Thursday, October 07, 2004

After my reading on Tuesday, I went out with Jonathan Mayhew & David Perry. I’d met Mayhew the day before, but hadn’t met Perry before – this being the “New York/Brooklyn David Perry” whose poetry I’ve praised here before (and suspect I shall again), not the older poet David Perry who attended Bard in the 1960s, in the days of Tom Meyer, Harvey Bialy & John Gorham & who later came to San Francisco State – I haven’t seen that David Perry in something like 30 years, tho I’ve heard that he’s a therapist somewhere in upstate New York. (David Perry – the NY/Brooklyn & now KC David Perry – says that he has at least seen me before, having attended a reading I did at the Drawing Center in Manhattan last year.)

But I have (or had) an image in my mind as to what David Perry was going to look like, based on my impression of his texts. This is an old & silly mode of magical thinking no doubt, made worse in my case I suspect by having discovered when I was young & impressionable that Robert Kelly, who seemed to write more poetry than anyone else I had heard of, at least in the 1960s & ‘70s, was also the largest of American poets, some 400 pounds or thereabouts. I remember the first time I saw Kelly – at a reading in the Student Union at the University of California. He came up to Robert Duncan, who was there to introduce him, and said “I’ve grown,” to which Duncan replied, “How can you tell?”

At some point, Robert got his weight under control, for which his I’m sure heart must thank him, so that its his almost mythic eyebrows that everyone now thinks of when they put a visual association to his name.

Similarly, there used to be a writer of long, skinny poems out of Boston by the name of Nathan Whiting, who was, it so happened, also a runner of marathons & somebody who looked just like a runner of marathons.

All of which is a lead into my surprise at how tall David Perry is, taller in my imagination than he writes. Not that he’s Yao Ming tall or anything, just your basic lanky American kid (he looks a great deal like the singer Jonathan Meyer), but I was expecting I suppose that the compactness of his writing – there is no excess in his writing anywhere – would be replicated anatomically as well.

I’ve already conceded how silly this is, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s unusual. Indeed it’s something I’ve written about before – we read the work of a writer and project both onto that work & from it a whole range of things that are in our minds, hearts, imaginations, whether or not the text itself supports it when you come right down to a rigorous close reading. From some texts, but only some, one of the impressions I’ve always gotten is one of the writer’s body. Somebody who writes something like Maximus ought, in fact, to be huge – as Charles Olson was. But the person who penned Frank O’Hara’s poems ought to have been compact – and was.

But what about Biotherm? Did Kelly’s poems shrink because he shed weight? Did Allen Ginsberg write any differently during the periods when he shaved & wore suits than in the periods when he was dressed as Ye Olde Bearded Bard? As I said, I concede the silliness up front.

What I don’t understand, and what I’d really love to figure out, is what it is precisely that creates these impressions. Why was I surprised at David Perry’s height? Or, years & years ago, at how very tiny Paul Blackburn was in comparison to his poems?

This doesn’t happen to me with every poet, or may be even one out of five. If I take a look at the three books of poetry that I brought with me on this trip other than the Duncan/H.D. ones, I realize that Eleni Sikelianos’ The California Poem is one of those works that seems to confirm this mode of magical thinking – long woman, long poem, not unlike her aunt Anne Waldman. But I don’t think anybody could tell what Beverly Dahlen looks like from reading

& I have no clue whatsoever what Allison Cobb looks like from Born2 (the jacket material suggests that she has two heads, but I doubt this.). And it’s not a sign of any weakness in any of these three books, either.

I know I’m not the only person who does this sort of thing. I remember once, years ago, seeing Hannah Weiner say, over & over & over again in utter amazement, upon first meeting Erica Hunt, “You’re black. You’re black. You’re black.” (Miss Manners Hannah was not.) And at least one draft of a major review of In the American Tree made the point that that anthology was 100% white, so Hannah was not alone in failing to pick up that salient detail from Hunt’s writing itself.

In some sense, this takes me back to the “test” I ran on this blog last year, posting a number of poems anonymously, which got a lot of vehement reaction from people who like, or think they like poets A & B but not C, but who discovered that it was C’s poem that resonated with them, and not that of A & B. What do we get – or think we get – from the poem?

I don’t, for example, have the same visual association with Jonathan Mayhew, either from his poetry or his blog. He looks ten years younger than he says he is, but that’s a different story altogether.

Lance Phillips wonderful interview series, Here Comes Everybody , which tends to ask every participant the same questions, has as its final one, precisely the relation of the poem to the body. Most of the answers to date, mine definitely included, have been pathetic. And my notes here in this blog haven’t been much more illuminating I fear.

Part of the problem I think is that even if this phenomenon is widespread – and I suspect that it is – there seems to be nothing “objective” about it. I’m sure that there must be people who read Maximus with no sense of Charles Olson’s 6’9” frame. And I’m sure that somebody out there has a distinct image of Jonathan Mayhew from his writing. (Actually, I’m sure that there must be several, but that some of them must be wildly wrong.)

I want to say, as if to justify myself, that it’s something in the poem that if we only looked hard enough we might identify & even name. For example, I would love to argue that certain poets foreground the physicality of their poems more than do others, and that we generalize or project from these features. But I can hardly imagine a poet more into the physicality of his own poems than Robert Duncan – it’s one of the things I love about his best work – but I don’t think you can get any sense of the person from his poems, other than details he mentions, such as his wayward eyes. Jack Spicer seems just as profoundly not into the physicality of his poems, and I love them just as much as I do the best of Duncan.

So what is the trigger in the text? And what is it, exactly, that the trigger triggers? I’d love to hear suggestions, even full blown (even, for that matter, half-baked) theories.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

I've never envied bookstore workers their jobs, since in addition to inadequate pay & not nearly enough benefits, it's always felt as if there was a certain toxin involved in any environment dedicated to the movement of books as commodities. I spent part of this afternoon in what is very close to a utopia for poetry -- the warehouse stacks of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley -- but came away, as I have in the past, depressed rather than uplifted. This isn't a negative comment about SPD at all -- it's staff have been heroic at making poetry available for decades now. And, as is always the case, I can't step inside its facility without dropping a couple of hundred dollars.

But in addition to stacks of books that I already own, SPD has row upon row of books that frankly I'm not much interested in, or maybe was vaguely interested in in 1975, but not since. Especially sad, of course, is to see the dwindling stock of presses whoses publishers have since passed on, knowing that in many cases once these copies are gone, these books will be available only through rare book services like It's a distribution venue, of course, but at the same time SPD (or, for that matter, any of its competitors, such as Consortium) is also a kind of living museum of the written word.

SPD is not nearly as scattershot as, say, a publication like Poets & Writers, or an institution like AWP -- both of which often seem just a step behind Writers Digest in a race to the lowest common denominator. But even under the best of circumstances, there is far more poetry out there now than there was ten or twenty years ago, and it does seem at times as if there is not nearly strong enough a correlation between quality and publication. And the presses housed at SPD do a better job of making that value connection than do, say, presses like Norton or FSG.

How is one to wade through it all? I recall Anselm Hollo saying that when he worked in London in the 1950s & '60s, one could buy very close to all of the books of small press poetry available in America in that city. But one reason simply was that there wasn't so much of it. For the past 30 years, we've all suffered from two separate problems -- one being absolute quantity -- there is just so much of it -- the other being that the distribution venues for printed books in particular have dwindled, driven out of the market in part by chains, but also by the larger economics of retail in advanced industrial nations.

Possibly, just possibly, the internet will solve one of the problems, even if (and as) it makes the other one worse. It promises to make every book available from any publisher capable of direct fulfillment -- a skill like anything else that takes time & dedication -- but it may yet lead to even more titles. No use bemoaning the fact that it's not 1955 anymore -- it's time presses start to prepare for the day when intermediaries -- bookstores & distributors alike -- have simply disappeared from the equation.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Seeing Kenneth Irby last night & today has been a great pleasure. I hadn’t seen Kenneth in at least a decade until I ran into him at the Zukofsky Centennial in New York two weeks ago. (Alas, nobody thought to advertise that he was reading with Robert Grenier at Columbia on the Thursday prior to the conference or I might well have come to NYC a day earlier just to hear that -- I’ve been told by several people that it was a wonderful reading.)

So twice in one month is a particular treat. Today, he came to my talk on The H.D. Book and brought with him two separate copies of the book -- a printout of the PDF file and a carefully assembled collection of photocopies of all of the magazine appearances (save, I think for the selection of what was then called The Day Book, from Origin, Second Series). Plus Irby is one person who can say without question that he knew Duncan personally far better than I did.

This reminded me of a thought I’ve had ever since I got Marjorie Perloff’s autobiography, The Vienna Paradox, on how generational and age differences matter in poetry (&, just perhaps, in life as well). I’m reminded also, although in a different manner, of an assertion I’ve heard ascribed to Charles Olson, arguing that people develop to a certain year & then “freeze,” or become stuck permanently at some stage of their life & forever after become “bombs” of 1984 (or whatever the year) in all they say or do, the way Tom Clark seems forever to be an instance of the 1960s.

But that’s not really the important thing about age and age differences, although that does happen (and is always sad when it does). That accounts, for example, for all the New American Poets who have shown themselves unable to read poets younger than themselves (Creeley is the great exception to that rule). No doubt some of that is happening to the language poets as well. [And this blog is an active attempt on my part to prevent it from happening here.]

More important, though, is that gap that occurs not at the end of a writers maturation, but rather just the opposite -- at the very beginning. I came into poetry -- that verb phrase is very deliberate -- in 1965. Events that occurred to me in the years immediately prior (1960-65) might as well have occurred in 1910-1915 for all of my direct access to them. Even if I knew all of the individuals, it was something about them, whatever it might have been, that had taken place before I knew them.

Someone like Kenneth, who has, I guess, something like seven years’ head start on me has a much greater grasp of that time frame that I think of as the “New American” decades far better than I ever will. But from a certain point onward, our experiences tend to be far more alike, simply because we were operating during the same time frames (one of the great evenings of my life during the late 1960s occurred at a party at his house in Berkeley, for example, in which I successfully seduced two of the most interesting young writers I knew, but I suspect Kenneth had no knowledge of it since consummations occurred asynchronously & elsewhere).

Similarly, my experiences diverge most strongly from Marjorie Perloff’s not in the years after 1970, for example, but rather in the ones before 1955, since she became an adult 13 or so years ahead of me. Her experience of World War 2 is profound & important. I, on the other hand, was a victory baby, conceived after my father returned from the Pacific.

Doing this blog has been a revelation in coming to terms with younger poets in particular for me, precisely because they are making a history that is new -- and frankly different -- from my own. I have experiences they can’t share, but this also gives them a perspective I’ve found I have a lot to learn from.

Steve Vincent is a couple of years my senior, as felt very evident to me reading his comments to my blog last Friday. I actually recall all of the political events he names in those couple of notes, but my own relationship to them was quite different. And my sense of the FSM itself is quite different from his -- you can hear his sense of distance, emotionally & sociologically, from the UC students. I didn’t feel that difference at all, even though my own class background is closer is Steve’s than to that of the typical UC freshman, then or now. And I wasn’t even a student then.

Thus, finally, I’m reminded that in poetry & politics, as well as in real estate, so much comes down to “location, location, location.”

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Ron Silliman
Ruby Slippers Tour 2004

Lawrence, KS
Monday, October 4
, 1:30 PM: Seminar Room of the Hall Center for the Humanities, a talk on Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book

Lawrence, KS
Monday, October 4
, 7:00 PM in the English Room of the Kansas Union, reading

San Francisco
Thursday, October 7, 3:30 PM,
San Francisco State University, The Poetry Center (Hum 512), talk on Robert Duncan’s HD Book

San Francisco
Thursday, October 7, 7:30 PM,
Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin @ Geary, reading with Judith Goldman

Friday, October 01, 2004

Forty years ago next week, the administration of the University of California of Berkeley, at the behest of Senator William Knowland, forbade students from organizing on campus for off-campus political activity, such as the daily picket lines sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)  that were then occurring in front of restaurants in Oakland’s Jack London Square that refused to hire men & women of color. The students felt that this ban was clearly an unconstitutional abridgement of the rights of the freedom of speech & assembly and determined to challenge it with a test case. One student, Jack Weinberg, set up a card table at the Bancroft Way entrance to Sproul Plaza and was promptly taken into custody by the campus police who deposited him into a Berkeley police car for a quick trip down to the station.


Something, however, happened. As the car got ready to leave Sproul Plaza, it found its path blocked by students who had spontaneously gathered around. Not ten or twenty students. Not even hundreds. Thousands of students gathered and by simply standing around the police car for the next 36 hours set off the first “campus rebellion” of the 1960s. In short order, the roof of the police car – Weinberg & the cops still inside – became the stage for an impromptu & powerful teach-in, as speaker after speaker explained why what the University was doing was wrong and why as students and as citizens they had a responsibility to halt this. None proved more eloquent than a lanky philosophy major by the name of Mario Savio.


In 1964, it took the entire school year for the events set off by this unplanned moment of refusal to play themselves out. The crowd around the police car coalesced into the Free Speech Movement (FSM), led by Savio, David Goines, Bettina Aptheker, Art Goldberg, Michael Rossman & many, many others. There was a sit-in in the administration building, followed by hundreds of arrests. The portly & evil assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute the students at the sit-in would himself become famous & go on to become Ronald Reagan’s portly & evil attorney general. But the students ultimately won, earning permanently the right to organize protests.


What flowed from that initial spontaneous event would take days to explain here, just as it took years, literally, to be absorbed by a society that was only then beginning to understand that it was sliding into the morass of the Vietnam War. Indeed, it would be the following fall of 1965 when UC Berkeley also would see the very first anti-war teach-in in the United States, the one for which they coined the phrase “teach-in.”


Forty years have seen enormous changes in this nation. Weinberg, who became famous (or infamous) for his phrase “Never trust anyone over 30” is twice that age. Savio, who worked hard to avoid being chewed up by the media as the first “celebrity protestor,” went on to become a professor at Sonoma State before dying of a heart attack at the age of 53. One student who was part of the Sproul Hall sit-in went on to build the first Apple Computer.


At the time, I was a shipping clerk for PG&E, the utility company. I came by after work and spent that evening standing around the patrol car, listening to speeches – normally I would have been picketing a restaurant in Jack London Square. Frankly that event helped move me toward the decision to go to college in the first place, an idea that did not occur naturally in my family.


Next week – starting on Monday with a showing of the film Berkeley in the Sixties at the Free Speech Movement CafĂ© on campus – the UC community and the hundreds of surviving member of that old crowd around the police car will commemorate that extraordinary moment in U.S. history when students simply refused to let the inevitable happen & took control over their own destiny. The highlight will come on Friday, October 8th, at noon, when there will be a rally in Sproul Plaza, where FSM speakers will dissect the Patriot Act & other clear and present dangers to civil liberties that challenge us now. I plan to be at that rally, which will be gathered around a police car.