Saturday, October 26, 2002

Narrative Drive would make a good name for one of those winding streets up in the hills around Los Angeles. But for post-avant writing, it’s a conundrum. Jena Osman proposes the category in her poem “Starred Together.” I think it’s definitely worth exploring.

Kevin Davies writes:

The blog asks if the narrative drive that Jena proposes is related to eros or the death drive or what. I don't know either. But last week I was reading a book by the classicist Yun Lee Too. Socrates, in Plato's Symposium, recounts a speech by the prophetess Diotima. Her story is about the birth of Eros:

At the divine [drinking] party the deity Penia (whose name means "poverty" or "lack") enters uninvited to find Poros (whose name means "resource" or "plenty") lying in a drunken stupor. Contriving to remedy her condition as lack, Penia sleeps with the god of plenty and conceives and begets Eros, the supernatural being (daimon) who partakes of both his parents' natures. . . . Eros is accordingly a being of middles and in-betweens. He is neither god nor mortal, but a daimon who moves between the immortal and mortal spheres. . . . He is neither simply good and beautiful, nor for that matter base and ugly, but something between these extremes. Daimonic Eros is poor . . . squalid, unshod, and homeless. But in relation to others, he is resourceful, providing counsel to good and beautiful people. He is brave, a clever hunter, a weaver of tricks, a practitioner of philosophy, a clever sorcerer, and a sophist.* (66)

Death drive? For Lacan = Antigone. Eros and Antigone? In a tree? The combination of barefoot in-betweeness and steely-eyed, suicidal refusal of Creon's tyranny? Not sure it's a drive. Definitely a story.

I searched around on the Net for references to narrative drive but could find nothing that spoke of it in terms of psychological drives.  Most of what I found has to do with plot fluidity, dramatic construction or character motivation in fiction or cinema, mostly used in a judgmental fashion:

But whereas Distant Voices, Still Lives had at least the central conflict between the abusive father and his long-suffering wife and children to sustain audience interest, The Long Day Closes lacked even the rudiments of any narrative drive. The result was self-indulgent and tedious, as well as a critical and commercial failure.**

Where it does show up constructively from time to time is on creative writing “how-to” sites & ancillaries thereof. Thus Literary & Script Consultants offer, as one aspect of their screenplay analysis service, a critique that includes this category:

STORY: Plot, sub-plots, and story dynamics - story holes - narrative drive, logic, and focus - momentum - pace - theme -   subject matter - freshness - narrative and dramatic power

In an interview I found on Borzoi Reader Online, suspense novelist James Ellroy claims:

Language, style, narrative drive and characterization are a novelist's basic tools; they must always be deployed to the limits of their power.

But even in this frame of reference, nobody seems to define it.

But if narrative drive is a category without definition even in the best of circumstances – a James Ellroy novel– what does it mean to apply the concept to Bruce Andrews or Clark Coolidge or Lee Ann Brown? What, literally, motivates the eye – & the mind behind the eye – left to right along the line & down again until the page itself has been consumed? To use the category I borrowed from cognitive linguistics in The New Sentence, the Parsimony Principle, doesn’t seem adequate either. The Parsimony Principle may well explain how the reading mind invariably will make sense even from a phrase such as Wittgenstein’s “milk me sugar”***, but it doesn’t speak to the problem of why the mind joins words in the first place, moves through them, carries on.

What, I ask, is that about?

*Too, Yun Lee. The Pedagogical Contract: The Economies of Teaching and Learning in the Ancient World. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

** Drowning in Style: Terence Davies Smothers Another Story, by Caveh Zahedi, at TheStranger.Com.

*** Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: MacMillan, 1953):

498.         When I say that the orders “Bring me sugar” and “Bring me milk” make sense, but not the combination “Milk me sugar”, that does not mean that the utterance of this combination of words has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don’t on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect I wanted to produce.

But this phrase can be entirely meaningful in a sexual context – one can hear it as a line from a rap song without much difficulty. & that interpretation is even more evident in the German where the capitalization of nouns – “Milch mir Zucker” – insinuates at one level that Sugar is a nickname. Thanks to Alex Young for bringing this passage to my attention (even though he was trying to debunk my “reading” of Bruce Andrews!).

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Friday, October 25, 2002

Philadelphia Progressive Poetry Calendar
Version 1.1

Updates, this version: times & details on readings by Erica Hunt, Norma Cole, Eileen Myles, Rachel Blau DuPlessis.


27, Sunday, 3: Singing Horse Press presents *Poet-Publishers Take the Stage* -- readings by Rosmarie Waldrop (*Split Infinites*), Lewis Warsh (*Touch of the Whip*), and Chris McCreary (*The Effacements*) at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street. $10, $5 for members. Visit or call 215-925-9914 for more information.

30, Wednesday, 7 PM (eastern time) A reading and conversation with CARL RAKOSI via live audiocast. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT or see the special website:


6, Wednesday, 5:00: John Norton, author of an experimental novella Re: Marriage (San Francisco: Black Star Series) was published in 2000. A book of prose poems and sketches The Light at the End of the Bog (San Francisco: Black Star Series, 1989, 1992) won an American Book Award. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

7, Thursday, 7:30: Award-winning poets and fiction writers Michael Ondaatje (*The English Patient*, *Anil's Ghost*, *Running in the Family*, *In the Skin of the Lion*, *The Cinnamon Peeler*, *Handwriting*) and Fanny Howe (*Selected Poems*, *One Crossed Out*, *The End*, *Nod*, *Indivible*, *Robeson Street). Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center, 2nd & Cooper Streets, Camden NJ, 1-856-964-8300 or $6; $4 to students and seniors; free to members.

12, Tuesday, 5:00: Forrest Gander, the author of five poetry books, including Torn Awake and Science & Steepleflower, both from New Directions. He is the editor of Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women and the translator, most recently, of No Shelter: Selected Poems of Pura Lopez Colome and (with Kent Johnson) Immanent Visitor: The Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

13, Wednesday, 7:30: "Not To Be: Poetical Parody, Mock-Ups, & Outright Lies": the Rosenbach Museum and Library sponsors "an evening of poetic riffs and rip-offs" in conjunction with their *Making Shakespeare* exhibition, including William Henry Ireland's infamous forgeries. This panel of poets, reading both historical parodies and their own more seriously allusive work, will feature Nathalie Anderson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Daisy Fried, Paul Muldoon, and Bob Perelman. Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008 DeLancey Place. For more information, call 215-732-1600, or see

14, Thursday, Nathaniel Tarn & Toby Olson, 6:00: Two veteran poets & authors who really need no introduction here. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

14, Thursday, 8: Pierre Joris (*Poasis: Selected Poems 1986-1999*, *4x1: Tzara, Rilke, Duprey & Tengour translated by Joris,* translotor of Celan, Picasso, Blanchot, Kerouac and Abdelwahab Meddeb, co-editor with Jerome Rothenberg of the two-volume *Poems for the Millennium* anthology, *Toward a Nomadic Poetics*), Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple University Center City, 1515 Market.

18, Monday, 7: George Economou & Rochelle Owens. Two of the younger poets associated with the New American poetry and around such journals as Caterpillar. Both have recently moved to Philadelphia. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT


3, Tuesday, 6:30: Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Among her books are Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan, 2001), part of her long poem project, and Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (Cambridge, 2001). She is also the author of Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985), H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (1986), both from Indiana University Press, and The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Routledge, 1990), a book of experimental essays. She is the editor of The Selected Letters of George Oppen (Duke University Press, 1990), and the co-editor of three anthologies: The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (Alabama, 1999), The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation (Three Rivers/Crown, 1998) and Signets: Reading H.D. (Wisconsin, 1990). Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

4, Wednesday, 2 events with Michael Ondaatje at Penn. 1:00 PM: Lunch with author Michael Ondaatje sponsored by Women's Studies, and co-sponsored with the Kelly Writers House. RSVP to  4:30 PM: Michael Ondaatje will read at a Penn location TBA, sponsored by Women's Studies.

9, Monday, 6:30 – 8:30 PM. Celebration of the 2002 Pew Fellows in the Arts. Includes poets Rachel Blau, DuPlessis; Mytili Jagannathan; Teresa Leo; & Trapeta B. Mayson; plus performance & visual artists: Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Dan Rothenberg, and Dito Van Reigersberg; Candy Depew; Lonnie Graham; Whit MacLaughlin; Caden Manson; Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips; and Mark Shetabi. Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. For information, write or call 215-875-2285.


30, Thursday, 8 PM, Erica Hunt. Author of Arcade and Local History. Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.


20, Thursday, 8 PM. Eileen Myles, poet, novelist, former presidential candidate, author of Chelsea Girls, Skies, Not Me & other books, reads in the Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.

26, Wednesday, 4:30 PM: The Poet & Painters series presents poet Ron Padgett. Cosponsered with the Graduate School of Fine Arts and the Creative Writing Program. Padgett is also the author of New & Selected Poems (David R. Godine, 1995), The Big Something (1990), Triangles in the Afternoon (1979), Great Balls of Fire (1969), and other collections. Two new volumes are forthcoming: Poems I Guess I Wrote and You Never Know. ). Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

27, Thursday, Time TBA, Norma Cole, poet & translator, author of Mace Hill Remap, Moira, Mars, will present “The Transparency Machine” at Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

27, Thursday, 8 PM, Norma Cole will read in the Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.


27, Thursday, 8: Symposium on Blues, Jazz, and American Literature, with Pew Fellows Sonia Sanchez (so many books, including *Does Your House Have Lions?* and *Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems*) and Major Jackson (*Leaving Saturn*), with critics Robert O'Meally (Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, editor of the anthology *The Jazz Cadence of American Culture*, biographer of Billie Holiday etc) and Farah Griffin (*If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday*). Scheuer Room Kohlberg Hall, Swarthmore College. For further information, contact Peter Schmidt at


8, Tuesday, 7:30: Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott (*Omeros*, *Tiepolo's Hound*, *The Bounty*, *The Odyssey: A Stage Version*, *What the Twilight Says*), in a reading sponsored by the Marianne Moore Fund for the Study of Poetry, Thomas Great Hall, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. For further information, contact Helene Studdy at the Bryn Mawr College Office for the Arts, 610-526-5210.


Thursday, October 24, 2002

Contrasted with the CD that comes with the Short Fuse anthology, Arundo’s Triumph of the Damned and Edwin Torres’ Please present divergent alternatives.

Arundo consists of Actualist poet, G.P. Skratz and multi-instrumentalist Andy Dinsmoor. Skratz sent me Triumph to convince me that he was more than merely popping “up in print from time to time” as I had suggested in a “where are they now” discussion of Actualism. Given its 1999 production date and homegrown packaging features – photocopied cover, the CD’s title posted on a TDR CD-R disc via a mailing label – I’m not certain that I’m dissuaded of the “from time to time” periodicity. But there is more than print to Skratz alright. Triumph falls into the poems set to a musical accompaniment vein, akin perhaps to Dwayne Morgan’s use of bongos on the Short Fuse CD, or the work there of Bob Holman, never quite going so far into song as Michele Morgan’s jazz vocals. Dinsmoor ranges between guitar, recorder, sitar & tabla, with Skratz coming in on a couple of tracks on tamboura and two members of The Serfs, Ed Holmes & Bob Ernst, adding toy percussion, blues harp and a backup vocal on a couple of pieces. Save for one collaboration by Skratz with the late Darrell Gray and a translation from the poetry Hans Arp, the words – the back cover is careful not to call them either lyrics or text – are all Skratz.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Triumph – nothing here strives to be a breakthrough – but it is just too enjoyable for that. These pieces for the most part work quite well. Skratz’ droll wit rolls softly over the soft raga backgrounds offered by Dinsmoor. Only the final piece on the CD, the blues rock “Doorwayman,” comes across as more energetic than arranged. A couple of the pieces seem too similar lyrically – “Banana Ghazal’s” anomalous use of guitar & “Banjo’s” equally anomalous use of traditional Indian instruments don’t really paper over the redundant strategies of the poems – but as a whole, this is an excellent way to take in Skratz’ poetry, including his work as both collaborator & translator.

Please is an ambitious multimedia CD, one of three issued thus far by Faux Press (the others are Wanda Phipps’ Zither Mood & Peter Ganick’s tend. field). You put it into your PC, not your CD player. Once you go past the opening screen (with its own text, a much longer voiceover by Gina Bonati & title graphics), you arrive at an ideogram with links in each of its strokes. Depending on where you click, you will be led to one of five series of poems (“City,” “Boy,” “Remote,” Time,” and “Love”), a play in twelve parts (plus a prologue & epilogue) or section entitled “Media” that contains documentation of eight Torres performances plus his bio.

Each section of the CD, each set of poems, the play & “Media,” has an opening screen, a logo with its own set of links. Each set of poems as well as the media section also begins with a voiced over text read by Bonati. For the play, we get a little bit of music in a truncated marching band vein. Most though not all of the poems seem to have their own sound tracks, a few of which can be seen as readings of the text. If Alicia Sometimes’ music seemed to play against, rather than with, her own text on the Soft Fuse CD, Torres actively explores the entire range of push-pull juxtapositions between sound and written language. Often these are quite wonderful. Always, they’re playful & optimistic, qualities totally consistent with Torres’ poetry. As writing, Please is at a higher level, or perhaps at a high level with greater consistency, than any of the other CDs I’ve considered on the this. It’s a shame that there isn’t a collection gathered in a liner-note booklet – as a book’s worth of work, they’re more straightforward pieces than the typographic extravaganzas of his big Roof collection, The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker: the texts work just fine on the screen even with the PC speakers shut down.

Like almost any web- or screen-centric work, Please invites bouncing around from link to link – while there is an order, the project seems set up to undermine it. One doesn’t so much read as browse, homo ludens in total evidence. Overall, though, it can be as engrossing as any front-to-back text imaginable. In fact, the one piece that doesn’t fully work on the CD is the play, precisely because it requires the participant to go sequentially.

There is an old rule of thumb with technology, one that I first learned watching Jackson Mac Low struggle with tape machines some 30 years ago: something always goes wrong. There are inevitably a few “gotchas” on the CD – the apostrophe often shows up as an umlauted capital O, there is at least one link that doesn’t go anywhere, opening a dialog box in vain search of a missing file on the CD. & the images are consistently too small throughout (a consequence of another of my rules of thumb: QuickTime sucks). But these are nits when taken in the context of the total project.

Overall Please pleases. It demonstrates the gazillion different ways Edwin Torres’ poetry (& mind) can move simultaneously, always interesting, always in the ballpark with something of value to add. He’s one of our great talents & we’re lucky to have every manifestation we can get of his work.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Happy Halloween: Trick or treat.


Write about performance poetry and very quickly you will find yourself the possessor of a flurry of CDs that relate variously to this side of writing. In the past week, I’ve received the CD that accompanies Short Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry, a brand new multimedia CD from Edwin Torres entitled Please, put out by Jack Kimball’s Faux Press, and a slightly older audio CD, Triumph of the Damned, by Arundo, which consists of Actualist impresario G.P. Skratz and instrumentalist Andy Dinsmoor (not to be confused with the Arundo Clarinet Quartet).

The CD that accompanies Short Fuse is, in some ways, the very best part of this complex & ambitious project*, offering 76:02 minutes of work on the part of 34 contributors, ranging from Emily XYZ to Billy Collins, Edwin Torres to Glyn Maxwell. With Bob Holman, Ian Ferrier, Fortner Anderson, Charles Bernstein, Willie Perdomo, Richard Peabody, Lucy English, Mat Fraser, Tug Dumbly, Ulli K. Ryder, Michele Morgan, Guillermo Castro, Dawna Rae Hicks, Barbara Decesare, Heather Hermant, Alicia Sometimes, Sandra Thibodeux, Rob Gee, Regie Cabico, Todd Colby, Corey Frost, Todd Swift’s Swifty Lazarus, Kim Houghton, Robin Davidson, Irene Suico Soriano, Peter Finch, Dwayne Morgan, Patrick Chapman, Ryk McIntyre & Ian McBryde’s The Still Company, this disc presents these oral/aural poets in their best light and hints of the extraordinary richness to be found throughout the Short Fuse project. As a whole, the CD is great fun & hangs together remarkably well given how diverse this collection of writers prove to be.

Trying to sort through this cornucopia is an interesting project in itself. Twelve of the poets here use music in the presentation of their work, ranging from mere background accompaniment (Alicia Sometimes, Dwayne Morgan, Bob Holman) to complex productions that transform their poems into something like the role normally reserved for song lyrics (Edwin Torres, Michele Morgan, Ian Ferrier). This latter strategy in particular raises once again the issues of performance on the page versus aurally that I’ve discussed previously. There is, I promise, almost no way for even the most inventive & flamboyant reader to translate this passage by Edwin Torres from the page with even a fraction of the flair that the poet’s own Latin-flavored performance offers:

Peesacho, NO macho
Much cha-cha? NO mucho, P-sycho NOT cha-cha / cha-CHA
is the HER with the HAIR of hay hay
in the HAIR not the HER is the HEART
of PeeSAAAAAAAcho...

Torres starts off the CD and gives it the feeling of any pop music disc, leading with its hit single. “Peesacho” is an extraordinary piece, the single best recording I’ve heard yet of Torres’ own work**.

In fact, all of the pieces on the CD that have the greatest impact use music: Torres’ “Peesacho,” XYZ’s Arabic ode to an al-Qaeda pilot, Bob Holman’s wry & ironic monolog, Michele Morgan’s jazz performance of a poem that can be heard as a high-style homage to Beat poetry, or Ian Ferrier’s piece, with its chorus right out of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline period. Had the CD focused only on works that utilized music, Short Fuse might have set off a revolution in poetic song, because the overall quality of these best works is startling. The musical pieces are what ultimately holds this disc together.

The two dozen texts that are unaugmented by music can themselves be divided into somewhat overlapping groups: straight readings of straight poems, recordings of live readings, one piece by Charles Bernstein obviously chosen for its jabberwocky. Many of these pieces simply document the poet’s reading of the text and some, such as Guillermo Castro’s “A Deli on First Avenue,” do so quite well.

I’ve argued that stand-up comedy is a major formal referent for the spoken word movement and there are seven clear examples on the CD: Rob Gee’s unaccompanied theme song for “Viagra,” Corey Frost’s shtick, Regie Cabico’s sexual assessment of the Dawson Creek cast, Barbara Decesare’s vicious impression of a nagging mother, Robin Davidson’s terrorism nursery rhymes, Alicia Sometime’s funny song of a man’s love for the female (I can’t say more without giving away the punchline, literally), and Lucy English’s explanation of why she wants to be in “The Company of Poets.” Only Gee’s would stand a chance at a competition in a comedy club.

Alicia Sometimes’ piece, which uses music, does so in a way that has no intelligible relation to the content of her poem, referring as the text does to a musical instrument. It’s one of three works on the CD that comes off in ways that seem to be at odds with the poet’s original intent, suggesting a level of risk in this kind of production. The other two such works are both by poets not normally associated with slam poetics, but who stand revealed when placed into such a context. Billy Collins’ poem “Love” comes across very much like a Daniel Pinkwater essay for NPR radio, but less insightful, less well written, not so funny & with a cloying last image that is to cringe for. Even more pronounced in the unintentional humor vein is Glyn Maxwell’s “The Stones in Their Array,” which explains why stones are special in precisely the same kind of terms that TV’s Mr. Rodgers used to explain that you were special. It’s a howler and anybody who confuses Maxwell with a serious writer should be forced to listen to this.

* It’s interesting to note that the CD was edited by Rattapallax editor Ram Devineni, and not by Phil Norton or Todd Swift, who edited the paperback and e-book. All Rattapallax books are accompanied by CDs.

** Including his own CD, Please, which I’ll examine in more depth tomorrow.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Of all of writing’s illusive qualities, none invokes more magic – at least in the sense of requiring a leap of imagination that transcends all immediate physical evidence – than does depiction. It was a dark and stormy night. You looked into my eyes. Inside his vest, the bomb exploded, shrapnel, blood, bone and flesh spewing about the plaza. The apple rested on the table, next to the wooden mallard. All of the homilies put forth by various library and publishing trade groups as to the ability of literature to “transport the reader” to new & unimagined places are predicated upon this capacity of language not merely to refer to a world of objects, but to do so in a manner that is socially internalized (learned behavior) as an equivalent for the process & experience of sight.

If sight would be language’s privileged sense, it has also been a dimension hotly disputed. It was Zukofsky’s thesis in Bottom: On Shakespeare that the Bard of Avon was responsible for the deep cultural linkage between the two:
Writing after Shakespeare few remembered: eyes involve a void; eyes also avoid the abstruse beyond their focus. Today the literary theologian reads Shakespeare and oversees his own spruce theology. There is also the latest derivative verbalism after Shakespeare’s savage characters – forgetting while it curses others’ intellect, in behalf of eyes, that the curse has become the feigning eye of the black dog intellect. Clotens and Calibans, Shakespeare’s tragic theme that love should see flows around their words and shows them all the more their sightless tune which does not find its rests so as to draw breath or sequence.
Note that “rests” is plural.

Today, there exists one literature on the gaze, that penetrating look that entangles desire with power, another on the spectacle, on all the roles of reification. & from Stein onward, a new literature of opacity, of the immanence of the signifier, has offered an alternative vision.*

“Starred Together” is a three paragraph prose poem by Jena Osman that looks intently at the process of looking & the concomitant phenomena of perspective & point of view. The position it stakes out is unique & worth examining. That it stakes out a position is itself noteworthy. Osman, as with her Chain co-founder Juliana Spahr, is a writer intensely concerned with a poetry that has a critical function & edge, the sort of text most likely to bring out snarling from “black dog intellect” intent on saving poetry for the feigned purity of uncritical emotion.

But it is the role of the person that is in fact at stake. The poem telegraphs the core of its concerns in a terrifically condensed first sentence: “A glance hits an object or person and pins it down like a star.” This sentence itself could be taken as a model for the poem, as so many of the larger text’s devices and strategies are employed simultaneously here. The most obvious is a Brechtian device that I want to be especially careful in discussing, as it’s just the sort of thing that a “dog intellect” would be most apt to misconstrue, perhaps even willfully. Let’s call this device depersonification. The agent or noun phrase that is the literal subject of this sentence, “A glance,” has been removed from any human (or otherwise sentient) context, abstracted precisely so that it can be examined as a process without our being distracted in the most literal sense by some charming (or not) foible-ridden setting, the person. The implicit question – who glances? – is not answered because it is exactly not the point. The verb, or rather the first verb, is notable for its implicit violence – “hits.” Now one finds the person tucked into the conjunction that is the object of the sentence: “an object or person.” It is no accident which item comes first in that pairing. After the conjunction comes the send verb phrase, “pins it down,” one that will invoke butterfly collecting for some readers, wrestling for some and target practice for others. The final analogy, however, is completely unpredictable given what has come before: “like a star.”

Like a star. Incongruous as the phrase is in the context of the first sentence, it returns us to both the title and to the Cecilia Vicuña epigraph:

A constellation of darkness
another of light

A gesture to be completed
by light

Light is what enables sight to be embodied. In this poem, Osman will use the stars as light, as constellations, as mapping tool and as repository of human narrative. She will write, near the very end of “Starred Together,” “When you look at a constellation, you draw the points together with your own lines.” But the problem of the poem is that, as the second sentence states, “The actual moves.” Between these two poles, Osman brings in other tropes: cinema, homelessness. The poem constantly constructs the possibility of seeing only to undercut via another perspective already inherent in what has been laid out.

The result is a remarkable text, remarkable in part for its sheer density – Osman can get more complexity into two pages than most poets get into 20. Reading it, I find two aspects that push my own thinking further than it has previously gone. First is a concept for which Osman makes claims:

The narrative drive is what clings to the actual moves; the narrative drive persists through the fragmentation in which seeing occurs.
The narrative drive is a concept that invokes psychology, but not one that I personally recognize from that field. If accorded the status of a drive, narrative in this sense of joining elements together to create coherence is much more  (or perhaps much deeper) than the parsimony principle of cognitive linguistics. Is it eros, the death wish, some combination? I’m not certain, but the way Osman puts the concept out there in this poem makes me want to mull it over in more depth than I have done before.

The second aspect is Osman’s strategy, implicit but clear enough even in the first sentence of the work, of deliberately avoiding any personification of the text. The word “I” never occurs, replaced most often by “you” and occasionally “we.” In fact, the only instance in the text in which we do “hear” the narrator function self-reflexively, it’s in both quotation marks and French: “’Voyeur? C’est Moi!’”

Here Osman is working through the problem of sight, the gaze and that mutual penetration that is recognition, but recognition in the Althusserian sense of ideology**. That last sentence I quoted about “drawing the points with your own lines,”***  leads directly to the end of the poem:

But when someone catches your eye in a direct grip, there are no more stars. You might shake your hands at the sky as the light crashes in, we’re pinning you down. You might shake your head to clear it, then step inside.   
“Starred Together” refuses to escape the problem of Others. It’s a testament to Osman’s integrity, that the poem doesn’t evade the problem. Nor does it offer us a way out, easy or otherwise. “Inside” is exactly not a solution. The word “Together” in the title is not there by accident.

I suspect that Osman’s intellectual integrity on this question of the person is part of what creeps out Seattle Times reviewer Richard Wakefield. Characterizing “Starred Together” as “a belabored amalgam of clichéd ideas and limp prose,” Wakefield quotes the first four sentences of the poem, including “While sitting in the box, images from a window are stolen from the street.” He comments:

She doesn't, apparently, have the taste to delete an excruciating line like that last one: What is "sitting in the box"? Her grammar seems to say it is "images," but how can they be "stolen from the street" WHILE "sitting in the box"?
Osman’s poem is hardly “limp prose,” though Wakefield’s phallic trope is worth noting. Working through the problems of representation within ontology could only be seen as “clichéd ideas” to someone for whom the idea itself is off limits. In addition, the objectification of interiority (housing, rooms, theaters, “the box” – Osman seems to omit only Plato’s cave) is hardly the readerly conundrum that Wakefield pretends it to be. The idea that Wakefield cannot understand how images can be “stolen from the street” – let alone recognize how delightful its play on scale is – suggests that he will find “The perversion of your own observation,” the reference to voyeurism, & “the corruption of your own detached look” later in the poem equally opaque.

It is true that “Starred Together” may confound the willfully illiterate reader, so there is a perverse poetic justice in Wakefield selecting it to demonstrate “why there are so few poems here … (in The Best American Poetry, 2002) that are even readable.” The poem is focused right on the problems of taking responsibility for the pragmatics of reference. Blaming the poems displays Wakefield’s position well enough.

Part of me wants to take Wakefield to task for such critical malpractice. But another part would love to understand what it must mean to live inside a worldview that could come to these conclusions, finding complexity more or less the way the Amish do electricity, as though it were something unintelligible & threatening.  To claim that such work is unreadable is to concede that you cannot read it. Some of the contributors of the writers in this “unreadable” collection include Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Charles Bernstein, Anselm Berrigan, Tom Clark, Clark Coolidge, Diane Di Prima, Ted Enslin, Elaine Equi, Clayton Eshleman, Ben Friedlander, Gene Frumkin, Forrest Gander & Peter Gizzi, just to pick from the top of its alphabet.+ So what is Wakefield saying? If you take him at his word, here is a professor of literature who also is the poetry reviewer for a major American daily newspaper who proclaims in print his own inability to read. His sad situation invokes the very issues that Osman’s poem addresses.

* My own essay, “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” in The New Sentence can be read as a contribution to the history of this debate.

** Tho Shakespeare might call it love.

*** I can imagine another reading of this work in which I would push much harder on the idea of one’s “own lines,” given my own sense of how helpless most of us prove to be in the context of our socio-historical positioning.

+ Truth in advertising: I’m also a contributor.

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Monday, October 21, 2002

I have mentioned Chain on several occasions on this blog, for good reason – it is the premier hard copy poetry journal of the day. My first piece on September 11 touched a nerve in a way that hopefully has been productive. Co-founder Juliana Spahr responded to it on the 14th of September. Jena Osman, the other co-founder, used the occasion of the First Festival of Literary Magazines in New York to respond to these issues. Here is her talk:

As a poet I have long been interested in chance occurrences, in unpredictable sense created by different languages meeting inside of a page-bound framework.  My work has been informed by theater, in the way that language performs in various contexts, in the relation of spectator to stage and reader to page. I experiment with the collision of narrative and anti-narrative strategies and take notice of the various registers of attention that we bring to what’s before us.

I met Juliana while I was a grad student at SUNY Buffalo. Some other younger poets in town when I arrived included Peter Gizzi, Lew Daly, Pam Rehm and Liz Willis. We all had quite various concerns, and I was interested in finding a way to create a conversation through our work. At the end of my first year, I organized an experiment called The Lab Book where eight of us wrote poems and then each of us wrote responses to the poems written by the other seven. The book that resulted began with a poem, followed by the seven responses, then another poem, followed by seven responses, etc. I was interested in the idea of writing as reading and reading as writing in perpetual exchange.

Such forms of exchange and investigation are crucial to my process as a writer.

A couple of years later (in 1993), Juliana and I decided to start a magazine. I don’t remember the exact moment when we made this decision, but we knew it was possible, there was a beautifully simple access to funds, and we went ahead with it. For me, the idea behind the first issue was something of an outgrowth of the conversation begun in the lab-book experiment in that the structure allowed for a diversity of content. As we said in the introduction to the first issue, we weren’t interested in making a journal where the editor was “objective talent scout” controlling the content; instead, we were interested in providing a forum for conversation, where we couldn’t predict what would happen when the various pieces were placed side by side.

Such uses of procedural form are important to my process as a writer.

In the introduction to the first issue of Chain we said “It is ironic that in order for dialogue to take place, conversational limits must be set.” And so for each issue there is a limit—a special topic—around which a large number of writers and artists gather. Sometimes the gathering is cacophonous, sometimes eerily synchronous. In my opinion, it’s often a source of delight and surprise. No matter how much time I spend with the contents—reading, selecting, typesetting, proofreading—I never have a real sense of what the issue is until it arrives from the printer, bound between its covers. And even then I can never know it completely because it changes every time I sit down to read it.

This is often the way I feel about my poems.

Each of the limits/special topics of the magazine come out of concerns that Juliana and I are thoroughly engaged with in our own work: documentary poetics, hybrid genres, procedural writing, visual poetics, different languages, subverting/converting memoir form, performative forms, etc. Because we both actively investigate the relation of forms of life (aesthetic, biological, cultural) to forms of writing, these organizing structures make sense to us. The work we publish feeds us, further informs us about these areas we’re already in. In many ways the journal is an investigation into what we want to know, an attempt to find some answers to questions we have.

There are certain pieces that we’ve published that continue to haunt my own writing. Looking back at past issues, I’m amazed at how many have crept into my aesthetic consciousness and stayed there.

In a recent web-log entry, Ron Silliman critiqued Chain for its policy of organizing authors alphabetically, rather than structuring the book as a kind of narrative that could properly honor its writers. He suggests that because of Chain’s inclusivity, it lacks influence on the literary landscape—the birth of future poets—and that the overall effect of the journal is one of muteness rather than speech. He suggests that accident caused by alphabetic chance is perhaps of less value than the deliberate and “heroic” arguments of past journals, and that unlike Origin (which was responsible for making Blackburn and Zukofsky major figures on the literary landscape), Black Mountain Review (responsible for Creeley and Duncan), Caterpillar (which brought Antin, Rothenberg, Mac Low, Kelly, Joris, Palmer and Bernstein onto the scene), Chain can not claim such strong parenting skills because, well, who can name its progeny?

My interest in hybrid genres is due in part to a disinterest in the perpetuation of linear heritage. Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over, provide much more appeal than following respectful and respected maps of canon-building. Conversation is not for canonical heroes. Can you really converse with an unproblematized construct? Or can you only listen?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed in Silliman’s list of heroic editorial gestures the lack of women’s names (although he did make a weak attempt to remedy it by claiming that the magazine However was responsible for bringing Lorine Niedecker back into the world (but why was she ever gone? and is that really what However is known for?).

Silliman is part of the Language Poetry movement that informs much of what I do as a writer. And what I take very seriously from the writings of the Language Poets is that there is a value to reader activism, to not simply consuming, but creating through the act of reading. And I bring this idea with me to the forms that I use when writing poetry or when editing Chain. Chain is not about “making” writers by publishing them in its pages (although its tables of contents list many writers—established and emerging—whom I believe to be of great significance). Chain is about providing a place for a reader to engage with an idea—to think, to argue, to write in response. In other words, it is putting the theory that informs my own writing as a poet into practice in an editorial forum. Rather than what Silliman has called “editorial muteness,” I believe that Chain invites an animated conversation between reader and text that is generative in its necessary unpredictability.

Which is also an invitation I hope my own poems deliver.

In closing I’ll quote once more from the introduction to the first issue of Chain, where it all began: “any printed text is a gesture toward conversation; it’s a presentation that invites response. We’re trying to create a forum that takes that invitation seriously, that is not just going through the motions of what it means to instigate response; it requires continuation.”

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Sunday, October 20, 2002

A third question posed by the new anthology Short Fuse has to do with the volume's underlying agenda. Its ambition can be gauged by the fact that Swift & Norton's intervention works in two directions simultaneously. First, the book attempts to situate oral and performance poetries, aligned in this particular case most closely to the slam & spoken word scene rather than to, say, sound poetry, well within the legitimated borders of text-based work, placed alongside neoformalism, langpo & McPoetry as an equal, not just something quaint done by wannabes at your local slam tavern. Secondly & most ambitiously, Short Fuse argues at least implicitly that oral poetries offer the "missing link" between contending traditions of verse. Thus Short Fuse offers to transcend the poetry wars by placing itself front & center.

Although Short Fuse is hardly the first anthology to suggest the breadth & diversity of oral & performance poetries, it succeeds at its first task. The book clearly demonstrates a phenomenon that is more global than any other tendency within English-language poetry & with a lot more pizzazz than some. 

But to succeed at the second, the performative poetries of Short Fuse would have to overcome some serious limitations. This version of oral poetry would have to become, for example, a genuine poetic tradition whose sense of long term historical memory consists of more than the occasional Robert Service / Vachel Lindsay imitation.*

Close to half of the work presented in this particular vision of oral poetries could be described as stand-up comedy routines transcribed for the page, some better, some not. Polysemy in such works is not only close to non-existent, it's often counterproductive, in that this is a poetry aimed toward an audience that doesn't identify as readers & which places at least as much value on agreement & titillation as it does on meaning. Still, multiple levels of signification are possible, as Guillermo Castro's wry, wonderful homage to Allen Ginsberg, "A Deli on First Avenue," demonstrates. But as a rule it's not evident that, in the context of performativity, richness in content advantages the text.

I think it’s important to note that Short Fuse as a project represents one possible step toward just such an increase in depth & this may be its major achievement. Oral poetries by their very nature tend to be local. If you don't see what, say, Edwin Torres  is doing, you have relatively little access &, by itself, a transcription on paper is seldom enough to suggest all the many layers that are potentially active when the poem itself is understood first of all as a score. At a party I attended for the anthology in the offices of CLMP, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, one Toronto poet told me how much she appreciated hearing the work from Montreal at a reading the previous evening at the New School. The two scenes, according to this poet, seldom communicate, even though both are involved in parallel activities within the same country. In bringing together so many like-minded writers from different regions and parts of the world, Swift & Norton may ultimately be taking the first steps toward the creation of a performance metalanguage, a shared vocabulary that would enable such writers to begin to build on what one another are doing elsewhere.

The absence of this vocabulary is a major weakness in many of the oral poetries gathered in Short Fuse. It explains, in part, why so much of this work falls back on the stand-up comedy routine as a formal framework from which to operate – it’s something to which all these poets and their audiences have been exposed. The lack of a metalanguage is precisely the problem that has kept conceptual art in a position of always having to start over from scratch with each new work, regardless the worker, regardless the scene. And the absence of a true sense of tradition, of historical memory, is itself as much a consequence of this lack of shared vocabulary as it is a cause. It is precisely this absence that an oral poetics must overcome if it is to become more than an adjunct to the text-based poetries of the day, interesting more as sociology than literature.

All of which is to say that I don't think that Short Fuse, the anthology, is going to change the world of letters, not now, not yet, but that by envisioning what such a project might look like, Todd Swift & Philip Norton have upped the ante for performance poets everywhere. That is a huge achievement. And one from which we all benefit, whatever our taste in poetry.

*If either editor has read, for example, Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, edited by Steve McCaffery and the late bp Nichol (Underwhich Editions, 1978) or The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language & Performance, edited by Stephen Vincent & Ellen Zweig (Momo’s Press, 1981), it’s not evident. The relative lack of sound poetry and Fluxus-inspired work in the anthology – Penn Kemp is the notable exception – keeps Short Fuse from being truly definitive as a gathering of oral poetics.

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