Saturday, October 17, 2009


The Most Interesting National Book Award
Finalists’ List Ever

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval (U. of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (UC Press)


Thanks to judges Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A. Van Jordan,
Cole Swensen
, & Kevin Young
for accomplishing the seemingly impossible:
nominating 5 excellent books


¹ This would be true also
if this were the list for the Pulitzer,
the National Book Critics’ Circle
or just about any other US-based prize


Friday, October 16, 2009


Today, 7:00pm

Living in Advance:
A Tribute to
David Bromige
with Charles Bernstein, Corina Copp, Rachel Levitsky,
Daniel Nohejl, Bob Perelman, Nick Piombino,
Ron Silliman, Gary Sullivan, Geoffrey Young & Others


Poets House | 10 River Terrace | New York, NY 10282
(212) 431-7920 |

Cosponsored by the Poetry Project

Admission Free

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Thursday, October 15, 2009


In episode 8, designers made new dresses
from the wedding gowns of recent divorcees.
This neo-punk creation by Gordana Gelhausen,
owner of the Goga boutiques in Charleston
& San Diego, won the challenge,
worn here by her divorcee.

In each of the five previous seasons of Project Runway, I have already known by episode nine which three designers should be in the “top three” and make it to Fashion Week in Bryant Park. In some instances, I’ve already known who I thought should win. I haven’t always been right – I’ve guessed wrong twice – but the most talented designers¹ haven’t always won either, and some of the most talented (e.g. Austin Scarlett in season one) haven’t even made it into the top three. The sixth season of PR, its first on Lifetime cable TV, has been a curious, not entirely satisfying affair. The reason isn’t the switch from Bravo or the move to Los Angeles (tho neither has helped), it’s just that the contestants this time don’t seem as strong as in previous seasons.

It’s not just personalities. We don’t have any infuriating badass contestants like Santino Rice or Wendy Pepper, but at the same time you can feel the lack of a brilliant designer a la Vosovic or Christian Soriano, who was crowned the pint-sized champion of season four after winning three of the individual weeks’ competitions. His all purpose adjective Fierce became nearly as much a byword of the show as Tim Gunn’s Make it work. And his ego could have humbled the likes of a Santino Rice.

And it’s not that there isn’t, or won’t be, a “top three,” that’s just grading on a curve. Rather, it’s that the top three this year won’t be nearly as strong as in previous seasons. If I had to guess today (and that’s why I’m writing this), I would project an all-female finals consisting of Althea Harper, Carol Hannah Whitfield & – most likely to win – Irina Shabayeva. If a man gets into the finals, it would have to be the wildly inconsistent Nicolas Putvinski.

In years past, PR has always shown a fourth (and in at least one case a fifth) collection at Bryant Park since they don’t want to telegraph ahead of time just who has been eliminated in the episode that airs after the event but before the PR showing of it. But this year the legal wrangling between Bravo & Lifetime over who owned which rights to Heidi Klum’s apotheosis of the reality contest form delayed the airing of this season by nearly a year. Did these designers conclude this thing last fall, last spring, or just in the most recent Fashion Week? I’m certain that the gap must be coming as quite a dislocating phenomenon in their lives right now given the degree to which to Project Runway propels the careers of its contestants.

Runway’s secret has always been that it’s the one true reality contest that focuses on the creativity of creative people, and that in fashion at least (as distinct, say, from shows like Top Chef), you can see the result without having to actually taste or wear it. While the show hasn’t been adverse to some reality TV clichés, such as the presence of a villain (Pepper, Rice, and season three winner Jeffrey Sebelia), it’s also generally discovered that it didn’t need them either.

Two or three things have been different this year, however. One is that the move to Los Angeles (to make life easier for executive producer as well as host Heidi Klum) has limited the presence of two of the judges, the ever dour Michael Kors & Nina Garcia. Their replacements have generally lacked the predictability (and the absolute skepticism) of Kors & Garcia. The second is that the show has, at least in the early weeks, almost consciously not eliminated the very worst designer. Mitchell Hall had to make the worst design three straight weeks to finally get the heave-ho, while first eliminated Ari Fish was simply a delightful eccentric not especially concerned with the demands of the market. She had a shot of being this season’s Jay McCarroll, the first season’s winner, equally disinterested in the marketing side of design & someone who never once won an individual week’s challenge before taking the entire shebang. When Ra’mone Lawrence Coleman was eliminated three weeks ago, the show lost its strongest male designer.

The last has been the addition of a follow-on 30-minute show, Models of the Runway, that focuses on the models paired with PR’s designers. As the winning designer stands to take $100,000 and several plums to jump start their career (none of which seem equal to the impact of being on Runway itself), the model paired with the winner goes away with $25,000 and a spread in Marie Clare. While it’s interesting to see the model’s insights into the designers, the show is a serious deflation from the headiness of Runway in that it’s not about creative people being creative and most of your stereotypes about models seem borne out here. Plus, if you have any complaints about the elimination of designers in the PR process, it’s nothing compared to the arbitrariness of what befalls the models. This season in some ways has been worse for them, since Runway has increased the number of times designers have to switch models just to add to the suspense for this new show. There is virtually no way for a model to determine which designer she is going to end up with, so that winning this contest amounts to little more than the luck of the draw. The model eliminated last week, Tara Egan, was actually paired with the week’s winning designer but got caught in a communications snafu between designers. It doesn’t appear to have hurt her career one bit.


¹ Daniel Vosovic, season two, or Mychael Knight, season three. Prior to the start of this season, PR had an “all star” contest composed of previous contestants that Vosovic easily won, which seemed one way of acknowledging his role as perhaps the finest designer to emerge from the entire five-season Bravo run.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Kathryn Petersen & David Strathairn

Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (in Edward Kemp’s translation) is an interesting, even curious choice for People’s Light Theater Company (PLTC) just west of us in Malvern, PA, literally down the road from the strip mall where I get my haircuts. Nathan, which completed its run on October 11, was the premier production of PLTC’s 35th season & artistic director Abigail Adams pulled out all the stops. She called in every imaginable chit to get David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck; the last two Bourne flicks; several John Sayles films) for the title role, plus Brian Anthony Wilson (detective Vernon Holley on The Wire), OBIE-winner Roslyn Ruff & Saige Thompson (ER, CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Grey’s Anatomy) to augment the usual cast of PLTC actors & other veterans of the local stage. Adams herself directed the play, which was easily the most well-acted, thoroughly accomplished production we’ve seen at People’s Light since Tom Marshall, my family & I first saw Lee Breuer’s production of Gospel at Colonus in 1995 (the capstone to the troupe’s 20th season). All of these actors have a history with PLTC – Thompson got her start here at the age of 6 & is still young enough to get away with playing the teenaged Rachel in this production.

Lessing was one of the founders of German drama, penning Nathan a year before his death in 1780. An early advocate of Shakespeare, Lessing borrows several of the bard’s basic tools – most notably a couple of people are not who they seem & the key test in the narrative, Nathan’s parable of the ring, is something Lessing has borrowed from Boccaccio  – and the play itself hovers in an indeterminate space, part comedy, part romance, close to tragedy & clearly an act of political theater, almost agitprop. Jews turn out to be Christians turn out to Muslims & everybody ultimately is family, even as family itself is recast more broadly. The only true villain in the entire piece is the Christian patriarch, which goes some way toward explaining why the play was banned when Lessing (who turned to drama when his critical & philosophic writing ran afoul of the church) first wrote it.

Kemp’s translation was done originally for a 2003 production that performed in modern dress, which partly explains the contemporary tone (Ruff in particular shows superb comic timing with her sarcasm). In the program notes, dramaturg Graham Graves concedes that the Kemp translation “gives a very modern feel to the play, and moves more swiftly than the lengthy original.” A telling change – Recha, the daughter, is now Rachel, a name familiar to our ears. Combined with the less stagey portrayals given by so many of the film-focused cast (Wilson is the notable exception here, along with PLTC veteran Stephen Novelli, who portrays the sultan Saladin), it makes for an odd concoction of a play: medieval setting, enlightenment values, neo-Shakespearen plot & story devices & present-day speech. Nathan the Wise is quite a bit more than just Shakespeare without the language, tho I suspect that may be a strong part of its current appeal.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I’ve always suspected that Devin Johnston must be one of those poets whom readers either love or hate. He has a very distinct personality & is quite clear about his goals in writing. Either you buy it or you don’t. Somehow, though, I always find myself in the middle, never fully certain just how much I love his work or feel frustrated by it. This I think might be because you can read Johnston in a couple of different ways. In one reading, he follows a heritage of great precision in avant & post-avant writing, one that looks to Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, John Taggart, Frank Samperi, Jonathan Greene, Lorine Niedecker, Gustav Sobin, George Oppen & Ronald Johnson. In the other, he’s something of a maverick Quietist & the names that come to mind might include Wendell Berry, Kay Ryan, Jean Valentine, Thom Gunn or Charles Tomlinson. Both lists, you will note, are made up of excellent writers, but the number of ways in which one tradition joins to the other (Tomlinson’s work on Williams, Greene’s interest in Berry) are sufficiently few that you can point them out one at a time.

What both groups have in common is a commitment to the idea that craft is at the heart of the poem. If your pleasure is the astonishingly well-wrought urn, these are the poets to whom you are apt to turn. I can open Sources, Johnston’s most recent book, almost anywhere and find an example:

The Greeks

Ladder and source,
we find no ease

never quite
at home at home.

No, never, not
darken the page

in a childish script.
Winter has come.

Ladders lean
against the sky,

sources whistle
past our lips.

Pacing rugs
or battered roads

we wait for what
we know we know.

There is not a hair (nor a pixel) out of place in this poem. If anything, there are a number of grace notes (the alliteration in the 5th, 9th & 15th lines for example, or the echo of reiteration from the third line with the last) that elevate our reading experience. The poem is both sufficiently specific for us to know what Johnston is saying & sufficiently evocative for any number of envisionments to come into play around terms like ladders & sources.

Yet the poem – it’s the very last one in this slim, well-constructed book, the source for the volume’s title – captures precisely what I find disquieting about Johnston’s writing: a compulsion for stillness. This is a poem, indeed this is a book, in which no one shouts, ever. What is the action here? Waiting.

What seems to me so amazing is that Johnston appears to be complaining about this, calling it to our attention. If I look back to those lists of antecedents to his writing (“what we know we know”), Williams & Zukofsky are the two with a much greater overall range – this comes perilously close to LZ’s “lower limit” of speech – tho Creeley can in places get to song, to playful wisdom, even in the constrained spaces of his miniatures. Play, the ludic, is not a term I would use to characterize Johnston & indeed his suffix for child is -ish not -like, with all the attendant value judgments that implies. If there is a music to these poems, and there is, what it calls to mind might be the harpsichord, the cello, the harp. Yet the folk-rock (or maybe anti-folk) harp of a Joanna Newsom would seem grating & jarring here, let alone the reverb feedback of a Jimi Hendrix guitar. Or a turntable. This is a poetics for a world in which hiphop – that 30-year-old phenomenon – isn’t even imaginable. No strolling over to the Gem Spa just to buy a Coke & be fabulous.

So I find myself torn. On the one hand, here is a deftness with image & the line second to no one. Devin Johnston can be breathtaking when he wants. On the other, I have this ontological problem: where is the world I know? And what does it mean that Johnston understands this problem, seems completely to get it? That is the part of this book I find totally spooky.


Monday, October 12, 2009


Robert Kelly
talks to Phong Bui,
David Levi Strauss & John Yau

An even longer interview
from The Modern Review


Read more »

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Sunday, October 11, 2009


Friday, October 16, 7:00pm

Living in Advance:
A Tribute to
David Bromige
with Charles Bernstein, Corina Copp, Rachel Levitsky,
Daniel Nohejl, Bob Perelman, Nick Piombino,
Ron Silliman, Gary Sullivan, Geoffrey Young & Others


Poets House | 10 River Terrace | New York, NY 10282
(212) 431-7920 |

Cosponsored by the Poetry Project

Admission Free

Labels: , ,

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