“Documentary poetry”?? “Documentary” connotes dry – or maybe
didactic; something dated and best left to newspapers, history books,
pamphlets, film. “Poetry” is the expression of personal emotion; language
raised to a sublime and exquisite delicacy; mellifluous statements of universal
truths. . . . Right?
Well . . . some poets did not receive the memo, because they
insist on writing poems that relate non-fiction narratives – and that often
quote things like newspapers and pamphlets in the process. It is a poetry that
represents historical “facts” (personal or collective). Sometimes it stretches
the boundaries of poetry and questions the meaning of document(ary),
emphasizing documents as texts and poems as historical documents.
But what does it mean to relate history in the form of a
poem? And when one does so, how does our understanding of history change? What
are the limits of a poetics of fact? We will approach these questions by
reading and writing about “docu-poems” by Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos
Williams, Susan M. Schultz, Bhanu Kapil, C.S. Giscombe, and others. You will also research,
write, and reflect upon your own “documentary poem” – always with an awareness
of your presence as author of the history you are writing.
Well, the "A" Team has done it's work: I mean the reading group I participated in this summer that read "A," by Louis Zukofsky. (Some of us more than others, but hey, you do what you can.)
It's interesting to me that poets who claim Zukofsky as an influence typically point to his methods, rather than to his works. That is, they will cite homophonic or homolinguistic translations, or word-count lines, or the use of found material; but I have yet to hear anyone say "'A' is a fucking great book, dude" - let alone "a fucking great poem."
That may be the influence of the hoary chestnut of "process over product" in pomo pomes. And the book is certainly a treasure-house of possibility for anyone open to innovative poetics. But the question it raises for me is: Do we need this much of it?
It took me a while to figure out that the books by Language poets were so long because, if you resist closure, you can't stop writing. And with them, as with their predecessor Zukofsky, much of that length has to do with arbitrary/aleatory constraints.
But the length also raises the same question as conceptual poetry: do you have to read it (all)? I mean, the Oulipo people did an experiment, then moved on. LZ does, too - from one "movement" to another. It reads more like a miscellany, more than a poem. But do each of the individual movements need to be as long as they are? This is the point I wonder about. I often found myself saying, "OK, OK - I get it. Enough already." Is 80 Flowers more influential than "A" or ALL? If so, the length thing might be part of it.
During the group, I found myself in the odd position of defending Zukofsky's poetics - odd, b/c I don't write in a particularly Zukofskian manner (well, usually). But then, his influence is so pervasive as to make me wonder: who doesn't? (at least to one degree or another - the methods and forms he championed are par for the course nowadays)
- rough music: materiality of language - amazing sense of sonic and thematic recurrence and simultaneity.
- pioneering use of constraints. incl. word-count lines
- leftist docupo - but registering "history" w/o sacrificing attention to phonemes (which is what history is composed of, after all)
- willingness to leave disparate, incongruous, or contradictory elements in the poem (i.e., the "miscellany" thing) - you get a sense of a writer who is changing and not disowning any of his past selves - and the inclusion of multiple genres in the same "poem."
- mixing of the personal (even confessional) and historical.
- "raw" material or "found" material (i.e., use of stuff he didn't author - or use of Celia's setting of his poems composed largely of stuff he didn't author)
- willingness to incorporate his daily reading, events, ideas, overheard conversation - life.
- fearlessness (and later disdain for Po Biz)
- Jewishness. If you don't like it, fuck you. Also, the emphasis on letters, numerology, etc. And wow what amazing variations on a cultural theme.
- Length - a little full of himself, perhaps? Dare I say it?
- The cloying - even suffocating - sense of the nuclear family (too close to home?)
- Macho epic ambition. It's as though any male poet of a certain age has to write a Long Poem. And my poem is longer than your poem, etc.: the obligatory covering of all of human (and natural) history. Pre-Poundianism.
- post-McCarthy quietism (Spinoza enlisted to the cause) - but who am I to judge
- the fugue - this metaphor for the poem (b/c that's what it is) eventually became so attenuated as to seem a distraction. What's wrong with cacophony as a musical principle?
- "A"-24. I love the idea and the ambition of it, but it doesn't work for me (by the same token) - I don't hear the fugal consonances between the words. Too many voices to be able to perceive (nervous system-wise).
1. It is not a LONG long poem – it is 213 pages, as opposed to,
say, 800. It is that rarest of animals: a non-arrogant long poem by a male
writer. He manages to be serious (even representing his own experience -- !) without
being sententious. There is a questioning, open observing that is confident
without being overbearing. Sometimes this stance results in humor:
not a fugue
but a fudge
This is not “A” – that seemingly interminable “fugue” – it
is a poem that begins again and again, sometimes muddling along, that makes modest claims for itself:
“the colloquial uncertainty / as always.”
2. Pushing Water flows. That is, through a combination of
headlong syntax and cascading enjambments, this poem MOVES like few others. If
Stein disliked commas, Alexander dislikes (or doesn’t believe in) periods:
and air lives (with a short
vowel) and air lives (with a
long vowel) we are all
shortened and elongated
according to our wishes and
desires in a changed but not
yet ended world or arena of
. . . and of course it goes on – that’s part of the point –
the ongoingness of things – the flow of air, water, life, thought. The air
lives short, lives are short, vowels live as and in air. We are all long
vowels, changed but not yet ended. We’re pushing with and against the water at
3. There is a delightful variety in the form – which is open
form (unreproducible by a technical idiot, in a program like Blogger), using the
vertical space of the page via line-length, indentation, spacing (vertical and
horizontal). Sometimes in stanzas (numbered, even), sometimes in run-on
double-spaced sections. And the form rarely seems unmotivated. The verse
usually revolves back to itself, using the form as poetics:
they cometo come
by the water in a place
that invents every thing
againa new line
4. The book contains memorable passages like the ones above that,
nonetheless, do not overwhelm the rest of the writing. Neat trick. There are
lines like this: “When she wrote her life why didn’t she leave it alone?” –
that seem to be just another point along the way, but end up saying more than
they seem to say. Alexander is “remaining ever in the company of small / words
like of and around” – lively words and lines that aren’t weighted down by
5. I just keep coming back to it. It’s playful without the
deadly serious playfulness of some American ironists. Maybe Pushing Water reminds
me a bit of Larry Eigner – not so much in form as in tone. I like typing out
the words are distant, abstract, bloodless,
except for the singing of the lullaby tonight
after the poem my daughter came
and asked for a lullaby – the poem ends and the lullaby
or the poem never ends, the war never ends, the lullaby
the light goes into the air
the water goes into the light and the air
I ask my friends where the words end
they don’t have the same answers that I don’t have
they don’t have the same questions that I don’t have
So, if we really believed what the scientists say about global warming, it would mean that, inside of twenty years, masses of people in North America will be rendered homeless (due to rising seas and violent storms), be hungry and thirsty much or most of the time, will have lost their jobs, have to scrounge for food, suffer from tropical infectious diseases (and more of the insects that carry them), possibly be part of desperate gangs of armed persons (or their victims), and even suffer from worse hayfever due to increased ragweed pollen, would we continue living our lives as we do? Would we be as passive towards corporate neoliberalism as we are?
Or do we: 1.) Not believe it - i.e., global warming is a hoax, or at least vastly overblown
2.) Don't believe it will happen for many decades or centuries (i.e., it's not my problem)
3.) Believe it, but are unwilling or unable to confront the magnitude of the problem (denial),
4.) Believe someone else is taking care of it or will (contrary to any extant evidence), or
5.) Not know the extent, pace, and irreversibility of the problem?
On Tuesday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the suit by a class of environmental and indigenous organizations to invalidate the environmental impact statement for the construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway, a proposed six-lane superhighway that will barrel through one of the most ecologically rich and sensitive areas in northeast Kansas, the Haskell-Baker Wetlands in south Lawrence. (It has been argued that this road is part of the larger plan for the "I-35 NAFTA Corridor," from the Mexican to Canadian borders).
But here are today's responses on the Facebook page for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, the group created to defend the Haskell-Baker wetlands:
A.) Time to take A STAND Rally the peeps N StOP it by force
B.) OH, NO!!!! What do we do now? Darn, I am in Vermont when you need me to lie down in front of the bulldozers!!! I am sad to not be there, very sorry. Oh, my, horrible. What is our next step????
C.) Shame on them.
D.) this is not right. There are plenty of roads why do they not realize once u destroy a natural setting it will never be the same. So sorry to hear this unfortunate decision has been made.
A.) How come everyone talks like its over ? There's children's graves to be protect n a tipi site there's precious life to be protected Civil Disobedience NOW Our prayers our Strength It's time for ACTION Diplomacy ended Yrs ago damnit
F.) Based on my personal experience, I'm afraid that direct action/civil disobedience doesn't work in Lawrence anymore. The powers-that-be just ignore the protesters who get arrested and continue to do as they please. This fight has been going on for 25 years and I thought that the powers-that-be would ultimately give up. But I was wrong. Their egos and greed are just too big.Plus, there is the greed of the land speculators, developers, bankers and Chamber of Commerce. The highway engineers also have big egos and don't want to admit they were wrong. The Obama Administration could have killed it using the Environmental Justice Executive Order but they didn't. KU's chancellor could have blocked it by deed its 20 acres to HINU but she didn't despite repeated requests.
You'll notice that, with the exception of (A.) all the responses are apathetic, defeatist, hand-wringing, buck-passing. Part of that response can be attributed to the construction of a "remediation area" (great term) to the west of the wetlands - a kind of artificial wetlands designed as a consolation prize for environmentalists. Many of them have taken the bait, and given up on the historic wetlands themselves.
"There's you and your family, and that's your world. . . . People don't want to get involved. Everybody's concern is not to be concerned."
Those words were spoken in 1969, but they're just as true today. Except that time has now run out. Whatever.
The owner of one of our local Chinese restaurants introduced us to "A" vegetable. Yes, "A" - apparently that English long vowel is how one pronounces
- a tasty green (the way they prepare it at Panda Garden, anyhow). "It's easy to remember," she said: "it's a vegetable." Smiles all around: get it? The vowel, the article, and the proper noun are identical.
Which reminds me of a poem with a title that works the same way - whose author would undoubtedly have appreciated the bilingual play on words. Indeed, if it had happened to Zukofsky, it probably would have ended up in his Very Long Poem. He'd already written "Poem Beginning 'The,'" so he knew whereof he spoke, when it came to articles. Then this, from Rachel Blau DuPlessis' new book Purple Passages:
"The importance of verbal intensity to Zukofsky is shown in his response to L. S. Dembo's serious question: 'Do you conceive of ["A"] as having an overall structure?' Zukofsky turns the answer from large to small and from structure (scope, design, plan) to intricacy of diction, condensation of syntax, verbal focus: 'It's the detail that should interest you all the time.' Dembo is observing the sheer overall scale of the thing, its obvious daunting scope and largeness. Zukofsky answers by insisting on smallness and the local detail as sustaining interest." (77)
Indeed, Dembo's question is the one we keep asking in our "A" discussion group (which I've affectionately dubbed "The 'A' Team" - precisely the opposite meaning of that letter than the one DuP. is insisting upon). But DuPlessis goes on to read Zukofsky's insistence on the micro as being in the midrashic tradition - but without its teleological premise. "The poem may supersede The Cantos," she writes, "but it cannot 'fulfill' itself - it can only be a perpetual midrash on its own ambition" (84).
All of which points up the obvious: It is "A", not "The". It's a poem amongst many poems, composed of thoughts, quotes, word selections among many available in the world (just another parole to the universe's langue). It's a poem that insists on its specificity, contingency, even randomness:
'I've walked thru
some years now
and never till you
said saw these panes'
he consoled with
that I looked' (from "A"-15, p. 363)
Does this mean that "A" is ultimately a nominalist poem, despite all the Spinozan and Aristotelian machinery? It's certainly not an ("a"?) humble poem. But it does seem cobbled together in a way I find congenial (as did those other cobblers [or bricoleurs], Duncan and Johnson). Centrifugal, not centripetal. Which is why it supersedes the Cantos (perhaps) and appeals to a reader born not much before both poems stopped: which, if we're into labels, would be tantamount to saying it is a pomo, not a modernist, long poem. It focuses on the anecdote for its own sake, rather than the grand recit.
And, appropriately enough for a poem in the midrashic tradition, I'm quite sure someone else has said all this (better) before.
So, who is the Poet Laureate of Global Climate Change? Has anybody really written about the changes taking place within the biosphere with the same force as Joy Williams did in Ill Nature and The Quick and the Dead? With the force of someone with Tourette's Syndrome? How come? I do love formal experiments with writing, whether involving procedural constraints or vocal torque. But our scramble systems do not seem to be taking hold in the way that triple-digit temperatures are.
Remember when the broadcaster in the radio version of War of the Worlds says something like "We'll keep broadcasting until the end"? And then asphyxiates from poison gas?
(of course, in the radio drama, that's just before the intermission, as I recall - the one where they remind everyone that it's a fiction. Which is the function of Fox News nowadays - )
Finally got and read O Bon, by Brandon Shimoda (Litmus 2011) - the poems have a
combination of delicacy and creepiness that's hard to get over. I wish I
could write poems that used syntactic disjunction and reversals to such
precise effect/affect. I'm also very interested
in the relation of narrative to lyric here - just enough of the former to
generate the latter. It kind of reminds me of the m.o. of Susan Howe or
Cecil Giscombe in that it's clear that the poems are "based in" or
incited by research, but there's not too much of
the actual research in the poems. They are more like an emotional or
psychic distillate of the events. Which is why they have such force. You can get all of the narrative or sources that you need (or want -- or not) in the 5-page afterword.
The book is really an elegy for the poet's grandfather, a Japanese immigrant photographer, born in Hiroshima, interned during WWII. Japanese ritual and mythology provide much of the imagery and feeling-tone of the book -- for instance, the Corpse Eater, a former priest doomed to cannibalize the deceased (in Japan, this is folklore; in early modern Europe, it was real life). Shimoda is well aware of the Freudian link between cannibalism (symbolic) and melancholia: ". . . I have found myself, repeatedly and throughout O Bon, feasting off of what is resurrected, eating my grandfather's corpse, turning it over in my mouth, as the rest of my body burns out of the sound" (89). Like Genet in Funeral Rites, Shimoda in O Bon accepts, embraces, and explores the implications.
Now, in keeping with my practice of randomly selecting excerpts from books I am describing . . . from "In the Middle of Migration":
we find ourselves
recalcitrant in the ancient domain
masks simultaneously black
we know not
the sensible thing
sugar mammal, slit throat
thethered to the thickest spar
between home and adopted home
makes no difference in times like these
without bothering to unfold the map
or take it from its sleeve
climb the rungs of bone and limb
to pierce what version of skin or sky
the solvent leaks
I will admit to deliberately choosing left-justified lines for this passage -- which in fact characterize few of the poems -- in order to conform to the almighty Google formatting. But as the multiple spaces between stanzas suggest, these poems are composed of words and the spaces between the words. You should look at the book to get a sense of what Shimoda does with the space of the page. I can't replicate the indentations that "set off" this stanza (in more ways than one): "a visage / nettling the slack / foundation -- may I beg shelter for the night / misshapen where / shall I alight / the valley hymns in the crust" (23).
Want more? See Jerome Rothenberg's blog, where same can be found. Shimoda is interested in contemporary Japanese poetry (vide the poet's ANCIENTS project), from which he has undoubtedly drawn formal inspiration.
Tea and Gin is a homophonic rendering of the name of the city of Tianjin, China. It is the title of Univ. of Kansas English PhD student Ben Cartwright's dissertation, and his Kickstarter project. He wishes to travel to China to conduct research
for Tea and Gin, which is based on the history of foreign "concessions" in the city. Many of the poems are (being) written using procedural constraints of one type or another. It's quite a fascinating project - one that takes English-language "documentary poetry" in new directions (geographically, as well as formally).
Here is his site, w/a short introductory video, along with "testimonials" from William J. Harris and myself (under "Updates"). Even if you decide not to contribute, it's a very interesting project
(and video), and a creative, forward-looking method of funding.
If you have an Amazon account, it's easy to make a pledge. And, as with
all Kickstarter projects, if he doesn't make his goal by the deadline,
you pay nothing.
This is my first time reading all of Louis Zukofsky's "A"; I'd read parts before (e.g., # 7 - the sawhorses), but never the whole. When I began, I was like, Oh - it's a leftist Cantos (which I guess is how some people think of it). Not a bad thing in itself. But as one gets farther into it, the more it becomes apparent that "A" is a much more formally (and thematically?) various text than the Cantos. One gets the sense of the poet (and person) changing over time, in response to changing circumstances (McCarthyism not least among them). And trying out different things. I find that a much more congenial approach than Uncle Ez, who thinks he has things figured out at the outset, and works deductively from there.
Preliminary conclusion after having read through movement 10: This is all about the potential harmonization of (seeming) opposites: Marx and Spinoza; general and particular; matter and spirit - - "tonus Contrarius" - the poem as fugue. I've started plowing through 12, and it's clear how things changed by the late 40s (as they did for so many writers).
The great thing about blogs is that you can write fresh impressions that probably recapitulate what somebody has already said, and it still has the charming naivite of the neophyte. And, since nobody makes any money from poetry, nobody really cares. Except maybe Paul Zukofsky. But that's another story.
I sometimes write authors to tell them I like
what they wrote. Then it occurred to me that it might be nice to share those
complimentary remarks with the rest of the world (after all, I've already
bought the book, and who knows maybe you will, too). Is that gauche? OK.
So, to inaugurate this questionable practice,
here is what I wrote Christian Hawkey about his book Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling 2010):
"I love the rhythm it establishes
between the dialogic, ekphrastic, and lyric. Translation, yes, but also a
certain amount of mediumship or necromancy - anyway, it gives the sense of
bringing Trakl present (and maybe projecting Hawkey back). I love the way the
materiality (and playfulness) of the poems intersperses the documentary
I should give some back story. The premise of
the book (on UDP's amazingly wonderful Dossier series, ed. by Anna Moschovakis)
is that Hawkey is having a conversation with the German expressionist poet
Georg Trakl. This project presents some difficulties, as (a.) Trakl is dead,
and (b.) there's about 100 years between the two poets. The ventricle is the
back-and-forth between these - via homophonic translations and staged dialogues
between the two (both of these quite funny - sometimes the deeply sincere
German of Trakl becomes brand names or pop culture references in 21st c.
American English), was well as some relatively straightforward biographical
speculating (which is rather more somber). Also lots of photos
accompanied by writing that sometimes takes a parallax relation towards them.
And lists. And a mix of verse and prose. In short, the sort of book a Joe
Harrington would be a sucker for. You might, too.
The "Map of Kansas Literature," that is - initiated by the dean of Kansasentrism studies, novelist Tom Averill. Apparently, you get a page if a student in his Kansas Literature class decides to make you one - which seems like an eminently sensible procedure. Check it out - you might be surprised at some of the names!
I should say that Tom, Sarah Smarsh, Eric McHenry, Dennis Etzel, Jr., and the other fine folks on the faculty at Washburn University take this sort of thing very seriously. I have not had a better campus visit than the one to WU, which is only 30 minutes from where I live - all of the folks named here were using my book in their class, the students were engaged and asked great questions, there were 60+ people at the reading (w/good - tough - questions afterward), and I signed at least as many books as I have anywhere else. And what a beautiful campus - which I'd never taken the time to wander around. The new dorm is second to none - complete w/a library (w/fireplace).
[Of course, the Univ. of Kansas isn't too shabby, either, IMO . . .]
I think this officially makes me a naturalized Kansan. (Now if we can just do something about Gov. Sam Brownshirt)
Know of a reading or other public event involving quasi-experimental-post-avant-whatever writing w/in a 200-mile radius of Lawrence, KS? If so, let me know - as you can see, I try to maintain a calendar.
You may need a little hand-holding when approaching Things Come On (an amneoir). That's OK - in fact, it's why Wesleyan University Press has developed this "Reader's Companion" to the book. It should help you get your bearings - and maybe keep rhizoming out afterwards.
. . . or is it "Coloradans"? Or "Coloradians"? Well, if you're in that big square state to the west of Kansas (where the Kansas Panhandle used to be), do come join us for some swell readings next week:
- Danielle Pafunda, Tim Roberts, & I, at the hipster-biker Crankenstein in Fort Collins (215 N College Ave), as part of the Every Eye series, and
- Andrea Rexilius, Eric Baus, Richard Froude, and I, at Counterpath (613 22nd Street, near downtown) in Denver.
Just finished reading Louise: Amended, by Louise Krug (Black Balloon 2012). It is ostensibly about the author/protagonist's transformation from glamor girl to sadder, wiser neurological patient - due to the necessity to excise a "cavernous angioma" from the pons of her brain stem. But it's at least as much about all the other people in her life - the boyfriend, the parents, the step-parents, friends, brothers, etc. - about their reactions to having a loved one with a serious, debilitating illness, and what those reactions say about and do to their respective characters. By switching back and forth from first to (omniscient) third person, Krug can get inside their heads - and face what they were facing without (herself) flinching. This part is almost scarier than when she looks in the mirror with a half-paralyzed face. You might occasionally flinch, though, as a reader - the prose is spare, straightforward, colloquial, and doesn't pull any punches. Even her own thoughts at the time of her treatments are related in matter-of-fact style - perhaps the trace of having started a career in journalism in a previous life.
"When the bandages are unwound from my head it takes a long time to get to the end. The unwinding happens in circles, and it takes so long I worry that my face will come off, too."
This book feels like it has undergone multiple surgeries, too. Many of the chapters are composed of related, sutured-together vignettes, some of which switch point of view from one person to another. But I suspect it has also had a few "prose removal" operations; the writing is (to change the metaphor) sculptural, almost. Not many adjectives or scene-settings - and when there are, it's done via a single quirky detail in the periphery. And Krug uses the chapter as a unit of composition. Here, for instance, is Chapter Twelve:
"Warner and Janet email.
"The emails begin with 'Hi' and 'Dear.' They end with 'Best.'
"One thing about the trouble with their daughter: It has made them want to be kind."
End of chapter - with all the ambiguity of that last sentence left hanging for the next. Some chapters are longer, of course, but every single sentence is necessary, smart, and sometimes funny. Louise: Amended is a unique, kinetic, & finely-polished book that will be the envy of any of us who have ever tried to tell a life story.
Matt Reeck's review of Things Come On (an amneoir) is live at Jacket2. It's an innovative text in its own right (en forme du glossary) and opens up a whole new set of issues, ramifications, and rhizomes in regards to the book. Thanks Matt and J2!
. . . or do we? Can we avoid them? An interesting discussion of these issues is at "We Ain't Written No Poetry" a blog out of a (rhetoric?) class at Emerson College - where my book Things Come On is made an example of - with reference to the work of my colleague Amy Devitt.
. . . I remembered one more - how could I forget? Historic Diary, by Tony Trigilio (BlazeVox). The story of Lee Harvey Oswald's life, leading up to the JFK assassination, told in (semi)formal verse, with a dash of conspiracy theory thrown in. Rachel Loden's "Nixon" books meet Edward Sanders' 1968. Not to be missed.
There's nothing like having a book out to get you to "Google yourself." A couple of interesting finds. First, Chris Schaeffer listed my book as his favorite of the year on his "top ten" list, at his blog, Ghost-Modernism. And Charlotte Pence mentioned it in her dissertation abstract (!). I'm so glad the book is being read and that people are finding value in it. Thank you!
(I still need to get a copy of A Masque of Poets, by Edward Joseph Harrington O'Brien.)
Author of Things Come On: (an amneoir) (Wesleyan University Press’ poetry series, 2011), earth day suite (Beard of Bees Press, Dec. 2010), Of Some Sky (Bedouin, forthcoming), and Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002).