Saturday, October 04, 2003

How often do you get to hear the significant poets in your region? Once a year maybe? That number has always seemed about right to me, but it varies considerably depending on how many active reading series there are, how many poets & of course how many poets in whose work one is genuinely interested. Writers in Missoula are confronting a considerably different reality than those in Manhattan or San Francisco.


I must have heard Leslie Scalapino 20 to 25 times in the years I lived in the Bay Area. We’re of the same generation and grew up in such proximity that Scalapino is one of the poets – along with Stephen Vincent, Greg Djanikian, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Davidson & Barrett Watten – whom I sometimes think about not in terms of which college she attended, but which high school. Leslie & I once gave a reading together at USF to a rousing crowd of three people, the result of a scheduling snafu (there was somebody terrific from out of town at Langton Street that night, although frankly I don’t remember just who). And Leslie has always been somebody who was willing to offer you her honest opinion if & when she thought you were screwing up. We haven’t always agreed, but I’ve learned a lot in good part thanks to her willingness to explore in good faith whatever points of divergence we’ve had.


So I was more than happy to hear her Thursday night at Temple’s central city extension site, literally in an office building a half block from City Hall. It’s been a few years since I last heard her read & it’s always an illuminating event. Thursday was no exception.


Scalapino read from four works: Zither, It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, The Tango and a new as yet unpublished manuscript called Can’t is Night. At the outset, she said that she had a musical structure in mind when picking which works from which to read. & I could hear it, more so than I had in the past, which made me wonder how much Leslie had changed since I moved east in 1995, how much I had, or maybe how much the world of poetry had so that my expectations were different. It was aurally the most fascinating reading I’ve been to in years. So much so in fact as I drove west out to Paoli afterwards, I tried to think of another reading that had struck me in just that fashion &, in all honesty, the one that came to mind was a trio of Friday night readings Robert Duncan gave in Berkeley around 1970 in which he read all the sections of his long poem Passages that had been written to that point.


Which made me think of how few poets – unless they’re explicitly doing sound poetry, another kettle of fish altogether – foreground the syllable, the grainy surfaces of consonants or the clear tones of vowels to the degree that Scalapino does. And I think that the answer really may be that since Duncan passed on some 15 years ago virtually nobody has articulated this domain of language with such precision. It’s not the only thing she’s focusing on, but it is an aspect that is almost unique to her. I’ve never thought of her as a projectivist – her lines are not “breath units” in the Olsonian mode – but Scalapino’s poetry, to listen to her reading, lives in the syllable.


But as I said much more is always also going on. The one work I had in front of me as Scalapino read from it was It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, -- that’s the kind of complex, multi-line title one normally associates with the late Larry Eigner. In it, the stanzas or passages function as individual units, sometimes one to a page, more often two or three separated by just enough space so that the eye instantly registers the individuation. It’s the same sort of spatial separation that generally divides sections in the booklength prose poem Sight the Scalapino did in collaboration with Lyn Hejinian – flat out my favorite collaboration ever. There I thought it had been a part of their strategy of keeping their individual moments in the text distinct – the work has a ping-pong quality that is startlingly energetic – but here I see it is (or has become) integral to Scalapino’s own process. In addition, Scalapino is also using what I would characterize as interlinear margins – most of these works have not one but two (and occasionally even more) distinct left margins, such as:


wall standing rose could just



as evening in the middle of



and so no space even there


freezing pale night at wild (only)


‘there’ only, no rose even so can


the day there being no people



Only one place is a thought that I can’t quite shake from a stanza like this, as tho solving a riddle by combining the key (or at least reiterated) terms into what, for me, makes the most sense.


This is a sense of stanzaic form I can’t recall ever having seen before. It’s not the kind of interlinear textuality that might make one want to have two separate readers, but rather a model that permits both one-words lines and longer ones that tend toward six words (there’s one of five, another of seven). But how account for the moments when there is only one one-word line between the longer ones as distinct those where there are two?


Contrast this sense of line & stanza with this sentence, which opens up Bob Perelman’s “Driving to the Philadelphia Poetry Festival by the Free Library,” which to my delight I found on DC Poetry website the other day.


Emerging from the middle

of a donut-shaped dream, I rolled out of yesterday like there was no tomorrow, turning left

onto Crittenden


with its consonants and trees,

right onto the not necessarily bitter irony of Mt Pleasant, which goes both up and down,

like life they say


but maybe not.


Both passages here are predicated on the tension of long vs. short line, but in Scalapino’s there is an ambiguity as to how much “turn” the reader should here in the break – some resolve into more recognizable syntax that what may exist within the longer line – the first three lines a perfect instance of this – but then there are one word lines – one? is such a one – that utterly resist such grammatical integration.


In Perelman’s work, the line is visual & almost inaudible, the normative syntax unfolding as though the text itself were perfectly ordinary, a register of ironies not unlike Mt Pleasant, smooth as a ride on an elevator.


One source for Scalapino’s form here must come from her collaboration with sculptor Petah Coyne (visible in the book in only a single print).* Coyne’s drip wax sculptures are the upper limit of sensual surfaces in contemporary three-dimensional art & I see that relation in the shifts between lines, for example, in the sample of Scalapino’s work above – it’s a feature that I think you can hear if you just read her work aloud roughly the way she does, slightly faster than one syllable at a time.


I’m not quite sure what I make of it all, but this isn’t a statement of ambivalence in the slightest. Rather, I’m going to need to absorb it, as I did Sight (and as I am doing her Autobiography), knowing that it will come to almost in a generative fashion, in waves in the days & weeks ahead.



* My nephew Dan & I saw a Coyne exhibition in New York a couple of years ago. I was taking Dan on a tour of the Chelsea galleries so that he could see how art might exist apart from its embalmed state in museums & how one might think of different galleries as carrying forth a conversation. The two shows that day that really spoke with power were Coyne & Richard Serra’s giant rusting curlicues one could circle into.



Ш         Ш         Ш



I want to note something else that the Temple Writing Series does that I think makes great sense. Before each “visiting” writer reads in their series, a student in the writing program reads a short set of their own work. They almost always pick somebody whose work has something simpatico with the visiting writer & it’s often a very interesting balance. I first heard Pattie McCarthy “open” for Charles Bernstein this way & generally all of the work at these readings has been quite credible. Sharon Nowak’s reading on Thursday was much more than just credible – her first piece, of which she read only an excerpt, could have gone on for hours & nobody would have complained. Make a note of the name.