Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Alan DeNiro pointed out the FoE! (Friends of Eggers) Log, which (formerly) tracked the varied doings of "the Dave" and his friends.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Kasey, it's not too late--TMBG are allegedly doing at least two more shows at the Great American Music Hall. And no Dave Eggers to spoil the fun.
Jack Kimball has accused me of "fooling online" with Eileen! I'm shocked.
Sunday's epic battle: McSweeney's vs. They Might Be Giants at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.

The show is basically an in-the-flesh version of McSweeney's #6, which comes complete with a CD soundtrack from TMBG, each track assigned to a selection in the magazine by an elaborate chart in the front. Apparently McSweeney's diabolical mastermind Dave Eggers approached TMBG and asked them to set the magazine to music, which challenge they promptly accepted.

I've been a TMBG fan since "Ana Ng" was in heavy rotation at my high school's low-power radio station, and it was mostly their presence that made me shell out for the hefty McSweeney's issue and the Stanford show. But it was my first major foray into the Eggers empire, which I've tacked around (I have that heartbreaking work of swaggering genius around somewhere) with some mixture of bemusement and jealous awe.

MemAud, which I'm guessing holds on the order of a thousand people, was packed with a funny mixture of the usual respectable Palo Alto community members who attend Lively Arts events and T-shirt-and-short-clad students and TMBG fans. The stage was set up for something between a rock concert and a jazz set; our seats were in the front row, about 15 feet from a massive wall of speakers.

The first half was something like a variety show, with readings and patter interspersed with music. John Flansburgh (the big, gregarious Giant) served as corny MC ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. DAVE EGGERS!"), while John Linnell (the skinny, quiet, accordion-playing one) sat on a stool and smiled cherubically. Readers included funny-voiced commentator Sarah Vowell (musings on American history and Salem, along with a song whose chorus went "Gallows Hill and Andersonville / It could be worse / It could be worse"), Don Novello (aka SNL's Father Guido Sarducci, reading weird letters he's written to NASA and Saddam Hussein), novelist Zadie Smith, and of course Eggers himself.

Smith was by far the best reader (the British accent doesn't hurt). Eggers had asked her to write a piece called "The Girl with Bangs," which she said she first thought meant "the girl with controlled explosions" (the British term is "fringe"). The story's equal parts funny, nasty, and sweet, with odd recurring imagery (the girl in question being compared several times to a bundle rescued from a fire), and a couple of times the band chimed in with accompaniment (though Smith, to her credit, just read on blithely).

Then there was the man himself. I haven't made it all the way through any of Eggers's books (I'm working on his new one), but I get the increasing suspicion that he's more clever than deeply interesting. (I seem to recall reading a reviewer noting that while his work had all these formal bells and whistles on the surface, his narratives and characters were utterly conventional--that seems right to me.) His performance confirmed that; indeed, the story he read seemed to me to perfectly capture his sensibility, being told as it was from the perspective of a libidinous thirteen-year-old boy. The piece was self-conscious and clever and pop-culture-savvy (probably the best part was when the protagonist--for whatever reason, it's written in the second person--describes listening to a Smiths song over and over on his Walkman, and the band then chimed in to illustrate, with Flansburgh doing an absolutely dreadful Morrissey imitation), but its basic plot elements were voyeurism and (I'm not kidding) pooping your pants and the frequent punch line "you hope she'll touch your crotch" read in an increasingly sneering tone. The clever surface can't hide the fact that the sentiment is ridiculously crude--Eggers made Father Guido look like a model of sophistication.

And yet I can't help but admire Eggers's obvious abilities as an impresario. I mean, he got a great rock band to back up and a thousand people to turn out for what was essentially a litmag reading. McSweeney's has become a phenomenon as much for its weirdo, whiz-bang, retro but obviously expensive aesthetic and packaging as for its content, and Eggers has emerged as a poster boy for small-press publishing and independent bookstores (witness the gesture of only selling his new novel in independents). In this sense, McSweeney's has positioned itself in the literary marketplace for fiction in much the same way Fence has for poetry--as the outward-oriented, accommodating, PR-savvy face of experimental writing, eager for a wide audience and flagship status. And they've succeeded quite remarkably at this. I'm not sure whether I should be sad or glad that McSweeney's contains almost no poetry.

The second half of the show was, thankfully, all concert. I've probably seen TMBG upwards of ten times over the years, and I always have a blast at their shows. I got to thinking about whether TMBG's aesthetic was a fit with McSweeney's. Both have a taste for the quirky (or, in Moe Szyslak's immortal definition of postmodernism, "weird for the sake of weird"), though TMBG tends more towards the 1950s kitschy vs. McSweeney's 18th-century-style excess and wistful nostalgia. You might say TMBG is childish and amateurish, in the best sense of both those words; they've never been particularly stellar musicians (and are pretty bad singers) but they're always so obviously having fun up there, infectiously so, and their songs are about cartoon characters and science class. McSweeney's--at least in its Eggers face--is more, well, adolescent, flexing in the mirror, its ambitions and desires growing faster than its muscles.

Monday, April 28, 2003

I think Eileen is making fun of me, although I'm not sure. My little bit the other day about my own adventures in Asian American poetry. Hum. Well, I had been sort of hoping nobody would probe too closely into said unnamed Asian American publication, knowing, of course, that Eileen was an editor emerita--but she called me out.

I like the idea that maybe the interns reversed the accept and reject piles, leading to an "all-reject" issue which (perhaps?) included my poem. In my little anecdote, in a way it would have been better to be rejected than accepted, since it would have proved (I suppose) that my parody was noticeably off or even offensive. But it would have been a bit more ego-bruising, I suppose. And it wouldn't have made me rethink what I was doing in quite the same way.

So being "accepted" (even if "accepted"="rejected") made me more self-critical than if I had been "rejected." And I also realize that my attempt to narrate my own process of coming to the idea of Asian American writing might have come off a little too arch--the issues are a lot more complicated than I realized then, and I'm especially grateful for Eileen's tireless work as poet and editor. Cheers.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

The SPD open house yesterday was like a physical analogue of blogland. When I walked into the warehouse--a big cavernous room with rows of 20-foot-high metal shelving stacked high with books--I immediately saw Stephanie standing in the central aisle, arms full of books. As I stood there talking to her people kept materializing out of the stacks and Stephanie would introduce us, at which point another person would appear and the first person would fade away into the next row. I met James Meetze this way and also Catherine Meng, who was already halfway around a corner as Stephanie was frantically introducing us. Nobody knew anybody else but everybody knew Stephanie, so we'd all just get briefly caught in her orbit with a few other folks and then go flying off. It's just like when I said that all my links are a subset of Stephanie's. And I didn't run into Kasey until I was already in line to pay.

As Stephanie said, it was actually much less weird to meet bloggers I'd never met before than to see bloggers I already knew before I started reading their blogs. This was the first time I'd seen Stephanie or Kasey since I started blogging, and there was a slight awkwardness about it, as if we'd gotten so accustomed to talking in this mediated and indirect way that we felt we had to rush back to our computers to talk. Or perhaps it's because usually when you see someone after not having seen them for a while there's a whole "hey, what have you been up to" period that allows you to get readjusted to each other. Problem is, if someone blogs you to some degree *know* what they've been up to and there's a sense (I felt it, anyway) that you needed to have something to say about everything that had transpired via blog over the past several weeks.

Anyhow. Since everyone else seems to be cataloging their hauls, here's mine, all, since I'm cheap, pretty much from the "damaged" shelf:

Anselm Berrigan, Zero Star Hotel
One Score More: The Second 20 Years of Burning Deck
Cathy Park Hong, Translating Mo'um
Robert Creeley, Collected Prose
Jackson Mac Low, Representative Works (very excited--been looking for this one for years)
Steve McCaffery, North of Intention

Two books by the Davies twins:
Kevin Davies, Comp.
Alan Davies, Signage

and: a pristine and undamaged copy of David Hess's Cage Dances. Guess we all love you, David--we paid (almost) full price!
Stephanie--I'm sure there is a real person blogging for the dolls (although I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out it was generated by some kind of auto-blog software--although if we adhere to the principle "blogito ergo sum" then maybe that's a person too). Actually, I'd be comforted if either there was a different person blogging for each doll or if a single person blogged for all the dolls--like a puppet show, as you said, which would be kind of clever rather than gross. What I'm guessing is really the case, though, is that there's probably a group of marketing interns or something whose job is to generate text for the blogs--maybe by committee and all at once, so that it's then released piecemeal (like we accused Ron Silliman of doing way back when). So while I'd like to think that there's actually a human "author" back in there somewhere, I imagine that if you pull back this particular curtain there's really nothing there.
So Robin's watching TV this afternoon and sees a commercial for a new line of dolls, which she later characterizes to me as "Teen Slut Barbie." We do some investigating and find that the dolls are part of a new Barbie spinoff called My Scene. It seems to be a kind of toned-down "Sex and the City" theme--the dolls seem to represent super-trendy young twentysomething women living in New York. In fact, it didn't take us too long to figure out that the dolls themselves were named after New York geography--Barbie's friends include Chelsea, Madison, Bryant, and Hudson. (It took us a little longer to figure out "Nolee"--short for Nolita, I guess?)

The My Scene website is intent on giving whole lives to the characters, featuring little "webisodes" with cartoon versions of the dolls. Each doll even has a personal home page with personal details--you can open up Madison's purse or Barbie's PDA. But you know what the ultimate mark of these characters' trendiness is? That's right--


I kid you not. Here's an example from Chelsea's blog:

"4/22/2003  Love Is in the Air
Had a dream last night – River was a really famous rock star, and I was his girlfriend. After yoga class, I told Nolee about my dream, and she kidded me about it all the way home. I had to give it right back to her about Bryant and how much he looooves her. We could have gotten mad at each other, but we just cracked up instead!"

Or Madison:

"4/19/2003  Boys Will Be Boys
All of us went to the opening of Blue Suede tonight – a hot and happening restaurant. It's totally glammed out on the inside, and the food was pretty fab, too. Of course, the guys kept staring at all the girls in the place. They were sooo obvious. Too funny."

Robin and I couldn't stop laughing--but now I can't decide if it's totally hysterical or profoundly creepy. Probably both. Don't be surprised if Barbie and Chelsea show up in my links bar soon.

[Super-creepy P.S.: Just after I posted this I linked back to Chelsea's blog to find that a new entry had just been posted:

"4/27/2003  Bikin' in the Park
I took the best bike ride in Cental Park today. Everyone was out – friends hanging, little kids playing, little league teams practicing… I just love spring in NY!"

Now since this is dated today (Sunday), I have to imagine that it was posted automatically with the idea that no little girl is going to be up in the middle of the night to read it. But of course, I am reading it, so now I have this picture of this doll biking around Central Park in the middle of the night. Maybe the weirdest thing, though, is the spelling mistake--"Cental" for "Central." It's hardly unusual to see a spelling mistake on someone's blog. But this is NOT A REAL PERSON. Which makes me wonder--was the error *inserted* to make the blog seem more realistic? Yikes...]

Friday, April 25, 2003

A study in blog ecology (all times local to the poster):

Saturday 4/19 11:19 a.m.: Anastasios Kozaitis posts message titled "THE LATEST THEORY IS THAT THEORY DOESN'T MATTER" on Buffalo Poetics list. Numerous posts follow.

Saturday 3:09 p.m.: Nick LoLordo posts on the issue to the Poetics list.

Sunday evening 4/20: Since I get the Poetics list in digest form, I don't read the message until now, having the benefit of dozens of posts in both Saturday's and Sunday's digests.

Monday 4/21 1:01 a.m.: I post my own response on my blog, citing, among other things, LoLordo's post to the Poetics list.

Monday 5:06 p.m.: Stephanie posts: "Well, thanks to Tim, I no longer need to read the Poetics list! His succint and super-articulate rundown of the latest debate is just the thing for those of us who either delete the digest or surf the archives. "

Monday 7:19 p.m.: John Erhardt posts: "Am amazed by Tim's ability to put out fires, or at least say 'hey, this isn't really a fire -- someone's just flicking the light switch.'"

Tuesday morning 4/22: Ron Silliman posts his own response on his blog, apparently responding directly to the Poetics list, three days after the initial post. (He doesn't refer to my post.)

Tuesday 10:41 a.m.: John Erhardt posts: "If you haven’t already, check out Silliman’s piece this morning. While some of it is vintage Silliman (i.e., “langpo” trumps all!) he does raise a few nice points."

Tuesday 8:39 p.m.: Adam Novy emails me with comments on my post from Monday. (He doesn't mention Silliman's post.)

Tuesday 10:26 p.m.: I email Adam, responding to his comments and asking if I can post our exchange on my blog; he agrees.

Wednesday 4/23: On the Poetics list, the debate is still going on, but the dominant subject line is shifting from "Re: THE LATEST THEORY IS THAT THEORY DOESN'T MATTER" to "Re: THE END OF THEORY AND THE BEGINNING OF SCIENCE."

Thursday 4/24 3:07 p.m.: I post my exchange with Adam Novy.

Friday morning 4/25: Ron Silliman also posts an email he's received--from Nick LoLordo, who I cited in my original post. Still no references to my posts.


Believe it or not, I didn't do this so I could act aggrieved that Silliman didn't read me. Well, maybe it started that way. But I actually became much more interested in mapping lines of reading and response, both between bloggers and in the interaction between the blogs and the Poetics list (no one on the list made reference, so far as I noticed, to any blog). John Erhardt was the only point of mutual connection, at least as far as explicit mentions go. So parallel conversations could have been going on with no awareness of each other.

Maybe I'll turn this into a paper for Jim's blog conference. I'll call it: "The Latest Blog Is That Blogging Doesn't Matter."
"K. Silem Mohammad floats like a Butterball and sings like a bee."

He said it, I didn't--though I wish I had!

Also love his reading of a Milton sonnet on the site--you know, it would be cool to see other bloggers taking on some poems that aren't contemporary like that. Seeing Milton in this context really made me aware of how complex and worked Milton's syntax is, in a way that shouldn't be too unfamiliar to the contemporary reader...Hey Kasey, can I steal that when I have to teach Intro to English Lit?
Sandra has jumped on the Chinese poetry translation/imitation/satire/parody bandwagon. Welcome!
Joseph Duemer has posted the text of the "SUV poem" that got Stephanie so steamed when she read an article about it in the Oregonian. While I appreciate Duemer's attempt to actually subject the poem to a (at least semi-)serious analysis, I honestly think the most important touchstone here isn't Marianne Moore or even spirituals but our great American poet laureate, Dr. Seuss:

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

And the SUV poem's author, Patrick O'Leary, not only exists but has a website, on which we learn that he actually has an entire collection of poems, as well as a new science fiction novel "ABOUT ALIEN INVASION, RESURRECTION AND BROTHERLY LOVE."

That science fiction thing makes me wonder if the poem is really more allusive than it might appear. The poem's climactic sentiment--

And wherever you're going
that's wherever you are

--bears an uncanny resemblance to the adage "Wherever you go, there you are," widely attributed to Buckaroo Banzai.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Adam Novy, a Chicago fiction writer, wrote to me a couple days ago with some good observations about the whole "theory doesn't matter" dust-up:

"All of us seem to struggle with this theory business, and how poetry (or fiction, which is what I write) "influenced" by "theory" (which probably includes Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Julia Kristeva, maybe Blanchot, I must be skipping some, like maybe Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard) can have failed to "change the world," given the supposedly irresistible force that "theory" is said to possess. "Why," they say, (whoever "they" is) "if your Derrida guy is so incredibly smart, has poetry written under his influence failed to right all social wrongs?" What I want to know is, since when has literature's failure to save the world meant that literature has failed to do its job? When did it become our job to save the world?

I think we misconstrue who and how literature serves if we expect it to lead to revolutions. We read poems as individuals, and we read them to enrich our lives in subtle, indescribable ways. For me, and I am pro-theory, though I also hope our generation junks this distinction between "pro-theory" and "anti-theory," since it only engenders fights; for me, literature is a destroyer of superstitions, and therefore of systems, or at least it should make us skeptical of systems. These conferences where famous people make declarations about "whether theory has done any good" seem like a waste of time to me. Can't they just talk about The Tempest or Defenestration of Prague? I always feel so unqualified to discuss big political issues, and so excited to talk about actual literature."

My response:

"I guess to me, as a grad student now, the days of the theory wars seem pretty remote--in short, I think you may be right that the pro/anti theory positions have been pretty junked. I mean, how can you really be anti-theory when movies are coming out called "Deconstructing Harry" and "Identity"? It doesn't really seem to me that you could have a "theory-free" literature classroom these days, or that that would be desirable. (I suppose you could do close readings all day long, but the whole idea of "close reading" may itself be the first modern example of theory.) And it would be as silly to imagine that young writers would be untouched by Derrida or Foucault as to imagine the literature of the 1950s without Freud.

The whole issue of theory and politics is another can of worms--theory has become the way in which we gain political leverage for the apparently esoteric and aesthetic study of literature. So if people question the relevance of theory to the "real world" of politics, it's really theorists' own damn fault for claiming that theory is the thing that's going to make literary study political.

When I think about my own scholarly work, though, I realize that I use theory in precisely this way all the time. Or rather--I use theory to give literary texts political readings or political significance. I tend to lean pretty heavily on Adorno in reading lyric poetry, for example. But recently I've been trying to study the very idea that literature is political--to historicize that idea, at least for the contemporary period--by looking at different kinds of contemporary poetry that have claimed political value (or that have had such value claimed for them by readers). And when I say a "political" reading I don't mean to say that doing *any* kind of literary reading is going to spark revolution. "Political" for me is about a certain kind of significance, a way for me to understand why a particular text seems important and alive when another doesn't, which has to do with my understanding of how such texts relate to dominant literary and cultural institutions."
Gary Sullivan has thoughtfully posted "70 Lines from the Chinese," the poem that caused the back-and-forth between me and David. I'm glad he did--I was beginning to feel pretty strange having this whole debate about a review of a poem I'd never read...

I actually got a kick out of reading the poem--it does strike me as pretty funnily melodramatic in ways that signal it as parody:

Feeding the crumbling years, I
Sit on the grass & start a poem.
It'd be better for me if I took a
Sword and cut open my bowels.

It's recognizably in the style of what we've come to know as translations of Chinese poetry, but filtered through some self-indulgent melancholic; some of the repetitions and goofy details and line breaks ("Tears of loneli-/Ness rattle on the banana trees") signal the parody, the pastiche. (I'm thinking of Kenneth Koch's parody of Williams: "We laughed at the hollyhocks together / and then I sprayed them with lye. / Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.")

But I think the reason that readers haven't, in Sullivan's experience, "gotten" the joke is that the tone doesn't remain stable. The final stanza, to my ear, moves to a different realm entirely; "sticky pudding" is grotesque but not necessarily jarring in its sentiment, and the final image--which is quite lovely--has precisely the quietness and modesty that David identified as part of the poem's "Asian" tone:

No wind blows. My heart is not
Beating: it is useless. My skin
Is like sticky pudding, my bones
Yellow powder. My spirit hangs
On its little rack: there is no
Place it wants to go. Alone,
Nothing can make it disappear.

I suspect what happened to Sullivan was something similar to what happens to many parodists: you start off fully intending a joke, only to find that you've taken it seriously without knowing it.

A few years back, just after I graduated from college, I picked up a copy of an Asian American literary journal. It was one of my first encounters with Asian American writing, and after reading it, and browsing through an anthology of Asian American poetry, I started to have a weird feeling of repetition. In retrospect this seems pretty snotty of me, but I came up with what seemed to be a few dominant categories of poems I was seeing:

--the grandparents poem
--the family photograph poem
--the exotic food poem
--the erotic poem, usually employing imagery from the exotic food poem

Once I'd done this, I started wondering what it would be like to *deliberately* set out to write an "Asian American" poem, since I felt I didn't have any natural sense of what that should be. So I composed a series of poems facetiously titled "Asian American Poem #1," "Asian American Poem #2," etc. making sure to write one poem in each category. Here was my product for the "grandparent" poem:

Asian American Poem #3

When I was ten, my grandfather
was dead of cigarettes and America.
After the funeral, my mother took me
to Chinatown for thousand-year eggs,
their darkness the purple of the past or the grave.
Later I learned that the eggs are dyed
with chemicals and that I
am a liar. The cultivation of memory
diggs furrows for new seeds; my grandfather
was not a farmer and during the funeral
I was in school reading of a pink cow
whose friends were squirrels. My grandfather
always told me the same story, of his
other grandson in China, nameless, who seemed
to do very little. I didn’t believe him
but listened anyway, needing to sleep. The other boy
was me, was nobody, was an egg
dyed pink and purple, was a lulling lie.

I fully intended this poem to be a parody of the genre, and hence filled it with "lies" (e.g. my grandfather died when I was six, not ten) and with melodramatic ("dead of cigarettes and America") and goofy ("pink cow") images. Finally, in what I thought of as adding insult to injury, I sent the poem off to the Asian American magazine in question--which promptly accepted it.

Now I was confused. Had they missed the joke or gotten it? When I looked back over the poem, I realized I was no longer sure what the poem was doing; the biographical information was really only slightly distorted, and the poem's conclusion certainly had a tone of seriousness and even, dare I say, sincerity, despite its arch message. Ultimately, I think, I outsmarted myself; telling myself that I was writing a parody was the only way I could write a poem that turned out to be pretty damn expressive.

But the question remains: what did I do to the stereotypes I had ostensibly set out to mock and undermine? Did I simply reinforce them, or did I successfully critique them? I'd like to think that the discourse of "lying" that gets set up in the poem produces a critical space in the poem, where a reader might back away from the sentiments expressed there even at the moment that those setiments are being experienced. But in the final analysis I'm not sure I did enough to produce that space; it's probably too easy for a reader ignorant of my intentions to take it "straight." You might argue that that's even more destabilizing than an obvious parody. But such a position can be dangerous when you're trying to critique a stereotype that can have such destructive implications--in this case, a racial stereotype.

I've mentioned John Yau a few times in my posts (I also wrote a review of his latest book, Borrowed Love Poems, for Free Verse), and I think some of his poems provide a good coda to this discussion. Around the same time I was writing these "Asian American" poems, I read my first poem of Yau's, "Chinese Villanelle":

I have been with you, and I have thought of you
Once the air was dry and drenched with light
I was like a lute filling the room with description

We watched glum clouds reject their shape
We dawdled near a fountain, and listened
I have been with you, and I have thought of you

Like a river worthy of its gown
And like a mountain worthy of its insolence...
Why am I like a lute left with only description

How does one cut an axe handle with an axe
What shall I do to tell you all my thoughts
When I have been with you, and thought of you

A pelican sits on a dam, while a duck
Folds its wings again; the song does not melt
I remember you looking at me without description

Perhaps a king's business is never finished
Though "perhaps" implies a different beginning
I have been with you, and I have thought of you
Now I am a lute filled with this wandering description

That stereotypical, recognizable "Chinese" tone is in play again, even labelled as such. Or is it? You've got a poem called "Chinese" but written in an esoteric European form. It has koan-like riddles ("How does one cut an axe handle with an axe"), but how seriously do we take them? It features the lute, both an Eastern and Western instrument; and it thematizes description, which is precisely (in the Poundian dogma) what Chinese poetry isn't supposed to do. I don't think it can fairly be called a satire or a parody; it's some weird hybrid that allows you the pleasure of a "Chinese" style while constantly nudging you back to something more unsettled.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

From a transcript of Santorum's interview with the Associated Press:

SANTORUM: Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality -

AP: I'm sorry, I didn't think I was going to talk about "man on dog" with a United States senator, it's sort of freaking me out.
First we had Trent Lott, then Howard Coble. Now we have Rick Santorum.

I guess the Republicans really do believe in equal opportunity.
It seems silence might have been more troubling than overblown emotions--David wrote me hoping I would clarify. So, donning my scholar's robes, I will proceed to an explication of silence...

My initial objection was to a line in the review of Gary Sullivan's "How to Proceed in the Arts" that David posted on Monday. In his remarks on the section "70 Lines from the Chinese," David wrote: "The more quiet, modest modes of Asian poetry appeal as an alternative to our overblown emotions." My immediate response was that this assertion perpetuates a common stereotype of Asian reserve, modesty, and deference, one that while seemingly innocent enough, can have repressive implications, suggesting that the East is less capable of speaking for itself than the West. (I think in this regard of an anecdote Frank Chin tells about an American film in which Chinese laborers were portrayed in a conflict with railroad bosses. When the extras began advancing menacingly on the bosses with their pickaxes, the director stopped them, telling them that this was not believable; instead, they should lay down their tools and stand politely with their hands at their sides.) I should say that this reaction is not a literary judgment based on my familiarity with Chinese poetry, of which I know very little; rather, it was a reaction against an orientalist stereotype that has real implications for how Asians are perceived in America.

I initially chose silence because I really wasn't interested in bashing David for his statement, only in drawing attention to it, and in showing how such ideas can sneak in when we least expect them--as one line in a long and intelligent review. It's much the same feeling I had the other day in my response to Ron Silliman's post last Wednesday on Asian American poetry. I have no interest in being the Asian American thought police, and I think the worst possible result of such critiques would be if people feel that they can't talk about such issues at all without being called out. But I also realize that I'm conscious of these things in a way that others (however well-intentioned) might not be. I actually thought David was quite astute to question whether the "lines from the Chinese" were translation or parody--something a poet like John Yau also plays with.

I appreciate David posting his own response to the matter today, raising the question of whether he's "perpetuating this stereotype or merely making reference to it." A good question--and I do think there is a difference, and ways to mark that difference. There has to be some kind of critical distance, a position a reader can take that allows the awareness that a stereotype is being used--a self-consciousness I guess I wasn't seeing in what was admittedly one isolated sentence. And it's certainly not only non-Asian writers who get in trouble for this; Hawaiian writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka got in a world of trouble a few years back for her allegedly stereotypical depictions of Filipinos in her work.

In my email to David, I brought up my own discomfort with the role Asian culture and poetry seem to play in contemporary experimental writing, a legacy that goes back to modernism (Pound, etc.) and beyond. The turn to "Asia" has been extraordinarily generative, but can also rely on stereotype and on refusing to listen the actual voices of Asian writers, especially modern ones. It's doubly complicated now, when you've got Asian American writers to deal with as well, while at the same time many white writers continue their romance with Asia. I was at Naropa last summer and attended a well-meaning but somewhat surreal discussion on "diversity" at Naropa--i.e., why isn't there any? (Okay, my interpretation, not theirs.) Several speakers noted that Naropa had to do more to reach out to students of color because, frankly, the tradition Naropa is grounded in (Beat writing, Buddhism, etc.) has historically been the province of white men. But I was stunned to hear some of the same speakers argue that the problem was not as pronounced for Asian American students--Naropa ought naturally to attract them, since after all, it was a Buddhist school. Never mind that I could count the number of Asian Americans I saw there the whole time on one hand, or that many Asian Americans are not Buddhists. There was simply an assumption there that there was a natural, essential connection.

Things like that lead me to question what Asia and Asian culture really mean to American writers. Are they merely an attractive set of philosophies and elegant cultural traits, available to be appropriated at will? And what happens when those absorbed assumptions come face to face with flesh-and-blood Asians and Asian Americans, some of whom might, alarmingly enough, write too?

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Still observing Buddha-like silence.
In the great tradition of Asian restraint and inscrutability, I will allow observations like the following--

"The more quiet, modest modes of Asian poetry appeal as an alternative to our overblown emotions"

--to pass in Buddha-like silence.
Uh-oh: Stephanie says (in a very kind post) that she's relying on me to keep up with the Poetics list. And I was just toying with unsubscribing myself...oh well. I guess I can take a hit for the team.
Finally finished laboriously reconstructing my template and links (and adding a few things), which I wiped out in a fit of stupidity this morning. This tedious task taught me a couple of things:

1. My links list (with, I think, one exception) is a wholly contained subset of Stephanie's. I know because I used Stephanie's list to rebuild mine. Either this means that I'm not very original or that everyone is right and Stephanie is the center of the universe.

2. I realized what I actually use my links bar for, which is as an easy way to keep track of all those blogs I follow regularly. I started out pretty egotistically, linking only to blogs that either linked to or mentioned mine, but I quickly realized that I'd have about two links in the bar if I went about things that way. So it's become kind of a map of my reading habits.

3. I had to rethink another Stephanie point (sorry, can't honestly remember if it was on the blog or over email) about how you label the links--do you use the blogger's name or the title of the blog? Well, having given my own blog a pretentious title that I'm secretly kind of attached to, I figured I'd extend the same courtesy to others. But I see opinion divided on this--some bloggers use the titles, others names. (I like David's solution, which is to make up new names for everybody.) Stephanie said she found using the titles disorienting or de-centering, but in a good way--your first thought isn't "Oh, that's just Tim again" or "Jim says..." I find I'm still new enough to blogging that the equation isn't automatic, and Stephanie, Kasey, Jim, and Eileen are the only bloggers I've met in person, the latter two only once each. So when someone posts, "David says..." or "Jordan writes..." I still have to think for a second.

Monday, April 21, 2003

The site for that April 11 Critical Inquiry forum, The Future of Criticism, has an agenda for the event along with written statements from some of the participants, which may be more helpful than relying on the Times account.
Links partially restored, Captain.
Oops. I seem to have wiped out all my links...
The Poetics list is all aflutter this weekend about an article in Saturday's New York Times, "The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn't Matter." The article describes an April 11 forum sponsored by the academic journal Critical Inquiry featuring high-profile critics like Stanley Fish, Homi Bhabha, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The article suggests that these thinkers themselves deny the utility of "theory," holding it irrelevant to everyday life and politics. The ensuing discussion on the list has largely been about whether theory is useless or not.

First off, it strikes me as funny that anyone would take a NY Times article on academia any more seriously, say, than an article in Entertainment Weekly (Nick LoLordo makes much the same point). The Times's higher-education reporting tends to treat academia (the humanities, at least) as an entertaining sideshow, concerning itself with things like the personality conflicts among the Harvard faculty or debates about whether anyone can understand the writing of postcolonial theorists. I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least the Times acknowledges that universities do something besides field football teams. But the underlying assumption is always that anything an academic literary critic does is probably silly.

What got reduced to the claim that "theory doesn't matter" was really something a little more subtle. Gates was quoted as saying, "I didn't really see...the liberation of people of color because of deconstruction or poststructuralism." The article concluded that Gates was saying literary theory was useless, and some Poetics listers extended this by arguing that the academics in question "neutered themselves." But I would be very surprised--and disturbed--if anyone, theorist or not, endorsed the converse of Gates's statement, arguing that, say, a postcolonial reading of Jane Eyre would cause the immediate end of all racist repression on earth. Or, indeed, that any *one* action could lead to such a result.

Stanley Fish, who never passes up a chance to get under people's skin, is described as asserting that philosophy doesn't matter at all. But let's take away the element of truth in Fish's arguments: It would be foolish to suppose that a piece of philosophy is, *by itself*, going to change the world. In this perhaps he's just echoing Marx: "Philosphers have described the world; the point, however, is to change it." But that didn't keep Marx from writing philosophy and economics; he just didn't think you could *only* write philosophy and economics. He also didn't think (as his stinging critiques of various socialist programs show) that you could just act without thinking about what you were doing first.

The reason this kind of argument stirs the Poetics list up so much (and the one constant of the list is that some argument similar to this erupts every now and again) is that it captures precisely the political angst that characterizes much of the experimental poetry community. Here's the bind you're caught in: You have a theoretical (or poetic) practice for which you'd like to claim political value and relevance; yet because of the particular difficulty or specialization of that practice (which is often part of the political point), or simply because of the cultural position of criticism and poetry, your work will never reach more than a relatively circumscribed audience. So you can't measure your work's relevance by conventional measures, e.g. that millions read it and were moved by it, that it stoked the fires of revolution, etc. You're forced to argue that your work has an indirect political effect. And when your position that your work has relevance to "real life" is challenged, your response is divided: 1. "Yes, you're totally right, what I do isn't really doing anything, I feel ashamed," 2. "I do believe in what I do and that it matters, and my political intentions are good, therefore what I do can't be irrelevant or bad." It's good ol' liberal guilt.

I think that to argue that academic theory is politically irresponsible because it does not connect with "real life" is simply to romanticize "real life" as always elsewhere, apart from what we're actually doing day in and day out. I've noticed that most of the posts on the topic are coming from academic addresses (I live at one too), and, of course, the whole discussion is happening on a listserv hosted by a university. Academic discourse--like poetry, I would venture to say--is a certain kind of space in which certain kinds of things are possible; but it could never cover the entirety of what one has to do as a social and political being. Nothing could.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

Ron Silliman has posted a long and interesting email from Tibetan American poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa in response to his post on Wednesday on her work. He also writes in response to my post on the subject:

"I worry about these things, too, Tim, though I think it always makes sense to discuss context, which I know from experience leaves me open to just such critiques."
Annals of reception: I found my poem "Flight Risk," which appeared in SHAMPOO a while back, cited on the website ("a resource for health-minded individuals") on a list of "endurance poems," which seems to be a search-engine-generated catalog of inspirational verse. Other items include poems like "Love's Endurance," by "Mary B.":

In quiet awe I saw love's endurance 
Life's harsh bitter wind whipped plans 
Could not erase the sweet  fragrances 
Of love as eternal as the arrival of spring

and "Endurance," by M.J. Monroe:

In life I find endurance
to be a daily task.
Why does life dish out such trials?
The little children ask.

Or, perhaps, more to the point, this "Wrestling Poem":

Adversity can’t keep him down, they roll and bridge and turn,
My son has found persistence, a lesson he must learn.
His companion’s endurance, as he strives until the end,
And if he has the guts, determination is his friend.

Of course, the compiling procedure produces some weird results. So there's a citation of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" (wouldn't this be a poem *discouraging* endurance?), a database of term papers, info on the World Endurance Championship, and even a poem by Ulli Freer in Jacket called "Fragmento":

puffs a fluffed fibre glass insulation insecurity
illusion windows
to a set light consumption
from floor to ceiling assumes
floated deviation bathes
a pre-set neck zipper an endurance plus

It initially seemed sort of sweet to me that someone had put my poem on such a list--though that quickly dissipated when I realized no human hand had compiled it. But I was also confused--it seemed hard to me to imagine anyone taking comfort or inspiration from the kind of "endurance" in that poem:

The ticker-tape
Crawls at denial’s speed, its several
Layers and colors turning our heads
In all directions.  What’s newer about
This time around is endurance, the way it
Keeps moving despite all efforts to direct
It this way or that, as if the serenade
Were going on in a distant room.

Of course, this poem was written in October 2001, and "endurance" came to me in that context from "Operation Enduring Freedom," our war on Afghanistan--it always struck me that the object of "enduring" was ambiguous, as if it weren't freedom itself that was enduring, but our notion of freedom that had to be endured by someone else.

Then I looked back at M.J. Monroe's "Endurance," and noted that it's dated "9-13-2001"--a product of nearly the same moment of shock and horror as "Flight Risk," although in that moment prior to the opening moves of our own horrific response, revulsion at which also animates my poem.

So I began to think that "Flight Risk" really did belong on that list--that what I had thought of at the time as a critical and sardonic tone was read by the cold computer eye as an attempt to find and provide solace--just like M.J. Monroe and Mary B.
Well, after all my bluster, due to circumstances beyond my control I never made it to Cassie's reading. So I guess I'll take solace in a few thoughts on a poet almost as good as Cassie: Lorine Niedecker. (Come on, Niedecker fans--I'm just having a little fun.)

I shamefully admit to knowing very little about Niedecker until Thursday, when my classmate Giles Scott gave a presentation on Niedecker's late work in the Workshop on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Cracking open the new, hefty Collected Works, I was stunned: how had I lived thus far in ignorance of work like this? What might seem like a simple, imagistic poetry of nature is lit up by a shockingly vivid and dense sonic landscape (apologies, I can't get the formatting to come out quite right):

Early morning corn
shock quick river
edge ice crack duck

Grasses' dry membranous
breaks tick-tack tiny
wind strips

And this precision's not limited to nature:


See it explained--
compound interest
and the compound eye
of the insect

the wave-line
on shell, sand, wall
and forehead of the one
who speaks

Giles's presentation began with the 1967 poem "My Life by Water." In the stops and starts, the rhythmic and syntactic switchbacks of the poem--

My life
by water--

first frog
or board

out on the cold


to wild green
arts and letters

--Giles heard what he called "reflective pauses," moments of distancing and interruption that allowed space not for immersion in language but for a stepping back from the immediate that allows perspective, ethics.

I admit, though, to being most intrigued by some of the moments of more explicit political and social engagement in Niedecker's work, perhaps because I've been looking at poets like Allen Ginsberg, whose work of this same period so directly incorporates the materials of mass culture and political discourse (often from the air itself, as Ginsberg was dictating many of his poems into a tape recorder). Take a look, for example, at this section from "Traces of Living Things":

High class human
got no illumine

how a ten cent plant
winds aslant

around a post
Man, history's host

to trembles
in the tendrils

I'm a fool
can't take it cool

Giles argued that this section was a kind of parody of mass culture rhetoric, even of pop music, its corny rhymes (fool/cool) a sharp contrast to the usual subtlety of Niedecker's sound effects. But I actually loved this passage--it sounded utterly contemporary (Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge was the first thing that came to mind)---and a number of the others in the room agreed with me. But what seemed vital about it to me was also what made Giles most suspicious about it--its colloquial, bluesy tone, which seemed to puncture the seriousness of the "high class human," but which might also be seen as simply replicating (rather than distancing from, critiquing) popular discourse. Its pleasures (the argument would go) are too easy, its rhymes unearned; it doesn't stop to question itself or to leave room for reflection and skepticism...and it also remained in my head long after I'd closed the book.

I think this debate really goes to the heart of contemporary political poetry. It made me think of a lot of poetry that I've seen written (and that I've written myself) over the past few months, much of which draws on, samples & remixes, recycles, reworks (pick your metaphor) mass-media materials, whether from TV, print news, or the Internet. The "Google poem" is only the latest manifestation of this kind of work. For those who write it, it often seems like a way of talking back to these discourses of power, finding a way to use them against themselves and maybe even to say something, to intervene, in the process. And it often produces work that is pleasurable, funny, entertaining.

But thinking through this discussion of Niedecker made me wonder if that's enough--if one has to (is it possible?) get outside popular discourse in order to critique it. Niedecker, who lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island in Wisconsin, is sometimes (and sometimes dismissively) characterized as a regional or local poet, one who drew her poetic language itself from her immediate environs and community. Giles sought to turn this into a strength of her work--the "local" could become a source of community that was neither solipsistic nor drawn from mass culture. While I find this idea attractive, I ultimately think it's too romantic; even on her island, Niedecker was watching TV and wringing her hands over the Bay of Pigs (calling JFK a "black-marked tulip / not snapped by the storm").

I suppose that's why I liked the section I quoted above so much. It doesn't have the remoteness of some of Niedecker's most beautiful work; it's engaged with a world it can't escape. Yet it deforms that world so that it's almost unrecognizable; it uses a popular form like a Trojan horse, showing us how even a commodity can be turned to a different end--"how a ten cent plant / winds aslant."

Friday, April 18, 2003

Everybody go hear Cassie Lewis and Brydie McPherson read tonight at 7:30 at Small Press Traffic. Get on the next plane if you have to. You won't be sorry.

And although *I'm* very sorry that I wasn't able to be at Eileen's reading on Wednesday, I almost feel as if I was, thanks to Eileen's and Stephanie's incisive reporting. Who needs the corporate media?

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Stephanie says:

"I'm pretty sure that my own habit of avoiding fights and wanting folks to get along will all end badly. Soon I'll just look namby pamby."

Oh no, Steph--you're the sane center of this crazy world.
Right now David Hess has me listed on his links bar as "A Grad Student I Can Get Down With."
I'm absolutely delighted by the image of John Erhardt (although I have no idea what he looks like) sitting in the waiting room of a body shop reading Stephanie and Cassie's book of postcard poems--for the *second* time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

I'm pleased to see Ron Silliman today talking about Asian American writing, mentioning the anthology Premonitions and Tibetan American poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. But I'm a little worried by some of the ways he frames his discussion, which touch on some of the problems that recur in many discussions of Asian American writing.

Silliman praises Premonitions as evidence of the "influx of influences from non-European cultures" on American literature. But as Asian American critics and writers have suggested for decades, the idea that Asian Americans are "non-European" in their outlook and culture can be a repressive one when used uncritically. Premonitions does not, so far as I know, include extensive sections of work not written in English, or by poets who do not live and work in North America. Asian Americans here are made to serve a representative function, as a channel of Asian culture into the West--a role many of them do not care to accept.

In fact, the slippage around this problem is evident in the rest of Silliman's post. Although Dhompa is, presumably, being cited as bearing the influence of non-European culture, Silliman's reading of her work focuses on its linguistic precision and (in a previous post) on the influence of Creeley and other American writers. So where is the "Asian" element of the work? Ultimately, it seems, not much of anywhere.

Silliman writes: "Not unlike, say, Larry Eigner, who could be called a poet of disability but who was actually more simply a great poet who happened to be physically challenged, Dhompa is a good poet first who happens to have been born on a train in India in 1969 & raised in the Tibetan exile communities of Dharamsala, India & Kathmandu, Nepal before coming to the U.S."

"A good poet first"--certainly how most poets would like to think of themselves. But then what is the role of race, nationality, disability--that which follows the "who happened to be..."? The phrasing suggests it's incidental; the earlier framing suggested it was fundamental. I'm not sure we can have it both ways: if you want to make "Asian" culture a marker of value for an Asian American writer, you can't then turn around and say race doesn't matter.

I don't fault Silliman for walking into this trap--indeed, I see critics, both Asian American and not, doing it all the time. Ultimately, we're still not sure what we expect out of an Asian American writer--to enrich "American" (i.e., European) culture with "Asian" spice? To simply be "a good poet first"? Or is the Asian American experience some much more complex thing, one not reducible to the inheritance of Asian culture, yet troubling any steady notion of the "good poet"?
Since you asked (well, okay, one of you asked)--a full report on the grad student reading last night.

The most impressive thing was the turnout. The Terrace Room holds about 50 people (which, depending on whether you believe Ron Silliman or Jim Behrle, may or may not be a lot of people) and it was standing room only--probably more people than we had for Myung Mi Kim and Harryette Mullen combined. (I guess that's why you have six readers--they bring a lot of friends.) I was trying to put my finger on the demographic there--it looked like about evenly divided between other Ph.D. students and folks who looked like undergrads, plus two professors. I didn't see any creative writing or Stegner people, although honestly I'm not sure I would know.

Michelle Rhee, the first-year grad student who put the event together, had set up what got dubbed "the altar" up front, draped in a blue cloth and with ten tealights on it (as Joann remarked, one for each of the Muses, plus Michelle). There were also two stools. Everyone seemed to have to distinguish themselves by their use of the set: I, very conventionally, just sat down on one of the stools; the next reader stood; the next one had an assistant reading; another sat on the table itself.

I read first. I understand now why bands need an opening act to warm up the crowd--people didn't quite seem to know if it was okay to laugh at the funny parts. (Well, that's the explanation I prefer.) I started with a couple of my card catalog poems, which use and rearrange material from discarded cards from the Stanford card catalog. The rule: I have to use every piece of language on the card and can repeat as much as I want but can't add anything. Example:

AC899.A52 P c.1

The door of modern
history: in’s-graven-
hage includes
the doctrine of
Peters, indexes
899 p. of
jihad. STK
CSL inserted.
In Amsterdam
Islam and colonialism mout-
on: door
c.1 in Dutch: Jihad.
Rudolph in Amsterdam
includes indexes, the doctrine
[2] p. inserted. Thesis:
Amsterdam. Summary
includes jihad [1979?]
in Dutch, bibliography’s
Gravenhage. 23 cm
of modern history, the
of doctrine, 242 p.
p. 201-225: Jihad,
Islam and colonialism,
09/02/80 AM.

It's a challenge to know how to read things like abbreviations and numbers, but I discovered to my surprise the first time I read one of these poems that they could actually be quite funny, if done right.

I followed with comic relief, reading a poem, "Eden," that I wrote in response to Bernadette Mayer's experiment "Write a poem that alternates between love and landlords." Not as much laughter as I was expecting, though people were smiling.

I did a couple poems from a series called "Elephant & Castle," which in part uses names of stations on the London Underground as its linguistic corpus:

Cue the garden’s
bearing; return

by quayside, hard
cross-harbor down.

You stone
mooring. You surly

liver-light run
out beyond the canning.

Perhaps arch
over greenward, bypass-

ing mudchute and
high-holy horse

underfoot. But who
bounds the crock-

shot chapel, who
can say what bridge

or borough courts
the right of way?

These proved to be the most popular among the academic crowd; one of the faculty members and several grad students came up to me and complimented me on these afterwards.

I read a couple of the postcard poems I wrote with Cassie Lewis back in January, then finished with the obligatory war poem, "Campaign of Half-Measures," which seemed to get a decent reception.

In listening to the other readers, I was struck by the diversity of practices; I think I'd been expecting their work to sound more like mine, but it was quite different. Ian Bickford, who read next, had a much more performative style; he recited from memory, stream-of-consciousness poems that focused on relationships. Very charismatic--the crowd responded well--and good at using vocal rhythms. Michelle followed with a remarkable long piece--seemingly autobiographical, focusing on a mother and daughter--that featured a play of voices and a second reader who often overlapped with her voice, creating a great sound structure and intensity of tone.

Noam Cohen (the one who sat on the table) followed with several witty, clever poems, many of which were marked by nostalgia for New York (though not New York School)--a casual but wistful quality. There was one poem which seemed to be a tribute to Kenneth Koch, who I believe Noam studied with at Columbia.

Joann Kleinneiur gave a wonderful reading, beginning with two poems from a series based on the life of the Renaissance painter Artemisia (I hope I have that right)--psychologically and linguistically charged and intense. She then departed from the script a bit to read a poem by H.D., "Heliodora," from a wondeful first edition that she's received as a gift.

Giles Scott was the last reader; his work probably most resembled my own. He's working on Zukofsky and Niedecker, and his pieces borrowed some numerological traits from Zukofsky--he began by reading a series of poems of 16 words each, often reveling in difficult vocabulary (I remember hearing "plinth" several times).

The crowd response definitely warmed as the reading went on. But contrary to some of my expectations, it didn't seem to be a crowd primed for avant-garde work; nor did the readers seem to gravitate very strongly in that direction. I suppose now that Marjorie Perloff has been retired for a few years, the critical mass of her students has diminished and no longer dominates poetic discussion on the Ph.D. side of the department; and undergrads, by and large, are taking writing courses with the Stegner fellows or Jones lecturers.

Afterwards we were all remarking how great it had been to be able to have this kind of discourse among ourselves--to actually be able to share creative work and to know each other on a level that was neither just in the classroom nor merely personal. I'm hoping that we'll be able to continue this poetic discourse among ourselves. I wonder, though, whether this will go any way toward breaking down the barrier between the grad students and the Stegner fellows and other creative writers; we Ph.D. students may have found different ways to talk to each other, but I don't know if we found a way to talk to them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Kasey insists that rumors of the existence of "Flarf" are greatly exaggerated. Which made me greatly relieved, as I had just sent off a pretty pathetic email to Stephanie begging her to enlighten me.

You see, this is how crazy ideas that there are "movements" and "schools" out there get started. Somebody does something goofy, a couple of her/his friends follow suit, and then maybe somebody in jest comes up with a descriptor for it. Those few people, and maybe a few more of their friends, start tossing the term around as a convenient shorthand. ("Flarf" has the advantage of sounding like a noun--you don't have to write "flarf poetry," you can just write "flarf." I suppose, in fact, it can also be a verb--you can just "flarf." Kinda like "smurf," that way.) Okay. Then some ignoramus like me--even worse, some critic or grad student looking for the next big thing--stumbles upon this discussion, sees everybody saying flarf this and flarf that, and thinks he's found a mysterious new avant-garde birthing itself. Pretty soon I'm--sorry, he's--doing things like demanding definitions of Flarf and wanting to know who writes it and who doesn't. Prompting the originators of the term to have to write explanations of the term masquerading as denials of it, which of course in another cycle become definitive statements of what it is.

Sorry, Kasey--I think you might have just written a manifesto.
Eileen Tabios and Nick Carbo are putting together a collection called PinoyPoetics, billed as "the first international poetics anthology of Filipino English-language poets." As Eileen mentioned in her blog on Saturday (and today), the collection includes an essay of mine on the poet Jose Garcia Villa called "Asian/American Modernisms: Jose Garcia Villa's Transnational Poetics." Eileen's done more than anybody alive to keep Villa's work in circulation in this country, and she's given us a Villa for the next generation in the 1999 collection The Anchored Angel.

My essay started as a seminar paper in a course with Ramon Saldivar called "Transnational American Poetics," which attempted to broaden received notions of American literature by looking at its formation through transnational forces, particularly Caribbean and Latin American. I was getting interested in Villa at the same time, mostly through having picked up The Anchored Angel, and started to think about him as a transnational figure, one whose reputation formed in his movement between the Philippines and the United States. The material in PinoyPoetics focuses mostly on this movement and on Villa's towering reputation in the Philippines, and how that reputation had to be attenuated or even suppressed for Villa to succeed in the United States. I also looked at Villa's reception in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s, finding that he was greeted simply as an "American" modernist poet, but with just enough of a whiff of orientalism to give his work exotic cachet; Marianne Moore, famously, likened him to a "Chinese master." This latter material is going to appear in a paper in MELUS sometime next year--I think. (If anything can make litmags seem like they have quick turnaround times, it's academic journals.)

Since Eileen's work on Villa had been so important to my own, I was delighted when she got in touch with me to ask about the paper after I gave part of it at a conference. (In fact, I think that's the first time we'd ever corresponded--right, Eileen?) Eileen very kindly in her blog attributes a certain "objectivity" to my approach, being the only non-Filipino contributor to the volume--no pressure! But I'm also glad she mentioned the issue of Villa's relationship to Asian American literature, which I felt I was only able to touch on in the essay. Part of the reason it's taken so long for Villa to be read again--even as writers and critics are scrambling to recover other Asian American writers--is that his work just doesn't fit the image of engaged, realistic, political writing that's been taken as characteristic of Asian American writing since the 1970s. In short, he's no Carlos Bulosan. Bringing him back as an "Asian American writer" (a label I doubt he would have been very happy with--I imagine he would have preferred simply "poet") raises all kinds of questions about what Asian American literature is and what it's for. But those kinds of questions, I think, confront Asian American poetry all the time, given that Asian American critics have tended to privilege the memoir--Asian American storytelling--above all, as a chronicle of Asian American experience. What happens to an Asian American poetry that fails to be that?

Eileen and I actually had an interesting exchange about the essay, in particular the question (relevant to what I've just been talking about) of why Villa abandoned a promising career as a fiction writer to devote himself entirely to poetry. Eileen wrote to me:

It has to do specifically with when Timothy writes of why Villa switched from writing fiction to poetry....and several potential reasons are discussed. The problem, of course, is that we can't really know for sure why Villa switched. But one reason is not mentioned -- and I think it's a reason that is as reasonable as the others cited by Timothy.

Villa was interested in a purity of language, a certain transcendence etc. I believe he may have found poetry -- versus fiction/prose -- to be more amenable to that particular transcendent interest in transcendence. Possibly, I'm projecting -- because as someone who started out writing by writing fiction, I turned to poetry because of this type of reason. But if you look at Villa's poems -- those transcendent worlds he makes -- I think this is definitely a factor for for Villa's turn to and then focus on poetry.

Villa was porous; no membrane between himself/his feelings and his poems. It's logical why many have said about his personality -- "like a child." So, without discounting the other possibilities that Timothy raised for Villa's turn from fiction to poetry, I think this factor -- this desire for transcendence through language -- is an equally valid reason.

I'm sure fiction writers can find such transcendence through fiction's form. But as someone who's done both -- like Villa -- I find it very logical that there'd be a more focused "pure" nature to transcendence through poetry versus fiction. Because poetry's minimalist form versus fiction's prose facilitates an alchemical distillation...And you can see/imagine/easily theorize that that alchemical approach already is obvious in some of Villa's latter stories....

My response:

I actually think your point about the move from prose to poetry being a bid for transcendence is quite right. In fact, when I first read your comments I was actually a little confused, because I thought it was what I had said in the essay! But when I went back and looked, I realized my phrasing was quite a bit different:

"I would suggest that we take Villa’s turn from prose to poetry on what seems to be its own terms: as an attempt to gain access to the modernist canon. The reception of Villa’s short stories as a collection of “tales from the native land” suggests that Villa’s work as a fiction writer would always have been constrained by a demand for lived experience... By turning to poetry, Villa was able to relieve this sort of pressure to be sociologically correct; indeed, he was able to turn his foreignness into an asset, a brand of exoticism that appealed to the orientalist strain in American modernism while still allowing Villa to take his place among the “great” American writers."

It now seems to me that you and I are seeing pretty much the same phenomenon in Villa--a sense that poetic language allows him to escape the, well, prosaic constraints of prose realism. Only you give a much more positive and constructive spin to this (poetry as transcendence), in contrast to what might seem like the more cynical and skeptical spin I give (transcendence as calculated literary strategy).

I actually think this also goes back to a comment I remember you making on the initial version of this essay, where you questioned how we could know what Villa really intended in using a particular formal strategy. I think my analysis of the prose/poetry shift looked at this from the outside, in terms of the effect it seemed to have on his reception. You were more interested (and here's where the "subjective" stuff you talked about comes in) in issues of motivation and intention--in what moving to poetry might have meant to Villa himself as a writer.

I suppose grad-student alarms usually go off when the word "transcendence" gets used--we get trained to be very suspicious of projects of transcendence, and tend to be more interested in what the writer is trying to escape and how incompletely she/he does so. But this also leads me to perceive a weakness in my approach, which is in large part a reception history; thus, it gives somewhat short shrift to an understanding of the work itself and to Villa's psychology. I suppose a whole book is what I really need to write...
Weird war marketing. I just got an email from Virgin Atlantic Airways plugging companion fares on trips to the UK:

"Take your closest ally to visit America's closest ally."

Monday, April 14, 2003

Throughout the war in Iraq, George Bush has seemingly upheld his reputation for being impervious to doubt. Never did we see him or hear him reported to be troubled by reports of American casulaties, dead Iraqi civilians, or mass destruction. Only once did I see any report that he was disturbed by anything. And what, amidst all this death, moved the president? The capture of Private Jessica Lynch.

So I wasn't surprised when Lynch became the first POW to be (dramatically) rescued. But it doesn't seem like Bush was the only person Lynch's capture got to. Lynch immediately became the cover girl of every American newspaper and magazine; she's become the American face of this war. It makes you wonder what odd chivalric battle is going on in the male American mind as it watches attractive young women being sent into battle.

Of course, I also realized that Lynch was not even the only woman to have been taken captive in the opening days of the war. But we heard almost nothing about the other woman POW, Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson--an African American woman. So when Johnson and a group of other POWs were freed yesterday, I was interested to see how her story was covered in comparison to Lynch's.

Well, I get the San Jose Mercury News at home, and Johnson was indeed on the cover, and her story led the front-page article. But while the initial news photos of Lynch were blown up so that her face filled the frame, Johnson was shown only in the middle ground, being led by two soldiers out in front of her. Inside the paper there were pictures of all the rescued POWs, and here we saw the power of a comma. The first picture was of Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, Jr. He was listed as: "Single, father of one." Johnson was listed last, as: "Single mother of one." Young's roles as "single" and "father" are allowed to be separate, but Johnson gets tagged with the package "single mother"--which under a picture of a black woman is hardly an innocent slip.

I think, though, that the most chilling thing was a quote from Johnson herself late in the story:

"`They broke down the door and shouted "Down, Down, Down,"' Johnson said. Added Miller: 'They shouted, "If you're an American stand up."'

"'At first they didn't realize I was an American,' Johnson said."
If, God forbid, any of you should find yourselves in Palo Alto tomorrow night with nothing to do, I'm doing a reading at 6:30 pm here at Stanford. The reading's in the English Department's Terrace Room, which is Building 460, Room 426. It's an unusual lineup--all of the readers are English Ph.D. students: Ian Bickford, Noam Cohen, Joann Kleinneiur, Michelle Rhee, Giles Scott and myself. I say unusual because while it's obviously not unusual for there to be readings by students around here, it's usually by the Stegner fellows.

The relationship between the "critical" and "creative" sides of the English department is just as vexed here as it is in any place where there are Ph.D. and MFA programs (though the Stegner program is not, technically, an MFA program; it's more like the poetry equivalent of a post-doctoral fellowship). It's perhaps made more pronounced by the fact that at least until recently, most Ph.D. students who came here to study modern poetry came to study with Marjorie Perloff, and hence share an avant-garde, experimental orientation that's often skeptical of the aesthetic of contemporary writing programs. But by and large this doesn't erupt into anything like hostility; they just do their thing and we do ours, pretty much in ignorance of each other.

It's certainly true that almost anyone who studies modern poetry is at least a closet poet. But the way most Ph.D. programs work, there's never any formal or even informal way for grad students to share their creative work (in part because many senior faculty remain skeptical about the seriousness of institutional creative writing). So it will be interesting to see what my classmates have to offer.

Friday, April 11, 2003

First we had a "rolling start"; then a "rolling victory." Now, it seems, we have a "rolling dialogue." I imagine "rolling freedom" and "rolling democracy" are close behind.

What all this suggests, of course, is that we are really engaged in a "rolling war," one with no beginning, no end, no boundaries; it also means that terms like "victory" and "dialogue" can be used as labels by the U.S. government for situations on the ground that clearly resemble neither. Anarchy is simply "rolling victory," victory always in the process of happening, fierce resistance notwithstanding; installation of a U.S. puppet government is "rolling dialogue"--real democracy TBA.

I can't help but connect the rhetoric of "rolling" to the phrase "Let's roll," uttered by Todd Beamer aboard Flight 93 on September 11, and subsequently embraced as a slogan of post-9/11 heroism by everyone from George Bush to Elaine Scarry. Beamer's homely metaphor became iconic in part, as Scarry suggests, because he was a member of the only group of Americans to fight back directly against terrorism--as opposed to the proxy wars we are now fighting in Afganistan and Iraq. I wonder to what degree the rhetoric of "Let's roll"--adopted by Bush as a generalized set of "marching orders"--has been carried over to justify this "rolling war," and to obscure the more disturbing elements of that language.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Is the war over?

Wow. Here's how I get my news these days:

I go to Jim's blog and find him writing, "If this war is truly over..."--of course with one more dig at Barrett Watten.


So I swallow my pride and pull up, which is advertising "FALL OF SADDAM."

Of course, I don't trust CNN, so I pull up the New York Times. The good gray lady is a little more circumspect: "Iraqi Government Apparently Breaks Down...But Fighting Persists in Parts of Capital."

Now I really don't know what to think, so I turn to our faithful coalition partners. The BBC tells me: "Baghdad falls to US forces...Saddam Hussein loses control of the Iraqi capital." But what's the evidence? A picture that shows the "fall of Saddam": the toppling of a *statue* of Saddam in central Baghdad.

I'm not sure if War=Language. But it certainly seems as if End of War=Language.

Iraqi UN ambassador: "The game is over." Ari Fleischer (!): "The war is not over." BBC poll: "Have Your Say: Is the War Over?"

A BBC correspondent called it, somewhat ironically, a "rolling victory." It's a problem that didn't seem obvious at the outset but certainly does now: in an undeclared, illegitimate war with no obvious justification or definable goal, how does one decide when war is over? You can't disarm someone of weapons you can't find (and even if you find some, you can never be sure you've found them all). You can't be assured of "regime change" when you'll never find Saddam Hussein (either escaped or vaporized by a 2000-lb. bomb) and when you're going to have to turn to Saddam's own bureaucracy to run the country (as the British are doing in Basra). Like the "wars" on Communism and terrorism, the very definition of this war suggests that it might be boundless.

"Declare victory and withdraw": that was Senator George Aiken's famous suggestion for ending the Vietnam War. It will be interesting to see at what point the U.S. government decides it has "won."

But I really want to know what we're supposed to think when we're told the war is over by a picture of a statue falling, with the caption "FALL OF SADDAM." Are we to believe so deeply in symbolism, in the connection of signifier and signified, that we are to take this literally? Or do we take a skeptical stance--deny the reality of the symbol--which allows us to imagine a proliferation of Saddams (which we've surely seen in media coverage of the war--soldiers attacking pictures, statues, murals of Saddam everywhere, allegations of body doubles and stand-ins, but no sign of the man himself), even as the "real" target recedes further and further from our grasp--hence justifying an endless pursuit, an endless war? Is this a war against the signifier or the signified? Somebody ask Ari Fleischer that one.
Just printing out some flyers for the Stanford Workshop on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, which I'm helping to coordinate this year. It's a great gig--we get money from the Stanford Humanities Center and use it to sponsor a series of talks, readings, and workshop presentations, about evenly divided between faculty presentations, graduate student presentations, and readings and talks by visiting poets.

Back in the fall we had a visits from Joy Harjo and Myung Mi Kim, and in the winter we had Harryette Mullen. We usually have an evening reading followed by a discussion the next morning, usually an intimate affair with about eight people or so. We were lucky in all cases to have poets who are very self-aware and self-conscious writers and quite articulate about their own aims in writing; Kim even prepared a few remarks to start off discussion.

This quarter we have presentations on Lorine Niedecker, Mina Loy, and Ian Hamilton Finlay. The highlight is a symposium on Buddhism and poetry, which--through much heroics of persuasion and finance on the part of my fellow coordinator--features Norman Fischer, Michael McClure, and Leslie Scalapino.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Coincidence, I think, but Eileen Tabios posted a review of her own today--in this case, of an art exhibit, but I'm impressed at the registers the review moves through, from personal reflection to close reading to art-historical context.

Keep it coming, all...
Jordan Davis posted a few welcome links to recommended poetry review sources. The Boston Review does give me occasional hope for the future of civilization--it's a vital illustration of the potential interface between left politics and experimental writing.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Confessions of my bourgeois reading habits (1): Every time I read a review by Alex Ross, the New Yorker's classical music critic, I feel like I need to catch the next plane to New York to catch whatever performance he's talking about, or run to the local record store to buy the complete works of, say, John Adams (which I actually did). In the New Yorker's March 31 issue he has a piece on Berlioz, whose work I know basically not at all (I think I have a cheap recording of the Symphonie Fantastique around somewhere), in which he notes that at times Berlioz's music "sounds brand-new, as if it had been written last month by a young genius of postmodernism." It's precisely that kind of gesture that I admire in Ross's reviews--and it's a particularly striking trait in, of all things, a critic of classical music, one of the few high art forms that seems almost as marginalized as poetry. Ross makes classical music seem like something 21st-century culture ought to care about, and yet he does it without even a hint of the snobbery or condescension that's associated with classical music in the popular mind. His tone is knowledgeable and even nerdy without seeming pedantic; he doesn't imply that we ought already to know why Berlioz is important, or that we have to have digested the oeuvres of Mozart and Beethoven already to understand him. When he tells us that "Berlioz's music shoudld somehow be played and heard in an alternative universe in which Wagner never existed," he tells us what this oddly sci-fi comparison means (Berlioz gives us a totally different nineteenth century than Wagner does). He's masterful at evoking the particularity of a performance--the "stray flutes and sinster tubas" of a Colin Davis performance--and at a judicious use of biographical detail that intrigues without romanticizing.

Ross is, if memory serves, an alum of WHRB, the Harvard radio station, where I worked in the classical music department as an undergraduate. I'd done some radio in high school, so I naturally gravitated there when I arrived at college. I assumed I'd do rock programming. But it turned out that to join the rock department you had to pass a strangely rigorous test of music knowledge involving a long list of obscure indie bands; oddly, they, and not the classical folks (who would take anyone willing to put in the time) turned out to be the snobs of the station. (Once a station engineer proposed that WHRB do an "orgy" of the music of They Might Be Giants. After the rock department refused [too mainstream], the engineer did the program himself; during the program, he received calls from people who shouted "Corporate crap! Corporate crap!" and then hung up.) So I joined the classical department, which turned out to have a lot of the virtues I find in Ross's criticism: breadth and depth of knowledge without pedantry or snobbery (well, sometimes); a willingness to juxtapose the well-known and the obscure; and an interest in classical music not as some kind of remote cultural monument but as something present, to be enjoyed every day.

So here's my question: why don't we see poetry criticism that has these qualities? To be fair, this is part of the larger question: why don't we see poetry criticism at all in places like the New Yorker? Why are ballet, modern dance, architecture, movies, TV, classical music, and drama all considered worthy of reviewing in those pages, but not poetry? But I'm not going to give any of those "poetry is dead" answers that we've heard all too often over the past two decades. Instead, think about the kind of poetry reviews that do, or did, enjoy some prominence. They're all too often exactly what Ross's pieces aren't: snobby, condescending, pedantic, remote.

In the early '90s, the New Yorker would still publish the occasional poetry review. The review was almost always by Helen Vendler and almost always focused on one of the few mega-poets that Vendler favors (Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, etc.). Here's an entirely random example--the opening of a Vendler review from The New York Review of Books a few years back:

"Two admirable postwar poets, Wislawa Szymborska (born in 1923 in Poland) and Tomas Tranströmer (born in 1931 in Sweden), troubled by what they saw as the moral insufficiencies of both formal religion and Marxist optimism, have sought spiritual understanding outside organized institutions. Of course, few reflective persons who lived through the same period were exempt from such thoughts. But lyric poets, who may be as aware as any novelist of what is happening in society, must condense social questions into personal ones and must transform written language by giving it rhythmic breath and musical cadence."

Compare this to the opening of Ross's Berlioz review:

"'Berlioz believed neither in God nor in Bach, neither in absolute beauty in art nor in pure virtue in life,' his friend Ferdinand Hiller recalled. The composer of the 'Symphonie Fantastique' retains a fashionably satanic aura, and the reputation is earned. The 'Fantastique,' his masterpiece, anyone's masterpiece, remains a totally shocking work after all these years, and no modern music has every really matched it. The symphony's inexhaustible novtelty comes not from the discovery of new sounds--although there are many--but from the diabolical manipulation of familiar ones."

Ross knows how to write a lead; he immediately gives us a character, a devilish motif, but then leads us to a thesis that insists on the newness and relevance of Berlioz's accomplishment: a biographical bonbon with an analysis in the middle. Vendler, in contrast, gives us a set of ponderous abstractions: I'm certainly not going out of my way to read about the "moral insufficiencies" of Marxism and religion in a poem. What's most characteristic--and most deadening--in Vendler's passage is the academic move toward the impersonal generalization, the nod to what we "reflective persons" all ought to know already. And then there is the closing dictum: "lyric poets...must condense social questions into personal ones." What's off-putting here is not even the sentiment itself, but the tone of moral propriety in which it is delivered, a tone that guarantees that no one but another lyric poet (and maybe not even) will care about its message. What Vendler is seeking is not an understanding of the individual contributions of these poets but Poetry Itself and its Purpose. There's no ease, no pleasure in the pursuit, and no sense that any of the rest of us (inattentive to moral insufficiencies and lyric poets alike) ought to pause to take notice. "Of course": perhaps the rhetorical gesture that most separates insiders from outsiders, and makes the latter turn away in indifference.

Although outlets for poetry reviewing in the mainstream media have dried up, it's not as if poetry reviewing isn't going strong; it's just moved elsewhere. But by and large what this means is that poets are reviewing poets for other poets. Not to credit Language poetry for inventing something again, but a journal like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was particularly distinctive for its "engaged" reviewing, by which I mean the review would itself become a poetic text, often incorporating and riffing on the material it was ostensibly "reviewing." Very productive for the reviewer, I think, and a striking example of dialogue between reader and text. But at the same time insular: almost by definition such a reviewing practice isn't going to bring a text to a larger audience than it might already have. You don't have to subscribe to a simplistic notion that a review "explains" a book of poetry or tells you what it's "about" to recognize that a review can mediate between a book and a potential audience, making an argument for value that might bring a book to the attention of a new reader--and, perhaps most importantly for experimental texts, give that reader a reason to believe that something significant is going on. A book like Charles Bernstein's Content's Dream moves brilliantly between a mode of poetic response and one of critical mediation designed to persuade an audience that experimental poetry is not just interesting but crucial.

Alex Ross is neither an academic nor a musician; he's a journalist, and reviewing itself is his craft. Can we imagine someone playing the same role for poetry today? A lot of academic critics have spent so long bemoaning the "death of poetry" that they've convinced both themselves and the editors of the major intellectual magazines. Poets, often convinced of their own marginality in the culture, remain satisfied with talking to each other (which is indeed a necessary nourishment). But look: symphony orchestras and classical stations are failing all over the country, too. Ross simply writes as if that were immaterial, but he also doesn't assume the weight of educating us in Music. He writes as if music were something we might do right now, and he believes it's important to mount an argument for why we should care. Should it be so hard to do that for poetry?

Saturday, April 05, 2003

Jonathan Culler gave a lecture at Stanford on Wednesday, during which he quipped that he was planning to follow the lead of Congress and start referring to French theory as "freedom theory."

Culler's lecture, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Novel, focused on narratology, and Culler spent the latter part of the lecture discussing Monika Fludernik's book "Towards a 'Natural' Narratology." Traditional narratology is grounded in making a clear distinction between a story and its teller, and is thus often frustrated by an unconventional narrative like Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," in which a coherent plot is difficult to discern and the text cannot be said to have an identifiable narrator. Fludernik attempts to overcome this difficulties by focusing on the reader's experience of a text, arguing that readers look not for idetifiable plots or narrators but rather for a "center of consciousness" in a text, an "experiencer" in a text with whom they might identify or who they could imagine as a protagonist. In other words, avant-garde texts like the Wake only look incomprehensible if we keep to a conventional notion of narrative, reading it as a distortion of some ideal, straightforward narrative told by a single narrator. In practice readers "naturalize" such texts by finding in them a coherence not of plot but of consciousness, building up from them a unity of experience that can be every bit as narratively satisfying as a conventional yarn.

This take on avant-garde texts (at least in Culler's account) has a Copernican elegance: when faced with a proliferation of phenomena that look like anomalies (as we have in the past century), why not simply change your model to make them a kind of norm? But I wonder what such an approach might do to the enormous energy generated by the avant-garde's attack on aesthetic conventions. I imagine Gertrude Stein might not have too much trouble with Fludernik's model: "it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that, I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural" (Composition as Explanation). But what becomes of the shock effect of the avant-garde text? Perhaps more importantly, what is the relationship between the naturalization of a text and resistance to it? Resistance plays a large role in our understanding of the effects of modernist and postmodernist writing, particularly in our evaluation of the political effects of such texts; whatever an avant-garde text is supposed to be, it's not supposed to be easy or natural to read.

Perhaps Fludernik is simply acknowledging that the twentieth century is behind us, and that the avant-garde narrative has become as normative as the conventional. Perhaps it's also an acknowledgment that writers like Stein have been right all along in insisting that what is "natural" in a text cannot be narrowly defined by literary criticism. (Much of Fludernik's book is apparently based on analyses of spontaneous oral narratives rather than on canonical literary texts.) But it does raise the question of what's left for an avant-gardist to do. Culler pointed out that some late works of Beckett frustrate even Fludernik's model, as the consciousness of these works constantly seems to be undermining itself. Or maybe the ground has simply shifted. The conventions of plot, story, and character may no longer be an adequate adversary. Do we look for new battles, or just act naturally?