Friday, January 23, 2004

Ron Silliman forthcoming events




24, Saturday, 1 PM: reading with Stacy Szymaszek, Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Authors Room, 7th Floor, Harold Washington Library, 400 South State Street, Chicago





7, Saturday, 7 PM: reading with kari edwards, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut, Philadelphia





3, Wednesday, 8 PM: reading with Michael McClure, St. Marks Poetry Project, 131 E. 10th Street, New York City



Poor Chicago.” Here I come. I can’t believe that making such a flip & ultimately dumb remark on this blog got me an invitation to come & read – with Stacy Szymaszek no less! On the other hand, those Chicagoans are no dummies – they invited me for the third week of January!


With the Eastern seaboard as cold as it has been the past few weeks, tho, Chicago won’t be any worse than Philadelphia. Maybe I should try this strategy out more broadly: Poor London! Poor Rome! Poor Wellington! Poor Sydney!

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Part of the myth of Lorine Niedecker is that of the “woman in the woods,” the isolated poet working at such a remove from literary centers that her work goes un- or at least under-appreciated until after her passing. That of course is largely hokum – Niedecker’s connections with the Objectivists were early, deep & lasting, and kept her connected even during the twenty-year period (1940-60) when Objectivism itself was mostly out of print & forgotten. A better example than Niedecker of a poet whose remove from The Scene caused genuine neglect might be Besmilr Brigham, who moved around between Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas & Mexico at a time when a trip to New York, San Francisco or Boston might have created the basis for an audience that would take root & spread widely. We are fortunate that C.D. Wright in particular took notice – Wright is one of the great readers of my generation as well as one of its great poets – and published Brigham’s selected short poems, Run Through Rock, but we’re still waiting for a publication that would give a fuller sense of Brigham’s overall range & reach as a poet.


Similarly, Rae Armantrout benefited greatly from living in Berkeley during her junior & senior years in college & then again in San Francisco between 1972 & ’77. While San Diego is not exactly the boondocks, Armantrout already was widely acknowledged as a major writer in one of the nation’s two largest writing communities before she returned to her childhood hometown.


Lisa Cooper is the kind of poet who would be a household name in post-avant circles if only she had spent a couple of years in New York or SF. As it is, she has devoted followers among those who have read the work, but unless one has picked up her homolinguistic translations of Jack Spicer – & Calling It Home , which I believe is still available from Chax Press – the work has been pretty fugitive outside of Tucson, a beautiful city, but one that few people get to casually – it’s one of those places you really have to want to be in order to be there at all.


Happily, there are three new poems of Cooper’s in the Tucson issue of Can We Have Our Ball Back, one of the very best online zines of verse. The issue, guest-edited by Tim Peterson, came out six months or so ago, it would seem, but I didn’t notice it until I came across a link on the POG website, which I was looking at because of Heather Nagami’s poetry in Antennae. Nagami’s actually not in that issue – presumably because she’s moved back to the Bay Area – but Cooper is among the 27 poets who are to be found there, some of whom will be familiar to readers of this blog (David Ray, Dan Featherston, Charles Alexander, Tenney Nathanson, Sheila Murphy gerrymandered in from Phoenix), others of whom will be new (I recommend Frances Sjoberg).


Obviously, Lisa Cooper is part of a vibrant poetry scene. But just as clearly, Tucson is a community at some remove from other literary centers in the United States. That’s a distance that technology – such as the net – can reduce, but never completely eradicate. And just as some poets – Charles Alexander & Sheila Murphy are good examples – negotiate that distance to become internationally known for their work, a poet as fine as Lisa Cooper can still remain largely a secret to the wider world of readers.


So I’d recommend that you read these poems by Cooper, especially “As if Your Life Depended” & “Vagabond.” I’d try putting one of them up here, but I had trouble enough with the spacing in Jules Boykoff’s piece the other day &, anyway, I want you to browse around both the Tucson issue as well.


And, likewise, you should take a look at these two poems of Cooper’s from Poethia, now part of the CybpherAnthology of Discontinguous Literature, luigi-bob drake’s infelicitously named ongoing web collection of post-avant verse.


Scenes – by which I mean geographic communities, as opposed to an aesthetic community that transcends any particular geography (which in the past I’ve called networks in order to distinguish them from geo-specific scenes) – can have an enormous impact on individual writers, a good deal of it healthy. Many poets do their very best work when they have a sense of it directly responding to the work & ideas of their closest associates, some of which may just be a collective desire for everyone to do their very best, to push (& be pushed by) their comrades. Yet scenes are diverse aesthetically, where networks almost by definition tend to focus on certain aspects or approaches to the poem. This has both positive & negative implications. Niedecker & Brigham lacked scenes, yet Niedecker – and this may be a decisive difference betwixt the two – had a network that proved one of most fruitful in this century, where Brigham’s contacts with other poets appear to have been sporadic. The Tucson issue of Can We Have Our Ball Back presents a view of a scene – Peterson’s done a great job at this – some of whose poets can be said to have broader connections. (I think that one could argue that, sociologically, Chax Press is itself a network, given how coherent its editorial choices have been over the years.) Yet I would love for more people in more places to know the poetry of somebody like Lisa Cooper. And I wonder how establishing the connections that would make this possible might impact her work.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Like Jules Boykoff, Kaia Sand is a D.C. poet whose work can be found in Antennae 4 who also appeared last February in the Social Mark conference in Philadelphia, where her works were among the most polished & her reading one of the most successful. Here, her work consists of “Cognitive Dissonance,” a sequence of eight interlocking short prose works, each with its own title. “I Don’t Know the Names of the Weapons” is the second in the series:


If only we could dematerialize, be an aura for a while. The lingerie saleswoman says you should never tape your giftwraps. If I tell you the contents of my day I feel like I’m balancing a checkbook. Here be dragons. But I can name some weapons like our doing as our undoing.”


Other than the allusion to Walter Benjamin (& just possibly Lucy Lippard) in that first sentence, everything a reader needs in this passage is to be found here. If there is a narrative or schematic frame behind the five sentences, it’s not apparent. Yet the syntax proceeds as though a continuous thread were being woven. The language poses a world of lost chances (If only…), unpleasant choices (If I tell you), as mundane as a department store, as epic as a fable, ending on a double bind. This little work is tight, terrifying, brilliant all at once.


“Culpability Over Cocktails” is the seventh piece in the sequence:


The tea is overdue. The question oversteeped. The remedy overstated. Howling is happenstance. Grandmother is gorgeous.


Here is my palm to read said the dying man. Why don’t you test your prescience? Here is the daily news. Let me give you a hand.


This latter section is heavily preconditioned through the prior occurrence of Grandmother as a narrative figure – the only one really named in the sequence – as well as by the term Let, a command posing as a request, the first word in both the third & fourth prose poems. Indeed, the palm & hand fit neatly, almost too neatly, into the “Let me tell you the story of my body” theme that runs through these pieces. Finally, the predicates of the first three sentences are so neatly shuffled: The A is C. The B is A. The C is B.


If my experience of the first piece quoted above is one of a glimpse of the infinite difficulty & horror of contemporary existence, my experience of the latter is in sharp contrast almost claustrophobic, not thematically, but formally. It bespeaks a desire in the post-avant artwork to arrive at a closed form. The ninth section is different, maybe, but to my eye no less problematic*


This is, I think, one of the most difficult problems post-avant works have to confront. On the one hand, it is impossible not to notice just how brilliant Sand is & can be in her writing. On the other, she chooses to give us a well-wrought urn precisely where I would value more, far more, the ragged edges of her pushing this brilliance further into the world, using it as a tool of investigation rather than aesthetics.


This is a hesitation I have had at times over the years over the work of other poets – Michael Palmer at times, John Ashbery, Chris McCreary, & some of the ellipticists (especially of the New York rather than Providence variety). One might trace it back, I suppose, to Wallace Stevens & to a love of a lush & gorgeous surface rather than the angularities & fragments one gets, say, with Pound’s collage technique or the Williams of Spring & All.


Ironically, fragmentation is exactly the issue here. In addition to the title “Cognitive Dissonance,” the series starts with an epigram from Kristin Prevallet:


She fainted at the sight of so many fragments, for she thought her mind was frazzled. Luckily, it was just the world, crumbling around her.


Sand dates the poem – October 2001 – but even without that, the relationship of the series to the attacks on New York & the Pentagon would unmistakable. On one dimension, one senses the author’s despair & grief, almost a vertigo without limit. On the other, the form of this series struggles mightily to contain it. What I haven’t figured out here – I’m not sure that it is decidable, at least not without knowing much more about Sand’s poetry & how it thinks & moves – is how much that containment is itself the struggle – indeed, the content – of the work.







* How long will it take a reader to recognize that the “digits” the narrative voice declares it will “speak in” is a series of three phone numbers? Unless one takes that middle one – 9 1 1 – to be a date. The first number is the White House comment line, the last New York City directory information.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Jules Boykoff is a D.C. poet, co-editor of Tangent, who I got to hear read at the Social Mark conference last February. Because he’s a D.C. poet, you can find Boykoff’s work sprinkled around the D.C. Poetry anthology – check out the years 2001 & 2003. At the time, I wrote about Boykoff’s reading at some length (tho I misspelled his name pretty consistently – Sorry!), so I was pleased come across his work in the fourth issue of Antennae.  


It was my impression in February that many of the contributors to Social Mark had been picked by the Calgary poet, Louis Cabri, whose own work I’d once compared in this blog to that of Ted Berrigan’s, as if it were (I think these were my words) “Berrigan + politics.” That image popped back up into my head, tho, as I read “Essay #5,” Boykoff’s poem in Antennae, for it’s a work that looks a great deal like a form that Ted promoted, perhaps most famously in the poem “Tambourine Life” – even if Ted got it from John Ashbery’s “Europe*”: linked verse, the poem of many small units. Here is the fourth of the poem’s nine pages:


“I should have worn my yarmulke”

“I thought that was a yarmulke”



pursuing authorization
in the spliced space
where Frida Kahlo
hung her dress




free-lanced justice cobble met three-piece machete diction in the dark alley behind the mini-mart in the place where here meant now & now meant the fair tale that every scientific group rehearses by the evening fire



this is not a pipe [bomb]






sonuva sonuva being more to the point [now]


petroleum Cadillac karaoke roadkill


“I am an unabashed fan of Equatorial Guinea” [now]



the parameter is defined by


“then there’s the heritage thing”


because if that were the case
we’d all be uptrodden by now



headlight frippery glut


statistically significant bard throttle


More noise please!


There is a great deal to like here – a fine ear & excellent sense of wit – and even if you don’t, there’s not much waiting before the next completely different event. Tonally, it has the quality of surfing the radio dial, searching for that right song (might be Mingus, might be Eminem – you won’t know till you find it). But it can also have that other quality that we experience whenever somebody else has their hand on the dial or the remote – gee, I wonder where that might be going. I feel that way to some degree about the second section above, a lovely, almost perfect image, full of mystery (authorization for what? what spliced space?), that could easily have been the first stanza of a fabulous longer piece we may never read.


Like Cabri, Boykoff has a very social imagination – it’s no accident, I suppose, that the subtitle of Boykoff’s weekly D.C. radio program Roots & Culture is Making the World Unsafe for Plutocracy. But Boykoff likes to play with knives pointed in all directions at once:


bowdlerized & Vendlerized &
come we go easy now

“as in NAFTA, buddy”


That section is worth the price of admission to Antennae ($6) alone & what really makes these three disparate lines work so well together is how the ear plays in the second one. That it enables Boykoff to equate Helen Vendler’s campaign for illiteracy first with bowdlerization & then with NAFTA is a stroke of genius. I wish I’d written it.





* Berrigan & Ashbery were hardly the only poets using linked verse in the 1960s. Phil Whalen did likewise, and even a non-New American like Eliot Coleman, the Baltimore poet who founded the writing program at Johns Hopkins, made some interesting forays into surrealism with the form. It was Berrigan’s evangelical nature, tho, that caused this form to be associated most closely with him. I’ve even heard poets refer to the form as Bean Spasms, tho Berrigan’s poem by that name doesn’t use linked verse.

Monday, January 19, 2004

I’ve had this mental block with the fourth issue of Antennae, Jesse Seldess’ biannual out of Chicago. I really shouldn’t – I have work in the issue, one poem having actually been selected for the next edition of The Best American Poetry. But when I was thus informed, I had no idea where my own copy of the issue was – nor, for that matter, even what it looked like. I usually make reasonably meticulous (tho not perfect) notes for the bibliography that is up on the Electronic Poetry Center, but when I looked at my notes, I still had it listed as “forthcoming.”


So I asked Seldess to resend it, which he kindly did, & the instant I opened the package I slapped my forehead. I knew exactly where my earlier copies were –I could see them from where I’m sitting right now. But I hadn’t associated the little mag in the brown paper wrapper whose “logo” for the issue is, literally, a coffee stain from the bottom of a mug. Not just any mug either – a “Wings to Wisdom LLC commemorative mug” from a new age self-empowerment seminar that took place in Honolulu back in the summer of ’02. Antennae’s verso page credits Ryan Weber & entitles the coffee ring “Stop Seeking Start Seeing,” which is in fact the title of one of Eva Eschner Hogan’s seminars. That title just about captures my relationship to Antennae!


Inside are contributions by several people who should be familiar to readers of this blog: Stacy Szymaszek, David Pavelich, Kasey Mohammad, Jules Boykoff, Kaia Sand, John M. Bennett. But the one who really gets & holds my attention the first time seriously through Antennae is Heather Nagami. She has a series of ten poems, “The Agenda,” that all center around public &/or administrative discourse. “Roll Call” is the first and longest piece in the issue:


The new owner of a convenience store

on the southwest part of town

would like to keep the liquor license held by the previous owner;


he’s gotten rid of the liqueurs and other quick fixes,

reducing the store’s alcohol supply from four doors to three,

an accommodation that would be made only by a family man, such as himself,


especially considering the loss of profit –

alcohol sales being the main source of income

for such a small outfit, like cigarettes


at the Oriental and American Food store

on the corner of Grand and Stone,

not that it’s a small place, but surely less populated


than Albertson’s or Fry’s,

and while his corner store brings customers,

there’s gotta be that extra bottle to keep them on his corner instead of the one


two blocks down, which is exactly

what Council Member West has a problem with:

why does the neighborhood need another store selling liquor


when there already is one only two blocks east?

Council Member West thinks that the Mayor and all of the Council Members

should remember what happened when too many licenses were given on 4th Avenue.


Council Members Ronstadt and Anderson agree, and so does Ibarra,

who generally agrees with Leal, though Leal, the council member

for the ward in which the store is located, says nothing.


Juice, Council Member West commands,

peering down toward the man behind the mike. I think you’ll

be surprised at how many people will be plenty happy with juice.


Hardly ever has found language, appropriated discourse sounded more closely attuned to what Ms. Niedecker once referred to as the “condensary” of poetry – not Reznikoff’s Testimony, nor the early novels of Kathy Acker. One could characterize this as a narrative poem – it tells a story that will be familiar in any state in which liquor licenses are controlled at the local level – but I think that’s a misreading. Nagami is hearing that, certainly, but she is, I think, listening for all the other elements in the language, up to & including the delicious double meaning of the poem’s key word, Juice.


I think I can demonstrate this conclusively with the next poem in the sequence, “The Tale of the Substitute Motion”:


Council Member Ronstadt makes the motion that Council Member Ibarra replaces with a substitute motion; but Council Member Dunbar (new since the elections) asks Vice-Mayor West to address Ronstadt’s motion, which, says West, has not been seconded, and Dunbar seconds, though it’s too late to second it because Council Member Scott has just seconded the substitute motion.


The Rube Goldberg-esque quality of legislative process, even in a midsized city like Tucson*, amounts to a kind of perpetual motion machine that, for all of its furious activity, remains eternally static. What strikes me as a reader is the degree to which these texts remain true to their source materials while demonstrating a total commitment to the traditional effects of poetry – concision, a foregrounding of the formal elements of poetry, even a goofball elegance that has much to do with the New York School’s commitment to wit.


I first heard “The Roll Call” at a workshop Lisa Jarnot & I jointly gave at POG in Tucson last spring. It’s great to see it here amid the entire sequence of “The Agenda.” All are well written & together these poems make me want to turn on my local cable access channel just to hear small town pols talk zoning. What a great project!




* The same council members remain in office &, yes, current Vice-Mayor Ronstadt is related to the singer, as well as being the current iteration of one of Tucson’s leading political dynasties.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Bizarre-Misreading-of-the-Week Award: Mike Snider writes, and I quote: “Ron Silliman thinks that the line exists in space, not in time.” That’s not only not what I wrote, but fairly close to its opposite. The line functions in speech (i.e. in time) and in writing (where it is both temporal & spatial).


The interaction between the two dimensions is, of course, precisely where Derrida makes so much mischief in Of Grammatology. But to reduce the question of the line to an either/or proposition is simply to be guilty of base reductionism. Bad poetry lies on either side of that virgule. Bad theory too.


On the basis of this hallucinatory reading, Snider concludes that it “explains why he and I share so little in our thinking about poetry.” Well, yes, Michael, assigning meaning to language in an utterly random fashion probably does explain that.