Friday, July 30, 2004

And now I have forgiven the Poetics list for all of its previous transgressions because it has brought us Kevin Killian's wonderful reports from Orono, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

From the mailbag: the new special issue of MELUS on Filipino American literature, masterfully edited by Rocio Davis and including an essay of mine on Jose Garcia Villa and modernist orientalism (a companion piece to my essay in PinoyPoetics). The issue is impressively door-stop thick, a testament not just to the wealth of Filipino American writing but to the need for forums in which it can be discussed.

Highlights include a biographical piece by poet Vince Gotera; an essay by Zhou Xiaojing on Catalina Cariaga's Cultural Evidence; an email conversation between Nick Carbo and M. Evelina Galang; two full-color comics by Lynda Barry; and revealing musings on the poetic process by our own Eileen Tabios.
One of the Poetics listers who dismissed my discussion of racism is now crying "racism" himself because someone called him "limey."

Monday, July 19, 2004

Howdy folks. Long time no blog.

Those of you unfortunate enough to still subscribe to the Poetics list have seen me involved in a little dust-up over there recently. I've been meaning to post a little reflection on that argument here, but keep not doing so for the same reason I eventually stopped participating in the thread on the list: I found the whole exchange too exhausting, too dispiriting, and while at times interesting things were being said, I came away from each round of discussion feeling angrier than ever.

The spark was a new post by Andrew Loewen, of "Filipino crack whore" fame; in this case, a poem/diatribe titled "WHY DO THE TIAWANESE," which prompted an exasperated "here we go again" response from me. What followed felt depressingly like a replay of our previous exchange: some self-justifying posts in which Andrew defended his poem as not racist but "the Real of cultural interface" and again questioned my "short-sighted" reading abilities; to which I fired back that Andrew was relying on a vulgar poststructuralism to evade responsibility for his work, and neglecting the profound asymmetry of racism.

I was heartened by the eloquent responses of Richard Newman, who drew on his own experiences working and living in Asia, as well as by supportive remarks from kari edwards, Stephen Vincent, and Maria Damon. But I spent most of the thread engaged in debate with Lucas Klein, whose defense of Andrew's poem began with the unpromising suggestion that my response was merely "paranoia" (a charge, to be fair, that he later backed off of).

The discussion, I think, largely ceased being about Andrew's poem per se and became more about the legitimacy of my critique: why an Asian American would want to criticize a white person's perceptions of Asia; whether I was dismissing any Westerner who wrote about Asia (cf. Ezra Pound) as "imperialist"; whether "racism" and "imperialism" themselves were such toxic charges that they shouldn't even be made. It's probably the best I can do to point to Lucas's original posts (here, here, here, and here) and my responses (here, here, here).

Ultimately, though, what's left a sour taste in my mouth isn't my exchange with Lucas, which did at least feel like a real discussion, but some of the asides and remarks by others casting doubts on my motives and on the legitimacy of any discussion of racism. Worst of all were posts by folks who apparently though the whole thing was a big joke--including the guy who sent in a post referring to Asian members of his own family as "oriental" and "gook" and a slew of poems by another poster adorned with schoolyard mock-Asian talk (e.g. "chinese good / ping pong" and "ah so").

I received a few sympathetic backchannels, including a couple from fellow Asian American poets, one of whom very kindly wondered why I was bothering. I'm not sure I know. It seemed pretty clear to me that there was very little baseline sympathy for what I was saying on the list; I suppose it should not be surprising that there is little presence by minority writers on the Poetics list, and at this rate I suspect the atmosphere there is only worsening. I guess I was kind of hoping my tirades might bring a few people out of the woodwork, but I realize most people gave up on that forum a long time ago and have moved on. I suppose I will have to get used to the fact that the Poetics list is a place where Asian American perspectives, when presented as such, are essentially not welcome.

I'd like to think that this discussion would have happened very differently here in blogland; I'm thinking back to my exchange last year with David Hess and Gary Sullivan about the traits of Chinese poetry, which certainly touched on some similar issues but somehow got talked about in a friendly and open way, without resorting to the politics of destruction on either side. During the discussion I kept wanting to quit the on-list discussion and do what I thought of as "retreating" to my blog, which is, I guess, exactly why I didn't do it--"retreating" because it felt like a way of shielding myself from what seemed like increasingly personal attacks. (If someone attacks me on their blog, I guess, I can choose not to read it.) Having the discussion on the list changed my rhetoric in ways I became increasingly uncomfortable with--combative and angry and ratcheting up the stakes with each post. And finally the development of a dominant tone of rejection that pushed me out of the discussion.

Hm. I guess that's all to say: it feels a lot better to be blogging again.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

PinoyPoetics, which includes an essay of mine on Jose Garcia Villa, is now set for a fall release. Well done, Eileen and Nick! Details below...

PinoyPoetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino American Poetics
Editor Nick Carbo
No. of Pages: 416
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 0970917937
Publisher: Meritage Press (St. Helena and San Francisco)

Meritage Press is pleased to announce the release of Pinoy Poetics, edited by Nick Carbo. This collection of poetics essays (with sample poems) is the line drawn in the sand by poets of Filipino heritage who have been historically ignored and made invisible by the United States of America and its literary, cultural, and academic institutions. Philippine poets represented in this volume range from distinguished professors of English from the University of the Philippines, Manila Book Critics Circle National Book Award winners, and journalists that were detained and tortured during the Marcos dictatorship. The Filipino American poets range from a former San Francisco City sanitation worker, an activist high school teacher, to poets who have won fellowships in poetry from the N. E. A. 

The poetics contained in this important book show once and for all what is unique to Filipino poetics. Among the important issues raised in these essays are responses to American imperialism, the postcolonial and diasporic Filipino experience, questions about historical narrative, and the uses and abuses of language imposed by colonizers. Public and academic libraries, as well as personal collections with interests in Poetry, Creative Writing, Asian American Studies, Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Identity Poetics, Filipino American Literature, and Philippine Literature will find this book indispensable.

Guggenheim Awardee and scholar Vicente L. Rafael (University of Washington) notes about this historic project:

“Pinoy Poetics is an ambitious project for it is no less than an archeology of the invisible. As editor Nick Carbo points out, the task of excavating the shards of Filipino poetry in English in the vast graveyard of U.S. memory is never ending. Along with Eileen R. Tabios, he has compiled an antitode to this imperial amnesia in the form of essays by Filipino and Filipino American poets reflecting on the techniques and trajectories of their work. These essays respond to the question of Pinoy invisibility by bringing forth the history and energy of their presence, but one which, to paraphrase another poet, locates the 'imperfect' as 'our paradise,' where 'delight...lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.' The soundings of Pinoy Poetics are the ghostly keenings that have haunted American poetry, and Philippine, too. Perhaps one day they will begin to take on more flesh and blood. This collection certainly offers that hope."

As of Fall 2004, Pinoy Poetics will be available through selected bookstores across the United States,, as well as its distributor Small Press Distribution ( More information about Pinoy Poetics is available at the Publisher's web site at:
Waitress, Bookclerk, Bagger
for Alli Warren

So then the jar ships with the bees inside and there is something like a forest of berries, taught how to buzz by a reversion. Swill bucktooth. Imagine music without holy and dirty. There’s a tongue stuck through with a finger. It’s a wish for blame, a house party moon hanging just over the weathered bow.

Four head. You can’t whup what’s not there. The bottom is damp, then sagging, then ideas are spilling all over the place and the dog is lapping them up without moving its teeth. An overcoat of shag. Inside is a stalk of celery and forty-eight million kilts.

Run your finger over each spine until nothing happens. The fingertip vanishes and is replaced by a paper clip or deadbolt. Pulled seam. If there is a Tennessee it will be here behind the cardboard curtain.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

This just in from Summi Kaipa:

Howdy folks! Just wanted to let you know that I have organized an event that explores book arts and features work by local and national practitioners of this nebulous (but satisfying) artform.

In the gallery, we will have work for sale by over forty artists, including:
Jo Jackson, Jen Bervin, Will Yackulic, Nikki Thompson, Marcia Weisbrot, Pang Hui Lim, Hannah Cox, Amanda Davidson, Marisa Jahn, Kirthi Nath, Jody Alexander, Patricia Wakida & Garret Izumi, Darrin Klein, Mary Burger, David Larsen, Jennie Hincliff, Tauba Auerbach, Sara Jaffe, Liz Worthy, Micah Ballard, Keith Shein, Emily Abendroth, Kristin Palm, Eileen Tabios, John Yau & Archie Rand, Tinfish Press, Angry Dog Midget Press, Tim Yu & Cassie Lewis, Rachel Daley, and Etherdome Press.

There will also be performances by local literary legends:
Amanda Davidson, Mary Burger, and David Larsen

Musical performances by
Sara Jaffe and Sort of Invisible

Tuesday, June 29, 8pm
New Langton Arts
1246 Folsom St
San Francisco
5-10 sliding scale

Friday, June 18, 2004

Poked Hambone
for Alli Warren

Deliver van quip toodle oo. Heart above foot. Nose neck strung hale like sugar high. Eggcrate popper fork over cover. Stop stop no really stop. More like one week plus count zero. Ends built means.

Lapped up pin. Right left right left. Kind of culled then whupped by delving recess understood. Transmit curve past shaft of sunlight rock dome hard. Thick irregular.

Crank filling crank terrace crank every one. Rent cowpoke lest whim villain out. Lipstick reversion wigs big but calls procedure flesh. Cannon father empty oiled.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Hello again, California. Having been chased from Chicago by a violent storm, it's strange to recall what it was like to live in this land of relentlessly changeless weather.

Also in a landscape of varying height.

Drove up to Berkeley and hit a huge traffic jam on 880, which was almost fun until we passed the half-dozen ambulances and fire trucks just past the Coliseum.

A poetry-swap convening tomorrow morning; Del says bring nine copies of my poem. Yikes! Sounds like a tough room.

Monday, June 07, 2004

I could not help but be moved last night that as a contribution to our national mourning, TBS aired that great tribute to the Reagan era, Pretty in Pink.
EARNEST YOUNG WHITE MAN WITH CLIPBOARD AND "NADER 2004" BASEBALL CAP AND BUTTON AND OTHER PARAPHENALIA: Would you like to sign a petition to put Ralph Nader on the presidental ballot in Illinois?

ME: No, thank you.

E.Y.W.M. [as I am passing out of earshot]: But this is just to get his name on the ballot. It doesn't mean that you have to agree with him or support him or vote for him--

ME: Yeah, I understand. No.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Sun Raise Bulb
for Alli Warren

All day four in the morning window concluding. Oblivion stories. Flick off bacon outbound and then head stand cover. Lap top sleep around.

Twelve-tenths law. Paper box two pounds paper one pound. Hurry deaf double stack and cunning stunt. Keen pray kidney ears. Thick doom impedance after which pleased to have goring. O comp blows mirror equipment out traverse sheep.

Due payment play. Knock down heart. Paul south and sissy rows. Hot dog half pocket and side savage. Bar space rises scratched on sugar. Foster walls.

Insures of bevel. Count look each phrase then fall seizure what jest glares homeward. Junior miss. Reverse date help and sever creamy stretched beyond oeuvre. Autochthonic beverage like blunt spoon lever then shut down heart wise long.
Jonathan Mayhew on the Pound question:

If the question were about Frank O'Hara and someone said, "I don't care about about Frank O'Hara" I wouldn't have a heart attack, even though I think someone ignoring Frank O'Hara is unlikely to write poetry I'm interested in. Even this reaction is premature: Someone ignoring Frank O'Hara might come up with something wonderful and fresh, simply because she or he has traveled a different route to get there.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I honestly don't get what the big deal is if Jim Behrle or anybody else says that they don't read Ezra Pound. I read a lot of Pound. I have the big new Library of America volume and the new Pisan Cantos book sitting on my desk. Good for me. But my telling you that isn't going to make my poems any better, or Jim's any worse.

It's kind of funny, actually, that this level of piety to a Great Writer should characterize the "post-avant," whose spirit you would think would be more like "fuck your heroes" than revere them. The discussion on Tony Tost's blog has a dispiriting element of "these kids today don't know their Pound," with hushed references to craft and The Tradition, that makes me want to scream. (Pound would have been the last poet who demanded to be read purely on the basis of his reputation and stature.)

Maybe this is all beside the point, anyway. The question of "influence" is, as I think Jim suggested, more a game for critics than poets. There's more than one way to put this, but since Eliot came up let's put it Eliotically: the "tradition" is not a question of having read all the right books in English 10 but of having the tradition "in your bones"--in other words, of having absorbed it in an almost organic fashion. And it may be that the most interesting moments in a contemporary poem are, as Eliot puts it, those where "the dead poets...assert their immortality most vigorously." But this doesn't demand that contemporary poets consciously display their knowledge of Dead Poet X or Y; a poem larded with allusions to Pound and Eliot and Stevens is as likely to be horrible as sublime. The recognition of those dead poets--of influence--is a task not so much for the poet as for us as readers; those readers for whom Pound is central will gravitate toward those poets in whom Pound echoes the loudest--or, conversely, will see the hand of Pound everywhere in poems they love.

And if Pound is really so central to the modernist or post-avant or whatever tradition, then any poet working effectively in that tradition is de facto working under the influence of Pound, even if said poet has never read a word of Pound; otherwise we could not recognize that poet as working that tradition. (That some new formalists take as their axiom "Pound was wrong" should suggest to us that pretty much all non-new formalist American poetry--and that's a lot--is based on the unspoken assumption that Pound was right.) If Pound is so central, then everyone writes under his sign whether they know it or not.

In short, when I read a new poem I don't know, or care, whether the author has or hasn't read Pound or O'Hara or Shakespeare or whatever. I'll make a judgment about that poem, and my liking or disliking it may have something to do with how I can fit it in with other poems that I have read and liked--which may add up to a "tradition," which may mean that contemporary poems I think are good have something in common with poems by Pound I think are good.

Is it really possible to write poetry while gleefully ignoring Ezra Pound, or relegating him to cartoon?

Well, there's no way to know until we try.

Finally, the question of Pound's politics that opened this whole discussion. Do I think Pound wrote great poetry? Yes. Was he a crank, a racist, anti-Semite, and fascist? Yes. These things can't be separated; for Pound maybe more than any other modern writer, form is politics, and Pound's drive for historical totality and coherence in the Cantos is part and parcel of his attraction to the self-mythologizing Mussolini. The irony is that Pound may have become useable to us only insofar as he failed--insofar as the Cantos becomes a collection of fragments, a vast field of culture as opposed to a single and total vision.

Monday, May 31, 2004

I Am Now Civilized
for Alli Warren

It is no longer possible for anything to happen. Wall jump. On the scoreboard each bulb is lit in succession until they are indistinguishable from crying, a stain spreading from my pocket. Each boss has a weakness. Turn the corner and poppies bloom, newsprint scattered everywhere.

Then it’s time for sharing with those who are with us. Vowels are shiny and so is the right side of the space bar. We can help with that. Despite our best intentions we have become housewares, piled up like a shrine in the corner. Now turn to face the wall.

My hands spread open and does a dove come out, or do I tear a dollar bill in pieces and then extract it whole from my mouth? Hairy or furry. Would you agree that pornography is a victimless crime? Come and lie down, agog. Flash flood. This is a whole row of nothing but meaning.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Pursuit of the Scientific Life
for Alli Warren

Without a medium through which to propagate. Cream sodas. She married into a grateful man, carrying cardboard boxes down to the train station. We are willing to stipulate bones. Fingers for probing clogged drains.

What to say about fire and water, each theory bent back on itself like skin. Reverse lookup. This is a sentence about belief not perception.

At each ten-second interval you will feel a small shock delivered through the soles of the feet. Would you describe this as a) burning b) tingling c) aching d) stabbing? This sentence has no truth value. See loop detail.

My old lady’s expecting me so I turn the knob all the way to the right. Steady state. I am the smallest possible unit of meaning. If you have reached this message I am likely already surrounded, overstocked with ash.
This week's New Yorker has a Talk of the Town piece on bloggers with book contracts, a periodic source of fascination/jealousy/hysteria online and off. I guess it's because that's the primary way the print media's been able to understand the blogging phenomenon--as raw material, apprenticeship for novel- or memoir-writing (for autobiographical or gossip blogs) or for columned punditry (for political bloggers). It's hard for me to imagine a poetry/poetics blog having that kind of relationship to print, perhaps simply because there isn't any incentive for poetry publisher to go trolling for talent in that way, or perhaps because poetry blogs seem more ends in themselves rather than straining to emerge as something else.

Well, the piece isn't really particularly interesting except for this last comment by the agent scouting bloggers:

"Anyway, I've started working wiht a couple of graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It's very exciting. They're interesting witers--with training, and degrees to show for it."

Take that, you untrained bloggers.

There's also an awestruck profile of Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama that should strike terror into the hearts of the right; this guy is good. At one point, an Illinois congresswoman goes into a meeting with George W. Bush sporting a campaign button:

On her way out, she said, President Bush noticed her "OBAMA" button. "He jumped back, almost literally...And I knew what he was thinking. So I reassured him it was Obama, with a 'b'. And I explained who he was. The President said, 'Well, I don't know him.' So I just said, 'You will.'"
I'd like to think that the major TV networks' declining to carry President Bush's "major" speech on Iraq on Monday was some kind of turning point, a gradual and groggy waking-up from a previously abject fealty to the Bush agenda. An outraged Trib column this morning reminded me how shocking this really ought to be: that a prime-time address by a president (especially one who almost never speaks to the media) during a time of war on the conduct of that war would not be deemed worthy of live broadcast.

Maybe the networks were just realizing what a growing majority of Americans already know: Bush has nothing new to say on Iraq. No ideas, no answers, no apologies, no solutions. His much-vaunted "plan" was simply a rehashing of things that we're either already supposed to be doing (the June 30th "transfer" of sovereignty to a powerless Iraqi government) or should have done already (the rebuilding of basic infrastructure).

Some pundits note that it's the end of sweeps season and the networks didn't want to disrupt their big-ticket programming. But maybe even more telling is the fact that the White House didn't even bother to ask for the time, which the networks probably would have felt obligated to provide. I think this is a sign that even the administration realizes that Bush's rhetoric--once held up as an exemplar of force and moral clarity--is become a liability, as it's becoming clear that the administration has no idea how to handle the complexities of rebuilidng Iraq, or even of managing its own forces there. Better to make a lot of noise about Bush making a "major" policy address--no shallow thinker, he!--and then make sure that no one actually sees it.
Robin's students were agog at the American Idol T-shirt she was wearing under her blazer in class today. None of them would admit to watching it, of course (I'm guessing U of C undergrads are above television), but they did ask her whether she had gotten the shirt by auditioning. She was polite enough not to point out that we're far beyond the show's permissible age range.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Okay, looks like I'll be back in the Bay Area in about two weeks--June 10-14--in order to don a big goofy red-and-black gown with huge down-to-my-knees sleeves and a hexagonal hat with a gold tassel on top so I can sit in a football stadium for two hours to listen to Sandra Day O'Connor and then maybe they will hand me an envelope that probably has nothing in it and maybe then they will even give me a sandwich. You're all invited.

There's no way I'll top Robin's commencement performance last year, though. When she arrived to line up for the procession she was one of the first ones there and it turned out the flag-bearer for the School of Humanities and Sciences hadn't shown. So when the grad students come out there's Robin leading the way into the stadium with an enormous flag in a holster strapped around her waist. Not to mention which the bizarrely designed Stanford Ph.D. gowns are open in the front, showing off the fact that Robin was wearing a quite short Stanford-red satin dress with matching and very tall stacked-heel sandals, marching right across the dewy grass.

It's my first time back since December and I'm a little nervous; don't know what to do with all those clear skies and sun and traffic. (I actually had a brief moment of nostalgia--seriously--about driving down 280 the other day. Has anyone ever seen that sign claiming it's the "world's most beautiful highway"? I saw it like once but could never find it again.) I'll assume everything still in order. Oh, wait, didn't y'all fall into the ocean or something? No, sorry, that was a movie. (If anyone's been under the threat of natural disaster it's us--daily tornado watches and severe thunderstorm warnings and floods and what have you, crazy temperature swings from the high 80s to the mid-40s.)

Strangest of all is that I'm coming back to officially sever the last of my ties to the Bay Area--surrender the keys to the English department and my library carrel. I think this year-long goodbye's been easier in a lot of ways--a gradual attenuation that hasn't been as painful as I'd feared, in part because Chicago's proved to be more than absorbing, in part because other matters have left little time for nostalgia. Cassie's departure, too, proving there's life after San Francisco.

But hey: it's five days. Crazy poetry weekend, anyone?

Monday, May 24, 2004

We Spit Into Each Other
for Alli Warren

Your service is unimpressive. Bone fragments, a layer of ash. He is cradling his son in his arms as I rearrange the houseplants in the shape of intestines. You’ll feel a stick, then hopefully nothing.

Imagine that it is Wednesday, unless you are imagining that it is Thursday, in which case please check this box.

Today, thanks to surgery, I am a wide-eyed redhead. But when we spit into each other it’s like Christmas with sand between our toes. No, I’ll unzip you, please. Places don’t have names but they feel like pink.

Around my throat is an enormous bowtie, breathing and loosening. It makes me want to hug everyone to a new chest. Something like cough. This opportunity is smeared with chocolate. As the acrobat falls to her death the clowns leap into the ring ,showing their underpants.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Here's your Sunday Right-Wing Chicago Trib Watch:

--A gleeful front-page prediction that Kerry's strategy of playing up his Vietnam service will backfire; an opinion piece obviously commissioned to support this idea goes so far as to call Kerry's service "unimpressive". (I also note that the Trib has swallowed the right's line about the emergence of a voting bloc of "NASCAR dads," a category obviously made up by Republican strategists because they can't get any soccer moms to vote for them anymore.)

--The latest paean to white Africa by correspondent Laurie Goering, whose recent gems include a piece blaming South Africa's social ills on affirmative action; today's article laments the advent of land reform in Namibia, a lament sounded almost entirely from the perspective of Namibia's white farmers, who currently own over 80% of agricultural land. The only farmer quoted in the article is a white rancher, who's portrayed as a victim of reforms that are "wrecking the future of this country," while Namibia's president is slammed for his "fiery rhetoric" against "neocolonialism and underdevelopment." The article is headlined "Namibians fret about land reform," but the article's own evidence suggests that it's only whites who are doing the fretting.

--An article on gay weddings in Provincetown that describes a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Marriage is a human right, not a heterosexual privilege" as "strident."

--A front-page Perspective piece (by a Chicago-area Muslim doctor) that dismisses the thousands of photos of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by declaring, "To judge every American by these is patently unfair and unjust." Yes, I''m sure all of Iraq weeps for us. The piece makes the truly bizarre argument that judging the U.S. occupation of Iraq by these photos is akin to post-9/11 racism against American Muslims, because "the generalization of anyone is wrong." Except that as far as I can tell the 9/11 attackers didn't wear a nation's military uniforms and act under the direction of that nation's elected leaders.

Oh, and this just in: New AP video shows footage of the wedding celebration at which some 40 Iraqis were later killed by U.S. bombs. The U.S military's response? "Bad people have celebrations too."

Saturday, May 22, 2004

My Supple Spot
for Alli Warren

Kind of like incisors, clenched through meat. Strappy sandals. Our friends become successful and then we’re running deep under them, rattling their hardwood floors. Gabby, as in idiot, or decline to state. Dear Daddy, I am moving upward through my pink-toothed dress and then it is like being chewed by something when I am very thick and sticky.

Before my first book I was a dialect. Words drifted two letters to the right or left, like a sieve. The leavings formed a glossary, soon published to general acclaim.

When you touch my supple spot it feels worse than it looks. Ping-sized hail. You could spread tired with a trowel. Press here to enunciate.

I raise questions but my fingers have been removed at the joint. It’s a perfect binding, wrapped around both wrists and cupping the genitals. The books are packed so tightly that pulling one out leaves no space at all. Your assent would be helpful but is not required.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Ron Silliman on the Free Radicals anthology, observing, among other things, that "a 150-page collection by Del Ray Cross would be a Major Event indeed." Hear hear!

I haven't seen the anthology, but I admit to having been a little weirded out by the subtitle, "American Poets Before Their First Books." The title suggests a catch-them-while-you-can, next-big-thing tone to the project, a tone Ron generally adopts himself. But--as came up in Ron's comment boxes--does this make too much of the holy grail that is the First Book?

A number of the poets in the anthology--Jim and Del, and I'm sure most of the others--certainly do have books, and sometimes more than one. I have some of them. But however good they are, I guess these are only chapbooks and not Books.

So what does the latter mean? Perfect binding? More than 50 pages? Publication by a prestigious press with access to major distributors?

What makes the First Book, perhaps, is its role as the first major milestone in the Career, its announcement of arrival. I wonder, though, whether this model still makes sense--or, more modestly, whether it makes sense for everyone. In a poetry world that's mostly networked and localized (as opposed to public and national) does everyone have to have "ambition" in the old-fashioned sense, or does ambition always have to find expression in high-profile book publication? Might not all these insignificant web publications and chapbooks and blogs be not just stepping stones but other ways of getting something done? Are people going to be disappointed with the folks in Free Radicals if they don't come out with a book from Knopf or Graywolf or Fence in the next two years?

I don't presume to speak for the actual intentions or ambitions of any of the poets in an anthology I haven't read. But I do wonder if the way the anthology's framed imposes an arc of the Career that might be stifiling to what some of them might be trying to do.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Picked up David St. John's The Face and Marjorie Perloff's new memoir, The Vienna Paradox, at the Co-op this morning. I'm already halfway through Marjorie's book and it's a delight: as much cultural criticism as autobiography, a careful reconstruction of the culture and intellectual life of the Vienna of her childhood, before her family fled the Nazis in 1938.

The "paradox" is, in part, that of assimilated Austrian Jews who claimed Viennese high culture as their own ("German by the grace of Goethe," as one chapter heading puts it) even as that culture turned against them; Marjorie cites the example of her own grandfather, a high official in the Austrian government who remained after the Anschluss, believing he would be protected and expecting to secure his pension, finally able to escape to Italy only because of his diplomatic acquaintance with Mussolini.

But above all, distinguished blurbs from John Ashbery and Guy Davenport report themselves at the mercy of the plucky little girl in pigtails who smiles out from the book's cover, who could already write at age seven of her flight from Vienna in her American school notebook:

On the train, we went to sleep right away. But my cousins, as is typical of them, complained they didn't sleep all night. In Innsbruck, we had to get out and go to the police station where they unpacked all our luggage and my poor Mommy had to repack everything. There was such a mob and we had to wait so long that Mommy said she would unpack a book and I sat down on our hatbox and read. When we finished, we went to the station restaurant where we had ham rolls that tasted very good. And as I was sitting in this restaurant, I didn't yet have any idea that later in America I would write a book. Well, I hadn't experienced much yet but, just wait, there will be much more!

Haven't cracked open the David St. John book yet; I've only read a few scattered pieces of his in the Boston Review, which I enjoyed. Was also tempted by Fanny Howe's Tis of Thee--perhaps another day.
Woo-hoo! Dodie's in town in August...

MYOPIC POETRY SERIES -- a weekly series of readings and poets' talks

Myopic Books in Chicago -- Sundays at 7:00 / 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue

Sunday May 23 – April Sheridan and Simon Pettet

Upcoming Events

May 30 - Dana Ward

June 6 - Larry Sawyer and Lina Ramona
June 13 - Jen Besemer
June 20 - Amina Cain and Luba Halicki
June 27 - "aaaaaaaaaaalice" - Jennifer Karmin performing with Kathleen Duffy and Kelly Jackson

July 4 - no reading scheduled
July 11 - Gene Tanta & Ramona Mirela Ciupag
July 18 - P.F. Potvin
July 25 - Crayon #4 Release Reading

August 8 - Dodie Bellamy
Thick as Nickel
for Alli Warren

I have taken a vow of chastity, keeping me from doing anything but holding the camera. Waiting-room watercolor. Unsure what to make of the fact of real estate, the taste of charcoal. When I look into your eyes there is a speaking of underpants.

My grandmother is unrolling her sleeve. Inside there is a wad of cash or a trowel or an orange.

I am flung at nothing in particular. Flared nostrils of the columnists. I am saying, doctor, it’s more than I can bear. He says, bear.

The two-way crackles and then passes through the frame. In the sketches what will be dots are strokes. When we say underpants we mean hair or teeth, worn at a rakish angle.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Softening Up
for Alli Warren

The house is held together by an editorial board. When they pull away the drywall we come walking out on all four legs. It’s like being able to see through a fogged-up window or a double fold. I contain vague. Continuing over the right half of the brain, we observe dark cul-de-sacs of meat ready for extraction. There is a persistent smell of dogwood or urine.

Someone arrives here. After eighteen minutes in the reversibles we are able to write a message on the car door from right to left.

Half a gasp has to be half something else. It might be falling like stairs or falling like eyes. Which is me. You have gotten pretty good at weather. You still crave underpants but we leave that to one side.

When the diagram is projected onto the green screen all notation is lost, so we are left with only the outlines of rooms with no way of knowing their dimensions or functions. I label this den, this parlor, this carry-on. You may disagree but are forced to recognize the usefulness of at least having a start. You blur lines to indicate windows, erase them entirely for doors. Several of your markings resemble ears of pigs or corn. These arrows are passages for inhalation and come to an end in the linen closet.
Ron Silliman on Foetry, Fence, and external validation, which is, I think, along the same lines as my post on Foetry last month.

The jousting that's been going on in Ron's comment boxes--a battle, remarkably enough, that has even drawn in the top editors at Fence itself--really only illustrates the futility of carrying on this debate at the level of poetic friendships or cronyism. While I'm not crazy about the nameless critic who's been "outing" Iowa MFAs (and I'm especially not crazy about anonymous commenting--who are you hiding from, really?), I'm even more bemused/dismayed by the responses from Rebecca Wolff and Max Winter, whose mixture of moral indignation and petty dismissiveness kind of makes you wonder why they got involved in the discussion in the first place. Why should they feel so threatened by such attacks?

Anyway, the larger point is that with any literary institution, critics will always be able to point to a social network that seems to underlie ostensibly aesthetic choices, while the institution can defend itself by pointing to ostensibly objective procedures designed to guarantee fairness. Neither perspective acknowledges the profound link of the social and the aesthetic; styles get attached to institutions and communities in ways that go far beyond arguments over who knows whom.

I do feel--especially given the kind of work they tend to publish--the Fence folks ought to know better on some of these issues than to simply say that Iowa grads have "more ambition" than other poets (Winter) or that the process is just evidence that the Iowa admissions committee knows what it's doing (Wolff). The experimental aesthetic that Fence supports has had a long struggle for recognition over the past few decades, and it's certainly by no means necessarily true that fifteen or twenty years ago Iowa or other well-known literary institutions could have supported the kind of work that now appears in Fence and elsewhere. In fact, such work was generally suppressed by appeals to the same standards that Wolff and Winter now use to defend their own publication--those of quality, objective judgment, and institutional ratification.

That Wolff and Winter can now make such appeals certainly shows how much the landscape has shifted; Fence itself is now viewed as a site of power, in which external judges have to be brought in to ensure the fair distribution of its resources. Perhaps the best evidence for this is that neither editor feels able to make the most obvious and unapologetic response to cries of favoritism: "Yes; that's right; I pick whatever the hell I please because I like it." That's pretty much the standard prinicple of any small-press endeavor, because what other justification could there be for investing all that effort with no prospect of return? That Wolff and Winter can't appeal to this principle demonstrates the extent to which Fence has departed from this model to become an old-fashioned literary institution, with editorial boards and external referees and procedures to distribute what is now seen as a valuable resource: publication by Fence.

There's plenty of reason to greet this with great enthusiasm. Fence has, by and large, produced good work and brought it to an increasingly wide audience. Good for them. But the persistence of the signifier "Iowa" as a symbol of literary power--and as a target for resentment--suggests that something like Fence represents less a revolution in American poetry than a continuation of roughly the same structures of power with a different face, something that its editors could be a bit more circumspect about.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Just Like Us, But Thicker
for Alli Warren

The photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge has been retouched so that a football crowd rises out of the fog. Each foam hand grips a McDonald’s Adult Happy Meal. The crawl says MEAT PEOPLE. I turn the page and there she is, the old one in the yellow polyester coat, grinning and pointing. Pornographic reveal. We can’t pretend anymore that the air isn’t full of little vortices turning with locked-in teeth: as if it could have been empty? Preserves lined up in tiny jars extend to the horizon. The sign has nothing to do with anything else and thus is allowed to refer to reality.

I was embarrassed to have been caught reading poetry over your shoulder, when in fact I was reading your shoulder.

Jail is a future heirloom. There’s nothing left to steal so we had to make something up and post a copy on every door. It’s inevitable that someone would come along and try to make sense of what we’d written, while we watched from a remote location. Fried egg eyes, chicken nose, bacon smile.

This would be the ideal place for a bumper sticker. Each one has no thickness but if you stack enough of them they will.
Good one, Reen.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Eileen on the dangers of being an Asian American general.

I've heard some Asian Americans argue that the Bush Administration has been good for Asian Americans because it has a few Asian American cabinet officials (Norman Mineta, Elaine Chao). Eileen's post is a good reminder of the cynical calculations behind such appearances: put a few faces of color (Colin Powell, Gen. Shinseki) out there to boost the administration's credibility and provide cover for racist policies, then brush such figures aside when they turn out to have minds of their own.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The technique of suddenly ending
for Alli Warren

with an as-yet-unnamed dog like shading
with fuck-me boots
with a "happy birthday blog"
with something soft spattered on the windshield
with fog no fog doesn’t look that dirty smog
with a broomstick or a chemical light
with an approved device
with thicker
with black assigned a number out of the set of numbers
with a medium drink
with profound apologies for all those who might have been humiliated
with a head in the bag
The Sun-Times asks: Can rockers be poets?
Check out the lovely new cover for Pinoy Poetics. (Thanks Eileen!)

Monday, May 10, 2004

So it seems the new Blogger interface just really doesn't like Netscape. (Well, in fact, Blogger software in general doesn't like Macs, which I don't get.) Working in Internet Explorer is a little better. But part of what's been so appealing about Blogger to me (and, I imagine, to a lot of people) is that it's been relatively low-tech and hence relatively idiot-proof; I have the energy to blog, just barely, but not the energy to figure out precisely how my blogging software works.

Blogger proudly proclaims that its new software is "100% geek-ified", which just depresses me; all these poets' clumsy and faintly ugly and definitely amateurish Blogger blogs have felt to me like a kind of tech beachhead--content, ironically enough, trumping form.

Or maybe I just fear change.

Anyway, all of this is probably going to accelerate my abandonment of Blogger in favor of blogging at my own site somewhere; I know that would be at some level more work, but at least I would have a bit more control over the means of production.
My verdict: this new Blogger interface really stinks.
I'm surprised that in the coverage of prisoner abuse in Iraq I haven't heard any discussion of the infamous Zimbardo prison experiment, in which students assigned to play the role of prison guards became so abusive and violent toward their "prisoners" that the experiment had to be aborted.
We're flipping channels the other night and come across a news channel discussing abuse of Iraqi prisoners with the headline: "Who's to Blame?" To me, the answer seems obvious: "Bush." But Robin points out that while Bush might be responsible for all manner of things, maybe we can't hold him directly responsible for the conditions inside one Iraqi prison.

At first this seems reasonable to me; indeed, it's the same logic that the Bush administration is using to protect the president and Donald Rumsfeld, laying the blame squarely on a few low-level, bad-apple soldiers (and on a reserve general who was the only woman to hold a command in Iraq). But the more I think about it, the more I think my first instinct was right. We have no one but Bush to thank that the major achievement of the "war on terror" has been a culture of lawlessness, from the Patriot Act to secret detentions to "unlawful combatants" denied even the most basic of human rights.

The Bush administration's idea of a response to the abuse scandal is to put Abu Ghraib prison under the command of a general whose previous assignment was Guantanamo Bay, where no one is allowed to see what's going on, prisoners are explicitly denied any legal rights, and those who try to talk about the place are charged with espionage. In fact, it was this general's idea to place military police in the service of intelligence-gathering interrogators--a decision, it's becoming clear, that is heavily to blame in allowing abuse of prisoners to become so widespread, so casual.

A lot of people are saying Bush should fire Rumsfeld. Sure. There's no doubt Rumsfeld knew about abuse of prisoners and not only did nothing, but didn't give a damn. But Rumsfeld's departure would almost certainly mean at least the temporary installation of deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary--and if anybody could be worse, Wolfowitz would be. Rumsfeld, for all his arrogance and bluster, is at base a soulless, tunnel-vision technocrat, one who's so wedded to his vision of a "smaller" (read: understaffed, underprepared, undersupported, and misguided) military that he's willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives and destabilize the whole Middle East to prove his point. (The overwhelmed and untrained reservists who perpetrated the known abuse are the poster children for Rumsfeld's Army.) But Wolfowitz is a real fanatic--set from day one on the invasion of Iraq and a sweeping vision of American empire in the Middle East--and would likely prove impervious to even the limited kind of embarrassment that Rumsfeld's experiencing right now. Hit one weasel in this administration and a bigger one pops up.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Nor are poets excepted from the Chicago distinction of "retro" vs. "metro."

Q: You always seem so not Chicago, with this I mean you are not a beefy sports fan type how do you reconcile Chicago aesthetics with your work?

A: People often think I'm from the east coast. I guess it's because I'm in touch with my feminine side. Have you seen my hair lately?

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Keep hearing "Hugh Jackman" as "Huge Ackmen."
I got an email from Jason Chin, the "retrosexual" pictured on the second page of Sunday's Trib story (not the trendy Asian guy pictured on the story's first page). (Chin's quoted as saying: "All of my friends dress like bums...We dress up when we need to, kind of like firemen around a firehouse waiting for the bell to go off...I buy whatever shampoo is on sale at Walgreens.") He tells me that he was interviewed and photographed nearly two months ago, which casts doubt on my suggestion that his photo was chosen to counteract suspicions that portraying an Asian guy as the "metrosexual" might be racist.

But I don't know if that changes the basic fact that the cover image puts a questionable racial stereotype into play. There was still a conscious decision on someone's part to make the "retrosexual" (who's associated with totally secure Midwestern masculinity) a white guy and the "metrosexual" (who's associated with questionable masculinity and sexuality) an Asian--a choice that also speaks to me about the desire Chicago continues to have to see itself as a white city, since the "metrosexual" is portrayed as an L.A./NYC phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Chicago says: "I am so straight that it hurts."

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Air America Radio seems to be off the air in Chicago for the time being. My first inkling that there was a problem came a couple of weeks ago when I flipped on the radio to 950 AM and heard what sounded like Cantonese talk radio coming out of the speaker. Apparently a financial dispute led the station's owner to pull the plug; a court injunction put the station back on the air through April 30, but now it's gone for good.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Just when I convince myself that Chicago isn't the cultural backwater that people say it is, the Sunday Trib comes along and knocks my block off. This can usually be accomplished through just a glance at the front page of the Perspective section (I can't usually bring myself to look further than that), which has recently featured such gems as a slew of defenses of "traditional marriage"; this week there was a self-congratulatory editorial about how the victory of African American state senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary shows how Illinoisans have all gotten "beyond race", which seems to mean that white Illinoisans no longer hate blacks so much that white voters would automatically oppose a black candidate. (This in contrast to the "bad" old days of the '80s and Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, when the City Council divided essentially along racial lines--old-guard white Democrats against black Democrats and a handful of white "lakefront liberals" who backed Washington.)

That's pretty indicative of how the Chicago press has responded to Obama; even though both the Trib and the Sun-Times endorsed him, the Sun-Times felt obligated to declare that its endorsement was not "a gratuitous nod to [Obama's] race"--as if the assumption would be that an endorsement of a black candidate could only be motivated by political correctness, and that any such candidate would be presumed underqualified. Thus the papers get to score points by praising the "right" kind of African American candidate (Harvard education, university professor), while still holding him at arm's length, and then get to use it as a club against other African American leaders. I'm sure that the Trib's colorblindness won't prevent it from endorsing Obama's lightweight (white) Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, in the general election, or from unleashing nasty attacks on Obama in the months to come.

This Sunday, though, the evidence was in a cover story trumpeting the Chicago man's rejection of the fashion-conscious, well-groomed "metrosexual" in favor of the "retrosexual" , with the latter being the guy who is "clean but not coifed, 'put together' but not cutting-edge. He spends weekends at sports bars, avoids malls, is in shape but not ready for the cover of Men's Health. He watches sports, not E! channel red-carpet coverage of the Oscars."

The real kicker was the illustration; the "retrosexual" was a blond-haired white guy wearing a blue button-down shirt and khakis, while the "metrosexual" was a guy in a colorful striped shirt and nice slacks--who just happened to be Asian. (That somebody on the Trib must have worried about racism was clear from the photo on an inside page that showed a "retro" Asian guy dressed just like the white guy on the cover.)

Trust Chicago to take embattled white hetero masculinity (and homophobia, and racial stereotype) and turn it into some kind of fashion statement.

And the Asian guy's stripey shirt looks familiar. Oh, damn. I think it's hanging in my closet.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Two years ago, a friend I'd known since junior high went missing while visiting friends in Ohio. His car was found abandoned along a rural highway, but there was no sign of him. Earlier this week the police found some bones about a quarter mile from where his car was found, and they've just been identified as his. Because it had been so long--and they were not able to find most of the skeleton--the local authorities say they will not be able to determine the cause of death.

A few months ago a former girlfriend of his thought she spotted him in a Chicago restaurant; she saw a man who seemed to have gestures and expressions that were identical to his. She left the restaurant and called another friend of ours who rushed over to the restaurant, but by that time the man was gone and the restaurant's staff had no memory of his being there.
And while we're on the topic of bland eclecticism, here's another relevant Poggioli tidbit:

"A period having many styles has none...[M]ass cultures...take their styles where they find them--from cultures and societies different from theirs. In short, the absence of a style of its own is not exclusive to capitalism or socialism, but happens in any democratic society, whether it is liberal or not; in any 'quantitative' civilization, which is technical and industrial.

"Precisely by being styleless, this type of civilization prefers an eclectic style, where what is technical ability in an aesthetic sense joins with technical ability in a practical sense...The artist in our time, precisely because he knows how to imitate effortlessly all techniques, ancient or modern, scientific or artistic...refuses to accept as his own style what has now become a purely mechanical production, what is thus a true negation of style...This tolerance is naturally only a purely negative reality and as such, provokes, in turn, the artist's intolerance...[T]he modern writer has no choice but to assume an attitude of absolute intransigence in the face of the indistinct multitude of his readers, an undifferentiated antagonism." (124-6)
Hey Eileen: So I'm wading through Renato Poggioli's Theory of the Avant-Garde (yes, still) and I come across, believe it or not, a reference to Jose Garcia Villa! Okay, not a very nice one, but I thought you might be interested.

"To the illusion that the arts were interchangeable and mutually corresponded, there was often added a childish belief that a transformation which was not formal and organic, but external and mechanical, could have a final and absolute value, rather than a merely instrumental and relative one. As an extreme example, suffice it to cite the so-called comma poems of the young Philippine-American poet José Garcia Villa, in which the space between each word is occupied by that punctuation mark: a purely arbitrary graphic novelty in which the poet claimed to see a literary equivalent of…Seurat’s pointillistic paintings!" (134)

Friday, April 30, 2004

But, see, ending a poem with eggplant is okay.
Not to be the purple rain, Josh, but I have to say these aubergine-ending poems are still not working for me. Yeah, the idea of a blanket ban on a word is dumb, and just the kind of simultaneously high-handed and silly thing that would come out of the mouth of someone like McClatchy. But reading the poems Aubergine Nation has produced convinces me that maybe he was onto something.

Sure, it does depend on context. But that's the problem with putting it at the end of the poem: it forces the word not only into a place where it can't easily be recontextualized (or absorbed into a flow or followed by a wink), but a place where's it's actually being leaned on for closure. And in almost all the aubergine poems the word just jumps out at the end like an exclamation point, because it just doesn't fit right in anybody's style, no matter how high.

I hope my reaction isn't just a jingoistic demand for plain American that cats and eggplants can read.
MYOPIC POETRY SERIES -- a weekly series of readings and poets' talks

Myopic Books in Chicago -- Sundays at 7:00 / 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue

May Events

Sunday May 2, "Talking about the Talk Poem" - John Beer
Sunday May 9 – Rachel Levitsky
Sunday May 16 - Elizabeth Hatmaker
Sunday May 23 – April Sheridan and Simon Pettet
Sunday May 30 – Dana Ward

Upcoming Events

June 20 - Amina Cain and Luba Halicki
June 27 - "aaaaaaaaaaalice" - Jennifer Karmin

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Next year I'll be teaching a course in American literature 1880-1960. A full-year course--woo-hoo! Nominate your favorite text for the syllabus now.
Tech help message of the day:

When a student drops a course with the Registrar, they are disabled in that course site. However, they still appear as enrolled, just in a disabled state. Only system administrators can see a student in this disabled state.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Not that Poetry Espresso's further ventures have come to an end. They've just launched a new online journal, foam:e, edited by Angela Gardner and including a few poems by me as well as an international crew that includes Del Ray Cross, kari edwards, Michael Farrell, and Jill Jones.
News from Cassie that the Poetry Espresso discussion group is serving its last cup on April 30. The list was kind enough to feature some of my stuff two (!) years ago, and I've always admired it as a model of how serious discussion of poetry and poetics can take place on a list in a civil and friendly atmosphere.
Jeremy Bushnell on Li Bloom's reading at Myopic on Sunday--which I'm very sorry to have missed (family obligations kept me away). But Li says: it was "'Chicago' soulful."
Poem: To Americans Abroad

aubergine is nevertheless capable of holding its
aubergine is een gastenverblijf op 10 min
aubergine is de afrikaanse aubergine of antroewa
aubergine is
aubergine is only minutes away from some of the world's finest shops
aubergine is agreeably reduced to a moral pulp and mashed together with the
aubergine is that the vegetable curry is a little bit less than a bellyfull
aubergine is recruited to the posterior pole in a vas
aubergine is very popular among baby boomers
aubergine is actually a cranbery mingled with black
aubergine is eggplant
aubergine is a place to return to again and again
aubergine is described both as the shah of vegetables and the meat of the poor
aubergine is an intimate sort of place
aubergine is currently the proud owner of one such star
aubergine is a spacious
aubergine is de meest bekende
aubergine is not a vegetable at all
aubergine is done and very add basil
aubergine is best eaten soon
aubergine is niet groot
aubergine is european for eggplant so the regal colour purple often finds itself worked into the scheme of the decor
aubergine is like a family to us and we like to get to know all of our followers
aubergine is soft and cheese has melted
aubergine is what the rest of the world calls eggplant
aubergine is oh
aubergine is mostly used in europe
aubergine is limp
aubergine is an aubergine
aubergine is a subtype of the vegetable interface
aubergine is an eggplant
My favorite moments in the Tanning profile:

"By then [the 1980s], the most important people in her life were poets. Mainly, they were new friends--[Richard] Howard and [W.S.] Merwin and J.D. McClatchy and Harry Mathews and Anthony Hecht and Adrienne Rich. They had come to replace the artists in her own circle...and to her mind they formed a much more amiable and gratifying circle, one that belonged entirely to her."


"A few years into her career as a poet, Tanning sold six or seven fairly valuable Ernsts and used the money to endow a prize through the Academy of American Poets...Her prize, awarded every year to an American poet, amounts to the most generous poetry prize in the world. (It began at a hundred thousand dollars and in now up to a hundred and fifty thousand.) W.S. Merwin got the first Tanning Prize...and Adrienne Rich the third."

Calling Foetry...

The runner-up quote:

"It seemed to her then that poets were purer than other people--purer certainly than the artists she'd known. And, unlike those artists, some were actually strapped for cash."
Although I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with J.D. McClatchy (shudder) on that ban of "aubergine." It's a little too precious, non?
Yeah, Josh, I was just reading that New Yorker profile of Dorothea Tanning, too. I guess it was kind of irritating because of its self-congratulatory angle--a glowing New Yorker profile of a New Yorker poet--but after a while it just became a kind of silly testament to how the New Yorker long ago abandoned anything like serious literary criticism (especially of poetry); its profiles of writers don't pretend to be anything more than puff pieces about the writers and their famous friends. Given Tanning's stated hatred of having her work socially categorized (as "feminist" art, or herself as the wife of Max Ernst), if I were her I'd be pretty pissed that in the whole thing there's probably about three sentences about her art, and pretty much none about her poetry.
Short Weekend
for Alli Warren

The clenched
in a dark room

coming, like
all what-

have-you. It’s
not mine

to carriage or
kiss. Part

sugar, part
spilt milk: nothing

to do with

or a way of
knowing nothing

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Kasey's posted Richard Brautigan's poem "'Star-Spangled' Nails," alongside a photograph of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. In Kasey's comment box, Henry Gould responded: "Don't forget that in order to promote your political sentiment (regarding this juxtaposition of images), you have to deny, belittle or negate the beliefs & commitments of those actually in the coffins."

I posted a long response in Kasey's comment box, which I'm reproducing below.

On the contrary, Henry. I hear Brautigan's tone as one of profound sympathy, not for any particular ideology but with the individual soldier, from whom "they" demand service, but whose only reward is death. Surely this is tragic, whatever the justice of the cause.

Medals, memorials, and speeches offer "them" comfort and justification (and this is a "them" in which we are deeply implicated); but from the (unthinkable) perspective of the soldier in the coffin (the perspective Brautigan tries to imagine) there is only the stark fact of death. The nails in the coffin are a material reminder much like the image of the flags being placed around the caskets. For Henry's reading to prevail we would have to understand the image of "star-spangled nails" as merely contemptuous, but what predominates is Brautigan's address to the soldier as "kid" and "son," which I think can only be heard as compassionate and sad. I take Kasey's declining to offer a gloss of his juxtaposition as a similar gesture--one of respect, not of mockery.

In fact, the "political sentiment" here is generated not by Brautigan's poem, the photograph, or even by Kasey's juxtaposition; I very much doubt that the woman who took the photograph* did so with the intention of rousing the forces of opposition to the war. Instead, the photograph has been politicized by a government's desire to suppress it, which tells us that the only absolute truth about war--people die--is itself a threat to the ideology that promotes war. This is the same government that has no qualms about using 9/11's images of death to trumpet its own achievements. Kasey's juxtaposition could be seen, in fact, as a response to such politicizations--an attempt to rehumanize, and make material, the rhetoric of the war.

There's no need to see these images as asserting that these soldiers were merely victims or dupes; nowhere is the claim "They died in vain" made. One can certainly draw that conclusion if one wishes, just as one could see the photograph as an image of noble, patriotic sacrifice. But what is really being asserted here is existential: the fact of death, and our own implication in it. Henry presumes to know what the "beliefs & commitments" of those people in the coffins were (e.g. that they would absolutely disagree with a position that might see the war as wrong, or that they would trust the government without question); this strikes me as an arrogance far greater than anything Richard Brautigan or Kasey are claiming. I read the lists of casualties in the paper every day, and even that little information suggests that people's reasons for choosing to serve in the armed forces are remarkably varied. Time and time again I see family members remarking that a soldier joined up in order to "do something" in the wake of 9/11--a motive for which I can have nothing but respect and sympathy, even as it only increases my disgust at a government willing to exploit such motives (and lives) for its own ends.

Brautigan was, after all (as has been pointed out) writing about a different war. What we're being asked to do here is simply look directly at death, and to accept responsibility for it--to realize the real consequences, for others, of the decisions we make and the commitments we hold. Surely this is a task just as necessary for the most passionate supporter of the war as for its most fervent opponent.


*In my initial response, I assumed that the image Kasey was using was the one taken by Tami Sicilio, the Kuwait-based contract worker who was fired after the Seattle Times published her photograph of flag-draped coffins; while the image is similar to Sicilio's photograph, it's not in fact the same. A legal challenge has led to the release of several hundred photographs of remains of U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base, many of which are now posted at The Memory Hole.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

A Dog Shit Poem
for Alli Warren and Catherine Meng

I am incubating some dog shit in the yard,
next to the dead bird and its wing. My gaze
is tugging on one and then the other.
When I come out the next morning the pile of shit
is bigger than the message of complaint that's left
in my mailbox by the neighbor, even
though it's his dog that put it there
for the sake of poetry. The bird has
nothing to do with poetry, the wing
even less so, its only function being
to point to the shit on the lawn.
After a great discussion here about what to call a certain mode of contemporary poetry--postmodern? experimental? innovative? avant-garde?--the same note is sounding over at the Boston Comment "Avant-Garde Debate", with fine and sensible contributions by Oren Izenberg, Steve Burt, Kent Johnson, and Joe Amato, among others, which by and large decline to be pushed into the fisticuffs encouraged by the tendentious questions. I'm a bit too groggy to respond fully right now, but I do note that nearly all of the respondents recognize the social or sociological element to "avant-garde" as opposed to the purely stylistic implcations of "experimental," though differing on how they feel about this.

For the record, I'm counting among the correspondents two votes for "experimental" (Izenberg, Hix), one vote for "avant-garde" (Alan Golding), one vote for both (Norman Finkelstein), one vote for neither (Burt), one vote for "post-avant" (Johnson), and one vote for "yellow submarine" (Amato).

I'm awarding Oren the prize for best line so far:

Q: do you enjoy reading a collection of individual, unconnected lines?

A: No, I don't believe I would get pleasure out of a collection of individual, unconnected lines. Fortunately for me, I've never encountered one, and neither have you.
Just back from my first trip to the Danny's reading series, which came about through a fortunate pair of events: first, an email a few weeks back from Joel Sloman telling me he was coming to town to read, and then an offer of a ride from a U of C professor who happens to be an old college classmate of Sloman's; part of the way down was spent marveling at what seems to be a renaissance of poetry events in Chicago, with the Danny's series having become something like the marquee event of the new wave.

Danny's itself is a bar that seems to mirror its upscaling Bucktown environs: once apparently a genuine dive, it's now more of a "dive," dark and adequately smoky but with cool little tables and low cushioned stools placed sparsely in its back rooms. The readers were positioned at a DJ station just past the bar, so that in theory one could view the reading through the cutout between the bar and the back room without even leaving the bar itself.

I don't know what I was expecting in terms of turnout, but the room was just comfortably full, with people sitting on the floor story-hour fashion and about ten more slightly less engaged people hovering around the bar; Chuck Stebelton and I ended up listening to the reading standing up against a brick wall, nursing beers.

Joel Sloman worried to me beforehand that the dark would make it hard to read. At the mic he was engagingly nervous and modest, clearing his throat frequently and assuring us that he would inform us of the ends of poems by grunting. He described what he would be reading simply as "short lyrical poems," and indeed the affect of the reading was one of intense lyric introspection (heightened by Sloman's habit of lowering his head as he ended a poem, so that the final phrase at times escaped the mic and seemed almost to be spoken to himself) and close observation of nature: precise renderings of flowers and plant life, yet with curious diversions and metacommentary that produced a sense of what Sloman himself called the "familiar alien." It surprised me a bit to hear Chuck refer to Sloman's humor afterwards, but looking at Sloman's book Stops when I got home I realized Chuck was entirely right; on the page many of the poems Sloman read had a whimsy and verve that Sloman, in person, declined to play for laughs. What had struck me as simple images of nature turned out to modulate into something much more constructed and ambivalent, with the botanic blurring into the human blurring into the artificial--

Dogwood's poised salmon petals enunciate calmly.
Leaves at fewer and fewer dpi slowly dissolve spring.

--moving across registers confidently and at great speed but without hiding the seams. Sloman doesn't shy from metaphysics, either, but a poem like "Self and Self" breaks it down pragmatically, funny and direct:

Thank you for the sea.
It goes "woo woo."

Mark Strand, the evening's second reader, was far more at ease in the space, leaning his lanky frame over the microphone, reading deliberately, and apologizing with a wink to those in the room who might have heard him read a particular poem "too many times." While Sloman downplayed the humor in his poems, Strand had no fear of the punchline, opening with a well-turned ballad, "The Couple," that might well have been described as rollicking were it not for its ironic flourishes (woman and man meet, have sex, and die tragically all while waiting on a subway platform). Perhaps since it's been some time since I've read Strand closely, the selections seemed to highlight to me not only what's distinctive about Strand's work, but what gestures and influences Strand shares with his contemporaries: the taste for surreal plot and details, the short deadpan line, and the metafictional turn that undercuts potential self-seriousness. "Cake" compressed Dante into the story of a man who gets lost (in a dark wood, of course) on his way to buy a cake; the perfect apparition of "Man and Camel" is disrupted by the mere gaze of the poem's speaker, who is reprimanded, "You ruined it!"; "2002" features Death reflecting, "I'm thinking of Strand" and then delivering the poet to an adoring crowd in the afterlife that cries frozen tears.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Mark Strand and Joel Sloman are reading at Danny's tonight.
for Alli Warren

This one's just too good to pass up,
like a sweatshirt without the name of a college.
It's a childish fixation, incubating
with a foursquare tug, an empty gesture
erasing each line of a scratched-in proof.
Maybe it's something to do while waiting
for the walls of the room to pull away,
revealing the cheering crowd.

Here's an orange-legged showcase of salves.
Here's what we might call the "straight face down."
Here's long hair in a tunnel, turned
over and over itself, as if weeds could grow.
Here's another theory of the avant-garde
projected on the bedroom wall.

Monday, April 19, 2004

You can follow the Robert Creeley world tour to Philadelphia over at Ron Silliman's blog; Ron's report (it was crowded there, too) includes the full text of the poem, "John's Song," that I referenced at the end of my own report on Creeley's Chicago reading, as well as the information that the John in question is John Taggart.
The new Chicago Postmodern Poetry site (a spinoff of Ray Bianchi's former Chicago Postmodern Poetry Calendar) is now up, with listings for Chicago-area readings, as well as reading reports, reviews, and poet profiles. There are reports on the recent Robert Creeley reading by me and Ela Kotkowska, as well as my review of Alli Warren's SCHEMA, now preserved for something like posterity.

I admit that I'm a little wary about the "postmodern" label that Ray's chosen; academic discourse these days has developed something of an allergy to the term, which is maybe seen as a very late 80s/early 90s way of seeing the contemporary period; or maybe it's just that Fredric Jameson's notion that "postmodernism" is the ideological art of late capitalism (i.e. that it is precisely the kind of contemporary art that poets don't want to be making) has been too persuasive. That said, it does seem that "postmodern" has a certain purchase as a term for poetry here in Chicago; longtime Columbia College professor Paul Hoover did, after all, edit the Norton Postmodern American Poetry anthology (does anyone really use that book anymore? I remember it seemed so cool when it was published in the early 90s, but now it seems kind of dated), and other, crankier Chicago poets can still be heard stomping on the "reeking, maggot covered corpse of 'postmodern poetry'" (remember, this is still above all the town of the poetry slam).

Not that there's really a good alternative. Ron Silliman uses the term "progressive" to headline his "Philadelphia Progressive Poetry Calendar" (although I originally thought this was meant to suggest people going to each event in succession, like a progressive dinner). For Ron this label is pointedly political--progressive poetics as progressive politics--but no one else really seems to have adopted it, and I can't say "post-avant" with a straight face. If anyone needed evidence that "experimental" as a label is dead, just look at recent arguments on the Poetics list, which suggest that "experiment" has become an empty gesture, a mere label of value. Even Chicago Postmodern Poetry's own about page just complicates things further, declaring itself "firmly rooted for lack of a better term in the innovative 'avant garde' tradition".

So what's left? Well, working on my dissertation has convinced me that "avant-garde" still hasn't outlived its usefulness as a label, in part because it avoids the merely formal connotations of "experimental" and "innovative" and the critical baggage of "postmodern"; it suggests not just an aesthetic but a social formation, a community of writers making its own way. Hope I'm right.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

for Alli Warren

After a while the ants start getting bigger.
The ones that move faster have some kind of whiteness
around their bodies, like wings or the skin
of an egg. Occasionally I have an
itch somewhere and I look expecting
to see something crawling along it.

We always go spelunking on the same side of the street.
We are looking down at the ground in the hope
that we won't see anything, but suddenly there's
a slab of new concrete, or a flattened
irregular disc that might have been alive.
Or even what looks like a bird's wing, shed
or severed, with a moistened bit of flesh
still attached. No, wait, that actually happened.

It's still possible to steer with one hand,
but I wouldn't advise it. This is a large
community of trees and automobiles,
and you really should know your way around
before you go walking where you aren't wanted.
Cassie has landed.

We'll be huddling around the graduate students and professors for warmth.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

A Genealogy of Spoons
for Alli Warren

Some spoons only work in pairs.

Some spoons spread roots upward.

Some spoons swerve aside at the last moment.

Some spoons had tails.

Some spoons stick to tongues in all weather.

The spoon of Chicago consists of 9 bundled tubes, each 75 ft. wide with no columns between the core and the perimeter. It is clad in black anodized aluminum and approximately 16,100 bronze tinted windows.

Some spoons measure rhythm through a precise combination of instinct and technology.

Some spoons derive their shape from a walk taken by their inventor, Sir Isaac Newton.

A spoon has gender.

Turning the cold side up can help your spoon function more smoothly.

In the wild, a spoon would never show itself to us. Instead, it would prefer to burrow into the trunk of a maple tree and then strike without warning.

Some spoons are thinking.

To have a spoon in your cubicle is a violation of company policy.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Okay. I'll bite.

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

from Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (see? I am working on my dissertation)

We can express the difference by defining the romantic, nineteenth-century periodical as essentially an organ of opinion, exercising an avant-garde function only insofar as it leads and precedes a vast corps of readers in the labyrinth of ideas and issues; but the avant-garde periodical functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle, conquer, and adventure on its own.
Regretfully, I didn't make it to the Kent Johnson reading last week, but here's a fine report by Jeremy Bushnell.
Myopic Books is now restocked with copies of Long Nose Pinnochio Bitch and Cassie and my Postcard Poems. Get yours today.

(I offered to sign the books, joking that it might raise the value. The woman behind the counter replied: "Guess I'll have to wait until you're dead!" When I remarked that I hoped she had to wait a while, she said, "Maybe not!")

Thursday, April 15, 2004

I've only been very sporadically following the discussions about Foetry, the site that aims to expose the corruption of allegedly "open" poetry contests. I say I've only been following it sporadically because it's been relatively absent from the blogs I read the most, although looking over at Shanna Compton's blog it seems to have been burning up other sectors of the blogosphere. Maybe it says something about the demographics of my little corner. I don't have an MFA, although I will confess to having won one poetry contest, judged by Gwendolyn Brooks, when I was eight years old. Let the record show that I had no prior relationship with Ms. Brooks and that at the time I saw her merely as a nice lady who handed me a check for $50.

I haven't read all of the blog discussion of Foetry, so it's possible what I'm about to say may sound misguided or even mean. But the logic behind Foetry seems to rest on an idea that strikes me as rather quaint:

There is such a thing as pure literary merit, uncontaminated by politics, economics, or power, and it is this alone which should be used in judging poetry contests.

Cynic Tim says: All literary judgment and gatekeeping is rigged; it's just a question of how and in what direction. If we're talking about this in a crude sense, it's something I've seen at least since the high-school litmag, and certainly in college: people publish and promote their friends. Perhaps that's why I've never been so keen on entering contests; it's always seemed patently obvious to me that awards circulate within a relatively closed group, with admittance restricted to graduates of certain favored programs or institutions, or students of certain prominent figures. (And this hardly is new in the age of the MFA; one of the first things that struck me when I picked up the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry years ago is that nearly every single poet in the book seemed to have attended Harvard.) I don't know why paying an entry fee would change one's expectations in this regard.

Lest this just be filed under "life isn't fair," Grad Student Tim would jump in at this point to note that this was part of the interest of Charles Bernstein's critique of "official verse culture" back in the '80s--not that Bernstein was the only one to say such things, but he was the person who I found saying it most effectively and in a way that seemed to capture the whole scope of the problem. Bernstein looked at the system as a whole--from MFA programs to the publishing and reviewing practices of The New Yorker to the work of Helen Vendler--and showed not only how stunningly narrow and unified it was, but that official verse culture was not only an institutional but an aesthetic phenomenon. In other words, official verse culture also had an official style--the dreaded post-confessional first-person lyric. This is what I think Jonathan and others are pointing to, providing a more sophisticated version of the Foetry critique: judges may very well choose from among their own students or among Iowa grads not out of pure favoritism but because of their common allegiance to a certain aesthetic--a "house" style, if you will. While Jonathan argues that it's still possible to separate this from true "cronyism," I'm not so sure. One could argue that even if Foetry succeeded in its goal of making contest-judging truly blind, nothing at all would change; judges would go on picking the same kind of work (probably work most like their own), which would almost certainly continue to be, if not from their own students, then from poets within the judge's sphere of influence.

What I found most compelling about Bernstein's critique was its solution: not to demand change in the way decisions were made at the most powerful poetic institutions (since no matter how transparent such decisions looked, Bernstein suggested, the results would always be substantially the same), but instead to construct alternative institutions that would help produce and distribute work that adhered to other aesthetics. I echoed that idea last month in hoping for "other avenues of getting things done", but of course Jordan was much pithier in his call to get building.

Of course, some of what Bernstein called "provisional institutions" have become pretty durable, and this entire discussion is complicated by the fact that the institutions of experimental poetry have come to seem equally dominanting and oppressive to some writers (witness recent discussions on the Poetics list). If the mainstream still has its Iowa, experimental writing has made its Buffalo (a development whose benefits still vastly outweigh any drawbacks) and for many younger writers the latter, not the former, has become the point against which to react. Perhaps Foetry doesn't move me because the institutions against which it protests--the AWP, Iowa, Colorado--have little or no relevance to me or many of the writers I know, though others might.

The problem, in short, is not favoritism or cronyism; it's power.