Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I’ve been struck this week by the value of different models of journal. Sitting on my desk are two that I’ve going through – one is the impressive 50th issue of Brad Morrow’s Conjunctions, which not coincidentally entitles this issue “Fifty Contemporary Writers.” At 500 pages with advertising, that comes maybe to nine pages per contributor, a substantial amount. There are no four-line or one-paragraph knock-offs just to get an auspicious name on the cover. Further, there are many writers here whose work I absolutely love: Peter Gizzi, Cole Swensen, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Rae Armantrout, Martine Bellen, Joan Retallack, Robert Kelly, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, John Ashbery, Ann Lauterbach. And there are others every bit as well known and accomplished in their own way: Edwidge Danticat, Joyce Carole Oates, Sandra Cisneros, Reginald Shepherd, Rick Moody, Christopher Sorrentino, Carole Maso, William H. Gass, editor Morrow himself, Andrew Mossin, Donald Revell, Thalia Field, Robert Coover. And the diligent among you will know already that there are still 25 other authors I haven’t even named yet, up-&-comers, hidden delights or maybe just people to whom I’ve not yet paid enough attention.

Next to this I have the single-signature, saddle stapled winter issue (no. 2) of Model Homes, which advertises itself as Poetry / Futures / Blueprints. It’s just 64 pages, divided among 12 contributors, 13 if you consider that one is a collaboration So roughly five pages per contributor, a briefer presentation. It’s edited out of Detroit by Marie Buck & Brad Flis. (Yes, two journals edited by a Brad – there’s a lot of Bradness going on these days.) It’s worth noting that, of Model Homes’ 13 contributors, I actually know & like the work of 11: Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Tan Lin, Judith Goldman, Kit Robison, Robert Fitterman, Carla Harryman, Jennifer Scappettone, Tao Lin, Louis Cabri, the late Nancy Shaw & Catriona Strang. There are just two writers here who are new to me: Lawrence Griffin & Seth Landman.

Guess which journal I find myself spending more time with, and frankly enjoying more?

It’s not that the quality of writing differs radically from one journal to the next – Robinson, Fitterman & Harryman could all just as easily turn up in Conjunctions as in Model Homes. More could, actually, if Morrow had kept one eye turned to Canada. Many of the authors in Conjunctions – particularly from that first cluster of names above – could fit in Model Homes as well. Swapping Kit Robinson & Carla Harryman for, say, Lyn Hejinian & Rae Armantrout would hardly constitute a major change of direction for either publication.

Nor is size the major differentiator between the two journals, tho it’s true that one uses a 64-page magazine quite differently than one does a publication that weighs in at 500 pages. For what it’s trying to accomplish, each is well designed.

The difference between the two – the reason why Conjunctions is a nice-to-have publication while Model Homes is a must – is that Model Homes has a much sharper point-of-view. This isn’t to say that Conjunctions doesn’t have any focus – regular readers will be able to tell you what Brad Morrow’s likes & dislikes (or perhaps interests & disinterests) in contemporary poetry happen to be. For example, there is a bias toward complexity, which explains why the post-New American traditions he seems most to be interested in are (a) a post-projectivist thread (Robert Kelly would be an example), (b) the uptown visual-art conscious side of the New York school, (c) language poetry – tho not all of it – and (d) so-called Third Way poetics (Berssenbrugge, Lauterbach & Swensen in the current issue). There’s no visual poetry, nothing with a Beat flourish, no hint (at least in this issue) of Naropa. The closest one gets to the School of Quietude might be Reginald Shepherd, but he’d be one of the best arguments for itself the School o’ Q. could make.

Morrow’s take on prose is quite similar – the writers included all exude intelligence but I don’t sense an aesthetic center – Joyce Carol Oates writes a romance series under a pen name. She writes quickly & one imagines she writes constantly as well. That’s not an aesthetic I associate with William Gass or Edwidge Danticat. A substantial number of the prose writers, tho only one or two of the poets, publish with the New York trade presses.

In short, Conjunctions tends toward good writing, smart writing, all kinds. But one doesn’t necessarily experience an affinity between writer A & writer B here. A look at the table of contents gives one the sense that Morrow alternated writers for the sake of maximum contrast, an approach that evens out any argument the gathering might have made.

Model Homes, on the other hand, is very much interested in connecting the generation of poets that came of age in the 1970s with the present. It’s as militant as any issue of Roof or Temblor ever were. The issue has Tan Lin, who was in grad school in 1983 & is part of the larger circle associated with uncreative writing & vispo, as well as Tao Lin, born that same year. I can’t imagine Joyce Carol Oates or Robert Coover in this journal. That’s an understatement – and it’s to Model Homes’ advantage.

Where this really pays off for a reader is with the writers one has never heard of before. There are just two in Model Homes whereas Conjunctions has quite a few more, but Model Homes offers a far firmer sense of context in which to examine these newbies-to-me:Lawrence Giffin & Seth Landman. The reality is, I quickly realize if I search a little on the web, that I’ve read Giffin before – he did the fascinating (if problematic) piece on “Political Topology in Contemporary North American Poetry,” using Rod Smith’s Deed as evidence, in the current issue of Jacket. His two poems here, “The Plaything of My Thought” and “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” make great use of found & other language to create statements that sound normative but really aren’t:

What do you call a daughter
without ever having seen one
before? Padding it’s trench-wear
with the destiny of eugenics,
you don’t. You just push off into
the ensuing catastrophe unequal
to itself.


In the highly developed organisms
the receptive cortical layer
has long been withdrawn into
the depths of the interior of the body,
though portions of it have been left behind
on the surface, immediately beneath
the general shield set up against stimuli.

Both poems skirt the topic of incest in ways that are quite unlike anything I’ve read before, like a cooler, more aestheticized Kathy Acker, but not tending toward prose (in the usual sense) nor porn (in the usual sense). It’s the closest thing to a discursive Jeff Koons move I’ve read, flirting at once with being both sweet & icky.

Seth Landman’s poetry is “more lyrical,” if by that you mean that it relies less visibly on found linguistic source material. The thing that jumps out at me of his work in this issue is a poem called “Sign You Were Mistaken,” which has a terrific stanzaic structure:

Ocean arrived poking a star, that insurrection
of blood you

fear and gather

this could have been
painting with nails’ rust

hammering something up, “what are you up to,”

just another symbol for biennial or derived
from a gun wheel “did you find it” hacked

or frozen the scared sacred, the surviving child

”getting so big” as the intellect in action and apart
from family life there is friendship and apart

from the abstract is the city, the city upside down,

poison in the pilgrimage, why
”is difficult to explain,” but pouring over the diaries

you begin to notice.

This is, you might say, all one sentence. Or, more accurately, it retains its sentenciness, that sense of syntactic possibility, throughout even tho a wise person would be hard put to parse what goes on. This is a plausible next step in the logic, say, of an Ashbery poem, tho with most of the bric-a-brac removed, its only possible weak point perhaps that first and, a hinge word that is a dead give-away for the devices that follow. It’s one of three poems Landman has in the issue (albeit not starting on the page listed in the table of contents), and they do exactly what work in a magazine should – they make you hungry to read more.

All of these poets – Model Homes editors Buck & Flis, Giffin & Landman – have some connection to the Amherst area, even if it’s only historical. Landman makes his living it seems writing for ESPN. Giffin edits Physical Poetry as part of the amorphous L’il Norton gang, one publication of which is Model Homes. I can recall that Noah Eli Gordon was prevented from participating in an antiwar reading somewhere around Amherst circa 2003 on the grounds that his poetry wasn’t “clear” (in the sense of having more than one idea per poem). Now this area seems to be a hotbed of nuance, polyvalence & meta-meta. One wonders exactly how to account for this, tho we note the tell-tale presence in the vicinity of Peter Gizzi &, to the south, Elizabeth Willis, and recall that their presence at Santa Cruz & Mills a decade or so back coincided with the sudden rise of New Brutalism, reputedly responsible for rejuvenating the scene throughout the Bay Area.

Whatever – I’m learning to trust anything that has the mark of L’il Norton about it, which makes Model Homes one of the most exciting magazines I’ve seen all year. These folks, editors & contributors alike, have a real sense of what they want to do in poetry. And the result is a knock-your-sox-off argument for some new ways of looking at the poem.