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 channel.walkerart.org

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

Apr 19, 2009

“Writing, as Running”: Interview with Kit Robinson, Part 2 *

Berkeley, California

This theme of a “dynamic” mode of writing through open-ended formal gestures like the tercet was one that continued in my discussion with Kit Robinson at his Berkeley home last week. In the third part of the interview, we turned to the topic of his most recent poetry chapbook, Train I Ride, just out from Toronto (Book Thug, 2009). The “mode” (Robinson’s word) behind this poetic series seems to be the prose poem – but one shattered into ribbons ; and these are ribbons that run long and flat, like a rail across the inner landscape of the poetic process, forever reaching onward.

The poem is arresting in its inventive qualities, even as it propels us forward on those long ribbon-rails. Even the hybrid form of the prose-poem is re-hybridicized, by an alternation in some of the early poems between verse line, followed by lines more resonantly part of prose paragraphs. We follow Robinson’s Wittgensteinian quest in this book – a quest which he articulated in the interview as that of “testing limits of language” – when we skate onward within and past lines that leave us with subverted “conclusions” as they appear to end, but rather curiously. This contradiction within the “end” is illustrated in the first poem from the series, “The Smallest Increment”:

Writing, as running, an exercise for the breath. A way of engaging time. Lest time take all away.

Just as writing becomes a way to stop time through its own contemplative processes, it escapes “time” altogether, as “exercise for the breath” – or, as a subsequent line reads: “A physical, sensual art, bound into the body, not evidently the stuff of pure ideation.” Writing is both that which comes out of or from within the body’s time and yet remains outside all that through its own time-based circumventions. Therefore, as the poem goes on to suggest, writing offers not a “pure ideation” but a “Rhythm, always, of the essence” – without ever being essence at all. All of this is to say, as the third line/stanza reiterates, that here are

Signs that the writer is still awake, attempting something, even though…

And with those ellipses were are left hanging – and poetry does that, when treated not as encased form but as energetic process, both bodily and yet not. For writing is never matter; it is an abstraction.

I think that is what I like about Robinson’s writing so much is that not only does it thrust forward with this open internal energy and “speed” (not as in speed reading, however, at all, for every line requires intense concentration), but it also mirrors an irreverent attitude towards poetics as gospel, as canon, as law. This is a poetics about its own unforeseeable process. Where it takes you when you don’t know you are on the metaphoric “train.” The writing in this chapbook takes itself seriously enough to refuse the serious weight of its own intensity and artifice, which is a technique of a modest refusal Robinson employs again and again. Deeply philosophic, pieces like “The Smallest Increment,” or “Evidence” (favorite first line: “The inhabitation of a weird head.”), or “From Scratch,” all work at getting to some “essence” of a reversed poetic process – which turns out to be no “essence” at all. No origin. All is in medias res. And all begins with a “scratch,” which is an irritation as much as a well-spring of muse-inspired insight.

“From Scratch” is a secretly ambitious little poem, as revealed in its first two lines, where you – as reader like writer -- can “Start from scratch.” But: “What is scratch?” the poem goes on to ask, rhetorically. And if that place of beginning or essence is “A kind of interiority.” – the poem goes on to suggest this – it then must ask: “Defined by what?” And, then again: “If only the outside!” – a complete and lovely contradiction to the “interiority” just “defined.” What starts as a kind of recipe for inspired poetry writing perhaps becomes a riddle without a cause – or a resolution by the oracular voice. Even the later metaphors in the four set of lines -- like “grass” and “smoke” and “light” -- turn “elsewhere” – for only there the “scratch” as we experience it best “Lives.” When we arrive at the final line of this series of blind tunnels leading nowhere, and false metaphoric starts (“scratches” of the pen? Marks on paper or screen?), we find ourselves blissfully having arrived nowhere, through the phrase that “concludes” this inconclusive poem:

It makes you wonder.

An easy colloquialism, a tossed off line – that last one? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Colloquialisms maneuvered into the right con-text can become brilliant. I think this one is. -- LH

In Sound Piece Part 4 of the interview I conducted with Robinson, he reads short poems from Train I Ride.
*See Part 1 posted April 18, 2009

Apr 18, 2009

Not About Trees: Interview with Kit Robinson, Part I

Berkeley, California

I caught up with Kit Robinson this week before he left his home in Berkeley for a reading tour in the Midwest. Sitting in a backyard garden outside his study “cabin,” and later over tea at the kitchen table, we discussed the making of his new Selected Poems, The Messianic Trees (Adventures in Poetry, 2009). Re-publishing pieces from 13 mostly out-of-print poetry books with dates from 1976 to 2003, The Messianic Trees is not about trees. It is a dense sampler that weaves together this Bay Area Language poet’s collected experiments in poetic seriality. As Robinson reports in the sound pieces attached, his writing is informed not only by linguistic abstraction and the structural bases in language, but also by “modalities” of “experience” and “dream.” Throughout his career as a poet -- his first book, The Dolch Stanzas, was published in 1976 by San Francisco's This Press -- Robinson employs these “modalities” not as a painterly canvas but rather as “the frame.” This structural restraint then becomes his working “picture,” that of the poem or poem series.

The book’s stunning cover features an abstract series of rectangular boxes -- a painting by the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica. And this painting presents an interesting arrangement through which the reader enters a poetics of everyday diction, in words and lines and stanzas combined not in any ordinary way. (See Kyle Schlesinger's review, which is particularly informative on the subject of the cover art). We can look at an example from The Dolch Stanzas, indeed noting both the conversational word choice (derived from the Dolch palate, as Robinson explains in the interview), but forming three line stanzas, or tercets. As Robinson writes in his autobiographical remarks from the group experiment, The Grand Piano (No. 7) the tercet breaks the expected sequence of the box-like quatrain; and this thrusts “the attention forward from one stanza to the next.” In other words, the “room” of the “stanza” remains porous, open, and this permeability always keeps the poem (as "series") on-going, incomplete. The flat diction he selectively uses is combined with the tercet's restless energy, as illustrated in the following stanzas from No. IV, which acts itself -- as series of lines -- like the the referent “move fast,” and other verbs of kinetic motion moving "out" from any potential stasis:

it can move fast
she is said to have
seen it go once

once and for all
by the white way
it left out

her one look
far away and
out of the blue

to get from it
to her and back
is said to look

as white
when it is late
and you can see

The short tercet that follows, titled No. V in this series, turns those prepositions of place (but "out" of place) and motion to the look on the page -- or screen, and the visual issues surrounding "the look":

the old eye can read
anything at all with
one little old yellow look

The paradigm of reading and beckoning the eye through the tercet form to move “out” in order “to get from it to her and back” becomes an analysis of the glance that is reading itself. Reading poetry is a process of or subsumed by a serial wave of glances. The "look" of the poetic reader is not stationary or pre-ordained. Instead, it is always a motion-based experience -- as full of discovery as speeding down a California freeway in the '70's. The writing in Robinson's "selected" resembles a kind of Kerouac road-trip but without the narrative, and performing "form" seamlessly with total immersion inside the formal project at hand. It is this writerly movement that engages me as a reader -- the passing scenery a linguistic landscape as fascinating as any I've recently mapped.

In Sound Piece No. 1, Robinson discusses the origins and making of The Messianic Trees. (All Sound Pieces are available on You Tube.)

In Sound Piece No. 2 and No. 3, Robinson discusses his concept of “the mode” or “modalities,” some of the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of his poetics, and reads short selections from The Messianic Trees to illustrate his ideas. -- LH

Note: Photograph of Kit Robinson by Laura Hinton, taken in his Berkeley garden

Apr 3, 2009

“The Wheel Never stop”: Poetry in Performance as “SOP DOLL!”

Japanese Noh may be a stylistic and ritualistic theater associated with abstraction and heavy poetic allusion. But its precise, many-centuries-old performance methods -- however classical to our ear and eye -- developed first through early Japanese folk tales, those whose primary appeal was to popular audiences.

Lee Ann Brown and Tony Torn have drawn upon that folkloric tradition within Noh theater, re-awakening it through a different literary engine: the American Appalachian “Jack Tale.” This tradition of the folktale traveled from Europe along with its rural immigrants, the legacy of “Jack and the Beanstalk” turned American hillbilly and infiltrating nineteenth-century pop culture from North Carolina to Tennessee. Extending the poetic license of folklorists like Richard Chase, who both compiled these traditional tales and bowdlerized them, Brown and Torn wrote the script for SOP DOLL! A Jack Noh Tale as a Noh theater ritual. The poet’s theater play was performed March 31 at the Gershwin Hotel theater in New York.

This playful piece, both a full-staged performance and reading, contained many elements of a traditional Noh play – song-like speech, movements approximating dance, the symbolic use of a key prop (here not an elegant Japanese fan but a gigantic cat claw and arm). But those elements were hysterically transformed by lovable, goofy Jack (acted by Kobi Libii), with Brown and daughter Miranda Torn forming the ritualistic sing-song chorus. Tony Torn – a founding member of Reza Abdoh’s legendary theater company dar a luz, and known also for his work in Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater – played the “Stranger” figure from the Noh (the “Tusure,” who is a “companion actor” to the main figure). He asks Jack, playing the Noh “Waki” (the “unmasked actor” who enters the scene before other players) if he can grind some corn. Jack, who works a mill, playfully displayed as a kitchen table mill on the stage, is warned by the redneck Stranger in the low felt hat:

I’d watch my back, Jack …
Jus’ along the riverbank
Comes walking one lone figure…
Colorless color at the very end of day.
Little poke a’ corn riding there on his shoulder.

Together, the Stranger and the chorus (“Ji”) then recite:

Silent oily dark

What does river care
If the mill grinds corn?

Black is the Color
Of My True Love’s Hair
Is the only song sung by
The ferryman and only
He knows how it goes.

Next, this Stranger repeats, alone: “Only he knows how it goes…”

The use of the Appalachian mountain folksong in the context of Noh figuration becomes a metaphor for the staginess of the poetry-performance experience as a whole. It heightens the abstracted possibilities of meaning/non-meaning in such a haunting, lyrical, but always-strange and dissonant song, yet one that everyone who loves American folk music knows so well. The Stranger is an impressive figure of knowability and mystery, but the character in the script perhaps most bringing that paradox to life is the dual Mill Woman / Cat-Witch. Played by multi-media artist Julie Patton, her incantatory singing voice and staged elegance of movement carried the hybrid fascination of the show. Patton managed to pull out from this dense and difficult script the miraculous but incomprehensible presence of the transformable wise-woman figure as seductress, natural threat, and also a rather comedic flesh-and-blood carnation. The language is edgy and folkloric at once as she seduces Jack:

I saw you stride mountaintop to mountaintop.
You se the clouds on fire! Saw you coming Jack!

Meanwhile, perhaps, the “Ji” Chorus provided the most lyrical backdrop to the flow of language, in rhymed ballad forms like:

Left hand of darkness in the light
Left hand of darkness – right
Left to right and left to right spinning until night
Spinning like the mill wheel round – River won’t let up …
The Wheel never stop

I want to make the additional note that young Miranda Torn made an exceptionally slinky (and adorable) black cat. And also the disclosure: Mermaid Tenement Press is the publisher of the chapbook-length script of SOP DOLL! A Jack Noh Tale. (And I was proud to see our book on stage, in the hands of the readers/performers, and available to the full-house audience after the show.) -- LH