Monday, December 17, 2007

One model for the magazine that I like a lot is the journal that contains only a limited number of contributors, each of whom is afforded an ample amount of space in which to work. Two recent journals that employ this strategy are President’s Choice and 6x6. The former has seven contributors and runs to 63 pages, the latter, as you might imagine, offers six poets over an expanse of 56 unnumbered pages – so each generally gives its participants nine pages, enough to make a seriously good impression if the poet has any chops.

Several of the poets in President’s Choice 1 are poets who have been around for some time – Rodrigo Toscano, Craig Dworkin, Laura Elrick & Robert Fitterman, all fine writers. My immediate instinct, opening this issue, was not only that sense of endorphins releasing at the idea of reading new work by this quartet of folks, but also a sense that I’d probably come away liking the work of the three writers here whose names I didn’t immediately recognize, just because somebody (editor Steven Zultanski) thought to put them together. These turn out to be Marie Buck, Bhanu Kapil and Paper Rad. And it’s true – I really like the work of all three.

Except that, when I decided I had to find out where I could get more work by Marie Buck & googled her name, leading me to her Beard of Bees e-chapbook, I immediately recognized the photograph as being one of two almost intimidatingly brilliant young poets who picked me up at the airport in Detroit all of maybe eight weeks ago. Maybe I’d even received my copy of President’s Choice from one of them. I realized I couldn’t remember. Buck leads off the issue and one of the first things you notice is that while her poems are not all in the same mode, they’re all very good. My favorites here are excerpts from a larger sequence entitled Whole Foods. Here’s the shortest:


Cutting and exposure to the air darkens the flesh. We stood in unheated squats having tooth and not being limp. We were more art than science. We gently rubbed our skin in a circular motion.

I take the title here to allude to the first person plural that starts the final three sentences – you can bind a lot of material together if you just claim the same subject, especially if you claim it as yourself. In a not dissimilar way, skin in the last sentence harkens to, snags really, the term flesh from the first. This is a poem as formal as any written, even tho it claims for itself the realism of confession. This strikes me as an awful lot to do in such a short space.

If you download the Bird of Bees book, Life And Style, where Buck deploys language appropriated from MySpace – a gesture very close to Linh Dinh’s instant messaging poetics – that this degree of layering & density of affect is something Buck accomplishes routinely. She makes it look so simple when in fact it is anything but.

I had very much the same reaction here to the work of Bhanu Kapil – and I reacted in a parallel fashion by buying both of the books available at SPD by her (one of which is listed as having been written by Bhanu Kapil Rider). Humanimal, which is excerpted in President’s Choice, consists of numbered paragraphs, not all in the same font size, many of which function as contained narratives –

25.ii. Of the sixteen children who were born, only seven – six boys and a girl – survived into childhood proper. One of the boys pushed the girl off the roof and then there were six. My father was the second oldest and through I am not sure if the image – my aunt Subudhra falling upside down to her death, a kite’s slim rope still bound to her wrist and wrapped twice around her knuckles – is relevant to the story I am telling, it accompanies it. In the quick, black take of a body’s flight, a body’s eviction or sudden loss of place, the memory of descent functions as a subliminal flash.

Only one word – take – suggests the broader topic of film making, of which this section is actually one part.

Again, the larger effect here is of layering – there is a richness to Kapil’s work here that is completely wonderful. Each paragraph might be compared with an image of film in the process of montage, not so much the “new sentence” as the “new paragraph,” but the sequencing has the disjoint feel of an Abigail Child film, where image-image-image-image, each of them “real,” has a larger, broader, even more abstract impact that is nonetheless devastatingly powerful.

Paper Rad turns out to be a three-person art collective based both in Pittsburgh, PA, and Northampton, MA.. They’re a lot livelier than the poetry one traditionally associates with either of those Quietist locales. The poems here feel like late gen NY school with a lot of call-and-response, one way to form a collab. It’s only because of the high level of work in this issue overall that I find them less than completely compelling. Rodrigo Toscano’s plays are terrific and his manifesto “What is ‘Poetics Theater’?” is something I expect to see reprinted a lot before long; Rob Fitterman’s excerpts from Sprawl make one anxious to see the whole (my fave is “Bisquickmarck, an afterward” which combines the history of Bisquick with that of Bismarck); Laura Elrick’s work combines her deep sense of form – here most often the line – with an even deeper sense of the danger of the contemporary political, even to the level of house pets –

Diagram of the muscles of the face.

Diagram of the muscles of the face.

Small dog watching cat on the table.
Dog approaching another dog with hostile intentions.
Dog – in a humble and affectionate frame of mind.

Half-bred shepherd dog baring teeth.
Dog – caressing his master.
Diagram of the muscles of the
Cat, savage and prepared to fight.
Cat – in an affectionate frame of mind.

A little like Paper Rad, I found Craig Dworkin problematic here only by contrast with everything else. Dworkin’s work here is entirely conceptual, tho the concept leads to dense dense texts – his pieces here “describe” a text, doing so entirely by virtual of grammatical construction. The entire project is titled “Noun Compound Roman Numeral period,” the first section of which is called “Definite Article Adjective Noun period,” the second “Definite Article Noun genitive preposition definite article Noun period.” You can probably guess how the texts themselves read, each being three pages long. This reminds me of an idea I’ve long had of “reorganizing” The Waste Land so that you get all of its letters in alphabetical order. It would still be The Waste Land, right? If not, why not? For some reason I’ve never actually been bored enough to execute this project. But it pleases me to see just how close a project like Dworkin's comes to this same conceptual space.

I have a more muted different reaction to 6x6, some of which has nothing to do with the writing. The journal’s formal premise of cutting one corner off its page to produce a five-sided page and its idea of using rubber bands as binding strike me as off-puttingly over-cute. Unlike the clean roman font used by President’s Choice, the smaller font used by 6x6 looks like somebody working with a letter press for the very first time. That this is the 14th issue and somebody hasn’t bought a saddle stapler is not amusing. Twenty years from now, when those rubber bands are stiff and disintegrating, the editor is going to live to regret these decisions. So are the contributors.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that I find the work in 6x6 less compelling than President’s Choice as well. Interestingly, tho, it’s the two poets whose work I do already know – Douglas Rothschild & Corina Copp – whose writing really jumps out at me. In fact, I’ll go further. This is the best selection of Rothschild’s work I ever recall reading, totally a delight, well formed & thoroughly tinged with the same acerbic wit the man is known for in person. It’s really the high point of the issue. Copp’s excerpt from “Office Killer” would look interesting alongside Toscano’s theater pieces – both are doing new things with perfomance as a mode that raise (once again) the potential in poets’ theater in general, and in new, intriguing ways. Copp keeps her Lower Manhattan / Brooklyn cred by naming one of her characters Petunia!

The other works here – by Prabhakar Vasan, Lori Shine, Randall Leigh Kaplan and Fred Schmalz – are all interesting enough. But none of them sufficiently overcomes the poor choice in type face to make me want to rush out and get anything else they may have in print, unlike Buck and Kapil in President’s Choice. It’s hard for me to get a sense of whether this is because the work isn’t as brilliant – that the decisions in design reflect decisions in editing also – or if it is just that the format here doesn’t present the writing to good advantage. I’m hoping it’s the latter.