Friday, August 07, 2009

Gloria Frym on Lorine Niedecker


Discovering Landis Everson


Robin Blaser’s continuous song


The poetic monologs of
Frederick Seidel & Bernadette Mayer


Ravi Shankar’s
night in the hoosegow


Censorship in Iraq


Gertrude Stein & Michael Farrell

Thursday, August 06, 2009

My note about Corazon Aquino brought to mind three other, somewhat parallel lists that I keep around tucked in the back of my brain. One is of people whom I’ve seen in person who went on to become president:

Ronald Reagan, whose hand I shook briefly once in Sacramento when he was still governor. I was walking down the hallway past Regan’s office in the Capitol with an aide to one of the Republican legislators with whom I sometimes collaborated on prison reform issues, and he more or less dragged me over to introduce us. “You never know when that will come in handy,” I was told later. It never did.

Barack Obama, who spoke at the Paoli train station last year (April 19 to be exact) as part of a one-day railway tour of the state. This is roughly six blocks from my house. Krishna & one of my sons got to shake his hand amidst the throng.

Nelson Mandela, when he came to speak at the Oakland Coliseum on the last day of June, 1990. This stop on his post-prison national tour was largely a way to say thank you to then-Congressman Ron Dellums, who had made Mandela’s treatment as a prisoner sufficiently an issue in US-South African relations that the old regime was constrained from murdering him. Barrett Watten & I attended that event together, along with some 58,000 others. It was your basic outdoors big leftwing party.

A somewhat longer list consists of those politicians who thought they were going to be president, starting with Nelson Rockefeller & William Scranton, who appeared at an “anybody but Goldwater” rally in San Francisco immediately prior to the 1964 GOP Convention held at the Cow Palace. Goldwater was the first wave of the Republican rightwing that was to wash over the GOP, and which runs the party now. The crowd, which had marched up Market Street to the plaza in front of City Hall, was the same lefty coalition that would be turning out in anti-war marches before too long, and had little in common with either candidate. Scranton they listened to politely, but Rockefeller was booed quite heartily.

Democrats: Jerry Brown (too many times to count), Jesse Jackson (ditto), George McGovern (during the ’72 campaign – the most boring public speaker imaginable) & Walter Mondale (sometime around 1983), who like Rockefeller was booed loudly. Dianne Feinstein, introducing him, shouted back, “Listen, this man is going to be the next president of the United States.” The crowd was unconvinced.

A couple of years ago, I was at the Philadelphia airport, catching a flight somewhere when I realized that the person in front of me, in a pale blue suit, with no entourage & carrying his own bags, was John McCain. I’ve been more conscious of McCain over the last 15 years or so since we have some mutual friends. To be honest, I thought that he represented the best the GOP had to offer last year, and was disappointed that he made such dreadful – and dangerous – decisions throughout the campaign. I still think that he would have done much better in the long run – carried Pennsylvania for certain & possibly Ohio – if he had picked Tom Ridge to be his running mate. But once the economy collapsed in September, that may have been too little to make much difference.

The third list is the quirkiest: presidents who have been in my home. Or at least my house, albeit before I owned it. The initial owner of this 1959 home was then the head of the Valley Forge Military Academy, and a close friend and former aide to Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose grandson David lives about a mile away. When we bought the house in 1995, some of the older neighbors told us of the parties that would take place after events at the Academy, and of seeing Ike and Nixon over here more than once. Some of the other notables at these events mentioned by more than one of our neighbors include Bob Hope, Al Haig & Henry Kissinger. Though we bought the home from the woman who had purchased it from the original owners, there were still some American eagle light switch plates that we removed when we painted the place before moving in.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Just the second sitting president whom I ever got to see in person, and the only one with whom I ever shared a meal, died this week. My first, early in the summer of 1964, had been LBJ, dedicating the federal building in San Francisco. I was taking some classes nearby & walked over on my lunch hour. Johnson was a tall man, something I had not fully appreciated from seeing him on television, and towered over his Secret Service agents. There were only a few hundred people there, and the only picket signs – there were maybe three – read Au H²O.

My one prior glimpse of reigning state authority had been to see – quite by accident – the motorcade of Nikita Khrushchev as it traveled through Santa Cruz on its way to Carmel or Pebble Beach. We were on the beach & might not even have noticed it had my grandfather not yelled for us to look. I was maybe 12 at the time, thoroughly a repository still for the anti-Communist propoganda that filled our school textbooks, and can recall feeling apprehensive that this man sworn to “our destruction” was somehow in one of those limos gliding past, plain as day.

But it was in September 1986 that I found myself at a Foreign Affairs Council luncheon in San Francisco for Corazon Aquino, then very newly installed as the president of the Philippines. Born into one of the wealthiest families in her nation & a lawyer by training, Aquino had run for the office after the assassination of her husband, Benigno, who had led the movement to oust the dictatorial incumbent, Ferdinand Marcos. She actually lost the election, albeit rather in the same manner as Mousavi recently lost in Iran. But the people – and civil institutions, such as the Catholic Church – had had quite enough of the blatantly corrupt Marcos family & forced him into exile, installing Aquino in his place.

In 1986, the idea of a female head of state was still quite a novelty. In the U.S. to assure President Reagan and Congress that theirs was not a revolution in the sense of Cuba, Aquino was the guest of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, another female who rose to executive power as the result of an assassination.¹ Aquino’s husband had been an exceptionally popular figure in the Bay Area Filipino community, and his assassination on the tarmac of the Manila airport, returning from exile to challenge Marcos, was treated by San Francisco media as though it were a major local story.

In many respects, Corazon Aquino in 1986 faced the same challenges Barack Obama does today. Each was the repository for the hopes of many people who felt marginalized by a predecessor who was openly contemptuous of law & morality. Each represented a demographic that previously had not exercised power. And each soon discovered exactly how little of their nation, indeed how little of their government, the president controlled. In Aquino’s case, her six-year tenure was repeatedly punctuated by attempts at coups from various factions of the military – and indeed there was a non-electoral change in the presidency there as recently as 2001.

But in 1986, Corazon Aquino embodied the aspirations of the Philippine people, of women, of people anywhere trapped by repressive regimes and reactionary social institutions. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize and named Time magazine’s woman-of-the-year. Her speech to the foreign affairs council was articulate, but general, and she got absolutely nothing but softball questions from an audience that just wanted to bask in the promise her administration offered.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that even the most thoughtful, well-positioned politician cannot succeed just on good intentions. There needs to be a massive social movement not only to ensure that success, but to demand it. And if I’ve seen anything in the first seven months of the Obama administration, it’s that there is no such movement in the U.S. Wall Street has been writing the rules for its own recovery, Afghanistan increasingly is looking like the latest embodiment of the word quagmire, and if the future of healthcare reform depends on the wisdom and good intentions of Max Baucus’ gang of six, we are all in serious trouble. Don’t even get me started on the civil rights of the gay community or the persistence of Bush-era legal tactics in the name of counter-terrorism.

But don’t get me wrong either: I would vote for Obama again in a second. Consider the alternatives. Yet everywhere I look, I see drift, entropy & compromise. And compromise from a position of weakness, because there is no larger movement demanding the changes we all talked about last fall. It’s not enough, say, for just the gay community to demand the same civil liberties enjoyed by everyone else. Or for the pacifist community to ask what we think we can accomplish in a land that never in its history has truly been a nation. Nor is it enough to have an administration filled with the brightest people & best intentions. Everywhere you look, you see the gravitational pull of corporate capital. It’s like having a planet the size of Jupiter at about the distance of the moon.

Unless and until the forces outside the beltway are more organized, more powerful, and more articulate than the enormous capital resources that are at work inside it, the Obama administration of 2009 is going to look one helluva lot like the Aquino one of 1986. And that is not a portrait with a promising future.


¹ Feinstein had been the president of the Board of Supervisors – what passes for a city council in San Francisco – when Dan White, another supervisor, shot & killed Mayor George Moscone & supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. She finished Moscone’s term and was then elected twice in her own right. In 1986, she was midway through her second full term.

Monday, August 03, 2009

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Is poetry written to be read? That seemingly no-brainer of a question was roiling my half-sleep in that shadowland the other morning between the first sounding of my alarm clock & the moment, 30 minutes later, when I actually dragged my poor self out of bed. The answer appears obvious & yet it’s not, at least not once you start to tease out the assumptions implicit in such a question. Perhaps even stranger, the answer may be changing even as I write.

Homer, to pick an author, even if it is one that we agree represents a construct at least as much as it does an individual, never “wrote” with the presumption of a book. The meaning of the word text in an oral culture is one of those problematic horizons that French theory loves to gaze upon without end. The much more recent poet of Beowulf was no different in this regard. Chaucer, not quite 700 years ago, seemed to envision the Tales as texts, something that might be read & passed on even after he is gone, but his conception of the book does not include moveable type, let alone mass production. Shakespeare’s utter disregard to the preservation of his plays makes clear just how marginal the concept of a book was to his own textual practice, tho it is arguable that this is less true in the case of The Sonnets.

I would suggest that the first English poets to really write with the book – and all the implications for distribution & consumption that the book entails – always already as part of the package, indeed the primary location for the life of the poem, are the likes of Wordsworth & Coleridge.¹ The distance between Lyrical Ballads and Walt Whitman’s self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass, complete with photo of the author, is less than 60 years. In another 60, you will find Ezra Pound contemplating The Cantos as a keystone to his imagined five-foot bookshelf containing the Great Works. For Pound, the first English-language poet to make use of the typewriter not just as a site for writing, but as a compositional element in the spatial construction of his works, the book is thoroughly a given. It’s unquestionable.

But what is the book with regards to poetry? Anyone who spends any time in used book shops will know that it’s hardly a static thing. The classic hardback form of the 1950s consisted of one longer poem or sequence surrounded by shorter lyrics of a page or two, a format codified in that decade by the Wesleyan series & mimiced by all the trade & university houses. It was the apotheosis of the School of Quietude’s presentation of verse & seldom exceeded 120 pages.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first “paperback original” to have a defining impact on the writing of its time. As revolutionary as that book was, Howl really didn’t stray all that far from the big poem-as-regent ringed by a court-of-lyrics mode. Robert Creeley’s For Love, which pointedly omitted The Big Text in a notably fatter collection, was in this sense a more radical production. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first true revolutionary impulse was to start a bookstore predicated on the primacy of the paperback. His second was to start a series of paperbacks that could be carried around in one’s back pocket. By the 1970s, the paperback was the principle mode for poetry, with the notable exception of that reactionary sliver of poetry presented by the New York trade publishers. For awhile, the SoQ was able to characterize its social dominance over an increasingly diverse writing scene by pretending that it was the poetry important enough to come out in hardback.

Today it is the hardback that is the afterthought, a calculation as to how many copies might be destined for libraries, and when a press like Wesleyan, perhaps the only press of the 1950s stalwarts to have evolved with the times, moves back to hardback originals, its authors groan over the retro & backward-looking implications of that shift. But the one thing that virtually every poet in the last century – with a handful of notable exceptions² – has agreed upon is that poems go in books. Even the concrete poets mid-century made works primarily for the page, a page that could be printed, bound & distributed. One of the more radical projects of the seventies was Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling, a magazine that was produced by inviting contributors to send pages that would be bound, etc. Tom Phillips created one of the more radical projects of the century, A Humament, by transforming a book. Ronald Johnson “wrote” another entirely by redacting lines from a particular edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.³ Louis Zukofsky began his career with “Poem beginning ‘The’,” a parody of T.S. Eliot right down to the footnotes, a textual element that places both LZ & TSE thoroughly within the terrain of the book.

Poets since Wordsworth & Blake have not focused on the role of the book itself simply because, for them, it was a given. The great theoretical move of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, after all, is its declaration for speech. And, indeed, one could track innovation in writing for the next two centuries by its evolving focus on the materiality of the signifier, whether it plays out as a surfeit of run-on mad spoken word, a la Ginsberg’s Howl – let alone “Wichita Vortex Sutra” actually composed via audiotape (a device learned from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody) – or the notational palimpsests of Olson’s Maximus. Language poetry could be read as a logical next step in that chess strategy, but notice already that James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, has gone everybody one better – he already imagines (and manifests) the book as unreadable.

One might think that the arrival of the printed book should have moved texts away from the idea of speech – and in some sense it did so, as spelling & grammar became standardized in the 1760s with nary a comment from anyone. Yet the declaration for speech in Lyrical Ballads also is a recognition that the printed book has become a democratic thing, and that books are no longer the shut-ins of a few institutional libraries controlled by popes & kings. Again, Whitman takes this idea quite a bit further. One can imagine him celebrating what poets in the 1960s used to call “the mimeograph revolution.”

But what now unites both conceptual writing & flarf – not to mention tendencies within the videopoem movement, aspects of vispo such as the use of Java flash & GIF technologies, & even the retro-to-the-metro spoken word dynamics of slam – is that each, to one degree or another, seems predicated on some glimpse of poetry after the book. After, that is, the age of mechanical reproduction.

Until recently it has been easy enough for the School of Q to simply act as if those alternative poetries just did not exist. Sound poetry was neo-dada Euro-nostalgic & otherwise Other & slam poets for the most part were notoriously ill-read, unschooled (or, worse, wrong schooled) & didn’t much look like your typical pledges from Greek Week in Cambridge or Amherst.

But as Official Verse Culture – to use Charles Bernstein’s term – has expanded in recent years to include the likes of Charles Bernstein & others like him, some (not all) of its institutions have shifted toward recognizing greater diversity than previously had been acknowledged. The journal Poetry pointedly has had features on vispo & on the conceptual-flarf alliance in the past year. Can a CD of slam champions or portfolios of haiku &/or cowboy poetries be that far behind? And if not, why not?

Each of these poetries has a different relation to the book. If it has been the traditional distillation & repository for the poetries of both the School of Quietude & the historical avant / post-avant traditions, this is not necessarily the case for any of these others. And one could take the hubris of Kenny Goldsmith & the Flarf Collective as indicators suggesting that the post-avant tradition may be opting out forthwith as well.

But even within an aesthetic we see some significant differences. Kenny Goldsmith’s books are icons of conceptuality, but are they written to be read? Not in any sense one might traditionally have associated with literature, although it is conceivable that somebody with an abiding interest in weather or in baseball might find the volumes devoted to those topics of interest, much in the way that a memoir by Jim Brosnan or Jose Canseco might be. In this sense, Goldsmith’s wry polemics on conceptualism give him something he’s not really had before as a poet: readers. As distinct from audience, or buyers.

But with Christian Bök, we find a very different sense of conceptualism. Anyone who has ever heard Bök read aloud cannot fail to recognize that his works are most fully captured & presented in performance. It’s no accident that Eunoia is also available in CD format, an unusual option for a small press, even one as well-appointed as Coach House Books. As the website for the CD states,

Now you can invite that jazzman into the comfort of your own home! Reading Eunoia to yourself was fun, sure, but now you can hear it as it was meant to be read - by the author himself! Listen as he wraps his mouth around page after page of the most convoluted tongue twister you've ever heard! You can even follow along in your copy of Eunoia as he trips the vowels fantastic!

Recorded in the studio by Torpor Vigilante and Coach House author Steve Venright, this CD features Bök reading Eunoia in its entirety - in his uniquely energetic, well enunciated dadaist style.

Bök’s books, however, are themselves fully realized projects & eminently readable & pleasurable in text format. It’s almost the perfect hybrid (to use that slightly toxic term) of a performative project in book form. Which is why it became the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history.

To date, most conceptual writing – at least if I judge it from the brief bibliography of “book-length examples” at the back of Fitterman & Place’s Notes on Conceptualism - tend to bunch around Bök’s end of the spectrum.

Flarf approaches the problem from the opposite end of the telescope, by fundamentally questioning – if not outright attacking – received concepts of The Literary. Here the spectrum seems to run between those works that make use of the Standard Flarf Toolkit (Web-based appropriation, Google-sculpting, the use of traditional [albeit often post-avant] exoskeletal structures as tho they were the purely plastic moulds proposed by New Formalism) to render a work that reads as if it were entirely literary – Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson would be a case in point – and works that seem predicated on the idea of disrupting the reading so as to push the reader away from the text – K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation might be an example. Some of Kasey Mohammad’s texts strike me as nearly as unreadable as the work of Kenny Goldsmith, albeit for different reasons.

Thus conceptualism, at least near its outer limits, seems to call into question the social functions of the book as fetish – something about which flarf has thus far been mute – while flarf brings into question what goes on within the page as such.

Like the sound poetries of the seventies, animated vispo & videopoetry operate outside of the book by focusing on features – sound & motion – that are excluded by the book & printed page. The implicit problem that these tendencies have thus far failed to solve in any consistent manner has been the formal definition of their own territory, as such, as distinct from the various other art forms that often influence & inform them. Much the same is true with the mounted (or sometimes projected) minimalist scrawls of Robert Grenier, which approach the status of mounted language that has become familiar through the works of Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer & Ed Ruscha. To fully challenge the literary swamp from which Grenier’s scrawls have emerged, they have to steer clear of being captured by the gravitational pull of The Art Scene, even if there are real financial reasons to wish this were not so.

So the role of the book, and of The Literary, are definitely up for grabs going forward, and not every kind of poetry has anything like the same kind of commitment to these institutions as we have inherited them. Not everyone is bemoaning the death of the bookstore, for example, or of the daily newspaper and traditional journalism. And I sometimes think that the emotional energy I see in various critiques of newer types of poetry has as much to do with despair over the potential historical fate of just such institutions as these, and with the implicit fate of the work of anyone committed to these older forms. Maybe that’s as it should be – one way to register the success of flarf or of conceptual poetics, just as was the case with langpo 30 years ago, is by the volume & pitch of the howls of outrage that accompany any expression of their success or their entry into the polite society of the SoQ page.

But those howls really are irrelevant. To the degree that we get bogged down in such backward-looking battles, we fail to look hard & long & dispassionately at what makes the new new, and what differentiates its various tendencies going forward. Those are the questions that, once we begin to see & understand them, will begin to tell us where poetry is today, as well as just where it’s heading.


¹ Both of whom likewise wrote theoretically, something I suspect is directly related. Blake likewise is quite conscious of the book, but, first, it’s not the sole locus for the poem or at least his poem, & Blake’s conception of book form differs materially from that of his peers.

² Such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, some European dadaists (plus the dada nostalgics of Fluxus), & the mostly Canadian sound poets of the seventies.

³ Milton’s own relation to the idea of the book is more complicated than I could attempt to sort through here.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

What I find most appalling about William Shatner’s presentation of Sarah Palin Verbatim is not the implicit satire of poetry that it is, but rather that it is so much better than the poetry, say, we find on Prairie Home Companion. The inchoate argle-bargle of Alaska’s former governor, simpy as found language, is more open-ended – and at times more evocative – than the very best “Good Poems” Lake Woebegon has to offer. Does it help that she comes from the state that puts the real in Surreal?