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Modernist

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.

Preamble of questions

Is there such a thing as “poetic language?” For example, which of the following words are poetic: Splat, emptiness, selvage, corporatization, loom, sequester, actually, rooster, surmise, demonstrate, fart, interpretation, destiny, tooth, ineluctable, meme, vector, duplicity, comma, consequence, drive, chant, teeter, tumult, fragrant, flounder, forget, suspend? Pick four words of five words from this list you think are most “poetic” and write a four line free verse or rhymed poem, using them.

Example one:

The shadows of trees are a (loom)
On which you (sequester) your fear,
Containing it through the (ineluctable) (chant) of days,
through the weave, and thread of (tumult).

Example two:

(Drive) South on routes 1 and 9,
Forsake (corporatization), and
the rotting (tooth) of conscience..
Oh love, (suspend) your adorations until further notice!

Example three:

The lions (fart) in the sun.
(Fragrant) with longing, I think of them:
Those noble cats, ( teeter) on the heat waves of August,
on the verge of (consequence).

Example four

We (flounder), confused by a (vector) of days,
The (duplicity) of math baffles us—
This equation for happiness, this (interpretation)
No tongue can (demonstrate).

Example five:

What (meme) for despair? (Forget) your body
a (comma) lost in the sentences of night,
Forget how it yearns to a be a semi-colon,
Holding independent but related thoughts together.

Example six:

Remember the (rooster), the bright red (selvage)
of the East—those feathers cropped towards (emptiness).
The light raises its spurs, where blood (splats )
the wounded windows, (actually), the dawn.

We have used all the words in the list in these six examples. Now suppose we put these six four line stanzas together, using certain “connective” tissue. Let’s see what happens:

Actually, The Dawn

The shadows of trees are a loom
on which you sequester your fear,
containing it through the ineluctable chant of days,
through the weave and thread of tumult.

But drive south on routes 1&9,
forsake corporatization and
the rotting tooth of conscience.
Oh love, suspend your adorations until further notice!

For the lions fart in the sun,
And, fragrant with longing, I think of them.
Those noble cats teeter in the heat waves of August,
on the verge of consequence.

Meanwhile, we flounder, confused by a vector of days.
The duplicity of higher math baffles us—
this equation for happiness, this interpretation
no tongue can demonstrate.

What meme for despair? Forget your body,
a comma lost in the sentences of night.
Forget how it yearns to be a semi-colon,
holding independent but related thoughts together.

Remember, instead, the rooster, the bright red selvage
of the East—those feathers cropped towards emptiness.
Recall how light raises its spurs, where blood splats
On the wounded windows–actually, the dawn.

Now I did not know what I was going to do with these words. I chose four or five words each time to put into one of the six stanzas (quatrains to be more exact). “Actually, the dawn” is the most eccentric phrase in my opinion, So I took that as the title/ It can be read a couple of ways. We could think the speaker of the poem is saying this is the actual dawn. Or We could think the speaker of the poem is correcting an un-spoken error of perception, as in: “No, actually, it’s the dawn.” Actually is a hard word to get into a poem without sounding like a know-it-all. At any rate, I trust in certain liberties of poesis:

1. Metaphor and extended metaphor.
2. Invocation (such as “Let there be light!” We call this an imperative sentence, but it invokes, it wills, it demands—one of the oldest devices of poetry).

3. Animation or personification of the inanimate (light raises its spurs, wounded windows).

I could go on, but, here’s a good question: what the good god hell is the speaker saying? What does he mean? Lyrical poetry can be very dense. It can even be “high gibberish” (a form of ecstatic speech that does not yield readily to a standard meaning, but may create a mood, an orver all emotional or intellectual atmosphere). It does not usually explain. It is not prone to giving information in an overt and easy way. Why does it beat around the bush? Get to it! Say what you mean! Many a person has turned away from lyric poetry because it refuses to do the one thing people seem to insist on: get to the point!

This is exactly where modern poetry wanted poesis to go—to the thing, the object, the point. It wanted a vocabulary stripped of poetic “rhetoric” and overtly flowery speech. At the same time, it wanted the main meat of metaphor: the ability to link utterly different things together and make a connection between them—a paradox of sorts in so far as it was a connection of disconnects (What Rimbaud called a “derangement of the sense”). It wanted to get rid of abstraction: “no ideas but in things.” Actually, it didn’t want to get rid of abstractions (ideas, moods) so much as make abstractions covert. Take this famous poem by Ezra Pound:

At The Station of The Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

This is considered the most famous example of imagist poetry. Note that Pound does not use the verb “are.” In regular metaphor we’d say: The apparition of these faces in the crowd are petals on a wet, black bough. In simile, we’d say: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd are like petals on a wet black bough. Pound allows the reader to make the connection between these disparate things. We don’t look at crowds standing in a subway station or train station and say: Wow… their faces look like flower petals on a wet black bough!” Note Pound uses a semi-colon, a form of punctuation that holds “independent but related clauses together.” Some readers might stress the independence over the relatedness. They might prefer to keep the apparitions of faces in the crowd, and petals on a wet thick bough separate—they might choose not to relate them. Other readers might go to great pains to see the relatedness: it must be raining because the bough is wet and black. Faces blur from a distance in the rain, and become “ghostly” (apparition). What does a crowd and petals share in common? They imply more than one. If things are blurry because of the rain, and you stand at a distance, you might see a similar effect of clusters—pale points of skin against a dark back round, or pale petals against a wet, black bough. IN either case, by removing the “are” Pound gets maximum juice from both the disparity and the linking of these two different orders. Petals are more traditionally “poetic.” Faces in a crowd at a sub way station are not considered a particularly poetic image, and, at that time, such an image would seem the anti-thesis of poetic. Pound has written an essay in these two lines, a great essay on what energy can be created by linking the traditionally “poetic” to the unpoetic. By doing so, he gives a crowd in a subway station the poetic value of flowers, while he makes the way we look at flower petals new. He empowers the new with the old, and the old with the new. Pound got much of this idea from Japanese and Chinese poems, and so we will look at such poems, which do not use metaphor or simile, but, rather, present one thing with a disparate thing to incite the reader to make a connection.

Try using all the words I listed, but first, make six four line stanzas using them at random (not in order). Good luck.

(Note: Picture by Steven Hudson taken from Chicago Art Magazine)