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I have often been called a loose cannon: disorganized, lacking structure, etc. I don’t think this is true. I think I disrespect power–my own or anyone else’s, and like to circumvent the maze in which they would have me find the cheese, and if that’s a loose cannon, so be it. I always think: trust me, and not only will there be cheese, but some wine, to go with it. They never trust you.

To me a loose cannon is someone who doesn’t show up for the event he is in charge of, who creates havoc or a spirit of ill will. I always show up early. I often bring my own equipment, not trusting in other’s stuff. I am personable and kind. I delegate, and get others involved. What I am is creative and improvisational, and that’s enough in the rigid structuralism of the arts to get you branded a loose cannon.

I don’t like being controlled and I hate controlling people. I don’t like being held down so rigidly to a plan that I can’t have any wiggle room to change up if necessary. Everything in the arts now is booked a year in advance. Everything marches to the tune of grant requirements, and stipulations. It’s been this way for a long time, but now it seems to be this way everywhere.

Institutional art is an oxymoron. It’s like fat free sausage. Why bother?

Post structuralism means pure structuralism: structure for its own sake–no real reason to the rhyme except that control becomes the god of those who feel their world is spinning out of control. I find no peace or joy in it. My biggest flaw is that I can’t hide my hatred of being “processed.” Yet, in all of this,

I’ve had some high art moments lately–usually when alone, but not always. Let me count some:

1. I had the privilege of leading a writing workshop for a staff of an art newspaper. My structure for the workshop? I had them come to my house. I got pizzas. I made bolas. I looked at their former articles and had them cut the articles in half. I talked about the importance of visuals, of cutting to the chase, of economy–but with a personal voice. They really loved the bolas–which are red wine and diet cola–fairly common in Spain. Their editor-in-chief was happy with what we accomplished. I didn’t get paid, but I met some terrific people in the music and art scene, and I think this led to me getting a music gig later that more than paid for the pizzas. The wine was left over from a graduate party. So it’s a win/win: no grants. No outrageous prep. No elaborate materials, and this is exactly why I will be disparaged: because I didn’t cost some grant body or institution hundreds of bucks, they couldn’t claim me as proof of their and I had fun doing what I do well: editing, teaching, and drinking bolas

2. I had a student do a presentation on erasures–a currently popular technique in contemporary poetics. It went well. We erased an excerpt from a Virginia Woolf short story. Some really wonderful poems ensued. We had been talking earlier about gender, sexuality, queer theory (this is my advanced group). Someone brought in munchkins. I took the empty bag and shredded it and cast its shadow on the projector wall and improvised a dance to the erasures. We decided the erasures were so good, and the conversation on sexuality so good, that we would combine the short story with Ginsberg’s Howl as erasures, add music, and art, and videotape it with quotes from various theorists on gender identity and sexuality. We’d call it “Woolf Howl” (for fun). We are going to do it. We will use shadow puppets during certain segments. All of this came out of improvising on the elements we had in class–a structure made from high play.

3. A former student came over and we started to jam. He had never heard of the song “Black Coffee.” Now he has. I never heard certain versions of songs he played. We improvised, we noodled. We came up with a fifteen minute set–a good one, based on our willingness to enter play.

Art institutions could provide me and other artists with a place to do what we do. They won’t. Not without a lot of paperwork. In my case, I am considered a loose cannon, yet they are paying millions of bucks for research on creativity and overpaying so called creativity experts and specialists on game theory and play. They care more about the frame for the painting than the painting. So it goes. Again, someone give me 4 million bucks!

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.

Unknown-2Megan Burns, whose “River Song” and “Profit/Margin” from her Sound and Basin (Lavender Ink, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform her life and/or craft.

 

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Megan Burns: The poems in this section of the book Sound and Basin called “Gulf” are all from a project I did from March 2011-August 2011, in which I wrote every day about the river and the waters surrounding Louisiana. I wrote about 300 hand written pages of text in those months and particularly wanted to document the one year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. The poems in this section including “Profit/Margin” and “River Song” deal directly with the BP disaster and its lingering effects on the people of the coastal area as well as the environmental factors as a result of the damage. All of the poems in this section about the Gulf and the damage done to our waters as a result of oil drilling and pollution build upon the work I did in my first book concerning disasters. Both books are concerned with how we respond and bear witness to these atrocities in our lives. In comparison to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans that I address in my first collection, Memorial and Sight Lines, I feel in this book that the disaster of destroying our water is an even more urgent and unfortunately more pervasive form of disaster that threatens the extinction of life on this planet.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Megan Burns: I think there is a distinct voice of showing up and being aware throughout these poems in this project because I did show up every day and meditate and think on the aspects of water in our lives and specifically in the region that I live in and how it shapes the people of Louisiana. The voice then is aware of a constellation of events in each poem and how all is interconnected.  There is a awareness to the very specific motion of how the oil spill “disaster” seeps into not only the water permanently changing that environment, but also metaphorically into our world order with the ability to permanently alter our relationship to the world in which we live.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Megan Burns: I think these poems like the poem in my first book attempt to speak from a place of bearing witness to these disasters and being able to give a name to what is occurring, to be able to capture what is happening and to contemplate the effects of these events. I think again the specifics of our personal disasters mirror our interconnectedness to the world around us; it is in facing and recognizing our place in these events that we learn about ourselves but also learn that we are made up of a network that is so interconnected that we cannot simply live in ignorance of this fact. I hope that the language I use jars people, makes them stop and think about the impact that we have in the world. I think language can do that; it can enter our brains and fire certain neurons that set in motion a desire for change, and it is that desire that can have the most fruitful impact on our world.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Megan Burns: Contemporary poets I often return to and have for years would include Alice Notley and Anne Carson; I think because both tend to tell stories and to include a wide range of allusions and history connecting the dots of how language and poetry is always about this creative force that builds and builds outward. I think they also rely a lot on rhythm to carry their lines and that is something that happens for me as well when writing. Older influences would have to be H.D. and Mina Loy, both poets who really broke with tradition and tried to push what language could do for them. I think they both had a particular vision for how they wanted to express themselves and they altered what they knew and what they were seeing happening in poetry in order to really get at what they needed to say. I think of both Loy and H.D. as poets who wrote for themselves first and foremost, and I feel I am the same way. I have a tendency to do these projects and these experiments mostly because I want to see if I can and the result of it being successful or publishable is less important to me than where I end up in the work and what I learned as a result of doing it.

River Song

a “catch” of time

out of fishing in a bayou of human cares

marrow steeped in fallen soldiers/ toxic waters

how you can never go home

a bit of killing off/ doing that already

in the listings of animals to be protected

humans turn up : the great uncounted

I’m eating solutions for you

I basket the pieces

I strophe/ antistrophe/tear down the walls of your trilogy
sweet adherent____this wheel of war____turning

towards ________the hostage embrace, thunder my waters

our net-work: made to keep us occupied

clustered as stars in a limited heaven

the bee’s dance is not for us

at which point the sky, its vast fingerwork

rivers in its own conversation, a measure of meander

and dip where once I walked these waters

where once and now the cement flows

hell, too, crosses a river to collect its dead
Profit/Margin

one year out__________to begin more drilling

one way of drawing an owl is all feathers

face hidden [mouth sealed up]

permanent solutions____nesting ground

the river bends not once but twice

and there is more than one body

by now hidden

we move delicately from one sphere of tragedy to another

oil to hurricane season: water to water

fishing boats empty along the docks

the casinos never close

panda bears eat all day for nutrients

we feed and call it necessity

to put food on the table/ a job for a father/ to provide now

and save for the later/ a child’s way/ entering the day


___________________________________________________
Megan Burns is the publisher at Trembling Pillow Press and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, Trickhouse, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Entrepot, and Rain Taxi. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. Recent chapbooks include: irrational knowledge (Fell Swoop, 2012), and a city/ bottle boned (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). She lives in New Orleans where she has helped run the weekly 17 Poets! Literary & Performance Series, (www.17poets.com).

 

les figues

 

OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS, ECHOIC

BY CHRIS TYSH

LES FIGUES PRESS, 2013

 CUNT NORTON

BY DODIE BELLAMY

LES FIGUES PRESS, 2013

chris tysh

1. Pins Ups: Covering the Classics

 “I realized early on that the academy and the literary world alike — and I don’t think there really is a distinction between the two — are always dominated by fools, knaves, charlatans and bureaucrats.’

                          – Harold Bloom in an interview in Criticism in Society (1987), edited by Imre Salusinski

 The literary landscape is a sensitive thing.  One has to be careful, especially if loaded words are used. Originality. Authenticity.  The Western Canon.  Les Figues Press throws a wrench into those hallowed notions with two new poetry collections, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, by Chris Tysh, and Cunt Norton, by Dodie Bellamy.  The first is a poetic re-interpretation of Jean Genet’s erotic classic, Our Lady of the Flowers.  (This reviewer counts Our Lady of the Flowers as one of his three favorite books of all time.)  Cunt Norton is a cut-up of the Western Canon of primarily English and American male writers, interspersed with pornographic prose.

With the rise of fan fiction, strange literary adaptations (Android Karenina, etc.), and posthumous resurrections of abandoned works (The Pale King, The Original of Laura, etc.), literature now seems to lack a certain something. Sacredness? Separateness? Specialness?  More draconian copyright laws?

Why? Who says so? Since when has literature been stuck in amber and impervious to creative subversion?  Ulysses, by James Joyce, and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis jump immediately to mind.  Even the Romans stole the mythology of the Greeks on their way to forging a global empire.  Perhaps the fetishizing of the Creative Work Innate Inalienable Unalterable Specialness (in caps, natch) is rudimentary to the dictatorial mind?  Just look at Samuel Beckett and David Mamet.  The way they control their artistic works leans a bit on the fascist side; dramatic interpretations the envy of every unreconstructed Stalinist.  Want to throw a spork into the Beckett Estate?  Adapt Waiting for Godot using female leads.

Happily, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, and Cunt Norton can both be seen as positive, life-affirming acts of artistic terrorism.

In addition to this fan-fictional democratization of literature, the phenomenon of covering a song isn’t exactly new. But that is music, and this is poetry. It’s one thing for Hendrix to cover Dylan, but for another poet to “cover” Jean Genet?  This is most confounding. Not since Jorge Luis Borges had Pierre Menard write Don Quixote has there been a more perplexing situation for literary connoisseurs. (I’ll delve into the particulars of genre theory in a later section.)

One sees this same debate in law.  Is the American Constitution an ever-changing, ever-evolving document that requires modern interpretations to meet the needs and challenges of a modern, pluralistic, secular democracy?  Or is the Constitution an Eternal Vessel of Truth and Morality that should be guarded by an elite magisterium of prayerful heavenly emissaries charged by God with keeping these Eternal Verities unchanged, unaltered, and unsullied by the poisonous tentacles of modernity?

Let’s put a pin in that.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, by Chris Tysh “covers” Jean Genet’s novel. The surprising thing is that no authorial gloss is overlaid.  No witty commentary or postmodernist machinery.  The Wind Done Gone it ain’t.  The more amazing thing is that Tysh has successfully distilled Genet’s novel, boiling down several hundred pages into 134 pages of crisp seven line stanzas. And Les Figues has formatted it so that there is a close to 50% white space.

What further complicates this creative strategy is that Our Lady of the Flowers is a poetic novel to begin with. It is a monument to gender fluidity, non-linear narrative, and public artifice; gender as performative to cite the oft-cited Judith Butler.  Genet renders the gutter queens, stool pigeons, murderers, and pimps are rendered in haunting prose.  Tones switch like gender, from hard-boiled street tough to gossipy queen, from sexually explicit to poetically lyrical. The artistic challenge seems daunting. Is it a “cover version” of Our Lady of the Flowers?  The answer: sort of.  But covers usually reinterpret the original source material somehow, transpose genre, etc.  Tysh renders the prose of the novel into poetry, although the transposition of prose into poetry involves a lot of distillation, since Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is far shorter than the original novel. So what does Chris Tysh call what she did?  The answer: transcreation.  In Tysh’s words, transcreation is:

“A cross-cultural communication between continents, languages, and temporalities, which prolongs the life of the original like a standard translation does, but at the same time ushers in a gap and a movement away from the generating cell. In ghostly fashion, the new poem is haunted by its French progenitor, while allowing itself to cross over into a totally new temporality and formal structure.”

It is naming this “gap and movement” with a term that seems so perplexing and infuriating to the Stasi of the literary status quo.  Chris Tysh’s transcreation attends to transcend the concepts of adaptation, parody, and the cover song.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is not the first time Tysh has “covered” a classic from the Western Canon. This volume is a sequel (of sorts) to Molloy: the Flip Side. The project’s third volume will involve a work by Marguerite Duras.

2. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (The Pornographic Version)

 Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

           - Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1602)

 Teddy Bass: (raising a glass) Gentlemen!  You’re all cunts.

                          -Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)

 cunt norton

Say it with me.  All together now.  Cunt.

Latin for vagina, the c-word still resonates with a thermonuclear power.  While basic cable has become the playground for the occasional “fuck” and “shit” (“damn” and “bitch” are now almost commonplace), “cunt” retains its power to shock.

Cunt Norton’s greatest irony emanates from the how joyous it is to read.  The cut-ups of the Western Canon and the pornographic move beyond its programmatic artifice and become a sort of liberation.  Words, liberated from the castrating idiocracy of speech codes and middlebrow propriety, fly and burn with a beautiful intensity:

Open thy temple gates and fuck my cock.  My poste adorne as doth behove, as thy chest I adorne with come.  Recyve my saynt with honour dew; drive it in any direction thou direction thou want’st til in humble reverence thou commest. (Cunt Spenser)

The delivery is graphic and the situation carnal, not at odds, but in concert with the genuine emotions and intimacy.  Patton Oswalt in his bit, Clean Filth, relates how “creepy, G-rated filth is way more disturbing than regular filth.”  Once cleaned up, it the G-rated filth sounds like something a serial killer would say.

            Cunt Norton also includes authors known for their vulgarity, including Chaucer, Whitman, and Ginsberg, further complicating its critique of literary pedagogy.  There’s an obvious reason I included the Hamlet dialogue where the tortured Dane prince makes a cunt pun.  Hamlet is held as the apogee of the Western Canon.  (Damn rightfully, I might add.)  But sitting alongside the monologues about being, spirituality, and death, the play slathers on the sex and violence.

Cunt is a word that is also geographically contingent.  On American shores, the term is obscene and can cause spontaneous hysteria.  In the United Kingdom both underworld slang and Polari (an English subcultural slang used by the gay community for centuries) use the term a lot.  Sexy Beast and the Cockney clockworks of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) pepper the dialogue with “cunts.”  In the case of Sexy Beast, the term is an equivalent of “mate,” or for Americans, “dude.”  “Cunt,” like “dude,” has numerous iterations and shades of meaning depending on the tone, context, and nuance of the speaker and the relationship to the listener.

To quote Teddy Bass (played with icy menace by Ian McShane), “Gentlemen, you’re all cunts.”

  3. So what is it then?

 “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.”

                     -The Thief’s Journal (Jean Genet, 1949)

 What is Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic?

Is it a parody like The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall?  (A reinterpretation of a classic work, in this case, Gone With the Wind.)  The answer: No.

Is it a sequel done in the style of the original like The Odyssey: A Modern sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis?  The answer: No.

Is it a cut-up of the original source material with other material like Cunt Norton?  The answer: No.

Is it a witty postmodernist take on Our Lady of the Flowers?  The answer: Not exactly.  Tysh takes no narrative liberties with the original story.  No addition of modernist snark or politically correct scolding.

Is it a postmodernist stunt like Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, by Jorge Luis Borges?  The answer: No.  “Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory.  Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely was easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote.”  Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic lies somewhere between another Our Lady and the Our Lady.

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

            – The Hollow Men, (T. S. Eliot, 1925)

4. The Artifice of Authenticity and the Authenticity of Artifice

 Prior: It was tacky.

Belize: It was divine.

            He was one of the Great Glitter Queens. He couldn’t be buried like a civilian. Trailing sequins and incense he came into the world, trailing sequins and incense he departed it. And good for him!

Prior: I thought the twenty professional Sicilian mourners were a bit much.

               -Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika (1992, Tony Kushner)

 

 It seems paradoxical that authenticity can come across as artificial and artifice can seem authentic.  The notions that authenticity means “true and good,” and artifice means “bad and false” have been so hard-wired into the human consciousness that it remains a challenge to successfully eradicate.  It is strange seeing RuPaul in mufti.  Equally strange seeing ruling class career politicians strap on the proletarian drag of denim shirts and blue jeans to clear brush.  Is that Michael Dukakis riding a tank?  What the actual fuck?

Notre_Dame_des_Fleurs

In Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet tells the life story of Divine.  In the process, he creates one of the greatest figures in twentieth century literature.  Divine, a drag queen, falls in love with a stool pigeon, has affairs with murderers, and dies of tuberculosis.  Genet creates an alchemical admixture for Divine’s life, intermixing Catholic splendor with lowbrow gutter criminality.  Chris Tysh recaptures this alchemy in her short poetic stanzas:

Than a phantom shadow

Tinged with blue while outside

Let’s say under the blue canopy

Of tiny umbrellas, Mimosa I,

Mimosa II, Mimosa half-IV,

First Communion, Angela.  Her

Highness, Castagnette and Régine

 

Await holding sprays of violets

All the queens, boys and girls

Are there knotted together chattering

And tweeting, pearl tiaras on their heads

I let myself sink to my own village grave-

Yard where snails and slugs leave

Trails of slime on what flagstones[.]

It’s an almost-transcription of Genet’s prose.  Divine, acquiring the clothes and mannerisms of women, becomes a monument of artifice.  An alias that transcends her biological formatting.  But in this artifice  Divine becomes her true self.

Ironically, attempts at authenticity can ring false.  Nothing smacks of intellectual bankruptcy more than those attempting to be authentic, then failing with the transparency they allegedly seek.  When one’s authenticity is outed as false, one is left being nothing more than a poseur.  It is posture without any underlying meaning.  The grassroots acoustic guitar playing crunchy granola activist is simply another pose.  No more artificial or ill-intentioned than a drag queen.  But what are the intentions?  Is Mr. Crunchy Granola really mean it, or is he donning the raiment of leftist activism to get laid?  One also sees virulent homophobes donning drag to ridicule gays.  The challenge remains to see below the surface and have the courage to call bullshit on the fakers.

The best artifice is effortless, done with ease and grace.  Does the argot of queens ring false to public ears because the heteronormative pose has become so ingrained and so omnipresent society barely notices it?  And is the hyper-feminized speech and gestures of queens any less ridiculous than, say, the macho posturing one sees in all-male environments like man caves, locker rooms, and Promise Keeper gatherings?  (Insert joke about Republican gay sex scandals here.)

The artifice sets queens apart.  Belize nails it when she says that the queen “couldn’t be buried like a civilian.”  The queen is like a soldier, another group set apart from civilian life by the uniform.  The soldier has camouflage and medals for valor.  The queen has glitter and sequins.  Artifice is the source of Divine’s transcendent power as a literary figure:

Each stolen object: liquor, perfume,

Fake jewelry, give the room its

Mysterious allure like flashing

Lights on a distant ship.  Parked car

Or friend’s pocket, Mignon will boost

Anything anywhere and D will simply

Say, I feel like praying on his bare chest

On Sundays they go to mass, gold

Clasp missal in D’s hand, clickety-

Clack they kneel on plush pews

And let a mean-looking priest

Cram the host into their mouths

“Our Mother Who Art in Heaven,”

They pour out in unison, bow down

To the splendor of the pious world

At home.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, artifice reflects against the artifice of Genet’s original.  It is a postmodern refraction of an early postmodern novel.  Chris Tysh has transcreated an artifice that rings true and will stand up against the faux-authenticity that became so popular after 9/11.  The New Sincerity, like “reality shows” and literalist Bible interpretations, reek of falseness, disingenuousness, and intellectual bankruptcy.  Nothing is more fake than announcing how authentic you are?  You can’t boast about your humility either.

Despite appearances of poetical stenography, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is much more than a “cover” version of an original.

   5The Future of Poetry

 “Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed.  Let the dead poets make way for others.  Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us.”

                     -The Theater and Its Double (Antonin Artaud, 1938)

 Les Figues Press has given the reading public two fascinating examples of experimental poetry.  Despite the postmodernist approaches both have, each goes beyond mere stunt or artifice.  One creates originality from imitation and the other uses cut-ups to affirm the very source material it cuts.  All literature is there for the taking.  Literature can be imitated, parodied, subverted, and perverted.  Because the Western Canon is such a valuable reliquary of human achievement, that’s the reason to manipulate it and warp it, depending on the whim of the artist.  Literature isn’t something that should be paralyzed by stasis or by worshipful fans.  Android Karenina really isn’t my thing.  I will probably never buy it or read it, but calls of “literary grave-robbing” and “shameless cash grabs” seem a bit too bombastic.

Then there are the Chapman Brothers drawing clown faces on Goya’s Disasters of War.  As one who loves the Chapman Brothers and Francisco Goya, I’m still conflicted.  They defaced Goya’s originals for their artistic project.  Although that is hardly the same as the museum attendee who attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta with a sledgehammer.  His insanity is beside the point, since his act of artistic vandalism was no different than the Taliban destroying the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But artistic defacement and destruction goes back to the dawn of mankind.  Muslims painting over the mosaics of Hagia Sophia; prudes lopping off genitalia of Greco-Roman sculptures; iconoclasm (the movement, not the pose); and so on.  The examples are limitless.  And yet, and yet!  Is defacement different when an artist does it to further their artistic project than some narrow-gauge fanatic doing the same to further their political, ideological, or religious ideals?  (Calling the act “defacement” also loads  the deck and biases the answers.)  We are mutable and we are mortal.  When art shows us our limitations and the boundaries of this too, too solid flesh, some have taken it as a cue to go all “Hulk smash!” on things.  If a museum fire destroyed numerous Thomas Kinkade originals, would we care?  Should we care?

Taste is a fickle beast.  And arguments about the merits or demerits is warranted and should be encouraged.  Hysterical outbursts, generalized statements, and overly dramatic hang-wringing seems to me, at least, as declassé.  Android Karenina as literary necrophilia?  Girlfriend, please!  How, pray tell, do you describe actual disasters, like the Rwandan genocide, Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, and Abu Ghraib?  Before one opens one’s yap on a discussion thread, how about putting things in perspective first?  Using language like that degrades language and defangs the power of language to describe horrific events.  Using the same language to describe Android Karenina and, say, NSA domestic wire-tapping, is crass and obscene.

Luckily there is Les Figues, ready to throw a wrench into the hallowed pretensions of cautious middlebrow culture warriors.  The world is a better place with this press in it.

The radical poetry of 100 years ago was not radical in terms of style. It was conventional in terms of style and this doomed much of it (though not all of it) to being forgotten and rightfully so, but note that the folk songs and protest songs and blues songs of that period were not forgotten and still matter and register with intelligent and artistic peoples. Why? Because they were not written in the language of one’s betters, and therefore not some cheap and clumsy knock off of the prevailing aesthetic of the most middle brow literary magazines.

In point of fact, it was the urban decadence of cabaret, parlor music, vaudeville, and fast talking medicine show sharpies, but most of all, of the “othered” in terms of Blacks, Jews, and Irish that reinvigorated the pastiche and cut up sensibility of the high modernists, and this wave of influence has not yet abated.

In that sense, the accidental poetry of the people, that which is not striving to sound “good,” but is in love with its own sound productions is still the most pervasive influence on every form of poetry with the possible exception of surrealism, and one could make a very good argument that French surrealism, its particular zeitgeist, was made possible and viable by cabaret and circus performers, and then silent film performers (harlequin to Laurel and Hardy) who performed the surreal in their acts and on film.

Freud and Jung were after thoughts to give the surreal acceptable “forefathers.” A poem is first and foremost an organization and shaping of words that allows consciousness to escape its own worst grooves–both for good or ill (since some grooves are actually beneficial) or which makes those grooves refined to the point where they are strong and supple, and energy enhancing–the organized energy of life itself–what Blake meant when he privileged the imagination over nature and said that exuberance is beauty–the current of how one moves through one’s very being.

For all my ranting, and cynicism, and anger at my age, I have never not wanted to be alive–and to enter this current of being alive is my language. So for me: not perfection, but the force that moves through nature–not the mirroring of nature, but the homage to its storms and vital ugliness/beauty through words–the way mirrors would break if left in the wilderness–but the wind in their breakage, the weather of time and water in their distortions: I still want to write a poem that gives me the pleasures of walking on the shore of the sea in the fall when all the tourists have gone home, and the air is cool but not unbearable, and I am with my Emily and my daughter Clare (I have read poems by Vallejo that did that for me).

I want the word “my” to be as selfish and as unapologetic as an animal–my, my sun, my jacket rifled by the wind, my wife and daughter with me–my tribe, and on the 100th reading, the thousandth reading, salt in my spit and, if I am alone, fiercely alone with a whole congregation of stars.

I want to write a poem that takes on not the semblance of life, but its full and necessary ferocity, and on the last reading, is worn, eroded, impacted by the years, but far from being worn out–anciently sudden, and suddenly ancient: I want that broken music.

This is a political desire–if by political we mean to procure the necessary justice, and peace and compassion for such a life and aesthetic to exist. I want all of human life to be able to rest long enough to swallow its own spit and stare up at the stars, and hear the promise of some covenant–anything other than the drowning out of the soul by this twaddle we call the contemporary world. This is the extension of my own right to be fiercely and troublingly alive to every man, woman, and child.

I don’t want to save anyone: I want them to live. There is a big difference between wanting to save someone and wanting them to live. Those who save, kill all but what they will to be saved. Fuck that: I want everyone to live, and that is truly radical–to want even the mosquito on that beach, and the black fly, and the stranger’s dog who comes up and sticks its nasty wet snout in my equally nasty crotch and slobbers on me to be alive, and for me to be alive as I get royally pissed off–but in the full brio of being this animal who prays. I don’t want perfect conditions. I don’t want constructs. My poems will provide the leash on which the fierce love and sprawl of my life is lead. I want to be walked well by the tongue of speech–until I am dead.

 

When reading poetry I often have difficulty distinguishing signal from noise. Much of what’s going around now is different variations on this confrontation. There are golden proportions, where poetic signal is accentuated by the noise, shaped by it in ways that clear reception cannot anticipate. Unlike with cooking, these ratios are individual rather than universal. One poet may thrive with higher signal, while another may better divine meaning from the noise they mine.

This is hardly a newsflash: Poets have differing styles, film at eleven. Some poets work the chaos down to the letter, the phoneme and allophone even. Others do better to keep court with general syntax, but break down associations between sentences, lines, stanzas, so on and so forth. Writers flourish under various circumstances, and that’s only half of the equation. There is no accounting for what the reader may glean, to a point. The poet can only hope they’ve cast some new meaning into the world.

Erica Bernheim’s The Mimic Sea splits the difference between signal and noise. It can be equal parts maddening and illuminating, not unlike searching for a radio station between towns on interstates out west; half of one song comes in like crystal, but the next is a chorus of snow. The question then is, for each reader, how much scratched aquarium glass are you willing to stare out of for a hint of something that you connect with.

The Mimic Sea offers no easy out, quite platitudes, or distinct advantages towards survival. Each line is a piece of a puzzle, but who knows how many puzzles there are and how many pieces of each? The pieces still illuminate in their own way. It’s not strictly surreal, things are quite firmly grounded here, but the poems will not define themselves for you. Of the few that come near to proclamation, Car Rolls Off Clay Wade Bailey Bridge  opens with:

And what of the driver, trapped between metal

and more metal, metal and water, water and time?

A concrete island, a wish for loosening,

a confrontation with his mother nineteen

years ago, too close to tell anybody, now

bored by tears in this condition of you.

Pulled in straight from the title we associate with the driver of the car plummeting off this bridge, or having plummeted, slowing down into the trap between fundamental elements like metal, water, and time. On stage in near-death, the parade of family members, the past as the future (which opens the book), the boredom of finality all emerge. As a car crash/accident poem there is much to parse but it’s not unpleasant to wind through, as the poem commands, to “imagine yourself”.

Where Bernheim’s sentences and lines are scrutable, the poems as a whole are less so. This is where the breakdown between signal and noise occurs for The Mimic Sea. Don’t mistake this breakdown for failure, as the book flows, surprises, and delights. But platitudes would defeat this book, where elements flash and synapses between words are continuously firing. Though, very often it props the reader at an edge.

The pit of the world

is something you think

you have seen. After learning

 

to read, we rarely look around

when walking. We are visually

 

illiterate. Unraveled, unravished,

we will come loose in that air.

 

from Dinner—March

The Mimic Sea is primarily constructed of things you think you have seen, shades, echoes, etc. You are left at the pit of the world, a gaping expanse at one side and the whole of the earth on the other. Insight follows befuddlement, learning one skill surpasses the other, picking up shades of life outside the aquarium but at the loss of everything within. It’s a book that itself comes loose, unravelled, but not through the poems. Rather the scope, at once myopic and focused on infinity, confronts the void with the earth. Bernheim strikes up the band between stations, and the melodies may be buried, but the poems are about the search and the discovery, and you’ll be rewarded through both.

 

True standards are physical measurements. All other standards are evil metaphors of measurement created by systems of power to maintain control and to replace thinking. All standards are a form of virtual thinking–the law put in place to preclude any daily or ongoing assessment of values–to avoid all questioning. This is why I hate grants and would prefer that someone who believed in my art just chucked me enough money that I could be an artist without having to comply with “Standards” I had no hand in making and which, to me, an old tool maker who constantly measured, are no real measure of anything except arbitrary whim and the power of gatekeepers.

This is how it works: systems prove their “moral” or aesthetic aptness by imposing, maintaining, enforcing, and setting standards that then take the place of real and thoughtful assessment. Challenge to these standards by certain necessary “rebels” are accepted because, like comic consciousness, challenges to standards by tolerated individuals either proves the standard by way of contrast, or defines the standard by how it is “resisted or challenged.” Resistance to standards by unapproved bodies meets with censor (the Plato model)–in this country by the gatekeepers completely ignoring the “other” as substandard. So we have both standards as virtual thinking and internecine resistance to standards as the tolerated bad-boy and virtual alternative to the standard. So how do standards ever literally change?

When a system becomes enervated, when its power is threatened by the entropy of its own standards, then, the third person in this evil trinity arrives: reform. The system “reforms” its standards. All those counter-forces it could not kill, it subsumes–but as the new standard making machinery which it controls. So the “standard” changes or is over hauled, but the principle of the standard stays in tact: virtual thought, virtual aesthetics, virtual excellence. The system can never allow real thought except through the tolerated “mavericks” of its own systemic family. These mavericks often adapt watered down versions of truly new thoughts outside the system and make them palatable. This I call saming the changes.

The internet revolution has taken books and publication out of the control of the gatekeepers and the prevailing standard makers. So I predict the “reform” (which is already happening) will not be related to “publish or perish” but to “get grants get prizes, and funding or perish.” It will become more important to have a grant from an approved body of authorities and standard bearers than to have a book. This will be the new road to tenure in universities: you are funded by rather than you are published by. This will be every bit as false (all standards are false) as publishing, but it will prevail because it offers a standard. All systemic being seeks standards to replace real thought and real change. The purpose of standards is to avoid ongoing assessment. The purpose of reform is to keep any real changes subsumed into the system.

L’Olive: sonnet 28

My tongue cannot resist disclosing all
I feel for you, when from you I’m away,
but suddenly, feeling you nearby, it says
nothing—-left dumbstruck and deaf, words stall.

Thus hope makes guarantees while duping me:
I am less there, the more I’m in your presence.
What eludes me pleases me immensely:
I desire that which I refuse to keep.

I am joyful by night and sad all day,
having in sleep what, waking, will not stay:
my good’s a falsehood, my evil ever true.

I brood for one who’s faultless, best commended.
Therefore, Love, if there’s charity in you,
make my life brief, or night make never-ending.

L’Olive: sonnet 28

Ce, que je sen’, la langue ne refuse
_____Vous decouvrir, quand suis de vous absent,
_____Mais tout soudain que pres de moy vous sent,
_____Elle devient & muette, & confuse.
Ainsi, l’espoir me promect, & m’abuse,
_____Moins pres je suis quand plus je suis present.
_____Ce qui me nuist, c’est ce, qui m’est plaisent,
_____Je quier’ cela, que trouver je recuse.
Joyeux la nuit, le jour triste je suis.
_____J’ay en dormant ce, qu’en veillant poursuis,
_____Mon bien est faulx, mon mal est veritable.
D’une me plain’, & deffault n’est en elle,
_____Fay’ doncq’Amour, pour m’etre charitable,
_____Breve ma vie, ou ma nuit eternelle.

______________________________________________________
Joachim du Bellay was a French poet, critic, and a member of the Pléiade.

Translation by Brett Foster.

A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON

WAVE BOOKS, 2012

ISBN 978-1933517599

REVIEWED BY LISA A. FLOWERS  

 

coco

Last year, CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon—a book that encompassed a perfect blend of street insolence and elegiac tribute—was published. Raunchy and tantrumy, insightful and spiritually reverent, Rumpelstilskin-stampingly angry, and uproariously hilarious, it was a kind of hash oil distilled from its author’s originality and strangeness, and an unforgettable hymn of praise to the work of others.

Over a year later, each re-reading is not merely a return to something puissant and relevant, but a trip to a landscape that, like certain atramentous or transcendental places in the heart, turn out to be knowable only when you come to them. Marsupial is a work of pretty much unlimited generosity that is is there for you when you need it, and it has a portal and a therapy for every condition: love, loss, ecstasy, rage.

The (soma)tic exercises in Marsupial’s title are derived from Soma, a sacred Vedic drink and the Greek word meaning “body”, and the flesh—and the sacred memory of the flesh of the dead—are ingeniously preserved and remembered in Conrad’s hands as they are in no one else’s. Some of the muses that preside over his passion for the corporeal are not unlike the talismanic ‘good luck’ rituals behind dance, or extreme sports: highly superstitious, forged of an immediacy residing not so much out in space, toward a theoretical (and always encroaching) theological ecstasy or doom, but into those forces concentrated into immediate physicality and its sustenance and performance.  There is something of the time-fear of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson here—a punk rock Quentin, too marvelously and electrifyingly angry to die, as the dead keep falling through the book rapidly, like a meteor shower, almost too frequently to be eulogized. As such, the most moving crux of Marsupial is perhaps best summed up by Conrad’s contemporary, the poet Ariana Reines, who wrote, in another context, “What is exhumed not from the earth but from a body itself is an addictive kind of beauty you can’t easily get over” and “Earth, I will have to miss you; I miss you already./and yet when I touch myself whom I should not trust/It is still the heaviest and most jealous feelings that bind me to you, like blood”.

Cum, blood, the body’s voluntary/desired and involuntary/undesired responses to love, passion, trauma. Conrad, one of the most head-on of poets, has rightfully bristled at being called an escapist. “I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems”, he said in a recent interview. “I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive.” These are poems that do not abandon their subjects, or treat transfiguration and escapism as if they are the same thing, but forge ahead to restore human beings and moments—in their own right—to the organic states of grace they might have been in before they became corrupted by illness, cynicism, tragedy. As in most spiritual and theological rituals, Conrad’s great obsession seems to be bringing the living and the dead into one place—a longing apt to be consummated in lines as lovely as white candles: “Everyone is in two places here/ and in memory holds porches to their light”. Yet, the essential difference between the preservation-value of pending mortality and the preservation-value of pending immortality—aren’t both concentrated toward the same hope?—is always in question, as is the union of both states ideally suited to mimic and keep each other. So it is in Musk, a poem born from the exercise Séance Your Own Way: “Dormancy entered a flayed/ Bond by/Soda fountains of the world it/Seems funny but it is/Exactly funny how/Exceptions cram/into the disappear.”

With its obsession with fluids, food, physicality, Marsupial sometimes has the wild, unhinged glee of a three-year-old Jackson Pollocking their feces across the wall, as in White Helium:

Smear snot or blood or semen or pussy juice or ear wax or piss or vomit or shit or spit or sweat or whatever excretion you have available onto your balloon. Hold onto the string as it floats above you. Relax on your back on the floor. Hold the string by your toes with your legs extended. Look at the balloon with binoculars. What emblem is this? What Jolly Roger?

Ditto, unforgettably, for the book’s politically-loaded title track:

Someone downtown bought a new refrigerator and I carried the large cardboard box upstairs to my apartment. Lined with blankets and pillows it was the perfect marsupial pouch for the new poetry exercise. I punched a hole in the back and inserted a baby bottle filled with soy milk to suck on. Just outside the box DVDs of Pasolini’s films played, first The Decameron, then The Canterbury Tales…My boyfriend came over. We played Pasolini’s SALO OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM. We removed the baby bottle from the back of my cardboard pouch and my boyfriend used it as a glory hole.  Graffiti around his cock and little wigs made of cotton and pillow stuffing. I glued a frame around the hole, asked him to back up and enter slowly, a portrait of a cannon at the castle gates.

salo

Too, wherever it meanders, whatever criticisms its detractors have leveled at it, Marsupial has that quality that always has been and always will be characteristic of original work: completely magical and unpredictable imagery. A quality that, in turn, is summed up by the great Mina Loy, whose manifesto (“If you are very frank with yourself and don’t mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction”) Conrad gives ample credit to. This, in tandem with “sometimes you have to kill your darlings” and “show, don’t tell”, has always pretty much been the most reliable of literary advice going. However, rules are only as valuable as the message they endeavor to protect, and, thankfully, there is little of the sacrificing of dears in Marsupial: true to the reverence, often expressed in his work, for nearly everything as sentient life, Conrad kills nothing, and all the pretty chickens and their dam run free and pecking at our ankles through the streets of his poems like a brood of unruly children whose parents believe—with Monty Python’s stern Jehovah—that every sperm is sacred. As an instructional-book-by-definition, Marsupial “tells” in wonderful, wacky proselytizing, a blend of radical humanitarianism and fabulously cathartic misanthropy—as in the beginning of this exercise:

Go to a shopping mall parking lot with trees and other landscaping growing between the cars to create this poem. Find a tree you connect with, feel it out, bark, branches, leaves. Sit on its roots to see if it wants you OFF! These trees are SICK WITH converting car exhaust and shopper exhale all fucking day!

There’s Feast of the Seven Colors , a series of exercises ornamented by titles likeDistorted torque of FLORA’S red (written after eating only red foods for a day while under the influence of a red wig, right side in curls, left side straight)” and “Rehab saved his life but drugs saved mine at the blue HOUR (written after eating only blue foods for a day while under the influence of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ played on a continuous loop from 6 a.m. to midnight)”. Yellow’s synesthesia eddies the young, doomed spark of high heeled boys (“glitter anchors an eye underskilled for death”) with a feral tracking-through-the-foliage of missed intimacies (“So many things I’d like to smell/but am not allowed Franz Kafka’s crotch”). Largely, Marsupial is also a passive-aggressive dialogue with a spirituality equally revered and held in contempt. Kick the Flush could just as well be directed at God(s):

HE could if HE

Wanted to develop

An odor to please us take

HIS shirt off

Aid our anticipation

But when HE demanded respect HE

Was surprised to

Find out what HE

Really deserved…

It was HIS need to

Apologize that drove HIM

To uploading

Rude sensations

HIS fracture of listening

Causing whistle blanks

That’s when

We woke the blue

Lights in HIS head

It’s how we earned our freedom

Now I open my gorgeous entrails to

The sun…

But Conrad understands that things of life, the beloved experiences that made and make it worth living, are not to be left behind, “gotten over”, in the sense that such a term is usually used; not to be digested and shat out for a higher continuation. They are, rather, the building blocks of wisdom and spiritual continuation, always aspiring to be the closest possible touching point of the dead to the living. “If you can’t believe you’re going to heaven in your own body and on a first name basis with all the members of your family,” Joan Didion famously said in The White Album, quoting an acquaintance, what’s the point of dying?”. Marsupial espouses the cultivation of an enlightenment that does not involve the surrendering of self to the vaporizing of a superior consciousness, like the maiden in Grimm who cannily turns herself into a lake to escape her pursuer, or the ice hotels of Scandinavia that melt every spring, only to be rebuilt from the solidifying of their own element in spring. Nowhere is the latter analogy more movingly turned around than in the AIDS Snow Family exercise:

In January gather snow. This is intimate, this calling to honor the shock of being alive. I made one tiny snowman named CAConrad and one tiny snowman named Tommy Schneider. For six months they held hands in the privacy of my freezer while I visited the streets and buildings in the Philadelphia of our love. Snow crystals travel miles out of clouds into the light of our city. My snowman read to his snowman the letters I brought home to the freezer. It’s 2010, AIDS is different in this century you didn’t live to see…the day after Summer Solstice I took the snowmen out of the freezer.  90 degrees, we melted quicker than expected, even sooner than I could have imagined.

Sooner than we could have imagined, for, as Conrad reminds us, “another temperature of/human is/another/folded wing missed by/the tailor”. “You have waited/you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers”, wrote Whitman. At its heart, Marsupial, too, is a reassurance to the dead (and the memories and experiences of everyone who has ever–or will ever—live) that they are eternally recognizable in the hope of love’s total recall, through ages of death and transfiguration:

I’m not so

Pretty with

My skin

Removed

No

He said

Prettier.

 

 

I admit I didn’t like Denise Levertov’s work when I was a kid. I preferred the hilarity of Ted Berrigan, the obvious authority and beauty of Stevens, the light but dazzling cool of Frank O’Hara, and Ginsberg’s Kaddish as well as Reality Sandwiches. I was even more a fan of Spanish and Latin American poets–Hernandez and Vallejo in particular. I came to admire Levertov only after I was approaching forty and she had recently died. I was old enough then to appreciate her seriousness of purpose. I came to admire her the way I had Muriel Rukeyser.

According to my friend Joel Lewis, Levertov fell out of favor when she embraced the catholic faith and started writing poems about her religion. Recently, her letters with Robert Duncan have put her on the radar again. She was also heavily involved in the protest movements of the 60′s–the anti-war movement in particular.That made her popular then when the baby boomers pretended to be Che. When they “converted” to conspicuous consumption sans conscience, she lost that following.

Her poems have the rigor of Objectivism, though she is no Objectivist. They are not flashy. Their technique might be likened to the aesthetics of one naturally adverse to the cult of personality. Her poetry is incremental rather than linear, and I read much of her work as sprung from her brilliant adaptation of Williams’ variable foot (she wrote one of the most sane defenses of it). I’ve chosen a little poem because my computer has crashed and I am borrowing Emily’s until she wakes up. But this poem shows what I mean in terms of how she breaks, and shapes her poetic line:

Pleasures

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board–

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design. Or a fruit, mamey,

cased in rough brown peel, the flesh
rose-amber, and the seed:
the seed a stone of wood, carved and

polished, walnut-colored, formed
like a brazilnut, but large,
large enough to fill
the hungry palm of a hand.

I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow

in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

Denise Levertov

End of Lifed

The angels, those constant followers, stay dumb to metaphors, deafer to jokes. Outside firm circles, however, the idea of decay as a transitional state meets with uncommon success. Props and shout-outs to the flesh, the flesh, and the flesh for keeping caps on myth-proliferation, though experts trouble to isolate origins, what wags what. Planets, Virgins, Eternal Recurrence: done it, done it, doing it. And The Bosom of Abraham: don’t get me started. The same assholes who bully us here will bully us there, in much tighter quarters, and management will, predictably, console us with loopholes and pleas for patience. Maybe some species of bliss—let’s hope we can dream—can be found in that queer and crowded place, but where neither release nor hygiene nor the world wide web are guaranteed, there can be no rest. As we speak, exegetes elsewhere defend that extratextual innovation but number-one-requested feature, a front-gate greeting with St. Peter (tunnel of light, no charge) within minutes of the last onset’s end. I am like you: just give me my goddam wings.

_______________________________________________
John Estes directs the Creative Writing Program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. He is the author of Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve (Poetry Society of America, 2009), which won a National Chapbook Fellowship.

This poem originally appeared in Ginosko #13

Christopher Phelps said something interesting about Buber and the cult of personality. He tied it into the poetry scene, which makes it especially interesting to me (You could also tie it into a certain extent with why indie bands muted the role of the singer in the grunge era, still do to a certain extent by making the lyrics purposely subsumed into the overall mix, but this, to me leads only to fake humility–and inaudible lyrics–which is the height of arrogance).

Still, I had to go back to my Buber (which anyone who had me at Arts High knows I talked of incessantly): I equate his take on the cult of personality with insistence on a self as personage rather than as person–the self as set off apart from the dynamic of communion between I and thou, I and you, and I and it–the self as commodity, as product, as a sort of ongoing “value: the personality that says there is only I, me. This is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s despair which insists on the self, on “me, myself and I” (in Kierkegaard there are three despairs: the despair of being one’s self, the despair of not being one’s self, and the sickness unto death which is a despair so deep the person is not even aware of it as despair. This last was the despair particular to the Christian burgomasters of Denmark and, by extension, to all middle calls and proper materialists hiding under the sign of Christ).

When I read Buber speaking against the cult of personality, I immediately heard the voice of James from the Epistles, and understandably, because Buber is a great teacher, a rabbi in the truest sense, and the traditions of the reb is exactly the style James is written in–most especially the Rabbi as instructor on the relationship between shema and mitzvah–exactly the I/Thou relationship.

In Shema/mitzvah one is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self–a love based not on personality, not on a cult of personages, a love based not even on family ties, but on an extension of the Shema to all sentient life as embodying the Torah–Isaiah’s dictum of “God does not require burnt offerings, but a contrite and loving heart, a broken spirit, (broken meaning as bread) and good deeds done for the poor, the widow and the orphan”.
Within this context, Buber joins a rich tradition of Jewish rabbinical teaching against the idol worship of personages, Buber and Soren and Simone Weil, and just about all mystics and deeply moral spiritual leaders teach against the cult of personality in this respect (the irony is how the rabbinical tradition often became in the diaspora exactly that: a cult of personality). Buber and James sound very much alike in this respect, qouting James:

My brothers, show no respect for personages as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and fine clothes comes into your assembly and a poor person n shabby clothes also comes in and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say: “Sit here, please, while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my feet”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It was with this epistle in my heart, that I ran a poetry reading for 16 years. I always saw a poetry reading as a place where the field was evened, and personages would be dissolved into a communal act–a bread breaking, as what the slammers now call a third round, but which I called the open. A feature was not superior, but a presider with the host of the reading in a meaningful ceremony of honoring the “guest” among us, and that guest was, for that moment, a distillation of all we were enacting: a ceremony of presence, The guest should be one who could be present among us–a word among us, but he or she should not be above or better than or superior to us, although, while they were our guest, we should treat them with respect and dignity and attention. This guest should ideally rise up from among us, or be the “other” come to visit the community. The laws of Xenia applied to my idea of the poetry reading and both feature (guest presbyter with the MC of the reading) and the community who came out for the reading at obligations of hospitality that vanquished the cult of personality:

The reader was to be “present” among us–to preside as it were with the host in the meaningful enactment of this ceremony known as a reading.

The reader was never to over read, but to read just enough to establish a presence and to honor the dynamic between presbyter and community. The host was to make everyone feel welcomed, to show no partiality, to honor the guest by being generous. And so the guest received a gift (there should always be an honorarium, a giving from the community) and the guest in return gave his or her presence–not only by featuring, but by staying for the open and hearing the others, being among the others.

The community should be responsive to the guest. In the open, no one should be long winded or selfish or take the spot of the other. The host should be responsive to the poems as in an almost call and response. There should be either a break between the feature and open, or after the reading in which people are invited to break bread. There should be no respect for persons (the cult of personality), but there should be deep respect for self and other through communion and creation of a meaningful ceremony.

What I liked about poetry readings in the 70s and 80s was that it was the only place in the whole of my society where I saw rich and poor, old and young, ugly and sexy, mentally ill and normatives dissolved into an act of community–and without family or a wedding or a church being at the center of it. It was exactly the absence of the cult of personality that I admired and recognized a dimension of shema/mitzvah through. Features arose from the opens. Features stayed to hear the other poets. This is how I was heard and approached by Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. These “personages” would stay and listen. They came over to me and gave me a kind word–for no other reason than that they recognized something in my poetry. I was treated with kindness, as it should be…

This has disappeared. In academia, opens are frowned upon and the featured poet becomes an act of conspicuous display–a temporary “idol” and in regular series, asshole features leave before the open as if they were too good to hear the others. Meanwhile people in the open over read (this was always a problem) or show up only after the feature has read (or leave after the open if the open comes first). Work shops are far more enmeshed in the cult of personality because everyone is there to have their work “seen” and to say they took a work shop “with.” Seen and with are deadly to community. Buber is right about that.

I have a vision for readings in which everyone is welcome–in which 80 year olds and teenagers, good poets and bad poets, normatives and crazies meet on equal footing because, in the ceremony of bread, in James and Buber, your “personage” is what you leave behind when you enter the temple. Slams blaspheme against this spirit with their own terrible enforcement of hierarchy. Slam grew out of the spoken word scene I came out of–bar readings, readings where anyone from a prof to a wino could sign up on the list and read. The “third round” is a pale ghost of this era. Slam is utterly caught up in the cult of personality, even with team poems. In this respect, Buber is apt.

When I ran the Baron Arts Center with Deborah Laveglia and Edie Eustace, we took money out of our own pockets to supplement readings. The same people showed up as regulars year after year. And sometimes there were thirty or more people going back to the diner after the reading. I came to love some of them, to be friends, and some died and I mourned. The features were both outside the regulars and from the regulars. Everyone who came each month eventually featured.

It was community in the way Buber intended it–beyond the cult of personality. Of course we knew certain poets were more talented than others, and, without snobbery, we appreciated them as such. We all loved Joe Salerno who came every month, but Joe loved people back, and could remember lines of people’s poems. I knew I was part of a meaningful ceremony, every time I put the key in the lock and hit the code to disable the alarm at the center. I knew it was the early May reading because the Lilacs would be in bloom outside the door.

After the reading, we often went to the diner, and sometimes we didn’t go home until almost dawn. I miss this. This made life a little more tolerable. It was what church was supposed to be and never was. Perhaps I am old and stupid, but without this, work shops and features and awards just seem maniacal, and sociopathic. I feel I am in some stupid brag factory where snobbery and “professionalism” are mass manufactured. Everyone is an award winning poet. Everyone is so and so at so and so. In our series, I used to make the bios up on the spot–in order to disrespect the gravitas of personality.

I once told the people at Baron the poet Adele Kenny was my ex wife (just for fun) and that we were working out our grudges and coming to an understanding. I responded to poems in the call and response tradition of my youth. I did not get involved in this to become famous. I got involved to have somewhere I could go where I felt welcomed and where I could practice my art. I find no place like this anymore.

I know a great deal about many aspects of poetry, but that’s not the point. I hate grade A student thinking which is always, always, always, about being a personality. I want to manifest the shema/mitzvah–the I/thou. That’s hard to do when everything is lost in “Studied with” “went to” and won such and such. Joe Weil–not the personality but the host who brought disparate things and people together, who believed in the motley is dead–replaced by who?

Christopher Phelps really got me thinking. It would be nice to feel that way again. I live with a wonderful poet, but this is not about intimacy (that’s based on personal affinity). I need communitas. Maybe because I’m extraverted? Who the hell knows.

.

Late in the forest I did Cupid see
_____Cold, wet, and crying, he had lost his way,
_____And being blind was farther like to stray:
_____Which sight a kind compassion bred in me,

I kindly took and dried him, while that he,
_____Poor child, complained he starved was with stay,
_____And pined for want of his accustomed prey,
_____For none in that wild place his host would be,

I glad was of his finding, thinking sure
_____This service should my freedom still procure
_____And in my arms I took him then unharmed

Carrying him unto a myrtle bower
_____But in the way he made me feel, his power,
_____Burning my heart who had him kindly warmed.

______________________________________________
Lady Mary Wroth was an English poet of the Renaissance. She wrote The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, the first extant prose romance by an English woman, and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the first known sonnet sequence by an English woman.

Not too long ago, blessed with my usual late summer/fall insomnia, I woke up at 2 in the morning and knew I would not be going to bed again anytime soon. I’d fallen asleep at 11, and so I’d had the 3 hours most insomniacs know, are just enough to preclude any further hours of sleep. The next day I would be at the university from 10 until 7:30 at night. I resigned myself to this state of affairs, and wrote a diatribe against vacuity which I then erased. I read some Lorca. I wondered why they had made Brad Pitt, buff as he may have been, Achilles. I searched for my old video of Kalifornia since for some perverse reason, movies about serial murderers or bad action films lull me to sleep. Brad Pitt is much better in Kalifornia, and I decided it was not his lack of physical stature, but of gravitas that made him a bad Achilles. Around three I heard my infant daughter cry. Clare was up and about and I was grateful. The loneliness of thee night was enormous and I had run out of things to dither over.

At almost nine months, the top of her head still smells, for no reason at all, like timothy grass. She was drunk with sleep, but waking from it, and her cry was visceral–the sound of a child caught between worlds, which is about the same as when she manages to crawl under the coffee table and get stuck there–plaintive, sharp, and impossible to ignore.

I lifted her from her crib, felt her burrow into my heart as we bumped down the carpeted stairs. I tried to put her down on the soft carpet to sleep while I watched the sort of television my wife nixes, but she wailed whenever I let go of her. I was secretly happy that I meant that much to Clare at this moment because, being selfish, I didn’t want to be without the feel of her against me. Soon, very soon, she is going to be far more autonomous and I might even prove an embarrassing figure–someone she quickly passes by in the hall on her way to more acceptable folks.

Because of her need, which was raw, and immediate, and not really like her, I held her the way I have not been able to when she is awake since she was a newborn: head cradled in my left palm, neck and shoulders supported by my forearm, my other arm cradling and supporting my left. I rocked her, cooed, rocked some more, put her down, saw her wake and wail, picked her up, kissed her forehead, and, finally, when I was able to lie on the living room carpet with her, and she had recovered the equilibrium of being fully awake, she reached out for my lower lip, wrenched it (with a little too much bravado) and said: dah dah. When I recovered my lip from her strong little death grip, I said: “Yes, it’s da da. Wannuh, watch Goodfellas or Mad Men on Netflix?” She decided to answer by lovingly gouging one of my eye balls. I decided this meant Mad Men. We watched four consecutive episodes until the Netflix developed a glitch, and the first hint of dawn came to the picture window. By that time, she was asleep, her mother was asleep, and I was floating through a depiction of the 1960s.

To abide with this daughter is deeper than any understanding. Forget understanding. Forget mystery, too. This sort of love is the closest I will ever get to being the shadow of a great stone–something still, and stolid and beyond both understanding, and mystery–a presence, a weight that does not need to be lifted, and is no weight at all. When my wife came down the stairs, I kissed her, explained that I stayed down stairs so as not to wake her with my insomnia, and the baby awoke as if on cue, for her banana with cereal. Clare had slept soundly on the carpet. I think like her dad, she loves floors (you can’t fall from a floor). Her mother lifted her slightly above her head to do the sniff test (pee and poop are recurrent themes in our house) took her up to be changed. I got my computer ready for work, my syllabi, my mind–all in readiness, but, for the first time in years and years, perhaps since I was little, the awful dread of the first day of school overwhelmed me. Leaving, I hesitated, stalled. I held both my wife and Clare in my arms, and, since Clare has the good sense to avert her baby cheeks from my scraggly beard, I whispered to her: “I love you. Thanks for the hang.”

on falling in love

I love how you burst through the door
and look around. I love how bad you are
at hiding the fact that you’re trying to find me—
and how trapped I feel when you’re nearby.

I love how when you see me your mouth
falls open, how another mouth extends
from within the first mouth, both mouths
drooling, like you want to bite my head off,

literally crush me in an extended hug,
take me back to your nest and secure me
in jelly-like tentacles. It turns out you do.
These are just some of the things I love about you,

Alien. I’m not even sure of your gender,
but in the heat of the moment, does it matter?

______________________________________________
Aaron Belz is the author of two books of poetry, The Bird-Hoverer and Lovely, Raspberry. A third collection, Glitter Bomb, is forthcoming in 2014. Belz lives in North Carolina and also writes sweet essays and reviews sometimes.

“Dear Mark” by Martin Rock
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1936767199

When teaching poetry to middle school students, “ekphrasis” was often our go-to source of instant inspiration. Many kids freeze at open writing, and actively rebel against instructions (rightfully so), but when presented with an image, film, song, or other piece of art to write against, opinions would fly and reflect around the room.

Which isn’t to say that ekphrastic writing is easy. As something to dig from, great lines can be mined, but there’s no guarantee. To really connect with a work, to entwine your contribution as inseparably as possible, is a next-level challenge for the ekphrastic writer. With Dear Mark, a chapbook recently published by the Brooklyn Arts Press, poet Martin Rock opens a dialogue with the work of visual artist Mark Rothko, with engaging results.

One of the barriers of ekphrastic writing can be the need for the reader to have both artistic elements in front of them. A great piece seeks to surpass this boundary, creating something that doesn’t require standing on the shoulders of another work, though the context may still be helpful or at least interesting. Each of Rock’s poems stems from a single Rothko painting, from 1949 through 1968. These paintings are often easily summed up by their titles, like No. 20, Deep Red and Black and are composed of squares and rectangles atop other squares and rectangles, pure shapes distilled into abstraction.

Rock takes the inspired move of providing simple line drawing recreations of the paintings and utilizing their titles as those of his poems as well. The discussion between works is then more accessible for the reader, though of course these aren’t facsimiles of Rothko’s paintings. In fact, they’re further abstracted and simplified, no stand-ins for the real things. But even these shadows of the work that Rock is referencing and engaging can be of immense assistance to the reader of this chapbook.

Rock’s goals are separate from Rothko’s. Hence the title, Dear Mark, indicating that these are correspondences rather than direct interpretations. For each poem, the text confronts the painting, and the reader can flick between them to see how the poem is influenced. Then again, while useful and interesting, Rock’s poems more than stand on their own.

The future has four horizons:
_______________the Gate,
_____the Echo, the Landlord,

&the Mansion.
_______________Open the incinerator
_____that is your mouth

&and we shall enter as bread.

~from Blue, Green, & Brown, 1952

Rock finds horizons, open spaces, structures, mouths, and much more in the boxes Rothko provides. These could be general interpretations, arguably any object could be drawn from such general shapes, but Rock isn’t looking to make 1:1 relationships. His poems aren’t equally abstract as the paintings, but unlimited nonetheless, looking to create their own realities and exist within them. His language jumps from sentence to sentence, creating boxes within them, the threads between tangential at best but of course related by their very juxtaposition.

As Rothko’s paintings are almost all structure, Rock abandons narrative as a framing device and instead alights on imagination:

a segment of the worm
__________that eats through the body.

The ancients painted themselves,
__________their walls: one vanished

into the other. We watch
__________them move through the screen,

each one of the faces
__________tormented to be the sky.

You have disappeared
__________a feral cat into the pain.

~from Ochre & Red on Red, 1954

The conversation may be one sided, but Rock isn’t interested in merely interpreting Rothko’s paintings. He engages with them, contributes his own poetic flair, and takes and gives equally from his source material. He writes of the absurd, the internal, the local, from sources other than Rothko as denoted throughout the book, drawing together a nexus of influence to bring about sharp, multi-faced poems.

The mushroom cloud
is also a clown face
& a skeleton dances
to an invisible marionette

~from Untitled, 1957

The mushroom clown, the skeleton puppet, a morbid circus that expresses the anxiety of contemporary life, we see that Rock isn’t limiting himself to Rothko’s painting. His experience, thoughts, and imagination are weaving with Rothko, creating vivid poetry that’s all his own, even if it would have been impossible without Rothko’s input.

Prologue

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for a new theatre piece for which I’ve written both the script and music. For me, rehearsals have always been a time of exciting discovery and profound disappointment. This time is no different. No matter how I try to impart the music in my head, be it written on the page or modeled in my voice or on the piano, I’ve got to accept all that’s inevitably lost in the process—all that won’t make it from my imagination and into the ensemble’s performance.

Publishing a poem is similarly fraught, isn’t it? Poets have intentions as they write. And I’ve got to believe that even the most hermetic or self-assured poet, alike, wants to communicate something specific, has intentions, whatever they might be. Readers will likely recognize some of those intentions but it’s unlikely that those intentions will bear upon the reader in the same way. A poem I intend as a meditation on an age-old civil war might have in it something to suggest to a reader that the poem is primarily about the imperfections of love. Works of art and literature are vessels people fill with their own concerns.

This October, I’ve offered up four poems. And I asked that the poets read them (or have them read) on video. I hope you’ll double your pleasure interacting with their work by listening to the poems being read aloud in a voice other than the one in your head. Quite frankly, the commingling is sure to be exciting and, if not disappointing, a disruption. But I have no idea if the disruption began when the poet started writing the poem or when you encountered it.

Tiny Fires

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____________________________________________
Aimee Suzara 
is a Filipino-American poet, playwright, and educator based in Oakland, CA. Suzara’s mission is to create, and help others create, art that builds community, fosters healing, and provokes important questions through spoken word, theater and movement. Her debut full-length poetry book, SOUVENIR, is forthcoming in 2014.  Suzara’s poems have been published in two chapbooks, including one nominated for the California Book Award; and journals and anthologies such as Kartika Review, Lantern Review, and Walang Hiya (Without Shame)literature taking risks towards liberatory practice (Arkipelago Books 2009).  She has been invited as a featured poet and arts educator at schools, universities and arts venues nationally, including Mt. Holyoke College, Portland State University, Stanford University, and UC Santa Cruz. Her first play, Pagbabalik (Return) was twice the recipient of the Zellerbach Arts Fund and was featured at several Bay Area festivals. Her current play in progress, A History of the Body, has been awarded the East Bay Community Fund Matching Commission, the Oakland Cultural Funding Program grant, National Endowment for the Arts grant, and Zellerbach Arts Fund.  She recently collaborated as a writer and performer with Amara Tabor-Smith’s Deep Waters Dance Theater for the Creative Work Fund recipient Our Daily Bread and was a member of Kreatibo, a queer Pin@y arts collective, whose 2004 play was selected for Curve Magazine’s Best Lesbian Theater Award. Suzara has a Mills College M.F.A. and teaches Creative Writing and English at Bay Area colleges, currently, she is a lecturer at Cal State University Monterey in the Creative Writing and Social Action Program. Suzara has been a Hedgebrook Resident Artist, an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts Playwriting Program, and has been a part of PlayGround at Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Writer’s Pool for the 2012-2013 and current season.  www.aimeesuzara.net