Saturday, October 07, 2006

comes to bookstores
so that book clerks
will soon need to know
even less
than most do now


Pete Doherty
of The Libertines
& Babyshambles
on the poets
who inspire him


Laura Bush
on the books
that inspire her:

On top
is Hop on Pop


George W,
on the other hand,
inspires us to
get jiggy with the arts


Adrienne Rich
& why
Laura Bush
won’t invite her
to the White House


Inside the Poetry Tent
at the National Book Festival


On Words:
a conference on
Robert Creeley
at SUNY-Buffalo


Oskar Pastior,
& the lone German member
of Oulipo,
has died


The death of
Omran Salahi,
Iranian poet & satirist

Some of Salahi’s work
can be found


”This handbook identifies
more than 1300 poets
laureated within the Empire
and adjacent territories
between 1355 and 1804”

An interesting looking history
of Poets Laureate
in the
Holy Roman Empire

but I’d fire
the librarian
who bought this,
even at the pre-publication

This is exactly
the sort of project
that ought to be
on the web
for free.


That new Robert Frost poem
is not
the rare find
the press suggests


When the referent
gazes back



Friday, October 06, 2006

Of late, I’ve been checking out proofs and page design for The Age of Huts (compleat), which the UC Press will be bringing out next spring. One of the issues that comes up, in certain poems within 2197, is what happens when a line functions partly in the manner of prose, as traditionally handled by typesetters since at least the mid-18th century, and partly in the manner of verse. The poems used a stepped line, not unlike the lengthier one that William Carlos Williams favored toward the end of his life. Except that the lines themselves are understood as prose – they are all sentences, even if sentences terribly skewed (a vocabulary imposed over fixed grammatical structures) – so that when they reach an certain right-hand margin (it’s a thinner width than the prose poems Ketjak, Sunset Debris or The Chinese Notebook, all of which are part of the cycle & included in the volume), the line moves back to the lefthand margin & continues, just as it does in “ordinary prose” such as this paragraph. At the end of each sentence, however, the line drops or steps down, sometimes twice in a single swath from left margin to right (again, as does WCW). I must say that the typesetters have worked hard to try & get this right, tho I can tell just how difficult they’re finding this mixed feature, part line & part prose.

When I was first writing 2197 in the late 1970s, mostly at a coffee house on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley called, I swear, the Meat Market (it had been a butcher shop in the 1950s), I wasn’t aware of anyone else trying to join these two modes in quite this way before. Now, however, it’s something I see a lot in new poetry, albeit not necessarily in the way that I tried here. A good current example is visible, I think, in Aaron Kunin’s new chapbook, Secret Architecture: Notebooks, 2001, just published by Braincase Press of Boulder, Colorado. Here is the opening passage of the first of the three poems in the boo, “’I used to be different. Now I’m the same’”. Note especially the sixth, eighth & ninths stanzas.

The first word is “although.”

Not a strong enough advocate of your desire?

I think there’s some value to taking everything personally.

I want to hurt you; it hurts me that you’re not hurt.

— It hurts me that you’re hurt; I didn’t intend that.

It hurts me that you didn’t intend to hurt me.

For spite, I’ll never stop loving you.

As an act of pure meanness, I’ll never stop loving you.

Just to be selfish, I’ll never stop loving you.

Just to be sick, I’ll never recover.

The hum of the fish tank kept him awake, so he got up in the middle
of the night to turn it off.

The glow of the fish tank, placed directly behind the sofa, made it
impossible to sleep, so he reached out pettishly in a fit of half-sleep
and turned it off.

The fish boiled in their tank; someone having (maliciously or
accidentally?) turned the temperature dial as high as it would go
during the night.


— Who isn’t waiting for an apology? I’m waiting for several apologies…

— I stopped waiting for an apology long ago.

He would tell you himself if you talked to him for as long as fifteen
minutes; you wouldn’t have to ask directly …

You don’t deserve a better notebook if you’re only going to contaminate
it with that deplorable handwriting.

Weak tea, strong opinions; and the reverse.

Matching tea with opinions.

The ellipses above are Kunin’s. The lines above function perfectly as prose, but within a context that can only be defined as a stanza. But this is something different than merely using “prosaic” language in verse form – something English language poetry has been capable of since the days of Alexander Pope. Rather, what Kunin seems here to be pointing out is more radical – the idea that opposite of poetry is in fact not prose (nor, it would seem, vice versa). The old “classic” formula for poetry (poetry = prose + A + B, etc.), the whole scandal behind the miscegenation of the prose poem (read Baudelaire on the subject) was exactly this point, that poetry is not equal to prose. It’s not that Kunin is entirely erasing the borders that gives this confrontation its charge – far from it – but rather he seems to understood this particular Venn diagram in three dimensions, rather than the normative two. Kunin appears to have picked up on a way in which poetry and prose exist on different axes altogether – accordingly, their intersection isn’t an overlap, but something else altogether.

Consider the shorter lines – they are not not prose, if you understand what I mean by that double negative, but they don’t challenge their role within a stanzaic structure. The longer lines – any that curls back from the right-hand margin to begin again without the traditional “poetic” hanging indent – however do torque the stanzaic, precisely by foregrounding the convention they choose to violate. It’s not that poetic “goes away” for a line or two, but rather that it suddenly comes into view, as such. In a text that is consciously deploying “unpoetic” language, the tone of irritation & the horrific-on-a-small-scale tale of boiling the fish, this angle of interaction between the two genres ups the ante & reinforces Kunin’s actual argument. It’s certainly effective writing, and in fact it gave me a sense of his language as being much richer than the actual tone used warrants, which, when I think back on it, is an interesting overlay. I’m not sure that I could duplicate that effect in my own writing if I tried.

Secret Architecture is a good book, all three of whose poems exploit this intersection between genres. My one problem or complaint, to call it that, is one that I so often have with first-rate work in chapbook form – Secret Architecture was printed in an edition of just 100 copies and is already, it would seem, sold out. It’s a shame that it has to be a secret on this level as well.

Thursday, October 05, 2006



Great looking "rubbish"


The visual art world
lags behind
in women's participation


is doing
about this


Another blog’s perspective
on the same problem


And from a gallery owner


And we should not forget

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There are Words, the collected poems of Gael Turnbull, is an indispensable volume. At nearly 500 pages, it contains virtually all of Turnbull’s poetry that he wanted saved – perhaps the greatest omission are some site-specific “kinetic” poems that hint at Turnbull’s relation to one of Scotland’s other great poets, Ian Hamilton Finlay.

From the perspective of these shores, keeping in mind that Scotland itself has a population no greater than the state of Minnesota & that, in any event, Turnbull, tho he was born & raised in Edinburgh & returned there to live again upon his retirement from medicine in the early 1990s, spent most of his adult life in Canada, the U.S. & England, was unparalleled in his role as a connector of all these different literary worlds. Perhaps it was because, in the U.S. to study medicine, Turnbull came under the spell of another doctor-poet, William Carlos Williams. Or because The Migrant Press, which he founded upon his return to the isles in 1957, was one of the first there to focus precisely on contemporary poetry. But from the New American Poetry in the 1950s – you can find photos of young Turnbull in the Olson archives in Connecticut from that period – right up to his death at the age of 76 in 2004, Turnbull was a vital part of the whole post-avant scene. And he appears to have been a primary ambassador between the new modes of poetry then emerging in the U.K. & the New Americans stateside.

But most importantly, Gael Turnbull was a fine, sometimes great poet, right from the beginning, as with this poem, from the 1954 volume Trio:

Try Again

”Poetry New York” it said
On the mail box and ahead
Up three half-lit flights I groped
To the farthest door and hoped
That in New York at last I’d found
Poetry; but at the sound
Of each knock I gave, there came
Echoes only back, the same
Appropriately hollow rhyme
Answering me every time.

This delicious little piece operates on a number of different levels, particularly if you know Poetry New York – famous today mostly for having printed Charles Olson’s breakthrough manifesto, “Projective Verse,” but primarily a modest School of Quietude mainstay of the period. I can’t quite imagine – tho I could be wrong in this – that Turnbull already knew Creeley’s own work this early on, which also uses rhyme to undercut – Turnbull’s adjective hollow is marvelously apt – traditional verse conventions. But whether he did or not, Turnbull’s own attitude is no less sharp & his own wit no less cutting.

Everywhere you turn in this volume, there are these marvelous, exceptionally crafted, always clever, tightly contained poems. Such as “Spiritual Researches” from the 1961 volume, With Hey, Ho…

Let us titrate
the soul of a potato –

O taxable courage!
O bonded verity!

the assessment of proof
by inspiration.

One could teach an entire class on the uses of sound in the poem from that, with its fabulous contrast of vowels with the hard consonants p and especially t in the first couplet to the use of those consonants again in the last couplet, this time muted (the governing consonant of this couplet are the two pair of double s sounds).

Or this, from the very end of that same decade, a section of “Walls” dedicated to Robert Duncan:

Made up (contrived,
as if a poem,
of words) to whom
often I turn
and may return and be
always at home –

wrapped in by walls
where the echoes speak,
are clear (resounding,
many men, as tides
caught in the ear,
as if a shell
held near) and dear
with remembered names
that chime
of rhyme and Rime;
and of that rime
(condensed by chill
from the void, a precipitate)
where Ymir woke,
hoar and gigantic once ( a tale
told and retold)
the source
of all that’s shaped.

Or this, from the same sequence, dedicated “For Basil Bunting”:

not words
but a man

no wall

and a voice
to shape


Or this piece, from the early 1980s, entitled “The Ruin”:

Two lovers
driven by a summer storm
take refuge in the ruin of a tower
and with a kiss
would soon forget
those other lives undone
to shape their happiness.
Unseen above
in the fragment of an arch
a wild flower blooms
as it erodes the stone
to which it clings for root.

Or this set piece from the mid-1990s, entitled “The Poetry Reading Poem”:

The next poem is called.
Was written at.
Is dedicated to.
Was published in.
Is concerned with.
Was inspired by.

This poem contains.
Describes. Expresses.

This poem is.
This poem was.

This poem might.

Or this untitled prose “transmutation” from Might a Shape of Words, published in the year 2000:

TAKEN SEVERLY ILL, he is conscious only at brief intervals, enough to know that the diagnosis is as uncertain as the outcome and well beyond any treatment

until, one afternoon, he recovers enough to know that he is recovering, would live and not die, which seems a matter of great indifference except for the novelty. He finds himself weeping, in amazement at the gift of it, as if no more related to him than the pattern of clouds he can glimpse through a corner of the window.

There are gems like these everywhere throughout this book. Small, brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed poems, with an unmistakable ear. This last feature is especially worth thinking about, given just how different accents are in the U.K. compared with the United States. The number of, to use Charles Bernstein’s apt phrase, island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four – Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher – whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level. But I do think it’s an enormous advantage in the pure accessibility of the work.

In many respects, it makes perfect sense to think of Gael Turnbull as a Scots adjunct to the Black Mountain school – if there is a single unifying influence behind all of these varied impulses, it is not so much Williams as it is Zukofsky. Many of these poems would fit comfortably into Zukofsky’s collected shorter pieces:

There is no Why

turn, the thought may
burn, the mind’s con-
cern, it will not
      (it will not learn

know, that love may
go, the heart is
slow, but it is
      (for it so

sing, what thought may
bring, the mind may
cling, past every-
      (past everything

cry, that love may
die, the heart may
lie, there is no
      (there is no why

it will not learn
but drift and turn
for it is so
as time must show
past everything
that time may bring
or song may try
there is no why

You could put this work alongside that of Creeley & Blackburn, Duncan & Dorn and it stands up very well.

Which is to say that it is amazing, in 2006, that Gael Turnbull is not a household name, at least in many households where such as Dorn & Snyder are common currency. I don’t know whether or not one could call him a neglectorino in his own land – my sense is not, but that may be wishful thinking on my part, given just how more ill-divided institutional resources are over there & what percent of it is in the hands of the pre- (and anti-)moderns.

Whatever, the poetry of Gael Turnbull is a revelation, beginning to end. And There are Words captures this wonderfully. The book can purchased directly from the publisher or from SPD in Berkeley. But please note that SPD is down to its last ten copies.

Gael Turnbull, site specific work
Kibble Palace, Botanic Gardens
Glasgow Scotland

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Coliseum Books
42nd Street
has announced
that it too
will soon shut its doors


Monday, October 02, 2006

Debra Di Blasi, with whom I read at the KGB bar in New York the week before last, has two books out, Drought & Say What You Like from New Directions, Prayers of an Accidental Nature from Coffee House Press, with a new book, The JirĂ­ Chronicles, forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2 – that is sort of the hat trick among post-avant fiction publishers.

Drought, which won the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, was also made into a prize-winning short film by Lisa Moncure with a script by Di Blasi. Reading the novella, which accounts for a little more than three-quarters of this 90-page book, you can see how the story translates without too much difficulty into a medium like film. Its short chapters virtually storyboard themselves as scenes. Here, in its entirety, is “Name”:

She turns into the light. To no one – not even herself – she says, “Kale.”

This takes up the whole of page 11 in this 68-page tale, which gives you some idea of just how quickly this story goes by. Only one chapter, the very last, goes beyond a single page. And it does so just by three paragraphs, two of which are composed of single sentences. And those sentences are just two words each.

This is a story set vaguely somewhere east of the Rockies & told with chapters so brief that you can’t help but think of Faulkner’s great As I Lay Dying as something of a model for the genre – spare to the point of Zen-like, albeit some goth version of Zen noir. Like Faulkner’s little masterpiece, this is the tale of a family, but whereas Faulkner’s family is large & multigenerational, each chapter given the name of the person who is “speaking” or perhaps “thinking” its words, Drought is done much more in the third person, and if there is a point of view, it belongs to Willa, the painter-illustrator trying to survive a loveless & still childless marriage to a writer, the aforenamed Kale, a couple that has returned to the family farm tho neither seems particularly suited to making their living at such a difficult, all consuming endeavor. Willa’s father makes a brief appearance early on & her brother Richard, the object of three letters, is the narrative framework for the last chapter. But mostly this is Willa & Kale, almost entirely from Willa’s point-of-view. Here, for example, is “Heron”:

The oar moves in slow deliberate strokes through the water, first on the left, then on the right. Within the ripples gathering on the surface is the distorted reflection of an arm, its muscles contracting with each downward sing of the oar.

At the far end of the point where the bank shifts from clay to buckbush, a diseased elm stands dying against the colorless sky. A single branch – skeletal, a dry gray bone – sways from the sudden weight of a great blue heron. The bird cocks its head to the side, listening, then forces a mournful call into the silence it discovers.

The oar stops. The muscles relax.

This is, tho it appears fairly early on, an important chapter and that first sentence in its second paragraph strikes me as capturing a great deal of what is going on in this story. It’s well crafted, especially up to the comma, but the key terms of the latter half – diseased, dying, colorless – overwhelm me. If I hadn’t picked up the subtext by now, skeletal & bone in the next sentence will drive it home two more times. Yet the last sentence in this paragraph is simply magnificent – it’s one of those sentences I wish I’d written – forces a mournful call into the silence it discovers is about as good as writing is allowed to get. Anyone who has spent much time watching great blue herons will know exactly what Di Blasi means.

Di Blasi’s economy of writing is so spare that there are moments when I think of chapters here as being not unlike Hemingway’s Nick Adam stories, his very best work. Or possibly influence by the work of Wright Morris, who more than anyone, found a style that wedded what was powerful about both Faulkner & Hemingway, and who also took that great plain that is Nebraska, Kansas & Missouri as his subject as well.

This is an interesting – and in some sense most radical – aspect of Di Blasi’s work. I often sense, for example, that when post-avant writers are visibly taking up influences from high modernism that there is a strain of nostalgia at play in the work – consider Ondaatje’s Hemingway in The English Patient, for example, or Walker’s Faulkner in The Color Purple, or Maso’s Beckett in Ava. Not so Di Blasi – my sense is that she is doing something closer to Jurgen Habermas called for in his great talk on postmodernity, going back to modernism to finish the project right this time. In this sense, Di Blasi’s own stance is probably closer to language poetry, whose own impulses as a collective activity always struck me as neo-modern in much the same way. (And in this sense, someone to read alongside Di Blasi might be Carla Harryman, the language writer with the deepest engagement in fictive structures.)

This feels even more true in Say What You Like, the second novella – really a short story in 39 chapters.¹ In Drought, the characters have names, back stories, a sense of place. In Say What You Like, character is reduced to gendered pronouns, there are no back stories, there is no “location.”

Gender relations are key to both tales & Di Blasi is not an optimist on relations between the sexes. While women are allowed here to feel aroused – and to act on it – force is seen as central to the dynamics of sex. That observation is something akin to a gyroscope here – it is what gives balance and motion to both of these tales.


¹ Printed here over 18 pages, tho it probably would have worked better to have run it, like Drought, one section to a page, one of those mind-boggling design decisions that New Directions sometimes makes, making you wonder even more why they would go out to get a great cover artist like Tim Davis & then scrimp on paper.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

John Ashbery
reading on Wednesday
at a coffee house in Providence,
a tale of Robert Creeley
& 3 Michaels
(Magee, Gizzi, Corso)