Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Between one holiday and the next, between the old year and the new, between the illusion of independence and the illusion of dependence, from these betweens, before fatherhood, hello.

A Russian translator of Wallace Stevens writes to ask me about the significance of "desperate milk" in these lines from "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction":
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,

Seeming, at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,

The fiction of an absolute— Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.
In the context of Stevens' poem, the beast (who bears a family resemblance to Yeats' "rough beast" in "The Second Coming") seems to represent the crude and horrifying appearance of reality in the first moments of its apprehension: it is reality revealed by the imagination (by the play of language) but not yet shaped by the imagination, so that it is "unlike," neither part of ordinary reality nor yet assimilated to the supreme fiction. The "desperate milk" puts the poet in a curiously maternal role: he (Stevens' poet is always a he) gives birth to the beast or at leads feeds and nurtures it with his strange, "desperate" language until the beast becomes simply "the real," "stripped of every fiction except one, // The fiction of an absolute." The beast represents a curious transitional moment in the transformative process of the poem, and a threat: one may be devoured by what one's vision has released. (For more on "Notes" see this untitled post of mine from February 2005.)

The beast is between: the devouring liminal. Is it Heidegger's Earth, animated—the unprocessed, unreal Real it is death to encounter? Death or transformation: same thing. The man I am will be transformed when my son or daughter is born sometime in the coming month. I will be born with him or her.

My new chapbook, Hope & Anchor, is almost out from Noemi Press. I may have copies on hand when I take part in the Chicago Poetry Marathon this Friday. Fifty-five poets in two hours! Prepare to be overwhelmed.

From The Transformed Man to Has Been, an epic trek. Between: being.

Monday, December 17, 2007


In answer to your question: in spite of my willingness, I did not actually learn how to breastfeed. But I learned that breastfeeding is important and that my support for breastfeeding is important. A father lives his life in proximity to the real work.

Anne Boyer read a poem with the title being something like, "Who Is Now Abject Full of Love and History." This is the name of the movement I would like to join, though it's too long.

Why has it taken me this long in life to be riding home late at night in my car on the snow-blown freeway listening to the radio to discover Joe Frank?

Michael Cross is a human dynamo. Where he lives magazines readings and small presses arise from the ground like Myrmidons. Seattle is next.

Kasey Mohammad has his own Wikipedia entry: should I be jealous? No, for his poetry is brilliant and funny and mad in the best way. The last strophe of "ABABA" from his new book Breathalyzer:
Melt away, dissolve, leave not a rack behind; go, be no more; die &c. The section of this poem describes blonde bubble butts, Russian peasant daily life, lords of doom, sauce for pasta recipe, girls who grunt loudly when accounting. I keep wondering if there's a term for this. A&P. A's. AA. AAA. AB. ABA. ABABA. These words are meant to bring to midn the poem "To a Mouse, on Turning Her up in Her Nest with a Plough," by Scotland's favorite poet, Robert Burns.
Everything I read lately including that sounds like Ashbery, which is not a criticism but a fact of parataxis, which rules my world: and and and and and. Read as: and and and, and and and.

Also acquired: Anne Boyer's Good Apocalypse by Anne Boyer; cede by Michael Cross; Imitation Poems by Patrick Durgin; Snow Sensitive Skin by Taylor Brady and Rob Halpern. The last two are particularly gorgeous physical objects.

Seriously, why this long to discover Joe Frank? A late-night ruminator on how Helen's beauty implies a continuum, so that it is possible to imagine a face that launches 427 ships.

Good night.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Virginia Woolf to Roger Fry, May 1927

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, & trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions--which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can't manage Symbolism excepnin this vague, generalises way. Whether its right or wrong I don't know; but directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.

Anne, Kasey, and Michael

I know where I'll be Sunday the 16th at 7 PM.

When I am not there I will be grading. When I am not grading I will be thinking about the problem of visionary poetry: poetry which does not proceed from the given to the ineffable, but starts with the ineffable and proceeds to madness, or doctrine.

I will also think about my fatigue with American moralism, how I move ever-closer to the position staked out by Ange Mliko, or how I would be doing so if staking out positions were not precisely antithetical to what Ange seems to be about.

I will think about the zone of autonomy that the aesthetic yet claims for itself, if only as a velleity.

I will plan my pastoral seminar and my poetry workshop.

I will attend a breastfeeding class in the hours before the poetry reading on Sunday.

I will or will not write about these things.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Two Rs

Une saison en enfer. An imaginary etymology: en is "in" and fer is "iron," so hell is in iron or to be in irons, and to be in hell doubles that enclosure. So: a season in in-iron; a season in-in hell.

Or, interiority: not hell is other people but hell is the other people that are the I that is an other.

Radiohead in The New York Times: Thom Yorke's donnish perch at a pub table in Oxford where he and his bandmates live (city of dreaming spires, Jude's Christchurch) moving bits of paper around on a cider-splashed table, the bits that shall become In Rainbows. Thom Yorke's civilized yawp bobbing and filling, the students circulating. Puts it on the Internet: pay what you want. [But the window has closed.]

"O seasons, O castles! / What soul's without hassles?" Worst. Translation. Ever.

As though assembling and disassembling my own plausibly denied youth. The radio-station stoners offered to set me up, toke me, put my head in rainbows—"we want to see what you'll say." No, I said, afraid of the law, of myself, my vocabulary's enough drugs for me. My vocabulary...

Another interrogation: the heavy lids, the loose cravat, the yellow nails, the smirk. His mother just offstage pulling her terrible quills erect. "But why did you resign?" "After the war? Before the war? Which war?" The letters have stopped speaking their colors. Head lolling, amused and unafraid, in the cabbage patch with the other Bibles waiting to be plucked.

Thousands and thousands of us downloading songs that question their own value and putting them in our ears: on trains, on buses, on subways, in the street, in classrooms, in "the peaceful home." Journey to the interior. "I think the train is lost." "How can it be lost? It's on rails!" . Another festschrit of quirks for our consummation. Owen Wilson's wounded head.

A secret verb presides over these paragraphs that mostly seem to concern themslves with the presentation of certain facts about our cultural life. Being poses as becoming in a dark alley. Becoming waits for being outside the stage door, methodically lopping the heads off the flowers in the bouquet.

In a minor key, as it were absentmindedly, we chain ourselves to each other in our tastes. This gregariousness of taste is political yet unpowerful till the generation sets like jello and taste becomes something else. (Blander, more wiggly, cool on the tongue.) Then you may read the tea leaves at the bottom of our leaders' cups. We live in the age of Republican rock and roll and the niche markets of the alternative juggernaut. (Sounds itself like a band.) Transgression is no longer secular. We are beset.

Is he dead or asleep? Neither poet nor soldier but the gun-runner goes between. Festering aftermath we call life.

In their thirties raising families between albums, as Rimbaud never did. Never even raised himself.

Disordered, our senses, OK Computer. Fitter, happier, more productive. Not drinking too much.

There is a leap between continents and centuries that they occupy, the modernists. Village explainers and dwellers. "Where'd you park the car?" Dying fall that reveals the network, the static ants we are, what Gibson gave us: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Above the port. The hero, Case, a failed data pirate, now a quasi-suicidal "artiste" of the fast and loose deal. A new employer and neurosurgery give Case a new lease on life and he goes back to exploring and unfolding the rich fields of data, to penetrating the collective cognitive map of the twenty-nth century's capital.

As though Rimbaud had returned to poetry, armed with all of his guns. "Je reviendrai, avec des membres de fer, la peau sombre, l'oeil furieux: sur mon masque, on me jugera d'une race forte." I will return with limbs of iron, dark skin, a furious eye: from my mask they will judge me as being of a strong race.

We must be absolutely modern.

O seasons, o chateaus,
What soul is flawless?

O seasons, o chateaus,

I've made the magic study
Of happiness no one escapes.

O he is reborn each time
The Gallic cock sings.

But I will desire no more—
It has conquered my life.

Such charm! it took soul and body
And scattered every effort.

What can be made of my language?
It causes them to flee, to fly.

O seasons, o chateaus!

Friday, December 07, 2007


The semester is almost over and I am tired.

Joshua Clover has written a fine review of Rod Smith's new book, Deed.

Joshua Clover's review of Rod Smith's new book Deed includes the following quotation from Stéphane Mallarmé: "There is only one man who has the right to be an anarchist" me, the Poet, because I alone create a product that society does not want, in exchange for which society does not give me enough to live on."

There is a magazine available at my local Borders called Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed.

I have been reading an advance reader's copy of Caroline Knox's new book, Quaker Guns, due out next spring from Wave Books.

"Quaker guns" are guns carved out of wood that merchants used to carry to scare off pirates and privateers.

Caroline Knox is a restless and delighting formal innovator.

"Caroline Knox" sounds like its own statement, reminiscent of the Raven at my chamber door.

Certain people have challenged things I've written on this blog recently and I've let those challenges go by, as it were, unchallenged.

"Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are," Gertrude Stein said.

I finished Roberto Bolano's novel The Savage Detectives, the reading of which thrilled me, the finishing of which saddened me.

A novel about the lives of poets that's not insufferably precious seems scarcely possible, but this is what Roberto Bolano has achieved.

From what I understand Roberto Bolano began writing fiction because he was in poor health and wanted to make some money to help support his family before he died at the age of fifty.

It would appear that Roberto Bolano achieved what he wanted to achieve.

For a Haunakah present my wife gave me a copy of Junot Diaz's new novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about an overweight young Dominican man from New Jersey obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien.

It could be my autobiography except for the fact that I was never overweight, or Dominican.

Our as yet unnamed baby moves around a lot in my wife's belly in the evenings.

If I press on my wife's belly I can feel unnameable parts of the baby beneath my hand, this baby with at present two last names but no first name.

The first or "Christian" name is the only name in which gender resides.

Though my wife's last name, and the baby's middle name, is Grayson.

I am also reading Jeffrey Jullich's new book Thine Instead Thank, a new book which, however, tells us that it was completed in 1987.

Jeffrey Jullich's new book Thine Instead Thank begins with an excerpt from a conversation he once had with Bruce Andrews in which the two poets speculate that the genre of poetry in book form is always already defeated as "political outreach."

It would seem to be the presumption of Jeffrey Jullich and Bruce Andrews that political outreach is a desirable goal for poetry.

One has to ask if the pleasure derived from reading these often very funny poems, which can read like flarf avant la lettre, is therefore detachable and separate from political outreach, or if that pleasure is even achieved by the very detachment of language from any such instrumental goal.

The alternative would be that political outreach in itself is a pleasure.

Although a close relative works in the campaign of Hillary Clinton, I find myself attracted to Barack Obama, who is after all now my senator just as Hillary Clinton was precedingly my senator.

There is an undeniable pleasure to be taken from Barack Obama's efforts at political outreach, which include the pleasures of rhetoric and the pleasure of being offered membership in an entity larger than oneself.

A candidate who leads a movement promises this; a candidate who becomes a movement promises this.

We are all a little afraid of disappointment and more afraid of yielding to others' more bitter disappointment.

I am a little afraid of Mike Huckabee's likeability.

There is no necessary end to a succession of statements: one can continue to issue reports, a word that echoes retorts, that echoes echoes.

There may be further blogging, further retort.

There may be a baby who will take up writing someday.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Virginia Woolf on Poetry

Brain rather dried up. But I've been listening once again to Juliet Stevenson reading To the Lighthouse in my car (abridged, sadly), and I was struck by this passage:
"And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves." She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside her self, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she said different things. She knew, without looking round, that every one at the table was listening to the voice saying:
          I wonder if it seems to you,
             Luriana, Lurilee

with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had, as if this were, at last, the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.
The same but different from Pound's call for poetry to be "nothing you couldn't, in the stress of some emotion, actually say." The sense of own's own articulation, possessing and being possessed by another's language. Discovering what we might be capable of saying, of feeling, of being.

I maintain there are political implications for this moment. Though not, perhaps, the most important ones.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blooming Belly

Thirty-two weeks and counting.

Friday, November 16, 2007


What little time I now have for poetry—reading and writing it—I find on the commuter train, a new textural dimension of my life. Every weekday morning (except for Mondays, when I sometimes drive) I rise in the gradually increasing cold (which offers a kind of spurious relief from my fears of global warming) and stand on the platform at Main and Chicago Streets in Evanston, facing the sun that rises on my right shoulder. The shock of the urban is still with me after three months here, though neither Evanston nor Chicago have anywhere near the level of street intensity that I associate with the ur-city of my childhood, New York. Still it's a discombulation and a rush to find myself jostling with the other reverse commuters (outbound in the morning, inbound at night) onto the sleek silver Metra train, to find a seat (I prefer the upper level, solus, facing the direction of travel), settle in with my briefcase on my lap, and slip a slim volume out of it to read until the Lake Forest stop, thirty-five minutes later. The inside of the train is quiet in the morning, except for the occasional hissing tenor of someone's earphones or the conductor calling, "New riders, up top!" Evening trains are another story: crammed full of people talking loudly to each other or into their cellphones, I find it easier to concentrate on fiction, generally some novel I've borrowed from the little lending rack that the Lake Forest Public Library keeps thoughtfully stacked inside the train station there. Mostly it's thrillers and romances, but last month I grabbed a copy of Robertson Davies' The Manticore and was persuaded enough by its Jungo-Canadian oddity to reread the whole Deptford trilogy. This week it was Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying: heavy-handed and leaden in its prose but still utterly affecting in its portrait of African-American life in 1940s Louisiana. I've attempted more ambitious prose on the train—I'm finally reading Bolano's The Savage Detectives, and I was amused the other morning to see a buttoned-up buisnessman reading it while waiting on the opposite platform, Chicago-bound—but as a hardcover it's not an ideal commuter's volume.

(As content perhaps it's another story: the novel depicts innumerable picaresque wanderings and encounters, yet never suspends for a moment the atmosphere of doom and fate that hangs over characters who can only play at autonomy. They're all riding the twentieth century Latin American train, whether in Mexico City or Barcelona or Paris, and they can't get off.)

At any rate I've had time for some poetry: the new issues of Chicago Review and Xantippe, and now a couple of books I've long meant to get to: Kimberly Lyons' Saline and Bradley Paul's The Obvious. I've sung the praises of CR often enough; here I'll just say that I was particularly moved and excited by the continuation of C.D. Wright's "Rising, Falling, Hovering"; the wholly unexpected Book V of Ronald Johnson's Radi Os; Georges Perec's still-relevant call "For a Realist Literature"; and Allen Grossman's pervesely elegant "On Communicative Difficulty in General and 'Difficult' Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane's 'The Broken Tower'" (I aspire to somehow unite the concerns of Perec and Grossman in my own writing). The new Xantippe demonstrates Kristen Hanlon's almost pitch-perfect editorial ear: it's a splendid mash-up of postmodern lyric and antilyric. Standouts in the first camp: Julie Carr's "(Equivocal)," Karla Kelsey's "As Fire Unto Fire," Sharon Lynn Osmond's "Door to the River" (I would gladly use this poem the next time I was trying to teach the concept of ekphrasis), and Sandra Miller's "Ad Halcyon"; the anti-lyricists of note are Jasper Bernes (with several poems that appear in Starsdown), Tanya Larkin's "Market Day" and "Villa Maria," Kasey Mohammed's disconcerting "The Poordom" (successful example of the kind of poem in which a coinage or abstraction is made to bear increasingly heavy fardels of metaphorical weight), and Rodney Koeneke's "Eerie Wampum" and "Larry's House of Brakes" (okay, that last one has a big lyric push inside it: "a heroic and enormous effort to nudge the myth forward").

Also of note in the new Xantippe: excerpts from Lisa Jarnot's forthcoming Robert Duncan biography, and a mess of book reviews, many of which I'm happy to see are of books more than two years old but which nevertheless deserve attention: the Lyons book (that's why I took it off the shelf), Brenda Iijima's Around Sea (I'd like to reread that now that my head's flush with Thoreau), Rachel Zucker's The Last Clear Narrative (might give me a little insight into the experiential territory of pregnancy and motherhood), and Dan Bouchard's Some Mountains Removed (in which the reviewer, India Radfar, surprisingly and usefully compares Bouchard's versions of pastoral with Bernadette Mayer's).

I haven't opened the Lyons yet—the book has merely graduated from the shelf to the briefcase, where it will ride around with me until I've absorbed it in the literal fits and stops of the train. This morning I read half of the Paul book—I recognize in him a kindred Stevensian ephebe. His poems present a kind of daylit surrealism to the reader. Ashbery and the language poets represent one degree of poetic movement that's lodged almost entirely within language; you come down from that mountain to the degree that your words attach themselves to representable images and situations (in Grossman's terms, you embrace more and more the violence of representation, a curious index of poetic value that logically redescribes the most abstract poems as pacifistic). As John Yau describes him in a back-cover blurb: "In locating the speaker in words, rather than placing him (or her) in stories, Paul compels the speaker to contempalte whether words lead one to knowing someone else or to recognizing further mysteries." But the shapes of stories, or the habits of knowing associated with narrative, are more strongly discernible in Paul than in the poets of higher elevations—at the same time he's above the linguistically quiescent narrativity of a Charles Simic or Russell Edson. To wit:
Frantic Lights, Terminal Lights: The Man Who Invented Paper

Paper was made because Tsai Lun
said it should be made.
He was adamant, like a fable,
yet vague, like a fable.
The rabbit asked "Why?"
and "In what city?"
and as the blanket proffered its answer
everyone said "You're a blanket,
stop talking." Inane,
peregrine, all those things.
All was bright
in the bay window's yawp:
that is how I remember our street.
The bricks were brown
and the sidewalk was plugged with elms,
like Tsai Lun saying
"We didn't know it would be light green,
but we knew it would be a moth."
So Paul is a child of Stevens and Ashbery insofar as he deframes his sentences and disorients the reader; but the whimsical consistency of his voice prevents you from getting too disoriented (that's how one kind of reader sees it) or it prevents you from becoming sufficiently disoriented (that's how another kind of reader would put it). There's a lightness here that delights but also threatens to disanchor the poetry from sources of greater power (the extrapoetic institutional context for a poem that Grossman talks about: Rome for Horace, Anglican theology for the metaphysicals, academia for Grossman himself, etc.). You might also simply ask what occasions these poems. My instinct is to celebrate the poet's freedom from any obvious context—after all, that's why most political poetry is bad, because it's too dependent on the immediate context that gives it the illusion of use-value. But it may also disencumber a poetry to the point of rendering it minor.

Since Mark recently expressed nostalgia for the days of work in progress, here's something I scribbled on the train this morning. No title yet:
This person sat smally kicking his legs against the stall, while above him loomed The Looming Carl. This person could not meet The Carl's eye but went on shrilly kicking. The Carl was one of those people who assume that all other people feel just as they do; he had a toothache; he roared Open your mouth and opened his own; his tongue lolled horribly. This person kicked faintly the stall, which I might as well tell you was really The Carl's left shin. For why should we hold secrets from each other: from this person, from I who write this beside a pot of yogurt at daybreak? I'll teach you, The Carl howled, beating his mitts against the stall doors—and he did, and he did, and he did.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I'd like to second Mark's recommendation of Emma Bee Bernstein's (what a great name! the daughter of Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein) and Nona Willis Aronowitz's GIRLdrive. They're on an inspiring trip.

Some of their posts raise the possibility of male feminists: it's not a title I feel I necessarily have the right to, but I am going to be the father of a daughter who will have to struggle for her own power and freedom in a culture that is routinely violent toward women. Or of a son who will have to come to understand his privileges and find his own path toward the renunciation of such violence. My influence and example will be crucial in either case, and not just in a philosophical way, but in the day-to-day work of meeting his or her needs: changing diapers, cooking meals, defusing tantrums, telling stories. So I will at least claim the right to call myself a fellow traveler of feminism.

Will I have a girly daughter, or a butch one? Will my son be gay, or a football player (or a gay football player)? We have no idea who's choosing to incarnate with us. I hope he or she will find room enough to become whom he or she needs to be with us. But I'll have feelings about his or her choices, too.

Reading the blog of Bernstein & Aronowitz, women just a little older than my students, I feel a kind of paternal wishfulness. That is to say, I hope that my daughter grows up to be like them. Or that my son is wise and strong enough to attract the company of women like them.

I am changing right in front of my own eyes.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Still searching for my rhythm as a new prof, which has meant that blogging has dropped near to the bottom of my list of priorities, which nowadays looks something like this:

1) Prep for classes.
2) Grade.
3) Spend as much time as possible with Emily, and the Noodle in her belly, and the idea of the Noodle, and the idea of fatherhood, and the terrors and pleasures anticipatory hitherto these states of being/becoming.
4) More grading.
5) Fret unproductively about my spring syllabi.
6) Fret unproductively about my unfiled dissertation.
7) Fret unproductively about grading.
8) Write no poems.
9) Read no poems.
10) Blog.

All of which means I have precious little time to fulfill my role as patriarchal commissariat of the avant-garde. In her most recent post at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog, Ange Mlinko identifies me as belonging to a coterie of male poet-bloggers who have arrogated to themselves the privilege of deciding "what innovative is." It's interesting to be interpolated as a member of the patriarchy: it feels, and probably is, impersonal to who I actually am and what my real opinions might be (about feminism, for instance). That is, I doubt Ange intends any personal malice. But whether or not I fit the powdered wig she's placing on me, I have no doubt but that she's addressing a real and serious problem of underepresentation of women in a community with supposed egalitarian commitments.

The global frustration expressed by Ange (and by Julianna Spahr and Stephanie Young and others involved in the debate centering on the most recent issue of The Chicago Review) is one I've heard expressed locally by some of the women (and a few of the men) at the few poetry-related gatherings I've attended so far here in Chicago. That is, as far as the poetry scene here goes, it's a boys' town. I see no reason to doubt this assertion. Women are visible here, but the men are more so: a glance at The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, as good an index of the State of the Post-Avant in the City of the Big Shoulders as any, shows me 21 women contributors out of 52 total, or 40 percent. Not exactly parity, is it? A similar, slightly wider disparity manifests when I compare how many of the poets included self-identify as editors, curators, or otherwise having a public platform that goes beyond just writing and teaching: 10 women to 16 men.

It seems self-evident to me that the work of feminism is far from over in any public sphere you'd care to name, including poetry; it's also clear that the avant-garde scene is no better (or worse) than the mainstream one when it comes to the patriarchal structure of power that is the default mode for all of our institutions. I'm talking about the real world relationships between people and the means of production, now—I am persuaded that the actual writing produced by the avant-garde has a greater potential to destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling than the mainstream epiphanic lyric does. But that only seems to apply to poems—the discourse around poetry, particularly in the reviled comments streams (mine are less populated than some but the number of female commenters seems much smaller than the male population), is masculinist by default when it isn't patently chauvinistic or violent (there's nasty stuff slung in Ron Silliman's comment fields almost every time a female poet is his subject).

As someone with a public voice, however small and tinny, I therefore accept responsibility for doing my part to achieve greater gender parity in the poetry scenes I'm a part of. I can do this without compromising because I'm already invested in the notion that the best poems come embedded in a palpable historical and bodily context. And insofar as I'm interested in the Frankfurt School vein of modern poetry, I'm strongly drawn toward work where the biopolitical situation of the author is part of the work's complex of intention and effects: that's why I've been so enthusiastic about such texts as Ariana Reines' The Cow, Shanxing Wang's Mad Science in Imperial City (there's a wonderful interview with Wang here at Jacket), and Alice Notley's Grave of Light. When some younger male poets employ some of the tricks of polyglot indeterminacy, I suspect them of just trying to be hip; that's rarely the case when I'm reading the work of a poet who's speaking from a situation of otherness to the white patriarchal mainstream. As entranced as I can be by mere formalism and its potential for negativity, I find biopolitically motivated formalism more compelling, more answerable to the cry of its occasion.

To be a reader of use to myself and others, I have to remain answerable, first of all, to my own inclinations and whims. But that doesn't mean I can't sometimes assume a critical stance toward my own desideratum: if my writing is androcentric that's worth noting, and I've been wondering lately how to take better account of race in my work. Otherwise, the autonomy I strive for (see preceding post) isn't generative or disinterested; it's just position-taking and brinksmanship, shuffling pieces around a board, mere assertion and bloviating. I aspire to something more than that.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Autonomous Me?

In an hour I'm hopping on the train and heading downtown to join Chicagoans Against War and Injustice; it seems important to stand up and be counted. The efficacy of these protests, I've come to feel, is less political than spiritual and imaginative: it seems pretty obvious that our political leaders aren't listening, but everyone in today's march will be making visible and apparent an alternative way of thinking and feeling about the war machine we are so smoothly assimilated to so much of the time. It's water for the grassroots, and it's also at least potentially the inculcation of a local community that can stand against and offer resistance to the violence of globalization. So with mingled hope and heavy heart I'll be a marcher again.

Lunch yesterday with my colleague Bob Archambeau, the author of a recent blog post titled"Classical Music Between Adorno and Bourdieu, has me thinking about that old modernist bugbear, autonomous art, in which I've made investments I'm not quite prepared to liquefy. I've read the New Republic article by Richard Taruskin to which Bob refers and whose argument I likewise recognize as applicable to the question of the crisis in poetry—a crisis in which not all of us are obliged to believe. The article, and Bob's discussion of it with the historian D.L. LeMahieu, is refreshingly free of the heavy-handed shorthand that characterizes most of these discussions. On the one side, there's the strangling populism evoked by such book titles as "The Trouble with Poetry" (Billy Collins) or "Can Poetry Matter?" (Dana Gioia), or in apologias for the MFA establishment (I wrote about one such by D.W. Fenza last year). On the other side there's Ron Silliman, or the Adornian counter-institution that's come to be known as "Ron Silliman," whose single most influential intervention since blogging became popular remains the sometimes invidious distinction between the School of Quietude and the Post-Avants. Between or under or to one side of these two cartoons, the signifier Collins/Gioia and the signifier Silliman, a great deal of careful, authentic, and important thinking and writing goes on—and as Bob points out, if the monthly readership of Salt actually outstrips the monthly readership of Harper's (or, it's probably safe to say, the circulation of The New Republic itself), then the death of poetry and its readership has been greatly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the debate has caused me to re-examine some of the Adornian articles of faith that Taruskin pillories mercilessly in his article. I think he's right to point out the limitations of the autonomy model of high art—it's worth requoting the pertinent paragraph, which Bob also quotes:
The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.
Postmodern poetry, more specifically Language and post-Language poetries, refurbishes this high Romantic ethos for its own purposes: as disinterest is a means to transcendence in the Romantic model, so transcendence is a means to critique for its postmodern doppelganger: the ground of given discourses, both poetic and political, is deprived of the normativity that makes it look like ground in the first place. All that is solid (in poetics, in rhetoric) melts into air, and the reader is putatively freed to pursue new, non-hierarchical pathways of meaning. I still find this appealing, though perhaps I'm addicted more to the vertigo of transcendence itself as the poem momentarily defies social gravity. But the hard-won transcendence of art must have a context, whether or not you intend that context to wither, and that context can be framed as "social demands on the artist," which cannot simply be wished away, or made to shrink in the face of mere authenticity. The authenticity of art, it seems to me, is entirely dependent on its means of attaining leverage on the social—a leverage that can never be fully Archimedean. It's your attitude toward mediation, your approach to the problem it presents, that matters—the denial of mediation in art is mere snake-handling, a spectacular gesture that reassures the faithful but is likely to bite you back in the end.

So I believe in autonomy, and in authenticity too—it's just that I think these will always be partial and mediated states of being, and experiencing them demands continual efforts of new creation. You free yourself from something just enough to get a new perspective on it; in the next moment you are reabsorbed, but the velocity of your inquiry may be sufficient to fling you free of the next context (the artist as elliptical orbiter). What fascinates me is the continuum that this conception of artmaking suggests: one can be preoccupied with the moment of (partial) liberation itself (ecstatic negativity, or—does it amount to the same thing?—formalism), with the sensation of contact with a new configuration of the real (the divine), or with the critique and dissolution of the context that had seemed so unshakeable prior to your intervention (materialism). Is it possible to treat all points on this compass equally, or is it in our dispositions to prefer one or the other? There I go mapping and charting again, but it's how I make sense of what it is I seem to be about.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Morning

Last night Emily and I attended the gala reading in honor of The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century—okay, just the first two-thirds of the reading, because we hadn't had any dinner (I'm used to one-hour poetry events that start on time; Chicago poetry events, so far, are a lot more like cocktail parties with extremely flexible start and end times) and by nine o' clock there were still five readers to go. But we did get to hear some exciting stuff (I was particularly blown away by Eric Elshtain's tour de force, closed-eye, cubist recital of one poem from innumerable angles) and this morning I'm feeling mournful about how little writing I've been able to do lately. This is of course the utterly unsurprising by-product of a new teaching job, but I'm still feeling the loss of what amounted to ten glorious years as a grad student. Consider:

- From 1997 to 1999, I was at the University of Montana. I was teaching for the first time and writing up a creative and scholarly storm as I pursued an MFA and MA simultaneously. This ought to have produced a nervous breakdown, but it was one of the richest times of my life, all the more so for being so concentrated after years of reading and writing without particular discipline or direction. I was also part of a close-knit creative community, which included professors as well as fellow grad students; and I was living in a truly magnificent environment that influenced my writing in indirect but, as it now appears, permanent ways. The manuscript that morphed into Selah and The Nature Theater of Oklahoma got its start here.

- From 1999 to 2001, I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. I've complained in the past about the aesthetic conservatism of that program, but from my present perspective that seems churlish: two years to write, just write, with no responsibilities beyond writing. I was a little surprised to find that I missed the discipline of scholarship, but my Montana training stood me in good stead as I read more widely than I ever have while putting together what became Fourier Series. I had some great friends there, though except for Brian Teare they weren't associated with Stanford. And I was living in the antechamber to paradise: my little room in Menlo Park was nothing to shout about, but every chance I had I was in the Berkeley hills, or wandering around the Presidio, or driving up through the wine country and down along the coast.

- From 2001 to what feels like five minutes ago, I was in the PhD program at Cornell. It was a little strange at first to be in an academic program with no official affiliation to creative writing, but this soon proved liberating: my poetry life became entirely a DIY affair, thanks largely to this blog and the SOON series that Aaron Tieger, Karen Leona Anderson, Theo Hummer, and I put together. PhD work is consuming, but as I'd first learned at Montana, the kind of focus and discipline that scholarly work demands can produce surprising dividends in those spare moments when it's just me and my notebook. So while I was finishing my coursework, writing my dissertation, and having a wonderful Ithaca life (falling in love, playing D&D, hiking in gorges, getting married), I somehow also managed to write Severance Songs, Compos(t)ition Marble, and the forthcoming Hope & Anchor. Not bad.

Now I'm in a new phase, with fatherhood just around the corner (we're at twenty-seven weeks and our midwife said she could feel the baby's head in an examination yesterday), working my ass off with three classes at Lake Forest. It's rewarding work, and I'm learning a lot about my students, the craft of teaching, and myself. But it's left no time for either focused attention on scholarship or the daydream believin' that together have produced my most creative hours. I've written almost nothing since we moved here, and you might have noticed that the blog has suffered, too. This situation is almost certainly temporary: everyone seems to have a similar experience when they first start teaching full-time, and then as they get their ducks and preps in a row things start to smooth out; plus there's always the summer to look forward to. It's true also that I have particularly demanding schedule for an academic: few professors teach every weekday as I do, and in the future I'm going to have a more enviable schedule. Still, I feel I've experienced a loss, and I register that loss here.

I chose Lake Forest because of an intuition that undergraduate teaching would challenge me not in a strongly intellectual way, but because it would put me in the way of growing my wisdom and compassion. I think I was right, and I think it's the right choice for me at this time in my life. But I do miss the rigorous stimulation that my Cornell life provided, and I'm wondering how I can get my mojo back while also fulfilling my responsibilities as a teacher. It's probably just a matter of time, and of getting to know my new environment better and the people of ideas who are here: as I found my true creative life was not at Stanford, but in the Bay Area at large, so too may I find my intellectual life flourishing in Chicago. But I may also have to face the fact that this next phase of my life is not about that kind of concentration and depth. Everyone says parenthood fragments your attention, and I don't see why I should be excepted from that. This may be a time of broadening my experience more than deepening it, and that could be okay. At Lake Forest, for example, I'm getting to know professors in various disciplines—music, Chinese, biology, anthropology—something that the culture of a larger university doesn't particularly encourage. It returns me in a way to the terrain of my adolescence, when I aspired above all to be a polymath—to learn something about everything—acutely conscious, of course, of all I didn't know, most especially about being human.

A second adolescence: mentally uncomfortable and awkward, casting about for identity, as a new world opens in unexpected directions. Sounds about right.

Monday, October 15, 2007

My Korean Doppelganger

Images courtesy of my friend Josh Wright, currently traveling in Korea.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Dreaming the Pines

Two men appreciating strong women makes for necessary reading in the New York Times Book Review this week: Joel Brouwer reviews Alice Notley's latest, In the Pines, while John Leonard writes with lyric intensity about Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, a soberly outraged new book about how we as a nation went insane after the attacks—written, as Leonard notes, from a rigorous feminist perspective that produces insight in direct proportion with its theoretical consistency:
Feminism — fierce, supple, focused, filigreed and chivalrous — has steered her inquiries and sensitized her apprehensions of a celebrity/media culture and national security state that honors men more as warriors, actors, cowboys, athletes and killers than for skilled labor, company loyalty, civic duty, steadfast fatherhood, homesteading, caretaking and community-building, and that tells women to lie down and shut up. Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson’s fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder’s love and death and Edmund Wilson’s patriotic gore.
A welcome mainstream endorsement of the power and truth-telling capacity of criticism sustained by latter-day Enlightenment values. Brouwer's review of Notley has less urgency to it, but he does astutely describe her as "a poet who persistently exceeds, or eludes, the sum of her associations"—as good an indicator as any of the majority of an artist (Ashbery can also be described this way). Plus he has the wit to quote much more of her verse than is usual in the Times' desultory treatments of poetry, to wit:
Whose mind are you? All of those I say. No one and my defect tells you nothing. When
your baby’s on the cooling board. Yes I’ve see that too.
You aren’t telling me anything.
The wind blew that way because it liked to.
No one will tell me where they’ve gone ...
We know a different language, for when the mind breaks. Or the oldest explanation of the failure to love her.
‘I knew you were in charge of me but my mind broke on its own.’
My mind is rubbed raw. The people who are in charge of me are happy.
A nice meaty quote like that means that readers can actually experience the process of thinking and writing that is uniquely Notley's. At the same time, Brouwer's description of this process, which follows the excerpt, is evocative of much that I find of worth in contemporary writing:
Notley suggests narrative linkages rather than enforcing them, working not by logic but by accretion, circularity and chance, calling to mind (to add a few more barnacles) the spontaneity of abstract expressionism, the intuitive transitions of free jazz, écriture féminine’s emphasis on nonlinear writing and, above all, since he was a strong early influence on Notley, Frank O’Hara’s exasperated wave of the hand in his 1959 faux-manifesto “Personism”: “You just go on your nerve.”
Any weekend O'Hara and Notley make it into the Book Review has to be a good weekend, and I'm looking forward to this one: some New York friends are in town and we're going to hang out with them downtown. It will be my first visit to the MCA and then we're going to see the new production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, for which another friend of ours, Rob Berman, is the music director. Kulchur galore!

By the way: Cleveland really does rock. I had a very full twenty-four hours there in the delightful company of Sarah Gridley: we visited the West Side Market; strolled around the campus of Case Western Reserve, admiring the rippling Frank Gehry roofs on display there; taught a remarkably talented group of mixed grad and undergrad students in Sarah's poetry seminar (more precisely: Sarah taught, I kibbitzed); scurried across town to read together at John Carroll, where we were both introduced with extravagant generosity by the earnestly charming Philip Metres (pronounce his last name "MET-riss"); went to dinner at an excellent Brazillian restaurant, where we were joined by Michael Dumanis, fellow new-Chicagoan Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and our moment's most prolific younger poet, Noah Eli Gordon (the latter two had done a reading simultaneous with ours, alas; I would have liked to hear them—but I did get gifted with their collaborative book Figures for a Darkrom Voice); talked and drank till late; and bleary-eyed picked up amazing baked goods and coffee in Sarah's neighborhood before she drove me to the airport. One thing I liked about our reading is that we did a Q&A: I suspect many poetry audiences, and not only those composed mainly of students as this one was, would appreciate the opportunity to ask questions, and it was fun to try and answer them. Among other things it gives you a little bit of insight into the actual effect your words are having, and how narrow or wide the gap between your intention and the poem may be.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Thing That Ate Cleveland

A reminder to Cleveland poetry fans that Sarah Gridley and I will be reading at John Carroll University tomorrow, Wednesday October 10 at 7 PM in Rodman Hall, Meeting Room A; for more information call 216-397-4221. Should be excellent. Apparently we've been billed to the students as "spiritual" writers; it will be interesting to see in what ways we meet and/or confound their expectations. Curator Philip Metres told his students that "Corey's work draws upon Biblical sources, philosophy (Charles Fourier is an inspiration), the pastoral tradition, Gertrude Stein, among others." Fair enough, I suppose, though it's always odd to hear one's own work described, like listening to your outgoing message on the answering machine. Philip quotes a review of Sarah's work that describes it as "intelligent poems that think with the whole body"—now that's a description you can sink your teeth into. He alludes to her fascination with Merleau-Ponty; I wonder if that fascination is as present-tense now as it was when we were students together at Montana and she was devouring The Phenomenology of Perception. Maybe it is, but it's curious how writing inscribes one's interests (onto one's body of work) and turns your reading into your biography. Suppose obituaries preoccupied themselves entirely with the books that had most fascinated the deceased?

Finding a bit of a rhythm now with my teaching, which is to say I'm getting used to being behind on prep and papers. Deep in Walden for my Nineteenth Century American Lit class, in some ways my favorite because I get to encounter and re-encounter some very odd ducks: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman are yet ahead of us. Reading Thoreau makes me want to return to Lawrence Buell's book The Environmental Imagination, parts of which informed my dissertation. But I didn't spend much time with his writing about Thoreau, and I'm increasingly enamored of Henry David's brand of prophetic eccentricity; he's wonderful company. That plus my weekend's immersion in Into the Wild has me hankering for a little wilderness. I'm missing the great landscapes I've known: the Bitteroot Valley in Montana, the coast of northern California, the woods and gorges of the Finger Lakes in New York. Lake Michigan is beautiful to walk beside and like all vast waters offers scope for meditation, but its shores are entirely too domesticated to provide the sort of transport I've derived from the places I've mentioned. Beginning to wonder whether and how I'll be able to whisk my nascent son-or-daughter to wilder places now and again.

In the spirit of contrariness to my own mood, here's a surprising taste of the pro-globalization Thoreau:
Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments [Brook Farm?], and hence its singular success. I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla [sic] hemp and cocoa-nut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails.
I must admit to the possibility that Thoreau is being ironic here; but if so, he's playing a very deep game.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A crammed family weekend. Student papers and student conferences. Poems out of reach.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Little More Middle-Aged

37 today—my last birthday before the commencement of fatherhood. Yip.

The Guild Complex reading this past Saturday was a very satisfying experience. Chicago continues to impress as a poetry center: the audience was large, diverse, and appreciative—there are genuine poetry fans here. I kicked off with "The Moth Poem" from Selah and then some poems from my recently revised and resuscitated manuscript of The Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Krista Franklin brought a wiry sort of charisma to her performance—my favorite piece was a work of 80s nostalgia, with homage paid to the deathless Def Leppard. Philip Jenks turned his self-admitted nervousness into a work of art, reading wryly funny and wryly serious poems (get a taste here. Like me, Philip is a recent addition to the Chicago scene and I'm grateful to Kristy Odelius for putting us on the same bill.

After a break, Robyn Schiff read—I'd heard her recently at Danny's but for some reason I found this reading more deeply engaging. She brings a lot of narrative to what I suspect are very long-lined poems; it's a strategy that I used to find irritating and superfluous given my mania for the pure lyric, but these days I find I'm much more receptive to it—it's a very inclusive style. More and more I'm drawn to poet's prose—not that Robyn's poems are prose, but rather that they seem to point toward a kind of cyclopedic inclusiveness of thought and subject and subjective response (I felt this when listening to Joyelle McSweeney read from her novel last week—which by the by I misidentified: it's called Nylund, the Sarcographer; her other novel, Flet, hasn't been released yet). The evening finished up with a poem-play presented by Murakami Sound Machine, an assemblage of Kristy's students who proceeded to hilariously conflate the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers with the lonely vagaries of poetry-making. You kind of had to be there.

There's lots more I'd like to reflect on here—Bolano, the film and book of Into the Wild that I first saw, then read this weekend, when I should have been doing other things; and Emerson's essays, which I'm currently teaching. But there's no time.

If you've made it this far down then perhaps you'll make it a little further—to Cleveland's John Carroll University, where my old Montana comrade Sarah Gridley and I are scheduled to read alongside Michael Dumanis and Lev Rubinstein on the evening of Wednesday, October 10. The whole thing was organized by Philip Metres (great last name for a poet, no?) whom I'm looking forward to meeting—any man who'd title a blog post about Emily Dickinson, "The Belle of Amherst Will Kick Your Ass" is okay in my book.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


John Kinsella was fierce and funny when he came to read for us at Lake Forest this past Tuesday. Having traveled for more than thirty hours, functioning on what he said was about two hours sleep, the man indefatigably talked, read, and I believe wrote ("This morning I went outside and got my poem," he said) for his entire time with us. Perhaps he allowed himself four hours sleep before getting on a plane early Wednesday to fly to New York, whence he's bound for LA and London and Gambier, Ohio before finally returning to Australia. My students are still talking about the reading, a tremendous performance by turns outraged, humorous, and lyrical. John's forcefully expressed opinions have brought him a lot of trouble—he's been subjected to death threats and shot at twice for his political views and radical environmentalism—but in person he manages to balance the competing claims suggested by his self-description as "a vegan anarchist pacifist." While outspoken and quick to condemn bad behavior, he seems sincere about living his anarchism as a personal ethic by which he refuses to tell other people what to do—which came as something of a relief for this unreconstructed carnivore who couldn't resist ordering chicken on his Greek salad at the after-reading dinner.

The reading has sent me back to his poetry: I learned that The New Arcadia (which I reviewed for Verse a while back) is actually third in a trilogy whose preceding volumes, The Silo and The Hunt made a big splash in Australia but have not been published in this country (the Norton-published New Arcadia doesn't even mention that these other books exist). I'd like to track them down, particularly The Silo, which is apparently based structurally on the five movements of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony—they might both become texts for the pastoral seminar I'll be teaching in the spring. I've also picked up Peripheral Light: New and Selected Poems, a book I resisted getting at first because I'm somewhat allergic to the imprimatur of Harold Bloom—but some of the most gorgeous and stirring stuff Kinsella read came out of this book, so I had to have it. In his life and work he presents a formidable model for the modern engaged poet; I was inspired by him, and I think my students were too, though they also thought him a bit nutty. (At one point during the reading he said that he'd been hit by lightning twice when he was a boy, "which maybe explains a few things.")

Tonight's my own reading , of course, alongside Robyn Schiff, Krista Franklin, and Philip Jenks. I'm planning on taking this opportunity to begin to explore literary Chicago a bit more—I want to hit at least one of the great bookstores today (Seminary Co-Op, 57th Street Books, Myopic Books, Powells), geography permitting. I'm also told that the Evanston Public Library is having a book sale today, so I may check that out as well. Not that I have time to read anything but Emerson's essays, a chunk of which I'm teaching next week for my American Lit class.

But I did finally pick up some Roberto Bolano, namely his book of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, and found myself strangely persuaded by the first few stories in it. As Benjamin Kunkel remarks in his review, Bolano's is a curiously anti-literary style—it really does more resemble oral history, with none of the forced resistance to verbal cliche that most authors put up (on the first page of the first story Bolano's narrator uses the phrase "poor as a church mouse"). Yet his concerns are hyperliterary, insofar as his heroes and interlocutors are, to a man (I haven't yet encountered a woman writer in his pages, but I'm only a few stories in) poets, for whom poetry is always already a condition of exile. This has a real political basis for a Chilean writer, of course. I've remarked in the past that the current cult for Bolano reminds me of that enjoyed by W.G. Sebald when he first appeared in translation in this country (and from the same publisher, no less); now I find there's a similarity too in their stance of political melancholy. But it's early days yet: more to read, and I await the moment I can get my hands on The Savage Detectives (not to mention some of Bolano's poetry, which is of course much harder to find than his fiction, though he thought of himself as a poet) so that I can explore further the fascination of Bolano's downright ontological conception of the "poet [who] can survive anything."

Monday, September 24, 2007

This Week

Sixteen tons, and whaddya get... another day older and deeper in debt....

Sorry, I was thinking about grading papers.

Please come out this week for two great readings:

The On the Run Lecture Series sponsored by the Lake Forest College English Department is delighted to present John Kinsella reading his poetry on the Lake Forest campus in Meyer Auditorium, Hotchkiss Hall, at 4 PM on Tuesday, September 25.

John Kinsella is the author of more than thirty books of poetry and prose. The editor of the international literary journal SALT, and International Editor of The Kenyon Review, Kinsella is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and was Professor of English from 2001-2005 at Kenyon College in the United States. He is now Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. His Peripheral Light: New and Selected Poems (selected and introduced by Harold Bloom), was published in 2003 by W.W. Norton, followed by The New Arcadia in 2005. Salt published his collected experimental poems, Doppler Effect, in 2004.

A poem from The New Arcadia:

Delta arrow, transmission
call-up, ID rapid, sharp, revolutionary
prompting, outer through inner
exposition in the English novel,
as if wildcard, chemical extractability,
stray configuration that's never random,
as between figures
they'll chance, and up-eaves
build staggering nestings, or suspend
against conditions; at school
it was rumored one impaled itself
in a student's leg—suburban myth
or likely story, protest
and radical exaltation.

AND that's not all! On Saturday, September 29th, please come out to the B.Y.O.P. reading at the Peter Jones Gallery (1806 W. Cuyler, 2nd floor, Chicago), curated by Kristy Odelius and featuring Krista Franklin, Robyn Schiff, Philip Jenks, and myself. Click the link for more details and what I can only presume is Philip's very impressive ink.

Finally, my reading with Evan Willner is now available for you to listen to over at Chicago Amplified.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Speaking of visceral realism, the new issue of Action, Yes is live and includes my own long-delayed "Notes toward the Postmodern Baroque" essay along with fine, highly complementary criticism by Jasper Bernes and James Pate—the latter being a writer new to me whom I got to meet at Danny's Tavern the other night where two of the Action editors, Johannes and Joyelle (and their new auxiliary editor, 7-month-old Sinead) rocked the house along with Greg Purcell with their own highly visceral poetry and fiction. (Joyelle's performance of excerpts from her new novel Flet was especially inspiring for this reporter, who has long contemplated writing fiction but has no desire to give up his day job as a poet.)

Pate's piece mentions Bolano by sheer coincidence, or not—there's something in the air regarding this mysterious Chilean, something which makes him feel like an author I've already read though I haven't yet—a phenomenon I last experienced years ago with W.G. Sebald. In my fourth week as a new professor I'm already phenomenally behind already with marking up assignments, not to mention all the poetry I'd like to be reading and the journals I want to keep up with, but something tells me I must clear the decks for Bolano soon.

Also featured in the issue are some kickass poems that take their first (though not last) inspiration from the TV show LOST by Catherine Meng, poems of Louise Bourgeois, poems by Gabe Gudding, poems by Ariana Reines (whose book The Cow caught hold of my attention last year), and a special section of artwork from an international artists' workshop calling itself Canicola aka Sirius, aka "summer heat."

Everything old (the maudite, excessive body, clogging the arteries by manning the barricades) is new again at Action, Yes. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

homemade traps for new world Brians

That is the bizarre title of Evan Willner's marvelous book of sort-of sonnets (a genre I myself am very fond of) that he read from this very evening at the Hyde Park Art Center tonight where I also read as part of Bill Allegrezza's series A. I'm going out on a limb calling it marvelous because I haven't read it, I've only heard Evan read some of the poems, but what I heard was deserving of the moniker of the literary movement Roberto Bolano invented for his novel The Savage Detectives (another book I haven't read but can't wait to read, in part because of this terrific review), "visceral realism." The book consists of a series of dyspeptic, furiously funny twelve-line poems or "states" (there's fifty of 'em) whose lines are twelve syllables each (except for the first, which has thirteen), and which attack the American landscape and narrative of Western expansion as though that landscape were lodged inside the speaker's body, kind of like the video cassette in Videodrome. Here's the unsettling poem named, indirectly, for Illinois:
thirty-fifth state

Seeing Brians exhuming themselves from sidewalk cracks
crawling maybe with Brian seeds and Brians that
come pouring like the savage preAmerican
dead pour out of road cuts and ground breakings, our pores
and each incontinent stitch and liabation
stratched or worried into our property, spraying
themselves all over us, loving so hard — needy
fetus wrapped knots of time that jerk and cry so we
can't tell what's wrong with them or make it stop —, shouldn't
somebody cram them back in where they belong and
tight dike the fissures they lick through to be with us
in today's breached and quickly drowning cavity?
Come on feel the Illinoise, indeed. A strangely apt counterpoint to my last post—the poem captures something of the strangeness and terror of sexual reproduction, its inseparability from a will to power that has very little to do with us as individuals, but is rather a species imperative. Evan's work seems deeply engaged with both the present and literary tradition—he cited Williams' In the American Grain as a source text—as here where he alludes to a line from King Lear and stands its delusional hopefulness for a refuge from nature red in tooth and claw (especially of course human nature) on its head:
twenty-first state

Believe that finches collect, shout, and fan each other
with our human news — who's on top, in; who's the next
biggest thing. Who's finished — or acrobat, or sing;
believe these moist bone assemblages cradling
their millimeter lungs can love so we can coo
them up to bed like palpitating peachfuzzed girls,
because when we see finches, we want to lie down
in them or just plop them into our mouths to feel
them tumble around us in oxygen bright blood
and become lodged in our brains' gathers. This is why
we have anthropomorphism: so we can, when
birds flap and bubble, believe that it's us they mean.
It was a very fine reading, and I'm grateful to Bill for inviting me and putting me on the bill (Bill on the bill!) with Evan. A very nice guy from WBEZ was there, so I understand the reading will be available for download here, and perhaps even be broadcast. You can hear previous series A readings here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Baby Grayson Corey

From last week's sonogram. Everything looks normal and healthy—he or she appears to be waving "hi," or maybe saluting. Power to the people!

Emily and I have been married for one year as of today. It's been a wonderful ride.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September Songs

Today in my Intro to Creative Writing class I asked my students to freewrite to the prompt "I remember..." (I'll be introducing them to Joe Brainard a little later on). Mostly the prompt sent them in very personal directions, but one student raised her hand and pointed out that today was September 11th, so she'd tried to remember that, but couldn't quite muster what she felt to be the proper emotion. I think many of us feel that way now. The College Republicans, I'm told, put flags out on the quad today, one for each victim of the attacks. Of course those flags would now be well outnumbered by the boots of the American soldiers who've died. And if you wanted to somehow represent the Iraqi dead, you'd need fields and fields of flags.

Still, it's odd I'd forgotten what day it was when I assigned that prompt.

Keeping one step ahead of my students is about all I can manage these days. But I do have some dates of interest to announce for the month of September:

* On Monday the 17th, Emily and I will celebrate our first wedding anniversary. New city, new jobs, new people, new baby. We don't do things by halves!

* On Tuesday the 18th at 7 PM, I will be sharing the stage with Evan Willner at the Hyde Park Art Center, as part of Bill Allegrezza's series A.

* On Wednesday the 19th at 7:30 PM I'll be at Danny's to hear Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, and Greg Purcell read in a smokey and atmospheric fashion. Hoping Joyelle and Johannes can offer me some tips on combining parenting with poetry.

* On Tuesday the 25th at 7 PM, John Kinsella will be reading his poetry in Meyer Auditorium at Lake Forest College. Could be worth taking the Metra up from the city.

* Finally, on Saturday the 29th I'm scheduled to read for the Guild Literary Complex—I believe the link has the right time and date, but if necessary I'll provide an update as the time comes closer.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Letter to a Friend

If the death of children one is close to doesn't make you question the rightness of things, well. And with my own child in the womb your story can only fill me with terror and dread. And yet I know—is this a spirituality?—that we tell ourselves the meaning of what happens to us. And meaning can be created and has been created out of the most awful personal and historical events.

My late mother, as you may recall, was the child of Holocaust survivors, and was really a survivor herself: born in 1942 in fascist Budapest, preserved by chance in the ghetto while the Jews in the countryside were rounded up and exterminated. Her own parents, my grandparents, both went to Auschwitz, and both miraculously survived. My grandfather told me the story, the night she died, of how he worked in the camp barber shop (he was a hairdresser in Queens after the war, also a taxi driver) cutting the hair of the SS officers. Can you imagine? So she grew up obsessed with that past that her parents so rarely spoke about, and as a consequence I grew up with it too. At a young age—far too young—I had her books down off the shelf, paging through the ghastly pictures and even ghastlier accounts of dehumanization and mass murder. There's one story I've never forgotten: a father and young son, both naked, waiting for their turn to be shot and their bodies thrown in a ditch. The boy is crying; the father is stroking his hair and pointing to the sky, telling him about heaven. Can you imagine. The story went through me like a spear, and remains there still. I remember feeling rage—not at the Nazis, but at the father for telling his little boy such lies. Now I feel a kind of hopeless compassion for him. Almost a father myself, I understand better the impulse to shield your child at the moment such shielding is most impossible.

How do we go on? For me it's partly just obeying the impulse of my fortunate biology: I've always understood Gramsci's maxim "Pessimism of the spirit, optimism of the will" as my own creed. My hope springs from some source I don't fully understand, even as my knowledge of the pitilessness of the world increases. Mostly I believe that the only way to be here on earth is to really BE here, as fully as you can, and not to submit to the urge to escape—at least not too often. My life has been a long process of submitting to the necessity of being. When I was young, I felt myself an outsider and compensated by holding myself aloof from others, even from my own body and its desires. Gradually I began to experiment with permitting myself more being, as it began to seem possible for me to find a home with others: poets have been one tribe, D&D players (believe it or not) another, and lately I'm feeling more Jewish and more ready to join hands with my fellow Jews. Meeting Emily was a gigantic step forward—committing to her I committed more to myself and also to the community in Ithaca that she was a part of. Then we got married—another commitment. And now we're having a child together, a hostage to fortune as they say, and that invests me more deeply in the earth than I've ever felt myself to be before. I suspect having a family will imbricate me ever more deeply in the web of being--may lead to my being more active politically, for example, as I try in at least local ways to make a better world for my child, and to teach him or her to become someone with the same commitment to Being Here. And I may lose this fight—in fact, it's certain that I will. But I don't see an alternative. And while the fight goes on, I'm more alive than I ever was when I stood aloof and mistrustful and uncertain.

I hope you permit yourself the full range of feelings—that you cry, and shake your fists, and let this great darkness move through you, rather than trying to stand apart from it or let it fester. I hope you are able, eventually, to make some kind of meaning, to maybe discover some new resource of the will in what you've seen. If nothing else, you must be more alive now to your own profound powers of compassion and empathy, and let me tell you: we earthlings need those powers desperately.
We are all Norman [G.] Finkelstein.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

...and They're Off!

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


It went well.

Monday, August 27, 2007

TV Laureates

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Future of Time

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Warm Welcome

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

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

Hoping to resume thoughts about poetry here sometime soon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


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

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Books for New Fathers

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

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

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

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