Thursday, October 02, 2003

There is a motto that has stuck in my head for a quarter century that says “Aspire to read more than what comes in the mail.” The source for this is a statement made by my late friend Jim Gustafson in the anthology None of the Above. His version is wordier – typical enough for Jim – but his point is exact. But then his mailbox isn’t my mailbox – and it’s not 1975 any more, either. When I went out to the end of the driveway, I came back with three separate envelopes from greater Boston:


·         Carve, Issue 1, edited by Aaron Tieger, with work from Gregory Ford, William Corbett, Joseph Torra, Dorothea Lasky, J. Kates, Sara Veglahn, Eric Baus, Noah Eli Gordon, Nick Moudry, Travis Nichols, Michael Carr, Aaron Belz, Beth Woodcome, Mark Lamoureux, Brenda Iijima, Anna Moschovakis, Aaron Tieger, Christina Strong, Kent Johnson & Marchello Durango. Cover by Brenda Iijima.


·         Tim Peterson’s Cumulus, a beautifully designed chapbook from Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs in Brooklyn. Artwork by Toshi Iijima. Tim’s somebody I associate in my mind with Tucson, where he used to live, but he has an MIT email address these days.


·         Mike County & Del Ray Cross, a chapbook from Pressed Wafer composed of County’s Three Deckers & Cross’ Poems. I have no idea where County lives, though I’m vaguely aware that Cross lived in the Boston area before wending west to the promised land of the Bay Area.


There is also a letter from Larry Fagin, suggesting (as have a few emails from others) a correction to my piece on Paul Blackburn’s “Ritual XVII.” The idea that O’Hara ever wrote any of his lunch poems on a department store typewriter (or anything like that) is, in Fagin’s words, an “old wives’ tale”: “There was an Olivetti dealer in the MOMA neighborhood, with a sample machine bolted to a stand out on the sidewalk, (I tested it once, myself, being an inveterate Lettera 22 fan) and while it’s tempting to think so, none of Frank’s poems issued from it.”


Finally in the mailbox under several computing magazines is a thicker package from Berkeley containing the latest books from Atelos:


·         Tis of Thee, by Fanny Howe, a booklength verse play, complete with CD. This completely narrative work focuses on parallel stories of interracial love, a birth, and a male child given up to others, once in the 1890s, once in the 1950s. After several years of teaching at UCSD, Howe has returned to Boston.

·         Poetical Dictionary, by Lohren Green, actually (as I read it) a sequence of works written as dictionary entries, a preface that is itself a meditation on the dictionary as form, complete with some strange tables and great illustrations by Robert Hullinger. Currently a San Franciscan, the globe-trotting Green joins writers as diverse as Armand Schwerner & Clark Coolidge in engaging the dictionary as discursive model.

So far as I can tell, Green has no visible connection to the Boston area, although he does have a degree from the other Cambridge.


This many Boston-related items in one day’s mail, though, gets my attention. In my own mental map, the U.S. has two premier literary locations – New York, since forever, & San Francisco, since the end of the Second World War. Boston is one of several second-tier literary metros – Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore, San Diego would be the others – after which there are an ever-changing number of locations that make up a pretty widespread & diverse third tier. Most third-tier metros tend to be relatively short-lived, at least as “happening scenes” – Atlanta & New Orleans are obviously “hot” these days, but it’s open to question as to whether this will be so in ten years – unless the scene is related to a critical location institution, such as the Writers Workshop in Iowa City, Naropa in Boulder, Woodland Patterns in Milwaukee, the Writing Program at Brown or the Poetics Program in Buffalo.


Some scenes are more heavily identified with one side or the other of the Great Divide betwixt post-avant & quietude. And I have to admit – having just seen the most cloying preview of Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in the forthcoming biopic SylviaBoston has been the City of Quietude. I’ve noted before, of course, that this is not “really” or even necessarily the case. No place that is or was home to the likes of John Wieners, Bill Corbett, Steve Jonas, the aforementioned Ms. Howe or the Jimside could ever really be called quiet.


Rather, what might be said about Boston is that its colleges are institutions that were created for the most part during a period in American history when one sought legitimacy not by stressing one’s differences with the United Kingdom & its traditions, but rather the continuities. One catches the odor of the same institutionalized Anglophilia at Yale. That the institutional programs and agendas that were set in place over 200 years ago continue to some degree today should not be all that surprising.


But as the city of New York is not one scene, but rather several cohabiting the same geography, so apparently is Boston. While it & Boston really do appear to be the only major cities in the U.S. that can truly be said to host serious scenes from the School of Quietude, both also obviously harbor an alternative universe, one in which, as in Fanny Howe’s Tis of Thee, the political history of motherfucker can be examined (it’s not what you might think), Joseph Torra can work late as a waiter & write intelligently of exhaustion, while Bill Corbett watches a man rise up to pull down luggage on a train, Tim Peterson pen a poem entitled “The Age of Advertising,” which asks the question “Why are you writing a poem called the Age of Advertising / anyway?” & Mike County writes “Taking the Folks for a Drive,”


Stinking, dreaming out loud

in balloons overhead


Handle arcade change like


peep show quarters;

ate for years, but

wouldn’t put lips to food.

Nowadays he reads from


the Collected Charles Whitman,

spray paints his own poems

to a canvas stretched

with old cinema screens.


Holes enough

to drive both parents through.


That’s a complex, intense little poem, one that expects readers well-read enough to recognize the name of the Texas tower sniper of 1966.* It exists in a world rich with meaning & intention, a Boston that I seriously suspect Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia – which I suspect has very little to do with the one of flesh & blood & considerable pain & some great poems – will never see.






* One of whose victims, 18-year-old Thomas Eckman, was the son of poet Frederick Eckman.