Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Dieter M. Gräf’s Tussi Research

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.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas Office Party

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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Insert Blanc Press Benefit & Holiday Party: Los Angeles, Saturday Dec 17

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
Weekend Gallery
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==[33]) 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.

Whether or not you can make it to the party, donations can be made to Insert Blanc Press anytime at the following link

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
Robin Dicker
Jen Hofer
js makkos
K. Lorraine Graham
Mark Wallace
Amanda Ackerman

Daniel Hockenson
Brian Kim Stefans
Allison Carter
Joseph Mosconi
Ara Shirinyan
Harold Abramowitz

Adam Overton
Christopher Russell
Brian Ang
Kate Durbin

Dodie Bellamy
David Buuck
Kevin Killian with the three piece band Garrick Hogg, Gabriel Loiderman and Max Mayer

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Part Two: "Landscape as Activity in The End of America Poems"

"Landscape as Activity in The End of America Poems"

Part Two

(Part One can be found here)

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.

End of Part Two

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“Landscape as Activity in The End of America Poems”

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”

Part One

 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?

End of Part One