Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The End of America

As part of the Positions Colloquium in Vancouver last August, the colloquium organizers published a limited edition collection of poetics statements from those of us who had gathered. We were asked also to provide a brief excerpt of the work we would be presenting. Since that collection was a conference-only publication that may no longer be available (and since I’ve had a busy past week), I thought I’d just put my piece from the collection up here. I hope the statements by the other writers will be available again in printed form at some point.

The colloquium was the inaugural reading for the long poem, The End of America, that I’ve been working on since September 2006 (the start of my second year living in California). If anybody would like an e-mail copy of the 17-single spaced pages that make up Book One of the poem and are excerpted from below, let me know. I think it’s ready to be seen at this point. And also, anybody who would like a free copy of my most recently published book of poems, Felonies of Illusion, for potentially writing a review, please let me know that too.

Oh, and re the photo above: the country around here really does look like that, from some angles. From other angles it looks like a parking lot.


from The End of America, Book One

So many people searching
for the end of America: from here
it’s not much, white jeep
cutting tracks through sand, black-suited surfer
fighting into the water, surfboard raised high,
runners, walkers of dogs and babies, blinking lights on the turret
of the Encinas Power Station, a constantly changing
breeze through the palms. Coast Highway slow through town.
Cars, which can’t imagine traveling. Beach fires prohibited
except in marked pits, a note to the crucial
need to fear fire. I grab one more instance
of love and rage, impotent and powerful
by turns, looking for more
than I already know. The end of the land, instant myth,
becomes a place to look from, or look away, to walk,
to head on out. All those poets
who seemed certain what they wanted, the ocean
a source of world, result of cosmos,
mystery under the crest of a wave.
Too much is not forgotten but never known,
history no more than the present webbing
distortion of what’s temporarily remembered. Money back,
no cash down, no payments this year, good annual rates.

A roadmap has a poetics also, on some level a conscious one. But the degree to which the poetics of the roadmap seems a cultural given makes a self-consciously explored geographical poetics necessary, not so much a response to prevailing hierarchies as a reshaping of them.

I’ve taken a few positions in my life—sometimes even insightful ones—but more often positions have taken me. Rarely has that been more true than in writing The End of America, a project that has helped me explore what it’s like to live in a place I never expected to live. Anyone who knows me well can attest that my sense of self is greatly shaped by my east coast urban experience. Like many poets I’ve often needed money, and when after many years of searching I was offered a position I could stand to take, I took it, but since my options weren’t multiple it’s not so clear who did the taking. And so this east coast poet found himself in North County San Diego, miles of strip malls proliferating among the dry natural beauty of hills and mountains over which no one has been able to build a railroad. People vote 60% percent Republican here. The local papers argue that George W. Bush’s problem is that his overspending desire to democratize the world makes him too liberal. Luckily so many people live here these days that 40% non-Republicans adds up to several million. Still, I work at a college in hill country and live two blocks from the ocean in a suburbanized beach village around which houses sprawl in every direction except into the water. It’s from conditions like these that The End of America began.

Actually the project wasn’t even my idea. I was talking, as I do often, to poet K. Lorraine Graham about my exhaustion from new conditions at work and not having energy for writing. She suggested that I should just write down what I see. And so The End of America began, a few lines every few days. A geography, not a landscape, in the sense that a geography includes how culture and economics and power interact with the natural world. Not a catalog, though it catalogs at times, and not a view from outside, but one that’s inside and outside both, alienated in a home that isn’t home.

The title has two meanings. I literally live about 1000 feet from where America, at least in one direction, ends. Beyond it is water. Of course many of us are keenly aware of the difference between America and The United States of America. And not only, I hope, because America as a geographical location includes many peoples, cultures, nations, islands and even several continents. For myself at least, and maybe others, the mythical ghost of America as a place where justice and freedom are possible haunts me long after the corpse has been buried. The project struggles with a concept: the end of America, one that many people assert, or want, even as the United States and Canada and Mexico and much else remain operating entities. Sometimes I think I’m working out a dystopic response to Whitman, wrestling with his vision of a free America in the original Leaves of Grass while trying to critique the grandiosity with which he wanted the United States to swallow the world.

There are four books so far, each getting along towards whatever completeness they’re going to have, and each with a different way of exploring the relation between aesthetics and meaning. I’m not sure yet whether there will be further books. An idea that wasn’t my idea, defined by a position that may have taken me more than I took it. That defines fairly neatly some of the problems faced by those of us who, as poets, recognize that the world’s condition is not one we have chosen and one which we often struggle against, but one that we nonetheless live within while simultaneously working through a poetics of what might otherwise exist. Our writing is our first example of what this other place might be.


dj signifier said...

I! remember also that your inauguration of this also ended the conference - The conference itself inaugurated by Dude beer, Andrea with a chorus, then rain, then a living room full of shapes.

I would love a copy if you don't mind sending it


mark wallace said...

You remember rightly, down to the Dude Beer, djs, or w, or whoever you are. It was a good time for sure.

Drop me a line on e-mail and I'll send the text along to you:


And thanks very much for your interest.

Joe Safdie said...

Hi Mark -- from our previous dialogues, you might expect that I'd like this poem a lot more than the ones in Felonies of Illusion, and you'd be right -- I'd be very interested in seeing those 17 pages! But then, I've been labeled as an adherent of the "poetry of witness" or "docu-poems" (as Nada had it in a recent entry on her blog), and I think that's true, if one doesn't contrast that preference with an attention to language -- as if the two don't always exist together. (In fact, I have an essay coming in the next Big Bridge that values simple empiricism as somewhat of a lost art, so I approve of Lorraine's advice to you!)

By chance, I'm teaching Shakespeare's Richard II this week, and the contrast in that play between the stolid and sturdy Bolingbroke, relying on physical strength and material fact, and the more mercurial, sensitive and imaginative rhetorician Richard ("Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs, / Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth") suggests a particularly simplistic reading of some recent blogosphere debates. My feeling is that poets live on the earth, a consciousness of which shouldn't blunt a simultaneous wonder for the intricacies of language, which is why I look forward to reading the poem.

(By the way, I at first thought that your paragraph right after the poem was part of it, a "hybrid" technique I'm fond of, the poet explaining the poem to herself as she goes along . . .)

Doug said...

Mark, I'd like to read it

mark wallace said...

Joe, absolutely your response doesn’t surprise me, and thanks for the useful goad.

While I don’t mind that you have a personal preference for a certain kind of poetry, it’s in the degree (not always entirely clear to me) which you try to couch your preferences in some kind of truth about the nature of language and the world that makes your ideas feel not that helpful for me.

While reference and style are part of any piece of any writing, it hardly follows from that they should be used the same way every time or have the same relation to each other. Reference and style, for instance, might work at odds with each other. It’s sometimes intriguing to not use all the possible aspects of language, suppressing one to highlight the other and so forth (as for instance sound poetry does, or the work of Beckett). And since reference is unavoidable (even nonsense sound poems create the same kinds of references to emotion and organization and culture as music does), it doesn’t make sense to me to demand that it’s “right” to do it only one way or that the “best” poetry will always do it that way.

Your objection to the second part of Felonies, for instance—as far as I can tell, since you’ve really said nothing specific except that you don’t like it—is not that it doesn’t do well what it’s trying to do. Instead you seem to think it shouldn’t do it at all (which makes the issue of whether it does it well irrelevant). It explores a possibility of language that, as far as you’re concerned, shouldn’t be explored in poetry or at least can’t make worthwhile poetry when it is explored.

By the way, and I say this not for you so much as for others that might be reading, obviously there is a long history of poetry that works with the referential nature of language is ways other than the conventional clear image: Stein’s Tender Buttons is an obvious example. And three favorites of mine: Clark Coolidge’s books Own Face, Solution Passage and Sound As Thought. I just want to say that in case anybody reading this thinks that the issue is that one must choose either conventional representational images or something purely anti-representational that “says nothing.” But since the second possibility doesn’t exist, the choice is a false one. The issue isn’t whether words refer to the world or not. It’s how they do.

Therefore, even the second part of Felonies is very significantly representational, albeit perhaps in a different way (I hope) than is common.

All told, as far as I’m concerned what you call here “living in the world” seems an attempt to limit considering all the ways language—and therefore people—do live in the world. It seems an attempt to control what people should or shouldn’t try with words. But they’re going to keep on trying, believe me. In fact I keep thinking about how many great poems would not exist if “poetry of witness” was really the only kind of poetry that anybody ever wrote, or if no one ever wrote poetry that challenged the status of the conventional image.

As to your analogy of strong if perhaps obtuse working men vs. neurotic ineffectual fem aesthetes, it doesn’t seem to me so much a reductive parody of recent poetry debates as a mischaracterization. It’s a little too close for comfort to the conventional American stereotype about what all poets are like.

You probably will enjoy the first book of End of America. But you may not like the later books, which stretch the idea of representation in various ways, sometimes by making the representation simple and repetitive as a hammer, sometimes by significantly disrupting the idea of the completed phrase. So I imagine you’ll like the direct description passages but not the rest. But when I imagine what the world of poetry would look like if everyone followed your proscriptions, I see an impoverished place. Which is not at all to say that you shouldn’t follow them, or that others shouldn’t. I love much poetry of witness. It’s the totality of the claim that I resist.

I guess, then, that I’ll have to console myself about your limited approval of what I’m doing with my belief that were I to be writing according to your methods, my poetry would be much less interesting not only to me, but probably to some others. But what do I know? Most poems aren’t interesting to anybody.

By the way, I look forward at some point to seeing some of your recent representational poems. I saw a few about four years back that I quite enjoyed.

Joe Safdie said...

Mark, I'm puzzled that you apparently thought my post so critical: I didn't mean it that way at all, and indeed, was moved to post because I liked the excerpt of your poem so much. More: I thought the last paragraph of your original post, when you mention "some of the problems faced by those of us who, as poets, recognize that the world’s condition is not one we have chosen and one which we often struggle against, but one that we nonetheless live within while simultaneously working through a poetics of what might otherwise exist" dovetailed quite nicely with what I said above about how a consciousness of "the world" (however defined) doesn't have to be antagonistic to a concern with language.

So I'm not proscribing . . . anything, at any time: I'm just expressing an aesthetic preference. I don't expect others, least of all you, to follow said preference -- I was, you know, commenting on your blog. And one more thing: when we talk about "representation" (should we talk about these matters again), let's not get too literal-minded. My favorite book of Foucault's has always been The Order of Things, where he quite lucidly sets out the history of representation in the western world for the last 500 years or so (a book I discovered, aptly enough, through Robin Blaser's introduction to the first collected Spicer). It's those intricacies I have in mind when I talk about representation in poetry, not some spurious linguistic theories that were recycled in the late seventies and early eighties.

Hope this finds you well; hope to see you both Saturday . . .

mark wallace said...

That's more than fair, Joe. As we've discussed before both in print and person, tone in blogland can be tough to decipher. There were things about your last post that left me unclear as to your perspective, but obviously that could be my misreading far more than any intention on your part.

Several months in a row now with first Saturday night of the month readings: I'm very hopeful that it might continue.

I was just talking about Foucault in another context--wow, some people still get enraged by his ideas. But that's a discussion for another place and another time.

Doug said...

I enjoyed this writing. Its kind of like the death of the American dream story that Hunter Thompson was after, except he didn't really find it except in Kingdom of Fear maybe.

Southern California is weird because anything cultural that happens out here which is not backed by Hollywood right away is kind of a moonshot, because the communities don't exist post-wwII, as you know, to help bring them about.

Anonymous said...

Yes - ! When I left you and other dear friends in DC and moved to not far from where you are now living, I had a similar experience/sense of end. CA is geographically and historically the end of America - the end of the "Push" (Leave Books)west. I was asked what that meant to me as a poet by Guy Bennett, and I tried to respond to the question of geography and place and the layering of culture in shaping one's writing...This became a book, Strata, which is just out by Dusie Press. I can't wait to read your take on it all! Joe Ross