Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cenizas-San Juan De La Cruz-Penitencia

Stanzas Of The Soul
1. One dark night,fired with love's urgent longings-

ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

I love Lent.

Usually among experimental poets I am the only person who is Catholic. Usually I have to curb my enthusiasm for poets who dwell in spiritual anguish- John of the Cross, St Francis, Thomas Merton, Sor Juana all these poets are anguished spiritual seekers in whom darkness and anguish animate a poetic project that fills me often with wonder.

It is fitting on Ash Wednesday to talk about these type of people who poetically lived not in an ironic-hipster world we dwell in but in a world of seriousness and anguish . Often I get tired of all the irony and "I know better because I am a poetness" and I go to these men and look for darkness and depth I find this in some poets; Mark Tardi is good at anguish, so is Peter Gizzi and Jennifer Moxley too is good anguish... but there are so few.


¿Adónde te escondiste,
Amado, y me dexaste con gemido?
Como el ciervo huyste haviéndome herido; salí tras ti clamando, y eras ydo.
Pastores, los que fuerdes allá por las majadas al otero,

si por ventura vierdes aquél que yo más quiero,
decilde que adolezco,
peno y muero.

As the Lenten Fast Begins- I look for the Dark Night and listen for the stag in the woods.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Men, Like A Six Year Old Boy Looking for His Mother

In the fall of 2006 I hauled my corpulent frame up to a loft space in the formerly artsy Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park to attend the 60th Anniversary Party of the Chicago Review a magazine by the way that I still have not been able to get a poem into but that is my own personal Cross to bear.

The evening was as usual at poetry events amid the Faux poets and the “intellectuals” and all the poetic posing there was a reading by Lisa Robertson- a poet and a person whose poetic project is challenging to say the least.
Poet Robertson was the only female asked to read at this event her book The Men is the best answer to that oversight or perhaps that was the plan of the organizers? I bought a copy of her book The Men, and over a period of time during business trips and while eating alone my lunch I have retreated from my life and mind to enter for a moment hers’.

Lisa Robertson is the kind of poet who male poets say they like- and in fact they hate deeply. In Dr Zhivago Mr Komarovsky says that people pretend to admire Pasha when if fact they despise him because he is high minded and pure and he breeds discontent in women- Poet Robertson does the same for men.

Lisa Robertson’s poetic project breeds unhappiness in male poets because she cannot be dismissed. There are allot of female poets out there that male poets pretend they like and admire when in fact they are being condescending and really ignoring their work. Lisa Jarnot, Alice Notley, Rae Armentrout are easy for male poets to admire because they do not make men uncomfortable in a quiet way-- you can conveniently forget that they are female because their work is excellent and you can gloss over the female part- we can effectively neuter these female poets and get away with more ignorance. These are great poets but they are not removing our vein’s and skin and doing an autopsy while we are still alive.

Lisa Robertson is not that easy to like and that is why her book The Men is so disturbing to those of us who are male and who do not want really to reflect of what that means. .
As I read the book I felt like I had gone back to the caves at Altamira and instead of having Clayton Eshelman or Robert Creeley as my guide I was being guided and chastised by the Venus of Willinsdorf.

“Men sweet and smooth
Men auditorily ignored
Men by virtue of men
Following men
Make me tremble”

Here in this book on page 10 of this 60 page poem Robertson deconstructs 35,000 years of maleness. All of it; cave painting, hunting, husbandry is melted away and we are left with a blank Altamira and questions about our deep internal encoded falseness.

Later of page 17 this line again tears off my skin

Men are enjambed.”

Talk about taking Homer out and giving him a good kick in the balls. I am sure from Heaven Helen of Troy is sending down Laurels to Robertson.

As we are sucked into Robertson’s world we are faced with this

Whence men that achieve both
Clarity and embellishment, sur-embroidered
With clandestine emotion
Goya painted their eyes
Into women
The psychic life
Of Pigment”

This book has no rest and no throw away lines and if you want to dismiss it as a rant you are a fool. Most ‘feminist poetry’ can easily be ignored because it is so obvious about it project and we can shut it off-- but Robertson is deconstructing civilization. Her poetry does to maleness what the discovery of Sumerian myths did to the Bible. Before we had Enuma Elish or The Epic of Gilgamesh we thought that the Bible was unique after we learned the languages we learned that the Bible is really a collection of collective myths changes and varied but that it dwells in a pool of sacred writing that is old and unique to Mesopotamia rather than to Canaan. Really all of it was stolen and hijacked makes it less unique and less self important.

What Robertson’s book does is the same for poetry. Forgive this large quote but if it causes you to run out and buy this book then it is worth it;

“They elaborate cognition. In this way I arrive at the
Thought of them. Increasingly their oxygen is my own
And I in my little coloured shoes to please them. Their
Revolution is permanent and mine a decoration. When
The trees smear their sky, when their poems are the periphery of the west
When they swim from their silver docks, I swim too and we communicate
In water. This was September, there were three of us and one was
A man. I feel passionately about their gardens”

The Men takes Chartres, Roman Legions, the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian and blows them up into powder. When people write that poetry is not relevant and it cannot transform - I will tell them to buy this book it left me wetting my pants like a six year old scared and looking for my mother.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Vallejo-Poetry- The Andes

I just started to look through Clayton Eshleman's complete collected Vallejo poetry collection. I have always found Eshleman problematic since he is interested in the sames things I am interested in but his take on them is so different as to want to scream-out loud- NO NO NO. But this work is different and it is a triumph.
On the back of the volume is a quote from Thomas Merton, a poet and monk who usually gets short shrift from Experimental Poets since of course a Catholic should never be taken seriously. (irony all mine) Merton said of Vallejo that he is the most Catholic poet of the 20th century and with this he means Universal (the meaning of Catholic).
Vallejo is the most catholic poet of the 20th Century because he brings together all the pain and all the grandeur of the Americas- but the Other Americas the places people forget are there. the US and Mexico get allot of press while South America tends to get ignored by many and this is a fundamental mistake.
Having lived in the Andes and retained a passion for that part of the world Vallejo has always been a keen interest for me as a poet. Neruda, another Andean poet is in many ways easy, his politics, ideas and verse are fabulous but they are easy and facile. That is why Neruda poems are read by millions and Vallejo's are not. But Neruda's work is in some ways Matisselike to Vallejo's Picasso. Vallejo's work is great because it grows and changes over time while the poems remain the same and this is it what make Vallejo the greatest Spanish Language poet of the last 100 years and perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th Century.
Vallejo is a poet as artist and activist. But in his work a profound Andean sense comes forth that makes the work unique. The Andes are a different America and Vallejo lets us see the world of
the Pachamama and Viracocha.
We in the USA mostly for politically correct reasons tend to classify all of Latin America as "Latino, Hispanic" but this is really a narrow estimation of the culture. The reality is that the world of Mexico and Central America are as different from the Andean World that stretches from Ecuador to Northern Argentina and Chile as Russia is from Italy. The Andean religion is based on Sacred Mountains and Sacred Valleys that are unique for their harshness and their massiveness. While Mexico built fabulous cities that defied the geography Andean cities are part of the ground and earth as if they sprung from them. Also the centrality of Lago Titicaca is something that makes the Andes unique and intreguing.
Unlike the Central Americans and Mexicans the Andeans come from a profoundly isolated culture. The spine of the Andes cuts off much of Ecuador, Peru Bolivia and Chile from the rest of South America and the result is a different culture based and still rooted in the Quechuan and Aymaran post Inca World. As the writer Lorca once said the Andeans are not sunny people even if they pray to the Sol as god. The Andeans are also a profoundly private people which comes out in Vallejo's work.
Vallejo encompasses this in his poetry- darkness and isolation are part of his project and the work in Spanish oozes this in all its pores. Eshleman has I must say done a great job of bringing this sense to the English. I have always loved Rebecca Seiferlie's translations and her translation of Trilce, Vallejo's greatest work is superior to Eshleman's but and an obra the collection by Eshlemann is a tour de force. He should be commended for collecting in one book the poetry of this great man and poet.
The part of Vallejo that has always been profound for me as a poet is his attention to Harshness. This was something that I never fully got used to when I lived in Bolivia. There was a harshness and low grade violence everywhere and this anguish is full on in Vallejo and it comes out in many ways;
"Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no se!Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos;la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozara en el alma¡Yo no se!"
How a poet can get the words ,Golpe (Blow, Coup and in Bolivia and Peru a candy bar) Odio (hate) God in one short line and still get away with creating work of this power is a testament to having lived withing the world that he is encapsulating.
I have often argued that the problem with Post-Modern poets in the USA is that too many of them have never lived or done anything and spent too much time in the library or the coffee house. Many poets writing in the American idiom are too busy posing to live while their Latin American counterparts are living and not posing.
Vallejo is the antidote to this type of poetry. He tears off scabs and lets the blood flow freely and he gives a collective finger to all those poets who think that poetry is some sort of academic discipline rather than an intense and open art form that should if done correctly can transform the world for the reader.
Eshleman should be lauded because he has done something that few others in the US have done he has transcended his academic straight jacket to bring us the work of the greatest Spanish language poet of the 20th century for all times.

Monday, February 12, 2007

February in Chicago

It is February in Chicago and it is snowing.
I am a native of Chicago but I lived away for a long time- and when I returned I fell in love again with my hometown; Chicago is the greatest city in which to live from April-November but in December-April it is a land of darkness, cold and clouds.
I have always been driven to despiration in February. I always looked forward to Ash Wednesday simply because it was 40 days until Easter-Rebirth.
I always looked forward to Spring Training as well for the same reason. When I lived overseas in South America I forgot how desparate Lent is in Chicago. In South America lent is during the summer and it as lost some of its meaning but In Chicago Lent comes at the end of a dark and dank time.
In Iowa City as a student I used to look so forward t0 the first time the earth breathed and you could smell life again. I still think about that. I married a Brazilian- someone who never lived in snow or ice and when it is snowing still looks at me with a mix of anger-dread and anguish as she thinks about beaches, sun and flip flops.
It is supposed to snow again tomorrow. But next week is Ash Wednesday.....

Friday, February 9, 2007

Race, Obama, and the Oppressive White Man

The other night at a poet's gathering I encountered the wrath of another poet for comments that I felt were banal but were not taken that way. The final response to the dialogue was that responding to me was a way to stick it to the "white man". In otherwords because of my skin color I am an oppressor.....

Barack Obama, who I support for president by the way, has also been questioned for his race. In an almost reverse of Jim Crow it is now assumed that anyone who does not fit into a simple oppressed class category is not legitimate. So you have Laura Washington in the Sun Times questioning whether Obama is 'really' black since his family is not descended from African slaves.

These flaccid categories ignore the realities of class as the primary form of oppression in our world. I lived for many years in Latin America where the sense of race is much different. It is true that the whiter you are in this world usually the more priviliged you are but it is more than race. In Latin America race is important but social class more so. American notions of "gender discrimination" or "racial discrimination" dont apply because the weight of class oppression is so great as to trump all other forms of oppression. In other words when you live on 2 dollars a day and you have no prospects the color of your skin is not the issue- systemic evil is the issue and gender and racial oppression are much less important than class issues.

What makes Barack Obama so compelling is that he moves beyond the old 1960's era labels. This is not to discount gender or racial discrimination but what it does do is beg the question where we spend our resources in this society?

I live in Oak Park, Illinois. If you go six blocks east of where I live you are in the middle of Chicago's Austin neighborhood- an area that was until the 1970's was a White Ethnic middle class area that today is one of Chicago's poorest areas, 10 blocks south of me is Cicero where former Bohemian areas have become totally Mexican and four blocks east of me are the rich Oak Park intellectuals with their Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

The reason I write this is because I live in one of the few places in America where all the social
upswelling of today are occuring side by side. What I see around me is not gender or race discrimination- what I see is what Barack Obama represents- fusion of the races and experiences. Within a mile of where I live Mexicans, European Immigrants, African Americans and others are living side by side in a dynamic mix that is on the whole ok. But there is a discrimination infrastructure that is challenged by Barack Obama. He does not fit into easy categories but he is the future of our nation and world. It is not going to be easy to separate people by race or gender in the future- the real test is social class. Obama understands this and has dealt with it his whole life. Obama bridges gaps and makes it possible for real dialogue to begin about the real state of our world behind the labels.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Girly Man and the End of the Langpo

Since the late 1970's and 1980's to be 'experimental' in American poetic parlance meant in some real way to be a Language Poet. Or at least to worship at the Altar of the Langpo Mafia. The whole experimental tradition of Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, HD, Ponge and more came together in Langpo.
Being a Post-Language Poet or better yet a New York Post-Language Poet was the preferred mode for publication and influence. The Godfather of this Movement is Charles Bernstein (and Bruce Andrews but Charles is a better Don Corleone). and he has retained his place as Capo until today.
Langpo has been called many things, "word salad" "anti-poetry" and it has spawned reactions, Neo-Formalism is a reaction to Langpo and it is even said that Dana Gioia's Goebbelesque piece "Can Poetry Matter" was written in response to Language Poetry. For this we all respect Bernstein because if he can piss off Dana Gioia we are proud of him and he is one with us.

Most poets writing today who are considered experimental are children of Langpo and its antecedent's and that is why Charles Bernstein's new book "Girly Man" from the U of Chicago Press is so interesting and in some ways so disturbing.
Bernstein in many ways is wearing someone else's clothes here and his book has detached experimental poetry from its moorings. I must say that Charles' life is a poetic wet dream for many poets who are not academics. Here is a man who does not have the academic pedigree but who was able to crash into academia and really shake things up- all non academic poets dream of this unreal reality. Poets who are outside the academy look at Charles as a lodestar in this regard. But Girly Man is something else a betrayal? a chastisement? or I just don't know?

The book is filled with these sing songy poems- with lines like "Got Cancer, Have a Warm Bath" (paraphrase), "home team losing, time to change sides". And as satire they work and they are funny but they leave one the way a Chinese meal does two hours later- hungry and wishing there was more meat and less wasted carbs. We get a good line and then a throw away line and I would ask myself why can't CB sustain himself? Why can't this tension continue? Why does it have to break this way?
It has been written by some great reviewer/poets that Postmodernism and Irony were dead after 9/11 but Charles' has redeemed these things with Girly Man. I have to disagree with this assertion. Charles Bernstein is a fine and seminal poet but his is a voice formed in the New York of the 1960's and 70's a world that is as far away from our own as the Byzantine Empire is from today's problems.
We live in a time that requires seriousness and from many American poets today we get allot fluff and 'flarf" masquerading as irony and critique. Is there room for humor? Is their room for the kind of New York Hipster irony that fills so much of Girly Man? I think Poet's need to reevaluate their project because we are really in a new world a world that needs poetry to do its job.
In the named poem "The Ballad of the Girlie Man" A formal- and assertively non-Langpo poem Bernstein puts a period on the end of a poetic epoch. This poem has everything, rhyme schemes, irony, and satire the best line is

Thugs from hell have taken freedom's store
The rich get richer, the poor die quicker
Here are lines that rank with some in the Wasteland and Mauberley as critiques of an age and when we think that we are going to get a whole sustained poem we want the tension and energy we need for our sick world Charles' gives us these following lines;

& the only god that sanctions that
is not god but all but rhetorical crap

which are flaccid and lose the energy of the work. He uses this stanza twice in the poem and like the air leaving a balloon is disappoints. I wanted more tension and more challenge not some throw away line and the use of the word "Crap" which is really crap. Unlike many reviewers I do not believe that Girly Man is a triumph. I think it is a missed opportunity with some great lines looking for more great lines and that the work consistantly loses energy.
My Way, Bernstein's collection of essays and poems is perhaps the greatest book on poetry written in the past 50 years. My Way is Bernstein's masterpiece in the future Girly Man will be known for something else. Girly Man signals the end of the Langpo Mafia and its grandchildren's hold on experimental poetry. Many younger poets now have taken what the Language Poet's and their Grandchildren have done and what Charles Bernstein in particular started and have recombined it with earlier traditions and new technologies.These younger poets are better equipped to address poetically a world that is rapidly heading from a need for hipster irony to a need for screaming.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Poetry and Sycophancy

Poets are the only writers concerned with artistic purity- when you talk about marketing many poets get squeamish. What Fiction writers and plumbers do well tell a story and sell it to an audience is something poets disdain it seems too much like commerce for poets in the USA.

But what poets are very good at; least the USA is creating closed systems. Huge poetic echo chambers if you like for their ideas. Today most poetry books are published by small presses. Most poetry centered literary magazines are non-profits and most literary centers that specialize in poetry are personality driven.

There are implications of this reality for poetry. I write this as the owner of a small non profit press, Cracked Slab Books. We recently awarded our first Cracked Slab Books Heartland prize to Poet Michelle Noteboom. William Allegrezza and I were very careful to pick the right book and to read the mss. blindly before we made a decision. I am not saying we are perfect but we did not pick our friend's books and there are books from our friends that merit publication but we did not pick Michelle's book because we felt that she could help us as poets in the future which is so often the way poetry books are chosen in contests.

I am also guilty of having friends publish my books and being invited to read at literary centers and series that are curated by my friends but it does not mean that this reality does not require critique on what it is doing to the art form. Most presses, magazines and literary centers/reading series today are run by poets and these projects are vanity projects. How many prizes have been given to people by their friends?

I believe that this reality is the result of the overload of academics within poetry. Most academics in poetry or creative writing get their positions because of reputation, not as with other academics original research or articles.

The result of this is that 'publication' means less and more at the same time in poetry. A friend's press picks up your book or someone you know is judging a contest- you win and you parlay this into an academic job. If you are politically well connected, have written something good in the past your life is easier. Originally the MFA as it was conceived at Iowa was an advanced degree for working writers and poets. It was a degree for people who wanted more education but whose vocation was writing. Today however the MFA is the way to connections
as a poet to enter the closed system.

Today this peculiar academic culture has seeped into poetry. Friends run literary centers and they invite and pay their friends to give workshops on poets who they know. Literary magazines publish friends and small presses are devoted to publishing a closed circle of poets. The result of this closed system is that poetry is full of the same type of people. The blog culture as well is a closed circle we all read the same blogs and the echo chamber continues. What is needed is new blood and deep debate rather than the pablum that masquerades as reviews.
How many poets are to be celebrated not because their work is fine but because they know someone at Fence?

Poets should challenge society-Poets should make people uncomfortable and poets should be interfacing with society and if society won't listen we should speak louder. Closed systems will not make poetry what it needs to be.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Memory and Poetry

Went through a very engaging Celan conversation last night with poets Jen Scappettone, Bob Archembeaux, Mike Antonucci, Garin Cycholl, Bill Allegrezza and Stefania Heim.
First off this meeting was refreshing because it was remarkably free of poetic posturing. It was interesting to get various insights from poets whose formations and poetic focuses are so different. The difference is what made the conversations interesting.
We had allot of questions regarding Celan and the different translations. Pierre Joris used a word Moor Soldier which was translated as differently in another translations that led to some spirited discussion and talking about Celan and memory and mental illness brought out some interesting ideas. In the end it is hard for me to enjoy or be engaged by the poet like Celan. He is so rootless and so anguished in some ways. I have the unfortunate or fortunate problem of being very rooted. I remember as a kid watching Roots on TV and thinking- wow African Americans don't know where they are from? I have been fortunate to have deep roots in Italy and a sense of place during my entire life.
The best thing about the evening was seeing Jen Scappettone's new hat and Stefania Heim's cool glasses. I am looking forward to our next poet and some more good argument.