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.
First of all, let me say that I did enjoy reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I was bored enough with the first two chapters that I almost put it down, but the book got better after that. Or at least better enough that I kept reading. The narrator and main character, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and tries to solve and avenge the murder of his boss, was interesting enough, and the way Lethem drew a link between associations in language and discovering the hidden motivations in people’s lives was done well. The book even had some truly funny stupid jokes.
None of this was material of startling brilliance though. The elements of detection in the novel were handled half-heartedly, being perhaps not quite the point in a book that is only making use of the notion of detective novels in order supposedly to tell us something more significant, or at least to entertain us differently. The characters involved with organized crime weren’t particularly original either, although making some of them simultaneously involved with a Zen Buddhist organization was a clever if ultimately overly obvious twist: men of a world of violent action posing as men of inner peace. So I thank the friend who recommended Lethem to me (half-heartedly enough himself, as it turned out) for leading me to look at the work of this novelist whose book reviews are regularly featured in the NY Times Book Review.
What does bug me though is that Motherless Brooklyn was winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and was named by Esquire as novel of the year. Why would that be exactly? For its mugging references to Raymond Chandler (whose books I kept wishing I was reading instead every time Lethem’s main character mentioned them) while it simultaneously distanced itself from being considered mere genre fiction by the human truths it supposedly offered? And what were those? Would they include the insight offered by the character Julia that the narrator’s boss “said the reasons you were useful to him was because you were crazy everyone thought you were stupid’? In other words, that because of prejudice towards the disabled, their abilities are often overlooked? Is this what prompted Esquire’s statement that the book is “utterly original and deeply moving”? There were some original moments, but I was moved just about zero percent of the time.
I’ll stop carping though. I’m hoping I’ve learned by now that books win literary prizes because they appeal to the values of the judges of literary prizes. Sometimes those values are even good values, and sometimes books that win awards really are extraordinary books. Not this one, but sometimes. And of course all criticisms of this kind always contain that nasty subtext: why aren’t my values the ones being consulted in the awarding of literary prizes? Still, I’m hard pressed to imagine that anyone really does think Motherless Brooklyn is a great book, although it seems that some do. It was a decent summer read, no more.
But here’s my problem. The book was just decent enough that I can imagine someone saying of Lethem, “Well, that one was okay, but you really should have read his book so-and-so.” And I can imagine myself being persuaded enough to buy one more book by Lethem. And if that one was similarly okay? Would I then be led to a third by somebody else, and so on?
In other words, how many times am I willing to let the apparatus of praise keep me reading the work of a writer who, on a first take, I found only marginally satisfying?
I’m wondering if anybody else has similarly been led down the garden path of praise to read repeated books by a writer they don’t like that much. For the moment I’m holding my ground and reading no more Lethem. But I’ve been led down this path a few too many times to think I’ll never be led down it again.
These notes are part of an ongoing, under construction project. Responses are welcome.
“Is it true that scientific analysis is doomed to destroy that which makes for the specificity of the literary work and of reading, beginning with aesthetic pleasure? And that the sociologist is wedded to relativism, to the leveling of values, the lowering of greatness... And all because the sociologist is thought to stand on the side of the greatest number, the average, the mean, and thus of the mediocre...” (Preface, xvi)
Intriguing to read Bordieu’s critique of these typical assumptions that the defender of art is the (usually elitist) defender of the exceptional case of the literary object and author, whereas the scientist sociologist is seen as a crude, knee-jerk democratic relativist. His comments are clearly marked by their French context. What to make of them here in the U.S., where in the cultural imagination literature is considered irrelevant unless it reaches a broad audience and therefore “stands on the side of the greatest number”? Similarly, the scientist is often imaged as the pale weirdo of genius (usually male but not inevitably) pursuing a valuable esoterica that might someday “save the world” while being incomprehensible to the masses. The artist irrelevant, the scientist an artist.