Nov 13, 2009

Going to Tulsa for Alice

In all my years in New York City attending, drinking in, absorbing public poetry, I have chronically missed hearing one of my favorite writers read -- Alice Notley. There’s always been a logical reason for any “missed” events. One time, Notley was appearing at the Wednesday night Poetry Project, but I was teaching a class in Harlem. Another time, Notley was giving a poetry workshop and reading out in New Jersey. I would have signed up for that workshop and reading, but, alas, it was OUT in New Jersey – as in way “out.” While I don’t have anything against New Jersey I somehow find it to be another planet. I ignored the ad. And yet another time -- this was perhaps a year ago -- I found a notice on Poetics List mentioning that Notley was reading at “Columbia.” I e-mailed a poet-friend who was just back in Manhattan and I invited her to go with me. I had to cancel our date later when I reread the notice and found that Notley was appearing at Columbia College. In Chicago.

I live but 15 or 20 blocks from the East Village, where Notley made her poetry career in the ’hood of St. Marks. OK, I missed that generational scene by a couple of decades, and Notley lives in Paris now, and I’m sure that’s why I have found it hard to bump into her on my New York street.

But I had finally come to think it impossible -- Impossible! (en francais) – to ever hear such lines as these out loud, from the voice of a beloved woman-bard, who could write of the Mysteries of Small Houses and enter my mysteries of small houses, too:

I’ll give you what I know if you’ll
give too
of course I’ll go as far towards
world as supposed to I’m
a good girl
though I won’t lose my darkness what
else do I have ….

-- “1965”

Through I won’t lose my darkness… “ Seemingly throw-away lines, but who else could write them? Who else could imbue such simple-sounding prose-like speech-like syntax with this volcanic feminist fervor that is not rage but emotional sense? Who else could make that all make sense, in the profound knowledge of being “a good girl” in the flesh of “darkness”?

In the back of my brain, I’ve been looking for “Alice” for a long time: not maybe Alice Notley herself, but the "Alice" in my own mind who could play with all these oppositions, and mock conventional imagery in sexual jokes:

Allen comes in and says, this smells of speed that cum on your pants?
No, Elmer’s glue of course

-- “The Year of the Premonitory Dream That Ted and Steve Left Me”

And all those fabulous poetry “fucks” from her great work Disobedience that gave me if not the pen and paper but the female balls to write of my own gender angst. As Notley remarks in a recent interview about this work:

“My conclusion at the end is that to be a woman is to have the world against you, basically, and that you have to be very very wary. It's that you shouldn't go along with anyone or any group—either of men or women—you have to start at the point that is yourself, or you'll wind up being involved in a lot of lies.”

Who could say it better, but Alice?

Mais, oui . . . you can’t go “along with … any group," and thus I must give up “logic” to get it back. There I was -- scanning Poetics List again. And I saw that Alice Notley was to be both reader and keynote speaker at a conference called the Tulsa School of Poetics. Tulsa school of poetics? I cackled. I thought the organizers must have had a great sense of humor. But this was Alice Notley's gig and didn’t that make such great poetic (non)sense for me: to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to hear Alice Notley read poetry when I could never find her in New York?


Although I grew up with parents who ritualistically would pile us all in the car and go and so I coursed most of the 48 contiguous states -- especially Western and Midwestern -- during my childhood, I never made it to Oklahoma in that dingy Ford station wagon or the gold Buick or in the lime-green Mustang my mother would fly off in by herself when she was sick of us kids.

And while I had lived 7 years as a child in the unforgiven land of South Dakota, I polished up my adolescence in a move at 13 to the Arizona desert. I’ve lived in New York more or less for the past 18 years. But I recalled that Notley, while one of the bohemian poetess-leaders of the St. Marks School of Poetics, was herself raised in a little Western desert town called Needles, one of those border towns along the California-Arizona divide known as the Colorado watershed basin. I’ve often wondered if I didn’t viscerally respond to her poetry because she is a Downtown NYC poet from the West. How well I know those lived images of desert rat holes, beautiful and stark under pale purple shadows:

There’s a big moon
Over the Desert Inn Motel
The wall across the alley

I’m now who I’ll be, as I say…

From “House of Self”

Those of us who grow up in the Western wilderness of so many Desert Inn motels living with the men who still wear cowboy boots whether cow-boy or not and with the independent women who decide to be whomever they seem fit to be but do not ever use the word “feminist” – what some New Yorkers might call the “backwater” towns -- might read a poem like “House of Self” and imagine it to be our own fractured, cracked-soiled inner map:

Still empty morning house

Stand in here a minute
The sky’s really plain, as usual….

Tulsa, Oklahoma, like me, perhaps, if not perhaps like Alice Notley, is poised somewhere between the Great Plains flatlands and the expansive Western deserts and nothingness -- sheer nothingness -- itself.

The kid kicking me in the back of my American Airlines seat all the way on the New York to Chicago flight is pulling my hair and screaming and he may be viral. “He’s a happy child,” says the flight attendant, who gives me a gooey chocolate chip cookie instead of kicking the kid in the pants. I am arriving in Tulsa with a big headache.
The sweet scent of ragweed filtering the Plains winds. Somewhere in my South Dakota childhood, I am thinking: I need some poetry.

I need a drink.

I’m in Downtown Tulsa. Or at least that’s what the airport shuttle driver says. But -- Where’s the “downtown”? All I see are empty-looking brick boxes. Is this the site where Alice Notley is going to read, I wonder? As a Desert Rat and Plains Wanderer, I feel strangely at home in this Absence.

I find the cash bar set up for the conference, but stick to Selzer water. The headache from the kicking kid and now these winds is pounding. I introduce myself to the woman who looks like she might be Alice Notley. She is a calm, centered being; she has the lines of life in her face. I tell her I’m her groupie. She doesn’t look amused. Then, she grins and points across the room to the men she calls “my three sons.” (They are Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, and her step-son David Berrigan, the elder of Ted Berrigan’s “boys" and the only one who isn't a poet.) They all grin back. They look proud of “Mom.” She looks serenely in love with them.

The poetry reading is about to start. Alice disappears behind a podium labeled with a fake-gold plaque shouting with the logo: DOUBLETREE INN. I look longingly at the plastic cups of red wine that are emptying fast. Forget the Selzer! Following the example of one of the young Berrigans, I slip a plastic cup under my arm and into the Doubletree Inn conference suite to hear Alice.

One of the pieces she first reads comes with a bombshell title: “The Suicide of Another Year.” Notley introduces her next piece, from a manuscript, entitled, Reason and Other Women. I gasp. Here was that “mysterious” Notley “book” I could never find. Years ago I had fallen in love with a short poem from this series, published in the journal 6ix, “The Icon Am I Burning.” It’s powerful play on “icons” and “mosaics” formed a tangential feed into my own personal vision of what a fractured sense of language and line could do and how it could un-say anything said through such visual-verbal motifs. The lines read like a graphic song:

power be song you or is it i I am used some are never and one becomes painted in
order to be food with a lot of painted paint on the frayed or blurred face i am used i
used to be user . . . .

from “The Icon Am I Burning”

This work fractures not only syntax through parataxis but kind of “crushes” the words and phrasing as if a “mosaic,” turning away from the “reason” of traditional logic and searching for “another” logic, perhaps a “woman” logic -- coming as it does from unheralded cultural "visual-verbal" spaces. At the reading, Notley explained that this “10-year-old manuscript” would soon be seeing the light of publication thanks to the efforts of Charles Alexander (also in this audience), of Chax Press.

Notley concludes the reading with dialogue from her “fiction” manuscript, which she has been writing in Paris but whose “real” characters seem to jump comic-book-like right out of a funky, untidy Arizona bar (surrounded by sprawling condo developments). The persona have names (Alice seems to get a thrill making up names) like “Sue Love.” And they say the funniest things. I wrote down some of the dialogue:

What are you a woman --what’s that?

My horoscope says give everyone air kisses this week.

I want not to have been on the margin pretending to be good.

You dumb blur.

Most of what happens is a lie.

Do I have a future? I think it’s called discontentment.

Observe your thoughts. Are they poetry? No.

Notley, along with her first husband, Ted Berrigan (who died in 1983), and other “Second Generation” New York Poets like Bernadette Mayer and Ann Waldman and Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup have always been asking us to “observe” our “thoughts.” They also have been asking us in that same context: What is poetry? Is it the “poem”? Or is it “thought” posed in some un-categorized form? In the early years of the St. Marks School, I see the continuation of this conceptual mode of poetics centered upon "thought," as well as the multi-media or hybrid poetries that work with both music and the visual arts – brought forward earlier by the “First Generation,” including John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. And it turns out that some of those “Second Generation” poets had infinitely complex, “wandering” kinds of lives – that they were not at all rooted in the East Village, at least not originally.

Some of them came from Tulsa, it turns out. This I learned at the Tulsa School of Poetics in spite of myself. Ted Berrigan was a young man just out of the military and getting a master’s degree on the G.I. bill at the University of Tulsa in the late 1950’s when, long before meeting Alice, he met three Tulsa high-school boys who liked to write strange verse: Gallup, Padgett, and Joe Brainard. Brainard died in the 1990’s, but Gallup and Padgett are alive and kicking and they also were participants at the conference -- like Alice and her sons. At a Berrigan-sons reading, Anselm generously channeled Brainard, reading Brainard’s tour de force piece, “I Remember.” Edmund read us a sampler of his own enigmatic “short poem” series inspired by “one of Ted’s [his father’s] last books," A Certain Slant of Sunlight. These tiny pieces are inscribed in a small notebook from the Met:

Of course I love you baby
If it weren’t for these damn electrons
I’d pass right through you

(Edmund Berrigan)

By the time Notley gave her keynote talk on the relationships between Brainard, Gallup, husband Ted, and Padgett, my headache has blossomed into a full-fledged flu. I show up late and avoid the lunch party. When I finally poke into the room, I find a conference audience sitting over half-empty red-jello-like dessert bowels sitting in stunned silence. Based in now-archival letters between the men, and in Berrigan’s poetry (she and her sons are the co-editors of Ted Berrigan’s collected works), Alice is reading a fragmented, seductive essay, in this hushed atmosphere -- which at one moment elicits tears from Notley herself. It was those lines from Berrigan’s poetry that she found “so beautiful” and then she apologizes for that moment of emotion – as if we are no longer “allowed” to respond publicly to poetry's beauty and personal memory, in such a blindly authentic way.

Kicking kids and stale hotel air, Great Plains ragweed and a headache that turns by the middle of this glorious weekend into a terrible flu, I am nevertheless not sorry I went to see and hear Alice. Although I am now in bed with pneumonia. I went to Tulsa for Alice. Not even aching lungs can make for regrets. -- LH

PHOTO of Alice Notley and Edmund Berrigan by Laura Hinton

Oct 1, 2009

Bearing in Mind: Notes on Tendril, by Bin Ramke

Guest review by Cynthia Hogue
Phoenix, Arizona

One might never think that Bin Ramke’s Tendril (Omnidawn 2007)—built on a careful investigation of the history of the bicameral mind (or schizophrenia), mathematical logic, Greek prosody, and metonymically, etymologically lyric poetry—is haunted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which arrived over the course of a month (this month, as it happens, for I am writing in late September), making landfall within a few hundred miles of each other. Tendril is a complex book, drawing its inspiration from a resonant range of sources, but I was given this book at a Symposium on Hurricane Katrina at the University of Denver, "After the Storm: No Calm" (organized by former New Orleans resident Jessica Munns), and therefore my reference point is hearing Ramke read the title sequence in the context of that very destructive month in 2005 -- putting the “ear” in “tears.” Few knew how to respond to the sheer magnitude of the destruction, even, famously or infamously, the government. But if one has some personal tether to Louisiana, as I do, something broke open that doesn’t close. Some . . . I don’t know . . . call it an attentiveness to all that the hurricanes stirred up: what had been hidden was now revealed. Call it not forgetting.

On his mother’s side, Ramke is from generations of French-speaking Cajuns who populate western Louisiana, where he grew up. The family homestead was significantly damaged (walls washed away down to the studs). There was much personal loss, but the poems don’t dwell on specifics (and I am not specifying). They displace loss into form. Sorrow’s tendrils grow out of rich emotional soil, and wind around such flowering. Ramke is not interested in his grief so much as in how it occupies the mind, which has been “bared” by its “environment” (I paraphrase the collection’s epigraph by Julian Jaynes).

The mind’s environment can be the outside world, of course, and thus, in a poem contemplating the phenomenon of resemblance, we read of a rainy evening as follows: “This night decants silvery into mind; some mind, /others rejoice,” finding “pleasure” in “the mind minded” (“Resemblance”). The play of idiom, shift of nuance, connotation, ripples as light and shadow on water—which is to say, both on rain and on the mind’s surface. Ramke tracks the play of mind (literally minding the mind) in words. This is a precise but also a delicate aesthetic praxis: “the history of future is a version, aversion is a kind / of aesthetic. As if. The beautiful is a form of that” (“An Esthetic [Ars Poetica]”).

Beauty gives form to “that,” which makes it matter: “to make be where once wasn’t” (“Resemblance”), although really, this collection is as much about making present what once was as what once wasn’t. The mother trained as a secretary and placed second in Louisiana’s shorthand test in 1934 (“The aret of brachygraphie, that is, to write as fast as a man speaketh,” P. Bale, 1590), leading to “a hard life for girls.” She turned her skill to recording family stories and conversations, in ornamental and now-inscrutable script: “hers alone, honed, with grace notes none/ now can read without her” (“Gregg Shorthand Dictionary”). Schooled in a severe and sexist service trade, the mother continued to practice “sixty years in the privacy of her own caprice,” as she descended into illness. Her name is lost to the family (her brother died childless, and they were the last of the line). After her death, her stenographic pads of paper were found, filled, but this is an art lost to technological advancement. Not, I venture to say, to social progress. This could only be a woman’s story, and Ramke is alert to that gendered script.

Into the unreadable paradox, a page full of script but empty of meaning to the reader (a page we never see but only read about through the son’s readability—another paradox), we have a contemplation, a voice study, really, of “leisure,” which turns out to be the etymological root (æmetta, OE, leisure, + y) of “empty”:

the vowel of the middle syllable æ- meti
was dropped in Old English the initial æ
being shortened yielded as usual in Middle

English dialects the parallel forms ā and ē
hence the forms amti and emti the former
died out in the fifteenth century . . .

What fascinates me about such etymological musings is that they track words conceptually back to the origin (or nearly so) of the associational evolution of meaning. Americans equate leisure with emptiness—we might generalize that way—but what Ramke discovers is that it is back in the roots of Anglo-Saxon speech (and therefore culture). In the poem, “emptiness” feels nothing (“your pain is nothing to me/ your desire is nothing to me”) and nothing can crack it open meaningfully (“your empty gesture / into the future called art”) except “something” and/or “anything”: “you’re the first // of the curious races of men/ to be satisfied with something/ anything as long as it can/ be felt against the skin” (“A History of Leisure”). Emptiness is neither empty-headed nor disinterested in what embodiment feels like.

The title sequence is an exquisite meditation on art and memory. “Tendril (A)” is a prose poem about a plaster relief panel from a Roman wall, displayed in a museum, which Ramke finds himself visiting every day one spring and trying to draw in his notebook (and, as he notes, badly). The section of the relief plaster represents a mold “in the form of a winged female figure alighting on a tendril, set against the dyed blue wall while still wet, the figure alighting between two deer.” The winged figure’s gesture reminds the poet of the angel by Klee, for “in her hand [is] an offering to the deer she faces.” The wings are curved and carved—“to carve, a graph, engraved in plaster . . .” (ellipses in original); the curve of place and time between the Buddha and Heraclitus, who were contemporaries. There are algebraic and transcendental curves, the one expressed by equations, the other “involving higher functions . . . representing the probabilities of recurrences of an event.” The curve of place and time between the Buddha and Heraclitus probably represents the probability of recurrences—of thought, perhaps, or philosophical insight. Or perhaps of loss. The curve of the wing of the winged female figure is surely reminiscent of the curving grace notes of the mother’s shorthand. The curve is both replication and response: “Replicatory can mean, ‘of the nature of a reply.’” The answer that unfolds has to do with a memory of speaking, or listening, as in the act of saying or hearing, “I love you,” and the experience of being left when someone one loves dies, of not recognizing the land on which one grew up it was so changed by storm. “I suppose I cried,” Ramke continues (“Tendril [B]”).

At an ecopoetics conference held outside Exeter, U.K. around solstice, "Skylines/ ECOPOETICS: Language & L=a=n=d=s=c=a=p=e=s," organized by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and Becky Fensome, Harriet Tarlo asked (following Marcella Durand), “Are we in or of nature?” Bin Ramke’s reply is, Yes.

-- CH

PHOTO: Cynthia Hogue

FOR BOOKS BY Cynthia Hogue, see bibliography at

Sep 26, 2009

Advancing Feminist Poetics: Conference Highlights PART 3

Final notes: Two Friday Night Performances (September 25)

We concluded the conference with several multi-media "poetry" performances, and I will note two of them briefly here. Dancer and choreographer Sally Silvers performed an "Adam and Eve" choreography-in-process number, with electronic music layered by the improvised vocals of Julie Patton. Silvers often performs with the poet Bruce Andrews, and is considered a member of the poetry community because of her multi-media collaborations. Here, the "poetics of dance" was featured as an inquiry into the gendered arrangements of bodies in motion (as well as some provocative "media poses").

Carla Harryman in collaboration with three other reader-performers (including poet Rodrigo Toscano) offered a series of poetry-play excerpts -- the most polished taken from her work Mirror Play. Beautifully echoing and over-laying voices weave in an out of this stark political but also interior-reflecting linguistic play. As Harryman suggested in her introduction, the "space" would become the "script." As the play of voices became "the play," the play of language's possibility through Harryman's performance sensibility shattered the room. I think the audience was mesmerized and stunned, this piece, like so many glittering shards of mirror-like glass, cutting the air. An original and gorgeous piece.

NOTE: A special section on Harryman's performance poetics is upcoming in the next issue of How2 (edited by myself, with contributions from several poets and writers including Renee Gladman and Christine Hume as well as Harryman herself). We await the release of this issue very soon ...

PHOTOS: (Starting at top) Sally Silvers, Rodrigo Toscano, Carla Harryman in final-night performances -- by Laura Hinton

Advancing Feminist Poetics: Conference Highlights PART 2

Additional notes from the first evening Plenary…

Opening Keynote Performances -- In a large auditorium we gathered to hear Katheen Fraser, Erica Hunt, and Eileen Myles. Alas, I missed the latter piece by Myles, since the next day's rehearsal for my poetry-film production called me home early. As I left, one of my favorite contemporary poets was boxing the air. I teach Erica Hunt's collaborative work Arcade in my "Women's Experimental Writers" graduate seminar at City College (CUNY). Watching Hunt shadow-box in the persona of her mother -- “Fight, fight” -- was funny and yet grounding. Her point was well summed up in this line:

“The ground where we have retreated as feminists must be defended again and again.”

If Hunt’s boxing “performance” and creative essay eloquently articulated our “silence … with all of its ghostly traces,” encouraging us all to Speak Up in the on-going face of patriarchal capitalism's aggressive shape under today's formulation of U.S. global imperialism (and it isn't doing us much good at home either -- go figure the health-care so-called "debate"), and if Hunt warns us to “keep the tribes guessing … amidst all the tongues,” Kathleen Fraser gave us her equally moving conversational narrative that recounted her years as a young female poet in the 1960s, first moving through the New York poetry circles at that time filled with the presences of such luminaries as George Oppen and Frank O’Hara and Robert Creeley and Barbara Guest (and rejecting the then-mainstream poetry of a Sylvia Plath). She also talked about her move to a more affordable San Francisco, new baby in arms, to continue discovering “the body and breathing,” the “language on the page,” the notoriety of Charles Olsen’s treatment of women coupled with her recognition of his stunning and life-changing Projective Verse. (“I didn’t like the man. But I came to like 'Charles Olsen,' the work.”)

Fraser beautifully described her own process of growth as a young woman-poet who had “read De Beauvoir,” but “didn’t know the word misogynist.” (I, too, recall those days, from my own early graduate school, when a male professor in modernist studies poo-pooed Gertrude Stein as a “fat fraud” and I didn’t know what to call this remark; an older woman in the course used the M-word in the ladies room.) And Fraser described her times then in San Francisco then in conversation with other female experimental poets like Bev Dahlen and Norma Cole, as she then began to work “visual elements into my work” and, out of frustration as a budding feminist noticing how little women's work in experimental writing was attracting notice ("I was seething by then"), starting the now-legendary journal of women’s “innovative” poetry, How(ever) (available these days in its reincarnated form, on line as How2).

Kathleen Fraser, our modern Stein, you are Mother of Us All.

And we have many mothers -- like Erica's. Me, too. Always told me to hang in there in spite of the obstacles and odds.

-- LH

PHOTOS: 1. (from top) Nada Gordon, Bob Perelman, Kathleen Fraser, and Carla Harryman; 2. Rachel Blau Duplessis at the Plenary final night; Laura Elrick, Joan Retallack,and Kristin Prevallet; 3, 4, 5. Jill Magi and Jeanne Heuving asking questions at the final night Plenary -- Eileen Myles and Stephanie Strickland listening.-- by Laura Hinton

Advancing Feminist Poetics: Conference Highlights PART 1

Notes from the opening night (Thursday, Sept. 24):

Plenary 1, entitled, “Why You Talk Like That? Between Orature and Literature,” and chaired by the articulate Tonya Foster, offered economic-geopolitical-aesthetic insights into the most original edges of the contemporary Black Arts multi-media / poetic arts. Julie Patton, for example, described her Salon des Refusés project, an “installation” out of “waste” (I borrow that concept from Foster) in an abandoned public-space in this New York artist’s native Cleveland. Patton had made “place . . . a museum”: archival, eco-poetical – through this highly original conceptual-political piece expressing Patton’s public consciousness. (You can learn more about Patton’s project on the Oberlin College website.) Other participants included Meta DuEwa Jones, John Keene, and Evie Shockley, who spoke about writers as diverse as Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, and Jay Wright (whose paperback edition through the Callaloo Poetry Series is currently available through Amazon vendors for 1 cent – hurry for your copy because panelist John Keene described this 1980 work a brilliant American classic yet to receive its critical due).

Plenary 2, with another articulate poet-scholar as chair, Laura Elrick, was equally politically engaged, examining “Critical language Practices” in the context of “Imperial Event.” Ammiel Alcalay presented a very porous and provocative series of quotations from theorists of colonialism like Aime Caesar and Frantz Fanon; Rachel Zolf spoke to the problems of being a Jewish feminist writer confronting the Palestinian situation; Cathy Park Hong asked if “poetry can be an anathema against imperialism” in the context of discussing the new “English-loving” South Korea when she was there as a young journalist; and Ann Waldman brought down the house with her performance-essay in which she stated, “Poetry de-territorializes” – and also, “The body is radically non-Cartesian … it speaks to itself in a continuous feed,” and therefore body-mind-poetry-politic must never be separated.

SEE ALSO Tonya Foster's account of Night 1 of the conference on the Poetry Foundation blogsite.

Foster gives the stunning list of conference audience attendants and participants, all clustered at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Conversation among the feminists / writers / artists / poets was indeed "hot."

-- LH
PHOTOS: ADFEMPO organizers Rachel Levitsky, Tonya Foster, and Erica Kaufman (at final Friday night Plenary panel); multi-media artist Julie Patton during the final-night performance as she layers vocals onto a dance piece by Sally Silvers -- taken by Laura Hinton

Sep 25, 2009

In Honor of Today's ADVANCING FEMINIST POETICS conference: Seeing and the Image in Ann Lauterbach

(Some thoughts on Or to Begin Again as part of my introduction to Lauterbach's reading with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and myself):

Speaking of poetic space, Gaston Bachelard has written:

“the visual image . . . invites a spectator, as ‘the reader of poems’ . . . to consider an image not as an object, and even less as the substitute for an object, but to seize its specific reality.”

It is this “specific reality” that I find so richly rewarding when I read Ann Lauterbach’s poetry – and which I have been doing, and also teaching, since the very early 19902, when I was a newly arrived Ph.D. from Stanford at the City College of New York and found the brilliant Ann to be my colleague. She kindly thrust a copy of her newly published book in my hand, entitled Clamour. In this book, I came to hear a new lyricism of competing melodies and sense, through vision as well as sound, that made me desire to reach more – and to plunge down into its clamouring depths. (Ann has long since left CCNY and CUNY Grad Center, of course, and is the Ruth and David E. Schwab Professor of Languages and Literature Professor at Bard.) Ann has ever since provided me with a model with a poetics that is a language about everything, but that draws its materials out of the proliferation of our smallest nothingnesses, our “vagrant contingencies,” to paraphrase from her artist statement, which resists, as she writes so beautifully in her Artist Statement for Women Poets of the 21st Century, those

“categorical imperatives that obscure and resist the actual conditions, possibilities, and complexities in which we find ourselves.”

Lauterbach’s newest work from Penguin Poets, Or To Begin Again, reveals that our smallest “habits of congruence, continuity, and context” (again from the Artist Statement) exist only in relationship: a poetic perceiver-viewer-subject directs her look upon not an “otherness” in this writing but throughout a oneness (I borrow from conversation with Berssenbrugge on this concept) that simultaneously join and deflect her creative materials – vis a vis “the fragment.” In Or to Begin Again, we read those disparate and yet always intersecting “lines.” (I think again about Berssenbrugge and my analysis of that reading from May). These record our reality’s logic, of vision and non-vision, in a piece like Lauterbach’s “Dear Blank.” A letter? An attempt at writing a letter? A letter-writer writing about watching herself “being” a letter writer? We read:

“And so the unobserved passes through its glass / twilight. Hitched to its seam….”

Always just “hitched” – together -- and at “the seam,” at and within (at the same time) the mysterious interstices of a symbolic “twilight” or meaning-space in language.

I do think Lauterbach’s writing is similar to Berssenbrugge’s in that “the woman see/ er” provides a poet’s space (and “poetics of space”) evocatively empty, yet replete with empathy (but non-sentimental): and therefore “it” never intervenes in “the real” left so very personnel to ourselves, as individual-group “see /ers.” “She” is not afraid of disclaiming possession in her use of poetic image. Yes, “she” collects.“ But “she” is not afraid of “contingency,” to quote Lauterbach’s Artist Statement again – not afraid of our very randomness. As the human / woman “being” gives way to the wider truth of so many possible worlds in existence for all at the same time, worlds that collide and cross or never cross, a different kind of authentic – and yes, I will call this “feminist” -- “vision” is created. It is a “vision” that invites the “reader/listener” in -- as her Artist Statement so aptly articulates: “Not by filling in the gaps and elisions” –necessarily the function of reality, whatever we know it to be at a given moment – “but by appropriating whatever fragment is ‘useful’ to her.”

In another poem that seeks out those interstices of “twilight” from this recent book, entitled, “Nothing to Say,” Lauterbach exhibits just how much she has “to say” about “nothing to say” – borrowing that phrase from the John Cage epigram that starts the poem: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” We move from the disjuncture of non-competing “sides” (“What? The other side? Now?” -- as the poem begins) to the “Not exactly” of the next line, to the “This one for example” of the next paragraph-like “verse,” all within in a prose-poem that catches us in the linguistic act as readers of “hurrying across the path, now stymied,” completely depending upon “which way the wind blows” at the moment of reading a phrase, a line, a word, and “with the arrival at the circle at it curves outward / split open / to reveal.”

I cannot replicate this visual page “field poem” with the technology afforded me of Blogspot.” The “split open” literally splits open the page, “to reveal” (in a separate and also split line) something absent, something “nothing,” taking place – all as if “the excess of a dream,” as we read in the following paragraph-verse. And we are always looking, for example, at “glamour, toned muscles of the arm, cleft above the thigh”; yet were are also

"unable to find a glass
to peer
into or at the glassy contradiction, infinite regress . . . "

Again, I cannot replicate vis a vis my technological screen here. Somehow, while the “field” is precise and important, the poem itself is about a forgiving, a knowing, that we can never know what we think we know through vision – or speech. This is a poem about reading, and about “hindered speech … condoned as appropriate,” what Lauterbach again in her Artist Statement calls “the fragment.” It is through the sliver – and the slide in between – that we “appropriate” the reality “Over there / slight / nothing to say.

Nothing and everything at all. The miracle of the subject of the writing of Ann Lauterbach.

-- LH

Aug 20, 2009

Mourning as Written State: Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife

Kristin Prevallet writes about mourning as if I might desire that state. She writes mourning. “Mourning” becomes a cause for writing and a written state. Thus, I read.

In Prevallet’s elegiac visual-verbal hybrid series, I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time, she recounts both the linear narrative of a father’s suicide and details the linguistic regions, tentative, previously unexplored, that accommodate it. I find myself in the “text” that “mourning” can place one in: without judgment’s traditional sense – yet full of authentic “sense.” This wonderful “essay” is one of several recent works to emerge from Essay Press.

Beginning with a poem quoted in full from Alice Notley, “At night the states,” I learn from Prevallet’s book that, yes, as Notley puts it, “whoever you love that’s who you love.” A simple statement does not make "love" easier when love is part of grief.

So what do I learn in that cycle of love? Where does the text of mourning take me? I have read this book with great interest, having faced the stroke of my mother in February and, three months later, to be revisited by such a devastating ailment in my husband. I look upon a personal world come apart. I “know” too well the alternative text in which grief places me. It doesn't "match" others’ seasons. But here, in Prevallet’s slender and yet powerful volume, my own text of mourning is layered upon the “narrative” of a suicide as inauguration into a realm thankfully empty – as I myself am empty – of sentiment.

So the occasion of a death-in-writing and grief as text provides the opposite of a sentiment of melodrama catharsis. It provides a reality – which is always a textual – that compliments, does not assuage, grief. The book opens in a crisp, journalistic prose that compels me to wonder about another’s tragedy – the blood-covered body behind a windshield covered in newspaper – and we are given such “facts.” But “facts” – numbers, Paxil prescriptions, statements by psychological pamphlets designed by government agencies to ease survivors' guilt -- these are not real. They are the appearances of and imitations of a culture obsessed with “Reality” with a capital “R,” a culture unable to face the authentic human experience of illness and death. The plainsong of language in the “narrative” section provides a counterpoint to the rest of the book that will underscore the varieties of grief. Indeed, to continue the music metaphor, grief becomes not one song but an on-going orchestral score, whose infinitesimal movements create a composition in progress: an alternative “text.”

I am reminded that essayer, to Michel de Montaigne’s note of delight, is only “to attempt.” A essayer: I will try, like Prevallet’s decentered poetic vocalist, to go there, where there is hurt and pain and to try to open a long-shuttered window. For the “narrator,” this is a “story” that “has many possible forms and many angles of articulation.” There is no one “voice” or center. As a "story," it follows the “articulation” cautiously of the decimated body in its own wavering lines, the particulars that can arise as one mirrors a suicide's grief. In this way we enter Part One, which is called “Forms of Elegy,” and which is “articulated” as a series of lyrics on “The Sublimation of Dying.” Is elegy a form of sublimation? I had never thought of it that way. But, like sentiment, the “elegy” is a formal mechanism to make grief-bearers feel better. In the lyric “Mythology,” I read:

Wavering in the subatomic netherworld, preoccupied by thoughts
of mourning.

Not a declaration or a sentence. Just a state of descriptive sense, and “being.” And the one who survives lives in “Afterlife” to complete this mode of sense and “being” – for example, in “Homonym,” or in “Dream” (various modes offered in poem title phrases); or in a “Maxim,” mingled with the state of “Distraction” (new modes / title phrases ), warned as we are to

Never believe maxims because all they do is comply with a
sentence structure that is formulated in such a way as to come
off as assured, wise, and mentally strong; they give those
looking to fill empty spaces with words something to read.

“To come / off.” I note the ruptured line. I am thinking about how, every word from the “regular universe” is “off.” And filled with “maxims” – as if “to fill empty spaces. People do not know what to say. We are not educated, or trained, in mourning in American culture. After my husband’s stroke this May, one person wrote me an e-mail giving me a "pep talk." Another wrote to say she was sure he would be"all right." Someone else wrote to say how sorry he was and what could he do, then, when answered with something he could do, he never responded. Most people I know dropped me as a correspondent. Ah, I read: “Grieving is tricky.” (I read this line in this same piece, “Distraction.”) It is “tricky … because suddenly a fly will appear and you will know right away that it symbolizes something much deeper than a ‘fly.’” I am sensitive, I deflect reason, the poem reminds me. The world is not set up for life after death. Death is not caused by poison, it is our poison. Heaven forbid we should have death!

We do not exist in “Afterlife.” Still, am visited with the strange sensation that I’ve woken up in “Life." And Prevallet's use of poetry reminds us that poetry is, in fact, a process of "waking up." I am now awake, reading, in “mourning time.”

It is the “distraction” of the fly that puts me in a new mourning trance – and relieves me of its unrelenting future repetition. Instead, as another lyric poem tells me:

I have placed your heart on a platter to preserve it.

Pickled emotions, baked to perfection. That’s what “Fear” teaches us (the name of this particular lyric piece). How many Sex and the City girlfriends would sit around with martinis in a chic bar and say to their friends:

Have I warned you not to fall in love with a girl who refuses to
let go of grieving?

What I appreciate about my mother having had her stroke first is that now, when I complain about the situation with my husband, my mother writes to say: “I don’t know what to say.”

Where I arrive through Prevallet’s essay-poetry book is a place whose key articulation is silence. The spaces in between the words. The asterix, the forgotten phrase after the colon announces it. “Silence” is a breathing, lithesome but expanding “text that is grieving,” but “has no thesis: only speculation.” Into that silence I enter a world refreshingly porous, enunciating that “’Nothing’ is closure./ False closure.” So the dead live on like the living, in “Afterlife,” providing not so many narratives but openings out – to what, we don’t know. But we go along for the experiments with text / form states.

Form is feeling. As I read, the lyric section “opens up” into a series of graphic panels, where verbalized grief gives complete way to complete visual abstraction. These are a series of visual grey “walls” (playing upon white and black and shades between). This visual process takes me to the next level -- in grief. Each “wall” or panel tells a different version of the suicide narrative (with verbalized captions), as on p. 25:

I noticed that the party inside was motionless … blood all the way to his waist, saturating his shirt

A police-report narrative? A grey window into a bloody accident whose suicide victim reveals only the already-grey skin? The visual-verbal section concludes with a question:

What is the language used to describe a person who as deceased?

So we enter the section entitled “Eulogy,” in which a “deceased” father’s object-remains, the physical objects associated with the body, load the descriptive scene, which “becomes a shrine,” in language, in the text -- including the “stacks of books on top of which is a partially read manual of Zen Buddhism.”

We can read how-to-do spiritual texts in this void. We can repeat by e-mail our favorite “maxims.” We can give advice. We can avoid our own mourning, hoping against hope that there will not be that “mourning time," for us.

But can we genuinely feel past the regularized sentiments to betray our training in sublimations cutting us off from “Afterlife?” To do so leaves us “partially.” We are not whole, we who we might be: “I.” Partially in “life,” “after” is a different kind of icon for the self. It becomes the "I" of authentic desire. This little book makes us reverse our cultural trajectories, which serve to deflect misery, then rediscover our own human terms. It shows me, at least, that to inhabit the realm and rhythms of mourning is to rip off the swollen mask of disbelief.

It peels off nicely. And something precious remains in place.

-- LH

Jun 17, 2009

An "Eco-Poetics" Reading with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Jonathan Skinner

Ever since last month’s “eco-poetics” Segue series reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, featuring Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Jonathan Skinner, I have been mulling over a question I thought postmodernism had long ago resolved: What is the relationship between language and nature?

Post-structural theory, at least, presumes that there is no relationship between language and nature, as there is no “real” relation between signifier and signified. The Saussurian “nature” of the signifying word bears no relation to its objectified signified as material referent. So, in one of Ferdinand de Saussure’s most famous examples, a word like “tree” (“arbre”) has only an arbitrary relation to that object outside my window stretching new green leaves in all this East Coast June rain. While many “academic” poetries might claim to lyrically capture -- and penetrate -- the tree-like objects in our universe through descriptive metaphor, others like myself would wonder if it is ever plausible, or desirable, to believe in the metaphorical substitute, word for object. After all, the “word” itself is its own object: no more, no less.

My argument – not original of course to me – is that there is no “authenticity” to language, except in our appreciated status of its own artifice. I love the artificial “nature” of language, that which can be played with, molded, reused, rejected, found again and reshaped – and we writers do this like children play with putty, reworking language in so many ways. I might add that a Lacanian view would be similarly sanguine toward any belief that any word for “tree” taps into (the sap of?) a “natural” Real. The Real is not denied in a Lacanian vision of it -- just opaque, or not visible, or knowable, in the empirical sense of "vision." And the psychoanalytic Lacanian position toward language is that “the word” under the Law of the Father is one of the "symptoms" of castration anxiety -- or, better said, it is the speaking subject's fear of extinction, of ontological absence, and powerlessness, that makes our language "appear." We utter sentences, we write words, through this anxiety we never resolve. (And in our "mirror stage" processes, we enhance our "identity" as subjects through self-alienation as much as recognition.)

So "nature" has never had much to do with this poetic "Real." When I re-visit the subject of a language-in-nature, as a poetics presumably concerned with nature, that of "eco-poetics," I have wondered what we could be speaking about. But I have come to see "eco-poetics" as a new conceptual approach -- and I find the concept compelling. I find it compelling because of the serious state early 21st century humanity finds itself in, with our melting polar ice-caps and the on-going mass extinction of so many living species. I find it compelling because of the corporate structure to our everyday life, directing not only our environmental policies but our food production and health care -- the physical "nature-based" underpinnings of our bodily existence. The latter two were once viewed in a more “natural” framework that embraced local growing cycles, herbalism and "healers" -- not technocrats and HMOs striving to make money.

As I contemplate the fact that we humans -- such a relatively young species on earth -- are in the process of destroying it, I also find the "eco-poetics" concept compelling with my husband recovering from a major stroke last month. In the past month, I have once again witnessed and been part of the tragedy of American health “care,” the scampering of over-worked doctors in the hospital bureaucracies, the denial of "care" by his health-care provider when it was much needed (later reversed, but to his detriment at the time), the lack of "eco-balance" that our corporate profit instills both in our workplaces that stress us out and make us sick, and in so-called "health" / "care" -- the word “care” like "health care" becoming but euphemisms, covering up the absence of both). As I try to convince my ill husband, who has lost his inner "ecology" for the time being as he recovers from a medically induced brain injury (caused by the medical people themselves), that to survive in this life requires a new and not externally supported form of internal balance. Such "balance" is not popular in our Blackberry worlds -- one, perhaps, that many poets and writers I know write and speak about or allude to through their written work.
I recall a memo from an administrator at my college praising a past dean for coming to work a day or two after surgery. (This former dean later died relatively early in life of another ailment.)

"Eco-poetics?" I'm exploring the notion, and trying to understand its relation to the poetries I heard at the Segue reading and the poetry that I so love. I’ve been also reading work written by my mentor on a topic he terms "environmental poetics," poet James Sherry, whose book, Sorry: Environmental Poetics, is forthcoming from Factory School Press. In an unpublished essay I have read by Sherry on this topic of environmental poetics, he addresses the structural questions I've just suggested above. He asks: How do we construct a poetic theory around this concept of “balances,” inner as well as outer -- toward the earth and within/toward ourselves? Sherry (who heads the Segue Foundation project in New York) describes environmental poetics as a critique of many traditional poetries based upon the so-called "humanist" tradition, in which language is perceived as a porous medium of ready-made meanings in overt exchange of object-like phenomena. Re-conceiving the "humanist" project in general, Sherry argues in this essay for a type of thinking – and art – that he calls “environmental cognition.” What is most important to “environmental cognition” is that it avoids the “subject/object” split in identity, one that, in Sherry’s words, “separates the self from its surroundings in a way that allows us to detach our selves from where we are in some unproductive ways.” As Sherry declares in the essay: “We must establish a framework in which humanity and nature are understood as a single complex system.” (Sherry’s essay is specifically on the poet's theater of Fiona Templeton and environmental poetics. It is currently under submission, and I expect some version of it to be forthcoming soon.)

Environmental poetics, or "eco-poetics" (which may be more Skinner's term, as editor of the journal he calls ecopoetics), provides the framework we need to start re-conceiving our "separations" -- and also to address the truer multiplicites of "being" as "we" occur in nature, and in "our" existences. The "human" is no longer thus primary in "environmental" or "eco-poetics," although it, too, is perceived as part of the natural world (and presumable human languages are a fact of that "world", as well). In the poetries of both Berssenbrugge and Skinner, multiple perspectives offer a matrix of assimilating yet separate multiplicities; these demonstrate that the perspectives that may seem contrary can, in fact, exist at the same time. These poetries evade the "humanist" separation of subject and object -- and those binary conceptual categories. At the same time, they call on another kind of unity, one that is not hierarchical, or power-driven, in their work.

The poetry I most appreciated hearing at the reading by Skinner is his fabulous “Warbler” series. In pieces like “Magnolia Warbler” and “Pine Warbler,” which he read, one hears the “warbling” not so much of bird sounds but of poetic words, as they crisscross and cross-fuse themselves with prior texts (like the poetry of Jennifer Moxey or the French-English hybrid writing of Nicole Brossard.) In lines from “Myrtle Warbler,” I "hear" this linguistic but also "natural" effect, simultaneously; the bird subjects are coupled with the human subjects, just as sound is coupled with vision. Humanity does not dominate imagistically over natural phenomena, like the birds calling and in flight:

loose change twisting the fader
the volume rises or drops
trills another nice day its
gregarious as junco sidles

floats an inverted U mid
specks of troubadour pollen
arriving early leaves late
bayberries myrtle poison

lifting squadrons loops of light
sidl seedl seedl husks

Those last lines from “Myrtle Warbler” do describe the “nature” of a bird song from a human perspective – but as the song/sound alliteration of “s” quite literally slides and glides (as if through air?) amidst the vowels “I” (sidl) and “ee” (seedl), the repetition of “seedl” completes the notion of “husks.” But we are provoked to ask: What is a “seedl husk”? Bird feed or song? Does it matter? Is it something we see in a bird’s mouth, or hear as a bird eats? And does it matter if hearing, seeing, tasting (through the full subjectivity granted the implicit bird figure) occurs at the same time -- through a poem? For both perceiver and perceived, subject and object – as neither and one – does it matter if we know or don’t know where one meaning ends and another begins, where one "being" (animal/human animal) begins and another starts?

“Nature” is interwoven into the separations required by the arbitrary "nature" of language in Skinner’s “warbler” series. “Nature” informs the subject; nature's “other” is no longer an object; it is what exists in the poem’s actual sound field. I find Skinner’s poetry fascinating for these effects. But I perhaps focused on Berssenbrugge’s “ecological reading,” as she called it, more intensely, since I have long been a fan of her work. Berssenbrugge introduced this kind of reading as an investigation into “how the mind locates itself in language,” and also, she added, “spatially,” with only an implicit reference to nature as that which is the spatial/existing within space.

In a poem she read, entitled, “Parallel Lines” (published in Berssenbrugge’s recent “New and Selected Poems,” called I Love Artists, from U California Press), Berssenbrugge "describes" in abstract terms not really the land that clearly mesmerizes her in northern New Mexico, where she lives on a mesa in the high desert and collects many of her poetic materials; but she describes the “lines” of her own poetic words, which are engaged through subtle interactions between a poet-subject and a habitat, through her myriad of perceptions -- all of which are based upon color and spatialized but in fully imagined arrangements. What I appreciate about Berssenbrugge's poetic work in general is the way in which she involves the perceiver in an infinite number of ways with any object (or other subject) perceived. We read of these complex, non-dual interactions between subject/object, perceiver/perceived, in lines like these from the poem:

I wake, like a bird among thousands of traces of small birds’ passing through the space.

Can you perceive traces, virga, pigment in a substrate of dawn light, as one speaks YES, pigment, NO,
seeing, pigment.

“Parallel Lines,” then, is a poem not about nature but rather attuned to or within the natural and phenomenal world it canvases. Berssenbrugge’s work is thus both phenomenological and linguistic at heart. This poem’s language “lines” are centrally linguistic acts, ones that emerge, however, from reactions occurring within space; and that space itself is composed in the poem of relationships, those involving matter: human subject “matter” and physical matter, which, again in this "eco-poetics" conceptual field, become one and the same. These relationships appear to expand, contrast, and evolve in “lines” parallel to one another:

Spring flowed through itself, a space, and summer is space I break, pecking from inside my dream and
outside, telling it to you.

A series of questions rather than assured natural descriptions haunts the following lines, forming the environmental interrogation into spatialized relationships as a whole:

Where does mist come from on the mountain?

How will dust materialize color in air light moves through in parallel, energized lines, fabric?

Energy, not the literal “lines” in nature, formulate natural objects in space. These are the “natural” (but also arbitrary) contours that Berssenbrugge’s mental pathways take – formulating an “environmental cognition,” as Sherry might have it – a flow path that takes its “natural” course (one of a multitude of possible courses, always). As “Parallel Lines” declares in one of Berssenbrugge’s signature complex “sentence” lines:

A moment of experience commences a train of causes for all plausible outcomes.

Plausible, indeed. All considered mental perceptions and their pathways are possible. When we read/hear the line, “White clouds are data beneath words in blinding light,” we then receive a kind of “line” response, telling us that “They’re not debris in the mind” – that those “clouds,” like thoughts, are matter. In other unpublished poems from which Berssenbrugge read, such as “Glitter” (still in progress), she portrays the realm of mental patterns, “thoughts,” as a process of sliding back and forth, like shadows and light over a motion-filled landscape. These thoughts inform – and actually become-- a pictorialized network of images that nonetheless is visually tuned by the words they are composed of, fabricated from:

Thoughts are sent out by one rock informing other rocks as to the nature of its changing
environment, the angle of the sun and temperatures cooling as night falls, even its

(loosely called) emotional tone changes, the appearance of a person walking who’s not
appropriately empathetic, because she’s lost in her racing thoughts.

Another new poem that Berssenbrugge read, entitled, “Slow Down Now,” brings us back around to the means by which an “eco-poetics” or "environmental poetics" might suspend what the poem names “racing thoughts.” Instead of fighting against the reality of nature’s matter – which is that of a multiplicity of existences in which we bathe and are absorbed into – “Slow Down Now” shows us just how much “thought” belongs to, and is caused by meditation upon, say, a “simple” singular plant:

I’ve been sitting looking at this plant without feeling time at all, and my breathing is

Every line evokes not only a sense of meditative presence engaging nature through the breath, but also the processes of “looking” – itself always based upon a separation. Even so, “. . . the plant releases my mental boundaries, so it’s not needed for experience.” (I’m copying these lines from Berssenbrugge’s manuscript, a copy of which she generously gave me; her hand-marked edits suggest that “mental” might be read as “time's").

“Slow Down Now” reveals the multiplicity of boundaries, emotional, perceptual, material, through which a plant communicates as its own subject. Through chemical molecules, “. . . it begins altering the wavelengths its / chemicals reflect in order to offer itself to your imaginal sight, for you to gather it.” The poetic perceiver may be a "subject" who refuses to separate the human "self" from “being” in plant: “embedding in the livingness” (or, alternatively, "living," as the edits suggest) -- all "living" experience at once. But words spring from and are enmeshed inside that "living" experience. We can't make the separations and remain true to our environment. This process of words springing from and being "born" out of -- however artificially -- language's particular "field" enacts the “eco-/ environmental” poetics process at its structural core. While words may never substitute for “nature,” they nonetheless reflect the “environment” that they both evolve within and help to generate. An "eco-poetics," both literally and figuratively, breathes experience. And that's healthy for us all. -- LH

Note: Photograph of Jonathan Skinner, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and host James Sherry at the party following May's Segue reading was taken by Laura Hinton

May 12, 2009

How to Cook Live Poetry: The Performance Art of Nicole Peyrafitte

Whisk! Don’t Churn!
is a live CD recording by singer, cook, video-maker, visual artist, poet, yoga athlete -- performance artist -- Nicole Peyrafitte, with jazz bassist Michael Bisio. The notes to the CD jacket, written by her partner, the poet Pierre Joris, calls this CD “an emulsion,” with “bass & voice whisking words & music” to form “an ongoing and challenging conversation" based on the performers’ “unconditional dedication to their chosen modes of expression.” Recorded at Justin’s in Albany, New York, last November, this CD is a wonderful contribution to hybrid and collaborative multi-media poetics and the arts. The CD, like all Peyrafitte’s work, is also multi-lingual. Although now a New Yorker, Peyrafitte was born and raised in the Pyrenees border region of southern France, and performs in three languages: French, Spanish, and English.

The CD’s experiments with sound, words, and their sonoric combinations are mesmerizing. They explore not only the range and power of Peyrafitte’s unique female voice, but they explore also the way in which the voice of a human body – as it locates itself in both in a multiple range of tonalities and within multiple-linguistic “settings” -- can yoke itself to the body of a bass that sounds itself out from a wooden “belly.” Pieces in this lovely and original poetry-performance CD range from the bilingual “Arrive Ici / Come Here,” with words by Joris himself, to the fascinating song-series, entitled, “Le Calendrier / The Calendar,” whose “months” (songs) spring from a diary entry by Mexican artist Frido Kahlo (called “August” and performed Spanish), or a traditional Pyrenean Song (“October”), or a quebecois feminist poem by Nicole Brossard. Later pieces include “Lune de Miel a Bagdad,” a haunting English translation of a poem by Mustapha Benfodil, whose lyrics crush with their poignant description of a love within a geopolitical state of a war:

We met in Gaza . . .
We kissed in Beirut
We flew to Baghdad
We died under the bombs. . . .
. . . for the protection of high-risk love
and the continuation of passion . . . .

“America, America,” an adaptation of a poem by Saadi Youssef, is an equally political piece, whose words perform a subtle critic of America’s dominant cultural homogeneity -- its fear of “the stranger,” as the poem states – and Arab “other.” Written in 1992, right after the first Gulf War, as Peyrafitte notes in her recorded introduction, the piece seems hauntingly arranged to be a more contemporary post-9/11 critique. Most original, perhaps, is Peyrafitte’s inclusion of “cooking” on the CD: her whipping of a metallic-sounding cream in “Duo for Crème Chantilly & Double Bass,” from which she derives the CD’s title phrase, “Whisk! Don’t Churn!” is funny, profound, and delicious --if only to our ears. We literally hear the whipping sound at the base of the bowl as she performs this action with creme ive on the recording -- to be then followed by another witty and wholly provocative, feminist piece -- a “vulva tribute” -- she calls, “The Pearl of the Café.” This comical piece is political and seductive. (“I am a Vulva Activist,” states Peyrafitte, on the CD to her laughing audience, just before she belts out the song.)

This CD is a marvel of multi-media in powerfully synthesized, thoughtful, artful form. But – to truly appreciate Nicole Peyrafitte, one must see and hear her in person. I had this pleasure in New York City earlier in spring, when I caught Peyrafitte at her warm-up gig for jazz-poet Steve Dalachinsky, at the Lower East Side's Stone performance space. (For more information on Dalachinsky, check out Accompanied by Dalachinsky’s wonderful jazz drummer, Jim Pugliesi, Peyrafitte cooked up before a full-house several of her pieces from the CD, including “Emportez-moi” (based on Henri Michaux), one of the most haunting vocal pieces I’ve ever heard in its minor scale and wild interval leaps, exhibiting the physical vocal talent of Peyrafitte. And while Peyrafitte didn’t whip up any French chantilly that night at the Stone, she did include one of her repertoire's signatures: a yoga asana adho mukha (headstand). Lithe and beautiful, strong and bold, with a voice that vibrates and ascends and weaves in and out of jazz rhythms effortlessly– and with an international multi-cultural body of poetic works that embolden both her aesthetic and politically activist performance stances, Peyrafitte’s art is more than worth the ticket.

I say this now, because Peyrafitte – again with bassist Mike Bisio -- will be performing on Saturday, May 16, for the official New York City release of Whisk! Don't Churn!, at the Bowery Poetry Club. If you love multi-media poetry, art and jazz, and if you are in and around New York City, you should not miss the performance. -- LH

May 9, 2009

They “didn’t wait for permission”: The Female Shamanistic Poets, Jayne Cortez and Anne Waldman

They “didn’t wait for permission” -- these were Cara Benson’s words as she introduced and “hosted” two of our most beloved female shamanistic poets in America living today, Jayne Cortez and Anne Waldman, who read at the Belladonna reading in New York City on April 28, as part of Belladonna's year-long Elders series. It’s difficult to describe the multiple aspects of both Belladonna as a publishing house and a reading series -- especially its “Elders” reading and book series of 2008-09. The “Elders” concept is that a “younger” innovative woman poet selects a “elder” female poetry mentor – sometimes a couple of them -- and these younger and "elder" poets then collaborate, both on a reading event and a “commemorative” book of their writing, and also sometimes an interview and introductory commentary. These unique Belladonna readings have been staged this year at the in-progress renovation of the new, fabulous, art space of Dixon Place, on the Lower East Side. The book series Belladonna is now producing to couple with the readings is perfect-bound and beautiful, graduating this small feminist poetry publisher from its staple-bound chaplet series and into the mature world of small-press poetry publishing.

The “Elders” series puns on the "Belladonna" herbal concept, which figuratively lies behind the salon/chaplet series that began at Bluestocking’s Women’s Bookstore on the Lower East Side back in 1999. The Belladonna plant is, of course, a “therapeutic poison,” used most often to cure fevers in homeopathy – at least as I know its present use. So does the "Elder" tree provide herbalists with a “toxic remedy”: the bark and leaves, as well as a North American species of the berry, may be poisonous. Yet most berries from the Elder contain curative compounds (try elderberry lozenges for immune support and sore throat), are wonderful in pies and jams. And birds and other animals in the wild thrive on them. But enough about nature and this “hardy plant growing native in many climates” (check out Female radical poets can be like brewers of medicinal magic: they shake the body, heart and mind with the raw energies potential in words. Yet this women's poetry production is not about nature but about culture. Or is it?

The “commemorative anthology” (Belladonna’s words, which means the words of the fab-duo of the women’s poetry world, Rachel Levitsky and Erica Kaufman) , produced by and for Cara Benson with her “Elders” Jayne Cortez and Anne Waldman, seems -- at least metaphorically -- a force of nature. And it blends the magician/healer/shamanistic elements we sometimes associate with East Village / Lower East Side poetics, going back to "Howl" and Alan Ginsberg. Alas, Ginsberg was a man and he was not alone as a Figure of the East Village Bard. At the reading, Benson told a story of being lost in a preppy creative writing program and missing her East Village poetry roots. Some smart professor -- who felt for her sense of being beached in the academic climate -- gave Benson a copy of a Jayne Cortez poetry book. And Cortez’s work changed her poetry life. According to Benson, at that moment she became “a writer.”

Now I must segue to another time and my own story. I first saw Jayne Cortez in the rare luxury not only of a poetry reading at my professional institution, but with her band. This was through the gift of the City College Langston Hughes festival, curated that year by a wonderful young scholar of African American literature, Victoria Chevalier (disclosure: I once had now-Professor Chevalier in a City College graduate class). As a result of the funding provided that festival that year, and Chevalier's savvy tastes in Harlem-based hybrid literature and music, I first saw Cortez -- and heard her – with her band, the Firespitters. (For a sample song of Cortez with the band, “Cheerful and Optimistic,” go to You have to see/hear Cortez do her jazz-poetics performance with the band to fully “get” her astounding contribution to the poetry world. Her poetics does not join the music – it becomes it. Hers is a rare contemporary poetics based entirely on sound, and in the body, and in the body that is not Euro-centric and Romantic based (a lineage from 19th century school lyricism) but is a “capillary current” – as only Aldon Nielson can say best – that brings an alternative modernity legacy to us through the Caribbean hybrid cultures and the Buena Vista Social Club, through the jazz world of Be Bop, Parker and Gillespie in Harlem. It links what Nielson calls its “African elements” through the Afro-Cubano writers scene, the Negritude poets of the Francophone Caribbean, the Harlem Renaissance, to its newest innovations in '60's Black Arts. (See Nielson’s essay “Capillary Currents,” in We Who Love to Be Astonished). Benson’s introduction at the Belladonna reading April 28 wisely depicted Cortez’s contribution to the Black Arts Movement, and noted, “She didn’t wait for permission.” No, she did not.

Of course, Cortez read solo at the Belladonna event last month, in keeping with the spirit of the series as well as probable financing issues. But the reading was nevertheless astounding. During the reading itself, we heard -- among others -- Cortez present her legendary poem, “Rape,” which defends and even celebrates Inez Garcia and Joanne Little, two women who were raped in the 1970’s, and who evaded the label “rape victims,” by killing their attacker(s). When I first heard Cortez’s poem last summer -- this was at the National Poetry Foundation conference (on ‘70’s poetics, in Oronto, Maine) -- I was bowled over. Again, hearing it, I felt its incantatory shaman mode, its sonoric reasoning for an alternative form of justice in women who ended the life of

. . . the dead rapist punk

and just what the fuck else were we supposed to do?

The passionate appeal to a certain “ethical" behavior that flies under white-male forms of justice and legal institutions is as unique as Cortez’s culture-shattering approach to poetics itself. The book produced on behalf of Benson and her “Elders” contains one different incantatory and also legendary Cortez poem, however. This seems to have been one of Benson's favorites: “I am New York City.” As Benson writes in the commemorative edition, and quoting Cortez: “Jayne … makes a city-poem ‘sparkle with shit.’” Anyone who lives in New York City, who travels its streets and subways, who fights with and also yields to its unsentimental, dynamic, charged rhythms, will relate with these lines:

Take my face of stink bombs
my star spangle banner of hot dogs
take my beer-can junta
my reptilian ass of footprints
and approach me through life
approach me through death
. . .
of my rat tail wig
face up face down
piss into the bite of our handshake

It is poetry that works on the page through the raw assemblage of arranged words, colloquial speech become an art. But its shamanistic fever, its rattle and vibration, can only be felt – this was my experience (even without “the band”) of Cortez reading for Belladonna.

Coupled with this woman-shaman of poetic Harlem was another woman shamanistic poet/“healer” / Buddhist/ organizer and poetry administrator -- another woman who has never needed permission, who helped establish St. Marks and the Naropa Institute, and a contemporary feminist poetics birthed from women’s social body-experience: Anne Waldman. Her own reading was equal to that of Cortez, in that it inspires the younger feminist-poet generation, like Benson, in New York and beyond. The Belladonna book itself offers a selection of two of Waldman’s recent works, which she read from, “G Spot” (from her on-going feminist epic, Iovis) and “Gender Fib.” What is so impressive about Waldman's work is not dissimilar to that of Cortez's; Waldman yokes poetry to the body’s living, breathing, experience. And that experience is "femininite" -- to use the best French word that rolls off my tongue in a female-imaginary perhaps we can only metaphorically posit in the body's form. Waldman's poem “G Spot,” inspired by a trip to Cape Canaveral in Florida, so wonderfully illustrates that body-life connectedness in her writing. As she says in her poetry preface to "G-Spot:

. . . You may kiss the icon
without it seeing you but it will feel that breath, those tentative heaves. Will it? . . . Never tame the spot its scandal its woman tyranny. A little death is quaint erotics. And shakes the world. . . . On this spot, “I” will achieve liberation.

The female shaman’s shakes are about that “liberation,” both erotically-sexually and textually-sexually. The question that opens up is: how to breathe in a language that creates that female-poetics of space? The epigraph from George Bataille connects the material planes of "poetry" to "all forms of eroticism." But "liberation," in Waldman's sense, like that of Cortez, seems not to be a poetics that descends from a European legacy of the “liberation” of Romanticism -- as so much “modernism” and even “post modernism” does. Instead, it is a poetics whose "liberation" rips the fabric that forms the narratives of poetry, opens its seam lines, exposes its gender jokes in order to radically remake the pattern. In the phallic language of NASA and the space agency's industry, thus appropriated by Waldman in “G Spot," we hear/read the incantatory words:


Lift off.

And yet “figures,/restless/in aspiration/mount Mars” but also “stop and move/move again or/in tracks.” The phallic lineage of the space-mobile rocket ship is replace by a receptive vulva. Waldman’s hysterical use of dual-illustration -- the poem becomes also a visual text – substitutes a female-body medical diagram for a rocket diagram. Both have the “G spot/ that is hidden, sister,” what some call (misleadingly) a “little button” that can be stimulated to erotic pleasure long the inner wall of the vagina against the public bone,” for Waldman, reconfigured as a powerful space-probe:

Where people are wired for
Nights like

To steady the ocean
In its

Benson chose her Elders well. Belladonna Books and its latest reading series continues to offer innovative “tonics” outside the mainstream of both academic poetry and feminist thought. I looked around the Dixon Place theater that Tuesday night. And I marveled. Erica Kaufman’s Baruch College of CUNY students in the balcony notwithstanding, I was watching/hearing/immersed within a revolutionary poetics and my poetry superstars, enfolded by an audience of perhaps 25-30, including the poets and their companions. Small audience. Big stuff. Culture-transforming, in fact. That’s the poetry world, anyway, of New York. And that’s the world of feminist-poetics and its transformations. It happens even if there are only a few ears to hear.
-- LH

Apr 28, 2009

Norma Cole, Part 1: Writing as Luminousness

In his essay “Im.age . . . Dis.solve,” Charles Borkhuis writes on the work of Norma Cole as responsive to the critique of vision that is typical to the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century (this essay was published in the volume I co-edited, We Who Love to Be Astonished, 1999). Borkhuis suggests that Cole, as “former painter” – and whom continues her visual multi-media work today – “offers a complex response to the role of the image … Drawing instead upon the shadow presence of a more dispersed sensorium” than that which is perhaps ubiquitous to the post-Enlightenment realm of technology and lense apparti (NOTE: His commentaries are applied to the poetry of Ann Lauterbach, as well.) Borkhuis calls this kind work the “critical lyric,” in that it presents a “diacritical image that is both visionary and self-reflexive.” This search for “the shadow presence” in the work of Cole is quite clearly impressed upon the reader of her newly published work, Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2009 (San Francisco: City Lights 2009). But rather than a realm of shadows, what I find is a textual world of light – a luminousness that spreads across the

I use the term “luminousness” perhaps ironically, after a certain radiant painterly style of one of my favorite 19th century schools of “realist” painting, that of the Hudson River canvas tradition. The term applies only conceptually, of course, to Cole’s lyric poetry, which, in its stretch to actually illuminate shadow places, or even spaces of apparent void, seems to begin with a point, a given conceptual form that “luminously” expands outward. As Cole discusses in a short interview we had last week -- to be transcribed in Part 2 on this blogsite -- ,her chapbook, entitled, If I’m Asleep (published by myself through Mermaid Tenement Press 2009) began as the exploration of a “spine.” And each “node” of this “spine” became a point of contemplation, the exploding detail of which becomes a piece of poem. Her “poetics,” I would argue, is based on this luminous concept: what begins as a placeholder, a marker, a “node,” expands as site of adventure and longing -- to explore, know more, and invent – but always through the word itself. Since Cole’s imagination expresses itself with such visual power – yet not in any ordinary sense – we are left with clips of rearranged, even entirely reconceived, formations of vision through language’s own power to be luminous. Like a film that ignores any principle of establishing shots, or point of view references -- while being entirely point of view itself – Cole’s poetry invites the eye to see, then playfully clicks and shutters off and on the eye as seeing mechanism.

This technique is exemplied in Cole’s new collection, Where Shadows Will, in a prose poem from the 1988 work Mace Hill Remap. Here, Cole literally as well as figurally “remaps” the way we follow vision, when, for example, “Imaginations law hits frames” in the first line of the book; or, as in one of the last excerpts, we are told:

You have to spit over your left shoulder if you see a magpie trip or
Waltz or stay with in the boulder hemicycle to see where shadows will

“Where shadows will” – the line becomes a luminous mantra through which we open to multiple and different ways of seeing darkness, that re-arrange not only vision but expected syntax, all in order to “figure out” what is being figured without the usual methods of image or vision to do so, such as in these phrases:

Industrial chunking: two abstract
and one concrete or was it too concrete
and on abstract

… no question mark: the question is never resolved, for one is never really asked. In poem “A” from Metamorphopsia, we read about language’s dance with visual arrangement and the seer figure behind sight:

letters in the boxes in the light old lady opportunity
the mirror ceases to be right here …

Then, we read: “a circuit connected by eyes stopped watching.” Or thus it was never allowed to be “watching” in any conventional sense, in the first place. These lines are not ekphrasis, in any literal or narrow sense of that contested term. These lines do not replicate any “mirror” but that which “circuits” through the mind, as form of energy, creativity, language, driving a shape:

Mural fold or fist, magnetic moment measures behavior, thinking
penetrates slowly

A luminous language arches and falls flat, skates along its own “spine” of the linguistic imagination, structures and reconforms sight as it mirrors the very gestures of seeing. In the little piece “Cardinal,” for example (from the wonderful series in the selected poems, My Bird Book), we view a wing in flight without weight or matter:

Born in the ground
Obstacles look alike
Then action follows….

As the lines progress and we chart a path with proverbial “piece of bread,” the “biological nouns” are just that – nouns. Their significance is what we make of them, named, framed, unnamed. In “Bird of Paradise” from this same series, we are “Lacking sequence,” requiring us as readers to “Sense circumstances .../ Sensational/ additional power / a landscape ‘empty.’” Yet the “landscape” that is anything but “’empty.’” Filled as it is with “Riptide” forces – I borrow from the title of another poem included here – we experience the “collapsing page from / the throat talking,” and the rasp that remains holds out for us

An invitation to

See the world
from a bridge
that burns in
the next night

In Cole’s “night” I personally want to read/exist. It is “night” as non-mattered but luminously defuse, a linguistically apparent space. --LH

Apr 20, 2009

On "Free Verse: The Collaborative Artists’ Book"

A Report from the Minneapolis Walker Art Center

Guest review by Ann Bogle
of Ana Verse
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The reading at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on April 16 featured poets Bill Berkson, Lewis Warsh, and Vincent Katz, and their collaborative artists’ books. The reading was sponsored by Rain Taxi Review of Books in conjunction with Free Target Thursdays and the Walker exhibit, "Text/Messages: Books by Artists" (December 18, 2008 to April 19, 2009). Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi, introduced the poets whose readings included the use of projected visual images from the artist books themselves. Vincent Katz read from two works: his book with artist Wayne Gonzales called Judge (Charta/Libellum, 2007) and his book with artist Francesco Clemente, Alcuni Telefonini (Granary Books, 2008). Lewis Warsh read with a co-reader from his book created with video artist Julie Harrison, Debtor’s Prison (Granary Books, 2001). Finally, Bill Berkson read from his book with etchings by artist Alex Katz, Gloria (Arion Press, 2005).

Vincent Katz’s and Wayne Gonzales’ Judge is composed of words and images spliced from news media. It reminds me of Hannah Weiner’s book, Weeks (with photographs by Barbara Rosenthal and introduction by Charles Bernstein, Xexoxial Editions, 1990 -- a book I transcribed for a reprinted edition in 2008). In Judge, Katz re-circulates actual text from news stories; in Weeks, Weiner notes events in the news in a thematic pattern that accrues poetically. Weiner’s diaristic noting seems more original to me in its use of news-in/as-poetry than does Katz’s recycling news phrases verbatim. Both books represent news events from their respective years of composition and leave the dates vague except in context in the texts. Since Weeks predates Judge it may have influenced Katz’s composition.

In Alcuni Telephonini (translated as “some cell phones”) Katz’s nature poems, hand-lettered, meet Francesco Clemente’s (beautiful) watercolor images of chains and handcuffs. The ingenuous, colorful watercolors of bondage implements seem to mock or mimic the innocence of the hand-lettering and poetic images of nature, especially of sky.

Lewis Warsh’s Debtor’s Prison is a series of minimalist phrases counterpoised with Julie Harrison’s provocative video stills and their strange nudities. Many of the images of the nude in the bathtub are indeterminate in gender. The phrases work as separate aphorisms on the page, for example, “We tend to be attracted to people who remind us of people we used to love.”

In Gloria, Bill Berkson’s poetry is variously typeset -- right-left justified prose poems alongside left-justified verse. The poems appear on recto pages, Alex Katz’s black etchings on verso pages. The audience laughed intermittently during an otherwise serious reading, for example at this line from one of the poems: “Similarly overheard at the gym the country western singer describing the girl of his dreams as Picasso-esque.”

When Lorberer joined the poets seated on stage for a question-and-answer session after the readings, he asked each poet to describe their process of writing with the visual artists, and to comment on the difficulties that arise during collaboration. As each poet talked, a view emerged of the poetry and art cultures in New York and San Francisco during the late 1950s to the 1980s. Names came up: Anne Waldman, the Angel Hair anthology, Joe Brainard, the Black Mountain School, George Schneeman (who died earlier this year at the age of 74), and Steve Clay of Granary Books. Warsh told a story about Clay, who had come to visit him in his Manhattan apartment and ended up cataloguing and selling hundreds of Warsh’s books at a time when Warsh needed the money. Warsh bowed twice at his candor in revealing the pennilessness of the poets Clay promoted, but I liked his candor -- such things as they are! -- and the glimpses of nights in the East Village with artists and poets such as Schneeman and Waldman. He described a time when artists and poets worked together whenever they met -- even socially -- at Schneeman’s apartment on St. Marks.

Kit Robinson was in the audience following his appearance at the University of Minnesota that afternoon. He and Berkson were headed for an appearance and workshop at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee next on April 18. In my opinion, Woodland Pattern is the best poetry bookstore in the country -- or at least it was when I lived in Madison in the 1980s -- and is worth the journey if you’ve never visited. The Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden are worth another journey. (They are, for the non-initiate reader, not quite 400 miles apart.) Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron designed the outer walls of the Walker to look like crumpled paper made of aluminum, underscoring the Walker’s dedication to the book as art form.

For architectural reasons alone -- not to mention the large collection nor what it cost to rebuild the Walker a few years ago when the state got museum renovations and a new Guthrie Theater instead of the stadiums the other taxpayers wanted -- the Walker is a superior venue for a reading, comparable to the Flarfists performing at the Whitney (especially if the Whitney had been redesigned the same year MoMA was rebuilt). Yet Berkson seemed not quite certain that he was “somewhere” during the talk and as if the audience members did seem certain -- perhaps unjustifiably so -- that they were (somewhere). There is a humorous disorientation in such geographical doubt. Geographical attitudes play a role culturally, but the details for all of us may be hard to surmise.

*Note: the talk was webcast live and is archived at

Photo of Ann Bogle taken at the National Poetry Foundation Conference, Orono, Maine, June 2009, by Laura Hinton