Showing posts with label Canadian Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Canadian Poetry. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sunday, March 13, 2011

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Lisa Robertson
introduced by Julia Bloch

Robertson reading

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Compliments of PennSound
from North of Invention

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

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Nicole Brossard
introduced by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Brossard reading

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Compliments of PennSound
from North of Invention

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

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M. NourbeSe Philip
introduced by Janet Neigh

Philip reading

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Compliments of PennSound
from North of Invention

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Turning to George Stanley’s “Vancouver, Book One” in The Poker this morning, I realize several things:


§         The Poker’s table of contents is alphabetical by first name – good fortune for Chris Stroffolino, not so good for Tom Devaney & it takes me awhile to find the page number again for George.


§         The section published here is not all of Vancouver, Book One, but rather just section 8.


§         The work partakes of not one, but two distinct (though related) genres: the poem as journal & the poem written on transit.


An epic in the form of a journal? It’s an interesting concept, problematic from the outset (which I suspect is deliberate). Kevin Davies – one of the editors of Stanley’s forthcoming selected, A Tall, Serious Girl – recently sent me a note that mutual friend Ben Friedlander had posted to another list on the subject of journals. It read in part:


[Paul] Blackburn is incredible; he and [Joanne] Kyger are to my mind the most underrated poets of their generation. Both of them take the journal as their basic form, and both are geniuses at naturalizing peculiar verbal gestures by fixing them in narrative structures. I suspect that similarity has something to do with the lack of respect they get: the journal form looks dated, I guess, and the naturalizing leads people to take them as simple. Otherwise, they’re very different. Kyger uses the journal as a way of investigating the nature of space and time. Blackburn is a social historian.


This recalled what I’d written about Blackburn’s Journals in the blog: “even a fine poet does not necessarily make for great reading when writing becomes all but dissociated from intention.”


But Blackburn clearly distinguished between journals & poems – you have to go 474 pages into The Collected Poems before you find the first piece identified as a journal entry, dating from 1967, when Blackburn was already 40 and a significant figure in American poetry. Kyger likewise makes the distinction. Many of her poems may seem occasional &, as with Blackburn, they’re often dated, either at the foot of the poem or in its title. But these works are radically different from The Japan and India Journals 1960-1964. In this way, Blackburn & Kyger are both like Larry Eigner or Ted Berrigan, two other great poets who used the form of the occasional poem, literally the poem as the register of an occasion. It’s not, I would argue with Ben, quite the same. The occasional poem – a genre far too neglected critically – utilizes its originating or motivating event as both instigator & determinant of boundary for the poem, but that boundedness, that sense of a defined edge, is precisely what journals lack. Journals have a tendency to be formless in their outer exoskeletal concerns & often proceed merely chronologically. So while I agree with Friedlander’s assessment of Blackburn & especially of Kyger, for my money the most significant woman writing from the late 1950s until the 1970s & always a wonderful poet, I don’t see either as taking “the journal as their basic form.”


So the idea of a longpoem in the mode of a journal – it was Kevin Davies who first used the term “epic” to characterize Vancouver – strikes me as a consciously challenging project. Its secret underbelly, of course, is the reality that every epic is at some level a journal. It is not an accident, I think, that the most studied & revered portion of Pound’s Cantos are The Pisan Cantos, very much Pound’s journal of imprisonment in the cages at Pisa. All the fog & pretense of writing about Van Buren’s administration, for example, is revealed by contrast to have been just that: fog & pretense. Rather, the great epic quest of bringing together these disparate historic particulars simply gave Pound something to write “about” while writing, just as a translation is itself a way for a person to write without having anything of their own to say. In both senses, the process of writing is almost entirely apart from any question of content. We write because we write is the secret motto of every poet. Having “something to say” is nice, but hardly necessary. Are you really interested in the history of a fishing village northeast of Boston? Can anyone tell even remotely what the “subject” of “A” might be? Far from damning, the answers to these questions tell us something very important about poetry, its relation to the self-valuable signifier & the importance of process. Thus I think that the great challenge of any & every longpoem has always been how not to be “just a journal.” Stanley, it would appear, has decided to turn that question on its head & tackle it straight on.


The poem of public transit, as you might imagine, is another genre very close to my heart, having written books both explicitly (BART) and implicitly (Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps or, say, What) entirely while riding around on buses & trains. There is even a section of The Alphabet, in Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect, in which I take the process of BART, riding around the entire course of an urban transit system, & apply it to the comparable system in a city that I barely know at all, Atlanta.


For me the great poets of transit have always been Robert Duncan & Phil Whalen & while Whalen’s poetry also edges up against that concept of the journal that Friedlander is trying to get at, Duncan is certainly the furthest poet imaginable from that mode. Yet Duncan once told me that he could not have written “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom” – the very poem that Stanley takes direct aim at in his own early great work “Pompeii” – without having been on the San Francisco Muni & that that poem carried within it the rhythms of Muni’s tracks.*


Stanley himself has used transit in his poems, even if not as a process for the poems, before. In fact, when going through the manuscript for A Tall, Serious Girl, I’d misremembered one of his early San Francisco works, “Flesh Eating Poem,” as being about the N Judah because there is a reference to that streetcar, as well as to the 22 Fillmore line. Since in reality that’s a serious misreading (or rather misremembering, the mind revising as it does, constantly), I was surprised not to find what I recalled as the “N Judah” poem in the manuscript. In fact, “Flesh Eating Poem” – that title gives you just a taste – is included.


Now, in Vancouver, we are very much getting on the bus or off the bus – the SeaBus included – “Writing in the dark – outside the college – in the sodium glare through the bus window.” Perhaps the poem of transit is a genre within a genre here – & I know that I’m more deeply attracted to it as a model for writing than almost anyone I’ve ever met – but it makes me especially pleased, gleeful even, to see it rise up again at the start of a new longpoem.







* Some of my very best discussions with Duncan came on the “F” bus between the original location of Serendipity Books on Shattuck & San Francisco. Duncan went to Serendipity almost every Wednesday afternoon & then would walk over to the Shattuck Co-op to shop for groceries before catching the bus & an attentive person who also lived in the City could sometimes make this same journey – I still think of those trips as my Symposium of the Bus. I rue the day, moving back to the East Bay in 1987, when I realized that politicians had devastated the AC Transit system since I’d headed to San Francisco in 1972 (I’d also lived in SF in 1966-67). It meant that I had no choice at that point but to learn to drive.

            I want to note also that Duncan shopped at the Co-op not because he liked carting groceries 10 miles in his lap & then via the Muni to his home in the Mission, but because the Co-op’s attendant credit union, Twin Pines Federal Savings, had “not blinked an eye” (Duncan’s phrase) at the idea of issuing a mortgage loan to two men in the early & deeply homophobic 1950s. One more vote for a socialist bank.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Sometime in 1967, Jack Gilbert introduced George Stanley to his creative writing class at San Francisco State by calling Stanley, “the finest poet now writing.” That may seem like an incongruous pairing for such an elaborate compliment today, but in the late 1960s in San Francisco, there was something approaching a consensus about Stanley’s talent and promise. Having been raised in San Francisco, where Duncan, Spicer, Rexroth, all the Beats, were transplants in exile from Elsewhere, George Stanley was poetry’s home town favorite. He cut that narrative of the Golden Boy short by moving to British Columbia around 1970, a time when the border was far less permeable (& far more one-directional) in terms of literary influence than it is today. For the past 32 years, he has lived and worked in Western Canada. Once one of the most visible poets working in the New American idiom, he has all but dropped from view in the United States.*


This may be about to change as Qua Books prepares A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems, 1957-2000, co-edited by Kevin Davies and Larry Fagin, for publication. At 228 pages, it’s a sizable volume, although, containing just 63 poems written over 43 years, this is not yet the Collected for which we will hopefully not have to wait too many more decades.


Stanley was the sort of young writer who absorbs and synthesizes his influences almost effortlessly, not unlike Curtis Faville 15 years later. “Pompeii,” literally the second poem in this book, was one of the handful of works by which San Francisco poets gauged themselves in the 1960s. It situates itself almost perfectly halfway between Spicer, Stanley’s early mentor, and Robert Duncan or perhaps I should say, Duncan’s H.D. Here is the opening section:


When I read this poem I think of Pompeii.


When they dug up Pompeii the poems were gone,

flower-like and fragile in the stone,

giving nothing to the stone,

honey alloyed to the stone,

making nothing sweet.


The eyes of the matrons burned on the dark blue walls,

under their eyes in shallow pools,

the bell of a xylophone, silver,

bell of an ambulance,

bell of a burglar alarm,

a trying to watch the slowest of motion,

a grinding explosion,

change everything in the complexity of a second.


When I read this poem I know Pompeii is at hand.


They were unready. It came at the wrong

hour for them, the silver bell.

Some little dignity argued a minute with the enclosing,

and all that was left then was the gesture,

virginity, the little lost dog come home

leaping and leaping caught as in a cartoon.


When I read this poem I know Pompeii is imminent,

I know we are moving easily into frenzy,

I feel like taking off my hat to Pompeii

before running.


It is the Spicerian touches, the ambulance & the burglar alarm, the Buster Keaton-like gesture in that last couplet above, that keep this poem from being what, on another level, it actually is: a shadow of Duncan’s great “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom.” Yet as a shadow, it’s a curiously ambitious one. Stanley seems to have set out to deliberately out-Duncan Duncan and to some degree does. It’s a move Rimbaud would have understood.


Like any Spicerian monolog, “Pompeii” invokes a palpable but silenced you as it considers the paralysis of the decadent state – even if it is the state of poetry – moving through two slightly longer sections before arriving at the final two:


There was a time for consolation

in the morning of the state, you and me, Republicans,

read, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

That could console us. But now we cannot

get consolation from Greek maxims

when everybody is licking his lips, expectant.



Bell of a xylophone,

Bell of an ambulance,

Bell of a burglar alarm, silver.

Now time has fallen into our hands

out of all the clocks. You look to me

for consolation, and the hot wind

pours by unconcerned, flushing our steepled faces,

and the thick flow of death winnows down the window like grass.


The “Greek maxims” that are being rejected here can be read I think precisely in terms of Duncan and beyond him the modernist project, of which he represents (at least here) the last moment.


Pompeii” reveals another aspect of Stanley’s art – its penchant for elegy. “Attis,” one of Stanley’s later San Francisco poems, and one that I’ve always read as a kind of deliberate farewell, is as successful an elegy as has been written in the last 50 years:


This is dying, to cut off a part of yourself

and let it grow.


The whole self

crawls at the thought of being mutilated,

even self-mutilated, as occurred to me

when you mentioned you had never looked at

the poem about Attis, and neither had I


nor at where in a poem feeling dries up –

A waterfall-filled Sierra canyon dammed

Hetch Hetchy of our spirit. Attis’s

cock, in some tree, in some jug of wine

or beautiful lips mouthing Who we love



So the fireflies go, with small lunchboxes,

mooning around trees. We cut

our conversation off, too, in sacrifice



brinks, even

our whole environment, out to the farthest star

you can never reach

(because of light’s unchanging speed)

and so your dying can never reach either –



not sinking into the ground, mysteriously,

but in the Roman sewers, forever, our home town.


There is a moment of grief in that last phrase that Spicer could never have managed, and Duncan never imagined.


Because Davies & Fagin generally steered from including work that is still in print, A Serious Girl offers something akin to an entropic reading in Stanley’s career, with eight poems totaling 40 pages representing Stanley’s first four years of writing, then seven poems (but only 16 pages) for two years spent in New York, followed by 13 poems for the final nine years in San Francisco, then just 35 for the final thirty years in British Columbia. But if Stanley emigrated physically from San Francisco, he appears never to have done so as poet. The streets and locales of San Francisco are as constant in the last half of the book as in the first. Indeed, the longest poem of all is entitled “San Francisco’s Gone.”


The elegy index hasn’t dropped much either. Stanley illuminates why in a passage of the relatively recent “At Andy’s,” one of the few pieces actually set in Canada:


Poetry means (a) I’m going to die – & (b) this notebook will be read by someone who will see how lacking I am – unless I destroy it – & I can’t do that – that would be worse than keeping it – that would mean thinking of it.


As this prose passage suggests, Stanley’s style has relaxed some in recent years – even if his obsessions haven’t – not unlike (although generally not as much as) Creeley’s later work. Yet the volume’s most taut – and best – poem is its very last, “Veracruz,” a remarkable gender-bending piece of autoerotic incest fantasy in which Stanley declares his desire to have been “a tall, serious girl.” In this poem, which I’m not going to quote so that you’ll have to go out & buy this book, all the promise of San Francisco’s Golden Boy is fulfilled.





* Even in the late 1970s, George Stanley’s star power in San Francisco was impressive. As I noted in the blog on September 22, when Stanley read with Ted Berrigan at the Grand Piano, each brought half of the overflow crowd.

Friday, November 08, 2002

This blog is not the official sponsor of the Canadian poetry wars. Nor, for that matter, any other. There has been speculation on at least the Poetics listserv as to why there isn’t a comments section here. Part of it simply has to do with Blogger’s lack of such a function in its software & my own meager HTML skills, attempting sans success to import a comments capacity from a third-party provider.* But I haven’t tried harder to solve that technical challenge because of the quality & tone of such discussions as one sees them, for example, in emails & on listservs. The vituperation that has characterized some of the recent Canadian exchanges, for example, has been depressing & counterproductive. Even more depressing has been the fact that I’ve never written anything of substance about a female poet here, at least until my piece on Ange Mlinko, without receiving at least one email attack – the ratio when I write about male poets is about one such blast per ten items. What an amazing coincidence that isn’t. If you want to send me a comment, the email address is on the left.


Underneath the name calling of the Canadians lies a more serious issue: the question of literary formation in a time of extraordinary post-avant productivity. There are, as I’ve listed by name in the postscripts to more than one anthology, literally hundreds of poets now writing compellingly in ways that can be traced back to the New American Poetry, the Stein-Pound-Williams-Zukofsky tradition or parallel European innovative traditions. This doesn’t even touch poets impacted by subaltern innovative traditions like the modernist prose poem from pre-WW2 Japan or indigenous poetics from every continent save Antarctica. Tho if we stretch a little to include Donald Finkel, we can count the South Pole as well.


What about all this writing? No individual, regardless of how voracious & encyclopedic a reader, can ever hope to take in all of it. Therefore, by definition, one is forced to make choices. Will I read Eunoia or The Mood Embosser? Hoa Nguyen or Jena Osman? Barbara Guest or David Bromige? Ange Mlinko or Mary Burger? Simon Ortiz or Simon Armitage? This volume by Ed Foster or C.D. Wright or Bruce Andrews means how many other texts will never be gotten to, regardless of how good they are, or of how much I might get out of them? I have a stack of unread books in my bedroom – next to an entire bookcase of same – that is as tall as I am. Eleven other bookcases in my house are overflowing. & yet there is always some book that I want or need right now (this week it’s Adelaide Morris’ Sound States) that I don’t have & can’t get easily.


Such conundrums may bedevil the individual reader, but they have corollaries throughout the field of poetry that have consequences – many of them less than happy – for individual poets, especially those without a lot of power, such as younger writers. First, editors run into the exact same problems as do readers. This is as true for a web journal hosted on an advertising-based “free” server as it is the most expensively produced hard copy publication. There are just more good poets than you will ever be able to publish. The problem ramps up much more steeply when we come to the question of books – few publishers of poetry print more than a handful of volumes per year. Without a sense of a larger project at hand, decisions get made based for  local & personal reasons, which at one level is okay. At another, however, there is no way in this system to assure that good writers don’t literally fall by the wayside. A poet who is reclusive or finds it difficult to actively promote his or her work, such as a Dick Gallup, is apt to disappear from view literally for decades. Has anybody read a book by Harold Dull in 30 years? By Ebbe Borregaard? Mary Norbert Korte? Gail Dusenbery? Victoria Rathbun? Kirby Doyle, like Borregaard a contributor to the Allen anthology, seems literally to have disappeared. A poet like d Alexander dies & is never heard of again. Darrell Gray’s landlord simply dumped his papers into the trash after he died.


In the current highly atomized state of the literary scene, books do get published, but what occurs to them after that remains far too much a matter of happenstance. When a volume happens to sell well, become, at least in poetry terms, popular, and gets sucked up into the highly tokenized process of the print industry’s publishing awards, the phenomenon appears all but random. Thus Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses and Christian Bök’s Eunoia end up both carrying the hopes – and resentments – of large numbers of other poets. It’s as though out of the forest of poets, those seedlings have been anointed by sunlight & thus the opportunity to thrive.


We need to look at this process more critically. I would argue that it is in large measure because of the almost total absence of discernable shape & shading within the literary terrain, its sheer unmappability, that such exceptionalism becomes, by default, the only means available for the culture – by which in this instance I mean the totality of readers of poetry – to organize itself around points of discernability. But what it really points to is an abdication by the poets themselves -- & I don’t mean Harryette or Alice or Christian. By leaving a vacuum, poets permit other institutional forces – especially trade & large institutional publishers and the awards-givers who are really just an adjunct to the trade publishers – to occupy the very space that makes it possible for newcomers to get a sense of what’s where in the world of poetry.


I’ve ridden this hobby horse before. & I probably will again. The failure of poets, particularly when they are acting as editors & critics, to articulate a shape for the writing they want most to see & with which to be associated, is the necessary precondition for the disappearance of many, perhaps most, poets. To return to an old lesson from Jean-Paul Sartre: your choice is between the series – absolute atomization – and the group. Though that latter term has multiple meanings.


So almost as distressing as the name calling in the Canadian dispute is Darren Wershler-Henry’s reflexive denial of group status: “there's no Oulipo branch office here.” It’s as puzzling and ultimately self-defeating a position as that posed by Juliana Spahr on this blog back in September when she characterized the creation of Chain as an act against articulation:


we started chain b/c there were too many arguments being made. we started it in the climate of apex and o-blek. there were arguments already and we needed other sorts of conversations to happen. this felt crucial to us. we needed to make a place for us to think about things in our way--a more sideways way or a less declaratory way. now, perhaps, we/poetry community need arguments again. it is sad that apex and o-blek are gone and really haven't been replaced. and somehow for some reason that i'm not sure i know yet, we keep doing chain. (my emphasis)


Chain’s co-editor Jena Osman poses it as being a choice against canon-building. Which might be the case if one poses it solely in a my community vs. your community context. But, one thing the poetry of the 1970s certainly attempted (with mixed results) to demonstrate in practice, articulation – argument – need not be destructive at all. Dialogues between communities ideally begin with an interest in what the other community is doing. So what is edited out when editors opt for a telephone book or dictionary model of the alphabet as organizing principle is precisely “Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over.”  What is left is everybody talking simultaneously with a minimum of listening to one another.


The poets behind Apex of the M and O•blēk argued for a new spirituality in American poetry. That may seem like a quirky, even perverse place to begin, but it was at least an attempt to make a start. In retrospect, those new gnostics look like the last gasp of poetry organizing itself before utter atomization left every woman & man to themselves and the poetry scene surrendered over to the infinite consumerism of picking this book here, that book there, with no hope of ever creating a larger sense of event.


Let me pose what seems to me an obvious possible grouping, something that, to borrow a phrase from Peter Balestrieri, I will call The Collectors. The Collectors acquire that name because of a predisposition to utilize & recycle found language, although this can also mean the use of a poetic text to process an event. When Mark Peters searched the internet for every sentence that included the word “men” & then composed a booklength poem by that name, it was just an act of collection. The détournements of Brian Kim Stefans & event documentation works of Edwin Torres and Kenny Goldsmith, the text creations of Alan Sondheim as well as the work of Craig Dworkin all loosely fit this definition. Around this core one might pose questions of rule-determined work, which might fall on one side of this equation, and which just might include the Oulipo non-branch in Toronto. On the other side would be those writers interested in documents for precisely what they do and say socially, incorporating them into their works – both Spahr and Osman could be posited there. Further, one could go back and ask about such antecedent poets as Paul Metcalf on the one hand and David Benedetti’s computer-written texts of the 1970s on the others. Viewed from the perspective of The Collectors, there is a context in which both Christian Bök’s Eunoia & Louis Cabri’s The Mood Embosser not only complement one another, they virtually require one another.


This literary formation exists in everything but the real world. While some of these writers know one another and might even work together from time to time, there is no attempt that I’m aware of on anybody’s part from within this potential formation to point it out as a major tendency in contemporary poetry. Which means as a direct consequence that there is nobody trying to create the kind of internal – and external – dialogues that would enable it to accelerate its own development. And that its potential as a point in common for other groups to bounce off of is muted, if not nil. Only when such formations exist in real time can the “combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over” that Jena Osman envisions begin to occur. You can’t cross over until you have identified a place from which to cross.


The benefits of literary formation seem to me obvious: we would not have the ready availability of the work of Carl Rakosi without his relationship to the Objectivists, nor this big fat new volume of Lorine Niedecker’s so lovingly produced by the University of California Press. Long term, the work of Joe Ceravolo, Dick Gallup and the other poets of the New York School’s second generation stands to gain enormously because of this same phenomenon. If anyone ever is to rescue the work of Darrell Gray, it will be because of his role within Actualism. In each instance, the presence of a literary formation provides not just strength in numbers, but a situating context large & complex enough to motivate a graduate student like Andrew Crozier to locate & approach a man like Carl Rakosi. Rakosi had not written in a quarter century before Crozier approached him in the 1960s; by his own account on his webcast this past week, Rakosi had not even read poetry in a quarter century. 


But at that level, the idea of the Collectors is as much a fiction as M.L. Rosenthal’s Confessional Poetry once was. So, if we believe Wershler-Henry, is the experience of a Toronto-centered process-driven poetics. What it all points to is a profound silence precisely where there needs to be discussion. And organization. And arguments. On this point, Juliana Spahr is absolutely right: “we/poetry community need arguments again.” Lots of them, conducted in the poems, in readings, in the fundamentally political act that is editing, in forums like talks & seminars & conferences.


To which I would add this one word of warning: name calling seems a better way to shut discussion off, that it does to open it up.





* Ditto for a search engine.