

At Hospitality House, I worked first on an ethnography of the agency’s neighborhood, the Tenderloin, then cobbled together a job editing the community newspaper, the Tenderloin Times, running a writers workshop under the sponsorship of the California Arts Council, and worked on housing legislation to preserve the neighborhood’s stock of Single-Room Occupancy hotels. To this day, that housing, a good portion of it now owned by a series of neighborhood nonprofits, is the largest remaining stock of low-income affordable housing in San Francisco.

So these 40-year-old experiences are the background I carry with me when I read and think about the nomination of “originalist” Bret Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. When I was with CPHJ, Willie Brown actively tried to persuade me to attend Hastings School of Law where, he assured me, he could guarantee my acceptance as an ex-officio member of its Board of Regents. At the time, I thought that was a terrible idea. My commitment, as I kept telling anyone who would listen, was to poetry and the art of language. Forty years hence, not having been a lawyer is one of my major accomplishments.

But this background informs my sense of the willies (no pun intended, Mr. Brown) as I hear Kavanaugh depicted as an originalist. In theory, originalism is a legal framework put forward by reactionaries to justify their attempts to block, overturn and/or undo any progress made in the law since 1789. It has a narrow interpretation, in which language is presumed to be essentially unchanging in meaning, and a broader, looser one, in which justices ought merely to interpret any legislation as its authors originally intended. It is my understanding that Kavanaugh is being presented as an example of the latter tendency, but it is the entire notion of originalism that creeps me out. Underneath it, and far scarier, is what is being done now politically, by this administration and this Congress, to enact a fascist regime in the United States. I fear that the damage they doing may last until the end of time. Which, given their impact on the environment, may be around the year 2300, if not sooner. In short, I think that the women protestors who show up at events these days dressed as handmaids out of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, are not guilty of hyperbole in the slightest. They are being true to their language and the language, which separates them out from originalists entirely.

The narrow interpretation of originalism is easily demonstrated as ahistorical to the point of illiteracy. One classic example of how language always changes meaning over time is that the “men” referenced in the Declaration of Independence in the phrase that “all men are created equal” is now taken to mean all human beings, whereas to Thomas Jefferson et al, it implied white men who owned property. Another good example is rapture, an offence for which Chaucer was once convicted. Today we don’t think of rape and rapture as synonymous, though perhaps we should.

More importantly here, all language is a system of difference, of differences, so that the meaning of any given word lies not inherit within it – this is the source of the humor within onomatopoeia – but only in reference to its position within the entire system. The system of 1789 included the active acceptance of slavery, with all that implies, including the separation of families, the rape of women and children, the disposal of property through murder. No reference to women appears in the Constitution until, in the 20th century, the 19th amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Slavery is mentioned only in the 13th amendment, and note that it is specifically permitted “as a punishment for crime.” Mass incarceration, which got started during the Reagan years and really picked up steam during Bill Clinton’s presidency, needs to be understood as an attempt to overturn the fundamental result of the Civil War.

This is the duplicity underneath the looser interpretation of originalism. What it implies is that any statute or executive order ought to be interpreted in ways that best preserve the regime of white male privilege under which every law written has been enacted. Again, consider the language of the 19th Amendment: its presumption is that the rights of citizens may be denied or abridged, and that this is normal behavior. The Constitution only forbids this on the narrow grounds of sex, a term that is otherwise undefined.

The problem here is not that originalism is a silly notion whose seriousness is plausible only in the beer-soaked environs of a man cave, but that it is being proposed with a straight face (pun intended) by the Federalist Society as an approach to governing. The reasons for this are transparent enough. White males make up something like 31 percent of the American population. Anyone can see the handwriting on the wall if the increasing diversity of the American population is accompanied with increasing power shared by groups that were not conceived by Thomas Jefferson some 242 years ago under the category of “men.” The goal of originalism is to afford a mantle of legal respectability to a regime of rights suppression that will keep white males firmly in charge for as long as possible.

Of course, if originalists meant what they claimed for the law, the Second Amendment would be read as interpreting that the constitution allows for the possession of arms as that term was understood in 1789: single round, buckshot rifles and blunderbuss pistols.

It was both technical innovation and the preservation of slavery that gave rise to the Colt 45 revolver, a gun that would enable a slave holder to outgun any rebellion of servants. The test of originalism as I see it turns precisely on what its proponents say about the Second Amendment. If, as seems to be the case with the GOP today, it means that any psychotic has the right to an AR-15, then you are not an originalist. But if you say you are in spite of all evidence, what does that mean precisely?

If ever there were an administration of the unreconstructed white male it is the Trump presidency, a small potatoes crime family posing as a government. But if white male rage at increasing political impotence is the fuel of this process, just as originalism might be its legal figleaf, it is capital that benefits, which gets us around to the architect of this whole shebang, the biggest capitalist on the planet, the one whose wealth is so great that he is not included in any of Forbes lists of billionaires, our good friend Vladimir Putin. I think Putin understands full well the pressures and strains on American society that having a government that is out of touch with its people can bring. And even if he does not – Russia is no paragon of anything, even kleptocracy – clearly he benefits from a US that looks increasingly like Russia. Further, capitalism itself benefits from a less progressive United States. Which is why the Republican Party, that cabal of white males, is so eagerly looking the other way.

The Brett Kavanaugh nomination is merely an important chess move in a very large game in which the legal system of  the US is a crucial part. From Putin’s perspective, having the US thrashing about in social turmoil under an incompetent boob is itself the victory. I doubt that any Russian official expected too much in the way of obedience from its abused puppy of a politician. Russia merely wants incompetence and boy howdy has that effort been a success.

This means that I think that Mueller will find that the amount of real collusion between Russia and the US was minimal, even if the Trumponauts tried mightily to make it so during the election and are still willing to go after a Bruce Ohr to make Moscow happy. I just don’t think the Russians are stupid enough to think that Donald Trump is a reliable anything. But, yes, they hacked and they used social media and the inherent anti-democratic nature of the electoral college to put their pawn into play at the White House.

What this means to you and me is all bad news. We are in for a period in which the courts become a major blocking point preventing the US from reaching its potential as a diverse modern democracy, because to do so would mean having to curtail the white male privilege that is being so profoundly defended. I would not be surprised to see the Trump administration operating more and more like the Nazis or the reaction in the streets to be an even more violent replay of 1968 than the original, complete with assassinations, riots and tanks in the streets. The handmaids are right on target with this, and that makes me fear, especially for the fragments of a world that my children will have to deal with.

All the while, global capital gets a pass. The one rule is that capital always accumulates – it’s a logic by which someday one guy (probably not Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Vladimir Putin) has all the money and the rest of the planet lives in one giant favela. In the past 30 years we have seen the richest men on the planet go from $30 billion to over $100 billion and some people estimate Putin’s personal wealth at twice that. We already have two corporations worth one trillion dollars. The gross domestic product of this entire planet is under 300 trillion. And we are seeing the likes of Elon Musk buying their own personal islands as escapes in case the locals make too much noise about the unfairness of it all.

Crippling the best parts of the American experiment serves a lot of agendas, and borders, white nationalism, the use of carbon-based energy and the notion of originalism all contribute to this crippling. As a member of the New American Movement when it merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), I am heartened by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Ayanna Pressley coming to the fore of political life in this country. Organization is essential. No battle is too small, no group too marginal to matter. It all matters. But the battle that lies ahead of us will prove to be much more difficult than merely stopping an unjust war in Vietnam, and we can expect to experience horrific defeats along the way.