Thursday, June 25, 2009
K. Lorraine Graham
96 pgs, Cover by the author
$12 direct from Edge Books, postpaid.
Click here for an interview with the author at Elisa Gabbert's insightful and entertaining blog.
Click here for earlier versions of some of the work that now appears in Terminal Humming.
For reasons that should be obvious enough, I’m a big fan of this writer and this book. I think people should buy and read Terminal Humming, especially people interested in challenging new writing. It’s energetic, original, perceptive, sensitive, and tough. I’m going on the assumption that my praise of it will be taken as an obviously biased given, so I thought what I’d do instead was to bring up a few ideas that this book makes me think about.
I’ve finally concluded that there is indeed an approach to literature that might be called DC School, although it’s still a little difficult for me to describe all its features. It doesn’t highlight theory/poetics quite to the degree of language poetry, nor is it as closely wedded to style as New York School writing. It has a lot to do with the city of Washington, urban, international, informed, uptight, backwards, bourgeois. Where politics is a matter of daily life, an ordinary, all-too-human business, the thing people talk about so much it feels like you never want to hear about it again. It’s a city of riots, where rich and poor, white and non-white people mix uneasily. Where the best bars always close and the ones that survive always deeply suck but the poets go to them anyway. Where the city government is bankrupt and the other government is morally bankrupt.
Edge Books is, without doubt, the home base of DC experimental poetry, even as it also publishes writers from other places and contexts—Kevin Davies, Jennifer Moxley, Anselm Berrigan, Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Raworth among them—some of whom share more in common with DC poetry than others. DC, on Edge Books or otherwise, and whether in the past or now, is particularly a central location for some of the most energetic and challenging women poets working today: Joan Retallack, Tina Darragh, Beth Baruch Joselow, Heather Fuller, Cathy Eisenhower, Leslie Bumstead, Jean Donnelly, Mel Nichols, to name only a few who live or have lived there and have certainly written with the idea of DC as a place.
Because I no longer live there, I think I can see more clearly some things that mark contemporary DC poetry, the experimental wing of it especially. A fractured, off-kilter lyricism, a concern with both the international and the daily, an almost pathologically anti-naive skepticism, a humor (whether deadpan or high-pitched) inseparable from the desire to strangle, an insistence on politics as constant fact, one with an often hyper-awareness of how language functions as part of its sense of the daily and full of a bitterly ironic recognition of how facts become the poker chips of diplomacy. Where diplomacy and the breakdown of diplomacy are essential metaphors, and taking sides is rarely more than the first and easiest move. Structurally, it’s probably a genuinely hybrid experimental poetry, one not recognized as such by any of the usual taxonomies and power players. Narrative and anti-narrative, documentary and anti-documentary, lyrical and splintered. It’s about buildings, corridors, faucets, loneliness and love and the stink of knowing that your major export may be death. It’s about how locality and displacement are part of the same larger global processes and there’s no home to hunker down in.
Somehow, the city whose experimental writing most resembles that of DC is Vancouver. Anybody who can explain that to me please step forward.
The first long sequence in Terminal Humming, “If This Isn’t An Interview I Don’t Know What to Say,” presents the world of DC international think thank politics and office life through the lense of a knowing but desperate alienation, the voice of a writer who can be neither an insider or an outsider to what’s going on but has to work there anyway.
Here’s a list of places, supplied by the author, where K. Lorraine Graham has lived: Carlsbad California, Washington DC, Harbin (Peoples Republic of China: PRC), Singapore, Beijing, Sedgwick Maine, Guangzhou PRC, Mexico City, New Zealand, Tabubil (Papua New Guinea), San Jose California, La Serena (Chile), somewhere in Minnesota she can longer name, Norfolk, VA.
The places where she’s worked—national and international political think tanks, corporate export companies, art schools, foreign language schools, and lots of others—would need an even longer list.
Terminal Humming is also about sexual longing and sexual violence and the often schizophrenic pathologies of gender. It’s about putting yourself out there, being on the make and being made. It’s about a young woman in a world where monitoring the exchange of high-powered international weapons is Happy Hour post-work boy talk that leads to awkward attempts at love, while every apartment building has its share of lunatics and drunks who feel that the whole world is watching.
I find the book funny and startling and nasty and more than a little creepy. At times, visually and because of what it says, it seems like it’s going to spin off the page. I also think it fits quite well with most of the definitions of the gurlesque that I’ve seen floating around. If this book is an indication, DC has as much room for female gothic as any Ann Radcliffe castle.
These are poems that bring back, for me, a time and place where I no longer live while at the same time they remain absolutely contemporary. I remember when I first heard some of them and who was there. I can’t go back to those times and places. They aren’t there. Quite a few of the people aren’t either. DC is a place where a lot of people leave, even those of us who are from there. I can’t read these poems without thinking about all that. You can though.
If you’ve seen K. Lorraine Graham’s work around, and more and more of it is getting around, you’ll be surprised to find how much of it isn’t in this book. But this long overdue first full-length collection doesn’t feel skimpy for those who already know her work and it’s a more than significant chunk of it for those who don’t.
There’s no reason to believe me about any of this, obviously. I’m sure you're more than capable of deciding whether you want to find out for yourself.