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Poetry and Poetics

Here’s a story right up my blogging alley. I’ve written quite a bit in the past on translation (about Horace and ESL/film), as well as bit on technology and language. I wrote about how Google used the insights of Wittgenstein to overcome the problem of polysemy in search, but ended questioning whether Google could ever overcome the complexities of poetry. Turns out Google has been laboring away at creating a machine translator of poetry.

If I understand it correctly, the poetry translator basically layers several poetic constraints on top of the standard translator: line length, rhyme, meter, etc. Google’s translator uses what Jaron Lanier calls a “brute force” approach to translation. That is, it doesn’t know the rules of grammar—it doesn’t even really have a dictionary. Rather, it scours its database and determines statistical correlation between translations of pages. Put another way, it imitates by means of statistical analysis.

Meta-lord of the cloud-lords of meta of!

Questions of quality aside (i.e., let’s assume Google can be completely successful and create passable—even good poetry translations), would you really prefer Google’s translations Rimbaud over, say, Ashbery’s? Aside from needing a translation in a pinch, I can only imagine an interest in Google’s translation that is analogous to the Turing test: an interest that asks the question “If I didn’t know—could I tell the difference between the results of computer and human translation?”

I have been reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget over the last few weeks. He makes a convincing point that Turing’s test is essentially the wrong question. Part of the function of asking “can it fool us?” is a desire to find a computer that can. As a result, we’re essentially willing to dumb down our expectations of what it means to be human in hopes we’ve created machines that think. Ironically, it’s our very human desires that make the Turing test fail. The real judge of the Turing test should be a computer with a merciless set of criteria. No doubt somebody, somewhere has already realized this, and there is a computer slaving away at creating and judging its own intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud. Google doesn’t read. To say that it does would actually change the definition of reading, wouldn’t it? Reading implies not a functional end (e.g., Ashbery produces a translation of Rimbaud), since it can exist without a functional end (e.g., Ashbery reads Rimbaud in French).

Perhaps more importantly, Google doesn’t even use language in a way that we recognize as language. Some animals use what we would rightly be called protolanguage. They can acquire a vocabulary, and perhaps even use it in creative ways (I heard a story once about an ape that put two words together to ask for a watermelon: “candy water” or something along those lines). At best, though, animals can only mash together vocabulary, without what we could refer to as “syntax.” Syntax is the ability not only to acquire vocabulary, but to manipulate it according to a deeper intelligence that categorizes vocabulary. It’s the difference between “Micah smile” and “Micah smiles.” The latter indicates not only the fact that I have associated one thing with another (the action of smiling with the word “smile”), but that I can categorize it as a verb and thus deploy it in a sentence (oh the difference an “s” makes). This syntactic ability expands when we think about relative clauses, which nest and hierarchize ideas. We even have words for pure functions of language (e.g., articles). Animals are unable to do this (unless, of course, you’re teaching a gorilla that it will die someday—perhaps death is the motivator of syntax!). Google uses statistical analysis to achieve a kind of protolanguage at best. At best, it “learns” (a word also worth an essay) to associate certain phrases with one another. But, unlike animals, it has no will to use them.

All this is to say that there is something uniquely motivating about a person doing something. A Google poetry translation will never make me reconsider my life, except in a purely serendipitous (i.e., accidental) way.

I suppose deep down I am a personalist, believing there is something utterly unique and irreducible about persons. And I worry sometimes that the whole preoccupation with AI actually takes away from the real achievements of Google’s poetry translator: we clever people have found a way to essentially use an on-off switch (0s and 1s) to do something as complex as creating a passable translation of a poem. But as we are humans wont to do, we get distracted, venerating our creation rather than marveling at the deep mystery inside us which motivated us to create it in the first place.

Here’s a quick overview of the project if you’re interested in reading more about it. Here’s an interview about the project from CBC radio (scroll down to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Digital Night”—below that one, there’s also another very interesting interview with a Canadian student who created a computer program to analyze rap lyrics).

In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.

The retrospective sayings of the mystic become the regurgitated maxims of the pedant.

The mystical experience is ineffable, by definition, and yet mystics are invariably compelled to write. What the mystic writes after the fact is not meant to be systematic, comprehensive, or even an accurate representation of his mysticism. But leave it to the gate keepers to ruin the words of another. Pendants pilfer from the mystic’s coffers and reduce those marvelous and contradictory emotions to dogmatic maxims.

A verbal articulation of an entirely non-verbal experience necessarily falls short. What pedants do to the mystic, they also do to the poet. In both cases, clinging to footnotes, journals, and excessive psychoanalysis, the original experience (mystic or poetic) is concealed within a labyrinth of pseudo-intellectual criticism.

An excellent poem appears simple in its complexity, and above all easy in its difficulty. A poem appearing strained or artificial (though it is regularly both) is a failure.

While we marvel at the final product, any thought of the artist is secondary to the immediate experience of excellence. There seems to be something wrong with what so many critics do: reconstructing the scaffolding around the living poem, presenting the sketches and precursory plans for it until the life of the poem is altogether extinguished.

The problem is not what kind of followers performs the investigation, but the mere fact that they are following and not being their own leaders.  Here the singular and spontaneous sayings of the sage are reduced to religion.

Sages like Confucius spoke not absolute maxims but rather what the unique moment demanded, never to be repeated.  King Solomon did not mean for every child to be cut in two, or even for any child to be cut in two. And this is what made him wise: knowing what the present moment demanded and answering its call. What pedantic followers do is corrupt the original spontaneity of saints and sages to magico-mechanical maxims, a readymade “cure” for any situation.

Joe Weil wrote about these asinine “keepers” of a poet’s legacy in his piece The Inward Soul: Dickinson and St. Theresa of Avila:

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins….To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus.

What Christians do now – conservative and liberal – is to obsess over historical fact and both ignore the admonition to unconditional Love. I hope Ananda Coomaraswamy proves right: “Most likely Christianity also in the near future will succeed in breaking the ‘entangling alliance’ of religion and history, from which the mystics have already long emerged. There cannot be an absolute truth which is not accessible to direct experience.” We do not need the mediation of history or criticism to encounter what is omnipresent.

The “gate keepers” of religion and of poetry are one and the same.  The pedantic critic is blind, leading others into a pit of his own creation. The pedant (since he cannot see) ensures that no one else can see. The critic gouges out the eyes of the other. Similarly, Jesus condemned the false knowledge of the Pharisees: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Followers soften the ferocious words of the ones they follow into palatable household sayings – comfortable, no longer feral, no longer dangerous, no longer potent.  Civilized critics attempt to tame the God/Beast in the poet, saint, or prophet. It is the domestication of the saints which gnaws at the heart of this household idolatry. Their vitiated words may be present in a home, but their spirit is long absent.  No longer appalled, we are encouraged. By making these words ordinary and robbing them of all strangeness, we are robbed of actually encountering those words at all.

Daniel Silliman’s excellent blog captures this very spirit:

[R]ather than easy adoration, the first response to St. Francis would be to feel appalled, threatened and offended. It would mean wanting to tell St. Francis he’s wrong, wanting to disagree, wanting to fight.

What the sage says is not immediately tasteful. In fact, if you are not offended, you are probably no longer reading what that sage is saying. When Jesus is reduced to a comfortable position thanks to extensive speculative theology, we cease to hear his revolutionary sayings. In the same way, Siddhartha too is reduced to a God-man by lay buddhists and clergy alike – Jesus, Siddhartha, and Dickinson are all worshiped, but none are taken seriously.

Who actually hears the words of Jesus anymore? Perhaps it’s only those who have never heard all the retrospective explanations of Jesus who can hear him authentically.

Those who bastardize the spontaneous sayings of saints into comfortable maxims for coffee mugs make me want to kick them in the shins. I want to kick worshipers precisely because they make me not want to kick saints in the shins.

It’s not just others who do this (though it is, also) it’s always that clinging ego that is always mine which prevents me from encountering the words in front of me.  That egoic character might be in an Other, but that ego is always “mine” and solution is found in the spirit of the saints and sages.  To blame someone else for preventing me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven is for me to prevent myself. The best science occurs when ego is suspended (when “I” am removed from the equation). The most difficult thing to do is simply to let things be as they are.

When Jesus addresses the “rich young man” (in possessions, in knowledge, in morality), it is not simply physical possessions but the very sense of “mineness” which prevents the man from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only by dying to self that we can enter heaven or enter a poem.

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” It is always only the “least of these” who can enter the kingdom of heaven. The weak, the ignorant, the poor – these are those who, because they have so little in terms of worldly possessions, can suspend their everyday sense of self and encounter the world as it really is: they can see Jesus, and they can read a poem.

If I suspend my ego, I can, at times, be transported into the work before me – despite the residue of criticism. It’s not easy to do the simplest of things.

And then Jesus is criticizing me and no one else, St. Francis provokes the self-defensive urge to kick his shins, and Dickinson I forget as long as I read her poems.

Seattle likes to pride itself on being one of America’s Most Literate Cities. I pay attention to these annual pronouncements for about 2 minutes when they inevitably make the news, or are posted on Facebook, and Seattle’s usually up there with Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The thinking is that, what else are you going to do when it’s cloudy for the 99th day in a row? That’s also the excuse for the coffee consumption and suicide rate in Seattle, so locals can have their evening planned right off.

What interests me, however, is despite how literate it’s supposed to be here, Seattle got stuck in Modernism. Oh, we’re already way past the postmodern era in some ways, like when NPR interviewers with straight faces talk about how we’ll have a better quality of life in the future when we alter our genetics through some kind of bio-technology expertise. (Though I think that’s an extension of a modernist point of view. But a lot of people here buy that shit.) But when it comes to poetry, until recently, Seattle might as well have been in 1911. What’s interesting about this is that you might try to write that off as the West Coast of North America being a younger “civilization” than the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Montreal, etc. But that leaves out San Francisco, with it’s Beat poets (a bridge from the modern to the postmodern) the Berkeley Renaissance (the first flowering of the postmodern on the West Coast) and the strong Language Poetry tradition. Not my cup of verse, but they (LangPoets) were trying for something different and many succeeded, though only time will sort out the wheat from the chaff there.

The notion of the West Coast as younger and less developed also leaves out Vancouver, which ate up postmodernism as soon as it started showing up there in the late 50s and early 60s with TISH and later the Kootenay School of Writing. Hell, Vancouver poet George Bowering half-jokes that Canada skipped right over modernism!

Portland had its Reed College innovators Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Leslie Scalapino. In the past decade the Spare Room series has given that town something exciting and Emily Kendall Frey’s new “occasional salon” The New Privacy promises to be open and innovative. Powell’s Books is, of course, a legendary indy bookstore and there are many interesting Portland magazines and presses, including the self-proclaimed maker and destroyer of books, Matt Stadler’s Publication Studios.

Seattle has had the UW, Theodore Roethke, Caroline Kizer, Richard Hugo, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, Sherman Alexie and a good many modernist poets who must be respected for their contribution, for their time in the vineyard, as it were, if not for their innovation. The UW has always been disconnected from the community outside the Blue Moon Tavern and some readings at the Hugo House, but that’s about it. Even Denise Levertov, who wrote some beautiful poems about Mount Rainier in her late life when she lived in Seattle, reverted to more of a modernist aesthetic when she lived here. Maybe it’s the water, or the legendary “Seattle Nice.” Google that, scroll past the inevitable airline ads and see what I mean by that phrase. It’s a veil for repressed anger, mostly and anger is often confused with passion and intensity, essential ingredients in innovative art. Lord, let’s not have any of that here! they (the locals) must think.

But what we lack in innovation (& there’s some of that here now, more later in this piece) we make up for in our connection to the East. There is a higher Asian population in Seattle than in East Coast cities. Two great quotes say it better than I can about this dynamic:

If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.

– Andrew Schelling

… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…

– Kenneth Rexroth

We know the Western cosmology of competition and domination has failed and is dying in a large way, perhaps taking humans (and many other species) with it. So it is only in this in this neck of the woods that we’d find someone like Sam Hamill, who has done much translation of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry, including what’s perhaps the quintessential translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. It is a book which resonates with Seattle in so many ways. Sam’s never lived in Seattle, per se, but has been a presence here for 30+ years because he founded Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend. His latest, Habitations shows a deep sense of place, a deep Zen aesthetic and may be the best thing he’s ever done. And his work is rich with duende, content-wise, and seems to be just this side of the line that separates modernism and post-mod.

As for readings in Seattle, you have mostly the modernist-type affairs. The city’s writing center The Richard Hugo House, mostly follows a mainstream path, and has been turning toward a slam aesthetic to court younger attendees. Their Cheap Wine and Poetry Series packs their cafe every session and a spin-off, Cheap Beer and Prose has a similar popularity and in-your-face New York attitude, thanks to transplant Brian McGuigan. How cool is it that they’re sponsored by PBR? (Sing with me: What’ll ya have Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But it’s rarely made new there, but tends to be poetry as entertainment. Elliott Bay Books has been re-born in a new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, but the new reading room suffers from the footsteps of book browsers on the floor above. Still the offerings have a wide range as long as there is a book to sell.

Open Books, Seattle’s all poetry bookstore, one of only three in the U.S., has a wide variety of poetics represented and the proprietors are fine poets who know their stuff. A little narrow, room-wise, but that helps create an intimate environment, so turn off your god damned cellphone before you go in there or you’ll set the sprinklers off, or so I’m told.

Seattle Arts & Lectures is the big show in town and they had Robert Creeley once, many years ago, but now gets about as innovative as Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and Martin Espada, modernists all, and quite mainstream. Of course they have to fill bigger halls, but if Seattle were as literate as it claims to be, you think there would be more daring, more of a desire to help lead the masses to something more open and challenging. Here, we claim to love diversity, so grant programs seek out the bland middle of every ethnicity, and these programs tend to turn into EEO affairs and do not push the art forward. In fact one could make a case for the opposite.

Once upon a time there was Subtext. It lasted 15 years and once graced the old Speakeasy Cafe, which is still missed. A tiff with Hugo House, their later stomping grounds, turned them to a venue that was cavernous and off the beaten path and the joy was sucked out of that series. While it lasted it did present the most innovative locals with an out-of-towner. From their blog, gathering digital dust over the last two years, here are but a few of the features:

David Abel, Will Alexander, Charles Alexander Charles Altieri, Rae Armantrout Eric Baus, Dodie Bellamy, Anselm Berrigan, blackhumour, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bok, Curtis Bonney, Charles Borkhuis, George Bowering, Jules Boykoff, Joseph Bradshaw, Jonathan Brannen, David Bromige, Rebecca Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Laynie Browne, Mary Burger, Clint Burnham, Gerald Burns, Avery Burns, David Buuck, Brian Carpenter, Tyler Carter, Maxine Chernoff, Don Mee Choi, Susan Clark, Allison Cobb, Alicia Cohen, Norma Cole, Jen Coleman, Steve Collis, Daniel Comiskey, Lucy Corin, Martin Corless-Smith, Steve Creson, Michael Cross, Peter Culley, Crystal Curry, KT Cutler, Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Christine Deavel.

And this only gets us into the “D’s” so you get the idea. That list looks better with time.

There still is no answer to Red Sky Poetry Theater, a legendary open mic which died in 2005 after a 25 year run, the longest on the West Coast in that time. One person said: “There are a lot of open mics in Seattle, but Red Sky’s a poetry reading.” It was a workshop for many poets, myself included, and regulars included Marion Kimes, Charlie Burks, Paul Hunter, Judith Roche, Willie Smith, Carletta Wilson, Steve Potter, Jesse Minkert, Roberto Valenza, Phoebe Bosche (of Raven Chronicles fame),  Robin Schultz, Belle Randall, Denis Mair (a prodigious translator of Chinese poets), Margareta Waterman (& her own Oregon-based press,Nine Muses), David Whited and others.

Our own SPLAB is a venue that seeks to build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. We have a weekly writer’s critique circle (Living Room) and the visiting poets we’ve had since re-launching in Seattle’s diverse Columbia City neighborhood include Michael McClure, Nate Mackey, C.A. Conrad, Cedar Sigo and Brenda Hillman, so I guess you can stick us in the Black Mountain meets The Salish Sea poetic territory.

The latest glimmers of hope come from three sources. The first is a brand new reading that, according to organizers happens: “in conventionally too-small spaces, occurring around Western Washington. Basements. Attics. Vans. Coffee stands. The head of a pin. Lovingly curated by Graham Isaac and Rachel Hug.” It is called, oddly enough, Claustrophobia. They’ve had only one session, but it is promising. Second is a new indy publishing house called, perfectly, Dark Coast Press, which has threatened to make a splash in the poetry world, but whose soul is that of a poet, Editor Jarret Middleton. Expect them to do big things in poetry. The second glimmer comes from a reading series created by three guys who met at SPLAB and are, would you guess, recent transplants from “back East” as we say. New York, Philly and Virginia by way of Utah, exactly. These guys have collaborated to create The Breadline. (They chose the name months before the Occupy movement created its new Hoovervilles, or Obama-villes we might call them.) Mixing Slam, LangPo, music, Oulipo, Butoh and even the occasional Appalachian story-teller or molecular biologist, this monthly series is wildly popular and is just figuring out how to sustain  itself. An off-shoot of that reading was an homage to John Cage called Communications Silence, which was well-attended and very well-regarded in the local press. It demonstrated that there is a base here for something more real, more daring and more satisfying. Maybe now we’re growing up.

Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)

But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.

But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.

I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?

But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.

And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”

These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.

If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Bob Kaufman. It’s what happened to many of the Beats:


A cincoprhenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry or revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral and whirl.

Rejection of social norms and ideologies is pervasive throughout Bob Kaufman’s work and is represented in the anti-conformity and “rejectionary philosophy” of Abomunism, a thinly veiled term for the beatnik culture of which Kaufman was a part. This process of differentiation comes at a cost, however, alienating the rebel from his cultural and ideological context. This necessitates a search for alternative contexts and discourses to provide interpretative frameworks for experience. One may search outward, looking for principles independent of the rejected ideology. This option is reflected in Kaufman’s interest in eastern philosophy and mysticism, an interest shared by many of the Beats. Alternatively (or additionally), one may turn inward toward the self as a repository of memories and thoughts to reinvent the world in a more holistic, coherent fashion.

The turn inward is complicated, however, by the proliferation of mediated images and experiences of modern society, and the poet finds in himself many aspects of the American social landscape that he longs to escape and transform. Problematically then, the self is implicated in the reality he rejects, and the struggle to transform America becomes approximate to reinventing the self. Thus, the poet finds himself at war with himself as he attempts to contain contradictory identities.

The negative manifestation of this dilemma is the poet’s frustration, which often takes the form of a variety of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and insomnia. Schizophrenia offers an apt trope of the self torn into multiple, conflicted identities, and Kaufman employs the pathology as a metaphor for society as well.

In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between Beat culture and political forces, the “cincophrenic” is the poet himself, one who is at war with himself, thus illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the poet and society. In this poem, poetry exists as protest and results from the conflict between conflicting identities. It is resistance itself (“revenge”) and generates chaotic energy (“cross, spiral and whirl”). Society and the poet are interchangeable frames of reference, and the contradictions of society are manifested in the poet as forms of madness.

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.


…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.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca that could change your life, if your name is Euclid or Bernhard Reimann:


My time
moves on in a spiral.

The spiral
limits my landscape,
leaves what is past in the shadows
& makes me advance
full of doubts.

Oh perfect straight line! Pure
spear without spearman.
How your light turns my solomonic
path into dream!

This little lyric turns a beautiful, minimalistic image into a philosophical meditation. If the spaker is imagined to be in a “landscape,” as he calls it, then it is a Dali-esque landscape. That is, it’s basically a vast desert with just a few important, unusual objects placed in our field vision. We must confront and make meaning of them. Here, we have the spiral and the straight line—two ways of interpreting experience.

The spiral is a mixed bag and quite ambiguous: it brings “advance” but also the discomfort of “doubts.” Does Lorca think “limits” or leaving the past behind are good? Is “advancing” a good thing? Is this a forced march or an existential embrace of the present? The perfect straight line is an ideal. It stands above and beyond time, caught in mid-air, as it were, a “spear without spearman.” But again, ambiguous: it is a “light” that turns the path into “dream”—but is that necessarily good? Is a “solomonic” path better or worse than a dream?

In any case, there’s no clear favoritism, landing us squarely in the dilemma and the paradox of the “real” versus the “ideal.” What is the nature of that relationship? Philosophers have given us little to sort that question out. This poem suggests they are both operative in life and sustain each other in a mysterious paradox. Who can say, though, what straight lines have to do with spirals? What grounds does the speaker have for hoping in the straight line, caught as he is in spiral reality?

Isn’t it curious that “time,” which most people think of as a straight line (or horizontal trajectories) is here called a “spiral”? That’s western thought for you, thinking something is linear when in fact it is curved, cyclical, centrifugal. Most non-European philosophies have something closer to the spiral model. Another thing we tend to think of as linear when it’s really not: writing. We write in spirals, not from start to finish.

A spiral is a corrupted line, a line finding its way back to straightness, its former state. On the other hand, a spiral turns on a center, creates its own gravity and identity. It is a line finding its way back to itself, moving inward and outward simultaneously, “advancing” but “full of doubts.” It “limits the landscape” by cutting itself off with its own curve/past, thus leaving itself behind “in shadows.”

Now re-read that last paragraph substituting “human” for “spiral” and “life” for “line.” Then re-read it, substituting “poetry” for “spiral” and “language” for “line.”

Photo by Marco Munoz.

Christopher Phelps: You mention in the introduction that you “had a hunch these poems existed but could never have imagined their scope.” Was there a specific conversation or event or book that inspired you to put together an anthology of faith-, religion-, spirituality-, belief- and non-belief-themed poems from LGBTIQ poets?

Kevin Simmonds: I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to pursue this, or why, but I’m certain my decision had much to do with Bryan Borland. He started Sibling Rivalry Press and, in my limited interaction with him, I had a strong sense that he could make this anthology possible. Bryan wants to gather and sustain the LGBTIQ community through our literary works. As far as I’m concerned, he’s doing something new in the publishing industry. Unlike many past and current queer publications / publishing houses, SRP actively strives to publish all kinds of writers, regardless of prescribed and more “mainstream” queer sensibilities. I respect and admire that.

CP: You also mention in the introduction that you “have come to prefer faith, which religion scholar Karen Armstrong refers to as ‘the opposite of certainty.’” Doubt has also been referred to as the opposite of certainty. Do you find faith and doubt to be intimately related? Do you think the LGBTIQ communities, in particular, having struggled to find their places in faith communities, are naturally positioned to write poetries that explore a connection between faith and doubt?

KS: Anyone who considers any kind of religion, especially those who grew up in the church, mosque, synagogue, coven, temple—wherever—should experience doubt. There’s such overwhelming hypocrisy, inconsistency, unanswered, unanswerable or badly answered questions. And being LGBTIQ generates more questions that are badly answered, modeled hypocritically by spiritual leaders and their respective flocks. It’s all a mess, really. As I say in the introduction, love is supposed to be the one common denominator, whether you’re Hindu, Jewish, Pentecostal or Muslim. When love and all its fruit come into question, you know you have a problem. A serious problem.

LGBTIQ people have been uniquely positioned—and “called,” even—to critically observe and then expound upon this messiness. Thankfully, mercifully, poets do their work in this and have been, like, forever. Many, like Whitman, took God back from the haters and re-gifted that Presence to us. Whitman made no distinctions between god and God or, for that matter, man, insect and beast. Others poets, like Seattle-based Crystal Ibarra, look at the God of Christianity and His followers and say, in essence, “piss off.” They distinguish themselves and their cherished beliefs from any capital or lowercase deity.

CP: To hate love is such a strange act, isn’t it? The contradiction of which leads haters to think it can’t be love they hate. So they think it’s sex they hate and that sex is what defines us, not love, and to my thinking this is the most destructive aspect of their hypocrisy (never mind the fact that there’s nothing wrong with the ways we have sex). For if someone is told not to (dare to) speak their love, how can it be known to exist? How can it be counted, let alone discounted? Historically and still, we are those for whom love has been a precarious fact, both a given and a problem: a paradox. In Collective Brightness, there are so many testaments to that love, so many paths into and out of the paradox, so many protean forms: tenderness, probity, irony, wistfulness, playfulness, anger. Some take the love paradox face-first, as in Steve Turtell’s “A Prayer”:

His book has a frayed, twisted ribbon.
Ah, the cover is Bible Black.

They sit opposite me,
a religious group visiting Sin City.

I eat my omelet, homefries, toast.
Halfway through the Book Review

I glance up. One of the boys
is staring right at me. Sadness,

maybe even desire in his glance.
I recognize myself in him,

as he wonders about me.
He is handsome and shy.

And afraid. And alone.
Please God, don’t let them

destroy him. Show him
he is loved and worthy.

Keep him from self-hatred.
Give him enough good fortune

to make him happy, enough
misfortune to make him wise.

Others repurpose the love paradox, as in Oliver Bendorf’s “The First Erasure,” redacted from a Westboro Baptist Church hate letter. Still others subvert it with Whitmanic kindness, as Ellen Bass’s poems do, or with Szymborskan sw(v)erve, as in Ana Božičević’s “Death Is All.” But perhaps my favorite of the Bs is Ari Banias’s “Some Kind of We,” how hard it reaches into the regress, into our bag of bags, to find a hypothetical ‘we’—hanging a lantern on what I love about our contemporary mess, its precariousness peeking out of itself to ask if things might be okay, if we might have some minimum in common:

These churchbells bong out
one to another in easy conversation
a pattern, a deep ringing that wants to say
things are okay,
things are okay—
but things, they are not okay
I can’t trust a churchbell, though I would like to
the way I can trust
that in this country, in every house and in most every
apartment, there somewhere is a cabinet or drawer
where it’s stashed, the large plastic bag
with slightly smaller mashed together plastic bags inside it;
it is overflowing, and we keep adding,
bringing home more than we need, we should have
to weave a three piece suit of plastic bags
a rug, a quilt, a bed of bags even, anything
more useful than this collection this excess
why am I writing about plastic bags, because
it is this year in this country and I am this person
with this set of meanings on my body and the majority of what I have,
I mean, what I literally have the most of in my apartment, more
than plants, more than forks and spoons and knives combined, more than chairs
or jars or pens or books or socks, is plastic bags,
and I am trying to write, generally and specifically,
through what I see and what I know,
about my life (about our lives?),
if in all this there can still be—tarnished,
problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.

Do you think things will be okay? What’s a poet’s political/critical role in this? Is private testimonial enough, or should we be testing our poetries less often in the college cloister and more loudly in the streets?

KS: Life is messy and things will never be OK. That’s my take on it. Yet something deeply observed and felt, something like the paragraphed observation you just made, can be transmitted beyond the “college cloister.” I’m confident of this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gathered all these resilient poets with their mind and spirit-altering poems. I’m their pusher. Remember that term? That’s what they used to call drug dealers back in the day.

I’m mixing metaphors like crazy but we need everything in our love arsenal—Ari’s “we,” Ellen’s wide, wide road, Oliver’s redaction and Steve’s quiet wisdom. Yes, that’s all complete metaphor but we live by assigning meanings to things, don’t we? Oliver turned an ignorant and hateful letter into a hymn…

I can’t speak for anyone but I’m fairly confident that every single poet in Collective Brightness feels called to “minister” to the unenlightened. They do it through their poetry, which is activism. Publishing and doing readings are activism.

We are taking it to the streets. I don’t know of any other anthology—shit, I don’t know of any book—that has a website with all these writers reading their work. And once we start these readings all over the world, there’s no stopping us. And we’re reading outside the rarefied halls of the academy or queer bookstores. We’re reading in museums and churches and temples and Islamic community centers for goodness sake!

CP: How do you feel about the role of poetry itself as argument or rhetoric? Many of the world’s religious documents are written in what is now considered poetry, but most of the fighting about religion happens at the level of prose—literal quotation, formulaic exegesis, anemic analogy. I sometimes wonder if the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and company, might be more persuasive if they stopped using logic exclusively—the quotient of logic in faith is limited—and started using some poetry. (I don’t want to pass along that suggestion because I fear it might work. For disclosure, I’m a questioning agnostic: I like my God unknown, not excised.) Anyway, the argument has been made that the poetries in religions, the moderates among the fundamentalists, are what keeps them alive and kicking, and had religions just been their fundamentalisms, they wouldn’t have survived this long. They would have been simply debunked. But their (mostly undeliberate) “survival strategies” were to moderate themselves, to modulate themselves to the facts. So some atheists think the onus of bad faith is actually on the moderates—on the poetry, so to speak. What are your thoughts on this issue?

KS: Christopher, yes! Some will resent me for this, and I’ve said this before on the record: I consider the imperialists (ethnically or culturally Caucasian)—the people who want to control and enslave and codify—the enemies of poetry. All the unenlightened natives, with their ancient poems and songs and folk tales, know what they know in ways many of us never will. Yes, we need the imperialists for their logic and prose, their science and medicine and all that but not when it’s all wrapped around the throat and smothers those ideas that need and are poetry. Do you understand what I’m saying here? Push the spiritual beyond its poetry into prose and you replace mercy and grace with rules and edicts, healthy uncertainty into… you get what I’m after, don’t you?

As you know, all the poems in the anthology are organized solely by the authors’ surnames. So when something like Jen Hofer’s “Resolved” and Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path” turn up on facing pages, I must raise my arms in surrender and praise! Both poems refuse to codify anything other than, well, the impossibility of pinning anything down. It’s like these poems are in perfect unison. Regarding Fanny, I know of no other contemporary poet who’s written so eloquently about and through apophatic theology, which defines God through negation.

My answers here are very circuitous, aren’t they? I resist talking about poetry as argument and rhetoric. Of course, my own work has its values and those values are obvious, I think. And I leave it at that. I’m interested in where the poems might lead instead of what their intentions might be. This may be unclear because my mind doesn’t work and process that way. I’m convinced that art can exist and function as argument and rhetoric but I don’t concern myself with that. Perhaps it’s because I’m stuck, in my own work, on what I see as two very different enterprises: explaining and expressing. Doesn’t rhetoric require explaining things? Having a complex series of wires? Whereas expressing is more abstract, open to interpretation and gestural? Ha! Do you see how funny this is? I’m returning to an earlier idea about codifying.

Moderates make me sick but the world would be gone without them. My partner is a moderate and he’s kept me from the window sill more times than I care to remember. You should know that I received many, many submissions for Collective Brightness and, honestly, I’m unable to remember any extremists—diagnosed through their poetry, of course. No ALL CAPS and !!!!!!!! or, conversely, those who had given in to apathy. In other words, LGBTIQ poets are survivors. Do you hear me? Survivors. And I’m sure there’s a scientific law or natural order of things that privileges life forms that, though able to survive on the extreme edges of things, subsists and flourishes in more stable and moderate conditions.

CP: Rhetoric need not explain. It need only persuade. But sometimes it explains in order to persuade. I’d tend to agree that rhetoric can get in the way of poetry’s other purposes. I suspect that many poets sometimes discover a rhetorical purpose in one of their poems after it was written, and that’s probably the way it should work. I do like when I feel I can discern at least some of an author’s intentions—so that meaning is shared, rather than separately brought, by writer and reader, to the table—but I also enjoy poetry that subverts intentions. In that mystery, other flowers bloom. I love Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path,” how it speaks in the loveliest of tongues. In section 2 especially but in the whole poem I find a kind of rhetoric manifesting “what isn’t / is what is”—I might call it winning the argument by wiles, by charm. She even wins it by music, her rhymes irresistible because confident but unscripted. I leave that poem utterly convinced that not knowing is the way to know:


Basic science

will blend ghostness
among enemies.

Now bodies cemented

down in monster denominations
to be counted

one of the walking
corpses I see whitening

and emptying
under a sun

makes me know me
to be no one.

But of course a story, simply told, can be powerful rhetoric and testament, too. When I read Joseph Ross’s “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973,” my stomach hurt and I began to sweat. Nothing rhetorical needs adding (if rhetoric is sometimes an afterthought). The story and its context and the lyricism of its unfolding already do the trick:


Someone poured lighter fluid
onto the stairs that rose

from the sidewalk to the bar,
then anointed those slick stairs

with a match, creating a Pentecost
of fire and wind

that ascended the stairs
and flattened the door

at the top, exploding into the room
of worshippers, friends, lovers,

two brothers, their mother.
The holy spirit was silent.

No one spoke a new language.


Some escaped. Many died with
their hands covering their mouths.

One man, George, blinded by smoke
and sirens, his throat gagged

with ash, got out and then
went back for Louis, his partner.

They were found, a spiral
of bones holding each other

under the white
baby grand piano

that could not save them.


Then came the jokes.
A radio host asked:

What will they bury
the ashes of the queers in?

Fruit jars, of course.
One cab driver hoped

the fire burned their
dresses off.

I think of the statement William Carlos Williams made in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.” Are there poems of especially fine storytelling that have caused a physical reaction in you?

KS: Joseph’s poem is striking because it’s so polyphonic. I appreciate poems that can manage poetry, storytelling and historical reportage simultaneously. I had a feeling Williams’s quote would make its way into this conversation. It had to.

The anthology is bursting, really, with poems erecting mythic stories and willing the reader into sublimity. Read that any way you’d like. Edward Debonis’s “Sacred Heart,” Amy Tudor’s “What We Love,” Dan Bellm’s “Brand new” and Moe Bowstern’s “I Give Up” transform the reader—simply by virtue of the momentary reading. The engagement, itself, must emit something into the universe: a heat, a wave, something measurable. And we mustn’t forget Benjamin Grossberg’s “Beetle Orgy,” from which the collection’s title is taken. We are exalted when he writes:

and God, also, comes to some knowledge
as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased
by the collective brightness of human skin. . . .

CP: “Willing the reader into sublimity”—I really like that. It does seem like willing, in at least two senses, is at the heart of both surviving suffering and salvaging from it. “I Give Up” strikes me as a powerful meditation that willed the writer (then reader) into sublimity:

Their wingbeats on the water
Sound like applause,
Like forgiveness.

Speaking of erecting mythic stories, how wonderfully taut is Joseph Legaspi’s “The Homosexual Book of Genesis”? And I’m glad you mentioned “Beetle Orgy,” a poem of such well-tended analogy: our being the accidental god of beetles, and not so different from them; God being like us, curious, distracted, pleased.

God leaning over the house on a casual tour
of the wreck of the world, noticing ornamentation
where it wasn’t expected.

May I ask my question in the form of an exclamation point?

KS: Joseph’s Genesis poem is funny, isn’t it? There are many other funny poems. R. Zamora Linmark’s “Bino And Rowena Make a Litany to Our Lady of the Mount” slays. And Megan Volpert’s tinybig poems are incredibly funny and deep. Here is “A place without work is no heaven to me”:

Sometimes during orgasm I see the faces of dead friends. They are waving and smiling with laughter from up and across, happy I have checked in by flinging a moment of condensed purity over the wall between us. I believe they are working as much as I am, finishing business and settling their accounts. Glad as I am to see them, sometimes one of these faces disappears where I can’t get it back again, and I celebrate that they have found enough peace to get recycled. Whatever the methods, a soul is the part of humanity that is a perpetual motion machine.

Compare those to Atsusuke Tanaka’s “Like a Fruit Floating on Water” and Seung-Ja Choe’s “I, From Early On,” two poems that are anything but funny. Rather, they are profoundly sad.

CP: I love how differently two people can read the same poem. You read Legaspi’s poem as funny, and I read it as ingeniously plangent: a tight little lyric, turning Genesis on its nose, and arriving at desire redoubled, with that choice word suggesting natural inevitability, “calcified.” I really enjoyed Volpert’s funnyserious, tinybig, prosepoetic epigrams, too. And to your list of funny poems, I have to add my favorite, Jill McDonough’s “My History of CPR,” which doesn’t resist being poignant in the midst of its humor:

In the 1700s, once we could print stuff, a guy
in the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned
posted broadsides like our cartoon Heimlich how-tos,
except they used fs for ss, suggested blowing
smoke up the patient’s ass. For real: somebody
should blow with Force into the Lungs, by applying
the Mouth to the Mouth of the Patient, closing his Nostrils
with one hand, while somebody else should throw the smoke
of Tobacco up the Fundament into the Bowels,
by means of a Pipe. At least they used a pipe.
That broadside says if you want to make mouth to mouth
less indelicate, it may be done through a Handkerchief.
Now I go to the movies, see Clive Owen punch
a fresh corpse in the chest. Human, angry with death,
at the dead, our puny lives. Imagine the first
time that worked, the look on the cavewoman’s face
when her cavehusband coughs a little, blinks, comes to.
Of course you’d hit the corpse, of course you’d try
to force air in, breath for the beloved, the lost
one, reverse everything. In Second Kings
Elijah mouth to mouthed a little boy,
revived him—maybe the first medical record,
first EMT: he put his mouth on his mouth,
his eyes on his eyes, and the flesh of the child waxed warm.

I’ve heard that some poetry workshops advise against that sort of thing. . . What’s the mantra? Be straight with your tone? (Homophone your tone?) I think I prefer my tones queer. Are there moments of tonal ambiguity in the anthology that you find particularly successful?

KS: Frankly, it’s difficult to write a funny poem. And today, there is no shortage of smart-alecky poems, which I find off-putting, juvenile and entirely forgettable. Megan, especially, seems to be a funny, razor-sharp person, so her poems happen to be funny. She’s not trying to be funny. There’s a difference. Collective Brightness is rife with poems that amplify the ironical. Irony is hilarious.

Choe’s poem is hideously dark and bleak and the dismal extremity makes me laugh. I’m familiar with Korean culture and it’s intense. Koreans feel and express very deeply. Yet, as an American, when faced with such absolute bleakness in a poem, a first-person lament like that, I can’t help but laugh. To be that down on your life and write about it. Do you understand where I’m coming from? The poem is much like one of David’s psalms. The sheer fact that the person has the wherewithal to write at all is cause for praise and thankfulness. From Choe’s “I, From Early On”:

No parents raised me
I slept in rat holes and fed on the livers of fleas
Blankly going to my death, anywhere would do,
I was nothing from early on.

We brush by each other
like falling comets, so
don’t say that you know me.
I don’t know you I don’t know you
You thee thou, happiness
You, thee, thou love
That I am alive,
is just an eternal rumor.

CP: I agree with you about smart-aleckiness. I prefer true playfulness, which it’s sometimes confused with: playfulness that isn’t juvenile, but is child-like in its curiosity and derring-do. I think there are too many gags in poetry, based, instead of on wordplay and insight, on a kind of literary sarcasm: irony’s jealous, passive-aggressive sibling that rolls a weary eye and works to undermine everything, including irony. Whereas in Tanaka’s poem, and in Choe’s poem, and in Kazim Ali’s “Home,” for that matter, and in dozens of others, the ironies don’t need opponents: they simply say, “here.” In this rat hole. Under this blanket. On this pond. Something has been found and lost, lost and found. Hear how many echoes patience knows. How absolute bleakness can remind us there is cause for praise. How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival. Truly, it’s a beautiful collection, Kevin. Are there any final anecdotes, or wisdom words, or poem lines you’d like to share?

KS: “How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival.” This is why I enjoy interviewers who are themselves poets, Christopher. These poets come from all over the world and find, conjure or imagine these provisions. In Kyoto. In London. In Singapore. In Australia. In San Francisco. In Atlanta and Cape Cod and Miami and Houston. Poets who’ve turned away from religion and those who are anchors of the congregation. These poets are surviving and their poems are proof, artifacts. Collective Brightness, then, is more than a book of poems. Of this, I’m certain.


Kevin Simmonds is a poet, musician, and photographer originally from New Orleans. He majored in music at Vanderbilt University, and later received a doctorate in music education from the University of South Carolina and a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore where he launched the first-ever poetry workshop in Changi Prison. He wrote the musical score for the Emmy-Award-winning HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and edited Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina Press, 2012), a posthumous collection of poems by Carrie Allen McCray-Nickens. His debut collection of poems is Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry, 2011).

More information can be found at and

I am going to use combative here in the sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All night, he stands locked in with the angel until the dawn approaches. The angel must depart. Jacob refuses to let the angel go until he has received the full blessing of heaven. The blessing is given, the angel breaks Jacob’s hip before departing as a sort of “sign” of both blessing and combat, and, afterwards, nothing is the same. 

This is true combat, true grappling. I tell you the point of any deep reading is contained both in the idea of not letting go until you have received the blessing, and, also, in being marked with the signs of combat–wounded and scarred in the best sense of those words. This is beyond effort. Jacob was naked. He brought no weapons or defensive armor to the match. If he was oiled up, it was only with his own sweat. What do I mean beyond effort? Effort implies forcing yourself, going through the motions, acting as if this was a drag. No man, in a life and death struggle with an angel would consider his combat drudgery: “Oh my Gawd, I have to read this stupid shit, and its wing night at the Happy Pig! Poor me!” I hate students like this. Fuck understanding them or thinking I was young once, too. The young student who thinks this way is already dead–dead to literature, dead to wonder, and alive only to doing the absolute minimum in order to get the A. He knows only what he already understands, already has mastered, whatever his prejudices have tricked him into believing is knowledge. Fuck him with a spoon. I hope he chokes on a fucking mushroom!

But why should a student not think this way when more than half his teachers think the same? Standards? When I worked in a mold making factory, a standard mold meant it could be mass produced. Even high standards (In a mold factory this meant tighter specs) were merely the perfect form of something mediocre. The word standard implies the expected thing in the expected way, with the expected results. Our government calls this excellence. This is not excellence. We do not like excellence. True excellence is wounded, marked with the signs of combat, abnormal. God forbid we should have children who didn’t do mushrooms, and fuck, and wait until the last week to cram in the  North Tower of the library! Perish the thought! Such a kid might even (can we say it?) love reading, engage a poem with all the passion with which he or she eats a hot wing. It would be way beyond hot wings–it would be agon, the birth pain, that agony which is beyond the power of even the gods to understand. Gods have powers that make effort meaningless. We allow our children to act like gods, and the result is boredom, sloth, smugness, arrogance, and hot wings. Fuck them and fuck the teachers–fuck normality. A culture that is not based on agon, on ongoing birth, is no culture at all. It is wing night at the Happy Pig (until the economy crashes, and the good times flow into a day of reckoning, and every one wants to understand, but the muscles for true understanding have already atrophied).

So ends my rant. I am about to model for you a form of close reading that does not need effort so much as stealth, and curiosity, and the willingness to wrestle with angels. It is the way I read when I worked a night shift in a factory, when I read like a prisoner condemned (which is exactly what I was). It does not matter what you do or accomplish in life. In the best case, you are going to die old and probably helpless with no power either to attract or to get yourself to the bathroom. You are a mortal creature, condemned to death. For this reason, only love, in the sense of ardor and passion, can lodge a proper protest against our lousy state of affairs. Achievements, and worldly success are the way of happy pigs. Love and ardor are beyond the effortless and eternal happy pig of the mind. Standing at the grill with your pretty spouse and little brats while the potato salad draws flies is not a dream worthy of being called human. It is not only sub-human, but sub-animal. You may as well have never existed. You wasted too much of the world’s energy, grabbed too big a piece of the pie, and we are better off that you are dead. If this is what the education system wishes to aid and abet, I’d rather see it dismantled. Amen.

Move Over
Charles Olson

Merchants.___of the sea and of finance

(Smash the plate glass window)

The Dead face is the true face
of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east
the carpenter obeyed

As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants,
And a sense of proportion, the house
is put to the earth

Tho peopled with hants, New England

Move over to let the death-blow-in,
the unmanned or the transvest, drest
in beard and will, the capillary

Seven years with the wrong man,
7 yrs of tristus and vibulation.
And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:
“I crushed one, and its blood is green.”

Green, is the color of my true love’s green
New England is
despite her merchants and her morals

Olson’s poetry is considered difficult. He was poet of agon, not hot wings, and we must be careful of the word difficult. It could mean the following: 

1. I didn’t get it on the first read and I’m bored.
2. It sent me to the dictionary.
3. It didn’t do the expected things at the expected times that so comfort, and also bore me because my favorite thing in life is to be superior and bored. Boredom makes my eye lids and mouth look sexy. It’s the look of high fashion models!

This poem is not difficult. It is arduous, rigorous in its intentions and methods, and you don’t need a degree in post-modernist theory or experimental poems to read it. You just fucking enter. This is exactly how I devoured the poem when I was fifteen. Follow my lead.

First, it was hard for me to re-read this poem because I had written all over it, but I remember: I did what I always do with a poem, I read it first without worrying about its meaning–to feel the pulse of its being on the page. If the meaning was obvious, fine. If not, just as good. Then I re-read it to see if anything stood out in a different light. Only after this, did I begin to eat it line by line. Here’s how I ate it (these are from my notes):

“Merchants. ___of the sea and of finance.”

Ok. This Olson guy isolates the word merchants. He treats it like a sentence, with a full period stop. As if that is not enough, he puts a gap of white space between it and the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance. Why? Is he being cute? Maybe. Is he ignorant of grammar? No. I don’t think so. A writer ignorant of grammar would have a run on sentence, not just one word with a period, so I am going to assume he has a reason for what he does. Maybe he wants us to think about the word: Merchants? What do poets think of merchants? Usually, not much. They depict them as flesh merchants, greed merchants, materialistic, corrupt, less than poets. Poets really give merchants a rough time. Is this Olson guy doing the same? Maybe. He certainly wants me to notice the word. Perhaps, he is doing it like a salutation and the poem is addressed to merchants–like the opening of a speech:
Dear Space aliens:
Friends, Romans, countrymen: 

That sort of thing. I don’t know. If this is the case, he will impart information or a directive: “Lend me your ears!”

Let’s look at the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance.” 

Ok. “Of” means belonging to, so this is interesting. He obviously knows grammar, is even a little old fashioned because he puts the word of before each qualifier. He could have written: Merchants of the sea and finance. But he didn’t. Of must be important: it means to belong to a place. The Sea is a locale. Finance is an abstraction, a reality that is usually not spacial, but I think this Olson guy wants to consider finance as a sort of location, too, just as the sea. At the same time, he may want the term sea to have its abstract connotations as well. The sea: the vast, the unknown, the unconscious. Finance: the known, the numbered, the all figured out. If so, there is a tension here. The sea is traditionally poetic, and finance is not. So he is yoking a poetic locale to an unpoetic locale. maybe he is setting up a tension. These merchants belong to conflicting things. They are of the sea and of finance. It’s a little redundant to say a merchant is of finance. I mean, what other kind of merchant is there? It’s about buying and selling goods, right? So the best way to understand finance here is to see it as a place of origin, and it is tied to the sea by the word “and,” but the word “and” separates as much as it links: “Lips and lemons, dirt and the knee socks of nuns. Sea and finance.” The obvious meaning is that these merchants owe their livelihood to the sea and finance. The less obvious is that the sea and finance are conflicting origins, and the merchants will be torn on the wrack of failing to reconcile that contradiction. So, now, based on the evidence of whats in the poem (and not any pre-poem), I can make the following provisional assumptions:

1. This poet is not concerned with traditional grammar because he has a purpose in circumventing it.
2. This poet juxtaposes poetic and unpoetic things, and maybe he will use the tensions between them.
3. This poet may be doing a salutation in the first line, like: friends, Romans, countrymen… in which case it will be followed by something like: “lend me your ears.”

So lets move on to the next line: “Merchants.___of the sea and of finance // (smash the plate glass window)”

Ok. That’s a lot like “lend me your ears” in so far as it is an imperative, a sort of order or directive, but it’s put in parenthesis! Odd. Who should smash the plate glass window? The reader? The merchants? The poet? All of the above? A parenthetical can act as a stage whisper, a note to oneself, an aside. Parenthesis are always a paradox because they say the information is not part of the main body, yet they draw attention to the information contained within. And what is “the plate glass window?” It’s not “a plate glass window,” not just any plate glass window: it’s “the”–the true, the one and only ultimate plate glass window, and we don’t know who this is directed at. it’s ambiguous, a slight of hand. Hell, we don’t even know why it would be important to smash it. Who has plate glass windows, big ones, ultimate ones? Stores! Banks! Offices! Places of power and commerce, so I am going to guess that the plate glass window, the separation of the sea, and of finance must be smashed, and it must be known that these two locales impact, and infest each other with their different qualities. Perhaps the poet is saying it is wrong for poets to only understand the sea, without knowing the finance, the shadow, the flip side of the poetic? I don’t know. I know now I was right about the poet at least making some sort of gesture towards salutation and persuasion. So, in a sense, this poem uses the tools of rhetoric, the mechanisms of public address and speech, but towards no end: pure speech, pure rhetoric, a plighting of his poetic troth! Maybe. I don’t know. I like that he would put “smash the plate glass window” in parenthesis, and confuse the issue as to who should smash it, or why.

Let’s move on to the third line: “The dead face is the true face”

Sounds like an aphorism, a maxim, a thesis. How is the dead face the true face? Well, someone dead, can’t fake a smile or assume a look, an expression. Dead is dead, and this can not be false. Of course, he could be saying that, in this day and age, the look of boredom, of indifference is the true face. How does it relate to the other lines? The dead face is the true face of merchants? The dead face is the personification of the smashed plate glass window? All these are possible, and so I have a new hunch about this poet: he likes his meanings to be multiple. We could say unsure, or unclear, but I don’t get that. I get more a sense of violent refusal to say something plainly because that would take all the strength and complexity out of it and what he is driving at is not mere statement. He does not like either/ors. I get the sense that this is a political poem, a poem critical of something. so far it has merchants, and smashed plate glass, and a dead face. not exactly a pastoral.

So onto the next line: “of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east”

Ok. So the dead face is the true face of Washington. New York is a misery, but north and east… But means “yes this is so, but… a difference to the north and east. North of Washington and New York, and east (east of New York is the sea). So something is not dead north and east. What?

Next line: “The carpenter obeyed / topography.”

Who is the carpenter? Sounds like some mythic figure. Topography is the lay of the land. Rather than fighting or contending against the lay of the land, the carpenter, whoever he is, obeyed its contours, its demands, its essential shape and reality. I am going to assume the carpenter is a better alternative to the dead face, and the merchants.

Let’s move on: “The carpenter obeyed / topography // As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants, / And a sense of proportion, the house / is put to the earth // tho peopled with hants, New England”

Woah! What’s “hants?” I get out my big unabridged Webster’s (why not, its weight lifting) and look up hants:

1. Haunts, hauntings. If Olson means this, he means peopled by ghosts, by haunted and haunting inhabitants.
2. Hampshire: Hants is the dialect word for those from Hampshire, a part of England from which many early settlers came. So: peopled with those who came from Hampshire as in New Hampshire. He’s probably speaking of New Englanders.
3. Hant is an old contraction of has not, so peopled with “have nots”.

I decide Olson wants all three connotations since he seems to love multiplicity, and the not too determined. I’m thrilled because I’ve learned a new word and I am beginning to see how tricky and sly this poet is, and how well informed and smart. I like that. It does not displease me.

Let’s move on: “Move over to let the death blow in”

Ok. Another directive, another proposed act of violence. Something must be smashed and dealt a death blow. What? Move over, and let it happen! And why?

“the unmanned and the transvest, drest / in beard and will, the capillary”

Unmanned can mean deserted. it can also mean castrated, and robbed of manhood. Transvest can refer to passing through, or being caught between the sexes, or, rather, being under the appearance of a man (beard and will) without truly being one. The capillary–the blood. So the beard and will and blood of a man who is not truly a man. Let’s see how this plays out:

“seven years with the wrong man, / 7 yrs of Tristus and vibulation.”

Finally a period. All these sentences and statements are confused as to where they begin or end. Parts of statements may belong to one clause or another. It is not clear. There is a name for this. I look it up. Amiphiboly: the intentional, or unintentional confusion and ambiguity of grammar or meaning so that there is more than one possibility. Example: “He looked at the man laughing.” Laughing could refer to he who looked or to the man he looked at–it’s up for grabs. I realize now that Olson is employing amiphiboly as the chief structural device of his poem. Interesting because I have just read some poems by a student of his, Robert Creeley, which also employs a sort of radical amiphiboly. You need to be smart, and to know grammar well in order to do this. It no longer bothers me that I don’t know which part of the sentence belongs to which subject or action. It adds complexity. It is a justified artistic technique–and ancient. It is deliberate. I can see by the evidence how it adds rather than subtracts from the poem.

Now onto this weird passage: Who is seven years with the wrong man? I know Jacob labored seven years for the wrong woman. But who was seven years with the wrong man? Not Helen of Troy. The name tristus tips me off because I see it as an allusion to Tristan and Isolde. But tristus is also sadness or sorrow in Latin. And vibulation could be a play, a pun on tribulation, but it is also a problem with the capillaries of the heart. Oh this Olson dude is a motherfucker! He is going everywhere, and everywhere being sly, and, instead of just masturbating and showing off, he is adding depth and scope. So we finally get a period after all those clauses, and what next?

“And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:”

Because I’d read a lot by age fifteen, I saw this as an allusion, a travesty of the famous moment in St. Augustine’s Confessions, where Augie is all weepy under the tree and begging God to convert him, and an angel in the form of a boy holds a book (the bible) and says read. The “And” tips me off because when ever a sentence begins with “and” it sounds biblical or mock-biblical: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” etc, etc. This is the first and only blatantly narrative moment in the poem. The boy says he crushed a toad, and its blood was green. This is the third act of violence: smash, move over and let the death blow in, and, now, crush the toad to know its blood is green. The sea is green. Money is green. Perhaps the poet is returning through this weird digression to the theme of tension between merchants of the sea and of finance. We see the truth of something only when we are willing to smash through its facade. We see its blood and know its green is truly green and sure enough: “Green is the color of my true love’s green.”

This is a play on a song popular at the time, “black is the color of my true love’s hair.” Green is green once we have smashed through all the bullshit. Perhaps…:

“Despite, New England is.”

You could read this multiple ways. The word despite means nonetheless, nevertheless, in spite of, but it also can mean spiteful, contemptous, without value. I think Olson wanted both meanings. Whenever he can, like Emily Dickinson, he wants all the meanings. It could be read as a sort of “yoda” sentence: In spite of all this, New England is, despite her merchants and her morals. In short, new England is still alive, still viable, unlike New York and Washington. But it could be read very differently as New England is contemptuous, especially in her merchants and her morals.

So I have come to the end of the poem. And I know a lot about the poet’s intentions and techniques without some expert having to tell me. I know he confuses and sabotages grammatical sentence structure against the line for the sake of creating multiple possible meanings. I know he is political, but not in an issue sort of way, more in a prophet sort of way. I know he likes ancient tricks of synecdoche, apostrophic address, and allusion. Most importantly, I know I enjoyed wrestling with his poem, and I could write essays now on ambiguity, the use of amiphiboly in Olson’s poetry, or on violence as a form of purifying and purgation. The poem is not difficult. It is complex–a very different thing. I enjoyed myself. I did battle. I now might look up other poems by Olsen to see if he uses the same tricks. I may read up on him, and find that this ambiguity, and open structure, and his remark on the carpenter obeying the topography are parts of a larger aesthetic/ philosophy. I have crushed the toad, and its blood is green.

This is how I want my students to read–because it is active, and no less thrilling than detective work, and they are going to die someday without ever having made true contact with anything. If they read this way they just might grow tired of what is easy, and obvious. Who knows? I didn’t get a grade for reading Olsen. There is no grade for passion and true engagement. It is the only true way I know to lodge a protest against death. The gods should be so lucky. I defy, thee, gods! I die, but you never fucking live.


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.

Secrets of the Garden of a Vacant House Seen in a Dream
(translated by Hiroaki Sato)

Things planted in the garden of a vacant house are
_______pine trees and such
loquat trees___peach trees___black pine trees___sasanquas
_______cherries___and such
prosperous leafy trees___branches of leafy trees that
_______spread around
as well under the leaves of those swarming branches
_______the plants that luxuriate continuously
all in all___ferns___bracken___fiddleheads___sundews___and
all over the ground they pile up and crawl
the life of these blue things
the garden of the vacant house is always in the plants’
_______shadows and dim
only what faintly flows is a streak of rivulet water
the sound of the running water soughing sadly and
_______low day and night
as well somewhere neat the soggy fence
I see the uncanny muculent forms of slugs___snakes
_______frogs___lizards___and such.
And above this secluded world
pale moonlight illuminates the night
moonlight flows in mostly through the planted groves.
Heart intent on thoughts of this late night deepening
_______ever funereal
my heart leaning on the fence madly plays the flute
ah___this secret life where various things are hidden
a world where boundlessly beautiful shadows___and
mysterious forms pile up one upon another
illuminated in moonlight: ferns___bracken___branches of
_______pine trees
the eerie lives of slugs___snakes___lizards___and such
ah___how I miss the secrets of the garden of this
_______vacant house I often dream of___where no one
and its deeply suggestive seclusion its mystery ever


Born into a wealthy family, Hagiwara Sakutaro (萩原 朔太郎, 1886-1942) was able as a young man to devote himself to poetry. Although he did not finish college, he read Western authors, including Poe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Dostoevsky. His major works of poetry, written in 1917 and 1923, were Howling at the Moon and Blue, both collected in this volume, along with a substantial selection of poems from other books and a complete translation of Cat Town, a prose-poem roman. These works transformed modern Japanese poetry, and changed forever the face of the future poetic landscape in Japan.

More of these translations are available here.

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.”

Three Prose Poems


He begins the day with very strong, black coffee. He sits in his reading chair and stares at The Iliad. He opens it, reads: “As the fighter tore out the blood came gushing forth / and his heart sank.” He puts the book down and thinks about what the world is like. He thinks it might be a Connecticut chest with a heterogenic antiparticle in the left panel and a pool of dark steaming blood in the right panel. In the center panel, behind the sunflower, there is an inactive slipperette placed catawampus on an ostrich’s brow. In the end, Hector is dragged along the ground and Troy goes up in a blaze.


He spent three days writing. On the fourth day he got a haircut. It was a day mixed with thinking and reading. On the fifth day he wrote some more. “For the next two days,” he thought, “I will do nothing but read.” Instead, however, he drove to Pittsburgh and talked to an old woman and broke her stool. Then he ate a banana and attended a shouting match in which one side represented yellow and the other, red.


He went to a cemetery and looked for a headstone with a familiar name. After a while he went to another cemetery and did the same, without success. It was Sunday morning and everyone was in church. But there was no need for candles, as it was a sunny day and the sun kept bringing strong white flames of light to the world. He repeatedly attempted to cast himself into the flames, but the cemetery grass smothered the flames with kisses, and he could only anguish in dry heat, his skin remaining unscathed.

Brooks Lampe teaches rhetoric, composition and poetry. He has several experimental Twitter projects including @TheOpenField, @SurrealPoems, @Microdream, and @BrooksLampe. Currently, he is dissertating at the Catholic University of American in Washington D.C. on Surrealism in contemporary American poetry.