Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Maybe it's a side effect of wedded bliss, but I just can't get exercised over the annual Best American Poetry controversy, which this year is being ably conducted by Seth and Jordan and others. Partly this is because I'm over my desire to use Billy Collins as a punching bag: I happen to believe that he is afflicted by a species of self-loathing that infects his sense of poetry in general (thus radically scaling back its aesthetic ambitions and possibilities), but he is hardly the only poet so inclined. As for the bestness of the BAP, I think it does a better job of advertising its subjective intentions than does, say, the Norton, or other institutionally produced anthologies that purpose to give you an unadulterated slice of the canon. I wouldn't mind landing a poem in there sometime, provided I had esteem for the editor who'd done the choosing, but if it never happens I won't pout about it. I would rather put my energies into things like SOON—with all the wedding and honeymoon business, I've completely neglected to mention our most recent reading, which happened on Saturday the 23rd right after Emily and I got back from Canada. Pelin Ariner performed a sequence called "The Weekly Show," which invariably reminded me of both this and that. Her guests? Somebody and Nobody. Then it was a thrill to have Evelyn Reilly read. Evelyn is a fellow Barrow Streeter and I highly recommend her fierce, playful book Hiatus (scroll down to find it), which takes cues from Stein and Stevens, has a critical-feminist edge, and is precisely askance in its music. It's a highly various book in style and subject, moving felicitously between prose and verse, page-as-field and compression of the line. Here's one of my favorites, and not only because I just got married or because I once had a dog named Elsie:
"Elsie, Voluptuous Water"

Ask. Ask Elsie. "What is water?"

"Spousal love." That's Gerard

who says. Who? What? "Or

spiritual matters." "Some Harold

you'll marry. Some Harold." Who?

Ask. "To our door of proposed."

What? "Water." "Of voluptuous.

Of marriage." Whose? This tender.

Tender of spousal. "Who?" she says,

"Who will take care of you?"

Mother of ask. "Perhaps." This.

Ask. "What is spiritual?"

Sexual water. "Spiritual what?"

Flesh. How? A question.

"Who questions?" "Who questions

the door?" Espoused, so what

is proposed? "Flesh." Of who?

What? "Ask Elsie." Bringing water.

Where? "To the door." Of proposed.

To the floor of espoused. "Of what?"

What. Ask. Of what What? Ask.
Evelyn read newer work, including pieces from her new chapbook, Fervent Remnants of Reflective Surfaces, out now from Brend Iijima's Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs (you can read one sequence from the book, "Reverse Landscapes," here). My favorite piece that she read is a new longish poem called "Broken Water," which I hope will see print soon: an ecstatic and mournful ecopoetic meditation. I feel a strong affinity with her work and I'd like to spend more time with it—but time feels in short supply just now.

A Honeymoon

Hitchhiking on Wolfe Island.
Emily roadside.
Riding the ferry.
In front of the Sleepless Goat in downtown Kingston, Ont.
Not so sleepless in the lobby of our hotel.

I'll get back to substantive posting about poetry, etc., one of these fine days. Mostly playing catch-up with teaching right now, and contemplating the academic job market.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Wedding

Chuppahs on the march.
The bride's processional.
Under the chuppah.
Totally married.
The morning after.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Wonderful family evening tonight at Madeline's in Ithaca—they did a kick-ass job. The wedding weekend has begun, and I feel great. Thanks to all who offered their good wishes! I'm en route to matrimony, and will probably not post again before there's a ring upon my finger.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hey, I almost forgot: registered Democrats in New York should get up, stand up, and go vote for Jonathan Tasini in today's primary. Vote your principles and nudge Hillary and the debate to the left a little bit.

Back to weddingland I go.
Yep. Getting married on Sunday. That's pretty much topics A, B, and C around here. Some relatives arrive tomorrow, more Thursday, the kit and kaboodle on Friday. Saturday we're having a picnic at lovely Taughannock Falls State Park. And the ceremony happens Sunday at The Fontainebleau Inn, about twenty minutes from Ithaca proper. Afterwards we're taking a short honeymoon in Kingston, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence River. We will be very. Tired. And happy.

Not sure I'll be able to muster up anything poetry-related until it's all over, but just in case, watch this space. And thanks to those who've expressed their good wishes, or simply have some.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"All of the records for me are living in this naive fantasia where people care about each other's well-being." Garrett Kamps' review of M. Ward's new album in the Village Voice is actually a great little miniature study on the sources and uses of pastoral—only Kamps simply calls it "safe," as in the childhood game of tag in which there is "the ether wherein you could be tagged, and the ether wherein you could not, called 'safe.'" Nice.

Have I mentioned lately that I'm getting married in a little more than a week?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Jasper talks about books versus poems, or in Derridean style, books versus writing, taking a kind of aerial view with an astute comment from ground level by Jake York if you scroll down. We certainly do fetishize the book nowadays, for reasons close to those described. I like the idea of books as the residue of some more fundamental activity (Jasper gives the example of Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day), or as media for larger arcs and projects—Nathaniel Mackey comes once again to mind, as someone who's been unfolding large scale narratives over several books for years. Duncan's Passages—a poem-series which I feel compelled to italicize, even though it is pointedly not a book—is probably the ur-text of this sort for the New American traditions. But it's difficult to evade the imprint (so to speak) of the MFA and book-contest cultures, which have set up the equation book=legitimacy. Kate Greenstreet's excellent series of interviews with "first-book poets" (a label I take from my own first book's Pinsky blurb) reinforces this idea with her question, "Did you expect the book to change your life?"—a question whose provenance and emotional truth all the interviewees recognize. And I, for one, cherished the idea of "my book" long before I even knew that poetry was what I wanted to write. That's the product of being raised in a family where books were reverenced, particularly by my mother. And that reverence may have even deeper roots in Jewish culture. The actual objects out of their packing cases, the actual books, are inevitably slightly disappointing given my history of feeling toward books. Yet I do feel that they've brought me bodily into a stream of discourse that has become a significant tributary of my identity.

Poetry is a river and individual books are stones and pebbles that divert or churn up its flow. Few of us identify with the water itself, unless it's the white water of a particular aesthetic or camp. But it might be spiritually and poetically enlarging for some of us to get back to poems instead of throwing all our energy into books. That's why dealing with the Nature Theater manuscript is interesting for me: for the first time, I'm thinking of the book as a vehicle for poems I believe in, rather than an end in itself.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Scott McCloud, the creator of one of my favorite late-eighties early-nineties comic books, Zot! (he also produced a superhero parody, DESTROY!, which has my all-time favorite dialogue exchange in it: as two superheroes battle in Manhattan, knocking down landmarks left right and center, the mayor says to one of his lackeys, "We'll have to evacuate New York!" To which the lackey responds, "Okay") has produced two masterpieces of instruction and analysis about his medium, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. Now he's made it a trilogy with a new how-to book, Making Comics. It's a fascinating excursus on comics technique, which McCloud has elsewhere referred to as "sequential art." But what caught my eye was a discussion toward the end of four "loosely affiliated tribe[s] of like-minded comic artists" that share the same values. These tribes and their values are named and summarized thusly:
The Classicists: Excellence, hard work, mastery of craft, the quest for enduring beauty.
The Animists: Putting content first, creating life through art, trusting one's intuition.
The Formalists: Understanding of, experimentation with, and loyalty to the comics form.
The Iconoclasts: Honesty, vitality, authenticity and unpretentiousness. Putting life first.
You can see why this quadrivium would appeal to my own cataloging sensibilities—on the same page he arranges the four tribes into a quadrant to indicate their parallels and oppositions—and why I'm immediately vampirically inclined to substitute "poetry" for "comics" (though of course McCloud's four tribes seem applicable to most any genre of art). In a back-of-the-book note, McCloud writes:
I actually sat on this idea for over ten years without publishing it, concerned that it might do more harm than good. I'm sympathetic to those who see any such efforts to categorize art as reductive and futile. But then I'd see these rants like:
- "Craft is the enemy of art!"
- "Alternative comics are for people who can't draw."
- "Everyone making mainstream comics is a sell-out."
- "Explaining art ruins it."
- "If it has no new ideas, what good is it?"
And I realized that in a world where so many people reduce art to two sides, maybe reducing it to four would be an improvement.
McCloud goes on to say that "Comics is an ecosystem" and that all four tribes are necessary. And if one embraces that point of view (though can one really be passionate about pluralism?), I think the usefulness of the four tribes model for mapping the poetryverse becomes apparent. It may not be an improvement on the critical work that Kasey does here on deconstructing the infamous "School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant" binary, but it does I think implicitly recognize the intimate connection between aesthetic and social positioning without being as falsely deterministic as SoQ/P-A. Simply by multiplying the number of available vectors it becomes possible to imagine more complex positions in the field (literally two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional) and also helps me to understand perennial alliances and clashes. There are two lines in the quadrant that align the tribes: the horizontal "Tradition/Revolution" line opposes the classicists and animists to the formalists and iconoclasts, while the vertical "Art/Life" line allies the classicists and formalists against the animists and iconoclasts. Diagonals represent more fundamental oppositions: it is difficult to reconcile the spirit of animism (content and story first) with that of formalism (exploring the boundaries of what one's art is capable of), or classicism (striving for perfection within one's tradition of art) with iconoclasm (McCloud puts this best: "The conviction of artists to remain true to themselves while never taking themselves too seriously. To fly no one's flag--not even their own"). McCloud cites various comics artists who unite two tendencies in themselves: Art Spiegelman is his example of a formalist with a strong iconoclastic streak, adventure writer Milton Caniff is an animist-classicist, and Dave McKean (a personal favorite of mine, gorgeous and expressionistic) is a formalist-classicist. People can and do move around among these positions, giving one priority and then another over the course of a career, and arguably "genius" might be defined by the ability to produce work that can make a plausible claim for each category (Shakespeare comes inevitably to mind, since I'm teaching him).

The risk run by using such a quadrant is of a sterile, historyless universalism: McCloud derives the four tribes from Jung's four major thought functions, as made famous by the Meyer-Briggs Personality Test: intuition, thinking, sensation, feeling. Discover your typology and choose your camp! (I generally come up an INFP on the test, but on the cusps, especially thinking/feeling and perceiving/judging.) But I'm convinced that such schema can be useful as a means of provisional orienteering, and anyway I seem to be a categorizing animal. If one can avoid reifying the categories (or worse, reifying particular artists), I think McCloud's four tribes can go some distance toward explaining the positions/arcs of individual poets and movements, as well as contribute to self-understanding.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Jairo van Lunteren of The Splendors did a little interview with me for this week's Ithaca Times article on local artists and their day jobs. For those who might be interested, here's the complete interview that he conducted with me via e-mail:

What is your motivation behind being an artist if it doesn’t make good enough money to make a living off of?

There are other kinds of economies and other sorts of goods. I write to make contact with a larger world, or larger worlds: of readers, of other poets, of people thinking hard about language, and not least the parts of myself that would otherwise go unexpressed. The rewards don’t often take monetary form, but they do add up to a life.

How many hours a week do you spend on your art?

This is hard to figure, because I’m a grad student at Cornell as well as a bookstore clerk, and yet I feel the work I do in those places is strongly connected to my work as a poet. At Cornell I teach (Shakespeare this semester, which is a thrill) and I’m finishing a dissertation on modernist pastoral poetry; these things keep me in constant contact with poetry because I’m always thinking about it, talking about it, or writing about it. At Bookery II I have the privilege of being the poetry book buyer, which along with my work with SOON Productions helps me to feel like I’m contributing to the community’s poetry needs. Then there’s my weblog, Cahiers de Corey (it’s a dorky name but I’m stuck with it), to which I post at least two or three times a week with my thoughts on poetry and poetics. It all adds up to a more than full-time job.

What does it take to become a professional in your field?

There’s a kind of creaky medieval model right now: first you apprentice yourself to a mentor or, more often these days, to a university MFA program; then you do your journeyman work, publishing in magazines; then you publish your first book, at which point they start calling you an “emerging” poet. But many of the most interesting poets reject this model and find their own idiosyncratic paths. Really there’s no such thing as a professional poet: there are only professional teachers of poetry and then the vast array of people who write poetry and publish it but whose livelihoods depend on something else.

Do you look at yourself as an artist with a day job or as a hobbyist?

Are these my only choices? Because I see poetry as a form of intellectual labor, I get for the most part to experience my life as more integrated than your question implies: teaching, critical writing, writing poems, selling books, and hosting readings all feel like part of the same life. I’m a working poet.

What is your day job?

I have two: as a grad student, I teach first-year writing seminars at Cornell, and as a clerk at Bookery II I stock and maintain the poetry section and also do the usual customer service tasks.

How many hours a week do you work?

Right now I only put in one day, or eight hours, a week at Bookery II. Teaching is harder to pin down: class only meets for 150 minutes a week, but when you factor in preparation time and the grading of papers, it probably amounts to at least 20 hours per week. So let’s call it 30 hours total, with the remaining time devoted to finishing my dissertation, blogging and writing poems, and otherwise having a life.

What is your art about?

Scratching an itch. Ever since I was small I’ve been fascinated by the music and strangeness and multiplicity of words: I loved that game where you’d repeat a word like "tomato" over and over again until it lost all meaning and became this uncanny object in your mouth. Most people think of language as a tool, something you use to attain ends outside of language: give me this, help me with that, I feel x about y. I’m generally convinced that words are smarter than I am, and if I let them have their way, they’ll discover and interrogate and express things that my ordinary instrumental mind just doesn’t have access to. Some of what gets uncovered seems profound; some of it is silly or obscene; some of it approximates the complexity of what I feel and think about politics and love and literature and death. I try to be a good listener.

What will have to have happened in your life as an artist in order for you to look back at it with satisfaction?

To have always kept growing; to never have repeated myself or been seduced by a single style. To have collaborated with other artists in other media. To have contributed something indelible to the conversation.

Please name one or more of your artistic achievements.

The obvious thing is to point to my published books. But last Friday I did a reading at Bookery II with the other SOON folks and I read a new poem that’s a kind of elliptical elegy for my little dog Bogie, who died suddenly this July. It’s not so much about him as it’s about how the loss of anything that we care for shakes our foundation, and the struggle back toward uprightness. People seemed moved by it and that’s really satisfying.

Why are some artists famous and others not?

Some of it is luck, and of course an artist with socioeconomic advantages like enough to eat and a good education is more likely to succeed than an artist who receives no support from her society or community. But a lot of it comes down to self-promotion. Many artists, especially writers, are basically shy people with little appetite for sending their work to strangers or schmoozing at poetry readings. Skill at self-promotion is probably more important than artistic talent when it comes to making a name for yourself. The good news for shy but talented artists is that the habits of self-promotion can be learned, provided you believe in yourself and your art. The bad news is that there will always be a surplus of mediocre artists with sharp elbows.

How can people get to know more about your art?

Everyone starts out loving poetry and then most have that love beaten out of them by bad teachers who’ve had their love for poetry beaten out of them by other teachers, and so on. But everyone’s instinctively delighted by clever. rhythmic, and surprising language. I would just advise people to head on down to Bookery II’s poetry section and browse around: look at some anthologies or try out a literary magazine like The Canary or jubilat. You’ll find stuff that surprises you and that doesn’t feel at all like homework or a chore.

What project(s) are you currently involved with?

Finishing the dissertation is my number one task right now. But I’ve recently collected about ten years of poems into a new manuscript that I’m going to try to publish, and I’m also shopping around a book of sonnets, Severance Songs, that I finished last year.

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