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Winning Words writes to spread the word about an exciting on-line workshop with Katy Evans-Bush, poet and writer of the popular Baroque in Hackney Blog (you should read her sharp commentary about the Pussy Riot trial). The workshop begins tomorrow and is available to you regardless of your location. Here's a brief description:
Get those creative juices going before the autumn – over two quick sessions, learn to treat your poem not as the answer to something, but as a question. Keats talked about Negative Capability - the ability to be ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. We’ll use readings, discussion, and exercises to explore how to write through what you don’t know, and how to decide what to leave out, as well as put in.
Find out more over at Winning Words.
“A Mile In” was selected by 2011 judge Nancy Eimers as the winner of our annual New Ohio Review Poetry Contest, and was published Fall 2011, in New Ohio Review 10. What grabs me about this poem is the non-event it describes: a sudden and inexplicable hyper-awareness, prompted by an inherently insignificant announcement.
A Mile In
The snow had been with us for awhile
and was dingy and not well lit.
But the sun promised to come out.
The light fog lifting
against the skinny tree trunks
and the grounded limbs they’d lost
and the thick, half-detached vines
would lift off,
dissolved, by the end of our walk.
We’d taken the footbridge
across the creek and followed the bend
away from traffic and toward the west ridge.
We’d gone a mile in,
to where usually I begin to listen to
our progress in the twigs and gravel of the path,
and past this, and past my own
periodic reminders to the dog
to the short, uncomplicated songs
of winter birds. And there,
near the spill of rocks in the creek
where the fog was still passing through branches
and a little farther and to the right
where a stretch of tall grasses
received a wide gift
of sunlight and several cows,
the air that stood still
between the trees and shimmered
over the grasses filled with sound—
a big voice moving through
a hundred thousand habitats—
and it said, “Attention in this area.
The following is a regular monthly
test of the Outdoor Warning System . . .”
It spoke from the west first,
sounding closer than it could be.
And it spoke from the southeast next.
This is a test,” it said, “only a . . .
“This is a test . . ." it began again
from somewhere else.
The dog returned to me, cowering.
I’d wondered before
without much curiosity,
where were those speakers housed,
were they towered, did they revolve?
Ordinarily heard in the yard
while I stood pinning laundry to the line,
the broadcast soon plunged and sank
into the noise of passing cars
and blown and rolling garbage cans
and faded like the little ringing
that emanates from construction sites.
But here, it seemed full minutes long
before my breath was back again in my chest,
and my dog’s breath,
steady and rough, was back in hers
when the voice had left the air
between the trees, as had the fog.
At last a bird sounded from a twig.
At last a squirrel came down
and sent the dog. And then,
made up of other sounds
I could not have singled out,
a normalcy rolled in.
Infinitesimal bits is all it was
—quick beaks breaking up the peat,
the slow collision of a leaf landing, scooting
half an inch along a big flat rock,
a splat of excrement in white,
a flinch, a flap, a flick. But as it came it felt
to be a counter-vigilance. Or like
the sound of consciousness. The is.
> - - - - - - -
Those announcements, heard in the context of routine from the safety of the speaker’s backyard, were merely part of life’s backdrop, sound coming from a single direction. But on this day she hears them “a mile in,” so deep into her walk that she has left the cluttered multi-tasking zone behind and reached a focused and meditative state. The first twelve lines are what I like to think of as gray language: words in the monosensual service of describing literal fact, every detail flat and purely visual. Once we pass the point of her “beginning” to listen, released from the duty of reprimand or “reminder” – beyond civilization with its traffic and garbage cans as well as its expectations of comportment – the language lifts onto a more lyrical plane: we hear about “the spill of rocks”; “a wide gift/of sunlight”; the shimmering air; and the sudden imaginative perception of those “hundred thousand habitats.” In this second state, her ears are alert to the several directions from which the announcements emanate and reverberate, and despite the announcement’s semantic reassurance, animal instincts kick in. Both the speaker and her dog are alarmed to the point of breathlessness, suspended for an indeterminate pause. Once signs of normalcy return, the world picks up where it had left off, but the speaker has arrived at a third level of awareness. We are privy again to multi-sensual details of natural events at an almost excruciating pitch of awareness. She not only hears whisper-soft sounds distinguished as flinches, flaps, flicks; now she can make out the “sound of consciousness.” The announcements have functioned here in the woods as an annunciation, delivering to the hearer a kind of transcendent alertness. Nothing in the usual sense of the word has happened in this poem. The speaker hears a sound she has heard many times before, and yet this time she feels changed by it. She recognizes only "infinitesimal bits” of some altered perception of the world.
I admire the modulated gait of this poem, how it saunters casually into “the test,” freezes, and then emerges into a more deliberate movement, “a counter-vigilance.” What exactly is meant by this? Certainly not casual indifference, which would be the reverse of vigilance, but a progression beyond fearfulness toward a purity of focus and awareness per se. It calls to mind “The Great Figure” by William Carlos Williams, in which a similar momentousness is achieved by the urban passing of a fire engine, a common enough occurrence. There too, we feel the excitement of the witness and his sudden sense of urgency to find significance in the “unheeded” golden figure 5 clanging past. (The painter Charles Demuth also tried to capture that feeling, inspired by Williams’ poem, in his work The Figure Five in Gold. It’s hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. )
Robert Frost also has more than one poem about non-events; notable among them are “The Most of It,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” and “For Once, Then, Something.” In each case the speaker reaches a heightened watchfulness, leaving us with ambiguity concerning the actual thing learnt or seen. Emily Dickinson, in “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” discovers “internal difference, where the Meanings Are” – which is a statement simultaneously, maddeningly, vague and precise. That is, it feels precise, but upon examining what’s been illuminated, we have gained only questions. When the light leaves, we are left feeling shaken as after a long journey; our values have shifted like the contents of an airplane’s overhead bin.
The pleasures in Hanson’s poem sneak up on you – that description of the “little ringing/that emanates from construction sites” is superb, as is the line “quick beaks breaking up the peat” – and they leave me hyper-aware of the sounds and shapes of the place I’m now reading in, giving new meaning to the phrase living room.
Julie Hanson’s first collection, Unbeknownst, won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010 and was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. I’m going to be watching for more of her work.
See you next week, when if you just close your eyes and focus, you’ll be able to hear everywhere around you the little ringing of Back-to-School cash registers. – JAR
For a sneak peek and to pre-order, click on the image and scroll down:
Join Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and Guest Editor Mark Doty as they introduce this year's volume of the acclaimed series. The following contributors will be on hand to read selections from the book: * Heather Christle * Eduardo C. Corral. * Elaine Equi * Kathleen Graber *Amy Glynn Greacen * Richard Howard * Marie Howe *Lawrence Joseph * Noelle Kocot * Joy Katz * Kerrin McCadden* Honor Moore * Michael Morse * Carol Muske-Dukes * Angelo Nikolopoulos * Mary Jo Salter * Lynne Sharon Schwartz * Brenda Shaughnessy * Tracy K. Smith * Mark Strand * Susan Wheeler * David Yezzi. *
The reading will be followed by a book signing. Books will be available for sale.
Here's what Publisher's Weekly has to say about the Best American Poetry 2012 :
Now in its 25th year, the Best American Poetry anthologies have become something of a yearbook for American versifiers. The 2012 volume runs the gamut of styles and positions, from the experimentally mixed registers of Rae Armantrout (“Information describing the fading laser pulse// is stored// is encoded// in the spine states/ of atoms”) to the unrelenting intensity of Frank Bidart (“the burning// fountain is the imagination// within us that ingests and by its/ devouring generates// what is most antithetical to itself”) to an extended meditation on art and family by Paisley Rekdal: “Here is the killer with his handsome face./ Here is Manson, Bundy, Hitler,/ the Terror’s row of heads still spiked on stakes.” Doty, this year’s guest editor, is a populist at heart, who believes poetry is available and useful to all who are willing to seek it out, and so he has chosen poems that take the national pulse in the midst of a tensed political moment (Joy Katz looks to the “Department of Trance/ Department of Dream of Levitation/ Department of White Fathom” for answers) and also look mysteriously inward at a timeless human core as only poetry can: “I keep my distance like the tines/ Of a fork from one another,// Dressing, undressing the fabulous wounds,” writes Noelle Kocot. As usual, there is something for everyone; this is a particularly good volume in this series.
This event is sponsored by Scribner, the New School Writing Program, and the Poetry Society of America. For more information go here.
For the last few years, I’ve shared and exchanged poems with a number of poets on the Post-Flarf listserv. What I love about the listserv is that I can send around poems that I think are atrocious. It’s a place where experimentation, writing bad poetry, posting “found” poems from the internet and writing highly “distasteful” poems is actively encouraged. I also like that the list isn’t about publishing poetry in magazines but rather sharing work with other poets in an open space.
I asked poets who have been active on the list to talk to me about the aesthetics of Post-Flarf, the differences between Flarf and Post-Flarf and what they’ve found in common with fellow poets on the list. (The list is an open one, so if you are interested in joining, please email me at email@example.com)
Sandra Simonds: I invited people to enter this conversation who are active on the Post-Flarf list but who have not been invited to the top-secret Flarf list. This is our revenge. What do you want to say to those people?
Maurice Buford: The primordial Flarf List is a coterie of vampires. They are a secret bunker built atop a tree fort. Since its inception, many people have left the Post-Flarf group for what appear to be legitimate reasons I can no longer recall, and some have since rejoined. Go figure. Maybe it has to do with our haircuts.
Sandra Simonds: No one commented on my poem, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. I guess it sucked.
Tiffany Denman to Sandra Simonds: I liked that poem a lot but couldn’t get past the grape flavor of the title which sent me into a whirling discontent for which I blame Jada Smith. Following M-word 3, the poem is peerless perfection with penguins.
Sandra Simonds: I wrote it to get through watching the movie. I sort of know that the poem sucks, but that’s how I feel about the majority of the poems that I’ve posted to the list. I started writing the Post-Flarf poems after work when my baby was asleep. I would have a glass of wine and writing them seemed to be a way to blow off steam and not worry about writing “good” or “serious” poetry. Anyone else feel this way?
Tiffany Denman: I feel a similar release or freedom from pressure in writing Post-Flarf and I think there is a hilarity present in the poems we write/read in the group. But there’s also something very heady about them, too. I constantly think of the Apollo/Dionysus, Tate/Ashbury contrasts when considering Flarf/Post-Flarf/Conceptual. Smart smartasses.
Sandra Simonds: None of us are that funny, so why are we on the Post-Flarf list? In fact, most of the poems from you guys seem to be sort of serious. Wait! Why are we on the Post-Flarf list again?
Tiffany Denman: Let’s face it, none of us are comedian poets (thinking Eugene Levy, Doug Ross, wha?). There’s irony but not parody. No one, outside of, well, us may be reading these poems for a good laugh. But, as Benjamin (see below) pointed out, we’re laughing from “some painful psychic corner;” we like a sharp poke for our buffoonery.
Sandra Simonds: What is Post-Flarf? Are we just rejects from every other walk of poetry life?
Tiffany Denman: Yes. Thankfully.
Sandra Simonds: Most of you strike me as coming from the far, far left. Like left of left (politically). I know that Brian studied with Joshua Clover at UC Davis and a number of poets on the list studied with Kasey Mohammad, so that, in itself, hints at the political proclivities of this group. Discuss.
Brian Ang: Post-Flarf is poetry responding to the poetry of Flarf’s progenitors, such as Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, Kasey Mohammad, and Gary Sullivan, and their poetries’ characteristic tendencies, such as the use of outrageous mass cultural materials especially from the internet. My first book Paradise Now was consciously a Post-Flarf work, combining Flarf’s approach with Marxist concerns. I started writing it in March 2010, after hanging out with Kasey at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s “Reimagining the Poet-Critic” conference and being asked to contribute to his magazine Abraham Lincoln. My contribution concept of “Marxist Flarf” was generative enough to produce a cohesive book. It was completed by July 2010 when I shared it at the 95 Cent Skool in Berkeley, California. During its composition I also shared it at Kasey’s first annual Lollapaganza festival in May 2010 in Ashland, Oregon, and was added to the Post-Flarf list and shared it through that. The venues for sharing work were essential for its composition.
Regarding “far left” tendencies in Post-Flarf-related poets, I attribute it to a combination of practitioners’ developments under “the post-2008 market crash’s systemic re-exposure of capitalism’s brutality at the level of everyday life and resultant re-ignition of political imagination and praxis for the efficacy of activism” (see my “Poetry and Militancy”), in contrast to Flarf’s development during the post-9/11 political malaise, and experimental culture’s historical potentials for cultivating radicalism by being an interface to radicalisms in the culture at large. The composition period of Paradise Now coincided with my participation in the University of California protests, studying radical political theory with the purpose of immediate praxis, and Flarf’s characteristics were exemplary for reflecting on my enthusiasms.
Tiffany Denman: I think you’re accurate in the left-of-left (see Marxist concerns, radical left sympathizers) assessment of the politics of the group which seems as though it could be nothing but. Why is that? Brian’s assessment, which I think is accurate for poets in the group mainly concerned with dialoguing directly with the political, as well as the younger poets in the group who came-of-age in the political climate he specifies, is part of the solution. I’m not sure the group at large is as concerned with writing directly at these issues (though receptive to them, yes).For me, I allow the political in as it is present in the language or it is present in my conditioning/ thinking, but the concern of Post-Flarf, I think, goes beyond this.
In 1992 (to date myself), I took my first poetry writing workshop with Brenda Hillman. In it, two key lessons she offered stuck with me as my writing (over decades) shifted from the lyrical to what we’re examining now. The first was the idea of the poet carrying a journal at all times. An elementary idea to experienced writers, but the idea of writing down scraps of eavesdroppings (ploop), is I think what drives the poetry I work on today. At the time, I could gather material in a coffee shop, grocery store, campus quad. . . Whether my presence in the public or the public itself changed, over time I stopped overhearing anything that seemed worth working into poetry. There seemed nothing to hear any more. To say people speak less, what they say in public is less interesting to me, that the shift to the electronic versus the real has changed our public interaction—all true. But I think more it was the discovery of the chatter online at my disposal. Like a cultural mnemonic, it was there for the stealing.
Which brings me to the second lesson, plagiarism. I remember specifically the instruction that using over three words from another’s work was plagiarism and was to be avoided with grave, unnamed consequences (which I reasoned meant expulsion from the poet club). I received lines in the class from a graduate student during a writing exercise. I remember the lines, “I wish I could be as brave as fruit/ All skin and showing it.” Agitated, for several years I tried to work pieces of this into work without violating the rules of plagiarism. The discovery of work which not only allows this rule to be violated but encourages the blatant, unrestrained repurposing of other’s language/words/work, was as liberating to me as the first time I broke a villanelle. To begin where we all begin and tap away at accepted structure/rules/traditions, that’s what drew me to the idea of Flarf (not discounting the humor and irreverence).
I think this same rebellion/humor/irreverence is present in Post-Flarf but the marriage to the outdated lyric and the attempt at infusing the “I” and its relation to the stolen words from the electronic echoes we draw from is vital. I don’t see how else to net the language of the contemporary/ to capture the echoes without utilizing the swirling electronic cacophony. And I think that’s what Post-Flarf is concerned with—whether the focus is political, social, cultural, sexual, personal—it’s the reverberations. Since I just completed it, I’m thinking specifically of Sandra’s Mother Was Tragic Girl and the play of the associative, the created, the repurposed—the creative/non-creative formal gesture which produces what I love most about Post-Flarf and the work that the group produces—the tear-jerks from laughter and heartbreak and the greasy smear of nostalgia for an intimacy I’m not sure ever existed and the discord produced as a result.
Sandra Simonds to Tiffany Denman: I am fascinated by the academy’s hysteria (for lack of a better word) surrounding plagiarism. It’s like everyone has Turnitin.com-itis. It seems like such a modern phenomenon and I do wonder if the Flarf/ Post-Flarf poetry that uses plagiarism as a sort of aesthetic stance is a kind of response to issues of intellectual property and the idea that language could in any way be “owned.” But the plagiarized language seems to come from anywhere. Like in the poem you posted called “R U Relevant?” where did you find the following line: “I forgive u, for u not neither what ur on about, nor r u relevant anymore. #sadlittlemen.”
Tiffany Denman to Sandra Simonds: That line came from a message board regarding Irish identity in sports (I surmise). Interestingly, the search didn’t reveal anything outside of that line (with some number combinations I’ve been working with which I edited). What I was mostly concerned with was this idea of “relevancy” and the number “33” (which my work has been connected to for a number of years now.) In a poem which is greatly concerned with weak intimacy and defining identity (cultural/political), it is an entirely appropriate board (http://www.peoplesrepublicofcork.com/forums/showthread.php?t=188733&page=3) for dialoguing with the piece.
This idea of language being “owned” is so tricky. I consider the language that most of us draw from to be eavesdropped. The complication, of course, is that the language is recorded in some sort of written form (though even that varies—poets and pieces both). I think that the approach is deeply a stance against this idea of intellectual “property” and redefining what is inherent to language, the “speaker,” the poet, the poem—what can be possessed and what can be stolen.
Benjamin Bourlier: This has helped me realize the things I find funniest aren’t (as) funny as poetry, more or less as a rule. Or that poetry-funny is this deep, dark plumbline of comedy that maybe isn’t funny-funny, but something you laugh at...in some painful psychic corner. Too painful for basic collectivity.
Flarf for me has been about a nauseated cynicism, very much a “post-9/11 political malaise”, as BA says. Living in NYC in 2008, the market crash did do something to complicate and direct this malaise. I don’t know who it was exactly that said this about the original DADA movement (probably Tzara?), that it was not “fun” but incredibly bitter and desperate...I sort of like to think of Flarf as having to do with this, though Flarf folk clearly have plenty fun. Consider the middles of flarf poems...
I recently wrote: “force of/ rectal disgorge/ is in my love of gatherers/ of protein into hair to call brothers/ forward from whatever shit room/ they end up in, renting”. I feel this is my postflarf. There is camaraderie in the sense of that James Baldwin bit, that “camaraderie makes the question of sincerity archaic”. And this is politically charged, and leftist. But it’s dialed back a stage, the body fluids as still the body’s, the partial digestion.
I’m very interested in the so-called “New Extremism” in film. It’s maybe useful to consider how postflarf can be such an extremism. There is no “new extremism” film that is definitively funny/nihilist/porn/horror/arthouse et cetera and they’re so gorgeously debased and violated and teeming with some kind of visceral aesthetic frame that requires private life romantic delusions that go overripe and savage in ways flarf can’t allow itself.
The Zhivago passage regarding “the private life is dead..for a man with any manhood” comes up so often for me, considering the political ramifications of flarf. The first half of the statement is something very un-flarf because it is very much flarf itself. The second half could be flarf because this couldn’t be serious rhetoric and because it implies genitals and presents them neatly for violation. Part of flarf is in the neatness of presentation for violation, yeah? There is chaos but everything is coughed up neat, in google chunks. Everything has been sort of neutralized prior. Flarf isn’t dead, it’s dead.
I have the thought of the difference between a body-without-organs and a body-beside-organs...
Also, re: plagiarism: Proudhon on the mathematical impossibility of property, on the right of increase...Nietzsche’s theory of the origin of philosophy being ascetic, there being an epistemological dependence on asceticism, such that plagiarism, inasmuch as it restricts subjective access/advancement, may reproduce the ascetic ideal which “for a long time served the philosopher as a form in which to appear, as a precondition of existence”.
Thus the hazard of originality in contending with the very death of reason. Plagiarism as the “provisional expression” of free thought, of subjective pause.
I feel, in other words, that, coming out of my reading of Nietzsche, plagiarism is quite literally a necessary precondition of thought itself.
The progression of contemporary poetry goes:
Make it new (Modernism)
Make it fucked up (Flarf)
Stop making it (Conceptualism)
And Post-Flarf is somewhere between the final two.
Post-Flarf is a hangover, and I don't mean that pejoratively. A hangover’s dysphoric moments provide critical introspection, discontent, and an enhanced sensitivity to the absurd. So the abundance of wet absurdities meant to provoke laughter or at least nervousness in Flarf gives way to the more subtle absurdities and cynicism in Post-Flarf.
The laughter of Flarf begets the shivering of Post-Flarf. I like Bourlier's assertion that “Flarf isn’t dead, it’s dead.” Let me put it this way: Bruce Willis for the majority of The 6th Sense is Flarf. Post-epiphany Bruce Willis is Post-Flarf. Perhaps that's why many of the poems that have been shared on this list have contained fewer (if any) elements of the wet absurdities of pee-stained unicorns, pizza kitties etc. — although realizing one is dead is technically impossible, it is still a very grave matter. (Believing you are dead can have negative consequences that can lead to actual death whereas simply being dead has no repercussion other than to feed the things that digest your corpse, but then again, it's no longer yours to disperse.)
The formal aspects of Post-Flarf speak to its heightened cynicism, sometimes even approaching the purely nihilistic. In my own poems I steal when I want to steal and create “original” content when I want to, knowing that it is meaningless to make a distinction between the two modes. Post-Flarf still retains the same generative noise mechanics of many Flarf works, using the web's steady banal hum as putty, but not as its exclusive fuel. Perhaps Post-Flarf asymptotically approaches conceptualism’s disregard for the Subject, yet it doesn’t have the faculties or the determination or the funding to linger for more than a moment on epistemology.
Sandra Simonds: Yes, there’s something about Flarf that contains the fool’s laughter (I’m thinking of Shakespeare here). Post-Flarf seems to want very little to do with this. There’s a different kind of intelligence going on with Post-Flarf, I think, that’s more direct than in Flarf poetry. I like the idea of that Post-Flarf poems are still drinking in the banquet hall in the early morning when everyone else has chosen to leave chasing after some old-fashioned lyric goodness. In this sense, it might be the ideal form, both born of the decaying empire and made for it. And, in this sense, it does seem like a kind of Realism.
Sandra Simonds: How does Post-Flarf subvert issues of sincerity and irony?
Maurice Buford: Post-Flarf was not only (or really) a reaction to Flarf, but a reaction to economic and political strangulation—e.g. Economic Collapse, Endless War, made poetically corporeal by the Flarf v. Conceptual “war” and just as disingenuous and back-door handshake-y as our current political situation.
Sincerity and Irony are not at all interesting concepts to me in terms of writing and language. These concepts are imaginary political poles in the same manner as Democratic and Republican: they are hollow words filled with a kind of candy that rots the mind.
Flarf and Conceptual writing were, arguably, the first new forms to bring the construct of the internet to the foreground, to make present and known the ubiquity of its language. Post-Flarf writers assumes the internet. Also, Post-Flarf is nothing more than a “shiver” in reaction to endless void of the internet (space, death, etc.). The Post-Flarf list is the saddest party. It is not a movement, or a function of limbs, but instead a Neutral position of the body, sitting in front of the computer, watching the whole world get fucked and burn.
Sharon Mesmer (Interloper!): Well, here I am, the first Flarf interloper — Sharon Mesmer. I see my name mentioned somewhere — anywhere — and I have to be there, you know.
Firstly, and briefly (yeah, right … just wait and see how long this ends up being), I take issue with the comment by “MB” (Maurice) about how the primordial Flarf list is like a coterie of vampires. If Bourlier is asserting that “Flarf isn’t dead, it’s dead,” then how can we be vampires? Vampires are the UN-dead, as practically everybody knows. Or is that zombies? Whatevers. Are we still talking about Flarf in relation to PostFlarf? (And is there a hyphen there or not? Nomenclature, people!) If so, I prefer to think of Flarf like the machines in “The Matrix,” and PostFlarf as our energy source, our brain-in-a-vat, our “exclusive fuel” (per BC — whoever that is). You people seem to have no idea why PostFlarf was created. Except for BC, the new Neo. Actually, to be honest, I found “The Matrix” kinda hard to follow, so maybe someone could explain it to me sometime. Along with the breaking of line. That Helen Vendler can be so “back door handshake-y” sometimes.
I found the following to be possibly the most salient points of this discussion (outside of the issue of Irish identity in sports, which *really* is a subject someone needs to take on). Firstly:
Make it new (Modernism)
Make it fucked up (Flarf)
Stop making it (Conceptualism)
And Postflarf is somewhere between the final two.
I like this because 1.) it situates us; 2.) it situates us (all contemporary schools and movements, really) in relation to the first world war, which was really why we have anything like Modernism at all. People hate war, and yet war has given us so much. WW1 gave us Modernism; WW2 gave us, or rather we gave the French during WW2, the “WC,” and the French gave us practically all our ideas as a way of saying thank you; and the War on Terror gave us Flarf. I’m not sure what gave us Conceptual, but I think it might've come from Kenny's beard. And, as Maurice noted, Endless War gave us PostFlarf. So, to me, PostFlarf is a critique of the concept of endlessness, and that's why you guys all have such short lines and oddly-timed line breaks.
The second thing is something noted by BB, i.e., Brigitte Bardot (another way the French said "thank you" ) . . .
I feel, in other words, that, coming out of my reading of Nietzsche, plagiarism is quite literally a necessary precondition of thought itself.
Coming out of my reading of Heidegger, plagiarism is the ground, the absolute ground of all thought. And not just a precondition but a pre-cognition. Which implies that there's some sort of prescience, or pre-science (which, of course, is science fiction), at work there. Which reminds me of the observation made by Philip K. Dick in Valis (or, really, an observation made by Horselover Fat — the flarfiest name ever in the history of literature — who is, in reality, PKD of course):
The One was and was-not, combined, and desired to separate the was-not from the was.
Thus, Flarf and PostFlarf are the was and the was-not, each always already past-tense, one positively charged (pizza kitties, unicorns, poo and poo nurses), one negatively ("the saddest party") in an always already was plagiarized universe.
Bios and Sample Poems of Participants:
Maurice Buford lives in Maine and is a member of the internet.
STATES OF THINGS
for Sandra Simonds
1. How You Are
we speak now of the language of corrections
or the apocalypse of the attention as Marx
is neglected in our century of vocabularies
of what is unspoken what is unspeakable
this line is lovely as Emerson was lovely
“a bee-line to the axe” necks fat & god
glistening in underwater vessels streets sing
like birds sings pre-occupation what is
happening to us to our use walloped into
the dumps which cost me perception
which cost me $$$ so much threatens you
to speak as TV people fracture our
language supporting the “perfect economy”
2. How The World Is
the world is consigned irrevocably insofar
as 1) in Berkley Duncan (the lion) sleeps
not dead 2) myself goes out into the night
got so far into the water felt my ear bend to
touch trout each coming up to speak of how to be
in a space as poetic practice shapes the
mind even declared clear we check the
statement true 3) you kiss the building
you take the building into your mouth &
gently tie a knot cut your own with a sword
then are glad to be an occupant without
language beyond me you question being
a self only through signing other words to it
Brian Ang is the author of Pre-Symbolic, Communism, Paradise Now, and the poetry generator THEORY ARSENAL. His current poetic project is The Totality Cantos, an investigation of epistemological totality. Recent criticism and theorizing have appeared in The Claudius App, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Rethinking Marxism, and a commentary series inJacket2, “PennSound & Politics.” He edits ARMED CELL in Oakland, California.
Sample: Reading in Oakland
Benjamin Bourlier studied composition and piano performance at the University of Michigan, has written various chamber and orchestral works, four books of prose and poetry, and currently works as a church organist in New Baltimore, Michigan.
can almost light the purpose
with which the leaves receive.
red cent. I know I am the dog.
forsythia something ingrown
that doesn't flower
the eye what
declines to purge
something it doesn't flower
but reams piling over
in a hiss of common spill, ten
ants tend, shun flocks, bead
the particular in still a cult of heat, an
agony, a whiteness I give up
as spring's on time, I see
getting mail admitting
there could never have been enough
water, beginning to accept
common aridity in public, free to
this and every weekend in the city
still a cult of heat
dicator gum ring on a peeking cock
shaded in the least
obscure patriarch to date
no vote or feet...
probably anything in the night sky is mars,
pieces of the rug. the sitting
men, as little respect as them as
red constant this mars at night.
this fluid exchange of persons
stuck at the stage of light a sec.
how the widths of roads get so
acceptable beside single-trails
of my arm laid out on the table
of a home the drywall is the first
thing in which one comments on
thus: "Who, who could, when this is, I mean"
I mean my arm is lifting my shoulder, spreading peace
like a prop or better wall. I seem to remember
a cartoon that turned the world into flannel
and this is the echoic nearness of my joint.
Bryan Coffelt is the associate editor and graphic designer for Future Tense Books. He is also founder and publisher of Mammoth Editions. Bryan has an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University.
when an impulsive tendency towards some important object is frustrated
when the consumption of mates loses an element of sweetness it may mean
a loss of market share or it
just might mean what i already thought
that sorrow, no
that pity is not a compound
made of sorrow
the common voice that hides
inside of things and
busts out saying
the 80s was a motherfucker
which may be difficult to comprehend in an objective or conceptual way
in this regard, the concept of the 80s is subordinate
to guilt in terms of its emotional intensity
many people find themselves
wishing they had done something
in the 80s
i myself suffered
mass production of railroads
and the first skyscraper in history
i watched you endure
Duran Duran you were
of the world
Tiffany Denman's poetry has appeared in publications including West Wind Review, With + Stand, Berkeley Poetry Review, and housefire. She is one author, with Brian Ang, Joseph Atkins, and Jeanine Webb, of the poetry pamphlet Poetry is not Enough. She teaches writing, reading, and thinking in Northern California. Tiffany resides in Davis, California.
We Wrote That We Wrote Again
A voice: It was a clap of thunder.
Me: If it doesn't work after smacking it, you're not hitting it hard enough.
Joe said: I'm too lazy to find our other thread, so sue me!
You said: Tense situations.
A voice: Since I was under the weather New Years Eve, I didn't have my shrimp cocktail; this was after
We said: The first thing everyone did was ooh and ahh.
He said it again: Yes, yes.
We said: He had been sitting in a box in his home and he hadn’t meant it. We are sad to see that again.
Sam (who is a fan of Casablanca) said: Ho hum, he is beasting it again.
He: Recently, I only say it ‘cause I mean it; I only mean it.
Me: Tireless collector of manuscripts—you get five or six of them a day. He never actually said that
phrase as a scripted line.
You said it: My heart’s in motion. I won’t ever do it again—‘til you ask me.
Shortly thereafter, Reagan said: I certainly don't think there should be an economical alternative to heavy
Excerpt: The “Murder-stroke”
We: The default behavior is to use color for weather. However, this might only be a one time
lurker and a full minute of nose wiggles.
We said it before and we’ll damn well say it again.
You said: It doesn’t get much better than this.
I only said: It. Every word.
A voice: I want to be prepared for when it gets hot.
Me: It is time.
Others said: I prayed to be surprised. They said not to be worried. I’m honest about it. They all said so.
You said: I believe I sell more. I have a lot on my plate; you can see my designs.
Me: It don’t mean now.
Ethnographic Notes: This seemingly strange composition is more evidence. Using ink to "paint" over the
cracks—encroachment on territory—viens-t'en.
Sharon Mesmer is on vacation now, but eventually is going to hell.
When Tantric Sex Gets Ugly
I'm not sure what "Tantric sex" means
but I think a finger goes up your butt.
“Tantric sex” seems to be reserved for people
that went on vacation for a week
at a Medieval Times restaurant
in Sedona, AZ
with a large dwarf named Bruno.
In other words
the redheaded stepchildren
of the fly kingdom.
When I get angry, it’s ugly.
When Gurdjieff gets angry
it’s “Tantric sex.”
At least that’s what P. Diddy told me.
I WAS A TANTRIC SEX SLAVE
FOR A SENIOR TIBETAN BUDDHIST MONK
screeching at the Tibetans to
GET OUT OF CANADA!
I was 16 and content to be
5'2" of pure Jewish jewishness.
I ended up on an island
surrounded by old perverts
where high priestesses were chanting
and touching themselves
to escape dementia.
That's when I spotted Steven Tyler
with giant white dentures
in half a coma.
I smelled a familiar perfume
the one my grandmother had worn
to her own funeral.
My fly was undone
my shirt unbuttoned
and I was making love
to a barking tiny pony.
His or her name was
Barking Mad Elmo.
He or she was not distracted
by the guy who invented Ctrl-Alt-Delete
who also happens to be
Yes, apparently, the Fonz is back in town
looking for Tantric sex involving Arthurian legends
involving Spongebob and Gandalf
involving gangsta rap and druidism
and a wrinkled-up dragon lady with all sorts of spooky
Eastern sex secrets.
I wish him all the luck.
A few years ago Cal Bedient and David Lau started publishing the incredible journal, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion. I asked contributor, Joshua Clover, to say a few words about the journal and he told me the journal is one that “recognizes we are in a proto-revolutionary moment, not yet knowing what direction or character it will take, uncertain, anxious, but full of go-for-broke commitment. He went on to say that Lana Turner is not a journal “for those who wish to stand on the siding judiciously watching the trains rush by, discussing their character, imagining the best possible train. It is not a train for everybody (and I hope it stays that way!) and it is wildly imperfect. But it is happening.”
Each issue of Lana Turner contains almost 300 pages of poetry, essays, artwork, experimental fiction and reviews that carry on the tradition of the left-wing avant-garde. One of the things I most like about the journal that many of the pieces are extremely opinionated so much so that I’ve found myself throwing a copy of the journal across my living room in exasperation (which is, in my opinion, a rare thing for a journal these days.) I sent David and Cal a few questions about the magazine and the following are their responses. At the end of the interview, you will find both editors’ bios and a sample poem from each. Enjoy.
One of the things I most enjoy about Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion is that, while there’s a diversity of work, there seems to be an editorial direction that really unifies the journal. What are you looking for when people send you work to maintain, from issue to issue, this unity?
Cal Bedient: We look for work that is alive, rare, difficult, arresting, you know the list. There are no new criteria and the old ones have been rehearsed ad nauseam. So let that be.
We do not like work that says, “Like me; I’m human and unassuming just like you. I ask only a little of your time, a bit of appreciation for my hip intelligence, my sentiments, my (you may be pleased to discover) clever way with words and sounds. I ask for passive acceptance.”
Strong poets want to discover how much can yet be asked of a poem—an inexhaustible question. Which is to say, how much can be asked of the author and the language. Terrifyingly, everything. The art is cruel, like all things excellent. No magazine of any length can be brim full of masterpieces but we feel we have been fortunate not only in the work we’ve solicited and work that has come to us unbidden. Much of the poetry in each issue is poetry, in Yeats’s plain, simple sense, of “the whole personality”—wholly engaged if not unified. We are somewhat elastic, however, when it comes to partial poetry if it is experimental or political: not that it can’t be both. The first, the experimental, is crucial, because the art must be periodically radicalized, kicked about in order to stay alert; and the second, the political, just as crucial, because “the state is an extraordinary machine,” as Badiou says in his new book, The Rebirth of History, “for manufacturing the inexistent.”
To elaborate a little: the turn to head poetry in the 1960s (evolving from Oulipo to Conceptualism), followed the Modernist poetry of the whole personality and some avant-garde physical poetry, as the next step in the dialectical movement of innovation. Okay, so we have seen what the manipulative head can do on. The result, in that quarter, is a severe paring down of the art, a rejection of its many resources on the grounds that some are naive and complicit with believing something, taking it seriously, failing to be safely ironic, above the fray. Head poetry has been interesting—“provocative”—but I, for one, do not accept it as a compelling new (but by now old) direction. Still, we have included some examples of it, not mere “samples,” work that we really like; and no doubt will continue to do so. Then, too, we love, for instance, Derek Beaulieu’s irrational visual poetics, an implicit critique of gainful capitalist-compatible art, and Amaranth Borsuk’s visual and digital experiments. As for poems with a political scold or scald, we expect them to be brilliant pieces of writing. Geoffrey O’Brien’s “Winterreisse” in the forthcoming issue (no. 5), Joshua Clover’s “Spring Georgic” in the last issue—these long poems, just to name two instances, are second to no other recent poems in creative difference and intensity. As the editors of a magazine of cultural critique—of “opinion” —as well as of poetry, we welcome, and attract, poetry with a critical kernel or blade.
In each issue we have several compartments of poems, some easy to label, others more difficult (they may go unlabeled). As the material comes in and, as it were, self-sorts, some of the poems naturally band together with the prose critiques (in issue 4 and 5, essays by, for instance, Tariq Ali, Bernard Stiegler, Joshua Clover, and Alain Badiou) to compose a block set square against the capitalist and technology exclusions of self-reflection—a culture without conscience. (David would throw a stronger light on all this. He’s a polymath, and one of the things he knows and cares a lot about is politics.) Another division will inevitably be made up of poems deriving from, at whatever distance, the romantic and Modernist poetry of a subjectivity ventured upon the world and its entanglement with the passions. And still another distinguished by a tense eccentricity of language, some of it edgy and either openly or subterraneously linked with the politico-economic and cultural disillusionment of the poems of critique. And still other divisions may appear—for example, the group of poems by and about women in the “Queen to Play” section of Lana Turner no. 4
Not all your readers will know that we also publish experimental pieces of fiction (an astonishing short story by the notorious author of Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, leads off no. 5) and essays on movies, music, and art; color-plates of such artists as Peter Sacks, Howard Hodgkin, and (in no. 5) the great Iris painter Barrie Cooke; numerous poetry reviews; and still more.
David Lau: Our journal tries to be independent of the more ossified codes of poetry discussion, the various camps or program mentalities. This sort of partial “autonomy” makes us a lively venue for the poems and essays we print. We represent a formally interested terrain of poetry what in Matvei Yankelevich recently called the “gray area.” We’ve given space in our pages to very established poets and younger poets, poets in their 20s (when we started the project I was still in my 20s) and poets in their 80s. We want work that has critical content and I think that means political content. Anti-imperialism, the crisis of capitalism, the current communization tendency—some of the historical developments of our time are significant if not dominant in our pages. We also try to develop and maintain discussions of contemporary poetry, painting, art, music, film and other topics across and between our different issues.
Lana Turner (both the print journal) and the blog are particularly political. How do you see a literary journal fitting into the political or as a force of the political? Do you have any historical models that have inspired you?
Cal Bedient: The old Partisan Review, when Philip Rahv was still an editor, and more recently Salmagundi and The Boston Review are models inasmuch as they look outward toward the public sphere as well as spy inward via poetry—the latter a looping arrow of a move, since the inward refers us back to the outward, through whatever scrims of the passions. One could say that there are two great fields of investigation for poetry: the social (the made world) and the natural; and that the latter has been the greater one for poetry, and will continue to be so, despite every arrogant attempt to it (reject the senses, the passions, the lyrical thrust of the human being toward the extra-human (and Conceptualism does reject it). But the first is just as crucial as the second. If the societal set-up swings an ax at your shins, it is only natural to protest. Vallejo: “It is time, then, to groan with the whole ax . . . and everything is owed to everyone.” In the most “relevant” poetry, I think, the inside is continuous with the outside, the lyrical with the critical. It isn’t necessary to have two separate bins. There can be a sliding scale in a poet’s output—whether in single poems or in the large; a traveling this way then that. Or why not attempts to get at it all in one jump?’
David Lau: I’m not sure how a literary journal can’t be political. We’re inextricably political animals. In our imperial society, where politics is reduced to economic management and a few “issue” debates, there’s a tendency to lose track of Aristotle’s famous point.
Lana Turner doesn’t have a line, or a specific political position, like Endnotes, a collective of communists writing some important work. Lana Turner has mainly an aesthetic politics, focusing on radically different approaches to the form—differences made possible by the modern and postmodern transformation of the poetry. Our first issue’s editorial statement pointed to precursors like Blast or The Sixties. I’m inspired by journals from recent decades like Hambone, o•blék, Temblor, or Sulfur. These were journals in the mix during our initial conversations about Lana Turner in 2006.
Many literary or cultural publications have political dimensions. On the explicitly conservative establishment or cultural counterrevolutionary side of things, The New Criterion has long nurtured a polemic directed at the legacies of the 60s or the postmodern turn in progressive art. Other journal politics are more implicit: there’s been a lot of work done to show just how much of the old liberal anti-communist literary scene and its journals were in part funded by the CIA as part of the cold war’s cultural front: Partisan Review, The Paris Review, etc. Such journals often had a depoliticized or aestheticized perspective in their pages. It was also a “scandal” when this funding was revealed. Today the situation is quite different, where everyone largely accepts the enormous amount of corporate money at the heart of things like the Poetry Foundation. Even leftish people just aren’t that critical of these things. Such are our depoliticized times.
But aesthetic politics aren’t the only part of Lana Turner’s politics. In the tradition of a left and experimental small publisher, Lana Turner’s just as interested in plain old politics: the affairs of cities, the question of social justice, the possibility for today’s social movements to challenge the power of globalized capital. So when it comes to politics and poetry we have to struggle on two fronts. The journal is a place where I continue those struggles. The blog on our website has offered me a way to address more immediate politics from a journalistic perspective. When Occupy was going full force last fall, I had connections to poets in various cities and started to solicit work on the developments in Oakland, Kansas City, Portland, Detroit, and New York. It was an interesting time for Lana Turner Online.
Much has been made, recently by the organization VIDA, of the disparity between men and women being published and reviewed in journals and magazines. Do you count the numbers of men and women you publish?
Cal Bedient: Where the poetry is concerned, no counting; at most a readiness to detect a serious imbalance. But it hasn’t needed to come into play. A good deal of the best work we receive is by women. One could add “of course.” On the other hand, the journal isn’t a parliament. It’s dedicated to talent, not to equal representation.
Going by memory, I would say that roughly half of the brief reviews are by women and roughly half are reviews of women’s books. But the majority of the longer prose pieces (not that there have been many; they are actually hard to acquire) are by men. Why? We have had valuable essays by C. D. Wright, Catherine Wagner, and Vanessa Place, among others, but men have seemed more ready to commit to writing essays; more ready to scrimmage. I would like to have more essays by women, but it isn’t a mission. People have to be willing—better, eager—to write.
David Lau: We don’t have a programmatic position about this question of representation as other magazines have had and do still have. We talk about it when it seems to come up in our practice of editing. We might receive work we like but we may talk about trying to solicit work from women if we haven’t received enough quality submissions from women. But there are so many incredible women writing today, we don’t have this problem too often. (I don’t have time to go into it here, but in passing I have to be careful about using this word woman. As Denise Riley and many a militant or radical feminist has asked: “Am I that name?”) As editors we are happy to have printed challenging work by women, people of color, minorities, as well as writers from foreign and distant lands. These are voices that have been underrepresented in the pages of many experimental North American magazines.
I want to associate myself with Cal’s comments. I affirm the idea that much of the most compelling work written today is written by women. This is particularly true in North America. But of course it’s true elsewhere. I once wrote that the 20th century in American poetry is the feminist century. I still hold that view.
Editors’ Bios and Poems
Calvin Bedient has published five books of literary criticism (most recently, The Yeats Brothers, with the University of Notre Dame Press), and Omnidawn will publish his fourth book of poems, The Multiple, in September. He was a co-editor of the University of California's poetry series, New California Poetry,
and currently co-edits Lana Turner.
Some men are like the bees
they want a destruction
the historical male decays,
so difficult now, mother,
in these Capitalism will eat you days
Like bees that crawl on an egg hot from the hen’s ass
(they do not know what’s inside
they will kill this thing hot from the hen’s ass),
they are quite toxic,
with just a little delicacy in the sensory department
Area 51, Groom Lake, composition by field—
is that what you want, to spread the radiation around?
The soul sits up looks about like a rabbit
expecting probably a thing of youthful blood
but the west is old
Belief, we gave you all our heart, didn’t we, daddy?
Look, the mother is walking aside
in what I call “transcendental ontology,”
the “tall” part sticking its head up
over the trench (well, you cannot say I have not warned her)
If she were Marx’s mother, would she be sorry?
Even Venus could not be so sorry
Where have all the revolutions gone?
Invisible hooks pull at the poets’ mouths
Is there a new art? You wander the desert,
looking for the new art
Who now will hum the undollared basis of all comparisons?
The imagination isn’t capitalist, you know,
it rabbits in phenomenalistic little hops —
easy to pick off
(oh be cured of that)
Back in Area 51 the F-117 Nighthawk
nicknamed Harvey after Harvey the rabbit
got down into the hole and exploded
the fucker wrote up the paperwork
we need to take out more targets on a single sortie
David Lau’s book of poems is Virgil and the Mountain Cat (UC Press). He co-edits Lana Turner. Recent poems and essays have appeared in A Public Space and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Santa Cruz.
Crave you Exarchia chromed up with Koukoulofori?
Syntagma sipping on slurry?
Do you like banks?
Neither contest nor demand constitute force.
Prisoners or farmers. No flaneur.
(Lost this precarity
given newfangled “security.”) Don’t desertify,
don’t propagate liberalism
with the urgency audible to power.
Dodge fares, steal / practice escape.
Seed trade the total submission called legal.
Communize the simple lands of the old world.
Crave you the subject / simultaneity early and lake.
Time ceased waiting life linked thought.
Give up desires without intensity, democracy.
Crave you sectarianism, particular truth.
Not afraid / forming gangs—we are
what has cubicle isolation,
squat scene, criminal origins,
field work, 80s purge.
Scrape out the inside, the false differences,
flight facilities. (Exhaustion.) Don’t give in.
We are in a civil war, irremediably there.
Multiply and consolidate the fly artwork.
Deep cogitations then sleep.
Normality subsidized this lingo.
In London police struck and nearly killed
a young man called Alfie—dripping in gold.
Henry James and Edith Wharton often went "motoring" together. Wharton wrote about one such trip in A Motor-Flight Through France (1908). Here, she describes an experience with James while traveling in England:
From A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton
The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. […] While I was hesitating and peering out into the darkness James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear—I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.’
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to…’
‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’
‘Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?’
‘Ye’re in it’, said the aged face at the window.
As a way of starting Sports Desk again, I've decided to start by continuing with some Olympic roundups, Olympic replays and Olympic reconsiderations. Over the next 7 days I'll be running pieces from The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic/Olympics that you haven't seen yet and a number that you have. By the time I've finished I'll be in Denton, TX where I'll have some other things to say about poetry and sports and searching.
First up, Pat Rosal discusses Mark Anthony Barriga. I've included his first piece and now the conclusion, "Keats and Barriga: Filipino Capability."
Barriga’s Olympic Debut
By Pat Rosal
Ranked 33rd in the world in the light flyweight division (49kg), Filipino boxer Mark Anthony Barriga is a longshot to earn the gold medal in London, but he showed some promise in dominating Italian fighter Manuel Cappai. Barriga outpointed Cappai, 17-7, in what was both fighters’ Olympic debut.
Barriga charged at Cappai after the opening bell with an aggressive left lead combo. It may not have connected cleanly, but it seemed to surprise Cappai with its swiftness and ferocity.
Barriga did a good job of crowding Cappai throughout the fight, unloading fierce combinations, being mostly on the move and reading his opponent’s swiping rangefinder of a jab.
Cappai revealed his own frustration when he used his shoulder to heave the smaller fighter off his feet and shove him back down against the ropes in the first round. Barriga stuck with his game plan and was the more consistent aggressor.
Picture: Steve McCaffery, the structure of the sonnet
I. Is the Sonnet a Fascist Form?
Somewhere, supposedly, William Carlos Williams calls the sonnet “a Fascist form.” Can someone tell me if this is true? I asked a number of poet friends, looked and looked, but couldn’t find the quote ANYWHERE. Even if he didn’t write it, the phrase has an irresistible ring to it and lots and lots of poets agree that writing in any form is like being told what to do by an authoritarian jerk. But…wait a second…I’ve read poems by Fascists and the poems don’t look anything like sonnets. Not even close. All that those poems do is praise guns and airplanes in long, messy lines. So, what’s the deal? I guess even Fascists don’t write in Fascist forms.
II. Sonnets and Power
Now, it’s easy for me to fool myself into thinking that I’m in love so sometimes I get all tangled up in love triangles, squares and octagons. Maybe it’s a poet’s disease. Last summer my partner and I had a whole bunch of problems that eventually led to a seven month separation. During that time, I thought that I had fallen in love with a few men at the same time (all poets, of course, since they suffer from the same disease) which culminated in my buying a plane ticket (never used) to meet a man on the internet I’d never met who kept saying nice things to me (and my poetry) on Facebook. I know, I know—it’s pathetic and embarrassing but here’s the thing, at the same time as all of this messy stuff was happening, I was writing sonnet after sonnet so I couldn’t stop myself from getting involved deeper and deeper in all of these pretend romances because I swear to god it was totally helping my poetry.
Auden talks about how Shakespeare‘s Dark Lady sonnets are all about the humiliation that comes with what he calls the “Vision of Eros.” Basically, what he says is that when the Dark Lady becomes a real person, and not an object that he can control, he gets frustrated because he never really liked her in the first place. He’s just trapped in his own sexual obsession and frustration. Exactly! I was never really in love with these men, but I did want them to want me, like it was a game, a game perfect for TRANSLATION into the sonnet form. In real life relationships people are always vying for power but in the sonnet, it’s the poet and the sonnet that are in a struggle to the death. The problem is that the poet is at a huge disadvantage because the sonnet has the history OF THE SONNET on its side and almost always wins. As Sina Queyras asks in an essay on the sonnet for the Harriet Blog: “Are you writing the “writing the sonnet or is the sonnet writing you?”
III. How Do We Define the Contemporary Sonnet?
There’s no consensus on how to do it. Does it have to have a traditional rhyme scheme? Does it need to be written in iambic pentameter? Does it have to be about unrequited love? Does it even need to be fourteen lines? Ask twenty poets these questions, and you’ll get two-hundred answers. And simply calling a sonnet a sonnet doesn’t really make it a sonnet.
I decided that I would call my sonnets “sonnets” when they become worthy of passing through the gates of Sandra’s GREAT BOOK of Sonnets, a quasi-mystical anthology of sonnets that I have compiled and that is housed in a three ring binder in my desk. My teacher in PhD school, David Kirby, taught me how to do this. Whenever I come across a sonnet that is fit to enter Sandra’s GREAT BOOK of Sonnets, I type it out, print it and add it to the book. I try to memorize the extra-special ones.
One of the poems I have recently added is from Great Balls of Fire (Coffee House Press, 1990) by Ron Padgett:
Nothing in That Drawer
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
I love Padgett’s simultaneous reverence and irreverence towards the sonnet expressed through the play between content and form. As Stephen Burt and David Mikics write in the introduction to The Art of the Sonnet, the sonnet is a form of, “rapturous praise, bitter exclamation, and step-by-step reasoning” but this example turns all of these notions upside-down. Even as the poem takes on the quality of a joke, the joke isn’t shallow or without a deep understanding of the sonnet’s history of posing a problem that it seeks to, if not solve, explore. I love that the empty drawers, line by line, come together to build a chest of emptiness. The take home message here seems to be that every time you write a really good sonnet, it’s kind of creepy like building a piece of furniture with the ghosts of history. One day someone is going to open one of Padgett’s drawers and some monster is going to pop out and scare the crap out of the reader.
IV. Bernadette Mayer
Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets are captivating for all of the wrong reasons. Most of her sonnets aren’t even sonnets. In an essay posted on Jacket, Juliana Spahr writes that “one of Mayer's sonnets has a long prose note attached to it on landlords and rent. Another has eight lines. Another twenty-seven. Some rhyme in doggerel. Some in more elaborate patterns. Some have regular rhythm. Some not. The grammar continually violates the conventional regularities of the sonnet. Lines are split, are jammed; they spill over. Metaphors mix. The book as whole serves almost as an encyclopedia of the sonnet's possible violations while still remaining a sonnet.” Despite all of the formal deviations in Mayer’s book that Spahr notes, the poems seem to come together to point back to some imaginary Ur-sonnet. Someone tell me what makes up the Ur-sonnet!
Last fall, while staying with the poet Nada Gordon, I finally got to read a copy of Mayer’s book, simply titled Sonnets. In an email, I asked Nada to tell me what she thought about Mayer’s sonnets and she responded by saying, “What I love is how they are at once formally disciplined and also fabulously casual. This was the beauty, I think of much of first generation New York School writing as well, and she inherited that touch. I think that sonnets in general are powerful because they speak to our (Western, at least) expectations about how ideas should unfold and convince.” Here’s one of my favorites from the book:
You jerk you didn’t call me up
I haven’t seen you in so long
You probably have a fucking tan
& besides that instead of making love tonight
You’re drinking your parents to the airport
I’m through with you bourgeois boys
All you ever do is go back to ancestral comforts
Only money can get—even Catullus was rich but
Nowadays you guys settle for a couch
By a soporific color cable t.v. set
Instead of any arc of love, no wonder
The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time
Wake up! It’s the middle of the night
You can either make love or die at the hands of
the Cobra Commander
* * *
To make love, turn to Page 32.
To die, turn to Page 110.
My first attempts at writing the sonnet were as a nineteen-year-old undergrad. I wrote a sonnet about the fjords of Denmark. I wrote one about the mongoose. I wrote one or two about drinking on Sunset Boulevard. They were all awful. My friend, Rebecca Hazelton told me that her first attempt at writing sonnets was also as an undergrad. “My professor handed it back with one line circled, and said, "This line works." The rest was pretty dismal, but I was crushed. Didn't try to write another sonnet for years, but I did learn that sometimes you take one line from a poem and scrap the rest, so that was important.” My friend Justin Marks told me that he doesn’t think the sonnet is a “complete form.” He says, “I’ve done drafts where the poem is basically fourteen lines that feel like they go together but somehow don’t add up to anything. They have no movement to them, or don’t wind up anywhere.” All of this gets me wondering whether or not the form is a “mature one,” more suited for an experienced poet. After all, Shakespeare was pushing thirty when he wrote his sonnets. So was Sidney and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was almost forty when she started writing the Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Kasey Mohammad, a Renaissance scholar, has written a book of sonnets called Sonnograms some of which are included in my GREAT BOOK. The poems are postmodern, Flarfy, anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets. When I taught Shakespeare last year, I had my students read them alongside Shakespeare’s and most of my students were horrified, arguing that Shakespeare’s sonnets are all about love and truth and those great eternal things and that Mohammad’s sonnets were “trashy” and “made no sense.” “Shakespeare was a genius!” they cried. Most of them thought Kasey’s poems were failures. But one or two of students LOVED his poetry, defending it on the basis of its novel use of formal constraints, humor, and contemporary “feel,” arguing that the poems are like Shakespeare but for their generation. What I enjoy is how the poet feeds Shakespeare’s language into a technologically-mediated landscape, uses his own “subjectivity” to rearrange the words and lines and ends up with an entirely new language that cannot escape carrying around the heavy burden of the forms of history. I leave you, finally, with the poet’s take on Sonnet 47 (“Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took”):
The the the the the the the the the the Death (Hey Hey)
Hell yeah, this is an English sonnet, bitch:
Three quatrains and a couplet, motherfucker.
I write that yummy shit to get me rich:
My iambs got more drive than Preston Tucker.
I also got that English rhyme shit straight,
That alternating shit the verses do.
Word: every foxy mama that I date
Feels how my goddam prosody is true.
And I don’t mess with no Italian shit;
I only blow your mind the one way, ho.
I line it up four-four-four-two, that’s it:
That’s how I do my sonnet bidness, yo.
My mad Shakespearean moves are “phat,” or “def”:
They weave my pet eel Lenny—what the eff?
Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the fact that more men are being published than women. Because my sense is that there’s also a lack of women writing about poetry, I wanted to explore this topic in more detail with a number of women critics I admire. The following is the lively roundtable I moderated over the last few months between Sina Queyras, Elisa Gabbert, Shanna Compton, Juliana Spahr, Vanessa Place and Danielle Pafunda.
Sandra Simonds: For years, much was made of the male-dominated blog comment fields. I’m thinking particularly of Ron Silliman’s blog. It seems like currently group-run blogs are very popular—HTML Giant, Montevidayo and the Rumpus immediately come to mind. The comment fields still seem to be the “front lines” of poetry engagement. Are they still as male-dominated in these forums as they were during the “Silliman-era”? If so, can you hypothesize as to why?
Elisa Gabbert: It really depends on the blog, who runs it and the kind of environment they create. I’ve seen plenty of blogs/websites that create a “safe” atmosphere for women, mostly by being quite obviously by, for, and about women – see The Hairpin or Jezebel. Her Kind, the new VIDA blog, seems to be an attempt to create a similar space for women writers specifically.
The problem here, such as there is one, is that comment fields turn into a middle-school dance, with the girls huddled in one corner and the boys on the other. The “boys” don’t want to read and comment on the “girl” blogs because they’re either not interested or know they’re not supposed to be; the “girls” don’t want to comment on the “boy” blogs because the “boys” do their best to scare them away. The comments on HTML Giant, for example, are still dominated by young men, though the regular crew seems less aggressively aggressive than they used to be. Even on my blog (I’m the only author, I’m a professed feminist, and I am very welcoming to women who comment), I probably get two or three comments from men to every comment I get from a woman.
I’m ambivalent about this reluctance of women to speak. On the one hand, I understand that they don’t want to get caught up in online arguments (it’s easy to fall into a hole and let it ruin your day) or risk being attacked, which is a very real risk. (Identify as a feminist online and you will be called stupid, whiny, boring, irrational, a bitch, a cunt, a dyke, a man-hater; you will be accused of being on PMS and needing to get laid; you may even be outright threatened with assault, rape, or murder.) On the other, if nobody speaks, then people remain ignorant. Speaking up to asshole idiots in comment fields is tough work and often pretty thankless, but I’m so grateful when I see someone else doing that work – it sets an example, it reminds us that everyone and everything doesn’t suck. I’m not always up for it, but when I am, I try to be that person who points out the logical fallacies and (conscious or unconscious) bias in dumb sexist arguments, knowing that someone out there will be silently thanking me.
There’s also, of course, the fact that women on average work more hours than men for less pay, so, a lot of them probably just don’t have time for the Internet, or can’t justify spending their Internet time in such a manner.
Sina Queyras: I don’t find comment streams at all interesting. I never did. If anything they get one’s blood boiling, but what’s the point of that? To unearth the most robust voice to hand over reviewing power? Don’t laugh, this happens.
I understand that it’s the comment streams that are supposed to democratize blogs, but I don’t buy that. A corresponding post seems a better response. Something more reasoned, with distance. Comment streams are too up close. We can link as much as comment. And yes, I could say yes, that it seems a very male gesture, but I don’t want to assign the notion of excitable discourse to one gender. I want the discussion--I just don’t find the comment stream a productive place for that to happen.
Vanessa Place: I don’t read those blogs.
Sandra Simonds: Can you tell us what you do read?
Vanessa Place: Lemon Hound. Harriet. Ubu. Twitter. Facebook. Books. Kindle. Milk cartons, menus. Despair in the eyes of others.
Juliana Spahr: I almost never read comment streams voluntarily. And I don’t do a lot of regular reading on those particular blogs. That said, I am somewhat interested in trying to figure out what sort of work the comment stream does or might do or what it is likely to do. I keep trying to understand the move from the newsletter (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Poetry Flash, Poetry Project Newsletter sort of stuff) to the discussion list (poetics list and others) to the blog with open comment stream (Silliman pulling away from poetics list to start his own blog and many of the poetics list commenters following him over there) to the blog with the regulated comment stream to the blog with the no comment stream to the development of these group web portals that seem to exist for the comment streams mainly. Or the move from the newsletter listing with a public invite to the reading group or the reading to the email list invite to the semi-public/private facebook invite. I don’t think it is a linear progression but it is a series of engagements around questions of access. I realize this is a question about gender and I haven’t answered it. But it would take some work for me to answer and to begin to answer it I would feel I would have to do some counting to understand how gender shows up or not in the comment streams. And yet this work might be impossible because it is often difficult to determine gender from comment stream names/identity claims.
Shanna Compton: OK, Sandra: I think the interactivity of blog comment streams and Facebook and Twitter could be considered the front line in the sense that it provides speed and dailiness, but I don’t know that it provides as much depth of engagement as it used to. It’s hard to determine, though, whether my fading interest in engaging in those fields is mostly the result of the unpleasantness of the “hard work” Elisa was describing, or because I simply have too many other poetry-related things to do these days, like editing books, and writing my own. There’s something to be said for not having an audience (comment stream) constantly piping up when one is trying to do the rest of our “hard work.” And though interesting conversations do tend to get going in an open field (like the blogs and Facebook), one also needs time and space that’s more protected. I suppose it’s like what Elisa was saying about justifying the time. It’s about balance. I think Vanessa may be getting at that too with her refusal. If we’re always out there, who’s in here? Anyway, most of what’s in the comment streams isn’t even about poetry. The dynamics on display are not limited to poetry. I guess we all just get tired.
Sina Queyras: SC, is there an audience outside of social media? That’s the question. Do we feel we need to keep up with Facebook and Twitter because if we don’t we don’t exist as writers?
Shanna Compton: Certainly there’s an audience for the readings we give and the work we publish, but social media makes it a lot easier to feel/hear the response of our own audience, and I’m gonna admit that’s important to me. And it also gives us more access to other writers we want to interact with, to participate as their audience. I may be on the fringe with this one--I’m socially isolated in a very small town more than an hour from anywhere with a poetry scene (between Philadelphia and New York) and have been for the last five and a half years. That’s a position I chose, obviously (and I do get more work done and am less distracted), but without the internet it would be very difficult for me to feel connected to what is happening, and that’s important to me to. I go months without speaking in person or laying eyes on another poet (and often a few days without speaking to anyone except my husband too, very hermitlike) and my access to libraries and bookstores with the work I want is also limited. At the same time, after my move I let my blog languish nearly to death, so that now when I write on it hardly anyone is looking--and I’m finding that public-but-not-really sort of space useful too. I guess I could just delete it or close it when things feel too claustrophobic, but I try to resist the deletion impulse as best I can. I don’t want to erase myself. This all constitutes attempts at space-claiming (in which to work, in public) and wall-building (to keep the whole damn public from overwhelming) at the same time.
Danielle Pafunda: There’s an interesting convo going on about “ladyblogging.” Check Molly Fischer at n+1 and Kate Zambreno’s response at her Frances Farmer is My Sister. I think comments streams can be dynamic, productive spaces, but rarely are. Before Facebook, the comments stream was a place to meet other poets, to share resources and ask questions, but that was so often overwritten by pissing contests and troll antics. I’ve admired from the get-go the efforts of others (Elisa!) to graciously, formidably point out logical fallacy, to refuse baiting by trolls, and to kick open an otherwise constricted conversation. I’ve tried to do the same myself, and have been called names, lazily critiqued, or dismissed because, of course, some folks want to hang around hurling insults at each other. It’s not always worth the effort. Ruins my day, makes my heart race, dispirits me. Plus, I’m busy. Now, I have Facebook for the more casual interactions and info-trawling. If I have something particularly pressing and complicated to contribute, I write my own blog post. It’s what we used to say when some crank commenter would get up in our grills: if you feel so strongly, do your own research, develop your own opinion, and write your own post (or essay or edit your own anthology, etc.). I do follow the comments streams on my own posts. At Montevidayo, things are fairly gracious and friendly. I know a lot of the commenters, and I’ve also got the contributors’ authority to say “I don’t participate in conversations like this,” when someone goes all ad-hominem or literacy-resistant on me. I can block an irrelevant and hostile comment. I will also say this for blogs: they’re fast. I don’t have time to produce gobs of carefully constructed critical essays, but I can pin up my burgeoning ideas and responses to other thinkers in public. I don’t want to be closed out of the discussion because I’m too busy or too sick. In that way, perhaps blogs themselves democratize the field. I think it took us awhile to understand that a free-for-all in the comments stream would just reproduce all the common, mind-numbing, gross out disparities. It’s not the invitation to respond that makes the blog a potential site of destabilization, but the fact that anyone can host. When a commenter responds to my post, s/h/ze is in my house. Readers can rely on me to be fair, but also to establish boundaries, guidelines for discourse.
Sandra Simonds: Does anyone want to add anything about what they think about the intersection of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) and poetry?
Vanessa Place: Happily self-congratulatory by proxy. Everyone looks good in the mirror.
Elisa Gabbert: I’m not on Facebook. (I never tire of saying that.) I do think there are some interesting writers and thinkers on Twitter. It’s not really a good format for “discussions” per se though there is room for some call and response. But I find Twitter to be the perfect format for aphorisms, tiny essays, theories, flashes of insight. See Sina and Anne for good examples.
Shanna Compton: And I don’t do Twitter. I like Facebook because it’s been better than email for announcing things for the press, and I enjoy the kind of trends in poetry news I can pick up there via the feed. There’s also room for different kinds of engagement (longer wordcounts, visual elements), as well as links out. So I use it as sort of an aggregator that often leads me back out to the blogs, commentary or articles elsewhere. Twitter does the same thing I guess, but I really don’t have time for both, so I chose the platform I found more flexible for my various purposes. (I am suspicious of unidentifiable URLs leading who knows where. I dislike the gnomic brevity; I feel tricked. And I prefer graphics in my mix, even if they are sometimes pics of a poet’s child or lunch. There’s something too about “following” vs. “friends.” Oh look at all my biases!)
Elisa Gabbert: Shanna, that’s exactly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook -- I can follow Sina whether or not she knows or cares who I am!
Sandra Simonds: Sina doesn’t follow me, but I follow her :)
Shanna Compton: You can actually do that sort of thing on Facebook now too, by subscribing to people instead of friending them. Folks you don’t know can subscribe to your posts, and only see the ones you mark “public.” (I liked Google Plus too, and would use it more if more poets went over there.)
Danielle Pafunda: I also like the tacit, surely wonky contract of friends better than following. I like the Facebook platform, and I love how much information I get from my feed (including everyone’s Twitter posts!). Headlines, book announcements, another dimension of the writers I love, funny dinosaurs paired with e.e. cummings lines! Though you can still find a ‘roided-out pissing contest in the comments threads, the space-time continuum of Facebook doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of troll who likes to dig his heels in. It’s more a field of exchange, less a field of hyperbolic dominance. It allows for a slight disruption of our normative modes of discourse.
Sina Queyras: Ha, well, I will follow you both immediately on Twitter, and thanks EG, I agree, I love a good aphorism. But also the range of Twitter: as William Gibson says, Twitter is the street. My Twitter feed is diverse, and it reflects my interests and thinking way more than Facebook could. Facebook is the mall. A very small mall. A corporate space. Very disconcerting to be in a mall filled with poets. All posting about poems, next books, and I’m thinking, wait, we’re in a mall, and it’s a Poetry Mall so there is no one outside of poetry looking at your posts...which may of course be a good thing for some, though not for me.
Sandra Simonds: I guess like Elisa, I find the blog comment streams interesting because they tell us something about the outflux of gender dynamics / forces in the poetry world and it’s interesting to think about where these voices are coming from (MFA programs? Magazines?) VIDA has brought to the attention of many the disparity in the numbers of women who are being published versus men. Let’s say, in a magical world, that tomorrow the numbers change and that everything is equal in terms of who’s being published. All magazines now publish 50% women, 50% men. Have we solved the problem?
Juliana Spahr: No.
Elisa Gabbert: Yeah, no. Because those numbers are just a symptom (“subjective evidence of a disease”). In general it’s easier to treat symptoms than cure an underlying disease.
Shanna Compton: Ha ha, let’s try that and see.
Danielle Pafunda: Word, y’all.
Vanessa Place: But we love our symptoms--why would we ever cure them?
Sandra Simonds: So that we can make room for more?
Vanessa Place: That’s a matter of rearranging the furniture.
Sina Queyras: The problem hasn’t even been understood let alone solved. I did an interview for CWILA, a Canadian version of VIDA, and it, or I, was a little burly, mostly because I don’t even think we’re asking the right questions yet, and I am unconvinced that these organizations are the answer. I don’t know what the answer is though I’m certain it won’t be any one thing, so moving forward I will support them.
Sandra Simonds: I was recently asked to do a talk on poetry and politics and I wasn’t surprised that I was the only woman on the panel. In fact, any time I’ve taken part in a discussion or conference on poetry and politics (a subject I enjoy thinking about), I’m one of the only women involved. Is there something particularly “male” about the intersection of these two subjects? If you have had the experience of being the only woman on a panel, do you ever feel that you were asked because you are a woman?
Vanessa Place: Yes. I am very grateful for this, as for all opportunities to be a signifer.
Elisa Gabbert: I am never asked to be on panels, unless this one counts.
Juliana Spahr: When asked, I suspect I am often asked because I am a woman so it is fortunate that I am ok with being a woman. I have also in my life received significant affirmative action benefits for being a woman (i.e. undergraduate scholarships).
I am trying to think if I have been asked to speak on a poetry and politics panel and I feel I must have at some point but I can’t remember when. That said, my general feeling, again somewhat unquantified, is that at the level of the panel at the smallish conference or the poem in the small somewhat ephemeral journal or the first book prize, women do okay and are often “over” represented numerically. I recently counted the listings in the Poets and Writers “Recent Winners” column for 2010 and 2011 and realized from this that women are getting a bigger slice of some sorts of pies. In terms of overall prizes women got 974 compared to 827 going to men and 1 going to a person who was identified as trans. But at the more “excellent” or “established” levels, a large number of women drop out. So with anthologies and big prizes over $25,000 and book reviews in mainstream publications and stuff like that, women tend to be under represented.
Danielle Pafunda: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to participate in something where I’m the only woman. What up dudes? Don’t I make a nice enough token?
Sina Queyras: I have no idea why I’m asked to do anything, but I do get very miffed when I am asked to read, and really am there to do feminist lifting. I don’t mind my work doing that, but I do mind being asked to then give a talk, or have to represent feminist issues. My work, I think, should do the talking.
Vanessa Place: What do you consider your work?
Sina Queyras: Good question, Ms. Place. My poetry? My prose? My critical work? My curatorial work? My grumpiness is about having to represent something, or speak for a movement. I can’t. Shouldn’t. Sometimes I just want to read my poems and have a laugh and say hello.
Sandra Simonds: This is a silly question! What do you think of James Franco? Particularly, I’m thinking of this “A Dude’s Take on Girls” which can be found here. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-franco/girls-hbo-lena-dunham_b_1556078.html
Vanessa Place: I never think of James Franco.
Shanna Compton: I haven’t seen Girls. I don’t watch a lot of teevee. I do watch movies though. Sometimes they have James Franco in them. I’m glad he was not in my MFA program, I guess. It would have been pretty distracting.
Danielle Pafunda: Ha! Shanna, if Franco had been in our MFA class, we’d surely have derailed his acting career! I love television. Maybe Franco should watch more. I’ve seen enough of Girls to say that whatever one thinks of its cultural relevance, race politics, performance of privilege, etc: this critique isn’t nuanced enough. Though I would definitely ask James Franco to be in my Steel Magnolias reprise.
Sina Queyras: James Franco has proven himself to be less than an interesting thinker. He may want to consider getting a real job.
Sandra Simonds: Who are the contemporary female poets you feel are writing the most interesting poetry?
Elisa Gabbert: Will I ruin this question for everyone else by saying I find long lists of poet-names tiresome? I’ll just name one person: Kirsten Kaschock is probably my favorite poet right now. I find almost everything she writes stunning and thought-provoking.
Shanna Compton: I publish some of my favorite ones, naturally! But I have a list of others to tire Elisa. I’ll keep it short and top-of-head: Susana Gardner, Jennifer Tamayo, Nada Gordon, Cathy Park Hong.
Vanessa Place: Present company is of course excepted. Otherwise, Kim Rosenfield, Divya Victor, Trisha Low, Mette Moestrup, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Cia Rinne. I was recently introduced to the conceptual work of Swantje Lichtenstein, and it is enticing.
Sina Queyras: I am in an extremely frustrated phase with poetry...what do I want out of it? I am feverishly tearing through stacks of books and not finding whatever that is, so I go back to what has stuck with me: Lisa Robertson, Juliana Spahr, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Erin Moure, because the thinking is so well formed with these poets. Because I believe the thoughts. There is writing that knocks me out: Vanessa Place, many of the women in the Conceptual Writing anthology, but there is something I am longing for that I’m not finding either, and I guess I want to acknowledge that. It’s a longing for the world, the body, the emotive, the quotidian, intellect, play...and an expansive canvas, but also a sense of place, and an accurate representation of the moment. The complexity and terror of our moment. I may be identifying for myself a frustration of nostalgia.
Sandra Simonds: If you are a mother, what is the relationship between your being a mother and being a poet? Did becoming a mother change what types of poems you read or write?
Shanna Compton: I am not a mother, but many of my friends now are and even that has changed the types of poems I read and write.
Vanessa Place: None and no.
Danielle Pafunda: Like any intense subject position, mama gives me a new line of flight in the poem, a lens through which to operate, a distortion-construction through which to project language, a set of emotional cocktails unnameable and simultaneously eradicating and productive of (the illusion of) self. It gives me some specific material on which to draw. It doesn’t radically alter my relationship to poetry (either as poet or reader), though it does alter my daily schedule and my priorities. Girl, mother, and chronically ill, the three markers that often inform my speakers, are mutually constituitive in surprising ways.
Juliana Spahr: Being a mother has had a significant impact on the amount of reading I can do.
Sina Queyras: I echo Juliana Spahr on the amount of reading, or a certain kind of reading. Less time in general. And exhaustion. I may in fact have temporarily lost my mind and any relationship with my body. People assure me mind and body will return. Men and women alike. I am not so certain.
Sandra Simonds: Did you read this? http://karacandito.com/im-a-rabbit-and-this-is-my-owl-on-beauty-and-the-female-poets-body/
The woman who wrote it, Kara Candito, went to my PhD program at Florida State University. I think that it’s interesting that she talks about the highly stylized, beautiful female poet and her potential success within writing communities. I wondered if you had any thoughts about our culture which is so highly visual and sexualized and the intersection of this with the poetry world?
Juliana Spahr: I didn’t read it until you asked me to. And I sort of wish I hadn’t just because I find the discussion about the pains of being beautiful by the beautiful personally painful and have a tendency to want to dismiss them by going first world problems. That said, no bad feelings towards Kara Candito. Or even Alex Dimitrov. Both are beautiful. It works. And I will read both of them seriously despite (as Dimitrov requests) and because. (But this where I resort to a representational politics. I would prefer to get my discussion about the unsexy minds of older female poets’ bodies and beauty elsewhere. And if I am allowed it, I hope that Candito is wrong, that there are some, can I hope for many?, out there who find older female poets’ minds sexy.) It might be true that “female writers are more likely to be judged based on their appearance” but it also might be true that they are more likely to talk about it and use it. I sometimes play a game with a friend where we ask--when looking at female poets representations of themselves on covers of books, on blogs, on facebook, in poems--“caught or not.” And Dimitrov’s continual posting of his uber handsome mug on his blog seems notable because he is a man doing something that women poets do way more frequently than he does (one more example of how it is a man’s world?). In other words, as Candito notes, looks matter some. I wish more women attempted to walk away from this rather than attempt to counter it by indulging it. Because we, or many of us, could all easily agree to not represent ourselves--thinking of some of Vanessa Place’s photos and work here--rather than give in to it.
Sandra Simonds: This is one of the reasons I got off of Facebook. I was so sick of seeing myself Honestly, it made me want to barf. But what would this mean to “walk away from it”? What would that look like? What would it look like to not represent oneself?
Vanessa Place: Like this.
Juliana Spahr: Ugh. This is going to dissolve into me saying even dumber and more unsupportive things about women in about two seconds. I think all that I’m saying is something along the lines of yes looks matter (to men and women) and yes everyone knows this and yet the close up of the pretty and youthful face on the cover of the first poetry book is something that women tend to do way more than men (unless the series does it, as in Green Integer; and credit to Green Integer for putting a lot of faces of older people on their covers). I get that we, women, probably feel more forced to engage these questions than men because of various sexisms. We are probably more aware of how our body comes with the poems than men are. And I also get that we tend to get slammed more for this when we do it (as in the term “hair poets”). But also we have the agency to not contribute to this series of conventions and yet we often willfully indulge in them. But I am probably also talking about 8-10 books of poetry when there are literally thousands a year and all of this is probably nonsensical.
Sina Queyras: I think an awareness of this question in one’s work might be enough for me.
Elisa Gabbert: I had not seen it either, though I did hear about some of the discussions that inspired it. I was actually thinking about this topic (beauty and success, beauty and exposure) this morning, after seeing a post on Kate Zambreno’s blog about the Jezebel 25 (which some readers felt was slanted toward the youngest, whitest, prettiest feminists rather than the most inspiring or important).
This line of Kara’s resonated with me:
In short, female poets might feel damned (by ourselves and each other) if we do care, and damned (othered or excluded by some of the male gatekeepers of diffused writing communities) if we don’t care.
Not just in terms of beauty but in general. As women (and I’m sure it’s similar for any underprivileged/oppressed group) we’re constantly encountering these double-edged swords and having to choose between two shitty situations.
I highly recommend this post from The Pervocracy (“Why I didn’t just call the cops”) which explores the many reasons that women may not report rape or sexual assault. It’s a good framework for thinking about shitty choices in general. Even choosing whether or not to identify publicly as a feminist is a shitty choice (but an easy one for me, once I understood what feminism really was).
Also: I think the Internet has made everyone’s looks more important. Most writers have some form of Internet presence that involves pictures of their face/body, and once you know what someone looks like it’s next to impossible not to let that affect your opinion of them and their work in some way.
Shanna Compton: I have nothing against looking, or beauty itself. Both Juliana and Elisa have touched on the conventional, the expectations, and I see the truth in the damned-if-you-do -if-you-don’t-bit in the quote Elisa pulls above. Still, I’m not immune. On a side note, I loved that Nada Gordon put herself on the cover of Scented Rushes, though she strikes a somewhat coy pose with her face partially hidden. She’s framed, literally in a large ornate frame (in a cemetery?!), but also by her own arms and her lovely long curls. It’s a striking image, perfect for the book, and I thought a rather bold move, considering. Kate Durbin works this territory pretty hard too, obviously. I think poets are as subject to physical beauty as anyone, but also things like fashion and style--and in those cases maybe even more so, because fashion/personal style is a creativity, a performance, an expression. For instance, I remember the first time I met Sina, admiring her suit, her bob, and her lipstick. One night at a reading, she admired my shoes, which had little flowers on them. Sandra and I have done this sort of admiring of each other’s style too. Oh, I’m off track now. Back to the more general question of appearance and it being a sort of cheat or currency or somehow handicapping, well yes, that can all bite both ways and is a touchy subject, but poets have no corner on it. I guess it’s lucky appearance less of an issue for poets than it is for movie stars or even other kinds of writers who move in more commercial spheres. (I don’t know what some poets I read look like. Think of romance writers or other novelists whose entire back book jacket is sometimes a large photograph.) And absolutely women poets are caught in it more than men, and poets of color even moreso? I hope I can say I am also capable of limiting my enjoyment of someone’s beauty to its appropriate sphere...but I guess sometimes I’m not. I’m seduced as easily as anyone. At the same time, the most beautiful/admirable/seductive things are in the minds of poets and in how those things get expressed. I don’t know, this is difficult to talk about, isn’t it? I think what we would like is not to have to deal in superficialities. We are wishing it really could be only about the poems. Sure, that would be great.
Elisa Gabbert: Shanna, I’d argue it’s never “only about the poems” even if you leave aside the question of physical beauty. There is still fashion, the “cool,” affecting what we think we like.
Shanna Compton: Elisa, we’re agreeing about that. Wishing don’t make it so.
Danielle Pafunda: I hear what Juliana says about the privilege of such a problem and our complicity, which is why a lot of us benefit from examining it. I’m a product of white bourgeois notions of gender, and to that end, I find Kara’s post a good point of inquiry. As feminist-grotesque as I might be in the poem, as much as I might seek to horrify the male gaze, in my material life I costume (subtly) and perform (subtly) in the pretty matrix. Susan Bordo says this thing (I paraphrase) about how critiquing the culture doesn’t free us from its standards. Critiquing it doesn’t keep us from enjoying its problematic elements.
Vanessa Place: Because way deep down, I am nothing.
Sandra: So what happens as we age, as beauty fades, as we become less “cool”? I guess this question assumes that one is initially beautiful and cool and then it goes downhill from there.
Danielle Pafunda: In a vain and predictable fashion, I keep saying to my partner: I’m going to be like Kim Gordon, right? I want to age with rockstar cool more than Hollywood beauty. But it’s a crap equation, anyhow. The beauty ideal is unattainable, and the closer one is to it, the easier one forgets this (this is perhaps some kind of casino effect--the house always wins). I hope I don’t stay such a dumbass. Cool can and should be unhinged from beauty. Cool can relate intimately to ugly, unexpected, destabilizing, etc. When I think about the music, literature, film, fashion, etc. I consider “cool,” it’s often that which works in opposition to conventional notions of beauty. Beauty in its stabilized, reified, most commodified forms isn’t cool. In fact, I’m saying beauty can and should be unhinged from Beauty. Will the patriarchy want to fuck me when I’m older? Does it even want to fuck me now? Does that make me beautiful? As I age, I’ll feel the loss of something I never really had, though something I had more privilege to assume than some bodies (less than others). I’ll feel the loss of something that was only digging me deeper into a system that hurts me/us/itself. I’ll still buy dresses that are manufactured in blood. I’ll retain a complicated, ethically questionable relationship to beauty and its sway. None of that sounds very cool.
Elisa Gabbert: Mark Wallace once said to me that one is never established, as a writer; one is always starting over with every book. Perhaps as we get less beautiful and cool -- assuming we do the work required to start over and over -- our audience gets better, more refined, because people aren’t going to keep reading you just for the hipster afterglow. This is an optimistic answer. Also, some people clearly get cooler as they get older.
Juliana Spahr: Can we stop talking about aging as making beauty go bye bye?
Vanessa Place: And more as an opportunity to cultivate one’s performative style.
Danielle Pafunda: I’m looking forward to watching all your performativities evolve.
Sina Queyras: I keep a photo of Louise Bourgeois on my desk. Above my desk a very withered looking Georgia O’Keefe, Isaac Dinesen, George Eliot...you get the picture.
Shanna Compton: Ha, Sina. This is the first image to flash in my mind when I read Sandra’s question:
Louise Bourgeois with “Fillette” (Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982)
Sandra Simonds: Chris Nealon and I read together a few years ago and we were talking at lunch and he said that he thought how important it is that women write about poetry and his sense that there were far more men writing about poetry than women. Why is it important for women to write about poetry? (If you agree with this assertion).
Elisa Gabbert: Because, as Chris says, there are far more men writing about poetry than women. Let’s not let them dominate the discourse.
Danielle Pafunda: It’s important that writers from a wide range of subjectivities write about poetry, of course, and also about everything. There’s plenty of smart stuff to be said about power and parity, and I’m happy to talk about that, but first I want to say: dynamism. Let’s get some productive friction, some unexpected germination, some variety going in the discourse! Let’s contaminate our long-held givens and see what happens. Isn’t it more exciting this way?
Sina Queyras: Why are there not more collections of essays by women? Why are there not more female reviewers/thinkers? Why are there not more women assigning reviews and taking that breezy, authoritative space that so many men feel absolutely born to occupy? I have spoken so much and so often about this I am nauseous just thinking about it...
I am about to announce a small prize on my blog for the best piece of critical writing by a woman in Canada. I have to work out the terms, but yes, I feel the need to provide a public target for women to write to, a way to showcase women’s thinking. I was hoping to get a bigger fish to fund the prize so that whoever wins can have a flash of spotlight, but I haven’t had time to make that happen. I can make this small thing happen though.
Why it’s important? I don’t feel that one really has a grasp on an art form until one can argue it. I think in some way the “buy-in” to the poetry buffet (such as it is) ought to be an essay, not a collection of poetry. In my classes I don’t let anyone talk about a poem until they can adequately describe it. This causes a good deal of furor on occasion but really, what are we doing in these MFA and MA programs if not asking people to understand and respond to their art form?
Shanna Compton: Women do a lot more editorial work than men--is this true? It used to be the case, but I haven’t kept up. When I worked for a huge industrial publisher, probably 80% of the editors, editorial assistants, publicists, and publicity assistants were women. I don’t know how to run the numbers on that these days, or if the trend holds true in small press and university press publishing, but I’ll guess that it does. But editorial work is often background work. So even though editing and publishing are also critical activities, they aren’t as foregrounded or quantifiable in the same ways as reviews and essays? Working as an editor/publisher (even for a very small press) doesn’t leave a lot of time for additional critical work in the form of reviews or essays, especially if one also teaches or works some other kind of day job, and especially if one has children, and especially especially etcetera. So what Danielle was saying about blog posts being quicker than essays or formal reviews, and so more accessible to us in terms of available time, maybe comes back in here. I guess we’ll all keep doing what we can. I’m not disagreeing with Sina though: I would like to see the Huffington Post run reviews by Elisa Gabbert (even though she has professed a dislike for HuffPo)...but I think their sort of provocative editorial style is not all that attractive to women either, just like the comment-stream sparring. I feel the need to do more (formal/published/not just blog or FB posts) reviewing myself. But I never seem to get the balance right and when something has to give, that’s usually the thing. I’d have to give up reading time and writing time somewhere else.
Elisa Gabbert: I would say that I would I do more poetry reviewing (in a formal way, as opposed to tossing off a blog post when I read something that inspires me) if someone showed up with a check. Money trumps whimsy.
Vanessa Place: And whimsy trumps chance.
On July 9th at around 9pm, I gave birth to my second child, Charlotte, at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. By the time I got to the hospital, around 6pm, I was already eight centimeters dilated. For those of you who don’t know much about childbirth, that’s pretty far along. The birth itself went very well. I didn’t have an epidural or any other pain medication which is what I wanted, I only pushed for about five minutes and my partner, Craig, was there through the whole thing to support me.
Since I anticipated things going smoothly, I hired a doula named Logan who had never attended a birth but needed the experience to get her doula certification. My friends made fun of me. “I can’t believe you’re hiring a doula without experience,” they said, “She’s supposed to help you.” But I’m glad that she attended the birth. At one point, during my worst contraction, crazed and delirious, I told Logan that I needed to BITE something and instinctively grabbed her hand. Terrified, she shoved a towel into my mouth…Lucky doula!
After a couple of hours at the hospital, my beautiful baby Charlotte was born. Everyone celebrated. Eventually, the doctor left and so did Logan. But two hours later, I started hemorrhaging uncontrollably and experienced, what I now know is called a postpartum hemorrhage.
When I was in college, poetry was a passionate love affair. I still remember reading “Tintern Abbey” and its “dizzy raptures” for the first time and gathering with friends at my apartment, drinking red wine and reciting our favorite lines to each other. But as my life moved forward, the more I studied, the more degrees I piled on, that initial exuberance turned into something like a long, dysfunctional marriage with a depressed person. Sure, there were days when we’d go out and have fun, but most of the time we didn’t even sleep in the same bed. What happened?
By the time the doctors and nurses were able to stop my hemorrhage, I had an earworm. For hours, the song “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King kept looping in my head. As you can imagine, it was extremely annoying. I bet that this is some sort of bizarre neurological thing that happens to people under extreme stress. But when I could break through that song, I kept thinking about poetry, mostly how I needed to write it.
Being a poet is kind of like being a good detective. Taking mental notes on what was happening to my body, mind and environment during and after the hemorrhage allowed me to distance myself from my own experience and helped me cope during what has been one of the scariest and loneliest experiences of my life. During my blood transfusions, I thought, “I need to write a poem about getting a blood transfusion while watching the Leon County Spelling Bee on TV” and “No, wait! I need to write a dramatic monologue in the voice of a BLOOD CELL entering another person’s body.” When Ezekiel, my three-year old son, came to visit me, I thought, “I need to write a poem about TOWERS and I have to incorporate the fact that he keeps calling the hospital “mommy’s tower” into the poem. And that reminded me of going on a field trip to Watts Towers when I was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles and then that reminded me of how I was in Dante class in graduate school when the Twin Towers fell and isn’t this a little bit like being in a circle of hell and if it is, which circle, and more importantly, which way to PARADISE? Auden is right when he says, “poets are tough and can profit from the most dreadful experiences.”
Often, you will hear someone say that poetry doesn’t need to be about experience but the older I get, the more I find fault with this idea. Poetry without lived experience is like a beautiful vase that you aren’t allowed to touch. I say let the toddler hold the vase and if it falls and breaks, then you can always glue it back together again or you can write a poem about that beautiful, broken vase—sort of like Keats did with the URN.
My blood transfusion changed everything. I was healed! I went from barely being able to stay conscious to, a few days after being discharged from the hospital, being able to walk around my neighborhood and listen to the bird squabble. The world seemed new again and I was ready to write a whole bunch of poems about what happened. Plus, I had a baby! A baby named after Charlotte Bronte!
When people ask me if they should get a PhD in creative writing, I always say YES. But I also say that the minute you defend your dissertation, you should start on the path to unlearn your PhD like a ZEN master. Why? Because you have to remember what brought you to poetry in the first place and I bet you nine times out of ten, it was because something really shitty happened but a certain poem gave you comfort and joy and then you thought “I can do this” and you started writing poems yourself. So, forget dissecting a poem, but instead why not memorize what you love, sit by a lake, and recite it to your dog? Or what about finding a really great group of fellow poetry lovers, meeting every week and exchanging poems? What about investigating Medieval Welsh poetic forms like my friend and trying to write those? See, they don’t teach you any of that in PhD school.
My friend, Justin Marks and I were IMing each other last week. He’s like “What are you up to?” and I said “Oh I’m just writing about my near death experience” and he’s like “Whoa, dude, that’s some heavy shit.” I put that in a poem too.
This week we welcome Sandra Simonds as our guest blogger. Sandra grew up in Los Angeles, California. She earned a B.A. in Psychology and Creative Writing at U.C.L.A and an M.F.A. from the University of Montana, where she received a poetry fellowship. In 2010, she earned a PhD in Literature from Florida State University. Her second book of poems, Mother was a Tragic Girl, was published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2012. She is also the author of Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009), which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series. Her third book of poetry, House of Ions, is forthcoming from Bloof Books in 2014. She is also the author of several chapbooks including Used White Wife (Grey Book Press, 2009) and The Humble Travelogues of Mr. Ian Worthington, Written from Land & Sea (Cy Gist, 2006). Her poems have been published in many journals including Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, The Believer, the Colorado Review, Fence, the Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Volt, the New Orleans Review and Lana Turner. Her Creative Nonfiction has been published in Post Road and other literary journals. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her partner, two children and two dogs and is an Assistant Professor of English at Thomas University in beautiful, rural Southern Georgia. Find out more about Sandra here. Follow her on twitter @SandmanSimonds.
In other news . . .
Olympics 2012 coverage continues with Gabrielle Calvocoressi and her Olympic team of poet/sports reporters over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. You'll find our Olympic coverage here, and daily posts at the LARB here.
Last week’s posting of Kevin Prufer's “A Giant Bird” put me in mind of “Little Bird” by Lawrence Raab, which first appeared in New Ohio Review 4, Fall 2008. “Little Bird” has a deceptively straightforward movement, yet the steps taken are in effect stationary – that is, if a poem is a walk (as A.R. Ammons has eloquently argued), then this one’s a moonwalk. Those two clouds passing unsuggestively, literally, passionlessly, seem to be props in a kind of still-life video that, by poem’s end, has turned itself inside out. The speaker of the poem splits in two (just as a single cloud may have produced the two in the first line) and the reader is left wondering which one now has the floor.
- - - - - - - -
One cloud was following another
across a blue and passionless sky.
It was the middle of summer, far enough
from December for a man to feel indifferent
to the memories of cold, not yet close
enough to autumn to be caught up
in all its folderol about death.
Neither cloud looked like a whale
or a weasel, or any kind of fanciful beast.
All morning I’d felt my life dragging me down.
The view from my window refused to lift my heart.
The sight of a blank piece of paper
filled me with sadness. I wanted to set
my life down in a comfortable chair, tell it
to take a long nap, and walk away as if
I were somebody else, somebody without a house
or a family or a job, but somebody who might
soon feel with a pang precisely the absence
of everything I had. A cool breeze lifted
the curtains in the room where I was sitting.
A bird was singing. Had it been singing for long?
Far off there were mountains, but I didn’t
wish to go there. Nor did I yearn
to be standing by a lake, or walking
beside the tumult of the sea.
The little bird kept repeating itself.
I filled a glass with water and watched it tremble.
- - - - -
This has to be one of the best descriptions of depression, and coming out of it (more or less), in contemporary poetry. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up” also narrates that fragile emergence beautifully – also while looking out a window. In Raab’s poem, everything is weighted down, and most of the motion is directed downward, until the turn: the breeze lifts the curtains, a bird sings, mountains rise in the distance, the glass fills. Has the “I” of the first half of the poem in fact left the building? Is the speaker who becomes gradually conscious of his contentment (can we call it that?) none other than the “life” that has been patronised, set down in a comfortable chair? Has the restless spirit left the second speaker behind to sit and take small pleasures in quotidian ordinariness? Is the repetition of birdsong an irritant or a reassurance? Is the trembling of the water beautiful, or does he stare at it in a kind of drugged and apprehensive paralysis? Or does the trembling merely suggest the instability of this mood, this identity? I love that I can’t answer any of these questions definitively, but I also love that I believe I’m on the right track. A good poem will make you feel that without giving you the satisfaction of absolutely knowing it.
Lawrence Raab is the author of more than half a dozen collections of poetry, including What We Don’t Know About Each Other (1993), selected for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the National Book Award; Visible Signs: New and Selected Poems (2003); and The History of Forgetting (2009). He collaborated with Stephen Dunn on a chapbook of poems, Winter at the Caspian Sea (1999). His poems have appeared in several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
Till next week, when it will still -- thank Heaven -- be August. –JAR
RAMADAN, THE ISLAMIC month of fasting, began this year on July 20th, 2012. One week later, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics took place.
Perhaps it isn’t so strange that the Olympics are taking place during Ramadan. After all, don’t both the Olympics and Ramadan occur within the body? Don’t both test the body of its ability to endure, sustain, to be disciplined?
What can a stripped art reveal?
— Gregory Orr, “Some Part of the Lyric”
We wake before dawn to eat something to sustain us throughout the day. We take the last sip of coffee, the last bite of a bagel or a bowl of cereal or a plateful of eggs. We return to our beds to sleep a few more hours or we stay up to watch the day unveil itself from night. We know the day will bring a hunger we don’t yet feel.
On August 2nd, I watch Gabby Douglas ease herself with her palms onto the balance beam during the All Around Women’s Finals. She is taut with hours and days and months of self-discipline, of training her body so it does not and cannot fall off that narrow width of suede-covered wood. I’m struck again by the way extreme control lends itself to such grace, such elegance.
I. Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Statement presented by Adrienne Rich at National Book Awards, 1974
The statement I am going to read was prepared by three of the women nominated for the National Book Award for poetry, with the agreement that it would be read by whichever of us, if any, was chosen.
We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain. We believe that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other; and that poetry— if it is poetry— exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison. We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women. We appreciate the good faith of the judges for this award, but none of us could accept this money for herself, nor could she let go unquestioned the terms on which poets are given or denied honor and livelihood in this world, especially when they are women. We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teenager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voice have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.
2.Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in Salute, Olympics, 1968
3. from Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949
"Perhaps the first deep chasm in our Western culture was dug, the first separation made, long ago, when the church officially proclaimed asceticism the "superior" life. Perhaps it was this degradation of the human body, this segregation of inferior flesh from superior soul, this splitting of sacred from profane love---weakening love until it is no match for hate---that was the primal schizophrenic act that set the strange pattern which has caught up with the Western world now in the strange pattern of what sometimes seems a dance of death..."
4. Nikky Finney, Acceptance Speech at National Book Awards, 2011
One: We begin with history. The slave codes of South Carolina, 1739.
A fine of $100 and 6 months in prison would be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature.
The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope. What about the possibility of one day making a poem? The king’s mouth and the queen’s tongue, arranged to perfection on the most beautiful paper, sealed with wax and palmetto, tree sap, determined to control what can never be controlled – the will of the human heart to speak its own mind.
Tonight, these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats and tomato-red kerchiefs. They are bold in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, their cotton croaker sack shirts are black wash pot clean and irreverently not tucked in. Some even have come in white Victorian collars and bustiers. Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.
If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs.
Parneshia Jones, Marianne Jankowski, Northwestern University Press. This moment has everything to do with how serious, how gorgeous you do what you do.
A.J. Verdelle, editor-partner in this language life, you taught me that repetition is holy, courage can be a daughter’s name, and two is stronger than one.
Papa, chief opponent of the death penalty in South Carolina for fifty years, fifty-seven years married to the same Newberry girl, when I was a girl, you bought every incendiary dictionary, encyclopedia, and black history tome that ever knocked on our Oakland Avenue door.
Mama, dear Mama, Newberry girl fifty-seven years married to the same Smithfield boy, you made Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays out of foil, lace, cardboard, papier-maché, insisting beauty into our deeply segregated, Southern days.
Adrienne Rich, Bruce Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, simply to be in your finalist company is to brightly burn.
National Book Foundation and National Book Award judges, there were special high school English teachers who would read and announce the highly anticipated annual report, even as it was stowed way down deep in some dusty corner of our tiny, Southern newspaper.
Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, great and best teacher of my life. You asked me on a Friday, 4 o’clock, 1977, I was nineteen and sitting on a Talladega College wall, dreaming about the only life I ever wanted, that of a poet. “Ms. Finney,” you said, “Do you really have time to sit there? Have you finished reading every book in the library?” Dr. Katie Cannon, what I heard you say once haunts every poem that I write. “Black people,” you said, “were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”
I am now, officially, speechless.
5. Kirani James and Oscar Pestorious, Exchanging Jerseys, Olympics, 2012
6. from Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family, 1998
“When I saw the document with that X, with Bright Ma’s [ancestor, who was a slave] signature, I felt I’d brushed up against something,” she said.
Charlotte made a wave motion with her body, bumping the chair. “I felt I’d hit the past."
"It was not a chilling feeling. It was more a feeling of awe, a kind of presence. Praise the Lord. Let it be. Amen.”
7. Order by the Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, 1865
IN THE FIELD, SAVANNAH, GA., January 16th, 1865.
SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS, No. 15.
I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.
II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations–but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress. By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the Department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.
Negroes so enlisted will be organized into companies, battalions and regiments, under the orders of the United States military authorities, and will be paid, fed and clothed according to law. The bounties paid on enlistment may, with the consent of the recruit, go to assist his family and settlement in procuring agricultural implements, seed, tools, boots, clothing, and other articles necessary for their livelihood.
III. Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined, within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district, and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement. The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title. The Quartermaster may, on the requisition of the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, place at the disposal of the Inspector, one or more of the captured steamers, to ply between the settlements and one or more of the commercial points heretofore named in orders, to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants, and to sell the products of their land and labor.
IV. Whenever a negro has enlisted in the military service of the United States, he may locate his family in any one of the settlements at pleasure, and acquire a homestead, and all other rights and privileges of a settler, as though present in person. In like manner, negroes may settle their families and engage on board the gunboats, or in fishing, or in the navigation of the inland waters, without losing any claim to land or other advantages derived from this system. But no one, unless an actual settler as above defined, or unless absent on Government service, will be entitled to claim any right to land or property in any settlement by virtue of these orders.
V. In order to carry out this system of settlement, a general officer will be detailed as Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, whose duty it shall be to visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general management, and who will furnish personally to each head of a family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing, giving as near as possible the description of boundaries; and who shall adjust all claims or conflicts that may arise under the same, subject to the like approval, treating such titles altogether as possessory. The same general officer will also be charged with the enlistment and organization of the negro recruits, and protecting their interests while absent from their settlements; and will be governed by the rules and regulations prescribed by the War Department for such purposes.
VI. Brigadier General R. SAXTON is hereby appointed Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, and will at once enter on the performance of his duties. No change is intended or desired in the settlement now on Beaufort [Port Royal] Island, nor will any rights to property heretofore acquired be affected thereby.
BY ORDER OF MAJOR GENERAL W. T. SHERMAN:
RUNNERS LEAN FORWARD at the arced start of the 1500 meters. The gun blasts, and they are off. Their first moments are focused on negotiating space and place. While it is metaphysically true that “you only race yourself,” the loud footfalls on the track and the uniformed bodies sharing air and heat argue otherwise.
Racers have much to consider: pace, posture, breathing, negotiating turns, striding down straightaways, riding or fighting wind, elbowing out of boxed bunches, running through the end. The mind tries to control the legs, but knees and ankles have their own thoughts. The body wobbles. Old injuries return like memories. Self-doubt lives on the track.
The mile has an accepted length and route, so the impulse might be to compare it with the sonnet or villanelle, forms of boxes themselves. Even the sestina, with its end refrains, feels appropriate. Yet any poem, free or formal, exists within a calibrated structure. Each poem teaches us how it should be read; each poem carves its own aesthetic moment. Runners might strive for records or personal bests, but all that matters is the world of the race. The same goes for the creative arts. Regardless of any anxiety of influence, it is the poet versus the poem, and time only matters within the confines of the reading experience, not the composition. It might take a year to craft a poem that takes a minute to read, though we can feel the hours, the training, as we hurdle the lines.
Yet “mile” is often an incorrect, colloquial term in track, as poems often push against their borders. The Olympics 1500 meters is 3 ¾ laps around the track. American high-schoolers run the 1600 meters. Neither is an exact mile, but the term is convenient. We think in miles, we drive across miles, we recall black-and-white stills of Roger Bannister, that medical student of mind and body, breaking four minutes in the mile. Bannister, reflecting on the race, said he felt a “unity with nature” during those moments, a freedom from his physical form. His words reflect the later theories of George Leonard, whose 1975 book The Ultimate Athlete both benefited from, and contributed toward, the resurgence of running as a fitness activity. Leonard finds most sports to be “complicated excuses for running.” Timing and racing are not as essential as “the stern demands of distance, which cannot be charmed, cajoled, cheated, or mocked.” He reminds us that all running is falling: “we rise from the earth and return.”
ROGER GUISEPPI was one of the best players we had ever seen. He was one year below me in high school, and almost from the first day he showed up, he seemed possessed with otherworldly ball control. He could dribble past anyone at anytime, almost effortlessly it seemed. He could tell you he was about to put it on you — and there was nothing you could do to stop it. Gip (that’s what we called him) had a signature dribble. We called it a sex. To us it was the greatest ignominy to bestow upon an opposing player — to slip the ball through his legs. It was the ultimate embarrassment. Wherever we were, if you could sex your defender, the field, the courtyard, the balcony over looking the gym, the fellas standing on the corner, all went ohhhhh!! And momentarily the game would take second place to the shit-talk that accompanied the move.
I grew up in the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. To date, we are the smallest nation to have qualified for the World Cup. With a population of 1.3 million, it seems miraculous that we’ve accomplished what we have. We’ve had an Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meters (Hasely Crawford 1976). We’ve had two Miss Universes. We’ve been part of the most dominant cricket team of all time. But Trinidadians are obsessed with soccer. We are obsessed with the beautiful game and obsessed with making it look beautiful at all times. Many of the teams we’ve produced have outplayed their opponent and lost 1-0; including the heartbreaking loss to the United States in 1989, when all we needed was a draw to make it to the World Cup in Italy in 1990. We lost that game 1-0, in Trinidad. The next year, an attempted coup dominated the headlines for many months. It is impossible to decide whether or not they’re connected.
The feast of the wealthy upon the little guy should long be over and we should have moved on to after-dinner drinks: tax hikes in gleaming snifters for the country club set; for the rest of us, a minimum-wage hike and jobless benefits, lifted to our lips and kissed like the whipped cream on an Irish coffee. Yet the little guy, despite his morsel size, is still being battered, fried up and served with a side of frozen fear to an already obese elite. That glob of fear on the plate is that the superrich, poor fragile creatures, won’t create our jobs if we ask them to contribute to the upkeep of our country.
The Bush tax cuts, a boondoggle for those that already gots, were first enacted in 2001, over a decade ago. These senseless giveaways have not only remained in place, but been fattened up for the fattest among us, wallet-wise, all in the hope that those grotesquely wealthy people will use their tax refunds to create jobs. Ten years later, our country had roughly 3 million fewer jobs. But the superrich keep getting richer.
The “job creators” theory has been tasted, re-tasted, tasted yet again—still no jobs.
It’s easy to see why. Imagine earning $22 Million in 365 days. (Almost half of all Americans make less than $25,000 per year.) That comes to $60,274.00 per day. How would you spend over $60,000 in one day, then wake up and do it again the next day, day after day, including holidays and weekends, for a whole year? Sure, you could buy some big ticket items, a Maserati here, a home in La Jolla there, but you’re probably not going to buy hundreds of Maseratis or resort get-aways. Nor will you necessarily create a lot of jobs if you do. For consumption to drive an economy—and ours is consumer-driven—you need masses of people buying masses of Fords and Chryslers, not the 1% buying a handful of fancy imports. At $16,000, the 2012 Dodge Dart, a modest compact, is out of reach for that 48.1% of Americans earning less than $25,000 per year.
“No,” say the defenders of the rich getting richer. Wealthy people create jobs by investing in new companies or in the expansion of old ones, not by consuming stuff themselves. Unfortunately, neither the behavior of so-called investors nor that of the businesses they allegedly invest in fits with this argument. Wealthy people spend less than 2% of their money investing in new companies. Moreover, companies themselves don’t want to expand, even though they already have the cash to do so, without any investors. The reason they are not hiring, if we are to believe them, is that there’s no one to buy the extra stuff they’d produce. Remember, almost half of us are making less than $25,000 per year. We can’t afford more stuff. We can’t afford the stuff we already have, which is why our standard of living has been going down.
So Job Creators, you had your chance. Yes, you. And who is this “you”? This “you” who makes $22 Million? Gee, looks like Mitt Romney made that much in 2010, most of it from Bain Capital, which he “retired” from 10 years earlier. What if, instead of paying him, Bain Capital had hired two people every day of the year at a salary of $30,000? They’d have created 730 jobs. But they didn’t do that. Like our tax system, Bain gave the money to a rich guy, who promptly stashed it overseas in “blind” trusts that invested in his own kid’s start-up business, or in the hedge fund of one of his campaign supporters. True, 2 jobs were created, but they were hardly the kind of jobs that would fuel a national recovery.
Job Creators, you had your chance. Now give us the money, in the form of higher wages and a federally mandated jobs program, and we’ll give recovery a try. We’ll check back with you in 10 years, to make sure you, your son and your billionaire campaign contributor are still okay.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.