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John Beer
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In the spirit of PiL's American Bandstand appearance, I thought it'd be a good idea to share my guest spot with some guest guest contributors. *** I asked a passel of illustrious commentators to respond to this question: Can you recommend a "neglected classic," i.e. a work (not necessarily literary) that has real significance to you that you think is generally un- or underappreciated? (The "classic" language is by no means meant to limit things, temporally or otherwise.) And the results are in! Tisa Bryant: Eyeball A groundbreaking African diasporic literary publication from 1992-2002 edited by Jabari Asim and Ira B. Jones in Philadelphia, Eyeball featured poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, visual art and interviews displaying a range of artists and aesthetic practice, including Paul Beatty, Esther Iverem, John R. Keene, Clarence Major, Lisa Teasley, Askia M. Toure, Jerry Ward, the collective vision and individual visions of both DrumVoices and the Eugene B. Redmond writers, and Gwendolyn Brooks on Audre Lorde. At present, an archival set of Eyeball is unavailable to writers and researchers. Yale graduate student Claire Schwartz leads a project to remedy that, via donations of back issues, at Timothy Donnelly: What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich) I have pretty specific tastes in movies. My favorites are Mulholland Drive, The Shining, and Vertigo. Sometimes the order I rank them in changes but right now it happens to be alphabetical. Darkness, obsession, existential weightiness, tragic fatalism, the supernatural, and impossible formal beauty are what I want in a movie, and all three of these give me as much as I could ever hope for and then some. It’s odd, then, that my fourth favorite movie, or maybe it’s my fifth, isn’t anything like these others at all. In fact, it’s a G-rated comedy—1972’s What’s Up, Doc? You probably haven’t seen it. Paying homage to old Bugs Bunny cartoons and the screwball comedies of the 30s (weird to think the 30s were as far back in 1972 as 1972 is to us now), What’s Up Doc? stars a young Ryan O’Neal and an even younger Barbara Streisand, skin all tanned and eyes wild blue, and it costars an amazing lineup of character actors, including the scene-stealing Madeline Kahn, here in her first feature role. It was directed by the great Peter Bogdanovich, better known for the movies he made just before and after What’s Up, Doc?, namely The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973). Those you’ve probably seen. What makes What’s Up, Doc? a favorite of mine, aside from its performances and my nostalgia for it, is its relentlessly witty, intricate, and just plain madcap script. Written by Bogdanovich, the whip-smart Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton, What’s Up, Doc? is full of fast-talk, banter, wordplay, puns, allusions, pastiche, and inspired nonsense. The speed with which it barrels forward from one absurdity to the next stimulates me in a way analogous to how my other favorite movies’ terror and beauty do. And come to think of it, it’s... Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
The work of criticism is always, let’s say, ephemeral; Saint-Beuve’s name survives only because Proust was against him. Even more fleeting are the reactions of the mere reviewer. “No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” sniffs Renata Adler in her screed against Pauline Kael. So the outpouring of emotion in the wake of Roger Ebert’s death might seem a transitory thing; already, the passing of the Iron Lady (of whom more later) has moved him off the screens. The rise of Siskel and Ebert neatly paralleled in time the switch from the decade-long Prague Spring of New Hollywood to the blockbuster-driven economy still churning its way through the Marvel and DC lineups. Even if Ebert’s courage and openness in the face of his disfiguring illness and his resolute identity as a newspaper journalist in the twilight of that industry render him heroic, he and his partner might still seem like emblems in a narrative of cultural decline, banally and profitably celebrating the culture industry’s assembly line, whatever caveats they might have about individual products. But I want to offer a different view. Sneak Previews and its successors enjoyed an astounding success, given how unpromising the show’s basic structure might have seemed: two untelegenic, middle-aged white guys bickering about movie clips. The show operated on the premise that arguing about culture could draw a mass audience. And it did. “Thumbs up or down” may have been the takeaway message, but both critics made clear that those decisions were made for reasons, and reasons that each would emphatically try to make the other acknowledge. Maybe those arguments weren’t always the most sophisticated. And maybe the very act of treating Weekend at Bernie’s 2 as worthy of detailed consideration was as much a con as it was a tribute to critical open-mindedness. But in their humble way, Siskel and Ebert offered a model of rationality, one on which thinking wasn’t a matter of following an algorithm or asserting a purely subjective preference. In other words, it was a humanistic kind of education. And it strikes me that poetry criticism, that much-lamented field, could do with more of a dose of At the Movies-style debate. We have our dramatic flareups, as with the fascinating byplay between Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich last year. But too often, even when critical disagreements break out, they either proceed at an austere level of abstraction or wind up with people talking past one another. I’d love to see a pair of writers devote themselves to detailed and contentious consideration of recent books or poems of note. There are some excellent examples approximating this: Al Filreis’s Poem Talk, for instance, or the byplay between Christian Wiman and Don Share on the Poetry podcast, but I think there’s room for a similar effort that's neither tied to a particular publication nor emphasizing a scholarly conversation. *** The use of thumbs... Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
This is perhaps my favorite piece of conceptual writing. *** Over the weekend I found myself in the judges' room for a high school Speech & Debate final (true story!). I asked one of the English teachers there whether poetry was a hard sell to her students, thinking I suppose of the oft-stated consensus that of all the genres poetry's the most resistant, the least popular, the swath of the textbook one rushes past to get to the plotty parts. "Not at all," she said, whether because they thrive on its intensity or simply through their tech- & hip-hop-enabled comfort with compression and linguistic multifariousness. “The problem is novels. It’s very hard to convince them that reading anything lengthy is worthwhile.” *** What the villagers call that empty space of weeds, that grove or knoll where my mother was baptized. Not __________, but ___________. Not церква but коcтьол, kościół, the word in the banished tongue. Shibboleth? [can’t hear you.] Ear of corn? [can’t make out the word.] She coughs. The body’s own water pools in the crevice of her clavicle. The wind ripples the lake so shallow now that no fish can winter there. (I are my ownenemymemory) [river] [flick] [flicker] (The Unmemntioable, Erin Moure, House of Anansi, 2012) In addition to writing some of the most singular books of poetry of the last decade (2002’s O Cidadán, 2009’s Expeditions of a Chimaera with Oana Avasilichioaei, 2010’s O Resplandor, among others), Moure has published translations of the equally uncategorizable Galician poet Chus Pato, as well as a brilliant translation/reimagination of O Guardador de Rebanhos by Fernando Pessoa, or by his heteronym Alberto Caeiro. Pessoa famously recalibrated the task of the poet as the creation of personae rather than poems, conjuring the myriad personalities who then undertook the labor of drafting the writings associated with his name. Moure gives the adventure of Pessoan heteronymity a political and sociolinguistic spin; as the above passage suggests, her work crosses and recrosses geographic and linguistic boundaries as it details its author’s encounters with real and imagined figures and events. Pato figures tangentially as a correspondent, while more central is the elusive Elisa Sampedrin, an authorial alter ego who appeared previously in O Resplandor. Sampedrin reflects upon Moure as Moure reflects upon the dark history that sent her own mother from the Ukraine to Canada in the first half of the last century. Naturally enough, both Moure’s champions and her detractors tend to frame her work in relation to the post-structuralist theory that has informed avant-garde writing for almost two generations now. One will encounter citations of Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Agamben in her writing, and the passage above with its fragmentation and erasures invites assimilation to the familiar gestures of language and post-language writing. But the heteronym is both an anticipation of and a deviation from the vertiginous deconstructions of later theory. Pessoa’s writings offer us a vision of identity plural and dispersed, circulating through the linguistic productions of a system of personae. But... Continue reading
Posted Apr 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 4, 2013