Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Yorker Poem Reviews : The French Exit

A controversy brews here at the terrific blog by Elisa Gabbert called The French Exit.

It's about blogging on the general badness of New Yorker poems. A necessary activity? I think so.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Snakeskin Calls for Submissions

This from Jessy Randall...

Dear poets (and potential poets),

I am guest-editing the February 2010 issue of the online poetry magazine Snakeskin ( The theme of this issue is WORK, including housework, homework, yard work, paid work, any kind of work.

Please send me up to six poems on the topic. No previously-published poems. Simultaneous submissions are allowed. No attachments – poems should be in the body of the email.

The deadline is December 1.

Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might be interested.

Jessy Randall

Friday, September 25, 2009

Exploration vs Construction

My recent posts have been easy to misinterpret. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback via email (though not many comments made through blogspot to the posts) but I want to clarify that I think the work of people like Ashbery and Octavio Paz and Rimbaud and newer poets like Klassnik and Aase Berg can be powerfully moving and stand on their own. (I'm sure they will all be relieved.)

But much of the value of Ashbery and his heirs, for my purposes, is the exploration they do, which can be used, even mined, to build bigger structures. To create cohesive works that hang together, convey ideas beyond the atomic, simplest unit, and open the language to freshness and invention. I don’t think I necessarily accomplish that in all my stuff. The poem of mine I’ve linked to on the right is not really indicative of the main body of my work, which I haven’t sent out very much.

A poet I used to like and really can’t read now (Merrill) said that prose doesn’t aspire to poetry, but poetry to prose. That makes sense to me.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Wars Part III - riverrun...

Another note about dislodging words from their traditional meanings (if the reader will agree there is such a thing as the traditional meaning of a word.)

If you reduce a word to shape and sound primarily, then you're creating drawings and music. That's certainly a way to write. But a word divorced from its idea, its meaning, is no longer really writing.

What some writers have done from the last century to now is try to reduce the words or phrases of their writing to as brief and atomic units of meaning possible. This is another way of reducing the power of the writing.

Joyce's approach to making up words increased the number of their meanings in the Wake, and compromised plot and perceptible action. Time itself is so fluid in that book that, as he intended, there are no obvious beginnings or endings but a continuous stream of behavior and thought.

I think that's an incredible approach, wildly original and stimulating. But I think it will always remain inaccessible to a general, non-writer or scholar readership. Not that all books should be written for the broader public, but those that aren't should accept that their impact will be limited.

I often think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the best-selling books of all time. I think that it demonstrates that dense books with a plethora of metaphors can also be connected to characters and plot and action and a recognizable arc.

Again, I sound like a Social Realist, and I'm not. I'm just saying that writing that puts stylistic innovation over essential communication should always expect to have a narrower impact. You could argue that change starts at the top, i.e. among the elite. That impact from those changes is felt more broadly than that from popular writing.

I haven't developed these ideas fully yet. In future posts they will be better explained.

The Wars Part II

Thank god Kirsch has spoken against Ashbery, some of whose work I love. He really has created more glittering monsters than any contemporary poet, both in his poems and in his influence on others’ poetry. I can’t say it better than Kirsch, who suggests that much of Ashbery's style amounts to amusing nonsense, and that by draining words or phrases of their usual significance, Ashbery acquires an aura of transgression. It’s this that seduces so many of the young. Both in the community of writers and that of editors.

I like C.D. Wright but I agree that there is a disregard for non-poets as readers implied in her work. Perhaps the failure of contemporary poetry to attract a readership of non-poets (with the exception of a few, probably, like Billy Collins though who can know?) has to do with this eschewing of directness, even simplicity. I must sound like a totalitarian leader calling for Socialist Realism, inveighing against the decadent movements of cubism and surrealism. I’m actually just trying to point out that maybe there’s a reason the readership of poetry might be lower than in previous years.

Charles Mingus said complexity is easy, simplicity is difficult.

Yes these questions are quite broad, but honestly it’s the broad questions about this topic that engage me most. I don’t give a fuck about soft surrealism. I will say that I don’t believe most people think in as fragmented a manner as Leopold Bloom. Or C.D. Wright. I don’t believe Joyce's or her writing is an honest attempt to transcribe her thoughts or communicate clearly whatever her thoughts happen to be. And that poses a distinct challenge to non-poets in my opinion.

Should writers care about communicating clearly? What’s communicating clearly? What’s an idea? This interests me too, but it’s a bit esoteric, just like much contemporary poetry is.

My father argues that the most important opinions on any industry or endeavor come from laymen. They are not, he says, as likely to be seduced by meaningless nuances and sophistry.

The foremost question I ask about a poet is whether she works to be understood.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wars

Everybody knows there's a war on. More than one. I figure if it bleeds, it leads, so let's go into it. The war is between the courteous and the discourteous poets, according to Adam Kirsch in his 2008 book The Modern Element.

He cites C.D. Wright (below) as the current caliph of discourtesy. He lauds Derek Walcott more vigorously than anyone in his book. (I won’t get into the politics around Walcott’s appointment brouhaha in England.) And Kirsch alleges weaknesses in the poetry of John Ashbery and that of his legion of followers (as close to heresy as a contemporary poetry critic can get, I think.) More on that later, but I’ve already tipped my hand.

There are many wars. The war is also between soft surrealism and its opposites or complements (which are what?) Between canon-definers like Harold Bloom and his opponents. These wars resemble the New York-centric battle in theater between “uptown” or mainstream plays (Lincoln Center and Broadway) and “downtown” or alternative plays (seen in small theaters with a strong emphasis on the poetic and the non-representational.) I don’t know the names of the warring camps in the world of the novel, and I’d like it if someone told me. I can read and tell that Blake Butler differs from E.L. Doctorow, but I’m not sure how to refer to that difference.

Do these differences matter? Yes, to those who care about writing. If you’re reading this blog, you are in that category (whether you like it or not.) But it also matters to those who don’t care about literature and theater. Perhaps they are not engaged in some of the new stuff out there because the writers are making choices that disengage the reader. Though some might disagree with me, I argue that that is a bad thing.

I’m not really worried about writers. I’m worried about readers. That in itself is a radical position to take, from what I gather. Shouldn’t writers only worry about themselves? No, goddamnit. Yet worrying about readers is associated with a compromise of vision, a desecration of the temple of the Self, and considered akin to writing thrillers for money.

I’m as willing as the next guy to write some poems that are fun but so elliptical or obtuse that to most people they would be considered near-gibberish. But I sat at a poetry reading in Brooklyn about a year ago in which most poets were spewing out lines that they thought were inventive in relatively unrelated sequence. One used the words “useless wizards,” to her delight and the audience’s as well. I couldn’t say for sure what the words had to do with the rest of the poem or whether she was referring to poets with them.

Poetry has always been a little discourteous in that metaphor is not plain speaking. But the question is whether metaphor and other poetic devices are employed to engage the reader in something larger than just the "wizardry" of the devices. (A slightly tortured metaphor.) Because while that wizardry is pleasing to some extent, if it's not used carefully for other, perhaps deeper purposes, then it remains a technical mechanism, and that on the most superficial level. More a machine than a work of art.

These days, if a novel makes little sense beyond the arbitrary meanings created by the words in juxtaposition, it’s considered dense and poetic. What does that say about poetry? (Other poetic novels that I read, such as Butler’s Scorch Atlas, have not been at all devoid of cumulative sense, of course.)
More on this in a following post.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Little Giggles Open like Books by Andrew Lundwall

This poem, from La Petite Zine, strikes me like a David Lynch movie. Fragmented but held together by a sinister American aesthetic.

In the first and third persons, the poem smash cuts from belt buckles to cigarettes to broken heineken bottles. Heineken? Fuck that shit! PBR! The word american comes up three times, and illinois comes up once. I get the sense that the other presence in the poem is somebody on the verge of a dramatic act, which underlies what I see as the feigned indifference of the narrative: "just okay."

The whole thing has a neo-Platonic terror to it: american living room 9m body odor affordably." Atmosphere is the word here, and the best description of eyes I've seen in awhile: "trembling egg sockets."

Congrats to La Petite Zine for putting out this almost-unhinged, swinging screen door of a poem.

Dominoes by Kevin Allardice

This piece in GULF COAST by Kevin Allardice is a work of flash fiction that provocatively sketches the lives, and brushes with death, of three people. To summarize flash fiction seems even sillier than summarizing a short poem, but here goes. The first character is a painter whose Parkinson’s turns him into an abstract painter against his will. The second is an architecture student who becomes inspired by the painter. The student learns he has spatial dyslexia, then tries to kill himself in an Ithaca gorge but fails. The third is an investment banker who, for reasons I don’t quite understand, administers morphine to her cancer-stricken father instead of the arsenic he requested because she read about the student’s suicide attempt.

There are quite a few lines in this piece that vibrate with a tension and resonance that surprise my ear. I enjoy phrases like “the well-ordered precision of his cities beginning to blur and bounce,” which are abundant here. And everybody loves interlocking stories. The themes of transformation, and of the pollination of ideas that lead to the final transformation in life, stand out strongly and I appreciate that. What I can’t grasp are what in a longer work might be called plot holes. The author says that the failed-suicide article led to the banker changing her father’s euthanasia drug. What does one have to do with the other? The connection is not nearly as strong as that between the painter’s work and the student’s outlook. And wouldn’t an art student who becomes an architecture student understand that he had spatial dyslexia long before being diagnosed with such?

In a short work with so many good ideas, though, the complaints seem like quibbling. They don’t detract from the power of a piece that limns the boundary between deliberate action and accidental consequences. A fiction that asks big questions and invents a tone resembling a scientific case study mixed with obituary written by a poet. For these reasons, Allardice’s Dominoes (a heavy-handed name) spurs me to look up further work by him and follow it closely.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Standard by Greg Gerke

This is not the kind of work I usually like, but if I am cultivating an anti-aesthetic then it's a good place to start. (By anti-aesthetic I don't mean I will spend time writing about and publishing stuff that I don't like. I'm not opposed to negative reviews, but I do believe that engaging with work that's useless is useless.)

Back to the review. This piece of flash fiction, published recently on Night Train as one of their weekly offerings in that genre, brings us into a marriage. It's a first person narrative that swerves from a Kafka-cum-Bukowski description of employment at the post office to a paranoid and touching fantasy about his (presuming the narrator's male) wife's possible employment there too.

The pivot in the story, which features a hilariously, deliberately uninventive scene in which "we make love," is the question asked by the narrator of his wife. When he arrives home, she always takes the car out for eight hours. Is she waiting for him to return or waiting for the car, he wants to know.

Gerke distills the world of a couple into the words and actions of a few moments, and then the impressions their asses make on the sofa. My biggest problem is the ending's reference to "our slight, slightly broken bodies." That seems as soft as the couch.

The beginning promises something more bracing as an ending, something with a bit of the chill that Max Brod spent his life promoting. With the diversity of tones in this piece, it's not surprising that he found it difficult to pull off all of them. I will read more Gerke to pursue what he manages to accomplish on other subjects.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Ishmael's Dog?

In the novel that thrills and vexes me as it does many readers, Melville introduces Bulkington, a character who appears for the length of two pages. He figures nowhere in the plot, and the author laughs at the brevity and insignificance of Bulkington's life. Yet he includes him, with the following phrases:

Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.

Why do we hear about Bulkington and not about Ishmael's dog? There's no mention of the latter in the novel, the animal is my fiction, but the mystery of what we leave in and what we keep out fascinates me. That's why Ishmael's Dog.

My intention is to publish flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and reviews that assemble an anti-aesthetic. An abrupt rebuke to prevailing ideas. Works that make us shut up and listen, then respond out loud.

Thanks for joining me in this endeavor.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sous Rature

The new issue is online with an incredibly ambitious poem by Alejandro Crawford. Kudos, now give me a minute to figure it out.

Also in the same issue we find this punchy little number by Stephanie Strickland.

I have read a few more, and will post about them when I've thought further on them.