Friday, February 28, 2003

Oh lord I'm so tired. But you know, in spite of the madness and careerism gone amuck I'm having a great time and hanging out with great people. Met two of my Barrow Street publishers and they were as kind as could be to me. Saw some folks I met at Bread Loaf back in the day. Caught the tail end of a panel Jane Sprague gave along with Mairead Byrne, Kazim Ali, Pierre Joris, and one or two others whose names I didn't catch about the whole poetry and politics thing—it was scheduled at the last minute and was sparsely attended but was by far the most interesting and relevant thing I saw (or really, didn't see) all day. The book fair is really the reason to be here—almost all the small presses I've ever heard of (well, on the East Coast—West Coasters are generally underrepresented here) are here and there are delicious, candy-colored books strewn all around. If you pick up something to buy it, chances are excellent that the author is standing behind the little table prepared to sign it for you. The best part of the day was hanging around in the hotel bar in the late afternoon talking with people. I met an undergrad from SUNY Albany writing an honors thesis on Artaud that sounded fascinating—this guy has it much, much more together than I could even have conceived of being when I was a college senior. Patrick Herron from the Buffalo List was there and we had a stimulating discussion about alter egos (though Lester was not in evidence), the troubled relationship between academia and poetry, and government black ops. (Patrick seems to know a frightening amount about the lesser known excesses of our national security state.) A journal called Post Road was throwing a party in Fell's Point and a bunch of us went out and had dinner: my friend Brian Teare (whose must-buy book The Room Where I Was Born is coming out from Wisconsin in the fall), Jane, Jane's friend Kate whose last name alas I didn't catch (fill me in Jane!), and Karen Anderson and Gina DeFranco (both friends of mine from the Cornell PhD program who are also poets; Gina has a book forthcoming from University of Arizona Press). Had the first decent Chinese food I've eaten since moving to Ithaca and then home to the house of my friends Chris and Jeannie, who are gracious enough not to mind my comings and goings as long as I keep volunteering to walk the dogs.

I'm starting to think that any critical intelligence that I might bring to bear upon the AWP experience will not materialize, if it comes at all, until I'm safely home again on the island that is Ithaca. I'm looking forward to tomorrow, when some of the most interesting people here will be giving panels: Clayton Eshleman, Pierre Joris, Donald Revell, and some other interesting poets will be talking about translation in the morning, and there's a panel on campiness in poetry in the afternoon. Plus rumor has it that the books, which thus far I've only fondled, will be deeply discounted tomorrow as it's the last day of the conference. The Verse Press books look particularly delicious; I could eat them all.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Baltimore! Beautiful brick city filling with snow! And what are those antlike beings on the 5th and 6th floors of the Harborplace Renaissance Hotel? Look away, Baltimore! Look away!

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Jim Behrle, that good, good man, will be publishing some of my poems at his formidable exercise in Internet magazinehood can we have our ball back?. They will be in issue number 17 and for the people, as always.

Just came home from Ithaca's favorite grad student hangout, a bar called the Chapter House. I hardly ever go there any more, but I went up to campus around 4 to hear William Spanos give a talk on Heidegger and Foucault and then fell in with the professor and a couple of classmates with whom I took a course on femininity, aesthetics, and psychoanalysis last semester. After the wine-and-sushi reception (the Ivy Leage is not without its perks) we headed down to the Chapter House and the next time I looked at a clock it was 10 PM. It was only this past Saturday that Emily and I joined a group of poets at Maxie's for another festival of conversation and beer. My clothes smell like smoke; it's feeling like old times here in Ithaca—I thought I'd left the drinking life behind when I got out of the MFA program. But of course tomorrow I'll be in Baltimore with a bunch of other friends with MFAs and no doubt we'll be boozing it up again there, too. Like Nick Piombino (whose Theoretical Objects we'll be reading in the poetics class in two weeks) I'm a fan of Bass Ale. Maybe if we mention it often enough they'll offer our blogs corporate sponsorship. It would be nice to at least choose the content for the banner ad struggling for your attention at the top of this page.

Thought I would post something angsty about careerism and the motiveless mediocrity that is the AWP, but I'm too tired and happy. But I do plan to bring you some kind of update after I've landed in Charm City, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Blogging has me feeling very connected to the "now" in poetry. Probably too connected. I'm already plugged into the academic socket—whatever will become of my capacity for independent thought if I'm also hopelessly addicted to following and commenting on every little thing my peer group of choice has to say?

That said, Ray Davis' Bellona Times, which I've only just discovered, has a very useful thread going on about the basic approaches to presenting/interpreting "difficult" poetry. A shout-out to my Finnegans Wake pardners in particular for the latest comment offered by Paul Kerschen of yet another blog new to me, the cactus log.

Sympathetic recognition of what Stephanie Young over at the well nourished moon (how come no hyphen, Stephanie?) calls her "MFA problem": the desire to impose some kind of narrative straitjacket onto her poems in order to arrange them into a manuscript. I wonder though about how much power we really have to control the interpretation of our work through devices like ordering, section titles, etc. Does Selah have a narrative? In my mind it kind of does, and it may be in my power to give readers that impression because I think it's going to be up to me to write the inside flap copy. The blurbs will also direct the reader's expectations, as will the cover, the design, and not least the price. And I've been unable to resist the urge to include a couple of notes, mostly to acknowledge writers who I'm piggybacking upon. But before you reach this "packaging" stage all you've got is arrangement, unless you decide to create new poems or possibly even an introduction (Allen Grossman likes to do this) as signposts. The alternative of course is to let the poems be, to let them buzz and bump against one another's forcefields. It's a tough decision. A poet with my Modernist longings can't help but want to produce a book that seems like a Book—a thematically unified objet d'art. At the same time I recognize and welcome the dissonant energies to be unleashed by a book that doesn't attempt to conceal its process or constructedness—a book with exposed beams. Some people prefer books that struggle against their bookness, whose boundaries to other texts and genres are deliberately porous.

The process of putting a book of poems together tends to get discussed in the most abjectly matter-of-fact terms (this is what I think Stephanie means when she calls this an MFA problem), and the questions it raises are often answered expressly with an eye as to making the book competitive in contests (put your strongest poems first because the screeners won't read the whole thing otherwise, etc.). Poets who are not so advanced as to have seized the means of reprodution (through publishing collectives mostly) are put in the position of arranging their manuscripts for submission, which is inevitably an afterthought. If you are fortunate enough to be working with a tractable small press, as I have been, you will get a say in shaping the total experience of your book, but that can't alter the fact that I put Selah through revision after revision, year after year, in hopes not just of achieving aesthetic satisfaction but of at least making it into the finalists' circle of the many, many contests I sent $20 checks to. What must it be like to write a book—a whole book—without having to submit oneself in any sense of that word? At this point I can hear the low hisses of scorn from avant-garde types who have made careers for their poetry (if not necessarily careers for themselves) through the Whitmanian practice of self-publishing or the even more honorable practice of collective publishing (Subpress is the most impressive such latter-day group that I'm aware of). These people are even better off in some ways than poets with publishing contracts, for they have total control over every aspect of their book's production and reproduction. What I always wonder about, though, is distribution. How do you get these books into stores and libraries? How do make it at least remotely possible for someone who's not from your city or a member of your clique to get their hands on your book? For me publishing isn't publishing unless the text is going into the hands of strangers. The marvelous possibility that people you've never met will read your book and have their notion of what poetry can be subtly altered. Ah, just go back and read the whole Bellona Times page. Davis has some good things to say about publishing in general and web publishing in particular—this kind of publishing, which I can honestly say has gotten me more confirmed readers than anything I've ever placed in a magazine.

Phew. This is all probably just anxiety prior to going to AWP, the motherdaddy of careerist convocations. I'll be looking forward to meeting some of you strangers there.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Woke up this morning thinking about how bad the poetry I used to love is, and wondering about how I came to have such a different perspective on it. I used to think that this was a good poem:

Near Klamath

We stand around the burning oil drum
and we warm ourselves, our hands
and faces, in its pure lapping heat.

We raise steaming cups of coffee
to our lips and we drink it
with both hands. But we are salmon

fishermen. And now we stamp our feet
on the dnow and rocks and move upstream,
slowly, full of love, toward the still pools.

Can't you just hear Garrison Keillor's reverent baritone caressing every inch of this banality? What makes it even worse is that the poem is by Raymond Carver, who I think even the most hidebound pipe-smoking literary types agree makes a much more convincing short story writer than he makes a poet. I cringe with embarrassment when I remember the one creative writing class I taught at the University of Montana in 1998, where I presented this in all seriousness to my students as a "good poem." Yeesh. I mean, the line breaks don't even make any sense—my fingers hesitated before hitting the enter key after "hands," and the break "salmon / fishermen," which I once found affecting, now seems merely comic. It would be a much better poem if "we" really did turn out to be salmon, holding big masculine mugs of coffee between our fins. The kicker, of course, is "full of love," which I admired at the time for creating a punchline ending (I thought all good poems had epiphanic punchlines) which retroactively revises the meaning of the poem just as T.S. Eliot imagined "The Waste Land" to have retroactively revised the meaning of all preceding English poetry. I suppose it's a genuine effect, but one produced by megalomania. Of course it's sentimental as hell. I suppose I looked to crap poems like this (and marginally better poems of the same ilk by James Wright, Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, etc.—though these last have also written poems much better than anything Carver produced) for some sense of masculine authenticity—this is the Brando-esque club of poets forced into macho postures because they know in their hearts that poetry is an effete practice. This "authenticity" is really just the flimsiest, most transparent possible kind of sentimentality—the kind of display of feeling exceeding any proper objective correlative (thanks, Tom! that's two today) which most men reserve for football games.

I suppose what happened is I got a little smarter and decided that poetry wasn't effete if it took on the hard, metallic sheen of linguistic surfaces. And then I got a little smarter still, as well as a little braver, and decided that poetry probably was and always had been effete, and I didn't much care. Probably what was most important were the teachers who came breezing through the Montana English department (which was otherwise pretty much dedicated to the fly-fishing aesthetic) who gave me examples of poetry not written by crankily sentimental Northwestern white men to read. Mark Levine will always have my affection for coming to workshop one day with a clenched forehead, pacing up and down in front of us for what seemed like several minutes, and then burst out with, "Have any of you guys read Walter Benjamin? You MUST read Walter Benjamin!" Another time he read Allen Grossman's "Poland of Death" to us. 'Annah Sobelman came to teach one semester and forced me to buy amazing books, most of them by women: Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters, Brenda Hillman's Loose Sugar, Jane Miller's August Zero, and a few others I can't remember. (She also made us by a book by Tess Gallagher, Moon Crossing Bridge—I didn't like it as much but the fact that she had been Raymond Carver's wife perhaps made her an appropriate springboard to more interesting poetries.) And Mary Jo Bang raised my awareness of Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, the Black Mountain School, etc. See: an MFA is good for something.

Yikes, look at the time.

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Attended a reading last night at Ithaca's finest caffeine purveyor, Gimme! Coffee, organized by (newly?) local poet Jane Sprague, with whom my dog and I will be catching a ride down to AWP this Thursday. Two poets from Buffalo came to read named Sarah Campbell and Barbara Cole, plus a New York fiction writer named Elizabeth Grove who helps to run the interesting literary site Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. They were all excellent—I was particularly impressed with Sarah's Steinian sound collages, which involved two CD players each playing what I believe were different Bach partitas simultaneously, and a tape recorder on which she had prerecorded her own voice, with which she interacted. It sounds pretentious but it was all utterly charming, smart, and funny. One project was called "Voice Safe" and involved the poet's determination to preserve her own voice making every possible phoneme for future use, just in case her own voice were to someday vanish (she gave us a preview of this by strategically dropping vocables while describing the project to us). I didn't catch the name of the second piece, but it was a weirdly touching self-dialogue about her voice and its family resemblance to other women's voices (especially I think her mother's and sister's voices, but a much larger "family" was implied by the incantation of women's names).

The other poet, Barbara Cole, read an entire chapbook to us, which itself is a section from a larger work, Situation Comedies (or more properly Situ Ation Come Dies). It's a collage of advertising language, much of it generationally specific (I heard many taglines from my childhood), interspersed with fragments of conversation and anecdotes about the poet's childhood which seem to orient around miscommunication (I loved the bit in which the eleven year-old poet is told to go exchange the KING-brand bread she had bought at the market for the new FAMILY brand.) The fiction piece that ended the evening was a wryly humorous story about a Russian immigrant in New York, her job at a quasi-Jungian journal, her budding romance with a slacker colleague, and her obsession with a maladroit teenage boy. Afterwards a bunch of us (including Joel Kuszai of Factory School fame) went for a beer at Maxie's Supper Club, even though Emily and I had to get up at 5 this morning to take her to the airport. She's in Florida now and I'm staring at snowflakes, as usual. It was a great evening, though.

Also as usual I'm late to every party—I had thought to post something about the quandary of situating one's writing within either the context of an "experimental tradition" (so that only those who are already familiar with the "scene" are likely to "get" what you're doing—and of course the Catch-22 is, how do you gain entry into this "scene"?), the context of "traditional tradition" (so anyone vaguely familiar with the conventions of poetry or even Modernist poetry will have access to your work), the context of self-disclosure (books which take upon themselves the task of teaching you how to read them, either through notes or less pedantic means), and the context of no context (sui generis works). Instead of doing that I'm going to post a link to the April 2000 issue of The Stranger, which contains some really useful articles under the rubric "Difficulty Made Easy" by Diana George, John Olson, Frances McCue, Robert Gluck, and others. The links are painfully slow but worth it.

I have papers to grade, tra-la.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

New links are finally up so we can slip notes under each other's doors more efficiently. Thanks to all who link to me, even if you insist on calling this page "Cahiers de Cory" (sounds vaguely Celtic?) or, as Stephanie Young does, "Cashiers de Corey," which may be a subtle criticism or just a typo which in either case I humbly accept.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Pink Flamingos

Lots of angst and self-flagellation about blogs going on at Brian Kim Stefans' Free Space Comix and David Hess' marvelously entertaining Heathens in Heat. Come on, guys. I'm totally with Heriberto Yepez on this one (read The Tijuana Bible of Poetics every day and twice on Sundays): the proliferation of venues for publication—and more importantly, for distribution (Barnes & Noble's got nothing on the Internet)—can only be a good thing. Listservs are far more clubby than blogs, and I vastly prefer the notes that have been slipped under my door to the offensive inanity coming through my window every time I open Outlook Express. Which is not to say that listservs don't serve a function that blogs cannot, and it's an important one: in spite of how irritating it can be I stay subscribed to the Buffalo List because that's how I get the news about Poets Against the War, etc. It is difficult to get the news from blogs, but I don't go to blogs for news: I go for an experience of subjectivity that each blogger contextualizes (i.e., is self-conscious about) in his or her own way. And I write my blog (and respond to what other people say on theirs) for a sense of community. Jim Behrle can diss blogs if he pleases (most of Jim's disses please, but not this one), but I notice he was giving his speech in San Francisco. Some of us don't live in San Francisco or New York. This blog is IT. This is my Batphone to the (plural) scenes out there, and every now and then it rings with a reader's e-mail, or just my desire to instantly respond to something I've read. Yeah, it's my yard, so what? You kids can come play in it any time you want.
Nick Twemlow (I love his name, it's so Dickensian) has a nice little interview with Brian Henry up at the Poets & Writers website. He says a lot of smart, generalizing things about poetry today and what young poets are doing in particular. I'm a sucker for generalizing statements about poetry in general and young poets in particular—is this narcissism? Probably—Henry talks about that, too. He does make one statement which I want to interrogate a little bit when he starts talking about the influence of the Language poets on the younger generations; the paragraph in question is worth quoting in full:
Many emerging poets ... distrust the hierarchies of the poetry world and address that world itself in their writing. Mark Wallace, Anselm Berrigan, Lee Ann Brown, Heather Fuller, and Jennifer Moxley come to mind. Mentioning them reminds me of Wallace's piece—a self-interview, I think—on what he calls Postlanguage poetry, which he defines in relation to Language poetry. In some ways, Language poetry arose out of a similar distrust, and I think Language poetry has been hugely influential—far more influential than its supposed arch-rival, the New Formalism—as a model of behavior for younger poets. Without the same context—historical impetus, geography, individuals—younger poets just can't become Language poets; it doesn't come down to aesthetic decisions. But a lot of these poets have adopted some of the original Language poets as unofficial mentors, so their work reflects the style, political beliefs, and/or content of one or more Language poets. Some Language poets have complained that their work should not be boiled down to the level of style or aesthetics, which is true, but no one can control how their work affects others. Admittedly, no one wants to see their work diluted to the point that it is read, and used, in ways antithetical to the original impulse, but that has always happened. See the recent aestheticization of Paul Celan.
What precisely does Henry mean by "aestheticization," and why does it preclude what he implies is the surplus content of Language poetry? These things are obviously related, as becomes clear when you realize that he hasn't actually defined "politics" as the surplus that gets "boiled down." Earlier in the essay, he argues that to pursue poetry as a career (he doesn't actually use the word "career," which in its "-ist" form has become the n-word of po-biz) is inherently political: "Well, writing poetry itself is a political act, even if very few people notice it or care. The fact of caring about language enough not to abuse it is political, as is the pursuit of such a materially unrewarding vocation." If I ungenerously hold Henry's feet to the fire and assume a self-consistence to his argument that is not necessarily natural to the interview format, the implication has been made that the thing that resists boiling down in Language poets and Celan is not politics as such but some kernel (I'm tempted to say kernel of the Real—I spent part of this morning reading a rather brilliant attack on Slavoj Zizek by Claudia Berger in the latest Diacritics) that is capable of being boiled down, "aestheticized," and surgically removed (without an-aesthetic?) leaving something that looks like Language poetry and quacks like Language poetry but isn't. This kernel is difficult to define, but without getting too Lacanian about it I'd say that it has something to do with that which anchors a text within its historical framework—the concept that makes "conceptual art" intelligible—in other words, the new context that Henry claims makes it impossible for new Language poets to appear today (we lack the same "historical impetus, geography, individuals"). A young poet can therefore either try to be "truer to the original spirit than" his or her fellows (which means what? pretending the original context and historical impetus still exists?) or else fall into the trap of "aestheticization."

I'm probably making way too much out of this, but I guess what I object to here is the simplistic way in which Henry throws around the term "aesthetic." What he calls the aestheticization of a poet like Celan I call the inevitable movement through time and space of a text whose readers come at it from another context (in this case 21st century America) and who cannot recreate the original context of the work's reception (postwar Europe) no matter how hard they try to be "true to the spirit" of that original context. Attempts to police interpretation—to impose a text's historical context on readers—are heavy-handed at best. For example, John Felstiner's biography of Celan is an admirable work in many ways, but it becomes a martyrography as it labors to repress those aspects of Celan's life and personality which don't arrange themselves neatly along the teleogically tragic arc lent to his life by his suicide. One reason I admire Glottal Stop (translations of Celan by Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov) is its baggier sense of interpretation: in place of the strict, nigh-fetishitic accuracy of Pierre Joris' translations or even the supple English of Felstiner's, Popov and McHugh work to get across Celan's full range at the expense of literal translation. In addition to that play of the signifier which is really the suffering of the signifier (for which Celan is justly known) we get play that is play: fiercely humorous and often erotic. Perhaps this is what irritates Silliman and others when they look at what they see as their epigones: the suffering of the signifier (an estrangement from natural language forced upon the Language poets by what they saw as a crisis of that language, a language irredeemably corrupted by the powers that had spoken Vietnam, that had spoken Watergate) has become a game. But the original historical context of suffering—the surplus—is not suppressed by this play.

The risk a poetry like Celan's runs is not that of aestheticization (where else but in the realm of the aesthetic are you able to encounter the signifier qua signifier, estranged from notions of the "natural" as well as the realm of "freedom," the overdetermining network of relationships every signifier is otherwise caught in?) but reification: we can gesture at Celan and the Language poets up there on the wall without reading them—they've become cultural capital to be spent in cementing our own careers. I just glanced back at the last paragraph of the interview and misread Henry's "create your own community" for "create your own commodity." This is the problem in a nutshell and a fair one to task us young turks with—we children of the Seventies and Eighties whose entire dreamlife was so thoroughly commodified (even would-be cultural gatekeeper Ray McDaniel makes references to Hasbro and Kenner in his crucifixion of Cal Bedient, discussed yesterday) that it's difficult or impossible to imagine producing texts which don't somehow replicate an interior which is only the exterior world we bought and paid for. Does this mean farewell to the interior, farewell to the subject, farewell to the career? Maybe it does. Or maybe it means an ambivalent embrace of our commodified dreamlife—a project foretold by Benjamin's Arcades Project. Or maybe it means a return to the communitarian Language model—but if so we'll do it our way, okay? Despite certain superficial resemblances, George W. Bush is not Lyndon B. Johnson. Saddam Hussein is no Ho Chi Minh. And Bill (or even Hillary) Clinton is no Jack Kennedy. Heck, from my point of view, even Jack Kennedy was no Jack Kennedy. The San Francisco of the 21st century is not gonna be the San Francisco of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. It probably won't even be San Francisco.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Extraordinarily useful post by Kasey Mohammed yesterday in which he tries to answer the question, "How would you explain what you do in your writing to someone with no prior knowledge of poetry?" Read all about it at lime tree. He writes about teaching poetry to two basic groups: those with few preconceived notions about poetry who have an expansive, "it's all good" approach, and those who have already formed a rather limited and calcified notion of what poetry is, and how tricky it is to navigate teaching both groups in the same class. This strikes me as helpful not just for my own future teaching but for being a constructive participant in the Monroe seminar, which is largely composed of undergraduates of this latter type. As Kasey does, I feel a greater responsibility for engaging them, however frustrating it might sometimes be, because they are all English majors who are passionate about poetry, and some of them will certainly go on to write and/or teach the stuff themselves someday. As Smokey the Bear has been heard to say, Only You Can Prevent Aesthetic Conservatism. And let me too endorse his final paragraph as describing pretty well the outlines of my answer to this perpetual and nagging question:
So what is it that I do exactly? If anyone is still reading this, I guess what I might have answered if I had been more prepared is that I write poems to see what kinds of new things I can do with words and ideas. I want to find different places that poetry can come from, and to put poetry in places it hasn't been before. It may not always work, but even when it doesn't, the process of doing it makes me think in interesting ways, and I hope the act of reading it does this for others too.

It's high time I put up some permanent links to Kasey's blog, and Silliman's, and a few others who I read regularly for their remarkable grasp of the essayistic possibilities of blogging, or their sense of humor, or their outrage, or all three. Which has me thinking about the links I've already got up there. I put the Constant Critic up in the first days because I wanted to support the idea of an online minimag devoted exclusively to reviewing new poetry books. I still support that, and I'm not going to take the link down—but I was disheartened by Ray McDaniel's "hysterical and mean" (his own words) attack on Cal Bedient's new book, The Violence of the Morning. Full disclosure: Cal is something of a mentor of mine. He's shown a generous interest in my own work and has provided a back-cover blurb for Selah. I owe him. But I was a reader of his work long before he took any special notice of mine, and the virulence of McDaniel's review is such that any lover of poetry might stand up at this point to defend Cal Bedient. McDaniel's lack of restraint suggests to me not so much the free play of critical intelligence as something more along the lines of a vendetta. Bedient is a reviewer himself, of course, and a tough one, and I know there are poets who have taken a drubbing from him and resented it. Turnabout is fair play, I imagine you saying, or else the perennial plea for us to all get along and not write negative reviews. To the first group I say that karma is all well and good, but the gleefully vindictive tone Mr. McDaniel takes does not suggest a Buddha nature. To the second group I want to say that negative reviews serve a function, aside from being opportunities for better prose writing than a diet of pure positivity can provide; they almost always get us outside the frame of close reading and springboard off into a larger discussion about poetics. A negative review invariably foregrounds the reviewer's poetics and the ways they are in conflict (or more rarely, in dissonant congruence) with those of the poet in question, and this broaden's the reader's awareness of the Larger Questions in Poetry Today.

It's an extremely worthwhile enterprise, and I support the Constant Critic, and I support the right to write bad reviews. But I do question McDaniel's motives; is he really as outraged as his tone suggests (the final line of his review: "[A]t fifty-five pages, it would have been a pity. At close to one hundred, it's a crime.")? I generally reserve that kind of outrage for faux naifs and Ministers of Culture. Maybe McDaniel thinks Bedient is both, but the "crimes" he accuses him of are too many and various. He's read too much (or rather he has "too ready an access to what [he] has read," which I find to be a puzzling statement) and alludes to what he's read. The book is too long (he devotes a whole paragraph to complaining about this). Mostly, McDaniel is upset because he thinks that Bedient has not taken the reader—that is, the reader Ray McDaniel—into account, though he universalizes this claim when he writes that readers are "possible creatures it is apparently beyond or beneath Mr. Bedient’s ability to countenance." He makes the book sound like inpenetrable, pretentious garbage, when it's actually funny, sometimes scatological, wild-haired poetry—not all that superficially different from the work of, say, Gabe Gudding, who McDaniel's first review treated affectionately if condescendingly. The most obvious difference I can think of is that Gabe Gudding has written no widely published negative reviews.

I'm not going to go into more detail refuting McDaniel, but I will post one of my favorite poems from The Violence of the Morning here. It deserves more and better readers:

Feather's Wives Are All Good-Looking

Flute, flute, this is a change.
The news? A tiny bit of flutter. Up
on the stalk the bleeding heart

utters out-of-beds; the whole garden
dips and behaves.

And should I pony to little bed?
HORSE me to the table, morning, like a winning cake.
has laps of breath for us,
legs for us,     morning (gate) has legs for us
who would not pony to little bed.

Why which, then, without difference when?
Why pearl without lily elaboration?

Cow lie down, horse be our baby blues,
horse be our column of wasps.

Flute, o
peculiar new kneeler on the air! Any
bottoming by breath's early light,
virile butte carved clear,
is feather weight to you

who would not pony to little bed. So:

feather my bench, feather the weather.
Feather. Feather. Feather. Feather.

Paths Jack Philosophy strews with jumbo jacks for us,
the little train of the mouth that stops and goes for us,
the vanilla of 7 A.M., the cinnamon of noon,
will get us there,
as the moon in the sky
is a blossom in the water.

Out the window of outside-phenomenon,
one leg out, one leg ahead,
would not pony to little bed.

Monday, February 17, 2003

As the snow comes tumbling down, unfashionably late as usual, I stumble across this review of Katy Lederer's Winter Sex at the Electronic Poetry Review by Paul Stephens. It's remarkably lucid about recent trends in poetry and the "New Iowanism" which seems to meet with Stephens' guarded approval. As does Lederer's book, which sounds quite exciting to me, in spite or perhaps being summed up as "On the Romantic side perhaps, almost Duncan-esque." (I would love to have a discussion with someone about how the Spicer/Duncan nexus qualifies as "alternative" poetry even though its basic principles are opposed to what is arguably the more dominant alternative, that is, Language-based poetry. Come to think of it, a discussion much along these lines is happening right now at Silliman's Blog.

The "Iowa book" has been a recognizable genre for a while now, and I do find for better or worse that, while such books often merit the skeptical response Stephens hilariously describes in his first paragraph, a number of my favorite recent books could be classed as such. One favorite book by a certified Iowa graduate, and with an epigraph from Wittgenstein no less, is Tessa Rumsey's Assembling the Shepherd. It features many of the standard, Jorie-esque Iowa moves (though it is not in the three or four sections that Stephens complains is such a cliché with first books): poems with the same title, page-as-field poems next to artful couplets, poems that require you to turn the book on its side to read them. The thing is, they're gorgeous, restless, and engaged with a much larger world than books which don't go much beyond what a recent book title I saw at the Bookery (the only new independent bookstore in Ithaca, threatened now by Barnes & Noble and Borders, which opened within weeks of each other last fall): The Little Field of Self.* Here's one of my favorite poems in the book, which certainly doesn't resist the Duncanesque (wonderful word, that, and a great title) even as it materializes the signifier in unsettling ways:

Poem for the Old Year

January. The archer aims at himself.
His target is the eye of a fish. River
is frozen. Field rises in mists of lost
desire and steams the sealed sky open.
Fish be ruby-weeping. Fish be nailed
through scale onto door of silver birch.
Over the mountain beaten boy searches
for his teeth inside a clump of brambles.
The sound of thorns through his skin
is mercy. The sound of a beautiful fish
being nailed to a door is mercy, mercy.
Nobody knows the origin of music,
or who wind pitches for between rock
and rock like a bronco heart kicking
in its cage. Breeze seduces bow. Bow
abandons arrow. Boy finds shelter
in thicket and hears music of his breath
through ugly, twisted thistles. Come
home. It's time to begin again. A boy
is nailed to the door and a fish is aimed
at an archer, mountain is weeping rubies
onto frozen river while wind grinds
two new teeth. Who are you
inside the music of another's suffering?
When I was a nail I loved only
the hammer. When I was a breeze I died
on a door. When I was a fish
I swam without knowing not yet, or last
breath, or shore.

This poem does what I demand of poems these days—it neither confidently asserts its language as world-founding (as if mere representation were enough—this is all I want to say, or suggest, right now about the Joy Harjo I'm reading for Jonathan Monroe's class), nor pretends that there is nothing outside the text. Language in this poem can change an arrow into a fish or a poet into a nail—it's Protean, it's a vehicle for stepping outside of the self and inhabiting the space (the world that is everything that is the case that is limited by what we can say about it) that puts us in tremulous contact with the Other within and without. "Who are you / inside the music of another's suffering?" I think this question is posed to and by all lyric poetry. I guess I'm showing my Modernist slip here, as someone who still believes in depth, or at any rate in verticality—there's something below or above the endless spreading plane of rhizomatic interstices, even if we can't contact it, even if the psychoanalytic language we use to talk about it with is no more or less advanced than reading tea leaves. I want to say YES to something, like Molly Bloom. The corrosive postmodern NO is not enough to nourish me, however crucial and (literally) critical it might be in times like these.**

I'll close today's entry with another one of my Barney Ross sonnets that could use an airing:


he brought home in a scorched flag of the sun,
and an officer’s khaki cap. The one
ruined treasure his whitening skin, the scar
a mottled map on his thigh, and the scored
plan of veins on his arms and near the groin.
He staggers at his shadow, his light ruined.
In the peeling mirror his body’s a lump of war.

But in the ringing mind. . . In his cold-water flat
his feet circle on threadbare carpet, red
silk flapping his hip, a dragon on his back.
He lifts the ragged fringe—a middle-aged cat
dancer—till white bloat carries him to bed.
Rusting in his sheath, author of satin lack.

* This is a book by Doreen Gilroy and it might actually be good; the title is probably ironic. As a description of most poems, however, it is all too apt.
** At its best postmodernism offers a complex dearticulation of imperial forms which at its most vital is a negatively posed version of this quote from Frederick Douglass that Mike Magee posted on the Buffalo List on Saturday: "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed...a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke."

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Jim Behrle, poet, firebrand, and editor of can we have our ball back?, has posted an exhilirating speech he made at a San Francisco Small Press Traffic event yesterday (while, presumably, the marches were going on—and how thrilling was that—millions of people shouting millions of NOs? At the very very least Tony Blair will have to sit up and take notice) about the bad rap our generation of poets (Generation XXXVII, I think Ron Silliman likes to call us) gets from the generation that came up in the sixties. I don't endorse everything he says—how could I, being fully embarked upon the course of professionalization that he decries?—but I almost reflexively seize upon his claim for the relevance of young poets versus the tendency of certain older poets at certain times to become mired in dreams of beatnik glory. Let me add my voice to Jim's chorus and say: Get over it. Let me quote Jim quoting John Yau in the Poetry Project Newsletter: "All moments are historical." Abso-damnly right.

While I also want to simultaneously endorse Robert Creeley's declaration that "Poets are a company and poetry must finally be a tribal art, despite the fierceness of the contest," as well as Jim Behrle's update that "poetry is a Casanostra" (I take this to be a conflation of casa nostra, "our house" with the Sopranos-style "cosa nostra"), I think it's also healthy to remember that a poet should at least hesitate to join any club that would have him or her as a member. I'm a little alarmed by Jim's list of extra-poetic influences: "I'm thrilled to be influenced by Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, ABBA, Beck and The Pixies." Alarmed because I've been influenced by the exact same list. I guess it makes me wonder if our "generation" is really something much narrower: white boys and girls from the suburbs traumatized less perhaps by AIDS or Rodney King-style injustice as the sudden evaporation of the certainty that we ourselves would be evaporated by a nuclear war. When I look at the eighteen year-olds in my class I'm struck by the thought that not only is their pop culture subtly different from mine but also that they simply don't remember the Soviet Union, much less Reagan's promise that "The bombing will start in ten minutes." I guess I'm just reacting here to Jim's attempt to crystalize his historical moment, which is also mine, which is also passing as surely as the Sixties did. It's not just Silliman, Hejinian, and Larry Fagin who are going to be challenged to remain open and relevant in the coming years.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Up absurdly early this morning because of all the stuff I've got to do today:

1) Teach: Well, this is actually no biggie, I do it all the time. And a movie like Nikita practically discusses itself.

2) Teach Next Year: Today is the English department's deadline for turning in your request form for what you'd like to teach in the fall and spring. I've been dithering over this because I wasn't even sure I should teach, at least not both semesters. My book is coming out in September or perhaps October and I'm going to want to travel around reading from it. And in the spring I'm going to be looking for creative writing jobs which (hopefully) will involve traveling for on-campus interviews. All the while I'm supposed to be writing my dissertation. But I now think I can teach a Tuesday-Thursday schedule without much difficulty: I can always get somebody to sub for me if I go touring for a week, and as far as interviews and such go they usually happen on weekends, so as long as I don't have to be in a classroom Fridays and Mondays it should be manageable.

The larger question then becomes: what should I teach? Cornell's First-Year Writing classes follow a "writing in the disciplines" approach and come in a variety of stock flavors—I'm one of perhaps seven people teaching some variant of "Writing about Film" this year. But film isn't really my subject and the only poetry class that gets offered every year is something of a shapeless survey. How can I teach something centered on my own interests (Modernism and/or postwar American poetry) that's going to draw freshmen? I woke up at quarter to six this morning with an inspiration for a class that I'm going to call New York Poets and Poetries. Its course description will look something like this:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son

Can you capture New York in a poem? In this course we will read some of the poems that have come to be associated with the sprawling mass of contradictions that is New York City, and explore their role in shaping how we've come to experience the city today. We will consider the work of poets who differ radically in their aesthetics, politics, and ethnic or sexual identities, all of whom have strong claims to being poets of New York. We will start with Whitman, perhaps still the most representative and inclusive poet of the city, and move up to study the nightmare New York of Federico Garcia Lorca, the urban pastoral of New York School poets like Frank O'Hara and Barbara Guest, and the spoken word poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, before concluding with a consideration of contemporary New York poetry in the aftermath of 9/11. Students will write critical essays on a range of poets and topics, and perhaps try their hand at a poem or two of their own.
Poetry is never a big draw, but many, many Cornell students come from New York and I think that description might be enough to hook the requisite dozen or so I need to have a class. It will require me to learn a thing or two (aside from a few encounters with the Aloud anthology I know nothing, really, about the Nuyorican poets) and will also give me a chance to introduce stranger, more subversive ideas about poetics than students are likely to encounter in other poetry classes here. When it comes to latter-day manifestations of the New York School I'm really a babe in the woods, so I would appreciate any New York-knowledgable readers of this blog to e-mail me with names and suggestions for a class on this topic taught by a bridge-and-tunnel kind of guy.

My day isn't over, not by a long shot:

3) Prepare presentation for "Writing Home Conference": This weekend divers papers are being presented under this loose and inclusive rubric, one of which is a paper I wrote in which I wrestled seriously with deconstruction for the first time—I think it was a draw. The paper's called "Deconstructing the Diasporic: 'Jewish Writing' and Its Zionist Other," and it's a doozy at 25 pages which I have to figure out how to compress into a 20-minute presentation. Here's the abstract I e-mailed the conference organizers back when this all seemed like a good idea:
My paper is concerned with the characterization of "Jewish writing" as necessarily diasporic in the thought of Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari. The "minor literature" that Deleuze and Guattari describe Kafka as practicing is explicitly opposed to the literature of "symbolic reterritorialization" that must have "its political result in Zionism and such things as the ‘dream of Zion.’" Deleuze and Guattari valorize a writing of deterritorialization which disrupts the official "maps" of conventional literary representation—a nomadic, diasporic kind of writing that acts on the reader like Barthes’ "text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss." Derrida’s thought suggests an ethical valence for what would otherwise be an inscription of pure negativity: the refusal of metaphysical presence, ontological stability, and "at-homeness" (Heimlichkeit, chez soi) creates a space for "Other" thinking to emerge. This ethics for diasporic writing is derived from the work of Emmanuel Levinas and his precursors Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Heidegger. My presentation will revolve around an examination of Levinas’s ethical philosophy (in a literary context) and what I call its repressed Zionism—that is, the ways in which it suggests possibilities for Jewish writing that go beyond the diasporic. Levinas attacks Heidegger’s claims for the fundamental importance of ontology and describes ethical imperatives for the subject that are derived from the messianic mission of the (necessarily diasporic) Jewish people as described in Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption. Yet while Levinas devotes considerable energy to attacking Heidegger’s presentation of ontology as prima philosophia, he nonetheless grants an ontological stability and rootedness to the subject—a rootedness which that subject is only compelled to abandon out of his or her desire for justice. This desire can only be achieved if the Jews are willing to step back into the ordinary, Christian history that Rosenzweig’s "eternity" excludes them from—yet they are asked to do it without the metaphysical security other nations take in their historical and geographical rootedness. In the last part of my paper I offer a Levinasian interpretation of Kafka’s parable "Before the Law." I argue that the man from the country in Kafka’s text has voluntarily placed himself in the impossible position of an ethical Zionism, and in so doing suggests possibilities for a Jewish writing that is willing and able to risk fullness of representation while remaining responsive to the demands of the Other.
Naturally I've done almost no preparation at all, so I'm going to have to spend the morning and part of the afternoon after my class snipping and sniping at the damn thing. Maybe I'll just read the abstract. Very. Slowly.

This also means I have to wear a sportcoat and slacks to school under a ten-year-old topcoat in 10-degree weather.

4) Romance: Yes it's Valentine's Day in the third year of the reign of George II, and I'm fresh out of duct tape. But in spite of all that, my girlfriend Emily and I are going to try and have a romantic dinner after the conference at a local restaurant called Turback's which I happen to have a gift certificate for. Don't know if the food's any good, but we can at least afford one or two decent bottles of wine, which I'm going to need.

Thanks for reading, all—and good luck to all you wonderful protesters in New York and elsewhere tomorrow. No pasarán!

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

So I realized today that I have to screen La Femme Nikita for my film class at 4:30 tomorrow. The movie is two hours long; Cortland is an hour away and the reading starts at seven; my dog will have been stuck alone at home all day. I don't feel good about this, but it looks like my active and visible participation in a political movement will have to wait until another week. What I can do is donate $45 (the price of a bus ticket to NYC) to, the antiwar group whose petition I first signed back in August, when war seemed completely and unambiguously immoral. Then I wavered for a while, almost talked into what a Times editorial called "The I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk-Club." Now I am again convinced that this war, and perhaps any war sought by this Administration, is utterly immoral.

Forty-five bucks. Not much of a contribution, but it is something of a sacrifice for a grad student with a ton of student loan debt. And I believe that sacrifice is part of the point of political action. I also believe that I and countless other people will be called upon to sacrifice much, much more if the bombs start falling on Baghdad. In the meantime, I choose this tiny way of making sure that my "No" will chorus with thousands of others.
On a very different note, my cousin Al Rasof (who's of my grandmother's generation) heard I had set up a website and was under the impression that it was going to be devoted to the history of our family. So he e-mailed me this interesting tidbit as his contribution:
On January 20, 1967, with an overcast sky above and freshly fallen snow underfoot, over 400 curious, but respectful, mourners milled around a freshly dug grave and watched as Father Frederick Gehring, a Catholic priest, along with a U.S. Marine Honor Guard, helped officiate at the funeral for one of their fellow comrades from the Battle for Guadalcanal. Everyday duties for a Catholic priest? Not really, for the cemetery was Chicago's Jewish Rosemont Park and Father Gehring was repaying a favor left over from Guadalcanal, some 25 years earlier - Christmas Eve, 1942, to be exact - and owed to the deceased, Barney Ross, "who surely could not have just happened to be Jewish."

And it is surely not a coincidence that Al should have sent this paragraph about Barney Ross, the light- and middleweight boxing champion of the world in the late 1930s, who happens to have been a distant cousin of mine, to my poetry-oriented website, because back in my MFA days I was writing a sonnet sequence about him. It was odd to be reminded of Barney Ross at this juncture, because thinking of him in a poetic framework takes me back to a time when I was a burgeoning New Formalist, trying to cram the narrative of his life into the naturally resistant sonnet form. I produced sixteen sonnets (all rhyming, some Shakespearean, some Petrarchan) that purported to be episdoes from his life. It was an amazing life and you can read about it at a couple of interesting websites: Barney Ross, the Man, Famous Jewish Marines, Jewish Virtual Library, and a poem about him by someone named Benjamin Saltman.

In the spirit of Henry Gould, who often posts his old poems at his blog, HG Poetics, I thought I'd share a couple of sonnets which I haven't looked at or thought about for a long time now. I'm pretty sure, however, that it was this little display of formalism that got me my Stegner Fellowship, even though by the time I got to Stanford I was becoming interested in the kind of experimental poetry that the Bay Area, excepting Stanford, is famous for.

Capone Talks

LET ME SEE THAT JAB again. That’s good. That’s fine.
You got good moves, kid. Best I’ve seen on a kike.
Now don’t get me wrong—I’m not the prejudiced kind.
Need your books cooked? Get a Jew. Odds on a fight?

Jew every time. All my mouthpieces are Jews—
but you talk with your fists. Not so strong,
but quick. I can see that. You follow your muse.
That’s what the nuns taught me, right or wrong—

every man has his talent. You got a brain
but you want it beaten loose. I could stop
you, turn you around, save you a lot of pain
if I wanted. Sure, I’m just a dumb, fat wop—

but you could be a lawyer instead of some slob.
A rabbi, even—hah!—look at his eyes. Kid, you got the job.

through the ropes on top of three reporters:
Gash of Firpo’s mouth, crash of typewriters,
the massive back striking like a side of beef,

back of Jack’s head a black rag, scissored knees,

crowd howling to see the Manassas Mauler
laid low,
           like a bull bowed to the toreador.

Fourteen, Beryl heard the radio roar, didn’t see
Jack climb up red, or watch him gore
that poor spic with heavy jabs. Count three.
A hush, then bound wrists soared in victory.

     two years later he was there for Tunney,
the Fighting Marine,
                          and saw him score
by decision—
                   unhandsome Jack, unmoored.

I CAN STILL TASTE my blood. I was David.
In the limed ring’s glare, Wilbur’s body
mirroring mine, a blink of pain. Naked

each night in the blinds’ light, I made my study.
Triphammering on the balls of my feet,
muscles strung on the guitar of my arm,

flamenco golem for a fist, I beat
bruises in blue air, face a feint. No harm
comes to the anointed. Every alley,

every bit of broken glass, Father’s beard—
these gloves ain’t packed with sand. I keep no tally
of big guys I’ve fed dust. See how I’m feared,

how the bell and swell washes away shame
and pride. Lord, let me stay David. Keep fame.

You can get Barney's complete boxing stats at Cyber Boxing Zone, too.

Guilt this morning for deciding not to get on a bus or into the car and drive snowy roads to NYC for the antiwar rally there Saturday, especially after reading Silliman's Blog entry for today. Instead tomorrow night I'm driving up to Cortland, New York for a Poetry for Peace reading—an event scheduled before the Laura Bush brou-ha-ha but one that very much will take its spirit from the events that have been scheduled around the fallout from the First Lady's simply amazing declaration that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." Think globally, act locally, right? Still sounds a bit weaselly to me, but I do believe that, sadly, opportunities to protest the war-in-progress (all talk of a surgical strike notwithstanding) will be all too plentiful in the months to come.

Ron Silliman's focus on Sam Hamill's conservative aesthetics and their tendency to reify and affirm the present order makes sense to me, but I have to say that the present moment makes me proud to share the name poet with Mr. Hamill and even our much-maligned (by me) Poet Laureate. Poets are having an impact in their opposition to a criminal regime (ours) and giving the lie to the claims of those (often self-hating poets themselves) who wave the banner of "Poetry makes nothing happen" and think that it's inappropriate (or simply "adolescent and irresponsible" as well as, naturally, "anti-American"—see this sneering article in The Weekly Standard for the rest of J. Bottum's dream) for poetry and politics to mix—any politics not in favor of the status quo, that is. Yes, of course most of the antiwar poetry being written is reactionary in its aesthetics or just plain bad, but so is most poetry most of the time. But what matters is that poets, who do have an audience—it's a small audience, but it's bigger than that enjoyed by non-artists—are allowing their politics and their everyday lives—that is, their lives in poetry— to blend. It sets a magnificent example for everyone who encounters that kind of raised consciousness to do the same.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

For whatever it's worth—for the value of raising one more voice because I have a platform upon which to raise it, however small—I am coming out against the war today. Am I late to the party? Probably, but despite my mistrust of Bush, Cheney, and their oil-stained cronies, despite their obvious imperial ambitions, for a while there I was half-persuaded that war was the only way to end the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's criminal regime. He's guilty of horrific crimes against his own people, and yes, there have been hundreds of dictators who have done the same or worse and we've turned a blind eye—but why on Earth does that mean we shouldn't act now? Is there anyone of liberal sentiments not crippled by a reflexive and dated pacifism who doesn't think we should have intervened in Rwanda, or believe that the only thing wrong with our intervention in Bosnia is that it came years too late? And though it seems hypocritical for Bush and co. to rail against Saddam while making nice with Kim Jong Il ("Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems") the fact remains that if Saddam gets the bomb or even a tidy supply of anthrax we will be loath to intervene against him in the future when it becomes more urgent. So as much as I believed war was not the right solution, doing nothing hardly seemed like a solution either. I could not in good conscience join the full-throated monological roar of the ANSWER crowd.

But now that France and Germany have come out with their eminently sensible plan (many more inspectors; spy planes, which the Iraqis have finally agreed to allow; UN peacekeepers on the ground) and it seems to me that if Iraq agrees to it Saddam will cease to be a threat. I actually don't understand why Bush is so upset about this, since it seems unlikely from what we know about Saddam (can somebody explain to me why we always refer to the guy by his first name? Is the patrynomic first in Arab names?) that he would accept foreign troops on his soil, and then we'd have a bit more justification for going in. The hysterical tantrums thrown in the White House in the face of ANYONE—anyone who asks that we think more carefully about some aspect of our war plans or even just to slow down and take a deep breath—do not inspire confidence. I absolutely believe that Congress can and must vote for a declaration of war before the first cruise missile is launched. (It's not like Bush can argue that he wants the advantage of surprise.) And the illegal actions of Bush, Ashcroft, etc., in the case of so-called "enemy combatants" and other civil rights restrictions (secret arrests! suspension of habeas corpus!) persuade me that I'm right in following Kasey Mohammed's lead and providing links to as well as

I also contributed the short poem I posted last Wednesday to and I urge my fellow poets of sound mind and even the faintest reservations regarding aerial bombardment to do the same.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats is on the syllabus for our Contemporary Poetry & Poetics class because of her contemporaneousness. But the poems themselves seem much more dated and tired than those of Gwendolyn Brooks, whom I infelicitously compared Clifton with yesterday. Although the earliest selections in the book were published during Reagan's second administration, the poetics that dominates all of the work seems indelibly marked by first-wave feminism and a racial consciousness that confronts readers with injustice in a personal, Confessional, 1960s sort of way. Poetry like this always gets my "Yes, but" mojo working, because I recognize that Clifton's writing has been important to many readers and because I don't want to underestimate the difficulty of speaking as a subject who has been shaped and blunted by sexual and racial identities and experiences that she wants to valorize without reifying. And yet reification is unavoidable in a poet who makes such baldly essentialist claims about black and womanly experience. I respect her Whitmanian impulse to honor bodily experience, but the resulting poems ("poem in praise of menstruation," "wishes for sons") sound like Sharon Olds without even the superficial pleasures of Olds' over-the-topness. The poems that engage the problem of being black in America ("jasper texas 1998" is quietly devastating) have a little more force and resonance for me, although her engagement with otherness doesn't go much beyond ventriloquism: the first person is all important here whether or not she capitalizes the word "I." When she tries for intertextuality (either with the Bible, as in the "lazarus" and Adam and Eve poems, or with comic books—she addresses four poems to Clark Kent/Superman, a move that would ordinarily win my heart) the effect falls flat, literally: short lines of two or three strong beats each, without capitalization, in a deliberately "plain" vocabulary, homogenize most of Clifton's subject matter.

Speaking as someone who was once incapable of speech (or at least incapable of being heard by the dominant ideology) is still, probably, a radical move. But whereas some people seem to expect less from political poetry (the poet is required only to be a self-righteous preacher who relies almost wholly on a soft or thunderous deixis, his or her mighty index finger pointing out obvious injustice), I expect more. It's not enough to re-present what's wrong, because there's only a razor's edge of difference between affirming what's wrong in the world and affirming the world as it is. Clifton seems to be depending entirely upon her identity as a black woman who has survived oppression and violence (there are a number of poems alluding to sexual abuse by the poet's father) to make her language extraordinary: in the mouth of any other kind of speaker that language's drabness becomes obvious. Taking away capitalization is a first step toward separating her language from Oprah-speak (I define this as a personal paraphrase of the dominant ideology in one's own mouth: Oprah and her epigones empower themselves within the context of the white capitalist world without making any gestures that challenge that ideology's image of itself as something that of course has room for black women like Oprah, naturally, "she's such a smart businesswoman"), but it doesn't go nearly far enough. No doubt there's real work in the world that can be done by Clifton's poetry—the basic, easily underestimated work of echoing in a reader's mouth something that resonates with her own experience. She has every right to get up on a stage and wish out loud for her sons to undergo the pains of menstruation, eliciting whoops from the women in the audience and pained smiles from the men. But in terms of its thematic content, her work has very little to offer anyone familiar with even the most basic tenets of feminist thought, anyone who has even a tenuous grasp of the unhappy history of African slaves and their descendants in these United States. (Granted, in the age of The Bachelor and porn sites with names like "Blacks on Blondes," it would be foolish to assume that feminism and racial equality have made very much headway.) And when it comes to such basic ingredients as interesting language, formal inventiveness, and the pleasures of surprising speech, Clifton's poetry presents me with empty hands.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

In about twenty minutes a photographer friend of Emily's is coming over to take a picture of me for the back inside flap of my book. How cheerfully we commodify ourselves! I hate having my picture taken but not having to smile or pose awkwardly with relatives should improve the experience somewhat. Not that I'm against smiling, but I don't want a picture that would produce any of the following impressions:

* too cool for school
* smugness
* snideness
* fatness
* smirkiness
* thinking deep, sad thoughts
* idiotic
* whoreish
* heroic
* false modesty
* crazy
* French

Just the mug, ma'am, and nothing but the mug. And no, my dog will not be in the picture. I want to come across as a man of taste if not wealth. And the physical book itself will be elegant and perfect bound (the designer has done a fantastic job—if I figure out how to post an image of the cover here I will do so), and I make no apologies for that. I'm only getting 1,500 copies printed and I want them to be memorable.

I'd like to post something substantive about poetry here, but I'm drowning in student papers and glamour this weekend. But we're reading Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats for the Poetics class on Tuesday and I'll be sure to post my thoughts about it here. I've only read Clifton glancingly here and there and don't really know what to expect—I imagine more Gwendolyn Brooks than Harryette Mullen (who we're also reading, yay). Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

The influence of Ashbery on my work has mostly been indirect, as I encountered the legion of poets who were influenced by him long before I ever sat down and read the man himself. I had this initial reaction to his latest book, Chinese Whispers, which I had put in my regular pre-class e-mail to Jonathan Monroe:
This is the first Ashbery book I've sat down and read all the way through since The Tennis Court Oath. One's mind tends to wander along with and then away from the poems, and I rarely have been able to summon the fortitude to read many Ashbery poems in succession. It's hard to know where to begin. His work is so instantly recognizable in its oddly magisterial whimsy. It's strange to read such funny poems (or at least funny lines), and such a stew of colloquial languages and dialects (lots of television advertising, middle-management speak, splashes of Renaissance drama, etc.) in the severe and rigorous format of an FSG book, whose cover and typeface and blurbs (the usual Bloom, Miss Marianne Moore, and two people I never expected to see on the same back cover--J.D. McClatchy and Forrest Gander) all signify Poetry at its most dignified.

There were two poems that I found revealing and coated with less teflon than the others. The title poem's couplets made Ashbery's principle of association more visible: the individual couplets, with a few exceptions, stand in paratactic self-sufficiency from one another, largely deprived of the deceptively casual transitions which more than any other single device serve to defeat one's immediate comprehension of an
Ashbery poem. And "The Haves" made manifest Ashbery's debt to Stein. Not incidentally, this poem characterized by Steinian repetition and the unexpected foregrounding of a coordinate conjunction ("that") is also the most explicitly (homo)erotic of the poems in the book.

What I like the most about Ashbery is what he has made possible; like Rich, his days of greatest innovation are behind him, though his self-interrogations are less obvious than hers. I wish I could recover what it must have been like to read him before he became the embalmed, Lenin-like icon of high Poetry (claimed as seminal by diverse constituencies who regularly accuse one another of heresy) that he is today.
Probably the most useful thing I learned in class yesterday was to discover that Ashbery does interrogate himself and his exalted position in po-biz, though in a deliberately casual way that refuses the ascetic manner of Rich's self-criticism. The oddest thing that's happened is that reading Ashbery this week has empowered me to make my own work more explicitly political. Ashbery's politics are subtle, more in the way of a negative dialectic than any kind of positivist program (such as Rich's Marxism/feminism/queer liberation politics, though to her credit doctrine and the nostalgia for doctrine worry her a great deal). In the middle stanza of "The Big Idea" he explains pretty clearly why he's chosen the most oblique paths of reference through his tumultuous times:
               The Big Idea
flourished for a while, then flagged
shot of the summit.
The people's republics
went under like failing bakeries.
Always, in the shadows at the edge,
there was time to say this. And something.
It isn't Ashbery's stealth but rather his casualness which has opened my most recent poems more fully to our current and awful events. His receptiveness to all kinds of language, to the language of his particular now, has helped me understand how I might make manifest the things that are keeping me up nights in poems which, I believe, retain their quasi-pastoral feel.

It's risky to offer examples—no doubt I will be told I'm being insufficiently political and overly Ashberyian—but here's the latest edition to the series I've been writing, Severance Songs:


A tax on what’s true: echt libris.
It’s getting harder to ignore these propositions:
the contradictions photographed from space
and assembled lovingly yet haphazardly
in the family albums of the horsemen.
Fleeced, fleered, fuddled with drink,
folded in a newspaper boat bound for Yemen.
What’s that to do with our valley, its ripenings,
its coffee beans bequeathed by indigenous cultures?
Fingers of sand wave at an oilslick. Heaven invites us
to fill our pipes, while earthly combustion
raises pleasurable plumes. Oh that lawgiver of mine,
what’s he done? Ssh, a king’s coin has landed on edge
and its blood mills shall fund our sovereignty.

You will recognize perhaps all too readily that flip tone—somewhat weighted down, I hope, both by my particular angle of attack and by being surrounded by the other poems in the series (this makes 34 so far).

Monday, February 03, 2003

My very well-meaning grandfather sends me every clipping that comes his way that's even remotely poetry related—often things I've already seen, such as that teeth-grindingly sycophantic profile of Anthony Hecht in the Times a few weeks back. This time around it's an article about Poetry and its pharmaceutical millions by someone named David Zivan in Chicago magazine. The article describes the editor, Joe Parisi as "a trim, avid weightlifter" with a "rather classical bent" and notes that "he hasn't been to a movie in years—'Not that I'm missing anything,' he grumps." After describing some of Parisi's plans for the Lilly millions (including hiring another staff member—gosh, full-time with benefits, Joe?), the article ends with this sweetheart of a paragraph:
And the grandest plan, designed to nourish future readership, is undoubtedly Parisi's initiative to develop a national education program for school teachers, providing training materials for the appreciation and teaching of contemporary poetry. "Not the writing of poetry, you understand," Parisi says, gesturing broadly at his cluttered office, and reaching to answer the phone. "There is no need for yet another person to write poems."
The effrontery of this remark is breathtaking. Full disclosure: I've been published in Poetry magazine, and Mr. Parisi has been exceedingly courtly in the letters (always actual letters) he's sent me accepting or rejecting my poems. I still send poems to Poetry, in spite of its conservatism and arrogance (exemplified by this and other ex cathedra remarks, such as this gem: "We see just about everything"), because I refuse to believe that any magazine that calls itself "Poetry" should be off limits to mine. But seriously, Joe: where do you get off? Here are the "necessary" poets appearing in the current, thoroughly typical issue of the magazine: Stephen Dunn, Jerald Winakur, D. Nurkse, Andrew Grace, Sophokles (translated by Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal), Ronald Wallace, Mitch Roberson, Belle Randall, Elliot Figman, Joyce Sutphen, Len Roberts, Winifred Hughes, Steven Barza, Charles Simic, James Tate. Thirteen men, most of them white, and three women. Three of the men (Dunn, Simic, Tate), whatever their individual merits, are grossly overrepresented in this and other mainstream (in the non-flarf sense) magazines. I can't access the poems online (except for Dunn's demonstrably dull "Dismantling the House"), but they have titles like "Marriage in a Rented House," "Every Day We Are Dancers," "Ever After," "I Can't Forget You," and "Personal at the Podium" (this is a grossly unfair way of characterizing poems: sue me). After posting this I feel vaguely obligated to go to the Barnes & Noble and flip through the latest issue to see if I'm wrong about what seems to me to be the utter boringness of this table of contents; but I really want to know what's necessary about these particular poems from these particular poets. Either all poetry is gratuitous or none of it is—it's borderline criminal, I believe, to try to discourage anyone—even little old ladies in tennis shoes, even Billy Collins—who happens to pick up this issue of Chicago magazine from writing poems. I'm all for a superfunded poetry-teaching initiative in the schools, and I think the little varmints ought to be made to memorize Shakespeare, and Auden and Dickinson too. By all means start 'em climbing the canon walls, and climbing 'em young, so that they can see how much wider the world of words is than they can learn even from such sages as DMX and Harry Potter. But to the suggestion that any of us who aren't (gross generalization alert) forty- through sixtysomething tenured white men who think a mild surrealism is the ne plus ultra of linguistic adventure need not apply our pens, I can only reply, How dare you, Sir?

Yikes! Thirty-eight thousand feet and there's ice in my glass. Into the sun flies the head of a halo. Brilliant crystals up here and a network of blood vessels behind everybody's eyes, pressurized to sustain thoughts of level ground. A tickling. The orbiter burst and why not we?

Six flags over Texas and a Jewish star.

Leonardo's plan: to drop ice on Florence in the summer months. "Payload." The whirligig met the thingamabob and they made a baby with wings. Blue and oxygenated web that it's seeking from the nosecone. Inverted bell curve. Berlin through a bombsight, the impeccable network of death trains untouched.

Air power projects a spread hand over maps. Original dream from the air sexes landscapes and flattens their crowless history. Switzerland of peaks finds its ice eyed from lederhosen. The highest voice yodeling.

Eftsoons smoked spectacles heliograph at Kitty Hawk—the predator predated. Was there any so American as right? Those bicycle boys defend their patents jealously, fight their rivals' every featherèd plume. Wild spokes aflame with petroleum-glazed playing cards. True, true enough.

Dry bundled history set alight by wingèd tumblers. A smooth beast is born in a blue-eyed sky while the old squinting century smokes in a parking lot in Nacogdoches. Old-timey bankers shade their eyes cool green while a fiddle string snaps in the stratosphere. Fair thee well my lockboxed citizenry. Pop will eat itself.

Surly bonds of speech. "Throw weight." A hurled rock flies until the earth curves to meet it. Just in time manufacturing, that's gravity. Heeled and toed through the metronomed pine forest, gingermen search for the sons and daughters of apogee.

Earth in our eyes finds our tears' perihelion. Goonight multiethnic American star. Goonight the peace process and the falcon's heavy hood. Goonight moon, we're in our blackout period.

Telemetric seer O Houston the Raven, radio please with what we've done.

Saturday, February 01, 2003

Scott Simon just said, "The Space Shuttle Columbia just broke up as it sought to return to earth." That verb sought contains an enormous amount of pathos, even attributed as it was to the shuttle and not its crew.
Driving home from my girlfriend's house I turned on the radio and heard the unusually somber tones of Scott Simon on NPR. The Space Shuttle broke up over Texas, all seven crew members lost. My first reaction was disbelief and my second reaction is to think, "We really are reliving the Reagan administration." Not only do we have a war-mongering cowboy in the White House but another shuttle disaster, over Texas yet. The presence of an Israeli astronaut on board makes me fear terrorism, though they say that's unlikely given the shuttle exploded about 200,000 feet above the earth's surface. I find myself wondering what to make of this tragedy now that we have a more recent "scale" by which to measure American tragedies—September 11. (The ongoing and horrific tragedies in places like Ethiopia of course rarely impinge upon our consciousness.) Seven people and dreams of space travel that have lost all the futuristic gleam, rather having the buffed aura of nostalgia (witness the film of another near-disaster, Apollo 13) have been lost; but our sense of invulnerability (inexplicably restored by increments since 9/11) has not been affected. An old-fashioned disaster, in other words, in spite of all the science-fiction trappings: an act of God, not politics.

Strange to feel so somber and yet be filled with anticipation: my friend Brian Teare, who was a Stegner Fellow with me and is now Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell, is coming up for a visit today. It's the first time I've seen him in nearly two years, though we talk regularly. He's a scarifyingly good poet and especially good with elegies, which seems appropriate this morning. I hope he won't mind if I post this piece of a poem of his from a longer poem entitled "Two Elegies Containing Fear":

Coast woken to
unknown. To think

is verge, surf, shelf
edge. Interior

ocean, mind
a bright cry beached.

Worn porcelain eggshell
ivory and dry, in dilation,

porous, forged
open, the skull’s shell

hell in which the sea kneels

and serenade—, curls
its pearls’ horde

of whorls. Words
work their grains,

breed an irritant

bed in purulent
worth. Listen—waves

turn on their spit
and burn surf, sizzling,

stirring the haphazard fat
foam. Listen—it is certain

emergency. The waves unravel
burning skeins of skin.
Seems all too appropriate this morning. Brian generally does much more with the page as field in his poetry, but replicating that in HTML is challenging, to say the least.

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