Sunday, November 23, 2008

Speak Out on Proposition 8


Monday, November 24, 2008, 6:15pm
754 Schermerhorn Extension
Columbia University


Katherine Franke (Columbia Law School)
Kevin Maillard (Fordham Law School)
Alice Kessler-Harris (Columbia, History Dept.)


Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia, Anthropology Dept.)

Please join us for a discussion on California's Proposition 8 and its aftermath.

Friday, October 3, 2008

New Rope (No Money Needed)

Here's my proactive suggestion to presses, reviewers, and magazines in response to NetGalley's $400 per title idea.

Let's get Devin Emke to adapt his Submissions Manager for galley submission purposes. Magazines would be able to use it for reviews, just as journals now use it for submissions. This would help everyone out (presses, reviewers, magazines) without ending up adding several thousand dollars to the operating budget of presses - money that, if it exists, could be spent on promotion and/or publishing more works.

We can and need to reduce costs and save trees by having more electronic galleys; we can also make galleys more accessible to reviewers by going to an electronic model which would allow them to access the galley anywhere, any time.

However, and it's a big however, there is simply no need for it to cost $400 a title; Rosetta, who are behind NetGalley, would be making money off presses for doing very little themselves.

It seems crucial to me that we don't as an independent publishing community divert our money into the profit margins of corporations. We can do this in better ways.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Money for Old Rope: NetGalley (ADDED TO)

It's not my fashion to give credence or space to something that I believe is bad for poetry. Why draw attention to such a thing? However, I'm breaking that guideline over NetGalley, an organization which "provides centralized galley and digital press kit services, as well as a place to connect and collaborate with others in the industry." NetGalley has just partnered with Foreword Magazine, which is meant to be in support of the "independently published."

My problem is this: NetGalley charges $400 per title to assist publishers in making their galleys/Advance Reader Copies available online, and to provide electronic notification to publishers on decisions reviewers have taken with their galleys.

As someone who has worked with small presses for several years now to help secure review attention, I have tried to encourage electronic galleys. It costs nothing for a press to prepare an electronic galley. Not $400, nothing.

At a time when review attention and space is decreasing, NetGalley preys on publisher anxiety about review coverage. Net Galley imposes (or, at best, invites) a charge of $400 dollars in order for publishers to do EXACTLY WHAT THEY DO NOW. Under the guise of helping the environment and saving trees, NetGalley takes money from underfunded independent publishers. If the big fiction houses want to do this, great, let them splurge. But when "independent" magazines like ForeWord sign up, poets and poetry presses suffers.

So here's what I propose.

Please join me in this. Please don't acquiesce. Link widely to this post. Write to ForeWord to suggest they rethink, that if they're that keen on electronic submissions, they could facilitate it without NetGalley and without making small presses pay thousands of dollars. We all would love to see less paper galleys in the world, since most of them end up in the recycling bin or, worse, the garbage. NetGalley isn't the way to do it, and encouraging it certainly isn't.

In the interests of discussion, if you're a reviewer, a publisher, a magazine, and you feel I'm missing something about NetGalley, let me know. (EDIT: See Gabe's comment for a less indy press-centric reading of this!) As a publicist, as a writer, as a reader, I feel that this is a corporate entity which doesn't care about or care for words, language, literature. Unlike such wonderful groups as Small Press Distribution, which has really embraced the web, NetGalley is an anonymous organization. I can't find any reason to support them, and I find every reason to propose alternatives that are good for publishing and for writing about books.


I want to make it clear that ForeWord and other magazines are NOT moving to a NetGalley only system. So publishers who are reading this: you won't lose out if you opt not to go with NetGalley.

That said, my aim stands: I'd love to see ForeWord and others adopt another, non-expensive electronic organizational model, as journals have with Submissions Manager. So I'll keep this issue alive in the hopes of achieving that.

ForeWord, by the way, apparently encourages (non NetGalley) electronic submissions and has been doing so for over a year. This is news to me, news I'm happy to hear, and hopeful that they'll make more prominent on their submissions guidelines in the interests of serving independent presses.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Translation, Iceland, the Sugarcubes: In Conversation with Bragi Olafsson

Here's where'll I'll be and what up to next Tuesday: can't wait! It's being organized by Bragi's publishers, Open Letter at University of Rochester. I'll report back next week - but if you're around the area, or totally in love with a) Iceland or b) the Sugarcubes or c) Translation or d) books with protagonists who spend the entire time under a bed, then come travel to it!

Author Bragi Olafsson, former bassist of the popular Icelandic rock band the Sugarcubes, will discuss literature and writing with translator Lytton Smith on Tuesday, October 7, at 6 p.m. in the Hawkins-Carlson Room. His novel, The Pets (Open Letter, 2008), which features a protagonist who hides under his bed for almost the entire book, was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize and is the first of his books to be translated into English.

Open Letter is offering $65 subscriptions for which amount you get 6, count 'em, 6 works in translation by authors from Margeurite Duras to Ruben Fonseca. $120 for 12! And looking at those beautiful, pop-art covers, I think it's worth $65 just for the covers.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gary Lutz: Alone with the Sentence

I can't read Gary Lutz, author of the short-story collections I Looked Alive , Stories in the Worst Way , and, most recently, Partial List of People to Bleach as well, crucially but less often noted, The Writer's Digest Grammar Reference Book.

I very nearly can't read Gary Lutz, though I want to just about every day.

Every time I read Gary Lutz, the problem is, I can't stop the sentences I've read from sounding out, percussive and recurrent, days after in my head. I think a little like a Gary Lutz sentence. I write a little like a Gary Lutz sentence. Actually, that's not a bad fate: the tactics and strategies of a Lutz sentence are well worth dwelling within.

Life could better subsist as a Gary Lutz sentence, and on Wednesday night, in a talk at Columbia University called "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," Lutz let the standing-room only audience (people in the corridor, straining ears, themselves agape) in on how he reads and thinks a sentence by the letter.

Drawing on examples such as Christine Schutt's phrase "acutely felt, clearly flat," Lutz pointed out not just the obvious correspondences between the two monosyllables (and let's not forget one is a verb and one an adjective posing as a noun) but also the way that the first phrase "contains the alphabetic DNA" of the second. He tracked individual letters and combinations of letters through sentences and paragraphs from Diane Williams, Don DeLillo, Ben Marcus, Fiona Maazel, and Sam Lipsyte. Outlining his "poetics of the sentence" with a nod to Gordon Lish's ideas of "consecution" he talked about "the drama of the letters within the words."

In the hope that someone will publish Gary Lutz's talk, which is the most masterful and useful talk on craft and poetics I've had the pleasure of attending, I won't say too much more about it, except that a close look at the sentences Lutz has clocked up in his own works would be a great place to see how taut and locked a sentence could shut.

Instead, I want to swing this post to two places that I think are adjacent to both Lutz's work, his talk, and each other: the poetry of George Oppen and the Anglo-Saxon riddles. Bear with me, here. Look, Lutz-like, at the opening of Oppen's 1934 Discrete Series :

White. From the
Under arm of T

The red globe.

From under the "arm" or crossbar of the letter T in the word "white" we find the "e" of both "red" and "globe." "Thus / Hides the // Parts" as Oppen says in his next poem.

Or, later, the lines:

Between glasses--place, over which
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaitime passes--a false light.

As spectators for the "drama of the letters within the words" we can notice the way "l" and "a" run through this sentence, each getting ahead of its alternate: "la," "la," "a," "al," "l." What is within "glasses" is also in "place" and "place" is literally and letterally and latterly over "time passes" and thus passes over it - only to run into the "false light" which again contains the elements "between" the start and end consonants of "glasses."

A discussion of rhyme, off-rhyme, assonance, alliteration, cannot and will not suffice. What Lutz's reading of contemporary fiction offers to poetry - and this is a link he at least implied - is a letter by letter reading. The matter of the materiality of the text: not just the "live wood" Oppen calls his book, but the letters that are the "fiber."

Oppen's version of Objectivism (which has an ancestor, perhaps, in Rimbaud's poem "Voyelles"?) will be familiar to anyone who has read or, better, looked at the Anglo-Saxon riddles. I'm going to un-name them as riddles (that's a critical addition) and re-name them an Anglo-Saxon "Discrete Series." One point of connection is that contemporary critics, as Conte notes in his book Unending Design often try to name the supposed Object to which Oppen's poems are the cryptic description, just as Anglo-Saxon critics strive to name the word the Anglo-Saxon Discrete Series poems hide. Such approaches are not especially fruitful ways to engage with either series of poems. Consider this poem from the Exeter Book , typically referred to as Riddle 47 after the numbering established by Krapp and Dobbie:

Moððe word fræt -- me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd þa ic þæt gewundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra þe he þam wordum swealg.

We don't need a translation of this to observe the letter-drama the poem has as its object, to go beyond noting the expected three metrical alliterations per line in order to follow the letters and their interactions. "Word" for instance transforms into "wyrd" by the change of one letter and them "wyrm" by the change of one letter, and then, with one letter changing and two transposed, we have the "þrym," of "þrymfæstne." Or, in the modern English, "word" is swallowed and replaced by "fate/what happens" which in turn is swallowed/replaced by "worm/serpent" and then by "mighty," suggesting perhaps "fixed."

Lest this seem like mere letter-play, it's worth noting that the Anglo-Saxon poem thematically explores the permanence of words and letters. It either/both imagines a "moth" eating/swallowing words, a "thief in the darkness" or/and it imagines a reader reading a text without being "at all wiser for the words he consumed." This, we might imagine, is a reader who is not reading by the materiality of the letter.

The material pleasures, possibilities, and performances of individual and indivisible letters are at play in the various works of Lutz, Oppen, and the anonymous poet of these Anglo-Saxon challenges. This inter-century reading is a necessity: Carl Pyrdum noted at Get Medieval recently that there are important ways to read open-software and Windows-hacking through understanding that "Medieval book enthusiasts were DIYers. They made their own books. They copied texts they liked, freely editing and recomposing--or hacking, remixing, and cut-and-pasting, to use the right lingo." In other words, the constitution of texts, sentences, and even words were "open" to medieval readers and bookmakers.

Reading the work of 20th century poets such as Oppen and of course Susan Howe alongside the work of the Anglo-Saxon poet-compilers offers as a way to disturb the notion of originality and of postmodernism as peculiar and unparalleled. In short, it offers a way to read our now as also someone else's now. It takes the text back from a notion of an author or authority: the open in the Oppen, so to speak.

"I read very slowly," says Gary Lutz. He wants "books that are not page turners but that defeat the notion of page turning." To read slowly is not simply to value a thoroughness of reading; it is to attend to materiality and to the letter, to note tensions and contents, contexts and confusions.

This matters now: not more than ever, but maybe more than ever to us. On Friday night John McCain promised that "As president of the United States, I want to assure you, I've got a pen. This one's kind of old. I've got a pen, and I'm going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk." It may not be too alarmist to see this as an election about whether or not we're going to attend to the letter of what we're saying and what we're seeing. What does it mean to "suspend a campaign" or to "win" a war? We've been asking such questions for 8 years and 12 centuries and more.

It matters now, too, because of M. NourbeSe Philip's book Zong!, which I wrote about recently.

Where we stand on the political issues we are presented with does not have to do with our partisan interests or our party support. The last letters of the Exeter Book read:

Þeah nu ælda bearn
londbuendra lastas mine
swiþe secað, ic swaþe hwilum
mine bemiþe monna gehwylcum.

[though now the children of men, land-dwellers, swiftly seek my prints, I at times conceal my track from each one of them.]

Before and beyond us, language has already disappeared: "hwilum" becomes "gehwylcum," time disappearing into nameless persons. We seek swiftly, "swiþe," only to have language readily hidden from us, "swaþe."

What is the form of literacy we are demanding in the 21st century?

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Zong! is, in the words of Nathaniel Mackey, "a brash, unsettling book" which "wants to chant or shout history down, shut history up." This book, by M. NourbeSe Philip as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, shuts history down precisely by reclaiming stories from history, refusing narrative. It does so with a passionate mining of words not just for fragmentation but for the usefulness of fracture, for all of what lies hidden (erased) in the visual and aural potentialities of words.

The cover describes Zong! as such:
In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.

The image below cannot do justice to the intimacy and care of Philip's work, and I apologize to you and her for the damage my photograph does (I wish my html skills allowed me to represent her work more accurately - though no electronic version can be accurate in this case). I can only say that I hope that in writing about this, the first page in the book, from "Zong #1," I'll lead readers to find the actual book, out this week from Wesleyan, and read it in her intended display. I will note that the poem "Zong #1" continues over the page, so here I'm fracturing Philip/Boateng's fragment - but hopefully usefully.

As it unfolds horizontally - across the horizon of both page and ocean - and through time - with some awful inevitability - "Zong #1" seems to stutter or staccato its letters, "w w w." What will result from this, one wonders? The "a wa" at the end of line 1 anticipates "away," an absence that is felt on the page even as it attempts to express itself. Similarly, "w a t" on the next line gestures towards our "wait" for story/history even as it cannot possibly fulfill "wait" alone. Within this poem, letters are not missing so much as words are exploded and become of use to us as they (refuse to) resolve into letter combinations. Even as one is tempted to call their formation valuable, one has to resist both the idea the formation needs to happen or that value is what we want here: to want value would be to comply with the captain and owners of the slave ship Zong.

(And, for that matter, why reach for English words in attempting to form expression, this poems seems to ask.)

This "w a t" leads on the next line to "er" - to error, to uncERtainty, but also to "water," to where We ARE(n'T). The poem proceeds by expressing, never quite paradoxically, an uncertain attempt at expression: one could read this page as attempting to reveal a phrase, perhaps "one good day[']s water of want," or "our water was good one day, water of want." Any attempt, however, to name such a phrase instantly becomes a betrayal of the poem; it betrays by providing a resolution where none was achieved, and it betrays by eliding what I take to be a gesture acknowledging the drowning slaves. Rather than seeing this as a poem read left to right, top to bottom, we must also see it as a poem whose letters are floating upwards, to the water's surface, where they break into pockets of (un)heard language; simultaneously, these letters might be drowning African bodies descending - an idea given possibility in the African names that "footnote" the pages of the first section of the book, 221 in total. Here I, as a reader and critic, am fumbling in the limits of my circles of knowledge, which is exactly part of the recovery that Philip has set herself to and in turn, in necessarily circular fashion, sets us to in her footsteps.

Unlike other examples of poetry which attempts to fragment words and even syllables, then, such as P.Inman or Clark Coolidge, Philip's work is not making a point about combination and recombination, about the infinite expressive possibilities of letters. What actually gets expressed - the legal decision, which she includes in her book - can only make us aware of the ways she and we might "deeply distrust this tool I work with -- language" and also the ways she is both, in her words, "censor and magician." Rather than using that as the springboard for refusing to work with and through language, however, she acutely renders the vitality of expression. This must be told, or not-told.

What I've written above is a first foray into this book. My writing is a necessity of beginning a communal conversation, a refusal of silence. I do not want to read this book alone. I do not want to shout down history alone. I do not want alone to think about what it means for me to read this as an Englishman in America. Where are my ancestors in this hi/story. I want to do all of this. This is the "not-tell[ing]", the anti-narrativizing we need to do. Philip is offering us a way of thinking against the idea the "we die alone." She is offering us a way of thinking through what a story is and does, damage and recuperation. She offers us, for those Africans and through them and their erasure by white English society, "the sustenance / in want."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Narratives of Poetry Publishing

"what was still, surprisingly, the primary material medium of poetic texts in the late twentieth century: 'The figment of a book.' " - Craig Dworkin

Stacey Lynn Brown began/continued/reopened a debate about contemporary poetry publishing and the contest system with her disturbing account of her experience not just at Cider Review Press but also as a finalist or first runner up at several other presses. At the heart of the issue, aside from specifics relating to an individual poet and individual press, lies questions as to how and why poetry gets selected for publication, what happens to it during the publication process, and where it goes afterwards. As Stacey Lynn Brown most recently writes "Given what I now know about that press, I'm relieved that my manuscript is out from under them and that it won't be associated with them when it gets released."

Before we continue, it's important to note that many of Stacey Lynn Brown's poems are up at the wonderful "From the Fishouse"; there is a risk that in this sad narrative of publishing, the poetry itself gets lost.

There have been many interesting and thoughtful (and, it must be said, emotional and passionate!) responses to the situation: Reb Livingston points out the difficulty of "a compatible working match" where random press and random author are combined; Barbara Jane Reyes asks "How do we subvert this poetry contest system when so many poets (literally) buy into it so completely?"; and Collin Kelley answers that 'Poets need to stop buying into the contest cycle of abuse, let go of the notion that self-publishing makes you less of a poet and that working with a small or micro-press won't bring you any "prestige." Basically, get over yourself. There are many ways to get your poetry to readers besides the ones pounded into your head at MFA programs.'

Rather than attempting to analyze how contests and open reading periods do and do not work for poets, publishers, and poems, I want to pay attention to an issue mentioned earlier: "where it [poetry?] goes afterwards [after what?]"? The word that isn't often mentioned by those of us who identify as writers and publishers before or as much as we identify as readers (at least in these posts - the word only occurs three times in the posts quoted above, and only once does it refer to actual or potential readers of poets' poetry).

One reading of such articulations is that readership has become subordinate to publishing, even where the articulator is a publisher. Firstly, narratives of poetry publishing as it supposedly is, should be, or might be hide the work in question (whether Stacey Lynn Brown's or another poet's). Secondly, the focus of our discussions becomes how to get the work into the world (i.e., Livingston argues, usefully, that magazine publication should not be less prestigious than book publication; indeed, prestige should not perhaps be the issue) instead of how the work works in the world. The "many ways to get your poetry to readers" mentioned in the discussion tend to include micro presses, poetry collaboratives, etc - methods which, however useful they are, continue a narrative in which a poet writes poems until such a point as they take shape in some form of (chap)book (and I include journal within this). The narrative (accidentally) ends at this point, with a book or book equivalent, self-published or not.

All of this brings me back to the epigraph for this post, from Craig Dworkin's 2003 study Reading the Illegible. Lyn Hejinian, in her "notes towards a poetics" for American Women Poets in the 21st Century discusses poetry as a "happening," and the question I think we need most to ask, both before and in light of Stacey Lynn Brown's experience as it stands in for many other poets' experiences, is, What is the happening of poetry as it intersects with publishing as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close?

Given that much of the poetry written in America at this moment is either not narrative or even nonnarrative, it is especially important that this question include reconsiderations of why the book is the end-goal of publication. What other forms are available to us? Here I do not mean that we need to find a digital equivalent of the book, such as the online journal or the flash poem, but that we might reconsider how books are books and why they are books. In doing so, we might learn to value them as unique and separate objects from one another: Craig Dworkin's latest book, Parse feels and acts, appropriately, like a grammar handbook, in contrast to an earlier volume like Strand . In other words, an intervention in the narrative of book publishing is not, per se, a disruption or rejection of it, but an awareness of it: an alienation in order to re-renter the book as a foreigner (a distinction made by Hejinian, ibid).

The quotation torn from Dworkin and used as an epigraph itself quotes Susan Howe from her book Singularities. "The figment of a book" is contained within and disrupts a (fragmentary) book, which has, as part of its poetics, the disruption and fragmentation of a book or set of books Howe has found from "wilderness" America - Thoreau, for instance, becomes Thorow (or does it/he?). Add to this Ann Lauterbach suggestion, also in American Women Poets of the 21st Century that we might consider fragmentation as a whole, and one begins to see the ways in which we do not need to dispense with the book.

In that last sentence, it is the "do not need to" which I want to hold stress. Where we do not need to, we might choose to. Where we choose alternatives to the book, or choose the book as an alternative to something else, I think we come closer than we currently are to not only thinking about how the work gets into the world, but how the work works in the world - especially where the world doesn't itself work.

Maybe, then, at the heart of this issue isn't the question of how publishers should receive and select manuscripts, how poets should select and/or become publishers, or even how the financial aspects of poetry should be managed. Qua Debord and the Situationists, I'm not sure we can avoid capitalism in thinking about poetry, but we can arrive at "freely chosen variations in the rules of the game" (Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle , 24). Questions about publishers and poets matter, but questions about how the work's publication relates to the work it seeks to do matter, I suggest, a little more. The form of the book is not inevitable. Or: the book is not an inevitable form.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Amazon and Small Presses

The Guardian is reporting that charges small presses 55% of cover price PLUS shipping to Amazon for books it sells. Thus, the report contends, publishers have incomparable access to worldwide distribution at a price which renders it difficult for them to keep operating in the future. Assume that the book retails for $15; the publisher would get $7.50 before paying for shipping, and once you take into account the cost of production, let alone whether the author gets any royalty or the staff of the press gets any salary, and it's a very difficult world. (I'm not sure if the U.S. situation is quite the same, given that the U.S. has a better tradition of small press publishing, but I imagine it's comparable.)

Small publishers get an amazing boost from selling on Amazon, in that it gives them instant worldwide distribution. Amazon should be applauded for the ease with which they grant access to this network. Through what they call their Advantage programme, any publisher, no matter how tiny, can quickly get their books on Amazon. In other words, a publishing house cannot even exist one day and a few days later find their books for sale everywhere from the UK to the US, to China and beyond, through a company whose websites draw millions of hits each day.

However, there's a price for entering such a spectacular marketplace; one so steep that it could be argued that all the economic advantage goes to Amazon alone. The standard fee for small presses working through the Advantage programme is a staggering 55% of a book's cover price. In addition, publishers are also responsible for the cost of shipping their books to Amazon warehouses. This puts these publishers in the horrible position of having access to arguably the best book distribution system ever devised, while being charged so much for the privilege that it becomes difficult to impossible for them to make any money.

My interest in this is partly in how this has repercussions for (written) art. In one sense, the ways internet technology has opened up publishing should allow a diversity of aesthetics. Then again, the 1970s was a time of great diversity in publishing, helped in part by the advent of Xerox machines, but also largely through the use of familiar technologies such as letterpresses (hard now to get a hold off). Those of us who have poet-friends probably know at least one person with a well-received first book unable to get a second book published, and with small presses short on capital to increase their list size in order to take second or third books by poets they've committed to while also adding new poets to their roster.

This is part of a larger issue which requires much thought, but in the immediate future, I'd suggest that buying books directly from small presses is the solution. Many small presses offer discounts or free shipping: Four Way offers a 32% discount, comparable to Amazon's (the difference being that they, rather than Amazon, get 55%, and they're a non-profit); Omnidawn is offering Lyn Hejinian's Saga/Circus for $9.95 and free shipping if you order before 7/31.

So no more buying from Amazon. I should have done this an age ago. It's tough to reconcile the student stipend with the desire to support contemporary poets with regular poetry purchases (I could use my university's library, but that's not supporting contemporary poetry), but it seems to me now that it's better to buy one less book a year but to buy them all directly.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

???? killed the Radio Star...

Short post: what's the state of poetry on the radio today?

I've spent the past few hours trying to get the lie of the land, and found some wonderful archives big and small, and lots of exciting things marked "series finished". There's a few podcasts out there, and a half-dozen radio shows, but what I've found is either fairly mainstream (meaning poets you'd find in national chains) or fairly genre-specific (poetry that labels itself spoken word, or devotional, or by region).

Anyone have any good recommendations? It seems that several pioneers out there, like Susan Brennan and Daren Wang, have gone quieter or moved on to other ventures in recent years...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Writing as Event: Try This At Home Edition

The Grand Piano reading at NPF gave me this idea, which I offer in the hope some of us will actually do it. This is very closely based on the "ant wort/brat guts" exercise (see Grand Piano Vol. 1, among other places). Two versions below, dependent on the size of your collective.

An Exercise in Collective Collapsible Autobiography, or What Participation as Writing Readers and Reading Writers

Version 1. Assemble a group of 10 people, along with copies of Grand Piano (for 10 people, you need 9 copies; it'd be cool if everyone had their own complete set, to date, so that people could technically end up reading the same passage). Each person is also asked to bring 4-6 texts which speak to them autobiographically but which they have not themselves authored. (For instance, if Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of my Nervous Illness is formative, for whatever reason and in whatever way, include that). 9 people read simultaneously, while the last scribes; the readers alternate between GP and the supplementary texts. The choice of how to alternate and how often must be left to the individual: follow a whim, roll dice, draw lots, etc, as suits your own habitual methods of negotiating the texts of the world as they compete for your attention.

In theory, and if organized in advance, the reading/writing should result in all of the existing sections of Grand Piano being read, and everyone writing in response to them. That completeness isn't vital however.

The resultant writing should be scribed by one member of the group and sent round to the rest, to re-shape and re-use whenever and however wanted. (I'll also post here anything anyone produces; keep me posted.)

Version 2. Pretty much the same, but with only 3 people, like the original ant wort/brat guts sessions. Might be more viable.

(Note: this is close to what was done at the NPF reading, though with more people, so I'm not claiming this is a new exercise; what I'm interested in is the effect on polymorphous identity, on the I-am within the group we-are and we-are-not, when other people's autobiography and autobiographical tendencies impact on our own selves as formed within, through, and despite language. I'm suggesting that for someone outside of the so-called Language school, outside, that is, a certain generation in San Francisco in 1975-1980 and also outside a group most verbally but incompletely represented at present in the ten writers of the Grand Piano undertaking, for those people to perform a writing and reading exercise by means of Grand Piano constitutes a very different engagement with collective autobiography. The method is duplicated but the experience not retained, partly because of the changing involvement with revising and, to quote MKH's comment, re-visiting.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Grand Piano-Elephant in the Room

(photo from Tom Orange's Flickr)

In the Class of 1944 Hall there is a Black Box Theater. On Wednesday 11th June it was fairly empty. Around midnight, some people with language written down gathered and they read that language while other people listened. Most of you missed it, but that's okay - those who were there will read again.

The next night, 11pm, same Black Box, but this time with a grand piano, silent and unacknowledged, in the back of the room. Hardly anyone mentioned it, this citation of the San Francisco Grand Piano reading series, this quiet joke, this recreation of...what? atmosphere? scene? the setting for when the famous poet I forget began to play music through/in accompaniment to/despite the other famous poet's reading but was silenced? And what is a famous poet anyway?

The occasion was the group Grand Piano reading, featuring three of the ten people engaged in a collective autobiography effort to chronicle, engage, and even revise, the period between 1975-80 the way a part of San Fransisco experienced American and the ending of an in any case arbitrary decade.

"Instead of 'ant wort' I saw 'brat guts'" records and explains Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten's way of explaing the "Brat Guts" reading process (in The Constructivist Moment ) by which members of a group produce writing in response to the reading aloud of writing by other members of the group. This process was performed on 6/12/08 in that Black Box, backed by that piano, which was not but could in any case have been the piano against (or at first towards) which these 3 readers (Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, Barrett Watten) read, as did the other 7 writers of the collective autobiography project (some at the conference but not part of this group moment, audienced rather than reading/writing; some absent from the conference), as did dozens of other writers, some almost never mentioned with the so-called Language poets too easily and too erroneously grouped together (Philip Lopate, for instance, read in the series).

What the reading performed, then, in its method and in its visual props, was a layering of (competing) experiences, (competing) symbols of experienced, and (competing) articulations of experience. Readings overlapped, so one had to tune out one of the two, or let the mixture work. Readers read from 5-6 source texts in addition to the issue of the Grand Piano from which they were ostensibly reading. All the while, readers were writing, but not (at least as far I could see) reading what they were writing (experienced left unarticulated for now, experience of what). Lines were shared but, identical in the letters and ordering of letters that comprised them, they were not identical in the different uttered iterations.

I'm writing about the Grand Piano group reading not because I enjoyed it, or was there, or found it a new experience, a different type of reading. The event - as Ron Silliman titled his post today, "Writing as Event," a familiar but needfully repeatable phrase, worth further thought - is itself layered within a group experience of the "Poetry of the 1970s" conference which includes the experience of those there, of those not there but in some way a participant in the decade (there at the time, reading of it later, etc), and all the differences that encompassed.

Indeed, one tension at the conference, hopefully headed in a productive direction, is between the New Sentence theorists (at times equated, too simplistically, with the so-called Language poets) and the New Narrative theorists (at times equated, too simplistically, with anti-Language poetry, with minority poets of various definitions or anti-definitions). There's not space now to write in a nuanced enough way about this debate, save to say that the New Narrative panel offered some interesting and vital glimpses onto the blurred quality of group identity, as well as the danger of seeing the 1970s in relation to a Language school of poets which is, for whatever reasons and with whatever validity, at odds with itself and often denies its own existence).

The process as well as the content of the Grand Piano group reading thus stands as part of a greater engagement with not just the Poetry of the 1970s but the articulation of group experience in ways that allow for difference without essentializing it. A record of an event can be always in revision because writing is itself event; the need for a record to be revisable, and not monolithic, does not preclude works of record and chronicle providing those works recognize and encode their own status as process.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Not Live-Blogging the NPF Poetry of the 1970s Conference

After a long silence (moving apartment, finishing up the semester, hiding in rural England and drinking much ale) I'm back, but not in NYC: I'm in Orono, ME, for the Poetry of the 1970s Conference hosted by the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine, Orono. Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Nicole Brossard, Clark Coolidge, Jayne Cortez, Ann Lauterbach, Bernadette Mayer, Tom Raworth and Fred Wah are among some of the many, many folks here.

I had planned to liveblog the conference, but then on evening one, before evening the opening Art Reception, featuring some of Bernadette Mayer's "memory" installation, my laptop died. So this is a change of plan, a sort of "NPF Today" round-up each day.

Wednesday 11th

The first two of twelve (count 'em, twelve!) readings tonight, featuring Fred Wah, who's new to me and whose reading I really enjoyed, particularly a longish poem in two voices he read (but which I didn't get the name of - mic troubles) and his closing poem, on mis-uses of his last name, particularly by spam mail; and then Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and Eileen Myles, who will be on Saturday's Queering the 1970s panel. Thanks to the four readers, and the beer and wine on hand, we had enough energy to (sort-of) have the first of four Open Readings, curated by Bill Howe, who reminds me of someone I just can't place (I think for this reason I keep staring at him foggily). Highlight was probably Tom Orange's impression of Apocalypse Now veering into taking pictures of the audience and then being compared to Robert Frost. All very non-linear, which is how it should be.

Thursday 12th

Really interesting panel at lunch on the history behind No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, which was edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass. I was struck by the range of ways this anthology was discussed. Ellen Smith, who chaired, situated it within academic conversations involving key favourite theorists such as Kristeva as well as important thinkers such as John Retallack; Judith Johnson's approach offered a more free-wheeling narrative that addressed the problems collectivity alongside individualism, what it meant to be a unique human being identifying as a poet, a Second Wave feminist, etc, etc; and Florence Howe herself gave a personal narrative of the anthology coming into existence that spoke to the happenstance of its origins, as well as to the stunning need for it, even as late as 1973.

I don't want to privilege any of these responses as a more valid way to proceed, but rather to suggest the interplay between modes of discussion, recollection, situation, and understanding is invaluable because productive. Some of the other panels I've attended have presented excellent academic arguments that have pushed my thinking and revealed new ways of reading the objects of their gaze. They have, however, also threatened to mask their texts, to place the texts at least alongside if not behind a reading of the text after-the-fact. The No More Masks! panel kept present the urgently creative and pedagogical (in the widest, least strictly institutional sense) possibilities of writing, editing, reading, making, etc.

So that's where my thought is tonight, before heading of to see Bruce Andrews and Jayne Cortez read, followed by some Grand Piano collaborators, and another open reading extravaganza. Jerry Springer style, my thought of the day is that discussion of created works, from punk zines to literary manifestos, from Ian Hamilton Finlay's aggressive gardening to a ground-breaking anthology of poetry by women, work best when they allow the works to continue to be creative events, in process even if published and technically created. This conference is pleasing in part because it's not only about academics (or writer-academics) talking to one another; it brings together people moved to think and respond to a time-period, in disparate modes and methods. Here's to that continuing through Sunday.

(Apologies for typos...I'm going to be late for the Andrews!)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Burma / Myanmar Cyclone

I've watched with some disbelief the numbers of Burmese people killed in Cyclone Nargis rise from 350 to 50,000. The Times reports, too, that the junta which runs Burma (or, as the military insist on calling it, Myanmar) were warned 2 days before the cyclone struck (by India) and that they are still hesitating about opening their borders for aid.

The plight of the Burmese people over the past decades has been a sad and worsening one, and the recent cyclone is not just a meteorological tragedy. While the weather cannot be controlled, many lives could have been saved were it not for the oppressive control of a small number of people who have grown rich off Burma's teak forests (now largely gone) while censoring, depriving, and imprisoning those it is meant to govern, preventing any means of discussion.

Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma is an all-too readable account of the situation in Burma; Emma Larkin is a pseudonym because of the restrictions of the Myanmar junta on foreign journalists and writers. I'm not one to recommend an Amazon purchase, but they're selling it for $6 in hardcover.

Burma's story is continually passed over without resolution, and I fear that the solution isn't monetary aid (though that's necessary) or people helping on the ground (thought that's vital) but some larger form of action. To find out more, go to Irrawaddy, a Thailand based magazine focussing on Burma.

To donate, I suggest here

Friday, May 2, 2008

HACASHND: An (early) Turn to Language

In a post mourning the passing of Aimé Césaire over at In the Middle, JJC recalled how Césaire's poetry not only restored to him a love of French (and other?) languages which had been a little dented by high school rote learning, but also unsettled the expectation, "Wasn't politics the realm of the prosaic, wasn't art a realm untouched by cultural turmoil and decolonization movements and racism?" he writes, "Forget buying une voiture. I was shopping for Cahier d'un retour au pays natal."

You should check out the group blog In the Middle, which I hesitate to call a medieval blog, not because it isn't (well, it isn't being written in the medieval period, though for a medieval person currently blogging, see Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog) but because it really troubles the line between ideas of the medieval as past/passed. Hence posts on Césaire, whose work I'm looking forward to looking more closely at, thanks to JJC's post.

Here, though, I'm beginning to answer a question he posed in the comments, wondering what turned me towards poetry.

Anyone ever play Dingbats? Or, as it might be known in the US, Whatzit, either known as the "game of batty wordplay" or the "board game of fractured phrases."

In the game, you're presented a card. On the card are letters arranged in ways that might look like gobbledegook, or might be recognizable words with letters spread about the card, or might resemble words you're familiar with but in strange combinations. You're meant to associated each arrangement of letters/words with a recognized idiom, "three blind mice," "make-up," "cash in hand" (this last would look like HACASHND). Some examples here.
As much as the idea is to "solve" the "puzzle," what these cards do is ask you to think about how language works, in relation to itself and to common idioms.

I played this game when I was knee high to a grasshopper, with my family, mainly when we were living in Germany during school holidays. To play a game that relies on an audience with shared expectations of recognized functions of language (idiom being a very idiosyncratic aspect of individual languages) when in a country which speaks a different language, merits further thought. Thinking back, though, I was less struck by this and more by the way words could be broken down, unexpectedly combined, rethought.

That, then, is a radical for poetry. It's particularly true of certain poets, (see my post on Saroyan below), but I don't mean to align the re-conception of language in Dingbats only with a poetry that gets defined as, and isolated as, "experimental." I remember being won over by Gabrielle Calvocoressi's debut collection, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart by the line/stanza break

heads bent beside their husbands
come up from orange groves

just greening

That break seemed to refigure what language was drawing my attention to in the world, and how these lyric elements of husbands, orange groves, and ripening were combining together. One doesn't have to do what Saroyan does, or Susan Howe, or P. Inman in order to draw attention to language. Put somewhat essentially, I'm more interested in poetry which is conscious of language used in relational ways rather than referential ways (though can the two be so cleanly divorced?). That's part of what I understand from the phrase "the turn to language" which is used by Barrett Watten in Grand Piano Vol. 6; while it describes a particular moment associated with language-centered writing in the 1970s, Watten's interest in the turn to language by his collaborators is useful beyond that context. And so, while I think of some of the work of explicitly language-centered writing as exhibiting the properties I look for in a poem, that dingbat process, I think we can and should undergo such a process both when a poem visually disturbs our expectations and when it appears not to. It would, of course, be a mistake to remove from a poem the power to turn (us) to language. which is one danger of the sort of labeling of poetry schools that happens in contemporary poetry in some camps at the moment (but that's a topic for another post).

(It seems that Whatzit, at this website, has rechristened itself Dingbats, and is now messing around with images, too. Boo!).

And a Dingbat to leave you with:


(well, it seemed appropriate given the post...answer it in the comments)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Garfield Plus Garfield Plus Nonnarrative

I'm thinking a lot about Barrett Watten's ideas of nonnarrative as not a negation of narrative (sorry for the reductive quality of that statement) and the lack of vocabulary for nonnarrative (my spell checker doesn't recognize the word, for instance) as a contributing factor to the sense that nonnarrative is an absence of narrative when it might instead be a positive aspect of a text. I'm thinking of Wattern's Progress and Hejinian's My Life as texts in which we might see this. Check out Watten's fabulous The Constructivist Moment for a better discussion of what I'm channeling here.

Anyway, an illustration to make you smile, courtesy of GB (thanks!) who, like many of my friends, and me, are hard at work in the library. This site stitches together random Garfield panels stitched with delightfully nonnarrative results. You can generate your own! Go here!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Aye-Aye? Eye, Ye? E-i-o?

I wasn't living in the States when George Plimpton selected Aram Saroyan's poem


for Paris Review , thus earning him (and it) $500 of National Endowment for the Arts funding and inviting the fury of Senator Jesse Helms and others (almost all Republicans, interestingly) at the use of government funding for something Helms didn't think was a poem and certainly thought was misspelled. (The reasons it's not misspelled I hope to post on another day. But I'm still writing that darn essay and can't stop long today.)

This post isn't really about that poem, but the fact that, in the context of Aram Saroyan's eponymous first book, the poem is in a sequence between




I never knew that until I was reading his Complete Minimal Poems today. I feel like more people should know that. Because while there's something so delicious and open about "lighght," I'm thrilled to think of it in sequence with these two other words, to construct such phrases as "eyeye lighght morni,ng" and hear "a light mourning" or "I like morning."

I'm looking forward to spending much more time with his book. Another favorite is crickets, which I can't reproduce here. Go out and find it!

PS: Ugly Duckling Presse do amazing year-long subscription deals. $80 for a year of amazing poetry in the most beautiful editions, books that make owning a book really worthwhile and essential. I had one last year and didn't get one this year. I regret that. I'm getting me one again for next season. I recommend it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are You Notable?

You may not have noticed this, but please take note: here.

To simplify, Wikipedia believes that the publication of two poetry books is not a notable act and therefore doesn't qualify for a bio.

Wikipdia has hardly a single bio for a living poet. I'd guess that there's not one for a poet born after 1960. [EDIT: I found one today for Jeff Clark. So there may be a few. But too few.] John Gallaher challenges us each to post one. Go do it now. He's claimed Martha Ronk. Click here and scroll down. [Clark's is a good model to follow.]

For an encyclopedia, especially one claiming to be a "free Encyclopedia which anyone can edit" and which has as its "primary role [...] to write articles that cover existing knowledge; this means that people of all ages and cultural and social backgrounds can write Wikipedia articles" this is stunning and depressing.

What makes it worse is that the commenters voting on whether a poet's bio stays or goes base their votes on whether the poet is published by a mainstream press, or whether he/she has won a mainstream award.

There are so many problems with this. Some of them are ours, as poets and readers of poetry, to deal with: to inform people better about our poetry, about the poetry we love, about the situations in which poetry comes to be published, whether as a chapbook, a webzine, an act of graffiti. Many of these problems relate to Wikipedia, however, indicating an elitism, a narrow-mindedness, and an ignorance that I believe don't reflect that views of the multitude of users and contributors to Wikipedia.

I'm writing this because I believe poetry is notable. I believe a book of poems is notable. I believe that part of being a poet is pointing out how poetry affects us today, and how we should take note. For Wikipedia to tell me poetry isn't notable is beyond belief. Please take a moment to post a bio for a contemporary poet.

A Reading: Thursday April 24th, 440 Gallery

(I'm a big fan of readings that involve multiple art forms and therefore interest audiences from many backgrounds. I'm delighted to be reading next week at an art gallery with two of my very favourite fiction writers and one of my very favourite poets...hope to see/meet you there!)

WHEN: Thursday, April 24th from 7-9 pm
WHERE: 440 Gallery, 440 Sixth Avenue (at 9th St., F to 7th Ave.)
CONTACT: Brooke Shaffner at
Admission Free

Carey McHugh’s chapbook, Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c., was selected by Rae Armantrout for the Poetry Society of America’s New York Chapbook Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in Smartish Pace, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly and elsewhere. She currently lives in Manhattan and teaches writing in the Bronx.

Karen Russell's first collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was named a Best Book of 2006 by the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times; in 2007 she was featured in Granta's Best of the Young American Novelists and in The Best American Short Stories. She lives in New York City where she is working on another story collection and a novel about a family of alligator wrestlers, Swamplandia!.

Lytton Smith grew up in Galleywood, England and now lives in New York City, where he studies Anglo-Saxon, travel, and poetics. A chapbook, Monster Theory, was selected by Kevin Young for a New York Chapbook Fellowship and was published this month by the Poetry Society of America. His book, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, won the Nighboat Poetry Prize, judged by Terrance Hayes, and is forthcoming from Nightboat Books in March 2009.

Scott Snyder's collection of stories, Voodoo Heart, was published in 2007 by the Dial Press. He teaches at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College and lives on Long Island with his wife, Jeanie, and their son, Jack Presley. He's currently at work on a novel to be published by Dial in 2009.

Todd Erickson, April’s featured artist, will present a talk on his current show, Light, which focuses on his Park Slope backyard. As an environmental artist, his previous installations have documented ecosystems fromFire Island to the Gowanus Canal. Born and raised on Long Island, he received a BFA from Parsons School of Design in 1999, a Certificate in Horticulture from the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in 2007, and has participated in two artist residencies in Hokkaido, Japan. Todd is currently weaving his artistic practice, garden design sensibilities and knowledge in horticulture into a small business called L.O.G., Leaves of Green.

(Todd Erickson image via 440 Gallery's website.)
About 440 Gallery: Park Slope’s only artist-run gallery, a jewel box space offering an alternative venue for Brooklyn artists. 440 Gallery seeks to present surprising, unexpected art to the community through exhibitions, talks, readings and events centered around direct contact with the artist. Open Thursdays and Fridays from 4-7 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays from 12-6 pm, or by appointment.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Heartened (finally!)

Ron Silliman is judging the William Carlos Williams Award, awarded to the best book published by "a small press, non-profit, or university press" in the preceding calendar year (2007). He's been posting on it since Thursday, and I'm planning a considered post at some point soon.

Something Silliman had to say today, however, made me need to post. He'd expected to find many books that simply weren't competent among the 150 books he's been sent. In reality, he found 5. Setting aside those books that might prove amazing on re-reading but that he didn't "get" first time, and those that lack ambition (a good number), and those where he can't judge impartially (hurrah for making this decision), he writes that he has 70 left.

That there are at least seventy books worthy of such attention in any one year’s crop – not to mention those other volumes I held out on the basis of my relationship with their authors and those volumes that never got submitted – probably is the best assessment of the quality of writing that is taking place at this very moment. It’s really a stunning realization. At least it stunned me.
Ever since I got to the U.S. four and a bit years ago, I've had many people, usually poets, tell me how terrible contemporary poetry is. That simply isn't true: there's a wealth of great poetry out there, with huge ambition, and if we devoted our time to finding it and then telling other people about it, more people would be reading poetry. The tired reiteration that modern poetry isn't any good not only indicates a lack of engagement with what's out there (and yes, there is a distribution issue to address, but the blogs do such a great job talking up a range of books that it is no longer that hard to find something) but also does massive damage to the chances of occasional readers of poetry picking up a book.

I'm going to try to recommend at least one book of poetry a week on this blog, and to mention as many poets and poems as I can. In the meantime, one book Silliman must be considering and that I dearly loved is Paige Ackerson-Kiely's In No One's Land which I reviewed here. There's a lot of great books out there, many of which I didn't read, but among the many I read, this is a strong contender, methinks.

1000 balloons = 7000 rockets

Today on campus 1000 red balloons mingle with the lingering blue-and-white balloons inflated to welcome accepted prospective undergraduates to their campus visits.

(Photo from, not of campus.)

Signs around campus starkly read "1000 balloons = 7000 rockets."

My first thoughts turned to the war in Iraq, though sadly there are so many conflicts using what I feel it's accurate to call weapons of mass destruction (not only the military/government/mainstream media gets to define that term) that the statistic could refer to many places in the world. It does in fact refer to the Gaza strip: on April 9th the Candanian Chronicle-Herald reported, deep in a story on the visit of a Canadian-Israel Committee to the Gaza Strip, that "Since the Israelis pulled out of Gaza, there have been over 7,000 rockets sent from Gaza landing around and in Sderot" (according to committee member Michael Zatzman).

Here's not the place to debate why it takes a local story - visitors from Canada, or x untouched place, under fire in a zone where residents are regularly under fire - for the media to pay attention; after all, that the story is news is worth focussing on.

So too are the 1,000 red balloons on campus, and the equation accompanying them. The equals sign reads to me as a question mark and then as a not-equals sign, the gap in number of balloons and number of rockets an implication that, quite aside from partisan affiliations involved with the issue, nothing can stand in for the current of rockets on the Gaza Strip.

The balloons do act as a stand-in though, bringing some version of the idea of rockets to a community which has many strong ties to the area and many members who, like me, have never been to the area and whose only affiliation with it relates to friends, academic study, and media reports. A bright and visual presence on campus, the balloons are also fragile and temporary objects, bound to deflate, fly loose, or burst.

Mapping these three possibilities back onto the rockets brings home one point of the presence of the balloons on campus. The deflated balloons are perhaps no longer a pleasant sight, but they are in a sense disarmed, dead. Those that fly away leave their intended target (the campus community) but their lack of trajectory diverges from the directed flight of rockets. It is only the bursting balloon that echoes the rocket, leading passers-by to stop and look before they continue to pass-by. The continuing to pass-by is, of course, not possible for those who are the advertent or inadvertent targets of rockets.

The balloons then, lead to pause, which sets up the possibility of our acting differently, of not-passing-by, of changing direction. They also attempt to convert, symbolically, the rockets into something safer, something no more dangerous than a loud noise and fragmented rubber. Air escaping.

I'm left wondering what effect they have. It is not enough to write this, and it is not enough because too often it seems enough to write something, to draw attention to it. Is the failure of the media as a fourth estate the continuing direction of attention to events that should be reacted to, rather than the directing of their and our own (written) efforts towards some form of action?

(I'm reminded of a lingering image from Simon Armitage's book-poem Killing Time which reimagines the Columbine shootings as the gifting of unexpected flowers to various students. The effect is haunting, in part because the flowers do not lessen the devastation of the event. The substitution makes what happens seem at once arbitrary and causal, which is pretty much how Aristotle defined tragedy. I'll post an excerpt when I get my copy of the Armitage back from the friend who I've loaned it to.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Life Flickring By, Library of Congress Style

Today's post, while I'm mired in revising a long essay on how various texts travel around the landscape of Beowulf, causing all sorts of interpretive crises for the communities who end up encountering them, is about the picture that forms part of this blog's title.

I've had a couple of folks ask me where it's from. The Library of Congress has a Flickr photostream, including a set of over 1600 colour photographs from the 1930s and 1940s. To quote the LoC's introductory material:

These vivid color photos from the Great Depression and World War II capture an era generally seen only in black-and-white. Photographers working for the United States Farm Security Administration (FSA) and later the Office of War Information (OWI) created the images between 1939 and 1944 [...] The FSA/OWI pictures depict life in the United States, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with a focus on rural areas and farm labor, as well as aspects of World War II mobilization.

The one I chose for this blog is called "At the Vermont state fair, Rutland" and was taken by Jack Delano. Below is another of his, called "Side Show at the Vermont state fair, Rutland" which I almost chose, but in the end I love how our view of the fair ends up being through a trailer, with the blue sky framed against the orange paint. Plus, the guy staring of into the distance in front of trailer fascinates me: it's as if he's looking towards a horizon he might be contemplating walking towards. I wonder if he ever did.

So, lastly, a challenge/opportunity. Poet John Gallaher has in the past posted pictures on his blog and wondered what poems/poets might echo them. I'm keen to see what poems/poets images lead us to, so your challenge is to either write a poem or find a poem that somehow sums up or responds to this image. I'm going to try to post an image a week, and see if we can get some conversation between images and poems new and already written.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Review(?): The Age of Huts (compleat) by Ron Silliman













(Comments in red provided in response by Michael Golston.)

Poetry as Canary in Mineshaft?

Still Life with Canary

I will retell your version of loss
in bauxite. The fox holes in the field
are cut clean. Mountains to signify

height, to misrepresent sound.
We panicked then pulled men
black and up like early bindweed.

The huntsman kneeling is unfixed
in a grove of new mint. It was like this.
The quiet of the after-hunt. A sackcloth

calm. After the audible cue, a note
on the mineshaft wall There will be oxygen
enough without speaking—

Carey McHugh, from the chapbook Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c (PSA: 2008)

I'm thinking about that poem a lot this week, in part because Bookslut interviewed poet Galway Kinnell the other day:

Kinnell once commented that poetry might be the “canary in the mine-shaft.”

“Of course I was thinking that one of the places and one of the ways of keeping the lovely and precious from dying out would be poetry,” he says today. “I think you could extend that to: A whole culture of a country could be kept alive through poetry. So many, many people write in this country that it’s quite astonishing.”

The original canary-mineshaft-poetry analogy was made in the Cortland Review, from an interview conducted early 2001:

DG: I understand what you're saying. Far more Americans will always know who the baseball players are than who the poets are. Does that discourage you?

GK: What troubles me is a sense that so many things lovely and precious in our world seem to be dying out. Perhaps poetry will be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what's to come.

What Carey McHugh's poem does, among many things, is offer us a way of thinking about poetry today that is confined to a tired discourse of the "lovely and precious" or the poet-as-celebrity (do poets want to be known the way baseball players are? Poet Trading Cards anyone? I hope not).

McHugh is able to tell us "It was like this," to give us an account of a disaster (averted?) which we feel in the marrow. She shows us the huntsman "unfixed" while also showing us him "kneeling" and a "grove of new mint." Refusing to romanticize the rural imagery, the way Kinnell seems to want to in his canary analogy, she gets to a deeper loss ("a "version of loss / in bauxite"): that the "panicked" quality of men correlated to "early bindweed" can co-exist with, and thus be forgotten amid, "sackcloth // calm." The challenge the canary in the mineshaft represents is a challenge to not let that happen, to not let the moment go unnoticed, unspoken for.

Like the most rewarding poetry, however, "Still Life with Canary" resists a final description. In content, in imagery, it asks to to notice. It's manner of doing so, though reminds us how easy it is to fail to notice: the miners are "pulled [...] black and up." We expect "back" and up, but don't get it: we get instead the image of them coal-covered, or a comment on the numbers of miners of African-American descent working in white-owned mines (see Alena Hairston's wonderful The Logan Topographies). The men are never quite pulled "back and up" unless we read the word hidden with "black". McHugh forces to the foreground the figures of the miners, and we cannot take their rescue for granted. Even brought up to the surface, to what surface are they brought?

I'd venture that Kinnell's analogy is useful, but not in the way he's presenting it. The canary in the mineshaft is a reminder of present danger, of the subterranean unknown, of human attempts to get resources from below the surface, in the dark and lung-clogging tunnels we head into. That can be one way of talking about poetry, but it isn't "lovely" or Romantic. It's precious precisely because we can't respond only to its beauty: we have to respond to its challenge. That's where McHugh leaves us, unfixed ourselves, always within her poem: There will be oxygen / enough without speaking—.

What we speak is itself precious, resourceful and using up our resources. What we speak and what we breathe come together here, and the uttered word has never been so valuable, so necessary -- nor has it been so vital that we choose our speech carefully. That is what Carey McHugh's poetry lets us experience, and it is an experience I take beyond her poems to the groves of mint and the Olympic torch processions and the current election. If the poem is a refuge from the world - and it can be - it is also a warning that the world is still there waiting.

The cover of Carey McHugh's chapbook, designed by the amazing Gabriele Wilson. Original Instructions will soon be available to purchase here or from her in person when she reads on April 24th at 440 gallery Brooklyn, 7pm (with the fantastic fiction writers Karen Russell and Scott Snyder; I'll be the other poet).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Judging a Book by its Trailer?

Rebecca Skloot, National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) member, has been blogging a lot on Critical Mass, the NBCC blog, about creative book publicity. It's a subject this blog will return to often . One of the things I'm really interested in is how to get (poetry) books into the hands of people who would enjoy reading them, but wouldn't usually find themselves reading them.

For now, I wanted to draw attention not only to Rebecca's crusade (hurrah) to highlight creative book publicity, but to the idea of book trailers, which seem to take all manner of styles. Given the film learned so much from the printed book, it makes sense that books can take a leaf (so to speak) out of the film industry's playbook (playfilm?). I'm watching with interest to see where this leads, but for now I have a challenge to throw at y'all:

Your mission: suggest a trailer idea for a contemporary book of poems (your own is allowed). If people come up with ideas, I'll see if I can find an enterprising film or visual art type who wants to make it a reality. So get thinking! (I can't promise this will happen, but I'm fairly optimistic. Of course, if anyone out there would want to make a poetry book trailer, and is looking for ideas, do get in touch.)

(An aside: Bruce Andrews, in a seminar yesterday, was lamenting what he saw as the failure of different arts forms in NYC in the 80s to work together; in his view, artists in NYC were so successful in their own field that they didn't have time to really collaborate outside of it, at least in a way that challenged their collaborators to reach new goals. I wonder if that's still true today, and I guess it's not accidental that I'm throwing down this inter-art gauntlet the day after his comments.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Life is Better without Garfield

No offense to the lovable/hateable tabby, but a genius has for several weeks now been presenting Garfield comic strips without Garfield. Not only is this a chance to uncover the Jon Arbuckle behind the Garfield, but there's also something reassuring and delightful in Jon's small triumphs over, battles with, and failures in, the world. It may just be because I'm wrestling with an essay on the movement of people, objects, and stories about the geography of Beowulf , but the below makes me feel so much better about the world:

There is something profound and comforting in that panel of silence and space in which Jon is either a) changing the light bulb in the refrigerator; b) failing to change the light bulb in the refrigerator; c) distracted en route to changing the light bulb in the refrigerator.

I'll take my solace where I can get it, folks.

Click through for your daily dose of garfieldminusgarfield; you can even subscribe to an RSS feed.'s Daily Scanner described it, ages ago, as strangely Zen, and I'm inclined to agree.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On Susan Howe

I'm currently reading various poets associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and "Language School," whom I'm resisting calling Language poets not only because where does that leave everyone else? but also for some of the reasons well articulated by Barrett Watten on his blog/homepage. I'm reading these works under the aegis/direction of Michael Golston. Each week we're asked to provide some writing in response to the work we're reading for that class. These assignments offer me the chance to experiment with the style, form, and limits of critical writing, a practice that of course owes a debt to the writing included in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E . Here's some thoughts on Susan Howe, particularly in response to her book Singularities .


Maybe this does not belong here. (To be continued…)


I have been mis-reading Susan Howe—as one is meant to. Thorow becomes Thoreau becomes Thor, row becomes (almost) throw, possibly thorough, possibly through. The text re-reads its authors’ (author + reader+authors read = authors’/author’s) reading & transcribing of a word.

It is in this sense, among others, I think about Howe as a poet of typography and topography: writing the landscape of the page (“The Frames should be exactly / fitted to the paper, the Margins / of which will not per[mit] / of a very deep Rabbit”) thorow writing the particularities (particle-uarities) of words.


“Thus, how do we read what is meant precisely to be read? That is given for not other purpose, and without distraction […]. Wordsome.” Bruce Andrews, “Text & Context,” Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis, p. 7.


Susan Howe is a poet and critic. What does this sentence tell me? That she writes poetry and that she writes criticism. In the past, and at times now still, I would have assumed that she is writing two things: poetry, one thing, criticism, one thing. Singularities (as well as My Emily Dickinson and possibly Souls of the Labadie Tract) offers to recategorize them as one thing, as spectrum rather than binary. This is especially true if the term critic is not restricted to the literary: Susan Howe is a critic who reads Lake George, New York. “After I learned to keep out of town, and after the first panic of dislocation had subsided, I moved into the weather’s fluctuation.” I was not expecting what she moved into to be anything other than an alternative to the “cabin off the road to Bolton Landing.” As a critic does, as a poet does, Howe has reconceived the world and most importantly the assembly of the world for me: moved, into, weather’s fluctuation – these I understood, experientially and theoretically, already; their construction, causality, togatherness I had not.

Susan Howe has also been a painter. Susan Howe has also been an assistant stage designer. I want to conclude that Susan Howe has been a painter of stage scenery, to keep her biography’s language in motion as she is keeping language in motion. In motion: unresolved. Possibly exhibiting unreadability. “ ‘Unreadability’ – that which requires new readers and teaches new readings.” Bruce Andrews, “Text & Context,” Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis, p. 7.

5. How we read what is meant precisely to be read: a list of substitutions provided by the brain, an interruption somewhere along the page-word-subway car air-eyeball-iris-brain that is the material of the world entering the mind as abstract, or so Aristotle said (in a fashion). The following list to be otherwise called “Single Rarities”:

Mustketsquid. (p. 41). Language of the prairie (p. 36). Weather in history and haven (p. 37).Sigh by sea (p. 22). Token (p. 38). etc.

I sometimes find myself reading Howe for the membrane between the word on the page and the word that could have been on the page, thinking of a membrane—the skin, say—as what conducts rather than what barriers. Catcht (caught, catechized) as I am, in the channels of word-osmosis, reading what I imagine to have been almost on the page, allowing what is on the page to remain there, mistaking what is on the page for what I thought was on the page.

7. (…as promised). This criticism belongs (longs for, but extremely so, the difference between a loved and a beloved) where? Or, in other terms, how do we write a criticism of the new poetics that isn’t in the traditional (read: expected; read: expected by who(m); read: for what group with what traditions?) manner. At what point does Andrews’ criticism become a poem (cf. “Suture”) and Howe’s poem become criticism, since each is shuttling between both stations though I know “Text & Context” as criticism in a way I do not initially know “Suture” as criticism and have to come to know it as such, rethinking what I want for and from criticism and poetry in the process, in process.

In what terms do we want the new poetries (some of which are new only to us, some quite old now, some still newer than newly written poetry in the old models) to be conveyed, especially where the reader is rushed, defensive that this is Poetry (and we must GET poetry, we were told, must PARSE poetry, must LEARN AND ROTE it, LEARN AND ROTE it, must UNDERSTAND, we were told, told wrongly). How much work can the criticism ask of the reader? Or, to put it another way, what is vitally lost when the criticism doesn’t ask of the reader a form of work—a radical reconceiving and reconceptualizing of world that would allow for social, political, economic, spiritual, chronological, historical, etceterical revision—that the poetry itself does?

7. Da capo al fine, but with criticism for poetry, poetry for criticism, critic for poet, poet for critic. (I mean also that the critic must be for, in support of, the poet.)