Saturday, September 14, 2002

A thoughtful response to my comments on Chain from Juliana Spahr:

i like to think of magazines not as arguments but just as conversations or as possibilities. i think the job of the editor is to put forward and stand back at the same time. and i think this is the big difference between what you say and what i think. we started chain b/c there were too many arguments being made. we started it in the climate of apex and o-blek. there were arguments already and we needed other sorts of conversations to happen. this felt crucial to us. we needed to make a place for us to think about things in our way--a more sideways way or a less declaratory way. now, perhaps, we/poetry community need arguments again. it is sad that apex and o-blek are gone and really haven't been replaced. and somehow for some reason that i'm not sure i know yet, we keep doing chain. but i'm not the person to do this sort of editing. i'm just not interested in doing it (although i always like to read apex and o-blek).

i think this is not a thwarting of political efficacy. i just think it might be something different than you are used to seeing. similarly, with the "writers a journal brings forward" issue. i think there are writers to which chain as been especially committed. or writers that i really feel are important and worked hard to make sure they got into the journal, bugged them a lot, etc. but i've always hated that idea that editors "make" writers. i would feel weird making a claim on any we've published.

i do think that the one argument that chain is making loudly is that poetry has a lot of various uses and positions and a lot of connections that are often overlooked. i've been editing from the middle of the pacific for six years now. and i've thought a lot about the sort of work chain can do/attempts to do from this place because it isn't all that evident everyday here (susan schultz is our only regular subscriber in the Pacific). one thing chain does for me here is it keeps me reading writing from over there (continent). which is good for me but that isn't enough finally. from here, however, it has felt crucial to include more international work (which we have done to the best of our abilities), to be more devoted to cross talk among things that don't cross everyday, to more clearly address poetry's cultural role, to support poetry as a genre of subcultures with ties to various locals/locales, to put writing in both idiolects and in dialects together in the hope that a larger and more complicated critique of standard English would happen in both sorts of poetry, to make room for work about identity and nationalism (those things the avant garde seems to spend too much time seeing as reductive) and yet not to sacrifice the work that gets done in more avant garde forms at the same time, to support both works written from the local and works written against the global, etc.

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Friday, September 13, 2002

Of course Allen Curnow and Gary Snyder are not precisely generational equivalents. Snyder’s first publication, in the Reed College student publication Janus, doesn’t occur until 1950, a point at which Curnow has already brought out at least three books. But one of the things the comparison does is to highlight that discrepancy. The reality is that there were few innovative American poets of significance who emerged during the 1940s.

The largest exception is Robert Duncan, who in fact first started publishing at the end of the 1930s (precocious teenager that he was). The two other major movers of literary form who were born during that decade between 1910 and 20 – Charles Olson and the novelist William Burroughs – were both late bloomers. Glancing over Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That is Great Within Us, a surprisingly decent anthology of the first 60 years of the 20th century that organizes its poets by birth date – now there’s a narrative! – you can’t help but notice that between the first poet born in that decade (Olson) and the last (May Swenson), the poets who predominate in that period – Schwartz, Berryman, Jarrell, Kees, Stafford, Weiss and Lowell – represent the core of what was the academic tradition of American poetry. The more innovative poets of that decade, Antoninus/Everson,  Patchen, Merton, McGrath, were all pronounced loners as writers. Two were monks, no less.

Certainly, the Second World War created a great schism in American writing, by cutting off the expatriates and the international influences that had been so very important to the high modernists. One might also blame the war, at least in part, for the failure of the Objectivists to move beyond their first youthful burst of publishing in the 1930s. For a talented young poet during the war years, the conservative tradition of American letters – that version of history that sees U.S. poetry as a tributary of British letters – was very close to the only game in town.

Five poets who are interesting to look at in this regard are David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro on the one hand – Shapiro is slightly younger, having been born in 1924 – and, on the other, Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Muriel Rukeyser.

The first two have often been paired, and I admit to reading them as though they were examples of what the Williams influence would have led to had Objectivism not shown its potential for greater breadth, depth and evolution. When the New Americans came along, Ignatow and Shapiro could easily have recognized the shared sympathies for Williams, but seem instead to have been isolated by the sudden appearance of all this new writing. Except for Shapiro’s first book The Eye, published by Alan Swallow (as far from the New York publishing world as one could get in the 1950s), the two did not begin bringing out books until the 1960s. The trajectory of their isolation was to lead both into becoming profound conservatives, as is evident from Shapiro’s work at the New York Times Book Review and Ignatow’s comments at the “What is a Poet?” symposium at the University of Alabama in 1984. (See Hank Lazer’s What is a Poet?)

The three women poets have often been claimed by the conservative literary tradition and to some degree at least they must have needed to relate to that world simply to get their work into print, not unlike Williams. But it is worth noting how all three can easily be read quite differently: Swenson (who worked at New Directions) as another Williams-influenced writer of innovative forms, Bishop for her visible influence on some of the New York School poets, Rukeyser’s political work aligning her with a tradition that would bridge McGrath and, say, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. One can only imagine what might have happened to American poetry had the three worked together to create a woman-centered poetic tendency decades before Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Susan Griffin and Adrienne Rich came along.

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Thursday, September 12, 2002

Thinking more about the role of narrative – literally the unfolding of meaning over time – one of the fascinating aspects of the late great New Zealand poet Allen Curnow’s Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997 (Auckland University Press, 1997) is Curnow’s insistence in ordering his book in reverse chronological order. One begins in the present, as it were, and proceeds back toward the days of World War 2.

So many collected or selected editions take just the opposite tack – inevitably treating the work as a journey through one’s life with all the predictable stations along the way. It’s a modestly useful approach, although often the poor reader has to slog through unrepresentative (and relatively unrewarding) juvenilia before the writer begins to arrive at his or her mature work (think of all those Keatsian concoctions at the start of William Carlos Williams’ career – the doctor didn’t start to write the poems for which we remember and value him until his was in his late 30s). Writers whose careers contain one extraordinary project amid much work that is far less focused (think of Merwin’s Lice or Tomlinson’s American Scenes) also aren’t served by a narrative of time as an organizing principle for their works. 

Curnow’s strategy insists on his present relevance to the scene of writing. Contrast this with the bizarrely posthumous avant-la-lettre Gary Snyder Reader (Counterpoint, 2000), in which Snyder’s poetry does not begin until page 399. If there is a message to the Reader’s narrative, it is a statement about the “man of wisdom” for whom the poem is an appropriate but ultimately secondary expression. The book seems designed to barricade Snyder from any consideration of his poetry as pertinent to what writing is now, which is perpetually in a state of “becoming.”

Because Curnow’s approach is just the opposite, the experience of reading Early Days Yet is the inverse of a biological narrative. It is very nearly archaeological: each succeeding section peels away the present to reveal its sources.


Wednesday, September 11, 2002

The new issue of Chain is out and continues the magazine’s run as the premier American literary journal. No other publication in the past decade has envisioned the breadth of American literature (defined here as more than just U.S. writing) with the reach, complexity, completeness and nuance of this publication co-edited originally by Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman, now with the assistance of Thalia Field and Cecilia Vicuña. For a reader of my generation, the experience of Chain harkens back to the heroic period of postmodern literary publications – Origin, Coyote’s Journal, Yugen, Black Mountain Review, Caterpillar, Sulfur, This, Hills, Temblor, Roof, Poetics Journal, the original HOW(ever) & their peers. Chain is the one print publication right now that can be said to change writing as it publishes it, in the sense that a reader comes away with a sense both of what is possible and what is necessary that is wider and deeper than before.

So why am I unable to look at an issue of Chain without thinking about a question that Jena Osman put to me several years ago at a Writers House event?

I had mentioned the disproportionate hoopla that had greeted a little journal called Apex of the M, edited by Lew Daley, Alan Gilbert, Kristin Prevallet & Pam Rehm*. To oversimplify only slightly, Apex took a confrontational view of literature, arguing that the language poets had largely been a rationalist movement, excluding mysticism in general and especially Gnostic views of Christianity. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary (such as the poetry of Susan Howe, one of the journal’s advisory editors), Apex presented a range of American postmodernist work that could be read as an inconsistent critique of langpo – John Taggart, Will Alexander, Elizabeth Robinson, Ed Dorn and Gustaf Sobin were among the contributors in its first two issues.

Identifying the boundaries of langpo, as Apex seems rather effectively to have done, is not the same as identifying an alternative, let alone an anti- (or post-) langpo movement, particularly given the famously isolative nature of several of the writers listed above. Apex came and went rather quickly in the larger scheme of things, but continued to be discussed for several years after. “So why is it,” Jena asked (I’m paraphrasing here from a mediocre memory), “that Chain, which was begun at the same time in the same city, which has a much broader and more democratic view of the possibilities of literature, receives so much less attention?” [It is worth noting, of course, that in the long run, this is certainly not the case. If it were a contest of which publication best manifested lasting literary value, Chain won hands down. But the question as I understood it had more to do with the proportionality of response.]

Part of the answer, of course, was that Chain lacks Apex’s hyperactive & self-important presentation. Apex led off its issues with fiery editorials proclaiming its revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary, depending on your perspective here) world view. Apex offered the charm of the quixotic. Chain, on the other hand, was from the beginning inherently inclusive and its impulses democratic. Language poetry was presented as though it were only one of several sources every young writer would want to think about. Apex by contrast put langpo on a pedestal only in order to take better aim as it attempted to knock it off.

But having said all this, there was – and still is – an inherent muting within Chain’s editorial position, one that has limited its impact and runs oddly contrary to the extraordinary intellectual ambition that otherwise informs every issue. And that is its use of alphabetical order to present content.

I obviously am not one to speak ill of the alphabet as an organizing principle, but in writing my own poem of that name, I know that I’ve had to take special to deal with the narrative needs of the poem. Narrative in this sense means literally the unfolding of meaning over time. This isn’t possible when the elements of the ordering are the surnames of authors.

I have never been fond of the use of themes to organize literary journals – it feels to me far more stifling than generative, causing many publications to include second-rate work that “fits” while ignoring far better writing that doesn’t. Chain, which has used themes from its initial issue, has avoided, or perhaps transcended, the usual limitations of the thematic by envisioning each of them so broadly, and so creatively. There is a sequence in Chain 8, on comics, that moves from Leslie Scalapino (whose conception of genre is itself worthy of a doctoral dissertation), through Lytle Shaw to Sally Silvers, that is worth the price of the 300-page journal.**

But such moments are fortuitous and accidental. What if Lytle Shaw had been named Bruce Andrews or Al Young? The problem is that, editorially, magazines are always arguments: their mode is exposition. What comes first and who goes where matters. Nobody understood this better than Clayton Eshleman with his journals Caterpillar and Sulfur. Eshleman’s issues were composed almost musically. Thus, for example, Sulfur 3, published in 1982, begins with one of Robert Duncan’s last Passages and closes its literature section (Eshleman’s journals followed the editorial mode set by Harriet Monroe with Poetry, placing reviews at the “back of the book”) with selections from the correspondence between Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg. In between, works were positioned primarily for the sake of contrast.

[Following Duncan in that issue was a prose poem of mine – one of the first sections of The Alphabet to appear in print & something that at the time must have appeared antithetical to Duncan’s poetry – followed by a young British poet with more overt “New American” tendencies, Allen Fisher, and then a young East Coast writer still working under the visible influence of George Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis. That Eshleman intuited correspondences between my work, Allen’s and Rachel’s I can only imagine. In 2002, it seems immediately apparent in ways that still appear unfathomable to me if I look at these texts of two decades ago.]

Like Apex, Eshleman’s Sulfur’s influence among writers, especially in its early years, far outstripped its distribution. But each issue was always making an argument about value in writing. It is precisely that argumentation by editorial placement that disappears into the arbitrariness of alphabeticism in Chain. At best, one can intuit one by the range of inclusion, but this is a second order of editorial exposition.

Clearly, the use of the alphabet corresponds to Chain’s democratic impulses. Nobody gets to go first but by the accident of their father’s last name. But argued thus – or perhaps not argued thus – it’s a bureaucratic democracy at best, and one that carries within it the not so dim echoes of patriarchy in the use of surnames.

In one sense, this editorial muteness may make Chain an even truer representative of contemporary literary culture, which in the past 15 years has tended to be both progressive and yet firmly committed to thwarting its own political efficacy***. It’s a curious position, ultimately, and one that seems very much at odds with the journal’s own ambition, as though it were ambition itself with which Chain might be at odds. In the long view of history, the test of a journal is best gauged by the writers whom it brings forward to broader audiences. Thus, in addition to their editors, one associates Origin with Olson, Blackburn and Zukofsky, Black Mountain Review with Creeley, Duncan and again Olson. One associates Caterpillar and Sulfur with David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Kelly, Pierre Joris, Michael Palmer and Charles Bernstein. HOW(ever) proved decisive in the renaissance of interest in Lorine Niedecker. But after nine issues, one associates Chain only with its editors. And that I think is the answer to the question that Jena Osman posed. Though it has taken me years to respond.

*This was the order as presented in Apex’s masthead, very much a “boys first” vision of literature.

** At $12 for issues that typically weigh in at over 300 pages, Chain is also one of the great bargains in literature.

***Not unlike the way the Green Party helped to put George W., Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft into their current positions.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2002

John Latta and James Sherry both wrote to note that Our Nuclear Heritage was published by Sun and Moon, not Roof
John Latta and James Sherry both wrote to note that Our Nuclear Heritage was published by Sun and Moon, not Roof. Alas, it’s not listed on either the Sun and Moon site, or through Small Press Distribution. So, I stand corrected, but the problem remains.

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The best book I’ve read on the world after September 11 was published in 1991 – two years before the initial bombing of the World Trade
Center. The volume is a collection of prose poems posing as essays, or perhaps the other way round, written from the position of a world in which nuclear weapons have been loosened from the grips of nation states and come into the hands of people who might actually think to use them. Some of the aspects of this 262-page work, which includes a long sequence titled (or perhaps subtitled) “Muslims in Soho,” seem positively eerie in their anticipation of details that have subsequently become far too familiar.

When it was first published, James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage (Roof), did not receive a lot of comment and I suspect that many readers didn’t know how to take this dense and dour volume that comes with not one but four appendices. Much of the work here is pitched carefully halfway between irony and ambivalence – a deadpan stance that underscores the horror of recognition at the heart of this book. Nuclear Heritage is not currently listed on the Roof Books site ( and may well be out of print. To make matters worse, ( doesn’t show any copies available through its network of used and rare book dealers. But in 2002, Our Nuclear Heritage is an absolutely a must-read book. Try your small-press-friendly university library.

Sherry hasn’t published a lot of poetry since Heritage, spending much of the past decade producing an equally long and dense work on the environment, tentatively titled Sorry. There’s new work in the latest issue of Chain ( on Sherry’s own horrific experiences on September 11 of last year – his office is just two blocks from Ground Zero – and on the implications of globalism and its cognates on postmodernity and the religions of the book alike.

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Monday, September 09, 2002

Most of the time, when I read poetry – by anyone, even Billy Collins – I read it aloud. The prosody of the text is for me always an essential aspect and I’m often dismayed at younger poets who seem to take to the genre solely for its conceptual potentials (substantial as they may be). Not too surprisingly, one of the greatest pleasures for me is hearing the authors read their own works aloud.

Three superb resources for modern poetry sound files:

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Joel Kuszai’s growing collection of sound files in Real Audio. The only problem with the
Factory School site is that it doesn’t permit you to download the file, only to stream it over the net, so there are inevitable (and regrettable) pauses for rebuffering throughout unless you have a broadband connection. The site has some excellent African-American recordings (Countee Cullen!) and genuine rarities, including Robert Browning and a reading by Larry Eigner.
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Laurable has put together the best index of poetry sound files on the web that I’ve encountered, including all the
Factory School materials. In addition, this site also has the best poetry weblog out there – by far. When I started this project, I wrote “Blogs have been around for awhile now, but to date I haven't seen a genuinely good one devoted to contemporary poetry….” Laurable proves me wrong.

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Ilya Kutik and Andrew Wachtel’s site for Russian poetry is called From the Ends to the Beginning. The text is in both Russian and English (although I have not been able to get the Cyrillic to work on my XP system, which is slightly maddening). If you want to hear Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak or Esenin read their own poetry aloud, this is the place. There are also some poems of Mayakovsky’s read by his lover, Lilly Brik.

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Sunday, September 08, 2002

One of the most interesting inclusions in the ridiculously named The Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner), guest edited by Robert Creeley, is a series of twenty-six fragments written by the late George Oppen, “scrawled on envelopes and other small pieces of paper – posted to the walls of George Oppen’s study and gathered after his death.” One in fact was written in pencil directly on the wall itself.

One that I find most haunting is the second:

I find I am forgetting
all the spoken     of
and the numbers          (i.e.
how to form them


also the numbers

George Oppen died of Alzheimer’s disease, the debilitating degenerative condition against which he struggled for many years. This fragment appears to directly address that condition and, in doing so, recalls the furor that met the exhibition of Willem de Kooning’s last paintings, also created by an artist well into the irreversible dementia of the disease. Were the sweeping and majestic spaces of his last canvases – more akin to a Diebenkorn (albeit one with no straight lines) than to the intense and misogynistic paintings of de Kooning’s signature work – the sign of an artist who had arrive at a new (and theoretically more peaceful) stage in his evolution or an index of the degeneration of one of the great minds in painting? Because poetry depends precisely on language and is so intimately entangled with consciousness itself, Oppen’s last fragments inevitably raise the same issues. I’ve heard at least one person wonder aloud as to the wisdom of printing these last unfinished pieces.

I’m persuaded by the text themselves. Although not all are anywhere near Oppen’s best poetry, some – like the above – are quite fine. While George Oppen is rightly included among the Objectivists in literary history, the bulk of his writing occurred after 1960, a point beyond which it was impossible not to be aware of the New Americans.* The projectivists in particular were clear about using poetry to represent the movement of thought, although others as diverse as Phil Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara could be said to have also written what Whalen once characterized as a “continuous nerve movie.”

Oppen seems quite clear, if not about words & numbers as such, about the importance of tracking his own consciousness against this greatest of challenges, its own ineluctable decomposition. These fragments, many of which repeat themselves, stalking the same terrain over & over, articulate a mind working through some of the most elemental facts of poetry and life with an absolute sense of just how little time remains.

* Oppen was an attentive reader. I had the fortune of being present when Mark Linenthal first introduced Oppen to Robert Duncan. Oppen’s first words were, “I want to talk with you about your use of open vowels.”

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