Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Here Comes Everybody

I was the last poet to be included on Lance Phillips' great site, Here Comes Everybody. Here are my answers to his questions, the same questions he asked everyone. I've dropped the bio. The photo is by Atesh Sonneborn and/or Patrizia Pallaro.

1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?

“Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.”

“Life is but a dream” was my first lesson in Platonism, age six. I didn’t read modern poetry until I was a senior in college. Then I admired “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” even though it took me years to understand it, and “The Connoisseur of Chaos.”

2. What is something / someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers / colleagues? Why do you read it / them?

I used to love reading the Lake Michigan fishing report in the Chicago Sun-Times. Its terseness, mystery science (use spoons in high-running water), compression, and exactness were better than even the sports pages, the other section where poetry is occasionally to be found (“can of corn,” “frozen rope”).

3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?

Philosophy is of interest—and perhaps truer--when it is poetic. Deleuze’s The Fold, for instance. Much good poetry has philosophical implications, as in the line of Symborska: “Where is a written deer running through a written forest?” Because it runs the corridor from the actual to the ultimate, poetry is closer to philosophy than it is to fiction. Heidegger: “There lies hidden in nature a rift-design, a measure and a boundary and, tied to it, a capacity for bringing forth—that is, art.” Poetry and philosophy are about getting snagged in the rift and enjoying it.

4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?

Vallejo, Neruda, Sabines, Lorca, Pessoa, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade; Celan, Rilke, Grass, and Hölderlin; Mackey, Mullen, Baraka, and Césaire; Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Stein, Arp, Mayakovsky, Kharms, Simic; Basho, Li Po, Tu Fu, Shiki; Dang Ding Hung, Hoàng Hung, Nhat Le, and the ancient Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai, whose work I’m translating with Nguyen Do.

5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?

I read a lot of poetry, but it often inspires me to start writing instead. I tend to enjoy poems that are about poetry or rather how meaning is constructed: Ashbery, Stevens, Lauterbach, Berssenbrugge, and Welish—the “abstract lyric.” Wallace Stevens’ “The Man on the Dump” is such a poem: “Where is it one first heard of the truth? The the.” Clark Coolidge: “Writing is a prayer for always it starts at the portal lockless to me at last leads to the mystery of everything that has always been written.”

6. What is something which your peers / colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?

Except in brief bits, I have never read Proust, likewise my three-volume edition of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I know I’m supposed to like them, but I wear out after a few paragraphs.

7. How would you explain what a poem is to a seven year old?

(A) It’s the making, in language, of a fine mess.
(B) It’s what you say into the telephone when no one is listening on the other end.
(C) It is a poem if, when they hear it, they will cut themselves shaving (A. E. Housman).

8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?

I wish there were more of an official role for poetry, like the babalawo (priests) of West Africa, or the healing services rendered by María Sabina. In Ifa divination, the conjurer judges from the tossing of cowrie shells—how many up, down—which of the Ifa canon of 256 poems to recite to the supplicant. Healing is based on the supplicant’s own interpretation of the poem. It’s less expensive than psychoanalysis, and the poet-priest gets paid for his services.

Poets who assume the Role are at risk of charlatanism. But I admired the poems of Allen Ginsberg, who played the priest with a disarming wink and Buddhist humor. Robert Bly is my negative example.

Unfortunately, the role of consumer has replaced that of citizen. We have to wait for Harold Pinter to denounce U.S. foreign policy from a high place. I recently traveled to a literary conference in China and was told that writers there self-censor in order to avoid trouble. It’s no different in the U.S.

9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):

Lemon : Gentlemen

Chiseled : Rilke

I : Spy

Of : Conundrum

Form : Worn

10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

When I wrote my novel Saigon, Illinois (1988) in five months, my body was involved because I wasn’t comfortable writing in prose. It felt like I was driving a race car. Writing Poems in Spanish (2005) was more of a “dance.” I wanted quick, smooth lateral movement in language—openness, in a sense—so the writing felt easy, no tension. Roethke was a “body” poet when he marched around his house naked, practicing his cadences out loud.

In poetry, body means voice. Roland Barthes wrote that it was not the “clarity of messages” that counts in voiced poetry but rather “pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language.” Voice lends drama, intention, color, ethos, and character. All poetry is performance poetry in this sense.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Black Painting Divided by a White Painting

Presented in a different form as part of Newlipo: Bringing Proceduralism and Chance-Poetics into the 21st Century. AWP panel, Thursday, January, 31, 2008. Other panelists: Christian Bök, Joan Retallack, Jena Osman, Patricia Carlin. Moderator: Sharon Dolin. Art work by Kasimir Malevich: Suprematist composition. Black with White Rectangle, 1915.

In an Oulipo feature on the website, Drunken Boat, I am listed as “Toward Oulipo,” rather than Para-Oulipo or Oulipo. In three books, 1997-2002, I wrote a lot of poems using counted verse, meaning a determined number of words rather than syllables to the line. With the exception of the first one, “The Orphanage Florist,” circa 1985, four words to the line, three-line stanzas, I have insisted on a squared stanza: two words, two lines; three words, three lines. When the math is right, so are the architecture, concept, and momentum. A squared form offers containment, therefore terseness, and terseness leads immediately to what Jack Spicer called the Outside (expression). You don’t speak to the Outside; it speaks through you. Our metaphors for the poetry are generally those of packing and unpacking: Clark Kent pressing coal down to diamonds (Emily Dickinson) or Mallarmé distributing words over a chosen field. The question of poetics is how extensive or intensive the distribution should be. All poetic form is arbitrary, strategic, and emotional. The task of the author is to decide, how much “jack” to pack into or out of the given box. The heroic couplet and Ron Silliman’s “new sentence” gaze out differently at the same rainy day.

In our decade, the romantic tide is out, and the constructivist, materialist, and formalist tides are in. One would rather find and assemble than mine or dredge up. Originality in the old sense of a “soul-making” activity is replaced by invention, constraint, and gamesmanship. We are not at play in the fields of the lord, but the static, self-interrupting planes of the internet. In Heidegger’s terminology of facticity overwhelming poesis, this is a bad thing. It means there are no shadows at play in the Lichtung, or clearing. (The Rilkean formula might be: Achtung + Lichtung = Dichtung.) In Constructivism, everything is unconcealed, in the open, and obvious. We can see this difference more clearly, perhaps, if we limit our attention to the black on black and white on white paintings of Malevich and Rodchenko. Both were intent on a new society’s new art by way of mathematics and surface. Malevich: “I have transformed myself in the zero of form” (Lavrentiev 15); Rodchenko: “Art is one of the branches of mathematics” (Lavrentiev 15). But almost immediately there was a bifurcation. Malevich was more interested in the finished work of art, a geometry that is inscribed by style, aesthetics, and, according to Alexander Lavrentiev, the “emblematic identification of black with iconic power and white with eternity” (15). What’s the quotient of a black painting divided by a white painting?

Like the New York School and language poets, I’m interested in the varieties of meaning made possible by Oulipo and proceduralism, especially through their playfulness. John Ashbery is our major poet; his work is an extraordinary balance of gravity and levity, artifice and sincerity; sobriety and play. What do Rilke and Kenny Goldsmith have in common? They begin their pursuit “at play,” a provisional search that leads to gravity and volume. Kenny Goldsmith’s gravity is his determination to carry out his exhaustive plan. In The Weather, for instance, actual weather reports are quoted verbatim, day by day, season by season. By the fourth page, our amusement with the concept fades; we have begun to experience the grain of lived time, not exactly the “egotistical sublime” of Wordsworth or Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” but not without such implications. Nothing is lonelier than a radio or TV playing in an empty room. Because, as an anagrammatic poem, Christian Bök’s “Vowels” is “at play,” our recognition that it is a rather profound love poem is delayed. The poem begins:

loveless vessels

we vow
solo love

we see
love solve loss

else we see
love sow woe

selves we woo
we lose

losses we levee
we owe

Relating to proceduralism, I did a “thinking through” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which I made my own propositions of his propositions, then retained only the propositions that a poem, not philosophy, would desire. I produced a manuscript consisting of 56 versions of Shakespeare’s sonnet 56. The project began when I stripped the bard’s work of all but its end words and asked my students to fill in the blanks, but with the admonition not to write a sonnet. The student results were magnificent, so I tried it myself. The results were ordinary. But then I applied other procedures and forms such as homosyntactic translation, haikuisation, villanelle, the blues, noun plus seven, lounge singer, chat group, word ladder, and answering machine. In this respect, the anticipatory plagiary was Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, published by Gallimard in 1947. The book will be published by Les Figues Press of Los Angeles.

Recently, I wrote a three page poem consisting entirely of palindromes; it is also an abecedarium. It’s part of “The Windows,” a series:

The Windows (A War in Tawara)

Add “A,”
A nut for a jar of tuna,
A Santa at NASA.

Borrow or rob,
Boston did not sob.
But sad Eva saved a stub.

Cigar? Toss it in a can. It is so tragic.

Don did nod,
“Dogma, I am God;
Devil never even lived.”

Evil Olive,
Ed is on no side.
Ed is a trader, cast sacred art aside.

Flesh saw Mom wash self.
Flee to me, remote elf!

God lived as an evil dog.
Go, do, dog!

Harass Sarah!

I prefer pi.
I, a man, am regal; a German am I.
If I had a hi-fi . . .

Jar a toga, rag not a raj.
Jar bar crab, raj.

Kayak salad, Alaska yak.
Key lime, Emily—ek!

Late, fetal,
Leon sees Noel.
Live, devil,
Laid on no dial.

Ma is a nun, as I am,
Mirror rim
Murder for a jar of red rum;
Must sell at tallest sum.

No lemons, no melon,
Never even
No sign, in evening, is on.
No slang is a signal, son.
Nurses run—

Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo.
Oh, who was it I saw? Oh, who?

Poor Dan is in a droop.
Pull up if I pull up.

“Q,” said Dias, “Q.”

Rise to live, sir.
Rats live on no evil star.

Stack cats,
Solo gigolos.
Swap paws,
Step on no pets.
Sexes, exes,

Too hot to hoot,
Tug at a gut.
Tell a ballet
Tulsa night life: filth, gin, a slut.

U.F.O., tofu,
Vanna, wanna V?

Was it a bar or a bat I saw?
Won’t lovers revolt now?
We panic in a pew.

Xerox orex,
Yawn a more Roman way!
You bat one in, resign in evening. Is Ernie not a buoy?

Zeus was deified, saw Suez.

Lavrentiev, Alexander N., editor. Alexsandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future: Diaries, Essays, Letters, and Other Writings. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gennady Aygi 1934-2006

I missed the Gennady Aygi reading at SFSU, a year before he died. I have since read his poetry with a deep sense of respect for his spirit, original way of seeing the world, and fresh approach to poetics. Strange to realize that Aygi was born in the same year as Ted Berrigan, Diane DiPrima, and Amiri Baraka. Here is one of his statements about poetry:

Poetry has no ebb and flow. It is, it abides. Even if you take away its “social” efficacy, you cannot take away its living, human fullness, profundity, autonomy. After all, it can visibly penetrate also into these spheres where sleep is so active. To “dare” to dwell in sleep, to draw nourishment from it, such, if you like, is the unhurried confidence of poetry in itself—it does not need to be “shown the way,” to be “authorized,” to be controlled (so too, correspondingly, the reader).

Does poetry lose something in such circumstances, or does it gain? Let me leave this as an unanswered question. The main thing is that it survives. Drive it out of the door, it comes back through the window.