Thursday, July 31, 2003

I am tickled that Ron Silliman previously pictured me as a glowering giant.
Right on, Chris. "Like shining from shook foil" has got to be one of the best images ever.
I am sympathizing with Catherine's vertigo. I basically can't sleep on my left side because if I do and sit up too fast everything spins like crazy, sometimes on and off for a few days. For some reason decongestants seem to help. One doctor told me I had "benign positional vertigo," i.e. "you get dizzy and we have no idea why."

It's probably caused by watching too much TV!
I've invited everyone I can think of to the Postcard Poems reading this Sunday. You come too.

Today's the last day of my postcard exchange with Del. Day to day, the postcards let you not worry about the whole and focus on the local--whatever you can do in that space on that day. But now I find myself thinking back and wondering whether what I've written this month is going to add up to anything, whether it will make a whole or make any sense together. When I swapped with Cassie I tried meticulously to copy out every poem I wrote and save it in a file, but I've been lazier this time, so if something were to get lost in the mail this time it would really be lost. Ooh. Danger.

Going to have to resist the urge to write something melodramatic. Eh. Why fight it.
It's going to take some getting used to actual variation in the weather again. That existential exhiliration of waking up in the morning and not knowing when you look out the window whether it will be sunny, cloudy, raining, warm or cold, maybe even having to open the door and stand outside for a second in your bare feet testing the air. Or how pissed off you are when a downpour starts and you didn't bring an umbrella. Plus tornadoes.
End of July in Palo Alto and it is raining. That is just wrong.
Hey Kasey: Did you notice that Cordite is on a zombie kick?
Sorry, Josh, my shoulders have shrunk back to their California size. Maybe next time.
You know what? I take back the mean stuff I said about the poetry clubhouse. It's great in here. The grown-ups are gone and my Barbie dolls are driving a dump truck while you're playing with your blocks that say "truth," "beauty," and "chocolate fries." A couple people are over in the corner watching Willy Wonka or making up the rules as they go along. Through the gaps in the floor you can see that the ground's a hundred feet down. And there are no walls.
And knock off the "poetry clubhouse" crap, like we're the kids and you're the grousy adult.
Henry, I am fully aware of the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested," thank you. I did pay attention in grade school.

My point: the "disinterested" reader is a myth; even TV doesn't aim for the undifferentiated general viewer. Why not admit that our readers have interests, positions, prejudices one way or the other just like we do?

You would have been better off making it a rhetorical question.
Me, Li, & Chris in Chicago? You're on.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

I don't want disinterested readers, I want interested ones.
Henry implies that the poetry of "theme & subject-matter & more direct speech" has been swept away by the triumphant barbarians of the avant-garde, who now hold sway over the holy poetic empire. It's an idea I see popping up in a lot of poetry debates, even (especially?) among self-identified avant-gardists: maybe we've swung too far in this direction, maybe we need to "go back to" ______ (speech, feeling, love, lyric, etc.).

Anybody read the New Yorker recently? Poetry? American Poetry Review? I don't think the speech-based thematic poem is under any particular threat. (If it were, I might say good riddance, but that's another story.) Nor do I think the alleged victory of the avant-garde is so total. Locally? Sure, experimental types have found sinecures here and there, established presses, journals, even whole academic programs. But the face of poetry that "most people" see, even most people who study poetry in college, if they see any at all, isn't one that strikes me as dominated by the avant-garde.

The anxiety over poetry communicating to a coterie rather than to a wide audience has been with us at least since Wordsworth, and probably since Milton. I don't think we're going to win a big new audience for poetry by writing like Billy Collins.
My poetry might suck, but it's not because it's not about anything.
The list of books I have checked out of the library takes up 19 pages.
Better: "speech" in poetry is a mode, not a universal.

"look in thy heart, and write."
Henry: "speech" ain't the only way to communicate.
Anybody got a microphone and amp we can use for the Postcard Poems reading?
This purple notebook stuff is good.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Sorry I missed you, Chris! You'll have to come and see me in Chicago. At least it's in your time zone.
The chance meeting over a corpse of a monkey and a gila monster.
So I didn't start Vox until I we were on our final approach to SFO (less bumpy, thankfully, than my last flight), but I did like this tidbit:

" seems to me you really need the feeling of radio luck in listening to pop music, since after all it's about somebody meeting, out of all the zillions of people in the world, this one other nice person, or at least several adequate people. And so, if you buy the record, or the tape, then you control when you can hear it, when what you want is for it to be like luck, and like fate, and to zoom up and down the dial, looking for the song you want, hoping some station will play it--and the joy when it finally rotates around is so intense. You're not hearing it, you're overhearing it."
Ha! The truth comes out.
Had Nicholson Baker's Vox on tap as airplane-length reading but decided to forego it because the airplane movie was actually Chicago and I hadn't seen it. Well, truth be told I still haven't seen it, as I was seated in a place just between those mini-screens that drop down from the ceiling and the closest one was too close and the farther one too far...
I've been flying for five hours and it's still only 11 am...

In a bit of a haze driving up 101--having flashbacks to when I first got here and couldn't believe how wide the highways were. Six lanes always seemed big enough for Chicago or Boston. What were you supposed to do with 10? (Fill them all, it turns out.) And how the freeways seem to pass through empty space--no buildings or trees towering over them, crowding, like when I'd see a row of houses or an L train next to the highway in Chicago and suddenly realize that the highway was actually passing through or over some neighborhood.

In Chicago they're "expressways," here they're "freeways." And don't get me started on the whole "the 101" or "the 5" thing.

Fortunately I got cut off on two separate occasions by pickup trucks veering across three lanes of traffic, which made me feel like a Californian again.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Those Amazon readers were split, but for the most part (at least when I first looked) they were pronouncing Nick Flynn's latest book a disappointment: it was "too stylized," "too complicated," "unreadable," and "fiddles around with the language too much"--in contrast to his first book, Some Ether, which "took the unfashionable risk of expressing honest personal emotion." Insert eye-roll here. I figured this would mean that I would hate that first book.

But I didn't. I even managed to get past the pious blurbs about "the ghost of trauma," "solitary voice," and Mark Doty's "buoyant motion toward love." The movement of the poems, their surfaces and structures of thought, seemed to be much the same, even if the content was more explicitly autobiographical. In fact, Some Ether seemed like a kind of autobiographical or confessional poetry I could live with. That Stevens bit about resisting the intelligence almost successfully? That's what the surfaces of Flynn's poems seem to do--there's just enough typographical and syntactic clutter and interference that you have to work at getting the precise sense, but there's also enough of a psychological gut-punch obviously going on to make the labor seem worth it.

Take the use of the "&" instead of "and" through most of the poems. Sometimes this annoys me because it seems it's become kind of an avant-garde tic, a habit you see in people like Olson and Creeley--but I guess Berryman does it too, doesn't he?--and that's now used by anybody from Flynn to Lucie Brock-Broido as a signifier of edginess or archaism. I suppose it's a typewriter aesthetic, which makes it both modern and archaic.

I notice, though, that Flynn almost always uses it at the beginning of a line, where it functions like what they used to call a "carriage return," a forcible revisiting and often revision of what's gone immediately before. What follows the & is usually a restatement or qualification, a backtracking:

In my memory it is always raining,
& when it rains

the water rises in the crawlspace
& threatens the furnace

In Blind Huber that kind of stop-start movement gave thought a mechanical or even prosthetic feeling, as if it were taking a while for an impulse to travel the length of the body, or thought were separated from action. That effect is even more striking when applied to the alleged immediacy of personal history and memory.

For years I had a happy childhood,
if anyone asked I'd say,
it was happy.

That's not the beginning of a poem--you can imagine where that might lead--but its end, one that leaves us stuck in the limits of language and memory rather than imagining we can transcend them.

Perhaps because of that awareness--diction is destiny--Flynn's metaphors tend toward a weird blend of the abstract and the visceral:

If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper
might have used the word
as if a mountain range had opened
inside her, but instead

it used the word
suddenly, a light coming on

in an empty room... was

how overnight we could be orphaned
& the world become a bell we'd crawl inside
& the ringing all we'd eat.

What might seem like a distancing--obsessing over the phrasing of a mother's obituary--is in fact all that can get the poem to the real body, to eating; and yet what's being eaten is a sound. The body may be figural, but that doesn't make it less immediate and even grotesque:

She tells a story of how I swallowed a wasp,
I don't remember

but I always felt a nest building
inside me, like I was made

of paper & spit. I make small cuts in my
forearm, as if to let

something out, as if to look

It's the apparent modesty of this image that makes it shocking--the act of cutting the body doesn't get an elaborate psychological superstructure built around it, but is appallingly, childishly sensible.

Cynic Tim can find plenty wrong here--there's a series called "Cartoon Physics" that just kind of mechanically uses the rules of that genre to stand in for personal traumas, which I guess doesn't work because the figure is jokey to begin with--and is slightly embarrassed by the whole thing, preferring the more rigorous formal and figural explorations of Blind Huber. The rest of me's feeling sucker-punched by

My fingers
tange your hair, trace
your skull, your face so radiant

I can barely look into it

and has nothing else to say.
Anyone out there ever entered a beauty contest? Come on, Jim, admit it.
Ah! Mystery solved.

The Miss Teen International Pageant™ will be held on August 1st - 2nd at the North Shore Center in Chicago, Illinois.

I apparently was fortunate enough to see Jessica Brockman, Miss Teen Kentucky, whose publicity photo on the website looks refreshingly like an embarrassing junior-high photo (I think she even has braces). Looking at the other photos, the contestants appear to range in age from 15 to 42. Miss Teen Arkansas looks like she's trying out for the cover of Good Housekeeping.

The contestants seem to be from the usual range of 50 states and the District of Columbia, but apparently America's imperial ambitions have been moving at a faster clip than I remember: there's Miss Teen Canada, Miss Teen Nigeria, and most cryptically of all, Miss Teen Sunshine. Not to mention Miss Teen Your Name Here.
Saw a girl walking the mall today who was actually wearing a sash, like the kind that I thought only existed on TV and in parades and that would vanish if taken out of those artificial contexts. When she turned around I could see that the sash said "Miss Teen Kentucky." What would Miss Teen Kentucky have been doing at a suburban Chicago mall? Weirdest of all was that she seemed to be alone, looking into the window of a store. It seemed wrong that she would be wearing the sash over civilian clothes rather than an evening gown or something.

Then it turned out she wasn't alone--she was with her mother.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

The Chicago Reader reports that Lisel Mueller and Li-Young Lee are the inside favorites for Illinois Poet Laureate, a position held for over 30 years by Gwendolyn Brooks and vacant since her death three years ago.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

I'm portraying people as "deracinated aestheticians"? Shame on me. I'm probably one too.

I acknowledge, and endorse, the idea that the aesthetic realm can be a relatively autonomous one. I would not want aesthetic judgments to be solely determined by political values, or even by aesthetic values. If I didn't believe that poetry could do something that political discourse couldn't I probably wouldn't read and write it.

So I continue to wonder who Henry is addressing when he says:

these social, political, philosophical beliefs and commitments, in the context of the art work, have no effect or meaning whatsoever, unless the art work is effective as art. How poetry works in this way is not something that can be explained by simple rules & instructions, or right-thinking ideological positions.

This last sentence seems to me not so much an attack on the avant-garde as we know it but on its evil twin, socialist realism. In fact, it seems to me that the position of the avant-garde isn't that politics should determine art, but that art should determine, and revolutionize, politics. Which is precisely what Henry's saying: it's those politicians who should be learning from us poets.

But "no effect or meaning whatsoever"? It's simply hard for me to imagine a kind of reading that would look like this. Is it possible to read a poem purely "as a work of art," without in any way being affected by the beliefs it articulates, the context from which it emerges, the situation in which it is read?

Henry's position ultimately seems to me to boil down to the idea that there is a certain kind of aesthetic jugdment that is simply "partisan-ideological branding & feathering," and another kind that isn't, and that we can easily determine which is which. I think all of us have the experience of reading a review or essay and feeling that the writer is operating more out of her or his prejudices--political, personal, aesthetic, whatever--than out of a true openness to what the work might have to offer. But I object strongly to the idea that it is the avant-garde that is primarily guilty of such prejudice, as opposed to some center that is free of it. The manifestoes and programs of the avant-garde are, in fact, responses to the prejudices that such writers see as ingrained in the allegedly pure aesthetic judgment of the center. This is hardly to say that avant-garde manifestoes are automatically an improvement or progress over such prejudices. But at least they're up front. Just as much lousy poetry has been produced under the banner of "art as art," "classicism," and "the tradition at large" as under the banner of the avant-garde.

Poetry "rooted in experience, emotion and immediacy of perception; it's the working-out (through a desperate and often instinctive commitment to song) of conflicts which are too personal for abstract philosophical formulae"--this is a position, not the lack of one. Whether it's the right one or not is the question we have to grapple with.
I'm being more flippant than I mean to be in responding to Henry's responses to my responses to what he said in the first place, not because I don't take them seriously but because I do. I'm hoping my witticisms will illustrate where I'm coming from better than another iteration of what I've already said.

The fact is there is a very basic social contract operating in most countries : a collectivity so basic, so domestic, so in front of our noses, that we sometimes fail to notice it. It goes something like this : if you work hard, get an education, take care of yourself & your family, you will do well.

Criticizing this is probably, as Henry would say, a side issue to the matters at hand. But I thought the social contract, originally, meant something more like this:

"The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before...Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."

Henry's version of the social contract is a peculiarly American one, in which the terms of "doing well" are dictated to each ofr us, and if we don't live up to them it's our own (individual) damn fault. Rousseau's is more radical: it is we who determine what the very terms of the social contract are, and if the terms of the contract are unjust we reserve the right to void it. That, I guess, is wilfully obtuse and oppositional--avant-garde, even?--questioning the very rules of politics, recognizing that what we regard as immutable laws are in fact conventions, adopted for some (often good) purpose, but ultimately malleable in the face of change. The social contract Henry describes may represent the "center" of American capitalist values, but I don't know if it would represent the center of humane and democractic ones.
Sorry, Henry, I should have been clearer. When I attack someone, I am "critiquing" them. When they attack me, they are "bashing."
The wars over style & "lineage" : psychological projection & compensation.

Yeah. I would add: Poetry: psychological projection & compensation. And a damn good one.

Friday, July 25, 2003

A side effect of the trip to Chicago is that I've actually been able to make my postcards to Del travel a respectable distance before being read. (Sending them across the bay to Cassie felt like cheating, but not even having them cross a body of water is just wrong.) Dug up some old Chicago postcards from the closet--one showing infamously-named Wacker Drive, the other the Magnificent Mile (which all the hipster guidebooks have been trying to convince me to call the "Mag Mile" but I just can't do it). The postcards have weirdly ridged edges, like one side of a perforation, as if the cards themselves were just giant rectangular stamps--pure transit.
I leave the Bay Area for five minutes and it's like a blog invasion! Nick and Chris taking local coffee spots by storm!
I left my time zone in San Francisco...
Friends don't let friends drive voices.
I thought the position of Darth Harvard was already taken.
I read wrong and thought Stephanie's friend was told to cut all the smiles out of her poems. Like a chain of paper snowmen.
We have an apartment!

It's a beautiful three-bedroom place on the first floor of an older building in Hyde Park--hardwood floors, a sunroom, and more space than I can imagine what to do with. The pure potential of an entirely empty space and trying to visualize how all your stuff, which seems to have become an organic part of your current place, as if it had grown out of the walls, is going to fit.

The front bedroom has a lovely windowed nook that forms a corner of the building. When we visited the sun was streaming in and I immediately wanted to curl up in it with a book.

And unbelievably for this neighborhood, the building has a vast backyard, which I'm sure the dog is drooling at the prospect of.

It's about a 15-minute walk from the place to the center of the University of Chicago campus, and if I plan it right I can walk by four bookstores on my way in. There's a little mall around the corner with a supermarket, drugstore, (oddly) an Office Depot and even a faux-French cafe in the courtyard.

I'm starting to sound like a real estate agent.
A Colorful Presentation

of fruit salad in a
broken melon

a crashed computer
a shrunk photo

salty noodles
& chicken for lunch

a thirsty day
a sweaty night

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Can't help feeling, sitting here at my old desk in my old room, looking at my fourth grade class picture which somebody's stuck up on the wall, thinking about moving, that I'm about to become a big experiment in whether "blogging might not 'add a new level' of cohesiveness but might simply adhere to preexisting social systems."
Fellow displaced bloggers all over the place. Nick, that was me waving somewhere over the Sierras. And don't believe the hype. Stephanie is that glamorous.
Oh, that's why Jim is jealous of David Foster Wallace.
Nostalgia for the beloved place where you once lived and then left and now live again

Yes--and stranger still when you lived in a place and left and then come back to a place that is only adjacent to that place, which is I suppose the nostalgia equivalent of viewing the promised land from the desert.
We didn't even bother stopping home first but went straight to our local public library. I tend to go there almost immediately upon arriving in town to accumulate a huge stack of books as a bulwark against projected home-induced boredom.

Something I've come to appreciate over the years is that our library has an absolutely amazing poetry collection for a suburban library, with a great range of stuff--alongside the tomes of Merrill and Lowell and Frost there's Bernstein, Notley, Palmer (Notes for Echo Lake, which academic libraries often don't have) and even Christian Bok's Eunoia.

Since I'd enjoyed Nick Flynn's Blind Huber when I read it back in May, I checked out Flynn's first collection, Some Ether, as well as John Ashbery's latest, Chinese Whispers, which I've been meaning to get around to but have been somewhat deterred by the title.
I've arrived in Chicago more or less in one piece--the last few minutes of my flight were actually a bit harrowing, a number of stomach-dropping lurches and ominous waggles. I'm pretty sure that the pilot had to abort his first attempt at landing and come around for a second pass, because the ground was very close and then it wasn't so close anymore. There was a kid a few rows behind me who every time we lurched would scream and laugh, as if he were on a roller coaster.

California weather seems to have followed me--rather than the usual dog-day mugginess it's in the 70s and crystal clear out.

There are a lot more minivans and Toyota Camrys on the road out here and slightly fewer monster SUVs. And gas is about 20 cents cheaper.
Heading back to Chicago in the morning for round two of apartment-hunting. See you on Central Time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I know Henry says that his proposals have nothing to do with a return to "some standard stereotypical model of conservative poetics." I'd like to believe him. But one reason I guess I've gotten so exercised over some of his comments is that it's hard for me to distinguish, at times, what makes his "new" poetics that different from some of the most restrictive examples of the "old."

I was in a bookstore yesterday and saw that there's a new edition of the Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy. I remember the first edition of the book being something like a bible for me in high school--my copy is dog-eared and water-damaged--and was regarded as absolutely authoritative when I was in college. Looking back at it I'm amazed how narrow it was--McClatchy was at least gracious enough to give Olson's "Kingfishers" a nod, but it was clearly the odd one out.

I picked up the new copy hoping that, over a decade later, McClatchy might have broadened his scope a little. Too much to hope. In fact, reading the new introduction makes you realize why people were getting all upset in the '80s about "official verse culture," and makes you wonder how much has changed, at least in some quarters.

Beyond the bounds of this book, the hollow wars continue. The less talented extremists of any persuasion will always whine, and too many pages are still taken up by loopy Language poets, dry-as-dust New Formalists, or New York School clones. Still, an encouraging and practical cross-fertilization has occurred over the past decade…Preconceived and thumpingly defended ideologies of the right or left have less glamour and weight nowadays…Poets like Michael Palmer and Jorie Graham, thought by some to be the advance-guard, will in time seem to have written narratives of the mind similar to Ellen Bryant Voight’s…The best younger poets haven’t purused the stridencies of angry politics or raw confessionalism that animated their elders…Is poetry today too permissive? Should we approve of a broader perspective, a wider range?…

While McClatchy may seem to herald a new era of being beyond ideology, the tone is in fact identical to the one he struck in 1990--"thank goodness we are beyond all that polemic and struggle and can settle down." I mean, even confessionalism--still!--is seen as too "raw."

There's almost too much to go on here about, but my point at the moment is what happens when you want to occupy a position that dismisses "extremists" and "ideologies" of all stripes, and are deeply suspicious of that which is pronounced part of the "advance-guard" (Jorie Graham??). Don't worry, McClatchy tells us; in time, however exciting Palmer and Graham and other writers may seem to us now, they will ultimately be seen as exactly the same, just like Ellen Bryant Voight. Indeed, McClatchy suggests that we might actually want to suppress further aesthetic variety--since of course, he knows exactly where we ought to be going. And it looks an awful lot like nowhere.

I hope that Henry's call for a return to "perennial human concerns, passions, longings, breakthroughs" doesn't end up being anything like this.
I wish Henry Gould wouldn't dismiss the issues Kasey and I raise as "side issues." Because once you sweep away all of these "side issues" you are left with what seems to me like a great void that Henry calls the "poetic process," but that seems to me to have been emptied of most of the things that are interesting--in poetry, in life.

Henry wishes for a concept of poetry that would be untouched by ideology. If "ideology" means anything at all, then it's not so easy to get outside it. We are all subject to "intellectual conceit and self-delusion," including the delusion that we are the ones who are not deluded. One great insight of the "oppositional" avant-garde, it seems to me--one taken up by academic literary criticism over the past few decades--is that the claim to be outside ideology, in some pure aesthetic realm, is itself an ideological position, one that has real effects on canonization, inclusion and exclusion.

The avant-garde, Henry writes, "displaces...any lineage but its own." Indeed--this is what it means to have a lineage, to recognize a tradition or set of questions within which one operates. The vision of "personal canons of aesthetic fitness and rightness" that Henry offers is no less exclusive than any other kind of lineage. We all decide for ourselves which writers are meaningful and helpful to us and which not. But to bash the avant-garde for "collectively" creating a lineage is disingenuous, since no one creates a lineage in a vacuum. We buy and read books; we go to libraries and to school; we talk with friends and fellow writers and teachers. Aesthetic decisions may be individual, but that doesn't mean that they don't also happen in a social matrix--you can't blame the avant-garde for that.

...the "avant-garde project" (Steve Evans' term) is a project of critical thought (uniting poets with thinkers and activists more generally) which dis-establishes bourgeois values & systems (the "classic" futurist ideology). The attitude of the avant-garde toward the extended traditions of poetry is really a subset of this larger project.

You know, I'm not so sure that would be a bad thing--uniting poets with thinkers and activists? But in any case, it's unfair. The idea that avant-garde writers are writers who care more about ideological battles than about writing is a red herring. It would be more accurate to say that avant-garde writers are writers who believe that writing is central to the ideological and social struggles that characterize our lives. This, to me, makes writing something more rather than less important--not elevated above the experience of everyday life but right down there in it.

The idea that "The greatest threat to the abusers of nature, freedom, and justice on the right, for example, will not come from their opposite numbers on the left, but from the center of normative humane values" is another red herring, as it imagines that "humane values" (like the "poetic process") occupy a narrow band between the extremists of either stripe. Last time I checked, I thought my values were pretty humane; I'm sure George Bush thinks his are too. There are few ideologies and political programs that I can think of that aren't grounded in the idea of a better and more humane society. The armies of the right certainly aren't going to be defeated if they aren't opposed, or if the oppositional positions of the left are suppressed in favor of a nebulous centrism.

The bigger point, though, is that it's hard for me to see how "humane values" are going to emerge from a poetry that imagines itself as beyond ideology, history, politics, psychology, and social life--such a poetry actually strikes me as entirely inhumane and impersonal, which is okay if that's what you want but I don't think Henry does.

Bottom line: I think that those things Henry seems to value in poetry are precisely those things that would be lost if a robust avant-garde ceased to exist. The (re)discovery of "the Real," of the true "narratives of human experience"--if these can be obscured by political dogma, they are also obscured by aesthetic dogma, the repetition of forms that have long ceased to correspond to the way our lives are lived.

Monday, July 21, 2003

If I were going to be in New York, I'd volunteer for the Elvis Costello show. I do a pretty mean rendition of "Alison." Well, it sounds good in the car.
Yeah, Aimee, I was packing up my CDs and came across Whip-Smart and it made me depressed because now Liz Phair wants to be Avril Lavigne. Plus I think she went to my high school. (Liz, not Avril.)

And I'm a total sucker for the new Fountains of Wayne album.
It's weird that Henry Gould is claiming that the contemporary avant-garde is grounded in the "lack or displacement of any lineage," when it seemed to me like the whole recent Ron Silliman/Brian Kim Stefans debate was in part about which lineage the avant-garde could claim, not whether it had one at all. If Silliman is, for Gould, the face of the misguided "oppositional avant-garde," what does he make of Silliman's citation of "the triumvirate of Creeley, Zukofsky & Stein," or of "the barbarians, led by Olson, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Levertov, Ashbery, Duncan, Creeley, O’Hara & LeRoi Jones"? Silliman's point isn't that the avant-garde has no tradition, but that it has a powerful one, and that in fact its tradition has triumphed over what Silliman sees as its opponent.

"The great models of the past" are all well and good, but even Harold Bloom knows that poets get as much mileage from chafing against their predecessors as from imitating them.

I'm most bothered by the statement that avant-gardism is simply "a displacement of the most basic aspects of poetic making with technical novelty." Nobody believes in mere "technical novelty"; to say that of a poem is simply another way of saying that it's silly, pointless, or boring. In fact, it seems like it's been the task of the avant-garde over the past century to pursue novelty with a purpose--precisely with the goal that Gould describes: a better "verbal response to reality." It just depends what reality you think you're responding to.

The labels "innovative" and "experimental" are occasionally annoying for this reason--that they suggest just fooling around with techniques with no purpose or direction, innovation for innovation's sake. And in fact, much of the poetry that falls under these labels is "imitative," following or building on a style that has developed just as robust a tradition as any other.
Strap on your oxygen masks...

Postcard Poems Book Launch

Sunday, August 3, 7:00 pm
@ 2202 Oxygen Bar
795 Valencia (@ 19th St.)
San Francisco

featuring readings by:
Cassie Lewis
Del Ray Cross
Jennifer Dannenberg
Stephanie Young
Tim Yu
and (we hope)
Catherine Meng
and Nick Piombino
[click on names for poems!]

Come celebrate as Postcard Poems publishes its sixth installment--collect them all!

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Catherine's got the right idea: Let's all take Kasey's zombie class. In fact, let's show up the first day ashen-faced, wrapped in sheets, shambling inexorably forward toward the podium, with Kasey saying "Okay guys, knock it off," until our hands are around his throat.
Feeling sick after reading this Guardian article about prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The article ostensibly focuses on the nine British nationals imprisoned there, who, it seems, may now be spared the tender mercies of U.S. military tribunals, if only so Tony Blair can tell the folks back home he's not a complete Bush toady.

But the manner in which the U.S. continues to hold over 680 prisoners at Guantanamo is just a nightmare that doesn't end--one of the most hypocritical and irrational elements of our so-called "war on terror," another example of how law and morality apply to everyone in the world except us. (The U.S. government's petulant resistance to the International Criminal Court is yet another. War crimes can be committed by anybody except us.)

Is an act of terrorism a crime? Then people should be arrested as criminal suspects. But wait--that would give them the actual right to defend themselves, and possibly even prove their innocence. Instead, Bush decided early on that Sept. 11 was an "act of war." So the prisoners at Guantanamo are prisoners of war, right? Oops again--prisoners of war actually have rights too under the Geneva Convention, including the right not to be interrogated and to be repatriated at the end of hostilities. We can't have that either. So the Bush administration made up this category of "unlawful combatants," which somehow remarkably concluded that these prisoners didn't even have the right to be fighting in the first place. Only the U.S. could invade a country (Afghanistan) that had not attacked it and that it hadn't declared war on, overthrow the government, and then declare that people it captured were "unlawfully" fighting against us.

The only unlawful combatants I see around here are our own.

Friday, July 18, 2003

And then a guy from a moving company who's named David Box.
Nicola was on vacation, so I had my hair cut by someone named Caprice.
I like Kasey's idea of "unassimilability," which is indeed different than the somewhat simplistic version of his position that I gave yesterday.

The example from Robert Sidney was a striking one, one that helps explain the interest that Susan Howe and writers who have followed her have had in original historical documents, and in reproducing not just the content but the look and form of historical documents on the page, showing how strange the historical can be to us and how much work we have to do simply to read anything.

Or the work of somebody like Steve McCaffery, whose more visual works often hang just on the edge of legibility, but just enough into it that we do try to read them, no matter how hard it is.

Maybe the distinction I was trying to make is that of a kind of willed unassimilability--in the work of contemporary writers well aware of such levels of mediation and consciously playing with them. Susan Howe's work on Dickinson raises this as a historical question, though--is the "real" Dickinson one to be found in her manuscripts, with their alternate readings, dashes of varying lengths, and unconventional lineation?
The Mercury News reports that to email the White House you now have to first go through a series of menus, the first of which asks you whether you want to send a "supporting comment" or "differing opinion."

The second asks you whether you are a "loyal patriot" or an "enemy combatant."

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Brian Kim Stefans asked for more on Harryette Mullen's take on Ron Silliman's "have their stories told" quote. I've found this bit from a Mullen interview with Daniel Kane:

Ron Silliman did us all a favor when he articulated what I consider a productive tension between content and form, between identity and innovation in contemporary poetry. As much as I claim Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Melvin Tolson, Bob Kaufman, Margaret Walker, and the poets of the Black Arts movement as literary ancestors, I also credit Silliman and other Language-oriented poets as important influences on my work, from the paratactic prose poetry of Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T to my desire, in Muse & Drudge, to write a poem that encourages collaborative reading across cultural boundaries. (I take the term "collaborative reading" or "connective reading" from critical writing by Elisabeth Frost and Juliana Spahr.) I might add that my connection to the Language Poets of the Bay Area was through Nathaniel Mackey and Gloria Watkins, just as my link to poetry of the New York School, Umbra, and Black Arts movement was through Lorenzo Thomas.
Now I want a Reuben sandwich for lunch.
Why do Star Trek and like shows think it's more futuristic and official-sounding to have a computer say "affirmative" and "negative"?
Some good comments from BKS on my post on Asian American poetry yesterday.
Monkey's pulling a Free Space Comix.
The new-and-improved lime tree wonders:

It’s so easy to sit down and close-read or deconstruct a Lowell poem. It practically writes itself. It’s a critical cliche on wheels. So what kind of reading, if we can even talk about a discrete “reading” as an approach to analysis in such cases, is appropriate for a poem by Barrett Watten or Stephanie Young or Amiri Baraka or Julia Tsuchiya-Mayhew or…?

I wonder this myself. In grad school I've found that "close reading" has become a tool or method whose New Critical origins have been forgotten or obscured; more to the point, close reading has become what we teach undergrads as "basic" lit crit, the necessary foundation to whatever more sophisticated things it is we professionals do. Most theoretical paradigms up through and including deconstruction rely on close reading in this way.

If close reading is on the way out, it's probably being replaced by cultural history and historicist methods--the pendulum seems to have swung back from text to context in literary studies.

The problem, of course, with challenging the centrality of close reading is that close reading isn't just what put Lowell or poets like him at the center of literary study; it's what put poetry at the center. Most surveys of contemporary literature, trying to engage questions like political and social context, race, gender, sexuality, are all about novels and narrative and how such narratives fit in with larger cultural narratives. Close reading is built for poems.

It's interesting that Kasey asks, if "close reading" something like Lowell's work seems to produce only critical cliches, what an appropriate method might be to read a poem by, say, Barrett Watten. One objection I often seen to criticism of experimental poetry is that it's already developed it's own set of cliches: all poetry is about language, the indeterminacy of reference, the critique of dominant discourses, etc. I've certainly been guilty of this on more than one occasion. Language poetry succeeded in part because it simultaneously developed the paradigm through which it should be read, so that I'm much more likely to read a poem by Charles Bernstein "through" Bernstein's own essays than through, say, Eliot or Derrida. Whether you like or approve of the poetry or not often depends on whether you've accepted the paradigm.

It's not entirely clear that this new experimental paradigm is that distant from close reading, though, as Kasey points out in his observations on Silliman's blog, which is as interested in the structure of sound in a poem (and its meaning) as any good formalist. What Kasey seems to object to--and what this new paradigm may have left behind--is the idea that the close reading's goal is to produce a coherent paraphrase of a poem, a clear sense of the thing that the poem means.

Kasey seems most interested in poems that are actually conscious that they are being read and that might even try to sabotage our own earnest efforts to make sense of them, even to tease us for doing so. Sometimes I like such poems; sometimes I feel they're all cleverness and no heart. I guess if my attempts to read something are being blunted I want to have a sense that there's a reason for that, that I'm being taken somewhere else even if I might not like it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

And if elected, I promise a White House blog...
I'm glad that Chris has chosen to render her affirmations as the contemporary teen-movie "YaY" rather than than the legalistic old-worldy "Yea." It also bugs me when people write "Yeah" as "Yea." Don't leave us hanging.
Ron Silliman's nephew, Daniel Silliman, drove 32 hours round trip to hear his uncle read. That's family.
I'd read Brian Kim Stefans's most recent post on his debates with Ron Silliman but hadn't noticed this bit until just now:

Worse (I've just thought of this), these concepts [School of Quietude, etc.] don't really give us tools to look at literatures that are not primarily white, and not primarily American. For example, these lines in the sand don't exist for Australian literature -- though there was a New American-style rebellion in the sixties, it produced very stanzaic poets like John Forbes, Martin Johnson and John Tranter, and radicalism was still tied to some form of Surrealism due, I think, to the Ern Malley incident -- nor does it is exist in Asian American poetry, which I learned when working on Premonitions with Walter Lew.

They do exist in some ways, but it's more complex than saying that Theresa Cha and Gerry Shikatani reflect an interest in big-M "Modernism" that poets like Arthur Sze or David Mura don't immediately seem to have. If the argument is for a thing called "Asian American poetry" -- and I've argued that such a thing might not exist -- but if so, then the universe of that poetry must be incredibly diverse and rich, heterogenous and electric, not just depicted as a rivulet departing from the so called "avant-garde" line. Asian American poetry is not "better" because "we" are no longer just "telling our stories" -- that historical determinism (expressed in one of RS's essays) has always seemed offensive to me, for obvious reasons, but also simple-minded.

I assume the essay BKS is referencing is Silliman's 1988 Socialist Review essay "Poetry and the Politics of the Subject," in which Silliman writes:

Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example—are apt to challenge all that is supposedly "natural" about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of this spectrum are poets who do not identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects…These writers and readers—women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the "marginal"—have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to whom is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.

I've said more on this quote elsewhere ("Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Fall 2000)--I agree with Stefans that its implications are potentially restrictive and offensive, but it's also been provocative in my attempts to think about what the relationship of avant-garde writing has been to those bodies of work identified with women writers and writers of color over the past few decades--are these just totally different things, "apples and oranges" as somebody once said to me, or connected in some way?

I heard Harryette Mullen talking about this quote once. Her response: "I'm glad he said it." Mullen suggested that Silliman had put his finger on something that was widely held as an assumption out there though rarely spoken about.

Since Stefans raises the question of Asian American poetry in relation to all this (something that concerns me too), I thought I'd point to an interview that Silliman did a few years ago with Gary Sullivan, in which Silliman says:

It’s not particularly an accident, for example, that so many formally progressive Asian-American writers have emerged, including Sianne Ngai, Brian Kim Stefans, Linh Dinh, Prageeta Sharma, Tan Lin and Pamela Lu in addition to more established poets like Myung Mi Kim, John Yau, or Mei-Mei Berssennbrugge. The startling thing about Walter Lew’s rich and wonderful anthology, rightly called Premonitions, is not how many fine writers it contains, but rather how many more are out there for whom it could not find room.

My own sense is that younger African-American poets still find it much harder, not only to publish – although that too seems the case – but also to find audiences for a broader ranger of work. That is changing, but not nearly as quickly as one would like to see.

Finally BKS asks whether there is even such a thing as Asian American poetry. I think the cat's out of the bag--there are anthologies, books, conferences devoted to the topic--it exists, for better or worse, as a concept that people use. We might want to take issue with the way it's used, but we're not going to strike it from the language.
I'm still thinking about the "new ordinary" and how it might differ from the old ordinary, either in its confessional or New York School ("I do this, I do that") versions.

I guess the list of characteristics Stephanie gives--"a repeated combination of pop culture references and the voice of 'personal' experience, familial relationships, epiphanies experienced in the rush of daily life"--seems like it might be a perfect description of Frank O'Hara, after all. If Silliman's work represents a "new" ordinary, though, maybe the difference would be that it is an ordinary that is not happening to anyone in particular (gaining its importance from that) but an ordinary that is happening to all of us, a kind of field of daily life we're all moving through together.

The confessional poem is shockingly "ordinary" in one sense, since it does dwell on personal, private, and everyday experience; yet its interest can only lie in the assumption that its author is an extraordinary individual, whose foibles and traumas might be our own but exaggerated and blown up, or who by dint of special social status (e.g. Lowell) is seen as "representative" or elevated in some way, worthy of being watched.

I think O'Hara, or maybe even Ted Berrigan, would be the better model for the kind of ordinary poem Stephanie's talking about, one that doesn't just look inward but also outward, to the world of popular culture and media. So how would what Silliman's doing differ?

I think there's still the importance in O'Hara of who's doing this and that--that the "I" of O'Hara, however complicated, is the filter and ultimate redemption of the materials. It's not to say that personal experience is absent in Silliman--there's no doubt that what is observed in his work is seen through his eyes--but that there's a greater effort to decenter that, perhaps with the hope of creating a sense of the ordinary that his (paradoxically) more generalizable, more like the cultural field we move through.

Of course, a conscious return to the "ordinary" poem might be seen as a backing off of the more radical version of this project; the dominanting, in-your-face formal principles of works like Ketjak and Tjanting point strongly to a mode of organization that is impersonal (though consciously chosen). If Silliman returns from that to the "ordinary" (lyric?) poem, does the organizing principle again become the individual ego?

The President took the nation to war based on his assertion that Iraq posed an imminent threat to our country. Now the evidence that backed that assertion is falling apart.

If the Bush administration distorted intelligence or knowingly used false data to support the call to war, it would be an unprecedented deception. Even if weapons are now found, it'll be difficult to justify pre-war language that indicated that the exact location of the weapons was known and that they were ready to deploy at a moment's notice. With a crisis of credibility brewing abroad and the integrity of our President and our foreign policy on the line, we need answers

Rep. Henry Waxman has introduced legislation to create an independent commission to investigate the Bush administration's distortion of evidence. Please ask your Representative to pledge his or her support at:

A President may make no more important decision than whether or not to take a country to war. If Bush and his officials deceived the American public to create support for the Iraq war, they need to be held accountable.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Plus Chris Murray has a report on the Burger/Silliman reading from Stephen Vincent, who I think I did actually meet but totally did not register who he was until he'd already left, which is a shame. He suspects re Burger that "the work will become more engaging as she relaxes the semiotic critical hinges." Silliman he sees as a member of "The Eye Club," "a farmer at harvest, a man obsessively bent on plucking images from primarily urban and now more suburban terrain within which the text provides a smart stock/harvest analysis." But he wonders if Silliman isn't ultimately a pessimist trying to shrore up the ruins (my sense: Silliman wants to be an optimistic satirist, a tough job), asking: "Is there the ghost of a Lowell under Silliman?"
I think maybe James and I should switch positions. He's a slugging first baseman and I'm more the speedy middle infielder type. I am sweet, though.
Eileen and Catherine think my hair is American Idol-worthy, which is making me turn about the same color as Stephanie's arms.

Well, Nick and Jim, if you're looking for the secret, here you go. Ask for Nicola--she'll take care of you. She's even from Manchester.
And Thseng-sie desired to know:
"Which had answered correctly?''
And Kung said, "They have all answered correctly,
"That is to say, each in his nature.''

Ezra Pound, Canto XIII

I love the explosion of reports on Sunday night's 21 Grand reading--it's like cubist literary journalism, all perspectives at once. I have eight windows open trying to keep track of them all.

And also weird to watch myself being reported on--as when Eileen looked over at our row and saw us "UTTERLY ENTHRALLED"--like seeing yourself on a surveillance camera. Or maybe more like an out-of-body experience.

Kasey recognized and identified more people than I even knew were there--he was totally right about the noticeable presence of generations--"long-time luminaries and fledgling celebs"--as well as the fact that the bloggers had grown to enough of a critical mass to be visible and noticeable. I guess he was a bit more taken with Mary Burger's "precise, anaphoric dissections of social and ecological objectifications" than I was, but I think we were both engaged by Ron Silliman's style of "putting the meaning squarely between one sentence and the next, Lucky Pierre style." He understood the "ordinary poem" to mean "No fixed procedural schema or anything," more on which later. He also knows the shame of the notebook.

For Stephanie the reading humanized Ron Silliman, but she's still wondering what the "ordinary" poem is. I thought it meant "conventional," but Stephanie says maybe it's the "ordinary" of ordinary life, "a repeated combination of pop culture references and the voice of 'personal' experience, familial relationships, epiphanies experienced in the rush of daily life: the 'new ordinary' poem of daily experience." The New Ordinaries! Move over, New Brutalists.

Catherine also interprets "ordinary" as "about the ordinary," but wonders whether "poems about the ordinary when done well are, well, ordinary?" She also wonders: " Where did my socks go?!!?!? Oh, it seems that Mary Burger blew them off." Now she has to wash them.

Eileen's got it down: "BEGIN WITH CLEAVAGE AND END WITH THE PRESIDENCY." I'm scrolling like mad between her fashion report and her word-clouds and reading her you almost didn't even need to be there but it's even better if you were! "This image of Ron singing 'limbo limbo limbo' shall never fall through the sieves of my memory." CorpsePoetics '04!

Finally, crazy all-night-driving Alli Warren fingers "bloggers row," a dangerous bunch, "Mary Burger drawing me in in in w/ repetition play" and "eyes bulging as Silliman reads, wringing my hands, laughing out loud a lot," at last "on the road again, 95 mph steady, moon silvers the sea, sun rising," like Allen Ginsberg on a good day.
21 Grand Reading Report (part 3)

[with apologies to Ron Silliman for stolen lines]

There’s no hold on fairy bread
In the charcoal park, where Viagra Falls
Is a spouse stripping naked to a techno beat.
This is CNN in women’s clothing,
You say to the two-tone dentist, warm
With a normal profit and baggy shorts.
Those incomprehensible sandals strap
Themselves to anything around.
In the silence of the looms you can hear the candied
Thump of well-being, its hair teased out
To impossible lengths. Does anybody know
Which side bread’s buttered on, what ghosts
Rise to pave the clanking hills?

Monday, July 14, 2003

21 Grand Reading Report (part 2)

I heard Ron Silliman read at Stanford a few years ago, and what I remember most was his reading the first line of Ketjak--"Revolving door"--and throwing his whole body into the gesture, swinging his torso in a circle each time he read the line.

That level of physical presence was on display last night as well--Silliman proved brilliant at phrasing and punctuating, marking one sentence from the next not with an artifical obtrusiveness but enough to maintain the discreteness of thought, to allow you to think. (If there's one thing I would want people to do at poetry readings it would be to slow down--not lugubriously but deliberately.)

Silliman didn't look anything like his scary author picture, with its magnified eyes and the rest of the head fading to black. Instead he was a genial presence--tenor rather than bass--with his two young sons in tow, delighted every time a poem referenced their antics.

Silliman read from VOG--the latest installment in his ongoing project, The Alphabet (with the alphabet's end approaching, I'm beginning to wonder what he'll do for an encore). VOG, Silliman told us, is TV lingo for a voice-over--literally, "Voice Of God." I wondered if that would strike some critics of Silliman's blog as utterly appropriate. But it also made me realize that what Silliman's poetry does is precisely to break up those totalizing tendencies some have found in his prose--it registers and weights each perspective, each angle of critique, but never dwells on it long enough to ossify. (Poetry as escape from personality?)

Stephanie was struck by Silliman's remark that he was reading "ordinary poems," which he hadn't written in years. I assumed this to mean discrete, lineated pieces of verse, with titles and beginnings and ends, rather than the prose expansions that comprise so much of his major work. But it did raise the question of what it meant to return to the "ordinary" poem at this point in his career. Listening, I didn't hear that much of a difference in the movement of thought--the pattern of observations intercut with snippets of the corporate and political and media discourse that surrounds us at all times, often artfully deformed--but perhaps what was "ordinary," and new for Silliman, was the sense of beginning and end, the movement toward closure. Not in the epiphanic sense, but simply as a place to stop before the next thought.

Silliman's lost none of his talent for the clever pun--"Viagra Falls," "Planet of the Apps," "Poet Be Like Cod" (this one with a knowing wink at Kevin Killian in the front row). I'm not one to criticize someone for a weakness for puns--it was said of Shakespeare too--and this wordplay was a great way of engaging the crowd, producing nods, smiles, and laughter. But I've wondered at times just what the critical power of a pun really is. Couldn't it simply be one more iteration from the ad machine? Would we be so surprised if a software company dubbed itself "Planet of the Apps"? Maybe this is the risk Silliman hinted at in ending one poem with the line, "This is CNN"--the risk that when we try to digest the media, it may end up digesting us.

Maybe that kind of modesty was what was a work in one line that made Kasey and me both sit up: "How will I know when I don't make a mistake." Having recently been reading Ketjak, I knew this was a reference to a line there--"How will I know when I make a mistake"--that drew attention to Silliman's method of composition (copying lines from previous paragraphs into subsequent ones, introducing the possibility of error). Silliman's updating of the line suggested that maybe the first question was the wrong one to ask--it implies that there could be a perfect copy, a right way to go forward. At this point in Silliman's project, perhaps the question to ask is how one knows if one is ever on the "right" track, even at the same time that one has to keep going forward heedless of the answer.
21 Grand Reading Report (part 1)

Eileen challenged all of us bloggers (and there must have been a dozen of us) to see who could post the best report on last night's 21 Grand reading. Let the games begin.

The blog that ate San Francisco...if you thought the SPD open house back in April was a blogfest, you should have been there last night. In addition to Stephanie Young, Kasey Mohammad, Eileen Tabios, Catherine Meng, and James Meetze, I got to meet Tanya Brolaski, as well as Alli Warren, part of Kasey's entourage from Santa Cruz.

To give you some idea, here's how introductions went:

"Hi, I'm Tim Yu."

[blank stare]


"Oh, hi!"

At one point I heard Ron Silliman pointing some of us out to his nephew (also a blogger) Daniel Silliman and saying (approximately): "That's lime tree...and that's tympan...and that's the well nourished moon..."

Later, during the reading, it occured to me that I should probably reach into my bag and get my notebook out so I could take some notes to blog from. Then I thought maybe that would be hopelessly nerdy. Then I looked across the room and saw Eileen scribbling madly in her pink notebook (which perfectly matched Kevin Killian's shirt); then I looked two chairs down from me and saw Stephanie scribbling, somewhat more languidly, in hers...(Stephanie now claims she was doodling, but I know better.)

I did promise to report on a reading in here somewhere.

It was an impressively full house--I'm guessing there must have been 60 people there--and quite hot despite the best efforts of a few oscillating fans.

It's not easy to be an opening act, but Mary Burger held her own with a serious, substantive performance. I hadn't known her work before and admit that at times I had difficulty knowing what to do with her pieces, some of which were called essays and some not. Her first piece, inspired by a scientist friend "who talks about the universe as if it really exists," seemed like a meditation on dualism and solipsism, but I'd be hard-pressed to put my finger on its philosophical position. Her repeated references to "language-games" as a "shiny fetish" reminded me of what frustrates me about the way a lot of recent poets think about Wittgenstein--that he's drawing our attention to the gap between language and what's "really out there," when he seems rather to be making that gap go away.

Another piece engaged in an "argument" with a passage in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans. Burger read her own piece first, then read the passage from Stein. Burger's poem involved a lot of repeated phrases, but when she read the Stein passage I was reminded that Stein doesn't repeat--she iterates and varies and moves things forward.

Perhaps the most interesting moment came due to a technical failure--Burger wasn't able to project images from a work involving photographs, forcing her to give us lovely, pithy descriptions of the photos we weren't seeing: "A flag, torn almost in half, held together by a thread."

Her final piece, on the "semiotics of the rubber duck," was probably her best, moving convincingly from Chinese factories to a toy duck floating in a bathtub.

More to come...

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Came across a discussion of our symposium on poetry and Buddhism back in May by Peter Y. Chou. He provides a brief description of the event and a fabulous list of links for the participants--Norman Fischer, Michael McClure, and Leslie Scalapino. Here's my take on the event, live from the archives.
Unionizing Borders employees are onto us.
Let the "Yu's on first" jokes begin.

Friday, July 11, 2003

The Lowell Collected is a compromise between a standard trade-publisher Collected Poems--like the recent James Merrill Collected, which could be put together so quickly after Merrill's death because it's simply a lumping together of Merrill's published volumes under a single cover, with a few bonus tracks--and a scholarly edition that represents every poem written by a certain poet, with an editor who examines every version of every poem and attempts to create an authoritative text with copious notes. Both, in their own way, aim for neutrality--the former by a laissez-faire assumption that the poet's final published thoughts are definitive, the latter by working mightily to scrape away the errors of editing, publishing, and censorship that obscure the poet's true intent.

Lowell's Collected certainly took as long as a scholarly edition would--we've had to live with the Selected Poems nearly since Lowell's death three decades ago--but Bidart declares that he had "no wish to do a variorum, which tends to leave every variant at the same level of importance." Bidart is less editor or scholar than well-intentioned, meddling friend, declaring that he served as "both amanuensis and sounding board" during Lowell's lifetime--a characterization most reviewers have repeated uncritically, accepting that Bidart had superior access and hence should be trusted with superior judgment.

This is why I can't decide if Bidart is the best or worst editor Lowell could have--another poet, convinced of his own centrality in the Lowell universe, obsessed with his own role in editing, his own ego and judgment. Two of Bidart's characteristic tics--italics and repetition, stressing words that otherwise seem empty--are on display even in the first sentence: "Robert Lowell was above all an audacious maker--in poetry, one of the great makers of the twentieth century."
The CIA is taking the fall. Bush is trusting to what the X-Files used to call "plausible deniability."
Grace Paley, Vermont poet laureate, endorses Dennis Kucinich. Howard Dean retorts with haiku.
I've been working on an article on Jose Garcia Villa that will hopefully be forthcoming in MELUS. I sent a final draft off to the issue editor, who came back with a question: At several points in the essay I refer to the work of E.E. Cummings. Shouldn't it be "e.e. cummings"?

Good question. I thought I'd seen various answers to this question and had gotten it in my head that it should be "EEC" rather than "eec," but had no idea why. So I did some research and was able to come up with this response, which I reproduce for your amusement:

It does seem as if there is a difference of opinion. However, in a 1992 article in Spring, the journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, Norman Friedman writes: "it must be said once and for all that his name should be written and printed with the usual capital letters in their usual places: "E. E. Cummings.''

Friedman cites as evidence that Cummings usually signed his name "E E Cummings" in personal correspondence and also, in a follow-up article, quotes a letter from Cummings on the capitalization of his name: ""E.E.Cummings, unless your printer prefers E. E. Cummings/ titlepage up to you;but may it not be tricksy svp[.]"

The Modern American Poetry site at the U of Illinois also uses "E.E. Cummings" throughout:

I guess that seems authoritative enough for me, so I'm sticking with "E.E. Cummings."

There does seem to be a competing claim that Cummings legally registered "e e cummings" as his authorial name. However, Friedman dismisses this as apocryphal.

Robert Lowell's editor, Frank Bidart, is sometimes described as a "post-confessional" poet, but I think it might be more accurate to call him a philosophical or Cartesian confessionalist, one who's more interested in the abstract, existential drama of a generally defined "I" than in the facts of any individual personality. His early stuff is recognizably autobiographical, but his later poems on Nijinsky and Ellen West are self-conscious philosophical dramas in which concepts like the self and the body are the primary actors.

I've never been a big fan--I've always felt Bidart's projects to be failures, although they're sometimes interesting failures. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper on Bidart in which I (rather smugly) knocked him for basically trying to do what avant-garde writers do without avant-garde tools:

The work of Frank Bidart would seem at first to fall into the category of voice-based poetry. The notion of voice is absolutely central to his writing; he describes his intensely personal work as relying "nakedly" on voice for its animation. Yet the voice that Bidart strives to portray is not the standard, colloquial voice of experience seen in so much contemporary work. Instead, he seeks to capture the private voice of pure thought, untainted by physical and emotional experience. The demands of this voice lead to a stripped-down diction and an extreme prosody that attempts to portray not the end result but the process of thought; it becomes a voice that is best expressed not in speech but in writing, in the layout of lines of the page. This poetic can often produce striking effects, and is able to incorporate abstract, philosophical ruminations into the poem in ways that most contemporary poetry cannot. But the strain evident in the voice—its repetitions, its italicizations and violent capitalizations—may be a sign of the thinness of Bidart’s means. Rejecting conventional form, yet not fully exploiting the modernist heritage of Pound and Eliot, Bidart’s poetry gives the poetic intelligence a very narrow field of action, where the private voice struggles to argue itself into existence and must often be bolstered by extrapoetic materials.
Reactionary fantasy dept.: I have acquired the dread tome. Since I don't seem to have anything else to add to the Ron Silliman/Brian Kim Stefans Robert Lowell boondoggle, here's my plan: I am actually going to read the damn thing and report as I go. Stay tuned.
Fishmongers sell fish, warmongers sell war, both may sincerely believe in their product.
I can't believe the New Yorker actually has a poetry intern. I can't decide whether to be pleased that the NYer actually thinks that poetry is worth bothering to have an intern for, or depressed that there is someone out there willing to be paid nothing to read New Yorker poetry all day long.
Bush lied and he knew it.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Robin thinks Kasey on fatal toxic cloaks sounds like something out of White Noise.

We had the local news on that night but with the sound off and when we saw the dateline "Moss Landing" with a picture of a conflagration we briefly thought it was news of a horticultural invasion.
Ditto to Jordan on John Yau. Yau's latest book ain't bad either.
Welcome home, Zenith.
Free Space Comix wants to know:

I’ve been assured by several emails that the Language school has never been in fact “attacked” by the "mainstream" (or "Official Verse Culture") -- that most of the “attacks” came from within our own New American "lineages." Is this true?

I think it's true that sustained, in-print attacks on Language writing by "mainstream" poets or critics are rather rare--the attitude tends to be one of ignorance or snide one-line dismissal. Example: I once sat in on a class with Helen Vendler (that dean of ye olde OVC) on contemporary American poetry, and was surprised to notice that the final lecture of the year was scheduled on the syllabus to be about "Language Poetry." So I dutifully showed up for the last class to hear what she had to say. I was totally floored: she'd say "Here is an example of Language Poetry" and then read a piece of Russian Futurist zaum writing or something by Michael McClure, something that involved a lot of nonsense syllables (in camped-up fashion--you've never heard Williams's "The Sea-Elephant" if you haven't heard her saying "Blouaugh!")--and then laughing and saying, "Well, that isn't poetry." "Language Poetry" for her obviously just meant anything vaguely avant-garde or nonreferential, and it just "wasn't poetry."

When I was working on my senior thesis I ended up going in to talk to her about the topic, and when I asked her about Language poetry again she recommended a book to me: Vernon Shetley's After the Death of Poetry. It's about as good an example as I've seen of a "mainstream" take on Language writing, as well as a contribution to the burgeoning "poetry is dead" literature.

The funny thing about what Shetley calls the "MFA mainstream" is that nobody likes it; I dare you to find a single critic who says "Oh yes, MFA programs are wonderful, they've done so much for poetry." Here's Shetley's schema, which is essentially a political one: the aesthetic of the MFA programs, with its "unexamined belief in the power of subjectivity to shape meaningful poetic forms," is flanked on the left by Language poetry, with its "erasure of subjectivity," and on the right by New Formalism, with its belief in "the power of traditional poetic forms to shape subjectivity." (I remember thinking when I read the book that such a simplistic political schema seemed totally weird, but I've come to realize that people in all camps actually believe this.) Of course, Shetley's conclusion is that our poetic future lies not in any one of these schools but in the "difficult" work of great individuals like Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.

Shetley does actually take the time to read and discuss people like Bernstein, Silliman, and Andrews, and his ultimate condemnation of them is probably as sustained a "mainstream" attack on langpo as I've seen. Here's his conclusion:

Whatever meaning [Bernstein's] "The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree" has, then, is a matter of surfaces. There is nothing to penetrate because no meaning is hiding behind any other; all are equally available, and the poem offers no grounds for choice. But if this sort of poem is ultimately too easy to read, it's also too easy to has failed to devise a sufficiently rich set of rules for itself...When the poet is free to choose words without regard to goals other than polysemy, the polysemy that results scarcely seems an achievement...Bernstein's poem, and much of the writing that goes under the "Language" rubric, may be looked as as either all meaning or all randomness, but the interesting area, and the area of genuine difficulty, lies between. (151-2)

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Short version: A cynical liar can be exposed or outmaneuvered; a true believer is all-consuming, impervious to doubt.
ADPR writes:

When Bush was on the air carrier and declared that, by winning the war in Iraq, we had struck against the 9/11 terrorists, it was the most cynical, shameless statement I've ever heard a political make.

I guess what I'm thinking is: Cynical and shameless I can live with. All presidents are liars and manipulators; Bill Clinton was just my kind of liar and manipulator. What I find most disturbing about the shifting sands of Bush's justifications is that it seems clear that Bush feels he doesn't even have to bother giving us a coherent lie, because he knows that most Americans don't actually need a good reason to go to war, and that the media and members of Congress are too cowed or compromised to ask real questions.

I believe in the cynicism and calculation of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice axis; they've been looking for a chance for war with Iraq for over a decade, and 9/11 was merely (this is what most sickens me) the perfect cover story for their agenda. What I loathe and fear in Bush is not his cynicism; it's his apparent sincerity. When you see Bush declaring that the war in Iraq is a strike against the terrorists of 9/11, you see a man who appears to believe what he's saying--that the forces of "evil" are one and are everywhere and that any blow America strikes is a blow for good. Does Bush "know" that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11? Yes; but it doesn't matter; it's all one evil everywhere, and one thirst for revenge.
Congrats, you are Ron Silliman.


Tuesday, July 08, 2003

So if Bush did lie, why isn't it more of a scandal? Why isn't Congress investigating him, as Parliament is with Tony Blair?

The run-up to the war in Iraq was probably the one and only time it was ever interesting to watch C-SPAN. Not because of the robust debate over going to war in Congress (there wasn't any) but because of the occasional snippets from the British Parliament, where members of Blair's own party were grilling him about his justifications for war. And Blair, to his credit, defended himself. He laid out his case for war in a forceful and straightforward way that no U.S. official has yet done. He staked his career and the future of his government on the idea that war was justified. That's why he now has to insist, in the face of all evidence, that weapons of mass destruction will be found. If they aren't, he's done.

But it doesn't matter for Bush. Because Bush never gave us the same reason twice for invading Iraq. First it was that Saddam sponsored terrorism and was cozy with Al-Qaida. Then it was weapons of mass destruction. Then the "liberation" of Iraq from tyranny. Now the vision of a pro-U.S. democracy as a beacon for the Islamic world. No matter that the first two were patently false, and the latter two pure neo-con fantasy. Bush knew that it didn't matter, that ultimately Americans and their representatives didn't care. They didn't need to have a case made to them for the rationality of war, since the decision was made on fundamentally irrational grounds.

It was about revenge. Americans had been hit and they wanted to hit back and didn't really care all that much who they hit. Bush knew it.

The widely discussed poll showing Americans thought Iraqis attacked the World Trade Center has been trotted out as evidence of American ignorance--an ignorance exploited, and encouraged, by the Bush administration. But now I wonder if it's more of a revenge fantasy playing itself out. "Target: Iraq" CBS tells us--an object of hatred has been given us, and however we have to rewrite history to justify it to ourselves is okay with us.
At least the British know how to do a political scandal right, with their "sexed up" documents and "dodgy" dossiers.
Guess what? Bush lied.

I guess it would be more of a scandal, Josh, if we didn't know it already.

Monday, July 07, 2003

I tried writing some postcard poems while in the waiting room before a doctor's appointment today. It was an interesting experiment in writing in a place with negligible sensory input--a contrast to my usual instinct to write in locations of sensory overload, which I find have a kind of white-noise effect on my concentration while providing an unlimited field of material that I grab and paste at will, perfect for a postcard.

But the waiting room, as Elizabeth Bishop will tell you, is an existentially weird space, designed to calm its inhabitants and render them docile--usually dark, painted in neutral colors, chairs arranged so that you don't have to face anyone or sit near them. (The first time I rode the tube in London this was what shocked me the most--the long benches facing each other across a very narrow aisle on the Piccadilly line, so that it is nearly impossible not to stare at the person across from you, however hard you try to stare at the window behind them.) And always magazines of the most esoteric or dull kind (National Geographic must give a deal to doctors), obvious castoffs or year-old leftovers.

Of course the dominant sensation in a waiting room is really ambient anxiety (the term "patient" seems like one of the oddest exercises in wishful thinking ever)--your own seeping out of you and mixing up with everybody else's and becoming something transpersonal that then boomerangs back at you--so that even if you're in there for a cold it's like a echo chamber that convinces you it must be something much, much worse.

Since I was a kid I've always brought a book with me anytime I know I have to wait even a few minutes somewhere--the desperate fear of simply having to sit somewhere with nothing to read or do and having to stare at the wall or listen to the inside of my own head. I was always slightly terrified and awed by those people who I would see in waiting rooms simply doing nothing--hands limply in laps, eyes not even straying to the magazine racks. Bored. I can't explain my own terror of it.

The waiting rooms at the new student health clinic here are perfectly pleasant--well-lit, new chairs, old magazines, and usually no one else there or only one other person there. The room I was in today was empty, though I could see the receptionist on the other side behind frosted glass. I had brought postcards with me and started to write but what on earth about? There was nothing. There were literally two magazines--some kind of science magazine on one side and, of course, National Geographic on the other. No wonder Bishop was thrown back on herself, National Geographic and scary adult pant legs and the realization that "you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them."

Waiting Room

A natural history of
the face-off: buzz
like water or grass.
The necessary titration
of fallacy: truth.
A bronze-age
mating game severs
top from bottom.
This lab's balanced
on a tipping point.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

  • My #1 result for the selector, PRESIDENTIAL MISTRESSES , is
    Angie Dickinson & John F. Kennedy. Gorgeous starlet Angie Dickinson, had a discreet affair with JFK. A beauty contest winner, Angie entered films in the 1954. One of the roles for which she is best remembered is the mistress of a gangster played by Ronald Reagan in The Killers (1964).

  • This just in: Silliman endorses Dean. Sort of.

    Friday, July 04, 2003

    Short version of last post: Are postcard poems about production or reception?
    What are the postcard poem rules for holidays? I always figured that if you were going to abide by the spirit of the thing you would have to write one postcard every day of the month, including Sundays. Although if you are abiding by the letter of the law and sending one postcard per day you could theoretically not write one on Sunday and write two on Monday and send them both that day, since a letter can't be sent on Sunday. Is there even mail delivery tomorrow?

    The great thing is that whatever I decide, Del will never know, or at least he'll never be able to prove it, since the postmarks will be the same.

    If I spent more time writing the postcards than trying to outsmart them I wouldn't be having these problems.
    Happy 4th.

    Thursday, July 03, 2003

    Elephant & Castle [20]

    Pick a daisy from the
    bricks gone bad

    bear right at the
    moaning sea

    The toothy beck
    and call won’t/would

    over that pan-
    creatic can

    It’s hell on peck
    per port, isn’t

    chancy fins
    a Western whey

    Key to lines: bake
    her louvered door

    like a trail
    or a liver sport