Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Blue Aero Zeppelins Rush Metallically into Steely Pink Heart!

I'm glad all is well, Maggie. I was wondering!

From Syracuse to Potsdam, the hills of upstate choir amongst themselves with classic rock radio stations. One of the questions keeping my brain alive through endless renditions of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, et al., was: how many bands can you identify by a word? E.g. "sassafrass" -- definitely Aerosmith.

But that's what a genre is all about: every band competing with the *same* vocabulary.  Was that what I was getting at with my New York School reverie? my pout? my huff? Whatev. I have only three words for you today:


-- Dropped into the poet-critic's fireworks bag this year.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Dear Readers and Friends,

Sorry about the lack of communication. Phone lines and email connections have been torn up over the last few weeks but should be reconnected soon. I am alive and mostly well and arrive back home on Wednesday night. I hope to get the email working then and answer all those unanswered messages. Aaron, yes to Canada. More info to follow.


Monday, December 13, 2004

I wish it were art instead of life (for Steve Evans)

“That Various Field for James Schuyler” is a pamphlet from The Figures; it contains the rare published Frank O’Hara letter, to Schuyler, dated 11 February 1956. Here are some samples, culled from between bits of gossip:

“I have been having a terribly spiritual morning bathing in Poulenc songs, 2 piano concertos and Les Secheresses which I found here. (It is greater than Tristan, so there!)”

“Lyon has a recording of the Goyescas of Granados which is enough to make the whole six months worth while. The only one of them I knew before is ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale.’ They are as beautiful as a black lace scarf lying beside a gleaming white toilet bowl. Or, as Rimbaud says in ‘Memoire,’
Eau claire;”

“George and I went to see Helen of Troy last night and liked it lots.”

“George loaned me his Art News...”

“The current production of the theatre up here is a verse drama by Hugh Armory called The Bandeirantes (bahn der ahn cheese)...”

“I’ve been reading Tennessee’s stories...”

Steve rightly points out that our own irreproducible historical moment has its portion of brilliant poets, kind poets, generous poets, and I would be churlish to disagree; with the disclaimer of course that New York City makes one churlish or at best is such a distorting lens with which to view the world that perhaps I am in no position to comment on “the world” at all.

Steve understands my nostalgia for the world Schuyler inhabited, but he doesn’t think it entirely lost; I would point out some of the things that are lost: O’Hara’s references, and his social circle, aren’t entirely literary, whereas ours are. Yes, we all go to the movies and listen to new music and immerse ourselves in culture, but 1) it’s popular culture for the most part and 2) we don’t mingle with the producers of those arts. It has to do with economics, I’m sure. Producers of popular arts are less artists than rich people; conversely, ballet seats aren’t as cheap as they used to be.

But why go to the ballet? In my case, I went this year to see some Balanchine ballets on his centenary. But it doesn’t carry the same frisson as it did back in 1956. Not only are ticket prices astronomical, but there’s no contemporary Balanchine ANYWAY. (And there’s no Denby. Is there an O'Hara....) All this to say, not only has literary culture been pushed to the margins, but all high art has, and pushed into our individual cells struggling to pay rent and get grants has made us all a little less hedonistic, a little less socially curious, and a little less great.

Actually, I do think there’s a lot of high quality poetry being written (I’ll hold my tongue on qualifications). But

1) I miss the aura of high art and the sense that music and theatre could influence one’s poetry and one’s friends.
2) I’m sad that political discourse serves as the kind of passport to alliances and friendships that aestheticism used to.
3) If I read another defense of mass culture entertainment as equivalent to art, I am going to go mad.

By the way, those Balanchine ballets I saw—Jewels, Agon, Apollo, and Orpheus—were, to use a dilapidated word, transcendent. And don’t tell me the postwar years didn’t have their share of political urgency. The political simply didn’t take up the same amount of psychic space in their artists.

Well, Steve’s valentine to San Francisco makes me wonder if Maggie agrees with him about social/artistic life there; even if it is as expensive as NYC, does the sum total of natural beauty tip the balance? Are people happier? and as a result, are their relations with one another freer?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

After putting the lights around the window

Oh Maggie! Kantian after my own heart! I never did read the Critique of Judgment (“The Third Critique” seems to me to elide the controversial word, while evaluative criticism remains unfashionable...). But I do get it secondhand through my favorite critic Susan Stewart, whose Poetry and the Fate of the Senses you have had ample time to finish since I gave it to you for your birthday last July, yes? You probably finished it on the flight home. You probably read it all the way through after the barbecue, burning the midnight oil to get to this poignant passage near the end:

I have emphasized that the face-to-face encounter we have
with an artwork is deeply embedded in the meanings and
conventions we bring to face-to-face encounters with persons.
All art is a kind of figuration in this sense, yet specifically
this meeting with an artwork that is in itself and for itself is
analogous to the free ethical stance in which persons are
encountered in themselves and for themselves—without prior
determination of outcome or goal. (PATFOTS, p. 328).

That’s how I get my Kant. It’s also relevant to your reading of Bernini, especially at the point where you’re moved by the hand on the stomach; the point of contact between persons, their inescapable flesh; and yet we do escape it at the moment of ceasing to be ourselves. The other necessary component, the point of transformation, the doubleness of being both Daphne and tree—I think this would fall into the category of a new “sense” as when Stewart cites Marx on the history of human senses; normally we don’t think of senses as being a product of history, but there it is. Great art makes or reflects breakthroughs in apprehension. Like Ashbery: “Perhaps we should feel with more imagination.”

And now I must find my battered photocopy of 22 Light Poems and read it in memorium. Do you know that in ten years of looking I have never come across the original Black Sparrow edition? I suppose I could get it on the Internet, but it doesn’t have the same feeling of ... well, chance, which I think Jackson would appreciate.

Sad News

I just learned that Jackson Mac Low died this morning at the age of 82.

Friday, December 03, 2004



I think you are picking up on an important difference in the way I am applying "entertaining." I think what I am trying to say is that an art work that is truly entertaining engages your sensibility -- your cognition on all its levels -- connecting the intellectual to the sensual to the emotional etc. That's what you are arguing for in Midwinter Day, if I understand you correctly. And I'd argue that Cho in that one piece does the same. It's beyond funny. The humor leads you to imagine a full and different and painful way of being a person in the world. Just like a good poem invites you to comtemplate more than just words. I remember us watching that video of her performance and us both declaring her a genius. Maybe that's what genius is. I used to think it was just persuing a singular idea to the nth degree your entire life, but maybe now I think it's being able to create something truly engaging. Creating something that will keep all a person's faculties in "motion," if I wanted to get Kantian about it. I've never recovered from the Third Critique. Its vocabulary haunts me. Everything about the beautiful and the sublime revolves around putting the subject's faculties into "play." And the play is a kind of impractical movement. The only aim of it is for you to realize and to feel all the levels at which you can know. I am interpreting the text here slightly, but I think I'm right in terms of what a succesful aesthetic should do.

I guess this is just as good a lead-in to part 2. My favorite piece of art is Bernini's "Apollo & Daphne." Would you have guessed? I've been haunted in the most delicious way by this piece ever since I saw it in Rome a few years back. It's become my touchstone for the question "is it enough?," a personal ultimate standard for a piece of art. I hope I can explain the magic of this piece with the same intensity of feeling that it instills in me.

The piece is a marble sculpture. The base of it, if I remember correctly, is rectangular, the longside of it is probably no more than 6-8ft long. The two figures in it are human or near-human scale. You can circle it in a few seconds. I just remembered that I wrote about this piece in a paper. I can reprint it here. I've also been working on adapting this section below for a part of my novel, so don't nobody steal it:

"Because Bernini's sculpture is of a single moment in the larger narrative sequence of the myth, Apollo and Daphne, because it is of the moment in which Daphne's metamorphosis begins to take place, the moment in which she is not yet a tree, but not quite a woman anymore, the viewer is confronted with a presentation that suggests much more than it concretely depicts. Here, because Daphne is neither a woman nor a tree, she is both a woman and a tree. The viewer still sees enough of her flesh to know that in the moment before this one that the sculpture presents, a moment the viewer hasn't seen, Daphne was a woman. But now leaves are growing from her fingers, and her arms are stretching toward the sky, as if they, too, will, in the next moment that the viewer will also not see, they, too, like the fingers, which are now leaves, will become something else, branches, perhaps. But they are only arms now, and Apollo'w hand is upon Daphne's stomach, but the viewer knows (because her stomach extends liker her arms towards the sky) that despite Apollo's hand, the stomach will, in the next moment that the viewer will also not see, become a trunk, perhaps. But, now her stomach, with Apollo's hand upon it, is just a stomach, so, Daphne who is also not a woman, is also not a tree. But because leaves grow from her fingers while Apollo's hand wraps itself around her stomach, the viewer also knows that Daphne will be in the next moment, a tree, and in the moment just before this one, she was a woman. And so she is also a tree and also a woman. The sculpture by suggesting in its presentation an image of Daphne in the midst of metamorphosis as partial woman and partial tree suggests to the viewer's imagination the idea of Daphne as a complete woman, as well as a complete tree.

And if the viewer doubts the possibility of such a transformation while viewing this sculpture of a woman becoming a tree, the viewer still must acknowledge Apollo's cloak that billows in the breeze that isn't there, and the viewer must think to herself how soft and light the cloak is, the cloak that is made of stone. And then the viewer must think how impossible it must be to transform a stone into a cloak that is soft and bends and billows in a breeze that isn't even there. And although it seems impossible for a woman to become a tree, here is a cloak that is made of stone, and the impossibility of turning a piece of stone into a cloak is not unlike the impossibility of turning a woman into a tree. But the sculpture shows the viewer that a stone can be turned into a cloak and this is like showing the viewer that a woman can become a tree. And suddenly all transformations are possible through this analogy that has done nothing except transform the terms of transformation from tree to cloak, from woman to stone. And although the sculpture cannot turn the woman into the tree before the viewer's eyes, the sculpture is enough to move the mind of the viewer to think to make a woman into a tree."

What is so amazing here is how the technical skill on display in the piece works with the presentation, is inextricably a part of the idea of the piece. When you stand before this sculpture and see this piece of stone literally look like a piece of cloth floating in air you are filled with the awe of transformation. How can you not believe the story of Daphne? It's like witnessing a miracle. The way the fingers of Apollo press into Daphne and the skin of Daphne bends underneath the digits, it's difficult to not believe it is real flesh that is indenting under the pressure. And after seeing such a technical wonder, it's difficult not to believe in the possibility of transformation. It's the best self-help seminar I can think of. How can you not believe that you can walk on water after seeing this? The letter of the piece is an argument for its spirit. The power this piece has makes me realize that the technical skill of an artist has to be directly related to the "content" of a piece, has to be inextricable from any idea a piece posits. That's the standard I hope to be able to uphold in my work. Tall order.

-- M.

Shades of Bakhtin...

While I wait for you, Maggie, to post part 2...

Well, we agree. But I do want to post a disclaimer. The trouble with my making pronouncements is that 1) they sound like everyone else’s pronouncements; 2) the number of qualifications start multiplying before the ink on the period’s dry. Especially if I’ve just used the word “entertainment” in connection to poetry. We have all seen poems that strive to entertain in a manner not consistent with what poetry can do, but what stand-up can do, or what short stories can do, and it isn’t satisfying. But what Midwinter Day did was equidistant, I think, from what Sedaris does and what, say, (and here I pause: “Stay out of trouble, Ange, and pick on a poet you love”) Flow Chart does, if what we mean by Flow Chart is a non-narrative experimental epic-length poem that is somehow about the thinking of such a poem into being, hermetically sealed behind the forehead. Both Mayer and Ashbery are writing a long poem that mimes the passage of time. Mayer happens to include, rather than leave out, the actual specifics of a woman named Bernadette Mayer living on December 22, 1978 with a husband named Lewis and children named Marie and Sophia. The pleasure of being let inside, not only someone’s head, but (perhaps more transgressively?) the hermetic world of someone’s private family makes it a whole lot of other things besides intelligent: it makes it human or (dread word) humanistic; it makes it entertaining and it makes it gift-like: we are getting a gift we would love, as opposed to many many avant-garde poets who give us what they perceive (in light of Hegelian-historical-dialectic-ness ‘n all) we need. Mayer is the least Puritanical of all intellectual poets (after O'Hara). This is not to say she isn’t flawed. But she is what I mean by “entertaining” in the best sense.

The best defense of Flow Chart is to be found in Ashbery’s own defense of Stanzas in Meditation, which kicks off Selected Prose. My point is not that such works should not be attempted, but that poems should not be valorized in inverse proportion to their human appeal.

Monday, November 29, 2004

A Sense of Sensibility


I’ve been blessed with a head cold and so am home and resting and have time to finally respond to one of your very early responses (A Minor Distraction to the American Election) to an early post of mine (Midwinter Day). Reading your latest post it still seems that “Is it enough?” is the question. When I doubted my “taste” in “Midwinter Day” it was not that I really doubted my taste. Let me explain. What I meant in that post is that I find myself taking pleasure in things, though I would never champion them as art, as “literature” or “film.” There is a division between something entertaining and something truly artful. I have been and will be entertained by crap until I die. I use the term “crap” loosely and affectionately. Though, I believe, as I know you do, art, too, has to be entertaining. But not crappy. But just because I enjoy David Sedaris on airplanes doesn’t mean that I think he is writing literature. And I love the goofy comic melodrama of the movie “The Wedding Singer.” But I am damn sure neither is art. And it’s not because I don’t think comedy can be art. I have a great respect for stand-up comedians. Margaret Cho’s “I’m the One that I Want” is an extremely powerful piece that is hysterical and political and is 100% stand-up. She knows her form, her medium, and pushes it to its full range of possibility. That show makes performance art look like a haven for 2nd rate comedians. So what’s the difference between Cho’s piece and Sedaris or anything else that my brother and I laugh at while stuck in NJ visiting the parental unit? Probably the range. The number of things a certain form can accomplish. Sedaris for me is nothing more than funny. Sometimes very funny. Cho makes you laugh and suddenly you find yourself knee deep in a very dark place and you realize if she hadn’t steered you there through laughter and sarcasm you would have dismissed the story as melodramatic. You wouldn’t have been able to hear it as openly as you now find yourself hearing it. Her medium -- the comedy -- makes you see the darkness of her tale. The comedy has the effect of producing an affect in the audience? I am playing around now with words because I think what we are both looking for is a term. It seems that we are trying to pin the tail on the aesthetic donkey from different sides. I am saying “entertaining” is not enough and you are saying “intellectual” is not enough. I agree with you whole-heartedly on the dreaded intellectual. It does lack intelligence in that it is one-sided. The term to me denies the sensual which I for some reason tie to the emotional. Perhaps because both are physical in some way. I think your original term “sensibility” is exactly what we are talking about. It implies an intellect engaged in the sensual world. Perhaps we should start using the word in everyday speech. After a reading we can say “Her work has sensibility.” It would be an entirely different assessment from “I respect the intelligence in her work.” The first judgment expresses satisfaction. The second is a back-handed compliment. It expresses a lack of something by naming what was actually found in the work. OK. Tomorrow I will discuss my favorite piece of art and why. It will go nicely with the current thread.

Good Night.


Sunday, November 28, 2004

After seeing Chris N. by chance on Elizabeth Street

What do I want to know? I want to know what Edwin Denby knew.

Sitting in a used bookstore tonight browsing his dance writings, that’s what I wanted; but what he “knew” was something beyond “Dance” in particular. There was some groundwork in the senses, in the affective brain, that preceded history and technique.

There’s something Pedro Almodovar knows beyond “filmmaking” too, and “Bad Education” made me think that if poetry—someone, anyone’s poetry—can’t do what that film did, then I don’t want to write poetry anymore. It didn’t break my heart the way “Talk to Her” did, but it dove into complexity and dashed itself to pieces and surfaced whole. As an intellectual feat, that’s more than “experimental” American filmmakers seem capable of. (Spike Jonz, I’m looking at you.)

An offhand comment at the beginning (“There’s nothing less erotic than an actor looking for work”) seems to have nothing to do with the story that transpires, then evolves into the secret key to a cautionary tale about artistic ambition. That’s the satisfying part; it’s also the unsatisfying part, since the motives of the characters spring from will not love. In “Talk to Her,” a radiant beauty is restored to life, and possibly innocence, after a violation that ends in the suicide—keenly felt—of someone we’re supposed to despise, and can’t; this welter of contradictory emotion works with the cerebral satisfaction of good cinematic technique to cause, finally, the selfsame tears for two intense pleasures. How now, poetry?

Edwin Denby is sympathetic toward the “anti-intellectual” view of ballet; in a way, isn’t it enough that beautiful bodies, male and female, are set in motion amidst fine music and backdrops and glamorous audience? Isn’t that what draws one in, and didn’t Denby himself read Shelley’s “Adonais” with rapt pleasure as a child before he could understand the meaning of the words? Rather than anti-intellectual, why can't we call it pre- or meta- or sensory-intellectual?

What would a really great anti-intellectual poetry entail anyway -- what thrills, what voluptuousness, what blind risk-taking? Wouldn't YOU read it?

(Was Zahara singing “Quizas” a kiss blown to Wong Kar-wai? It plays over the long montage in “In the Mood for Love” where the lovers part, almost meet, and miss each other over and over. It is a light, even slight, song. Perfect cover for devastation.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Do Dogs Count?

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my absence. I am wondering what Ron Silliman thinks happens to women's writing after they acquire their first middle-aged blind dog. Certainly if the last two weeks are any indication, my future as a literary artist is in jeopardy.

I have a parallel story to add to Ange's fecal one. Percy, my new old dog, after spending two days alone at my house with Kate and me, was introduced to Kate's roommate's dog, Cody. Percy began barking for the first time and when I went to pet Cody to keep her calm, Percy promptly pissed on my shoe. Kate said he wanted me to know I was his bitch. I guess I am.

I plan to stop reading solely about natural dog diets in the next few days and return here with something real to say. I still want to respond to one of Ange's pre-election posts.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Primal Self-Expression

I saw Drew Gardner in passing tonight, at Peter Gizzi’s reading at the Project, and he thought I should share the story of how I almost didn’t make it out of the apartment. Not an hour before I expected to be on my way, I was seated at my computer and felt a familiar pair of small hands on my leg. When I looked down there was my son wiping his hands on my pants and—they were covered in, how can I say it, he was cleaning shit off his hands with my pants. Phoebus Apollo! (Exeunt; roar of a bath and howls of the offended child, not to mention the howls of the offended mother.) How did that happen? Later his father asked him, “Jake, did you take a poo?” and he boldly stuck his hand down the back of his diaper. There was my answer.

At least he spared the sofa, already a sour sponge of dried milk and peanut butter; in fact from a housekeeping point of view cleaning himself on me was the least worst option. From the psychoanalytic point of view … well, Mr. Gardner seemed to find a wealth of metaphor in this little tale, which I don’t wish to overburden with analysis.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Going to Sleep with Quandariness

John Ashbery’s new Selected Prose is stacked high at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and my quandary is this—do I pack my 25-lb. boy in his 8-lb. stroller and brave the stairwells of the subway to buy this book today? It’s like running an obstacle course. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ll spend half the day fretting about this book, which I desperately want, but being unable to bring myself to leave the neighborhood to get it. It is no exaggeration to say I rarely leave Park Slope. Having a child in New York City is punishing, and the subway is only one of many reasons.

Park Slope is one of the few habitable neighborhoods of New York, and it has the virtue of bookstores and independent record stores in a concentrated area. But none of the bookstores seem to have Ashbery’s Selected Prose. It is a neighborhood renowned for its literariness, but it is the literariness of novelists, not poets. Or it is the literariness of the New York Review of Books, where real poets are certified by British or Irish accents.

Apropos an earlier post, I learn from my Raymond Williams’ Keywords that there is a history between “intelligent” and “intellectual” that stretches back to the early 19th century, and uses a quote of Byron’s to exemplify an unfavorable view of the “intellectual.”

Past the halfway mark in Schuyler’s letters, I’ve learned quite a bit about what to see in Rome, gardening, baking brownies, gossip, painting, and of course how to be a poet. He confirms what I already thought: Read everything and be otherwise as daydream-lazy as possible.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Shall We Gather at the River?

All advice from slav grandparents boils down to “guard your health” I think.

In my copy of Benjamin’s Moscow Diary there is a photo of a homeless child from 1926. He or she is huddled on a stoop, sleeping. Regarding begging in that post-revolutionary period WB wrote: “One rarely sees anybody give. Begging has lost its most powerful base, the guilty social conscience that opens purses far wider than pity.” In that year my grandmother (in Minsk) was 4 years old; at age 9 she would lose her father to pneumonia, and then when her mother came down with pneumonia also, she almost lost her mind at the thought that she and her three younger siblings would be orphaned: they’d be put out on the street, she said.

Well, Antonina survived the pneumonia—luckily her children were grown when she was disappeared by the Stalinist police—and the little 9 year old, sent off to earn a living picking potatoes, survived the war and famine of the German refugee camps and bad childbirths and so on, but still lives in a row home in Philadelphia, where she dispenses this advice: “Guard your health.” And then something like “Pray to God.” So every year on Easter I call her up and give her the standard Orthodox greeting in Russian: “Christ has risen.” And she: “Indeed he has risen!”

This is not a “Be Grateful for What You Have” message of the day, but perhaps an “Indestructible Slav Woman” message of the day, if you like. May our poetry be as tough as our barge-heaving ancestors.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Words of Wisdom from Grandpa Z

My grandfather sent me this email after learning that I wasn't doing so well after the election. He survived both life under the Nazis and the Soviets, so he knows plenty about being oppressed. He lost his father to the Stalinists and his entire family fortune, and the Nazis used him as forced labor in his teens. Here's the original Polish message with a translation following.

Hi Maguni,nie wiem czy dostalas E-mail czy wiadomosc telefonicznie-u nas po staremu,wyborami nie powinnasc sie przejmowac to jak loterja jednym razem wygrywa ten albo inny,szkoda Twojego zdrowia.W Polsce za komunistow tego problemu nie bylo bo byl tylko jeden kandynat i zawsze mial 99% glosow.Jak Ci sie powodzi z praca i jak tam ksiazka no i zdrowie? Babcia sie martwi bo nie moze sie dodzwonic do Ciebie,tym malym tekefonem bo moglaby rozmawiac godzinami bo my go prawie nie uzywamy.Masz duzego buziaka od Babci i od Dziadka.Od Pawla nie mamy nic.PA PA PA

Hi Maggie (strange dimunitive form of my name because there is no "Maggie" in Polish), I don't know if you got my email or phone messages, but everything's the same here, don't pay any mind to election it's like a lottery this time one guy or the other wins, it's a waste of your good health. In Poland under the Communist there wasn't this problem because there was only one candidate and he always had 99% of the vote. How are things at work and how's your book and of course your health? Grandma's worried because she can't get in touch with you by phone, with this small phone (cell phone) she could talk to you for hours because we hardly ever use it. You have a big kiss from Grandma and Grandpa. From Paul we haven't heard anything. Bye Bye.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Taking Inventory

Dear Peoples,

So nice to be part of this conversation, but the election has finally invaded my body in the form of literal nausea that woke me from disturbed sleep on Saturday after reading several election analyses before bed. I must return to my base for personal grounding. That means a trip to the MOMA tomorrow and nothing but art this week. No news. No more discussions. I don't want to give the enemy any more of me.
Thanks for all your perspectives.


Sunday, November 07, 2004

A final post on the election (for me)

Several bloggers have already linked to Alan Sondheim's dry and dead-on analysis:


and so will I. He gets the sincerity and power of Christianity as it was used in this election, and has the guts to say what I didn't in my earlier post: Islamist fundamentalism helped call this forth. He's right.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven

I was starting to feel straight guilt until I remembered that the anti-gay marriage referendum goes hand-in-hand with the ambition to conscript my womb — and after abortion is illegal, what about contraceptives? If society isn’t ready to ban contraception a la Catholic doctrine, we could certainly see health plans dropping it from their coverage. And as someone who has paid $30-40 a month for the pill when I was making $7/hour as a bookstore clerk, I recognize it as a tax on women.

Anyway, I got a physical reaction to the election—my eyes flared with conjunctivitis on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s going away now. But it felt like stigmata.

I wish I could do justice to my anger and your despair, Maggie, without sounding like a condescending liberal. But I am a condescending liberal. I think religion closes down the mind. I think reading the Bible when you could be reading Melville, Whitman, Stevens, et al., is just nonsensical. I think arguing for Creationism when science is full of fascinating facts and theories, is retarded. Didn’t the Greeks have a word to describe the pleasure of intellectual discovery or reason? (Homework question.)

For the record, my evangelical in-laws feel just as persecuted and oppressed as we do. That’s the irony. Remember all those rightwingnuts who actually object to the Patriot Act on the grounds that “the Christians are next”? I’m sure I do my part to foment these fears when I visit with the only grandchild that won’t grow up some kind of Christian. And we’re the only ones who live in NYC and the only ones who went to the Ivy League ... well, color me a demographic cliche! But I’m not making nice. I’m a poet; the future of my art depends on there being people who get intellectual pleasure from words and ideas that aren’t God-centered. I need to feel that there will be a future constituency for Melville and Dickinson, the difficult ones, the outsiders and the ones railing at God with their fists shaking at Heaven, or alternately, “this dividing and indifferent blue.” You know. The sky, repository of all ineffable ideals.

So, I repeat: I’m not making nice.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Response to Suzanne's Comment

Dear Suzanne,

I think there is an enemy. Karl Rove and the like...all the people who have been engineering this cultural divide for so many years. I don't disagree with you at all. I don't want to be a condescending liberal. But Rove is a genius. He manipulated the vote by getting gay marriage proposals on the ballots. A lot of people hate gays. I really KNOW that. As a gay person I don't know if I'm willing to live in the midwest. I've never been physically attacked. But I've been verbally attacked on the street. And once almost physically attacked but the situation was de-escalated. And that was all in New England. And I grew up in a house where some of my parents' friends equated homosexuals to nazis (how I don't know, I just heard him say it) and child molesters, and to be perfectly honest I don't think I am emotionally strong enough to live in a place where I would be under assault like that again. It is a small but constant assault. It's hard not to internalize that kind of hatred. So nix for me on moving to the Mid-west. I've spent a long time trying to get to San Francisco. You straight lefties go first. I'll be glad to visit. But the hatred feels extremely personal to me and terrifies me. Last night Kate and I lay in bed saying "why do they hate us?" And it's a very real question for us. To know that a majority of the people would rather stop us from getting married than stop 100,000 dead civilians in an unjust war.

But it seems that everyone is having the same reaction: we have to figure out how to bridge this cultural gap. I'd like to hear about any possible actions we can take, a sustained activism. But I think you're wrong to think there is no enemy. There is and it's the people who profit from sustaining this divide.


PS: I might move to an artists commune in the midwest if all my friends go. But it would have to be like 50 people who sustain me already.

Address to Minor Americans Everywhere

My Fellow Minor Americans,

It’s been difficult to get out of bed these past few days. It’s easier to sleep in a haze of strange, slightly disturbing dreams than to read The Times where the President says he’s finally earned the “political capital” and he’s going “to spend it.” It was easier when the presidency was stolen.

Yesterday I wrote an address to you but the bloggers were blogging so much, no doubt in despair, that my entry was swallowed by the server and never seen again. I can’t write the same entry today. Yesterday I was very upset. I was worried that somehow I was responsible for the outcome of this election, given the fact that I was overjoyed to see gay marriage at City Hall here in SF this year. But I don’t get it today. How is killing 100,000 civilians and letting 1000 of our young, poor people die in Iraq where there are no WMDs, where there was no Al Quada until our occupation less moral than banning gay marriage? I can’t answer that question. I don’t understand the tiny majority that put this delusional Christian into office. Last I heard Jesus didn’t dig tax cuts for the rich or war.

What’s important to remember is that only a tiny majority put this fucker back in. And it was fear that got them to the polls. What’s important to remember is that the cultural divide that everyone is talking about isn’t just separating the blue coast from the red middle. The red middle is divided in itself. There were very few huge wins in the red states. There are people there that feel more alienated than we do. Kate Pringle, Brandon Brown and the rest of Stacy Doris’ and Chet Wieners’ graduate classes at State went to Florida for the election. The counties they canvassed got the largest Democratic turnouts in history. What Kate tells me is that the people there are poor and know who the enemy is. Children followed her and Brandon down the street, threatening to beat up Bush and cheering for Kerry. One little girl claimed that Kerry had taken her to Pizza Hut for her birthday last week. They know what’s up more than us privileged blogging fucks on the coasts. They feel it in their belly.

I am angry at the Democrats. This coup has been in the works for twenty years. The slow take over of the media. The slow building of the base. What’s the Democrats plan? Where’s the build-up of their infrastructure? Why didn’t they see it coming? Where’s our Karl Rove?
I’ve been criticized for being so excited about the Democratic ticket this year, but given the low numbers Nader got, I’m not the only one who knew we shouldn’t split the vote. And I don’t feel safe working for the Green party or any other third party that is more progressive than the Democrats right now. There’s too much at stake. The Democrats need to realize that they have a progressive base and cater to it the way that the Republicans cater to the evangelicals. That’s the activism I want to be a part of right now.

But I think it’s really important that we all volunteer efforts during the next four years in whatever way we see fit. It’s important that we take time now and figure out where we feel most needed and dedicate a little time all the time to that cause. The nature of our country is at stake. We need to have the plan and the commitment that the red evil doers have. This is our country. We don’t need to be Minor Americans much longer.


Monday, November 01, 2004

A Minor Distraction from the American Election

“...was it fair for me to believe that I didn’t think something was good writing even if I let myself like it?”

Maggie: I know poets who don’t really like poetry, though they love the idea of *great* poetry. I don’t think that’s what your doubts imply. After all, this blog celebrates the minor poet: we’re not eating a steady diet of Wallace Stevens here (“There are not leaves enough to crown,/To cover, to crown, to cover—let it go—”). (Then again, rereading “The United Dames of America” before a crisis election does take the top of my head off.)

To quote one trustworthy poet on this question: “But he has exactly what’s missing in ‘the poetry should be written as carefully as prose’ poets: sensibility and heart.” Quoth James Schuyler, quoted of Hart Crane, quote quoting Ezra Pound.

To be steeped in Schuyler’s letters—just published—is to find one’s own world suddenly wearing his colors; and it is a more marvelous world for being all heart, sensibility, *and* well-written. It overflows with references to books, movies, and music. It conjures a world where people want to give one another pleasure, especially verbal pleasure. It is, finally, a lost world, and one measure of how far we’ve fallen is the recent shrinkage of what’s intelligent to what’s intellectual.

“Anti-intellectual” is a word much bandied about. Even I implied, in my post on Mayer, that that she was intellectually correct by introducing Barthes, et al., to Poetry Project workshops.

But Schuyler’s letters—a window into his friendships with Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch—aren’t even proto-Barthesesque. What theory was for poets in the 1970s-90s, novels, music and art was for them. They educated their sensibility (feelings + mind), not just their mind.

This sort of poetic training is, I think, being massively repressed by the post-avant critics of our generation. Is it intellectually correct, or simply emotionally arrested, to speak of New York School poets—lovers of Balanchine and Hollywood, Firbank and Pasternak—as political poets, say? By what pretzel logic does one recuperate O’Hara, let alone Schuyler, for an Adorno-steeped post-Language critical agenda? I’ll tell you where to begin, actually—begin by completely ignoring what the poets actually thought and wrote about, for example O’Hara’s essay on Dr. Zhivago. No contemporary poet who wants to be properly “intellectual” would dream of making an entire poetics from their love of Dr. Zhivago.

So let me backtrack and say it’s not the critics’ fault poets are scrambling to seem narrowly intellectual. It’s our own fault for buying into it. I have no quarrel with poets reading Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Adorno. Poets should read *everything*. I do have a quarrel with how far intelligent has become equated with intellectual, how loosely the invective anti-intellectual gets thrown around, how capital accrues around scholarship at the expense of poets’ unique perspectives. (Even Ashbery’s Other Traditions, it seems to me, got short shrift by the post-avant scene.)

So to bring this back around to your question, Maggie—which is, to paraphrase: “Can I trust my taste?” There’s something about our educations that has made us skeptical to everything, even (or especially) ourselves. (Self-interrogation, comrades!) Let’s reclaim what we have lost. Nobody else can tell us what’s good. What do we believe in? Good writing for its own sake? Heart and sensibility? Or do we judge primarily by political relevance and belief in Hegelian historical necessity (avant-garde progressivism?). This is one issue a good poet can’t afford to muddle.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Help Get out the Vote

Dear Minor Amercians,

If you are worried about the closeness of the Presidential race and would like to help Kerry out, think about making phone calls for his campaign from home. I've been doing it this week and it's a great way to do something without actually going to a swing state or even leaving your computer. Basically, all you need to do is sign up at the link below and the Kerry people will send you five names and numbers of Democrats in swing states. You call them and ask them to volunteer during these next few days to help get out the vote. All the people on the list have said they want to help, so there's no awkward cold calling. So go to http://volunteer.johnkerry.com/ and let's get rid of Bush! Bruce Springsteen is helping Kerry and you should too!

-- Maggie

Ange Mlinko Replies...

Dear Minor Americans, below is a reply to my post about the NY School from Ange Mlinko. She and I have talked and have decided that this blog will be a joint blog -- meaning you will be hearing both from me (Magdalena Zurawski or Maggie if you are in the know) and Ange. Sorry for the week break. I was having some trouble with the blogger account. Hopefully this afternoon I'll have Ange all set-up and it will be a true joint blog! Thanks for all the viewing we've gotten.

-- Maggie

Dear Minor Americans,

Maggie gets it right that I have a strong liver, but the part where my apartment is “so clean” is a generous token of our friendship.

Many things impress me about My Life, but the part where Hejinian describes laying down a clean towel to walk across the freshly mopped floor really impresses me, because it says here is a woman who was fastidious about her mopping in addition to having kids and writing a mountain of books. It says to me, This is an efficient lady. I have only met her once, and two things about our encounter stay with me:

1) That when I mentioned The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, LH claimed that those sentences were inimitable, and that she should know, because she spent some time trying to imitate them without success.

2) That the rumor that Ron Silliman said (way back when) that women stopped producing good writing when they had children, is true. He said it to her. Telling me this, I think, was a way of impressing on me the underlying bond that exists between the women of that generation of writers.

I bring up Hejinian because she serves as a useful reminder that risk-taking in poetry is definitely not dependent on drunkenness, poverty, and dirty domiciles. And it doesn’t require sacrificing family life (a superstition that afflicts more men than women). And it doesn’t even require choosing between the controlled sublime of My Life and the blowsy sublime of Desires.

So when I waxed ecstatic about Bernadette and “sacrificing everything to the work,” I don’t think I meant it the way Maggie thought I meant it, though it’s possible I wasn’t clear about exactly what I meant. What I did know was this: Bernadette’s example taught us that being a poet involved making unpopular choices. It translated for me, for example, as dawdling on the question of having any other profession until the possibilities dwindled to nothing. Now it’s too late for me to get a Ph.D. or go to law school, and poetry slowly became by default all I’ve got. What led me to have faith in this poetry for its own sake? Mayer’s example had an awful lot to do with it. She gives the middle finger to the middle class, middle voice, middlebrow. There’s a big Fuck You writ large across her work. I like that. It gives one courage.

She needed it, more than any of us girls born later and luckier. First she was the Designated Female Genius in the scene, the only XX in the Padgett/Shapiro anthology of skinny long-haired XY’s. Bucking the School of Ted Berrigan’s Charisma, she assigned Barthes to her workshop students, a.ka. Charles Bernstein et al., bringing post-structuralist theory to the table when everyone else was filching from Blonde on Blonde lyrics. Later she in fact had her very own Newport Folk Festival “Judas!” moment when she ditched all that to write poems about babies and rural life, drawing aspersions from men who had trumpeted her in her hip downtown babe phase. If, by the time Maggie and I got to NY, Mayer had drunk herself into an early stroke from which she never intended to recover, did that mean we either had to embrace or reject in toto this sad wreckage of genius?

I hope not. But with all due respect to the poets who seem to be holding it together very nicely with good careers and multiple kids and clean floors (and I am closer to this model than Bernadette’s) I can’t quite bring myself to believe it’s possible to be a great poet and not be giving the finger to the world at the same time. That’s what I mean by sacrificing everything to the work. You have to be able to squander your social capital.

Friday, October 22, 2004


Last Tuesday Kate Pringle gave a reading at The Poetry Center at SF State and I couldn't make it because I work Tuesday nights, but afterwards Kate and Suzanne Stein came into the restaurant and sat at the bar and watched baseball and talked about the reading and of course I asked them how it went and Suzanne had nothing but great things to say and one of the comments Suzanne made was that the reading gave her a whole new way of reading Kate's work -- that she saw the reading as a means of instructing Kate's readers. Kate seemed a little baffled by this and I read her bafflement as a slight worry that perhaps people didn't know how to read her work and needed help. But that wasn't the case.

That night Kate let me read the poems she read. She handed me the stack of papers she read from. There was a little numbering system on the pages. I wasn't reading entire poems from beginning to end but mostly she had chosen fragments of longer pieces and arranged these fragments of different pieces carefully alongside each other. The first and last pieces were from a series that used a kind of textbook language to discuss domestic issues. This text because it's aesthetic was a non-aesthetic prose would probably be the "easiest" kind of language to hear and it worked as a frame for all the other work. The fact that the reading closed with a second fragment from the piece let the reader know that she had done the right thing in choosing that frame. Everything I read after this initial piece I was negotiating against this commentary on the domestic, though many of the other pieces on their own would seemingly have no relationship to this first piece. The arrangement created a conversation for these fragments to have with one another. I understood what Suzanne meant now. The arrangement was a kind of instruction to the reader and in a sense the arrangement and fragmentation of these pieces became a new piece in itself. I was charmed by that idea. Kate's reading reminded me of a reading Lyn Hejinean gave at Villanova University outside Philadelphia a few years ago. She had in front of her on the podium many of her books of poetry and criticism and all of these books had many post-its hanging out of them. Once she started the reading she went seamlessly in and out of poems and essays so that a portion of My Life was read against a paragraph from an essay etc., never staying with one work very long before parsing it to another fragment from another work. I was blown away by the reading because the DJ-esque sampling gave the reader in a short amount of time a real idea of the breadth of Hejinean's work. It seemed to me like the poet herself was taking stock of her entire project. And it made the listener gain perspective on how the author herself views the work.

Midwinter Day

Dear Minor Americans,

Recently purchased a used copy of Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day at Green Apple Books (which is my favorite bookstore in the city incidentally because there is always many choice used poetry books and I'm broke and I think it was Zero Star Hotel that I wanted when I went in that night but couldn't find it so got this instead) and at first I promised myself I wouldn't start reading it until I was done with the last book of poems but I decided 3/4s of the way through that the other book was bad and so I stopped reading it and started Midwinter Day.

You need to know this as background information I think. Ange Mlinko is a very good friend of mine. And when I was living in that loneliest of cities -- Philadelphia -- while I was in grad school and Ange was not yet a mother Ange would leave her husband for the weekend and we would eat lots of Chinese food in China Town and drink lots of cocktails and ride around in Taxis looking for live music and stay out until one or two and feel very decadent because compared to NYC everything was so cheap and for forty dollars it was like we could go all night and then we'd arrive back at the apartment with a really good buzz on and talk about poetry until really late or really early which ever way you like to perceive it and one time in particular Ange in a drunken whirl was praising Mayer and going on and on about Mayer and talking about how Mayer sacrificed everything to the work and that was the most important thing a person could do and I took such offense to this comment because at that time I had seen enough of the person of Bernadette that she scared me. The thought of living a life as she did scared me. And I was very defensive about this idea because for one Ange and I were in our own drunken ways always talking about never letting anything get in the way of the work -- never letting anything stop us from being REAL poets and I didn't want to give in to the idea that this involved a very real physical self destruction. And after a while of me being a horse's ass and saying things like does drinking all day make you a real poet? does not mopping your floor make you a real poet? and other drunken questions that were rhetorically aiming at allowing both Ange and me to be real poets and be sober and have clean apartments Ange had to give in and more than partially. I think she gave in because her work is so fucking good and her house so clean and her liver so strong.

Anyhow, so I have this strange relationship to Mayer. I want to be hard on her because so many woman in my circle of friends tried to use her as a model for how to live as a poet and I don't really think she's the best model and of course it's kind of a cannabalistic use of the poet here. What can she do for us, the younger generation? It takes away a lot of sympathy I should have for her as a human being and makes her into a utility for us to use ... but that's a whole other story. But I already was willing to like this book before I began to read it and my only Bernadette before this was the Sonnets and The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters which I felt lukewarm about. There were moments where I thought the work was amazing but mostly I felt it sagged. It didn't amaze always. But the first section of this book by the time I finished this first section I was fucking blown away. The first section is this strange juggling of several dreams and the narrator's attempts at making sense of them and the way the figure of the mother haunts these dreams the way the narrator makes the mother haunt these dreams without the mother ever appearing as a figure in any of them and to watch this voice struggle with her mother and watching her mind dealing with this person in her imagination well it is so powerful that I could only put the book down and walk away and think that's what Ange admired so badly and I felt a need to apologize quietly in my heart to Bernadette. It was like if she never wrote anything worth reading after that section it didn't matter.

But of course I can't ever be very generous very long and I keep reading this book and I'm enjoying it immensley. Let there be no doubt. I am feeling pleasure the whole time I am reading this book. But I have this awful habit of letting myself like something without letting myself believe it's really great art and I asked Kate Pringle if this was fair -- was it fair for me to believe that I didn't think something was good writing even if I let myself like it? That's a question that I hope someone comments on. I think Kate said something like you're being unfair and lying to yourself. She thinks if I like it I necessarily think it's good. But anyhow now that I'm in the middle parts of this book where I am reading detailed descriptions of Bernadette's day which mostly involves trying to get around town with two little kids in snow and make them lunch I come to the question that I do with other 2nd generation NY School poetry. Is that enough? Is it poetry? And then after I ask myself that question I think yes it's enough because it leads me to ask that question therefore it is a piece of art. And then after I think that I think no. You're being a clever horse's ass. And then I try to think what is it exactly that puts the work into question for me? Is it the use of the mundane? The 2nd generation gets this idea from 1st generation O'Hara and O'Hara despite the fact that he describes his whole day to me never makes me question whether or not I really am in a poem. I know I am always in a poem with Mr. O'Hara. What O' Hara does does not appear in any way easy. It is very obviously artful. There's something that seems too easy in this kind of mundane description in the work of several 2nd generation writers though that makes me think -- no, that's too easy. But is it? I don't know, Minor Americans. Help me.

-- Minor American

Monday, October 18, 2004


Dear Minor Americans,

Several weeks ago I pulled Larry Eigner off my shelf. I haven't read his work in a couple of years, but he's someone I return to for comfort. This time while reading his Selected Poems I really *got* them in a way that I hadn't before. I could see much more going on with them. I was finally ready for Larry. (Incidentally, I truly believe this about books. You can't hear certain books until something in you is ready to hear it. There are several books on my shelf I'm not ready to read yet. Or the feeling you get at a reading hearing a poet read a poem you've heard her read before and you think she's revised it because it's so much better but really you can finallly hear it after for some strange reason being deaf to it for so long.)

In my new found enthusiasm I started looking Eigner up on the web and noticed that Robert Grenier was someone who had edited Larry's work. (Why I'm writing Larry I don't know, I never met him.)And for some reason I thought this was very strange because in my mind I only held certain memories of Grenier's work from "In the American Tree." And I held some idea of him being a radical poet because he had written Sentences, separate poems written on index cards. And I thought to myself what would Grenier want to do with someone like Eigner, who writes about trees and birds? And so instead of going back to In the American Tree and re-reading to undo my prejudices, I thought to myself, I'll get an early book of Grenier and this will help me understand the connection. So on the web I found Dusk Road Games (poems, 1960-66)and when I finally got it in the mail I was blown away. The poems were such Poems. They had no radical artifice and the content of each poem had usually to do with some domestic scene. The connection to Williams was obvious. And then I thought to myself, where did I get this idea that Grenier was such a radical? And I realized at that moment that what I mean by radical when I use it in relationship to poetry is that there is no relationship between writing and observation -- or the type of rendering their work achieves is not directly connected to a visual observation -- they're not sitting on the porch looking at the sky. And then I realized that so many of the Language Poets are really nature poets in a sense. Certainly Grenier and Silliman. And it's their choice of form for their observations that stops people from seeing their work this way. Or at least it stopped me for a while. Bernstein and Andrews don't fall into this category and they were my first idea of Language Poetry. Their work is a kind of language play that has little to do with observation of the daily world in the way that a Williams poem does. That's not to say their work doesn't deal with a social world. It deals with it through an appropriation of rhetoric, politcal and otherwise. But after getting to Grenier through Eigner and then hearing Silliman, I though, how funny to think of LANGUAGE POETS as Nature Poets. I couldn't see the trees through the form for such a long time.

-- Minor American

Friday, October 08, 2004

Ron Silliman in San Francisco

Dear Minor Americans,

The fog is rolling in across the hills, blocking the radio lights of twin peaks. The air is soft with it. I've been following Ron Silliman through the city all day, beginning with his talk at SF State on Duncan's unpublished H.D. book. What I liked most about the talk was the fact that it seemed largely to be about Duncan and Silliman, rather than Duncan and H.D. Silliman knew Duncan and the way he structured his talk around the H.D. book made it clear that his work around Duncan was at least in part attempting to understand the way Duncan constructed his poetics and how this construction led him to reject the poetries of his younger contemporaries in the Bay Area, the Language Poets, Silliman being one of the most famous of this group. Silliman explained how Duncan because he was raised as a theosiphist was drawn to things that revealed hidden structures -- Freudian Psychology, Marx, Structuralist linguistics etc. Part of Duncan's attraction to H.D. was that she, too, as a Moravian would understand this notion of the hidden which Duncan first learned through mysticism and later found in other branches of knowledge. Silliman argued that after working on the H.D. book he sees that Duncan was caught at a time of transition in American Intellectual history. In the seventies, mysticism was replaced by Post Structuralist theory and the Language Poets seemed to Duncan like a bunch of boring leftists masquerading as poets. This is the part of the talk that I found most touching. To me it was clear that Silliman was coming to terms with this patriarch who had rejected his work, mostly out of an inability to adapt himself as a reader to a new point of view. Silliman was clear to say that he hoped he wouldn't cultivate this same type of blind spot as an elder in the poetry community. And he through his blog and heavy reading of younger poets has been very careful not to.

I when I lived for a short spell in NYC over seven years ago developed a prejudice against the male Language poets because of several run-ins with some "elders" at the Poetry Project and elsewhere. They were dismissive of younger people's work unless it was explicitly derived from Language Poetry. My plan of attack then became I'll hate them before they hate me. When I arrived shortly after in Philadelphia where Silliman now lives I wrongly assumed he would be the same and quietly rejected him as a possible person with whom I could discuss writing. I've been learning slowly, mostly through his blog, that I was wrong. And today it was very clear that I was wrong and that if I continued to dismiss Ron I would only be doing my own brain a disservice. I was glad then when tonight for the first time I could let myself take great pleasure in Silliman's reading without defensively sitting there like a petulant child, thinking "us vs. them." I guess then we've arrived at post-patriarchy.

-- Minor American

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Wednesday is Upon Me

Dear Minor Americans,

My mind is submerged in the banality of last night's debate. I only wish I could turn to something more interesting in my day dreaming. I hate when I become obsessed with something so boring, but it seems that preempting preemptive strikes by doing all I can to make sure Bush does not win again is worth the temporary sacrifice of my imagination.

I had a strong reaction to Cheney. Whenever he spoke I had to change the channel. I believe I fear him because he is the mind of the administration speaking without the speech impediment that we call President. He certainly could strike Edwards and I couldn't bear to watch. I preferred the Kerry-Bush debate where the enemy simply looked like an angry chimp that was tired from all the "hard work." All in all, I don't believe we lost any ground, though it was not the clear win I'd hoped for. It seems like a draw. Each side could argue that their candidate won. I am curious as to how this played out with the mythical "undecided voter." I guess we'll see.

-- Minor American