Saturday, October 16, 2004




 If you’ve always thought “I’ve never met a flarf I didn’t like,” try this.


WinningWriters.Com has a contest currently ongoing that it describes as follows:


Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest
Online Submission Deadline: April 1, 2005; no entry fee
Our 2005 Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest welcomes your entry. We seek the best bad poem that has been submitted to a 'vanity contest' as a joke. Total prizes have increased to $1,609, including a top prize of $1,190. See the complete guidelines at:

Wergle Flomp? Yes, Gary Sullivan, this is your history repeating, this time as flarf. At least the entry fee is right.

Friday, October 15, 2004


In the past month or so, I’ve posted just under 10,000 words on the topic of Robert Duncan & The H.D. Book on this blog, enough so that poor David Nemeth complained that he was tiring of them. Fair enough.


But of those 10,000 words, Kent Johnson posted the following single quote to the New Poetics list:


"At the same time, Robert (Duncan) did not get the degree to which the New Sentence, if I may indulge in caps, figures precisely the role of the Other, the non-rational, the dark side (which is not without its  many colors). The blank space between punctuation & the next capital is the X-file of language & we have just begun to scratch at its surface...For a young poet today, replicating those scratches is not necessarily a step in the right direction. Time to look inside!"


With the simple comment that he was “Curious what others might think of it.” Connoisseurs of Johnson’s role as a gadfly to numerous listservs over the years will recognize the oh-so-innocent-nature of that remark as one of his primary literary devices.


Now 85 words out of 10,000 can be viewed in a variety of different ways. Yes it was out of context, but most anyone could have found their way here and gotten about as much context as a human could stand. Instead, what ensued was a series of more than two dozen responses, only a few of which seem to have been informed by a look at the blog.  


“Po-mo gibberish?” asks new formalist Paul Lake, suggesting that he’s never read any of the work I’ve published that suggests – ironically in some agreement with him – that much po-mo theory is not serious intellectual work and that the neo-modernist line suggested by Habermas – the need to return to the problems at the root of modernism and re/solve them sans totalitarian diversions – is in fact the very process that confronts any serious thinker today.


At the far end of the commentary scale from Lake’s two-word rhetorical question – at least superficially – is John Latta’s attempt to deconstruct the quotation in the manner of Roland Barthes S/Z. Unlike Barthes, who uses segmentation into lexemes as a strategic device that allows him to bring in a vast range of secondary material, Latta’s comments range no further than the bullet point immediately prior to the two cited by Johnson. Most of what Latta has to say suggests that I use figures of speech that are, in one way or another, pompous. (I would prefer the characterization precise, but, hey, that’s just me.)


In between these two poles, most of the reactions on the New Poetics list strike me as using my paragraph rather like a Rorschach test. A lot of anxiety seems to pivot around the comma that either separates or joins “the Other, the non-rational” and the admonition to “look inside” the blank space that occurs between sentences. How indeed might one investigate that latter terrain? My favorite remark in the exchange was an accusation that the allusion to the “X-files” was obscure.


But I don’t read comments like this – as indeed I often don’t read the commentaries that flower around some of these blog notes in the Squawkbox tool – as having much of anything to do with me, except insofar as I might be a figure of fear & loathing (not my favorite role), a category that seems more to do with my persona than my self. Not unlike Jim Behrle’s ad campaign for me last August:



There is, after all, a lot of inchoate social material that abounds around poetry, especially since it’s not reducible to a pre-packaged social category like economics. Some of it isn’t pleasant – this is after simply the next generation of the parody that the Anti-Hegemony Project ran on the Poetics List nearly a decade ago (now reprised in Ben Friedlander’s Simulcast where it reads as quite dated). But it’s unavoidable.


Yet, if I am to be the windmill of some young Quixote’s fancy, what exactly does that make him?

Thursday, October 14, 2004




I first began reading the work of Cole Swensen sometime around 1980, so that I had already formed an impression before I first met her when she turned up as a student in the graduate seminar I taught at San Francisco State in the fall of 1981. My take at the time was this was a person who was extremely adept at employing a wide range of literary styles but who might not have a deep commitment to any. Happily, I was wrong about that. What she was doing, I now think, was sort of stalking out the range of what might be possible, the first steps in a far more ambitious project than I’d originally imagined. As her books since then have demonstrated, she has a restless, extremely sharp intellect & deep formal imagination. It’s hard to imagine her teaching full-time, as she now does, in Iowa City, but her hire there is one very clear way to prove to the world that the new Iowa City is a far cry from the barren waste land that characterized the workshop from, say, 1975 until just recently.


Swensen’s latest book, Goest, has just been nominated for the National Book Award, and it deserves to win. Actually, this may be the least toxic shortlist of nominees that I can recall ever seeing for the NBA: in addition to Swensen, the group includes William Heyen, Shoah Train; Donald Justice, Collected Poems; Carl Phillips, The Rest of Love; Jean Valentine, Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003. The others may all be School o’ Quietude types, but none is really obnoxious and one could easily make the case that Justice & Valentine are two of the finest poets to emerge from the conservative tradition in American poetry.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


Both Deborah Ager and P.J. Taylor chronicled the Mabel Dodge Poetry Festival. I don’t think either intends their commentary to be read as satire, but it’s difficult not to read them that way. At least until one stops to think about just how much manipulative malpractice is being carried out on stage by people who – in every sense of the word – never get their own feet muddy.

Monday, October 11, 2004


I’m half-ignoring Spider Man 2 on the miniature LCDs of the in-flight movie screens, wending my way back to Paoli. Alfred Molina, a wonderful actor, makes for a superb villain here – Doc Ock – but frankly I prefer him as Diego Rivera in Frida or as himself – an hysterical turn – in Coffee & Cigarettes. A week on the road in the service of poetry swirls in my head, scattering disparate observations that haven’t cohered into anything like a thesis. Some of these include the following:


·        A relatively modest audience in an out-of-the-way place like Lawrence, Kansas, can be every bit as satisfying as the largest turnout in the most major of literary centers. I can’t imagine any poet who wouldn’t (at least figuratively) kill for the audience I had for my talk in Lawrence. The attentiveness, knowledge, deep questions were fabulous. One person, Don Lee, drove all the way from Arkansas – an act that completely humbles me.*

·        I don’t think that, as a young writer, I had understood or counted on the constancy & steadfastness of an audience over the years. It is far better to have one reader over the years if that reader happens to be a David Bromige, Steve Vincent, Susan Gevirtz, Aaron Shurin, David Melnick, Kathleen Fraser, Kenneth Irby, Norma Cole, Tinker Greene or or or than it is to have a hundred hit-&-miss readers, who dig casually into the work then depart.

·        What a lot of graybeards we are!

·        Heads up, younger poets: you’re about to be ye olde poets of the next decade or thereabouts.

·        Somebody needs to fund the digitizing and web enablement of the vast archive at the San Francisco State (just as somebody needs to endow & ensure the future of the Electronic Poetry Center in Buffalo, not to mention at least a dozen other literary institutions). Will the Poetry Foundation, so-called, ever step up to do something useful?

·        The most frustrating experience of my trip was learning that, when reading at the Unitarian Center in SF, I was competing with a reading that included Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson & Alan Bernheimer in the East Bay. The reading at the Unitarian Center had been planned for over a year (& been listed on the SF State Poetry Center web site almost that long), but – as happens here in Philly too – people seem to think it’s too hard to do a little advance checking…. That just flummoxes me.

·        At least it didn’t seem to have much impact on turnout, which was good for both events I did that day.

·        Using the police car as a stage (with a sort of padded lean-to attached proscenium to protect the vehicle itself) was a nice touch at the FSM rally.

·        When I first saw Kit Robinson at the FSM rally, he was talking with Howard Dean!

·        I think we are going to regret for years (decades!) the fact that Dean’s campaign was not prepared to take on the onslaught of Dick Gephardt & the Fox News Channel in & after Iowa. He would be kicking W’s butt by about a ten-point margin right now. He’s an entire generation ahead of Kerry.

·        The other first-rate speaker at the FSM rally was Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a one-time high school teacher who got her start in politics as one of the leaders of the FSM. She would make a great governor for the state of California.

·        Traveling makes it very hard to pay attention to “current events” – I caught only fragments of the VP debate & second presidential one and have yet to watch a full inning of the baseball playoffs. People who know me will understand just how improbable the latter is.

·        Doesn’t mean that I can’t root for the Red Sox this year, tho . . . .

·        People have been belly-aching about the impact of chains & Amazon on the status of independent bookstores for so long that I don’t think we get it yet just how quickly & deeply the consolidation of independent retail outlets is going to be over the next 24 or so months.

·        This is going to require a serious rethinking on the part of poetry book publishers as to what distribution actually is & means. Right now, far too many of them think of distribution as somebody else’s job –it’s not!

·        I keep imagining that the traffic in the Bay Area couldn’t get any worse – and then it does.

·        I’m nowhere near done thinking about Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book. In fact, I think I’ve just sort of pointed out a lot of what will someday – like when the book is in print – seem obvious.

·        The U.S. post-avant canon is Robert’s reading list – more or less completely – more than that of any other single poet over the past fifty years.

·        At the same time, Robert did not get the degree to which the New Sentence, if I may indulge in caps, figures precisely the role of the Other, the non-rational, the dark side (which is not without its many colors). The blank space between punctuation & the next capital is the X-file of language & we have just begun to scratch at its surface.

·        For a young poet today, replicating those scratches is not necessarily a step in the right direction. Time to look inside!

·        Honoraria, especially in the academy, have been more or less stagnant now for at least 40 years, meaning that the actual payment for readings is – in constant currency – only a fraction of what it once was.

·        I’m always amazed by how academic departments fail to exploit the riches of poetry & poets in their own immediate regions (e.g., when major poets are let in, they are often – as was the case for both Ken Irby & Rae Armantrout – strung out as “adjuncts” for two or more decades.) 

·        One becomes very aware of the degree to which many English departments have as a first priority a desire not to be threatened by their creative writing teachers.

·        They get just what they deserve!


* & reminds me of how I experienced that same emotion when Louis Cabri led a carful of friends from Ottawa for a reading I did in Buffalo many moons ago.

Sunday, October 10, 2004




Jacques Derrida


1930 - 2004




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