Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Great Chicago MLA Poetry Marathon of 2007

So, this happened Friday:

There it is: the great Chicago Poetry Marathon of '07, held during the Modern Language Association's annual calling together of the professorial tribes. During one of my darker moments in the process of organizing this shindig, I'd written to John Matthias, saying "the whole thing will be demeaning to all concened, I'm sure. I plan to fake a stroke in the first five minutes and be carried out by my minions so as to avoid the inevitable disaster." But my melodramatic acting chops were never called for: everything went off without a hitch. No bar mitzvah or charity fundraiser was in progress when we arrived; the booksellers didn't fall into turf wars at the tables, the caterers didn't drop an urn of steaming decaf onto the PA system, and despite Ray Bianchi and Garin Cycholl's threats, the Chicago poetry mafia decided not to deliver any kind of beat-down to the peace-loving Bay Area types. The guys who arrived with video cameras weren't a poetry-suspicious crew from Homeland Security monitoring us for future deportation to Gitmo, but archivists recording it all for the Chicago Public Libraries. Or so they said. And despite the snow, the crowd turned out in force. From my perch in one of the balconies (where I felt like Evita Peron) I estimated somewhere between two and three hundred people were there, which is, I think, a record. The readers showed up in force too, although Orlando Ricardo Menes was a no-show and Petra Kuppers was delayed (though she's since sent me a link to a video-version of the piece she was going to perform).

Some highlights for me included:

  • Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher delivering pieces written specifically for poetry readings like this. Joe's piece, a stuttering-sort of poem that worked the phrase "this next one is about..." around in different word-jazzy improvisations was a great way to begin the reading; while Kass' piece about the importance of content in writing, with its aggressive bit about "what do they want to reform anyway, except syntax?" drew roars of approval and disapproval in equal proportion.

  • Pierre Joris reading "This Afternoon Dante Will Be Expelled," a poem we published in Samizdat's Rothenberg-Joris issue a few years back. I meant to say tell him how happy this made me, but at exactly the moment he came near me through the crowd I (cold-ridden as I am) was trying too hard not to sneeze.

  • Barret Watten reading a piece written-through William Carlos Williams' poetry, which I'd heard some of a year ago in Tulsa. Can't wait to see this in book form.

  • Don Share reading a poem about his child as a "dependent now sitting in the chair where ambition once sat" (I'm paraphrasing). I saw looks of deep recognition on the faces of my colleagues Davis Schneiderman (a new parent) and Josh Corey (a parent soon-to-be).

  • Philip Metres not reading, exactly, but holding up a series of signs while music played -- surely a shout-out to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues".

  • Simone Muench beginning her poem about horror movies with the line "Dear Leatherface..." (Simone really understands all this horror movie stuff, and I'm convinced it plays into the big theme of her latest book Orange Girl, which I really should review or blog about soon, given that I've taken probably 2,000 words worth of notes on its narrow margins).

  • Tim Yu, the final reader, letting me and Patrick Durgin have it for organizing the reading along alphabetical lines.

    When it was all over and time to clear out, I finally got to fulfill a fantasy I've had since I first saw The Blues Brothers back in the eighties: I was able to stand in front of a group of people and shout "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."

    UPDATE: Philip Metres now has a post up with notes on each of the readers. Ahoy!

  • Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Chicago Poetry Marathon

    Here's an offical-looking ad for the reading during the Chicago MLA. Please click on the image for a larger version, print out copies, and plaster them on the walls of your city like rock concert posters. Alternately, these can be dropped from your vintage biplanes over likely-looking crowds, like the political pamphlets of yore. Or, if you're feeling up to it, you could hand out copies on the side of the road, preferably while wearing a gorilla suit or one of those novelty costumes — giant hot dog, pirate (I'm talking to you, Scroggins!), Aquaman, or Phillie Phanatic. Your call!

    By the way: the School of the Art Institute isn't inside the Art Institute of Chicago, but across the street at 112 S. Michigan Ave., which looks like this:

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Gigantic Poetry Reading During the Chicago MLA

    At last it can be told: Patrick Durgin, Jen Karmin, and your present humble blogger have cooked up a gargantuan poetry reading to take place during the Chicago MLA Convention this year. Though my phalanx of lawyers advises me with quaking knees to mention that the event is in no way affiliated with the MLA, there's been a long tradition of off-site, unofficial group poetry readings during the MLA, dating back at least to 1989, when Rod Smith dreamed it up as a necessary escape from the convention itself. Aldon Nielson has called the tradition a "floating Burning Man of verse." Since Aldon's going to be one of the readers, he can judge how well this year's iteration measures up.

    The event will be held in the very swank ballroom of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, starting at 7:00 pm on Friday, December 28, and continuing until we all pass out from an excess of joy. Light refreshments provided, and we're working on a book table.

    What what? You don't believe me about the swankness of the room? Well, check it out, bubs:

    It'll be cold outside, so come on in and warm up with the poetry of:

    Joe Amato
    Robert Archambeau
    Dodie Bellamy
    Ray Bianchi
    Tisa Bryant
    Charles Cantolupo
    Stephen Cope
    Josh Corey
    Joel Craig
    Elizabeth Cross
    Garin Cycholl
    Michael Davidson
    Patrick Durgin
    Joel Felix
    Kass Fleisher
    C. S. Giscombe
    Renee Gladman
    Chris Glomski
    Steve Halle
    Duriel Harris
    Carla Harryman
    William R. Howe
    Pierre Joris
    Jennifer Karmin
    Kevin Killian
    Petra Kuppers
    Quraysh Ali Lansana
    David Lloyd
    Nicole Markotic
    Cate Marvin
    Philip Metres
    Laura Moriarty
    Simone Muench
    Aldon Nielsen
    Mark Nowak
    Orlando Ricardo Menes
    Kristy Odelius
    Bob Perelman
    Kristen Prevallet
    Jen Scappettone
    Robyn Schiff
    Susan Schultz
    Don Share
    Ed Skoog
    Chuck Stebelton
    Mark Tardi
    Catherine Taylor
    Tony Trigilio
    Nick Twemlow
    Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
    Barrett Watten
    Tyrone Williams, and (last but never least)
    Tim Yu

    We owe all this to the good people at the Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute, the Poetry Foundation, and Poetry magazine — many thanks to all Medicis everywhere!

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Joe Francis Doerr is Cooler than We Are

    My life and that of Joe Francis Doerr have run in parallel tracks in several respects: we both grew up in the west; we went to grad school at Notre Dame together; I hear he may soon be editing a book on John Matthias, just like I did; and we've both been fortunate enough to have collections of our poetry published by Salt. But the similarities end when it comes to music, and I bow to Joe's formidable rockabilly firepower. Behold him and his fabulous Austin, Texas band The LeRoi brothers in this 1984 clip from the CBS Morning News. Behold, and wonder.

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Perloff, Eagleton, and the Contradictions of the Avant-Garde, with a Totally Unrelated Response to Mark Scroggins

    Fret not, gentle reader: I'm not here to lay some heavy, heady theory on you. Instead of wrenching hefty notions down from the Olympian heights of 21st Century Modernism or The Ideology of the Aesthetic, I've been thinking about lesser works by Marjorie Perloff and Terry Eagleton. "Lesser" might not even be the word. My texts du jour are among the least hefty and durable of works: specifically, I've been thinking about the 200 word or so pieces Perloff and Eagleton contributed (along with a few dozen other notable writers) to the new "Books of the Year" issue of the TLS. These pieces are pretty much what you'd think they'd be — contributors are asked for quick descriptions of a couple of books from 2007 they think worth noting. There's not much elbow-room for analysis or contextualization, but even so, the nature of what each writer chooses, and the quick comments they lay down on the broad, oyster-gray pages of Britain's most venerable book-rag can be telling. And here's what the picks of Eagleton and Perloff tell me: those of us into formally adventurous literature are still trying to square the same old circle. Like our modernist grandparents down on the old avant-farmstead, we still long for both form-turning-in-upon form in limitless innovation, and, at the same time, for a broad public reach, even a political presence.

    Eagleton picks two books, one an semi-experimental novel by Joseph O'Conner called Redemption Falls. "Stuffed with ads, documents, news reports and narratives-within-narratives," writes Eagleton, "this sprawling carnival of a historical novel has a proper indifference to the demands of organic form, and is all the richer for it." I haven't read the book, but it sounds for all the word like a kind of Dos Passos trip, a broad historical narrative cut through with all of the mediating uh, media through which we experience history. Eagleton's other pick is Paul Mason's Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, an analysis of working class struggle through the industrial and post-industrial era. For me, Eagleton's two choices represent in miniature the dual loyalties held by so many of the people I know, loyalty to formal innovation on the one hand, and to leftist political ideals on the other. Trying to put those two loyalties together can be exhausting. Here, Eagleton simply lays them side by side, the twin badges of his (and your, and my) disposition.

    Perloff's picks are Daniil Kharms' Today I did Nothing — a selection of poetry and prose by the unpublished-in-his-lifetime Russian absurdist written while cooped up in a psych ward in Leningrad — and Susan Howe's latest collection of poems, Souls of the Labadie Tract. What's really interesting to me here, though, aren't the picks per se but the hope Perloff attaches to them. The books, says Perloff, give her "hope for an avant-garde writing that speaks to a larger audience." Most of us have had moments of yearning for bigger sales and bigger reading audiences for the books we write/care about. But there's a strange contradiction in wishing for such things for avant-garde writing. I mean, writing that constantly challenges the normative methods or reading, and the logic of the literary marketplace, and even the media of writing and the dissemination of writing, is often thrilling stuff. But you can hardly ask for it to succeed on the terms of those markets and media it eschews. I don't mean to say that the experimental writing club should put up a velvet rope and station someone to act as a bouncer to keep the undesirables out (chris cheek seems like the right sort of guy — I can imagine him tossing Billy Collins out into a snowbank). I just don't know if it's possible, barring some strange alignment in the heavens, to be both pop and avant at the same time. If you know how, good luck to you! I hope you'll invite me to the after-parties in Hollywood: I've always wanted to hang with Snoop Dogg in his Hummer limousine.


    My man Mark Scroggins has tagged me to write up seven previously unknown facts about myself. I find it a bit disconcerting. I mean, while I do a lot of blustery me-oriented stuff on this blog, I'm pretty choosy about which sides of myself I put out in public, and I imagine that most of what I want known is out there somewhere, online or in obscure journals or in the occasional book. But okay. Here goes (anyone with anything better to do is hereby excused from class, and those of you without something better to do have my pity: you're obviously sitting out a slow and oppressive day at the office. Or maybe you're in grad school, which amounts to the same thing).

    1. Mark begins with a musical revelation, about seeing Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck in Florence, so I'll start with an image of myself as a junior in high school, armed with fake ID and down in the all-but-unbelievably skanky punk club in Winnipeg called (check this out for the whiff of the Commonweath) The Royal Albert Arms. Bob Mould and his band Husker Dü are up on stage, Bob's got a 12-string guitar and wants to play acoustic. The punked-out fans are spitting and yelling and throwing beer around and demanding a harder sound and Bob shouts back "fuck you, I wrote those songs on this guitar!" I liked that, I think because it showed me A) that alterno-conformity could be as stifling as the turned-up collar on a 1980s preppy polo shirt and B) that you didn't have to let that bother you.

    2. Mark goes medical in his next revelation, commenting on his crappy dental work, so I'll mention the freakish lack of toenails on my big toes. Yep.
    No, this wasn't some Archambeau-as-Elephant-Man weirdness at birth. The nails were perpetually becoming ingrown, and I finally went to the guy who keeps the feet of the Chicago Bears in working order. He pulled the nails out with what seemed to me like a pair of medieval torture implements and told me I had a remarkable tolerance for pain. Not true! I just have a remarkable ability to hold a scream in until I can release it in private. Later, he performed surgery to remove whatever it is that causes nails to grow in the first place. Pumped full of space-age pain relievers I overrode the objections of the medical professionals and checked myself out of Northwestern University Hospital, and hoofed it home to my apartment in what looked like giant, hospital-logo-havin' clown shoes, feeling no pain. Until the wonder-drugs wore off. Oy.

    3 & 4 (Special double issue!). For his third and fourth revelation, Mark tells us about his obsessive habits with books. So I'll mention my own book habits. Firstly, until grad school, I treated books as if they were all rare and fragile manuscripts from the bowels of the Bodleian, even, at one point, doing up a card catalog of my precious archives. Secondly: during grad school I worked in Chicago's old Aspidistra Bookshop, where used books were piled in great post-apocalyptic heaps. I remember them as smoking heaps, but that can't be right. Anyway, I unlearned all of my careful habits, and now when I read a book I practically consume it, bending the cover backwards, writing copious notes, dog-earing it at will, and otherwise behaving like the Cookie Monster, only, you know, with books.

    5. Mark next confesses to singing poems in ballad meter to himself to the tune of Joan Baez's "Mary Hamilton." I'd like to say I always sing Ezra Pound's "The Seafarer" as if I were Geddy Lee of Rush, or perhaps System of a Down's Serj Tankian, but it just ain't true. I do, however, mentally sing the words of Emily Dickinson's poems to the tune of both "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and the theme to Gilligan's Island. But I think everyone does that.

    6. Mark goes next to religion, confessing that, while a black-hearted atheist, he does own nine Bibles. When people ask me about religion, though, I get deeply reticent and vaguely pretentious, quoting Wittgenstein's quip "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." I then tend to look for a polite way to leave the room.

    7. Mark ends by saying he wishes he'd had the perserverence to stick with music as a career. I'll admit that, when my degenerate friends signed up for the percussion section in ninth grade band, I took a different route. Much to their initial mirth at my apparent emasculation, I took up the flute. I theorized that sitting in a section of girls would prove convenient for meeting, and therefore potentially hooking up with, said girls. Music, sadly, didn't really enter into it.

    Those of you who sat through all that are entitled to the same kind of lollipop you get on the way out of the dentist's office. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I'll try to get round to sending one your way.

    Monday, December 03, 2007

    A Test of Poetry Bookstores

    No, peeps, no, you've got me all wrong. I admit the image above might lead you to believe I consider the availability of Old Milwaukee a significant criterion in the assessment of a bookstore's quality. But that's not why the image is up there: it's there to commemorate my recent trip to the Woodland Pattern Book Center up in Milwaukee, where I read with a group of poets from The City Visible anthology of Chicago poetry. Not that I'm against the bookstore/bar fusion, which is surprisingly hard to come by. About the closest thing I can think of in my neck of the woods is The Heartland Cafe, which is a kind of vegetarian-friendly cafe with a theater and a bar attached and a big outdoor terrace and live music, and a kind of hippy general store which includes a few books and a really good periodicals section, especially if your politics skew toward the Z Magazine world-view. But it's really more of a good place to hang with your former students than to buy things to read.

    But I digress. We're here to address that ever-new question, "how do I know the bookstore I'm about to enter is going to be worthwhile, poetry-wise?" Ah. I propose a simple test:

    1. As you walk in the door, do you see a big stack of free issues of Rain Taxi? If so, give the joint 2 points.

    2. Is there more than a single shelf of poetry? That's worth another 5.

    3. In fact, add 1 point per shelf of poetry, and an additional 2 points per shelf if that shelf is devoted to local poetry.

    4. If there's a section devoted to chapbooks, that's worth 10 points. I mean, come on — how often do you see that?

    5. If there's a large color photo of Lorine Niedecker over the cash register, add 2 points. Add an additional three if the clerk knows can name one of Niedecker's books.

    6. Are there more titles by Clark Coolidge than there are by Khahil Gibran? Add one point per copy.

    7. Deduct one point for every copy of Jewel's A Night Without Armor. Ah, hell. Make that two points per copy.

    8. Add five points for any of these three volumes (my test books for any promising looking poetry section): John Matthias' Pages New Poems and Cuttings, Dennis Cooley's Bloody Jack, and Mark Scroggins' Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (no, not Louis Zukovsky: The Poem of a Life — you can get that one at Borders, or Barnes and Nobel. I hear it's going to be one of Oprah's picks in '08, too).

    9. And throw in another couple of points if they stock titles from Salt or Bookthug.

    10. If you're giving a reading there and you blow the majority of your fee on books before you leave, add another 5 points.

    Okay. By this reckoning I figure Woodland Pattern, with 66 points, has got to be one of the all-time great poetry bookstores. There's nothing like it in Chicago, and it leaves the Grolier bookshop in its dust (it has all the Helen-Vendlerized content of the Grolier, and a whole phalanx of Marjorie-Perloffery too).

    It's got to be the best bookstore for poetry in ... well, let's see. In Milwaukee? For sure. In Wisconsin? No doubt. In the Midwest? Yeah. I can say that with certainty. In fact, we can extend that to "between the coasts," and I'd say that, unlike the hapless Milwaukee Brewers, it has a fair shot at a national title. If you know a place that rates higher, let me know and I'll cash in my frequent flyer miles in two shakes of a performance artists' prosethetic tail.

    Did I mention I had a great time reading at the WP? (I'm hoping that'll stick as a way of talking about Woodand Pattern). Roberto Harrison's ink drawings in the attached gallery were a revelation, and talking about Nigeria and Brazil with Ed Roberson on the way home was a blast.

    The WP's a ninety minute train ride from Chicago, and worth the trip if you're in town for the MLA.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007

    Archambeau World Tour, December 2007

    The army of high-powered agents, dodgy promoters, sycophantic managers, and assorted poetry-biz hangers-on who handle my bookings are still working on hooking up the big MLA reading, but through a series of power lunches and top-of-the-lungs cell phone conversations carried out as they cruise around L.A. and in their BMW convertibles they've managed to put a couple of appearances together for the month ahead. (Forgive the delusions of glitz and grandeur: I've been weathering the T.V. writers' strike by watching TiVo's seemingly endless supply of old episodes of Entourage).

    The gigs in question are:

    At 1:00 in the afternoon on Sunday, December 2 I'll be reading at the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee with Ed Roberson, Jen Scappettone, Mark Tardi, Kerri Sonnenberg and other people from The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century. It'll be like when the Cubs come up to Wisconsin to play the Brewers, except without the sausage races we've come to love at Miller Park. Unless I can convince Mark that we should suit up in our bratwurst costumes and do laps around the building.

    At 5:15 on Thursday, December 27 I'll be joining Patrick Durgin, Kass Fleisher, Tim Yu and Bill Allegrezza on a panel about midwestern experimental writing at the Chicago MLA (that's panel 51 in the Field room at the Hyatt Regency). I don't think there will be any sausage races in the offing, but this is the MLA, the home of the prof, so there will be plenty of opportunities to see costumes as weird as anything worn by the mascots of Miller Park. In fact, I'll probably end up in the Hyatt bar, wearing some deeply compromised combo of threadbare corduroy blazer and stained-yet-beloved hockey t-shirt, perhaps with a french fry in my beard.

    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    British Poetry Wars: The Battle of Prague

    While we here in the United States were gathered round our Thanksgiving turkeys for our annual family re-enactments of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, strange doings were afoot across the Atlantic, doings in the form of a dust-up among the more experimentally oriented British poetry crowd. Lest we vulgar, hostile, petty, fame-obsessed Yanks feel we're alone in our many vices, your present humble blogger offers this fragmentary account of the latest Britpo contretemps.

    Toward the end of the scuffle, one of the participants claimed that the whole affair was a sign of the increasing Americanization and academicization of British poetry. In a sense, I think that's true. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's begin where the battle began: in Prague, where the always-interesting — nay cutting-edge — press Litteraria Pragensia issued a collection of essays called Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, edited by Robin Purves and Sam Ladkin.

    While the book has an essay on W.S. Graham and another on Seamus Heaney, overall the book takes a pretty strongly Cambridge-centric look at the poetic landscape. Of the nineteen essays, at least four are either on or by Jeremy Prynne, two are on Andrea Brady, one's on Keston Sutherland (who wrote one of the Prynne pieces), two are on Chris Goode, and there's another on Peter Monson.

    When I first received a publicity email blast about the book, I was a bit stoked: whatever else you may say about the Cambridge crew, they're not that well known in the U.S. — miraculous polymaths like John Matthias know about them, as do a few hard-core alt-Britpo types like Keith Tuma, Devin Johnston, and Romana Huk, and the current Chicago Review gang takes an interest, but it doesn't seem to extend too much further. Here, I thought, gazing at the email I'd rescued from my spam-filter, was a chance to delve deeper into what seems to be some fertile terrain.

    But seen from another perspective — specifically that of Geraldine Monk — the book was a bit of an insult. Monk, writing in to Keith Tuma's British poetry discussion list, took issue with the the subtitle "British Poetry, 1945-2007." The subtitle claimed a representative status for the book that was manifestly false, she said, and the contents skewed to a younger crowd of poets who hadn't yet "earned their stripes," while neglecting poets who'd been working away in obscurity for years. (Monk, by the way, was recently the subject of what looks like a good, and well-deserved, collection of critical appreciations: The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk).

    Monks' criticisms did not sit well with Keston Sutherland, who fired back a broadside worthy of one of Admiral Nelson's ships of the line. "Seniority be damned! Bah! Yargh! Fire all carronades and batten down the bosun's quindledeck! Bring me grog and a flaming spar-smutter!" quoth Captain Keston (I'm paraphrasing here), before launching into a very plausible explanation of the subtitle as a necessary evil, a publisher's ploy to lure librarians and profs into having their institutions order copies. After reading Bill Allegrezza's grim description of the economics of small press publishing I'm inclined to sympathy for this kind of concession to the logic of the market, even if it involves a bit of misrepresentation. Then again, I'm not a British poet who's worked in obscurity for decades only to find myself left out of a book that purports in its subitle to cover the field in which I've labored. Ask me how I feel about the issue again, after a book called Poet-Critic-Bloggers of the American Midwest, 1999-2015 comes out without so much of a mention of my tireless efforts, and you'll likely hear some grumbling. I'm steamed about it already!

    Anyway. Après Keston, le déluge, avec un grand kaboom. Many people chimed in, some with sage advice and level heads, some sounding more hostile notes. It got nasty and weird, there was some name-calling, some ugly misogyny, and some sidetracking into bickering about who got, and didn't get, invited to participate in a poetry reading. Change the names and it might have been the Buffalo POETICS list back in the mid-1990s. The ever-even-keeled Mairéad Byrne did what she could to convert anger into wit by a clever bit of verbal alchemy, but it took a while before things settled down. At one point one discussant suggested that she and the other women of the list secede and form their own discussion list. In part this was to be a withdrawal to "a safe place" away from male chest-thumping, and in part it was to be a continuation of the war-for-turf: the proposed topic for the list was the formulation of a strategy to get into the male-dominated anthologies. (By the way: the rhetorical move in which men are condemned for their overly emotional discourse really should have a name: I propose "The Reverse-Victorian Tongue Hold," since it quite effectively reverses the patriarchal move of dismissing women's discourse as emotionally motivated hysterics). Geraldine Monk wasn't enthusiastic about the idea, though, so I don't know if it will go anywhere.

    That's about where things stood when the smoke started to clear and the clamor faded. Maybe the negative energy needed to be expelled. Anyway, it doesn't look like much has changed after all of the pushing and shoving and, of course, this tempest in the avant-teacup hasn't even registered in the world of laureateships and the TLS, where the experimental poets continue to be pretty thoroughly shut out.

    The best thing to emerge from the whole affair, I think, has been Stephen Rodefer's reflections on the nature of literary reputation. In what I take to be a kind of valedictory address as the wounded limp away from the battlefield, Rodefer asked whether early recognition (the critical praise of young poets who hadn't yet "earned their stripes") was always a good thing; and whether critical neglect through a long career was always bad. While early recognition can be good for a poet (as it was for Robert Hass), it can also be as debilitating as the lack of recognition. I admire Rodefer's philosophical distance here.

    So what about this business of the recent battle as a sign of the Americanization and academization of Britpo? Well, one of the sad characteristics of American academe is captured in the quip, attributed to Henry Kissinger, that "university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." In the end, I think this applies to the outpouring of anger about what boils down to little more than a questionable subtitle. In a world like alt-Britpo, there's so little recognition to go around, and so much deserving talent, that when the little dribs and drabs of recognition are thrown out into the world, it can all look a bit like monkey feeding time at the Kyoto zoo. Which is sad, really.

    All I can offer as an antidote to the Americanization/academicizing/hungry-monkey-ization witnessed over the weekend is this bit of very English wisdom, from Samuel Johnson's blog entry (sorry, I mean his Rambler essay) of May 29, 1750. Johnson begins with a cold hard look at writers and their self-satisfaction:

    Every man is prompted by the love of himself to imagine, that he possesses some qualities, superior, either in kind or in degree, to those which he sees allotted to the rest of the world; and, whatever apparent disadvantages he may suffer in the comparison with others, he has some invisible distinctions, some latent reserve of excellence, which he throws into the balance, and by which he generally fancies that it is turned in his favour.

    The studious and speculative part of mankind always seem to consider their fraternity as placed in a state of opposition to those who are engaged in the tumult of publick business; and have pleased themselves, from age to age, with celebrating the felicity of their own condition, and with recounting the perplexity of politicks, the dangers of greatness, the anxieties of ambition, and the miseries of riches.

    But no such superiority exists, really:

    It was well known by experience to the nations which employed elephants in war, that though by the terrour of their bulk, and the violence of their impression, they often threw the enemy into disorder, yet there was always danger in the use of them, very nearly equivalent to the advantage; for if their first charge could be supported, they were easily driven back upon their confederates; they then broke through the troops behind them, and made no less havock in the precipitation of their retreat, than in the fury of their onset.

    ....The garlands gained by the heroes of literature must be gathered from summits equally difficult to climb with those that bear the civick or triumphal wreaths, they must be worn with equal envy, and guarded with equal care from those hands that are always employed in efforts to tear them away; the only remaining hope is, that their verdure is more lasting, and that they are less likely to fade by time, or less obnoxious to the blasts of accident.... [But] if we look back into past times, we find innumerable names of authors once in high reputation, read perhaps by the beautiful, quoted by the witty, and commented upon by the grave; but of whom we now know only that they once existed. If we consider the distribution of literary fame in our own time, we shall find it a possession of very uncertain tenure; sometimes bestowed by a sudden caprice of the publick, and again transferred to a new favourite, for no other reason than that he is new; sometimes refused to long labour and eminent desert, and sometimes granted to very slight pretentions; lost sometimes by security and negligence, and sometimes by too diligent endeavours to retain it.

    Against the uncertainties and inequities of ever-fickle fame, Johnson offers a kind of stoic distance, a resolution to labor on regardless, and to care a little less, if possible, about the laurels, and on whose heads they momentarily rest. You've got to love Johnson for that. And for the elephant analogy. That was good too.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Chicago Review: The Complicity Issue?

    I've had my head stuck way, way too deep into the murky mists of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria to think straight lately, but now that I think I may just be able to blog a bit, given that I'm currently jacked up on a heady three-part combo consisting of:

  • the leftover adreneline from a 16 mile bike ride through a Chicago-area November that feels like a frozen outtake from Dr. Zhivago

  • a giant tub of coffee from the corner Vietnamese coffee joint

  • Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros

    Since it's been a topic of recent discussion by my sharp new colleague and my subtropical intellectual hero, let me start with an observation or two about the latest Chicago Review. Though I haven't read the whole thing yet, here's my preliminary hypothesis: the current issue (vol. 53, nos. 2&3) is the complicity issue. There isn't an official theme, and I don't think there's been any deliberate attempt to set the content of the issue in orbit around any particular sun, but through some fluke of the zeitgeist (or some mammoth act of projection on my part), everything I read seems to come on as some kind of riff on complicity.

    When I saw John Peck's name in the table of contents, I turned immediately to his poem. Hell, I may even have yelped slightly for joy, alarming the good people standing near me at 57th Street Books (I don't know why I don't subscribe to Chicago Review, since I make a point of buying every issue). Peck's poem, "Book of the Dead? We Have No Book of the Dead" begins with a quote from the "Declaration of Innocence" from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Google makes reading John Peck about 85% easier than it used to be): "I have done no evil ... I have not caused pain ..." etc., then works its way elegantly around a few central images, taking us through scenes of mischief and calamity, even to Hiroshima, all the while working over phrases of denial: "No, no, we didn't do that" or "no, not us," until we come to the end where, after a clear demonstration of human guilt and hypocrisy we hear " is human to say, No, I have never sinned, no, not barefaced to the powers." So: complicity is our theme here.

    I next flipped to the second part of C.D. Wright's "Rising, Falling, Hovering," but seeing how long it was I left it for later and dove into some of Larissa Szporluk's poems, including "Adoration," which somehow manages to use its odd, even goofy, sound-echoes to devastatingly skewer our complicity in, and hypocrisy about, violence. Here's the ending:

    Truth is that cowards

    are bung, cowards are bung,
    and when the gold light

    of eternal life
    pours through the ham

    of the done deal,
    we hang in the sagging bum,

    a pendulum of bowel
    walls, tied to the dark

    with a stout string
    and pass our lilies out

    on the spot where the boy was slain
    and would be slain again

    because bung's own bung
    is the only sacred thing.

    That's an odd kind of ouch, but it does sting, the way it indicts our self-concern in a world of violence.

    Other complicity-oriented items I've read in the issue include:

  • Michael Robbins' review of Frederick Seidel's wonderfully creepy Ooga-Booga. The complicity is Seidel's, not Robbins' — though Seidel is all about celebrating his rich white guy complicity in a world of privilege and inequity.

  • "Poetry Magazines and Women Poets," Bobby Baird and Josh Kotin's article on the degree of inclusion of women poets in major literary magazines. I love anything that looks like empirical data about Our Vague and Misty Art, so this was a particular favorite of mine, although the statistics are as grim as you'd expect. What makes this an examination of complicity is the inclusion of stats for women poets in Chicago Review itself: 37% of contributors, a point below the sad average of all magazines surveyed.

    And now for a moment of personal complicity of another kind: as a guy who has moaned about the institution of the poetry reading, it now looks like I may find myself in the ironic position of being one of the guys (along with Patrick Durgin) who ends up organizing the massive group reading at this year's MLA. More on that as, and if, it develops.

  • Tuesday, October 30, 2007

    Wednesday, October 24, 2007

    Classical Music Between Adorno and Bourdieu

    Richard Taruskin makes some big noise about classical music, or at any rate about the discourse around classical music, over at The New Republic. Long story (and I mean long story: it clocks in at about 12,000 words) short, Taruskin believes classical music's current crop of apologists does more harm than good. In a review of Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value by Julian Johnson, Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears, by Joshua Fineberg, and Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer, Taruskin argues that the crisis in classical music isn't all it's cracked up to be. What's particularly interesting to me are the parallels in the "classical music is doomed and we gotta do something about it now" debate and the whole "can poetry matter?" debate.

    I urge anyone interested in the high culture / pop culture debate to read the article, which makes good use of Adorno and Bourdieu, and is well-written, too. But if you don't feel like scaling a 12,000 word mountain, the basic line goes something like this: Taruskin believes that the classical music he loves needs to be defended from its own defenders, who can't seem to write without (wait for it...) "recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery."

    The article begins with an account of an experiment in which Joshua Bell, a leading classical violinist, was asked to go undercover as a busker. Bell was generally ignored, and the planners of the experiement took this as an opportunity to hurl curses from on high at the philistine churls of the public. Taruskin mercilessly points out the flawed methodology of the experiment (Bell had to stand in a place no self-respecting busker would have picked, for example), and argues that the experiment was no experiment at all, but a stunt with a pre-fabricated conclusion.

    Taruskin goes on to tell people who lament classical music's loss of prestige that the rise of classical's prestige came about under conditions when the elite classes needed to distinguish themselves culturally from the huddled masses yearning to get down with popular songs. A return to that state ( a condition still present but not robust) is neither possible nor all that desirable. I mean do we really want to become like a snob like Milton Babbitt, who said in 1979:

    We receive brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton, who in their first year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course with [logical positivist] Carl Hempel, and then return to their dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members of our society embrace as the only relevant music.

    "Pierre Bourdieu, were you listening?" asks Taruskin, after quoting this passage.

    Taruskin also invokes the Adorno/Frankfurt school defense of high culture, a version of which one finds in the alt-poetry community to this day. He summarizes the Frankfurt position about as well as anyone can in a short paragraph:

    The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.

    Going on to note how this position is variously trivialized, mangled, and dumbed-down in defenses of classical music, Taruskin shows the weakness of the position when it comes to accounting for the public's actual musical tastes.

    The big wrap-up in the article defends classical music from a more modest and pluralist position, claiming that it can serve as one register — a rather formal one — among others; that it can function like a formal level of diction in the larger and more various musical language as a whole.

    I was hipped to the article by D.L. LeMahieu, a historian who's written about the whole pop culture/high culture issue with real depth and the kind of careful research that puts people in English deparments to shame. Since everything LeMahieu says is worth printing in gold-leaf outlined letters on enduring parchment and hanging on the wall for contemplation, I asked him if he'd mind if I posted our correspondence about the article. He graciously agreed:


    Picked up a copy of the New Republic and gave the piece on classical music a read. I actually didn't find myself upset (as you’d predicted I would) at all: I think Taruskin's right about the disingenuousness of the Bell experiment; I think he gets his Adorno right; I'm sympathetic to his argument in general.

    I do think he buys into the idea that there's a crisis in classical music a bit more than he should. For example, he downplays the fact that classical music is the main beneficiary of online sales (people who buy classical music tend to buy whole multi-movement works, unlike pop music buyers, who tend only to want the single, and being younger and poorer than the classical crowd, generally have no qualms about illegal free downloading). He also downplays the fact that more repertoire is available now than ever before, thanks to Naxos (a label he mentions very briefly, but a huge phenomenon in the music industry) and to online releases without major label support. He's right that classical radio is in decline, but he never mentions that fewer stations are needed, since one can listen to the better ones online anywhere in the world. So part of the perceived crisis isn't a crisis of the music but of the media. This, of course, is part of the whole internet shakeup, which effects everything from newspapers to (increasingly) television. Overall, I don't think many people would want to turn the clock back, even if it were possible.

    Of course in many ways I'm both a romantic and a modernist — in fact, one reviewer of my work called me "An augustan sensibility trained as a romanticist and writing in a modernist idiom during the postmodern era" (talk about aufgehoben!). So when Tarushkin veers closest to the "blame modernism" thesis, or harps on the dark side of German Romantic nationalism, I get ready to pounce on him. But even here I think he's fair -- he doesn't shout "traison!" at les clercs of modernism, so much as he sees the evolution of their aesthetic as a property of a very particular history, a history linked to the rise of bourgeois self-definition via culture (as opposed to aristocratic self-definition via landholding and ancestry) and all the rest. Since these are the issues I've been trying to get at in the chapter I'm currently writing of a book called The Aesthetic Anxiety, I can't really take exception. [Shameless plug: an essay that contains a brief treatment of my book-in-progress' themes is about to come out in Art and Life in Aestheticism. It makes a great gift, so shop early...]

    There's been a debate about poetry similar to the one Taruskin traces in the New Republic, with Adorno-influenced people proclaiming their purity and political potential from one corner, while the people at the another corner demand a kind of popularization. Many on both sides see themselves as besieged and on the defensive in an environment of general decline. Meanwhile, and quite un-remarked by either side, I’m told that one of the larger online poetry sites — salt — boasts 200,000 readers of its often avant-garde content every month, a readership comparable to that of Harpers'. Where it all goes is anybody's guess.

    What's your take on the article? I'm glad you turned me on to it.




    I gave my copy away over a week ago so I will have to rely on memory. One objection to the article was the tone: it was a mirror image of what it pretended to refute. I was also disappointed that he cast the entire problem in terms of the high/low culture debate, about which I know a modest amount. When I researched A Culture for Democracy over 20 years ago, I read a great deal about the decline of "music" (as Classical was then called) in the 1920s and 1930s. I read the first twenty years of Gramophone, which constantly editorialized about the issue. In any case, the NR author says absolutely nothing new or interesting about High/Low, other than to presume the legitimacy of the Low, which is not the issue.

    I wish the author had explored not only the technology issue, which you grasp, but also the audience issue: Classical appeals most to UMC (upper middle class) and the old, often many of whom were exposed to the music in their youth but only grasped it firmly as they aged.

    Also, there is the damned issue of "art".



    You're right of course about the question of audience, and the aging of the classical audience. This is the elephant in the room that Taruskin doesn't discuss enough.

    You're right, too, about how most of the article just wanders over well-trodden ground in the high/low culture debate. I'm not sure Taruskin presumes the legitimacy of the low, though. When he writes, at the end, of classical music as a formal idiom or register within music as a whole, he seems to say that genres aren't so much legitimate or illegitimate as they are appropriate or inappropriate for particular situations. This is interesting, I think — not because it represents any new conceptual blockbusting (it doesn't), but because it is representative of what I take to be the emerging attitude toward what we had thought of as commercial/autonomous or low/high culture. If there's anything newish in the article's take on high-low it's this embodiment of an attitude one sees emerging, a kind of non-hierarchical pluralism about culture. In this view, high culture has less special social prestige than it did in Bourdieu's France of the 1970s, nor does it have much of a special claim on Frankfurt school political/spiritual redemptiveness. But this doesn't mean (as it seemed to mean, in early postmodernism) that it is bad or irrelevant or to be chucked away in favor of a valorized low culture. Rather, high culture becomes one of the registers in which one can (culturally) speak. Sometimes it stands on its own, sometimes it is mixed with other registers for effect (as in speech that combines high and low diction). So the high culture tradition is absorbed into a largely post-hierarchical world.

    20 years of Gramophone — I envy you that!




    Yes his pluralism is quite postmodern. But it eludes questions about cultural hierarchy that he presumes in other places within the article. His 'broadbrow" view was first articulated, by the way, by J B Priestley in the 1930s: at the time it was thought "middlebrow" and vulgar to assert such a view.

    I devoted 12 years to thinking about this issue and I ended up asserting contradictions: an indication that the problem with judging "art" may have to do with a logic yet to be fully defined. Perhaps it dwells in cognitive psychology or Dilthey's "lived experience" which suggests inaccessibility to the views we assert, despite the best attempts at rationalization, including "disinterestedness."



    I admit to having failed to unravel the Gordian Knot that is the problem of art, and the judgement of art. I've been relying on a little dodge in which I treat questions of what is better by asserting that there is no better in the absolute sense, only better-for certain tasks. I suppose that's why I'm sympathetic to Taruhkin's ending sections.

    As for self-contradictoriness and the inaccessibility of our own viewpoints: I'm sure you're right. I remember when the deconstructionists built their brief empire on that insight.

    Mind if I put our little exchange in my blog? I'll let you have the last word...



    Your pragmatic view echoes that of Dewey, at least as I understand him.

    The Deconstuctionist Empire may be decline, but the Cognitive Psychologists still rule.

    On Fox, being given the last word means that you have already lost.


    Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    Conferences and Communities

    About a decade ago I got into a bit of a tussle on the POETICS email list with Aldon Nielson. If I remember correctly, the tussling had to do with political agenda of the then-new ALSC (Association of Literary Scholars and Critics). Aldon saw that their funding came largely from neoconservative sources, and worried that they would be a political front for the right wing. I said he was right about where the funding came from, but I'd been corresponding a bit with John Ellis, one of the big wheels in the organization, and from what he said it didn't seem like the outfit was going to be particularly political.

    In retrospect, I think Aldon was right about the hidden agendas of a number of the founders of the ALSC, but if their convention earlier this month in Chicago was any indication, they've ended up as a fairly innocuous organization. About the most political thing I witnessed was Morris Dickstein's presidential address, in which he said he'd wanted to have the conference open with a panel on Shakespeare, because (and here he eyed the room knowingly) "there's nothing more
    canonical than Shakespeare." I think he meant to fire this off as a shot in the culture wars — a volley on the side of what he took to be the Great Beseiged Tradition against the invading barbarians (feminists, multiculturalists, and the like). But it all seemed as antique as a Cold War charge of communist sympathies — the war he wanted to fight seems to have settled down into a truce that is evolving into a fairly amicable peace, and his man Shakespeare has come through unscathed after all. I mean, I'll be down at the MLA later this year, and I'm sure there will be plenty of papers like those I heard at the ALSC: New Historicist inflected readings of the plays in cultural contexts.

    Scott McLemee, who was meant to speak at the ALSC but couldn't attend, says that neither organization is as politicized as their reputations would lead one to believe. One of the people I had drinks with in the conference hotel bar even went so far as to call the ALSC "an organization without an agenda." In a way, I think he had a point. When I compare the ALSC conference to another conference on a similar scale — the &NOW Festival of Innovative Art and Writing, there's a real difference. The &NOW Festival (which — full disclosure — I helped organize in 2006, and am involved in its launching-in-09 publishing wing) is dedicated to an experimental literary agenda, and draws a crowd interested in, and advocating for, a particular set of concerns. There's a lot of overlap in what they talk about, and a particular goal they have in the back of their minds. But the ALSC seems much less directed. Like the &NOW Festival, the ALSC convention serves as a place where likeminded people can hang out together (the best thing a small conference can be, and something a big conference isn't usually good at). But I don't think the gathered tweedy cogniscenti of the ALSC have much of an agenda, other than to be around people for whom John Hollander pulls more weight than does John Ashbery.

    This does make one wonder about the future of the organization, but I don't think it will dry up and go away. Unlike the &NOW Festival, which runs on wild-eyed enthusiasm, the ALSC runs on what seems like a pretty full tank of cash. I also don't see the ALSC growing much: for one thing, the crowd skews much older than the usual desperately-networking-grad-student dominated literary conference. For another thing, without a specific niche to fill, other than as a kind of home for the veterans of one side of ye olde culture wars, there's no big reason for it to grow.

    This became clear to me when David Fenza, head of the AWP, made some comments on a panel about MFA programs and English departments. Fenza, who is quite a good public speaker, began by making some complementary remarks about the ALSC, and mentioned that it reminded him of the early years of AWP conventions, when they could fit into a botique hotel like the Allegro, where the ALSC was being held. The AWP had grown, he said, from having 300 person conferences to having conferences with over 5000 attendees, and he looked forward to seeing the ALSC prosper as thoroughly as the AWP had. Two things struck me there: firstly, how Fenza (once a prof) had absorbed the logic of the administrator (quantity equals success); and secondly, how unlikely his suggestion of rapid ALSC growth seemed. He was probably just being gracious, but it got me wondering what the AWP had that the ALSC didn't. Certainly the AWP has no core aesthetic agenda (as the &NOW does) and no core political agenda (as many feared the ALSC would have). What it has, of course, and the ALSC lacks, is a bureaucratic agenda: it represents the interests of some 450 creative writing programs, and serves as their trade organization. This gives it an agenda, but an agenda more like, say, the insurance industry's K-Street lobbyists in Washington than the agenda of the &NOW crew. And it makes the AWP a terrible place to hang out: people aren't there to be among the likeminded (as at the &NOW and ALSC conventions). Rather, they're there to advance the interests of their programs, or to hook up a job or a publication — all instrumental goals, rather than phatic ones. If you want to hang out properly at the AWP, you've got to flee the convention and find a congenial bar nearby.

    And this talk of congenial bars brings me to another kind of literary gathering, the Chicago poetry scene, which has some of its best gatherings at places like Danny's Tavern. The most recent blowout, though, was at Gethsemane church, courtesy of Garin Cycholl, poet and minister, who opened his doors to a big crowd last weekend for a great group reading (well, great once I got off the stage after having kicked it off by inflicting a few poems of mine on the congregation). The scene is a great place to hang out: you go to any reading around town, and you know a bunch of people in the crowd. As Ray Bianchi pointed out at the Gethsemane reading, the Chicago scene is small enough that there are really only one or two degrees of seperation between everyone. For better and for worse, though, it's not a scene with much of an agenda, at least not yet. I think you need a scene to get older and bigger before it splits into factions, and for now the Chicago anthology The City Visible represents a pretty happy pluralism. I do wonder if the scene is going to institutionalize itself more: for all its reading series and bloggery, and despite the growth of Cracked Slab books, there isn't a very developed publishing infrastructure yet, nor is there a central hangout, an equivalent of the 92nd Street Y, say. Poetry is building a big new HQ downtown, and it will have reading space and a recording studio, but it remains to be seen how open it will be to the scene in Chicago (or, for that matter, how open the scene will be to hanging out there, after years of feeling semi-shut out of the biggest and most venerable homegrown poetic institution).

    There's a good chance the scene could really grow, but I also worry that it may dry up and blow away, like the previous vital incarnations of a poetic communty in Chicago. New York and San Francisco are eternal: the scenes are so established and institutionalized that the fires can be kept burning even when there's nothing much really going on aesthetically. But Chicago's had a more on-and-off history, and currently I worry about a huge, Michael Anania-shaped hole in the middle of things. I mean, looking around the Gethsemane reading, I could see how many of his former students from the UIC graduate writing program were there, and how important they were to keeping things going. With Michael retired and living in Austin (which always seems to me as odd and upsetting as someone buying Wrigley Field and moving it brick by brick to Texas), I don't know if the current crowd of people he inspired will be replaced. It's sort of inevitable that people on the scene will move on, some to jobs elsewhere, some to the suburbs to have kids, and I don't know if there will be another set of Simone Muenchs, Garin Cycholls, Chris Glomskis, and Kristy Odeliuses to take their places. (I'm not sure why suburbanization is such a scene-killer, but it seems to function that way: I'm always one of the only guys in the room who doesn't live in the city proper, or in a city-adjacent town like Oak Park or Evanston).

    So here's the scorecard:

    ALSC: A small, phatic, institutionalized, congenial but largely agendaless organization with a steady future but no spectacular growth in sight.

    AWP: A giant, growing gesselschaft-ish trade organization likely to continue to be big, useful, and unpleasant.

    &NOW: A small, phatic, aesthetic-agenda-driven institution likely to keep chugging along until enthusiasm no longer makes up for the lack of money.

    Chicago's Poetry Scene: An ecumenical, decentralized community of micro-institutions that will continue to prosper if the infrastructure is maintained.

    I'm up for supporting all of these entities, but I feel more comfortable at the second two venues. Sometimes you want to go where people don't have to read your nametag.

    Friday, October 19, 2007

    Won't You Please Come to Chicago...

    I'm actually not plugging another big poetry reading in Chicago (although I will shamelessly mention tomorrow's shindig at Gethsemane Church, 3617 W Belle Plaine Ave, with its cast of thousands, including your humble blogger). Nope. I'm plugging the big anti-war protest on the 27th. Come one, come all, and see how well-behaved the Chicago police have become since the 1968 Democratic National Convention (although they seem to have joined in, and even anticipated, the national trend toward torture and cover-ups).

    I thought the last protest I attended, a local one in my town (Highland Park) would be a sad little affair: a few prof-types, some leftover hippies, maybe someone from a local church or temple. In fact, it turned out to be startlingly robust, overflowing the town square before turning into a march to the local monument to the war dead. People driving by cheered and honked, and everyone seemed surprised at the level of support. If that's any indication, the upcoming event down in the city should be big big big. Click the image below for a larger version showing the list of sponsoring organizations.

    Boston, New York, L.A., Philly, Orlando, New Orelans, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City and even Jonesborough, Tennessee are staging related events. Bust out those hippie threads and hit the streets!

    On a related note, I can't help but mention that George W. Bush's approval rating in the latest poll, 24%, is actually a point lower than that of Richard Nixon on the day he resigned. Not that anything will come of this, but I think I'll go out to the driveway and burnish my old "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker for a while.

    Tuesday, October 16, 2007

    John Matthias at Lunch Poems: The Podcast

    Someone at Berkeley has had the wisdom to put their "Lunch Poems" series up online in both audio and video format — I discovered this via the brand new John Matthias reading, his first on the west coast in over two decades. He's ably introduced by Robert Hass as a poet of "inventive and assured imagination," who keeps inventing ways of making poems and seeing the world. I think this is fair: Matthias has gone through at least three incarnations, first as a kind of Duncan/Pound angry young man, writing radical poems about language and power, and railing against the prison house of language. Then there's the Bunting/Jones Matthias, a writing of book-length geographical poems. And now there's a third Matthias, a poet who feels totally original to me. This period began, I think, around the time John made the switch from Swallow Press to Salt. The Salt Matthias is someone who's invented a new way of understanding, among other things, the way information technology has changed who we are and how we experience the world and the past (see his Working Progress, Working Title for starters.

    In the reading John reads from his new book, Kedging (not to be confused with another poet's Ketjak). If you want to hear the music in his work, listening to the reading is a great place to start.

    Much to blog about lately — a panel on creative writing programs and English departments at the ALSC last weekend, where I hung out with Steve Burt and Don Share and ran into Reg Gibbons; some good speculations today at lunch with Ray Bianchi about the para-academic future of poetry, and more. But today all I want to do is watch the podcast of Matthias' reading.

    Sunday, October 07, 2007

    Third Wave Chicago

    I woke up the other day and realized something: this is, for however brief and shining a moment, where it's at. This being our fair city of Chicago, it being American poetry.

    I'm as surprised as the next guy: much as I've disagreed with Ron Silliman over the years, I kind of believed him when he said Chicago has been "the Rodney Dangerfield of writing scenes," the scene that can't get no respect. That was certainly true when I first moved to Chicago back in '93. A refugee from South Bend, Indiana, I'd decided it was better to commute out to Notre Dame than to live in the 'bend another day. "Decided" might not even be the right term: it was more of a compulsion to flight than anything else. Anyway, while I was glad to be in Chicago, and there were plenty of poets around, there really wasn't anything you'd call a scene, except for slam poetry — a kind of writing that wasn't my thing (though ask me about my brief and inglorious tenure as a judge at the Green Mill's Uptown Poetry Slam someday — it's a tale of humiliation I never tire of retelling). A few years later I briefly tried to remedy things, and I remember having grand schemes for making something happen. I booked Michael Heller (who was passing through town) to give a big talk about poetics, and beat a drum around town hoping to assemble the local literati. Assemble they did, or many of them, at Jax, a bar near UIC. But as I looked around the room at the different tables of people, I realized how atomized things were: the U of C crowd was over at the U of C table, hunched in turtlenecked seriousness. The UIC types kept to the UIC types, the Northwestern people were crowded, perhaps ironically, into the southeastern corner of the room. Academic and atomized, that's what we were. I'd tried to convince myself, in an editorial in Samizdat, that this was a good thing, a sign of nonconformity, but now I see myself as having been squeezing the local lemon as hard as I could in a futile attempt to make lemonade.

    But over the last few years things have really started to feel different, and not just to me. My new colleague at Lake Forest, Josh Corey, recently arrived from Ithaca, describes a reading he gave at the guild center thusly: "Chicago continues to impress as a poetry center: the audience was large, diverse, and appreciative—there are genuine poetry fans here." And just the other day I stumbled across Kevin Killian's review of the new anthology of Chicago poets, in which he says:

    When young poets ask me, where should I go, what should I do, nowadays I always say pull out a map, throw in a dart. X marks the spot, but Chicago is the most exciting scene around. Years from now we'll be looking back at the early 21st century and wishing we'd all relocated there at this time in poetry history.

    So it's not just me being sticking my head outside the door of my study, where I'd been sitting in bearlike hibernation, and being overawed by the sensory stimulation. There's something going on in the big grid of beaux-arts two-flats and the rows upon rows of Mies dan der Rohes by the lake. In fact, I think we may be seeing the rising crest of a third wave of Chicago poetry.

    The story we hear about the first wave of Chicago poetry is that it was a tsunami of modernism conjured out of the lake by Harriet Monroe when she wrangled the funding for Poetry magazine early in the century. And this is true, too, as far as it goes: where there had been only scattered efforts, suddenly something seemed to be happening, and there seemed to be a here here. But Poetry — as much a hangout as a magazine, since the office door was never closed to a passing poet, and local heroes like Carl Sandburg could be found opining over tea within was only the respectable end of the scene. Down in a now long-since-gentrified area once called Towertown, by the water tower, there was an equally vital institution, a bar/theater/lecture hall called the Dil Pickle Club (with one 'l,' not two, for reasons I'll tell you about someday if you're willing buy the drinks, and able to withstand about an hour of Archambeau being a blowhard). Here, if you could find the door down the alley, and were willing to duck low to get in, you could meet Sandburg in a more unbuttoned mode; here you could hear the Wobblies read political verse; here you could run into pre-San Francisco Kenneth Rexroth (another poet-critic refugee from South Bend) as he and his crew delivered a Dada-inspired anti-reading, complete with planned disruptions by hidden alarm clocks and planted accomplices in the audience. Poetry's story has been pretty well consecrated, but the Dil Pickle story has yet to be fully told, though the poet/publisher/Breton scholar Franklin Rosemont has assembled a great series of documents in The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle. But one thing that unified Poetry and the Dil Pickle, making them the respectable and raffish poles of the same scene, was the aesthetic they embraced: both were open to the latest things from around the world, hip to experimental modernism, and at the same time deeply committed to the local scene.

    Poetry, of course, is still around, a giant sequoia in the forest of the art, but it doesn't have the same local function it once had: eighteen stories above Michigan Avenue, it isn't a hangout for the local poets, and thinks of itself (rightly) in national or international terms (something it did under Harriet Monroe as well, though in her day it was both local and international: Tagore and Sandburg both dropped in for tea). The bohemian world of Towertown disappeared in the forties, taking the Dil Pickle with it, and while there were plenty of poets in Chicago in the fifties and sixties — especially African-American poets — one would be hard-pressed to find a cohesive poetry scene, however defined. As Paul Hoover has said, when he was here in the late sixties and early seventies Chicago was "a fly-over city" in terms of poetry. All that changed, at least for a while, mostly due to the efforts of Paul, and of Maxine Chernoff, and of others, many of them alums of the English department at UIC (somedday I'm going to make a list of all the poets who studied there under Michael Anania, the godfather of Chicago poetry over several decades). Suddenly Chicago has the Poetry Center, and a bunch of little magazines (including New American Writing and Barry Silesky's ACM, still going strong, though only ACM remains a Chicago institution). The goals here seemed similar to those of the first wave: to bring in the best of what was happening elsewhere, to mix international currents (Surrealism, say, and the New York School) together, and to foster local writing too. For all that, though, the scene seems, in retrospect, to have had a bit of a junior varsity quality, in that the sign of success was to leave: Hoover and Chernoff left for San Franciso, and when Hoover looks back on his time here, he writes with pride of his students who made it elsewhere (they “were being accepted into the country’s leading MFA programs: Brown, Bard, Columbia University, the University of Iowa [and] Bennington,” he says). (I've blogged about this before).

    Maybe the scene was too successful in creating people who wanted to make good elsewhere to last. Whatever happened, though, the wave had rolled back considerably by the 1990s. But in the new century there's a whole new turbulence, and the city seems to be a place people come to, rather than leave. Much of the real energy comes from a set of readings-series, generally unaffiliated with any big university or cultural institution: there's the Discreet Series, the Danny’s Tavern Series, and the Myopic Poetry Series, Series A, and Powell's North does a good job, too. There's Woodland Pattern up in Milwaukee, which seems plugged-in enough to what's happening in Chicago to be included. There are journals — the Chicago Review is in one of its longest-running smart and impressive phases, though less interested in local things than it could be; there's Conundrum and the wonderful LVNG; but just as important for the local scene there's a big online presence: Simone Muench has a weekly poetry feature at the Chicago art blog Sharkforum, has a kind of who's-who of Chicago poetry in its profiles section, Seven Corners Poetry quietly showcases the poets of the city, and a bunch of people you meet on the scene blog it all as it happens. There's even a kind of running index of events at Golden Rule Jones. With Don Share's arrival at Poetry, I bet even the branches of that mighty sequoia are going to start shaking a bit with the noise from the streets.