Friday, July 29, 2005

Noelle Kocot: The Raving Fortune

I first read Noelle Kocot in the first issue of Lungfull I ever picked up. My immediate sense was that her poem ("Palm Sunday, 1998") didn't belong there. I mean, I could see certain surface resemblances between it and the other poetry in the journal, but the differences were striking: it had an explicitly religious theme; it was formalist (a loose terza rima); and most importantly, it had a baroque diction, a way of nesting metaphor within metaphor--yet deployed casually and extravagantly, as if someone had crossed Kenneth Koch with Hart Crane:
A thought interrupts. A draggy river
Runs under a cloud of power.
There will be signs, all right. The Giver

Of time and anecdote splits the hour
Into years that hone
Their edges on the edges of a rumor.
You can see what I mean about Crane: that final sentence is held together by what Crane would call the logic of metaphor, as one abstraction ("the hour") is literally split into a series of further abstractions, which paradoxically become so palpable they develop "edges" of their own. There's something bravura about this rhetoric, which is always running along the edge of bombast or ridiculousness, always threatening to fall apart under its own weight, just as it threatens to do in Crane; and like Crane there's a certain melodrama correlated with that rhetorical excess, one that takes itself so seriously you can't believe it could be serious.

This difficulty of placement seems to be the story of Kocot's career thus far. What attention she's received seems to have been from the avant-end of things, but the reviews are a bit mixed; it's not at all clear she fits in with that body of work, or that she even wants to. David Hess's review of Kocot's first book, 4, has some caustic words for the mode of production ("No judge should be allowed to put his name on the cover of a book") but allows that there's much in the book that is "amazing" and "astonishing." Still, he's still not quite sure what to make of the whole thing:
Too often I feel as though she’s leading us away from the edge (where the poetry usually is) to a comfort zone where meanings, differences and conflicts get tied up and resolved in imaginary moments that I want to believe in but can’t, which is strange since I share many of the transcendence-desiring tendencies in her poetry.
What's interesting, though, is that David concludes that Kocot is primarily a comic writer, at her best in her late-New York School/McSweeney's-style sestinas and the like; Cal Bedient's brief notice of the book in Boston Review proceeds from much the same assumption, although Bedient decides that Kocot is a bad comic writer, an "over the top" example of the "late adolescent zest" that's plaguing our avant-garde.

The notices of Kocot's most recent book, The Raving Fortune, seem to follow much the same pattern, emphasizing those elements of Kocot's work that are most consonant with the zaniness of current post-New York School practice. Joy Katz's slope review describes a book I can barely recognize as Kocot's: it's "exuberant" and "funny," full of "canvas sneakers" and "UFO pictures" and as "crazily intense as a porno-movie orgasm." Jordan's review in the Village Voice is far more sensitive to the book's polarities, but still finds Kocot's primary sensibility in her humor:
Her contemporaneity is more deliciously off when she uses Snuffelufagus as the end word in a sestina, announces that "Long Black Veil" was her shower song, or writes an ode to the person who, during a subway bomb threat, pickpocketed her Tao Teh Ching.
I don't mean to say that Kocot isn't funny, or that she doesn't display the kind of self-consciousness that's come to define experimental practice. But the irony of this reception, I think, is that it's precisely these traits that Kocot's trying to slough off in pursuit of what she sees as deeper goals. The goofy, good-natured surface is, in this case, just that--a surface--one that's perhaps inevitable for a poet of Kocot's time and place (and that marks her for experimental writers as one of their own) but that she's not entirely comfortable with.

Take, for example, "Beginner's Mind and Purple Plants," a poem from The Raving Fortune that's "Dedicated to the artists of my generation":
We eat ice cream at the cerulean zoo,
While saltimbanques siphon the wheat of the whale.
Live wire/wild card, I hold you up, libational,
The dangling factor in a cheap velour equation.
A parade of shiny numeric gestures
Where we become breathless and call it busy.
As in much of Kocot's work, there's an instability of tone here that makes it hard to know how to read this: are Kocot and her ice-cream-eating peers delightful flaneurs or laughable decadents? I'm guessing the latter, because the pure pleasure of the opening line quickly gives way to what sounds like guilty moralizing. There's a grab bag of effects here, some of which I might call post-avant (the embrace of mass culture [ice cream, zoo, cheap velour], the show-offy vocabulary), some not (the leaning on an adjective ["I hold you up, libational"], the aphoristic tie-up); but there's also a clear trajectory from the silly to the serious.

It's the final lines of the poem that are the most characteristically contemporary:
The waffle building--it looks so small tonight.

The planet Dagobah shimmers in the sky.

O where are Chrissy and Weezie and Tootie and Gabe?
This is the porno-movie book Joy Katz read; it's the section Matthew Rohrer jumps on for his blurb ("[Kocot] finds poetry in everything. Even in The Jeffersons' Weezie"). But what is Kocot really doing with these pop-culture references? The attitude doesn't seem to be one of playful nostalgia, or of exploring the possibilities of commodified language; instead it's the pathos of a dead end, puncuated by Kocot's mock-serious footnotes ("The planet Dagobah is the swampy green planet in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi Knight"), which deflate any idea that these references reflect some kind of common experience. For Kocot that last line is an index of impoverished expression, a question that is some kind of degraded Ubi sunt--something we don't have the language to ask anymore. Kocot lives in our language but hates being there, suspicious of its pleasures:
And I do not want the mineral water.
I do not want the green green lime.
Kocot's pyrotechnics are, even for her, a distraction from what she really seems to be trying to get to:
In all of this, I'm trying to think of what you love,
And how to give it freely, without pause,
How to get inside the tinctured moments splattering
The ghost ship's sails of when we're old.
If I'm reading David's review right, this would be an example in Kocot of just plain bad writing, where the language turns sentimental and cliched--away from the razor's edge of experiment. But what if we took these moments in her poetry as seriously as she seems to? What if we take seriously the religious (indeed, specifically Catholic) imagery and yearning in her poems, her desire to reanimate seemingly worn-out abstractions? What if the verbal gymnastics are a kind of throat-clearing, exhausting language and getting it out of the way so we can talk about love and God again? That, I think, would give us a very different kind of poet, one whose relationship to the avant-gardism of her generation would be more critical than complementary.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

SHAMPOO 5th Anniversary Celebration!

From SHAMPOO editor Del Ray Cross:

This is to happily inform you that I'm going to host an unprecedented 5th Anniversary SHAMPOO Celebration and Reading on:

Thursday, August 18 at 6:30pm
at GalleryOne San Francisco
Mezzanine Level of One Embarcadero Center
(same building as Embarcadero Cinema)
on the corner of Battery and Clay Streets

Expect to hear some poetry from Alli Warren, Bill Berkson, Brent Cunningham, Cedar Sigo, Kevin Killian, Kit Robinson, Leslie Scalapino, Ronald Palmer, Stephanie Young, and more.

Please join us if you are in the Bay Area.  If you're not able to be here, thanks again for keeping SHAMPOO on the shelves for 5 fantastic years!

Spread the word -- and stay tuned for issue 25 coming in September!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Weather change--at last--like a fever breaking. A string of 90-degree-plus days stretching back to May; this past week too hot for coherent thought, our two portable air conditioners creating pitiful auras of cool we huddled around like a stove. In the car on Sunday the external temperature read 108.

Monday evening the air finally cracked open: hours of lightning, power flickering on and off at my mother's house, sending us scrambling for the house's two dim flashlights, lighting Christmas candles and sitting in silence around the kitchen table waiting for the lights to come back on. Trees down in the road, vanished traffic signals.

Today it seemed possible to breathe again. The study is no longer stifiling, and I can type for more than a few minutes without the cursor skittering under sweaty fingers. On Michigan Avenue people stood on sunny street corners and looked up without flinching; a man painted silver lounged in the shade. The dogs, who spent all weekend lying on their sides by the front door, were up again, barking with joy.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Anthologize This! (II)

Kasey on "hot ecleticism":
I'll leave myself open to the possibility that there is a way of valuing both Sharon Olds and Carla Harryman on a hotly eclectic level. My instinct tells me, however, that such appreciation must occur on a carefully measured and considered individual level that is a bit much to ask any anthology to be responsible for.
True enough. There are any number of collections that make absolutely no aesthetic sense in the sense Kasey's referring to: they juxtapose totally weird or historically or aesthetically disparate choices and insist that these choices somehow cohere. See, for example, any anthology assembled by Ezra Pound, which tend not even to respect massive chasms of culture and language (troubadours::Noh theater::imagism, etc.). Such collections tend only to work when seen as the idiosyncratic and even monomaniacal vision of a single individual--hotly eclectic, then, because they make sense when we understand who's editing them--which make them really useful as glimpses into the aesthetic of that individual but almost totally useless for any of an anthololgy's usual functions (which I tried to describe in my last post). (It's possible that such an idiosyncratic collection may work when the anthology is edited by someone more self-effacing than Pound; this may be why Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us, mentioned several times in this discussion, is at least a partial success.)

It might be argued that an anthology shouldn't be expected to be anything more than that: the considered choices of one individual. But nearly every anthology--certainly any anthology that's put on the market today--is weighted down with other kinds of expectations: that it will make a historical statement, that it will be an authoritative catalog of what is considered the "best," etc., etc. The paradox is that the more "authoritative" the anthology is supposed to be, the more the editor has to fade into a kind of studied neutrality or even anonymity. This is why Norton can continue to publish an anthology while listing many of its editors as dead: these aren't personal choices but the abstract spirit of Judgment. Any expert in a given literary field can see through this facade (although students generally can't, which is the point), but it should be obvious to any of us who have ever flipped to the contemporary section of one of these anthologies how narrow the range of choice really is.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Anthologize This!

[Note: I've belatedly realized that I stole the title of this post from Shin Yu Pai's review of several Asian American literary anthologies in the most recent issue of Hyphen. Apologies to Shin Yu for that. Guess it was a good title.]

Ron and Kasey, among others, discuss what it would be like to construct an Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, or whether such a thing would even be desirable.

I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit, since I've been working on a review of the anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. What is an anthology for, anyway, and why do people put them together?

It seems to me there's a few different functions an anthology can have, which may overlap but which are ultimately fairly distinct:

1. The historical or textbook anthology. Something like your typical Norton Anthology, heavy with introductions and headnotes and designed primarily for the classroom. Its goal is to provide a definitive survey for an entire historical period: e.g. medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, modernist. There will be a focus on choosing the most "important" (i.e. most collected in other anthologies) works by the Major Writers, of whom there will be between five and a dozen, with a corresponding lack of concern about how "minor" writers are represented.

I'm guessing that it's only possible to put together an anthology of this kind for a body of work that is more than 100 years old; 200 is even better. Only with that kind of distance is it possible to shed worries of the kind Ron talks about: who will be upset if they are left out, whose partisans will go on the warpath for or against them, will your friends speak to you afterwards, etc. More importantly, I think, you can't do a historical anthology until a more or less complete paradigm shift separates you from that period. The aesthetic issues are no longer "live"; they can be viewed in a historic context, and you become more concerned with how you can put together a collection that is useful to you, as a later reader, than one that fairly represents every aesthetic current of the age. The vast majority of the verse written in English between 1790 and 1850 didn't sound much like Wordsworth or Coleridge, but for the most part we don't care. This is why it's possible to do a historical anthology of Victorian poetry, but not yet of modernist poetry: modernism is still "live" to us, its offspring still among us.

With this kind of anthology it's possible to have something that lasts for a while: David Perkins's English Romantic Writers remains a standard text almost 40 years after its first publication. Radical revisionism isn't out of the question--see how much anthologies of 18th-century and Victorian poetry have changed over the past decade--but those revisions tend to happen, again, because our demands on those anthologies change, not because one aesthetic school suddenly triumphs over another.

I agree that American Poetry: The Twentieth Century is as good an anthology of this sort on the 20th c. we're likely to see anytime soon (I'm using it in a class this year): but it contains 1400 poems over two volumes and barely gets halfway through the century. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, even in its recent revision, seems like a hopelessly Anglocentric dinosaur--less usable each year, it simply can't keep up with the contemporary, which has been spun off into a second volume whose selections are simply too short to be usable--and the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry is an odd patchwork, reflecting its editor's scholarly interests more than classroom realities. Rutgers has released a New Anthology of American Poetry, whose second volume covers 1900-1950; it's not bad but is hampered by obtrusive notes than follow nearly every poem, ending up too broad and not deep enough.

I respect Ron's sense that the number of poets is getting larger and larger with each generation; but I honestly think that is a product of contemporaneity: the fact that we are able to be aware of all of our peers in a way that we could not possibly be aware of, say, the full range of poetry going on in mid-1912, even if we lived in 1912. At some point--whether through merit, ambition, perserverence, dumb luck, or better distribution, a few people will end up getting remembered and a lot won't, and later anthologists won't be sensitive to the feelings of dead poets who get left out. Actually, though, the other sorts of anthologies I'm about to describe can play a role in determining who ends up surviving this Big Forgetting.

2. The "movement" anthology. Not a great title, but what I simply mean is an anthology centered around a particular aesthetic or group, usually produced contemporaneously by a member of that group (or sometimes by a sympathetic bystander). The goal is to stake out aesthetic ground, either by bringing the activities of a local avant-garde to the attention of a wider public or to create a "movement" by bringing together the activities of disparate writers into a single documents. The Lyrical Ballads, even if they were only written by two people, might be the first major example of such an anthology in English; but it's the 20th century that really perfects this form, from the Objectivist Anthology to The New American Poetry to, say, In the American Tree. I would probably also put anthologies organized around, say, Asian American writing in this category, for they often do (implicitly) endorse a certain aesthetic that goes hand in hand with their vision of Asian American identity and politics; but some such anthologies end up falling into category 3 (below) as well.

When they work, such anthologies can create durable new "schools" of poetry, as The New American Poetry shows. But they can also be the first step toward the Big Forgetting: they have to include some people and leave out others, drawing hard lines around what's probably a much more amorphous realm of practice. Language poetry, in many ways, has probably suffered from this phenomenon.

There are anthologies like Poems for the Millennium or From the Other Side of the Century--both of which I think are remarkable achievements--that I would consider blends of 1 and 2: they are in part historical, but their historical interest is largely in tracing the genealogy of a particular aesthetic tendency (which they may see as the central aesthetic tendency), rather than trying to single out the few writers that matter. This, I think, is the most we can hope for out of a 20th-century anthology at the moment: something that traces the history of one mode of practice in the century. Indeed, this may be the only kind of 20th-century anthology that would be useful and usable for anyone, since one that tried to do this work for several modes of writing would have to do so much work and be so big as to be incomprehensible.

3. The promotional anthology. This one's hard to separate from 2, but I think it's becoming increasingly prevalent. When you see an anthology with "young" or "new" in the title these days, it's a pretty good bet it falls into this category. I think of the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets from the '80s as a prime example, with something like American Poetry: The Next Generation a more recent one. You'll often find that such anthologies are prefaced with remarks about the "diverse" and "unclassifiable" nature of the work within; what usually holds such things together is the sense that anyone within might be the Next Big Thing. (Sometimes an anthology that presents itself as a (2) will in fact turn out to be a (3); I'd put Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation in this category.) The increasing number of people earning MFAs in poetry virtually demands that this genre will expand; already we're seeing series of "new work from the writing workshops" lining the shelves. I'm not claiming that this is a phenomenon solely of the workshop culture, or even that it's an inherently bad thing; Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books partakes of the same logic. Every (3) anthology is going to have some element of (2), some aesthetic slant (often determined by its institutional origins--just whose rising stars it's charting); every (2) anthology is ultimately a (3), too, trying to make you pay attention to what its contributors are doing.

Monday, July 18, 2005


Via Josh: The Chronicle of Higher Education tells us academics that if you ever want a job, don't blog. This is excellent advice, which I will add to other excellent job-seeking advice I have received over the years:

Don't be a vegetarian.

Don't be married, have a partner, or date.

Don't have a baby. Don't get pregnant or even think about getting pregnant. If you are pregnant, hide it.

Don't be a woman; or a man; or Asian; or white.

Don't drink during your campus visit; if you do, you will embarrass yourself and never get hired.

Do drink during your campus visit; if you don't, they will think you are uptight or uncultured and you will never get hired.

Corollary to above (A): Drink wine on your campus visit to prove that you are sophisticated.
Corollary to above (B): Drink beer on your campus visit to prove that you are one of the guys.

Wear an expensive suit in order to look your most professional.

Wear a moderately priced suit in order to look frugal and sensible.

Wear a highly fashionable suit in order to look cutting-edge.

Wear a cheap suit in order to look impoverished enough to need the job.

Be sure you have published many articles in impressive journals.

Be sure that you have published nothing so that you can look like you are "all potential."

Always read the Chronicle of Higher Education to know the cold, hard facts about our profession.

Never read the Chronicle of Higher Education, lest you become too depressed to continue in our doomed profession.

Monday, July 11, 2005


The north wall of my study in Chicago is dominated by an enormous, framed map of the London Underground, of about the same size you would see posted in an actual station. I'll confess to being a bit of a public transit junkie, so the map was one of my most prized souvenirs of a month in London a few years ago--a "research" trip in which Robin did research and I met her for lunch every day, boarding the Northern line at Borough, disembarking at King's Cross, and walking the few blocks to the British Library.

It's a bit hard to look at the map now. I'd had it up on the wall in part as an aid to composition; after I discovered how much of my pleasure in riding the Underground was rolling the station names around in my head, I began a series of poems, later titled "Elephant & Castle," that used Underground station names as its primary source of language. At times it seemed I could glimpse the whole history of England and English in these oddly abstracted place names--grand and evocative, silly at times, at others with an undercurrent of violence I was at a loss to explain.

One American interviewed on CNN noted that the London bombings had happened about the same time of day as the 9/11 attacks; that was certainly part of the psychological sameness for me, waking up to a news anchor's voice intoning when I should have been hearing Oprah. I spent most of Thursday morning watching BBC America and surfing the BBC and Guardian websites, in a muted echo of the same state of long-distance agitation and dull shock that I recall from being on the West Coast in September 2001.

It sickened me that, just hours after the bombings, there was President Bush, speaking less of sadness and sympathy than of endless war, grotesquely using the attacks as an occasion to puff up his own half-hearted efforts on African aid and global warming. By Friday, CNN analysts were speculating in bloodthirsty fashion about which nations the British government would make retaliatory strikes against.

The contrast with the British response couldn't be stronger. A press conference held by London authorities just hours after the attacks was a picture of bureaucratic efficiency, but also of restraint. After one reporter asked a question about the role of "Islamic terrorism" in the attack, a police official did a remarkable thing. He took the reporter to task by saying that he believed "Islamic" and "terrorism" did not belong together in the same sentence; that acts of terrorist violence were not compatible with the tenets of Islam as he understood them; and that police would keep an open mind about the identities of the perpetrators while conducting a thorough investigation.

Though it's hard to say from a distance, Britons seem to be shocked, hurt, determined, defiant--not vengeful.

What can Americans do to show their support? Perhaps the best thing we could do would be to tell our president to listen to the man who has to lead Britain out of this trauma--his one real ally in his war on terror--Tony Blair. Blair brought the G-8 leaders to Scotland with a challenge to double and redouble aid to Africa and to act now against global warming. Really, though, as always, such challenges were directed at us. Bush budged a little, but hardly enough. Americans should answer these attacks not by boasting of our own strengh and resolve, but by joining in full the humanitarian and environmental commitments of a nation that is now suffering in much the same way ours did four years ago.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

5 Years of Clean Hair

I've been meaning for weeks now to put up something about the 5th-anniversary issue of SHAMPOO, and have finally decided to overcome the twin bugbears of laziness and fear of self-promotion.

Mostly because SHAMPOO deserves the attention. It's hard to believe it's been around for five years--in the world of literary journals (especially online ones), that makes it something approaching an institution--but at the same time it feels like it's always been there, cheerfully welcoming me to the big world of poetry.

That sense of welcome is, I think, what's distinctive about SHAMPOO: a kind of unabashed enthusiasm for new, good poems, but with a laid-back openness that doesn't determine in advance where those poems are going to come from or what they'll look like. SHAMPOO 1, posted in May 2000, contains the work of only one poet, William Corbett, whose name I would have known at that point (and whose presence is a nod to the journal's Boston roots); people like Timothy Liu and D.A. Powell don't start appearing until issues 4 and 6, respectively. It's a nod to how influential SHAMPOO's become that the latest issue has a good lineup of heavy hitters (like Coolidge, Silliman, Bernstein, and Scalapino), but those are only four of a throng of 60-odd contributors, most of whom I'm reading for the first time here.

But that isn't to say SHAMPOO doesn't have an aesthetic. I hope no one thinks it's condescending--or aggrandizing--if I say it feels like a Blakean blend of innocence and experience: unsentimental reminiscences, love poems that know they ought to know better, poems where the "I" finds itself there and tries to find its way out again. Certainly these are traits of editor Del Ray Cross's own work. But it's no accident that some of SHAMPOO's most prolific contributors have been folks like Jim Behrle, whose witty self-consciousness
language isn’t poetry

yet / must be the same dress size

audience is the new orgasm
doesn't keep him from getting in your face:
go on, waive your right to counsel

*I’ve* come to chew on *you*
Or Michael Farrell, whose artifices of repetition can turn unexpectedly theraputic:
another weird sunny day at the laundry
lose weight instruct the notices
go next door for cigarettes jelly and change
if theyd only feel the need for jelly we could change
Or Cassie Lewis, whose searing venture into autobiography is both a remarkable depature from her earlier work, and an extension of its calm, unsparing gaze:
After my father left, there was no longer simple day. There were boys and girls. There
were teachers. There were mothers. Relatedness and its opposite, as life developed

I would see lines between trees, like power lines, to feel optimistic.
The embrace of dailiness, the risking of sentimentality, the lacing of autobiography with irony: these might be seen as New York School qualities, and in a way SHAMPOO, like so much other contemporary work, could be seen as part of the long project of processing and purging the NYS legacy in American writing. But that's really far too limiting a way to look at what it's doing. The best work in SHAMPOO is doing something much more synthetic--or maybe something much more basic, getting down to the simplest forms of language we use and showing how rich and strange they are, rather than focusing attention on a brilliant surface. That's what Del means by "fun":
this weekend
I had
a lot of fun

I am also
enjoying myself

this weekend
I will have
so much fun