Friday, April 30, 2010

If You Got An Email From Me Today With A Link In It, Don't Click On It

It's a bad thing that will send links to your address book, that will then send more links. I can't tell if it does any other damage. If you clicked on it, please change your security information and log out. That might do it. I'm not sure. I'll find out tomorrow.


Thought Experiment: A Journals Project

I was asked yesterday what three (or four) journals would best trace out the arc of what's happening in contemporary American poetry, and it’s been turning around in my head ever since.

I went for:

Denver Quarterly
Action, Yes!

But I could have gone for:

New England Review
Colorado Review

or or or? Or maybe:

Kenyon Review
New American Writing

And then this leads me to another thought. Is there ONE journal that has a wide enough arc to be representative of contemporary American poetry? Or maybe two in tandem?

It makes me think of something like American Poetry Review, where a single issue doesn’t come close to the arc of American poetry, but a subscription does better, as issues seem to cluster around general segments of the arc, though never going as far into innovative (or experimental? Or Avant-garde or whatever) poetry as it would have to to be representative. And as well, journals like Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, and Gulf Coast, which change their tone and, well, vibe, I guess, as the editors change over.  Is there somethign to be said for that? Or is it better to have a journal you can count on to investigate a certain thing? A certain aesthetic area? And then there are the Internet-based journals, which I haven't mentioned much here, but which I read a lot (see list at right).

Maybe APR + Conduit (or maybe VOLT)?

Eh, it still doesn’t feel quite right. But such a grouping should exist. A penny for your thoughts.

And also, is there a list somewhere grouping of the aesthetic affiliations of journals? There must be? I feel like I’ve seen one at some point.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Werner Herzog is a Genius

Because the world is what you see in the world: where is he running to? Or is he running from something?

Because the story is how you tell the story: what does a fat man get for his troubles?

How close children are to sociopaths. The tiger dreams only of death.

(With thanks to Richard Black for directing me here. )

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Laurel Review - The Midwest Chapbook Series

GreenTower Press/The Laurel Review

The Midwest Chapbook Series

Final Judge: G.C. Waldrep

The contest is open to anyone who is living in, from, or closely associated with the Midwest, excluding close friends and former students of the editors or contest judge, as well as employees and students of Northwest Missouri State University.


20-30 pages (typed, single-sided, one poem per page).

Individual poems may have been previously published. You may include an acknowledgements page if you wish, though one is not required.

Include two cover pages: one with title only, the other with name, address, email address, manuscript title, and a short note establishing your connection to the Midwest.

Your name should ONLY appear on the cover page, which the staff will keep on file. Manuscripts will be read blind.

Reading period opens February 1 and ends June 1, 2010. Late entries will be returned unread.

$10.00 reading fee. Please make checks payable to GreenTower Press. Reading fee gets you a one-year subscription to The Laurel Review, starting with the summer issue.

Final judge for 2010 will be announced at a later date.

The winning chapbook will be published in an edition of 300 copies. Winner will receive one hundred copies. Additional copies offered at 40% off the list price ($7.00) plus shipping and handling.

Winner also will be invited to give a reading at Northwest Missouri State University’s Visiting Writers series, which includes travel expenses paid and an honorarium of $250.00

All entries will be considered for publication in The Laurel Review.

Winner will be notified by email or telephone, and will be announced on our website ( in August, 2010.

If you’d like an acknowledgement of receipt send a SASP; please do not send a SASE.

Send entries to:

GreenTower Press
Midwest Chapbook Series
Northwest Missouri State University
Maryville, MO 64468

Questions may be addressed to the editors of The Laurel Review at:

Recent chapbooks available from GreenTower Press:

Show Me Yours, Hadara Bar-Nadav
Off the Fire Road, Greg Wrenn
Anatomy of a Ghost, Rumit Pancholi
Instructions for a Painting, Molly Brodak
ITINERARY, Reginald Shepherd
The BirdGirl Handbook, Amy Newman
Grenade, Rebecca Hoogs
What Night Says to the Empty Boat, Wayne Miller

Monday, April 26, 2010

It's Over

It’s about that time of year again. As in, it’s all about that time of year again.

Final Exam


Which of the following best describes what you’re trying to do? (And tell why and how.)

1. Using language to get at something. I have this thing I want to talk to you about.

2. Doing something with language. Language and I are on this walk.

3. Getting at something in language itself. What can this do?

4. All of the above. (Yikes!)

5. None of the above. (Really?)


Short essay. Argue one side and/or the other.

1. Grammar is a prison.

2. Grammar is a solace.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Albums from 2010 (so far)

I have the feeling that 2010 is going to have a crowded field of strong albums, but here are six excellent albums I’m sure are going to stay with me, in alphabetical order.

1. Broken Bells – Broken Bells. I had it on serious replay for a while. It came out of nowhere, and as a collaboration between Shins lead singer/songwriter and Danger Mouse, I was intrigued but not desperate to hear it. And then I heard it and was shocked by how much I really liked it. Songs: “Citizen” “The High Road”

2. Clem Snide – The Meat of Life. I’ve always liked Clem Snide, and this album certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s less interested in instrumentation than Clem Snide usually is, and ends up sounding a bit tighter, and somehow more sincere. Songs: “Denver” “Forgive Me, Love” “With Nothing to Show for It”

3. Dr. Dog – Shame Shame. I wasn’t as interested in their last album, Fate, as I’d hoped I’d be, but this album has me back in the fold. There’s a larger idea at work here, a more mature sensibility in the lyrics that goes well with their tendency to get lush in a low-fi way. This time it works very well. Songs: “Unberable Why” “Jackie Wants a Black Eye” “Shame, Shame”

4. Eels – End Times. The Eels last album, Hombre Lobo was excellent and overlooked by many, and I expect this year’s End Times, which is at least as good, to be equally overlooked. I hope to be proved wrong. Songs: “In My Younger Days” “Paradise Blues” “A Line in the Dirt”

5. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening. A wonderful combination of late 70s Bowie and early 80s Talking Heads, plus all sorts of electronic and alt and punky things. “Pow Pow” “You Wanted a Hit” “Home” “Dance Yrself Clean”

6. The National – High Violet. This is going to be on my list of the top ten albums of the year, and right now it holds the top spot. I have nothing negative to say about it. It’s absolutely perfect. Songs: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” “Terrible Love” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” “England”

Other Albums of Various Levels of Interest

Band of Horses - Infinite Arms. I’ve heard two songs from the upcoming Band of Horses album, and neither has interested me as much as their previous work. Still, I’m keeping my fingers crossed about the album.

Bill Callahan – Rough Travel for a Rare Thing. It’s a live album, and it’s good. I feel bad for missing his album from last year, which I didn’t come across until this year, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. It’s excellent. If you don’t know his work (or his work as Smog) especially from the last few years, the live album is a good place to start, as an overview of sorts.

The Bird and the Bee’s new album playing songs from Hall and Oates? People seem to like it. I listened to it and doubt I’ll be listening again.

Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back. A doubtful idea: an album of covers done with strings, and the album, in total is better than I expected, but still not excellent. It’s interesting.

Cornershop – Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast. Interesting. A little too much of a roll-the-dice version of production. It makes it sound a little too pretend for me.

David Bowie – A Reality Tour. It’s fine and all, but it’s not a very important thing to have around.

Drink Up Buttercup – Born and Thrown on a Hook. It’s a fascinating combination of thought-out bits and over the top, off the cuff, bits, but it gets tiresome by the end.

Drive-By Truckers – The Big To Do. Good. I’ve never been a big DBT fan, so this one sounds pretty much like all their other things to me.

Dum Dum Girls – I Will Be. People are liking this. I didn’t.

Josh Ritter – So Runs The World Away. This might be an excellent album. I’ve only heard two tracks so far, and they’re both excellent: “Change of Time” “Rattling Locks”

MGMT – Congratulations. Eh. It’s not as bad as some are saying, but nothing really to get excited about either. Songs: “Flash Delirium” “Congratulations”

Rogue Wave – Permalight. OK. It’s a little easy sounding and slight for my taste.

She & Him – Volume II. I grew very tired of it by the halfway point. I love the idea of She & Him much more than the actuality.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

John Bradley - You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

From You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

John Bradley

Parable Embedded with Patience and Impatience

One bomb was stuck in his lower stomach and another in his upper back. He didn’t know how they got there, but as long as they didn’t go off he didn’t much care. The doctor who was also a mechanic by day and a doctor in the evening said it would be too risky to try and remove them. “And expensive,” his mother added. “Go on with your everyday chores,” the doctor advised. “Just don’t bump into any walls or slam yourself down into chairs. You should be fine.”

On the way home, his mom bought him a dish of ice cream. He didn’t even have to ask. As he ate, she looked down at the ice cream and sighed. “There could be a bomb in the ice cream,” she said. “You never know. I have one lodged inside my wrist, but I’ve never told your father. It would only make him sad. Besides, he has one stuck in the back of his head. You mustn’t say anything about this. I only tell you so you won’t act as if you’re special.”

On the way out, he bumped into the door. Not very hard. Just hard enough to see if the bombs were angry. If they were angry, it wouldn’t matter how careful he was. But with happy bombs, he could do anything. Maybe it was the ice cream that made them happy. Patience and impatience, that what he’d call them. He’d have to find a way to get money for ice cream for Patience and Impatience. Maybe he could sell more firewood or haul more water from the well. “You look so grown up today,” said his mother, rubbing his head, “so handsome.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Reginald Shepherd

On Reginald Shepherd

Art always needs to be saved from what it is at any given time, and Reginald Shepherd understood that. His genius was in his ability to participate in the fabric of the art. He’s part of the garment now. What possible way is there, then, to write about Reginald Shepherd that can equal his poems, his essays, his anthologies?

I first became aware of Reginald Shepherd (outside of some few poems here and there) from his 1998 response to Harold Bloom that ran in Boston Review. Remember that splash? It was wonderful. It’s worth looking up (and you can do so, as it’s still archived on the Boston Review website), even though it’s a controversy that’s over a decade old now, in Shepherd’s brief essay are all the elements that he would develop over the next ten years.

Reginald Shepherd was voracious, as anyone who ever talked with him about poetry, or as anyone who ever dined with him can attest. In fact, it was at a restaurant in Maryville Missouri in 2005, that I began to understand Reginald Shepherd. Reginald liked food, and was curious as to what everyone else ordered. He wanted everything. He wanted to think about the ingredients, to talk about them. Like it or not, eating with Reginald Shepherd was a communal experience. That’s how he was about all things. He was never satisfied. He was always wondering what everyone else was up to. He was quick to give credit where he saw credit was due, and was a generous believer in what others were doing, and he expected the same. He could be very persistent if he felt slighted or dismissed or attacked unfairly. But he loved it if someone disagreed with him, but disagreed fairly and without misconstruing what he said.

He was a man of large ideas and large appetites. I don’t know if he relished a fight (I never asked him), but he certainly didn’t shy away from one. As he’d write things like the following, as he was trying to describe that strand of poetry he would later call Lyric Investigations: “Such possibilities are often foreclosed or simply ignored by both the poetic mainstream and the self-appointed experimental opposition.” Such statements tended to stir things up from many sides. And then there was his ongoing feud with Ron Silliman over taxonomy. What are the proper names for things. He was a namer, wasn’t he? Identity Poetry. Quietist. Lyrical Investigations. Post-Avant. He loved taxonomy. Trying to name and describe what it was he liked about poetry, something he saw—or thought he saw—others missing, was his project.

There is great possibility in his assertions, both in how they extend backward into prior poetry and ideas about poetry, and the forward into new poetry. He wrote:

“What I value most in poetry is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words that are the poem’s body and its soul.”

And he was outspoken against what he called, “[t]he impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author” that he saw manifested in what he and others termed “identity poetics,” a poetics he described as “giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are.” He was adamant on this, as he saw it “constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for.”

He was a serious man. But he also had a light, playful touch, as you can sometimes see in his essays and on his blog, but which was readily apparent in conversation and emails. He was a wonderful correspondent. Here are a few examples of his voice from emails, the first couple from January 2008:

“But that probably would be impolitic and make me look mean. Which I really can be when I want to be, but it’s best that not too many people know that. :-)” [with a happy-face emoticon! I thougth certainly we were in the end-times when I saw that Reginald Shepherd used emoticons. Emoticons!]

“But I have made a set of belated new year’s resolutions (they’re up on the Harriet blog), which basically amount to “I will not argue with or respond to idiots and assholes.” Let’s see if I can stick to them.”

And then, turning personal, from later that spring, when things were becoming increasingly difficult:

“But right now I am practically flattened with fatigue, not to mention nasty diarrhea (as opposed to pleasant diarrhea, I suppose)”

That was Reginald Shepherd.

One day he sent me an email asking me about blogging, and what my experience had been with it, and then, within seconds, it felt like, he had one of the most interesting and popular poetry blogs on the Internet.

As well, he was a contributing editor for my small literary journal, The Laurel Review, and, in that capacity, he would send me occasional poems that he’d gotten from poets, with a little note about how pleased he was with them. He loved finding new poems.

When he and I were having a short exchange through email about his many hats, he wrote, “I don’t like anything I write to go to waste.” That seems an understatement, looking back at how productive he was in such a short time, but also a fitting way to describe his amazing talent to do things with what he wrote. He was purposeful.

He will be remembered for writing things like this: “Art’s utopian potential lies in the degree to which it exceeds social determinations and definitions, bringing together the strange and the familiar, combining otherness and brotherhood.”

And all this while his precarious health was tapping him on the shoulder, and the ghosts of his past were circling. Work was a way to exclude everything that was pulling at him, a way to focus. As he wrote in Orpheus in the Bronx, “I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature.” Yes, he had a flair for the dramatic, but it was hard earned.

Reginald Shepherd could be, as they say, a royal a pain in the ass. He’s one of the most difficult people I ever worked with, and I never tired of working with him. He was, in many ways, larger than life.

The composer Morton Feldman, back in the early 1970s, wrote:

“The day Jackson Pollock died I called a certain man I knew—and very great painter—and told him the news. After a long pause he said, in a voice so low it was barely a whisper, ‘That son of a bitch—he did it.’ I understood. With this supreme gesture Pollock had wrapped up an era and walked away with it.”

50 years later, in a different era, a different circumstance. A different summation of things. But I have a bit of the same feeling. Reginald Shepherd had the last 15 years in a suitcase, and he took a large part of it with him.

His anthologies, for one specific example, came as a grammar to the onset of the new century. And now Reginald comes to my mind often, especially when I come across something like a new anthology (American Hybrid, for example—what would he have said about that one?) or an essay on the art (Burt’s New Thing would have gotten him perked up). I thought of him last week when I came across Craig Morgan-Teicher’s piece on reviewing that he posted on Harriet. Often, when I read such things, my first thought is, “What would Reginald have thought of this?”

I didn’t always know what his take on something was going to be—indeed, I was often quite surprised by his take—but I always knew he’d have one, and that it would be interesting. And the same went for his asides, as in this one that came out of the blue once:

“If you didn’t know it, Dusty Springfield is a goddess of popular music. Shelby Lynne, whom I’d heard about but never heard, has a really good Dusty Springfield tribute album that just came out called Just a Little Lovin’. I love that song, because it’s about how sex in the morning starts the day off right.”

Dusty Springfield? Shelby Lynn? I had no idea.

His last few years were his most vibrant, his most vigorous. Our loss is in knowing that, and wondering what might have come next. He’s only been gone a year and a half, but it’s already a different world, even if one that he helped make. By the time of his death, he’d already made a lasting contribution to poetry, and he was poised to be part of a fundamental change—especially on the topics of “Identity Poetry” and his take on “Beauty.” The essays are there for us, though, in his books from the University of Michigan Press. One of which is just coming out this week.

As a conclusion, I’ll let Reginald speak, with a statement of faith in poetry, his refuge and his goal:

“I look to poetry for what only poems can do, or what poems can do best, to treat language as an end rather than a means: to communication, expression, or even truth. This moment of apprehension of language as an in-itself and a for-itself is both a model of the possibility and a palpable instance, however fleeting, of nonalienated existence. Poetry’s resistance to facile communication (which is not to say that poetry does not and cannot communicate) is the promise of happiness it embodies, a promise continually broken by society, but kept alive by art, which thus becomes a standing reproach to society. To imagine language as something that one simply “uses,” either well or badly, is to imagine a world that is merely a collection of objects of use. It is away from this instrumental reason that poetry leads us.”

Reginald Shepherd - "Syntax"

Reginald Shepherd
from Otherhood


Occasionally a god speaks to you,
rutted tollway a flint knife breaching
gutted fields hung on event

horizon, clear cut contradiction
through soybeans and sheared corn: blue
pickup an orange blaze, white letters

blistered, boiling down to tarmac,
asphalt, sulfur fume cured by a methane
gas burn-off pipe, blue flame chipped

with white raising a buttress of weather
-burnt bricks, flaking wind
totem. We stopped to take some cargo

on, weighted October with a freight
of waiting snow traveling east, panic of
starlings startled from stubble husks

by a harvest moon dangled directly
ahead: drove into the pitted sphere, bloody
pearl punched in a sky just out of reach

(vanishing point retreating, peeling),
one of the yellowed streetlights
by now, dimming, diminishing. The road

says to perspective, wait.

Monday, April 12, 2010

AWP 2010 Part One

Pulling into Denver for AWP, we were shocked at how it really seemed like another world. Our expectations were high, but we knew they'd be met. And they were!

Even so, they made us feel welcome when we got the the AWP registration area. The couples, so many young literature lovers, really brought home the feeling that spring was in the air.

We loved all the things the presses did at the bookfair to really make it an experience worth remembering. We felt sorry for those who weren't able to be there. And don't get me started on the panel presentations!

And so quickly, too quickly really, it was time to go home again. It seemed a whole life in miniature had just gone by. We'll never forget this year. And we look forward to DC in 2011!

The Pulitzer Prize in poetry goes to Rae Armantrout for Versed


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

AWP Offsite Reading - Cleveland State University Poetry Center and University of Akron Press at AWP

AWP Offsite Reading
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
University of Akron Press at AWP

Hosted by Mary Biddinger & Michael Dumanis

Date: Friday, April 9, 2010
Time: 6:30pm - 8:30pm
Location: Paris on the Platte Cafe & Bar
1553 Platte St., Ste 102

Join us for an offsite poetry reading at AWP Denver.

Readings by:
Allison Benis White, John Bradley, Ashley Capps, Oliver de la Paz, Heather Derr-Smith, David Dodd Lee, Elyse Fenton, John Gallaher, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Helena Mesa, Mathias Svalina, & Allison Titus

Sponsored by:
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
The University of Akron Press

Full details available at bookfair tables A22 & H21.

Paris on the Platte is about 1.3 miles from the Hyatt.

1) About a $6 cab ride from the hotel

2) 16th Street Mall Ride - the Mall Ride is free. Walk to the 16th street stop from the hotel and take it to Union Station (end of line). Cross the Highlands Bridge and make a left on Platte. Walking from Union Station should take about 10 minutes.

3) If driving, take 15th Street NW to Platte Street. Make a right on Platte Street. Destination on the left.

Black Warrior Review / Blue Hour Press Reading @ AWP Denver

Black Warrior Review / Blue Hour Press Reading
@ AWP Denver

Date: Friday, April 9, 2010
Time: 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Location: Mario's Double Daughter's Salotto,
1632 Market St, Denver, CO 80202

Start your evening of off-site events with a happy hour reading at Double Daughter's (just an eight-block walk or free bus ride), where ten readers will share the work they've published in the physical pages of Black Warrior Review ( and the digital pages of Blue Hour Press (

Christopher Cheney, Miriam Cohen, Shanna Compton, Nick Courtright, John Gallaher, James Grinwis, Chloé Cooper Jones, Brian Kubarycz, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Alexis Orgera.

Starting Today: The Blowout AWP Reading!

Starting Today: The Blowout AWP Reading!

Date: Saturday, April 10, 2010
Time: 6:00pm - 8:30pm
Location: Paris on the Platte Cafe, Denver CO
Street: 1549 Platte Street

Readers include: Matt Rohrer, Martha Silano, Patricia Smith, Sasha Steensen, Leslea Newman, Matthew Zapruder, Rachel Zucker, Cole Swensen, Cate Marvin, Michael Dumanis, Erin Belieu, Craig Morgan Teicher, Mark Bibbins, Lindsey Wallace, Kevin Prufer, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Erika Meitner, Alison Joseph, Catherine Wagner, Patricia Spears Jones, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Patrick Culliton, Catherine Barnett, Michael Morse, Sarah Vap, Dara Weir, Tony Trigilio, Michelle Battiste, Martha Collins, John Gallaher, Susan Briante, Paul Killebrew, Robin Beth Schaer, Laynie Browne, Prageeta Sharma, Pimone Triplett, & Jenny Browne.

Elisa Gabbert / Chris Tonelli / Eels


Chris Tonelli, The Trees Around
Elisa Gabbert, The French Exit

Poem with Diorama
Elisa Gabbert

What are you looking at, dog.
OK, I don’t belong in the park,

with nature: I’m not enough rich,
not enough poor; the fluff from a tree

makes my heart sore. I’m not crazy.
I just prefer the feminine remove

of a reproduction, of a living room—
the miniature texts exquisitely real,

if you had the means to read them.
Tiny poison in the wallpaper

in theory would eventually kill you.
Did you know fruit flies can have sex

for twenty minutes? That’s like half
their lifespan. There’s a couple going at it

on the parquet floor. The future
of the species depends on it. Unless

they’re just writhing in death throes—
hard to tell at this size. Either way

I’m not traumatized.


Eels, Electro-Shock Blues
Eels, End Times

Cancer for the Cure

Monday, April 05, 2010

Reginald Shepherd - One State of the Art

And since I’m finding things this morning, I found this version of an essay, as published in Pleiades, that was reworked and expanded for his Poets on Poetry collection, Orpheus in the Bronx.

One State of the Art
by Reginald Shepherd
Pleiades Vol. 27 No. 1, 2007

What I value most in poetry is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words which are the poem's body and its soul. I find this passionate intensity in the verbal argosies of Hart Crane's "Voyages," in the sly obliquity and exuberant surprise of Dickinson's "I would not paint a picture," or in the chilly intimacies of Stevens's "The Snow Man." It was the passion that I found there, including very prominently the passion in, for, and even of language, which first drew me to poetry, which made poetry essential to me, and which made me want to become a poet myself.

Dominated by the twin poles of earnestly mundane anecdote and blank-eyed, knee-jerk irony, much contemporary American poetry is embarrassed by passion, by large gestures, and by major aspirations, as if they were immodest at best, dishonest at worst. As Jorie Graham has said in an interview with critic Thomas Gardner, "we have been handed down by much of the generation after the modernists – by their strictly secular sense of reality (domestic, confessional), as well as by their unquestioned relationship to the act of representation – an almost untenably narrow notion of what [poetry] is capable of." This inheritance still dominates the poetic mainstream, despite the many and diverse openings of the field since then. American poetry still tends to dismiss or ignore those possibilities which cannot be neatly packaged and contained. Among poets who reject the mainstream mode that Graham describes, including those who see themselves as experimental or even "oppositional," too many retreat into easy, evasive sarcasm and tidy, self-congratulatory ironies. (Joshua Corey calls this "phrases meeting cute").

When I began writing poetry in the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties, I felt very alone in my aims and ambitions; much of the Modernist poetry which inspired me to become a poet was either dismissed or actively rejected by the prevailing aesthetic of transparency and unrectified feeling, what Charles Altieri has called the scenic mode. In the early and mid nineteen eighties, I was inspired and encouraged by the work of such poets as Kathleen Fraser, Jorie Graham, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, and Donald Revell (as well as by the work of my undergraduate teachers Ben Belitt and Alvin Feinman, two of the only true inheritors of Hart Crane), poets who took up some of the lapsed projects of Modernism, who were unafraid to confront the larger questions of word and world and their intricate interrelationships with which Modernism grappled. Even in their critiques of Modernism, these poets still recognize the possibilities Modernism offered the contemporary poet. Such possibilities are often foreclosed or simply ignored by both the poetic mainstream and the self-appointed experimental opposition, which in their different ways both tend to shrug off the heritage of the lyric, its passions, its hungers, and its glories.

Michael Palmer has said in an interview that though he is sympathetic to and even inspired by much of the work of Language poetry, he himself could never be a Language poet because of his commitment to the lyric. A commitment to the lyric means, for one thing, that the self (and its much-mystified, much-maligned literary hypostasis, poetic voice), however problematized and decentered, is not discarded; it also means that beauty is not cast aside as obsolete or dishonest. Such a commitment rejects a purely negative or critical role for poetry, for art in general (what Joshua Corey has described as the corrosive postmodern "No," these days too often reduced to an even more corrosive postmodern "Whatever"), in favor of one that, while incorporating critique and interrogation, emphasizes poetry's creative potential, the capacity not only to critique the actually existing world, but to propose alternative possibilities, the other-than of utopia. Too often it is forgotten that the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno's relentless negativity, his refusal of things as they are, was in the service of a great hope, the possibility, however often deferred, of a just society, a world to which one could freely assent.

Now that Language poetry, a term which has become so broad as to be almost meaningless except as an all-purpose pejorative or honorific (depending on one's position), has become institutionalized, turning into an academicism of its own (many of its original practitioners and propagandists now teach at various universities, after years of having condemned the academy as irredeemably reactionary and oppressive at worst, compromised at best), the opposition of experimental poetry and mainstream poetry has become more ritualized than ever. Both worlds, of the mainstream and the avant-garde, are remarkably insular, willfully ignoring anything outside of their closed-in worlds, or acknowledging it only to disdain it, as in experimental poets' pat dismissals of the imaginary and imaginarily monolithic "School of Quietude," which they define more in terms of social and institutional affiliations (and proclaimed or assumed authorial intent) than by attention to the actual work. (Indeed, sometimes work from the two "camps" is distinguishable only by the author's name and publisher: the reception of the text is completely subsumed by context.) As Oren Izenberg has written, "the poet's felt need to find a tradition has hardened into the demand to pick a side; and style is taken as a sort of a declaration of allegiance.... As a general rule, critical and poetic partisans, bent on consolidating, celebrating, claiming or extending one tradition, take note of the other (if they take note of it) just long enough to deride – and such derision is a reflexive reaction rather than an analytic one."

I am particularly disturbed by the self-righteous complacency of what Ron Slate calls the avant-gardeners, so smugly convinced that the grass on their side of the fence is not only greener but more virtuous. Their willful blindness to work by anyone who isn't a member of their club is especially problematic in light of their project's justification by its spirit of exploration and openness to the unknown. When it comes to the work of anyone they label a member of the "School of Quietude," all is already known, and there is never any doubt as to who is a member of this so-called school. If you're not one of us, you're one of them, and it is you who (by definition) are guilty of complacency and self-satisfaction. Such unnuanced either/or thinking is the opposite of openness and exploration, though it could be termed "oppositional" in a pejorative sense.

What gets lost in all this territorialization and fence-building is poetry, and more specifically, actual poems, as readerly experiences and aesthetic artifacts. It's hard to see how one can care about poems when one has always already read any poem (or rather, any poet) one comes across, which too many on both sides of the divide seem to have done. As Ann Lauterbach acutely observes:

The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to 'fit' her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. 'New York School' or 'Language Poetry' are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities.

The possibility that different poets and different kinds of poetry may be doing different but equally worthwhile sorts of things (one that is taken for granted in the world of contemporary visual art) is also rarely considered, or is dismissed as mere liberal pluralism and cooptation.

The opposition of mainstream and avant-garde poetry has become almost as ritualized as the opposition of poetry and criticism, in which poets demonize criticism as the death of literature and the imagination and critics condescend to poets at best and utterly ignore them at worst. This is part of what the brilliant poet and critic Susan Stewart has called the "general climate of anti-intellectualism and refusal of speculation by many American poets" (and that very much includes many experimentalist poets, who too often neglect the intellectual underpinnings of their practice). In this context, the prose of poet-critics such as Stewart and Allen Grossman has also been important in proposing the largest possibilities for poetry in its specificity as poetry.

Many more recent poets, following and extending the paths pointed out by the poets mentioned above, along with others whose work I encountered later, such as Michael Anania, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Alice Fulton, Allen Grossman, Susan Mitchell, Bin Ramke, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Susan Stewart, and Cole Swensen, have unembarrassedly embraced the rhetorical and verbal splendors shunned by both camps. (The mainstream rejects such resources because they are not "genuine" or "authentic"; experimental poets reject them because of their ideological baggage as part of an oppressive bourgeois culture, what I have heard referred to in all seriousness as the "hegemonic capitalist institution of literature.") In her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990, Jorie Graham has commented on "a renewed fascination with very high diction, surfaces that call attention to themselves" in recent poetry, while Marjorie Perloff has similarly noted an "enormous care for the materiality of words," as well as "a new interest in Beauty, the aesthetic, the pleasure of the text." While availing themselves of all the resources of the lyric tradition, such poets remain alert to the seductions of such splendors: they neither stop their ears to the sirens nor are lured onto the rocks by them. They sing, and see, and say, and refuse the temptation or the demand that they choose one or the other.

American poetry has been dominated by the opposition of sincerity and artifice, what might be called, to borrow a phrase from the French structuralist anthropologist Claude Leéi-Strauss, the raw and the cooked. Susan Stewart has called this binary a conflict between subjective and objective forms of poetic practice. In a perfect example of what T.S. Eliot lamented as the modern dissociation of sensibility, and forgetting the much-maligned New Critic Cleanth Brooks' assertion that the union of the intellectual with the emotional is a symptom of imaginative power, emotional engagement is pitted against intellectual distance, the consolations of pathos are pitted against the fetishization of technique, reified subject matter is pitted against equally reified formal exploration. What Barthes called the pleasure of the text is too often rejected by so-called experimental poets as a mystification, while mainstream poets frequently neglect it in the interest of allowing (or requiring) the reader to look through their words to their intentions. In both cases, pleasure and truth are pitted against one another in assumed antagonism; Charles Altieri has called this opposition the struggle between lyricism and lucidity.

Much of the work of the self-identified avant-garde feels like aimless doodling – there is little sense of urgency or necessity. Nothing is at stake, except the demonstration of how clever and "oppositional" the poet is, or how familiar he or she is with watered down versions of not quite au courant theory. (As Susan Stewart notes, "art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to be mere allegory [or illustration]; and... theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to [be] apologetics.") Rote gestures of rebellion are rehearsed, fueled more by a smugly self-righteous sense of superiority than by a will to change either the self or the world. The reader gets a mild frisson of harmless subversion and the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is a member of an exclusive club, disdaining the unenlightened hoi-polloi who are still taken in by things. But who or what, anymore, is being rebelled against or subverted? The work's minor dislocations and fragmentations have come to be expected and even demanded by its core audience. What is the effect of striking such pseudo-political postures in a vacuum of the like-minded? Given the inflated claims it makes for itself, as opposed to the affected (and disingenuous) modesty of the mainstream, the avant-garde's failures and blindnesses are particularly glaring.

On the other hand, much mainstream American poetry (and there is indeed a mainstream, broad, sluggish, and muddy) seems never to have heard of Modernism (or even, in too many cases, of Keats), retailing equally aimless examples of therapeutic self-exploration or convenient epiphanies: what has been called the "I look out the window and I am important (or sensitive)" school, which Jorie Graham has referred to as the "something hurt me a little" mode. Whatever their claims to rawness or immediacy, the emotions, like the language in which they are conveyed, are pre-cooked, processed, and individually packaged, and inevitably mild. The postures and gestures of both camps have become equally habitual and mechanical, as Eavan Boland points out when she writes that in contemporary America "the lyric has become associated with muted ambitions and a predictable symmetry." Susan Stewart's description of the prevailing situation at the beginning of the 1990s is still all too accurate with regard to much contemporary American poetry:

To write poetry at the present time is to be vividly caught between the surpluses of Romantic subjectivism and the depletions of modernist form. The rewards of a weak Romanticism in lyric – sentiment and empathy – seem both paltry and anachronistic, if not downright immoral, given their complicity with the reified and stylish forms of subjectivity that flourish in contemporary culture.... Yet those poets who continue a formulaic set of modernist conventions necessarily suffer from an equally disabling anachronism. First, there is the irony of traditionalizing the modernist project, a project which had sought a radical break with the continuity of lyric tradition. Second, approaching the modernist legacy as primarily a matter of merely formal experiments promotes an aesthetic of novelty and gimmickry – among those aspects of bourgeois commercial culture modernism took as its target in the first place.

Many highly polished poems from both ends of the contemporary spectrum (which is as much ideological as aesthetic) can be a bit empty, exercises in skill or virtuosity for its own sake: the reader feels that there is nothing at stake. (As Joshua Corey notes, vigor of form is essential to good poetry, but in some "experimental" work there is nothing but vigor of form – which is not the same as formal rigor.) Conversely, many emotionally raw poems can be too formally ragged, the art overwhelmed by its occasion. Reversing Pound's dictum that technique is the test of a poet's sincerity, many contemporary American poets seem to believe that technique is instead a sign of insincerity, that something too apparently shapely cannot be deeply felt, or that the urgencies of feeling are necessarily at odds with the imperatives of form. Even self-proclaimed avant-garde poets will often let down their formal and experimental guard when they write a poem or a section of a poem that is overtly, even insistently, About Something Important.

The best American poets (among whom in the last century I would number both Eliot and Williams, Bogan and Oppen, Berryman and Duncan) explore the myriad potentials of the word as such while still holding fast to the protean demon of content, grappling fiercely with its ballasts and its resistances; they engage in what Pound calls "sensuous thought." For them, artifice refines and intensifies passion, and passion checks and channels artifice – their poems are deeply felt and deeply formed. Their poetry matters and has matter.

The most exciting and valuable contemporary American poets (some of whom I have named above) fulfill the terms of what Allen Grossman has called the four tasks that the significant poet must be expected to perform: to point out what is significant in the world of common experience; to defeat given expectations with respect to how things are assembled (and poems themselves are very much in the category of "things"); to make clear how difficult it is to make meaning; and to make clear how interesting the world is. They are restless and searching, unafraid to be radical and ambitious in their engagements with both word and world. They don't accept easy answers (including the easy answers of negation), but they refuse to dismiss the possibility of answers. Their work is not simply (or complexly) reactive and critical; instead, while understanding that creation often implies and entails critique, they chart new territories of lyrical exploration, producing new possibilities for poetry and for our lives.

Unlike so many members of the so-called avant garde, they do not disdain communication; unlike most practitioners of the mainstream aesthetic of transparency, they realize that communication is as difficult and complex as it is urgent and necessary: they understand intellectually and viscerally the need to break through the crusts of habit and routine, of the already said that says nothing over and over. They are poets for whom the self is neither cynosure nor mystification, but rather an open question, something to be constructed (or construed). For them, experience is not prior to the poem but something we undergo with and within the poem: the poem itself is an experience.

While our best poets enact and embody emotions and ideas in their work, they also question and even erase the dichotomy between the emotional and the intellectual. Such poets have passion – their poems are not cold, though in some the fires may be banked, thus burning more intensely – yet their hearts are not on their sleeves but in their words. These poets alienate language from its alienation in everyday use (to use Adorno's phrase), bringing the word back to itself, bringing us as readers back to ourselves. They do not disdain or dismiss beauty, though they know that all true beauty has some proportion of strangeness and that, as H.D. wrote, beauty must have strength, and they will not settle for the easy and easily repeated beauties of the already-known. Finally but not last, recalling lyric's origins in the lyre, none of them forgets to bring the music.

Reginald Shepherd - Who You Callin’ “Post-Avant”?

I’m going to be taking part in a discussion of Reginald Shepherd and his work at AWP on Thursday, from 10:30 a.m.-11:45 a.m. in Room 207m Colorado Convention Center, Street Level, along with Brad Richard, Robert Philen, Catherine Imbriglio, Timothy Liu, Sam Witt, and Robert Philen.

Here’s a short essay he wrote for Harriet (I think?) a few years ago. We've almost stopped talking about these things, haven't we? What would he be talking about now, if he were here?

Reginald Shepherd – Who You Callin’ “Post-Avant”?

I was prompted to write this entry by the citation of my blog entry “Orwellian Me” in article called “Blogging the AWP, Part Two,” on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “*Footnoted from Academic Blogs” page. Author Jennifer Howard cited me discussing the shifting boundaries of “inside” and “outside” in the poetry worlds; noting my use of the phrase “post-avant,” she asked for a definition, which I provided on the site. It occurred to me that it might be useful to do so in more expanded form here, especially since Don Share’s most recent Harriet post notes that “Harriet readers frequently see calls for a definition of what, precisely, ‘post-modern’ and ‘avant garde’ poetry is.” (And no, Peter Campion’s uninformed dismissal doesn’t cut it.)

The phrase "post-avant poetry," to my knowledge first coined by Joan Houlihan in a jocular mood, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world (I’ve never seen it in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both). It’s used with the assumption that "we all know what that is" but, like the phrases Don mentions in his post, the term is rarely defined. Here follows my attempt to do so, for whatever use it may be.

"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant, such writing “intentionally blurs the distinction between 'difficulty' and 'accessibility,' preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.” Though many of these poets have projects and even systems, there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation”), but not many manifestoes. (Flarf may be an exception to this, but I don’t understand what flarf is or is supposed to be. And no doubt I’ve missed a lot—there’s a lot to miss.)

Some of these writers have been called Elliptical poets by Steve Burt, but though I’ve read his essay and I’m scheduled to participate in an online symposium on Ellipticism organized by poet Chad Parmenter, I don’t understand what it is either, though I have a better grasp of it than I have of flarf. Some of them have been called “third way” writers by Ron Silliman. Some of their work has been called “lyrical investigations” by me, in the introduction to my new anthology Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, to which I will devote a later post. (You didn’t think I’d let an opportunity for self-promotion slip by, did you?)

Post-avant writers tend to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don't just discard the self as an ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative of any variety. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle. They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical impulse of Language poetry. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don't try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions (let alone grand narratives) of artistic "progress" or "advance," though they are fascinated with the processes of poetic construction.

This cross-fertilization has been happening in poetry for a long time, but there are a lot of people on various “sides” who either don’t see it or vehemently oppose it, perhaps because it undermines their own carefully constructed identity formations (which many of them conceive of as having been forged under fire). Hardcore avant-gardistes, as well as hardcore defenders of a narrow and reified “tradition,” are at this point both ideologically backward; they’re still fighting the poetry cold wars. The avant-garde isn’t ahead of the guard anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. There are, of course, many people who haven’t yet passed through the avant-garde and never will. (It would be nice if some of those people would at least read Eliot. But then, it would be nice if some of those people would read Keats.) But once you have passed through that avant-garde door, there is no ahead, no destination or telos, just an open field. Art critic Arthur C. Danto, in such books as After the End of Art, Beyond the Brillo Box, and The State of the Art, and music critic Alex Ross, in his brilliant book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, both make this point about, respectively, visual art and music. Ross’s book includes a wonderful 1992 quote from composer John Cage, whose avant-garde credentials are impeccable: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.”

My partner Robert Philen, a cultural anthropologist who maintains a brilliant and wide-ranging blog, tells me that the same phenomenon is occurring in the social sciences where, for example, the dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative research are breaking down.

There are doubtless many “post-avant” poets who would not recognize themselves in this description and would even vehemently reject it (practitioners of flarf, for instance, which I can’t describe, might do so), and some wouldn’t consider themselves “post-avant” at all. But I think this is a fair though broad description of a significant area of contemporary poetic activity.

Some established poets whose work maps out or creates this third space are Michael Anania, Paul Auster (though I don’t know if he still writes poetry), Bruce Beasley, Martine Bellen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Gillian Conoley, Carolyn Forché, Peter Gizzi, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, C.S. Giscombe, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Ann Lauterbach, Timothy Liu, Jane Miller, Michael Palmer, Suzanne Paola, John Peck, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright. Most of these writers are included in the aforementioned Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, edited by moi and just out from Counterpath Press, with generous blurbs from Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff.

Some “emerging” or less-established poets who work in this space are Christopher Arigo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jasper Bernes, Laynie Browne, Julie Carr, Joshua Clover, Joshua Corey, Cynthia Cruz, Jocelyn Emerson, Amy England, Lisa Fishman, Graham Foust, John Gallaher, Michele Glazer, Noah Eli Gordon, Matthea Harvey, Brian Henry, Joan Houlihan, Christine Hume, Catherine Imbriglio, Julie Kalendek, Joanna Klink, Joshua Kryah, Joseph Lease, Malinda Markham, Mark McMorris, Rusty Morrison, Jenny Mueller, Laura Mullen, Amy Newman, Geoffrey Nutter, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Tracy Philpot, D.A. Powell, Heather Ramsdell, Rebecca Reynolds, Brenda Shaughnessy, 'Annah Sobelman, Brian Teare, Karen Volkman, G.C. Waldrep, Tyrone Williams, Sam Witt, Andrew Zawacki, and Rachel Zucker. Many of these writers are included in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2004.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, or even a list of all the poets whose work I enjoy who write “that kind of poetry” (as Joan Houlihan writes that editors refer to it).

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Gustaf Sobin - Collected Poems - Talisman House - 2010

I've ordered it, but I don't have Sobin's Collected Poems yet, so reposting today's poem from Poetry Daily will have to do until it gets here. I've been thinking about this book, and asking about it, since I first heard word a cople years ago that it was going to be published by Talisman.  And now the wait is down to days.

According to Seneca

... every wind, according to
Seneca, has
origins in some deep-
seated stellar configuration. once, every
word, its every

vocable, came rippling out of an else-

where that
was. edge, then, towards what? you, who'd
scraped pebbles, goaded
shadows, hover,
now, in the

coves of imploded

lusion. here, where even the air, this
morning, lies as if
pacted, yes, in so
many exhausted particles, would

feed yourself, wouldn't you, to
slightest interstice, oversight, pry free of
your own, in-

replication. for just beyond would lie the
chords, the
sonorous reefs of
some suggested passage. whisper, then. yes,

murmur the
wavering blue line of that
tenuous horizon: 'wind,' 'waves,' 'whitecaps,'
what, in

themselves, meant nothing, whereas nothing, you
knew, without them (burst,
pulverized) could

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Alfred Molina in "Red," a play about Mark Rothko

From The PBS News Hour: A scene from 'Red' starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Video courtesy the Donmar Warehouse Theater in New York.

I’m not much for theater acting, mostly, as it causes people to act large and project, but that’s beside the point. Also, I know nothing about how Rothko was in life, but I know two things from the above depiction:

1. The issues raised in this little speech are absolutely central to conversations we’re still having / not having about the arts. This is why conversations about what we're doing, and what we've done, are fundamental to what we've done, and to what we're doing and are going to do. So when someone says to you that you would be better off working on your art than talking or writing about art, they're missing the point. Talking about art is working on one's art.

2. I would not like to be trapped by an artist before that artist’s work without being well-prepared with something to say. Smart, thoughtful people, who also have an axe to grind, can be formidable.

Friday, April 02, 2010


Aaron Plasek, Stars Are Symbols Curator
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

6:00 pm – 7:30 pm: Drink To Support Contemporary Literature!

Beer will start flowing at 6 pm by a still-to-be-announced brewery. All beer sales from the evening will be donated to several literary journals who call Colorado home. Even if you have other AWP-related events to attend to tonight, be sure to start your evening here.

7:30 pm – 9:30 pm: Stars are Symbols AWP Off-site Reading!

See and hear the writers perform! Some readings will involve props, like graphing calculators or cellos. Check back here on March 15th for a complete list of readers and further details.


Charles Malone
Nicolette Bond
Adam Peterson
Susan Tepper
Matt Bell
John Gallaher
Adam D Jameson
Shawn Huelle
Rico Moore
Daniel Borzutzky
Jake Adam York
Matthew Cooperman
Aby Kaupang
David Bowen
Jenifer Park
Janelle Welsh

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Thank You

I am deeply honored, and extend my thanks to the Pulitzer committee. And thank you all for the good wishes. I really don’t know what to say. It was so unexpected.