Commentaries - September 2011
'Hello darling,' is the enjambed title of Fiona Hile's poem, published in the 'Life and Style' section of The Age (Melbourne's daily broadsheet) last Saturday. This is what I want poems to say to me. At least on Saturday morning. A bonus of being a poet in Melbourne is that the newspaper publishes a weekly poem (selected by poetry editor, Gig Ryan): that week's poet's chance to reach beyond their usual audience. I had a sense that I'd made it (though the underground has many mansions) when I first published in The Age. People read the weekly poem that may never buy a poetry book. They even cut them out.
This is Hile's first appearance, but she has Wordsworth, O'Hara and Merrill in her 'evening bag' that I can see. The poem is halved by dialogue aka citation. The first quote appears on line 11 of a twenty-line poem; a second frames the poem by ending it. This condensery (or 'sparkler that never goes out') calls from its bottom left-hand corner, to the prose of lit. news, event and bestseller lists. Sure, I wish the poem had more space, that it took up more space in the reader's mind, that it squirted wheatgrass in the reader's eye.
Buying grass is on the narrator's mind. It's one of those weekend activities apparently for the green-impoverished urbanite. It's not cheap. And is opposed by plutonium: post-plumis (not plumeism)= paspalum v plutonium. Hile's poem makes those big things - like Coffee and Sex - seem like small details in a network that contains really big things: 'Terror. Anxiety. Courage. Justice' ('Sunless Wonder's all.) And of course, 'love'. Truth-severing love as Hile's citation has it (citation being close to caution). Yet not capitalised because not abstract? This is philosophy then - not science (but Globalism Warming means more capitals). Some of you may read this on Saturday morning, opening up your ritual Jacket 2 webpage. As couples stumble over commas this weekend, try reading a poem without coffee in your hand - are you that kind of Wonder?
George Kuchar was one of the most creative, original, and influential filmmakers, straddling between two generations of North American iconoclasts, including Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Rudy Burckhardt, Kenneth Anger, Michael Snow, Warren Sonbert, Ernie Gehr, Abigail Child, and Henry Hills. Often collaborating with his twin brother, Mike, the Kuchars started making films as Bronx teenagers and these early films already show the ingenuity, exuberance, and do-it-yourself charm that they would keep over their scores of subsequent films.
George went into hospice care a few weeks ago as his cancer got the better of him. His last days were filled with visits by friens and students, with his brother Mike near by. IndieWire just published the first notice of his death.
Every year Kuchar made a large-scale scripted film with his students at the San Francisco Arts Institute, with lightening effects, costumes, and sound track, which were comparable to greatest Hollywood films, but all done on shoe-string budget. Rather than being constraining, Kuchar’s production budget enriched the aesthetic power of his films. It helped that he was something of a genius when it came to lighting, editing, make-up, cinematography, directing, musical soundtrack, and script writing, but his commitment to film as something that can be done ideosyncratically (I meant to have the ideology in there) and without huge expense has been an inspiration to a generation of independent film makers after him. Indeed, Kuchar’s films anticipate the work of younger video artists for whom cheap digital cameras and the web are the tools at hand.
As a writer, Kuchar combined his genre-obsessed irony and self-reflective bathos into scripts of scintillating wit. The opening monologue in Thundercrack (for which he wrote the screenplay for Curt McDowell) rivals as it extends the best of Tennessee Williams. PennSound has a link to his script for The Bride of Frankenstein, which is a perfect example of his largely unacknowledged brilliance as a writer. His sound tracks, collages from his extensive LP collection, are exemplary for using already existing music in new contexts so seamlessly you would have thought the music was composed especially for each scene; in a sense, it was. Kuchar made the switch from film to digital relatively early, fully embracing the dominant technology, and as he had done with film, making it fully his own. Much of his later work consists of an ongoing dairy – a sprawling, picaresque series in which he documents the weather, his meals, his friends, his trips. These funny, endearing works, in which he is the principal character and which he shot entirely by himself, are films that revel in the sublimity of the ordinary.
Kuchar stayed true to his American vernacular instincts throughout his life. The body of work he produced, now archived at Harvard, is a testimony to the power, and importance, of film done without the hindrance of the large-scale production. A man with a movie camera: nobody’s done it better.
George came down the hill from Mimi's to the Race Road place, where last summer he filmed Susan painting and my reading from Girly Man. Last night at dinner, George was saying how much he was influenced by Tennessee Williams, which you can see more in his screenplays than in his films. He said he had once met Williams in a pool locker room, and that Williams had greeted him, possibly mistaking George for someone else. But George didn't realize who he was till just after he left.
August 11, 2007
PennSound Cinema's George Kuchar page has a number of recent Kuchar films, as well as my three Close Listening shows and Andrew Lampert's video interviews, and the script to The Kiss of Frankenstein.
Some compass points for ecopoetics
In thinking about how to conceptualize ecopoetics, one scheme I have played with groups the field into eight vectors of attention, or “compass points.” (I was inspired by Robert Smithson’s “boxing the compass” of his Spiral Jetty: “South by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. Southwest by West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West by South: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. West: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water,” etc. ) I array these ecopoetics compass points in relation to a kind of spatiotemporal mappemunde that is more conceptual than geographical. The trope of westward movement—a fiction that has guided much of Western history—provisionally organizes the temporal frame, while the trope of economic North and South, another partial fiction used to sort geopolitical realities, organizes the spatial frame.
While sound marks the “true North” of the ecopoetics compass, Northeast and East point to conceptual and procedural writing and to documentary and research poetics, respectively: modes of writing keyed explicitly to the past. Conceptual and procedural writing occupy the Northeast front out of their instructive orientation to European modernism (more explicitly than any orientation to more recent developments in poetics around the globe), while documentary and research-based practices work directly with history, and/or what has been documented, as their primary material. They orient attention against the movement of solar time, heirs to an Enlightenment quest to know what the day has so far illuminated—and what, as the case may be, official histories have obscured.
Situationist work engages the dérive of research, turning the compass Southeast toward unknown outcomes. The unknown can emerge as much from standing one’s ground as from pursuing detours, and some of the poetics in this direction emerges from an explicitly activist stance, literally placing or displacing poetry into public space and other less evidently poetic contexts, such as governmental hearings, farming, or architecture. Sometimes poetry goes undercover and is reframed as an architectural bureau or an art review. Here we find the practice of “poetry by other means,” a reframing that situationist work holds in common with conceptual poetics—the difference being that conceptual practice emphasizes the aesthetic dimension while situationist practice may be tied more explicitly to political outcomes.
As we turn South, we face the border and the boundary work that characterizes ecopoetics, as a practice of the ecotone. Ecopoetics entails working creatively with edges and the exploration of systems (ecosystems, economic systems, political systems, immune systems), from the inside as well as the outside, a doubled stance that poetry is especially adept at assuming. Borders above all entail acts of translation.
Turning Southwest, toward the future, boundary work becomes a practice of interstices, of thinking and making between: between writing and drawing, between digital and analog, between international modernist and traditional lineages, between North and South, in ways that seek to undo these binaries, or to develop them as complementary rather than opposed. “Mestizo poetics” seek a way forward without the myths of cultural and ecological purity that have been so frequently deployed to resist Western logocentrism. A new form of resistance to the “spell” of alphabetic literacy draws as much on European modernist innovation as on traditional indigenous practice (and in both cases, the “oral” interfaces of new communications technology and social media are inescapable).
The landscapes of the future shelter healthy native plant associations but they also make room for “planetary gardens” of vagabond species, in a necessary coexistence of the place-bound and the nomadic. Thus the ecopoetics compass closes on a Northwest of disrupted/ third landscapes. While the Romantic imagining of pristine landscapes still frames much American literature, its environments are now pervasively marked by “third landscapes”—disturbed ground, neither preserved nor cultivated. How does poetics engage this territory of weedy innovation?
The West, as it has been for so long in American culture, is reserved for the big picture: what are the prospects for humanity on this fragile lifeboat Earth? How do we imagine the landscapes of the future and what does their current condition tell us? What are we doing here anyways? Such questions haunt ecopoetics, whatever its bearing, and more than anything define its scope.
North America has a broad tradition, going back at least to Thoreau’s “Walking,” if not much further, of literary environmental essays, essays that imagine, reimagine, and contest the American (and the planetary) landscape, on an epic scale. Such writing has been where the foundational assumptions and concepts of environmentalism get tested, challenged, and reworked (this challenging process is often lacking in much popular environmentalism). Nonfiction also is where ecopoetics meets science.
Nonfiction has been the preferred terrain of ecocriticism and, indeed, of ecopoetics—insomuch as ecopoetics does much of its intertextual work with nonfiction. I suspect that many writers in ecopoetics might consider their poetry a form of nonfiction.
How useful is such a compass in navigating the open field of ecopoetics? Does it constrain more than it enables? Can ecopoetics do without some attempt at broad conceptualization? I would love to hear your thoughts.
I have deliberately left the names un-inked, on the hand-drawn map (posted above) that I shared with the audience at my recent Naropa talk (2011 Summer Writing Program): as has been my approach since the inception of the journal, ecopoetics is not about lists of names, or about who’s in, who’s out. I’d like to think of it, rather, as a work of networks and nodes of relation, cultivating the edges and friction between differing approaches. (One could also include other bearings located along, within, or even against the schema provided here. I have penciled in three further directions, within the North by Northeast quadrant: Sightings, Proprioception, and Placing/ Spacing Landscape.) Over the coming two months, I’ll resort to this compass, from time to time, to attempt to relate the individual instances of ecopoetics I consider and to illustrate some of the generalizations offered in this brief summary. We’ll see what, if any of this, holds up.
Mimi Gross / Charles Bernstein 9/11 collaboration
published by Granary Books
2006, 64 pages
10 1/4" x 11"
edition of 65
copies avaialble for sale from Granary
Mimi Gross on Some of These Daze:
On the day and night of 9/ 11, I went out to draw the people, cars, and everything going on in the dark streets. On Church Street I found a TV crew with lights and hung around there where I could see my sketchbook.
The next day and night further downtown in the middle of the chaos, the police were pushing me to "move on" while I was drawing. A TV crew from MSNBC recognized me from the night before. They sent the police away and ushered me behind the barricade reserved for the world journalist pool. While reporting, the journalists stood on a milk box, so that the burning Building #7 was clearly in the rear of the TV image. Journalists from each network took turns every hour or so to update news to the rest of the world. With all the cameras around, the novelty of having a documenting artist drawing with pen and pad was encouraged by the TV crews. I was interested in the unheralded heroes: the fire fighters, the medics, the ministers, the dogs. There was endless traffic of every imaginable vehicle—fire engine, ambulance, freezer truck, police car, garbage truck—all entering and exiting at the one gate.
By the middle of October I stopped drawing in the streets. The city contracts began. The debris was getting trucked out, the structural remains were beginning to be dismantled, and thousands of tourists wandered around looking for Ground Zero.
At first, I made black-and-white copies of the drawings. I inverted them so that the lines were white and the background black, so the contrast was more dramatic. I faxed the images to friends to share my experiences.
In late September, I heard Charles Bernstein read at the Zinc Bar. He read about his own impressions and experiences during and after 9/ 11. I was impressed that he wrote personally and universally. Everyone in the audience felt our own vulnerabilities in the way he described them. Charles and I talked about the possibility of combining our impressions. The drawings and different versions of the text were scanned, and made into a CD for the Robin Hood Fund (which was giving contributions to families of the victims at the time). Later, Steve Clay showed an interest in making a book.
Much later, we had a great collaborative moment with all of the inverted prints spread out on the floor. Charles and I edited them together, putting them into a chronology. After selecting one of Charles’s texts, he matched his lines with the drawings. I put the drawings up in my studio with the words typed out under them, and Steve and Charles came to see the layout of the book. We discussed size, format, types of printing process (linocut, lithography, etching, and finally, silkscreen), and format for the writing. I started to color some of the inverted drawings, which was challenging. By limiting the colors I wanted to evoke the chaotic intensity of night time. Kathy Keuhn coordinated the production of the book. We worked well together and her contributions are equally collaborative.
The amazing warmth of New Yorkers in the weeks after 9/ 11 will be remembered by all of us who experienced it. The neighborhood, blocked off at Canal Street, was mainly in a blackout, the air indescribably acrid, bottled water piled on side walks. During that time we lived with suspense, war, history, and a singular sense of caution.
Charles Bernstein on Some of These Daze
“I really believe one must learn to draw as easily as if it were writing.” – van Gogh
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on my way to LaGuardia airport to catch a flight to Buffalo. Mimi Gross was at home on White Street, in lower Manhattan. Throughout the next days, Gross wandered through the area around the World Trade Center, drawing both incessantly and incisively. I returned home to the Upper West Side and wrote a series of reflections on the unfolding events. In Some of These Daze, we have merged Gross’s drawing and my writing, our respective inscriptions, as if they were two sides of the same page. The result is a double parallax view of 9/11: verbal / visual; on the spot / on the periphery.
Both Gross’s drawings and my writings rely on a serial aesthetic: one perception immediately follows the next, without an attempt to create an overall hierarchy or controlling narrative. The truth is in the array of particular details. Immediacy is valued more than commentary; local observation over symbolic resolution. While we created the writing and drawing separately, we worked together to find text to go with image and then to order these units. Similar to film editing, there was a high ratio of images and text “shot” to what we used. One memorable evening in Gross’s house in Provincetown we lay the pictures out of the floor and mapped a path, one to next to next. Just as with finding the words to go with the images, there was a shared sense of judgment that required little discussion.
Like my writing, Gross’s drawing consists of black lines on white paper. Because drawing and writing share an origin and function as notation, I wanted the artist’s hand to be present in creating both the letters and figures, as if to better meld the two, often sovereign, realms. The relation of words to pictures, especially in artist’s books, is an active concern; not to have the words provide captions for the picture, or for the pictures to illustrate the words, but for the words to provide n-dimensionality to the visual experience, coloring the mood or ambiance more than conveying information. In this work, the words are a kind of drawing and the drawing is a form of writing. This is not only because of the words embedded into some of the picture, or the way that cross-hatching often evokes letters, but also because the combined effect of the words and pictures enlist the lines into a pictogrammatic space
Our integrated approach to the verbal-visual field is further enhanced by the movement from 2- to 2½- to 3-D in Gross’s drawings. Gross’s technique is to create both concave and convex contours in her drawings, with the oscillation between them being the “2½”-D factor. Early on, we decided to make significant use of black-white reversals. The white lines on black ground suggest an enduring night but also push the drawings to a more insistent three-dimensionality: the black background pops the white lines out, transforming the image into something close to haunted maquettes for stage sets. The viewer is ushered into the underworld. The white lines are cracks through which light breaks out of the dark.
I can’t help but wonder: What is the equivalent, in writing, of white lines on a black ground?
The final, crucial, visual element on which I want to touch is the active use of color. Color moves the book out of the realm of documentary, or the real, and into the realm of the Imaginary. Gross’s precise color highlighting transforms the visual space in a way analogous to how the words transform the works to n-dimensionality. It’s as if we have created a 3-D movie where the viewer puts on imaginary spectacles with separate text and picture lenses; these spectacles superimpose the double parallax view onto a single virtual (or emerging) field.
There’s no gaze like the present.