Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Poet Opines, Among Illustrious Peers

I've been interviewed by Chicago Postmodern Poetry, Ray Bianchi's very sharp website. If you've tired of me, check out the index of interviewees: there are some Big Names (Andrei Codrescu, Robert Creeley), some Giants of Old-School Langpo (Ray Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman), some of the Mighty and Unclassifiable (Pierre Joris, Eliot Weinberger, Paul Hoover), some of the most interesting newer poets around (Mairead Byrne, Catherine Daly, Arielle Greenberg, Simone Muench, Gabriel Gudding), and more worthies of many stripes.

I'm glad to see, too, that there's an interview with Joyelle McSweeney, who has just entered the outermost orbits of Chicago as the new poet at Notre Dame. Go Irish!

I should add that in the interview I include one of my proudest inventions, the phrase "language poetry fundamentalism." You know what I'm talking about.

Friday, June 23, 2006

By Popular Demand...

I've been getting a lot of emails asking me about "Poem for a War Poet, Poem for a War," the poem that won the Illinois Arts Council Literary Award this year. I've also, surprisingly, had a few messages about the image of a town crier I posted with my note about our new poet laureate. Apparently word has gotten around that I've been known to dress like that myself. This isn't quite true. I've never felt the urge to dress as a town crier. But I have been known to swan around in one or another version of a pirate outfit (only when appropriate: you know, on Halloween, or at weddings and funerals), and I can see why the more Captain Morgan-looking version of the pirate gear could confuse people.

So. By popular demand, two items that don't sit that well together: my poem and a photo of me in pirate drag. Do with them what you will.

I should note that the poem appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, and in my book Home and Variations. Also, in a desperate attempt to link poem and image, let me make the following offer: anyone who can identify all the poems from which I've pillaged lines for my own poem will win a valuable prize -- a map to the lost treasure of Dread Pirate Archambeau).

Poem for a War Poet, Poem for a War


The lines inked on the map are railways and roads.
The lines on the roads are refugees, and moving.
The lines inked on the page are a poem, your poem.
While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

The lines on the page are a poem, words
that move toward the refugees, their tattered world
of hurt and proper names, their lost, their staggering.
While you are singing, while you are singing.

The lines are helpless in this time of war. They survive,
if they are a poem, in valleys of their saying, they survive
and reach for valleys where bodies cough, bleed or stumble blind.

They survive while you are singing,
While you are singing.


The lines on the roads are refugees,
Their paths are marked with ink, charted
on a General’s table. Your lines are a poem.
While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

A woman bends beneath her load, a young man stutters in his fear,
A guard at the valley’s border lets them through,
or not. Your lines are a poem.
Who will carry your burden?

Monday, June 19, 2006

And That Was The And Now That Was

Those of you who missed Shelley Jackson (pictured above with quotation marks) and the other fantastic people at the &NOW Festival, and those of you who want to relive the vortex of avantness, may want to check out Grant Jenkin's blog,, which has commentary and pictures, including one of a tipsy, sweaty Archambeau lurching along with Catherine Daly, and one in which Steve Tomasula's Mighty Dome of Intellect shineth forth.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

Errata for the title of this post:

For "King" read "Poet Laureate of the United States of America" -- or, rather, "The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," to use the whole, flat-footed, committee-designed designation.

For "is dead" read "has seen his term expire, without the kind of renewal that is rarely granted in these cases."

For "long live" read "good luck in this thankless job to..."

The corrected version of this post's title lacks panache, but the point is, at least, clear: we've got a new poet laureate. I'm not sure why I'm surprised that it's Donald Hall. He's deeply committed to his art, and, as a friend pointed out this morning, will be good on television. And, you know, chicks dig him, or so I hear. But there seems to be some deeper force at work. No, not some conspiracy run by Helen Vendler from her secret fortress beneath the Widener Library (though it's tough to rule out). I think what's happening is this: the ghost of Yvor Winters is guiding the deminmonde of American poetry from beyond the grave.

Sure, you're skeptical, and who wouldn't be skeptical of me, ever since my purported photos of bigfoot turned out to be discarded glossies of Charles Olson, taken for the cover of Poetry and Truth?

But the evidence piles up in favor of my thesis. Consider this: even if Hall serves for only a single year, it would mean that for five of the last twelve years the poet laureate will have been a former student of Yvor Winters (Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, each for multiple terms, now Hall). What else could it be but the spirit of the old poet moving among us, working for unknown ends? It's not like the man didn't have an animus toward the eastern establishment, either: he once told Hall that the people at Harvard thought he was "lower than the carpet." Maybe that's the key -- maybe Winters has worked his posthumous mojo and lined up a series of his former students as laureates just to get back at Harvard by blocking Jorie Graham from assuming the august office.

Of course the success of Winters' mission is by no means assured. Even now I hear ominous clankings and groanings, the firing of unknown engines, the shrieks of demon-wolves and the muttering of underpaid graduate student assistants from Vendler's secret caverns. What sorcery awaits us? What wizardry shall rule the land? Ask not! We be but pawns in this war of mighty forces, our fates yet to be revealed! Bwaaahaaaaa --haaaahaaaahaaaa! Ahaaaaaahaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!! What? Oh! Right. Deep breaths, and my medications. Serenity. Yes, much better now, so much better...

Monday, June 12, 2006

As if We Were Not Surrounded: Irish Matters

Many, many are the ignominious humiliations. There are, in fact, two points of ignominy for me to acknowledge. Firstly, it is my sad duty to report that the Philadelphia Traveling Team trounced the Chicago and North Shore Croquet Association, sweeping us in this weekend's tournament, despite our home-field advantage. Let sackcloth and ashes be my fate this day.

Also, Mike Begnal writes in from Ireland to point out that my open letter to Stephen Burt on British experimental poetry seems to imply that Begnal has perpetuated the myth that there is no Irish experiemtal poetry. What I'd hoped to do, in citing an article by Begnal, was to show how Begnal was one of a very few critics willing to break the news about Ireland's experimental poetry. Back in the 90s, almost no one wrote about poets like Trevor Joyce, Billy Mills, Randolph Healy, Catherine Walsh, and Geoffrey Squires. Things have started to change, and Begnal's had something to do with it. Begnal's got an interesting piece on this up on his blog, B’Fhiú an Braon Fola.

In other Irish experimental poetry news, Geoffrey Squires has a new book, Lines, out from Shearsman. In a gesture of great generosity and practicality (given the difficulties in getting small press books across the Atlantic), Shearsman has made it available as a free download. Lines is of a piece with Squires' earlier work, which means it is lean, abstract, informed by phenomenology, and that it sounds a lot like Beckett's sparer writing.

Squires gives you only a few words per page, and the experience of moving slowly, page to page, looking at all that white space, is important because much of Squires' work is about the large proportion of our being that isn't conscious or verbal -- the white spaces surrounding our verbal, conscious core. My favorite moments in his poetry are those in which we suddenly sense that there has, all along, been more going on around us than we have noticed -- when we understand, retrospectively, what we've been unconsciously registering all along. In Lines, for example, we proceed along with some Becketting stammering, never quite making a full statement, until we turn the page and come to the following line:"as if we were not surrounded." It sits there alone on the page, just radiating a kind of unheimlich sensation. All of our introverted Beckettian brooding over the previous pages, we feel, has been going on while we didn't notice the forces gathering around us.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Another Chicago Magazine on Home and Variations

Summer's here, teaching is over and done, and for the last couple of weeks I've been dividing my time between representing the Chicago and North Shore Croquet Association with no great distinction (Curse you, Chad Kainz, with your third wicket sucker-punch! Curse you to hell!), and scribbling away furiously at an article about poets wanting to have their cake and eat it too — wanting, that is, both total artistic autonomy and the kind of political efficacity you normally only get when you adapt to the needs of a cause or an audience (no yawning, class!). But I was torn from my navel-gazing by a 3:00 AM email from my former student Caitlin Meeter, who, among other things, informed me that the new issue of Another Chicago Magazine was out, and that there was a review of my book Home and Variations in it (Caitlin interned at ACM, so she's got the inside scoop on these things). Ever eager to read about myself, I checked it out. It's by Mike Puican, whom I met once when I was speaking at a John Matthias conference at Notre Dame, and whose sharp poems I've seen here and there, and it goes like this:


Repetition in modern poetry is generally used very sparingly. Repeated words or phrases can effectively underscore a point or intensify an emotion, and forms like villanelles and sestinas have been exploiting this rhetorical device for hundreds of years. In poetry’s quest for freshness and inventiveness, however, repetition is largely viewed as an outmoded device.

But if anyone told Robert Archambeau he has decided to ignore it. The approach of many poems in his inventive, first collection of poems, Home and Variations, is to take a phrase, a quote, or historical fact and disassemble it into fragments that are continually repeated and reworked throughout the poem. In this process the original material is examined, extended, and in some cases completely refuted. Archambeau not only bucks convention, he embraces an inventive use of repetition and as a result has created a form of discourse that is compelling and feels very new.

“Citation Suite,” the 27-page centerpiece poem of Home and Variations, starts with a quote from Robert Duncan: “The poem is not a stream of consciousness, but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it.” This is the guiding principle not only for the poem but for the entire book. “Citation Suite” is in four parts, with each part broken into seven sections. Each part begins with two quotes — unrelated fragments of novels, philosophical discourse, observations on the disintegration of culture, thoughts on the future, and the like — from a diverse collection of writers including Virginia Woolf, Plato, E.M. Forster, V.S. Naipaul, Richard Rorty, Shelley, and William Morris.

Part I, for example, begins with a Virginia Woolf quote from the novel To the Lighthouse, where one of the characters, Mr. Ramsey, suggests that all thought could be arranged into the 26 letters of the alphabet. The next quote is from Plato’s allegory of men who have been chained to the wall of a cave their whole lives. One of them is freed from his chains and is given the chance to reflect on his life as he walks to the surface. Then Plato is considering that all thought can be broken into the letters of the alphabet. Later Mr. Ramsey and Plato are wandering the halls of the same hotel searching letters on the doors of the rooms. What begins, and continues throughout the poem, is a dizzying combination of lines and fragments from various quotes that both reinforce the points made by the various authors and contradict them. Along the way Archambeau inserts his own characters and ideas. Each time a new quote is introduced new material is added to the jumble. Here is one complete section toward the end of the poem. I’ve inserted the names of the authors who originally supplied the material:

Imagine that the cities that make up what we call “The West” (Rorty) vanish tomorrow, gone past recovery (Morris), and we are welcomed with intense and overweening love by the very skin and surface of the earth (Forster) as a lover welcomed to the fair flesh of a woman that he loves (Morris).

Imagine then our dwelling place — sun, pine, the sound of birds (Nathaniel Tarn).

I would tell this story (Archambeau).

Unlike the direct approach of traditional Western logic (If A = B and B ≠ C, then A ≠ C), Archambeau’s approach is more the way a bee flies — indirect, unintentional-seeming, and more emotionally authentic. The key thesis of “Citation Suite” is that there is vast knowledge outside the traditional, academic (Western) approach to learning. Stepping outside of it opens the opportunity for new understandings of the world. The indirect rhetorical approach of the poem seems to underscore Archambeau’s point perfectly.

Not all the work is completely serious. While his references are largely from the canon of great literature, Archambeau also uses irreverent references from popular culture. In “Major Thel: A Space Oddity” he reinvents the main character from the Blake poem “The Book of Thel” as the astronaut in the David Bowie poem “Major Tom.” In the Blake version, the character Thel talks to a lily, a cloud, and a clump of dirt, arguing against the need to accept one’s insignificance in the world. In the reworked version, Thel the astronaut floating to the David Bowie tune argues with a meteor, a cloud, and an instrument needle that is hallucinated into a worm. As Major Thel is faced with the reality of crashing into the ocean, the various interlopers respond with hip jargon that condenses the lyric persuasion of the original into “it’s all good.” This would all be dismissed as a joke if the poem did not end with the notion that outdated styles of art can be resurrected and can effectively work their way into and inform new, modern artistic versions. Throughout the collection Archambeau takes on, updates, extends, and turns upside-down works from a wide variety of authors including Sylvia Plath, C.P. Cavafy, Jules Supervielle, Blas De Otero, Wislawa Szymbourska, and Robert Hass — not to mention historical figures like Annie Oakley, Jan Vermeer, and events like the Fututists’ convention of 1913 and the fair held on the Thames river in 1693, the year the entire river froze solid. Despite the title, a number of poems stray from the home-and-variations premise of the book, and, for my taste, not all are successful ( a six-section poem at the end of the book parodying the tenure process at American universities seems more suited for a college graduation skit). However, with the majority of the poems, the author directs his considerable modernist talents to disrupt expectations and extend meanings.

At a time when the ethic is to avoid anything that comes close to repeating a word or idea, Archambeau embraces the act of going back, reworking and retracing one’s steps. In doing so he makes unexpected use of repetition and finds a way of expressing something new. Even if the final point of the poem is sometimes one that is familiar, the presentation of ideas and the rhetoric of the poems in this collection is fresh, inventive and very exciting.
— Mike Puican, ACM #46, 242-245


In other news, Dave Park, an evil genius, colleague, pal, and good guy to have around when the basketball gets stuck behind the net, has launched his new blog, Pravda Kid. Dave's a communications and media theory guy, among other things, and has taught me a lot about how art and literature function in the world. His blog will be worth watching.