“A hell of a thing to say” - The Poet & Society

As the semester closes up we’re reading Jack Spicer in my Modern Poetry course. Naturally, I’ve been gorging on Spicer’s voice via PennSound. Until a few days ago I hadn’t thought about Spicer in a while, so it’s refreshing to be with Spicer and the Martians once again.

One of my favorite books of his is Language. I wasn’t aware that there are two readings on his page where he reads this book in its entirety. The one I’m digging now is this one, a radio program that begins with an excerpt from his Vancouver lectures. Curiously, but not surprisingly, Spicer insists in this excerpt that the reading of poetry benefits no one other than poets. Poetry, as Spicer sees it, has done nothing for humanity. As refreshing as Spicer is for my ears and mind, I have a hard time with the skepticism of his view here. To me, this isolates, or cuts off, the poet from society. Sure, poetry doesn’t register as significant for a large portion of our society, but poets need not be isolated. Is this true? I’d like to think so, especially because I feel alienated quite often. I’d like to think it’s a choice - to be isolated - we make. Certainly, there are a number of additional factors that could contribute to one’s isolation, sexuality, race, religion, etc. For Spicer, I can’t help but think that his homosexuality informs his position. How could it not? Being a poet simply adds to the tension between sexuality and society. A poet is attuned to nuances in language. The insight that can come from this can lead to feelings of alienation without a doubt. Poets, perhaps, see what non-poets miss. Likewise, non-poets see what we don’t. I’d like to see it that way.

As I was thinking about this issue throughout the day, I got to thinking that a poet may have been more likely to feel in mid-century America that poetry benefits no one other than poets and that the poet, by society’s decree, is alienated because there were fewer ways to interact with poetry and poets. Today, we’ve got so many electronic ways to interact. Blogs, online magazines, and Facebook for instance. I remember Eliot Weinberger mentioning to a group of us once that it’s easier nowadays to be a poet in isolated parts of the country, or world for that matter, provided that one has access to the internet. If memory serves, Weinberger was talking specifically about the impact he felt the original Jacket had on the reading public. For him, the magazine got the work out there so that more people could read and respond to it. Would Spicer maintain his view in light of this difference? I wonder, too, if there is something to Spicer’s comments that I’m missing.

Another way I went about getting at the heart of my disagreement with Spicer was the fact that I have twenty-five students in my Modern Poetry course. Not all of them are poets, or even want to be one. Some of them are there because they have a deep interest in poetry, a deep interest, that is, in reading it. Over the course of one semester I can see how these students have stretched the ways they think about language, what it does, what it can do, etc. This is an obvious benefit. If, as a poet, I can help foster an environment where people think more deeply about language, then I think the poet certainly can do something for humanity. Whether poets are in the classroom or not, I see this as one of the fundamental roles of the poet. Poetry, for Spicer, was of the utmost importance to his daily life. And as a linguist as well as a poet, he was profoundly aware of the workings of language, I would presume. In light of this, I am shocked that he didn’t think more highly of poetry’s life and potential beyond its obvious significance for poets. Though maybe it’s this insight that dampened his view.

Robert Creeley at Goddard College May 18, 1973

Over the past two weeks my attention keeps turning back to this reading of Creeley’s. Prior to my accidental discovery of it I had no idea what a treasure it would be and is. One morning I was scrolling through R.C.’s page at PennSound and thought to listen to one of my favorite poems, “The Plan is the Body.”

I clicked on this Goddard reading because this poem leads the set. The first thing that interests me is that there isn’t an actual introduction. Whoever’s doing the introduction trails off after not saying much more than “As you all know,” and then there’s simply a cacophony of voices. The next thing you can hear clearly is Creeley asking, “Can you all hear?”

As R.C. moves along it’s clear that he’s in a joking mood, asking at one point “Do you have a cigarette, man? Just testing the resources of the room.” From there he slips into the poem, but he doesn’t get very far before having to start again, not once, but twice. Before the second time, though, he engages in some chatter with the audience saying “I didn’t make these arrangements. I’m just simply here. Up against the wall, motherfucker!”

All the while the audience is listening, laughing. A bit further in the reading, though, there is a heckler who dislikes one of Creeley’s poems. It’s not really clear what the heckler says, but Creeley replies, “I’m just trying to have an experience.” Eventually, R.C. starts up again. Throughout he shifts from poetry to fiction, chats a bit, and phones ring and babies cry in the background. At one point, Creeley even says “The acid is beginning to work!” Truly incredible!

Meaning is a Change of the Ink - On Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

CAConrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri

CAConrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri

Not long after I graduated from college in 2000, I was working in a Border’s in Tucson, AZ and I discovered Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry. This anthology, brand new at the time, includes poets such as Dmitry Prigov, Aleksei Parshchikov, Ivan Zhdanov, Nina Iskrenko, and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. To say this book broadened my understanding of poetry is an understatement. Specifically, the poems within this book helped me to come to terms with language as a construction rather than language as inherently meaningful.

At The Kelly Writer’s House last Wednesday night I was fortunate enough to see and hear Arkadii Dragomoshchenko give a reading and interview for Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening. In total, Dragomoshchenko read and talked for nearly two hours. In one of his poems, unfortunately the title escapes me, he says “meaning is a change of the ink.” As a poet, Dragomoshchenko continually explores the fact that language and meaning are constructions. This is not a concept I learned in college. In fact, I don’t think I heard anyone, professors or otherwise, ever mention this to me. Or, perhaps they did and I didn’t listen. Or, perhaps I already knew, but couldn’t articulate it.

In his introduction to Crossing Centuries, editor and poet John High points out that “[p]ropaganda in [the Soviet Union] made language itself suspect.” It’s as if language is a material (or a resource) that can be fought over/for in much the same way countries wage war over borders or oil. Language is the primary vehicle that dictates our thinking, so it would be necessary then to control how it operates. Perhaps Rea Nikonova’s “A Free Alphabet” first pushed me towards the idea that language is a contested resource:

A_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Z

Jack Krick, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, & Charles Bernstein

Jack Krick, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, & Charles Bernstein

During the interview Dragomoshchenko suggested that hearing and response are the core of authorial responsibility. He then added that the fat cats of poetry have made it a bit more difficult. Who are the fat cats? He never said, but perhaps one ought to insert one’s own fat cat. Dragomoshchenko’s line “meaning is a change of the ink” foregrounds materiality in terms of physical substance while his insistence that hearing and response are crucial to a poet’s practice make clear that meaning operates in interrelated realms: aural, oral, and written. I think Dragomoshchenko put this idea best when he said at another point in the interview, “explain to the page why you write.” As I sit here, I’m impressed with how precisely Dragomoshschenko compresses his ideas into epigrammatic statements not only within his poems, but also within his speech.

After the reading and interview had ended a bunch of us decided to head home rather than heading out for a drink. Fortunately, we all talked and lolly-gagged long enough at KWH to change our minds and luck into having a drink with Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko at Bridgewater’s Pub in 30th Street Station. They were both catching a train to NYC that night. As we drank and talked, I asked Dragomoshchenko about contemporary Russian poetry and whether or not he feels aligned with poets such as Ivan Zhdanov and Aleksei Parshchikov, poets whom the editors of Crossing Centuries refer to as Meta-Realists. He said, no he doesn’t, but that’s not to say they aren’t his friends. In fact, he said he feels connected to French poets, not Russians. He didn’t say which French poets. And I didn’t ask because he was talking and I didn’t want to interrupt. The one American he feels similar to? John Ashbery.

As we were all about to share a toast with our last drinks before Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko’s departure, Ryan Eckes said, “We say cheers in the U.S., what do you say in Russia?” Reluctantly, Dragomoshchenko said, “We say na zdorovye (to health), but no one says it anymore.” “Okay,” we all said, “then what do you say now?” At first, he said, “Nothing.” But, then he surprised us. “Now, we might say,” as he demonstrated by raising his glass, “I kill you.” We all chuckled at Dragomoshchenko’s black humor. But, now I see his ability, perhaps his predilection, for epigrammatic statement at work once again. In one brief moment Dragomoshchenko demonstrated to all of us at the table that what we hear about contemporary Russia is true. In other words, a culture of vast inequality, an oligarchy in Russia’s case, breeds murderous competition. Not one for killing, “Na zdorovye, Arkadii, na zdorovye.”

Néstor Perlongher - A Selection of Poems & Commentary

This past weekend Dennis Cooper posted some Néstor Perlongher poems on his blog. This was a nice surprise! The poems are translations by my friends Steve Dolph and CAConrad. They did great work on this collaboration. Check out the translations here. Along with the poems is some commentary by Marlene Gottlieb and Ben Bollig and others. Cooper’s post works as a nice introduction to Perlongher’s work. I hope Steve and Conrad are emboldened enough to continue working on a substantial collection of Perlongher’s work in English. It would be fantastic!

Interview with Michael Gizzi and Craig Watson

Michael Gizzi

Michael Gizzi

When I moved to Rhode Island in 2001 I didn’t know Michael Gizzi’s or Craig Watson’s work. Thankfully, over the course of the five years that I lived in Providence and Pawtucket I not only became familiar with their work, but also developed friendships with them. On June 9, 2006 the three of us got together for an interview at Craig’s house in Jamestown, RI. The interview was recently published in the fortieth issue of Jacket. Check out the interview here.

Craig Watson

Craig Watson

Before the interview Craig took me to his third floor writing studio and showed me how he tends to work. One thing I was interested in was what he refers to as an eccentricity. He uses specific notebooks for specific project and once he’s completed a project he can never use the same type of notebook again. In the interview you’ll notice that he mentions this practice. I wish I had taken some pictures while I was there, but I think I was too nervous. I didn’t know Craig as well as knew Michael at the time. Michael and Craig’s friendship, as you’ll see, dates back to 1976.