Friday, May 25, 2007

Go East

Off the grid for a while, finishing up my neo-benshi piece for the event below. If you’re in or around NYC on May 30, I hope you’ll come.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 30 @ 8:00 pm
Poetry Project, St. Mark's Church (corner of 7th Ave. & 10th St.), New York

The Japanese term benshi means “film-teller,” and benshi narrators thrived in Japan and Korea in the silent era, describing, voicing, and even expanding the films for audiences. “Neo-Benshi” originated in the Bay Area poets avant-garde, and has become something of a sensation. This 2-hour program of ‘hit’ Neo-Benshi performances includes West Coast masters Roxanne Hamilton, Stephanie Young, Rodney Koeneke, and Mac MacGinnes, along with NYC's own Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Elaine Equi, and Vincent Katz followed by a program of short films by Abigail Child, Brian Kim Stefans, Neo-Benshi co-creator Konrad Steiner, and Brandon Downing.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Secretly Canadian

Rachel Zolf came through Portland to read with Natalie Simpson last Sunday. Simpson's new book, accrete or crumble, features a series of “mostly prose poems” that revel in a kind of Shakespearian sonnet-y density around which meaning accretes in “a fragile balance of tenuous.” I was drawn especially to those moments where the poems seemed to reflect the conditions of their own making, teaching us how to read what they’re doing as they do it: “particulars fall as leaves fall;” “these occur often in sentence structure playing field;” “what bales words out of rhythm;” “her speak expands to boom.” I also learned that Alberta is sort of the Texas of Canada.

Rachel Zolf read from Human Resources, written during (and against) her time as an HR copywriter. Where I expected an ironic use of cube-speak to critique the whole corporate thing, Zolf instead delivered a profound exploration of how euphemism, bureaucratic codes, and numbers in certain combinations enabled the twentieth century. Socrates, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, and the Harvard Business Review joined a chorus of anonymous voices (“I didn’t write that. A machine wrote that”) that comment, Greek tragic-like, on the violence that hides beneath the codes we use to keep modernity moving: “Just shoot me now my inbox is a little crammed;” “Forget the self. Without your pain you’re nothing;” “my head is going to pop off one of the iterations of the new.” Business clichés like “take it offline,” “snappy business attire,” “move the goalposts,” and “on the same page” bump against phrases like “Arbeit mach frei” or “a chew is a chew” (Cantos) in a way that calls out sloganeering, stereotype, and the stock phrase—the white noise of corporate communication—for their complicity in imposing dehumanizing identities. One of the most powerful poems she read was a series of numbers, clumped in groups, that evoked everything from tax forms to penal codes to the system of identifying prisoners at Auschwitz. At the same time, her work conveys a kind of hope via encryption, the possibility of being, through poetry, the thing the machines can't read: “poery machine over money;” “If all poets are Jews veiled in Cyrillic letters ....”

Zolf read at a lighting pace that tended to blur individual words and poems into a single unrelenting rhythm. It conveyed the anonymity and machine-like impersonality of the language her work was critiquing, and helped to foreground what may be its characteristic semantic mode—speed over meaning, more beat than ‘message’ (or is it that the beat is the message?). Over time the effect was exhausting, and diverted attention (mine anyway) from the density of reference and the richness of the individual lines. That may have been the intention, and it certainly helped me see the work in a different way than I would have from the book alone, where the poems get more space on the page than I would have expected from the delivery. It was a bold move for a bold book, and showed Zolf's commitment to the intricate poetic she's pursuing. I wouldn't miss her work however it finds you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

La Perruque, Fin

Quick rundown of the Wig launch reading in Portland last week:

Kristen Gallagher opened with a project she started when she first moved to NYC: asking people for directions and making poems from their responses. The pieces evoke the transient but touching social relationships between the person who’s lost and the someone who helps you find your way. Simple declarative sentences take on surprising philosophic and ethical shadings—“I think I was wrong about where we are;” “So this is that … what is that?”—detached from their original contexts; Gallagher heightened the effect by blending her source material with quotes about geographical questions regarding Iraq.

“Our Family Activities” culled phrases from cable news shows that sounded like TV critiquing itself, confronting the pundits with their own grammatically slipshod pomposity. Some of the lines reminded me of Rob Fitterman’s work, where the language of advertising and the CNN ticker radiates a weird vernacular American energy: “When Ginny and I retire, we’re going to take a lot of trips like this.”

Chris Alexander
, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a crossed hammer and wrench above the slogan FIX SHIT UP, read a hilarious set that blended zombies, Jesus talk, heavy metal fan chat, pop-up ads and Skeletor into a ramped-up adolescent boyspeak that implied a connection between the interests which turn this particular demographic on and the state of the nation we’re currently stuck in. Huge points to Chris too for a poem that referenced Voltron.

Kit Robinson read from The Crave and from a new manuscript called “Omegaville.” I’ve had the chance to see Kit read a few times and I’ve never heard him deliver a boring poem. It’s hard to account for the particular magic of his work, which is understated to the point of being laconic, never seems to worry much about presenting itself as “poetic,” and slips without any apparent effort from puns to joky asides to densely rhymed wordplay to philosophical quiddities to emotionally open “truth statements” in a way that doesn’t privilege any one tone over another: they’re all treated as natural parts of the poem, which in turn gets treated less like a precious verbal object than as a heightened perception of the everyday, as easy (and inevitable) as talking or breathing. Some lines that stood out:

“Light is coming from the sky./Flip burgers.”
“As soon as there are things/they are in relation.”
“I think maybe we have Bill S. speaking at your show in England or something like that”
“trying to say it all in one compressed blurtation.”
“writing as running,/an exercise for the breath.”
“we are made of water/the tongue is a boat in our head.”

Tim Shaner read from a series of poems he told us were written while walking with his daughter on Spencer’s Butte in Eugene, and a few chapters from I Hate Fiction, the metafictional account of a grad student sloughing off his dissertation written while he was a grad student sloughing off his dissertation. I remember laughing a lot during “I Hate Fiction,” then laughing a lot less when Lesley came in to pick me up and we found out our car had been towed, which led to a sprint over the Burnside Bridge in Maryrose Larkin and Eric Matchett’s car, who got us to the yard just as our car was pulling into the gates and had us home in time to relieve the babysitter, laughing a little more, before midnight. Thank you, Eric!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

La Perruque, Part Deux

The first issue of WIG features work by Chris Alexander, Marcus Bales, Anselm Berrigan, CA Conrad, Laura Elrick, Kristen Gallagher, William R. Howe, Michael Kelleher, and Chris Stroffolino, among others. The centerpiece is Tim Shaner’s informative email exchange with Kit Robinson about how Kit’s various jobs in the tech industry punctuate his books: Where he was working when a particular poem was published, where the writing happened (parking lots, airplanes, Marriotts), how the job shaped the poems’ form. I wonder if there’s something inherently documentary about work talk, if the subject lends itself best to more or less straight-ahead, “I do this, I do that” narrative accounts. Kristen Gallagher describes an assignment she set for her community college students to write about their work lives; she was surprised to see their descriptions coming back “in a plain, straightforward prose” after a semester of mostly poetry, as if “the experiences they record fit best in the mode of storytelling.”

That documentary drift may also reflect the fact that it’s difficult to tell, without a little backstory, how (or even if) a day job bears on particular poem at the level of form. How do you know, unless the content stands up and slaps you in the face with it, that the poem you’re reading’s the fruit of la perruque? Robinson’s short, ‘real-time’ observations in pieces with titles like “Marriott Renaissance” and “Sheraton Palace” sound molded to fit the interstices of the workday, and the content (“a trading community/full of life/coming back into the city”) often points to the habitat of corporate employment. (Robinson also helpfully tells Tim that “Marriott Renaissance” was written just before a press conference at GM.)

But there are lots of other formal commitments nosing the poem into that particular shape as well: a poetics of dailiness, a la O’Hara and Berrigan, one of Robinson’s early teachers; Objectivist phenomenology; Pound’s dichtung = condensare, etc. It’s interesting to know how poems get made at work, but the real promise (and challenge) of a journal like WIG is in its potential to show how it is that work makes poems.

As new issues appear, I’d be especially interested to read more about:
+ Non-office labor: childrearing, forklift driving, sick relative caregiving, etc. Some jobs are harder to perruque from than others, and I’m curious how poems come out of that (though with too loose a definition, a job could become anything you do that’s not writing poems, which is really just being in the world, and all poetry's sort of about that already).

+ Relationships between writing and working that aren’t already assumed to be inimical. Or, put another way, how big a syllabus does it take to make writing and a work life not appear as enemies?

+ Some stab at discerning the formal qualities of writing a la perruque. What would successful work writing, or ‘writing work’ look like? How does the form of the writing enact or otherwise express the experience of working?
It’s an interesting journal with a lot of promise. To subscribe or submit, you can write to:

130 E. 49th Avenue
Eugene, OR 97405

$4, checks payable to Tim Shaner

Monday, May 21, 2007

La Perruque

Kristen Gallagher and Tim Shaner just started a journal called WIG, which they launched here in Portland at a strong group reading with Chris Alexander and Kit Robinson last week. Inspired by Michel de Certaeau’s account of la perruque, the French term for doing one’s own work on the job, WIG features writing that in some way “employs labor for poetic ends that implicitly critique—through the action of poaching company time &/or materials—the productivist logic of what Hannah Arendt calls ‘the laboring society.’”

It’s a good concept for a journal, since nearly all of us work for a living, and working’s largely an impediment to writing. That may be the biggest challenge for WIG as it rolls on: if it’s work vs. writing, as it is at the bulk of the corporate-sanctioned information jobs most poets do (including teaching), there are only so many moves on the chessboard to make. You can steal company pens, print your chapbooks in the copy room, cull spam or job argot into poems, scribble on airplanes and lunch breaks, take ‘work’ as your poetic subject (irony/threnody/stoic nobility), or ditch the effort altogether and plunge into debt via grad school.

I may have missed a few options in there. But it seems once that adversarial relation’s in place—the job vs. the writing—there’s not that much new left to say about either. Work has been theorized so heavily that it threatens to disappear under all the standard positions a creative person’s expected to hold about “work,” which can paradoxically confirm by inverse the very limits the corporate job imposes. You could even make a case for “creativity” itself—the idea of that little sparkle of trueself gasping for air in a soul-sucking job—as a product of the corporate work environment, its sexy brunette double with the cigarette holder and the mole.

Not that I’m harboring any great new truths about writing and the workplace. I’ve never had a job that sustained my writing, except in an adversarial way. I’ve never known poets to admit there’s no money in poetry, so they’re grateful for a job that brings in cash. (Dana Gioia comes close, but even he didn’t let the door hit his ass the day his Jell-O stock vested.) What’s nearest to the truth—that I’d probably walk straight into the Willamette if I didn’t have a job to buffer me from the work of facing the blank page every day—doesn’t do much to redeem the time I’ve exchanged for employment. Drinking, or reading, or maintaining a vast correspondence in the delicious manner of the 19th-century rentier, would have done the buffering just as well. Thinking about WIG forces me to confront my own inability to think about work as anything other than the sucky reality that drives thousands to expensive degree programs annually, despite all the data showing that’s silly.

Which is why I’m excited to see where WIG goes. If “writing work” works—if the workplace and writing can be put into a new relation, at the 401K-filling, morning-commute-with-a-9 a.m.-staff meeting grunt level so many of us face—it could save a whole generation from grad school.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thursday, May 17, 2007

“The World Looks Different”

Konrad Steiner responded to my last post on “The Golem” with a question about how accurate it is to attribute a “universalizing” tendency to cinema. He links to a whoppper of a talk that Peter Sellars gave on the “State of Cinema” for the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival last month. I teared up reading it. I also disagree with huge chunks of it. But Sellars has his finger on that something that's inching us forward from the parochial postmodern to a more eco-y, global-y conception of art that you feel the effects of in all kinds of cultural forms right now, from “Babel” to Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge to a long syllabus of films made outside the West that none of us see enough of.

Sellars has an especially forceful vision of what art (& not just cinema) should be doing to create a “new possibility of hope” in our 21st-century, globally-warmed, top-2-percent-owned, crowd-controlled mess of a world. (He'll also have you doubling your Netflix queue.) I'll write more about it soon, and I’d be glad for your responses.

Here’s Konrad’s original comment:
Nice analysis.

I stumbled a bit over just what this “universalizing” tendency of cinema is—i mean you see this trailer sometimes that says the Language of Cinema is universal (in umpteen languages). What's that supposed to mean?

The same way music or math is a universal language? Well i guess you pay for universality with a limitation on what you can say, or with forced ambiguity, or with assimilation.

Peter Sellars gave a good “state of cinema” address at SFIFF recently. Here's the whole thing, a great read:

In one paragraph he contrasts the cinema as a PARTICULARLIZING force, in contrast to the video and print media. It's a little overstated/utopic, but i think its ideal is the antidote to the tendency you're describing in your post here.

“One of the most maddening things about our information system is that it's the Western correspondent standing in Tiananmen Square telling you something. But you're still not a Chinese person. You're still not placed deeply and seeing the world through Chinese eyes. And the way our correspondent system works, is you're always seeing the world through Western eyes—wherever that person is standing—and so you're not actually getting a different view of the world. The power of new aboriginal cinema is that you're actually seeing the world through the eyes of a young aboriginal woman. For the first time in human history. And you know what? The world looks different.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Blame It On the Bossa Nova

"The great specter in Antonio Carlos Jobim's life, after the payment of his rent, was his fear of contracting tuberculosis. According to his family, all musicians ended up like that, especially late evening pianists. There could have been many causes for this, but the main ones must have been the continual opening and closing of nightclub doors, the starch from dress shirts in contact with one's chest, the contents of the glasses on top of the piano, the packs of cigarettes smoked while playing 'Tea for Two,' the chatter of people who frequented those places, the completely miserable pay that one received for one's work, and the fact that the schedule completely threw off one's body clock, preventing one from going to the beach and from arranging to have lunch and dinner with people who worked from nine to six."

Ruy Castro, Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World (A Capella, 2000)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dept. of Amiri

"The dance bands or society orchestras of the North replaced the plot of land, for they were the musician's only means of existence, and the solo, like the holler, was the only link with an earlier, more intense sense of the self in its most vital relationship to the world. The solo spoke singly of a collective music, and because of the emergence of the great soloists (Armstrong, Hawkins, Hines, Harrison), even forced the great bands (Henderson's, Ellington's, and later Basie's) into wonderfully extended versions of that communal expression."
—Amiri Baraka, Blues People, 1963

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Golem (3)

Is Der Golem (1920) anti-Semitic? In a way it's surprising this is even a question. An early 20th-century German director deciding to film a Jewish legend already sets warning bells ringing; that Wegener later earned an "Actor of the State" designation from the Nazis would seem to settle any doubts.

Cathy Gelbin, a film scholar at the University of Manchester, sums up the case for the complexity in Wegener's depiction of the Jewish community of Prague in the film, and especially of its protagonist, the Golem's creator, Rabbi Loew. As a master of dark powers and victim of an exotic, Orientalized wardrobe adorned with arcane symbols and inscrutible magical scrawl, Wegener's Rabbi perpepuates the hoary Christian association of Jews with sorcery. The Golem's failure to obey Loew's commands, resulting in the accidental burning of the Prague ghetto, conforms to an anti-Semitic notion of Jews as capable of creating only flawed works of art. The Rabbi's stern strictures on his daughter's sexuality, which she evades in a tryst with one of the Emperor's courtiers, can be read as a mocking evocation of the 'separatist' notion of Jewish identity common to European anti-Semitic literature. And the scenes in the Prague synagogue play up the 'otherness' of Jewish worship, replete with prostrations, rhythmic wailing, and melodramatic chest-beating.

Gelbin points out several other features of the film that defy common Jewish stereotypes of its time. She notes that tropes of greed and moneylending are attributed to the Emperor's court, not to the Prague ghetto. She cites Wegener's eschewal of "the denunciatory visual representation of Jewish difference at the time," comparing his dignified Rabbi Loew (played by the acclaimed Deutsches Theater actor, Albert Steinrück) to Murnau's more aggressively 'Jewish' Nosferatu. She sees Loew's magical appurtanances as designed to evoke a "wondrous creator" rather than a dark sorcerer, and suggests the Rabbi's ambiguous ethical role in the film is closer to that of Goethe's Faust—"a symbol of the artist and the the unstable implication of his products"—than it is to familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes. That the film's plot depends upon empathy for the Jews of Prague as they defend themselves from the Emperor's unjust demands doesn't necessarily conflict with a reading of "The Golem" as anti-Semitic, but it does complicate an easy association of Wegener's film with more straightforward denunciations of Jewish life and culture that would have been familiar to his audience.

Gelbin concludes that "despite its slippage into stereotypes," the film is finally less concerned with pronouncing on Prague's Jews than it is with detaching the Golem legend from its Jewish roots altogether and making it available to the "universalizing" conventions of film. In this reading, Wegener co-opts the story to explore themes of the doppelgänger, the Faustian creator, the renegade android, the sympathetic monster, and the legitimacy of film itself as an artistic medium that have little to do with its origins as a 16th-century Polish-Jewish folktale. In the process, the film "highlights the Jew as a problematic figure" by creating a "tension between the ethical particularities of the Jewish Golem tradition and its universalising employment" in the nascent medium of film.

In the famous final scene, where the Golem breaks the heavy medieval gates of the Prague ghetto and walks into a crowd of children, Wegener may be exploring the consequences of film as a young medium that wrenches legend from the particularities of place and 'assimilates' folktale to the international language of the movies. What's lost in translation—and the Golem's fall suggests that Wegener was alive to this—is the bond between story and the particular "folk" for which its creation and re-telling was a vital form of identity. The image of the Golem walking out of the Prague ghetto is also an image of narrative abandoning its former relationship to the group in order to enter the new medium of film, where community gets refigured as audience, the storyteller gives way to the auteur, and the people to which the story originally belonged are reduced to either local color or a narrative problem, an eth(n)ical "particularity" that resists the medium's "universalizing" tendencies.

"The Golem" is unsettling because it confronts us in an especially self-aware way with this resistance. It's a movie about the problem of art in a world where the folktale's gone global but the folk have dropped away. The problem of the Golem is the problem of the lyric: he may be you or me, but never us.

Friday, May 11, 2007

This Blurb for Hire

"Music for graduate students."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Swank Hominid

For exactly 3 minutes and 1 second in 1966, this man was the coolest hominid on the planet.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Recently Received

I like these lists on other people's blogs; they prove that books find homes. Here's mine:

Charles Alexander, Certain Slants
Stan Apps, Info Ration
Joel Bettridge, That Abrupt Here
Anne Boyer, Anne Boyer's Good Apocalpyse
Jules Boykoff, Once Upon a Neo-Liberal Rocket Badge
and Gringostroika
Kate Colby, Fruitlands
Shanna Compton, Down Spooky
Del Ray Cross, Lub Luffly
Katie Degentesh, The Anger Scale
Buck Downs/Chris Toll, Recreational Vehicle/Be Light
Gale Czerski, Invocation
Corrine Fitzpatrick, On Melody Dispatch
Nada Gordon, Folly
Kate Greenstreet, case sensitive
Rob Halpern, Disaster Suite
Susan Landers, 248 Mgs., A Panic Picnic
Maryrose Larkin, Inverse
Michael Magee, My Angie Dickinson
Sharon Mesmer, Vertigo Seeks Affinities
Daniel Nester, The History of My World Tonight
Ronald Palmer, Logicalogics
Chris Piuma, Exercises in Penmanship
Tom Raworth, Caller and Other Pieces
Jocelyn Saidenberg, Negativity
Spencer Selby, Twist of Address
Gary Sullivan, Elsewhere #2
Mark Wallace, Haze: Essays, Poems, Prose
Mike Young, That's Not the Face I Was Giving You

Columbia Poetry Review 20
Court Green 3
Poetry Project Newsletter #210
Xantippe 4/5

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


The poetry buyer at Powell's on Hawthorne puts out a small suggestion box for customers to write down new titles they'd like to see in the section. A couple days later, there's your chit on the corkboard, answered with a handwritten note:

"O.K., I'll give it a try."
"Out of print. :("
"I usually carry him. I'll check to make sure we have some on order."
"Oh yeah, I forgot about her. I love her. They may be kind of hard to get but I'll try."

Last time I was in, someone had written in heavy metal Pee Chee folder script: POETRY TOTALLY SUCKS.

There it was on the corkboard, duly answered:

"You're a poopyhead."

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Golem (2)

Paul Wegener (1874-1948) has a troubling and complex career that mirrors the tensions in the film for which he's best remembered, Der Golem: Wie Er in Der Welt Kam (1920). All but abandoned by a distant father who withdrew emotionally when his wife died near Paul's third birthday, Wegener escaped into acting, eventually tossing up law school (like all good European artists) to pursue the footlights in Berlin. In 1912, he interrupted his burgeoning stage career to direct and act in films for Germany's Bioskop Studios.

Almost immediately, Wegener started developing versions of the Golem story. The legend of a clay statue that comes to life at the touch of a magic amulet, only to crumble when it's removed, had a deep emotional meaning for Wegener, who ventriloquized his own feelings about acting—and by extension the fraught relationship of the artist to his creation—through the shambling, tragicomic figure of the Golem.

Wegener filmed three versions of the story between 1914 and 1920. The third and final film acts as a prequel to the previous two, explaining how the creature "came into the world" and developing the 'sympathetic monster' theme—the robot unwittingly endowed with human feelings, abused and ultimately rejected by its science-addled creator—that would become one of the most popular tropes of 20th-century cinema, recycled in films from "Frankenstein" (1931) to "Blade Runner" (1982). (The lost second installment of the series is also credited as the first sequel in film history.)

Wegener was more interested in the technical possibilities of film than its dramatic power. "I did not go into film as an actor," he insisted. "The problem of this new art form interested me in general. The mysterious possibilities of the camera kindled my fantasies. I conceived the fable 'Der Student von Prag' [1913, Wegener's first film] because here was the possibility of acting opposite myself."

Nevertheless, in the role of the Golem Wegener helped pioneer a subtle, 'face-driven' style of acting which the scrutiny of the modern film camera enabled. "On the screen," Wegener wrote, "the actor is under a microscope." Under heavy makeup and encased in a costume that severely hampered broad physical gestures, Wegener manages to convey the Golem's humanity through meticulous eye movements, slight facial contortions, and slow, strategic turns of the head that contrast sharply with the characters around him, particularly his frenetic creator/doppelgänger, Rabbi Loew (played by Albert Steinrück, acclaimed for his stage roles in Franz Wedekind's plays.)

The film was a huge international success. It played in New York for 10 months running in 1923; along with "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919), it helped to create and popularize the visual language of German Expressionist cinema. ("Nosferatu" followed in 1922.) Legend has it that when Wegener walked through the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam in the late 1920's, residents pointed from a distance, whispering "The Golem! The Golem!" Art paralleled life as well in Wegener's marriage to Lyda Salmonova, who played Rabbi Loew's daughter in the film (pictured above, with Wegener as the Golem.)

Wegener, a pacifist and lifelong student of Buddhism who suffered a breakdown on the Western Front in WW I, kept working through the Nazi era despite the increasing limitations on stage and screen productions. While other German filmmakers fled to Hollywood, Wegener (who was nearly 60 when Hitler came to power) accepted an appointment as "Actor of the State" in 1937 under the Nazis, ostensibly a reward for his collaboration in Nazi propaganda films, and a recognition of the prestige that Wegener's decision to continue working in Germany lent to the regime. According to the German Wikipedia page on Wegener, his relationship to the Nazis was a conflicted one. Unlike Leni Riefenstahl, he remained publicly aloof from the Party's ideology, and is said to have contributed money to resistance groups, sheltered refugees in his home, and graffitied anti-Nazi slogans by night during the war years.*

Whatever the truth of these stories, the Soviets embraced Wegener and allowed him to continue working after the fall of Berlin. (One story has the invading Red Army posting a notice outside his house that read: "This is the house of the great artist Paul Wegener, loved and honored throughout the world.") The Americans also contributed to his rehabilitation; as U.S. cultural officer Henry C. Alter reported after questioning Wegener in 1945:
"He is an uncompromising German of the kind you seldom come across. ... His hatred of everything in any way connected to National Socialism is credible, but his exorbitant belief in the importance of art, theater, and the phrase 'The show must go on' can make dealing with him somewhat difficult. He believes that German art and Germany's more notable artists are the logical means through which the German nation can, must, and will be reeducated."
Wegener's anti-Nazi credentials won him a prominent place in the reconstruction of Berlin, where he served as President of the Chamber of Artists (Kammer der Kunstschaffenden), a cultural arm of the Allies' postwar denazification program.**

Wegener's last stage role was as Nathan the Wise in Lessing's 1779 drama, a plea for religious toleration inspired by the playwright's friendship with Moses Mendelssohn. Wegener starred in a politically pointed production that ran in Berlin and New York in 1946; reprising the role in 1948, he collapsed onstage and died two months later, at age 73.

*Hal Erikson's synopsis of Wegener's career in the All Movie Guide describes him as "a fervent supporter of the Third Reich" and has his 'Actor of the State' designation coming straight from Goebbels in 1941. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, by contrast, characterizes him during the Nazi era as one who "led the life of a star without, like his collegues Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, and Heinrich George, signaling to the public any express affinity to the regime." His views may have changed as the war deepened; his association with the Nazis could have been one of convenience from the start; or he may have played the role of his life in convincing both Soviet and American officials at the war's end of his anti-Nazi sentiments. Aside from the Red Army's remarkable commendation (which suggests that Wegener may indeed have aided Berlin's antifascist underground), by 1945 he was considered by the postwar German cultural elites "who had not all too strongly associated with the Nazi regime"-- now busy rebuilding Berlin's cultural life under the Soviet occupation--as the logical choice to lead the new Kulturkammer, successor to the fallen Nazi Chamber for Arts and Culture.

Alter's 1945 report on Wegener describes the type of artist who could have made the necessary compromises to continue working within Germany in the '30s and '40s in the misguided belief that 'the show must go on' despite the regime in power, and that art would ultimately trump politics.

** Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. In a Cold Crater: Cultural and Intellectual Life in Berlin, 1945-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Available online at

Friday, May 04, 2007

Très Abel

There aren’t many things I go to in Portland that don’t involve David Abel. Thanks to David, I saw one of India’s greatest dhrupad singers, Uday Bhawalkar, perform morning ragas, unmiked, in a tiny NW Portland gym. Through his work at Spare Room, David's been in back of most of the poetry readings I’ve been to here some way or another. Last week, besides reading with Charles Alexander, he starred and sang in The Theory of Love, a complex, involving multimedia ‘musical lecture’ with libretto created (by David) from a vast mix of source texts stretching from Sappho to Basho, Cheever to Cixous. Next afternoon, I caught David reading in The Screen Grammar Cinema & Poetry Experiment, a poetry and film event organized by David Gatten and Cat Tyc for the 2007 PDX Film Festival. (He read, among other pieces, parts of a sequence dedicated to experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton.)

Folks, it’s not over. Tonight’s the opening for BY ALL MEANS: ARTIST’S BOOKS AND OBJECTS, a show curated by (you guessed it) David Abel, in which seven Portland-area artists explore and interrogate the concept of ‘the book.’ 7 - 10 p.m., New American Art Union, 922 SE Ankeny Street.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dept. of Wow Squared

Cecil Vortex—who’s not, after all, Thomas Pynchon, just a regular blogging mortal like us—just interviewed VAN DYKE PARKS.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Certain Slants

David Abel and Charles Alexander read together at Lindsay and Nita Hill’s home in NE Portland last Thursday. I miss all the house readings in the Bay Area and I hope they catch on here. The casual setting, complete with Nita and Lindsay’s cat jumping into laps, encouraged the readers to try out longer, more complex pieces that mikes and a less intimate audience might have quashed.

David Abel opened with poems from “Sweep,” which he described as an “ongoing, open-ended serial project,” numbered according to the days on which they were written—304, 376, etc. The diurnal ordering and apothegmatic quality of the verse (one poem in its entirety read: “psycho-geography/as trope/meaning/as trope”) suggested a writing especially responsive to the pace and imperatives of daily life. The poems seemed open to the “sweep” of the quotidian—the thoughts and phrases that might occur in the course of habitual reading or in the time stolen from more routine tasks—but also had me thinking of ‘sweeping’ in another sense: a clearing-out of incidental clutter, a desire pare down to essentials in the face of the messy, ever-present everyday: “I try to begin/my life/but it isn’t/possible.”

He followed with a long poem, “Times of Day,” which consisted of one-word (mostly monosyllabic) lines that managed to create different possibilities for connection without resorting to an explicit syntax, leaving the links between sound and semantics fluid, not so unlike the way the mind gleans meaning as it moves through ordinary time. Abel opened by saying that he’d thought of calling it “A Novel,” which points to the condensed micro-narratives the words seemed to form—“enemy/energy/January;” “excuse/success”—before shifting the listener’s attention to a new cluster of associations held together by music as much as meaning. The leaps invited by a sequence like “football/soccer/future,” for instance, suggest a story—maybe a European ‘football’ star, Beckham-like, coming to America for a lucrative future; maybe a prediction that the future belongs to soccer, not football, as the U.S. goes global—but it's also driven aurally by the twin alliterative ‘f’-words flanking “soccer,” which near-rhymes with “future” while sharing vowel sounds in its first syllable with “ball.” (Visually, “soccer” also links back to “football” with its double 'cc's.) The process of holding these different associations in the mind at the speed that the single-word lines required drew attention in an especially concentrated way to the activity involved in placing sound into the larger linguistic structures that make it mean. “Meaning/as trope” for that motion?

Charles Alexander read “Aviary Corridor” (performed in Seattle this weekend to music by Tim Risher) and some of the “Pushing Water” sections from his new Junction Press book, Certain Slants. He gave the rest of his time to a long piece (I missed the name) built from a series of riffs on clichés like “down the drain,” “under the gun,” “everything but the kitchen sink,” “full speed ahead,” “make hay while the sun shines,” “nothing new under the sun," "no time like the present," "down the rabbit hole," etc. By abbreviating, scrambling, and slyly punning on these commonplace phrases, the poem disrupted the mind's usual habit of fast-forwarding through the specifics of language to ‘get to the point’ while skipping over its conventional burps and tics. Here, the skips were the point, and the piece showed off poetry’s ability to energize even the most formulaic language by focusing on the gap between our trained syntactic (& social) expectations and the actual, real-time encounter with words as sound. Both Abel and Alexander asked us to be present to language in a way that our ordinary experience of words simultaneously thwarts and grounds. With just a certain slant of attention, their work seemed to promise the everyday could look completely new.

Plus I learned that it’s hard not to love a poet’s work when he’s petting a cat.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Recently Reviewed

Stan Apps reviewed Musee Mechanique for Xantippe 4/5 and thought to put it up on his blog. Thanks Stan.