Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jumping Ship

I’m flying to Europe tomorrow morning and will be there until early October. After spending a couple of nights in Belgium, I’ll be in Portugal for the majority of the trip, splitting my time between the city of Oporto (top picture) and Monsanto (bottom picture), a Portuguese village in the mountains and which has medieval roots.

I may not find any time to blog during this period, but if I get a chance to put something up now and then, I will. And I don’t know how often I’ll be available on e-mail, so please don’t be surprised if there are any delays in getting back to you.

In the meantime, my longtime colleague and friend Tom Orange might put a guest blog post or two. Tom and I agree on many things but may differ on others, and all views he expresses are his own. I hope you’ll engage him in discussion if you’re inclined.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve not worked or been in school in the fall, and I feel a sort of pleasant, falsely romantic sense of shirking my duties, jumping ship, and traveling to unexplored lands.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brief Reviews

Elisa Gabbert (pictured above) is a young poet whose work I’ve been loving for awhile. Several years back I blogged in some detail about her chapbook Thanks For Sending The Engine. Since then I’ve been following her writing closely, and these days she has many more avidly interested readers both of her poems and, lately, her blog:

After publishing several collaborative poetry projects with Kathleen Rooney, Gabbert’s first full-length collection, The French Exit, came out this year. The high energy and exuberantly dark poems in TFSTE are reprinted here, along with a number of other pieces. The book shows a much larger range in Gabbert’s poetic talents than has been on display before now. The biting, mordant psychosocial wit with which readers of her earlier work are familiar is surrounded by poems with a more sombre and melancholy tone, not to mention with some genuinely, although casually, brilliant social and even philosophical insights.

Still, Gabbert’s energetic sharpness on the level of the phrase and the line remains remarkably consistent. “Mysteried distance, resistant distance: it glimmers/ out of visibility. The distance that runs seamingly/ along all my images like a fold. Like a hairline/ crack down my mirror———I am always/ looking at the distance, at it splitting me.” There are more than enough new poems and, as she herself might put it, new moves, in this book for The French Exit to be a crucial purchase even for those who already own TFSTE. For those who don’t, it’s even more of a must.


Gabbert’s partner, John Cotter, has also recently published a book, his first, a novella. Under The Small Lights is not the kind of book I usually review, but I have to admit that I found it an enjoyably wicked quick read, though people wanting literature that deals with the “most profound questions of our time” should look elsewhere. The story is set in summer mainly, and the book will serve just fine as a summer read at any time of year in which one might want that.

I doubt many people will like the characters in Under The Small Lights, but we’re not supposed to. This narrative of the young, aimless, and well to do, with their desperately literary sexual desires and confusions, pinions its subjects keenly, while somehow managing to teeter effectively on the edge between satire and believable sympathy. Think Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero if the characters in that book had gone to the country for the summer and hopelessly imagined themselves the next great writers of America.

Some of the descriptions in the book’s key slapstick action incident seem unfocused, but it’s dialogue that drives this novel. “‘Jack,’ she said. ‘You’re not still trying to get into her pants.’/’No.’/’Because you shouldn’t’/’Right.’/’Because they’re married.’” The characters don’t do much besides get drunk, have confused sex, and talk to each other constantly about themselves and about the books they’re not writing and probably aren’t going to.

My friend, the Boston-born novelist and poet Elizabeth Burns, once told me how often she had heard someone say something along the lines of, “I want to write a version of Kerouac’s On The Road about my summer at the Cape.” If you find that as funny as I do, you’ll want to read Under The Small Lights.


I feel uncertain about Ron Silliman’s linking of Chris McCreary to New Thing (Silliman prefers “New Precisionist”) writers such as Joseph Massey and Graham Foust. McCreary’s poems are certainly often minimalist, and work with precision and understatement and tightly and oddly torqued phrasing, but on the evidence of McCreary’s latest book, Undone: A Fakebook, I’m not sure how much further the comparison goes. Whereas those writers are dour, observational and rather insistently non-urban (though Foust is significantly ironic) in their highlighting of male isolation, McCreary’s poems are poems of the city, urbane, ambiguous, witty, and populated--and most of all, much more whimsical.

There’s a devilish, almost child-like humor to many of McCreary’s poems in Undone, with a certain degree of lightness and joy. It’s a kind of humor I sometimes associate with parenthood, a way in which adult writers can tap into the casual surrealist fantasy-scapes of a youthful mind. Not that McCreary isn’t capable of sly, cutting, and very much adult insight into contemporary American urban alienation. “Common knowledge/as the lowest of limbos. Wall or cardboard bricks/as approximate graffiti. Screaming Green Gorilla/did the Dance Dance Revolution,/ left an Etch-/ A-Sketch in my teddy bear’s/intestines.” As a sort of break in the tight torquing, the several prose satires in the Great American Songbook section are howlingly funny for anybody interested in pop music criticism.


Laura Moriarty’s A Tonalist is a significant contemporary work that not only deserves a longer review than I have time to give it but, if there is any justice in contemporary poetics (and sadly, there usually isn’t), should be the subject of much future in-depth critical analysis. A multi-part, deeply interconnected long work in multiple sections, A Tonalist is both a beautiful long lyric poem with a stunning array of keenly observed physical details and social situations, and a poetics essay, written both in poetry and prose, that makes a case for what a tonalist writer is. “I remind him that Jocelyn is writing a book of beginnings and he remembers that he knows that and likes the idea. I say there is something to be said for directionality/ Too exhausted to speak/Or sleep we listen to/The strangely sourceless airborne/Radio or TV endlessly/ I dream when I don’t sleep less clearly./ “Too much emphasis on the tonal,” the radio/ Says, “Creates a meandering quality/ Complicating the experience of the auditor.”

The book also quotes generously from other writers whose work Moriarty feels is crucial to the context she is trying to acknowledge, and highlights especially their involvement in “elegy and utopianism.” A Tonalist explores and defines both a poetic terrain and a geographical and cultural and political one, detailing Moriarty’s concept of Tonalist poetry both through the fact that A Tonalist is itself an example of such a poem and because it talks about the work of other writers who have helped move her towards the concept.

I picked up this book at the Miami of Ohio Postmoot Conference in April, and told Moriarty there that I had to admit, embarrassingly, that I didn’t know what it meant to be a tonalist. Now I have a better idea, at least to the extent that any firm idea of the concept is crucial, which maybe it isn’t.

Still, although it’s impossible to summarize the wide range of her richly tentative reflections, on the most basic level Moriarty combines the unique quality of light found in some Northern California paintings with the work of Bay Area writers. Moriarty’s concept of “A Tonalist” (for her, the phrase is always capitalized) deals with shades, subtleties, nuances, wrinkles, and of course tones, all of which tend to undermine the way U.S. poetry is often still discussed in binaries, such as avant vs. mainstream, or lyric vs. narrative vs. experimental, or literature vs. criticism, among many others. And although Moriarty’s focus is heavily on the Bay Area, when she suggests, at one point, that there are maybe many tonalist writers who don’t recognize themselves as such, I felt cheered, because I think, in some aspects of my work (and that “some” is crucial), that I may often be A Tonalist too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brief Reviews

My longtime colleague at The George Washington University, where I used to teach, Daniel Gutstein (pictured above) shares with me an interest in writing across genres. He has published poetry, fiction, and drama, as well as work in cross-genre forms as the prose poem. Although his work has appeared in numerous literary journals, and several of his chapbooks have been brilliant surprises, oddly enough Non/Fiction is his first full-length collection. The book veers between short fiction and memoir, and between story and prose poetry, blurring those boundaries as it goes. The pieces explore a variety of locales, including Washington D.C., Florida, and the American west, as well as Israel and elsewhere overseas. The bulk of these pieces focus on a working class milieu, although the stories cross with some frequency into describing characters living a creepily rootless yuppiedom. The book is particularly startling for its array of cultural mixing; in these stories, identity is always in flux, even as some characters rigorously assert its stability. The pieces are full of the unexpected, both in the quirkiness of the characters and in the purposefully torqued, poetic prose. “I’d sat on the stone with Mrs. Kelly, the black landlady who recalled the nervous white boy stepping, bayonet-first, beside the convenience mart. Part of the town bruised, she explained, her grey-black hair combined into a grey-black knot. “ It’s not too much of a stretch to say that in its idiosyncracy and gnarled prose and concern with character and culture, the work here resembles the short fiction of the great Isaac Babel. At times the twisting language even takes on a postmodern opacity. A unique book by a unique writer who’s capable equally of the outrageous and the poignant.

I read it back in early spring, but A Model Year, by Gina Myers, is as good a first book of poems as I’ve come across in awhile and has stayed clearly in my mind. The poems are understated, often memorable, and frequently haunted and melancholy, which may come as a surprise to those who know Myers’ energetic work in social activism and local arts in her troubled state of Michigan. There’s a casual tone these poems that can be associated with the New York School (Myers lived for a time in NYC), but the social environment and individual consciousness on display here has a moodiness that seems more connected to Midwestern financial and emotional dourness, and the poems featured a more denuded landscape than one typically finds in New York School verse. “April snow & no/way to go, no turning/forward, motion lost/flickers across the wind-/shield & is forgotten./No scene waiting/to be seen, no unforgiving/space, empty drawer/& shutters shut.” The book’s final, title piece, “A Model Year,” attempts a more extended sequence, and almost stalls on its carefully crafted restraint, but ultimately works because, like in the rest of these poems, underneath the melancholy is a fierce desire to live a meaningful, socially engaged life.

Two chapbooks by Sandra Simonds, Used White Wife and the self-published Made From Scratch, are fascinating and energetic reads. In UWW, Simonds’ flair for high octane, historically detailed Surrealism takes a flarfy turn for the outrageously comical: “You’re not supposed to fuck your first cousin, expert/ on Reform Era pamphlets,/ or eat an oatmeal-flavored Powerbar on/the toilet. Even my dog, Scruffy-Pie, knows/not to shit in the room/where you sleep or sleep/where you’re not supposed to think of the clitoris.” UWW is hilarious, but also psychological insightful, a rollick through the ages that turns up a lot of hidden cultural embarrassments. Made From Scratch has a few outrageous moments, but seems more personal, historically specific, and sad by turns, and at times its emotional power runs deeper than that in the other chap. Both books feature Simonds’ startlingly rich vocabulary. She’s a writer who is only continuing to grow into the range of what she can do.

Another impressive first full-length collection, Occultations, by David Wolach, is more hardcore avant than the above books. The range in Wolach’s work is first and foremost formal, combining surprising uses of spacing, multiple overlays of text, and visual art, among much else. The book’s first of several extended poem sequence, “transit” is both the most lyrical and the most powerful and direct in the book, dealing with the author’s physical pain but also revealing a social awareness that’s too broad and informed to be solely an exploration of individual body and self, and the poem’s lyricism remains jaggedly unconventional. “What are we to do now/dark drawing its own outline/the wild/ child tapping terror pane/ your lands and grooves/ evidence/ of hallas, your hands their re-appearing/act/ leaves glass behind leaves all possible codes behind/” The later, even more experimental pieces are fascinating as well, and are full of political insight and outrage, as well as a sophisticated understanding of theory and culture. If there’s something occasionally a bit first bookish about Occultations, it may be that at times, Wolach wants to throw everything at once at the reader. The book is full of busy pages, to put it mildly, and the greater minimalism of the final piece, “ book alter (ed),” makes for a crucial contrast that wraps up the work nicely. Still, Wolach takes a lot of necessary risks, and Occultations is a demanding, rewarding book.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cati Porter, Jeanine Webb, and Louis M. Schmidt at Agitprop August 7

We hope you can join us this, Saturday, August at 7 p.m. for a reading by JEANINE WEBB and CATI PORTER. An opening reception for LOUIS M. SCHMIDT's "We're All in This Together for Ourselves," on display at the gallery, will follow the reading.

Jeanine Webb's work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Antioch Review, Louis Liard Magazine, the San Diego Writers' 2010 anthology A Year in Ink and online in the Summer 2010 issues of The Latent Print and WTF PWM. She holds a M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, where she taught workshops in making poems. Her manuscript Flash Paper was a finalist for the 2008 Cider Press Review Book Award. Her work concerns images of apocalypse in relation to late capitalism, sci-fi, connectivity, surf culture, historical realities as shaped by technologies, modern mythography, media spin and pop culture. Jeanine lives in San Diego. Look for the literary magazine she'll be editing, Greater Than Or Equal To, which should exist at sometime late this summer or in early fall.

Cati Porter is the author of a collection of poems, Seven Floors Up (Mayapple Press, 2008), as well as the chapbooks small fruit songs: prose poems (Pudding House Publications, 2008), (al)most delicious, an ekphrastic series after Modigliani's nudes (forthcoming in 2010 from Dancing Girl Press), and what Desire makes of us, a series written during NaPoWriMo 2009 (forthcoming from Ahadada books as an e-book with illustrations by her sister, Amy Joy Payne). She is founder & editor of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry . In June 2010 she will receive her MFA in Poetry from Antioch University, Los Angeles.

Louis M. Schmidt is an artist currently based in San Diego, CA. His work addresses personal and societal unhappiness, the many failures of history and myths of progress and upward mobility. Schmidt's most recent body of work, "We're All in This Together For Ourselves," is an immersive, mixed-media wall drawing that presents itself as a cyclic fragment, a frozen section of negative feedback loop that evinces a dark pool of truths about humans, about Americans, about the now to which our ideologies have delivered us.

Please share this information with friends and any interested parties.

Agitprop readings are free, but donations to the gallery are always welcome.

We hope to see you there and for festivities before and afterward!

Saturday, August 7, 7 p.m. reading (8 p.m. Art Opening)
2837 University Ave in North Park (Entrance on Utah, behind Glenn’s
San Diego, CA * 92104 * 619.384.7989