Thursday, February 28, 2008

A New Reading Series in a Gallery in San Diego: Who Would Have Thought?

Without meaning this as a criticism, because there’s no reason anyone should have thought differently, I’ve been interested to note how many people assume that the city of San Diego must have at least something of a poetry scene. And certainly it does. But what’s there and what isn’t might be surprising.

Just in case anybody’s counting, the city of San Diego is currently the eighth largest city in the U.S. The massive size of its city limits somewhat exaggerates its population, but not entirely: San Diego County registers as the 17th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country.

At this time, most of the literary series in the San Diego area happen at colleges: UCSD and San Diego State both have fairly large literary series, USD and Cal State San Marcos and a few small private colleges feature a reading now and then. Downtown there’s San Diego City College, which runs a lot of readings and music aevents and does good activist work in the heart of the city, to the extent that the city has a heart in the way that other cities do, which it only sort of does.

Also downtown there’s the Too Much Information GLBT reading series, which emphasizes important social issues and welcomes performative and experimental approaches. There are also a few small local scenes, spoken word to some extent but not only, one or two downtown, one in Oceanside/Escondido/North County, and perhaps one or two others that I barely know about. In La Jolla, D.G. Wills Books and Warwick Books host a number of events each year featuring first-rate writers of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. UCSD has participated with the San Diego Museum of Art in featuring a few readings at the museum in Balboa Park. Local libraries feature an occasional reading too, and there’s even a mystery book store that brings in lots of mystery and crime writers, mainly for book signings. I haven’t lived in the area for even three years yet, so I could be missing something, but those are the series that I know about.

So that’s not nothing, that’s quite a bit. But is it quite a bit for the 8th largest city in the United States? It might seem, from that perspective, a little thin.

Like Los Angeles, San Diego County is large. There are many interesting writers here, but they often live far apart from each other. Getting to and from events is time consuming and, given the traffic, often not easy. Unlike Los Angeles though, arts culture is not the main business of San Diego. Still, there’s more going on here than there might be. But there’s also less than there might be.

What there certainly is not is any community-based scene centered on experimental/avant garde/post-avant/New American poetics (whatever you want to call it). Nothing like Beyond Baroque or The Smell in L.A., the Artifact series et al in San Francisco, Spare Room in Portland, Subtext in Seattle. You know the kind of thing I mean. While TMI, for instance, welcomes innovative literary approaches, that’s not automatically the center of their concerns.

But now one such series is starting this Saturday at Agitprop Gallery in North Park. I wish it well, and look forward to participating. It’s being co-hosted by James Meetze, who has organized a few area readings in the past, and Sandra and Ben Doller. If you live in the San Diego area, come on out. If not, I hope you’ll wish them well in gaining a toehold.

Here are the details:

NEW Triple Threat Reading Series--sponsored by 3 San Diego Small Presses: 1913 Press (ed. Sandra Doller), Kuhl House Press (ed. Ben Doller), Tougher Disguises Press (ed. James Meetze) announces its inaugural event...

Come one, come all to the first reading in North Park's new and explosive series. We begin with Noah Eli Gordon & Joshua Marie Wilkinson who are reading in support of their fresh new collaborative book Figures for a Darkroom Voice.

Agitprop Gallery in North Park
2837 University Ave. San Diego, California 92104
(entrance to the gallery is actually on Utah)
7:00pm Saturday, March 1st.

Noah Eli Gordon's first book, The Frequencies, was published by San Diego's own Tougher Disguises Press in 2003. Since then, he has had five other books appear, including Novel Pictorial Noise, which was selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series, and published last year by Harper Perennial. Last year also saw the release of Figures for a Darkroom Voice, a book
written in collaboration with Joshua Marie Wilkinson. He writes a column on chapbooks for Rain Taxi: Review of Books, and his reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Publishers Weekly, Boston Review, and Denver Quarterly. He teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado in Denver. See him reading with Joshua Marie Wilkinson here:

Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms (Pinball, 2005), Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (U of Iowa, 2006), and The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (forthcoming from Tupelo Press). He holds a PhD from University of Denver and lives in Chicago where he teaches at Loyola University. His first film, Made a Machine by Describing the Landscape, a documentary about the band Califone, is due out next year. He curates Rabbit Light Movies, a website devoted to short poem-films, and recently co-edited an anthology of conversations between younger poets and their elders, which is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. See him reading with Noah Eli Gordon here:

Friday, February 22, 2008

quick takes

Here are some books of poems I’ve been enjoying recently. I’d like to write more about these books later if I ever have more time, but who knows when I will? Outside of business for work, at most I can read a few poems here and there. I mean, there's only five minutes until the door opens.

Robert Mittenthal, Value UnMapped

Is it possible to be a major contemporary poet that no one much has heard of? Robert Mittenthal might be an example. His poetry is always structurally complex, socially insightful, and more lyrical than one might expect for a poet who understands so much about the relation between language, history, and large-scale social structures. Value Unmapped, his new chapbook, starts out with a few intriguing short poems, perhaps not his most energetic work, that nonetheless bristle with misdirection and lost chances. The second half of the chapbook, though, contains the major work here, the long poem “Value UnMapped,” which is as good a poem as I’ve read by anybody in a while, a meditation on the alienation fostered by a public world in which words rarely mean what they say. “I saw you at the stop and pray, a temple built to Morse comma Samuel. The guy who dashed and dotted—fingers snapping in synch with his head—so that our mouths rope off whatever miswired thought.” Mittenthal lives in Seattle but in its understanding of the relation between political and linguistic structures, his writing is closest in spirit to the poets of Vancouver (where he lived for some years). If you see his work somewhere, don’t pass it by.

Susan Landers, Covers

This second book by Susan Landers came as quite a surprise to me because it’s so completely unlike her first book. A sort of landscape poetry of contemporary, post 9/11 NYC is juxtaposed and intermingled with a rewriting, and a loosely procedural writing through, of Dante’s Inferno. I was somewhat skeptical of the concept at first: projects that write through another text can often turn into dry, overly intellectual exercises (and I say this having done them myself), and the metaphorical connection between hell and NYC seems a tad strained and obvious. But the poems themselves quickly overcame these worries by being so consistently inventive and powerful: “nothing about this is funny/ the way I come to enter this place / I am crowded by sleep and sleepy crowds crowding/” The quick cuts between lines and social frameworks make this book a very dynamic reading experience.

Joe Ross, EQUATIONS = equals

The world of poetry changes fast. Now that he’s lived in Paris for a few years, I’m not sure how many American poets remain aware of Joe Ross (I can hear Johannes Goransson complaining already, and rightly so). Joe’s writing has always been carefully crafted, not to mention socially and politically thoughtful. Among his numerous books and chapbooks, EQUATIONS just might be the best, a book that’s unafraid to risk emotional darkness along with its social insights. Don’t read more than a few at a time; short though they are, these are poems that require slowing down. They’re flatly conversational yet constantly veering towards hinted-at abysses: “There is no it there being smoked to the core. Empty rooms and hope: left./Stranded on the edge of strategy, you are the only and forget once again comes to mind.” I may not see Joe on the streets of DC anymore, but these new poems are ones I’m going to think about a long time.

Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, Something Really Wonderful

If Elisa Gabbert isn’t my favorite writer among a younger generation of lyric poets whom I’ve never met, then.... well, wait, she is my favorite of those poets. Hands down, as they say. These poems, co-written with Kathleen Rooney, have some of the necessary creakiness of co-written works, but that creakiness only further serves the charm and biting humor that makes these poems, well, just more entertaining than poems are supposed to be. And I’m not using the word “entertaining” as some kind of sly put down either. These poems have more human interaction going on in a couple of lines than many writers manage in a couple of books. The linguistic energy and, really, virtuosity, can be stunning. These are poems that know what people are like when they’re around people. “Say your prayers, princess—/I didn’t become a knight to meet girls./I wouldn’t slay a dragon—/I became a knight to meet dragons.” I have to admit that I don’t know Kathleen Rooney’s solo writing, but I look forward to finding out more.

Vanessa Place, Dies: A Sentence

This first book by Los Angeles area writer Vanessa Place is only one sentence long. Kinda screwed up minimalism is that? But the sentence itself may just be the longest single sentence ever written. I’m still checking that out, so if anybody knows any sentences that are more than 130 pages, please fill me in. Clearly, such a book risks being mere intellectual exercise. But a startling range of subjects emerge and re-emerge in an obsessive focus that is easy to pay attention to and is simultaneously a rejection of singular focus. Read it directly from beginning to end, if you can manage that, or jump around. I was reminded somewhat of Steve McCafferys book Black Debt, at least on the level of the combination of intense restraint and intense chaos. And there’s black humor in plentiful doses too. “...those who would refuse to be the Empire’s lapdog, don’t fret, my pets, you’ll get the hang soon enough, and if not that, the gate...” I’ll be interested to see where Place’s work goes next.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

silent teacher/remembered sequel

If there's anything more worthless than a poetry magazine from 10-15 years ago, it's a book review from 10-15 years ago. But I recently came across this old review of mine and wondered if anything of it might be salvageable with some editing of sense if not of original context.


Hannah Weiner's silent teachers/remembered sequel teaches that history—by which I mean not the past itself, but accounts of people's lives and interactions—always involves the struggle between contrasting and conflicting voices. The book continues Weiner's concern with poetic representations of multiple voices that has been central to her work at least since Clairvoyant Journal (1974). The book provides a broad and sweeping, but also tense, historical context for understanding the significance of those voices that have been of particular importance to her.

silent teachers/remembered sequel documents the continued poetic power of Weiner's psychic state in which words and voices reveal themselves to her in often unexpected apparitions of language that she then tries to write down. Although the facts of her schizophrenia should never be downplayed, Weiner's claim that she literally sees words stand out on people's foreheads, or other surfaces, finally shouldn’t seem strange to anyone who recognizes that the fact that language is material means that we live our lives among the physical manifestations of words. Weiner's relation to language might therefore be considered no more than an intensification of an ordinary condition. She understands that language, literally, is almost everywhere. silent teachers/remembered sequel pushes that recognition deeply into the past, and stretches it along the surface of contemporary social relations, in order to reveal a history of how words have come to her.

At the heart of the book are two long poems, "silent teacher," and "remembered sequel," which are bridged by a set of discontinuous historical struggles under the name "we must integrate into the next generation" and framed by two opening pieces that introduce us to many of the key voices of the book. The history revealed in the book is, to a significant extent, Weiner's own. This point is established immediately by the picture of her as a student at Radcliffe in the late 1940's that opens the book, and by the voice of her grandfather that in "dedicatio" insists on the importance of the family history that’s caught up in Weiner's desire to become a poet. If the book concerns her own autobiography, it’s an autobiography composed of the other voices that have shaped her.

In a note that appeared in Situation #4, Weiner writes that silent teachers/remembered sequel "explains teaching, and names those poets who were teaching during the period I wrote it." Weiner's teachers write their voices into her words--"who is writing/ this goddamn manuscript anyway ron hints." Voices suggest, argue, crash, and careen throughout these poems—voices of contemporary (frequently male) poets like Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Peter Inman, and Andrew Levy (and, in one case, the son of a male poet), voices of Weiner's mother, sister, and other (frequently female) relatives, other voices rising haphazardly from the street. These voices all struggle to be heard; they don’t emerge cleanly or clearly or necessarily on friendly terms, but often fight with each other, sometimes desperately. Weiner has no sentimentality about multiplicity. The many voices of her text are frequently framed by conditions of power and their desire for it.

In such a context, language becomes a hesitant, embattled, sometimes obscure and always resistant medium. The magnificent poem "remembered sequel" particularly highlights that the issues she is exploring are political. Paradigmatic of these struggling voices are the immigrant, black and Native American voices that throughout the poem insist on defining experience in their own terms.

What the book finally shows is that the need to be heard cannot be separated from the need to hear. Speaking at the complexities of experience doesn’t do enough. Instead, Weiner suggests, we must speak with others by letting them speak back and through us. But by letting that happen, or being unable to stop it from happening, Weiner pays a high cost. To hear so much at such high velocity and intensity is overwhelming to her and clearly has often caused her pain.

The autobiography of silent teachers/remembered sequel is not a story of triumph, of social conditions overcome by living the life of the poet, or casting that life into words, or finding a political position in which all contradictions can be resolved. There is no saving mastery of language here, in which one's life can finally be recollected in tranquility. The success of silent teachers/remembered sequel is that it returns its readers to the condition of their own lives and languages, not that it offers any way beyond them. It is one possible story of one possible life. Its power, in speaking of that life, always includes the refusal to say more than can be said.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Saturday 2/16 launch for Area Sneaks

Area Sneaks, a new journal edited by Joseph Mosconi and Rita Gonzalez, is another in the list of excellent publications coming out of the Los Angeles poetry community these days. The first issue is quite a treat, with visual art and poetry in equal mixes. One of the goals of the editors is to create further contact between the worlds of visual art and poetry, which as we all know can tend to keep to their own little corners of production.

This weekend I'll be at the Area Sneaks Launch Party for issue #1 in Los Angeles, and if you're anywhere nearby, come on out and join us for what should be a fun event. If you can't make it, I hope you're doing something similarly enjoyable. Here are the details just in case you don't have them:

From the swell mob, we diverge to the kindred topics of cracksmen, fences, public-house dancers,
area-sneaks, designing young people who go out 'gonophing,' and other 'schools.'
—Charles Dickens

Launch party for ISSUE ONE of AREA SNEAKS magazine

Saturday February 16, 2008
7 - 9pm

2640 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90034

Featuring readings and performances by:

The historical relationship between art and language has often occasioned lively and compelling work. AREA SNEAKS, a new print and online journal, seeks to touch the live wire where language and visual art meet.

Gertrude Stein's Paris artist salon, Velemir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Tatlin's constructive collaboration, Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci's editorial partnership, Augusto de Campos's concrete engagement with Brazilian modernism and Mike Kelley's interest in systems of literary knowledge have each provided potential models of positive exchange between artists and writers. AREA SNEAKS hopes to maintain this dialogue by creating a fellowship of discourse within an open community of contemporary artists and writers.

ISSUE ONE Contents

Essays by Stan Apps on "social art" and Daniel Tiffany on "infidel culture and the politics of nightlife"

Interviews with artists Stephanie Taylor (conducted by Kathryn Andrews and Michael Ned Holte) and Scoli Acosta (conducted by Joseph Mosconi and Rita Gonzalez)

Artist projects by Marie Jager, William E. Jones and Christopher Russell

Poetry by Sawako Nakayasu, Mark Wallace, Andrew Maxwell, Therese Bachand, K. Lorraine Graham and Ian Monk

The first appearance in English of Emmanuel Hocquard's long prose poem "The Cape of Good Hope"

Visual poems by Ben & Sandra Doller

Stephanie Taylor received her M.F.A. from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California in 2000. She has performed and exhibited her work internationally and is represented by Galerie Christian Nagel, Germany and by Daniel Hug Gallery, Los Angeles. Her book, "Chop Shop" was published by Les Figues Press in 2007.

Andrew Maxwell is a poet, linguist, translator, lexicographer and former bullfight promoter. From 1997-2004 he co-edited seven issues of the occasional poetry journal The Germ, directed the Poetic Research reading series out of Dawson's Bookstore in central LA, and was drummer for the experimental music ensembles The Curtains and Open City. He currently DJs the show "The Dream of Harry Lime" Wednesday nights on KXLU. His poems, essays and translations can be found in Fence, Jubilat, The Hat, Arsenal and Po├ęsie.

Peter Kolovos is a free sound artist from Los Angeles, CA. Over the last decade he has developed an intensely personal sound vocabulary based on raw texture, volume, and duration. The result has been physical, abstract work that constantly shifts and evolves in real time. The mechanisms of impulse, memory, intent, restraint laid bear. He has performed throughout the United States both individually and as part of the group Open City. He has also released vinyl as well as CD recordings through his Thin Wrist imprint. His first solo LP will be released later this year by the Belgian Ultra Eczema label.

Editors: Rita Gonzalez and Joseph Mosconi

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

one more type of political poem

As you can see, I'm still working this through.

The poem of witness:
This poem describes a historical situation, usually a crisis, that the writer has directly seen and been involved in. Similar to the investigative poem but requiring that the writer was actually part of the situation in question. I’m borrowing this concept from the anthology Against Forgetting: A Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

political poetry

One thing I note in many poetics discussions regarding political poetry is that the idea of what might be political about a poem rarely gets examined in more detail. Instead the argument is more likely to take the form of ought to be political/ought not to be political. Given that so many poems are already political, to say that they shouldn’t be is perhaps a little irrelevant, since political poems are unlikely to go away just because some people would prefer that they not get written. But what kinds of political poems are there, and in what ways are they political?

I’m hardly any kind of pure taxonomist, since I think Derrida is right that the infinite divisability of the trait means that categories inevitably collapse if we believe in them too firmly. But relative categories can still be very helpful.

I’m still building my own casual list of types of poems that might be said to be political, so if you have any others to suggest, please do. And of course I understand that many poems mix these categories or fit uneasily between them.


The call to action/exhortation poem:
Including both protest and pro-war poems, this poem demands that something be done now, or is written to support an action in the world that is occurring simultaneously.

The investigative poem:
This poem explores a particular social or historical situation or crisis, attempting to bring to light untold stories, or new perspectives, or even “the truth.” I’m borrowing the term “investigative” from Ed Sanders, especially with reference to the way Kristin Prevallet has written about it.

The poem of ideology:
This poem looks not so much at particular situations as it does attempt to expose or explore the ideologies dominating a society or some portion of it. Another version of this poem insists on the importance of its own ideology.

The visionary poetics poem:
This poem, in re-imagining spiritual transformations or the future, probably also inevitably involves a re-imagining of the social.

The politics of form poem:
This poem is likely to critique, or offer itself as a counter-example to, the currently dominant aesthetics of literary creation or normative reading practices. Similar to the poem of ideology but different because it explores and critiques the ideology and powers-that-be of its own field.

The “personal is political” poem: This poem explores intimate personal relationships with an eye to the ideologies that construct those relationships. Not for instance a poem generally critiquing the institution of marriage, but one detailing a particular marriage and the ideological investments and struggles revealed between persons in that marriage. Is Adrienne Rich the originator of the phrase “the personal is political”?


Back when I was in graduate school, it was common to say that “all poems are ideological” and that therefore all poems have political implications by definition. I still think that’s true: there’s no way to express no ideology in a poem. So one could add the category “poems that wish not to be political but inevitably are.” Still, to frame things in that way makes the category “political” so large as to be practically meaningless, so for now at least I’m going to restrict these classifications to poems that seem consciously to be invested in political, social, and ideological issues.

And finally, looking at the list above, I can imagine people saying that poems of this or that classification are not really political, or not political enough, or too explicitly political. I can imagine someone saying that right now we have too many of these and not enough of those. But those concerns would involve playing politics more specifically than this casual taxonomy can say anything about.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

still thinking about AWP?

Rodney Koeneke is thinking again, and then some, about AWP over at his blog. Check it out, and add your own thoughts too, either there or here.

Friday, February 1, 2008

AWP is where it's at!

“Are you going to AWP?”

Rod Smith tells me that Kevin Thurston tells him that for writers, this question has become “the new hello.”

I’ve certainly been asked it somewhere between ten and twenty times in the last two weeks.

Actually I’ve never been to AWP, maybe partly because I’ve been to MLA a dozen times, peddling what scant resources I can offer in as many directions as I can and being so worn out afterwards that the idea of going to another professional conference is about as fascinating as dental surgery. Maybe someday I will go, but not this year.

Among those writers going to AWP, and among those not going, there turn out to be many concerns about AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the standards of the profession at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the quality of the official AWP panels.

Some writers are concerned about the ideology of the official AWP panels.

Some writers are concerned about how the problem of professionalism, as evidenced by AWP, changes what writing is, who writers are and what they do.

Some writers are concerned about the relationship between “experimental” or “avant garde” writers and AWP.

Some writers are concerned about who’s more “inside” and “outside” at AWP and they’re concerned about what “inside” and “outside” mean.

Some writers are concerned about who gets the opportunities that AWP has to offer and who does not get those opportunities.

Some writers are concerned about the relationship of the writers at AWP to the academic world.

Some writers are concerned about the relationship between AWP and larger U.S. institutional systems of power.

Some writers are concerned about whether enough of their friends will be there to make AWP fun.

Some writers are concerned about whether there will be enough interesting writers there to balance out the dull, pompous stuffed-shirts who are legendary at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the importance of being seen at AWP.

Some writers, if they are also publishers, are concerned about getting word out that their books are available at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about letting others know that they have a reading or panel event scheduled at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about letting others know that they have a reading or other event scheduled not at AWP but at the time and in the proximity of AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the distinction between “I’m going to AWP” and “I thought I’d go to AWP this year because it’s in New York.”

Some writers are concerned that other writers care about AWP too much.

Some writers are concerned that other writers don’t understand how much power AWP really has.

All of these, in greater or lesser degree perhaps, are legitimate concerns.

Are you concerned about AWP and what are those concerns? I mean, since so many writers are concerned about it anyway, we might as well discuss what we’re concerned about.