Friday, August 28, 2015

Poetry City: Call for Papers for a Collection about the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program

Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein at Buffalo

I'm very happy to announce the call for papers for Poetry City: The Founding of a New American Poetry at Buffalo, 1963-2003.  It will be the first book in the LF Critical Documents series from Lake Forest College Press, and will be edited by Robert Zamsky. The call for papers below gives details (and is also archived at the University of Pennsyvania's "Penn English Calls for Papers" site). 

The LF Critical Documents series is projected to publish one title of literary criticism per year, begining with Zamsky's Poetry City in 2017. Books may be by a single author or edited collections, and inquiries about possible future titles may be directed to me.

Poetry City: the Founding of a New American Poetry at Buffalo, 1963-2003. (Abstracts due: Oct. 1, 2015; chapters due Dec. 1, 2016)

full name / name of organization: 
Robert L. Zamsky / New College of Florida

contact email:

This is a call for an essay collection to be published by the Lake Forest College Press.
Poetry City explores the establishment, evolution, and impact of the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. The program has its roots in the academic fervor of the 1960s, the period in which the dynamic and visionary Chair of the English Department, Al Cook, filled the faculty roster with an unlikely array of influential literary scholars working in a wide range of periods and genres. In 1991, this commitment to innovation found a further iteration in the founding of the Poetics Program by Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein. Identified with a tradition of innovation in American poetry and poetics, the Poetics Program was envisioned as an alternative to both conventional doctoral programs in English and traditional creative writing programs. Poetics at Buffalo was to be a place where poets taught graduate level courses in literature , literary history, and literary theory, and where graduate students learned to work creatively as literary critics. The book takes its chronological frame from the arrival of Charles Olson in 1963 to the departures of Creeley and Bernstein in 2003.

Parallax Landscape is especially open to contributors working in unconventional forms.

Possible topics might include but are certainly not limited to:

• The relationship between the Poetics Program and the Poetry and Rare Books collection in the SUNY-Buffalo Library;

• The Poetics Program in the context of the nationwide proliferation of MFA programs;

• Gender in the Poetics Program;

• The influence of the tradition of experimental education in the United States on the formation of the program;

• Pedagogy and innovative poetics;

• The Poetics-List and Electronic Poetry Center;

• Small press publishing in the program;

• Performances and readings;

• Lives of the Poetics degree – career paths in/out of academia.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Archambeau World Tour: Live at the Poetry Foundation and the Grolier!

Where, you ask, is the place to be on the evening of Tuesday, September 15th? From 7:00-8:00 pm in Chicago it'll be the Poetry Foundation, at 61 West Superior, for a free reading featuring Mary Kinzie, Alexandra Pechman, Nicole Nodi, and some guy named Robert Archambeau, who will read from his new (indeed, released that very day) book The Kafka Sutra.

There will also be a small installation of images by artist Sarah Conner from a series of prints she made to accompany The Kafka Sutra.

Here, by the way, is the cover of the book, including blurbs by a number of worthies (click to enlarge the text to readable size).

If you can't make it to Chicago in September, how about Boston (well, Cambridge) in November? I'll be reading at The Kafka Sutra's east coast launch November 14th at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop on Harvard Square at 7:00 pm.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What Ever Happened to Gore Vidal?

You know what would really bother Gore Vidal, were he living today? A lot of things—the persistence of homophobia, say, or the banality of the mass media, or the continued overextension of a haplessly imperial America. But what would bother him even more would be the fact that the question "what ever happened to Gore Vidal?" is a reasonable one to ask. He loved many things, but chief among them was the idea of himself as a famous, public man, suave, sly, smarter than anyone else in the room, and with absolute faith that he (as author, as prophet, as charismatic icon) would be vindicated by history.  Of course he hasn't disappeared: if you read and you're of a certain age, you do know his name. But he's fading fast from both public consciousness and the literary canon, and it's fair to ask why.

Vidal's was certainly a copious literary talent, and while I've read ten or twelve of his books, that really only scratches the surface of the oeuvre, which was both vast and various: from political essays to satires of politics, media, and society, to sensitive coming of age novels, to historical fiction, to plays for screen and stage, to the bare-fisted yet elegant pummeling of opponents in political debate, his range was as great as his ambition, and nearly as great as his considerable charm, and equally considerable ego. One of the most popular serious writers of his generation, and one of its more memorable media figures, he seemed, during his lifetime, to have wedged himself firmly into the culture, a figure to be remembered for posterity.  And yet, if you plug his name into Google's ngram reader, you'll see a precipitous plunge in mentions of his name in print.  And if you gather up the syllabi for courses in American literature—the great wax museums in which we commemorate the literary dead—he rarely appears. So we ask: what happened?

One explanation may be that our institutions of cultural memory, especially our academic ones, tend to value innovation. The inventors and pioneers of literature get a special place, and are forgiven many of their shortcomings. We don't (at least, I hope we don't) read Ezra Pound for his analyses of society, except perhaps to treat his views on those matters as symptoms of a grim time when democracy was in such deep crisis that fascism seemed, to a surprising number of people, like a kind of solution. We read Pound in large measure because he was an innovator, a writer of manifesti, a shaper of movements, one who pushed against the margins of accepted form. Imagism, Vorticism, a new way to build a long poem—that's the Pound of the syllabi. And for all of Vidal's evident talent, all of his range, it's hard to find something he accomplished that didn't derive from what others had written.  His Julian is a sensitive treatment of late Roman antiquity, but if you've read Robert Graves, you can't help feeling that you've seen this sort of thing done before, and better, by someone who knew the period better than did Vidal.  Vidal's political fiction, especially Washington, D.C. owes quite a bit to Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, in outlook and in structure. Williwaw  is a decent young man's novel about coming of age in a time of war, but it comes out of a well-established playbook for such novels. Even his most far-out fiction, the transsexual eros and power festival that is Myra Breckenridge, which the public didn't see coming and couldn't get over, is less of a surprise if you've read, say, the then-semi-clandestine works published by Olympia Press.

Another factor in the decline of Vidal's renown has to do with genre. The bulk of his achievement as a novelist was in historical fiction, and English departments, a generation or so of democratizing moves notwithstanding, still draw a strong distinction, in practice, between high-genre forms of fiction and low-genre forms—historical fiction is low caste stuff. Not as low caste as crime writing or swords & sorcery, but still pretty low on the totem pole, below the novel of manners, say. It's one reason why Jane Austen is on so many more syllabi than Sir Walter Scott, even though he was arguably the leading novelist of his generation.

There is, too, the suffragette factor to consider. When we move away from Vidal's historical fiction, it's books like Myra Breckenridge and its sequel, Myron that made the biggest splash in Vidal's lifetime—and much of that splash had to do with leaping into the seemingly calm pool of gender norms with an enthusiastic cannonball dive. The fluidity of gender and of bodies in those books, and the exploration of the intersection of sex and power, were things rarely seen in the public eye, and he put them there, on the page and on the screen. This was an enormous act of liberation.  But the thing about the sexual revolution, and the queer revolution, and all revolutions that achieve a large measure of success, is that their success makes them seem somewhat banal to later generations. It's hard to get young people enthused about the idea of the suffragettes, or even to get them to declare themselves to be feminists, even though they live lives and hold beliefs that would not have been possible without the work of those heroes of the struggle. When Myra Breckenridge came out in 1968, it was one of a handful of publicly accessible sources for genderqueer ideas and representations. Now, thirty seconds on the internet will give you access to a wider range of genders and sexualities than Vidal could possibly cram into that book's pages. Vidal was certainly an important part of the expansion of the public palette when it comes to sexuality, but the very success of the movement of which he was a part renders his contribution less visible.

Finally, we may want to consider the nature of Vidal's fame in his lifetime. Certainly he had to have been a writer to gain a public platform, to begin to appear in the media. But he had such a genius for media appearances that his fame as a personality soon came to dominate over his fame as a writer of novels and essays. As Seymour Krim put it in 1969,

…for 20 years [Vidal] wrote novels with no loud success until Myra Breckenridge—yet all of a sudden he seems to have walked into a spotlight glittering with a million bucks, "national prestige," intellectual respect, multiplying projects, and also the very tangible power denied to most pathetic dollar-begging literary lives in our disunited States. The interesting thing is that while the practice of literature or at least the common novel gave Vidal the opportunity to be a Somebody, it is not on the basis of letters pure and simple (even complex) that he has created a stir about himself…. The success is in close-combat American life.

For Krim, Vidal wasn't a novelist so much as a media personality, someone who would hash out any battle with any opponent on the air, and do so with such an idiosyncratic and memorable style that he stayed in the mind as an icon, or a brand. And when he aged, and died, and slipped from the media, that part of his reputation died with him. He was so good at this kind of ephemeral media activity that parts of this side of his life—the debates with William F. Buckley, for example—have been commemorated in documentary film. But in the end, the kind of fame he had was the kind of fame you can only maintain by constantly appearing in the spotlight, connecting yourself and your opinion to each passing spectacle. Now that this is no longer possible, we're left with only the books, and an archive of old film and videotape on issues that were once in the headlines. The books will survive, I'm sure of that. But the media personality? I liked him. May he rest in peace.

Friday, August 07, 2015

A Stranger from the Sky: Sun Ra as Poet and Alien

Hardly anyone thinks of Sun Ra as a poet.  A visionary outsider figure even in the realm of music, where his work is only occasionally taken as seriously as it ought to be, he has almost no standing in the field of American poetry—this despite the fact that his poetry appeared in many Black Arts movement publications, and sat cheek-to-jowl with that of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Allen Ginsberg in the late sixties' Umbra Anthology.  Perhaps it's significant, in this context, that his poetry was brought to my attention not from within the poetry world, but from outside it: it was the Australian critical theorist McKenzie Wark who first steered me toward This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra.  When I mentioned the book to various poets and critics, none of them had heard of it.  One, a jazz obsessive and semi-professional saxophonist, was stunned that Sun Ra's poetry had never appeared on his radar.

What are the poems of This Planet is Doomed like? Firstly, they have the virtues and vices of much spoken word poetry (the text of book was assembled from transcripts of tapes discovered by archivist Michael D. Anderson): they hit hard when spoken aloud, when patterns of repetition and opportunities for emoting are best realized; on the page, though, they aren't as strong.  Secondly, they're as weird and out-there as you'd expect Sun Ra's poetry to be.  Indeed, the book's subtitle already indicates the nature of that weirdness: "science fiction poetry."  We're used to genre fiction, but genre poetry?  When you get past the initial oddness, though, the poems situate themselves quite strongly in several distinguished literary traditions: the literature of African-American alienation; the wing of Romanticism most strongly associated with the fantastic; and the literature of Gnosticism.  Sun Ra was an autodidact, and as idiosyncratic as they come, but only the kind of pedantic wretch who thinks the words "university transcript" are a synonym for "education" would consider Sun Ra's connection to these traditions co-incidental.  He arrived at his alienation existentially, and fabricated a personal and artistic identity unlike anybody else's, but he tailored that identity from some of the richest cloth in the great Savile Row of literature.  It's less different from T.S. Eliot than fans of either artist might prefer to think.  I kind of want to post side-by-side pictures of them holding their poems with the caption "mythological tradition: who wore it better?" but that would just provoke people who refuse to let themselves admire one or the other of them.

Mythological tradition: Who wore it better?

Alienation from mainstream American culture was more-or-less a given for African-Americans at mid-century: indeed, both laws and the force behind them made the marginal status of African-Americans abundantly clear.  But to be a gay African-American, and a genius to boot, marked one out for a special degree of alienation.  We see it clearly enough in the writings, and largely ex-patriot life, of James Baldwin, who turned to Europe as an exotic elsewhere where his very outsider status freed him from the box into which America would put him and, what is more, put him on something approaching equal footing with the white Americans he met in Paris.  In a 1959 essay for the New York Times called "The Discovery of What it Means to be an American," Baldwin tells us of the alienation he felt in America, and of the liberating feeling of becoming another kind of alien, an American abroad:

I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. (Sometimes I still do.)  I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.  I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect with other people instead of dividing me from them.  (I was as isolated from other Negroes as I was from whites, which is what happens when a Negro begins, at bottom, to believe what white people say about him.)  In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I.  And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris.  Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African—they were no more at home in Europe than I was.

There's nothing quite like this in Sun Ra's writing, unless we translate "Paris" to "outer space."  Then things start to look familiar: the over-arching desire is for escape from a place that limits you, that confines you physically and, more importantly, that insidiously imposes its categories of thought onto your mind.  Consider these lines from "This Planet is Doomed" in the context of Baldwin:

it just breaks me all up, man
it just breaks me all up—
can't understand a damn bit of it
like man, I gotta get away from it
I gotta get away from it before they mess up
my mind
before they take my soul, man
I just gotta get away
and blast off in my rocket ship

I come from a better place than this
what in the hell am I here for—
I gotta blast away
I gotta get away, man
I gotta blast off like a super megatron
rocket on
electro dynamic radiation

Outer space, as Sun Ra imagines it, is free from the soul-crushing ideology of mid-century America, so hostile to people like him.  He envisions it as a kind of pure place where we can meet on equal footing: Baldwin may always have Paris for this, but Sun Ra has the galactic depths.  And it's not only space that has this appeal.  So powerful is Sun Ra's need for a place where the constraints of American race identity can be shed that, in the poem "The Government of Death," he even falls half in love with easeful death, where all are equals:

all in the realm of death is
nothing else but peace
its inhabitants have all received
equal rites
because they have received equal rights
that is, services, personal and
without prejudice of death

And later in the poem we read:

all governments
on earth
set up by men
are discriminating
but the government of death is a
pure government
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but

The need for an exotic and liberating elsewhere is a constant in Sun Ra's poems, and he even dreams of addressing an audience of alien beings, often a kind of cross between space creatures and entities out of the Judeo-Christian mythos.  "let me write my music," he says in "Not for Earth Alone," "not for earth alone, but for the worlds/for those in being/those in seeming" who are also somehow "angels/and demons and devils."  This yearning for elsewhere is the stuff of Romanticism, especially of continental Romanticism, and its escapism is serious stuff.  By turning its back on the ordinary world, it enacts a profound criticism of that world, a near-total rejection of it as unredeemed, maybe unredeemable by anything less than an imaginative apocalypse.  Readers of  William Blake's prophetic works have already dialed into these frequencies, as have connoisseurs of Baudelaire.  The great maverick Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre called this kind of fantasist Romanticism the "critique of everyday life," and found in it a radicalism both profound and, ultimately, limited:

Under the banner of the marvelous, nineteenth-century literature mounted a sustained attack on everyday life which has continued unabated up to the present day.  The aim is to demote it, to discredit it.  Although the duality between the marvelous and the everyday is just as painful as the duality between action and dream, the real and the ideal—and although it is an underlying reason for the failures and defeats which so many works deplore—nineteenth century man seemed to ignore this, and continued obstinately to belittle real life, the world 'as it is.'

If Sun Ra is a part of this tradition, he is also part of an even older tradition of alienation, the line of Gnostic writing extending back two millennia.  Indeed, his elaborately developed Afro-Futurist mythology is, as a way of addressing larger truths, very in accord with Gnostic thinking, which favored myth and image over discursive abstraction ("Truth did not come into the world naked," reads the Gnostic "Gospel of Philip," "but in types and images.  Truth is received only that way").  Sun Ra is at his most Gnostic when, like thinkers in that tradition, he sees the material world around us as fallen, broken, and not our true home (Stephan Hoeller, a contemporary Gnostic thinker, defines the material world as evil inasmuch as it diverts our attention from the imaginative journey back to our divine origins beyond the material realm—he, like many Gnostics, sees it as a barrier to the soul's journey home).  When we read a refrain like "I pull the veil aside" in Sun Ra's poem "Dreams Rush to Meet Me," we're rubbing up against his Gnosticism, as we are when we read his declaration of his true home in "A Stranger from the Sky":

I am a stranger from the sky
far away, farther than the eye can see
is my paradise
a mystical world from outer space ("Stanger from the Sky")

Some of the poems of This Planet is Doomed are chant-like, rhythmically repetitive, and hard to extract, but even a crudely-carved out passage like this, taken almost at random from "State of the Cosmos," gives a sense of the Gnostic's yearning for breaking past the barriers of the material world into a space better and closer to the divine (it also gives a sense that, at times, Sun Ra was perfectly happy to dwell in abstractions).  Watch how the "reasonable reality of the state of the world" contrasts with something truer, the "reasonable reality of the state of the cosmos":

…the synchronization of the shadows to
the authorized reality
is a key to the reasonable reality of the
state of the world
disconnected of the shadows from the
so-called authorized reality
and the application of the new
potential through resynchronization of
the shadow
to the unauthorized mind images of the
cosmic idea
is a transformation of the shadow into
the living cosmic multi-self
this is the key to the reasonable reality
of the state of the cosmos
synchronization of the shadows to the
authorized reality is the key to the
reasonable state of the world
the disconnection of the shadows from
the so-called authorized reality and the
application of the new potential through
resynchronization of the shadows to the
unauthorized mind image of the cosmic
ideas of transformation of the shadow
into the living cosmic multi-self
this is the key to the reasonable reality
of the state of the cosmos

The reason of this world is not the reason of the cosmos,and it is to the cosmos that we truly belong.
Sun Ra is singular, certainly.  But he doesn't come from space, even if he dreams of it as his destination.  He comes out of a long tradition, several long traditions, and all of these traditions arose as balm for the dispossessed, as ways of imagining an outside to the narrow box of nightmares into which we wake.  May the cosmos send us more like him.