Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Politely Declined

I think I make up a little ground here though.

Does anyone else see a resemblance, aesthetically and just in general shamanistic awesomeness, between Ariel Pink and LRSN? (You’ll notice that Pink lists his genre on MySpace as “Melodramatic Popular Song.” Who that’s read it can forget LRSN’s classic “On Melodrama”?)

Pink is a fuzzy condensary of American garage pop, like LRSN contains the whole face-off between orality and the grapheme in even his casualest pieces.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tinny Spark

I feel like a dick for liking this song.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Anger Scale & Musee Mechanique

From the ashes of Traffic, Modern Americans has managed to procure the smoking review below that was meant to appear there. Thanks to Sharon Mesmer for letting me post it here.
The Anger Scale, Katie Degentesh, Combo Books, 2006
ISBN 0-9728880-2-0

Musee Mechanique
, Rodney Koeneke, BlazeVOX [books], 2006

ISBN 0-9759228-0-7

Katie Degentesh and Rodney Koeneke have produced two expansive, generous collections of flarf. Does that seem like a strange, slightly oxymoronic thing to say about flarf, that naughty, “not okay” spawn of Google and the many generations of the New York School? Many things have been said about flarf, but one thing that’s been overlooked is the expansive “meta-mind” aspect of it: how, by constantly incorporating bits of the posted poems into the new poems, the content of each subsequent poem reflects the collective sensibility and contains the indelible stamp of its origin, no matter who wrote it—like Tin Pan Alley meets TAZ in Darwinian cyberspace. One of the pleasures of being a member of the flarf collective is observing with delight how the poems produced by the list members are constantly morphed by the poem-responses to them. Of course that kind of riffing on your friends’ poems can be (and has been) construed as exclusionary in-joking. But the generosity I mentioned resides in precisely what is included, what gets incorporated, which is just about everything. In The Anger Scale and Musee Mechanique, eloquent phrases culled from search engine results are allowed to stream into goofiness (also culled from search engine results) …

Things are good, good is sweet, sweet is gnarly, and gnarly has
the musty reek that reminds me of the cow fetuses
I had to dissect a couple of months ago

(Degentesh, “I See Things or Animals or People Around Me That Others Do Not See”)

I remembered a door that turns in upon the slothful,
I remember the slothful in bed. I remembered
Oprah’s trainer is Bob Greene. Then I remembered them
under my mattress.

(Koeneke, “I Remember”)

. . . beautiful images become silly, then get beautiful again …

If it’s all in your life, you can create
a whole kermess of distinctions
or a single phrase that, centuries hence, will be remembered
as a shorthand for a kind of beauty
dominated by McCartney’s overbusy basswork.

The vowels of the text
form a short but very important obbligato
in the wheezy symphony of what you are …

(Koeneke, “Obligate Nose Breather”)

Come hither purposely
with typhus vapors
And I will spit in
the piano room

(Degentesh, “Someone Has Been Trying to Poison Me”)

… and Internet lingo meets “the poetic”:

And even though I haven’t won a game yet (!!!)
the breath of life is vivid and arresting.

(Degentesh, “I Do Not Tire Quickly”)

emo? hard core rock? punk rock? post-punk? grunge?
In the neighborhood of make-believe the big oak tree.

(Koeneke, “X the Owl”)

Degentesh inhabits the overarching organizational conceit as well as the linguistic minutiae of her work with a careful attention to—heck, I’ll go out on a limb and say love of—the quotidian: the everyday selves that emerge from her poems are shifting amalgams of familiar personae. And they “speak” via the organizational conceit: the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, an assessment consisting of 566 true/false questions designed to help identify personal, social, and behavioral problems in psychiatric patients. Degentesh describes how she employed the inventory to Google-sculpt the poems in the “About This Book” section:

“Once I had access to all the questions, I began to use them to write the poems themselves by feeding phrases … into internet search engines and piecing the poems together from the results pages.”

The poem titles are statements from the inventory. Thus the arbitrary and magpie-ish flarf system (which makes fun of verity) is reined in by the use of another arbitrary system, the MMPI (which passes itself off as verity) and suggests that readers graft the question “what defines ‘mental health’?” onto “what defines ‘poem’?” Both sets of questions are unanswerable if not looked at through the prism of history. But since flarf delimits history by its use of Google-sculpting, a constant “now” speaks that is both funny under examination and critical of itself. The poem, “I Do Not Tire Quickly,” starts off the collection (Degentesh’s debut, by the way) with a surprising statement: “Even if your heart is messy, I will clean it up.” It’s a tender impossibility, for what is a messy heart? And how can it be “cleaned”? And who is the person who believes it can be done? The word “heart” appears in this book at least six times, and I don’t think that’s a fluke: the personae that Degentesh channels—those amalgams of search engine personalities—are always a little vulnerable, and the poet throws that vulnerability into vivid relief by her choices regarding the lines that buttress (or, perhaps, leap off of) that quality:

I have not had sex, etc.
I have been experiencing some darkness in my soul

(“My Soul Sometimes Leaves My Body”)

When I’m near someone missing an arm or leg
I feel weighted down by clothes,
the faithful, and celebrities

(“I Feel Uneasy Indoors”)

This “I” changes a lot–sometimes it’s robust, linear, at other times fragile, intuitive. The personae come across like disembodied voices–the new ghosts in the machine.

The machine is never far from either of these poet’s methods, of course. In Koeneke’s “Afterword” (where he discusses his involvement with flarf and its compositional methods—just as Degentesh does, in part, in hers), he says, “It’s not the machines that are shocking, but the use we keep putting them to.”

What’s shocking is the generous uses we’re putting them to: we’re more connected to each other, and to strangers, than ever. Koeneke speculates that this “connectivity” in its various guises is our ghost dance for the post-9/11 era, “a time when one kind of America dropped away and another, more unhinged one emerged.” Musee Mechanique begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees … The computer has become an outside-the-body-brain, and we are undecided as to whether that’s a good thing or not. But Musee furnishes possibilities to consider: the opening salvo, “Use Dips to Initiate,” sets up—as the first poem of The Anger Scale did—an interesting (im)possibility robustly passed off as verity:

Whisker was first used
in the air-sparging tube
to regulate transient voltage dips
for the whole modular village

hordes of unshorn unicorns
served as insecticides …

That a whisker could be used for anything, or that hordes of unshorn unicorns could serve as anything, actually seems possible for a second, and then your thoughts run parallel to the poem itself:

that tape shall be used in every threaded fitting.
that Cheese dip appears at the Welcoming Committees.
that Outfall from dips and lead-off ditches be fed
to native plants …

There’s a damn good chance that cheese dip does appear at welcoming committees, and that’s the funny “duh!” moment that runs through poems like this one and “Sky Hook”:

sky hook? It’s a thing that attaches
to the sky.

Well, duh! And it’s utilitarian, too …

Marines shimmy up it. Sky Hook Structure
establishes “snakiness,” provides shade—protection—
from aerial predators.

Many of Koeneke’s poems explore the issues of utility and correctness in a world besotted with possibilities:

thing is cute for the first 5 minutes, then
starts to wear thin—dummy comes to life,
takes over carnival. How do you set things right?

(“Evil Dummy”)

Kitty Goes Postal—
wants pizza.
Kitty has hat & cape and looks
like a magician …

Then the pizza guy [not the cute
pizza guy, worse luck]
comes to the door and says, “Peace, Kitty!”

(“Pizza Kitty”)

One aspect of Musee that works its way stealthily to the surface is the skillful—oh, okay, I’ll say it: poetic!—manipulation of phrases. In “Let Arch Rot,” there’s incredible riffing on the words “let” “arch” “rot” (and also, at the end of the poem, on “drop/droop”)”

Stems which do not branch, but arch,
posts that droop and rot, sagged forward,
cracked: the body falls. Springs now

hang that much lower. One drop
to make arch floral, thought:
then day drooped.

That kind of music wends its way through a flarf fable, too:

a grackle and a sparrow
(the grackle is a creature
of the night, the sparrow of the day)
both in song, a song of night and sorrow
with this important difference:

the sparrow trills for vespers;
the grackle he sings for his life.

(“The Grackle and the Sparrow”)

Whereas Degentesh’s personae were filtered through an “I,” Koeneke’s flow through a “My,” especially in the section called “My Service on Parnassus.” “My Cream” discloses the troublesome vagaries of the poet’s existence within the ghost dance:

Beauty yields to grunting: girl/boy harmonies,
fecal toms, worried strings …

Spring offers its business solutions
to that vacant e-kiosk, me: Blake’s Zoas,
Yeats’s gyres, Pound’s dollars, my cream.

“My Cream” is a special kind of sonnet: the idea behind lines 13 and 14, the usual final envoy of the form, are laid bare, and then something else gets added:

In sonnets, this line should act as a pivot: if sweet,
will gently curdle, if dark add creamy tincture
to grunts of private grief

But, happily, it doesn’t end there, but goes on with images of chimps in the gloaming, and ends with the unafraid-to-be-lovely “O stars …

In both these collections, the language and methods of poetry are constantly redefined, refined and expanded. And in that expansiveness, there’s room for everyone.

SHARON MESMER is a two-time New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry. Her two recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books) and The Virgin Formica. Her blog is

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Writing & Parenting

New website designs are springing up like bridge tolls around the Bay, first Small Press Traffic’s, then venerable navigator that is SPD. One victim of the improved onlinism is SPT’s paper journal, Traffic, which just went the way of all print and decided to stay trees. The double issue, 3/4 (doubles always mean danger), would have held between an original “Boykoff” cover Sharon Mesmer’s review of The Anger Scale and Musee Mechanique, along with a forum on Writing & Parenting. Paul Hoover’s already posted his contribution; mine was this:
The most obvious thing to say about writing and parenting is that once you’re a parent, you don’t have time to write. Being a parent is a miraculous exercise in the obvious, the tedious, and the banal: all the things you don’t want your writing to be. I have a new affection for the obvious since we had Auden. My life’s flattened to the contours of a toddler’s world, it’s more dependent on small variations in a limited scale, more Stanzas in Meditation than The Cantos.

I don’t fight that so much anymore, as a writer; I’m closer to being at peace with the extra-literary, or anti-literary, nature of parenting. It’s hard to push the experience of having kids into language without falling into sentiment and commonplace, a problem with trying to put anything into language—that artifice for holding experience in common, flattening it into the names we exchange—but in writing about parenting the problem looms larger, because the pre-made shapes for pouring the experience into are so insistent, well-worn, and policed. The most obvious thing to say about writing and parenting is that whatever you say about parenting in writing is obvious.

Once you’re a parent, you don’t have time to write. Every writer I’ve talked to who’s a parent says the same thing. Parents always say the same things: parenthood is an exercise in the obvious. There’s a narrow range of delights and concerns the role imposes, which is one reason it’s so annoying to be around one if you’re not one. There are writers who aren’t parents who say they have no time to write, too; writers, like parents, live in a circumscribed zone of pleasures and glooms which also makes them annoying to be around if you’re not one. The huge number of manuals on parenting and on creative writing suggests that there’s money to be made in soothing the makers of children and texts with the obvious: parents are as anxious to know their problems are “normal” as writers facing a “dry spell” are.

If parenthood itself is a dry spell, which it’s been so far for me, that’s a different order of problem, or two different problems pushed together and compounded. The problem of writing and the problem of parenting. Time considered as a writer: the stuff I always needed more of—to waste, to socialize, to bore myself with all the excuses there are for not writing. Time considered as a parent: the stuff I never have enough to give, to Auden, to writing, to relationships outside the tight boundaries of the family. The time I used to burn, find, spend, or steal for writing was always mine. Now it’s held in common: what I take for myself, for my writing, is time taken away from someone else. The things I used to do for inspiration now seem selfish, what used to be dedication—to a community, a tradition, an experiment in conducting a life in poetry—can feel like irresponsibility. Considered strictly as a writer, being a father so far has been disastrous. Considering a writer strictly as one who writes, being a parent is being a disaster.

As a writer, I’ve never enjoyed being a technician of the discourse, even to critique it. What I wanted was invention, imagination, originality: the countertop appliances of the soul. As a parent, I’ve learned more about what it means to be, or to want to be, common. To hold concerns in common with other parents that have nothing to do with being a writer; to know that the most powerful and unique thing that’s likely ever to happen to me is among the most common happenings in the world. Parenting is absolutely unique for everyone in approximately the same way. I don’t want anything wildly different for Auden than anyone else who loves their kid does. I want him to be a normal, happy child, I want him protected and loved. I admire originality in poetry, but I can’t picture clearly what it would mean to be an “original” parent. Being a parent is an exercise in always having something in common.

When I do start writing again, really writing, it won’t be the same I that writes. I don’t belong to myself, or to my writing, in the way that I did before. I don’t have the same relationship to time, or the old worshipful feeling about writing. I think having a kid has done for me what many writers describe poetry as doing for them: it’s taken me out of the word and into the world, but a world scrambled and reassembled for having its presence—Auden’s—within it.

What will Auden think of this when he’s old enough to read it? I’ve never loved any living thing so much; I cry (but don’t write) with ease when I consider it. But what parent wouldn’t say the same thing?

—Rodney Koeneke
February 2, 2007

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Various Positions

I’ll be in San Francisco this weekend, July 11th and 12th, for the two poetry-plus events below. Would love to see you there.
Both Both Reading Series
Pierce Street, Lower Haight, San Francisco

(check site for location details)

If you’re here, you know me; STAS FELDMAN sings in Conspiracy of Beards, San Francisco’s a capella Leonard Cohen cover choir. I know he’ll be versing, I hope he’ll be singing (accordion, at minimum). Sakkis will be back from Greece with retsina.
Artists' Television Access
992 Valencia @ 21st St., San Francisco

The bill features these writer/performers, taking on clips from the following movies:

Jaime Cortez: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" (1967)
Cynthia Sailers: "The Passion of Anna" (1969)
David Larsen: "Logan's Run" (1976)
Douglas & Nicole Kearney: "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)
Rodney Koeneke: "Mary Poppins" (1964)
Clive Worsley: "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972)
Charles Schulz & Erika Staiti: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (1966)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Orono Mac Low

“... mere social encounter can't be legibly called polity until it envisions its future as a socius.”

Patrick Durgin's Orono paper on Jackson Mac Low got criminally cut short by a lax Chair, but this insight from it came home with me like a souvenir pen. Is it too late to print up T-shirts?

Here endeth the Orono chatter. Steve Evans had the presence of mind to park all the blog links here. Between that and the ThoughtMesh, there's still a lot of conference to catch if you couldn't teleport in.