Friday, December 26, 2003

Heading off for San Diego, today, for the MLA convention and job interviews, through Tuesday. Wish me luck.

And if you happen to be there, and don't have anything better to do between, say, 1:45 and 3:00 p.m. on Dec. 29, you can come hear my paper on Allen Ginsberg--it's part of a panel called "Recorded Sound, Experimental Text." Solana Room, San Diego Marriott. Just don't throw things.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

blogs are shops, while the list is the public square.

Oh, come now. I don't pretend to understand what's going on with the current Ron Silliman/Leslie Scalapino fight that's going on over at ye olde Poetics list, but I get a bit frustrated when a disagreement with a blog posting that pops up on the list inevitably turns into an attack on blogging itself. Why? If Silliman had published his take on Scalapino in a magazine--where there's certainly far less opportunity for immediate response and dialogue than in blogland--would his critics attack the printing press?

Robert Corbett's equation of blogs with "shops" (where, presumably, merchandise is carefully controlled and displayed and everyone is smiling) and the Poetics list with the "public square" hardly seems fair. The former image--blog as shop--is a strange extension of someting I also see on the list from time to time: "I don't have a blog; therefore [stated with apparent resentment] I am excluded from the discourse that is going on there."

But a blog doesn't have any overhead (Tympan: coming to you free since March 2003), nor does it (as I can attest) require any serious technical savvy. And it certainly doesn't require any more time to maintain a blog than it does to keep up with and post to the Poetics list (which I've always found exhausting, even in digest form).

In fact, I've found blogging (as I've said before) to be a much more open and welcoming forum than the Poetics list, which I've never felt comfortable posting to; if the Poetics list is a public square, it's one where the loudest speakers are constantly yelling at each other and intimidating anyone else who might want to speak in more measured tones. I wonder if those on the list who attack the exclusiveness of blogs ever stop to notice that those who post on the list with any kind of regularity probably don't number more than a dozen.

Monday, December 15, 2003

On Friday I managed, for the first time, to make it to one of Stephanie’s apartment readings. The setting is absolutely perfect, as if Stephanie had gotten the place just for this purpose: a big kitchen where food was laid out before the reading, and a gorgeous living room with lots of dark wood, couches, chairs, cushions, and even a big window seat, people right up next to each other and Stephanie perching on the arm of a loveseat. The lights were turned out except for a table lamp to the right of and slightly behind the readers, who sat in an armchair, faces in shadow, as if presiding over a round of ghost stories.

I’d seen Mary Burger open for Ron Silliman at 21 Grand over the summer; at the time I’d found it difficult to gain access to her work, but in this more intimate setting I think I got a better grasp of her project. The bulk of her reading was from an ongoing work called Sonny (which I, of course, wrote down in my notebook as "Sunny"), whose genre, Burger told us, was that of the "speculative memoir," a phrase that makes explicit the problem of anyone setting out to write a family history: not even in your own family can you find out everything that happened, whether because of death, failure of memory, or willful withholding. Burger’s solution to this problem is to write a family history as a kind of abstract prose poem, with philosophical statements ("the act is different from the understanding of the act") alternating with biographical vignettes—though the vignettes themselves were still generic enough that they could have been (to paraphrase Stein, a hovering presence throughout the evening) anybody’s life.

The obvious contemporary comparison, of course, is Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which I was thinking about throughout Burger’s reading. My Life works because of its pitch-perfect balance of the universal and the particular, the lyric and the narrative, but perhaps most of all because of its discovery of an organizing structure that’s an alternative to that of the conventional memoir—the repetition and variation of phrases, the numerological correspondence of sections and years—a homology with a life that doesn’t purport to be a transparent rendering.

Burger’s project is, at some level, more ambitious and difficult, seeking to reconstruct the lives of others as well as her own. Yet I also couldn’t help but feel, at times, that Burger doesn’t fully take advantage of those strategies Hejinian uses to keep My Life compelling. Burger does do some interesting play with narrative, as in one section where she presents overlapping narratives of a man’s life, starting over several times at different points in the life with slight variations, to show us the difficulty of constructing a narrative that represents "the life." But something in Burger’s reading style—taking each sentence as if it were a line of poetry, giving little variation in inflection or voice—prevented the glimpsing of anything like a narrative through-line that could exist in tension with the work’s more speculative aspects. Perhaps this is something that would be more visible on the page; though it may also be the case, as Burger put it, that "what is individual is not visible."

Stephanie offered an intermission but no one took her up on it, so we launched right into the second reading, by Magdalena Zurawski. Zurawski (a recent transplant to the Bay Area) had arrived late, after transportation incidents including a broken windshield wiper and Bay Bridge traffic, but still sporting a brand-new "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" T-shirt.

Zurawski started off in a kind of introverted monotone, but by midway through I was getting chills down my spine and my jaw was somewhere on its way to the floor. While Burger’s touchstone seemed to be poetry, Zurawski was more firmly in the camp of prose, with long, run-on, hypotactic, self-conscious and self-referential sentences that seemed at first to be doing a kind of David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers thing; the first piece, "The Ham Steak," was set in a college dining hall and dwelled lovingly on the translucent surfaces and methodical eating of the eponymous low-grade meat (including a long exposition, delivered utterly deadpan, of the geometrically and obsessively precise arrangement of ham, peas, and potatoes on the eater’s plate). What at first seemed clever, though, suddenly opened dizzyingly up, beginning with the narrator’s casual but repeated mention of a bruise on her forehead whose story she dared not reveal, for fear of giving away the secrets of her imagination. Zurawski seemed able to do, almost effortlessly what somebody like Eggers is constantly tying himself in knots trying to do: to take some lying-awake-at-night, collegiate existential conundrum and open up the real abyss beneath it, bringing emotion and terror sidling up as if by accident.

The brilliance of pairing Zurawski and Burger was most evident in Zurawski’s second piece, "A Drugstore Comb," which begins from the portentous pronouncements of literary theory: "In literature class I learned that memories live not in people but in things." I was a little worried when I heard this one: any number of overly precious poems and stories present themselves as illustrations (or refutations) of such lit-class platitudes. For Burger, such a statement might be something to be mulled over, permuted, obliquely illustrated. But Zurawski used this thought to plunge into an almost pathological solipsism, driving forward with relentless logic and chillingly repeated motifs. Like Burger, Zurawski was preoccupied with memory; but while Burger meditated on memory’s incompleteness, Zurawski gave us a Borgesian excess of it, reciting at one point a photographic recall of the entire list of ingredients of a sandwich. And—surprisingly, to me, I guess—all this worked because it was deeply psychologized, woven into the character of the young college woman in whose voice lines like this were spoken: "I needed someone to see me so I could see myself."

Sunday, December 14, 2003

It’s too bad I don’t fly more often—I’d have a much steadier supply of blog material. Today’s in-flight entertainment included a documentary on the founder of Hershey’s Chocolate.

I’m returning from a fun-filled trip back to the Bay Area, where an hour or two of actual academic business helped justify what was really a poetry vacation. There was a delightful poetry-swap reunion on Wednesday evening, fueled by chicken soup and potato pancakes at David’s Deli and concluding, after a rain-drenched uphill sprint, with poems at Del’s place. An early Christmas: when I appeared at David’s Cassie greeted me with two bags groaning with Australian books and journals and a thick sheaf of photos from the postcard poems reading (featuring things like me, Stephanie, and Del doing what looked like a little doo-wop together at the mike and Catherine making rabbit ears behind the head of any unsuspecting victim she could find).

Stephanie, meanwhile, handed me a mysterious manila envelope labeled "TIM LNPB"; inside was a stack of thin, beautiful, nearly square chapbooks, each with a slightly different, finger-painted image on the front: a circle topped by a pyramid with a protrusion that looked suspiciously like an elongating nose. Stephanie had, in fact, followed through on her promise to preserve Long Nose Pinocchio Bitch for posterity, with my, her, and Kasey’s LNPB poems now prefaced by Jonathan Mayhew’s ode to an alternate species, the Long Nosed Pinocchio Squirrel Bitch.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Blogs in space: Now blogging to you from 39,000 feet, on my way to San Jose. Seemed like a better way to pass the time than watching the four hours of golf commercials that the video screens seem intent on bringing to me.

This will be my first trip back west since moving to Chicago in August. Everyone always assumes that the weather is what I’d miss, but honestly the Chicago chill (admittedly mild thus far) hasn’t bothered me. In fact, I’ve missed the Bay Area much less than I thought I was going to—most likely because I’ve been busy almost nonstop since moving. But also because Chicago has proved to have its own pleasures, old ones and new.

What I did miss about the Bay Area—as evident from my cry-for-help post last week—was a poetry community I’d just started to feel a part of, especially my good ol’ poetry swappers, who I’d come to think of, in a lot of ways, as the primary audience for my work. The couple of weeks before I moved I remember desperately bouncing from one Chicagoland academic website to the next, casting around for a class to take or sit in on—anything that might connect me to a new group of writers.

I guess my post last week must have sounded pretty pathetic, because it brought in an email from Chuck Stebelton, and on Sunday I found myself sitting down in a cozy apartment with a group of poets whose names I’d heard and who I’d even had some email contact with but never met: Jesse Seldess, Kerri Sonnenberg, Ray Bianchi, and Mark Tardi, as well as Chuck.

Driving up to Jesse’s place I was feeling a weird twinge, as if I were somehow, I guess, cheating on my old group. I realize lots of people are in multiple writing/reading groups at once, but when any of the Bay Area poetry swappers would talk about going to their book group or having brunch with a bunch of other poets I’d always feel oddly jealous, like I didn’t want to share—just a sign, I guess, of the weird intimacy of such groups. And even stranger, then, to be the interloper, joining a group already in progress, shifting the dynamic just by showing up.

Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. This group, it turns out, is just getting off the ground, and everyone was warm and welcoming. The format, too, was different than what I was expecting: rather the bring-a-poem poetry swap, the group had decided to read a critical essay for each meeting and discuss it in depth.

The selection this month was now-NEA chairman Dana Gioia’s "Can Poetry Matter?", which I read years ago when I was working on my undergrad thesis but haven’t had a chance to revisit since. In memory, I’d lumped Gioia in with other "poetry is dead" hand-wringers, usually of a reactionary bent, and useful mostly for his diagnosis of the dullness of the workshop aesthetic. I was surprised to hear the other people in the room meeting Gioia’s claims for poetry’s irrelevance with earnest concern. I suppose I’ve never had much use for the myth of the "general reader"—it usually seems, in the context of contemporary poetry, as a covert way to lobby for an anti-experimental aesthetic. But in hearing the others talk about it I realized it’s also part of a desire for relevance, for an audience, for a sense of connection to the larger communities in which we live.

In fact, as the conversation went on it became clear that what Gioia frames as a national problem—the invisibility of poetry in the mainstream media—has really become, for poetry, a local question. Kerri and Ray both brought up their work in the Chicago schools, teaching poetry to young students, which opened into the question of what the place of poetry in Chicago was, anyway. I remember thinking this, too, at the Notley reading at the U of C, with an audience of about 60 people, compared to the packed auditorium she read to in San Francisco. Is Chicago a town that just doesn’t care about poetry?

By the time I left I’d actually come to feel that the Bay Area was a place where poetry did seem important, relevant to the cultural life of the region. I even developed a theory about this: that it was San Francisco’s very provinciality, the smallness of its other cultural institutions (Chicago’s art museums, opera, and theater—as least at the marquee level—could eat San Francisco’s for lunch) that made it possible for poetry to seem important there. In Chicago, perhaps poetry, always a low-budget endeavor, was being drowned out by the more glamorous (and more corporate-sponsorable) hoopla of blockbuster Impressionist exhibits, Barenboim and Boulez, and Frank Gehry architecture.

There was some grumbling over Ron Silliman’s recent remark (which I hadn’t read) about "poor Chicago," which didn’t even have the poetry scene of a place like Milwaukee (one of the few cities insecure Chicagoans allow themselves to feel superior to). Surely there was no shortage of poetry activity in Chicago; the poets right there in the room were actively running reading series, editing magazines, and teaching. But even in these folks Silliman’s remark touched a nerve; somehow things didn’t seem to quite be coming together. A lot of speculation as to why: Chicago’s non-coastal position? the remoteness of its universities from its cultural life? Chicago as a breeding ground for talent (Second City, Steppenwolf) that then moves elsewhere, erasing all evidence of its embarrassing Midwestern roots? gentrification leading to the culturally deadening rule of the Trixie?

Well, it’s not really true to say that Chicago hasn’t made a name for itself in contemporary poetry; what it’s known as, though, is as the birthplace of the poetry slam. So the real question is whether more experimental, textual modes of poetry have a foothold here. A "scene," I think, happens when an institution (and it can be anything, a reading series, a magazine, or just a regular gathering at someone’s apartment) lines up with a distinctive aesthetic, a set of goals or problems that a certain number of people are working on at the same time in the same place. Maybe that’s starting to happen in Chicago, between Danny’s and the Discrete Series and everything else; I can’t quite tell yet. Maybe we just need an army of bloggers to report on it.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Tuned into the banned-in-Iowa episode of Saturday Night Live just in time to see Al Sharpton blow whatever miniscule chance he had to win the Asian vote in 2004. I mean, come on. Sushi jokes are so 1980s.

Not to mention which the sushi chef in the background made up to look Japanese just reminds you that there are no actual Asians on the SNL cast.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Loop [2]

Sir Smack is

at the kill-dare pump.
Pulled as keys

from a scent-full ark
off the kidding Z.

western horn

is the 18th time
pork raised its voice

to halt it, a clung
ton, a lazy L.
I can't get that damn Strokes song out of my head.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Loop [1]

The howling
oak’s parked

along the
ridge and

the cost of
tin sent

through me.

pulls ass—kid

conserves a
story. Keds

in every tree.
Hello Hello,

And please go pronto to the brand-new SHAMPOO issue 19:

Yes, yes, you really must. It is so super-sudsy and includes such starry ingredients as Alli Warren, Zinovy Vayman, Eileen Tabios, Todd Swift, Chris Stroffolino, Ron Silliman, Todd Shalom, Suzy Saul, Christopher Rizzo, Chris Murray, Gordon Moyer, Bruna Mori, Bobbi Lurie, Lewis LaCook, W.B. Keckler, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Jill Jones, Laura Jent, Yuri Hospodar, Tom Hamill, Adriana Grant, C. E. Gatchalian, Drew Gardner, Carolyn Gan, Andrew Felsinger, Michael Farrell, Jason Earls, William Charles Delman, William Cannon, Mike Bucell, Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal, Melissa R. Benham, and Stephanie Beecham; plus radiant ShampooArt by Nico Wijaya.

Even better than shopping,

Del Ray Cross, Editor
clean hair / good poetry
The Last Samurai certainly looks like an "orientalist nightmare" (Robin originally thought upon seeing the teasers that Tom Cruise was being cast as a Japanese man, although I'm not sure the truth is a whole lot better)--but I can tell you that since coming home at the beginning of this week my father can talk about nothing else besides going to see the damn thing on opening night. If I weren't already writing a dissertation I'd have another one right there.
Santa, I want a Pinay Barbie for Christmas.
Ha! And you thought I was kidding about that "New Prairie" thing.
Long Nose Pinocchio Bitch lives!

I foresee a merger/sequel: Long Nose Pinocchio Bitch Chokes.

(Was that really in October? Egads. A slight twinge of remembered pain.)
There's been a bit of an exchange on the Poetics list the past couple days about contemporary poetry and academia, which at some point transmuted into a conversation on race and its alleged monopoly over the current study of literature. I'm always a bit surprised when conversations on the list take this kind of turn, as they often do when race comes up--I guess it shouldn't be odd to find that the avant-garde wing of contemporary poetry (which often prides itself on its leftist allegiances) can be just as wedded to the ideal of the poem as aesthetic artifact, untainted by social context, as any other group of American writers. But it always disappoints me a little.

Kirby Olson's original post observed that there are "no jobs teaching contemporary poetry," to which Joel Weishaus correctly replied that, well, there are really no jobs teaching anything. As someone who's on the job market I can confirm that there are very few jobs explicitly advertised in twentieth-century, much less contemporary, poetry, but I think this is less a symptom of the decline of the field of contemporary poetry than another sign of the arcane and erratic state of academic hiring. Medieval literature--a field that encompasses not fifty or so years but several centuries, and which is also frequently said to be in decline--usually has only a handful of job postings per year. This year, unbelievably, there are something like fifty. I doubt that there are significantly fewer jobs in modern and contemporary poetry now than there were a decade ago; in fact, if anything, I see major programs like Penn and Buffalo continually expanding their commitment to it.

But while there may be very few jobs advertised in contemporary poetry, there are a truly astonishing (well, for the English job market) number of jobs being posted in creative writing--a point that Olson alludes to, but which I think is really central to this discussion. It's becoming increasingly likely that in an academic English department, contemporary poetry will be represented on the faculty not by a scholar with a Ph.D. in poetry but by an MFA-holding, widely-published creative writer, who is often called upon to teach introductory poetry classes in addition to teaching writing workshops. (This phenomenon--of poets being assigned to teach intro poetry classes--is prevalent even at a place like Stanford, which has historically had no shortage of faculty in poetry.) Undergraduates are, indeed, flocking to poetry classes, but those classes are most likely to be classes in creative writing--enrollment in such classes is one of the few growth areas for many English departments.

So what we're looking at is not a decline in the number of people teaching contemporary poetry at the college level, but a significant shift in who's doing that teaching--from the Ph.D.-holding scholar to the creative writer. There's no reason to assume that this is a bad thing--that it represents the triumph of the bad old "workshop aesthetic" of the "MFA mainstream"--not least because that aesthetic has changed, as much the kind of work that's coming out of workshop-trained young writers these days has at least a veneer of the experimental. It might very well have a liberating rather than conservative impact. But it might also result in a narrowing of the field, with the craft of poetry as it is done now coming to dominate over broader historical and critical perspectives.

Monday, December 01, 2003

I've come to realize how much the rhythm of my blogging was determined by the structure of my life back in March when I started: having an office to go to where no one could notice how much time I was spending blogging instead of working, good several-hour stretches of time where I could blog for a while and still feel like I had enough time to get some work done, nights when I was able to stay up until 1 or 2 finshing some long entry.

As is probably obvious from my sporadic posting over the past few weeks, I haven't yet figured out that rhythm here. Job market panic mostly means that every minute spent sitting in front of my computer is one of stomach-churning anxiety rather than scholarly contemplation, and it's been hard to hack out a well-defined workspace here at home, where piles of my papers are tottering on either side and there's nowhere to put them.

Mostly, though, it's the lack of a reinforcing real-time community to keep the virtual one churning along--I'm not seeing my poetry-swap buddies on a regular basis, which at the least meant I had to write something once a month. Well--at least a swapper reunion has been planned for my trip back to the Bay Area--maybe that will give the blog a shot in the arm.