Sunday, February 29, 2004

So it looks like my reading tonight is going to conflict with at least the beginning of the Oscars. Well, don't worry. With the no-time-limits policy on speeches, I'll have you home in time to see the awards for Best Sound Editing.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Have you really come back to us, Mr. Heathen?
And hurrah for Kasey's new job! If I'm not mistaken, his new appointment at Southern Oregon University will make him a colleague of Lawson Fusao Inada, which I think is kind of cool.
Reading Stephanie's great post on "the bump and grind relationship between mainstream Christianity and our mainstream U.S. culture-making-machine," I'm suddenly remembering that I had a dream last night in which I was being admitted to a hospital and was handed a form to fill out, which included a section to indicate one's religion. I remember checking off "Christian" and then filling in "Unitarian" in the blank next to the box, neither of which is really true, even if Robin and I were married by a Unitarian minister, who won my undying respect when he declared that our friend Zena's reading of Frank O'Hara's "Having a Coke with You" obviated any need he might have had to deliver a homily.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Getting ready for my reading Sunday night at Myopic Books. Expect a cheering hometown crowd and poems as expansive and bare as a newborn prairie. Just don't reach for any foul balls.

I'm also delighted to hear that the Toronto-Rochester ferry will be up and running in May. What's in Rochester, you ask? Well, it's the soon-to-be-hometown of Cassie Lewis, whose evocation of the place back in January must put her in the running for Rochester poet laureate.

Travel time on the ferry will be two hours fifteen minutes, which is about how long it would take me to drive from Palo Alto to Berkeley and find a parking space. Hello, East Coast swappers!

Sunday, February 15, 2004

It was standing room only Thursday night for Lisa Jarnot at the U of C's Poem Present series--the biggest crowd I've seen there (okay, I missed Mark Strand, but), at least 80 people, some of whom had to lean against the wall sleepily in the warm room.

I heard Jarnot read with Jennifer Moxley six years ago to a middling crowd at MIT, at a point when I knew nothing about either of them. I found that Moxley--whose work I found arch and full of in-jokes, delivered with a knowing smirk, that I didn't get--couldn't hold a candle to what I remember as a tour-de-force reading by Jarnot. I recall being nearly hypnotized by the circular movements of what must have been pieces from Sea Lyrics; and I must have extrapolated from that, in memory, the idea of a bardic, charismatic presence.

So I was a little surprised when Jarnot stepped up to the podium bundled in a red knit cap and at least two scarves, looking very much like someone fending off a cold, and had--at least in the first few minutes--to lean close in to the mic to be heard at the back of the room. It made me realize that what's compelling in Jarnot's work is not the volume of its ambitions but its distinctive and insistent rhythms; the power of her reading came not from any extra oomph imparted to it in performance but in the way she allowed her syntax to be heard with utter clarity.

Introducing Jarnot, Devin Johnston compared Jarnot's catalogs to Whitman's--a view I probably would have endorsed entirely before the reading, based on Jarnot's earlier work, but which the reading made me wonder about. Anaphora may be Jarnot's trademark, but the principle of relation is less the desire to encompass than the non sequitur; to paraphrase one of Jarnot's lines, if love compels speech, then speech compels...mammals.

The result is a poetry that's increasingly willing to risk the absurd or the just plain silly; Jarnot announced that she was reading one poem, "Dumb Duke Death" (an alliterative ode to Dick Cheney, containing all words that begin with "d" or "c"), because a review in the TLS had declared that it was a "stupid poem." But Jarnot's new collection, Black Dog Songs, is full of poems that court banality, like "Greyhound Ode":

Go to sleep little doggie
while the moon is still foggy
and the wild dogs all bark
by the light of the moon

One might evoke Blake, as Jarnot often does, and call this a "song of innocence" whose naivete is earned and ironized by the dangers that surround it; Jarnot's circular structures, like Gertrude Stein's, make simple lyric repetition seem ominous. It's why Jarnot can get away with calling a poem "Lisa Jarnot," because of this weird doubling of perspective. The poem is addressed to a younger self, and presents the process of maturity in terms that are both childish and allusive ("there will be / more sardines, and all the / grilled cheese sandwiches / on white bread will move / away"), but it's estranging in its ultimate argument for a symmetry between the positions of innocence and experience; after all, "the stars / are all the same," and a person is something neither "light nor dark."

None of this prepared me for the second part of Jarnot's reading, drawn from a forthcoming novel titled Promise X. I sometimes wonder why poets decide to write novels; the result can, at times, be an exposure of the poet's tics, extended over an unsustainable length. But in Jarnot's case it was much more productive. While her poetry usually relies on unstable identifications ("They loved harmony they loved ant hills they loved food and cookies and harpoons"), the novel form allows--forces?--those questions of identification to focus on a single character: a depressed woman (in psychoanalysis, of course) who comes to identify herself as a "terrorist" and to explain "how I fell in love with Osama bin Laden."

Put in this context, Jarnot's circular identifications and goofy games become much more ominous and provocative. Jarnot said that she began the project in the wake of 9/11 with a spirit of "tenderness" and "sympathy"; but the noticeable discomfort that settled over the room made me realize how effectively some persons have, in public discourse, been put outside the limits of identification with a label like "terrorist." (I think in this regard of the fallout when Bill Maher referred to American cruise missile attacks--in contrast with the self-sacrifice of the 9/11 hijackers--as "cowardly," or when U.S. politicians viewing the inhumane conditions for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay remarked that the accommodations were "better than they deserve.")

Part of the unease, though, came from uncertainty about how much we were to step back from Jarnot's narrator. The narrator's identification is not political but psychological or pathological; she takes pleasure in the destruction of the World Trade Center not because she opposes the American government or global capitalism, but because she "likes for things to die." The disturbing identifications with terrorism and bin Laden become part of the narrator's attempt to externalize and map her own consciousness, corollaries of her identification with her therapist ("the person I came to call my dad") and of her illness. For Jarnot, Osama bin Laden becomes not just a creation of the United States, but a spectre from its own unconscious, one of the "dark-eyed revengers from the desert and from New York City too."

Thursday, February 12, 2004

It's official: beginning this fall I'll be an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto.

It's a somewhat unexpected, but very gratifying, end to this whole crazy job search thing, which has been pretty much my full-time occupation since September (and at least somewhere in the back of my head for, oh, the last five years). Earlier this week, in a presentation on Ed Dorn, someone evoked the image of the "academic nomad," which seems a pretty apt description of the academic jobseeker: having little idea where--if anywhere--one is going to land, and realizing, distressingly, that one often has very little control over that choice. I certainly didn't imagine, though, that the process would take me across the Canadian border.

But my visit to Toronto last month turned out to be a complete delight, even if I did have to navigate snowy paths in my suit and inadequate dress shoes. There's a wonderful, lively faculty, a fantastic library, and if I had any doubts about the interest in poetry there, they were dispelled when I found myself sitting down to lunch with Simon J. Ortiz (there on a visiting professorship) and peppered with cheerful challenges to my readings by George Elliott Clarke.

The position is one in "Asian North American" literature, which, as if navigating the conjunction "Asian American" weren't perilous enough, requires a triangulation of the "Asian," the "American," and the "Canadian." And there are some interesting differences: it seems, for instance, that some of the best-known Asian Canadian poets (like Fred Wah or Roy Miki) have had a much closer and more productive relationship with the avant-garde than the Asian American poets who tend to get most widely read. Wah's training with Olson and Creeley hardly seems to have marginalized him in Canada; it's hard to imagine an American writer with the same style and background winning the boatload of prizes Wah has.

But the very fluidity of the category seems to translate into a great freedom as to how I pursue and teach the topic--which might not have been the case at a comparable American institution--plus I'll be teaching poetry and American literature classes as well.

While Toronto is closer to Chicago than some of the other places I was considering, it does mean hopping on a plane (albeit for a one-hour flight) and crossing a border; with Robin staying here in Chicago, it's going to be a little complicated. But we'll make it work. I'm banking on the fact that Toronto has more vegetarian restaurants than Chicago does to lure Robin north of the border.

So (digging through toppling piles of papers) I guess that means there's a dissertation around here somewhere crying out to be finished...

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Off tomorrow to Massachusetts, home of your Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. (But--sorry Jim--I won't be anywhere near Boston.) I'll trust you all to hold down the fort until Friday.