Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hating the Other Kind of Poetry: Now Online

Whatever you think the "other" kind of poetry is, and whether you hate that kind of poetry or not, I hope you'll take a look at my essay "Hating the Other Kind of Poetry" in the latest issue of Copper Nickel.  It's also available online here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Top Ten Metaphors for the Heart & Other Notecards: The List Poems of Andy McGuire

You’ve got to be kidding me. Really? You haven’t heard of Papirmass? Don’t worry, people, I’ll fill you in. Papirmass is sort of like a literary journal, if a literary journal were an art gallery.  They send you twelve nicely made art prints a year, of variable size and ready to frame, and in one way or another include something literary along with it—a chapbook sometimes, or poems, sometimes on the verso side of the print. It’s a grand idea, and if it were based in Brooklyn rather than Canada you’d have been hearing about it for a long time (they’re on their 69th issue). I’ve been thinking about the current issue because it’s managed to deliver something quite rare: a list poem I actually like.

I don’t know why I’m a hard sell when it comes to list poems—maybe it’s because they’re such a staple of the creative writing classroom that I’ve seen too many that are either merely workmanlike or strive a little too hard for novelty. Certainly there are exceptions—if we’re calling Joe Brainard’s I Remember a list poem, then I’m a fan of at least one large scale list poem. But generally, when I sit down with a list poem, the thing is considered guilty until proven otherwise. I know. It’s not fair. But Andy McGuire’s set of four list poems in the latest Papirmass (printed on the back of “Reflet,” a photo by Sarah Bodri) overcame my resistance. I think I understand why.

To begin with, there’s what we see at first glance— McGuire’s lists take advantage of Papirmass’s ability to present the written word in a visually interesting manner. The lists appear on old library index cards, yellowed and ruled in blue and red, with holes punched for the old catalog box rods. There’s a nostalgia value, even for my generation—I am of that unfortunate generation that came of age with the microfiche library catalog, a brief transitional technology between the card catalog and the fully electronic index, but we still used the card catalog when all of the fiche readers were engaged, and the sense memory of how it felt to thumb through those old cards is real enough. It’s not just nostalgia that we get from the images of lists on these cards, though—there’s a kind of pathos, especially since McGuire has chosen to have the text appear handwritten.  We get something like the feel Wes Anderson works so hard to give us in his films, where a character like Dignan in Bottle Rocket will reveal large binders of handwritten, naïve life plans—there’s a sense of how hopelessly outgunned we are by the world when we attempt to impose order on it. For Wes Anderson, the maker of plans andlists seems like a lost child grown old. It’s an important part of the Wes Anderson aesthetic, and more than incidental to the feel of McGuire’s list poems. They’d lost a lot if they appeared conventionally printed in an ordinary literary journal.

But McGuire isn’t out to show us a sincere attempt to order an unruly world. Instead, his lists work more like Jorge Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, a fictitious text described in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” Here, Borges shows us a set of asymmetrical categories of knowledge. The Emporium seeks to list and classify all the world’s animals, but instead of a system of mutually exclusive categories (say, “land based animals,” “flying animals,” “water-dwelling animals” and “amphibians”) it gives a muddle of overlapping categories:

Those that belong to the emperor
Embalmed ones
Those that are trained
Suckling pigs
Mermaids (or Sirens)
Fabulous ones
Stray dogs
Those that are included in this classification
Those that tremble as if they were mad
Innumerable ones
Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
Et cetera
Those that have just broken the flower vase
Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The idea is to show the confusion of ideas, the variety of ways knowledge can be structured, and the failure of consistency in the application of those varieties. Borges makes fun out of the very idea of categorization.

In a different way, Andy McGuire makes fun out of the idea of rankings. Rankings, after all, are meant to be rankings of things in terms of the same criteria—but he presents overtly non-comparable things in his rankings. In “Top Ten Places I Have Seen a Swan,” for example, we get locations where an artificial swan might be found (“Souvenir shop”); places where what one sees isn’t a swan but a drawing of a swan (“Book of bad drawings”) (here the “bad” is sort of egregious, which is wonderful); places where what one sees may or may not be a real swan, and may or may not be there because people want it there (“Art opening”—how avant-garde is the show?); places that are plausible but nevertheless incongruous for a goose (“Stuck in a doggy door”) and places that must be somehow surreal (“Under a tongue”). In a list poem, everything is about selection and juxtaposition, and McGuire’s juxtapositions are uncommonly clever, even charming.

We get similar a similar feel from McGuire’s “Top Ten Things Not Meant to Be Carried.” When he tells us a bird isn’t meant to be carried, it feels right—those things squirm and really don’t want to be in your hands. But when he tells us a hologram or a lawn are not meant to be carried, the rightness of the assertion that they aren’t meant to be carried is predicated on different grounds (immateriality and non-portability, respectively). Then there are other items that simply don’t perform their intended uses if carried (balaclava and parachute). What we’re really getting is a kind of demonstration of the variability within our language—how “not meant to be carried” can apply to many different states. To rank these things implies that they are comparable (same in kind, different in degree), but the variety of things chosen shows how the same language applies to things that are not comparable. If I were a grad student, and it were the early 1990s, I would go on for paragraphs here about linguistic slippage, dropping the names of as many French theorists as possible. But you get the idea.

“Top Ten Miscellaneous Metaphors for the Heart” is a little different, since it deals with figurative language, and in a sense the listed items are comparable. What’s nice, though, is the freshness of the metaphors, and the variety of ways in which each is accurate.  Yes, the heart is a windsock, being blown this way and that, and yes, it is the national debt, owing ever more and more, and yes, it is a polygraph, on which the truth of our actions is proved, and yes, it is a flea market, full of random accumulations and broken things. McGuire is so sure footed here that I’m sure there’s a way the heart is an “Alpha mule,” too, though I’d first have to find out just what one of those is to confirm it.

The final list, “Top Ten Places to Report From,” also shows the multiple senses of the seemingly simple language of the category. The place can be visually designated (“vanishing point”) or a matter of time (“seconds before”—there’s a nice implied narrative in that one) or ambiguous (“wherever the weather comes from”).  It can also be an “art opening,” the penultimate item in this, the final list—and a nice call back to the initial swan list, giving a satisfying sense of formal conclusion to an already satisfying piece of writing.

If this is your kind of thing, and you’re ready to be surprised with a new art print in your mailbox a dozen times a year, give Papirmass a try.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Hating the Other Kind of Poetry

Hot news, people—the latest issue of the reborn Copper Nickel has arrived, fresh from the good people at the University of Colorado.  It has Tony Hoagland, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, John Koethke, Kevin Prufer, and translation portolios by Yi Lu, Christina Hesselholdt, and not one, not two, but three poets from Uruguay.  Who could want more? No one! But there is more, including an essay I wrote called "Hating the Other Kind of Poetry."  It deals with sectarianism in the poetry world.

Here's a section from near the end, in which I talk about the attempt (and it can only be that) to get beyond our own assumed values and habitual tastes as readers: 

Conquistadors and anthropologists

            The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski once wrote with apparent sympathy of a group of people who believed fervently in their own ideals and disdained those of others, saying:

A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region.  Often in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike with the image of the Emperor.  I said to him, ‘you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior it is because we are indifferent, both to their civilization, and to our own.’

Kołakowski was, however, playing devil’s advocate—since, for him, the better angels of European civilization were not the conquistadors, but the anthropologists.  “The anthropologist,” Kołakowski writes,

must suspend his own norms, his judgments, his mental, moral, and aesthetic habits in order to penetrate as far as possible into the viewpoint of another and assimilate his way of perceiving the world.  And even though no one, perhaps, would claim to have achieved total success in this effort, even though total success would presuppose an epistemological impossibility—to enter entirely into the mind of the object of inquiry while maintaining the distance and objectivity of the scientist—the effort is not in vain.  We cannot completely achieve the position of an observer seeing himself from the outside, but we may do so partially.

Like the scholar C after he heard my irritating paper at the conference years ago, when confronted with that which is alien to our sensibilities we may make the attempt to stand outside ourselves, and in doing so see something other than an object of disdain.  Indeed, we may get a kind of doubled or even tripled vision: we’ll know the thing we’re looking at—a poem, say—on something like it’s own terms, as well as on ours.  Moreover, we might discover something about our own assumptions—our assumptions and, one hopes, ourselves.


There's more.  The essay is in Copper Nickel 21, Fall 2015.  A modified version will also appear as the afterword to my book The Kafka Sutra.

UPDATE:  The article is now available online here.

Cover by Mark Mothersbaugh. You know, from Devo.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Poetry and Refugees

Migrants, we're told, present a crisis for Europe—untold thousands trek over dusty trails from Syria, or put themselves at the mercy of the Mediterranean as they set out from North Africa on rafts and other uncertain craft. I don't much care for the term "migrant," though: it implies something like choice, that the sufferings of these people are somehow their own fault, and reduces the moral urgency of the situation. Journalist Barry Malone gets at the truth of the matter when he writes:
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative. It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance.
What we really have is a crisis, not of migrants, but of refugees. What can poetry do, in a time of such crisis? The question probably seems absurd to the more practical-minded, but it haunts poets at times like these. W.H. Auden addressed an earlier era's troubles in "Refugee Blues," a poem about Jewish refugees in the time of fascism, and Chinua Achebe's "Refugee Mother and Child" spoke to a crisis closer to our own time.

My own poor, best effort, came from the Yugoslav wars of the nineties, when I was living in Europe:

Poem for a War Poet, Poem for a War

The lines inked on the map are railways and roads.
The lines on the road are refugees, and moving.
The lines inked on the page are a poem, your poem.
            While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

The lines on the page are a poem, words
that move toward the refugees, their tattered world
of hurt and proper names, their lost, their staggering.
            While you are singing, while you are singing.

The lines are helpless in this time of war.  They survive,
if they are a poem, in valleys of saying, they survive
and reach for valleys where bodies cough, bleed, or stumble blind.

They survive while you are singing.
            While you are singing. 

The lines on the road are refugees,
Their paths are marked with ink, charted
on a General’s table.  Your lines are a poem.
            While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

A woman bends beneath her load, a young man stutters in his fear,
a guard at the valley’s border lets them through,
or not.  Your lines are a poem.
            Who will carry your burden

I am a great believer in poetry, and know what it has done for me and for others I care about. But I am also a believer in these words, from an anonymous editorial in the Arab American News:
The photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child who drowned and washed on the shores of Turkey, has inspired volumes of poetry and sympathy. But words and tears will not help the people of Syria. Actions are needed by all governments— including ours— which considers itself the leading force in the free world. 
The United Nations has a fund for aid to refugees. Help if you can.