Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Laurel Review Is a Clean Workplace

The last three years at The Laurel Review have been big transition after big transition. First we lost one of our editorial lines due to budget issues, then my good friend and co-editor Rebecca Aronson left to move to New Mexico. Then we had an interim co-editor, Richard Black (who is staying on as part of our fiction editorial staff), and now a new co-editor, Richard Sonnenmoser.

Things have been, well, a mess. But with a new year comes new possibility. Number one, we've cleaned the place up. Indeed, Rebecca, if you're reading this, do you even recognize the place?

And a new intern! Hello Tiffany!

And the last few months of my beloved Amanda, who will finally be leaving after being the rock of the office for 150,000 years. And she doesn't look a day over 25.

Which leaves me all feeling, well, ready for a year or two without huge transitions. Also, we think we're going to have to rename the issues of The Laurel Review from Summer and Winter to Spring and Fall, as our winter issue seems to always come out in march and our summer issue in November . . .

Also, I could really use a shave.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rachel Zucker - Museum of Accidents

Rachel Zuker’s poems in Museum of Accidents (one of the NBCC finalists) are mostly lineated in a cloudy way that ranges across the page free of the left margin. As such things are difficult to reproduce on a blog, I went looking for one that stays tied to the left. There aren’t many, so the following poem isn’t representative in that way, but it is representative in tone and subject. It’s also much shorter than most all the rest of the poems in the collection. FYI.


When we made love you had
the dense body of a Doberman
and the square head of a Rottweiler.

With my eyes closed I saw:
a light green plate with seared scallops
and a perfect fillet of salmon on a cedar plank.

Now I am safe in the deep V of a weekday
wanting to tell you how the world
is full of street signs and strollers
and pregnant women in spandex.

The bed and desk both want me.
The windows, the view, the idea of Paris.

With my minutes, I chip away at the idiom,
an unmarked pebble in a fast current. Later,
on my way to the story, a boy with a basketball
yells, You scared? to someone else, and the things
on the list to buy came home with me.
And the baby. And your body.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The NBCC - Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout reading from Next Life, 9/20/07

The NBCC Poetry finalist list is out, and, as usual, it’s the most interesting of the big finalist lists, which was hard to do this year, as the National Book Awards list was also very interesting. Anyway, you’ve seen it already, I’m sure, but it includes Rae Armantrout, Louise Glück, D.A. Powell, Rachel Zucker, and Eleanor Ross Taylor. I read four of the five books, and really liked three of them. I’ll let you guess which three.

To celebrate the list, and just because I stumbled across it today (as it was linked from Silliman’s blog), here’s a snip of Rae Armantrout interviewed by Chicago Maroon:

CM: In your style of poetics—Cheshire Poetics, to use your term—you cultivate a system of expression that is both playful and complex, in which the unspoken implications of the words do just as much to unify the piece as the actual words on the page. What do you feel are the capabilities and the failings of language, and how do you go about manipulating this into expression?

RA: This is a good question, but also a large and difficult question. There is, paradoxically, a limit to the effect a direct statement can have. I can say, “I’m sad,” but that doesn’t make you sad unless you already love me. What art does, in general, is try to recreate (in some sense) the circumstances that produce certain feelings or thoughts. I’m oversimplifying now, but it’s important to say that first. Beyond that, I find that my feelings and thoughts are seldom single, simple, unmixed. Maybe a poet is a connoisseur of different states of mind. Saying that, of course, makes me uncomfortable. I wrote a poem called “Provenance” (from Versed) which investigates this discomfort. I’m going to give you the first four stanzas:

It’s characteristic of X
to place his anxiety here

between “time”
and “alive.”

What can you give me
for this glimpse
and its provenance?

I’ve got one just like it.

In this poem I’m talking about a real anxiety, but I’m talking about it in the language of art collectors. What does it mean to appreciate and judge the expressed quality of other people’s (or your own) anxiety? Is that what we do in the arts? I don’t know if that answers your question, but I took a stab at it.

+ + +

And because it’s a lovely poem, here it is in its entirety:


It’s characteristic of X
to place his anxiety here

between “time”
and “alive.”

What can you give me
for this glimpse
and its provenance?

I’ve got one just like it.

What interests me now
are spin-offs
of spin-offs.

The narrative
that rescues us
once more

in a less probable way.

By sailing
upside down at dusk
we’ve returned
from the land of the dead.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Here are two or so takes on an issue. First is from Robert Mezey, in the current issue of War, Literature & the Arts Vol 21. The second is from Ron Silliman’s blog post this morning.


It’s true, as you say, that many nowadays, especially in academia, disparage war poetry and dismiss it, but I think that’s largely the inevitable offshoot of some of their utopian left-wing notions, especially the conviction that war is an archaic and uncivilized solution to “problems” and can be prevented by debate, diplomacy etc., instead of what it is, alas, part of our very nature, however mad, however nightmarish, and something that has never been absent wherever there have been human beings, in fact wherever there have been primates.

+ + +

I was going to let this pass, but I can’t. It’s so completely off the mark. Mezey tosses in some convenient political bombs (“left-wing notions” “academia”!) to straw man himself out of a corner. And the corner is this: I’ve never met a single person who, in the abstract, disparages war poetry. What people disparage is just the sort of reductive, either-or thinking that’s going on here. The problem that war poetry has to deal with is the problem any political poetry, or any poetry that takes its subject or focus as a topic to be addressed and upon which to make some comment that might have a direct social purpose has to deal with, and that is that poetry contains the social, but it does not enter the direct social sphere without moving from the genre of poetry and into the genre of political speech. It’s a category error. Different genres demand different things of writers. The great poems on war remain those that are general in their direct, narrow, purpose, and large in their scope.

Anyway, that’s what I was writing this morning when I came upon the following on Silliman’s blog.


[T]here are no great poems about anything. If there is any lesson we have learned about poetry in the last century, that is it. Great poems about AIDS and war (plenty of those to choose from) are just like great poems about Cocker Spaniels, birding or breaking up with your lover, poems about, works that ultimately put themselves into an instrumental position that ensures their dissolution the instant they come into contact with time. A poem is no more about AIDS than Central Park is, or the Grand Canyon. The real political critique of the School of Quietude would be an anthology of nothing but Poems About. You could even let Ted Kooser or Billy Collins – or Alastair Johnston – edit it. But it would be devastating.

There are great poems that do engage topics or themes – Michael Gottlieb & Fanny Howe have written profoundly on the experience of 9/11 & James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage remains the best book on the subject I know of, tho it was written & published many years before 2001. But to call these works “about” the assault on Manhattan is to fundamentally misread each of them. That’s like reading Pound to study economics: good luck with that.

He seems to be thinking somewhat along the same lines I was thinking, so it’s two against one (which isn’t a fair fight, but a great war strategy). Back to Mezey then, for a parting shot. Here we can see the level of his seriousness, and, as well, a warning to anyone who might be parking next to him at the peace rally (and further proof of his belief in the inherent nature of war):

Once in a great while, I accost someone on whose car I’ve just seen the idiotic bumper-sticker WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER and ask if he hasn’t ever thought that the ANSWER might depend on the QUESTION, and if he shows the slightest interest, I describe a possible situation—the bombing of Pearl Harbor, say—to which war could be the only answer, or a horror to which the answer of war should at least be considered, like the genocide in Rwanda or Darfur—which usually ends the conversation.

OK, so I don’t have one of those bumper stickers, but the above is making me want one. I would love to have this conversation regarding the definition of “answer.” A proper response to a provocation (answer) is different than a reply to a question (answer). War can both be a proper response to a provocation and NOT THE ANSWER. It’s the difference between politics and philosophy (in which I include art).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chelsey Minnis - Poemland

Chelsey Minnis

Poemland (Wave Books 2009) comes without a table of contents or index of first lines, but with plenty of barcodes. No individual poems have titles (if there are individual poems) but every so often there will be a fully inked page (and barcode) that creates a sort of divider. By looking around online, it seems that each page contains a discrete poem (usually four or five lines long), though ideas continue across several pages. I’m fascinated by the whole thing, and the seeming randomness of application and tone. Here are a few poems (I think), as example. They all come from the same section (if it’s a section!), early in the book.

I like to live a hard life but I know I shouldn’t do it . . .

I should live an easy life or I am a fool!

The sea-crabs try to cling onto anything.

The crab fishermen don’t even want all the crab . . . they want money . . .

Even though their mustaches are covered with ice . . .

+ + +

If you are a person you can also be someone’s goat . . .

I can tell you about it for free . . .

I can long remember a nastie thing . . .

If it is well done . .

+ + +

I look to the left and right with my eyes and then I swing the sharp thing . . .

As you rise out of a cloud on a mechanized contraption . . .

If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream . . .

There is a floating sadness nearby . . .

+ + +

Don’t try to walk away from a little girl like me!

This is a recollection of flopped happiness . . .

And it is a fistfight in the rain under a held umbrella . . .

There is a way to smoke your cigarette and look out the window but you’ll never get enough of it.

Chelsey Minnis

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What Is Careerism for Poets These Days Anyway?

The following exchange from the interview of Ed Sanders that Poetry Daily had up last week as its prose feature caught my attention:

New Letters: I wanted to return to something you said yesterday, an offhand comment speculating as to whether you were literary enough for a literary quarterly. What did you mean by that?

Ed Sanders: I was more or less jesting. I did not follow an academic career. I was offered all kinds of jobs as a professor, which I turned down. I have by my bed Aeschylus in Greek. My Greek is still pretty good. I always read quite a bit of Greek, but I am not up on post-modernist theory. So I was joking. I don't write for The New York Review of Books. I'm not much of a careerist. I don't go out of my way to get published in the right venues. There are in-crowd places. I used to try to do that, to write stuff for the Village Voice or Paris Review. I don't know the answer to forging quote a career unquote. So I deliberately didn't take a faculty position. I wanted the personal freedom of seven-hour writing days or really writing around the clock if I wanted to.

What strikes me as interesting about this is that Sanders has in his mind that writing for The New York Review of Books, the Village Voice and the Paris Review as the things one must do if one is going to be noticed (careerist!) as literary. Granted that these are going to be examples, and not an exhaustive list, it got me wondering. If he says it’s the case, I’m sure it was at one time, but certainly that’s not what poets these days think of as being careerist, is it? Is it APR now? But what is a career these days anyway? Is it just being part of a coterie? Well, then, isn't whatever we do, wherever we publish, careerist? Like maintaining a blog, for instance?

So, just to wonder a bit, and to maybe take a poll, what is the current “careerist” thing to do? A “faculty” position, as Sanders suggests? Of course a faculty position is, by definition, a career, but I’m thinking he’s meaning careerist in a more po-biz sort of way. A kind of “getting noticed” thing, right? Was a faculty position ever that? Really, I think when people talk about “a faculty position” they’re really talking about a BIG faculty position in a large urban area where one supposedly has a lot of grad students and influence? Most faculty positions aren’t that, but it seems that most people who don’t have a faculty position tend to conflate faculty positions into this monolithic ACADEMIA. Blah blah.

So what is the careerist thing to do these days? Maybe I’m just obtuse, but I’m a little clueless. I’m guessing it has something to do with going to conferences or something? But certainly not AWP. I mean, I’ve been going to AWP every year since 1996. It’s a madhouse. Maybe there’s something one could DO at AWP that would be careerist? Those "in-crowd places"? Certainly careers have been advanced there. AWP, I believe is where Zachary Schomburg met Black Ocean. But it wasn’t “careerist” in the sense I think Sanders is meaning it. The editor of Black Ocean saw Schomburg as part of a reading, and approached him. That seems more like good fortune than careerism. So what is it?

A grad program? Is it careerist to go to grad school? How about the Iowa workshop? But then if it is, why does a large majority of people who do that (grad school &/or grad school at Iowa) stop writing within five years of graduation? (And the other careerist moves? Going to Breadloaf, I guess? Or making out with Allen Ginsberg? Is there something we could really point to as the “careerism” of our age?)

I’ve always been a little skeptical of careerist talk. It often seems to come from someone who seems to feel they’ve been neglected in some way. And isn’t down-talking “careerist” a form of careerism itself? A way for one group to call itself NOT another group? Or maybe I’m getting it wrong and am just revealing my own naïveté? Well, which is it?

Thursday, January 21, 2010



1. There are things in this world. One of them is language.

2. Scientists claim that we are one of only two species known to use representational language. The other is the honeybee.

3. Most delays are harmless.

4. If we think of language as a harmless delay, then we have made a sentence. If, on the other hand, language manifests as a delay that harms, we must make another sentence.

5. Language itself dwells in the interstices between sentences.

6. It follows, then, that while most sentences are harmless, what is rather more dangerous is the space between sentences. One word for this is ellipsis. Another is the line break.

7. All rational assertions have an irrational base.

8. Conversely, and as in mathematics, all irrational bases, multiplied, yield rational and irrational assertions, in alternating sequence.

9. Another term for this is grammar.

10. In the alternating sequence of positive and negative space--rational and irrational assertions--that constitutes grammar, the sentence emerges.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sandra Simonds - Warsaw Bikini

One of the things I really like about Sandra Simonds’s Warsaw Bikini is how she really throws everything at each sentence. The amp is cranked up to 11. And what good is an amp that has an 11 if you don’t crank it up to 11 at some point? It’s not subtle stuff (well, depending on how one defines “subtle” I suppose, as right now I’m imagining I could make an argument that there is a subtlety to her work), and, really, I think the call to subtlety that we often hear in literature classes is over-pushed anyway. Right? Isn’t there something wonderfully unsubtle about The Waste Land (among the subtleties)?


under a black bed linen he nicknamed “morgue breath,”
wore a necklace of Xanax, asked to borrow

my favorite lipstick and $200
for a rendezvous with his papa whom he fed pear soup

through a feeding tube I called “Old Saint Nick.”
Whatever plan he had for botanizing the black gums,

the titi and the small-fluted papaw dissolved late one
night in his reminiscence of younger women

and when I pleaded, “Leader of the Slavic Languages
Department, won’t you at least of to Albertsons with me?”

he replied, “The footpath from the north unit’s picnic area
leads to Lemon Hole, one of the park’s favorite snorkeling spots.”

Men named Marvin sent him packages of exotic fruits with pre-
stamped return envelopes wherein he emptied the contents

on a trampoline specifically reserved for his papa’s
exercise regime. I read books he wrote on the mysterious

bacteria affecting the taste of Apalachola oysters
while he took naps in the refrigerator. When did I realize

I was closer to his dog, Pedro, than I would ever be to him?
One July evening—sky the color of a peacock feather—

he passed out on a Lake Ella park bench so I took Pedro, the out-
going tide of the Waccassa Bay. Never before had I been

so within this in-ness, so close to the ribbon hiss,
hot wind, pulsing through the arterial, arrow point of abandon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bin Ramke - Theory of Mind

from Rover Verbs - Bin Ramke

This poem, one of the new poems from Bin Ramke’s Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems seems to me a good example of what Craig Morgan Teicher is talking about in the current Boston Review. Imagine the poem, perhaps, without the quoted material, as one way in, and then consider it with the quoted material, as all parts of a different whole. Or don't imagine that. Or possibly imagine the above visual art piece by Ramke. I wanted to put up a different onel but I couldn't get it converted. (You can find several of his visual art pieces in the downloadable online journal PARCEL, No 2 [])

Bin Ramke

in the next room with
a balloon above her head—
a dotted-line balloon—
a non-Euclidean space
which contains her
dream, which is
—I wish it were—

the balloon is empty, or,
her dream lies
around her,
an empty thought-balloon
to indicate the past,
its pure O of elegance.

How to make balloones, also the Morter Peece to discharge them . . .
Into this Balloone you may put Rockets,
Serpents, Starres, Fiends, Petards.
Bate, Mysteries of Nature & Art, 1634

Any bursting a violence.
Inclined this way, the head is balloon-shaped
tightly filled with memory.

I was terrified a balloon would burst
at my lips, the sound would deafen me;
the concussion a rage released . . .

after the party, little deflated splashes
of color on the floor, also cake crumbs
and the sticky remains,
the breath of the mother decorating the day.

Symmetry is the chance to return
to initial conditions . . . not nostalgia,
just home; not home but humility,

the humiliation of symmetry plain and
periodic agony not agony but a ghostly monotony

behind the arras a mother not uncle, standing
breast forward awaiting a blade and a piercing peaceful

as desperation in a phone booth
when phone booths were soundproof
when there were phone booths and the desperate would
make calls from there late in life or at night home
hoping Mom would answer, Dad already asleep.

106. Suppose some adult had told a child that he had been on the moon. The child tells me the story, and I say it was only a joke, the man hadn’t been on the moon; no one has ever been on the moon; the moon is along way off and it is impossible to climb up there or fly there.—If now the child insists, saying perhaps there is a way of getting there which I don’t know, etc. what reply could I make to him? What reply could I make to the adults of a tribe who believe that people sometimes go to the moon (perhaps that is how they interpret their dreams), and who indeed grant that there are no ordinary means of climbing up to it or flying there?—But a child will not ordinarily stick to such a belief and will soon be convinced by what we tell him seriously.

121. Can one say: “Where there is no doubt there is no knowledge either”?

160. The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.
—Wittgenstein, On Certainty

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Calling All Taste-Makers

A recent series of posts and the resulting comments stream on Johannes Göransson’s blog has gotten me thinking about the role of the critic in “taste-making.” I’ve not come to any great realizations on this topic, but I have decided that absolutely a role of a good critic is taste-making. Ron Silliman’s advocacy for certain poets on his blog. Johannes Göransson’s posts. Those are all a form of taste-making. Whenever I put a poem up from a book here, I’m really wanting people to go out and buy that book, and to value that poet, hopefully, as I value that poet. We’re all just waving flags, trying to get attention for what we think should be paid attention to.

And then there’s the strong critic who needs the strong poet to talk about. The great example of that in recent memory is how much Harold Bloom had to do with John Ashbery’s ascendance, and, in so doing, Harold Bloom’s ascendance. Helen Vendler, likewise, was instrumental in the late 80s, early 90s reception or Jorie Graham. And, more recently, I think Stephen Burt has been as helpful as Ron Silliman in the ascendancy of Rae Armantrout. Poets of a certain difficulty, or, as I dislike the word “difficulty” in reference to art, poets of a certain unfamiliarity, need, if they are going to be read by a larger community than the already introduced, someone to herald their presence. (And here’s the rub, of course, as that herald will also be heralding his or her presence . . . which brings up all those questions of intention and motivation that any such herald instantly gets smeared with.)

Ron Padgett, for example, could be more popular than Kay Ryan, if only there was someone to wave his work in front of the large audience, and point to it, and say a few introductory remarks.

And then there’s the flip-side. The difficulty in, as one is promoting that which one feels deserves promoting, dealing with all those who do not deserve promoting. For, as we say one poet is doing something of value, we tend to also say these other poets are not doing something of value. That’s very difficult for any writer to wade through, as the poetry community is fairly small, and most everyone who writes about poetry comes from within that community.

But, of course, I feel, as I’ve always felt, that if poetry were marketed more like the way alternative-music is marketed against pop music, then it would be much more popular. Imagine if poetry books were inexpensive, and literary journals (also much less expensive) were placed in the check-out aisles of bookstores and alternative grocery stores… Ah, the perfect-world fantasy.

But anyway, back to taste-making. I was thinking about this while reading Craig Morgan Teicher’s review of Bin Ramke’s selected poems (Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems 1978 – 2008) in the current Boston Review. I’ve read and enjoyed Ramke’s work for many years now, and I’ve always thought that his work could have a wider audience. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just wishing it had a wider audience.

As Teicher writes about Ramke: “Bin Ramke has a dedicated readership, but it is not a particularly large one. His work is probably too strange, too difficult, and too huddled around a particular vision of the self and the world to appeal to a broad audience.” That’s probably true of all poets, just about. But, you know, that’s the same thing one could say of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and if one were to be saying it, one would be talking about a greatly larger audience, person by person.

I’m part of that Ramke dedicated readership. And I agree with Teicher:

“Though it collects some of the most intellectually and emotionally authentic poetry written in America over the last few decades, Theory of Mind does less than it could to teach us how to read it. Many readers will have a hard time relating to what Ramke is doing, to how his poems try to make sense of a life’s worth of pains and joys by gently piling shards of experience and reading one atop another.”

That’s a job a strong herald (and Teicher is doing some of that in the small-ish space of the one page review). If there’s a contemporary lit person out there who’s looking for a space to fill, there’s plenty of room in the world of contemporary American poetry to write about fascinating poets who people aren’t writing much about.

Just sayin.

I'm Still Listening to the Music of 2009

Apologies to 2010, but I'm still trapped in the distant past of last year. Anyway, I got a couple albums at the very end of the year that I keep returning to. I got them after I made my “best of” list, and, well, it makes me want to go back and redo that list. But then again, lists are transitory things anyway. So?

The Low Anthem – To Ohio (from Oh My God Charlie Darwin)

The Avett Brothers – Laundry Room (from I and Love and You)

And then, just because, here are two more:

AA Bondy – I Can See the Pines Are Dancing

Bon Iver – Blood Bank

“It’s just like the present, to be showing up like this.”

Plus one more (from a celebrity YouTube channel!):

Son Volt – When the Wheels Don’t Move

Friday, January 15, 2010

Graham Foust's Poetry

A blast from the past. Well 2003, anyway. From Graham Foust’s Leave the Room to Itself. Foust has gotten a lot of notice over the past few years. When Necessary Stranger came out, it seems to me it was the book that everyone was suggesting to everyone. In his best poems, as in the poem below, he’s able to achieve a richness, a resonance, with fairly declarative, flat language. The narrowness of the line and tone is widened by the leaps of logic and association.

Graham Foust

Leave the room
to itself. Compare it
to a sleeping,
living creature.

Time is the dark-
packed house
of this place,
the luck of the desert

into the floor of the desert.

is ready.
A light burns
wherever necessary.

Like skin,
like a prison,
each thought’s
an instant ruin.

Leave the room the itself.
Here’s a needle. Here is the sea.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mary Ruefle - Cassandra

Mary Ruefle has, I think, eleven books out now? Something like that? I was surprised to see that, and then to see that I have seven of them. And I’ve just read in APR that she has a selected poems coming out soon, or soon-ish.

Mary Ruefle is one of those poets who doesn’t so much fall through the cracks as she has a presence in several groups of poets, which can be seen in her two major publishers: Carnegie Mellon and Wave Books. The first, a university press with a long and various list, but one that puts most of its weight behind fairly conservative older poets, and the other, a still fairly new press with a lot of hipness and a growing list of mostly young poets who no one would ever label conservative. In that way, she’s a little like Gillian Conoley, who is also on the Carnegie Mellon list.

Mary Ruefle’s work fascinates me. And the ability of her work to land on so many different, conflicting bookshelves. I don’t imaging that Tony Hoagland, for instance, reads many books from Wave with pleasure, but he has read Mary Ruefle’s work with pleasure (at least in the past). She’s found a way—or, more likely, it’s found her—to be something of a poetry uniter. I say that “it’s found her” because I think of her as a very natural writer, one who not very interested in schools and manifestoes (at least this is how I imagine it from reading her work). She’s the type of writer who bedevils those who like to make lists of where people fit, where they belong.

Here’s a poem from Indeed I Was Pleased With The World, which came out a few years ago from Carnegie Mellon, but which I just got recently.


I am on my hands and knees
looking through a grille.

I can see a television of the world
in the next room.
My family is eating very slowly, on trays.

I think it is some kind of hospital
and I am about to be born.

I will be the light bulb at the end of the cord.

A dark, angelic glimpse.

Everyone I meet will be either a spy
or a messenger.

We will go through the four seasons
in ten-minute cycles.

I will experience bath water running.

I will have my picture taken with a stranger
who will touch the small of my back.

I do not know if he will feel my eyeball
alone and quivering in its nest.

And because I do not know
if he will feel my eyeball
alone and quivering in its nest

I cannot wait to be born.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Part Four: The Great Buy of 2009 Is Over

Part Four: The Great Buy of 2009 Is Over
It is with a heavy heart that I leave my great book buy of 2009 behind. I'll probably never have a chance like that again. Bye-bye big buy. It'll take me a long time to come to terms with these books. I'm looking forward to it.

John Cage. Silence
John Cage. A Year from Monday
Morton Feldman. Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings
John Ashbery. Planisphere
Ann Lauterbach. Or to Begin Again
Kay Ryan. The Niagara River
Bob Hicok. This Clumsy Living
Franz Wright. Ill Lit
Amy King. Slaves to Do These Things
Marjorie Welish. Word Group
Marjorie Welish. Isle of the Signatories
Ron Padgett. Poems I Guess I Wrote
Ron Padgett. Great Balls of Fire
Ron Padgett. You Never Know
Daniel Kane. Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School
Chelsey Minnis. Poemland
Jeff Clark. Music and Suicide
Eliot Khalil Wilson. The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go
Sandra Simonds. Warsaw Bikini
Simone Muench. Lampblack & Ash
Lewis Warsh. Inseparable: poems 1995-2005
Lisa Robertson. Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip
Rosmarie Waldrop. Love, Like Pronouns
Andrew Michael Roberts. Something Has to Happen Next
Jennifer Moxley. Clampdown
Jenny Browne. At Once
Kim Addonizio. Tell Me
Tim Davis. American Whatever
Anselm Berrigan. Zero Star Hotel
Anselm Berrigan. Some Notes on My Programming
Susan Wheeler. Assorted Poems
Brigit Pegeen Kelly. The Orchard
David Trinidad. The Late Show
Daniel Grandbois. Unlucky Lucky Days
Mary Ruefle. Indeed I Was Pleased With the World
Rachel Zucker. The Last Clear Narrative
Rachel Zucker. Museum of Accidents
René Char. The Brittle Age & Returning Upland
Emmanuel Hocquard. A Test of Solitude (trans. Rosmarie Waldrop)
Emmanuel Hocquard. Theory of Tables (trans. Michael Palmer)
Emmanuel Hocquard. CODICIL & Plan for Pond 4
Paul Hoover. Sonnet 56
Leslie Scalapino. Considering how exaggerated music is
Andrew Zawacki. Petals of Zero Petals of One
Rob Schlegel. The Lesser Fields
Peter Gizzi. Some Values of Landscape and Weather
Noelle Kocot. Sunny Wednesday
Mathias Svalina. Destruction Myth
Molly Brodak. A Little Middle of the Night
Samuel Amadon. Like a Sea
Allison Titus. Sum of Every Lost Ship
Mary Ruefle. The Most of It
Brenda Shaughnessy. Human Dark with Sugar
John Koethe. Sally’s Hair
Keith Waldrop. Several Gravities
Mark Levine. The Wilds
Leslie Scalapino. It’s go in horizontal
Reginald Shepherd. Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays

Colorado Review
West Branch
Copper Nickel 12

Friday, January 08, 2010

Anis Shivani Wants to Start a Fight. Any Takers?

It might seem a little belated to be talking about this now, but Anis Shivani, in the Autumn 2009 issue of The Midwest Quarterly, is writing about the 2004 edition of The Best American Poetry. It’s not a review, but more of a general attack on what Shivani sees as evidence that, “[t]he various schools of experimentation have now become frigid parodies of their own early intentions, and nothing of lasting value is to be found in the detritus.”

It’s too bad the essay isn’t online. I would love to connect to it, as I think it represents the views of a fairly sizeable population of poets and readers of poetry. It’s a position that’s intended to be provocative, as Shivani is ready to take all comers, even the entire history and practice of the prose poem: “The absurd genre, prose poem, trying to be two things at once and ending up only with a restless, attention-calling identity disorder, like a teenager who can’t decide if she wants to refute her sexual identity or enhance it with cosmetic surgery, ought to be banished to the trash heap of failed twentieth-century literary experiments.”

I wonder what Montaigne would think of that. But no matter the placing of prose poetry as if it were solely a twentieth-century phenomenon, Shivani is wanting to start a fight, and there’s no room for subtlety when one is attempting to start a fight. And the punches are flying. About the Best American Poetry series in general: “Regardless of the volume editor chosen annually by Lehman, year after year the mediocrity rises assuredly to the top, assaulting the discerning reader with yet another collection of self-indulgent poetry, obscure and vacuous, in tune with the poststructuralist mode still dominating the liberal ramparts of the academy.”

It’s also too bad this essay is in The Midwest Quarterly, as there’s close to zero chance that any of the poets Shivani is attacking will come across it, as the aesthetic of the journal is about as far removed from the sorts of things Shivani is attacking as possible. I would welcome this conversation (or fight), as, when Shivani gets around to naming names, he names some of my favorite poets: John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Mark Bibbins, John Koethe. Granting him a few narrow points (I mean, I can find some poems or poets where his criticism holds some weight), I find his reading of poetry in general to be wildly slap dash and terribly reductive to a set of beliefs that I’m quite certain aren’t shared by all the poets he’s aiming at. For instance, he gets so inclusive as to name Jane Hirshfield an avant-garde writer, and to toss Carolyn Forché in there as well.

He mostly blames this all on the Language poets, specifically Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian, but also on the “avant-gardist school in the MFA universe” that “fights it out with the confessional school.” And Shivani’s third position is not a new fight either. People have been accusing poets such as Ashbery of vacuity since the 1950s, but Shivani brings a certain brio to the task that really is worth either championing (boo!) or countering (yea!). If you come across an issue, it’s Volume LI, No. 1. Here are a few volleys from Shivani to take home with you, for what it’s worth, along with a few responses from me, because I just had to:


The poetry avant-garde continues insisting that it doesn’t get enough respect from the mainstream scholarly apparatus, when in fact it has been seamlessly absorbed into the academic machine.

The obscurity of the volume under study [BAP 2004] is self-desired, fully programmed, and coordinated, not by any means accidental. This is a far cry from Randall Jarrell defending the obscurity of modernist verse to its earlier befuddled readers, as obscurity has been made the primary fetish, and poetry that seems easy to read being dismissed out of hand as the product of a compromised subjectivity. Experimental writers […] offer prolific defense of the new poetry, again and again making a virtue of obscurity because it supposedly forces the reader to be on his feet, instead of passively consuming poetry. But if meaning is entirely arbitrary, or if it is everywhere, isn’t it really nowhere?

[JG: I must step in to comment on this last bit. First, I don’t believe anyone is saying the meaning is entirely arbitrary. Rather, the rhetorical situation that is the work of art is filled with overt, covert, historic and contextual relationships to language as to make a final meaning problematic. That’s all obvious and nothing new. How one reads, and what one does with a poem (and indeed, the poem itself) is going to seem, perhaps, arbitrary to another, but it comes out of relationships with memory, biography, experience, and circumstance that are more than simply arbitrary. Just as any chance situation isn’t truly arbitrary, as all situations depend on variations within a context. And secondly, if meaning is indeed “everywhere,” that does not mean that it is “nowhere.” Everywhere meaning is NOT the same as nowhere meaning. That’s an old shell game some like to play so that the slippages and continuances of meaning can be dismissed to YES / NO economies. Indeed, at some point we have to deal in YES / NO meanings, but art need not be that place.]

In what they consider the paradigmatic Wittgensteinian move, avant-garde poets want to fragment existing languages, defamiliarize the nature of individual absorption into the capitalist more of production. [….] The obscurity of language is the point of the exercise itself—once the reader finds himself unable to work his way into an epiphanic position following from some discernable narrative of the progress of the self, he is presumed to experience an aha! moment, as the manipulations of the many operative modes of language become clear to him. This is the final revolutionary gesture for today’s American avant-garde poet.

[JG: I disagree, by the way. I think such museum pieces regarding the gestures that art is able to enact are only good for encyclopedia entries and straw man arguments such as this. Art itself, the artwork, the poem, is going to have to do more—and successful artworks do—than gesture toward some base belief about language. This is no more true or untrue than to say that Billy Collins’ poetry is there simply to gesture toward the fact that meaning can be communicated between people. It’s an absurd reduction.]

Punning is carried to such an extent in the new experimental poetry that it becomes unable to strike an effect in a reader; it stabilizes language, contrary to its presumed intention.

[JG: sorry. I wasn’t going to keep interrupting, but I must clarify that there is the possibility that a poem fails. Perhaps the wordplay does become unproductive. I will grant that in specific cases. That much is obvious. But I don’t see how possibly the failure of puns means “here come the Huns!” A failure of a method does not in any way “stabilize language.” Language is stabilized through repeated utterances that are then agreed upon in a community as fact. That’s just a floor show of blowing snow.]

Poets today declare extreme discomfort with classification and categorization, taxonomies and hierarchies, rankings and degrees, all the alleged blowback of modernity. Yet they never seem to understand that standing outside the tradition of reason and logic puts them in the undesirable posture of backing up with hallucinatory dreams and disconnected thought the rationalized destructiveness of today’s political actors.

[JG: I declare some discomfort with classification, etc., but not out of any desire to stand outside of reason. Classifications, etc., often show themselves to actions that are themselves standing outside of reason. I don’t like that. I like it when classifications, etc., are produced with caution, and go forward carefully.]

The poets seem to say with one voice that they are skeptical of reason, because it is often utilized for totalitarian purposes. But without the backbone of reason, not even the solace of fighting totalitarianism remains, only resignation to it. Art as handmaiden to primitivism has been overdone, and a retreat to classical proportion wouldn’t hurt.

[JG: Classical proportion aside, I want to counter that a healthy skepticism of reason is a very good thing to have, as all reason as at its base an irrationality. Granted, such a skepticism does itself not need to be a dichotomous flipping into “anti-reason” however. That’s not even interesting when teenagers do it. But art is under no rules to be argument by example. Art is many things and utilizes many means to move toward many ends. It’s a large room.]

So they state their disallegiance to reason, and pastiche and parody and merge and collage to their hearts’ content. We are supposed to be impressed by their nirvana of knowingness.

[JG: OK, so this one is perhaps just a taste issue, but I find no problem with this. I refuse to feel bad for process-oriented work. There are many reasons to read poetry, and the one that I most enjoy is the experience of the poem, the poem as experience. True, sometimes that experience is more of the sort of a rush of wind on a roller-coaster than it is the great weight of loss, but so what? Often the poems fail, as well. But poems fail all the time. And sometimes poems written in the style of pastiche and collage DO encounter the terrible weight of what it means to be alive now and to die then. A style—in and of itself—is not a value. It is a method. Styles and methods incorporate world-views, but that is not the sole argument of the style. I happen to agree with the world-view behind the work of John Ashbery, for instance. The world IS collage and pastiche and parody and more. What one is missing in this dry charge, however, is the WHAT that is being collaged. Shakespeare wrote from a standpoint of collage and pastiche and parody as well. So does anyone who writes in form. So? Well, I’ll give Shivani the last word.]

We’ve seen, over and over, the refusal to make meaning of the material world, even as this desire is stated to be the summum bonum of the poet’s existence. We’ve heard poets shouting that the tops of their unrhythmic, cacophonous voices that they desire to be relevant, to mean something to the culture, to figure out some way of making language the useful tool it was in prehistoric times (by which they mean something like four decades ago). We’ve seen them posture, and preen, and prance, and dance around in all states of dishabiliment and undress. We’ve seen them argue with political phantoms, philosophical quandaries, and scientific indeterminacies, which they’re eager to reproduce in more prolix forms than ordinary human endurance can stand (particularly when they turn their hand to the late, great prose poem). What we haven’t seen in this anthology is the poet pursuing the art of poetry as something other than churning validation of his profession qua profession. Strong poetry demands a strong audience, which these poets aren’t willing to grant.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

John Ashbery - Planisphere's brevity

One of the things I’m really enjoying about John Ashbery’s new book, Planisphere, is the brevity of many of the poems, both in overall length and line length. This allows the poems to play with the idea of concision at the same time they continue to apply the breadth of tone and occurrence typical of Ashbery’s work (which is interesting also when considering the overall length of the book - 143 pages). Here are a few nice examples.


Parents raising their voices and others
long to join the pilgrim’s downward trek,
if only to see nothing at the end of the gorge.

The mayor too was languid,
some kind of monsieur,
failing to grasp the humor in the kiddies’ spree.

And truth just kind of sails overhead
like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing,
empty as a cupboard.

Interrupt me (then)
with semi-elaborate everything,
spores left by a cloud seizure.
The block of flats will find then forget us.


or even undershirt, zinging
on the grass. The happiest place in the world.
Why we could have tryouts then.
Those who made it got to be seen
a last time, like the fourth declension
where everything ended in u,
a relatively neglected vowel. Hats were blissful
then, the margins
a bit off.

Who will take a deeper interest
once these flowers have been gathered
and bound, perhaps for later reference?
Who will notice us then
as we were noticed once?

The fire is coming.
It says to wait.


I remember I remember
the word “shovel.”
A very young person
—their child—called.
Was it right to remember
all the time? I am
sailing like a sheet in a play.
Others are there.
A dish of scrambled eggs
calls out of a dream.
We intuit the sill as “alarm.”
Nuthatches covet the sky’s