On the contrary, practicing criticism seriously is not unlike praising the value of "scholarship," that is you've taken insights that could be useful or surprising and really worked them over until you've almost marginalized yourself. To pay attention to a poem, to really listen and understand and try to clarify or make distinctions about what's going on aside from glib glosses or sloganeering, is to risk irrelevance. I'll continue to argue for this sort of inductive, wonderfully useless flanuerie and its ability to create change in the listener.
What interests me most about lit cri -- oops! I mean, social psychology! -- is how adorably inapplicable most of its analytical models are to our present rate of production and consumption. I'd like to see I. A. Richards come back and do a "close reading" of a postmodern postlanguage poem; it would probably take him all day. Or, sitting down with something more recent like Kristeva's famous Tel Quel essay about paragrams, let's bask for a moment in the glow of that first sentence which contains no less than three footnotes: "Literary semiology is already going beyond what are thought to be the inherent limitations of structuralism, its 'staticism' and its 'non-historicism', by setting itself the task that will justify it: the discovery of a formalism that corresponds isomorphically to literary productivity's thinking itself." Yikes. The ectoplasmic manifestation of an ideological Vermonter is haunting Europe.
Beautiful readings also for the Segue Series last week, Nick Piombino emitting witty haikus and splintered meditations, and Kimberly Lyons offering moments of transcendence via wild poems lush as a furred, silvery wafer. Don't miss this week's reading which features Charles Borkhuis and Leonard Schwartz!
After a relatively exhausting week, I’m sitting down with the notes I took last Saturday at Brenda Iijima’s event in honor of Leslie Scalapino at the Poetry Project, finding some interesting tidbits there which I hope to carry over into my own writing practice. This panel included Alan Davies, Jennifer Scappetone, Rod Smith, Laura Elrick, Rodrigo Toscano, and Iijima herself. It was the type of thoughtful and constructive event that I don’t get to see too much of these days, a little reminiscent of the kind of work that POG does in Tucson, and I can’t help wishing there were more events like it going on in New York. A few unintended contextual gaffes appeared; most participants had written their essays prior to the recent elections, which caused the discourse to be peppered with weirdly dour statements about our implications in terror and torture. But overall I felt this was a very successful panel, and a discussion which I’ll be thinking about for a while.
I’m personally a great fan of Scalapino’s writing, especially The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion, and am always drawn in by the combination of severity and excess, the way she breaks down, fragments, and multiplies perceptions all at the same time. Sometimes the ways in which her writing differs from normative grammar seem meant to trope or figure certain ideas about the body politic. This embodied, almost improvisatory private grammar is nevertheless immersed in the social world, continually open-ended and changing as Husserl’s or Merleau Ponty’s own body-analyses were endless and continually changing.
And because of its obvious influence in Scalapino’s work, I can’t help lamenting the absence from the panel of someone more knowledgeable about phenomenology, but there were nevertheless some good insights throughout the day from all participants who touched on topics adjacent to it. Alan Davies gave one of the most heartfelt and thoughtful presentations of the day in which he read a personal letter he had written to Scalapino about her work (Can't) is (Night). The letter pointed out that she “explores epistemology as fact and experience,” indicating the ways in which thought can be “a product of language falling apart.” In this dark scenario of “the mind at work against thought,” the language has us in it. I was particularly moved by Davies’ discussion (feels weirdly appropriate to use people’s last names here) of how Scalapino uses gerunds to create new states of being and thinking, and this point got me wondering about the relation of that poetry to the work of Gertrude Stein. For writing in which “what is is more likely to be us, to be being us,” what are the meanings of repetition and iteration?
Another of the most moving contributions came from Jennifer Scappetone, who illuminated some of Scalapino’s characteristic
gestures through a coincidental (and effective) comparison with
a Japanese diary genre that substitutes the use of the third person
for pronouns, creating an effect in which the viewer and speaker are
both manifested within the language in a kind of floating relation,
quoting: “they are nubile, so I wouldn’t say that ever in describing
Rodrigo Toscano and Laura Elrick shared a few dance moves in these proceedings. Toscano took up the rhetorical claim of writing non-rhetorically through his reading of bodies in Way, and Elrick donned another sort of armor by critiquing the armored reader/writer relation under Bushworld through her discussion of Dahlia’s Iris. The latter talked at length about the relation between blogging and language as torture, and I appreciated this because I am particularly fond of torturing readers with my blog prose. Toscano’s essay was remarkable among the panelists because of the way in which it simply let Scalapino’s work speak for itself, ending with a long recording of the poet reading from “Bum Series” that outlined certain socio-ideological spaces at the same time as it articulated the perception of a speaker/viewer.
By contrast, Rod Smith focused more on a type of removal bordering on bemusement. He talked about trance and cadence and the way in which such effects lead to an intuitive method of writing “less erotically-charged” than characterized by “illegible fuzziness.” I can see this appearing in Scalapino's writing in moments like "when the marine was in her," a phrase which sounds strange and awkwardly sudden; hearing it makes me think that I probably wouldn't want a marine in me either, at least not without additional context that the poem leaves out. But Smith (it's hard to keep up the all-last-names thing in a serious way) also managed to inject some humor into the proceedings by reading a poem collaged from various external sources, one of which continually insisted that "the poetry of Leslie Scalapino is like Brancusi's fish."
Brenda Iiijima threw her own holistic hat into the ring by discussing Dahlia’s Iris and Zither and Autobiography as “image-making," a clever move because articulated not in the usual sense of the workshop “image,” but rather in the sense of ekphrasis or perception, which themselves are analytic processes and therefore intertwined with language. Bracketing for a moment the chicken-and-egg discussion of language vs the prelinguistic, Iijima articulated how in Scalapino’s work “birds become writing become birds,” pointing out the role of language as part of an “interdependent ecosystem” in which “what is seen transforms the seer.”
At the close of the event, a most appropriate question floated out of the audience, directed to the by now much-talked-about poet who herself was present in said audience:
"Things are hard on the home front as well. Extended deployments are so routine that the Maine National Guard provides life-size cardboard 'Flat Daddies' and 'Flat Mommies' for children with a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan. 'I prop him up in a chair, or sometimes put him on the couch and cover him up with a blanket,' one spouse reportedly said. 'I've tricked several people by that.'"