Commentaries - June 2011
We are pleased to publish Kaplan Harris's response to Tim Jacobs's response to Kaplan's article “The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation: New Narrative, New Sentence, New Left,” which we published on April 7, 2011. Here is the new response:
My thanks for this opportunity to elaborate on Tim Jacobs's column and to clear up any misunderstandings. Jacobs's column "Ramble" is preceded by five years of Poetry Flash contributions that cover readings and events throughout the Bay Area. They are an invaluable resource for anyone — like myself — interested in mapping what Jacobs rightly identifies as “a literary culture that was very diverse and growing rapidly” throughout the 1970s. The tone of the coverage is particularly important because it can allow one to track the shifting alliances and divisions in the poetry community at large, especially the faultlines that separate aesthetic, activist, and institutional affiliations.
The early coverage is frequently given to flashes of ridicule and scorn — or what today might be labeled snark. To be sure, there are other tones as well, many of them displaying effusive praise. Poetry Flash founding editor Jon Ford, however, expressed a certain pride that his newsletter had acted as "conscience for the Bay Area": "not just to let audiences know there was someone out there listening, but to let audiences be warned about sloppy productions and poets who had nothing new to offer" (Poetry Flash 121, April 1983). These “warnings” were hardly couched in bourgeois politeness. On the contrary, Ford was pleased that a “free-swinging, plain speaking, even hostile attitude” had characterized the newsletter's early coverage. The tenth anniversary issue even republished a compilation of barbed comments from staff contributors, among them Ford, Richard Silberg, Joyce Jenkins, Alan Soldofsky, Joe Flower, and Tim Jacobs himself. The compilation was like a badge of honor. No wonder that staff member Jana Harris (no relation to me) elsewhere recalls that early issues had earned the newsletter monikers like “Poetry Flush” and “Hot Flash.”
But I am happy to clarify that Jacobs tends to be one of the more generous and tolerant contributors, his reviews often humming with accolades not seen elsewhere in the early years of the newsletter. Perhaps Jacobs sought to act as a counterbalance to the hostility with his more positive commentaries, like the one I quoted from his review of Robert Glück and Bruce Boone at the Grand Piano. That said, even Jacobs indulged in biting critique on repeated occasions. My favorite might be his cautionary parable about the types of people encountered at poetry receptions, like “The Level Stare,” “The Historian,” “The Flatterer,” and “The Surmiser.” Jacobs also once described his role as the “community gossip” (Poetry Flash 69, December 1978) — and it was based on moments like these that I came to understand his column. — Kaplan Harris
1. Jana Harris, “Poetry Flash Meet NYC Poetry Calender,” Contact II 1.6 (January-February 1978), 8.
2. E.g., the Historian: “maps your life in detail for you, tell you exactly what you learned, where you learned it, from whom you learned it, and exactly what you don't know about the subject, even though this creature has absolutely no previous knowledge of you or your connection with the matter at hand.” Tim Jacobs, Poetry Flash 80 (November 1978).
"A vast archive of historic and contemporary recordings of readings, podcasts, and now also videos, featuring a growing list of international poets (mostly English language focus). PennSound is co-run from Philadelphia by the poet, scholar and broadcaster Charles Bernstein and Al Filreis, director of Kelly Writers House." Link: http://www.thewire.co.uk/articles/6752/
What might a poetics of moxie politik look like? Unlike realpolitik's crushing pragmatism and cunning power grabs, a moxie politik might concern itself with exposing, critiquing and challenging concentrated power. A poetics that emphasizes equality, pursued with moxie, which is, as Jules Boykoff puts it, "pluck in the face of the muck, vim in the place of the grim.”
(center: Frank Sherlock & Linh Dinh handing out broadsides in a 2004 PACE action; right: Sidewalk Blogger holiday sign)
When Jules and I wrote Landscapes of Dissent, we explored some ways poetry exceeds a book. We began to think about public space as a context for poetry, when poetry moves out of its fortifying communities and into more vulnerable, unpredictable spaces with inadvertent audiences. Our process of writing Landscapes included extending our own poem-making through sign-making and other actions; theorizing about public space; and documenting projects — from the Poetry is Public Art (PIPA) actions that culminated in sign projects in New York City during the weeks after 9-11 when commercialism receded a bit, to the PACE actions in Philadelphia that moved poetry readings into commercial spaces, to the revamped holiday signs affixed to cyclone fences by the Sidewalk Blogger project in Kane'ohe, Hawaii.
Jules and I will write commentaries over the coming weeks that trace and extend our thinking since Landscapes was published. Inexpert investigation. Pedestrian poetics. Poetry projects recast for new contexts. Participatory poetry. Poetry as a social practice. Aesthetic spaces translated into activist spaces into aesthetic spaces. Accessibility rethought as 'affording entrance.' Political poetry that is fun, playful and, well, full of moxie.
Some of our commentaries will attend to place, and how local practices can afford entrace to specific audiences. With this in mind, I will sketch out the local context where we will compose many of our Jacket2 commentaries. At least some will be written in an attic with green walls in a home close to downtown Portland but in a southeast neighborhood. Five chickens roam outside, consistently pecking the ground and occasionally laying eggs. Nearby is a small meatpacking plant, a steepled Catholic Church, and the Aladdin theater. Our street ends at the 24-hr Hotcake House backed up to a piano store. Our neighborhood is an island formed not by water, but by busy streets. To the north are industrial warehouses we bike among to head downtown. To the west, the Willamette River is very close, but access is severed by a highway. When we arrive at the nearby river trail by circuitous access, we come in contact with deer, osprey, occasionally bald eagles. To the east are train-yards, fissuring our neighborhood from the ones further east. Scaling out further, to the west is the Pacific Ocean, and to the east, the Cascade Mountains. From the Brooklyn neighborhood in the city of Portland, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, we will post our commentaries in the coming weeks.
Abstraction & the rag trade
If any demonstration were needed that the rag trade was part of the invention of modernist abstraction, then “Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay” would do the trick (Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, closes June 19). Delaunay’s textitle design is so ingeniously inventive that her applied work confronts and transforms the achievements of her paintings. One of the greatest colorists of the period, rivaling Matisse and Mondrian, Delaunay’s dresses, hats, and scarves vibrate with the pulsating rhythm of “The Rites of Spring.”
I'm always on the alert for words in art. Nothing could ever top the Blaise Cendrars collaboration with Delaunay, The Prose of the Trans-Siberian (on display at the show). But I hadn't know about her "Poem Dress" (Robe poéme) series from 1922 and 1923.
Which brings to mind a favorite work of mine by Man Ray: "Tapestry" (1911, from the Pompidou) is made up of fabric swaths from his father's tailor shop.
Gabriela Jauregui was born and raised in Mexico City. Her creative and critical work has been published in magazines, journals, and anthologies in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. She graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside and holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine. She is a Paul and Daisy Soros New American Fellow and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.
Gabriela Jauregui’s Controlled Decay (Black Goat, 2008) presents a dazzling range of theme, tone, and form. The book is divided into five sections: “Dust,” “Bone,” “Fat,” “Enamel,” and “Nail.” What holds the poems together is how their contents are ciphered through the poet’s real and written body. In this sense, the poems attempt to capture decaying bodies, decaying cultures, and decaying landscapes. By doing so, the decay is “controlled”—or at least held—in the space of the poem.
The very first poem, “Get On Down to the Floor to the Heaven of Other Animals,” puts the reader in the middle of the dance floor, of the threshing ground: “live music alive the music I like should beat beat beat me to you the space between nothingness is music” (21). Echoing T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” and Lorca’s thoughts on duende, this prose poem interweaves the rhythms of death and life, love and loss, body and spirit into a trance-like “cumbia del destino.” This emphasis on being alive is remixed in one of the many “loku” in the book: “deadlines / no more / here’s to lines alive” (36). Jauregui’s poetic lines are undoubtably alive lines. Another element that enlivens Jauregui’s rhythm is her interweaving of Spanish and English in various poems.
One of the most interesting poems in this book, “Collective,” details the speaker’s ride through the metro system in her home city of Mexico City: “and the city speaks multiple tongues babblecity Dear Dirty D.F. I am tongue-tied turn the turnstile get in come on take a ride on the metro” (77). As I turn the turnstile pages of this book, I am confronted at every turn with an astute lyricism. One example is “Cleavage”:
Tearing flesh from flesh
bares no heart
only a wound
pale and commonplace
like a worm
who has lost the stars. (75)
There are quite a few shorter lyrics in this book (including many haiku and loku), attesting to Jauregui’s ability to express a more controlled and compressed poetry. These poems also provide a nice counterpoint to the more rhythmic prose poems and longer narrative poems. Another great example is “Instructions for Life”:
to achieve absence
shatter into a million pieces
break so as not to bend
like cosmic bodies
colliding in space
a zero (30)
This short poem, reminding me of Alfred Arteaga’s work in Frozen Accident, stresses the importance of being open—both infinite and infinitesimal—to the rhythms of life and death. A similar poem, “Loku V” reads: “A woman is knot / not / naught” (126). In different ways, Jauregui locates the poet as perceiving subject within the vibrant “zero,” the knot of interiority and exteriority.
Some of the most powerful poems in this book addresses social decay and injustice, such as a mine explosion in Coahuila, Mexico; a train crash in Padre Burgos, Philippines; the Minutemen in Tombstone, Arizona; the Tlatelolca student massacre of 1968 in Mexico City; the murder of Lebanese activist and journalist Nayla Tueni; and the cultural destruction of the Ishir Peoples of the Paraguayan Chaco by a group of missionaries called New Tribes Mission. Jauregui doesn’t just narrate the stories of these historical moments, but she presents a striking and lyrical portrait filtered through the poet’s perceptions. In “And Benito was a Lawyer from Oaxaca,” Jauregui describes the tragedies and horrors of feminicide in Ciudad Juarez:
is my throat
filled with silt
a river dries
Irene Silvia Mercedes saints in the desert
no place for slits
and lipstick lips
mujer muerta (33)
The poem ends by pointing to the irony that Ciudad Juarez was named after Benito Juarez, Mexico’s beloved leader. The speaker asserts: “he would feel far away from home in this city named after him / amongst the corpses of his granddaughters / slits endless / like mouths crying home / crossed out” (33). Another poem, “Fresa,” begins with the speaker’s mother telling her that she shouldn’t eat strawberries. The poem explores the various semantic and literal (California) landscapes where strawberries are produced. The poem ends with a striking image:
In Strawberry, CA
into red, red fruit,
to make it strong.
Poison and dirt
and red blood.
No matter how much
you wash them,
it won’t come out. (108)
The poems in this strand of socio-political poems culminates in “After Goya (and Fallujah and Kigali and Juarez and Da Nang and Wounded Knee and Tiananmen and Cali and Compton),” which begins: “There are / bodies upon bodies upon bodies upon bodies upon bodies / inside my pen” (83).
Controlled Decay is a powerful first book that shows the range of Jauregui’s talents and concerns. She shows both a compelling sense of musicality with an undeniable ability to control image and line. Her poetry is centered in the knotted zero of a woman’s body, where external injustices inflict the body viscerally. Jauregui transforms these inflictions into a mouth uncrossed out and shaped into song.