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 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