Showing posts with label Noah Eli Gordon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Noah Eli Gordon. Show all posts

Monday, June 16, 2014

reading @ Counterpath

Denver, May 2014

Thursday, November 09, 2006

It was the Russian Formalist critics who first noted that one of the historic roles of art – and one of art’s inexorable drivers toward incessant, ongoing change – is to incorporate new aspects of society into the art itself. Without which any genre would very quickly lose much of its connectedness with the life of the community from which it springs. Indeed, in poetry, the refusal of this function in favor of a defensive conventionality is perhaps the most serious weakness of the School of Quietude, the fundamental absence, even a form of denial, right at the spot where a heart should beat.

One clear instance of poetry bringing in new language into the place of the poem was Ed Friedman’s 1979 project, The Telephone Book, which presented, verbatim, a month and a half of transcribed telephone calls by the then-director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. The culture of phone etiquette – this was before you could actually who was calling before they identified themselves – combined with the elements of Friedman’s life – not just poetry, but also his participation in the controversial do-it-yourself therapy movement called co-counseling – to yield a text that edged up against, say, Bernadette Mayer’s works of memory & reconstruction on the one side, and social codes so banal that they were all but “invisible” because of being “too boring to notice.” The result was a brave & wonderful book & consciously a challenge to read, at once formal & painfully intimate.

All of these same elements, save for the co-counseling, are invoked again in a new work, Inbox (a reverse memoir), by Noah Eli Gordon, forthcoming from BlazeVOX books. I’ve been asked if I’d blurb it, but I think this book is too important to let pass with just a few words for a rear cover. Inbox is exactly what its title suggests, a work of art that includes email received by the author, albeit written entirely by his correspondents, over a period of time. By way of introduction, Gordon uses his permission letter, which reads (in part):

Dear Friends,
I recently completed a book project that includes
some of your writing and wanted to both tell you
about it and ask your permission to [attempt to]
publish the work. I’m currently calling the manuscript
INBOX, which should send up the requisite bells and
whistles, 55 pages of uninterrupted prose that
constitutes a kind of temporal autobiography, well
conceptually anyway. I thought it would be interesting
to see what would happen if I were to take the body-
text of every email that was addressed specifically to
me [nothing forwarded or from any listserv] currently
in my inbox [over 200] and let all of the voices collide
into one continuous text. The work is arranged in
reverse chronology, mirroring the setup of my email
program. I removed everyone’s name and any phrase
with which they’d closed their email; additionally, I
removed any specific address mentioned. I’m really
pleased with the results, as it sculpts the space
between the every detritus of dinner plans to
discussions of fonts and notes from long lost friends.
To be honest, as I’m a person pretty free of drama,
the bulk of the work is boring, but intentionally so, in
the generative, ambient way that Tan Lin writes
about, well, one would hope anyhow. It’s the collision
of voices that makes the work compelling, at least to
me. The only thing is… I didn’t write any of it; you did!
Of course there’s something awfully self-aggrandizing
to a project like this, and I’m fully aware of it, which is
why I’m thinking of it as an autobiography. I don’t think
it would be right for me to show any of the
manuscript to anyone until I’ve received everyone’s
permission to share the work. Let me just say this:
there’s not really anything all that incriminating in
here, and most of the gossip is pretty bland. I still
have many of the emails from which the text was
created [although not all] so I’d be willing to send folks
copies of whatever they’ve written that I do still have,
if need be. Although, to be honest, I think the integrity
of the project is kind of dependant on folks NOT being
aware of the make up of their contribution, as the
voices dissolves into one another without any
transition. Also let me say that if I do end up doing
anything with the text, it will not include anyone’s
name, outside of those mentioned in the body text of
messages; besides my name, there is no author
attribution within the manuscript. Most of the text is
dinky pobiz stuff, me hashing out the shape of
chapbook manuscripts I’ve published, or will publish,
directions to readings, etc. It is not at all my intension  
to take advantage of or disrupt anyone’s confidence.

This is a remarkably accurate description of the book itself, tho, like The Telephone Book, inbox somewhat fetishizes its source material by printing it pretty much verbatim from start to finish whereas I think you would get a truer picture of the actual language of email (or of phone conversation) precisely by breaking it apart – sentences seem an obvious point – and scrambling them, so that you look primarily (if not only) to the language & not all these miniature narratives. Will Noah accept this invite? Will the proofs for that chapbook be adequate? Etc. I’m reminded that when Kathy Acker decided to focus on the juridical language of the courts system, she didn’t adopt the dramatized fictive canon of Perry Mason et al, but used the actual language of in re van Geldern as her source material, while also substituting in the names of friends (and by that fact, characters from other sections of the same novel). Acker’s strategy is not unlike Harry Partch’s music composed on a scale of his making on instruments he invented from materials & objects that already exist in the world. Friedman & Gordon more or less give you the raw objects instead.

Sociologically, Inbox is fascinating. As reading, it’s a tougher go, and I think one finds it possible almost primarily because of the “guess the writer” roman a clef element in the work. Who wrote, for example, on the very second page of the work:

I’m writing to invite you to read in the Poetry Project 2004-2005 Monday Night Series at St. Mark’s Church in NY on January 24, 2004, 8 p.m. I know the New York audience is eager to see you here – and to course I’ve seen your work quite a bit, and admire your range (among other things). In short, I’d love to have you read! Details: You would be paid $50 for the reading itself, and unfortunately we can’t afford to cover travel costs (something we’re hoping to work on in the future), but I hope you can make it (it’s not too much from Amherst, yeah?). Additionally, your reading time can run from approx. 20-40 minutes, up to you. Your reading partner will be Barbara Cole. If you’re not available for 1/24, let me know as soon as you can, and we’ll work something else out. I’ll also need a full address from you, so we can send a “contract” out. The Poetry Project’s archaic and long-winded way of welcoming. :) Thanks very much and hope to be in touch soon.

My own sense is that the material works best to the degree it is most mysterious, most turned toward the language, most disjunct:

Have you worked as a DJ? What relationship do you see, if any, between the worlds of publishing books & putting out music? Silliman’s Blog tells me today that you just won the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. What manuscript is in the works on that front? Can you talk a bit about your chapbook venture?

That, I presume, is all one correspondent, but the jump-jump-jump between sentences gives it an urgency the passage above lacks.

So my sense here is that the “more aesthetic” approach that, say, Linh Dinh takes toward the discourse of instant messaging in his most recent work, writing in that discourse rather than mere replicating of the always already written, ultimately makes more sense to me in terms of how best to bring a previous absent (albeit all-but-omnipresent) layer of language into writing. But this doesn’t cancel out the importance of Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox. It presents the highest order of conceptual poetics just by being itself.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

Matthew Zapruder objects:

Dear Mr. Silliman,

I was one part amazed, and one part appalled, to read the recent entry featuring the disagreement between Noah Gordon and the organizers of the reading to protest the war in Northampton, MA.

Where to start? Well, how about with what the hell does the "aesthetics of dissent" mean? That's the mother of all straw men if I've ever met her. Is the implication of the use of that term that the organizers were trying to make (or were the unwitting victims of, in which case policing seems like the wrong, yet perfectly passive aggressive, term) firm categories about what kind of poetry is acceptable to protest the war, and what isn't? Come on, does that really seem plausible, or to the point? Isn't it more likely that they were doing the best they can to hold an event with a bunch of readers for an audience probably not used to listening to poetry, and making the judgment (to which Noah is of course, since we still live in a democracy, entitled to disagree) that his poem wasn't going to work in this particular situation?

"Policing the aesthetics of dissent?" Holy unnecessary jargon, Batman! It seems that the organizers were pretty clear, not to mention polite, in expressing that they just thought that Noah's poem wasn't going to work in that context, because of its "density" (i.e. the more elusive relationship it has than your usual anti-war poem to protesting the war). Agree or disagree, but they are the ones who are responsible for throwing the event, and making it work, and they honestly seemed to think the poem wasn't appropriate for the venue or situation, which seems like a very reasonable thing to think about given the fact that this is not a poetry reading for Noah, but a WAR PROTEST. If I wanted to get up and read a ten page poem about a wilting flower as an allegory for this war's effect on democracy, I think the organizers would be pretty well within their rights to tell me to go find something a little less brilliant to read.

And holy naked act of self promotion, Batman! Call my a cynic, but I don't think that the fact that at least one of these parties (the other being dragged in clearly against his will) is willing, if not eager, to share his correspondence (not to mention his poem) proves anything about anyone's "best possible intentions." For, lo and behold, in the guise of a discussion on the "aesthetics of dissent," we end up discussing ... Noah's poem! I also love the repeated reference to Sean Bishop as a "student" organizing a reading against the war. Whose student? Noah's? Noah Gordon also happens to be a student, of the MFA Writing Program at UMass, which is a very fine thing to be, and certainly doesn't stop anyone from being a good poet and publishing worthy poems long before getting a degree. Yet I have the inescapable feeling that what really pisses Noah off (in a polite and patronizing way) is that a student had the gall to judge his work, or at least its potential effect on an audience. Frankly, the politics of that situation seem a lot more hierarchical and problematic than worrying about anyone "policing the aesthetics of dissent."

This is particularly evident in the part of Noah's letter which discusses the abstraction of the war. This just seems like a clever point to make, with at best tenuous relevance. Is the fact that people in the U.S. tend to apprehend the war as an "abstraction" (i.e. something that's not "real," but just an idea, which in a way seems the exact opposite of the problem -- people aren't thinking ENOUGH about the ideas and rationales for this war, and just accepting the given terms) somehow a justification for Noah reading an "abstract" poem, whatever that means? What a weird kind of mimeticism.

And does Noah really accept the definition of his poem as "abstract" (which it isn't, as you correctly point out)? Those of us who teach know that when a student says a poem is "abstract," what they really mean is, "I don't know what you're talking about, and/or why you've bothered to say it." It's mainly a word to hide the word "bad" behind. In this case, to give the organizers credit, what I think they meant was that they felt the relationship between the anti-war sentiment and the imagery and general mechanisms of the poem wasn't clear enough for the situation of this particular reading.

They may be right or wrong in their judgment (I personally think there's some good stuff in the poem, but it's kind of histrionic and self-righteous ... it seems to treat the whole war as a personal problem for the poet, which is the thing that makes writing political poetry really really hard). But here's the real point: if the motivation to read at a war protest is, in fact, to protest the war -- and not to read our latest poems to a lucky, albeit captive, audience -- then I would think that even if the organizers were so horribly misguided as to incorrectly judge the possible effect one of our brilliant poems would have on said audience (which by the way, they have taken the time, responsibility, and trouble to assemble), then perhaps we could put up with their lamentable short-sightedness and stupidity and figure out another way to put our queer or otherwise shoulders to the wheel.

The fact that Noah decided not only not to read another poem, but not even to attend, makes his whole motivation more than a little suspect. I don't want to sound crude, but what's more important to Noah: Noah's poem, or protesting the war?

Well, I can think of other reasons why a war protest in Northampton might be a waste of time ... talk about preaching to the converted. If there is a poor sucker living in that town who actually is in favor of the war, I almost feel sorry for him, if he hasn't already been garroted by a hemp friendship necklace. So one may ask, if one is still reading, why am I wasting my time with this?

Because first of all, as should be obvious, I disagree with everything that Noah has said, and just find the hypocrisy and self-righteousness really annoying. Also, when I see a poet self-righteously complain in a public forum about whether his poem was suppressed or not, under the guise of defending the right of poetry to be able to do whatever it is that he thinks his poem is doing, while bombs are about to fall on Iraq, as a poet I feel embarrassed. And third, because poets ought not sit with our arms folded pretending that all poetry is equally apprehendable (regardless or difficulty of syntax, or unfamiliarity of imagery, etc.), and that anyone who can't see that is a cretin. On the contrary, it's our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing. The way we do that is by making an implicit contract with them: if you promise to listen carefully, I will promise to make something that hangs together in some way, and (here's what's important here) exists for a reason other than to promote myself.

To turn this situation into a discussion on aesthetics, or the nature of dissent, seems disingenuous and self-absorbed, which is particularly upsetting given the stakes. For whatever reason, the organizers didn't want Noah to read his poem. I don't think they're suppressing dissent in the least: Noah could have read a different poem, or (god forbid) a poem by another poet, one that would have been more easily apprehendable to the audience at this reading. Or he could have just gone to the reading and clapped when other poets read their poems. And if he thinks that this particular poem is such a great way to protest the war, why doesn't he get up and read it in the middle of Main Street?

It seems evident that there is a time and a place to fight this battle, and a war protest is neither. I realize that with this last sentence I am going to open myself up to all kinds of attacks ("when IS the right time to defend poetry?" "what's the real battle we're fighting here?" "isn't the struggle for clarity of language, versus easy propaganda?"). In fact, I've listened to "My Back Pages" probably too many times, as have we all ... here's to hoping we can all be a little bit older, if not wiser, than that now.

Matthew Zapruder

Zapruder appears not to agree with my presumption that Noah Eli Gordon is “motivated here by the best possible intentions” – as in fact I think both sides in that exchange are. What I found troubling – and the reason I thought to include the correspondence, poem & all, in the blog – was precisely the point that Zapruder blithely accepts with regards to the poem:

they just thought that Noah's poem wasn't going to work in that context, because of its "density" (i.e. the more elusive relationship it has than your usual anti-war poem to protesting the war).

The problem – and this is why it was important to include Gordon’s text – is that the claim of density or elusiveness patently isn’t true. And, if it isn’t, then the rest of Zapruder’s argument more or less dissolves into smoke. For the claim to be true, the Northampton audience would have to be not merely focused more on the war than on aesthetics, but functionally illiterate.

I agree completely with Zapruder – & I think Gordon agrees also – that stopping the war is far more important than any poetry reading. But I’m concerned about a practice that would edit out a poem that would not have been either dense or particularly elusive at a protest for World War I. What bothers me about it is how neatly this dumbing down of density fits into a broader pattern of behavior that dates back decades now, of treating progressive writing, from the modernists to the current post-avant community, as though it were difficult – & thereby excludable – when, in fact, that is not the case.

Such behavior is part & parcel of the (not very) benign neglect that underlies not merely the sort of editorial malfeasance one associates with the likes of a Helen Vendler, but even, alas, with the Poets Against the War project. If one sees the broader spectrum of poets who have contributed to its website, the poetry that is part of its official “chapbook” is notably skewed toward the school of quietude – the principle exceptions are Robert Creeley, Phil Whalen* & a pair of Beat generation chestnuts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Diane Di Prima. Even the project’s Poem of the Day selection, intended to bring out a broader representation than the chapbook’s ”selection of especially powerful poems and statements by prominent poets,” to date has managed only one poet generally associated with the post-avant world, Kent Johnson. We wonder if the Poets Against the War editors recognize that Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, which Johnson’s poem gently parodies, saw herself as an active follower of Gertrude Stein & was writing within a framework of progressive educational theory.

This sort of intellectual bad faith has become so widely & deeply associated with the broader school of quietude that it, in fact, always needs to be publicly pointed out whenever & wherever it shows up. Not only is such erasure profoundly anti-democratic & inherently dishonest in & of itself, the process reinforces – just as the establishmentarian poetics of the school of quietude do – the larger social forces that argue always against social change & for a traditionalism whose sole justification is inertia.** From the perspective of the poets who commit such misdemeanors of editing, this dumbing down is merely self-contradictory and self-defeating behavior. For the poets who are consistently disappeared by this process, it’s invariably a painful reminder of the structural inequalities at the heart of the “American way.”

* Whalen deserves extra credit for submitting his work while dead.

** It’s no accident that the great antiwar poet of the Vietnam era was Allen Ginsberg & not, say, James Dickey or Robert Bly or Donald Justice, all of whom also wrote antiwar poetry.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Dear Ron,

Since it seems like yr blog has become somewhat of a forum as of late, I figured I forward you this email exchange and ask your opinion on the aesthetics of dissent...

I sent four poems, including the following, the most straight-forward of the bunch, to a student organizing a Poets Against the War reading in MA:

a black mirror for the capital


Decision can still the clock’s hands,
wrap the moment in a voluminous straightjacket.

In the room, six flights underground,
two men wear identical keys around their necks, waiting,

as though the gears of the earth could be silenced
by the flick of a wrist.

Rubble, a suffix for the burning city,
a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks.


It’s clear enough:
the gutted chassis of a pickup in black & white.

& you’ve seen the girl, naked & screaming,
arms splayed as though she could take flight

from the road—from this heat.
The body shackles memory beneath the skin,

raises a map of welts:
the blueprints for a massive ark.


Will a sandbag stop a bullet,
keep a hot-air balloon from melting near the sun

Will staring at a solar-eclipse burn the retinas,
is the reflection in a puddle safe

Will the rats grow too large
to squeeze out from under the floorboards

Will Sacajawea haul her child
out of the prison of our new coin

Will she still point toward the river


Someone once asked me
what forgiveness feels like,

now I’d know to take my finger
& trace the mortar

between the bricks
of an abandoned fire station.

This was the student's reply:

      I'm happy to tell you that we have sorted through the submissions for the "Poetry in Protest" event, and some of your writing has been approved for the reading. Because of the density of most of your writing, we suggest that you only read a small piece of "a black mirror for the capital." We would like you to read only the first part of the poem, ending with "a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks". We felt the rest of it, while good, was a bit too abstract for the setting.
      We are asking all participating poets to be at the West
Lecture Hall of Franklin Paterson Hall by 6:45 on the night of the reading, Thursday, March 6. We will get you seated up front at that time, and give you the details of how the reading will proceed (we haven't figured it all out yet). There will be a mic for you to use in case you're a quiet reader. You are encouraged to read slowly, and if you like you may say a few words about how you feel about the war before you begin your poem. We want this to be a relaxed and personal event, which is one of the reasons we opted for one of the smaller lecture halls. Looking forward to seeing you there. Email or call me with any questions.

Sean Bishop.

And here was my reply to Sean:

Dear Sean,

Let me say that it's great that you've been working on putting together this reading. It's an important event, important not because it gives folks a chance to read, rather in that it's able to offer poets a forum to publicly show their dissent against the atrocious policies of our current government; however, I'm a bit taken aback at your policing of the aesthetics of dissent. I'd completely understand if it were merely a question of time constraints, but to use a phrase like "too abstract for the setting," is problematic for me on two accounts.

Firstly, it seems to me to be a judgment not of the effectiveness of the poem to convey whatever it's attempting to convey, but a judgment of the notion of audience. I take it to mean that you want to make sure everyone "understands" the poems, that everyone is able to leave each poem with the sense that, yes, that poem is against the war, that yes, I get it, which is exactly the problem of war: it's not that simple.

Secondly, war is just about the most abstract thing to us Americans that there is. We won't see any of it on tv. Our lives will go on as usual, a bit foggy perhaps with the idea that people are dying somewhere. War really is the ultimate abstraction. That said, I wanted to let you know that I just wouldn't feel comfortable reading in such a setting and have decided that I won't attend the event. I hope it goes well, and again, it's great that you've been working to bring the event into existence.

Noah Eli Gordon

I'm just wondering where you stand on the issue of poetry of dissent, what is poetry of dissent? It seems like the last issue of the Poetry
Project newsletter took some of your comments out of context, so perhaps you could address the issue.


I asked Sean Bishop for permission to run his letter here, which he immediately gave with a couple of tiny edits, also suggesting that I should include his response to Noah:

    I'm sorry our decision upsets you, but I rather resent your remark about "policing the aesthetics of dissent." We had to make editorial decisions. These decisions were not always based entirely on the quality of the work (whatever that word means.) We weren't judging your capabilities as a poet, but yes, we were making some aesthetic decisions. The length of your poem was the largest factor in this. A short abstract poem can be appropriate for a reading setting, but yours is quite long, and we suspected the audience would be entirely lost by the beginning of the third page/section. Paul and I both felt that the piece began to lose its grounding after the first part, which is entirely capable of standing alone as a poem, and which is really quite striking all by itself.

     You wrote that you thought this was less a judgment of the effectiveness of the poem to convey its message, and more a judgment of the audience. In truth, both are true. We don't want everyone to "get" what every poem means, or to know with certainty that a poem is "against the war." We do want them to understand the bare bones of the poem: what is it talking about? where is it? how does one image lead to another or engage in dialogue with another? the messages insinuated from the imagery and language of a poem do not need to be comprehended immediately, but for the purposes of a verbal reading, we felt a certain sense of continuity was necessary.

     Yes, war is an abstract concept for Americans. No, the war is not simple. Perhaps I should have used a better word than "abstract" to explain your poem, but the only other word I could think of was "convoluted", which sounds like an attack. I'm sorry you won't be attending the event. You seem to feel that we were searching for a particular aesthetic, and anyone who didn't fit into that aesthetic was rejected, which simply isn't true. We have formalists, slam poets, and everyone in between reading at this event.

Best wishes,
Sean Bishop

I should say at the outset that I think both Gordon & Bishop are motivated here by the best possible intentions – and their mutual willingness to share this correspondence reflects that.

Having said that, the poem & correspondence itself raises questions. While I think it is possible enough to argue that the poem loses a little focus in its third section, the second – clearly grounded in part by Nick Ut’s infamous 1972 photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc with her clothes burned off by napalm – can hardly be called either abstract or convoluted. It’s one of the most widely recognized visual images associated with the atrocities of war.

What I do hear in Bishop’s words, especially in his second letter, is a question of intelligibility & yet if I look at the text of Gordon’s poem, no such problem even remotely exists. So I go back to Bishop’s own words, noting that he argues that the event would have “formalists, slam poets and everyone in between.” That’s an interesting phrase, precisely because it describes only a narrow segment of the literary community, maybe 25 percent of the possible range. My immediate association was to the way in which television, & PBS in particular, has tended to represent the political left through people like Mark Shields, a Democrat in name only who positions himself well to the right of center. Thus PBS can have debates between the center and far right and pretend to be representing the entire spectrum of ideas.

Bishop underscores my association in his second letter when he suggests that a reader would not get “the bare bones of the poem.” To not get the bare bones suggests a reading problem as well as fairly stunning lack of historical memory. If anything, the second section’s association of Vietnam’s brutality with other instances of devastation – I think it’s possible to associate the “gutted chassis of a pickup” with both the first Gulf War & the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, an ambiguity I believe Gordon intends: the final image of the “abandoned fire station” is being set up this much in advance.

Bishop’s phrase reminds me of all the times I’ve heard language poetry – I’m not suggesting that Gordon is in any way a langpo or even post-langpo – described as difficult or unintelligible or, in the words of Robert Swards immortal review of Clark Coolidge’s Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, printed in Poetry back in March, 1967, “a psychedelic outpouring,” “verbal hop-scotch,” & the ever popular “chic, trivial piling up of images.” Bishop doesn’t go this far with Gordon, but he doesn’t need to. The problem in some ways reflects Kit Robinson’s wise observation that the only people who ever found language poetry difficult were a group of graduate students who no longer knew how to read. Having read my own work in the Maximum Security Library at Folsom, I know that Robinson’s take is generally accurate – there’s nothing difficult about such writing unless one brings preconceptions about poetry to the text that render all but a very narrow range fairly opaque. I’m going to test this again tomorrow, when I teach seven fifth-grade classes at a suburban middle school here on the Main Line.

School environments of course are notorious – with reason – for their lack of openness to the new. One can simply read the reviews of the student John Ashbery in the archives of the Harvard Crimson, an online archive that goes back to the 19th century. But at least Ashbery & Koch were noted as student writers there – Creeley appears to have been the invisible undergrad.

I have no idea what Bishop’s aesthetic commitments might be, whether he positions himself in that tiny conceptual slice between slam poetics & formalism – two genre that depend mostly on the same literary devices, contextualized differently – or in the far broader terrain where the bulk of American poetry has thrived for the past two centuries.

With regard to Gordon’s final question of the forum in the Poetry Project Newsletter, I’ve heard about the forum from several people – one contributor wrote me an apology – but I actually haven’t seen the issue, the first one I seem to have missed in several years.

On a more positive note, the poem I contributed to Poets Against the War finally has appeared on its database, missing only its title (sigh).