Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Ear Eve all. Before I go out, get shitty and begin wandering the streets screaming “WHY?”, I’m gonna write about music rather than poetry in honor of this special occasion.

W, my dear old friend who lives with B and I gave me the double CD reissue of CROOKED RAIN, CROOKED RAIN by Pavement for xmas. Were it not for Pavement, I don’t think I’d have made it out of my teens, and CR CR was the first Pavement album I bought, right when it came out. It’s planted firmly somewhere at the base of my sense of self. This reissue, which came out in 2004, and which includes things from singles (many of which I had), unreleased songs, and some early versions of things that made it on WOWEE ZOWEE (their best album) and BRIGHTEN THE CORNERS (their last good album), is something of a revelation. It sent me back to my other Pavement records, to the second Malkmus solo album that a friend burned for me, and to the record store where I bought TERROR TWILIGHT (their last album, which is not so good, save the last song, “Carrot Rope”), the first Malkmus solo album, and the new 7” by Cat Power, which is really fucking exciting.

Malkmus’s lyrics certainly share the fragmenting tendencies of contempoetry, and it’s not surprising that his cohort David Berman of the Silver Jews has also become a successful and well-regarded poet. Anyway, I’d never forgotten how good this music is, but I didn’t realize how good it could be to me right now.

TERROR TWILIGHT, which I’d heard when it came out, though I thought I was over Pavement then, is something of a disappointment. I remembered not thinking much of it years ago, and I don’t think it’s going to open up for me very much right now. The two songs by Cat Power on the 7” are a little preview of her upcoming album, called THE GREATEST, are both stunning. I gather she went into the studio with a band of Memphis pros. After MOON PIX, it seemed like everyone thought she was on the downhill slope. I really liked YOU ARE FREE, which has a number of really beautiful and haunting songs. The new music is as dark and moody as ever, but, with the tight backup band, has a power and thickness to it that her sound often lacks. I’m excited as hell for the rest of the record.

Haven’t gotten to the Malkmus solo yet.

Well, I’m off to hit the bottle. I hope everyone has a lovely time celebrating.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Reading a strange and wonderful forthcoming book by Yannick Murphy, due out this spring from McSweeneys. From what I gather, Murphy is a native New Yorker transplanted to California. Knopf published her first collection of stories in ’87, and she followed up with a highly regarded novel from, I think, Mariner. I haven’t gotten to check these out yet, but I will. She tends to write about families from the perspectives of children, who, it would seem, afford her access to a kind of nieve insight adulthood precludes. Her prose is strange, keeping the looping language at the forefront of the action, somewhere between stream-of-consciousness and standard first-person narration. Her work is not unlike Stephen Dixon’s (Mcsweeney’s has done one of his books and has another on the way). There is certainly a kinship there. It seems like Murphy’s been off the map for a few years, and I think this new book HERE THEY COME will make for a triumphal return. McSweeney’s loyal, built-in audience, and lovely book-objects, won’t hurt either. Here’s a stunning sample:

“We are cold at night. We sleep with sweaters on and hats. The cats claw at our faces, they want to get under the covers too. We let them in and keep our heads under the covers, breathing in what the cats breathe out.”

There’s also a stunning scene about an apartment evacuation due to a fire out back, which I read today, and which is very apropos as my toilet flooded this afternoon, drenching much of the building.

I wonder, is there a fiction blogging scene? Do story writers yammer on about the process and progress of their art like we do? A lot of the young fiction writers I know hardly seem to read anything. That’s not quite fair, but there isn’t anything resembling the dialogue and community that poetry has seemingly always engendered. Perhaps the issue is money: maybe when your art pays, you don’t need friends. Then, of course, most of the poets I know are voracious readers of poetry, fictions, nonfiction, cookbooks, anything with words on it. And often poetry is the least of their preoccupations. Why do poets read so much? That’s a rhetorical question—the answers are both too multiple to describe and too obvious. Point being, it’s a shame not to have access to a dialogue about young fiction the way we have one for poetry. If anyone knows anything I don’t, please chime in.

It was a long day. Playing catch-up at work with the backlog from last week’s transit strike. B is away for the month and I’m finding myself tired at the end of the day and more than willing to enjoy a lazy, quiet night at home. Blogging, writing letters, whatever, amount to nice ways of reclaiming my brain from a day of somebody else’s business. I don’t have too much trouble with the notion of splitting time between a day at work and moonlighting as a writer—I really couldn’t handle it when I was teaching and drowning in free time. I did just that: drown. But there must be a better way to pass those eight daily hours so that I don’t come home feeling pillaged. But I guess if there was a better way, somebody would have found it by now and suggested it to the rest of us. Perhaps they already have. If you need me, I’ll be in the self-help isle.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I don’t think I have it me to provide an adequate response to Seth Abramson’s post, The Sociology of Poetry, or Joshua Corey’s response to it, each of which is impressively thorough in its argument. I can say I empathize with Corey’s points more. I don’t see any chaos, which is Abramson’s refrain, in the national poetry scene. I see a bunch of different people each of whom is doing his or her own thing, trying to fulfill the needs of an obsession. That’s as chaotic as any other human endeavor, but I wouldn’t call it chaos—if I let myself term all human endeavors as chaos I don’t think I’d be able to handle things.

I like Corey’s image of different currents or streams. They meet up sometimes; they diverge; and there are some, in which certain poetic traits or characteristics or habits are prevalent, that are wider, more visible, stand out on the map, at any given moment. For instance, I don’t think it’s very controversial to point out that poetry with an intellectual or heady bent, with a focus on surfaces, with (and this is an abstract characterization, I know) a sharpness, in which emotion and “experience” is not foregrounded, tends to win the Iowa poetry prize, the now defunct Georgia prize, and tends to be published in Fence. But the University of Louisiana press is always publishing poetry in a confessional mode. I don’t see that as chaos; it’s just different things happening at the same time, and sometimes they overlap.

I guess my most powerful reaction to Abramson’s post is a feeling that the reading and writing of poetry begins and ends in a much more private realm than the one Abramson discusses. I’d like to believe that if any writer or reader of poems thinks back to how they got started, they would remember a need to find a place within the community they found in books, a community composed not of people but of poems, of artifacts of human imagination. Meaning there was something they needed that they (we, I) couldn’t get through interacting with actual people, whether that was an endlessly ongoing conversation, a distraction for an overly busy mind, or some verification that they were not alone. For me, and I imagine this to be the case for most folks, my private interaction with poetry and books in general comes before, supersedes, is ultimately more important than, any public interaction with the community of poets.

This is not to say I’m not ambitious and that I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about my “career” as a poet. I am constantly worrying over whether and wither I will place my poems, whether or not anyone is aware that I write at all, whether or not my poems are any good. But I see all of that thinking as an extension or projection or externalization of my own psychological hang-ups, insecurities, and desires. And I take solace in the fact that my own relationship to reading and writing will always be more about me than any public poetic front. And, generally, I believe it’s like that for everyone. In the end, no matter what happens with my career, I’ll always have my own relationship with poetry to sustain me. I try to remind myself of that so that I don’t become bitter and jaded in the face of competition and whatever comes between me and the realization of my ambitions, whether than means the fickleness of editors, my own shortcomings as a poet, or poetic politics.

I began writing book reviews in earnest a couple of years ago. Of course, when I started I was hoping to connect myself to magazines I liked, make some kind of name for myself, interact with favorite poets, and hopefully gain something out of the experience. But what led me to choose that method of participating, and what ultimately keeps me at it—because, honestly, it’s a lot of tedious work, it doesn’t pay much if anything, and I never know if anyone is reading the damn things, if they care, if they think I’m a moron—is that I really enjoy the opportunity to engage deeply with a book, to spend a lot of time with it, to answer the book’s language with language of my own. I always keep those duel motives—the ambitious and the personal—in mind. My fiancé, who is also a poet, often wishes I’d shut up about poetry, but I can’t (hence this blog); if I didn’t have poetry to think about, I’d be preoccupied with much grimmer and more counterproductive thoughts. Poetry is constantly saving me from misery.

As far as Silliman and Ashbery go, I don’t see what the worry is. From reading his blog, I don’t get the sense that he fancies himself a tastemaker. What I like so much about it is that it presents an extraordinarily astute mind, the mind of someone with a long history in various poetry communities, engaging with its own preoccupations. The Ashbery NYorker profile is interesting, but not to poets. What bugged me about it was the fact that it presented ideas and habits that are pretty common to all poetry-writing people I know as something unique and unusual. But I chalk that up to the New Yorker’s need to make a poet’s life palatable to its non-poet audience. And in terms of the Best American anthologies, part of the setup of the program is that the editor changes every year, and almost every editor wrestles with and debunks the word “best” in their introduction. That word is more a marketing ploy than anything else. Scribner needs to sell books. And we all know that judges pick their friends and students, that hiring is as much about politics as merit. I think it’s great that CLMP established a code that many contest sponsors are using to make their contest fairer. But that’s life, it ain’t fair, and, again, it’s nothing to loose too much sleep over. My point is that subjectivity, not chaos, is at the heart of poetry and the poetry community.

All of which is to say I don’t care much about how organized poetry is on a grand scale. I believe that, on average, poets are at it for good reasons. Poets are saving themselves and each other from being miserable bastards all the time. This may not be a very savvy way of thinking about it; it may be rather nieve or romantic, but it’s what gets me through the day. I share a lot of Abramson’s concerns, but when I get as frustrated as he seems to be, I return to my personal engagement with poetry and I’m grateful for it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Trains and Poetry

My posts on the transit strike struck a sour note on one blog. I was providing my subjective perspective on that particular day. Certainly I understand the argument being made against mine. And I feel somehow wrong not sticking up for the little guy. Of course, what, finally, does any worker have as leverage against his/her boss other than the ability to withhold his/her labor? The troublesome thing in this situation is that it’s not just the bosses who are affected. New Yorkers, and the inconveniencing of New Yorkers, were a part of the transit union’s leverage. We were a kind of bargaining chip in this scenario. The transit union meant us to blame the MTA for the strike, for forcing them to resort to striking. I suppose that makes sense, but it still left millions who had not power to help or hinder the strikers in the lurch. I think the union could have handled their PR better, perhaps done more to rally commuters to their side. I followed the reportage on the strike pretty closely, and still felt uninformed. Everyone, from the union Pres. to the MTA to Bloomberg and Pataki, just seemed hostile and stubborn. Not a good way to solve a problem in my mind.

I’m fine with having my argument refuted, but the thing that bugs me the most about the above-mentioned blog post is the person who felt that criticizing my musical tastes was a sound counter to my argument. I like Ani Difranco’s music, and have for a long time. Granted, her name carries some pretty silly associations, but she makes great music. I’m especially fond of the albums that feature the excellent band she put together at the very end of the 90’s. To anyone who thinks that’s lame, it’s your loss.

Anyway, on to the subject at hand: poetry. B and I spent the holidays with her family in AZ. For reading material, I brought along an interesting anthology from England’s Salt Press, VANISHING POINTS edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella. The book is subtitled “New Modernist Poetry,” making it an unusual take on the current state of experimental poetics. The editors want to draw a bold line from the high moderns to the present day. Mengham, in his introduction, claims that this selection of writers represents “a strand in recent poetry that has stayed in touch with the agendas of modernism; they are not postmodernist, but late modernist writers.” Both editors make the usual claims that their anthology represents experimental veins that other anthologists are too timid / unwilling to represent, which, given the truckload of recent anthologies of experimental poets, seem untrue and unnecessary. But, because the editors chose writers from many English-speaking countries, there are many interesting and surprising things to be found here. Alongside names that will be familiar to American readers, such as (recent )John Ashbery, Lisa Jarnot, and Peter Gizzi (who seems to have a strong following in England, for good reason) are a few less known American writers, such as Stephen Rodefer, who is my favorite find here, the author of cynical and slippery lines like these: “My future daughter or son / could undergo / a bone marrow transplant before birth / even if he she has my profile or not // I guess we know / how wonderful / life can be / at the end of the 20th century”. Also interesting is the English poet John Wilkinson, among many other notable inclusions. Overall, the tone is much more heady and hearty, perhaps too much so for my tastes. But I’ve been eager to get a look at the English take on experimental writing, and this book certainly offers a good view.

Alright, it’s late. I hope everyone’s had a lovely holiday so far. I did. Hung out with my hilarious soon-to-be niece and nephew, as well as the rest of B’s wonderful family. Now, with the trains running again, it’s time to head back to work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The transit strike continues through day two. I made my way back to work after two days off, one because of a pinched nerve, the other because of the strike. W and I caught a cab this morning near our apt. The twenty-minute cab ride took an hour. Imagine it: hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers (I don’t have real numbers on this, but it must be that many if not more) are underground on the trains at all times; today, they were all above ground today. Many stayed home, and so were off the streets, but many, many did not, and so they trudged through the swamp of other people to get to their jobs. Moreso than ever, the city is a human traffic jam. The streets, are of course, constantly filled as well: a parking lot that lurches forward from time to time.

Getting home was a bit more complicated. I got a cab at 24th street that took me to the Brooklyn Bridge. The driver, and I, felt that the bridge was too slow to make driving worth it. So I walked in the stream of thousands of other New Yorkers bound for home in Brooklyn. I kept my headphones on—I couldn’t deal with the sounds the world was making—and listened to In Utero and Ani’s To The Teeth. Strange to be suspended over the city with all those other people. As B pointed out just now while we were eating, this is one of those times when you feel a sudden solidarity with other New Yorkers who you usually do everything you can to ignore. When I made it to downtown BK, I walked to Court Street, where I caught another cab. All in all, it took about two hours to get here.

I’m aware that I don’t know much about the history of unions and the politics of striking. I’ve kept up to date with the Times and followed the strike proceedings as best as I could. But, at this point, the Transit Workers Union seems pretty selfish to me. It’s the interests of 37,000 people vs. the interests of 7,000,000. The city is pretty well crippled. I can’t justify it. Can they?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What to say about today? A pinched nerve (a lovely hereditary gift from my father, though he says it’s not hereditary, though that sounds suspicious to me) in my back kept me in the house Sunday and Monday. After planning to get back on my feet today, the transit strike gave me another enforced day off. I’m actually rather eager to get back to work. And the city seems a bit ghostly and panicked, sort of similar to how it felt during the blackout of a couple of summers ago. But there’s also a Christmas day vibe (I got that notion from one of the papers), as if everyone is at home eating turkeys. A strange feeling here in Brooklyn, and stranger, I imagine, in Manhattan.

So B and I have had three days together, which we’ve spent enjoying each other’s company, indulging ourselves variously--we’ve both been playing with our xmas presents for each other. She got me the complete New Yorker, I got her the complete Sex in the City—and warding off the weird ‘playing hooky’ feeling we’ve both experienced.

The strangest thing is realizing that no one outside of the city really understands what it means for the NY transit system to go down. One can hardly get anywhere in the city without it. The city is no longer really accessible (especially with the increased traffic the strike is causing) without the trains. Brooklyn might as well be Maine. Though it’s not like the supply lines are cut off—we still have rations enough for the winter. But I do feel oddly barred from the center of things.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Lots of disparate things on my mind. Conducted a short interview today for PW with Alice Quinn, who edited Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, titled EDGAR ALLEN POE & THE JUKE BOX. It comes out in March, and I’m sure it spark much debate—do these fragments, unfinished poems, and small pieces stand up as complete poems on their own?—but Quinn handled the material lovingly, annotating all of the poems with bits of Bishop’s letters and journals, as well as testimony from friends. And there are many complete pieces, or major poems that simply weren’t finished. For me, the most important thing is to suddenly have access to more Bishop. Here is a bit of a poem that breaks my heart:

Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you

You’ll see what I mean when you’ve got the whole poem. The book also offers a glimpse at how Bishop composed—we see her alternate lines and stanzas alongside the working versions. We see her slinking her way into free verse. We see the surprising sophistication of her early work. It’s going to be a major event, and I just hope the power and wonder of the book doesn’t get drowned out in petty complaints.

On another note, Netflix, that wonder of Internet innovation, has entered the poetic cannon in a forthcoming book by John Koethe:

…I walk to what I try to
Tell myself is work, entering at the end of the day
The same room, like the man in Dead of Night—
The dinner, the DVD from Netflix,
The drink before I go to sleep and wake alone


What does this say about where we’re at? Something in me resists the inclusion of utterly contemporary elements in new poetry, or at least elements that are unlikely to stand any test of time. In a hundred years, will anyone remember Netflix? More worrisome is whether anyone will remember the poems we are pouring into the eternal ether at this moment. Yet, how else can one get across that sentiment. I certainly come home to my lonesome DVDs on many a night, and perhaps the imagine of the lonesome book is getting a bit tiresome.

What else? The Joan Didion book, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, is heartbreaking, and something of a trial to read, not because it’s not a lovely piece of literature, but because it’s a tough ride through hospitals and thwarted, desperate hope. But it’s an important book on the subject of grief, and anyone with a need for writing on that subject should read it.

Also, look at Joshua Corey’s post about Michael Coffey’s book. And look at this link to a complete facsimile of every issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=U=E.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I indulged myself tonight with the purchase of two books and a lit mag. Gosh, I must seemed like a spoiled little brat getting new books every day. I’ve always been addicted to buying toys, though. In the long run, I think it’ll work out better than a lifetime of buying drugs all the time.

Reading a poem by Peter Gizzi the other day sent me longing for his work again. I reviewed his last book for Pleiades a while back, but I still hadn’t gotten my hands on his earlier books. So, tonight in the St. Mark’s Bookshop, while waiting for a friend, I happened to see the rest of his oeuvre, ARTIFICIAL HEART (1998) from and PERIPLUM AND OTHER POEMS from the excellent English poetry press Salt (perhaps they are to the English what Graywolf is to us, though maybe Salt’s a bit more edgy). It’s too much to take in all at one time, but I just couldn’t help myself—I needed a reward for my hard week of work.

I’ve come to love a number of things about Gizzi’s work. First the blending of musical and mechanical language. The two fight each other only to end up harmonizing in a way that perfectly evokes the overlap of registers in the contemporary urban or suburban environment where there are flowing trees next to dirty above ground subway tracks, etc: “abundant refreshment/ in the circuit// of this system.” The other thing I love is that the poems are rarely perfect. Sometimes they’re lumbering, awkward, too big for their tight pants, which provides a much needed break from too-slick surfaces. And they’re often deeply earnest, sad and sweet. For a stunning love poem, look at “It’s raining in Deflt” (I think) from SOME VALUES OF LANDSCAPE AND WEATHER.

I also grabbed the new issue of American Letters & Commentary, with poems by my dear friend Penelope Cray (who reviews Arielle Greenberg in the next Octopus), Samuel Amadon (who also has a review in the next Octopus), Mary Jo Bang, DA Powell, Danielle Pafunda, John Isles and a heap of others.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

More new books, as ever.

SEEING, by Jose Saramago
-Due out in April, a sequel to BLINDNESS. I loved BLINDNESS, though the ending is too optimistic. I haven’t read his earlier work and wonder if, when I do, I’ll find that it’s even better than these late books. Though I can’t quite get used to his endless paragraphs and comma-spliced sentences. I’m reviewing it for PW. I’ll let you know.

SUBJECT TO CHANGE by Matthew Thorburn
-Acquired gratefully in trade with the author. One of Brenda Hillman’s selections for New Issues. They make such lovely book-objects. I’ve just begun to look inside this one, but check out this stunning ending line of the first poem: ‘and snow fell all night like shredded photocopies of snow/ on a thin white cat.”

Also, look out for Matthew’s review in a roundup I edited for the next issue of Octopus.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I’m listening to Stairway To Heaven as I write this, which you know makes it more important.

Really, do get a copy of COLD SKIN, the novel mentioned in my last two posts. B had just read it and was awed as well. Now I’ll pass it on to W, who, I know, will feel the same way.

Also, check out my friend Jesse Ball’s poem in the new Boston Review. It’s really a good one. Someone gets “menaced with my little knife.”

I’m trying, really hard, to take a little break from thinking too much about poetry this weekend. I overdid it last week, editing a series of reviews, sending out poems and chapbooks, soliciting poems. Just too much. I’m out of mojo. And the cisterns from which writing might come are totally empty, which is, of course, rather depressing. Normal, given the circumstances, but depressing. Hopefully, with a little break, they’ll refill.

Doing some holiday shopping as well, and making wedding plans. Some stressful stuff.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Book of the Week

by Albert Sánchez Piñol
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 (182p)

This beautiful, nearly perfect book held me in its thrall for the entirety of the two days it took me to read it. It has the haunting quality of a dream: it’s half nightmare, half bliss, frighteningly mingled such that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The story begins as a young European man who has elected to exile himself from his home lands on the remote island on which he is to be stationed for the next year monitoring the weather on a government assignment. He finds the cabin he is to inhabit in shambles and the man he is supposed replace vanished. Upon investigating the nearby lighthouse, he meets Grunner, gruff and possibly insane. That night, he learns, through horrifying experience, that the island is also inhabited by bloodthirsty humanoid amphibian creatures who attack any source of meet on the island in frenzied packs. I won’t tell you much more—this is, first, an adventure story; it brings to my mind other shipwreck tales that I’ve liked: Malamud’s God’s Grace, the acclaimed Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Let me say, though, that there is a woman-amphibian involved, and that the novel graphically explores the human impulses toward violence and sex, as well as how the two are intermingled. It’s an easy read, and really a stunning book.

Also reading Charles Berstein’s poems this week. More on that this weekend, I hope.

Two things I never really noticed, never having paid attention before today, about Led Zeppelin: the music is pretty freaking awesome, but the lyrics are stupid, just absolutely stupid.