Thursday, December 31, 2009

Friday, December 25, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

“My Beloved Momentum”

Saturday’s group reading of The Crystal Text brought a shifting but steady 15 to the Waypost over the time I was there, many of them on-deck or just finished readers, but some not, distinctions like that disappearing fast anyway in the afternoon gloom. The only sign of sun was in the orange-and-yellow latch hook Western landscape hung up above the piano behind the readers, which kept drawing my attention, like the crystal does Clark’s in the text, for its kitschy appeal but also for its connection with the ‘70s and ‘80s “craft” moment both artifacts came out of. Latch hook, decoupage, macrame, and batik vanished with a particular counter-cultural notion of leisure; so, too, did 150-page poems tracking the movement of the poet’s mind as it encounters the clutter on its desktop (real, not virtual) over a generous stretch of days.

Read aloud, the moments where the text mirrors back the conditions of its own creation—wondering who’ll read it, how to proceed, if it all adds up, or whether the work’s worth writing at all, with so much destined to slip away—read as funnier than they probably would on the page, since the listeners are so obviously on the other end of the poet’s questions, answering them implicitly with their attention. Postmodern doubts about mimesis, meaning, and form come up in various ways in The Crystal Text, but they seem less theoretical, more vivid and immediate, in the course of a real-time performance. How to shape that much material over four or five hours of continuous reading turns form into more of a pragmatic tool than a philosophical puzzler, closer in spirit to finding music stands for all the players than it is to overturning the twelve-tone scale. The poem has plenty of Coolidge’s trademark fizz and hum, but a long reading also pushed to the front rhetorical figures and syntax common to any long English poem—say, Wordsworth’s Prelude or Browning’s The Ring and the Book—not that Coolidge’s poem sounds like either of these exactly, but that English run through that much time settles into its home structures in insistent and revealing ways: “Is the heart of poetry a stillness, and my beloved/momentum something else, additional, mongrel?”

Bryan Coffelt and Sam Lohmann mentioned how difficult it is to find reading copies of The Crystal Text, which is out of print, so the event had an unexpected practical side as well, as a cheap and easy delivery system for a work that’s hard to come by. Like a Western sunset latch hook kit. Viva la leisure to write, listen & latch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

More Poetics from the Oracle at Delphi

“Those rockets are sky-writing a message in English!”

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Crystal Text in Portland

Spare Room thinks big. On the heels of their marathon “100 poems from the last 100 years” event in January, and 2008’s start-to-finish group reading of H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, comes this Saturday’s public reading of Clark Coolidge’s The Crystal Text. Teams of two readers will tackle 20 pages each from Clark’s mid-80’s opus from noon to five-ish at The Waypost, which is Portland concentrated and shrunk down, Bottle City of Kandor-style, to convenient coffeehouse size.

Hearing longer modern works read aloud opens up dimensions of the text you don’t catch from the printed page alone. You miss some local detail as the lines shoot past in time, but larger, looser structures of sound, meter, and thought association come into sharper focus over a long arc of listening. The audience, too, transmutes into something more active and primal than it does at a standard two-poets-twenty-minutes-each reading; there’s a sense of the text as an occasion for collective presence that’s hard to describe but difficult to miss if you’re there. Will the unsuspecting Waypost regulars feel the same? Come and see.
Spare Room presents
Marathon Reading: Clark Coolidge’s The Crystal Text
12 PM to finish (5:00ish)
The Waypost, 3120 N. Williams, Portland, OR

The work of heaven or hell: to somehow
become aware of a howling in the motors.
-- (Clark Coolidge, The Crystal Text, 54)

As the solstice approaches, come in out of the wind and join us to listen to Clark Coolidge’s compelling booklength poem The Crystal Text, read aloud by a dozen local writers.

Readers will include James Yeary, Jesse Morse, Sam Lohmann, Maryrose Larkin, Rodney Koeneke, Patrick Hartigan, Jen Coleman, Allison Cobb, Joseph Bradshaw, Meredith Blankinship, & David Abel.

“A colorless quartz crystal sits upon the writer’s desk, still and irreducible as a death’s head in St. Jerome’s study or Cezanne’s studio. But what would the crystal reveal, if it could speak? How might the issue of its presence be brought into language? The poet of The Crystal Text, by means of a rare stamina of attention and listening vulnerability, seeks to become the medium of the crystal's transmissions.”

I began to rise but I could not leave.
Beginning to see, one leaves the world. Taking it
up again and again until the sheets are dark.
An inlet of the sea sharded with sails. The sun
coming up over a blinking multitude, specialty humans
provided for this purpose alone. I am the one who
stays up to see that they do not leave.
Cardboard hinterlands of the drained liquid trace.
Grey distances of chimney and low neighborhood.
Wet snap. (85)

As luck would have it the sun was charring
the fiberglass tufts in the yard even from such a great distance.
A granite shithouse exploded in a cloud of bee odor.
The very earth was tacked to my wall, a ball of
limpid snails. Glass, blown firm, and then the
waterfall in the photograph it reminds me of.
Prose does not care about sharps and flats. It
continues to accumulate in the straightest of language
keys. I put back on my cap, it says. I lost my things
in the race for the car, it says. I am
not interested in the language of my past (my trail),
it says. It says these things and then loses
my interest. Two blanks, curling in the same sun. (87)

Awakened by a bang
or sudden rent of room
a collision of the thinking with
where the thought is not
or negative moon spot
or release of the chimney from
behind the pie tin, night
and left partial, face erased
prepositions for furniture (115)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Double Narrative

Could someone explain to me “the New Narrative branch of the New Formalism”? Me and Wikipedia must keep in different hemispheres.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mirror World

“Such considerations have meant that while it is usually not difficult for Arab authors to be published—quite a few publish their books themselves—it is much more difficult to gain a public profile or readership, and it is almost impossible to make a living from writing books. As a result, Arab authors almost always have full-time jobs, often in the large bureaucracies that are a feature of Arab countries, reserving their writing for their spare time. It is well known, for example, that Mafouz kept a steady job almost up to the end of his life, first as a bureaucrat and then as a newspaper commentator, and many memoirs by Arab writers complain about both the need to earn a living and the absence of public interest in their literary work. The temptation is always strong to take some bureaucratic job, which can have disastrous effects on an author’s writing.”

David Tresilian A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature (Saqi: 2008)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

Jen Coleman & David Wolach in Portland, 11/24/09

This spring, poets Jamalieh Haley and Donald Dunbar launched a new reading series, If Not For Kidnap Poetry, in their home near Reed College. November’s installment brought David Wolach down from Evergreen State to read with local hero of a year now, Jen Coleman. I love house readings of any stripe, and Jamalieh and Donald’s was pretty much the quintessence of the genre, with PBR boxes and serve-yourself wine; pictures on the wall by Ashley d’Avignon Goodwin, who’s involved with The Benefactor Magazine, where Donald’s Poetry Editor; and loose sets played between readings by Kenny Anderson, who’d stripped down to a small amp and Stratocaster to fit the acoustics of the living room.

David Wolach’s in his fourth year of teaching at Evergreen, but I met him for the first time at the Econvergence reading in Portland just last month. David’s posted a helpful run-down of the projects he read from, in collaboration with Elizabeth Williamson and with spontaneous audience assistance from Allison Cobb. Standing in the back, I didn’t quite catch what Allison was doing with the tape recorded message David handed her, along with a pad and paper, or why David moved through the audience taking pictures while Elizabeth read from a text. Not being clear on the setup added to the air of surprise and incipient mystery that comes with being a public inside someone’s home, not sure what belongs with whom or how much the objects disclose of the lives lived among them. The space troubled the usual split between public and private, displaying Goodwin’s pictures—which I found out later were snapshots by mall cops of minority women caught shoplifting—in “family photo”-style frames scattered throughout the house, and featuring a bookshelf with the “Staff Recommendations” stickers from its previous home still taped to the edges, jackets with pictures of Oscar Wilde and Stephen Colbert turned in a classic bookstore “face out.” By the time David started to photograph the audience, it felt weird but also right to pull the listeners’ anonymity into the general display, and to not be sure which was which.

David’s language had a musical, gently oratorical roll that shot through the various conceptual framings; I appreciated that some of the poems were written on dérives through hospitals, but I loved that they included “pointillistic penises,” a “bellicose masturbator with baby fetish,” and full-throated punning—“CAT scam,” “World Wide Wedge,” “O say can you flee”—that did solid political work while also recalling the schoolyard fun of early language games. “Because money protects you from people who fuck you” was the night’s brutal takeaway for me, one of those lines that leaves you gloomy from the sentiment but laughing at the symmetry, relieved a little too at hearing thought hit the pith like that. (More to come ...)

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Remember that commercial from the ‘70s or ‘80s where two pilgrims, one of whom looks like or might even be the first Darrin from Bewitched, appear in a modern-day kitchen as a golden turkey’s slid effortlessly from the oven? Darrin Pilgrim turns to his wife: Thou never served so juicy a bird.”
Pilgrim Wife: Thou never brought home a Butterball.”

Can’t find it in the usual sources (10 minutes on YouTube and Google), but that little exchange has been lodged in my head for at least 3 decades. Partly because heads just do that, partly because it applies to so much.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stephanie Young

Since Blogger unleashed the “dynamic blogroll,” I’ve been culling the blogs that hit “1 year ago.” Last week, those fell words appeared under Stephanie Young’s. It won’t get culled. The Well Nourished Moon was one of the first poetry blogs I was ever aware of, and I remember how it changed my sense of connection to the events and readings I haunted back then. Things suddenly seemed more personal and significant; I thought more about phrases and more about shoes. Even slow poetry nights took on a new sense of event, felt less ephemeral and more available to collective reflection, once it appeared on her blog. Paradoxically, through a highly personal voice and angle of vision, Stephanie made poetry and the people who surround it seem like a shared and public concern, which all of us, even the lurkers, had a stake in just by being present. There was a tiny charge of celebrity, too, in seeing who’d be photographed or mentioned the next day, which friends appeared, and what aspects of a poet’s reading wound up in her reports. Nada Gordon says somewhere that she misses new entries so much she sometimes reads the archives, and looking back at the early installments calls up a world that seems already romantically distant, like a bleached-out Polaroid, simultaneously immediate and vintage. Here’s an excerpt from the first post, January 24, 2003:
“But what I want to think about and focus on is the physico-emotional part of thought—this giddiness, of which I am also a proponent, which means Nada is not alone with her idea I had better email her, after reading her blog for at least a month now without a peep of response, I am a lurker in all of my secret heart of hearts. That the state of the body is in relation to the movement of the mind isn’t a completely new idea, but it’s nice to see it reiterated or described in a new way, especially one that points up a specific condition of the body–giddiness (oscillating: one possibility might be the opposite dregs of a carbo crash)

Giddiness being one of my favorite states of being, especially in relation to the TEXT and other writers. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I like to finish a discussion of poetry drenched, slightly, in sweat, and with enough energy to run around a track at least five times.”
I miss The Well Nourished Moon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Poets Theater

I knew there was a big Poets Theater Anthology on the boil that Kevin Killian and David Brazil are editing for Patrick Durgin’s Kenning Editions. In advance of its Jan. ’10 (‘10!) release, Kenning’s started posting a series of “Previews and Supplements,” along with the full TOC. The book looks incredible—Charles Olson to Nada Gordon, John Ashbery to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, WW II to whatever war we were on in 1985. It could do for Poets Theater what Kenning’s Hannah Weiner’s Open House helped do for Weiner—shine a light on something rich and big you knew was there, but couldn’t quite get in full view. First up on the previews is notes, a production photo, and a manuscript page from Fiona Templeton’s Against Agreement (1982).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Beverly Dahlen

Robin Tremblay-McGaw’s posting a detailed interview with Bev Dahlen in installments over at X Poetics. Dahlen, who gave a terrific “homecoming” reading this spring with David Abel for Portland’s Spare Room series, offers, among other things, a fellow traveler’s perspective on the formative “Language” years in San Francisco in the late ‘70s, a moment that’s undergone a lot of reassessment lately, from the serial Grand Piano volumes to research like Rob Halpern’s, Kaplan Harris’s, and Robin’s own on the fraught intersection of New Narrative and Language poetics.

Here’s Dahlen on Language poetry and psychology, an issue that’s come up in the past on Silliman’s blog:
BD: In the late 70’s the language poetsstar was rising. I was sharing a flat on Connecticut St. with Kathleen Frumkin and Erica Hunt—two persons who were at the time very involved with the LP movement. Barrett Watten lived right across the street. It was a very exciting time. I went to the lectures, to the readings, and sat up many nights talking about ‘language theory.’ I subscribed to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and read Saussure. But I was never quite convinced, because my bias ran toward psychology and, on the whole, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in that. I don’t know if ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ as Lacan claims. But I was pretty certain that theories of language that left out psychology were too limited for me. But of course I read their work—I liked Lyn’s work, and Ron’s and I argued with it in my own writing. I liked a number of the poets who had associated themselves with the movement—Kit Robinson and Alan Bernheimer come to mind. They were all very intelligent and witty poets, given to punning and irony and non sequiturs—really amusing stuff, like the 18th century. But I’m not a language poet. In these days I’m reading The Grand Piano, I check Silliman’s blog, but I don’t read language poetry more than (maybe less than) other kinds of poetry, or other kinds of writing.

I should add that it isn’t quite accurate to say no one in the movement was very interested in psychology. Steve Benson has become a therapist and I believe Nick Piombino is either a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst. There may be others I don’t know about.”

—Beverly Dahlen, interview with Robin Tremblay-McGaw, October 2009
There’s also a great anecdote about group-reciting of Silliman’s Tjanting over the roar of the trains at the Church Street MUNI station, which is all kinds of allegorical.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Community & Poetry

O.K., here’s the bit on poetry and community by Lisa Robertson I was thinking of:
“This word community is a common currency right now in poetry blogs and certain bars. Community’s presence or absence, failure, responsibility, supportiveness, etc—everyone is hovering around this word. It could be that I just feel its ubiquity since I moved to rural France from Vancouver, ostensibly away from ‘my community.’ When I think about it from here I feel ambivalent. I don’t miss community at all. I do miss my friends. How much of this notion of community is an abstraction of the real texture of friendship, with all its complicated drives and expressions—erotic, conversational, culinary, all the bodily cultures concentrated in a twisty relation between finite, failing persons. When I try to think of what a friend is, I imagine these activities we pleasurably share with someone we love—grooming, reading, sleeping, sex perhaps but not necessarily, intellectual argument, the exchange of books, garments and kitchen implements, all these exchanges and interweavings that slowly transform to become an idea and then a culture. Or a culture first, a culture of friends, and then an idea. Or both simultaneously. Writing is an extension and expression of friendship. Maybe friendship is more dangerous to think about and talk about because of its corporal erotics, mostly not institutionalized, not abstracted into an overarching concept and structure of collective protocols. For me, the drive to talk, to be in a room with someone I want to laugh or dance or fight with, to feed, all of those things—this has more to do with how writing happens for me, and also how I receive others’ writing, than community does. I think my friends have become models and incentives for my relationships with books and writing. Certainly I primarily write to my friends and for them, seeking to please and delight them above all, and sometimes mysteriously and painfully falling out. But I don’t want to call this community. I want to preserve the dark body of friendship.”

—Lisa Robertson, from Dispatch from Jouhet,
Then later, from the same piece:
“Is the idea of community in collective cultural life replacing the broader notion of a participatory public politics? Is our sense of broader collective agency being reduced to the limited scopes our most immediate productive microcosms and economies? I think that maybe the political disempowerment experienced by huge swathes of populations in the United States certainly, but everywhere, under the expansion of the global neo-liberal economy, is gradually causing us to act out our political drives within smaller and smaller circles. I have to say that for me the micro-economy of experimental writing or visual culture does not in itself constitute the polis. I can’t pretend the stakes correspond. And I don’t want to euphemize the complicated bodily texture of my specific relationships in writing and thinking.”

Monday, November 09, 2009

Poetry Community

Anyone know where to find Lisa Robertson’s provocation from a year or two back about poetry and community? I thought it was on Harriet, but looks like she’s been scrubbed from the site, at least as former blogger. She did once blog on Harriet, didn’t she? And once about not liking the concept of poetic community? If you’ve got the URL, I’d be grateful. I found this at Lemon Hound, from an interview with Vanessa Place, but remembered a larger discussion around Robertson’s comments:
LH: Do you think about community when you write? Or, is writing a kind of social praxis for you? Is it political?

VP: No. I hate community. Community breeds lynch mobs and Hallmark cards. Writing is ethical, which is the smallest unit of the political.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Poetics from the Oracle at Delphi

Poetry as Rush that believes its own 2112.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dept. of Monday

The outcomes are invisible.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Train in Vain

“And as we all know art
is simply the leavings
of the entrained verb of is …”

Lanny Quarles, comment on Nada’s blog

Friday, October 23, 2009

Busride with the Oracle at Delphi

Fingernails on chalkboard is the music of community.

Plus, Oracular Message (OM) for Paul:

“No, your dad was not Lil Wayne.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Herta So Good

Does anyone know how Romanians inside Romania are reacting to Herta Müller winning the Nobel Prize? They’ve been waiting years for their turn, grooming their own set of Romanian-language contenders, and end up with their first Nobel in Lit from a German-language author who’s lived in Berlin for nearly a quarter century. Putting aside the quality of her work and considering just the politics, Sweden might be seen as getting a “two-for-one” with a writer like Müller, German and Romanian, showing sympathy for a (now nearly vanished) minority community while staying safely within the EU’s cultural comfort zone. The German-speaking minority in the Banat has a complex history in Romania as oppressors and oppressed—mostly, since the Soviet occupation at the end of WW II, tragically oppressed—and it sounds like Müller explores that legacy in scrupulous detail. Her resistance under Ceausescu also looks uncompromising and brave in a time and place where shady accommodation was more the norm. I’m glad for the chance to discover her work, which I hadn’t known about before the award. Just wondering if this is seen in Romania as a triumph, or another example of Romanians getting the short end of the European stick. Or are they too busy with their government collapsing last week to even care? (Banat’s now second most famous German pictured above.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Now It Was

“We’ll try to found ourselves, desperately, in the present, but no instrument at our disposal is suitable for the job in anything but a phantasmatic capacity. It’s a structural weakness in our Gattungswesen that we can batten on phantasms for ages and ages. Say writing, for instance: the ghost in advance.”

David Brazil

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Greenstreet & Russo Read in Portland this Friday, 10/16

The English Department at Portland State brings Kate Greenstreet and Linda Russo to town this Friday, 10/16. Go English Department at Portland State.
Friday, October 17, 6 PM
Portland State University, Neuberger Hall 407 (English Dept. Conference Room)

Ahsahta Press published Kate Greenstreet’s first book, case sensitive, in 2006. Her second, The Last 4 Things, came out with Ahsahta last month. This is why I hurt you, a recent chapbook, is available from Lame House Press. New work is forthcoming in jubilat, Court Green, Hotel Amerika, Practice, Saltgrass, and MAKE.

Linda Russo is the author of MIRTH (Chax Press, 2007) and o going out (Potes & Poets, 1999), and her poems appear in recent issues of Bird Dog and Fence. She wrote the preface to Joanne Kyger’s About Now: Collected Poems (National Poetry Foundation, 2007). A graduate of the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, she teaches creative writing at Washington State University in Pullman.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Maria Damon on Hannah Weiner and on Juliana Spahr on Hannah Weiner in the new Kaurab; Stan Apps on Weiner and on Spahr on Weiner at the upcoming &NOW Conference in Buffalo.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Stupid Poet Tricks

How to know your own ‘C’ when you’re also its column of air.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

This Glittering Tour de Force

I’m sure this is wrong. Why is it also so moving?
“The creativity of Egyptian civilization seemed, in the end, strangely to miscarry. Colossal resources of labour were massed under the direction of outstanding civil servants, but only to set up the greatest tombstones the world has ever seen. Craftsmanship of exquisite quality was employed, but to make grave-goods. A highly literate elite utilizing a complex and subtle language and possessing, in papyrus, a material of unsurpassed convenience, deployed them copiously in texts and inscriptions, but left to humanity no great philosophical or religious idea. It is difficult not to sense an ultimate sterility, a nothingness, at the heart of this glittering tour de force. Only its sheer staying-power remains amazing.”

J.M. Roberts, A Short History of the World

Monday, October 05, 2009

Dept. of Monday

Days when you wish the world would compress to the size of that theater the Beatles keep trying to escape from in A Hard Day’s Night.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tangent Reading this Friday, 10/2

A gaggle of poets land on Portland this weekend to participate in the Econvergence conference; 14 of them read Friday at 9:30 PM for Tangent. Just mosey over from Noam to the SEA Change Gallery on Everett. Details below.
Tangent presents

SEA Change Gallery, 625 NW Everett St., Gallery #110, Portland, OR

Monday, September 28, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wild Orchids

Robert Dewhurst sent a copy this week of Wild Orchids, the new annual he and Sean Reynolds edit out of SUNY Buffalo. Each issue solicits contemporary poets’ responses to a single author—Herman Melville for the debut, Hannah Weiner on deck for next year. This gives the issue more cohesion than you get in the usual contemporary literary journal, even creates a sense of exchange—if not quite a conversation, maybe a gam—between writers who ply the same thematic field.

Benjamin Friedlander’s account of readerly disorientation in Melville’s Clarel, a neglected epic of faith, conversion, and stony materialism in the Holy Land, stuck with me in particular, especially this remarkable encapsulation of the 19th-century crisis of faith:
“In Clarel, what restores awe to the world of stone—at least in theory—is faith. Not just faith in God’s existence, but faith in the reality of sacred history as a whole. For if the stories of the Bible are not literal truth, what would distinguish them from the tempting lies of fiction? And if they were instead a figurative truth, what would make them preferable to the literal truths of human history or science?”
Stacy Szymaszek—whose reading in Portland this summer the week Hyperglossia came out I keep meaning to post about—describes the coming together of a Great Lakes writing scene in part through Melville’s watery sense of geography, where exchange is more occasional and rhizomic, maybe more gift-like, than it is in the buzz of a sexy urban hub. Kim L. Evans, Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Donald E. Pease, Mark Von Schlegell, and Chris Sylvester also have essays and inventive formal investigations sparked by different aspects of Melville’s work.

The piece that seemed to maximize the fun of the theme-based form was “Transpositions of ‘A Utilitarian View of The Monitor’s Fight,’” where the editors invited three poets—Joyelle McSweeney, Courtney Pfahl, and Jennifer Scappettone—“to mark, write, scribble and draw” around Melville’s weird ode to the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad warship and subject of a thousand grade school dioramas. A year ago I tried to get into Melville’s Civil War verse, but quickly aborted. His poem on The Monitor stood out, though, for its recognition that a new kind of war needs a new kind of meter, “more ponderous than nimble,” stripped of pomp and charged with “plain mechanic power,” like the modern ships busy divesting war of its glory and confining it to its proper sphere, “among the trades and artisans” with their bland “calculations of caloric.” Melville may have been among the first to see what professionalization would bring to the mythic process of killing, and to understand what that should mean for modern poetry, where poets, like warriors, “are now but operatives” in anonymous systems more awesome than themselves. It’s a strange, self-defeating sort of poem, parading its own awkwardness as a mimetic necessity for commemorating the ambiguous virtues of the modern.

Each poet rises to the challenge differently; McSweeney with what struck me as a Gurlesque conjunction of “heels and bikini,” “manicures” and “fetlocks” pushed up against Pennzoil, trade shows, pistons, and Gulf rigs to ironize late-capitalist martial display; Pfahl with a lacuna-rich erasure of Melville’s original poem; Scappettone with a similar razor-to-paper collage made from the original poem, framed with a comment connecting Melville to Walter Benjamin and the “Interiors measurelessly strange” of Piranesi. It’s good to see Melville’s Monitor afloat like this; I hope the series keeps moving. Submissions for the Hannah Weiner issue are due by December 15; you can order an issue at WORCHIDS_at_gmail_dot_com.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

The New Talkies, de Young Museum, San Francisco 9/11/09

• Friday passes procured at secret entrance.
• “Sound check.”
• Interns snaking poets past replica of Tutankhamun’s royal chair.
• Picking up phrase “deep rake” to describe altitude of museum theater.
• Wondering if “deep rake” will fill.
• Wondering will any poets fill deep rake on SPT’s cross-town opening night.
• Free sandwiches, free potato salad, free fruit salad, free wine in backstage “hospitality tent.”
Jaime Cortez practicing “The Fifth Element” in dressing room, mirror missing only that ‘Norma Desmond’ circumference of lights.
• Interns snaking poets from hospitality past jazz back to rake.
• Deep rake miraculously filled.
Paul Hoover and Konrad Steiner launching intros and history gracefully up into crowd.
• Performing to darkness with audience somewhere inside it.
Douglas Kearney and Nicole McJamerson “discovering” D.W. Griffiths’s lost last movie, a white fantasy about black urban rioting, in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from “Fantasia.”
• Nicole doing parodic square “film critic” voice, primly detaching technical and aesthetic advances from baldly racist content.
Jen Hofer turning the “silent service” into metaphor for invisible weapons of mass inhalation via apocalyptic ‘50s thriller “On the Beach.”
Andrew Choate equating words to food, and calling out gourmandizing tendencies endemic to both, with “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.”
Jaime Cortez resurrecting Michael Jackson from the high fashion retro-futurism of “The Fifth Element.”
• Friends and poets and friends of poets climbing down rake to say hi. Vielen Dank to Maxine Chernoff, Kelly Holt, Scott Inguito, Lauren Levin, Rachel Loden, Dana Teen Lomax, Ronald Palmer, and Mac McGinnis, to all who came that I didn’t get to meet, and to “MRM” at Unruly Idiom for the great write-up.
• Clown car derby exiting after-hours parking lot.
• “Park Chow.”
Glen Park mezcal.
• Fade to black.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dept. of Forgotten Neologisms

“Cafetorium.” Forgot it sometime last century—thought it had ceded to “multi-purpose room”—but here it is back in my life. Welcome back, cafetorium.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The New Talkies this Friday, 9/11: San Francisco, de Young Museum

I’ll be in San Francisco this Friday, 9/11 to perform my neo-benshi piece for Paul Wegener’s German silent, “Der Golem.” Jen Hofer, Douglas Kearney & Nicole McJamerson, and Andrew Choate will be up from L.A. to debut new pieces, along with local hero Jaime Cortez, who killed with his election-era Obama-ization of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” last year. If the Bay’s in your radius, hope you’ll come out. You can find some background on the movie, a troublesome gem, here, here, and here.
The De Young Poetry Series presents
de Young Museum, Koret Auditorium
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
7:00–8:30 p.m., $5 (no ticket for museum entry required)

In the past six years a new application of live poetic art has emerged in San Francisco and other cities. Neo-benshi is the art of re-narrating scenes to films with the sound muted. For this event, six poet-performers have written scripts to re-narrate scenes from well-known films. Without their original audio tracks, the images from the films are freed to reveal hidden meanings, which these writers draw to the surface or forge anew. Poets appearing tonight include Andrew Choate, Jen Hofer, Douglas Kearney & Nicole McJamerson, Rodney Koeneke, and Jaime Cortez. Local filmmaker, curator, and writer Konrad Steiner introduces the program.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Age of Incompetence 3

One of the things I like best about Kasey’s treatment of competence is his proposal of wit as a quality that vaults the poem over the walls of the ordinary while still acknowledging the virtues of the generic. Here’s Kasey’s initial formulation:
“If it were possible to state the relationship between competence and wit in terms of an equation, it might be something like wit = competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence. This automatically suggests that irony plays a part in wit. I am not just thinking of irony, however, in the flattened-out sense of sarcasm or “blank” pastiche (though these categories might also be applicable at times). I’m considering irony as a sensibility grounded in various manifestations of negativity, or radical dialectical awareness. Keats’s “negative capability” represents one partial apprehension of such awareness, but it is more or less limited to a context of aesthetic appreciation, and its potential for application in praxis is largely unexplored.”
Kasey’s particular conception of wit leans on O’Hara’s jokey equation of fashion and poetics in “Personism: A Manifesto,” which pokes serious fun at purely technical notions of poetic competence by comparing good poems to tight jeans:
“As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.”
O’Hara’s image is helpfully elastic; as Kasey points out, “the requisite tightness is always dependent upon the specific social instance, the tastes of one’s prospective bed partners, and other things that are ultimately up to the whims of fate and the poet’s intuition.” The jeans shift attention from the formal qualities of the poem to the essentially social relationship between reader and writer involved in any literary attraction. Still, to recognize the poem as “tight” you need some basic notion of fit. By Kasey’s reckoning, wit can be a way for the poet to benefit from the fact that the “technical apparatus” of the poem—which I take to mean its array of formal, syntactic, and metrical effects—“is both indispensable and ultimately unreliable.”

One remarkable example of “competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence” is Kasey’s own Sonnagram series. Produced from complex procedural scrambles of Shakespeare’s sonnets, they meet the rules of rhymed iambic pentameter with a varied and surprising syntax that reminds me how much juice there still is in old-fashioned, urn-like formal competence. While the poems are more than just competent, they rely for their effects on an atavistic idea of formal mastery and prosodic display which “competence” in its untroubled old-school sense was supposed to prepare you for, the way copying the masters used to prepare you to paint portraits. I’m guessing that poets of just about any stamp would recognize the Sonnagrams as competent, at the very least, on a “mechanical craft” level that we rarely acknowledge but still use in practice when we’re subjectively assessing for fit.

At the same time, the poems continually call attention to the limits of mechanical craft as a measure for judging the poem. The Shakespearean sonnet—the litmus for the form in English—is employed as a pure formality, an impression the strict procedural rules of composition reinforce. There’s no pretense that the metrical requirements of the sonnet mirror something essential about the content poured inside. There’s no “turn” in the argument at the appropriate line; no evidence that function matches form. There’s little sense, which you get in some modern displays of formal finish, that the poems are trying to hide their prosodic chops under a veneer of colloquial speech. The Sonnagrams turn up the contrast between content and form until the idea that one might be a meaningful extension of the other blows apart. They’re witty in the way they insist on drawing the readers’ attention to the gap between their formidable technical accomplishment (“competence”) and their extravagantly ludicrous filling (“inadequacy of competence”). What Kasey says of the satirical eighteenth-century heroic couplet applies to his own series equally well: “every closing rhyme is an elegant deflation, a simultaneous celebration of fine-woven order and an unraveling of that order.”

One reason his post sticks with me, though, is that it’s not content to simply relinquish competence as an empty formal feature, chrome on the dying Edsel. Instead, Kasey’s notion of wit returns the poem to the world in ways that may slip past some of the resistances readers can build up to the business-as-usual nexus between politics and poetry. In the process of simultaneously creating and unraveling order, wit gives poetic form to what Kasey characterizes (in talking about Keats’s verse) as the “unbridgeable gap between verbal eloquence and lived experience.” Wit involves a recognition that competence—which requires an admission of the poem’s generic conventions—is always present in a made thing like a poem, but can never be adequate to the messy contradictions of lived experience. In taking on this tension as its subject, the poem can present something true about our social lives, whose generic features are so insistent yet so inadequate to describing any one of us in our sloppy, interconnected totality.

Kasey concedes that as the “formal background” for poems since modernism has “grown hazier and more disordered,” wit operates in a more diffuse and generalized way. It’s trickier now to draw a line between those places where the poem meets an agreed-upon standard of competence and those where it knowingly demonstrates an awareness of its limits. As we come to distrust the generic features of poetry, it’s harder to make the conflict between genre and the information that keeps sloshing over its sides mimic our alternately conventional and ludicrously excessive lives. Still, there’s something in the suggestion of wit as a measure of poetry that gets at the something I keep opening all those POD chapbooks for.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Age of Incompetence 2

Last time, I wondered if poetic competence is a useless concept right now; if “a baseline level of craft viability,” as Kasey puts it in his original post, is no longer necessary or desirable to aim for in poetry. Competence might even be inimical to contemporary ideas of poetic excellence—having one, it would seem, means you can’t have the other. The “step beyond competence,” as Kasey points out, isn’t competence plus a little extra fairy dust. Instead, it jumps off the graduated scale of “good/better/best” that the O.K. poem implies and becomes something else entirely. “Thus,” writes Kasey,
if a merely competent verse exhibits certain qualities of rhythmic smoothness, controlled diction, and so forth, we would appear to be justified in thinking that the step beyond competence consists in some added quality or ability. This added factor, however, cannot simply be increased competence—hypercompetence, if you will—in metrics or any other mechanical aspect of craft; it must be something that introduces a new evaluative category. Any number of nebulous terms leap up for consideration: genius, feeling, heart, soul, brilliance, panache, pizzazz, oomph, etc.
Kasey’s characterization of competence starts with the poem’s metrical and formal features—he uses Victorian poetry as an example of an era when prosodic minimums for poems were more clear-cut—but quickly zips ahead to what he calls “middle-class white American confessional free verse in the 1970s,” with its negative definition of competence as something more like “avoidance of cliché.” His post implies that the confessional impulse still more or less ‘owns’ competence, given that today it’s “much easier to point out things one should not do in writing poetry than to say what one should do.” He considers an alternative, avant-garde standard of competence in various kinds of procedural writing, where meeting the rules one sets for oneself becomes its own kind of “craft viability.” This turns out, by his own account, to be a rigid and ultimately limited measure though, since it exists for just that single procedure—either thumbs up, you followed directions, or thumbs down, you didn’t—and since the procedures themselves (Fibonacci, mesostics, n+7, etc.) resist ideas of competence even more fiercely than their confessional free-verse counterparts do. You might even think of procedure in poetry as a broad-based attack on the whole idea of competence and the evaluative system it enforces. I’m guessing most “anti-poetries” are really “anti-competence” at heart; it’s craft standards they have in their cross-hairs more than poetry stretching back to Sappho or Ur.

Apart from formal and procedural features, I wonder how much subject matter underpins our contemporary sense of what counts as a “competent” poem. Are there certain topics important enough in their own right that even a generic handling of them is felt to be a good thing? Anti-war poems can use familiar formal strategies but still be valued as helpful to the cause. Poems that address questions of ethnic, class, or sexual identity can do so in familiar ways and still be seen as delivering worthwhile information. Political poems rarely shade further right than Democrat—a poem expressing Republican sentiments, whatever its formal features, would be likely to violate our unspoken sense of competence. A generic slam poem, if it deals with a generic slam topic, may not win any competitions, but can still get applause for its competent handling of the conventional delivery and subject matter of the form. (Slam, in fact, might be an instance of competence working in its old-school sense—you’ve got to achieve it first before you can hope to move on to the prizes.) In the “middle-class white American confessional” genre Kasey identifies, poems about how happy one is with one’s middle-class white American life have a harder time looking competent than ones about its shortcomings.

In nearly all these cases, the criteria for judgment aren’t strictly formal or procedural, but essentially social; we evaluate the poem according to our sense of how it relates to the world off the page. Which makes me wonder if competence in poetry—Kasey’s “material features … that differentiate a ‘competent’ poem … from an ‘incompetent’ one—has disappeared entirely into the current interest in poetry and politics. Why go to all that trouble evaluating a poem’s competence, and spelling out your standards for doing so, when what you’re really evaluating is contemporary life, and the poem’s ability to reflect or intervene within it? It could be that politics has replaced competence as a valid poetic concern. Or maybe the intense interest in the intersection of politics and poetry is the old wrangle over competence waged by other means. Poets who don’t lose much sleep over questions of formal or technical mastery may be anxious to show off a kind of political competence in their poems, demonstrating a basic familiarity with the range of attitudes, values, and sentiments that fit our present notions of positions appropriate to poetry. Each literary period has its characteristic poetic subjects, and its corresponding taboos. Competence in the poetry of any era may involve a minimum facility in recognizing the right poetic subjects and handling them in the conventional ways. Given the huge diversity of styles, formal approaches, and poetic filiations right now, it may be this shared sense of affective or political competence that binds together poetry as a genre most effectively.

If that’s true, I’m curious about the political valence a “competent” poem might carry. Does it suggest political complacency—an inert, unreflective upholding of the status quo? Or is it used to screen out poems whose extra-poetical values we dislike? The teapot tempest around Frederick Seidel relies partly on a case for poetic competence, understood in the “mechanical craft” sense Kasey’s post explores. The “horrific” nature of his subject matter is supposed to rub against the formal accomplishment of his rhymes or technique or whatever to produce an exciting frisson. But Seidel’s also pitched as a throwback to an earlier poetic era, a wild man outside the trammels of fashion, so dusting off competence to talk about his verse might be part of the antique effect.

Maybe the real role of competence in poetry right now is to disappear entirely behind other evaluative metrics. One appeal of poetry as a genre in our rapidly professionalizing world is that it defies any common standard of competence. Even the MFA doesn’t pretend to do basic “quality control” in the way a CPA or a JD or a Ph.D. does. We’ve got subjects, sentiments, traditions, institutions, procedures, politics, filiations, contests, career paths, degree programs, and publishing houses. But do we have anything like competence? And is it a good thing that we don’t?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Age of Incompetence

Nathan Austin unearthed an antique post of Kasey Mohammad’s on poetic competence recently, proving that yes, Virginia, people do read blog archives. And apparently think about them sometimes, too. Nathan’s article connects Kasey’s suggestion of wit as a contemporary measure of poetic excellence to Arthur Danto’s ideas on the state of art after the Brillo Box, Komar and Melamid’s post-Soviet paint-by-poll numbers kitsch, and Sianne Ngai’s poetics of disgust, which he reads as “the preface to an alternative measure of competence, a new test of poetry, the substance of which has not yet been written.”

Re-reading Kasey’s post reminded me how quickly discussions of “competent” shade into notions of “excellent.” The qualities I keep wanting to ascribe to competent poems—a various diction, surprising turns and torques of syntax, supple use of prosodic effects like alliteration and assonance, awareness of the poem’s generic lineage as signaled by allusion or appropriation or spacing, a knowing relationship to language not normally considered poetic (ads, overheard bus chatter, tweets, you name it), an embrace of humor and its wicked sibling, wit—really belong to the exceptional, the ones that pop out from the herd of the ‘just O.K.’ I can’t think of a poem I’d disqualify from its status as poem for missing any, or even all, of these features.

But that’s what’s tricky about competence—it’s not supposed to decide what is or isn’t a poem, which sets it off to the sidelines of the main action since Modernism. The competent poem is meant to hold down the craft fort, not define the frontiers of “poemness.” In our current poetic culture, where pressing frontiers in all directions is at a premium, an excellent poem and an execrable one share more in common with one another than they do with the competent middle. Both are more “poetic” in the sense that they call attention to—and cast doubt upon—the features that set poetry apart from our 3.4 zillion other varieties of language use. By contrast, a competent poem can never really be “poetic” in that sense—it’s too busy filling in the generic blanks required to achieve its status as “poem.” Copping to a competent poem means disqualifying yourself from having written a poem so outstandingly bad or good that it adds to our sense of what poetry might be.

If competence as a poetic value has fallen on hard times, it’s because we have so little need right now for generic poems of any kind, just as we’ve lost our need for prosody (or do people somewhere still wrangle over prosody?). You might even say that poets themselves in our particular moment show a diminished interest in poetry as a genre; that is, as a set of conventions recognized and presumably admired by its audience, even when it’s being tweaked. Genre films and genre fiction—like genre rock (though rock, too, has trouble owning up to the generic)—win passion and rabid affection from their fans. The rote and familiar are virtues, even requirements, and artists who don’t deliver a car crash or two get raked over fanboy coals. The creator is more trustee than genius, and too much originality betrays the shared commitment to the form.

I can’t think of an example of genre poetry that locks producer and consumer in a similar embrace. You might argue that the poems of a Mary Oliver or Billy Collins owe their popularity to their generic features, but I’m not sure their fans experience the work that way—that is, in the way a fan of Tarantino might appreciate the twist he gives to kung-fu, heist, grindhouse, or WW II flicks. Fans of those films could probably identify fairly quickly and lovingly a half-dozen elements expected from each of those genres. Part of Tarantino’s success stems from his insight that a really, really bad instance of the genre and a really good one both equally affirm the same generic conventions. If you love WW II films, as a genre, you’ll love the great ones and the awful ones—the awful, in fact, can become a precondition for greatness. Is there a comparable phenomenon in poetry? Ashbery’s mined the awful in verse in a way similar to Tarantino, knowingly deploying the most exhausted clichés until the bad stuff comes out as great. But neither one trades much in competence—their value scale runs from execrable to great, or execrable as great, without much indulgence for the so-so in-between.

A competent poem, on the other hand, disappears inside the genre instead of tugging at its edges. Its use of the conventions isn’t awkward enough to spark any awareness of them as conventions, and not remarkable enough to expand our idea of how much life the clichés can still hold. When competent poetry’s popular, it’s not so much because the audience appreciates the poet’s skill in handling the genre’s rules, but because the generic conventions the poem affirms (often those of an older poetic epoch) are mistaken for timeless truths: the clichéd becomes the “time-tested” or “universal.” If it’s boring or familiar, it’s because the boring and familiar are signs that what you’re getting is free of the temporary stain of the present.

Which makes it even harder for poets to cop to competence. The word implies an acceptance of conventions that aren’t supposed to be conventions at all, but yawps from the changeless heart of humankind. In a culture where genre is regarded as a kind of radio static between the poem and its transmission of affect, it’s become easier—more authentic, even—to defend a poem as “innovative” or “original” or genre-busting or whatever than to praise its command of the genre’s requirements. In poetry terms, “competent” has become the strength that dare not speak its name.