Monday, March 03, 2003

Slought is a sizeable storefront gallery in an abandoned bank, complete with vault, at the southwest corner of the University of Pennsylvania campus, right about the point where university-sponsored development comes face-to-face with the low-income African-American community that is its neighbor. Were it not for the brand-new movie multiplex and natural foods market on steroids on the same block, one might be inclined to view Slought itself as a form of gentrification*. Compared with these new neighbors, however, Slought seems as frail & endangered as any of the older businesses or residences in the vicinity.

Not coincidentally, Slought is also the brainchild of Aaron Levy, one of the most energetic art impresarios I’ve come across in decades. Slought has taken on one of the most ambitious programs of exhibitions and performances of any space in America – it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Levy that this stuff is supposed to be difficult. Ten years from now, several of the larger & older cultural institutions in Philadelphia are going to be wondering just how a 20-something kid managed to trump all their endowments & professional expertise.

Last Friday, for example, Slought brought together 12 of the hottest younger poets in North America for a reading, the first half of an event dedicated to something ambiguously titled The Social Mark Poetry Symposium. They came from the Bay Area (David Buuck), Minnesota (Mark Nowak), Calgary (Louis Cabri), DC (Jules Boykoff, Kaia Sand), New York (Jeff Derksen, Kristin Prevallet, Rodrigo Toscano, Carol Mirakove, Laura Elrick, and Alan Gilbert) and even Philadelphia (Josh Schuster). It was one of those events where, twenty years from now, you will know 200 people who claim to have attended. But I’m here to tell you that there were just fifty in actual attendance on Friday & 12 of them were the poets. It was, as a result, a relatively intimate gathering of some of the best minds of a generation that is just now hitting its stride.

Of course, the best minds isn’t always identical to the best work & more than a few of the poets involved read works that seemed to me a fair distance short of the finest things I’ve seen in theirs in print. While some poets were, in fact, riveting – an especially awesome feat in a setting where each reader had only ten minutes within which to work – particularly Toscano, Derksen and Sand (the “bracket readers,” the first two & the last one), several others chose texts that were timely, or social, primarily by virtue of being recent anti-war tomes. This reached a strange apotheosis during the second half of the reading when two poets, Kristin Prevallet & Jules Boycoff, both read pieces that subjected the same speech by His W-ness to the U.N. to something very close to the same literary procedure, one associated with Kevin Nealon’s old “subliminal man” routines from Saturday Night Live. In each instance, the appropriated material is interrupted by a disquieting word or phrase that reveals the surface text to be essentially hypocritical. Where Nealon’s routines offered entire running commentaries on the surface text, both Prevallet & Boycoff used the device more bluntly, essentially inserting a single percussive term that gradually expanded through reiteration to overwhelm the surface text. For Prevallet, the term was “oil,” a word that she can pronounce with a remarkable number of different emphases and enunciations; For Boycoff, the word was “Iraq.”

Boycoff, who went after Prevallet, gets points in my book for having the chutzpah to read his piece after hearing hers, knowing for instance that her work had gone for – quite successfully – flashy performative aspects that his own quieter version did not exploit. I was especially glad that he did, because Boycoff raised the very questions of a “social mark” to the level of manifest content in a way that had been heretofore absent in the reading. It is one thing for all of these poets to believe that King George is quite mad, but what does it mean as poetic practice? By demonstrating how two very different poets from different cities had arrived at virtually the same strategy of response – though in practice, the two works sounded fairly different – Boycoff & Prevallet brought the limitations of this strategy right to the fore.

Several of these are among the problematics of any group reading: the performative drowns out the contemplative; flash obliterates the subtle; agreement overwhelms ambiguity. It’s a context in which one is better off being humorous than insightful. In not trying to outdo Prevallet’s literally combat-boot stomping rendition, Boycoff put all those issues out for everyone in the audience to see. In a sense, this tendered the question more fully than other, relatively quiet readings by, say, Buuck or Gilbert.

I’m afraid that we’ve all been to readings in which one of the readers attempts to “Mau Mau” the rest, as we used to say in the 1970s, but this was not an example of that. Prevallet had merely written a rousing poem & given it a reading appropriate to that spirit, not so terribly dissimilar in tone to Allen Ginsberg’s famous antiwar chant, “Hūm Bomb.” In a sense, Prevallet had recognized most fully the impossibility of presenting a full-featured distinctive reading in ten minutes & figured out a way around that.

Yet it is worth remembering, asI wouldn’t have without Boycoff’s reading, that “Hūm Bomb,” even though it is a wonderful set piece, isn’t Ginsberg’s great anti-war poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” is. “Vortex” has layers of compassion, insight, ambiguity & nuance that were seldom equaled in the 20th century’s long contemplation of humankind’s collective self-abuse, and really transcends Ginsberg’s usual stance (present even here) as public satirist. Think, for example, how the phrase “bad guess” reverberates through “Vortex,” which approaches of question of the American holocaust in Indochina not as a discussion focused on horror, but on language:

Use the words
          language, language
                   “A bad guess” . . .

The war is language
          language abused
                   for Advertisement
like magic power on the planet . . .

O longhaired magician come home take care of your dumb helper
          before the radiation deluge floods your livingroom,
                                            your magic errandboy’s
                                                   just made a bad guess again
                                      that’s lasted a whole decade.

The image of McNamara as the beleaguered Mickey Mouse in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of Fantasia highlights one other feature of Ginsberg’s great poem, dictated into a tape recorder while tooling around Wichita in a VW minibus, that has been absent in virtually all of the antiwar texts that I’ve read or heard to date related to Iraq: a fundamental empathy for the very human beings who are ordering what we might well believe to be atrocities.

Like its cousin ambiguity, empathy is something that is exceptionally difficult to communicate in any function of life, let alone a poem. It is absolutely not possible in a text that seeks agreement, or which seeks to demonize anyone. It was the problem of agreement that hung most heavily over The Social Mark on Friday – poets who had no difficulty agreeing with one another, but who seemed unable to articulate a vision of the critical in their own work that might move beyond a simple consensus. Further, the articulation of that very agreement seemed to me to make it harder to hear the quieter texts – thus Derksen’s punctuation of his reading with the names of nations & numbers (“Angola 97,” “Algeria 84”) or Cabri’s own reiteration of “the A4 was renamed the V2” or Laura Elrick’s image of “oil barons groping” or Carol Mirakove reading from Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, made it just that much more difficult to find the center of Alan Gilbert’s comments on time, or to understand why David Buuck’s use of stuttering & gagging noises in his own reading was so aggressively anti-performative, almost the antithesis of Toscano’s scat variants, or why Nowak’s aesthetics of historic documentation focuses on the Wobbly’s role in the Minnesota mines. Or, for that matter, how to balance the well-polished finish of Sand’s texts in the context of Mirakove reading from handwritten manuscripts,deep green ink in a spiral-bound notebook. Or why Josh Schuster’s short prose pieces seem so determined to push the idea of the Kafka-esque so much further than it has gone before.

In his excellent weblog on Sunday, Nick Piombino writes, give or take a typo, “There is nothing to compare with the pleasure of allowing poems to meet me halfway.” Piombino is referring I think to the process of writing, but the same rings true for the process of reading. Signaling for agreement instantly collapses the process into one of having no such room for maneuver, even when, in fact, one does agree. If nothing else, it’s almost always the weakest move tactically.  Again, let me make Ginsberg the example. As good as “Hūm Bomb” might be, there is virtually no room for the reader inside the text. You “get it,” more or less instantly, or you don’t – and woe unto the reader who doesn’t agree with the poem of concurrence!

Wichita Vortex Sutra” is a more complex experience, with lots of places inside the text for readers to move around, even to disagree without necessarily falling out of the reading experience. This text particularly has stuck in my head this weekend because of a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer of a new book of critical prose by Robert Pinsky, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, by Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano. Without defending Pinsky’s position – which I generally tend to think as hopelessly self-contradictory – it’s amusing to see him being attacked essentially from the right by Romano. But when Romano writes

What does it say about American poetry today - whatever the insider stock valuations of Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, or anyone else - that there's not a single line of contemporary American poetry important enough for Americans to know and hold in common?

Romano demonstrates not only his lack of grounding in cultural history**, but specifically forgets that one poem – and it wasn’t Howl or Kaddish – transformed Allen Ginsberg from being, to Romano’s world, which is that essentially of People magazine, a cultural curiosity of the 1950s into the most popular poet of his generation. The poem that moved Ginsberg from the larva stage of Beat satirist into something akin to an oracle in the 1960s was “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” read over & over at protest demonstration after Be-In after rally. Although Ginsberg read it less often after the mid-1970s, it was almost certainly the most widely consumed poem – especially aurally – to have been written in my lifetime. If a single poem can be said to have had an impact on the course of the Vietnam War, it was Ginsberg’s great juxtaposition of apocalypse in Indochina, small town life in Kansas & bureaucratic gridlock in Washington. If you understood the poem, supporting the continued slaughter of innocents, theirs & ours alike, was simply unimaginable.

Ж         Ж         Ж

I was unhappy not to be able to attend the second half of the event at Slought, a panel discussion the following afternoon, albeit with the same ten-minutes-per-poet constraint, because the evening left me with a lot of ideas & even more questions. Certainly, the selection – made, I take, principally by Cabri – of poets wasn’t intended only to identify younger writers with politics (Jennifer Moxley, Lytle Shaw, Brian Kim Stefans, Kevin Davies, Juliana Spahr & Jenna Osman all would have been present if that were the case) and it was interesting to note that two of the poets included were part of the famous Apex of the M editorial staff, and that one, Toscano, shows up on Stefans’ mysterious list of “Creep poets.” I would like to have heard them take up the question of the social and to see if they made greater use of the critical texts that are, at least for the present, included on the Slought website for the occasion than they did the poetry posted.
The question of the social itself is one that I think haunts us now as poets for good reason. And I don’t think that we have anything like the time that existed in the sixties to mount a challenge to what is occurring on the world scene today. So I want to thank the poets of Slought for having raised the question, and especially Jules Boycoff & the quieter poets on that agenda for having given it depth.

* Bank building preservation is a recognized mode of gentrification in Philadelphia. Two of the city’s most expensive downtown hotels, the Ritz Carlton and Loews, are situated in former bank headquarters facilities. Loews still illuminates the giant PSFS neon sign – the first neon sign in the U.S. – standing for the long defunct Philadelphia Saving Fund Society.

** Nowhere in our K-12 educational system is the actual difficulty of reading & writing taught for what it is, as a direct source of pleasure, so what a shock to discover that there is not a popular movement to appreciate such a thing, nor what a surprise that poets who compromise what they attempt as writers in the mistaken name of “communication” merely find themselves muddled in the middle. If ever there were to be such a thing as a popular poetry, it would not occur through poets retreating to a trobar lieu that disappeared several centuries ago & has no social reason for returning, but only through a readership that is truly literate, that is to say, prepared to appreciate trobar clus. And when book critics & poets laureate don’t get it, you can be sure there is a long way to go.