Thursday, December 22, 2011

These are the books published in 2011 that expanded, deepened, &/or transformed my reading, at least to date. I’m always playing catch-up and two of the books that have had a significant impact on me this past year were published in 1975 (Paul Blackburn’s The Journals, which I read for the third time) and 1932 (Alfred Kreymbourg’s The Little World: 1914 and After, a volume of political doggerel that anticipates Calvin Trillin). I may well read as many important volumes from ought-11 in 2012 as I have this year, especially as I hope to have more time to read & write.

In my mind, these books fall into some natural groupings, so it probably makes the most sense to present them that way. The first group is of volumes that I immediately felt were masterworks – the kinds of works that will become iconic place markers in my own literary imagination – by writers whom I felt had not previously had that kind of public recognition:

         Charles Alexander, Pushing Water, Cuneiform Press, Victoria, TX, 2011

         Anselm Berrigan, Notes from Irrelevance, Wave Books, Seattle & New York, 2011

         Srikanth Reddy, Voyager, UC Press, Berkeley, 2011

There are some caveats here. The first is that I’ve thought of Charles Alexander as a master poet for some time now, at least since Hopeful Buildings (1990) & arc of light / dark matter (1992). But as too often happens with poets who live away from the urban centers on either coast, my own sense of this has not caught on as widely as I think it should. I don’t see how anyone can read Pushing Water & not sense the mastery & scale with which Alexander is working.

Berrigan’s book makes a strong case for him to be thought of as the primary figure in the most celebrated clan of American poets – it’s new & surprising & perpetually delightful. If there is a secret dimension to this writing, it feels more like Jimmy Schuyler moved decades into the future. It’s an amazing performance.

Reddy’s Voyager is more complex in that I didn’t feel the book was entirely successful. It starts off grand in its ambition, but then feels progressively more caught in the web of a closure that doesn’t ring right for me. The hidden template here is the novel and Reddy would do well to look to that form’s practitioners of excess, from Melville to Pynchon to Faulkner to Kerouac to David Foster Wallace, if/when he visits the territory again.

What I take away from these three poets is a sense that I’m going to have to read every word they write in the future. Other poets who have already achieved that status for me published books this year as well:

         Rae Armantrout, Money Shot, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2011.

         Stephen Ratcliffe, Conversation, Bootstrap Productions, Lowell, MA, 2011

         Stephen Ratcliffe, Cloud Ridge, BlazeVOX, Buffalo, 2011

         Anne Waldman, The Iovis Trilogy, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2011.

         Tim Dlugos, A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, edited by David Trinidad, Nightboat Books, Callicoon, NY, 2011. 

Armantrout’s Money Shot is tighter & more pointed than her Pulitzer volume that preceded it. I do feel that Wesleyan’s attempt to market the book as a response to the economic crisis was a profoundly inept way to sidestep edgier connotations that one might find, for example, in that title.

Ratcliffe has been one of our most meditative poets precisely because his writing is so rooted not just in the present but in presentness itself. Like Charles Alexander, he’s another poet who deserves a huge audience, but has published almost entirely with small presses.

Waldman is a little like Armantrout in that she has been an important figure for so long that she sometimes appears to be taken for granted & not for the great writer she truly is. The Iovis Trilogy is her master work and it is exactly that. I plan to spend all of 2012 reading it – and don’t expect to finish that soon.

Dlugos was a poet widely read & respected by almost everyone I respect in my own generation. He died far too young and it’s great to finally have his collected poems at last. But this is a volume that should have been published by FSG or UC Press. Special kudos to Nightboat for stepping up to the responsibility & David Trinidad for his care in getting it right.

The importance of small and alternate presses continues without let-up in the digital age. Independent publishers are more crucial now than they were even a decade ago. Tiny, sometimes shoestring projects like the Dusie Chapbook series are publishing more vital and interesting work than most trade or university houses. I don’t quite understand how the Dusie Kollectiv functions in practice, but I gather they select the authors & give them all the freedom in the world. This makes the resulting editions somewhat fugitive – I have no idea whether I have a good collection, a complete collection or only the slightest taste of a collection of the chaps. One that particularly stood out for me was:

         Lynn Behrendt, This is the Story of Things that Happened, Dusi/e-chaps, Switzerland, 2011

Behrendt is one of a number of poets that seem to work on a geographic axis from Brooklyn up to the Albany, NY, who are writing poetry that combine the latest wave of feminism with a poetics that has its roots in the New American tradition (esp. the work of Robert Kelly or Robert Duncan). Kimberly Lyons & Anne Gorrick are two others who come immediately to mind. I’m not sure that I would characterize this phenomenon as an aesthetic tendency, exactly, let alone a movement. Yet all these poets are producing works that seem to speak to the same concerns & from similar contexts. In Behrendt’s writing, I keep finding moments of great pain & beauty mixed together in ways that might feel familiar from life, but not (at least previously) literature.

Dawn Pendergast’s Little Red Leaves’ Textile Series is another micropress project that brought out major works this year, including:

         Beverly Dahlen, A Reading: Birds, Little Red Leaves, no location given, 2011. Handmade chapbook, 4.25” by 5.75” with hand-sewn cover. (Already in a second printing!)

         Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Draft 96: Velocity, Little Red Leaves, no location given, 2011. Handmade chapbook, 4.25” by 5.75” with hand-sewn cover.

These are additions to two of the most riveting, multifaceted, longpoems of the past century – and again it’s a situation of the smallest of presses taking on responsibility that really belongs to the largest trade publishers imaginable – except that the big houses have abandoned literature save as product. One result is that Little Red Leaves has more compelling product than most of the trades. These books use fabric remnants – from sheets to shower curtains – for cover stock & seem as fragile as they are beautiful.

And there is no one, not even Small Press Distribution, that handles micropresses. Big Arghh!

Mentioning DuPlessis, I have to acknowledge the four-color print volume of two key poems from her long poem, Drafts:

         Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Collage Poems of Drafts, Salt, London, 2011

I’ve written at length about this volume here. My understanding is that DuPlessis may be down to the final sections of this great poem – a part of me hopes that each will prove to be hundreds of pages long, or that having completed all 114 sections (there is also one that falls outside the numbering system), DuPlessis will – a la Williams & Pound – discover that the poem itself never ends.

The digital age and micropresses have opened up literature in ways heretofore imaginable only in the fevered brain of William Blake. DuPlessis’ Collage Poems is the one work of vispo on this list – and the most prominent instance in a major longpoem, at least beyond Pound’s use of ideograms, to incorporate the visual, but it isn’t the only work on my list for this year that reflects the larger impact vispo is having.

Steve Roggenbuck is an e-publisher, a self-publisher & a writer with a remarkable ear for isolating the overheard. The poem at the top of this page is one of his. He violates all the rules, revealing the American language as it actually exists – he does a better job at this than any of the other books on this list, wonderful as each is. But it’s also worth noting just how much Roggenbuck’s Download Helvetica for Free.Com also could not exist without vispo in general.

         Steve Roggenbuck, Download Helvetica For Free.Com, anti-© self-publication, Chicago, 2011

Roggenbuck is not a Grenier – he has a much more social imagination than that – but clearly the influence of Grenier is visible & instantly part of what makes his work so attractive to me. It’s possible that he’s the youngest poet on this list.

Another category I that I haven’t really focused until just this year is the memoir that borders on poetry and, in Phil Hall’s case, on critical theory as well. Ted Greenwald is a poet who has been important to me for decades, though I really haven’t found a way as yet to read his recent center-justified (a la McClure) poetry. So Clearview/Lie was a way to reconnect with a great writer whose life struck me as so similar & yet utterly different from my own.

         Ted Greenwald, Clearview/Lie, United Artists,  Brooklyn, 2011

         Phil Hall, Killdeer: Essay-Poems, BookThug, Toronto, 2011

I don’t know Hall’s work other than this book, which I glanced at and was immediately forced to sit down & read cover to cover. He gets my vote for Canadian book of 2012 and I was glad to see Killdeer receive Canada’s Governor General’s Prize for poetry. It’s a wonderful read, even if Hall is a bit of a curmudgeon.

Some books from Britain also proved important to my reading this year– and no doubt next as well as I’m in the middle of each, with some ways to go.

         Tony Lopez, Only More So, Uno Press, New Orleans, 2011

         Carol Watts, Occasionals, Reality Street, East Sussex, UK, 2011

I have a blurb on the back of Tony Lopez’ book taken from a review here of Darwin, which is just one section of Only More So, and I have to say that the larger project is standing up right well to my comments. Like Roggenbuck (and like Watts), an important part of Lopez’ work lies precisely in his use of materials, virtually all of which were cobbled together from other sources of writing. I have never seen anyone move from text to texture with anything like his deftness of touch, nor seen a clearer argument for why texture in language is a deep – rather than a surface – effect.

Watts’ Occasionals are similar in that regard, presenting visceral, highly worked syntax in ways that have their closest kin on this shore in the poems of the late Leslie Scalapino. This book is a series of double sonnets, 17 to a season, for an entire year. Each poem demands to be read again & again before you can really say it’s been read once – and totally rewards the effort.

Every year seems to bring out works by major, long departed masters, sometimes as reissues (the key books of Louis Zukofsky) or as new selections (Ted Berrigan, for example). From my perspective, 2011 stood out for returning to print as a separate volume, a volume that has had that experience only in a quasi-pirate edition since 1923, and Robert Duncan’s critical master work, perhaps the most overdue single volume from the past century.

         William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, facsimile printing of the 1923 Contact Press edition with an introduction by CD Wright, New Directions, New York, 2011

         Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book, edited by Michael Boughn, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011

While I’m at it, I should also acknowledge another volume of Duncan’s critical thought from this year –

         Robert Duncan, Charles Olson Memorial Lecture, edited with introductory notes by Ammiel Alcalay, Meira Levinson, Bradley Lubin, Megan Paslawski, Kyle Waugh & Rachel Wilson, Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative, New York, 2011 

The Lost and Found series is one of the gems of micropublishing, and perhaps the one such gem that focuses more on critical prose than on poetry. Critical thought has been an important aspect of the world of poetry since the preface to Lyrical Ballads & two books from this year stand out as collections that would benefit any poet to read & to own.

         Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011

         Michael Davidson, On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2011

Bernstein is someone that I’m going to presume that anyone who reads this blog will know about – he has been a major poet and a major critic for decades. Davidson’s critical writings have tended to be aimed at / consumed by academic audiences more than poets, which is a shame. He is one of only three writers (William Mohr & Timothy Yu being the others) whom I can honestly say has taught me something vital about myself that I didn’t already know in a review, and that for me is the very highest standard. He also wrote an essay at the start of my last volume in this 23-item “top ten” list, the one anthology here, Beauty is a Verb. I wrote a review here although I had to violate an unspoken moratorium on reviews in the blog – which comes to an end today – to do so. Beauty is the volume that most surprised me in 2011, and most deeply expanded how I look not just at the world, but even at myself. I can’t imagine a literature that doesn’t include ALL of the books here, but if I had to pick one book for 2011 that remade the world, it would be this one. Why is it that there are no major awards for anthologies?

         Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northern, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, 2011.