Saturday, October 11, 2003


Michael Bogue wants to extrapolate my question of Boston & scenes to the context(s) of smaller metropolitan areas in a different nation altogether. It’s as interesting as it is contentious.


Mr. Silliman:


I had originally written this to be a "comment" but it rambled on way to long. Does anyone use comment features on weblogs much?


So what do you call those cities where there probably isn't even 150 readings every twenty years?


I live in a small, very conservative Canadian city of about 360 000, and if you don't particularly get along with the local self-proclaimed poets - and I don't - yr rather out of luck.


Your comment on sound poetry is right on the mark. Canadians seem to prefer someone standing on the stage reading the alphabet in an earnest manner, than the lone poet in a cork lined room who may only be writing for an audience of one, burning with the intensity of his own inwardness.


If there is an open poetry reading in a city this size - it tends to go something like this: Six or eight poets show up. One of them has brought an "audience" with them - they get up and read first - they leave. There are bars they need to go to. Half your "audience" is gone. After the reading - most people go home without introducing themselves in any genuine way.


Ever since our City Hall pretty much decided to abandon the city core - and you can see the same thing at work in every Canadian city about this size - "the center cannot hold" and the huge box stores slouching towards Bethlehem - or "Chapters."


No core means the "best minds of our generation" are destroyed by economic planning madness - and simply move... elsewhere. West usually - Vancouver.


Suffice it to say - a depressing situation. A "scene" so small that you don't have to have the loss of one institution - there are none - but simply one or two people who don't get along to split the already dismally small audience in half.


So - what are the advantages to a poet living in a city this small - but still large enough to be considered a center of some culture - tho more so in the 60s than now? I'm thinking of Christopher Dewdney's great archival and localist work as well as Greg Curnoe - whose paintings often incorporate text and certainly fall under the rubric of intermedia poetry.


One of the finest poets I have met lives in this city- Scott Carlson - but he refuses to publish his work in any conventional way. He simply puts out small broadsides covering the front and back of a sheet of paper and photocopies them at a a local career center.


His performance style, suffice it to say, is the polar opposite of "school of quietude" type.

Apparently he used to get nosebleeds when he performed he would be so loud. Imagine a street corner preacher who listens to too much heavy metal and spends his days dreaming up bizarre Blakean cosmologies and you will have some of the picture. I've tried to get him to do some recordings and let me put his work on the internet - but he is as leery as the internet as I am enthusiastic for its possibilities.


He is, in short, an original. Something you rarely find anywhere. In a large city - even Toronto - someone of his caliber would no doubt pack rooms. In London, Ontario he mostly just gets strange looks. The overwhelming concern with anyone in London is "Do you go to Western?" and if you do not attend that fine University - you are "out".


In a city of a few million - would such a person just be another crackpot or would they find their audience? Probably both...


Tho I have met many poets in this city - they are rarely of the non "school-of-quietude" type - an appellation I would rename "school of solitude" - and are typically very conservative. The first time I took some of my early writing experiments to the local writer-in-residence I was informed "he usually threw things like that out."


It's a comment I treasure to this day.


In fact the only person who gave me any sort of encouragement was Karen Mac Cormack, a fine editor/poet and a great person to boot.


Of course, they had to bring her in from Toronto.


I may go and take some work to the new "poet laureate" of Canada - an institution I was always glad we didnt have – George Bowering. This interview doesnt give me much hope.


His "slam" against poetry slams seems more reactionary than well thought out. I only ever once hosted a "poetry slam" and it succeeded in bringing out people who would otherwise never come to such an event, and if the poetry was no better than your typical open mic, it was no worse either.


In conclusion, to my point, and I do have one - is that I believe there needs to be a far greater support of poetry in smaller metropolitan areas. There will never be a "London School of Poetry", or a Flint Michigan school, for that matter. The odds against a young poet sticking with poetry as a discipline are much greater simply because there is less support. I'm not talking about grants - I'm no great fan of grants, you can't bite the hand that feeds you. Simply the social networks that can operate as a spur, having a healthy mix of different levels of ability and methods.


I have grown to see the center of my city going from a vital center of economy and culture to a largely burned out husk where every third building is empty - and most of the ones that are not are businesses I call "parasites of the poor" - pawn shops, dollar stores, quick-loans ie legal loan sharks etc. , the rest being Government run Temples in the Church of Social Concern - and it has removed much of the sense of purpose from the arts community as a whole, but the poetry scene in particular.


So my question is before me on how to survive and thrive in a more-indifferent-than average city, without losing my marbles or my way.


I certainly envy those poets who, by living in the large city, have the social resources to receive varied feedback on their works - whatever the means - and to me it seems just one more example of the hegemony of separation that keeps, poets from audience, audience from publisher and publisher from poets.





michael bogue



"Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art - as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature."

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Friday, October 10, 2003


Jeffrey Jullich asks if line breaks still have meaning


Hi! Long time no see.


I made a comment in Kasey Mohammad's blog Comment Box last week (9/27/03, cc-ed to the Poetics List), about the "line-breaks" in a Linda Pastan poem that he was reading and how the same line-breaks (identical scansion for similar sequences of [3-syllable] lines) occur throughout William Carlos Williams' poetry and others Modernists'.


Partially because the follow-up involved my being "back-channeled" by someone who aggressively felt that my reading of "meter"/scansion in Pastan's and 20th/21st century poetry was a sheer, quixotic illusion on my part, I am left with an uncomfortable sense about what the hell lines/verses are, nowadays. And what we're doing with them, why we're still using them.


I'm curious to ask others' experience with this question, both in your own poetic practice and your reading of others' ("free verse") poetry. I'm hoping you might have some feedback.


Do you write lines/make "line-breaks" with some conscious/semi-conscious sense of why you are making those choices (that can be explained)? Do you feel that there's a "meter" involved, even though it isn't conventional New Formalist meter? Do you feel that there is some rationale to what you're doing, but that it's carried out on an "intuitive" level? Do you have a free sense that there is no reason behind your lineations and feel that that's a liberated, "modern" position?


Is the perseveration of poetry into an appearance of "verse"/lines simply some sort of nominal, vestigial, semiotic cue to a bygone era that's meant to re-classify (re-dialecticize) the writing into Poetry (hence, privileging it to all sorts of liberties you do not make in your prose)? What would it say about the continuing practice of lineation if it's so vastly widespread but something no one has any conscious insight into?




I realize that the whole issue of the "line" may seem hopelessly passé and outmoded to many — but since I'm finding my own resources that I bring to the question to be more than inconclusive, I thought I'd ask.


Recommended readings you find decisive in regards to this would be appreciated, too. (I recall reading a Marjorie Perloff chapter on the subject where, as I remember it, her conclusion is that no identifiable "justification" can be found for the "free verse" line. And I react to the Projectivist/Olson "breath"/"instanter upon another" explanation as itself ultimately being quixotic and illusionistic.)






The great linebreak debates of the 1960s were one of those you-had-to-be-there kinds of things. An enormous amount of energy & passion was expended on just this question during that decade, so much so that the line’s absence is a major subtext in a work from the ‘70s like Ketjak.


Case in point: Denise Levertov once invited David Bromige, Lynn Strongin & your humble correspondent to read to one of her writing classes at UC Berkeley. During the session, a student asked if a linebreak had more of a pause than a comma or period. Levertov responded with a very prescriptive “it’s one-half the pause of a comma” answer to which David & I both piped up almost simultaneously that Levertov had it exactly backwards. A relatively heated (& none too pleasant) little discussion was then held by all. The reality (in retrospect) was that all three of us were being completely stubborn.


Even more importantly, all three of us held an idea that there was such a thing as a correct linebreak, that it was something you could indeed get wrong. The projectivist interpretation of Williams had been to align the line with a conception of speech, as if the same text might not be spoken with different “breath units” for emphasis, or even just because one happened to do it that way that day. Levertov’s position was actually closer to what somebody might have come up with paying more direct attention to the way Williams or Zukofsky (and especially him) read their works aloud. Bromige & I were coming at the same question the way somebody who’d primarily listened to Creeley, Olson or Duncan – i.e. the next generation – read their works. Indeed, as I’ve noted in other contexts, Duncan did go through a period (virtually that same year, 1970) in which he half-whispered to himself a count of three between every single line of his poems – just imagine the impact of that on a reading! That was no “half comma”!!


The mistake that David, Denise & I were all making wasn’t calibrating line breaks with “traditional” or “prose” punctuation elements, ½ comma vs. 2 commas, but rather the idea that, in the abstract, there could be such a thing as a correct answer at all. It is not that linebreaks are not meaningful, but rather that their meaning is not fixed. Like the use of rhyme, sound, metaphor, persona – any element you choose to pick – it depends entirely upon the context, the individual poem. Now, there may be obvious advantages for an individual poet to settle on a particular strategy so as to set expectations appropriately for her or his readers, but it’s not a requirement.


Just as one can find Jack Spicer poems that are clearly intended to be read with end stops – the well-known “Ferlinghetti” from Heads of the Town, for example – there are many poems there & in his other books that are not. Creeley’s use of end stops is different in For Love, Pieces and Life & Death. Similarly, one reason that so many new formalists don’t simply blush to death with embarrassment over their hokey tone-deaf metrics is that most literally don’t intend for the linebreak to be heard at all. If you hear the line break in their work, it deflates instantly into bathos.


To ask what the meaning of a line break is, let alone the “correct” meaning, is akin to asking what an edge is in sculpture. Well, it depends. Part of what is so interesting about a well-written poem is how quickly & deftly it communicates to the reader what sort of line it is using, which invariably depends significantly (tho not entirely) on the use of the break.


There are some general dynamics that do seem to apply to the line & which one can identify in any poem (regardless of school or aesthetics) – the word that receives the greatest emphasis tends to be the last (although this can be shifted via prosody), the word that receives the second greatest tends to be the first. If a caesura is in play – less & less these days, at least on the post-avant side of the street – the last word prior to the caesura may actually receive greater emphasis than the line’s first word. And so forth. But these aren’t rules so much as forces that different poets will exploit differently to reach desired effects during the course of writing. And those desired effects could be anything.


So, yes, Marjorie would be right in assert that no justification exists for “the free verse line” – which is not one thing but a couple of hundred thousand – but the larger issue is that “justification” is not the point. Again, to pose sculpture as an analog here, what is the justification for an edge? In a Sol Lewitt or, just for fun, Jeff Koons? Sculptors use edge as part of an ensemble of things to think about as they proceed about their work. But edge is to sculpture quite a bit like the line. Sculpture has – regardless of the medium or aesthetics – mass & dimension & it comes to a stop. And wherever it comes to a stop, one finds an edge. But to say that it defines sculpture the way some criticism has claimed that role for the line in poetry is, I think, missing the actual dynamics of how work gets done & what the work actually is.


Now I do cringe when I see poets who haven’t thought through the line – including (but not limited to) the line break – it’s far too common, though how shocking is it really that not all poetry is the best? But so what? I can find dramatically different kinds of lines in the writing of Eleni Sikelianos & Lee Ann Brown, in Lyn Hejinian & Bob Perelman & Rae Armantrout & Daisy Fried, in Robert Hass & Robert Grenier – in all their works the line is alive & active, including the breaks. And that seems to be what matters.

Thursday, October 09, 2003


Curtis Faville raises the question of spacing & fonts once again. 


Dear Ron:


Reading just now your "blog" on Eigner's letter/poetics—you surmise how Larry may have begun to perceive his writing efforts in terms of a sort of Sapphic fragmentary phenomenon—where bits of partially realized text—or disintegrating text—stand as integral, or "free-standing" (?) examples of completed, end-point data. I.e., "finished." So, the effort— Bob [Grenier] has Larry's old typewriter which sits like a piece of relevant sculpture in his livingroom in Bolinas. Sort of like Kerouac's, with the "roll" threaded through the cylinder. Bob views this pre-Cambrian instrument as a sort of Living Lincoln railsplitter rustic, pre-IBM Selectric, pre-computer, but "still" literate grid generator. I view Larry's slavishness to equal spacing as a physical and rude requirement forced upon him by necessity, but in other universes, etc., what might he have done? Could we but create poems in magic mid-air jagged swipes & swirls of our digits, as Bob seems intent on doing now, where would "accuracy" and "accountability" to text be?


Strange to note that Larry's own typewritten text was fairly accurate and even impressive into the 'fifties and 'sixties—but then after he moved to California, he seems to have developed—or there was a kind of breakdown in this discipline which he came to view as naturally worth thinking about, so his "letters" and "notes" begin to be increasingly arcane, "private" (?), "sloppy," "indecipherable"—and he seems to have felt that (like Olson) these "specimens" of unedited calligraphy were themselves more "hip" and "artistic" than spruced up versions. The Kansas archive contains dozens of such typewritten "scribbles" often on odd-shaped papers (backs of torn envelopes, pieces of letters (from other correspondents), with sometimes only partially realized poems, notes and whatnot. They often exhibit an increasingly flip quick-witted humor which evidently shows Grenier's influence, and I think joy at the freedom and fun this implied/showed. I think one among his several thoughts/meditations was how posterity might come to deal with this—and even hear him chuckling in hyperspace as I peer into his crumbling manuscript pages. Certainly if (like Larry did) you've felt decades of frustration that people keep misinterpreting you, typo-ing you to death—in addition to your own crude uncoordination—eventually you either get apathetic or start to view it with some sort of creative amusement and even to "use" it as a part of your continuing inventories/inquiries. The "effort" of "getting it out there" with the attendant "slowness" —Larry said in interviews he'd compose an entire poem in his head, then wait, maybe, hours until he'd be able to get to the typewriter to graph it. That's a quiz-show memory at work and how!


I just gave Bob the "corrected" text of another time in fragments based on the third typescript draft of it at Stanford. Which raises questions: Bob and I both first substantially "discovered" Larry's work through that book, but the text of the bookscript is entirely arbitrary, i.e., the typesetter changed the spacing of virtually every line in it because of the unequal width of the letters, yielding a reinterpretation of each poems arrangement on the page. I asked Bob about this—did our unconscious "misreading" of Larry's text in the "books" actually show that the spacing issue is an illusion? Does not the "reinterpreted" text actually have an historical integrity—which we are now about the "correct"?


I put it to you—


Curtis Faville

Compass Rose Books


As the very blog entry Curtis was responding to demonstrates, I’ve railed against the impact of Robert Duncan insisting on publishing Ground Work: Before the War in Courier. There are monospace fonts beyond Courier—Lucida not only offers a “typewriter” script, but other options such as the Lucida Sans font this paragraph is set in that approximates a fairly close compromise and avoids the problematic surface of a truly typewritten script.


It’s interesting—beyond interesting actually—that projectivists, who were so obsessive in their prescription of the line as a score for speech*, turn out also to be obsessive in replicating a certain stage of the work itself, the typed draft. Duncan of course published other works in holograph, albeit (as with Phil Whalen) a performative holograph rather than a notational scrawl. As I noted then, platform independence strikes me as a fundamental feature of the best poetry (and, alas, lots of not the best poetry as well). These kinds of self-limiting circumstances are a poet’s prerogative, of course. It would be tragic if people fail to respond to Eigner’s larger canon not because of what’s in it, but rather due to a typesetting decision. Having once seen an Eigner poem mounted in letters a few feet high on the outer walls of the Berkeley Art Museum, I’m convinced that platform independence – which can be achieved by a non-intrusive typeface – would be the way to go.





* Eigner’s own speech skills were minimal due to cerebral palsy. They improved markedly during the years he lived in Berkeley, when he had to interact with many different people every day, but never were fluid.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003


Tim Peterson sent me an email on the Boston question(s) as well, which, after asking his permission, I posted only to find a second email telling me that he’d changed his mind, so I took it down – the ghost blog effect, I guess. But one thing that Tim’s email did was make me realize that I needed to be more clear in my use of the term tiering to describe literary scenes.


I have what I would call a loose structural definition of tiering. A first tier metro – and as I noted, I see only two in the U.S. – is so active & diverse that the loss of one or more major poetry institutions would not cause the scene itself to dissipate. If, for example, San Francisco were to lose the impact of the writing program at San Francisco State or New College or Small Press Traffic or Small Press Distribution, the scene itself would survive largely in tact. The same goes for New York if, say, the Poetry Project were to close up shop. Even though each would be a true loss – and the demise of SPD would have national, maybe even global implications – the poetry scene of the community is not dependent upon it.


Most typically, second tier scenes can be nearly as lively as first tier ones, but tend to be much more dependent on one or two institutions without which they could not thrive. The writing program at UC San Diego, the Writers Workshop in Iowa City, Kelly Writers House & the writing program at Temple in Philadelphia are essential to those literary scenes. Interestingly – perhaps even counterintuitively – American Poetry Review is not such a player in Philly. Rather like City Lights in San Francisco, it has a big reputation & very little real impact.


But there are other second-tier scenes, or maybe I should say scenes that I would group with the institutionally dependent ones above that seem not to have a single dominant local institution, & generally seem to survive without one. Washington & Boston both would seem to be examples of this. There aren’t as many events going on as in New York or the Bay Areas, metros in which 150 readings in one month – five a night – is not an unusual figure. It’s always possible, for example, that a single person can substitute for a necessary institution – Bill Corbett seems to in Boston &, at one point in its history Kenneth Rexroth did likewise for SF. But it’s one of those literature-as-sociology questions worth exploring further.

Monday, October 06, 2003


Aaron Tieger, the editor of Carve & himself a blogger, sent me the following email that, among other things, contrasts the reading style of poets in Boston with those in (or from) New York.




I'm never sure whether to use the comment box or email (or my own blog) to respond to blogs, so I'll send you this and if you feel like posting any of it then do so, and if not, then do not.


First, thanks for the CARVE mention. Boston IS a hub of Quietude (or suckitude, however one wants to call it), as well as home to a pretty vibrant performance scene (more suckitude, in my largely uninformed opinion). However, despite my own and others' occasional moaning about the size of our side of the scene, the interesting-poetry scene is pretty tightly knit and fairly active. I haven't quite pondered the ratio of activity-to-presence (that is, do "we" do more or less than the other poets given our numbers and things) but I feel like we do alright. CARVE is a way for those of us in the "I don't care where you went to school" scene to get ourselves "out there" a bit more.


And personally, I rather like that Boston is slightly (?) more under-the-radar than NY or SF. I feel like an outpost or satellite, which sits nicely with my own tendencies to be easily overwhelmed. An interesting note, however, was at the 70 at MIT Poetry Festival back in April, when a serious difference was observed between the New York poets and the Boston poets. The New York poets, with a few exceptions, were much more interesting readers/presenters than the Boston poets (with a few exceptions). The theory being that this is all a result of the boomingness of the scene in NY - that one really HAS to perform in order to make any kind of impact, whereas we in Boston pretty much know each other and are content to "just sort of read."


Anyway, I think I've said all I can think of to say. Enjoyed the post. Hope you like the magazine.


Best, Aaron Tieger



"You gotta brush your teeth with rock and roll" (Peter Wolf)


"There is no them and us, there is only you and me... We need to find the 'self' that can truly be the authority that it is... The exponent of Karate does not aim at the brick when wishing to break it, but at the space beyond." (CRASS)


Tieger’s comments remind of the observation that New York poets made (or used to make, as I’m not certain that this distinction is still true) that San Francisco poets in the 1970s & ‘80s came to New York and read for long periods of time—45 minutes & up—the idea being that SF poets went on more or less endlessly in contrast with the more time efficient New Yorkers. And it is true that at least at venues like 80 Langton Street, the Grand Piano & the Tassajara Bakery, a reading of more than 40 minutes wasn’t that unusual, presuming that the reader had that much new work.


There was, however, a logic to it that, I think, played out differently in San Francisco than it did in New York. The language poetry scenes in both communities were involved with articulating a new poetics during that period & the longer reading worked well in enabling the audience to get a deeper sense of the structures & dynamics at play in the work of an individual reader. In San Francisco, there was, for all extents & purposes, no serious Other against which this new tendency came up in the local reading scene. In 1972, for example, the reading scene in SF was much more sleepy, even moribund, than I’ve experienced here in Philadelphia. There were occasionally good readings at San Francisco State, particularly when Kathleen Fraser & Lewis Mac Adams held sway at the Poetry Center there, but most often those occurred in the middle of the day at a great physical remove from the rest of the life of the Bay Area, muting their impact. The only regular series “in town,” as it were was a rather formless post-Beat neo-Surrealist one at Intersection, then ensconced in a lovely little theater on Union Street right off Columbus in North Beach, and a far smaller series that ran out of a print shop called the Empty Elevator Shaft.


In that context, when Barrett Watten started* the reading series at the Grand Piano, it very quickly became possible for writers there to actually treat the occasion as though it were a laboratory & there was enormous give & take between poet & audience, if not during the reading itself, afterwards in local taverns such as the Ab Zum Zum Room down Haight Street.


In New York, poets in a parallel circumstance found themselves in a literary community with an extremely strong & vibrant post-avant scene centered primarily around the Poetry Project. There were as a result much greater constraints & far more sharply defined expectations as to what would constitute “a reading” in New York. 


Similarly, I recall other discussions from that same period that suggested that the tendency toward sound poetry & other performance-centric genres in Canadian poetry was at least partly the result of the fact that the Canada Council supported performances to a degree that it did not the solitary poet isolated off in that room of one’s own. 


And among Russian poets of my own generation, I know that some of these same dynamics remain at play, as several poets such as Arkadii Dragomoschenko & Alexei Parschikov adopted a deliberately low-key, non-performative reading style in reaction to the theatrical declamations of what they felt had been the compromised older generation of Yevtushenko & Voznesensky. Yet Ivan Zhdanov, a contemporary of Arkadii & Alexei, but one whose roots are in Siberia rather than the city, will recite his own work from memory in precisely the baritone declamatory mode that an earlier modernist like Mayakovsky was referencing & which Yevtushenko & Voznesensky were echoing.


All of which is to suggest that there can be multiple strands at work in the creation & context of a reading style. Pound’s trilled r”s in the recordings of him reading, or Williams’ failure to heed his own line breaks sometimes jump out at us to remind us how very different their world of poetry was from our own. I honestly can’t say if there is a “Boss Town Sound” or reading style, one that is, say, more low key than that of New Yorkers. But I’m open to entertaining the idea. 





* Co-started, really, with a poet named Mike Bono, who soon dropped out of the process.




Ш         Ш         Ш


No blog mañana. I’ll be traveling on business.

Sunday, October 05, 2003


Lydia Davis has won a MacArthur. Good for her & good for them.


So did Corrine Dufka & Sarah Sze. In all, one of the best “classes” the MacArthur has had.

The calendar has moved to Sunday, October 12

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