Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Blogging in the Wee Hours

Warning: insomniac post!

Well, Robert and his wife are off in vacation mode, but I'm stuck in the fog. Today I had an excuse to go downtown, and it was blissfully sunny. You have no idea how much that can mean unless you are stuck in this relentless gray grayness day after day all summer. Wait! It did clear last Saturday, but that was almost wasted, for me, 'cause with John (and our car) around, I can go in any direction and join the sunny world. It's only here, within view (hah!) of the ocean that summer does not exist.

I had thought to go up to Napa for some of the winery readings, which are open to the public--C. Dale's or Brigit Kelley's. But the logistics were too complicated, and I decided not to. I'll probably regret it. But it would have meant rescheduling two appointments tomorrow and working all day from John's San Rafael studio--not a terrible idea, re the above, but I don't want to be in the way while he is working. Then we would probably want to eat someplace nice in Napa and that would dent our budget. And there was Greta (dog), who really likes poetry but doesn't like sitting in the car. All these excuses seem pretty lame as I type them, though, I admit.

Tomorrow I'm going to get my manuscript printed and off to Tupelo in time to make their July open submission deadline. Oh ye poets out there, wish me luck. Damn manuscript has been close but no cigar lotsa times...and then not even close more times, and really, it's just as good as a lot of 'em out there, but at this rate it's going to be published posthumously. Seriously, I really want to get beyond book one, I am beyond book one. Well, maybe this is it. When I gave my radio reading on J.P. Dancing Bear's show, he said (unprompted) that he thought he could see Tupelo publishing my work; it seemed to fit their line. (Those weren't his words, but his meaning. Do publishers have a "line"? I can't think, at 2:00 in the morning.)

Maybe I should attempt to get some sleep.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Temporary Ceasefire Declared in Poetry Wars

Cheryl and I are heading up the coast today for a week in Gualala, a town we consider heaven even though in Already Dead Denis Johnson says it was “once named among the California coast’s top ten ugliest communities.” I will probably be incommunicado for a while, and hopefully taking a break from the poetry wars. I suspect that poetic preferences are deeply rooted in one’s personal history in any case, and converting from post-avant to mainstream or vice-versa is about as likely as changing one’s sexual preference, no matter how politically correct it might be to be poetically bisexual.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Poetry Reading: Feature Film or TV Sitcom

I was very interested in Ron Silliman’s recent comments on the format of poetry readings: “the two recordings reminded me of one of the basic truths about poetry—the one-hour reading, or something relatively close to it, is always preferable to the 20-minute one. As an experience, the differences between the two are not unlike the differences between the major motion picture and a 30-minute sitcom on TV.” He also says, “With a longer reading, you can almost year the moment at which the audience relaxes into the text—it always occurs somewhere after the 15-minute mark, sometimes after the 30 .... At 40 minutes or thereabouts, I’m so tuned into a reader’s sense of time & the formal scope of the text that it is as if a vista opened up.”

I am really curious what people think about this (even though it’s a safe bet that Silliman would not want to listen to my poems for five minutes). What format do you like? I think it’s true that the 20-minute reading has become the “standard.” It’s hard for me even to know what I prefer because I’ve heard so few “long” readings recently. Tonight I’m looking forward to the annual blockbuster benefit for the Squaw Valley workshop—Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Kevin Young—but in this kind of setting, each poet will probably read for considerably less than 20 minutes.

I do think the typical short-reading format is almost more like a book review than a reading, in the sense that I don’t fully experience the poetry. I just get a taste of it, sometimes enough to know I’d like to read the poet’s book so I can really get into it. But usually I don’t get into it at the reading itself. As I’ve written some long poems recently, this interests me a lot. If I read my longest poem in full, it would probably take 40 minutes, and a couple others would take 20 or 30 minutes. Typically I read an excerpt from longer poems (they’re in sections that can be read independently), but it would certainly be “interesting” to do a reading of nothing but one 40-minute poem. I think Silliman may be right that an audience can’t really hear the poetry at a reading until they’re 15 or 30 minutes into it. What do you think?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Picasso and Matisse look at Pollock

It seems to be important for most of us to align ourselves one way or another for or against a kind of poem with, if not a narrative structure, at least some kind of semantic framework or, conversely, with the kind of poem termed Language or Avant Garde, where meaning is disbanded in favor of surprise, novelty, or texture. (Please forgive me if these descriptions are inadequate and feel free to correct my definitions.)

Often comparisons are made between poetry and music or poetry and the visual arts, as both these other fields have had their own controversies concerning what can loosely be termed abstraction. I thought it would be interesting to talk a little about Picasso and Matisse, both giants in the field of painting and both pioneers, in the early years of Modernism, in turning painting away from purely representational art. (I have done a lot of research on Picasso in recent years for a work on the women in Picasso's life.)

I find it interesting that although both Picasso and Matisse were abstract painters--Picasso and Bracque can be said to have invented Cubism, and Matisse had complicated theories about the language of color--neither Picasso nor Matisse was able to embrace abstract expressionism (for instance, the paintings of Jackson Pollock).

There is a discussion of each of their attitudes toward Pollock in Francoise Gilot's book Life With Picasso. Picasso and Matisse were rivals and sort of friends and often paid each other a visit. During one of these visits, Matisse pulled out a catalog containing reproductions of Pollock's paintings. Neither artist could stand Pollock's work, but for very different reasons.

Matisse pronounced himself incapable of understanding the work, "for the simple reason that one is always unable to judge fairly what follows one's own work... It's completely over my head." He related a story of Renoir's reaction to his own painting, when Matisse, in his youth, had approached Renoir. Renoir didn't like what he did but recognized that what he was doing was not inconsequential.

Picasso, however, dismissed Pollock's work out of hand. He said, "I'm against that sort of stuff... I think it is a mistake to let oneself go completely and lose oneself in the gesture... there's something in that which displeases me enormously... Whatever the source of the emotion that drives me to create, I want to give it a form which has some connection with the visible world, even if it is only to wage war on that world."

I wanted to share this story because I think it is very telling--though I don't exactly know what it's telling. I think I'm more inclined to take Matisse's stance when it comes to Language poetry. (Though part of me does think that the Emperor has no clothes.)

Friday, July 15, 2005

After Reading Crush

I read Richard Siken’s Crush a couple days ago, and I was going to write a little review, but after reading Emily’s comments, I realized I was about to duplicate much of what she said, even (amazingly) down to her particular picks of great lines (“every time we kissed there was another apple / to slice into pieces”), not-so-great lines (“You will be alone always and then you will die”), and her choice of the poem “Saying Your Names” as the “greatest hit.”

So I thought I’d talk instead about something else. I absolutely agree with Louise Glück in her introduction to Crush when she says, “In poetry, art seems, at one extreme, rhymed good manners, and at the other, chaos. The great task has been to infuse clarity with the passionate ferment of the inchoate, the chaotic.” She goes on to say (and I’m not sure I’d agree with this) that “Crush is the best example I can presently give of profound wildness that is also completely intelligible.” She compares Crush to Plath’s Ariel in its urgency and obsession.

Crush is a reminder that while there are thousands of Plath imitators, no one has really taken her place. I think there’s a longing for poetry of her urgency and obsession, and Siken has tapped into it whether or not his poems are at the level of Ariel (whose are?).

Seriously, if you want to read poems with that urgency, who would you read? Uh, Ted Kooser? John Ashbery? Glück herself? It’s not that that’s the only kind of strong poetry, but isn’t there a big void in contemporary poetry if that’s what you’re looking for? I can hardly think of anyone who even approaches that particular sort of intensity. I think of Ai, who most people would agree wrote her best poems 30 years ago, and in a strange way I also think of Frank Bidart, even though both he and Ai do what they do primarily through persona poems. Also Lynda Hull, who may be the closest “partner” I can think of for Richard Siken. But who else? I must be forgetting dozens of people, right? Or am I?

Siken’s book takes a lot of risks, in the best sense. For example, take the poem “Boot Theory.” Let’s not even mention the fact that it starts with the old “Take my wife—please” joke. Just go straight to the ending:

A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river
but then he’s still left
with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away
but then he’s still left with his hands.

Are these great lines or awful lines? I think … they’re both! I can imagine myself reading them in a certain mood and thinking they’re shallow, rehashed Merwinesque surrealism. But in another mood: they’re unbelievably powerful, original, heartbreaking, devastating.

Siken’s poems are defiant, too. I kept thinking of this James Wright passage:

If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.

Siken’s poems have a similar tone. I love how they seem to say, “I know there are people who will hate these poems, and they are welcome to go to hell.” I think Siken needs to watch out to avoid the melodrama that Ai sometimes falls into her poems, but that doesn’t mean to avoid the extremity, the passion, the chaos. When it works (“My applejack, my silent night, just mash your lips against me”), it’s electrifying.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

“My” Side of the Bed?

Most of the books on “my” side of the bed are Cheryl’s, and she has even larger stacks on her side of the bed, so this will have to be a very partial list:

1. Anna’s Book, Barbara Vine (stolen from vacation house we stayed in a couple years ago at Sea Ranch, to be returned when we stay there again later this month)
2. The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made
3. Crush, Richard Siken (more on this in a future post)
4. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
5. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (I’ve been trying to finish this for years)
6. Runaway, Alice Munro (Munro is one of my favorite authors but I’ve been trying to finish this book for, well, months at least)
7. Already Dead: A California Gothic, Denis Johnson (as Cheryl says, “pretty bad but in an interesting creative way”)
8. Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson (oops, did I borrow this from you ages ago, Diane?)
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
10. The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (no relation to the Tom Cruise movie; experimental and very interesting novel if you can get through the first 50 pages)
11. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson (everyone should have this at their bedside)
12. Dude, Where’s My Country?, Michael Moore
13. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
14. Dancer, Colum McCann (I love love love this book! I liked The Kite Runner but why it’s on the bestseller list and this amazing novel about Rudolf Nureyev is not, I don’t know)
15. Here There Was Once a Country: Poems, Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker
16. New York Times, last Sunday’s edition
17. New England Review, current issue
18. Harper’s, many, many old issues that need to be recycled
19. Granta, special issue of essays on music (highly recommended!)
20. Selected Poems, Galway Kinnell (autographed by Kinnell: Before my Aunt Marcy’s death, she went to a book signing just to get this book autographed for me, her poet nephew. Kinnell asked her if I was a romantic or a purist, and she said she didn’t know but guessed a purist. Kinnell said in that case he’d just sign his name because a purist probably wouldn’t want a personal note.)
21. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell
22. Access Guide: California Wine Country
23. Jacqueline du Pré: A Biography, Carol Easton (research for poem in forthcoming book)
24. The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500-1800, Olwen Hufton (research for book after forthcoming book, full of fascinating facts like did you know that women who died in childbirth used to be buried with a good set of walking shoes so they could make the trek back from eternity to check on their child?)
25. Man in the Holocene, Max Frisch (I know a lot of people think this is one of the 20th Century’s masterpieces, but I couldn’t get into it)
26. The Second Assistant: A Tale from the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder, Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare (I have no idea)
27. One Advair diskus inhaler (for Cheryl’s asthma)
28. One pen (nothing to write on)


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My side of the bed / What's on yours?

I'm supposed to see some people in my "home office" tomorrow, which means I have to clean up! So I thought I'd document at least one pile of books that will have to be disassembled. Okay, yes, my bedroom is not my office, but I can't have people here without showing off my garden, and the only way to the garden is through my bedroom. So anyway, here are the books on my bedside table, in no special order:

Crime and Punishment --library paperback
Pushcart book of Essays, open to Robert Hass's essay on Wallace Stevens
Arts and Letters--Journal of Contemporary Culture, Spring 2005 (free copy)
My large brown 8.5x11 journal, first entry 12/27/01, last entry 7/8/05
booklet from the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo commencement exercises
Poets & Writers, July/August 2005, unread
newish Moleskine notebook, too good to use
2 bottles of spring water, one empty
The Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford
box of tissues
Search Party--collected poems of William Matthews (very well read)
printout of friend's friend's 11-page piece (unread)
New Letters "Workings of the Body" Vol 71, No2--(free copy)
Twentieth Century Pleasures--Robert Hass (many times read)
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell translator
Road Atlas--Campbell McGrath, which I keep "forgetting" to return to Robert Thomas
Mead Composition Book for recording dreams
Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2005
Poetry Daily printout of APR article on "The Heroics of Style" by Dana Levin
Territory Ahead clothing catalog
the coconut John Lennon gave me
a quilted bear
one pencil/ one pen
alarm clock, picture of son, driftwood, leaf from Vermont, sand dollar, mom's sewing box

Friday, July 08, 2005

Variations on a Theme

"...Not the human heart but
Brueghel turns the plowman away
for compositional reasons
and smooths the waters for a ship he made."

--William Matthews
"In Memory of W.H. Auden"

There's the poem they call ekphrastic, about another work of art, and there's the work that's epidemic, radiating out, infecting, well, affecting everyone and everything it touches, effecting a world. This is, what, I guess, is called intertextuality. How appropriate that Matthews points to the made aspect, the decisions made by the artist in the creation.

In these lines by Matthews are layered Williams' poem as well as Auden's. Another by Anne Sexton comes to mind (although that alludes as well to a poem by Yeats). In fact, here, thanks to Google, is a whole bibliography of poems that refer to Brueghal's painting--the painting, in turn refers back centuries, through Ovid's Metamorphosis, into the insubstantiality of myth--and then forward, too, to Joyce's fictional Daedalus and numerous other paintings, from those of Peter Paul Rubens to Matisse.

Add opera, ballet, film: The Man Who Fell to Earth....

I love thinking about these things. They knock me out.