Friday, August 06, 2004

I will be “on vacation” for the next two weeks or thereabouts, mostly in the area between Port Angeles & Port Townsend, west of Seattle. I’m not bringing the laptop – that’s the only way I can make it a vacation – so will probably on check on email & perhaps show up here once or twice at the very most.

It was on such a retreat – to an island off the southwest tip of Nova Scotia – that I first decided to try this blog, so I find these occasions useful. This time I want to think about how to begin working on the four poems or suites that will begin my next longpoem, Universe. At the moment, these are at least tentatively titled: Witness, Whatness, Wetness & Whiteness. We shall see what develops – one constant fact about my poetry is that it always surprises me.

If you are in or around Seattle on Thursday, August 12, come over to the Richard Hugo House at 1634 11th Avenue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood around 7:30. I’m reading in the
SubText poetry series, of which I’ve heard many good things over the years. I haven’t read in Seattle since 1985 & I’m looking forward to it.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Two sites worth turning your attention to:

Mini-Mag’s PhillySound feature, guest edited by CA Conrad. The typeface is the best argument against italics on the web that I’ve ever seen, but the poetry is worth plowing through the font. Greg Fuchs, Frank Sherlock, Tom Devaney, Molly Russakoff, Ethel Rackin, Ish Klein & Hassen.

Hassen shows up again in the MP3 audio archives of the
Carrboro (NC) Poetry Festival held this past June, along with a lot of other folks. This is a dynamite collection of contemporary poetry of all kinds & was obviously one hell of a fest. Just a few of the participants:

Linh Dinh
Lee Ann Brown
K. Silem Mohammad
Patrick Herron
Chris Murray
Murat Nemet-Nejat
Standard Schaefer
Lou Lipsitz
Ravi Shankar
Steve Katz
Gerald Barrax
Marc DuCharme
John Balaban
Tony Tost
Chris Vitiello
Clayton Couch
Jeffrey Beam
Judy Hogan

I don’t know whether to get more excited at all the new post-avant voices here or the presence of some poets I feel that I virtually grew up reading (Katz, Barrax, Lipsitz) who never travel enough – Barrax lived in Chester County for awhile & still never gave any readings locally that I ever found out about.

Something I can't quite place my finger on tells me that, deep down, Elizabeth Willise & I have very different aesthetics. The prose poems in Meteoric Flowers, her most recent volume (and a gorgeous production from Michael Cross' Atticus Finch press), are impeccably crafted. They're thoughtful, even beautiful.

An hour from now, I won't recall a single poem with any great clarity. In a day or two, even my favorite phrases ("I, Walt Whitman, with Texas in my mouth") will dissolve from memory. All that will remain is an impression of the linguistic equivalent of pastels, soft edges, perfect angles, precise as an English garden.

It is perhaps my problem with the well-wrought urn that is getting in the way here. The quality of "wroughtness" seems very much the primary value in these pieces & Willis is a master at her craft -there's never a wrong or uncertain move.

Yet I feel that these poems could be so much stronger if only there were a few mistakes, some real blunders or stumbles that would reveal another, less defended layer of the author. For under these glazed surfaces, I can't seem to find that essential element of risk. And I think risk is what I need to see in order to fully trust the poet.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

One work that is clearly not included in Tenney Nathanson’s forthcoming Erased Art is the seriously booklength poem, Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth), which will be published by O Books. All of the signature elements of Nathanson’s poetry are visible: the southwest, the Whitmanesque line, the cultural & intellectual history, appropriation (Nathanson’s complied a list of “intertexts” that is three pages long, single spaced & the sources are telling: Gilbert Sorrentino, Katsuki Sekida on Zen training, Don DeLillo, Frank Norris, Hawthorne, William Burroughs, Norman Fischer . . .). Actually, the Zen elements here do feel new, or at least I’d noticed them as such in Erased Art (although one might argue that Zen is exactly what the concept of erased art amounts to).

By now the Whitmanesque line feels far less like Whitman & far more like Nathanson, whatever its heritage. Here is just one:

illuminated like shop windows use of borrowed power addicted to those blank and submits without illusion of the psyche empty time a strange historical progress like a warning indeed Baudelaire’s obsession cannot be interpreted.

I hope others will appreciate the irony of a period at the end of a stretch of non-prose like that as much as I do. Here Nathanson indicates as his “intertext,” Susan Buck-Morss’ The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, but the relationship between Buck-Morss’ temporal reconstruction of Benjamin’s writing and Nathanson’s poem – which might be said to see through its sources all the way back to Baudelaire – feels purely archaeological. My sense is that Nathanson’s relationship to all these works is not unlike Simon Perchik’s use of photography or the many ways in which Larry Eigner utilized PBS as an alternative social window through to turn his neo-Objectivist gaze. In Home on the Range, the intertexts feel less like sources and almost as tho they were angels particular to a given section of the poem. One might, as one can with Perchik & Eigner as well, question the range – his interests may not be yours & tho one notes (with something finely tuned midway between approval & horror) that Nathanson’s range is capable of including both Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers & Dean Ornish’s Eat More, Weigh Less, I wonder what 20 years hindsight will do to the relative prestige of many of these take-off or trigger texts, the majority of which will be familiar to any humanities graduate of the near past.

The other major issue that Nathanson has to confront in a 107 section poem that uses such dense language bordering on what Shklovsky would have called plotless prose is how to develop the poem – literally how to have a beginning, middle & end. On first reading, his impulses are very close to my own in using a structure that one might think of as musical, beginning with shorter movements, proceeding to longer ones, using each section to identify, develop & sustain its own unique pitch. I’m reminded of Peter Yates’ great definition of content in music as aesthetic consistency & Nathanson would be an example of the principle. It helps that he has an ear that is continually complicated by an overlay of mind – think of that line above as a mechanism for identifying a level of communicable anxiety. At that level, this poem is one long elaboration of the senses, yet it’s just as deeply embedded in history & brings a reading list may cause some conservative poets to feel that Nathanson’ encroaching on their turf: Robert Frost, Clarence Major, Yehudi Amichai. It’s a complex production, yet completely governed by desire & its cognates.

Presumably in the next 12 months or thereabouts, both of these books will be readily available and the mystery of how come Tucson has been such a vital center for poetry these past 15 years will seem considerably less mysterious to us auslanders. We should thank publishers Charles Alexander & Leslie Scalapino for making this possible. It is long overdue.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

At one level, Tenney Nathanson's One Block Over appears to represent an intersection between the more playful elements in Projectivism (the Creeley of Pieces, say, or aspects of Jonathan Williams’ work) and the New York School, but placed into a cultural context that is thoroughly southwestern & also thoroughly informed by 20th century philosophy, aesthetics & history. If there is a NY School figure this reminds me of, it wouldn’t be Koch necessarily or Padgett so much as it is the poetry of David Shapiro, another writer who is both thoroughly capable of being playful and serious in the same moment, and who is also given to longer, linked forms.

One Block Over will appear again in a forthcoming volume from Chax, entitled Erased Art, that makes this even more clear as it brings in an influence not especially visible in the earlier book – I want to characterize it as “Whitman” because formally that does appear to be the point of origin, but rather than being an act or art of nostalgia that one might anticipate, Nathanson seems to have understood that

  • Whitman was the original New York poet

  • Whitman, a journalist by profession, was thoroughly involved in the culture and issues of his time

So this is a Whitman viewed through a crucible that includes the likes, say, of Kafka or the Adorno of Minima Moralia. And a Whitman who’s read John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Charles Bernstein. And one who definitely has read Joseph Kosuth and the Language Art conceptualists.

Erased Art is a big, broad collection & reads almost like a selected poems. The Rauschenberg/De Kooning allusion in its title is much more than incidental – Nathanson is perpetually making use of intertextual materials, sometimes cited at the moment of appropriation, but often not. The effect is not unlike the way the best hip hop (think of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet) or the way one those familiar faces in the murals of Diego Rivera redeploy the culture as they find it. If there is a poetic antecedent, it’s possibly the Allen Ginsberg of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which not coincidently happens to be Ginsberg’s best poem.

Within Erased Art, “One Block Over” comes across as a very different poem than when presented free of context in the confines of its own book. Here it feels more like one of three or four poles between which Nathanson’s poetry moves, in the way (for example) that the Williams of Paterson is not precisely the Williams of Spring & All. And there are poems here that my descriptions above don’t come anywhere near even touching, such as an intense piece, ”The Wish to Steal a Baby in a Fifteen Year Old Girl,” that one might read as “post-confessional” were it not for its march through the pronouns – the first person critical to the first section, the third person more so in the second, the second person in its final movement.

Erased Art makes me wonder just how much the tip of an iceberg this book actually is. There is no telling with the individual metabolism of poetic composition. It’s almost a question of the biology of the poet – some folks, like Robert Kelly and Larry Eigner, produce thousands of pages in a lifetime. Someone like David Melnick or Alan Bernheimer seem unlikely to reach 300 pages. If one considers the long silences in the careers of George Oppen & Carl Rakosi, it gets even more complicated. Erased Art is a volume that leaves one hungry to see the entire terrain.

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.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

I am told that The Sophist, which Salt has not yet published, has become the second best selling item in its catalog this past week.