Commentaries - July 2011

Leslie Scalapino's phenomenal essays

How Phenomena Appear to Unfold
Leslie Scalapino

2011 • 312 pp. • $24.00 • ISBN: 978-1-933959-12-2
Litmus Press  | Cover sculpture by Petah Coyne.

Scalapino is always just ahead, inventing the essay anew, as a necessary means for the exploration of consciousness, perception,  and meaning in and for language, with full engagement with, and acknowledgement of, the political valences of every poetic act as it falls into, or fails, the social. In the expanded field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Scalapino's essays are central: a model not just of possibilities but of "landing sites" to use the term of Madeline Gins and Arakawa.

Tracy Grinnell has done a superb job assembling this collection, which Scalapino was working on at the time of her death about a year ago. As always, Scalapino pushes beyond any easy sense of essay. What unfolds here is the startling unexpectedness of thought, articulated in visual and verbal forms that confound genre categories. In this book, Scalapino creates fields for thinking-as-perception, in which the poem emerges from the essay as counterpoint and newly forming foundation. The complex of disparate parts creates working models for a social formalism. Scalapino introduces the terms "seamless antilandscape" to acknowledge that an aversion to traditionl representation does not produce disjunction but rather a syncretic perceptual experience.

This is a touchstone work of pataque(e)rics.

A central piece in the collection is the collaboration with Kiki Smith,  The Animal is in the World Like Water in Water, previously published as an artist's book by Granary Press (a small edition no longer available). This is a key work for Scalapino and it is fortunate to have 12 pages here (see scan on right). In a related essay, Scalapino discusses the serial poetics of this work: "My poem sequence is to reinstate (restate) experiencing in space, the mind/eye making estimations/approximations as concepts that are the same as their being in space: The language makes minute distinctions of its theme and treats these as spatial. For example, the poem-segments posit: society not based on emulation, no individual regarded as higher than another; and posit the individual perceiving in such a way—not having such feelings or behavior of emulation or sense of immanence—though (the segments posit) the individual is aware that others do, different from an animal’s view. These concepts in the world, however, are not submitted to space. (In the world, concepts of feelings—such as peoples in societies feeling social values, having internalized these—are not submitted to this sense of space, of no-hierarchy.)
Here they are submitted to space (of no-hierarchy) to be translated to (a sense of) free space/shape/place.

“Activity is the only community,” Scalapino writes in “The Radical Nature of Experience—on Philip Whalen, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, and Leslie Scalapino.” “The conservative gesture, always a constant (any ordering, institutional and societal) is to view both activity and time per se as a condition of tradition. As such, both time and activity are a “lost mass” at any time. … My focus is on non-hierarchical structure in writing. For example, the implications of time as activity—the future being in the past and present, these times separate and going on simultaneously, equally active (in reference to Whalen’s writing, and similar to Dōgen’s conception of time and being)—suggest a non-hierarchical structure in which all times exist at once. And occur as activity without excluding each other. This is unrelated to social power (it can possibly transcend it) but is related to social intelligibility at some time. Social marginality is a state not producing necessarily, but related to, thought/form as discovery. In Susan Howe’s poetry, “vault line divergence” (dual marginality?) is tracking of observation itself as making a present-time.”

At the Litmus launch for this and other new Litmus books  and the new issue of Aufgabe,  I read the beginning of Leslie's note for Jerry Estrin:

Man who’s young so it seems the rest of us don’t die now oddly. There’s no effect to being alive. Why create needless pain by living. At all. Or by dying, for that matter. I mean why is there creating pain by living in the first place or by dying, at all? We have to.

 So not living in the first place, yet we live here.

 We don’t have this pain not living in the first place. Yet here. I see that.I’m going to have to do that.

 Why does anything dream in that case? If we’re not living in the first place? That was first.

 So there’s some activity but that isn’t living. That’s what it is. Some activity before occurs. That’s what that is.

 In the blue boil the officer furious is a gazelle.

 He flies, the slender arms out. He’s paying attention to the dark air.

 Floating is the worm as such. The night produces it. That is there.

 No ordinary life is enough for what we’re having.

I want more but it’s there.

 I love life so much I want only to live. That’s wrong as a goal. I don’t know why.

 The oval opens the black teeth between the lips. A fire storm in the city took her family with hundreds of thousands of others during the war.

Scalapino at PennSound
Scalapino at EPC
Photo:  Charles Bernstein

Affinities, affections and elections, part two

Translation is fence and climb

Alejandro Cartagena, from “between borders”
Alejandro Cartagena, from “between borders”

Translation is effortful: that’s part of its appeal and provocation. Translation, like any form of cross-cultural or cross-language communication (and I sometimes wonder if all communication, even communication within the self, is some form of “cross-cultural” communication? but perhaps there are gradations or spectra of “cross” in that construct...) highlights both separation—difference, distinction, divide—and connection—affinity, mutuality, movement towards.

Let me contradict myself immediately: on a good day, when the confluence of written and writer and translator is particularly generative and delightful, translation can feel like channeling, accessing some other river-like flow of speech just beyond the ways we normally articulate ideas. It’s never easy—it’s always an effort—but it can feel tremendously fluid, perhaps precisely because of the distance from self and ego that translation inherently entails. And at the same time, translation is the most interruptive, stuttering, stop-and-go, stumbling form of writing there is: observation, inquiry and investigation made manifest in every phrase, sentence, line.

Alejandro Cartagena, from "between borders"
Alejandro Cartagena, from "between borders"

I don’t think finding texts or writers to translate is all that different from finding texts or writers to read (in any language). How do we arrive at the publications and persons whose work most excites us? I imagine that process is different for each reader. In my last post on this topic, I suggested reading as broadly as possible among sites and publications and then doing further research on writers who spark particular interest. Another way to proceed (and these are not mutually exclusive, of course) might be to identify especially engaging press projects or publications and figure that these might lead more directly to affinities and shared aesthetics or literary politics.

Given my own proclivities toward autonomous small-press projects, I might begin with the catalog from Mexico’s Feria del Libro Independiente, or Argentina’s Feria del Libro Independiente y Alternativa, co-organized by the folks from )el asunto( who also publish the amazing handmade Catálogo de libros independientes which lists hundreds of small and tiny press projects and writers who publish autonomously, and incidentally includes instructions on how to make your own books.

Or I might focus on particular small-press projects or journals whose practices I find especially exciting, and learn more about the writers involved in those projects. One such project, begun in Buenos Aires but now dispersed throughout Latin America is Eloisa Cartonera, an independent small press that uses recycled cardboard covers and lo-fi design, printing, binding and distribution processes to make books that are an affordable and buoyant alternative to overly officious official verse culture. The Spanish-language wikipedia page about cartonera presses illustrates the amazing flowering of these projects all over Latin America and in Spain, and has a number of excellent links, as do many of the specific cartonera sites. There is one instance, that I know of, where a U.S. poet has published with a cartonera press: Edwin TorresIlusos, translated into Spanish by Urayoán Noel, and published by Atarraya Cartonera in Puerto Rico.

The projects and sites in this post (and there could have been many more!!) constitute a list that is of course entirely partial and happenstantial (if that’s a word?), containing primarily what I have readily at hand on the shelf next to my pale green 1940s steel desk, made by Fortress, Inc. in Irwindale, California, purchased via the Recycler from a successful writer of Harlequin romances.

A much more intricately complicated, ongoing (lifelong) question is how we might come to understand the literary, historical, social and political contexts in which the texts and writers we encounter exist. It’s a tremendously humbling process: I am reminded, constantly, of how much more there is to know and understand than I can possibly access. The more I read, the more I realize I do not know how to read. Like translation, the attempt to comprehend-through-encounter or inhabit-through-comprehension a context very different from our own (whether that context is located “here” or “elsewhere”) is excessively effortful. It is in the effort, and the heightened, electrified attention that effort invites, that the political import and utility of translation flourishes.

Ken Gonzales-Day, from "Hang Trees"
Ken Gonzales-Day, “With none but the omni-present stars to witness,” from the series “Hang Trees”

The Claudius App

Jeff Nagy and Eric Linsker released today the first issue of the their web magazine, The Claudius App, coinciding with the visit of Kate Middleton to Canada and the Royal Wedding in Monaco, and the collapse of the case against DSK. Coincidence? It’s hard to say, for The Claudius App is billed as the home of a new movement, or moment, as movements are always moments writ large – Fast Poetry. When I first heard the term, I thought at last some young poets were picking up on Hannah Weiner’s iconic work The Fast: a new poetry of spiritual quest and cleansing, purging the toxic poetics that surround us in North America. (And maybe they have.) But I slowly came to what sense I still have command over: this was fast in the sense of rapid or quick, in the sense of not slow, or possibly in the sense of dissipated, unreliable, loose, without scruples; entirely unrelated to Yom Kippur and penitence. 

There is a manifesto of sorts:

Not for us the beautiful souls: macramé confessionals, Etsy poetics, wet blankies and faux-Mallarmés in blindstamp whose overly bated enjambments reek of omphalic zen. . . . The point is not to articulate a school, but to articulate so quickly it registers as a slur. . . . We refuse to watch our step as we exit the moving walkway. It’s called standing on principle, try it sometime.

The “splash” page of the site – especially welcome for those not able to get to the beach this Fourth of July weekend – is an extensive compilation of the pitch lines of a wild range of lit mags. The piece is hysterical and yet, against all odds, oddly inspiring, as the irony gives way to a sense of free-floating longing. It’s a morbidly fascinating study of contemporary poetics. Here is my toqued sampling – highly condensed – of Nagy & Linkser's epic sampler:

We see literature and the arts as part of a broad, ongoing cultural conversation that every society needs to remain vibrant and alive. What we print requires concentration and takes some time to digest, but it’s worth that time and effort: writers and artists hold a mirror up to nature, mankind, the world; they courageously reflect their age, for better or worse; and their best works provoke perceptions and thoughts that help us understand and respond to our age. We use only 100% post consumer waste recycled paper and soy inks for our publications. No “light” or inspirational verse. The pieces we publish are the ones that we remember days or even weeks afterward for their compelling characters, believable voices, or sharp revelations. We enjoy magic realism. We enjoy detail and beauty. We enjoy complexity. We look for Fiction, Poetry and Creative Nonfiction that is well-crafted and lively, has an intelligent sense of form and language, assumes a degree of risk, and has consequence beyond the world of its speakers or narrators. The editors actively solicit writing that expresses the our values broadly construed: a sense of inquiry into questions of personal, social, political, spiritual, and aesthetic importance, regardless of genre. In verse we have a bias towards form, of one kind or another, but will look at whatever is submitted. We prefer to receive poems that are in some way akin to the Symbolist, Dadaist, Surrealist, Beat, spoken word, and experimental genres. We are determinedly eclectic and intend to stay that way. Read: we like oddities, off-beat, pretty ugly and the like. We have no regional, gender or cultural biases. Our biggest criterion is quality. We are looking for powerful, well-crafted pieces that throb with meaning. We accept fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that is honest and daring, and explores the relationship between dualities. Joy, pain. Boldness, vulnerability. Sacred, profane. … work inspired by the same tradition of Catholic art and literature that gave the world Dante and Dostoevsky, gothic architecture and A Good Man is Hard to Find, Michaelangelo and Middle Earth. We only publish poetry that incorporates overtly dark, dramatic, metaphysical and psychological themes and language. Please keep in mind that we may not publish even the finest poetry if it doesn’t suit the tone of the publication. We only feauture work that, in some way, and somehow, surprises. It’s a magazine where everyone has a voice, not just those well versed in literature, art history and design. It’s poetry that excites and energizes. It’s poetry that uses language that crackles and sparks. We’re looking for poetry from all points on the arc, from formal to experimental (no light verse or erotic poetry, please). It ought to go without saying that any story submitted must be your own unpublished original creation.  There is no set theme for the journal; however, we strive to publish poems that fit the season in which they are published.  We want to see poetry that enacts the artistic and creative purity of glass. Attachments will not be opened. What we are least likely to accept is “garden” poetry, poetry about poetry, or the often over-used wading pool of Greek and Roman mythology. We prefer work that is alive with the poet’s own experiences. The poetry we publish has that certain extra intangible about it. Read our back issues. We publish work that addresses the purpose and mystery of being, in any shape or form. We appreciate humor, if it’s got depth. We appreciate experimental work, if it’s not gimmicky. What we look for is a voice that is genuine, speaking with some degree of lucidity and intelligence about something that feels urgently felt. Please limit the number of cat poems (unless, of course, they are really, really good cat poems). We publish original-unpublished works that is centered on the Jewish experience by Jewish and non-Jewish writers alike. We love poetry and feel that it’s something everyone can enjoy. We look for poems that are accessible, that have heart, that have something to say. Poetry should make you laugh or cry; it should enlighten and entertain. Please submit work that coincides with one of these themes. The Redheaded Stepchild only accepts poems that have been rejected by other magazines. Work that inspires, excites, feeds the imagination, rich in imagery, work that is memorable. Our font is self-effacing. No Haiku! For the love of God. No Haiku! Anyone from anywhere can enter into the conversation. This is a necessary endeavor. Our purposes are to encourage and give voice to fine poets and artists; to move, delight, and humanize our readers; and to support fresh ways of writing, understanding, and using poetry. The exact definition of “new south” varies from person to person̶ if you can make a case for why you consider yourself part of the new south, then submit your work. We believe this will support and strengthen progressive thought among the public, as well as foster a community centered on compassion and justice. Each issue seeks to be tantamount to an invitation to the greatest literary house party ever. We are partial to work that is conscious of language without being self-conscious, that pulls readers in with drama and emotional risk, rather than holding them at arm’s length with gimmickry and tricks. We are people, so we publish what the people like.

As the editors say in their manifesto:

Lucky are the fast, for they will run circles around the slow dust of their inheritance.

Which era is the era of 'The Pound Era'?

fragment of a letter written by Hugh Kenner in 1960

Hugh Kenner's huge (and hugely important) book on Pound was published in 1971. A book of its time? Well, considering the social and politcal context of 1971: maybe The Pound Era is a book running counter to the trend of its time. But never mind those assumptions. The book was first planned in....1960. Eleven years earlier. This startling fact I learned a lttle while ago when I read some unpublished Kenner correspondence in Chicago. Check out my 1960 blog for more.