Saturday, March 01, 2003

David Shapiro on collaboration, the late John Hejduk, architecture, politics & the New York School:



About writing the history of collaboration: Kenneth Koch's issue of Locus Solus was the first that I know to pursue seriously a collection of French AND American and other (Japanese, etc.) collaborations. Do you have it? Also, I wrote on the aesthetics of collaboration for Denver Museum (Poetry and Painting) and I gave a kind of "theory" of the politics of collaboration for a show I helped with at the Corcoran years ago: with Hobbs and Cynthia McCabe: Collaboration. All of my books since January (l965) have had collaborations with my sister, kids from Bedford Stuyvesant (I worked there with Kenneth and edited an issue of Learn Something, America from a children’s museum). My idea had been since about l962 to collaborate with everyone I could or wanted to or who wanted to collaborate with me. One of the things I've been teaching architects since l980 at Cooper Union is collaboration.


I collaborated with John Hejduk on a Palach project in Prague. When you speak of the absence of politics in some NYSchool work, I always find it strange because my earliest book had poems against apartheid, my second book is filled with anti-war poems written at Columbia University, which I helped paralyze in resistance to its practices. A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel is a long work explicitly concerned with colonialism and empire, etc. Somehow, the politics of the work with children that I helped start (first footnote in Wishes, Lies and Dreams points to my work before Kenneth) due to the total left-wing tilt of my work since childhood. The idea that NYPoets were nonpolitical hedonists is a tiny part of the dogma that was useful, I always thought, to those who wanted to pigeonhole name-call and reduce. Even Kenneth's rather noble "Pleasures of Peace," maybe one of the best antiwar poems ever written and a critique of the kitsch of the "antiwar" poem --this work, so jubilant and political and explosive, never gets talked about. Anyway, I mention the Locus Solus issue and KK's whole love of the theme of collab, and my own for about forty years with children, as interesting. I'm not writing this well in collaboration with my son's computer. It's funny to have been on the FBI Lookout list for so long, humiliated at airports, and then belong to a history that is defaced of its politics.


I am always amazed at the boutiquing of Marxism in Lucio Pozzi's phrase, and I do indeed find it amazing, as a kid whose first and last poems are against empire, that hardly anyone finds politics or collaboration, for that matter, except in the voices they are close to...It reminds me of your skepticism about me because I was published in a "commercial" press. But you could have also seen me in C magazine and many wild publications. I too was skeptical of Holt, until I got them to publish Ashbery and got Dutton to publish the poems of Frank Lima, a poet with Puerto Rican roots whom I find completely disappeared from the 300 volumes I have read of L=A criticism. A poet who found it hard to get his books published until we begged Lingo to do a Selected, and I find absolutely no mention of him in the archives. He and I collaborated for the last 30 years.


Anyway, I'm not proofing this letter and probably I have it all wrong, bitter-sweet, sweet-bitter, the sting of the honeybee. Hejduk, my best friend, was called a nonpolitical fantasist until, in Prague, his so-called fantasies (seen again this year at the Whitney with my poems and completely ignored) were liberties beloved by the Czech. When I did an opera with Morty Feldman and creatures (winged) with videos by me and Connie Beckley about collaboration, as it were, between a architecture and poetry, it was never reviewed except by a few parochial architecture critics. Anyway, those interested in the Black Mountainous experiment should look to books published by Cooper Union and Monacelli and Rizzoli about the Cooper collaborations the last 30 years. Many of the most important architects--Libeskind, Tsui, my student Shigeru Ban, and others--come out of Hejduk and my idea of making a school that would synthesize architecture and poetry. Our students learned by having exercises in which houses were built in the condition of Rimbaud, Shklovsky or the pantoum. The work was centered in my own course around three revolutionary moments and three cities and three groups of poets: Moscow, Paris, New York, l848, l870, l9l7 and the present tense. Despite my constantly writing about this and Hejduk, I have never hardly been able to intrigue poets in the politics of this, though it has ended in such things as Shigeru's WT project and his paper houses for the poor in Japan, many books of criticism, etc. Hejduk poetry, which I selected for MIT, was hardly reviewed. All of this might intrigue you, or not. But it does inflect a sense of the political inside the city. Why is it that the participation of the Columbia poets like me is passed over without a sense that we were not only political but getting smashed and beaten and trampled. Hmmm. Just little pieces of history "disappeared."


To me, the idea of collaboration was a conspiracy, a revolt between two or more. I liked the collaborative nature of the blues. I believed in the rebellious intent of chamber music. I believed that in working with artists and others we could inflect education. I thought that Cooper and work with children could assist a new sense, not of NY school formulae, but of storytelling. Lopate agreed with this and has his own story. I continued throughout my whole life to teach and work for kids at various institutions like Cooper to create a political and formal consciousness at once. I resented being disappeared because I thought this work important. I see that architectural education now does use my "litertarypoliticalsymnbolist" approach and my students are the heads of Princeton and many other places. The work that Cooper kids did from l980-2002 is amazing. You might call Cooper Union Archives and ask to see some of the books. Hejduk's works are often dedicated to me, collaborations on anti-masques, film we did together, etc. The work is about community and includes Victims, perhaps one of the supremely severe meditations on the Holocaust. His work has been a great influence, but Muschamp usually puts it down as mere poetry and paper drawing. Hejduk had more real admiration for poets than I have met from any poet in my life. He had Calvino Ashbery and Hawkes at his school; he used surgeons like Selzer to explain the cuts in architecture. But what is most interesting is the amazing mood and mode of experimental collaboration in his school. There are now at least a few books about it. Another book that would intrigue you is The Road That Is Not a Road about a surrealist Chilean group in Valparaiso that used almost a decade or two before me many similar modes of teaching collaboratively the idea of surrealist art and architecture. An amazing group.  


In a more positive mode, thank you for reading my poem. Hope you found your review (by me) in an old APR, where I tried to rebel from within by underlining you, Hilton Obenzinger (another Columbia kid) who fought and fights) and Coolidge, etc. 


Yours, or am i?


 David Shapiro

Friday, February 28, 2003

Jason Earls asks some questions. I’ll offer some responses (if not exactly answers) below.

Dear Ron,

I have a question concerning found poems.  Not too long ago I saw a program about the mathematician John Nash called "The American Experience: A Beautiful Madness" and for a few moments they flashed some of Nash's (I assume unpublished) postcards across the screen, and on one of them he had written the phrase:  "Consider Beautiful Buddhist number 22*Pi + 4*e which is a little less than 80" and then another postcard flashed across the screen with the words: "revenge (justice(mercy(" and some mathematical formulae. Well, seeing that inspired me to write a weird poem.  I computed the number he mentioned and imbedded some of his words and my own words within the decimal expansion (the formatting will probably be distorted by the time it reaches you)--

     Beautiful Buddhist Number

        22*Pi + 4*exp(1) =

526835394443(flamenco notes(0661978766176537745\

Then I thought, If I were to publish this, would it be considered plagiarism? What do you think? Should the author cite the source for a "poem" like the above?

Outsider artists:
Awhile back in your blog you did a close reading of John Ashbery.  This led me to read more of Ashbery's work. After a while I ended up reading Michael Leddy's article "Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger" in Jacket 17. Then, I became very interested in Henry Darger and other "Outsider" artists and read everything I could find on them.  Do you know of any poets who would be considered outsider artists equivalent to Darger?

One more thing.  In The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, p. 380 it says "*Book of Magazine Verse - Poem 1 of "Two poems for the Nation" and Poem 2 of "Six poems for Poetry Chicago" are the same. This curious duplication seems to have been an instance of word for word dictation of the same poem some days apart." That is very hard for me to believe. Do you think it's true?


<![if !supportLists]>1)       <![endif]>Plagiarism is a wobbly concept at best. In one of her early books, either Studying Hunger or Memory, probably the latter, Bernadette Mayer quotes an entire Jerome Rothenberg poem – sans linebreaks if I recall correctly – as an instance of what she’s reading. I remember asking Jerry about that at the time and he was fine with it, saying something like it “it’s not the same poem when it’s in her work.” A poet like Jackson Mac Low, for example, always has notes that detail his sources, perceptible or otherwise. I don’t sense that your number above is precisely what Nash had in mind, even if the math of it proves identical. Rachel Blau DuPlessis wants me to write a note here about the underworld of other artists who have utilized the Fibonacci number sequence in their works, such as sculptor Mario Merz or composer William Duckworth. The strangest in this regard for me is a Danish poet by the name of Inger Christensen, who in 1981 published a short booklength poem based on Fibonacci entitled Alfabet. Tjanting, my own work utilizing Fibonacci, was completed in 1980, after which I turned my attention to composing The Alphabet*. I didn’t know about Christensen until I picked up the Susanna Nied translation, which wasn’t published until 2000.**

<![if !supportLists]>2)       <![endif]>It depends mostly on how you define “outsider.” At one level, all poets – even James Merrill (of the Merrill Lynch etc clan) – are invariably outsiders, just because we write. But Darger was an escapee from a “home for the feeble minded” who held the same janitorial job for many decades, spending much of his time at mass when he wasn’t producing his works – the novel is apparently every bit as strange as his watercolor illustrations for it. There certainly are a lot of poets who live/lived on the edge, either psychologically, socially or economically – Emily Dickinson, Hannah Weiner, John Wieners, Frank Kuenstler, Peter Seaton, Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, even Charles Bukowski or Julia Vinograd come immediately to mind. Besmilr Brigham, whom I’ve written about here, was something of a nomad, considering that she was a journalist with a family, drifting between Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Northern Mexico. Lorine Niedecker might be another instance. If we add to that list poets who killed themselves with drink or drugs, such as Darrell Gray, it gets to be fairly long. One of the most heartening aspects of poetry is how dramatically democratic it is as an aesthetic practice. You can have a VP of an insurance company (Wallace Stevens), lawyer (Brad Leithauser), doctor (William Carlos Williams) and a schizophrenic (Jimmy Schuyler, Wieners, Weiner) and all can be successful poets. Some of the latter group can even serve as an inspiration & model for some of the former. There is simply no barrier. I wish more of life were like this.

<![if !supportLists]>3)       <![endif]>Again, it depends on what you mean by “true” and “dictation.” If my memory serves me in this – I have no way of checking – the original Book of Magazine Verse published shortly after Spicer’s death omitted the terminal period from the second of the two poems. I recall being surprised at finding it in the Collected. Even if they are identical as texts, I think that Spicer is making a Heraclitian point about the same poem not being that if it should occur in two different contexts. Viz. my discussion of “Engines” on Monday. That poem is a part of The Alphabet, except when it isn’t.

* Only Lit utilizes Fibonacci in The Alphabet, and then only in part. Everything in Lit is based on the number 12.

** Even more curious, I later discovered that a linguist I know spent part of her years growing up as Christensen’s next door neighbor.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Perhaps the article in tripwire 6 that most directly tackles the question of community is K. Silem Mohammad’s “Creeping it real: Brian Kim Stefans’ ‘Invisible Congress’ and the Notion of Community,” a critique of sorts of Stefans’ “When Lilacs Last in the Door: Notes on New Poetry,” an overview of younger poets that Stefans initially undertook for Poets & Writers – specifically for  Michael Scharf’sMetromania” column – moving it over to Steve Evans’ webzine, Third Factory after the P&W  editors rejected it.*

Stefans’ article proposes the existence of a new literary tendency that he literally calls The Creeps, after the Radiohead song. In his article, Stefans quotes from the song – “But I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / what the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” – to “explain” why he chose such a consciously anti-attractive moniker to assign to the fortunate few he so characterizes. Pointedly, Stefans neglects to include the lines that lead up to this chorus, perhaps because they articulate his position a little too plaintively:

I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice
when I’m not around
you’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

Stefans also lists 19 writers & 21 books to pin down if not what, then at least who (besides himself) he means:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Caroline Bergvall's Goan Atom
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Miles Champions' Three Bell Zero
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Kevin Davies' Comp.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Tim Davis' Dailies
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jeff Derksen's Dwell
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Dan Farrell's Last Instance
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Robert Fitterman's Metropolis 1-15
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lisa Jarnot's Some Other Kind of Mission
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Adeena Karasick's Dyssemia Sleaze
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pamela Lu's Pamela: A Novel
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Bill Luoma's Works and Days
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jennifer Moxley's Imagination Verses and her chapbook Wrong Life
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Harriet Mullens' Muse and Drudge
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Rod Smith's Protective Immediacy and In Memory of My Theories
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Chris Stroffolino's Stealer's Wheel
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Rodrigo Toscano's Partisans
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Darren Wershler-Henry's the tapeworm foundry 

That’s an interesting – if not particularly coherent – roster, ranging from the constraint-driven formalism of Mullen & the Canadian post-Oulipo experimenters to the epistemology-centered Moxley**, to Pamela Lu’s poignantly retro novella, a retelling of sorts of Catcher in the Rye as filtered through Ashbery’s Three Poems, to several poets with visible post-langpo & post-NY school concerns.

If Stefans’ initial piece is itself an instance of post-langpo counter-canon formation, parallel in purpose if not specifics to the claims underlying the O•blēk New Coast” anthology & subsequent Apex of the M editorials or Sianne Ngai’s “Poetics of Disgust,” what seems to interest Mohammad most about Creepy poetry is a claim that I don’t think Stefans actually makes:

The eyebrow-raising element here is the claim that Creeps want to break out of the community model of experimental writing, a model that has held indomitable sway for decades, notably reinforced and codified in Ron Silliman’s passionate introduction to In the American Tree.

Given that, as per Sartre, the alternative to the group is serial formation, a phenomenon that is synonymous with the atomizing principles of capitalism – & nowhere more visible in literature than in the sales-driven approach to books of the New York trade publishers – that “break out” would more accurately be characterized as a surrender, if in fact it were the case. The adjective Creepy would acquire a whole new (or, rather, very old) set of meanings. But I don’t think this is what Stefans was driving at in his original piece.

The passage that Mohammad cites for this eye-brow elevation is the following:

all the Creeps share . . . a surprising desire to communicate, to perform, to create social interactivity, and to expand beyond the small communities that have been their inherited legacy from previous American avant-gardes. They are often experimentalists, but have no interest in experiment for its own sake, at least if the results are not something like a public, often very entertaining, form of poetry, a sort of deviant form of street theater itself. The Creeps are almost universally very funny, though why there has been such a turn to humor in their poetry is matter for debate.***

This anxiety about communicating with a broader constituency of readers fits in perfectly with the high-school discomfiture articulated by the Radiohead lyrics, but it’s a considerable leap – very nearly a rocket launch – to suggest that any, let alone all, of the lucky Creeps want to make the leap to appearances on Oprah or even Jim Behrle’s poetry spots on NPR’s Here and Now.

Stefans’ argument can be framed as making a case for a return from trobar clus, the consciously difficult poetry that the 12th century troubadours wrote for each other along with the complex melopoetics of tobar ric, back toward something akin to trobar leu or plan, the more open-ended & simpler poems composed for less literate audiences. This I would agree with Kasey is eye-brow raising, but mostly because it so closely parallels the argument offered by Dana Gioia in Can Poetry Matter? The logic that one could theoretically arrive at a more popular poetry is sometimes put forward to justify the existence of a Billy Collins or Deborah Garrison or Sophie Hannah or Wendy Cope. Clearly, none of the Creeps are involved in anything remotely that creepy.

The problem – which in fact is the question of community itself – of belonging, as such, cannot escape history. History teaches what history teaches, which includes the inescapable detail that even as these genres were already subdividing amoeba-like nine centuries ago, the arrival of post-12th century modes of story telling, ranging from the novel to cinema to reality TV, have occupied – for good reason – the social space previously taken up by trobar leu. In fact, if one looks to those contemporary societies in which poetry has occupied something akin to a truly popular genre, such as late-Stalinist Soviet Russia or the remoter districts of Yemen, there are inevitably & always specific historic circumstances that have thwarted or diverted the narrative genres that absorb these spaces in the post-industrial West. We don’t need Homer precisely because we already have Homer Simpson.

If Stefans was, as I suspect, doing some creative mischief-making for the institutional context of Poets & Writers, Mohammad attempts to spin this rather wispy daydream into a far more formidable theoretic construction. Mohammad asks:

So how does Creep turn away from a community-based poetics?  Only to the extent that it rejects the notion of a safe enclave, a privileged brotherhood of artistry in which the problems of the outside world are, after all, outside, and at least there’s that. It does this by raising the quixotic possibility of intercourse between experimental poetry and mainstream culture . . . .

Mohammad’s evidence for this, which goes on for a couple of pages, is entirely a list of literary devices associated with language poetry. This suggests that an important part of literary formation is, or at least might be, creative amnesia – and on this question I’d probably concur, noting how Robert Grenier’s great “break” with speech in 1970 was directed precisely toward the poetics toward which he felt himself most deeply attracted. Three decades hence, langpo finds itself drawn into this same quandary of being configured as an impediment rather than a foundation even as the evidence duly displayed directly contradicts the charge. Plus ça change.  . . .

Perhaps the most problematic part of Mohammad’s construction is that he pulls back from it at the end, not unlike Chaucer’s deathbed apology:

this is exactly what I find attractive about Stefans’ Creep (anti-) aesthetic: it’s a movement that is formed within the mind of the reader, not the designs of a self-articulated community. Stefans’ apprehension of Creepiness comes from his own Creepy imagination, his own desire to oversee a troupe of invisible, flea-like verbal acrobats.

Now there’s an attractive proposition! How would you like to be both invisible & flea-like? Sign me up, Kasey! Not.

However, Mohammad is almost certainly accurate in his next (and final) assertion:

That the poets [Stefans] names are readily conformable to such a desire says something about their shared use of certain techniques and their common concerns as postmodern artists, but more about a simultaneous resistance and porousness in their work that encourages progressive (but diverse) notions of community to be constructed from the margins outward (inward?) – there is no Creep manifesto, only an ever-growing passenger manifest, the names on which can be shuffled according to the needs of an equally various and multiple collective of readerly sensibilities.

Sure sounds like Sartre’s vision of serialization & capitalist atomization to me, a series of infinitely substitutable parts that can be popped out of a box or anthology – like a chess set composed entirely of pawns – and dropped into any theory one wants. This goes right back to the suppressed lyrics of the original Radiohead song, “I want to have control.” This is a vision of a generation of poets who have no clue what that might feel like. And don’t understand that such “porousness” is as much a lethal threat to themselves as it is astronauts on the space shuttle.

To the degree that Stefans, or Ngai or even the Apex / O•blēk gang make efforts to challenge that porousness, their attempts, however partial & one-sided, align them with the angels of history, for which they all deserve our thanks & support. But to the degree that anybody imagines a community of rugged individuals – which is what the post-community monad most certainly is – as a possibility, these poets can only continue to ask themselves “what the hell am I doing here?”

* Evans asks that links not be made to Third Factory, which is why the link to Stefans’ piece goes to a linked bibliography of Brian’s that does have an apparently authorized link.

** Stefans claims, using Moxley as his “evidence,” that “Creeps . . . are not . . . greatly concerned with epistemological issues”!?!

*** Again, the test of Stefans’ claim here is, or should be, Jennifer Moxley’s poetry. I’ve argued here before that this would be a total misreading of her work.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Try this poem out with an American ear – or, for that matter, with whatever variant of English you happen to have:


& so the new blackses arrive
all scent & drape to their clamour
head & heart the liquid odour
of roads that defy oceans

from the fiery splash of pool
  pits they preach us redamp
    shun from the dust
        of the old ways

their kisses bite
like the deep bellies of conputers
the gravy of their songs
smells like the slow piss of culculatahs

& so
the new blackses arrive
& promise us life beyond the bleed
of the common yell
they promise us new spring
for the slow limp
of our heads

the ladder finds the sky at last
heart or herd slinks to the waters
mbira grows into a synthesizer
the songs ask for more sugar
& my salt sets sail for babylon

If I hadn’t known the context of this poem in the latest tripwire, I would not have recognized it as African until the word mbira, the Shona variant of the thumb piano, an instrument I associate with the music of Zimbabwe. Not surprisingly, then, the poet Seitlhamo Motsapi comes from the South African province of Limpopo, the northernmost part of the country, bordering Zimbabwe & nearly 1,000 miles north of Cape Town.

I don’t, it’s worth noting, know enough about orchids to recognize the poem’s curious variant spelling of the Latin term for the South African witch orchid, disperis cucullata, and in fact that name is also found in the Latin term for a South African bird, the bronze-winged mannikin, so I can’t even be sure that it’s the humidity I associate with orchids in general that is the image schema underlying the “slow piss” at the end of the third stanza.

One of the great challenges of reading poetry from another culture, let alone language, is to be able to grasp some portion of the references & allusions without importing too many of your own. Reading the very first line of this text, I have to suppress the idea that (1) the opening phrase might be an allusion to Pound’s Cantos & (2) the even more perverse echo I get of Tolkien’s character Gollum pluralizing blacks as blackses. Conversely, there are so many possible meanings to the title moni – it’s everything from the first name of a popular pan-African singer to a resort in Windhoek to the surname of an early Italian settler in South Africa to the stock ticker for Marconi Communications on the South African Stock Exchange – that I simply have to let it go. To the degree that this name tells a native reader the subject of this poem, I have no access to what it might indicate.

But I don’t need to know this in order to recognize that “moni” is an unquestionably wonderful poem. It’s use of imagery & rhythms jump right off the page. The prosody has an elegance that translates beyond dialect & a deliberate “misspelling” (e.g. conputer) positions the text into a voice-based tradition that Heriberto Yepez’ Mexican poetics would acknowledge as different from their own.

Over one third of the new tripwire is devoted to new writing from Southern Africa, a good portion just as riveting as Motsapi’s poem. Overall, however, I found myself frustrated that the brief introduction – a single page, unsigned -- & Robert Berold’s interview with Lesego Rampolokeng & Ike Mboneni Muila don’t offer more than the merest of glimpses at the broader contexts in which this poetry is being written. The brief reference to isicamtho doesn’t make it clear, for example, that this is a form of township slang that enables speakers of South Africa’s multiple languages to negotiate daily life. Muila’s own poem “In No Time” literally offers glosses to the right of the text body.

The question of context certainly has implications for how a work is received. Consider this section of a longer poem by Jeremy Cronin:

Sometime after the revolution, Soviet libraries adopted the Dewey Decimal System

With one rectification – the two hundreds: Religion

All the way from 201, 202, skip a few, 214 Theodicy, 216 Good & Evil, 229 Apocrypha & pseudo-epigraphs, down to 299 Other religion – this great textual body of human wisdom, confusion, folly and aspiration was reduced by the Soviets to a bald:

Dewey Decimal 200: Atheism

This was not (not by far) the worst sin of Stalinism

But it was its most typical

This should be remembered of the 20th century

This deadpan recitation, a rough approximation of which might occur on any given day in the United States on the programs of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan or the 700 Club, seems curious in this collection. That Cronin is the Deputy Secretary General of the South African Communist Party doesn’t so much position the statement as it does testify to the degree to which someone from the U.S. has an immense bridge to cross in order to gain any sense of grounding when reading contemporary South African poetry.

Writing of how many “nation language” poets have arguments not dissimilar from those associated with langpo for arriving at a non-standard approach to English language, Juliana Spahr wrote in this blog last November that “They are different arguments but they meet in various ways. And yet the poets so rarely meet in journals, in readings, at parties. What a lost opportunity.” tripwire is certainly ensuring that such radically different poetries meet in the pages of its journal, but I wish that somebody had done for South Africa what Heriberto Yepez did for Mexico & offered a map.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Every once in awhile, I come across a magazine or website that just reeks of the poetry of the future – it’s like accidentally opening the door to a furnace you hadn’t realized was there. The heat given off is palpable & feels more than a little dangerous. At the same time, you now have a sense of just how much energy lies behind that door. A particularly excellent example of this is tripwire 6, edited by Yedda Morrison & David Buuck out of San Francisco. Subtitled almost too narrowly a journal of poetics, tripwire 6 is all about community, defined large.

The ways tripwire confronts this issue are several. What drew me into the issue at first was an essay by Heriberto Yepez. Yepez is a Mexican poet whose work I didn’t know until Jonathan Mayhew made me aware of Yepez’ superlative blog, The Tijuana Bible of Poetics! (T-BOP) T-BOP is one of the finest weblogs related to poetry & poetics, and offers the considerable value of approaching these issues from perspectives that are, for me, completely new & fresh. After becoming a complete T-BOP addict, I also discovered a series of fascinating sign poems in both English & Spanish up on Joel Kuszai’s Factory School website.

Yepez’ piece in tripwire, “What About the Mexican Poetry Scene?” describes post-Paz Mexican poetics in terms completely accessible to readers who, in fact, are clueless on the writing to our South. Yepez does this through a series of quite savvy comparisons with the poetry scene we do know – our own U.S. hodge-podge. Thus:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>With the death of Octavio Paz, Mexican poetry lost its center; U.S. poetry has no ascertainable center.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“In Mexico, writers have . . . real power and use it up front.” “In Mexico, Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout would have to (even be pressed to) periodically speak on current issues on the Mexican equivalent of NBC’s evening news or Nightline.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>This social power “makes it impossible for even a radical poet to stay for too long” in Mexico.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Mexican poetry’s orientation toward innovation & experimentalism “resembles the self-understanding of black innovative tradition,” balancing progressive impulses with conventional forms.*
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>There is “no hard mainstream in Latin America . . . simply because in Latin America the avant-garde won.” Yet, paradoxically, “Octavio Paz established the idea that after surrealism no avant-garde could be possible again.”
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“Voice and performance have been protagonists of American counterpoetics from the Harlem Renaissance and the Beats to today’s San Francisco and New York poetry scenes. In Mexico, this is not the case. We are wed to a text-based composition.”
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“Another big difference is that current American poets are more domestic than we are. They can feed each other. In Mexico, for example, there is now a growing discussion on using English and getting in touch with contemporary American poetics (experimental and mainstream).

A major concern of Yepez centers on speculation as to the future of Mexican poetry, post-Paz. Will a new center form to monopolize the whole of literature? Will it evolve into something similar to the two traditions that have waged cultural war in the United States since at least the 1840s? Or will it devolve into something much more fragmented & chaotic, the way the post-avant U.S. scene seems to many observers today? Yepez notes the emergence of new modes of writing that have, as yet, to be incorporated into the broader Mexican cultural fabric – bilingual Indian poets & vizpo, as resistant to the historic frames & constraints of Mexican writing as this transnational counter-tradition appears to be in almost every other culture.

How accurate is Yepez’ characterization of the Mexican scene? I can’t say & I’m naturally wary – I can recall James Breslin’s depiction of the U.S. scene in the early 1970s as a series of peaceful suburbs with no urban center (the approximate role that Paz plays in Yepez’ model) against which to be defined. Yet Breslin taught in the same department as Robert Grenier, David Henderson, Richard Tillinghast & Denise Levertov when he penned those words, a department that was abandoned by Louis Simpson only a few years earlier with a public outcry that there was no room for his kind of poetry in the Bay Area literary scene in the wake of the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965.** Because Yepez’ depiction of the U.S. scene is generally reasonable & accurate – more so than any I’ve read by Ms. Vendler, let alone Breslin – I’m inclined to accept his portrayal of Mexican poetry. But even more than this, Yepez’ article makes me realize how much I need to buy Across the Line / Al Otro Lado, Harry Polkinhorn & Mark Weiss’ anthology of the poetry of Baja California, and how much I need Jen Hofer’s forthcoming anthology of poetry by Mexican women, Sin puertas visibles, due in April from the University of Pittsburgh Press. .

* But but but what about Robert Creeley, Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown? All three could be described in exactly such terms. A poet such as Helen Adams, or Edwin Denby, could hardly be described otherwise.

** Breslin was a classic example of the well-intended poetry critic who never attended a reading that was not sponsored by his own English department – a travesty in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, as indeed it would be in any region, even Wyoming.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Rob Stanton in the U.K. asks an interesting question:


Reading back through your blog's archive I notice that you've referred to Rae Armantrout a couple of times as a poet you feel has a very different writing process to your own (involving meticulous revisions, etc.). You actually give an example of this in your intro to Veil, comparing "Manufacturing" with an earlier version, "Veer." At the Factory School site I came across the recording of you and Armantrout reading Engines, your collaboration. . . . I am intrigued that the two of you should have worked together in this way, given the differences you pinpoint between your respective writing 'styles' (producing a poem Rae obviously likes enough/thinks is an important enough example of her work to include it in her Selected). I had not actually realised either, until hearing the recording, that Engines represents part of The Alphabet . . . . I was wondering if you'd mind telling me something about the thinking behind Engines, how it came to be written, and what the writing process involved. You seem happy enough discussing your work habits in your blog, so I hope you don't find this question too cheeky.


I'm writing this initially from a hotel room at a business conference without access to any of my books or manuscripts, so am forced to wing it, although I'm listening to the recording as I work. Armantrout might remember every single detail here differently.


Engines was written in the very early 1980s, at a time when the poets I knew didn't have access to computers & had never heard of email. The poem was published in Conjunctions 4 in 1983. Armantrout was living in San Diego & I in San Francisco. We had known one another already for over a decade &, although I would agree that our actual writing processes are radically different, I already knew that I felt closer to her poetry than to that of any other writer I had known. Nearly twenty years later, I still feel the same way. Possibly, it's because she's able to concentrate so many different kinds of intelligence into the smallest literary spaces, far more than I've ever been able to, but does so in ways that I find completely accessible & available to me. I always learn from reading her work.


I have never felt that there was one right way to compose a poem, and certainly never felt that if such a thing might exist that my own quirky ways came anywhere close to them. I already knew – I remember telling this to the graduate writing seminar I led at SF State in 1981 – that there were some things about poetry that could not be taught & that the metabolism of one's own process was one of these. I do, however, think that one can learn about one's own processes by exploring differences & variations. One part of the process of The Alphabet has been just such an exploration. Every section of the project is an attempt to push my work in a different direction. Even at the outset, I knew that one section of The Alphabet would have to be a collaboration. I don’t know that ever I thought for a second about anyone other than Rae with this in mind.


So we knew at the outset, particularly once we'd settled on the title, that this piece would be that, that it would become a part of my project, and that it would also have a completely separate & different existence within the framework of Rae's own writing. I actually think that this double life was one of the things that excited us – or at least me – during the process of composition itself. Another distinction within the framework of my own project was that this was my portion of the piece was written directly on the typewriter – the only other section of The Alphabet so composed are the prose paragraphs in "Force." I would type a paragraph and send it to Rae in the mail. She would add one and send it back. We suggested revisions to one another's paragraphs & played off of the themes as they arose – my helicopters were a direct translation of her angels, for example.


We also discussed paragraphs over the phone and, at one point, Rae simply rejected one of my paragraphs as too something, too tacky perhaps. I sulked for a few days, then wrote another paragraph (no, I can't tell which one it is today). Materials entered into the process at odd angles. For instance, the sentence that reads "How will I know when I make a mistake" was a comment that Bob Perelman originally made to me about my own writing processes – I was always bemused at Bob’s stance on this, as I’ve always wanted a poetry in which “mistakes” were includable – but I believe that it was Rae who inserted the sentence into the final text.


There is at least one noteworthy antecedent for a poet bringing collaboration into a longpoem, Celia Zukfosky's composition of "A"-24, using her husband's texts but without any other visible input from him into her process. In some sense, I always felt that she solved a problem that had stymied Louis. For me, that text has always raised a lot of issues, both for what it says about LZ’s incapacity when confronted with the end of a lifework and for the too-pat conclusion it gives to a work that really reaches its apotheosis in the great pair of pieces that are "A"-22 and -23. Maybe I don't know when I make a mistake, but I have some sense about Zukofsky in this regard.


Whenever I've worked on collaborations, dating back to the literary card games I played with David Melnick & Rochelle Nameroff back at UC Berkeley – one of which made it into my first book Crow – or later with Darrell Gray or later still in the composition of Legend with Ray Di Palma, Bruce Andrews, Steve McCaffery & Charles Bernstein – talk about writers with difference processes! – or with Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten & Michael Davidson in Leningrad or the larger collective process that has lurked behind The Grand Piano, I've been struck not only with a sense that a collaboration is always about what happens in a poem when the individual consciousness of a poet surrenders control, but also by the observation that almost all good writers are what we used to refer to back in the 1960s as raging control freaks, me most of all. This of course creates a certain shall we say tension in the age of reader participation in the construction of any text's meaning. What happens when this participation isn't simply only something that the poet "factors in" to the composition of a text, but actually shows up & plans to write the next line? The breezy collabs of the New York School always struck me as never confronting that particular issue – I'm sure they might say that this is because they were never half so uptight as I was – but for myself, these pieces have always been opportunities to explore the boundaries of self & other within the immanence of a textual "voice." Engines presented me with an opportunity to test this thinking with the strongest poet I know.