Monday, March 27, 2006

My first thought when I saw “One Hundred People You Should Know” in Derek Fenner’s My Favorite Color is Red was – O no! – not another epigramiphone! But then I started to read & just like that! – my wish was granted. Rather than a 100 epigrams in the vein of Kent Johnson’s Epigramititis, Fenner’s book of poems – whose cover I would swear is closer to blood orange than it is to red – has, right at its center, 100 drawings mostly of writers & painters accompanied by quotations from their works & words.

In the middle of what appears to be a book of poems, this reversal of text & illustration is jolting. It displaces the emphasis placed on the text elsewhere, not only in this book but in others, anything that permits an illustration. Suddenly “The Katie Couric Odes” earlier in the book, which are themselves illustrated, stand just a little differently. It’s not as if you can desanctify a prose poem entitled “How is Katie Couric in the Sack?” But the irony & play there stands sharply in contrast to “One Hundred People,” which could not be further from the spirit of Kent Johnson.

Take, for example, the portrait of Funk Art painter Wallace Berman, a Los Angeles artist associated both by time & inclination with the Beats. That’s Berman’s likeness on the cover of Fenner’s book, not his own – in his self-portraits, Fenner himself looks suspiciously like filmmaker Kevin Smith in his Silent Bob routines. Putting someone else’s face up big on the cover of your book is itself an interesting move, a deflection. Here is the text that accompanies this drawing:

Art is Love is God.

Each statement is carefully – even obsessively, given this book’s general attitude toward academic form (ironic & dismissive) – documented. Thus, just below this quotation:

Berman, Wallace. Untitled. Box with Bullet, 15 x 13 x 18 cm. Date Unknown. Collection of Temple of Man, Venice.

Given the detailing of the absence both of name and date, it’s interesting to see the presumption that we’ll know this Venice is not a town sinking in Italy, but one even closer to the shore in Southern California.

That Fenner would pick Berman & put Berman on his cover – as, in a way, David Meltzer, that other Beat associated with Los Angeles, did by using a Berman pic for the cover of his recent selected poems – is intriguing to say the least. Fenner was all of three years old when Berman died, but somehow has become a fan of a particular angle toward art, one that includes not just Ginsberg & Kerouac & McClure, but Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo & Jack Hirschman, Picasso & Hunter Thompson & Bill Luoma. One might call it the Beat side of the post-avant – there’s Laurie Anderson & Jess & Robert Duncan (Jess has a great quote about the stains on the walls & ceiling of the house he & Robert shared) & Hemingway, Joyce, Stan Brakhage & Tom Raworth, Ann Waldman, Bob Dylan & Wally Hedrick. Some of these make perfect sense, but then you go back & say, wait, what’s Luoma or Hedrick doing there? Or Ian Hamilton Finlay? Or all those painters, from Edward Hopper to Van Gogh to Francis Bacon. All of these images began with photographs, often famous ones, of the person pictured, which Fenner processes – he details this at the head of the portraits, which take up literally two-thirds of this volume – to get just to the most significant lines & shadows.

Fenner’s own poetry has a sort of late Beat or post-Beat air to it:

Diary of a Genius

Swans reflect the poetry
America. Elephants
are Original Sin.

Mae West, the
great masturbator on the beach
with a telephone.

Salvador! Salvador!
Stop staring
and flush.

Yet where Beat aesthetics so often have been interpreted to mean (wrongly, I’d argue) a certain anti-intellectual, or at least anti-theory, stance toward the world, here’s Derrida & Foucault & Benjamin among Fenner’s 100. Alfred North Whitehead & Klaus Kinski?!

One sees this double-sidedness I think most clearly in a series of haiku Fenner wrote while teaching art to young felons. The poems are in dialect, but with a precision that is clearly Fenner’s:

Went gone got PC.
A snitch is a snitch is a
punk dead man walking.

Here, unlike the quotations in the portraits, Fenner simply seems to presume that we’ll understand the acronym in the first line to mean neither personal computer nor politically correct, but protective custody. Each of the first two lines is organized around its own reiteration of sound – gone got & snitch…snitch – while the last is organized around its own elegant syntactic construction when you realize that the speaker here is speaking of himself.

It’s fascinating to read Fenner just to see someone whose own aesthetic owes a lot to a time before he was born, but who has been as deeply influenced by painters & painting as any member of the first generation New York School, tho generally by different ones. It makes you realize just how many choices were being made by John, Frank & Jimmy. Even as Fenner includes Warhol & Brainard & Basquiat, his eye really belongs to the West Coast artists of the same period: Berman & Jess & George Herms & Bruce Conner. Early on in the book, there is a wonderful description of the burial of Edward Keinholz

on Howe Mountain in his 1940 Packard. Smash, his cremated dog, was in the back seat. Ed had a dollar in his pocket, a bottle of good Italian wine from 1931, and a deck of cards – enough to get him started in the next world.

Allen Ginsberg and I once had a conversation about the problem of imitators, a problem he had much worse than I. On the one hand, it’s moving, literally, to see people so committed to what one has done, but on the other hand, the impulse of the imitator is fundamentally different from that of the person being copied. The original is striking out into the world, the imitator wants rather the experience of writing like that, which actually requires living quite a bit differently, having ultimately very different values.

Fenner has, I think, moved beyond that, but the world he seems most interested in isn’t the present. Rather, he’s recasting the past in different guises, an eminently likeable & crafty world, even at its most harsh, as in the sixth of Fenner’s “Cleveland Sonnets”:

Cleveland, I’ve give you all my problems and now you’ve
turned right around and given them back. Sold me out
to the Gold Star Pawn Shop, Inc.
I don’t want treats
by Pat, so give me the consolation prize once more and I’ll
never again step foot in your Imperial Super Buffet.
There’s this passage I have memorized from the Bible.
It goes, “Now Cleveland was corrupt
in God’s sight, and
Cleveland was filled with violence. And God
Cleveland, and it was corrupt. For all its dwellers
had corrupted their way upon the city.” It’s in Genesis.
Find out what’s coming your way. God’s
gonna get down on you. d.a. levy said,
”Somewhere over the rainbow, there’s another dump like this.
I know, I know it sounds untrue, but there is, there is.”