Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Josh Corey asks:
Where do we place a poet who produces normative free verse but publishes it with small presses and keeps blog? Did Ashbery lose his avant-gardener status the moment Auden chose him as a Yale Younger Poet? If Jorie Graham wrote the exact same poems but published with O Books instead of HarperCollins, would the poems somehow be different, or at least read differently?

Here's the thing: the very idea of "normative free verse" is an effect of poetic institutions. If we could imagine a world in which poetry was entirely local--circulating only among peers who passed around small-press manuscripts and knew each other through reading series, but whose work never circulated outside a narrow geographical area--if there was no Harvard, no Iowa, no New York Times Book Review, no University of Chicago Press--there would be no such thing as "normative" verse. (I'll leave it to others to decide whether this would be a poetic utopia or a wasteland of isolation.) The normative can't be detached from the powerful, national channels through which it circulates; and whatever you want to say about MFA programs, at the very least they have the function of strengthening an idea of normative verse by offering formal, professional training in poetry writing. (That's not to say that they offer only one idea of the norm; a small but important group of MFA programs have helped to cement "experimental" style as a viable alternative within American writing, but possibly at the cost of making such styles paradoxically stable and rigid.)

The hypothetical practioner of "normative" verse, then, is working in a mode that's inseparable from certain institutions. It wouldn't make much sense to argue that such a writer is remotely "avant-garde" because he or she publishes with a small press or has a blog, any more than Seamus Heaney ceases to be an institution by issuing the occasional broadside or limited edition.

It would be nice to argue that blogs are an inherently subversive form, but for all their troubling of the media waters they can be just as reactionary as they are radical. It might be more accurate to say that a practioner of "normative" verse does not need a blog, except as an auxiliary or stepping stone to the "real" goal of publication in a prestigious journal. And indeed, I do think there is some divide among poet-bloggers in this respect: between those for whom the blog is a largely casual adjunct, a way to promote "real," off-line work, and those for whom the blog is an end in itself (perhaps for writing that has no other obvious potential outlet). Both seem perfectly legitimate uses of the form, but I don't think there is much that is "avant-garde" about a blog unless it is doing something that couldn't really be done in another forum.

Re Ashbery: again, I don't think that avant-garde can really be understood as a status that an indivdiual writer has or doesn't have (like street cred, or something). Yes, it is often used in that sense. But Ashbery's a good example here: there are certain gestures he makes in certain contexts that I would clearly want to describe as avant-garde, and others that I would not. It's not so much about the person as about the moment and the context, as well as the content and the form. Language writers like Charles Bernstein, for instance, often celebrate some of Ashbery's earlier work (esp. The Tennis Court Oath), but express frustration with Ashbery's later canonization, and Bernstein even (if I'm recalling this correctly, from an early essay) charges Ashbery with being "complicit" in his own maisntreaming. Auden's patronage of Ashbery could easily have ended up looking like an aberration, if Ashbery had chosen to go down a certain path; but once Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror swept the awards and allowed Harold Bloom & co. to proclaim Ashbery a part of the Great Tradition (Keats, Yeats, Stevens, etc.) Auden looked prescient rather than boneheaded. As soon as Ashbery becomes an individual "case," the question of avant-garde is pretty much moot.

If Jorie Graham published with O Books, she would be Leslie Scalapino.

Monday, April 25, 2005


Josh Corey and Ange Mlinko debate whether folks like Anne Winters and Jorie Graham are avant-garde or not. If the discussion ulitimately feels unsatisfying, it's not because both don't make reasonable points, but because the question of who is or is not avant-garde can't be determined on merely formal grounds, i.e. just by reading a text and classifying it one way or the other. Avant-garde is not just a style; it is always also a statement about a work's context of production: the manner in which it appears and circulates, the place it takes within the institutions of art, the extent to which it displays (and demands) a critical awareness of all these things.

That shouldn't be reduced to a crude statement like "Winters and Graham cannot be avant-garde because they are published by Chicago or teach at Harvard." But even if they're not determining, such institutional questions are relevant.

More importantly, the question of avant-garde can't be settled by looking at an individual writer in isolation; fundamental to the idea of avant-garde is, ultimately, the idea of group or movement, one that's hard to reconcile with (and is, perhaps, actively opposed to) the image of a canon in which Poet A jockeys against Poet B for membership in a lineage of heroic greats. Shedding such group allegiances remains one of the prerequistes for being taken seriously as a Great Poet by mainstream critics; but membership in such a community is what allows the avant-garde writer to generate an aesthetic that might differ from the dominant.

I think this is why Jorie Graham has become such a troubling case for those who ally themselves with avant-garde writing. By any measure, Graham is one of the most prominent and successful of American poets. But her style, her surface, is just unconventional enough that it is regarded as "experimental" or even "avant-garde" by many of her mainstream readers--so much so that Graham has occasionally become a punching bag for conservative writers who loathe Language writing and its ilk. The irony is that, while Graham is often praised by critics for her openness to a range of styles, she's never allied herself with any group of experimental writers, and certainly not with Language poets. I imagine that Graham often enrages avant-garde writers because she's often used as a token of stylistic eclecticism ("Oh, yes, we have 'experimental' poets; we have Jorie Graham") in a way that allows for the exclusion of anyone who's doing anything more radical.

That latter strategy is central to Gregory Orr's NYTBR review. But the odd thing is that the more one is an avowed fan of Graham, the more her formal traits seem beside the point: cf. Cal Bedient's Boston Review piece, which reads Graham more as philosopher than poet ("she is more than ever obsessed with the x everyone and everything fundamentally is (or fails to be)").

I perodically come back and try to read Graham, but she just does nothing for me. Orr says she's "ostentatiously thinky," which is nasty on a number of levels (prejudices against smart women and arch academics among them) but probably fundamentally right. Discursivity per se, which Josh is not a big fan of, isn't exactly the problem; it's more like an overdramatized self-consciousness, a sense of a poet trying to "look in" on the process of thought and then constantly reminding you that she's doing it: a trait I see in a funny cross-section of poets ranging from Frank Bidart to Leslie Scalapino. I'd distinguish that from a linguistic self-consciousness because the former is ultimately all about the ego turning in upon itself, while the latter hopefully works toward some awareness of the objective materials that make the ego what it is.

Your Linguistic Profile:

55% General American English

20% Yankee

15% Upper Midwestern

5% Dixie

5% Midwestern

A little surprising. I thought I'd score a little higher on the Midwestern scale; I even tried to skew the results by using my childhood terminology ("pop," which they also seem to say in Toronto--is this a more general Canadian thing?) rather than the "soda" I've been ridiculed into adopting in Boston and SF. I guess my time in Boston (rotaries, guts) left quite a linguistic impression.

I'd like to know what 5% of my speech is "Dixie," though.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Fooey! (II)

Double ugh. I was trying to reserve judgment on Alan Cordle's intentions, but I now see that the blast of embarrassing publicity the NYT article generated has encouraged him not to crawl into a hole (which I would probably do) but to bring Foetry roaring back--cringeworthy sign-offs notwithstanding.

It's all too obvious at this point that Foetry's methods, which claim to expose poetry's reduction to personal politics, have simply exacerbated that reduction. In both the real, evil poetry world and the mirror image Foetry creates, poets are nothing but conglomerations of connections, pedigrees and power. Foetry is the poetry world's loyal opposition: it reduces literary power to its crudest terms, and envies that power rather than seeking to offer an alternative. In that respect, at least, Thursday's foolish NYT article is correct: in the world as seen through Foetry, poets are a bunch of craven buffoons, madly scrambling for scraps that no one else cares about.

Ron is right: Foetry is just asking the wrong questions. Its "critique" has nothing to do with aesthetics, economics, or politics, but with the fantasy of any contest entrant anywhere: had things been "fair," I would have won.

"Objective" literary judgment? Come on. There's no such thing. I say that not because I think all judgments are just effects of power, but because I know that much of the contemporary poetry I value is precisely the kind that the "objective" judgment of the "best" critics says is bad.

Do the work you believe in. If you can win a Yale Younger Poets' prize by doing it, great. If not, either wait for future generations to discover your greatness or find other ways of getting things done: find other, better journals and presses, or start your own.

The crazy thing, as Ron and many others have pointed out, is that recognition in major contests is an utterly debased currency: given the invisibility of poetry in the major media and journals, you're likely gaining less of an audience (and certainly a less informed one) than by being published by a good small press.

Bottom line: Foetry changes nothing. Poets asked to be judges will pick poems in the orbit of their own aesthetic; that aesthetic is inevitably linked to the institutional contexts (universities, MFA programs, presses and journals) in which those poets exist; so even if you have a truly "blind" contest the same folks will keep winning. The rise of the MFA program just makes this process slightly more predictable. All Foetry does is give those who already possess power the ability to feel persecuted.

Which is to say: bring it on, Jimmy. Poetry needs you.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Ugh. The front page of the NYT arts section yesterday had me reaching for my airsick bag: there it was, an article on the collapse of Foetry. Congrats to Alan Cordle for doing the impossible: making people feel sorry for Jorie Graham.

Ron Silliman reflects a bit today on the whole thing. I already said my bit on it--almost exactly a year ago? Egads. What I couldn't have imagined with that original post was the extent to which Foetry's style of anonymous critique and "outing" would itself become the headline--quite literally.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Updated: the link to the Myopic Poetry Series, at right. Next up: Dan Beachy-Quick and Stacy Szymaszek, this Sunday at 7.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

This Isn't a War Story

but a layer of war around every hard-
boiled egg, running through what looks like
open ground
and as if the newspaper
were striking on the hour
Who’s this girl’s-
best-friend, who is the next
term in the sequence
a term of art

is a sharp right
I know
I’m good

a self-serve
wind brushing back the hair
of the head, the soft hair
of the face and arms
all tops and bottoms

I want to say: end
truck lane restrictions
want to say: end
I want
to say: end
to representation

each meat hangs from its own hook

Monday, April 18, 2005

Kinda Famous Asian American Writers Taking Over at Iowa

Okay, I'm just seeing how long I can keep this title thing going. But there's hasn't been much discussion about the fact that Lan Samantha Chang has been named the new director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That's kind of cool. I guess it just goes to show that if you become a famous Asian American novelist, you will be rewarded by being forced to run an MFA program.

Freaked-Out Asian American Writers at Indiana

Strange experience of scrolling through Ron Silliman's blog and suddenly seeing a Chinese face starting out at me from the screen: the uncanniness of this must say something about how rare it is.

Anyway, it turns out it's a link to an account of a minor Li-Young Lee freakout during a reading in Indiana; the subsequent discussion expresses admiration for his cheekbones.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Experimental Asian American Writers at Northwestern

This weekend's Asian American Studies conference at Northwestern University (located, as the university's website likes to say, in "Evanston/Chicago, IL"), which marks the 10th anniversary of the hunger strike that established Northwestern's Asian American Studies program, will feature a pretty cool reading: poets Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Tan Lin, and Brian Kim Stefans, and novelist Max Yeh. It's Saturday, April 16, 3:45-5:15 p.m., in Harris Hall, Room 108, at 1881 Sheridan Road on Northwestern's Evanston campus.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

My Vocabulary

New to the blogroll: My Vocabulary, home of the weekly Matt and James Poetry Show.

Formatting help

I have a poem I want to post that has lines that are indented--i.e. one line will end and I want the next to begin just below the end of the previous line. I don't see any obvious way to do this through the Blogger interface, and I don't know enough about HTML to figure out how to do it manually. Any suggestions?

(Honestly, this problem has frustrated me ever since I started blogging; I've just never bothered to figure out a solution.)

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Now that Saul Bellow has died, an unseemly battle has broken out between Chicago and New York to claim him. The Chicago Tribune's Wednesday cover story declares him "Chicago's Novelist." Today the New York Times has a clever riposte: "New York was Saul Bellow's Second City."

Chicago would seem to have an edge in this one; he grew up in Chicago and worked, lived, and taught there for much of his career. On quality of coverage, though, the Times has the Trib beat hands down; the Times's appreciations sound a bit more like real criticism, comparing Bellow to other 20th-century authors and even using words like "postmodernism"--which, of course, as a Great Writer, Bellow was said to loathe. (The Trib's synonym for postmodernism seems to be "cynicism.")

The Trib, in contrast, is hamstrung, as it usually is in its arts coverage, by having no idea what audience it's talking to--Chicago or the world? the city or the suburbs? the intellectual or the "man on the street"? We're treated to a list of Chicago writers who praise Bellow as Mr. Chicago; to a comparison of Bellow to "Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner" (whose only resemblance to Bellow seems to be that two of them also won Nobel Prizes); to the insight that "he was the antithesis of everything blase"; and to a catalog of Bellow's thoughts on Chicago that make him sound like the thinking man's Mike Royko. The important thing, in the end, is that Bellow "out-and-out loved Chicago."

That kind of crass civic boosterism makes it easier for the Times's writers to conceal their own provincialism (I mean, come on--Bellow loved New York's "complicated women" and "the onion rolls from Zabar's"?) behind a veneer of sophistication, even drafting Ian McEwan to explain why Brits love Bellow.

I am starting to wonder about Michiko Kakutani, though. I gave her a free pass last time, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that she would wax eloquent about a hero of realism who rejected "mainstream" literature, "aestheticism" and "postmodern pyrotechnics" (McEwan even claims that Bellow "freed" the novel from the iron grip of modernism--take that, Virginia Woolf!). But what's with describing Melville as a "brawny, red-blooded American"? Robin says: "I think the word I would use would be 'anemic.'"

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Cassie's New Blog

can be found here.

Hey Mr. DJ

You can hear me reading "Whatever You Want Is What You Want" tomorrow night on the inaugural edition of Matthew Shindell and James Meetze's poetry radio show on KSDT in San Diego. Tune in between 4-6 p.m. (PT) at

The real reason to listen, though, is that Matthew and James will be starting off with a tribute to Robert Creeley, including recordings of Creeley reading and elegies contributed by other poets.

Friday, April 01, 2005

A list of our own? (II)

As both Pam Lu and Roger Pao have (very gently) reminded me, I've sort of dropped the ball on the whole Asian American poetics list thing. Besides general busyness, I can offer two pleas: format anxiety and technical ignorance.

There's been some debate, both here and on Roger's blog, about whether a listserv is the best way to generate the kind of discussion and community I'm interested in. One commenter chez Roger ("Nick," who I'm assuming is Nick Carbo), suggested that the era of listservs is over and "blogs are where it's at." I'm sympathetic to that, obviously. But I still wonder if a listserv might be good at reaching the broad community of Asian American writers and readers I'm hoping to engage--a community that would not only include younger poets but critics and scholars who have an interest in the field (and who, in my experience, are relatively clueless about the world of blogs).

The group blog and the discussion board have also been suggested as models. I'm nominally a part of several group blogs, and I think they can be fantastic for a few people who are pursuing a group project; I'm less convinced that they are great forums for discussion amongst a fairly large, diffuse group. I've never really been happy with any of the few discussion boards I've stumbled across; they seem to encourage anonymity and sniping more often than community, but perhaps I'm wrong. If people have models in either of these realms that they think would be promising, I'm all ears.

I think listservs, old-fashioned as they are, can work well for groups of moderate size that already have some sense of community--a sense of shared interests and relations that keeps discussion civil and focused. Not necessarily "among friends," but perhaps among colleagues. My fantasy is that there exists such a group around Asian American poetry and a listserv would just need to activate it. I will confess, though, that I have no idea if this is true. My friend Dorothy Wang and I often lament that we seem to be the only people around in academia who care about Asian American poetry; I'd hope that the list would prove us wrong.

I don't see why we couldn't try several things at once; a group blog, a discussion board, and a listserv aren't mutually exclusive and might even reinforce each other.

Finally, to technical issues. My only experience in creating lists is on academic networks; nearly all of them still use antiquated LISTSERV software, offering limited features. I have been looking into the idea of hosting the list through the University of Toronto's system, but they do not even seem to offer archiving, much less any kind of web interface. I've been on several Yahoo groups, and I see Google groups as well; can anyone tell me if these seem like better ways to manage a list, or if there are other options that I should consider?

for Robert Creeley (1926-2005)

Conversation Poem (unathorized)
Robert Creeley—Chicago, December 29, 1999

Hey, let me
tell you

this: he
as the ultimate

good person, as
the art of lying,

by the throat and
throttle it.

The sawyer of
the mind seated

in the rocking chair,
so the neighbors might

see. Variously
culminating literature

of tacit
horror: the willing

suspension of

Taking the XXX Cantos
to war: just read

this and add
water, for which no

academies exist.
Sit with a book

and sound it, quote
get it right unquote.

You couldn’t
break it. It’s not

a product, much as
music is, the

activity of forgetting
the apparatus.

Meaning begins to,
as the ascent

beckons: the materials,
the house I was born.

To, to get to,
much, much too

particular: I rock
on the porch. There

isn’t room. A
mirror of someone

seeing themselves, where
lyric begins: Look Ma,

I’m dancing! At
85, what the

hell? When the whole shift
is so simple: Socrates

asking what you mean.
If you haven’t been

hit by a club, how
can you know? Translating

into standard English: why
one must be the

subject of a sentence.
Works on paper,

painters, especially
what’s seen.

It’s a vocab-
ulary, a place,

place of seeing the
world, a different

pattern, a friend of
a few years.

Apart from other physical
human persons: like

cluttering, like chickens.
The salt pond,

so heavily
salted you can walk

on it. I never
realized how I smell.

A kind of civilization
vs. barbarism, this

adversarial relation, the
possibility of class,

again back to that
time in the 40s: then there were those

that were not. Why this
person of that place, the

phony energy? I felt
a great and social

father, mine dead when
I was 4, 8 miles from

Concord—Jude the
Obscure, an eye

for a college.
In this country

I heard a woman
talking about, about

government, a super-
market, a sense of

completion and production.
What else are they

going to do?
I wanted a poetry

like the soapbox derby:
go to your own

dictionary. All American
poetry is homemade.

What’s, what’s, what’s
to happen? The Cantos

had sold a modest
number of copies.

She writes poetry
for every occasion.

She has a
situation. The nearest

thing would be
a dilemma.

I began by reading
the door, the measure

of four. Quoting
some other poet

gets you started.

This poem originally appeared in Mirage #4/Period(ical) #99.