After a dozen years of the Kelly Writers House - which I like to think of a learning community with a poetics - there are a few things that Writers House-affiliated students do each year that just thrill me, keep me going, make me want to put still more effort into this literary-communitarian project. One such moment has already happened this academic year. Kaegan Sparks, a spunky aesthetic Texan who's absorbing avant-garde energies like a sponge, dressed as the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven for Halloween.
I've long been a fan of the Baroness - as writer but still more as a figure, a modernist personage. In being what she was (or posed to be - same difference), she performed the modernist word. My English 88 course/site includes a page that serves as a quick (very quick) history of early U.S. poetic modernism. If you go to that page and scroll down to the section entitled "'Talking about things that are understandable only weighs down the mind': modernism at extremes" you'll see links to materials by and about the Baroness, including a famous excerpt from William Carlos Williams' memoir, and several audio clips of people reading about the Baroness, and also a link to scans of photographs from the Fall 2002 Fashion of the Times issue which featured a model modeling what the Times at least considered a 21st-century version of dada style.
It's possible that Kaegan got her idea for her costume from these photos, but I rather think she held more closely to the original dada that did the Times. Don't you? Well, no matter: it's the spirit of the thing that counts, for sure.
The Baroness cut the most compelling modernist figure. She literally wore New York dada, thus inventing it as a pattern of aesthetic costume to be worn so tight that it was her skin, her self. She was, as Irene Gammel puts it in her remarkable biography, an "assemblage of paradoxes embodied in one body." That the Baroness knew and inspired or inspiringly repelled nearly everyone associated with the rise of modernist practice in New York has been already part of the story, but it has never been so richly detailed. In Gammel's presentation the Baroness emerges as far more than an ingenue. She became a mature, self-conscious dynamic artistic force--and remarkably productive in her own right, not despite but because she exhausted herself up from the inside out.
I think quite a lot about the headiest days of what was then called "the internet revolution" - roughly 1996-1999. This slightly predates the bursting of the economic tech bubble, and when I think about the era I mean I'm only half-certain that what I'm thinking about coincides with economics so much as broad and nearly messianic hopes. At the same time there was a good deal of concern, typically expressed on the political left, about the gap between segments of the U.S. (and sometimes of the world) that had some way to connect to the internet and those that did not. This was and still is called "the digital divide." But have you heard about the digital divide lately. Not much--as least for the U.S., Europe and northeast Asia. That's in part because so many urban and rural schools have gotten access, and because connectivity is available in many public buildings and generally because the price of computer hardware has gone down.
In 1999 a report on the digital divide was issued. I linked it to my web site then and it got a good deal of response. Toward the end of this report - mostly a dull piece of writing - there was a list of several hopeful communal and even communitarian digital projects. One little section today seems both very relevant and also quaint in its tone, diction and word choice. Geez, it's only '99 - not long ago. And yet this little paragraph seems to come from another era. Here's a phrase: "public transit for the information highway." The little section of the long report is called "Public Transit For The Information Highway," and here it is:
Blue Line TeleVillage -- a project in Compton, CA developed by Los Angeles consulting firm Siembab Associates with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority -- is as a non-commercial network access center (NAC) that was strategically created to simultaneously reduce environmental pollution and provide community groups with access to high-tech digital broadband networks. Blue Line TeleVillage is located near the center of community activity and is close to bus and train lines. According to Walter Siembab of Siembab Associates, NACs can transform urban communities by making them more sustainable environmentally and commercially. By adopting this policy -- which he calls public transit for the information highway -- NACs can be positive examples of good-quality neighborhood or village life.
Siembab Associates, a very good planning firm, issued a "final report" on this project, by the way. It's 125 pages and available as a PDF file. (I've read about 40 pages of it. Am I a little insane? Don't answer that, please.)
Up with literary history!
A while back, Mark wrote this: "Maybe I’m just expressing my hankering for informative literary history that is able to synthesize large amounts of data, and to draw the sorts of connections that one doesn’t get merely from reading the poets’ books and the poets’ biographies – Alan Filreis’s book on Stevens in the 1930s, for instance, which not merely changes one’s view of WS, but rewrites the entire landscape of 1930s American poetry. There has been no even half-way decent overview of post-war American innovative poetry that can compare with the various histories of modernism out there."
And here's a paragraph from Mark's paper, "Blood to the Ghosts: Biography and the New Modernist Studies" - delivered at Cornell in October 2002. Thank you, Mark!
The ideological bases of "high" modernist poetics, poetics which for so long were taken as self-evidently heroic ruptures with fin-de-siècle stasis, have been examined in unprecedented detail and sometimes subjected to withering critique, as in Gilbert and Gubar's No-Man's Land, Peter Nicholls's Modernisms: A Literary Guide, and Raymond Williams's posthumous The Politics of Modernism. And the writings and ideological commitments of the canonical modernist poets have finally begun to receive adequate historical contextualization. Literary scholars have rarely written about "The Waste Land", The Pisan Cantos, or Auden's "Spain, 1939," without at least nodding towards historical context, but those nods were often exceedingly perfunctory. Far more detailed, careful, and revelatory are Alan Filreis's work on Wallace Stevens, for instance, or Lawrence Rainey's on Ezra Pound. Filreis's two books, which examine Stevens's career during the 1950s and the 1930s, have demolished once and for all the image of that poet as an ideologically detached contemplator of reality and the imagination. Rainey's Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture has demonstrated not only the idiosyncratic, ad hoc, and ideologically motivated routes and methods of Pound's appropriations of Italian Renaissance culture, but how Pound criticism has in its turn largely overlooked or ignored those idiosyncracies and ideological motivations, implying instead that Pound simply drew upon some monumental, homogeneous archive of "true" history. MORE...
What exactly was it that they didn't tell him? And how would he know the answer to this question? By looking at the glint of the sun off his weddding band. Is this another instance of Make love, not war?
The second show in my new podcast series, "PoemTalk," features a lively discussion about Adrienne Rich's poem about the Iraq War, called "Wait." The recording of that show is now available. Please have a listen and let me know what you think.
We are hoping to bring Wystan Curnow to Penn in the fall of '08: poet, art critic, curator, maker of beautiful exhibit catalogues, editor of the most important anthology of essays on New Zealand literature.
Wystan Curnow was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, the son of the noted New Zealand poet, Allen Curnow. Wystan studied English and History at the University of Auckland, and took his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Back in the USA, Cancer Daybook, Castor Bay, and, most recently, Modern Colours.
Of Cancer Daybook he wrote: "I should say the first of these poems had at the time of their composition a peculiar purpose: that of distracting a disease. On a day to day basis, it seemed best to delay their publication as a volume until such time as that purpose had been well and truly served."
In 1998 Curnow brought out a stunningly beautiful retrospective catalogue of the life and work of Imants Tillers, the Australian visual artist, curator and writer. Tillers has exhibited widely since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at important international exhbitions such as the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1975, Documenta 7 in 1982, and the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986. Since 1981 Tillers has used his signature canvasboards to explore themes relevant to contemporary culture, from the centre/periphery debates of the 1980s, to the effects of migration, displacement and diaspora. Most recently, his paintings have been concerned with place, locality and evocations of the landscape. For his catalogue of Tillers' work, Curnow wrote substantive new art-critical prose, focusing on Tillers' great work, The Book of Power.
Curnow is also a writer of short stories, and in 1971 won the Katherine Mansfield Award for fiction.
At the time Essays on New Zealand Literature was published (1973), as we learned from the dustjacket: "Dr. Curnow is married with four children. He lives in Birkenhead and has a good view of the sea."
If we are able to bring him to Penn during the fall term of '08, Curnow would be given workspace at and use as a home base the Kelly Writers House. Students in Al Filreis' and Charles Bernstein's courses on modern and contemporary poetic and poetics would study Curnow's work, meet with him both in and out of the classroom. Students in poetry writing workshops (through the Creative Writing Program) would receive from Dr. Curnow commentary and guidance on their own poems. The students in Kenneth Goldsmith's experimental writing workshop, called "UnCreative Writing," would work closely with Curnow on their projects. All the while, events - a grand public reading, informal lunchtime workshop, recordings of Curnow's poems for PennSound (in front of a live audience) - would be on the Writers House events schedule. Students in Fine Arts and Art History will participate in any and all of these events, as woudl faculty, staff and students associated with the ICA. Finally, Curnow would be featured on two episodes of the ongoing poetry podcast, "PoemTalk," which is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Poetry Foundation of Chicago.
 Wystan Curnow PennSound page
 review of 2001 Venice Biennale
 Writing History on the Margins: New Zealand
 three poems in Jacket 2006
 "Matisee Asleep"
 "High Culture Now! A Manifesto
 Best New Zealand Poems
 review of Curnow's Imants Tillers and the Book of Power