Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Steve Evans On Coteries, Infrastructure, and Gossip

On the sonic tick, just got around to Steve Evans’s talk about phonotextuality—what happens to poems when they get recorded—at Naropa this summer. In a sleek 12'14", he points out that the ability to record readings goes back to just 1860, which hasn’t given poets (or their assassin-critics) much time to figure out what taping will mean for the art. So anecdote, gossip, and group indiscretions leak into these supposedly ephemeral recordings in a way that’s not usually permitted within the statelier confines of the page. Taped poetry also shifts attention to the room and the group at the expense of the solo poet, who’s often relieved at the chance to slough off the responsibilities of the author function. As Evans puts it in my hands-down favorite line from the talk, “Gossip is history that nobody wants exactly to be traceable back to them.”

Friedrich Kittler and Lytle Shaw both came to mind while I was listening, but for this talk anyway, Evans helpfully zeroes in on the relief from footnotes and careful theory that recording provides, at least for the poets doing the talking. In the Bay Area, he argues, there’s been something almost like guilt at the split between the heavy poetics and “ragingly great after-parties” which recordings like the ones Andrew Kenower’s done for A Voice Box help to preserve for those of us listening in from the world’s Portlands and Oronos.

The talk got me thinking about the recent wave of anecdotal histories coming out of the Language generation in the past few years, one of which, Michael Gottlieb’s new Memoir and Essay, gets a killer review from Jordan Davis here. Blogs too, which may turn out to be more permanent and accessible than any of us who’ve been writing them since 2002 ever think when we hit “Publish,” bob a little differently in the wake of Steve’s talk. No one can predict what the future—which now I picture as sort of a giant eavesdropping Orono—will care to extract from our noise, but as the codex becomes just another handheld information delivery system, smart money might be on the gossip. Only who’s going to be our Steve Evans?

Monday, August 30, 2010

King of the Beach

What Bruno says. Wavves’ King of the Beach and Ariel Pink’s Before Today have been two of my summer’s bigger disappointments, in almost exact proportion to the excitement of their earlier efforts. Both scrubbed and buffed all the cool burrs away, or enough of them to reduce their songs to just a crafty catalog of their influences. But I’ve learned you look square and bitter when you criticize pop music, as if you expected something from it in the first place, so let’s end on the sonically positive: Drew Gardner doing “Pop Rocks” in a cattle auction amphitheater. “Nothing in my life is the way it’s supposed to be” is about as sharp a summation of the pop ethos as I’ve heard this side of Eddie Cochran.

Friday, August 27, 2010


“Sir Matthew Dudley turned away his butler yesterday morning, and at night the poor fellow died suddenly in the streets: Was not it an odd event? But what care you; but then I knew the butler.”

—Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Everything Is Quiet

It’s one of those lose/lose questions that makes you look old, prurient, and clueless all at once, but what is “dirty period sex”?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

Poetry & Anti-Poetry

In an age of Too Much, the Recovery Project at Octopus is an intriguing intervention against the rising slush pile of the now. A poet writes about an older book, often one that’s been passed over or forgotten too quickly, and argues against its neglect. The pieces often take an autobiographical turn, with some account of how the book reached the writer, the mysterious heart of that mysterious process by which poems beat time and find their fans.

Joel Bettridge’s take on the poetry of Robert Service—near the outer historical limit of the books under recovery—twins Service’s poems of the Yukon (“the snows that are older than history”) with Sarah Palin’s description of Alaska in her gubernatorial farewell speech last year. This was the speech that William Shatner parodied with bongos and jazz bass on Conan O’Brien. The part he recites goes like this:
“And getting up here, I say it is the best road trip in America, soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice-fogged frigid beauty. The cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime, such extreme summertime, about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska, that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.”
Joel reads Palin’s string of shameless cliches as “the opposite of poetry”—a use of language that, instead of defamiliarizing the everyday a la Shklovsky’s ostranenie, serves up exactly “what every American thought he or she knows about Alaska.” He sees this in part as a populist political gesture with the unintended consequence of “[making] the landscape disappear” inside her formulaic, almost nonsensical, celebration of it.

By contrast, Robert Service, who employs an equally familiar, even cliched poetic diction that revels in “the 'thrill' and 'wonder' of the Yukon’s beauty, and the 'stillness' that brings the narrator 'peace',” emerges from Joel’s comparison as an underrated champion of our desire for ostranenie, which for Service means Alaska, and which appears in a poem like “The Spell of the Yukon” less as a landscape than an occasion for “[wrestling] with the overwhelming problem ... of trying to locate what it means to inhabit, even belong to, a place that inspires a profound sense of intimacy and love in the face of its indifference.”

It’s a powerful reading that rescues Service from our condescension to his anti-Modern poetics, and maybe to his own populist politics: cranking out rhymes and ballads deep into the '50s, his dogged rejection of Modernism surely had a political edge. Service aside, Joel’s account of the opposite of poetry—an anti-poetry—has stuck with me since I read it. His analysis works so well because Palin and Service are so close in their verbal resources. Palin’s self-conscious stab at being poetic is funny and late-night-parody-worthy because it reaches back to language not unlike Service’s for its idea of what poetry is. Joel spots a “contorted reference to 'The Call of the Yukon'” in Palin’s speech, and it’s the surface resemblance between her merciless rivers and soaring Denalis and Service’s “big, dizzy mountains” and “mighty-mouthed hollows” that provokes Joel’s sensitive re-reading. One of the uses of anti-poetry, if it has one, is to help us distinguish poetry not so much from its opposite, which is easy, but from its evil twin.

Problem is, I kind of like the evil twin. I like Palin’s strangely musical repetitions (“soaring,” “summertime,” “road,” “months”), her slipshod take on the demotic (“I say it is,” “as throughout all Alaska,” “that is competing”), her staccato pile-up of adjectives (“that big wild good life teeming”), and her insouciance with sonic oddities like “Sourdough” and “Cheechako.” I’m sure Joel’s right that the poem has nothing to do with the wonders of Alaska. But it does have a lot to do with the syntactic contortions, verbal squash and stretch, embrace of the hackneyed, and ear-driven sound forms I value in a lot of contemporary poetry. It’s not a great poem, not even a great anti-poem, but it’s sort of a pretty good anti-poem that I prefer to a lot of “real” poems that aim to be great.

Where the speech goes off the rails, I think, is where it tries to conform to common ideas of arresting poetic language: merciless rivers, midnight suns, ice-fogged frigid beauty—phrases that Palin, a gifted improviser of anti-poetry, would never say off-script, and which she ejects from her mouth in the video as if they were miniature turds slipped under her tongue. Shatner’s parody proves that her speechwriter was ultimately right; these phrases were instantly recognized as a special, “poetic” use of language, and the Beat setting Conan gave it goes straight to the heart of how poetry’s thought of in the larger culture.

I guess what Joel’s article helped me get clear on is that finally I’m not very interested in sorting out poetry from anti-poetry, or in embracing anti-poetry as such, like some strands of contemporary poetics seem to call for. In the end, I’m not even all that concerned with ostranenie, a mantra that’s been chanted so long it’s become a cliche of its own. Right now, reality seems more than capable of estranging itself from us without any extra help from poetry, the rise of the Thrilla from Wasilla being one of its latest, greatest examples. It’s in the shifting dialectic between poetry and anti-poetry that the language I’m most drawn to lies, with one forever stepping out ahead to re-frame and lend new meanings to the other. A literary language is always bound to harden into set formulas; the vernacular’s condemned to seldom recognizing itself as poetic. It takes a Palin and a Service together in some weird way to make a poetry, and a poet like Joel to call out the heretofore invisible strings that bind them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Marina Tsvetaeva's Art in the Light of Conscience

Its been a Tsvetaeva/Mandelstam kind of summer, for no reason I can really account for except that the Rethinking Poetics kerfuffle (remember that?) got me curious about a time when the gulag, not Facebook or a conference room, was the endpoint for those kind of discussions. The troubles been finding translations, which never seem to bring over the poetry with the intensity of the critical responses it provokes. Prose carries better; so here’s something about that, for this.
Thanks to a wealth of publications since the ‘60s, there are lots of ways into Marina Tsvetaeva’s work via English. For my money though, few capture her force of mind and powerful wit as vividly as Angela Livingstone does in these essays, most written during Tsvetaeva’s prose-heavy √©migr√© period in Paris in the ‘30s. Watching Tsvetaeva clarify for herself and her public where she’s been, what poetry means, and what value it has in the political roar through which she lived is fascinating, in part for the uncompromising way she responds to her contemporaries, partly for the rigorous measure of the art she leaves for us.

The circumstances that history forced upon Tsvetaeva and her cohort make our own hand-wringing about the efficacy of poetry look like a grade school play. I don’t mean that to put us down (well, maybe a little) so much as to elevate Tsvetaeva’s razor-sharp and intensely particular approach to poetics, which for her reaches beyond any syllabus or specialty to become a manual for how to stay human in a world with shrinking space for that.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Free Samples

In anticipation of tomorrows Market Day reading, here are some online samples from the writers.

Island, by Erika Recordon

Two poems from La Petite Zine
One poem from Verse Daily
A Recovery Project on William Dickey from Octopus
& an article on “Digital Diplomacy from The New York Times Magazine,
by Jesse Lichtenstein

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Market Day Poetry: Koeneke, Lichtenstein, Recordon this Saturday 8/14

I give my last reading of the summer this Saturday, August 14 at 12 noon for the Market Day Poetry Series at St. Johns Booksellers in North Portland. I’m reading all-new work, but even better inducements to come are Jesse Lichtenstein and Erika Recordon, whom I was lucky enough to get for the bill, plus Nena Rawdah’s eclectic and totally reasonably priced collection. Come quiz her on where she got each book and I’ll bet she can tell you.
Saturday, 8/14, 12 noon
Market Day Poetry Series
St. Johns Booksellers, 8622 N. Lombard St.
Portland, OR

The St. Johns Market Day Poetry Series continues its summer reading series with local writers Erika Recordon, Rodney Koeneke, and Jesse Lichtenstein. Readings begin at 12 noon at St. Johns Booksellers, just off the St. Johns Farmer
’s Market in North Portland. Admission is free.

JESSE LICHTENSTEIN is finishing his first book of poems, excerpts of which appear in Boston Review, EOAGH 6, Diagram, Denver Quarterly, Verse, Gulf Coast, and The Paris Review. His journalism has been published in The New Yorker, Slate, the New York Times, n + 1, and The Economist. He lives in Portland, where he also teaches poetry and co-directs the Loggernaut Reading Series.

ERIKA RECORDON is at work on her first collection of stories. Her fiction has appeared in the local journal Poor Claudia, The Denver Quarterly, and other on-line publications. She lives in Portland, OR and works in a fancy grocery store.

RODNEY KOENEKE is author of the poetry collections Musee Mechanique and Rouge State. Rules for Drinking Forties, a chapbook, appeared last year from Cy Press; another, Names of the Hits (of Diane Warren), is due this year from OMG!. His work has been anthologized in Bay Poetics and in the forthcoming Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf. He lives in Portland, where he helps curate the Tangent Reading Series and blogs mostly about poetry at Modern Americans: www.modampo.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

New Reasons to Heart the Internet

Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like fucking Shaft!!!!!

Monday, August 09, 2010

History of My Own Time

Gilbert Burnet is my favorite prose writer. Not the greatest, not the most literary, no ingenious stylist moving the goalposts for English. But in the last few years, hes the writer I turn to most when I cant sleep or need to quiet the drone that passes for thinking. I read novels to distraction; if they’re good enough to keep reading, they become obsessions that last till the books consumed. I like Burnet too much to treat him like that. I dip in and out guiltlessly, mix up who’s who across paragraphs, come back after leaving for weeks, forget everything he’s said up to the bookmark then skim old sections, or leaf ahead, unsure if I’m moving forward or how far to go back.

The small interest I take in his subject enhances the comfort I find in his syntax, which I experience almost like pure syntax, much more so than with most experimental writing which claims that as an aim. The particular names and verbs in Burnet are largely occasions for placement, and the economy of his sentences exceeds the need to deliver story cleanly by so much as to become an ethic all its own, information freed from every burden but circulation. Here
’s a characteristic passage, picked more or less at random from his chapter on Queen Anne:
“The Prince of Baden drew together the troops of the empire. He began with blocking up Landau, and that was soon turned to a siege. Catinat was sent to command the French army in Alsace, but it was so weak that he was not able to make head with it. In the end of April the Dutch formed three armies: one, under the Prince of Nassau, undertook the siege of Kaiserwerth; another was commanded by the Earl of Athlone, and lay in the duchy of Cleve, to cover the siege; a third, commanded by Cohorn, broke into Flanders, and put a great part of that country under contribution. Marshal Boufflers drew his army together, and having laid up great magazines in Roermond and Venloo, he passed the Maese with his whole army. The Duke of Burgundy came down post from Paris to command it. The States apprehended that so great a prince would at his first appearance undertake somewhat worthy of him, and thought the design might be upon Maestricht; so they put twelve thousand men in garrison there. The auxiliary troops from Germany did not come so soon as was expected, and cross winds stopped a great part of our army, so that the Earl of Athlone was not strong enough to enter into action with Marshal Boufflers, but he lay about Cleve watching his motions. The siege of Kaiserwerth went on slowly; the Rhine, swelling very high, so filled their trenches that they could not work in them. Marshall Tallard was sent to lie on the other side of the Rhine, to cannonade the besiegers, and to send fresh men into the town. The King of Prussia came to Wesel, from whence he furnished the besiegers with all that was necessary. There was one vigorous attack made, in which many were killed on both sides. In conclusion, after a brave defense, the counterscarp was carried, and then the town capitulated, and was razed, according to agreement.

Gilbert Burnet, History of My Own Time (1714)
Apparently Burnets style was once a subject of hot discussion, Swift, Pope, and Johnson against it, Walpole, Lamb, and Macaulay great fans. David Allens Introduction in my Everyman edition points out that Burnet wrote for the ear, drawing on the rich oral culture of the theater and pulpit, and not for the high-flown Latinate page. I was reading somewhere that the structure of Bachs fugues parallels the instructions given in guidebooks for Lutheran preachers at the time, and theres an interplay between simplicity and sinuosity in Bishop Burnetthe directness of the matter and his pleasure in the mannerthat reminds me a little of Bach. Or finally, the manner becomes the matter, until the sentence can be a metaphor for whatever its describing, while the world comes to mimic the movement in the grammar used to describe it. Let me think about that for a little, but whatever your level of sleep debt, so filled their trenches that they could not work in them is great English.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

La Mez

Sharon Mesmers guest blogging through the week at Best American Poetry. “Its like a cathedral of refreshment!
(Note to David Lehman: Get her to edit the next one before we lose her to Orsk.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Steve McLaughlin's The American Scene

Around the time I moved to Portland, the Poetry Bus was on its well-hyped roll across the nation. Its local stop at the old Mississippi Studios was the first reading I went to here.

Four years and a mega-recession later, times have downsized. The foundation that publicized the tour has stepped away from paying bloggers; Mississippi Studios upgraded in a down market and became too pricey to host poetry; the planned film of the tour never materialized; and the bus idea, with its carbon debt, party vibe, and rented driver, seems out of step with our leaner, greener times.

One sign of the change—and the exchanges still possible despite it— is Stephen McLaughlins intrepid solo road trip for Jacket2, the new version of Jacket under way since John Tranter handed the keys to PennSound. As media editor for the new concern, Steve’s hitting 30 cities in 60 days to interview 90 poets for the site. You can follow his cross-country trek via Flickr, Twitter, or even hoarier social media like the blog.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Dept. of Monday (Summer Guest Edition)

Uncles from Kansas dont like yellow glasses.