Tuesday, January 30, 2007


So Here Comes Everybody is finished? I thought they'd keep going till they'd done, well, everybody. There go my polished yet spontaneous word associations (Lemon**pledge) and killer quote on the relationship between text and body in my writing. (Both need to drop 10.) In just four years I'll have a 7-year-old and thought I could use that too. I was ready, Lance. It's a great archive of material and a creative use of the Internet that introduced me to a range of poets, especially of the "emerging" variety, I wouldn't have known so much about otherwise. Thanks for the **.

Good to see HCE's last interviewee, Paul Hoover, enjoying himself in the neighborhood recently. Subtext, Spare Room: What's with all the experimental collectives up here? Is there something especially 'Pacific Northwest' about that?

There's also Hoover's useful exchange (sort of interview-like, if you're jonesing) with Albert Flynn DeSilver in the "Letters to Poets" section of Jacket 31. Not much about lemons but a lot on the "near hysteria that results from repeated rejection" and how it never entirely goes away.

Monday, January 29, 2007

“Working My Way Toward the Groove"

Vincent Craig Wright and Kasey Mohammad read together at Powell’s on Hawthorne Saturday night, under a large psychedelic portrait of Phil Lesh (lysergically captioned “Searching for the Sound”) and flanked by a spinner rack of Monster Manuals, which felt weirdly right.

Craig read a new piece, “Methford,” set in the Oregon town of the same nickname and at the Sonic Drive-Thru within it, along with the remarkable title story from his new book, Redemption Center. Both take place in a sharply observed world of Camel unfiltereds, punchclock employment, “carrying” Bibles, and the painful wait for the noontime beer. “Redemption Center” especially struck me for the way it doesn’t let the particulars of the setting—or the double meaning of the title—overwhelm the characters, a boy and his estranged parents in a subtle struggle over whether or not to get a computer with their redemption coupons. The story touches on class, opportunity, religion, technology, and labor in a direct and affecting way that avoids bracketing any of these as “issues,” just treats them as normal, like born again in-laws or asthma. Craig read fast in a warm Louisiana accent that gave a conversational immediacy to his richly detailed tales.

Kasey read a sampling from A Thousand Devils, Deer Head Nation, Monsters, and his forthcoming Breathalyzer, due this spring from Edge Books. I’m always astonished at the way Kasey’s poems manage to indulge in the intricate vowel music you get with more formal, ‘crafted’ verse, but with all this absurd 21st century detritus draped around it, so that you recognize it right away as poetry but can also forget it’s a poem and enjoy it more like you would a brilliant pop song or video or stand-up routine. I get a similar feeling sometimes reading Ashbery, where the skill is in diverting your attention from the fact that the writing’s so skilled, until the ‘finish’ feels purely reflective: no poem, all world. Kasey’s world is a wildly fractured and familiar one that draws as much from Elizabethan English as it does from the culture of the RSS feed. Maybe that’s the magic: his poems make information overload feel like artful intricacy.

Kasey and Craig were asked last-minute to do intros for each other, which no host of any reading should ever do. (Hosts of future readings: don’t ever do this.) They pulled it off though to an appreciative audience that left wishing Ashland was a lot closer to Portland.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Dept. of Weekend (Three Thumbs Up)

Big poetry weekend: Kasey and Craig Wright up from Ashland on Saturday to read at the Hawthorne Powell’s; Sunday, Linda Russo on her West Coast barnstorm with Joel Bettridge at Spare Room. Joel moved to Portland a month before I did and is helping me feel less new, & curiouser about Ronald Johnson.

If I could split myself in two and had one of those pixilating Star Trek transporters, I’d also make the Neo-Benshi Night of SPT’s annual Poets Theater, curated by San Francisco cineaste Konrad Steiner. That's tonight, so I guess I just need the transporter.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Against the Day

My good friend Cecil Vortex (birth certificate available upon request) is starting an Against the Day Deathmarch on Tuesday. 50 pages a week, group discussion via the comment boxes, prizes if you finish. I've been on earlier marches for Gravity's Rainbow, At Swim-Two-Birds, and To the Lighthouse; it's a fun, low-key, 'anacademic' way to get through a book you might not finish alone. Particulars here.

John Latta's been whetting my appetite at Isola di Rifiuti for weeks.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


But it helps.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Memo to Ezra

A syllabus does not equal a world.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On First Looking Into the Blurbs for Foster's Yeats

Pre-eminence disappears into its prizes.

Friday, January 19, 2007


The BBC quotes Jerry Yang as saying he was inspired to name Yahoo! Yahoo! by Shammi Kapoor's famously over-the-top "Chahe Mujhe Koi Junglee Kahe" (with its indelible refrain, half Himalayan mountain yodel, half free love orgasm—ya-hooo!) from Junglee (1961).

Technically I guess the credit should go to the songwriting team of Shankar-Jaikishen, the Leiber & Stoller of Bollywood.

I used to dream about being a Beatle. These days I wish I'd been the Stoller of Bollywood. Or Leiber. Which one did the lyrics?

Anyway, that cornpone high lonesome banjo wail Yahoo! uses in their TV spots? Don't buy it. It's all Shammi.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Monologue of Truth (3)

Another biographical circumstance that deepens Aag’s power is Raj Kapoor’s situation as a Hindu from the Punjab, which in 1947 saw perhaps the worst incidence of ethnic cleansing following the Holocaust as Pakistan and India tried to relocate over 15 million persons who had lived in the same region for centuries in order to accommodate a newly drawn border. Aag represents the Partition—and, by extension, the modern post-imperial Indian state created that same year—in the person of Nargis. In the process of auditioning leading actresses for his debut play (woman after woman turned down in a surreal montage of screen test-like close-ups), Kewal storms out of the theater in frustration after delivering a poetic rant about the qualities he needs to realize his vision for a new Indian theater. Hunched on a bench in dramatic chiaroscuro backlight is a mysterious woman looking for a job.

Kewal: “What’s your name?”
(Nargis): “I have no name.”
Kewal: “Where do you come from?”
(Nargis): “Hell. What is Punjab but a hell? Hellfires everywhere. It took my parents, my three brothers, two innocent sisters. To the fires I lost my home, my name. You got anything else to ask?”
Kewal: “Come in.”

Nameless and homeless, Nargis becomes Kewal’s leading lady, a blank slate for his own artistic (and political) imaginings. He begins to call her Nimmi, the name of his lost childhood love. Meanwhile, his sexually ambiguous benefactor finds in ‘Nimmi’ the embodiment of the ideal woman he’s been struggling to capture in his paintings. As Nimmi falls for Kewal—and begins to morph into the missing person Kewal wishes her to be—his jealousy grows, culminating in a fit on opening night in which he slashes his pictures in a rage. Kewal, realizing too late that Nimmi is in love with him instead of his dashing patron, resolves to burn his own face in order to divert her affections. The torch falls, the theater catches fire, and Kewal stumbles out of the inferno with his face ‘partitioned’ by scars.

“Aag” is Hindi for “fire”, and by the end of the film Kapoor has managed to wring every ounce out of its symbolic potential. Pointing as it does to Kewal’s passion for the theater, his desire for his lost love Nimmi, the burning that marked the ethnic fighting between Muslims and Hindus in the Punjab, and the damage to Kewal’s eponymous theater and his person, Aag welds a highly personal manifesto on cinema’s social purpose to a political allegory of India’s baptism by fire as a modern state.

The film is structured as a flashback on Kewal’s wedding night. The final scene takes us back to the opening, where Kewal is lifting his new bride’s veil, letting her see for the first time his half-scarred face. The woman, horrified at first, hears Kewal’s history in the narration that is also the film, and begins to smile. “Don’t you recognize me?” she says. It’s Nimmi, not Nargis but the ‘primal’ Nimmi, his childhood love: the dream come true, art made life, the circle closed.

aaand ... scene.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Monologue of Truth (2)

Just as Kewal finishes his MONOLOGUE OF TRUTH, a handsome figure steps out from the shadows. Like us, he’s been eavesdropping on Kewal’s intimate ‘inner script’. Suddenly the moment of TRUTH, of authentic subjectivity, stands revealed as a performance: an audience has been there all along, listening in that no-place from which every movie audience surveils a film. Paradoxically, the stranger praises Kewal for his acting rather than his honesty; it’s not the “truth” of the monologue but the art he displays in delivering it that impresses Kewal’s fateful benefactor.

The stranger turns out to be a painter, which stretches the tension already implicit in the scene—theater vs. film—into a triangular struggle between three different visual media. (Later on in the movie, this gets mapped onto a psychosexual ménage). Impressed with the performance (the scene is one of Raj Kapoor’s stagiest), he declares his intention to help Kewal’s theatrical ambitions. Turns out he’s not only rich, he owns the abandoned theater and was waiting for a good reason to reopen it. Eventually it will be renamed the Kewal Theater for Kewal’s directorial debut, staffed by a ragtag group of down-on-their-luck college grads, unemployed theater folk, and refugees from the recent violence of The Partition: a miniature version of the nation Kapoor hopes the new India will become.

The real-life circumstances around the film add to the depth of the scene. A scion of sorts himself—the Kapoors are one of the most distinguished acting families in India, his father Prithviraj being the founder of the famed Prithvi Theater—the 24-year-old Raj casts the passing of the baton from theater to film as a father-son struggle that moves in a number of metaphoric directions. Aag is Raj Kapoor’s debut as a director, in a film about a wayward son struggling to ... make his debut as a director. The story also borrows heavily from Prithviraj’s bio. The son of a Punjabi police inspector who struck out for Bombay to make movies in his early ‘20s, Prithviraj would seem to be the prototype for his son’s portrait of Kewal. The parallel deepens when we see that the play Kewal has written to stage in his eponymous theater is a conventional village drama of the sort his father’s traveling Prithvi Theater performed around India from its inception in 1944. This apparently exemplary act of filial piety—Raj Kapoor assuming the role of his father in the character of Kewal—takes a darker turn though when, by the end of the film, as the result of a poisonous love triangle, the painter destroys all of his canvases and the thespian burns down his theater in the process of scorching his own face.

The last man standing turns out to be the one behind the camera; celluloid is the only medium in Aag that doesn’t burn.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Monologue of Truth"

AAG (1948)
Raj Kapoor plays Kewal, pampered scion of a Hindi legal family whose members have served the British since the first proconsul debarked. Determined to buck tradition and be an artist, Kewal flunks out of college, splits with his imperious father, and wanders the streets of Bombay without a rupee in his pocket, preferring to “create his own fate” rather than repeat history’s.

Taking shelter in an abandoned theater, Kewal finds himself alone on a stage cluttered with dusty props, disused stage lights, fallen arrases, and other paraphernalia of the actor’s craft. What follows is among the greatest six minutes Raj Kapoor ever committed to film. The DVD menu identifies the scene as “Monologue of Truth,” so you don’t have to take my word for it that it’s MUY IMPORTANTE.

Kewal picks up a flute from a tangle of dancer’s anklets—we hear a traditional skirl as he lifts it, a heavy shake of bells—and begins to replay in his head the argument with his parents on his last night at home. First the claims of the father (respectability, security, family honor), then the mother (love, devotion, incomprehension). The dialogue comes verbatim from an earlier scene, which creates a curious meta-moment where the re-presentation of a prior event, filmed this time on a theater stage, relies on purely ‘a-theatrical’ cinematic techniques like voiceovers and multiple cuts to depict Kewal’s interior thoughts and memories. The viewer is placed in the bizarre position of being inside and outside the scene at once. Having seen the earlier argument and being privy to the voiceover, you’re right there inside Kewal’s head, hearing what he hears; this being a monologue (a MONOLOGUE OF TRUTH, no less) on a theater stage, you’re also positioned visually as if you were in the audience, filling the empty seats which the camera creepily rakes at least three or four times during the speech.

Monologue is already one of the more bizarre theatrical conventions—a presumably authentic (because private) expression of subjectivity premised on the fiction that the audience for whom it exists ISN’T REALLY THERE. Kapoor amplifies the artifice by having Kewal answer the voices in his head out loud. So there are some parts of the monologue we catch only in our capacity as filmgoers, enjoying the intimacy of the voiceover, and others we’re hearing as invisible eavesdroppers in the theater audience. The line between the two starts to blur as Kapoor introduces the sound of applause while the camera pans the empty seats, and turns up the theater lights. Is this happening in Kewal’s head, in the theater itself, or is it for our benefit, a symbolic anticipation of his future success as a dramatist?

The substance of Kewal’s MONOLOGUE OF TRUTH is that despite the pain he’s causing his parents, he needs to follow his own vision of the future, which is also by implication a vision for cinema and its role in a post-imperial India. He insists this isn’t just his story, but that of “youth in every home.” “Why don’t we make a life for ourselves,” he asks, instead of being clay for our parents’ hands to mold? The flute and anklets at the beginning of the scene help to clue us in to the evolutionary cycle Kapoor wants to close: traditional dance to modern theater to film, offered here as the new popular art form for the new Indian nation.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Yesterday was a 'soft' first birthday for this blog. It started as a group blog for a Modern American Poetry class at Mills College, took a long hiatus while we waited to see if it could survive as a collective endeavor, then at last overcame my handwringing about blogging to rise back up into the blogosphere, the move to Portland being the necessary kick in the pants. That's at least three metaphors mixed in one inelegant sentence, folks.

Are any of the original 'Modern Americans' still out there? Hope you're all thriving.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ride the Meme

I asked Lesley what, if she had a blog and were tagged, would be the Five Little-Known Things about her. Hers are much better than mine, plus it's her birthday, so today Modern Americans is hers and she's borrowing one of Nada's open tags.

Most people who know Lesley already know she auditioned for the (never-to-be-filled) bass part in Hole and fronted the (IMHO) much better band, Glitter Mini 9. Five lesser-known things are:
1) Won Carrier of the Month for the Davis Daily Democrat in her first month on the job. We still have the trophy.

2) Went on a date with the guy who played the bodyguard in "My Bodyguard" while he was filming "Full Metal Jacket" in London. (Bonus Little-Known Thing: the guy from My Bodyguard was in Full Metal Jacket??)

3) Was scared into being a born-again Christian from ages 12 to 15.

4) Let Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre join her band for several months in the mid-Nineties, then kicked him out. (See DiG! & you'll probably guess why.)

5) Her father once owned the five-and-dime in downtown Lyndon, KS; her grandmother danced for John Philip Sousa at a school assembly in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LESLEY! And Nada, and all the magnificent Capricorns who surround me.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Indie Anger

There was a time I would would have given my left arm to the elbow to be in an indie rock band; now I can hardly listen to the stuff. Everything sounds like a mashup to me: Joy Division crossed with Brian Wilson, late Pavement meets Nick Drake. The inner rock critic refuses to shut up. I thought maybe I could dig Devendra until I got the first three Tyrannosaurus Rex CDs.

The problem is broader than the bands; I’m feeling betrayed by the genre, which stranded me at 35 with no other means of musical support. If I’d put the same amount of time into, say, swing bands, there’d probably be weird conventions I could still go to. Experimental jazz? A long happy life of online discussion groups and eldritch discographies. But with indie, as I nosed into my thirties the context that once made the music so important to me just sort of receded. My love for it grew in the petri dish of suburban ennui, regret for missing the ‘60s, and a postgraduate identity crisis that delivered me to the outskirts of middle age with no meaningful career pattern in sight. That’s alright, I was staying true to the music, or anyway the life the music seemed to promise, faithfully waiting for the NEXT BIG THING. Then, almost imperceptibly, old radio formats created in Nirvana’s wake disappeared (somehow I didn’t bother to find new ones); band names in the weekly listings started to blur together, even the starred ones; the prospect of staying up till 1 a.m. on a weeknight to see almost anyone in a room where conversation’s impossible and the liquor comes in plastic cups came to feel like an archaic form of torture.

I tried to stay excited via Pitchfork, took a couple of magazines, but no use: the core of the thing had died. The music had resolved for me into a way of talking about the music; I didn’t see bands anymore, but the field they occurred in—the network of labels, review outlets, and rhetorical gestures that seemed to conspire to make every next big thing sound interchangeable with the last big thing. I came to feel like Ulrich does in The Man Without Qualities, when he sees the term “genius” applied in a newspaper to a racehorse. In a world where a racehorse of genius is possible, what’s the point of the concept anymore?

This makes it sound like the bands somehow betrayed me (less original), or the business conspired to kill off the magic (too greedy), and while I thought that for a long time, I realize now the change was essentially in me, in the shifting role you ask art to play in your life as you move through it. It’s hard to deny the intensity of the feelings I once had for my favorite bands, but I see now too how much of my passion was really for the context in which their music occurred. I liked the Rocky Horror feeling of being in a small room late at night with a select group of devotees. I liked being able to listen alone, without the hassles of a community or formal academic program. I liked to drink, and I liked the ever-present possibility of an indie savior appearing—because it is a kind of savior industry—that would gather all my reasons for drinking into a form of devotion. I hadn’t sold out; I was witness to this; I was saved.

My dad likes country music. He’s liked it all his life. There’s a way it fits into his particular version of late-middle age that I envy. I don’t think he was ever “into” music the way I was, but he’s left with sounds he can use—BBQs, wedding receptions, sonic wallpaper for any occasion. It makes him feel good, it makes him feel Kansas, in some inchoate way I imagine it validates his view of the world as it was and still ought to be. “My” music hasn’t weathered so well outside the milieu of overinky hand stamps and Talmudic readings of where Stephen Malkmus’s career is headed that I no longer have the time or focus for. It’s not that I’m looking for new sounds so much as a new platform for delivering sound into a life that no longer needs to be so tightly wound around music. Without really noticing, I've slipped out of that key “18 to 35” demographic, don’t care so much anymore if what I’m listening to is new or cool. What I’m after now I guess is a music that will last me to senescence.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hindi Conversation

I begin my Hindi Conversation class tonight at Portland Community College. I'm taking it because I'm mad at myself for understanding so little of the dialogue in Bollywood movies, even when the subtitles give you a proper name or place name to listen for, and because the course description was so succinct and disarming:
"Most popular language of the Indic Family. Has over 350 million native speakers. Learn to converse and enjoy colorful Bollywood movies and music."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

California Dreamin'

Big '07 thanks to John Sakkis for sending me three stunning CDs: one of rembetika, two by the Bay Area's own Ziyia. John, the laser's going to burn a hole through these by August.

And how great to see Suzanne Stein—and to read her and read what friends have to say about her work—every time I stop by PhillySound.

Today I'm officially homesick.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Pamuk's Acceptance

It must be because I like so much being a father that Orhan Pamuk's Nobel acceptance speech left me a little damp in the ocular regions.

Friday, January 05, 2007


Weird set-piece battle over at Poetry on the Grand Question: “Does Poetry Have A Social Function?” The four participants are all sharp & sling words good enough, but the forum itself, like so much Poetry touches, seems vague in purpose and ill-conceived to me. The positions staked out are all ones you’ve heard before: it’s basically “School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant” 101, with the more independent-minded moderates representing each wing. (Ron’s distinction is so annoying because so often it works.)

It’s hard to see what Poetry wants to accomplish with a feature like this. Either they’re trying to look ecumenical (& grooming the ‘Lilly millions’ voices who’ll get to speak for each side) or they’re hoping to make poetry look relevant by giving it a little Bill O’Reilly-style sizzle. Either way, the exercise feels artificial and teacherly to me. No diss meant to the participants, whose positions are considered and deeply felt; it’s just that in watching the discourse of contemporary US poetry move through the quartet with greater or lesser intensity, it struck me how little reason these poets have to talk to one another at all. Nothing personal, it’s structural: the interlocking networks of publishing houses, grants, teaching opportunities, awards, websites, blogs, and review outlets a poet needs to get work out into the world in 2006 (oops, 2007) are so thick & multifarious now that poets at its extremes never need to meet.

Sure, there’s a lot of voluntary interchange, even poaching, in the warm middle, and you could argue that as interest in poetry—& reading in general—shrinks, the field is making like the mainline Protestant denominations and going ecumenical: the Academy of American Poets recruits from the Grand Piano. But I think the more striking development in recent years is how little reason poets of different stripes have to confront or even acknowledge one another to have a fulfilling life (career?) in the art. Being a Yale Younger Poet doesn’t automatically cut any more ice in some not insignificant circles—in fact, considerably less—than having a first collection from Edge or O Books. What the Language poets helped to do, with all the obduracy and rancor they’re sometimes remembered for, is create an alternate poetry world that’s been grafted onto the ‘real’ one. (Parallel examples could be drawn from a lot of other poetries and scenes.) ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’, as more and more poets seem to realize, are two dense, self-sufficient neighborhoods on the same shrinking island, where the commuting’s become purely voluntary.

I’ve been reading Yeats’s The Trembling of the Veil, where he remembers the effort it took to weld the young pre-Raphaelite Turks like himself to the Fenian greybeards of the 1840s generation in order to create The Irish Literary Society. It was rough work, of the ugly committee-and-minutes kind, but tied as it was to the larger cause of Irish independence, Yeats & his colleagues felt it was worth the fight. I can’t see the larger political (let alone poetic) reason that would require the ‘School of Quietude’ and the ‘post-avant’ to come together like that right now, in any of their permutations. The Irish needed to show they had a world-class literature to strengthen the case for self-rule: how’s that for Social Function? On what pressing political grounds today, in the US, do we need poets from across the spectrum to work together—or even convene on a website—at all?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Local Yokel

I'm amazed at the amount of coverage local bands get in the weeklies here. The last Willamette Week gave out Best of 2006 prizes for Best Local Albums, Songs, Shows, Venues, ‘Surprises,’ even Labels. That's on top of their 5-to-6 weekly sidebars on local musicians, along with detailed mini-reviews in the Listings section. (The Portland Mercury follows suit.) If homegrown music was getting this level of attention in San Francisco, I missed it. Playing in Fog, valiant as it is, just doesn’t hold a candle to WW’s Local Cut.

Granted, once BAM magazine disappeared (remember the Bammies?), Downtown Studios closed, and key ‘mid-band’ venues like the Paradise Lounge, the Tip-Top, the Boomerang, and the Covered Wagon either shut the doors or switched formats, I pretty much checked out. It's not just a matter of spaces to play and ears to hear—what was missing was any effective way to make a scene of any real size visible to itself. It’s the kind of function I think Stephanie Young (among others) performs so well for poetry on her blog, & pursued with special intensity during what I’m starting to think of without too much embarrassment as the ‘early aughts’. Of course there’s MySpace, a giant boon for bands. But are FriendSpace links a substitute for the mysterious ecology of a scene?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Meme a Little Meme


1) Names of my parents and siblings all start with the letter 'R'.
2) Was a teenage DEVO fanatic.
3) For a short time in 2001 could understand Romanian if spoken slowly.
4) Was an altar boy and page turner for the organist in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.
5) Once played water polo against USC's 'B-team'.

On to: Alli Warren, Jack Kimball, Mel Nichols, Maria Damon, David Harrison Horton.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Dept. of Morpheus

First dream of 2007: Gary Sullivan telling me he'd finished drawing all of Elsewhere #3 on Christmas Day.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Top Ten in '06

1) Lesley
2) Auden
3) Flarf Fest
4) Portland
5) Poetry Project
6) Movie Kiss
7) Fred Rodgers
8) Bay Poetics
9) Mills College
10)Tommy Saxondale

Peace and every happiness in 2007. This will be our year.