Commentaries - June 2012
La Lengua Radical: Antología de la poesía norteamericana contemporánea. ed. & tr. Esteban Pujals Gesalí (1992)
EPC Digitial Edition of bilingual American poetry anthology from Spain
LANGUAGE: UN PROYECTO RADICAL PARA LA ESCRITURA DE FIN DE SIGLO 9
BRUCE ANDREWS 37
STEVE BENSON 51
CHARLES BERNSTEIN 67
NORMA COLE 85
CLARK COOLIDGE 95
TINA DARRAGH 113
MICHAEL DAVIDSON 127
ALAN DAVIES 139
JEAN DAY 149
RAY DI PALMA 157
KATHLEEN FRASER 173
TED GREENWALD 191
ROBERT GRENIER 199
CARLA HARRYMAN 209
L YN HEJINIAN 219
STEVE MCCAFFERY 247
DOUGLAS MESSERLI 257
MICHAEL PALMER 267
BOB PERELMAN 283
LESLIE SCALAPINO 303
RON SILLIMAN 313
BARRET WATTEN 333
from the back cover:
L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E, published between 1978 and 1982 by New York poets Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, is the best known of a set of journals (This, Hills, Roof, Tottel’s, The Difficulties, QU. etc..) that in the late 70's and early 80s reflected the dissatisfaction of a generation of American poets in respect to assumptions that still dominate the writing, distribution, and consumption of poetic works in both the U.S. and in other countries in the West. The magazine ended up giving its name to a set of radical creative proposals for understanding poetry as a critical praxis, engaging the languages of alienation from a radical opening of the imaginable in regard to linguistic creativity and verbal construction. La Lengua Radical is an attempt to provide with Spanish-speaking readers with a large sample of the poets.
The openness of renshi was the first thing that came across. I had read enough about renga to recognize how rule-bound that was – not only the tanka or waka form with its strictly fixed lines and syllables, but thematic commands and prohibitions (seasonal, geographic, imagistic, and so on), and the way that poems linked or bled into each other, sometimes openly, more often by a kind of subtle indirection. In advance of my own participation, I had read a number of books, to get a better feel for renga as the traditional underpinning for renshi, while aware that renshi practice, in so far as it had developed, was formally open and left the linkages in the hands of the individual participants. In the present instance, Tanikawa, as the senior figure and acknowledged renshi-master (sabakite), only asked that the individual poems be kept short (between four and fourteen lines, I think he said), that some attention be paid to poems preceding and following one’s own, and that linkages be subtle or mysterious rather than direct or obvious. We were also encouraged to avoid competition and to go easy on the confessional or expressionistic side of things. Then, as the work unfolded, allusions to earlier works and sources came into play, a practice in which I was happy to engage, as a further instance, let’s say, of what I speak of elsewhere as “othering” or “writing through.” (Itō in this regard drew all her texts directly from earlier, largely oral, sources.) And there were passing references too to matters that came up in our conversation – dinner talk, a lot of it – which would be more difficult to reconstruct but had a resonance for some of us that may or may not carry over to those who read us.
A SECOND DIGRESSION. Of all such “distant links” (soku) mentioned by Tanikawa, the fifteenth-century poet-monk Shinkei wrote in his Sasamegoto, a masterwork of renga poetics and of poetics over all: “A soku poem is said to be one wherein it does not matter that the upper and lower part are put together in a seemingly unnatural and arbitrary way so long as they cohere in the mind.” (For which see Murmured Conversations: a Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei, translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, Stanford University Press, 2008.) My own inclination here is to see this, as with much of Shinkei’s poetics, as a forerunner to the principle in modernist collage, of bringing together disparate elements in a single field and, as Pound or Reverdy might have had it, letting them cohere. In that sense the very process of renga or renshi might be seen in itself as an instance of poetic collage.
As if to underscore the contemporaneity of what we were doing, the opening set of the renshi event began before we arrived in Kumamoto. We made the link by email, with the leadoff slot given to Itō, who was the local organizer along with a group of others who had named themselves – curiously, I thought – The Kumamoto Literature Band. As would be the case throughout, every poem in Japanese was immediately translated into English, and every poem of mine into Japanese. The order in which we wrote was also set beforehand, switching a couple of times along the way. So, by the time Diane Rothenberg and I left San Diego, I had the first five poems stowed in my computer, and by the time we arrived and met a few of the others at Mount Aso (still a ways from Kumamoto), some of the talk (but not most of it) was already turning to the poems.
Hiromi’s opening gambit was a response, she later told me, to a criticism at an earlier renshi event that she had been too personal, too I-centered in what she wrote there. (She also didn’t care to write short pieces, she said, her own work known for its expansive form and, even more so, for the outrageously sexual and transgressive nature of its content.) So she decided on a strategy of total appropriation and armed herself with a stack of books – mainly from ancient and oral sources – as a repository of works from which to draw her poems. And because we had started at Mount Aso, the four lines she tossed down were from a song chanted by young women dressed in white who come to feed the local gods in the yearly Onda Festival at Aso shrine:
Let us offer up a song, may the gods
Of these fields bear witness
The gods look down, the farmers
Plant the fields and are glad
These lines set the tone, then, and were followed by Tanikawa’s linked
response, which picked up the idea of festival and planting, plus something more:
The children form circles and play in the forests
Where the leaves of visitor’s language flourish
Even in the land of roots
There are seeds waiting to germinate
Or so my great-grandmother used to say
I knew, in writing after Tanikawa, that I couldn’t answer directly even if I tried, that there were things that weren’t open or clear to me as outsider, and yet enough came through, aided by hints thrown at me by Jeffrey Angles – as translator – and a little too from Hiromi. I was the “visitor” here and the “leaves”were “pages,” as they are with us, or “words,” as they are with them. I also knew the “land of roots” as an ancient formula – in the Japanese origin myth Kojiki and elsewhere – for the subterranean world of gods and ghosts. So I took it all as an invitation to play out my role as visitor or guest or stranger and to see how far I could move between my own resources and theirs. As a first instance I found myself following the syllable and line/strophe structure of the traditional tanka or waka (5-7-5 7-7), something I wasn’t likely to do in any other circumstance including the rest of the renshi event. The result follows, and then some words about it:
the future rising
as does my name red mountain
summit high above
the earth below in darkness
hole the fathers called sheol
soon to be with you
on Aso not Death Mountain
in the other poem
beneath which looms the shadow
of a visionary fish
... all of which was more allusive than anything I would later do but was needed, I thought, to bring our worlds together or to make a stab at linking them. In doing so I brought in my own Japanese name (Akayama = Red Mountain = Roten Berg), which I had given myself many years before, and juxtaposed it with the name of the mountain/volcano (Aso yama), where we were heading, in contrast to the mysterious Death Mountain (shide no yama) that I found in a seventeenth-century “death poem” by a Buddhist poet/monk named Shiyō. Also, once Tanikawa’s “land of roots” gave me an opening, I introduced ancient Jewish sheol as a great-grandmotherly accounting of my own. And as a further nod in his direction I appropriated a phrase, “the shadow of a visionary fish,” from a poem of his, to end the poem and, as far as I could, to put my own authorship in question.
Such questioning, it seemed to me, was crucial in this kind of work. So I wasn’t surprised when Kaku followed me with a poem that, though I didn’t recognize the source at first, had a larger than life quality, an attempt, about which I might otherwise be dubious, at mythopoetic speech:
My red, burning fluid!
From my crumbling bosom
Through my chest and arms
To the villages beneath the mountains
Things seen with the eyes
Washed away, burned to ashes
Bring a beginning to this world
Once again after so many times
For Kaku all of this involved both a relation to the Greek Eurydice –suggested by the “death world” references from me and Tanikawa – and an immersion into the ferocious sexuality of the Kojiki, in which the creator gods Izanami and Izanaki fuck and give birth to the islands of Japan and multiple lesser divinities. Still alive here it was a world like what I knew from Technicians of the Sacred and elsewhere, though I couldn’t pin it down precisely until the source was disclosed to me.
A THIRD DIGRESSION. As the oldest surviving Japanese book, the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Things,” completed on “the twenty-eighth day of the first month of the fifth year of Wado” (A.D. 722) is an attempt to keep a grip on matters already at some distance from the compilers and to establish the “origins” of the Japanese court and nation on (roughly) native grounds. It is, at the same time, “a compilation of myths, historical and pseudo-historical narratives and legends, songs, anecdotes, folk etymologies, and genealogies.” (Thus: Donald L. Philippi, the composer of
a long-standing translation.) Like other such works it begins with the generations of the gods and follows their creation of and descent into this-place-here. The fecundity and sexuality of those early gods – like Izanaki and Izanami in the present instance – is an example of surreality (= poesis) as an attempt to comprehend and thereby to possess the world. The following, for example, is from Yoko Danno’s recent translation: “When Izanami was delivered of the fire deity Kagu-tsuchi, her genitals were severely burnt and she was seriously ill in bed. She vomited and in her vomit a pair of ore deities came into being. In her excrement arose a pair of clay deities, and in her urine the female deity who controls irrigation water and the young deity full of procreative force whose daughter is the food goddess Toyo-uke.”
Yotsumoto, when he linked to Kaku’s poem, took the “red fluid” as menstrual blood but transferred it from dreamtime to the scene of a woman watching a kitsch diorama of a volcano at the Aso Museum and feeling her period come on, for which he used an old-fashioned Japanese term and, for better or worse, spoke it in the woman’s voice:
Standing before the diorama
Gazing at the mechanized plumes of smoke and flows of lava
My monthly visitor caught me off guard
There is another me who watches silently
As I let out a sigh of relief
That ended the first set of renshi as a mix of myth and dream with words and
voices from the non-mythic present and past – an expanding field that could accommodate the several minds at work here.
It was in this spirit that the game continued.
Yasuhiro Yotsumoto Wakako Kaku
[Originally published in Critical Inquiry, volume 37, number 4, summer 2011]
[to be continued]
It's not possible to overstate the importance of Philadelphia’s ICA to the world of contemporary art, from around 1965 on. There was the night of October 8, 1965, the opening of Andy Warhol’s first solo museum show, held at ICA (then located in the Fisher Fine Arts Library). It was a moment that was “arguably the turning point of Warhol's career.” ICA hasn't missed an opportunity to push and innovate and suggest. Tony Smith in 1966. Christo in '68. “Chance and Art” in 1970. Agnes Martin in 1973. “Video Art” in 1975. “Material Pleasures” (the Fabric Workshop) in 1979. “Machineworks” in 1981. A Laurie Anderson retrospective in 1983, going back to her first work in 1969. David Wojnarowicz in 1985 (my own first year in Philly — this was a great show). The beautiful “1967: At the Crossroads” show in 1987. The famous Mapplethorpe exhibit (“the perfect moment”) in 1988, at the first heights of the culture wars. Sally Mann in 1992. Serrano's works in 1994. Tony Oursler’s video installations in 1997. Polly Apfelbaum in 2003. I loved “The Big Nothing” in 2004. R. Crumb in 2008. So much more, of course. Claudia Gould as director took ICA still further in recent years. She was hired to the directorship of the Jewish Museum in New York and so we began searching for a successor. Now we’ve found one. University-affiliated galleries and museums don't always fare well when artist/academic/administrative/trustee relationships paint grey areas onto the canvas of mission and vision. Lots of hard work led Penn through this process to a fabulous and unanimously happy result.
I'm pleased today to share the news that Amy Sadao will become the new ICA director. Amy has led Visual AIDS in New York brilliantly. She has a particularly insightful understanding of the relationship — current and prospective — between contemporary writing and visual (and other) arts.
Here is an announcement that is circulating today from the university:
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Amy Sadao Appointed Dietrich Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art
President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price are pleased to announce the appointment of Amy Sadao as Daniel Dietrich II Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, effective September 1, 2012.
Sadao is currently Executive Director of Visual AIDS in New York City. In this position, which she has held for ten years, she has built Visual AIDS into one of the most vital and prominent arts organizations of its kind. Her accomplishments include staging hundreds of on-site, traveling, and online exhibitions of contemporary artists and curators, as well as associated catalogues, symposia, performances, and advocacy materials; expanding the organization’s attendance, revenues, budget, donor base, and strategic plan; and building a Board of Directors and a team of more than a hundred dedicated staff members, interns, and volunteers. She has served widely as a consultant and juror for other arts organizations and as a sought-after public speaker and media expert.
“Amy Sadao promises to be a leader of unparalleled energy and vision for the next phase of ICA’s growth,” said President Gutmann. “She has an especially strong commitment to forging collaborations across a wide range of diverse communities and placing art at the center of dialogue about the most significant intellectual, political, and social issues of the contemporary world.”
“Amy Sadao has transformed every aspect of Visual AIDS over the past decade,” noted Provost Price, “expanding its leadership in contemporary art and social advocacy while building the infrastructure and resources to sustain it for the future. I have been particularly impressed by her understanding of the role of art in a research university – and in catalyzing intellectual and interdisciplinary inquiry in general – as well as by the knowledge she brings of Penn and Philadelphia.
“The President and I are grateful to Dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor and the outstanding consultative committee that she chaired, whose months of work reviewing and interviewing candidates from around the world helped us arrive at this exciting outcome. We also thank Robert Chaney, Director of Curatorial Affairs at ICA, who has served with extraordinary distinction as Interim Director. The strength of the candidate pool and global interest in this position are testaments to the world-class institution that has been built by ICA’s exceptional staff.”
Sadao earned an MA (2000) in Comparative Ethnic Studies from UC-Berkeley and a BFA (1995) from The Cooper Union School of Art.
In summer 2012, I’ll be writing a series of short commentaries devoted to my course Literature 512: William Carlos Williams, a graduate seminar in the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching program. Students on the literature track in the MAT program are asked to take at least one course devoted to a “major author,” and I chose Williams because of the very way his work questions the notion of major and minor literature, the singularity of the individual author, and the relevance of the “major author” for twentieth-century poetics. The title of this series comes from Williams’s essay “Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist.”
Ron Silliman, "You"
It’s 1995. January 1. Ron Silliman, who had carefully planned this daily yearlong writing project, begins to write the first of what will be fifty-two sections of a series going under the title “You.” He worries about the war in Chechnya, and writes a sentence on that, and about acid rain, and that gets a sentence. He remembers his dreams. He overhears intellectual coffeeshop talk. It’s cold outside.
This would be the twenty-fifth book of The Alphabet; in the Alabama edition of that major assemblage, twenty-five years in the making, “You” begins on page 903, a long way in. Fifty-two sections, one for every week of 1995, each consisting of seven daily prose paragraphs, typically one, two, or three sentences each day. You write what you see, what you overhear, what news local (floods) or world (wars) occurs to you or impresses you, what you remember, what you know or think you know during these days. In one “You” is the diary in New Sentences of a year. And it happens to have been a crucial annum for Silliman, who in ’95 made a big move from San Francisco to Philadelphia. In section XVII (by our count, this would have been early May), “You” marks the poet’s final week as a resident of the Bay Area. Certain birds (will you miss them?) wake him. Floppy disks might need to be copied (to secure files?) but aren’t. Would Philly be a haven for you, such a bookish person? “Last chance to buy books.” (Are there no good bookstores where you’re going?) “To the question, ‘Is your house lined with books,’ I reply. ‘No — stacked.’” Would the move from a region and a community that had productively tolerated — and also specifically encouraged — the emergence of a poetic style thwart or disorient the maker of these sentences? Section XVIII, dedicated to “Bob and Francie” (that would be Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw), locates Bay Area friends who’d gone East ahead of you. Despite such indications of continuity and familiarity — and despite the yearlong project that must go on, despite the chaos of relocation — you find a new landscape (“A cloudless sky but for the power plant. An old small town at the center of this development.”) and a certain new anxiety over aesthetic belonging. Can a so-called “Language poet” thrive in “P=H=I=L=A=D=E=L=P=H=I=A”?
The same Bob Perelman, the Language compatriot who had awaited you at that site almost at the other end of the continent, joined us, these years later, for an episode of PoemTalk about “You.” So did Rachel Blau DuPlessis, another longtime Philadelphia mainstay (to say the least). As did Frank Sherlock, a third Philadelphia poet, associated with the new PhillySound and someone who, with his local comrades, have welcomed Silliman — and whose work has been commended by Silliman on his eponymous blog. And the conversation was moderated this time by Michelle Taransky (a fourth Philly poet in the room), generous guest host, who sat in for Al Filreis while he was away.
The discussion considers in particular sections I and XII of the poem, but almost immediately sets out to offer general commentary on Silliman’s politics of form. In the myriad separate non-syllogistically arranged observations of “You” there is always apparent “a strong urgency of the anti-hierarchical,” as Rachel puts it. Parts are never gathered into a platonic whole, and this in itself can have a “social” and indeed “liberatory” aspect. Consider the second paragraph in section I, a paragraph presumably written on the second day of the year. January 2, 1995: “the idea of history shudders” as you absorb news of possibly genocidal convulsions “[i]n Grozny, in Bihac.” Here “You” “records” “world events” diary-like — ripped, as they say, from the daily newspaper. But then you seem to know of a thorny rose, laid upon a mass grave.* And then, but not of course sequentially, you see and overhear, in a café, two young men arguing “the value of a pronoun” over their strong coffee. The pronoun — is it the poem’s titular second person? the poet’s Recording Angel self? an abstract way of talking language without political consciousness, like a linguist? — does not separate from, nor subordinate to, history’s shudderings. No more or less relevant. You are not there to judge (nor to subjectivize — other than to be the one on that day to observe it) the café argument about language just because it occurs in a time of war engaged elsewhere. After all, who knows but that in the non-transparent concept of “you” — not the selfhood of I but the difference of Other — lies an effective understanding of the world’s crises?
At a PhillyTalks event, just a few years after Silliman became a Philadelphian, he read sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 17, 19, and 23 of “You.” Here is a complete recording of that January 1998 event at the Kelly Writers House. Later, in 2000, at a Segue Series reading, he read sections 17, 18, 26, 38, and 52. (Here is that recording; the reading from “You” starts at around three minutes in.) Here is our recording of section I: MP3. And here is section XII: MP3. All of this audio, and more, is available at Silliman’s vast PennSound page.
* This is prescient, indicating what a sensitive close reader of the newspaper Silliman is. It was not until June 2008 that a grave containing the remains of 800 people was found in Grozny and publicized by human rights organizations. Witnesses then were able to specify that the mass burial of civilians had begun on January 1 and 2, 1995.