Friday, May 27, 2005

Wherever We Put Our Hats

The premiere issue of Wherever We Put Our Hats, edited by Jon Leon and featuring work by Joel Dailey, Bruce Covey, Aaron Tieger, John Latta, Aaron McCollough, Jon Leon, Kate Schapira, Jennifer Moxley, and Eric Amling, as well as excerpts from my blog collaboration with Alli Warren, is now available. Click here for details.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Whither BLOG?

Stephanie asks:
But if it's at all true that the proliferation of poetry blogs changes their social function or dynamic, then where is poetry BLOG going, and might its social energy be re-articulated towards supporting or creating an alternate retail-distribution model or marketing arm for poetry publications, I mean the kind printed on paper? Is that even desirable?
I've been meaning to respond to this post for days, because it gets at a lot of the anxieties I've been having about blogging of late--well, not so much anxieties as a sense of disorientation, ungroundedness.

It's funny that in some ways, poetry blogs are starting to become more like what some naysayers wanted them to be at the outset: more like forums for discussion and debate--more formal and critical--and less local, daily, diaristic. Or perhaps it's that my blog seems like it's going that way. There's no question that there's been an explosion of discussion: just look at the spikes in posts in anybody's comment box. Enough so that flamers are actually bothering to take their venom there. (Was there no room left at the Poetics list?)

The odd thing about the appearance of flamers is that they're usually a sign of a forum crossing a certain threshhold of publicness and impersonality. If you're going to tell someone you know that he's an idiot you'll probably do it privately. People usually only feel safe enough to engage in public nastiness when there are no personal consequences; once the blogger becomes a "public figure" he/she is fair game.

And hence the increasing difficulty of coming to terms with what Stephanie's calling all-caps BLOG: the whole universe of poetry conversation going on out there. Even a year ago it seemed like it was possible; now I'm more and more aware of the concentric circles of blogs that I read, and how there are always more beyond that. This is, perhaps, why it's starting to look more like debate: what I think of as the original group of poetry bloggers I read seemed, as if by coincidence (though of course it wasn't), to share some kind of baseline aesthetic. I would venture to say that that's no longer the case; a more explicit discussion of aesthetics has become necessarily precisely because the poetry blogosphere is growing, and getting less homogeneous as it does.

I don't know what this says about the future of poetry blogging. I'd like to think, as Stephanie suggests, that it can continue to remain a form with its own integrity, a true alternative to the poem-on-the-page-surrounded-by-white-space of print publication (or the justified margins and neat columns of print criticism). But I wonder if it will increasingly become an adjunct of print culture, a mere pointer to the "real" work that is going on elsewhere.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Starbucks Doesn't Think I'm Sexy (III)

The phone rings this afternoon. Robin answers it and hands it to me.

"It's for you."

"Who is it?"


I take the phone and spend several minutes talking to a very nice woman whose job, I can only imagine, must be that of professional apologizer. The very cadences of her voice begged forgiveness for intruding on my valuable time, while simultaneously expressing the gratitude that a multinational corporation could never speak in its own person. I was informed by this lovely, disarming voice that my comments on the Starbucks Asian-man-turns-white commercial had been duly passed on to the appropriate people and would be taken into consideration for the future.

That was very nice of them, I said. But that meant the commercials were still running, unaltered?

Well, she confessed, yes, that was true, but she assured me that future generations of Starbucks marketers would benefit from my wisdom.

She also told me, in what was an almost embarrassed aside, that some Asian Americans in fact liked this commercial.

Robin suggested that they should have at least sent me a case of free Frappuccinos. You know. To see if they work.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Do You Have The...

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich remarked a few days ago that he, unlike some of his predecessors, had the "testicular virility" needed to stand up to corruption. Chicagoans report they are confused.

Starbucks Doesn't Think I'm Sexy (II)

Dear Timothy,

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.

We appreciate you sharing your feedback regarding our recent television commercial with us.

As a global company, Starbucks is committed to diversity in all areas of our business and we are deeply passionate about doing the right thing. We regret if the commercial was in any way misinterpreted to be insensitive or offensive, as this was never our intent. We are currently looking into this and will take appropriate action.

If you have any further questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact us at or 888-235-2883.

Neil V.
Customer Relations Representative

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Starbucks Doesn't Think I'm Sexy

So there's this new (I think) commercial on for Starbucks Frappuccino-in-a-bottle. I've only seen it once (it's also noted here, here, and here), but as far as I can reconstruct it, it goes like this:

There's a shot of an Asian guy reading, possibly in an office break room. He's wearing something like '50s nerd glasses, but they're really retro-nerd glasses, so the effect is, I presume, ironic. For a moment I'm having that odd exhiliration angry asian man reported on a few weeks ago: the possibility of seeing an Asian on television in a totally normal role.

A blonde woman (also wearing glasses) enters the room and opens a large refrigerator, inside which is a Starbucks Frappuccino. As she reaches for it the refrigerator door blocks the face of the Asian guy. When she closes the door, Frappuccino in hand, the Asian guy has changed into a white guy: apparently it's crooner Michael Buble, but wearing the Asian guy's nerd glasses.

He takes off the glasses and proceeds to follow the woman around the office serenading and flirting with her as her coworkers move obliviously about.

So. Drink a Frappuccino; jump-start your day; turn your dorky Asian officemate into a sexy white man.

The Blogger's Code? (II)

A bit overwhelmed (though in a good way) by the conversation going on in my own comment box. It's the first time I've ever had enough comments here to actually think about the phenomenon. Shanna's right--they are one of the best things about blogs, making conversation possible in a medium that's often thought to be totally solipsistic--but they also weirdly (again, in a good way) make the blog no longer entirely written by you. I mean me.

Also I've been sidelined by some kind of computer meltdown, now fixed. A "shared library error." That will teach me to be generous with my books.

Okay, back to the topic. Excellent thoughts by Jonathan, Nick, and Anne Boyer about praise, criticism, and competition (in poetry and elsewhere in life). I'm still thinking, though, about the oddness of all these "poetry blogs" that are not blogs of poems. What are they then?

I said they're not blogs of poems or of primary "work." But then of course Stephen Vincent reminded me that both his and Nick's blogs have often reproduced journal and notebook entries that, if perhaps not always "poetry" in the strictest sense, are certainly creative work. But here again is an oddity: both Nick and Stephen have posted passages from notebooks already written, sometimes years or even decades in the past. It's my sense (I hope I'm not being presumptuous) that for them the (laborious) process of transcribing and posting that work is a kind of rewriting and rethinking--a pulling back from and examination of the work (and the self) even as it's also a reexperiencing.

Brian Campbell commented that he admires Simon De Deo's blog because "it reviews actual poems, which are the ultimate thing here, eh?" Fair enough--but there's that "actual poems" thing again, which always makes me wonder what "unactual poems" the rest of us are discussing.

My larger question, though: are reviews the "ultimate thing" among the poetry blogs I read? I'd say, frankly, no; if these are not poem blogs, they are also not criticism blogs in the narrowly evaluative sense. I suppose you'd say that on some days Ron Silliman is acting as a reviewer, but (to many people's frustration) he always goes far beyond the up or down judgment to some much more sweeping context.

So what are they? I guess I'd have to say they are poetics blogs, meaning by that discussion about and engaged with poetry in the deepest sense, but operating at some more general, abstract level, less interested in judgment per se then in an ongoing conversation about an unfolding aesthetic. Which means the scope is not limited to the reviewer's horizon: I think the best discussions I've had about individual poems out here have been about Shakespeare and O'Hara.

As soon as I say that I wonder where that places those blogs that blend poetics with the more diaristic aspects of the blog form--which are also some of the most exciting and compulsively readable, like Stephanie's and Jordan's. I actually don't think that's an accident; the blog's blend of formality and casual dailiness seems part and parcel of whatever poetics is being explored here.

But as I've said, I feel very uncertain about these generalizations I'm making; I feel the ground has shifted a lot. In part that's because I've left the physical community (the Bay Area) in which I started blogging; there was a brief period there where real and virtual communities seemed to be reinforcing each other, and things kind of took off and we couldn't blog fast enough. But that was also the root of my sense of this project as part of a supportive (non-competitive) community. Since then I've moved, started a job, and gone dormant for nearly a year, and am still trying to get my bearings again. I'm not sure whether my description is accuracy, or nostalgia.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Blogger's Code?

Jonathan describes his "blogger's code," which "says not to criticize the poetry of another blogger who is known to me primarily, or principally, as a blogger, and is not a quote unquote famous poet."

I think I probably feel that way as well, although I've never really articulated it to myself that way. But what I've really been thinking is that Jonathan's tenets only make sense given the peculiar traits of the poetry/blog community we're a part of (although the boundaries of that community have gotten a lot blurrier to me of late). Among them:

1. No one in this community, with the possible exception of Ron Silliman, is a "famous poet": i.e. I wouldn't know them through a significant body of published and widely read work before encountering them in blogland. Those who have published books have usually published one book and/or maybe a few chapbooks. (This is getting more complicated as more established poets start to write blogs; but I'm guessing that Jonathan would not view such poets as immune to critique.)

2. The primary purpose of blogs in this community is not the publication, exchange, and critique of our own poems. Many of us never post our own poems on our blogs at all, while others keep separate poetry blogs. When I have posted a poem on my blog, I don't think I've ever received a direct comment on it. That's in sharp contrast to the way poetry circulates in other online venues (e.g. discussion groups, message boards, or even other kinds of blogs), which function as something like virtual workshops or poetry-swaps.

I don't object to this element of poetry blogging; in fact, I rather like that the poetry/poetics blogs I read are something onto themselves and not merely channels for the propagation of "real work." But I wonder why this is the case.

3. The relationship between this group of bloggers is communal rather than competitive. As Nick and others have pointed out in Jonathan's comment box, that's rather surprising: in most other spheres it's natural to view other poets as "the competition." But it seems as if most of us, in blogging, are wearing our reader/responder hats (appreciation, analysis, critique) rather than our poet hats (awe, envy, resentment, theft).

For some, this communal sense is actually a weakeness of blogging: we're all buddies who would never say a bad word about each other. The Chicago Reader (irritatingly little of which is available online) ran a story in last week's books issue on book review blogs, noting that print reviewers tended to view bloggers (among whom the author counted herself) as "one big, giddy circle jerk." I'm thinking also of a recent blog entry by Patrick Rosal on the productive value of competition, of "trying to write a better poem than someone else" (while remembering "we all got to eat at the same table").

Personally, I prize that sense of community; but perhaps that's because I'm uncomfortable with the kind of naked striving (after publication, awards, publicity) that seems to characterize the lives of many professional poets (and others, honestly; it's why I decided in college I could never be a journalist). In the one place I've seen a real, thriving poetry community--the Bay Area--it always seemed to me that a community produced work as effectively as did a bunch of individuals competing: people doing good stuff encouraged you to do good stuff too, but not necessarily to beat them.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Chinese (American) Notebook

Ron Silliman muses today on the phenomenon of scribbling into a notebook while listening to another poet read: "the trifecta of literary environments, the best possible context in which to produce work."

I've found this to be the case as well, on some occasions. Though usually what results for me is a weird work in which the reader's words get collaged with my own: that was the case with my poem on Robert Creeley, which I posted here recently.

But I never saw the listener-scribbling-in-a-notebook phenomenon more evident than at Silliman's reading in July '03 at 21 Grand in Oakland. At one point I recall looking down my row and seeing nearly everyone in it with their head bent over a notepad.

To be fair, there was some element of journalistic competition going on: nearly all the notetakers were bloggers who raced home to file reading reports. But I was curious to look back and see what it was I'd written down. So here, more or less verbatim, is what I wrote in my notebook that night:

VOG--Voice of God         He looks just like his web site

Viagra Falls
Language Poetry an exercise in nostalgia-->SF poems

The ease w/which a spouse strips naked

why men don't put the seat up

women's clothing

aftertaste of honey mustard pretzel lingers in my beard

Planet of the Apps


In Philly a sleeveless shirt is called a wife-beater

This is CNN

"Data Quest"

Pubic hair caught between 2 teeth
World in which Strom Thurmond outlives Kathy Acker

Ovid among the Scythians

I woke with a tenderness above the cheekbone


Poet be like cod--looking at KK

tooth extraction

Who listens? Who hears?

"Final Form"
Silence of the looms

How will I know when I don't make a mistake?

finite words in a life--one hoards them

the joy of doubt

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


A few more contributions over the past few days to the avant-grrr. Jasper Bernes agrees that we would have "a difficult time defining a-g writing as a function of the text itself." Josh posts an email exchange with Reginald Shepherd, who criticizes the avant-garde’s “reflexive dichotomizing,” which neglects “actual poems.” Chris Lott argues for beauty and clarity and declares “It’s OK to enjoy Ray *and* Rae.” Jordan says: “Climb down from art history before it gets dark.”

As I read Shepherd’s and Lott’s remarks (and glance into Ron Silliman’s comment boxes), I find that it never ceases to amaze me how angry Silliman can still make people. Why is that? What nerve is it that he’s touching? Is the playing field now so level for experimental writing that Silliman’s polemics aren’t needed? Will Silliman’s condemnation end Billy Collins’s career? Where do I go to leave comments on Billy Collins’s blog to tell him exactly what I think of him? Did I miss Ron Silliman’s election as Poet Laureate of the United States?

I’m particularly puzzled when Shepherd and Lott remark that all this discussion drives us away from “poetry itself” or “the text itself.” Anyone who reads Silliman’s blog knows that something like 80% of his posts are reviews and appreciations of various writers he finds important, accompanied by remarkably detailed close readings of individual poems—analyses of form, sound, and rhythm that would have to please even the most hardened formalist. In fact, today Silliman offers praise for the “austere approach” to art, in which the reader “has nothing to do but actually look, read, hear,” regardless of context. The difference is that for Silliman, this ultimately leads to work that is non-referential—“reference” itself being a kind of pointing away from the work.

I’ve also tried here to offer readings of a range of poets, from Nick Flynn to Lorine Niedecker to Lisa Jarnot. But those kinds of analyses don’t seem to draw the attention that’s paid to one unkind word about Billy Collins.

This is where Ange Mlinko is right: the binaries of text/context and form/content don’t line up cleanly either with each other or with the binary of avant-garde/mainstream. If part of the avant-garde critique is that most poetry is insufficiently aware of its context, the other part of it is that most poetry is insufficiently aware of its form—or, more precisely, of the contingency of its form, of the fact that no form is natural or set for all time. (Another binary that doesn’t line up is that of politics/poetry. Shepherd hauls out the old canard about the avant-garde trying to substitute poetry for actual politics; surely many poets are equally guilty of this, and if we follow Shepherd’s arguments there’s no reason to think that Marilyn Hacker’s poems will change the world anymore than Ron Silliman’s. And no one’s going to win if we play the game of who’s-more-politically-active-than-who.)

It’s “School of Quietude,” more than any of Silliman’s coinages, that gets folks the most riled up. I suspect one function of the label is to improve upon Charles Bernstein’s ‘80s designation of mainstream poetry as “official verse culture,” a formula that strikes some as too purely institutional. (After all, several Language writers hold Iowa MFAs, and several now occupy prominent academic positions.) Conversely, “School of Quietude” may strike some as a too purely aesthetic label (a “school,” a particular style, rather than an academy)—anything that looks or sounds a certain way. But I think the point of both terms, as I’ve tried to argue in my last few posts, is to pinpoint the ways institutions and styles are deeply linked to each other, rather than simply to say “Poet X is bad because he went to Iowa” or “Poet Y is bad because she writes first-person lyric.”

What’s perverse, to my mind, is that the avant-garde, which points out the divisions and exclusions within the poetic landscape, is now accused of creating those very divisions. It’s avant-gardists, Shepherd suggests, who “reflexively dichotomize” and retreat into cliques; Chris Lott posits “an either-or system of aesthetic exclusion” as a “defining characteristic” of the “post-avant crowd.”

What do Shepherd and Lott offer instead? “Beauty” and “clarity” (Lott) and the unfashionable ability to “enjoy” “actual poems” (Shepherd). Fair enough. But these aesthetic positions must recognize themselves as positions, not as the absence of any position or as some idea of pure critical neutrality that welcomes any “great” work, whatever its kind.

This is what Silliman was getting at, I think, when he charged Billy Collins with “intellectual dishonesty.” Collins presented his selection of “accessible” over “inaccessible” work for 180 More as merely pragmatic, appropriate for an “introductory” anthology—a choice that transcended aesthetics or politics. But it was of course an aesthetic choice, one that served to exclude a vast range of writers. Collins had the right, of course, to choose whatever writers he saw fit for whatever reasons he cared to give. He could simply have said that Rae Armantrout was a bad writer, or ignored her completely. But to present this choice as a non-choice—to insist that a whole spectrum of writers simply naturally had to be excluded from the anthology—that is, indeed, a kind of dishonesty, one made worse by the fact that Collins was obviously fully aware of the kinds of writers who would be excluded by his choices.

I’m not saying that Shepherd’s and Lott’s positions are anything like as bad the way I’m characterizing Collins. But I do think Collins shows an extreme version of what happens when you claim to transcend aesthetic divisions and dichotomies: you can end up obscuring your own aesthetic, even to yourself.

And just as importantly, you can obscure your own relationship to the structures of power that continue to influence the way we read, write, and publish poetry. While Collins, Shepherd, and Lott either reject avant-garde groupings or seek to transcend them, what’s interesting to me is the way they make their claims in a world indelibly marked by the avant-garde critique. Shepherd describes himself as being “published by a ‘mainstream’ press”; Lott places himself among those who “appreciate work that is ‘conventional’” and who “ride the fence.” The scare quotes are there, but aren’t these terms being used precisely the way they might be used by Silliman or any of his avant-colleagues? Does Shepherd’s ironic characterization of himself as “mainstream” keep him from repeating the same arguments that “mainstream” has used over the past three decades to dismiss avant-garde writing? It’s taken the avant-garde to make the “mainstream” visible to itself; talk of transcendence sounds to me a lot like that mainstream trying to forget, to incorporate a few pleasant flourishes from the avant-garde and then to get past the whole business. Too late: it’s obvious we’re all post-avant.