Showing posts with label Anselm Hollo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anselm Hollo. Show all posts

Sunday, August 24, 2014

in Grand Valley, Michigan, 1971

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

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.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

I posted something nice about Anselm Hollo to the Poetics List and two things immediately happened. A friend wrote to let me know that warm positive regard for Anselm and his poetry was not, in fact, universal. And a copy of so the ants made it to the cat food: 20 sonnets (Samizdat, 2001) showed up in my mailbox. I figure that one out of two is better than Barry Bonds is hitting this year, so I won’t complain.

The title poem of Hollo’s new book gives me goose bumps:

so the ants made it to the cat food
but then you scrape them into the compost

one day we’ll set out under solar sail
to the systems of fifty new planets
discovered this year

who knows if we’ll do any better
than these ants you think
then contemplate vast grids upon grids
shifting and twisting
clashing and jelling flowing apart exploding

shrinking    to this little blob of cat food
in the kitchen sink

oh it gives one the flesh of the hen
comme on dit en français.    cat disappears into bush

This is a typical Hollo poem, so relaxed and straightforward that one can easily enough miss all that’s going on. It’s a domestic poem that includes both a sort of science fiction and a dose of street philosophy. But most of all, it’s composed out of the organized distribution of opposites, which might be best viewed if we followed Levi-Straus a little and itemize the imagery into categories I’ll label raw (i.e. natural &/or primitive) and cooked (i.e. cultural &/or processed):

Look at that first couplet:

so the ants  [RAW] made it to the cat food [COOKED]
but then you scrape them [COOKED]  into the compost [COOKED

There is a leap in scale between the first and second stanzas that at first seems dizzying & possibly even arbitrary, as we shift from the cat food to space exploration, most definitely cooked, but notice that Anselm has chosen not one but two exceptionally raw terms, “solar sail,” to describe this process. This duality continues through the end of the stanza as he describes other worlds – a form of the raw – that can only be reached by the highest order of technology.

The third stanza returns the reader’s attention to “we” [COOKED], then back to the ants [RAW] in the second. It then proceeds through a series that begins modestly returning to “you think” – the very process by which the cooked got cooked in the first place – & then in the next line suggests that we turn our attention to “grids upon grids,” as abstract & cooked a vision as one might imagine. But line four, “shifting and twisting,” is completely ambiguous on this cooking scale. Hollo decides to “bam it up a notch,” as Emeril would say, in the stanza’s last line, a description of cosmic writhing that both harsh cultural terms (“clashing” & “exploding”) to bracket decidedly organic ones (“jelling flowing”)

The fourth stanza brings us harshly back to the cooked, literally, in the form of “this little blob of cat food / in the kitchen sink.” This last gesture literally lets us know that Hollo has given us everything in his cosmic vision, even including that. So it is right after that last “nk” sound, which a linguist would note signals closure, triply so coming at the end of the line & stanza, that Hollow appears suddenly to veer in a completely different direction. The first line may well be a literal translation of how one describes goose bumps in French – the awkwardness of it all is profoundly cooked, as (even more so) is the phrase en français that starts the last line.

The final phrase, “cat disappears into bush,” starts with an image that appears to be raw, an animal, but is by virtue of domestication, really cooked. By disappearing not into, say, the garden, however, it vanishes instead into the raw (rendered even more raw by absence of article*), completing the poem as neatly as if Hollo had put a large red ribbon atop it. It’s a masterful tour de force.

Only those little hints of polylinguality & erudition** keep Hollo’s texts from sounding like the most purebred Yankee voice since Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg & Phil Whalen left the room. And I think that it’s part of the sheer pleasure of reading Hollo’s work that his ear so acutely captures an idiom that, after all, he came to only as an adult.+

Appropriately enough, Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat Editions published so the ants as its “anti-laureate chapbook, 2001,” following a spirited Poetics List discussion about the diabolically reactionary selection the Bush administration had made.*** We should all thank the gods of fortune, & especially John Lennon’s lawyers, for ensuring that this alien who was once picked up for possessing a doobie wasn’t pitched out of the country during the days of the Nixon Gang. Otherwise Anselm Hollo might now be one of the great poets of, say, France.

* Hank Lazer has criticized the American poetic habit of dropping articles, which everyone traces back to Ginsberg although Allen probably got it from Pound, as a form of “Tonto speech.” Even as I excise articles in my own work, I consider its implications.

** The very first reference in the chapbook is to Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag. Just under half of the poems have notes attached – the one quoted here translates its French.

*** I used to compare Billy Collins with Edgar Guest & Ogden Nash, but fans of the latter two have accused me of slandering those writers.
+ Anselm appends: “One little correction: I didn't really come to the idiom "only  as an adult" -- I read Moby Dick at age 14 (though didn't, then, find it  quite as zingy as Treasure Island had been a year or so before) -- my  "English" got started around age 10, after German Swedish Finnish (in that  order).  And I strongly doubt that I could have become a French poet --  French came to me too late for that.”