Friday, March 30, 2007

Hymn for the Underemployed

And what becomes of you, my love
When they’ve finally stripped you of
The handbags and the gladrags
That your grandad had to sweat
so you could buy?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lub Lovely

One from Del Ray Cross's addictive Lub Luffly (Pressed Wafer, 2006):
the lyric is dead. long live the lyric.

the go-go money
precludes any
the tone is
to correspond
to the insitutions
and to impress
an ear with its modulations
a collab genre
of sloppy listening
such as sonnet

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dept. of News To Me

There's a patron saint of drug lords. His name? Jesús Malverde.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"A Form of Reading" (2)

A non-blogging friend of mine (they still exist) recently asked me what the point of a blog is. He suspects the whole endeavor is narcissistic, a worry you see popping up on the blogs periodically too.

Janet Holmes took that concern as the starting-point for her reading, and took it literally—what if the structure of our online social interactions mimics the myth of Echo and Narcissus, or Eros and Psyche, or Orpheus and Eurydice, where the conditions of desire require that the lovers never actually see one another “F2F”? (I didn’t know until Holmes explained it that “F2F,” the title of her new book, is text message-ese for “face to face.”)

The poems she read last Monday figured Orpheus as a rock star, Eros and Psyche as IM buddies “E.” and “P.,” and Narcissus as maybe the prototypical MySpace junkie, getting back distorted echoes (“besiege/beseech”; “canoe/anew”) of the idealized self he’s anxious to project. Holmes’s work seemed especially attuned to the criticism of the Internet as a privileged male space, where men are “always around gawking,” assembling their Echoes according to their fantasies of the feminine other. In Holmes’s version of the story, or what I caught of it Monday, Echo gets some of her own back, tweaking, not reproducing, Narcissus’s words, a kind of admonitory reminder that “people turn into what they expect to hear.”

Holmes opened with a piece that suggested another analogue for our virtual exchanges is the act of reading itself, where you’re free to ‘take’ a text any way you want, with no fear of confronting the author F2F. Which invites the thought that imagination may be the 'old school' version of virtuality, poetry the result of the subtle distortions in our always imperfect transmissions between the desired and the real.

Monday, March 26, 2007

"A Form of Reading" (1)

Kate Greenstreet and Janet Holmes read to a full, well-caffeinated house last Monday, on one of those poetically rainy (as opposed to the standard annoyingly rainy) Portland nights—muffled patter, streets catching the shine of the lights.

Greenstreet read first, opening with one from her new box of note card poems, printed on real open-at-the-fold, laminated, blank-inside greeting cards, the kind you write thank yous on and stuff into envelopes for friends.

On the page, Greenstreet’s work draws a lot of its energy from the directness and compact austerity of her language, which reminds me of the Objectivists in its expressive use of space & its feeling for the ‘essential’ statement, stripped of ornamental particulars (“it’s what’s left/when the rest goes down the drain.”) Reading through case sensitive, I found myself paying special attention to the places where spoken language can’t go: the visual rhythm of the gaps between stanzas and lines; the quotation marks, frequently unattributed, giving a sense of the poem as a space shared by several voices; and, above all, the parentheses and brackets that surround so many phrases, which carry some of the charge of “the pervasive empty brackets sign [ ]” in the Niedecker/Zukofsky correspondence, explained in a note as “a signal of deep caring for which words dare not and need not be found.”

I was surprised at how well these features came through in performance, where even parentheses managed to make an appearance: “the parentheses mean something to me/but then again so do the phases of the moon.” I think I glommed onto that as the keynote of Greenstreet’s reading, where the same gift for spare, direct statement—“the most vulnerable moment/is the moment of change”; “I made it out of what it looks like”—supported a kind of exploration of things lunar and numinous, with “saints” and “faith” and “redemption” and “prayer” all comfortably embraced by the poems’ vocabulary. A lot of the work in case sensitive seems in dialogue with the absent or dead: a lost lover, a missing friend, a relative’s ghost. Although it was just one voice reading, the same dialogic quality came through in the way Greenstreet looked up from the page to address us, as if we were the ghosts she was asking questions of, or with. I don’t think she read this line, but it sums up for me the specific gravity of the work she gave us Monday:

“What’s the appeal of a mystery? Someone is looking for something, actively.”

Friday, March 23, 2007

Graham & Wallace on Sunday

K. Lorraine Graham and Mark Wallace read in Portland this Sunday in dark colors.
SUNDAY, MARCH 25, 7:30 p.m.
New American Art Union
922 SE Ankeny
hosted by Spare Room

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Tree Surgeon Noir"

The latest COMBO, double issue 14/15, has a long interview with Michael Gizzi, one of the best with him I've read. Gizzi's one of those touchstone poets for me, whose work I go back to whenever I feel my own writing slipping & getting crappy. Michael Magee leads him down conversational chutes that turn to his poetic influences, family history, aesthetic development, and take on contemporary poetry. Best of all, Magee asks substantial questions about Gizzi's writing, & how he arrived at his particular way with words:
Michael Gizzi: My two loves were poetry and athletics. I now realize that I was always trying to bring some sense of athleticism into my poems—I wanted things to speed along. I remember that little scissor step you had to do on the sidelines to catch a pass while still remaining in bounds. I tried to get that into a poem, or some sense of that.

Michael Magee: Did you do that by thinking about words themselves as physical?

MG: Well, I would try to get mentally engergized and then write as though I were involved in some sports event. I had bits of Latin like ecce homo and noli me tangere written on my helmet and because I'd studied opera with my father I knew that if you were screaming and your diaphragm was tightened you couldn't get the wind knocked out of you. This was pre-Bruce Lee. I'd run screaming through the line with the ball, which would freak some guys out. "What's he screaming about, and what's that crazy shit on his helmet?" which would give me a second in which to pick a hole in the line. So I really did bring poetry and my love of literature onto the playing field. Did I mention I wasn't a team player?


MM: [Your use of archaic or outmoded language] seems very local and I wonder where you get it from and how you do it and how you decide to do it.

MG: Maybe it's an audio-visual tone, like listening while you read. It also comes from swinging for the fences or tapping a pinstripe for syrup. It's just this side of nonsense, the magic of names and neologisms. It may be three senses channeling an experience at the same time. Sitting in my yard years ago I transcribed perfectly (to my mind) a sentence in birdspeak as "capuana keester meal gringa hocks of ham"—I'm also thinking "language surpasses itself by pointing out its limitations."

MM: Right.

MG: The English language is rich. Imagine finding actual cream in the dictionary, making the hoard that much richer. You'll know it when you see it.

I love interviews. It's a workhorse genre that makes complex ideas from almost any field more approachable. Done right like this, with space to stretch out and focus on the writing, I think it helps more than anything the big money could dream up to bring new readers to new poetry.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is It Really So Strange?

It's official: Johnny Marr's moved to Portland.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Holmes and Greenstreet

Kate Greenstreet and Janet Holmes hit Portland tonight. Details below:
MONDAY, MARCH 19, 7:30 p.m.
Concordia Coffee House
2909 NE Alberta
hosted by Spare Room

Looks like Kate's new series of note card poems from FLASH + CARD, "In Paradise there is no art," will be available too.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"Opie As Emperor" (3)

Rob Fitterman closed the reading at Tangent with portions from his ongoing Metropolis project, including sections from This Window Makes Me Feel, “Dedicated to those who were lost in The World Trade Center bombing.” 9/11 and its aftermath set the backbeat to his reading, which he structured like a corporate PowerPoint presentation, complete with prompts to turn our attention to non-existent slides. (Afterwards I found out this was based on Colin Powell’s Iraq presentation to the U.N.)

Fitterman’s deployment of ‘sampled’ language gains a lot of its force from the blend of studied flatness (“why Dave felt like he had to cc everyone beats me”) with accelerated shifts in context, so that apparently neutral lines— “many Americans have the same pizza cravings I do”—pick up political overtones in juxtaposition with the other voices that populate the poem (“make yourself into an armored truck/worse days are coming.”) It’s a subtle and flexible technique that allows the writing to move from ironic to critical to funny to political to tragic to weirdly lyrical without requiring it to settle on any one. A lot of the drama of listening to him read was in the ‘turns’—in the way a riff on the history of Bisquick, for instance, in language that sounds straight off the company’s website, swerves to ‘Bismarck’, bringing America’s favorite pastry empire into a chain of associations with Realpolitik, the birth of the modern German state, the two world wars the Holocaust and from there back to 9/11. Maybe. The loops veer off in all kinds of suggestive directions, ‘modular’ information that takes on different shapes depending on which other unit of text it’s attached to.

Fitterman amped up the allusive power by reading in one continuous chunk, as if the excerpts he chose from across different books were a single poem, itself part of some ongoing speech or quarterly report to an invisible management team. It encouraged the audience to find associations between poems more than I think is usual at readings; the repetition of simple phrases like “this city” or “this window makes me feel” heightened the sense of experiencing a text where everything potentially connects with everything else, but always only dimly: a little like Pynchon, a lot like the market-researched, hyperlinked, scanned and surveilled world we’re in.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Opie as Emperor" (2)

Jared Hayes opened with a poem for his grandmother, always a scary prospect but one that set us up for a deadpan listing of souvenir spoons—spoon from Niagara Falls, spoon from Pearl Harbor Memorial, commemorative U.S. bicentennial spoon, etc.—that gradually built to a touching sidelong biography of his, well, grandmother. He followed with a witty “no ideas but in things” tribute to WCW that sucked everything but the nouns out of selected Williams poems; a piece dedicated to Harry Smith that worked what sounded like procedural variations on the home phrase “Ukranian chickens eating” in a way that put me in mind of some of the product lists in Deer Head Nation (“World’s Largest Robot Store,” for instance); and a poem called “The Gertrude Spicer Story, Act II” that dropped nouns from Spicer’s Language poems into Stein’s sentence structures from Tender Buttons.

Like the spoons and Williams pieces suggest, Hayes’s reading showed a preference for the ‘nouny’ side of language, as opposed to its gossamer adjectives and subjunctives. Slimmed of their verbs, I was surprised at how differently the lines from WCW's poems related to time. The words became more thing-like—objective—without their everyday syntactic connectors, forcing the listener to attend to the present instead of waiting for some larger grammatic structure to uncurl. Where Czerski’s work had me moving in a metaphysical direction, Hayes’s reading inclined me toward ‘thisness’, treating text as stuff to be stretched and borrowed and moved around and stuck against other texts in a way that managed to deflate the formalist preciousness that hangs over so much contemporary poetry while still paying tribute to the 'home' poets who’ve help to shape his approach to language (including his contemporaries—each section he read from “The Gertrude Spicer Story, Act II” was dedicated to a friend who’d influenced him in some way.)

I was impressed by the way Hayes uses his source texts (a pretty intimidating gaggle) without being overwhelmed by them, and without leaning too heavily on process to make the work sing. I never lost the sense that I was listening to poems, successful on their own terms and not necessarily in reference to their authors or the procedures used to tweak them. Maybe it was the Spicer that put me in mind of magic and alchemy, but it seemed like Hayes was combining his texts in hopes of revealing the occult structure that connects them, borrowing their language to conjure the books back to life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Opie As Emperor" (1)

Rob Fitterman’s reading in Portland two Saturdays back with Gale Czerski and Jared Hayes was a study in the divergent effects and intentions possible within a shared aesthetic of constrained or borrowed language. From Czerski’s variations on lines from Keats’s Endymion, through Hayes’s mashups of Tender Buttons with Spicer’s Language, to Fitterman’s deft sampling from the language of advertising, focus groups, and corporate cubespeak (“Why Dave felt like he had to cc everyone beats me”), their readings had me asking what it is poets are doing when they ‘write through’ the words of others, what it brings to their poems and what it implies about a poetics.

In Czerski’s case, the changes she rang on the sequence “sea/verge/starlight/hand” offered an intricate verbal patterning as an alternate—maybe competing—structural device to Keats’s end-stopped rhyme, while also suggesting structure itself as a subject of the poem. The longest poem she read, Invocation (due out this month from Sarah Mangold and Maryrose Larkin’s FLASH + CARD press), built out from the Keats piece by taking the periodic table of the elements, superstitions around the numbers 9 and 13, and (unless I misheard, though the title suggests it) the formulaic repetitions involved in prayer as images of the grids or constraints that so often seem to be a condition of being: “skin is an indictment,” “around the zero wound with losses.”

There was a tragic note in the poem, as if the act of invoking—of calling to be present—was also a kind of trapping, or a form of betrayal. The piece seemed stretched between a desire to call something into being and a recognition of how presence entails being fixed in a system (the body, numerical sequence, grammar) that distorts the one recalled (“so good to see a version of you.”) Listening to the poem the way Czerski asked us to—“close your eyes, and don’t look any one place”—I thought of those early zombie movies where the scientist tries to resurrect a dead loved one, only to discover a faulty clone of a former self: all skin and zeros, no soul. Invocation seems especially alive to that dilemma; the most powerful part of the poem for me was an incantatory set of negations (untether/unbound/untie/unleash) that implied freedom rather than fixity, a moving release from “history’s melancholy tears by necessity.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Format As Content

We had to get cable to get Internet service here, and since that fateful day all surfing leads to “E!” I almost don’t care what the show is—the format and the pace of editing capture exactly what my mind wants to do these days when it watches TV. NPR does PBS so much better, and the salutary slabs of information you get from the History Channel or A&E biographies I glean instead from newspapers and magazines or, more often now, from Wikipedia, in long, luxurious hyperlink loops. Maybe “E!” represents all that TV has left to do, as a medium, at least for the pre-TiVO/no-HBO set.

My favorite format is the one where a Greek chorus of B-list comedians and entertainment magazine editors dish on Hollywood stars to the accompaniment of what’s basically a Flickr slideshow of stills showing celebrities in the most banal contexts—celebrity stepping out of limo; celebrity accompanied by lover, soon to be sundered with cheap “rip effect”; aerial shot of celebrity home as price pops up with a cash register sound. The shows feel fast, easy, and off-the-cuff—you get the feeling they could knock out a dozen in an afternoon. I like them because they’re quick, and because they fit so snugly into the 10 or 15 minute increments I tend to watch TV in. But I also appreciate how clever they are in foregrounding form over content. What these shows offer is basically an attractive interface to photos and information you could get just about anywhere—in that way they’re more like web browsers than content providers, talking templates.

Unlike “ET” or “Access Hollywood,” which pretend to be glammed up real news and leave the insertion of irony to you, the E! shows draw a lot of their humor from a sort of running meta-commentary on how ridiculous it is that we care about this stuff at all. What saves them from garden-variety pomo irony is that the smart alec commentators are situated on the same food chain, hungry to cross into the spotlight themselves, so the laughs are familial, insidery, almost loving: it's the janitor who sweeps up after the elephant making gentle fun of his charge.

This is a post about the problem of form in poetry.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dept. of Lingering Romantic Attachments

Here I thought poetry was going to be all drinking beer in the morning. Maybe for a minute in 1959 it was.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Talk to Me

Despite rumors to the contrary, "Cecil Vortex" is not Thomas Pynchon. I think. But he is the purveyor of a new Thursday feature that spotlights artists talking about their pet techniques for besting the inner slacker. So far there's been a poet, a painter, a clown, a sitcom writer, a comedian, and an actor. (That's comedian Howard Kremer, aka Dragon Boy Suede, to the left.) There are some slashes in there (who's ever just a poet without a slash in there: poet/translator, poet/gardening enthusiast, etc.) but it gives some idea of the range of Cecil's subjects, who face remarkably similar problems in getting ideas to come. These should be appearing every Thursday for a while: the first four are up here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


The local Limbaugh clone up here is Lars Larson, predictably despicable but nothing really special.

I’m hooked though on the TV simulcast of his radio show, not on the show itself so much as those spaces where the radio station’s cut to commercial but the TV camera’s still rolling. You can hear the chirpy pitch for auto insurance or refinancing your home dim in the background, while Lars sort of deflates—headset draped around neck, jaw nervously working as he tries to pump up for the next segment. It’s an utterly uncinematic drama of tense expectancy that mesmerizes me for minutes at a stretch. Once they swoop back from commercial with the spastic intro cart and big radio voice, the spell’s broken, I’m out. But just before, in the low red studio gloom, ‘Lars Larson’ vanished and this podgy envelope left there as its waste, there’s a satisfying sense of melancholy—a feeling of things inappropriately suspended—that’s better than anything else on TV. Transgression, too: you have the feeling you’re not supposed to be seeing him like this, that one medium’s unconscionably cannibalizing the other.

I’d like to get this effect into a poem. A poem that gives the sense you shouldn’t be reading it like this, it’s assembled to do something else, you caught it while it was waiting to be ready.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dept. of Things Learned in Downtown Portland

OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM fits badly on the back of a silk-stitched black bomber jacket.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Dept. of the Probably Already Thought

Neutral Milk Hotel - tubas + '80s synth = emo?

Neutral Milk Hotel - tubas + synths - poetry = emo.

Now this is a post about poetry.

Friday, March 02, 2007

International Tangents

Rob Fitterman's reading with Gale Czerski and Jared Hayes tomorrow night at Tangent. Starts at 7, but there's food and the space makes rain look good so coming early for dinner’s not a bad idea.

Sunday at PSU, Portland writers Erin Ergenbright, Kaia Sand, Katie Ford, Lisa Steinman, Maryrose Larkin, and Natalie Serber get a jump on International Women’s Day with a reading to celebrate in the Smith Memorial Student Union, Rm. 323, 1:30.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Vortex of Suppression"

The guy cutting my hair the other day at Bishops told me he moved to Portland "to save the world and all that good stuff," studies PolySci at PSU, catches 3 to 4 indie rock shows a week (the "Low Dough Show" at Dante's on Thursdays is a favorite), and once met the unofficial spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front in line at a local post office, soon after his (the spokesman's) vegan bakery was shut down by the FBI. My stylist is writing a thesis on the ELF and its tactics so they talked for over an hour.

It seemed like a good time to mention the author of the Sexiest Poem of 2006 and his recent interview on Bob McChesney's Media Matters. (Scroll down to Jan. 21, 2007.) Global warming and suppressed dissent in 50 sharp minutes, with a little Jean Seberg thrown in along the way.

The stylists of Portland are also sure to appreciate Boykoff's new book, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, when it comes out with AK Press this spring. Me too.