Commentaries - March 2013
'Poetry Sophie's Choice' for Lawrence Giffin
Lawrence Giffin has done and said some of the funniest things I’ve ever seen or heard in poetry. His readings always feel to me like they walk along a fine line between uproarious and deeply critical. I can’t say exactly what they are critical of, because I can never quite tell. Is he making fun of poetry? himself for writing it? And this hilarious criticality comes in the package of always impressive, sometimes tour-de-force writing. There is clearly love for the art in his work — he works hard and that is a kind of love — but there also always seems to me a chasm of critical distance between Giffin and whatever he’s saying. And that chasm is often where the uproarious happens.
The first time I saw Lawence read was about three years ago at the annual Whiskey Reading organized by Rob Fitterman and Bob Holman, where five readers each read for about 10 minutes and their reading is paired with a particular whiskey, which the reader also has to describe on stage. That year Lawrence read a piece where the phrase “The Duke” (was it a character? a straw man?) recurred quite a bit. The piece, performed in Lawrence’s best most exagerrated southern accent, played off critiques literary camps lob at each other, and this one often sounded like the voice of a standard bearer of southern literary tradition who did not like experimentation or theory. But it wasn’t framed as a send up of southern conservatism — that would be too easy, a little on the nose — instead, it bobbed and weaved among positions cueing each to resonante as anywhere from ridiculous to insightful to ignorant to inspired, etc. This is my foggy memory of that whiskey-feuled night three winters ago. Whether I’m getting all the facts of the piece right or not, I have several times since heard Lawrence read and found his work and his performances of it always walking this same fine line. Positions are at once clear and hard to make out, voices are sometimes his and sometimes not and no one I have asked agrees which it is when,. But almost everyone is always laughing, sometimes in stitches.
This, I think, is why the terms “beauty” and “mayhem” both come up when I think of Lawrence. Based on his work I’m comfortable saying he’s committed to beauty. I think he finds it more in the lyric than I or many of his friends do, but he works both in and as far away from that tradition as one can, and I respect how he does impressive work in whatever form he takes up. Mayhem, on the other hand, is a word I associate with deeply disruptive characters, anarchic forces — the Joker always, Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem, those girls causing a ruckus in Daisies — and I have found Lawrence’s writing and his performances disruptive, in a good way. It confuses people; what is he thinking? what side has he taken? why did he interrupt himself and toss his poems behind him and roll his eyes? some think he’s making fun of them personally, others think he’s making fun of himself, still others decide he’s making fun of whatever thing they don’t like; some think he is happy and funny; others think he is dead serious. Whenever he reads I’m always ready for a little mayhem. It’s just poetry-world mayhem — not as threatening as the Joker — but every scene needs its disarming moments, we can’t and shouldn’t always be comfortable.
Below, Giffin shares his sense of what these two words mean and carry with them — and makes his choice:
For a short time when I was very young, I fixated on oak galls, the small balls of fuzz attached to the underside of some oak leaves, which I would find on the ground in the backyard in early fall. I would peel off a gall and carry it around like a pet, or rather, something between a pet and a child. The gall was something to be cared for, and I felt intense affection for my gall, and it seemed to me that the gall was anxious for my care. At some point in my tender attentions, inevitably and without warning, a desire, or rather, a compulsion, to tear that gall apart would overtake me. This was all so long ago, and I was not then and am not now able fully to comprehend the peculiar thrust of this desire. Was it one of revenge? A need to see inside the gall, what made it tick? I can’t deny that this little drama, which was repeated over and over, had for me then an unambiguously erotic character. (My fuzzy little gall is in reality a sort of cocoon for what is called a gall wasp. The gall is the leaf’s own response to the irritations of the wasp, a defense formation that harbors the wasp larva.) Around this same time, I performed a similar bit of theater involving a terrycloth baby doll that belonged to my sister — cradling and rocking the doll, then squeezing the doll violently and, with all the weight of my little body, pressing it into the carpet. Invariably, after tearing open the gall or squeezing the soft doll to no effect, I would feel, instead of satisfaction or bewilderment, only disappointment and frustration, feelings to which I might now apply the Lacanian expression ce n’est pas ça, “that is not it.” And yet, somehow, that was it — apart from the disappointment in not having encountered, despite my best efforts, the object of my desire, it all still worked. Something indeed worked out, and my disappointment was nothing other than a by-product of a successful if extra-personal process. I find this idea repeated in Berrigan’s line, “There’s no such thing as a breakdown.” The desire (to tear apart the gall, to wring the terrycloth baby) preceded the object, producing it, perhaps, in the vacuum of anticipation. This is the origin (but not the end) of the lines, “a terror that lingers/in place of the beautiful doll, /the fuzzy animalcule, alone/in the backyard,” from my poem “The Liberation.” I think my poetry, up to this point at least, has given shape to the thought that my desire seems to produce only terror. How do we go on thinking, working, communicating (or, per Ashbery’s triplet, “touching, loving, explaining”) if we no longer expect to be saved in the end, if we no longer hope for redemption, salvation, and everlasting happiness — in a sense finally to be joined with the object that animates us? And finally, to bring this half-remembered and poorly relayed memory back to the glove Kristen threw down at my feet, “Poetry Sophie’s Choice: Beauty or Mayhem,” I would first like to say that if we no longer expect beauty, we cannot therefore in good faith opt for mayhem. I worry that by posing mayhem as the countersign of beauty we would indulge ourselves in the misguided rebellion of the teenager, the ressentiment of a pedant deft only at organizing his books. I think it was Nietzsche who said, “I never met an ideal I didn’t want to hammer.” True beauty, the irruption of a mute and unaccountable fact into a heretofore closed world, would appear alternately as seduction and mayhem. Beauty would not be linked to pleasure (except the guilty kind) and would not be transcendental, yet it would have to be universal, which is why it would demand some discursive articulation — this is what Stevens meant when he wrote, “Beauty [...] in the flesh [...] is immortal.” By insisting on aesthetic experience, must I therefore affirm my creative originality, the inherent value of my personal experience, over and against the material history of my preferred art form? Not at all. I content myself with dissolving the dyads that seem to stifle my ability to produce art: experience and knowledge, content and context, the aesthetic and the conceptual, the subjective and the objective, and, why not, beauty and mayhem. I aim only to be a good nihilist, which means necessarily to be generous and compassionate person, selfless but not submissive — in short, I aim to be the happiest person on the earth. As such, I find it useful in art to practice a discipline of withdrawal, abstention, indecision, and suspension, to practice what can only be recognized as idiocy. Some might take this stance to be one of political cowardice. That could be true, but it’s the only chance I can see that I have one day maybe to write a little permissive poem — a poem that would have the aesthetic immediacy of an ‘okay.’
My final post takes a very local turn. Like Prigov’s Little Coffins, New Zealand artist Campbell Walker’s 2012 work The Crime LINKS in the Smoke is an undead work that plays on the print book as both fetishized object and repeatable copy. The Crime comprises cut-up pages from detective novels that were burnt in the fire that destroyed Raven Books, a secondhand bookshop on Princes St in Dunedin, New Zealand. Walker’s book is a memorial both to a particular shop and to the town where it was located. Dunedin, the small city near the southern end of New Zealand where I live, is known for its penguins and sea lions but also for its crumbling Victorian grandeur. Now mainly a university town, Dunedin was once New Zealand’s largest and most prosperous city, and the energetic local cultural scene today springs partly from the spaces opened up by the slow urban decay of a city that never grew. Walker’s work links the fate of Raven Books and Dunedin to the fate of the print codex at a time when bookstores everywhere are closing their doors and e-book sales are increasing exponentially.
By singing Walter Benjamin’s celebration of the codex, Kenneth Goldsmith ironically acknowledged that the book today might just as well mean an e-book or an audiobook, as something made from trees and ink. Walker’s reiterated book seems, by contrast, to stress the material, albeit damaged, paper-based object in the mode of a range of contemporary bookwork art. Indeed, the work becomes hard to read other than as a fetishized object of resistant memory when displayed in the Christchurch Art Gallery (for which it was commissioned as part of The Rose Collection project, led by Christchurch artist Scott Flanagan), in a city whose past has been even more ravaged than Dunedin’s––as a result of a terrifying and tragic earthquake two years ago.
Yet The Crime does not follow so many recent bookwork pieces and treat the book as simply a fetishized object for nostalgia. By splicing together crime fiction novels, Walker also emphasizes the repeatability and interchangeability of the genre and its throwaway lines. Walker has also repeated The Crime by performing the work with sound artist and poet Sally Ann McIntyre. (Both McIntyre and Walker once worked in Raven Books.)
If one takes the various documentary digital images and performance into account, The Crime ceases simply to be a forensic record––a document of personal and local history that bears witness to the loss of a bookshop and to Dunedin’s urban decay. Instead, the work becomes about “burning” in the digital sense––the possibility of further copies and versions that unsettle and overlay notions of materiality tied to the paper page.
Such shifting notions of media––marked in The Crime and in many of the other works of iteration that I have discussed in this commentary––both construct and depend on evolving concepts about what it means to repeat and about the relation of repeating to memory, history, knowledge, and meaning. Digital media, in particular––with their endless permutations of versions, file formats, encodings, hardware, and software––heighten attention to the tenuousness of the copy and its authority, even as they create a world in which we increasingly rely on digital copies in our claims to knowledge. By engaging with this uncertainty, the poetics of iteration provide rich ground for exploring and questioning the modes of copying and burning that we live––and die––by today.
In celebration of a new book of collages
The two-sided collage shown here was in the possession of myself and Diane Rothenberg for something like a half-century before we sold it earlier this year with the intention of divesting ourselves of some of our accumulated art works and in this instance turning the proceeds toward the funding of a granddaughter’s college education. We had first met Jess and Robert Duncan in 1959 on what was also our first visit to fabled San Francisco. Before that Robert and I had begun a correspondence around the miniature magazine, Poems from the Floating World, that I was then editing, and when Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights published my first book, New Young German Poets, a trip to the Bay Area became inevitable. That was in early summer, following a crosscountry car ride with friends and a bus trip up the coast from Los Angeles. We stayed in a small hotel on Geary Street and I rented a still smaller room nearby to use as a writing studio. On our third or fourth day there we went over to City Lights to meet with Ferlinghetti and ran into a photo shoot by Harry Redl that included Philip Lamantia along with Robert and Lawrence. It should be noted that Robert was fully bearded at that time and that I was fully beardless, a circumstance that changed for both of us within a year or two. By the end of the City Lights session, Robert had invited us to their place in Stinson Beach, for which we borrowed a car from another friend and headed out the following morning, stopping serendipitously to pick up Robert, whom we found hitchhiking on a local road. I knew by then that Robert was deeply if literarily attracted to magic, and so the night in Stinson Beach was, for Diane and me at least, a night of magic. Jess was also bearded at the time, and while Robert resembled a young Walt Whitman, Jess I thought was like a young D.H. Lawrence. The meal prepared by Jess and decorated with orange nasturtium flowers was new to us, and the evening was illuminated further by a net of phosphorescent plankton off the nearby coast and a shower of meteors in the distant night sky. I was struck as well by the degree of overlap I felt with both of them, and the exchange that began then was, I hope, fruitful for all of us, as it certainly was for me. After Robert came to visit us for several weeks later that year, Jess sent us the two-sided collage, which stayed with us until 2012, though it was only late into that stay that we became aware again of the side displaying the shepherdess in full and magical color. At that time too I commissioned and published O!, a collage book of Jess’s, under the imprint of Hawk’s Well Press, a small press that I had founded and was publishing from our headquarters in upper Manhattan.
It was a great surprise, then, when we came on Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, a magnificent new gathering of collages, edited by Michael Duncan and published last year by Siglio Press in Los Angeles, and found that the cover image was our untitled shepherdess and that the book included a full facsimile insert of Jess’s O! The original two-sided collage is now in the possession and care of Frances Beatty and Allen Alder, where I trust it will be safer and as much admired as it was by its previous owners. We do however have still another, much more casual collage by Jess, an extra gift from him, that has never otherwise been on public view. I’ll post it here as a conclusion to this accounting and a further expression of our gratefulness and love for Robert and him.
by Gillian Osborne
In the UC Davis Arboretum, common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a “companion” plant, has many uses and many names. Along a sculpted river topped with scum, warblers disappear and reappear in native and non-native shrubs and branches. Brian Teare and Jonathan Skinner are talking about ecopoetics: the poems of Ofelia Zepeda, “emergency,” and Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. We stop to smell the sages and the yellow puffs of acacia.
The 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics began at a satellite event hosted by the Davis Humanities Center. Jonathan Skinner, editor of the journal ecopoetics, and author of among other books, Warblers, published by Brian Teare's micro-press Albion Books, sat at a table with his publisher and fellow-poet, whose most recent collection, Companion Grasses, will appear in print April 1. A selection of this same volume, “Transcendental Grammar Crown,” can also be found in the newly released Arcadia Project, edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep.
Skinner and Teare read from these and other poetic projects; and they presented portions of position papers they would give during the conference itself. You can find an edited version of Skinner’s paper, which he delivered on Friday at the conference’s Advisory Board Roundtable “What is Ecopoetics?” here. (Check back for a link to an audio recording of this full session, which also included statements by Forrest Gander, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Lynn Keller, and Michael Ziser).
While Skinner’s talk at Davis provided a overview of how the theorization of ecopoetics has evolved over the last thirty years—from works like Michael McClure’s Scratching the Beat Surface (1982) or Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild (1990) to more recent critical projects like Jed Rasula’s This Compost (2002) and the ecolanguage reader (2010) edited by Brenda Ijima—Teare directed his paper toward questions about a “poethics” of “care”: how does our language care for the world without “taking care of it,” a phrase which, as Teare pointed out, can mean both tending to or doing away with, as in take care of this ailing animal by shooting it.
Teare talked about the enormous “pressure” placed on ecopoets to get it right, both because the stakes are so high, and because the medium in which they deal (language!) is necessarily muddled and slippery. His assertion that ecopoetics needs to embrace these inherent slippages of language resonates with Skinner’s idea of ecopoetics as a “boundary” site, a point of intersection and even interruption between habitats, an “ecotone,” which, he reminds us, designates not a “tone” but an edge. Skinner also encouraged a shift in thinking about the state of the environment from “crisis” to “emergency.” The difference being that “emergency” leaves room for the “emergence” of new forms—both biological and creative.
That was the reporting bit. Now for a little digressive reflection, spinning off at an angle. At one point in their conversation, Teare referred to a poem from Lorine Niedecker’s New Goose (1945) (p. 105 of Niedecker’s Collected Works):
Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham:
pay particular attention
to my pets, the grasses.
Asa Gray taught botany during the later half of the nineteenth century at Harvard; the Gray Herbarium houses his enormous dried plant collection at the same institution today. And Increase Lapham was one of Wisconsin’s (Niedecker’s home state) foremost naturalists. (Check out this incredible image of him seriously consulting a meteorite).
Teare brought this poem up to explain his own interest in relating to grasses as “companion species” rather than “pets," beings necessarily subjected to the care or mistreatment of their keepers. In contrast, companion plants operate in symbiosis with their environment, attracting or repelling particular insects whose behaviors—predatory or pollinating—are beneficial to the species, or by contributing or storing particular nutrients that may support the flourishing of other plants. The particular companionability of plants is something farmers can plan their fields around—planting nitrogen fixing beans alongside corn, for example, or mosquito ferns in rice paddies. But it’s also a way in which plants direct the contours of their own environments, regardless of human desires or concerns. (For more on plant “intelligence and attention” see Michael Marder’s website, with links to or pdfs of many of his articles; or check out his brand new book, Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life).
According to Jenny Penberthy, the editor of Niedecker’s Collected Works, the poet sent a longer version of this clipped poem to Louis Zukofsky in a letter (p. 376):
Great grass! The shoots Michaux
brought back to Philadelphia
by way of Bartram and known to Linné
bear Jefferson’s name.
Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham:
pay particular attention
to my pets, the grasses—
on these lie fame.
Here, the two naturalists extend into a full litany of impressive 18th and 19th century names, while the declamatory “Great grass!,” the concluding statement “on these lie fame,” and the one resounding rhyme in the poem between "name" and "fame," neither of which survive into Niedecker's final version, make what feels like bemused affection in the shorter poem—say hello to my little friends the grasses—into a more explicit connection between “attention” to (notoriously difficult to correctly identify) grasses and the elevation of naturalist careers. In other words, the longer poem makes the “pets” of the shorter poem, which Teare was already uneasy with, seem even more ominous: these grasses are here for your exclusive benefit, Oh men of science. Attend to them!
What distinguishes the “attention” that Gray instructs Lapham to “pay” to the grasses from the form of “attention” that ecopoetics hopes to cultivate? Joshua Corey concludes his introduction to the Arcadia Project with a call for poetry as an act of attention: “If it is not to be altogether delusional and vain, an anthology such as this one must be a living and motile assemblage of our best hopes for what poems can be: vessels of attention to the world and to language, attention at its most intense. To be present, with/in the world, with/in words, in active relation to the living (and dying) environment—that is the ordinary utopianism practiced by these extraordinary poems” (p. xxiii). (More reporting: Corey discussed this anthology during the conference as part of a panel, "Editing the Book of Nature," on recent anthologies of ecopoetics; co-presenting with him were Camille Dungy, editor of Black Nature, and Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street, editors of the Ecopoetry Anthology.)
“Attention at its most intense.” Both to world and to language. Could this acute attention convert us into companion species? Relieve grasses from being our pets and elevate any affection we feel for them into a form of attending? (What forms of nitrogen might poems fix?) Ecopoetics is necessarily utopic, even at its most humble (“If it is not to be altogether delusional and vain”); states of “emergency” require it.
But the attention that ecopoetics pays is also an attention to alterity, to ways in which grasses resist us and our forms of attention. In “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It?” Joan Retallack advocates for a “reciprocal alterity,” an application of contemporary poetry’s wildnesses to other wilds, a simultaneous unreckoning, a wrecking that is both shocking and pleasurable. These practices are “poethical,” by which Retallack means, “questing to know what can be known only by means of poetry, approaching what is radically unknowable prior to the poetic project, acting in an interrogative mode that attempts to invite extra-textual experience into the poetics somehow on its terms, terms other than those dictated by egoistic desires.”
Return to these grasses a bird. (Skinner in conversation with Teare.) Not a song bird, but a creature that speaks nonetheless. In another poem from New Goose (Collected Works p. 103), Niedecker spots a “monster owl.”
A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
Niedecker’s owl takes off from an Emersonian fencepost, the tripartite definition of nature Emerson gives in Nature (1836) (an equation that Teare also referred to in his talk): “1. Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of the spirit.” Here, the owl is not a sign but a monster. Not a monster but an owl. A sign of a sign. An owl an owl. Alterity leaves behind fences and flies in and out of the poem.
I referred at the beginning to the many common names of Achillea Millefolium. Among these, “blood-wort,” “woundwort.” It is known to staunch bleeding, soothe infections, and support the reproductive organs of women. It has appeared in legend: Achilles carried it to the battlefield and attempted to correct his draining heal. The beneficial distances of a “common” plant, sprouting in “waste” places through much of the northern hemisphere. This growth that is a stranger and a balm.
The poet's novel — what is it?
One of the first pleasures of exploring the poet’s novel is conversation with other writers on the subject. I’ve been collecting thoughts. With gratefulness to all who responded, I patch together in this commentary many borrowed insights. One thing I’ve noted is when asking if the poet’s novel exists, I am often answered with another question as to what I mean by the “poet’s novel.” Kevin Varonne wrote “do you mean a novel that poets like or feels poetic, or do you mean a novel-in-verse kind of thing?” My answer is yes, I am interested in exploring a full spectrum of what one could mean by the term.
Andrea Baker writes, “Cadence is on display. The narrative has an open endless.” I am fascinated with the brevity and compression of this response. Cadence is less rarely on display in prose. “Display” suggests a visual element, and cadence a musical concentration. So the poet’s novel is in a way this contradiction in terms. How does the visual aspect work? Juliana Baggott writes, “You find yourself reading paragraphs and thinking of line breaks — that’s the first clue you’re reading one.” The careful reading Baggott suggests is akin to the breathwork involved in reading poetry aloud. “The first clue” leads us back to a quality of attention. One could read anything mindlessly and miss the work entirely. In fact, I know from personal experience that it is possible to read a book mechanically while thinking completely unrelated thoughts. This is a skill I developed when compelled to read the same texts over and over again to young children. An attention quite opposite to that is required when reading a poet’s novel. The pause, breath, or “line break” between paragraphs is similar to slowing the speed at which one consumes anything desirable so as to linger. When reading a poet’s novel I find myself slowing not only in order to stretch out the reading process but to reconsider or absorb a phrase or sentence. This deliberate stumbling and stopping is an “open endless.” It takes you back, in the opposite direction of “finishing.” Poet’s novels are often texts which move in multidirectional modes simultaneously.
“Open endless” as a way to discuss narrative is also curious. Did she mean to say “endlessness”? An abruptness to “endless” and “open” leaves one stranded. I may be free associating here in ways Andrea did not intend, but it seems relevant to say that one can count upon a conventional novel not to be “open endless,” not to leave anyone stranded. A poet’s novel is less accommodating. The writer of a poet’s novel is less concerned about whether or not a reader feels invited. Narrative becomes a looming question or an undomesticated animal, in the sense that there is no expectation for neatness, action, linear movement or conclusion. Plot is not a motto affixed as a beacon or held aloft as ideal. One does not know what a squirrel, climbing in through your window and under the bed, will do. Instead, a reader listens.
“There is usually an attention to words that is beyond or slightly different from the attention to language one would expect with a literary novelist,” writes Laura Moriarty. The quality of attention to language is another aspect of the poet’s novel which is essential. A text may be written at the level of the sentence, the phrase, the word, or phoneme. In any of these units of composition, attention to language is heightened and foregrounded to the extent that language itself, the medium in which the form is pronounced, becomes visible as material. This is not true in most conventional novels, in which language can be translucent to the extent that a reader can forget it entirely.
Tyronne Williams writes, “To use Jakobson’s old distinctions, I think of poet’s novels as driven less by metonym and more by metaphor though the fact of the matter is that definition reflects merely my own prejudices.” A work that proceeds by metaphor must insist upon an “open endless” when it comes to narrative. One way to think of this suggestion is that the poet’s novel has an entirely different engine. Associative process often creates a work which is not discovered by the author until it is written. In other words, “writing is thinking” (Bhanu Kapil). And here we circle back to intent. Regardless of how a work is received, named, categorized or ignored, the intent of the author remains in some form, covers a work with fingerprints, even when that intent remains unknown.
Perhaps that last statement is paradoxical, but that will not be the last paradox on which to pound one’s head. I am apparently attracted to forms which require certain misdirected, complicated, even nonsensical or contradictory terms. Rachel Blau DuPlessis expresses this note with much clarity.
“Saying ‘poet’s novel’ evokes two very strongly tenacious words: a genre word and a practitioner word (novel/poet) that come bearing a veritable cornucopia of cultural associations and historical uses. These associations veer in different directions — narrative (perhaps even realist narrative) and person who specializes in the wifty and the lyric. Those, are, I mean, the first-thought ideological associations. Thus a ‘poet’s novel’ appears to be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Which makes it precisely like a prose poem — another 2 word phrase like a contradiction in terms.”
How would one illustrate an oxymoron? Leave it to poets to be drawn to such contradictions. Part of the project of writing a poet’s novel which is so appealing is this melding of opposites. It isn’t impossible, obviously, but it evokes the allure of the impossible. When I began to write my first novel the initial incentive was, can I do this? Entering a new form, embodying a new form, as a writer is an intoxicating, perhaps daring act. Still it is a dare which is safe, because one can rip it up, literally, or use it as a first step to the next mashup piece. But even more tempting to the poet is what I’ll call the vast sea of the novel. To have characters to talk to, and real or imagined landscapes to inhabit are both incredibly compelling. Yes, one can converse within or inhabit a poem, but a novel is generally more capacious and sturdy. A novel, even a poet’s novel, can give one the sense of a roof over one’s head, which is something that many poets have had to go without. For that reason alone it is not surprising that so many poets have succumbed to this contradictory form.