Commentaries - May 2012

For over twenty years, Steve Clay’s Granary Books has brought together writers, artists, and bookmakers to investigate poetic and visual relations in the time-honored spirit of independent publishing. Granary’s mission—to produce, promote, document, and theorize new works exploring the intersection of word, image, and page—has earned the publisher a reputation as one of the most unique and significant small publishers operating today. Archivist, author, curator, and publisher Steve Clay has written:

 The first item that I identify as a Granary Books publication was actually published by Origin Books in 1986—Wee Lorine Niedecker by Jonathan Williams. It embodies several elements that remain important to me now, some fifteen years later, among which is an acute awareness of the “book” as a physical object. I write this in quotes because the work in question is not a book per se but presents a short poem by Mr. Williams, printed on a small piece of card stock contained within a printed envelope which is enclosed within yet another printed envelope. As such, its references include Williams’ own Jargon Society (‘the custodian of snowflakes’), a press which made ample use of a diverse array of publishing formats including folding cards, broadsides, postcards, pamphlets, and books. The Jargon Society was one of two or three publishers which loomed behind the emerald curtain at the fore edge of my imagination as possible exemplars for an entity which had not yet been conceived.

 Today, I’m especially thankful that Granary has reprinted Bean Spasms by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard. I’ve searched used bookstores for years in hope of finding an affordable first edition with no luck. Granary’s reprint has the potential to bring a whole new audience to this significant New York School collaboration. Here’s the description from Granary’s website:

 Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett's Bean Spasms is the defining publication of the 1960s literary/Pop scene in New York. Originally published in 1967 by Kulchur Press in an edition of 1,000, and out-of-print for more than 40 years, Bean Spasms is a book many have heard about but relatively few have seen, and which—until now—has been shrouded in legend. The text is comprised of collaborations between poets Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, with further writings, illustrations and cover by artist and writer Joe Brainard. The three began collaborating in 1960, and kept a folder of their works titled "Lyrical Bullets" (a humorous homage to the well-known collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth, "Lyrical Ballads"). As Ron Padgett describes, in his introduction to this new facsimile edition, their collaborations included "plays, a fictitious correspondence, a picaresque novel, goofy interviews and poems of various types and lengths, as well as mistranslations and parodies of each other's work and the work of others." Poet friends dropping by during writing sessions would also add lines, and although Berrigan and Padgett also contributed visuals, and Brainard contributed texts, all works in the book were intentionally left unattributed. Full of wild wit and joy in experimentation, competition and collaboration, Bean Spasms is a classic document of the New York School.

I'll write a proper review when my copy arrives.


Emma Bee Bernstein at Microscope Gallery

Emma Bee Bernstein's Polaroid show opened at the Microscope Gallery, Thursday night, May 24th, 2012. The curator Phong Bui did a stellar job with the selection, framing, and installation. There were six horizontal custom frames with 20 of the original Polaroids (73 x 7 1/4 in) and four vertical frames with 10 of the original Polaroids (6 1/2 x 43 in). A number of single Polaroids, two framed, were also exhibited, along with two notebooks with Polaroids inlaid. In addition to the original Polaroids, singles and in the framed sets, Microscope is also making color pigment prints of the original Polaroids, 8 x 10 inches on archival paper (editions of 9). Any of the Polaroids in the exhibit is available as a print. Any inquires about acquiring the Polaroid sets, individual Polaroids, or the prints should be made directly to Microscope Gallery: or call them at 347-925-1433. Microscope can provide for individual viewing a full set of images. Microscope is also screening Emma's film, Exquisite Fucking Boredom; it is available from the gallery as a limited edition DVD.

The show runs through June 25th. Susan Bee and I will be at the gallery for Bushwick Open Studios on Saturday, June 2, from 2-5pm. On Monday, June 18 at 7pm, Henry Hills will be showing a new 80-minute cut of his film, Emma's Dilemma;  we will be there for that too.

I wrote this essay for the show:

Exquisite Fucking Charms: Emma’s Polaroids

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly today,
Were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms,
Like fairy wings fading away
Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will …
                       ––Thomas Moore (1808)

Susan and I found Emma’s Polaroids after she died. They were dispersed throughout her effects in her Chicago apartment. As if we were gathering the limbs of Osiris, we put these images in a box and took them home, along with an overwhelming number of photographic prints, negatives, and digital images, many more than we could possibly have imagined Emma had fabricated.
            In the years since, we have worked with Emma’s close friend and collaborator, Antonia Pocock, to organize the several distinct bodies of work that Emma created between 2001 and 2008, including the early black and white photographs, the “Masquerade” series, a darker set of night scenes, “extreme” self-portraits, Chicago land- and city-scapes, the epic GirlDrive portraits and landscapes, and the final Venice pictures.
            Phong Bui, artist, curator, writer, and publisher of the Brooklyn Rail had seen some of Emma’s photographs from Masquerade: A Retrospective her first posthumous solo show, which took place at the DOVA gallery at the University of Chicago in 2010. The show was curated by gallery director Kat Griefen, and  Emma’s photography teacher at the University of Chicago, Laura Letinsky. Pocock made an enthralling slide show for DOVA, which is the best representation of her work overall. Bui organized another  solo show at the Janet Kurnatowki Gallery, which he curated with Linnea Kniaz, organizing the work, mostly from the “Masquerade” series, into compelling groups of related sets. The show, which took place in 2011 was called  Emma Bee Bernstein: An Imagined Space. A key to Bui’s understanding of this work is that the power does not reside just in the single image but takes on greater aesthetic power when seen in constellations within each distinct body of work as well as in the connections among the distinct bodies of work.  
            After the show, Bui expressed an interest in Emma’s Polaroids, which I had not yet been able to look at closely. One afternoon, he came over to our Upper West Side apartment and Susan handed him the box. After slowly going through the 200 works in that box, he told us we must have a show of these Polaroids and that he would be willing to curate it. It was great that Elle Burchill and Andrea Monti, of the Microscope Gallery, agreed to host the show in their Bushwick, Brooklyn space.
            Emma had several cameras that she used – two digital cameras, a Nikkormat 35 mm (that Susan used in the 1970s), her favorite Mimaya Double Lens C330 Professional, and her Polaroid Spectra 2. She thought of the Polaroids as a distinct body of work. Pocock, the best guide to Emma’s working methods, explains:

I recall her being interested in the particular quality of Polaroids as distinct from other types of photographs, the heightened materiality of them, the nostalgia they evoke. Also, she didn't always use the Polaroid camera on her “Masquerade” photoshoots. She seemed to reserve it for specific moments, though I am not sure exactly what the logic was behind that choice.

While there are a few studies for her “Masquerade” series in the full set of the Polaroids, these images have a more intimate, documentary feel than her other photographs. As with all Emma’s portraits, they are a cross between fashion and art, staged and spontaneous, personal and iconic.
            Bui first proposed calling the Polaroid show Wherever Angel’s Go, from my poem of that title, with the refrains “Won’t you show me the way to go home” and “I've been searching for you so long.” Once we decided to also show Emma’s later, darker, film, Exquisite Fucking Boredom, it made more sense to use her own title. Emma’s film is a kind of purgatory, but shot through with radiant light, not a place of pending judgment but of pending possibility.
            Our family friend Mimi Gross, who has made portraits a central part of her paintings and drawings, once explained to me that portraits are more about a relation between the artist and subject than about a representation of the person pictured. This is how I imagine Gross would separate out portraits that have an aura and those that are only resemblances. It’s the difference between looking and seeing.
            Emma’s photos are all about seeing, but for Emma seeing always involves the mark, even the scar, of looking. This is why for her tableaux – the staging of costume, background, configuration of bodies – remains a ghostly outline, overcome by her subjects’ ineluctably enduring young charms.
            In the Polaroids, the “endearing young charms” of innocence and spontaneity overcome, without erasing, the reification of fashion and the aestheticization of tableau (the way the photo evoke the compositional integrity of a painting). And no more so than in the many images of Emma in the Polaroid series, perhaps less self-portraits than portraits of the artist in different guises, each image a fantasy of a different life. Pocock describes the circumstance of making the Polaroids, in particular the images of Emma herself:

Typically Emma would conceive of the image and then have a friend shoot it for her. Emma's photoshoots were very collaborative in that she would shoot her models, and then have her models shoot her. … She understood each photoshoot as a performance involving both photographer and model, and was interested in investing her models with a certain agency, with the result being that traditional notions of authorship were problematized.

            The Polaroid series was made between 2003 and 2007, with most of the images from 2003. These serial works exhibit a rigorous informality. Emma transforms the spontaneous, on-the-spot Polaroid aesthetic into a generational portrait of a hyper-self-conscious, sweetly and playfully disengaged young women and men taking on adulthood with deadly serious abandon. While indebted to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman, Emma’s work is distinguished by the aura of “beauty and youth” that illumines her subjects and her insistence on fantasy over personae or documentary. Her Polaroids glow with the fire of life lived in full knowledge of its gorgeous evanescence. Emma knew this: “The perfect projection of the internal imagined self, if it exists," she wrote, "only does so for the duration of the photographic performance.”

And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear,
That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known,
To which time will but make thee more dear.   

       Emma lays bare the medium of the Polaroid as notches in time that burn a hole in eternity. Her many self-portraits, along with portraits of her friends, cast aside the masquerade of her tableaux photographs for ecstatic moments ripped from the space between bathos and the sublime. The constellation of these images, more than any single one, has a talismanic power to transform the fleet, flickering ruins of youth into unfulfilled wishes.

            Photographs collected in a box, souvenirs of a life lived with an intensity eclipsing longevity. My relation to the images, and my invoking Thomas Moore’s sentimental Irish drinking song, are misrepresentations of these works, which resist the nostalgia that they evoke for me. Emma’s works are filled with pranks, feints, neo-pre-Raphaelite gender bending, coy flirtation, insouciant ennui. But all that just intensifies their work as enduring charms. Time heals nothing; these photos are open wounds. Each Polaroid is the mark of a stolen moment, not the faded one depicted in the photographs but the one I lose anew each time I go from seeing to looking. This is what makes these Polaroids amulets for a journey not home but nowhere, sparks of angelic light in and as an enduring present.          

No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close:
As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets
The same look which she turned when he rose.


[Group shot: Alta Buden, Marianna McClellan, Leopoldine Core,  and Antonia Pocock -- Emma's friends  featured in the Polaroids, at Microscope Gallery opening, May 24, 2012, photo by Charles Bernstein. Polaroids in show by Emma Bee Bernstein: top: Antonia Pocock "My Life Is a Movie;" middle: Leopoldine Core; bottom: Emma on rooftop.]

Gertrude Stein, a lesson play

Gertrude Stein with Basket and Pepe (1937)
image from Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

There are few things I love more than reading Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” with a composition class. I choose to focus on this poem (both as the class’s first interaction with Stein and as the topic of this post) because I think the repetition is irresistible and always suspect that when meeting Stein’s “Picasso” students might finally see writing as “play” instead of required task. In “The Difficulties of Gertrude Stein,” Joan Retallack reminds us that “there’s an intense need for play when one is in a particularly untenable situation like adulthood” (159). And, what situation seems more untenable in the moment as being a burgeoning adult in a required class that makes you write?

Once absorbed in a text that circles in and out of itself, I think students see that even written language has the potential for change and to change. And, in thinking about Stein’s repetition alongside their own processes of writing and rewriting and revising, students realize that no text needs to be permanent. As Stein writes in “Composition and Explanation,” “the composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living” (Selections 218). Similarly, Sondra Perl links the writing process to time and movement in “Understanding Composing.” Perl writes, “writing is a recursive process, that throughout the process of writing, writers return to substrands of the overall process…In other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.” By embracing the notion that writing is not a linear, or even normative process, students are opened up to the idea that the composing process— sentence, paragraph, essay—can be imbued with the same excitement as an adventure or journey.

“Who goes there, as they go they share” (Selections 191)

I always begin by handing out the poem (“If I Told Him”) and asking the class to read it out loud a number of times. Usually one student reads the poem from start to finish, then we read one line each, and then the students select the moments in the poem they are struck by and read those lines out at random. We also listen to Stein reading the poem. After each time we read the poem (or hear the poem), we pause to jot down "first thoughts" and then a few students volunteer to share their reactions. The “usual” trajectory of responses seem to move from resistance and confusion, to observations about the music (or drone) of the piece, and then finally to some level of “acceptance” (which often comes after hearing Stein’s voice).

I then usually ask the students to work in pairs—they have no more than fifteen minutes to take as much of Stein’s piece and turn it into a “correct” paragraph. They cannot change or add words—they rearrange Stein’s page, engage with her words as objects, adding in punctuation as needed. After fifteen minutes pass, each students does a short piece of process writing—usually in response to some incarnation of the prompt—“how did you approach this task?” We then hear from each pair—the groups read their “corrections” out loud and then share their individual process writing.

Sample “Correction”: “I told him he would like it. He liked it and I told him, Napoleon would like it. Now kings would like it for this exact resemblance.”

Sample Process Response: “We began by reading the beginning of the poem again. We underlined the parts of the poem that we knew did not make grammatical sense. We talked about what a sentence is supposed to do and then tried to make the words do it. Some of Stein’s ideas seemed backwards so we fixed them. We did not know what to do with Napoleon, so we decided to just include him as a neutral character.”

In preparation for the next class period, the class rereads “If I Told Him” and everyone writes a short response paper (never more than two pages) examining the language of the poem and how words (when isolated from linear meaning) can inspire emotion. What is a portrait? How do we write a “completed portrait”? Students think about what the parts of Stein’s lines, sentences, phrases, accomplish and why. This prompt gives the students the freedom to write about whatever associations they have to Stein’s piece, but to also respond to how words function in a given text.  

Excerpt from Student Response Paper:

There was a dry spell between us for about a month and I didn’t see or talk to him all of my spring break. So I approached him as spring break drew to an end. We made plans to hang out, but fearing that it would be awkward if it were just the two of us, I invited two of our mutual friends, with him knowing of course. I’m not sure what happened, but by the end of the day I honestly started thinking that I had done something wrong. It was almost as if I was making this kid’s skin crawl. It was so painful just and awkward, I didn’t think it was a good idea to ever hang out again. And then I think I started to go back and rethink EVERYTHING. “Was there was there was there what was there was there what was there was there there was there.” Was I mistaken from the beginning? Had I just thought so much that I made something that wasn’t there, there? I mean, if you repeat something enough, you start to believe it.

Excerpt from Student’s Process Write:

It was like I was reading the way my voice sounds in my head. Then I understood how to fix the words on the paper.

I’m always amazed by the student responses to Stein—it seems as though this particular poem engages students in a fantastically unpredictable way. As we see in the student response quoted, Stein has a magical impact on the way students relate to their own writing—their sense of purpose and investment in their own texts changes. I think a lot about why this is the case—and, I’m not sure I have an answer yet.  What I do know is that the writers in the room seem to gain a new understanding of a kind of grammar that exists outside of “rules.” There is also an amazing (unspoken) change in how the writing process is approached…as a process.


Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Perl, Sondra. "Understanding Composing." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 363-69. Print.

Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager. Berkeley: University of California, 2003. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. How to Write. New York: Dover Publications, 1975. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. Gertrude Stein: Selections. Ed. Joan Retallack. Berkeley: University Of California, 2008. Print.

A recent issue of The Capilano Review focused on “ecologies,” gathering work that some people might want to assemble under the heading of “ecopoetics.” It is still not the easiest literary brand to define, with capacious boundaries and more questions than answers (which is what keeps it interesting, despite the fact that a lot of work that we once called, with a yawn, “nature poetry,” now cuts a more dashing figure under the heading “ecopoetics”). Nevertheless, I did find myself doing a double take at the inclusion here of Christian Bök’s “The Extremophile,” which was even the subject of a series of featured responses at the issue’s official launch.  Is Bök’s work an example of “ecopoetics” (whatever that might turn out to be)?

Of course, Bök is already associated with a strong brand—conceptualism—though that doesn’t mean he can’t double-down. But let’s back up just a bit.

“The Extremophile” is a poem that introduces us to deinococcus radiodurans, the “hero,” if you will, of The Xenotext, Bök’s ambitious and long-awaited follow-up to Eunoia. Radiodurans is the eponymous “extremophile” of the poem’s title—a bacterium so classified because of its resistance to, well, almost everything. Here’s a slice of Bök’s portrait of the bug:

          It eats arsenic. It eats uranium. It resides inside the core of
          Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl. It thrives in the topsoil of battle-
          fields contaminated with toxic doses of lead. It thrives in
          hydrochloric acid. It can withstand temperatures of 373 ° k,
          hot enough to boil the water in its own cells.

The Xenotext revolves around Bök’s attempt to write a poem in which each letter of each word is also a set of genetic instructions. Transcoded and inserted into the DNA of radiodurans, the bacterium would then, hypothetically, “read” the poem and “express” it, genetically, as it reproduces at the cellular level. As Bök presents the project, he will thus write a poem that will outlive civilization itself, achieving what so many poets have sought throughout history: immortality, won through their art (think: Spenser’s argument with his lover in Amoretti LXXV).

Conceptualism, or ecopoetics? I think, what’s revealed here, is that “ecopoetics” is a conceptual phenomenon—that one is working at the conceptual level when speaking of the neighbouring zones of ecology and poetry. But what is even more striking is what the “ecological” valence of Bök’s conceptual project reveals about conceptualism.

Aside from its all-too frequent de-politicization of the avant-garde (something to discuss, perhaps, in a future commentary—for now, I’d just note that I’m addressing here more what conceptualists say about conceptualism than the work itself), one argument I have had with the phenomenon is that, while it decries “expression” and “self-presentation,” its practitioners tend to spend a good deal of time celebrating their individual efforts and achievements. That is to say, everywhere around the conceptual work’s supposed vacuum of expression is a great deal of critical and self-reflexive expressiveness, often heralding either the intensive labours of the poet in fashioning the work or, conversely, the outrage the poet’s work (and much-advertised lack of “creativity”) provokes.

So—on first looking into Bök’s Xenotext, I find myself balking at an apparent contradiction: the author at once wants to vacate authorship as such (DNA wrote this, not me—the poem belongs to the bug, which is simply a machine for producing poetry) and achieve that oldest of authorial desires: immortality through poetry.

However, on second glance, something much more interesting is revealed. The poetic quest for immortality is, perhaps, no different that the impetus behind all biological life—how to extend the species in time, how to endure in a universe governed, quite strictly, by the second law of thermodynamics? Bök is thus revealed as at once playing with one of our oldest literary cliché (the immortality of art) and the very essence of biology (the fragility of life forms and the quest, via genetic reproducibility, to do an end-run around entropy).

Conceptualism, I’d argue, is primarily about the concept of the author (and all her Foucauldian functions). “Creativity,” in Bök’s conceptual (OK, I will say it) ecopoetics is revealed to be just a fancy way of describing what all life forms do: “express” themselves in the search for durability in an unfriendly universe. If a “thinkership” is what conceptualism wants, there’s a great puzzle to be pondered here: how different is human (cultural) expression from biological (gene) expression? What exactly is “culture,” and its “authors,” when culture evolved, as an adaptation, some millennia ago in our species biological trajectory?

There’s a politics to this too, as social formations and systems of “government” are attempts to achieve endurance through expressivity too. The political, the literary—all these may be extensions and complications of the logic of our genetics. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

PennSound’s Creeley collection includes five recordings of the poet performing “I Know a Man,” as follows:

(1) read at San Francisco State University, May 20, 1956 (0:28): MP3
(2) at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, August 12, 1963 (1:27): MP3
(3) read at Harvard University, October 27, 1966 (0:35): MP3
(4) read in Bolinas, CA, July 1971 (0:26): MP3
(5) read in Bolinas, CA, c. 1965-1970 (0:25): MP3

Episode 16 of PoemTalk is a 30-minute discussion of this poem with Bob Perelman, Jessica Lowenthal, and Randall Couch.