Thursday, December 27, 2007

One reason that it seems clear to me that language poetry needs to be understood as a moment, rather than a movement, is that for many years now there has been nothing even remotely approximating a language poetry journal. Tottel’s, This, Roof, Hills, Temblor, Big Deal, A Hundred Posters, Doones, Oculist Witnesses, Streets and Roads, miam, Qu, The Difficulties, even L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E & Poetics Journal are all long gone. The last of these to go, Poetics Journal published its tenth & final issue in 1998, but that was after a seven year hiatus – the ninth & eighth issues themselves arriving on a two-year schedule, a marked decline from the first seven issues, which took just six years to come out. In reality, I think it’s difficult if not downright fanciful, to characterize anything as language poetry after 1985, and particularly the Vancouver Poetry Festival of that year. Still, as that roster of mags above suggests, that was a lot of energy to be concentrated into just 15 years or so, which also meant that there was a substantial vacancy to be filled going forward. In spite of some spirited attempts – the New Coast festival in Buffalo & the Apex of the M push circa 1990 were the most visible, memorable to many for a Mike Huckabee avant-la-lettre agenda – what has emerged instead is far more decentralized & pluralistic, a poetics suitable to a globalizing planet, multicultural & increasingly transnational. Some of the most important sites for American poetry, for example, now take place in Australia, in the Nordic countries & on the Canary Islands. Even more significantly, this doesn’t seem strange in the slightest. Just try to imagine what “American poetry” will suggest twenty years hence.

This may suggest why I felt such a jolt coming upon Ocho no. 14, the latest of the many ventures produced by Didi Menendez. Available in print & online versions – specifically one just for Amazon’s new Kindle – Ocho 14 is guest edited by Nick Piombino, the poet, critic & analyst. Nick is one of the original contributors to In the American Tree, my anthology of language poetry first published in 1986 (tho edited for the most part four & five years before). Of its 40 contributors, Nick was one of just two – Jackson Mac Low being the other – who appear only in its critical section. That’s because, when the collection was being edited, Nick was still known primarily for his critical writing, a circumstance that has happily changed over the years. And now that he’s retired from a long career as a psychological counselor in the New York public school system, he has the time & energy to embark on a project like putting together Ocho 14.

The jolt I felt was as tho I had a new issue of a language poetry journal in my hands for the first time in years. It was like a huge rush of adrenalin as I looked at its table of contents & began to dive right in. It’s a terrific issue, with nothing but good work from cover to cover. After reading it, tho, I realized that my jolt, or at least my sense of this as the latest thing in langpo, was something I brought to the occasion. For as good as Ocho 14 is, it really is something else.

For one thing, only three of its fifteen contributors are traditionally identified as language poets – Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies & Ray DiPalma. Piombino does make a point of putting them first, in that order, which I think must have triggered my response.¹ In fact, 13 of the 15 live somewhere within the confines of New York City, so somebody else might come across this same issue & see it as the current generation of the New York School, tho only five of the contributors – Elaine Equi, Mitch Highfill, Brenda Iijima, Kimberly Lyons & Jerome Sala – have ever been even loosely associated with that side of New York’s writing scene (and in each instance with some considerable qualification). Two are former San Francisco poets who famously met over the internet after each had moved to a far distant locale (Japan & Minneapolis). I think of Tim Peterson as Tucson-Boston, tho he’s been more recently hosting the Segue reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club. Sharon Mesmer & Corrine Robins are two poets who have around New York quite a bit longer than Tim, but I’ve never associated either with a specific scene or aesthetic program. And Mark Young (New Zealand / Australia) & Nico Vassilakis (Seattle) strike me as part of that global thing I just mentioned. Vassilakis is also well known for his visual poetry, which makes his stark, simple quatrains here all the more noteworthy.

Piombino himself stresses the regional focus, enough to make me wonder if Nico or Mark ever lodged time in Manhattan or environs. But it’s putting Bernstein, Davies & DiPalma right up front, the first 53 of the issue’s 180 pages, that really gives it the old langpo air. If anything, Ocho catorce feels like an updated version of James Sherry’s mag, Roof, situating langpo within a larger range of writing in which New York was very much the horizon.

Of the trio of Tree vets, Bernstein has the simplest & shortest contribution, a seemingly tossed off text (in fact, if he used a spread sheet or, worse, Word, it must have been excruciating to produce), a catalog of the 428 most commonly used words in his work, Girly Man, in descending order. This is cute for a few seconds but no one, least of all Bernstein, actually expects you to read it. It has a different relationship to the page than that and on that level is the most radical work in the issue.

Davies, on the other hand, offers a wide range of works, including some (textually) discrete poems, a long critical work that organizes itself as an a review of Anne Waldman’s Outrider, then a series of excerpts from a longer text – it seems too limiting to call it a poem – entitled This is Thinking. Davies hasn’t been publishing a lot in recent years & to see this much work at once, this much first-rate work, is completely bracing. He hasn’t lost a step & is every bit as uncompromising as ever. This actually can make Davies a difficult read at times, but it never is complexity just for the sake of showing off. He continues to be the Diogenes of the New York langpo scene. At the same time, Davies always comes across as sweet, vulnerable, friendly, somebody you’d love to know. I’d say that Davies’ contribution is worth the price of the issue alone, but I’d say that of well about Gordon, Vassilakis, Mesmer & several other of the contributors.

There’s a reason for this. In spite of the fact that it has many more contributors than, say, President’s Choice, Ocho has a lot more pages, 180 to 64, which means that Piombino is able to give roughly a dozen to each contributor – every single selection is substantial. It would take 15 chapbooks to get this much writing from this many contributors otherwise – making the hard copy price an absolute steal, the Kindle contribution a virtual potlatch.

After Davies’ raw philosophical investigations, Ray DiPalma’s suave sense of verse form comes across instantly. Although they’ve lived in the same town & known one another for decades, Davies & DiPalma almost represent polar extremes of what langpo might mean. For Davies, form is always provisional & the quest for truth the obsessive center of any activity. For DiPalma, form is entirely sensual, his poems are elegant much in the same way good sex is, everything fits together just right. His books are always master classes in how to write & there’s a wit in his generally serious tone that comes over as inclusive & generous. I remember in my graduate seminar at SF State in 1981, the one that served as a first draft for In the American Tree, that DiPalma’s work – we read Planh – was the only one of the 16 writers we read who was enthusiastically liked by every single class member. At the time, that surprised me, but I think my class – which included Cole Swensen & Jerry Estrin among others – were ahead of me in seeing this side of DiPalma’s poetry. Over the years, he’s proven them right.

Elaine Equi follows DiPalma and, as has often the case for me with her poetry, she catches me off-guard & surprises me. The first poem, “Daily Doubles,” dedicated to Harry Crosby, appears to be couplets composed entirely of the names of race horses –

Inside Info
Runaway Banjo

Silver Knockers
Too Much Zip

I don’t know if that’s where she actually got these names, but a search of Google does indeed turn up a horse named Runaway Banjo. As a poem, it works, is lively & fun, tho not to the degree of the sequence that immediately follows, “At the Cinema Tarot,” nine short works predicated on the random drawing of cards, not from a tarot deck, but rather postcards of movies from the mid-century. Hence

#4 The Girl Can’t Help It
(Jayne Mansfield unbuttons her blouse)

Marilyn Monroe wasn’t Jean Harlow.
Jayne Mansfield wasn’t Marilyn Monroe.
Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t Jayne Mansfield.
Thankfully, there is only one Britney Spears.

But know, whoever you are,
whatever your gender, hair color, physique,
within you there does reside an unhappy blonde
archetype with enormous breasts.

It is her you need to contact.

The films included range from this b-movie bon-bon to a film classic like Black Orpheus. This pop-art deployment of media culture icons is a New York School staple, of course, tho by now every poet must how to do it, at least a little. It turns up again in the very next poet, Nada Gordon, who chooses to intersperse a hypothetical discourse between Whitehead, Husserl & Heidegger with that peculiarly American philosopher, Julie Andrews.

Gordon often deploys known elements like this, but what’s really interesting in her poetry is the way in which poems transgress, that instant when they go willfully (deliberately seems too contained a word) out of control, off track, over the line. A poem beginning with Marianne Moore’s pseudo-dismissal of poetry – “I, too, dislike it” – turns very quickly into a litany of other worse things one could dislike:

I dislike that Elvis never bought ME a Cadillac

I dislike using “upscale” to describe something because it is a lazy way of describing something, even this upscale poem.

This move toward the transgressive goes quite a bit further, up to

a nuthatch perhaps, that has perched inside one’s urethra, like

elephants pushing into
a weak vulva or

a wild horse learning
to sing.

The irony of ending a list like that with a simple period is clearly intentional.

The play between control – Gordon is deft craftsperson – and the over-the-top impulse is a continual see-saw in these works. Her longer piece, “Feminists Like To Blow Things Up / (And Then Cry As The Pieces Rain Down),” both extends this dynamic while ironizing her own self-knowledge of her impulses as a writer. Overall, Gordon’s selection is one of those powerful moments when, if you’d never read her work before (which might be the case, say, if you’re reading this in Scotland or Norway), you’d be inclined to rush out & buy everything she’s ever written. That’s not a bad impulse. You won’t be disappointed.

If there is a problem in Gordon’s text, it’s really Mitch Highfill’s, who comes next. He’s an inherently quieter poet & turning to his first page is like going from Green Day to Erik Satie – not everyone’s going to manage that transition. If they do, tho, there’s much to like. Actually, Satie is too strong a contrast. If Mei-mei Berssenbrugge were to be Satie, Highfill is closer to Rufus Wainwright. Highfill is not without his own hijinx here:

I have seen the future and the future is flarf. The streets are filled with regret. Is that a watermark or a stain? Prophecy a function of memory. I want to see my stunt double. I want a copy of the scrub list. The tea leaves settle where the broken hearts stay. In search of the heaviside function.

But even here, the palette is subdued compared with Gordon’s. Highfill in a way strikes me as raising what I think is one of the primary – if usually unspoken – questions confronting contemporary poetry in the U.S. How, in a realm of 10,000 publishing poets, does a good but not necessarily flashy poet get the audience he or she truly deserves? I think that’s an enormous problem confronting more than a few good poets right now. In Highfill’s case, he’s been fortunate in that he’s part of one of the most robust metropolitan scenes in the planet. But what if he were writing these poems in western Kansas? As it is, Highfill is long overdue for the robust, 200-page book that would make everybody recognize what a solid writer he’s been now for decades. The ample selection here makes me long for that book.

Many of the other poets in Ocho are contending with this same question. Brenda Iijima, a little like Gordon, has the capacity to move from the flashy to the more deeply contemplative, a range that stands her well. Lyons tho is very much facing the same problem as Highfill – first-rate writing, but of a subtle kind that doesn’t leap out and tap dance on your forehead to make you notice. Also like Highfill, her solution has been to live at the center of things in New York. Sharon Mesmer’s strategy is humor – there are a lot of laugh-out-loud lines in her work. Tim Peterson has used that strategy himself in times past. Not so much here, tho, just enough of the first person in drag to give you a sense that it’s Tim.

Of the later works in the issue, the one that jumps out at me – see tapdance on forehead metaphor in paragraph above – is Nico Vassilakis’ 15-page poem, “Lowered & Illuminated.” Vassilakis is somebody whom I know primarily as a visual poet, one of the best in the country. This however is pure text, quatrains separated by more than a little space from one to the next. They work beautifully, each quatrain not quite a work in and of itself, their lines often making the reader wonder if they are to be read singly – as four distinct entries – or in conjunction, running on:

This becomes involuntary finally
Eschewing some combinations otherwise
Dormant thrust into quasars
Detached and tungsten its sole benefactor

One’s mind’s eye goes back & forth here, trying to decide where the hinges in this text might fit. It’s possible, I suppose, for an unsubtle mind to just plow through, but what a loss that would entail. An awful lot of the music of this stanza is predicated entirely on the number of syllables involved in each word, the longer, noisier terms of the first two lines giving way to the stanza’s last half in which only the very final term has more than two. Like a lot of abstract work in poetry, this looks casual at first until you start close reading, which then begets an experience not unlike vertigo as you start to recognize just how many other dimensions come into play.

In sum, Ocho 14 is a great read, the liveliest number in this series’ exceptionally diverse & risk-taking issues to date. It’s worth noting that Didi Menendez is quite willing – actively trying, I suspect – to pick guest editors no one else would think of to put into the same sequence. The result is that each number is an exceptionally strong argument for a different aesthetic. And Piombino’s is the strongest argument to date.

¹ The reality is that this issue is strictly alphabetical, but I wonder if Nick picked his contributor’s with a sense of how that would play into the narrative of reading, front to back. The last two contributors are also the two Auslanders in this otherwise New York City-centric collection. Can that be pure chance?