Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pastiche of Greatness

I don't hear a lot of live music—I'm lucky to make it to the movies once a month or so with a 13-month-old—but on Friday night Emily and I were in the kitchen and heard Tony Sarabia on the radio talking about Juana Molina in such glowing terms that, in a thoroughly uncharacteristic moment of mutual spontaneity, we got online and ordered some tickets for her show on Sunday night at the Morse Theater and then lo and behold were able at the last minute to get friends to babysit so we could actually see the show.

Molina is astonishing. A former sit-com star from Argentina, she's been making intricately layered music as a solo artist for many years—Sarabia says for the first time she's touring with a band, though it consists of just two other people. She reminds me a bit of Theresa Andersson, whom you can see in this video doing a one-woman band routine a bit like Molina's, making use of digital looping to layer one sound atop another. Molina, though, makes much heavier usage of synthesizers, as well as natural and ambient sounds (her album Son, integrates birdsong and a fireworks show into the music); she used to be quite folky, but the music now has a harder and to me more interesting edge. Her new album, Un Dia, creates a vivid soundscape in which the lyricism of her voice struggles to harmonize with sounds I associate with the hyperintensity of the global urban mediascape. I hear elements that remind me of Laurie Anderson circa Big Science, Björk's more experimental pieces, and riffs from the darker side of Radiohead's moon.

Semi-legible photo of Juana Molina and her band at the Morse Theater on Sunday, February 22, 2009.

Hearing her live was a sublime experience like I've rarely had a music show: the reason I rarely go to concerts is that I'm more of an earbuds kind of guy, and part of me has never understood the value of paying a lot of money to watch a bunch of people do not terribly visually interesting things on a stage while playing a rougher version of what they did in the studio. But Molina, ably backed by a slyly charismatic bass player and a drummer with a sunny vibe, was mesmerizing as she constructed the intricate loops of her songs. Again and again, she created a sound that was the whole foreground— the melody—only to succeed it with a new melody that harmonized with the old sound, now in the background, so that as each song went further and deeper it was like wandering in Baudelaire's forest of correspondences. It was an absolute triumph of pastiche, the form that excites me the most in music. And it makes me think about pastiche's role in poetry, as well.

Pastiche is practically a self-criticizing concept in the wake of Jameson's attack on it: a "blank parody" that produces sensation out of juxtaposing unlike discourses while detaching that act of collage from the political and historical energies that would give it meaning. This is the nutshell critique of post-Language poetry: that poets in their wake have adopted the disjunctive techniques of their predecessors while walking away from the ethical commitments that drove the LangPos to develop those techniques in the first place. The pop music equivalent is sampling, and if I were more knowledgeable about it I could probably draw distinctions between those artists who intend some kind of witty commentary by their appropriation of a riff originally belonging to Motown or acid rock or what have you and those who simply want a quick meaningless hit of the familiar to make their song more marketable. The big musical equivalent to the poetry example is probably the long history of the appropriation of African-American musical tropes by white artists; sampling just speeds up a process that began long before Elvis opened his first can of Brylcreem.

Molina seems a bit different. That may partly depend on my ignorance: I don't know anything about Latin American pop, and she may very well be appropriating and riffing on musical discourses that I just don't know about. But I don't think so: I believe instead that her juxtaposition of patently synthetic sounds with the music of the lyric subject (the voice, the acoustic guitar), and of course her crossbreeding of these (harmonizing with herself, rendering her own voice mechanical) turns a constructivist collage technique toward expressive ends that include the personal without being confined to it. That is, as with much postmodern poetry and music, I get the news of our/my condition from her music: I am transported to where I'm already standing, the half-virtual half-real circumstance of a citizen of the digital age, clapping his hands in the overloud dark.

How weird to come out of this ecstasy into the debased discourse that can produce something like David Orr's piece on poetic greatness in the most recent Sunday New York Times. Parts of it are valuable, like his indictment of "greatness" as a tone, "grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical," a willed nationalistic somberness that reminds me of nothing so much as Yorick's suspicion of "gravity" ("a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind") in Tristram Shandy. But even as he attacks this notion of greatness he still longs for greatness as such, weirdly oblivious, among other things, to the masculinist presumptions behind such canon-making gestures (his discussion of Elizabeth Bishop is egregiously untheorized in this respect). It has something to do with his desire for more rigorous criticism: if we keep our eye on the greatness ball there will be less mediocrity, less log-rolling. But I'm not sure we can so easily separate "greatness" as a category from the pompous discourse that Orr tries to criticize but ends up entirely wrapped in, like a second-rate Superman's cape.

I recognize a little of myself in Orr's point about our veneration of non-American writers, whose greater political risks confer automatic laurels—isn't part of my fascination with Robert Bolaño based on his apparent greatness, even though the whole drive of his work deliberately dead-ends in the lethal cul-de-sac of literary greatness? But that's another post. Mostly I find Orr's focus on poets as vessels of "greatness" bizarre and unuseful. The music of Juana Molina remind me that what matters to me in art is an individual's multi-voicedness: heteroglossia without all the plot and other encumbrances of the novel being dragged along behind it. And this gets to another thing I love about Molina: she's a comedian, and there's humor, wit, and goofiness behind and beside the sublimity, which I probably would not have apprehended without seeing her live. She doesn't melodramatize herself and her music, but the music isn't "small"—it contains multitudes. That's what I'd like my poetry to be like: something supple and with real reach, and power without taking itself too seriously—without playing the game of self-canonization.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Stentor Speaks

Worth reading: an article in the Lake Forest College student paper about Christian Bök's performance last week:

Noise, sound, or poetry? LFC reacts - Arts and Leisure

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Report from the Festival, Part 2

Happy birthday, Charles. Happy birthday, Abe.

Jessica Savitz reading.

Tuesday evening

Jessica Savitz's reading at 8 PM in Meyer Auditorium is not only her Lake Forest College debut, but her debut period—she's never read her work in public before. It's a remarkably assured debut, in which the poems from her manuscript Hunting Is Painting ebb and flow together in a kind of continuous dream language, while images—family photos, the photos of a family friend who served in Vietnam, the work of a photographer named Roxane Hopper, and paintings by Allison Hawkins—flash by on the screen behind her:

What I love about Jessica's poetry is how purely beautiful it is, while at the same time there are hints and peeps of the grotesque and violent shimmering between the lines, especially in the poems that deal directly with animals and the animalistic. I also like what the images do in the text, particularly the photographs, which are never simply illustrative but instead reframe the sometimes elliptical poems on the tense axis of personal history. I confess that when the manuscript arrived last year, I was put off by the largely amateur quality of the photos, but I've since been won over—I like the roughness, the collage-quality, they bring to the poems. A cautionary tale against letting some corrupt idea of "professionalism" prejudge my experience of poetry.


A morning of administrative tasks followed by an afternoon and evening of increasing poetic intensity. Three of the four Gnoets arrive on campus about an hour before showtime—they are Eric Elshtain, Matthias Regan, and John Tipton (absent was Jon Trowbridge, the Google engineer who actually wrote the Gnoetry software). Really lovely guys I'd recommend to any campus looking to shake some cages in the nicest possible way. After some technical difficulties they are able to demonstrate the Gnoetry machine in action. What is Gnoetry? Well, you can read about it at some length here, but the quick and dirty version is that the software uses an algorithim to analyze one or more texts (generally public domain stuff readily available on the web, ranging from the novels of Charles Dickens and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to scripture and Eliza Poor Donner Houghton's firsthand account of the fate of the Donnner Party). It can then transform elements from those texts (and you can select what percentage of your poem that you want to draw from each source text) and create a formal poem: haiku, renga, blank verse, and other forms in which syllable-counting is involved.

The results can be eerily high in aesthetic quality: a poem extracted from Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is appropriately haunted and blood-splashed as it worked through phrases like "The scarlet horror" and the oddly terrifying ending phrase, "But the bolts." The audience of mostly students is mostly scandalized by the apparent vandalism to human ingenuity offered by machine-assisted poetry, but they show signs of being intrigued as well—one of my poetry students writes afterwards that while she felt that in some way Gnoetry was destructive to poetry, she also appreciated its democratic dimension—offering a potential path for non-poets to create poems. I wish the Gnoetry software was online, but there are apparently considerable technical difficulties; I imagine they'll manage it someday.

Three of the guys of Gnoetry—Eric Elshtain, Matthias Regan, and John Tipton—demonstrating the end of poetry as we know it.

A slightly less blurry shot of Gnoetry in action.

After the Gnoets do their thing and a bite to eat at the dining hall, it's time for the main event: Christian Bök and the Lake Forest College Student Sound Cabaret. The Cabaret consists of eight Lake Forest students (Zachary Engel, Alexandra Fisher, Roland Davin, Max Glassburg, Will Stafford, Carl LaMark, Emily Capettini, and Nicole Nodi) who've been working with Christian for the last several days on a performance of Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate," but they precede this with an "uncreative writing" demonstration: each has chosen a non-literary text to perform for one minute's duration. The results are pretty hilarious as the students perform a hysterical prologue to what I assume is an anti-abortion video; a caption from an art history textbook; the text from the back of somebody's State Farm insurance card; instructions on how to create methamphetamine "for informational purposes only"; and other bits of anti-literature.

The LFC Student Sound Cabaret's "uncreative writing" findings. Stay tuned for what I call Max Glassburg's "State Trooper State Farm" routine at the very end (around 5:36).

I'm even more impressed by the performance of "Ursonate": after fewer than three days of rehearsal they've produced a tightly woven and integrated performance of complete nonsense that manages to be lyrical, funny, and dramatic by turns:

The LFC Student Sound Cabaret performing an excerpt from Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate."

After the Cabaret sits down, Christian steps up to the microphone and does his thing. Photos and video can't capture the electric effect his performance has on an audience: this is the only poetry reading I can remember in which each poem is followed by spontaneous applause. He reads some of the dirtiest bits of Eunoia, sings an alien hymn that he wrote for Earth: Final Conflict, and performs anagrams and dadaist ditties. But what will stay with me the longest is the aria he performed from a Canadian avant-garde opera, The Princess of the Stars, written by R. Murray Schafer.

Christian Bök performs the Aria of the Three-Horned Enemy from R. Murray Schafer's opera The Princess of the Stars.

The opera is apparently staged on the shores of a Canadian lake at 4 in the morning. The audience sits on shore, while the performers are in large canoes on the water. Christian played the villain, the Three-Horned Enemy, a dragon-like monster that abducts the eponymous princess, which apparently takes the form of a gigantic (10-foot) puppet that Christian has to manipulate from his canoe while "singing." The Enemy's aria consists of a series of earsplitting shrieks, growls, and moans that rip through the audience like lightning-tipped spears; one young woman next to me flinches at every new torrent of sound. Sublime.

Part of the score for the Aria of the Three-Horned Enemy.

After the performance there's a reception with more guacamole than anyone can eat, and a remnant band of students plus myself, Christian, and creative writing instructor and playwright Lucas Krueger retire to Boomer's in the student center for a beer. Christian goes into more detail about his experience performing in the opera and fields the students' questions—pitched midway between incredulity and awe—with aplomb. A family man, I leave them to their 10:30 PM confab and drive home.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Report from the Festival

Man in motion: Christian Bök leads Lake Forest students into the thickets of Schwitters' "Ursonate."

Sunday evening

I pick up Christian from the airport and take him to the college. We discuss Canadian politics, the rise of Michael Ignatieff, and the general absence of charismatic personages in both the political and poetry worlds in Canada at the moment. We pick up Stephanie Strickland at Glen Rowan House on the campus and go for dinner to Casa de Isaac in Highwood—a great little Mexican place owned by Orthodox Jews, so the place is closed on Shabbat. I am chagrined to realize the place has no liquor license, but we still enjoy our food. Stop off for a drink at the rather stuffy Southgate Cafe in Lake Forest, where Christian dazzles us with the complexity of his drink order, though it seems to amount to a dry martini with a slice of cucumber instead of an olive or twist of lemon.

Tucked into a corner of the bar I mostly bear witness to an animated debate between Stephanie and Christian about the role that myth might play in reconfiguring our culture's ability to understand reality (with a special emphasis on ecology) in terms that aren't stranded by the personal, the experiential, our very grammar's tendency to reduce our understanding of the world to the action of individual agents upon individual objects. Christian rejects myth as something dangerous that's already been tried; Stephanie is more pragmatic and thinks we need to hook into existing structures of feeling (my phrase, or rather Raymond Williams' phrase, not hers). Their disagreement seems to center on whether myth can be non-religious or not: Stephanie seems to say it can, Christian seems to say it can't. I lean in Stephanie's direction, but am unhappy with her example of Buddhism as a philosophical framework that gets us away from subject-object (or I-It, I suppose to adapt Martin Buber) thinking. If we really want to be pragmatic about getting people to imagine the mess we're in, and the sheer complexity of the systems that obtain, we're going to have to work with material more or less indigenous to North American culture. But maybe I'm being too narrow.

One drink's all I have time for, as a family man, but we nevertheless manage to close the place down at 9 PM. Lake Forest nightlife ain't much. I drop them off at the guest house and drive home.


Christian is met for breakfast by four student volunteers, one of whom wrote me afterward to report that Bök blew his mind. Well, that's why he's here. Then he goes off to visit music professor Don Meyer's senior seminar with apparently similar results. I spend the morning dealing with administrative details, then meet up with Stephanie for lunch at our surprisingly good dining hall (I think "surprisingly good" ought to be part of its name. I had stir fry). Afterward we do an a/v check in the auditorium where Stephanie and and our Plonsker writer-in-residence Jessica Savitz will each do their things on Tuesday: Jessica's incorporating some striking photos and images into her reading, while Stephanie of course is a full-fledged multimedia poet (evidence here).

More administration, then I walk over to Glen Rowan to pick up Christian to take him to the first meeting of the Sound Cabaret Workshop he's leading as Artist-in-Residence. I stick around to see how it goes; the workshop turns out to be a lively rehearsal of an excerpt from Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate," to be performed chorus-style by the students in the workshop. They take surprisingly and immediately well to shouting things like Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu and rakete bee bee? rakete bee zee. (I think here of Khlebnikov's definition of Zaum as "words in no known language that nonetheless have something to say.") If language is a virus, nonsense may be one of its most infective forms. They'll perform their piece before a hopefully large audience on Wednesday evening.

After the workshop we meet Stephanie and Jessica for dinner in the dining hall (pesto chicken pizza with bacon on top, just because) along with English/Theater prof Richard Pettengill, who's having the indefagitable Christian to visit his evening class afterward. Jessica and I opt to attend the Lake Forest College Writing Club's reading, which is alas poorly attended, but the readers get off some good things. I'm pleased to see that the univocalic constraint I gave my poetry students has infected some club members who are not in the class, and marvel as always at how restricting yourself to one vowel invariably produces lively, surprising, pleasure-inducing poems.

Home in time to see the latest Bachelor deny one of four identical females a rose.


Meet up with Stephanie and Christian to take them to my morning poetry writing class, in which they each give short presentations and take questions. Christian has ten simple rules for writing better poems, which I'll print here:
1. Use only concrete, physical nouns.
2. Choose the most specific possible nouns: "convertible" or "Mercedes," not "car."
3. Verbs must be active. Avoid "to be" like it was Ebola.
4. Make the subject of the verb do something that subject doesn't normally do. Not "the chainsaw cuts" or even "the chainsaw shreds" (a student-suggested improvement) but "the chainsaw stencils the silence" (Al Purdy).
5. No adjectives!
6. But if you must use an adjective, it should not normally apply to the noun it modifies.
7. No adverbs!
8. But if you must use an adverb, it should modify its verb in a surprising or incongruous way.
9. Never compare anything to anything else (i.e., death to similes—no "like" or "as"). Juxtapose directly.
10. The things you juxtapose should be wildly unlike each other. Not "The moon, a face" but cummings' "the moon rattles like a piece of angry candy." Yes, that breaks the simile rule.
These are very fine rules, I think, though there must always be exceptions. It will be interesting to hear from those students who resist this constructivist approach to poetry. Stephanie followed up with her own list, this time the eleven rules or principles of electronic literature, or elit. They're part of an essay of hers on the subject that's about to appear over at the Poetry Foundation, so just keep checking there for it. I can remember a couple of them: the first is elegant in its simplicity: "If you can print it out, it's not elit." She got everyone thinking, I believe, about how writing is and must change in a digital age. In a sense, the books we read are digital imitations of books: electronically typeset rather than letter-pressed, a reproduction of the product of older technology. The illusion of the "page" produced by a word processor such as Word similarly demonstrates how chained we continue to be to a past era of information. Stephanie's point about this is not that books should or will disappear, but rather that we have yet to develop an electronic literature that fits its medium; her point of comparison is the early days of TV, in which all the programs resembled filmed plays. It took decades for television to evolve forms of storytelling that make maximum use of its particular resources while minimizing or eliminating remnants of the theatrical (though it seems, with the advent of wide-screen television, to have moved much closer to cinema in recent years).

Stephanie Strickland takes questions after her presentation of hypermedia poems on Tuesday afternoon.

After the class and a quick lunch, in which we are joined by by my colleague Davis Schneiderman, it's time for Stephanie's noon performance/demonstration. Attendance is solid and my feeling is that the audience was impressed and interested in the digital poems she shared with us: Vniverse, The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, slippingglimpse, and Errand upon Which We Came (all viewable at her website, though some of the pieces, like Vniverse, can only be viewed on a PC). Most fascinating to me was her explanation of how slippingglimpse uses the movements of water—images captured from the Maine coast—to synchronize the movements of words and phrases from the poem. As she puts it, the water "reads" the poems in this way, creating a dialogue between human and nonhuman languages; there's also a dialogue or dialectic in the ways in which the stylized configuration of the phrases and their overlappings and movement can lead one to read the image and watch the text. Stephanie and Christian are both skeptical, I think, of my notion of postmodern pastoral (which I talked to them a bit about), and of "nature poetry" in general; but I think I could make some interesting hay with slippingglimpse's staging of what Strickland calls "coreading."

After that Stephanie, Christian, and I meet with my advanced writing seminar—a small group of seniors, most of whom are more interested in prose than poetry. That doesn't stop us from having a fascinating conversation about changes in publishing, the tension between commerce and art, and the different levels of "alienation" (a student's word) that different sorts of texts conjure (the implicit continuum begins with J.K. Rowling and ends, I suppose, with Schwitters). And then Stephanie goes off to write and Christian, whose energy continues to humble, goes off to his workshop and I am here in my office writing this.

Tonight Jessica's reading; tomorrow, Gnoetry, the Sound Cabaret, and Christian himself. The Festival is, I think, well-launched.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Lake Forest College Poetrypalooza

Image of Hotchkiss Hall on the Lake Forest College campus, where most of the events listed below will take place.

Poetrypalooza! That's my secret alternative name for the Fifth Annual Lake Forest Literary Festival, scheduled next week as an extremely rich appetizer for the AWP conference taking place in downtown Chicago that weekend. We have a heckuva line-up of great poetry scheduled, with an special emphasis on performance, hypermedia, and poetry off the page. Click the link or read on for an annotated schedule of events.

Monday, February 9

7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Reading by the members of the Lake Forest College Writing Club.
Come hear what our students have been up to, creative writing-wise.

Tuesday, February 10

Noon – 1:00 p.m.
Reading/performance by computer artist and poet Stephanie Strickland.
This should represent an extraordinary collision of hypermedia and the numinous (her latest book, The Red Virgin, is about the French feminist poet and philosopher Simone Weil).

8:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Reading by Jessica Savitz, our first Madeleine P. Plonsker Writer in Residence
Jessica's manuscript of poems, Hunting Is Painting, won the first prize ever to be awarded, and it's an auspicious debute: a strange and marvelous exploration of the boundaries between animality and art. It will be published by Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books.

Wednesday, February 11

4:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Gnoetry, a Chicago-based collective that explores collaborations between poets and computer programmers, demonstrates their work.
Should be very entertaining as the Gnoets take cues from the audience to create a computer-assisted poem right then and there.

7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
The Lake Forest College Student Sound Cabaret performs, followed by a reading by Artist-in-Residence Christian Bök in Lily Reid Holt Memorial Chapel.
The keynote event of the festival and a must-see (or rather, must-hear).

Thursday, February 12

4:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Panel discussion by Festival participants.

7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Three younger poets—Brian Teare, Karen Leona Anderson, and Richard Greenfield—will read from their work in Meyer Auditorium.
These three poets are all under 40 and have all written extraordinary first books:

- Brian Teare’s The Room Where I Was Born won the Triangle Award for Gay Poetry and his new book, Sight Map is due out this month from University of California Press.
- Karen Leona Anderson’s forthcoming first book, Punish Honey, mixes lyricism with scientific investigation.
- Richard Greenfield’s A Carnage in the Love-trees was named a Top Ten University Press Book by BookSense in 2003. His highly anticipated second book, Tracer, is forthcoming from Omnidawn.

All festival events are free and open to the public and take place on the Middle Campus of Lake Forest College in Meyer Auditorium, Hotchkiss Hall. (The exception is the Wednesday night performance by the Sound Cabaret and Christian Bök, which will take place in the Chapel.) The festival has been made possible by the support of the Lake Forest College Department of English, the Dean of the Faculty, the Artist-in-Residence Committee, the Center for Chicago Programs, and the American Studies Program.

Hoping to see you there! And if not, perhaps I'll see you at or around AWP the following weekend.

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