Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An image set by Ray DiPalma
from the East Village Other

The new Chicago Review is out, continuing its recent run of issues so first-rate that you can’t believe the journal has any connection to a school. My understanding is that in recent years at least that relationship may have largely been one of benign neglect, but in this instance that has proven to be an incredibly good strategy. The issue has several of my favorite writers on the planet – C.D. Wright (with a 30-page poem!), Alan Bernheimer, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Merrill Gilfillan, Devin Johnston, Peter O’Leary & Paul Hoover are all people one should read as much of as one can get one’s hands on. Important island folk such as Geraldine Monk, Peter Larkin and Medbh McGuckian can be found here as well.

But the contribution that makes me happiest, at least on first reading, is a lovely six-page work, “After Midnight,” written by Ray DiPalma & dedicated to Gilfillan (whose own poems follow immediately thereafter). DiPalma is another poet who deserves to have a honking huge selected or collected poems out, bringing together work from his 30+ previous books, and making evident even to the most dunder-headed what an important figure he is, and has been, now for some 35 or so years. The book as I imagine it would have to be at least 400 pages to give even a decent hint of everything DiPalma has written.

In recent years, DiPalma has given as much energy to his visual art works – he has pieces, often involving stamp work and collage, in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others – and to his teaching at the School for Visual Arts in New York, as he has to promoting his poetry. In fact, I know a number of younger writers around New York who tell me that they’ve never seen him, although he’s lived in the city for at least three decades. This has earned him something of a reputation as a recluse, yet his appearances in little magazines and the arrival of small press books have been ongoing. My take has been that he’s a compulsive art worker, and somewhere along the line decided that the work itself took precedence over the scene. I can appreciate that point of view.

When I was teaching that same class at SF State in 1981 I mentioned on Monday, one of the interesting aspects of the course was that, for almost every one of the 16 writers we covered during the term, there was at least one student who was willing to stand up and argue militantly against their writing – Bob Perelman was “too slick,” so was Michael Palmer, Hannah Weiners’ journals were an attempt to “cover up that she couldn’t write,” and so on. In fact, there was only one poet whom everyone in the class liked – Ray DiPalma. (The text we read, Planh, is excerpted in In the American Tree.) I remember being struck by that at the time – the fact that I can recall it 24 years hence suggests just how deeply the impression imprinted – because there’s nothing about DiPalma’s work that’s particularly easy – he often presents surfaces as elegant as anything you will find in Palmer or Perelman, but often more densely, without the scenic backdrops that are hinted at in Palmer’s work, or the underlying thematic engines that motivate Perelman’s.

“After Midnight” – the name just happens to be that of a rubber stamp products company – reads on the page like a single text, at least until you realize that it is a series of ten sonnets, composed of self-contained free verse couplets with longish lines that read more like a ghazal:

Without a fixed designation, as a matter of form,
bargaining notations, mnemonic targets, omertà

A third signature, distraction’s forward gaze,
pale abbreviations, the limits of a compass turn

Assertion is within the exclusion and without the inclusion,
I can remember neither the lament it prompted nor its novelty

There are no false alarms, no after effects honorably offered,
no obscure etymologies, arias, no discernible debt

A typefont peculiar to negotiations, constant measurement,
a block of salt, spilled shapes, blank inlays, a German wife

Rain shadows, red seeds, the heft of blue serge,
no want to material display, the game continues

Misled by thought, refractive, invisible commotion, eye for one,
only panorama, muled from place to place, interrogated

That is the third of the ten sections or sonnets here & while I chose it as “most typical,” the whole idea is a misnomer – there’s a tonal development that starts at the poem’s very beginning – all seven couplets of the first section are lists –

Partially filled notebooks, a stopwatch,
green candles, a Chinese screen, knives and forks

– but not, as you can see, obvious ones. The last sonnet shuts with a ring of closure as sharply etched as the old “Mark VII” production company logo at the end of an episode of Dragnet. Yet between points A & B, does anything really “happen?”

That’s the wrong question to ask, of course, because the answer will always be both yes & no. No in the sense of the traditional trappings of narrative discourse, but Yes in that the richness of text pulls one in instantly & moves one along – one is reluctant to have the work end. DiPalma is a master of textual surfaces – one could read him for that aspect of his work alone & learn an enormous number of useful lessons.

Because DiPalma has been published almost entirely by small presses throughout his career, it’s difficult for anyone but the most dedicated fan to get a sense of the reach of his overall project. His poems are not nearly so much objects as they are environments, lush worlds, sensual & crowded. You enter them & can wander endlessly – tho in fact his scale is mostly, as here, quite contained. It’s a world we should all visit often.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The elements for greatness were all in place, but also all a little out of kilter, when Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet played International House last Saturday in the Ars Nova Workshop’s ongoing tribute series to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). In part, the I-House room, which had worked effectively enough for the Anthony Braxton Sextet a month earlier, swallowed aspects of Smith’s quartet. When he spoke, Smith himself was inaudible from the fifth row without the aid of the mic, which he resorted to only once. In part, the amplification of instruments was to blame, as John Linberg’s bass disappeared whenever the volume of the quartet rose. And in part, Nasheed Waits, sitting in on drums for the ailing Ronald Shannon Jackson, didn’t quite gel with the rest of the quartet. As astonishingly good a drummer as Waits is – and you have to be to keep up with this superstar ensemble – he ignored hand signals from Smith at least a half dozen times during the course of the 80-minute concert, mostly to lower his volume or even come to silence. Waits played blithely on as Smith glowered & Lindberg & keyboard player Vijay Iyer waited patiently. One sensed the degree to which any ensemble playing is inevitably a collaboration, even in a group with a strong, directing leader like Smith, by the ways in which the seams showed, not so much a cohesion as a handing off one player to the other.

This version of the Golden Quartet differs from Smith’s earlier group of the same name, composed as that was of his contemporaries Malachi Favors Magoustous, Anthony Davis & Jack Dejohnette. In addition to Waits, whom I was told was the son of drum great Freddy Waits, Iyer & Linberg are a generation removed from Smith, one of the great trumpet players of the past half century. The influences in such a circumstance are inevitably different. Smith is a peer of bassist Dave Holland, who had Lindberg as a private student in the 1970s. Lindberg’s own website focuses as much on his own career as a commissioned composer as it does his performances & recordings. Smith is part of that first generation that began to join jazz, world music, “contemporary classical,” and even pop into a hybrid of intellectual & compositional resources. Like Braxton, Smith now teaches for a living, in Smith’s case at Cal Arts. Lindberg, Iyer & Waits are all beneficiaries of this pioneering work.

Where someone like Braxton – who recorded with Smith during the heyday of the AACM as part of the Creative Construction Company – relates to his sextet almost as tho he were the conductor, Smith’s Golden Quartet has much more the old-style jazz feel to it, with Smith decidedly the front man, the remaining musicians there to support the overall structure. Braxton records & performs jazz standards, but segments it from the rest of his music. Smith is more apt to quote the music in the middle of a larger improvisation – the result is more open ended & I might even prefer Smith’s approach on a night when it all came together.

Other differences between the events of the two groups are instructive, even perhaps worrisome. It is not just that this space – a large auditorium one block from Penn – was 90 percent full for Braxton’s group, at best two-thirds full for Smith’s, but that whereas Braxton’s audience was at least 30 percent female, women in the audience for the Golden Quartet made up less than ten percent of the crowd, which was evenly divided between whites & blacks. In such a strangely gendered environment, it also quickly became visible just how old this crowd was as well – the average age had to be around 40, maybe higher. How much, if any, of this could be accounted for by the fact that this was Smith’s very first performance ever in Philadelphia? If anything, I would have expected the crowd to have been enlarged by a first opportunity to hear the legend here. As it was, there were poets who drove up from as far as Washington, DC, to attend the event.

Jazz was the most popular music in the United States up through the Second World War, but has seen its audience both decline & age since then. Where a militant conservative like Wynton Marsalis seems to blame this on the increasingly intellectual nature of jazz improvisation from bebop to the present, one can make the argument that jazz itself never grew up until Charlie Parker & John Coltrane & their peers came along to demonstrate what a serious art form was. It’s hardly any accident that the great younger musicians opt consistently for the cognitive rigor of pomo music, but it’s distressing to see a scene evolve in which only John Zorn gets to be a star. Frankly, musicians like Iyer, Lindberg, Taylor Ho Bynum or Jay Rozen ought themselves to be able to film a room the size of I-House. They have the music, the presence, even the CDs - Lindberg has played on over 60. In addition to the New York String Trio, which he co-founded, his own John Lindberg Ensemble includes Smith as a sideman, along with ROVA’s Larry Ochs on sax & Andrew Cyrille on drums.

The situation for poetry over these same generations has not been so terribly dissimilar. Indeed, one hears with some regularity from the likes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti & others of his generation that it has fallen on hard times in spite of the fact that there are more good poets now than at any previous time certainly in the history of this country. But in the late 1940s, there were only some 8,000 titles of all kinds published in the U.S., of which the number of volumes of verse was at most a couple of hundred. Yet today Poets House can gather over 2,000 titles of poetry alone that were published in 2004 – the book industry as a whole published over 150,000 titles. Look at it this way – the U.S. population has roughly doubled since the forties, but the number of book titles has risen at nearly ten times that rate. Correspondingly, the audience for any given book has declined¹, and reading audiences have followed suit. Yet the audiences for poetry are still predominantly young. The idea of, say, a Michael McClure reading to a crowd as old as the one that showed up for Smith on Saturday is unthinkable.

Expectations & the definitions of “success” change when art forms relate to audiences in different configurations from one generation to the next. Today, any reading with an audience of 30 is an unqualified success. Wadada Leo Smith & the Golden Quartet easily had ten times that crowd last Saturday, and yet this genre’s future may be considerably more in doubt.


¹ The situation is even worse than I’m making out, since one consequence of the increase in titles & concentration of bookselling into the hands of a relatively few large chains is that “best-seller” culture has tipped heavily in one direction. Book sellers no longer speak of the 80-20 rule in which 20 percent of the stock generates 80 percent of their sales, but of a 90-10 rule or worse.

Monday, December 05, 2005

I seem to have amused Matt Lafferty. In the comments stream to my reading of Rob Read’s work, he quotes my line

But then I realized that I was liking these poems, against all my better judgment & deep instincts

commenting, “now that's a poetics.”

It made me think of the large role that expectation plays in reading. My dislike of spam predisposes me to think little of the intelligence of the marketing bottom-crawlers who dream up the crap & therefore to pay perhaps not as much heed as I might to their uses of language, and what that might reveal to us both about language itself, infinitely malleable thing that it is, & the lurid reality that lies just under their promise that, say, size really does matter, obsolete revisions of popular software programs are available cheap, and that the widow of some Nigerian potentate needs to stash their millions in my account.

So to see somebody who can actually read the stuff did, in fact, surprise me. And his ability to turn it to his own purposes, sharp, aesthetically pleasing, witty, definitely impressed me. Precisely because I know that his creative response goes against the grain of my own when confronted with the daily onslaught of the same sorts of messages. Rob Read shows me a more creative way forward. I was surprised by my reaction, and said so.

Surprise has been a recurring theme in my responses to certain works of literature, often very important ones, throughout my life. It’s a register, no doubt, of the degree to which I do take some things for granted that I should not, but it’s also I think just a process of ongoing recognition, as one of the things literature itself does is to perpetually broaden its scope, responding to the changing nature of the society in which it occurs by taking in new elements, facets, features &, as Ez put it, making it new.

Some of the writing I can think of that struck me as “beyond the pale” when I first saw it, or heard of it second hand, that later proved itself to me to be completely valuable would include Richard Brautigan’s novel Trout Fishing in America, Clark Coolidge’s early poetry, especially the books Ing & Space, and the early novels of appropriated materials by Kathy Acker. More recently, something like Mark Peters’ Men and some of Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative” writing projects have struck me in a somewhat similar way, but not nearly so much so, partly because I’ve come to recognize this process of surprise in myself and so have developed a second not-quite-instantaneous response of not dismissing the new outright, but giving it a more of a chance to persuade me as to its vision.

My take on Brautigan, whom I knew just well enough to be struck at his deep shyness, was that he was a guy taking the palette of Jack Spicer & using it to write these sweet, half-funny, half-sad lyric poems, a project that struck me as derivative & minor. When I first heard him read from Trout Fishing in America, at a long gone bookstore on the edge of North Beach, I heard it not as fiction but as prose poetry. Here at least was an attempt to do something different, and interesting enough, with a form that, at that point, I really knew mostly from the dreadful predictability of Robert Bly & Russell Edson. It did not even occur to me than anyone would take it as a novel. So when I started to see copies of the book, first published by Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation, definitely a small press, in the hands of people I didn’t already know, I could tell that Brautigan was starting to have some kind of crossover success I didn’t quite get. Then, in 1970, I moved briefly to Buffalo right at about the time that the Delacorte mass market paperback was issued & I could not get on a bus there that summer without seeing somebody reading the book. I had completely misjudged Trout Fishing because I’d allowed my preconceptions to set my reaction.

My reaction when I first saw Clark Coolidge’s abstract word works in Ing, published by Angel Hair in 1968, was not so terribly different from Robert Sward’s famous dismissal of the 1970 volume Space as “psychedelic word salad,” an instance of avant-gardism for its own sake. It wasn’t until Barrett Watten sat down with me one day and went through a few texts, consciously showing me the humor (which, as it turns out, has roots in the influence of Phil Whalen & Jonathan Williams on Coolidge, two poets one might not automatically think of when first confronting those clusters of disjointed phrases), that I had the “aha” experience that suddenly transformed my reading from resistant incomprehension to suddenly seeing foreground, background, all sorts of shape & shading that had been, in fact, there all along.

This transformation, from complete resistance to being able to see into the work at hand, is I think one of the major symptoms of how our own reading & experience changes us. When I was teaching a graduate seminar at San Francisco State in the fall of 1981, one of the tasks I set for all of my students was to keep a journal of their reading, and of the poetry events they attended during the course of any given week (I’d set a target of attending two off-campus readings per week). One student, who shall remain nameless here because she’s gone on to publish some very good books, wrote of how she found the writing of Rae Armantrout, whose book Extremities was the class’ first required reading, incomprehensible. In the following week, we’d had an experience in class, reading Bruce Andrews’ Sonnets: Momento Mori, aloud only to discover that some students – all grad level folks, half of whom are now publishing poets – had trouble even telling when the poems began & ended even with a table of contents. This student really struggled with that. The following weeks, reading books by Bob Grenier & Hannah Weiner, were no less relief. But then when she got to Steve Benson’s Blind Spots, the work suddenly seemed sensual, coherent, cogent in ways that she had not anticipated. She went back to the earlier books on the reading list – I’d assigned 16 books for this course – and now discovered that they also really made sense, as of course they do. There was one funny passage in her journal, in which she worried that what I was doing as a teacher might be brainwashing students, but from that point forward she was no longer the silent presence in class that she had been for the first few weeks.

Some eight years before that, Kathy Acker had been, from my perspective, just one of the faces on the San Francisco poetry scene that one remembered because she was, literally, the first woman with a freshly shaved head I’d ever seen. Once each month, she would hand me these self-printed chapters from her ongoing work in progress, a novel entitled The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, this last phrase which she was then using as a pen-name. In 1973, I was still reluctant – some six years after having made almost the same mistake with Trout Fishing – to imagine the novel as anything other than the corporate plaything of trade presses. Acker’s attempt to build a genre that was, it seemed, equal parts plagiarism & pornography, yielding from that mix autobiography, struck me as very weird indeed. Publishing chapters monthly, handing them out to friends, struck me as deeply romantic, going right back to Dickens as a model for the form, yet also extraordinarily brave. By the time, Acker began her next project, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac! Imagining, I was persuaded of the importance of her work for writing, tho I still discounted the idea of going after the novel as a project in itself. The courage of Acker’s actions was an important impetus to me, especially during the writing of Ketjak & the other poems of The Age of Huts, in some ways more than her writing.

In each case, my resistant reaction to a work that fit outside my received view of what literature might or could be proved instructive. It wasn’t that I was inherently opposed to the new – I had no such similar response to the writing of Gertrude Stein, Jackson Mac Low, or Bob Grenier, for example, when I discovered them – but rather that my idea of what the new might be seems to have a lot of ought built into it. When something outside of my experience fits into my notion (it’s too impressionistic & intuitive to call an idea) of how a given genre ought to develop, then I have no difficulty.

Nor do I have a hard time segregating out what I think of as less than great work done among the various avant-(and post-avant)gardes. No amount of theoretical framing is going to render the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly or texts of Richard Kostelanetz interesting. John Cage’s work with words is a kind of literary tourism at best, well intentioned buy painfully sentimental. Cage’s work with sound, however, suffers from none of those faults.

But when something – like Rob Read’s spam poems – manages both to be new and to point to ways in which my own take on writing is not, a priori, entirely accurate, that I need to go back & revise some thinking somewhere along the line, then I know from experience I can be less than a good reader. And over time I’ve learned to gauge my response & recognize this reaction when I’m having it. And learn from it.

So the answer is, yes, Matt, that is a poetics.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

New poetry & poetics blogs are coming along these days at a pretty steady clip. But perhaps the most interesting recent addition to the blogroll on the left belongs to none other than Charles Olson, dead now just about 35 years, but nearly as hard to keep in the grave as he was difficult to control during his relatively brief six decades among us. At 1:00 p.m. today, some of Olson’s current generation of comrades & friends will hold an event at the Saint Marks Poetry Project that co-hosts Ammiel Alcalay and Michael Kelleher are calling an “open forum.” Among other events, this will include, at 4:00 p.m., the New York City premier of Henry Ferrini’s film, Poet and the City: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place.

The blog itself is just the start of something, or so I hope, for if ever there was a poet whose spirit foretold the bricolage process that is the internet, it is Olson. I hope that Michael & Ammiel continue the process of adding both the personal reminiscences that are on the site now, as well as the materials that are building up as a “documents archive” for the event at the EPC website. Just as the Olson Society has become a clearing house for a retrospective project, OlsonNow could as easily become a literally projective project, taking the work forward into the contemporary moment & beyond.

One of the very best aspects of the materials gathered for OlsonNow is their diversity. Olson is not, by any means, a Rorschach, or available to all points of view, but his restless imagination & commitment to a personal rigor (even as it often enough must have appeared to be utter chaos to those closest to him), give him more hooks into what is happening now, not mention what was happening, say, three or six thousand years ago. Ammiel Alcalay, for example, starts his “Republics of Poetry” by focusing on Olson’s work on Iraq. Alan Gilbert contributes a close examination of the parallels between Olson’s life & work with that of painter Philip Guston, and the influence of Popular Front artists on Olson’s writing. Don Byrd, on the other hand, considers what became of the next generation of projectivist poets – something I’ve written about here more than once – and likewise looks at Olson’s political work & its role in his later poetry. Byrd also contributes a fascinating, and deeply pessimistic, piece on Olson & Duncan’s relation to cybernetics.

As you go through these pieces by Don Byrd, Pierre Joris, Clayton Eshleman, Alan Gilbert, Jonathan Skinner, Andre Spears, Douglas Spangle, David Meltzer, Anne Waldman & Ramsey Scott, you catch glimpses of Olson the historical figure, Olson the friend, Olson the poet, Olson the communications theorist, Olson the historian, Olson the archaeologist, an Olson that might seem retro & nostalgic & another that really is only beginning to emerge as possible today. For example, Olson in his own life I don’t think ever connected up his work with breath as the central organizing element of the poem with the millennia old wisdom traditions extending out of South Asia, yet there is a rich interchange there just waiting to happen & waiting likewise to include contemporary neurobiology. Somebody like Anne Waldman would seem perfectly positioned to pick up on this facet of Olson’s project, which makes it all the more interesting to read her writing instead on the destruction of Mayan civilization & equate that to Rumsfeld & Cheney & the sacking of Iraq.

Given Olson’s death 35 years ago next month, when the United States was in the nadir of the Vietnam debacle (a disaster that would drag on another five poisonous, murderous years), the parallels to the contemporary Iraq situation are probably inescapable. If you follow Olson chronologically, the drift is inevitably apocalyptic. And it is certainly the case that there is no credible scenario for the future of Iraq that does not devolve into outright civil war, a tri-furcated collapse that would bring Iran, Turkey & other nations in the region into direct conflict, a failed state sitting atop the third richest pool of oil in the world. Bush’s current plan for “victory” is to push off World War 3 as long as possible in the hopes that the implosion happens on the next guy’s watch. Good freakin’ luck.

But this is just one of many Olsons waiting to be uncovered & carried forward in any number of directions. OlsonNow strikes me as a useful next step, although a part of me remains convinced that the real next generation of Olsonians has yet to be born.

Friday, December 02, 2005

One great consequence of this weblog is that people send me books & magazines that they want me to see. Some are just so-so, a few are real cringers, but I’m struck at how high the overall quality is – many are much more than “merely competent.” People who decide after all to tackle this most difficult (& deeply underappreciated) art form really do, to appropriate a sports phrase, put themselves out there, leaving everything on the page. That is one reason why I’m such an optimist about poetry, and why I can say with confidence that we have more good poets active right now than ever before, especially if I frame that clearly, say, for example, within the United States. On top of all this a few books just jump out at me & really rock.

I started this week off by turning to a book by a young poet, Laura Sims, whose poetry I first read as a direct result of doing the blog. Her book is flat out terrific. I’m happy to finish it in a parallel fashion, turning to another great new book by another poet whose work I first saw as a direct result of blogging. Joseph Massey’s Bramble is not only a joy to read – I’ve already done so more than once – but it’s unusual & remarkable in several ways. The most important of these is the writing.

Bramble is a collection of some four dozen lunes, a haiku variant that first came to light in a book entitled Lunes written by Robert Kelly, and published, together with Jerome Rothenberg’s Sightings, by Jerry’s Hawk’s Well Press back in 1964. Lunes are so called because their format most often three lines with five syllables, three syllables, and finally five syllables again suggest that the right-hand margin will carry the appearance of an open parenthesis – ( – mimicking the shape of a waning moon. One doesn’t think of Kelly as a miniaturist, and it’s not surprising that the form has carried on most often in the hands of others, such as Jack Collom, who categorizes the lune as one of a broader number of “teeny-weenies” that abound in the poem..

Massey, however, is a miniaturist, as technically fine & intellectually sharp as any we’ve got this side of Bob Grenier. Like Grenier, Massey really understands how small form poetry magnifies all that it touches:

     a snail’s vacated
shell lies next
           to a wad of gum

This poem partakes not only of daily observation, close attention to the actual, but one could point also to its historic relationship both to haiku’s Zen roots and an American art aesthetic visible in the Ash Can school of painting & the Objectivist poets. This is an interesting double dynamic that pops up throughout the book, most explicitly in a poem entitled, literally, “in Cid’s voice”:

    you think there should be
more, but this
           this is all there is

An insistence that shows up elsewhere in the book in a text that audibly harks back to Robert Creeley’s work (& indeed to the Creeley most directly impacted by the short poems of Louis Zukofsky):

     when you say it, say
it – what’s there
           to be said – what’s here

Massey has been known to bridle at my occasional obsessiveness over literary genealogy, and yet these poems – the book starts off with an epigram from Kelly – form an act of allegiance as willful, even devout, as anything I’ve seen in ages. Yet Massey is not, repeat not, a retro-ist, content with demonstrating his ability to replicate the great dance moves of the past. There is one sequence in the book of four poems that each begin with the same line, and yet move in very different directions:

     remembering, as
a snail-streaked
           calla lily sways


     remembering, as
the tarp whips
           against the fence post


     remembering, as
rain slants in-
           to my coffee cup


     remembering, as
traffic takes
           another long breath

There are instances here – as in the last line of that second poem in the sequence above – where the constraints of the form strike me as a limit: I very much want to begin that last line with the word up even tho it would “violate” the genre. Yet what really hits me here is how many different ways that first line – a hint of being not in the present, in contrast with the Zen “be here now” assertiveness implicit in the form – can send a poem. I don’t think it’s possible, frankly, to craft a better poem than that last one.

Each time I’ve gone through Bramble I’ve emerged with different favorites a lot of this has to do with Massey being fully dedicated to the particular, and also with his excellent ear. At 250 copies, Bramble is an unusually large run for a fine press printing, although it is Massey’s largest edition to date, following the 50 copies of Minima St. & 200 for Eureka Slough. At 52 pages, with sewn binding, Bramble is a gorgeous book object, right up there with work from presses like Chax & Cuneiform. What we really need, tho, is a big book – 100-plus pages – with a press run in four digits and halfway decent distribution (which, for poetry, is very very good). Joseph Massey is writing some of the best work of our time, and it’s accessible to boot. He’s a post-avant even Ted Kooser should be able to love.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Some time back, I started receiving – pretty much daily – a series of emails whose header always included the phrase “Daily Treated Spam.” My first thought, before I deleted the message, was “Truth in Advertising.” After awhile, tho, that middle term “Treated” got under my skin & I actually opened one. Voila! Somebody was taking their spam and turning it into a poem of what appeared to be mostly found language. I still pretty much deleted them every day, but now I was reading them first. As somebody who can get 200 legitimate emails on a given day, the whole idea of spam makes me crazed with rage. The idea of turning spam into found works strikes me as a resourceful bit of “if you’ve got lemons, make lemonade,” maybe, an instance of what I take to be Kenny Goldsmith’s idea of “uncreative writing” & not-too-distant a cousin from flarf. But the whole idea of spam’s sleazeball sludge of discourse, the lowest rung of marketing, invading poetry seemed more like an instance of the invasion of the bodysnatchers than anything else.

But then I realized that I was liking these poems, against all my better judgment & deep instincts. Rob Read, of whom I’d never heard before, has a sense of humor that shines right through whatever material he has at hand:


is the way out

Harim catanzaro bemyfriend:
Navas lupus adelphi eatathome graftFriction:
Passover robgeider sap campervan

SSince I hhad no moonney,,
and I didnn’t ffeeell liikke scrounging in garbage
I wwiished the sunn
would set sso I could ffalll asleep aand forget
hunger.. And maybe
wheen I woke upp,
I’d be outt of this crazy dream.

Rob is right that this is how some of the language in our lives looks right now – the use of deliberate misspellings & psycho punctuation intended to throw off electronic spam catching programs. Here, however, it’s become a narrative of its own design. Others offer a more precise sense of construction:

>Subject: Freedom at last scamrnjyr

Will the company pay to relocate my horse.
Does your health insurance cover pets with a torch.
On display? I eventually had to go
Down to the cellar to find them.

Others could remind you of Robert Creeley crossed with Ted Berrigan, such as this untitled work:



While others are almost sociological statements on the genre of spam itself:

>Subject: TraÒmadoÒl

StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney

StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney

StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney
StÒop wastÒing moÒney


By now, I was saving all my Daily Treated Spams & had figured out somewhere that Rob Read was a Canadian poet, tho I still didn’t know much more until finally, this past week, I received my copy of O Spam Poams: Selected Daily Treated Spam from the inimitable BookThug, Jay MillAr’s press. The book’s “dust jacket” wraps around in the manner of a label on a tin can, so that you have to slide the book in & out (this is somewhat sensual & naughty if you don’t like having to bend a book to reinsert it). In addition to over 100 pages of bright work – these poems often remind me of “early Tom Raworth” – Read has added an excellent afterword that shows, among other things, that he knows about more spam poetry projects out there than I ever could have imagined. And he knows how to ask, in fact, the right question: What’s to make this book any better?

Well, for one this is not novelty verse, it’s verse that happens to have an aura of novelty around it. The poetry in this book is poetry.

In fact, Read is too modest: it’s poetry that will ensure that you’re going to read Read’s next book too. Tho, as always with BookThug, the production is impeccable, but the press run is ridiculous – 300 perfect bound copies. Hopefully, the mass success of this book won’t cause Read to shut down what has become one of the favorite moments of my day. In addition to buying this book, which you should, I suspect that if you drop a note to readrobread AT hotmail DOT com, you could get added to Rob’s daily list.