Saturday, October 19, 2002

Todd Swift's work in the poetry-music duo Swifty Lazarus allowed us to pose the question of how well intermedia presents writing as writing. Now the anthology he has edited with Philip Norton, Short Fuse lets us turn the question around and ask just how well the printed page can represent poets whose work is primarily turned towards performance.

Short Fuse is hardly the first book to pose this issue. The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker, by Edwin Torres (Roof, 2001) is an in-depth collection by one of the most brilliant performance poets alive, but I couldn't work through its use of typographic pyrotechnics until I had actually heard Torres for myself. In ways that are not apparent from the text, or at least were not to me, that experience opened up the work — I could hear it, even in poems that I had not heard Torres perform.*

Some of these same issues bedevil Short Fuse, but principally for those poets not represented on the book's companion CD. The disc contains roughly 70 minutes of work by an exceptionally diverse selection of writers, from Torres and Bob Holman to Charles Bernstein to Simon Armitage to Billy Collins.

But Penn Kemp, to pick one example, is a superb sound poet & enormous fun to see on stage. Her texts on the page offer no sense of the extraordinary phonemic overload that comes with her words. Ditto, tho more in a jazz vein, Adeena Karasick.

Even though there are performance poets whose work can be adequately represented on the page, such as Holman or Willie Perdomo, Short Fuse is wise to include the CD even though it only contains 34 of the project’s 175 writers. But what it points to is the probability that the future of representing such work may not be on the page, nor on the CD, but rather in the fuller (tho more costly) medium of DVD.**

* In retrospect, this reminds me of something Josephine Miles once said to me about William Carlos Williams, that writers of her generation literally did not know how to read him at first, they could not hear his poetry, its foundation in speech, which seems self-evident to somebody my age, was not at all apparent. Yet over a couple of generations, Williams literally changed what poets understand as “clarity.”

**Indeed, Ram Devineni, the publisher of Rattapallax Press, tells me that if the anthology gets a sufficiently positive response, he and its editors have discussed a bi-annual journal that might come out with a DVD. Rattapallax already issues a CD with each book it publishes.

Friday, October 18, 2002

Short Fuse is an extraordinarily ambitious project. In addition to the 400 page book released this week by Rattapallax Press is a CD and a supplementary e-book that one can download with a password found in the hard copy. Edited by a Philip Norton, a performance poet now in Australia who was matriculating at DePaul University when Marc Smith's Green Mill poetry slam events in Chicago  kicked off the slam scene in 1987, and Todd Swift, a Canadian poet with intermedia impulses now in Paris who makes a living as a television screenwriter, the 175 poets gathered into Short Fuse represent an attempt on the part of its editors to jump start what they characterize as Fusion Poetry.

What is Fusion Poetry? Given that at least 130 of the 175 poets in Short Fuse come out of the spoken word / slam / performance poetry communities of different English speaking countries, plus a smattering of poets from diverse traditions -- Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell represent the most conservative tendencies of British neoformalism, Charles Bernstein & myself represent a  performative side of langpo, and even Billy Collins is on the CD to incorporate that side of the plain-speaking McPoem tradition that can be enjoyed as  stand-up comedy  -- it would seem to be an attempt to place oral poetries into a broader & perhaps more legitimated context. At its most grandiose, Short Fuse may be an attempt to overcome the various skirmishes in the poetry wars by proposing performativity  as the glue that would bring all these other aesthetics together into one world-wide happy family. The book even promises to donate "a portion of the proceeds" to UNICEF.

Time will tell how far the editors can take that agenda, but it certainly doesn't want for lack of scale. What it may do, however, and this would be unfortunate, is to obscure just what a wonderfully global collection of performance poetry the editors have put together. Canada, the U.S., the British Isles, Australia, and the Anglophone scenes of several other countries are all represented. From the U.S., you have a good representation of the slam scene: Patricia Smith, Bob Holman, Edwin Torres & some of the more stellar poets who came out of the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe scene, such as Willie Perdomo and Guillermo Castro. While there certainly are some glaring omissions, especially among the older, more established performance poets (Steve McCaffery & his fellow Four Horsemen, Hazel Smith, the late Bob Cobbing, anything with a taste of Fluxus*), Short Fuse can be read as an Olympian panorama of performance poetics, one that stands up on these terms quite well, with a curious sprinkling of "performance-like" poetries out of other more page-based traditions.

* There are moments when, reading Short Fuse and listening to its editors, one has the eerie sense that this what it might be like to want to be Jerome Rothenberg if one had never heard of Jerome Rothenberg. 

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Michael Rosenthal came to visit last weekend – he is the senior member of the collective that runs Modern Times, one of the four large independent bookstores that remain in San Francisco. That’s a preciously small number, and it pushes me to think of my situation here just south of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

When I first moved here in 1995, there were three independent bookstores in the immediate region large enough to carry new volumes of poetry – Genes in the King of Prussia Mall, a reasonably large and well-stocked bookstore that took up the space normally allotted to a sporting goods emporium in that vast mall, which also had a couple of Daltons & Waldens tucked in among its 365 shops; Forum Books, your classic overcrowded jumble in a hole-in-the-wall bookshop in otherwise very chi-chi downtown Wayne; & the West Chester Book Company in a mall on the outskirts of that small city. The West Chester Book Company is a sprawling emporium literally connected to a decent Cajun lunch place and a Rainbow Records outlet. It’s the kind of store that a couple of years ago had a visible campaign (displays in the windows & in the store) for National Poetry Month in March. When I asked why not April, one of the employees said that they’d set up the displays before they’d realized their error, but then just assumed none of the customers would recognize the difference. Unfortunately, their poetry selection shows that same attention to detail. The only other new bookstores in the region in 1995 were a pair of Encore Book outlets, a chain that specialized in remainders.

Encore suffered the fate of any small chain forced to compete against megachains – the middle market just gets squeezed out of existence. A couple of years ago, the couple that owned Genes decided to retire and closed their shop. The store was apparently modestly profitable, but they were unable to find a buyer and if there was any attempt on the part of the workers to buy the store, it wasn’t visible to the casual consumer. Then about a year ago, the owner of Forum Books passed away. The store continues to operate much as before right now, but those of us who shop there are holding our breath. It’s hard to imagine Forum lasting forever amidst that row of jewelers and expensive restaurants. Its poetry section is a table top with books piled together into stacks that are modestly alphabetical. John Krick tells that he discovered language poetry in that bookstore years ago. My last “find” there was an audiotape of Beowulf and other old English texts in the original, read by J.B. Besinger, Jr in the Caedmon Audio series. It’s enough to cure you of the Seamus Heaney version that reads like the sports section of your newspaper.

To the mix, however, have come a Barnes & Noble in Devon the size of a supermarket, which also happens to be one of the few places in the region where one can find a cappuccino or latte. The King of Prussia Mall has recently added a Borders, less than two miles from B&N. The new Borders is roughly twice the size of the old Genes. Both of these chains carry the larger independent presses in a maddeningly inconsistent fashion. Smaller poetry presses like Chax or micropresses like Skanky Possum are simply not to be found. What’s particularly frustrating about this is that one cannot depend on the independents to do much better. Like so many poets outside of the Bay Area, I too depend a great deal on Rod Smith’s email poetry lists from Bridge Street Books in Washington, D.C.? But what if Rod didn’t exist or decided to do something else?

The biggest problem confronting independent bookstores today, according to Rosenthal, is succession. The ones that have survived the advent of the megachains have done so because they focus on customer service, know their customers, and can market to a local audience with much greater precision than some centralized buying office. However, most of the owners of independent bookstores tend to be boomers who are now starting to think about retiring. The question is how to do so when your business is a bookstore. Finding people who want to compete with Borders and Barnes & Noble is hard enough but banks and other lenders have concluded that independent bookstores themselves are doomed investments, so they’re seldom willing to lend the necessary capital. This puts the owner into the position of having to finance any sale of the store in order to keep it alive. Some people will be able to do this, but many others, like the owners of Genes, will not. What this means is that the next round of contraction for independent bookstores will be a serious one, driven less by profitability and more by the problem of how a retiring owner can exit the business.

If you look at the history of many of the independent publishers of the past, the way that they got sucked into the publishing conglomerates was basically through the same problem. Random House was once just two guys. As we saw earlier this year when Black Sparrow sold the rights to three of its authors to Ecco Press, a division of HarperCollins, its Wyndham Lewis books to Ginko and rest of its stock to David Godine Press, that problem has not abated in the slightest. Godine is now responsible for the future availability of Jack Spicer, Charles Reznikoff, David Bromige, Eileen Myles & Tom Clark. It’s impossible at this point to know what that will mean a decade or two out.

Most small presses publish a few books and then disappear. Even if the press stays around for awhile, such as Geoff Young’s The Figures, individual titles are seldom kept in print once the initial run is exhausted. Those few independents that do go on and become substantial operations, from City Lights to Coffee House, are themselves already exceptions to several rules. The bottom line? What is available today might not be tomorrow. For readers of poetry, that is a law that subtly governs decisions as to which books to buy. For writers, it creates a landscape of risks and probabilities that must be negotiated.

The market theory behind all this of course is that the supposedly best poets may start out with small presses, but when their work demonstrates its ability to reach a consistent and profitable audience, it eventually moves “up” to a trade publisher who ensures that it both stays in print and reaches the broad distribution it deserves. Thus Bukowski to Ecco, Ginsberg to Harper (which in turn owns Ecco as it does the Caedmon Audio series and many other “imprints”). Many trade presses also often have their own house poets whose work they promote – there is a trade publishers’ scene that is functionally indistinguishable from any other small press scene in the country, save for the distribution that these writers get for their early efforts. Some of these poets can be excellent – Ann Lauterbach or Jorie Graham would be good examples – but many more are forgettable. However, because they are published by presses that routinely run advertising in daily media, house poets are far more apt to be reviewed by those publications. Add to this the poets who get published for entirely non-literary reasons – from Leonard Nimoy & Eugene McCarthy to Jimmy Carter & T-Boz. It is perhaps an irony that Allen Ginsberg eventually gets to have the same publisher as David St. John & James Tate, but a far greater one that all three are also part of the same publishing program that includes Jewel.

Ultimately, the problem with the trade publishers is not so much whom they publish as it is whom they do not, the degree of control they exert over the stock one sees on the shelves of both the chains and the independents, the over-concentration of reviews devoted to their books in major media based not on quality or prominence but on advertising dollars (though, frankly, relatively few of those dollars are ever actually spent on poetry directly), and the various awards that are built up around this very same chain of advertising – as are both the Pulitzers and National Book Critics Circle Awards. Each link in this chain of concentration exacerbates the problem, narrowing the rich & vibrant gumbo of American poetry down toward a relatively thin gruel of Dead Poets’ Greatest Hits. How is a reader in this environment ever going to find out about a book by a great new poet such as Pattie McCarthy’s excellent bk of (h)rs (Apogee Press, 2002), even though McCarthy herself grew up in the very same triangle one might map around Forum Books, the West Chester Book Company and the King of Prussia Mall?

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

I’m going to New York for a few days for the readings to launch the Short Fuse anthology & won’t be taking my laptop. Since my Palm Pilot isn’t web-enabled, the blog shall be silent until Friday at least.

Two of the books I shall be taking with me will be Your Ancient See Through by Hoa Nguyen and Clean and Well Lit by Tom Raworth.

In the meantime, U.S. readers should participate in the Dialect Survey. It consists of 122 questions concerning vocabulary, pronunciation and usage, every one of which is worth pondering. I am of course reminded of the linguistic geography of the United States that Jack Spicer worked on some 40 years ago. This survey, I suspect, is a descendant of that research.

Contemplating for a moment Question 103 –

103. What do you call the thing from which you might drink water in a school?
a) bubbler
b) water bubbler
c) drinking fountain
d) water fountain
e) other:    

I’m reminded that Rochelle Nameroff identifies “bubbler” as an aspect of the language of her native city, Milwaukee. It is, as she likes to put it, “’M'waukee talk.”

Which, in turn, leads me to Boontling, the most radical of regional American dialects. Boontling, short for Boont lingo, Boont standing for Boonville, a town in the Anderson Valley of Northern California, roughly two-thirds of the distance north from San Francisco on the way to Mendocino. Quite isolated in the 19th century, the teenagers in Boonville, Philo and Anderson developed a code some time around 1890 that enabled them to talk salaciously in the general vicinity of the elders without invoking censorship or retribution. But of course the teenagers all became adults and in that region during that period, relatively few of them left for the wide world and just as few newcomers moved into the community, so by, say, World War I, boontling had become the daily discursive mode of the region. Boontling held reasonably contained and coherent until after the Second World War when first radio and then television finally reached the valley. Now the only speakers left apparently are adults who learned it from their grandparents. Sometimes you will see a Boontling speaker at a folk festival, telling a familiar tale in that all but impenetrable variation of English.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Boonville, but even in the 1980s, pay telephone booths were labeled Buck Walter (literally: nickel phone). Charles Adams wrote a most useful volume, Boontling: An American Lingo, with a dictionary of Boontling that the University of Texas press published in 1971. The dictionary alone is over 100 pages long. Copies can be found through, though the hardback prices strike me as a little pricey. Most of the websites on the topic are pretty limited. The one link I gave above comes from a regional brewery site, but it’s the best short introduction I’ve encountered.

Monday, October 14, 2002

Vocabulary fascinates me. Individual writers often have very distinct styles that are identifiable entirely through the words they choose. Often working in longer lined forms that provide a maximum of freedom & context for the specificity of his selections, Forrest Gander unleashes his expansive vocabulary with a deep love for the sheer clutter of the polysyllabic:

       The solid given upward, hemorrhaging into air, the vista
tinged Merthiolate and twisted

Or, elsewhere in Science & Steepleflower, (New Directions, 1998) “The land arborescing,” a verb Gander has employed on multiple occasions, more I suspect than any of the rest of us could say. Gander has a naturalist’s bias toward a vocabulary not only of exacting detail, but with an ear turned towards that heritage of lush Latinisms lurking & available for a given depiction. If I read Ken Irby for his inexhaustible ear, the absolute pleasure it affords, I do Gander likewise for his word choices. They seem fabulous, in every sense of that term.

A second poet with an exact sense of which words to use and why is H.D. In her work, each word stands walled, a brick:

Think, O my soul,
of the red sand of
think of the earth; the heat
burnt fissures like the great
backs of the temple serpents;
think of the world you knew;
as the tide crept, the land
burned with a lizard-blue
where the dark sea met the sand.

In this first strophe of the poem “Phaedra,” all but four words of its fifty are built with but one sound. The four with two are placed with great care. Not one term has three or more sounds – it would push out of the line like a shock to discover one. No clutter here. But that is H.D. to the max. Count the sounds per line: 4-6-6-6-7-6-6-6-7. H.D. loved that great clean sense to her work, perhaps even too much.

Sunday, October 13, 2002

I’ve made caustic comments here about a few poets whom I’ve associated with the tradition I’ve characterized (to borrow from Edgar Allan Poe) as the school of quietude, that tendency within American letters that envisions poetry in the United States as continuous with (& mostly derivative from) verse in the British Isles, and especially from the most conservative elements there. So the question naturally arises: are there conservative poets whose work I genuinely like?

The answer is yes. I think Hart Crane’s The Bridge a master work of American poetry. There are aspects of Wallace Stevens work that I like, even though he suffers from being so overrated by his advocates. Ditto the early Eliot, though the canonization process is not nearly what it was when I was in college, mercifully. I’ve been reading Jack Gilbert and Robert Hass with interest & even passion for over 30 years*, have always thought Berryman’s Dream Songs, Plath’s Ariel, John Logan’s Zigzag Walk and even Merwin’s The Lice admirable. There are elements in Robert Lowell’s best writing that suggest that he had the potential to have been another Frank O’Hara had he not been so horrifically dysfunctional, aesthetically as well as emotionally. Alan Dugan is a guilty pleasure. And Wendell Berry is a poet for whom the term conservative should be understood literally, in the very best sense. The values he espouses in his poetry & life seem to me to fit together seamlessly. So when I come down harshly on a poet such as Richard Wakefield, it’s because he writes so ineffectively: his sense of metrics could only be characterized as plodding and bungled.

On my desk is a manuscript for a book entitled Calendars by Annie Finch that Tupelo Press will be printing sometime soon. It’s a marvelous manuscript by a poet who could easily be taken for one of the New Formalists, in the Timothy Steele vein, but who is also, I would argue, a formalist in the tradition, say, of Bernadette Mayer & Lee Ann Brown. Which is to say: she gets it. Her commitment is to the language, even as the strategies she deploys are most often taken from oldest playbook there is. At times, as in the poem “Moon,” her work reminds me of H.D.’s sense of timing, so very deliberate & ordered:

Then are you the dense everywhere that moves,
the dark matter they haven’t yet walked through?

(No, I’m not, I’m just the shining sun,
sometimes covered up by the darkness.)

But in your beauty – yes, I know you see –
There is no covering, no constant light.
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That supplemental yes in the last couplet, the fact that the final syllable in each line articulates a phonemic openness, except for the last, even the use of the capital letter at the start of the final line (but not in the final line of the other stanzas), all demonstrate a control over the materials at hand that is extraordinary. That yes functions as though it were a sigh, modulating & redirecting  the timing of the work away from dialog & toward conclusion. It’s a device that I’ve often been suspicious of – Josephine Miles, another traditionalist whose work I take seriously, too often incorporated such asides just to even out meter or complete an end-rhyme. Finch uses it here to halt the flow of the text, to gather the language up into an expression of breath. It is no accident that every word in that aside uses exactly one syllable** or that there are no hard consonants there – the only moment in this six-line text where either of these conditions applies. I love it when someone can demonstrate such mastery in such a compact terrain.

I want to quote one other short poem here, my favorite, because of the way in which it blends an over-the-top sense of language’s lushness with a tone so soft it all but whispers. It’s called “Butterfly Lullaby.”

My wild indigo dusky wing
my mottled, broad-wing skipper,
a sleepy, dreamy dusty wing,
flying through my night.

My northern, southern, cloudy wing,
my spring azure, my crescent pearl,
a silver-spotted, sweet question mark,
sleeping in my sky.

A tiger swallowtail, harvester,
moving through my hours,
an eyed brown in the redwing dark,
wrapped softly in my words.

We haven’t had a poet so capable of combining control & excess since the young Robert Duncan.

* I have a theory that Jack’s animated & public distaste for langpo has to do with the fact that he himself, were he younger, would have been one. This is, after all, the man who once wrote (quoting from memory here): “Helot for what time there is in the baptist hegemony of death.”

** Shades again of H.D. and even of Lew Welch.