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