Friday, January 07, 2005

L-R: Morgan Gibson, Karl Young & Karl Gartung


In 1967, nine years before I was to first meet Lyn Hejinian face-to-face at a book fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, Morgan Gibson had the idea of placing our poetry on facing pages of Arts in Society, a cultural mag published by the University of Wisconsin. Our work wasn’t at all like it would later become – indeed we were even using slightly different monikers, me being “Ronald” & she styling herself as “C.H. Hejinian” in those days – and the only visible aspect that our histories or biographies had at all in common, at least so far as Gibson could tell, was that we had both appeared in Poetry Northwest, one of the School of Quietude’s most hushed venues back in the sixties. Lyn & I have sometimes wondered what exactly Morgan saw in our writing that caused him to place us in such proximity. He was right long before either one of us suspected it.


I didn’t actually meet Gibson until after he’d accepted my work for publication, but I’d known about him for a few years. He was something of the official radical-on-campus at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee during the mid-1960s & Shelley, my first wife, had been a protégé, hanging out with all the other students who seemed to make themselves comfortable in the Victorian house off-campus where Morgan & his wife lived. There was somebody like Morgan at almost every college & university during that decade, virtually none of whom are still at the same schools today. And while it’s easy enough to satirize the excesses of the time (the Cal State Sacramento prof who turned his students on in class, the Berkeley theater prof whose classes included orgies, or even Gibson & his wife, who were hounded out of UWM over an incident involving a cherry bomb in a mailbox), these people were extraordinarily important in opening up the imaginations of an entire generation of students – everything from the counter-culture of the sixties to the dot com boom of the 1990s can be traced back to the anything-is-possible approach these folks proposed . . . in profound contrast to the likes of Robert MacNamara & Richard Nixon.


As a Rexroth scholar, Gibson came by his radicalism organically. Since leaving UWM, Gibson has spent much of his time in Japan, where he currently serves as a contributing editor to the expat Kyoto Journal. I last saw him just before my kids were born, at the 1991 MLA in San Francisco. But considering how many other poets who were active in the 1950s that are still active now – a number that might not get into very far into double digits – Gibson remains one of the upbeat examples of how to go about a lifelong career as poet:


I lost all

friends but you.

Now you.




Watching snow

listening to snow

and “snow.”








The above are excerpts from “In Mummy-Bag,” a sequence that can be found in the latest issue of Gam, Stacy Szymaszek’s mag from Milwaukee, the third issue of which focuses on what the cover describes as “(some) roots of experimental writing in Milwaukee.” This is a terrific idea for a special issue of a mag, especially one coming from (and thus documenting) any other place than New York or San Francisco. The issue focuses upon three poets: Gibson, Karl Young and Karl Gartung.


Young is undoubtedly the most widely known of the three. Karl was one of the very first poets to understand the potential of computers and the internet as a mechanism for enabling the creation, distribution and archiving of poetry. His Light & Dust Anthology of Poetry is the grand-daddy of web poetry archives & remains a great resource. It was Karl who originally invited me to edit a special issue of Margin on the poetry of Clark Coolidge, which more than anything made me conscious of the value of being able to talk & write critically about new modes of poetry. Karl’s own poetry is diverse in mode & impulse. And while he might be more famous today if he were to hone in on a single mode poem around which to build a brand (I’m actually being serious when I say that), what’s really kept him from becoming the household name he deserves to be has been that he’s reserved his great energies to promote poetry, rather than to advocate for Karl Young’s poetry. That’s a generosity of spirit that should never be discounted.


If Karl Young is the most widely known of the three, Karl Gartung is probably the least. He seems to share that allergy toward self-promotion with both Young & Gibson. If Gartung has ever published a book, I’ve not had the fortune to see it – indeed, I’ve seen relatively few works in mags over the years. I did a search on Google & the first piece of actual writing I found was an article in Teamsters for a Democratic Union – Gartung has been a fulltime truck driver as long as I’ve known him, which has enabled him & his longtime partner Anne Kingsbury to create & build Woodland Pattern, hands down the best poetry bookstore in the entire nation.


So I was especially happy to see some of Gartung’s work in the issue, poems that reflect a relaxed post-projectivist impulse. I’m not sure just how well I’ll be able to get Blogger to handle the spacing of this one properly, but here’s my favorite:




         if not


We cannot

  at this point

know them

though we would


much less prevent

       what happened


much as we

       will not prevent

       such things


again though we



and will become

       mere vapor

   in the heat

that sheer knowledge

that fog that

                  will remain



so we must


on our local



                   such truth

as may be constructed

at close range


“Constructed / at close range” indeed! It’s an amazing thing that nobody’s thought to do such an issue as this before. The idea of promoting a sense of history about your place, wherever that might be, makes such great sense. It’s worth noting of course that none of the three took exactly the same route to the post-avant, nor were they the only people in & around Milwaukee that had such influence. Tom Montag was there, as was crafts artist & Woodland Pattern’s executive director Anne Kingsbury, and Walter Hamady, the great book artist, wasn’t so far away. Out of just such roots are substantial literary communities grown.


Gam is published in an issue of 100, so if you want this one – and it’s definitely a keeper – I suggest writing to Stacy Szymaszek at sooner rather than later.


Thursday, January 06, 2005


Here I am writing twice in recent weeks about the problem of character in writing & then I sit down to watch Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, just possibly the most character-centric motion picture I’ve ever seen. The film, a sequel to Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, just took the “best film” award in the sixth annual Village Voice film critics’ poll, finishing well ahead of the runner up, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another film that asks all kinds of questions about the construction of Self, capital S, in life as well as in art.


The premise of Before Sunrise was that Jesse, a young American played by Ethan Hawke, meets a young French woman, Celine, played by Julie Delpy, on the train to Vienna & they hit it off instantly. Jesse had gone to Europe to be with his girlfriend only to be dumped on Day One & since then has ridden around on a Eurail Pass. His plane back to America is at 9 AM tomorrow and since he doesn’t have enough money left to pay for a room for the night, his plan has been to just wander the streets of Vienna until it’s time to catch the plane. He talks Celine, on her way back to Paris after visiting her grandmother in Hungary, into joining him for this little adventure.


That film is all about the connection people can make in the first moments of a relationship, heightened by the teasing anticipation of what sex will be like. During the film, they make a conscious decision not to fuck & tho there are some edits later in the film during which sex could have occurred, Before Sunrise is very careful never to let us imagine the aftermath of revelation such an act entails. As a film, it’s a delightful little bon-bon of romance.


Before Sunset again focuses on the same characters. It is nine years later and Jesse, having written a moderately successful novel about an event in which a young man & young woman meet on the train to Vienna is literally on a book tour, talking with a gaggle of a dozen or so readers at an event at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. One of the readers presses him on whether or not such a young woman ever existed “in real life” & Jesse sidesteps the question. As he does, he looks off to one side down an aisle of books and there she is!


At one level, you can almost write the rest of this movie yourself. At another, however, and this is what I find so intriguing thinking back on it a day later, Linklater’s allowed the characters themselves to decide what comes next. Literally, Delpy & Hawke took responsibility for the evolution of their characters along with Linklater and his original collaborator Kim Krizan. The collaborators had been talking about a sequel for some time – the original film ended on an ambiguous, open note – and were taking turns writing out little scenes, story ideas, and the like, trading emails, when Delpy came up with “40 pages of dialog” on a single pass & set the wheels in motion at last for the new film. Thus it was Delpy, who had imagined becoming an activist when she was younger – she’s been acting in films since she was nine – who decided that Celine should have an M.A. in political science & be working with “Green Cross,” an international organization that takes on everything from water purification projects in India to land mines as issues.


This whole motion picture might have been called My Cup of Coffee with Celine in that it’s all dialog, including some extraordinary “walk-and-talk” scenes that wend through the streets of Paris & one eight-minute single shot sequence in the back of the car that’s supposed to be taking Jesse to the airport for his plane back to the U.S. Far more compacted in time than the first film – it amounts to an hour or two at the most – the film contemplates even further concentration. In the bookstore, someone asks Jesse what he’s going to write next and he describes a novel that would occur entirely during the course of a single rock-&-roll song (it’s virtually a parody of Susan Minot’s Rapture, except that Jesse’s book project sounds rather as if it has more depth).


I’m not going to throw out more spoilers than I have other than to say Before Sunset is remarkably believable as a slice-of-life piece of cinema & that we get to see the full range of conceivable motions between Jesse & Celine over a very short period of time. Especially powerful is the moment when Celine makes clear to Jesse how really upsetting it has been to read her life in his book. Even more telling is how different their memories are of the original night in Vienna – and we’re not talking minor differences, either.


What here is character? Consistent story line, deft acting performances, continual references to a large set of schema all of which reinforce the “cosmic” tale of two lives of which these films are, after all, just two moments? It’s not as if these films are entirely without their seams (How many authors of even modestly successful first novels get sent out on ten-city book tours of Europe, especially if Shakespeare & Co. is one of the stops?), but overall the two movies celebrate subtlety & the idea of character as itself enough of a reason to watch a motion picture.


It’s enough to make me want to see Linklater’s next project, A Scanner Darkly, with Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey, Jr. & Winona Ryder – that’s a serious E! True Hollywood Story cast there – based on one of Philip K. Dick’s best novels – and a project already controversial for the decision to drop Charlie (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) Kaufman’s screenplay. One can hardly imagine two more different sensibilities in today’s cinema than Linklater & Kaufman. Scanner is scheduled to open next September. Linklater’s project after that? Literally, a remake of The Bad News Bears.


Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Notes from Charles Bernstein & Al Filreis – I’ve received four & read others on various listservs – announce that PENNsound is “now open for close listening.” So I was spending a morning listening to some treasures, both there & on the Ubuweb MP3 site, when I received an email from a reader who wrote:


As a reader who looks forward to installments of your blog the way Americans waited on the docks in New York 150 years ago to get the latest chapters of whatever Dickens was doing – even in the midst of the horrors the world is contemplating right now – I'm a touch devastated to miss whatever you were saying from Dec. 1 to Dec. 13.


Just how much of hyperbole is sarcasm, anyway? Whatever. My correspondent was quite correct in pointing out, however indirectly, that I had neglected to set up the December archive page on my blog site. Which I then did, but it made me think about archiving & the archival process – not to mention the role of the recorded reading in poetry.


PENNsound may have gone live, finally, after a year or so of living in that beta limbo state through which all software services must pass. But readers here will note that I’ve had a link in this blog’s left column to my work at PENNsound for several months. What it is now, finally, is a full fledged archive with some substantial and remarkable materials. Of particular note – or maybe just what I enjoyed most this time – were Jack Spicer’s “Imaginary Elegies” – this 1957 event is the best reading of Spicer’s that I’ve ever heard. As if to underscore the point, PENNsound also has the only reading I’ve ever heard of Spicer reading Book of Magazine Verse, a strong candidate for being the best thing that Spicer ever wrote. Spicer’s reading, tho, is listless – this must have been recorded just a few weeks before he died. The distinction is telling – a great reading does not necessarily mean that the work itself is great, nor does a lesser reading equate with a lesser text. We can toss this into the hopper with the “platform independence” I would argue always characterizes the best poetry, noting that some great performance pieces (the Ubu site has a ton of these) may be great sound texts, but not necessarily good poetry. And, as I think my back-&-forth with Geof Huth would suggest, that’s just as it should be – they’re not the same genre.


Also worth hearing – in fact, an absolute delight – is Hugh MacDiarmid’s longpoem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. This is not only one of the few major modernist long poems to come out of the British Isles, it’s a fascinating reminder of just how far the English language can stretch. We Yanks – not MacDiarmid – should be understood as the ones with the recently acquired accent.


PENNsound’s home page links directly to both Ubuweb and the Electronic Poetry, which are its closest peers on the web. The three together go a fair distance toward the creation of an actual archive of poetry recordings. PENNsound goes further, in fact, by offering up a manifesto for sound archives & promising (in 2006!) to actually have a useable catalog of sound recordings. Penned by Charles Bernstein in 2003, the manifesto’s major points are as follows:


  1. It must be free.
  2. It must be MP3 or better.
  3. It must be singles.
  4. It must be named.
  5. It must embed bibliographic information in the file.
  6. It must be indexed.


While a couple of these – notably 4 & 5 – seem aimed primarily at agitating for changes in Ubuweb practices, the group as a whole make eminent sense. The only one that doesn’t feel central to me – “It must be singles” – is one of those glass-half-full type of arguments. I’m mostly interested in hearing readings – I can understand the value of “singles” – individual poems segregated out from their larger reading venues –but it seems a lot of extraneous effort to get 15 files if I want a collection of short poems read at one event by a single author than it would be to get one larger file. So the ideal presentation would be a both/and, not an either/or, solution.


What this points up, tho, is what I take to be the important seventh rule for sound archives – I would actually list it as number 3 were I putting together this manifesto – It must be downloadable. This is what separates out useful archives such as Ubu or PENNsound from one that has interesting holdings but sometimes proves too irritating in practice – the Slought Organization archives. Streaming media ought to be banned from these kinds of projects, simply because even the best broadband connections can suffer buffer reload interruptions, especially during periods of high internet traffic. Plus you can’t go back & forth easily to focus in on a few lines here or there, which is the advantage of recorded media when it comes to the reading. Logically, streaming should be understood as contrary to item 1 in Bernstein’s list above – if it can’t be downloaded, then it’s not free – but it more is in the listening experience where the problems show up.


I’m sympathetic with the problems of archiving. An adequate index or search tool is something which would make this blog far more user friendly. The Blogger bar at the top – which is forced on the site by virtue of being hosted on the Blogspot server – is useless. The Pico Search tool isn’t a whole lot better – this blog is already well beyond what the free version of the tool can index & it doesn’t help that a search on any name that shows up on the blogroll will return an answer of every possible page. The cheapest paid version of the tool, however, is several hundred dollars annually – which is to say that it’s not targeted at individual users at all. So treat that button on the left with some skepticism. It might not be telling the whole truth.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

There is an inevitability implicit in the directness of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s poetry that leaves the reader quite unprepared for the sudden leaps in reality it then proposes. Consider:


The first drop of blood

appeals to a past. We learn

to love the land of our

fathers and mothers because

we love them.

Walk on your forehead.

Where you are

is who you are.


That first line can be understood so many different ways. The second half of that first sentence – and at least one possible reading of the entire second sentence – seem to take it in one direction. Then comes the one line that is also a complete sentence in the poem, which literally stands our comprehension on its head. The final couplet suggests a radically different emotional content than the one toward which we’d first imagined ourselves heading. It’s a shocking, even brutal experience & yet the poem retains its simple direct tone throughout. The result is a dense & complicated eight lines, posing as the simplest stanza you ever saw.


In a sense, this is the polar opposite of “traditional” surrealism – which revels in its dream landscapes, which can be either gaudy or stark, but nonetheless inevitably noir – yet a poem like the one above is much closer to what surrealism originally promised: direct access to alternative worlds. The enjambments at the end of the third & fourth lines serve only to soften those lines so that the ones that follow – the whole second half of the poem – will hit us harder & harder.


I’ve written of Dhompa before, who, as the first Tibetan-American¹ poet to receive any substantial distribution, opens U.S. poetry up to new modes of possibility in almost anything she does. She would be important historically even if she wasn’t a very good poet. And she is a terrific one, on any terms.


The poem I’ve quoted is the seventh in a series entitled “A matter not of Order,” which originally appeared as one of Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides – the very sequence that first got me to pay attention to her work – and which will open a new full-length book, In the Absent Everyday, forthcoming from Berkeley’s Apogee Press. Apogee also published Dhompa’s first book, Rules of the House, likewise excellent.


Many of the poems in Absent Everyday adopt a longer line with softly modulated breaks just this side of prose poetry. Their quietness – very much like Dhompa herself the one time I met her – requires careful attention, as if in fact what she was presenting was in any usual sense normal:


Betty goes downtown


In any given situation the illusion of an alternative comes later.

Opening avenues suddenly as though prudence and wisdom

were always there to be consulted. Or experience, if relevant.

But here again Betty, the family fish, bangs into her reflection

all day long. She is forgetful we say. Perhaps she likes herself too much.

And this is our love, sending our sons and daughters to war

so they can learn to serve this country, president, car.

Someone we know is always falling in love with a charlatan.

He is happy, he is happy, he says. We say rogues know happiness

or how to present it. What does it matter in the end?

In the end is not a place. In the end is the curl in the lover’s smile

contemplating a secret that does not accommodate

his love. It is hatching its own code. Its unavoidable error.


What keeps bringing me back to this poem is that rhymed couplet in lines six & seven, which at first glance seems askew within this tale of doomed romance. Rereading, tho, I’ve come to see it really as the topic sentence, connecting as it does everything from “the illusion of an alternative” to the “unavoidable error” mentioned elsewhere. The off-rhyme of car rings so flat after war that it deliberately jars, the “unavoidable error” indeed. What starts out as a poem about love is in fact a text on the problems of patriotism, a reversal on the order of which really only Jack Spicer has seemed able to carry off in the past half century.² That is as deft a move in a poem as can be done, and if it wasn’t for that little dissonance, you almost wouldn’t notice it – but when you do, it turns the whole of the poem inside out.


Dhompa, it would seem, isn’t just about bringing some new strands of thread into the American literary tapestry, she’s out to reweave the whole thing. We all stand to be far richer for that. But we’ll have to pay attention.



¹ She was, in fact, born in India, but into the Tibetan exile community there. She has also lived in Katmandu & could be characterized as the first Nepalese-American poet of consequence as well.


² The way Spicer, in Language, uses the Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 to focus instead on the “death of John F. Kennedy.” This week, it seems impossible to read that poem, tho, without noting that Spicer expresses empathy for the “Eskimo villages” destroyed in the quake with no mention whatsoever of the western half of Crescent City, California, just up the coast from Mendocino, that was wiped out in the ensuing tsunami.

Monday, January 03, 2005


The only time I ever attended the St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading was the year the Church had a fire and they ended up having to hold the event elsewhere in the Spring instead. This does not make me an expert. But it was a lot of fun & I got to see many poets whose names I was only vaguely familiar with for the very first time – I recall John Giorno going on & on, but maybe it only seemed that way. In any event, I hope that the folks in New York this year have all had a very good time & gotten a chance to hear to some great performances appropriately compacted for mass consumption.


The one giant reading I attended during the holidays was another annual mini-marathon – the off-site MLA poetry reading, held (as was the MLA) this year in Philadelphia at the Highwire Gallery. Where the Church’s roster promised 157 poets over a 13-hour period, held not at the church but at the Theater for the New City on First Avenue, the Philly gathering offered 45 poets – it turned out to be 47 in actuality – over two hours. And the event came in at just 2:05, with really only one or two readers going noticeably over, say, three minutes. The poets included all 42 listed here the day after Christmas, plus three others added to the roster prior to the event – Alicia Askenase, Denis Barone & Lee Ann Brown – and two others not listed at all. One, whose name I believe is Bridget Byrd, read for the second half of Camille Martin’s two-minute slot at Camille’s invitation. The second, Gil Ott, read from beyond the grave via the CD Frequency, put out by C.A. Conrad & Magdalena Zurawski. Gil’s poem, “Stingere” – a “made-up” word related to the Stinger & Cruise missiles – proved to be one of the high-points of the evening for me – he was a great reader & the few recordings he made during his life are all we have now to commemorate that.¹


In theory at least, the MLA reading is a national, if not global, affair, with Loren Goodman coming all the way from Japan. Yet of the 47 readers, 18 live locally, 19 if you include Gil, and four others – Louis Cabri, Kristin Gallagher, Mike Magee & Chris Stroffolino – are former Philadelphians. Maybe therefore it’s not surprising that only four really were really new to me – Martin & Byrd, Kazim Ali (whom I know has had books out, just none that I’ve read) & Goodman, a one-time editor of Kiosk, a magazine I’ve praised highly here more than once, who also seems to have survived winning the Yale Younger Poets Award. He read his poem, “Yeast,” with a dead-pan presence that reminded me at once both of Norman Fischer & Steve Benson:


I am Yeast, a great poet

I live in Ireland

Some say I am the greatest

Poet ever

My poetry makes bread grow

All over Ireland and the world

In glens and valleys, bread rising

In huts, clover paths, and fire wood

There will always be critics

Who deny Yeast

But you can see

The effect of my poetry

Through the potato fields

And the swell of the Liffey.

The amber coins and foaming black ale


One other poet – Will Alexander – was somebody whom I’ve read for years, but had never actually seen before. His reading – like Goodman’s – made me wish that poets had more than two minutes’ time in which to present their work. The limitation is just part of the form of the marathon: the folks at St. Mark’s may have 13 hours, but at 157 performers, that still comes in at a smidgen under five minutes. The real question is just how many different voices can you really hear at one time? The actual number, for me at least, is something under 47, let alone 157, so I tried, as best I could, to attend to the people with whom I was least familiar.


But that really wasn’t so many people. Part of what surprised me most about the reading was simply the idea of being able to go to an event like this and having some idea of the work of all but four of the writers involved. There were readers I’ve known since college (Rae Armantrout, Michael Davidson), someone I’ve known since before I went to college (Barrett Watten), even someone who attended my high school (Greg Djanikian, a few grades behind me tho he knew my brother). If I was getting a very strong sense of poetry-as-community, it was reinforced by the presence of other familiar folks like Jack Krick, Francie Shaw, Bob DuPlessis, Alan Golding, Norma Cole & Barbara Cole in the audience (the crowd was upwards of 150, but realistically a third of them/us were performers).


In contrast, of the 157 folks scheduled at St. Marks, some 70 are people with whose work I have no familiarity at all. Is that simply the Philly/NYC distinction? Actually, I suspect that there will be fewer “out-of-town” folks at the Church than were at the Highwire Gallery in Philadelphia – tho half of the six poets who are part of both events come from Philadelphia (C.A. Conrad, Frank Sherlock & Tom Devaney – I hope Devaney brought enough blindfolds for everyone at the Church & read his “Abu Ghraib” piece). Maybe some – like sax great Marty Erlich – are people from other disciplines. Or maybe there is just such a density of poets in & around New York that it’s not possible for anyone really to get that same sense of community (alternate possibility: it may even be far greater for being larger). At what point does community become crowd? How does one tell?


Not that one would ever confuse the MLA with a community as such. Even as a large portion of both readers & audience are drawn from the geographically diverse attendees from the conference, the whole idea of doing a reading off-site is itself very much a statement about the community of poetry as an alternative to the institutional world of “the profession.” Ironically, it was Chris Stroffolino who may have emphasized this most in what was consciously the “least poetic” performance of the evening, using his two minute slot not to read or perform, but to recite when & how he had met most of the other participants.


Afterwards, tho, it was Rachel Blau DuPlessis who pointed out the formal theme of the evening – ballads – from Lee Ann Brown singing a cappella with her daughter Miranda in her arms, to its appearance tucked inside the “half of Drafts 64” that Rachel read to Charles Bernstein’s unforgettable “Ballad of a Girly Man,” a train wreck of a poem perfectly suited for the train wreck that is the polis these days, the genre was invoked or audible at least six times in less than two hours. Why the resurgence of a template that is nearly 400 years old I’ll throw out here as the first open question of 2005.



¹ Somewhere there exists a video of Gil reading while walking over the Ben Franklin bridge, one segment of a series of poets profiled as a show for the local PBS outlet, WHYY. Maybe Daisy Fried or one of the other poets who participated in that project knows how to get hold of that. PENNsound or the EPC should put it up in a downloadable or streaming format.