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.

Popular Posts