Tuesday, December 07, 2004
The reason The New York Times has never had a comics section is that it already has its book review. Last Sunday’s list of the “100 Most Notable Books” of the year is a case in point. Of the 42 items listed under “Fiction and Poetry,” there were just two books of poetry: Rita Dove’s American Smooth & Donald Justice’s Collected Poems. At least the two books don’t automatically resolve into an identical aesthetic, although they do, frankly, come from a single value system, that of the trade press. Dove’s volume was published by Norton, Justice’s by Knopf.
I don’t have a quarrel particularly with either book. I’ve always had a fondness for some of Justice’s work, tho I doubt I will ever own the Collected, tho maybe someday if I come across a good little selected in paperback in a used book store at a decent price I might be persuaded. But really, darlings, this is all that American poetry was capable of doing in 2004 that warranted being characterized as “notable” by the august NY Times? Just how pathetic is that?
I’ve acquired well over 250 books of poetry this year &, save for a couple of volumes in the Library of America & its companion American Poets Project series, the number I’ve bothered to get from American trade presses is exactly zero. And that is the story of American poetry in ought-four, I dare say. Not that it’s so terribly different from ’03 or hardly any other year over the past quarter century.
The problem that the Times book review has is the inherent conflict in its double mission as a publication. Its first mission is not to review the books of America, but rather books by its advertisers who are – surprise! – the trade presses. The second is to do it in such a way that the review conveys comprehensiveness to its readership. This latter requires not only that certain volumes appear and get “proper attention,” but also – and this may be its most important institutional mission – that the rest of the world also disappears.
Not that the Times is any different in this than, say, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune or San Francisco Chronicle. This is never so clear as when something like the Collected Lowell shows up and everybody, I mean everybody, has to review it. But how many of these same publications have taken notice of any volume by Graham Foust or Rae Armantrout, ever?
It’s enough to make you grind your teeth.
Now part of this problem is historical, a history that is changing right now in front of our eyes. The distribution network for poetry in America is something quite different than the distribution network for trade presses through bookstores. With the advent of the net & concomitant phenomena like PayPal, publishers of poetry are increasingly “going direct,” as we would say in the computer biz.
Little history lesson. In 1994, when Mosaic, the first graphical browser, was just getting wide distribution, the number one selling PC in America belonged to Compaq. Compaq had great relationships with PC stores, masterfully directly by one Ross Cooley. But Cooley also chose that year to take his options & retire. Ten years later, Compaq doesn’t even exist, save as a residual sub-brand for some HP product, & a catalog dealer that was only a nuisance to its competitors a decade ago, selling systems via catalog, magazine ads & telesales, Dell, now dominates the marketplace, having used the net to “go direct” & cut out the increasingly useless middlemen.
Poetry in 2004 is just now starting to “go direct” as well. Every small press with a web site represents a different experiment in how this might happen, and it’s well worth noting. Coffee House Press, for example, several of whose books deserve to be on any list of “notable 2004” volumes of verse, has been around for over 30 years and makes an effort to compete within the trade book business as well as remain relevant to the world of poetry (unlike, say, Knopf or Norton, who are concerned only with the former). When you go to the Coffee House web site & click on “Publishing Information,” it dutifully takes you to a link list of distributors, on-line resellers, and bookstores that can be counted on to carry some Coffee House product.* Yet when you click on any individual title, such as Anselm Hollo’s new selected, Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence – certainly a contender for a legit “best book” award – you will find mechanisms on the page itself to buy the volume, both in hard- & paperback, right on the site itself. That is the same sort of blended approach, using both retail & the web, that folks like HP are now taking in the computer industry. But a lot of poetry presses already just use SPD as a token means of acknowledging that once bookstores were meaningful & sell their own products via their own websites.
One result in this changing distribution environment is that it used to be a disaster if a distributor like SPD declined to carry your press. Today, that simply represents the most expensive & least efficient means of getting books to readers. If you can let people know of your books & get them to your web site, selling direct can be a far faster & cheaper way of moving books into the hands of the right readers, the readers who will really care about, say, new possibilities for the post-avant in the American south. Or who will understand the implications behind a category like “new brutalism.”
If there is a catch in all this it’s that too few presses take the web seriously enough yet. A lot of older poetry presses – Burning Deck, for example – simply give you information for SPD or Spectacular Diseases on their website. Even a new press like Qua Books makes this same mistake. A good rule of thumb is that every click that is required between the book’s own web page & the process of completing an order for the volume will reduce sales by 50 percent.
But over time, newer presses & micropresses & technologies like print-on-demand (the secret behind the extensive catalog already at Salt Publishing) will make the process of “going direct” & capitalizing a small press a totally different proposition than the one that exists even now.
A few years ago, I’d see something like the Times Book Review list, and I’d come away seething at the unfairness & disproportionate power an institution like that used to have. Today I see it differently. That list is a relic of a process that is rapidly becoming irrelevant & even now is mostly a sloppy & costly way to connect books to readers of poetry. Poets don’t need it unless, as might be true for Dove, the true audience for their work is people who mostly don’t read poetry. But if the poetry of Donald Justice holds secrets that young poets today need to discover, his Collected would be far better served by a nice review in Rain Taxi.
* Other publishers might note that this is the best list of these I’ve seen in one place, ever.
Monday, December 06, 2004
The Poker is back, issue number 5, demonstrating all over again what it is like to be shockingly good. Shockingly because the presence of an editorial vision not only gives the journal an impressive coherence, it also makes you aware of just how often it is absent, even from fairly decent periodicals. Along with John Tranter’s Jacket, which has many of the same strengths, The Poker is a how-to course for editing a magazine.
Editor Dan Bouchard’s secret is not just balance & order – those he demonstrates the virtues of these in practice – but also because he deliberately combines newer poets with canonically famous elders, both living (John Ashbery, Robin Blaser) and not (Laura Riding, Jack Spicer). In doing so, Bouchard is making an argument that Rachel Loden & Chris McCreary, Kevin Davies, Kaia Sand, Drew Gardner et al can stand as equals with any of the anointed. And for the most part, the work Bouchard prints makes the case for him. And he is making a case for a particular kind of context: these elders, these young’uns.
The issue begins, not unlike The Nation, with letters, in this issue from Nathaniel Tarn & the ubiquitous Kent Johnson, both in reference to Steve Evans’ “Field Notes” from the fourth number. This is followed by two suites of poetry from Loden & McCreary, followed by a longish essay by Riding on the subject of letter as a legitimate literary mode. This is followed by two new poems by Ashbery, and then a quartet of younger poets: Kevin Davies, Kaia Sand, Marcella Durand & Drew Gardner.
Then come five “new” poems by Jack Spicer, part of a trove of 100 or so lost works that have been discovered by Peter Gizzi & Kevin Killian during the process of their editing a compleat (as distinct from Collected) Spicer for UC Press. Like the others I’ve seen from the new ones, they generally don’t stand up to Spicer’s best work. On the other hand, they’re still the chilling, riveting poems of a deeply troubled guy who knew a whole lot more than he was telling. Thus, for example, “Blood and Sand” from 1958:
It is as if the poem moves
Without the poem. I have captured you.
Done all my will. Have done with all
There is something that bothers me about the poem
Not anything real. But a poem. Your body
The noise that nothing makes upon the shore of an ocean
The big without.
It is as if a poem moves
Without your reality. Your not being there
That defines a nice set of arms
Not holding what. An absentness of you.
This bed is there. Defines,
Without the poem.
This poem predates the opening poem of Language, “This ocean, humiliating in its disguises … “ by four years. Yet it is at least as tight & well written as anything in The Heads of the Town, Billy the Kid or Lament for the Makers. It makes you wonder why he didn’t publish this earlier, save that he probably then couldn’t have written the later poem, which has become (for better or worse) his signature piece.
Spicer is followed by Blaser, in this instance an interview (with a tiny elegy for Don Allen at the postscript). Then two more poets, one who is entirely new to me, Michael Carr, and one who is eminently familiar, Fanny Howe. Tim Peterson’s review of books by Brenda Iijima & Allison Cobb virtually ties a bow around the issue.
This isn’t a perfect magazine – I’d redesign the cover myself – and one can certainly argue that Bouchard’s vision gives too much weight to this or that (I might include more young poets, not to the exclusion of the older ones, but in addition). But when I contrast this with the bland bureaucratic mode of the alphabet-driven table of contents, it makes me painfully aware that any vision trumps none at all.
For reasons that are utterly obscure, this magazine has no web presence at all. Bouchard discourages submissions via email even. This may be the modern equivalent of Jack Spicer’s refusal to distribute the journal J east of Berkeley – it will limit the impact of Bouchard’s argument in a way that, say, a journal like Sulfur was not constrained. As Kaia Sand would say, that was then, this is now.
Saturday, December 04, 2004
On Monday, I will be reading at the Philadelphia Free Library, 1901 Vine, in the Skyline Room at 6:30 PM. The event is free and I will be reading with Margot Chew Barringer. For more information, call 215-686-5322. I think I may try reading some of Zyxt in public for the first time.
Ж Ж Ж
Tonight, however, Jena Osman & Rodrigo Toscano will be reading at La Tazza at 8 PM. La Tazza is at 108 Chestnut Street. This promises to be one of the best readings of a very good year.
Friday, December 03, 2004
Well, here I am in this new anthology alongside Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney, Brenda Hillman, Thom Gunn, Czeslaw Milosz & Sandra Gilbert.
On the other hand, also included are Kit Robinson, Carla Harryman, Jean Day, Laura Moriarty, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Stephen Ratcliffe & Bob Perelman.
Then again, there’s Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, June Jordan, Al Young, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha & Ishmael Reed.
Even more mysteriously, William Shakespeare, Bertie Brecht, Li Po, Ben Jonson, Rilke & Sappho have also been included.
And, for good measure, you can also find Lenny Lipton’s “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Gelett Burgess’ “The Purple Cow,” Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” and Percy Montrose’ immortal “My Darling Clementine” here.
But you shouldn’t forget Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, Robin Blaser, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Larry Eigner, David Meltzer & Barbara Guest.
Nor Dean Young, Louis Simpson, Alice Jones or Sharon Olds.
Or Judie Grahn, Malvina Reynolds, Susan Griffin, Opal Palmer Adisa & Alta.
Nor Gertrude Stein, Robinson Jeffers, or Jack London.
Let alone Jack Foley, John Oliver Simon, Julia Vinograd & Ivan Arguelles.
Even, I dare say, Tom Clark.
What may be the quirkiest collection of poetry I’ve ever seen weighs – I mean this literally – three tons, making it all a tad hard to fit in your book bag. You can find it on Addison Street in Berkeley, stretching from Shattuck Avenue westward on either side of the street. This is Berkeley’s Poetry Walk, which the Academy of American Poets named the first of 31 “National Poetry Landmarks” around the United States.
Put together by Robert Hass & Jessica Fisher, with porcelain enamel texts in cast iron plates designed by David Lance Goines, the one-time Free Speech Movement organizer who has evolved into the beyond-chic poster artist for Berkeley’s famed gourmet ghetto, the Poet’s Walk is an exceptionally nice gesture on behalf of a city that has been identified with poetry ever since the days of Ina Coolbrith in the 19th century. I, for one, certainly benefited enormously from the fact that I didn’t have to travel at all to discover poetry as a teenager. It was all around me.
Not only could I literally go watch Kenneth Irby writing intently into his notebooks at the Café Med every afternoon, one of my teachers in high school even published a novel, The Softness on the Other Side of the Hole, about that establishment & did so with the same press that brought out the Donald Allen anthology. Everybody, back when I was just coming into poetry, always seemed to be pointing out just where Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” was or just where he had been living in Berkeley (tho I noted that people pointed out different houses).
Attempting to capture all of this activity in 120 plaques in the sidewalk, a street notable for the presence of the Berkeley Reparatory Theater & the large number of Berkeley High students who use it as a thoroughfare betwixt the campus & the city’s shops, is one of those impossible projects & the diversity of what & who got included shows Hass & Fisher trying nobly to play Noah to a vast ark of possibility. As it happened, people & poems were added as the project evolved so that the new Heyday Press book documenting this project has 126 poems & poets – and I believe another two others have been added more recently to the walk.
As it is, there are inclusions that make you feel that anybody who ever looked at Berkeley could have gotten in (Heaney taught there for a year when I was a student, making no dent on the consciousness of writers in the community at all, George Oppen simply lived across the bay, which is more than one can say of Shakespeare, Brecht, Rilke or Ben Johnson, shoehorned in I suspect to make the theater company happy). And there are some obvious omissions as well – Pat Parker, Robert Grenier, Robin Magowan, Paula Gunn Allen, Arthur Sze, Gary Soto, James Tate, Kenneth Irby, even Rod McKuen.
The individual plaques are spare & fairly dark, as the sample above demonstrates. The book makes no effort duplicate the look & feel beyond its cover. The volume does have background notes for each contribution, tho, so that you learn, for example, that Witter Bynner taught the very first creative writing course anywhere on the UC Campus in the spring of 1919 (two of his students, Genevieve Taggard & Hildegarde Flanner, are also included). The notes, unfortunately, are sloppy: Allen Ginsberg’s “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley” is dated as 1965 (it was 1956). On my own note, we discover that language poetry is an “imitation of abstract impressionist painters” !?! Whoever they were.
Still, living 2,853.7 miles from the location of my plaque for the past nine years, it pleased me to discover that I’d been selected for this. If the town you grew up in (or in my case, next to) is going to have something as schmaltzy as a “walk of fame,” it’s nice to be remembered.
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Typing up the poems of others, as I suggested yesterday, works a lot better with poets who wrote in the age of the typewriter. Typing either version of The Prelude won’t really give you the same sense of what Wordsworth must have felt to have had those words flow from his quill. Mark Twain has been said to have been the first creative writer to have used that Civil War-era phenomenon called the typewriter, Ezra Pound the first poet to have composed with it.
As history would have it, however, Pound produced what may well have been his finest writing in pencil on scraps of toilet paper in the wire cages of the prison camp at Pisa. Reading The Pisan Cantos, you don’t sense that. Or at least I don’t. After having worked for some 40 years on the typewriter, Pound had no problem writing “as if” the machine were still at hand.
I can testify to just how that works. Back in the 1960s, when I was a student at San Francisco State, I committed the worst of all writerly sins – I dropped my typewriter while moving it between desk and table. It instantly disassembled into a gazillion components, more than a few of which were now misshapen & a couple of which also conveniently rolled under the refrigerator never to be seen again. I had bought that typewriter with my very first paycheck on my very first job post-high school – that will give you some sense of its importance in my life – but by this time I was married & living on my own, so it took me a few weeks before I was able to cobble together enough cash from my job at the U.S. Post Office to take it to the typewriter shop that existed in those days on Bancroft Way directly across from the University of California campus in Berkeley & get a new machine.
Back in those days, I was in the full flower of my reading & rereading of Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches, Pounds Cantos & whatever I could get my hands on of Olson’s. It was Olson that year whose work I thought my own writing most resembled & I needed – or so I felt – that typewriter to recreate the page as field I wanted my own writing to have. But I just didn’t have it, and I couldn’t imagine going to one of the rooms available at SF State, where I was then a student, to sit at a bank of typewriters with others in my situation, paying quarters by the hour in order to compose poetry. So I resorted to legal tablets, whose yellow paper & 14 inch page seemed attractive enough. My poems of that period are forgettable enough & I don’t think any ever really got published, but when I did finally purchase my new machine, I began to type up my legal pad poems only to discover that each was virtually exactly one typed page long. I had somehow internalized the form.
Robert Creeley says somewhere in an interview that switching the physical constraints of your writing practice is a great way to work oneself out of a writer’s block. If you type, write by hand. If you use notebooks, try free sheets of paper, or just change the size of the notebook, or go to the computer, whatever. Just change the instrument that makes the marks and the kind of paper on which these marks are made. And it’s true – altering these things even just as a test will show you all kinds of little things about what you think you are doing when you write a poem.
When I was at SF State a year or so before my typewriter died, I had a teacher who tried to make that point as well. Brother Antoninus, as William Everson was then calling himself, insisted that we write in a method different from whatever it was that our own poetry sought to do. I think ideally he wanted us to write like Robinson Jeffers, but really he just wanted us to think. I tried something in a declamatory mode &, in fact, had used legal tablets then also. I hated writing in some mode that I thought of as an exercise – I remember Antoninus telling us that these wouldn’t be “our” poems, so not to worry about that. But I just hated the idea of it. I was emotionally invested in the idea that my poems were my poems. The idea of producing something other than that at the direction of some crazy monk irritated me no end.
Yet the experience of it must have stuck with me. When I taught a weeklong summer workshop at Naropa in 1994, I had the students basically recreate that experiment. If they wrote in the morning, I wanted them to write at night. If they wrote with music on, I want it silent. If they wrote only in solitude, I wanted them to write at a bar or on a bus. If they used a computer, I wanted it in a notebook. Etc., etc. I wanted them to break down and look dispassionately at each of the elements of their writing as a physical act just to understand what it meant to them, not because I was hoping to change anything. It was a great workshop, tho, as is so often the case, a good part of that might have to do with the students, who included Mary Burger & Chris Vitiello. One student, a recovering heroin addict, really took it as a challenge to his ego & bit me. Remembering my class with Antoninus, I understood how he felt.
That second typewriter I bought in Berkeley back in the sixties lasted me for a dozen or so years, until I got my first fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. With that money in hand, I went out & spent big on a “real” professional writing system, an IBM Selectric typewriter that cost something like $800. This, I was sure, would last me for the next twenty years. As it happened, I would begin to use computers in 1982 & have no idea any more what even became of that machine. You can’t buy them anymore, save as museum pieces. The old IBM typewriter company was spun off by Big Blue & now manufactures printers under the name of Lexmark. Lex stands for Lexington, Kentucky, the headquarters city (and site of the old typewriter manufacturing plant). Mark, well, I understand what that term mark means. Something about that sounds exactly right.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Typing up the Muriel Rukeyser poem the other day, I reminded myself of the salutary functions of typing up somebody else’s poem as a step on the way to understanding the text itself. Part of this is a sort of magic – simply by repeating the process of typing these words in this order, one duplicates the process of the author & gains some intuitive sense for the feel of those words as they roll out across the screen or page. Part of it is simply having to type every word forces one to acknowledge the roll(s) being played by those that appear on the surface to be the least important – articles, for example.
As it happens, I discovered, when typing the poem, that my single most favorite moment was the one-word sentence “Airport.” One might argue that it’s there strictly to pad out the line, but it’s rare to find that at the start of a line & so otherwise unmotivated by the actual sense of the text itself. Rather, it stands on its own nominal integrity, not unlike the way nouns are used in the work of Larry Eigner.
In the case of “The Road,” typing served a second salutary function. Tho the volumes in the American Poets Project are slightly larger than mass market paperbacks, 4½ inches across, 7½ inches high, their generous 9-point type size combines with the narrow page to create a text with very little white space – indeed, if it weren’t for run-on lines, the text would be nearly as dense on the page as prose. In that tight frame, you can’t really see the poem, certainly not as clearly as in the version I put up on my blog Monday.
You can tell when a book designer either doesn’t read poetry, or else doesn’t “get” it. But it seems ironic, to say the least, that the American Poets Project (whose title is almost as pompously overstated as that of the parent Library of America series) should be such an obvious example. Doubly so given that “the American Poets Project is published with a gift in memory of James Merrill.” Well meaning, ill spent. The one real justification these books might claim is to return a disappeared poet to broader circulation. In the case of Kenneth Fearing, the series can make that claim without much difficulty. But what about a poet broadly available already, such as Williams?