Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Our Response to the Great Recession Moment

Poet Mark Nowak was in Chicago last week promoting his new book which chronicles the realities of coal miners in Sego, West Virginia and China. The book is haunting. An interesting work that brings voice to groups of people who ignored by poets and by the rest of society. When I encounter a poet like Nowak I think allot about Poetic/Political activism and it is not hard to compare Americans in general to other poets in other lands and see a difference.
The recent Nobel Prize winner for example (Herta Muller) made her name opposing the Communist regime of Romania. Her work was banned for years and she was a prophetic voice. It makes one wonder about our prophetic voices?
I was asked to introduce Mark Nowak and I chose to use a quote from a speech that Eliot Weinberger- Critic and Essayist- included in his new volume of essays Oranges and Peanuts for sale. I chose this quote because in many ways Nowak is the antithesis of this critique .
"We are where we are in part because of American Writers--- supposedly the most articulate members of our society-- have generally had nothing to say about the world for the past 30 years. How many of the 8000 poets in the Director of American poets have ever been to a Third World Country (except for Beach Vacations) How many think it worthwhile to translate something? How many can name a contemporary poet not living in the US, in Latin America, Asia or Africa? In Short how many know more about the world than George Bush Knows?"
I have often argued that the lack of critique in poetry in America is one of the things holding back the art form. Apart from Mr Weinberger and Marjorie Perloff poetry in America normally is not taken seriously by critics. There are few if any poets in America who have social relevancy the way an Allen Ginsberg had in the 1950's.
This is not as true outside the US in the same way. In my recent experience translating Brazilian poets I have found that while less poetry in actually bought in Brazil than in the US poets have more relevancy. Poets like Regis Bonvicino or Maria Ester Maciel are figures of cultural relevance and their ideas are more readily available in ways American poets are not. The idea of "poet" is different in those places.
In Oranges, Weinberger includes a speech he gave at the poetry project regarding poets and poetry since the late 1960's. The quote above is from that talk. He brings up a reality that I think today needs to be addressed in light of our current Great Recession and that is the poet's place within a political/economic discussion.
Weinberger argues that most American poets are myopic and self centered and that we do not even know about global writing much less spend time translating that writing. He also argues that most poets are ignorant of the greater world and that this has contributed to poets marginalization. He also forcefully argues that the MFA politics scene is part of the problem.
Weinberger brings some very valuable points. but there are some great exceptions however the following presses and poets are exceptions ; Action Yes (website), Action Books, Aufgabe, Circumference, Dalkey Archive Press, Mandorla Ugly Duckling Presse,Moria (Website)Burning Deck, Kenning Editions, Jennifer Scappettone Daniel Borzutsky, Matvei Yankelvich, Jen Hofer, Patrick Durgin, Mark Tardi, Kristin Dykstra,William Allegrezza, E Tracy Grinnell, and many others.
While there are major exceptions most American poetry presses and poets are not interested in the greater world and are not really politically engaged either. Many poets have retreated into academia or proto academia and dwell there not engaging the larger world. But that false safety is now under assault and the assault requires a response.
The University system in the US in the humanities is being assaulted by the economic realities of the Great Recession as colleges and foundations run out of money. While science and social science can generally argue for their importance in research it is hard to argue for the creative writing faculty and win a funding argument with say Sociology or even History.
The result is that while poetry and literary criticism was on the margins now are they be pushed into oblivion? This is a real possibility and so these questions become even more important.
Weinberger in his essay of 2003 argues that American poets in their myopia and careerist tracks have de fanged poetry's power to be prophetic and to challenge the social order. I would argue that in many ways poetry and poets are part of the social order and so cannot challenge it.
Unlike visual artists and novelists who can generate capital for their work and challenge the existing order poets are dependent on universities and foundations to survive. Being too prophetic might mean no money. Just look at our most prominent poetic institutions; The Poetry Foundation is a corporate entity and will never challenge in that way; Many poets of note are University professors and they are in a position where large institutions hold their futures in check. How does one challenge a social order that you benefit from? In the end it is a deadly circle. Poetry and poets do not have large paying audiences so they are dependent on institutions that are part of the establishment and so poetry and poets who are activists like Mark Nowak are few and far between.
I think in many ways Weinberger's critique in his essay and my critique here is not totally fair. The reality is that poets like Mark Nowak who are politically engaged benefit from both worlds. They are academics and activists and these two things together are kind of their schtick. If they were just activists they would not be listened to, hell Michael Moore makes multi million dollar films and no one listens to him.
A slam poet like Kevin Coval for example has the schtick of activist and performer. This means that he gets to eat and be an activist. Being able to eat is a powerful force in one's life. In the end it is all about building a great life.
Much of the poetic infrastructure today is not set up to critique society. What normal American Poet who has a family or a regular job can afford to take off a month to go to the MacDowell colony? Could a poet like Robert Creeley or Kenneth Rexroth even become part of the conversation with the structure as it now exists?
This means that only a certain sort of poetry gets read and certain vision is seen. In the end why be a political activist if it does not pay off? You are not going to be listened to. Why translate other's work? There is so little poetry translated in this country that the last two Nobel Laureates work is generally unavailable in English.
So what is to be done?
In our current global situation there are allot of people who are just surviving and whole swathes of presses and poets are hanging on by their fingernails. I know from my own experience that small presses that are normally run by the owners putting in their own money are cutting back and retrenching because of the economy.
In academia the current structure is under assault even the U. California system once the greatest in world is under draconian cuts- where will these scholars go? What presses will exist after this is over? At the top 500 Universities in America the the total amount full time professors is about 600 according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed in Creative Writing and and not all of those are poets.
According to Weinberger there are over 7000 poets in the Directory of American poets. So what are the other 6000 poets doing? Weinberger argues for the internet ,activism, translation and globalism and these things are valid and interesting but is their more to be done?
I would argue that we as poets need to ask ourselves this question?
Can the poetry written in this moment to respond to the Great Recession?
Recent poetry 'movements' in America like Conceptualism and Flarf have been essentially inside baseball that does not reach out to the greater world. Are these sufficient responses? I have argued that in the age of Obama irony is dead. But what is to replace the last 30 years or are we to move more toward more irrelevancy?
Modernism was magisterial and possessed many big projects, Post Modernism was cluttered and flustered, Language Poetry is important but I will wait for Barrett Watten to tell me its significance.
All these movements had within them responses to their moments.
What will be our response to the Great Recession moment?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Strange Moment at the Grocery Store Today

So today I went to the grocery store- our local Dominick's which used to be locally owned but is now owned by Safeway- as is everything else in Chicago.

In front of me in line was a nice looking woman pretty typical of Oak Park, IL where I live.

You know Oak Park is allot like other towns of its ilk, Berkeley, California, Montclair, NJ, Bethesda, MD, lots of organic groceries, Liberals, New York Times bags on the front stoop in the morning.

My wife and I moved here as part of the Great Sort and we have liked it.

So back to the pretty woman at the grocery store- as we are waiting on line she is hiding her Credit card in her hand so that no one can see it. At the last moment she swipes it and it is revealed to be an Illinois Link Card (food stamps). With a moment of apparent embarrassment she quickly puts the card into her wallet and leaves the store quickly.

As she got into her Volvo, with the faded Obama '08 sticker on the outside I knew exactly how she felt.... at that moment

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Schmatta- The World We Have Created


Last night I could not sleep.

I find this to be a state I am in allot recently. The life of a tramp and the life of the poet tend to meld together and one realizes that trying to live two lives is not always possible.

Last night however on HBO they aired their documentary on the Schmatta (apparel)business in New York that is the Apparel and Fashion industry. As I watched it I could not help but remember the great quote by Martin Niemoller about Nazism

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.
I remember when I was kid and the huge manufacturing concerns around Chicago began to close, US Steel in Chicago, Westinghouse in Cicero, Brach's Candy in Chicago, the great mail order houses, Spiegel, where my Dad worked, Alden's, Montgomery Ward, and so many others. I watched as middle class people became lower class. I watched as the Working Class melted away and no one cared no one fought for those people.
We were told that the new "globalized" America would be richer and that all those people losing jobs would be better off. That we would all now work in offices and that we did not need Unions to protect us because we were all free Agents. We would make more money. While we became enamoured of Microsoft and Apple it became apparent that what was being created was an Oligarchy. Technology is fungable and movable and in the end India and China were allot cheaper so we became poorer. In 2009 5% of America owns 95% of its real wealth. The rest of us have Debt.
HBO's Documentary Schmatta talks about the growth in New York of the Garment Center.
It chronicles unionization and professionalization and how 'productivity' resulted in the destruction of the business. This could be transposed to a whole slew of industries in America, Shoes, Furniture, Newspapers, Education, Steel, Autos and more. It was the goal of the corporate titans and their allies to make as much money as possible, which they did. The costs were not important I remember everyone saying "as the market dictates" . Which really means I got mine for you... nothing.
MyDad was in the apparel business he was Director of Sourcing for Spiegel Catalog. I grew up and benefited from a professional industry that paid workers well and allowed my family to have the so called "american dream". My Dad was formed in the world of New York's Schmatta business and knew that world and the world of southern apparel manufacturing very well.
My early life was filled with interesting characters who sold socks, underwear, pajamas and suits. Most of them were Jewish some were Italian like my Dad but it was a culture that employed thousands in the US. Most of these guys worked really hard and did well.
One statistic of interest in the show was that in 1990 85% of all the apparel sold in the US was made here, by 2009 only 5% was made here. For all those people who made the 85% of apparel here what did they do when the jobs left? Whole job categories apart from the sewers have been exported off shore. Thousands of skilled pattern makers, designers, fabric designers and sales people are without work. Whole industries like trims and printing have been out sourced.
What was once the fashion capital, New York, is now just a memory as that world has moved to China to use child labor and slave labor to make a profit. It was moving to see the men and women who worked in apparel who put there kids through college who now are jobless. People who are skilled and worked hard who have been discarded.
Michael Moore's work on the Auto industry compares to what this film does. It illustrates what has happened to the solid, hardworking people that so many of us originate from and how that world has disappeared. The world that I grew up in no longer is possible.
My father started out after the military working for Sears. He learned the garment business and moved up in that world. Later he was one of the first people to take his lines "off shore" which first meant Puerto Rico and then Hong Kong. As he was 'innovating" he was also digging out the foundation of his world.
Short term gain resulted in long term devistation.
So when I refer to Martin Niemoller's quote I think about all the industries that have been taken away and no one said anything...
First they Came for the Shoe Industry and I said Nothing Because I did Not Make Shoes
Then they Came for the Apparel Industry and I said Nothing Because I did not Make Apparel
Then they Came for the Steel Industry and I said nothing because I did not make steel
Then they Came for the Car Industry and I said nothing because I did not make cars
Then They Came for the Printing Industry and I said nothing because I was not a Printer
Then they Came for the Newspaper Industry and I said nothing because I did not Write for a Paper.
Then they came for the Furniture Industry and I said nothing because I did not make furniture
Then they came for the College Professors and teachers and I said nothing because I did not teach.
And when they came for me there was no one left to speak for me....
What have we gained?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mark Nowak in Chicago October 21st

Poetry Center of Chicago 37th Annual Reading Series

Documentary Poetics: Mark Nowak Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - 6:30pm

TH!NKART Gallery: 1530 N. Paulina, Suite F, Chicago IL


In his spectacular book of Essays Oranges and Peanuts for sale Eliot Weinberger says something that many poets do not want made public- in the late 1960's many poets moved from politics to theory. Weinberger argues that this retreat by poets into academia and away from politics has removed poets from political discourse and left that field to others.


It is hard not to argue that point. Except for Sam Hamill's effort with Poets Against the War in 2001 most poets are much more comfortable in the library then on the barricades. One major exception is poet Mark Nowak who will be reading here in Chicago on Wednesday at Think Arts Gallery.

His new book Coal Mountain Elementary sits on a par with Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, Neruda's Canto General and even Walt Whitman as a chronicle of our world today in poetry and photographs. With his collaborator he bridges the gap between coal workers and places in the US and China and creates and masterpiece.


I have the honor of introducing Mark and I am sure that this reading will be worth the time to travel to Wicker Park. His work is always timely and politically engaged which makes his poems and the photographs of his collaborators essential reading for today.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Football Saturday in Mid October

Everything today is hyper. Cokes are huge, burgers enormous, ever game is over hyped to the point that simple pleasures are ignored. Having said that there are simple things that are so pleasurable and so clean that it is hard to make them better with hype.
A fine meal made by someone you love is always better than a $200.00 meal. A 3-1 Ballgame in mid summer with lots are great base running is still relaxing and stimulating. An afternoon spent in a great bookstore- like Seminary Co-op or Prairie Lights or Harvard Bookstore -is so pleasant. But one of the most pleasant and satisfying things is a Football Saturday in October.
Tomorrow we are going to the Iowa Wisconsin game in Madison.
Iowa Hawkeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, smash mouth football played in the Midwest- what could be better? A football game in the Big Ten is a sacramental moment. 70 or 80 people who for a few fleeting hours get to feel that they are young again and go back in time. I look forward to tomorrow and simple pleasure of a football Saturday in Mid October,

Thursday, October 8, 2009

2009 Nobel Prize for Literature- Another European Surprise, Surprise

Herta Muller, a member of the Romania's
German minority and a fine poet and
writer has won the Nobel Prize.

Below is a list of the last 1o winners notice a trend?

2009 - Herta Müller-Romania/Germany
2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio-France
2007 - Doris Lessing-UK
2006 - Orhan Pamuk-Turkey
2005 - Harold Pinter-UK
2004 - Elfriede Jelinek-Austria
2003 - J. M. Coetzee-South Africa
2002 - Imre Kertész-Hungary
2001 - V. S. Naipaul-Trinidad/UK
2000 - Gao Xingjian-France/China
1999 - Günter Grass-Germany

All these writers except for Orhan Pamuk and JM Coetzee are either European or based in Europe for many years. There are no North Americans, No Latin Americans, No South Asians, No East Asians, No Australians, one South African, one Turk, one Chinese person who writes in French, and a Trinidadian who has lived in the UK for many years.

It appears to me that the Nobel Prize has become a version of the New York Book Critics Circle which is normally an award for someone who lives in the five boroughs of New York. The Nobel for those who live in Europe.... what does Philip Roth, Don De Lillo, Mario Vargas Llosa or Bei Dao need to do?

Move to Europe...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reading at a Nexus

For most of my life I have lived two parallel tracks. I returned to the US after living and working South America in 1998 and I have been both poet/critic and businessperson. The result of this dichotomy is that I could move between these two worlds picking and choosing my reality at will. It was a comfortable existence because you were never totally consumed by one or the other and this lead to innovations in my thoughts and a variety of influences. I spoke about this with Ron Silliman once that not being an academic allowed for more innovation and sense of being grounded in two worlds and he agreed. In this area I have always admired Ron and tried to emulate his efforts living my parallel lives.

The Dichotomy of parallel lives ended for me in January when I lost my job in the Tsunami that is the Great Recession. Immediately self reflection and the Nexus of change became reality and for me and I began to search for answers. I found some in books of course.....

I have always loved autobiographies, collected letters and memoirs. I find these books to be very revealing. In the way the Bible or Zen Koans give us guidence I find solace and inspiration in these types of books. I began by re-reading old favorites, St Augustine's Confessions, Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Pablo Neruda's My Life, and from these old friends I found some solace and some inspiration.

Then I moved on to other books, Nadezha Mandelstahm's Memoir, Kenneth Rexroth's Fictional Memoir which I have come to really treasure, The Duncan/Levertov Letters, William Everson's Autobiography, the Pound/Zukofsky Correspondence, the Camus Diaries and Letters and many other books.

Out of this melange of reflections I realized that I was standing at a nexus in my life. That I was being broken down and watching all that I knew being destroyed in front of me. All that was to be decided was whether this destruction would be creative or just plain destructive. The verdict is still out on that front. But one thing that has become clear to me is that for many of my literary heroes the key to their creativity and growth has been a lack of fear of what would happen if they dispensed with convention.

Rexroth's fictional memoir offers us a vision of poet on a quest that is inspiring because he did not lose his self worth as poet even in the fact of national depression. He continued to quest and search as a poet and that made his memoir interesting and inspiring. Merton, and Kerouac owe something to Rexroth. He is going through the same type of questing that they would go through in the 40's and 50's ten years earlier. These three writers for me encapsulate this type of Augustinian literature that in many ways in lacking in our society. For an unemployed executive/poet they offer much solace in times of despair.

Mark Tardi, recommended the works of Nicholas Mosley to me. I am reading Inventing God, Children of Darkness and Light and Hopeful Monsters. Normally Mark's recommendations are spot on. Mosley is a real brain fuck. Mosley is not light Sunday afternoon reading. But the one thing that comes out of this work is a sense of loss and a sense of piecing together what was once the established assumptions into a kind of Antonio Gaudi crockery work that makes some sort of crazy sense.

Mosley's books do not give solace but I am challenged and this too is good for someone reading at a Nexus in their lives. Robert Frost in his hackneyed poem Yellow Wood talked about two paths- but there are really hundreds and in our current environment these are full of minefields where one's legs can also be blown off without sentiment. I think that is what comes out in Mosley's books.

In the end what I have left is my writing and my literary life for what that is worth. As the rest of what I have known and assumed would always exist continues to melt slowly into the sea like a soft glacier the books are still there holding me and letting me know that something else has meaning and value.

It is in books that we will receive our answers- not by watching CNBC or reading Tarot Cards....

Friday, October 2, 2009

Chicago's Loss as a Metaphor for America

The moment that Chicago was eliminated today unceremoniously in the first round
of voting right wing bloggers like Michelle Malkin and Matt Drudge began their
laughter and laughing about Chicago's loss as if it was not America's loss as well. They are delighting in America's failure.
Completely separate from the efficacy of Chicago having the Olympic Games in 2016 the way that the games were lost and the reactions of so many of President Obama's opponents to
the failure is symptomatic of what America has become. In the past nations like Brazil which incidentally won the games, and they were united and excited about the honor for their nation.
I kept thinking as the Right wing screed against Obama's going to Copenhagen went on can you imagine this happening in FDR's America? or JFK's or even Ronald Reagan's? Ever since Bill Clinton was elected both the Right and the Left in America have decided that the other side has no legitimacy. Clinton was impeached for a blow job. Yet wouldn't we all love Clinton's economy now. President Bush won his election under a cloud and then used the tragedy of 9/11 to politicize American's love of country. The reaction by the left was to demonize Bush and the cycle of hate continued. Now President Obama is being treated by the Right wing media machine the same way.
America is divided one group clings to their Religion, Guns and Nascar and the other group clings to Volvos, Whole Foods and NPR. We have even moved into a "Great Sort" so we do not even live near our political adversaries.
As part of the delight from the Right on Chicago's loss is the delight of southern Congressmen that a big northern America city has been bloodied by this vote. It seems that this is the same reaction to the economy. Michigan, bad because they have Unions, California, Bad because they are liberals, Illinois Bad, because Obama is from here.
I keep thinking that when I am an old man I will remember what it was like to be middle-class living in a visionary country which no longer exists because of petty political games.