Thursday, July 30, 2009

Credo of the Difficult Imagination

"Whatever we may think of when we use that word [accessible], texts in general should be just the opposite. They should be less accessible, not more. Why? Because texts that make us work, texts that make us think and feel in unusual ways, texts that attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming, are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and forgetful.

"When I speak of renewing the writing of the Difficult Imagination, I am referring to the renewal of a narratological possibility space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are. This interzone of impeded accessibility is an essential one for human freedom. In it, everything can and should be considered, attempted, troubled. What is important about its products is not whether they ultimately succeed or fail (whatever we may mean when we say those words). What is important is that they come into being often and widely, because in them we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche's notion of the unconditional, Derrida's of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky's ambition for art, and Martin Heidegger's for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and contemplation."

—Lance Olsen, Anxious Pleasures

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


On my most recent trip to Las Vegas. On midsummer's evanescent reach. On delight in my daughter that amplifies daily.

Living in prose if not quite for it. Wrote my first poem since the Ammons verse diary in our room on the twenty-second floor of the Bellagio thinking, as that town inclines me to do, about pleasure and the apocalypse. Vegas as sinking ship, Titanic, flocked to by the thousands who won't admit the party's over. Pleasures of the apocalypse. The poem is called "The Millions" (upper limit of thinkable quantities) and I think I'll write some more.

Looking for innovative fiction. Recommended to me: Lance Olsen, Shelley Jackson, Steve Tomasula. On my own I've found Lynne Tillman and Laird Hunt. More?

As far as the Oulipians go, I'm still midway through Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London and have been meaning to pick up Perec's Life: A User's Manual. Will save A Void for the next void.

When I began with poetry I thought of it as a tool for discovering striking images. I didn't think about music, I just did it. And when I began with fiction (reading fiction) of course like everyone else I wanted to be taken away. The image was secondary to narrative, and music barely registered as a consideration.

Now when I write poetry I want to write what I think of as most fully proper to poetry, what it alone can accomplish. The effects, and poetic cognition, made possible primarily by putting pressure on syntax, appeal strongly to me. White space, line breaks, meter: the devices that shift and transform emphasis, that make an other(-ed)(-ing) syntax possible: for me that's what poetry is for.

But this is my Platonic ideal of poetry. My actual poems are fallen things, trapped in the slow-moving amber of a residual romanticism, and as such they often turn on images and micro-narrative (bits of local narrative that can function in the way proper to a poem, that is, as syntax) and macro-narrative (the transcendent electrical arc from the world I write about to the void variously filled by God, nature, capital, Spirit, the proletariat, history, etc., etc.).

If I feel a compulsion now toward fiction it may depend on a rebellion against my own powerful sense of decorum, expressed above as the sense of art's needing to focus on the territory proper to it. What's proper to the novel is heteroglossia and the mixing of genres: there is no form of textuality alien to it. I still remember the shock of pleasure from first reading Ulysses and discovering the Nighttown playscript and the newsroom headlines and the syntaxe féminine of Molly Bloom. And the songs, of course, which I was already accustomed to thanks to Tolkien.

Plus I may as well admit rediscovering the sheer pleasures of storytelling. I create a character and he or she begins to talk, or I talk about him or her, and a world unfurls. It's no different than a poem in that sense except that the characters exist together in a different way than poems do (but I remember Jack Spicer's claim that "poems cannot live alone any more than we can," his argument for writing in terms of books rather than individual lyrics, one-night stands). I think Bakhtin was essentially right when he argued that the poem is monoglossic and tends toward purity. You can do a lot of interesting things poetically by trying to subvert that—by insisting on a heteroglossic lyric, for instance—but in novel-writing I feel there's less resistance and one can just go.

I want to write the novel only a poet could write.

I want to transgress my sense of decorum through radical fidelity to it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Return to Prose

The verse diary experiment is over, for now. I intended to write every day that I was in Ithaca, and I more or less succeeded. The diary did not quite coincide with the entire month of June because the last two days were devoted to travel: those days then, by definition, are in excess of, are binding upon, the project as an Ithaca project.

It is interesting and unsurprising, or perhaps surprising but uninteresting, that overall readership was down while I was posting only verse. I am not unsympathetic: I have trouble reading poetry on the Web, especially the kind of poetry I was doing (uninterrupted verse blocks in rough tetrameter that require the reader to scroll downward seemingly interminably). Web poems are optimally viewed complete on a single screen. To my knowledge an intuitive technology replicating that crucial bit of kinetic-sensory information provided by the paper book or magazine—the fingertips' knowledge of how much longer a poem or section or chapter or book is—has yet to be discovered.

As far as the novel goes (I spoke of it in verse, but to speak of it here in prose feels finally and ultimately disclosive) I seem to have entered a new phase in its composition. The first 50,000 words were written on my computer, but for the past week I've been writing in longhand in a notebook. The sensory pleasure of this is muted but persistent. I recently switched notebooks, as well: the roughly 4 x 8 Moleskine with ruled pages that I've been slowly filling for the past two years (since well before Sadie was born) has been replaced with a much larger and thinner notebook, also a Moleskine, without lines, so that to open it up is to behold a vast clean field (but not too clean: the paper is less white than the old notebook, it has a buff sort of tone that provides a bit of pleasing resistance or texture for the eye to catch hold of). Writing without lines, on broad pages, with a black fine point Pilot roller ball pen, I feel the prose moving ineffably toward the condition of poetry, not so much in its content (for there are still characters, actions, voices, and all the other trappings of narrative) but in process, its dreamlike unfolding, one word or sentence suggesting the next.

Intoxicated mornings like this morning, sitting in mixed sunshine outside the Bros. K coffeehouse, my hand swimming across and down the page, a nearly pure experience. Just to write, to go on writing, is enough. The project, the product, seems incidental to that experience.

When I can't write any more I read Badiou (or, strictly speaking, about Badiou: I had to retreat from Being and Event to Peter Hallward's introduction, Badiou: A Subject to Truth. But I've ordered two books I'm told I'll find more congenial to my purposes: The Century and Handbook of Inasethetics). Through the fantasia of mathematics as ontology he promises to deliver us from postmodernism and theory and endless heuristics toward Truth. I am skeptical but compelled. The chapter on Badiou's aesthetics (or inaesthetics) is very suggestive, and I've been musing over the polarity he sets up between Mallarmé (the poet of pure subtraction, whose objects become pure language and form, and whose subject, the speaker, disappears) and Rimbaud or more intriguingly Pessoa (the poet of substitution [I am tempted in Pessoa's case to say multiplication]), who proliferates objects but subjects them to a rigorous syntax (such as, I think, procedural poetry, Oulipian games) and of course multiplies and so disperses the subject (Je est en autre, or Senhores Caeiro, Reis and de Campos).

It is tempting to analogize or homologize this polarity to the conceptualism/baroque (flarf) polarity set up by Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place in Notes on Conceptualisms. The goal of both poetics, as articulated by Place-Fitterman, is the defeat of mastery, which I take to be very similar to Badiou's desire to defeat the count-as-one. "Subtracted from all habitual familiarity, a poem leaves everyone equally confounded. Without concern for the conventional requirement of language users, poetry affirms the pure 'sovereignty of language' [Petit manuel d'inésthétique 161]" (Hallward 198). This is not a new idea—it is fundamentally a Mallarméan idea. And I see a direct line from the "pure 'sovereignty of language'" of Mallarmé to the austerities of conceptual writing, in which the object is diminished in the name of the word, and the word-object is diminished in the name of the concept. But I'm more interested, and more temperamentally suited (as a writer, though perhaps not as a thinker), to the possibilities of the baroque, and what seems to be Badiou's way of thinking about the possibilities of substitution and the plural as means of pushing the poem toward its necessary and heroic failures (its escapes, its lines of flight from conventional, prepackaged, commodified experience). This also veers a bit from Badiou's emphasis on purity, which I find, quite frankly, to be creepy.

The summer will go very fast, but it is necessary to me to treat at least the next several weeks—before August—as though I had all the time in the world.

Monday, July 06, 2009


No view: full dark: so this
is goodbye, Ithaca, a month
made shorter in retrospect
in the killing of visible time
in the watches of the night
and the gone-by reckoned up
in pictures taken on camera phones
but mostly in the words—between me and Emily,
between me and you, and the books
I’ve read or managed to dip into:
Ammiel Alcalay, A.R. Ammons,
Badiou, Bernadette Mayer,
Codrescu, Andre,
Donna Stonecipher,
Fanny Howe, Allen
Grossman (chose not to review),
Jacques Roubaud, Juliana Spahr,
Lynne Tillman, Jonathan
Monroe, Fitterman &
Place, Jacques
Roubaud, Monique
Truong (all of three pages), one
month’s constellation to color
my memory of an inward time
in a place that demands little formal attention
except perhaps to the weather, which careful
readers will have noted to be unseasonably
cool and rainy with only the last couple
of days at all summerlike: rain
this evening, but hot and bright this morning
so that the three of could sit
at the flat rocky knees of Cascadilla Falls
and put our feet in the water: indescribable material
happiness of watching Sadie at first
in doubt, bending her knees
to keep out of cold water, then touching
with fingers, then sitting in only a shirt
at the water’s edge dangling both feet
with a grin reflecting the sunlight
in lemon slivers on the surface of
live water. Meantime the world
wobbles on: tense quiet in Iran, we
may not know for years what to do
with the pictures we’ve seen and words
we’ve read, yet I feel sure that someday
that regime will fall and however long that takes
they’ll look back on June 2009 and say
the revolution started here: we are called
to revolution again and again, to fulfill
what may have been empty or cynical promises,
to take words literally that if taken as words
do nothing to hold back a sea of troubles:
in short, be the sea, be part of your time
and if impoverished be impoverished
with it: rich or poor, like Croesus unable
to know if you’re lucky until after
you’re dead: rich as Croesus I’ll rise
tomorrow with my little family and get into
the car, stop for one last cup of really
excellent coffee, and drive to Cleveland:
an old friend, Sarah Gridley, visionary
poet, awaits us there, and the next day
will take us home, set us down
on the fringes of an enormous local history
that we’ll try to be a part of, suffer
and grow, don’t take it too big, don’t
expect to be small. The only weather
is Sadie’s sound machine plus the whizz
of a fan, but let me try before sleep
to interpret the dark: dim window
through leaves at an angle down the street
to accompany night air soft with car sounds
moist as breath but cool, even,
and the faintest sense, brought by that window
of movement out there, motion made coherent
by its invisibility, and now as I lean forward
a streetlamp slides its light down powerlines
into the cloudlike bank of a leaf cluster
each leaf with a surface one visible one
invisible, neither more real than the other
or less. Night’s calling. Farewell
to an idea of myself as out of time
and out of place: I’m ready, brink
of leaving, to be here.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Some days go
by, fleet by and

Thursday, July 02, 2009


In the margins of Sadie’s nap
on a humid day with some sun
raising the ante after thunderstorms
this morning and to judge from the cloud
cover in the northwest we may not be out
of the woods yet (yes, this be the verse
supple enough for cliches, as it encompasses
dailiness on the level of toenail clippings
and the umbrella I forgot, then recovered
from the bagel place this morning—not
to mention world events that I have as small
a chance of hammering to the scaffold
of words as I do the ephemeral and all else
of a nature to be missed, lived). More time
in the archives today in strange intimacy
with the dead, Ammons, A.R., his papers
neatly ordered in boxes and folders such
as only the most neurotic person organizes
in life: reading letters, unpublished prose
autobiographies written on yellow
pads, and—but the baby’s awake, I’ll
resume without break here but impalpable
hours shall pass in the meantime:
well! the weather has made a complete
cycle: we went for a walk under
lowering skies with thunder trundling overhead
and made it home just in time to watch the rain
from the porch rather than get drenched:
cats and dogs (uh-huh) and strong winds
took precedence but as the afternoon wore
into evening the clouds broke up
and now with Sadie down for the night
sunlight is spreading long wings
over the back porch and the roofs
of my neighbors to the immediate east:
also had dinner already with my daughter
(we both had spaghetti but I wasn’t the one
who rubbed it all over my mouth and
cheeks) and in a bit Brad will be over,
the mathematician-cum-Blake scholar
and we’ll talk about our work and drink
beers: it’s a good life in the present
tense though you’ll notice I’m actually
either living in the immediate past or else
anticipating: so it goes, we’ve already seen
what happens if I describe each line
by line, though I will mention a steady dripping
somewhere to my left, residue of rainwater
that very occasionally syncopates itself
with a double drop, so if that particular branch
or eave isn’t living in the past, what is:
what I’ve come to like about this kind of writing
is the forward progression or I should say digression:
it’s not exactly narrative but writing every day
enforces a certain order while permitting a certain
freedom to predominate: the illusion
that anything can and will go into the poem:
very different from my novel in which plot
to my surprise is suddenly strongly
asserting itself: that’s fine but let it be
just one piece of the puzzle, not a master
that claims language for its slave: I want
as I’ve said elsewhere always to be writing poetry
by which I don’t mean poetry but that freedom
that discovers its law. Play with paradoxes means
it’s time for another natural observation
but I can’t identify the birdsong only register
that it’s binaural, play for each of my ears
short chirps on the one side long pitches
on the other and the summer evening
just goes on, persists in making felt
the internal tensions of its name.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Sometimes it’s as if a little
of the universal chaos or chora,
force of making and unmaking, makes
itself felt locally: I’m talking
about the thunderstorm that ripped through
the area a couple of hours ago
while we were at Erica and Joey’s place
out in Newfield, splitting trees
and raining whole branches down on the roads
and lawns. And the mischief
goes further than that, reaching out
with malevolent hand
to touch a pair of icons: Farrah
Fawcett’s gone as of this morning
and I just looked on the Times website
and Michael Jackson, the so-called
King of Pop, has died in Los Angeles
at age 50 from unknown causes (read:
his whole sad twisted and talented
life did him in). Which is stranger:
I’m just a little too old to have imprinted sexually
on Farrah’s red swimsuit poster and missed
for the most part the original Charlie’s Angels
so all I know of her is an iconicity
that outlasted her career and will likely
outlast her. MJ on the other hand
has always been there, his big little voice
ringing out ABC 123 when I was a kid
(I remember the Jackson 5 cartoon)
never listened much to Off the Wall but
one of the first CDs my family owned
alongside a Men at Work and a Donald
Fagen was Thriller, which I listened to
over and over on the brink of puberty
till I became convinced for a while that
real musicians played guitars whereas Michael
only had his voice and whippet body
so I pushed away from that music and missed out
for too long on the greatness of Prince
taking him for MJ redux: all moot now,
like that face consumed by its white noselessness
a fate worse than Elvis
has cast a pall on the innocent day.
Not so innocent: the clerics in Iran
tighten their grip so that I remember
that Bulgarian girl from Casablanca
telling Rick “the devil has the people
by the throat.” My day’s only prosaic
down deep in Kroch Library with Ammons’
papers, reading letters people wrote
to him and looking at the typescript drafts
for The Snow Poems and Glare:
he did very little revision
on the tape poems, which have no margins at all
and sometimes lose parts of letters
to the black roll of the typewriter
whereas The Snow Poems are heavily inscribed
with handwritten marginalia some of which
made it into the final book. It
was poorly reviewed and represents
for Ammons perhaps a road not further taken
into linguistic experiment: what I take away
from it and from the drafts and some
of the other writings is a real sense
of his loneliness: it’s as if
he wagered all he had on poetry, like a
Rimbaud who never quit, and
the results, for his life at least, disappoint:
he lets a lot hang out in The
Snow Poems, obsessive chat
about cunnilingus and cornholing,
his lack of need for neighbors, most
of all his ability to stare at snow, a tolerance
for the void in which he felt certain
freedoms for which he willingly paid
everything. I seem to need something
to look at even if it’s just a few a trees
and bushes, the simple palette
of this window: green, reddish black, white
side of a house, sky mixing
blue and white as in a paintcan.
Sadie resplendent in two different dresses
one for the morning, one for the afternoon
but what illuminates my heart is her face
that seems to float and bobble on that
fast-growing body, all legs and little belly:
the eyes making a slow but permanent transition
from blue to hazel, eyes that seem to see more
for all her necessarily diminished understanding.
This poem most of all is for her,
that center that hurtles me away.

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