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.