Monday, November 24, 2003

It's official: the Tim world tour will make its triumphant return to the Bay Area from Dec. 9 to Dec. 13. Get your tickets now.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

The strange experience of stepping outside and not actually knowing what the weather will be like. Twenty-degree temperature swings in the course of five minutes. A beautiful morning into a rainstorm. A miasma of leaves on the ground and brought into the house on big dog feet.
Huzzah! reading reports popping up everywhere: Kasey on Mytili Jagannathan and Rodney Koeneke and Stephanie on Manguso/Davis/Edgar. I'd try to keep up my end, but it looks like the U of C reading series has gone into hibernation until February, which means that I might actually have to leave Hyde Park to hear some more readings. Shudder.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

At last, my report on the Notley reading...I know you've all been holding your breath.

So I'm on my way over to the Alice Notley reading last Monday and I get a call from Li Bloom, who I'm supposed to meet up with. Turns out Li's fallen victim to the Chicago highway tangle, literally at a fork in the road and not knowing which way to go. (I had this horrible image of Li sitting in her car in the middle of a highway median, cars whizzing by on either side, horns sounding.) I end up talking her all the way down from the Loop to the South Side, having her make U-turns in the middle of Lake Shore Drive and who knows what else, standing in the middle of 59th St. waving my cup of coffee to flag her down. (Weird moment of standing there talking to each other on cell phones while looking at each other through her car window.)

Even as she was trying to find her way down here, Li was thoughtful enough to ask me for my whole life story and give me part of hers. (Insert "strangeness of meeting someone you only know from their blog and how you know them but don’t really know them" riff here.) She told me it was the first reading she’d been to in a long time—I sympathized, having grown up in the same suburban enclave she now inhabits. But meeting her was just delightful—all energy and enthusiasm and poetry.

Really, though, most of this came afterwards, since by the time we got into the building the reading was about to start. Eirik Steinhoff of the Chicago Review introduced Notley and praised her a number of times for being part of no school and free of dogma, which always makes me a little suspicious—a little like "fair and balanced," if you know what I mean.

But that’s no fault of Notley’s. When she took the podium I was struck by how utterly different the atmosphere of this reading was than the last time I saw her at Lone Mountain in SF—that was a huge auditorium, more or less packed, with a sort of rock-star atmosphere and a who’s-who audience that made me a little queasy. The room here in Chicago was full, too, but that meant 60 people—both more and less intimate. People were there to hear Notley, but not necessarily because they knew her.

Notley’s certainly not a ranter at the mike, but she is, in her own way, a consummate performer. Stepping up to the front, she leaned back and kind of framed the podium with her hands like a director lining up a shot, then told us that explanations of anything would be reserved for her talk the following day; right now, she said, "I’m going to perform."

Listening to her made me think a bit of the low, rich, "thrilling" voice of Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby--but while Daisy’s voice is full of "money," Notley’s seemed more to be verging on tears, as if it were being held up in the lower registers by a suppressed sob. That’s a bit dramatic, but maybe appropriate to the material Notley was reading.

Part of what made me feel a bit like an outsider at the Lone Mountain reading was, in fact, Notley’s material—she read extensively from Disobedience, whose diaristic quality, allusions, and inside jokes seemed to delight those already familiar with her and her work, but it gave me that feeling I get when reading some of the more insiderist work of the New York School—like I wasn’t being invited into the conversation, sparkling and brilliant as it was.

The quality of this reading was utterly different—at one point I leaned over to Li and said that Notley in SF had been more "upbeat," though that wasn’t quite the right word. Her reading in SF was haunted by death—her brother’s, her husband’s—but not obsessed with it; here, it was as if she were down in the grave and trying to dig her way out: "I have come from another form in the ground." She read almost entirely from new work, serious and driven by rage and grief, with titles like "They Are All Dead Today" and "Decomposition"—the last, perhaps, an apt term for a project of writing one’s way out of death.

Perhaps the sense of a project in progress is what gave the reading its feeling of unity. Like Disobedience, the new poems were often animated by dream imagery, particularly that of the "dark woman," both archetype and self-portrait. The dominant tone was less elegiac than unflinchingly and viscerally memorial, the language of a present consciousness wounded by death: "You have left a bloody corpse in my bed…No one in a small town should have a pauper’s grave…I loved someone who died…My mind isn’t safe."

Yet Notley would hardly be Notley if there weren’t some sparkle of wit in the pain—a "funereal repartee," as she put it. The "world drug, the beauty drug" may be an opiate, but it’s an irresistible and even natural one.

And the intrusions of the public world of politics and war—characteristics of Notley’s recent work that have led some to read her as a powerfully political poet—were also in evidence, though less conspicuously than in Disobedience. One poem, "Ballad," which alternated quotes from Dick Cheney with images of elegy and dream, seemed formulaic, with Cheney’s rhetoric too easy a target; more powerful were the moments when public language asserted itself deep within the personal, linked with the stasis of death: "The president comes into every part and stops it."

Afterwards I’m talking with Li and this guy comes up and introduces himself—it’s Chuck Stebelton, who’d emailed me a few weeks back to let me know about a few good Chicago reading series (which were threatening to burgeon, egads, into a "scene"). Pretty soon we’re all talking about blogging and how weird it is to meet people who you’ve only met as blogs and how can we get everybody in Chicago blogging and…well, you get the idea. Watch out for that New Prairie School.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

My blogophobia reached such levels that I have not even read anybody else's blog for the past week, because I realized doing so would make me feel even more bad about not having blogged.
And just when I was wondering if Chicago was ever going to open its brawny arms to the blog: I walk into a restaurant this afternoon and see this week's Chicago Reader and there's Bookslut, right there on the front page. There's even a picture.
Sorry. Something like a blog breakdown over the past week--I dunno, every time I thought about posting my cursor would hover over the link to Blogger and then just slink away.

It's just been a tough week. No personal, political, or poetic spins to be put on it.

I still owe you all a report on the Notley reading. I have a notebook full of stuff. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

I'll be there--and it looks like Li will too, so we can meet at last! A veritable blogfest. Oh, and Notley's pretty good too.

*************** ALICE NOTLEY ****************
at the University of Chicago

Monday, November 10, 5:30 p.m. (Classics 10): Poetry reading

Tuesday, November 11, 4:30 p.m. (Wieboldt 408): "My Lines"

A reception will follow the reading on Monday.


Known as one of the most important voices in the second generation of The New York School, Alice Notley is author of more than 20 books of poetry, including The Descent of Alette (1996) and Disobedience (2001), which won the Griffin International Poetry Prize for 2002. She has published an autobiography, Tell Me Again (1982), and works also as a painter and collage artist. In 2001, she received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Shelly Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She lives in Paris, France.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Good Lord. Those of you anywhere near Stanford can hear Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, Eavan Boland, Michael Davidson, and Thom Gunn read all in the space of this next week.

Tomorrow: Thom Gunn, the Lawrence and Nancy Mohr Visiting Poet, will hold a colloquium, Wednesday November 5, at 11am in the Terrace Room, Fourth Floor, Margaret Jacks Hall, Stanford English Department.

Friday and Saturday: Poetry and Politics: Black Mountain and Others, at the Stanford Humanities Center. Robert Creeley, Eavan Boland, and Michael Davidson read Friday at 8 p.m.

And Billy Collins will read on Monday (8 p.m., Cubberley Auditorium) and talk on Tuesday (11 a.m., Terrace Room, English Department). I'll be the guy in the front row wearing the moth-eaten "IMPEACH BILLY" T-shirt.

Monday, November 03, 2003

I missed William Fuller reading up in Winnetka, but when I saw he was reading down here at the University of Chicago I hardly had any excuse. Of course, I always think that 20-minute walk to campus will take about 5, so I left late and spent the whole walk saying to myself, "No poetry reading ever starts on time..."

The reading was on the first floor of Classics, in a longish lecture hall with just enough vintage woodwork to make me remember I wasn't in California anymore. (The equivalent reading space at the Stanford English department has a big plate-glass window with a view of red tile roofs and the foothills behind them. I suppose this is just a sign that I spend too much time during readings staring off into space.) A solid turnout--I'm guessing at least 30 people--though I have no idea how that ranks for Chicago poetry crowds.

I must say that I knew nothing of Fuller's work before the reading, apart from a piece or two I'd looked up online. I'd seen a lot of mentions, locally and on the Poetics list, of his new book, Sadly, enough to pique my curiosity but not enough to really tell me about his work. In short, I was a pretty clean slate.

In a lot of cases, it may be that attending a reading is absolutely the worst way to be introduced to a poet's work. Listen to a tape of Wallace Stevens reading sometime and you'll know what I mean. I guess this is particularly true of experimental writers whose work is dense, textual, very much on the page--there are obviously some who are consummate performers (Bernstein, Silliman) but it often doesn't seem to come naturally. Maybe this is true of Fuller, and on the page I would find his work deeply engaging. From where I was sitting, though, it was difficult to get in.

One of the first things we were told about Fuller is that he's worked for Northern Trust for twenty years. But this wasn't just a "poet day job" thing: it came up repeatedly, as it became evident that Fuller's poetry is very much of the workplace. While that may conjure up the spectres of Philip Levine or Dana Gioia, Fuller's project is a lot closer to that of somebody like Bernstein (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Silliman): an interest in the discourse and language of the contemporary workplace, particularly in its more extreme forms of jargon. In Bernstein this is often played for laughs or parody, but there's also a cutting sense of the ideology of that language, the way in which it veils, justifies, numbs.

I think Fuller represents the next step in engaging that language--a kind of surrender to, even embrace of, its headlong rush. Beginning a poem called "Profitability Death Spiral," Fuller noted that his co-workers (who are apparently aware of his poetic vocation) will occasionally bring him particularly prime examples of finance jargon. "If you have enough of these sources," Fuller remarked sardonically, "you don't even have to write the poem."

I think anyone who's worked with any kind of linguistic material that seems to be endlessly self-proliferating and mechanized--whether it be computer-generated text, pop media, Google poetry--gets that feeling sometimes, and doesn't quite know how to feel about it. To my mind the most successful poetry of this sort manages somehow to hack out a critical position within or against the discourse it grows out of. Bernstein or Ashbery may occasionally read like a technical manual, but there's a zaniness and verve that both makes it possible to keep moving forward and allows one, possibly, to laugh oneself outside of ideology for a moment.

Seen in this light, Fuller's poetry seemed too, well, earnest, even didactic. In mining business language for poetry, Fuller takes its poetic quality too much for granted. In this sense maybe the apt comparison isn't Charles Bernstein but Susan Howe--more specifically, Howe's faith (following Pound and Olson) that the fragments of the historical record, its language, may yield up some transcendent quality if put under enough pressure. Fuller mixes in a fair amount of Howean historical material, 16th- and 17th-century primarily, but rather than fragmenting it remains discursive, fusing into a single stream of language--an effect heighted by Fuller's headlong reading style, with little space between words and sentences. "Basic objects leap into the sea, which revives them with doctrine."

I can't help but contrast the title of Fuller's Sadly with that of Lyn Hejinian's Happily. In reading, at least, Fuller does seem to use language sadly, carried along on the flow of information, earnestly trying to make sense of it all, but capsized on each successive wave. I don't see Hejinian's happiness, the pleasure of engagement and play, those brief moments of freedom before being carried under again.