Monday, October 07, 2002

Actualism vanished as a literary tendency as thoroughly as Objectivism seemed to have done in the early 1950s. While the annual Berkeley Actualist Conventions were one public manifestation of this phenomenon, a rather different version than the one visible in the Bay Area during the 1970s is suggested by The Actualist Anthology (The Spirit That Moves Us, 1977), co-edited by Morty Sklar and the late Darrell Gray. In addition to the editors, the volume includes Allan and Cinda Kornblum, Chuck Miller, Anselm Hollo, John Batki, Jim Mulac, David Hilton, Sheila Heldenbrand, George Mattingly, John Sjoberg, Steve Toth and Dave Morice.

The editors state frankly that “Calling this volume THE ACTUALIST ANTHOLOGY came mainly out of a need for a title.* ‘Fourteen Iowa City Poets’ wouldn’t have been accurate – this is not a regional anthology in the strict sense.” But in some sense, it was: “we have sought have sought to represent the work of those poets most seminal to the Actualist Movement, which began (in spirit, if not name) around 1970 in Iowa City, Iowa. Half of us remain in Iowa, while others have moved….” Almost as pronounced as the crucible of Iowa City was this group’s decidedly Midwestern background – eight of the contributors (Miller, Mulac, Heldenbrand, Mattingly, Sjoberg, Toth, Morice & Cinda Kornblum) were born in the Midwest, Darrell Gray was raised there. Generationally, the Actualists roughly the same age as the language poets, ranging from a few poets born in the 1930s (Hollo, Sklar, Hilton, Miller) to others born right around the mid-century mark (Toth, Heldenbrand, Mattingly).

As a group, these writers proved antithetical to the “Workshop poem” associated with poets such as Marvin Bell or Norman Dubie. The poems were often casual, but always lively. Sklar, in “What Actually is Actualism,” characterized it as a “basically open, generous and positive approach to our art.” Actualists poked fun at the academy & prided themselves on their rough edges: both Sklar and Miller lists bouts of incarceration in their biographical notes.

The literary context for Actualism is worth noting. Allan Kornblum spells out his influences in the greatest detail:

Thanks to my poetry teachers in workshops: Dick Gallup, Carter Ratcliff, Tom Veitch, Ted Berrigan, Jack Marshall, Donald Justice, and Anselm Hollo.

While Justice taught at Iowa for many years, the core of this list is a mélange of second and third generation New York School poets. As different as Gallup, Ratcliff, Veitch & Berrigan are as poets – the range of what gets included under the NY School banner is as broad as that which now gets characterized as language poetry – what one notices about this quartet is how absent they have been from the poetry scene for a very long time: Berrigan by virtue of an early death, Ratcliff having turned to art criticism, Veitch to graphic novels (including an authorized Star Wars trilogy), and Gallup having, in the words of Publishers Weekly,  “disengaged from the literary world in the early ‘80s.” Marshall, who has managed to stay around the NY School, Iowa City and the San Francisco scene, keeping all three safely at arm’s length, is only slightly less reclusive.

By the mid-1980s, this context had all but evaporated. Even more importantly, by the time Darrell Gray died in 1986, alcoholism had effectively silenced him. While Actualism itself cannot be reduced to Gray’s poetry & impact, he was clearly its central figure, both socially and intellectually. Without Gray, none of the other participants, either in the Bay Area or from the Iowa formation, continued to pursue the concept. Without Berrigan, the single most important influence on Actualism, the link between the New York School and these poets scattered mostly throughout the west became nebulous in the extreme.

But if Actualism as a tendency disappeared, many of the Actualists themselves did not. In addition to Mattingly, Hollo and Morice, whom I’ve discussed previously in the blog, the Kornblums have transformed Toothpaste Press, virtually the house organ of Iowa Actualism**, into Coffee House Press, one of the best and most successful independent presses in the United States. In addition to its many other books, Coffee House recently brought Dick Gallup back into print with his first book since 1976, Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things, and has just another big “new and selected” volume by Jack Marshall, Gorgeous Chaos as well as Anselm Hollo’s Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence, his largest collection since Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press editions more than 20 years ago. Sklar occasionally still issues books from The Spirit That Moves Us Press from Jackson Heights, NY. John Batki, who characterized himself as the “Laziest Actualist,” has instead grown into one of the finest translators of Eastern European poetry. David Hilton has been teaching at Anne Arundel Community College near Baltimore for over 30 years. And Steve Toth maintains a somewhat “under construction” website that includes memorials to both Ted Berrigan and Darrell Gray. 

* This rationale perfectly matches the one given for Objectivism: letting Zukofsky take over Poetry magazine for an issue required something identifiable, requiring a name.

** When The Actualist Anthology came out in 1977, Toothpaste Press had already published books by both Kornblums, Hollo, Sklar, Batki, Gray, Hilton, Heldenbrand, Sjoberg, Toth and Morice.

Sunday, October 06, 2002

The reduction or narrowing of discourse that is a fundamental dynamic of the thematic exists for publications as it does for poems. One project in which I once participated, chronicling the first hundred days of the Jimmy Carter administration, was almost luridly obsolete before the ink dried. The present spate of literary publications “in response” to 911 are themselves doomed to the same sad fate.

Two journals have shown that the ability to concentrate can be expansive and inclusive rather than restrictive. Chain demonstrates how to avoid this impoverishment largely by focusing on programmatic themes:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Gender and editing
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Documentary
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Hybrid genres & mixed media
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Processes & procedures
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Different languages
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Letters
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Memoir/Anti-memoir
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Comics
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Dialogue
Chain characterizes these not as themes but as topics. Each, in the description posed on the journal’s website, is

a yearly issue of writing and art gathered loosely around a topic. The topic serves as an editorial limit and changes the question asked of each piece submitted from "is this a great piece of art" to "does this piece of art say something about the topic that is not already known." This makes Chain a little rougher around the edges, a little less aesthetically predictable.

Only the initial 1993 issue on “gender and editing” can be said to completely focus on a topic as such, in the sense of content. The others can be more accurately characterized as identifying a genre or strategies of writing, without specifying further where any given project might choose to focus. One might say anything in a dialogue, write anything in a letter, remember (or anti-remember) anything, draw a comic on any subject whatsoever. Chain’s strategy maximizes its contributors’ degree of freedom, one reason that it has become, as previously noted here, “the premier American literary journal.”

An interesting comparison might be made to Poetics Journal, the publication edited by Barrett Watten & Lyn Hejinian between 1982 and 1998. With its commitment to serious in-depth critical discussion, Poetics Journal is Chain’s most direct ancestor. From its second issue onward, PJ also organized each issue around a theme:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Close reading
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Poetry & philosophy
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Women & language
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Non/narrative
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Marginality: public & private language
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Postmodern?
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Elsewhere
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Person
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Knowledge
With the exception of “non/narrative,” Poetics Journal’s topics were more thematic than formal.* But the topics were so global – the last three could be read as primary ontological categories – that any sense of limitation was minimal.

The two issues that come closest to one another are “Woman & Language,” the fourth issue of Poetics Journal, and “Gender & Editing,” Chain’s focus in its first issue. The proportional scale that each theme proposes – Chain conjoins a broader first term to a narrower second one – seems completely accurate to the editorial inclinations of that journal.

Both publications show what can be accomplished via an organized, topic-driven strategy to editing. My own hesitation toward this approach is not fully resolved, however, simply because two exceptional teams of editors demonstrate that it can be done right. Because mostly in the world of little magazines (and big), it’s not done very well at all. To some degree, my own sense reverses the questions staked out in Chain’s website: Would this text have been written without the artificial stimulus of pre-assured publication? Is the work, on its own terms, necessary? Chain & Poetics Journal exemplify what can achieve when only the highest standards of writing & thinking are accepted. Would that more journals were like this.

* “Close reading” could be characterized as formal, but on the side of the reader rather than the writer. Given its appropriation & reframing of the major methodological device of the New Critics, one could argue that this was Poetics Journal’s most radical intervention.

Saturday, October 05, 2002

One point that I’ve made three times* since I began the Blog a little over a month ago is that themes, for me at least, don’t work. That is to say, I literally can’t read them. Them, in this instance, being poems with a point. When I try, the poem invariably loses my interest before I complete the text. My experience as a reader is that it feels like coercive sentiment & I find myself physically repelled by the poem. The affect is nausea. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the sentiment or not. Nor for that matter does it need to be about war or politics – I’ve had the same problem with any number of other noble topics, from AIDS to the environment to love.

Great political poetry – & by extension thematic poetry – is not impossible. I would point to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” and Robert Duncan’s “The Fire, Passages 13” as two of the finest works of the past fifty years, let alone two of the best political poems. In each instance, the devastation & viciousness that is the essence of war** functions as no more than one axis around which a much wider range of reference is organized. The experience of each poem is to move outward, incorporating a broader & much richer cross-section of the world than, say, just the political. In the process, each contextualizes (thus making a case for the importance of) the underlying theme itself.

With its massive deployment of parallelisms invoking a tone right out of the Old Testament and the call-&-response oral traditions of the black Baptist church, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” is neither great poetry nor simply another commemorative bauble by Pinsky, Collins or Angelou. At one level, the poem is about the palpable but nonetheless abstract presence of evil in the world itself. At another, the dizzying juxtapositions that are yoked together via the constant question – “Who? Who? Who?” – play with the concept of paranoia itself. Anti-Semitism runs throughout the poem, not simply in the few lines that have been scattered widely about the media. So do anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism and a limited version of anti-racism. But ultimately it is the referential range of Baraka’s juxtapositions –

Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere

Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Against Racism
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of

that restricts the poet’s impulse. The poem exists entirely at the level of public discourse. There may be moments of referential opacity if you don’t get a reference, but none of intimacy. It may help some readers to know that “Little Bobby” is Bobby Hutton, the first person to sign on with Huey Newton & Bobby Seale in Oakland’s Black Panther Party, gunned down at the age of 18 by the police there on April 6, 1968, but the poem does nothing to suggest that Hutton, or anyone for that matter, has any reality or meaning beyond the headlines from which the poem is constructed. Private life is reduced to the mention of a tax cut.

The public reactions to this poem have generally missed its playful elements as well as the way in which that reiterated baseline who who echoes a genuine howl of grief that is also present & perfectly audible in the text. It is in the nature of public discourse to miss just such elements of life, poetic justice of sorts for a text that is so indebted to this same discourse. But the ineluctable problem of any thematic text almost invariably has to do with its reduction of discourse. Duncan & Ginsberg could not be more radically opposed to Baraka.

** It matters little whether or not the war can be “justified.”

Friday, October 04, 2002

For a very long time, Kit Robinson has been one of the finest writers of the lyric around, very possibly the finest. In an age that, for reasons more social than literary, has not been particularly kind to the lyric, Kit Robinson might well be the most underappreciated writer of my generation. There ought to be a large Selected Poems and a fat festschrift or two devoted to his accomplishments, but instead Robinson has slipped quietly under the radar.

There are several plausible reasons for this – Robinson has stayed out of the academy*, seems genuinely to dislike the hustle of self-promotion, doesn't haunt internet discussion lists – but I would suggest that focusing on the lyric has itself been a contributing factor.  To the degree that this form of poetry is too often not recognized as serious or "weighty," readers miss out on what Kit Robinson has also become: the most acute chronicler of the white-collar office environment we have.

Like the best poetry anywhere, this does not mean that Robinson focuses solely or obsessively on work or the office. Rather, he employs a discourse deeply informed by these vocabularies and terrains. It percolates up again & again. In this sense Robinson is truly a labor poet at a time when, with a few notable exceptions like Rodrigo Toscano & Kevin Magee, class has been largely erased from the post-avant landscape:

The sun is like an X-ray
that deletes old voicemail messages

This simple passage works on so many levels – as humor, as science**, & finally as the incorporation of this intense "natural" Other into a scale of cultural minutiae on a par with answering machines.  It's just one moment among many in The Crave, Robinson's new collection from Atelos, which I wish I'd written.

* An interesting choice for the son of an English professor.

** The sun really does give off rays & solar storms can erase data from magnetic media

Thursday, October 03, 2002

O for Opacity:
I have been devouring the poetry of David Bromige with interest ever since I first went to hear him read with Harvey Bialy in 1968 at the Albany Public Library, a series curated by Manroot editor Paul Mariah. Having gotten to know the man and his work reasonably well in the ensuing 34 years, one might think I would not be surprised the nature of any new book by the British-born, Canadian raised author. One would be wrong.
As in T as in Tether (Chax, 2002) shows yet a new side to the bard of Sebastapol* as this master of erudition turns instead to mount arguments so densely packed as to resist yielding beyond the surface domains of the signifier. It's hardly accidental. The book, which I've thus far only partly completed (and am reading most slowly because I don't want it to ever end), is composed of four sections, the first subdivided into five sections, the remaining three each containing 16. The poems in the last three sections are numbered 1 through 15: each section contains one poem numbered 7.5. Of the 53 sections or pieces, only one (to which I have not yet gotten) is in a format other than the centered stanzas that we have most recently come to associate with the poetry of a very different Bay Area writer, Michael McClure.
Bromige announces the language as signifier theme in the first of the four sections, which the first piece proposes as an alphabet, literally:
A as in alphabet
B as in baffled
C as in congress
D as in delicate
E as in elephant
F as in fornicate
G as in grass
H as in hands-on
I as in idiot
J as in jouissance
The arbitrariness of the logic of the assignment of meaning is never more brutal than in the "obviousness" of any children's alphabet book, and gradually the poems in the first section turn up the heat:
P as in elocute
O as in excitement
N as in Z
M as in breast
L as in party
K as in Whitman
The second section, "Initializing,"** is by far the most dense, reminiscent almost of Jeremy Prynne's work, as in this excerpt from "To a Drawing Board (2)":
Slate roof drive impel
Hot brown register
Clever-fingered want to fall
Bird-nose valentine
Seizes rainy day
As long as you're there
Reclination monkey
So close as to shut
The trap is studded
Not this the lost access
To a final run
Then, gradually, the text opens up again almost as though it were a natural process that was being observed. Observe how, in the final piece in the second section, "Stands the Pencil on its Point," Bromige permits sound to gradually organize the ongoing text, which in fact arrives at a moment of absolute lucidity:
Lists supplicants
Names the soul
Whereon one stands
Church clock at ten to three
Mentions mellitus
Orders weight be brought
As if to tea or table
Stranger amendment
Checks off by fives
Hot bodies in a hayloft
Combustion baby
Lists pains
Plants punishments
Options death or drunkenness
Insists that choice
Opens in the voice who
Utters numbering
Halfdone figured
Criminal reform
Grants immunity
From mortal
Upshot o love
Pen is sans relation
To its neighbor pencil
Feathers and lead
Islets of almost
Life's no narration
Mentions isolation
Subordinates particulars
Up against the insulation
Poised on the links
Hands touch the keys
Print finish or begin
Write meet again
The process begins almost inaudibly with "Lists pains," that first p starting a run of three, the latter two of which end on the same ts as "lists," the word called up again in the echo of "insists" followed finally by that clearest of indicators, the rhyme betwixt "choice" & "voice." One can follow these details through the sly exploitation of Latinate endings right to the end of the text with its remarkable equation of "Write" with "meet," the role of the poem that absolute confrontation with a reader (who might also be oneself).
The use of centered lines mutes variations in line length, since the longer ones literally "stick out" less by moving out in both directions***. But what I think Bromige is ultimately after here is maximizing the verticality of the language experience, the way in each line does function as though it were a phrase flashing ever so briefly on an LCD screen. Writing/Meeting is exactly what this book is about. Tether is a thrilling, challenging & occasionally sad work, the poet confronting how the body, particularly one that has long battled diabetes, tethers the soul. It's one of those books that lets you see poetry responding to its highest calling. We have far too few of these.

* & current poet laureate of Sonoma Country, steering one hopes a solid middle course betwixt the nonsense of Mr. Collins and that of Mr. Baraka.
** The second, third and fourth sections, "Initializing," "Establishing" and "Authenticizing" derive their names from the stages of Bromige's computer's process of booting up.
 *** Bromige alludes to the “spine” of the text, a spatialization of the left margin (and one that suggests that a poem “faces forward” when centered, and is viewed “in profile” when left as that normative left column).

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

I will be giving three readings in two days in New York City this month:

October 15, 2002 at 8:00 pm, New School, Tishman Auditorium at 66 West 12th St., NYC. Free

. Short Fuse Launch Reading featuring Simon Armitage, Charles Bernstein, Glyn Maxwell, Bob Holman, Patricia Smith, Ron Silliman, Willie Perdomo, Todd Colby, Regie Cabico, Emily XYZ, Robert Allen, Edwin Torres, DJ Renegade, Zoe Anglesey, Adeena Karasick, Fortner Anderson, Prageeta Sharma, Wednesday Kennedy, Penn Kemp, Guillermo Castro, Mary O'Donoghue, Richard Peabody, Victoria Stanton, Vincent Tinguely, David McGimpsey, Helen Thomas, Barbara DeCesare, Corey Frost, Ian Ferrier, Joshua Auerbach, Robert Priest, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Catherine Kidd, Kevin Higgins, Rosemary Dun, Tug Dumbly, Ben Doyle Jill Battson, Kélina Gotman, Andrea Thompson, Dawna Matrix Jason Pettus, Heather Hermant, Larry Jaffe, Sean M. Whelan, Lauren Williams, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, David Hill, Silvana Straw, Srikanth Reddy, and MTC Cronin. Hosted by Todd Swift and Philip Norton.
October 16, 2002 at 6:30 pm, Jefferson Market Library, 425 Ave. of the Americas at 10th St., NYC. Free
. Featuring Simon Armitage, Ron Silliman and Stephanos Papadopoulos.
October 16, 2002 at 7:30 pm, Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery & Bleecker, NYC. $5.
Featuring Srikanth Reddy, Ron Silliman, Fortner Anderson, Adeena Karasick, David McGimpsey, Penn Kemp, Kevin Higgins, Robert Priest, Rosemary Dunn, Todd Swift, Philip Norton, Sean M. Whelan, Helen Thomas, Richard Peabody, Joshua Auerbach, MTC Cronin, Barbara DeCesare, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, David Hill, and Bob Holman.