Wednesday, January 30, 2008

the child is in the mother of the woman

Earlier this evening I saw Mary Frank's presentation at the Writers House. She began by showing slides of some of her recent work (in a current show at D.C. Moore Gallery) and ended by reading poem-like lists from rounded bark-like pieces of parchment. Here's a rough 5-minute video made of the hour-long program with my handheld.

One of the pieces Mary showed us was Childhood, a recent work that is part of the new show. She told us that when was a child she knew that the baby-in-utero was inside the mother but did not know that it was small and curled up - and down low. She imagined it fully stretched out, arms in the mother's arms, legs out toward the legs - so that the mother is a ghostly after-image of her fetus. Here is Childhood:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Marianne Moore's 9/11

About eight weeks after the September 11 attacks, the Writers House and Rosenbach Library collaborated on an event held at the Writers House featuring, of all things, the modern American poet Marianne Moore. Moore's 9/11, if you can imagine that. Well, it turned out well, I think. The idea was that a number of us would dip into the Moore papers at the Rosenbach and find something apprarently relevant to say. Then several poets - Greg Djanikian, Tom Devaney, Bob Perelman, Jena Osman - would each read a poem for the "occasion." (Jena and Bob read poems they had just written.) Audio recordings of each presentation - and of the whole - program are available. Tom Devaney sent to the Writers House core community a summary of the event.

The event was webcast live and a number of people, especially in Philadelphia, watched us on their computers (somehow the Rosenbach directors had persuaded the PECO people who own the tall skyline building that runs messages across its top floors to announce it). So you can watch me and others "finding the words." Yes, that was the title we gave the event - "Finding the Words." Jena Osman's piece, "Dropping Leaflets", I admire very much and to this day teach it at the end of my course on modern and contemporary American poetry.

My own piece was called "Mending the Break in Time." Below is the text and here is the RealVideo recordings, and here is downloadable mp3.

The wartime letter exchanged between and among modern poets was a place "where the fragments met," as Marianne Moore put it in "Nevertheless" - forming a temporary whole that was nevertheless no illusion of enduring wholeness. In 1944 Moore's book Nevertheless was published, mutedly proclaiming that the old perfectly shaped lyric fruits were marred although delicious as ever--but, again, marred so that the hard process of fruition now bore in the final sweetness. "Nevertheless / you've seen a strawberry that's had a struggle." Frost kills rubber-plant leaves but can't destroy down to the roots. A prickly-pear leaf clings to barbed wire, but roots shoot down for a later greener day. "Victory won't come / to me unless I go to it." In his charming November 7, 1944 letter to Moore, William Carlos Williams wrote to her about--exactly as we've categorized it tonight--"the uses of art" in a time of worldwide crisis. While in November '44 it was "hard to focus the mind on praise," Williams said he especially loved the title poem of Moore's new book, which she had sent him: "Nevertheless."

I cannot think of a better gloss on Moore's wartime poetics than what Williams wrote here about what "we get from writing": "All artists are secretive and fly from a style which has been found out." This is why H.D. in her moving 1940 letter is "so keyed-up and happy in our fortress"-that fortress being London hunkered against the Luftwaffe which at the time many believed augured the destruction by air of England. In her poem "May 1943" H.D. wrote that the carpenter "has his chisel" while "I have my pencil": "he mends the broken window-frame of the orangery, / I mend a break in time." And it is precisely why Winnifred Ellerman, a.k.a. "Bryher," could speak of the "irreality and great beauty" of a wartorn night sky, not to say that beauty made sense but precisely that it didn't, any more. It is why she, too, received Moore's homefront letters, as physical things, "with such joy," personal impressions on paper, the crabbed inimitable handwriting, seen immediately upon the postman's delivery, that announced the arrival of what Bryher calls Moore's "strength." Williams's typewritten letter ends with the briefest handwritten postscript: "Paul Sr. is at sea--a destroyer."

We can sense here, in this letter--but also everywhere in Williams' writing at this time--how worried about his son he was. Paul eventually made it all the way to Tokyo, part of the time on an aircraft carrier--in the vicinity of the most terrifyingly difficult fighting of the war. What could the father do? Well, he was putting together the first drafts of Paterson I, another hard-bitten place where the modern fragments would meet.

But with Paul in the Pacific, he did what homefront grandfathers do. He took the disconsolate Paul Jr. on an outing-the perfect Williams outing, down to the dirty but stately Hackensack River, to a "marvelous old-car dump," with "hundreds of junked cars." Paul was beside himself with joy as the grandfather poet "paraded him up one alley and down another, old cars on all sides." He, too, so keyed-up and happy in his fortress. "The weak overcomes [the world's] menace," Moore wrote in "Nevertheless," "the strong over- / comes itself. What is there / like fortitude! What sap / went through that little thread to make the cherry red!"

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan read from her novel The Keep at the Writers House on September 14, 2006. She was introduced by Sam Donsky, a poet who was then an undergraduate. In the video clip above Jenny responds to Sam's introduction. Here are links to an audio recording of the whole reading and to Sam's introduction. And here is a video recording of Sam's intro.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

sonnet written after the Swift Boating of Adlai

Here is an example of what the author of this sonnet called the "vituperative political style." It's awful but so wonderfully telling - and the final couplet is a hoot. (Click on the image of the typescript and see a readable version.)

A few days after the presidential elections of November 1956, the poet John Frederick Nims wrote a poem that he meant to be read only by his friend Henry Rago (the editor of Poetry magazine).

That November of course it was Adlai Stevenson - egghead, liberal, articulate, mild-mannered, the candidate who would not "go negative" against Ike know-nothingism - versus the just-mentioned Dwight Eisenhower, incumbent. Stevenson didn't have a chance. Ike sent Nixon (and Nixon's little proto-plumbers) out to Swift Boat poor hapless Adlai. It was ugly. (One of the rumors circulating about Adlai was that he was gay.)

Nims was one of those saddened by the result, politically hungover the next morning. In his letter to Rago, sent with the poem, he wrote: "Frankie [his son] burst into tears Wednesday morning when he heard Stevenson lost. Bonnie's bringing him up right."

Nims sent Rago a sonnet. To introduce it, he wrote: "Want to see a specimen of my vituperative political style? See enclosed sonnet." And added: "Needless to say, this is NOT a submission; no need to return." (The political sonnet was not Nims' known public style.)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

even when they're abbreviated

In response to "Is email ruining writing?" here, my old e-collaborator Jack Lynch has written this:

I think that's right. Plenty of electronic communication is rotten and subliterate, but such has always been the way. The good news is that people who would never have put pen to paper in the days of hard copy, and who never owned a typewriter, now spend hours every day trying to communicate through the written word.

Beginners are rarely eloquent, and many have a long way to go before they write powerful or graceful prose. But I can only rejoice to see so many people getting practical experience in writing. Rather than lamenting the disappearance of the good old days, I'd like to see those concerned about young people's writing try to take advantage of students' passion for putting things in words, even when they're abbreviated and misspelled.

Here's a link to Jack's entry in full.

the personal is the political

My favorite line from Maus is not a line in the panel above. Although here - "You don't that time it wasn't anymore families" - is a close second. No, my favorite line from Maus is...

Well, first - sorry - a little set-up. Artie is exasperated by his survivor father's behavior. Artie loved his mother and feels he hates his father; constantly feels guilty about the brother he never met, who died in the Holocaust; feels that his father especially holds him up to the standard of what the brother might have done and been. Artie, who is now of course a visual artist - a comix guy - longs to see his mother's story of surviving Auschwitz. But now he is about to learn that his father has burned the diaries his mother kept, for which they had both been searching - and which Artie desperately needs for his book project, to "bring balance" to it. Currently it has no balance because it's wholly the story of the manipulative father.

Vladek, the father, pretends to have had a heart attack - in order to be sure Artie responds to his latest phone call. Drop everything, he says to Artie on vacation in Vermont, and drive down to my summer bungalow - right now. So Artie and his partner Francoise begin the drive. Art sighs:

"I mean, I can't even make any sense out of my relationship with my father... How am I supposed to make sense out of Auschwitz? ...of the Holocaust?"

The key phrase is "make sense...of." He wants to understand the huge historical forces, continent-wide life in extremis, that shaped his way of understanding his family, which is to say shaped his most basic means of understanding what people do for and to each other. He cannot make sense of B (the larger force which created the smaller force) if he cannot (first?) make sense of A (the smaller force created by the larger). B made A but A must be made sense of if B is to make sense.

Another reading has it that Artie is wrong: one does not need to deal with one's Freudian family romance (love mom, hate dad, envy sibling who had mom's special love, call dad murderer for destroying mom's narrative) - to deal with one's personal neuroses - in order to be able to tell the story of the Holocaust. Personal psychic health should not be a pre-requisite for knowing how the European genocide happened, and why - and to know how to try to prevent another. If so, lots of folks would have an excuse not to learn about the Holocaust. Or, in short: Artie's idea of subjectivity is itself selfish and perhaps (in a world that understands the Holocaust too little) dangerous.

I don't agree about the danger imagined just above. Maus is a representation of the Holocaust that is constantly showing its awareness of itself as a representation - that it is opaque; that it is the survivor narrative filtered through layers: (1) anger and damaged memory; (2) loss of crucial perspective; (3) a neurotic teller of the tale. We need to know that in order to know how hard it is to "make sense of" something that would seem to be objectively knowable as a story but is utterly dependent on a knowledge of the subjectivity that nearly prevents it every time.

Friday, January 25, 2008

the look of a shaven Chassid

The pithy above-described figuration did not refer to the man at right; the phrase was uttered by him.

I was pleased to read Dan Chiasson's positive review of Mark Scroggins's biography of Louis Zukofsky in the New York Times this past Sunday. It mentions Scroggins's work only briefly - but glowingly. That's good in itself. Better, it's a very good one-page summary of why Zukofsky should be read. One dear to me - a smart wide-ranging reader who loves modern art, the modern novel, modern design but keep a little distance from modern poetry - read Chiasson and pronounced herself excited by Zukofsky's project. What more could a review accomplish? If you know Zukofsky well, you might not have the same response, but give it a try.

Along the way we learn that Zukofsky admired Henry James - which both makes sense and doesn't. Here's Chiasson, drawing off information he found in Scroggins: "A poet needs a myth of origin: Zukofsky, born among James’s 'great swarming,' located his at the moment when Henry James stood on Rutgers Street with 'the look of a shaven Chassid.'"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

journalists follow beatnik invasion

For my 1960 blog (no, not the 1960s - the year 1960) I've been reading dozens and dozens of newspaper articles and magazine pieces about "beatniks." By then the phenomenon was four or five years old, in the public consciousness, at least, and yet 1960 seems to be the year when it really hit Time and Newsweek and began to receive the usual scoffing afforded such trends in the New Yorker. Legit beat hangouts were invaded by journalists asking regulars and proprietors to make distinctions between real beatniks, part-time beatniks, tourist beatniks, and gawkers at beats who happened themselves to be bearded or carrying bongos for non-beat purposes. My most recent blog entry quotes from a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece that resulted from a visit to Cafe Figaro in the Village. Click here to see it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

fluxus: eat fast food neatly

Here is one of Ken Friedman's "events" from 1964:

Fast Food Event

Go into a fast food restaurant. Order one example of every item on the
menu. Line everything up in a row on the table. Starting at one end of the
row, begin eating the items one at a time. Eat each item before moving on
to the next. Eat rapidly and methodically until all the food is finished.
Eat as fast as possible without eating too fast. Eat neatly. Do not make a

Ken Friedman's work has always been a form of artistic and intellectual shareware. The work is free for use by everyone provided that the source is acknowledged.

Thirty Events and Objects were Friedman's contribution to "The World's First Digital Art Festival" organized by Nam June Paik for broadcast over the global computer network. The festival was a simultaneous festival on what was then called the "Worldwide Internet" - presented in connection with the Seoul-NYMAX Mediale, a "Celebration of Arts without Borders" that was presented at Anthology Film Archives in New York from October 8 to November 6, 1994.

For more, go here.

ad feminam

Put off by all the praise for Joan Didion's prose style, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote an essay-length critique of Didion. It gets, shall we say, very personal. The piece was called "Only Disconnect" (1980) and begins in this hilarious way:

When I am asked why I do not find Joan Didion appealing, I am tempted to answer -- not entirely facetiously -- that my charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantel, someone who has porcelain elephant end tables, someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo; I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator's having pleated instead of gathered her new diningroom curtains. These, and other assorted facts -- such as the fact that Didion chose to buy the dress Linda Kasabian wore at the Manson trial at I. Magnin in Beverly Hills -- put me more in mind of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America's finest woman prose stylist.

And later in the essay, this:

Nothing matters, Didion writes. What one hears is, "Only what I have to tell you matters." And, for Didion, only surfaces matter.

I've made the entire essay available here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

what's "liberal" about this trade-in?

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when you're in the poem

"When I am in my painting," Jackson Pollack once wrote, "I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It's only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own."

Much later John Yau wrote a poem that consisted of variations on this statement. It's called "830 Fireplace Road":

"When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing"
When aware of what I am in my painting, I'm not aware
When I am my painting, I'm not aware of what I am
When what, what when, what of, when in, I'm not painting my I
When painting, I am in what I'm doing, not doing what I am
When doing what I am, I'm not in my painting
When I am of my painting, I'm not aware of when, of what
Of what I'm doing, I am not aware, I'm painting
Of what, when, my, I, painting, in painting
When of, of what, in when, in what painting
Not aware, not in, not of, not doing, I'm in my I
In my am, not am in my, not of when I am, of what
Painting "what" when I am, of when I am, doing, painting.
When painting, I'm not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

a few more words on meta-pedagogy

Somewhat general thoughts on a modernist teaching apt for the modern text, starting with a too-rough but still helpful distinction between history and literature:

History doesn’t teach that history teaches. Modernism is a topic but it is also a mode in which the recitation of what history teaches is ironized. The conventional denotative pedagogy (teacher points to text and then to object in the world, saying: “This is what it means”) is not up to the challenge of permitting the performance of this self-reflexivity. In modernism’s materials must at least implicitly be a meta-pedagogy. During the era since the emergence of digital media and ubiquitous connectivity – and as its effect on the delivery of materials to the classroom but also its storage outside it becomes profound – the irony of the lecture on modernism has become increasingly obvious and disabling.

The problem will be to define or at least describe an unironic alternative.

highest praise

"He uses technology to free class time for discussion, which to Filreis is more important than the course material itself."


Walt was a beatnik


Friday, January 18, 2008

the inability to describe

Jan Karski (1914-2000), non-Jewish Polish member of the Polish underground government after the fall of Poland to the Germans, was persuaded by two Jewish leaders to make a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. They hoped he would see the conditions there at first hand, observe closely, and be able to convey in a written report, and perhaps orally in person too, a sense of the Nazi treatment of the Jews to the allied governments, such that England and the U.S. would specifically intervene to prevent the genocide that was already underway but had plenty more destruction to do by this point.

Karski's account of his experience was published late in the war (I believe 1944 the first time). The text of it I read was translated by Zofia Lewin and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and published in London in 1969. An excerpt has been in my Holocaust site for many years.

Karski was never able to convince the Allies to respond. He was not sure they believed him; it seems likely that they did not. Afterwards, at least into the early 1980s, he blamed himself for his inability to convey in words what he had seen sufficiently to arouse response. In Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, at the beginning of a long interview, he breaks down as he attempts to "go back" to the time of his failure to represent. "I go back..." he begins, stammeringly. "No, I do not go back...." and then he falls apart. To my mind he he not struggling to remember the horrors he saw in the ghetto; his struggle is not as a witness of the Holocaust itself. His trauma is remembering his inability to describe it through the conventional language and means of international diplomacy.

Here is a brief part of his account of his experience as a witness. Here he is quoting the two Jewish leaders who, in their first meeting with him, are trying to convince him to visit the ghetto:

"We want you to tell the Polish and Allied Governments and the great leaders of the Allies that we are helpless in the face of the German criminals. We cannot defend ourselves and no one in Poland can defend us. The Polish underground authorities can save some of us, but they cannot save masses. The Germans are not trying so enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered."

The Zionist broke in: "That is what people do not understand. That is what is so difficult to make clear."

That is what is so difficult to make clear. That he could not "make clear" was Karski's burden then and ever afterwards. What sort of diplomatic and/or reportorial and/or personal language would have succeeded? Or was a new medium required?

The photo above was taken of Karski in 1994 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

shhhhh! don't name generations

For more, click here.

meanders by virtue of its form

Above is the original world wide web test pattern for the graphical interface (as opposed to text-only), dated 1994-95.

In my teaching, I was a passionate user immediately. In 1995, I wrote a short piece for a newspaper - and it was later published in an online magazine (unusual in those days) - that was essentially a negative review of a book that fretted about the then-emergent internet and its alleged destructive effect on reading. In the final paragraph of this brief essay, I wrote about what was then called "the world wide web":

"Authors and teachers have as a new tool a kind of text that can 'meander' by virtue of its form as well as its content, literally urging the reader to make choices at every turn. To the extent that we can resist the easy characterization of this mode of reading and learning as inhuman and "dictatorial" - with its anxious view of cultural authority as residing not in the individual creator of text but in the creator of the system syntax - then, I think, we will be better able to face a few of our problems as educators."

The whole essay (just a few pages long) is still available on the outmoded web site of XConnect here. The citation is XConnect ([pronounced "cross connect"], vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 1995).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

the unnatural is natural

A favorite William Carlos Williams poem:

"Lines" (1921)

Leaves are graygreen,
the glass broken, bright green.

That's it. Nothing more. A slight thing, eh?

In 1999 and 2000, when I taught my English 88 course all online, I prepared a 2-minute audio recording of me and the poet Shawn Walker discussing this poem, as a way to get our students to begin to understand Williams' passion for the unnatural as a form of the natural.

The sound file is in RealAudio format: LINK

Friday, January 11, 2008

a little lap of Pepsi before I freak out

I drank milk, Mother, in my sheltered home.
I drank milk, and I ate honey-comb.
Now I'm eating goof balls, drinking rum and gall,
wine, and gin, and vodka, and wood alcohol.
Give me ten Tequilas, a jigger full of stout,
And a little lap of Pepsi before I freak out
In the reeling Jericho Bar.

That's Helen Adam and her astonishingly asocial couplets (and an unrhymed line at the end). Note my inclination to compare her to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. And notice, too, that it's the bar that's reeling, no her. Nor us, lured - and in my case, charmed - by the regularity of the line.

I'll add that the move from the sad-pious (or perhaps mock-pious) address to "Mother" (cap M) to "now," a long way from shelter and maternal milk, is a device specifically reminiscent of Lorene Niedecker and also of Emily Dickinson. Although there are no goof balls in Emily, there are turns as daring and as intellectually self-destructive.

Kristin Prevallet has written: "Adam did not function well in the real world. To her, going to work was entering into a world of darkness. She did not perceive of the real world as THE real world. 'Reality' is the undesired world where diabolic humans interact and make each other's lives miserable." (It's an essay called "Helen Adam's Sweet Company" and I recommend it.)

Listen to Helen Adam read.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

don't send your daughter to college

A rich girl, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is caught hanging around with a campus agitator. Her father yanks her out of college and sends her south of the border to cool off. There she meets--and naturally falls for--a handsome Border Patrolman (Robert Young), whose straight-arrow ways quickly reform her leftish proclivities.

This was Red Salute of 1935. In 1953 some folks in Hollywood thought it would be a good idea to remake the film, and they did: Runaway Daughter. A new marketing campaign was devised--"A startling story of RED MENACE at work in our schools...planting the seed of treason among the men and women of tomorrow!"

The poster says: "...from today's headlines!" Ah, but, it was a recycled 1935 movie.

Relevance to today? Hm. Well, it does give anti-immigration politicians another reason to argue on the stump for a beefed-up Border Patrol.

source: Better Red Than Dead: A Nostalgic Look at the Golden Years of RussiaPhobia, Red-baiting, and Other Commie Madness, by Michael Barson (New York: Hyperion, 1992).

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Osman-Goldsmith podcast

Back in December of '04 I was finishing up another semester teaching English 88, my course on modern and contemporary American poetry. In the final "chapter" of the course I ended by having the students read two contemporary poets - Jena Osman and Kenneth Goldsmith. Then, as it happened, both of these people were in the Writers House at the same time, so I asked my students to come back to the House for a special evening session, and we spent an hour or so talking with Jena and Kenny. We recorded it, and you can find mp3's and a summary of the discussion here.

It will help to know that the person being discussed in the middle of the excerpt is Jackson Mac Low. He gets named after a while but at first it might not be clear. The session took place on the very day that Mac Low died.

Today we released a new episode in our series of PennSound podcasts featuring a 16-minute excerpt from the Osman-Goldsmith. Here is a link directly to the podcast recording.

sound in Stevens redux

The Wallace Stevens relevant to contemporary poets (and here I am going to take extreme examples from among writers never thought of as deriving from the Stevensean aesthetic) such as Kenneth Goldsmith or Tan Lin, both of whom often operate in ambient language — words arranged as to be analogous to sound already in the environment—is the Stevens who strives at times to “undo the traditional work of polyphonic harmony” and makes “moves toward a monotony, a dead unison.” This is the little-appreciated Stevens who responds with beautiful uncreativity to Wittgenstein’s assertion that “A tune is a kind of tautology, . . . complete in itself.” The Stevens whose words are sometimes a “semiotically dirty, mumbled smattering over the possibility of” a vowel, such as “O.”

Ah, but the phrases quoted in the previous two sentences were not from Goldsmith or Lin, but from an essay by, of all poets, John Hollander. One of the keenest early pieces on sound in Stevens was indeed authored by Hollander, a writer of sonorous, formally lyric lines, very nearly an anti-modernist (although Joyce was his earliest influence), generally associated with traditional poetics — a poet not at all in the Pound-Williams-objectivist nexus. (Hollander is often said by mainstream critics to be writing in the Stevensean tradition, but it is the supposed Auden side of that mode. ) Many young scholars of modern and contemporary poetry were trying to resist the “Whose Era Is it? – Stevens or Pound” dichotomy even before Marjorie Perloff stated the case for this key literary-historical binarism thus in 1982. Taking up Hollander’s cause seemed to cede the languagy ground to Pound and made sound-in-Stevens criticism unfashionable at best, irrelevant at worst. In 1981, as my handwritten notes on a photocopy of “The Sound of the Music of Music and Sound” indicate, before even reading it closely I filed away the Hollander piece and conducted my own research and writing on Stevens (for a book that made a political reading of a politically unconscious modernist) without the benefit of its insights. Yet there it was, critically incorrect, yet a large and fundamental—and super-obvious—claim: “The whole of ‘The Whole of Harmonium’ [Stevens’ term for his overall poetic project, the continuous poetic] is a musical trope.” I once published a 13-page interpretation of “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz” and “Mozart, 1935,” describing a counter-politics against the lyric made in verse using music as a trope, without consulting this essay. That a critic like Hollander works as a poet at the Frostean end of the spectrum of Stevensean phrasing (and sense of nature) kept me from hearing the fitness of the critic’s sense that sounds apparently external to the poet, such as be-thouing Romantic bird, were “asserting their own exemplariness” through words as auralities. Missing the musical forest for the literary-political trees, lured down a single path formed by straight and narrow rather than crisscrossed aesthetic taxonomies, hearing talk of sound but seeing metrical traditionalism, I overlooked the clear assertion that “Frost and Stevens would make very different things of th[e] observation” offered by George Santayana that “To hear is almost to understand."

order my book

The official publication date for my new book, Counter-Revolution of the Word, is March 5, 2008, but books ordered in advance will be shipped on February 1. Here is an order form. You can also buy a copy, of course, on Amazon.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Wideman homecoming

John Edgar Wideman visited KWH in April of 2000. He'd been away from Penn quite a while and relations between John and Penn had been--for various reasons--a bit frosty, despite continued admiration for John from long-time Penn people such as Peter Conn. My students and I were ga-ga over John's then-new book, Two Cities, which I've re-read twice since '00 and still think is one of the best postwar U.S. novels. I highly recommend it. So John's return to Penn was a homecoming of sorts, a chance for many of us to say directly to him how much we value him and missed having him a part of the Penn scene. He was touched. The Penn baseball cap my students gave him he wore around all the next day. At one of the receptions we held at 3805 Locust for him, nearly all the basketball players and the coach, Fran Dunphy, showed up and gathered round him to hear stories of the Penn team of the early to mid-60s.

Last night we released a new Writers House podcast which features a 20-minute excerpt from our conversation with John from that 2000 visit. Here is the link directly to the podcast mp3.

And here's the link to the whole visit.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

no sorties on unprofitable territory

"Hillyer says it can’t be varied; but that’s because he can’t think of any way to vary it."

William Carlos Williams said that; he was talking about the iamb in the 1950s.

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

“Let our iambs be of granite," Robert Hillyer warned a fellow traditionalist who was wavering, "and we need not heed the pulpwood words of our bedevilers.” And (in the same letter): "[F]orget the foes of poetry. It is better to make our turrets impregnable than to make sorties on unprofitable territory."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

new podcast on holocaust testimonies

In 2001 I invited Geoffrey Hartman to speak at the Writers House about video testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Hartman was one of the founders and has been the long-time director of the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimony at Yale's Sterling Library, an archive that I urge you to see if you're ever passing through New Haven. We've created a web page that gives a good deal of information about the event, with links to audio mp3's of the whole presentation.

And today I released a new Kelly Writers House podcast featuring a 22-minute excerpt from the program. (Thanks to Andy White who did the editing.) Listen to the podcast here.

heaven can wait

PoemTalk #2, the second show in our new podcast series, is officially out on Monday, but here's a sneak preview. It's a discussion of Adrienne Rich's poem "Wait," which she read at the Kelly Writers House in 2005.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

is email ruining writing?

The image here (click on it for a better view) is cropped from an AP news story that was given the title "Is e-mail ruining the way we write?" It was published widely in papers that take stories from the Associated Press on and around December 12, 2005. Here's a link to the whole story.

Perhaps a dozen times in the past four years I've been asked by radio shows (among them Day to Day and a live talk-radio show in Seattle) and print journalists (including the AP reporter who wrote the story above) to talk about why and how email and other digital writing forms (they especially want me to talk about IM) have ruined writing and reading for the new generations. The line is always a version of: the IM'ing, texting, blogging teen (or twenty-something) is a barbarian at the gates of good grammar and thus of culture.

They never assume that I might disagree with the premise. I tell them that they really don't want to talk to me because it's my view that writing has improved since the rise of electronic mail and since typing at our keyboards, of all sizes (even the tiniest), has become one of the two or three activities we do most often daily. For most people, let us say in the year 1945, writing would not have been in the top 15. Whereas one's writing can improve (and I'd say most often improves) when one writes - the best way, when all is said, to become a better writer is to write - and whereas we are all writing so much and so much of our communication with each other is through typewritten language, there's more writing, more improvement when the quick response to your writing indicates that you were confusing, more effort being made to say what one means, etc. I didn't say success; I said effort. Failed efforts receive doubtful responses fast.

The easy worry and complaint (shared by many journalists looking for the story they know is out there) is that the shorthand of adolescent IM'ers, which leads infamously to shortcut spellings, will erode proper writing to the point where it's unconscious, sloppy, bad communication. (These stories are the descendent and distant cousin of all the juvenile delinquent stories from the late 1950s.) Well, I say: on the contrary. If you can get past the shortcut "mis-spellings" and the rat-ta-tat style of back-and-forth, you can see writers in the making through a constantly repeated practice, a practice that is associated with the most vital part of the way we live. When else was writing deemed by young people to be so close to the heart of living? There's great promise here, I think. (And a more important role, than ever, for teachers of writing to take some advantage of this sense of necessity.) My kids (13 and 16) are super-conscious of writing as the main way they communicate complex thoughts. They talk about it all the time. Yes, folks, picture it: teenagers, sleepily over breakfast, talking about writing. When I was their age, I found writing to be a struggle - and I was relatively good at it, and once I got going my sentences gained a certain flair; I knew how much harder it was for some of my friends who didn't, until perhaps much later, find any such flair and who perhaps only thought about writing when at our relatively mediocre public high school, in English class being "taught" the 5-paragraph essay (the one "form" I was taught, other than haiku or sonnet I suppose, in 12 or 13 years of pre-college schooling). I just didn't do it as much as I should have in order to find comfort. And sitting down at a blank page on my Smith Corona was always at first a frightening prospect. Writing letters by hand was even more frightening.

The folks who want an English professor to comment on this expect me to whinge and express fear of writing's demise. Instead I express excitement and hope about the immediate future of writing.

The above-mentioned Day to Day decided not to have me on as a guest. I told a very nice editor there of my view and said that I was not especially interested in talking about how all this might effect students' results on the new writing SAT, and they realized I was the wrong guy for them.

Many reading this entry will disagree. The conversation we'll have about it will be written and I'll bet that the writing will be interesting. Write me at afilreis [at] writing [dot] upenn [dot] edu.

A faithful reader of your daily Al, Jean-Marie Kneeley, responds (in part) as follows:

On the one hand, you're absolutely right -- people are writing more and that IS a good thing. On the other hand, I think email encourages people to write carelessly and thoughtlessly--I see this all the time at work--and that is decidedly NOT a good thing. I was trained to think/write on a keyboard (my journalistic background) and I do find writing on a computer infinitely better that my old Smith-Corona (remember correcto-type!). But I mourn the loss of handwritten letters sent through the USPS. How I wish I saved all my letters from my college years, especially from my first love (who I almost married)! And one thing that you can do in a letter that you can't do in email, slip a few bucks into the envelope. My Mom used to do that every now and again back when five dollars was a princely sum! In the end, I do agree that any writing is better than less writing. And email does allow you to share thoughts that you might not have otherwise bothered with. (Bad sentence structure there!) Much like this one.

So much to say in counter-response, but I'll restrain myself and point out a few reasons why I especially like this. First, it is doubtful that the exchange between JM and me could have happened in letters - and that's not to mention that you (others reading this now) would ever get to benefit from it. Second, JM's sentence, the one she thinks is "bad" and ends with a preposition, is something she wrote quickly, on the fly, at her desk at work, on a Thursday morning, and it does say what she wanted to say, however incorrect in a technical customary sense. I'm glad to have it just as it is, because it enabled her self-referential comment, wittily: "Much like this one." It's not "free writing" (I don't think I believe in such a thing) but its freer. Some of the most exciting writing I've read in my life - and long before the advent of electronic mail - has been or seemed composed "carelessly and thoughtlessly." Writers whose writing ranges as widely as that of Kerouac, Thoreau, Jackson Mac Low, Laurence Sterne, T. E. Hulme (via visual thinking), Jack Spicer (let thought come from somewhere else), and Wordsworth (through memory & thus not being quite here) all contended in one way or another that emptying out thought, going thoughtless - and then writing in such a state - might produce something true.

For the record: I'm not devaluing the handwritten letter sent through the US mail. It's just that the economy of written media is larger than it was, and the subgenres - under the capacious rubic, "letters" or "messages" - have multiplied.

poetry at the end of ideology, version 12/07

Charles Bernstein tells us of the December 22 announcement made by Darien Credenza, head of the Amalgamated Writing Programs: a Morally Repugnant Poets-and-Theorists Exhibit will be held at the organization’s annual congress in New York. “Yes we have no ideology. We only have craft."

“It’s up to Amalgamated to determine what the correct meaning of approved works are,” Credenza said. “Anything else would lead to anarchy. Good poems have no hidden agendas. Good poems are neither for or against capitalism, patriarchy, or religion unless they clearly state that they are in the first stanza of the poem and logically develop the thesis through a combination of lucid images and narrative development.”

“‘A few theorists and poets would have you believe that just raising such questions makes you an anti-intellectual meathead in complicity with the powers of postcolonial oppression. It’s an age-old game of partisan politics to pretend that your party has a monopoly on virtue,’” said Credenza. “Only an organization such as Amalgamated Writing Programs, which is above the fray, and rejects demagoguery, has an authentic claim to virtue.”

You can listen to the entire news story here. It's the voice of Alex, Apple's new best-yet text-recognition guy. He does fairly well, although his pronunciation of Lacan leaves a little to be (as it were) desired.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

early Antonioni: built forms


press kit for tiny tour

Typically the poet who wants to give regular readings has to travel a good deal. It's not surprising that a number of poets now make their verse available in blogs, as audio or video podcasts, etc. Dorothea Lasky adds a level of interest to the latter. She goes on a "tiny tour," giving readings in her own apartment, in the bathroom, living room, bedroom. With help from friends, she makes decent videos of the experience, being sure to show live audiences, sipping coffee and so forth as if they're at a public reading venue. The Philadelphia Inquirer has covered this phenomenon, in a story that mostly suppresses the condescension that typifies poetry's newspaper appearances.

Lasky will leave her apartment to come and read at the Writers House on January 17 - the slighly larger end of her tiny tour.