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A few weeks ago, the miraculous Metta Sama(~), master of @thethepoetry, hosted a discussion under the Twitter hashtag #thethepoetics with editors from @aquariuspress, @dzancbooks, @notell, @yesyesbooks, and @WordWorksEditor, as well as a host of other poets.

The discussion covered the life (and writing) of editors, the world of publishing, ebooks, and self-publishing.

Download #thethepoetics small press conversation here (PDF). The conversation begins around page 34 and moves backwards.

Stay tuned for future #thethepoetics discussions!

In the meantime, follow Metta and keep up with the latest @thethepoetry.

Image Credit: Marco Muñoz

I learned to read a micrometer a couple days before my first shift at National Tool and manufacturing. The night before, I did my first paid poetry gig at the Franklin township library in New Jersey. I made fifty bucks. This is the early 80s. Pay for poets has actually gone down a wee bit (we’re not talking the 1 percent). Anyway, I read at the Franklin township library, came home, got up that morning at around 5 am, and left for the job–taking two buses.

I had never been inside such a large shit hole. The first thing I smelled was creosote (the floors at that time were creosote blocks to better absorb the oil, grit and coolant). The next thing I smelled was what I suppose you could call “loud.” Certain types of loud are both sound and stink. The machines were loud. They stank of loudness, and they looked like something out of a dark dream, all hoses, and drill heads and dangling modifiers and dangerous fanged and daggered appendages, sort of Charley Chaplin meets Fritz Lang. Men moved around them guiding what I learned were two ton magnets. A two ton magnet lifts 4 thousand pounds of steel. Machinists use these magnets held to a conveyor by chains, swing them into place, lock down the plate (piece) clamp it, measure it, drill, ream, mill, grind it, etc. etc.

These plates often have razor sharp edges, especially if they have not been filed down, and I saw men slice their hands open when guiding them–right through the safety glove. I also witnessed feet crushed, fingers cut off, and various other nasty injuries. As a first aid attendant, I bagged a couple fingers. About four years into the work I had my right index finger put back together. I severed the tendon and “violated” the joint. I cut it on a borzon cup wheel spinning at 4500 rpm. The cut was clean, instant and half way into the bone. At the emergency room I asked to be given local anesthesia so I could watch the surgeon work. She was like a master tool maker. She cauterized some veins so they did not bleed, reattached my severed tendon, tied it up nicely, tended to my violated joint and sewed me back up. I played piano. I was told I would recover maybe fifty percent use of the finger at best and that I should keep it immobile for six weeks. I said: “fuck that.” I figured it was going to do what I wanted it to do or I’d cut the damned thing off. I continued to play piano with it–even while it was in a splint. I thought: “use it or lose it.” I still have almost 100 percent use of my finger. It hurts during cold weather and tightens up even after 25 years, but I was right not to listen. No one can predict recovery or capacity until they test it against their own experience.

So I am a good piano player and I’ve made some money playing, and I was working in a place that took fingers very easily. So what? Americans expect jobs to be fulfilling. They think they have “careers.” They’ve forgotten it’s just a fucking job and its meant to feed and clothe you–that’s it. It can’t kiss you. It can’t go to your father’s wake, and it sure as hell does not define character. Some of the worst scumbags I know are a success. I am Zen in this respect. We are corpses and success means very little if you remember first and last things and sleep soundly in the coffin of the truth. All jobs are good jobs if they keep you from starving to death and they don’t make you a murderer, a crook, or an overseer and contriver of someone else’s suffering and enslavement. Any job that contributes to the misery of the world is against God. It is also, and more importantly, against humanity. I would rather be a peon caught in the need to toil at menial labor than a big shot responsible for the slavery and sadness of countless people. It is better to eat shit all the days of your life than to be the one who shovels shit into another’s mouth. I figure I have a choice in so far as being a worker by choice and will means I keep my freedom of conscience.

Eating shit is what a working person does. The jobs are dangerous, or boring, or made unbearable by some manager type who wants to earn his or her money by being a fucking jerk wad. The best managers are better at your job than you are. They are there to truly supervise–meaning teach. The worst managers think they are there because we all know workers, left to their own devices, will do nothing, get drunk, and have sex. In all the years I worked at National, I only saw the foremen have sex with women in rough and finished inspection–never rank and filers. Foremen are often the most physically impressive guys on the shop floor–not always, but often. They are young, and cocky, and tend to feel entitled. This works for mate selection. We call it power dynamics and sexual harassment, but, in most cases, the women willingly engaged in affairs with the often married foremen. The shop floor tends to bring out atavistic behaviors.

Men court the foremen as well. You don’t need foremen to weed out back sliding because the stupid men rat on each other 90 percent of the time and save the foremen the trouble of looking for wrong doers. Once a guy came up to me and said: “Joe, I think we have a rat in our midst.” I said: “Yep…we sure do; and he’s punching every fuckin’ time card on every fuckin’ shift.”

Workers turning in workers and courting the favor of foremen was my chief trouble as shop steward. The only guys who didn’t turn in other workers were the guys who knew what they were doing–good men, highly skilled. They didn’t have to turn in other workers because they knew their jobs, did them, and with a minimum of bullshit. Such men should have been the foremen, but the kiss ass/rat culture in this nation has superseded ability.

The smart foremen knew enough to prize and respect these guys. The dumb foremen (and we had many) harassed or fired the best workers because they didn’t rat and kiss ass. If that sort of stupid manager proliferates, the quality of work goes way down, and all sorts of excuses and accusations go way up. It ruins the company and destroys business. A workplace without valor, without honor, with only kiss ups, and rats is soon doomed to fail, Punitive treatment and disparagement of workers always leads to such a work place. Bad supervisors encourage it. The first thing I’d do in a shop that seems to be falling apart is hold a meeting with the men, find out who the best foremen are, and fire the rest. Then I’d have a meeting with the remaining foremen and find out who the biggest rats were. I’d either shit can them (if I could) or tell them they were not to complain about another worker unless it was in writing (they never want to put it in writing since, most of the time, it’s fairly malicious).

You want workers who respect each other, who don’t rat, who know how to take care of problems within their own rank and file. You want workers to become the sort of people who could teach and lead others–not abuse them. You want valiant and honorable men more than you want productivity. Productivity, or what we think is productivity, never comes from piece rates, or from cracking the whip. It is usually the result of a few secret, but deeply respected men or women in the shop who hold things together. These men and women are like the jewels in the furnace. Productivity is almost always from within , the outcome of valor and honor. When these few are fired, or quit, or retire, you can watch the whole house of cards fall apart. Because workers are perceived as not much better than Thersites in the Iliad, we accord them no such distinctions, and, after a few years, the productivity of any abusive atmosphere always falls apart. It’s the law of diminishing returns. This is especially true if corrupt managers punish the valiant and honorable and keep their pets and their rats. Nothing destroys productivity more than a bunch of yes men who don’t know what they are doing. If ratting and ass kissing are the secret system of your workforce, then any other system suffers, and you end up with bureaucratic ratting/ass kissing. People no longer even have a reason to rat or kiss ass; they just do. This is a major problem in our professions–much more so now than years ago because so much of what we call work these days is based on social interactions and the verbal construct. So much of it is based on smoke and mirrors.

Envy is the one bad worker who never gets fired. Of all the evils that could do a work place in, envy is the worst. Envy can ruin even the best endeavors. Management seeks to cut envy down to a minimum by encouraging “team efforts” but among workers they often encourage envy, especially during union negotiation time. Envy reduces grown workers to the level of the three year old screaming: “It’s not fair!” “How did HE GET THAT?” Envy is indeed a deadly sin and almost anyone who is honest and has fought against envy knows how hard it is to truly defeat it rather than rationalize it away.

Sociopaths, people with a seeking mechanism devoid of honor, valor, or guilt, are envious of anyone in power, but will bond with the more powerful sociopath in a sort of evil marriage, until they find a way to become that more powerful sociopath, or find a willing slave to do their bidding. Sociopaths tend not to work in factories unless they are management because sociopaths are thrill seekers and there is nothing thrilling about making the same part over and over again and being told by a numb nut foremen that you are an asshole. Sociopaths come in bragging. They have great surface charm. They often run the football pool, get the worst foremen on their side by appealing to their vices, and so on and so forth. In my 20 years as a factory worker I watched sociopaths come in with great energy and verve, and bravado, and then, sooner or later, crash and burn or simply quit. Often they became foremen and, when they did, mediocrity and fear ensued.

Sociopaths are like incompetent gods: they are usually good-looking or charismatic because evolution has given them these traits to survive. They usually have average to above average intelligence. They tend to like action and trouble for the sake of action and trouble, and, no sooner do they rule, than they grow bored and contemptuous and start destroying people. You will only recognize a true sociopath when he or she has been given power. A sociopath given too much power will develop their infantile sense of submission and seek out the “ultimate” sociopath to whom they give homage: some god, or a figure of greatness with whom they identify and from whom they believe they derive their strength. They will also seek the ultimate slave or consort: the right hand man, the good cop to their bad–the perfect minion. You must dip a sociopath in triumph in order to see his true colors. All sociopaths are “family” men–incapable of being alone (serial killers are loners, but I believe they are created by society for the expressed purpose of keeping power arbitrary). All sociopaths lack empathy or remorse, have no guilt and a total sense of entitlement, traits they hide exceedingly well behind a series of extroverted social appearances and schemas of the appropriate. According to self-empowerment tropes, this is merely being self-loving and self-motivated. According to modernist and postmodernist cynics, this is the true and organic way of all people. They are confidence men to the degree that they know how to give other’s confidence, and have an intuitive sense of how each “mark” should be approached. They invariably mess everything up, and nothing of lasting worth comes from them because, at their core, is a sort of dull rage and utter lack of humanity. They are heroes to Ayn Rand and to American followers of that idiot, and we admire them because we have become co-dependent with sociopaths: ass kissing and ratting eventually turns a whole work force (or nation) into a bad version of S and M. We are either having our asses kicked or kicking ass. Only the foot and the ass remain in America. The rest of the body politic is lost.

I learned a lot in the factory–how things really work or fail to work. Ideas are never as important as appearances and narratives. The groove of the story can outlast any series of good ideas, and no idea stands a chance unless it can find a groove. If a bad idea finds a groove, it becomes a system, and then, God help us. Men and women worship tallness, physical prowess, and “normalcy.” The stooped general, the distinguished looking, slightly over serious, rather grave man or woman always has power projected onto him or her–regardless of true ability.

We are far less individual than we pretend and even those valiant, “special” individuals in Ayn Rand who have a riding crop, a fast horse and reason on their side, and who let no sniveling collective stand in their way, are largely horse shit. They don’t exist save as semiotic smoke we blow up each other’s power worshipping asses.

Working in a factory for shit pay in 110 degree heat with some foreman coming out of his air-conditioned office to warn you not to fuck up is exactly what most American’s need to experience: to be without power or respect, to be treated as if you were a moron and to know your only alternative is to go to another place where the same thing is likely to happen…. isn’t this what our wonderful new technologies are encouraging worldwide while reserving dress down Fridays and maternity leave for their chosen few? We think we rid ourselves of the worst traits of the industrial revolution, but we really only did what a child might do if told to clean his room immediately: we swept all our mess under the bed, and hoped no one would notice. There is nothing clean or post-industrial about our new technological, post- mechanical world. We simply put the filthy aspects elsewhere and turn back the clock to a time before unions and pollution laws, and labor reform. Sadly, so sadly, William Blake’s chimney sweeper poem still makes sense:

And have gone off to worship their God and king
who make a heaven of our misery

There is a considerable amount of contention over the true source of the word “chapbook.” Scholars of Anglo-Saxon history and language contend that the prefix “chap-” is derived from the ancient word “ceap,” while others maintain it is merely a corruption of “cheap;” however, most attribute the word’s popularity to the chapman—European peddler, reporter, and rogue-of-all-trades from the 16th to at least the 18th century. During the intervening years, the chapbook morphed in size and intention to its modern form: a slim, inexpensive poetry volume of interest to casual readers and avid collectors alike.

Since the Middle Ages, the chapman had been a vital link between the rural towns and hamlets of the European countryside and the rest of the “civilized” world. Criminals though some may have been (some chapmen were reported to have been moonlighting as pickpockets and highwaymen), they nevertheless brought every manner of household necessity in their packs: sewing kits, ribbon, small tools, ink, and assorted miscellany. The chapman’s skills also included reportage, as inhabitants of each town were relatively isolated and lusted for news and entertainment from the outside world.

As time wore on, the public’s tastes began to shift. In 1693, England repealed the Act of 1662, which had placed strict limitations on the number of Master Printers in the country; as a result, the publishing trade began to expand by leaps and bounds. The late 17th century also saw the rise of “charity schools”–educational institutions readily available to the poor and working classes—throughout Europe, greatly increasing the literacy rate across the continent. By 1700, chapmen had begun to carry small books and pamphlets of less than 20 pages with them, costing one or two pennies apiece and containing every kind of popular literature, entertainment and reference material required by the rural masses. For their part, the masses seemed to have developed a voracious appetite for reading—several tears after the publication of The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine reported that a cheap version was highly in demand across Scotland and in varying parts of England, recommending that small print runs be made in country presses to satisfy the reading public. Commoners now had the resources to establish libraries of their own.

The lure of these chapbooks was not merely due to their inexpensive price. A typical chapbook could contain information about any number of things: travel almanacs and tales of adventure in far-off lands; household guides; reference materials on religion, superstition, and the occult; bardic collections of songs, jokes, and riddles, the direct predecessors of the Elizabethan jest-book; and, often, tales of romance, comedy, drama, and sundry works of prose fiction. Without copyright law or any way to enforce such a thing, however, piracy was a commonplace problem. Often, woodcuts and chunks of copy would be lifted directly from one chapbook and deposited into another, then sold by a rival publisher in a different area of the country. Not that the customers minded; as long as the chapbooks were made available at low prices, the originality of their content was rarely (if ever) called into question.

Ultimately, the chapman and his sack of supplies and books went the way of the dinosaur, and the chapbook—in its original form, at any rate—went with him. The Industrial Revolution brought drastic change to Europe in many different forms, not least of which were the laws banning public solicitation and hawking of wares—laws which almost single-handedly put chapmen out of business themselves. Advances in printing presses made newspapers much easier to produce, reducing the demand for cheap reference guides. Readers across the globe began to shift their allegiance to the novel as a more accepted form for popular literature. For all these reasons and countless more, chapmen could no longer make a living and chapbooks were no longer the coveted resources they had once been. For some time, they languished, as Victor Neuberg put it, in “a barely tolerated existence in the form of comic postcards…in the windows of stationers’ shops”.

When a majority dismisses something as useless, however, a minority will often pop up nevertheless to force it back into usefulness. In the early 20th century, the chapbook was revitalized as a tool of the offbeat Dada movement and avant-garde artists in Russia to make their art and messages more widely heard. Though the chapman was no longer a valid means of distribution, the concept of a cheaply printed book that could be made readily available for lower classes with small purses held an undeniable appeal.

That appeal was not lost on the American Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s, who were themselves poor and without access to high-quality printing apparatuses. As was the case so long ago, however, the draw was not merely financial; there was certainly something to be said for the idea of printing short pieces of writing in a similarly small format. Using mimeograph machines and the cheapest paper and cardstock available, the beats were able to present their often obtuse verse in more easily-digestable chunks. Though they were longer than their old European ancestors, often clocking in at just under 50 or 60 pages, the price was still right for young beatniks and members of the counterculture. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published in this manner—a small, square, black-and-white volume with great ambition but no grandeur. The modern poetry chapbook had been born.

As the decades passed, further advances in technology allowed these new chapbooks to be produced in an ever-expanding variety of ways. Soon, mimeographs had been rendered obsolete by public copy centers, which were eventually made irrelevant themselves by the advent of commonly available digital printing. In the age of the Internet, we have seen the rise of “online chapbooks,” which are not proper “books” at all, but rather collections of poetry of comparable length to most print chapbooks of previous years but only available for viewing on the Web. In cases such as these, the issue of cost has sometimes been done away with altogether, producing an egalitarian chapbook made specifically for public consumption as a way of popularizing the poet’s work. Though the original chapbooks may be out of favor today, their mutated grandchildren are celebrated by poets and their fans worldwide.

While the content and methods of production of chapbooks has changed wildly, their bindings have changed even more so. The publishers of the first chapbooks had thrift ever in the forefront of their minds, and it showed in their binding. Most consisted of a single twelve-page signature, loosely sewn together, occasionally with a moderately stiff paper cover attached for a bit of added protection. Sometimes, the books went entirely unbound, remaining simple collections of folded paper. The poor, after all, would buy whatever was made available to them.

Today, however, we enjoy many more options when considering how our chapbooks shall be constructed. The most common chapbooks are still single-signature affairs, which can be mass-produced with only a cardstock cover and two staples along the crease. (A saddle- or long-necked stapler can be used.) This is the most cost- and time-effective method of contemporary chapbook manufacturing. Should a more classical and durable aesthetic be desired, there is always the option of classic saddle-stitch binding, wherein the signature is sewn together along the crease rather than stapled. This method is more time-consuming, but produces a product that may be more durable  than simple stapling.

If a spine is required or desired for the finished product (especially when there are multiple signatures), the publisher may opt to just have the chapbook Perfect-bound. In this case, after the signature(s) is/are compiled and arranged together, the folded edges are machine-cut roughly and then rubbed in hot glue, after which they are immediately stuffed into their paper cover. Though impractical for self-publishers, this is an attractive option for those who can afford large publishing machinery, as the process can be completely automated with little fuss, eliminating human error and increasing profit.

Chapbooks are now one of the most widely-accepted forms in which contemporary poetry is published. The prolific combination of desktop publishing programs and high-quality digital printing has struck millions of people with the ability to affordably publish a small book of poetry, prose, or anything else they desire (though poetry chapbooks have dominated the field for decades). Some chapbooks are issued in limited runs, often signed in the case of more famous writers, for collectors and devotees. This has led to a lively trade in antiquarian and modern collectable chapbooks, and today these slender tomes are appreciated by readers of every class—something the simple chapman, peddling his wares through the English countryside, would have thought ridiculous so many centuries ago.

So what is possibility? It is certainly no whore of failure or success. It is a feeling that you may be on to something–in the midst of something whose worth you cannot exactly measure and whose results you cannot predict. This was poetry for me, and music, and ballet, and art. I never cared that El Greco was a success. I cared about how he used blue and how it excited me, and how I wanted to join that blue.

This is what I find missing from my life to the point of wanting my life to end. Failure means not eating, and success means feeling empty even when you eat well, but that blue–Oh my fucking God! That means failure or success do not matter, and trusting you can live on the couch of a friend, and wake up with the blue still inside you. Without that, I would rather die.

In my worst moments, I roamed aimlessly through Manhattan hearing the insane voices of vagrants, and yet I never thought they were failures–for all their suffering. I thought they were prophets–and not because of some romantic myth, but because they were speaking beyond all failure, all success. I saw their spiritual reality and that made me write my poem, “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch.” It was this transcendence of the binaries. All art was always post-modern in this respect. The binaries will never be enough for an artist.

Once, after having my heart broken, I rode the bus back to Binghamton and a young woman sat down next to me. She was insane, but, like many of the insane, gentle and kind. She asked if I would hold her hand. I was so broken, I said OK, and I held her hand all the way from Manhattan to Binghamton (She was going to Cleveland). She said angels told her I would hold her hand without trying to hit on her. She was black, very beautiful, and lesbian. She was also right (at that time, I had no desire except to die) and I think angels did tell her.

In the course of those three hours, she told me angels spoke to her all the time. She said she was a singer, and ran away from home because the songs grew so intense inside her that she could not stay in Cleveland anymore. When she told me this, I wept, and I said: “your mother loves you, and many bad people will take advantage of you. Go back to Cleveland and sing your heart out, but rest in your family. They are not perfect. No one is perfect, but they love you because no one can be as nice as you are, if they were never loved.”

She played me a tape she’d made. She had a beautiful voice, I mean truly beautiful, and this made me even more sad because I thought about insane artists who God had touched with the power of grace, and I was scared for her. She told me: “You are angry for all of God’s children, and you need to stop the anger, not because it is bad, but because people can’t hear you when you are so angry.” We hugged, and exchanged numbers, and she went on to Cleveland. She called me a couple times, and she said: “God knows your anger. God will forgive you, because it is not against God. It is against yourself, and God will not forgive your anger against yourself because God loves you more than you could ever realize. God does not punish us for our sins against God. God correct us when we do not enter our full glory.” Then she thanked me for holding her hand from Manhattan to Binghamton, and I never saw or heard from her again.

This is a strange story. It is liable to get me laughed at, but it is exactly what I was raised with when I heard Christ’s words. We do not know what has value. We do not know where grace will visit us. We must have faith that there is value and grace and it will come–from a fresh spring we did not even consider drinking from. I expect to be wrong in what I value, and, out of grace, I expect God to correct me. Sometimes, we can only feel possibility when we are dragged down into our worst moments. I wish it could be different. I never cared about failure or success as much as I did about encountering grace. I believe in it. Maybe I am a moron. I don’t know.

Around ten years ago, at a small dinner party thrown by my friend and mentor, Edie Eustace, I had the pleasure of meeting Sweet Sue Terry, a composer and Jazz saxophonist, who does a rather remarkable thing with poems: she sets them word for word, actually, often syllable for syllable to note values. The word “value” is important here. Sue has both a composer’s sense of structure, and a jazz improviser’s sense of immediate invention, so we are getting a professional composer with major league chops doing a close reading of a poem. In this case, it was “Hurt Hawks” by Robinson Jeffers (A poem you ought to know, and if you don’t shame on you). Sue Terry also reads poetry, writes it occasionally, and came at the poem in a fresh way, unsullied by pretensions as to its purity. She had made copies of Hurt Hawks and handed them out (this was after dinner as we all sat in Edie’s very comfortable living room) Since I had memorized the poem many years ago, I only had to glance here or there at what was now “the score.”

I am a decent pianist–not great. I taught myself to play by ear, and spent most of my youth composing songs, fake Bach pieces, mock Chopin. I have some talent for composition, and for making out of tune pianos sound good. At one point, I made a very precarious living playing piano in a couple bars, one of which was run by a coke fiend who had a driver pick me up for the gig three times a week. The driver turned out to be a rapist.

So I know a good musician when I hear one–not just a chops specialist, not just a technician, but someone who can bring out whatever serves the music, whose improvisations add to it, whose sense of creativity is not just a form of showing off runs. Sweet Sue Terry was on this order. She was not just playing a musical tribute to a poem she loved; she was reading, literally reading the score of that poem as her audience read along with her–word for word, syllable for syllable, and unlike many collaborations between music and poetry that was written with no music in mind, this worked. It did more than worked. For a good month after the dinner party, I would take out Robinson Jeffers’ great poem, and sit, recalling whatever I could of Terry’s lines. Her musical setting, or rather her musical Reading” of the poem had a profound and lasting effect on what I knew could be done with music and poetry.

Let me be blunt: most collaborations between music and poetry hurt both the poem and the music. There are several reasons for this:

1. Poets, unlike band members are rather timid about being thought “entertaining.” They don’t perform. Ah… but Sweet Sue was not performing that day, either–she was living in intimate relationship to the poem. She was reading it. So let’s go a little deeper: most poets do not truly read their poems–not closely. They stand up there rehashing them, failing to enter their own text. “reading” out loud is a hybrid art between the public barbaric yawp and the secret utterance. This means a poet must find a ceremony somewhere between being alone in his or her consciousness, and projecting that consciousness outward–like a prayer. It does not have anything to do with being introverted or extroverted, friendly, or taciturn. It is all about destroying those distinctions so that the compound of intimate consciousness and public performance becomes “presence.” Now, many people who fancy themselves experts on reading or playing and cannot apprehend true presence, but, most people, who are not arrogant about their expertise, know when they encounter it. I watched a group of bored teenagers at the last Dodge festival be transformed in an old Baptist church by the “presence” of Marie Ponsot. It was not long after her stroke. Her voice was clear, but weak. She had to pluck her words slowly from the tree of consciousness. She was everything you might think would be a nightmare to young students committed to being bored, but she created a presence. It did not patronize. It did not play to the cheap seats. It blew, and the spirit of its breath gave something greater than entertainment: it gave welcome, on its own terms, without stooping. This is the reason most poets stink at performing with musicians. It does not matter if they are as extroverted as Al Jolson (think Bly on a bad day) or introverted: they are not present. This is more egregious than failing to perform. Billy Holiday did not perform. Lester Young did not perform. When they did perform, it was to serve the presence–not to replace it. Without presence, you can walk the bar all you want, and the vulgar will mistake this for true worth, but you will hurt both the music and the poem.

2. Poets who read to music, often don’t know music well enough to interact with it. We all think we know music, and it’s true–but knowing it, and interacting with it are very different. I once asked a musician friend of mine why he was so in love with Count Basie’s piano playing. He conceded that Art Tatum had far greater skills, but his fantasy was to be alone in a bar and have the ghost of Basie come and play. He said: “Art Tatum could play more notes, faster, and better than anyone with the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Count sat out. He knew how to sit out. He knew what not and when not to play, and if you could hear his sitting outs, you’d realize they were the equal of Tatum’s sitting ins.”

Poets, if they are going to perform with bands, need to work more on sitting out than anything else. How do I allow the music to enter, and when do I blow? What’s the ratio? If I’m reading to a blue’s piece, how can I give propers to the 12 bar blues with my free verse structures? How do I go in and out of the beat, vary my speeds, enter in such a way that people are not just hearing my poem over the music, but are hearing my poem within the music? How do I sit out? A poet bad at this is like a lounge singer. Sometimes, the musicians just play the changes and pretend he or she is not there. It’s important, if you are going to read poems to music, to learn when to shut up. You need to know where the words and the music could come in together without either being diminished. This takes practice, as much practice as it takes to learn the writing of poetry or the playing of an instrument..

3. Poets are often both snobs in the wrong way (My poems are too perfect to be done with music) and egalitarian in the wrong way (I want to be a frggin’ rock star). An audience does not like a snob (unless it is full of snobs). An audience also dislikes slavishness. I thought spoken word was much better when the slam artists didn’t memorize their texts. I liked the tension between reading it yet performing it. Now I see a bunch of actors up there, doing what actors do–especially bad actors. I can’t go to a slam without getting angry, and I have a terrible Irish temper. I sit there thinking : “If you touch your thorax, then put your arms out one more time to show me how sincere you are, I’m going to slit your throat with the sharp edge of a judge’s card.” I am not a page poet, but I believe in the page. A body that is trained to not be itself is not a body. Good performers use their flaws–not just some template of a body work shop.

I believe poets can benefit from reading to music, even if they won’t do so in public, just to find a presence in their voices–something beyond either the idiocy of academics who want to down play all performance, and the idiocy of slammers who don’t understand the difference between presence and performance. What’s the difference? Listen to Count Basie or Billy Holiday or Lester Young. The difference is the whole of the sky.

“They imagine a future by practicing it.”
– Michael Davidson, on the non-democratic and elitist writing communities

So, I just got back from attending my first &NOW Festival of New Writing in San Diego. Overall, I enjoyed the balance of panels celebrating experimentation and panels attempting to engage texts or movements more critically. I am writing to document my interactions with Johannes Göransson and Vanessa Place, not because I have a rigid plan to offer, but because we need to find ways to have such difficult and complex conversations, rather than tending to shy away from them feeling relatively justified in the sacred name of our pleasure. Poetry and poetics matter because words create the contours of what we can do.

1.

As the main standout, I really liked Johannes Göransson’s talk on the Lion King film and Raul Zurita where he said he was more interested in the artists who respond to evil or oppressive violence through pageantry or performance or even fun; rather than the traditional attempts artists usually make by asking audience members to see themselves from a critical distance as a result of the art experience. How could you not be intrigued by such a refreshing line of thinking?

But then a question started gnawing at me. I don’t like it when this happens; my heart starts to race; my palms begin to sweat. All this happens not just because I haven’t been formally trained to bounce my voice off of the back wall of the room but also because it means I have to ask the damn thing in public. The public commons is a funny thing. You can feel when a group of people is not interested in thinking critically. This is usually the case. After all, who isn’t mainly interested in hir own pleasure? If you had a butter knife, you could cut in two the public desire to be left alone with its celebrations.

Anyway, I raised my hand, warned that my question may seem moralistic, and asked the damned thing: what does it mean when evil becomes fun? What does it mean, as a goal, to meet totalitarian violence with violent (spectacular) art? How does evil (turned out by fascists like Pinochet, or in by artists like Zurita who had poured acid on his face as a metaphor for totalitarian oppression) not become a distraction or an act of mere entertainment? In order words, what happens when injustice becomes fun or a pageant of performing bodies?

Here are a few more questions that come to mind as I reflect: Can art, as a goal, be more than fun? Should art, as a goal, be more than a parade manifesting the gaudy possibilities of experience through the streets or through the halls of academia? What is the difference between a parade and a protest march? Is claiming the privilege to feel proud for existing as the thing that is possible to manifest the best that art can do or is art more imbedded in life than that?

2.

My other main learning moment at the &NOW Festival in San Diego in 2011 came during the panel I organized on the manifesto. Before I recount my recollection of the dialogue of this moment, I’ll frame how I envisioned the scope of the panel discussion. I’d hoped my event would change some minds and hearts about the received categories through which we usually experience the new. I’d hoped this event would challenge performers and listeners alike to reconsider received ideas about our association of the new as the good. Out of this discomfort, I’d hoped empathy and tolerance would grow since these practices have never been more needed than they are now, which of course is forever and in the future. 


The manifesto moment came and went in a blinding flash of bravado just about a century ago. Much given to mimesis, the manifesto wanted to show that not only art for art’s sake was possible, but that life for life’s sake was also possible. Why divide art from life? Who benefits by these divisions of labor? A little later, Walter Benjamin wondered: what is the new without the question of freedom, but mere fashion? What kinds of writing become possible after we stop trying to “make it the new”? How do you imagine your freedom? Was Andy Warhol doing a kind of social Jujitsu move on capitalism by removing his body from the art making process, or was he a just another sellout looking to make a buck?

I’d wanted to invite participants to use the has-been manifesto form to tell/show/perform the has-been idea of “make it new”? I’d intended for our brief statements of formal alarm to guide, convince, and convert us to the possibility of possibility in writing today. How can we imagine an affirmative postmodernism in the literary arts? I was curious to learn what would be our vision for the poetic future or for the future of poetry? How does the tone of the manifesto itself (us versus them) speak to the perpetual crises of form sparked by the death of the agent? (Why did the author die? How did multiculturalism kill the author? Well, the author cannot speak with authority because there are now multiple and valuable perspectives on what truth means.)

Such questions about the aesthetical and social commons rise out of my deep faith in skepticism and not out of a cynical presumption about the essence of the other. So, I was surprised when the normally composed Vanessa Place had an emotional explosion in response to my question. The very reason I had invited Vanessa Place was because of a certain vulnerability to the possible she demonstrated in responding to a question I had posed during the Q&A of the “Flarf and Conceptual Writing” panel at the AWP in Denver, 2010. My question was: “why does biography matter to “uncreative” writing?” She responded with what I took as genuine and unpracticed vulnerability: “I’m not sure that it does.” I’ve written more about the matter here.

The following is a recounting of this important dialectical (for me, anyway) conversation that I hope will continue and that others will join since hygienic objectivity has long been the dream of choice for some.

—start dialogue —

GT: Is progress, utopian visions, and an affirmative postmodernism possible anymore?

VP: NO! Postmodernism is over. We live in the age of Conceptualism which is characterized not by an inability to escape the text but by synchronicity. We need new language.

GT: What is a new way to say communism?

VP: [Rolling eyes; gesticulating with misanthropic enthusiasm.] What?!? I don’t even know what that means!

GT: [Temporarily stunned by Vanessa Place’s emotional deflection of the question, I have a flashback to my interactions with high school bullies who used emotion to gain the upper hand in tempo: someone from the audience speaks during this time and VP responds while calming down.]

VP: Each reader is responsible for the meaning she makes from the text or performance.

GT: I agree that we need new language. But we need to think of how we can be social together. We need a commons, we need a community. I agree with the subject-object ethics implicit in not presuming a certain effect on readers or audience. However, no matter how creatively we appropriate words from various contexts, the “I” that is doing such non-expression is still strung along by capital.

—end dialogue—

Again, the questions are part of an important discussion which requires courage to continue: how can the subject be happy and ethical in the information age? How might writers come to new and more inclusive language? How does emotion bolster and obfuscate reason? Where are the courage poets to continue the conversation (is one form or another) about how the individual writer can meet the plural other? This is not a call to arms. This is a call to fingers and words.

3.

I wrote the following two satirical texts in response to my experience with Vanessa Place at the &NOW Festival in San Diego in 2011. For more context, please see the official &NOW Festival blog where versions of these writings were first published.

I recognize the need for distraction during wartime and I hope this helps.

22. Conceptual writing is a distraction.
1. Fame is a clown.
19. It is good to be a clown, unless it is bad to be a clown.
5. We delete the individual.
19. We need a commons of selves.
7. You are being distracted from what you are. Stop it.
5. You must have reliable internet service to be a conceptual poet.
16. Bluster is not a good solution.
4. Don’t get hysterical.
26. Get hysterical.
3. Do you know of any fun appropriation techniques?
8. Patriarchy is not a good solution.
17. Your tone is precision guided expression.
3. Flatness is the new agency.
3. This time, it’s personal.
3. This is a distraction, by any means necessary.

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We is a Word that Gives You Meaning

Is the possible still possible today? I don’t even know what you mean! Not as dream, but as a practice. To demonstrate the contradictions of Liberal Democratic capitalism, we occupy space and serve as an amplification organ. The beautiful social mess of the People’s Mic permits individual voices to heckle the authority of self expression. We call and respond to the future. We are a high school clique following our leader because she knows how to butter our bread. We are here because we want new words that will set us free from the limits set upon us by corporate imaginations. We is a word that gives our identity a filigree border, without which we don’t even know what you mean. I don’t even know what you mean!

We is a word that gives you meaning. Americans with “fuck you” money live in their “fuck you” houses up on the “fuck you” hill. Nonetheless, we may be the most utopian category of all. A blind faith in moral progress is the elephant in every stanza you enter. We question our fashionable obsession with the new because it distracts us from our role in alms-justice. Community is not something you can opt in or out of like some wise barbarian. The commons is inside of you expressing itself through every choice you make or refuse to make. We will not go primitive nor fall through the trapdoor of dreaming. We demand the possible, now!

December 22, 2011

Mother was never prepared for Christmas. We would drive around in the old car on Christmas eve looking for a tree. Most of the tree lots would be empty or closed. But finally, beside some gas station, in the dark, a sign would loom, “TREES” and a light would be on. “There’s one! Stop! See? I see a tree…Mother, pull over!” one of my sisters would say. We would all run over to the last straggly tree, pay for it, stuff it in the backseat with me, and head home back to whatever apartment or house we were in that year. Mother would have done all her Christmas shopping earlier that day or maybe the day before, and would stay up all night wrapping and trimming the tree. She never remembered to buy Scotch tape or wrapping paper though, so our presents were often wrapped in newspaper and masking tape. We moved so often that there was never a last years supply of anything. In fact, in ten years we moved twenty-seven times. From one university to another, from one chair to another honorary position, we traveled with the car full of poetry and pets, plants, and daughters. And now it is nearly Christmas, the first without my mother. But she continues to speak. “The eggplant is silent. We put our heads together. You are so smooth and cool and purple, I say. Which of us will it be?”

Mother dearest, don’t slam the door of his rented hacienda in my head today. I suffer too much over you and need a rest. You knew that exhaustion….on your crying jag with Mr. Tempesta or thrown into hell without a trial.

Mother was a lousy Christmas shopper. “Did you shop?” I’d ask as it neared the holiday.
“Oh, I will. Don’t let the cat out…Do you want hear a poem?”
“Yes, but did you buy anything yet?”
On Christmas a person was apt to get an odd selection of gifts from her… It is not to say she was not generous. She would give a person anything and everything, but she just didn’t shop well for holidays. I remember being annoyed at 22 when I opened an old book from her. “It’s The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell,” she said.
“It was on the shelf in the living room!” I said.
“But it’s still a wonderful book,” she told me.

There was that Christmas when someone tried to burn all the wrapping paper at once in the fireplace, and the chimney caught on fire. All of us women in our pajama’s. The panic. The firemen tromping around among the presents.

We never threw away a single to and from note. Even now, 56 years of Christmas notes float from drawer to drawer through out my house. Mother believed that writing was sacred. Precious.

Mother here it is nearly Christmas and you are 33 days dead. Yet still I hear you teaching a class. I hear you giving a reading. I hear you laughing. How you used to lie in bed in the middle of the night reading and laughing. “I love Thurber,” you’d say when I would come downstairs to find out what was so funny.

Your poetry runs on a tape in my brain when I wake myself crying in my sleep. Fragments repeat themselves over and over.

“There is no choice among the voices of love”.
“and mirrored in the dark, the manikin.”
“In the silence between us, that is despair.”

And when I am not whimpering, I am half torn in two, and pulled like something stubborn from that life and thrust into this bleak freak world where it will have to do…staring out at nothing while you go on reciting in my head…

“Forgotten in a dream of forgetting as pain falls away into no pain.”
“This is the way it is. This is the way it is.”

__________________________________________________________
Abigail Stone is the youngest daughter of the poet Ruth Stone (1915-2011). She is a novelist and songwriter. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Included in this piece are brief quotes from Ruth Stone’s collections In an Iridescent Time, Topography, and Cheap.

Maybe my mom was right.

I have an older brain damaged brother, Peter. In 1953, a small pox vaccination failed to localize and shot up to his brain. Encephalitus (swelling of the brain tissue) and a high fever ensued. They were not able to get the swelling or the fever down in time to prevent extensive brain damage. The convulsions Peter went through afterwards were damaging his brain further so, in 1955 , Peter underwent a hemispheral removal of most of the left side of his brain. This was done in an attempt to stop the convulsions and with the hope that his right brain would assume and compensate for his left. He was one of the first people to undergo this operation. For a time it was successful, but then the convulsions returned, each convulsion wreaking havoc, and, in the 1970′s, Peter suffered encephalitis again. This time, he went into a three year light coma. When he woke from the coma, he could no longer sing our family.

Sing our family? Yes. Peter, could only say a few words: “What” was his name for my mother (because she was always calling out to him : “what, Peter?”). Water was close to “what” but distinct enough. After that, he did not speak accept through songs. Peter loved bright lights, loud sounds, and most of all, music. He loved when my parents yelled, and unlike us, would laugh and sing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” My mother played records to calm him, and he could sing the words. More importantly, he could modify words.

We all kow the parts of the brain that sing and those that speak aloud are not the same. There are hundreds of stories about stammers and stutterers with the voice of angels. But Peter took this difference one step further. He changed the lyrics slightly to identify me, showing some sort of brain function that could recognize syllable counts and accents. He had a different song for everyone in the family.

“Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,” for my brother John.

“All day, all night Mary Ann,” for my sister Mary .

He had a song for different behaviors: “Why do fools fall in Love?” for when my parents fought.

“It’s another be good to mommy day”, for when he threw dinner plates, or ripped down curtains (he was hyperactive).

But perhaps the most interesting song was the one he modified for me: “Daisy, Daisy.” The song lyrics:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy over the love of you.

He changed Daisy to Joseph. This meant his brain was capable of substitution, even of improvisation (they say he has the mind of a six month old). He would sing this on occasion, belting it from the hopsital bed we had set up for him in the bedroom. He sang these songs through out the day. it was his way of station identification. It was his family. For the dog he sang “How much is that doggy in the window.” Our dog, Peppy, was wonderful with Peter, always understanding, even when Peter would be rough with him. Peppy saved my brother’s life by waking my mother up while Peter was in the midst of a terrible convulsion.

So my mom thought about all this, and until the day she died, she believed that certain great abilities, even certain forms of genius, might be the result of a re-routing of the brain from an accident/disability.In short, she thought all genius was a form of brain damage. She thought genius and creativity were compensatory or re-routed adjustments of a broken self. She said: “your brother is a marvel. You should remember that at the same time you remember he is brain damaged. You should remember how amazing he is.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in a Harvard Medical Journal on how many great artists might have suffered from an ocular disability of depth perception often known as lazy or wandering eye causing “stereo blindness”, and how the lack of one form of depth perception might have been an advantage to their use of other forms of persepective, shading, and three dimentionality. I just think this stuff is interesting. We want to fix everyone and reform everything–especially if it works in a way we don’t approve. We say we love mystery, but we persecute and taunt those who come to greater truths by defective means. This article ought to make us at least consider that what we disparage, may hide a remakable gift. The stones the builders reject might become the cornerstone:

Sleight of Sight

It seems logical that artists, like baseball players, would find any visual defect detrimental to their work. Yet, when we looked at photographic portraits and compared the position of the light reflex in the eyes of 53 famous artists, we found a surprising proportion—28 percent—with misaligned eyes, which would suggest stereoblindness. The artists with ocular misalignment included Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Man Ray, Chuck Close, Thomas Moran, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and perhaps even Pablo Picasso.

I can never hate the Susquehanna, not if it took my last dollar, not if it made me look like a grade z version of some extra who got lost on his lunch break from a remake of The Grapes of Wrath and ended up standing poised against the wrong unforgiving sky. I spent my whole summer fishing, swimming, or mostly just watching the Susquehanna flow by, learned all its browns, and blacks, and greens, and those rare days when it was teal. I took the biggest brown bullhead I’ve ever laid eyes on out of this river, and a blue gill over a pound, and carp over 30. I watched the latterns of John boats pass in the dark and smelled the ghost of my father standing next to me, his old pack of chesterfield kings rolled up in his t shirt, smoke rising from his fresh lit cig, boxer’s muscles flexing as he casted into a long ago river. I cryed out to him through the dark to forgive me for not knowing what it meant to be a father. I told him I failed at everything, and the answer that came back to me on the river was his hand rubbing my red hair for good luck, and his raspy voice saying: “kid, we all fail at everything.”

I have become my father in every way: generous, paranoid, argumentative, quick to get angry, quick to forgive, at ease with children, at war with most of my contemporaries, a story teller, a bull shit artist,in love with the moon and the hours of dusk and dawn, unhappy yet joyous, full of life without ever forgetting or living beyond the sense of death. More hardened by labor, I would look like my dad except his voice box was cut out by my age, and I remember his stoma, and how I had nightmares that someone poured water down his throat and drowned him. When he was younger, and I was a little boy, he had a beautiful voice and he would sing to me Kevin Barry or You’ll Never Walk Alone. He told me stories about snagging suckers at the bottoms of the falls as a kid. it was the dperession and suckers weren’t too bad to eat if you stewed them until their many bones disolved. I guess I think of him whenever I look at a river. The first time he took me fishing, he woke me at 4:30 in the morning. It was also my first full cup of coffee, and we went down to a diner where all the working men ate– steel workers, long shoremen, some guys who worked at GM, my uncle pete from the chem plant. My father was on strike, and it was not his day to picket so he took me fishing. Strikes caused families to go belly up: no money coming in, the men restless and sometimes, if the strike went on too long, listeless, the women rising to take up the slack, my mom suddenly all dressed up to work a department store, or as a secretary. I couldn’t eat my pan cakes and sausage: too excited. First cast I got my line tangled in a big Maple tree, and my dad spent the next half hour untangling the snarl in the reel. I caught a bull head that day–ugly, beautiful slimey fish, its fin cutting me in my thumb and drawing blood. My dad had warned me: “watch his fin kid…he’ll get you good.” My dad rubbed the slime of the fish on my wound, and some cool mud. it took the slight poison out of it and it stopped itching. “The cure for the cat is the cat” he said. Later, he put peroxide and a band aid on the wound, and told me I did good. “You did good, kid.” If my mother had been there, she’d have said: “WELL Rocky, he did well.” And my father would have winked at her and said: ” You did good and well kid.”

All summer I was remembering and forgiving and asking forgiveness of my father. He was on my mind daily. The more I went to the river, the more I thought of him– all those little catfish and carp we caught in the poluted Rahway river of the late 60′s and early 70′s… then the white cats and small stripers on the Hudson river when we visited grandmom Weil, and, finally, after my mother’s death, how my father no longer wanted to go fishing. Fishing made him remember my mother. There was no wife to come home to, to have his grammar and cursing corrected by, no one to admire our fish. I did not know then that mothers are also girlfriends, and lovers, and companions, and my father had been abandoned as a child, raised by his aunt and uncle. My mom was his only real family. When he lost her, we must have reminded him of his loss–how she was gone. Having grown passed my 50 th year, I can forgive him for wanting to die after my mother went into the ground because a part of every one in my family died with my mother. She was what held us together, and although we still loved each other, we stopped being family after the cancer took her.

What can a river take? Everything. Everything will be swept away. The river is an ongoing reclamation and demolition project. It remains by efacing itself every second of every hour. It abraids, erodes, washes, absolves, dooms, drowns, destroys, and gives life to all that surrounds it. it is in us–the memory of our cells. It tells us the loss is in– not of– the loss in things. It is in us, or we are not truly alive. Those who can ignore a river can’t possibly live in the sense I mean. To be truly alive, is to keep one hand on the wheel of death, to see that there is a fall to all to this, a fall we must endure, and before you go over that, you may as well take note of the heron, and the kingfisher, and you ought to love the child wounding his thumb on the bullhead’s fin, and you ought to love the father who takes the cig out of his mouth, and blows one perfect circle of smoke into the night’s air, and says: ” Hey kid, nice fish.”

Very surreal day. Unpredictably beautiful weather. Delay at train station due to a fatality the NJ transit people say, at the New Brunswick station. Trains stop running for over an hour. They evacuate people from the station to allow for the coroners and police to investigate the scene. Then, bafflingly, we’re allowed back up on the platform, where we can see the young woman’s body (a suicide) covered in a white sheet on the other side of the station. People are informed at one point by the police officer to look away, but everyone looks in that direction anyway. Meanwhile, coroners crawl along the train tracks with two plum-colored biohazard bags to collect “remnants” from the collision. No words to describe how disturbing it is. And yet the simultaneity of life continues: an older gentleman wearing a Princeton hat says “Maybe it was one of my students who didn’t like their grade”; another woman is praying and visibly upset; hundreds in the crowd just seem to stare on riveted; meanwhile, the coroners, two young girls, can be seen bantering with police officers and photographers who have to take photos (even joking, at one point). How does one record this all without seeming smug, and not sound as if a judgment is being passed on the gross way in which we make death a spectacle, and we’re all compelled to be riveted, consumed by whatever we can see while we can stomach it? A mass of general confusion persists: at one point the policeman begins to ask people to clear the platform as his radio blurts out “We can’t move the corpse with all these people standing by” — but everyone is only cattled a little bit further down the station, and is meanwhile able to see enough of the details on the distant side of the opposite tracks. The young police officer in sunshades keeps saying “People, the trains will start rolling as soon as we can remove ‘this’ from the tracks. Please keep moving.” It’s an incredibly warm April day — nearly 80 degrees. People are crowded and waiting to get on a train back to Trenton or New York City. The northbound train suddenly rolls backwards into the station, and brings people back toward Jersey Avenue. Finally, a Penn Station bound train appears and carries everyone away, but not before a bunch of people can flood the train cars and look out the windows as we slowly shuffle past the crime scene. People of all ages, backgrounds, temperaments are transfixed. Maybe it’s just the mystery of death — or the sheer entertainment of horror — or the perverse curiosity to see what we don’t want to see. The body, visibly wrapped in a sheet, is being moved from the track as we leave the station. A young kid says “I can’t even see any blood.” Police and official-vested personnel are chuckling out the window. People are talking and sighing and some are being about their business or listening to their music on their headphones. What’s worse, really? Being so glued in like it’s all a reality TV show, or not even bothering to blink an eye? It’s all a spectacle — something not able to be understood (a young woman takes her life by walking into an oncoming speeding Amtrak train at 4:45 PM on a beautiful day). But no one — least of all me — can stop watching. And everyone around me seems nauseating. I know I must be too. It’s the vulgar, vitalizing simultaneity of life (whatever that means) and it’s going on, and it won’t stop, even if the trains do, temporarily. And I’m thinking about David Foster Wallace whose interviews and essays are in my bag. And I’m thinking about his essay on Lynch and how it’s not a Lynchian scene unless the coroners of a crime scene are talking about something mundane and irrelevant and fascinatingly bizarre while they clean up a crime scene. And I’m thinking about how I could ever turn this into a piece of writing and how vulgar and tawdry it would be to even think about something so, what? And I’m thinking about how what if it was me? (“And it would never be me,” we tell ourselves.) And the train’s moving away, and the sun’s still too bright, criminal almost. And someone asks the conductor will their ticket be discounted for the inconvenience.

It is not language that is arbitrary, but power itself that is arbitrary and this is perhaps the reason post-modernist latched onto the arbitrary sign. Power, in order to remain power, must be arbitrary–and this includes slavishly following rules at times in order not to be a slave to whim. The authority of the whimsical is total and can only be overthrown by an act of violence so great that it exposes itself as too earnest to be truly power. Power is the because I, we, or it said so, the “just because.” It is not only vapid; it is vapidity itself. At the most elemental level it is hidden behind many veils of order–which I call terministic screens. The three great veils are I, we, it, and of these three, the “it” is the most recalcitrant and dangerous in that, being without human accountability, it may be purely evil.

Here we define evil as that which blindly consumes and annihilates without remorse or mercy and, also, without pleasure in that which is. It is null–non-existence. It is abstraction without any ground for being. The bureaucracy of the death camps, the efficiency of drones, the present corporate nexus represent an it of this magnitude. This is why those who benefit from this “it” do their best to conform to the standard of an it–machines, uber-sociopaths, elite minds, perfect team players. Goldman Sachs is filled with elite minds all of whom have formed one collective idiot. This is the final attribute of the “it”: idiocy–the efficiency of one mind without remorse, without culpability, without true intelligence. No matter how efficient a mind bereft of empathy is, it must remain cold and lifeless and hidden at its center and eventually the axon and the dendrites of such a system become so virtual as to lose their elasticity and their ability to create the algorithmic semblance of true human consciousness. Right now, Goldman Sachs is reduced to the power tie, the suit, the expected tropes of family, the reading of information, the spreading of misinformation, the scam, the con, the manipulation of certain drives and desires, the seeking mechanism and all that aids and abets that seeking: positive thinking, mind control, the most advanced forms of personality typing, cult tactics for its employees. The “individualism” that Ayn Rand and her followers (Alan Greenspan among them) pretended to champion in Atlas Shrugged is little more than the silly robot like, perfectly six-foot prussian soldier–a laughable Übermensch. And this leads me to my last attribute of the it:

It is silly.

Silliness, mindlessness, and power are the tropes F. Scott Fitzgerald both envied and so wonderfully delineated in The Great Gatsby. It is not far-fetched to take one of our great novels on the enchantment of power as a sort of primer on the 1 percent. Let’s consider.

Tom Buchannan’s race theories, his rather vapid and smug faith in what were the faux expert opinions of his era. Tom is depicted as a careless man who can not be defeated in the end because he is already dead–dead in the “it” of privilege. He gets away with murder. This is the it as spouter of truisms, and third-rate economic/race theories. If you want to understand the basic mind-set of leading wll street power brokers, look no further than Tom. Unfortunately, Tom is a notch above the it types who now rule. They do not have it (as Fitzgerald never tired of stating); they are the it they have.

Daisy Buchannan’s lighter than egg-shell loveliness and her vapidity: Daisy is loveliness itself–an abstraction, a “sign” no less inhuman and vapid than the signs looming over East Egg. She, like her husband, can not suffer any permanent injury because she is already dead. Her behavior when in the presence of Gatsby’s silk shirts, her weeping over these and her heartlessness in all other respects should tip us off to how arbitrary she and her world is. Silliness and mindlessness is at the core. These people do not have money and power. They “ARE” money and power. Those who have, serve them–often bitterly–but it is only in serving them that the have money and have power folks can justify their worst actions. They bond with their abusers.

So how do you kill the gods?

You quit worshipping them. True power must remain invisible so that, at all times, what we perceive as the face of power is merely a mirage, a screen. Most of our economic history over the last 40 years is the American delusion that their management jobs were anything more than a terministic screen for real power. The college educations, the advanced degrees, the smug disdain for manual labor…all these were terministic screens behind which the true powers could remain invisible. We worship what lies behind the veil. We worship death and call it ultimate life. The most laudatory form of the word death is heaven/paradise. I have often told atheist friends it is more important to dismantle heaven than God because, if you get rid of God, and don’t find a proper fill-in for his chief terministic screens: heaven and ultimate power, something much worse than God will fill that void: power without virtue or even the semblance of virtue, might as right, a heaven of unremitting material display, a paradise grounded in an unremitting choice culture…ah, you got rid of God and replaced him with a CEO! Smart move. Brilliant. Really improves everything. So here’s where we are:

The Most Deadly Oreo

The 99 percent are, at present sandwiched between a reactionary fundamentalist corporate power that believes it is ordained by God to rule and without being questioned (this is actual fundamentalist teaching) and a secular atheist “elite” who believe they rule us by dint of their superior minds (they read Napoleon Hill and Atlas Shrugged, have no conscience, and an idiot savant’s ability for manipulating numbers and patterns and this is superior) and without being questioned (don’t sweat the small stuff is what the 1 percent consider the 99). Here is the truth:

Goldman Sachs is a collective idiot that does not understand limits, and it will keep sucking blood from the world until it and the world blows up. Dead things don’t fear death. Mindless things have no fear of death. Both are already dead. We are letting a corpse drive the bus. Why? Because, like Gatsby, for too long, we have been enchanted by that walking, talking, reality-show-starring corpse. Our college students have a thing for zombies. This is not harmless fun. This is indicative of a love and lust for mindless power among the 99 percent. I could get hundreds of students to participate in zombie games. As for Occupy Binghamton, I couldn’t get ten students.

So my advice? Make the 1 percent truly visible. When the arbitrary power has been truly exposed and made visible it is already no longer the true power. This is shape shifter 101. How do you know when the invisible has been threatened with true exposure:

1. A violent, over the top attack, display, or mockery by the “have” powers on behalf of the “are” powers. Examples from literature: When Odysseus breaks Theriste’s ribs in front of the other rank and file warriors.

2. If violence, display, and mockery don’t work, then an unholy marriage–a mating of the exposers with the have powers and a seeming overthrow of the “are” powers–takes place. This leads to chaos because human beings are hopelessly rank-obsessed. This means the “have powers” show a cosmetic difference. The thugs of the czar become Lenin’s secret police. Saming the changes reduces the stress. Sadly it also means the “are” powers are now hidden once more behind the terministic screens.

3. The actual slaughter of the gods–an act as pathetic and sad as any Kafka story. When we find the actual powers, they are silly, vapid, eccentric, often drug-addicted and don’t seem much worthy of the slaughter. They often appear sweet and even saintly because, let’s face it, being insulated from the brutality of their terminsitic screens, they are, for all intents and purposes, more and more like children. Here is the frightening possibility: the haves already long ago slaughtered the “are” powers and have been “defending” them only to justify their continued existence. This leads me to the “because it says so.” Why? Because. This is the ultimate idiocy of true power–it does not answer to any interrogation.

The people in Goldman Sachs behind the glass windows laughing as the police arrest protesters, are “have” powers–rather minor ones. The true power behind Goldman Sachs is invisible and, probably, dead–just as “God” is dead.

This is what we can expect: if enough force and protest is supplied, then the cosmetics of the have powers will change. Some corpses who seem alive will be sacrificed to the mob to appease them. “Free market capitalism” will have to die as a terministic screen. It will be either modified or re-named under a different order of seeming.

The gods do not die, but grow ever more feeble. And here’s the scary part of this truth: the atrophy of the gods, leads to the hypertrophy of their protectors and defenders. The less true moral character a culture has, the greater in number grow the moral reformers. The less joy, the more comedians. We seek a balance we can never have. As opportunity becomes more feeble, the protectors of opportunity (and this includes both the 99 percent and the enforcer/protectors of the 1 percent) swell. If we were wise we would dismantle opportunity itself–recreate incentive around something less vital than our basic needs, and assure those basic needs are givens rather than carrots dangling at the end of a long hot poker. No one should be working for food and shelter. A system based on starving over half the world is vapid and silly. If a man could toil in the fields all day, and, at the end of that day, simply walk to a grocery and procure the food he needs without paying, wouldn’t that be wonderful? If the prosperous farmer did not prosper so that his son or daughter could become a lawyer, and his daughter a president–if each remained farmer, yet took a vital place in the polis, wouldn’t that be lovely? Problem is, many men and women have overactive seeking systems and must procure more than their fair share. Others have under active seeking systems and will neglect their rights. A balance is aimed at only through a system which has the authority to punish.

And so we are back to square one. Or are we? Suppose we could create a balance of seeking mechanisms? This can not be done when power is invested in an “it.” A machine set on seeking will not stop until the plug is pulled or it has devoured everything and has only itself left to devour–the myth of the juggernaut. The question to pose to Goldman Sachs and to the rest of the global corporate powers is rather simple: “You are not intelligent. You are a plunder machine, who know only how to work off the fallacy of limitless opportunity. Who in your hive is still capable of independent thought and has the power to pull the plug?” The truth is, the plug must be pulled from within. Someone must convince someone within the structure that this pattern and method is counterproductive. But how? How do you explain that to a tie, a suit, a series of numbers, and an advanced degree with 150 IQ that certain types of genius, including the genius of pattern recognition, are forms of stupidity? How do you get these nerd-zombies to pause? What flowers do you explode over their heads? When they have finished eating everyone, who or what will they eat? Themselves?

No doubt they are already doing so. When we pierce to the core of what the police and politicians are defending against all honor and scruple and reason, we may just find a bunch of feeble Ivy league nerdniks feeding on their own arms.

1. The traditional book was based on a form that needed capital, influence, etc. This meant that gatekeepers were required. Getting through the gates endowed an author with certain benefits: editing, layout, publicity, and—perhaps most important—legitimacy.

a. The system inevitably mistakes its own guardians of capital for guardians of true literary value. Certainly these interests aligned sometimes (for better or for worse, depending on your views about the idea of “canon”—to many, the values of capital and canon are one and the same).

b. Some publishers were started with the expressed purpose of aligning these values, with varying levels of success based upon their capitalization. I think, perhaps New Directions if the best example of this. James Laughlin was a poet who couldn’t hack it according to Ezra Pound. Pound suggested he use his sizable independent wealth to subsidize a publishing house. Other reputable, non-commercial presses (Graywolf, etc.) have other ways of being subsidized, through membership programs, fundraising, grants, etc. Even for these non-commercial presses, though, capital is still a primary concern. These presses may not be looking to make a lot of money off their books, but they are at least trying to invest capital in something “worthwhile”—therefore they have gatekeepers.

c. Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon are the natural outgrowth of the book publishing industry since protection of capital was always a primary concern for it. These book sellers put the squeeze on the presses that try to align the values of capital and literary value. Eventually it has become a battle for the various middle-men between author and reader to cut each other out. Right now it seems Amazon is winning because it is most able to adapt to the coming systemic changes.

2. Self-publishing has always been a possible way to challenge this system, yet it was not fundamentally different. It still required a capital investment on the part of the writer (or perhaps a co-op) and respected the medium of the book as such.

3. E-books fundamentally change the game. E-books require almost no capital investment from writers, editors, publishers, because the system of creation and distribution is already existent and available to everyone. Until now, many publishers have treated e-books as an extension of the book: hardcover, paperback, e-book. It’s not; it’s an entirely different medium.

a. McLuhan said that new mediums always revive aspects of old ones (think about how the car reinvigorated the trope of the knight in shining armor). In this sense, the e-book is in the form of the book, but it is most definitely not the book, traditionally conceived. The information contained in e-books is limitlessly reproducible. Moreover, printers don’t produce them; readers do when they post, email, copy, send the works to each other.

b. “Tribal” (decentralized, more consensus/trend-based, foreign to the modern individuals who think of themselves as independent opinion machines that can vote) systems of distribution will rule. New power centers will be those who determine the rules of these new tribal systems. The new publisher redlemona.de recognizes this.

c. “Tribal” systems threaten modern, interiorized individuals. The book as it has existed up until now is based on the idea of an individual, rationally absorbing and considering the content contained in a book. Thus, the success of e-books will probably lead to the end of book culture as we have come to know it.

d. As e-books gain influence, people will read books differently, not to understand new ideas as much as to participate (this has actually been happening for a long time now, I think). Content will shift accordingly. People will “like” e-books more and more. E-books will be published for the same reasons people read them.

e. E-books will probably be eclipsed/absorbed by something within the same medium (i.e., still using “readers”) eventually. They may still be called e-“books,” but it will probably be like the way we still call an unpublished work a “manuscript” (Written with our hands? Really?).

4. Everyone will probably be a self-publisher in the future of e-books (or if there are still publishers, they will play a minimal role). People probably won’t make much money on books in the future, though they may acquire various forms of social capital. Whether these forms of social capital will feed them remains yet to be seen.

NOTES:
*I hope these thoughts will start a discussion, rather than be considered a manifesto (see point 3.d).
*A lot of these ideas are extensions of McLuhan, Joe Weil, and Kenneth Burke (mostly via Joe Weil).

 

Possible objections

1. Thus far, the only people I know that own Kindles are serious traditional book readers. They very much fit the model of the rational modern individual who reads.

Response: E-books are still gaining traction and it makes sense that those interested would be the people most invested in the older model (but desiring, perhaps, a more efficient, updated version). But as a trend, e-books are definitely on the rise and it’s only a matter of time until it grows.

2. Books are already dead. Who cares about e-books?

Response: E-books as an extension of print books share the mutual death. But my argument is that e-books are not extensions of traditional books, but rather a new beast wearing the mantle of the old one.

3. Other objections in comments box?

de Toucqueville pretty much makes it understandable to me why I have not had my poetry embraced by The Paris Review or the so called gods of literary merit. He writes, conjecturing on a literature created by people of means and leisure (aristocrats):

Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of such wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and, even in their enjoyments, they will avoid anything too unexpected, or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested, but not carried away.

This passage explains to me why I have often been shunned by grad students, and fellow writers–why my books are reviewed, often positively and as a form of qualified praise, as exalting the ugly and the incongruous. This explains to me why some of my best students, while learning everything they could, never showed the slightest inclination to respect me as a poet. My work is not “amusing.” I don’t like middle and neutral registers of speech for their own sake, do not find them comforting, nor will I embrace fake experimental poems that are “different” in the same way everyone else is different (Projection by field theory, non-linear progression anyone?). Although the middle class sees a huge difference between Fence and Prairie Schooner, I don’t. One publishes polished, within the norm experimental language poetry, and the other publishes polished, within the norm non-experimental poetry, and both do not venture into any nomenclatures, syntax, or diction beyond the usual careful and self-conscious MFA program. I do not consider them refined, but, rather, bland to the point of putting me to sleep. Most of the elite lit mags out there now, no matter what “camp” they belong to, share one thing in common: bland-speak, a fully professional and neutral register of speech that is intelligent, refined, competent, and devoid of poesis. Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in 1848, pre-Whitman, about an American literary scene that could not stop imitating the worst “aristocratic” pretentions of the Europeans, especially the British. He could very well be describing what passes for “excellence” in American poetry at this moment. Sad… Here’s some more excerpts:

It will sometimes happen that men of means, seeing none but themselves, and only writing for themselves, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, and that will make their work far fetched and sham. They will impose petty literary rules for their exclusive use, and that will gradually make them lose first common sense, and then contact with nature.

and

…wanting to talk a language different than the vulgar, they will end up with a brand of aristocratic jargon which is hardly less far from pure speech than the language of the people.

de Tocqueville is conjecturing on an aristocratic literature. Academic poetry has always embraced such an ideal, even when supposedly attacking it. Alexis goes on to prohesy that an American literature sprung truly from the soil of democracy would be lively, but unrefined, poor on rules of thumb, sacrificing refinement to vitality. He claims (and I think rightly) that the great moments in literature for any nation come during the transition periods, the brief but dynamic wars–in this case between aristocratic and democratic influenced literature. Just six years later, Leaves of Grass would make its appearance amid a flowering of works by Emerson, Thoureau, the New England Brahmins, and, at the same time, the first great regionalists, and the far more democratic and “vulgar” writters of the west (Mark Twain). de Toucqueville’s analytical abilities border on demonic intuition. I’ll leave you with a final excerpt in which he writes of a literature born of democracy:

By and large the literature of the democratic will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected if not despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

Alexis could be defining the warring camps of advocates for the cooked and the raw, the formalists or the beats, the academics or the spoken word artists. He had us down to a science before we became us! He also is smart enough to submit these are extreme views of two tendencies, and to present the fact that there will be many gradations between these two poles, and some of the best writers will arise from the dynamic of these tensions rather than from embracing one or the other way.

Reading de Tocqueville is a lesson in astonishment. In a few pages he did much to clarify for me what the problems confronting American poetry, and my own poetry are. In my case, I am neither academic nor Spoken word, meaning both camps both encourage me yet consider me unpolished (or too polished). At any rate, I can’t recommend a book enough–especially if you want a measured, sober,intelligent guide to your own country.

What should we make of Plato’s old quarrel between philosophy and poetry? Does poetry think with philosophy? Or might we re-pose the question: does poetry rely on philosophy to think?

For Plato, the poem is dangerous for philosophy as it forbids access to the supreme truth, the truth that provides unity with the ultimate principle that allows the Republic to maintain its transparency.  The problem of poetry for Plato is deeper than that though.  It rests on the fact that mimesis is always tied to discursive thought, and this blocks reason and teleology in grounding the truth.  For Plato, the poem is opposed to the ideal of a perfect means for the transmission of knowledge, and hence is dangerous for philosophy.

Wallace Stevens declared the modern poet a “metaphysician in the dark, who must give sounds passing through sudden rightness, wholly / containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, beyond which it has no will to rise.”   The battleground of the poem becomes the poets mind.  But Stevens doesn’t give us clear sense of the relation between philosophy and poetry, he suggests that the poet is isolated to a performance of thinking in the poem.  In this post, I want to introduce the ideas of two prominent French philosophers working on the intersection of philosophy and poetry.  Judith Balso and Alain Badiou’s present two concepts of philosophy and poetry’s separation from poetry, the idea of presence, and the affirmation, that reveals that poetry indeed does not rely on philosophy for grounding its own truth.

Judith Balso has created a conception of poetry’s relationship to philosophy that helps us understand both Plato’s fear of poetry, and Stevens’ relegation of the modern poet to the dark recesses of the mind.  For Balso, modern poetry consists in the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity for thinking.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.  This theory of poetry, Balso refers to as the affirmation, and its based on a close reading of Heidegger’s work on philosophy and art, particularly his Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, but she is suspect of Heidegger, and opts to put Holderlin into dialogue with other poets instead of locking Holderlin inside the discourse of philosophy alone as Heidegger does.

Balso’s intellectual and romantic partner, Alain Badiou, (in a way they are reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th century), poetry presents a truth that is outside of philosophy’s capacity to integrate it.  Alain Badiou is probably France’s most influential anti-postmodernist philosopher.  In his book on philosophy, poetry, and art, Handbook of Inaesthetics, he claims that the legacy of Plato in modern poetry is alive and well, but that it functions like a ‘persisting nostalgia for the idea’. Every poetic truth in the poem, Badiou claims, is located in an unnamable core at the poems center that does not have the power to bring the idea into presence. He refers to this nostalgia for the idea as ‘presence’.

Pessoa offers an interesting example of this nostalgia for the idea in his poetic project, which he characterizes as ‘anti-metaphysical poems’.  For Pessoa, the idea of presence functions in the relation between the world and its representation in the poem.  He says, “when you see a thing in the poem, it is exactly the thing.”  The world becomes that thing whose presence is more essential than objectivity. As Stephane Mallarmé claims, the modern poem is centered on the dissolution of the object from its purity.

For Badiou, this play of presence in poetry gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself.  The poem produces a singularity for which philosophy cannot account for.  Each poem offers a singular type of truth, occurring as a sort of event.  Similar to Balso’s notion of the affirmation, the poem is like a decision of presenting oneself to the present.  The poem offers the possibility for the creation of a new space for thought and imagination that does not simply seek to criticize what exists; but that invents an entirely new ontological capacity.  In this sense, poems are more than merely artistic events for aesthetic contemplation; they are events for thought, for a new kind of thinking.

Presence, the affirmation, or the nostalgia for the Platonic idea occurs in the immediacy of the poem itself, not through an artistic expression of the world, but as an operation. The poem’s operation is the vehicle for thinking, a thinking that is internal to the practice, a thinking of thinking itself.

If we visit Pessoa’s poetic project briefly, we see both this idea of the affirmation and presence in action.  Pessoa’s poems are diagonal, like a Cubist painting. They look directly into the light, in an anti-Platonic stance; they are opposed to any absolute idea.  Badiou suggests that the operation of the poem for Pessoa is tied to a hidden mathematical code that philosophy can’t yet integrate or fully understand.  As we see in this untitled piece by one of Pessoa’s over 80 heteronym’s Alberto Caeiro, the poem’s idea of presence contained within the poem alone becomes apparent.

To see the fields and the river
It isn’t enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.

This paradoxical play of a “metaphysics subtracted from metaphysics” in Pessoa enables poetry to enter into a new ontology of truth, and ultimately, a new relation to the Platonic idea.  Pessoa himself had a great depth of understanding of philosophy, and this may be in part why he continues to baffle our preconceptions and confuse any possibility of developing a coherent way to place Pessoa’s contribution to modernity.

What is at stake in the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is still a very Platonic question.  The poetic perspective opened up through the idea of presence represents an opening of thought to the principle of the thinkable, where thought must be absorbed in the grasp of what establishes it as thought – i.e. in the poem itself.  Yet the modern poet, as Celan tells us, must still wrestle with the recognition that the whole is actually nothing.

Photo by Marco Munoz.

I always liked making things up, improvising, using my “imagination.” I do not remember my dreams because I spend the greater part of my day restructuring the past and fitting it into schemas of relationship and disrelationships, and not to any discernible end. In short, I am always in a dream. Perhaps it is the ends of art I hate–the way it is “valued” rather than integrated into the dynamic of being alive. You have to be careful saying art is for everyone because this is a sales pitch from the creativity experts and another way to make money.

Art is not for everyone. Many people are happy never to have a moment with art if they can possibly avoid it. Hell, I am happy to never have a moment with art if I can possibly avoid it. If you define art as a judgement of aesthetic value, then this is the least interesting part of the experience of making things up, improvising, and using your imagination.This is the morning after when you look at the thing you made and say: “What the hell was I thinking?” Almost everything I have ever made–songs, poems, stories, has elicited this response from its creator. I am disappointed in all but perhaps 4 poems, one story, and a couple of music compositions. I have never liked the poem of mine that is most anthologized: “Ode to Elizabeth.” I know it is the perfect “representative poem”–not my best poem, and, honestly, all it truly represents is a moment in 1980 when the chemical fires in Elizabeth, New Jersey were inspiring Time Magazine to refer to my home city as “grimy Elizabeth.” In the poem I never talk about the chemical fires, and I never argue against Elizabeth being grimy. The whole poem is an answer to one question: given that something is grimy, can it still have value–and not the value of feeling sorry for it, or wanting it to be other than it is–but the value of what no one but a consciousness that has been formed by that place can see? The poem praises Elizabeth New Jersey by saying: yes, it is grimy, and unartisitc, and full of people who have lousy taste in furniture, but I saw Amarcord there, and with a bunch of friends who had no idea about the snobby distinctions between movies and cinema, and we had a true experience of the film. We responded to it: “if art moved us at all, it was with real amazement/ we had no frame of reference.”

Art then that does not delight, move, amaze, or engage one’s most active intelligence is what I call aesthetic bureaucracy–the means that have forgotten their original ends and serve only their own process as “value.” Such art needs experts and gatekeepers, and protectors and advocates. It needs prestigious presses, and “award winning authors.” It makes me ill–not because I have been excluded from it (I have been allowed through the back door of this world, and can flash certain badges such as a New York Times articles on my poetry, featured with Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Dunn, etc) but because I never thought I was insignificant to begin with. I consider my mind, flawed as it is, to be in communion with a living God, and know that I never wrote a single poem or song, or story for “publication.”

Everything I did was out of Lordly, Godly, arrogant impulse to waste time–to spend my time making things up, and using my imagination, and scribbling on my tomb so to speak. Death is coming. it will be our only permanent accomplishment. Everything then, beyond this, is a scribbling on the tomb, a sort of ferocious, and desperate, and, yes, holy/sacramental graffiti. Everything, including how your friends remember you, is a version of “Kilroy was here.”

This personal essay then is inspired by something that happened to me recently. One of my best friends, and former students, Adam Fitzgerald, wrote “call me!” on my Facebook. So, being me, I thought something happened to him, and, being an insomniac who had just enjoyed the only two hours of sleep I was going to get, I called him. He was en route. People in Manhattan are always en route. He was with Bianca Stone and going somewhere, but he wanted me to know that Bomb magazine had said something wonderful about the chapbook we published through Monk Books by Mark Strand called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Great! I tried to be enthusiastic, but all I really wanted to do was Google “Long Branch, New Jersey” and remember which president died there (James Garfield). I was a little ill, and a little weary, and the book is beautiful, and the fun part was instigating it, and funding it, and watching Bianca and Adam do all the real work, and seeing the result. Affirmation of Mark Strand seemed beside the point. The guy has had his share of affirmation. I was thinking, “what about Bernadette Meyer’s chapbook, or even more importantly, Ben Pease’s chapbook, which contains one of the best and most adventurous long narrative poems I have read in years?” I was being a party pooper, a role I find myself playing with increasing frequency. On paper I should be thrilled: I am the “publisher” of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the book I helped bring into being is being lauded by Bomb–a well known literary zine. But whatever this is, it didn’t register as deeply with me as my then urgent desire to remember that Long Branch was once the summer resort of presidents and that James Garfield went there to recover from a gun shot wound and, well, he didn’t recuperate. I attempted to imagine Long Branch then–late 19th century swimming, the anciently sudden and suddenly ancient smell of salt marsh and wave spume. It was a rude way to behave towards a friend. As Shakespeare said: “you treat comfort like cold porridge.” I behaved like my Irish relatives who, when informed that you won the Noble Peace Prize, would remind you that your cousin Pete was a state champion spoon player, and much better looking besides.

Wet blanket? Far beyond that. I realized that achievement to one who has lived all his life in loss and failure, and who has experienced more or less constant rejection, is, itself anti-climatic. The joy exists in the possibility of things–in their perhaps. Years ago, I read at an event called the Paterson Poetry Marathon. I did well, and Philip Levine, the headliner, came over to me and shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you both for your humor and your outrage.” I should have been thrilled. Instead I went into the bathroom and cried because my parents were dead and my grandmother was dead, and everyone who could have been happy for me and who I wanted to be happy for me (the people who stand and wave at you while you are going around and around on the kiddie ride) are dead. I felt desolate, destroyed. So-called success seemed to have all the flavor of cardboard. If no one had come up to me, it would have been worse, of course, but I realized the losses and years of being a tool grinder on the night shift had rendered me incapable of being achievement-oriented. I am possibility-oriented, doing-the-deed-oriented. While I am reading or writing, or playing a piano, all is possible. After that, it’s hard to take anything seriously. If I had to think of truly meaningful moments in my life as a so called artist, they’d be some of the following.

The last time Joe Salerno came over my apartment in Elizabeth with a mixed cassette tape of music he had been recently excited by: it was truly mixed–Hadyn, Mozart, and Charles Ives. We drank saki and talked about music for hours. Joe liked trees the way I did, and I took him drunk and a little unsteady up the block to show him a full grown American Elm (rare after the dutch elms disease of the 40s). I didn’t know it, but the city had cut the tree down that morning. There was only the stump. We held our glasses full of saki. We reflected like two grown men standing over a blown engine. “Well,” I said, “there’s the stump!” We laughed. Joe reminded me of the great Chinese poem in which the poets get drunk and go into the garden to admire the flowers and the flowers lament that they have gone to all that trouble of blooming to be admired by a bunch of drunks. He quoted the poem. We laughed some more. Joe was dying of lung cancer, but he had not yet been diagnosed. Six months later he was dead, and I played that mixed tape for years until it felt apart. The possibility of talking music and poetry late into the night with a friend and neither of you are talking about the art business… that has meaning. It is the not graffiti on the grave. It is the eternity hidden in transience–what Keats best expressed.

Back in 1988: Dave Roskos and I are in Manhattan placing our new magazines Big Hammer and Black Swan in a book store. It may have been St. Mark’s books. Anyway, Gregory Corso is in there talking with the manager, and he’s pretending not to be Gregory Corso, and we’re pretending not to know he’s Gregory Corso, and he leafs through our magazines and says: “I don’t know these guys… Wait, I heard of Keith Sheppard.” He reads the poem by Sheppard. “Not bad,” he says. We place the magazines on consignment and split into the hot summer’s afternoon and we are laughing because Keith Sheppard is one of my aliases, and I am new to the poetry scene and have filled one quarter of my first issue with poems I wrote under aliases (including a nun who is an expert on Hopkins and George Herbert). We have good Mexican food, and meet up with my painter friend Elieen Doster who has hair the color of new pennies. Great day–again, nothing to do with achievement, but with possibility.

1985: I’m with my friend Marco Munoz in a long defunct art gallery called Oroe Electric in Hoboken. The clarinetist Perry Robinson is playing with his father, Earl Robinson, winner of an academy award, and a man who played with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and whose songs were performed by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra. Earl is an old radical and union man and calls me brother when he finds out I’m a tool grinder on the night shift. The party after the event hosted by Susan Shafton, includes a lot of wonderful musicians, including Gary Schneider, conductor of the Hoboken Symphony Orchestra. I am young and arrogant and happy and drunk enough to play piano among them, and sing my songs, and Perry joins in, and Gary likes the way I play piano, and Earl shakes my hand and beams. No hierarchy, none of that stupid, God forsaken, spiritually bankrupt pecking order we call “The arts.” We play for hours–folk music, atonal music, hard bop, weird mongrel versions of all of the above. I am dressed in a cool suit and so is Marco who scats happily along. Joy, art. Not “the arts.” I hate “the arts.” It takes all the fun out of things.

1977: The year my mom died. My friend Huey is over my house, and I am playing a song I wrote. I hear blubbering, and I look over and Huey is crying–this big, good looking jock. he says: “that’s beautiful.” I never had a friend say that to me before. where I come from, it takes great courage and a good heart to say such things openly. 34 years later, it means more to me than getting nominated for Pushcarts. You can put Pushcarts on a curriculum vitae, but its not what makes you create. If it is, then you’re pretty fucking pathetic. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who achieves and is not alive except for their achievements. Such a person is a slave to the wrong master. It is terrible when no one appreciates your art or wants to hear or see or recognize it. It is more horrible when that’s all that matters.

1999: my first year as an instructor at arts high. The students don’t want the class to end and I teach a summer program (for free) in a wonderful place called Rutgers gardens. There are kids playing guitars, and writing poems, and hiking through cedar and bamboo forests, and I am not making a dime, and they are not getting a grade, and everyone shows up every Thursday for no other reason than we are making shit up as we go along, and enjoying the energy of making shit up as we go along. The next year, I have forty kids in the woods–Adam Fitzgerald being one of them. My former friend’s son, Danny Salerno comes by to visit and recites Beowulf in the Anglo Saxon and the girls (and probably some of the boys) all swoon because he is good looking. Later, at the pizza joint we repair to after working on being artists, Danny and Adam get into a huge fight over whether Falstaff or Hamlet is the greater character, and they almost come to blows. I am not there since I have to go to my 4 to 12 shift job in the factory, but I hear about it from the other students, and I am delighted. What teacher would not want 17 year old students almost coming to blows over Falstaff and Hamlet?

I am not knocking people who are achievement oriented. I wish I could feel proud of anything I achieve. I can’t. Even if I won awards, and became a “living legend,” I’d still be short and balding, and full of the griefs I experienced, and I’d still be most excited by a chord progression I accidentally stumbled upon. I’d still miss the people who died and who I loved–which is almost everyone I ever loved. The best thing about being famous would be the money. I’d blow most of it on instruments and art projects, and taking my wife out to eat. I’d give money to artists I thought were unrecognized, and I’d be able to shit on the heads of all the so called big shots who snubbed me over the years. Being “snubbed” is part of “the arts.” I hate the fucking arts. I love the possibility of 40 young people in a field fucking around with paints and guitars. Maybe only one of them becomes well known, but it took all forty to create that one well known artist. Desire is never isolated.

Three years after I started teaching the summer program, the school made it official and put it in doors, with air conditioning, and ruined the integration of painting and poetry and music, and put each in its proper hole. They had the best intentions. I hate intentions. I had only one–to waste time. I was teaching my students how to hang out. Who the fuck died and left the experts to decide what is significant or worthwhile? If no one invites you to the party, throw your own and fuck them! This is what I was teaching. I was trying to teach my students the necessary arrogance of art, and its humility. The humility is this: nothing will ever feel as good as actually doing it–not awards, not achievements, not anything that results from doing it–nothing, and if the other things begin to take precedence, you are in danger. I hate “the arts.” Right now, I wish I knew a good cello player, and one who could wing it, and they’d come over and play with me for a couple hours. Sometimes, while I’m playing the piano, I can hear the cellist beside me playing other riffs. I get excited and I start to dream of the possibility. if a real cellist came over they would want to work towards a goal. A truly accomplished cellist would probably snub me, so a half-assed cellist would do just as well. As my grandmother said: If the picture is crooked, and you can’t adjust it, adjust your head.” My standards are low. A 17 year old student so passionate about Shakespeare that he takes on a 22 year old guy who can speak Anglo-Saxon is as exciting to me as Bomb magazine praising a book I was involved with. Whenever that isn’t true, I begin to feel spiritually sick inside. So my apologies to Adam. What really thrills me is that I knew Adam when he chewed key chains incessantly and played Visions of Johanna 20 times a day. I am happy to see him flourish. It’s like being a parent and watching your kid go around and around on a ride and, suddenly, you realize he isn’t a kid, and he’s calling you up when you’re ill and tired and lonely for a world that was not all fucking achievements and kudos and you ought to wave–even if you’re half dead. I feel more than half dead. Possibility is hard to come by, especially when everything is to a purpose. I believe in wasting time. I am trapped in a goal-oriented, sick America of insane positive thinking and achievement psychosis… someone get me a half-assed cellist. Quick! Someone get me a park and 40 young artists wasting time. I love making stuff, writing, composing, fucking around with my garden. I hate “the arts.”

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.