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Friday, March 16, 2012


After months of trying, I finally broke back into this blog. Thank goodness! While this has been lying dormant and useless, a number of you wrote gracious comments I couldn't respond to--I didn't even know they existed. I respond to each and every one below.

Also, I have started a new blog somewhat in the spirit of this one: This blog will go dormant, and I will repost some of what appears here at the new one.

It is associated with my new Internet journal, Altered Scale

Altered Scale contains videos by 
Purgatory Hill, led by Grammy-nominated Pat MacDonald; 
National Book Award Winner Nathaniel Mackey; 
an improvised piece by Charles Bernstein, U of PA Donald T. Regan Professor;
Nicole Peyrafitte, performance artist and chef;
Chris Funkhouser and his group grope uSurp;
Vernon Frazer,
and the Zacc Harris Jazz Band. 

All videos, and everything else in the journal, is used with the permission of the artist.

Also in the journal are 

Maria Damon—poet, scholar, U of MN Professor
Jonathan Brannen—poet & songwriter
Ann Bogle—fiction writer
John Colburn—fiction writer, poet, publisher
Elizabeth Burns—author of the novel Tilt
Terry Folz—poet
Greg Hewett—poet & Carleton College Professor
Sun Yung Shin—Asian American Literary Award winner for poetry
Sarah Fox—poet & publisher
Nate McCay—poet & reading series curator
Mark Wallace—author of The Quarry and the Lot
Wang Ping—poet, fiction writer, photographer, MN Book Award Winner
Oscar Sparrow—English performance poet
Chris Funkhouser—NJIT Professor
I am getting a little tired of typing names, so here are the rest without the little bios (no offense intended)

Larissa Shmailo, Sheila E. Murphy, Grant Grays, Peter Ganick, Felino A. Soriano, Terry Folz, Hoa Nguyen, Greg Hewett, Sun Yung Shin, Bruce Holsapple, Sara Brickner, Geoffrey Gatza, Jill Chan, Nate McCay, Gail Lukasik, Heather Fuller, Colin James

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Meditating Cougar

The meditating cougar didn't bother
with the elk when it shuffled by
so close and easy, so available;
it did simply nothing, seeing and hearing
nothing, eyes unfocused and ears
not discerning, a world gone soft,
soft. The meditating cougar may turn
its head to look not here, to hear not
there, with no wondering available,
a full stomach and a mind hidden
and supple, muscles thick and relaxed.
An old beaver died for this meditation.
Perhaps it is worth it. The day's were
numbered. And now the cougar becomes
so much more than its pettiness,
sitting quietly beyond simple earthly
wishes, doing its thing, after satiation.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

DOUBLE OR NOTHING by Raymond Federman (published in 1971)

Go here to get a sense of what this book looks like. Since it needs to be seen to be believed, don't skip this step.

The novel is a typescript in which each page is conceived of as an object and typed differently. Federman may even on occasion have used freehand ink lettering or stencils. (See page 9.) It is a classic contemporary novel, one of the landmarks of meta-fiction, where the author reflects on the making of the fiction as the book is made.

The 18th-century's Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne is an early, if not the earliest metafiction, in that it spins its wheels obsessively focusing on details before the putative beginning of the story so as to almost not get there. Federman's book is similar. It follows an author getting ready to lock himself in a cheap motel room for 365 days with a typewriter, noodles, cigarettes, sugar, coffee, and a few other things in order to write the story of a character he initially calls "Boris" who comes to the U.S. from France after WW II.

The book, however, only speculates about what the author will write or might write about "Boris." He never actually commits to a story, though he does spin a lot of potential story lines that are quite interesting to follow. And it spends an equal amount of time speculating about the daily needs of the author in his motel room. He even worries about how weird it will look when he carries in the dozens of toilet paper rolls he has computed that he needs.

Complicating all of these (playful) complications is the fact that, if you know anything about Federman, you will realize that Boris' "biography" is remarkably similar to Federman's. Both are Jewish and from families who were massacred in the Holocaust. Both are French. Both come to America after the war.

Federman, of course, also shares biographical details with the author. Most importantly, both of them write books. Both of them are also gamblers ("double or nothing"), although the reader would have no way of knowing this.

This book has been written about extensively, and I will probably not contribute anything to this discussion. This post is more about my coming to terms with the book, and I welcome you to come along if you like.

There are five levels of self-conscious play in this book:

1. The typescript - Each page is an object unto itself. It is not simply a transparent window pointing us to the action. At times, we don't even know where we are to read next. This forces the readers to not only help to create the very page, but to encounter the pages not as media but as made. This entails that Federman's book does not stand between the reader and the story, conveying the story to the reader, but is story. Every page is a chapter unto itself, and we encounter it in its singularity, and come away having been at least challenged, maybe rattled, maybe laughing.

2. The character of Boris - Federman refuses to make him a "character." Rather, he is the making of the making of a character. My guess is that Federman believes that fictional "characters" in novels do not resemble human beings. Rather, they are functions of the larger structures and issues at play. He chooses to make this self-consciously and explicitly clear by going no further than suggesting ways to develop Boris. In this way Boris is always at play, always at limbo, always not closed off. The way traditional novels make characters feel "real" is, paradoxically, to round them off, i.e. to close them off, rather than to leave them open, which is the human orientation toward the future. With the future closed off, literary characters are just not people at all. Boris, in all his unfinishedness, is closer to a person, even though Federman keeps reminding us that he, Federman, can make him do whatever he wants.

3. The third level of self-conscious play is between Federman's biography and Boris's. Federman gives us enough teasers to make it clear that the novel is semi-autobiographical, yet at the same time he doesn't spell out the differences, except in a few hilarious places, generally when he claims he wasn't as shy as Boris. We become voyeuristically curious about Federman. What is true? What is not? He is such an interesting raconteur that I find myself much more curious about the gap between fact and nonfact in his writing than in, say, Jack Kerouac's.

4. The author - The author is perhaps the most interesting character in the book. Why doesn't he sit down and just get writing? Why does he spend pages and pages itemizing how many rolls of toilet paper, boxes of noodles, tubes of toothpaste, etc. that he will need to write his book? And why does he keep rewriting the book, or going back to the beginning? Is the author supposed to be someone operating with traditional assumptions about writing but too honest to go through with them? Does he sense on a visceral level the falsity of those traditions? Is there something else that can account for his obsessiveness, both about the things of his daily needs and Boris?

5. The fifth level is the most obscure. It is the play between the author and the writer, Raymond Federman. While he doesn't leave the same teasers about the similarities between him and the author as he does between himself and Boris, we nonetheless can't help but speculate. Things are not as voyeuristic because Federman does not give us enough details: This is a more abstract connection, or disconnection as the case may be. Here, the play seems most uneasy and even haunted, the obsessions are so overwhelming, the concerns so seemingly unimportant. I am not sure Federman gives us enough information to explain this obsession, other than the one I offered earlier, it is an anxiety borne of a visceral recoiling from traditional narrative. And given that traditional Western narrative led, in part, to WWII and the Holocaust, can you blame him?

This book is a made object, asking us to do with it what we will, but refusing a closure that will allow any simple reading. All literature can, of course, withstand multiple readings. But not all literature intentionally creates the playful circumstances for multiple readings. What I've looked at today is one way of going at it. It offers a structure. There are undoubtedly others.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


stretching the edge
of sometime
and drizzling down the
commuted statement —
almost anyone forgot
her exact debt
and the world slightly
crumbled on her

bending the given
of thin
and coming down on the
questioned core —
someone surrendered
his assigned place
and his status
ever so slightly curbed

crawling under the roofs
of anywhere
and dressing down the
extra ones —
strangers peeped out
of almost all
places and their lives
seemed almost cheap

cycloning the fence
of hazard
and wishing down
the segment of core —
a shadow whipped
out a weapon
that was a
mere shadow too

monkeying on the bars
of nowhere
and hoping for somewhere
to materialize just for you —
the words end here
but not the bite
the momentum

Monday, March 14, 2011


I hesitate to write about this book of poems because it is in large part about a mother's bodily response to childbirth and its aftermath. "Lochia" is post-partum vaginal discharge that continues for about three to four weeks after birth. "Hecate" is goddess of motherhood, among other things. I chose to write about it because I write about almost every piece of literature that I read and like, and it is an extraordinary book. I'll do my best, but I encourage you to check it out.

The poems in this book address a certain knot of concerns from a number of different angles. Namely, how does the body of a particular post-partum woman encounter and participate in the degradation of the environment through pollution, war, economics, and politics?

The very first poem places us right in this knot: "Up nursing     then make tea / The word war is far." This fascinating couplet claims that war is far from the concerns of this nursing mother, yet her bringing the topic up proves that it's not too far. The poem ends by asking "Why try / to revive the lyric". The book then answers this question: to get this female knot of concerns into the tradition of the lyric.

Four poems from the book can be found here. "Thinking of Bernadette" (I assume Bernadette refers to poet Bernadette Meyers) opens with personal economic concerns. The poem asserts a nostalgia for the gold standard and bartering, and the first stanza ends with a comparison between money and a winding creek. Apparently, the poet feels insecure about money, that it's convertible and not stable. Her broken, hesitating, staccato lines magnify this issue. In this particular poem, her characteristic poetic style asks us to read the offhand ("thinking of Bernadette," "Ate ginger miso") with the crucial.

In "Pusa" Nguyen pulls together a wild variety of subject matter in just 12 lines. The poem is filled with phrases and clauses that do not connect to other parts of language. There's a kind of offbeat stumbling in her poetry that is, I think, akin to Thelonius Monk's music. How does she hold it together? I think the answer is primarily rhythm. You have to hear it, but when you do the poems move in an almost inevitable fashion. Anything can be in these poems, right next to anything else, because her style invites them in.

For more on this book see Stephen H. Sohn's "Effective Instability." His review does a fine job of focusing more particularly on specific themes than I do. I am more concerned with form.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What is There to Write?

I haven't blogged in a number of days because I didn't know how to approach a pressing topic: how do you talk about literature during times of political crisis? Does it make sense to do so? Is it obscene to do so?

Clearly, parts of the world are in political crisis. And, just as the late-60's became a time for protests throughout the world, we might be seeing the beginning of something similar now. This may be quite a decade we will live through. The Arab protests are one indication. The protests in Madison are another. People of all ages are proving their willingness to march, to stand up and be counted.

It's true that the phenomenon is not happening only among progressives. The Tea Party movement has proven it's appeal: the last election could be seen as a mandate for their calls for smaller government, fewer taxes, and so on. The degree to which it may also appeal to xenophobia is troubling.

My point seems to be that we stand at a political crossroad. Will the moderates and swing voters see the Republican party for what it is, namely, the political wing of the upper classes? Will their anger and frustration be captured by the Tea Party? Apparently, a teacher in Wisconsin voted for Walker in the last election and now felt "betrayed." My sense is that she had a distorted view of the Republican party.

Now things are clarified. The fake phone call in which Governor Walker thought he was talking to a corporate leader proved it. (The ethics of the phone call having taken place I will leave aside.) He admitted to using a "budget crisis" as a pretext for union busting.

What's the alternative? As many have pointed out, the Democratic party has become a wing of the business party as well. They are just a kinder, gentler wing. And this makes all the difference. As the parent of a severely disabled child, I feel directly the difference between Republican and Democratic lawmakers. When the Republicans took over the Minnesota assembly a few years ago a representative was quoted in the paper as saying that we should not be funding every charity case in the state.

By "charity case," he was, of course, referring in part to children like my daughter. The monthly amount we had to pay to keep her in a group home doubled.

Now, the democratic governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, wants to severely cut services to the disabled. If passed by the Republican assembly, his cuts will be draconian. Perhaps, as some have said, the Democrats are the political wing of the business class, only they use a kinder, gentler rhetoric in order to do the same thing as the Republicans.

My sense is not that the corporate interests are completely consolidating power. It's true that those sectors of the culture that oppose it — intellectuals, unions, the Democratic party (sometimes) — have weakened markedly. But they have not gone away.

Let's hope that the protests in Madison are not an isolated final flicker before the corporate state takes over. I hope that power in America waxes and wanes, and that there will be a pendulum shift that will allow the country to once again become a more compassionate, progressive place.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"The Discursive Situation of Poetry" by Robert Archambeau

In this essay, "The Discursive Situation of Poetry"in The Monkey and The Wrench, edited by Bissinger and Gallaher, Robert Archambeau  comes to the somewhat startling conclusion that "historically, the conditions under which poetry becomes widely popular are not conditions we should seek out." The two conditions Archambeau identifies are Victorianism and the expression of oppressed peoples toward their government.

In the former case, Victorians used poetry as a sort of moral guide. With an insecure rising middle class who needed instruction on the values and expectations of people of stature, poetry played an invaluable role. Perhaps Tennyson is the perfect example of this poet.

As far as the latter condition goes, Archambeau goes into little detail other than to reference the Celtic Revival in Ireland. However, it is not difficult for us to extrapolate. In many movements for liberation, from China to Africa, poetry has played various roles in the fight for human dignity, from agit-prop to the creation of counter-traditions such as the Francophone Négritude poets.

How does Archambeau see poetry working within U.S. culture at the present time? Primarily as academically credentialed professors writing for others with such credentials. He views this as a rather dry and less colorful extension of Bohemia artistry, where the market could not handle all the art being produced so groups of artists began to produce it for themselves.

How might this situation change? Archambeau seems particularly skeptical about boosterism and publicity. Instead, we need to look at wider social/historical forces impinging on the academy. And the most important one right now is "the encroachment of market values on the previously semi-autonomous academic system." (He takes this idea from Frank Donoghue.) The humanities may be the least well placed educational arenas to defend their utilitarian benefit.

Archambeau says that these changes will bring about a new historical condition for poetry, and we can hardly predict the form it will take. He also seems pessimistic about our ability to direct this movement in any significant manner. (I personally do not want to see poetry lose its foothold in the universities and colleges.)

This provocative article seems convincing on a number of levels. Of course we would not want to live in a society as cruel as Victorian England or as repressive as those suffering under a dictator or one party rule. Having poetry being popular is too big a cost to pay.

But I wonder at the dichotomy that Archambeau sets up:
poetry in a free society is unpopular as poetry in an unfree society is popular.

I profoundly disagree with Archambeau. Poetry is hardly unpopular in the U.S. today. The form of poetry that involves sophisticated words placed on a page, usually with line breaks, to be read quietly alone or to a quiet crowd, that form of poetry is not popular.

But song lyrics are wildly popular. And they are poetry: "lyric" poetry and song "lyrics" come from the same root. The fact that there are a lot of bad pop, rock, rap, country, and blues lyrics does not mean the poetry is bad. Any type of poetry needs to be judged by its finest examples. And there can be no doubt that some of the finest lyrics today serve as good performance poetry. This argument is not even out of the mainstream. The Anthology of Rap recently came out with Henry Louis Gates giving his imprimatur in the form of an afterword.

So the issue is not that we have stopped liking poetry. We have just stopped liking the type of poetry that is read silently or unaccompanied. Why is that? One is because technology has allowed us to. We now have stereos to play the lyrics accompanied by the spectacle of song. In Bryon's day, would his poetry have been sung over synthesizers, beats, and guitars if recording were available?

Old technologies rarely leave when new ones arrive. They just adapt. Wagon rides, after the advent of tractors and cars, switched from a simple necessity to a special celebratory activity, usually during the winter. Scrolls also are still around, centuries after Gutenberg, but they serve an ornamental rather than a utilitarian purpose. Newspapers will still be around for years, in spite of the internet.

What poetry represents, then, is a backwater technology, a nostalgia. The question becomes, if we feel compelled to write poetry, what can we do with this nostalgia? And here is where things get interesting. We could give in to just using it as tradition and allowing the nostalgia to completely overcome us, to become the poetic equivalent of gleeful wagon rides. Or, because poetry is nostalgia, it is not tethered to markets, nor is much expected of it, allowing it to become a sort of free-floating entity if we develop it in that direction,

This, then, becomes a paradoxical argument for experimental poetry, saying that its very nostalgic uselessness is what gives it its most power. What is this power? Here I come back to Archambeau. It is a Bohemian power where people who have, for whatever reason (academia, friends, curiosity, having come across a book in a bookstore or a poem on the internet), been drawn to this free-floating nostalgia and accept its marginalization, while at the same time taking the writing quite seriously.Why take it seriously? Because it is freeing to write and to read. It loosens assumptions and causes beliefs to dance before our eyes, making us ask if we want to continue believing them.

So people have not drifted away from poetry. The means of production simply allow it to be delivered in a more spectacular manner. This causes the marginalization of what we have traditionally termed poetry, words sitting on the page to be read quietly. This marginalization creates a kind of nostalgia to be associated with this poetry that can free poets from most any tethers when it comes to writing, thereby allowing them to experiment freely.

One word of caution: how do you convince a politician or academic administrator to fund difficult, exploratory poetry that few people read?