Saturday, January 31, 2004


Ray Bianchi replies to Curtis Faville’s comments on Chicago:


Dear Ron:


Read the post on your Blog about Chicago from your friend Curtis and some of the things that were stated were I think a little unfair and untrue. To say that Downtown Chicago Died is not only unfair but untrue, in fact apart from Midtown Manhattan downtown Chicago and North Michigan avenue is the largest and most vibrant downtown in the United States. Show me another city, apart from New York, that has the vibrancy of the Loop or North Michigan Avenue? Michigan Avenue is a far nicer street that 5th Avenue and yes it is cold but that is life. Thousands of new people are living in Downtown Chicago in new and rehabbed buildings. Is this a sign of death?


Regarding the comment about the police and Chicago's segregation and the comment about ' dropping black teenagers across La Salle street" shows a lack of knowledge La Salle street is downtown, both sides are in the city. Chicago is segregated but no worse than other big American cities and frankly Chicago has many more livable, open neighborhoods than New York or Philly or many others. I bet ya that the police in New York harass Black kids in the Upper East Side and I know that the police harass minority kids in Dallas – this is an American problem not a Chicago problem.


Regarding Oak Park, where I live, it has a great collection of Wright houses and the wonderful Home and Studio which has one of the greatest children's rooms ever constructed. Chicago has allot of problems and it is a raw place, like Nelson Algren said loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose, but at least we are not a fake city of faux urbanism at least you know where you are in Chicago.





Friday, January 30, 2004


Ken James, who is preparing a screenplay of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, responds to my comments on expectation.


Dear Ron,


This is your "Dhalgren" scriptwriter again. Just read with pleasure your last blog about information, expectation, cities, film, and poetry. Having recently come back from McGill University in Montreal – a city whose downtown I’ve only visited once, and that fifteen years ago – I’ve just had a vivid experience of the kind of "heightened attention in a city" you’re talking about.


As a screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting (and a self-proclaimed "structure junky"), I enjoyed your remarks on mainstream film structure. I was particularly taken with this:


"In more formulaic Hollywood flicks, I sometimes think that there is a three-part structure:

·         Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.

·         Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B

·         A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion Almost all the pleasure for me occurs in the first of these three movements."


You’ll be pleased to hear that in the film industry, this three-act structure you discern is known as… "three-act structure". It’s the basic template for essentially every film out of Hollywood for the last thirty years. (I choose that time period because that’s about how long Syd Field’s book "Screenplay" has been out, which made explicit the structural rules scriptwriters had been using for decades.) In any given 120-minute film, the first 30 minutes are devoted to the set-up of the situation and characters, the middle 60 minutes focus on complications of the situation, and the last 30 minutes focus on the resolution of those complications.


An important additional element of the template is that what drives the narrative from Act One into Act Two, and from Act Two into Act Three, is a binary, either / or decision on the part of the protagonist. The Act One decision is the "complicating" decision (and in the most conservative films, it’s a morally "bad" decision, a moral error), and the Act Two decision is the "resolving" decision (conservative version: the "redemptive" decision) to undo the complications that followed from the Act One decision. Act Three plays out the consequences of the Act Two decision, for good or ill.


With my students I like to use "The Matrix" as a textbook example of 3-Act structure. (But any Keanu Reeves film will do – as well as any Tom Cruise film, or any film showcasing a Youthful Young (Male) Character’s Coming Of Age.) 30 minutes into the film, the character Morpheus presents the protagonist Neo with the choice of whether to eat "the blue pill or the red pill" – one of which will allow Neo to forget the existence of the Matrix, the other to commit to the destruction of the Matrix. At the point in the film where Morpheus presented those pills, I was the only person in the theater to burst out laughing. You couldn’t have a more obvious representation of the binary Act One decision than that! And, as inevitably as "shave-and-a-haircut" is followed by "two bits", 60 minutes later Neo decides to be honest and admit that he has been told by a reliable source that he is not the savior everyone thinks he is – which turns out to be the redemptive decision. And the last half-hour of the film – Act Three – plays out the consequences of that decision.


Probably the single most crippling aspect of three-act structure is that once the protagonist makes his or her Act Two decision, there is no more internal conflict. The tension of Act Three is purely external: will the protagonist succeed in resolving the crisis or not? That’s the reason both for the "car chase or... F-X-heavy" aspect of conclusions to mainstream films, and for the fact that they almost never dramatically work: all conflict has been displaced onto the external landscape, so there are no questions left for the audience to ask, particularly questions involving emotional identification.


I believe something similar goes on at the end of Act One, when the protagonist makes his or her first big decision. It’s at that moment that all the other aspects of the film that are in play – all that "data" coming at the viewer so stimulatingly in the first act – are decisively put into the service of character decision and action. And at that point, for me as well as you, most films become a lot less interesting. In particular, they become a lot less visual; in terms of the amount of informational weight being carried by the visual part of the film after Act One, you might as well be reading a book.


However, over the last ten years or so there has been a welcome trend in commercial film (even if it’s coded as "alternative" cinema) toward the acceptance of ambiguity and structural complication as a legitimate element of "entertainment". My guess is that the main instigator of this trend (and remember I’m talking about mainstream American film, not the avant-garde or non-US commercial films that have been doing this forever) was Quentin Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" – which played brilliantly with structure – as well as Tarantino’s oft-quoted accompanying critical observation: "I’ve got nothing against linear narrative. I’m just saying it isn’t the only game in town." This was a great remark, as it uses the kind of macho language Hollywood knows how to hear. And I think Hollywood did hear it. That doesn’t mean Hollywood will keep hearing it, of course – its products will always trend toward the conservative – but the field has opened up a little for now, which is a good thing.




Ken James

Thursday, January 29, 2004


Curtis Faville shares my interest in architecture, so I was not surprised to hear from him after my comments on the work in Chicago of Thomas Beeby, Frank Gehry & Frank Lloyd Wright.


Dear Ron:


Wright's Robie House was the first important example of the so-called "Prairie Style", though historically there were at least three other architects working in the Mid-West at that time who were associated with design of this kind, albeit much less talented (and self-aggrandizing) than FLW. Wright's houses typically cost 5-10 times more than traditional houses, often had "unbuildable" components, the roofs leaked, the floors sank, the doors stuck, etc., and each required the seduction of a "special" client with bottomless pockets and a flair for the unconventional. Most of FLW's important works were built for just such clients. The interiors were both stimulating and revolutionary, but ultimately proved uncomfortable for their occupants. One by one, the houses have passed into private or public trusts, run as institutional showcases or tourist destinations, which function they appear to serve admirably.


The next time you visit Chi, you should bop over to Oak Park and see the Wright House & Studio, and do the walking tour of the dozen or so houses (all within 3-4 blocks of radius) he designed circa the first decade of the century. My favorite is the Heurtley House, only two doors down. It's not open to the public, but (like almost all his works) can be toured in numerous excellent books which have been published mostly in Japan, where FLW's reputation is even greater than in America.


Not only was Wright not a particularly practical designer, he was a horrible teacher, as evidenced by the fact that no one of any note ever attended his Taliesin East (in Wisconsin), or Taliesin West schools in Arizona. Nevertheless, these are among his architectural masterpieces and if you have the opportunity, you should visit both. The one in Wisconsin, in Spring Green, is only about 50 miles away from where my real Father, John Calef, grew up in New London, and undoubtedly was the main reason John became an architect.


If you have the time, you should read a good biography of FLW. His life had as many turnings and abrupt crises as any artist in history, with great tragedies and triumphs all along the way. His second wife Mamah Borthwick was murdered, along with several others, by an ax-wielding servant one fateful night in 1914. Perhaps it was God's way of punishing Wright, who had carried on an ignominious affair with Mamah while still living with and married to wife number one and their several children in the Oak Park compound.


Truly a fascinating man, but not one to hire to build your house.


Chicago is a deeply divided city, with the notorious ghettos on the South Side as ingrown and regressive as they were 75 years ago. Police still routinely pick up black teenagers wandering north across La Salle into the western suburbs and drive them back over the "border." Downtown Chicago died in the 1950's like most other major American cities, and has never really recovered. It doesn't help that Michigan Avenue abuts the Lake and its ever-present gale-force winds. The old joke is that the chain links along the sidewalk are for people to hold onto during the winter to prevent being pushed southwest across the ice. I like the old red stone arts building across the street from the Art Institute, with its 1920's elevators, and echoing stairwells. I was equally stunned by the Seurat when I visited in 1994, and spent 30 minutes in front of it, as I'm sure my mother must have done when she saw it 57 years earlier.






There are two Wright projects in which I’ve spent a serious amount of time over the years. One is the Guggenheim & the other is his final project, completed after his death, the Marin Civic Center. Designed to harmonize with the surrounding hills, the structure inside is a serious comment on how architecture communicates values. It consists of two long buildings that connect at a central rounded dome. On the top floor under the dome is – or was, when I worked in Marin County in the 1970s – the county’s main library. On the floor beneath, in one of the most oppressive rooms I’ve ever been inside, is the boardroom of the county supervisors. Functionally the room is a fraction of the circle – literally a slice of a pie – & its interior uses low ceilings and a “sunburst” pattern of fluorescent lighting (radiating out from a point behind the supervisors’ seating) that makes the audience physically want to cringe whenever inside the room. The worst element, however, is that the county jail further below is built so as to have no windows & no access to natural light.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


My note about expectation & perception in Chicago yesterday got me thinking. Back in 1970, when I spent the summer in Buffalo, I had an experience that has shaped my thinking about aesthetics & form ever since. Having grown up in the Bay Area, it was my first real time trying to live anywhere else & it took a couple of weeks for me to get the hang of the landscape. But as I did, I began to realize that I was seeing less & less of what was there. To put this another way, at first I had no mechanism for knowing what was an important detail – a landmark, for example – and what was not, so I was literally soaking it all in. But as I began to remember landmarks & link them in my imagination to a map of the city, I no longer needed to absorb so much data. In the Bay Area, where I had been living at that point for over two decades, I could go from place to place almost with my eyes shut.*


In motion pictures, novels, even poems – especially longer ones – any time-based art form, something to the same process applies. Often in a motion picture – regardless of quality – there is a period in which the details feel quite chaotic to the viewer as he or she sorts out basic elements (e.g., who is the main character here?). In more formulaic Hollywood flicks, I sometimes think that there is a three-part structure:

·         Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.

·         Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B

·         A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion


Almost all the pleasure for me occurs in the first of these three movements. Indeed, I would argue that the works I like best are those that do the best job extending & propelling that first stage to the greatest degree possible. When I think of the list I gave January 7 of the novels that have most held my interest written over the past fifty years – Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net – which I characterized at the time as “almost all narratives that ‘go nowhere,’ & which would be unrepresentable in film”** – a major feature is that each lengthens this first movement & to some degree seems predicated on stretching it out as far as can be imagined.


The same dynamics apply in poetry of course. A poem in quatrains tells you an enormous amount about itself even before you’ve absorbed the first word – an entire series of expectations are set & framed. These can be met or confounded – either approach has its pleasures – but it’s significantly different from a poem that leaves the reader unsettled, off-balance, not certain quite what to expect. The latter seeks to preserve the experience of newness formally precisely by denying the reader predetermined landmarks. In some sense, I think this was the way in which a good deal of what came to be known as language poetry was first received in the 1970s. People were – and to some degree still are – unsure of whether or not to take Lyn Hejinian’s My Life as a poem or a novel. Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps won a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 1979, even tho the work has no characters, no plot & nothing fictive in its text – it was, however, in a paragraph,  In 1979, a hard right margin was all it took for the Pushcart editors to not only decide something was fiction, but award-winning fiction at that.


One problem that any serious post-avant writing confronts is that, over time, readers come to understand the landmarks to any new terrain. What was comically misidentified in the 1970s becomes instantly recognizable just 25 years later. In order to keep it new, the writer (me or you or whomever) must go beyond the exoskeletal components of structure to create a sense of liveliness internally – through word choices, sentence juxtapositions, the underlying logic. I obviously have a serious bias towards building in devices – like the “new sentence” – that block or at least slow the integration of the text, the point at which it moves from the first of my three mock stages into the moving machinery one. Even as a reader, I am more apt than not to avoid reading the title until the very end of the poem & oftentimes not even then. I’ve gone through entire books without taking note of a title. I simply find them too confining. And I guess that my own titles have a tendency to point anywhere but the text.


The logic behind all this isn’t newness for the sake of novelty, some sort of attention deficit approach to contemporary meaning, but rather to maximize the reader’s (& my own) attentiveness to detail. That’s what gets lost when a reader gets too comfortable with the landmarks of the poem – why, for example, it’s so very hard to write a good haiku – just as it’s what gets lost when you get too familiar with a landscape or city. Slushing around Chicago in the snow last weekend was a great reminder of just how awake one feels when confronted with so much new information.




* Indeed, in some circumstances I could literally do it. Having grown up in a MacGregor house in Albany, I thoroughly internalized the basic floor plan this developer favored as he populated the flatlands of the East Bay with starter homes in the 1920s. When Barrett Watten & Carla Harryman bought a MacGregor, the only difference was that the floor plan was reversed left-right from the one in which I’d been raised. I could go anywhere. Later, Krishna & I bought our own MacGregor – it had a couple of hallway doors placed differently, but otherwise was identical to the home in which I’d been raised.


** I subsequently heard from someone who has written a screenplay for Dhalgren.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2004


I got home too late Sunday to see & hear Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons. Fortunately, Amy’s Robot has both screen captures & an MP3 of Pynchon & Tom Clancy speaking their lines.




I could have been excoriated, but I wasn’t. Although I was teased ever so gently over the weekend for my “poor Chicago” crack, Stacy Szymaszek & I were repeatedly told that our audience of 75 was the largest ever for the Chicago Poetry Project at the Harold Washington Library. I can’t speak for Stacy, but overall I was treated like the toast of the town.


“So what do you think of Chicago poets, now?” I was asked sometime around midnight on Saturday. A fair question, tho impossible, on the basis of a weekend visit, to answer. I came away with nothing but positive impressions, tho, and wasn’t particularly surprised when one Milwaukee poet who’d come down for the occasion emailed me on Monday to say that “It was the best poetry gathering I think I’ve ever been to, with everyone seeming so open to each other.”


That openness – the absence of any BS factor or visible ego games – was indeed palpable, and something I noted when I did respond to that question. But I wonder, at least in part, if that is a feature specific to Chicago, or rather an index of distance from any “major scene.” Chicago may be a destination city like New York or San Francisco, but I suspect that the motives that bring people to it must be different, so that the “we’re-all-in-this-together” camaraderie approaches the feel one gets in Philadelphia or Tucson.


Considering that I was in town for only a little over 36 hours (which included two nights’ sleep), I managed to see & do a fair amount – not only the reading & a party at the loft of Mary Margaret Sloan & Larry Casalino, but a trip to Seminary Co-op Bookstore where I spent a bundle, a tour of the Art Institute in the very able hands of John Tipton & time to hang post-reading at a tavern called Kasey’s. I met many people who had only been names in print or email to me before – Tipton for one, Suzie Timmons, Peter O’Leary, Jesse Seldess, Lisa Samuels, Steve Timm, Ray Bianchi, & of course Stacy Szymaszek – and was to reconnect with others, such as Anne Kingsbury & Karl Gartung from the legendary Woodland Pattern, Bill Fuller & Bob Harrison. In addition to the stack of books that are being shipped by Seminary – I for some reason hadn’t expected it literally to be in a church basement, complete with someone playing an unseen organ upstairs – I came home with several world music CDs that I’ve been listening to all day, books by Fuller & Timmons, and copies of new issues of Antennae, Chicago Review & Conundrum. As I tooled around town, I was reminded how the flatness of the landscape functioned as a provocation for great architecture. The Harold Washington Library, designed by Thomas Beeby, is itself a building worth a visit. In addition to all the skyscrapers, I also zipped past (more or less literally) Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House & an emerging Frank Gehry band shell that is just starting to take shape (or misshape, as the case may be). The building where Mary Margaret & Larry have their loft was once a Montgomery Ward’s location & is topped with a giant statue of Artemis that is visible for miles.


This visit also reminded me of two events that taught me a good deal about the disorientation of expectations. The first occurred in 1964, when I traveled across the country in search literally for adventure & thus set foot into the Art Institute – it may have been only the second or third museum I’d ever been inside, museums not being something my family ever did. When I first came upon George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, a painting I knew only from books & the “art postcards” I would buy near the University of California campus as a boy to decorate my room, it was much larger than I had ever imagined. I instantly burst into tears, something I’ve subsequently done with only two other paintings.* This isn’t necessarily an endorsement of Seurat, but the painting’s size completely floored me. I think I’d imagined pointillism to aspire to smallness in more ways than it actually does. I suddenly realized that I had to rethink whatever was in my head about the history of painting – I had to actually see the paintings.


The second such event was how I first met Mary Margaret Sloan, which was through her husband Larry. Larry joined the West Coast editorial collective of the Socialist Review back when I was its editor in the late 1980s and the collective had decided to hold one of its editorial meetings at his house. I hadn’t known Larry beforehand, but his credentials (M.D., Ph.D., experience with the United Farm Workers) were impeccable, so I was pleased to have someone with both theoretical & practical knowledge about the health industry on the collective. The meeting gathered in Larry’s livingroom on the north side of Bernal Heights in San Francisco & at some point in the conversation, my eyes just wandered over the coffee table that was in the center of the room where I saw a copy of Diane Ward’s Relation. Now the SR collective was not especially given to culture – I could count on Michael & Pam Rosenthal to generally know any reference I made to avant-garde history & for Carole Hatch & Steve McMahon to be supportive in principle, but there were also people on the collective like Jim Shoch – a good friend from our days working in DSA – who liked to brag about how much he hated culture. I couldn’t remember bringing the book – in fact, once I thought about it, I was sure I hadn’t. It had been awhile since I’d read the book & I wasn’t carrying it around with me in my book bag. Why the hell was it there? I think the whole last half of the meeting just floated past me, I was so absorbed in trying to figure this out. The obvious answer – that the book belonged there – struck me as so improbable that I couldn’t imagine it. Which meant that I had to figure out the narrative by which its presence, staring up at me, made sense. After the meeting concluded, I asked Larry if that was his book & he said, “Oh that belongs to Margy.” A little prodding & I quickly discovered by Mary Margaret Sloan & I knew many people in common, but somehow had not yet met.


One could make a cautionary tale out of this, but that’s not my interest here. What I want to note is how expectation frames perception. Even though I’ve been to Chicago maybe eight times in the last forty years, I don’t really know it. The result is that I’m immersed into a state of constant newness – even when I’m seeing old friends, like Larry & Mary Margaret, the context is entirely different. I come home charged up, entirely thrilled by the experience, by the newness of it. The rolling hills of the Delaware Valley no longer seem so much like failed mountains** in contrast with the table-top landscape of Chicago.







* A Pollock in the National Gallery & Delacroix’s Lady Liberty in the Louvre. 


** Mount Misery at Valley Forge is no larger than Albany Hill in the Bay Area, a pimple on the landscape when compared just to the Berkeley Hills let alone to Mount Tamalpais or Mount Diablo

Monday, January 26, 2004


Two radically different books that are, at some level, both involved in the process of coming to terms with a major poet are Michael Rothenberg’s Unhurried Vision, his journal for the year 1999, when he was working with Philip Whalen, and Ezra Pound’s The Saló Cantos, edited by Kimberly Filbee, a poet & critic whom I believe does not exist.


Saló, 20 or so miles from Brescia on the shore of Lake Garda, east of Milan, is the city to which Mussolini fled after the Americans landed in the south in 1943 & took Rome. By now, Mussolini was little more than a puppet for an occupying German force, one that began to round up the Jews (something Mussolini himself had never done). With the end of the fascist project obviously in sight, Pound visits Saló & then composes two short elegies for the lost cause. Canto 72 is presented as an elegy for, & largely addressed to, the Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti, who in death had become a fascist literary icon. Canto 73, written in the persona of Cavalcanti, tells the story of a rape victim who deliberately leads a group of Canadian soldiers into a minefield, where she & they are blown to smithereens. The celebration of a suicide bomber!


Filbee, whom I take to be the project of one or more post-avant poets, wants to confront the problem of Pound, the idea that the “father” of American modernism was himself as close to pure evil as one might imagine. Yet he is also The Father. The book’s production is almost an apotheosis of these competing visions. The volume itself is tiny – just six centimeters wide, 7.5 high (roughly two by three inches). The main body of type is just two points high – one-fifth the size of the type here. Quotations & footnotes are even smaller – one-point type. With the type photo-offset, it’s hard going unless you have your magnifying glass from the compact edition of OED handy. Yet the book is also meticulous – it has both front & back jacket pockets, one containing the opening of Canto 72 in the original, the other containing all of Canto 73 (short enough to have been printed on a single page in two columns). Each flap also has a photo of Pound giving the fascist salute in 1958 upon his return to Italy after incarceration in the U.S. The translation of Canto 72 is by Pound himself, Canto 73 by “Shinaz Giusti,” another nomme de intellectual property appropriation (& which may or may not be the same Shinaz Giusti of Lubbock, TX, who co-authored Rodnoni Sadiani in 1996).


This is a painful little project & Pound’s own writing doesn’t improve it – these are easily the most turgid sections of The Cantos, which is saying something when you consider all the Van Buren ones. In fact, reading them, I am even more amazed at the transformation that makes the Pisan Cantos possible. Surrender, in the most literal sense, has serious psychic value. But Pound in the cage was a different creature than the survivor who returned to Italy a decade later. Filbee’s point, tho, is worth keeping in mind – these particular Cantos, which have been translated & published previously on at least two occasions, really are political agitprop before they are anything else.


If The Saló Cantos have the feel of an exorcism, however incomplete, Michael Rothenberg's Unhurried Vision comes across as an act of devotion. Composed in 1999, the year when Whalen's health truly began to fail, it chronicles Rothenberg's work assisting the old beat poet as he edits Overtime, Whalen's selected poems & package his archives for sale to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.


But Rothenberg's journal does much more than that & does so almost without seeming to try. Rothenberg, like more than a couple of other poets who've found themselves in Whalen's orbit over the years, adopts & adapts Whalen's own notational literary style. Although Whalen himself appears not to have written  in many years (the latest journal Rothenberg finds is dated from1987), it's as if he's found a method of channeling his poetry through others. And, indeed, these are very pleasurable poems very much in the same way that Phil Whalen's poems are pleasurable: attentive to detail, just a little cryptic in places, seldom piling multiple meanings onto a single word or phrase, showing a wry wit, quite generous & yet full of irony.


Part of the pleasure, no doubt, is voyeuristic, getting to glimpse the old master with his guard down, imagining his lone kin


a sister in San Diego

smoking cigarettes in front of TV

as frail as he is


or seeing just who shows up for his birthday party, or the cranky comments of a man irritated by modern medicine. Parts too are sad, not so much the frailty of an elder, but seeing Whalen misunderstood literally (referred to as a language poet, by the New York Times no less) as if his poetry doesn’t stand just fine on its own two feet.


Unlike the effaced critic Kimberly Filbee, Rothenberg doesn't try to erase himself in this project, but it's hard to know exactly where Whalen ends & he begins (& vice versa). The project itself suggests that this need not really matter.

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