Thursday, July 16, 2020

Marion Wallace (May 30, 1935 - July 15, 2020)

Goodbye, Mom. I love you. That’s what I always said to her in later years when I left where my parents were living or hung up the phone after a call.

I wanted to let people know who didn’t already that my mother passed away peacefully this week due to a variety of health complications connected mostly to her longtime respiratory difficulties (not related to COVID-19). She was living at Sunrise of Sabre Springs in Poway, California, the assisted living facility where she and my father moved in the summer of 2018 to be in the San Diego area nearer to me and other family. My father was with her at the end and she received helpful care from many at the facility and also from my wonderful aunt, Joan Comer, my father’s sister, who lives at Sunrise also. With careful precautions I was able to visit her for one long afternoon in her final week, and my brother and I spoke to her every day on the phone. We told her how much we loved her.

Born Marion Allen in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she was the daughter of an engineer who worked for General Electric. Because of his job they moved a great deal and she lived in a number of places, most notably Cincinnati, Ohio and Richland, Washington. Her parents later lived in other places including Oklahoma City, Springfield, Massachusetts and the New Jersey Eastern Shore.

She met my father at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, a Christian college associated with the Presbyterian Church. They were married in 1957, a marriage that lasted for 63 years in which they both remained devoted to each other. She and my father soon moved to Princeton New Jersey when he enrolled in seminary school there and, later, in graduate school as a historian of religious history. In Princeton and nearby, my mother worked as a 3rd grade school teacher and in various offices while my father completed his education

When I was a year old my parents moved to Washington, D.C. when my father became a university professor at The George Washington University, where he worked for 50 years. My mother eventually stopped working outside the home and devoted many hours of labor to the care of me and my younger brother Paul. Within a few years my parents had moved to a house in Kensington, Maryland, about seven miles north of D.C.

My mother loved listening to music and playing the piano and for awhile invited other women in the neighborhood who also loved music to play music with her at our house. We had a baby grand piano in the living room that she played for many years.

Unfortunately, the second half of my mother’s life was affected by a series of ailments, especially respiratory ones, that often left her in struggling health and could make it difficult for her to be outside. In her final years she suffered from significant memory loss although even in her last days she still remembered many people from the earlier parts of her life.

She always took a keen interest in the life of the world around her, although she ventured outside less over time. In her later years in Kensington she loved to watch the life of the neighborhood and became particularly attuned to the life of animals who were part of that neighborhood: birds of all kinds, squirrels, and occasional deer who would come leaping through our backyard. Most of all she loved the rabbits that were common in spring and summer.

My mother’s main values were kindness and generosity. Everyone who met her, most often at our house, was struck by the interest she took in them and the friendliness with which she welcomed them even at times when she was not feeling that well.

Sad to say, she was well acquainted with human tragedy. Her beloved younger brother Bobby died under unclear circumstances (unclear at least to me; I don’t know what anybody else knew or knows) when he was 28. Her Aunt Alice took lifelong care of her own son Lee, and when Alice passed away, no one else in the family ever knew what happened to Lee. My mother helped raise her youngest siblings, about 15 years younger than her. She was profoundly affected when one of them, Cynthia, passed away about a decade ago after living with her husband and daughter in western Pennsylvania and working for some years as a trucker.

I always wished that someone would write something from my mother’s perspective on the world. Although I’ve certainly never tried it, her influence is still all over my own writing. I learned a great deal from her about the behavior of many people, and her understanding of human motivation was often striking. She could tell startling and sometimes, I have to admit, harrowing stories that made clear what conflicts people wrestled with and what unexpected things could happen to them.

She is survived by her husband Dewey, by her brother Bruce, and by both of her sons, me and my younger brother Paul. I miss her very much and can hear, and will always continue to hear, her voice.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Men Often Need To Feel Like Heroes: On Longfellow's poem "Excelsior"

Men often need to feel like heroes.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1841 poem “Excelsior” takes on new meaning in our current times. Often considered ridiculous, and one of the most frequently parodied (even at the time) American poems of the 19th century, it tells the story of a young man carrying a banner reading “Excelsior” who climbs towards the top of a mountain during a snow storm and dies.

Longfellow intended the climbing of the mountain as a metaphor for too much ambition, like the story of Icarus, and at least some sympathetic readers of the time read the poem that way. But in the poem the young man doesn’t climb the mountain for any identifiable reason. People along the way urge him to stop but he refuses to listen to their advice and hurries to his death. His ambition isn’t ambition for any specific exterior goal. He’s on a heroic quest, that’s all, with no goal whatsoever except to climb to the top of a mountain in the snow and feel heroic. The poem praises his beauty and laments his death.

In the United States, after the revolutionary era and the War of 1812 and before the Civil War, some American men felt frustrated at the limited opportunities for heroism. Daniel Webster’s 1826 speech after the deaths on July 4 of that year of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson suggested that heroism was not the lot of the current generation, that they would have to settle for building on what the revolutionary heroes had founded.

Feeling heroic about yourself while heading straight towards death for no reason at all? These days it seems that Longfellow was onto something important about the American (white?) male psyche, although what seems like it must have been Longfellow’s attempt in the poem to make the tale tragic never really manages to make it seem more than foolish.

That’s because wanting to be a hero without wanting to be a hero about any problem in specific turns out to be, in the poem, just a death wish in disguise. The young man wants to die a hero but the only one who thinks his death is heroic is him. Everybody else thinks it’s foolish except maybe Longfellow, who to his credit, or not, makes no direct comment about the value of the young man’s quest and presents mostly a beautiful sadness at this pointless death.

When the desire to die a heroic death becomes more important than the cause one wishes to die for, acting on it isn’t heroism but foolishness. Being heroic requires doing something importantly beneficial at great risk to yourself, not putting yourself (or others) at great risk over nothing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Brief Takes: The Allen Fisher Companion

The Allen Fisher Companion

Edited by Robert Hampson and cris cheek
Shersman Books 2020
301 pgs.

It was fun spending a couple of weeks in the company of these essays. The work of British poet and artist Allen Fisher has often been difficult to get in the U.S.. Because of that and other (insert self-chastisement?) reasons, his work until now had been mostly rumor to me beyond a few pieces here and there.

The essays, by various writers, reveal Fisher as a link, not missing but necessary, across poetic and artistic approaches, including the mythologizing grandeur of Charles Olson, international experimental art practices like Fluxus and related endeavors from the late 60s and 70s and forward, and a documentary poetics of scientific and historical materialism that has become prominent again recently among poets in the last decade and more. Fisher’s use of science and history feel especially illuminated in the writing collected here. Different essays also point out that Fisher’s work has been devoted not just to making links between widely varying practices but to celebrating fissures and gaps and the possibilities of the unknown. If these essays are any evidence, Fisher doesn’t so much bring it all together as show how that can’t be done while at the same time exploring just how much there is to know.

Edited by Robert Hampson and cris cheek, the gathered essays and discussions in The Allen Fisher Companion explore various facets of Fisher’s writing, performance work, and art, including his grounding in philosophy and literary theory. All of the essays are informative even if some of them feel a little insular and overwritten. Insularity, of course, is one risk that a highly intellectual poetry like Fisher’s is always in danger of running. I appreciated the thoroughness of the analysis in this collection and enjoyed the occasional breaks into a more relaxed and poetic prose like that of cheek and Pierre Joris, who has two essays in the collection. The social and intellectual milieu of Fisher’s friends and poetic companions was especially intriguing and useful to learn about. Concluding the book are two long discussions with Fisher and other poets, including a series of letters between Fisher and British-Canadian poet Karen Mac Cormack.

I would say that I doubt this book will broaden the audience for Fisher’s work except that it had exactly that effect in my case. The work collected here establishes Fisher and his productions in various mediums as a central part of British poetry and art from the late 60s until now. Fisher comes across as someone who is always pushing, reaching, experimenting. At the heart of his work and this collection is the insistence that poetry can be a rigorously intellectual endeavor that combines multiple discourses and approaches in a way few other fields of contemporary writing do.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND by William Hope Hodgson. Ace 1… | Flickr

I enjoyed this brief trip into grand cosmic horror as a pleasant antidote to the restricted Virus Life I’m currently living in summer 2020. The book is an intriguingly original and very trashy combination of 19th century Gothic novel and 20th futuristic sci-fi by a British author who had clearly read H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. Hodgson sets his time machine in an exaggerated campy version of a Gothic castle in a remote portion of the British countryside.

The characters are mostly cardboard but the mood is rich and the action constant, with many fun and illogical twists. Hodgson doesn’t care about realism or logic. The book is filled with a great combination of creepy images and playful concepts about space and time and infinity by an author who doesn’t try to be scientifically accurate although he likes metaphors that sound scientific.

Apparently H.P. Lovecraft didn’t read this book or any of Hodgson’s work until 1934, which seems surprising because The House on the Borderland feels like a clear transition between 19th century Gothic haunted house horror and Lovecraftian 20th century cosmic horror.

The fun, vivid and moody action is rarely emotionally gripping, which made it an easy-going pleasure despite the terror of the infinite that the author wants to explore. It’s a shame though that Hodgson isn’t a better writer on the level of sentences. Often he doesn’t seem to know how to use commas or more precisely know when not to use them.

I first read Hodgson years ago now after picking up one of the books in his Carnacki, Ghost Hunter series, similar works of campy, trashy horror fun, a series that Hodgson began writing in the early 1910s in an attempt to make more money.

Hodgson died in World War I at the Fourth Battle of Ypres in April 1918. He was 40 years old.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Poetry Makes No One Poor

Poetry Makes No One Poor

Poets are not necessarily poor, and when poets are poor that’s not because writing poetry has made them poor.

At least in the U.S., most poets are like most people in that they are likely to remain in the social and financial class to which they were born.

In fact, one of the not-so-secret secrets of poetry is that quite a few poets are well off. Many of them come from well off backgrounds in which they had a range of opportunity available to them, including studying poetry and becoming poets.

Some poets who are born poor actually use their poetry and their interest in poetry to find opportunity and to rise in social class.

Of course, like people generally, poets are likely to have more opportunity the better off they are when they’re born and less likely to have opportunity the poorer they are.

It’s true that some poets stay poor or become poor, but that’s not because of poetry or even their poetry. It’s because they don’t find a job (of any kind) that allows them to be less poor, something that can happen for many reasons.

Poets, like most people, have to have jobs, unless they have enough money that they don’t need jobs. Writing poetry is not itself a job (though it’s certainly work).

Where does the idea that poetry makes people poor come from? Partly, it comes from a romantic mythology that poets themselves have often believed in. Even more commonly, it comes from relatively well off people who want their children to pursue work more clearly associated with money than poetry is. “Don’t be a poet, you’ll be poor,” is something said not by someone who knows poetry but by someone who cares more about money than poetry whatever social class they might be from.

In my experience, becoming involved with poetry has a huge range of benefits for people both in terms of their friendships, their quality of life experiences, and in some cases their financial opportunities.

Whatever risks there are in poetry, being a poet does not make somebody poor.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Robert Creeley Memory

In Fall 1990, I was the graduate assistant for the newly formed Poetics Program at the University of Buffalo, working with Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein. Charles had just become a full-time professor. I’d taken a course with him the previous year when he had been a visiting professor.

I remember a meeting that the three of us had at the house in Buffalo that Charles was renting. I recall a screened-in porch, a back patio, and a good-sized dining room. I was in the house several times. It was where I first met some of the poets Charles and Bob were bringing to campus, including Susan Howe (who would be a visiting professor in, I think, the spring of that year) and Leslie Scalapino. I also probably first met there the artist Susan Bee, Charles’ wife.

Charles and Bob and I were sitting around the big dining room table as they discussed business I don’t remember that must have been connected to working with the funds from their endowed chairs. They used those funds to bring readers to campus and to help students start publications, including three I would later work on: Leave Books, initially with Juliana Spahr and Brigham Taylor and later, with others like Kristin Prevallet; Poetic Briefs, edited by Elizabeth Burns and Jefferson Hansen; and eventually my own little poetry magazine Situation.

I don’t know why or how the subject had turned to the practice of art and poetry, but relative to whatever it was, I was saying to Charles and Bob that I had always envied musicians in bands, who got to work with others in making their art, as opposed to writers who in order to write had to be somewhere alone.

The subtext for me was that I often felt lonely in my graduate school years, even though I also craved alone time to do my writing. In fact one of the reasons I loved Bob’s poetry was that he could write about loneliness in a modern way that never seemed hokey or contrived. I had always admired the artistic camaraderie of my friends in bands like Nixon’s Head (Andy Rosenau, Mike Frank, Jim Slade and others). I’d traveled with that band a few times to shows they were giving and I always felt caught up in something exciting, instead of the experience of confronting the void alone and feeling like I was headed nowhere, which was a common experience for me as a writer. In 1990 in Buffalo I was still writing and publishing occasional music reviews. It would be another year or two before my poems started getting published in poetry magazines.

I’m guessing the context of the discussion must have been around poetry and community, a term much used at the time (and still) and which I had already earlier begun to explore. My first forays into literary DIY publishing had been in my earlier master’s program in creative writing in Binghamton, when in 1987 and 88, my friends Keith Eckert and Joe Battaglia and I had published little chapbooks, mostly of our own work, under the name Triangle Press. Keith had taken a poetry course with Jerome Rothenberg that helped start us down the DIY road.

So I was saying how I envied the artistic camaraderie of my friends in bands and had always wished to have that kind of creative experience more than my own, more solitary one.

Bob looked at me with his one eye glistening in a way I associated with him, an expression friendly and amused both that he often used. He said, “Yes, but a pen goes anywhere.”

What he meant, obviously, was that the advantage of the writer was that you didn’t need fancy equipment and money and the complicated logistics of band travel but could have your artistic practice available to you easily, anywhere, any time.

I never forgot it. Partly I think that was because Bob handed me in that comment some power I’d been denying myself in my belief that essential to artistic practice was something out there, in the world, something that others had that I didn’t and that I needed somehow to share in so that I wouldn’t be left out of whatever transformative power there was in being an artist and a writer. His comment helped me see that the power wasn’t out there, in communities of others, but in the very simplest things possible. Things right in front of me that I was already holding.

Happy Birthday, Bob, and RIP.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

10) Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

10) Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen

It looks like I have to get to #10 on this list before I finally reach an album that feels like it was of my own generation. Even though all the guys in the band were a good half decade older than me, above all others on this list this was THE album that felt to me like it was living closest to the actual world in which I was living. It had a unique sound, a different sound, a sound that felt like it was of my own moment. I can’t imagine what my own life as a writer would have been without Double Nickels on the Dime or this band.

1984 was the year that Americana punk rock (my term) hit its apex. The Replacements, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, X, Dream Syndicate, the Blasters. Some of them had made excellent records in the few years before or had had moments of still developing excellence. All were bands that had been influenced by or been part of the late 70s early 80s American punk scenes (in various cities, maybe L.A. most notably) that were still playing punk that sounded a lot like American imitations of British punk.

Of course, the American hardcore scene had from the first sped up punk and pushed it to the edges of stridently aggressive political statement (the Dead Kennedys) or rageful and vulnerable poetic crashing and burning (the Germs). But the concept of short fast bursts of outraged thrashing (tightly and sophisticatedly played in the best groups) remained not just a norm. It quickly became a law of punk communities that you violated at your own risk.

By the early 80s, the limits of that hardcore law were all too apparent. Even one of the hardest hardcore bands, Black Flag, was caught trying to get outside strict and increasingly boring demands to maintain a purity of outrage and came out with an album that was at least as much Black Sabbath as punk. One thing that happened during the opening up was the exploring of regional American musical influence, something that allowed the influence of history to enter a music that had been defiantly about the present. Sort of a punk rock version of what happened in the later 1960s when rock and roll began to absorb country music influences.

There’s nothing particularly American in any general sense about Double Nickels on the Dime. But the effect of region on it is clear. This is the world as seen from San Pedro, an industrial working class suburb of Los Angeles, a port and warehouse town. From the first, Minutemen had made their young, working class connections deeply apparent. Even as the band remained connected to big city urban arty punk, its understanding of social and political conditions was too specific for that degree of romanticism. Put it this way; what Jefferson Airplane is to the Germs is what Creedence Clearwater Revival is to Minutemen.

I mean, consider: here’s a band who’s signalling on the cover of their greatest album that they intend to drive the speed limit (of 55 no less) and follow traffic laws because it’s the ethical thing to do. How punk is that? I’m genuinely asking. The debate that could follow from such a question was just one specific example of why the band was unique. How punk is it to actually be concerned about how your ordinary daily behavior affects others? Much of punk is about raging at what others have done to you.

The band’s name was a pun, of course, referencing not only those pre-U.S. Americans ready to step up and fight for the revolution, but also the fact that Minutemen had begun with a first album of songs rarely more than a minute in length. By Double Nickels, Minutemen showed themselves moving further beyond that initial concept; one song on the record, “Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders,” is actually over three minutes long (it was later chopped from the CD version of the album). Several other songs clocked in at just over 2:50, including key tracks like “The Glory of Man” and the satirical anthem “Jesus and Tequila.” They’re epics.

Much more important than the fact that the band’s songs remained all short on this double record originally clocking in at above 80 minutes is the fact that the short tight structures have so much variety. It’s a three person band: one guitar, one bass, one drum set, and on this album, mostly one singer. And while there are some general templates that repeat (anthemic power songs; off kilter high speed songs with angular riffs and surprising guitar breaks, both incorporating elements of funk and jazz; noodly poetic rambles that bassist Mike Watt had famously named “spiels), the album doesn’t sound repetitious. Each new song often provides fascinating and unexpected transitions from the previous song. The only other double album I can think of that has this much variety and no unnecessary songs while also retaining an overall tonal coherence is the Clash’s London Calling.

The playing poises itself right on that fine edge between the energy of amateur accident and the precision of virtuosity. Minutemen was not the only band of this era to transform quickly from barely being able to play their instruments to being unique musicians of impressive ability, but the change was remarkable.

Of course, D. Boon can’t really sing, in any conventional sense, but his voice is so full of personality and nuance that his lack of conventional training usually, not always, becomes a strength.

I don’t think my favorite sections of the album automatically differ much from anybody else’s favorites. The nuanced build of the interconnections on Side One. The explosion of brilliance at the start of side two (the great “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing” followed by the equally remarkable and totally different “Maybe Partying Will Help” and “Toadies”). The huge historical sweep of “The Glory of Man” later on side two and the stunningly moving memoir “History Lesson Part II,” which says more about the personal aspects of the Do-It-Yourself value of punk amateurism that any other song by any band (“Wait and See” by Stiff Little Fingers is maybe my second favorite). It’s also a punk song that even now can make me cry. Talk about a rare combination.

Could any other band have written anything with a title like “The Politics of Time”? And the brilliance of “This Ain’t No Picnic” lies partly in the fact that the concept of the group picnic, factory weekend or family based, comes directly out of the world view of San Pedro culture immediately around Minutemen. Side four opens powerfully: “Untitled Song for Latin America” followed by “Jesus and Tequila.” I’ve remained sad about the fact that the band’s 40-second version of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love” was removed from the CD. It was both a great critique of that other band’s pomposity but also a precisely distilled great version of the song. It’s a good thing I’ve kept the original record, with its Richard Petitbon drawings on the gatefold.

A crucial thing for me about this album though is that I’m a writer. And like many writers, I’m inclined to take the lyrics of a song more seriously than non-writers often do. Among musicians, I’ve long noted the split between those who care about lyrics and those who really don’t. Crucial to the appeal of Minutemen is the revolutionary combination of poetry and political awareness that marks their music as significantly writerly. And not just writerly. This band seemed, somehow, to understand not just poetry but also political theory and literary theory and to still sound like a bunch of ordinary working men yet also punk musicians.

I’m not going to copy in here the lyrics for “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” but you can look them up.

There were a few precursors to this kind of lyric, of course. The Clash, obviously, although they tend to avoid anything that sounds too nakedly like an idea. Maybe more obviously, The Gang of Four, who similarly made clear that they could talk politics on the level of concept and theory that was a match for philosophy.

How did Minutemen manage to be both working class guys and theory heads and never look like they were doing any posing? It’s nearly a miracle. I can’t immediately think of any other band who was ever able to match or repeat it.

I can’t stress enough how they served as a model for who I wanted to be as a writer, someone who could understand and live in worlds of literature and theory without ever abandoning or thinking myself superior to the ordinary life going on around me. This band showed me that it was possible to illuminate the big problems I saw in the world without thinking of myself as separate from people or more special than anyone else.

I saw Minutemen live, only once, at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C., at what I’ve tracked down must have been their January 3, 1985 show. It was a fantastic experience, with all the energy and spontaneity they were known for. I met and spoke briefly with D. Boon in the hallway entrance to the club afterwards. He didn’t disappear into the downstairs band room but stayed upstairs, chatting with people.

When he died, only 11 months later, in a van accident in Arizona at the age of 27 (that infamous rock and roll age), I was as shocked and saddened as most fans of the band. His life had been reckless only in the sense that he had taken a lot of touring road trips in less than great vehicles. Because he was sick, he had been lying down in the back of the van without a seat belt. His death didn’t at all come as some kind of pinnacle of rock star excess. A single moment of bad luck and bad choices and his life was over.

The other band members eventually carried on with various projects, musical and otherwise. A number of other releases of Minutemen material, all with moments of genius, would appear.

But the magically transformative moment of three ordinary young men making one of the most brilliantly poetic and political albums in the history of rock music was never going to be repeated, not by them. And really, on this level, probably not by anybody else.