Thursday, March 16, 2006


I’m not quite certain what the Brooklyn Rail is, but in the March issue you will find this piece on Charles Reznikoff by Charles Bernstein. Kenny Goldsmith also collects the “Kenny G. letters,” which are exactly what they say they are. There is also work by Amy King & Ann Lauterbach & a sweet remembrance of Nam June Paik & a banana.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


A member of my immediate family has been in a health crisis for some time now. One very minor (to me) side effect of this has been that I haven’t had the time – let alone psychic energy – to focus on the blog that I would have liked, especially over the past month. One of the things I’ve haven’t done much of is to keep track of comments streams as they emerge in response to different posts. The streams have almost always felt to me a lot like the bar conversation that might occur after a talk – interesting, sometimes valuable, but also sometimes only marginally related to the post itself. Each stream seems to have a life of its own – a perception I see borne out whenever a new post elicits very few comments while some storm is raging on another stream that’s a few days old.

By the time I noticed what was happening to the stream that accompanied my note on Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco one week ago Monday, the donnybrook was in full swing. Reading through all of the posts – including several that have subsequently been deleted by their authors (especially by Eileen Tabios), I’ve concluded that the brouhaha was inevitable the instant Lilac remarked “I meant that this poet isn't very striking metaphorically compared to her exotic look,” but that what was actually going on was much more than just a response to the implicit – but unmistakable – racism within that word “exotic” and by the shift in discourse from its focus on the poem to the poet. Exotic by definition is a positional term, and whatever is characterized by that adjective is consciously placed outside of whatever circle one is drawing.

By the time the verbal riot died down – it seems to have topped out at around 100 messages – things had gotten quite a bit uglier. There were multiple strains of argument, only one of which seems to me to have focused on the initial cause – the discomfort many readers seemed to feel at Reyes’ particular conjoining of the sacred & profane in the poem “[ave maria].” I’m persuaded, as I said in my original note, that this is a powerful poem, valuable in its own right, but the vehemence with which some others disagreed made me think that it may have been more powerful than I at least had anticipated, regardless of whether or not one found value there.

There were multiple comments in the polyphony of the stream that could be interpreted as racist, especially those made by Lilac, an Anglo woman living as a Muslim in Lebanon. Few of these – I won’t say none – were directed at Reyes & none struck me as intended to intimidate, instances where I might have thought about stepping in & deleting comments. Otherwise, when people make fools of themselves in the comments stream, I think it’s useful to leave the evidence alone for all to see.

One especially embarrassing stream-within-the-stream was a shouting match between Curtis Faville & Eileen Tabios, tho it’s impossible to read it now that Eileen has redacted her comments. Both may be surprised to discover that I think each is an important & valuable contributor to the poetry scene & that I suspect that the retired federal bureaucrat & wine connoisseur and the retired stock broker & Napa Valley vineyard owner would discover that they have a lot more in common than they can imagine, if they would but shut up & read each other’s work & words with an open mind. For one thing, both have made valuable contributions to the world of small press publishing – to which each seems quite dedicated – and neither seems at all concerned with “fitting in” to any old School of Quietude frame.

Why we expect the world of poetry to be any better than larger universe, I’m never quite sure. Clearly the poem, as such, can be a model of unalienated labor in a world where such examples are few & far in between. But among poets you will find progressives (many), reactionaries (some), & every step in between, including more than a few people whose political thinking, to the degree it exists at all, is simply a mess. This should not be news.

This blog has evolved over three and one-half years. If these notes represent my thinking of whatever subject happens to be at hand, the blogroll to the left has emerged as a service. When, as happened a few days ago, I screw up a single html character and blow away some portion of the list, I hear about it fairly quickly from people who use it as a method of finding various literary blogs. The comments stream is a service of a different order – I think there can be real value in that “bar conversation” and am not terribly concerned that streams go off on tangents at times. It would be great, tho, if people would just respect one another once they’re there & act accordingly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


The suffix itis has evolved over the centuries from merely meaning diseased to its contemporary medical connotation of inflamed or swollen. Thus arthritis, rhinitis, colitis. Thus also Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets by Kent Johnson – meaning literally swollen epigrams, the extra it intended I suppose to lend the whole even more of a stuttering Barney Fife-as-Virgil air. It hasn’t even been a month since I wrote that

I’m convinced that, for whatever reason, Kent Johnson just isn’t having fun if he isn’t up to mischief. Fortunately – an adverb I use with some caution – Johnson has boundless energy when it comes to attracting same.

Now Johnson has, I reckon, figured out how to get 118 or so people to purchase his newest effort. In a bizarre way, it’s worth the $20. An epigram is (thank you OED) a loosely laudatory poem. These, however, carry their passive-aggressive air to new heights (or depths), as with one entitled “Michael Palmer.”

O Ideal Reader,
Pretty Girlie-Man,
Master of Fine Arted:
Through the Gate Whose Name is Author,
You shall be lost within
The Maze of the Market,
and you shall be, etc.
astonished by the letter, etc.
Whose Name is M, or L, or A, etc.

Illustrating this poem is a full-frontal photograph of the governor of California entirely nude, flexing pretty much everything there is to flex. Now let’s ignore the fact that Michael Palmer has, so far as I know, no MFA, nor is a member of any standing of the MLA (nor, for that matter, is named Michael, except insofar as he has adopted his middle name). What is Johnson saying? More exactly, what is Johnson implying?

Here is the poem entitled “Ron Silliman”:

Poetry, children, is boring.
We must not say so. But
life is, too. And this is
the New Realism.

The illustration for this piece is a photograph of a young woman – the presence of a crude blackboard on the walls suggests that she is a school teacher – about to whip with a ruler the bare bottom of a female student. Given that I believe none of the above, it’s a head scratcher.

Perhaps the most telling text in the entire volume occurs on a faux copyright page (there’s a real one further up) that reads:

© Wherever Poetry, With Its Loves, Hates, and Sorrows Resides

Disclaimer: All Names and characters portrayed here are completely fictional. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is in most cases coincidental. This holds, as well, for nearly all images accompanying the epigrams, hard copies of which were tossed into a big wicker basket and shuffled around before each image was randomly picked out and given its pairing with a poem.

I love that “in most cases” qualifier above; ditto the “nearly all.” For what distinguishes this book is its gleeful meanness, as in “Lyn Lifshin”:

Not to be mean, or anything
Like that, but did Lyn Lifshin
Really ever exist?

Another, illustrated by a photo of Marilyn Monroe raising a martini glass, is “Robert Grenier”:


Or, illustrated by a photo of a used car salesman, “Robert Pinsky”:

I, too, dislike him,
though I’m not sure why.

Or, illustrated by a photo of Telly Savalas sticking a lollipop into his mouth, “David Antin”:

Shortly after 9/11, he spoke in writing
on the listserv Poetics: “If you encounter
a terrorist on a plane, you don’t politely
request that he return to his seat, you
pull out a .45 and you shoot him.”
History is unstoppable in its teleological
drive to unity: Pop culture merges
with the Humanities; the Talk Show merges
with Talk Poetry. And huge decompressed
machines fall, like ideologemes, out of the air.

Or, illustrated with a photo of the burned corpses of American contractors being hung from a Baghdad bridge, “Stephen Burt”:

Poet and critic, we claim him
as our Randall Jarrell (the younger version)>
Oh, goodbye, Helen Vendler, goodbye,
for you are their Matthew Arnold.
We wash you out of your shattered turret with a hose.

Some of the poems (Graham Foust, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge) are “in the manner” of their targets & in more than a few cases, Johnson is settling scores. My own name appears in a half dozen or so pieces, the hit count of this blog in more than one. Of the 118 total, just 30 are women, several of whom – Eleni Sikelianos, Eileen Myles, Catherine Daly, Hoa Nguyen – are considered more for their looks than their poetry. Un-PC? You bet.

Johnson is, I think, the canary in our coal mine, gasping for air. Like Jim Behrle, whose stance towards poetry as first of all a social activity Johnson comes close to miming, he is telling us something moderately significant about contemporary verse. More than Behrle, Johnson has figured out how to fit this into his written work, as such. But the downside for both is that to get to this place, one has to be almost tragically out of control, which is the choice each appears to accept. There is an audience of sorts that takes this as bravery – the same folks who thought the homophobia of Ed Dorn & Tom Clark with regards to Naropa – wishing Allen Ginsberg “the gift of AIDS” – was telling it like it is. More accurately, it’s like the way in which Clark’s biographies invariably identify with their subjects as monsters, as tho the monster in the mirror were all one could ever hope to confront, really. One might say that Kent Johnson is at war with poetry, with all of it, and desperately in love with it as well. The result is pornographic in the most literal sense – you hate to find yourself staring obsessively at it, like watching someone with horrific burn scars attempt to sip through a straw. As such, it’s a powerful, tho stomach-wrenching experience.

Monday, March 13, 2006


One of the first things I noticed in Russia in 1989, besides the lethal callousness of our driver, perfectly content to roar onto the sidewalk during moments of congestion, were the so-called public drinking fountains, which looked a lot like refrigerators, with a plastic cup stationed below a spout where water would pour if one but pushed a button. Everyone shared the same glass, and one did not need a degree in epidemiology to know that this was a bad bad thing. I hadn’t thought of that in a long time – I drank only bottled mineral water while there, so rich in iron that if you left a bottle open for an hour, a layer of rust literally formed on the surface – until I came across this poem on the question of culturally variable hygiene & its risks. The title is its first line:

Cutting hair on the sidewalk
is a means to make money for poor people
and a snobby pleasure for the bourgeoisie

A unique thrill is to have your ears cleaned
a risky bout of comfort
in a historical slumber

Most dangerous is the shaving
a worn out knife expertly sharpened
you must sit still and not have an opinion

Cutting hair on the sidewalk
Remains only in a few countries like Vietnam.

This is the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao, who writes in Vietnamese tho he has degrees in American literature & library science from UCLA. “Cutting Hair on the Sidewalk” is one of the more effective poems in Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, translated by Linh Dinh & just released from Tupelo Press in a deep blue cover.

The cover is not an accident. Blue shows up everywhere in Hao Phan’s poems, just lightly here in “Night in the South”:

A ringing phone on the carpet
a child is calling from the womb
night in the South
women open their doors to flirt
O spittle
the kind of germs belonging to wicked souls
returning to a cultured city
only to see ducks and chickens pecking on graves
shards of stars
encrusted in the deep dark horizon
the blue ocean and the monkish jellyfish
slackers are lining up
to buy cups of ice cream and a dripping night in the south
I walk on my hands
I drive 70 miles on the side of a mountain
the precipice is below
O the women, the jellyfish and the rosy cheeks
all I have is jazz jazz jazz and lots of gasoline in my bloody abyss.

Blue is more central to the book’s title poem:

Night negotiating a plastic spoon
on a table littered with fish bones
all the illusions have been picked clean
Charlie Parker, a piece of bread not yet moldy
a black ocean and black notes
a few million years, a few small changes
at the bend in the road on the horizon
grows a strong type of tree
the black cat is in labor
gives birth to a few blue eggs.

Surrealism is very close to the heart of Hao Phan’s book – he and translator Linh Dinh discuss it in an interview printed as an afterword, where Hao Phan comes close to declaring it a universal:

I think the influence of surrealism has become too vast and deep in 20th century arts. Nowadays you can find traces of surrealism in nearly all modern and postmodern works. To me, surrealism is only the means to see beyond the surface of things, and, more importantly, it’s a method to make associations in poetry. Surrealist associations allow the poet to place next to each other images that do not seem to go together in ordinary life, it allows the imagination to widen, and from there to create a richer reality. Another important element in surrealism is automatic writing, which I think is a very useful poetic device. This creates surprises in poetry, and frees from the narrative task And yet, I still try to build each poem as an integrated whole, linked by a unity of emotion, within the very ambiguity and unexpected shifts of the images. I think surrealism has become an element in contemporary poetry, so it’s only natural that there are traces of surrealism in my poetry.

Yet the root of surreal remains real & Hao Phan’s poems strike me as strongest when they – as occurs in varying degrees with all three of the above poems – remain in some contact with the social origins of their images. Thus the one weak line in “Night in the South” reads the kind of germs belonging to wicked souls as if there a moral component to bacteria – shades of rightwing fantasies about sexually transmitted diseases!?! – and it’s a major difference between Hao Phan’s work in general & Linh Dinh’s, which similarly shares a deep sense of the surreal – I always wonder how much of this might be traced back to the French occupation of Vietnam – but is always profoundly social. Thus a poem like “Night Freedom” –

Geckos are frolicking in a yellow puddle
the street lamp an awakened eye
the night has buried deeply
the tedious hammering sounds of daily life
from the silence of the womb
a child is born
and the insane fellow will begin to bellow
about life floating through dangers
and humanity’s fickleness
alienated from its five fingers
then fly upward during a blessed hour
the yellow moon a ripe guava
the anguishing fruit of freedom of this ebony night
will be seeded tomorrow in the East.

– starts promisingly, the geckos are marvelously concrete, before descending thru remnants of historic surrealism (the streetlamp an awakened eye) into a parable that is mind-numbingly predictable – the metaphor of the moon as a guava the one real moment of relief – before two final lines that strike me as entirely a cliché.

The result is that this is an uneven book, with some really terrific moments & others that raise the age-old “what was he thinking of” flag. In one way, I want to invert Zukofsky’s paradigm of an integral here, to suggest that, in Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker, the lower limit is surreal, the upper limit real. I’m interested to see where Hao Phan is going to take all this – the difficulty of an exile poetics is complicated enough & his publications are banned in Vietnam, a sign of pure post-Stalinist stupidity on the part of the government there – but I think it is Phan Nhien Hao who needs to be a far harsher judge of his own poetry going forward.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Bertolt Brecht on the new sentence?


Nothing like the Sunday book review sections to put you in mind of the politics of literary distribution. The New York Times reviews the latest book by Louise Glück from FSG. The Washington Post runs Robert Pinsky’s “Poet’s Choice” column, which features work from Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, from Houghton Mifflin. Not to be outdone, The San Francisco Chronicle reviews a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s out-takes, edited by Alice (The New Yorker) Quinn & published by FSG. The Los Angeles Times does likewise. Even The Guardian in the U.K. gives us a piece on Bishop, albeit from a new book of essays by Anne Stevenson, published by Bloodaxe. It leavens this at least with a second piece by Edna O’Brien on “Sam the Man” Beckett. This leaves it up to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Frank Wilson to focus on a volume from a small press, which he does by writing about new formalist George Witte’s The Apparitioners from Three Rail Press. Now I like Elizabeth Bishop & have said so here, but the degree to which the media ignore 98 percent of poetry while lavishing attention on the other two percent continues to be a burr in my side. At least the excerpts from George Witte’s poetry are so broadly awful that Wilson’s piece is fun to read: “If you read only one book of poems this year, make it this one.” Yeah. Right.

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