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.