Monday, May 08, 2006

Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics is a stunning achievement. The attempt to put together any kind of representative collection of Bay Area poets is inevitably doomed at the outset. It simply isn’t physically possible. Even with the 110 poets contained in these 500 pages, there are more currently active, publishing poets in the roughly nine county region that makes up the metropolitan region who are not included here than poets who are. For example, not one of San Francisco’s recent poet laureates – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Janice Mirikitani, devorah major or Jack Hirschman – can be found in Bay Poetics.

To her great credit, Young tackles this problem head on in her (too) brief introduction:

[S]ome people are missing. Older poets who have kept (not necessarily pedagogical) contact with younger writers are represented to a greater measure than those who have not. Even a preliminary list of those not represented here would exceed the bounds of a paragraph – today I am thinking particularly of Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Bob Grenier, Etal Adnan, Alan Bernheimer. The same is true of my peers, so much so that I won’t even begin a list.

So we find Joanne Kyger & Larry Kearney here, but not Tom Clark, nor Maxine Chernoff or Paul Hoover or Michael Rothenberg or David Meltzer. We find Brenda Hillman, but not Bob Hass. Yedda Morrison, but not David Buuck. Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson & Laura Moriarty, but not David Bromige nor Michael Palmer. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Truong Tran, Alice Jones, D.A. Powell, Edward Smallfield & Rusty Morrison all are missing. So are Judy Grahn & Aaron Shurin. Renee Gladman is not here, nor is Norman Fischer, nor Gail Sher, nor for that matter Curtis Faville. And virtually the entire local School of Quietude is absent: Eavan Boland, Morton Marcus, Alan Soldofsky, Joyce Jenkins, Richard Silberg, Dennis Schmitz, Joe Stroud, Robert Sward, Chana Bloch, Rochelle Nameroff. But so are Jack Marshall, Julia Vinograd, Richard Denning, Sotère Torregian, Jack & Adele Foley, Scott Bentley, Ebbe Borregaard, Harold Dull, Nina Serrano, and the California State poet laureate, Palo Alto’s Al Young.

It is, literally, an impossible task.

And Stephanie Young has tackled it very well indeed. Her description of her method is quite straightforward:

I emailed poets with my idea of taking a picture. I started with my friends, and then the writers important to my friends. I followed lines of personal relationship because I was curious what formal or tonal connection might emerge between those who share their affection. I tried to include both the known and the unknown, pairings and groups whose interrelationships are wildly complicated. They are roommates, collaborators, classmates, teachers, co-publishers. Some are married to each other. Others have worked together in offices or in the Bay Area’s many writing programs. And yet, among all this entanglement, I’m sure there are contributors who never have met one another.

The term picture is an interesting one. At one level, Young sought to, in her words,

take a photograph. Who is here now, and what are they writing?

But it carries a second layer as well:

I asked for poems but also maps, essays, lists, short fiction, poetic statements, neighborhood or walking tour reports, reading reports, manifestos, letters, diagrams, blog excerpts: notes towards the local expression of poets living in the Bay Area.

For what it’s worth, there are hardly any visual elements to this very text-centric book. Someone who seems to have taken Young’s request literally, such as Dana Teen Lomax, is the exception, rather than the rule. Tho one hears echoes of the idea in a title like Keith Shein’s “Rumors of Buildings to Live in” or in Young’s own “Poem for Small Press Traffic’s 30th Anniversary Reading”:

It’s 1974, quick, you are
getting born, also Leonardo di Caprio
and Jewel. Floppy disk drives, People Magazine,
Dungeons & Dragons, Happy Days, internet
Institute of Physics Library, Super Pong, Chinatown, Sterling Bank
Kate Moss, supermodel! Nobody gets the Pulitzer
for fiction or drama but Robert Lowell does.
Anne Sexton dies on October 4.
Karen Silkwood dies on November 12.
Nixon resigns.
George W. Bush is discharged from
the US Air Force Reserve. They’re putting
carnations in their guns in
Portugal and bombs
go off in pubs,
Dublin, the Tower of London, 107 meters
India’s testing a Peaceful Nuclear Explosive.
It’s all happening now
Patty Hearst with a rifle in her hands
John Lennon is still alive
the oil embargo is over
Sonny and Cher are over
but the Talking Heads are getting together.
Japan is getting together.
The Grateful Dead unleash the wall of sound
the UN grants observer status to the PLO
Rover Thomas and the Krill Krill songs
UPC codes
it all started way back in 1974:
walking for exercise
pipeline construction
over 12 million donuts
the barrier
the project
King Crimson
Sears Tower
the Australian Forum for Textile Arts
my Queen collection
the International WONCA news
grass Oil for Men by Javan
the NewMath, where one must be
wary of empty formalism,
be, being, multiplactors.

It’s worth quoting this poem, if for no other reason, than because Young’s methodology of selection through a rhizomatic network of friends & acquaintances almost by definition has to find ground zero in her own poetry. This is a poem whose spirit is easily traced back to the notational pieces by Frank O’Hara in the 1950s (&, ultimately, to Dr. Williams back into the 1920s), but the exact, even encyclopedic use of popular references isn’t something O’Hara himself would have done – that’s a Ted Berrigan effect, carried forward here through research¹ – something Ted never did – since Young herself either wasn’t here or at least isn’t old enough to remember any of 1974, the year Barrett Watten & I shared a flat on Missouri Street on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill & I wrote Ketjak. So Young’s poem looks very traditional, tho in fact it’s a hybrid of multiple tendencies & influences, a poem that could not have been written in ’74. Today it seems very much at home in these pages.

I think it makes sense to think of this poem as the book’s gravitational point, because Bay Poetics is very much a text of what’s happening in San Francisco & environs in 2006, not 1996 or ’86 (or the era that is the focal point for SF’s poet laureate program, rooted firmly in the sixties & seventies). Because Young is herself one of poetry’s foremost bloggers, it’s not at all surprising to find many writers here who likewise have (or have had) blogs: Del Ray Cross, Rodney Koeneke, Patrick Durgin, Brent Cunningham, Cassie Lewis, Tonya Brolaski, David Larsen, Pamela Lu, Magdalena Zurawski, Geoffrey Dyer, Eileen Tabios, Joshua Clover, Logan Ryan Smith, James Meetze, Catherine Meng, kari edwards, Barbara Jane Reyes, Stephen Vincent, K. Silem Mohammad, Alli Warren & Chris Sullivan. An even larger group of folks are those who were active in the SF scene even before I headed east in ’95: Brenda Hillman, Leslie Scalapino, Keith Shein, Larry Kearney, Joanne Kyger, Stephen Ratcliffe, Bill Berkson, Elizabeth Treadwell, Susan Gevirtz, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Andrew Joron, Lyn Hejinian, Juliana Spahr, Bill Luoma, Kit Robinson, Travis Ortiz, Stacy Doris, Elizabeth Robinson, Avery Burns, Bob Glück, Camille Roy, Vincent, Nate Mackey & Kathleen Fraser. To this, add the people who have come & made a big bang with terrific work in recent years – Mary Burger, Taylor Brady, Catalina Cariaga, Chris Stroffolino or Garrett Caples, for example – and you have the heart of an impeccably solid presentation.

Some of my favorite pieces here come from some of the “older” poets, people whose work I’ve lost touch with & am terrifically glad to see it again, looking so strong. One good case in point is the selection by Keith Shein, a tennis pro who was teaching at Dominican College last I heard (tho that may be many years out of date), living in the northern reaches of Marin County. Here is the fourth poem from the sequence I mentioned previously, “Rumors of Buildings to Live In.” It’s the first of his pieces in Bay Poetics:

The first time the hand goes out it’s only a hand,
when it comes back it’s only empty,
but when the hand goes out again, it’s an animal, hunted,.
and when drawn back, it’s the hunter himself.
She beats the child because she fears for him
and he won’t cry.
He takes the blows lifelessly though he hears her pleading.
He thinks, soon she’ll tire, then it will be my turn, and I won’t beg.
The street follows everyone home, even the homeless,
into rooms when doors open, beats on doors when they stay locked.
The street never ends.
He keeps his hands in his pockets. Not for the cold
though it is cold, for the dark where they might sleep.

Because I’ve known Shein slightly over the years, I see in his choice of the serial poem the influence of Gilbert Sorrentino (just as, in Sorrentino, I see the hand of Spicer). Yet here there is something that feels a lot like the kind of surrealism one gets in watery versions in Charles Simic or Andrei Codrescu. The edge in Shein’s work here feels so much sharper. Here is 14:

The TV is the national book, without pages or end,
which won’t close when you’re tired,
that reads itself to you while you sleep.
The TV is your own story told to you, for you.
The dog that growls, that’s you when you’re a dog,
which is often this hour.
But now you’re the man the dog chases, snapping at your legs.
You run, but are your equal, just as fast.
Before you die there’s a commercial:
you are a care owner, dabbing perfume, drinking a beer.
You’re thirsty, quenched, screaming as your paws scratch
you down, you growl, your jaws open for your neck.
Now you’re the doctor sewing your wound.
”You’re lucky,” you say, “lucky to be alive.”
You thank him, yourself.

Bay Poetics is a big honking book of fine work by some of the best writers around. It also just happens to be a possible portrait of one of the United States’ two great literary communities. You need to own this book.



¹ Echoing just possibly Juliana Spahr & Jena Osman &, behind them, diverse sources that would include C.S. Giscombe, Peter Dale Scott, Charles Olson, Ezra Pound.