Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Earthward Pointing Thumb, Redux

From the deep, muggy swamps of Florida, from beneath the very shadow of Katherine Harris, and from the lingering pile of hanging chads and butterfly ballots, Mark Scroggins heroically blogs away about negative poetry reviews, among sundry other topics. Specifically, he notes my comment about the scarcity of negative reviews, a state clearly out of whack with the state of the art (we don't live in Lake Wobegon, so not all the books are above average). He notes my earlier comments on these things, but then rightly wonders if I'm not missing the elephant in the room:

I wonder if Bob ain't skirting the more proximate reason why there aren't more bad reviews of new books of poetry in the circles in which we travel: ie, because it's after all a pretty small world, the world of contemporary poetry that one cares about or theoretically ought to care about, & one's always chary of treading the toes of someone who might be willing to publish or review one's own work the next time around.

Too right! This is one more way that poetry reviewing is different from movie reviewing. I mean, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls aside, Roger Ebert doesn't harbor any ambitions to make another movie, so he doesn't worry about ticking off Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis when he pans a movie. Not so in the deminmonde of poetry! Not in this our shadowy world of petty ambitions and resentments, where every reviewer has a manuscript of poems just waiting to be put into PDF format and sent off to press; where every journal editor has a similar manuscript; where half the publishers are in the same boat; and where the prize-givers are looking out for their pals. Ay yi yi. Someday American poetry's own low-rent version of L'Affair Jack Abramoff will come to light, I'm sure.

I mean, check out the gymnastics poor Mark Halliday has to go through in Pleiades when he wants to make some constructive criticisms of Helen Vendler's latest effusion of poetry criticism. Before he gets to his criticisms, he lists five reasons to praise Vendler, and then gets to that ever-present fear of those who write about big-wheels like Vendler: that the criticized bigwig will come down on the hapless reviewer hard, with the full weight of some kind of coked-up bionic sasquatch:

There is also a shady sixth reason to praise Vendler's book: she wields power in the contemporary poetry world; I might benefit from her goodwill, or suffer from her ill will! But of course it would be disrespectful both to myself and to Vendler if I were to let this worry skew my review.

Oh, Mark -- too late! I image you'll soon find yourself reduced to self-publishing on scraps of birch bark! And all that, just to say the truth: that the poetry world is too small and too incestuous for any kind of bad review to be safe. Except, of course, for the negative review of a book from The Other Tribe. You're safe if you've identified with one tribe of baboons and want to hurl feces at baboons from the neighboring tribe. (Was that my worst figure of speech yet? Surely I have sunk even lower...) I mean, you can sneer at the langpo guys if you're one of the new formalists, or dismiss as the product of the "School of Quietude" anything you don't like if you've signed up as one of Silliman's Mouseketeers (uh, I mean "as a practitioner of the Post-Avant"). So when we do get bad reviews, they're often more a matter of mutual antagonism than of careful and considered judgment.

What gets missed in all of the mutual back-scratching and inter-tribal chest-thumping is something we might call the "thumbs down because we care" review. Scroggins bemoans this situation, crying out from the kudzu-covered poetry yurt in his backyard:

I'm all for those careful, descriptive reviews of projects that one's largely sympathetic with; I'd like to see more critical, even cutting evaluations of worthwhile projects that one wishes succeeded but don't.

Oh, indeed. This is what we need. But the forces that condition our behavior mitigate against this sort of thing developing. That the material and social rewards for poetry remain pathetically low-stakes does little to change the situation. I suppose that's unsurprising to anyone who saw the fight over the preferable stapler in the movie Office Space, though. My guess is that the only solution to the problem is to not care about receiving the little rewards and perks of poetry, to let come what will, but not to jockey around trying to get an allegedly more prestigious job or a place in posterity. Easier to say than to do, but important, really.


In other news, Simon DeDeo has relocated to our fair city of Chicago. Already the weight of the hidebound eastern hierarchy falls away from his weary shoulders! Already he breathes the free midwestern air! Lo! See! Yea, he starteth a new journal.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On the Sign of the Earthward Pointing Thumb

This just in from Jeffrey Bershaw, whose sentiments echo those in a number of messages I received about "The Worst Living Irish Writer"/"The Decay of Twilight"/"The Decadent of Moyvane":

Mr. Archambeaux,

Oh, oh! Your review made me laugh and then a sentence or two later, I'd laughed again. After reading scathing reviews, however, I often wonder why people write them. Why spend the energy to write about something one doesn't enjoy? Unless, of course, one enjoys writing scathing reviews.

Thanks, anyway, though. Fun read. I like your writing. One day, I'll check out your poetry. When I do, I wonder if I'll like it, too.

Best regards,

Jeffrey B.

And voila, my attempt at a response:

Hey There, Bershaw

Great question! About writing negative reviews, that is. I mean, a lot of people think it is mean-spirited to say something bad about a book of poetry, although curiously enough people don't seem to mind it when a movie gets ripped by a critic. I suppose some of the logic of this apparent contradiction goes like this:

A movie reviewer is payed to give advice to potential consumers, so his loyalty is to the viewer, and he should only be nice to the film,and by extention the film-maker, when the film deserves it. But a poetry critic isn't getting paid, or if he is, it isn't much (true! I tend to get crappy token payments for some of my reviews, like maybe 50 bucks, and most I do for free) (*A parenthetical note to editors: Thanks for the fiddy! Really! I'll take what I can get...). Moreover, there's hardly any audience for poetry, and if you're in an actual bookstore you can sneak a peek into the book and decide for yourself. Consumer advice hardly enters into the matter. So why say something negative about a book of poems, if it isn't to serve the reader (much) or make (much) money?

Good questions! In my own case, I'll say this: most of the time when I'm asked to review books, and all of the time when I go to an editor suggesting a review of my own volition, I review books that I find interesting. But I suppose it is important to note that what I find interesting can be different from what I love. Usually I do love (okay, usually I like) the book in question. But when the Keltoi people sent me Fitzmaurice's book and asked me to review it, things were different. I thought it was lousy poetry, but the particular way it was lousy was interesting to me.

Here's how -- I teach Irish lit sometimes, and read a lot of it, and know some writers over there, etc., and one of the things I'd been interested in was the development of a kind of postcolonial nationalist poetry tradition in Ireland. It's all a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea. You can see it grow and change over the course of the period of Irish lit I teach: roughly: 1880-now. And you can see it become less well adapted to the local conditions: what ws once liberating becomes confining (again, there are all kinds of variations and contradictions involved, but let this serve for shorthand). You can even see new traditions being born. In my review of Fitzmaurice's book I even named a few people whom I see, in my deeply-flawed crystal ball, as inventing a new Irish poetry. But the book Keltoi sent me seemed like the last gasp of an old tradition. Watching Fitzmaurice trying to write in that tradition was like watching someone triy to play a bassoon with a worn-out reed.

So I thought there was some interesting significance to the ways the book sucked. (Who am I to say it sucked? Another good question! Man, if I didn't have a job, I'd try to answer it too. For now I'll just say that my usual working assumptions on these issues come from David Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste" — don't be put off by the old-school title — and Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction, though the two works aren't really compatible). And I wrote the review because I thought people who are into Irish lit, that being the crowd that reads Keltoi, would be interested. All of this is a bit hard on Fitzmaurice, the hapless poet, I guess, although when you put your book out there you've got to be willing to take some honestly-intended knocks. (So, yeah, Jeffrey, I know, you're going to read my book, and if you honestly think it blows in interesting ways, I guess I'll have to take my lumps too, which I'm sure is easier said than done). I guess I didn't have to post a link to the review on my blog, but if there's any other audience beyond the Irish-lit crowd who'd be interested, my guess is that it would be people who read my writing — a crowd that would fit in a small enough space, I know.

I suppose there's a lot more to say if we look at the Big Picture. We could talk about the idea of professionalism and disinterested evaluation, and the limitations of those ideas, and the form of the book review, and the strangely low ratio of negative reviews to postive reviews. But this about does me in for the time being, what with the new semester banging on my office door, behind which I cower.

So I hope that answers your question. I'm hoping I don't come off as an ogre out to smash egos for the hell of it. And anyway: Fitzmaurice wrote so many poems about how the critics just won't get him that part of me thinks he'll just feel confirmed, if he ever stoops to read the piece.

P.S. There's no x at the end of Archambeau, though it'd be cool if there were.



Monday, August 21, 2006

The Worst Living Irish Poet, or The Decay of Twilight

Snappy titles, eh? But why two titles for a post consisting of only a few sentences, you ask? Well, the titles are actually alternate versions of "The Decadent of Moyvane," which is what I chose to call a little piece I wrote for Keltoi about a peculiarly Irish form of poetic degeneration. Irish poetry is alive and kickin', sure, as any look into a book by Mairead Byrne or Randolph Healy or Catherine Walsh or Trevor Joyce will tell you, but good gawd there's a lot of crap generated over there by the Dead Hand of Tradition. Anyway, check out the Archambeau take on the decay of an old Irish tradition over at e-Keltoi. They've even got a print-friendly PDF you can get to from here. Slainte!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

So It's Come to This... (In Which I am Appalled)

Since you insist, well, alright: here's the letter I'm sending to The New York Times in response to Christopher Caldwell's article "The Post-8/10 World," an opinion piece that bears the chillingly non-ironic subtitle "Are You Still a Civil Liberties Absolutist?":

Are you still a civil liberties absolutist?
Are you still wild-eyed and gooned-up on the headiness of habeus corpus?
Does the quaint idea of privacy awaken your inner jihadi?
Are you still writing the truth in your diary?
Why don’t you open the door a crack, and let the nice man from the secret police look in?

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Prescience of Ann Lauterbach

Having stuffed a fourteen-year-old issue of Global City Review in his pocket (it being the only truly pocket-sized journal), that he may have something to read on the train, the poet-as-professor saw that Ann Lauterbach had anticipated the beginning of fall semester in the year 2006:

on the bateau, in wild heat
children laughed through the history lesson
through the great facades in the Year of Friendly Fire

(from "Arm's Reach, Harm's Way")

Monday, August 14, 2006

Poetry Readings: Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?

  • 1. In Which I Consider the Words of Johnny Rotten

    Would I sound too much like the kind of guy who spends several hours each week cross-indexing his mint-condition collection of punk, ska, and indie rock vinyl if I began a post by saying something like "The other day I was thinking about what is arguably the second-greatest public statement by a member of the Sex Pistols..." Probably. But at least I wasn't cross-indexing my vinyl when I thought about Johnny Rotten's famous quip from the stage of the last Sex Pistols concert: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" The show at the Winterland in San Francisco had been a real train-wreck, and Rotten meant, in his own way, to sort of apologize to the crowd by laying down that question and walking out. No, I wasn't checking my reference files for some arcane detail about how to organize the "American Punk, 1975-1979" subsection by record producer (though far be it from me to sneer at such a nobly geeked-out project) when I thought of Rotten's question. Instead, I was looking at the lineup for this fall's On the Run Reading Series, which I co-ordinate with my colleague Davis Schneiderman.

    It isn't that I think Davis and I are working some poetic/academic version of the Great Rock and Roll Swindle (though I've always thought Davis has a little whiff of Malcom McLaren about him). No indeed. I mean, I think we've got a pretty sharp lineup, even a kind of edgy one for our leafy corner of the liberal arts. It's that I've never really been happy with the format for poetry readings, and have rarely met anyone who has been. And when I give them myself, I sometimes feel (I know, I know, delusions of grandeur) an emotion like Johnny Rotten's at the end of the Winterland concert. Looking out over the eager-to-split-and-get-a-drink crowd, I sometimes feel like saying "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

  • 2. The Trouble With Poetry Readings

    And I'm not alone in feeling that most poetry readings can be kind of a drag. (A note to the inevitable reader who's going to send me blistering email saying, "My readings are different, because they're special and I really care about the audience experience": yeah, okay, you're different. And so's your favorite poet who gave that immortal reading in South Beach. You're both alright. You have beautiful souls and it shows, man). I mean, I hear polite complaints from all quarters: my pals in the freakstream of poetry as well as my acquaintances from what passes for the mainstream big-league of the art. Sometimes someone comes up with some ideas for how to reshape the format for poetry readings, too. Remember Dana Gioia's little checklist at the end of Can Poetry Matter?, where he suggested interspersing poetry with music, and having poets read famous poems by the late great versifiers? There may be something to this idea that the performances could be different. I mean, the most crowd-pleasing poets I've seen have been those who depart from the usual "I'm reading some poems from my book" format: at Lake Forest I recall Andrei Codrescu knocking 'em dead by sort of projecting persona for an hour, with the occasional poem thrown in, or Michael Donaghy impressing with virtuosity, reciting all of his poems from memory. So maybe there's something to be done with changing what we do at the lectern. Getting rid of the lectern might be a big part of it.

    But what if a big part of the problem with poetry readings isn't a matter of what's up on stage, but a matter of what's down in the seats? (And no, I'm not referring to the butt-punishing chairs devised by the enemies of aesthetic experience and fiendishly distributed to bookstores, universities, and art galleries worldwide). What if part of the problem is the audience -- or, rather, the expectations and goals of the audience? What if they come for motives that are bound to generate dissatisfaction?

    (Observe me duck beneath my desk, fearing a barrage of incoming hatred. Watch as I wait a moment, then sheepishly poke my head back up from behind desk and laptop, look cautiously around, and resume typing).

  • 3. Cautious Disclaimers: An Incomplete List

    First cautious disclaimer: No, I don't mean that poets inevitably put on a great show, and the philistines fail to appreciate it. Believe it or not, oh adoring multitudes, I myself have sucked tremendously at times (uh, sorry, crowd at The Hideout, for that one time. Those of you that know, know, and those of you who weren't there, well, count yourselves lucky). Oyez.

    Second cautious disclaimer: I am always grateful and happy when people come to my readings.

    Third cautious disclaimer: No, I don't think I've figured out how to do a better reading than you have.

    Fourth cautious disclaimer: No, I don't want to blame the audience, or not exactly. I want to say that, in many instances, there's a disconnect between what audiences come to readings for, and what readings actually provide. And I'm not sure that the readers can actually provide what the audiences are looking for.

  • 4. In Which are Disclosed the Several Varieties of Audiences for Poetry Readings

    So check this out. Years of lurking around colleges, bookstores, and various venues of an arty ilk have led me to categorize the varieties of poetry reading audiences into five main categories. (Audiences can be hybrid, but in their distilled form here are the basic types of audience, the constituent sources of any such hybrids):

    4.A. The Dragooned Student Audience. You know who these people are. You were one of these guys the first time you went to a reading. You may have press-ganged a few of these audiences together on your own, oh my colleagues. And what do such audiences want? Well, lots of things. Sometimes they really want to hear poetry. Some of the time, though, what some of the people want it is extrinsic to the whole "poetry, delivered orally" prescripton we've written out for them. Sometimes they want to know they'll pass the test, or get a chance to sign the sheet, or hook themselves up with the extra credit (not unreasonably, and not always -- but this is a function of the system we set up when we dragoon people into an event). So sometimes people come thinking of the reading as a chore, and end up enjoying the reading about as much as they'd enjoy an annual check-up at the dentist's office. I was one of these guys, even when I went to readings by poets I'd have enjoyed under other circumstances -- there's something about being told to do something that sucks all of the fun out of the event. (Even as I type this, I gird my loins for battle at my home institution, where some faculty are pressing for a system in which students are to be required to attend a certain number of intellectual events every semester. Every bone in my body cries out against such institutionalized infantalizing of the students...uh, except the one bone that's connected to the part of me that sometimes gives extra credit for hitting the reading...)

    4.B. Cultivated Professionals Lured By the Aura of Something Connected to the Poet or the Venue. This isn't so much a campus poetry audience as it is an uptown kind of crew. You find them at museum readings, or at other big city venues. They're generally affluent, skew middle-aged, and show up because of some mojo associated with the poet (he or she is the current laureate, say) or some mojo associated with the institution (to which they have probably written a check at some point) -- they're not there to see the poet so much as they're there to be a part of the 92nd Street Y or whatever similar institution graces their city. This may be one of the more satisfied kinds of audience, in part because advanced age has extended their attention spans and raised their thresholds for boredom, and in part because much of what they're after (the idea of participation in something respectable among the high-cultural-capital-and-high-economic-capital set) is on offer. But the poetry part can seem a bit extraneous to the real reasons for showing up, experienced the way one experiences a fund-drive on PBS, as a necessary and well-meaning interlude to be endured.

    4.C. Celebrants of their Own Ethnic, Sexual, or Regional Identity. Ever been to a Seamus Heaney reading at Notre Dame? What, no, really? Well, I'll tell you about it, man. There I was, at a Seamus Double Bill, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane. Along with the dragooned students (self included) and the cultivated professionals and the local poetry producers (more of which anon) was the Irish American community out in full erin-go-bragh force. I mean, they seemed to appreciate the reading, but part of me thinks that there were some who were disappointed that the two Seamuses didn't come out on stage wearing emerald suits and the kind of plastic kelley-green bowler hat one sees in Southie on St. Patrick's day. What was desired was a pure injection of eau d'Irelande, and it was inconveniently cut with a large dose of poetry. Nothing wrong with the readers or the audience, but each was about a very different thing.

    4.D. Production for Producers: The Poetry Crowd Consisting of Poets. This is more of a downtown groove, though you get it at big universities too, and during literary conferences. Sometimes these people are really into the poetry, just as some dragooned students are, and some members of other kinds of crowds. But if the hoots of laughter at not really very funny stage banter and the craning of necks to look around and see who is there looking at you are any indication, there are ulterior motives afoot too. Some people go to be seen as members of the community, or to network furiously, seeking the kinds of face-to-face interaction that may lead to publications or readings or jobs or the like (not that that's a always bad thing -- every profession this side of hermit has some need for this stuff, and poetry has become a kind of profession, which is a whole other topic, and one that causeth the good-hearted to wring their pallid romantic hands). Some come for the opportunity to socialize post-reading with likeminded people, who may be thin on the ground at bars other than the one next to the reading -- again, nothing wrong with this, but it doesn't have a lot to do with listening to poetry at the reading.

    4.E. The Slam Crowd. Like 4.D., above, but, you know... drunk.

    So there you have it, class: the five elemental types of audiences, which can of course be mixed into various compounds. Did I leave anyone out? Probably. Let me know. But I think there's enough coverage here for the general point to be made: most poets aren't selling, and can't reasonably be expected to want to sell, what most audiences came to buy. Dissatisfaction seems inherent in the system.

  • 5. The Big Solution

    Uh...well... check back with me later. I gotta go somewhere and, uh, do something...

    (Exit the blogger, pursued by his doubts and insufficiencies)

  • 6. Why We Go To Readings Despite The Misery of it All

    (Enter the blogger, accompanied by sentimental melodies from the string section. Emanating from his person is a Garrison-Keillor like folksy warmth redolent of hope and positivity etc.)

    On a good day, I can think about poetry readings the way Marianne Moore thought about poetry when she wrote:

    I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
    all this fiddle.
    Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
    discovers in
    it after all, a place for the genuine.

    On other days, I think of readings not so much as things I like to attend, but as things that I'm glad to have attended. In this they're a lot like travel: I dig it ahead of time, when I'm pawing through the Rough Guide and thinking about how clever I'm going to be when I pack three jackets, four pairs of shoes, a gallon of hair-care product, and three volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into my carry-on for that long-awaited week in beautiful Kraplachistan. And I enjoy travel post-facto, when I see that it actually has Enriched Life. It's just the middle bit that's problematic, consisting of aching feet, misread train schedules, getting lost on the local metro, trying to find someplace to sit that isn't covered in pigeon shit, sneering with contempt at my demographic doppelgangers, the other tourists from Chicago, or somehow managing to lose part of a Q-tip in my ear and, due to language barriers, being unable to explain the problem to the bemused locals.

    So anyway. What was my point? Oh yeah, check out this year's readings at Lake Forest. Eventually, you'll feel good about it.

  • Sunday, August 06, 2006

    Samizdat Blog: The Lost Sessions

    Okay, peeps, I've been furiously writing away on a number of projects all month long -- none of which, as the date of my last post makes clear, include any entries for this blog. No indeed. I have slaved over a piece on John Peck for the Chicago Review, I have labored over an essay on Peck, John Matthias and Allen Fisher for Pleiades, I have conducted a ruthless campaign to devise an article on James McMichael, Ken Fields, and Laton Carter for the Notre Dame Review, I have worked my mojo in my dojo to prepare for a talk at Northwestern on this very blog (ironically allowing the blog to lie fallow in the process), and I have devised various revisions and edits for an essay called "The Aesthetic Anxiety" (the gist of which is described by Dave Park over at his blog). But that's almost all behind me, so I turn to my much-battered Moleskine and have a look at the notes I took for the entries I'd planned to write this July. Here, in brief form, then, are The Entries I Never Wrote:

    1. Distubing Disinterest

    So there I was, pawing through the back-pages of the Chicago Review, thinking about writing a blog entry on why I always turn to the back pages of any journal or magazine first (whatever ilk it may be: The Nation, The New Yorker or ACM, whathaveya) when I ran across Martin Riker's review of Patrick Ourednik's Europeana, which seems to be getting more play than most of the Dalkey Archive list. I've sort of had my say on Ourednik, but I was less interested in writing about Europeana than in writing about Riker's reaction to it, and the way that Riker's reaction struck a chord with some other critical reactions to a very different text. Riker (a sharp guy who came up to Lake Forest to give a good paper on David Antin for the &NOW Festival this spring) was put off by the deadpan tone of Ourednik's book: you just can't get a read on how Ourednik feels about the European history he describes. It's as if he's somehow turned off his ability to feel anything for his subject -- no positive or negative emotions, no cues on how we should assess the subject. This disinterested perspective is quite rare in art, and we tend to be bothered by it: we just don't know what to make of a purely disinterested take on things. A similar situation came about earlier this summer, when the movie The Notorious Bettie Page came out. I remember seeing it, and being struck by how the movie refuses to make moralizing statements about the two lives of Bettie Page -- first as fetish icon, then as Christian fundamentalist. The movie didn't do a typical Hollywood thing, giving us a frisson of the forbidden, then reassuring the squares by telling us that conventional morality is in the end best (CSI, anyone?). Neither did it take the kind of rebellious stance I'd kind of hoped it would take, championing the liberating forces of creative perversity against the repressive forces of uptight moralizing. It gave you Page's two sides and didn't choose between them (interestingly, it did explore the psychological similarities between freaky fetishistic power games and the power games of religious conversion -- the main difference between the two being that while the former knows it is a game, the latter thinks it is true and real). Anyway, the film's critics kept remarking on the odd way that it just didn't take sides or give you something to cheer for. No heroics in the conversion from perv to prude, and no fall from grace either. So I'd hoped to blog a little on our poorly developed ability to deal with disinterest. But sadly, it was not to be.

    2. What We Talked About at the Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference

    So there I was, on a panel down in Evanston with Claire Zulkey, Wendy McClure, and Kevin Guilfoile, talking about blogging. It was interesting to be there in that I got a sense of what people who write books of a kind very different from the kind I write (that is to say: books that large numbers of people read) talk about when they talk about blogs. What they want to talk about, it seems, is how to promote your book with a blog (which is possible though fraught with peril, I learned), or how to turn your blog into a book (which is hard to do, but possible). They're also interested in how to get people to read your blog (don't take month-long hiatuses) and in how many hits a blog gets (theirs get more than mine, though on a top day I get to about the level of a slowish day for some of them). My summer was bookended with two very different talks: a University of Chicago faculty and grad student seminar where the names dropped were those of philosophers, and a Northwestern writers' conference where the names dropped were those of literary agents. I'd planned to riff more on that cultural difference, and two different kinds of prestige, but sadly, it was not to be.

    3. Series A

    I made the scene down in Chicago at Bill Allegrezza's new poetry show, Series A at the very austere and Bauhausish Hyde Park Art Center, where Chris Glomski and Kerri Sonnenberg read for the inaugural session. What scene, you ask, and how exactly did you "make" it? Excellent questions! And I would have answered them, too, had I written a real blog entry (which was, sadly, not to be). That entry would have contrasted the reading with the two seminars I gave this summer. In the end, the scene at Series A was much more like the U of C seminar than the Northwesten Writers' Conference. It was clearly an instance of "production for producers" since most of the audience consisted or poets -- although the Chicago Review guys were there, sitting in their own row in the back, as were a few other non-poets. As with the U of C seminar, the social element was important -- much more gemeinschaft than gesselschaft: I think almost half of the people at the reading ended up drinking together at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap afterwards, talking poetry and bullshitting merrily on into the night. So there was a tight-knit feel to it, very different from the "how do I broadcast to a wide audience" ethos of the Northwestern gig. Also of interest was a strange manifestation of blog pseudo-fame. I ran into Timothy Yu (whom I'd never met), who asked, when I was introduced, if I had a blog. I said that I did, and mentioned the name, at which point another guy I'd never met swivelled around and introduced himself as Sam Jones, one the the most dedicated poetry bloggers in our fair city. So there was a kind of secondary community, a blog scene laid out on top of the poetry scene. I'd have meditated on all this for you, folks, but was busy with other matters, so it was not to be.

    4. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Poetry

    This is an entry I never wrote because it grew into a real article before it ever had a chance to be a blog entry. I'd been thinking about Max Weber, and how in his thinking the Protestant ethic of rigid self-control, asceticism, and denial leads (somewhat ironically) to Big Worldly Rewards. Then I thought of how the world of artistic production is always (in Bourdieu's phrase) "an economic world turned upside down." And it occurred to me that this was entirely true with regard to poetry that works the Protestant virtues: if you write a poetry that is emotionally restrained, you don't get such fame and worldly rewards as the poetry world offers, or at least you're not likely to. Lowell hit it big with Life Studies, folks, not Lord Weary's Castle. Anyway, this idea got kidnapped into a bigger project (look for it from my pals at the Notre Dame Review) and was sadly not to be in its blog form.

    5. Memories of the Aspidistra Bookshop

    I'd meant to rhapsodize about the much-missed Aspidistra Bookshop, a used book store and bohemian hangout that held down a slice of Clark Street real estate in Chicago for a few decades before closing. I'd worked there during grad school for a few years, my job usually consisting of coming in around 1:00 pm and being handed a wad of bills from the till by Ron Ellingson, the owner and a man of letters in his own pissed-off-Vietnam-vet way. He'd send me across the street to pick up a six pack of Guinness and two fried chickens, then I'd come back and distribute beer and chicken to Ron, his sons, his other employees (filmmakers, philosophy students, and others of our tribe), and the crowd of regulars (Startouch the astrologer, who had of an amazing afro, an amazing string of girlfriends, and a 900 number you could call for astrological advice infused with R & B music); Snowman the street musician/preacher/tuckpointing guy; Bungalow Bill the mysterious hustler; Ron's hippie lawyer Freeman; the awe-inspiring Fred Burkhart and a host of similar Saints of All-American Weirdness). We'd all watch the O.J. Simpson trial on a tiny black and white T.V. and wait for the inevitable moment when Ron would throw some hapless customer out of the store for saying something that fell beneath the standards of intellectual integrity, literary zeal, or boho cool. Anyway, I wanted to riff on the vibe of the place for a while, then ask why Aspidistra never acheived the status of such legendary bookstores as Cody's or George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company or even the old Peace Eye in the Village. My suspicion is that the second-city thing plays into it: Chicago's insufficient glamour strikes again. But I never got round to it, and sadly, I suspect the entry is not to be.

    So there they are, class: the lost sessions of Samizdat blog. Treasure them like the rare Factory Records EP they wish they were.