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Gene Tanta

A2Z Tanta“Gene Tanta comes from a land where the place of words and even of letters was challenged one hundred years ago. Tristan Tzara, born and educated in a very small town of Eastern Romania, Moineşti, as Samuel Rosenstock, and Isidore Isou, pen name of Ioan-Isidor Goldstein, broke the new wood between mimetic language and language as material. Twisting together the spectral traces of the Romanian and North American avant-gardes via the “fronde” (Dada’s sling against illusionist art) and the formal concerns of the Language poets, Tanta continues the path blazed by Tzara and Isou. Pastoral Emergency asks how words or even letters still manage to coexist without colliding after such a cultural and universal “Big Bang”?” – Radu Andriescu

“From “all that glitters” to “catch some Z’s before you zag,” Gene Tanta’s Pastoral Emergency is a vertiginous alphabetical romp. The twenty-six poems deconstruct each letter into a surreal and hypnotic brew of sound, non-meaning and sly signification that conflates the Danube and the Loop, the personal and the poetic, making the fusty fresh, the meta-chaotic a brave new word-cosmos. Tantalizing and triumphant.” – Adam J. Sorkin

“W.H. Auden and John Ashbery have published books in which the poems are arranged alphabetically.  Gene Tanta goes them one better with a book of poems which are themselves alphabetical.  PASTORAL EMERGENCY has a hypnotic feeling of inevitability about it as it demonstrates the way in which language writes our poems and our minds.” – John L. Koethe

“Oulipo meets Simic under the aegis of American elliptical poetry.” – Robert Archambeau

“Gene Tanta’s Pastoral Emergency is emergent alliteration as arrivalist’s dreamsphere molted in the fruit of rich anxiety and tensile love. We are getting there and writing the magic carpet simultaneously holding our coattails and devouring them. Yummy alphabetic alarums in the path of cultural littering; do read.”  – Lisa Samuels

“Gene Tanta is like that amazing stranger you find whispering on a bus. Leaning closer, you understand that he is saying almost more than language holds. His audacity dazzles—“a phantom-limb in actual lust,” “scenic as the hungry gurgle of ground-water say,” until one is overcome by his dream in language flexed to breaking. I admire this poet’s range and vision and ability to spread words in front of this reader’s eyes. He is a pointillist of the imagination.” – Maxine Chernoff

“The title – Pastoral Emergency – suggests that we long for a less complicated time, yet urgent intervention is required before things worsen.  We are pulled between poles, wandering alphabetic territory between constraint and incantation, simple taxonomy giving path to rich passage.” – Lane Hall

  Poems of A-Z with No Beginning (928.4 KiB)

A print version is in the works.

An earlier version of this chapbook can be found here.

Please consider a donation to the author for your copy of this book.


“Formal choices are never without ideological implications.”
Marjorie Perloff

From the title on of Jennifer Karmin’s “aaaaaaaaaaalice” (Flim Forum Press, 2010), we are falling—crowning though sentiment and buckshot language splayed across pages. “aaaaaaaaaaalice” is a book grappling to hold on to meaning in the self-fomenting chasm that is our condition. In this way, sentience is a pain.

The book oscillates, like its speaker, between a traveller’s snapshots of exotica and an authorial responsibility to the readers’ experience with a crafted effect. In the tatters and wobble between sign and signified, the book struggles to make sense of the phenomena of experience. The book may be a performance score toward a diaristic and playful childlike freedom or it may be a series of exercises pulsing between apophantic closure and menu aperture.

Because I cannot read Jennifer Karmin’s “aaaaaaaaaaalice” for you, I want to insist on one thing: I want to insist that the book is not both a LANGUAGE text and a commodity but that it is between a LANGUAGE text and a commodity. The book is between a self-conscious Fluxus score and a distraction in the wax museum of the dream-life. Indeed, how can any experimental reading be anything other than the between experience of (1) the cutup language that points to the readers’ alienation from themselves and (2) the immersion in the placebo of closure?

One thing is sure (well, for rhetorical effect, it is): those who read poetry attentive to its medium will take pleasure in the different motives and motions animating this book. After all, why read if not for pleasure taking? Another sure thing: experimental readers should read widely, as Karmin does: from non-sense literature to Postmodern Physics.

For what seems to be a few very good reasons we hate to have our vocabularies extended. One such reason is that urbane and modern industrialized readers are lazy, so used to abhorring and going in dread of inconvenience are we. It is hard work to learn new words, even if we were to add such new words only to our passive lexical backwoods where many shadowy terms loaf seeing the light of use but rarely.  Perhaps, on the main unwittingly, we also detest distending our word-hoard because we intuit that new words bring new worldviews.

New words are like spinach for our mind’s eye. We may agree with poststructuralist philosophers that authorial intention is unknowable but then how do we square that with recent neuroscience evidence that the RTPJ (Right Temporal-Parietal Junction) is responsible for interpreting others’ intention and therefore vital to our moral judgment of their actions?

So how might experimental readers write about Tibetan yaks, as Karmin does, in English to Anglophone readers without tokenizing the yak and the yak’s milk-drinkers?

liza comes to talk
grandmother follows
smile gold teeth
many questions
for usa (80)

The more obvious delight of experimental reading presents with the ignition spark motion between the estranging assortments of address and the escapism of storytelling. The more often overlooked pleasure of reading experimentally is that such reading expands the readers’ vocabulary and therefore what is possible, between poetry and the other genres of knowledge such as philosophy for Charles Bernstein, the natural sciences for Forrest Gander, or the medical sciences for Paul Celan. In place of a hermeneutics of reading, as Susan Sontag’s ghost might say, we need an erotics of reading.

When I’m asked about poetry in Chicago, I’m inclined to reply with the old Quaker response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But, all I really mean is that Chicago is distinct in its poetics because there is no system, no unifying center that explains its existence.

Chaos is the key to understanding how Chicago’s poets function. We don’t have a school here, nor a consistent, essential aesthetic. As a geographical center of the country, Chicago inevitably absorbs everything outside and assimilates the characteristics of visitors and the new locals.

Some are produced by MFA programs and the academy. Others still listen for Spicer-ian Martians are trying to communicate through us. And still, there are those who radiate in between. Either way, poetry is occurring here.

Whether at Danny’s Pub, Myopic Books, an obscure performance space in Humboldt Park, or a small dingy bar with a busted microphone and our third scotch and soda, we are drifting and crashing. But not indiscriminately. We are fine with chaos. Our canon is illimitable. It’s our impulse to constantly add, never to subtract. Poetry in Chicago is not something stable. We are a melting commune. Most of us are, as the Gospel of Thomas declares, passers-by. Constant travelers dripping ink onto the concrete of first and only editions, our solitary iterations now rare treasures to be found in the racks and corridors of the countless independent bookstores. No, you can’t count on us.

We are a lonely city in a way others aren’t. I’ve already mentioned there is no school. Chicago poets operate more in cliques than in a over-arching school. And these cliques are fluid. The cliques are often determined by identifying precedents and transforming/blending the aesthetics of the past avant-gardists and the projective politics of Now. We are bastard children of everything past, present, and future.

Facebook, needless to say, has provided a lot of networking for poets in the city. Since there are several venues with different aesthetic concerns, and various locations, it seems necessary to use such an electronic forum to expand the communication between poets and their performative space. I moved here in 2009 and the first place I found online was Myopic Books. I kept up with the schedule waiting for a familiar name. Michael Bernstein was the first in line. Although we hadn’t met personally yet, he’d published a few poems in his magazine Pinstripe Fedora that would go on to be included in my first chapbook some months later. I had to meet the man.

I showed up at Myopic Books around 6:30. I wanted to be able to exchange a few live words with Bernstein. Of course, working off profile pictures is a dubious way to identify someone. I made a lucky guess and did get to speak with Michael a little. Pleasantries, mostly. It’s difficult to move beyond those when you’re relationship with someone is completely defined by the Web. The reader before him was Nick Demske, a Wisconsin-ite who makes frequent visits to Chicago. Nick Demske, his award-winning book from Fence Press, had not been published yet and I’d never heard of him. Demske’s lines were long and acrobatic, bending the boundaries between cultural obscenity and flowing lyricism. Bernstein’s were short, terse, and filled with surreal dread. Both poets explode with infinite reference and anxious projection. The diversity of the reading is a trademark element of events at Myopic. You go to see one poet you know and end up hearing one or two you don’t, reaping the benefits of curious participation. One is tempted to make comparisons, but any comparison I could make doesn’t quite fit, since Myopic seems to be synonymous with “unique in its own world and vision.”

And yet I digress, this is the night where my career as a poet changed. The curator of Myopic, Larry Sawyer, is truly a committed veteran of poetry in this city if there is such a thing. He overheard my name after the reading and called out:

“I heard the name ‘Connor.’ Is he here?”

I raised my hand.

“I’ll answer your e-mail this week.” He was in a rush, but I knew he was genuine.

Weeks later, I read alongside Philip Jenks.

Larry’s commitment to poetry is unparalleled in any scene. After my initial email, he invited me to read four times, even inviting me to host one reading. I reviewed his book, Unable to Fully California in Another Chicago Magazine. He exposed me to the depths of surrealism and showed me the limits of our own language as a vehicle of expression. For Larry, poetry is not a method of egotism, but a explosion of voices that can be organized into a revolutionary diction. Larry doesn’t force his poems onto a soapbox, but realizes Walter Benjamin’s conception of surrealism as the disruption of bourgeois logic as poetry’s true revolutionary potential.

Larry Sawyer showed me that the tradition of Myopic Books reading series was a long one. He had and has been involved for over a decade and has had poets of varying fame to read. Ron Silliman, Eileen Myles, Tony Triglio, David Trinidad, Gabriel Gudding, Bernadette Mayer, et al.; you name it, they’ve been there. And yet, he let us newbies read, those of us hopefuls who want to be poets. Myopic Books is certainly a go-to spot for me when it comes to poetry readings. Poetry to Larry Sawyer is not a question of achievement, but commitment. If there is a committed, centered Chicago poet, it is Larry. As a curator and promoter, he brings the audience’s focus into a special, intimate poetic communal experience.

At any reading in Chicago, it’s not likely that you’ll see two poets of an identical ilk reading in one night. It’s not intentional, but a poetry reading in Chicago is almost destined for diversity. This what makes poetry in Chicago so exhilarating and overwhelming, our multi-vocal drive. This is our unconscious focus, our journey without a destination.

Let’s move up to March—I believe—of 2011. Eileen Myles was here to promote Inferno, and Ed Roberson was the co-reader. The crowd is spread between the bar and dark back room cushions. In this dimly lit room, most of us on our second beer, second shot. I was on my third scotch thinking of invectives against Illinois smoking laws, watching luminous figures appear in the doorway. The readings at Danny’s are always scheduled at 7:30 but they rarely begin before 9. People linger into the increasingly packed crowd.

Roberson was first. His reading was dignified and still, clear and quiet, well-spoken and a little hard to hear. Contrast with NYC’s Myles, a poet whose work is clearly meant to be heard as well as read. In both Ed and Eileen’s cases, there was a sense of throbbing in the audience, throbbing from silence, then throbbing from the fascination of the New England-accented projection of poetic autobiography. The energy infinitely builds and explodes into fiery applause.

(On a side note: I bought Eileen’s new book and she signed it, misspelling my name in a way that has never felt so pleasant.)

Elsewhere, Chicago poets tend to find themselves in positions where they perform alongside musicians and other types of performance art. Like anywhere, we have to contend with the fact that many people find poetry readings fairly boring. In the latter part of summer 2011, I was on the road with Edwin Perry, JS Makkos, and Joseph Bienvenu, all of whom have had intimate connections with Chicago. Our final stop on our reading tour (Calendar of the Spectral was the title) was at the underground hit loft Ball Hall. I do confess, if you’re looking for a place where “art” is happening, stop by this space at your first possible convenience.

This reading was special in many ways. For one, it was the last reading we did as a group on the tour. Makkos and Bienvenu would go on to do one last reading in Detroit while I and Perry had to split off. Perry to plan a tour with his band and I to fulfill teaching duties for a local Rogers Park summer school session. I had driven back from Cleveland alone to attend a faculty meeting. After a week and a half in a car together, we had a couple of days off from each other. When I arrived at Ball Hall, it was the first time I had been there. It was my understanding that my three counterparts had all experienced this strange little society on several occasions before. My experience with the Chicago poetry community was limited mostly to bookstores, bars, and the occasional art gallery. Throughout the tour, however, bookstores were a rarity in our choices of venue. We had almost exclusively read in bars and self-curated performance spaces.

Walking into Ball Hall the first time, I already knew this would be even more different than our past experiences. This was partly because I lived so close to this place and didn’t even know it existed. Sure, the art spaces on the East Coast were singular, strange, dreamlike communes of the summer, but this was local. This was personal.

This reading was very special because it may very well have been our largest crowd since Boston and was the second to final reading we did together. The reputation of Ball Hall as an epicenter of artistic performance alone had drawn disillusioned and creative youth of all ages to come see what we had produced, what we had to perform.

The highlight of the evening was our reading of a four-voice poem that we had composed on the road. When I say “on the road,” I mean that we actually wrote this poem while driving. Since I drove at least 90 per cent of the tour, I dictated my lines while I was driving. The first few performances of this poem were a few steps above disastrous, but this time a harmony shone through that we hadn’t seen yet. It was a Dada/Flarf coherence of goofiness and collision in which each of our distinct voices crashed, joked and, ultimately, cohered. Our time apart had given this poem a new life. Time does not finish a poem, but the temporal silence of its voices does allow for its organic growth. The originally Flarf-y humor of four voices shouting “fucking” in Reich-ian unison lost its humor and instead took on the memorial frustration of our lives together, however short that life was.

Our stretch does not stop with the city limits; we take advantage of our geography. We are inclusive of the suburbs, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan as well. Michael Czyzniejewski still travels into Chicago from Bowling Green to serve beer at Cubs games, and Bill Allegrezza still edits Moria. Lake Forest College is also a hotbed of innovative writing; Joshua Corey, Robert Archambeau and Davis Schneiderman still maintain the northern part of the state as a literary stronghold, with the college hosting a fantastic literary festival, as well as running the excellent &Now Press. Go just about a half hour further north and you’d be in Racine, where Fence Prize-winner Nick Demske runs the BONK! performance series at the local library, featuring not only great Chicago poets and artists but performers from all over. Francesco Levato founded a workshop group in 2011 called the Chicago School of Poetics, which offers a diverse array of courses and faculty devoted to the growth of poetry in the city. Yet, despite that, a consistent aesthetic will never emerge. Rather, new aesthetics will branch out infinitely, unlimited by any dogmatic constraint.

This is our strength, our boast. The visitors can’t help but see the schizophrenic variety of what it is to be a poet in this city. Our poetics of place are our relinquishment of a center, the lack of an essential location. We are the poets of many faces, bringers of both syntactic revolution and passive boredom, gazers between the silence of the pages’ white spaces among the monoliths of our piercing architecture. And yet, this is only a brief, highly selective description of what happens here. I’ve left out so much, but can only hope this has sparked your curiosity. So the chilled streets call to the arriving, curious traveler: Beware, Welcome, Look.

 

X

X marked the spot on the blackboard where

xenophobia poured in

xenial as a bullwhip spine or xanthate

printed xylographs in the X rated moonlight

xirself perched on a xenolith

xebec cuts the fleecy waves aft as we approach in xenon traces to

xerox someone else’s wrought iron dreams on Xmas

 

Formerly Excerpt from Pastoral Emergency.

Click here to download the book as a PDF.

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

2.

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


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

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

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

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

—start dialogue —

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

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

GT: What is a new way to say communism?

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

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

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

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

—end dialogue—

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

3.

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

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

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

————————————————-

We is a Word that Gives You Meaning

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

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

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?


“Howl” by Gene Tanta


In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.


“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta

Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.

First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:

The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
the fortune-teller
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.

Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.

Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”

So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:

Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim

and

his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull

and

Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.

and

My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.

These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).

But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.

My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:

My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.

Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.

And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”

Long live the Cartographer Electric!

After almost a year or two of putting it off, I and the other editors have posted the final issue of The Cartographer Electric! This was a magazine we started back as seniors at Binghamton University. Along with the issue, we created a reading series at the Belmar that still continues to this day.

After graduating, we quickly ran out of steam to continue putting out issues. This was a true community magazine, and it fed on the energy of the readings and was inspired into existence the other poets we knew and were excited to read. It was a great experience, and I think that everyone should start a small community rag like this. It doesn’t have to be big or ambitious…just something that you share between you, your friends, and their friends. I don’t spend lots of time reading the latest issue of Ploughshares, but I was always interested in reading local indie rags like the one we were putting out.

During grad school, I had the idea to start an accompanying online press that gave ebooks away for free. We put out a fantastic copy of Joe Weil’s poems that is still available (lovely typos and all–some day I’m going to fix that), a half-chap of poems by Eric Kocher (who is currently kicking ass down at Houston), and Gene Tanta. Gene’s book is currently unavailable as he is editing it for another edition (more on that later!).

The Press Electrrrric! is on the back burner for me right now, but some day I’d like to revisit it. Until then, I hope you enjoy all the archives of material (I know the website is not a looker right now–I’m gonna go back to that some day too!). I want to give one last shout out to my fellow-editors-in-crime Joel Davis and Adam Pelligrini. It was a good time while it lasted, bros.