Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Accessibilty or Crass Commercialism?

Thelonious Monk, circa 1969

I’m still thinking about Ashbery and jazz. Now I'm thinking about the whole accessibility issue.

I was reading the other day about Thelonious Monk’s last (I think?) album for Columbia, Monk’s Blues. I really hate it, as does most everyone who likes Monk, I believe. It was the songs of Thelonious Monk arranged for studio big band, with Monk playing along. It was called crass commercialism, by many. The thought behind it (some say) was that the big band would make Monk more accessible to general audiences.

Accessible. How I hate and loathe that word, when applied to art. The most presumptuous and condescending thing one can write about art, or, closer to my heart, a book of poetry, is that it is “accessible.” Imagine saying such a thing about any other art, or, indeed, any other facet of your life:

1.Easily approached or entered.
2.Easily obtained.
3.Easy to talk to or get along with.
4.Easily influenced or swayed.

“Accessible” is something we should all hope for with public buildings, true, but when talking about art, people should be run out of town for saying it, and people should be embarrassed to have someone say it about their work. One works hard (hopefully) at one’s art. And any reader should be furious at the condescending nature of someone writing of a book that it is “accessible.” “Don’t worry,” it’s saying, “even YOU can get it!” One person’s “accessible” is another’s “crass commercialism.”

Doesn’t it make you even a little uncomfortable that the word “accessible” has become a positive value judgment? And then, that “inaccessible” has become such a denunciation? “Inaccessible” means something is not easily approached or entered. What should that be the death-blow to art?

When one is hiking, one often wants a pleasurable little accessible walk. A stroll. But at other times, one might well want something inaccessible: scale a cliff perhaps. Perhaps bike down a gorge.

When we talk about “accessibility” what are we really meaning? As long as we’re not talking about building access, “accessibility” is metaphorical and fairly abstract, as one can only know if something is “accessible” by attempting to access it. And what doesn’t mean to be accessed?

I’ve never met a poet yet, no matter how “difficult” his or her work, who doesn’t want people to read it. We all intend to connect to readers. I certainly do. I can’t imagine a poet who would be eager to deliver a public reading who doesn’t want a public to be there.

What people are really saying when they talk about work as accessible, is that it won’t be making many (if any) demands upon the reader. And by “demands,” I believe it is understood that the poems will not do something the reader hasn’t encountered many times before. I can see that such a thing might be nice for some people, especially if a book is also tagged by a subject (accessible poems about the dissolution of a marriage, say, or about the death or illness of a loved one), even though it wouldn’t be nice for me.

I can feel myself starting to talk in circles. Suffice it to say I understand the desire on the side of the “accessibles,” but I deny them this term. It’s a terrible way to talk about art. It’s meaningless at the very same time that it’s aggressive to everything it’s not. If “accessible” is valued positively, then there must be those things that are “inaccessible” that are valued negatively. “Accessible” becomes a version of “normal” and therefore “good,” while other poems therefore become “deviant” or “abnormal” and, of course, “bad.” This is why poets that would be termed in this economy “inaccessible” point to “accessible” poets as retrograde, or socially conservative, no matter what the subject matter of their “accessible” poems. All of these hot potatoes would be avoided if we were able to talk about these things differently. One way to attempt to do so, is to replace the word “accessible” with the word “clear.” It wins the Nice Try award, as it has to misuse the definition of “clear” to mean something more like “culturally transparent,” and that, no matter how you put it in a sentence, isn’t going to get someone to buy a book. Or a jazz album.

Words like “accessible” don’t work for poets (and other artists) that I like. I think of Ashbery. I want nothing from an Ashbery poem but the experience of the poem unfolding. And that experience is more than just a tone, the experience of the play of meaning (play in the sense of the play of light across a landscape). Is it accessible? I don’t know. Is grass accessible? Are the trees? How about walking through a crowd?

Poets like Ashbery force us to take our metaphors seriously. Or, to say it another way: To say things like "This work is accessible," pre-supposes we all read poetry in the same way.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rabbit Light Movies

Rabbit Light Movies
a bi-annual journal of poemfilms

Episode #9
suzanne buffam Joshua Beckman Dorothea Lasky Srikanth Reddy Magdalena Zurawski Lauren Levin Graham Foust CAConrad Aaron Kunin brandon shimoda Catherine Theis
click here for published Works by Episode #9 authors

Episode #8
Eleni Sikelianos Philip Jenks Lily Brown Ed Roberson Laura Goldstein Lisa Fishman Abraham Smith Richard Meier John Keene Dan Beachy-Quick Timothy Yu Ben Doller & Sandra Doller Nathalie Stephens Nicole Wilson Patrick Culliton Susan Scarlata
click here for published Works by Episode #8 authors

Episode #7
Sasha Steensen Christopher Stackhouse Claire Becker Michael Rerick Matthea Harvey John Keene & Christopher Stackhouse Mary Jo Bang K. Silem Mohammad Christine Deavel Anthony Hawley Juliana Leslie Johannes Göransson
click here for published Works by Episode #7 authors

Episode #6
Ana Bozicevic-Bowling Jason Bredle Nicole Burgund Julia Cohen & Mathias Svalina Christian Hawkey J.W. Marshall Kristi Maxwell Joyelle McSweeney Robyn Schiff Dana Ward
click here for published Works by Episode #6 authors

Episode #5
Stephanie Young Joshua Poteat Catherine Wagner J'Lyn Chapman Jaswinder Bolina Chuck Stebelton
click here for published Works by Episode #5 authors

Episode #4
eric baus lily brown sommer browning george kalamaras allison titus jon woodward
click here for published Works by Episode #4 authors

Episode #3:
Always swim at nightzachary schomburg Mathias svalina joshua marie wilkinson with Julie Doxsee & nathan bartel
click here for published Works by Episode #3 authors

Episode #2
sawako nakayasu andrea rexilius kate greenstreet
click here for published Works by Episode #2 authors

Episode #1
julie doxsee Joshua Marie Wilkinson
click here for published Works by Episode #1 authors

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Who Killed Amanda Palmer

So here’s something most pop music doesn’t try to do:

Runs in the Family
from Who Killed Amanda Palmer

The “Oasis” Music Video
from Who Killed Amanda Palmer

Guitar Hero
from Who Killed Amanda Palmer

Another Year
from Who Killed Amanda Palmer

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Nina Persson / A Camp / Colonia

A Camp, “Stronger Than Jesus”

I just picked up the new album from maybe moonlighting (or maybe ex-?) Cardigan, Nina Persson's other band, A Camp, which I like a lot better than The Cardigans. Seriously, I adore this album (Colonia), with its Aimee Mann feel and super-smart lyrics, as in the above song, where “don’t you know love can do you like a shotgun.” Simply gorgeous, and gorgeously dark. As also in the opening track, “The Crowning,” where she sings, “So let's raise our glasses to murderous asses like you / May you sleep soundly”


Poetry Workshops Work


Show or Tell
Should creative writing be taught?

by Louis Menand

. . . in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn’t, workshops work. I wrote poetry in college, and I was in a lot of workshops. I was a pretty untalented poet, but I was in a class with some very talented ones, including Garrett Hongo, who later directed the creative-writing program at the University of Oregon, and Brenda Hillman, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at St. Mary’s College, in California. Our teacher was a kind of Southern California Beat named Dick Barnes, a sly and wonderful poet who also taught medieval and Renaissance literature, and who could present well the great stone face of the hard-to-please. I’m sure that our undergraduate exchanges were callow enough, but my friends and I lived for poetry. We read the little magazines—Kayak and Big Table and Lillabulero—and we thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world. When you are nineteen years old, it can be.

Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. ♦

Read the full article here.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

How Impossible Are You?

Impossibility Test

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Variations on an introduction by Charles North of John Ashbery

John Ashbery - Photo(c) by Star Black

Find the full introduction here.

I find a lot of things of interest by cruising by Ron Silliman’s blog every few days. The other day, I found this introduction of John Ashbery’s reading from a few weeks ago at The Poetry Project, by Charles North.

Charles North:

“Most poets, as we all know, . . . don’t ‘produce’—really produce—after the age of 40; that is, if they’re lucky enough to produce that long.”


This can’t be true, can it? Is the world that poetry allows really one that is only visited by the young? I hope not. I heard one time Gerald Stern talking about this. He said there were two types of poets: those of the first half, and those of the second half. Which is, those who did what they were going to do before 40, and those who did what they were going to do after 40. He placed himself in the “after 40” group. It’s an impressive group, with Stevens being the poster over-40 child.

Who is the poster child for those who run up to 40 and then quit? It would be easy to say Plath, I suppose. And safe. It’s an interesting question nonetheless.

Charles North:

“When I began coming to readings in the late 1960s, I kept hearing about this mysterious, experimental poet . . . who . . . was not only secretly épater-ing the bourgeoisie, but was demonstrating radically new ways to write poems and to conceive of poetry.”


I want so much from this statement, as there is so much more out there. But where is it? Where is this new conception delineated in transferable ways? Here’s a quick story: A professor I know, who is in his mid 60s, has had a difficult time with Ashbery over the six years I’ve known him. (I came here six years ago, waving my Ashbery flag.) He wants to be receptive. He is receptive, even. But the ways he was taught to read poetry—to enjoy poetry—do not directly pertain to reading Ashbery (and, by extension, a category of contemporary poetry). How do you read (and teach! It has to be transferable and testable!) poetry that resists the logical progressions of the New Critics (Robert Frost & Richard Wilbur type poems), or the personalities unfolding over time and event of the post-confessional poets (Rita Dove & Tony Hoagland & literally thousands of others), or even the sort of little thought machines typified by Billy Collins & Kay Ryan?

What I mean is that 90% of poetry being published today can be read through the lens of Close Reading and Paraphrase and Extrapolation . . . until you get to Ashbery (and of course I’m skipping over a lot of poets to make this leap: Gertrude Stein, for example, but I think they’re part of a different story [and of course, I'm sot saying that one shouldn't read ashbery closely - I think close attention is the best attention]).

I’ve spoken with this professor friend of mine several times about how I read an Ashbery poem, and the pleasures and questions I find there, and I find this is a way that - I suppose - could be taught in a literature course, as a way to read poetry: a rather suggestive version of variations on a theme (often stated in the title or opening gesture of an Ashbery poem) that accrue into an abstract investigation, or a prismatic investigation, of the way people think and behave. I find it radically inclusive and human. And it is something an essay test might be able to approach, I think. I’ll try it in the fall and get back to you.

But, of course, a university application is different than a cultural application, and that’s where the real questions about Ashbery and his “difficulty” reside. I was thinking of this very thing yesterday when reading the liner notes to the excellent “Sonny Rollins: the freelance years” on Riverside. Zan Stewart writes, about Rollins:

“Sonny was then—and is now—a consummately melodic artist who built a solo with grand logic, using a song’s theme as an improvisational matrix to be revisited at will, creating stunning composition-like statements comprised of connected fragments of developed, improvised thought. And, perhaps more than any other since Parker, he used rhythm as a guiding force, playing with the assuredness of a drummer, squeezing the time, expanding it, and always, like a cat, landing on his feet.”

If one would think of something akin to this as a composition technique for the writing of poetry, Ashbery would seem to me at least to be the natural example. So, with fifty years of writing and conversations surrounding jazz, I would think approaching Ashbery from this angle wouldn’t be much of a stretch. It seems to me that Ashbery’s “difficulty” then is only difficult in the way that the Rogers & Hammerstein composition, “My Favorite Things” is “difficult” when John Coltrane plays it, as opposed to when Julie Andrews sings it. It’s not “difficult” at all. It’s just a different way to approach things, built on different methods, toward different ends. I find this basic idea mirrored in some fashion by nearly everyone who writes about Ashbery, for instance, I’ll go back to Charles North:

“I find Ashbery’s poetry as surprising and inspiring as I did when I began writing. Partly it’s because, like his pal Frank O’Hara, he just goes on his nerve. But in his case, the “just” contains multitudes. Going on his nerve wouldn’t mean much if his poems weren’t so often startlingly original, or moving, or endlessly intriguing, or funny, or exploratory about both the outer and inner worlds, in the complexity both deserve. Which of course makes his poems difficult if approached with the usual expectations; to me, a part of his extraordinary achievement is to have changed our expectations. I’ll also venture to say that his complex investigations of his own states of mind, which include conscious and unconscious aspects, make a good bit of the other poetry around seem ultimately superficial.”

[. . . ]

“When poets I know wonder why he hasn’t yet received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the consensus is that he, unlike most of those who have won the prize, is not perceived as engagé. To me, and I believe many others, there’s no writer whose poems are more engaged with what it means to be human. Poetry sadly, hopefulness notwithstanding, doesn’t make much happen. But it does show us to ourselves, which I would suggest is more vital these days than it has ever been, and has a far more vital relation to the material that poetry is often supposed to be engaged with, than ever before.”


He shouldn’t be, but John Ashbery is an unlikely candidate for the Nobel Prize, for much the same reason he’s never been poet laureate. It has a lot to do with the delusions of the picture-perfect. In other words, for a person to be considered for such things, that person has to participate in at least some version of cultural realism. That’s just not Ashbery’s style. For me, that’s good news. We have enough poets doing that. And now I hear he has a new book of poems, Planisphere, coming out at the end of this year.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

John Ashbery - Like America

Like America
John Ashbery

People are buying store-dolls.
I wonder if that’s forbidden too.
Does it mean one isn’t to lead one’s life?

Today, a day that makes very little sense,
like America,
in clear disarray
everything’s getting worse.
Besides, who are we not to endorse it?

And these shattered ornaments to truth
almost grew up to me.
The sun and the yard
paused over a thousand times,
unable to explain the arch that is daylight.

And the tribes that were before
this panicked band announced it was quitting
saw the crocuses too. They were purple and awful.

It’s almost leaking to say it.
But how much longer could I go on not missing the point?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Flightless Bird

Every now and then I like to give myself a little homework. This time I wanted to do something with hyperrealism, so I went to google, of course. I can’t think of anything else to do with what I came up with, so here it is, dedicated to Larry Page and Sergey Brin:

Flightless Bird 1

what does my name mean what do dreams mean what does jai ho mean what do contractions feel like what do turtles eat what do ladybugs eat what do dolphins eat what do rabbits eat what do raccoons eat what do rose colors mean what do rhinos eat what do Russians eat what do rubber bands do for braces what do Russians look like what do Russians wear what do runners eat what do rivers do

flightless bird

who moved my cheese who is my congressman who killed the electric car who invented the internet who will I marry who wrote the declaration of independence who wrote the bible who watches the watchmen who was mysterion who was the 16th president who was the first president of the united states who was I in my past life who was involved in world war one who was involved in world war two who was Isaac Newton who was in my room last night who was in the river

Flightless Bird 2

it’s all coming back to me now it’s all over it’s all right here it’s all coming back to me now it’s all about you it’s me or the dog it’s deductible it’s just lunch it’s orange it’s my style

flightless bird

if there were no black people in the world if there are five apples and you take away three how many do you have if there are 20 chromatids in a cell how many centromeres are there if there are no sidewalk a pedestrian should do what if there is an unconscious player on the field what should you do if there is a tie in the electoral vote how is an election decided if I die in a war if I die tomorrow if the river was whiskey if there even is a river

Flightless Bird 3

how do I tie this tie how do people kiss how do I get pregnant how does stuff work how do I lose weight how do I know if someone likes me how do I know if I’m pregnant how do I get a passport how do I hide my friends how do I hide my comments how do I start my own business how do I secure my wireless network how do I send a picture to a cell phone how do I switch my phone how do I sweat less how do I swim in this river

flightless bird

when is easter when is the superbowl when will I die when will I grow up when is St. Patrick’s day when will the world end when will the economy get better when will I get married when will I die quiz when will I see you again when will I start my period when will I stop growing when will I start showing when will I start to feel my baby move when will the river open this year

Flightless Bird 4

is it true that the world is going to end in 2012 is it true that Obama will not salute the flag is it true that your heart stops when you sneeze is it true once a cheater always a cheater is it true that if you don’t use it you lose it is it true that you swallow spiders in your sleep is it true that your nose and ears never stop growing is it true that you are what you eat is it true that you’ve always been this breathtaking is it true that you can’t put your itunes on your blackberry is it true that this is the river

flightless bird

is it a boy or a girl is it any wonder is it a good idea to microwave this is it a good time to buy a car is it a full moon tonight is it all or nothing is it a cold or allergies is it a date is it always dark in Alaska is it always right to be right is it always essential to tell the truth or are there circumstances in which it is better to lie is it always possible to win solitaire is it always dark in space is it always 5:00 somewhere is it always cold in Alaska is it always raining somewhere it is always wrong to lie is it always this river

Flightless Bird 5

can I run it can I have your number can I get pregnant on my period can I afford a house can I take Tylenol while pregnant can I take a bath while pregnant can I trust you can I take Tylenol pm while pregnant can I text from my computer can I tan while pregnant can I paint over wallpaper can I paint while pregnant can I pay my taxes with a credit card can I play this game can I put my bong in the dishwasher can I put Neosporin on my dog can I put water in the radiator can I put wine in the freezer can I put this in the water

flightless bird

do I need a passport to go to Canada do I need a passport to go to Mexico do I qualify for food stamps do I love you do I have a.d.d. do I have a warrant do I have diabetes do I need a passport to go to the Bahamas do I have to file a tax return do I have depression do I have conflicker do I have herpes do I have the flu do I have an eating disorder do I have to know how to swim to go there

Flightless Bird 6

must we mean everything we say all the time must we burn this must we fear adolescent sexuality must we wear skirts must we die must we dream our dreams must we be silent must we leave the river

flightless bird

is there a god is there life on mars is there life after death is there school tomorrow is there any way I can get this popular guy to stay at my house is there going to be a new moon movie is there a fourth of July in England is there a way to see who views your profile is there someone out there is there a way to get taller is there a way to delete all my messages at once is there a million dollar bill is there a morning after pill for dogs is there a movie called Corpus Christi is there a mana loom in dalaran is there a man in the moon is there a new planet is there a holiday today is there a generic for lexapro is there a generic for Lipitor is there a history for forever is there a generic for nexium is there a generic for yaz is there a generic for singulair is there a million dollar hat is there a generic for valtrex is there a ghost in the river

Flightless Bird 7

is it safe to travel to Mexico is it possible to be pregnant and still get your period is it a boy or a girl is it possible to curve a bullet is it better to eat before or after exercise is it ok to wear black to a wedding is it ok to run every day is it ok to drink milk after the expiration date is it all right for me to feel this way is it all right to compress insulation is it this river we crossed

flightless bird

were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were there dinosaurs on the ark were there people before Adam and Eve were there any animals on flight 1549 were there any black people on the Titanic were there were there slaves in the north were there any white slaves were there any presidents before George Washington were there any unmarried presidents were there any Jewish presidents were there any other black presidents were there rivers before this one

Flightless Bird 8

can a fish drown can a fish get drunk can a fish cough can a fish swim backwards can a dog get a woman pregnant can a dog take aspirin can a dog break its tail can a cat break its tail can a cat overdose on catnip can a cat and a dog mate can a square be a rectangle can a square be a rhombus can a squirrel be a pet can a square be a kite can a bird smell can a bird fly in space can a horse impregnate a human can a horse learn to mimic human speech can a horse and a zebra mate can a unicorn fly can a river run uphill

flightless bird

will a gun fire in space will a short sale hurt my credit will a yeast infection go away on its own will a sinus infection go away on its own will a colon cleanse help you lose weight will a comet hit the earth in 2012 will a cell phone pop popcorn will a cold air intake void my warranty will a car seat fit in my car will a cat’s whiskers grow back will a candle burn in a spaceship where everything is weightless will it be worth it to find out will the ringing in my ears stop will river water help you lose weight will river water make you gain weight

Flightless Bird 9

where are they now where does the vice president live where is my refund where is Chuck Norris where is the g spot where is my state refund where is my stimulus check where is Dubai where is your appendix where is the grand canyon where is the superbowl this year where is the appendix where is Timbuktu where is the grand canyon located where is the pancreas located where is the head of this river

flightless bird

why is the sky blue why do men have nipples why is Friday the 13th unlucky why is Pluto not a planet why is the reaction of ethane with bromine called an addition reaction why is there no J street in DC why is there something rather than nothing why is there blood in my stool why is this the 56th inauguration why is this the river why is the red river flooding

Flightless Bird 10

are there infinitely many natural numbers that are not prime are there immortals are there irons on cruise ships are there interstate highways in Hawai’i are there igloos in Alaska are there really aliens are there real vampires in the world are there requirements for covered entities to have written policies are there real mermaids are there real zombies are there snakes in Ireland are there rivers in the rainforest

flightless bird

how long does it take to get a passport how long does weed stay in your system how long does cocaine stay in your system how long does alcohol stay in your system how long does it take to boil an egg how long does sperm live how long does implantation bleeding last how long can you go without sleep how long can a person float