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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wise Guys Meet in La Jolla
Clockwise from RS at rear of table:
Rae Armantrout, John Granger, Ted Pearson, Dustin Leavitt
(photo by TC Marshall)

Because I was in California for half of April, I missed the Poetry Communities & Individual Talent conference that took place at Kelly Writers House while I was gone. But the relationship of poetry & community was constantly on my mind, reading at UC (which still fails to treat me to the usual glut of alma mater literature, a mistake that SF State never makes, tho in fact I never actually received a degree from either), going past the house I grew up, the house eight blocks away that I owned prior to the move to Pennsylvania, visiting dear friends, including David Melnick in San Francisco & Cecelia Bromige in Sebastopol. I’m co-editing collected poems for both Melnick & David Bromige and had things I needed & wanted to discuss with each. Plus the primal pleasure of visiting dear friends. I was amazed, at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, to see that Steve Fama has a pretty good collection of my writings on prisons from my days with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), which is to say 1977 & before. Later in the week, Kathleen Frumkin & I sorted through the NY Times to find the crossword puzzle that listed “Pulitzer Prize Poet Armantrout & others” on April 13 (Rae’s birthday – did they know that?), plus the solution the following day, which was “Raes.” It was one of those deeply satisfying psychic journeys in which I traveled more than just geographical distance.

My first event on the West Coast was at the Center for Psychoanalysis in San Francisco, an interesting blend of resonances in my life given just how many psychoanalysts I know, how many therapists & the number of decades I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another. One of the first questions in that informal give & take setting was did I still think of myself as a Language Poet and had my sense of Language Poetry changed since the 1970s. My response was to begin with something I’d written in the foreword to in In The American Tree, that I understood Language Writing as a moment more than a movement, which was true in the early 1980s when I first penned that sentence, and is even truer today, when that moment seems to me clearly past.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

In the past week, I’ve read on various discussion lists that nobody reads blogs but other bloggers. I’ve also read that bloggers “control” poetry. I’ve seen an article that quotes incoming Guggenheim executive Edward Hirsch calling language poetry a “cult,” & read another listserv message suggesting that there were far too many avant-garde or experimental poets – an estimate of 10,000 was offered. There does seem to be a diversity of opinion.

The fear of an Other is an interesting, if sometimes dangerous, phenomenon. Denial of its existence and/or importance is really only the flip side of the paranoid nightmare that It, whatever It may be, has overrun & secretly governs the world. Need I suggest that the truth is probably somewhere in between?

One of the values of blogging for poets is that it can deepen the degree of critical thinking poets themselves do, more so I suspect than the scatter of listserv discussions. If there is a bias hidden in the blogging form, it’s toward poets who think critically, but that by no means ensures that said poets will be post-avant, let alone any particular flavor thereof. It also suggests that there is a role for critical thinking & writing outside of the received forms of the academy – & I am convinced that this is all to the better as well.

If there is a potential for post-avant poetry in raising the bar of critical thinking, it might be to help address the question that is rather unspoken in that wildly overdone estimate of 10,000 experimentalists: how, as the post-avant heritage expands to yet another generation, are those poets going to create the necessary sense of shape to differentiate between all these young, interesting poets? If the New Americans broke uneasily (& somewhat too artificially) into their various clusters of NY School, Projectivism, Beat & SF renaissance – the latter is almost entirely a fiction – when there were only a hundred or so poets practicing in the Pound/Williams tradition in the 1950s, how many such tendencies are really just waiting to (a) get their act together and/or (b) be recognized as such? That problem of “shape” or differentiation is I think – I know I’ve said this before, I know I’ll say it again – the primary critical issue facing younger poets in 2003. The squabble among Canadian poets between those interested in the use of forms & those more interested in, say, a politicized version of the NY school is at the least a sign of life. I’m in favor of both sides of that debate. As I am heartened every time chris cheek complains that some version of post-avant history is too book & page oriented, even though I’m certain I must be part of that problem.

Another value I’d hadn’t anticipated from blogging is the simple verification effect of being able to register how many readers come to one’s site. Ten thousand visitors to this blog in just four months should answer any fear I might have that Ed Hirsch is correct in his assessment of my work, or even the idea that it’s simply an elite practice, too arcane for many.* Currently, this blog averages slightly over 130 readers per day. Yesterday saw 198 visitors to this blog, the most ever – that the average number of readers can continue to expand in the face of the explosion of poetry blogs makes me realize just how much we need to rethink the idea of the post-avant audience. It’s larger than we imagine.

But of greatest value to me are all the other blogs that are now focusing on poetry, poetics & closely related literary concerns. Not only are the numbers increasing, so is the diversity – aesthetically & otherwise. Below is the list of the literary blogs that I currently check at least once or twice per week. One thing I’ve definitely noted among these blogs is the presence of several people who might be characterized as either New York School, gen XXXVII or as post-NY School (there being different ways of looking at this), a tendency previously imagined by some folks as allergic to critical thinking. Guess again. This may be the most significant theoretical development that has come out of blogging to date & it will be interesting to see how it evolves.

The list below consists of 37 bloggers, maybe 28 of which are less than six months old. “The creation of new forms as additions to nature,” as William Carlos Williams wrote. There is a group blog, an audioblog & even a blog that denies its own blogitude.

Since “abortive” blogs are also a part of the phenomenon, I’ve only included sites that have updated since the beginning of this year with the notable exception of Camille Roy’s site, Ich Bin Ein Iraqi, which uses the blog form for a piece on the subject of her Iraqi childhood. It may be the first instance of serious blog literature – as distinct from literature merely published in a blog – & absolutely needs to be read.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Cahiers de Cory (Josh Corey)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Chaxblog (Charles Alexander – the background color really does change as you read)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Eeksy Peeksy (Malcolm Davidson)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Elsewhere (Gary Sullivan)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Equanimity (Jordan Davis)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>for the Health of it (Tom Bell)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Free Space Comix (Brian Kim Stefans, one of the first bloggers)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>HG Poetics (Henry Gould)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Hypertext Kitchen (Blog of Eastgate, the hypertext software folks)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ich Bin Ein Iraqi (Camille Roy)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ineluctable Maps (Anastios ??)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>jill/txt (Jill Walker)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jonathan Mayhew’s Blog (His list of the best sax players includes neither Steve Lacy nor Anthony Braxton?!)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Josh Blog (Josh Kortbein)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Laurable.Com (One of the first poetry blogs & one of the best – with a focus on recordings of readings)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lester’s Flogspot (Patrick Herron’s sock puppet has an attitude)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>lime tree (K. Silem Mohammad)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Mike Snider’s Formal Blog (the only new formalist blog I’ve found)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Million Poems (Jordan Davis’ blog for his poetry)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Nether (Angela Rawlings)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Overlap (Drew Gardner)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pantaloons (Jack Kimball, currently trying to forget everything Joe Brainard ever remembered)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pepy’s Diary (The Ur-blogger has risen from the grave – welcome to 1659/60)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Possum Pouch (Dale Smith, though he denies it’s a blog, has converted his web newsletter to…a blog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>process documents (Ryan Fitzpatrick’s long poem in progress)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ptarmigan (Alan de Niro)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>reading & writing (Joseph Duemer)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>rrrart (Judy MacDonald, a fiction writer)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>San Diego Poetry Guild (a group blog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>SpokenWORD (Komninos Zervos’ Australian audioblog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Squish (Katherine Parrish)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>texturl (Brandon Barr)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Tijuana Bible of Poetics (Heriberto Yepez, who also has a poetry blog in Spanish)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Year of Living Musically (Joseph Zitt, poet, musician & webmaster of the long-running John Cage listserv, Silence)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ululations (Nada Gordon)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Virgin Pepper (Jim Behrle – is there a sock puppet here?)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Wine Poetics (Eileen Tabios)

My own blog would make 38 & I’m sure that I’m missing some. I’m finding that the ones I learn the most from are not necessarily those that may appear closest to my own aesthetics – in addition to Camille Roy, Jonathan Mayhew, Heriberto Yepez & Nada Gordon have all kept me awake at night, rethinking my assumptions about the world.

That’s the point, isn’t it?

* I’m a subscriber to the theory that the only people who find langpo “difficult” or “obscure” are a small set of people who have become developmentally challenged through graduate school.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Twenty five years ago, Whale Cloth Press published what at the time was the most radically innovative poetry project I’d ever seen, Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Rereading it today, Sentences still qualifies as the furthest anyone has pushed poetry & form in the investigation of the world:



The above is just one of 500 cards, 5 inches high, 8 inches wide, text typed (in “landscape” format) in Courier from an IBM Selectric typewriter, housed in a dark blue cloth covered folding box. You could shuffle the cards & there was a rumor that no two boxes had the works in the same order. This was, Whale Cloth & Grenier seemed to be insisting, a book.

It was as if nobody had ever taken the time before Grenier to just simply look at the language. When his work first began to telescope down from the mid-level lyrics that he was composing as this one-time Robert Lowell protégé left Iowa City for a teaching job at Berkeley – a job obtained in good part on the recommendation of James Tate & Richard Tillinghast – it occurred in a climate in which the most radical book anyone had ever seen or even imagined was Robert Creeley’s Pieces (Scribners, 1969). At the time, I recall poetry students around San Francisco State being utterly stunned by the Creeley book – “how dare he call that poetry?” But within less than two years, Grenier was starting to write works in Berkeley that made Creeley look as mainstream New England as Robert Frost.

I first met Grenier when I transferred to UC Berkeley for the Spring term in 1970. I had dropped out of San Francisco State after the debilitating student strike that then-governor Reagan had consciously used as a model testing ground for ways of defeating student activism. Every single teacher of any true value I had had at State either was fired or quit. One professor I knew was so freaked out by the presence of cops on horseback on campus that he was carrying a pistol at all times. The new university president, S. I. Hayakawa, was a linguistics professor whose class I’d sat in on a few times until it became apparent that he hadn’t read a book in perhaps 15 years. It was obvious he was little more than a puppet for the governor, who originally hoped to use SF State to help get his secretary of education Max Rafferty elected to the U.S. Senate over incumbent Democrat Alan Cranston (Charles Olson’s one-time boss). The only thing that the student strikers did intelligently that entire fall had been to wait until late on Election Day itself to go out on strike, thwarting Reagan’s original plan. But from that point on, it was a debacle as the state showed that it was willing to use whatever force was necessary to break the strike.

Because I didn’t have enough units to transfer as a junior to Berkeley right away, I detoured briefly to Merritt College, which in those days was still in the flatlands of North Oakland, the “bad” neighborhood in which my grandfather had grown up. I took as many of the my breadth courses as I could get out of the way, working as a TA for an anthropology class (the one time I ever held such a role in college), then moved to Berkeley in January 1970 where several people I knew, including David Bromige, David Melnick & my wife at the time, Rochelle Nameroff, were already students. I arrived just as students were preparing to submit manuscripts for a series of undergraduate writing contests. I dutifully gathered my work into a couple of different clusters and asked around what people thought about sending different groups to the different contests. Although the judges for each contest were announced at the outset, I was so new that I didn’t know any of the faculty to speak of, with the lone exception of Robin Magowan.

One of my clusters was a group of short, Williams-esque poems, the core it would later turn out of my first book Crow. Both Melnick & Nameroff suggested that I should I submit that group to the Joan Yee Lang Award contest, whose judge was Robert Grenier, somebody I’d never heard of before. “He likes short poems,” Melnick insisted. This turned out to be excellent advice, as I won the award before ever having met the judge. One day later that Spring, however, Grenier introduced himself to me at Serendipity Books, in those days a great poetry bookshop on Shattuck in North Berkeley. “I thought you were Arthur Sze,” he told me.

I didn’t really get to know Grenier well until the following fall when I attempted to do a special study course on Louis Zukofsky only to discover that almost nobody at Berkeley had ever even heard of the Brooklyn Objectivist. James E.B. Breslin, whom I’d asked first, sort of knew the work but was clearly intimidated by it & wasn’t sure he could help me. He not only recommended Grenier, but – as it happened – gave me some excellent advice about getting the class approved by my advisor, arguing for Zukofsky’s relevance in terms of his association with Williams, whom professors in the department had heard of before. Grenier agreed & the Williams ploy worked. It was only a matter of weeks before I became a full-fledged member of the Cult of Grenier.

In 1970, it was evident to any of the young writers around Grenier that he was rethinking poetry from the ground up. If Creeley’s Pieces offered poetry as it might descend from Louis Zukofsky’s short poems by way of Ted Berrigan, Grenier was adding Stein into the mix as well as the Williams of Spring & All, which Harvey Brown had just published, suddenly demonstrating the good doctor not only to be the epitome of a speech-based poetics that everyone had recognized for the previous 20 years, but also the most consciously radical critic of poetry of the first half of the 20th century – which came as a total surprise of many. On top of this, Grenier wasn’t merely mixing influences in a new way – although he was doing that also – he was gradually insisting that anything, anything, looked at closely enough could become poetry. His works from that period – which make up the first two pages of In the American Tree, were working themselves down toward a new level of minimalism not seen before in American poetry:

a long walk
a long
walk a long
walk a long
walk along

To poets raised on the writings of Duncan, Spicer, Olson, Creeley & Zukofsky – which is exactly where I was coming from – the sheer gait of this poem, with its deliberately limping prosody, was like an explosion in the face of everything I’d ever known. This was not speech.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Peter Ganick is an extremophile of American letters. Extremophiles, as any ten-year-old addicted to the science shows on the Discovery Channel can tell you, are those amazing creatures that thrive in extreme conditions, such as in the lightless & chilly depths of the ocean or in fire-orange lips of lava at the edge of a live volcano, even conceivably on asteroids or other planets sans atmosphere. These include (but aren’t just limited to) anaerobes, thermophiles, psychrophiles, acidophiles, alkalophiles, halophiles, barophiles, and xerophiles. Fun folk one & all.

In poetry, an extremophile would be someone whose interest in the dynamics of his or her own work are intense, detailed & radically distinct, but which develop with only the most passing concern or correlation with whatever else might be going on in the world of poetry. Extremophiles have been around for some time: Bern Porter, Bob Brown & Ian Hamilton Finlay all qualify as examples of extremophile literature at its finest. Alan Sondheim is another contemporary example, but it is characteristic of extremophile writing that although Sondheim & Ganick are relatively like-minded souls practicing at the same point in time who live within only a few hours of one another, no one would suggest that you might make a group phenomenon out of this ensemble of impulses.* The closest you could come in recent U.S. poetic history to an extremophile grouping would be the collaborative projects of Stanley Berne & Arlene Zekowski, who also demonstrate the principle that extremophile writing need not be interesting just for being extreme.

Ganick hasn’t always been perceived as an extremophile in part because there are some aspects of his poetry that, if you were draw it up as giant circle in a Venn diagram, would slightly overlap some other things going on in post-avant poetics, for example in the most purely prosodic pieces of Clark Coolidge’s writing. And by virtue of having been one of the major publishers & promoters of post-avant poetics, Ganick has been in the thick of things now for a few decades. But his best work, which is to say the poems in which he seems to be most fully himself, are longer works in relatively constant forms where the language builds only to be itself. Read aloud, books such as No Soap Radio, Agoraphobia, Rectangular Morning Poem or <a’ sattv> lead a reader toward trance-like states that are not meaning-invested, but rather ultimately meaning-liberated. These states are zones unique to Ganick’s poetry. & I suspect that you or I could not conceivably come close to duplicating them if we tried.

tend.field is Ganick’s most recent project, a PC CD of a single 223-page paragraph that exists both in PDF format and as a self-scrolling text, that appears to run literally forever. There is also a series of related abstracted line drawings, although I could not explain to you how they’re related to the text if my life depended on it.** But it’s the self-scrolling text to which I really want to call your attention. Subtitled in parentheses a philosophy, the text itself is pure Ganick – no capital letters, just streams of sentences such as:
which sly in recanting olé yesterday’s impasse the memorized cloister, ailing with which one seeks a decent paradigm for annuity. rendered universal, saving which adrenaline blister, on as much to repent with glaringly thought of hidden discomfort in otherness’ pileation, so major as nodule perhaps riddance to evidential gleams. of which in constriction the abolished shoulder of roadway calling out in an advent of persuasion, trial size formalization so regaled those predicated on hopefulness’ factuality restructured. some sleeping window nest, gravity of expanse the time of for which name naïvely preoccupies the margins of a destiny modeled after waiting’s insurgency not breathing - less. when as constricted from address, to pull into a gossamer flange more the parade solar aspects in huddle remotely isolationist as caveat, not the advantage the blessing-with that mandalas implicate formally. on as one could seek, permission granted that being on a folder to be wrenched infotainer’s materializations aside the curious name-calling’s prudence. some so gained as to merit wideness of pertinence, well into scrambler’s official derangement, more fleshy that wilted on haphazard notification elsewhere sandwich. lanyard on the motionlessness, one creates out of a camera to beaten down shut as orange to skimmer flood the feeling in leggings more mundane as permitted. schismatic retaliation of sic with-in a space in documentation maternally the fullness of bluntness talking at hula horrors, the emptiness of wishful gradients. some other specimen of tangibility in other packages merely lionized. scholiast. venerable mistral, with garble and chain-song, reurged in the camped-over, where wit as synergy tempts an icy startling of vestigial prosody, the celebrated more than which with an announcement of negotiation, somewhere out inside the temporary. while affording in selected retentions -ive the merging ogre to blemish with not haggling out of the shoebox named for a full salute here to befriend of pranams why thresholds flail. some rendered which has not startled invasively premonition therefore unsold or sold, that beginning from endgame in parlance therefore to be else in fact. whose elementally curious not wished failure, template on-site the having which affords one’s explanation of culpable secretion, manicure where aspects remove tiles longing for beatitude. not recognizable from one’s clangorous monotone, that being as hidden rend on prior tear to the millefleur grail-proof in derivation of parlance’s emulsified feverishness, something addicted to scramble, with whose affording one classes others’ notions therefore something else to be headless in reminder.
This represents less than one half of one percent of this paragraph. In book format, or even in a PDF file on a screen – on a PDA for example – this is rough going, even though phrase by phrase it’s always of some interest. But the use of the scrolling text –Macromedia Projector is the underlying program – transforms a very difficult slog through language into something else altogether. Line by line the language rises from the bottom of the screen only to exit at the top. Roughly twenty lines are visible at any given moment, but they’re moving very quickly – a line stays on the screen for its entire journey for no more than 7 seconds on my Pentium 4 1.8GHz Windows XP system. This means that it’s impossible even for a speed reader to do more than pick out phrases as they flash past.

This is where I think that subtitle comes into play. Ganick is in fact arguing here for a new way of reading, one that can be understood as glimpsing (or perhaps “registering”) data as it flashes past. In practice, this means that no longer how many times you run the program, tend.field will never yield the same poem twice. Not in the sense of a random language generator working with a set vocabulary – the computer-written poems of David Benedetti like Ideas Imagine Passion would be an example – but rather in the sense that you will never notice the same things as you proceed through this forest of language.

Reading around in a text has, of course, existed as a process for centuries, mostly unspoken about, undescribed as a process, treated rather as a form of not reading or of inferior reading if it shows its head in college lit class. But it occurs constantly in “real life”: as one walks down any commercial street in America, for example, Canada included, one is inundated with signage & figures out how best to absorb (or not) the onslaught of commercial speech in public display. Ganick’s innovation is to identify just how far beyond pure Burma Shave poetics we have actually advanced & to develop a text – and the means for presenting it – that turns this “alienation from nature” in on itself until, in fact, it truly becomes a new nature. Which is why my trope of a “forest of language” in the paragraph above was not accidental.

If there is a process that is anything like the experience of reading tend.field – note the pastoral terms welded together (but also kept separate) by punctuation here – it is exactly a walk in the country. But an exceptionally frenetic one – you realize very rapidly that you will never be able to take in more than a fraction of what is scrolling by & you then have to decide just how copasetic you are with this as a reader. It’s a new country alright, one driven & occupied by language – bureaucratic, commercial & manipulative “where wit as synergy tempts an icy startling of vestigial prosody.” Exactly!

I’m on record as a skeptic on the subject of new media – I’ve expressed a concern that the applications and software platforms on which they’re mounted will prove increasingly short-lived – and nothing here really alters my overall assessment of that. But even if tend.field proves as temporary as the Macintosh & Windows operating systems on which it is intended to operate, it makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of what reading & writing might be right now.

* Theoretically, Robert Grenier’s relationship to langpo, which has been profound, complicates the issue of placing him fully into the extremophile category, although everything from the “Chinese box” Sentences to the more recent scrawl works suggests that Grenier is just such a critter.

** One drawing is vaguely visible as the background to the scrolling text

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Looking at Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Draft 1: It again this morning, I realize that what I’d previously taken for a more abstract drawing that comes later in the text is, like the pair of drawn Ns at the front, letters, in this instance Ys. In each case, one letter is much larger than the other, with the smaller inscribed in a wedge of the larger. It’s funny how you can look at something off & on for 15 years, before a detail this basic jumps out at you, but there you have it.

The Ys occur at the end of one of the more curious passages in Draft 1:

The struggle from whiteness
into whiteness
via black wit-




Nothing in my prior experience of DuPlessis gives me reason to believe that she has an interest in what I’ve called the alternative wisdom traditions, so the appearance of the old Chinese system of chance divination gets my attention because it is unexpected. Further, the idea of “black witness” – a phrase I can easily imagine DuPlessis speaking – refers on a very different level to the civil rights movement of the 1950s & ‘60s. But from whiteness into whiteness suggests that other meanings have to be given precedence here. There is a discourse of color in Draft 1 that is worth cataloging: “sunlight / silver backed,” “it / lettered on green up hillside’s social lining,”  “Black // coding inside         A / white fold open,” “A white house seems / to be a further / coagulation of mist / Lucite see-thru overlay,” “CANO*, can o,       yes     no,” “’sea-blazed gold’,” “clouds       for fat and white,” “space white and open a flat / spot a lite on / it,” “Object (pronoun) / squeaks its little song its bright white / dear dead dark,” “theater of the / / page    cream    space    peaks,” “where in the placement of saffron / . . . and black tuft of heide,” “one point is to achieve a social momentum of switched / referents and (merry coral        white clover / ding ding ding) commentary,” & then this remarkable passage:

a kind of orange it happens
a kind of orange
rose rinse, vertical green
Away anyway has shadow
a typical Rachel shadow”
blue starts limb long and torso struggles
its window when all around there’s not a single
wall, NO blockages
hardly stopped at all except by the pleasures
of color are you getting the picture
it hppns BLUEW one from the sequences of looming
comes            longing

White & black are of course unique hues, white figuring as the undifferentiated presence of all color in light, but as the absence of color in pigmentation. Light/pigment, white/black, yes/no (Y/N), sound/silence – a string of threshold points appear to surround & pass through that simplest, most self-effacing of pronouns. It’s in this sense that I begin to understand the allusion to the I ching. Of all pronouns, it most completely functions as a lens, directing sight, refracting color, offering nothing (or very little) of itself as object.

In a way, DuPlessis is playing with the idea of language’s ostensible transparency, but only to point up all the problematic catches, the moments where the signifier itself happens (or, for that matter, “hppns”) – meaning, sound, sight, desire, the whole of the world trying to come through – “a plot,” as she notes, bracketing the phrase in quotation marks, “a plot / against the reader.”

* Spanish for “white”

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Thinking more about the problem of how one reads truly new poetry, writing by people whose work one doesn’t know. Let’s try another example.

Underneath the stack of Mirage #4 / Period(ical)s – that’s a tough one to pluralize – from which I picked yesterday’s example, has been sitting the first-ever issue of Kiosk, published by three people I’ve never heard of before who would appear to be students at SUNY Buffalo. It’s a gorgeously done publication – visually the best first issue of anything hard copy that I’ve seen since The Germ. The table of contents lists many writers whose I work I follow: Alice Notley, Kristen Gallagher, Fiona Templeton, Leslie Scalapino, Patrick Durgin, Catherine Wagner, Michael Magee, Martin Corless-Smith, Jerome Rothenberg, Gregg Biglieri, Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejinian, Raymond Federman, Nick Piombino, Marjorie Perloff & Charles Bernstein.

One name that is new to me is Thom Donovan, about whom I have as little information as I did for Richard Deming yesterday. Maybe he’s a student at Buffalo, but maybe not.* His text is entitled “towards 24 Stills,” carrying forward the mixed typographic elements I found in Deming’s title also. It’s possible that this is a trend, something I should start keeping my eyes open for, but it’s also possible that it really means that the text below is excerpted from a larger, possibly book-length sequence or series entitled 24 Stills. Thumbing through the rest of the issue reveals no consistency, contributor by contributor, in typographic styles for titles. So this ambiguity will just have to linger.

To the look at the first page, with three one-paragraph prose sections separated by a simple left-margin dash, my immediate instinct tells me that this will be a series of interrelated short prose poems. The first one strikes me as intense & problematic:

For marking museums. Birds, mid-flight, portrayed in glass. A stuffing that was wasted. A way to enter and exit. Roll film the way you found it. In a dark dark canister – traveling through the dead throat. To an aorta: blurt. Then the other side: neutral children. Neutral, but built.

The first four sentences are truncated – all resonate with verbs (marking, portrayed, was wasted, to enter & exit) shifted away from the normal predicate function, which in turn is left vacant. These sentences carry the sound of captions or of definitions taken from a curious dictionary. The sense is deliberately static, the lone visual image self-consciously kitsch. Movement as such starts with the command of the fifth sentence, creating an almost tectonic shift in the language. Initially, the sixth sentence can be interpreted as “following” the fifth: film rolls are kept in such canisters. The very possibility of meaning spreading outward beyond the punctuated wall between sentences here is palpably felt in the reading. But the latter half of the sentence, following the dash, seems spliced from another linguistic source, although it also can be interpreted as leading the next sentence.** In the process, we shift image schemes away from film rolls & toward the esophagus. This ends almost comically after the colon with the lone syllable declaration: blurt. As such, a single word utterance, blurt could be a command, but, even more prominently, it stands for the unique sonic bubble it is, bounded on either end by a hard consonant, next to which lies a liquid surrounding that lone central vowel. It’s really a beautiful word & how often do we get to look & listen to it like this? 

The poem moves again after that hard stop, the next word Then literally marking sequence. Like so much else in this short piece, “the other side” proposes a referent for which it offers no evidence. This is the third sentence in a row to have some kind of hinge marked by punctuation, in this instance leading to “neutral children.” This sentence harks back to the first & third as one that could have easily occurred in Stein’s Tender Buttons. Given that three sentences represents one-third of the total paragraph, this can’t be accidental & it raises the parallel between Stein’s portraits of objects and the title of Donovan’s work, “towards 24 Stills.” The mysterious “neutral children” lead in turn to the first word of the last sentence, also Neutral. This leads one last time to a mid-sentence hinge, albeit one marked with the most modest mode of punctuation, a lowly comma. The post-hinge segment but built echoes the previous hard stop of Blurt. This short prose piece literally ends on a variant of rhyme.

Reading through this 49-word paragraph, all these thoughts flicker rapidly through my head during the 25 seconds or so it takes me to read it – it takes far longer to jot them down here. It wasn’t, in fact, until that eighth sentence that the shadow of Stein popped up for me – “neutral children” just sounds like her. To another reader, her presence might have been evident from the very first.

At this point in the reading, two somewhat contradictory ideas are floating about in my head. One is to recognize how carefully crafted this is. Donovan clearly is in total control of his materials. The second, however, is a lingering suspicion toward the larger project. I don’t yet have a good enough concept of what he might be doing. Texts that lean too heavily on other writers are something I don’t care for in avant or post-avant work. Regardless of the source, it’s putting profound limits around the text. It’s why, for example, John Cage strikes me as at best a literary tourist, whereas he is/was a real & compelling composer.

It is, however, a perfectly good strategy for any young poet trying to take on whatever might be going on in the work of the source writer. Robert Duncan certainly had his Stein imitations, for example, although they were not works he sought to save as part of his mature oeuvre.

The next two sections of “towards 24 Stills” proceed much as did the first one, but when the reader turns the page, something akin to a new world appears: six sections come into view, not one of which is in prose. Unless the towards aspect of the title is, in fact, an indication of excerpting & such excerpting was done with the specific idea of setting up the drama of the turned page here, it’s simply a happy accident.*** But each of the six sections on these pages & the four others on the next two greatly expand the work’s sense of range, tone & play.

There are images – conceptual schemas, really – that continue throughout these pieces: around film as projection of imagery, as something driven on a track, as a mode of marking. Theater, television & video are all introduced. It’s not that the text moves from non-referential toward something akin to figuration, but rather that there are veins throughout the work that rein in the range of possible meanings, rather like a collage that takes all of its imagery from a related set of journals.

Some of the sections work very well:

Drives a stake, drives a wedge
A wedge, a stake
What it means to produce
                                 A train that will show
The spectators themselves
                                                   And able to critique

But others seem narrow, suggesting that their justification as writing depends on their place within the total project, rather than directly on what is at hand:

With infancy in his robes
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
Patches                                  tense garment

Disrobes                    Hello

My ghost                     My ghost

Overall, I come away from this text feeling unsettled. For one thing, even at the end I’m uncertain if I’ve read the entire work or just 14 sections of something larger+ (and, if it is the latter, where there really only 10 other sections &, if so, why weren’t they included here?). The theme, to call it that, seems to me a structural device &, as such, isn’t compelling. But a lot of the writing here is excellent.

Deming had some advantages – the presentation of multiple works, for instance – that Donovan does not have here. But I might have been more persuaded if I had read 14 works that seemed thoroughly independent – which is to say dependent on themselves – rather than 14 that “sorta” go together. In that sense, the film schema in Donovan’s text actually seems to me to weaken the work overall rather than strengthen it.

The next time I see work by Donovan, I’m certain to start reading it. But where I know that I’ll read Richard Deming’s poems when I see them next to their conclusion, Donovan’s will still have to convince me.

* Donovan, it seems, is the author of one 1999 chapbook from Potes & Poets entitled Sudden Miles. He recently collaborated with Barbara Cole on a Rust Talks event in Buffalo on the subjects of video, video games, porn, virtual reality & related issues – suggesting that there is more to this film schema than shows up in this text. He may be the same Thom Donovan who graduated from Oberlin in 1999, but does not appear to be any of several professional musicians who show up under that name in a search on Google, nor the one-time associate pastor of St. Marks Church. I did that search after I wrote all of the above, largely because this is how I proceed with a poem I find in a mag.

** With the reiterated dark in the previous sentence, it’s plausible that Donovan intends for us hear the echo of William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” in “traveling through the dead throat,” but, if so, there’s no other evidence for it. It remains as an echo, possibly unintended.

*** But how happy is it? One of the things that makes this text unsettling for me is the set of expectations set up on the first page that are then undercut, but not decisively redefined, by the next four. I wonder if it might not have been a better strategy to see the prose amid the verse sections rather than to run them all at the front, only to follow with the verse – something that always bothers me about the Japanese haibun form, for example. See, for instance, Michael McClintock’s “The Face on the Floor,” the first piece in his Anthology of Days (Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, No. 70) where a riveting piece of prose is followed with three very unriveting lines of poetry that feel “tacked on,” sort of a limp bow on an otherwise bright package.

+ This is by no means a problem restricted to Donovan’s text, nor necessarily a sign of any problem in the writing. When I taught a graduate course in writing at San Francisco State in 1981, I had students “read a poem” aloud from Robert Grenier’s Oakland (Tuumba Press, 1980) only to discover that the members of this seminar – which included Jerry Estrin, Cole Swenson, Susan Gevirtz & Margaret Johnson – were almost uniformly unable to tell when individual pieces began & ended, even though many of them had titles. The same assignment with Bruce Andrews’ Sonnets (Memento Mori) (This Press, 1980) produced a similar result, again in spite of titles &, in this instance, a table of contents. The question of a poem’s boundaries obviously is worth exploring further.

Monday, October 21, 2002

I have mentioned Chain on several occasions on this blog, for good reason – it is the premier hard copy poetry journal of the day. My first piece on September 11 touched a nerve in a way that hopefully has been productive. Co-founder Juliana Spahr responded to it on the 14th of September. Jena Osman, the other co-founder, used the occasion of the First Festival of Literary Magazines in New York to respond to these issues. Here is her talk:

As a poet I have long been interested in chance occurrences, in unpredictable sense created by different languages meeting inside of a page-bound framework.  My work has been informed by theater, in the way that language performs in various contexts, in the relation of spectator to stage and reader to page. I experiment with the collision of narrative and anti-narrative strategies and take notice of the various registers of attention that we bring to what’s before us.

I met Juliana while I was a grad student at SUNY Buffalo. Some other younger poets in town when I arrived included Peter Gizzi, Lew Daly, Pam Rehm and Liz Willis. We all had quite various concerns, and I was interested in finding a way to create a conversation through our work. At the end of my first year, I organized an experiment called The Lab Book where eight of us wrote poems and then each of us wrote responses to the poems written by the other seven. The book that resulted began with a poem, followed by the seven responses, then another poem, followed by seven responses, etc. I was interested in the idea of writing as reading and reading as writing in perpetual exchange.

Such forms of exchange and investigation are crucial to my process as a writer.

A couple of years later (in 1993), Juliana and I decided to start a magazine. I don’t remember the exact moment when we made this decision, but we knew it was possible, there was a beautifully simple access to funds, and we went ahead with it. For me, the idea behind the first issue was something of an outgrowth of the conversation begun in the lab-book experiment in that the structure allowed for a diversity of content. As we said in the introduction to the first issue, we weren’t interested in making a journal where the editor was “objective talent scout” controlling the content; instead, we were interested in providing a forum for conversation, where we couldn’t predict what would happen when the various pieces were placed side by side.

Such uses of procedural form are important to my process as a writer.

In the introduction to the first issue of Chain we said “It is ironic that in order for dialogue to take place, conversational limits must be set.” And so for each issue there is a limit—a special topic—around which a large number of writers and artists gather. Sometimes the gathering is cacophonous, sometimes eerily synchronous. In my opinion, it’s often a source of delight and surprise. No matter how much time I spend with the contents—reading, selecting, typesetting, proofreading—I never have a real sense of what the issue is until it arrives from the printer, bound between its covers. And even then I can never know it completely because it changes every time I sit down to read it.

This is often the way I feel about my poems.

Each of the limits/special topics of the magazine come out of concerns that Juliana and I are thoroughly engaged with in our own work: documentary poetics, hybrid genres, procedural writing, visual poetics, different languages, subverting/converting memoir form, performative forms, etc. Because we both actively investigate the relation of forms of life (aesthetic, biological, cultural) to forms of writing, these organizing structures make sense to us. The work we publish feeds us, further informs us about these areas we’re already in. In many ways the journal is an investigation into what we want to know, an attempt to find some answers to questions we have.

There are certain pieces that we’ve published that continue to haunt my own writing. Looking back at past issues, I’m amazed at how many have crept into my aesthetic consciousness and stayed there.

In a recent web-log entry, Ron Silliman critiqued Chain for its policy of organizing authors alphabetically, rather than structuring the book as a kind of narrative that could properly honor its writers. He suggests that because of Chain’s inclusivity, it lacks influence on the literary landscape—the birth of future poets—and that the overall effect of the journal is one of muteness rather than speech. He suggests that accident caused by alphabetic chance is perhaps of less value than the deliberate and “heroic” arguments of past journals, and that unlike Origin (which was responsible for making Blackburn and Zukofsky major figures on the literary landscape), Black Mountain Review (responsible for Creeley and Duncan), Caterpillar (which brought Antin, Rothenberg, Mac Low, Kelly, Joris, Palmer and Bernstein onto the scene), Chain can not claim such strong parenting skills because, well, who can name its progeny?

My interest in hybrid genres is due in part to a disinterest in the perpetuation of linear heritage. Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over, provide much more appeal than following respectful and respected maps of canon-building. Conversation is not for canonical heroes. Can you really converse with an unproblematized construct? Or can you only listen?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed in Silliman’s list of heroic editorial gestures the lack of women’s names (although he did make a weak attempt to remedy it by claiming that the magazine However was responsible for bringing Lorine Niedecker back into the world (but why was she ever gone? and is that really what However is known for?).

Silliman is part of the Language Poetry movement that informs much of what I do as a writer. And what I take very seriously from the writings of the Language Poets is that there is a value to reader activism, to not simply consuming, but creating through the act of reading. And I bring this idea with me to the forms that I use when writing poetry or when editing Chain. Chain is not about “making” writers by publishing them in its pages (although its tables of contents list many writers—established and emerging—whom I believe to be of great significance). Chain is about providing a place for a reader to engage with an idea—to think, to argue, to write in response. In other words, it is putting the theory that informs my own writing as a poet into practice in an editorial forum. Rather than what Silliman has called “editorial muteness,” I believe that Chain invites an animated conversation between reader and text that is generative in its necessary unpredictability.

Which is also an invitation I hope my own poems deliver.

In closing I’ll quote once more from the introduction to the first issue of Chain, where it all began: “any printed text is a gesture toward conversation; it’s a presentation that invites response. We’re trying to create a forum that takes that invitation seriously, that is not just going through the motions of what it means to instigate response; it requires continuation.”