Monday, April 30, 2007


One possible, if erroneous, interpretation of the term post-avant might be “not avant anymore.” It certainly is the case that there are as many poets whose work can now be traced back to traditions that, in the 1950s perhaps, were embattled, marginalized pockets of innovation, as there are of any other kind of poetry. The post-NY School poem is perhaps the closest thing we have in the 21st century to a normative poetry in the United States. There literally are thousands of post-avant poets out there. The School of Quietude (SoQ) has managed to retain something of a stranglehold on the trade presses – and on certain public awards – that it is loathe to give up, but it is evident now that the MFA program whose students graduate without knowing just who John Ashbery is, for example, or Bruce Andrews or Geraldine Kim, are simply committing malpractice. As is the class in technique that does not take time to seriously discuss flarf. Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe appear in the New Yorker. Nate Mackey wins one of the major awards & has to compete with Ben Lerner to do so. There are dozens of writing programs openly open to post-avant perspectives. It’s a different world than the one in which Allen Ginsberg & Anne Waldman had to start the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics because the only existing outlet for their kind of poetry, SUNY Buffalo, was just too much of a post-Black Mountain affair. The idea there should be so many poets betwixt the post-avants & the SoQ that this third way itself could itself become one of the driving forces in contemporary poetry was just unthinkable two decades ago. Today that seems a perfectly reasonable proposition.

So it is true that there are any number of post-avant poets, whether of the post-NY School, post-Beat, post-Objectivist, post-New Western or even post-Language varieties, who write now with no sense of themselves as embattled or oppositional to “Official Verse Culture,” just because OVC doesn’t seem that terribly oppositional to them. In & of itself, that’s goodness. Not being a second-class citizen just because you think the work in Ploughshares is unreadably turgid is not a bad thing. But this New Normal carries within itself something of its own double-edged sword: an increased risk that post-avant poetry could become every bit as entropic as the most self-satisfied modes of Quietism. So it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are still poets out there who very much stress the avant in post-avant.

One of these is Oakland’s Spencer Selby, whose name for 14 years has been synonymous with Selby’s List, the encyclopedic roster of experimental, innovative &/or otherwise post-avant literary periodicals. A big guy with a soft voice, Selby has been a poet, film critic & historian & vispo now for a few decades. Twist of Address is his eighth book of poetry, but first one in this century (he’s had one visual collection back in 2003). Even with an eight-year gap between books of poetry, the concerns and strategies of Twist will be familiar to anyone who has read Selby’s work in the past. Indeed, I think Selby expresses remarkably similar values in his visual work as well as his textual writings: he’s fascinated by surfaces & attracted to beauty. His sense of stanza ranges between the efficiently smooth & the completely stunning. Here’s “Barbecue”:

Little remove I straddle
as prehensile limb took

initiative with my own
nationwide guarantee

Took gross tonnage by merit
suspended from price index

atavistic junkyard satellite
transmitting code announcing

that fifty years of pollution
is career enough to retire early

How else rate service when
the best oxygen has gone away

Little remove I straddle
by choice of lawn furniture

stained with catsup and blood
in equal parts I can’t tell apart

Creature comfort divine
on the grill but doesn’t

see the value daylight
never takes for granted

It’s luxury I do covet
in praise here now

of a faded frontier cushion
with gravy on the side

The writing here is entirely abstract, but the couplets are carefully crafted. It isn’t pulse driven, the way much of Clark Coolidge’s more abstract work can be, but occupies an aesthetic space halfway between the abstract meditations of Peter Ganick & the architectural stanzas one associates with Ray DiPalma. Other poets who show elements of this same sense of exquisite surfaces include Tom Mandel & Michael Palmer. I’m intrigued at the idea that none of these names here really fit together – Coolidge & Palmer were tight in the 1960s, but that was at least partly a consequence of their being among the very first poets among the post-New Americans to stretch beyond Olson’s dicta as to how a poem should be made. These almost coifed stanzas are the antithesis of “the organic.” The six writers mentioned in this paragraph were born over a nine year period bracketing the Second World War, with Coolidge the eldest, Selby the youngest.

Selby’s website includes a collection of 90 visual works that are no less committed to the idea that the abstract presents a focus that enables the reader / viewer to almost bathe in the materiality of the signifier, whether a complete word or the broken edges of a single syllable or a snatch of text. Yet texts appear against dense-if-luminous backgrounds that are as reminiscent of stained glass windows as they are of sunlight reflected off the grease on a driveway. The result is gorgeous regardless of what you think of the text. This is perhaps the one place in Selby’s work where I find myself hesitating, not unlike the way I do before the collages & sculptures of Robert Rauschenberg, and for much the same reason – it’s possible to luxuriate in these pieces even if you don’t get (or don’t agree with) any of their ideas. For the record, I find I “agree” with Selby more than I do Rauschenberg.

Selby’s writing falls into that social space I think of as the Permanent Avant, a writing that bridges, say, the language poetry of a Palmer, DiPalma, Mandel or Coolidge on the one end and vispo (and other “post-textual”) writing on the other. Some of the more familiar names in this space might include Sheila E. Murphy, Gail Sher, Peter Ganick, John M. Bennett, Jake Berry. It’s not clear to me that the Permanent Avant really represents a movement in the same sense that langpo did, or that vispo itself does today, or that the other Avantism that stretches from Kenny Goldsmith’s conceptual poetics of “Uncreative Writing” all the way to the post-Oulipo Canadians around Christian Bök do. Mostly that’s because I’m not familiar with a solid body of critical writing associated with it – which could be my fault, not theirs. This writing is a cousin to flarf, but hardly the same thing – flarf loves ugliness & this generally does not. Selby’s an excellent example of this writing because he’s rigorous in his sense of craft. Twist of Address is a solid book & a fun one to read. The six prose poems that make up “Cycle Synopsis” show Selby’s ability to think structurally in ways that New Formalists can only dream of. But ultimately, in his work, it’s the poems with fixed stanzaic forms I always turn to. I’m hardly ever disappointed.


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