Saturday, January 29, 2005

Leslie Scalapino & Ron Silliman


Talking & Reading

in the Lannan Poetry Series


Georgetown University

Washington, DC

Thursday, February 3


Talking: Intercultural Center (ICC) 462 @ 5:30 PM


Reading: ICC Auditorium @ 8:00 PM


Events are free, reception to follow reading

For Georgetown information, call (202) 687-7435.




I will also be talking in Penn’s Theorizing series later in the month, on Wednesday, February 23rd, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, 6:00 PM.


Friday, January 28, 2005



What is a margin? That is one of those questions that, in order to answer it intelligibly, requires a surprisingly wide range of other, related information. Clearly it’s a border of some kind, a horizon, whatever it is that distinguishes that which might occur within from that without. If we speak of the screen as we do of the page, at least in Roman lettering, that the margin is where the print ends, the way land does at the shoreline, we find that there is not one kind, but several. The left & right margins, more often than not, end up hard-edged, straight lines (almost always on the left, often on the right). The bottom likewise tends to a hard edge, albeit one punctuated by those letters – g, j, p, q, y – that curl or jut through an otherwise impenetrable barrier. But the margin above – now that is saturnalia, a cacophony of possibilities, filled with curves & juts, dots & crosses. Now look again more closely to the left – there are really only a few letters that on a left margin forms a hard justified edge – b, k, l, m, n, p, r . All the others are speckled with curves & wedges, all the quirks that keep any individual letter from being a mute █ of ink. Even a justified right-hand margin is likewise deckled by an assortment of nicks & scratches.


So the hardest margin turns out to be the one beneath – it’s violated the fewest times. But is that the margin or the line that is at play here? How do we tell the difference? Isn’t the lower margin simply one line given prominence over (or under) the rest? What is the metaphysical relationship between margin & line?


These are the sort of questions that occur very normally when reading Truong Tran’s Within the Margin, which Apogee Press publisher Alice Jones handed to me my last night in California. I’ve been meaning to read Tran’s work for awhile & have actually been stocking away some of his books waiting to get around to one. Nothing like a 2,500-mile flight with only a Jimmy Fallon movie to set one’s mind to literature – it actually took me considerably less time to read the book than it did Jimmy & Queen Latifah to catch the foxy bank robbers in Taxi. Tran, I should note, is playing with considerably more horsepower too.


It took less time because Within the Margin is the thinnest thick book I’ve ever read. Unpaginated, but probably at minimum 160 pages, Tran’s fourth book of poetry makes any volume of Larry Eigner’s work feel like Dostoevsky. Maybe 80 percent of the pages have on them exactly one long line, running with only the slightest outer margin right up to the edge of the binding. This is the line, The Line, the line, with all of the obsessiveness to such ever evidenced by the early Frank Stella. Those that don’t fall into this model mostly tend to cluster in short open-ended stanzas that themselves do look a good deal like a lot of Larry Eigner’s writing. Throughout, a single expository thread – voice, if you must – muses on the role of lineage, that is, the role of the line & margin as such – this is a light book of heavy theory – but also with relation to family, parenting, siblings, love. There is a secret at the end of it that I’m not going to share here that itself suggests the importance of secrets in just such realms as these.


It might have been easy for Tran as both an ethnic & sexual minority to play all of those notes about marginalization, as visibly implicit as they are in a work of this kind. That he doesn’t suggests, to me at least, just how serious he is in both exploring the entanglements of these different meanings of the same term(s) & in sorting through those entanglements. Indeed, a major theme in the book is theft. Another is the border between dignity & shame. For a text that could legitimately be called easy reading – there are fewer words-per-page than in many a kid’s picture book – Within the Margin has a lot on its plate & (Lets mix metaphors!) doesn’t shy away from diving right in.


If I have any hesitation, it’s this: Tran largely skips past opportunities to also involve the ear – this is very much a work of logopoeia, to use Pound’s model, tinged with a dose of phanopoeia, especially when it involves memory & family (not necessarily two different categories here). Yet the line is, I would argue, a creature as much of sound as it is of sight. It is precisely the pulse of meter that foretells the future of sound in a text, in prose as much as in poetry. Sound sets up expectation that the text can then fulfill, deflect or even bypass. Yet Truong Tran glides past chance after chance to complete the circle, to bring melopoeia in. The result is a work that will not only remind you of the conjunction that poetry shares with philosophy, but also of the weaknesses that a deafened philosophy – especially in the analytic tradition – might bring to the poem itself.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sometime in the next week, this blog will have its 250,000th visitor. Not bad for poetry & poetics. If it happens to be you, let me know and I’ll send you a book as a prize to mark the occasion. You can tell by looking at the bottom of the black rectangle in the left-hand column. Make a note in the commentary tool at the bottom of the most recent blognote and send me an email as well. I will be comparing the numeric IP addresses in those messages and in SiteMeter to verify the actual 250,000th visitor.


Since I began doing this at the end of August 2002, my experiences as a blogger have been about 98 percent goodness – one could hardly ask for better. More than anything, I’ve learned an enormous amount – partly from having to put my own thinking down on paper (or its electronic equivalent), but mostly from the generous & detailed feedback I’ve received from so many readers. The process has forced me to stay current in what’s happening in poetry & allowed me to argue that everyone (myself included) could benefit from a broader perspective.


So mostly what I want to say is thanks for dropping by & especially for all email & letters. I appreciate every one.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

After my conference on Saturday, I crossed over Market Street and headed up to the Paule Anglim Gallery at 14 Geary to see the Jess show, which Stephen Vincent was good enough to let people on the Poetics List know was there. The show is simply fabulous, the best gathering of Jess’ work I’ve ever seen. It made me hyperconscious of just how deeply we need a major retrospective of Jess’ work, and a huge four-color catalog to go with it.


If you don’t know already, Jess was Jess Collins, Robert Duncan’s life partner for some three dozen years. Trained as a scientist, he had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War 2, but when he discovered the implications of his labors, he abandoned science and became an artist specializing in paste-ups (as he called his collage and mixed media work), assemblings (as he called his found-object sculptural creations) and some rapturous oils, the most famous of which no doubt must be his The Enamored Mage: Translation No. 6, which you can view via that link to the gallery, a portrait of Duncan alongside a series of volumes on the occult.


Even in the space of a gallery show, one can get glimpses of Jess’ career, range & power as an artist. While his painting emerged from the same San Francisco abstract-comes-to-figuration movement of the 1950s as, say, David Park (there is a fabulous abstract field painting – the price list calls it a “Romantic Painting” – with some dark blue squiggles not far from the center that one can make out quite clearly as Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, at which point the blocky squares to the right transform from Hoffmanesque rectangles into a fog-enshrouded castle). There are several amazing collages from 1953 that suggest, at least to my eye, that, at that early moment, Jess was further along in his work as an artist than was Duncan as a poet. Throughout, however, I think it is clear just how much each contributed to the work of the other. Not only is the frontispiece of The Opening of the Field in the show, you can see Duncan’s poetry in Jess’ artwork as deeply as you can see his art in Robert’s poems. This was one of history’s great collaborations.


Although the gallery website says that the show focuses on the 1950s through ‘70s, there are later works here also, including Jess’ final painting, completed some six years before his death in ’03 at the age of 81. In this tall, thin painting is the silhouette of a man in a tan color on which is superimposed crosswise a line drawing of the portrait of a crowd. It’s a complex, undecidable image, very characteristic of the artist.


Like the California Historical Society show I discussed on Monday, I could see things not present that I wished had been included: Jess’ grand collage for Duncan’s 1970 reading of Passages in Berkeley over multiple nights, more of the Tricky Cad collages transforming old Dick Tracy comics – these are some of the earliest uses of comics in what would become Pop Art in the 1960s.


A reclusive person – I never once saw Jess at a reading of Robert’s or anyone else’s – Jess can’t be pegged into any school, tho several generations of artists drew heavily from him (everyone from Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner to Robert Mapplethorpe took serious note). It would be great if The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had the wits to acquire The Enamored Mage – that would be the ideal place for it. And indeed all these pieces – and the others not represented in this show’s two galleries – deserve to be in public collections. It is we who will be richest the more widely they are distributed and known.


Monday, January 24, 2005

Collage by Helen Adam


When my roommate Stan Klein first introduced me to Abigail Child, circa 1976, she was exploring the forms of poetry & dance because at that moment she was short of cash, a consequence of having invested a lot in a film that returned very little, & these were the two art forms she saw one could address without a lot of upfront capital. As it turned out, Child quickly emerged as a poet of lasting importance & has maintained her dual artistic identity ever since.


In the industry in which I work, this idea that pen & paper is all one needs to set forth on a career in poetry is what we would call a “low barrier to entry.” No need for heavy equipment, whether that of a film-maker, musician, sculptor or many another art form. No need, for that matter, for any formal training. Putting words to paper is physically easier than coaxing a tone out of an $800 saxophone. Putting which words to paper – now, there’s the rub.


But I would expect that a lot – most? – people who’ve gone into poetry over the years, certainly over the last six decades in the United States, have done so without a sense of it being that difficult to tackle. The difficulty emerges more gradually, once you begin to understand what you’re doing. If anything, it’s the art form that becomes harder the more you know. That’s its dynamic – it’s not personal.


That ease of entrance is, I think, partly the reason why poets have so often been game to take on other art forms as well. And the positive experience of beginning to write might even encourage poets to be more interested in more art forms than are their peers in other media. It’s rare to find a poet who can’t talk intelligently about the visual arts, cinema or music. It’s a lot more rare to find someone in those disciplines who can do the same for poetry.


That, anyway, is what I was thinking as I wandered through the extraordinary exhibit that is Poetry and Its Arts: Bay Area Interactions, 1954-2004 presented by the San Francisco Poetry Center at the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco. Curated, I take it, by Steve Dickison, we find Kenneth Patchen right at the beginning of this chronology, poet, painter & one of the first true vispos in North America. Right there with him is Kenneth Rexroth, with a couple of cloudy, rather beautiful paintings. Tho it is Rexroth & the conjunction of poetry & jazz that is more often remembered today.


With over 150 works by some 80 poets & artists, this exhibition is a fabulous time capsule. It stretches far back as Patchen & the founding of the Poetry Center out at San Francisco State & as far into the future as Eileen Tabios’s extraordinary “Poems From / Form the Six Directions,” incorporating not only a wedding dress & post-it notes (plus real live cash including a $20 bill amazingly still pinned to it) but also paintings by V.C. Igarta. The show is a celebration / documentation of most of the ways in which poets & other artists in the Bay Area have approached one another, whether through the practice of other forms by poets (Ferlinghetti’s paintings, Ginsberg’s photography, Whalen’s calligraphy, some extraordinary “films” by Lyn Hejinian composed in film-film-sized squares one per day, one having been drawn or painted, another written & collaged), or by work of visual artists who associated themselves with poets (Fran Herndon, Tom Field, Harry Redl, George Herms, Philip Guston).


Perhaps it was in the nature of the San Francisco Renaissance, perhaps it was just in the nature of the 1950s avant-garde, but there is a cross-fertilization of poetry, painting, collage, photography, sculpture & music that has set a tone going forward in San Francisco to this day of poets engaged in other art forms & artists from other genre actively engaging poets. This exhibit, which will miraculously be up for almost three more months, is the best presentation of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen. It’s almost too good to be imagined. A number of the works here – such as Patchen’s painting, Jonathan Williams’ photo of Rexroth, Phil Whalen’s calligraphic poem, “Dear Mr President, / Love & Poetry / Win – Forever,” Mary Oppen’s torn paper collage portrait of her husband George, Bobbie Louise Hawkins’ treated Xerox print of Joanne Kyger, R.J. Kitaj’s mixed media portrait of Robert Duncan¹ – are all by now canonic images in recent literary-art history. Many of its best pieces, tho, will be ones entirely new to most viewers – Norma Cole’s extraordinary hanging display of lines at the gallery entrance – not to be confused with Norma Cole the living installation piece even before you get to the ticket desk, surrounded by a hypothetical version of a poet’s room. Some of my favorites in this regard were photographs – a photo of Duncan, Spicer, Ida Hodes & Ruth Diamant-Witt at the Poetry Center, circa 1954, some really extraordinary photo sequences by photography critic David Levi-Strauss, one of Robert Duncan’s blackboards at New College, another of Larry Eigner’s study in his first board-and-care home in Berkeley’s North Campus neighborhood. A small pastel painting by Jack Spicer borrows its reds heavily from the palette of then-UC Berkeley art professor Hans Hoffman.


One can see – almost palpably feel – the impact of certain art movements as they wash over the Bay Area poets. West Coast abstraction was quickly followed by figuration (in advance of pop in NYC, in fact), plus the collage & art-povre strategies of Jess, Wallace Berman & Bruce Conner show up again & again echoes in the visual works by different poets (paintings by some, while others, like Blaser or Helen Adam opted for collage). I only have two or three complaints about the entire show – one is that its take on the visual arts is so heavily weighted toward the 1950s. More recent artists who have involved themselves in the poetry scene – Nayland Blake, Doug Hall, John Woodall, Jill Scott – are all absent. So are a few poets who seem to be “obvious” candidates for inclusion: Jim Rosenberg (whose work seems to directly anticipate Cole’s), Charles Hine, Steve Benson, Abby Child, Joanna McClure, Steve Vincent’s work in the book arts. And it would have been great to have found a way to incorporate the collaborations and influences between music & poetry in more than just photographs from the 1950s & a few record covers from Dickison’s own collection: everything from McClure’s influence of Jim Morrison (& vice versa), Robert Hunter’s work stretching from the Grateful Dead to readings with the likes of Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino & yours truly, the work of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Romeo Void or the impact of Lew Welch on his stepson, Huey Lewis, all would have been fair game for this gathering. But these are really just quibbles – the few final missing threads between a great show and a perfect one.


This isn’t a huge exhibition, for all of its riches – one big room and two smaller galleries – but it may well be worth the cost of a plane ticket to San Francisco to come see. Hopefully at some point these two organizations will figure out how to put out a catalog documenting what’s here, so that people in Tashkent or Orinda can view it as well.



¹ When I was a student at UC Berkeley in 1970, I rented a print of this from the UC Art Museum collection and had it on my wall for the better part of a year. It made my heart leap to see it again “in person.”