Friday, November 12, 2004

Tom Pickard Among the Virgins

Devin Johnston of Flood Editions must be the most dedicated person in a field that, by its very nature, attracts wide-eyed idealists and hardcore Quixote types: poetry publishing. Not only has he set up a trans-continental North American tour for Tom Pickard as a promotion for Pickard's new books -- a tour ranging from Boston to San Diego and back -- he's also driven Tom and his crew around for a significant portion of the tour. Devin wasn't on hand for last night's Pickard reading at Lake Forest College, but it was clear from talking to Tom that Devin had laid the groundwork for a hell of a promotional tour. And of all that tour's dates, Tom told me, he'd enjoyed last night the most. This could just be good manners on Tom's part, but I'm inclined to believe him, in no small part because of the nature of the audience.

Pickard has been reading to a lot of the poetry-crowd regulars -- the Harvard guys, the Chicago Review crowd, the Buffalo Poetics mafia, etc. You know, the usual suspects. But at Lake Forest we don't have those people: since we teach undergraduates almost exclusively, our crowds tend to have a high proportion of reading-virgins who've never seen a poet live before, except perhaps in an open mike session at the local Barnes and Noble. Many of them don't know what to expect, but have some general notion that there will be high sentiments, sincerity and more than a few long stretches of boredom. You know, like church. And Tom Pickard, whatever else he may be, isn't church.

I think this un-churchiness was most clear to the seventy or so people in the audience (a very good crowd for a small school) when Tom broke out "Hidden Agenda," a poem he'd originally written for "The New Statesman," where it was to appear next to the writing of future Prime Minister Tony Blair. For reasons I can guess, its publication was delayed until a few issues later. The poem is a long and quite funny chant consisting, in large measure, of the word "fuck." Watching the crowd watch Pickard was a pleasure. A number of my own students kept smiling, then looking over at me nervously for some cue on how to act. I think they weren't sure about whether they could go ahead and be amused, or whether they should muster some pretence of being offended. Whether anyone was actually offended remains to be seen, but I don't think it is likely. It isn't as if the students don't get an earful of "fuck" in the dorms, at their parties, and in a lot of the music they download. Only the juxtaposition of the context (lecture hall, older man at podium) and the diction (low, vulgar) would lead to a their reaction.

Bakhtin would call such a juxtapositon "transcoding" -- the mix of the high and the low (often, in his examples from Rabelais, the holy mixed somehow with bodily functions). The function of such transcoding is a kind of delight in borderline scandal -- exactly the reaction I saw when one of my students came up to me after the reading and, smiling broadly, said "oh, my virgin ears!" I don't imagine the post-everything crowd at Buffalo would have quite the same reaction as the younger and less experienced audience we had last night, and that's the reason I'm inclined to believe what Tom told me about this stop on his tour being his favorite so far.

So take note, oh Devin Johnston, when next you plan a tour for Tom Pickard: he belongs among the virgins, delighted in the scandal of their own burning ears.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Michael Donaghy, 1954-2004

(From left: a member of Donaghy's band, Donaghy, Richard Pettengill and Bob Archambeau during Donaghy's visit to Lake Forest College, one of his last American poetry readings)

Some very sad news: the poet Michael Donaghy has died, apparently of a brain aneurism. A tremendously charming poet, Donaghy had come to Lake Forest College earlier this year as our artist-in-residence, and made quite an impression, as I'm sure he did everywhere he went.

Born in the Bronx, Donaghy had worked as a doorman in a swank Central Park West building and read poetry (often concealed in his hat) surreptitiously while on the job. He told me about a very elegant Manhattan matron who caught him in the act and gave him her tickets to the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, a venue where he was eventually to give readings of his own. He was a great storyteller as well as a poet, and could turn just about any incident in his life into a narrative that had the whole room wide-eyed and fixated or roaring with laughter. He seemed, too, to have a habit of living interestingly -- I remember him telling me about spending a cold Chicago winter in an old Weather Underground safehouse in Hyde Park, hanging out with Keith Tuma and burning old, much-thumbed copies of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man for warmth.

He was a performer in so many ways: as a musician, as a teller of jokes and stories, as a speaker of his own poetry (which he recited from memory). One suspects that the phrase "the show must go on" meant something to Donaghy. He was quite ill when he came to Lake Forest for his week's visit, with kidney stones that must have been quite painful. But on the day after his surgery he insisted on pulling himself together to give one of the most successful readings I've seen at the College. I imagine he loved performing more than anything else. He certainly did it well, and he found every opportunity to do it. I remember the way he rubbed his hands together theatrically when I told him the chairman had his check ready. Everything was act, charisma, and charm by the barrel. My English publisher called Donaghy "a fab bloke," which is about right, I think.

I don't think the little world of American poetry ever quite knew what to do with Donaghy. He ran, a little, with the New Formalist crowd, but since he chose to live in London he was on the periphery of that circle. His work was often elegantly formal, but it never had the feel of rigidity that one sometimes finds in the "Rebel Angels" school of formalism. He was tremendously well-read (I remember an impromptu talk about Eliot and David Jones he gave to a Modern Poetry class of mine) but he wore his learning as lightly as you could imagine, unlike those formalists who seem to think that their familiarity with the Norton Anthology of English Literature has made them into a kind of elite elect.

Donaghy called Conjure, his most recent collection(I find it hard to say "his last") his "father book." It is certainly that: his father is present in many of the poems, and vividly realized. But the poems rise above private anecdote: the experience of his father is often filtered through cultural artefacts from Shakespeare's Tempest to Welles' Citizen Kane. Donaghy's learning was worn lightly in part, I suppose, because his learning was -lived-: it was assimilated to his own life and experience. My favorite poets are often like this (it is the fusion of the immediate and the apparently remote that attracted me, for example, to the work of John Matthias). I regret that Donaghy's work only came to my attention recently, and I deeply regret how his career has been cut so tragically short.

Dances Learned Last Night, a slim Picador collection of Donaghy's earlier poetry, is a good place to start if you have yet to meet this poet. I feel very fortunate to have met the man.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Light the Lights: Charles Cantalupo's Decolonized Knowledge

So there I was, flipping through the most recent copy of the ADE Bulletin (the MLA's publication for Department Chairs -- I'm not the chair of my department, thank god, but the chair has signed me up for the Bulletin anyway, which I take as an ominous advance rumble of an administrative chickenshit monsoon blowing in my direction). By and large, the ADE Bulletin articles are exactly as interesting and inspiring as you'd think they'd be. They're the kind of thing that makes you want a third cup of coffee. But this time there was an article by Mary Louise Pratt called "Living Change: Thoughts for Humanists in Troubled Times." This was interesting, and got me thinking about Charles Cantalupo's new book of poems, "Light the Lights," which, in a just world, would be well known and prominantly reviewed.

Pratt writes about the long slow processes by which changes in knowledge are lived out, and takes particular notice of what she calls the decolonizing of Western knowledge of the world beyond Europe. She begins by noting how Western knowledge of the rest of the world was often colonial in its assumptions. She gives different examples, but I think of a guy like the Marquis de Condorecet, a left-winger and general good guy of the Enlightenment, who nevertheless thought that all the unfortunate Africans needed was to "follow the expositions and proofs that appear in our speeches and writings" to rise from what he saw as their savagery. Talk about your Eurocentrism: African forms of knowledge had nothing to offer, in this view, and the leadership role naturally fell to the West. You can almost hear the quills being sharpened for the writing of the manifestos of the colonial "mission civilisatrice."

Understanding of the discontents of this kind of colonial discourse came slowly, Pratt says, through the lived expereinces of generations. Shakespeare gave a kind of glimpse of the problem early on, with Caliban from "The Tempest," but the understanding of Caliban as a figure of decolonization took centuries. Pratt points to Northrop Frye's introduction to the 1959 Penguin edition of the play, where the great critic's prodigious intelligence glimmers, for a moment, with insight. "It is a little puzzling," writes Frye, "why New World imagery should be so prominent in 'The Tempest,' which really hs nothing to do with the New World, beyond ... a general, if vague, resemblenace between the relation of Caliban to the other characters and that of the American Indians to the colonizers and drunken sailors who came to exterminate or enslave them." Yow! I mean, there it it: a recognition of the decolonizing element of the play, but just there, at the exact moment of vision, the lights go out, and Frye becomes blind to his own insight. If that insight now seems obvious, it is only because decades of political decolonization and post-colonial study have made it so.

I'm not at all sure we're through with the process of decolonizing knowledge, either. I remember attending a conference at Grinnell College, where I, along with other liberal arts profs who taught postcolonial literature, had assembled to pat ourselves on the back for our pedagogical and political coolness. At one of the Q&A sessions an African man (Joseph Mbele of St. Olaf College, I think) rose up and interrupted a speaker who'd been talking about race, gender and class in postcolonial studies. "my question is this," he said "when will my village matter?" This stopped us all in our tracks. What he meant, he continued, was that the terms we were so pleased to use in discussing identity (race gender and class) were western terms, and totally alien to the terms actually used in the African village where he grew up. There, he went on, everything was a matter of extended kinship relations. If we didn't incorporate those terms into our discourse, how "post" was our supposed postcolonialism. (We all applauded -- but I wonder how many of the assembled profs have gone on to learn anything about those kinship systems he mentioned?)

All of this brings me, at last, around to Charles Cantalupo. Cantalupo has -lived- decolonization more than most of us. He's spent a lot of time in Africa, and worked closely with the Eritran poet Reesom Haile (whom he has translated). He seems to have had connections to the Eritrean revolutionaries in their war of liberation against the Ethipoian government, and he organized the Asmara conference on African languages and literature (whose declaration, first published in Samizdat, has been so influential in studies of African literature). What I mean by all of this is that, unlike so many of the people I hung out with when I was involved with postcolonial studies, Cantalupo had an understanding of issues that didn't just come from the library (though he had that kind of understanding too). And Cantalupo's new book of poems, "Light the Lights," is one of the most fully realized works of decolonized knowledge that I have seen.

Okay, I'll explain. Or better yet, I'll give you some of Cantalupo's words by way of explanation. Here are some lines from "Power Figure," the incantatory poem with which he starts the book:

Mothered by a slit gong,
Fathered by a stranger,
This power is not the word
of silver gelatin
To develop a photo,
But pigment and lumen,
Mask, tools and body...

Here, the "power" of which Cantalupo writes is the power of representation, but it is not a Western power (the power of photographic mimesis). Rather, it is the mask and slit gong power of African modes of mimesis. There is a kind of reclaiming of other modes of reason and representation. So far so good. But things get more complicated later in the poem continues:

This power wears your face
And mine: a bell of double
Deals and rivet lines,
One eye an unfired bullet,
The other an old teat,
Six ridges in one brain
With green bolts, and lips barred
By the same claws that scarred
Those cheeks into fossil rocks
Obscured by feathers and fur

Okay, then. So the "power" seems to be a kind of ancestor spirit, a mask, but it is hybridized, like contemporary Africa itself. The basic mask-form is African, just as the basic knowledge patterns of most Africans remains non-Western. But the bullets and rivets that comprise parts of the mask are western, and give us too-clear of a picture of what kinds of western knowlege-goods and material-goods have become parts of the African experience. Nicely done. But wait! There's more! Check out the ending of he poem:

To trade for more tools:
Beans of no birth, small horns,
Unloosed pens and arrows
Wrapped in wet skin,
Petrified birds, stones like hips,
A mandolin, dust that bleeds,
Finger bones, gourds,
Dateless wax holding pins,
Hair twine, porcelain chips,
A grandfather's hammer,
Drop cloth and extension cord.

Here we get a jumbling together of African ancestor-totems and Western ancestor-totems (the sort of stuff you might find in the attic of your grandfather when clearing out the house after the funeral -- the drop-cloth and extension cord). The sense of a division between African forms of knowledge and Western forms of knowledge dissolves in this set of images. In a poem like this we can see the end of the idea of a Western civilization, on the one hand, and an African savagery on the other (Condorcet's idea). And we can also see an end to the well-meaning but totally Eurocentric knowledge system of the college postcolonialists (whose Western race-gender-class system totally excluded the African knowledge systems mentioned by Mbele). Here, "this power" becomes the fusion of the Western and the African.

You get a lot of this stuff in Cantalupo's book. And he's fond of dramatizing the destruction of divisions between Western and non-Western knowledges. My favorites of this kind include "Colonial/Neocolonial" and "Columba/Columbus" and "Look Again," which includes the stunning "Love Song of David Livingstone" (the Livingstone of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame).

You'd think that a book like this would get a lot of play. It is formally interesting in the way that the now-powerful Langpo crowd would like, and it deals with all the important postcolonial issues. Sadly, though, I don't think either crowd will get hip to the book. The Langpo people don't seem to read much beyond the work published by their favorite expereimental presses, and "Light the Lights" is published by The Red Sea Press, a New Jersey-and-Eritrea based outfit whose books don't seem to get much notice at, say, The Electronic Poetry Center. And postcolonial studies (in which poetry has never played a leading role) is too deeply immersed in identity politics to pick up "Light the Lights" as a major text. I mean, Cantalupo is an American white guy, and I don't think he's going to get onto the syllabi of many PoCo seminars, even if what he has to show is more important than, say, a third class session on Derek Walcott (let me go on record: Walcott is overrated -- not inconsequential, but overrated. And "Omeros" is kind of a let-down).

I still have a kind of naive faith that a really good book can matter if the word gets out, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against it. We just may have to live out the decolonization of knowledge a bit more before it happens.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Anarchy by Mark Scroggins

"What does the London Punk Rock scene of the 1970s have to do with the bloody religious turmoil of seventeenth-century England?" asks Norman Finkelstein in the jacket copy of Mark Scroggins' new book, "Anarchy," now out from Spuyten Duyvil. If you, like me, admire anyone who will raise such a question, you'll probably like Scroggins' book, which kicks off with quotes from Milton and Greil Marcus. The juxtaposition is admirable -- you've got to like someone who gets away from the twin solipsisms of American poetry (confessional navel-gazing and reference-free language play) and searches for the connections between the recent and the remote. I see more and more of ths gesture in poetry lately -- I suppose it has something to do with the emergence of what Marjorie Perloff calls "the new Modernism." I suppose, too, that Scroggins' interest in this sort of thing has something to do with his having made a fan of Guy Davenport, our living link to the Hugh Kenner brand of modernism. It has certainly made a fan of me (and not just because I try to do something similar in my own "Major Thel," a kind of poetic lovechild of David Bowie and William Blake).

But what I really like about Scroggins' book are the ways it manages to be both linguistically sophisticated and emotionally expressive. In the poem "Springing," for example, he takes a kind of lyric moment, shows how it is a construct of discourse, and still retains it as legitimate. Check this out:

That it was a perfect day, fitted together fiercely
and hardly in its particulars, could scarcely
be denied; you took that sun to heart, moved
and chastened by the clarity of the branches between.

Okay, that's the first stanza, and so far we've got something that looks like a kind of neo-Romantic encounter with nature. Sure, its in the second person, and there's an ambiguity in the word "hardly" that is kind of interesting (does it mean "hardly" as in having a kind of tough cold clarity, or "hardly" as in "barely"?) but by and large this is pretty straightforward stuff. But Scroggins gets a whole other groove on as he develops the scene in the next two stanzas or so:

I rolled my troubles in an old kit bag, caught
at the last vacillations of the ancient moon, drew carefully
the lines beyond which we had no connaisance, and
felt -- "in my heart" -- a motion which again refused denial.

What more could they do? They stood in the gloom
before the screen, which slowly scrolled its credits over
their clothes and faces. The rustling of the early
frost transfused a breathy, whispered singing, echoed

through the lobby and the darkened restrooms.

I mean, hot damn! Scroggins begins with an old cliche (troubles in his kit bag), a kind of intertextual reference. This, combined with the quotation marks around "in my heart" show that the lyric emotion we saw in the first stanza is culturally conditioned, and draws on the stock of emotional responses made available and articulate through culturally specific forms. We get the point driven home when the scene becomes one in which the people have the credits of a movie projected onto them. Not only do we see the individual as inscribed by culture (the body with writing on it) but the credits are the part of the movie that bares the device, and gives a list of all the artifices of the movie, from gaffing to cinematography. So we really get a strong sense of the linguistically/culturally conditioned nature of the lyric moment. And then there are those wandering pronouns! Woo! You becomes I becomes they. There's all sorts of good stuff going on -- yet none of it takes the lyric moment away. The poem shows that what we feel doesn't become illegitimate just because it is the product of the inherited discourse speaking through us, or being projected on us. I like it. I wish there were more of this going on in poetry.

I ran into Scroggins in Maine at the Poetry of the 1940s conference this summer, and he tells me that things are looking good in alt-poetry land. He'd been to Buffalo and reported that the new students there are all into their own post-langpo things, as opposed to a few years back when he felt they all worshipped a bit too ardently at the shrines of Silliman, Bernstein and company. I can see why he'd like this development -- this book seems to me to be the best sort of post-langpo possibility, a book that understands language sceptically, but doesn't limit itself to that scepticism. The book is well worth the ten bucks they're asking for it at Come on, buy the thing. Give a poet a break.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Samizdat, R.I.P.

Hear ye, hear ye: Samizdat is dead! Samizdat is dead! Long live the Samizdat Blog!

Yes, its official: I've folded up Samizdat after ten issues of poetry, reviews, interviews, letters from odd corners of the poetry planet and editorial sniping at sacred cows from the dizzying height of my ivory tower.

When we started out, I wanted to set Michael Anania's words about literary publishing in stone and mount them above the door of my office: "the secret of literary publishing is that there are no sales" he'd said, after pointing out that most literary magazine editors blow all of their money on a first issue, all of their friends' money on a second issue, and then rely on sales for the funding of the third issue. Hence the tendency for literary magazines to fail at issue three. Taking a cue from Anania, I budgeted to lose the full cost of every issue and, with this business model, always came out ahead of expectations. But after ten issues, I've discovered that I love writing more than I love editing. And the host impulses that gave me pleasure as an editor are satisfied with less sweat and more immediate payoff by throwing parties (like the retro Fondue Soultrain party with which I kicked off this latest semester). So sayonara, Samizdat.

But wait. Giving up the writing of editorials is not easy. I mean, you get the illusion that there are people out there who actually read what you write, and the short format allows for causeries and spit-takes of quick disgust or amusement. How to keep this, while giving up the magazine? Ah. Easy: the Samizdat Blog. Long may it wave.