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.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

for Alli Warren

Today the observation deck is ringed
in clouds, which must be why reception’s
going in and out like a lakeside crowd.

Memory is a function of
the shirt I’m wearing, its graduated
stripes bleeding into the space between.

I’m being called on to speak. What
can I say but what’s already said
in the course of history, hardly

heard before it generates
its opposite, warning me about
the submerged rocks, the shallow bed.

Around the cardiovascular rotunda
we’re ringed like men, fooled into
thinking we’re not looking at ourselves.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

I was stunned to pick up the Sunday Chicago Tribune and see (on the cover of the as-always woefully thin Books section) two massive poetry reviews taking up nearly the entire front page and jumping to swallow page 4 too. The reviews were by Maureen McLane--a scholar and poet who's affiliated with Harvard and MIT but seems to have some Chicago connection, as she's been reviewing poetry regularly for the Trib and is speaking at a workshop here next week; one review covered Yale Younger Poet winner Loren Goodman's Famous Americans, while the other highlighted Matthea Harvey's Sad Little Breathing Machine, Mary Szybist's Granted, and Tony Hoagland's What Narcissism Means to Me.

McClane's reviews are generally smart and sympathetic, but maybe the most remarkable thing about them is their mere existence. Trib arts writing is pretty weak--architecture critic Blair Kamin fancies himself an intellectual but is mostly just pompous (a shame, since Chicago's probably the most architecturally impressive city in the country, at least if you like modernism)--with only rock critic Greg Kot rising above the crowd. So I can't imagine what Trib readers think when they come upon McLane's massive blocks of prose:

Structuring these poems [this is on Matthea Harvey] we find a pervasive perceptual-cognitive operation, a figure of reversal, of confoundment, in which tenor and vehicle, subject and object, cause and effect are reversed or inverted...A weird animistic vitality makes these poems move; the poet arrogates the power to let all things live and move and have their being, organic or not...

I guess one thing that's happening is that the utter vacuum in poetry reviewing in national publications means that a critic like McLane can step in and tell unsuspecting Chicago readers that this is "what's been going on in the nation of U.S. poetry"--with an invocation of National Poetry Month, no less (the only reason, I assume, that the book section editors let her get away with these huge reviews). I guess I have to take some pleasure in this; Goodman and Harvey are a lot better, and younger, than the usual suspects, though I have reservations about both their books. I don't know if I can separate my feelings about Goodman from my utter loathing of the whole "Younger Poet" apparatus, so that I liked the book at all was a minor miracle; my feeling was that the goofy play of historical and pop-culture figures was very funny at times but ultimately didn't seem to have any bite to it, maybe because Goodman relied on his own somewhat hermetic imagination to come up with these constellations, so that we felt we were following a series of in-jokes rather than some actual or critical refraction of our culture--which I think a lot of people are doing, and doing well.

McLane, though, seems to buy Goodman's project as a perfect synthesis of comedy and critique, and maybe lets Goodman (and W.S. Merwin, his YYP patron) off a bit too easy in claiming his own genealogy (I don't see anything all that Oulipian, for example, in his work). Incidentally, Jordan's also done a review of Goodman's book, which operates in a totally different register--that of placing Goodman in a social (or even coterie) context, abetting Goodman's own trickster self-presentation by charting his periodic vanishings and nebuous current employment.

The Committee on Social Thought of the University of Chicago is sponsoring a visit by the poets Jorie Graham and Peter Sacks. They will be making the following presentations.

Poet, critic, painter, and Professor of English at Harvard, Peter Sacks will deliver a lecture entitled "The Poem at the End of the Mind: Yeats, Stevens, and the Unintelligible" this Thursday (April 15) at 4:30 pm in Cobb 301.

Poet and Professor of English at Harvard, Jorie Graham will give a poetry reading this Friday (April 16) at 4:30 pm in Harper 103.

Jorie Graham will also hold a seminar, "The Body in Mind," this Friday at 1:30 pm in Foster 505.

Monday, April 12, 2004

for Alli Warren, among others

A camera lens, a lamp, two sinks, an open
. The difficulty of the problem
is its arrangement into a square, trimmed
like bread and pooling in the center.
What sounds like rhythm is really only
a faucet dripping; an X marks the spot
where the airline's routes cross somewhere over
Kansas. The jagged icon pulls
the string behind it.
............................... Contributors
are listed in the order in which their heads
can be fit to a vanishing framework.
What I'm feeling can only be expressed
in a reversed alphabet, something developing
over the course of long, repeated walks
by a waveless lake.
................................. There are days
when the office buildings can be seen
too clearly, when the air doesn't
show itself like a plastic wrapper
but just stays out of the way.
This may be what they call a new
America, where "71% now approve
of interracial marriage, even for their children."

What we're moving toward could be
an apparatus that keeps us up all night
with its talking out loud, its level-headed
judgment, its love of discount racks.
But for now a line of heroic gadgets
steps up to take the blame for what
is, after all, printed on demand.

There's a dilating iris behind each tree,
like the leaves were something other than there
just to break the light. But moving on:
we return to the scene of the sell-off, hair
hanging lank with three days of smoke
and hamburgers. It's nothing more
than a moment in the history of sighs.

Do you ever feel like a little paper
is waiting somehwere for you, already
dented by the press of your pen but saying
nothing? I do. It must be so
we can be seen doing everything we'd do
anyway, even without the promise
of a flak-jacket greeting card.
A careful search of the envelope would reveal
a bit of hair or dander, or a strategy
for sleeping well at night: so don't
give up before the real thing shines
through a tear in the shirt you're wearing, soft
like a peach-fuzz blanket or a tire tread.
What I keep coming back to in Eileen's response to Andrew Loewen's apology is this insight:

it's not an uncommon strategy for people to "deflect" away from a complaint by turning a specific point into a more general point. Generalizing can allow avoiding the address of the specific issue, particularly on such sensitive matters as those involving race...(The specifics here include how a general desire for shock value translates to the specifics of "Filipina crack whore".)

In thinking back on the discussion on the Poetics list over the past few days, this is exactly the strategy that kept popping up, not only from Loewen but from those who were defending him--downplaying the specific language being objected to in his post in favor of the "general" (and hence more valid, more real) aspects of what was being said.
Eileen on Andrew Loewen's apology, which she finds not particularly satisfying for reasons she eloquently articulates (some emails are just too good for the Poetics list). But she accepts it nonetheless.
Somewhere there is a dog named Illinois.
Andrew Loewen apologizes.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Over at The Chatelaine's Poetics, Leny Strobel writes in: Many white students earnestly believe they are not racist and yet can point to incidents and comments wherein they participate in racial acts including the act of being silent in the face of racial comments made by others.

Leny also assumes that Andrew Loewen "has issued some kind of apology." Eileen says she's not so sure. As far as I can tell, he hasn't. In his comments here, he does "concede" that his remarks were "totally ineffective," "stupid," "sick," "obscene," "flippant" and "thoughtless"; but almost all of these concessions are qualified in some way, and nowhere do I see the phrase "I am sorry" appear. His actual follow-up posts on the list have been far less self-flagellating; although they do say that his post "was not designed to offend" (though it was surely designed to provoke, no?), the overall tone (as I've already noted) has been one largely of condescension towards those who have criticized him--and certainly no gestures that would take responsibility, since all of his remarks' bad effects are still attributed to others' misreadings.

My sense, honestly, is that Loewen, as regretful as he may be that people responded to his post with hostility, does not really believe he has anything to apologize for. He does not take seriously what's been very clearly stated by a lot of people on and off list: that his comments had racist and sexist effects, and that whatever he thinks he intended, he should respond in a way that shows he actually understands how damaging his remarks were.
I am sympathizing deeply with Cassie, whose thoughts on her valedictory weekend of Bay Area poetry decadence

"To count up the last times, collect them in a suitcase and turn to face the east"

remind me a lot of my own feelings on departure back in August.

Bon voyage, Cassie. I'll see you on Ontario's gentle shores.
No deflections, says Mme Chatelaine: "at the end of the day, Andrew Loewen's remarks objectified the Filipina."

And Jean Vengua: I had considered the possibility of joining the Buffalo poetics listserv, but thought I'd "lurk" for awhile to get a feel for the community. OK, I got it.
Readings! sleepovers! baseball!
Why do so many people conflate harshness and strength?
Some poems by Jonathan Mayhew and Barbara Jane Reyes on the current debate.
Sign spotted today in the yard of a house in Roscoe Village on the North Side:


Saturday, April 10, 2004

Unfortunately, it seems an addendum is necessary after looking over today's Poetics list digest. I hope I am mistaken in thinking that Ray Bianchi is charging me (I assume he means me, since it's my email that's attached to the end of his post) with "degrading" the conversation on the list through my critique of Andrew Loewen's post. I don't think that I "throw bombs" to end discussion; I thought Loewen threw a bomb and I was trying to jump on it, or something. I don't think it's at all fair for Ray to accuse me of simplistic charges of "racism, woman hating and alike." Last time I checked, this was a community of poets, people above all hypersensitive to language and its uses. I tried to provide a reading of Loewen's post--which I've expanded below--which explained my response to and criticism of it, not simply cry "racism" and "sexism" against someone I wanted to shut up.

I'm also disappointed with Loewen's subsequent post, which condescendingly suggests that those who criticized him just "don't know what to do with polyvocal expression." To which I guess I can only say, as I do below: writer, read thyself.

Well, here's a final twist: Andrew Loewen said he wanted to draw attention to the fact that white men claim a monopoly over complex writing, while women and minorities are consigned to the simplistic. Now, both he and Ray Bianchi claim to be readers who can appreciate complexity and subtlety, while those who have criticized Loewen's post--for the most part, women or minorities--are guilty of simplistic thinking and an inability to read well. Okay, Andrew: I guess you were right.
Andrew Loewen, the author of the Poetics list post that got me, Eileen, Chris, and others so worked up, has appeared in my comment box (see the previous post), stating that while he's certainly "learned something" from the response to his post, he still feels that the actual points he was trying to make "have been unjustly ignored at the expense combating my 'semantic ugliness.'"

I started comment-boxing back to him, but realized the space limitations there (my own fault) wouldn't allow me to respond adequately. So here goes.

Hello, Andrew. I'm afraid I feel there's nothing unjust at all about how the questions you raised were "ignored"; your own rhetoric--which was surely designed to grab attention--is solely to blame for that. What other effect did you think your subject line could have? Did you believe that interposing "author-function" between "Sylvia Plath" and a misogynist slur would be an adequate defense?

In fact, my point was that the inflammatory nature of your rhetoric worked precisely to undermine the point you were ostensibly making. I am assuming that you'd say your intent was to point out how the "privileged" (i.e. well-educated white men) are able to claim the aesthetic high ground of the "experimental," while dismissing the work of women and non-whites as merely "confessional" and degraded. Though I think these terms are imprecise and have to be contextualized, there's certainly some truth to that insight.

But the very terms in which you stated this claim, I think, served to reinforce or even worsen the binary you're purporting to critique. As unpleasant as it is, I'm afraid I can't show you what I'm talking about without returning to the words in question. Let's look at the first point in your post:

"1. It is mostly those with relatively privileged positions in the social hierarchy who denigrate confession and seek to efface their (our) identity/subjectivity/voice, whathaveyou. White men are traditionally more experimental poets than strung out Filipino crack whores, or so my preliminary investigation into this matter suggests."

The first sentence is the argument here, which is presumably to be taken straight, as a critique of those who have the privilege of denigrating confession. And it is, I guess, supposed to offer a critical explanation of the state of affairs described in the second sentence. Now this second sentence, through its mock-scientific language, signals to us that it's supposed to be read with some irony--an irony that presumably comes from the first sentence, which explains that what looks like a "traditional" binary is really an effect of economic, racial, and gender privilege. And I should note that I'm being generous here; the response of readers like Kazim Ali and Aldon Nielsen, who note that there are many experimental writers who are not white men, suggests that this sentence does not adequately signal that it's meant ironically.

But in any case, what this ostensible irony does not do is to undo the terms of the binary; it does not question the characterization "strung out Filipino crack whore" in the slightest. I assume you chose this phrase (if not just for shock value) as the ultimate opposition to the white male; in short, white/Filipino, man/whore. There is no critique of the system that would generate such a category and such a label, nor any apparent awareness that there is something amiss when "Filipino" and "whore" occur to you as a natural pairing. The image of the Asian woman as sexually degraded object--an image unfortunately rampant in our culture--is left entirely intact.

What's finally most disturbing, though, is that the rest of your post suggests that your use of this characterization is no anomaly, no accident. The language of "whore" is confirmed by your characterization--however qualified and ironized--of Sylvia Plath as a "passe cunt," while the image of the Asian as degraded object of violence is confirmed most alarmingly in your anecdote about South Korean students:

"6. When I forced South Korean adolescents to covertly write poetry (under video surveillance in a cram-school in Seoul) there poems looked radically confessional, and I mean experimental."

Whereas in your first point the language of "research" ironized your statement, this point actually contains an assertion of realism, as you give us the setting and geographic locale where it takes place. In other words, we cannot escape or qualify the image of you as a figure of discipline and authority, exercising force over a group of Asians who are not only described as children, but who are doubly monitored by you and by "video surveillance."

In short, I am arguing that the entire logic of your post hinges on the image of the "strung out Filipino crack whore," requiring that image of otherness and degradation in order to demonstrate the power of the white male literary hierarchy, while setting yourself up as critic and redeemer. But it is not the case that we can find anywhere in your post the idea that those positions you degrade--the Asian, the woman--could speak or write for themselves; the "Filipino crack whore" is clearly not a person we are supposed to imagine as a writer (or else your comparsion of such persons to white male writers would not be as jarring and shocking as it is supposed to be), and the South Korean students in your story write only under your compulsion and oversight.

I was ridiculed on the list for suggesting that the problem here was one of sympathy; but that is precisely the problem. Your post suggests that you are questioning the logic that values the poetry of well-educated white men more highly than that of those who are not well-educated white men. But the images you use to characterize the latter group are only of the most degraded and unsympathetic kind, which makes it difficult to believe that your critique is really motivated by any sense of--to return to your own word--justice. The only other plausible conclusion is that you are using--exploiting, really--the very idea of the poor Asian woman to establish your own credentials as a critic of the literary hierarchy, at the same time that you perpetuate the most destructive stereotypes about Asians and women.

This is very harsh language. But I've gone on at such length because it seems that someone who knows enough and is self-aware enough to use terms like "author-function" really ought to be able to know better than to couch this argument in the terms that you did. I'm trying to follow Chris's lead in responding with argument and analysis, rather than venom and anger (as I easily could), in the hope that it's still possible something constructive will come of this.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Is there good sense on the Poetics list? Yes. Its name is Chris Murray.
Following Jordan's link to Jeremy Bushnell's raccoon, I discover not only a fellow Chicagoan but another report on Thursday's Creeley reading. Talk about poetic networks: I had to go through Jordan's blog to find someone who was in the same room with me.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Thanks to kari edwards for the news that poets Mark Doty and Carl Phillips may have been rejected for a position at Boston College because of anti-gay bias. Since Doty's and Phillips's credentials are impeccable, and BC's president, William Leahy, has been a vocal campaigner against gay marriage, that interpretation looks pretty likely.

A spokesman for Leahy, of course, denies that bias is at work. Maybe you should write Leahy and ask him.

Reading the article carefully, though, there is another possible interpretation of what's going on, which I'm not sure if it's better or worse. Doty and Phillips are both quoted as saying they were explicitly told by the BC English department that their candidacies were rejected on the basis of their sexual orientation. However, the chair of the department is then quoted as saying that he did not explicitly accuse Leahy of bias, but simply "asked questions about whether this might be going on." This sounds like some serious ass-covering to me, and makes me wonder--knowing something about how these kinds of hiring battles work--whether the English department is simply using Doty and Phillips to play academic politics against the BC administration.

It is possible, though not likely, that Leahy did not know Doty and Phillips were gay; if so, then his decision to overrule the department was just dumb rather than discriminatory. As I've said, this seems really unlikely; in a case like this, if the administration were dissatisfied with the top two candidates advanced by the department, they would usually simply decline to hire anyone. But the English department chair's cowardly refusal to stand behind a charge of bias opens the door to the possibility that Leahy really didn't know--or that the English department really had no idea if Leahy knew--and that the English department simply said so to Doty and Phillips to cause a public controversy and score points off the administration. If they really believe that the BC administration discriminated against Doty and Phillips, let them say so. If they don't, then to give Doty and Phillips the impression that bias occurred, and then to deny any responsbility for that accusation, is totally manipulative and leaves Doty and Phillips twisting in the wind--not to mention which it insults and belittles all those gays and lesbians who face discrimination daily.
It's depressing that I only ever get involved in a discussion on the Poetics list when something really horrible gets said. It's even more depressing that I've felt I had to do it several times in the past few months.

I'd visited the archive, actually, to do something constructive, which was post a few references on confessional poetry, a discussion of which has been going on at the list the past day or two. But what I came upon was this post, which was passing itself off as an argument that "It is mostly those with relatively privileged positions in the social hierarchy who denigrate confession," but did so in such an ugly way that I can only think the author was writing in bad faith.

Here's what I wrote in response; in part:

I'm really disturbed by Andrew Loewen's post, which purports to show how a critique of confessionalism is the province of the privileged, but does so by employing misogynist terms of abuse and leaning weirdly on images of Asians who are either degraded ("strung out Filipino crack whores"?!) or objects of implied violence ("When I forced South Korean adolescents...under video surveillance..."), which makes it hard to believe that he takes his own criticism seriously, or that he has much sympathy for the supposedly less privileged position of the woman or the Asian.

Of course, my pained critique was done one better by Eileen Tabios, who posted her own email-never-sent in response: I hope you left a large tip.
Sometime last year Ron Silliman suggested that one function of poets' blogs could be to create an audience for those poets' books. At the time this bothered me because I thought it sounded too mercenary. But now I'm realizing it could simply be an observation about conditioning--how it's now inevitable that I'll be reading hard-copy work by people I've only previously "known" as blogs, and how inevitably I will read the work through that context, or even as an extension of the blog itself (especially true now that a many people, myself included, are starting to incorporate material from their blogs into work in print). I guess one risk is that the printed "work" might come to seem attenuated, a restricted economy in comparison to the blog's variousness. But the flipside of that is that being a reader of someone's blog will surely alert you to all kinds of things in their poetry you might not otherwise have been sensitive enough to.

Thinking about all of that as I'm reading Alli Warren's SCHEMA, which has a lot of those qualities I value in Alli's blog--most notably, what I guess I'd call a (can I say this?) fearless vulnerability, a willingness to let "these words / fondle each other / agape and slightly pink," and then "invite the polis / come see."

Alli's one of a number of younger poets (ack, stop me, I'm "reviewing") who are trying to reclaim something that isn't quite "feeling" or "sentiment" but something funnier and more self-conscious and yet at the same time simpler and more visceral; it's maybe related to the flarf-y (haven't heard that one in a while, eh?) desire to reclaim "bad" or cheesy language as oddly sublime--

sprawled out in socks

they don't mean anything by it

sad and muggy all day

in her underpants milk grows

--but at the same time is animated by an intelligence that works in merciless lightning jabs:

This continent of
sub-standard delirium
& posture

treating objects
like women

Maybe it's an attempt to get (back) to something more human through all the apparatus that keeps us from getting there, knowing it's not possible but unembarrassed about trying:

there is no rent control
why don't you sit on my face
and imagine
if only I didn't occupy this penis
full of integrity
it could be snowing.

I think the best poems in the book are the selections from "Couplets," a project that unfolded in blogtime (sometime last September, if I'm not mistaken) as a conversation between Alli and Patrick Durgin, and a great example of collaboration as two poets writing to and through each other, riffing off each other's lines and generally egging each other on to better and better things. The rhythms here are sharp and urgent, remixing the concerns of the earlier poems

smelling like "beer"
have you seen my dictionary

looking like "underpants"
are we the polis eyes

with lots of "trips in melons" and "mean soda pop." I remember reading Alli's and Patrick's poems as they appeared on their blogs and being surprised and touched by the intimacy that so quickly developed; maybe this kind of warm, smart collaboration is exactly the kind of exchange Alli's poetry moves toward--

and between blocks of text say 'love'
as if opening fire--repeatedly.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Alli Warren's new chapbook, SCHEMA, came in the mail from Stephanie on Monday, with a grid of cover photo details courtesy of Alli's own photo blog--for whatever reason, I'm particularly creeped out by what appears to be a flickering screen capture of John Kerry's weary talking head. And other sources of light & roundness: a camera lens, a lamp, two sinks, an open mouth.

Best of all, though, is the jumble of letters that make up the title. I know the book's called SCHEMA but I just can't make the letters form that shape; the word they keep forming to me is "chasm," though that leaves me the question of what to do with the extra "e." Or "aches," with an extra "m."
Del, you will never know how grateful I am to you for listing the SHAMPOO contributors in reverse alphabetical order. (And you being a C, too.) Bless you.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The new SHAMPOO is up!
(with a few poems from yours truly)


Dear Beautiful Person,

It will make you feel all tingly if you look forthwith at the star-studded new SHAMPOO issue 20:

Check out mind-altering ingredients by these super-gorgeous poets: Tim Yu, Stephanie Young, Kirby Wright, Marcus Slease, Alessia Sersanti, John Schertzer, Kate Schapira, Sarah Rosenthal, Jessy Randall, Lisa Radon, Shane Plante, Alvin Pang, Karyna McGlynn, Bob Marcacci, Brendan Lorber, Cassie Lewis, David Laskowski, Susanna Kittredge, Stephen Kirbach, Paolo Javier, Michael Ives, Yuri Hospodar, Annalynn Hammond, Kelle Groom, Andrea Gonzales, Heather June Gibbons, Raymond Farr, Mark DuCharme, Del Ray Cross, Tanya Brolaski, Andrew Brenza, Tim Botta, CL Bledsoe, Angela Ball, Carl Annarummo, Shane Allison; plus flaky ShampooArt by Brian Fugett.

Thank you for helping SHAMPOO serve up four years of the sudsiest poems ever.

Sexy poetry,

Del Ray Cross, Editor
clean hair / good poetry
__________THE DISCRETE SERIES______________

presents John Tipton :: Kent Johnson

[John Tipton had an itinerant childhood in Indiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Illinois. After a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill where he earned an AB in philosophy. He currently lives in Chicago and curates the Chicago Poetry Project, a series of readings at the Chicago Public Library. He is the author of Surfaces, published by Flood Editions in 2004.]

[Kent Johnson has edited Doubled Flowering: >From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (Roof, 1998), as well as Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters in English, forthcoming from Combo Books. He has also translated (with Alexandra Papaditsas) The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek (Skanky Possum, 2003) and (with Forrest Gander) Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz (California UP, 2002), which was a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation selection. He was named Faculty Person of the Year for 2003 at Highland Community College, in Freeport, Illinois, where he teaches English Composition and Spanish.]

Friday, April 9 9PM / 3030 W. Cortland / $5 suggested donation / BYOB

3030 is a former Pentecostal church located at 3030 W. Cortland Ave., one block south of Armitage between Humboldt Blvd. and Kedzie. Parking is easiest on Armitage.

The Discrete Series will present an event of poetry/music/performance/something on the second Friday of each month. For more information about this or upcoming events, email or, or call the space at 773-862-3616.

For a map to the space, and samples of past and future readers' work, visit the Discrete blog.
Do I write like a tall skinny guy?
Ray Bianchi suggests that sucking up to poets at readings, once an exclusively New York activity, has come to Chicago. I'm a little confused, though, because he seems to think the answer to this is for poets to do a better job of marketing themselves--I guess so that they could focus on that kind of public success rather than competing for scraps of attention from their elders.

I hate approaching readers at poetry readings, in part from shyness, in part from a feeling of sleaziness. Sometimes I'll work up the courage to go up to get a book signed and then I'll flee as quickly as possible, probably so that the reader doesn't think I want anything else. I love readings in unconventional locations--like Stephanie's apartment or even oxygen bars--because the setting (and size) breaks down the hierarchy a little, so that the post-reading can be more in the spirit of a conversation or a hanging-out than a supplication.

I did once go up to John Ashbery after a reading, but only after a friend and I had concocted an elaborate scheme to present Ashbery with the text of two poems we had written (these poems, in fact)--signed, of course, by the authors. Ashbery was polite about the whole thing and even seemed a little amused, but remembering doing it still makes me want to hide under a chair.
I admit I know nothing about new Pulitzer-Prize-for-poetry winner Franz Wright. Should I? Anyone?

Are there many other poets whose credits include The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and can we have our ball back?

Monday, April 05, 2004

Ela Kotkowska's brief history of blogging, in the new moria.
I realize that in the post below Euphony is the title of a U of C litmag, but it looks more like the reading is sponsored by the "Program in Creative Writing and Euphony."
The University of Chicago's Program in Creative Writing and Euphony present the second event in the

*******Emerging Writers Reading Series *******


Friday, April 9th 2004
Wieboldt 408
5 pm

Megan Stielstra teaches creative writing at Columbia College, the University of Chicago and Jenner Elementary. She holds her MFA from the Fiction Department at Columbia College where she was a Follet fellow, and where her thesis, Ladies Don't Say That, won first place in traditional fiction from the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association in 2001.

Dan Beachy-Quick teaches in the Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute. His first book, North True South Bright, is out from Alice James. His second, Spell, was just released by Ahsahta Press.
applied copious amounts of lipstick in the car until we were 16 years old
There's something profoundly nerdy about showing up early for a poetry reading, but I had a feeling it was going to be necessary for Robert Creeley at the U of C on Thursday evening. The reading had shifted from its usual long-hall, chairs-on-the-floor setting of Classics 10 to the auditorium setting of Social Sciences 122, which seats around 150, but by the time I walked through the door at 5:15 the place was already packed and I just barely managed to squeeze into a seat in the fourth row. By the time the reading started--at 5:30 sharp--people were crouching in the aisles and standing three deep in the open doorway. I even saw a few people standing outside in the cold, ears pressed against the slightly opened windows.

Robert von Hallberg provided a fine introduction, hitting on precisely that balance of forces that makes Creeley's work so powerful and appealing: its ability to be somehow both utterly plain and richly, almost agonizingly allusive, and suggesting a development from Creeley's early desire to articulate a generational consciousness to his more recent interest in finding a more broadly shared consciousness--or, as Creeley would put it several times during the reading, a "company."

Creeley came to the podium with a copy of Fanny Howe's The Wedding Dress and opened with a selection from Howe's "Bewilderment" that evoked the image of the "sleeping witness" who "feels safe enough to lie down in mystery"--an image Creeley likened to Keastian negative capability, and to Franz Kline's quip, "I paint what I don't know." "I have nothing to say," Creeley insisted; what's interesting, then, is to see "what still insists on being said."

Creeley had a copy of his Selected Poems but only cracked it open a few times, sticking mostly to new or recent work. I think Creeley's work of the '60s and '70s is absolutely indispensable--I can't imagine where I'd be without it--but I've had a hard time knowing what to do with his poetry since the '80s; his enjambments have seemed less hard-edged and his rhythms less infallible. His poetry's always risked banality, but in his best work simplicity turns into a kind of minimalism or abstraction; I've found some of his recent work, though, veering a bit toward the sentimental. Perhaps this is simply a product of achieving what Creeley called "a comfortably advanced age"; I think you can see something a bit similar happening in Ashbery's recent work, which continues to come out at a remarkable clip as his lines get shorter and shorter and his syntax less and less complex.

In person, though, Creeley's utterly convincing. I've seen him read three times now, and he always manages to keep his audiences rapt, moving seamlessly from poem to poetics to patter; he's one of the few poets whose reading actually profoundly illuminates the work--his sometimes abrupt linebreaks just seem to map the contours of his voice. He's an avuncular presence, coming in a comfortable blue sweater and jeans and even, Mr. Rogers style, removing the sweater before he started to read, and frequently smoothing back his hair or rubbing his brow as if slightly perplexed by his own words.

The first poem he read, "Possibilities," had everything I've been talking about going on; it had Creeley's typically constrained vocabulary, leaning on repetitions (each / each, all / all), slight permutations in wording, and corny rhymes (here / near / dear). But rather than making these a personal statement, the poem worked to push these into the impersonal: "One wanted...One says...One heard of a thoughtless moment." If a lot of early Creeley seemed to be about picking apart individual subjectivity, showing how agonizing it was for the "I" to try to say anything at all, late Creeley is more interested in the shared and collective, how "nothing's apart from all"--a sentiment, Creeley noted at the poem's conclusion, that stands against the current tendency toward "separation into bits and pieces."

These gestures toward common experience continued throughout the reading, at times doing a little classic-rock channeling: "Everybody's child walks the same winding road," "Two is still one--it cannot live apart." But the most affecting moments were grounded in an awareness of age and an ironic resistance to claiming age as a position of wisdom; we got Creeley's one-sentence Burnt Norton--"the old garden with its old familiar flowers"--and Beckettian reduction of life's objects, with, of course, Creeley's all-American automotive twist: "ring, dog, hat, car." A piece portentously called "Memory" turned out to be a loose stand-up routine, with Creeley recounting in painful detail his urologist's instructions on how to "squeeze out the last drops of pee" by hand, the weird stares this got him in public bathrooms, and finally a reference, of course, to "On Golden Pond." He also noted his alarm when his dentist began telling him, "Well, that should hold you."

The power of Creeley's method might have been most evident, though, in his final poem, "John's Song" (a title that of course recalls Creeley's most famous poem, "I Know a Man": "John, I / sd, which was not his / name"), which consisted almost entirely of repetitions of and variations on two phrases: "If ever / there is...other than war."

After the reading there was a reception upstairs in a room that looked like a well-preserved Victorian clubhouse. I chatted for a while with Ela Kotkowska (who has her own reading report up) and Kerri Sonnenberg. Ela sampled some unidentifiable finger food (potato? yellow squash? candied lemon?) while we plotted guerilla retail poetry for Marshall Field's: poems the length of an escalator ride, poems delivered with a perfume bottle in hand; poems sprung on mud-masked customers in mid-makeover.

Friday, April 02, 2004

News flash: Myopic Books has sold out of all of its copies of the Mayhew/Mohammad/Young/Yu Long Nose Pinocchio Bitch and the Lewis/Yu Postcard Poems! And I even know who bought them.
It seems Chicago was one of the handful of cities fortunate enough to hear the debut yesterday of Air America Radio, the new liberal talk-radio network, on WNTD-AM (950). Like any good Chicagoan, I'm city-status-conscious, and so I took note that the hosts consistently listed their affiliates in the order New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland; their marketing folks must know something they don't, though (or are stuck in the old "Second City" mentality), because the promos always said New York, Chicago, L.A., Portland. I've always thought places like Illinois are where the left is going to have to look for its future: yo-yoing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections, dominated by a huge and overwhelmingly Democratic city, with suburbs that have become staunchly Republican, and a Downstate region of farmers, small towns and cities, and fading industry that's socially centrist to conservative but can probably be won over by whichever party does a better job of appealing to its economic interests.

I flipped my radio on a little after 11 am Wednesday--after a while of figuring out how to get it onto the AM band--to hear Al Franken and Katherine Lanpher sandwiched in somewhere between sports radio and tinny oldies. I like Al Franken just fine, but mostly what I was feeling was twinges of sympathy; Franken was enthusiastic but a little tentative and amateurish, lots of "um"'s and pauses, sending me flashing back to awkward exchanges with my radio-show partner in high school. (I favored Talking Heads and They Might Be Giants; he leaned toward AC/DC.) "Unfiltered" this morning was a little smoother, but the hosts hadn't quite gotten their rhythm with each other, and the tone of the whole thing was a little weird; the first guest I heard was Lewis Lapham of Harper's, whose slow, patrician tones and well-turned phrases--e.g. the "magical thinking" of the Bush administration--mostly prompted giggles from the hosts, who were obviously looking for a little more rapid-fire banter, not an interview.

I suppose these observations are all ways of asking the question what "liberal talk radio" is supposed to be anyway. When I first heard the idea of a liberal talk-radio network proposed, my response--like a lot of people's, I suppose--was that we already have one: NPR. Okay, that's sort of a joke, but not really. NPR is exactly what talk radio would sound like if imagined by an earnest liberal: in-depth news coverage, interviews with authors and academics, cultural programming, offbeat commentaries, and Garrison Keillor. (Well, maybe not Garrison Keillor.) I doubt it would have the aggressive and partisan bluster of a Rush Limbaugh or a Bill O'Reilly.

This may be because the idea of the "liberal media" has a hold on the minds of liberals as much as conservatives. My guess is that most liberals (as distinguished from those who might define their politics as more radically left) still have enough faith in the mainstream media that they trust the New York Times or CNN as a source of relatively "objective" reporting, which they still hold to as an ideal (I can't say I'm totally free of this ideal myself). To this liberal mindset, a pointedly partisan leftist media would be less desirable than a media that earnestly pursued the truth and skeptically questioned the official line. But conservatives--having dismissed the mainstream press as tainted by liberalism--have had no problem setting up partisan mouthpieces, like the Washington Times and Fox News, that look like conventional news outlets but have no qualms about promoting a political agenda.

And while I cringe when I hear the liberal/conservative divide in the U.S. described as a "cultural" one (listen up, you sushi-eating, latte-swigging Deaniacs), there certainly is a divide in how these factions see themselves when they look in the media mirror. Janeane Garofolo is Air America's other big celebrity name, and I caught her for just a second on CNBC last night (she's gone blond); when asked if she would use her airtime for Limbaugh-style self-promotion, she replied, no, she tended more toward self-loathing. It was a pitch-perfect post-Woody-Allen one-liner, but it also showed the problem in trying to turn a smart liberal comedian into a fire-breathing partisan pundit.

What Air America wants to be--as acknowledged by Al Franken's "The O'Franken Factor"--is a mirror image of conservative talk radio: copying its style and tone, just changing the direction of the political arrow. (The best Franken line I heard on Wednesday was probably his vow to "bitch-slap the NPR out of" his NPR-veteran co-host.) Here's a perfect "politics of style" moment: is it really possible, or desireable to do liberal politics in the abusive, nasty, smug, self-righteous voice of the radio right? Will it just make liberal positions sound as unpalatable as conservative ones?

All that said: it's a great experiment, and I'm still listening.

Here's my best suggestion for Air America: sign me up. I have eight years of broadcast experience, including running a music department; a smooth-as-butter, classically-honed announcing voice; a face for radio; and a willingness to rant for a tiny audience. When do I start?

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Text Jim is back, which is nice because I can actually read him without waiting for my damn dial-up connection, and which makes me want to party like it's April 2003. Plus he's good.