Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What is the first rock and roll song?

Spring break here, and time for some less than crucial trivia. Question: "What is the first rock and roll song?" I don't say that the following is a perfect answer, or one that entirely meets the spirit of the question. I say only that given the facts, it is the most historically accurate answer.

Answer: The term "rock and roll" was used by black Americans as a slang word for dancing and sex. The musical style that later became known as rock and roll was invented by black musicians by mixing influences from various genres (blues, jazz, country, folk, gospel, r ‘n’ b) in a way that involved only a slight variation on a number of earlier precursor songs from those genres. Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" was the first recorded song to feature these variations. Recorded in early 1951 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, it featured Turner’s band under a different name with Brenston singing. Brenston received the song writing credits although the tune was probably primarily Turner’s.

However, at the time that song was made, it wasn’t called "rock and roll." As far as the historical record notes, Alan Freed was the first to use the term "rock and roll" to identify the style of music as a genre. Freed promoted the concept for what is considered the first rock and roll concert on August 21, 1952 at the “Moondog Coronation Ball” held at the Cleveland Arena.

Bill Haley, with songs like "Rock Around The Clock," was the first musician to consciously present his music as something called rock and roll, although the songs themselves were relatively pale translations of the more powerful music being made by black musicians. Still, many white people considered rock and roll to be black music and condemned it as such, especially after Elvis Presley's first singles, which is ironic but not surprising given that Presley showed that white people could play excellent music in that style.

Identifying the first rock and roll song is only partly a question of historical fact. It’s also a question of culture and value.

If you say that it's crucial to note the first appearance of the style, even if no one at the time thought they were hearing rock and roll, then "Rocket 88" seems the answer, an answer which has the further value of not denying the centrality of African American culture to rock and roll. But if you answer the question by saying that the issue is the first record that people thought, at the time, was rock and roll, then the answer is Haley’s 1952 release “Rock The Joint,” a minor hit.

Once and for all, that's my answer.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Where I'll Be This Weekend: The Poetic Research Bureau

Off to L.A. tomorrow morning for a long weekend to start Spring Break Week. Visits will include The Museum of Jurassic Technology, The Hammer Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art and the L.A. County Museum of Art, and the following event at the Poetic Research Bureau (and the first time I'll have been there):

Sunday, March 15, 2009

David Lloyd & The PRB present...

A Benefit Reading for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund


Will Alexander
Guy Bennett
Paul Vangelisti
Diane Ward
Ben Ehrenreich
Ara Shirinyan
Andrew Maxwell
Sesshu Foster
Douglas Kearny
Roberto Leni
David Lloyd
Mark Wallace
Estrella del Valle
Seth Michelson
Dennis Philips
Saba Razvi
Martha Ronk
Matthew Shenoda
Daniel Tiffany
Molly Bendall

& more?

Sunday, March 29, 2009
Free, but please donate generously!
Event starts at 4pm.

The Poetic Research Bureau
3702 San Fernando Rd.
Glendale, CA

The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund is a medical charitable organization providing humanitarian and medical services to children in Palestine and the Middle East. The P.C.R.F. is a registered non-political, non-profit, 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization that was established in 1991 by concerned people in the U.S. to address the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths in the Middle East. It has since expanded to help suffering children from other Middle Eastern nations, based only on their medical needs. The P.C.R.F. helps to locate free medical care for children from the Middle East who are unable to get the necessary and specialized treatment in their homeland.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Poetry Needs Right Now Is More Nostalgia For Me

If you ever catch me making any of the following statements, you’ll know that I finally believe that the world of poetry has left me behind and that I’m content to live in the glow of nostalgia for my quickly vanishing self. At that point please remove me from the shelf and take me to the trash. But do it gently, for once upon a time I served you well.


Back in the [fill in date], poets were genuinely concerned about the world and actually had vision. These days it’s all a corrupt game and people only write poems for what it can get them.

You’re not really raising that issue again, are you? We resolved all that back in [fill in date].

These educational institutions are ruining poetry. Things were better when to get a real education in poetry you had to go to [fill in name of my now tremendously expensive city or neighborhood] and [perhaps one or two others in a grudging second or third place on the list].

Nobody in [fill in name of city or neighborhood where I don’t live] knows anything about poetry. I just don’t understand those people.

Unlike [so and so]’s trendy work of the moment, which [I am quickly dismissing on certain grounds while barely reading, if at all], the work of [so and so] manages to [really own][long elaboration of same grounds].

Poetry really started to decline when [people no longer saw the world or thought about poetry the way I did when I was their age].

All these recent self-serving theories have taken the attention away from poems themselves and what they can really do.

This kind of poem will never speak to the ordinary reader [which my poems do even though nobody much is reading them].

All these uptight self-serving little communities need to stop reading and promoting each other [and instead read and promote my work and my ideas or the work of the writers I prefer].

Things would be better if we could write poems that [returned to the values of another time and place, most likely the one when I first became excited about poetry or had some success or maybe the one I fantasize about having lived in].

Today’s poets would be more interesting if they [returned to the values of another time and place, most likely the one where I first became excited about poetry or had some success or maybe the one I fantasize about having lived in].

Poets need to stop pretending that new-fangled techniques will write poems for them and go back to the days [when writing a poem was like scrubbing a floor].

Poets are fucked up because they [don’t listen to me] and will be better off when they [stop writing and listen to me].

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hybrid Art Can Do Lots of Shit

Anyone who leaves a comment using this art work as a metaphor for any area of poetic, artistic, or cultural production will be considered pathetically obvious. So you better be funny about it.


from the article “Hybrid Art Awards” by Regine:

An award of distinction in the category of Hybrid Art was given to Wim Delvoye for the ultra-famous Cloaca, an installation that gulps food and mechanically processes and produces what is —even under scientific examination—impossible to differentiate from human excrement.


from the article “A Human Masterpiece”
by Els Fiers

Cloaca, the latest work by the Belgian conceptualist Wim Delvoye (b. 1965), has just closed out its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MuHKA) in Antwerp. It was a room-sized installation of six glass containers connected to each other with wires, tubes and pumps. Every day, the machine received a certain amount of food.

Meat, fish, vegetables and pastries passed through a giant blender, were mixed with water, and poured into jars filled with acids and enzyme liquids. There they got the same treatment as the human stomach would supply. Electronic and mechanical units controlled the process, and after almost two days the food came out of a filtering unit as something close to genuine, human shit.

During the exhibition, the smelly assembly line caused quite some consternation. It seemed to bring an infernal message into the world. There is enough dung as it is. Why make more?

Worse, the installation was placed in a cold, clean space at the museum, where it was nourished by a first class chef who prepared two meals a day in an attached kitchen. The atmosphere suggested a hospital equipped for a strange experiment -- the birth and care of a machine that eats and defecates -- a mechanical baby. "Hi," it seemed to say, "I'm almost like you."

Delvoye's work doesn't resemble the human body, though perhaps it could be called a figurative work. But visitors walked out with a strange look on their faces, as if they'd just paid a visit to the devil. Cheeks turn a little pale as art, the beautiful image of humanity, turned into the making of stool.

Delvoye has given a name to his harsh creature: Cloaca, referring to the ancient sewer in Rome. But while the cloaca maxima proved to be useful, this Cloaca goes beyond every purpose, except of course revealing of the meaning of art. So, too, the spending and earning of money is part of its purpose. The machine daily delivered turds that were signed and sold for $1,000 each.

Absurd? "Imagine a very rich man who plays golf," Delvoye said. "He spends a massive amount of time and money for just one purpose: to put a little ball into a hole. Isn't that absurd?"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Regional Literature (San Diego and elsewhere)

I’m continuing to look for a good work of literature, novel or other, about San Diego and the surrounding area, preferably a book I could teach that would give students a chance to consider the history and social dynamics of the place where they live. The San Diego area has not been the subject of much literature. There are a few recent novels about it that I’m aware of, but all of them are ultimately too imperfect for my needs.

Although I took classes years ago as an undergraduate that covered some regional literature (then often referred to as “local color”) such as Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, it has been a long time since I’ve heard much discussion of regional literature. It’s not a subject talked about much on the east coast. But there seems more need for it here in North County San Diego, where students often have a limited sense of their own cultural history. San Diego as a city and surrounding region was very much created by military and real estate interests and the connections of those to an often virulently right wing government. Those social forces have significantly shaped what this area has to offer and (more importantly maybe) what it doesn’t.

Here are some brief takes of the few San Diego novels I’ve read. I’m not sure how many more there are. If you know of other good, readable, recent regional novels about San Diego, other areas of California, or anywhere at all in fact, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Oakley Hall, Love and War in California

The first two thirds of this book are the best novel about San Diego and its history that I’ve read. Set in the days leading up to WW II, this coming-of-age tale traces the social and political tensions in the San Diego of that era, centering on the narrator’s left wing sympathies as he grows up and his conflicts with others regarding love, sex, family, work, class, the military, and politics.

Unfortunately the last third of the book consists of two other much less successful sections. One briefly summarizes the narrator’s WW II experiences and another covers the rest of his life in a few short chapters. Both sections are rushed, awkward, and unengaging. I’ve rarely read a book that I enjoyed so much that fell apart so completely.

One demerit about the first part of the book. Much of the action centers on the narrator’s work for a left wing newspaper in San Diego in the 1930s and early 40s, and the conflict between that newspaper and other citizens and politicians. Those sections are some of the most important in the book. But when I heard Oakley Hall read from the novel only a few months before his death at age 87, he pointed out that actually there wasn’t a single left wing newspaper produced in San Diego during that time period (that’s right: none), although there was some labor organizing and resistance. On the one hand, fair enough: the book is fiction. On the other hand, as fiction, the book rather severely distorts the facts about the role of leftist struggle in the area prior to WW II. For my purposes that makes it much less useful.

Kem Nunn, Tijuana Straits

Different context, similar problem. The first half of this action thriller does a fantastic job describing the border lands between Mexico and the U.S. just south of San Diego and the political and sociological conditions of life there, with its poverty, crime and environmental degradation. The book traces brutality, indifference, and racism in a strange world that few people outside that specific local region know about. Powerful and eye-opening.

Once the criminals emerge more clearly, however, and go on their relentless search to kill the protagonists, the book’s action becomes increasingly ridiculous. A scene of our hero riding on a literal great wave of personal triumph and transcendence near the end of the book is jaw-droppingly bad. I spent most of the second half of this book laughing at the action, and I hurried to the end out of a sense of duty and a desire to see just how ridiculous things would get. The answer: even more ridiculous than I thought.

Jim Miller, Drift

I really wanted to like this novel. Miller is one of the co-authors along with Mike Davis and Kelly Mayhew of the most important book that I’m aware of about San Diego, the non-fiction social history Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See.

Drift is a good example of why polemics don’t always make convincing fiction. The actions of almost all the characters are designed to prove Miller’s points about the political corruption and social failures of contemporary San Diego. In fact some of this novel seems to borrow almost verbatim the history of rebellion and labor activism in San Diego that Miller wrote about in his section of Under the Perfect Sun, since the main character (like Miller himself) is an expert on that history.

The many sections with their many characters do have some vivid moments that create a picture of the kinds of lives people live in the San Diego and Tijuana areas. And the characters are at least sometimes well-rounded and subtle. But the main, longer running thread within the intertwined stories seems guided by such a heavy polemical hand that the tragic and disastrous elements of the book ring entirely false. As a writer, it’s difficult to create a convincing story for your characters if you’re determined to ruin their lives because you want to prove what’s wrong with San Diego. The result is no more convincing than those moralistic TV afternoon specials in which teenagers who drink alcohol at minute ten have to die at minute fifty.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Andrew Shields considers Felonies of Illusion

On his blog, Andrew Shields has posted some thoughtful reflections about my latest book, Felonies of Illusion. Thanks very much, Andrew.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The End of America

As part of the Positions Colloquium in Vancouver last August, the colloquium organizers published a limited edition collection of poetics statements from those of us who had gathered. We were asked also to provide a brief excerpt of the work we would be presenting. Since that collection was a conference-only publication that may no longer be available (and since I’ve had a busy past week), I thought I’d just put my piece from the collection up here. I hope the statements by the other writers will be available again in printed form at some point.

The colloquium was the inaugural reading for the long poem, The End of America, that I’ve been working on since September 2006 (the start of my second year living in California). If anybody would like an e-mail copy of the 17-single spaced pages that make up Book One of the poem and are excerpted from below, let me know. I think it’s ready to be seen at this point. And also, anybody who would like a free copy of my most recently published book of poems, Felonies of Illusion, for potentially writing a review, please let me know that too.

Oh, and re the photo above: the country around here really does look like that, from some angles. From other angles it looks like a parking lot.


from The End of America, Book One

So many people searching
for the end of America: from here
it’s not much, white jeep
cutting tracks through sand, black-suited surfer
fighting into the water, surfboard raised high,
runners, walkers of dogs and babies, blinking lights on the turret
of the Encinas Power Station, a constantly changing
breeze through the palms. Coast Highway slow through town.
Cars, which can’t imagine traveling. Beach fires prohibited
except in marked pits, a note to the crucial
need to fear fire. I grab one more instance
of love and rage, impotent and powerful
by turns, looking for more
than I already know. The end of the land, instant myth,
becomes a place to look from, or look away, to walk,
to head on out. All those poets
who seemed certain what they wanted, the ocean
a source of world, result of cosmos,
mystery under the crest of a wave.
Too much is not forgotten but never known,
history no more than the present webbing
distortion of what’s temporarily remembered. Money back,
no cash down, no payments this year, good annual rates.

A roadmap has a poetics also, on some level a conscious one. But the degree to which the poetics of the roadmap seems a cultural given makes a self-consciously explored geographical poetics necessary, not so much a response to prevailing hierarchies as a reshaping of them.

I’ve taken a few positions in my life—sometimes even insightful ones—but more often positions have taken me. Rarely has that been more true than in writing The End of America, a project that has helped me explore what it’s like to live in a place I never expected to live. Anyone who knows me well can attest that my sense of self is greatly shaped by my east coast urban experience. Like many poets I’ve often needed money, and when after many years of searching I was offered a position I could stand to take, I took it, but since my options weren’t multiple it’s not so clear who did the taking. And so this east coast poet found himself in North County San Diego, miles of strip malls proliferating among the dry natural beauty of hills and mountains over which no one has been able to build a railroad. People vote 60% percent Republican here. The local papers argue that George W. Bush’s problem is that his overspending desire to democratize the world makes him too liberal. Luckily so many people live here these days that 40% non-Republicans adds up to several million. Still, I work at a college in hill country and live two blocks from the ocean in a suburbanized beach village around which houses sprawl in every direction except into the water. It’s from conditions like these that The End of America began.

Actually the project wasn’t even my idea. I was talking, as I do often, to poet K. Lorraine Graham about my exhaustion from new conditions at work and not having energy for writing. She suggested that I should just write down what I see. And so The End of America began, a few lines every few days. A geography, not a landscape, in the sense that a geography includes how culture and economics and power interact with the natural world. Not a catalog, though it catalogs at times, and not a view from outside, but one that’s inside and outside both, alienated in a home that isn’t home.

The title has two meanings. I literally live about 1000 feet from where America, at least in one direction, ends. Beyond it is water. Of course many of us are keenly aware of the difference between America and The United States of America. And not only, I hope, because America as a geographical location includes many peoples, cultures, nations, islands and even several continents. For myself at least, and maybe others, the mythical ghost of America as a place where justice and freedom are possible haunts me long after the corpse has been buried. The project struggles with a concept: the end of America, one that many people assert, or want, even as the United States and Canada and Mexico and much else remain operating entities. Sometimes I think I’m working out a dystopic response to Whitman, wrestling with his vision of a free America in the original Leaves of Grass while trying to critique the grandiosity with which he wanted the United States to swallow the world.

There are four books so far, each getting along towards whatever completeness they’re going to have, and each with a different way of exploring the relation between aesthetics and meaning. I’m not sure yet whether there will be further books. An idea that wasn’t my idea, defined by a position that may have taken me more than I took it. That defines fairly neatly some of the problems faced by those of us who, as poets, recognize that the world’s condition is not one we have chosen and one which we often struggle against, but one that we nonetheless live within while simultaneously working through a poetics of what might otherwise exist. Our writing is our first example of what this other place might be.