In a recent review of new collections by Corey Wakeling, Pam Brown and Lisa Gorton, Peter Kenneally identifies ‘a Justin Clemens appearance’ in Wakeling’s "Walk the Plank!". Pondering the inclusion, he writes:
Justin Clemens, in case you are wondering, is an academic, secretary of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, and recently has published a book titled Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy. Now that’s what I call an allusion.
Clemens is also a poet, and name-dropping has been ‘a thing’ in poetry ever since – and no doubt long before – Aurelius and Furius first dissed Catullus. Conversely, we’re all familiar with Pound’s advice to Eliot to replace the citation from the work of one of his contemporaries with a less-threatening classical reference. Elsewhere, poets work their poems so that they ‘tolerate a state of namelessness’, in the sense meant by Derrida. In “Unreading Kinsella: Dropping names and Revolutions of the Word in Syzygy,” Michael Brennan views the language of Kinsella’s text, with its resistance to simulation through the use of ‘enjambment, echolalia, coinings, parenthesizing and cacology’ (169), as that which unsettles, unnerves, even ‘unreads’ the reader (174). Many other Australian poets – Ken Bolton, Pam Brown, Duncan Hose, Ann Vickery, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan and dozens more – name-drop with a frenzied decisiveness. One of my favourite name-dropping poems is “Adventure at Sadies” by Ann Vickery for the way it hyperventilates the name:
Oscar remonstrates with Shklovsky and finds a
substitute in Ken Brown: what a gambler!
And as we drive back south, we become
part of the Great Tradition. Thanks Mum, thanks Dad,
thanks Pam, Ken, Laurie, and the whole damn gang—
Rae, Denis, Tom, Barbara, Micky, Kelen, Alan, Erica,
Kate, Leigh, Sal, and Kurt. (Ella, make a note!)
All of this would seem to indicate that in certain transient forms poetic communities can and do appear. When Justin Clemens appeared ‘near the Pelham Street renaissance’ recently, I persuaded him to share his thoughts on Australian poetry communities and the imminent release of his mock-epic, The Mundiad:
In a recent blog post for Australia’s longest-running literary journal (“Community: networks, nepotism and exclusion”), Ali Alizadeh wrote that ‘my experiences of our cherished ‘poetry communities’ ... suggest that the term is more often than not a warm and fuzzy euphemism for the signified of self-serving scenes, gangs and cliques which – in addition to being nauseatingly nepotistic, incestuous and partisan […] operate on the basis of what philosopher Jacques Rancière has described as “the problematic remainder that [the community] terms ‘the excluded’” (115-6).’ How does this accord with your understanding of the various Australian poetic communities you encounter? Could they operate in any other way? Is exclusion always a bad thing?
Well I basically agree with Ali’s description, which is constitutionally the case for community groups of all kinds. As such, we’re all in accord with Elias Canetti’s description of such groups as ‘the increase pack.’ I make a helpful guzzling sound here, like so: gugglegugglegugglegugglegargh. But actually, perhaps the biggest problem today is inclusion, not exclusion. Once you’re included today, you’re susceptible to a permanent escalating carrotization – in the sense of the ass-carrot-stick machinery – which is gonna rot your carotids, aesthetic or whatever, in a festival of total corruption. As for exclusion, I would therefore like to see more of it, extended everywhere to everybody: to date, I’m not convinced that anybody anywhere has actually ever committed themselves to enforcing a genuinely universal exclusion from all and any community whatsoever. Perhaps we all now need to get together to organise the universal exclusion of everybody? But this is where a variant of Russell’s paradox might cause us further problems. Take the community that excludes every community. Does it exclude itself or not? If it does, then it doesn’t; if it doesn’t then it does. Logical inconsistencies regarding the possibility of the exclusion of exclusion aside, it’s also true that there are many different kinds of community, which, if they do always entail the exclusion of others, don’t always simply do so on contemptibly low-grade forms of paranoid-schizoid splitting.
When I think of the various poetic communities that I know of and the ways in which they seem to convene and disperse along a series of circuitous trade routes, I think of the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, and his remarks on theatre – ‘There are moments of great melancholia when the fraternity involved in performing and staging breaks up.’ He likens this to the ongoing issue of separation in love in that ‘The community of love is also precarious, and you also need much more than a telephone number to sustain and develop it.’ Given that Badiou thinks that ‘every philosopher is an actor’, do you think it's possible also to say that ‘every poet is an actor’ and that a particular flaring up of poetic activity can be thought of as communal in the theatrical sense that Badiou is talking about?
This example from Badiou is particularly interesting in this context. Why? Because it gives a model of community that is based on an initial positive encounter, a structuring of the group in accordance with the necessity to live up to the challenges of that encounter – whose implications go beyond every individual concerned and by whose principles each seeks to change themselves and work together in a new organisation – with every participant knowing from the very beginning that an inevitable distressing dissolution is built into their practice in advance! So, the group of actors/director/technicians/assistants, etc., all meet; they discuss the text/performance in different ways; they rehearse together relentlessly, producing something new in that very rehearsal; which they then present publicly and repeat for the duration of the season (which may be very restricted in all sorts of ways, but no matter); they then depart on their separate ways. What’s crucial here is that the ‘meaning’ of what they did is unfixed; yet, even if the performance itself vanishes absolutely in a searing melancholy kind of way, on the basis of its having-happened (Badiou’s ‘great melancholia’) there are always now new possibilities for departure, encounter, transformation that have been opened up, new futures for all ... It is here that one might also add that a community is possible on the basis of the problematic excluded remainders of others.
You were invited to read your poems at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival and for a number of years you’ve been one of the judges of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize run by the festival and Arts Queensland. These and other poetic appointments would seem to figure you as oriented towards the mainstream in the world of Australian poetry and yet, to me, your poetic works operate as a number of differently positioned rheotaxic organisms in relation to just about any poetic stream I can think of – Ten Thousand Fcuking Monkeys, The Mundiad, Villain, Me ‘n’ me Trumpet, a series of mathematically generated works, and now a ‘massively expanded’ six-volume return to The Mundiad. What is going on?
The problem here is that I actually do still maintain some respect for all kinds of poetry, even the really lamentable conservative kinds; as long as I can really see that they’re working at it, I love it. That’s not so problematic in itself. What’s problematic is that, when I write, I end up twisting so spinelessly in the wind, my poetry may as well be by no-one. I may also have been over-influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who said: ‘I force myself into contradiction in order to avoid following my own taste.’
Why have you returned to The Mundiad? And what drew you to the mock-epic in the first place?
Recently I came home with my daughter from kinder. As we approached the front door, my daughter said: ‘That’s a funny smell.’ And it was. My daughter described it as ‘cooking meat but not really.’ Upon entering the house, we discovered my partner scrubbing the walls. ‘Whassup?’ we asked her. Apparently the cat had had explosive diarrhoea on the rug, and the splash-back had ricocheted up the wall to above head height. Later we let the accursed animal back in to the house, and it returned immediately, unchastened, to the spot at which it had previously unleashed its demonic bowels. I feel a bit like that about my poetry: returning convulsively to the scene of the crime, but without really knowing what it is I’m doing there or why I feel so unwell.
Narrative in the visual poetry of Satu Kaikkonen
Satu Kaikkonen is a prolific and protean poet from Finland. She writes that “I'm a storymaker and this is seen in the narrative aspects of my vispos. Each series is like [one] continuing poem and the individual vispos are its verses.”
In this commentary, I’d like to focus on two ‘verses’ from her Grey and Yellow Series: “Sisters” and “A Grandmother.”
The images are two vignettes or mises-en-scène. Chekovian tableaux in abstract space. A subdued grey background. A chair or two. One chair remains in the identical place. One is added or removed. Each image represents the same abstracted room-space. A poem–or verse of a poem–is a scene. A stage.
Each of these poems represents a sense of interpersonal relations as well as aspects of recalled personality. Bright yolk-yellow glyphs occur as elements within the scene but also serve as relational or framing devices. The images convey a pervasive mood or emotion. The sense of potential interaction: past or future. The images are both the schematics for dramatic scenes and hieroglyphic representations. Monochromatic glyphs and the photographic representation of simple objects on the same plain plane.
"Sisters" (above): Is this the portrait of two sisters, two sisters gathered together by parentheses as if in a locket, or in a single round room, each sister represented by the dot–each egg-like period sitting on a chair as if in conversation. Do these two dots belong to a set of three ellipses? Are the dots the actual sisters or do they stand in for the missing people? Is the notion of sisters metaphorical or is literal sisterhood being represented? The two ‘sisters’ are gathered together by the embrace of the parenthesis. They form part of a set. They fall within, are intimate or held together, bounded. Sisters within the same parenthetical womb.
And the comma? Is it an apostrophe: a possessive: “I’m”? Or does it represent a contraction, something missing or unsaid, unspoken: “Can’t”? Are the two items part of a list, two clauses? Whatever is happening, it’s relational. The two ‘sisters’ contextualize it. It is understood, unsaid, missing, elided, actively connective.
What is happening here? What story or interpersonal song is unfolding between the sisters? Is this before or after the important events? What happened/will happen/is happening?
And now, like playing a Tarot card in Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, we move to the next scenario, the next stanza. It is not specified which image is next. Any card may be played.
"A Grandmother": There is only one chair. Is this the eponymous grandmother? The chair is empty. Perhaps she is gone. This was her chair when she was alive. A bare lightbulb hangs balefully, not providing any light. It is surrounded by an O. An antique window? An old fashioned oval portrait of the Grandmother? A locket? A reminder of the past, of memory, of ancestors? Indeed, the entire scene appears within quotations. (Plain and homely quotation marks not ‘curly quotes’; exclamation marks without the exclamations.) Is the scene a quotation? A memory of the Grandmother, or something the Grandmother said? Does the Grandmother quote old sayings? Are the sisters reminded of this? Is the Grandmother one of the sisters and she thinks of the other sister(s)?” There is something lonely about this poem, the plaintive arrangement of visual elements: the grey, the barelight bulb, the empty chair. The matter-of-fact quotation marks–compare it to the zaftig apostrophe which hangs between the sisters.). Is there regret here? There is no warm world-like, womb-like embrace of parenthesis and their nourishing crescents of golden-yellow.
Here are two frames from a graphic novel, two words from an abstract rebus. Two movements from a musical suite. We might understand something of the mood, of a kind of interaction, of the interplay of form but we are left to draw our own conclusions. The striking elements are presented to us, but, as Viriginia Woolf writes of Chekov, “We need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
A conversation with Satu Kaikkonen
GB: You are a very prolific visual poet. You explore many different styles and techniques. One thing which is constant throughout most of your work is that you often create series which are variations on particular elements, for instance, glyphs, colours, techniques, or visual tropes.
SK: I usually do my vispos and asemics in series because I like to explore how the picture changes bit by bit, and how the meaning in it changes, but the main reason is that I'm a storymaker and this is seen in the narrative aspects of my vispos. Each series is like a continuing poem and the individual vispos are its verses.
I do two different kind of series: sometimes I use the same ”main background idea” (for example, the relationships between relatives like in the Grey and Yellow Series) and the vispos in the series are in same colors and they include some same elements, but every vispo is its own story. I make series that are from the same picture and I just change a little bit of something in it, so that the story continues.
GB: You use a mix of physical objects with texts. Sometimes fragments of paper, music scores, text (usually in Finnish) or photographs of objects.
SK: Although I usually work on the computer and my works are made mainly by the computer, I use music notes or concrete things like feathers, needles, shredded papers from the old books that I buy from the library's take-away shelf and all that kind of thing. And I often ”sew” or do ”crafty” things from the papers of the old books and then my husband and I photograph them and then I work with the photos and make the finished vispos with the computer. For example, "Paper Boats" ("paperiveneitä," see above) from the year 2009 is made like this.
GB: Colour is a significant aspect of your work. You create vivid images, often with an almost iconic use of colour, colours which seem very palpably present.
SK: I like to use strong basic colors at my works grey, yellow, black and red because they are visually arresting colors. I think that using only a few colors is better than using the entire palette.
GB: Many of your pieces have dedications and/or emotional content. And I don't know if you want to, or are comfortable to talk about this, but your articulation of grief, tragedy, and memory is profound. This in contrast to the delight, joy and sheer pleasure in invention and creation that is found in some other of your pieces.
SK: I'm a very intuitive and a sensitive person, and I think that you can see it from my vispos, because some of them which carry concrete memories of the events of my life. I think that my friendship with [poet and artist] Troylloyd and his disappearance has had a very large impact on me. And of course the death of my son. I'm just that kind of person–the memories and events just come to my vispos in a very intuitive way from my subconscious: I start to do something and then I notice that it became just something else other than what I first thought, because of that intuitive element of my mind.
GB: You often also explore single letters in your “letter poems,” and play with a certain repertoire of signs: large letters, a framework of polygons, icons such as pointing gloved hands, red yarn, punctuation.
SB: The letter vispoem are very important to me because through them I have tried to study those basic meaning that are hidden in the simple marks. If I change a little detail, the whole meaning changes and that's kind of fascinating thing. I think that I want to explore all different kinds of artistic and typographical terrain. I think that as a visual poet I'm a explorer of the language.
GB: I’d like to discuss reading your letter vispoem, "The Earth." To me, the parentheses form a planetary shape. The blue reminds us of the water of earth. The horizontal lines seem musical: the strings of a instrument or a musical staff, the blue dots like notes, or indications on a string instrument’s tablature. The ampersand? Currents of air or water, or representing the conjunction of life on earth. And the play of the curls of the ampersand with the blue dots and the straightness of the lines: a kind of visual analogue to rhythm. The whole thing seems like a music of the spheres with the entire image recalling a kind of zither/or ancient lyre. How do you see this?
SK: "The Earth" is a response to Stephen Nelson visual poem "Then & Now & Always." The parentheses are the Earth, they make the shape of our planet. And the things in it are we humans, and clean water and air (those most important elements which make our planet a place where we are able to live.) The blue color and the spots refer to that, and the ampersand represents the humans and the idea that we can not do things alone, we can only do things only together. That’s why the ampersand is in that position: we have failed, but not yet for ever. We have not finally failed, we will be able to make a change if we learn to do things right. The blue lines with the spots also make a musical staff with notes: the human voice, our existence, depends on how ”the nature makes its music,” how it breathes... something like that.
Satu Kaikkonen (23.8.1967) is a comprehensive school teacher, a poet and visual poet from Finland. Her works include traditional lyrics as well as visual & asemic poetry and sound poetry. She has taken part in exhibitions of visual poetry in the US, UK, Hungary, Russia and Finland, and her works have been featured in numerous poetry magazines, both Finnish and international. My works are also included in The Last Vispo Anthology 1998-2008. She has a vibrant and extensive online presence. Her visual poetry website is a good place to start.
Erin Moure spoke with Charles Bernstein in 2010 about reading, translation, and multi-lingual poetry — audio, 7 minutes long: MP3. Her long discussion with Bernstein, part of his Close Listening series, has recently been segmented. Moure also talks about her identity as a Canadian and living in Montreal, the importance of identity and nationality in reading a poem, on how sound as a texture operates in her work, among other topics.
The great 1994 anthology -- all 1136 pages -- now available as a $15 pdf.
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In 1960 Donald Allen published his ground-breaking anthology, The New American Poetry, which gathered some of the most important innovative poets writing since World War II, and helped Americans perceive a tradition that was different from the poetry of the 1940s and 1950s put forth by the American Academy in general, and by the New Critics in particular. The effect of this anthology has been staggering, and has helped to shape poetry since its publication. And since 1970 many readers have waited for another such anthology for the poets writing after Allen's contribution. Many anthologies have appeared, but either they have focused on particular groups of writers or have been too unfocused aesthetically to have the impact of The New American Poetry.
Working over the past ten years, Douglas Messerli has attempted to bring together some of these same issues and concerns, reiterating them into the context of United States and Canadian poetry since Donald Allen's collection. Like Allen, Messerli has organized his selection into somewhat arbitrary and non-rigid categories; but unlike Allen he has refused to "name" these in the concern (in the context of today's more eclectic and socially-based gatherings) that they will be misunderstood as actual "groups" or poets driven only by particular ideas or theories.
Messerli is the editor of "Language" Poetries, published by New Directions; and Contemporary American Fiction, published by his own Sun & Moon Press. He is also the author of four books of poetry, a film for fiction in poetry, and a play.
[24 November 1947 – 13 August 1948]
Translation from French by Jerome Rothenberg
The scene – a vegetable garden almost smack in its center a well.
four little girls singing – we’re not gonna go to the woods no more the laurel trees are down on the floor hey the beautiful babe will go pick them up then we’ll come out to dance hey just like they dance oh you sing dance & hug anybody you want
LITTLE GIRL I – we’ll open the roses with our sharp little nails & we’ll make their smells bleed on the crinkled up flames & the crinkled up games of our crinkled up songs & our pinafores colored in yellow blue & purple & crinkled up too. And we play that we’re bad & we’re hugging each other it’s mad & we’re letting out horrible cries.
LITTLE GIRL II – mama mama come out & see Yvette wreck the garden Yvette burn the butterflies up mama mama
LITTLE GIRL III – go take your places wherever you want & burn the cock’s feathers & light all the candles the baby clothes hung on the old cherry tree – & wake up & I’ll tell you & untie the wings of the little dead birds in their cages their scatterbrained singing
the paisley prints on the sleeves of the dress on the pleats of the sky oh so high all fall down from the sky.
LITTLE GIRL I – singing – we’re not gonna go to the woods no more the laurel trees are down on the floor & the beautiful babe hey (she shouts) hey hey hey cause the cat has taken a bird from the nest in his mouth & he’s choking it now with his claws & dragging it back of the lemony cloud dipped in butter that melts on the edge of a wall that’s all bunged up with earth & a sun that’s covered with ash.
LITTLE GIRL III – oh that’s just too dumb
LITTLE GIRL IV – go take your places down by the flowers the knitting yarn trailing all over the garden & hanging its rosary beads up like eyes & the full cups of wine in fine crystal the organs we listen to short little arms pitterpatting the cotton wool sky from somewhere in back of the big rhubarb leaves.
LITTLE GIRL I – go take your places your places life’s wrapping me up my passion’s like chalk on my coat it’s in tatters & full of black ink stains that flow down my throat from the blind hands that seek out the mouth of the wound.
LITTLE GIRL III (hidden in back of the well) that’s it yes that’s it yes that’s it.
LITTLE GIRL I - II - IV – dumb dumb – you’re so dumb – you’re two times as visible there – yeah yeah everyone sees you – you’re totally naked & covered with rainbows. Go fix up your hair it’s on fire it’s starting to burn up the string of bows scraped on the tangled-up hairdo of bells licked clean by the mistral.
LITTLE GIRL III – that’s it – yes that’s it – that’s just it you can’t catch me alive & can’t see me – I’m dead.
LITTLE GIRL IV – don’t be such a jerk
LITTLE GIRL I – if you don’t come back we’ll climb up the lemon tree into its branches
we’ll live out our dramas in flowers & our dances in tears on a razor.
LITTLE GIRL II – we’re going to get you a ladder (they look for a long ladder & carry one in but have trouble standing it up)
LITTLE GIRL I – no she’s in back of the well – no she’s on the roof of the house.
LITTLE GIRL IV – she’s on the flowery branch upper left of the pear tree.
LITTLE GIRL II – I see her hand slice the little leaf’s wing tip making it bleed.
LITTLE GIRL IV – no it isn’t her there in front of the bronze stain the blast of the bugle onto the pane of the room upstairs boiling hot from their punches the blinded sun’s broken-up corners & feeling her way in the darkness.
LITTLE GIRL I – she’s crawling she looks like she’s searching between the wet leaves & the grasses a quick bite to eat then unwinding her arabesques colors & curves tiny gossamer threads.
LITTLE GIRL IV – do you want to come out here Paulette yes or no cause you bug us I ’ll go & tell mama you don’t want to play any more that you’re looking to make yourself special by changing yourself in a thousand weird ways into baskets of Japanese flowers.
LITTLE GIRL II – let them do what they like I’ll go & pick grapefruits I’ll eat them I’ll spit out the seeds I’ll wipe off my lips with the back of my hand & I’ll light the festoons of the lamps with my laughs with incomparable cheeses I beg you to take them I throw myself down at your feet & I sign myself very sincerely
LITTLE GIRL I – it’s so hard to be with you here on a nice summer’s day & it’s more & it’s more & more clear that you won’t let me play with what chronologically touches the lessons they shoved in our ears all winter in class
LITTLE GIRL II – we’ve got to leave her & not worry about her no more & she’ll …
[TRANSLATOR'S NOTE. While Pierre Joris & I were translating & putting together Picasso’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems (2004), I began a translation of Les Quatre Petites Filles, the second of the two full-length plays Picasso wrote in the 1940s. While there may be less razzle-dazzle here than in the better known Desire Trapped by the Tail, there was a pop, almost juvenile quality in the language, or in how I perceived the language, that I wanted to emulate in the version I was starting to transcreate. My sense of Picasso poète then & now was, contrary to Gertrude Stein’s dismissal of him, that what he offered was the real goods which his awesome reputation as an artist only tended to obscure. My own efforts only went this far until other projects of that time intervened and I lost track of what I had earlier begun. Some ten years later I came across the first several pages of the translation and with the ease of publication that the internet allows, I’m posting it here, both for the record & for whatever pleasure it still may bring. (J.R.)]