Thursday, September 30, 2010

Michael Gizzi

I don’t know what to say about Michael Gizzi, except to collect some of what I’ve said elsewhere about his work. He hardly knew me from Adam, but blurbed my first book when I found the courage to ask him. The times I met him he kept me on my toes, afraid I’d be the fool he’d have to suffer. His writing’s like an air vent opened on a close room; the last book had a new ease and sweetness along with his famous razzed-up verbal closework that got me eager to see what’s next. A beautiful vernacular maneuverer—I turn to his books to learn from all the time. Thank you Michael and goodbye.

 Gizzi’s the Moses of tablets turned to sound, then dropped from the cliffs to hit ‘C’. This new Sinai’s pure Barbasol, all wobble and aloe and swing. When “blessings descend but no one knows how to redeem them,” then “grammar cracks eggs as best it can.”
Attention Span 2009

Anyone who wears their heart in their head and considers the tongue a reed instrument will find in this book, my favorite from my favorite Gizzi, a rope dropped down from the lip of the well. 

The first real literary concentration of I guess what you’d call “ethnic” names I ever saw was in the Donald Allen New American Poetry anthology, where O’Haras, Duncans, Gleasons, Olsons, Blackburns, Adamses, Williamses and Guests shared pride of place with Levertovs, Eigners, Meltzers, Lamantias, Loewinsohns, Wienerses and Kochs. I wonder for how many people in the '60s—and even now—the special promise and threat of that collection began with the TOC.

But the top spot on my list of all-time-favorite poets’ names goes to Michael Gizzi. Like his poetry, it’s fun to just say out loud. I’d like to know how much those double ‘zz’s flanked by the goofy ‘i’s drive his poetic practice, where neologisms and hinky slang and improbable made-up proper names get to buzz like they haven’t since be-bop (“Klackoveesedstene!”)

Last month I found his “Just Like a Real Italian Kid” in the stacks at SPD, which is like finding a sliver from the true cross in that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s an amazing little chapbook that in 20 short pages manages to connect the jazzy, slangy, fun-just-to-say-it wordplay of his other books to the voicings and rhythms of immigrant Italian English:

“Stazzit! Mangare! Horizontal wicks of fennel breath crisscross dinner board to lodge in prepubescent mustachio. Yuk! how can you eat that shit? Perpetual smiles of grief-striken gumbare.”

The snappy rush of these 14 short pieces makes an implicit argument for the pleasures of English as an almost second language, a tongue that still feels new enough to stick out and twist at the boss. But Gizzi’s also a serious recorder, out to get down the echoes of the “latinate herb breathy ‘come sei bello ragazzo’ litany” before the onset of “primness on Lake Amnesia,” where everything ethnic sinks and goes white:

“Edison it was said had invented the phonograph to capture Caruso for posterity, that catch in the throat when he cried about being so much emotion trapped in the garb of a clown. That essence is Italian pressed into an essence of plastic come to mean maudlin. Those Pavlovian platters were tear-jerkers sure to make a paesan let his hair and everything else down.”
  —blog post on lime tree, 8/7/2005

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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dept. of Monday (Fall Gumption Edition)

         “and in bronze tangle square of light
The master has said to you, Style”

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Hard Day's Night at the Opera

I asked operaman; now I’ll ask you. You know that scene in A Hard Day’s Night where Wilfrid Brambell, the “clean old man” from Steptoe and Son, accidentally throws the switch on a stage elevator that thrusts him up into the middle of a televised opera? Which opera is it? It’s in German, the tenor’s dressed as a hussar, and its sounds like it might be an operetta. Google’s failed me on this one. Help!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Michael Cross just posted a text copy of one of my favorite recordings from the Bay Area Labor Day 2010 EventDavid Brazil’s wide-ranging riff on the idea of vocation that spins out from his reading of Paul. That, along with Benjamin Friedlander’s searching revision of Paul in the recent Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, has me seeing Paul’s prints on everything lately, from discussions of poetic coterie to the Spahr/Clover statement on the 95 Cent Skool, where their “double faith” in the changes a group of 12 gathered around a table could effect, seeding skool after skool, has a strong Pauline ring.

I used to think of Paul as the Brian Epstein to Jesus’s Lennon, but now he seems the sexier of the two, taking on the heavy labor of social networking and community organizing while Christ gets star billing on the icons. I suppose any movement that sees tiny grassroots communities, open in theory to anyone willing to participate, as a potential force for social change is bound to echolocate a little off Paul, but he’s sounding especially loudly right now, here in capital’s Rome, with all our clear-eyed poetic efforts to be in it but not of it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Onngh Yanngh

With the first-years all settling into dorm rooms, shocked to think it’s twenty years since Barrington closed.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Georgians on My Mind

Nicholas Manning & I traded comments about Robert Graves, wondering how his opposition to some of the key strands of literary modernism shapes what we make of the formal & metrical directions he took in his poetry. If Graves’s verse doesn’t float your poetic boat, does he get a pass, or take more kicks, for his principled rejection of the period style? Do the Georgians come off any better for writing like they didn’t know the 20th century was happening? (As late as the 1970s, Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, leaning hard on the Georgians, could create a mirror-world where it more or less hadn’t.) Here’s Nicholas pulling things deftly into the present:
“This might be then an important distinction to make: on the one hand formalists or "conservatives" who militantly argue for this aesthetic, and those who pretend nothing has happened and that this aesthetic constitues a norm.

Might this not be two rather distinct (and interesting) groups?
With Graves and Thom Gunn and Robert Lowell maybe at one end of the spectrum (the critically aware and aesthetically argumentative end) and then the Ted Koosers and Billy Collins at the unthinking other?

Maybe this would be an important distinction for Ron Silliman to make regarding the controversies of Quietism too, as Ron often seems to imply (anyone correct me if they don't agree) that "Quietists" invariably presume that they constitute a middle-road mythical normality, whereas many, and this seems to be Graves's case, explicitly and often eloquently argue for the superiority of their poetic tradition. Even if one doesn't agree, this explicit, cards on the table argument is obviously the one we need be having.”
This got me trying to gauge the distance between “normality” and period style, a two-edged concept if there ever was one. On the one side, you want to believe that your aesthetic position—your “poetic tradition,” as Nicholas puts it—bears some necessary connection to the important poems being written in the present. It’s what puts the avant in the garde: Their eccentric became our normal. At the same time, that particular view of tradition—one damned avant after another, to tweak Henry Ford’s famous quote about history—implies that your own poems will, at best, become outmoded, mulch for the next era’s advances. New then, you’re “period” now, and the anthologies need to push on. Isn’t that proof that your style, qua style, succeeded?

In practice, though, “period style” is a stone thrown more often at poets seen as derrière, not avant. I remember the small shock I felt when Marjorie Perloff during a lecture in Portland projected onto the overhead a Language poem (one of P. Inman’s, I think) as an example of writing on its way to becoming a “period style.” Why was that such a strange thing to hear about a poem nearly a quarter-century old? And why should it sound dismissive? Doesn’t the idea of a poetic avant garde, or experimental tradition or whatever, automatically trigger the notion of a period style? Whereas if you sit all Graves and lordly above history, you can claim the White Goddess, or time-resistant craft standards, or centuries of poetry as ritual practice, or the universal nature of the human condition to buoy up your efforts against the faddish present.

Maybe the notion of a period style only really comes into its own with the idea of an avant garde, so that Graves or the Georgians or a Lowell (broad brush for a short post) are inoculated against the “period style” charge, at least in their own minds, by their very different understanding of poetic tradition. If you don’t concede there’s a road, you never have to be in the middle of it; no train, and you’re never off the rails.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Robert Graves's Poems Selected by Himself

To add to the this. (A click on books summons the rest.)
Id like to like Graves’s poems; his surefooted defiance of Modernist convention is the kind of sacred cow-tipping that often shows better over time. Graves was badly off in his gamble, though. Certain that verse libre was a fad, and the Pound/Stein school would go the way of cocktails and the Charleston, he willfully closed himself off from the main creative seam of 20th-century poetics, building his own house on flat metrical sand. Despite its intellectual intensities, Graves’s poems straitjacket themselves in a formal wrapper that it’s hard for most modern readers to see their way around, sounding more like brainy oddities with a Victorian comic-verse twist than a daring riposte to Modernist poetics. Maybe he only wanted the few to find him, or maybe his sensibility was best pitched backwards, towards the Romans and Greeks and the Welsh Fusiliers that paid the bills on Majorca. Still, if Graves was “wrong” about modern poetry, he was wrong in a cranky, mad-uncle sort of way completely his own, as much a part of the century as, well, cocktails or the Charleston.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Dept. of Laborless Monday

Two-thirds through the Harold Pinter/Joseph Losey film collaboration, & about to lose him with The Go-Between, I’m giving over my small corner of Labor Day to the languorous Dirk Bogarde.

Friday, September 03, 2010

George Hitchcock

Poet George Hitchcock died in Oregon last week, and while I knew next to nothing about his work and career (shame on me), Stephen Kessler’s moving remembrance did more to bring him to life for me than all the info-rich obits. Thanks to Pierre Joris for pointing to it.

Hitchcock, Bruce Boone, Beverly Dahlen, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen—all born or raised in Oregon, all moved to San Francisco as young adults. That’s a weird legacy to brag about, but you get what you get, and anyway looks like the trend’s reversing. Who am I forgetting?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Bryan Coffelt's The Whatever Poems

Sun didn’t start until nearly July, rain came yesterday, so the 2-month summer is almost a memory whose madeleine for me is Bryan Coffelt’s The Whatever Poems. Though he’s Portland’s now, Coffelt’s a founding member of the Ashland School, which surely has as much right to the name as Ashbery’s “soi disant Tulsa School” ever did. Draw a loose circle around poets like Maurice Burford, Jess Rowan, Lacey Hunter, Mike Young, and Willie Ziebell, throw in a rejuvenated West Wind Review, check the Southern Oregon University faculty page for K. Silem Mohammad, and you’ve got some idea of the energies that move through Coffelt’s work. There’s a terse, Internety overlay to the poems (“the 80s was a motherfucker,” “i’ve been advised by,” “McAfee is #1 in/threat detection,” a dedication “for facebook”) that acts as a tonal blind for catching the empire’s blues in situ. “This is intended to make a statement/you know/and again/oh my gosh it’s horrible” is as good a precis as any for the areas the writing explores, where “a loss of market share” and “the sitcom fantasy/of the American dream” fuse with “The End of Major Combat”—Lincoln’s to Obama’s—in a war that never really ends at all. Coffelt’s especially deft at loosening affect from content; “everyone here is/losing at something” gains for not trying to pin down what the everyone, here, or something might be, which gives the “losing” an allegorical weight that can settle on almost any of the nouns that surround it: clubbed seals, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Baghdad, “expansionary policy” or Keynesian economics “of the tongue and genitals.”

Coffelt’s sharp sense of protest stays true to the weirdly distanced, spectral, technologically mediated nature of the disasters we face off against right now, but that riff on Keynes reveals a knack for charting these abstractions at the intimate, lower-case lyric “i” level. It’s an “i” that often sounds courtesy of Google, but wound around a coherent and affecting core of pathos:

“i slept with a gun
for nearly 25 years”

“i love you
i Google Street View you”

“as i returned to this
i talked
about the nothing that i could

“i said i wanted you
i said i wanted something
to wake up for but i just
got a Game Boy Color
puzzle game developed
by Konami”

and, wrapping up the collection:

“i told my friends
one night in the kitchen
what i thought of everything

i made a circular motion
with a pen and paper.”

It’s the “motion” in The Whatever Poems that prevails over the “everything,” and circular, not Vico/Greenspan-cyclical, feels accurate, plangent, affirming, and magically exorcising all at once.