Thursday, August 30, 2007

...and They're Off!

First day of classes today. I'll let you know how it goes.


It went well.

Monday, August 27, 2007

TV Laureates

Seen this? Seen these? To me it seems dubious and delightful in equal measure. Dubious because the mtvU viewers (and who even knew there was such a thing, or that MTV wasn't already aimed firmly at this demographic?) will be getting tiny fragments of often already fragmentary poems delivered in commercial form—are viewers really likely to seek out the whole poem having glimpsed it in between segments of The Real World and Cribs? Delightful because they chose Ashbery, who really deserves every laurel heaped upon him, and whose technique of quicksilver association may actually be quite adaptable to the medium in which he now finds himself—especially on the web, where you can easily click and read the whole poem after vieweing the spot.

The MTV-isation of Ashbery provides another example, if examples were needed, of people being deprived the necessary reflective time for poetry (or for much else—I saw a great poster in a men's room this weekend which said, "Vote Frozen Peas for U.S. Senate!" and sponsored by Poetry would seem much more ill-adapted than narrative for the medium of television, even when reduced to sound-bites—though the spots, crucially, are not readings—the only sound behind the words is a kind of windy crackle, which does have the effect of concentrating the viewer on the words' moment of appearing. Maybe TV poetry is the next path to be followed, now that the web has largely transformed its means of production and distribution—I'm not necessarily speaking of online publication, though that's part of it, but for the alternate channels the web provides for book and magazine distribution. Still, the challenge of time remains—I think of Eric's complaint in my comments box about the infinite demands on his time that most books of poetry would place upon him, and his wish even as a highly educated reader for books suitable to the just-before-bed time slot available to him and other busy people. Without a revolution on the horizon, we can only take the long view of time, as it were, by recognizing how much of our capacity for reflection—for the thoughtful use of time—is built into that education. After all, whatever Eric's affection for romance novels, he is certainly a reader capable of bringing the new John Ashbery to bed with him and deriving pleasure from it, even at 10:30 at night, and that's largely because of the privilege of his education. So I am even more convinced now that teaching poetry to middle school teachers is a Good Thing, even as I wonder whether poetry's ever-fuller participation in our culture of distraction may not be so Good.

Other things on my radar this week include the latest issue of absent, which in two issues has established itself as a necessary scourge to some closely held post-avant pieties (there are also fine poems there—I really like what "The Pines" are up to). And I'm enthralled with Jasper Bernes's Starsdown, a version of which I read in manuscript but which in final form creates a much tighter and more intense experience of late capitalist space for the reader. It's also very funny. Jasper is one of a group of poets I've come to think of as the new Baudelaires: poets who seem willing to inject undiluted urban/media experience into their bloodstreams, suffer the resulting fevers, and then give back to us a radiant map of the damage they've suffered, which is of course the damage we've suffered but which we're socially engineered to ignore and accept. I may write an article about this by and by. But of course even this blog post is stolen from the ever-scanter hours between now and the start of classes at Lake Forest on Thursday.

Must now practice some of my Ultimate Fighting skills in preparation for dinner tonight with Bob.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Future of Time

Just back from another terrific reading, this time at Danny's Bar in Bucktown. It's curated by Joel Craig and celebrated its sixth anniversary tonight, which would mean that its genesis roughly coincided with what Peter O'Leary (who I met in the flesh for the first time this evening) suggests was the beginning of a Chicago poetry revival that has now reached its finest flourishing with the publication of Ray Bianchi and Bill Allegrezza's anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, which with its photos of the authors serves as a kind of convenient "phone book" for Chicago's poetryland. Tonight's reading was intended as a celebration of the anthology, and featured four of its contributors: Jennifer Karmin, Chuck Stebelton (first time I'm hearing of him but though he's now running Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee he's apparently a Chicago institution, and a very fine poet too: look for his book Circulation Flowers from Tougher Disguises), Robin Schiff, and Mark Tardi. All four poets were fierce, charismatic readers, leaning expertly into the mike and letting the little booklight attached cast shadows all around them like negative halos. It was a great audience, too—though I and pregnant Emily were dismayed to discover that you can still smoke in Chicago bars—the entire place was full and unlike most every other tavern reading I've attended, everyone was there for the poems. The sound system (inadequate ones are another common downfall of the bar reading) was excellent as well. Chicago is definitely putting its best foot forward as our first week here comes to a close.

The title of this post refers to an entry over at the Poetry Foundation's collective weblog Harriet, which came up in conversation tonight with Peter, Robin, and Nick Twemlow, who works there: Michael Marcinkowski's "What Are Some Creative Ways to Promote Poetry?. One apparently frequent topic of conversation in Chicago is the Poetry Foundation and the support, or lack thereof, that it offers to the local scene; last night someone suggested that it would have a much greater influence if it distributed its money in middling-sized amounts to small presses and magazines, as opposed to sponsoring white elephant awards. When I refloated this idea tonight Peter pointed out that this would probably only result in a number of organizations blowing all the money on one good book or issue, then folding; the superlean business models of small presses like Flood would find such a cash infusion superfluous to their operations. Instead, he said that the money would be better spent teaching middle school teachers how to teach poetry, and that this would have the ripple effect of spreading interest in poetry. He seemed to suggest that teachers needed to be taught how to teach others to break the poetry code: otherwise literate people open up contemporary poetry books and find them as incomprehensible as a Beethoven score is to someone who can't read music. This is a troubling model that I'll want to think about more, but it does accurately describe the reaction many intelligent people seem to have to the poems they happen to encounter.

Anyway, this is when Nick brought up Marcinowski's post (and this is also when we had to leave to escape the smoke, which is why I'm completing my thoughts here). Where others who were asked the vexing question about building audiences for poetry offered very reasonable responses (poetry in the schools programs, poetry in prisons, etc.), Lyn Hejinian said, "Poetry doesn't need promotion. People need time. A revolutionary way to promote poetry might be to criminalize capitalism's theft of people's time." This cuts the Gordian knot of the question and speaks to the critical potential that inheres in such a weak and marginal art as poetry, which so far in spite of the Lilly millions seems to resist the kind of cultural commodification and corporate sponsorship we associate with the other "high arts" for which there is no living market (classical music, for example). Put another way, to claim that people don't like poetry is to say that people don't have the time and mental space required, and that in fact very powerful forces are at work to prevent people from investing in the poetic mentality, the unplanned obsolescence and spectacular uselessness of which (because after all it is a kind of wildlife or wildmind preserve, necessarily distinct from the "irritable reaching" of productive thought) might lead people to question the very concept of "usefulness" (the quanta by which "time" receives its ultimate value) as it is manufactured for us.

It's true that poetry does run the risk of commodification as a luxury good, if that hasn't happened already: it's "slow food" and as such could develop a devoted following among the high bourgeoise. But even in this aspect it retains some critical force, because after all doesn't everyone deserve the "luxury" of food that is grown without biochemical alteration and actually tastes like something? If capitalism, in short, cannot manage to "afford" poetry, then so much the worse for capitalism. But the implications of Hejinian's statement are rather sobering ones for the well-meaning folks over at the Poetry Foundation, I think: it's the rejoinder of the revolutionary to the liberal ameliorator, and it's unanswerable save by such platitudes as "Well, we live in the real world." And we do, and I think it would be terrific if middle school teachers received proper training in the teaching of poetry, and it could eventually have profound implications for the art. But I also go back to Frank O'Hara: "if people don't need poetry, bully for them. I like the movies too." And that's where the contradiction lies exposed.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Warm Welcome

Went to my first Chicago reading last night on, weirdly enough, Cornell Avenue—the series A reading curated by Bill Allegrezza, one of the nicest poets I've ever met. Not realizing exactly how damn far Hyde Park is from Evanston I was too late for Simone and Lina's readings, but I did hear from them in the sense that it was a reading of exquisite corpse-style collaborations the group had done together—overall an assemblage of the raunchy and poignant. Memorable figures and phrases: Ray Bianchi and his "hot sausage" (don't ask), to which Kristy Odelius added "mashed potatoes" as well as a presentation of "the Latin for birdshit"; Tim Yu's preceding his reading with "apologies to fans of Lorine Niedecker" (again, don't ask); and Bill's "bumped out donuts for coffee" (what does that mean?). The crowd was quite appreciative. Afterwards I went out to Bar Louies (a popular local chain I'll probably be seeing more of) to hang with the poets, who impressed me with their friendliness and high spirits: at first blush, it's the least neurotic poetry scene I've ever been exposed to. Everyone made me feel very welcome, told me how much I'd like Chicago, invited me to readings, etc. Nice!

Today I've set myself the task of finishing at least two of my syllabi. Tonight I'm going to another reading, because why not? I might as well get out to as many of these things as I can before I'm buried beneath my new responsibilities professorial and parental. (Speaking of the latter, we had our first midwife appointment yesterday, and I got to hear the baby's heartbeat for the first time. That kid is FAST!)

Hoping to resume thoughts about poetry here sometime soon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


The sun is setting through the west window of the study of our beautiful new apartment in Evanston. More shortly.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Books for New Fathers

Less than one week remains before the move to Evanston. The house is about three-quarters packed. And I'm starting to pick up the professorial reins—a couple of students have emailed about the books for my classes, and I've also been charged with the pleasant task of welcoming John Kinsella to the Lake Forest campus for a reading on Tuesday, September 25—put that in your calendars now, Chicagoans.

In my spare moments I'm thinking about the baby and what it means for us and for me. And I've been utterly appalled by the level of the material out there that's directed at fathers and fathers-to-be. Every book and article I've found, almost without exception, assumes that men are clueless, incompetent, and not nearly as interested in pregnancy and babies as women. The title of one of the books out there says it all: The Caveman's Pregnancy Companion: A Survival Guide. That is, you're expected to embrace a self-image as a big, not too bright, but loyal lug for whom the pregnancy is a kind of mastodon stampede that you simply have to get through alive—as opposed to something you've actually chosen. It's infuriating. Oh, there are plenty of clinical books out there with the information you need about the stages of gestation, the birth itself, and a million things beyond your control that you can worry about—but what I can't seem to find is a book on the experience of new fatherhood that doesn't insult my intelligence.

This was bothering me even more in the early days when the pregnancy was still a secret, and so I had few people to confide in. That's when I needed good books most, and I couldn't find them. Do people have recommendations? Armin Brott's The Expectant Father is the best I've come up with, but it still doesn't quite speak to me as someone who's always expected to be an equal partner in child-rearing. What say you, dads and moms? What have you found useful?

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