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Jordan Davis
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I reject the suggestion that Koch needed distraction gambits to win at table tennis. He was an extremely focused competitor who used all of the table. As for his ranking, I have not had it confirmed whether he ever played ping pong against Ron Padgett, Gary Lenhart, or Chris Edgar, three tennis-playing New York School poets. I'll ask.
I first met Alison Stine in Austin, Texas, six years ago, having just missed being introduced to her two years before that in Chicago. Her poems are unlike any I'd known before then -- as her teacher Brigit Pegeen Kelly once remarked, she has a perfect ear. She is the author of two collections of poetry, the Vassar Miller Prize-winning Ohio Violence (UNT Press), and the Brittingham Award-winning Wait (Wisconsin). We spoke at our home in southeastern Ohio at ten p.m. last night. Q. So when did you first realize you could work out the ends of stories in the first few minutes you were hearing them? A When I was a kid, my dad brought home Splash. He said, “You’re really going to like this one, it’s about a man who falls in love with a mermaid. And do you know what happens at the end?” And I said, “He becomes a mermaid?” And my dad said, “Pretty much, yes.” And then I realized I didn’t enjoy some movies as much as my friends did, and some books as much as my friends did, because I could tell what was coming. It’s not as much fun if you always know what’s coming, only if you know what’s coming sometimes. Q But one of the things I remember best about first reading your blog, was that -- A Wait, when did you read my blog? Q Well, I think we were already married. A I remember reading your blog, and was mad that you didn’t mention my poems. Q Funny thing about that. A I thought, “This guy’s not worth my time!” This was three years before I met you. Q Yeah. So, about your blog. A You can edit that. Q Actually, I intend to use it. What I wondered about, after knowing you for a while and recalling reading your blog, is that…in your first two books there’s a fusion of these abilities to create the world and to move a story along very quickly. You don’t take two or three chapters, it’s within a few lines we know where we are and what’s happening, more or less, though very seldom where it’s going. You started as a playwright, and you always wanted to write novels-- A No, I started as a poet. It’s my mom’s fault. I would tell her stories and she wrote them down as poems. She’s an elementary school teacher so, I guess that was the form she was familiar with in working with children. I don’t know how she made the line breaks – you can take that up with her. Q When did you start writing plays? A Not until high school. Q How long had you been acting in plays by then? A I started when I was nine. I was very shy and someone suggested to my parents that making me get up in front of people and sing and dance would cure of that. Q What did you like... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, David. Envy is a constant in Poetryland, most definitely, and as toxic there as anywhere else. If I were going to have a complaint, which I'm not, but speaking hypothetically, it would be that poetry can always be grander, livelier, and truer than it has been. The concern with status and the next opportunity each poet feels seems, hypothetically of course, to get in the way of everyone's total focus on being delightful. As we know, and contrary to this hypothetical complaint, poetry is too strong too resilient to be kept down by poets for too long. It breaks through.
Required viewing for today's post: Flarf. Not a lot of middle ground in Poetryland on flarf -- you either hate it or you quote it. Even the name is rage litmus. I’ve given up defending it -- as a logical consequence of language poetry, as a healthy reaction to the moralizing one-upmanship of poetry communities, as a way out of what I’ve referred to elsewhere as the cul de sac. Now I just watch it filter into the culture. Not much else to do, really -- flarf is dead. I caught up with flarf co-founder Gary Sullivan last week for a drink. "The whole idea of flarf was to make something that wasn’t boring. That was the whole reason for its existence. I think we accomplished that here and there and with the group as a whole. But to me, the whole idea is: stuff is boring. How in God’s name are we going to do something that isn’t that horrible, awful," and here he trailed off into a series of adjectives that indicated to me I had another complaint to file under Airburgers. It's like anything else -- some of it I enjoyed then and enjoy now. Kasey Mohammad's Deer Head Nation, Katie Degentesh's Anger Scale, Nada Gordon's V. Imp held up the last time I read them. Drew Gardner's "Chicks Dig War" still sounds to me like a legitimate answer from Poetryland to the fake news shows on Comedy Central: By now, flarf's preoccupations -- squid, sloths, overemotional reactions, sarcastic aimless protesting -- have all gone mainstream. A little more than a decade after the first google sculptures were circulated via e-mail, flarf is being taught in MFA workshops and undergraduate literature classes. And that's about it. There's no anthology, no movie or television show about it, the country didn't erupt into a decade-long orgy of experimental art and social upheaval because of it, nobody has even gotten tenure explaining it. It did prompt some anxious mentions in the TLS, though, which was nice. But as for book deals, after parties and portraits by the staircase at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble (I know, I know)? Do a Twitter search, and notice how many names of flarf poets are mentioned there. I think that's what I like best about it. A group of poets got together and made a thing, and it stuck, and the poets more or less shared the credit for it. Because the work was slathered in profane and antisocial strangenesses, they sort of had to, in order to hold onto their livelihoods. Say what you will about flarf, that was a funny, happy, and to my mind admirable turn of events. No, seriously, say what you will about flarf. In the comments, that is. Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“Hello America let’s tell the truth!” -- Peter Schjeldahl, “To the National Arts Council” The correct answer, when asked about any poet living or dead, is “I love them.” Ask any poet you’ve ever heard of about any other poet you’ve ever heard of, and if they know what’s good for them, that’s how they’ll respond. (If they don’t, you probably won’t hear of them much longer, at least not about their poetry.) That said, I have never yet met a poet entirely satisfied with the state of affairs in Poetryland, myself excluded. I love it and know it to be the best of all possible worlds. I’m fascinated when anyone is discontented in the Republic of the Imagination. Over the years I’ve collected a few hundred complaints, which I’ve analyzed, removed references to individuals and institutions, and reduced to their essences. In all but a few cases, I can demonstrate that these conditions are not only unavoidable manifestations of the larger culture, but are also for the good of the art. I've also collected a few hundred variations on cole slaw. I asked the readers which they'd rather see -- complaints or cabbage (therefore the title of the post). Complaints won. Enough preamble. Here is the whine list: Fatalism. Not the philosophical kind that freshmen everywhere debate (if anyone tells you there's no free will, tickle them), but the belief that the game is rigged, it’s not how you write it’s whose influence you demonstrate, the editor has to know you, the big magazines / presses / anthologies simply aren’t an option for that kind of work, the Nineties tried your game, why bother sending work. Look. Rejection is an occupational hazard of poetry. You could win the Bollingen and still get a form slip in the mail with “Sorry” scrawled in pen. It’s terrible but what are the editors going to do, print everything? Besides, if you’re thinking more about your CV than about what makes a poem undeniable, you’re working too hard on the wrong thing. A poet I used to work for said he wrote every day not because he thought he was going to write something good every day, but because it was the best way he knew to have a chance at having written something good every year. Eye on the ball. More complaints after the jump. What are your (generalized, no names please) complaints about Poetryland? The Glut. Too many books. Thousands each year. As Yogi Berra said (about a restaurant), ”No one goes there nowadays, it's too crowded.” You would think we could count on basic Economics to work this one out on its own. Maybe it will. How did we get to this state of thousands of books of poems each year? Print-on-demand, the proliferation of MFAs, tenure, and the internet are yada yada answers. The cold true question is, who doesn’t want to bring out a book? And tell me in advance which books we can do without. Yours? The... Continue reading
Posted Feb 23, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Whew! I forgot how much work blogging is. Thank goodness it's Wednesday, half time. Speaking of which -- great billboard at the MD/WV border showing the WVU logo and the score from the Orange Bowl, with the legend: "Seventy isn't just our speed limit." Still here? Let me get out the good stuff. (Don't tell everyone who left early that they missed out. Actually, yes, tell them.) Here's poet-musician (and the houseband of my old talk show) Franklin Bruno singing "Two Knives." More writing tomorrow, and more videos after the jump... Kris Kristofferson is a natural resource, on a level with Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen or Patty Griffin. Don't hate him because he's beautiful. Hate him because he's a helicopter pilot movie star singer songwriter Rhodes Scholar. We tend to overvalue the cultural productions that hit us between the ages of 12 and 15, and my assessment of Lloyd Cole is no exception: he is the best singer-songwriter of the last thirty years. Unfortunately for him, the world (read: my age cohort) got wise to singer-songwriters. Bebe Manga's vocals and the horns on her 1980 hit "Ami O" are great -- but check that guitar line at the beginning. Don't tell me that's not Peter Buck playing, and two years before Chronic Town. "Ami O" is one of 183 tracks on the incomparable Africa 50 Years of Independence 50 Ans d'Indépendances set from Stern's. If you pick up only two anthologies this year, this should be one of them. Did you know there's footage of banjo great Buell Kazee on YouTube? This is the best news I've had since discovering No banjo on this track, but I do think David Sylvian's "Snow White in Appalachia" works in the elliptical narrative mode of some of the great folk and bluegrass ballads. Long and slow -- no instrumentation to speak of until 40 seconds in. Not for everybody, I suppose. I like it, though. Second act in today's half-time show... the voice of CD 101, Ms. Anita Baker. Let's make it stronger by bringing it down a notch. Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“She read my mind and slapped my face...” -- Bill Cox and Cliff Hobbs Here’s the thing: whatever you feel when you’re writing comes through for the reader, whether you or the reader are conscious of it or not. We have a mockingbird who comes to the porch feeders. Back when we had a bluebird house, the mockingbird ran off all the cowbirds and brown-headed blackbirds that monopolized the feeders and tried to substitute their eggs for the ones the bluebirds left. He’s got some nerve, and he keeps his own schedule. Months go by without a song, then he lets loose. I’ll open the window for as long as he’s on. When he’s not around, I look at the internet more. What was that take-the-top-of-the-head-off feeling, anyway, adrenaline? I’ve overheard more than one writer say they know they might be onto something if they get a little turned on while they write. The feeling that you’re maintaining interest, not simply performing to meet expectations, but actively engaged, which will usually produce a physiological result. You will feel it. This is what feeling means. You either hit it or you mark time, possibly admirably. The reason, as far as I can tell, that we all put all our energy into this thankless art, is that we each have a memory of being worked up by it. On the contact sheets, the portraits get better in waves, then the smiles subside. “What were you telling each of them just then,” I asked my friend. “The one about how to make holy water,” he said. I want to think for a poem to trigger this reaction it has to be unwilled, accidental, but then how would I classify speaking the unwanted truth. The whole stadium identifies with the left fielder, everyone jumping to their feet. The audience, or rather the reader, feels what the poet is feeling while she’s writing. When I say adrenaline, I don’t mean confrontation, shouting, melodrama, hyperactivity, necessarily. I have defenses against these easy methods of getting a rise out of me, and I assume other people do too. But I enjoy them sometimes, in small doses. Some people have a thing for novelty, for constantly absorbing something new. And then there’s the rush of traveling with the herd, of having your experience validated by others. And the pleasure of familiarity, of returning to what you know. Methods are just methods. They might work, if nobody sees them coming. Writing isn’t only about feeling; can’t necessarily control it. A good way to avoid having much feeling come through -- talk about nothing. When Steve McCaffery read at Poetry City, he ended one poem by holding the page up to his face and splitting it with his tongue. I admired the nerve, but was repelled by the gesture. An extreme case of something coming through. There’s very little agreement about what poems are supposed to do, and that’s fine. One of the most admirable things about poetry is that... Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
For “obscure poetry” read “dignity.” Read “personal information.” Say exactly what you mean, tell it exactly as it happened. You don’t have to hedge on specifics out of fear the reader won’t know what you’re talking about. Whatever provoked the poem, whatever cliff face you clung to in the night after your saint’s day, name it. Any strange name will be found, now. Here, have some Kaiserschmarrn. That time you fell asleep on the subway. Days in Zuccotti Park. The spectacular breakup and the aftershocks, the friends egging each of them on. Or just the overdue fines on Irony, Contingency and Solidarity, the Grundrisse, The Anarchist Cookbook. Every effort at totalizing human knowledge ends with the capture and destruction of that library. And then again, maybe not -- the encyclopedia led not to the fall of French enlightenment but to its apotheosis -- the Revolution. The kingdom will be yours, but first you will need to tell us your story, all of it, especially the parts no one must know. Those are the most important parts, and they alone will assure you the kingdom. Dick Cheney led the Vice Presidential search committee. I remember the first time I used Google how clean the page was, no ads, no banners, no headlines. Just, “I’m feeling lucky.” Spoken like an enduring cultural icon of masculinity. Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches: “All savages appear to possess, to an uncommon degree, this power of mimicry. I was told, almost in the same words, of the same ludicrous habit among the Caffres: the Australians, likewise, have long been notorious for being able to imitate and describe the gait of any man, so that he may be recognized. How can this faculty be explained? is it a consequence of the more practiced habits of perception and keener senses, common to all men in a savage state, as compared with those long civilized?” Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: “In days gone by, it was not uncommon to buy loaves of levain bread that weighed in excess of a dozen pounds. What a marvelous sight that must have been!” C.M. Bowra’s Poetry and Politics: “Poets became easy victims of ideas so vapid that even the public found little attraction in them.” Secrecy causes lying. Security clearances throttle the flow of information upwards. We work with limited information about a moving target while our faculties decline. How much storage would you need to take a copy of all public domain material? The 15 terabyte statistic doesn’t seem to be circulating anymore. But you can get a terabyte for less than $100. A silver briefcase could hold enough drives, I’d imagine. So on the logic of cell phone miniaturization, it should be a pack of cards by 2020. It won’t do much good to put these packs of cards in every child’s backpack if their parents have no time to read along and talk with them about it. Data is fragile, as are learning and civilization. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu -- transclusive copyright... Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Eighty is a mild road. There are a few scraped hills that verge on picturesque, there are cooling towers, there are valleys strewn with silage and barns. The speed traps all telegraph themselves a mile away except for that one hummock outside Buckhorn. Tree-covered ridges look nice in sun, clouds, mud, best of all after an ice storm, of which I think there must have been one a week all winter last year. But the monotony! The changes -- in elevation, in landscape, in the local papers -- are so gradual they don't take any effort. The highway food doesn't do much for me, other than the Wawa at the 476 interchange. The Sapp Bros coffee pot, the Gio BBQ billboard, the bizarrely crusted steak on the Iron Skillet sign somewhere between Grove City and Clarion... Gabe Gudding writes about this road, or rather ON this road, in Rhode Island Notebook. (In it, he claims to have mailed me a dead fly. Never got to me, Gabe -- send it again.) He praises the Shenango, a nubbly little thing but it marks the transition from Ohio to Pennsylvania, and it’s as far from his starting point as my destination is from mine. At the Shenango River sign, he’s almost half way. Last November I had the bright idea that a decent meal might be had in State College. I wound around past the prison, the football temple, the center with my name on it, and wound up on the main drag, Beaver Street, around dinner. Success: the Green Bowl serves Mongolian style buffet stir fry, fresh vegetables and a little protein, tasty and reasonable, students, faculty and families crowded in and cheerful about it. I thought, what a good vibe hurray, and made the second half of the trip without snack pain or cramps from Arby's. Made a note to get to know the town better. The next morning, mentioning dinner to my wife's family, we all noticed State College was on the tv news. I like anthologies. You go to them knowing one poem one writer, you’ve heard a name, maybe, or maybe you just want to go on vacation there be from there. And you wade through just the worst drivel, a few seconds from flinging the book when a line sounds not at all like the others, not what you expected but as good as what you expected to be there. You keep reading, by side-eye probably, but you’re still there. A single good poem gives you enough momentum, if you can read it a few times and want to come back to it, to get through a lot. That curve in the ridge at Nescopeck, that one farm somewhere between Akron and Emlenton I always turn to notice, the barn covered in solar panels. The camps at Lake Milton, Ohio, the warehouses of Milton, PA. Sometimes while driving I dictate reviews into a voice recorder, usually I put on one of the 100-song anthologies from JSP... Continue reading
Posted Feb 19, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 17, 2012