Monday, March 30, 2009

Fair Warning

My NaPoWriMo poems shall be written (metaphorically) on legal pads and the first one shall be about blood ponies.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


It is nearly the time of year again for NaPoWriMo (started by the delightful Maureen Thorson), where various unfortunates will write one poem a day for the month of April and post it on their blogs.

I participated in 2006, writing two poems a day, and it nearly did me in. I hadn’t done a marathon like that since my undergrad thesis, when I had to write 32 poems in a month in half (all of which are now extremely defunct) during the fall semester, and then again during the spring semester. The latter-day NaPoWriMo was a lot more exhilarating: 40 minutes for two rough drafts in the morning, 40 minutes to revise them in the afternoon. I’d say that it’s nice to know I can do it if I have to, but I fail to come up with even one hypothetical situation in which it would be necessary. Revision, maybe, but that’s different. Poetry is easily the furthest afield of any of the written disciplines from such pressures, as our product is only minimally economically successful, and the market is blessed with a surfeit of practitioners. (Only the demand for skilled phrenologists is lesser, frankly.)

This year, you can participate in a pledge drive. This makes me feel obscurely disheartened. ("Money and poetry! A combination no one’s ever thought of!") I notice that NaNoWriMo has a Wikipedia entry, but NaPoWriMo has none. Fie. See earlier comment about marketability.

I’ve been trying to think of similar triathlon-style events in literature. I’m sure that somewhere out there are haiku marathons, and some kind of infinitely recursive sestina competition. (This has nothing to do with anything, but a “tanka” always sounds to me like some kind of explosive device.) Like everything else on the web, the mere absence of such things is often enough to serve as the catalyst for them. The internet is nothing if not a physicist’s wet dream of biofeedback.

This paragraph never happened

The recent discussion about the merits of public take-downs of poetry has put me in mind of a friend of mine who does music reviews for an online music company. His method of entertaining himself is to write the reviews of the CDs he doesn’t like in such a way as to subtly alert those who can read between the lines. I have idly read the blurbs on the back of poetry books for years in a like manner, searching for hints at the blurber’s true feelings about obligated blurbage. I think this aspect of poetry merchandizing would be more attractive if blurbs occasionally sunk to (or rose to) such heights:

As I said to my dry-cleaner, I, Correlative is so furiously irrelevant that it makes subatomic particles look torpid.

These poems took me back to my favorite dissociative episode with the surgical theatre soundtrack.

I predict that Metastic Chicken will have a longer shelf life than plutonium-infused jerky.

Postulate Agency formalizes head trauma and the power of its complicated oratory.

Never has the omission of personal pronouns been so electrifying.

The 3 and a half syllable lines of Five Quints have the delicate tint and ineffability of a Faberge egg executed in Silly Putty.

Nodule of Lower Forks gives gender all the subtlety and breadth of a Bazooka Joe comic strip.

The inverted ghazals of Tripoli Communiqué made me forget the sizzling line breaks of TV Guide.

Two Economies... (Wait for it...)

I’m sure that I’ve talked about the poetry world as an economy (who hasn’t? And if so, what constitutes coupons in this world?), but I have to say that in this interview, Gabriel Gudding really brings the earnestness into such a formulation, along with some might fine highfalutin’ argot:

I mean, basically there have been over the past 150 years a limited range of techniques that just keep getting relabeled and rebranded: collage becomes "cut up" becomes "flarf" or "flirph" or whatever it's called now; disjunctive anacoluthon becomes what William James called "automatic writing" and Stein takes that into cubist dada which is then rebranded via a different set of theoretical apparatuses (Frankfurt School) as L=A=N....; a hodgepodge of sleep-based techniques and collaborative aleatoric methods morph (thank goodness) with oppositional leftist politics into surrealism which then meld with the rightist political quietism of late modernism into deep image and...?

This is a market. Markets need a predictive mindset. If "art" and "writing" cannot divest itself of this fascination with symbolic exchange-value in favor of a use-value, it will continue to be just another inverted extension of the economic system.

Too, markets need a projected null point that serves to mask the manufacture of collective misrecognition: the new; imagination; the originary; celebrity and celebration.

Is it possible to write and to think about writing in ways that do not create and maintain hierarchies of artistic domination and power? Is it possible to write without belief in a universe of celebrants and believers? Is it okay to write without thinking oneself a potential object of celebration? And after having written, is it possible not to vie for status as a consecrated writer or as a writer who displays his own performative disinterest in the field of production?

As rhetorical questions go, the last spate is pretty grand. Also, I love “collaborative aleatoric methods morph”. That’s delightful syncopation. I quite agree with his argument, though it seems like such purity is much easier outside the academy. I’ve always thought that the work itself was a much better argument that anything one might be able to deploy, but I have some sympathy with trying to find ways to armor your soft underbelly, even if such performativity is at bottom an extremely subtle form of satire. As Gerald Fitch said, “I only practice philosophy in self-defense.”

And while we’re on the subject of economy, Peter Sagal started a hilarious meme on Twitter: sum up a novel in under 150 characters. Say what you want, this sort of thing is what the internet was made for. (That and finding out about the sex life of hedgehogs).

Here are some of my favorites:

Neuromancer: An AI covertly hires a burnout hacker to free it from its insane rich family creators. Plus: space rastas.

The Fountainhead: As an architect, the last people I should give a crap about are those who pay for or occupy my buildings.

Franny and Zooey: Jesus is a fat lady.

Emma: I'm clever, I'm clever, I'm.. duh

The Silmarillion: What? You find the Lord of the Rings trilogy interesting? We can fix that.

If on a winter's night a traveler: Odd chapters tell you how you read even chapters. All chapters are odd.

The Sun Also Rises: Lost generations seek comfort in booze and bulls. War doesn't mix with genitals.

Gone with the Wind: War sucks. Love sucks. Famine sucks. Families suck. I am fabulous.

Watchmen: Guns don't kill superheroes, other superheroes do.

This is the wisecrack equivalent of flash fiction, which I’m a sucker for. If it’s precipitous, I’m there.


This week, the magic 8-ball stops on Flarf. While I read a number of Flarf-ish blogs regularly (one of the most articulate and entertaining of which I find to be K. Silem Mohammad’s Lime Tree), I haven’t stopped and really surveyed the field.

For a sort of Present-at-the-Creation summary, Flarf could perhaps be encoded in Gary Sullivan’s recounting of a Flarf-ist response to 9-11:

The list had ground to a chittering halt in mid-summer 2001. By September 11, there hadn’t been a new post in more than a month. On other e-mail lists we were getting touchy-feely post-9/11. But not on Flarf. The dead silence continued for two weeks after the attacks, then, Katie Degentesh sent what was possibly the list’s most pivotal post:

“WAX in my STAR-SPANGLED UNDERPANTS!” the subject line read. The post itself consisted of a single word: “uh-huuuuuuuHHHH.”

Elsewhere, this might have been grounds for reprimand—if not expulsion. But on the Flarf list, it was the very breath of life. Soon, we were all posting, but instead of inside-jokes about minor annoyances, the target was The New Era. If irony, sarcasm, and general un-Americanism had tanked when the Towers fell, the Flarf list was too drunk to read the memo. Everyone posted reams of the most offensive rewrites of New York Times “think” pieces, hand-wringing blog-posts, and other well-intentioned public statements this particular reader had ever seen. I was in love. I had found my tribe.

As to what Flarf is specifically, Wikipedia says,

The term flarf seems to have been coined by the poet Gary Sullivan, who notes that it variously "has been described as the first recognizable movement of the 21st century, as an in-joke among an elite clique, as a marketing strategy, and as offering a new way of reading creative writing"

Critics of flarf point to its hodge-podge assortment of Google searches and grammatical inaccuracies as evidence of a movement not to be taken seriously. Fans of flarf believe that it is a new, edgy, and clearer representation of our culture by poets and artists. It bears many similarities to the spoetry - also known as 'Spam Poetry' - movement, which appeared at a similar time.

Or, for a less stodgy perspective, Joyelle McSweeney enthuses in the Constant Critic thus:

Jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories … I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems’ self-aggrandizing, sentimental, bloviating, or sexist tendencies.

As I said before, I find Mohammad to be a good commentator/participant/combatant, as he seems to have (from my extreme layperson’s point of view) an excellent sense of the aesthetic issues and implications therein (and is even-handed and humorous without being snarky or abstruse--a rare quality in the blogosphere):

JS: Using the links from the piece, I saw lots of hilarious videos from the Flarf Festival 06 (mostly contributed by Jordan), including your own, and you know ... I laughed a lot. Really. They were mostly very, very funny. (But can there be a "bad" Flarf poem?)

KSM: Flarf gets judged good or bad for the same reason other poetry does: because it succeeds or fails at what it sets out to do, whatever that might be. And that, like lots else, is generally a matter of opinion and/or mechanics. It gets interesting (for me) when there's disagreement over what it is that the work's trying to do, and therefore over what the standards of evaluation ought to be. I think most of the past controversy over Flarf--e.g., Mike Magee's "Glittering Asian Guys" poem--stems from disagreements about what the poems' intentions are, or from firm convictions about certain forms of reference always being unacceptable regardless of context, and not really from any coherent theory of aesthetic goodness or badness. An exception would be people who look at the work and just can't get past the surface "badness": readers who say, wow, that's not very good, and who aren't really concerned with the purposive impulse behind that surface affect. And this position is unimpeachable. No one should have to value badness if they don't want to.


JS: Could Flarf exist in Gaza? Afghanistan? For people who have lost their jobs and homes? Whoops, getting too earnest again, gotta stop.

KSM: Black humor exists in almost any crisis-ridden social situation you can think of that still somehow retains the vestiges of human consciousness (viz. concentration camp humor, etc.). But of course Flarf is a culturally specific form, like anything else. "Annoying Diabetic Bitch" isn't going to seem very relevant to someone whose children have just been bombed, and that's as true here in the US as in Gaza or wherever. But neither will most other poetry (or art of any sort), beyond a very small subcategory of genres (mourning songs, war chants, etc.), and it's unfair to assume that it should. I don't know why you keep invoking earnestness in the way you do. I don't think any Flarfist ever claimed there was anything wrong with being earnest. I can think of lots of Flarf poems that exhibit varying degrees of earnestness, and lots that don't--again, just like any other kind of poetry.

JS: Actually, even though Sharon's lines were often a scream, the most hilarious line of the review for me was that her flarf "exposes cracks in the culture of banality"--I guess I didn't realize that particular culture needed an exposé.

KSM: Like I said, I didn't write the review. But I can make sense of that statement, I guess: "the culture of banality" is one that doesn't know it's banal, and that tries to present itself as non-banal. The "cracks" occur along those fault lines where the effort to assert non-banality, at its most degradedly heroic, meets the most resistance from the opposing obviousness of banality. I see why you think it's funny, but even though the cracks are already obvious to most intelligent observers, the ways in which the culture tries to cover them up can be insidiously complex, resourceful, and/or pathetic.

Flarf has even splashed over into radio, making an appeareance on Studio 360. How often does that happen for a poetry movement? Luminaries aside, the last thing I remember on NPR was Foetry (which now has a podcast...?) back in 2005.

Anyways, my spelunking in the reference section was spurred on by a recent kerfuffle around these matters, summarized here by David Hadbawnik of Primitive Information.

Apparently, some of Dale Smith’s musings on the subject have been taken as a shot across Flarf’s bow. After much reading, I was still unsure what the smoking gun was, so I hereby include this, because it seems apposite:

Part of what I want to say is that conversations in the blogosphere or elsewhere about the practice of poetry and ethical or social situations that give it definition and shape for others are necessary for the ongoing fluidity and movement of poetry as an art that straddles the practical and theoretical, the experienced and imagined, the felt and the thought. Insofar as we learn to speak with others about what we do—applying pressure when necessary and conceding the value in other practice when it is so recognized—then we are able to expand the capacities of our ability to advance new work into the world. This is not a formal problem—it is essentially an ethical one. The formal surface of a poem can be “inappropriate” (though it better bite), or it can be something else entirely. The thing is that it must open boundaries and not reinforce them; poetry must provide possibility and not foreclose on phronesis with theory; poetry must enhance theory by showing its practical value. We can say that poetry does not do these things—that it is not responsible for anything but itself—and this is absolutely true, too. And yet, as our lives interact within various disciplines, our sense of poetry moves over lines defined from without, and we can’t help responding in various ways to the influences of our working life, or professional life, our domestic life, our political life, and so many other intersecting claims on poetic attention, practice, ethics, and theory.

Mohammad responds hilariously here:

1. Flarf appropriates the discourse of many persons, many of them undoubtedly disempowered, by scavenging the traces of their utterances on the internet for use in the composition of poems. Since no credit is given to these persons, and since some of said discourse is extremely stupid, it is evident that Flarf is mocking the underclasses.

2. Flarf deploys a wide sampling of sometimes tasteless and insensitive language under the guise of social critique, but in ways that make it difficult for some readers (particularly those who are ignorant of the use/mention distinction, or who reject flatly on moral grounds anything that resembles irony) to tell the difference between said critique and the injuries perpetrated by the original subjects who are the source of that language.

3. Flarf sometimes takes advantage of the media attention that is focused upon it (a relatively small amount of attention compared to that enjoyed by more commercially viable art forms such as music, customized T-shirt design, or those plastic testicles some people hang from the tailgates of their pickup trucks, but more than is usually focused upon the work of Dale or his friends, and therefore enough to throw into disequilibrium the fragile economy of all the poetic communities concerned), thus making no attempt to hide its complicity in the Spectacle.

4. Flarf commits the dual error of a) resorting to humor as a means of engaging its readers, in a social climate where humor must be considered a grossly self-indulgent bourgeois barbarism; and b) not always bothering to make sure its jokes are funny.

5. Flarf fails to provide a coherent theoretical apparatus with which to contextualize its disruptions of sense and syntax as acceptable modes of political intervention, and so leaves itself open to the charge of willful obscurantism. This failure is exacerbated by the apparently total lack of interest exhibited by most Flarfists in answering its detractors' demands for such an accounting.

What seems at issue here is, among other things, the fallacy of imitative form (as my fiction professor used to say). Namely, that a poem about boredom must be boring, a poem about tedium should be tedious, etc. Andrew Neuendorf (of Ape and Coffee) encapsulates this particular critique so:


I’d been thinking something similiar lately, regarding one of your above questions, which I will rephrase as, “Are flarfistas (flarfists? Flarfers?) merely imitating the problems of internet speech or are they actually critiquing it and thereby undermining its influence?”

Or maybe this is an unfair position in which to place poetry? Either way, because Flarf poems often use profane and crude language and mimicks the sometimes brash discourse of, say, youtube comments (man, if want to lose IQ points, spend five minute reading those), they take on a bigger burden, because they could merely replicate the damaging, demeaning, deadening nature of such language, thereby lowering the discourse, not, as we seem to expect from poetry, raise it or complicate it.

On the other hand, Flarf is read merely as a reflection of the nihlism of our discourse, the meaningless and utter stupidity of life in America, then merely replicating such langauge is the point, and placing it within the context of poetry is like setting off a bomb in our sacred halls, to, it seems, announce the end.

And when it comes down to it, as with any movement, no two flarfists probably agree on the function of flarf. Looking forward to hearing Kasey weigh in some more. His blog’s snazzy and smart.

For those of you who want to weigh in on the side of “Art shouldn’t be able to do these things, because its speakerhood/position/tools are compromised, and yet it does,” Joe Safdie is for you:

On the other hand, I can't speak for anyone else, but part of my problem with Flarf (and for that matter langpo) was always its uncertain connection with the world, for all that might mean. Someone a few days ago said that there's always a gap between word and world, signifier and signified (thought I'd throw in some semiotics for you Lanny), and if that's true, I'd have to say that the poems that I've always found most important are the ones that have tricked me into not believing that.

For my own part, I’d say that I usually enjoy the formal tension in a piece. Is there a sense of architecture and inevitability about the progression of the piece? Is the voice structured in such a way that there is a pleasing coherence (even in the incoherence)? Are the propositions that the piece sets out fulfilled?

I don’t have any issue per se with poems that do not seem compelled to solve a formal problem (and I’m not talking about meter here), fail to feel any urgency about working through a difficulties associated with a technique, or which derive the majority of their power from the violation of my expectations, rather than any complexity within the piece itself. I don’t think these are questions of “morality” or “immorality.”

[I do have a soft spot in my heart for transgressiveness, but generally when it is a strategy in a piece, and not the strategy.]

However, I usually have limited interest in them, simply because I don’t find their particular ambitions to be very engaging. (Especially when those ambitions have to do with my expectations of a poem. I know what my expectations are, and I don’t derive any particular thrill when they’re tweaked. [Unless you’re really really clever about it.] Literature is an artificial form. You know it. I know it. Any time you sit down to write something new, you are reminded all over again just how artificial your activity is.)

But I like thinkers who make some effort to transcend the artifice through strategy or sheer cleverness, and I tend to prefer elegant architectures or speakerhood that look for new ways to disable or illuminate that artifice. I’d like to have the sense that the writer had at least a complex experience writing the poem as I did reading it, simply because a complex thing tends to bears up under repeated examination better, and pieces that have a number of different concerns and techniques tend to have something to offer you at different points in your intellectual and writing career, as your tastes and most deeply held artistic principles tend to (or should) change over time. Someone said that Bertrand Russell was such an impressive philosopher because he held, at various points, every possible belief, which is not the worst intellectual epitaph in the world (especially since such a career would tend to enrage the critics].

I don’t want to limit anyone’s aesthetic ambitions, nor cobble together some sliding scale of artistic utility. I’m just a restless, finicky, and perverse reader, so poems that rely on instant gratification (though this is a very American device) tend not to hold my attention. (This may seem contradictory but it’s not: I am easily bored, so poems that do a lot of stuff and have a lot of different stuff in them hold my interest better.)

Plus, it’s more useful to talk about writers rather than hordes anyway. C.D. Wright, David Berman, Jeff Clark, Ada Limon, Jennifer Knox, Noelle Kocot, Anne Carson, April Bernard, Dorothea Laskey, Maureen Seaton, Tory Dent, Matthew Zapruder, Thomas Heise, Lyn Hejinian, Lynn Emmanuel, Arielle Greenberg, John Gallaher... these are writers are often claimed by one avant-garde school or another, and it always seems to diminish rather than enhance their work. They’re on my bookshelf, and I come back to them over and over again regardless of how narrative or non-narrative they may be. Raymond Chandler said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull minds.” I think this holds equally true when you substitute “styles” for “subjects.”

Though, as Dale says above, discussion is always a good thing, even when it does not make for an especially thermodynamically consistent intellectual universe.

Crank, not Snark

Today, I found myself kicking the can around a bit at Harriet (bonus points if you’re of my generation or older and have any idea what the former metaphor means), and stopped by Don Share’s discussion of Robert Darnton's recent essay, Google & the Future of Books (and some other related discussion, and ancillary tech, both large and small):

In considering the democratization of literary matters, both Darnton and Share jump off at the idea of the Republic of Letters, the consensual hallucination that emanates from the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson:

"The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won."

Of course, theory and praxis diverge:

"Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear legally without a royal privilege and a censor's approbation, printed in full in their text.... Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operates, is a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged."

Share goes on to question notions of ownership and access, but what kept me thinking was something, er, less lofty: performativity. Maybe this is only a function of how poetry is mirrored in popular culture, but it seems to me that some eddies of poetic presence in the blogosphere suffer from a kind of mnemonic hang-over, which is bound up in notions of class.

I think there’s often some kind of essential confusion when it comes to poetic identity (as it is commonly bandied about) between privilege and membership. Yes, the "membership" of publication and bookdom is somewhat exclusive, but the distinction between publication in the top tier magazines (however you want to define those) and the vast profusion of other magazines, both print and online, seems to be a distinction that only matters to the practitioners of the subculture. If I tell a non-poetry person that I got published in Grand Street (R.I.P.) as opposed to, I don’t know, McNaughton Mountain Review, they seem equally underwhelmed. Saying that the former can (sigh... could) be found in a Borders produces a slightly slower blink of indifference.

Members of a subculture have endless fine distinctions about the "true" members of a subculture, rather than the "fake" members of a subculture (or, in this case, the "important" as opposed to the "minor" ones), but these distinctions are finer than a gnat’s eyelash to the outsider, especially when poetry is often viewed as a hobby to the rest of the culture at large, and therefore possessing almost no barriers to membership.

Regardless, I am amused at the evocation of the Victorian literary sphere. Reading Montaigne or Barthes or even Michel Houellebecq (I’m thinking of his brilliant Lovecraft book here, not the tenor of his other products, which I remain ignorant of) is to enter psychically into the cognitive atmosphere of the den, the smoking jacket, the brandy snifter, the dark wood paneling and so forth. There’s a sort of inherent feeling of solitude and refinement, a sort of above-it-all-ness, and the faint aftertaste of literary activity being its own reward. Regardless of any actual product, one has these delightful trappings, whether they are tangible or intangible.

The reason for this feeling of enclave is of course because wealth was usually directly tied to the necessary literacy and leisure required to spend all this time, fronting, as the kids say (or used to say). Now, with the internet, the necessary leisure and space required to pontificate or noodle about in an ostensibly literary way is available. In fact, it’s sandwiched in between factoid ranches, stand-up routines and throw-away lines masquerading as ad-hoc journalism, and all manner of fortified compounds where goods and services may be purchased, or talked about in such as away as to resemble an actual lifestyle. That’s it: the internet makes talking into a lifestyle. It used to be that you had to go to some kind of retreat, consciously display some kind of apparel or equipment, or in fact have certain characteristics in order to belong to a lifestyle, as it were ("I am my lifestyle, and my lifestyle is mine!"), but now everything is communal. Your quip, your predilection for Orson Scott Card novels, the holographic detritus of your trip to Niagara Falls (does anyone ever go to Niagara Falls anymore?) is a small cataract of a vast extroversion that pours invisibly into the computer screen and splits prismatically and instantaneously into thousands of virtual spaces, mirrored and Xeroxed and refracted endlessly through search engines, aggregators, blogs, hyperlinks, etc.

And it doesn’t feel to me like poetry is very different in this respect, than, say, knitting. Partly because it is impossible to place a wall around it in the way one did in the old days, when you had Gentlemen’s Clubs, or country estates, or Masonic Lodges. Generally (although this is less and less the case), the only thing sequestered about poets is their words, which exist in a printed space that ranges from obscure to almost totally occluded and invisible to the naked American eye. Perversely, this seems to me to render literary performativity even more of a thing apart from the work itself, though it may be that this is no more true than it was 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. The only difference is now that we have the virtual equivalent of a shopping mall, instead of the frangible Rosetta Stone of a newspaper or lecture hall.

This is not to say that I think the profusion of data and made things on the internet is toxic for society or our own dear little subculture, nor that the staggering array of small and micro-presses that have multiplied are in any way diluting poetry. I think both aspects of how the literary world has enlarged in the past ten years offer powerful opportunities. But they do make some convenient distinctions decidedly past-tense, and make the borders of the subculture more permeable. And while giving rise to sometimes uncomfortable feelings, more consumers of the written word and more, well, written words is always a good thing.


The New York Times has an excellent survey of profanities, expletives, vulgarisms, obscenities, execrations, epithets and imprecations. This taxonomy pleases me greatly. Practically anything that is incongruously formal pleases me. (Such as Neil Gaiman’s explication of the theory that musicals can be best understood in terms of hardcore pornography.)

Anyways, I’m a sucker for etymology of questionable taste:

An epithet is a derogation or slur not as “dirty” as a vulgarism or as explosive as an expletive, with which it is often confused. Tagging an intellectual as an “egghead” or labeling a passionate partisan as a “nut case” is using an epithet, or mildly disparaging word. In “show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” sometimes used in the locker room, the last “loser” is an epithet.

Imprecation brings us full circle to religion. Based on the Latin precare, “to pray,” the noun imprecation — along with its synonym execration, which shares a root with “sacred” and has nothing to do with excrement — are curses, usually married to the verb “mutter,” calling down punishment from on high. These bookish terms of excessive condemnation are out of critical fashion, merely evoking the exclamation by Snoopy, the cartoon character from Peanuts, “Curse you, Red Baron!”

This got me thinking of other obscenities in popular culture. People admire Battlestar Galactica for making up their own “minced oath” (“frack”), but I’m afraid that Harry Harrison got there first (with “bowb”) in Bill, The Galactic Hero back in 1965.

[Side note: fräck is the Swedish word for audacious, shameless or bold]

Bill, The Galactic Hero, is a hilariously broad space opera satire (a little bit like Robert Heinlein, the way Patrick Swayze is a little bit like Patrick Stewart), and holds a special place in my heart for having a character named Deathwish Drang.

I also thought of Todd Solondz's Storytelling, where a strategically placed red box obscured an interracial sex scene. In the DVD commentary, Solondz somewhat proudly characterized the lurid oblong as a “Stalinist red box.” Maybe he was just proud of the riposte.

Though I myself do not think this justifies censorship in any way, it does sometimes provoke brilliant elliptical bits, such as the immortal exchange between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity:

His eyes fall on the anklet again.

I wish you'd tell me what's engraved
on that anklet.

Just my name.

As for instance?


Phyllis. I think I like that.

But you're not sure?

I'd have to drive it around the block
a couple of times.

(Standing up again)
Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by
tomorrow evening about eight-thirty.
He'll be in then.


My husband. You were anxious to talk
to him weren't you?

Sure, only I'm getting over it a
little. If you know what I mean.

There's a speed limit in this state,
Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

How fast was I going, officer?

I'd say about ninety.

Suppose you get down off your
motorcycle and give me a ticket.

Suppose I let you off with a warning
this time.

Suppose it doesn't take.

Suppose I have to whack you over the

Suppose I bust out crying and put my
head on your shoulder.

Suppose you try putting it on my
husband's shoulder.

That tears it.

Neff takes his hat and briefcase.

Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then,
Mrs. Dietrichson.

That's what I suggested.

They both move toward the archway.


Will you be here, too?

I guess so. I usually am.

Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

(Opening the door)
I wonder if I know what you mean.

I wonder if you wonder.

Finally, I’d like to close with something I heard quoted recently that sounds obscene, but which isn’t. Ladies and Gentlemen, a line from the poetry of Leonard Nimoy:

“When you touch me, I am deeply touched.”


Now, as this last miserable year grinds to a close, I thought I’d snatch some last 2008 tidbits out of the ether, before unplanned obsolescence (the lifeblood of the internet in general and blogs in specific) take hold.

Gabriel repurposed the most ineradicable of internet memes--the cat:

how i feel about poetry

sitting on machine i don't understand
cannot make it speak/fly/produce food/

Nin Andrews managed a bit of brilliant urban camouflage:

I am at the mall, and I have lost all interest or memory of why I am there. (I always do this at malls. It takes twenty minutes, and then I am out of my body. I am floating around, watching the other shoppers shop, the sellers sell, the mothers tug their children and large bags, the fathers wander off aimlessly like fish in the air . . . ) Some man hands me a card and puts out his hand for money. It's one of those cards that reads I am deaf. Give me money. Or something like that. I give the man a dollar.

I am suddenly distracted by a young girl. She's maybe twelve or thirteen, and she is trying on a skimpy skirt (the kind hat my dad would say- shows more than your legs), boots, and a clingy shirt. Her mother is appalled by the outfit. The girl is pouting and twirling around in front of a mirror. Her breasts hang loosely out of the top of the blouse. She is blond and red-lipped and angry.

You look like a slut, the mother says angrily.

I look normal, the girl says. That's the trouble with you. You have no clue what normal is.

The mother looks at me, suddenly, as if I might help her.

Is that normal? she asks me, pointing at her daughter. Tell her THAT is not normal. Tell her.

The girl glares at me.

I can't think of what to say. So I give the mother the man's card. I am deaf...

K. Silem Mohammad attempted... well, I feel I would cheapen it if I slapped a modifier on it:

If a poem about sunlight on a desk is to be relevant, it must have a context for reception among a set of readers who are appreciably qualified to gauge its effectiveness on any number of thematic or structural levels, and to situate that effectiveness in relation to some additional evaluative factor based on the poem's usefulness in sustaining a social aesthetic.

And in response to quibbling, became even more delightful:

From now on I will flag all my satirical intentions as such by writing in this ridiculously inflated 1923 voice. Or maybe I was doing that already. Oh, vexation!

Michael Swanwick gave aid and comfort to the deity-less via a tactical exchange of Godless Atheist Christmas Cards:

Third place went to Friends Who Spent Christmas in Hawaii -- which in and of itself was already one strike against them -- for a card decorated with Adinkra symbols expressing such sentiments as Obik Nka Obie ("bite not one another"), Sankofa ("return and get it") and Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu ("Siamese crocodiles"). A card whose irrelevance extends beyond Christmas to cover Easter, Arbor Day, your cousin's Bat Mitzvah . . . and in fact, any card-worthy event you can think of.

Second place went to multi-year-winners Couple A. Their card arrived the day after Christmas, almost disqualifying them. But its artwork of a faceless soldier holding a machine gun (good artwork, I hasten to stress) was so strong as to demand their inclusion.

But the winners were unquestionably our good friends Anonymous, who sent the above photo with a cheery message of "mathematical modernist winter greetings." It was the, yes, mathematical grid-like machined precision of the chair, coupled with the inherent sadness of a garden in winter that did it. Truly breathtaking.

The horde at Delirious Hem came up with a brilliant advent poetry calendar.

Peter Sagal’s Pinter elegy post provoked a self-fulfilling prophecy:

I love that Pinter-Beckett story. It reminds me of a friend of mine who confessed to Leonard Cohen that he was considering having an affair. “You have to do it,” said Cohen. “You have to risk everything, or you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened.” My friend started to take the advice seriously, but then he stopped short. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re Leonard Cohen. Of COURSE you would say that!”

John Hodgman pimped the daily Moleman:

The death of irony was declared (and argued against):

Not according to the thin black novelist Colson Whitehead, who wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times under the headline, “Finally, a Thin President.”

“Something bad happens, like 9/11, it’s the death of irony,” Mr. Whitehead said in an e-mail message on Thursday. “Something good happens, like Obama’s win, it’s the death of irony. When will someone proclaim the death of iceberg lettuce? I’m sick of it making my salads boring.”

And Neil Gaiman lucidly defended icky speech:

I loved coming to the US in 1992, mostly because I loved the idea that freedom of speech was paramount. I still do. With all its faults, the US has Freedom of Speech. You can't be arrested for saying things the government doesn't like. You can say what you like, write what you like, and know that the remedy to someone saying or writing or showing something that offends you is not to read it, or to speak out against it. I loved that I could read and make my own mind up about something.

(It's worth noting that the UK, for example, has no such law, and that even the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that interference with free speech was "necessary in a democratic society" in order to guarantee the rights of others "to protection from gratuitous insults to their religious feelings.")


Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you're going to have to stand up for stuff you don't believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don't, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person's obscenity is another person's art.

Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.


VQR has just bestowed on the web at large the most disturbing fact I have heard all year. Perhaps in many years. According to a piece by Ashley Gilbertson in their Fall 2008 issue (audio interview posted here), every month 690 Iraq/Afghanistan veterans commit suicide.

I know that the whole casualty model is flawed to begin with (the vast number of amputees and vets with brain trauma attest to that), but this simple monthly number of 690 makes it obscenely incomplete.

According to my dad, the lesson that the silent, taciturn Texas veterans he grew up with had to offer was this: “The Army may teach you how to kill, but it doesn’t teach you how to live with yourself afterwards.”

Check out the numbers compiled by Michelle Paley in the online article itself:

4,128 number of American soldier combat deaths in Iraq (as of August 2, 2008)

21 number of American soldier suicides in Iraq (as of August 2, 2008)

550 average number of completed suicides per month by Iraq/Afghanistan veterans not in the care of the VA

140 average number of completed suicides per month by Iraq/Afghanistan veterans within the care of the VA

1,000 approximate number of attempted suicides per month by Iraq/Afghanistan veterans in the care of the Department of Veteran Affairs

300,000 approximate number of Iraq veterans who report signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression

3,000 number of mental healthcare professionals specializing in PTSD hired by the VA since 2005

HR 327 bill signed into law by President Bush on November 5, 2007, mandating mental health training for VA staff, mental health screenings for veterans receiving VA care, and suicide counselors for all VA health care facilities

183 average wait, in days, for a disability claim to be processed for Iraq/Afghanistan veterans

1,600 number of calls by veterans to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in one month, three months after the NSPL veteran hotline was created in July 2007

8,500 approximate number of calls by veterans to the NSPL in one month, twelve months after the veteran hotline was introduced

47 percentage of Iraq veterans with PTSD or depression who have not sought treatment

2–3 billions of dollars veteran PTSD and depression cost the US annually

2 years it would take for improved veteran care to pay for itself, based on increased productivity and reduced medical costs

Isn’t it satisfying when our little literary subculture produces something that is not only culturally relevant, but relevant now, in a big bad way?

Appropriate Yourself

Memes. Where would we be without them? Wrangling improper pronouns? Trying to rebrand cosines? The mind boggles.

I know that Olena Kalytiak Davis didn’t mean to start one, but I thought I’d just jack it anyway. Because sometimes you get tired of gossip, and want to get linguistically solipsistic. Frankly, I never met an axiom I didn’t just love, if for nothing but its hinge.

Here is the substrate, followed by my elaborations:

1. what exactly does joel brouwer mean by: "the knowledge that dooms a marriage is the knowledge prerequisite to marriage"?

This is somewhat like Douglas Adam’s instruction to learn to fly by trying to hit the ground and miss. Conditionality and intent. In order to take a largely irreversible action, you must be aware of how easily reversible it can be, so that you are cognizant of the commitment and the impressiveness of same. Put more bluntly, you cannot gamble without being an expert on loss.

2. what exactly does seneca mean by: "this is the difference between us and the etruscans ... since they attribute everything to divine agency, they are of the opinion that things do not reveal the future because they have occurred, but that they occur because they are meant to reveal the future"?

I think it means that the present is either proof of the future, or evidence left behind by the future. The former requires the participation of the audience. The latter disdains it. many poets could you actually sue for the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress?

To quote Janet Burroway, “Anecdote is anguish recollected in tranquility.” Craft requires deliberate emotional negligence (for all parties: author, character, reader) in order to achieve the proper distance, and catharsis is distress (since dismay is required as a catalyst). Plot is necessarily abusive.

4. giving readings like giving head. right? you can do it even if you haven't written anything new. right?

Giving readings can be promiscuous recollections of being moved. If you’re a pro. Otherwise, they’re just stylized breath with overlong interruptions.

5. why have i not read most of these? i could never leave my house again and actually get an education.

An intellectual career is performativity. In the way an actor imagines the way something would feel, authors often triangulate the way they think ideas in a book will feel. I would be very surprised to meet another writer who had read all the books he or she had a throw-away line about.

6. i should never leave my house again. and get an education.

Calling a writer a shut-in is redundant. Nurturing one’s aesthetic (even a barren, non-productive one) involves a type of cerebral dysfunction that would summon the cognitive equivalent of DSS if bodied forth. I often think the perfect vacation would be a coma.

7. "i i i never told anyone about the time i slept with two guys at once never happened." i misquote myself, but, low and behold, we actually do mature and evolve. one of them was/is a girl!

Misquoting oneself is pleasurably transgressive. And essential to mass-producing a sense of neural strangers. Without them, we cannot believe in the possibility of a virtuous audience. Like Tiresias, characters become transgendered the instant someone talks for them. As with water, ambiguity finds its own level.

8. does EVERYTHING feel literal to the creator?

The purpose of art is make attitude into nouns, which (if you’re doing it right) hate each other. Once it becomes literal, you become wistfully irrelevant. This is the difference between poetry and rhetoric.

9. jesus! weston cutter's birthday! i was so gonna do an entry in his honor on OCTOBER 31-- day of birth of most emotionally something individuals (keats, too!) (but, shit! was running boxes and african dwarf frogs out of my old house (quick! into the garage) and missing and then catching a plane to meet my lovers). weston! i so need to send you a birthday shirt and some music! (do you have the new dylan bootleg?) mostly, two very corny beautiful songs: the feliz brothers' "radio song" ("don't you ever die, you ever die, you ever die, move me all of my life, all of my life, all of my life") ( yes, i Llove tripetition) and birdmonster's: "my love for you" (my love my love for you will never something it's something than the things i do, my love, my love for you will never stray it's stronger than the things i say")

[Here, the meme breaks down. Tweed clowns are called in. A calla lily is expected to perform. Someone sells jumper cables in the audience, promising large quantities of pneuma to the best student of cellular respiration.]

10. i am in the "surfwise" school of you must change your life rather than the "man on wire" school of you must change your life. (but you gotta love the french. don't you?)

I haven’t seen any either of these. Much in the same way I have not actually read of the Camera Lucida. But I’ll discuss them anyway (see No. 5). C.S. Lewis said (or did he?): “Prayer doesn’t change anything. It changes me.” French intellectuals don’t feel guilty about talking about process. It’s a lifestyle choice. Americans are agonistic or pugnacious about it. New money.

11. speaking of movies: the cool school: that is my dream: a LARGE group of guy painters and sculptors who are as competitive as they are creative. and me.

Writers being competitive is a lot like rats and hamsters trash-talking one another. Same maze, unique cheeses.

10. look! i have built in book shelves!

I once rented a basement room sight unseen for $200 because it had built-in bookshelves. I couldn’t keep the windows open because of the spiders, and the metaphor of the Blair Witch Project hit home the next morning in the stone shower. But it was worth it (as I’m sure your bookshelves are).

Forbidding... lots of stuff

Um, yeah, so everyone has some electoral aftermath, I imagine. Mine consists of 4 hours of sleep. But the fact that my ass is flat doesn’t compare to the numbness of 2000, when I was stranded in a very red state (blue today), watching the gutless campaign that Gore ran bear fruit. Nor the weariness of 2004 (after an equally somnolent effort from Kerry), when I was alone in a hotel room in D.C., and I knew exactly what type of stuff was coming down the pike for the next four years, and it fell to my free copy of good ‘ol banal USA Today to confirm the next morning that it was all going to suck.

But today is not then. No more hunkering down in a cultural bunker with all news forbidden except the New Yorker, Fresh Air, and the local independent weekly, venturing out only for arts podcasts and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. (Sorry, guys. I know that Obama and Biden will be less rich material than McCain and Palin.)

So, as a sort of valedictory gesture, I thought I’d round off your afterglow with a poem from William Carpenter’s Rain (ridiculously out of print, but grand) that handily summarizes the presiding spirit of what we didn’t choose last night:

Military Secrets

This morning we drive over the blueberry barrens,
the downeast landscape cold even in August,
the workers bent over their orange or yellow rakes.
From the high ridge, we can see Cutler Harbor
and the transmitter towers, ranged in a circle
on the shore, like Stonehenge, like something left
here by aliens, so they could control us
from their own planet, making us sing Don Giovanni
or destroy ourselves with little particles,
whatever happens to please them at the time.

Our guide wears the chic uniform of today's Navy.
His speech is relaxed and easy, slightly southern.
The most powerful transmitter in the world, he says.
It can reach submarines at fifty fathoms.
Its waves do not travel through the air, but through
the earth itself. With this we could speak to a man
in the Pacific Ocean. We could tell him now, or not yet,
and he would hear us as if right in his own room.

Dogs go insane from this frequency. Their mouths foam.
They try to climb trees or lamp posts to escape.
Even some people hear these vibrations as sound:
one in a hundred thousand. To them, the air fills
with a hum, or cry, as of a great migration of birds,
and they look up, expecting to see something,
perhaps a brightening of the entire sky, or,
out on the water, a shape, not a Poseidon missile,
but a human hand. To these few people it would
look like that, the way the arm reached up
in Malory's Morte Darthur, and caught the sword,
whirling, out of the air and took it down.

You have chosen... wisely

Over at the tautologically named No One Does That, Blake Butler engages in one of my favorite forms:

Q: What did Anne Frank eat and drink when she was in the cupboard?

A: Anne Frank had large rivets in her skull cut from where while she lay in the womb her mother had smoked 'skonk,' Anne Frank's mother was heavy into the late 1920's Manchester black metal scene and had imprinted a large tattoo of a jackrabbit on her hind ass, as a result Anne Frank was capable of storing vast quantities underneath her hair that in her younger forgetful years she would often forget about until the taffy or goose fur or tea leaves she'd shoved inside herself had begun to rot and grow mold, it was because of the blue mold off a certain early kind of Triscuit that Anne Frank lost most of the vision in her right eye and often would faint without warning when she heard certain tones from birds

(The above: very cool. But I check out later on when Mr. Butler gets a bit Mark Halliday-ish: “I've Gogged the smeepie where I hardly borshbum Gogg I Gogg or Gogg. The neepy-nee-naw will keep on Goggsleereening without me, and Gog can't Gog anything to Gog lissmissum anyGogg. I'll just Gogg matters Gogg their leiffumwitzis and ictrerunnum on Gogg and Gogg Gogg Gogg will Gogg all Gogg in the nordvunt.”)

As a kid, I had a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you always died, fell into a pit, got lobotomized, got knocked on the head, or were taken prisoner as an intergalactic sex slave on page 146). Wikipedia formally codifies the types of endings here:

At least one, but often several, endings depicting a highly desired resolution, often involving uncovering a handsome monetary reward.

Endings that result in the death of the protagonist, companions of the main character or both, or other very negative ending (e.g., an arrest), because of a fatal choice of the reader.

Other endings that may be either satisfactory (but not the most desired ending) or unsatisfactory (but not totally bad).

Occasionally a particular set of choices will throw the reader into a loop where they repeatedly reach the same page (often with a reference to the situation being familiar). At this point the reader's only option is to restart the adventure.

One book, Inside UFO 54-40, revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach; one of the pages in the book describes the player finding the paradise and living happily ever after, although none of the choices in the book led to that page. The ending could only be found by disregarding the rules and going through the book at random. Upon finding the ending, the reader is congratulated for realizing how to find paradise.

Maybe they’re the reason why I really like a fundamental level of uncertainty about a text. Alternate histories have this cool retroactive way about them, where anything could be allusive or invented. One of my favorite adolescent series was the Wild Cards, an alternate history version of America where an alien virus killed, mutated, or gave superpowers to whomever it infected. They were written by a bunch of different authors and went right up from WWII to the present. (Of particular interest to me and my gossipy historical tastes was the book that covered the 1988 Democratic National Convention.) I liked the way the popular culture and the vernacular was refracted through the prism of the virus. Possibly this is why I was born to both write and enjoy snarky poems.

House Style

For your consideration: Issue 1, a 3,785 page issue of just about every poet you can think of, writing a bit like trauma patients trying to explain how a dandelion is sexier than a rhinoceros, if said dandelion had read lots of linguistics textbooks. Here’s the hook. And the... apology?

Say what you want about the poems here (which can be best characterized as being the linguistic equivalent of “easy on the eyes,” but not in the attractive sense), Issue 1 has managed to add something to the literary world: a massive, simultaneous appropriation of poems not written by anyone.

Reactions abound. Many people comment on Harriet, seemingly unaware that the internet depends on people not stopping to think that when you look into the void, the void also looks into you. Then stays up all night composing a suitably arch and becoming phrase to conceal the scathing hyperlink to your comment.

I think my favorite reaction is this:



I’m sure that I have spent more time thinking about the nature of Issue 1’s stunt than the creator of said text. Which I generally find to be a bad sign. Hoaxes should be hard work, I feel; otherwise, one might suspect that the nature of your critique is to make someone else come up with a critique for you. Which means you are the intellectual equivalent of Brad Pitt’s character in True Romance, smoking out of a HoneyBee container, and feeling your brain dribble down your spinal column.

Jeffrey Bahr points out that even the sheet number of poem-like-things isn’t even evidence of hard work on the part of the impresario, as a few selective IF/THEN statements can reproduce the effect exactly. (Check out the accompanying manifesto and advice to students.)

Much cleverer, I find, is The Futility Review (where people are deliberately not published). Their submission interview is especially entertaining. It at least assumes an audience. Any audience, rather than a simple assertion that there is none, or that turning one’s back to the audience is the only cue required. I get irked when the more complicated a reaction I’m supposed to have, the simpler the gesture is. (And this holds true for both a lyric and an avant-garde piece).

I must confess that I immediately searched the .pdf file for my name. And this was after I read K. Silem’s Mohammad’s adroit little deconstruction of the value-making of aesthetics and naming. Does this mean I have been co-opted? Maybe. Ridiculously easy to shrug off, if so. Aesthetics involves arbitrary currency. Authorship involves some sort of bad faith contract in order to gain authority. I have an uncle named Stritch. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Everything you know is wrong

Bear in mind that I haven’t fact-checked this yet, but Nin Andrews has a succinct, entertaining little primer on lies:

“Nero didn’t fiddle when Rome burned. (The violin was not invented until the 16th century.) The soil of Carthage was never sewn with salt. Marie Antoinette never said let them eat cake. Or brioche, as her enemies said, to inspire hatred of the queen. And Louis XVI did not have a tiny penis. (Quite the opposite. The letters suggest he was too large for the poor Marie.) Catherine the Great did not die when having sex with a horse. Nor did she die on the toilet. Napoleon was neither short nor impotent. Nor was he cured of his impotence by eating green beans. The Virgin Queen might not have been a virgin. And George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth. Roosevelt did not know the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor. Churchill was not an alcoholic, and his father did not have syphilis. Hitler was not an atheist, a social Darwinist, or a follower of Nietzsche. He believed the Bible was the history of man; he professed his beliefs in speeches, and encouraged Nazi soldiers to worship in churches. In short, like most leaders in this country today, he considered himself a good Christian.”

This is why I never worry about running out of stuff to write. The corrections to the general universe alone could occupy me for the rest of my life. It does, however, kind of inspire a millisecond-long wish to go back and be a middle-school Social Studies/History teacher. Then it passes.

The unspoken point is that these things are part of our pop culture heritage (and our intellectual heritage, to a degree), and drastic measures should always be taken. Arthur Miller summed it up thus:

"Data is a lot like humans: It is born. Matures. Gets married to other data, divorced. Gets old. One thing that it doesn't do is die. It has to be killed."

I love the idea of data getting married. (If we carry this metaphor forward, the internet is a brothel for data.) But probably the plague is a better metaphor. As long as it has one host (living or paginated), it’s still alive, if only dormant. [So you should stay away from squirrels.]

In this vein (the non-squirrel one), Philip Levine also has a great poem in What Work Is on the subject of veracity:


The bus station in Princeton, New Jersey,
has no men’s rooms. I had to use one like mad,
but the guy behind the counter said, “Sorry,
but you know what goes on bus station men’s rooms.”

If you take a ’37 Packard grille and split it down
the center and reduce the angle by 18 degrees and reweld it,
you’ll have a perfect grill for a Rolls Royce
just in case you ever need a new grill for yours.

I was not born in Cleveland, Ohio. Other people
were, or so I have read, and many have remained,
which strikes me as an exercise in futility
greater even than saving your pennies to buy a Rolls.

F. Scott Fitzgerald attended Princeton. A student
pointed out the windows of the suite he occupied.
We were on our way to the train station to escape
to New York City, and the student may have been lying.

The train is called “The Dinky.” It takes you only
a few miles way to a junction where you can catch
a train to Grand Central Station or—if you’re scared—
to Philadelphia. From either you can reach Cleveland.

My friend Howie wrote me that he was ashamed
to live in a city whose most efficient means of escape
is called “The Dinky.” If he’d invest in a Rolls,
even one with a Packard grill, he’d feel differently.

I don’t blame the student for lying, especially
to a teacher. He may have been ill at ease
in my company, for I am an enormous man given
to long bouts of silence as I brood on facts.

There are two lies in the previous stanza. I’m small,
each year I feel the bulk of me shrinking, becoming
more frail and delicate. I get cold easily as though
I lacked even the solidity to protect my own heart.

The coldest I’ve ever been was in Cleveland, Ohio.
My host and hostess hated and loved each other
by frantic turns. To escape I’d go on long walks
in the yellowing snow as the evening winds raged.

The citizens of Cleveland, Ohio, passed me sullenly,
benighted in their Rolls Royces, each in a halo
of blue light sifting down from the abandoned
filling stations of what once was a community.

I will never return to Cleveland or Princeton, not
even to pay homage to Hart Crane’s lonely tower
or the glory days of John Berryman, whom I loved.
I haven’t the heart for it. Not even in your Rolls.

This is the Levine I like. The acerbic, trickster one. (Not the schmaltz vendor.) The one of M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School and the immortal essay, “Part of the Problem” (available in The Breadloaf Anthology of Writers on Writing) where he insults just about everyone in a delightful fashion.

(I realize that I have strayed somewhat from the thesis of writers as corrective forces in the universe. Oh well. It felt very natural.)

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Official gibberish is not all that new. Especially if deployed in sustained, strophic fashion (scroll down to the bottom).

Why are the contemporary texts ("Howl" notwithstanding) that so often inspire censorship, so... disappointing? And give rise to ripostes that also lack something. When Virginia Woolf was supporting Radclyffe Hall during the obscenity trial as a result of The Well of Loneliness, she wrote privately, with almost audible sigh, that she didn’t think it was a very good book.

We need some more insult poetry. Truly. There was Catullus. Then a long gap. And... who? No, really. I want to know. In a similar vein, one of the most enjoyable revenge poems I’ve read is “Disjunction” by Kate Daniels (from Four Testimonies), where she describes squirting breast milk into her office trashcan, all over the dean’s “debatable policy on sexual harassment.” Now that’s an objective correlative.

I heard this 10 years ago in undergrad from my German professor, but Kafka is actually very funny. And not so much with the frigid, nebbishy, torment.

So very behind the curve on this (did I mention that I’m not attached to an institution of higher learning?), but I just love the very idea of Seven Types of Ambiguity. It’s like having a limited view of infinity.

Fine Print

I’m sure most people have heard about this publishing nightmare by now. There you are, happily burbling away with your new book contract, and then you get told you can have the full, unedited blurbs on the back cover, or you can have your author photo, but not both. Also, there will be ads for other books from the press on the back. Then you become a "difficult" author, your book contract is "revoked" and your name disappears from the press’s website. Plus, possibly, a gag order. Reb proposes an antidote here, as well as a disclaimer and a hilarious and depressing quiz for those of us who submit to contests. Outrage and sympathy abound elsewhere


So Elisa totally got to this first, and how could she not? It’s might fine literary gossip. Everyone loves to see those creative types behaving badly.

[Small interpolation: I had to read an epithalamion by Georges Perec in a wedding recently, and was so fatigued by all the French words that I inadvertently substituted “pointy-headed philosophers” for “pointy-hatted philosophers,” so I guess I’m no better than anyone else in this regard.]

But I’m totally going to hitch my wagon to this gravy train (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor), since I drafted this before Ms. Gabbert’s excellent post. As previously linked by her, on Exoskeleton, Johannes Göransson has posted a debriefing on what he learned at Iowa (via Lime Tree). It’s kind of funny and kind of depressing at the same time:

Lots of people bantered around the phrase "post-language poet"--as I am a... This means that they--like Jorie--used some of the textures of langpo to recreate high modernism, elegance, high learning--as opposed to Marvin Bell's old-guard poetics of authenticity. [...] I remember a debate I got in because someone called something (not mine) "pornographic" because it wasn't complex; I said "but I like pornos."

[This reminded me of my introduction to grad school. The very first week I was there, I got a writing conference scholarship, which involved a reading. After I gave my reading, one of the third years in my program (whom I had never met before) came up to me and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird for you to be writing about a teenage girl?” A rhetorical question if I’ve ever heard one.]

In my view, Göransson is extraordinarily open and even-handed in his “bullet points.” He names names and isn’t coy at all about the class politics--the least favorite and most uncomfortable subject even for most of the “revolutionaries” among us. But in the end, the conclusion he comes to is that whether or not he respected, liked, or despised his colleagues, people there thought about poetry all the time, and it was clear that they felt it was the most important thing. I would say that my graduate school experience was no less full of camps, palace coups, thefts, intrigues, betrayals, ideological attacks, and absurdities, but that this pervasive “pathological excitement” about verse made it all worth it.

I think writers would be comforted by the thought of a world in which poetry is a matter of dire public concern, and the question of whether or not Milton could have written Shakespeare’s plays is as scandalous as Lindsay Lohan’s choice of companions.

And now… because I’m not a total dittohead... some Whitman.

I confess that I’ve always had a hard time with his bellowing to the cheap seats, making sure that everybody knew who he was and that he was everybody. To quote Lynn Emanuel’s “Walt, I Salute You!”:

...inside, like you, I am in my hydroelectric mode.
The infinite and abstract current of my description
launches itself at the weakling grass. Walt, everything I see I am!

...Walt! You have me by the throat!
Everywhere I turn you rise up insurmountable and near.

He generally kind of makes me feel like a sock puppet, with his oratory and his wish to deposit many many podlings inside of us. I don’t think there’s ever been a more presumptuous use of the plural “I” in literature. Sure, his long lines and his train engine stamina for stanzas was and is impressive, and my undergrad poetry professor once spent half an hour demonstrating a brilliant metrical inversion in one of his lines, but I tend to bristle around poets who are anxious about community and solve this by appropriating every sentiment (or scrap of power) in sight.

That being said, I must admit that Richard Tayson’s piece in The Virginia Quarterly Review made me appreciate the kind of, er, speakerhood problems he was facing as a gay poet (NPR podcast here ).

I guess it never occurred to me to think of Whitman’s communal invocation/necromancy as a sort of cousin of camp. Instead of taking gender and distorting it by magnifying its traits, one could argue that Whitman’s mystical megaphone stole public speech in much the same manner. As Tayson points out, he did censor himself by muting less coy references to his love for men, but even the flourishes that remain can be viewed as a clever example of seizing the means of production, as it were, in order to insert one’s own emendations. And you’d have to go all the way in order to provide enough cover for one’s, uh, lyrical proclivities. Even constructing a towering messianic consciousness in verse wasn’t enough to protect him from the criticism, as Tayson points out:

His work was called “a mass of stupid filth” (New York Criterion, November 10, 1855); “indecent” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Atlantic Monthly, September 1890); “uncouth,” “grotesque,” and “reckless” (Charles A. Dana, Tribune 1894); “intolerable” and “disgusting” (critic Charles Eliot Norton, 1913); and “trashy, profane, and obscene” (J. P. Lesley, a geologist who apparently liked poetry). “It’s as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau famously quipped. Emily Dickinson, also famously, indicated that though she’d never read his book and of course had never met him, she “was told he was disgraceful,” a phrase that would resonate with Willa Cather’s stance that Whitman was a “dirty old man.” Booksellers withdrew Whitman’s vanity-published 1855 Leaves from their stocks, and libraries, most famously Harvard, kept the book under lock and key, even unto Whitman’s death.

It always pleases me to find an extra facet of subversion hidden here and there in poems and writers.

A primer on K

So we have a new overlord. Who is outsider-y. (August Kleinzahler sneering at the New York literary establishment across the river springs to mind.)

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Kay Ryan, who apparently often finds loved ones pinned under cars, and who is so refined, disciplined, and original that she must inevitably be self-taught. (If I listen hard, I can hear thousands of creative writing teachers wincing together, knowing that their job just got a lot harder.)

John Gallaher has a fairly even-handed summary of the argument for and against here. I confess that I thought she was a Victorian writer before today (never having read her and barely having registered the changing of the guard). Clearly, I am less than a reliable source.

How do we feel about accessibility and apparent modesty? As to her feelings about the great textual watering hole of AWP... well, Simone Weil would have starved herself to death before she would have gone to AWP.

By the way, I specifically used the overlord metaphor in the first sentence so I could gratuitously throw in a link to the Zombie Threat Level. Just a little lagniappe for ya.

Fie Again

With all of last Thursday’s furor about whether or not “grad student” is a professionally dismissive term, and whether one literary camp gets to beat up the another camp (about which I will only say that taxonomy tends to serve the critic rather than the text under consideration), perhaps it is instructive to think about accountability. Neal Stephenson has a nimble breakdown of same in this Slashdot interview (scroll down to the second question), where he makes a few salient points:

The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper---to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church's goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It's the same as in a modern book when it says "this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation."

Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.

A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they'll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market---it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it's culture, but it's also economics.

There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It's not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer's salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.

Later on, he says lots of great stuff, including a comment that Beowulf was “created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn.”

[Side note: Wikipedia says Frisians are among the blondest people in the world. Notable Frisians: Mata Hari, Lenny Dykstra, and Jane Fonda.]

Stephenson also recounts an illustrative little anecdote where he realizes that the reason why someone at a literary festival had not heard of him was because he was famous. (“Famous” is clearly the wrong word to apply to most literary writers. William Gibson’s “magnificently obscure” [originally used to describe a desirous anonymity on the internet] seems more appropriate.) He uses this as a jumping-off point for a split between Dante writers (literary writers attached to institutions) and Beowulf writers (writers who earn a living solely by sales of their books, usually novels), and the critical firewall that has sprung up between them for the reasons described above.

This split was very quickly articulated for me in my very first undergrad lit class, where someone started off the first session by making fun of Frank Herbert’s Dune. To which I say “Fie upon them.” Full stop.