Monday, August 02, 2004

Every thriving U.S. literary community, with the possible exception of New York City, thrives in good part because a couple of poets function as glue or as magnets, usually providing enormous amounts of work for very little recompense, contributing their own aesthetic vision and often serving as the community’s de facto host. Sometimes they work inside of formal institutions, but often not. When I first arrived in Philadelphia in 1995, there was Rachel Blau DuPlessis working from a base at Temple University, but there was also Gil Ott, who may have been affiliated at that point with the Painted Bride, a large and rather aimless community arts space on the northern edge of Old City. It was Gil who gave the Bride credibility, not the other way around. I sometimes thought of Rachel & Gil as Ms. Inside & Mr. Outside in terms of how they created opportunities for everyone at almost all levels & each was superbly suited to the task. As time went by, the Bride let Gil go – choosing budget over credibility (which it has never again approached, alas) – and then Gil’s last round of transplanted kidneys failed & he moved into a routine of regular dialysis. Fortunately, other folks then took up the slack – and then some – Al Filreis, Louis Cabri, Shawn Walker, Tom Devaney, Jena Osman, Frank Sherlock & CA Conrad, just to name a few of the most visible over time (both Shawn & Louis have subsequently moved on). The fact that the scene in Philadelphia has evolved to a more polycentric stage is no doubt a good thing – there certainly was no guarantee of that happening. And the number of cases where a scene can thrive around a single individual are so very rare – Ted Berrigan in Chicago very briefly in the late 1960s, Michael Lally in DC at about that same moment in time – that one can point to the instances. You can count them on the fingers of one hand even after an industrial accident.

From the perspective of poetry, at least, Tucson has been the liveliest community in the Southwest for something like 15 years now. My sense of the scene there is that it also thrives because of a couple of key people, tireless workers on behalf of poetry. Charles Alexander would be that community’s version of Mr. Outside, tho like Gil he’s very much an institution in himself. Mr. Inside in Tucson is Tenney Nathanson, who is one of those poets & people who should be a household name & celebrated everywhere. Since he isn’t – at least yet – I shall celebrate him here.

Tho I think Nathanson is my age, give or take a little, he’s thus far published just two books of poetry – one a volume from Membrane Press, the imprint of Karl Young*, with the title The Book of Death, that appeared in 1975. I don’t recall ever seeing that volume. More recently, Alexander – wearing his Chax hat – published One Block Over in 1998. This is a witty, varied, lovely long poem, “desert / minima moralia” as it says at one point, tho a poem of the Southwest that incorporates Wittgenstein, the Holland Tunnel & Kenneth Koch. Although I doubt that Edward Dorn was ever a particular influence of Nathanson, I recall thinking at the time that One Block Over was the kind of project Dorn could have written if only he hadn’t been at war with himself & everyone else so constantly. For a text that must have been under 12 pages in typescript, it has extraordinary reach, intellectual depth, some great stylistic moves & a wry wit that strikes me as decidedly urban in its origin. The poem might be said to have 16 numbered sections, tho they don’t occur in order exactly, and 8 shows up at least seven different times. Here is the first of two (but not consecutive) 9s:
vehicular thrust like
like to like.

a prawn
in Gog and Magog

but whoso
to hunt
feet wet your ears unplugged
the sound
of Onan clapping.

* Another one of those tireless workers – the old Soviet phrase would have been “hero worker” – but whose relationship to the scene in Milwaukee is complicated by his deep reclusiveness.