Monday, May 31, 2010

The Most Wanted Painting in the U.S. (as of Dec. 1993)

An oldie but a goodie; some George Washington for Memorial Day (formerly known as Decoration Day, FYI):

The paintings turn out to be quite post-modern and funny. The U.S. one and the China one are my favorites.

It’s art by survey!

Here are the survey notes that went into the above painting:


The survey was conducted by Marttila & Kiley, Inc. of Boston, between December 10 and December 21, 1993. 1001 adult Americas residing in the 48 contiguous states were interviewed by telephone by trained professionals. The typical interview took 24 minutes to complete. Respondents were selected from all American households using a random probability sampling procedure which included unlisted phone numbers. The sample was stratified according to state. Gender quotas were observed, so the final sample is 53 percent female and 47 percent male.

To a surprising extent, the public tends to agree on what it likes to see in a work of art. Americans generally tend to prefer, for instance, traditional styles over more modern designs; they also express a strong preference for paintings that depict landscapes or similar outdoor scenes. In addition, most Americans tend to favor artists known for a realistic style over those whose artworks are more abstract or modernistic.

Americans who take a more active interest in the visual arts tend to be less definitive in matters of taste, and to welcome a greater diversity of artistic styles. As a general rule, Americans who might be expected to have a more detailed knowledge of art - those who visit an art museum with some regularity, as well as those with a higher level of academic attainment and those who are more affluent - appear to be less set in their views about what constitutes "good art." These Americans are, for instance, noticeably less likely to express a firm preference for a particular type of painting or school of art, and more likely to say that their opinion of a given artwork depends on more than one given factor.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Midwest Chapbook Series Deadline Is This Week

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. (You can still send on Tuesday and it'll be fine.)

 $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 fall issue.

 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

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leslie Scalapino Dies at 65

I just heard via facebook that Leslie Scalapino has died, and then I saw that her Wikipedia page has been updated with the same information. Her work was consciously exploratory in ways that, as Charles Bernstein wrote on th eback of her recent selected poems, "take us beyond any dislocating devices."

from Floating Series 2

the crowd
returning when
the man - of their race, though
in the police - he'd
left the van
was immolated by them - on
a field

myself or
a person
aging and dying when
that's seen by
a setting
from - that
of - when
we were young


- as in
the middle

the man - who'd
with the bud of it
her still - when
she had

and - their
sense of the
city - as some
ideal spot
and - where
not going to
be able to live

Dennis Hopper Dies at 74

Dennis Hopper defined cool to me.

From The New York Times:

Dennis Hopper, Cinematic Iconoclast, Dies at 74

Dennis Hopper, whose portrayals of drug-addled, often deranged misfits in the landmark films "Easy Rider,""Apocalypse Now" and "Blue Velvet" drew on his early out-of-control experiences as part of a new generation of Hollywood rebel, died at his home in Venice, Calif., on Saturday, according to reports. He was 74.

The Brittle Age & Returning Upland

René Char

from The Brittle Age and Returning Upland
trans. Gustaf Sobin
Counterpath Press 2009


In fidelity we learn never to be consoled.


In whatever I trace and undertake, I feel bound neither to a bordering death nor to its rush in a heightened and hazardous freedom, but to the mirrors and harvests of our burning world.


End of Solemnities

Strengthened by the goodness of a winter fruit, I brought the fire into the house. The civilization of storms dripped from the overhanging tiles. I’ll now be free to detest tradition, to dream of the frost of those that passed on the scarcely captious pathways. But to whom will I entrust my unborn children? Solitude was without its spaces; the white flame sank and its warmth only offered an expiring gesture.

Without solemnity I leapt over this walled-in world; coatless, I’ll love whatever trembled beneath me.


The Left-handed

There is nothing to console us when we walk, holding a hand, the perilous blossoming of the flesh at hand.

The obscuring of the hand, pressing and pulling us, this innocent, this fragrant hand into which we add ourselves and subsist, that spares us neither thorns nor ravines, neither the premature fire nor the encirclement of men, this hand, the most beloved of all, removes us from the shadow’s duplication at the daylight of evening. The daylight, glittering above evening, when its threshold of agony has crumpled.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Soundtrack (The National, etc) / Bookshelf (Saltgrass, etc)

At sixteen. Which one was me?

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

One of the things that’s interesting me is just how much music from the 70s and 80s is making a comeback, filtered through new bands. It’s to be expected that music recycles as everything recycles, but some new bands are taking this to a new height. Band of Horses seems intent on becoming The Eagles, for example, mixed a bit with what’s come after, of course, and then a bit of Gerry Rafferty . . . and I still keep expecting The National to sing “Bella Lugosi’s dead,” or maybe something from The Psychedelic Furs. She & Him continue to pretend it’s 1968. The Bird and the Bee has pulled the curtain down, and done a whole album from the Hall & Oates catalogue, following a bit of the example from the fun albums from Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs that explored covers first from the 60s and then 70s, but perhaps the most obvious throwback is LCD Soundsystem, which slips in beautifully between the Eno association with David Bowie and the Eno association with Talking Heads.

On the other hand, there’s the continuing influence of the mix of 80s disco elements with the more psychedelic 60s elements of The Flaming Lips, that everyone saw in MGMT, and now is just as interestingly mined in Neon Indian, while the Lips, themselves, have re-recorded The Dark Side of the Moon.

For me this all means good times. I get to seem all hip and into new music while at the same time I get to stroll up and down Nostalgia Avenue, pretending I’m 16.


The new issue of Saltgrass is available, featuring:

Lisa Jarnot, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Natalie Lyalin, Sandra Simonds, Laura Eve Engel, Tristan Tzara (translated by Heather Green), Gabe Durham, Maged Zaher, Jennifer Denrow, Catherine Meng, J. Boyer and Mark Yakich. You can order a print copy on their website:

Only $5!

Which reminds me how handy blogs are for literary journal websites. Now that’s a use of a blog that is both ubiquitous and not theorized (for those who like to theorize).

Four Way Books will read submissions in June 2010, including poetry collections, (regardless of your publication history), short story collections and novellas. Submissions sent to FWBs in June are selected by their editorial board, not by an outside judge. Submission guidelines for the June Reading Period are available at

Which reminds me how much I enjoyed working with them on a book back in 2007. It’s a wonderful press.

If you are anywhere near Rochester, NY, BOA is hosting “Poetry Is Jazz” on Tuesday, June 15 at 6:00pm at 137 East Avenue.

It reminds me how people often talk of the structure of poetry being similar to the way a joke works, with the big switch coming at some point. The turn. That’s all fine and good, but I prefer the Bebop analogy, how it’s all about improvisation through theme and variation. It’s an easy caricature, the jazz musician and the poet, and it gets a laugh every time, but there’s a great affinity underneath.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From the notebooks - third bit (for now)

This is the last installment (for now) of things transcribed from old notebooks. I have three others I need to go through, but I’ve decided to put them off for some other time. Now I get to put two in to the deep freeze. So what are we supposed to do with all of our old notebooks, once we’ve gone back through them? They tend to clutter up the place. And the notebook I’m working on now is ¾ of the way done. The question remains.

A little incongruity can go a long way. The difficulty is when incongruity becomes studied. Something that simulates thinking, some falsification. Mass production always replaces originality. (There is no originality for mass production to replace.)

What do we make of people who come by things through studying them rather than living them? That seems to be the argument against MFA programs. That you “study” there rather than live your way into the art there. Is this a real distinction, or is it a misunderstanding of “study” and “living”? Is one not living while one studies (and all the disruptions that come with living), and is one not studying while one lives (paying attention to what’s happening, learning from it)?

If memory is a text it can be used as a text.

All we’ve done in art is to think of everything from A to B. At times that exhilarates me, at times that depresses me.

In art, what we think follows what we do. Hopefully. That’s the best way. Going on your gut has always appealed to me more than going on an idea.

I love the idea of throwing something at the canvas. Of ripping the canvas.

It’s amazing that so many people still subscribe to the mirror theory. (I no longer know what the mirror theory is.)

The sense of any word varies by user—by the experience of the world that user speaks from. (This is such an old idea. Is there anything about the contemporary situation that might be making it more or less true?)

We only have what we inherit. We only move the collage pieces around.

We are only able to do what our context allows. The trick is to make that context.

The artist is thinking about questions of art, but the reader is thinking about questions of life. They can be the same questions.

The point of the art object is different for the artist and the public.

I’m tired of the implied boredom behind much of postmodern art.

The sign goes through four phases (from Baudrillard):

1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
3. It marks the absence of a basic reality.
4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever—it is its own simulacrum.

The structure of language permits / causes / defines meaningful thinking.

Can one have meaningful thinking outside the structure of language? (What does it mean to say that?) If so, regarding what? It seems to me that art concerns itself with this question.

Poetry tends to play with the signifier—for sound, form, etc.—but what if that sense of play would move to the signified?

Who deserves fudge if not the good boy?

Meaning comes from the play of arbitrary units fashioned into a line. The system itself is hollow, but forms the available to think. This is the inherited “box” of the system.

The first draft of a poem is concerned mostly with combination. Revision is concerned mostly with substitution.

Because rationalism is a fantasy. (When I first typed this out I thought I had written “nationalism,” which I’m now convinced is equally true.)

The implosion of the future into the present is a violent action.

You have the rest of your life and only one checkerboard.

From Discover magazine: “Those who see themselves as they truly are have a greater chance of being diagnosed with clinical depression.” One would think then that most artists should have a good chance not to be so diagnosed.

From the Hallucination Anthology: Deductive reasoning at some point relies on inductive reasoning. Therefore, all reasoning becomes irrational.

Trying hard is not the same as accomplishment. Accomplishment is not the same as trying hard.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From the Notebooks: Fall 2009 (maybe)

I’ve gotten myself through transcribing things out of another abandoned notebook. This one was gray (most of them are, as Mead seems to make more gray ones than other colors) and as far as I can tell, from around the end of 2009. I ended up with a lot of stuff, so I’ve broken it into two parts, one today and one tomorrow.

In our little book of opposites: if given the choice, I prefer aphasia to reductive clarity. At least there’s energy in that. But one doesn’t get the choice, not really. One doesn’t get to make that choice.

There’s been enough clarity already. Now we need new brooms. People are always talking about moving “into new territory” but no one ever talks about cleaning up.

When I look out at the world I pretty much think I’m looking at the world. So how could it possibly be that time is an illusion? Eggs don’t reassemble once they’ve hit the floor. But in the new science this is all just something we infer. But if we all infer the same way? That seems difficult to imagine, as we all do very little the same way.

Everyone dies the same way after they’re dead.

The too-easy critique of a certain type of poetry: “If you can convince them that you’re dealing with large things, they’ll be OK with not understanding you.” This has been tossed at nearly every important poet for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention (I’m thinking of Stevens mostly—remember when they thought he was slight? And then silly? And then ponderous? And now he’s postmodern, the first poet to perform on a Wittgenstein landscape. I’m seeing Armantrout going through a similar arc of bumper stickers.).

Poetry in the age of new literacy. A conversation about what blogs are doing to and for the reception of new and old poetry. Who’s having this conversation? Who should be having this conversation? Where?

“Hail whatever,” we’re made to say, and some of us refuse.

I met the wife of a rock star a couple years ago at the airport. She was pregnant and sick and I watched her Playboy luggage for her while she went to the bathroom to throw up. I told her it was going to be OK.

If you like everything you like nothing.

When we aren’t making art, we’re biting our nails. Every piece of art might be the last.

All the questions there are are there. Picking and choosing is selection. There is always selection at work. (Even if at play.) Form is.

How good is as good as it gets?

Being alone is only fun when it’s an option.

I fell backward once when I was a teenager into an empty fish tank that was turned on its side, breaking out the glass and getting wedged in. I had to pull myself out. I was bleeding and couldn’t see how badly.

Can all things be endlessly divisible? Everyone I’ve read says no, but they’ve yet to prove it.

Life is a matter of probabilities. But only on the long horizon. Right now, to any of us anything could happen.

Magical realism is more realism than magic, when done well. The same with surrealism.

When people say “this is the last time,” they very rarely mean it.

All writing is about choices we make. It’s travel. Chance is a fun way to travel. But with every way one travels, one misses something. There is no full representation possible.

We’re really just trying to build interesting sentences. Everything else is after.

What are the drawbacks of New Media?

We all say reading is a big part of writing. So why is reading a big part of writing? Is it the biggest part? is there something else that’s bigger? Living? Having experiences? Why?

The problem for me when I read Kay Ryan’s poetry is that it seems completely harmless. There’s nothing there to trouble the reader. It doesn’t add or take away from what is now or has come before. And it performs its untroubling in a competent, light manner, which, as long as you just glaze along with it, can seem interesting, like having the TV on while you do housework. It can be interesting in the same way that Terry Gross can be interesting. It’s a surface interest that strikes the pose of profoundity. This is the same (or nearly the same) argument that people have made of John Ashbery, a poet I greatly admire. Maybe I’m the one missing something, and so I go back to her poetry and have the same reaction. And I’m still convinced by Ashbery.

Since communication between people must fail, why should art participate? It doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

Whatever one means when one says “Contemporary Poetry” has always been a highly fractured and nearly incomprehensible thing since, at the very least, the turn of the 20th Century (where I start paying closer attention). And just as in all things, from political call-in shows to the magazines at supermarket check-out lines, the people that are talked about are talked about because they’re talked about.

Occasionally we have to go out and do things. (“All this fiddle.”)

When one says that poetry is communication, s/he raises poetry to a level that would not do you well in a building on fire (the easy dismissal, but I feel it makes a point at the definition of what communication is, vs what art is). In fact, all claims that poetry helps in any communicative way are dubious.

When we’re writing about the world in art, the thing itself doesn’t get treated, no matter how clinically we try. I think it’s Barret Watten that said (I paraphrase): “the only direct treatment of the thing that is possible in language is the direct treatment of the thing that is language.” Language is a thing, of course, but that excludes the fact that it’s also a mediator between things, part of a transaction. It’s not just a means or an end, but also that which we use to order soup. It’s like confusing sex with going to the potty. It’s dual use, so it holds a privileged position within but outside of the economy of both.

Simile causes us to say “like” way too much. It makes us sound way too accommodating. Do you want to be known simply as a liker?

“I have a puppet and I know how to use it!”

Is the energy going out of the last ten years? Some people are saying so. Are they saying that because it’s true or because they want it to be true?

It’s Zombie vs. Mummy, and it’s a sprint.

No one ever wins, the fight just becomes something other people do.

Genius is rarely calm.

There’s the wall you hit or the wall you go through. Going through that wall is either an act of force or an act of empathy.

The way several incompatible things can be called realism at different times. This era or that one. A conversation I listened to once on the radio where they were talking about the acting styles of the Royal Shakespeare Company. One generation’s realism is, to the next, highly affected, or stylized.

All revolutions have a moment of anarchy yielding to a moment of laws.

Did the sign read TOURIST or TERRORIST?

Love is impossible without picture frames.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday Bookshelf and Soundtrack


Here’s a poem I printed off a couple months ago and put by the computer. I was going to put it up on the wall, but I never got around to it. There’s something about it that makes me want to keep it close.



Into this file must go the viewing of films so that characters leave one room
and enter another in which events happen to them in the dark.
History comes to a head in the time of the disaster that structures it.
It depends on knowing that raptor and rapture share the same root.
The hawk over the cleft in the hill heading towards its prey heading towards
where the wind is taking it. Bill Evans in a nightclub I never went to.
Documentaries must be filmed in grainy black and white
and it’s best to include voice-overs to explain the inscrutable parts.
Even a nightclub is an historical event given the costumes women wore
and Lauren Bacall gambling too much and rhapsodic about him or acting the part.
I pretend to look at the hawk and it seems a good idea given the circumstances
so I make myself do it and after a time it is all I want to do all afternoon.


Well, not playing, but thinking about:

Neil Young is on tour where he’s trotting out several new songs that are going to be part of his next album which is going to be produced by Daniel Lanois. That’s all interesting information, especially as his output over the last decade or so has been hit or miss with a large percentage of miss (but several hits here and there [“Razor Love,” “Goin’Home,” “Bandit,” “The Painter,” “Spirit Road,” “Just Singing a Song,” “Get Around” etc., that tend to get buried, or in the case of “Get Around,” left off the album]).

Eels have just announced that they are going to release a new album entitled TOMORROW MORNING on August 24 and embark on a world tour: “EELS leader Mark Oliver Everett, aka E calls the 14 track album the final installment of a trilogy that began with HOMBRE LOBO (June 2009) and END TIMES (January 2010). Following a four year absence, TOMORROW MORNING will be the third new EELS album in a little over a year and a half and will be released on the EELS' E Works Records label.”

This makes sense, as the last two albums (Hombre Lobo and End Times [both are strong albums and well worth picking up]) feel like a double album to me. I wish they would've released them that way. Hombre Lobo was dominated by the aggression and insecurity of sexual desire while End Times was dominated by the despair and anger over breaking up . . . what’s the third act to that?

Eels – Fresh Blood
from Hombre Lobo

Eels – In My Younger Days
from End Times

Sunday, May 23, 2010

From the Notebooks (part of a long series)

I never know what to do with all the stuff that’s in my notebooks (half thoughts, abandoned ideas, etc) that I don’t use, so now and then I post them. That way I can say I’ve used them for something. I’ve been busy this year and haven’t gone back through them, so I have several piled up here by the computer. I’m calling it a summer project.

I keep reading things that remind me of things I want to read.

“To intend” and “to cease from.” Everything already splits in two.

Because appearance is, or might-as-well-be, something gets your attention is what occurs to us.

The best art is idiosyncratic. Can this be somehow embraced in the creative writing workshop?

But how to know if I’m in error? “To Not Be in Error” Is that the goal of the creative writing workshop? If so, that is a goal that can damage as much as it helps.

And words fell out.

All dyads are triadic when you look closely. Or, all dualistic economies fall to the third thing. Which exists as possibility.

What bothers me the most is when I find poetry that participates in mawkish overwriting and assumptions of propriety and behavior. It focuses on synthesis, when the best art participates in antithesis.

“Excellent art” and “the best art.” Such phrases leave one open to criticism, which is why so many people avoid the conversation. To our detriment.

At the base all examples are personal: I write almost exclusively through collage (as I’m doing now), but once it’s been set down, I’m not tied to the procedure and am quite happy to revise. I’m guessing that many poets and artists come by their material in similar ways—something appeals in some way either an event or a phrase or a process or strategy . . . but revision is a wildly divergent activity, and where we go radically divergent paths. For to revise one must contemplate a totality, while when composing one can just go on the feel of the thing, however one defines “thing.”

Is there nothing invariant in this sequence of variations?

The twin problems I’ve come across in workshops are this:

1. Composition is usually thought of as coming out of some experience the writer has had (autobiography), when there are numerous other places to start. Or numerous other ways to define “some experience the writer has had.”

2. Revision is thought of as moving toward error-free prose and content comprehensibility. In other words, it seems to me that revision in creative writing workshops is often seen no differently than in first-year composition classes.

We are taking up our position (in language) in a realm of things that never meet. Then further modifications take place.

On the other hand, some things are insignificant. Not all things are equal.

Structure changes over time so that it can continue to make reference to things in the world.

It’s not about expressing yourself. It’s never been about that. It’s about what your materials can do.

Art that is pretty and ugly at the same time. The best artists seem to understand this in some way, where lesser artists concentrate on the best word (use of color, etc) when it’s never been about that. “The best words in the best order” is a smokescreen.

One thing is made clear by structure: we can evade ourselves right into meaning something.

The subject is the object of its subjectivity.

“Things are as they are.” To say this is acknowledgement, not acceptance. But participating with things as they are will appear to change them as in participation you are adding yourself to things. You play this blue guitar.

One does not need to be saved from things. Things are one’s natural space.

I would be certain if I knew what that was.

Sensations of the world are not proof of the world.

The Big Issue of History

Does art travel toward immanence or transcendence? Either? Neither? Both / and?

One must forget something in order to have ideas. Because we’re all only partially.

Art says, “I am a now that keeps forgetting itself in order to remain.”

Is the role of creative writing workshops (or classes) to make people better poets? Or to make them better readers? Or are there goals, not a goal? I think neither of these are the goal, expressed that way, as that is just the visible residue of the real goal, which is to have people in a space participating with the artistic sensibility. I need a better phrase than that, as that doesn’t quite catch it. Looking at art as art producers is a different thing than having a class.

Philosophers go wrong through a lack of empathy.

Art can be said to be a study of misunderstanding.

If you fake something all your life, are you really faking?

All the art is already on file. What we see are copies done by monkeys using rubber knives while watching pornography.

And then it’s over and they also called it art.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Deadline Approaches

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.

 $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 fall issue.

 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

Friday, May 21, 2010

As "the Pulitzer Prize is mainly a prize for the news" why not a reductive argument?

Dan Chiasson Does a Dance in The New Yorker

So anyway, I went away for a little vacation, so I missed a couple comments on my last post. I thought about replying to them, but why revisit the past when there’s such a future ahead of us?

Here’s something else I missed, and am just now getting to: Dan Chiasson, in last week’s New Yorker, wrote about Rae Armantrout’s poetry. It’s a moment to celebrate, as Rae Armantrout is a vital, necessary poet, or at least it should be. In order to get Armantrout’s poetry into the house of poetry, Chiasson first must domesticate it. And domestication procedures are such heavy handed things.

I was driving with a friend last fall and we were talking about Armantrout (at least this is how I remember it), how her work was under the radar for a couple decades, and then, after the selected poems she seemed on this upward trajectory of visibility, and part of this visibility comes at a cost. What I was thinking about at that time was the way I saw people react to her work, how, once they were told it was funny, it gave them something to latch onto, so that seeing her read briefly at AWP last year had a slightly surreal air, which is, as soon as she started reading, people started laughing. All she’d have to say would be something like “McDonald’s” and then people would treat it as a punch line. She’s funny. And they’re not wrong, they’re just latching onto a part and making it the whole. They’re getting to Armantrout through metonymy, which is the same thing Chiasson is doing, in his slightly different way. They all see something in Armantrout that is valuable and persuasive, and they want to talk about it, but like the blind men with the elephant (how’s that story go again? I’ll have to look it up), they all feel a different creature in front of them and decide that’s the creature (Its a snake! It's a wall!).

+ + +

Here are a couple critiques of Chiasson that I came across, linked from Ron Silliman’s blog. The first, from

“I don’t necessarily disagree with Chiasson’s conclusion, that “there remains the huge pleasure of supposing.” Conjecture and reverie are quite enjoyable routes for the mind to take. That Armantrout’s poems open life up to us is not something I’d contest. But let’s back up a bit in the review. Chiasson selects “Presto” as his favorite poem in the collection. He then proceeds to “decode” the poem, filling in the “blanks” with what he knows of Armantrout’s life. It’s the poem that he can best pull what he feels is the necessary backstory to “unlock” the poem — that this poem succeeds best because, to him, it behaves most like a confessional poem. He then goes on to hail that this “is the kind of crossover book that makes the border disappear.” Ah, the hybrid again. Versed then is only due its honors by creating this tenuous bridge.”

And the second, from

“see . . . Dan Chiasson’s entirely awkward piece “Entangled” in a recent New Yorker, how he (repeatedly) explains (away) Rae Armantrout, grabbing one (short) straw after another: “Somewhere behind this poem is 9 / 11 (when ‘breaking news’ became standard fare)” (hunh?), or “Like Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Versed is the kind of crossover book that makes the border disappear.” Look, too, at the total anxiety in Chiasson’s final lines—attempting a light-heart’d riff off Frost’s “We dance around in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows”—: “Poets like Ashbery and Armantrout are secret-keepers. For the rest of us, there remains the huge pleasure of supposing.” A nod—unsolicit’d, probably unintend’d—at the “genuinely experimental” (Chiasson’s words)’s assuming the center (where silence and pretence serve mostly to prolong the power arrangement.)”

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One of the things Chiasson is doing to Armantrout is similar (but with a little more cause) to what Vendler tried to do to Stevens in a recent bit on his collected poems, namely, to read them as autobiography. Chiasson reads her poems by filling in the white space with what he knows of her biography: a son, her cancer, etc., as well as historicizing it, as exemplified by the completely odd bit about 9 – 11 mentioned above. This might be Chiasson’s way into Armantout, but it’s not the best way, just as thinking of her as a comedian is a way in, but not the best way, as neither of these ways in is going to be helpful past a few carefully selected examples. Her work is complex (as all agree), and I think of it as complex in an inverse way to Ashbery’s complexity. Ashbery is complex through plenitude while Armantrout is complex through fragment. Both poets are actively engaged in the way thinking moves and winds and folds, and where Ashbery throws everything in from the field, Armantrout leaps through the field. She is a deeply clever poet, one always both focused and distractible. It will be autobiography she uses, but then, just as quickly, and more importantly, just as present, autobiography will be gone and she’ll be dwelling in found text or the thread of an idea.

So, this said, I’m not writing against Chiasson here, I’m just saying that he’s participating in a domestication process, one that I believe is sure to quickly disappoint new readers of Armantrout if they are going to read her work through his lens.

A side argument he makes is much more aggressive, and worth noting, for it’s another entry in the battle for the story of our time. It’s his version of what Language poetry was and what it was against. In short form it posits the same old dichotomy of the 80s, the “post-confessional poem” vs. Language poetry. Well, there’s some truth to that. There certainly was a “post-confessional poetry” that was the period style (I posit that it’s STILL the period style, if you look to the total number of poems and books published), but the story of how Language poetry went from avant-garde to Pulitzer Prize is painted over with cartoon lines. That this might become the dominant narrative is irritating, and does little to explain what happened in the 90s, when, for want of a theoretical term, all hell broke loose.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Franz Wright Critique of the MFA Generations

Background: the post of mine he’s specifically reacting to can be found here: But his critique, that he posted in the comments section of that post seems large enough to warrant a bit more time and space, so here it is, the Franz Wright critique of what I guess might be called the “MFA Generations”:

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“Empire building.” Do you realize how your generations has bought into the vocabulary of stark naked capitalism and/or crude popular culture? After the ubiquity of the MFA programs was accomplished, and the bar was so lowered that per year maybe hundreds or thousands of pieces of paper (if you paid your tuition, or were a good low-level instructor slave) are issued stating that somebody in his or her mid twenties is now a MASTER of the art of poetry. Then you get the insane self-consciousness of the internet going, and put it all together and you get a couple or few generations of the most abject mediocrity, not in thought—anyone can blabber intellectually—but in the art of the poem which is made of out solitary silent meditation, made out of everything that is the opposite of what you kids daily invest so much importance in. You poor dupes.

One of your generations will produce a reaction, a generation of children who will rebel against your constant need to check in with each other on your computers to make sure you aren't missing out on anything, and who will withdraw back into the desert from which real art comes. You all are lost.

I see what the best of you have produced, and compared to the American poetry, arguably the best in the world, that was produced pre-MFA ubiquity—that is, before the late seventies—you don’t make good toilet paper. You can still choose, those of you who are young enough. You can turn away from the writing programs, the blogs, all the self-conscious ways to destroy the silent solitary spirit of lyric poetry. Maybe. I doubt it. But there may be one or two of you out there with the balls to do it.

And by the way, any blurb I have written has generally been for younger poets I feel are doing just that, and whose work I admire, and whose future I have hope for. There are thousands of people now in this country who actually call themselves poets—that astounds me. How many poets do you think even the greatest literary periods in history produced? FW

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This is an opinion I’ve heard before, and it’s easily dismissed as a “hey kids get off my lawn” argument . . . but behind every reactionary there is a bit of truth, or so I’ve heard. Is there a bit of truth in what Wright is saying about these post-70s generations? And if so, what is it and what does it mean?

Has the ubiquity of MFA programs done something to diminish the quality of writing being done today? I can imagine it could. Some situations and times are not conducive to the artistic sensibility. But poets of lasting value are always rare for any time period. Are there really fewer than before? Are we “allowing” too many voices into the choir? There is a critique that I often hear and kind of agree with, that there are simply too many books being published. It makes it impossible to find the hay in the needle-stack. But as soon as I think to myself, well, what would I propose, I back away from my criticism, because it would mean denying participation by someone, and who knows what might be lost then? (Probably nothing much, but still, the possibility is enough to keep me from getting all reactionary.) Beyond that, what has the MFA done to harm anyone? Mostly, from what I’ve seen, it’s just people sitting around talking about each other’s poems. I suppose that could be damaging to a young poet if the people were saying really dumb things, but mostly I’ve seen that the things said in workshops are rather benign, and were often constructive, especially when talking about how to read poetry as opposed to how to write poetry. Really, I think the MFA structure is a scapegoat, a convenient way to dismiss people without having to engage them.

Wright didn’t mention this, but it often follows the above: And what of AWP? What has the AWP influence been on the production of poetry? I’m sure there has been one. One thing it seems to have done is that it’s created—along with MFA programs—a cult of the young, the new, the first book. And how could it not? The bookfair has all these books. And much of Stevens’s best work is in the public domain. Some of this, though, is because people of a certain age opt out of the AWP conference. If you decide not to talk to people you have no one to blame but yourself when they don’t think of you later.

The other AWP critique is that the panels are too “professional.” That argument sometimes has traction with me. I prefer panels on poets and poetry to panels on careers and structures. But there are plenty of panels for me to go to, and those who want to go to the other panels can go.

Thinking about this, how we tend now to focus on NEW NEW NEW, I recently went back to a few of my favorite books from the past, and had a wonderful time reading William Carlos Williams’s selected poems as well as Max Jacob’s selected poems. One of the things I was struck with (as many have said already, this is not new) is how much it seems the poetry of right now is influenced more by the poets of the early part of the 20th century than by the poets of the later part of the century. Could this have something to do with the dismissal of much of current poetry by Franz Wright (and others . . . Wright is not writing in a vacuum). Suffice it to say I see little common ground between Wright’s version of where we are and mine.

The language of power dynamics—the avenues to power—that Wright says the younger generations have created is not saying that these generations created the dynamics, just that they brought in the taxonomy. Perhaps he’s right about the way these things are talked about now, but that seems to me a good thing. It’s time these things were named what they are. These relationships were not made up by this generation, they were here already, and to argue against, well, the whole Internet and MFA structure, is to argue for a different order of power, one that was in place when Franz Wright was starting out. Wright promoting Dickman is an aspect of the old economy of poetic ascendency: well-known press, senior poet endorsement, and large distribution print journal (The New Yorker, etc). These are pre-Internet structures. They are ways that a few (editors and senior poets) can control what happens next. Blogs, Internet-based journals, websites, etc, throw a wrench in that economy. That economy still exists, and I would argue is still the fundamental way that poetic reputations are made (one need just look at the trajectory of the Dickmans’s careers so far to see it in action), but it is no longer the only game in town.

I was highly critical of Franz Wright’s blurb on Michael Dickman’s book for many reasons, but, in the end, my feeling is that such a blurb does a young poet like Dickman no good. Certainly it’s great to be called the cure for what ails poetry. It’s a tremendous ego boost. But what happens next? The poet has to write another poem. “Come on, genius, write something,” the voice whispers, much like in James Tate’s poem “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems.” It’s a terrible place from which to make art. I would argue that a blurb such as that is concerned more with the career and attitudes of the one writing the blurb than it is the poet it’s written about.

Think of, as a counter-example, a poet like Zachary Schomburg, who arose without any help whatsoever from any of the old ways of endorsement. No famous poet blessing. No large-circulation journal publications. No well-known press. This sort of thing would not have been possible without these other avenues of publication and participation allowed by the Internet.

Is this sort of thing better? Is it worse? Who knows. It’s all still a system of mediating structures. Think of Mrs. Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (I’m going from memory here, so I may be off, apologies), where she sees the dead walking off to heaven in a great parade, with the great unwashed leading the way . . . “flip the ladder and put the bottom rung on the top and you still have a ladder with a top and bottom rung” . . . is a paraphrase of her complaint against God. It’s a good complaint, one to keep in mind. It’s always US vs THEM, and, as Pink Floyd would have it: “In the end we’re all just ordinary men.” (As a side note, it’s hard to get away from the MALE-ness of this. It seems every time I come across one of these issues it’s older males talking about younger males. What’s up with that? you might well ask.)

What matters, and here I will partially agree with Wright, is the quality of the art. So I challenge Franz Wright to make a list out of this: “I see what the best of you have produced, and compared to the American poetry, arguably the best in the world, that was produced pre-MFA ubiquity—that is, before the late seventies—you don’t make good toilet paper.”

I’d be fascinated who Wright thinks the “best of you” is (and with a nod to the fact that if he thinks it’s Dickman, he’s just now consigned Dickman’s poetry to the bathroom), and who the best from before the late seventies is, for comparison. I believe (which is not at all a new assertion) that the greatest American poetry so far was written around the 1920s, and that the next couple generations were less inspired. But if he’s going to do a generation throw-down, I’ll take that bet. I think some of the best poetry written since the poets of Modernism has been written since 1980.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Friendly 2011 AWP Reminder

From your friends at AWP:

There are only five days left to submit panel proposals for the 2011 AWPConference & Bookfair in Washington, D.C. We strongly advise submittingyour proposal as soon as possible in order to avoid delays or problems dueto heavy traffic on the AWP Proposal System. The conference will be held from February 2-5, 2011 at the Marriott WardmanPark & Omni Shoreham Hotels. AWP seeks a wide range of unique, diverse,informative, and intelligent programming that helps us better serve ourbroad and growing constituency. The proposal process is competitive, so it's important that all individuals submitting a proposal are familiar with AWP's guidelines and expectations in order to ensure conference events aresuccessfully executed.

The deadline for proposals is May 15, 2010. To submita proposal, please visit:

If you have any questions or concerns please let us know. We look forward toseeing you in Washington, D.C.! AWP Conference ServicesAssociation of Writers and Writing Programs703-993-4317

2011 AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair
Washington, D.C., February 2-5, 2011
Marriott Wardman Park & Omni Shoreham Hotels

Friday, May 07, 2010

If You're In Chicago Tonight

Friday, May 7, 7:00 PM

Reading & Launch: Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days
The Book Cellar
4736 North Lincoln Avenue
Free admission

Midwestern poets Josh Corey, Patrick Culliton, John Gallaher, Chris Green, Allison Joseph, cin salach, and Tony Trigilio read from Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (University of Iowa Press, 2010) to celebrate the anthology’s launch.

The day before President Barack Obama’s inauguration, poets and anthology editors Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg sent out a call for poems that addressed, however loosely, the presidency, the nation, the government, or the current political climate. The first 100 poets who responded were assigned a date—one of President Obama’s first 100 days in office—and each has written a poem reflecting on the state of the nation and the world on that day.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Seeing Donald Revell’s New Poems in APR

Seeing Donald Revell’s new poems in APR this week brings back a question I had recently that I haven’t gone back yet to try to answer: Is Donald Revell’s journey to become a mystic a change or an unearthing? Which is, has he been building to this, or did he have a revelation of sorts about ten years ago?

“Out to the west”

Out to the west
First moments of sunrise
Black feathered lightning

Miss Curry left a harvest in the bed
A first home
All winter through
Rooms fell one by one into the street

Black feathered lightning angel of death
I do not think we shall keep our appointment
Dear Miss Curry we are both of us married
Disappointed not at all but crying

I’ve seen mountains racing from the sun
I’ve seen immortals and you are one

I didn’t end up saying anything on this blog about the panel at AWP that Donald Revell and Tony Hoagland were on, mostly because I couldn’t find my way into saying anything very interesting. They were both interesting in their own ways, but I found myself in agreement with neither of them.

Hoagland was positioned in the role of gatekeeper, as much as he said he didn’t feel comfortable in that role. Personally, I think he rather likes that role, as he’s putting himself there. No one’s forcing him to be the defender of the canon, even as he said, he likes and does many of the things he’s arguing against. Or some version of that. It’s a fine point he’s putting on it, where to draw that line. I would love to see someone torture it out of him. Stephen Burt, had he been there, might have been able to do it (but he had a very good excuse for missing it I hear!).

Hoagland had a thesis along the lines that the power of art comes from its investigation of suffering, which allowed Revell the opportunity to come back with a form of “I’ll tell what suffering is: Suffering is these canonical poetry anthologies you’re defending!”

That’s a paraphrase. But Revell positioned himself as the coach for the new. The unknown. The not yet done. But Revell’s main thesis against Hoagland’s version of “suffering” was to say that to a believer there can be no tragedy, as all stories have a happy ending [here he pointed up at the ceiling]. That did nothing to convince me of much, as I’ve never believed in roofers.

Revell also had a nice line, something along the lines of, “Tony and I agree on a lot until we start talking.” I believed him, as I have a similar relationship with some poets I know, including Mark Halliday. We do fine when we’re in the abstract, but when we move to examples, well, things go awry.

And that’s what I expected to happen, but things didn’t go awry at the panel, mainly because they agreed on their examples. How could such a thing be possible on a pane all about the new poetry? Well, though they started off talking about the new American poetry, when it came time for examples, for some reason, they went back to Rene Char and Marianne Moore and George Oppen and W.H. Auden, among others.

That was an odd turn. But they were both smart and interesting and it was nice to see how they could disagree on poetry while agreeing on great poems from the past. But what about these poems of the now? These examples that were pertinent to their discussion? Were they just being polite? The hall was packed. I think we all left not sure what we had just left.

As interesting as suffering and Jesus can be, I look forward to a more topic-driven version of this forum again, one where there is dialogue about what is going on in contemporary poetry. We’re at a very interesting aesthetic time. I would love to see some smart people talk about it. Maybe Burt can propose a follow-up next year? Pretty-Please?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Dobby Gibson - Skirmish

Dobby Gibson

from Skirmish

Are We There Yet

You only have to make her one grilled cheese
in the suffocating heat of summer
while still wearing your wet swim trunks
to know what it’s like to be in love.
And you only have to sit once
for a haircut in the air conditioning
with the lovely stylist to forget all about it,
and to forget that anything in the universe
ever existed prior to the small, pink sweater
now brushing softly against your neck.
In this world, every birth is premature.
How else to explain all of this silence,
all of this screaming,
all of those Christmas card letters
about how well the kids are doing in school?
We’re all struggling to say the same old things
in new and different ways.
And so we must praise the new and different ways.
I don’t like Christmas.
I miss you that much.
For I, too, have heard the screaming,
and I, too, have tried to let it pass,
and still I’ve been up half the night
as if I were half this old,
and like you, I hate this kind of poetry
just as much as my life depends upon it.
They’re giving away tiny phones for free these days,
but they’ve only made
a decent conversation more precious.
One medicine stops the swelling,
another medicine stops the first medicine.
Just like you, I entered this world
mad and kicking, and without you,
it’s precisely how I intend to go.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

My Version of David Young’s Question

This is a topic that I’ve thought a lot about over the years, as David Young writes:

“I don't know if there is really any such thing as the poetry of old age. Probably not. Some poets are lucky, like Stevens and Yeats, to continue being productive in their late years and even sometimes to improve on early or middle work. Others, like Wordsworth, just drone on, and we learn to ignore their late poems. That there is something unique or distinctive about a poem produced by a 75- or 80-year-old is one of those assertions that most likely won't bear close inspection. The imagination, after all, can produce aged wisdom while speaking through youth, and may display youthful vigor while inhabiting an oldster. It won't accept limits or categories.”

He continues:

“. . . There are certainly some features of aging—diminishing sense perception, layer upon layer of memory, rueful awareness of mortality—that might be expected to show up more regularly in such work. And there may also be a kind of freedom—from possessions and commitments that tie us down, from relationships that have dissolved through time and loss, from sensual preoccupations and ego-driven behaviors—a freedom that gives the ‘elderly’ poet a new lease on creativity and poem-making. Remember Yeats' beggar-hermit who, ‘giddy with his hundredth year, / Sang unnoticed like a bird’? Both ‘sang’ and ‘unnoticed’ are key aspects of that insight, while ‘like a bird’ is something any and all of us aspire to, a naturalness of expression that links us to ‘great creating Nature.’”

David Young takes this to talk about a couple of new books by older poets in the newest issue of FIELD, and to make a positive comment about them, but the larger, generalized question remains, about the chances of a poet being productive into old age. Those who are and those who are not.

This is easier to see (or easier to talk about) in contemporary music with the great example of The Rolling Stones, right? What happened to them in the early 80s that they couldn’t recover from. There’s the easy—too easy—toss off that the rock bands from the 60s and 70s, once they stopped doing drugs, they lost their inspiration. But the examples from the arts (there are also many examples from science) seem to show that there is something about inspiration (or talent or whatever you want to call it) that, in most all of us, wanes with age. Why?

Is it that we only get the one idea? And once it’s done we don’t have a second idea? So that we have to go back to squares? And then we either repeat at diminished capacity what we’ve done before, or we go out in search of something new that we mostly never find . . . ? There’s something about this that feels true to me, especially in science, how one gets the discovery, the insight in to a problem, and then one’s insight is done.

Stevens is a great example, as he’s often talked about as one who kept his ability. His last poems are often excellent. But his poems of real genius (with few exceptions) are in Harmonium, his first book (even though it came out when was in his early 40s). He lost a lot of his playfulness and his ability to pair ideas with things after Harmonium, and replaced it with an, at times interesting and necessary, at times rather ponderous, investigation of imagination.

Most artists (writers, etc) that achieve something lasting, are artists, as one might say, “of the first half of life.” Maybe this is getting more and more interesting to me as I’m now 45, and am entering, or am about to enter (as much as I want to refuse) this second half of life. But as I’m looking at it, I can’t see any reason why the faculties dim. They don’t have to. And I think that the answer why this happens has a lot to do with what Young describes as “layer upon layer of memory.” Something about that makes me feel that one might begin to dwell not in the investigation of new things anymore (as there are no new things under the sun yada yada), and begins to feel the weight of having been there . . . the poems of old age (Stevens, Yeats in Young’s example) are about this, the old man asleep over the river R.

There are a lot of poets writing today (Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, etc.) who had their great idea when they were at or near middle age, and how now fallen off the radar of a lot of poetry readers, just as the attention has turned to a whole herd of young poets who have just had or are just entering their great idea (Graham Foust, Rachel Zucker, and on) . . . I suppose it’s a cycle. But one can always hope for that second go at it, that Yeats or Stevens go . . .

But then the second turn of the thought:

And what of Rae Armantrout, whom I would call a poet of steady building, who has as strong a voice now as she’s ever had? And what of Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop? Or, going back, George Oppen? Or, in a different way, Elizabeth Bishop?

Exceptions, probably, but it is in exceptions where hope lies. (Which also makes hope sound like a liar, doesn’t it?)