Commentaries - April 2011
Or, welcome to Jacket2
It feels very fitting to write this opening note on April 5th, the fourteenth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s death. Certainly Ginsberg spent the majority of his life as an ardent and innovative advocate for the cause of poetry, in a manner not dissimilar from that of John Tranter, whose Jacket Magazine (born within six months of the poet’s passing) we now carry on into the future as Jacket2. However, Ginsberg has a more personal significance for me because I can honestly say that without having encountered his work around the age of fourteen or fifteen I wouldn’t be here today working at Jacket2 and PennSound, as a poet and a scholar, as a socially and politically-conscious human being. Instead, I’d likely be a doctor or a music journalist or something far more lucrative and life-affirming than this strange life I’ve stumbled into; most days, however, I’m very happy with the choice I’ve made.
The strange thing though is that I really have no idea how I came across Ginsberg’s work in the first place. I know that my mother dutifully trudged out to a Waldenbooks in a mall somewhere in the Philly suburbs to buy a copy of his Collected Poems 1947-1980 (pictured above) as a Christmas present, and I’d guess that I’d requested it after coming across a story on the poet in Spin or Rolling Stone (both of which I read faithfully at the time). What I do know for certain is that I devoured the collection with tremendous fervor, loving not only the clear-cut classics like “Howl,” “America,” “A Supermarket in California” and “Sunflower Sutra,” but also the offbeat pieces that showed me things I’d never realized poetry could do before: the intense collage-work of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the rabid chant of “Hum Bom,” the novel constructions behind poems like “I Am a Victim of Telephone,” “Grafitti 12th Cubicle Men’s Room Syracuse Airport” and “Junk Mail.” As you can tell by the photo above, the spine bowed mercilessly by dozens of bookmarks (the yellow ones torn from a comment card for the local theme restaurant, Nifty Fifty’s, the blue ones scraps from a college bluebook cover), I had a lot of favorites.
Reading Ginsberg soon led me to discover other Beat authors like Gregory Corso, Lew Welch and Philip Whalen, along with affiliated poets like Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara and Anne Waldman (and I still don’t really understand why the last two are featured in Penguin’s Portable Beat Reader). More important than the lateral readings, however, were the backward glances through the canon, leading me to William Carlos Williams, to Walt Whitman, to Rimbaud and Blake. As a teenager I didn’t have older siblings to introduce me to a world of culture, I didn’t have particularly sensitive or encouraging teachers and I didn’t have literary-minded friends, but I’d found this work that appealed to me in a way that the dusty relics I was offered in my high school English classes never would, and suddenly I felt a connection to a literary tradition larger than myself. What I didn’t realize until after Ginsberg had died was that this tradition was a contemporary one as well — that this author I knew and loved so well was (up until that point) living in the same world I was and responding to it — and that it would continue into the future, where the Beats would take a less prominent, yet still important role in my overall field of influence.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly new about this story: entire generations (including many of you reading this) have had similar experiences. I’ve somehow lucked into teaching a freshman seminar on the Beats once or twice a year, and one of the purest pedagogical pleasures each term, without fail, is seeing so many bright students fall under the same swoon that I once did and then start asking for extracurricular reading suggestions. This is how our anti-canonical canon is promulgated — by word of mouth, by tracing lines of influence and social coterie, by seeking the work that might not be readily available in your surroundings, or approved by your teachers, but is nonetheless out there waiting for you to find it.
Moreover, the ever-growing role of technology and media in this process — as auratic relic, as cross-reference, as gateway drug — cannot be understated. As a teenager, I’d taped a brief Ginsberg set from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival that had aired on the local PBS affiliate, along one of MTV’s “Buzz Bin” airings of his video for “The Ballad of the Skeletons” and watched both incessantly. I mourned him in an America Online “Beat Generation” chat room (founded by the wonderful Diane DeRooy — where are you now, Diane?) with the incredibly embarrassing screen name “Beatnik517.” Eventually, in college, I saved up for the CD box set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems & Songs (probably $50-60 at a suburban Borders), and must have listened to those recordings hundreds if not thousands of times. Money was unfortunately an obstacle for me then, but within the sort of poetic gift economy that John Tranter envisions in his iconic essay “The Left Hand of Capitalism,” those boundaries are eliminated. If resources like PennSound and Jacket had been around at the time, I’d have had an unbelievable wealth of materials — thousands of recordings, tens of thousands of pages of essays, interviews, reviews and poetry — at my disposal, and all for free.
This is precisely why I happily keep the memory of my formative experience with Ginsberg’s work in mind as we launch Jacket2: as a reminder not only of the redemptive power of poetry, but also the democratizing power of free access to culture. Certainly, we’ll do our very best to uphold the high standards that John Tranter set for Jacket — no small task, indeed — and we hope that faithful readers will not only be pleased with how we live up to past example, but also excited for the new directions in which we’ll be taking the journal.
Nancy Kuhl and her colleagues at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, have been discussing with us at PennSound for many months the treasure trove of recordings that Lee Anderson had made and collected and eventually donated to Yale. First the Beinecke folks have begun to preserve the recordings by transferring them from old media to digital files. Then, happily, through a pilot project with PennSound, we are together making a selection of them available for everyone. The first of these readings is was given by Robert Duncan and recorded in 1952. Today for the first time, PennSound and the Beinecke together make available segmented files of 12 poems Duncan read that day. Here is your link to PennSound's Duncan page and this new recording.
This is an invitation to correspond.
I have a complicated and too often angsty relationship with the territories known as “the internet”—not to mention a complicated and too often angsty relationship with the territories known as “writing.” I avidly (if not-so-speedily) write letters and postcards to send through the actual physical through-snow-and-rain post (hooray for mail carriers and their snazzy racing-stripe pants!), I’ve never blogged, my website is a single image (soon to be expanded into actual information and documentation, I hope) of a knitted creature listening to Serge Gainsbourg while leaning fetchingly against a coffee cup commemorating the demolition of the copper smelting plant in McGill, Nevada, and on listservs and the like I tend to lurk and read and worry rather than participate in the actively loudmouthed way those of you who have met me in the non-virtual world know to be my tendency. Honestly, I’m a lot more comfortable thinking about these commentaries as instigators of conversation rather than as my own mini-monologues into the vast ethers of the ether. I understand and respect the reasons why there isn’t a “comments” feature on these pages (the virtual world hardly lacks opportunities for comment, and the bit of extra effort that might cause a person to think carefully before they hit “send” seems worthwhile to me). Yet I want very fervently to invite you to converse with me openly around the ideas I’m working through in these missives. Please ask me questions. Please lead me down paths I might not have found on my own. Please send me thoughts, queries, ideas and respectful challenges. You can find me on “the facebook” (which I joined approximately five minutes ago) or you can write to the kind editrix of these pages and your comments will reach me or you can write me directly at email@example.com.
I appreciate your presence here, and the invitation to move from one set of complexities into another/others through these writings. I look forward to being in communication.
P.S. In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to poetically lately—other than the aforementioned angst, accompanied (but not soothed) by amassing anti-war-manifesto poems and atomic noir live film narration scripts at a sluggish snail’s pace and occasionally making poems by quilting found, foraged and thrifted papers—I’ve been cutting and collaging poems out of the front page of the daily paper. I think the series is titled “daily news,” but I’m not sure. You can read some of these attempts in forthcoming issues of TRY and With + Stand. Meanwhile, here’s today’s:
I'm hopelessly devoted to the downtown Oakland YMCA, with its spin classes spinning next to morning tai chi, basketball games in the gym followed by African dance class. I love the late afternoon afterschool program sounds, double dutch in the mind-body studio. There’s free childcare, coffee in the lobby, wheelchairs, a mentoring program, book exchange, elevators, and financial aid. It’s basically sliding scale, a utopia. Its members are multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, like the city it is part of. Bodies at the Oakland Y tend not to be all that beefcake, nor all that svelte. Or, there are as many bodies as there are genders and generations. In a culture that is so persistently fucked up around bodies, being in the locker room at the downtown Oakland YMCA feels like some kind of psychic survival tactic, being with so many other naked sweaty bodies, not images, blemished and muscular and round, people icing their knees, rubbing oils into the skin, blow drying their hair, not blow drying their hair, having conversations. It’s not a space where anyone can be only with others who are like themselves. I want to say it’s one of the only spaces like this in the city where I live, but that’s just an idea, anecdotal, probably my blind spots talking.
If Bay Area poetry communities were mapped onto a building, it would look very different from the downtown Oakland YMCA. There would be one ramshackle addition after another built off the back, private rooms requiring arcane passwords, some tents in the parking lot, a bank of classrooms by the locker rooms, actually I do not think there would be locker rooms, sadly, at least not a women’s locker room, but there would be roving one-person galleries, workshops, potlucks, stacks and stacks of chapbooks, lecture halls and theaters, reading groups, a BYOB bar, doors that don’t work. Access to one part of the building wouldn’t guarantee access to another. You could be spinning next door to a tai chi class and never even know it. Which is to say it’s totally possible, for example, to see Judy Grahn read at Moe’s Books one month, and then Steve Farmer and Ron Silliman in that same space the next, with little to no overlap in audience. (Something I will be doing soon, and reporting on here. UPDATE: due to scheduling vagaries I missed the latter, alas, but you can find Robin Tremblay-McGaw's excellent report here, and I'll be typing up my notes on the Grahn reading soon.) The Bay Area is probably not all that unique in this respect. The Bowery Poetry club in New York comes to mind as a particular example of very different programming and communities existing in the same building, one group leaving as “their” reading ends, another streaming in. And I am of course not at all unique in trying to think about these things--while writing this post I've been reading Sarah Rosenthal's book of interviews with Bay Area writers, A Community Writing Itself, where Robert Glück says many smart and tender things about writing communities in the Bay Area. And he talks about the 1981 Small Press Traffic conference he organized, Left/Write, which "brought together writers who were famous in their own scene and hardly known beyond it--like Judy Grahn and Ron Silliman speaking on the same panel." 1981.
The YMCA is perhaps not the best metaphor in the world for what I’m trying to think about, or at least a complicated one, given that organization’s history as a christian non-profit. Its political commitments might as well be the pursuit of happiness. And yet it seems remarkably successful at doing some things the local poetry communities I hang out in seem unable to do, despite talking and thinking together all the time about radical change and social transformation.
One of the things I am trying to think about, or through, is James Edward Smethurst’s excellent book on the Black Arts Movement which traces conditions and relations out of which that movement emerged, including popular front aesthetics, old left connections, and what Smethurst calls a multi-racial bohemian scene, especially that of the lower east side, but also north beach. (And it’s interesting to see how east/west coast differences show up, including a separatist impulse in the Bay Area inflected by geography, for instance: Bolinas.) Smethurst also traces relationships between the New American Poetry and the Black Arts Movement (and Chicana/o and Asian American writers), relationships between people but also between institutions and publications. Reading this book is renovating, once again, the part of my brain that received a friendship such as Baraka and O’Hara’s as individual, or exceptional. It’s the same part of my brain that is trying to think about the Jeffrey Joe Nelson poem at the top of this post, published in Try a few weeks ago. Here it is a little larger so you can read it:
So many parts of my brain need to be renovated again and again. Jessica Lowenthal’s invitation to write “about and around Bay poetics” for the next few months has prompted something of a crisis in renovation, especially my received ideas about community formations, schools and movements, and how the construction of these things inflect any view of the present, a view which can only ever be incomplete. Something of a crisis about what it means to do documentary writing around Bay Area poetry communities, around poets and reading series and presses, poems and performances and chapbooks.
Thus I’ve been wandering the back corridors as Jacket2 prepares to launch, talking to myself. It’s not unlike hanging out in a theater during tech week. People are warming up, embedding videos and sound files, doing their scales, playing around with the sidebar. It’s exciting. At first I’d turn down a hallway and see a block of latin placeholder text, but now every day I bump into a new review or article. I’m feeling very wow to be in such great company, very wow about a clear editorial intention to bring many different writers into the building, to think about many different kinds of poetry.
As I’ve thought about how to approach this commentary writing, which might have felt simple ten years ago and not so simple now, I’ve also been thinking about the important role Jacket (the first) and other online locations played in my early education as a poet, in mapping out scenes of contemporary poetry. Institutions played their part in this mapping, but looking at the internet and reading the journals and books I read about there, on listserv discussions and then blogs, was in many ways more helpful. In figuring out where I might fit as a writer. In the pre-facebook early aughts, it was still a national/transnational internet that helped me find my way into a local poetry community, one that’s wound up meaning an awful lot to me. Which is to say I sort of backed my way into the local room by way of figuring out a mostly national scene of experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing. As I backed my way into the room, I carried in all my received ideas and inherited maps. The maps were useful, they helped me find my friends and comrades, but they also told partial stories, as all maps do, were missing important information. Which meant for a long time I only saw a few rooms of the building, or only heard a few of the stories that got told about a room’s history. This seems like a not uncommon experience, I’m thinking here of my friend who found his way to his contemporaries by way of following the bio notes and publications listed in In The American Tree. Which was a great way in, one way in. You start with a map that’s meaningful, and feel your way into the present. Then it opens up. The maps keep moving. You have to keep renovating your brain.
Bay Poetics is an anthology I edited in 2005. In retrospect, editing an anthology seems like a slightly insane thing to have done. I’m not sure what sense of permission allowed me to wade into the troubled waters of map making in the first place. Without a co-editor, even. Some kind of total joyful ignorance. As I worked on the anthology, the overwhelming complication of attempting such a project came into view. After the anthology came out I fielded a lot of questions about what might be particular to contemporary Bay Area poetry as constructed in the anthology, what aesthetic or formal impulses poems in the book might share, and I always found a way to dodge these. It seemed dumb, and impossible, to make regional claims about one’s current moment, especially when all I could see were my blind spots, the gaps, writers who weren’t included.
This was perhaps one way to avoid thinking about whatever it was I had made; how my editorial practice in Bay Poetics at moments inherited, and at other moments resisted, the logic of earlier maps and anthologies, exclusionary frameworks, contested histories, community institutions, MFA programs. It’s definitely a big book, with writing from 112 people. With this bigness I wanted to something about the way maps don’t hold, or are always drawn in the service of power, the way they gloss things, and must be re-thought at every turn. But in retrospect, Bay Poetics was too big to make a claim about anything other than the uselessness of map making (along with a comment on the proliferation of people writing and publishing poetry, and maybe also a comment on the proliferation of MFA programs.) Its size made certain things, like specificity, impossible. But neither was it comprehensive. It wasn’t nearly as large as it might have been. It didn’t venture beyond one or two rooms.
Lately I wonder how Bay Poetics might have been both more specific than it was, and larger than it was. Is there a way to do both. Is there a way to do that here.
Often I dodged the questions about regional specificity by talking about my obsession with social relations as embedded in the anthology, embodied in the book’s ordering. How sex might have as significant an impact on the formation and reformation of poetry communities as educational and community institutions. I want to say that this obsession with social relations might in fact be one shared concern in the local experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry community I mostly hang out in. Maybe I will start calling this local scene “my neck of the woods.” Where there’s a keen interest in sociality, exchange, power relations, group formations, the local’s interest in the local as such, the local talking to itself, basically, although a local that can include, at moments, individuals in Cincinnati and Brooklyn, Buffalo or Detroit. Perhaps that’s overstated. But experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry communities in the Bay Area are, after all, deeply informed by Jack Spicer, whose relationship to locality verged on the religious, by the primacy of gossip and liberatory sexual politics in New Narrative writing, by the project of the Grand Piano and the histories of collaboration it writes through, by the fallout of the poetry wars, the tensions and turf skirmishes from the last moment in which Bay Area poetry communities might have understood themselves to even be occupying a common building. (Shampoo Poetry’s calendar of Bay Area Poetry Events might come closest to suggesting this might still be the case in some way.)
Kaplan Harris keeps usefully complicating my sense of these overlapping influences in his recent papers “Causes, Movements, Poets” and “The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation,” both of which re-think maps and movements, received notions of conflict and division, often highlighting instead the uneasy and unexpected alliances within the experimental/postermodern/avant-garde/innovative tradition, including shared moments of activism and resistance, moments of “terrific argument” around aesthetics and political life. I’m interested in those moments, moments that weren’t a part of the maps I inherited. I’m not sure if that’s about the maps, or the way I read them, what I did and didn’t look at when I was looking my way in. I think and talk a lot about what’s changed since then. What might keep such moments from happening now. How perhaps more communication and alliance between parts of the building might be necessary if such moments are ever going to emerge again, however differently they might appear, in Bay Area poetry communities. What would that even look like. What terrific argument.
So while I’ll be reporting on my neck of the woods while I’m here, I’m also giving myself the assignment to check out other parts of the Bay Area, other scenes. There are many individuals who do this, show up in more than one place, and their movement helps trace the persistent bridges and tunnels between rooms. I’d like to understand more about those connections. Because if Bay Area poetry communities were the downtown Oakland YMCA, I’ve been doing pretty much exactly what I do at the downtown Oakland YMCA, 30 minutes on the elliptical machine by the window a few times a week, followed by some stretching and 10 minutes in the sauna. Sometimes a yoga class, but mostly that same deal on the elliptical machine. This is a great routine and helps with my generalized anxiety, but also it is never going to change my body in any radical way, it is pretty comfortable.
I almost just launched another metaphor here, about cross-training, but stopped myself.
Maybe it is simpler than I think, or, this sentence from the The Coming Insurrection: “The rule is simple: the more territories there are superimposed on a given zone, the more circulation there is between them, the harder it will be for power to get a handle on them.” Like Love & Rockets, No New Tale to Tell. So I will look at very small things with my eyes. I will go to some events and listen. There will be some blurry photographs. I will say some things. In the internet of the Bay Area of one person’s reporting I will probably get some things wrong. Whenever I can, I’ll veer into the (my) blind spots. “We’ll see."
Iʻll say it again: blogging is dead. Thus, my 2011 resolution to Facebook everyday. As my 2,000 closest Facebook friends can attest, Iʻve been keeping that resolution with aplomb.
This is not blogging, letʻs get that straight. This is what we call "Commentaring." As the mutiracial doctor says: "It is difficult to get the news from the Poetry Foundation Harriet Blog, yet Facebookers update their statuses miserably everyday for the lack of what is Commentaried upon there."
Iʻm told this first post should gently hook, dear reader. So as all good writers "of color" know, the best way to get attention in this here "Po-Biz" is to "drive by" (as one white-american critic recently phrased it) in a traditionally white institutional space and take down a well-endowed white poet, preferably a straight white male poet, and preferably a straight white male poet who writes "racially complex" poems.
I can see it now:
the public will swoon, will friend me on Facebook, will call me Brave. I may even get a featured spot at next year's AWP! And of course, we shall discourse like we never discoursed before.
[If you have no idea what i'm talking about, go here first]
No Change (2011 edition)
by Craig Santos Perez
for Claudia & Tony
AWP came and went like the pages of Poetry Magazine.
In the hotel the poets paid up
and in the hotel bar, the new poets hoped to get laid.
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—
The critics award the latest crop of mummies,
and the president of the Poetry Foundation proves he’s a dummy.
But remember the poetry reading we watched this year?
Right before our eyes
straddling that dark wood podium,
some lean mean White Man from North Carolina,
male-patterned baldness and glasses on his face,
some outrageous name like Baloney Hoagie—
We were just walking past the book fair
and got sucked in by his ‘racial honesty,’
and pretty soon
we started to really listen,
putting ourselves into each hacked phrase
as the metaphors mixed and matched
like some contest between
the New Critics and the Old Quietude,
and you loved his receding hair
and his to-hell-with-people-of-color stare,
I couldn’t help wanting
someone to shut the White Man up
because he wasn’t one of my kind, my tribe,
with his pale eyes and Mark Twain award
and because the White Man was so mean
and so White
singing his similes like he was driving the White Man’s Burden
down The Melting Pot’s throat,
like he wasn’t aware of his privileged position.
There are moments when America
harasses you so close
you can smell its shit,
you can reach your hand out
and touch its dirty White ass,
and I didn’t watch all that much All in the Family
but I could feel the end of an era there
in front of all those minority poets
in their last-day-of-AWP clothes
as that White Man wore down his listeners
reading his line breaks so good
repeating the epiphany for good measure
then he stood in front of the podium
holding his book over his head like a rifle
And the poor moderator
had to climb on both volumes of Poems for the Millennium
to put the crown of thorns on his head
still managing to smile amidst Tweets and Facebook updates
even though nothing has changed
and in fact, nothing may ever change—