Friday, December 18, 2009

Poetry in Baltimore and the i.e. reader

i.e. reader
Narrow House Books
150 pgs.


Elena Alexander, Bruce Andrews, Michael Ball, Sandra Beassley, Lauren Bender, Bill Berkson, Charles Bernstein, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Miles Champion, Norma Cole, CA Conrad, Bruce Covey, Tina Darragh, Ben Doller, Sandra Doller, Buck Downs, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, kari edwards, Cathy Eisenhower, Graham Foust, Heather Fuller, Peter Gizzi, Adam Good, Jamie Gaughran-Perez, K. Lorraine Graham, Jessica Grim, P. Inman, Lisa Jarnot, Bonnie Jones, Beth Joselow, Michael Kelleher, Amy King, Doug Lang, Katy Lederer, Reb Livingston, M. Magnus, Tom Mandel, Chris Mason, Kristi Mexwell, Megan McShea, Anna Moschovakis, Gina Myers , Chris Nealon, Mel Nichols, Aldon Nielsen, Tom Orange, Bob Perelman, Simon Pettet, Tom Raworth, Adam Robinson, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Ric Royer, Ken Rumble, Justin Sirois, Rod Smith, Cole Swensen, Maureen Thorson, Chris Toll, Edwin Torres, Les Wade, Rosemarie Waldrop, Ryan Walker, Mark Wallace, Terence Winch, Rupert Wondolowski, John Yau, Geoffrey Young

I’ve just finished reading the recently released i.e. reader, a chunky collection of poems from a variety of writers who have read at the i.e. reading series, hosted by Michael Ball, which has been running in Baltimore since May 2005. Michael is one of those people who works very hard in his own local environment to create opportunities for other people in the world of literature. He’s an energetic, restless, and sometimes even practical visionary who doesn’t come from any fancy side of anywhere, literary-wise or other, and whose work life, which I can’t claim to be entirely sure about (construction worker, handyman, painter and I don’t mean of paintings, things of that kind), nonetheless hasn’t taken away his love not just of literature but of helping to make literature happen. He’s a fine poet too, although it’s characteristic of his modesty that none of his own poems are included in a collection of work from a series he himself curates and hosts.

In the brief curator’s note that opens the collection, Michael mentions his indebtedness to the folks from Narrow House in Baltimore, the publishing group that has put out books and CDs from a significant group of contemporary poets and which produced and published the i.e. reader. Justin Sirois has been the founding brains and braun of Narrow House, and he works these days with Lauren Bender and Jamie Gaughran-Perez and, I think, in earlier days worked with others. Michael also mentions his close working connection to those of us who were running (and many of course still are; it’s just me who’s moved away) a variety of reading series and small presses in Washington, DC.

Although I don’t remember the date exactly (it must have been some time early in the 2000s), I remember first meeting Justin and some of the other young Baltimore poets. At the time, it felt like a significant change in the poetry energy in that part of the world. There hadn’t been much of an avant/experimental poetry scene in Baltimore before that, at least not any that I was aware of. All of a sudden there was a new group of energetic young writers traveling into DC for readings and doing their own events and publications in Baltimore.

Sometimes, it really doesn’t take any more than a few interested people willing to work hard and pay attention to get a literary community on its feet and on fire. In the early years of this decade, much of the new energy from Atlantic-area poetry below the Mason Dixon came from that Baltimore crowd, an infusion that I at least felt was very important for those of us in DC who were getting a bit woozy from years of effort.

I last read in Baltimore in May 2006 at an event hosted by Michael, and I think I met him for the first time that night. A man a few years older than me who had the marks of having lived a life of fairly tough experiences, he wasn’t immediately one of that younger crowd of poets but he had every bit the same level of enthusiasm and energy. His effort during the reading and afterwards made for a lively and memorable day that’s actually chronicled in a piece of my own writing called “We Need To Talk.”

As the list of contributors shows, the i.e. reader contains work by a combination of well-known avant poets, up-and-coming poets, and poets who have labored a long time making poems in Baltimore. For me, reading the book was some combination of nostalgic and informative about just how the world of poetry in that area has shifted since I moved away from the east coast.

There’s going to be an i.e. reader poetry event happening in Baltimore tomorrow night. Along with last weekend’s 20-year anniversary reading for Edge Books in Washington DC, it has clearly been a time for celebrating some of the significant literary work that has been done in that part of the world. It’s a subject worth celebrating. Needless to say maybe I’m more than a little sorry that I’m not going to be a direct part of either event. Just couldn’t get away from California in time, although right about now I sure wouldn’t mind being elsewhere. I’ve got the travel bug today and I’ve got it bad.

There are a lot of intriguing poems in the i.e. reader. Like a few other collections and anthologies that focus on a local scene but don’t feature exclusively local writing, the i.e. reader probably makes most sense for people who are part of the area community, or who are aware of the dynamics that make literary communities work, or who have some significant understanding already of directions in contemporary avant work. Yet I’m also going to use the book in a creative writing class this spring because of the impressive range of poetic approaches on display. It doesn’t contain explanatory or contextual material, not that by any means it automatically needs to, but it certainly constitutes a record (although, of course, not even close to a complete one) of what a group of people can do if they decide to work together where they live to make poetry an essential part of an active life that always involves much more than poetry.

As anyone who’s paying attention knows, the field of poetry, like any other, is regulated by systems of power and influence and connection and all the small foibles of who knows who and why and what’s in it for anyone. But it’s also made up of people who don’t stay at home, waiting for someone to discover them, but who make the effort to create opportunity for themselves and others. For me, that sense of working with people to make something happen is easily as important as anything else that literature may supposedly be about.

And if I don’t post again before that, Happy Holidays to everybody.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

DVD of my Ghent, Belgium performance now available

For anyone interested, a DVD version of the reading I gave in Ghent, Belgium along with K. Lorraine Graham is now available. The DVD was created by Svend Thomsen (shown by his equipment in the photo above) as part of his Trekanten Video Formidling (TVF) project. The quality of the DVD is impressively high, especially considering how so many literary reading films turn out. I’m grateful that on this particular film I don’t look like too much of a large, overbearing goon pretending to be a writer.

Anyone interested in obtaining a copy can write Svend directly at:

More information about other available TVF videos can be found on the tvf website:

This particular set is actually a two DVD set, the first (62 minutes) featuring Helen White’s introduction, my reading, and then K. Lorraine Graham’s reading.

The second DVD (45 minutes) features the reading and performance that followed our event featuring a variety of poets and performance artists who live in and near Ghent or were visiting at the time, including Olaf Risee, Leila Rasheed, Wouter De Bruycker, Eddy Debuf, N.N., Tine Moniek, Josef Hajas, Philip Meersman, Réné Mogensen, Xavier Roelens, and Jelle Meander.

I blogged earlier about the variety of work that I heard presented that night, an excellent cross-section of the kind of poetry being practiced in Ghent among several generations of writers and particularly among an active younger generation.

My reading on the DVD is a bit unlike other readings I’ve given, although it shared my usual tendency to try to present different kinds of work at a reading. I was aware that I was going to be reading to an audience of individuals with different degrees of fluency in English, although as Helen White had told me, everyone or nearly everyone in Ghent speaks at least some English. I thought that a variety of my more minimalist poetry might work better than denser, more overwhelming or linguistically disruptive material, although I presented enough challenges, I hope, to conventional notions of poetry.

Watching the DVD, I also came to the conclusion that this reading was one of the most consistently and directly political readings I’ve given. Politics and social issues are always a part of my work, but I tend to think of the most explicitly political elements of my writing as part of a more varied framework that tries to engage politics as only one element (although a significant one) of the social and linguistic concerns it explores. I tend to work with the political as one aspect of the fabric of experience and language, rather than either trying to purge the political or make it the whole point. Still, in this particular reading, because of choosing more minimal poems, a more direct politics and cultural criticism than usual seems to come out.

Lorraine’s reading looks and sounds good too, although the most minimal aspect of it is perhaps her understated use of the hoola hoop. Her pieces, many from her book Terminal Humming, constitute a kind of reportage about the various language styles of people in Washington, DC, from state department confuse-speak to the language of young women and men on the prowl for love, although the linguistic game playing and appropriation and sheer sonic invention she works with are much more than simply reportage.

By the way, Svend Thomsen has made it clear that he doesn’t discourage bootlegged versions of the TVF material he shoots, so if you’d rather contact me than him about the DVD, please feel free. But I doubt that he’ll ask for all that much money, so please do consider contacting him first.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

California Public Higher Education: What's Happening to Students in the California State University System

The article I have linked to here does a good job of explaining some of the main problems facing students in California who are seeking a college degree at an affordable cost though the California State University system, which as the article points out is the largest university system in the U.S., one for which student applications admissions are continuing to grow rapidly.

I hope everyone will remember that though there are genuine financial issues involved, the changes that are happening in California public education are not inevitable but are happening because of specific political decisions. Those who want California's students to have affordable education in the future (and that would certainly include, I hope, those who have benefited from it in the past) can make a difference by supporting education awareness drives and, crucially, by supporting California politicians who believe in the value of public higher education.

Thanks to Lauren Mecucci for pointing the article out to me.