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One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”

LF: One of the things I thought was interesting–and admirably bold–about The Hills was that it wasn’t afraid to, conceivably, bore its readers;  wasn’t afraid to not entertain, which is a rather ingenious juxtaposition considering that, of course, the book is about entertainment, and by default about instant gratification. (In your recent reading at AWP, you even mention that the piece, as read aloud, might conceivably come across as “boring” without the participation of readers acting as the voices of various characters, so the narrative is clearly a multimedia interaction as presentation as well as in print). Beneath the “naked eye” repetition, there’s an indefinable undercurrent–as if someone had slipped something into a drink and the room had started to shift and alter imperceptibly, or a kind of white noise that had been quietly building had suddenly made itself heard. The ostensibly perfunctory/stoic text has suddenly become richer, more layered, and more disturbed; the dialogue within more frantic and uncontrolled, though nothing ever really happens on the surface. Methodology-wise, this is a radical departure from your first collection, The Ravenous Audience, which is extremely visceral and instantly/almost tactilely engaging; can you talk a little about any such methods you might have employed  in composing The Hills, as (unlike many clearly “channeled” poems) it does seem to have come into existence by the hands of a deliberate methodology?

KD: The Hills is, as you point out, an exercise in tedium, and yet there is a sort of dramatic pull to it not unlike, say, a Jane Austen novel–if one is willing to give themselves over to the breaking of the action by descriptions of weird minutia in the setting, such as a bottle of champagne behind a juicer, camera angles, all the weird mannerisms of the characters, things like people pulling hairs out of their mouths. These oddities can be pleasurable, tactile, to read, or frustrating because of how they don’t really reveal. The set of constraints I followed with constructing the piece were to simply describe, in minute detail, every moment of an entire episode, with block texts broken into scenes. The title of the episode is “I Know What You Did,” and it’s one of many interchangeable episodes of the show, wherein Lauren Conrad (the show’s heroine) confronts Heidi, her former BFF, at a now defunct faux-French nightclub in Los Angeles, for telling the press that Lauren and her ex-boyfriend made sex tapes. I am still not done with the full version of The Hills, which will be in the diamond edition of E!, and which comes out this summer. Each scene, which is about 20-30 seconds of screen time, takes me about two hours to write.

After Ravenous came out, as off-putting as the text was to people because of its intensely sexual and violent subject matter, I felt that the poems themselves were very seductive and had a cinematic pull to them. E! is not a seductive book, purposely–it has an ironic effect, considering that I more or less just re-iterated the most seductive “texts” of our pop culture. I mean, the Lindsay Lohan Arrives at Court section of the book is just a complete lifting of a text from an online tabloid that millions of people read, and yet it’s the section of E! that people are most bored by. I suppose you could say this is because what we are interested in as a culture is in essence very boring, but I feel like that’s too easy of an answer. Like all good conceptual art, the texts of E! are pre-existing “material”, de-contextualized. In that way, E! is a completely disorienting book because it de-familiarizes pop culture so totally; it’s a text that unravels, but very, very slowly and almost imperceptibly, as you point out. And so if you don’t read it all the way through, with attention, you can miss that and read it too flatly. But you’re reading pop culture, which is something people normally don’t pay attention to, is the thing–they usually “miss” the very thing which shows us so much about ourselves.. Because I felt that people were missing E! in performance/readings,  I started having them act out the characters in The Hills. It forces them to encounter a text that they might have been really ambivalent about before–and often they start to “get it” and really love it (one reader said he felt “exhilarated as he’s never felt at a poetry reading” after being Heidi in Boston). This happens even if they don’t know who those characters are. The audience then embodies the basic premise of this body of work, which is “we do this, we are this.” We live reality TV every day of our lives; we are Lauren and Heidi.

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LF: Your chapter on Dynasty was my favorite part of the book, and seemed to me, as I described it in my review, as a kind of morbid stop-motion dollhouse. I am curious about your personal thoughts on the representations therein, either from a feminist perspective or as commentary on popular media’s idea of what the public “wants” re female interaction.  I thought it significant that telltale glimpses of the actor’s “real” ages kept slipping like cracks of sunlight into the poem. Though the piece is obviously largely hilarious, there’s something sinister looming over the camp–a kind of overseer embodying the possibility of a kind of encroaching  metaphorical death (of youth, perhaps) or change. Did these more ominous images come out naturally in the process of transcription; and, if so, were you aware of them when they appeared, or did you notice them in hindsight?

KD: With the Dynasty section, what happened was that I discovered through the process of freezing, then transcribing, nighttime television’s first major catfight, in a series of stills, that the tragedy of “the catfight” and women’s loss of beauty in our culture, manifested itself quietly and tragically. I like that you called it a stop-motion dollhouse. It very much is that. Some of the images looked to me like a still life as well; there is one still where a gilded picture of women with parasols is on the wall while Krystle and Alexis fight that simply breaks my heart–that doubling of the two women on the wall, our dolls. And yet the section is funny, too. Our funny woman problems: wigs slipping, silk ripping, fire-engine red press-on nails. Cue the laugh track.

As for what you say about the manifestations coming out the woodwork (or out of the pixels), I’d say yes–I didn’t know with any of the sections in this book what would manifest from my processes of writing. I felt drawn to certain images/texts (images are texts), set up constraints, and went to work. I figured by looking closely at something usually glossed over–seen as “shallow”–I would find much, terribly much, that had been neglected. And I did. And yet I didn’t want to “say” what I had found, I wanted others to experience my process through reading the text, my process of writing, not about, but writing, reality TV.

I love what you said in your review about the book’s method forcing one to look at one’s own conscience. That is a beautiful way to put it. It did that to me too.

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LF: Your Anna Nicole piece was also carnivalesquely disturbing, and I thought it was fantastic that you had someone putting clown makeup on you as you read it at AWP–just as the child in the now notorious video that’s the poem’s subject was applying it to Smith’s face as events unfolded. Obviously you kept your own ideas about Smith’s possible complicity in said footage to yourself, but I wonder what you think: do you identify that particular spectacle (and perhaps the enigma of Anna Nicole herself) with the natural but still contrived camp of, say, John Waters, as opposed to a more “organic” kind of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll  innocence? (I use these examples as templates in keeping with the women/drag queen-and-screen premises of both E! and Ravenous). How do you think either interpretation might change the way–or, perhaps more accurately, the level of sympathy–with which Smith is generally viewed?

KD: I think any/all of these descriptions of Anna Nicole’s problem seem apt, the only thing is that we can sit here and talk about Anna Nicole forever, and about Marilyn Monroe too, but at the end of the day that’s us sitting here talking about these women and the problem(s) of these women, and there’s something gross about that. I didn’t want to write another text that tsked tsked at the problem of the destroyed blonde angel. I wanted to simply re-arrange a text that already existed that was fucked, and multiply fucked by having been introduced into court evidence. Another thing I wanted to do was mix up tabloid and CNN/news reportage (because they are all the same now anyway), and then to see what that might teach me, or what experience I might have via reading that text re-arranged, to see what I was not seeing. A lot of things became viewable through this process. An experience of heartbreak, mostly, that–I was going to say despite, but I won’t say despite, and I won’t say because of either, but alongside or entangled with, the mechanical and uncanny and bizarre and unreal qualities of the text–a tragedy that is very human and very, very alive. We think of television, we think of reality television especially, as being so fake and scripted and what-have-you, but it seems to me more alive than life, life spilling beyond life. Whatever was real, whatever was “fake” with that Anna tape, what I learned by looking more closely at the transcripts, scrambling them, was an ecstatic tragedy, and that tragedy had to do, yet again, with a woman who was not seen, not witnessed, who was dismissed as a clown, and who could not see herself. The echoes of her pain are still reverberating, like a mechanical baby doll, crying forever: a baby, our baby, who can never be soothed.

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Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press Diamond Edition), the conceptual fashion magazine The Fashion Issue (Wonder, forthcoming), and, with Amaranth Borsuk,  ABRA (Zg Press, forthcoming). She has also written five chapbooks. Her projects have been featured in Spex, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, Poets and Writers, Poets.org, VLAK, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Black Warrior Review, Joyland, berfrois, SUPERMACHINE, Drunken Boat, NPR, Bookslut,  and The American Scholar, among others. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012. She co-curated a forum on women writers and fashion for Delirious Hem, SEAM RIPPER. Her performance Prices Upon Request was performed at Yuki Sharoni Salon in Beverly Hills, her piece Pardonmywhoremoans was performed in BELLYFLOP swimming pool gallery in Los Angeles, her Bad Princess Walk was performed at the West Hollywood Book Fair in 2011, her installation Pile of Panties took place on Sunset Blvd as part of the Los Angeles Road Concerts in 2011, and her short film Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay premiered at TOTEM in Brooklyn in 2012. She writes about celebrity style for Hollywood.com.

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

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.

“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.

————————————————-

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!

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.

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.

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.

 

Suleiman

A simple poem would be content travelling
Back from the future to transfer its burden
Of knowledge about the present, but this one
Stays in that present, unable to see
Anything beyond the overrun square.

Or mistakes seeing for having just talked,
Waits there with permanent demands….
That one too is ultimately simple,
As simple as having something to say
About death (it’s partially total),

As simple as Egypt if Egypt were
To live forever on the edges of the square
(Twenty years from now the square is gone).
The complex poem admits all this
From a counter-present the future denies

All knowledge of, where talking looks
Like seeing and seeing writes it down
Whether or not in the order it should
It comes. The peaceful transfer of
Power from the past to the future

Sees the end of a present, escorted
By sand. It’s also the complex poem
Made simple, so everyone can
Use it as easily as a banner
And the crowd a crowd of conductors

(In twenty years the poem will be music)
For a time held wide enough open
We were the palm trees near the beach
Whose edges are ragged and not yet
Betrayed. And then there is

The compound poem, what happens when
The simple and complex meet
In the middle distance of live feeds,
A wind in the palms. Totally at last
The present is all talking parts.

_______________________________________________
Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author of Metropole (2011), Green and Gray (2007) and The Guns and Flags Project (2002), all from The University of California Press, and coauthor (in collaboration with the poet Jeff Clark) of 2A (Quemadura, 2006). He teaches in the English Department at UC Berkeley and also teaches for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.