Containing poems translated from the German by Andrew Shields, Dieter M. Gräf’s Tussi Research (published by Green Integer) was a book I found consistently fascinating and worthy of re-reading, while at the same time I recognized that I was likely missing some or even many of its occasionally oblique cultural nuances.
Tussi Research features a series of poetic meditations on German culture and history, a history not just of many events over several centuries, but also of a variety of mythologies that also make German history and culture what it is. The book delves deep into the German Warrior mythos (my term, not Gräf’s) and shows how interconnected this primally violent mythos is with German music, literature, culture, politics, and ideas about beauty, revealing that the brutality of German history and its most wildly beautiful artistic creations are so intertwined that it becomes impossible, or at least willfully naive, to think of one without the other.
The poems in Tussi Research explore these and related issues with fascinating indirectness. The poems are often elliptical, working by hints and suggestions, giving the feeling that something, as likely horrific as not, is happening just off to the side of what the poem is detailing. Then, frequently enough, the ellipsis suddenly emerges into a more direct brutality: “crown of thorns in scalp skin,/ martial eavesdropping of hammer/ blows in front of fainting:/listeners to his shattering bones” (45-46). These particular lines are by no means the most blunt moments in the book. Some of the most revolting ones highlight the fact that the brutality being describing is also part of a long history of male violence towards women.
The bluntness (and occasionally more comic shocks, like “the old/ God with a naked/ ass”(25)) inevitably comes along to disrupt the intense beauty that certain lines, with their lyrical energy, precision, and symbolic resonance, offer at moments: “autumn is over; green/wild parrots around last/leaves of the tree by the city/ woods. Warmer,/ now. More and more/ those who were killed/ dissolve, we walk on/ them, toward elsewhere, lighter,/ for meaning in the massacre/ of the eldest” (115). Many similar pastoral locations and images are also revealed as sites whose current beauty overlays some past incident of nearly unspeakable violence. Gräf’s poems frequently juxtapose the intensity of two types of physicality, one of surface beauty and another of the violation of that beauty. At a few moments, the drive for that intensity leads to a bit of overreaching: italics are used to emphasize the lyric power of words that already have enough power not to need further highlighting, with the result that the italics become unnecessary.
A lot of specific historical moments and figures are being referenced in Tussi Research, but the poems rarely let on as to exactly what those are. That’s probably one of the reasons that the book contains at its end a thirty-page glossary that provides more direct information about the people, histories, and mythologies being referenced. I read the poems the first time through without looking at the glossary and found the imagery powerful and mysterious and the rhythms complexly jagged. When I read the glossary and looked back at the poems, that dispelled their mysteries somewhat, although never entirely, mainly because Gräf’s glossary entries are often as poetic, and sometimes as elliptical, as the poems.
There may be a tendency in critical thinking about contemporary poetry to separate a materialist poetics from mythopoetics, a split in which the materialist approach considers mythopoetics too involved in flights of fancy, while mythopoetics disdains the too literal nature of the historical materialist. Whether I’m overstating the existence of that split or not, Tussi Research is fascinating also because of the way it breaks down the difference, showing readers how much historical conditions remain a function of cultural mythologies, just as those mythologies are bound to, and exposed by, the historical conditions that they are more than partly responsible for creating. If Tussi Research explores conditions too brutal to claim that reading this book will be pleasant, the poems here are ones that for that reason, and for the beauty and power they manage nonetheless, are not at all easy to forget.
As it turns out, I’ve written several pieces about Christmas, the most recent of which is part of my long poem The End of America. I don’t quite have a whole Christmas collection yet, but who knows? Maybe at some point I will.
Here’s one of the earlier ones, which appeared in my book Haze from Edge Books. Otherwise, I’ll just wish you the best for the Holiday Season. I hope that Christmas brings you everything it’s designed to bring you, and that the new year of 2012 turns out to be a new year.
Perhaps nothing produces more exactly the subtle horror of current social relations than the office Christmas party. There are far worse nightmares, undoubtedly. Yet the never quite located, permeating sickness of the office party is the perfect expression of developed alienation for three reasons. One, everyone there appears as though they are there to see each other, when really they are there to protect their tenuous economic circumstances. Two, it's a party and supposed to be fun, while fun is precisely what it is not about, indeed while anyone seeking fun could more likely find it anywhere else, literally. Three, in its apparently voluntary, benevolent largesse, it appears to make people welcome and to feel like they belong, while it displays exactly that to which no one is welcome, namely, a voluntary gathering of like-minded others who work together simply because they prefer to do so.
Thus it displays its alienation through the fact that no one can state openly why they are there. And this is true even for those who believe they are, who in fact are, having fun.
For all these reasons, people who avoid office Christmas parties are only avoiding their feelings. They don't wish to know, to experience directly, and deludedly believe that avoiding the truth will make it not so. I myself go to every office Christmas party to which I am invited, arriving early and staying late, chatting, eating, and drinking, until the sickness congratulates my entire body, until each toast I have made can be faithfully dedicated to its exact opposite.
I'm really looking forward to participating in this great reading and party in Los Angeles this Saturday night. Take a look at this amazing lineup. If you're anywhere nearby, I hope you'll join us.
Insert Blanc Press Benefit & Holiday Party
Saturday December 17 from 6-12pm
4634 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027 Donation at the door of $10 or more
Insert Blanc editor Mathew Timmons says:
$10.00 or more donation at the door (all donations will help cover expenses for Insert Blanc Press future and current projects and operations). Additionally, throughout the month of December Insert Blanc Press will run various tempting discounts on the whole catalog of books, all of which will also be available at the Holiday Party—many authors will be on-hand to sign copies of their books.
Artists & Writers performing at the Insert Press Benefit & Holiday Party include: Harold Abramowitz, Amanda Ackerman, Brian Ang, Allison Carter, Brian Joseph Davis, Robin Dicker, Kate Durbin, K. Lorraine Graham, Daniel Hockenson, Jen Hofer, Garrick Hogg, Gabriel Loiderman, js makkos, Max Mayer, Joseph Mosconi, Adam Overton, Christopher Russell, Ara Shirinyan, Brian Kim Stefans, Mark Wallace, and our special guests Dodie Bellamy, David Buuck & Kevin Killian.
Insert Blanc Press has published and promoted the work of over 60 artists and writers since it's humble beginnings in 2005. The PARROT series alone will publish the work of 23 writers over the course of its run and features the design work of the brilliant printer Margaret Lomeli. Blanc Press has recently published the enigmatic project (!x==) Book 1 Volume 1 by .UNFO and has garnered attention by publishing the three volume series Tragodía by Vanessa Place.
Over the course of December I hope to raise $5,000 for Insert Blanc Press in sales and donations to fund printing and press operations in 2012. I hope to raise $2000 of the goal at the party on Saturday December 17. $2000 will go principally to funding the printing of the remainder of the PARROT series, which, if that goal is met, I hope to have out by summer 2012. An additional $1500 will go to moving all of Blanc Press' publications to a new printer and distributor which will give us international distribution and access to sites like Amazon and actually lower the price of the books. Any additional money raised to meet our total goal of $5,000 will go towards publishing new projects in 2012, including Bruna Mori's Poetry for Corporations, Kate Durbin's E! Entertainment Diamond Edition, Joseph Mosconi's GRRR ARRRGH as well as a forthcoming project by Christopher Russell and many other projects I just can't tell you about quite yet.
Past and current Insert Blanc Press artists include: Harold Abramowitz, Amanda Ackerman, Will Alexander, Brian Ang, Stan Apps, Janine Armin, Gary Barwin, Guy Bennett, Gregory Betts, Amaranth Borsuk, Franklin Bruno, Amina Cain, Allison Carter, Teresa Carmody, Marcus Civin, Ginny Cook, Dorit Cypis, Brian Joseph Davis, Katie Degentesh, Michelle Detorie, Robin Dicker, Sandy Ding, Kate Durbin, Bradney Evans, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, K. Lorraine Graham, Nicholas Grider, Daniel Hockenson, Jen Hofer, Gabriella Juaregui, Maxi Kim, Janice Lee, Margaret Lomeli, Michael Magee, Joseph Makkos, Donato Mancini, Elana Mann, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, William Moor, Bruna Mori, Joseph Mosconi, Jeffrey Joe Nelson, Julie Orser, adam overton, Vanessa Place, Amar Ravva, Dan Richert, Stephanie Rioux, Christopher Russell, Kim Schoen, Ara Shirinyan, Rod Smith, Michael Smoler, Brian Stefans, Stephanie Taylor, Jason Underhill, Mark Wallace, Christine Wertheim, and Allyssa Wolf.
Currently on view at Weekend Gallery: Jay Erker - This Is So Much Better - Erker's work often manipulates subjects from readily available popular imagery which, in a simple and personal way, investigates the notion of identity in public space, hierarchies of dissemination, and the desire for meaning in contemporary life.
Full schedule for the evening ...
Brian Joseph Davis
K. Lorraine Graham
Brian Kim Stefans
Kevin Killian with the three piece band Garrick Hogg, Gabriel Loiderman and Max Mayer
I can’t call it a “happy accident” that in my long multi-poem project The End of America, which I have been writing on and off since January 2006, the focal point of my exploration of how to work with description and character has been the San Diego area and the larger histories of U.S., Pacific Rim, and globalist culture and economics, a history which San Diego is neither clearly inside and dominated by or outside and controlling. Before taking a job at Cal State San Marcos in 2005, I had no intention of writing anything about the San Diego region, nor did I begin the project energetically or enthusiastically. The End of America is an attempt to process where I am geographically, and to process what I might do in relation to where I am, in a way that comes from finding myself in circumstances that didn’t result from any consciously literary goals.
The word “process” is crucial. I’m not attempting in The End of America to understand, in some clear way, materialist or otherwise, where I am, much less to explain where I am, and definitely not to formulate an argument based on using the place where I am as background data source for making the argument. Nor is this essay the place where I will explain how the interaction between environment and subject works throughout the poem, or what that interaction ultimately means.
Instead, in The End of America, the meaning of any given poem is the interaction, and can be traced only through the poem, whose insights already move ahead of, or at least differ from, any explanation I might make. I’m not saying that I make no arguments or claims in the poems, or take no positions, but rather that such possibilities are part of the interactions of the poem and not its goal. Nor am I saying that because arriving at a political statement is not the goal, the poem is not political. Instead, the political perspectives of the various poems are embedded in the interactions, are part of the mesh of experience which any given poem moves through. Politics appears as an essential and unavoidable part of life, but not as the reason for or the goal of living.
There are of course many precedents for my attempt to find different ways to write about the social geography of San Diego—“social geography” being the phrase that to me best includes issues of natural landscape, human-created landscapes (rural, urban, and suburban, and all other contexts in which humans shape the environment), and the political, cultural, environmental, and psychological goals and effects of human interaction with the physical world. Lisa Robertson’s work on soft architecture or her book “The Weather” are obvious examples, as are the social and linguistic landscapes in Ron Silliman’s poems. But I’m also motivated, perhaps surprisingly, by work like Flaubert’s, which shows human consciousness as always structured, and responding to, the social environment of which it is a part.
In none of these precedents do I find ideas about sociology, psychology, or natural environment operating in the same ways as in The End of America, since my interest lies in seeing how those ideas play out in particular poems, in a particular context (none of the above writers have anything detailed to say about San Diego), in a way that no prior work or set of theories could account for in advance. I think of literature as precisely the way to explore the ongoing interactions of all these possibilities, often on a momentary basis.
Instead of landscape as background, or as staged set of pre-determined human meaning, or even as character (when a conflict is about “man vs. the natural environment”), it seems to me that landscape, like character, is a shifting group of possibilities (some damaging, but not all) changed by its relationship to other groups of possibilities.
When thought of that way, one thing becomes clear: whatever partial perceptions I have of it, I don’t know all of what landscape is in any specific instance, any more than I can know all of what character is.
Natural landscapes, human landscapes, their interaction, intellectual and artistic insight floating through my brain in and around the shrill manipulative distortions of mass media mental bombardment, stories and counterstories of borders, nations, and cultures, a distant yell in the sunset, the padding of a dog, the shrill whistle of nearby juvenile hawks who haven’t yet learned the silence of their parents. All these, and many more, different at any moment, become part of the environment I find myself encountering.
Here, in several parts, is the talk I gave at the And Now Literary Festival at the University of California, San Diego, on October 13, 2011.
“Landscape as Activity in The End of America Poems”
The conventional narrative assumption about landscape: events happen on it. Landscape, surroundings, environment, milieu–interactions and differences between these terms included—become both background to the foregrounded action and the frame inside which differences between characters play out. Fiction, and poetry with elements of narrative, differ little here: Description of landscape comes first, or at least early, and comes up again, at well-timed intervals, to fill in around the action. Description doesn’t merely set the stage on which the action will occur. Descriptive language is the stage itself.
Given the human ability to assign meaning (or, say, the human determination to impose meaning on whatever exists, human-created or otherwise), frequently it turns out that descriptions of landscape are not only frames on which meaning takes place, but meaningful frames that determine the significance of whatever happens on them.
In much of western culture’s pastoral literature, description creates a rural, natural, supposedly timeless source of virtue in which humans find solace and steadfast grounding among the flux and chaos of human societies with all their circulations and interactions and cage-like enclosures, a flux and chaos which becomes the essence of the urban landscape (the urban stage). While characters are supposedly the crux of the action, in fact in the pastoral and its permutations, the primary struggle often occurs between the rural and urban stages themselves, with the characters becoming examples (if sometimes nuanced ones) of those stages.
Or consider the post-apocalyptic landscape: that stage on which human life has come close to destroying itself because of its power, corruption and contradictions, a stage on which all social contracts have been demolished and people are attempting to re-create them or exploit their absence. Oddly enough, the post-apocalyptic is still pastoral in its implications, though post-social rather than pre-, with the natural world polluted by layers of human-created (urban-created) debris.
While pastoral narratives might seem to imply that landscape shapes character, it is not landscape in these narratives so much as human assumptions about the meaning of landscape that shapes character. The idea that nature brings virtue, or that urban life breeds corruption and immorality, doesn’t question and explore the effect that landscape might have on character, but assigns that value in advance, limiting itself to playing out the interaction of pre-determined values, though admittedly often with intriguing turns.
Whatever the power of landscape in pastoral narratives and the meaning assigned to it, the action focuses primarily on the characters and their interactions with each other. The landscape, often inert and passive, occasionally disrupting or impeding through thunderstorms or nuclear fallout, remains background to what the key characters do and realize about what they do.
I don’t feel the need to rehearse here a long history of cultural and literary theory, Marxist and much else, that questions the centrality of character and subjectivity over environment and history, and shows how history and cultural and the physical opportunities available in specific geographical environments (the focus for instance of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) shape people’s behavior, possibilities, thoughts and feelings. Instead I want to ask, what might a work of literature look like if, instead of keeping landscape as background, or pre-determining its value, one thought of both landscape and character/subjectivity as questions and mutual interactions, person-in-flux and landscape-in-flux, that dynamically dissolve, or reassert, or otherwise unsettle distinctions so that there is no stable ground or clear center of action, but only multiple shifting points of contact?
In Los Angeles:
Saturday, November 19, 8 p.m.
The Empty Globe Literary Series
with readings also by Bruna Mori and Adam Novy
420 West Avenue 33, Unit 10
Los Angeles, CA
*please park on the street, and not in the lot
The Empty Globe series is curated by Amina Cain
Bruna Mori is a writer, and educator, preoccupied with peripatetics. Her books include Derivé (Meritage Press), with paintings by Matthew Kinney, and Poetry for Corporations (forthcoming from Insert Press), exploring the unregulated drift of people and commodities through cities. Since moving to La Jolla, she has turned her attention to the suburbs, with photographer George Porcari, in a collaboration titled “Beige.” She also teaches in the writing program at the University of California at San Diego, and writes for a nonprofit design and media firm called Lybba founded by filmmaker Jesse Dylan, dedicated to open-source health advocacy worldwide. She is also Lucien’s mom.
Adam Novy is the author of a novel, The Avian Gospels (Hobart). He lives in Southern California.
Mark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a novel, The Quarry and The Lot (2011), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008).
On The Quarry and The Lot:
Joseph Klein was a brilliant boy, talented—and dangerous. When he dies, at age 32, under uncertain circumstances, a group of his former friends gather for his funeral and see each other for the first time in some years. How did Joseph change them and what does he mean to them? What do they mean to each other, and why have their lives come to be what they are? The Quarry and The Lot is a novel about love and its limits, memory and history. It explores whether any truth can be stable when what’s happening is changed by what people understand and where what passes for normal is something far more frightening.
Mark Wallace's The Quarry and The Lot is a big, complex, tender, angry, haunted charting of how each of us is many strangers, any past many pasts, our biographies always-already written by others. Ultimately, though, for me it's about that bland, dangerous medication called the American suburb--how, once you've had a taste of that stuff, it's almost impossible to kick, even as it turns you into a ghost, or a guerilla, or, sometimes, both at once.
--Lance Olsen, author of Calendar of Regrets and Nietzsche's Kisses
HTML Giant posited that a certain small press was turning into a vanity project. I'd like to talk about what a "vanity press" is and is not, and how we value and de-value editorial models. Thoughts: Lots of literary heroes funded or helped fund their works into print, e.g., Gertrude Stein. Can we talk about the widespread stigma on this? What feeds the notion of 'merit' that one might value in having a manuscript selected by a third party? What do we think of the notion that writing be judged 'purely' on the work itself?
SMS: A vanity press publishes whatever it gets. The author pays, and the publisher prints. This is not what BlazeVox was doing. I have had a couple authors contribute toward their Tinfish books, once they were accepted for publication—I did not demand it, but I did not refuse their offers. I have put in some of my resources toward marketing my own books for other presses. Now that I'm feeling very self-conscious about this, I think that Tinfish's policy of not paying anyone, from author to designer to editor, makes us a cooperative. Those authors whose books sell well end up helping to fund the books that don't sell well. I'm comfortable with this, as I am with asking designers to volunteer their time and work. But I can see the point of view that says designers and authors should be paid, or even that the publisher should take some of the money. I have a day job; other publishers do not.
I don't think writing should be judged only for itself. I publish books that I think are in conversation with each other and with the larger world (whether or not that world reads them) on issues from poetic form, language use, cultural politics, and much else. I publish books that I think will work in my classroom, books from Hawai`i or with something to offer us here. I strongly believe that publishers should be making an argument with the work they publish. That de-emphasizes the single volume, and ups the ante on the catalogue as the art/cultural form. I blogged about this question here: http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2009/03/reading-small-press-as-argument-not.html
I believe in merit; I believe that when I publish a book of poems, that they are good poems. But what means at least as much is the way in which that book fits into a conversation or series of conversations.
MW: Susan’s description of the historical definition of vanity press seems correct to me. But it’s also interesting who, in our current cultural context, can be accused of being a vanity press. The concept of the “vanity press” (and the way in which the term can be used in an unfounded hostile attack) really becomes, in this context, a press that cannot keep silent about its finances because it is weak enough to have financial needs and so can be coerced into making financial confessions because it needs help. And that’s what we’ve seen recently: a significant number of small presses defending their practice by confessing, while more powerful institutions confess nothing.
So why should it be small presses confessing when, for instance, not a single MFA program has had to confess that it never teaches its students anything about the financial realities of contemporary publishing? No matter the reason that those programs don’t: the individuals involved in those programs may not know or care, or don’t realize it’s their job, in part, to be providing that information. But that’s another discussion: my point is that it’s not so easy to coerce them into confession.
None of this is to say that publishers shouldn’t be honest with their authors. It is, instead, to say that the very fact that it’s small press publishers who can be coerced into confession is a result of a system of exchange in which the more power and money you have, the less you have to tell anybody anything about it.
What can we do about it being so hard to publish books (books that everyone loves and needs)? Can we imagine more sustainable models?
SMS: We do what we can. There is no model that works perfectly, whether it's based on contests or donations or author assistance or collectives (which also fund books that sell and books that do not). We need more reviewers, more readings, more virtual connections. And we need to destigmatize (again) the kind of work that offered us models in the first place, the cheap and dirty mimeograph or xerox. It's the work that counts, ultimately. I'd rather use the language of “getting the work out” and “sharing work” and “building community” than of “marketing” and “selling,” but in some sense I feel uncomfortable with--even as I troll university websites late at night looking for professors who might like Tinfish's work--they may boil down to the same thing.
MW: I think it’s not that bad an era to be a small press publisher or to be running a literary magazine. Sure, putting out books is time-consuming and somewhat costly, but there do seem to be many ways of doing such things, more than before, and not all of them are tremendously expensive. The growing number of print-on-demand options and online literary journals of significant quality shows that people on the lower end of the financial power scale can continue to do a lot for literature. In fact I’m tempted to say that the small press world does more than ever to help worthwhile writing reach anybody who’s willing to look for it.
SMS: After re-reading this conversation, Mark, I'm fascinated by how many times you used the verb “to confess.” Small-press publishers “confessing” their finances, MFA programs not “confessing.” Why this theologically loaded word?
MW: I used it because I believe that the recent controversy about small press practices has been mired, from the first, in a discourse of accusation, guilt, sin, confession and (I suppose) possible redemption. Not that it was about religion, or that many of the people involved are invested in religious belief (although some may be), but since the issue is one of belief as much as practicality, a drama of belief has been being staged. It has been many years since I wrote my essay “On Genre As Conversion Experience,” which talked about the ways contemporary writerly discussions of genre remain more invested in the dynamics of religious discourse than many writers realize, as opposed to the supposedly religion-free discourse of community or intellectual field etc. And I think that’s often still what we have. Of course, having said that, it might seem that I would be suggesting that we rid ourselves of that anti-rational and anti-community claptrap and start getting our materialist business together more straightforwardly, but actually I think that the idea that we could do such a thing often just becomes a liberal fantasy that people should all be able to talk to each other despite our lack of shared values. Which brings me back to where I came in to this conversation, so let me just end by saying that there are few things I myself love more than a friendly, energetic exchange of ideas.
CM: I agree. Thank you both for your generous thoughts and for your tremendous contributions to poetry.
There has been some debate around the expectation that small presses should abide by rules and guidelines versus small-press publishing being fueled by a gift economy and donations. What kinds of transparency does a publisher owe to their readers and authors in terms of submission guidelines and publishing expectations?
SMS: I think we're caught between two models right now. The old model was self-publishing and micro-press publishing. That's where Tinfish started, publishing chaps of 100 copies and a very short run journal that was xeroxed. But we rather quickly became a “real publisher,” meaning that our books cost more to produce and came out in larger runs. The production values went way up. So there was more need for resources. It's very easy to get big fast, because there are so many worthy manuscripts floating around out there. And I have no objection to presses that publish a lot—Salt and BlazeVox come to mind. That doesn't mean they aren't publishing good books or that they don't care about what happens to their product. They are working with possibility, which is a finer thing than prose . . . While I would never publish as many books as they do, I applaud them for their efforts. And, if a publisher tries to live off of his or her work, why not? It may seem “suicidal,” as someone wrote on an fb page, but so much more gratifying than many other jobs with steady incomes.
If a press asks for money from its authors, something I have no problem with, I do think they should be up front about it. Otherwise, I don't think authors need to know the details, except perhaps to realize that the work of publishing involves a lot of resources by someone(s) else—editing, designing, printing, distributing, marketing, and so on. Some of the nastiness of the recent discussions revolved around a fundamental misunderstanding of the work and resources involved. My students sometimes tell me that they are going to make money with their poems. One class accused me of not taking them seriously when I laughed at this notion. We need to disabuse others of the notion that seriousness = money-making, while letting them know that it takes money to put out a product. Our most recent Tinfish book cost us over $2,000 to print (600 copies) and I bought advertising cards and sent out review copies. The book could have been less gorgeous, but we made our choices—it could also have been more gorgeous and a lot more expensive to make.
It's also a good idea, as Craig Santos Perez and others argue, for authors to work harder to promote their own work, and work that they think is important. The problem there is that the fine line between disseminating important information and sounding like someone selling refrigerators (though my local Sears salesman was a former student!), is easily crossed. Keep the emphasis on the work, is my advice. Then make sure people know about it.
CM: Thank you for breaking that down.
MW: The question of the transparency that publishers owe to readers and authors is an important one, and I like Susan’s answer. But is there any reason that the focus of transparency, even in this conversation, should be on publishers alone? Should there be transparency (and is there any?) in Creative Writing MFA programs? What about in education institutions more broadly? Or in the work of political organizations and corporations? The fact is, in all those larger social institutions, there’s little and sometimes no transparency. That lack of transparency serves the interests of those with most access to money and most power.
In the case that led to this discussion, a lot of the expressed frustration with small press publishers, and the expressed frustration about that frustration, comes from a context of massive lack of transparency and honesty in multiple institutions, and not just in relationship to literature. And while many small press publishers, Tinfish and Bloof and others, have been lately explaining and confessing the details of their practices, corporations fuel their power over public life by deploying much larger resources under legal cover and never have to mention it.
CM: Mark, you offer good points in helping us to get out of a myopic framework. At the same time, we don’t interact with small-press publishers on the same terms of MFA programs or corporations. I believe this merits a distinct (and useful) thread. The question I asked around transparency was specifically between a writer who might become a press author and the press. This is a different dimension than those in the relationships you bring up, e.g., I may get my MFA certificate based on the criteria spelled out in the application process, but the meaning of the MFA may not match the implied promise of the degree.
That said, I think one of the best parts of operating in the small-press publishing world is that a sketchy or shady corporate framework is not the standard. There are several people working hard to demand that corporations be more transparent, and I don’t think there’s anyone arguing that there should be low-transparency on any corporate or institutional agreements, so I don’t think it’s true that we’re asking more of publishers more than we are of more powerful institutions, even though the fact that we are often more successful in having reciprocal conversations with publishers makes it seem as though they are subject to more critical scrutiny.
MW: I appreciate you trying to focus the discussion more specifically. Your points have also helped locate for me one of the things I find myself concerned about in this conversation. We’ve put the focus on what writers might ask of and need from publishers, but I’m not sure we can ask that question fairly without also asking what publishers might ask of or need from writers. I think part of the reason that there was recent controversy was an assumption by too many writers that publishers are more or less just a writer service industry, doing the janitorial work of creating a nice clean place for writers to put themselves center stage. I’m not saying anybody thinks this consciously, but that’s often in effect what happens. It’s too easy for writers to think of small press publishers just as people serving to advance a writer’s career, instead of as people who are often writers themselves and who are also working collaboratively to put forward the interests of an interconnected group of people.
SMS: So the new model is “real publishing.” And there's a need for it, because MFA grads and others need jobs. To get a job teaching you need to have published. And you need “real” books, not chaps, journal publications. No quarrel there. The quarrel comes in when the relationship between author and publisher becomes one of producer and—how to put this?--hired but unpaid help. This model is much less personal, much more capitalistic, and much less equitable. Another danger with this second model is that it makes publishing less a visionary enterprise than a business. (Not that businesses can't be visionary, but I would rather use another metaphor for small press publishing, something that describes an enterprise between business and gift economy.) Tinfish Press has been lucky that our vision has—in some instances, if not in many others—proved marketable, especially for classroom use. “Experimental poetry from the Pacific” has been rare, until recently. We helped create a market for it, and the texts with which to teach it. Several of our books have sold in the thousands. They help to pay for those that sell in the hundreds, or in the tens.
The discussion reminds me, in odd and mostly unparallel ways, of conversations in the adoption world. We're talking about a practice (adoption, small press publishing) that has a value (spiritual, familial, aesthetic) apart from the monetary, but which inevitably enters the marketplace. Then the question becomes, to what extent does our pure ethics inevitably get muddied by realities? And how can we act ethically, even after acknowledging our lack of purity?
CM: Susan, you ask a complex question and I appreciate the depth of it. To begin, I believe we can act ethically by making a conscious effort to communicate constructively and with respect for each other. If you think someone is naive, maybe try to remember when you were naive and be a friend, be a neighbor -- if not to an individual, at least to the art.
If your goal is truly to have another poet shut up and sit down, I want to ask about the violence of that reaction.
Mark, I am glad you bring up that publishers might ask things of authors; it may be the question at the crux of this upset. I, personally, believe completely in cooperation. But, I continue to feel that disclosing the terms of cooperation after a manuscript has been accepted is not a good model, and I don't believe that mode is likely to yield positive relationships. Maybe I am proposing an undue burden on the publisher to have figured out what is needed from authors -- I do appreciate that a lot of publishing labor is already invisible and thankless -- but there is right now an opportunity for presses to consider publishing terms, and if they are stated up front then we might avoid vitriolic controversy.
Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace
Following a recent controversy in the small-press publishing community, I reached out to Mark Wallace and asked if we might have a broad discussion on the issues and hand towards potentially avoiding an ugly repeat. I knew Mark and I did not totally agree, which is why I reached out to him. We also looped in Susan M. Schultz, editor and publisher of Tinfish since 1995. -- Carol Mirakove
Susan M. Schultz: Thanks for asking me to speak to the issue. I blogged about the particular controversy when it first hit the airwaves, here: http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-blazevox-and-other-publishing.html. I read blog and facebook posts by Johannes Gorensson, Craig Santos Perez, Amy King, Reb Livingston, Matvei Yankelevich, Shanna Compton, and probably others, as well as many of the threads written about the controversy. But of course there's much more to it than whether or not one press asks its authors for contributions toward the publication of their books.
CM: Absolutely, but a point of clarification was not whether or not a press asks authors for contributions but how and when.
How do we distinguish critical discussion from destructive attacks? Name-calling seems to always reflect far more poorly on the insulter than the target. Why does this happen in our community? How can we criticize practices constructively, without personal wars being waged?
SMS: I've worked in an English department for over 20 years now, and if I knew the answer to that question, I'd be a lot happier there. We could create a forum to discuss these issues and put out a list of rules and regulations, beginning from “no name calling” and continuing with “keep it civil,” but I don't know that that works either. Such discussions happen rather organically (good to remember that many poisons are also organic). Part of the problem is that, name-calling aside, we all take our own and others' practices very personally, indeed.
CM: You make excellent points -- we certainly don't want to regulate speech. But, it seems to me that we take some others' practices very seriously, notably others we know, and other others' practices and positions are met with hostility.
SMS: Even apart from overtly personal attacks, every conversation about contests, prizes, subscriptions, funding drives, how many books we publish in a year, and so on, is implicitly personal. One of the uncomfortable values of this discussion is getting out in the open just how vested we are in some practices, and how hostile we are to others. I'd rather see us moralize less and encourage each other more. Or make the rhetorical point that we do not like certain practices, but do not condemn others for using them. Tinfish does not have contests, for example, because I find them an odd mix of revenue enhancement and the promise of cultural capital, but I know full well why many presses run them. Cash flow.
Mark Wallace: Distinguishing critical discussion from destructive attacks seems easy enough. The focus should remain on the ideas in question, not the personalities or behavior of the people expressing the ideas. It’s a matter of tone too. Hostility or dismissiveness, even when focused on an idea, quickly moves into the personal, since the more one’s tone highlights emotion, the more people become emotional in response to it.
Still, to say that it’s easy enough, in general, to distinguish between the two, doesn’t change the fact that in practice, there are many murky situations in which the boundaries get blurry, especially since, as Susan says, people take their ideas seriously. We can’t help but have an emotional relation to them.
The Enlightenment, of course, invented most of our contemporary ideas about the value of dispassionate, rational discussion. But the very belief in it brought in whole new waves of irrationality, not just in all the ways that people continued not to behave rationally, but also in the ways that many notions of Enlightenment rationality were nothing more than new ways of being irrational.
I’ve always appreciated what Dostoevsky said relative to the Enlightenment (if you’ll excuse but also note the way it’s gendered): “Men are so necessarily mad that imagining them sane must be another form of madness.”
I’m not sure much can be done to change the nature of public discussion. People come from so many backgrounds and ways of understanding words that standards for discussion vary from context to context. Professional and intellectual and literary discourses do have defined social standards, no matter how fuzzily followed, but it shouldn’t be surprising that not everyone has absorbed or respects them.
Public language has always involved murderous hostility. Right now, we’re in a moment when the unfounded hostile accusation has tremendous power in U.S. politics and culture, as just one for instance (I don’t say “more power than ever” because I don’t think that’s true). Hostile lies and accusations, if there’s enough power behind them, can force individuals and groups to spend most of their time defending themselves regarding things they didn’t even do, and explaining and even confessing the things they actually do. In fact, this current discussion of publisher’s financial practices is happening mainly because of the power of such accusations.
I don’t believe, by the way, that there’s any such thing as “our community” of writers. Sure, those of us who have been writers for a long time are likely to have some (many, in my case) trusted, respected, and loved comrades, but even the small world of experimental/alternative etc etc etc poetry and poetics features a constantly changing list of active participants. Look at the names of who is publishing in any literary magazine that you like now as compared to 20, 10, or even 5 years ago, and you’ll see how fast the participants change. None of us know more than a portion of those people, and it’s an open question about how well we get along even with those we do know. Certainly our feelings of community towards and with others are real, but I don’t think that there’s any stable entity there that belongs to any of us. Community is established through ongoing interaction and is always fragile. It can’t be relied on too much.
That said, I do think individuals and groups can and do influence the nature of public conversation in limited contexts. I’ve long been interested in fostering friendly but open intellectual discussion among the people around me, and I think I do it well, and I’m hardly the only one who does it. Still, hostile or irrelevant commentary can’t be avoided entirely even in the best conditions.
CM: Mark, you foster open discussion exceptionally well, which is one of the reasons I approached you about having a discussion amidst a very heated debate.
You reveal that the two of us have defined community differently, and while multiple definitions are “correct,” you explain that community is established through ongoing interaction where I imply earlier that it is defined by a common interest, in this case an interest in small-press poetry.
However community is defined, my concern with the hostility of late is this: the way we treat individuals in our microcosms, especially in the microcosms we choose (e.g., small-press poetry), informs the way we act in the world at large. If we aspire to a global respect and peace then we have a golden opportunity to hone those practices amongst our friends, and friends of friends, and strangers who share interests in things about which we are most ardent.
SMS (interrupting): I'd suggest that we stop trying to define what community is, and simply act as if we are members of a community. Enact community rather than sit back and try to figure out who's in and who's out.
MW: With apologies for being contrary and insistent, Susan, I don’t quite agree with that approach. I think we often need to act as if the people we’re dealing with in the world of poetry are strangers—which, much of the time, they are, at least to some degree. I think we need more awareness of the fact that other people, even if they’re poets, don’t share our values or assumptions. Precisely one of the reasons that this issue became controversial recently was that a lot of people discovered that they didn’t understand each other, which came to them as a surprise because they had assumed a lot of mutual agreement. Many people involved assumed that they knew what a poetry press was… except, as it turned out, they didn’t share the same assumptions at all.
Our responses to people in the world of poetry would probably change if we went in with the recognition that community can’t be taken for granted or assumed. Like any relationship, it has to be worked out. Speaking just for myself maybe, even with my close friends I’ve often become most frustrated when I assume, in advance and unintentionally, that because they’re my friends, we agree about things and understand each other. As it turns out, we often don’t.
I would have no problem with calling such interactions instances of community, I suppose, if we described “community” as a group of individuals interacting because of a shared interest even when they might not have much otherwise in common.
"Yes, the only place on earth where all places are-seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending" (10-11)
…"Then I saw the Aleph…. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?" (12-13)
-Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph"
This panel will highlight innovative literary approaches that engage with the social geographies of San Diego. Los Angeles is often the social, critical and artistic space in which writers explore literary geographies. In "Taking Los Angeles Apart: Towards a Postmodern Geography," Edward W. Soja asks, "What is this place? Even knowing where to focus, to find a starting point, is not easy, for, perhaps more than any other place, Los Angeles is everywhere" (222). While Los Angeles might be everywhere, San Diego often seems like the nowhere which desires but has never developed the cultural projection and ideological reach of Los Angeles. Yet because of this, the social geography of San Diego is a fruitful space in which to explore how American spacial and temporal fantasies about play out.
We take the phrase "social geography" to include issues of natural landscape, human created landscapes (rural, suburban, and urban, and all other ways in which humans shape the environment), and the political, cultural, and psychological goals and effects of human interaction with the physical world. By positioning textual worlds as spaces which exist in creative tension with the material spaces in which readers and writers live and move, engagement with social geography can extend conventional understandings of literary art's social consequence.
Borges noted that language and description tend to be linear and sequential. However, attention to social geography allows us to envisage and describe the simultaneity inherent in all landscapes. This discontinuity both separates and links time (history) and space (geography). In Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Soja notes, "Prophesy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space not time that hides consequences from us" (22). The spaces of San Diego are particularly adept at hiding consequences.
While the methods of describing landscape and environment in conventional poetry and fiction are well known, how do writers working with more innovative literary structures approach the problem of describing, or otherwise engaging with, social geography-especially in the spaces of San Diego which are so adept at hiding consequences?
Lyn Hejinian's phrase, "We are parting from description," articulates how some innovative literary approaches of the past twenty years have been resistant to the idea of referential social realism in description. Yet many innovative writers in recent years have been considering non-conventional ways of engaging with specific social geographies. Bhanu Khapil's Humananimal and Allison Cobb's Green-Wood, for example, consider how ideology is embedded into social-geographical forms that are commonly understood to be "natural" or transparently factual. As opposed to more conventional notions of writerly description as removed, unbiased, objective, and totalizing, these more experimental approaches engage with social geography in ways that are fragmentary, partial, ruptured, oblique, subjective, or layered, while recognizing that any form of description intervenes in and shapes the environment it engages rather than standing impartially outside it.
The fact that UCSD is hosting the 2011 And Now Festival makes the 2011 festival a perfect occasion for highlighting recent work that has engaged specifically with the social geography of the San Diego region and Southern California more broadly. San Diego has never been a significant center of literary activity in the U.S., and even to the present day, investigations of the San Diego region in literature remain relatively rare. At the same time, the social geography of San Diego is a complex, troubled one. Urban and suburban expansion, border culture and politics interact with fragile local ecosystems in a way that leads to a variety of unique social and ecological problems, but problems that are also indicative of larger global changes.
In keeping with its focus on the innovative, the panel is open-ended in terms of genre. Participants may give readings of their poetry or fiction, or present a brief paper, or work in a genre that mixes "creative" and "critical" elements.
Details about the participants:
K. Lorraine Graham is the author of Terminal Humming, (Edge Books), and her visual work has appeared in the Zaoem International Poetry Exhibition at the Minardschouwburg, Gent, Belgium, and the Infusoria visual poetry exhibition in Brussels. She has a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese from George Washington University, an MA in English from Georgetown, and is currently a second-year student in the writing MFA program at UCSD. Her artistic and research interests include performance and embodiment, hybrid genres, poetry as pedagogy, and multilingual texts. She is at work on an obsessively-cited, partially-collaged text called White Girl, and Ostrich Play, a performance text in two forms.
Bruna Mori is a writer and educator, preoccupied with peripatetics and process-obsessed. Her books include Dérive (Meritage Press), with paintings by Mathew Kinney, and Poetry for Corporations (forthcoming from Insert Press), as well as the chapbooks Tergiversation (Ahadada Books) and The Approximations (Second Avenue Poetry). She relocated to San Diego over a year ago, where she has taught in the writing programs at the University of California at San Diego, Woodbury University's School of Architecture, and New School of Architecture + Design. She also writes for design + research firms and on behalf of cities, and is Lucien's mom.
Jeanine Webb's work has appeared in many journals, including the West Wind Review, ZYZZYVA, The Antioch Review, the San Diego Writers' 2010 anthology A Year in Ink, and is forthcoming in Lana Turner. She is one author, with Brian Ang, Joseph Atkins and Tiffany Denman, of the poetry pamphlet Poetry is not Enough. She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing at UC Davis, where she taught a workshop in Making Poems. She is currently working to assemble a collaborative Durutti Free Skool for radical poetics in San Diego for spring 2011.
Mark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a novel, The Quarry and The Lot (2011), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008). He teaches at California State University San Marcos.
The complete program for the &Now Literary Festival in San Diego is now available here. An event like this doesn't happen often in San Diego, and is not to be missed.
Area college students should bring their I.D. and can attend the conference free of charge.
&Now Festival of New Writing: Tomorrowland Forever!
OCT. 13 – 15, 2011 @ UCSD
&NOW is a festival of fiction, poetry, and staged play readings; literary rituals, performance pieces (digital, sound, and otherwise), electronic and multimedia projects; and intergenre literary work of all kinds, including criti-fictional presentations and creatively critical papers.
The weight of the terror and loss of 20th century European history hovers—nearly unspoken—in the background of the prose poems in Isabelle Baladine Howard’s Secret of Breath (Burning Deck 2008, tr. Eléna Rivera), all of which explore communication, miscommunication, and the limits and end of communication. The pieces are divided between sections in italics and sections not in italics, which seem to sustain a dialogue between them, although no stable identities are maintained by the marked divisions. Instead, the attempt at dialogue constantly breaks down, or open, because of a social landscape of uncertainty and horror: “the earth is plundered and the bodies abandoned./They changed the names of countries,/they no longer even know from what.”
If one senses, in these prose poem dialogues, the lurking presence of more specific details of European history (“here we are at the gaping borders” brings to mind many possibilities; I thought for instance of Walter Benjamin’s suicide at Portbou, but many other implications are possible), those details rarely emerge; this is a book whose power comes from suggestiveness rather than direct treatment. That technique leads to a few lines whose heaviness seems more posture than profound (“the talking of everything and of nothing,” or “The tires scream as though someone were insane with pain”). For the most part though, Secret of Breath is an unsettling book, one providing no clear answers to questions which can never quite be raised.
The group of serial prose poems that make up Caroline Dubois’ You Are The Business (Burning Deck 2008, tr. Cole Swensen), all revolve in strange circles of displacement around the idea of the double, of split identity. Each of the seven individual prose poem series latches onto a specific set of names/characters around whom to spin their tight, often funny permutations, with some of the names drawn from the history of film.
In one of the serial sets, Simone Simon (the French actress perhaps most famous to American audiences through the evocative Val Lewton horror films The Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People in which she stars) becomes, with her human/jaguar split identity and her neatly split female/male name, a perfect site for a set of twisting reflections on gender identity and more: “Or Simon name of daddy so slightly exceeded because I’m a girl inscribed inside with the silent and so that I Mmm there name of Daddy in my own”
The poems in You Are The Business are tautly constructed, often lasting just long enough to turn in a new direction off the previous poem in a way that makes the serial aspect clear; each poem seems to think again on the one before it. The result, over the course of the book, is a kind of gleefully paranoid hall of mirrors in which viewers, thinking they are watching the spectacle of the world, end up often seeing only their own projected distortions–which, to some extent, is what Dubois suggests makes up the spectacle of the world.
Suzanne Doppelt’s Ring Rang Wrong (Burning Deck 2006, tr. Cole Swensen) fascinatingly combines visual images with prose poem paragraphs that appear at first to be explanations of, or at least reflections upon, the visual images but turn out to be no such thing. The black and white images, all in rectangular frames, are mainly abstract textures divided into two contrasting halves, though the occasional insect or pair of human hands enters either directly or in distorted silhouette.
But it’s in the prose poem commentary that surrounds these images that Ring Rang Wrong comes most alive. The commentary seems at first to be notes for some kind of explanatory lecture, yet the notes veer off quickly into obviously nonsensical statements that still have a metaphorical, even symbolic, resonance (“The sun is as wide as a man’s foot”), or similar statements that, while seeming ludicrous, are actually quite exact (“To experience imbalance just spin around for awhile and then stop, you get the vertiginous sense that it’s the earth that’s spinning, a rotation—swirl and vertigo”) These statements show, quite often, how a very precise specific can seem almost too weird to be true.
Within the commentary, occasional sections of pun-heavy invented or borderline pre-existing language strings sometimes take over (”Orclôsśorambĺocha” begins the start of one such string, which includes multinational or just plain invented typograhical marks that I can’t recreate, while some of the language seems vaguely French or else unlike anything I can recognize).
The result is a funny, precise, ambiguous set of often dissociated reflections that bear many resonant implications for the surrounding images, while neither explaining or exhausting them. Ring Rang Wrong is a book operating on multiple levels of oddity and precision, and is well worth returning to more than once.
Donato Mancini’s AEthel is a focused, nuanced, and frequently minimalist book of concrete visual poems that gain power through Mancini’s use of repetition and engaging variation. The visual poems are split into two basic series. One consists of letters constructed from different typographical systems that have been combined, melted together, and stretched in ways that make the original letters usually (though not always) illegible. The other juxtaposes visual images of hands, similarly melted and blended, that at the same time are both clearly hands and yet not-so-clearly different from each other.
The titles of each piece, placed beneath or beside the images, are poems both in themselves and in their resonant, never precisely defined relation to the visual details floating above or alongside them. Each title (such as “Xxtreeme Author-Function,” or “I Think Therefore I Am Not Sure”) intriguingly and often satirically twists and combines phrases, some of which are recognizable in the history of literary and cultural theory, and others of which come from some of the oddities of ordinary daily language.
Both the visual poems and their titles reflect back on and alter each other, as well as the proceeding and following pieces, through these different interactive serial changes. While each piece, on its own, has a unique visual interest, where AEthel most excels is at showing the interconnectedness of language and visual systems and, by implication, the interconnectedness of human bodies that both deploy and are deployed by those systems.
If it isn’t already, it should be a truism that literature developed through procedures that take language from outside the author’s subjective vocabulary is no less free of the marks of an individual writer’s concerns and obsessions than other kind of literature, though it may distribute those marks in ways different than the poem fundamentally attempting to express a unique subjectivity.
Given that, I was eager to read Benjamin Friedlander’s Citizen Cain, a collection of flarf poetry by a writer who has neither been stuffily dismissive of flarf or whose work has been significantly defined by it. For awhile now, Friedlander has been one of the most inventive contemporary poet-scholar-critics, able to write game-playing critical work that is literature in its own right, while he has also written understated, subtle lyric poems that recall at times the poetry of Robert Creeley and at times a graceful, thought-provoking European lyric influenced by a broad array of poets and philosophers, including Emmanuel Levinas and many more.
Of the Friedlander whose work I have encountered over more than a few years, I was curious to know what echoes would still remain in the context of the crude reveling in the contradictions and incoherence of contemporary Internet speech for which flarf is either reviled or loved. And Citizen Cain didn’t disappoint: although its gleeful vulgarity is not much different from a lot of flarf, there’s a greater range of historical reference, both cultural and literary. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and long historical mistreatment of Jewish people and culture are just as likely to appear in Citizen Cain as “Hugs, Fudge, and 41 Cellphones,” the title of one of the poems here.
Of course, flarf has always been at least partly an investigation, purposely irreverent, haphazard and slapstick, of contemporary cultural conditions, but Friedlander writes flarf that has a larger and more explicit sense of history than most other flarf attempts, although it resembles some of the historical sense of one of the first and still most crucial works of flarf, K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation. The opening to the poem “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” among many pieces, makes this larger historical context clear:
The Chinese cantos are about a girl
who lived in the Song dynasty
about a thousand years ago.
The girl was not only poor but crippled. Happily,
there was a Shriners Hospital
with free orthopedic care.
People who hate flarf on sight will not give a pass to Citizen Cain. Friedlander fully indulges himself in the pigfuck grossout bathroom humor fests that give fans of flarf giggles and enemies conniptions, which the book’s very first poem, “Biological or Social Female Parent of a Child or Offspring and Its Poetry,” hardly allows readers to avoid:
Kangaroo poo eaten by a kitten
made you into a “back-up” turkey,
in case my bird flopped. Mom,
you are simply red-
faced professor made up scary story
about moms and their poo
which, in consequence of Section 3
of this agreement, the turkey baster
can eliminate Eve’s curse with a flush—
and now there’s nothing new to eat!
Whether one finds Citizen Cain tough to read through, or not, depends on one’s ability to enjoy lines of this sort. For the most part, the book doesn’t add much that’s new to the most recognizable aspects of the flarf tone.
Flarf though it is, Citizen Cain is also unquestionably Benjamin Friedlander’s flarf. The book consistently and fascinatingly combines flarfy obsession over the detritus of contemporary culture with a larger contextual exploration of European and global history. Although it’s no doubt consciously ludicrous, Citizen Cain thus takes its place in the history of a writer who has matched tremendous critical and philosophical sophistication with constant undercutting of any too settled way of approaching literature or the world.
I published many reviews in The Washington Review, the fine D.C. arts and literary magazine that thrived through the 1990s and even, I think, into the early 2000's before finally succumbing. I’m going to reprint occasional reviews from that era on this blog when I have the time, because other than being in the old print issues of TWR, these reviews are probably no longer available. I’ve edited them a bit for style and phrasing, but otherwise want them to reflect the time and place of their writing.
It’s interesting to me how these old reviews show not only the different ways I thought about poetry some time ago, but show also the era of their composition, and the questions about poetics that were abroad and in play at that time.
Jennifer Moxley Imagination Verses
Tender Buttons Books
P.O. Box 185
New York City, NY 10009
90 pgs., $8.95
Jacqueline Risset The Translation Begins
Burning Deck Press
Small Press Distribution
1814 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702
96 pgs., $10.00
In contemporary avant garde poetry circles, very little can cause such extreme disagreement as a discussion about the value of lyric poetry. Is lyric poetry by definition the singing of a solitary voice which takes its own problems to be central? Is lyric poetry based on the idea that the human being is an autonomous, free individual who always has power to choose, and who forms all meaning, a notion that would imply that social power and cultural history play no major roles in who we are? Or are there ways of using lyric that suggest that people are formed as much in the connections between each other as in their solitary wills?
Such questions are very much foregrounded by Jennifer Moxley's excellent first collection of poems, Imagination Verses. When Moxley writes, in her brief preface, that her poems are "written out of a desire to engage the universal lyric 'I,'" readers need to understand that she is not reasserting the idea that lyric poetry consists of a series of isolated individuals singing their own lives. Rather, she is engaging the cultural dilemmas that such a notion reflects and creates. In so doing, Moxley strikes at the heart of the conscious ambiguity that lyric poetry can suggest at its best; that we are both isolated and connected, that we are not simply individual but nonetheless cannot speak for others. In Imagination Verses, Moxley struggles with the problem of how to find a perspective from which to write. Who is she when she writes as "I"? Her poems seem to ask who she is in relation to others, and how a lyric poem can help her understand that.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Imagination Verses is the way the ironic ambiguities of these problems reveal themselves in the crafted twists of her lines, as in the opening of the book's first poem, "Home World":
I will say what the register calls forth,
the range of the heart
a journey in the strap of speech,
unrealized, failing to grapple
with even the first word,
or world where I saw humans
in the shadows of buildings
unable to speak at all.
Here, the "range of the heart," which might seem a conventional lyric positioning of the individual as central, is ironized by the way the heart can speak only from the "strap of speech," from what "the register calls forth." Rather than speaking simply as herself, the poet can speak only from what the "register" of this speech will allow; by thinking of herself as centered on a metaphor about her "heart," the narrator is aware of how much she is leaving out. She has already assumed something that cannot be assumed, and she knows it. But she still wants to speak from the heart, however much she is aware of the limitations of doing so, and however much she has already failed. Not to do so would be to suggest that there was some other, less located possibility from which she could speak, and she knows that's a falsehood also.
What's remarkable about these poems is the way their sophisticated intellectuality is, in fact, so located. They don't read like a theoretical discussion of the problems of lyric poetry; Moxley is not simply investigating the history of the lyric, or analyzing the problems of language from a safely contained distance. Rather, her poems read as lyrics of moving personal intensity that nonetheless consciously embody theoretically sophisticated investigations of lyric. These poems show the poet living a life, but one in which thinking about what she is doing is as crucial as doing it, as she reveals in "Night Train to Domestic Living Arrangements":
In my own mind you have put me
beside compunction. Re-worked
this mourning room where looking
smacks of mother may I
though to this day I'll falter
when sleep holds sway.
Throw me over your deep end
with some faith next time,
as if to lend some bother to the vex.
The problems that the narrator faces in these poems will be familiar to anyone well read in the history of lyric poetry; problems of desire and love, of the effect we have on others, of the narrator's limited abilities to make the wholesale social changes she often wants to make. That these themes echo the history of lyric poetry does not suggest traditionalism on Moxley's part so much as it suggests the flexibility that lyric poetry can offer in the present moment, in the hands of a writer willing to engage both its possibilities and its problems. While, at times, the twisting ambiguities of Moxley's poems feel so carefully crafted that they lack energy, even that lack seems not Moxley's unconscious failure to write with the passion of her existence, but a conscious understanding of the limitations of passionate conviction.
And there is, in Imagination Verses, a haunting sense of limitations. Much of the book confronts the very harsh reality of the world around her, with its political manipulations, legal robberies, and personal misunderstanding. Limits imposed by others, self-imposed limits, the limits of all that it seems not possible to act on--all these bring to Imagination Verses a deep sense of loss and sadness that is not quite, but just barely not, resignation. In the book's last poem, "Wreath of a Similar Year," hope emerges one more time, flitting in and out of focus among a landscape of mistakes and misunderstandings:
As in the wake
and wrongful death
will fall adjacent
But, as the last stanza of the poem tells us, this Hope sounds "strangely of untold direction," and is "blind as/the first letter on the first stone/written down." This hope is as blind as even the first attempts to write it into poetry. As blind, that is, as any attempt to write into a poem the ironic depths of opportunity and despair that a conscious life faces when it touches the displacements of its connections.
Anyone wanting a further look at Jennifer Moxley's talents should check out Jacqueline Risset's The Translation Begins, recently published by Burning Deck, and which Moxley translates from the original French. Compared to the struggle for a fully-lived language in Imagination Verses, the poems in The Translation Begins can seem anemic. Indeed an abstracted, distanced lack of particulars, designed to resist representation and image, is at the heart of many other contemporary French avant garde poets, including writers like Claude Royet-Journoud and Jacques Roubaud. One can develop a taste for Risset's anemia, though, once one recognizes the complex shifts in her work. Although the bloodlessness is disturbing, it can be disturbing in a way that is often illuminating.
As Moxley points out in her "Translator's Note," Risset's work often centers on destabilizing patterns, patterns that often emerge from interplay with a series of "hermetic references." Moxley writes, "as soon as the significance of the pattern is recognized, the pattern itself is transformed and torn apart." Although the pattern of destabilizing patterns could easily itself become a too stable pattern, there is enough striking variance on the level of the line, and between lines, in Risset's work that one does not feel the presence of any overarching theoretical schema. There is surprise in these poems, and constant subtle ironies, as in these lines from "M.S. 1544", which do not offer anything to see, and even critique the idea that there might be a clear perspective from which something might be seen:
or the relation--
knowing that everything--
and if in you--
Still, in lines like "that the problem consists of/ torpid--the story...," from the end of the poem "Fiction," I find it too tempting to take Risset's comments as an accurate evaluation of some of the book. But the brilliance of her insights finally do win out over my skepticism, because Risset's work reveals a truly cunning destabilization that can even anticipate and diffuse potential criticisms of its sometimes anemic abstractions. As if in agreement with Imagination Verses, Risset's book suggests that conscious anemia is better than passionate conviction that doesn't know what it's talking about.