Showing posts with label Actualism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Actualism. Show all posts

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Contrasted with the CD that comes with the Short Fuse anthology, Arundo’s Triumph of the Damned and Edwin Torres’ Please present divergent alternatives.

Arundo consists of Actualist poet, G.P. Skratz and multi-instrumentalist Andy Dinsmoor. Skratz sent me Triumph to convince me that he was more than merely popping “up in print from time to time” as I had suggested in a “where are they now” discussion of Actualism. Given its 1999 production date and homegrown packaging features – photocopied cover, the CD’s title posted on a TDR CD-R disc via a mailing label – I’m not certain that I’m dissuaded of the “from time to time” periodicity. But there is more than print to Skratz alright. Triumph falls into the poems set to a musical accompaniment vein, akin perhaps to Dwayne Morgan’s use of bongos on the Short Fuse CD, or the work there of Bob Holman, never quite going so far into song as Michele Morgan’s jazz vocals. Dinsmoor ranges between guitar, recorder, sitar & tabla, with Skratz coming in on a couple of tracks on tamboura and two members of The Serfs, Ed Holmes & Bob Ernst, adding toy percussion, blues harp and a backup vocal on a couple of pieces. Save for one collaboration by Skratz with the late Darrell Gray and a translation from the poetry Hans Arp, the words – the back cover is careful not to call them either lyrics or text – are all Skratz.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Triumph – nothing here strives to be a breakthrough – but it is just too enjoyable for that. These pieces for the most part work quite well. Skratz’ droll wit rolls softly over the soft raga backgrounds offered by Dinsmoor. Only the final piece on the CD, the blues rock “Doorwayman,” comes across as more energetic than arranged. A couple of the pieces seem too similar lyrically – “Banana Ghazal’s” anomalous use of guitar & “Banjo’s” equally anomalous use of traditional Indian instruments don’t really paper over the redundant strategies of the poems – but as a whole, this is an excellent way to take in Skratz’ poetry, including his work as both collaborator & translator.

Please is an ambitious multimedia CD, one of three issued thus far by Faux Press (the others are Wanda Phipps’ Zither Mood & Peter Ganick’s tend. field). You put it into your PC, not your CD player. Once you go past the opening screen (with its own text, a much longer voiceover by Gina Bonati & title graphics), you arrive at an ideogram with links in each of its strokes. Depending on where you click, you will be led to one of five series of poems (“City,” “Boy,” “Remote,” Time,” and “Love”), a play in twelve parts (plus a prologue & epilogue) or section entitled “Media” that contains documentation of eight Torres performances plus his bio.

Each section of the CD, each set of poems, the play & “Media,” has an opening screen, a logo with its own set of links. Each set of poems as well as the media section also begins with a voiced over text read by Bonati. For the play, we get a little bit of music in a truncated marching band vein. Most though not all of the poems seem to have their own sound tracks, a few of which can be seen as readings of the text. If Alicia Sometimes’ music seemed to play against, rather than with, her own text on the Soft Fuse CD, Torres actively explores the entire range of push-pull juxtapositions between sound and written language. Often these are quite wonderful. Always, they’re playful & optimistic, qualities totally consistent with Torres’ poetry. As writing, Please is at a higher level, or perhaps at a high level with greater consistency, than any of the other CDs I’ve considered on the this. It’s a shame that there isn’t a collection gathered in a liner-note booklet – as a book’s worth of work, they’re more straightforward pieces than the typographic extravaganzas of his big Roof collection, The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker: the texts work just fine on the screen even with the PC speakers shut down.

Like almost any web- or screen-centric work, Please invites bouncing around from link to link – while there is an order, the project seems set up to undermine it. One doesn’t so much read as browse, homo ludens in total evidence. Overall, though, it can be as engrossing as any front-to-back text imaginable. In fact, the one piece that doesn’t fully work on the CD is the play, precisely because it requires the participant to go sequentially.

There is an old rule of thumb with technology, one that I first learned watching Jackson Mac Low struggle with tape machines some 30 years ago: something always goes wrong. There are inevitably a few “gotchas” on the CD – the apostrophe often shows up as an umlauted capital O, there is at least one link that doesn’t go anywhere, opening a dialog box in vain search of a missing file on the CD. & the images are consistently too small throughout (a consequence of another of my rules of thumb: QuickTime sucks). But these are nits when taken in the context of the total project.

Overall Please pleases. It demonstrates the gazillion different ways Edwin Torres’ poetry (& mind) can move simultaneously, always interesting, always in the ballpark with something of value to add. He’s one of our great talents & we’re lucky to have every manifestation we can get of his work.

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.

Monday, September 30, 2002

The death of Darrell Gray ensured that Actualism could only meet a very different fate than Objectivism. Death enters the equation as well with the disappearance of another literary tendency of the past sixty years: the Spicer Circle. If ever there was a phenomenon that cried out for a large, well researched anthology, this is it.

The Spicer Circle had a significant impact on poetry, both in the U.S. and Canada, but characterizing or analyzing that impact is difficult because so little is adequately understood about the phenomenon by anybody other than those who were there. I wasn’t – I first heard of Spicer at a memorial reading held at Shakespeare & Company books (it may still have called the Rambam in those days) in Berkeley that was held, as best I can recall, around what must have been his birthday in early 1966.

Soon, three key associates of Spicer’s – Robin Blaser, George Stanley & Stan Persky – would move to British Columbia. In the ten year hiatus between Spicer’s death and two events that were to transform his place in literary history, the publication of his Collected Books by Black Sparrow press and the special issue of Paul Mariah’s Manroot magazine that was to place Spicer alongside Whitman & a handful of others as a founder of a gay aesthetic, only Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar 12 was to focus in any serious fashion on the Spicer’s work. While Caterpillar published over 150 pages of Spicer’s early poems, correspondence, a chapter from his detective novel and the first Vancouver lecture, it also positioned Blaser’s own poetry first, with the sole other contribution a four page essay on the pair from the issue’s guest editor, Persky.

In addition to that long silence & Spicer’s own dogged reluctance to permit his work and that of his friends out of the immediate physical confines of San Francisco (refusing, for example, to send his short-lived magazine J by mail), the period between 1965 and ’75 was one of extraordinary transformations in American culture and politics could not help but to reverberate throughout poetry. Spicer, who wrote about the war in Vietnam and the Beatles, was actually one of the first to sense these changes. But others that were to come soon, from Stonewall to Watergate, might have proven more difficult for him to digest and it is not hard to envision a later Spicer in the sort of reactionary alcoholic stupor that befuddled Kerouac before his death just a few years hence.

But the Spicer Circle was something more than just the poetry of Jack Spicer & something other than a Mattachine Society of verse*. Poets as diverse as Joanne Kyger, Larry Fagin and Jack Gilbert actively participated in events that were central to the Spice kreis. Poets who were not primarily San Franciscan, including Steve Jonas & John Wieners, could also be said to have played roles as well. An anthology such as the one I imagine would have to develop a serious & critically defensible definition of what the Spicer Circle actually was before it could go about the task to tracking down and collecting the poetry.

The Manroot issue remains the only hint of what such an anthology might look like**, containing as it does work by Harold Dull, Lew Ellingham, James Herndon, Jonas, Persky, Stanley, Wieners & Spicer, as well as a collaboration by Spicer & Stanley with Ronnie Primack and Bruce Boyd.***

Dull is a good example of what we are missing in not having a far better sense of the Spicer Circle. He published several small books in the 1950s and ‘60s, including The Star Year, The Door, Bird Poems, and The Wood Climb Down Out Of. Then in 1975 he published A Selection of Poems for Jack Spicer on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death. Since then, Dull has only published texts about Watsu, his aquatic bodywork practice that evolved out of Zen shiatsu. Herndon, Primack, James Alexander and Joe Dunn are other members of the Circle whose writing is even more difficult to find.

In 1967, I heard Jack Gilbert introduce George Stanley as “the finest poet now writing.” Today, their work seems worlds apart. A good anthology would in fact demonstrate a world in which that contradiction might not occur. It would have to sort through some infinitely thorny issues, including Robert Duncan’s relationship to the circle (not to mention Blaser’s). I’m not the person to mount that effort, although perhaps someone like Kevin Killian, who helped to shape Lew Ellingham’s drafts into the masterful biography that is Poet Be Like God, is.

* The Mattachine Society was an early gay rights organization, contemporary with Spicer & likewise headquartered in San Francisco.

***Abebooks, the rare books network, lists at least dozen copies of the Spicer issue of Manroot as well as a couple of complete runs of the journal available for sale.

*** Boyd is himself noteworthy as the participant in the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, who disappeared from the scene completely.