So it is with poetry. Some days, you think you suck, other days, you confirm your genius. This being a suck day, I attempted to enliven the mood with a trip to the Segue reading at the Bowery Poetry Club. On tap today, Arron Kunin and Jen Hofer. I must admit that I'm probably the worst person on earth to review a reading, as I find it really, really hard to pay attention to them. Many times a reading fills me with a sort of zen; hearing the words makes you receptive to what's going on in your own head, like in a Quaker meeting, and I end up paying far more attention to that than what's going on on stage.
Still, here goes. Aaron Kunin went first. He had a cute personality, it seemed to me. He would start telling you something about the work, and then this sort of look came on his face as though he were thinking, "You know, hearing this out loud, I sound like I'm completely insane," and then he'd try to explain more but he was just digging the hole deeper. And he's a Big!Hair poet. I am sometimes jealous of the Big!Hair poets; their hair makes them look more impressive, much in the same way that a frilled lizard's frill makes it more impressive. My hair is sadly limp; I will frighten away no predators and awe no audiences with it.
Anyway, Kunin is working on a series of poems about shame, in pursuit of a "value-neutral Paradise lost." I was interested in them, because I'm working on poems about guilt, although not value-neutral guilt. Guilt is like shame's estranged twin. They don't necessarily come in a pair. He read forcefully, shooting out words like a nail gun. He ENUNCIATED. The poems were interesting; I liked "Five Security Zones," which was based on the medieval blason, a type of poem that divided everything into body parts...you know -- "there is a garden in my mistress' face," -- except Kunin wrote about shame, not love. Although, again, value-neutral shame -- kind of an S/M thing, as he put it, not an "Ahhh, the vengeance of God!" thing.
He also read a selection from an upcoming novel, The Mandarin, which he said was about how everyone who reads his novels falls asleep and never wakes up. In introducing the selection, he talked about the sexual nature of umbrellas, which was kind of where the "Oh, my god, I sound insane" thing came in. It was funny, though. Good stuff all around.
Twenty minute break and on came Jen Hofer, who had weird little puff buns atop her head, which, given the lighting, cast triplicate shadows that resembled diminished Mickey Mouses behind her. She read from Lawless, which reminded me, for some reason, of piano lessons. You know...breaking something down into its component parts, never jumping on to the part ahead, until you've done the part before. That always depressed me about piano lessons. Or math problems. Damned place values. Anyhoo, the poem was about how a record of something only records that object's past, and tells you nothing of its future. After the poem was read once, it was repeated, with associative interpolations between each line. After that, she went on to some new work, political, about the Iraq War, etc, I think, which relied a lot on wordplay...sound repetitions, like this:
prowess, in training, a prowl.
Much alliteration, some off-rhyme. Very rich, sound-wise, but it went on for a while, and I think people were getting bored. At least, the guy in front of me totally fell asleep and the girls to my right were passing notes and giggling at them. I spent a good deal of time thinking about how this woman sitting in the back looked really really familiar, and then realized she looked exactly like the woman who played Mark Green's wife on ER.
I guess we're all too MTV. We're easily distracted, bored. Sometimes this is good; like I said above, listening to someone else read can relax you into being able to hear what your own muse is saying, but I felt a sort of palpable desire in the crowd, a silent question forming, something like this:
"Could you please read a short, funny one about a duck now? We're very tired. We like ducks."
Here's this poor woman, being all heartfelt and forceful on violence and justice, and I think the audience would really like to have seen a juggler or a magic act instead. Maybe there should be poetry vaudeville. One of the perils of reading, I guess. I think short poems, or narrative poems, lend themselves best to readings, because they don't go on so long that the listener loses the thread or gets bored by the whole thing, or because they're narrative, they fit the schematic that our brain already knows how to pay attention to. Story-time! Everyone likes storytime, because after stories come snack. And recess.
I have to say though that I admire the readers just for reading. It's been a long time since I did a reading, and from what I remember, they always tripped my "fight or flight" response. Except that I don't have a "fight or flight" response, I have a "throw up or faint" response. I never did either, actually, but I often wondered if people thought I was really "intense" on stage, when whatever intensity I projected was coming from my internal monologue: "Do not barf. Do not barf. Do not barf."
So, to all readers everywhere, way to go for not tossing those cookies, or ending up unconscious! You're a better man than I, Gunga Din!
Some Aaron Kunin poems.
Some Jen Hofer poems.
First up, a few links:
Jeremy's teacher doesn't appreciate his work, but I think he could get a few reading gigs out of it.
A list of poet-lawyers. Go, my people, go!
Am I the only one who doesn't think this sounds like Ashbery? It sounds like a lang-po devotee trying to skewer Ashbery. Or maybe it is Ashbery, trying to be more lang-po? It's hopeless, dude. Swim with your own school.
Finally, this guy is totally stealing my fake-blurb poems idea. I still can't believe how vacuous blurbs are; they're the linguistic equivalent of farting. I suppose I shouldn't say that, lest I scare away whatever persons might be convinced to write me blurbs in the far-off and entirely suppositional event of my publishing a book. But then, whenever I have put out a little something for friends, I have, like Whitman, written my own laudatory quotations. These include such gems as:
"The majesty of her language is at once Biblical and modern, simple and profound, musical and humble, like a selection from a hymnal. That's why I'm working quotes into the State of the Union address." -Bush Administration speechwriter, on condition of anonymity.
"This book, apparently written out of pure love of writing, and without any profit motive, completely obliterates my ability to think. Without a law-and-economics angle, I am adrift in a sea of confusing conjectures and absurd rationales. An almost metaphysical dread wraps me like a cowl. Please. Make it stop. I'll pay you. As in fact I must." -Judge Richard A. Posner, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I'm totally cribbing off this chick once I get off my 80s kick." -Jewel, chanteuse.
A review of his book, Crystallography
The "e"-free chapter from Eunoia. How Oulipo!
Christian Bök at the EPC.
Am I the only person who doesn't know how to pronounce anything with an umlaut in it? They're like a pair of fangpoints, hanging over a word, daring me to say anything. Feh.
Tan Lin has a new book. He was a professor at U.Va. when I was an undergrad there...took his class on 20th Century Asian-American literature, and it was one of the only classes I had where I actually had to think.
Have some more Tan Lin and some more. Beware, that last link is also home to a particularly fatuous blurb by Charles Bernstein.
Blurbs are one of the most horrifying uses of language. Why does Bernstein write this blurb? Isn't it the capitalistic commodification of language? He uses language to sell language. I've written ad copy, and at least ad copy has the virtue of being direct. It pressures directly. Buy, buy, buy! The ad copywriter is a sellout, but at least he admits his sale.
So, that clinches it. I will break onto the poetry scene by writing poems that are blurbs for non-existent books. Brilliant. Nobody steal my idea, you hear? I'm going to go describe something as "giving rise to a transcendence that defeats itself" and as "breaking new ground with its meta-commentaries on the structures of dominance that pervade a culture based on exchange rather than collaboration." That is so damn right -- I am going to go write a poem that is the blurb for the non-existent book of poems that are blurbs for non-existent books. Eat. Your. Freakin. Heart. Out.
An introduction to poetic meter...I should just make a chart so that I remember what all the non-iamb thingies are. Or resolutely proclaim myself a devotee of Anglo-Saxon prosody. Meter, schmeter! Via Incoming Signals.
Voting for Poet Laureate in Scotland? Via Maud Newton.
Poetry ha-has with the Bush Administration 'healthy poetry' initiative. I can't wait for the Defense of Prosody Act and the constitutional amendment to ban The New Sentence.
Went to BPC on Saturday and heard Sherry Brennan and Tim Davis. Sherry's reading was interesting...her tone when she read was a little odd; she sped up and slowed down as if to show emotions that the words weren't really generating and tended to end each sentence or line on a slight upturn as if asking a question or purposefully working against any denotative heft in her sentences.
Two of her poems met a round of applause. One involved her taking a poem she had written, tearing it up, and then reading from the fragments. It was interesting, but I think it was also a suggested exercise from Charles Bernstein and Bernadette Mayers' language poetry exercise compendium from back in the 70s, so I would think people would be getting tired of it. It does, though, give you the archaeological feeling of working on a partial and fragmented text, and as the poem was in part about Sappho, at least hearkened back to the fact that that poet's work exists only now in fragments.
The other well-met poem was a long one involving only the words (and letters) in the phrase, "The sky again today is blue." She repeated each word, sang it, broke it into morphemic elements, repeated those...the effect was not unlike Velimir Khlebnikov's "Incantation by Laughing," although not quite as funny. (It's actually impossible to red the Incantation without breaking into laughter). It was kind of interesting to hear someone read such a poem, but when I thought about how like it was to Khlebnikov's, I thought, "People have been doing this for a hundred years!"
The other reader was Tim Davis, filling in for Fiona Templeton. He launched into a long, seemingly interminable poem that I couldn't really tell what it was. A cento? A series of mistrung anecdotes with some language poetry-esque disconnects and non-sequiturs? Nothing in the poem hearkened back to anything else in the poem, which actually made it really, really boring. If you're going to go on that long, something has to click, some thread has to gather, or the reader or listener simply isn't repaid for the effort of going through it all. Individual sentences or juxtapositions of sentences were funny, but you soon forgot them in the ongoing stream of jabber.
Dreamt last night that our new cat, Cappuccino, was reciting poems of his own invention to me. Of course, on waking I could only remember bits.
Poem After the Poem My Cat Wrote in My Dream
Brucemiddlevicious, be still.
The catspaw swishing
The cat's spell, spoken
paws splayed well apart
Amber eyes in dreaming
And better than my own
Yes, "Brucemiddlevicious" was a word in the poem Cappuccino recited, and the last line was "be still." Make of it what you like.
Weird tip of the day: Billy Collins, who I wrote about below as the possible subject of protests, will be featured at the BPC's Fifth Annual Limerick Slam on March 18. So if you like limericks and/or Billy Collins, check it out. You may well choose to protest Collins in the form of composing satirical limericks skewering him and then reciting them to his face. What ho, saucy varlet!