Commentaries - April 2011

Penn Book Center (PHL)

Bernstein Alien pix

Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions
(University of Chicago Press)
Penn Book Center Launch
130 S 34th St, Philadelphia

Tuesday, April 26

Photo by Lawrence Schwartzwald ©2011

Russian and American poetry at close quarters

Today at Penn, Latvian, Russian and American poets are working on translations, to be presented tomorrow night.  Marvei Yankelevitch is here for the conference keynot at 5pm. Full conference program  here.

Matvei, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Latvian poet Semen Khanin are working on this poem:

С. Ханин

еще какие-то поползут по мурашкамне не обрезки волос после стрижки
под холодным ежиком собравшиеся за 
займемся – молчит – массажиком
в горле першит простуженный ершик
разогрейте пожалуйста – молчит – но не
и глядит исподлобья
от удовольствия так следят за тобой
только металл с привкусом твоих губ
только камень

Semen Khanin

 there they go crawling over goosebumps
not the shed hairs after the cut
caught under cold crew cut by the scruff

time for your
, unsaid, massage, honey
scratchy throat, bristles, chills

warm it up, please,
unsaid, not too hot  
watches furtively

dig it
eyed that way only metal tasting of
       your lips
only stone


Translated by Charles Bernstein, Matvei Yankelevich, with EO


Unfortunately Latvian poet, Artur Punte could not get to the U.S. due to a visa issue. Matvei and I are working on a translation of his poem:


Артур Пунте
Когда ветер всю ночь перебирает жесть,
а радио, смакуя, переходит на цифры,
просит оставаться на волне, не выходить из

думаешь, вот ведь запали в какую-то складку:
ткань, может, просто скомкалась, а мы тут уже

расставили свои шаткие стулья, завели какой-  
         никакой порядок,

привычку ходить куда-то по субботам.
А если решат разгладить? Пройдут утюгом,
        вытряхнут мелочь..

Оборвет провода.. Зашьют, наконец, подкладку.

Artur Punte

When all night the wind fondles tin
while the radio crackles until it pops
then locks a wavelength, never leaving home
& you think, look how we’ve dropped into a

the fabric so crumpled, we’ve settled in
set up wobbly chairs, created a sort of order
as every Saturday: out on the town.
And what if it’s decided to take an iron to it?
            shake what’s loose

cut the lines … mend a lining.


Translated by Charles Bernstein and Matvei Yankelevich


Speaking of crazy, some academic on Facebook suggested that the central theme of Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" is dentistry. Granted, Bishop comments upon cross-cultural approaches to feminine beauty and its painful consequences--but a central trope? Then, last night I was reading some of the Harriet blogposts and it was like pulling teeth. And then I thought, wait a minute, the dentist tries to make your teeth Whiter and Straighter. Gasp: the dentist promotes White Heteronormative Hegemony! The dentist is complicit with the Imperial Project just as much as Neoliberalism, Anthropology, and Jane Austen!

As you know, Hoagland defended his poem by saying that he writes "for his tribe." Most assumed that he meant White People. Since I posted last, I was able to purchase a strand of his vanishing hair on Ebay and I did a genealogical DNA test on it. I discovered that Hoagland actually descends from a little known North American tribe called the "Nacirema." 

In his authoritative ethnography, Horace Minor described the shrines dedicated to body ritual in a Nacireman household. Fortunately for us, Minor was able to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to gain access to their cultural secrets. Excerpts from Minor's ethnography:

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts.  However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm...

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to  make the liquid ritually pure...

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures...

The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships...They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber...

Recall Bishop's questions: Why should you be one, too? Why should I be me or anyone? What similarities hold us all together or makee us all just one? How--I didn't know any word for it--how unlikely? 

Minor also notes that the Nacirema had "Holy-Mouth-Men," who  "[exorcised] the evils of the mouth" through "ritual torture." A gruesome description of this ritual follows (don't read if you have a faint constitution):

The holy-mouth-man open the clients mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there age no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied...The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy--mouth-men year after year, despite the fact  that their teeth continue to decay.

Is it possible? Can it be? Is Tony Hoagland a Contemporary Nacireman Holy-Mouth Man? Were these Holy-Mouth Men  like poets who exorcise the evils of whiteness through the mouth of the poem, through the ritual torture that is reading a Hoagland poem?

There it is, citizens, sitting there, for use. 

[source: Horace Miner, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema." The American Anthropologist, vol. 58 (1956), pp. 503-507.]

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Contemporary poetry and tradition

Remaking It New Poster

Friday, April 29th
602 Hamilton Hall , Columbia University, New York
What are contemporary poetry's formal and conceptual engagements with the poetry of the past? We’ve invited four poets—Kimberly Johnson, Maureen McLane, K. Silem Mohammad, and Eleanor Johnson—each of whose work reconfigures, re-imagines, or reinvents poetic forms from periods prior to the twentieth century. They will be joined by four scholars—Jeff Dolven (Princeton), Erik Gray (Columbia), Heather Dubrow (Fordham), and Michael Matto (Adelphi) in a day of readings, responses, and roundtable discussions.

 We are planning four sessions, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, lasting an hour and a quarter apiece. Each session will feature one poet, who will begin with a short reading, to be followed by a brief response from a scholar. The session will then finish with a roundtable discussion between the scholar and all four poets.

Organized by Michael Golston and Molly Murray


Session 1: 10:00-11:15
Maureen McLane and Erik Gray

11:15-11:30  Break

Session 2: 11:30-12:45
K. Silem Mohammad and Heather Dubrow

12:45-2:00 Lunch

Session 3:
2:00-3:15: Kimberly Johnson and Jeff Dolven

3:15-3:30  Break

Session 4  3:30-4:45 
Eleanor Johnson and Michael Matto

5:00—6:00  Reception

 Kimberly Johnson is the author of two collections of poetry, Leviathan with a Hook and A Metaphorical God, and of a translation of Virgil’s Georgics.  Her poetry, translations, and scholarly essays have appeared widely in publications including The New Yorker, Slate, The Iowa Review, and Modern Philology.  She has edited a collection of essays on Renaissance literature, and she has served as the editor for a fully-searchable online collection of John Donne’s complete sermons.  Recipient of grants and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Utah Arts Council, Johnson holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from the University of California at Berkeley.

Maureen N. McLane is the author of World Enough: poems (2010) and Same Life: poems (2011), both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  She is also the author of two books of literary criticism, Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry and Romanticism and the Human Sciences (Cambridge University Press).  Winner of the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Book Reviewing, she is contributing editor at Boston Review.   Her book, My Poets, is forthcoming from FSG.  She teaches at NYU.

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of several books of poetry, including Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises, 2003), A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004), Breathalyzer (Edge Books, 2008), The Front (Roof Books, 2009), and Monsters (forthcoming, Edge Books).  In his current project, The Sonnagrams, Mohammad anagrammatizes Shakespeare's Sonnets into all-new English sonnets in iambic pentameter.  He is also a co-editor of the forthcoming Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, the editor of the poetry magazine Abraham Lincoln, and the faculty editor of West Wind Review.  He is an associate professor in the English & Writing program at Southern Oregon University.

Eleanor Johnson teaches late medieval English prose and poetry, medieval poetics and philosophy, law and literature in the Middle Ages, early autobiography, and vernacular theology at Columbia University.  She is finishing a book entitled Sensible Prose and the Sense of Meter: Boethian Prosimetrics in Fourteenth-Century England, concerning the literary-theoretical underpinnings of the efflorescence of prose and verse in late fourteenth-century England. Two collections of her poetry, The Dwell (Scrambler Books) and Her Many Feathered Bones (Achiote Press) were published in 2009 and 2010.