Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What I am Reading- Kharms and Nowak

What am I reading? Allot of Slavic literature....
I spent August reading through all of Mandelstahm whom I have loved since college and now I am reading Matvei Yankelevich's masterpiece of translations and Daniil Kharms.
Here is another poet/author whose work is all but ignored in the United States. But along with Witold Gombrowitz and Viktor Shklovsky this Kharms is a real treat and Yankelevich's translations are masterpieces of poetry in their own right.
The first part of the book are short prose poems that could also be stories or even flash fiction, Then there are fine formal poems and the book opens and expands until one is totally enthralled with its depth and verve. Along with Mandelstahm Kharms was murdered by Stalin. This is something that needs to be proclaimed loudly when people dare to say they are Marxists. I for one am now a Kharmsist as I am a Gombrowitzist and a Shklovskyist before him. Go out and buy this book it is all the poetry you need to get through our raw times....
I am also reading Mark Nowak's Coal Mountain Elementary. I have the honor of introducing Mark later this month at a reading of the Poetry Center of Chicago Of all the poets writing in the American idiom today Nowak is one of the few who can hold a candle to great Latin American poet activists. This book is a tour de force. It is about Coal Miners in China and the US and great photos by Malaysian photographer Ian Teh. The book illustrates the weakness in so much of today's poetry. It lacks both a global focus and a political conscience. This is a book to bend the genre and to show to a world what really matters before the world....

A Reflection on Thomas Merton and College Football

When I was a freshman at the
University of Iowa in the fall of 1985
I developed two interests
that would stay with me through
the next 24 years; College Football
and Thomas Merton.

I developed a love of College
Football because in 1985 Iowa
was #1 for 8 weeks and I attended some
of the greatest games ever played including
the 10-9 win over Michigan and so I was
hooked and to this day I look forward to
an Iowa football Saturday.

The other thing I gained a love for
was the writings of Thomas Merton. In 1985 all of the thoughtful and liberal
Catholics had not been driven out of the Church.

The Newman Center at Iowa was quite a place. It was where I met my first Worker Priest, my first Lesbian friend, and where I became aware of what a Catholic Worker really was. I also was introduced to Thomas Merton.

Merton is today still well read but not by many Catholics. Most Catholics today who are church goers prefer the revanchist EWTN version of the Church. The great Catholic traditions of
intellectualism and progressivism in the US are easily ignored as inconvenient. So Al Smith, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, John Courtney Murray are pushed to the side in favor of
I don't know what?

Having said that there is so much in Merton that is life affirming and during this time when I am in the midst of unemployment and financial stress his words still speak to me. When the first cold breeze comes in the fall- like now- I think about that part in the Seven Storey Mountain where he talks about the fever of October and how everything looks so good and how our blood is rushing faster and what it is like to be on a college campus in the fall- and I am soothed and reinvigorated.

When things seem so down and out I re-read New Seeds of Contemplation and let the small deep insights fill me with wonder and peace. Finally when it appears that all is lost I let Merton tell me that it is in suffering like our Lord suffered that we are truly human and close to His pain.

Merton does not believe in the Santa Claus Jesus that so many conservatives believe in . His Jesus is bigger and more complex. His Jesus lets us have all of the Human experience and Merton's writing lets us read Buddhism, Rumi/Sufism, Eastern Christianity and more as ways deepening our lives and really understanding our interior life.

Merton has gotten me through much. When I was living in Bolivia working the prison his works were with me. When I went through family problems his books soothed me. And now in this Great Recession his works remain a constant for me- like watching Iowa Football it is something that I acquired in Iowa City, over 20 years ago now, and it remains for me a constant amid stress and pain. His works are a constant contemplation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Granta's Ignorance of what is Vital in Chicago

Over the past few weeks there have been a screed of writings about poetry in Chicago on line. Kent Johnson a critic and poet has written an article on Digital Emunction that is posted above about the "New Chicago School" and poet Adam Fieled has insisted that he first coined this term but actually the term was first coined in 2005 by Chicago poet Tim Yu at the Midwest MLA. Of course it is a right of passage to be yelled at by Adam but I still like him...

Johnson's point is that there is all this poetic dynamism in Chicago and that it is important to American letters in total. But this reality is refuted by the recent issue of Granta that has been lauded all over the place as if Chicago needed an imprimatur from this British neo-elitist magazine?

Lets give Granta its due. When it comes to intellectual serious fiction they do an OK job and we all love Stuart Dybek and Aleksandar Hemon and find them compelling but when it comes to poets? ... give me a break...Look Anne Winters and Reginald Gibbons are fine poets and well established poetic members of our community but why would you include them only in an issue about Chicago?

There are at least 30 poets writing in Chicago an environs who have books out from serious presses in all poetic genres. From Peter O'Leary(Duncanesque) to Kevin Coval (Spoken Word) we have well known and respected poets who should have been included.

Maybe one less essay by Don De Lillo (NY I think) would have allowed Granta to include these younger vital Chicago voices? Or was the goal a characterature of Chicago for a British audience?

Forget about poetic tribes here for a moment. In this critique whether you are an Experimento, Slammer, Neo Black Arts, Latino/a or other group member you have been excluded from an issue that is supposed to be about "Chicago Literary Culture" and you have been doubly excluded because the Poetry Foundation is hosting a reading for Granta here that excludes you as well.

In this issue of Granta there is an article on Chicago Gangsters, as if other cities do not have them but there is nothing about Chicago poets and the vitality of our community. Now, I know that poetry does not sell and does not matter and that we should be satisfied that there are a couple of poems thrown in for good measure. But, I am not satisfied with this set of omissions. If you want to find the literary dynamism in Chicago it is in Poetry that you will find it and I don't mean Poetry the magazine.

But we as poets in Chicago continue to have our little fights among ourselves instead of building the literary institutions that we need in this city to create a literary culture that is sustainable. We argue about who first coined the term "new chicago school" which is a stupid waste of time

Why aren't we building real institutions?

Why is it that our MFA programs are not challenged to help build?

Why is it that the Chicago Review has done an issue on German Poetry but nothing on Chicago? Why is it that Cracked Slab Books the small press that we run on a shoe string published an anthology of Chicago poetry while Northwestern University press and U of Chicago press chose not to do so?

So perhaps we should be ignored until we are more serious and build something that lasts in this city to support our poets and their work?

One's own writing is his/her own business but the work of building a literary culture is more than writing. Until we as a community build the kinds of infrastructure that the Theatre community here in Chicago for example has built our place in the Global Literary scene is suspect and weakened by a lack of support and sustainability.

This should be our goal rather than fighting over nomenclature and who mentioned a term in a blog post first.

When it comes to Granta as far as I am concerned they should have listened for vitality instead of stereotypes and I for one will not be attending their coming out party at the Poetry Foundation I think I will go to the Sox game instead.....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 11th 1683

On September 11th 1683 a battle began outside Vienna, Austria that would resonate to this day. That Battle and the defeat of the Ottoman Turks began a long slow decline for Islam that culminated with the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the occupation of so much of the Islamic world by the West, and resentment from the once superior culture, Islam to the new leader Christianity/the West.
Over time the 'evils' of Islam have been augmented in the West and the 'evils' of Christianity have been downplayed . There are literally hundreds of books on Byzantine Anatolia, the Fall of Constantinople, the Armenian Genocide, the Ottoman's and their Janissary's, Islamic Terrorism, the Islamic Threat and on an on but there is relatively little reflexion on the 'evils' of the West.
The fact that the entire financial structure of the West is based on Gold stolen from the New World, Mined by Indigenous slave laborers, African Slavery in the New World, and minerals taken from the New World once the native population had been destroyed is somehow "a fact of life" while the Islamic evils above are somehow more sinister. As the founder of Christianity once said we need to remove the plank from our eye before removing the cinder from our neighbors.
But on September 11th- that most terrible of anniversaries I prefer to think about what joins Islam and Christianity both Children of Abraham. The fact is that there is much that joins us as peoples. A belief in the dignity of the human person, the belief that we are all created individuals in God's Image and called to be more than mere animals. The fact that Dante the greatest poet of the West and Rumi the greatest poet of Islam were alive at the same time and created homages to God and to culture that are still with us makes for solace and confidence in me as a Christian that anything is possible.
When bigoted commentators harp on Islam's weaknesses perhaps we need to examine our own in the Church? But on this September 11th we remember that God is Great and that he/she cried at the evil perpetrated in his name to his Children nine years ago.
Deo Gratia

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ron Silliman must have Lied to Me, Dr Theune....

In an article in the new Pleiades magazine Dr Michael Theune , (MFA Iowa, MA Oxford, PHD U of Houston) entitled Missed Communications: Three New Anthologies the elegant professor has seen fit to criticize three anthologies that are placed within the Sillimanian Post Avant Genre idea and he reserves his most vituperative critique for The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for a New Century (Cracked Slab Books 2007) .

Dr Theune is a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who is best known for Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns from Teachers and Writers Collaborative which has been lauded by no less than Billy Collins and Ed Hirsch for his insights. I cannot imagine higher praise for a work…..

The thesis of Theune’s essay is that the division between Experimental Poetry and Mainstream poetry is a canard. He feels that this was set up by Poet Ron Silliman and really it is not important to engage in “Poetry Wars”. Of course it is clear from Theune’s tone that he thinks the entire history of poetry since Pound has been a big misunderstanding and he would like us all to “just get along” unless of course he is writing an essay where he feels free to engage is unfounded attacks of the character of people and presses to make his points about “freedom”.

Dr. Theune asserts through his examination of these three anthologies and his critique of blog posts from Silliman’s Blog, The Irascible Poet Blog which I write that those of us who are drawn to a certain aesthetic are elitists or worse bad editors ignoring the treasure trove of poetry out there. This is of course an interesting charge from a man with Dr Theune’s pedigree.

Dr Theune’s essay is well over 30 pages and I will let my fellow editors address his critiques of their anthologies. Some of Theune’s critiques of our anthology have real merit- it is true that we focused on a certain community of poets, writing in certain ways during a short period of time (2003-2005) in Chicago. We stated this up front and we also only published poets with a book as well and we focused on poets who were part of some of Chicago’s ‘experimental’ groups. It is also true that many of these poets are friends and it was that community of poets that concerned us. But he chose to quote from a blog post of mine in 2009 critiquing the state of poetry four years later this seems less than honest to me but of course what do I know??

Dr Theune begins his critique by telling us about all the poetic institutions that exist in Chicago such as the Poetry Foundation, The School of the Art Institute, Slam and Columbia College Chicago. The funny thing about Theune’s inclusion of these institutions is the fact that in Chicago “post Avant” is a distinct minority of poets and this was the community that was coming to flower in the early part of this decade that we wanted to highlight. Our objective was never to do a whole Chicago anthology but to highlight that community and all the groups highlighted do not support that community. We made that clear to our readers.

Also in terms of poetic infrastructure those who write regionally or who do spoken word poetry have a large and well funded infrastructure in Chicago while those who do experimental work do not have anything apart from a few small presses and a few reading series. None of our universities here apart from the U of Chicago have any stake in the line of poetry that begins with Pound and moves through Stein, Zukofsky, Duncan, Creeley to today’s experimental poets.
It was the growth of that community that interested us.

Dr Theune’s second critique is that the anthology is “A great deal messier” and he uses words like “tepid” and “opaque” to criticize the work chosen but of course the poetry he likes is mentioned in the review while the work he finds “tepid” or “opaque” is not mentioned. He must not have mentioned the other work as not to affect Thune’s future publication opportunities with anyone he might insult.

He also critiques our inclusion of some poets that have a “slam feel” but then earlier he critiqued the lack of diversity in the anthology, so which one is it??

Dr Theune?? Are you still there or are you back teaching class or is it time for sabbatical?

Then he gets to the real charge our press is really full of ‘Cronyism and Reactionary distain’. He accuses us of publishing our friends and people we are connected to from the same “Universities”. I for one am not an academic and I have been critical in essays of the University centered poetry scene as well. My co-editor William Allegrezza did not attend University with any of the anthologized poets.
It is true however that there are poets in our anthology that came out of the same places. There are Iowa and Oxford Graduates, the same places Dr Theune attended for example. There is a group that attended the Universities of Chicago, Brown and University of Illinois Chicago, all of these poets do come from different backgrounds but their aesthetic is similar there is some variety but cronyism was not our intent or the way we put the book together. You get the sense from Dr Theune’s essay that he is jealous for not being included in the Anthology?

A comment that I made about Slam that is can be vapid and uninteresting on my blog makes me ‘fearful and reactionary’ yet the fact is that Slam has become in Chicago and most other places performance art and is very commercial is not mentioned.
There are some Slam poets who are fine writers Kevin Coval who I have reviewed favorably comes to mind but anyone who has watched slam or read it will find that much of is formulaic and the same in tone and content and why do they need us to include them in an anthology when they have HBO and Russell Simmons to promote them?

Dr Theune continues his vituperative attack by accusing us of being deceitful and being people of privilege because we champion Experimental Work. This is rich from a man who has degrees from Oxford, Iowa and Houston and who teaches at an elite private school in central Illinois.
The realities are that all three presses and anthologies he attacked are run as shoe string non profits with most of the operating capital coming from small donors or from the editors pockets.
In the end Dr Theune chose to set forth his vision for what an anthology should be so why doesn’t he do his own anthology?
I do not know what vapid end Dr Theune had in mind with his essay? The three anthologies that he attacked all contain some of the finest experimental work in print today yet it is not good enough for him. In the end the anthologists put themselves on the line with a creation and a vision while Dr Theune just barked his critique from the sidelines like a yappy dog behind a large, locked door safe from life and engagement.