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Damon McLaughlin
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For my last trick this week, I’m going to write about some ideas I had when at Toad Hall. I think we were talking about Flarf and Language poetry when one of us—or maybe I thought of this after the fact . . . I can’t remember—voiced a unique theory on their origins: so many resources and years and years of traditions and movements had become available to us poets, we suddenly had to dump the excess. That is to say—we had to use the excess, even if it was garbage, because it was there and we could. These movements, then, arose less as rebellion than as corollary. They weren’t commentaries but consequences. While I appreciate the original Language poets for their innovation and application of theory and politics to political practice, I don’t often love their poems. I enjoy the experiment—and have learned from it—but I find much of the emotion in that poetry stilted, and that’s just not my personal preference. Whether the poems are accessible, so to speak, is inconsequential. Generally I can’t (and shouldn’t) approach an Armantrout piece with the same lens I use for a Collins poem, so I’m not bothered when I don’t get it—anyway that’s rarely the point of any poem. As for Flarf, I think—so what? When things are new, they’re exciting and sharp. Over time, much sloppiness ensues. At the same time I can’t help but think how wonderful it is we live during these (according to theory) excessive, extravagant years in which movements like Flarf can germinate and be popularized, in which we can grant time for these art forms, to not tax the rich, to have lockouts over the salaries of professional athletes, to afford personal computers in all shapes and sizes and—nearly—in all things, to market almost any extravagantly unnecessary item and, in an ironic twist, deem it a must-have even in these dire times because well—why not? If we want, we need. If we can, we must. It’s a basic, underlying proposition of the United States of America. Jared Diamond and Denis Dutton speak to this rule of excess and extravagance in their books Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Art Instinct respectively. Each, in his way, discusses how art—in terms of its social production and appreciation—is the result of a civilization’s having made it in the world. While all societies have their arts, only those having achieved a certain degree of size, stability, and success (I use these terms quite loosely) can actively promote and fund such wasteful enterprises. Diamond explains this in terms of agriculture and food production: once certain grasses were domesticated, once certain animals were domesticated, no longer did human beings have to spend their days hunting, gathering, and laying low in-between to conserve energy. An increase in calories coupled with a decrease in per capita effort to produce them resulted in a surplus of energy that could now be used to build and support other things, namely full-time professions that otherwise couldn’t... Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
The Chicago Marathon is just around the corner on October 9. My brother and his wife will be running it. I think they’re crazy. But, because my plans to hear Charles Alexander of Chax Press talk about Emily Dickinson last night fell through, I find myself thinking about running and not about Dickinson. I was thinking of writing about Carl Philips, Kay Ryan as inheritors of her poetics, of maybe linking that to last night’s aforementioned The Big Read kickoff, but alas. I’m thinking instead of marathons. The closest I’ve come to running a marathon was this summer when I ran a half-marathon on the Douglas Springs Trail in Saguaro National Park. To the springs and back is just over 13.1 miles with a net elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. I was pretty impressed with myself. I got a Jamba Juice afterward. But what I wish to say about it is that my brain did a strange thing during that run: it shut off. Usually when I’m jogging (a normal distance), my mind wanders all kinds of places, writes all sorts of incredibly, wonderful poems later to be forgotten, composes music, etc.—it’s a meditation (you can read a related article about exercise and creativity from the Creative Research Journal titled “Aerobic Exercise and Creative Potential: Immediate and Residual Effects” by going here But on that long run up to the springs and back, my brain more or less went silent. I remember thinking how weird it was. I was cognizant of the quiet…but couldn’t instigate thought much beyond the empirical observation of it—of its absence. And when I say thought—I truly mean thought. Other than thinking about placing my feet solidly on the trail, watching for rattlesnakes, and telling myself how much my legs didn’t burn or how thirsty I wasn’t feeling, I don’t remember thinking about much of anything. Certainly no incredibly, wonderful poems were being written. All my energy must have gone to my legs, leaving only that reptilian machinery of my brain fully functional. Initially I was worried. Was my lack of mental music a sign of age? Was I out of practice? Had the physical demands of the run simply taxed more of the mind than usual, reappropriating available resources? That must be the case, I’m sure. Regardless, this experience has me wondering about the mind-body connection, about—specifically as a writer—how what I do on the corporeal end of things affects how I am on the cerebral end of things. It seems obvious that true physical demands can and will overtake those needs of the conscious, wandering mind, but I’m curious about more subtle activities, the small demands like eating and drinking that many of us—in a fit of writing—can take for granted and, thus, forget. At some point we meet them with a trip to the fridge or the grocery store or what-have-you (if you are a “starving” artist, I implore you to reassess your priorities), but is it possible such habits—such things... Continue reading
Posted Sep 23, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Interesting you bring up Wittgenstein -- I'm pretty sure Boroditzky mentions that exact statement in her lecture. And thanks for the comment, Leslie.
In his initial discussion of tone languages in Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniriddh D. Patel writes briefly of the Chinantec, an indigenous people of southern Mexico, who utilize a whistled speech in addition to their tonal, spoken word. They use whistle combinations “of tone and stress distinctions to communicate messages with minimal ambiguity.” And he’s not talking about a hey! or an over here! or some ridiculous catcall. He’s suggesting they actually have a whistle language. Patel quotes D.P. Foris, a linguist who has studied the Chinantec: Virtually anything that can be expressed by speech can be communicated by whistling [by the Chinantec]. The most complex example that I had interpreted for me was on the occasion that the supply plane was due to come in. Because of heavy rains, I checked the dirt airstrip for erosion and saw that it needed extensive repairs. I went to the town president and explained the need for immediate repairs, a job that was the responsibility of the town police in those days. The town is set in a horseshoe-shaped hillside; his house is at one end of the “arm,” with the town hall at the centre, about 1/2 a kilometer away. He put his fingers in his mouth and whistled to get their attention. They responded that they were listening, and he whistled a long message. I asked for the interpretation, which he gave as the following: “The plane will be here soon. The airstrip needs to be repaired. Get the picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows and fix it right away." If what Foris claims is true, then this Chinantec whistling business is insane. It makes me believe there’s a whole other realm—other realms—of word out there. Speaking in whistle? Please. A talking drum is crazy enough—but whistling? What else am I missing out on? A related story comes to mind about the language of a particular Aboriginal group in Australia. I heard it recently on a podcast of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking (SALT) that featured cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky. She was lecturing about how language shapes thought and uses the Aborigines (I cannot pick up their specific name clearly enough from the podcast to spell it here) to that end. Rather than use words for left and right, they use cardinal directions for everything. So, we say left arm, right arm. They say something more like my arm that is to the south-southwest. Actually, as I type this, the arm of which I speak is more like that which is to the east-southeast. I’m not really sure. In fact, case in point, Boroditsky asks her audience, predominantly native English speakers, to point to the southwest. People point in every direction possible. She says had Aborigines been asked the same question, every one of them young and old would have pointed directly and accurately to the southwest. Think about it: if they didn’t know which way was which, they’d be lost—no different than if we couldn’t tell... Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Sure, I don't see why not. Really, the self is beside the point, so "not knowing" probably isn't that big of a concern... although I personally find it handy to discover where "I" stand in a piece so I can push my self to the side and get down to the real business of poem making. That's usually when I make my best revisions -- when I have no attachments to the writing, as though the self/original-maker of the poem is no longer present.
Couldn't agree more. I don't think poets need be particularly emo, and I don't think poets particularly want to read emo--at least I don't.
A few days ago, poet Cameron Scott sent out an email that asked “What role should ‘the self’ play in a poem? In other words should a poem be about the self as little as possible, or what the heck, it’s all about me?” He’s a contributing editor for CheekTeeth, the blog for Trachodon Magazine, and is looking to incorporates responses into a future post. With his permission, I asked that I respond here at Best American Poetry. And this is what I have to say. In some ways, I feel like the issue is moot, yet it must be essential to the human (thinking) condition because it’s been a recurring issue in Western thought at least since Plato. His viewpoint was based in his theory of essential forms, the human soul (as opposed to self) a complex form comprised of a rational, spirited, and bodily element. Plato’s version of the soul as an essential form, and therefore separate from the body, is in part the root of what later becomes the ghost in the machine, as coined by Ryle in the last century, as conceived by Descartes in the 1600s. Aristotle, in contrast, argued the human soul was not separate from the body but rather more like an oak is to its acorn, that essential (Platonic) form is the purpose that the matter serves, a being-thing the result of a unity of its form and matter (in poetry, its form and content?). I see this viewpoint evolving into more of the blank slate theory of self, traced to Locke in the 1600s. In more recent times, we have social constructionism and essentialism—constructionism, I think, currently winning the battle. In modern and contemporary poetry, we see this battle being waged across the field of the last century with the relative fall of received forms and the greater reception (that’s not the best way to put any of this…) of avant-garde forms. Tony Hoagland sort of follows this trajectory in his recent article on the New York School in The Writer’s Chronicle. To bring it back to Cameron Scott’s opening inquiry, we see the “role of self,” at one extreme with the Confessionalists and at another with language poets and those whose fragmented, distracted poems leave the construction of the self, speaker, etc. up to the best guesses of their readers. I like Hoagland’s ending comment in the Chronicle about it: “If the Confessionals shrank the compass of our poetry to a narcissistic focus on the personal…. The hapless, wonky, distracted poems of the moment evade the whole issue.” To more directly respond to Scott’s question, then, and with all of the above in mind, I tend to think of my “self” as an innate effect of the physiology that produces it (me), of the experience that helps shape and build the genetic blueprint for said physiology. I certainly don’t believe in the blank slate, a theory that can deny human nature, but I don’t buy theories of essentialism either. I... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
When my mother and I were recently, briefly in Boston, she wouldn’t try oysters. We’d been in New Hampshire at Toad Hall (see previous post), and that day Legal Harborside was our final destination before we headed out. We had just enough time for lunch before returning our rental car and catching our planes. Like my mother, I too had never tried oysters before Legal, but with rare exception I am a seafood lover and always have been. When I was a kid, I once ate some 30 individual pieces of fish at a fish fry: bluegill, crappie, walleye, bullhead—whatever the catch had been from local ponds and the Mississippi, which was just down the road. Oh, my love for fish! Such gorging made me sick, to tell the truth, but after a year or so I was back on track as a fish loving fool. Then there was the night I kicked this lopped-off, gray-brown catfish head the size of a softball. One of the dogs must have it hauled out of the neighbor’s garbage, and I—a good-natured, pre-adolescent boy—gave that sucker a swiftly running thwack! Only instead of a thwack! it was more of a spluuuugh . . . as my foot swept through that mushy head like it was rice pudding—all those fly babies staring up with disgust, that decomposing fish smell swimming into my nose even now, many years later as I recount the event. But my love for soon fish returns. I try sushi for the first time. Forget about it. I eat mussels. Delicious! I try caviar on a little piece of toast. Disgusting! But then I learn from Andrew Zimmern that what I ate was probably low quality, over-processed salmon roe. Zimmern, who’s eaten some disgusting crap I would never consider, has convinced me the real deal is a delicacy. I’d like to try crayfish, too, and many other odd sorts of aquatic delights. They may be nothing exciting to you, but I grew up in the Midwest about as far from . . . the ocean as you can get. I grew up on, yes, fish frys, but also on pot roasts and potatoes, BLTs, venison, more potatoes, cucumbers, corn, raspberries and strawberries when they were in season, and more corn. Going out for seafood meant heading down the road to Eichman’s, which was attached to a gas station, for a basket of French fries and heavily battered popcorn ship, which I thought was delicious. And it probably was. Anyway—I find myself with my mother in Boston, and we’re going to eat lobster since neither of us normally can get or afford quality, fresh lobster in our respective states of Arizona and Iowa. She orders a lobster salad, and I order a lobster reddened to perfection—the whole beast—fries on the side. And the oysters, of course. I bow to the server’s choice since I don’t know what to select. She brings out a Bluepoint, a Wellfleet, and a Raspberry Point in that... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you, Maria. And (I can't resist) I'll be here all week ; )
Thank you, Grace.
Thank you, Leslie. You said it exactly.
Thanks, Terence.
I was listening to a lecture at the Poetry Foundation the other day when I jotted down this little Brenda Hillman tidbit: “For the lover of poetry, there is a disequilibrium between himself and the world that nothing satisfies but poetry.” For one of my posts here, I was going to write about the manic state, itself an imbalance, into which poetry can thrust me, the effects of such a state, and to discuss that state in terms of writer’s process. Then I heard Hillman and was like—that’s it, that’s what I was hoping to say. My wife, who is not a lover of poetry, agrees with Hillman’s declaration—at least for the strange case of her husband. At her gentlest, she says I’m in my head; at her most honest, she says I’m not living in reality. But I doubt that’s the case, right? Disequilibrium…hmmm, yes. The problem is—poetry, more often the writing than the reading of it, leaves me deranged. I get writer’s high, float around in a cloud of chemical happiness for hours to days, and do my best to interact with others, namely my wife and children, who will say I do not always succeed, and to remember routine things like eating and showering—well, using soap while showering. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve taken a shower in the wrong mental place and forgotten to use soap, etc. It’s embarrassing. So, disequilibrium, yes. It is difficult to stay balanced. Not enough poetry, I can slip off the deep end. Too much of it, an acute moment of it, I can disappear into the stars. And for all the other things I love, it’s strange to me that poetry or a lack of it routinely has these effects. It’s like—it taps into a hidden range of emotions and mentalities that are reserved solely for it, neither better nor worse than other adorations and their respective, equal states of heart and mind, but nevertheless reserved, untapped by others. This very much came to a head at the end of July when I had the fortunate pleasure of spending a week at the Toad Hall Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat in New Hampshire. More or less for the last decade, I’ve been a poetry hermit, you must understand. I’ve had some successes in that time, have published sporadically, but mostly I excused myself from social interaction with other poets, writers, and such of the community. No man is an island, so I hear, but that’s more or less how I was living. So going to Toad Hall was an experience far different than any other I’d had, given my past practices. And it was awesome—both socially and personally, it rocked. The distractions of daily living absent, I binged, baby, and I binged hard (for the record, I did shower with soap and remember to eat, and may I say I ate very well—Maria Van Beuren’s chef at Toad Hall is fantastic). It took a good four weeks, I’d say,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Hey Leslie. Interesting insights into the judging of this year's contest, and I like how you describe (in part 1) White's poems as having a simultaneous Zen sensibility and postmodern worldview -- paradoxical, to my understanding. Looking forward to the book when it releases.
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Sep 7, 2011