Friday, July 28, 2006

Dreamed last night that I was riding a bicycle and Bogie was running alongside. A sweet visitation. I picked up his ashes from the vet hospital yesterday. They are startlingly white, wrapped in plastic and then encased in a small wooden box. About one pound total. We're going to scatter them this weekend with some friends.

Grief changes what I want from poetry. The mystic strain that I'm usually both repelled and fascinated by suddenly speaks to me more clearly, even pragmatically: Duncan, Rilke. The elegy-world (Rilke's "Welt aus Klage"), search for consolation. Of course mourning a dog is simpler and in some ways sharper than mourning for a person. The relationship is much purer, or at least so it appears to the human being. We don't know what dogs truly feel—we just hurl ourselves into a good guess. Leaving behind: me, wag.

Change of content. Like Gabe (linked to above), I felt Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs portended some kind of sea-change; yet I tried to assimilate it into my idea of "social formalism." Not entirely unvaluable, but beside the point if Gabe is right that we need to think content in a new, "fully ethical" way and to stop fetishizing aesthetic forms. Forms are the hard thing we need to articulate the soft, but isn't the soft the goal? Vertebrate vs. invertebrate. I'm going to be looking now for poems that enlarge inner horizons, or that make useful contact between inner and outer. I'll let you know what I find.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I was saddened to learn last week of the passing of one of my teachers at the University of Montana, Patricia Goedicke. It was kind of a shock, even though she was in her seventies and frail-looking, because I saw her every year at AWP cutting it up on the dance floor. It was in her workshop that I first met some terrific poets and terrific people—really an exceptional cohort—that includes Deborah W. Pattilo, Cat Meng (who just lost her beloved cat, Winnie—it's been a tough couple of weeks!), Nils Michals, Ken White, Sarah Gridley, and of course Richard Greenfield and Trevor Toland, who were bacheloring it up with me in Vegas last weekend (details NOT forthcoming—sorry, Deborah!). Patricia was a passionate and inquisitive teacher who modeled poetry as a serious business for all of us and who took a distinctly maternal pride in our poems and accomplishments. We didn't always see eye to eye aesthetically when I was a student, and in fact we had many arguments—but in hindsight I wonder if she was trying to nudge me down the more experimental path that I did eventually follow. Her own poetry is sharply observant, attuned to the rhythms of human relationship, risking the sentimental and only sometimes succumbing to it; plus she had a keen interest in biology and cognitive science which I'm only now beginning to appreciate. By way of saying farewell, I'd like to share a poem of hers from her 2000 collection of elegies for her husband Leonard Robinson, As Earth Begins to End:
What Holds Us Together

is almost nothing, a little
surface tension at the edges.

Inside ourselves, but how?

Two blood bottles,
weak capillaries in pajamas

rowing across the night.

Into whose arms, the
self says,

will I permit it, at last
let myself go, trust others

to receive me when I'm dead?

By day we irritate each other, unwitting.
At breakfast, say, over burned toast.

By night, over the black potholes
of the snores between us I reach out

for you and find only
a piece of bare, unfeeling

forearm. This flesh

I touch so carefully in the dark
ignores me, in its sleep

indifferent, cold, unknowing
as the cold hiss of the ocean

and who we are is buried in it.

I know you'd mother me
forever, and I you,

but here, at the end of everything
we know

as waves spill themselves on the beach
in foaming avalanches, crackling

stone suckles stone. Even the kindest

words scrape against each other like seashells,
flesh, kneecaps, numb lips

nearly raw now, almost ready to break up,

crumble themselves into that loud
nameless energy we must return to

and can't, not yet,
nervously tying our pajamas

as tight as we can against the taut
temporary skin

of the bodies we tremble across the world in.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Thanks to everyone who wrote in or commented below with their condolences about Bogie.

Got back yesterday morning from Las Vegas, of all places: in spite of what happened, I decided to go ahead with the bachelor party I'd planned with my friends Richard and Trevor months before. It was a good time, though needless to say none of us won anything playing slots or blackjack. Acting on a tip, on Saturday we dropped in at the Riviera to check out the annual convention of The International Society of Poets, aka the jokers at If you're not familiar with this organization, they're notorious for inviting submissions of poems, then accepting every one of them, no matter how dismal, and writing back to the author as "Dear Published Poet" and fleecing them for all they're worth by selling them expensive yet cheap-looking copies of an anthology that will contain their work but will only be read and purchased by the hundreds of other gullible souls who paid to be included. Other modes of exploitation include plaques, tote bags, laminated wallet cards, and the conference itself, which costs $595 to attend, not counting hotel and other costs. Every attendee receives an Outstanding Achievement in Poetry statuette, plus there are "workshops," an appearance by American Idol Ruben Studdard, and the main event, a chance to become Poet of the Year and win $20,000 (presumably this part has to be legitimate—the society claims to award $100,000 in prizes every year, which they can easily afford given how many people must be paying for anthologies, self-published books, and knick-knacks—for example they'll print 100 copies of a 60-page or less book for $1,285).

The conference resembled nothing so much as a fourth-rate, Bizarro AWP. The Riviera's convention center is dull and dingy, and security was lax, so we could walk right in. Immediately we saw a book table with W.D. Snodgrass meeting and greeting folks. There's no telling if Snodgrass's endorsement of the conference is cynical or criminally naive—maybe he thinks he's being democratic by reaching beyond the academic audience, but the crudity of the exploitation seems too obvious to miss. David Wagoner is the other poet I'd heard of who's bolstering the ISP's reputation with his own credibility: shame on both of them. We saw a workshop which appeared to consist of several hundred people listening to the speaker read off "powerful words" that had been submitted by the audience: I heard "beautiful," "savior," "rich," and "success." Another room held a book fair in which the poets (who each wear a nametag that says POET on it) sat somewhat glumly behind tables that displayed the aforementioned self-published books, laminated cards, etc. Most of them appeared to be working-class types, ranging in age from twentysomething (only a few of those) to sixtysomething and up. The poems on display had a certain dreary family resemblance: a lot of prose broken up into centered lines, a lot of Jesus, and a surprising number of references to poetry itself as a kind of synonym for creativity, inspiration, and soulfulness. It would be easy to laugh at these folks, but mostly I felt sad that their search for some kind of recognition had led them to buy into what amounts to a pyramid scheme. Of course many argue that AWP and the MFA business is also a pyramid scheme, with hopeful students providing the funds to support the few of their number who will actually get teaching jobs. There's a kernel of truth to this, especially if you preoccupy yourself with the financial view, but of course there's a lot of potential value to be gained from attending an MFA program aside from the professional credential. It is, after all, a form of education—the education on view at hardly seems worthy of the name, and in fact, the organization's survival depends on its victims' ignorance. The poets at that conference would do themselves a lot more good to create local writing and reading groups, and to publish their own magazines and chapbooks (you could do a kickass chapbook for twelve hundred bucks). I can't fault them for wanting to write and publish—they're no different from me in that respect. But it's a shame that that desire has turned them into the prey of heartless opportunists.

You can find more info on the scam here.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Bogie was much sicker than anyone realized. He went to the vet three times this week for lethargy and lack of interest in food, and they couldn't figure out what was wrong. He seemed much better on Saturday and went for a longish walk with Emily and me. That evening, after we got home from Richard and Brian’s reading (which was terrific, I should mention), we found him almost immobile, breathing shallowly. We took him to the Cornell Animal Hospital emergency room at midnight and, after less than an hour, he went into arrest and died. We won’t know why until the autopsy and we may not know then either.

Bogie was about nine years old—he was maybe ten months when I first got him at the pound in Missoula, Montana in early 1998. He was a dear companion to me and later also to Emily, living together with us in our house on Pleasant Street here in Ithaca for three years. A wise and playful animal who almost never barked: everyone who met him loved him. He enriched our lives immeasurably.

Goodbye, Bogie. Thank you.

This blog will be quiet for a while.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Some great comments on the fiction vs. poetry post below. I've been a little too distracted to participate in the conversation: Bogie's been ill with some mysterious ailment all week. We're going back and forth to the vet and trying not to worry too much. Brian, who got into town on Wednesday, has been a great help, as well as a great sport about spending his vacation with a couple of worried pet owners.

Speaking of Brian, it's time for me to remind you about the reading tomorrow at 7 PM at the State of the Art Gallery here in Ithaca. Featuring:

Brian Teare, author of the award-winning book The Room Where I Was Born and the startlingly gorgeous chapbooks Pilgrim and Transcendental Grammar Crown, and

Richard Greenfield, author of the amazing and well-received book A Carnage in the Lovetrees and a new manuscript, Tracer, which hopefully will find book form sooner than later.

Also, here's an article about SOON that appeared in our local paper yesterday, along with an interview with Brian.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

This post from John Latta has me thinking about poetry vs. fiction again. More specifically, a paragraph of commentary by Edmund White, worth requoting here:
Here’s an admission: I sometimes wonder why people bother with poetry. After all, the best novelists (Proust and Nabokov, to name just two) offer the reader page after page of language as precise, as unpredictable and as ravishing as the language of any poet—and the novelists simultaneously make their local delights serve larger structural or thematic ambitions (the generation of suspense, the play of ideas, the revelation of character, the depiction of society, the weaving of a thick, tragic sense of duration). In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design: it is sculptural, in the round, gestural. Fiction makes a world, dense and social. Or, to change the figure, in poetry words are like notes from a flute, the tracery of a tune, whereas in fiction words are like notes of a symphony orchestra—compositional, the integers of a giant calculus.

I say all this, at the risk of seeming philistine, in order to demonstrate that I’m no friend to poetry unless it is indispensable to me, unless in does something no prose could emulate.
This is from an essay on James Schuyler, who obviously by White's lights must be offering that something indispensable and un-emulatable. Anyway, I value White's paragraph because it's such a succinct defense of fiction along the axis of—what? call it simply quality of language—and so is the perfect double to my objections to fiction. In other words, to tweak White's metaphor a little, I prefer listening to chamber music over symphonies because I can hear the individual instruments better, and pick out subtle patterns. (And a string quartet is capable of breathtaking feats of narrative and world-building, but perhaps I push the metaphor too far.) Also, it's impossible to imagine a symphony that could improvise with any success: you need a single instrument or small group to do that. In short, the symphonic seems overdetermined and unsubtle when compared with the lyric, yet no one would deny that the lyric is incapable of achieving sublime and overwhelming aesthetic effects.

White's account also neglects the powers of poetry to integrate themes and social density over the course of a series or a book or a career. I find the social formalism of a poet like Rodrigo Toscano or Ed Roberson much more compelling than what I imagine to be their novelistic equivalents, if only because they both incite and leave room for thinking, whereas it seems to me the continuous immersive flow intended by most fiction repels or retards thinking as it sweeps the reader along his or her desire to find out what happens next. This is to leave aside what is still the major territory for lyric poetry: the exploration of an individual subjectivity. The novel can do this too, but such novels can feel thin or obsessive if they don't do some of the other things we traditionally expect from them: character development, plot, settings and descriptions.

Nevertheless, as a writer, the novel tempts me: but is it because I long for symphonic effects or for the increased prestige and listenership that accrues to symphonies? Symphonies are Romantic: you are unquestionably in the presence of (at least an attempt at) Great Art, and the completest possible rendering of Spirit. I don't sneer at such ambitions, or see them as mere nostalgia for a more unified, nineteenth-century-style culture; I'm just trying to tune in to my own signals through a great deal of static. The largest ambition is to express not just one's own Spirit, but the Spirit of the Age. What's the right medium for that? And how to foster the peculiar combination of arrogance and humility required for the task? I think it's a moral duty to find the largest possible scope for one's artistic ambitions—to push whatever talent one has as far as possible. But how does that imperative intersect with what readers want or need? Maybe it doesn't. You write for yourself and for strangers, like Stein said—relying on the power of the and to suggest a sympathy, a common ground.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

If Jed Rasula is right to think of "poetry as ecology in the community of words," then the patch-corridor-matrix model of landscape ecology might be most useful not in describing individual poems, but as a non-hierarchical representation of, say, the mosaic of American poetry. So we have numerous aesthetic patches, sometimes with regional inflections, and innumerable corridors that serve as connectors (between the DC and the San Francisco scenes, maybe, or between Language poetry and the New York School) but also as barriers, and perhaps most interestingly, as habitat—aesthetic territory in its most minimal and attenuated sense. The matrix, then, would be addressed by questions like "What's American About American poetry?"—what is shared, if anything, besides geographical and historical circumstances, by these patches—what makes them a mosaic?

Weapon of Choice

You can go with this, or you can go with that: Compos(t)ition Marble is now available for ordering from Pavement Saw! Just click on the link to go get it.

Fascinating SCT lecture by Eric L. Santner yesterday called "Neighbors and Other Creatures." Santner's a professor of German Studies at the University of Chicago and he does inventive and imaginative critical theory with the history of monotheism, Freud and psychoanalysis, Jewish theology, German idealism, Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Holderlin-Rilke-Celan, and divers other texts and topics. His lecture focused on the implications of the commandment from Leviticus to "Love thy neighbor" and on how the Other agitates us to the degree we are unable to navigate or integrate our own otherness. I was very interested in his last book, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, and I'd like to read his latest, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald. If people express interest in seeing my lecture notes, I can post 'em.

Beginning to investigate the field (pun intended) of landscape ecology, so that a term like "ecolage" can be a little bit more than a metaphor when I use it. It's really interesting to learn a new technical language, especially one that has rich implications for poetry. I've got a tome by one of the leaders in the field, Richard T. T. Forman, out from the library: Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions. I probably need a more introductory text, but I'm learning a lot notwithstanding. The idea of the land as a mosaic is obviously very suggestive given my project of reconciling pastoral with the modernist practice of collage: Forman's theory derives from the view of landscapes that can be provided from a height, such as from an airplane, which makes it sound very technological and perhaps more about manipulation than deep ecology. But what it actually is is a highly pragmatic ecological approach, one which recognizes the impact humans have on nature and tries to find ways to work with that rather than devoting energy solely to wilderness preservation, say. Much of the first chapter is devoted to explaining the spatial units by which landscape ecologists study the land: there's a wonderful diagram that's reminiscent of the child's game of describing where they live as (for example), "Pleasant Street, Ithaca, New York, the United States, the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Universe." The three principle spatial units that Forman identifies for studying landscape are called patch, corridor, and matrix. A patch is "a relatively homogeneous nonlinear area that differs from its surroundings"; this could be a meadow, a stand of trees, a wheatfield, or a tract house. A corridor is "a strip of a particular type that differs from the adjacent land on both sides. (Corridors have several important functions, including conduit, barrier, and habitat.)" A matrix is "the background ecosystem or land-use type in a mosaic, characterized by extensive cover, high connectivity, and/or major control over dynamics." This is the hardest one for me to understand but I gather the matrix is what makes a particular landscape seem coherent as a landscape, despite the diversity of its mosaic of patches and corridors. There are a lot of echoes from aesthetic theory here. At one point Forman quotes another ecologist as saying, "Form is the diagram of force," which sounds like a variation on the Shaker expression that Guy Davenport once went to town with. And Forman explicitly compares this model of perception with aesthetic ones: "The patch-corridor-matrix model has analogues in other disciplines. Point, line and plane are fundamental concepts in art [here he cites books by Kandinsky and Klee) and in architecture."

It is tempting to look at Ronald Johnson's writing through this lens, especially given my belief, expressed here, that ARK is a view from above, a mosaic of modernism, Americana, natural phenomena, and Oz. But one has to be a little cautious when thinking analogically—it's a mode that comes very naturally to me, but it can be difficult to maintain an argument with it. Anyway, I'm excited to be coming to grips now with actual ecological theory (many ecocritics seem to have a hazy, transcendentalist grasp of the term ecology) and relieved to discover that it's not so technical I can't grasp it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A sonnet from Ed Roberson's latest, City Eclogue, part of the Atelos project, proves that social formalism is hardly incompatible with lyric:

Urban Nature

Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,
nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden
thing, not that Nature not a satori
-al leisure come to terms peel by peel, not that core
whiff of beauty as the spirit. Just a street
pocket park, clean of any smells, simple quiet—
simple quiet not the same as no birds sing,
definitely not the dead of no birds sing:
The bus stop posture in the interval
of nothing coming, a not quite here running
sound underground, sidewalk's grate vibrationless
in open voice, sweet berries ripen in the street
hawk's kiosks. The orange is being flown in
this very moment picked of its origin.
What I've seen of Roberson's work so far has a very clean, straightforward feel, inviting complexity and political dimension through subtle formal gestures, like the colon at the end of the octet that introduces an invisible ambivalent turn toward a celebration of what is laced with melancholy over what has not yet come to pass ("the interval / of nothing coming"). The nostalgia of eclogue has a cutting edge here ("nostalgia" meaning literally the pain of return), containing the kernel of a revolutionary wish. But there's also pleasure in the detail and in the memory of/wish for nature that persists in this urban "pocket park": a blade of grass with a subway handy.

Thomas Fink has a detailed review of the book you can read at galatea resurrects #2; you can also read my short review of Shanna Compton's Down Spooky, reprinted from CutBank.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Glorious weather, Ithaca at its best. Hope it will keep up for the weekend—I understand Barrett Watten and Carla Harryman are coming to town. I learned this from a woman named Christine (I didn't catch her last name) who's attending the School of Criticism & Theory conference up at Cornell this summer—ran into her while walking Bogie in one of the gorges.

For those interested, here are my notes on the Brent Hayes Edwards talk I went to on Monday:

African proverb on the back of the shirt of an audience member: "He who offers his head for the breaking of a coconut should not expect to eat from it."

Edwards is an engaging, soft-spoken, and dapper presence. His talk's title, "Come Out," turns out to entirely lack the queer subtext one might expect. He begins with a discussion of the work of Ed Roberson, specifically a serial poem titled Lucid Interval as Integral Music, which has a structure similar to that of Spicer's The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether: a poem on the top half of the page is separated by a line from other text—sometimes fragments, sometimes white space, sometimes a poem in itself—that comments on or emends what's above the line. Edwards: "Upper voice is the poem, lower voice is a singing under or a singing through," a voice of mourning addressed by the "preacher." Edwards talks about the concept of the lucid interval as a moment of sanity that emerges from a general background of madness—an experience of oscillation. Roberson speaks of trying to put as many "keys or cues" as possible into the work. Mentions zeugma, a word shared by two or more syntactic units. Edwards: "Ignescent associations between things."

Foucault: madness is forbidden language—submitting language that follows a recognized code to another code. Madness "sketches the empty form from which the work comes." Edwards criticizes Joseph Conte's Unending Design for not delving deeply enough into the musical sources of serial work.

Spicer: "You have to be tricked into" serial form and not know what you're doing. Spicer in Vancouver urging poets to learn from popular songwriters like George M. Cohan. (Jack Spicer, song and dance man!)

History unspoken—Robeson's sense of powerful unacknoweldged forces shaping his world as he grew up in the 1940s. From here Edwards segues into a long discussion of the "Long Hot Summer" of Harlem in 1964 and the highly prejudicial and misleading serial newspaper coverage of an incident of police brutality in Harlem that eventually escalated into full-blown riots. Media creation of a sinister whites-hating gang, the "Blood Brotherhood." Serial form of the newspaper allows the build-up and accumulation of rumor and innuendo until it bursts. Racialized violence constructed as serial, as all the contemporary articles on the '64 uprisings referred back to riots in the 30s and 40s, creating what was happening as a moment of repetition.

Langston Hughes was a newspaper columnist for the New York Post (this was before Rupert Murdoch, obviously) for many years, including 1964. In his columns he created a character named Jesse B. Semple, whose adventures were eventually collected as The Simple Stories. Semple as a kind of "barstool theorist." Column devoted to the riots in which a female character is beaten and loses her $40 wig at the hospital—warns other ladies not to wear their wigs if they go rioting. Subtle redefinition here of criminal riots into political uprisings.

Scenes from a strange film based on a strange book, The Torture of Mothers, a reconstruction of testimony by accused rioters and victims of police brutality (Ruby Dee appears in it). Serial accumulation of testimony with dashes of insight (mentions Reznikof). Steve Reich made a tape loop called "Come Out" that used a phrase from the testimony of Daniel Ham: "I had to cut my leg to let the bruise blood come out to show them": the tape loop, which apparently goes for fifteen minutes (Edwards played only snatches) repeats and reprocesses primarily just "come out to show them." Repetition as animating history rather than numbing or nulling it. Reich's piece played at a Town Hall benefit for the legal fees of accused rioters. Repetition breaks open the identical, "singularity becomes multiplicity." Edwards: "An Orphic vulnerability torn out and rent in the fury of its own music."

Reich sought a seriality devoted to "perceptible processes," designed to make seriality audible.

Duke Ellington's phrase "tone parallel"—an attempt to avoid hierarchies in building structural relations.

In the Q&A someone mentions Mackey (who as you've noticed by now was not featured in the talk) and his book Atet A.D., which apparently riffs on the title of a 1970s jazz album by Julius Hemphill, Dogon A.D., which was inspired by the culture of a tribe in Mali, the Dogon, that was never exposed to the slave trade. Atet A.D. is part of a serial poem with a title even more elaborate than Robeson's: From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Letters from a multimedia artist named N. to "the Angel of Dust."

Monday, July 03, 2006

"The ideal function of community is simply to exist." Kasey responds usefully to Lisa Robertson's meditation on poetry and community over at the Poetry Foundation, which seems to be doing a much better job of being interesting and ecumenical than the magazine does. All of Robertson's journals are worth reading; I have a serious intellectual crush on her.

Mostly been ignoring the activities of the School of Criticism and Theory" this summer at Cornell, but I am looking forward to this afternoon's public lecture by Brent Hayes Edwards: "Come Out: Race, Music, and Serial Poetics." I think he's going to talk about Nathaniel Mackey, whose work I'd like to know better.

Is it too early to get excited about the next SOON reading, featuring two of my bestest friends, Richard Greenfield and Brian Teare? I think not.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Anne says perceptive and provocative things about "American Poet Guys," Jim Goar's Whole Milk, and my Compos(t)ition Marble on her blog (scroll down, and read her Danish [CORRECTION: Dutch] pastiche-review of Petroleum Hat while you're at it).

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