Commentaries - September 2012

What Is a Poet? Meeting Louis Simpson in 1984

Bernstein, Vendler, Jay, Perloff, Altieri, Stern, Ignatow, Simpson, Lazer, Levertov, Burke

In 1984, Hank Lazer convened this group for “What Is a Poet?” Lots more (and higher-res) photos and a pdf, newly OCR’d and hi-res, along with Lazer’s intro, is at EPC Library.
full res photo above.

 Here is an early exchange from the panel:

Simpson: 1 don't think anybody here, any poet of this panel, would deny the absolutely useful function of good criticism. But I personally as a poet today find certain tendencies in criticism which I consider bad. They may have had a grain of truth in them, but as far as what I consider the making of poetry to be, they are very harmful. … There are more serious questions being raised, such as, I think, Charles's basic point, and I mink Marjorie shares it to some point –- the attempt to remove from the poet himself or herself some sort of controlling truth. This is a point on which we will not agree. And to think that culture produces poems – this is a very fighting point on which we will not agree.

[A short while later, Simpson continues:]

Well, my function I said yesterday was, I'm a worker; critics work very hard, I know. But what l mean is my function is a primary one, as Denise said; I'm up against the coal face, chunking out this coal. Then I bring it to the surface; then management takes over. [Laughter ]  Now between labor and management, there's going to be a certain amount of really valid ongoing disagreement, and they are not the same function; they are different. And if I were a professional critic, my function would be quite different from the one I have. Now when I get a little upset is when I see management ­– or let's drop that metaphor – when I see critics elevating Language poetry (to put my cards on the table) to a very high level; language, it seems to me, starts to get out of touch with the coal face, and something very strange happens to poetry. You cannot become that abstract about it. And it starts to destroy contemporary poetry.

In his intro, Lazer quotes most of this later exchange:

Simpson:  I think I’m beginning to see a basic reason we’re disagreeing here.  You approach the world as a construct which humanity has made, and therefore language is a construct, so you approach experience through language.  I would argue that for poets experience occurs as a primary thing, without language in between.  I quoted Dante yesterday to you about visions.  We have visions, we have experiences for which there is not language, and our job is to create that into a poem.  And that seems to me a radically different point of view.

Gregor Jay:  O, yeah, yeah.  We do disagree fundamentally because I don’t think that there is any such thing as uninterpreted experience and I don’t think we ever have an experience of anything that isn’t an interpretation when it arrives to our knowledge.

Simpson:  I don’t believe that for one second.  If you had been in an automobile accident, or I could give you even worse examples – if you’ve ever had somebody shooting at you in a battlefield, where the heck is interpretation coming in there?

Jay:  Well, I have to decide whether the bullet’s going to hit me or not, Louis.

Simpson:  But what has that got to do with interpretation?

Levertov:  If a child dying of cancer is suffering excruciating pain just as if it were a grown-up person who is able to reflect upon its pain, does that mean that it is not experiencing that excruciating pain?  Bullshit!

Bernstein:  Of course it doesn’t mean that.  I think, I mean nobody is saying that.  I think we’re not going to resolve what are essentially philosophical and theological or metaphysical differences, religious differences, really, among us. If you had a panel of different religious people representing different religious groups you would, who were trying to come to some consensus, you would have some of these same disagreements. I think the problem I have is not so much understanding that people have a different viewpoint than I have – believe me I've been told that many times [laughter] and I accept that. I do find it a problem that, and I certainly tend to do this too, that we tend to say "poets" think this and "poets" think that – because by doing that we tend to exclude the practices of other people in our society of divergence.

Redell Olsen, “Not, A Conceptual Art Poetics”

Redell Olsen will appear in Paris at Poets & Critics, Paris, Sept. 27 and 28. 

“Not, A Conceptual Art Poetics”  from  I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women. Eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place (Les Figues: Los Angeles, 2012):

Chain interview (pt. 1) and statement for OEI

Chain Letter icon, Chain no. 1, designed by AnJanette Brush
Chain Letter icon, Chain no. 1, designed by AnJanette Brush

Opening an email conversation on Chain with editors Spahr and Osman, I sent the following two introductory questions:

1) In the final issue of Chain, you note that the intellectual (and actual) climate in Buffalo prompted you to begin the magazine. The first issue — one of only three edited while you were both in Buffalo — presents a brilliant response. Originally slated to publish writing by women, Chain no. 1 features an editorial forum on editing magazines, a transcription of a panel on the ethics of small press publishing, and a series of poems composed via chain letters. Perhaps we can begin with a conversation on your plans for this first issue. What role did you see Chain performing in the poetics community at the time, in Buffalo and further afield?

2) The editorial forum in the first issue is particularly illuminating — offering a fascinating survey of female editors on gender and the work of editing. You interrogate the format of Chain itself in a following section entitled “Editors' Notes: Frameworks,” writing:

It is impossible to make a frameless frame (although that is the vision from which this project derived). We have instead begun the journal with a forum that takes a look at how and why journals are created and in what ways questions of gender have informed those decisions. It sounds absurd to edit a journal that's about the editing of journals — a nightmare of self-reflexivity — and yet it is a way of creating a body that shows its own skeleton.

How do the preliminary editorial statements from the first issue read to you now? Opening with this intensive self-reflexivity, in what ways did surveying experienced editors inform your own editorial position(s)?

In response, I was cheered to learn that these questions in particular were addressed in a short statement the editors penned for OEI magazine. We've decided to reproduce that document in full here. The statment can be read as a retrospective introduction to Chain from the persepective of 2008, resurfacing along with the magazine online today.

Chain Statement for OEI
Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr

Chain started, like many magazines, with a combination of homage and discontent. We were both graduate students at the State University of New York at Buffalo. And we felt restless and uncomfortable with the journals that we read even as we respected them. Most of the journals that we read and respected felt aesthetically dynamic and yet at the same time we felt their map of this dynamism to be too small. Our restlessness was not that much an aesthetic restlessness. We wanted, like many of the journals around us, to continue to think about nonstandard forms and poetries; we wanted to continue to gather together and support work that was in the tradition of that optimistic moment of turn of the century modernism when language sputters and fractures in unusually beautiful and aesthetically fulfilling ways. But we wanted a wider and different map. A map that had more than just our friends on it. A map that had more women on it. A map that had work that was happening in other languages on it. A map that transgressed the recognized borderlines of genre. This mainly felt important to us intellectually. Yet at the same time we are sure it was important to us in many other ways. We are sure it had some impact on our creative work but it would be hard for us to document that impact. We have been shaped so much by the reading that we did for the ten or so years we worked on Chain that to imagine our work without that conversation feels impossible.

Our first attempt to create a new map was to issue a chain letter. For the first issue, we asked a number of women editors to very simply talk about “Editing and Gender.” We wanted to learn from what other women were doing. And we wanted to think about our own editorial practice as an extension of what a number of amazing women editors had already done. Among the questions we asked were “what obligations do you answer to as an editor?” and “How have issues in current feminist theory influenced your editorial practice?” and “How do you think women fit into the exchange economy of editorial practice? Is editing an issue of economy or an issue of aesthetics, or both?” Responses varied; some dismissed gender as important, others argued that it was crucial. We also solicited a number of women writers to write a poem and to pass it on to another woman writer they admired, who would then write a poem in response and pass it on…etc. The result was a series of associative chains. While we did come up with the lists of poets who started the chains, we didn’t give them any aesthetic guidelines. Our hope was that they would introduce us to all sorts of new writers. A few did. But mainly we remember feeling at the time that the chains tended to circulate among writers we already knew (we discuss this problem, as well as our initiating editorial ideas in the introduction to the first issue). So we went back to the drawing board.

The issues of Chain that followed were further attempts to chart an unknown course, to discover writers and artists not a part of the scene we already knew so well. And in order to reach beyond our own aesthetic comfort-zones, we organized each issue around a special topic — usually a formal constraint — with our goal being to include as wide a variety of responses to that topic as possible. Past special topics have included Documentary (issue 2), Hybrid Genres (3), Procedures (4), Different Languages (5), Letters (6), Memoir/Antimemoir (7), Comics (8), Dialogue (9), Translation (10), Public Forms (11), and Facts (12). In the call for work for the Dialogues issue we asked our contributors to help us broaden the conversation by asking them to send us dialogues where they talk to someone they haven’t talked to before; the stimulus that led to the chain letter format of issue 1 still spurred us on.

In terms of nuts and bolts, our editing process went something like this: We had several months of conversation, often via email, where we would try and figure out the topic for the next issue. During this stage we often argued before we reached a compromise. We remember these conversations as incredibly useful and educational. Once we settled on a topic, we often researched it. During this early stage we contacted various people we knew asking them for a list of people to solicit for work; the lists that people sent us were invaluable and often shaped the issue. We published the call for work at the back of each previous issue and we also sent it around widely, at first by letter and later by email. We also directly solicited (i.e. begged) people whose work we felt was really important to have in the issue. If we were lucky enough to have gotten a grant for the issue we sometimes paid people to do some sort of project for us that they might not otherwise do. (For example, in the “dialogues” issue we solicited and financially supported six of the dialogues.) In December of each year, we would read all the material we had received. And then we would sit down together and discuss each work. We read and discussed everything that we got, whether we had solicited it or not. The actual editing of the journal usually involved both of us sitting down on the floor and putting work into various piles: There would be the pile for work that both of us wanted. And then there would be the pile that we weren’t sure about. And then there would be the pile for work that we disagreed about. This stack of work took the longest. These meetings often took days and were exhausting, but ultimately we would find a combination of works that opened up the selected topic in multiple directions. Once this was done, we sent out letters and then came up with a plan for typesetting the work. Each of our issues are arranged alphabetically according to the last name of the authors, because we found that this “chance” system would lead to the most interesting juxtapositions between the works. We weren’t interested in arranging them in a way that created an editorial narrative, that called attention to us as “assemblers.” Our presence was pretty much restricted to the writing of the introductions, which we did collaboratively. One of us would do the first draft. Then the other person would edit it. And we would go back and forth until we felt it was finished. The rule was that either of us could edit or cut the other; neither of us owned our sentences. It is a way of writing that we still often do (we’ve written this piece the same way). It works for us. After all of these steps were completed, the issue would come out about five months later.

Although our editorial practice with Chain was an attempt to widen the map as much as we could, a number of limitations came into play: We eventually had full time jobs. We had limited language knowledge and thus limited contact with writers from various places outside the US. We also resisted the business side of publishing; subscription development, advertising, and distribution were things we knew we should work on, but we could never quite find the time or energy. Although we considered the quality of our content and production values to be high, our attitude towards the “business” of putting out a magazine was very DIY. For all these reasons, the map of Chain has never been as wide as we might like it. But we like to think of it as a start. During its twelve years of production, Chain has introduced us to writers and artists that have changed our thinking.

Right now, Chain is on a hiatus. We needed a break. But we are working on a related project we are calling ChainLinks. ChainLinks is a book series, modeled around the same idea of interdisciplinary conversation as the magazine. Our call is not for work this time but for editors. And we want editors who can bring together three or so people whose work is in different media together around a topic. The first three books in the ChainLinks series are Intersection: Sidewalks and Public Space (edited by Nicole Mauro and Marci Nelligan), Borders (edited by Audun Lindholm and Susanne Christensen), and Refuge/Refugee (edited by Jena Osman). They will be appearing in spring/summer 2008. More information can be found at

In this world of four months

Park at Fresh Kills

I’ve been reading Joseph Ceravolo’s The Green Lake is Awake, in anticipation of his Collected Poems due out in December, and have been comparing his elliptical and always surprising approach to natural things to, for some reason, Paul Blackburn’s hyper-urban odes. I’m a late arrival to Ceravolo, and was an early arrival to Blackburn, so perhaps they create convenient sort of mental bookends.

Ceravolo is more lyric than Blackburn, but less obvious, yet still immediate in his language, which makes it clear that how the poem is composed aesthetically always comes first, ahead of any “likeness” to nature. A line I jotted down, for its sheer shocking originality that unfolds into multiplicity of potentials: “I speak as a wife to the capsizing.” Then his sense of sound, even in a title such as “spring in this world of poor mutts,” which was recommended to me, and which I misheard as “spring in this world of four months,” which made just enough un-sense to keep me thinking about it (lines that are perfectly resolved in both sound and sense are easily forgotten).

But Blackburn. Here’s someone whose personality may now overshadow his work, particularly his personality in his work. But how could I not respond to lines like:

              CIVETTA LINK-BELT
dips, rises and turns in a
        graceless geometry

He names the CIVETTA LINK-BELT “graceless,” and I suppose it was, but I love that he used its name, in all caps even, in his poem. Cities are full of words like KALMON DOLGIN, in all caps, published on the sides of buildings, but unused (unusable?) for poetry. KALMON DOLGIN is a real-estate company, sure, which holds the possibility of litigation for any poet who uses their name in vain, but it’s also a compelling combination of two rather mysterious six-letter words with an odd assonance, like CIVETTA LINK-BELT.

I wonder what Blackburn would have thought about some of the art and poetry walks lately taking place. There’s the East Village Poetry Walk, Elastic City, The Office of Recuperative Strategies, Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks/Two Talks, Erik Anderson’s The Poetics of Trespass, a personal favorite, in which he inscribes the word “PASTORAL” into the Denver cityscape. As ever, I see a need for female flaneurs to deepen the inscription of their footsteps onto the urban canvas (Brenda Coultas is a great pioneer.) So far, they may do so in new ways, more engaged, more judgmental (and I mean that in a positive, affecting-change sense). I think of PARK, Jennifer Scappettone’s collaboration with choreographer Kathy Westwater on the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, which carries the “walk” into a dance, a collaboration with the landscape, rather than the more typical stroll of the flaneur.  

Of note

'Pataphysics: A Useless Guide
Andrew Hugill
MIT Press: just published
’Pataphysics: A Useless Guide is a richly informative critical overview of the wide-ranging influence of (and influences on) ’pataphysics, from Groucho to Deleuze, OuLiPo, Borges, Bõk, Situationisism, SciFi, Raymond Roussel, and a wildly creative crew of fellow travelers, diviners, alchemists, and literary and theatrical pioneers. Andrew Hugill’s encyclopedic tribute shows how, for more than a century, Alfred Jarry’s precocious mind theater has remained exhilaratingly exceptional and exceptionally exhilarating.”

Reconsider the plan to empty the Berlin Gemäldegalerie of Old Masters

This meshugana plan looks like it may happen: a private 20th century collection may end up putting in storage some of the greatest European painting form the 13th through the 18th century. It one of those Occupy Museum moments where the needs of rich donors trumps even the authority of canonical works. This is surreal.

CUNY Follies
Joel Kuszai has alerted me to this disturbing development at CUNY: at Queensborough Community College, the English dept. refused to lower the quality of comp classes for their multilingual students. CUNY admin responded with extreme reprisals against the English dept., threatening mass firings. See the PSC response. The reduction in course hours for comp classes, opposed by the English dept. faculty, was done to conform to "Pathways" -- "CUNY’s new austerity-inspired General Education framework" <> (On the Pathways dispute, see Inside Higher Ed.) PSC is the Professional Staff Congress -- the union that represents the 25,000 + faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The Danny Snelson Archive Experience
It turns out the complete Alcheringa and Seccession was just the start. Now available: the complete Chain. And coming up Claude Royet-Journoud's ZUK and Susan Bee and Mira Schor's M/E/A/N/I/N/G. Read all about it.

Arkadii Dragomoschenko
Douglas Messerli has  made available a PDF of Xenia ($5.00) (Sun & Moon Classics, 160pp., 1994), translated by Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova, part of his digital books collection "On Net," which, among many other items, offers a free PDF of Dark City. Below is by Stan Mir's  photo of CA Conrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri. Thanks to Jack and CA for alerting me to this photo of Stan's, originally posted here. My home away from home: Bridgewater's Pub at Philadelphia's Penn Station.