Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Anselm Hollo, R.I.P.

Photo of Hollo by Jane Dalrymple-Hollo

I am very sad to have heard from Mark Johnson that Anselm Hollo died this morning.

give up your ampersands & lowercase ‘i’s
they still won’t like you
the bosses of official verse culture
(U.S. branch)    but kidding aside
I motored off that map a long time ago

Those lines come from one of two poems from Anselm Hollo's "Where if Not Here" we published in Samizdat back in the 1990s, and they capture some of my favorite things about Hollo's viewpoint: his lack of pretense, and his complete disregard for the laurels, prizes, and jockeying-for-position that had already become endemic in the little demimonde of American poetry.

Hollo's grasp of the gulf between the sublimity of which poetry is capable, and the absurdities into which poets fall in pursuit of that chimera, a "career in poetry," made him the ideal person to hold the title of United States Anti-Laureate, to which he was elected by the Buffalo POETICS list back at the turn of the century.

Here is the announcement of his election to that position, originally posted to the POETICS list, along with his response, written to accompany the announcement when Andrei Codrescu (who happened to be visiting us at Lake Forest College when the election results came in) reprinted it in Exquisite Corpse.


Presenting the award for United States Anti-Laureate is Miss Suzanne Somers...

And the winner is...


(Wild applause, accompanied by a murmur of discontent coming from 
Barrett Watten's table). 

Mr. Anselm Hollo 

is hereby appointed 


for the year 2001 

with all the ironies and contradictions

appertaining there unto 

And remember, kids — all the real dadas are against dada.

With Great Sobriety and Dignity, 

Robert Archambeau 

High Commissioner 
United States Anti-Laureate Commission 


9 july ("from the desk of the anti-laureate")

"With all the ironies and contradictions appertaining thereunto" (High 
Commissioner Robert Archambeau of the United States Anti-Laureate 
Commission), I am delighted to accept my appointment as US Anti-Laureate for the year 2001.

While I agree with several of Barrett Watten's points regarding the "Iowa 
exclusion" and the "system of representation on which the [US] Poet 
Laureate[ship] is based," I prefer to read the title as simply representing a 
"Big No" (as in George Grosz's remarkable autobiography, Ein kleines Ja und 
ein grosses Nein -- A Small Yes and a Big No) to the "laurels" bestowed by some librarian and his cronies in the (increasingly) provincial capital of 
the world.

A "No," as well, to the tiresome hype (put out by publishers, arrangers of literary events, etc.) of all the "award-winning" So-and-sos -- a hype to which perhaps only "arts administration" bureaucrats still pay any attention.

As for the Iowa Exclusion [anyone with an Iowa MFA was disqualified from consideration for the title of anti-laureate] , and the Exclusion of the Great Dead, I may, upon 
further Pataphysical Reflection and Discussion with The High Commissioner and other interested parties, decide to suggest waiving these in years to come. The Anti- and Alternative Laureates are legion, and include many more than those nominated this time around. I agree with Watten that Robert Grenier's indomitable US American lyricism deserves recognition, as does the dynamic, visionary, linguistically and philosophically innovative work of Alice Notley (my nominee).

Since the Anti-Laureateship is not funded by taxpayers, I cannot invite 
Notley, or Grenier, or Watten, or any of you, to come and read at the Library 
of Congress. I have, however, acted as an advisor to the illustrious Left 
Hand Reading Series in Boulder, Colorado, for the past couple of years, and 
intend to continue to do so. The organizers of the series, poets Laura E. 
Wright and Mark DuCharme, pass a Venerable Hat for Honorarium, which thus varies according to the number of solvent persons in the audience. In its modest way, this series has been, is, and will be working toward "undoing the system of representation on which the [US] Poet Laureate[ship] is based" (Watten). For my personal record of efforts in that direction, see my book Caws and Causeries: Around Poetry and Poets. 

And in case Bob Grumman, and anyone else, truly wants to refresh his or her 
memory of any of my work, s/he now has an opportunity to do so by asking the local public librarian to obtain a copy of my Notes on the Possibilities and 
Attractions of Existence: Selected Poems 1965-2000.

Allow me to end this message with the poem "Piano Solo" by Chile's Anti-Poet Nicanor Parra (translated by Jorge Elliott): 

Since Man's life is nothing but an action at a distance, 
A bit of foam shining in a glass; 
Since trees are nothing but agitated furniture,

Mere chairs and tables in perpetual motion; 
Since we ourselves are merely beings 
(Just as god himself is no more than god); 
Since we don't talk to be listened to 
But merely to get others to talk, 

And since an echo precedes the voices that produce it; 
And since we haven't even the consolation of chaos 
In a garden that yawns and fills with air, 
A puzzle we have to solve before dying 
So that we can be tranquilly resuscitated 
After we've over-indulged in women; 
And since there's also a heaven in hell, 
Allow me to do a thing or two: 
I want to make a shuffling noise with my feet, 
I want my soul to find its body.

Photo of Hollo by Tom Raworth, 2012

Saturday, January 26, 2013

31 Letters, 13 Dreams, and the Communications Revolution

If you want to understand the significance of Richard Hugo's 1977 book of poems, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, you're going to need to check in with the Envelope Manufacturer's Association.  Let me explain.

Although the slim Norton edition I've been reading features an envelope on the cover, the importance of communications technology—and the envelope is certainly a technology of communication—isn't the most immediately apparent thing about Hugo's book.  Indeed, it comes across more as a book about solitude and loneliness than anything else, as I'm sure Hugo intended.

As the title indicates, the poems in the book come in two forms: letters and dreams.  The letters are invariable given a title in the format "Letter to [name of recipient, usually another poet of the 1970s] from [name of town, usually someplace with a university Hugo was visiting, or a little western town where he'd gone to fish]." So: "Letter to Ammons from Maratea," for example, or "Letter to Simic from Boulder." The dream poems, too, have titles that follow a format of sorts: "In Your [descriptive word] Dream."  Thus: "In Your War Dream," "In Your Hot Dream," and so forth.

One soon catches on that the letters and the dreams are really two different ways of addressing the same theme.  The letters are the public, or semi-public, way of dealing with Hugo's sense of isolation as an aging, unattached man who spends a lot of time traveling around the country from one poetry reading or visiting writer gig to another.  There's a lot of alienation, and a fair bit of non-specific frustration and detachment: "I'm awfully frightened/and I don't know why.  I keep feeling revolutionary/but I have no cause," he writes in "Letter to Hanson from Miami"—"I feel I am going to dynamite/the swimming pool."  It's a condition he attributes to being "as far from home/as I can get in the United States." 

Letters sent to someone with whom he feels a connection, an old girlfriend, say, or to a fellow poet, becomes a way of trying to connect, to write his way out of isolation.  It's also a way of converting pain and sometimes panic into anecdotage, reminiscence, and a presentation of himself as wistful, gently melancholy, a little stoic.

The dreams, by contrast, are private: not Hugo's way of trying to communicate to sympathetic people in the world, but his way of trying to communicate with himself.  That is, they're where his unconscious feeds up images of his isolated condition, directing them to the waking mind for contemplation and interpretation.  "You are riding a camel/in Athens.  The citizens yell 'We are not Arab.  This/is not sand" we read in "Your Wild Dream," before discovering that, through the metamorphic logic of dreams, "the camel is a yacht.  You cruise/a weird purple river.  Girls doze on the bank.  One/stands up and waves.  You yell, 'Where is your town?'/You are alone."  The imagery is weird, but the condition from which the dream springs is clear enough: isolation, displacement, a yearning to connect.

This kind of confessional poetry, in which the poet takes stock, as best and as directly as he can, of his inner needs and fears, and tries to tell them to others, is pretty out of fashion now.  Indeed, reading Hugo's book concurrently with Juliana Spahr's wonderful 2011 collection Well Then There Now, one really senses a change in style and attitude from the poetry prominent in the late 1970s to the well-received poetry of our own time.  Spahr's work is all about Hawaii, which one would think would give her ample cause to write about isolation and distance.  But instead we get a picture of Hawaii as a place deeply interconnected with every other place: we see it penetrated by, landed on, and changed by information and bodies and species from all over the world.  Like Spahr's equally fine This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, it is a book about connection and community, and her preferred pronoun is not "me" but "us."

And if we want to understand this difference between Hugo's lonely confessionalism and Spahr's sense of interconnectivity and community, we'd do well to look at the Envelope Manufacturer's Association 2006 report "First Class Mail and the United States Postal Service: Future Strategies for This Time-Honored Medium."  This, after all, throws into stark relief the very different communications regimes under which Hugo and Spahr have written.

The report, issued after a "summit meeting of former postal leaders and mailing industry leaders," is a bit panic-stricken.  The envelope industry, it seems, is deeply worried about the fate of the personal letter, as the wrapping of such letters has been a major source of their revenue.  But, they note, the share of United States Postal deliveries taken by first class mail (primarily letters and post-cards) has been in steep decline.  Sometime around 2002 the volume of first class mail sank beneath that of pre-sorted mail (bills, large-scale business mailings, much junk mail) and the plunge has been precipitous since then.  It's indicative, of course, of the rise of the internet, email, Facebook, iChat, Skype, and all the other means by which people keep in touch.  Richard Hugo, back in the 1970s, wrote in a world where personal communication over great distances was either very slow, like the paper letter, or very expensive (a three minute Sunday off-peak phone call in 1970 would cost over four dollars in today's money, which was down from the equivalent of almost 23 dollars in the mid 1960s; and when 31 Letters and 13 Dreams was published air travel was about two and a half times more expensive per mile than it is today, though the in-flight meals were better).  All of this matters at the experiential level: when my wife's work takes her to Paris, as it sometimes does lately, I can get on iChat and have a video chat with her for hours at, essentially, no charge.  Back in the eighties, when I had an argument with my girlfriend during her family's vacation to England, the satellite phone bill ran to some 80 bucks (maybe $160 in today's money), and the short time-lag as one's voice bounced into space and back made for some very confusing moments.  I think it might have led to the break-up. 

Anyway.  If we think about Hugo's moment, it wasn't just a time of relatively expensive communications: it was a time when American poets, novelists, and artists were more geographically scattered across the nation than ever before.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, the tiny number of people privileged enough to be engaged in these kinds of creativity clustered in a few places—Greenwich Village, say, or the parts of Paris where expats hung out together in cheap cafes.  The expansion of the universities in the decades after World War Two allowed many more people to make their way as artists and writers, but it also scattered them across the continent. And this scattering took place at a time when it was much, much more difficult to stay in touch with likeminded people than it is today.

This combination of the growing academic-cultural establishment, and the still-primitive nature of communications technology, accounts for much of Hugo's pervasive sense of loneliness.  He travels from gig to gig, from college town to college town, accumulating acquaintances but not close friends.  He's uprooted, and yearns to be in touch with the people he's met who care about the same things he does.  He can't go and meet them at a left bank bistro, because they, like him, have been scattered to the four winds by the great academic hurricane of the mid-to-late twentieth century.

This, I think, connects to a powerful feeling I had, mid-way through reading 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, that this was a book my father would love.  My dad (a ceramic artist of some renown in the field) comes, like Hugo, from a generation of artists scattered by academe, and linked only by slow or expensive communications.  I remember how big a deal it was when other artists would come to visit us—the painter Toni Onley making a grand entrance landing his pontoon plane on the lake at our weekend place, John Cage making off with someone else's beaded Indian jacket, which he mistook for a gift for the Visiting Grandee, and so forth.  And I remember the hand-written letters from artists all over the world.  Sometimes the sense of isolation and alienation in them could be moving: I remember sneaking a peek at one left on the dining room table, in which the Florida-based artist wrote of "not feeling like part of America anymore, but more like one of a handful of eternal madmen."  You get the idea: confessional, passionate, troubled stuff, born of a kind of isolation it is now difficult for us to imagine.

Nowadays, we live in a kind of dialectical synthesis of the low-tech world where artsy types had to cluster in a few bohemias, and the technological/academic world of mass culture and distance.  We're scattered all over the world, as was Hugo's generation, but thanks to our iPhones and Facebook, we're always in touch, making minor small talk and nudging one another.  There was no small talk in Hugo's letters—communication was too precious for that.  And it would be very strange to find something like the passionate, lonely statement in that letter my father received in a Facebook update or a tweet.  We're more like the gossiping left bank crowd, except, you know, without the affairs, the croissants, and the absinthe.

So: one significance of Hugo's 31 Letters and 13 Dreams comes to light when we think about the kind of statistics on letters given in the Envelope Manufacturers' Association report.  That doesn't exhaust the significance, of course—but statistics on dreams are harder to come by.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Otherness and Empathy: Harvey Kurtzman’s War Comics

I don’t remember much about the war comics I read as a kid, in part because I didn’t read them the way I read Tintin or Asterix (obsessively, slowly, repeatedly).  I couldn’t read them that way, because they weren’t mine: they belonged to the kids whose family had a little cabin next to my family’s weekend place on a lake a couple of hours into the enormous conifer and rock-outcrop forest of the Canadian Shield.  The Reichert kids were older than I was, and had lived in England for a while, and kept a stash of English and American war and horror comics in a back room of the cabin, and sometimes, when our family was visiting theirs, I’d sneak into that back room and hurriedly read through a comic or two with a flashlight.

The horror comics were a mistake: I’d always rush home and try to forget about the terrifying images by reading Asterix, but it never did any good, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night convinced that the sound of the wind in the branches could only be the wailing of corpses risen from the grave.  But the war comics were fascinating: full of guys punching out heavily armed enemies with nothing but the oversized knuckles on their spectacularly rendered fists, or jackbooted Nazis and commies marching in lockstep against our side’s ragtag bands of can-do misfits.  I do remember one exception: a grim tale of a Vietnam veteran returned home after a bad injury in the jungle, only to face social rejection, unemployment, a girlfriend who’d left him while he was away at war, and finally a crippling drug addiction.  In the end, he tries to commit suicide, but when he pulls the trigger of his old service revolver, nothing happens, and a mysterious man appears to explain that he can’t take such an easy way out: he died in the jungle, and this America to which he’d returned is hell.  But by and large the pages of Nick Fury and His Howling CommandosSmash! and Sgt. Rock took a more gung-ho tack.

This early experience of 1970s war comics conditioned my expectations when Michael Robbins pulled a nicely produced hardcover of Corpse on the Imjin! And Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman from his courier bag and passed it to me in the departmental lounge one evening (he’d written a review of the book for The Chicago Tribune).  Kurtzman wrote—and, frequently, illustrated—many issues of the EC comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat during the 1950s, and I expected to find simple jingoism like I’d seen in the comics I’d read growing up.  I mean, these were comics about war during a time when America was at war in Korea, when Cold War propaganda was picturing a red under every bed, and before we’d had the hard national disillusion of Vietnam.  But instead, I found something rather different.  Perhaps because Kurtzman had been a soldier himself during the Second World War (though not a combat infantryman), his stories tend to be defined by two characteristics: an acute sense of the suffering of all soldiers; and a sense of the essential irony of war.  That is: the soldiers in his stories aren’t the sort who’d shout “go get ‘em, boys!” and charge down an enemy machine gun nest.  Rather, they’re people whose boots aren’t good enough for the journey, who hunger, who are plagued by fear and lack of sleep and more fear and by naïve courage that lasts exactly up to the point of first contact with the enemy.  Which is also exactly as long as the best-laid plans of officers lasts: armies plan, in Kurtzman’s stories, and the gods of war laugh.  More often than not, soldiers are caught in their own traps, or by their own illusions.  And it’s not just minor characters who perish: protagonists die, sometimes quickly, sometimes alone and in pain.  At least one critic, Ng Suat Tong, writing for Comics Journal, has complained that Kurtzman presented war as “gentle, dignified, and bloodlessly pleasant”—to be perfectly honest, I do not know how he could experience Kurtzman’s stories, in which we watch corpses float down rivers, see the laboriously built homes of innocent farmers destroyed by mere chance, and witness the slaughter of P.O.W.s by their captors, in this light.  If this is dignity and pleasantness, I shudder to think of indignity and pain.

There are, to be fair, occasional moments where we hear the false note of jingoism —“America is a way of life... and as long as we believe in good we can’t go wrong!” But generally Kurtzman is better than that, even in a format that openly panders to the audience’s prejudices (the last panel of many stories consists of a little message like “That’s it readers!  Did you enjoy this magazine?  Your letters give us an idea of what you like to read so won’t you please write us and tell us what you liked and why!”).

What’s most interesting is the sympathetic treatment Kurtzman gives to the Chinese and North Korean experience of the war, in comics for an American market published during the war itself.  Although Kurtzman doesn’t get into the political issues behind the war, he does treat the ethics of individual combatants, and in doing so he refuses to elevate the Americans above their Chinese and Korean opponents: both are shown as capable of dehumanizing their enemies, both are capable of great loyalty to their fellow soldiers, and of self-sacrifice, not for some abstract cause, but for the other guys in the unit, in the hopes of getting everyone back home safely.

One story, “Air Burst!” is told from the point of view of Chinese soldiers in a dangerous retreat after a failed offensive, and they are treated with exactly the same level of sympathy one sees in Kurtzman’s stories about American G.I.s.  Unlike the faceless German soldiers of Sgt. Rock, these guys have nicknames, they carry each other when wounded, they’re individuated, with some being kinder or more skilled than others, they suffer from terror during shelling by Americans, and, like the Kurtzman’s G.I.s, their fates can be ironic—in the end, one is killed by the trap his squad set to slow the American pursuit of their retreat.  Here, we've moved beyond the sympathetic to the empathetic, in that we don't just feel for the Chinese soldiers, we feel through them, are asked to see through their eyes and feel what they feel.  We become them, to the degree that we become Jane Eyre or Huck Finn or any other protagonist with whose plight a story asks us to identify.

Or almost.  There's one major stumbling block to our identification with Kurtzman's Chinese soldiers: the way he represents their speech.  Kurtzman's American G.I.s speak as realistically as he could make them, given the anti-profanity restrictions placed on publications by the Comics Code Authority.  But his Chinese soldiers, for all their humanity, speak a stilted, formalized version of English.  "Let us pause a moment" one will say, "Why do you stop, Lee?" another will ask. Then an airstrike that would have caused one of Kurtzman's Americans to shout "hit the deck!" makes a Chinese soldier call out "fall to the ground!" and then "we shall give the Americans a taste of shrapnel."  Seeing an American observation plane, another soldier calls out "he circles us!" and "let us run!"— you get the idea: no slang, no contractions, the kind of thing the writers of Star Trek did when writing for Spock or Data.  The idea seems to be to present the Chinese characters as exotic, and this interferes with the attempt to give us their experience and their point of view, since they are exotic only to us, not to themselves.  If they come across as exotic, we are taken out of their lived experience, and reminded of their otherness.  We are no longer fully experiencing their point of view.

The easiest thing to do would be to dismiss this as a kind of failure of imagination on Kurtzman's part, but the more I think about Kurtzman's representation of Chinese speech, the more I can see a point to it.  In fact, it has some of the characteristics most admired in postmodern translation theory.

Consider this passage from Michel Foucault's essay on Pierre Klossowski's translation of the Aeneid:
It is quite necessary to admit that two kinds of translations exist; they do not have the same function or the same nature. In one, something (meaning, aesthetic value) must remain identical, and it is given passage into another language.... And then there are translations that hurl one language against another... taking the original text for a projectile and treating the translating language like a target. Their task is... to use the translated language to derail the translating language.

That is, some translations seek to appear as if they were written in the new language: to make a version of Goethe, say, that seems like a work originally written in English.  This is the most commonly held sense of what a good translation looks like, and I confess that I've often thought of good translation in these terms.  When, for example, I read a translation from the French that stays too close to the Latinate side of English, using "submarine rock formations" rather than "underwater rock formations" for the French "formations rocheuses sous-marines," I tend to sneer at this as a bit prissy.  But there's another kind of translation, one that aims to retain the sense that the translated work was written in another language—this is Foucault's "projectile" translation.

The late Antoine Berman, one of the most influential and controversial translation theorists of the last thirty years, elaborated on this second kind of translation in an essay called "Translation and the Trials of the Foreign" (the title comes from Heidegger's discussion of Hölderlin's strange translations from the Greek).  Here, Berman describes a type of translation that maintains a strong sense of the original language's difference from our own tongue, and aims "to open up the foreign work to us in its utter foreignness" by "accentuating its strangeness," which is, paradoxically, the only real way of "giving us access" to the foreign text as such, that is, as a foreign text.  The idea is to maintain a sense of strangeness in the translation, thereby preventing the reader from erasing the real, existing otherness of the original text itself.

Kurtzman, of course, isn't translating anything—he, not a Chinese author, wrote 'Air Strike!" and he wrote it in English.  But the representation of Chinese speech as a marked English, as something other than idiomatic, native-speaker stuff, may be taken as an attempt to maintain for us a sense that the people he is depicting are not simply Westerners with slightly different bodies: they come from another culture, and speak another language, and his representation of their speech keeps this always in front of us.

There's a case to be made against this kind of speech representation.  When I see pop-culture depictions of Native Americans, and they speak a kind of hyper-formal, dignified, contraction-free, unslangy English, I always rankle a bit, because it seems like this involves a flattening out of the emotional and expressive range of the characters.  They're not talking like the Cree and Blackfoot kids I knew growing up in western Canada, kids who were capable of wackiness, low diction, fast-talk, and as full a range of human affect as you or I.  But if Berman is to be believed, there's also a case for a kind of speech representation that marks difference as difference, that refuses to allow us to forget the foreignness of the foreign.  If we proceed on Berman's assumptions, then we can see "Air Strike!" as a combination of a Chinese point of view—inviting empathy—with speech effects that remind us that the empathy we're feeling is an empathy that stretches across cultural divisions.  And that's a subtle move—far subtler than many of us have been willing to attribute to something in the often maligned form of the old-school comic book.