Saturday, January 18, 2003


Philadelphia Progressive Poetry Calendar


Version 1.3





18, Saturday, 8 PM: Alicia Askenase, Molly’s Café & Books, 1010 S. 9th St., in the heart of the Italian Market. Open reading follows. [This very small used & rare book store has an excellent selection of literature.]


21, Tuesday, 7 PM: Brenda Coultas, Deborah Richards, and Kathy Lou Schultz. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT


24, Friday, 6:30 PM, Screen Words: Poets & Poems on Video & Film. Cecilia Vicuña: What is Poetry to You? Steve McCaffery: Paradise Improved. Leslie Scalapino & Konrad Steiner: Sections from Way. Fiona Templeton: You the City & The Woman in the Green Coat. Henry Hills: Money & An Lee-Ann Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Slought Gallery, 4017 Walnut Street. 215-746-4239.


25, Saturday, 7:30 PM, Mariana Ruiz-Firmat & Dennis Moritz, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia


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.






8, Saturday, 7:30 PM, Mitchell Feldstein & Elizabeth Scanlon, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia


11, Tuesday, 5 PM, Steve Benson. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


12, Wednesday, 7 PM: A launch party & reading for Issue #3 of Pom2 with a reception to follow. Hosted by editors Allison Cobb, Jen Coleman, Ethan Fugate and Susan Landers. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


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.


22, Saturday, 7:30 PM, Ixnay Reader Release Party- Frank Sherlock, Marcella Durand & Brett Evans, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia


26, Wednesday, 5 PM: The Poet & Painters series presents poet Ron Padgett. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


27, Thursday, 8 PM, Ron Silliman will read in the Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street. [I’m filling in for Norma Cole, who is unable to read due to illness.]






5, Wednesday, 6 PM, Johanna Drucker. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT. (There also may be a workshop at noon – check with Writers House re limited seat availability.)


19, Wednesday, 5 PM, Dennis Barone. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


20, Thursday, Time TBA, Brad Leithauser. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT. (An event in the evening from 6 until 9 will be held at Levy Conference Center (Room 245A) and the Great Hall.


24, Monday, 6:30 PM, Laurie AndersonKelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT. RSVP's required to


25, Tuesday, 10 AM, Interview & webcast with Laurie Anderson. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT. RSVP's required to


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


27, Thursday, 5 PM. Simon Pettet. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.






3, Thursday, 4:30 PM, Simon Ortiz. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


3, Thursday, 7:30 PM: Arts Cafe - Al Filreis's preceptorial mini-course on "Three Contemporary Philadelphia Poets" presents a reading and discussion with poets Jessica Lowenthal, Tom Devaney, & Gil Ott. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


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.


9, Wednesday, 4:30 PM, Steve Clay of Granary Press, talking. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


15, Tuesday, 4:30 PM, Anne Waldman.  Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


23, Wednesday, 7 PM: A reading featuring Futurepoem books with poets Garrett Kalleberg and Rachel Levitsky with introductions by Futurepoem books Publisher Dan Machlin with a reception to follow. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.


24, Thursday, 6:30 PM. Janet Zweig’s Text Machines, with Jena Osman. Slought Gallery, 4017 Walnut Street. 215-746-4239.






15, Thursday, 8 PM. Thalia Field, Jamie Jewett, Alexander Devaron, collaborative performance: Seven Veils: A Night of Poetry in Moving Media. Slought Gallery, 4017 Walnut Street. 215-746-4239.




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Friday, January 17, 2003

After Berkeley, Robert Grenier taught at Tufts University, then moved on to Franconia College, an experimental school tucked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The move, as well as Grenier’s departure from the masthead of This, put him further outside of the scene, as such. At the same time, however, Grenier’s writing was developing rapidly. Gradually world filtered west of new poems that were being written not on pages, as such, but on cards. At one point there was a show of such cards, either at or near Franconia.

Grenier was hardly the only poet to be showing cards in a gallery setting during that period – Yoko Ono & Jim Rosenberg both had occasions to attach words to heavyweight paper to wall (& in Ono’s case ceiling) – but Grenier’s focus on language had expanded so dramatically during this period that poems like “WINTRY” & “a long walk” seem positively literary, in the old-fashioned sense of that word, by comparison.

This published a sampling of 30 cards in its fourth issue in the Spring of ’73. But it wasn’t until Michael Waltuch’s Whale Cloth Press published “the box,” Sentences, five full years later, that the scale & scope of Grenier’s work really came into view. It’s a project that I would suspect has had a profound impact on every reader who ever gave it serious attention.

I’ve written in the past about both Grenier (in Verdure 3&4) & Sentences per se (a review in the American Book Review in 1979) in the past & don’t feel the need to rehearse those arguments here, other than to underscore the degree to which Grenier saw things that nobody prior to him had envisioned as literature. In some ways, it is the very plainest of these poems that are the most truly radical:

twelve to twelve to one

A text like the one above is not only “about” found language, but presents a dance of symmetry at the level of syntax & asymmetry at the level of letters that will never settle into a balanced, stable whole. Like an optical illusion – such as a Necker cube – the poem will never resolve. There is more going on in these five words than in many books by normative “mainstream” poets.

Even the publication in a box-of-cards format was designed to unsettle any presumptions the reader might, literally, bring to the table. Michael Davidson used to tell a story about assigning Sentences to students at UC San Diego who would dutifully head up to the rare book archive, set it down on a table on begin reading through, only to have Davidson show up, come over to their table & begin shuffling the cards as the students struggled with their impulse to become hysterical.

Now the cut-up, regardless of whether you trace it back to Brion Gyson, Bob Cobbing or just Allen Ginsberg straightening up the papers on Bill Burroughs’ floor in Tangiers, likewise predates Sentences by some time. Grenier’s genius lies in specifically asking the reader to take on the consequent role of ordering the units. As such, each card thus must float free.

yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee
yah gee

is not building towards



the sky flurries

any more than it is toward

lakeshore spondee

or vice versa. By removing “before” & “after” from the book of poetry – or at least by rendering it visibly arbitrary – Grenier has in fact created “new sentences” in a way that had not been previously possible, let alone contemplated. Indeed, I’ve often felt as though I was given much more than my own share of credit for my talk, ”The New Sentence,” when something like Sentences demonstrates the degree to which I was merely stating the obvious, somewhat clumsily at that.

I’ve written with regard to the Objectivists that I’ve often thought that the poetry of the 1950s, from Ginsberg to Olson to the Ashbery of Tennis Court Oath, seemed much more revolutionary precisely because there had been a break in the historical record & that the moderating connection between the generation of Pound & Williams & these post-war poets was (temporarily) lost.* In something of a reverse dynamic, I sometimes think that language poetry has been integrated all too comfortably into the spectrum of post-New American poetries in part because its most revolutionary works, specifically Sentences, haven’t been more widely distributed. You cannot find it anywhere in, nor even Grenier’s 1979 oversized (40” by 48”) poster – or, to be accurate, book in the form of a poster – from Tuumba Press, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Functionally, an entire generation of poets have come along who have only had occasion to see these works either second hand – in a library or someone else’s home – or excerpted in formats that cancel out at least some of the elements of the work, as in the 28 pieces contained in In the American Tree, the book freezing the order in spite of all otherwise good intentions**. 

All of this hopefully is soon to change. What’s occasioned my thinking on Grenier this week has been a chance to beta test a still unannounced site that, when complete, will make Sentences available in a fully equivalent electronic version, a wonderful solution. At one level this approach seems “obvious,” albeit ironic insofar as Grenier – like Clark Coolidge – has been one of the last poets to resist the onset of computing.*** There are still some bugs to work through but, overall, I can already tell that the site is going to be wonderful – and accurate to the impulse of the work itself. For example, each time a reader proceeds through the deck, the cards will appear in a new & different order. When the site is fully up & running, I’ll be certain to make a note of it here. If you haven’t yet read Sentences, the opportunity will soon be at hand.

* Thus Oppen has been misread on occasion as being a far more conservative poet of the 1960s than ever was the case. In fact, he was a radical poet of the 1930s who was being viewed from a very different historical context. The more interesting (if unanswerable) question is whether Olson or Ginsberg could have been who they were in a world in which Objectivism had not been erased.

** This explains the otherwise awkward title, “A Sequence / 28 Separate Poems from Sentences,” used in the anthology.

*** The irony is compounded as even Grenier’s most recent “scrawl” texts have been most widely distributed via the web.


Thursday, January 16, 2003


If “a long walk” was not speech, Robert Grenier’s “WINTRY” certainly was:



Magnus massive

Dagny Dagny calling

call me call me


lazy prairie icy

streams, nicely

nicely nicely nicely Norwegians


vell I, well I

vell I, vell I

snowy vell I

vell I don’t know


oh vell I, oh well, I

well I don’t know

oh, vell, I don’t know


Ah yah

ah, yah


a sod hut


One can almost hear Frances McDormand in the 1996 film Fargo speaking these last three stanzas while chewing a hoagie, battling morning sickness & extracting a leg from a wood chipper. Like the Coen Brothers film, which I’ve sometimes thought of as being little more than an extension of this poem by Minnesota native Grenier, “WINTRY” is obsessed with the dialect of the American far north. After its opening stanza suggesting a shortwave radio operator’s attempt to connect to the Other & a second stanza that contextualizes what follows, the final three stanzas focus on the smallest imaginable distinctions of enunciation & pause. If Paul Blackburn had perhaps best articulated a process for the transcription of speech as such, he nonetheless still focused on that speech’s spectrum of reference. For Grenier here, the articulation is the reference.


In 1970, Grenier was quite clear in stating the revolutionary nature of his intentions toward literature. While his “I HATE SPEECH” comment from the first issue of This*, the journal that Grenier initially edited with Barrett Watten, has become iconic in its role initiating langpo, Grenier’s comment there was more typical of what he was telling anybody who would listen in those days. In the same first issue of that publication, Grenier declares, again all in caps (& adding boldface in the place of italics), that “’PROJECTIVE VERSE’ IS PIECES ON,” very neatly erasing twenty-plus years of labor on the part of Olson, Duncan, Blackburn et al. “WINTRY” first appeared in that same issue of This & is reprinted on the first page of In the American Tree.


While Grenier was not the only person doing interesting new work in 1970 that was clearly already outside of – or beyond, if you prefer – the New American framework – Bernadette Mayer, Clark Coolidge & Jackson Mac Low are all cases in point – he was the one person actively arguing for the position’s revolutionary potential. This is why, in retrospect, it has always been easy to identify the “origin” of language poetry. Grenier let everyone know early on that to investigate new alternatives required a break with a past, even as his “recuperation” of Pieces into a version of Projectivism demonstrated that this new model in his head was in fact insistently loyal at least to the abstract principles, as Grenier saw them, of one particular version of the New American perspective.


It would be hard to overestimate the impact Grenier’s poetry & perspective had on the writers around him. In the thirty years since it was first written, I doubt that there has been a week in which I did not find myself reciting “WINTRY,” all or in part. If there is an “Ur-poem” somewhere deep in my imagination, a mantra for what poetry might be, that poem is it.



* Green Apple Books in San Francisco is advertising a “complete run” of This, vol. 1 through 11 through Abebooks for $150. That’s a good price & the collection is said to include the samples of Grenier’s cards – “30 from Sentences” – slipped into This 4. But This published 12 issues, so this set is one item short.


Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Twenty five years ago, Whale Cloth Press published what at the time was the most radically innovative poetry project I’d ever seen, Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Rereading it today, Sentences still qualifies as the furthest anyone has pushed poetry & form in the investigation of the world:



The above is just one of 500 cards, 5 inches high, 8 inches wide, text typed (in “landscape” format) in Courier from an IBM Selectric typewriter, housed in a dark blue cloth covered folding box. You could shuffle the cards & there was a rumor that no two boxes had the works in the same order. This was, Whale Cloth & Grenier seemed to be insisting, a book.

It was as if nobody had ever taken the time before Grenier to just simply look at the language. When his work first began to telescope down from the mid-level lyrics that he was composing as this one-time Robert Lowell protégé left Iowa City for a teaching job at Berkeley – a job obtained in good part on the recommendation of James Tate & Richard Tillinghast – it occurred in a climate in which the most radical book anyone had ever seen or even imagined was Robert Creeley’s Pieces (Scribners, 1969). At the time, I recall poetry students around San Francisco State being utterly stunned by the Creeley book – “how dare he call that poetry?” But within less than two years, Grenier was starting to write works in Berkeley that made Creeley look as mainstream New England as Robert Frost.

I first met Grenier when I transferred to UC Berkeley for the Spring term in 1970. I had dropped out of San Francisco State after the debilitating student strike that then-governor Reagan had consciously used as a model testing ground for ways of defeating student activism. Every single teacher of any true value I had had at State either was fired or quit. One professor I knew was so freaked out by the presence of cops on horseback on campus that he was carrying a pistol at all times. The new university president, S. I. Hayakawa, was a linguistics professor whose class I’d sat in on a few times until it became apparent that he hadn’t read a book in perhaps 15 years. It was obvious he was little more than a puppet for the governor, who originally hoped to use SF State to help get his secretary of education Max Rafferty elected to the U.S. Senate over incumbent Democrat Alan Cranston (Charles Olson’s one-time boss). The only thing that the student strikers did intelligently that entire fall had been to wait until late on Election Day itself to go out on strike, thwarting Reagan’s original plan. But from that point on, it was a debacle as the state showed that it was willing to use whatever force was necessary to break the strike.

Because I didn’t have enough units to transfer as a junior to Berkeley right away, I detoured briefly to Merritt College, which in those days was still in the flatlands of North Oakland, the “bad” neighborhood in which my grandfather had grown up. I took as many of the my breadth courses as I could get out of the way, working as a TA for an anthropology class (the one time I ever held such a role in college), then moved to Berkeley in January 1970 where several people I knew, including David Bromige, David Melnick & my wife at the time, Rochelle Nameroff, were already students. I arrived just as students were preparing to submit manuscripts for a series of undergraduate writing contests. I dutifully gathered my work into a couple of different clusters and asked around what people thought about sending different groups to the different contests. Although the judges for each contest were announced at the outset, I was so new that I didn’t know any of the faculty to speak of, with the lone exception of Robin Magowan.

One of my clusters was a group of short, Williams-esque poems, the core it would later turn out of my first book Crow. Both Melnick & Nameroff suggested that I should I submit that group to the Joan Yee Lang Award contest, whose judge was Robert Grenier, somebody I’d never heard of before. “He likes short poems,” Melnick insisted. This turned out to be excellent advice, as I won the award before ever having met the judge. One day later that Spring, however, Grenier introduced himself to me at Serendipity Books, in those days a great poetry bookshop on Shattuck in North Berkeley. “I thought you were Arthur Sze,” he told me.

I didn’t really get to know Grenier well until the following fall when I attempted to do a special study course on Louis Zukofsky only to discover that almost nobody at Berkeley had ever even heard of the Brooklyn Objectivist. James E.B. Breslin, whom I’d asked first, sort of knew the work but was clearly intimidated by it & wasn’t sure he could help me. He not only recommended Grenier, but – as it happened – gave me some excellent advice about getting the class approved by my advisor, arguing for Zukofsky’s relevance in terms of his association with Williams, whom professors in the department had heard of before. Grenier agreed & the Williams ploy worked. It was only a matter of weeks before I became a full-fledged member of the Cult of Grenier.

In 1970, it was evident to any of the young writers around Grenier that he was rethinking poetry from the ground up. If Creeley’s Pieces offered poetry as it might descend from Louis Zukofsky’s short poems by way of Ted Berrigan, Grenier was adding Stein into the mix as well as the Williams of Spring & All, which Harvey Brown had just published, suddenly demonstrating the good doctor not only to be the epitome of a speech-based poetics that everyone had recognized for the previous 20 years, but also the most consciously radical critic of poetry of the first half of the 20th century – which came as a total surprise of many. On top of this, Grenier wasn’t merely mixing influences in a new way – although he was doing that also – he was gradually insisting that anything, anything, looked at closely enough could become poetry. His works from that period – which make up the first two pages of In the American Tree, were working themselves down toward a new level of minimalism not seen before in American poetry:

a long walk
a long
walk a long
walk a long
walk along

To poets raised on the writings of Duncan, Spicer, Olson, Creeley & Zukofsky – which is exactly where I was coming from – the sheer gait of this poem, with its deliberately limping prosody, was like an explosion in the face of everything I’d ever known. This was not speech.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2003


NB: Monkey Puzzle would love you to know that they can be reached at


Insurance Books will publish Knowledge Follows, a chapbook-length poem by David Perry, later this year. If the excerpt that appears in the first issue of Monkey Puzzle is any evidence, it already promises to be one of the best books of the new year.

At first glance, Knowledge Follows is a series of linked pieces, mostly (tho not entirely) in verse form. I wasn’t actually planning to read it, I was just thumbing through the issue, trying to get a sense of who & what were there, particularly given the unhelpful table of contents that lists contributors only by their first names, when I came across this:

Rome fell, Paris fell – that we can see
for ourselves: shoe trees, the original
rack, truncheons, pestles, magazines

everywhere reflection spreads
the rumor we were there – in the nave,
shooting up the cemetery, cracking
on the plain, running
from the unpredicted ellipse . . .

as if the universe were the ultimate
word-picture machine
with direct feeds to the head

Perry instantly lets the reader know that he’s in total control of his medium. The directness of address & level of detail invokes the genre of a top-notch page turner, even if the details are not what one might anticipate. Or, more accurately, precisely because the details were not what one might anticipate we are driven that much deeper into the text itself. By the third line, I was completely hooked.

The ensuing section extends this initial thread, but that’s the exception here, not the rule. Rather, Knowledge Follows ranges in several directions, while pulling out themes, particularly around communication, that become familiar because elements have appeared previously:

. . . as if children were understood
though neither heard nor seen. Eureka!

Who’s to argue with not only
communication but understanding?

Our lifelong self-experiment with perspective
found itself up against the wall.

As the section above, quoted in its entirety, suggests, Perry offers a wry, dry wit, but is ultimately more serious in his approach than we are used to from poets associated with the NY School’s Gen XXXIX.

Between these rather well-architected fragments & the question of the excerpt from the reader’s perspective, it’s impossible to know just how much of the total book is included in Monkey Puzzle. I can’t tell from the six pages here if this might be half of the eventual chapbook or if it, in fact, might simply be the first installment in something far larger – certainly Perry’s control in these sections indicates that he’s capable of it.

While there have been projects associated with the NY School that have entered into that intermediary book-length poem space, from Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On to Ashbery’s Three Poems & Flow Chart – a deeply underappreciated work – to longer projects from Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman, Paul Violi & even David Lehman, there never has been a longpoem from this aesthetic tendency – not in the sense of taking at least a decade to compose the poem. This taste of Perry’s work makes me hungry for someone to explore that possibility.

One clue here may the degree of finish in Perry’s sections or fragments. They are quite different than what, say, Rachel Blau DuPlessis has characterized as the “debris” that she incorporates into her own Drafts. The result is that each section of Knowledge Follows feels complete almost in the way of a lyric poem. One wonders how a truly long poem of infinitely digestible bits could be accomplished – there’s never really been anything quite like that. Zukofsky’s “A,” in which many of the individual sections approach that intermediate booklength poem range – is probably the best precedent for a work with such clearly defined segments, but there is a radical difference between even a short section like “A”-9 & a work that contains two or three such sections on every page. Imagine, if you will, Creeley’s Pieces stretched out to 1,000 pages. Would it work or would ennui eventually swallow up the project, regardless of how well written it was?

Another thing that is interesting here is that I come away with a strong sense of David Perry’s skill as a writer, but not one particularly of who he is as a person. He could 25 or he could be 55, at least based on these pages. All I really know about him is that he’s around the New York scene & Larry Fagin swears he could not be the same David Perry who studied poetry with Robert Kelly at Bard in the 1960s. Adventures in Poetry published an earlier volume, Range Finder. Based on this excerpt, I know already I have to read more.

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Monday, January 13, 2003

My blog on film & poetry last Wednesday provoked a lot of thoughtful email. Murat Nemet-Nejat picks up the Godard thread:

Dear Ron,

Your connecting writing with Godard in the cinema is very acute. Godard analyzes (more than visually describes) the nature of writing, writing process itself in some of his movies. The movie which particularly comes to my mind is Les Carabiniers. It starts, I think, with quotes from The Communist Manifesto and is interspersed throughout with letters from the soldiers to their wives, all embodying a dialectics of war. The end of the movie reverses the process into a series of postcards from all over the world, the "fruits" of war as image.

More than any other director, I think, Godard deals with the relationship between words (language) and image, creating a synthesis – the movie essay. Though part of this fusion is Brechtian, it goes beyond that; creates a poetry of the word (as detached text)/the eye. What one experiences in Godard is a visual writing process.

As a poet I am very interested in this Godardian process, from the reversed angle: how to make poetry cinematic (something you believe poetry is not). My poem, "Steps," which will appear in the next issue of Mirage, focuses very much on this impossibility. Green Integers published three weeks ago my long essay, The Peripheral Space of Photography*, which also struggles with the same issues.

In the movie Frida Frida Kahlo comes out, in my opinion, as a bad painter**, exactly for the reason you suggested. In one place it focuses on one of her paintings where two bodies are joined by a heart or arteries or something like that, pointing to her painting "what is in the heart." The movie lives for me when it creates its own images, maybe as parallel images, for example, Frida burning in her bed or the amazing streetcar accident sequence.

My best,


* The book is Green Integer no. 76, but is not yet listed on the web site. An official announcement should be made this week.

** I don’t think that Murat is suggesting that Kahlo is a bad painter, only that the film presents her as one –consistent with my own earlier theme of misrepresentation. But, before I am flooded with email on this point, I want to be clear that I think Kahlo is one of the dozen or so great masters of the 20th century. As was her husband, the painter who has probably had the greatest impact on my own poetry.

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Sunday, January 12, 2003

It’s rare for a poet to radically change the primary drive of their verse as they age. If anything, the very opposite is more apt to occur, for the poet to progressively stand more revealed, for the approach to the poem to move closer & closer to those first instincts toward writing that drove them to the poem, that ever so uneconomic pursuit, whether at age ten, 17 or perhaps 35.

I’ve always thought that this was because the largest impediment to writing was not lack of training or of skill, but rather the degree of cultural baggage that we – I’m including myself here as much as anyone – bring to the poem, the instant we go from thinking about writing, a condition of absolute desire, to the actual attempt to make literature, to get words onto paper. There is an enormous gap between that first state & the second, one that we all perpetually fill with all manner of extraneous crap, everything that we imagine that Literature (capital L) is supposed to be. When we’re just starting out – & I’m definitely speaking for myself here – it’s almost impossible to find the poem through the Literature.

Thus a good writing program would not only be one that introduced the fledgling poet to all the possible strains that are being explored (& have been, historically) in the poem, but one also that will help the poet to strip away whatever might prove inessential. So much of growing up as a poet has to do with unlearning as much (if not more) than it does learning.

I was ruminating over this while reading Alan Davies’ admirable new chapbook, Book 2, published conjointly by Other Publications (Alan’s own label) with Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs. The Alan Davies I first knew through correspondence back in the early 1970s was an ardent & exceptionally well-educated surrealist out of Boston. The impulse to the surreal is still completely visible now thirty years later.

Book 2 is a single 26-page poem – I don’t know if there is a Book 1 somewhere.* Stanzas alternate their orientation toward the margin & linebreaks:

And then the weepings
start to wail
all over the pale green bodices
of hills

A little bit of cadenced
buttery softness
envelops this compact hardness
and lets us feel that we have
a somewhat
less hard heart

Somewhere some hunger still lunges

The warm swallowed sallow sadness
that time micturates
almost euphemistically
settle like a nettle
in a warm breeze

Often throughout this work, as in this passage, multiple things are going on at once. At one level, it is a surrealist text, although surrealism of a late & particularly North American kind, one that is as aware of Barrett Watten, Jerry Estrin & Dan Davidson as it is of Octavio Paz or Andre Bréton. At a second level, however, the poem builds on surrealism’s proclivity toward using nouns as absolutes rather than as referential signs to offer a curiously sentimental satire, sort of Bréton as read through Jeff Koons. Davies’ ear is also active – that last stanza above moves radically toward a different prosodic resolution with every single line.

I’m intrigued, to say the least, at the idea of someone who can use a literary tendency lovingly, as Davies does here, while in the same moment ratcheting up its characteristic features into a text that is more than just a little over-the-top. In part, he does this by understanding the separateness of eye & ear in the poem & using them – simultaneously – to different ends. It’s not a question here of the bicameral mind so much as it is of the ability of a reader to multitask within the performance of the reading itself. It’s not an uncommon human experience – anyone who has eaten while driving or surfed the web while talking on the phone will have exercised similarly divergent skills – what’s remarkable is that Davies manages to set this up within the poem itself.

Davies has earned his reputation as an artist who is unafraid to try the outrageous, but a work like Book 2 demonstrates that he does so with a purpose. Underneath the dream syntax of surrealism has always lurked an idealized landscape, a certain tragic heroism visible, say, in the moonscapes of a Dali or Tanguy, and which comes across in poetry as an unspecified urgency. Davies pushes his imagery to the point of parody & uses sound to undercut any residual earnestness.

Davies goes further, letting the reader in on the process:

Waiting for the words
willing and waiting
Or should they then
up ended be
Or be up ended

Squalling birds
unseen but heard
so seen

I try to imagine how Davies could have written this – it’s mysterious almost in the same way that Christian Bök’s ability to create parallel poems using the same letters in the same order, but with different words, is mysterious. It’s not just that every stanza, sometimes every line, undercuts the ones above, but that they often perform this process on themselves. Thus this “little gerbil fettered thing” is completely serious, for all of its flamboyant nonsense.

Davies has moved so far inside his original surrealist impulses as to have arrived at some new place altogether. An interesting point of contrast might be someone like Ashbery, whose surrealism is far softer, almost decorative, & whose wit is more consciously (& cautiously) subtle – in a place where subtlety is not necessarily a value. If Ashbery’s texts are perfect little luxury machines of language, Davies is mounting a far more serious argument with a far sillier façade. If you rip the language apart, what lies underneath?

*Book Two also happens to be the title of a work by Thomas Meyer that was excerpted in House Organ & discussed here previously. I now know that Meyer’s piece is part of a larger booklength poem, called Coromandel.

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