Friday, January 30, 2009

To: Michael Robbins, RE: "Alien vs. Predator", Poem in The New Yorker, Jan. 12, 2009


Someone told me about your poem when I was running a workshop on "Inscrutability in Poetry" at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival last week. At that point, I'd seen the title in the table of contents but hadn't read it--I have a subscription but with the festival coming up I'd fallen behind in reading it. I loved the title; I mean, how can a poem called "Alien vs. Predator" be bad? and made a mental note to read it, but again forgot about it until I came across your comment on Kenny's G. "it's always a bad time for poetry" thread in Harriet.

So now I've read it--several times in fact. I even printed it out and put it into a notebook I keep of poems that I think will be useful for teaching because I think the publishing of your poem represents a notable shift in the art-form. It's not that I think "AvP" is radically new or successfully performs any unheard of poetic operation (though I think it carves out a nice niche for itself somewhere under the wings of Mattea Harvey, Dean Young, and K. Silem Mohammad), nor do I think the poem's notably fantastic (though I really admire the music from "I fight the comets" to "I sleep on meat."). It's a good poem, one I feel lucky to have gotten to share with you, and one that made me want to try to get a little more "avantish" (as you refer to it) in my own work, even though I know that's probably not going to happen. I think, in the end, our poems choose us rather than the other way around, and experimental/conceptual poetry (which I think your poem harkens towards but doesn't--admirably--go all the way) knows that I don't love it enough to write it. For instance, I really appreciate what Kenny G. does, and I think it's important and necessary, but I know that I'll never become a vessel for language to the degree that he dictates. Or should I say I think of myself as a different kind of vessel. Or should I say that I want to risk cliche and sentimentality. Or should I say that I believe poets like Gerald Stern and Martin Espada when they claim to be "truth-tellers." How old fashioned, but when I heard them say it, I believed them, and like Stanley Fish says, "Theories are something you can have, but beliefs have you."

I wondered reading "AvP" what beliefs you have and what theories? (And I don't pose that question in any argumentive sense, as if I already had some pat answer like, "None, I bet!" or "Whatever your graduate professors gave you!") I read the poem almost like a list of likes/dislikes, as in "Rilke, Tibetans, Buju Banton, staying up all night, pop culture = good" and "Bible, Nature imagery, animal world = bad". And in that sense, your poem was an ars poetica that dovetailed with what you've said in your interviews, and it dovetails with a lot of contemporary poetry that seeks to overcome the tired subject matters of our high school anthologies. And (here's one of my main points) it is decidely NOT the kind of poem that the New Yorker publishes. Or should I say, had published until Paul Muldoon came around. And this is where I think your poem represents a shift.

You're a young poet, with no published full-lenth manuscript, writing in an ultra-modern diction, so when the Establishment (New Yorker) taps you, it's tapping your entire ethos/zeitgest/demographic, etc. which I think in the future will become a water-mark for when poetry shifted wholly out of the 20th Century. (Let me also say I don't believe in these linear narratives of poetry, especially not now, when poetry's more diverse than ever, but linear narratives of the art form will continue to be constructed anyway and that's what I'm commenting on). And here's my question: did you mean to do that? Or did you just dictate what the poem was telling you to do?

To Anne Carson, RE: "MOLY: Variations on the Right to Remain Silent", an article in the journal "A Public Space", Issue No. 7

Ms. Carson,

Thank you for this essay, which, like most of your poetry, is violently direct even while tackling subject matter that is inherently indirect. Your writing style invokes mystery while retaining clarity, and I guess that's why you're so good at writing about the ineffable.

“In his tower overlooking the river Neckar, Hölderlin had a piano that he sometimes played so hard he broke the keys. But there were quiet days when he would just play and tilt back his head and sing. Those who heard said they could not tell, though they listened, what language it was.” -Anne Carson

“Often enough I tried language, often enough I tried song, but they didn’t hear you.”
- Hölderlin

“After all what else is one’s own language but a gigantic cacophonous cliché. Nothing has not been said before. The templates are set. Adam long ago named all the creatures. Reality is in chains.” -AC

“When Francis Bacon approaches a white canvas its empty surface is already filled with the whole history of painting up to that moment, it is a compaction of all the cliches of representation already extant in the painter’s world…” -AC

“…the place inside a word where it falls silent in its own presence.” –AC

“Thousands of words went back and forth between Joan [of Arc] and her judges during the months of her inquisition; many of them are available to us in some form. But Joan herself was illiterate. She spoke Middle French at her trial, whose minutes were transcribed by a notary and later translated into Latin by one of her judges. This process involved not only the transposition of Joan’s direct responses into indirect speech and of her French idioms into the Latin of juridical protocol but also deliberate falsification of some of her answers in such a way as to justify her condemnation (this was revealed at the retrial twenty-five years after her death). Yet these many layers of official distance separating us from what Joan said are just an aftereffect of the one big original distance that separates Joan herself from her sentences.” -AC

“….when he invokes the language of the gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.” -AC

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

To: Cesar Aira, RE: "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter"

Mr. Aira,

Books like this rarely get written in the United States, I think perhaps due to our literary obsession with some fictional thing called "The Great American Novel", one of the stupidest concepts my country has come up with. I Googled the phrase "book with 87 pages" and these are the titles that came up: "Mormonism and Masonry" by E. Cecil McGavin, "Sculpture" by David Smith (a book of photography), "Learning and Doing Mathematics: Using Polya's Problem Solving Methods for Learning and Teaching" by John Mason, "How to Build a Bugproof Room" by Angus Glas, "Denim Redesign" by some organization called "Indigo Junction", "The German Aircraft Power Against English Naval Power" no author and in Romanian, and "The Embroidery of Roses", also with no author. None of these sounds like a memorable read. (Though "Angus Glas" is a name I may appropriate for a character someday, and I am a little bit interested in the connection between Mormonism and Masonry...) Perhaps my search function was crude, but I think my conclusion is sound. Anything under 150 pages inevitably gets thrown into some kind of larger collection of stories, and that novella length (90 pgs I was taught in high school, perhaps around the time I read "Billy Budd"), at least to me, has been generally discouraged. I also can't see my fiction professors approving your story arc: basic background information on the painter Rugendas, followed by poetic descriptions of his horseback trip through the Cordilleras, an in-depth depiction of him being struck twice by lighting, his recovery and disfigurement, and ending with his painting of an Indian raid. True, the lightning strike changes Rugendas, falls almost exactly at the middle of the story, and divides his youth from his adulthood--beautiful symmetry; but nothing is resolved about Rugendas, or his relationship with Krause. The story, as the title explains, is an episode, though I imagined if it were part of a serialized TV show about Rugendas, it would be split into two episodes: Lightning, Indians. And it would be expensive to produce, if any effort were made to reproduce the descriptions you provide of both (1) the "real" landscape and (2) Rugendas' depiction of it; in fact, one of the points you made to me is that there is no difference between the two. At various points, the painters feel that what they're seeing is too fantastic to be considered "realistic" once transferred to canvas, and they opt to almost dumb down their paintings. "We should draw it, they said. But who would believe it?" (p. 15)

There's a real vitality to the descriptions that is anti-Hemingway: "The company of volcanos gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts voluminous as oceans." (p. 14) With some books I have trouble really envisioning the places being described. Instead, I simply graft them onto something I already know. For instance, in Tom Perrotta's "Little Children", I kept imagining the playground scenes happening in the South End in Boston, at the playground closest to my sister's home. All the images I had reading your book were utterly new to me, and that's an amazing gift. I'll end with some other passages of yours I couldn't help jotting down:

"What the world was saying was the world." (78)
"They wondered at the assembly of silences and air." (?)
"The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid." (60)
"As for the landscape, it remained indifferent. The catastrophe simply came in one side and went out the other." (77)

Monday, January 26, 2009

To K. Silem Mohammad, RE: "Breathalyzer"


I discovered your blog {LIME TREE} via Linh Dinh on the Harriet blog and was impressed with it so I bought your book, "Breathalyzer" (link to the book in the title). In the middle of reading it, I was interning at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and got into an extended discussion about inscrutability in contemporary poetry (a dead horse probably but we enjoyed it) and I showed everyone your poem "Working Class Bambi Fragmentation" which I said falls into the "scrutable" category because the reader knows from the outset that the poem is a collection of fragments and so reads it that way, mining it for whatever nuggets s/he can get. Other poems also struck me as being composed of fragments, too, but since they were presented as if joined by syntax, I felt I had to try to make meaningful connections between them (like reading Berrigan's "Sonnets") and wasn't always able to. During the festival, Dara Wier said, before reading a section of her book-length poem Reverse Rapture, that we shouldn't worry about losing the thread, that the poem was like water so if we feel like we're drowning, don't worry, we'll resurface. Is that the way you feel about your poetry? My guess is "No", but I also got the sense that, unlike a lot of poets, you don't take ownership over the words themselves, only their organization. Thus, we're in the realm of persona poetry, but instead of listening to, say, Herbert White, we're listening to the collective/collected language of the anonymous internet poster, who is in a sense, all of us. Is that your project? Sort of like a Whitmanic "Leaves of {Gr}ass" for the 21st Century? I also get the sense that you're somewhat disgusted with the level of discourse you're reverting to, but feel some sort of need to throw the feces back at the monkeys (so to speak). If so, is it in the name of justice? ("you get what you pay attention to") Or just to provide some sort of mirror? (I'm thinking now of the 'dagguerreotype' poem) Obviously, you can have more than one reason, and one of them is obviously humor b/c so many of the lines are hilarious:

"the way T.S. Eliot's poetry is 'about women's basketball'"
"I'm that eight-hundred pound / gorilla in your mist"

or beautifully weird:

"history a crab crushing a nude female in its claws"
"now darkness swims its last leg of mutton"

I also detected a rebuke of sorts towards poets who insist on beauty/truth (in the Keatsian sense) as the one and only aesthetic:

"Esperanto isn't trying to create a culture-free environment
in the face of overwhelming pressure from outside
we are"


"I want to have a journal but only special people get to dream
all you little faggots that run around drawing anarchy signs
on shit, just let me say that you are a pussy
whoever you are wherever you are
you all stink something awful
nothing gold can stay"

And in other poems you directly address poesy on behalf (it seems) of Flarf in the same way that other marginalized groups addressed the mainstream, daring it to keep them out. Is that fair to say?

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book and obviously, it got me thinking, so thanks.

TO: Palm Beach Poetry Festival 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

To Poets, RE: Flarf

Poets or Literature buffs,

I don't have anything particular to say about it--I'm new to it and the speakers involved have the angles well covered--but if you're at all interested in movements in contemporary poetry, start following K. Silem Mohammad's blog {LIME TREE}, especially the frequent posts about the Flarf collective he's one of the founders of.

To Robert Bolaño, RE: "Nazi Literature in the Americas"


What would I say to you if you could really hear it? I'm not sure. I always tell myself not to be too effusive towards my literary idols, but I always break my promise--sending juvenile, unfinished poems with quaint dedications, like the one I sent to Kevin Young, "Ode to the Curator", written on a tram in Basel, but then later edited into something a little worse. He politely glossed over it in our subsequent correspondence, though, to be honest, I don't regret sending it. I wouldn't like to be the kind of writer who didn't worship other writers, and I think you may have agreed, even though the boys at n+1, who certainly understand your work much better than I ever will, seem to believe that for you, "literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking." Which makes sense to me (Smokers are intensely loyal to their brands, right? (I don't smoke.)) and you describe one of the writers in "Nazi Lit of the Americas" in similar terms: "Both reading and humiliation were to be constant features of his life." Your characters all seem resigned to their compulsion to write as if it were an addiction, an addiction that doesn't have any ameliorating effect on them as people, rather the opposite in fact, since for many, it's literature itself that leads them to fascism. "At one point you started and now you can't stop," n+1 goes on to say, and that's certainly true for me, though if you truly believed "lit = smoking" I don't think you would have produced such enabling material. Even in translation, I find your books irresistable, something akin to a narcotic for young writers. Who could not, after reading "The Savage Detectives", not want to be a 17-year-old poet in Mexico City? "The basic Bolaño aporia--literature is all that matters, literature doesn't matter at all..." - n+1. But if it already matters to you, to discover someone who creates characters who would die without it--how can I not want to be one of them also? To wish I'd been born early enough to be inside one of those tangential comparisons you make--"...he was accused of copying Eguren, Salazar Bondy, and Saint-John Perse..."--which, taken together, create not a canon but an entire universe that to be shut out of is almost like never existing. (I mean, if you, the definition of a compulsive reader, didn't see fit to mention a contemporary, what then?) The note n+1 concludes their piece with is sad, but I'm pretty sure you would agree with it: "People read less and less; worse yet, they're right to. It's clear that, besides the occasional small or large check, most writers--ourselves included--write out of vanity and compulsion. One believes in being a writer more it seems than in writing. What is it, again, you once had to say? And who supposedly wanted to hear it?" I have a slightly different take. I think you knew we needed to read these books, that somehow, literature was arriving quickly at its present state of atrophy, and those of us still hanging onto book culture would need a true believer, spefically a true believer who paints, as you do in this book, portraits of other (flawed) true believers. To show us that the life itself is worth living, even if it produces nothing more than its own rituals and rhythms, and may even, possibly, ruin our individual chances at happiness. I'll let you have the last words.

"And in the third novel, The Mute Girl, the major cities of Brazil are like enormous skeletons, while the villages are like little children's skeletons, and sometimes even the words are transformed into bones."

"Death found him composing the posthumous works of his heteronyms."

"Why are so many Nazis still alive? Take Hess, for example, who would have made it to a hundred if he hadn't committed suicide. What makes them live so long? What makes them almost immortal? The blood they spilled? The flight of the Book? A new level of consciousness? The Charismatic Church of California went underground. A labyrinth where Ernst and Leni went on fucking, unable to uncouple, like a pair of dogs on fire in a valley of sheep."

"He once wrote that penitentiaries and jail cells had been his Mississippi."

"...a day in 1973, fading irretrievably. And during the night Emilio Stevens gets up like a sleepwalker, perhaps he has slept with Maria Venegas, perhaps not, at any rate he gets up without hesitation, like a sleepwalker, and goes to the aunt's room, hearing the motor of a car approaching the house, and then he cuts the aunt's throat, no, he stabs her in the heart, it's cleaner, quicker; he covers her mouth and plunges the knife into her heart, then he goes down and opens the door, and two men come into the house that belongs to the stars of Juan Cherniakovski's poetry workshop, and the fucked-up night comes into the house and then it goes out again, almost straight away, the night comes in, and out it goes, swift and efficient."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Just realized my last post on Mark Strand is a "blizzard of hyperbole". I'll try to avoid that in the future, but the book is really very lovely. (oops...)

Monday, January 12, 2009

"A Blizzard of One" - Mark Strand

Because I believe that form and meaning are inseparable, I'll just talk about the form: a loose iambic meter that doesn’t break syllabically or accentually but by phrase. Comes from years of writing iambic pentameter, then letting out the reins a little. Except of course for the villanelles, the second of which is sublime. “Some Last Words” = sublime. Only poem I don’t like is the one for Joseph Brodsky—the stuff about “where the self goes” is pretty uninteresting. Love the Delirium Waltz pantoums, especially the first one. And in the last one, the way he makes the phrases interact/interconnect is amazing.

Rand Report on Contemporary Art

Highlights from the Rand Contemporary Report on Contemporary Art (2004):

-75% of American art museums were founded after World War II, yet a majority of the artists shown in them were dead before the end of World War II

-“indirect government support for the arts through tax policies provides considerably more funding for the arts than does direct funding.”

-“Because judgments of aesthetic quality are increasingly esoteric, aestheticism has dramatically limited the fraction of the population that takes part in the arts discourse.”

-“According to recent estimates, there are 700-800 galleries and museums in New York City today” {4 some years later, I wonder if there are more?}

-“And for all the talk about ‘supercollectors’ like Charles Saatchi, who can shape entire arts market segments, no collector today comes close to the spending power of royal patrons and early capitalist tycoons”
-400,000 serious collectors worldwide who spend at least $10,000/yr on art
-250-350 very serious collectors (collection worth worth at least $1million)
-Sotheby’s has 100,000 serious private clients
-but only 20 to 30 people who buy $5 million paintings and 10 to 15 for those over $10 million

-65% of living artists are designers
-3/4 of all profressional artists hold non-arts jobs at least part of the time
-median annual income from art of $718
-only 5% earn over $10K from art

-“California passed a law requiring artists to receive a percentage of subsequent sales of their work, but it is rarely if ever enforced.” [!]

Monday, January 5, 2009

Like You'd Understand, Anyway - by Jim Shepard

Reminded me that the verb “to be” and all of its iterations is entirely pleasant, wholly useful, and utterly welcome in prose. In a more macro sense, the grammatical structure of the sentences of this book puts an emphasis on clarity, and thus you see an overabundance of subject-verb construction; long, sinuous trains of clauses are rare. Why is this? I think it’s because these stories are so data-heavy that they require a grammar that gets out of the way. Shephard lists at least 50 non-fiction books in his Acknowledgements, but it seems like more in the stories. Here are the settings of the stories, in the order they appear: Chernobyl disaster, Connecticut semi-present day, Roman occupied Briton circa 400 C.E., South Texas present-day, Tibet in the 30’s, Alaska 1958, Australia 1848, Greco-Persian wars, Russian space program 1963, Summer camp in New England circa 1960’s, and Paris during the French Revolution. And all of them contain the kind of micro-detail we associate with literary fiction, like this from “Hadrien’s Wall”, describing a clerk working on a cold day: “The peat fire barely warms itself. The other clerk and I continually blow on our hands, and the papyrus cracks from the chill if one presses too hard.” Of course, there’s nothing spectacular about these two sentences, except that no one who hadn’t read several books about life on Hadrien’s Wall in 400 C.E. could have written them. Who even knew there were clerks working at Hadrien’s Wall? The stories never feel didactic though, as every narrator (there’s a protagonist in every one speaking in the first-person) has some compulsion for detail, as well as his or her share of familial issues. Most of the blurbs for the book mention this in one way or another (when they’re not spouting effusive praise that is as general and bland as the book itself is specific and exciting): “These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of famlilial obligation and the inescabale fallout from disaster, both natural and man-made” – Los Angeles Times Book Review. Well, yes, but the “cost” of familial obligation is only explored in one story, the final one, titled “Sans Farine” and concerning the fortunes of an executioner during the French Revolution (more on that in a second); the rest explore different aspects of familial relationships. There is a preoccuption with disaster, but here’s what’s interesting about it: it’s not tied to the familial conflict, even metophorically. I remember seeing “Lost in Space” (with Heather Graham, William Hurt, and that guy who played Joey in Friends) in a theater in Mexico and thinking that the disasters that befall the family in space are all nothing more than extended metaphors for their own internal conflict. Shepard’s disasters aren’t like that. They happen concurrently with family conflict sometimes but don’t reveal anything about them meaning-wise, and the protagonists deal with them in addition to (but usually separately from) whatever brother-father-wife problems they’re having. The only relation is that both are happening to the protagonist; otherwise, there’s no relation. And that treatment strikes me as exceedingly realistic, and therefore valuable in the sense of literature enacting common human difficulties and producing a sense of pathos in the reader. Is that old-fashioned?
One more note (and this entry is already much longer than I planned) on the final story “Sans Farine”. Is it the BEST story in the collection? Not sure that I could choose, but I’m mentioning it because besides being a great depiction of a marriage falling apart, it seemed to have a lot to say about the American Empire during the Bush years. Other stories did too, as they often entered the inner lives of characters in positions of power (Nazi’s, soldiers in the employ of the Roman Empire, Australian adventurers), but the main character of “Sans Farine,” as an unenthusiastic executioner during the fall of a monarchy, the Reign of Terror and the rise of the Republic, has more to say than others. “It was a busy time for the executioner,” the narrator says, almost echoing that Kung-Fu intro to GZA’s “Liquid Swords.” And then this, which sounds like it could have come from the head of any thoughtful American citizen circa 2005: “We both remembered a time…when I’d been of a sudden possessed by an ungovernable rage with all of those in power who had brought our nation to her present catastrophe, and had resolved to leave Paris…But my passion had subsided, and I’d understood just a bit of what such a decision would involve. Was everyone to abandon his post every time the country took a turn for the worse? Was it left to each servant of the state to decide which laws he would carry out, and which he would not? Did anyone but the highest ministers have sufficient information on which to base their opinions?”
Here are a few more that seemed drenched in their contemporary atmosphere:
“…he fell victim to that belief of monarchs that expenditure should not be governed by revenue, but revenue instead by expenditure.”
“That nation was in peril, and what constitutional safeguards remained had to make way for emergency measures.”
“The Law of Suspects was a reminder to the populace that a nation at war might have to exterminate liberty in order to save it.”
“Histrionic patriotism was the only requisite for public speaking”
“I envision new laws abolishing the accused’s right to any defense; the frightened seeking to outpace one another with the zeal and homicidal efficiency of their patiotism; and prisoners condemned in groups, identities muddled in the confusion, as sons die in the names of fathers, alongside entire families decimated by misspellings and clerical errors.” (That last part very reminiscent of the mistakes I’ve read about on the terrorist watch list.)
Am I reading too much into it? Perhaps.