Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hello from Rome, where Emily and I are wrapping up a five-day stay. What can I say about it that hasn't been said? It's dirty and magnificent and I'm typing this just a stone's throw from the Colosseum, which is as staggering as you've heard. Il mio italiano has proceeded from nonexistent to very bad, but I enjoy trying. Tonight we're off to a little village called Calcata and the next day we'll explore Umbria. Assuming our somewhat shady car rental guy doesn't let us down--we're waiting for him to return with our little hatchback.

Just finished Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, a book about artists, murder, and Hawthorne's great subject, guilt, that made for a peculiar introduction to the Eternal City. His Puritan severity toward Rome and the Catholic Church at times approaches the comical, but he's obviously deeply impressed in spite of himself--the splendid pageantry and sheer historical weight of Rome pose a problem that's not particularly easy for him to solve. I am thinking now that I might give the theme of innocents abroad to the nineteenth-century American lit class that I'll be teaching this fall, because there's something endlessly fascinating about the American confrontation with Europe and the failure or near-success of anything like actual sympathy between citizens of the new and older worlds. Of course as tourists we notice that most pungently when in the presence of other Americans (i.e., constantly), who suddenly seem so large and loud and clueless that you must inure yourself to the embarrassment. The unwillingness of some people to learn even the simplest words of courtesy--per favore, grazie--is astonishing. For their part the Italians we've met are unfailingly generous and graceful, but seem to lack a certain straightforwardness that I take for granted in my fellow Americans. Maybe that's just my own "innocence" being made visible.

I'll write again most likely in a few days from Siena. Andiamo!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Finished drafting my final dissertation chapter last night. Think I'll celebrate by going to Europe.

And by the way: it turns out our prospective landlords screwed us over but good by trying to rent us a place that the present tenants have no intention of vacating. If you hear about any great two-bedroom apartments for rent in the Evanston area within walking distance of the train, drop me a line, willya?

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Thanks to everyone who's written over the past week with best wishes and book suggestions—it's more and better advice than I could possibly follow. I may cheat with three books—at the library sale I picked up my old teacher Eamon Grennan's translation of Leopardi, which is slender enough not to notice and may help me with my Italian. Plus, depressing old Leopardi might make an interesting tonic to contrast with the sun-drenched Italy we're expecting to find. Other leading candidates at this time include the portable Thoreau, Cortazar's Hopscotch, Hawthorne's Marble Faun (both because Nada suggested it and because I'm teaching a 19th-century lit class this fall), and Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (far too big at 1,000+ pages, but the James Joyce-reading Serbian cabdriver we met in Chicago strongly recommended it).

Back from a fast and frenetic trip to Chicago, where we put a deposit down on an apartment in Evanston in a sweet spot between Lake Michigan and the commuter train. Now we barely have time to turn around before flying across the Atlantic on Thursday. I thought I'd post our itinerary here on the off chance that we might intersect with one of you Gentle Readers:

May 24 - 26 London
May 26 - 31 Rome
June 1 Calcata
June 2 - 4 Gubbio
June 4 - 7 Siena
June 7 - 10 Florence
June 10 - 14 Cinque Terre
June 14 - 17 Venice

That's the honeymoon segment. After this Emily's off to Crete and I'm on my own. So what follows is less an itinerary than my hazy idea of what cities I'll visit in the order in which I'll visit them:

June 17 - 20 Trieste and/or Ljubljana
June 21 - 25 Budapest
June 26 - 29 Vienna

Most of the above is subject to change without notice.

This blog will likely be dark while I'm traveling, but it's possible I'll find time for an update here or there. Also, Emily and I have talked about creating a travel blog together—if that happens, I'll let you know where to find it.

Unfinished business: a week ago Jen Scappettone and Will Cordeiro rocked the SOON house. Jen's poetry is a force; Will refused the mediation of the podium in theatrically delightful ways. Looking forward to having Jen as a neighbor in Chicago.

Farewell, addio, slovo, viszontlatasra, abschied!

Monday, May 14, 2007


If you were going to travel for a month and wanted to pack as light as possible, but nonetheless could not survive without reading matter, what books would you bring?

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Bigger Announcement

I am delighted to be able to tell all and sundry that I have accepted a position as Assistant Professor of English at Lake Forest College for this fall (where I shall have Blogland's very own Robert Archambeau as a colleague). So not only are Emily and I preparing for a major European trip for next week but we're also preparing to move. Leaving Ithaca will be hard—this town has been very, very good to and for both of us—but I am thrilled to finally become a full-time teacher and we're both excited about the opportunities that the Chicago area will present. I am especially pleased at the prospect of joining one of what the Chicago Postmodern Poetry site will show you is one of the liveliest and most interesting communities of poets in the country.
And let's not forget the food: my dad is from Chicago and I was raised with a reverence for the Chicago-style hot dog (you haven't lived until you've had one of these with the sport peppers, tomatoes, and an entire pickle laid on top, mustard yes ketchup absolutely not, the whole dusted with celery salt), deep dish pizza, ribs, and other delights. I will probably have to start going to the gym to compensate.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Big Announcement

So it's time I told you that Emily and I are heading off to Europe in two weeks time for a full-scale honeymoon (as opposed to the lovely but abbreviated trip to Canada we took right after getting married last September). We're starting in London, then we're off to Rome, Gubbio, Siena, Florence, the Cinque Terre, and Venice. It doesn't stop there: Emily will then head to Crete for a creativity workshop and I'll be Eurailing it in Austria and Hungary. (It may seem odd to spend a week and a half apart on a honeymoon, but we're a very modern couple. Emily didn't change her last name, either.) We're very excited and a little overwhelmed at the prospect of a month of travel. Any tips, advice, cheap hotels, or must-see sights that you'd like to tell us about are welcome in the comments box.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Upcoming SOON Reading

Coming to the State of the Art Gallery in downtown Ithaca this Saturday, May 12 at 7 PM, it's Jennifer Scappettone and Will Cordeiro!

Jennifer Scappettone is the author of From Dame Quickly, forthcoming from Litmus Press, and of a chapbook of graphic stills, Abluvion Almanac, out this spring from Outside Voices. Her poetry, prose, and translations from the Italian verse of Amelia Rosselli have recently appeared in Zoland Annual (Random House, 2007), The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for a New Century (Cracked Slab, 2007), Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 2006), 2nd Avenue Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, The Canary, Chicago Review, Dusie, and P-Queue. She is now at work on Exit 43, an archaeology of the landfill and opera of pop-ups commissioned by Atelos Press, and on a special issue of Aufgabe devoted to contemporary Italian experiment. She works as an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Will Cordeiro is a former NYC Teaching Fellow and co-founder of the Brooklyn Playwrights Collective. Several of his one-act plays have been produced in off-off-Broadway venues, and he has had a staged reading of his full-length verse play, The Errors of Eros. In addition, he has been a staff theater critic for offoffonline, and continues to write art and theater reviews for other publications as well. His poems have been published in such journals as the Brooklyn Review, Baltimore Review, Paradigm, and Dirt: A Journal of Contemporary Arts and Letters. Currently, he is an MFA candidate in poetry at Cornell, working on writing a long poem, Hymns, and an opera libretto.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Innovation Versus Elegance, Part Two

Here's the original question as posed by Bernadette Mayer to Bill Berkson in a letter dated May 10, 1981, along with Berkson's reply:
Is elegance opposed to innovation?

Pretty iffy, I'd say. I don't believe it as a rule. Duncan McNaughton tried to tell me that, that my poems would be better deeper if I gave up being elegant. But I feel not elegant enough, and I also feel that if elegance exists in art it is a deep quality like character or part of the character of the work. Can we name a single innovator whose innovations are of value whose work at any point lacks elegance? Well, early Cézanne (before he innovated) and a lot of Williams has no elegance whatever. In music, a lot of raw music is more elegant (country blues or Cajun) than the refined versions of the same material. Innovation being a reaction against dull flatness or vulgarized mechanical "cheap imitation" style is always the revelation of furthered elegance. (WCW's problem was an awkward flatness but it wasn't dull.)
Interesting that, in his comment on my original post, Reginald Shepherd suggested that my model for prose mixed with verse (as a congeries of "poetic rapture and expository discourse" should rather be Williams' Spring and All (which I do love) than Dante's La Vita Nuova. But I think he'd probably concur with Berkson's claim that the dichotomy set up by Mayer's question is a false one. I particularly like that last, non-parenthetical sentence of Berkson's: "Innovation... is always the revelation of furthered elegance." At the same time I continue to wonder about the distinction to be made between the cooked and the raw in poetry—Reginald doesn't like the word "messy" but I do because it suggests an expansiveness and tolerance for the collection of contradictions that oneself is (and the world too, of course). Maybe I just like it because it's so frankly in tension with my own fastidiousness.

Still too looking for the distinction to be made between verse and prose, or poetry and prose, or most starkly, poetry and writing. Is poetry a subset of writing or something entirely other (the magazine after all is Poets _&_ Writers)? Certainly many writers who ought to know better drop poetry entirely from their discourse and assimilate "writing" into "fiction" (some of the coverage of Cynthia Ozick's riposte to Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus has noted this slip on her part). The common-sense approach is to regard fiction and poetry and that strange anti-being non-fiction as subsets of "writing." But culturally, poetry often seems to bear the peculiar burden of being considered the other of what's normally considered "writing"—that is, instead of being seen as a component of literacy, much less an aesthetic phenomenon, it's reserved for ritualistic and therapeutic purposes. Then there's "writing" as it appears under the sign of post-structuralism, as an unfinishable process subsumed under the word "text" (something woven or in the process of being woven), which stands opposed to still prevalent notions of the poem as a work, something monumental—or monoglossic, to use Bakhtin's term, which involves us from another angle in this question of genre since for Bakhtin it's not writing but "the novel" that provides the supreme possibility for heteroglossia. From this perspective "writing" may take the form of poetry but poetry is not always or even usually "writing," and "writing" which happens to assume the form of poetry retains a surprising capacity to shock, discomfit, or bore those who expect poetry to primarily serve some more or less utilitarian function (including such utilitarian functions as "self-expression" or "uplift").

So I would describe myself as someone interested in "writing" who also has a sizable investment in poetry, or who has moved from poetry toward "writing" without quite being willing to renounce those qualities that the very purest "writers" (I'm thinking particularly of Kenneth Goldsmith as he's entertainingly manifested himself over at the Poetry Foundation's group blog, Harriet) would like to challenge or leave behind. I'm interested in heteroglossic poetry, whether literally (poetry that incorporates other langugages, dialects, and modes or classes of speech) or otherwise (forms of poetic heteroglossia that intrigue me include poems that deal elegantly with the mundane and quotidian, or with the brute facts of the desiring and perishable body, or with the various modes and incarnations of history). I think it's worth approaching these questions of genre from this more existential angle: to interrogate forms and modes for their ontological and epistemological possibilities. I take Wittgenstein's claim that the limits of my language are the limits of my world extremely seriously. And yet it's also possible to imagine "limits" as necessary bounds against chaos, and to love and wish to conserve traditions of expression and form while also standing up for innovation (and elegance!) against the dull flatness and mechanical vulgarity that hems so much of us and our culture (literary and otherwise) round.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Say Yes to Excess

The new issue of Action Yes is up and features all of the papers and presentations from the "Post-Avant: Strategies of Excess" panel from the Atlanta AWP earlier this year. All but one: at that time I was unable to present my little paper on the postmodern baroque because of the perfidy of Northwest Airlines; this time technical difficulties have prevented my paper from joining those of Anne Boyer, Lara Glenum, Johannes Göransson, K. Silem Mohammed, and Jed Rasula. But never fear: my essay will appear in the summer issue, keeping the theme of excess alive well into the ecstasies of autumn. In the meantime, check out what my panelmates said.

Also new, also interesting: a zine called Harp & Altar. I like their "Manifesto": "We believe what is written in the books, but now we want to see for ourselves."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Innovation Versus Elegance

I've been reading Bernadette Mayer and Bill Berkson's correspondence and interviews as collected in What's Your Idea of a Good Time? from Tuumba Press. One question asked was something like, "Do you think elegance and innovation are mutually exclusive?" Something I've been worrying at, because it gets at the heart of a tension in my own work: the desire for highly polished surfaces versus the desire to get gritty or the willingness to be messy.

On Friday the a capella San Francisco supergroup Chanticleer came to Ithaca, of which one of my oldest and dearest friends, Eric S. Brenner, is a member. They are virtuoso performers and seeing them gave me the thrill that seeing any artist at work at the top of his/her/their game does, aside from the beauty and playfulness of the music itself. They are currently touring with no fewer than three separate repetoires, including the brand-new And On Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass. It's wonderful music, but what's most compelling about the project is the fact that it was composed piecemeal by different contemporary composers of different backgrounds; I'm particularly interested in the "Credo," the most Catholic moment in the Catholic mass, which was written by an Israeli composer named Shulamit Ran. Talk about threading the needle: it incorporates Hebrew into the mass! Less successful—or perhaps just less elegant—is another section which invokes "Muslims and Christians and Jews" as participants and interlocutors in the mass. But I find myself wanting to draw a connection between the Chanticleer mass and the Berkson-Mayer question, because here are artists being asked to innovate within a rigid classical structure.

There are some poets whose pleasures are primarily instigated by their virtuosity, and only secondarily by what visions, experiences, or ideas they have to offer: for me this list would include Auden, Paul Muldoon, Heather McHugh, Mary Jo Bang, and Caroline Knox, to name a few. They err on the side of artifice and formal innovation, and their work either succeeds in ravishing me utterly or else seems slight; there's little ground in between. Then there are poets for whom the pleasure and drama primarily comes from the tension between the linguistic resources available to them and the difficulty or abstraction of what they are trying to express or construct: I tend to group Language poets and their followers and fellow travelers in this category. Another grouping whose work stimulates and challenges me would be poets for whom the disruption or challenging of elegance and/or "the poetic" is one of their primary energy supplies: this would include some of Frank O'Hara (but he usually achieves a tossed-off elegance) and most of the second- and nth-generation New York School poets (Ted Berrigan, Mayer herself, Alice Notley come to mind) and also the flarfists.

These may not be terribly interesting or satisfying categories, but they help me in trying to understand what moves me—and what has movement—in poetry, and how it is that I instinctually gravitate to formal virtuosity yet am constantly provoked, and sometimes shocked and delighted, by shaggier work. Sometimes I think it all comes down to Dickinson and Whitman, and the paradox of my own makeup that they represent for me: I am viscerally thrilled by Dickinson's agility and intensity, but find Whitman's ungainly, rambunctious mode of engagement with both himself and the larger (American) world more fun to think about. She's Latin, he's Italian; she's Hebrew, he's Yiddish; she's New England, he's Brooklyn; etc. Of course Dickinson is marvelously irregular and elliptical, while Whitman's catalogues gesture toward precision, but I still find the dialectic they present useful for thinking about American poetry in general and my own aesthetic impulses in partiocular.

Fourier Series represents, in part, an attempt to synthesize, or rather present in mixture, both tendencies: grids of short-lined, high-tension lyrics are broken up by prose "landscapes," presenting a slightly more schematic version of the old contest between line and sentence that charges verse. In some ways the model book for me in expressing these impulses would be Dante's Vita Nuova (sonnets interspersed between prose sections that purport to explain the poems but often don't) or the Japanese haibun. (Emily and I are traveling to Europe in a few weeks for our long-delayed honeymoon, which presents an ideal occasion for haibun.) But it may be more a question of the long line, or the page-as-field, or the disjunctive poem, versus more regular verse. Or it may really come down to attitude: fierceness, profanity, and the palpability of bodily experience versus a smooth surface corrugated by the tension of tamped-down forces. Bernadette Mayer herself presents an interesting working-out of this dialectic in her sonnets.

I suppose that it's the tension between form and content that we mean by the very word "art"—a tension somehow missing from its companion word "craft," which to my mind connotes the ideal subdual of one's ragged edges toward some utilitarian end. I like the danger of art: the high-wire act of virtuosity, or the uncertain quantity of seriousness and satire, or—hardest for a spectator to bear, and most rewarding when it works—the presentation of human vulnerability.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true —
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe —

The Eyes glaze once — and that is Death —
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

Popular Posts