This is going to be my last blog post for a few weeks probably. I’m headed to Washington DC for much holiday cheer. Maybe I’ll see you there. In the meantime, please remember those in need, and do them some small kindness if you can.
Now that I have the important part out of the way, what about this whole holiday season concept? Unlike most Americans apparently (as the surveys tell us) I like it. Then again, having been widely acknowledged for many years as on my way to nowhere, I don’t feel like I’ve let anybody down, I don’t feel pressure to buy anybody anything fancy, and I don’t have to pretend to love anybody more than I do. Plus I even get a few weeks off. So all told I can enjoy myself. And I can also say, this whole holiday season concept is a little ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m not going to get into the issues of religion or the capitalist uses of Christmas right now, although I’d be glad to be serious about them some other time. Let’s just say that they’re part of the human pageant at this time of year, one which offers a wide palette of outrageous behavior very useful for any investigation of the human animal.
Take the holiday party. Paraphrasing Guy Debord in Panegyric, I can say that I have written much less than most people who write, but I have been to many more holiday parties than most people who go to holiday parties. And holiday parties are, to put it mildly, ridiculous, which is directly linked to the way people behave when at them. More on that in a moment, and points to any of you who know what Debord’s original line actually is.
But what about you? Going to any holiday parties this season? Ones that involve writers? Ones that don’t? My blog comment box wants to hear your thoughts on holiday season parties. Poems, anecdotes, tall tales, whatever. Tell the truth if you dare or make something up. Where will you be this holiday season? If the answer isn’t interesting, make it sound like it anyway.
In the meantime, I’m leaving you with a little piece of mine about holiday season parties that some people in the past have enjoyed and some others might enjoy if I post it here. It was published in my book Haze, and was originally part of a manuscript called Communal Perversities which long ago fell apart much like I did and morphed into other things. I think the piece still reflects the truth of the holiday season office party. If it offers some small pleasure, I’m glad. I wish all of you a wonderful season and a Happy New Year. With luck I’ll even wish it to you in person.
Perhaps nothing produces more exactly the subtle horror of current social relations than the office Christmas party. There are far worse nightmares, undoubtedly. Yet the never quite located, permeating sickness of the office party is the perfect expression of developed alienation for three reasons. One, everyone there appears as though they are there to see each other, when really they are there to protect their tenuous economic circumstances. Two, it's a party and supposed to be fun, while fun is precisely what it is not about, indeed while anyone seeking fun could more likely find it anywhere else, literally. Three, in its apparently voluntary, benevolent largesse, it appears to make people welcome and to feel like they belong, while it displays exactly that to which no one is welcome, namely, a voluntary gathering of like-minded others who work together simply because they prefer to do so.
Thus it displays its alienation through the fact that no one can state openly why they are there. And this is true even for those who believe they are, who in fact are, having fun.
For all these reasons, people who avoid office Christmas parties are only avoiding their feelings. They don't wish to know, to experience directly, and deludedly believe that avoiding the truth will make it not so. I myself go to every office Christmas party to which I am invited, arriving early and staying late, chatting, eating, and drinking, until the sickness congratulates my entire body, until each toast I have made can be faithfully dedicated to its exact opposite.
In translating Turkish poetry into English, working with other translators, and writing a series of essays that help readers in English contextualize the poetry, Murat Nemet-Nejat has taken on a task of a size and significance that few contemporary translators and editors can match.
In 2004 EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry was published by Talisman House and made the range of this achievement apparent. Now Jacket 34 is featuring further developments in the project, including new poems and essays. If you want to learn more about Turkish poetry, obviously there’s no better place to turn. These translations, and the contextualization Nemet-Nejat supplies for them, continue to help all of us who speak English primarily to reduce our own myopia and have at least somewhat more awareness of global literary history.
Coming in neatly just under the 750-word limit, my review of the original EDA anthology appeared in the Oct/Nov 2005 issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter. I’m reprinting it here. Needless to say perhaps, some of the issues I take up regarding the inevitable incompleteness of all anthologies still hold, while at the same time this new work in Jacket 34 shows that Nemet-Nejat continues making this project ever more thorough and impressive.
For some years, translator, critic, and poet Murat Nemet-Nejat has been providing English speakers a detailed look at developments in Turkish poetry. Although with luck it’s not the culmination of his effort, EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry certainly gives the fullest look yet at Nemet-Nejat’s project. Readers wanting an introduction to 20th century Turkish poetry as well as guidelines for future exploration can find it here.
It’s a strange time for anthologies. By now it’s a cliche to note that the work found in one always reveals the ideology of its editors, yet the cliche has accompanied not the death of the anthology but an explosion of anthologies that wear their ideologies openly. Even as standard English language anthologies like Norton and Heath prepare to release new editions with thousands of more pages than past versions, as if desperately believing that somehow they can get it all in, the editors of other too-numerous-to-read anthologies struggle to find convincing (or at least interesting) reasons for creating alternative concepts of what an anthology might be.
Nemet-Nejat negotiates this problem carefully. He makes no claims for EDA as a thorough representation of 20th century Turkish poetry. Instead he acknowledges individual bias, claiming that the poems in the book represent primarily his own interests. But he also highlights a concept that helps him move beyond merely personal investments. He defines “eda” (a term he borrows and alters from Mustafa Ziyalan) as an impulse animating much of the poetry he presents, an “essence” perhaps best defined in a phrase by Walter Benjamin as “distance from the host language”; that is, as those marks that make a poem distinct from other uses of the language into which it's translated. Nemet-Nejat breaks down the “otherness of eda” into three aspects, thematic, linguistic, and metaphysical. While we should be wary of the idea that a single concept can sum up all the important developments in any literary tradition, the concept of eda is broad and precise enough simultaneously almost to do the trick.
The anthology traces a spirit of innovation in Turkish poetry since 1921, when “for the first time in almost four hundred years” Turkish “became a written literary language.” Nemet-Nejat locates this spirit in three major periods: the initial one of the 20s and 30s; the period known as The Second New during the 50s and 60s; and finally a contemporary era beginning in the 90s. Each era is represented by substantial selections of poetry by major figures and a smattering of work by related writers. Also included are some important era-undermining iconoclasts, Ilhan Berk most prominently.
One of the anthology’s great successes is its focus on a number of writers who deserve to be more known outside Turkey than they are. The book wisely plays down work by the great Nazim Hikmet, who of these poets is most thoroughly familiar to English-speaking readers, in favor of writers whose work will benefit more from attention here. It’s a pleasure to read extended sequences by writers such as Ahmet Hasim, Orhan Veli Kanik, and Ece Ayhan, and to compare their achievements with contemporary poets like Seyhan Erozcelik, Sami Baydar, kucuk Iskender and others. It’s fun to consider which of these poets seem more incisive outside of their cultural context and which more lodged within it. For instance, the earthy ironies of Orhan Veli, the satires of Ilhan Berk, and the linguistic adventurousness of Ece Ayhan resonate more across cultures than the male erotic sado-masochistic anguish of Cemal Sureya and its critique of Sufism.
The anthology also does a good job of tracing at least the outlines of various cultural problems in Turkish poetry, including sexual orientation, gender, and others. It’s interesting to see the coded homoerotics of Sait Faik in the 1950s contrasted to the open homosexuality of Ahmet Guntan’s linguistically sly 1995 book Romeo and Romeo. And if gender issues emerge primarily through the way women are imaged by male poets, the presence of an outstanding contemporary poet like Lale Muldur at least begins to develop an understanding of women’s writing in Turkey, although more clearly needs to be done. By the 1990s, Turkish poetry was also taking new risks with linguistic experimentation, and it will be intriguing to see where that tendency heads.
The shorter selections of work by figures less central to Nemet-Nejat’s thinking were occasionally more frustrating than enlightening. It’s not always clear why some of these poets are included, or what good it does to translate no more than several lines of their poetry. Yet in at least pointing to these writers, Nemet-Nejat suggests possibilities for further exploration. And many of these poems were both insightful and clearly connected to the anthology’s interests.
The book ends with a series of essays that provide brief readings of poems or develop more thoroughly the guiding concepts of the anthology. While other essays addressing the more marginal figures would have been welcome, it’s hard to pretend that demanding greater thoroughness is always the best way to handle anthologies in an era that highlights ideological transparency and the necessity of limits. Readers of EDA come away with much more than an understanding of Nemet-Nejat’s approach to Turkish poetry. They see as well a detailed outline of a poetic tradition that’s emotionally gripping and intellectually adventurous, one clearly deserving greater world attention.
Historically, the establishment of a supposedly definitive OED and also Webster's Dictionary created a level of institutional and cultural control over the variable ways people had spelled words earlier in the language we call English. These dictionaries created both the idea that a word should have a single spelling and that a dictionary could tell you what that spelling was. Simultaneously, the dictionaries did explain at least something, often a great deal, about the earlier history of variable spellings.
On the one hand, there was some positive practical benefit from this codification. In many instances, communication could be made easier when there was agreement about the nature of what communication looked like. Still, a deeply unfortunate and in some ways intended result of this codification was that people who were less likely to spell properly (mainly those who didn't have access to an education that taught them to spell) could also be codified not simply as uneducated but also as incapable, stupid, and so on. It was a perfectly vicious circle. Labeling people as incapable enabled not educating them which led to more chances to label them. And around and around we go.
Today those of us who speak English almost always assume that words have only one spelling, despite the fact that many of us don’t know the authoritative spelling of as many words as we like to believe. Yet the idea of questioning, challenging, or refusing dominant modes of spelling has a long history in literature, one that develops simultaneously with the belief in standardized spelling. Dialect and idiolect writing are two common such approaches. In dialect, spelling tries to mimic the way people speak in some actual cultural context or region. Idiolect, a more self-conscious attempt to create new, unique approaches to language, sometimes in relation to new contexts in which language is being used (idiolect using computer language, for instance) contains an overt attempt to change prior ways of using words. Spelling words in ways different than the dictionary suggests shows us how language really works in living practice or suggests how it might be changed.
Learning how to spell correctly indicates some degree of acceptance of institutional control over language. Not learning how to spell can indicate resistance (more active or passive as the case may be) to this control but doesn't necessarily. It can also indicate the fact that some people view the physical properties of language differently. Many people with what is called dyslexia see the visual field of the page in unexpected ways, the words literally moving around on the page or rearranging themselves according to puns or other similarities in syllables. In a culture which demands normative language abilities, people who see words that way can suffer from a lack of opportunities that often starts with getting poor grades. The problems caused by stigmatization of their differences are real.
But people who don’t learn to spell properly also include those who see themselves as not conforming as thoroughly as they would like, or who are rebelling only because they don’t feel they should have to learn. So while it’s important not to stigmatize non-normative spellers, it’s equally essential not to see them simply as heroic rebels. Not learning to spell as educational institutions would like can in some cases be done by people who feel impervious to (or at least uninterested in) the consequences, just as learning to spell can be a heroic attempt not to feel threatened and inconsequential. Add to the mix the complications of second language speakers of English, whose original languages contain different grammatical structures and sets of possible sounds, and it turns out that the notion of proper spelling involves all sorts of cultural and psychological issues.
Every time it seems simple to know what spelling correctly means, the world gets in the way.
An interesting wrinkle worth considering is that some non-normative spellings may be more disruptive to normative spelling than others. A recent linguistics study going around on the internet in various urban legend versions suggests that changed consonants are much more damaging to normative understanding than changed vowels. Based on the ideas in that study, if somebody sent me an “invatition” (two letters switched) I would still understand that I had been invited somewhere. But were I to receive an “inligation” (again, only two letters switched) then I would be much more likely to assume some legal issue was at stake.
A particularly disruptive type of non-normative spelling is the one in which a word, by being misspelled, becomes another word. The most amazing incident of this kind that I was involved in concerned a student who had written the line “I was bored by the [ ] system.” When I asked her what bored her, it turned out she hadn’t meant “bored.” She’d meant “barred.” Speaking for myself, I found the pun fascinating. As a student who felt like she had been unfairly kicked out of a institutional program, she didn’t find it fascinating. She wanted me to understand what had happened to her and was frustrated that I still wasn’t understanding.
As an editor who’s interested in work that challenges ideas about spelling, I’ve often found the boundary very hazy between a conscious misspelling and a typo. My general rule of thumb is that if a piece contains numerous non-normative spellings, they’re probably intentional, whereas one or two non-normative spellings in a piece are much more likely to be typos. In either case it’s crucial to query the writer, and I never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the misspelling is a typo. Sometimes I’ve missed the writer’s interest in a non-normative version of the word. In either case, it seems to me that authorial intention should be the final arbiter.
Assuming, that is, that one notices there’s an issue at all. Mistakes on this subject still happen to me. In the Telling It Slant essay collection that I co-edited, five typos were brought to my attention (all of them quickly) after the publication of the book. Four were typos in which the word should have been corrected to a normative spelling. One was a word that intentionally had been spelled non-normatively. It had been edited to become normative, by me I guess, although I had no memory of making the change. It’s quite possible that I thought I’d added a letter by accident and then deleted it because I thought it was my own mistake that the letter was there in the first place.
The will to proper spelling, it seems, can act itself out on a subliminal level.
I’d be interested in knowing how you feel about proper spelling. Like it, hate it, want to defend its importance or attack it? Are you a good speller? Would it be fascinating or disturbing to think that a lot of writers have difficulty spelling?
While you’re actually writing a poem, how conscious are you of the history of poetry? Are you constantly thinking about how your poem will relate to the poems that have come before, or do you not think about that at all? Are you somewhere in between? Are you overwhelmed by the anxiety of influence, indifferent to it, perhaps hostile?
I’m not looking for right and wrong answers here; I’m just curious. Although I do think the answers will tell us things worth considering.
I don’t mean history more generally, by the way, just the history of poetry. And I don’t mean what you think about before or after writing, I mean literally while involved in the process of composition. And lastly I don’t mean in terms of the history of your own poems, but the history of poems written by others.
I would also welcome answers about this relative to fiction writing and the history of fiction, or song writing and the history of music.
At the Postmoot Literary Festival at Miami of Ohio in April 2006, one of the conversations focused on libraries and the idea of the archive. Many people felt disturbed that even libraries significantly invested in archiving contemporary literature often didn’t have the resources to preserve significant texts, especially in their original material form as books, pamphlets, distinct art objects. Questions were raised about the implications of turning some or even much of this material into digital material and sacrificing the original object.
As both Borges and Eco have suggested in their fiction, the concept of the absolute archive in which all material can be stored is not only a fantasy but one that has usually been used in the name of controlling information and those who wish access to it.
It’s obvious to say both that material will be lost and that, therefore, it doesn’t do much good to bemoan that loss in any generalized way. The issue becomes more interesting when we imagine that we have some control over what gets saved and what gets lost, or that we’ll have key choices to make in some instances. If it is inevitable that material will be lost, what should be saved? And since even if we could decide what material should be saved, some of that will not be saved, what then?
Unlike in earlier eras of history, it’s now possible to imagine that some things will never get lost.
Which depends, of course, on the time period that we imagine the word “never” can actually span.
Yet it would be easy to be smug about the inevitability of loss. Just last week, a synchronization glitch in my computer system erased these notes from my computer. Furious and disturbed, I drove hurriedly to my office. Luckily this file and several others were backed up on the university computer H drive, and I lost no work. The relief I felt when I realized that the work had been saved! It was the relief that I had gotten back, in my work, to where I already had been. The relief of knowing there was an archive where I could find my own work.
To get back to where you’ve already been seems to me at least as much the promise of the archive as it is to see some essential objects you’ve never yet seen. To see again what you’ve already seen, and perhaps to see it again in a new way. I have seen the James Joyce collection at the University of Buffalo library and if I go back there, the collection will still be there and I can see it. Again.
Unless of course it isn’t there or someone prevents me from seeing it. One can only have so much trust in an archive and those who guard it.
Tom Orange is back in the blog saddle again, with a new set of spurs and boots to match, responding in detail to my questions about the contemporary condition of the notion of the avant garde. Well worth reading.
From an interview of Aime Cesaire by Rene Depestres at the Cultural Congress of Havana, 1967
A.C.: I don’t deny French influences myself. Whether I want to or not, as a poet I express myself in French, and clearly French literature has influenced me. But I want to emphasize very strongly that—while using as a point of departure the elements that French literature gave me—at the same time I have always strived to create a new language, one capable of communicating the African heritage. In other words, for me French was a tool that I wanted to use in developing a new means of expression. I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French that, while still being French, had a black character.
R.D.: Has surrealism been instrumental in your effort to discover this new French language?
A.C.: I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. It was a weapon that exploded the French language. It shook up absolutely everything. This was very important because the traditional forms—burdensome, overused forms—were crushing me.
R.D.: This was what interested you in the surrealist movement...
A.C.: Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor.
R.D.: So you were very sensitive to the concept of liberation that surrealism contained. Surrealism called forth deep and unconscious forces.
A.C.: Exactly. And my thinking followed these lines: Well then, if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.
R.D.: In other words, it was a process of disalienation.
A.C.: Yes, a process of disalienation; that’s how I interpreted surrealism.
R.D.: That’s how surrealism has manifested itself in your work: as an effort to reclaim your authentic character, and in a way as an effort to reclaim the African heritage.
R.D.: And as a process of detoxification.
A.C.: A plunge into the depths. It was a plunge into Africa for me.
R.D.: It was a way of emancipating your consciousness.
A.C.: Yes, I felt that beneath the social being would be found a profound being, over whom all sorts of ancestral layers and alluviums had been deposited.
A lot has been going on in blogland lately, what with conversation happening on Lorraine Graham’s and Simon DeDeo’s blogs about Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s recent article on a continuing need to assert the value of feminism, as well as a discussion on the blogs of Stan Apps and Nicholas Manning regarding whether there’s a need to assert the notion of an avant-garde. Both issues, though very different, seem to me connected in the sense that they revolve around the question of whether an assertive and therefore to some inevitable extent divisive rhetoric is necessary, or whether such divisive rhetoric is an outmoded form of discourse, something that we have gone beyond and need to stay beyond in order to continue with the essential task of learning how to get along with each other in a complex and troubled world.
I’m going to focus on the issue of the avant garde here because to me at least the continuing need for outspoken feminism seems more or less obvious, while other people are going to be better than I am at working out what that might look like both theoretically and in local applications. But an avant garde? Do we need that anymore? Stan Apps has been saying that we do, and has been describing his vision of what that might look like.
Now, many of my friends and readers of this blog perhaps remember an earlier era in this problem. It was an era in which it felt important to me and lots of others to critique the limits of a notion of an avant garde and its problematic relation to progress, militarism, and gender, race, and class, not to mention all the limitations of social group formation. Those critiques remain important, but does that really mean that the idea of an avant garde is no longer necessary at all?
Speaking for myself, I’ve never thought so. The goal of critiquing certain problems within the history of the avant garde was, to my mind, not a way of restraining aesthetic excesses but freeing up more possibilities that might challenge settled notions of what literature is and can be. I was hardly interested in a return to safer modes of writing or thinking, but to note how many more unsafe modes of writing and thinking might be possible. My sense has been that the idea of an avant garde can be found in a restless refusal to accept that what literature looks like in the past must determine its limits for the future. To me, the notion of an avant garde is valuable as a kind of impulse that must be put into practice and that can be found in multiple contexts—and not just in those that assert avant garde rhetoric.
That said, the idea that there are limitations to avant garde practice is one that has gone around widely, so much so that many people think that the idea of an avant garde is now a useless notion. In various ways, this dismissal of the idea of an avant garde has the habit in practice of discouraging or even outright ignoring more extreme aesthetic approaches. Of course, the discouragement works differently than the 80s mainstream poetry way of ignoring language poetry entirely and being hostile to any mention of it. The way, now, is to claim that one has been exposed to those ideas and has moved beyond them.
The classic example, to my mind, is Jorie Graham, who has gone on record as claiming to be more radical in her approach to writing than more definitively avant garde writers. But on what grounds does she make this claim? It mainly seems to be that in incorporating certain more supposedly extreme concepts (indeterminacy being the key one perhaps, since it’s often considered the central tenet of avant garde writing by people who don’t really read that writing or know it mainly through reading Marjorie Perloff) and linking them with the high-toned philosphical lyric a la Richard Wilbur or Wallace Stevens, she’s more radically consolidating a new center in poetry than fringey experimenters who are caught up in old school avant garde rhetoric. Get it? Moving to the center is more radical than being on the fringe. And defining a new center, it turns out, is best achieved by incorporating a few avant gestures without letting those gestures so deeply take over the text that the work becomes offensive or incomprehensible to readers of more conventional lyric or narrative verse.
But let’s be fair (not that most of us ever are). It’s not only writers who don’t seem to know what the avant garde was who think that the idea of an avant garde may now be bankrupt. Ron Silliman’s notion of the post avant, which he says quite sincerely that he thinks of as a positive development, clearly contains the implication that the idea of an avant garde has played itself out, and Ron knows as much about what it means to be an avant garde writer as anyone alive. In his formulation of the post avant, remnants of avant garde practice remain a possibility, but its intensity, its severity, its refusals and rejections are no longer tenable.
So what do you think? Is the time of any idea of an avant garde over with? Do we need more insistence on the value of aesthetic extremes? Is it important to remind people that it’s not really possible to reject the avant garde before you understand what it was in the first place? Can avant garde possibilities be found in a Stan Apps-style defining of avant garde practices, or in an impulse to unsettle accepted pieties in numerous contexts that’s both broader but perhaps dangerously general? Both? Is the idea of an avant garde old news, or one that we’ve already gone too far in forgetting? How would we know, right now, avant garde work if we saw it?
Works on this list include literature with genuinely frightening or disturbing horror elements as well as genre works with some level of literary value, if only a powerful emotional effect. That is, in one way or another, all these are works of horror with significant merit as works of literature, to my mind.
This list is still in progress, so please help me add to it. Works of significant quality only, please–I understand the vagueness of the term “quality,” so using your own standards is fine. I’m hoping other people will have some good suggestions for me. As you can see, I’ve read a lot of this sort of thing, and I’m always worried I’m about to run out.
Robert Aickman, The Wine Dark Sea (1988) or any other collection Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1937) Eric Basso, The Beak Doctor: Short Fiction 1972-76 Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles (1967) Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows” (1907), “Ancient Sorceries” (1908) Paul Bowles, The Delicate Prey (1950) Mary Butts, From Alter to Chimney-Piece: Selected Stories of Mary Butts (1992)–stories originally published between 1922 and 1937 Ramsey Campbell, The Face That Must Die (1979) Walter De La Mare, The Return (1922) Stephen Dobyns, The Church of Dead Girls (1997) Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris (1933) Brian Evenson, Dark Property (1995) Dennis Etchison, The Dark Country (1982) Thomas Harris, Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) John Hawkes, The Beetle Leg (1951), Travesty (1976) Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (1983) Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) Henry James, “The Beast in the Jungle,” (1903), “The Jolly Corner” (1908) M.R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), or Collected Ghost Stories (1931). T.E.D. Klein, The Ceremonies (1984) Tanith Lee, Dark Dance (1992) Tommaso Landolfi, An Autumn Story (1975) Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife (1943), Our Lady of Darkness (1978) Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1989); those stories and others also in The Nightmare Factory (1996) H.P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls” (1922), The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1936) Arthur Machen, “The White People” (1904) Robert Marasco, Burnt Offerings (1973) Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954) Patrick McGrath, Spider (1990) Gustav Meyrink, The Golem (1928) David Morrell, The Totem (1979) Oliver Onions, Widdershins (1911) Victor Pelevin, “The News from Napal” in The Blue Lantern (1994) Jean Ray, Malpertuis (1943) Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Voyeur (1955), Jealousy (1958) Dan Simmons, Song of Kali (1985) Peter Straub, If You Could See Me Now (1977) Whiltey Streiber, The Wolfen (1978) Theodore Sturgeon, Some of Your Blood (1956) Roland Topor, The Tenant (1964) Wilfrid Sheed, The Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania Gothic (1968) Dirik Van Sickle, Montana Gothic (1979) Patrik Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1986) H. Russell Wakefield, The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield (1978)–stories first published mainly between 1928 and 1935 Paul West, The Women of Whitechappel and Jack the Ripper (1992) Edith Wharton, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (1973)–stories first published between 1909 and 1937 Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Collected Ghost Stories (1974)–most stories first published between 1903 and 1927)
All right. Enough seriousness. It’s time for a bit of the dark side’s subtle chuckle.
Halloween may be the one yearly celebration I support whole-heartedly, give or take a battery-operated glow-in-the-dark screaming skeleton or two. It doesn’t have much in the way of a questionable historical background and isn’t drenched in either patriotism or Christianity—which is why we don’t get a day off for it. Although I’m typically working myself to the point of zombie idiocy in October, the month also comes with various pleasures: baseball playoffs, Pumpkin Ale (Buffalo Bill’s original only please, no knockoffs), weekend trips to the mountains for the changing leaves (not in San Diego, but that’s another story), parties where people feel more free than usual to act like sexually depraved Puritans on the rampage, and finally my favorite: horror movies.
Once, half-jokingly, A.L. Nielsen called me a “goth poet.” I don’t look the part, but it’s not entirely untrue. Longer poems like The Haunted Baronet (essentially impossible to get at this point, although I'd be glad to send you the text) and “The Monstrious Failure of Contemplation” (in Haze) certainly use the history of horror literature as a taking off point for their explorations. My two books of fiction, Dead Carnival and Walking Dreams, are clearly related to horror literature as well, with many avant twists of course. But as I’ve been watching horror movies over the last few weeks, I’ve been wondering why there’s not that much use of the tropes of the horror genre in contemporary poetry.
There are exceptions. Kevin Killian’s Argento Series is a very strong work. Daphne Gottlieb’s 203 book Final Girlgot quite a bit of attention, although its poems finally didn’t hold my attention. A little too flatly narrative, a little too gaudy in the packaging, which is like a horror movie, sure, but still. Alice Notley and C.A. Conrad are interested in tarot, but even though they both have something of a warrior mentality (of a very anti-war sort), they see their uses of magic as on some fundamental level healing, or at least as a kind of revolutionary freedom. But I’m talking horror here, the kind that may not have any redeeming qualities beyond exploring all the strange places that the human creature can imagine itself going. Fear, paranoia, dissociation, degeneracy, disintegration, that sort of thing. The moment when you go one way and your body another.
There are probably many reasons for the rather limited connections between contemporary poetry and horror literature. A politicized poet might rightly complain that the stylization of horror in a world of so much real violence remains a distraction from more profoundly important matters. And of course there’s the difficulty of lifting such work out of cliche. At least several of my musician friends from Philadelphia, for instance, (I won’t name them but they’re welcome to name themselves) think that horror images are just too cartoonish to lead to first rate music. Besides, genres like horror, sci fi, detective literature and others are often associated with the most naive, manipulative uses of narrative. To the extent that poetry (at least some of it) remains a kind of writing that can go beyond or question narrative, genre literature especially might seem that which poetry exists in opposition to, at least on the level of structure and development.
I can’t really say that horror is underused in contemporary poetry compared to other genre literatures. Poetry has taken up the concept of the detective perhaps more readily (especially French poets: I’m thinking of Oliver Cadiot and, if I’m recalling correctly, Emmanuel Hocquard), but uses of science fiction and speculative literature may be more rare. Frederick Turner’s The New World, a new formalist book from the mid 80s, is a book length science fiction epic that almost could be interesting, although it may very well be ruined by its pseudo-epic language. But I can’t think of much other science fiction poetry. And once we consider older literature like the graveyard poetry of the 18th century, as well as Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” there may very well be more than enough poetry linked to the gothic tradition.
So, what about it? Is the idea of poetry and horror a contemporary dead end? Is there just as much of it as there needs to be? Is there more than I’m aware of? What am I missing? Is the very idea an irresponsible stylization of violence?
I welcome your responses as I head back to my very own 13 Days of Halloween. Up right now on my reading list is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I’ll be teaching in my speculative literature course tomorrow.
I first met Maryrose Larkin in the later 1990s, when she still lived in the DC-Baltimore area. I believe it was Buck Downs who put her in touch with me. I published some of her work in my poetry magazine Situation, and she gave a reading in the Ruthless Grip Poetry Series that I hosted, when the series was still held in the Ruthless Grip Art Project gallery on the corner of 15th and U. Not long after that, Maryrose left the east coast, and I traded e-mails with her on occasion as she traveled west in various stages. She stopped in Lawrence, Kansas for several years, then ended up in Portland, Oregon, where she now lives, and where for several years she has been involved with the Spare Room collective, a group that organizes poetry readings and other arts events. There’s a very good set of poets in Portland these days, including Kaia Sand, Jules Boykoff, Joel Betteridge, Cynthia Kimball, Rodney Koeneke, and a number of others. When I was in Portland for the first time in my life at the end of March, to give a reading with Lorraine Graham hosted by the Spare Room group, the event was a genuine pleasure, with a good dinner beforehand and drinks after, and best of all a thoughtful and responsive audience. The Portland poetry community reminded me how much in the San Diego area I miss having a context in which innovative poetry is thriving in the city itself, not just at its universities. Maryrose is one of the people in Portland whose commitment to running literary events makes that kind of community possible.
This year, Catherne Daly’s i.e. press, out of Los Angeles, has published Maryrose’s first full-length collection of poetry, The Book of Ocean. And a fine first book it is, with sharply etched rhythms, and an intellectual complexity that’s insightful and emotionally resonant. Central to The Book of Ocean is a sense of the world and human experience in it as a kind of layering, almost a palimpsest like in the work of H.D., in which the peeling away of each layer reveals a further layer of significance.
From the beginning of the book’s opening poem, “Brief Gravity”:
I rhyme with the ground
and all at once it falls apple I am apple apple severed from tree not the snake or a woman but tree itself is discovery a force based on the world
something terrible had gone wrong, now I think something happened, but just a planet
everything earth occurs in resemblance In the material world, physics trap a pound of feathers in a pound of gold
10, 5 a man falling out of an airplane a woman falling out of a sky
(Note: The limitations of Blogger won't allow me, or at least I can't figure out how, to retain the original spacing of the poems, which are open field verse in which white space is crucial to the rhythm).
There are at least four main interweaved conceptual strands of The Book of Ocean, some of them highlighted in this poem, others emerging more blatantly elsewhere. There’s the geological, the literal fact of the earth and its geological strata as a condition of materiality, time and change. Closely connected to this is the historical; time and change understood in the context of human beings as a group. Then there’s also the self, a process of reflection and creativity, connection and dissolution. Finally, there’s a mythological impulse, the straining to find an overall meaning to all these layers of existence.
This mythological impulse, again reminiscent of H.D., is reflected by the organization of the book into six sections: Natural History, Gardens, Hours, The Life List, Music, Ocean. But crucial to The Book of Ocean is that the mythologically coherent totality that the book’s organization might suggest often collapses in the poems themselves. If there’s a mythology here, it’s one that deconstructs itself, challenging its own overarching meaning-making drives. The same can be said of the book’s other conceptual strands. There’s tension, action and reaction, but finally no stable whole. If earth and history make the self possible, the self shapes comprehension regarding earth and history. But there are also ways in which self struggles against earth and history, while earth and history confront the self with its often painful limitations.
The opening of the poem “Baptism” suggests some of the particulars at stake in these concepts:
Beginnings are found countries born just and raw
Imagine: fingers dark against white strange gardens earth gnaws earth new enclosing
her memories of arrival in this country
Here, the figure of the immigrant (or perhaps the slave) has become the self who records memories of change in countries and landscapes, while confronting and being shaped by the newness of “white strange gardens.” In context with the rest of the poem, these lines suggest that the concept of the immigrant is essential to human experience. The movement from one landscape, nation, culture, and natural environment to another seems an unavoidable change in the history of the self. While calling up particular histories of immigration, “Baptism” shows that the concept of the immigrant is not relevant simply to some people’s histories, but can serve as a resonant metaphor for many selves and their travels.
I'm often skeptical of such large scale myths and metaphors, because of the way they sometimes ignore historical specifics. And it’s precisely the fact that it shares this skepticism that makes The Book of Ocean so convincing to me. Given all the interweaved concepts, none finally controls the other, and none allows for more than a partial understanding of any phenomenon. The poems are filled with ellipses, with boundaries that can’t be crossed and statements that aren’t quite made, with silences and absences:
Fire fixed or wandering aster
illumed by earth this body
over silence I cannot pass
(from “Night House”)
In fact, many moments in The Book of Ocean teeter on the edge of intelligibility, as if at any moment coherence could be swept away for good.
Most of the poems in the book are ultimately about processes of interaction more than definitive conclusions, as the opening of “Changeling” implies:
We cross the phenomena of light
Here is what we have twisted There is the nature of
A name is not description but ornament, becoming and undergoing
To be wholly replaced as we travel
Look how quickly she becomes other, a changeling
In circumstances like these, understanding can never be either fixed or permanent, but becomes a fundamentally interactive process. And what The Book of Ocean finally shows is that writing poems can be a way of engaging the interactive condition of the changeling. The book’s finely honed rhythms, alternately clipped and wave-like, never let either the repetitions of the ocean or the disconnection of the fragment become dominant modes.
If you ask me, the world of poetry needs more people like Maryrose Larkin. She works on her writing carefully and consistently, and takes an active role in the life of local poetry communities. She’s not trying to be a power-broker or an in-the-poetry-world-news tastemaker. The Book of Ocean isn’t going to make any high profile Best of the Year poetry lists although probably it should, and it certainly makes my list, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t mean that I’m against writers whose work or personality has achieved a higher profile, or who are more eager to obtain attention for their concerns. But it’s important to remember that a lot of the hard work of poetry, the writing of it, and the effort of bringing a community of shared interests together, is done by people whose commitment to poetry may be more important to them, and bring more significance to their life and their interactions with others, than either broader public recognition or official reward.
Although I would hardly make a case for them as objective categories, and certainly not pure oppositions, when I think about who reads (or listens to) my writing, I tend to distinguish between two concepts: an audience and a reader.
Audience, to my mind, implies a certain size; it’s defined first and foremost by numbers. It’s therefore a deeply capitalist, bureaucratic concept. The moment that numbers of readers are the base issue, an work of literature has become a product whose effects, as a product, are measurable. How many units produced and sold, what name recognition was gained and in what venues, who made or lost money; who showed up for the reading and who paid for it; all are related to notions of audience. An audience is a demographic, a social segment that can be categorized, sometimes very specifically (as in a niche market, for instance). But however specifically defined, a demographic always remains to some degree faceless, a mass. Or it if has a face, it has many faces simultaneously, seen from the distance of the performer on a stage or the bookstore cashier who sells copies of a book to a line of customers. An audience may admire a work, love it, may worship or even fantasize about its creator (or replacing its creator), but the sense of distance remains essential. If there is an encounter between people—and there is—it always takes places across the distance of the produced moment and all the mechanisms that go into producing it.
My notion of a reader is more intimate, or perhaps better, conversational. If audience is always at least part mass, a reader is always specific, a particular person with a particular history who engages with the writing in a unique way. And perhaps engages even with the writer: there might be a conversation, a direct give and take about the work. I’m always pleased if someone tells me they like my writing, but it’s even more interesting when they say something specific about their reaction, what the work led them to think, or to do, to criticize or embrace. I don’t want to sentimentalize such moments; they can also be disturbing. I’ve thought more than once, “How could somebody possibly say that?” Still, and whatever my own relation to my writing, in such conversations I get a sense of the specific and often surprising effect of that writing in a world of others. The possibility of engaged conversation is important to me, whether about literature or any other topic. It’s a moment of close contact between people on a subject of shared interest to them. I don’t think it goes too far to say that good conversation has been one of my life’s central pleasures, and often a conscious goal. My writing itself often feels like part of a conversation.
But I’m a non-purist. I’m even anti-purist at times, while trying not to act too pure about being anti-purist. I’ve read to large audiences, and it can be great. I know that books are produced at a cost, that money is part of how books reach readers, that to insist on having readers while rejecting audiences implies a privatized mechanics of exchange that doesn’t escape capitalism so much as it has its own economic and social features, some potentially questionable. I want people to pick up copies of my books, and having an audience can help a writer have readers. At its best, an audience is nothing more than a gathering of individuals who want to listen. Besides, the image of being stuck in a room, surrounded by three or four people who have been reading my work over a lifetime, seems more like a dream of hell than heaven, unless good food and drink is involved. I don’t want my work’s value defined only by some in-crowd. I want it out in the larger world as well.
There’s finally a certain degree of the unknown involved in the idea of a reader. Quite seriously, I never know who will read my books, or why. Some of my colleagues and close friends don’t read them (they know me too well to need to hear more from me, maybe) whereas every now and then I’ll meet someone who’s been reading them closely for awhile and has a lot to say. I remember once reading an interview in Talisman with Gustav Sobin in which he said the ideal reader of his work was a 19-year old woman. That’s a funny answer in more ways than one (and a little, um, telling, although maybe you gotta admire his honesty if nothing else). But it helped remind me that I don’t have an image of my ideal reader, or even want one. In thinking about audiences and readers, there’s something crucial about the fact that writers never really know who’s reading their work, or what readers are going to do with what they’ve read. If I personally finally prefer a reader to an audience, that’s not simply because I can have a conversation only with a reader. It’s also because I may not know that reader yet. The concept of a reader includes not just the pleasure of conversation with those we know but also the important truth that the world and the people in it contain as yet unrealized possibilities for human contact.
Did you think I meant that, what I wrote above? Maybe just for an instant, feeling a flush of annoyance come over your face, one that was half a pleasant sense of moral superiority and half baffled outrage? Or were you sure that I couldn’t possibly mean it? And therefore picked up instantly that the next sentence would provide a twist?
Did you wonder for a second what kind of writer could actually want poetry to be more academic? I mean, I would wonder, and I am. I’m trying to imagine right now what sort of writer could want such a thing.
Being a Poet Against Academic Poetry (PAAP) is like being a Mother Against Drunk Driving (MADD), if you recall that organization from the 80s. I always remembered thinking about MADD, why do they have to declare it? To distinguish themselves from those mothers who are for drunk driving? My bet is that if you polled them, even mothers who drive drunk would declare themselves against drunk driving. What other stance could a mother take? “The more drunk drivers we have, the better mothers will feel.” No, probably no one holds that position.
In the same way, I would guess that poets are almost by definition against Academic Poetry, and that almost certainly includes a number of poets who other poets would accuse of writing Academic Poetry.
Thus to declare yourself against Academic Poetry is to declare yourself against a group that no one would acknowledge being part of.
What a relief to be against something that nobody really is for. You get to be angry and have everybody on your side simultaneously. Unless of course you start pointing fingers—and it’s only then, I suppose, that the game really gets interesting. Or maybe not. Accuse somebody of something like this and you give them only two choices: to deny it or ignore you. And since in the routinely sensationalized, scandal-loving present moment, denying something is more or less the same as admitting it, the usual result is a lot of silence.
But let’s say, for a second, that some of us might be Academic Poets without knowing it, in which case we would be against ourselves without knowing it. We would be at this moment denouncing the enemy in our midst without knowing we ourselves are the enemy. It’s like we’re in a Philip Dick novel. Here I am, glaring at myself across an alley strewn with administrative junkies, ready to shoot myself down.
The question would then be: how do we recognize an Academic Poet when we see one, especially when that Academic Poet might be us and is almost certain to deny it or to ignore the accusation?
Of course, when I say us here, I don’t really mean me. What I mean is, how do we recognize that somebody else is guilty? Especially when no one thinks they are.
One possible definition: Academic Poets are simply academics who write poetry. We would therefore be declaring ourselves against the idea that college professors can write poetry. It would have to be something about the university environment that made people unfit to write. Universities, and university departments where poetry is studied, would be the one kind of institution in the world in which people who worked there couldn’t possibly be good poets. Unless we start listing other professions and saying people who do that for a living couldn’t be good poets either. It makes me wonder what are the good jobs to have for writing poetry. Anybody out there have a good job for writing poetry?
Still, examining the university environment would lead to another perhaps more nuanced definition: working as an academic implies professional caution and also professional ambition. In other words, the poem plays it safe because it imagines itself up for tenure review. The poem is written because the author wants tenure, and maybe the writer didn’t even want to write it, or only wanted to because academic success would follow. And therefore the poem is written to conform to current academic standards, whatever will get the poet ahead, rather than for some more genuine reason of the poet’s soul or love of language or social outrage.
Is there a university class bias here, by the way? In other words, can adjuncts write Academic Poetry, perhaps under the illusion that the university they work for gives a shit about them? Can they write something that is not Academic Poetry, because of their second class status?
Of course, as the concept of the Ivory Tower implies, academic = the opposite of the real. Even academics know this. Academic Poetry in this conception speaks only to other academics, who are not real or in the real world, while Real Poetry speaks about the Real World. Academic Poetry is not Real Poetry.
I’m against Real Poetry.
Now come on. You didn’t really think I would say that and mean it. I’m very much in favor of poetry when it’s real.
Combining all the above definitions, we have the following: Academic Poetry is a bland cautious poem written mainly or only for tenure review, real or imaginary, a poem eager to conform to current academic standards and indifferent towards the rest of the world.
Interestingly, it’s hard to push the above definition to any clearer aesthetic definition. Obviously, a poem written solely for tenure when Charles Bernstein is on your tenure review committee and a poem written solely for tenure when Tony Hoagland is on your tenure review committee have nothing aesthetically in common.
My apologies to Charles and Tony, both of whom are, I’m sure, opposed to Academic Poetry, and rightly so.
I mean, a poet writing such a poem would have an ulterior motive for everything the poem said. The poem would be nothing more than a power maneuver.
I’m definitely against that. Except in those instances when power maneuvers are fascinating. But maybe that’s an issue for another time.
What almost all poets are truly opposed to, I would finally conclude, are the straitjackets of professionalism, the way they insidiously corrupt and limit our freedom of speech and action, and worse, can do so without our always being aware of it, so that we sometimes participate in our own corruption.
Yep, I’m definitely against that. It’s a real problem, the way all of us are connected to institutions in so many ways, and how those institutions really can shape and change what we think and do.
What MADD was finally about, of course, was organizing mothers to take practical steps against drunk drivers. This is what PAAP will also be about: we will organize and ferret out Academic Poets wherever we find them.
Who’s with me?
And after we’re done, we won’t stop there. Our next step will be to ferret out bad poetry.
But maybe that won’t work. Maybe there aren’t enough poets against bad poetry. Are you against bad poetry? Let your voice be heard.
Ron Silliman and others have taken to calling this moment in contemporary literature and art “post-avant.” I don’t know whether Silliman has defined that term, and my suspicion is that in some ways he may be using it pejoratively. What I take the term to mean is that we live in a moment when characterizing contemporary writers in terms of their adherence to specific literary traditions (especially when divided along lines of “avant garde” vs. “traditional”) has become an overly limiting approach. Increasingly, many writers do not define themselves as working in a tradition so much as they borrow from many traditions and depart from them as well. What’s good about such a situation is the liberated potentials it offers a host of literary and related practices. There’s flexibility, looseness, a playfulness regarding the history of literature and art that rejects easy categories and straitjackets of lineage. What’s dangerous about it is a possibility that I might characterize as “amorphous blob”; writing whose fuzzy relation to historical influence is not marked by liberated daring so much as by the vagueness and incoherence of not trying to find out where you came from and not knowing where you are. There’s possibility in not knowing the past too certainly and not being too directive about the future. But that’s not the same thing as walking around in a daze. Being unaware of material conditions and literary history is not the same as being free of them.
But I need to be careful here, because when looking at the poetry of other people, it’s easy to confuse the difference between vagueness and a struggle you haven’t yet learned to understand.
Besides, too much of the talk about contemporary poetry, whether formal criticism or casual conversation, seems to carry a nostalgic sense that there ought to be less worthwhile ways of writing poetry.
There’s a difference between insight and making individual aesthetic preferences into absolutes.
When I’m speaking with students, I always try to point out how much more than entertainment is at stake in a work of literature. Literature, I suggest, can deal with the whole range of human complexity, all possible ideas and emotions, and therefore can do a lot more than briefly entertain us. It can help us better understand and engage with many elements of our experience in the world, and I suppose beyond it. And while it can certainly give us pleasure, there’s a lot more going on in that pleasure than simply a momentary distraction.
Yet sometimes, when reading the work of poets or listening to them read, I wish they had considered the value of entertainment more. There’s a dullness to the lines, or to the way they’re being read, that suggests the writer or performer hasn’t made enough effort to be entertaining: that is, hasn’t attempted enough to make the work engage not just the writer, but the reader or the audience too.
I’m not talking here about a self-consciously flat reading style, a la John Ashbery, nor do I think it’s fair to suggest that poets (writers) must necessarily be good live performers of their work, although I wish some of them had thought about performance more. Nor am I suggesting that most poetry readings are boring. I find poetry readings fascinating, and I love going to them.
Besides, these days the world of avant literatures at least is full of performance elements, from lively reading styles to acting and sound and visual effects, etc. Sometimes I’m even wary of these performance elements. If it seems, for instance, like a writer has tacked on these elements just to keep us from being bored with the actual written words, I can be skeptical. It can seem like the added performance elements serve as a cover for a lack of liveliness in the writing itself, or are pandering to the audience in the general belief that everybody finds poetry dull. In cases of this kind (I’m naming no names on purpose here, obviously), I find myself distrustful of the way that the entertainment seems to be a kind of apology. Poets already apologize too much for poetry. So I think it’s also true that a poem or a performance can try too hard to entertain, and in so doing neglect other important elements.
What do you think about the significance of entertainment in literature or performance? Is the whole concept of entertainment too degraded by its association with the idea of mindless entertainment, which suggests that entertainment is no more than a frivolous distraction from the world’s serious business, and one that usually reinforces harmful social norms in the balance? Or can the concept of entertainment be seen more constructively, for instance in its potentially complex relation to pleasure? Do you as a writer or performer wish to entertain your readers or audience? Do you as a reader or audience member wish to be entertained? Is the concept of entertainment degrading to the importance of literature, or one of the key elements of that importance?
I'm wondering what poets these days see their poems as sincere expressions of their own desires (as authors, as people) and what poets believe that, in a poem, the voice of the poem has its own identity, separate from the author in some ways (in however many ways it may be connected).
I think that a lot of the discussions and debates going on in contemporary poetics turn out to hinge on this particular issue, a fact that often surprises me. So I'd really like to know what people think.
Do the poems you write express your desires? Or does the use of language become a mediating condition that creates a distance between your desires and the desires expressed in the poems that you write?
My credit card company tried to steal $39 from me today, but I caught them and they're giving it back, which they'll do sometimes if you catch them. But you have to keep your eye out. I've written only one poem I'm immediately aware of that references credit cards, from my manuscript Belief Is Impossible. This poem and many others from the manuscript have been published in magazines but the manuscript itself has never been published:
Between corporate downsizing and rampant part-time underpayment a group of people wander, silent in halls that separate them.
If I wanted to be a hermit high in the hills above Los Angeles sooner or later credit companies would steal the wine from my bamboo hut.
Anybody know any other poems about credit cards? Please send one that you know of, or if you don't know of any, write one yourself and send it to me.
"Some Things I Don't Know: Reflections on Process in Politics and Literature" was a talk I gave at the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver on May 13, 2007. The piece features a series of associatively-connected paragraphs written between November 2006 and May 2007.
I tend to consider process-oriented writing differently than texts created through more conventional methods of authorship. Without getting into all the judgments involved in deciding what’s “better,”if it remains true that when we're looking at process-oriented work, we know it's process-oriented work, then that means we continue to see that work as categorically different and so are likely to consider it by different standards. Much though not all processual work tends to highlight concept and performativity more than close attention to line by line reading (though of course conventional writing is still a kind of performance). Is that difference a problem? Sometimes I think yes, sometimes no. Depends on what you've gone to the work for. As Roland Barthes would note, none of us ever read every line of a text anyway. But how does it change our habits of reading that with many process-oriented texts, we know there's no real point even in trying to read every line? In a certain scenario, we would begin to decide that any given line of a text doesn't really matter that much—which of course is only true, in some sense, and unfortunately inattentive in another. We would dip into the text here and there, picking out lines and moments of interest, without assuming that its totality was relevant except as concept. But does such a notion do away with problematic Modernist dependence on totality or simply encourage readers to care less about the specifics of a text and more about its conceptual framework and aura?
featuring poetry by Jasper Bernes, Charles Bernstein, Regis Bonvicino, Jack Boettcher, Tim Botta, Julia Cohen, Shanna Compton, John Cotter, Shafer Hall, Lisa Jarnot, Pierre Joris, Joan Kane, Noelle Kocot, Jason Labbe, Kathleen Ossip, The Pines, Matthew Rohrer, Kate Schapira, Mathias Svalina, Kathryn Tabb, Allison Titus and Betsy Wheeler.
in translation with Sergei Kitov and Octavo Paz.
musical work by Aaron Einbond.
prose by Joe Amato, Peter Ciccariello, Simon DeDeo, Adam Golaski, Kent Johnson, Amy Newman, Davis Schneiderman and Tyler Williams.
edited by Elisa Gabbert and Simon DeDeo; with great gratitude to Irwin Chen and his class at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Absent seems to me one of a number of intriguing online magazines (Melancholia's Tremulous Deadlocks is another) being edited by young writers. Magazines published by up-and-coming writers provide excellent insights, I think, into the ways a new generation of writers sees both themselves and their relationship to the larger environments of poetry--and often to the environment of their predecessors in particular.
I remember the combination of interest and suspicion that publications I was involved with through the 90s received from writers both of my own generation and of previous generations. Some of you may recall that conversation could be pretty intense and heated. One of the things I remember deciding for myself at that time was that when I was older, I was never going to become one of those "What's All This Then?" people who seemed to come right out of a Monty Python skit. I thought, when it's my turn to be an "older poet" (and we'll leave aside the problematics of that term, or not, as you will), I'm going to do my best to be interested in what comes afterwards, and not to try to force it to be like what me and my own generation were engaged in doing.
So, anybody have a good reading of the area and range of interests being traced in a magazine issue like this issue of Absent? What exactly are the Youth of Today up to?
Answers to this question should begin with phrases like: "When I read this magazine, what I see in the Youth of Today is..."
Or, if you are one of the Youth of Today, things like "Speaking as one of the Youth of Today, I can really relate to this magazine because..." or "As a proud Youth of Today, I have to say that this magazine in no way really represents the interests of today's youth because..."
My apologies to the editors for putting it this way; my own giddiness is no reflection on their work. It's just that the first week of school makes me feel like (as they used to say in my neighborhood when I was still a Youth of Today) "someone has just gone upside my head with a board." I am genuinely interested in people's takes on this issue.
For may people, especially but not only those of us who teach, the weeks leading up to Labor Day are like the Sunday night of the whole year. The hard work hasn’t started but the shelf life on good times is running out. There are a few days to take a final short outing somewhere, put a final touch on those summer projects, stash your provisions or otherwise get prepared, whatever you do on Sunday night to convince yourself that you’re ready for the next morning, which of course you never are.
And now here it is, the Sunday night of the year, and it’s also Sunday night. I’ve got a full 14-hour day tomorrow.
In terms of its structural relationship to the society I live in, for me the kinds of writing I do break down pretty blatantly into a shape like this:
When I’m working, critical writing is sometimes most possible, when I have any time at all, because it’s most like the kind of writing I have to do for my job. Fiction is more difficult, and poetry almost impossibly strange.
I don’t mean to say though that I don’t write any poetry during the regular university semesters, just that writing it requires a painfully conscious effort to twist my brain into a shape entirely unlike the shape it has during the work day. In fact for many years I’ve made a huge effort to write at least some poetry during long work days (all of Party In My Body was written that way; one ten line poem a day from Monday to Friday whether I wanted to or not, and I almost never wanted to) because it’s so much unlike everything else that my life is about that it takes on a kind of talismanic power. It’s a source of something that I need to get back to if I can, especially at those moments when it most feels like I’m about to have to abandon it for good.
I was finally able to write quite a bit of new poetry this summer, but only after I wrote some critical pieces and some fiction, as if I had to write all the way through the distance between myself and the possibility of poetry. It was as if writing the fiction actually allowed me to feel comfortable (some level of comfort anyway) writing poetry. I liked the effects it had. And now that it’s all drifting away, I’m gearing myself up for the effort to try to get back to it again.
But how do you get it back again, when you feel it going? I’ve managed it repeatedly, but I still don’t understand how. Anybody have some good techniques to keep it all from drifting away for good?
When I was in Vancouver in May, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to a reading by Clint Burnham, a writer now based in Vancouver whose work I had known something about for years, but whose work I’ve only read in-depth for the first time this summer.
Donato Mancini, a brilliant young writer (and author of a first book, Ligatures, that combines concrete poems and textual process pieces in fascinating ways) who I met in Vancouver and who helped arrange several events for me there, was surprised that I had heard of Clint, and proceeded to insist how much he liked his writing, and especially his fiction, which I had never heard about. I was surprised that Donato was surprised that I knew who Clint was, and Donato was surprised at my surprise and so on. But in any case, if having heard of Clint Burnham may or may not be surprising, anyone discovering the range of his work for the first time is going to find themselves startled more than once.
Burnham is perhaps best known in the United States as the author of a book of criticism on Duke University Press, The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory, which made a pretty big noise when it was published in 1995. It’s an inventive combination of hardcore scholarly analysis, off-kilter mixing of pop culture and academic references, and lively language. But Burnham is at least marginally well known south of the border as a poet too, and I had certainly encountered his work in a number of publications.
Burnham’s most recent book of poems, Rental Van (scroll down the link to find the book) which was the focus of his reading, is a very complex blend of avant garde technique, colloquial vulgarity, and political outrage. Moments of overt anger tend to be subverted both by humor and by Burnham’s tendency to complicate the position of the text’s various voices relative to the problems he investigates, from the Iraq war to more local political and social betrayals. Burnham never allows the voices of his text the simplicity of critiquing some fallen other side from a position of self-righteous purity. Instead the voices are deeply enmeshed in the problems they describe; language in the poems gets thrown around as a sort of chaotic cloud that the voices are necessarily inside: Here’s the opening of “British Props”:
shovel petals fissiparous dictionary guitar neck cup holders very different
length keep the hand
piedbald dWalt culture a test she’s so on it snap-on calendar’s gone tit’s up
heels into eyes kept to the forefront open to use it
my old man she rubs this ball
possible with the rise of the keyboard hold
something else inside a opium “he got for ‘er” take out
suck embarrassment affect you?
Burnham certainly doesn’t allow his poems any simple access to representation: although there’s plenty of representation in the book, language also sometimes becomes an opaque white noise with suggestive variations, or a series of smoke screens inside smoke screens.
Speaking of smoke, though, the biggest surprise for me was discovering that Burnham is also a fiction writer. There’s no shortage of smoke of all kinds in his two books of fiction to date, the short story collection Airborne Photo (scroll down the link to find the book) and the novel Smoke Show. If Burnham’s new book of poems is recognizably contemporary avant garde in its linguistic techniques, I guarantee you that you haven’t read fiction like his before. The voices of the characters, and the stories they tell, comprise almost the whole of the narrative structure. They’re all characters from the seamy side of life in the cities, suburbs, and towns of western Canada. The unemployed, uneducated, drug addicts and dealers, alcoholics, ex-soldiers, women and men with children but no money, no future, and just about any deviance you can think of—and you can be certain that Burnham’s characters have thought of more types of deviance than you can. Everything happens in a haze of inarticulateness, yet at the same time, Burnham’s sense of voice is remarkably precise. He captures quite exactly everything his characters can’t say. Here’s the opening of the story “French Canadian Units”:
The thing is, what everyone knew was, if you talk to a buddya mine who was over there, you know, he’ll, he’ll tell ya, you know, he’ll tell ya, ya, you know he’ll tell ya, it’d get much worse. If they found the stuff, the documents about what happened, what really happened, it’d sure be a lot worse. But, you know, it’s the higher-ups.
Because of this focus on the colloquial, the structure of these pieces makes them undeniably inventive, and avant garde in a very original way. Voices ramble, break off suddenly, get forgotten, say the most banal and outrageous things simultaneously, and then just stop and that’s the story. There’s often no conventional development of any sort.
Airborne Photo, the earlier book, may have just a tinge of shock for the sake of shock, although the story “The Jesus Sex Doll Box” is every bit as funny as it needs to be in the face of that title. It’s also the story, apparently, that a Vancouver area professor was sued simply for teaching, for those of you who like to be in on the lurid details. Smoke Show, the follow-up novel (if you want to call it a novel, and since Burnham does I’ll let him), traces a more consolidated arc that nonetheless goes absolutely nowhere. The book’s brilliant concluding sections finally just fade away every bit as absolutely as the narrative voice in a Beckett novel.
So Burnham is a writer who does excellent work in criticism, poetry, and fiction, all of it innovative, some of it absolutely original, and most of it a lot less known than it might be. I guess it’s no surprise that his range of talents would appeal to me, and it turns out he’s exactly my age too.
Last e-mail I had from him though, about a month or more ago, he had little time to write, since he was buried under a mound (as they say, as Robert Creeley would say) of summer school grading. But finally that’s no big surprise either: it may just be what you earn for being a renaissance man during the dark ages.
But where will you be? If you're near Berkeley, I hope you'll drop by. If you're nowhere near there or otherwise can't make it, leave me a comment telling me all about the fun you're having somewhere else in the world.
Come celebrate the release of the first issue of FOLD MAGAZINE, published by Insert Press.
Readings by Franklin Bruno, K. Lorraine Graham, William Moor, Mathew Timmons, and Mark Wallace.
The emphasis of this issue is on the use of borrowed, stolen, plundered, reused, retooled and/or sampled texts to create literature and includes essays by Mark Wallace and Guy Bennett that discuss these methods. Our intent is to present the work of writers who use text which they did not originate and do not own or own only by virtue of appropriation.
Contributors to Fold Appropriate Text are: Harold Abramowitz, Guy Bennett, Franklin Bruno, Teresa Carmody, Marcus Civin, Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, K. Lorraine Graham, Jen Hofer, Mark Hoover, Mike Magee, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, William Moor, Bruna Mori, JeffreyJoe Nelson, Vanessa Place, Dan Richert, Rod Smith, Michael Smoler, Mark Wallace.
Insert Press is edited by Stan Apps and Mathew Timmons. Insert Press has published chapbooks THREE COLUMN TABLE by Harold Abramowitz and ABSURD GOOD NEWS by Julien Poirier. HANDSOME FISH OFFICES by Ara Shirinyan, the first perfect-bound book published by Insert Press is forthcoming.
Visit InsertPress for more information and to purchase fine literature.
These notes are part of a series and I'd welcome response.
“As for the threat that science might post to the liberty and singularity of the literary experience, it suffices, to do justice to the matter, to observe that the ability, produced by science, to explain and understand that experience—and thus to give oneself to the possibility of a genuine freedom from one’s determinations—is offered to all those who want to and can appropriate it.” (Preface xvii)
I greatly appreciate the idea that explaining and understanding the literary experience can offer a “genuine freedom” from one’s determinations, and that this possibility should be offered to all those “who want to and can appropriate it.” But a distinction is being made here between the literary experience (all the things that go into the making of a work of literature) and the work of literature itself. And scientific analysis is certainly well-suited tell us a lot about the “literary experience.” But of course isn’t one of the promises of literature itself that it can explain and understand experience, and in so doing give us the possibility of a genuine freedom from our determinations? If it weren’t for the slippage between “literary experience” and the idea of the work of literature, there would be a real danger here of implying that the work of literature does not offer the possibility of genuine freedom from one’s determinations, that it is the job of the scientist to do so.
Literature, because it often shows rather than tells (some of it), has often been treated as needing to be explained by someone else. Yet it’s not at all clear that a scientist is better able to free us of the determinations of the world than a work of literature simply because the work of literature shows those determinations at work. And if the scientist is more capable of direct explanation, that would simply be because direct explanation is not usually the way literature goes about exploring the world. It embodies, rather than explaining from outside. And is literature or science more capable of dealing with those moments when explanation breaks down? Isn’t literature more capable than science of dealing with those things about the world that maybe cannot be explained, if there are any such things?
A response I received from Stan Apps regarding some earlier comments I made about what I might term the "human resource" problem of contemporary innovative poetry (which might be summarized as "how do people get interested in these things?" and "how can we keep getting people interested in these things?") reminded me that a lot of my east coast friends may have a less than complete picture of what's going on in the L.A. poetry community outside of the various university programs.
Rather than my attempting to summarize all that, which I couldn't possibly do, I'd like to give the credit where it belongs to those folks who helped Lorraine and me figure out what was happening in that so much more cosmopolitan city to the north of ours.
Stan himself (just now moved to Tampa, sadly for us all) was the first person we met, after he and his co-hosts invited Lorraine and I to read in a Sunday night reading series at L.A.' s infamous The Smell. He picked us up at the train station and went with us to lunch, then we spent the afternoon before the reading at the Getty Museum. At that first event we met his co-hosts Jane Sprague and Ara Shirinyan, both of whom run fantastic small presses that publish a lot of worthwhile books.
We met many other people through that event and on several following trips that we took to L.A. Catherine Daly helped set up a reading for Tom Orange, Lorraine and me at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, a performance venue with a great small press library currently being run by Fred Dewey. Earlier in the day Catherine had taken all three of us to the LaBrea tar pits, where ancient L.A. area poets were thrown after bad performances. Catherine runs a small press too, and I've been consistently impressed by the range and quality of poetry books being published in L.A.
It was the night of the Beyond Baroque event that we met Joseph Mosconi, a poet who has since become a very good friend, and who has graciously put us up on a number of L.A. trips. It's hard to describe how great it's been spending time with Joseph and his partner Rita Gonzalez and getting to know about their involvement in the worlds of literature and art. They are the editors of the soon-to-be-published first issue of Area Sneaks, a journal devoted to the intersections between poetry and the visual arts.
Mathew Timmons, one of the co-organizers of the Betalevel events, has also invited us to read and be part of various L.A. events. As with all these other people, Matt's energy for coordinating performances and publishing literary magazines ( most recently Fold Appropriate Text, edited in conjunction with Stan Apps) is both impressive and welcoming. Courtesy of Matt's organizing efforts, we're headed next weekend to Berkeley to give a reading at Pegasus Books.
We've met (or seen again, if we knew them already) lots of other poets in L.A. as well: Mark Salerno, Diane Ward, Aaron Kunin, Deborah Meadows, Harold Abramowitz, Stephanie Rioux, Will Alexander and quite a few others.
On our last trip I finally met Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place, whose Les Figues Press is another of the L.A. poetry outfits that's really producing fine books. Teresa has recently become co-host of the reading series at The Smell.
That's quite a roll call of talent and effort, and all told, it adds up to a really vibrant poetry scene that's become a crucial aspect of my life as a writer in Southern California.
I’ve had many fantastic experiences in my life, and have enjoyed myself thoroughly, often to impressively destructive degrees. I’ve had fun, experienced pleasure, felt thrill and powerful senses of anticipation, certainly have felt surprise and even awe. I've felt great love towards others and a sense of mutual caring. But I have to admit: the concept of joy is one I don’t understand. I even have trouble describing what it might be: a profoundly positive sense of connection with the world, a momentary or lasting sense of that world as a wonderful place and my being part of it as wonderful also? Some kind of tremendous spiritual uplift or downward merging with the physicality of everything? It makes me want to laugh. Frankly, I’d be tempted to make fun of the idea as sentimental, self-righteous, self-deluded drivel, if it weren’t for my suspicion that the desire to trample on the possibility of joy is central to a great deal of the mistreatment of others that’s been so constant an element of human experience.