Friday, November 30, 2007

A Dialogue with Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman and I are neighbors even though we have never met in person. I have been frustrated with Mr Wiman for a long time especially when during a radio show here in Chicago when asked who are his favorite poets he lauded Phillip Larkin and Donald Justice and dismissed Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and others by not mentioning their names as important.

Wiman is part of a larger reaction to the poetic that starts with Pound and Stein and flows down to poets today like Cole Swensen and Peter Gizzi. This poetic of collage, parataxis, experimentation and juxtposition is not appreciated by Wiman and his poetic brethern like Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Dana Gioia and the rest because it challenges what poetry has been and will be and creates a poetic of challenge that in the end is disturbing.

But having said all this I cannot dismiss Wiman. There are few serious poets writing in the American idiom today who take religion and the spiritual seriously. Apart from Peter O'Leary (another Chicago Neighbor) most After-Postmodern poets are more likely to write about Johannes Kepler or Beehives then religious themes and Wiman does justice to this concern and does it well. Wiman is a committed Christian- and I am a committed Catholic which while not considered Christians by Fundamentalists; we are often concerned with the same questions.

I was book shopping last week at Seminary Coop- I picked up some Christmas reading and one of the books I picked up was Wiman's Ambition and Survival: Becoming A Poet. The structure of this book is puzzling. It is made up of essays on different topics that are laced with uncomfortably personal revelations and the poetic politic of the Neo-Formalists/Quietude. I could not help but think that this book was informed by the great Mid-Twentieth Century Catholic conversion/journey narratives of Thomas Merton (Seven Storey Mountain), Dorothy Day (From Union Square to Rome) Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and the poetry of William Everson. Unlike so many books written today on poetry or poetics there is a destination in this book and while I may not like or agree with it- we are going somewhere.

I am still working through the book but one essay that I keep going back to is one on Wiman's sojourn in Guatemala. I think Wiman and I are about the same age- late 30's early 40's and I also spent more time than Wiman, living in Latin America but it seems to be an important part of his life as is it of mine. The essay; Reading Milton is interesting . Wiman is in Guatemala one of the great fonts of poetry in the Americas reading Milton during Holy Week in Antigua.

If one does not know in Antigua during Holy Week the people make Alfombras (Carpets) of flowers and other organic matter that are kind of like Catholic Mandalas that are walked over by the procession it is one of the great specticals of this Hemisphere. So back to the melancoly. In this essay he talks about the generousity of the family he stayed with, the way they put themselves out for him- a broke poet- and it ends, sadly that he has forgotten their names.

The essay is both sad and a little disturbing. Does he mean to critique himself for his insentivity? or is he being ironic- which is not something that most Neo-Formalists are comfortable with? I keep trying to find the redemption in the essay and I read on in the book to look for that in the work.

I am going to blog more about Wiman's book because it is so different than what you get from other poetic essayists. I enjoy spending time with work and poets that I do not agree with There is a great word in all Latin languages Amplia, it means Ample in the English sense but it also means open and full and that is what reading someone you disagree with allows one to do.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving in Bolivia

Being back in the USA for 10 years next year the significance of Thanksgiving has receded to what most Americans think of- eating, football and family.

But in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 & 1997 I lived in Bolivia and Brazil and the holiday had a different meaning and I still think about those times today.

A few months ago I met a lovely young woman who is a student of my friend Poet Kristy Odelius, it turns out that she is the children of missionaries in Cochabamba and that when she was a child I met her at our annual American Thanksgiving.

Cochabamba, where I lived for 93,94, and 95 has allot of missionaries. Most of the Americans were Evangelicals there to steal Catholics from the Church. But in my work in the jail I became close to some Evangelicals and they included me a 'pagan' in their Thanksgiving meal. They were all so uncomplicated. Most Catholics in Cochabamba were leftists and they were working for justice for the poor- the evangelicals were working toward Metanoia a change of heart and moral change it was a strange juxtopostion.

There was also a woman who was an inmate who was American- in for a drug offense and I remember going to the comandant to ask for a day pass so she could eat with us. I explained Thanksgiving to him- and he explained it to me. I said this was our national festival of thanks and he said "this is a holiday where you Americans give thanks for the land you stole from us the indiginous people of the Americas" ok I am put in my place. But she was able to eat with us and
I was thankful for that.

But having said that it was nice to spend a day with Americans eating American foods and thinking about cold autumn in the hot summer of Bolivia. I was thankful to these Evangelicals with whom I shared nothing except for a Passport for including me in their meal. It remains a sweet memory.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Van Gogh Effect

On Saturday night I went to a reading that Patrick Durgin's wonderful Kenning Editions put on as a tribute for the poet Hannah Weiner. The reading was very well done with some very interesting reflections on Weiner and her work. One of the things about Weiner that has bothered me for a long time is what I like to call the "Van Gogh Effect". Weiner had obvious issues with drugs and mental illness. How do we address these issues as human beings?

When I was an undergrad I had a girlfriend who eventually became the noted psychologist Dr. J Krones and she and I had a running argument/disagreement about he Van Gogh effect. JK argued that it was inhumane and cruel to facilitate the art no matter how creative of mentally ill people. I argued that it is the mental illness that makes them great artists and that to medicate them would destroy their personalities. I am not so sure that I believe this anymore but I think about it allot.

Many creative people are mentally ill and many creative people use illegal drugs as ways to salve their mental illness. The moral question is do we ignore destructive behaviour because the art is so fabulous? Are we being cruel and inhumane by facilitating mental illness?

This argument could be expanded to include others who use mental illness for fabulous ends. It has been argued that St Francis for example suffered from Mental Illness and this is where so much of his power came from. In fact the Stigmata and the Poetry were borne from Mental Illness and that prayer and privation caused his Ecstasy. On the other hand Jackson Pollock was more productive when he was sober and not very productive when he was drunk. Picasso and Matisse it appears did not suffer from mental illness; but many other artists did.

So getting back the Van Gogh effect is it morally correct to facilitate destructive behaviours? Would Hannah Weiner's work have been so important if she had been under a doctor's care for her mental illness? Would the work have been so clear and clean? Would Van Gogh have created his paintings if he had been on Prozac? Was his mental illness the price for greatness?
Or is mental illness, anguish and stress needed to create great art? I simply do not know the answer to this question but I ask it all the time. It is obvious that many creative people have some sort of mental illness. Where is the line between creative/innovative mindset and destruction? Where does this lay?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sacco Vanzetti Grinders and Journalists

I was in the Atlanta Airport and to my delight I found a copy of a book published by Dalkey Archive Press.
Dalkey is pretty close to my favorite press- there is such a range of great writers and poets.
Mark Binelli's Sacco and Vanzetti must die is a fiction book about two friends who just happen to have the same names as two notorious Italians, Sacco and Vanzetti.
Binelli's book is really great.
I personally share in common with Binelli the fact that both of our grandparents come from Pinzolo a fabulous town on the road between Brescia and Innsbruck. There is a section where he describes a Danze Macabre on the Parish in Pinzolo that is very moving. Binelli's book is profound and interesting and after reading it I was compelled to think about one of the things that Binelli's work brought forth- injustice and humor at the same time.
Binelli says is that this book is not the story of the original Sacco and Vanzetti.
Whiteness and Americanness are acquired traits.
Sacco and Vanzetti who were killed because in the words of the Onion "for profound swarthyness" were not White in 1920. These inferiors- Italians, Jews, Slavs became White through a forced assimilation. The reason that so many of the hystericals are worried about immigration is because they have lost control of assimilation. Today there is a way from other cultures to be fed in the USA. TV, Internet and Airtravel all make assimilation less important.
The dream of today's immigrants is not to become White and this challenges the Hystericals notion of what America is. I think one of the things Binelli brings out in his book is that the world is complex and that irony is ok. It also brings forth that we are no longer a people separated by a dream of whiteness.
It is also true that Political Correctness and the need to create victims and victimizers have made classes of people who are not victimizers- suspect. One of the favorite whipping boys of the Left in the USA is the White Working Class. When factories close or Unions are destroyed as happened here in the Midwest many on the left just shrugged their shoulders. they say the factory was polluting- they are not comfortable around people who might go to Church or go to taverns and who might not care about Organic Groceries or rights for Lesbians.
The Working class in America- they can be of European, African or Latin American origin and their marginalization are the reason that our society is in such turmoil and lifestyles are so uncertain. Many of these people live in places or neighborhoods where intellectuals like Mark Binelli or I might not feel comfortable- but at least Binelli talks about them- but the reason that the Left and Leftist ideas are never enacted here in the US is because we have forgotten solidarity and only want to support our local parochial causes.
Are we are brother's keeper? Would there be protests today for Sacco and Vanzetti? Or would we be too concerned with our own parochial causes to care?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Professor's Questions?

Did you ever notice that when question time comes at a University reading the questions are more like little speeches?

Last night I went to the reading of a paper by Susan Howe, who is in my estimation- apart from Gertrude Stein and Gabriella Mistral the most imp0rtant female poet of the 20th Century and one of the top ten most influential poets in the American idiom.

I went to the reading to hear from Professor Howe. I went to hear her unique take on Stevens, who I have never liked much and Jonathan Edwards who I have not liked as well because of his Anti-Catholicism.

Professor Howe's speech was enlightening- and interesting and made me rethink these two New Englanders and what more could you want from a talk?

One of the annoyances of attending readings at prestigious Universities is that the room is filled with other smart people who like to ask long winded questions that seem always to be more about their erudition than what the poet or speaker has just presented. That was the case last night. I chose not to ask a question since I was a guest at the party- and I did not want the Professorate to know that a non member of the club was in their midst (I am sure that my 350 pound frame just blended in among the neck beards and tweed).

But Howe is so clean. I feel the same way about her that I did about Robert Creeley. She is not a faker- she is the real deal- a Poet. She may have made her money in Academia just like Stevens her great muse made his money in insurance but she remains simply a poet- nothing more and that is good company to keep.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Blurbs-Generousity and Insurgency

One of the ways we find out what our poetic peers really believe about our work is when blurb time comes.

The blurb is really a small affirmation that your work is on the right track-- but this naive reasoning of often befuddled by the reality of connections and politics.

Poetry-land is a land of contradictions.

Poets often criticize the prevailing culture as one of connections, money and bourgeois values.

I do not know how many times I have seen that 'look' from poet friends when they hear about the concerns of the great unwashed. But Poetry-Land has its own profound values.

Personal Generousity versus Self Interest

Poets in many ways are lovers of the idea of personal generosity, but it is rare among poets. When Ron Silliman reviewed our Cracked Slab Book's anthology he was amazed at our generosity including many voices most of whom are not our friends. But it seems to me that the lack of generosity is one of American poetry's main problems and this get me backs to blurbs.

I am reasonably well known poet, I have published one collection of poetry which was well received and an anthology which has been well reviewed and highlighted 45 great poets in Chicago. I have published over 100 interviews on which allowed many poets to be seen on the Internet and maintained that myself. I am in no way an unknown poet so when I went out for blurbs I thought I might do ok?

Being Irascible

I know that I can be a little prickly and that I enjoy piercing the fat soft academic poets who fill our art form with so much hot air and blown wind.
There is nothing more indicative of the problem with contemporary poetry than the poet who spends his or her time at Ragsdale or Mac Dowell, goes back to their academic job teaching two classes a semester and turnout less than one book a year. While their poetic antedents lived marginal lives these poets sit squarely in the center of the establishment.
Many great poets work full time non academic jobs or work as adjunct professors for little or no pay, run presses, turn out books, articles, translations and do it all for the love of the art form. The hunger remains in the second group and the fatness fills the first group. This has been an ax of mine to grind the fatness shows up in the poetry.

I enjoy championing the young or hungry poets who are doing the real poetic work so I did not expect universal acceptance of my request for blurbs for my new book Immediate Empire which is a collaboration with my wife Waltraud Haas who did the artwork.

The Blurb Process

I went out to 6 poets, 2 friends and 4 poets whom I admire. Three poets responded to my request for a blurb which is pretty good; Kevin Killian one of the poets I admire--sent the most generous of blurbs which I am most grateful for receiving. He and his wife Dodie Bellamy are easily the best example of generous poets and if our art form had more of them we would be blessed. My friends Simone Muench and Bob Archembeau gave me really insightful blurbs and I am thankful to them for their support. But three poets whom I admire and know turned me down...

Many poets have been very generous to me in my life; Alice Notley let me sit in one of her seminars at the Walt Whitman Center a few years' ago that helped with my first books final edits.
Robert Creeley did an interview with two weeks before he died and Peter Gizzi gave me a blurb for my first book and for The City Visible:Chicago Poetry for the New Century Cracked Slab's Anthology.
These poets are also very busy took out of their important work time to give of their time to a poet, me, who admires them and they remembered that community is important---even though I was never their student and I could really do nothing for them.

I will always be in their debt.

What was interesting was the negative responses. I am not going to embarrass the 'rejectors' by naming them because I love and respect their work --- but here are some of the responses keeping in mind I sent the email in late September over 5 weeks ago;

Poet #1
  • "I just got to your email sorry I cannot do a blurb as I am so busy" "but please send me a copy of the book" (So this poet wants a FREE copy of the book but won't do a blurb)

Poet #2

  • "I am currently in Hungary teaching (as if the Internet does not work in Hungary) and I cannot get to it now but send me a copy of the book" (So this poet also wants a free copy but cannot write because he/she is in Hungary.)

The question I have is why not just say "I don't want to write a blurb for you now" or " I won't write a blurb for you because their is nothing in it for me" or "You were not my student so too bad".

Poetry and Poets even the famous ones never make allot of money. Our art form is wonderfully entrepreneurial. Think about the great presses and magazines that today exist because of generousity of poets and passion for the form;

Aufgabe Magazine (e Tracy Grinnell) Kenning Editions (Patrick Durgin), Action Books (Joyelle Mc Sweeney, Johannes Gorensson), (Cracked Slab Books (Me and Bill Allegrezza), Dancing Girl Press, Antennae Magazine (Jesse Seldess), i.e. Press (Catherine Daly), Blaze Vox Press (Geoffrey Gatza), Ugly Ducking Presse (Matvei Yankelvich) and so many others are putting out some of the best work in poetry and this is all possible because of the generousity of these poets who with a little money make poetry better.

So keep an eye out for my book The Immediate Empire from i.e. press and the next time someone asks for a blurb just do it even if you are in Hungary- because it is an honor not a task to be avoided and as the Sisters used to say why not light one candle rather than curse the darkness?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Why We Must Oppose the Military Industrial Complex

This morning watching the propaganda on Fox News while waiting for a doctor's appointment I heard repeatedly about a "war on terror'. Fox news is such a Hitlerian enterprise- prurience and war.
It is essential for the Military Industrial Complex of which our current president is a pawn to have an enemy so that the machine that finances war can continue to be fed.
The war on terror is part of this. No one discounts the threat of Islamic Fundamentalism or the horror of September 11th. Just like no one discounted the threat of Communism or Nazism or the horror of Auschwitz or Pearl Harbor. No one doubts that Nazism and Communism needed to be confronted-- but the question is how are they confronted?
Do we oppose an vile ideology with an equally vile one?
What has made the United States and its ideal important? It is certainly not the money made by Bechtel or General Electric. No it is the ideal of justice and fairness and that fact that citizens could decide what is right and what is wrong.
It was the ideals that won the Civil War and Freed the Slaves
It was the ideals that allowed people to fight for justice-civil rights and women's rights
It was the ideals that allowed for unions and workers rights
and it was the ideals that let a citizens army to defeat Hitler.
But today we are financing a huge complex of corporations and those who want there to be war and enemies and to destroy the ideals that would question their profits.
Torture has never been an American ideal. But it is good money.
We must oppose the Military Industrial Complex and the Stooge George Bush and look to the American Ideal of Justice and Peace and to true greatness.
Will someone? Will Hillary Clinton?? Will Barack Obama?