Friday, February 27, 2009

To Charles Bernstein, RE: disfrutes

I bought your book online, at a site specializing in small presses, because they were having a big sale. (I think Kasey Mohammad's blog alerted me to this...) And since you're one of the giants of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and as a poet, I feel like I need to have some kind of understanding of every major 20th Century movement, I bought "disfrutes". Which I don't understand, except for as a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E book and in design terms, as a very handsome little volume that will look awesome on my new book shelf (above). Though let me say that I did "enjoy" (nice pun for you Spanish speakers out there) the book--how much space is utilized on the pages--and I especially enjoyed the pages that had a sonic beauty that could at least, possibly, carry some sort of meaning in terms of conventional usage (even though I know that's not the point). Here are two examples (these are the entire pages and the type is always set right in the middle, in a Courier or similar font, though FYI, the spacing of the words, other than the line-breaks, has been ruined by blogger):


kept and


(as if

half loaved

and then the very last page, which, in its regularity, creates closure:

(and then)



Which is funny if it's language or poetry that's getting the spittle.

To Gerald Stern, RE: Lucky Life

What can I say to you that you don't already know? I envy the 50 years you had to yourself before publishing, your years in Paris with Jack Gilbert (Of all the romantic friendships in the world in all the romantic times, I might choose this one over all of them), and I envy your age, as you, I'm sure, envy mine. "Lucky Life" is so far--and by far--my favorite book of yours. That plain-spokenness of yours, made out of pure Anglo-Saxon as if you'd translated the English into German without our knowing it, is at its height. I love all the names of flowers and animals, the attention paid to the non-human, the fierce sense of justice, particularly in the name of the weak and the small, the greater sense of the cyclical nature of things perhaps gained from having spent so much time walking in circles, taking note of whatever you passed by, and the humor:

…I sat there
discussing the simple pleasures, beekeeping
and massage, poker and ice-cream making,
as well as the more serious matters
such as divorce and bladder infection…

I don't want to pick favorites but "Four Sad Poems on the Delaware" was the one that first sucked me into the book, and the last poem, "Something New" made me glad that I still have so much your work ahead of me, even if the majority of it is behind you. Can we play poker sometime?

While I have been flooding myself with black coffee

More and more I go into the dark
sighing for what I leave behind me
instead of caring for what lies ahead.

If I grow a little arrogan, or a little sleepy,
it is because of the stone I am lying under
and the river I always drag around behind me.

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

To Nam Le, RE: "The Boat"

My favorite and least favorite aspect of your book was its ambition. I love, perhaps adore, the first and last stories (especially the first, which I first read in Zoetrope by accident and was struck dumb by it), and I love how they interconnect: the story the protagonist writes for his workshop becomes the last story (“The Boat”), and despite the fact that it’s destroyed, we get to read it (or something like it). And having the courage to write a story about an MFA student—when you’re unpublished—is admirable, and the results speak for themselves. “Love and Honor and Pity…” will be taught and read for a long time, I think.

The best part of your writing is the pacing. Even in the middle five stories, which on the whole I didn’t like as much, your narratives have precise internal clocks. As someone who tends to rush when writing fiction, I’m very jealous of this ability. The one exception is “Tehran Calling”, but as that was by far my least story, perhaps I’m not fit to judge it.

And I guess here I should explain what I meant about ambition being negative. I have no problem with the “global” aspect of the five middle stories, no problem with you writing as a Columbian sicatrise, a Hiroshima victim, a girl visiting Iran, but for some reason, when you depart to these more foreign locales, your stories become more conventional in construction. “Hiroshima” for instance takes on that lit fiction trope of a first-person speaker who has some sort of poetic pidgeon English (symbolic of translation, displacement, difference, etc.), Uzo’s “Beast of No Nation” is an example, and relies on this conceit to bypass experiential detail. Conversely, “Tehran Calling” has plenty of emotional realism, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in all the flashbacks, you were constantly trying to figure out what the story was really about. The problem with choosing Tehran during Asura as a locale is that when you flash back to Portland, Maine, we get bored. Besides the fact that I didn’t think I needed to go back to the U.S. at all—I didn’t need to didactically understand all of Sarah’s feelings, in other words.

But I think that’s enough of what I didn’t like, because you’re too good a writer. And I can tell by the way you write that you want to be capital “G” great (back to David Orr!) and I think you will be.

Monday, February 23, 2009

To David Orr, RE: "The Great(ness) Game" in the NYT Book Review, 2/22/09

I would have loved to have substituted you as author of this article, David, with someone like Anthony Lane. In other words, someone who would enjoy poking fun at an establishment that openly frets at its potential "greatness", instead of asserting that "poetry needs greatness" and then defining "greatness" in large part as a costume party, as you do in this essay, without so much as a wink. No one in our community but you I think has a conception of Elizabeth Bishop as anything other than capital G "Great." And "Great" defined as: she left behind a fairly thick collection of Great poems. The rest of us, David, have left behind the other ridiculous boys-club criteria--hence why those of us who never met Robert Lowell are underwhelmed by everything he did after "Life Studies." Are we still an undemocratic "guild"? Absolutely. Do we still tend to favor interesting biographical notes over the work itself? Of course, and even more reason to write a satirical piece about us, from someone very much on the inside, instead of making yourself sound ridiculous by asserting that if "you simply look back and forth fast enough between [Lowell and Bishop] while squinting, it's possible to see a single Great Poet staring back at you." Is there any irony in that assertion? I hope so, but as someone who loves and appreciates irony, I wasn't getting a very strong reading.

And even worse, this article ends in some kind of "boo hoo" about contemporary American poets lionizing foreign poets. In the words of Seth Meyer, "Really, David?" That's what keeps you up at night vis-a-vis American poetry? That we worship foreign language poets too much? Really? That's our problem?

And what is this obsession of American poets to fix American poetry? Am I the only one who doesn't think it's broken?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

To Susan Sontag, RE: "Against Interpretation"

I read this in college and read it again today, and one part felt close to the way I see things at the moment, close enough to copy it down here: "...interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world--in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.' It is to turn the world into this world. ("This world"! As if there were any other.)

I could say more but I have some fiction to write. Nam Le's "The Boat" will be next. I have two stories left in the collection to read.