Thursday, November 15, 2007

The new issue of Damn the Caesars, Richard Owens’ magazine out of Buffalo, technically vol. III, is worth reading, even if it also is troubling in some old familiar ways. Owens knows that the editorial positioning of content in a journal is, in and of itself, a syntax, an exposition, an argument. He is masterful at this, indeed one of very best since, say, Clayton Eshleman in knowing what to put where.

DtheC starts off with a longish poem – a single 327-line stanza, the lines themselves stretching most of the way across the page – by Thomas Meyer. “The Magician’s Assistant” is so atypical of Meyer’s mature work that it is by definition a major publication. I can report also that it’s a terrific poem, dense, fresh, surprising, full of wit, a great read. It more than justifies the $10 price of the magazine.

The Meyer piece starts off the opening section of the journal, containing also work by Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack & Dale Smith. All are given a substantial space to work with – excluding one Korean feature, the journal gives each contributor an average of 8.5 pages, and everyone seems to have taken advantage of this by sending in their very best work.

The Korean feature is the volume’s second section, a selection of five major contemporary poets – Ko Un, Kim Seung-Hui, Ynhui Park, Lee Si-Young & Chonggi Mah – between the ages of 55 & 77. Ko Un is of course world famous & two of the others have significant U.S. connections (Chonggi Mah, having been an M.D. in Toledo, lives part of the year in Florida). The English versions, by Brother Anthony of Taizé with the help of three native speakers, are first rate. Everything here reads like poetry & can be judged on its own merits, rather than taken as an approximation.

The third section again contains the poetry of four English-speaking poets – the late Bill Griffiths (who must have died while this was in press), Stan Mir, Peter Finch & Thom Donovan. The selection by Griffiths, a long untitled poem in 22 parts and a short essay on David Jones’ inscriptions, are quite wonderful. We’ve never had anyone quite like Griffiths in the US, a one-time Hells Angel with a Ph.D., a terrific ear & great love for detail.

The fourth section consists of a 20-page selection of poetry by Andrzej Bursa, a brilliant Polish poet who died of congenital heart failure at the of 25 in 1957 (that is him on the left in the image above, the cover of the issue). In a five-page introductory essay, Kevin Christianson, one of the two translators, compares Bursa variously to Dorothy Parker, Phillip Larkin, ee cummings & the Beats, which mostly tells you that Christianson doesn’t read contemporary poetry. The poems here, however, sound like they were written just yesterday, maybe by a sharp young poet taking workshops at St. Marks. You’re more aware here of the scrim of translation between reader & “original” than with the earlier Korean materials, but on the whole these are very good.

The last general section contains the work of six poets – Sotère Torregian, Michael Kelleher, Richard Deming, Rachel Levitsky, Jonathan Greene & Billy Childish. Only Childish, one of the key figures of anti-conceptual British Stuckism, is new to me here. Since Childish appears to have published some 30 books, made many records & painted over 1,000 paintings, my lack of familiarity suggests either (a) I need to get out more or (b) British work still has a terrible time with U.S. distribution. The Torregian is especially interesting, given this latter-day surrealist’s & one-time NY School poet (he’s lived in Northern California for decades) apparent reticence toward publishing. The piece is a photocopy of a “petite” essay on Mahmoud Darwish, “The Poet as Outlaw.” As essay, the piece looks closer to notes for an otherwise impromptu talk, but it’s fascinating to watch the poet thinking, which is what this deeply annotated piece really is.

But what really struck most in this issue is a tone that shows up almost satirically in Childish’s “I Come With Shin Bones Like Knives.” Here is its first stanza, the extra spacing part of the original:

it is wonderfull being a man
washing your body down at the sink
in the early morning
with a flannel rough as a badgers arse

And here, a page later, is the final stanza:

is my shit
and it smells good to me

This is almost Archie Bunkerville in its masculinist take on the world. It does, however, serve to call attention to the rest of Damn the Caesars as a whole. And here I note that I misspoke above when I suggested that the issue led off with work by Thomas Meyer. There is, in fact, a short epigraph facing Meyer’s first page with a quote from Michael Palmer’s “The Flower of Capital”:

Politics seems a realm of power and persuasion that would like to subsume poetry (and science, and fashion, and …)under its mantle, for whatever noble or base motives. Yet if poetry is to function – politically – with integrity, it must resist such appeals as certainly as it resists others.

Editor Owens makes something of the same point in a final essay that looks at the editing process under the belligerent heading of “Take It or Leave It.” Pointedly, Owens writes:

This journal is no different. It is implicated in precisely the thing it aims to critique – exclusion and the willful production of scarcity. This is, after all, a print journal, and, as a print journal, limits are immediately imposed upon the range of things it can do.

So let’s take a quick peek at who is being limited through exclusion. Mostly it’s women. The current issue has 15 contributors outside of the Korean selection, of whom just two are female, 13 percent. One of the five Koreans is female. By page count, it’s even worse – Karen Mac Cormack, Kim Seung-Hui and Rachel Levitsky have just 13 pages or eight percent of the 162 pages given to content. Let me put this another way: 92 percent of the content is by men.

Nor is volume III exceptional in this regard, going back through the archives, one quickly realizes that of the 101 contributors to the journal’s history (a big second volume, plus all four issues of the first) whose gender can be identified (I failed in the case of Jan Bender), only 18 have been women. Volume II, with 24 percent of its contributors being women, is the best Damn the Caesars has ever done.

I know that this plays into Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr’s critique of a gendered poetry world (PDF) in the new Chicago Review as well as the statistical analysis (PDF) done there by ChiRev editors Joshua Kotin & Robert P. Baird. In general, Kotin & Baird focus on more institutional publications, The Nation, New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, Southern Review, TriQuarterly, than they do the likes of Damn the Caesars, tho Spahr & Young are kind enough to include Silliman’s Blog where they’ve done some impressive work counting noses & calculating percentages.

It’s one thing to suggest, as I have at times, that we are in the midst of a long historic transformation between the roles played by various genders and that different moments and/or stages are discernible along the way, and a journal like DtheC that behaves as if the 1950s were still the present. Eight percent? At least the Allen anthology 43 years ago got to nine with its four contributors out of 44.

All of which leaves me with this very uneasy feeling – a sense that Owens’ afterward may in fact be as much a prophylactic against such criticism than a statement in & for itself. On the one hand, this is a wonderful issue with much great stuff worth reading. On the other, I have a hard – impossible – time imagining any woman ever wanting to buy this issue & I have to confess that I myself come away from it feeling very sad indeed. And I don’t think that was the editor’s intent.