Friday, May 29, 2009

His Urdu

Today I wish I were Habib Jalib.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rod Smith Tangent Intro, Portland, 5/23/09

“Excuse me officer, I thought
you were a shape-shifting rat.”

If there were some messy Planet of the Apes-like apocalypse, and this were the only line of Rod Smith’s to survive, the gorillas and chimps would still have a lot of Smith to love. They’d get a taste of his Johnny Rotten-meets-Bugs Bunny attitude to authority in all its wily disguises. They’d get the carefully careless attention to sound that marries “excuse” to “sir” and “rat” to “thought.” They’d have the surprising misdirection of a “shape-shifting” rat, which lifts our officer out of the billy club and badge department of a thousand B-movies and deposits him somewhere more lunatic and sinister, where power is rubber and slips under doors or into grammar. Which is why I’m glad Rod’s there to meet it when its head pops out the other side, looking like Ted Baxter or George W., and there’s Rod set to wing it with “the back-slap/of facticity,” that pathos apes most hate. Rod’s work is always reminding me that optimism is an American disease, but humor is its birthright, and if you turn it just the right way it shoots coyote juice in the policeman’s good eye. Please welcome “Best Poet of Washington D.C. for 2008,” Rod Smith.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tangent Reading this Saturday, 5/23: Jen Coleman, Mel Nichols & Rod Smith

Rod Smith and Mel Nichols are in Portland from DC, reading for Tangent this Saturday with former DCer (now Portland’s own) Jen Coleman. Mel’s new book, Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon, will have its west coast launch. Feel free to stick around afterwards to meet and talk with the poets. (“Love Ya” puppet, sadly, stayed home. Security risk.)
Tangent presents
Clinton Corner Café, 2633 SE 21st Ave. (@ Clinton) Portland, OR

JEN COLEMAN is a Minnesota poet by way of DC, New York and now Portland. Former co-editor of the literary magazine Pom2 and co-curator of the DC based “In Your Ear” reading series. Jen also has a chapbook, “Propinquity,” and her work has appeared in The Tangent, Ixnay, Chain, and other awesome journals.

MEL NICHOLS is the author of Bicycle Day (Slack Buddha Press 2008), The Beginning of Beauty, Part 1: hottest new ringtones mnichol6 (Edge Books 2007), Day Poems (Edge Books 2005), and just out from Edge Books, Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon (finalist in the National Poetry Series). With Mark Cunningham she recently collaborated on the online chapbook nightlightnight. She teaches at George Mason University.

ROD SMITH'S most recent book is Deed (University of Iowa, 2007). He is also the author of Music or Honesty, The Good House, Poèmes de l’araignée (France), In Memory of My Theories, The Boy Poems, Protective Immediacy, and New Mannerist Tricycle with Lisa Jarnot and Bill Luoma. A CD, Fear the Sky, came out from Narrow House Recordings in 2005. He edits Aerial Magazine and publishes Edge Books. Smith is also editing, with Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press.
UPCOMING READINGS: SAT., 6/27 Stephanie Young, Dana Ward & Cynthia Sailers

Monday, May 18, 2009

In the Chinese Garden (Stick Fortune Edition)

“Keep in mind that true friendship extends beyond time and place.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

“Poetry” vs. “Poetic”

Gabe left a response to a recent post about where to find poetry suggesting that in talking about the subject, the term “poetic” may turn off fewer people than “poetry” does. “For whatever reason,” he writes, “there seems to be a certain stigma attached to the word ‘poetry’, while people seemingly use the word ‘poetic’ with a sense of freedom.” I wrote back:
I’m with you that “poetry” drags a lot of cultural freight in its train, while “poetic’s” gone feather-light and attaches itself to movies, basketball players, or flower arrangements without anyone batting an eye. It reminds me a little of Robert Musil’s bit about a “racehorse of genius” in The Man Without Qualities, where our hero, who’s blown his youth striving to be a genius, reads a newspaper article in which the word gets applied in the Sports section to a thoroughbred. Maybe the Modernist equivalent of our habit of calling power forwards “poetry in motion.”

What do you think the reasons are for the stigma attached to “poetry”? It’s supposed be unpopular because of its difficulty. Maybe it has as much to do though with the way poetry habitually gets walled off from everyday life, a sacred space where you can dump all your sincere (and often not particularly difficult) feelings about the war, the miracle of parenthood, or your grandmother’s shingles in a way that’s not permitted in “real life,” where the message is often that nobody much cares.

On the other side, I wonder what it is “poetic” does to avoid the bad odor of “poetry.” Is it the promise of poetry—elevated feelings, a sense of heightened meaning, the compulsion of a significant sigh at the end—without the time investment in all those baffling strings of words? (I don’t mean to say this is what poetry is, but what I think people who prefer “poetic” to “poetry” may mean when they call something that’s not poetry “poetic.”)

Oddly, I’m more often baffled by poetry’s popularity than its neglect. The other night a self-identified slam poet read on the radio to a theater audience. The hollers and whistles at the end, for work that seemed to me to be performing the gestures normally expected of poetry without being especially poetic, surprised me. I’m not used to people reacting to poetry that way, and somehow couldn’t believe they were really applauding for the poetry, but for themselves: for their delight in not hating the thing they expected to giggle or yawn at. How paranoid is that?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beverly Dahlen & David Abel in Portland, 5/10/09

David Abel and Beverly Dahlen both opened their readings in Portland on Sunday with poems by Robin Blaser. The pieces they chose paid tribute to Blaser’s long life in poetry, but also set the tone for each reading. Abel picked “Dreams, April 1981” from Blaser’s Syntax, which tosses off references to Hesiod, Art Tatum, Shakespeare, and the CBC with an ease that marks Abel’s own blend of allusion, brainy punning, “sound imitations” (one memorable one of a slow movement from Brahms) and deep quotidianism in Sweep, the long project to which he gave over most of his reading.

The poems he read from the series were mostly short, in-and-out flashes of wit and lyrical concision that seemed to tease out the implications of one of its lines—“impossible to see this thing from any one perspective”—by threading consciousness through data via a set of “co-integrated meanderings” that embraced dinners with friends, philosophical puzzlers, daybook-like entries, and cherry blossoms falling “in a sterile show.” Each poem was numbered, and by the end we’d moved from the double digits to selections somewhere well past 1,500; a kind of infinity of extension held in check I guess, like our infinitely extensible perspectives, by the death announced at the start of Blaser’s poem: “so it is death is the/condition of infinite form—”

Beverly Dahlen read Blaser’s “Pretty Please” to open. Two lines from it stuck with me while she read:

“the radical absence of the poem I’m reading”
“somewhat at a distance as I’ve always
loved the other”

After a recent poem from what she described as “the impossible, interminable work called A Reading,” Dahlen read a long, mostly prose piece, “The Moon,” about a dream of her childhood in Portland. In it, she walks past her parents’ house, where she’s expected, to look at the moon reflected in the panels of a “solar collector” in a field, an incident that takes on new meanings with each of three narrative passes. What sounds at first like an old memory turns out to be a recent dream; the details of the dream get turned and re-turned in each telling until it assumes the shape of a myth; finally, distance arrives in the form of Lacan, whose remark that “the life of children is the death of parents” moves things calmly into the mystic, where origin and echo, source and reflection, parent and child, the dead and the living all sort of begin to nest into each other. By the end of her reading, Blaser’s line, “I’ve always loved the other,” seemed Dahlenized into the question: Is there anything but the other to love? And what’s more other than the radical absences—ghosts, I think they called them in Blaser’s Berkeley—reflected in poems and dreams? That sounds sort of moony when I say it like that, but with Blaser’s recent death, and Dahlen’s first reading in her place of birth, all seemed for an instant to balance and cohere.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Tarzan keeps saying, ‘ombawa,’
and everybody does everything
including the elephants

‘Wow!’ she said, ‘I’m out of the
rabbit hole and it’s the same.’

‘If there’s one thing Harry learned
to love more than the sacred, it was
the sacred in ruins.’

Robin Blaser

Friday, May 08, 2009

May Readings in Portland

So many great readings coming up this month in Portland that it’s worth pulling them out of the sidebar and into a separate post.

Spare Room’s been on overdrive since their 100th reading celebration in January; this Sunday May 10, they’re bringing the legendary Beverly Dahlen, a Portland native, up from San Francisco to read with Portland’s tireless poet-of-all-trades David Abel.

The following Sunday May 17, poet and translator from the Sanskrit Andrew Schelling reads for Spare Room with Portland-based Indian classical singer Michael Stirling.

Then—hang on!—on Saturday May 23, Mel Nichols comes out from DC to debut her brand-new Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon with Rod Best Poet of DC 2008Smith for Tangent. They’ll be joined by former DCer and recent Portland-by-way-of-Brooklyn transplant Jen Coleman.

This is more like it. Now if we can talk a few of them into moving here after reading …

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Let's Go to the Bar, Part II (Golden Age)

“The proprieties and delicacies of the English are known to few; ‘tis impossible even for a good wit to understand and practice them without the help of a liberal education, long reading, and digesting of those few good authors we have amongst us, the knowledge of men and manners, the freedom of habitudes and conversation with the best company of both sexes; and in short, without wearing off the rust which he contracted, while he was laying in a stock of learning.”

—John Dryden, Preface to Sylvae
I like the idea that good writing takes conversation and company as well as book smarts; you need to go to the reading and the bar. Plus that part about rust.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fishwrap Reviews

Mark Wallace asks about the value of poetry book reviews over at Thinking Again. I left this in the comment box:
Hi Mark,

Appreciated your thoughts about reviewing in MAYDAY. Esp. struck by your question about whether poetry from other eras was any better for having had anonymous reviewers. Poetry suffers more than most arts, I think, from the “golden age” disease, imagining a time when poetry was supposedly more popular, vital, “in touch,” etc. I wonder if the call for more negative reviews is really a golden age-type wish for more readers. And I’m sort of dubious about the idea that reviews, negative or otherwise, will reel ‘em in.

Reviews are like fishwrap—important for the task at hand, but kind of disposable once the goods reach the kitchen. Which is maybe why reviews from other eras are almost never cited except to show how wrong contemporaries were about the poet under fire. We chuckle when we read contemporary reviews of Keats, or Stein, or Stevens: or, less often, we’re surprised at how much they got right, by our lights. But we rarely seem to go to them for information about the poetry and why we should still be reading it.

My hunch is that the role poetry serves in our culture right now plays out mostly in the universities. Whatever gets your books studied there is what counts; for getting read, reviews are adjunct I think to curriculum decisions. I’d rather have a course adoption or two than a wave of blog chatter, or an anonymous review. One can influence the other, but I wouldn’t want to confuse the cart with the horse. Maybe the number of reviews a book gets is more important than anything they say, because it generates the attention makers of syllabi need to make their decisions. I don't know, maybe that puts too much on the university's shoulders. What do you think?
No diss intended, btw, to the many thoughtful poet/reviewers out there who take their work seriously, and do serious work. Jordan Davis, Franklin Bruno, Ange Mlinko, Stephen Burt, Joyelle McSweeney, Stan Apps, Barry Schwabsky and several others jump to mind as folks who might take exception to the “fishwrap” rap.

Just trying to think through changes in the larger literary culture, and reviewing’s place within it. If poetry meets its readers differently than it did in, say, Johnson’s day, I don’t think it’s because we’ve got less brainpower or more timid & puff-prone reviewers.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Neronian Modernism

Robert Graves, one of the crankiest cranks of the last century, is rarely crankier than in his intro to Lucan’s Pharsalia. Granted, Lucan had some cheek, answering Virgil’s hymn to imperial goodness with a lurid epic of Rome’s civil wars. Different times, different mores.

But Graves says he went ahead and translated a work he dislikes because “Lucan exerts a strange fascination on even the reluctant reader; and because…he anticipated so many of the literary genres dominant to-day [c. 1957] that it would be unfair not to put him in modern dress for the admiration of the great majority whose tastes differ from mine.” Ha-rumph.

“Modern dress,” it turns out, means lining up Tennyson, Longfellow, and William Morris with Virgil; Eliot, Hulme, and Pound (“the most Lucan-like of modernists”) with Lucan. Nutty as that sounds, along the way Graves hits on a description that seems to fit any number of the new poetries (affix your own labels) that emerged under Bush II, our own personal Nero:
“This modernism is equally anti-Virgilian in its deliberate neglect of craftsmanship; the rhythms are monotonous; often words are clumsily iterated before the memory of their first use has faded from the reader’s ear; the argument is broken by impudent philosophical, geographical, or historical asides. Lucan lacks religious conviction; dwells lovinging on the macabre; hates his times; and allows his readers to assume that he is as self-centered, degenerate, cruel, and cowardly as the next man. His hyperboles are patently ridiculous: the Thracian cranes, for instance, delay their winter migration in order to gorge on Roman corpses at Pharsalus—though Pharsalus was not fought until the Spring, and cranes are non-carniverous. [Ha-rumph, Ed.] Yet his occasionally polished epigrams make highly serviceable quotations.”
Doesn’t that sound like something you’d want to read? Something you just read?