Saturday, August 19, 2006

An interview with Allyssa Wolf is just the 24th in a series all about the impact of first books. Others interviews in the series include

Andrea Baker
Jen Benka
Simmons B. Buntin
Victoria Chang
Shanna Compton
Brenda Coultas
Brent Cunningham
Lara Glenum
Geraldine Kim
Amy King
Aaron Kunin
Frannie Lindsay
Rebecca Loudon
Raymond McDaniel
Juliet Patterson
Laura Sims
Stacy Szymaszek
Brian Teare
Matthew Thorburn
Tony Tost
Jen Tynes
Stephanie Young

If you’ve never published a book & are about to or just want to, this is must read stuff. Kate Greenstreet deserves a big round of applause.

This isn’t the only good series of interviews of poets, particularly younger ones who have not yet been given nearly as much attention as they deserve, that has been popping up on the web of late. Tom Beckett’s blog, e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e v-a-l-u-e-s, has ten interviews, including a second one with Shanna Compton, and one of Geof Huth co-conducted by Crag Hill & yours truly. Here Comes Everybody finally stopped after it had something like 130 interviews, including some folks on Greenstreet’s list (plus Kate herself) and some, like Mike Farrell, on Beckett’s. Ray Bianchi’s Chicago Postmodern Poetry site also has over 100 interviews, adding two a month or so two its list. One of these was given by Robert Creeley just one month before he died. John Tranter’s e-journal, Jacket, has published some 70. Another e-zine, The Argoist, has published 17, including a conversation between Joanne Kyger & Simon Pettet. And, of course, The Paris Review, the hardcopy journal that can claim to have invented the modern literary interview format before the journal lost its soul a few decades back, is attempting to bring as many of its interviews online in PDF formats as they can obtain permissions for, a prickly problem with so many of their eminences having now gone where even email cannot reach.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Depression stole a friend last Friday. One of my favorite co-workers at Gartner, Bruce Caldwell, died after spending more than a year on disability. I first met Bruce a decade ago when he covered service and support for InformationWeek & I was handling marketing and market intelligence for Technology Service Solutions (TSS), an IBM-Kodak joint venture. Gartner hired him to focus on IT outsourcing right about the time that IBM Global Services folded in TSS. When I joined Gartner in 2000, focusing on infrastructure support services, Caldwell & I often found ourselves working together on specific projects. The grumpy demeanor of a skeptical journalist melted away to reveal a delightful, dour wit &, rare thing for Gartner, somebody who was as at least as good at the craft of prose as he was at technology. Bruce had been both a working journalist and a union activist, which meant that our world views were pretty much in step. The only part that I never fully got – my failing, not his – was his passion for sailing & the ocean, one reason he was no longer living in Indianapolis. Bruce may have been at least as amused about my own love of poetry, but he was one of only a couple of co-workers I had with whom I could discuss writing – poetry included – intelligently.

Depression is certainly no stranger to anyone involved in the world of poetry, and the disease has been a regular visitor to my family tree as well. My grandmother, who pretty much raised me, had a severe case of chronic depression that was never treated during her lifetime, beyond taking one cruise to Panama in the early 1950s “to get a rest.” I have at least two cousins on my mother’s side of the family, a half-brother who is self-medicating with alcohol & a son who are struggling with the disease in one form or another. Two friends, one of them a former roommate whose wife was the first person to turn me on to Russian Futurism, the other a sign language interpreter who has translated my writing into ASL, have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge. And then there are all the poet-suicides, starting (for me at least) with Dan Davidson, but definitely including Lew Welch & Richard Brautigan. When the media says that one in however many Americans is currently suffering from a mental illness, depression is the largest single factor, hitting nearly 21 million Americans each year.

Depression is one of those diseases – schizophrenia & Tourette’s syndrome are two others – for which the symptoms are often perceived as social, rather than medical, by casual outsiders. The disease – or its symptoms – is an embarrassment. People are told to “pull it together,” “suck it up,” or “get over it.” But that only happens if you are very fortunate with your particular version of the condition & the combination of medications & treatment options. My own experience is that what works for person A almost never seems to be of much use to person B, which I interpret as signaling that what we now call one disease is, in fact, a broad range of different-but-similar conditions, each with their own etiologies. It’s like ADHD, so-called attention deficit disorder, something you can almost bet won’t be seen in 100 years the way it is today, but rather as a spectrum of many different things going on, or going wrong, in one’s system.

That misperception can, I think, be particularly toxic in the world of poetry. All too often we – by which I include myself, among others – tend to engage with somebody trying to pick some fight when what is driving their behavior has little or nothing to do with aesthetic judgments & differences. And we tend to excuse behavior – substance abuse in particular – when what is going on is amateur self-medication. Partly this has to do with how open the world of poetry is – a major psychosis need not stand in the way of success, if handled right (and how many other fields can you say that about?) – but partly we do it just because it’s easier to put it all back on the individual who is acting out. There is a certain morbid fascination to it all. At its worst, you see behavior like the “pool” George Starbuck once told me about, of folks around the Boston scene betting on when John Berryman would kill himself.

What I want to say is this. If you have a problem, please seek help. It can be a frustrating, trial-&-error process, but it beats not trying. If you have friends or family with a problem, help them to get help. If you see someone in the comments stream to this (or any) blog who is acting out for reasons that have little to do with the topic at hand, don’t just jump in & verbally or intellectually rip them to shreds. That’s not only too easy, it does no good whatsoever. Poetry isn’t about one-upsmanship, or it shouldn’t be.

End of rant.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

All this week I’ve been writing about projects that seem to withhold something – as Jessica Smith does her reins over reader response, or as the anonymous collection does it unveiling of authorial anything, or the way Thomas Pynchon withholds his own biography. In contrast, Craig Allen Conrad – CAConrad to his friends (all one word) – is someone who wants to get it all in. Deviant Propulsion, just out from Soft Skull Press, is Conrad’s long awaited first full-length book, beating out his other equally long-awaited The Frank Poems, due some fine day from Jonathan Williams’ fabled Jargon Press.

Conrad is a fearless combination of the out front & tenderness, subtlety in the literary equivalent of outrageous drag. For example:

“vacant land”
means no

”nothing but a few
prairie dogs”
means no

”we swerved, hit
a cat, but no one
was hurt”
means no

This poem, which when you let it settle in & think about it for a minute, is remarkably Buddhist in its relationship to its content, carries the title “Severed Leg Pirouette.” It doesn’t take much to push the simple parallels of this text into an infinitely gaudier display. Or, consider this:

It’s True I Tell Ya
My Father Is a 50¢
Party Balloon

my father paper thin
lost on the basement floor

but who will put their lips
to his stiff old hard-on?
who will blow him up?
who will want this
man floating
stuck in
a tree again?

Or this consideration of parenting as well (literally on the facing page):

A World without Condoms

she swears it was the cucumber

nine months later
a son with
her eyes and
but the seeded spine and
leafy complexion are all Dad’s

the nurse rubs a little Creamy Italian
on his bright green belly
they coo at one another
blow bubbles at one another
”this won’t hurt a bit” she says
and tucks the napkin
under her chin

You sense that, had he wanted to be, Conrad could easily have been a Cid Corman to the new generation – the distance between these satires & the gentle ear isn’t all that terribly far – but that CA has another agenda in mind.

Then there is the seriously outrageous stuff, including a revenge fantasy against vaginas that wouldn’t go down well on the WOM-PO list. Part of what makes Conrad’s poetry work – which it almost always does for me – is that he himself is a mélange of so many different & unusual influences – southern & rural, urban & very definitely out of the closet. He also is a fulltime employee at one of the big chain bookstores in Philadelphia and, since the death of Gil Ott three plus years ago, visibly the greatest cohesive force the local poetry scene here has – he’s the one poet who knows everyone. Here is yet another poem involving the relationship with one’s parent, tilted this time on a completely different axis:

My Mother after
Knee Surgery

she calls it her
new knee it’s in
everything she
says her
new knee

hide my book of
poems tired of

she distracts herself
with television
I watch to
share her

when it’s boring
she makes herself
a drink
me one

drink gets

”hey, remember when i was
a kid i asked why humans
aren’t extinct, and you said
it’s because we’re afraid
of the dark?”

”bullshit, hey, c’mon now,
i’m trying to relax my
new knee dammit!”

Conrad’s best known work, “Celebrities I’ve Seen Offstage,” inevitably is the book’s high point, although I don’t think, really, it’s his best writing. First published in the Fall 2003 issue of Lodestar, the work is a not-so-distant cousin of Joe Brainard’s I Remember or perhaps some of Michael Lally’s more agitprop pieces:

Timothy Leary at Starwood having lunch with the Reverend Velveteen Sly a couple of naked pagans asked if they could get their pictures taken on his lap he twitched his gray brow with a big smile happy to oblige

Annie Sprinkle was dating my friend Marie they came over for a tarot reading we spent most of the time talking about herbs to cure AIDS I don't remember if the tarot answered anyone that night

Henry Winkler on Benjamin Franklin Parkway annoyed me to think of jerking off as a kid "Oh Fonzie, cum on my FACE! SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT!" what was my deal back then?

The Frugal Gourmet shooting a segment of his cooking show in the Reading Terminal Market telling someone what a moron his cameraman was then oooing and aaahing over the pastries for the camera moments later

As much fun as this work is, & fun is inescapably the point here, Conrad is almost too sweet & gentle, a little too much Carson Kressley, not sufficiently Devine. So what I come back to are the quieter poems – like the following one, whose Pepsi moment is literally right out of the biography of Rimbaud:

I Still Have Keys to the Apartment

i let myself in
the new boyfriend
asleep with your arm
wrapped around his waist
looks like we did
i take my clothes off
to slide between you
but the cats fill my arms
i miss the cats because
they smell of you
i want to lick the hairs
on your chest flat
while the new boyfriend sleeps
but sniff the cats instead
i could feed my sperm
to your plants so part of me
would always be around
but you’ve swallowed
enough of me to feed
your bones and eyes that
you’re not going
anywhere without me
i walk into the kitchen
careful to eat just one,
two grapes from the bunch
i hold back tears
see you still have
the smiling soccer ball
refrigerator magnets i gave you
the new boyfriend
doesn’t know i bought them
i open the refrigerator
a little at a time
try to talk myself out of it
but open it anyway
i pee in the Pepsi
feel a little better
and grab my clothes
i want to leave the keys behind
but know i’ll want
back in tomorrow

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Danish documentary Thomas Pynchon: Journey into the Mind of P. inadvertently demonstrates the problematics involved with anonymity in literature. Part of the problem is simply that the two filmmakers, Donatello & Fosco Dubini, have about 45 minutes of actual information, but have determined to pad it out to a full-length feature 90. But the real problem is that they have no there here. The film, the closest I suspect Pynchon will ever get to his own E! True Hollywood Story¹, is an attempt to identify the living person behind the books. Rather than the “magic tricks” that I suggested yesterday with regards to reading anonymous works of literature, this is an attempt to learn something concrete about a real human being who is very determined to remain very private indeed. And, in E! True Hollywood fashion, it has not occurred to our intrepid filmmakers to actually read the freakin’ books!?!

What we get instead is a tour of some elements of the Thomas Pynchon industry – not the academic one, composed as it is of people who’ve read his works – the closest they get is a short talking-head spot with the late George Plimpton reminiscing about a review he wrote of V. – but the over-the-top fans who have their own fansites on the web & speculate – at length – that since Pynchon & Lee Harvey Oswald were in Mexico at roughly the same time in the 1950s, therefore Pynchon must be in hiding because of what he knows about the assassination of JFK. This is accompanied with much stock footage of Lee Harvey Oswald passing out “Hands Off Cuba” leaflets in New Orleans & Jack Ruby gunning Oswald down on Nov. 23, 1963.

The high point of the film – or at least the furthest up they get from that low one – is some interviews with Jules Siegel & his ex-wife Chrissie Jolly. Siegel, a one-time classmate of Pynchon’s at Cornell who had also spent some time in Mexico after graduation, met up with Pynchon in Manhattan Beach, California, where Pynchon was living & writing The Crying of Lot 49. Jolly & Pynchon, according to her, fell instantly in love & carried on a romance behind Siegel’s back, which he later recounted in an article published in, of all places, Playboy. The film follows Chrissie as she wanders the narrow streets that lead down to the beach before finding the one where she had her tryst with Pynchon. She & the film crew persuade a very reluctant current tenant to let them in & film the basic efficiency apartment, noting such details as the size of the bathroom (small). In passing, she also talks about Pynchon’s writing process (longhand first, followed by the typewriter), at least as it was in the 1960s – and that he thought seriously about attending the 1968 Democratic Convention to protest the war in Vietnam. But other than that, his preferences for drugs (weed & hash) and that he would walk down to the beach & spend a couple of hours there every morning “without ever getting the slightest tan,” or that he once showed up at a hotel the Siegel’s were staying in, wearing a black cape, are about the level of depth we get. That is illustrated with stock footage of George Reeves playing Superman from the 1950s TV show.

The remainder of the film is devoted to people who think they have seen Thomas Pynchon, including an Aussie journalist who staked out an uptown Manhattan residence (whose address he had gotten by tracing details in public records related to the death of Pynchon's parents) until he decided that a certain 60ish male walking down the street with an eight-year-old son was Pynchon & snapped a photograph that, even blown up, is little more than generic pixels. CNN did likewise once and then decided to simply do a story on Pynchon’s reclusiveness while showing many people walking down the streets of Manhattan before telling the audience that one of the people they had just seen was Pynchon, without identifying which one. The film ends with Siegel & the filmmakers focusing in on one guy in a Kansas City Royals baseball cap whom they say CNN told them was Pynchon (Siegel doesn’t believe it, preferring instead a guy who looks a lot like poet Geoffrey Young).

In fact, Pynchon’s only public appearance ever has been on the Simpsons, where you do get to hear his voice & see the portrait above. Does this mean that his skin is really yellow or that he only has four fingers on each hand?

I never have asked the poet Allen Fisher, who published some of Pynchon’s essays in chapbook form, how he got in touch with the elusive author, tho I did once ask Mimi Fariña – whom I knew somewhat during the early 1970s – what Pynchon was doing then (he had been the best man at her wedding, her husband having also been part of the Cornell writing scene in the 1950s). This was during the silent period between Lot 49 & Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon was, she said, selling vacuum cleaners door to door, having exhausted his earnings as a writer. It was hard to envision then & I still don’t know if Mimi was teasing me.

My point is that it didn’t really matter then & it doesn’t now, but minutiae like this have been turned by Pynchon himself into part of a great puzzle that, I think, detracts from what actually is valuable in the man’s writing. As I noted yesterday, context is one of the six functions of language &, if you make a point of hiding a part of the context, you can pretty well count on readers foregrounding exactly that one element. Do we really need to know about J.D. Salinger’s bouts with Scientology, Hinduism or that he drinks his own urine? It’s Salinger who has made these tidbits a part of his fiction, precisely by making his actual life a mystery. Pynchon has made the same mistake.

Robert Duncan once told me that his own 15-year hiatus from publishing books post-Bending the Bow had been an accident. He had said it half in jest to New Directions publisher James Laughlin simply because Robert didn’t have the work ready in what Laughlin – who had been expecting maybe one big book every three years, Duncan’s rate of production since the 1940s – thought of as a timely manner. But Laughlin had told everyone & now everyone was treating it as a major position that Duncan had adopted. What that meant was that most of his readers knew that what they had heard about Duncan being diffident, imperious & impossible to work with had to be true, because look at this – he’s not going to do a book for 15 years. And in retrospect, it’s true – Ground Work is only now being read as something more than as an afterthought to that career ending hiatus. The non-decision not to do a book for 15 years became instead a large part of the context that adhered to his writing.

Thomas Pynchon has a new novel, Against the Day, forthcoming this November. You can even read a passage by clicking that link. At 1060 pages from a novelist who is now 69, it may well be the last big book we ever get from Pynchon, and it’s only his sixth one. It would nice to imagine that people will read it for what it is, and not as a cryptogram for deciphering what the author doesn’t care to share.

¹ The only other film relating to Pynchon would appear to be a German adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow entitled Prüfstand VII that appears never to have had American distribution.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Setting out Late

An autumn leaf
trembles in its guise
of paling green, feeling
slightly out of date or off key.

The unsure basso is the worst of all
but it’s been time to get moving
for quite a while
in your head, which is maybe
lazy and a little timid
but gaining momentum.

This poem concludes a volume that might be called They Wouldn’t Go Home Till They Had Thought of Something. Such anyway is the caption on an illustration – a squirrel & rabbit, both dressed in human clothes, in a forest under a full moon, obviously concentrating very hard, lost in thought – that appears on the cover.

The volume has roughly 100 pages, 8.5-by-11, stapled on the left rather in the manner of old issues of The World or Sal Mimeo. I can’t tell you who published it, because there is no information given of that nature. I can’t tell you who wrote this poem, nor for that matter any of the poems included in this venture, because that information isn’t given either. It’s a collection of anonymous poetry.

I’ve tried a magic trick with this poem, tho. I’ve read it alternately as a John Ashbery poem, as a Bill Berkson poem & as a poem by Larry Fagin. It works for me under each of those conditions, but it’s a different poem every time. What if I thought of it as a Billy Collins poem? Or a poem by Bill Knott? Does it then become any less interesting? More?

Here’s another poem from the same volume.


To myself and into the air
He promised silence
On the long solid self
To nest waving
                    I want. Lady,
A red scarf goes under
My delicate body when I waken.
I like to block myself up,
To thicken on the horn, shackled with a big drink.
In the Parthenon, Marion, we
Were half so fragile. We were
Asleep. But we said, “I block you,”
Or your with teeth, our pale feet,
Our clouds, down to the color, romping.

My little magic trick doesn’t work so well here. For one thing, there is nothing here equivalent to the logic of the last sentence in the first poem that jumps out as being so clearly branded (or at least brandable) a device. Yet the logic to the second poem is hardly conventional – there are NY School details throughout. But the twist at the end of the first sentence, that almost deliberate afterthought of I want and the grammar of street jargon – block myself up – suggests to me a younger poet. Am I just projecting that? Possibly. The use of caps at the left margin, if I think about it, suggests just the opposite – that’s a detail in the punctuation of verse that is declining faster than the use of semi-colons.

In all fairness, there is a broader range in this volume than I’m suggesting from those two pieces, both of which strike me as being archetypal (if not generic) NY school. “The Hard Heart,” for instance, has an almost confessional tone:

I would never have wanted to see your sad face again
Your hollow cheeks and hair in the wind
I left across fields
Through the damp woods
Night and day
In the sun and the rain
Dead leaves crunched beneath my feet
Sometimes the moon was shining

Then we were face to face again
Looking at each other but not saying anything
And there was no room left for me to leave again

For a long time I stayed tied up against a tree
With your terrible love in front of me
More anguished than in a bad dream

Finally someone greater than you released me
All the tearful expressions follow me
And that weakness one can’t fight against
I flee quickly toward unkindness
Toward the force that raises its fists like weapons
On the monster that pulled me from your sweetness with its claws
Far from the soft sweet hug of your arms
I go away breathing hard
Across fields and through the woods
Toward the miraculous town where my heart beats

There is an evenness of affect here – the straightforward syntax, the steady deployment of clichés – that tells me this is intentional, that the poet wants me to understand that terrible love and miraculous town are vague because that’s a critical detail, one reason the narrator appears to seek abusive relationships. Which is to say that I read this not as bad or maudlin verse, but rather as a poem that is consciously exploring sentimentality and its relation to abuse & violence, deliberately employing the devices of bad verse as devices. It’s an interesting, complicated trick, and its effectiveness depends on its seeming artless. Again I have to ask myself am I projecting?

I try my magic trick with this one, but this time it’s a double layer of gender, not the names of possible poets, that I try. I read this as representing the voice of a woman in a lesbian relationship, then of a man in a gay relationship, then of a man in a heterosexual relationship & then (and only then) as a woman in a heterosexual relationship. Then I try all of these positions with a second layer of this game (sort of a reverse Kevin Bacon game, genderwise), trying each of these narrative positions, but presuming that it was written by a woman. Then I do it again, only presuming that it was written by a man. It’s a very different poem if a man wrote this depicting a lesbian relationship, for example, than if a hetero woman wrote it about herself. Does it cease to be dramatic monolog if it’s truly “confessional?” Would it be a better poem if written from a less predictable gender position?

Larry Fagin, who is a closet New Critic, has argued that we ought to be able to read poems with no identifying marks whatsoever and thereby determine whether a poem is, at the least, “good” or least “interesting.” He probably disapproves of my magic tricks, seeing it as infusing the poem with extraneous data, looking back at my own reflection to decide what I do or don’t like. But I don’t think so. If anything, I think this collection demonstrates the fallacy of such purism. Partly because poems don’t exist outside of history – when is R. Mutt’s fountain just a pisser? – and largely because an inordinate number of details in the poem don’t actually engage without that connection to the real. Again, with that second poem, it means something different if it was written by the late David Schubert than it would had John Godfrey penned it. Both would be meaningful & interesting, but not the same meaning, not the same interests. Or if the third poem was written by Diane Wakoski or Leland Hickman or Ishmael Reed.

A further possibility might even be that every poem in this collection was written by the same writer, which would suggest (a) that the author is a chameleon or (b) that these are works pulled from very different parts of a long career. Given how many of the works here show the scar tissue of St. Marks & environs (no actual mentions of Ukes or Gem Spa that I recall, but still . . . ), this is a genuine option.

So I find myself liking the first two, but for fairly different reasons, admiring the third, but not really engaging with it at the same depth. And the project as a whole reminds me very much of Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar with its attempt to abdicate control of the poem, to hand it over to the willing reader. In a sense, each project echoes for me those old “music minus one” recordings where the viola part is omitted from a string quartet so that students can practice. Both projects are consciously incomplete, but one completely different axes. In their absence, the reader is invited to substitute whatever presumptions are needed – like a “paint by numbers” kit that lacks a code for assigning colors.

Smith wants the reader to take more responsibility, not just in the reading but in everything they do. Fagin, when he argues his “anonymous poems” case, doesn’t really want – at least as I understand it – readers to fill in the blanks. But the blanks are real. Even if we read a poem and it’s by a poet we have never read before, that is information, a context. If anything, these anonymous poems are far more controlled than Smith’s – which makes the large gaps opened up by the sheer absence of a name more intriguing. But it doesn’t fill them in.

Think for a moment of the federal government’s great wish to hear every phone conversation, read every email, and it’s inability to assign anything better than “keyword searching” software to the task because of the absolute volume of data involved. The sentence It’s going to be a bomb means something very different to the question How do you think Mel Gibson’s next picture will do in New York than to What are you taking on the flight to Milan? Or What do you think of Joe Lieberman’s campaign now? Context, as Roman Jakobson used to note, is one of the six functions of language.

Monday, August 14, 2006

I respond positively to ambitious work. Not every twenty-something who sets out to change the world into his or her vision manages to make much headway, but over time, watching the evolution of a Barrett Watten, a Kathy Acker, a Robert Grenier, a Judy Grahn or a Clark Coolidge as they set out to do so is a tremendous way to spend a life in writing. I find Charles Olson’s earnestness winning, although I know others who find (or, especially, found, during his own day) it overbearing & more than a little obnoxious. For my money, that’s just the price of admission & a very small one to pay to gain all the riches you can find there. Ditto Ginsberg or Duncan. Or Jack Spicer, who intended to change the world, but didn’t plan on informing anybody outside of a small cabal of drinking pals at Gino & Carlo’s.

One of my great complaints about younger poets over the past 20 years has been that far too few are trying to do as much as they might. The very absence of literary group formations is a sign of same, given that one of the primary consequences of any literary movement is that it gets all of its participants’ adrenaline running, so that everyone is performing at the peak of their potential, precisely because they feel challenged to go beyond their comfort zones. If you had told me, in 1969, that by 1974 I would be writing something like Ketjak, in which sentences repeat obsessively & the content of one deliberately avoids flowing smoothly into the content of the next – and that it would be prose – I would have thought you were nuts. But, surrounded as I was in San Francisco by the likes of Kit Robinson’s Dolch Stanzas, Rae Armantrout’s crystalline structures of lyric, Carla Harryman’s theatrical prose, David Bromige’s deep dive into syntax, Bob Perelman’s talk series, Steve Benson’s improvisational poets – they terrified me, because I knew I could never do that, let alone do it with the brilliance & grace that appears so effortless to Benson – not to mention Acker, Watten or Grenier, writing Ketjak was the very least I could do in 1974 – it was (still is) a work filled with caution, because that’s my nature.

So when I see attempts to go further – whether it’s the prose of a Taylor Brady or even a wrongheaded coterie of iconoclasts like the Apex of the M moment circa 1990, I’m predisposed to approve, because I can sense the reach that’s being made. And reach is at least 80 percent of what it takes – quality being the other 20 (and the iceberg lurking to many a Titanic effort). In fact, this is why the well polished variations of important work that come along a generation after whatever raw innovation might take place never is nearly as significant as the groundbreaking work itself. It’s not about making it perfect, but making it new, which is to say equal to the world we live in, which is never the same one we inhabited last week. Do it well enough & you get to be Ted Berrigan or John Ashbery. Do it perfectly 20 years later & there just might be a rural state college out there for you somewhere.

One new book that sets off all of my sensors – it is flagrant & cheerful with its ambition, which strikes me as enormous – is Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 – 2004. OFC might not be the best written book of 2006, but it almost certainly is the one that wants to do the most. And that means that it just may be the most important book this year as well.

Put simply, Smith is making the argument here for what she call plastic poetics, a concept she means more or less literally. I call it an argument because, in order to read Smith’s work intelligently – perhaps even sympathetically – she wants you to rethink your ideas of the role of space in the text itself. This she accomplishes by means of a nine-page introduction – the most serious theoretical discussion I’ve seen at the front of a book of poetry in some time. You can find what I take to be a preliminary draft of this document tucked away on one of Smith’s several websites here in a PDF format. Both versions are worth reading. In each, Smith begins by describing the experience of viewing a work by Japanese Architect Arakawa and his partner, poet Madeline Gins, a “house” – Smith uses the scare quotes –

that consists of 2400 square feet of cloth lying low to the ground. Entering the house, the visitors find that in order to do anything—move, sit on furniture, cook—they must constantly lift the fabric “roof” of the house high enough over their heads to slither through the space. One of them observes, “Rooms form depending on how we move. If I bend down, I nearly lose the room.” This interdependency of agent and architecture is characteristic of Arakawa’s work, which consistently explores the theoretical problems of being a body in space. Questions of how one occupies space, how one affects and is affected by architecture, move to the fore. A building is no longer a dwelling-space, but a site of reciprocal becoming.

This is not unlike the process of viewing sculpture – I recall Barney Newman’s definition of same as “what you bump into when stepping back to view a painting” – an analogy Smith likewise notes. Indeed, the contrast Smith is after is that distinction between painting & sculpture that alleges¹ one views a painting all at once, while having to then walk around a sculpture. The poetry Smith is after is far closer to sculpture, but it is not simply or only that:

Historically, “plastic poetry” has been conflated with terms like “concrete poetry,” “calligrams,” and “visual poetry.” The term most often denotes poetry that has simply been made of materials other than paper, like the poem inscribed in concrete on bp nichol lane in Toronto, or the sculptural poems of Ian Hamilton Finlay. However, the material three-dimensionality of poems should not automatically grant them the status of plastic poetry. This term must be reserved for works that disrupt the reader’s virtual field in the same way that architecture and sculpture disrupt an active person’s real, physical field. A plastic poem must change the reading space in such a way that the one who reads is forced to make amends for new structures in his or her virtual path. The words on a page must be plastic in virtual space as architecture and sculpture are plastic in real space. In other words, plastic arts disrupt an agent’s space: to have plastic poetry we must disrupt the reader’s space. I will argue that this rupture does not stem from, as in the ordinary plastic arts, a real physical occupation of space, but rather from the disruption of the virtual space that one moves through when reading a poem.

(Both of the above quotes come from the draft version.)

A skeptic might argue – check out the comments stream in a day or so – that it’s a weak poet who puts a theoretical defense in advance of the work itself. However, the precedents of Wordsworth & Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads, of Whitman, of Baudelaire all demonstrate that this is hardly the case. Rather, critically savvy authors have always felt the responsibility to prepare the audience for what’s to come. Here is, crudely reproduced from a screen capture, an example of what Smith is getting at, an excerpt from “Hades” in OFC’s “Exile” section:

Whether one focuses on this poetry’s roots in the work of nichol & Finlay, as in the excerpts I quoted above, or in Apollinaire’s Calligrammes & Steve McCaffery’s legendary Carnival, as the intro to the book does, Smith’s concerns & roots both strike me as quite clear. It’s really about renegotiating the reader’s role in determining not just the meaning of the poem (something readers have done forever) but even the path of the poem. Meaning here doesn’t form & wait for the reading mind, but rather offers clusters of potential, some more straightforward than others, some more subtle than others. The reader’s role is not only to determine what is going on in any cluster, but the order & relationship between them as well. For example, what is the relation of the word “hegel,” presumably the philosopher to the text on its left? The capitalized letters forming a spine running vertically through the lefthand clusters appear, at first glance, to be some sort of acrostic, but if so, then they must anagrams as well. If not, then their motivation is spatial & not content-driven. For me, the most powerful sequence in this excerpt runs along “water-worn / soft dirt paths // white / marble / of flowers,” tho I know I’m putting those lines together – even putting the left most word “white” ahead of “marble” even tho it’s down a line. Whereas the lefthand clusters to my ear sound like a reiterated, virtually stammered phone conversation, maybe a generation removed from the overhead diction of Eliot’s “Waste Land,” (hurry up please it’s time) but hardly on a different order. And I suspect that anyone’s negotiation will be, if not similar to my own, at least of a similar order of decision-making, of taking responsibility for pulling texts into context, assigning or even infusing meaning.

Ultimately, I think the question of whether or not a text like this works comes down to your sensibility as to how much responsibility you want the author to hold onto, how much you yourself are willing to take on, and whether that matters. There is, in any text (even this one) invariably a one-sided relationship – only the author gets to determine which words appear on the page. You can play with this a lot (and I have over the decades, ranging from the disjunctions between sentences of Ketjak and Tjanting to the intrusive-to-the-edge-of-sadism questioning in Sunset Debris), but my own sense is that I want – indeed, I want to argue that I think readers in general want – the author to err on the side of control.

Which, at this point at least, is the difference I see between OFC & a project like Carnival – if you look at any detail of McCaffery’s, the individual words may not demonstrate more control (they seem to alternate between found materials & pure lettrism), but visually they do:

In a way, Smith’s text is far more readerly – it’s all about the text, ultimately – but it places much more of the responsibility for meaning onto the reader than does McCaffery, even if his sense here of “meaning” isn’t necessarily linguistic.

Overall, my sense of Organic Furniture Cellar is that it isn’t (yet anyway) the revolution that Smith wants to televise, tho her aim here is sharp & she’s already marshaling some of the heaviest weaponry available. But I don’t think you can disrupt reader’s expectations without more control of them than she wants to have here. So I’m interested to see just what Jessica Smith will be coming up with next.


¹ Smith acknowledges that the allegation is false. Even the flattest all-over painting is, ultimately, read in time – indeed there are studies of eye movements around visual fields that are widely used these days in setting up the allocation of information in display ads. In general, the eye in a “portrait” starts above center slightly, the curls down & to the left, then up to the upper left corner & then down across the page toward the lower right, before pulling back and taking in the whole. The portion of the page that is least likely to be closely scrutinized is the lower left corner – a good place to put the mouse type you don’t want consumers to read too closely.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Steve Reich at 70


One more reason why
poets should read linguistics –
Killing Time:
Metaphors & their implications
for lexicons & grammar

(PDF file)


Rudy Burkhardt,
Ray Johnson &
Peter Hujar

at Vassar’s
Loeb Art Center


The Amazon of Used Books:
The impact of
Portland’s Powell’s
on the bookstores
of the SF Bay Area.


Chris Mansel has been
interviewing poets.
Sheila E. Murphy is the latest
& there’s a great one with
Hank Lazar as well.

Not to be confused with
the Australian writer
Chris Mansell

An interview with
John Tranter