Saturday, February 26, 2005

No, no mon ami!

-- the media hype! about Anne Winters, whose book has been reviewed in Slate and The New York Times (this much attention constitutes, for poetry, "hype"!). As I never seem to like any contemporary poetry they publish or review (well, rarely) I was surprised to find myself sold on it.

It’s true my deepest affinities are to a poetry of imaginative freedom and play. But sometimes even high-handed poetry can be done well. I like to be surprised.

More about the novel, please!

[P.S.: My emails to you are bouncing!]


It seems like your last post Ange was indirectly responding to my appreciation of Bergvall's and Barr's semantic play, but if I remember correctly you and I both wished for the kind of playfulness in poetry that indie rock offered and that was exactly what that night was. Maybe it isn't your idea of POETRY but it seems like few work can fulfill that abstract idea of the Ideal Poem. The work was playful enough -- exciting enough -- to force me to examine my ideas of poetry. The "is it enough?". Today I feel like it is. And I just wrote a very "emotional" novel. -- M

Friday, February 25, 2005

When the Hype’s Justified

Dangerous to start discussing a book you haven’t entirely finished, especially if you plan to use it to make a point. But having read most of Anne Winters’s The Displaced of Capital in one rush last night, I feel even more strongly that experimental poetries, those concerned primarily with semantic play, are limiting themselves by what they leave out. One of the stand-out books by one of my peers last year was Jo Ann Wasserman’s The Escape, which courted controversy by allowing itself to be exhibitionistic. Just the premise—that it was about her mother’s death when she was 18—caused some poets I know to shut down.

It was about something?
It was about her mother?
It was about her mother’s death?

Getting past that hurdle, anyone who picked up the book then had to contend with self-mythologizing (sexy bad girl) that turned some people off (myself included) and some people on (Tony Towle reviewed it twice!). The point is, though, that she took a chance on writing a heartbreaking work, staggering genius arguable.

Thus Anne Winters. I’m not inclined to buy many books by University of Chicago poets, but I read “The Mill-Race” online, was blown away, got the book. Was blown away. Maybe I’m a sucker for the subject matter—the brutal economics of New York. Maybe, as with the Wasserman, I am too susceptible to the catharsis of tragic storytelling in whatever form (“An Immigrant Woman”). But if I’m attracted to her concerns I’m also attracted to her vocabulary: an engineering vocabulary, a vocabulary of infrastructure. It’s earthy, smithy, tough.

One could complain that she’s championed by Pinsky, complain that she’s too literal in some places, too ornate in others. I just don't want to hear that she’s not avant-garde. That’s a descriptor sought after by some of the most vapid books of our time, cf. Lisa Robertson’s The Weather—hiding its emptiness behind a quote from Arcades Project!—and, to bring it home for the movie-going friends, it’s the same reason In the Mood for Love is a hundred times greater than Chungking Express.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Chile Peppers in the Blistering Sun

Jordan hypothesizes me as Marianne Moore to Anselm's WCW.

As Jake would say, touching my coffee mug, "That's hot."

I'm totally judgemental about fem. poets using sexuality/desire to promote themselves. Except til I realize how in-the-eye-of-the-beholder it is.

Less and Less Scholarly

I'm not so sure Maggie -- your claim for Bergvall sounds suspiciously like the same old claim made for Langpo: that it's more, not less, accessible because it's supposedly more immediate and less referential. One of the things I've found most distasteful about NY readings in the past 10 years is how the more an audience feels it can gloss right through the meaning without losing anything, the better the reading is. As if the less a poem says, the better it is. Really, it's enough to drive me back to Yeats.

I think I'm going to sojourn into experimental fiction. For some reason I'm obsessed with getting hold of Steve Erickson's "Our Ecstatic Days." I got pretty competent at translating Homer by my 3rd semester of Greek in college, but believe me, going to a "Great Books Program" absolutely spoiled the classics for me for the rest of my life. Except for Sappho and the Roman poets. But then, Great Books Programs ignore poetry insofar as Plato was the last word on the subject.

Not So Scholarly Scholarly Debate

Don't know what I could really add to your comment, Ange. I like the work of dead people most these days, though that wasn't true when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I read dead people and my friends' work if they send it to me. This I guess started because I realized towards the end of college that I had no idea how to situate historically the stuff I read by people 20 years my senior. And I was in a Comp Lit program so I got out of lots of survey classes, though now I wish I had taken them. First I was too cool to read the dead. I wanted the NOW. And then I grew up and I almost only want to read the dead. (Though I'm really liking Bob Dylan's CHRONICLES, but that in fact is mostly a book about all the books he read while writing songs and he liked really old books. He likes his authors really dead.) Right now I am plodding through Paterson and Fagles' translation of The Odyssey and Dylan in between looking for a place to live. I can't think of much more exciting reading.

Somewhat in opposition to what I just said (I think but maybe not): I heard some NEW GREAT great work this week at Jocelyn Saidenberg and Brandon Brown's series @ New Langton. It was a poetry reading that was amazingly refreshing. I think some people might have really not liked it but I dug it big time. The first reader was Brandon Fowler aka BARR. He was I guess a "rapper" but it was not really like anything I've ever heard. I guess it was a little bit like a Beastie Boy writing for an LA or NY art gallery audience. It was very alive and funny and a lot like screaming really complicated ideas in a fifteen year old's vocabulary really fast. Funny and smart and really really alive. Suddenly felt like language was joining the conversation other artists are having here. Like art was all one. Not like here is a great painting that is pushing the idea of beauty and here on the next page is a stodgy poem mostly useful to separate the news article from the ad (ie NEW YORKER) but like language was in the same conversation paint was having. OK. He was followed by Caroline Bergvall and Fowler really warmed up the audience. Everyone was very receptive to Caroline's work -- to the performance of it. Lots of cheers. It was music. Both their languages were music though it was all mostly language. Sound poetry. And Caroline's work I think of more as sound pieces than written pieces. So much of it is about the way she uses her mouth to say it. This is especially obvious in pieces where she uses different languages in single sentences. The joke is the sound of the french and english building a single structure together. It sounded fantastic. Like an audible cultural pingpong. Humorous. Sonorous. Sensual. The reading made me feel as though poetry were up to date. Alive and well. Like I could bring my movie friends to a poetry reading and it would all be one big discussion. They would get poetry like the way they get movies. I'm tired. Hope this is clear -- somewhat articulate. Sleep well.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Looking for the Outside

Maggie, as we speak, the line drawn between Modernism and Post-Modernism is being fiercely contested, with hundreds of academic careers hanging in the balance. I had the same thought you did, not when I read Paterson but when I saw Duchamp's Green Box (in book form) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: What was new about Langpo if Duchamp (and other Dadaists) pioneered these techniques decades earlier? And the Cobain attitude -- the Dadaists were there first too. I could never even understand what was so innovative about Berrigan's Sonnets. It seemed like everything great about Modernism had been done by 1959, and the rest was filigree. I think it was Brian Kim Stefans who reminded me that the sarcasm in, say, Kevin Davies' work was taken right from Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Eliot's Sweeney. And then one is challenged to read more scholarship, to stay on top of the latest debates, to be intellectually social....

Having just sped through MoMA in under an hour last week (a form pioneered by three characters in Godard film who clearly still hold the championship title), I find myself in the role of pilgrim at the same old masterpieces: Starry Night! Ma Jolie! Bird in Space! Suprematist Composition: White on White! Anything Warhol and after looks like a toy. And then one is challenged to read more scholarship, to stay on top of the latest debates, to be intellectually social....

Monday, February 21, 2005

Demands of an Inner Teleology

Because Presidents have died so we could work weekends, or something like that, we are celebrating Presidents Day Weekend as we would any normal day: Dad’s working. Mom’s brewing more coffee. Baby’s being beatific, thriving in the quick synapse between “Oh Wow!” and “Oh no!” I would renounce all philosophy to live there.

A winter storm—red sky, falling snow—reminds us Spring is far away. This morning I forced myself to go to the park with Jake and I saw an ugly plant I recognized as witch hazel. It was flowering its scraggly mustardy flowers. I breathed it in deeply and caught a whiff of its perfume, February’s only consolation. I know Spring will cause a pure delirium in me this year, as always. I may fantasize about L.A. and endless summer, but I’m enough of a New Yorker now to say, without irony, “Yeah, we thought about moving to Montclair but now we just think we’ll stay in Park Slope until we can escape to Vermont.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

While I've been Awol....

...I've seen too many over-priced horrible rooms and one beautiful one under-priced. Cross your fingers, say a prayer.

I've also made it to the Berkeley library with Kevin Killian to help him organize the Spicer collection. Spicer wrote mostly in pencil in child-like handwriting. I saw the handwritten version of Psychoanalysis: An Elegy -- a favorite of mine. There's something strange about rummaging through a poet's papers. I at first was awe-struck -- a feeling of doing sacred work but soon it seemed very ordinary. That's not to say it wasn't fascinating but as I was going through Steve Jonas' letters to Spicer's (which came one a day and were fat with speed language) I realized that the scene Spicer was in wasn't that different than the current poetry community. Jonas was always sending Spicer three or four new poems in a letter. At the rate he was going many weren't that good. Spicer from what Jonas wrote seems to not have replied very often and the silence Jonas took as a commentary on the work. But the fact is there were many letters from Jonas that have only been open now by the archvists. I guess still a commentary for the work: slow down. And then Spicer's letters to Blaser were similar in some ways to Jonas' letters to him: 'why haven't you replied yet, Robin? what do you think of the new draft?' And it's very comforting every now and then to see a BAD Spicer poem. The guy was human.

I'm about half-way through Williams' Paterson and it makes me think over and over again that Post-Modernism is a sham. Everything that I thought LANGUAGE poetry invented Williams already did. The only thing that is different is the tone. There's no Kurt Cobain 'everything's a joke' attitude in the work. Maybe that should just be a marker of Late Modernism -- meaning NOW. Reading this book is like learning your grandparents had kinky sex and loved it at a moment when you still believe that you invented the missionary position.

David Larsen is a genius. His performance in Jocelyn Saidenberg and Brandon Brown's series at New Langton arts was to say the least extraordinary. I'm not sure if I can quite describe it but I'll give it a go. First of all he recites them. Most of them memorized but even the read ones seem memorized. Something like Edward Gorey meets Black Sabbeth meets the Meet Puppets meets Homer. "The Basket of Blood" involved a basket of blood and a homemade mask. I'd have to see him do it all again and keep a notebook in my hand to really be able to sketch it out for you here. I just went for the ride.

Thursday Caroline Bergvall. Always good.

As for my book, I'm debating when and where to put dashes.

I'll be back -- M.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

While Maggie's awol

and Morocco is rightfully more interesting than heavy-hearted European poets, here is a diary entry from the summer of 1999:

Two Moroccan students, boys, from the university were escaping at the same time we were. They got in the back of the taxi and we got in front. They recognized me from my poetry reading a week or so back, and complimented me on it. I was flattered even though I was quite sure that no one understood a line of it. [It was a group reading/performance with Arabic poets and musicians so the audience was large.]

"I loved how musical it was," one of the boys said, of my reading. It was the right thing to say. I snapped to attention and asked about Moroccan poetry.

He launched into a rhapsodic lecture about Arabic verse. "In Arabic," the other boy interjected, "many words double as both noun and verb -- it's very beautiful." Oh yes, I said, we have this in English too, it creates a beautiful effect. The boys' eyes veritably rolled back in their heads. I was struck by this display of appreciation on a technical matter -- would American undergraduates in the poetry workshops I'd taught react this way? Hardly.

The more talkative boy continued: "We also now have free verse, and the beauty of the language becomes highly important. But I'm worried that poetry is going to lose its audience. Life itself is becoming less beautiful. The language is being degraded, especially by TV, where broadcasters make errors in speaking all the time and no one cares. And French is our second language instead of classical Arabic."

I said that American poetry shared some of these problems. The homogenization of the language through mass media made people more impatient with different ways of writing -- perhaps more beautiful ways. But before I could say that American poets were used to finding ways to write poetry about a world that was, as they said, "less beautiful," the taxi ride was over. We had arrived in Azrou, a dusty, dirty, luminous Berber town where the first order of the day was to give loose change to the widows, cripples and amputees who lingered near the taxi stand.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Not Your Summer Vacation

I didn't bring my Chanel to Morocco. How little I knew of the ways of the world. In the compound where I lived -- surrounded by concertina wire and protected by armed guards at the front gate -- wealthy Moroccan girls sat around brushing one another's long hair, dressed for a Spanish discotecque. I was dressed for a Middle Atlas goat-herder's village, pop. 10,000. There was the sad fact: I underscored the number one cliche of the American woman. No doubt my barrenness and medium-length brown bob were of a piece.

When the Dean of Humanities tapped me to run their new Writing Center, I agreed, but only for a large salary. He understood completely. Later I found out some male students wouldn't seek out my help because it was losing face before a woman -- but many girls did their boyfriends' schoolwork. Not necessarily because they were smarter than their boyfriends, but because work itself was a sign of inferior status. That the country suffered from upwards of 30% unemployment; that the ostensible mission of the university was to make its young people "competitive in a global market"; these did not impinge on the sensibilities of the truly wealthy. Real prestige means you don't have to work. Ultimately that meant that the university professors were servants to the students. Women who worked were servants, period. The wealthy girls, brushing each other's hair for long hours in idle chitchat, understood their world very well. Feminism could help me negotiate larger increments of a small piece of pie, but they had something grander in mind.

I wanted very desperately to be well-dressed the day one of my students invited me to her home, a beachside villa outside of Casablanca. The Atlantic pounded on the western shore as we sat out on the back veranda, and more and more guests came pouring in. The former ambassador to Japan, his stunning Danish wife beside him. A Lebanese newspaper publisher. A translator for King Hassan II. Alia, 18, didn't tell me I was being invited to a salon. She finally arrived, some time after the mistress left. Alia and her father lived a comedy of manners, each trying to hide their paramours from each other -- hers an older man, his a younger woman. Anyway, Alia arrived and I don't quite remember what she wore, but I can safely say my husband and I looked like a couple of bumpkins in this elite company, though we were treated graciously and with great curiosity, since America was not something to be hated but something to put to one's advantage when possible. Alia's father, an Iraqi dissident with pied-a-terres in several corners of the globe, thought that the US simply didn't finish the job during the first Gulf War.

Alia's mother, a Moroccan feminist activist and friend of Fatima Mernissi, had divorced Alia's father "though they still love each other!" the inveterately romantic Alia claimed. I always wanted to hear more about her mother, but Alia scoffed at politics. I had been specifically "assigned" to Alia by the Dean, because she "liked to write," but when I hauled out my trusted anthology of 20th C French poetry, ed. Paul Auster, and gave her some suggested reading, I learned quickly that my real job was otherwise.

That day by the ocean has acquired a 19th century haze in my mind, as if I had stepped into a Tagore story. Late in the afternoon, after the banquet, we sat in a drawing room where Alia gave a piano recital, singing Andrew Lloyd Webber numbers. "Alia," her father said warmly, clapping with ultra fatherly indulgence, "if your grandfather could see you now, singing in a room of men, he would have murdered you."