Saturday, December 14, 2002

Like George Stanley’s forthcoming selected poems, A Tall, Serious Girl, Besmilr Brigham’s selected short poems, Run Through Rock, derives its title from the final poem in the volume. The book has a spare, almost austere beauty to its design. The front cover is a color photograph printed in landscape format about two-thirds up the page, behind which runs a vertical band of gray that holds (above the photo) the book’s title and (below the photo) subtitle, author & editorial information. You can just barely discern that this pattern forms a cross. The photo itself is of a rock atop some exceptionally dry & tire gouged red clay earth – in the deep background, so soft focused as to be open to interpretation, are either clouds or hills underneath the deep blues of a storm sky.

The back cover presents the same pattern – the photo is now a color negative – as the front. Underneath the photo, printed in the grey column (that same subtle cross) are some lines from one of Brigham’s poems.

Run Through Rock is a careful, professional project in book design – its only flaws (& you will see that I’m reaching to find any) a couple of lines here & there that are ambiguously leaded, making it not quite clear whether or not a new stanza is upon us. As is equally evident with its 2000 reissue of Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Lost Roads has become one of the premier publishers of American poetry. Every attention to the detail of the book is taken & the eye to presentation is exact.

The cover of Battlefield uses black, white & red very carefully to achieve a message of visual power. An African-American male stares out from behind a black foreground that is shaped with just enough of an angle to suggest a book that has been opened (it may be a public monument of some sort). Atop this monument or book, which takes up a little more than the bottom half of the cover, just to the left (and to some degree in front of)  of the young man is a metallic ball, just slightly smaller than a basketball – if you pay close attention, you will see the photographer reflected in the ball, the background behind her – the photographer being Lost Roads publisher C.D. Wright’s sometime collaborator, Deborah Luster – suggesting a farm field.

Thrusting up from the bottom of the front cover – I’m choosing my words carefully here – is the same sort of column that appeared beneath the photo on the Brigham cover, with the author’s name dropped out in white toward the bottom and the book’s title above it as the column moves from black to a rich deep red.

The back cover has a small square photo centered roughly three-quarters up the page: two toddlers, Caucasian, playing with a slightly older African-American boy in some kind of camp setting – there is a tent in the background. The boy on the left, it turns out, is the author. The photograph is very much a retro snapshot, almost surreal in its fuzziness. It’s surrounded with a thick bright red border against the otherwise black field of the cover. Below, as with the Brigham volume, a few lines of poetry &, at the very bottom in a different type, the ISBN data.

As moving a graphic design as the cover of Battlefield is, it may be tame in comparison to the one printed on the 1977 first edition of the volume, back when Lost Roads was the name of a magazine – Battlefied was technically issues 7 through 12, all in one volume – and the publisher was then called Mill Mountain.

The books aren’t even the same size: the 1977 edition taking up 542 pages, the 2000 edition offering the same number of lines in just 383 pages. While the two volumes are different dimensions – the 1977 edition is more squat – the primary difference is that the earlier edition is typed & not typeset.

If the interior of the 1977 edition looks rough, it’s nothing in comparison to its cover – the same color ensemble as the 2000 edition, but used to radically different effect. The background is white, not black, the typeface all in lower case red – another way of emphasize the rawness of the book. And the photograph. Well, the photograph. Uncredited & perhaps lifted from a newspaper, it shows a stack of corpses half covered by a tarp, all Vietnamese women & children, their faces bloodied, eyes open seeing nothing. Cowering in the upper right hand corner of the photograph are two other women overcome with terror & grief. At the upper left, a single leg (foot pointed away from the bodies) to suggest a larger context – someone is still paying attention to something else. The verso says only “Photograph taken the last day of the war, Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon, April 29th, 1975.” Of the 4,000 volumes of avant & post-avant writing I have lying about the house, none – not even the Clay Fear collection of Kathy Acker imitations with the blow job on the cover – comes close to this one for its evocation of an involuntary visceral response.

Frank Stanford was still alive when the first edition of Battlefield was issued & it may even be his design – no credit is given. The cover of this edition foregrounds the word “battlefield” in the title, where the 2000 edition is more ambiguous & points to that ambiguity established by a noun phrase that includes not only “battlefield” & “love,” but also “moon” & the possibility of address.

There is something so extreme about a 542 page book that is typed rather than typeset – its characters equal in width, the page unadorned to the point of a stark ugly beauty. The design of the first edition accentuates everything about the text itself that can be called raw. This is worth noting for a couple of reasons. One is that by 1977, when this book was coming out, Stanford had been in college for several years & was well on his way to writing pretty standard MFA mill poetry. Committing to this “early” work was much more than playing on his precociousness as a teenager, it meant admitting the legitimacy of this completely Other vision of what poetry could be. In 1977, there was nothing you could find even remotely close to what Stanford was doing – the surrealist scene around Franklin Rosemont, for example, or the Beat variant around Philip Lamantia, are both quite tame in comparison to Battlefield. Further, in the age of the internet, after Bill & Hillary, & after Lucinda Williams & C.D. Wright, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine just exactly how removed from mainstream literary culture Arkansas was in the 1970s.

The 1977 design of Battlefield appears calculated to make the book leap out at the reader from every possible angle. 25 years later, in an era when college students in Western Massachusetts conduct daylong readings of the entire volume, the 2002 design may very well be the right one to permit readers to pick up new threads & possibilities in this dense work. Each edition shows why it’s a wise book that understands its cover.

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Friday, December 13, 2002

Jonathon Wilcke, a Canadian poet now living in Japan, noticed my complaint that I’m almost invariably unable to “hear” the poetry of so many poets of the British Commonwealth unless they are part of that particular subset who took particular interest in post-avant writing in the United States. He, however, had a different take.

I also have a comment/question about your notion of "writing for the ear" and "music" that you used in your blog from Wednesday, November 06, 2002. You say that there aren't many poets from English-speaking countries (with exceptions like Fred Wah, Tom Raworth, etc.) that write in such a way that the music in their writing reaches your ear. But thinking back to Bob Perelman in his portion of the Writing Talks book, wherein he states (roughly – I don't have a copy of the book here in Japan) that "hearing is not a matter of sounds passively entering the ear but rather the brain being able to grasp and interpret sounds that it has already been trained to grasp," I wonder if being able to "hear" certain poetry depends more on what the "ear" is ready to grasp rather than the "music" contained within the poetry. So, with Fred Wah, for example, who was a jazz musician and tends to write out of jazz, especially in his prose work, like Music at the Heart of Thinking, is a very audible text for me because I also was a jazz musician, and I am attuned to the American tradition of poetry. I've noticed that among musician friends of mine who try to listen to jazz (especially Ornette Coleman or Anthony Braxton) or 20th Century "Classical Music" (like John Cage, Steve Reich) for the first time claim that they can't "hear" the music or understand what's going on until they've listened to the music several times and given their ears time to create a cognitive structure for interpreting the sounds. So I wonder how you would respond to my saying that your not having an ear for certain poetry is conditioned upon not having yet generated a cognitive structure that grasps the music within?


Jonathon Wilcke

This analogy with music both rings a bell & puzzles me. Rings a bell in that it cognitively makes sense as a plausible explanation. I can think of examples.* Puzzles me in that it gives me no particular handle to account for my own interests, either in poetry or in music. I was raised in a home with so few records that I can, nearly 40 years later, virtually name them all.** I never had a music class even in grammar school. But for my 21st birthday, I went to hear the west coast premier of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase, Paul Zukofsky on the violin. When I began working on my first booklength poem, I chose both a title & a structure borrowed from musical models: Ketjak.

How does one “get ready to listen”? Why do some people seem to be more receptive to certain modes or tendencies within art than others? Some of this I suspect is as simple as the sort of schoolyard personality traits that will drive one child at recess to stand atop the most rickety jungle gym, another to become the center of a crowd of children in some organized activity, still a third to sit off in a corner, nose in a book. All three types (& a gazillion more) can end up as writers & if it should turn out to be the quiet kid in the corner who evolves into the risk taker as a poet, she or he can probably explain to you what the specific reasons might have been. Certainly in my own life I must have decided very young that I would be different from the unhappy adults I saw around me – what different meant really didn’t matter for quite a few years. By the time that it did, so many other decisions had fallen into place that it was “obvious” that I would pay more attention to the music of Tuva than to that of Gilbert & Sullivan.

What is more problematic, I think, is deciding where in the process the question of regional dialect comes into play. It is one thing for me to say that I can “hear” a British poet such as Lee Harwood or Thomas A. Clark, but not a Glynn Maxwell. That at some level is very close to the discrimination that draws me to the work of a Barrett Watten, but away from the work of a Timothy Steele or an Alan Shapiro. I have, it’s worth noting, no particular trouble with the rhyming poets of the former Soviet Union, such as Ilya Kutik or Ivan Zhdanov – though frankly I prefer both in their original language, even if I can only make out snatches of what is being said. Rhyme in a language with such modular suffixes & flexible syntax as Russian has a different function, both formally & socially. Rhyming nouns in Russian is not unlike walking around with your fly open. As, frankly, it is in English also.

But what about the distinction between a Tom Raworth – clear as a bell to my ear – & J.H. Prynne, Mr. Opacity? How, for example, am I to hear this first stanza of “On the Matter of Thermal Packing,” one of Prynne’s best known poems?

In the days of time now what I have
is the meltwater constantly round my feet
and ankles. There the ice is glory to the
past and the eloquence, the gentility of
the world’s being; I have known this
as a competence for so long that the
start is buried in light

This many enjambed lines over such a short terrain cannot be accidental. Indeed, that hard ending at the end of the second line itself conceals what we discover immediately upon starting the third – that it too is enjambed (a tiny formal joke that is paired with its opposite when “this” at the end of the fifth line turns out not to lead to a noun at the head of the sixth). I hear all the caesurae alright – the stanza appears to be built around them, starting with that careful cleaving of the “m” in ”time” in the first line from its nearest cousin “n” in “now,” the stanza ending in the seventh line right where the caesura should fall. But unless I want to draw a clunky analogy between the this chronicle of minor effects & the weightiness of Prynne’s subject, the rationale for a stanza that, read aloud, sounds this awkward just is lost on me. Is he doing something I don’t see or hear, or is there a way to read that third line so that the period after “ankles” doesn’t completely stop all flow?

Yet it is apparent, here & elsewhere, that Prynne’s sympathies are not that far from my own & that he is decidedly a poet of the ear, related in this aspect to such writers as Duncan, Creeley, Olson or Dorn. Reading him, you cannot doubt that you are in the presence of man who knows exactly what he is about & is after in his poetry. The intelligence is palpable. This is why Prynne, for me, is such a good example. Everything about his work tells me that I should love it unreservedly, but I spend so much time scrunching my nose & furrowing my brow as I read it that I wonder sometimes at what level he & I are practicing the same language. & that seems very different than the question of preferring Anthony Braxton to John Tesh or Yanni.

* When I taught a graduate seminar in 1981 at San Francisco State, using what would become the core of In the American Tree as my reading list, one student swore in her journal that the first several poets we read – Bob Grenier, Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge – were complete gibberish. But with Steve Benson’s work, something clicked. She later went back to the books we’d used by the first four poets & suddenly discovered that they were completely lucid, even brilliant. In her journal, she openly worried about somehow having been brainwashed.

**A set of King Cole Trio 78s, the equivalent of a modern album; a couple of Johnny Ray singles, also 78s & Volare by Dominico Modugno, a 45.

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Thursday, December 12, 2002


Turning to George Stanley’s “Vancouver, Book One” in The Poker this morning, I realize several things:


§         The Poker’s table of contents is alphabetical by first name – good fortune for Chris Stroffolino, not so good for Tom Devaney & it takes me awhile to find the page number again for George.


§         The section published here is not all of Vancouver, Book One, but rather just section 8.


§         The work partakes of not one, but two distinct (though related) genres: the poem as journal & the poem written on transit.


An epic in the form of a journal? It’s an interesting concept, problematic from the outset (which I suspect is deliberate). Kevin Davies – one of the editors of Stanley’s forthcoming selected, A Tall, Serious Girl – recently sent me a note that mutual friend Ben Friedlander had posted to another list on the subject of journals. It read in part:


[Paul] Blackburn is incredible; he and [Joanne] Kyger are to my mind the most underrated poets of their generation. Both of them take the journal as their basic form, and both are geniuses at naturalizing peculiar verbal gestures by fixing them in narrative structures. I suspect that similarity has something to do with the lack of respect they get: the journal form looks dated, I guess, and the naturalizing leads people to take them as simple. Otherwise, they’re very different. Kyger uses the journal as a way of investigating the nature of space and time. Blackburn is a social historian.


This recalled what I’d written about Blackburn’s Journals in the blog: “even a fine poet does not necessarily make for great reading when writing becomes all but dissociated from intention.”


But Blackburn clearly distinguished between journals & poems – you have to go 474 pages into The Collected Poems before you find the first piece identified as a journal entry, dating from 1967, when Blackburn was already 40 and a significant figure in American poetry. Kyger likewise makes the distinction. Many of her poems may seem occasional &, as with Blackburn, they’re often dated, either at the foot of the poem or in its title. But these works are radically different from The Japan and India Journals 1960-1964. In this way, Blackburn & Kyger are both like Larry Eigner or Ted Berrigan, two other great poets who used the form of the occasional poem, literally the poem as the register of an occasion. It’s not, I would argue with Ben, quite the same. The occasional poem – a genre far too neglected critically – utilizes its originating or motivating event as both instigator & determinant of boundary for the poem, but that boundedness, that sense of a defined edge, is precisely what journals lack. Journals have a tendency to be formless in their outer exoskeletal concerns & often proceed merely chronologically. So while I agree with Friedlander’s assessment of Blackburn & especially of Kyger, for my money the most significant woman writing from the late 1950s until the 1970s & always a wonderful poet, I don’t see either as taking “the journal as their basic form.”


So the idea of a longpoem in the mode of a journal – it was Kevin Davies who first used the term “epic” to characterize Vancouver – strikes me as a consciously challenging project. Its secret underbelly, of course, is the reality that every epic is at some level a journal. It is not an accident, I think, that the most studied & revered portion of Pound’s Cantos are The Pisan Cantos, very much Pound’s journal of imprisonment in the cages at Pisa. All the fog & pretense of writing about Van Buren’s administration, for example, is revealed by contrast to have been just that: fog & pretense. Rather, the great epic quest of bringing together these disparate historic particulars simply gave Pound something to write “about” while writing, just as a translation is itself a way for a person to write without having anything of their own to say. In both senses, the process of writing is almost entirely apart from any question of content. We write because we write is the secret motto of every poet. Having “something to say” is nice, but hardly necessary. Are you really interested in the history of a fishing village northeast of Boston? Can anyone tell even remotely what the “subject” of “A” might be? Far from damning, the answers to these questions tell us something very important about poetry, its relation to the self-valuable signifier & the importance of process. Thus I think that the great challenge of any & every longpoem has always been how not to be “just a journal.” Stanley, it would appear, has decided to turn that question on its head & tackle it straight on.


The poem of public transit, as you might imagine, is another genre very close to my heart, having written books both explicitly (BART) and implicitly (Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps or, say, What) entirely while riding around on buses & trains. There is even a section of The Alphabet, in Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect, in which I take the process of BART, riding around the entire course of an urban transit system, & apply it to the comparable system in a city that I barely know at all, Atlanta.


For me the great poets of transit have always been Robert Duncan & Phil Whalen & while Whalen’s poetry also edges up against that concept of the journal that Friedlander is trying to get at, Duncan is certainly the furthest poet imaginable from that mode. Yet Duncan once told me that he could not have written “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom” – the very poem that Stanley takes direct aim at in his own early great work “Pompeii” – without having been on the San Francisco Muni & that that poem carried within it the rhythms of Muni’s tracks.*


Stanley himself has used transit in his poems, even if not as a process for the poems, before. In fact, when going through the manuscript for A Tall, Serious Girl, I’d misremembered one of his early San Francisco works, “Flesh Eating Poem,” as being about the N Judah because there is a reference to that streetcar, as well as to the 22 Fillmore line. Since in reality that’s a serious misreading (or rather misremembering, the mind revising as it does, constantly), I was surprised not to find what I recalled as the “N Judah” poem in the manuscript. In fact, “Flesh Eating Poem” – that title gives you just a taste – is included.


Now, in Vancouver, we are very much getting on the bus or off the bus – the SeaBus included – “Writing in the dark – outside the college – in the sodium glare through the bus window.” Perhaps the poem of transit is a genre within a genre here – & I know that I’m more deeply attracted to it as a model for writing than almost anyone I’ve ever met – but it makes me especially pleased, gleeful even, to see it rise up again at the start of a new longpoem.







* Some of my very best discussions with Duncan came on the “F” bus between the original location of Serendipity Books on Shattuck & San Francisco. Duncan went to Serendipity almost every Wednesday afternoon & then would walk over to the Shattuck Co-op to shop for groceries before catching the bus & an attentive person who also lived in the City could sometimes make this same journey – I still think of those trips as my Symposium of the Bus. I rue the day, moving back to the East Bay in 1987, when I realized that politicians had devastated the AC Transit system since I’d headed to San Francisco in 1972 (I’d also lived in SF in 1966-67). It meant that I had no choice at that point but to learn to drive.

            I want to note also that Duncan shopped at the Co-op not because he liked carting groceries 10 miles in his lap & then via the Muni to his home in the Mission, but because the Co-op’s attendant credit union, Twin Pines Federal Savings, had “not blinked an eye” (Duncan’s phrase) at the idea of issuing a mortgage loan to two men in the early & deeply homophobic 1950s. One more vote for a socialist bank.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2002

The Poker has arrived in my mailbox, with an information rich (a.k.a. busy) blue cover that lists, along with all the first issue participants, a roster of contributing editors aiding chief poker Daniel Bouchard that by itself should raise some great expectations: Beth Anderson, Kevin Davies, Steve Evans, Marcella Durand, Cris Mattison (the one person here whose work I really don’t know), Jennifer Moxley, & Douglas Rothschild. Interesting, edgy, brilliant are all adjectives that come to mind with that list.

The Poker has some terrific work in it & a great interview with Kimberly Lyons that includes an especially insightful & sympathetic comment as to the sacrifices that one must make to become an academic & why she is psychiatric social worker instead. The interview, conducted by Marcella Durand, also includes some discussion of the resentment felt by younger New York poets in the early 1980s toward language poetry:

M: Really?

K: Oh, God, yes. The reaction against the Language school and against L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Some sense of them taking over poetry – what are they doing? That was really in the discourse at that time and it was definitely in the social interactions, a kind of charge. It was a really charged time. Those were not such productive years for the New York School.

I’ve commented before on how that same phenomenon was perceived from the other side of the fence, including the anger people felt at the Poetry Project Newsletter’s habit in those days of “disappearing” certain language poets from lists of contributors in its Magazines Received columns. While langpos clearly tended to see the older, far more established & institutionalized NY School as all powerful & totally unwilling to share, younger NYS poets might well have had a very different fantasy about these dynamics. The problem of how to develop a scene without generating such paranoia on all sides remains an unfinished task for poetry as a collective & shared activity.

All of which makes it interesting to read the following first paragraph of Chris McCreary’s review of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts 1-38, Toll:

Lately I find myself groaning at the announcement of yet more books from many of the poets who’ve been publishing for several decades – more of the same, I often think, as what was once innovative is now being rehashed again and again throughout these careers. And it’s one more book not getting published by a younger up and comer, too!

McCreary goes on to except DuPlessis from this desire for all older poets to hurry up please & die, which makes it an even more bizarre note to start the review on, ungenerous & replete with an implicit ageism that can only come back, if McCreary is lucky, to haunt him.* In fact, I like McCreary & his poetry. The Effacements (Singing Horse, 2002) is an exciting book. What he is doing, I think, is expressing an all too human emotion, one aspect of that same “charge” Kimberly Lyons is referring to in her interview, an emotional exhaustion that is a consequence of the absolute difficulty any poet has & how it is experienced, how it is felt & framed when the writer is relatively young. In a sense, I almost suspect that this “charge” is also what is intended by the otherwise cryptic tagline The Poker runs underneath its title: “Half with loathing, half with a strange love.”

The truth is that it is difficult & it is getting harder daily. From 1911 through 1955 – roughly the age of modernism – the number of books published annually in the United States remained relatively static at 12,000. But since 1955, that rate of publication has ramped up dramatically. By 1975, that number had more than tripled to 39,000. According to Dinitia Smith’s column in the December 6 New York Times, the figure for 2001 was 114,287 titles. In short, a book by Ezra Pound or Gertrude Stein in 1912, or even Howl by Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1950s, represented just eight one-thousandths of one percent of the titles in the new book market for that year. Today, a book by Chris McCreary, Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Kimberly Lyons has to compete with more than 14 times that number of titles for attention.

What nobody to my knowledge has done is to calculate in any reliable fashion whether this same rate of growth in the number of titles overall applies proportionately to poetry. It wouldn’t particularly shock me to discover than there are more than 14 times the number of poetry books now than there were in the mid-1950s. Also unexplored, let alone answered, is the question of whether or not the absolute number of poetry books – books, not titles – bought & read has grown over that same period.

There is a hidden presumption behind McCreary’s groaning, Lyons’ “charged atmosphere” & the mutual paranoia of the New York School & langpo in the 1980s – and this is a gut feeling that poetry is a zero sum game, that there is only a fixed amount of poetry attention to go around. By that logic, a book such as Chris’ The Effacements must have “won out over” or “shoved aside” some other possible volume, either in publication, in reading attention, or in both. But that’s an untested &, I would argue, suspect presumption. Suspect not only because with the absolute number of titles expanding, it is reasonable that the list for poetry should increase as well, but also because the inference of this presumption, that eliminating some future book by, say, Michael Palmer or Ron Silliman will lead to more readers for X, has no basis in fact.**

But if the other possibility is true, that the number of poets, poetry readers & poetry books is expanding in the United States, a very different economy & set of issues would then follow. The problem would not be one of competing over a fixed ration of assets – books, readers, awards, stars on the Poetry Walk of Fame, whatever – but rather a question of how best  to generate & organize an actually existing audience for one’s own poetry.

Kimberly Lyons has a wonderfully insightful perspective on this, which, in her interview, she ascribes to the poet & composer Franz Kamen:

Franz Kamen was an influence and friend. He was on the scene in the ‘80s in New York and was collaborating with Mitch [Highfill] on the 10 Leonard Street reading series when I met Mitch. He writes prose work like Scribble Death (Station Hill, 1986) and poetry, and put on performances – he is a natural teacher and a really original thinker and a really useful thinker about how to be an artist and he lived like an artist, in a German romantic sense and suffered greatly particularly in those days. So Franz was been somebody who’s been very helpful, somebody you could call any time of the night or day and jump right into your conflict or problem, your agony, and he was able to think through a set of dilemmas, as well as all those soulful problems of “why bother?” and how to keep going. And Franz always had this great idea that there is no need anymore for the poet or three contending, competing poets, or whatever, that there can be poets and poets can have their constellation around them, He even thought that no poet need more than 75 engaged, interested readers, which I thought was really a nifty way of thinking about it, that your work could be useful to those people.

M: What about 7 engaged readers?

K: We’ll take it!

All humor aside, Lyons & Kamen are absolutely correct. Further, that need for a core group of engaged, interested readers also points out what in a way always seemed so sad about the giant poetry readings that Allen Ginsberg was forced to give by virtue of his celebrity. I remember thinking, although not necessarily in these words, at some point during almost every reading I ever heard Ginsberg give, just how very few of the people in the audience really were engaged & interested in his writing itself. All that fame did relatively little to expand that base of serious readers beyond what it would be for any of the senior New Americans – Michael McClure, for example, or Phil Whalen – but it did ensure that he would never be allowed to just read to his core audience. He was forever the satirical poet forced by circumstance to play the oracle, the Gandalf of Naropa & the Lower East Side. I’m not convinced that Ginsberg’s experience of poetry in America was any less lonely than that identified by Chris McCreary – it was just different in how it played out.

These questions take on a special poignancy for me in The Poker with the inclusion of George Stanley of all people, contributing a six-page excerpt from “Vancouver, Book One,” a new poem that I’ve been told is on an epic scale. Here is a man after all who turned his back, for all purposes, on precisely that which so many other poets appear so hungry to obtain & so fiercely defend. As a key figure in the Spicer Circle, Stanley is an all but official representative of Disappeared Schools of Poetry. Yet he appears to have real fans & advocates from Cambridge, MA, to San Francisco, from British Columbia to Pennsylvania. Allen Ginsberg may very well have sold far more books than George Stanley, & he certainly had more titles, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Ginsberg had that many more “engaged, interested readers.”  

The Poker can be reached via its editorial address at P.O. Box 390408, Cambridge, MA 02139. Individual copies are $10 each, two-issue subscriptions cost $16. Make checks payable to Dan Bouchard. The Effacements Chris McCreary is half of a double book published by Singing Horse Press, the other half being A Doctrine of Signatures by Jenn McCreary. You can get it via SPD. We hear that Franz Kamen will have a new recording out from Innova Records sometime in early 2003. & Kimberly Lyons’ Abracadabra (Granary Books, 2000) is a book you need to own. Click on the link & take a look.

* The most difficult position for a poet to be in is not among the young & unpublished, but the mid-career (or older) writer who finds that the scene has somehow moved on & that interest in his or her work appears to have waned. Anyone who knew Ronald Johnson will remember his mass mailings of angry, bitter letters denouncing what he felt to be his exclusion. Yet his situation was better than that of many poets. One of the reasons why I began this blog with a reconsideration of Actualism & the lost poets of the 1970s was precisely to highlight this issue.

** Where does the audience of a poet go if & when he or she dies? Do they continue to read the poet, the way I still read Olson, Stein, Berrigan or Spicer? Do they turn to other poets? Do they stop reading poetry or eventually die off themselves? The answer I think is a little of all of the above, but there is no reason to believe that those who turn to some degree to other poets would not be doing that anyway, which is, after all, how everybody already reads.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Dalkey Archive has always been an interesting project. While its track record publishing poetry has been more erratic than not – there is a book Cecil Giscombe, another by Gerald Burns, but mostly it has printed books of poetry written by novelists, even if one is by Harry Mathews & another by his Oulipo colleague Jacques Roubaud – and its record on critical writing even spottier – Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose is one of the great critical texts – Dalkey’s track record on publishing innovative fiction is unassailable. It is flat out the best publisher of innovative fiction the United States has ever had.

David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel, a booklength monolog by a woman who might (or might not) be the only surviving person on the planet. It’s an enjoyable book that I would happily encourage you to read. But that’s not really my intent here at the moment. Rather, I want to look at what a book like this tells me about writing & thus about poetry.

Fiction’s primary trick is to convince a reader than the syntax of its sentences integrates up not just grammatically or logically into an argument, but ultimately into an extra-linguistic phenomenon: a character or narrated world. This leap, from syntax to “voice” & through it to “character,” a nebulous concept at best, is the displacement that accounts for much of fiction’s reality effect. The power of grammar is thus transferred and felt by a reader as the power of the world “coming through” the emptied vessel of language.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress plays with these possibilities. For one thing, the narrator suggests that the book is being composed, rather like a letter. She announces the passage of days between paragraphs, many of which are only a single sentence long. Also, right at the end, in ways that I won’t go into here (so as to limit the number of “spoilers” I might inadvertently insert), Markson (or the narrator) also plays around with the possibility of who she in fact is.

But what is most powerful and telling about Markson’s book is that which goes palpably unsaid. In this way, Markson is miles ahead of most other novelists who explicate way too many of the details. Here Markson does just the opposite, raising other characters and contexts that scream out for explication without ever offering any. It’s not sloppy in the slightest – if anything, his consistency is an index of his meticulousness. The result gives Markson’s text the feel of a real person to a degree almost unimaginable in fiction. It’s that old Zen garden trick of making a circle of stones by pulling one out of position so that the displacement forces the viewing mind to cognitively “make the circle.” I’ve never seen it done better in a work of fiction than how Markson does it here.

I bought Wittgenstein’s Mistress after reading some extravagant review of one of Markson’s other novels, then let it sit for awhile, put off I suspect by the idea of that title, given just how the entire world knows Wittgenstein to have been gay. But the title works on multiple levels – it is in fact explained in the narrative, but even more so alludes to the narrator’s painful attempts to be exact with her language, not unlike Wittgenstein’s own books of philosophy. But what for him is an investigative method in a work of fiction becomes a series of extraordinary quirks. It’s remarkable just how well this works. I have a friend back in San Francisco – not a part of the arts scene as such – who is a great deal like this narrator & I ended up hearing her voice throughout my reading of the book.

Reading Markson’s novel made me think of my late dear friend Kathy Acker & how she used to worry during the composition of her early books about such issues as the construction of character. She was always clear in her own mind that character was just that – a construction. Each chapter in her book, The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, presents a different conceptualization of truth & “the real” might be in fiction, which also includes the concept of character. It’s what Ulysses would have been if Joyce had actually felt some commitment to any of the styles he employed in each chapter. Well, maybe if Joyce had been committed to the idea that plagiarism plus porn equals autobiography.

There is an entire stratum of novels of course written with the idea that readers will identify with a character. A second stratum of novels is written with the idea that the readers will identify not with a character, but as readers & will remain aware of their own presence in front of the text, as though in a conversation with the author.* Finally, there is a tiny stratum of fiction written with the idea that readers will in fact identify with the author, not as a character, but as author. I tend to think that many of the books that I would characterize as fiction for poets – which would include works by Acker, Jack Kerouac, Bill Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Kevin Killian, Fee Dawson, Sarah Schulman & Harry Mathews – fall into this final category, or at least waver between it & the second. That border is also where someone like Markson, or W.G. Sebald, seems to fit.

When I read a novel I’m always think about how (or why) the author did this or that. Can Proust get the Madeline into the cup of tea? Can Kerouac really imitate the tape in Visions of Cody? I found myself thinking this way a lot with Markson, whom I’m not sure really expects that in the way these other novelists-for-poets seem to, but for whom it’s a perfectly reasonable & rewarding approach.

All of which made me think of my conversation here on the blog with Daisy Fried. A lot of what I don’t care for in the school of quietude is that presumption of readers falling principally, or only, into the first stratum when it comes to poetry. Most post-avant writing falls into the second category – that’s certainly where I would put Kelly & O’Hara & even Levertov. But much of the writing that compels me most is that which falls into or nearest that third stratum. And that’s where I would put Coolidge & Watten & Hejinian & Armantrout.

* I suspect that Jonathan Franzen’s to do with Oprah had very much to do with a concern on Franzen’s part that his book not be confused with that first stratum of writing.

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Monday, December 09, 2002

The title piece of Jennifer Moxley’s extraordinary The Sense Record is an astonishing poem – astonishing because it dares to go where virtually no post-avant writing has gone in a generation. This is the first stanza:

Under the threat of another light downpour
Eros, soaked by the rain-water,
spoke to the sentient flowers.
Sadness, no longer extraneous,
began the derangement of nerve,
bypassed the bleeding heart
to pierce the blood-brain barrier.
This all en route to the two-car garage.
I was worn with the labor that augurs despair,
life in the futile percentile, when past
my squeamish eyelash, buffeted by scallops
of small will, the slightest fairy brushed.
My rubber soles conformed to the stones
as I followed and spied the backyard starlet
allongée on an orange blossom, delicate
beside the drinking bees, blithe amidst
sharp blades of grass, a rain-drop seductress
entertaining ants on the folding lip
of a pinkster leaf.

Sadness, despair, futile, squeamish, derangement, “the bleeding heart.” Yet Eros communing with the “sentient flowers,” it becomes apparent by the end of the next stanza, was the cheery part:

                                                From aloft
the insect mezzanine these patterns
portend the rot of hours, as one paperstrip
wilts atop the next. Little deaths
sufficient to wake the council of
discarded causes. Under the concrete cracks
the tenacious weed-roots rattle,
reassigned from lawn destruction
to ankle espionage, and in the grass
the poet whispers:

            “death death death death death

            between two hopes
in brittle mid-years, all is vanity”

Or later, from the second of the poem’s six sections:

I feel sick to think that she, that we
had, and have, but one pursuit
and one pursuit alone.

Or the opening of the final section:

Eros tell me why, without love,
without hate, listening
to the softly falling rain
upon the rooftops of the city,
my heart has so much pain.
What I write in truth today
tomorrow will be in error.
Yet the words keep coming,
mundane and repetitive
With no job “to be done”
nor doctrine to stand for.

Oh postmodern irony, where is thy wink? It’s not to be found anywhere in this poem’s eleven pages. Largely bracketed between two quotations from Verlaine, “The Sense Record” presents the grimmest view of contemporary alternatives we have had since perhaps William Bronk. I don’t normally think of Moxley in that context – she is so much more the stylist that one can slide easily into the elegance of her forms & almost luxuriate at that level alone.

That, I think, is why “death” is repeated five times in the most utterly artless moment in the entire book. Moxley doesn’t want to let us off the hook – one can almost imagine how another poet such as Ashbery would deflect the absolute directness of this address, bringing in everything from elderly aunts to whatever he’s rescued from the Disney back lot. For anyone with such access to style, the argument that the pleasure of the journey is life’s point might well be enough. For Moxley, clearly it’s not.

This is where the question of fashion gets interesting. In pure terms of traditional stylistics, Moxley is an absolute master – much more adept than, say, Geoffrey Hill’s hurdy-gurdy efforts. To make matters even more complicated, Moxley associates with – and publishes in the journals of – the newer generation of post-avant writing, which allegedly eschews direct address & seems to treat the absence of irony as one of the great sins of the poets of quietude.* Some of the other poets published by Rod Smith’s Edge Books include Anselm Berrigan, Kevin Davies, Tom Raworth, Aldon Nielson, Mark Wallace, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joan Retallack and Chris Stroffolino. So how is it that Moxley fits in here? Why isn’t she hailed as the salvation of traditional values in literature? And why is she accorded such great respect from poets who refuse to write an elegy without slipping in at least a triple-entendre somewhere?

I know a few folks who would argue that Moxley might be yet another item in a list of evidence suggesting that it’s not what you know in poetry that determines where a writer plays so much as who you know. But I don’t think that’s it at all. Rather, I think that the reason one doesn’t find her line up alongside the “anti-anti-coherency” contingent is that her work déjà toujours presumes the context of post-avant writing. That little barb out of Pound’s Cantos at the end of the poem’s first section is a tell-tale clue. The directness of her address & that loving attention to the nuances of syntax is a combination that makes its greatest sense situated midway between, say, Anselm Berrigan & Tom Raworth.

Just as John Berryman’s Dream Songs would make for dreadful language poetry, but whose excellence shines through when set against the backdrop of the Boston Brahmin variant of the school of quietude, Moxley’s poetry takes its razor’s edge from its social context. In one way, she is as out of place in her time & her crowd as Jack Spicer once was amidst the speech-based (& often enough linguistics-ignorant) poetics of the New American Poetry. It’s as if she has decided to be the bad conscience of post-avant writing, the one who reminds everybody else that “this is serious – you are doomed.”

Poets who take this kind of stance are often in for a certain amount of tsuris. Barrett Watten has had to contend with readers who, struck dumb it would seem by his demand for a serious reading, can’t begin to see where the marvelous sharp wit in his poetry lies. I know major post-avant writers who say point-blank that Spicer is somebody they just don’t get. And I know others who would argue that this is why William Bronk falls outside almost every major post-avant anthology, as though he were everybody’s designated blind spot (as he seems to be mine).

So Moxley has chosen not to take the easy road, but rather the most difficult one of all. And she does it with such great skill in places that it makes you want to cheer – until you remember that she means it. You are doomed.

* Thus when Jonathan Mayhew complains of my blog’s ”earnestness,” he’s absolutely serious & not at all out of step with a lot of contemporary post-avant writing. I plead guilty even as I note the difference between my critical writing & my poetry.

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Sunday, December 08, 2002

Rachel Blau DuPlessis gave a reading Tuesday night at Kelly Writers House at Penn & it was wonderful. It was wonderful because Drafts, the long poem that DuPlessis has been writing for the past dozen or so years is a rich, intelligent, multi-faceted project that offers a deep vision of what poetry at its very best can be. It was wonderful because DuPlessis has the experience to know what works in a reading & how best to deliver her work – to hear her read is to be in the presence of a master. And it was wonderful because DuPlessis gave herself a full 45 minutes to read. It was a remarkably short & intense 45 minutes & could have gone easily for another 30 without seeming the least bit long.

I recall Bruce Andrews years ago telling me, only half in jest, that you could tell a West Coat language poet by the fact that they read forever whenever they gave readings in New York. The underlying reality, I think, was that readings in San Francisco, at least in the late 1970s through the mid-80s, often ran 40 minutes or more per reader. On the East Coast, two-person readings were (and still are) often completed within an hour, even with a break between readers.

It’s not that everyone on one coast was desperate to get to the bar after the reading in order to gossip, flirt, philosophize & schmooze. In the comparatively hard-drinking ‘70s & ‘80s, both coasts had that routine down to a fine art, whether the post-reading establishment of choice was the Ab Zum Zum Room on San Francisco’s Haight Street or the Ukrainian National Home (“Ukes”)  on Second Avenue in New York, or Spec’s or Tosca’s in North Beach.

No, I think that people in San Francisco had something of a different idea in those days about what you might get out of a reading, how you approached it as a listener as well as from a reader’s perspective. The real reading doesn’t begin until the reader can hear the audience audibly shifting in their chairs – it is literally a matter of body language – settling in. The audience isn’t completely engulfed in the reader’s voice or world until about twenty minutes into the reading, which – if the reader is any good – is when the event begins to take on a special quality, when the ear can hear as well as the eye can see, when a good poem genuinely can transport a listener not only into a different universe or world, but into the most minute points of the text, all those little features that are inaudible until then. For example, how often DuPlessis uses “so” as a connector between sentences – perhaps her one Poundian trait – and the relative elevation in rhetorical tone that one little word lends to a text. I’d never noticed that before & I’m not at all certain that I would have if DuPlessis had only read one section of Drafts & kept the reading to 15 or 20 minutes. Nor might I have noticed how she pronounces certain words differently than I do, such as “barbaric.” For her, those first two syllables rhyme, whereas I flatten the “a” in the second syllable almost to a nasal twang: “bar-bear-ic.” I’m not sure what that might be telling us about our relative histories and placement on a linguistic geography, but the reading made me realize that, intellectually at least, I prefer her version.

Any good reading brings so much new information to a listener who knows, at least in general terms, the work of the reader. In Draft 12: Diasporas (p. 85 of Drafts 1-38, Toll, Wesleyan, 2001), DuPlessis filled in the blanks of “X---xes” as ”Xeroxes,” subtly registering that company’s well-known allergy against the generic use of their corporate name. The word ties that line more completely to the discussion of photocopying and intellectual property &, frankly, it’s obvious on the page – I’d just been clueless previously. So the reading offered me new depths & twists, throughout. A good reading of familiar work is not like seeing a favorite movie the second, third, or fifth time nearly so much as it is seeing an entirely new production, say, of Lear that enables you to imagine the play from a whole new vantage point. Which isn’t the poet’s necessarily, although it is one very much informed by how the poet understands his or her work.

San Francisco in the very early 1970s was, in a curious way, virgin territory for poetry readings. There had been a lull in the scene for a few years – I might trace it back to the death of Jack Spicer & the diaspora of poets up to Vancouver, but since I wasn’t really old enough to see the “before,” I’m just guessing. In 1972, however, there were only two regular reading series in town: one out at San Francisco State, mostly held in the daytime mid-week, constrained by academic class schedules & inaccessible to people who worked; the second held at the Intersection, then on Union Street in North Beach, held on Tuesday evenings. The series at Intersection in those days was erratic & unfocused. They could have Michael Ondaatje or Jim Carroll one week and then go three months before anything interesting showed up again. The result was that there was no continuity of audience from Tuesday to Tuesday, the key to the sort of ongoing feedback that makes a reading series more than just a presentation forum. Short-run series, such as one held in the press offices of Empty Elevator Shaft books out in upper Noe Valley (where I first met Kathy Acker), were relatively rare. So when Michael Bono & Barrett Watten started up a reading series at the Grand Piano coffee house in the Haight, there really wasn’t any established reading protocol. Nobody told anybody that readings needed to be 20 minutes or less. So people gravitated naturally to what proved most valuable. Which in turn meant that the standard reading was two poets reading for 45 minutes each with a healthy break in between & everyone retiring to some common venue for discussion afterwards. A reading that took less than two hours was considered a rip-off of your $1 donation.

I think that some of what came out of San Francisco in the mid-1970s can be traced back to people giving more in-depth readings & the audience feedback that ensued. This wasn’t restricted to just four or five people – it was pretty much everybody, regardless of aesthetic. One ironic result of course is that when some out-of-towners came in & gave short readings, it made everybody in SF think that these auslanders weren’t really working very hard. Which no doubt was unfair & really ultimately inaccurate, but it reinforced the idea that everybody locally was trying their very hardest & that the result was turning out to be something special. That sense of something special going on also propelled people to strive to do both more & better.

So that in a nutshell is my secret sauce for how to make a scene a really happening one, just make the readings longer & get everyone to go out for a drink & a chat afterwards (Writers House often has a sumptuous spread, which is a perfectly acceptable alternative).

It was wonderful to hear DuPlessis the other evening give the kind of reading that brings out all these extra layers in her work, especially to an audience that included Eli Goldblatt, Al Filreis, Tom Devaney, Jena Osman, Samuel R. Delany, Bob Perelman & some 40 or so other very lucky people. & what made me happiest was that she gave herself – and us in the audience – the time to really hear that work.


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