Friday, March 20, 2009

Support Shaman Drum

I'm reading at the wonderful Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI on Tuesday 24th March at 7pm. I'll be reading from my just-published first book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent (Nighboat Books), which won the 2007 Nightboat Poetry Prize, judged by Terrance Hayes.

This reading is very important to me not just because I'm excited about reading in Ann Arbor and at such a wonderful location: it matters a great deal because Shaman Drum is at risk of closing in this trouble economy. The owner, Karl Pohrt, is taking very smart steps to secure the store, but he and it need your help now: they need you to buy local, to buy now, and most of all to encourage friends to visit the store in person and online. Remember, in these financially tough times, a book is a really good investment. And if you're paying $15 a month to Netflix, why not pay $15 a month to buy a book at Shaman Drum; then, at the end of the year, you've got 12 new books you can keep and re-read. You can buy online if you live nowhere near a good independent bookstore; Shaman Drum will happily ship to you! (I know Amazon might be cheaper. But publishers get far less money from Amazon than from local independent bookstores; additionally, Amazon isn't doing anything to support readers or authors. If you've ever attended a reading, been recommended a book by a bookseller, or joined a book club at a store, you're aware how much bookstores do beyond just selling books. It's worth the little extra money to support them.)

I hope to see some of you at my reading on Tuesday, and I hope those of you who can't make it can stop by the store at some point to pick up that book you've been meaning to read. And remember, if you don't feel you can afford a book at this moment, you can always let your friends know about this wonderful store: tell 3 people and one of them is bound to buy a book there.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Part Two: Interview with Michael Schiavo, author of The Mad Song

LS: Would you tell me a little about the publication history of The Mad Song? When and why did you decide to use The Espresso Book Machine? What forays into more, dare I say, conventional models of publication had preceded that?

MS: I entered the manuscript into about a dozen first book contests starting in fall 2006, almost as soon as the thing was written. Never even qualified as a finalist. Sent it to some publishing houses, big and small, and got very friendly, supportive rejections. Shortly after I started working at the Northshire Bookstore in fall 2007, they took delivery of one of five Espresso Book Machines in the world. So I now worked at one of the best independent bookstores in the country that not only had the distribution but the means of production, and the time (fall 2008) seemed right — with Obama’s push for the White House — for The Mad Song to enter the world. It was an obvious decision. It took the risk of the perception of cronyism out of the process but it did leave me without a marketing team per se, which is the second half of getting a book out into the world and getting people to read it. Still, as of this interview, I’m closing in on 100 copies, many to people I don’t know.

There’s a Peter Davis poem that appears in Tight 4 called “Poem For People Who Might Want to Involve Me In Some Other Artistic Project, Like Writing a Song or Something.” It reads, in whole: “I’m open for that sort of thing. Collaborations and what not.” I toyed with the idea of a website where you could click through each chapter or sentence, in different order, making the whole thing available online. That could still happen. I like the idea of farming the manuscript out to other publishers to see, if they were moved enough by the work, what their take on it would be, how they would otherwise present it in book form, making the thing itself, as books should be, a piece of art. Or some other form besides book. Just because it’s appeared in book form doesn’t mean it can’t take other forms (playing cards for instance, as each chapter is 52 sentences). Visual artists like Sterling Allen and Monique Brideau (whom I met during my year at the Vermont Studio Center) have used chapters in their work. I’m keen to see it take the form of animation or a sound recording with music or whatever else some artist working in another medium might conceive. I read the entire thing in public once: at VSC in October 2006. I had a local student play fiddle in between the chapters. I like the idea of presenting it that way, with musical preludes, interludes, postludes.

LS: You’re working in a long tradition of authors who involve themselves directly with the means of publication: Walt Whitman setting the type on Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson binding her fascicles, C.P. Cavafy overseeing the printing of his loosely-bound or unbound folios of work, to name but a few. Like them, you’re harnessing a new technology, or rather harnessing technology in a new way. Would you describe yourself as a publisher, an author, a distributor, all three, none of the above? What’s the key activity your mode of publication — using an Espresso Book Machine, in conjunction with Northshire Books — foregrounds?

MS: A poet is all of those things always. But, yes, practically speaking, I am all of those, un/subconsciously. While I probably have the marketing savvy, I don’t have the energy or time. I throw out an occasional reminder on Facebook or my blog about the book. It’s enough for me to know the thing is out there and available but I’m not resting on my laurels. I do an interview like this and maybe that sparks some interest. I’m finishing up my second manuscript, Green Mountains, as well, and poems from that are forthcoming in jubilat, The Raleigh Quarterly, Sixth Finch, and Turntable & Blue Light, among others — so I can only look forward.

I don’t think poetry can change the world and as much as the impetus to publish The Mad Song during the Presidential election of 2008 was political, I had no delusions that it would turn the tide. The American people did that by themselves, as I knew they would. Whitman knew that Leaves of Grass was not going to be understood at first by the publishing world or generally accepted by the public. But he also knew he was right, he knew what was going on, he caught the wavelength. He knew the people he was talking to and about because he was one of them. He empathized. It all stems from Emerson:
“The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”

I think we’re not too far off from a time — if indeed we’re not there already — where writers will be publishing their books at home, with smaller versions of the EBM. Forming collectives, or tribes as Dean Young said (evidently, I wasn’t there) at his reading during the AWP conference in Chicago. Poet/editor/publishers like Matt Hart, Shanna Compton, and Reb Livingston are already doing this, and doing it well. It’ll be as easy as making music and distributing it from your home, as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! proved. It’s a wonder to me that the indie music world and the indie poetry world haven’t found each other in more public ways. It seems natural for a poet like Matt Hart or Chris Martin or my Tight co-editor Andrew Hughes to open up for Animal Collective or The Dirty Projectors or Wilco or be a part of some tour or festival. Sandburg and Segovia. Ginsberg and The Clash. Muldoon and Zevon.

What it will then come down to is your ability to get your book into the hands of readers and independent bookstores (if they still exist) and, believe it or not, the quality of your writing. Bad writing can only live for so long before it’s exposed for what it is, and we’re moving into an era where, in the short-term if not the long, people will be extremely picky where their money goes. You have to give them quality. A good poetry book is a sound investment. You can read it over and over and over again and it will yield different readings at different times. A novel, if it’s good, you read maybe twice? Then, of course, there’s Moby Dick.

LS: What, then, do you understand the “public” in the word “publication” to mean?

MS: Poetry is communication. One human to another. Opaque as some poetry seems, the true poet’s goal is to communicate, and this is where mastery of language comes in. These ways might seem hermetic to some but I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ letter to Hi Simons in which he said

Sometimes, when I am writing a thing, it is complete in my own mind; I write it in my own way and don’t care what happens. I don’t mean to say that I am deliberately obscure, but I do mean to say that, when the thing has been put down and is complete to my own way of thinking, I let it go. After all, if the thing is really there, the reader gets it. He may not get it at once, but, if he is sufficiently interested, he invariably gets it. A man who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure would be an impostor. But that is not the same thing as a man who allows a difficult thing to remain difficult because, if he explained it, it would, to his way of thinking, destroy it.

The public is far more intelligent than publishers — or the public as a collective mind — gives them(selves) credit for. The big thing now and always it seems is for people to “understand” poetry, to have poetry be “accessible.” The same way you understand instructions to your iPod, I suppose. But if poetry is music, you understand it first with your gut, your heart, your soul, and sometimes only that. How can you explain “Filles de Kilimanjaro” or “Nem Um Talvez” in words? You can’t. You listen and feel. If a poem is doing what it should, not just replicating nature but being a thing of nature, the only explanation for the thing is the thing itself. If the poet knows what he’s doing, it’s easy to get the poetry. Poetry shouldn’t be a warm glass of milk to make you feel good about yourself. It shouldn’t put you to sleep. It should take the top of your head off, as Emily Dickinson told us.

LS: Independent bookstores have closed on an almost weekly (at times, daily) basis in 2008 and 2009 thus far, and even the chains are struggling. Do bookstores have a future through reinventing themselves as not just booksellers but publishers? I’m thinking, perhaps idealistically, of a future that’s not only economic but social, (once again) a community arranged around the publication, distribution, and reception of books? One of the early reviewers of The Mad Song, a colleague from Northshire, writes that “There is nothing like having a talented young poet in your midst to re-ignite a slumbering passion for poetry” and that's true of having a publisher in one’s midst, too.

MS: I think they do have a future but it’s going to take a very brave independent bookstore owner to change the model, and right now nobody is willing to take that chance. I think they’re all hoping to ride out not just this depression but the onset of Kindle and its ilk. I can’t say as I think that’s the best approach. We have to fight.

Right now, retail, specifically book retail, works this way: I go to a store because it has a book I want to purchase and, hopefully, but more and more rarely, it employs booksellers who know what the hell they’re talking about, who are passionate about books, no matter what genre or style, who, if you treat them in a civil manner, will spend hours helping you find what you want. Very soon, the model is going to have to be the inverse: I go to a store or center because there are people there who know what they’re talking about and after I’ve had a conversation with them about X, Y, or Z, I can then purchase the book or author we’ve discussed.

This means the destruction of certain business models, turning bookstores into a model of democracy, wherein the booksellers as the people/congress hold the power and decide the ultimate direction of the store because they’re the ones on the ground; the owner/manager acts as an executive officer with veto power; and the customers/readers are a sort of judiciary, to say “This is OK; this isn’t” with their wallets. This also means that the distribution of wealth will have to shift toward the booksellers. If you hire someone with an MFA to work at your bookstore because of their knowledge, you rightly should pay them $15-20, minimum. Let’s even take the MFA out of the equation: someone who’s well-read is invaluable nowadays. The key is finding someone who’s both well-read and good at customer service, which is tricky when it comes to poets especially, who tend to be social misfits of the most outspoken kind. If a customer comes in looking for the latest Mary Oliver, you can’t try to sell her Christian Bök. Joseph Ceravolo, as big a leap as that is, might be more up her alley. Readers must also be willing to take those leaps, and many are. If you can get readers excited, they’ll come back for more. If you can show readers that they know more about poetry than they think they do, presenting them with good, interesting poets, they will absolutely read so-called “difficult” poetry.

Here’s a story: a woman came into the Northshire in February, was moving her family to Milwaukee, wanted books on the place. I first gave her a Michael Perry memoir, Truck: A Love Story, which is not Milwaukee specific but takes place in Wisconsin. Perry’s great and funny and you figure your typical customer wants prose, not poetry. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned John Koethe, the philosopher-poet who teaches at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, and showed her North Point North, his new and selected, and the poem, “Early Morning in Milwaukee.” She went with the Koethe, her logic being she could read a poem in the morning every day. That never would’ve happened: A) Had I made assumptions about the customer and not engaged her as a person and; B) If I didn’t have the power that working at an independent bookstore gives me to have a poet like John Koethe on the shelf. Never underestimate the customer/reader, or assume they prefer the prosaic “accessible” over the poetic. You can come up with unlimited computer programs whose parameters will tell you “Customers who purchased Poet Smith also purchased Poet Jones” but no matter how precise you make these electronic suggestions, they’ll never be able to replicate an instinctual human being’s well-informed opinion.

And then there are simply those “a-ha” moments you get in bookstores, like when I stumbled upon Steve Scafidi’s For Love of Common Words a couple of years ago in the Burlington Barnes & Noble (and I was only shopping there because, believe it or not, there are no independent bookstores, save used ones, in Burlington). I was drawn to the title, the cover looked interesting, and from the first poem I read, I knew I had found a poet who was the real deal, who wrote poetry because he had to/wanted to, not because he was looking for tenure. I don’t think that would’ve happened on the solitude of the screen.

LS: Craig Dworkin, in The Consequence of Innovation, explores the literally overwhelming number of poetry collections published today – many through book contests – and the impossibility of reading everything. He suggests that, instead of a comprehensive knowledge of all contemporary poetry, we might become more adept at communicating the poetry we have read to each other. I wonder how you feel this intersects with your own writing and publishing?

MS: Hyperbolically speaking, if there are 11,000 new books of poetry published every year, how many of them are really worth reading and, more importantly, re-reading, now or ever? 100? Maybe 200 or so in the very, very long run, once they receive a wider audience than they’re initially met with, but even that’s a stretch. I’m not talking here about immortal collections of verse; simply books that don’t waste your time. I think one should always be open and on the lookout for new writers but there are only so many hours in the day. That’s why the dearth of good criticism is disconcerting. We need critics, specifically practicing poets, to call out books that should be read by a wider audience as well as books that should be avoided. I’m talking about reviews and essays of different modes and manners, not just a blog post saying: “I loved this book” or “I hated this book.” Let’s have some engagement again.

People know more about poetry than they think they do, and we can get some voices out there that can both promote interesting poetry and make people feel like they can get into it. Kenneth Koch did this with his books on teaching and his anthologies. There’s a feeling that we have to do everything we can to praise a poetry that starts to get a large audience, that we can’t criticize it or poetry in general will be sunk or that those that criticize will be thought to be jealous. There’s also a misconception that we have to write a certain way to, again, make poetry “accessible,” but this is giving absolutely no credit to the reading public or to imagination in general and is indeed doing people a disservice by pandering. If we don’t try to be great, why should readers expect greatness from us? We are no closer to or farther from the ideal - poetically, civically, spiritually - than any generation has been. But others understood, as Emerson did, that there is one mind common to all individuals. Everything that has ever been is available to you. It’s only for you to realize this and act.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Part One: Interview with Michael Schiavo, author of The Mad Song

Part Two now up here.

LS: Let’s talk about the form of The Mad Song: 13 sections of five prose paragraphs of varying length, each deploying an anaphoric and/or alliterative foundation that oscillates between the imperative and the conditional. How organic or prescripted was that form? Jack Spicer talks about the serial poem as something that you can’t really know the end of while you're writing it, and I wonder how true that is for The Mad Song, too?

MS: The Mad Song could go on forever. There could be coda upon coda that equal or surpass the original 13 chapters. Or you could read it as a literal cycle. As soon as you read “Some rebel, some citizen, some sage” at the end, it immediately connects you to the beginning of the poem: “Of Bedlam in its prairie pride.” Yes, it’s meant to be read in the order in which I arranged it but you can dip in here and there and pull something out.

The form sat in my mind for years before it spilled out, in a 10-day Rilkean surge, September 2006. About 80% of it was originally composed in that stretch, while the other 20% was cobbled together from older poems that weren’t working on their own, or that were working and I just wanted to steal from. I wanted to see if I could write prose poems using certain elements of lined poetry. Sentence count replaced line count. The direct influence was Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, of course.

The other thing was to replicate the traditional mad song stanza — which is cousin to limerick, except it’s visionary instead of bawdy — as paragraphs. That’s where the three longer and two shorter paragraphs come from, imitating the three long lines and two short of the mad song stanza. Gertrude Stein said that the natural unit of composition for Americans is the paragraph, not the line. I don’t know if I buy that completely but like most pieces of wisdom, it has the air of truth to it. America, with its intricate relationships and disputes between states, its interactions with Latin America, with Canada, with globalization, etc, etc, is an expansive entity. The people too. We need space to think, to talk, to convince, to cajole.

The paragraphs are actually not of varying length: each chapter has three paragraphs of 13 sentences and two paragraphs of 6 and 7 sentences, which combine to make 13. These may represent, say, the walls of a room (not necessarily one of drywall), with one broken to let the light in, or to illustrate the ongoing construction of a world. So I set myself up a structure but in doing that, you’re liberated, as anyone who writes in form, received or invented, will tell you. The anaphora was used to both propel and anchor these sentences but also to create that sense of disjunction. “If Texarkana was Tenochtitlán.” Well, what? Is the reader missing the beginning of that phrase or the end? It’s up to them to fill in the blanks using their imagination and their experience of America, historically, absolutely, but also of today. The things around them that move them. Which is a novel concept in an age that demands everything be spelled out. My job as a poet is not to tell you what to think but to remind you of what you already know. And you know it all. I sometimes think that the American people don’t buy much poetry because they don’t need to: they’re surrounded by poetry in their own speech, in their interactions, and observations. They know it but they don’t call it poetry.

LS: One thing I’m struck by when I read The Mad Song is how it questions assumptions about identity. We live in a world where we’re very keen to assume character based on partial knowledge of speech and actions. But in The Mad Song, there’s no attempt to make us feel that any I, you, or other pronoun attaches to a specific person. The sentences and sentiments of The Mad Song float around the book’s country, waiting to be voiced by a reader, needing to be questioned rather than accepted or rejected. That makes reading a fundamentally active process – how important is this to you?

MS: Paramount. We live in a world in which we are not fully engaged. We’ve floated away from the root of things, which causes us to be more easily swayed and duped because we simply accept what’s given to us. But this is a major thrust of Emerson’s philosophy, so it’s nothing new. The genius of John Ashbery’s poetry — and it’s a wonder why he isn’t read and loved by everyone, even those who “hate poetry” — is that he writes poems that you create as you read them. In school, when you’re forced to analyze a poem and the ubiquitous cry of “Why can’t it just mean what I want it to mean?” is thrown up — well, Ashbery’s poetry is exactly like that. Yes, he provides you with a framework, with words and sentences and punctuation, the storyline, but as a reader, you are asked to be as creative as the poet. It’s wonderful.

I’m not sure my poetry goes as far as his — maybe that’s the anxiety of influence talking — but in a similar way, I’m trying to replicate the country in my work, linguistically, philosophically, musically, spiritually, all the -lys, if I may be allowed. America is not fixed, never has been, never will be. It’s constantly changing, pulsing, moving, contradicting itself, even as it moves ever forward, even in the moment. Even as you read this, you have the opportunity to move the world around you this way or that. It’s self-reliance: you look around and within yourself and you find all the resources you will ever need. It’s all there.

More than that, though, America will always be searching for an identity. It's in this sense that President Obama is the representative American: he had to build himself out of disparate pieces, and that's why he so identifies with America, the place and the idea. Anyone who wants to know about the American character, or about American poetry, should read Constance Rourke’s classic tome, American Humor. It’s such a simple and beautiful explanation of who we are as a people. She puts an emphasis on improvisation and she’s right. That’s why jazz and blues are classical American music. All the great American long poems — Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, The Waste Land, "A", The Maximus Poems, The Dream Songs, Dickinson’s poems, Spring and All — all are unfinished or motley in some way, are incomplete improvisations. Granted, improvisations of high genius, but improvisations nonetheless. Incomplete as their country is and ever will be. This is not to be lamented but celebrated. We, as Americans, are always going on our nerve.

LS: I love the adjacency and contingency of this book, by which I mean specifically the way sentences rub up against and repel each other, like magnets placed pole to pole. Two juxtaposed sentences tempt us to read them as connected, and yet there’s often nothing more than our wishing it and expecting it to be so that makes the connection. This technique is a powerful strategy for resisting narrative assumptions and glib romantic (political) ideologies in favour of a more investigative approach to the stories we take part in and pass around. Would you see this book as a sort of anti-story, a telling of events that wants to get at consequences but also wants us to realize that there’s more going on than a simple cause-and-effect narrative?

MS: It’s a tall tale, a campfire story, a song heard in passing, the amalgamation of the capital around me. Like a Yankee peddler traveling through the Carolinas. I don’t think it’s an anti-story at all. It might not have the traditional moves of a story, but it’s a story nevertheless. A word can be a story. A sound can be a story. Keep in mind, too, that the narrator is “mad.” Or is he/she? That’s part of it. There is a movement from the grand visionary at the beginning to a revelation in chapter 7 and then on to a more inward examination before a summary in the last chapter which leads you on to a potential never-ending plotline.

I was talking to a guy in the bar I live above in North Bennington. Guy was a construction worker, drunk off his ass, a little belligerent. We got talking about the connection between poetry and music, bringing up Bob Dylan as an example. I spouted on about how Dylan has the advantage of music, and that’s why he can write surrealistic lines that anyone invested in it can understand because the music can pick up the slack, can inform the mood or meaning, and the way he sings or sneers implies meaning too. The guy cut me off. “It’s because he tells a story,” he said. Damn it, he’s right. You can get away with anything, written in any way, as long as you’re telling a story, keeping the reader/listener interested. That’s also very American.

LS: Kate Greenstreet, in her fantastic series of first book interviews, always asked this question, and I think it’s particularly apt here. Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

MS: I believe poetry can create change in a person. A person can then change the world.

LS: The Mad Song is a book that believes deeply in citizen-ship even as it howls “no fair” at the way citizens have been time and again betrayed by government and corporations. Its very existence is a kind of participation, a taking-up of the challenge and responsibility of being a citizen. I can’t help but think of William Carlos Williams’ antagonist farmer, an artist composing in his field, in Spring and All: would you see yourself as an artist-citizen?

MS: As an American, there’s no way for me to separate the two. It just is. We are a government of the people. To say you’re not involved is to not live in reality. Whether you like it or not (and many do not), you’re involved. Move to a dictatorship if you don’t want to be a part of the government, to take responsibility. Takes thinking for yourself right out of the equation. We get the government we deserve and ultimately the fault is ours, the people, for what goes on here. We can mutter the live-long day about how corrupt the 43rd presidency was but we didn’t howl loud enough because we didn’t want to disrupt the status quo. I include myself in the indictment.

President Obama is smarter than anyone so far has given him credit for, though I know Bernard Goldberg will disagree. He’s a man of his moment, and, so, is like a poet. He knows that there’s no way for a politician to hide his misdeeds in the Internet age. They come out sooner rather than later. So the “craziest” thing to do is deal honestly with people, and use common sense. That’s why the right-wing is in a tizzy. They can’t lie any more and have any citizen with a brain in her head believe them. Anyone who does indeed believe them is in deep denial, living in The Matrix. This is not to say I have no criticisms of the President right now. As much as I appreciate him being honest with the country, he should also start to remind the citizenry of their power and responsibility to be agents of change, to inspire a little more. He’d do well to read Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country if he’s not already familiar with it.

LS: There’s a wide-ranging set of influences that have come together in this book, and it often makes me think of medieval conceptions of authors, in which an author is compiling or translating other texts, rather than inventing. You’re drawing from Star Wars and Chuck Berry, country music or grunge rock as well as Shakespeare and Stein. What’s the role of influence within this book, or more widely within contemporary poetry, if you want to take on that grand theme?

MS: You can’t be a whole person and not be influenced by what you love. That’s the whole point, learning from others, in life or in art, internalizing the lessons, making them your own. But that’s what America is also. It’s so many things, some disparate, some similar, simultaneously, it’s its own thing. The genius of America is the contradiction, as we know. A land that touts the liberty of all yet was built on slavery and the forced removal of native peoples. Strike-breakers. Beating civil rights marchers. Yet, again, America is never complete, and it never will be. It’s the striving for perfection, not the attainment, which puts our greatness in motion. It’s stupid to say, “I can use this but I can’t use that,” in your poems. It always has been but especially in 2009. I’m lucky to be part of a generation that doesn’t have to deal with avant-garde v. School of Quietude battles, whatever that shit means. Let’s take two poets close by on my book shelf: love Donald Justice, love Kenneth Koch. I can take from everyone and make my own thing.

I’m also of a generation who loves John Ashbery as much as Chuck Berry. I grew up on Dylan, Nirvana, Public Enemy, hundreds more. We’re heavily influenced not necessarily by the lyrics of rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop — though of course we certainly are — but the rhythms and phrasings of the music, the mood it gives, and the “unh.” Is there much difference between Stevens’ “ki-ki-ri-ki / Brings no rou-cou, / No rou-cou-cou” and Little Richard’s “wop-babalu-bop-doo-wop-bam-boom”? If there is, I don’t know it. Anyone who doesn’t realize this is doomed to be left behind. This notion is why Helen Vendler claimed she can’t read poets born after 1970. This is a shame, because she, along with Harold Bloom, despite the arguments against them, are our two preeminent critics of poetry and neither are long for this world.

LS: I want to ask, since I'm first sending you these questions on inauguration eve: what does this new presidency augur in for poetry, and for the possibility of poets-as-citizens? (Or, if you prefer, is the economic crisis a time poetry can become an activity, rather than just an aesthetics, in the public eye, in the way someone like Oppen or Niedecker (in very different ways) or, more recently, Harryette Mullen in her Stein-like manner might advocate?

MS: Everyone’s been focusing on Obama’s admiration for Lincoln but little to nothing has been mentioned about his love for Emerson. I think if you really want to know what propels him, both in his philosophy and in the way he uses language, you should read Emerson’s Essays. They’re prose poems really. Sure, I wish he had picked Harryette Mullen, or, better, Jay Wright, to read at the inaugural, but let’s ease up on Elizabeth Alexander. If the lines had been broken differently, with her, indeed, stilted delivery, I think the criticism would be lightened by the nod to Dr. Williams. There was a lot of Sandburg in there too, which I loved. Imagist splashes. No, the syntax was not very wild but it, like Obama’s speech, moved in a different way than we’re necessarily used to.

The right-wing accused the President of using too much poetry when he campaigned, then they said there wasn’t a sound-byte ready phrase to shove into the history books after his inaugural address. It all comes back/down to telling a story. The President goes for the big picture, the overall effect, while punctuating his speeches with memorable phrases. He and his chief speechwriter could lean a little more on the Emersonian for my taste, a little less on the too-easy “Yes we can!” but Obama clearly knows how to use language, like any good poet should.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Negative? Reviews and A Mad Song

In the past week, Jason Guriel, Ron Silliman, and Michael Schiavo have all offered what might be called "negative" reviews of books of poems: reviews that don't flinch from articulating what they see as the flaws of books which have garnered praise and attention. Such reviews might seem to fly in the face of Auden's famous dictum "Criticism will be love, or will not be." Guriel prefaces his own triple-review with an interesting reflection on his process: "Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative." While the movie comparison isn't ideal (I wonder how much negative reviewing there is of independent movies in comparison to mainstream films) Guriel's call for another term - he suggests "necessarily skeptical," admittedly with his tongue slightly in cheek - to describe these types of review is worth attending to.

Part of the problem with negative/positive as terms is that they situate reviewing only as an activity aiming to get us to read or not read a book. Reviewing, though, does much more than that. It develops and articulates the conversation "we" are having about poetry while also broadening who that "we" is. Perhaps few non-poets have read the recent reviews that have caused a stir on the blogs, but we need that to start happening. I've read plenty of theater reviews beyond the number of shows I've been able to see; such reviews, whether they recommend the show or urge me to avoid it, allow me a participation in a conversation about contemporary theatre. We can't read and re-read all the worthy books of poems that come out in any one year - as Ron Silliman's posts on the William Carlos Williams award indicate - which is one of the reasons an articulate and visible review climate, consisting of recommendations as well as hesitations, is necessary. As John Gallaher says "If there were more of a conversation about poetry, and that conversation was something people could find some interest in, then they might start to actually talk about the poetry itself."

Michael Schiavo's review of Matthew Dickman's All-American Poem is especially interesting because it confronts an extremely contemporary book in order to broaden the conversation about it. Copper Canyon's website for the book lists "reviews," four of which are by the judge, two blurbers, and a friend of the author. It is not that some of these "reviewers" are his friends that is problematic; what matters is that their interests and methods do not lie in giving us a complete picture of the book: how does it differ from Frank O'Hara? Does it really mean anything to say "These poems swing with verve and luminosity. They take no prisoners." as Dorianne Laux suggests?

These commenters' partiality - in the sense of being incomplete and of being biased towards, both fine qualities if announced as such, which the description of Tony Hoagland as "judge" does (nowhere does the website admit some of these "reviews" are from the jacket blurbs) - filters down into supposedly objective reviews, like the other two featured excerpts, which are from established venues - Los Angeles Times Review, New Haven Review. As well as using some of the vocabulary the partial blurbers used, these reviews both rely on a mention of Whitman and O'Hara. The conversation about poetry too often develops in this way, by shorthand, the easiest possible ciphers for situating a book. Such ciphers are not only inaccurate, as a glance at Dickman's book shows: they cement the American canon in narrow ways. I long for someone to describe a book in terms of it being "as American as Jose Garcia Villa," and thus to recognize that the description of anything as American must be complex. Michael Schiavo's own review approaches this position as it takes such reviewerly laziness to task: "Name-checking the states of the Republic does not make your poetry Whitmanic. Shoveling pop culture references into sloppy lines does not transform your poems into Frank O’Hara’s." His target is both the poetry and the conversation, and that's what makes his review so useful to us as readers and potential readers of poetry, whether Dickman's book or no. His own work, interestingly, offers a pretty complex version of America, as I get to later.

Reviewing is fundamental to our reading practices, for what we chose to read and not read. The incautious review that relies on shorthand not only risks giving an inaccurate impression of a book but it takes attention away from other books we could be reading: a far worse thing for poetry than a so-called negative review, since the would-be reader who listens to a review and finds that the book is nothing like Walt Whitman might not return to other books of poetry. And so, in this sense, perhaps Auden's dictum still holds: Criticism will be done for the love of poetry, society, of politics, or it will not be done.

This week on The All-Purpose Magical Tent, I'm going to feature a two-part interview with Michael Schiavo, conducted before his review and addressing in part his own book, which I'd like to suggest is one of the books that fetishizing the Dickman twins' blend of personality and ciphered Americanism could obscure. (A list of five others ends this post; I'd recommend checking out reviews of each to see if they're your cup of tea).

I first began interviewing Michael because I was taken with the means of production of his book. Published via an Espresso Book Machine at Northshire Books in Vermont, complete with a foreword by Douglas Crase, The Mad Song links the production of poetic knowledge - the writing of poems - to the production and distribution of the book itself, an intricate and engaging step that is not fully covered by existing dimensions of Print On Demand, Self-Publishing, the First Book Contest, or the time-honoured and necessary tradition of friends publishing the friends and strangers whose work they admire.

I pitched an interview to Poets and Writers, thinking that they, as the foremost magazine for beginning, emerging, and even established poets, would be keen to feature another dimension of the publishing conversation. They declined, so I decided to run the interview here on Wednesday and Friday. I hope any of you who read it will disseminate it widely as I think it deserves a wide audience. Michael speaks engagingly on The Mad Song, on the methodology of publication, on independent bookstores (he's a bookseller at Northshire), and on questions of American-ness, influence and spirituality.

The other reason I wanted to interview Michael developed once I had begun the process and started reading his book. Formally as well as thematically it engaged and enticed me, leading me to readings and re-readings. Pound wanted us to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase and not the metronome, but Schiavo does both,: the irregular metronome that measures The Mad Song ticks from conditional to imperative, and its hesitancy in remaining at either pole suggest how complex and conflated each position is in the current socio-political arena, and in the historical-mythical America. The Mad Song isn't a unconsidered paean to diaspora, an elegy for a lost past, or a lament for a broken promise of the future, although it put each of these modes into play. What it does is investigate, in its formal methodology - its anaphoric gestures, "incomplete" sentences, unanchored vocalization - and its thematic registers, the challenges and paradoxes of participatory democracy.

The way that The Mad Song enacts such participatory democracy (not to celebrate it only, or to castigate it, but to set that metronome ticking between both positions) is evident from the first paragraph:

Of Bedlam in its prairie pride. Of the roach that winds between the stars, triumphal. Of well-water served in garnet goblets. Of crusted penknife sitting on the pillow in the crib. Of the foxy light July bestows. Of tightwad peace and spendthrift war. Of the ousted governor’s children, especially his eldest, and the way she swings her hips. Of notorious arts and how they make hoi polloi drunk. Of lauren-blue drifts and plumes. Of your vulcanized scent. Of nightly the oceanic barb I must remove from my heart. Of the bison and the owl. Of a country boy, not easy to know.

These sentences pose questions of connection and adjacency: to each other, but also to the worlds and cultural particulars in which they seek to participate. The nod to the epic opener, "of," and the erasure of the familiar "I sing." The gesture to American iconography and the complication of it: how to square "the bison and the owl," how to take the status of the "ousted governer?" The way this paragraph involves the personal is not to sing identity but to complicate it, "a country boy, not easy to know." Amid these recombinant sentences and fragments, where we are mid-stream but unsure if we're missing the source or the end, the question of who we are as selves becomes problematic. The activity of speaking is dynamized within The Mad Song . This book's pronouncements are just there: pronounced, moving between contexts, asking us to speak with and against them. This is the wisdom of the mad song and The Mad Song. As it beats its own, singular drum, it doesn't ask us to follow along, but to join in, keeping a different rhythm if we so choose. That, after all, is where conversation begins.

Check back here Wednesday for Part One, and Friday for Part Two. In the meantime, here's five books which I think articulate Americas in intricate and compelling ways. The links take you to thoughtful reviews.

Quan Barry's Controvertibles
Craig Santos Perez's from Unincorporated Territory
Patrick Rosal's My American Kundiman
Laura Walker's Rimertown: An Atlas
Shanxing Wang's Mad Science in Imperial City (This is my own review.)

Three of these reviews, incidentally, are from The Believer. I wasn't trying to plug the magazine, which I have reviewed for, once (but which also rejected poems of mine having already accepted them, because of internal editorial conflict, so I have mixed feelings). However, it is interesting to note that The Believer , which isn't primarily thought of as a poetry review venue, is featuring reviews of some of the more challenging, ground-breaking, and affecting books of poetry being published in the early 21st century. Good for them.