Thursday, February 25, 2010

They Get Grumpy Sometimes, Those Poets


Every year brings another article like this one, full of numbers and projections and questions and consequences. This year’s installment comes from The Chronicle Review, February 21, 2010. You can find the full article here:

The New Math of Poetry, by David Alpaugh

“It's hard to figure out how much poetry is being published in America,” he starts out, and then goes to a beautifully absurd projection (that might turn out to be accurate, or as he suggests, conservative) of how many poems will be published in this century: “If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century!”

That could be true. I’ve no idea. But what is the point of all of this? Is this article just an interesting foray into number theory? Nope. He’s gunning to make a statement. And the statement is this: The Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize series are corrupt and terrible, and that the MFA system is producing a hoard of wannabes (I think that’s what he’s saying) all at the service of a few elites in academia who give each other publication and prizes. It’s not a new argument, but it is one that is made new every year. Here it is, at length:


“Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering along with the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, poets in the schools, poets in the prisons, and hundreds of other state and local advocates. Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.

“But there's a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders. None of the golfers who end up on the green with Tiger Woods or Annika Sörenstam are there because of collegial or personal connections, or a judge's subjective judgment, bias, or laziness. They are there because their scores prove them to be superior golfers.

“Perhaps the most sinister fact about the new math of poetry is that it allows the academic oligarchy that controls poetry to impose a nonaesthetic, self-serving scoring system without attracting notice or raising indignation. Since no one can possibly read the vast number of poems being published, professionals can ignore independent poets and reserve the goodies—premiere readings, publications, honors, financial support—for those fortunate enough to be housed inside the professional poetry bubble.

“Marginalizing independent poets and the diversity of life experience they bring to poetry may help bolster M.F.A.-teaching careers; but how healthy is it for the art? Almost all of the world's great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today (myself included) remain unaffiliated with any institution. Still, when it comes to the major awards and premier publication essential for wide readership, there seems to be little room at the top for independents. Apparently "Where does this poet teach?" is an easier question for committees to answer than "How good is his or her poetry?" (Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States, is the exception who proves the rule.)”


Well, Kay Ryan, while not teaching at a premier institution or MFA program, has hardly been an outsider, at least when it comes to publication, for at least the last 15 years. But that’s beside his point. His point is that there’s a sort of conspiracy out there, and at the heart of it are those poets who teach at prestigious MFA programs. So, is he right? Well?

There’s always going to be a point to such a criticism. In the face of the million thousand poems that are published each year, any editor is going to be unable to get anywhere close to reading them all. Same with book publishers and awards committees, right? That’s part of his point. The other side though, is what to do about it. What poets tend to do is to rely on what they already know, who they already know. It’s not evil, but it is a little boring.

When he writes that “Almost all of the world's great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today (myself included) remain unaffiliated with any institution,” it makes me want to reach for the bar graph. What is the life of a poet these days? What does he mean by “independents”? I get the feeling he has a special axe to grind on the stones of academia.

So here’s his bio note, from

“Poet, Teacher, Editor, Book Designer, Printer

David Alpaugh’s poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism have appeared in more than 100 literary journals and anthologies. His first collection COUNTERPOINT won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize from Story Line Press and his chapbooks have been published by Coracle Books and Pudding House Publications. His controversial essay “The Professionalization of Poetry” (serialized by Poets & Writers Magazine in 2003) drew hundreds of emails and wide discussion on the Internet. A graduate of Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley, he has taught at the U.C. Berkeley Extension; was publisher of the Carquinez Poetry Review; and hosted two San Francisco Bay Area monthly poetry readings in Walnut Creek and then in Crockett. David Alpaugh's HEAVY LIFTING (Poems 1995 through 2006) was published by ALEHOUSE PRESS in 2007. Noted for his wit and humor, David Alpaugh is one of the most popular poets in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a featured reader at book stores, cafés, colleges, civic centers and other venues more than 100 times.”

Seems to me he’s doing all right for himself. But again, it’s not really his point. His point is this:

“If Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" were published next week by The New Formalist, Alan Ginsberg's "Howl" by Gnome: the online journal of underground writing, and Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" by Women Writers: A Zine, but none of those three poets held teaching posts in creative-writing departments, I'd wager that their poems would not appear in The Best American Poetry 2010 or The Pushcart Prize XXXIV or make their way into a Norton anthology. Three of America's most widely read, genuinely loved poems would be published—but the event would be more like a funeral than a birth.”

Maybe he’s right. But if he is, what he has to say to people about these hidden poets is certainly a cop out:

“Every now and then someone asks me, "Who are the best poets writing today?" My answer? "I have no idea." Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable.”

Really? In the face of all of this raging against the blur of numbers, he gets his big chance to assist, to cull some of the chaff, and what he says is “I have no idea”? Nope. That just won’t cut it. I know the writers I think are the best writing today (that I know of—as of course some might be buried), and if anyone asks me, I say, “John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout.” If they ask for a couple more, I say, “Martha Ronk and Michael Palmer.”

Really I can go on like this all day, I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I challenge each of us who write about poetry to keep saying the names we believe in. Maybe the future will hear us.

The problem with this essay is it seems less to do with assisting the future in dealing with all the poets of the present than it does to get us to talk about its author, as his website says:

“David Alpaugh's essay The New Math of Poetry was published on February 22nd in both hard copy and on-line versions by The Chronicle of Higher Education. As with his earlier essays on Po-Biz it is stimulating much discussion pro and con on the internet and beyond.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jason Lytle’s X-mas present that I just found

It’s quite beautiful, classically influenced instrumental piano noodling. Perfect for a day around the house in winter.

Go here to download it for free (you have to submit an email address):

Merry X-Mas 2009

Here’s his note:

Hello to All! This is Jason.

It is approximately Christmas 2009, and I am letting whoever you are know that I have a gift for you, if you want it.

I set up some microphones in my living room and recorded about 35 minutes of improvisational piano music, and... It just so happens that playing my piano at home is one of my favorite things to do (in terms of music) so it was nice to be able to capture some of these moments of me just playing aimlessly and relaxed. appreciation to those of you who bought my album this year, or came to the shows, or donated money to help my sister, or even to those of you who did none of those is a gift from me.

I hope you all had a good year and that next year will be even better!


oh yes, P.S.

I should also mention that I am currently at work on a new album and although I'm quite sure none of the songs will end up on the radio.... I'm guaranteeing that this will be the weirdest, most wonderful mayhem I have made yet!

ok bye.


1. last conversation in waltz time 04:11
2. wild animals slowly approaching the lovely country funeral 04:25
3. out cold on indian ambien 05:14
4. Meeshell 03:15
5. good chord song for lp two 05:13
6. bird feeder soap opera plot 03:00
7. SepDecember Song 05:20

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where I Hope to Be Monday Afternoon: MOMA

Special Exhibitions: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
February 2, 2010–May 9, 2010
The Howard Gilman Gallery

From the website: Sixty years before the embrace of collage techniques by avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, aristocratic Victorian women were already experimenting with photocollage. The compositions they made with photographs and watercolors are whimsical and fantastical, combining human heads and animal bodies, placing people into imaginary landscapes, and morphing faces into common household objects. Such images, often made for albums, reveal the educated minds as well as the accomplished hands of their makers. With sharp wit and dramatic shifts of scale akin to those Alice experienced in Wonderland, these images stand the rather serious conventions of early photography on their heads. The exhibition features forty-eight works from the 1860s and 1870s, from public and private collections.

Aren't they fascinating? I'm completely captivated. Part Darger, part 20th Century surrealism, part Pop Art . . . I simply MUST get to this show in the four or so hours I'll be in town. We'll probably be there just after lunch if you want to go with.
What fun! What revisionist thinking! What a good use of one's time!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Clem Snide - The Meat of Life (streaming at NPR all week)

Clem Snide: Brendan Fitzpatrick, Ben Martin and Eef Barzelay

One of my favorite bands is back together and coming out with a new record next week. NPR is streaming it here:

What to say about Clem Snide? If you don’t know them or Eef Barzelay’s solo work, listen to “Forgive Me, Love.” If it doesn’t hook you, don’t despair. Skip to “Denver.” If that still doesn’t work for you, buy the album anyway.

Just sayin.

Also, if you don’t know much about Clem Snide, it’s worth your time to listen to Hungry Bird from last year (though it was recorded several years ago), and then the earlier Your Favorite Music.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Armantrout Is to Ashbery as Who is to Who?

Stephen Burt on Mark Bibbins:

“Bibbins does not write an entirely new kind of poetry (it is a very rare poet who does): he writes a kind perhaps 15 years old, old enough to have prompted reductions to absurdity (as in some of the poetry now called Flarf) and worthy counterrevolutions (as in some of the poets published by Flood). Yet it is a kind that still works, whenever (as here) it takes an interest not only in words on the loose, on bits of culture in the wind, but in people who mean those words or cherish those bits, who watch their city as they watch and love and often lose one another, caught up or caught out amid the mercurial fun.”

It’s a good review of a good book. So there’s that, of course, to merit mentioning it here, but what’s really interesting me is this sense that (and I’ve read this in other recent things from Burt) the time of Bibbins’s poetry, the, for want of a better term, heroic period, is over, and that this being over or passed must be mentioned. There was a direct treatment of this when Burt was writing in Boston Review about what he sees coming next, what he’s nodding to here as the Flood counterrevolution (I’d also toss Black Ocean and Octopus in there, to help define out the area). It’s a fascinating, if elusive, conversation to have and I wish I were having lunch right now with someone who wanted to have it.

(NOTE: As part of the conversation I wish I were having I’d at some point move away from the shifting playing field of period styles and mention period content. How, regardless of style, certain obsessive images permeate the period style. Remember angels? It seems a couple years ago you couldn’t open a book without paragraphs of them tumbling out on their wingèd feet. And then they were replaced by birds. And now it seems birds are getting a little long in the tooth and I’m wondering what’s coming next. I vote for clouds, by the way.)

What does it mean that the poetry that Mark Bibbins’s Dance of No Hard Feelings represents is 15 years old, and that counterrevolutions have erupted in its wake?

One of the poets said (I believe by Burt, but also by others) to be an initiating figure for this school that includes Bibbins (sorry for the clumsy taxonomy, but what are we supposed to call it?) is John Ashbery, whose first book came out over 50 years ago, and one of the poets said by Burt (if I’m remembering correctly) to be an initiating figure for the Flood (etc.) counterrevolution is Rae Armantrout, so that Rae Armantrout, who has been publishing books for over 30 years, is back as a new kid on the block. If I’m imagining correctly here, that means that even as these two movements can be said to lead or follow, it can also be said that they overlap, interpenetrate, and depend upon one another.

Rae Armantrout

To support this, I would say that there’s no major difference in the world represented by Armantrout or Ashbery. What I mean by that is that Ashbery, to me, moves through plenitude (or Planisphere, if I’m feeling clever), or, in more practical language, by tossing as much in as possible, while Armantrout, to me, moves though attenuation, or by keeping as much out as possible. To me that’s a superficial difference, and not one, at least in the way I’m reading them, to marshal the troops over.

John Ashbery

But I’d want this to be part of a conversation, as I’m not really all that wedded to what I’m saying. I could imagine restraint (Armantrout) and exuberance (Ashbery) as opposed, and I can see why others might as well, though I still keep going back to the fact that the restraint of Armantrout (etc) is the silence over a great leap of association that is then picked up on the other side. In that way, it feels less a restraint in the manner of Kay Ryan (who is the current poster poet for artistic and intellectual restraint) and more a suggested plenitude more in line with Ashbery (etc). Just to keep the binaries moving, I would posit C.K. Williams as the flipside to Kay Ryan. He represents the exuberance that is in tune with her attenuation, as Ashbery does with Armantrout.

Is it possible to have a friendly counterrevolution? Maybe that’s what I’m wondering. When I think of literary revolutions, I think of Lowell’s Life Studies turn, and how Tate freaked out over it. Or James Wright’s turn. Or Adrienne Rich’s turn.

It’s just difficult for me to imagine Graham Foust (as Flood champion) and Mark Bibbins (as 15 year old stye champion) facing each other on Main Street. The town seems big enough for the both of them. On the other hand, I could imagine either one deciding to face off with Kay Ryan or C.K. Williams, which is a good thing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Vic Chesnutt - Coward

Vic Chesnutt


I’ve decided this is one of the all time most harrowing and best songs of our period.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Art Fight

I’m putting away another little notebook, so I’m wanting to strip out some stray ideas about poetry and art that came to me at some point last month. I must have been feeling irritated by something, but what it is I can’t recall. Maybe a book I was looking at. And I don’t remember where the quote that I started this off came from. I think maybe it was John Cage or Morton Feldman.

Here goes:

If it’s true that, “In the end, however, what really matters is the degree to which an artist’s work engages intelligently and thoughtfully with the world it inhabits,” then an artist must have some ideas regarding and feelings about the world that artist inhabits. Having ideas about the world, then, is job one. Or else, if one is going to be some sort of passive radio, one must still have some way to tune into the world. For me, that seems to be essentially the same thing.

We can sit here and talk about craft for years, but if our art doesn’t do something within a larger world context, we might as well go catch a movie. It would seem important to believe something about the world—knowing it’s reductive and mostly created—but believing it totally (for a moment at least). Suddenly I’m finding myself in Wallace Stevens’s “necessary fiction.” I never cared all that much for the Necessary Fiction when I was younger, but as I’m getting older, I’m finding myself going back to it, even if I swerve around it a bit. It’s an idea, or a way of conceptualizing something that’s already there as an idea, that, as they say, has legs.

There’s no reason to state one’s core beliefs, but there’s every reason to write from them.


Bright colors and bold brushstrokes—

What image of the contemporary is going to dominate? Whichever image dominates will then form the frame that the future will use to place around our time. It will change what the future decides is valuable to keep. Conceptions of art, then, are not idle conversations.

Idealized female nudes in classical settings?

Street junkies in partial erasure?

The lady in the red dress is waving to you.

Visible brush strokes? Invisible brush strokes? A frenetic red swath?


The importance of inhabiting rather than simply knowing one’s world. This is why it doesn’t matter to me if one has overt ideas about the world, or is simply a “natural.” The ideas don’t matter nearly so much as inhabiting them, and then making art from out of them. If one is in tune, then one shouldn’t need to think about what one is doing, one should be able to simply do it. So that whatever one does next fits.

The artistic temperament.

Does this feel like the world to me? It’s my complaint with many artists and poets. Their work might be clever or whatever, but if it doesn’t feel like the world to me, then I have no real use for it.

A few poets who feel like the world to me:

Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Bin Ramke, Martha Ronk, Ron Padgett. The list goes on. It’s a long list that includes many younger poets, many of whom are my friends, so it seemed self-serving to start to list them so I stopped—but I’ll leave this list short to gesture toward what I’m thinking of.

The other list, the one of poets who don’t feel like the world to me: Ted Kooser, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan (and yes, younger poets like Matthew Dickman), and on. This is not to say that they are not accomplished. Obviously they are accomplished. It’s just that I don’t get a sense, a sense for me that is necessary and central to the art encounter, of the world working along with the world down the street. They seem liked boxed candy to me. A synthetic experience.

Enacting the world on the page is fundamentally political—it’s a version of truth to power. But it doesn’t have to be oppositional on the surface level—which is, it doesn’t need to enter social politics to be political. We always think of the political as social politics—as opposition, but often all that art opposes is other art—I don’t believe, in the end, of the big tent of poetry—a sort of interfaith community where we will band together by shared love of poetry itself.

Art is a competition for the real—the fullest possible reality—as reality includes the imagination and the possibility of an outside.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jim Kazanjian - Photo Collages

I can't stop looking at these. If you go to the artist's website, you'll find more:

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Monday, February 22nd / Tenth Muse 92nd St Y / John Ashbery

If you happen to be around NYC on Monday, February 22nd, 2010:

Tenth Muse Reading
Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y
with Marcella Durand, John Gallaher, and Robert Elstein
Hosted by John Ashbery

I’m attempting to put together my reading right now. I made the mistake of thinking about the venue. I looked at pictures of the space. I thought about the people who have read there. Needless to say, I’m now in the middle of a panic attack. Maybe they’ll let me run around the track a few times before the reading.

Anyway, the very first recording I ever heard of a poet reading was a recording of Robert Lowell at the 92nd St Y.

Just sayin.

To close, here’s a poem from Marcella Durand:

So Rare
To Anselm

so rare to write a poem at work
waiting for the chips to come down
or to calm down with the chips
light burning bright next to me
the computer screen bluer than oxygen
a mixture of chemicals?—what is inside
a computer screen anyhow?—while
people are waiting downstairs talking,
while walking down the street
looking for a mailbox, while wondering
why gerunds are so immensely
interesting, so proliferous.
And to think of interviews one could
conduct. And prone operations, while
laying, raise a hand. Scrutinize eyes,
if one is still open, the foggiest
retina of an idea, a whale passes
distantly thru the iris, an ocean
of gelatin, effervescent, with an
addition of attendance. So I write
you, the computer, and you, the
telephone, and you, the voice mail
hiding yourself away inside boxes
and cable-wires, and across this
distant space of a double-arched
harmonic acoustic freeway, with
walls the consistency of absorption,
you, waiting in the basement, you,
the one with the pen in your hand,
you, typing, thinking of excruciating
existence, the drawers and the penholders,
the whiteout and the shipping lanes,
the trademarks and the mutual funds.
Whether to invest in something the
size of a tropical depression emanating
from a continent filled with roads and
roads for the escapees of weather and
of circumstance. This water well was
planned a long time ago, during a certain
war, between the trusted and the vilified.
And in the quietude of the international
bureau, the peace of a carpeted fluorescent
skyscraper window office, the transactions
take place, in the meditative clicking of
a river without a dam, and the blueprints
of a bridge.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Low Anthem, A. A. Bondy, They Hype Machine

When I have a question about a new band, this is where I go first:

It’s a blog aggregator. As they say about themselves:

The Hype Machine follows music blog discussions.

Every day, thousands of people around the world write about music they love — and it all ends up here. Learn more »

So, just to test it out, a quick search of the two new-ish artists I’m interested in, The Low Anthem and A. A. Bondy, yields a ton of tracks one can download (if you’re a little patient). I suggest you go there and find, from The Low Anthem, “Charlie Darwin,” “This God Damn House,” “Ticket Taker,” “To Ohio;” and from A. A. Bondy, “A Slow Parade,” “There’s a Reason,” “Among the Pines.” Actually, you can’t go wrong going for pretty much whatever you can find from either.


This God Damn House

The Low Anthem

It’s a beautiful wisp of a song, but even more interesting is that it shows how the band creates its musical space. You owe it to yourself to listen to the whole thing, but if you’re the impatient sort, skip then to about 3:15, when Ben Knox Miller calls Jeff Prystowsky’s cell phone. Seriously. When I first was watching it, I was wondering what in the world he was doing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Rob Schlegel - The Lesser Fields

I’ve just finished reading Rob Schlegel’s The Lesser Fields, which won the Colorado prize for Poetry, and came out last year. The Colorado Prize series continues to be one of the most consistently excellent poetry lists out there. And Schlegel has a very light touch that continued to catch me unaware. Here are a couple poems:

Lives of Method

Day following day
And the contents add up.

These it is
That clash—then widen

The field of questions—

That which law
And spirit leaven.

Speak the world in multitudes
And stay in it.

Would that every loss
Reveal its science.

That every prayer
Conceal its source.


Until someone steals my coat
I am the younger brother
of each passenger on the train.

I polish their black shoes
and offer to clean the mirrors in every restroom.

At night I sleep and my siblings
try to see the passing fields
by looking out their windows

but the dark glass only reveals
their own reflections

so they think
if they could lighten their hair, they would.

If they could change their names
they would try that too.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Alex Lemon - Hallelujah Blackout

Alex Lemon visited here a couple weeks ago. It was a very enjoyable visit. He did a Q&A after the reading that went for nearly 20 minutes. He was very generous and thoughtful, and the people here continue to think and talk about the evening.

from Hallelujah Blackout
Good Times

Strangers will spring from parked cars
and howlingly sprint toward our children,
leveling the snowmen the kids are rounding out
with their mittened hands, leaving them
holding a carrot grown limp in the cold.
It’s a fact: someone will unknowingly carve,
on the back of a bus seat, a secret equation
that might let us live forever, but the next
teenager who sits will scribble
a speaking penis over it with a felt-tip pen.
Like drive-by shootings, most of our good
ideas arrive, get a look at our crusty
mouths, then leave as fast as they came.
A creep is, at this very moment, staring
into the silver light that is your bathroom.

But sigh—this is the lesser of two,
as they say—the neonatal is still
at the hospital, warming under a heat lamp,
and the man the thug almost mugged
is now standing at another bus stop
miles away. For a limited time
all-of-us is playing at a theater near you.
The boy with glass bones becomes a karate
champion so he can save his mother
from her indentured servitude
in the fantasy service industry.
Droughts. French maids. Acid
rain. Locusts. And James Brown always
unburied and in the cartoons. Thousands
of first kisses will happen as the bulbs
dim and our globe warms with teeny-
bopper moans and steam. More
and more butter for all of us fatties,
and the cherry blossoms just past peaking
as we leave, blinking and rubbing our eyes
at the innumerable stars in the sky—staggered
as petals spinningly fall upon our misdiagnosed
shoulders. Our lips slick and salty. Our bellies
sloshing with all the soda we can drink.