Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Philly Sound Feature, issue #3: ALAN GILBERT  

October 15, 2004

Welcome to the third issue of Philly Sound Feature, an occasional blog zine which features the work of a single poet on the Philly Sound Blog. Each of the members of our Blog will alternate editing issues and choosing poets to feature. Our third issue is dedicated to the engaging work of poet Alan Gilbert.

Tom Devaney
editor of issue #3

Alan Gilbert’s writings on poetry, art, culture, and politics have appeared in a variety of publications, including Artforum, Bomb, and Rain Taxi. Recent poems have appeared in The Baffler, Chicago Review, and First Intensity. A collection of critical writings entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight will be published in the fall of 2005 by Wesleyan University Press. He is the editor of NYFA Quarterly, an arts and culture magazine published by the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives in New York City.

Shiny Radials

Down the road from where the spray-on gloss was applied to the tires,
   the headlights got tangled in the moss, trees, and bushes.
USE ALTERNATE ROUTE flashed a sign along the highway,
   because that’s the problem with nouns.
A massive Paul Bunyan sculpture stood by the side of the road.
   Or was it “Salem Sue,” the world’s largest statue of a cow?
A 25-foot long codfish? How about Mount Rushmore?
   Nobody invades Earth without a fight, squeaked Blossom.

A blast furnace was itself blasted after the jobs went south.
   Dialogue begins with the local.
You stood with the plug from an extension cord in one hand,
   and a socket in the other, saying,
“This is when the magic happens.” But I can’t make it mine.
   Piles of trash form beneath the bridge, and new ones each year.
We haven’t figured out how to bury our dead—
   the same large spider I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye.

A cartoon character waves an enormous swollen thumb hit
   with a hammer too many times.
It can be difficult to resist the architecture mostly chosen for us.
   A collapse of industry. Nets. Webs. Clear history. OK.
Fighting a virtual fire with virtual water, though the effects are real enough,
   like a burning map in the opening credits for Bonanza.
Is the tinsel on that tree also flammable?
   Flattened out, widespread. The frontier was always a border.


TOM DEVANEY: Does having strong political values and strong aesthetic values cause conflicts in your poetry?

ALAN GILBERT: Definitely. I’ve spent the past dozen or so years (which I realize in the overall lifespan of a writer isn’t a particularly long time) trying to figure out this relationship—mostly unsuccessfully, I’m afraid. Only recently, I’ve realized that perhaps one key is to combine what you describe as “strong political values and strong aesthetic values” without aestheticizing politics or politicizing aesthetics. Investigating the relationship between political values and aesthetic values also entails reevaluating these values from the ground up, and for myself this “from the ground up” begins with the realm of the everyday. The everyday may not be the building blocks of all politics, but for writers it’s the place where the rhetoric of common sense is vulnerable to more than just further rhetoric. It’s where the struggle over meaning is waged by those for whom meaning is not always a given (which isn’t to say that it’s not not given).

DEVANEY: You are a poet and a critic. How closely are poetry and criticism related for you and your writing in both genres?

GILBERT: Very. I’ve tried to work out in my poetry certain ideas I’ve written about in my criticism, and my criticism—and my thinking in general—is deeply indebted to poetry’s ability to layer reference, allusion, and sound within structures that aren’t obliged to follow strictly linear and even logical progressions. At times, I’ve inserted phrases from my critical writings into my poems—and vice versa—as a way of tying the two more closely together. At a fundamental level, I don’t perceive a substantial difference between poetry and criticism in their having the capacity to function as vehicles of critique. That said, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that there may no longer be any such thing as content, only information. How does this notion impact the genres of poetry and criticism without rendering them less effective in trying to literalize it, i.e., poetry and criticism are not documentary or journalism specifically?

DEVANEY: One aspect of your work that I respond to is how you register intensities in the poem. The poems seem to be a document of effects and mediations of a cultivated sensibility charted in lines. I love the line “I don’t need to be disciplined any more.” What are your thoughts on how a line like “I don’t need to be disciplined any more” says about your approach to writing poetry?

GILBERT: The question of how and why human subjects internalize rule and authority fascinates me. Why is the question of whether or not a particular presidential candidate will make a “strong leader” THE central issue of the current election? It can’t possibly only be because of the way the entire “war on terror” and the supposed threat “terrorists” present to the US have been grossly misrepresented in the mainstream US media. In the end, Kerry will win or lose almost solely based on this issue of strong leadership, which is incredibly demoralizing, given the vast array of troubling issues facing US/global society today, which neither candidate or party appear especially qualified to deal with.

Of course, writers internalize their own sets of rules and authorities, which is a complex topic of its own. It’s always puzzled me how during the course of the 20th century aesthetic ideologies that embraced experimentation and indeterminacy could become so rule-bound and doctrinaire. Moreover, as avant-garde poetry becomes increasingly institutionalized (institutions being preeminent disciplining machines), I find myself more interested in what exists on its margins—on the margins of the margins, so to speak. There’s also a reference in the line you quote to Foucault’s theory of the subject and its mostly uncoerced—in the modern era—submission to power.

DEVANEY: In the fourth section of the poem “Relative Heat Index” you write:

“Decaying food slowly accumulated in the refrigerator.
B-movie zombies ate our brains, anyway;
and then used a Zamboni to make their escape,

      just as this page is taking too long to download.

I’m a big plastic bucket full of frogs at the market.”

I have no idea how it is that you are “a big plastic bucket full of frogs at the market,” but somehow I am with you and the line seems completely believable. So my question is, how does it feel to be a big plastic bucket full of frogs at the market? And please talk about what's driving a section like this in your work.

GILBERT: I imagine that it sucks to be “a big plastic bucket full of frogs at the market”: if you’re on the bottom of that pile, you’re probably crushed or suffocated; if you’re on the top, then sooner or later a big hand is going to reach in and grab you, stuff you into a bag, and take you home to slice up for dinner. If you’re really, really lucky, you might get kept as a pet, but who wants to be kept as a pet? By the way, this image was initially inspired during a walk through New York City’s Chinatown, where (mostly) live frogs are sold out of big plastic buckets. Or maybe the emphasis should be placed on the plastic bucket. What does it feel like to be dirty and filled with panicked frogs slowly crushing and suffocating each other? In this line and image there’s an understanding of both individual subjectivity and society as formed—or, since I can’t speak knowingly about origins, I should say maintained—in violence. And perhaps an irremediable violence, since the perpetrators of it can casually “make their escape” in a Zamboni without fear of being stopped.

DEVANEY: I know that bucket of frogs. Do you have thoughts about how the concept of “scale” works in your poetry? At one point in the poem “More Morphine” you write: “I’m a 15,000-foot runway, but smaller than a theater.” In the opening section of “Relative Heat Index” you write:

“The mast of a miniature ship
snaps off beneath a fountain’s cascade.
Children are silenced by a desert

where steel shimmers in the heat.”

GILBERT: Scale is important, and I appreciate you mentioning it. I’m always aiming for a telescoping effect in my work, with the goal of quickly moving back and forth between the macro and the micro, the structural and the particular, the global and the local, the shared social and the personal, the general and the specific. It’s impossible to understand any one element in these sets of terms without the other, just as neither element exists without the other; and there’s no reason why poetry can’t detail the intricate complexities of the world we live in, as opposed to focusing on a couple aspects of it—usually personal and subjective.

Although I’m more comfortable writing on poetry other than my own, I can offer a few comments on the lines you mention. A 15,000-foot runway is what the US military builds when it’s trying to create an optimal landing area for aircraft and supplies. In what ways am I complicit, in what ways do I resist, and in what ways am I landed on whether I’m complicit or resist? Under the Bush administration, these runways have been built in a number of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries in order to establish a military toehold and launching point for current and future operations. The reference to theater here is to the theater of war, but also to notions of identity as a performance, as well as to critiques of this by now somewhat exhausted—though still useful—idea. And when poets literally perform their work, it’s usually in a space much, much smaller than 15,000 feet. How, then, do poets think about the significance and relevance of what they do?



On Alan Gilbert’s “More Morphine”

“Who’s not at war?” asks the persona of “More Morphine,” one of the most darkly humorous and poignant prose poems (monologues?) of recent days by the immensely gifted Alan Gilbert. It’s a poem with a Thersites-tongued bite and house-of-mirrors wit. The persona is a dark jester, a thorn in the fabric of capital’s culture. The pace is fast, intensely visual, cinematic: how many frames can you hold?

“It looks as if the flowers aren’t perennials after all. I’m a 15,000-foot
runway, but smaller than a theater. Cabs queue in front of a train
station, where orphans embark for sunnier climes, sending postcards
from Home Depots along the route. Cardboard boxes get soggy
in the rain, or eating directly from the stovetop. It’s a race for language
on an expected course. Embedded US reporters didn’t offer any keener
insights into the war.”

What is that “expected course” for language? I think Gilbert has taken on the onus—for much of his work—both the poetry and his salient cultural essays—to examine this expected course, how it doesn’t “offer any keener insights,” how it doesn’t satisfy, but rather it’s

“Like listening in the dark to the entertainment news and bombing updates.
What’s first-hand? A jacuzzied terrace overlooks a housing project.
Settlements prefer hilltops.”

The war is eternal, the move of capital is eternal, it’s a sick time, a freaky time. A topsy-turvy time. Some people seem somnambules—disengaged—idiotically chanting the “sign” of either some religious or political ideology. It doesn’t matter if anything is “true”; will it “play?” An obscene amount of money is spent on hyping electoral candidates, while legitimate voters are still dissed in Florida. An agit-prop group on a small town mall ten miles away from one of the deadliest plutonium laden zones in the world is heckled by citizens who have never heard of Rocky Flats! At a bake sale for an anti-war protest, a counter group chants “Bush is Hot.”

The carnival goes on. . . .

Reading “More Morphine” is like reading the surreal daily bulletins with a beautiful sardonic and heightened logic. It’s a way into the juxtaposed chaotic planet news where

“There are no secure
links, just photographs of photographs, and everything you can’t forget—
sallow streetlights at dusk and again at dawn, because in the span
of four minutes, the horizon moves a degree, or launched into orbit
between Earth and Saturn, between death and Florida. Outer space
may be a vacuum, but that orbiting rug’s not getting any cleaner.”

How to take “it” in, transmute this news (“poetry is news that stays news”) is the required consummate skill of the poet these days, which Gilbert most certainly manifests.

He counters and remedies this insanity in the body politic and beyond with a panoramic keenness, like he’s already been in the belly of the beast. He has a canny ability to take on the voice of the enemy with eloquent carny ventriloquism (the poem has more than a few circus references). He eschews pandering to the “converted”; he goes to the heart of this “voice” with a steely Burroughsian calm.

“Get me a doctor, Benway.”

“I guess you could say I was born to croon, though I’ll keep quiet
if you cut me a check.”


"Genealogies of violence propagate
under the eyes of the law.”

Troilus and Cressida was understandably William Burroughs’ favorite Shakespeare play for being profoundly dark and modern, and “More Morphine” with its lines

      “Sitcoms are disorienting in a different way;
and if expectation is a vessel, it’s full of holes. So please be patient;
it’s a slow drip. A freeway abruptly ended in a desert where we ate
our own skeletons, and then spit them back up to feed our young.”

brings to mind that resonant performative prophecy and nightmarish drama of the immortal bard—Pandarus and Thersites with their bitter irony and Cassandra with her dark prophecy in Troilus: “Let us pay betimes’ A moiety of that mass of moan to come.” Or Lear gone mad, raving about the Pelican daughters (who feed on their parents).

Alan Gilbert read a part of this brilliant poem at the Jack Kerouac School’s Summer Writing Program this past June (2004) to alert applause. I was struck with the propulsion of the piece, the Olsonian “instanter on instanter,” its wide range of matter and signal, its scintillating scary “voice.” I felt he had raised the stakes for all of us in the necessary push to get language into reality.

“History yawns, stretches it arms, and slides across a leather couch
to cozy up with various members of the fraternal order of vicious types
and those in power. Sophie and I call them hairy gorillas.”

This is the one auto-reflexive moment in the piece where author Gilbert peeks through, at one with the child’s almost cartoon view. It’s a comic, human—rather than grotesque—relief.


Most of what gets written about poetry in this kind of forum turns inevitably into what Lytton Strachey called "tedious panegyric," and I wanted to do something different for Alan Gilbert, besides just saying that I think he's great and his writing out of this world. Well, I'm just one person so I can't mount a revolution all by myself. Others will have to join me. But in the meantime I can suggest a few points of interest about Gilbert's work. The serial poem Relative Heat Index begins with a parallel construction, "Children are silenced by a desert/ /where steel shimmers in the heat." Naturally I think of Iraq. But wait, it isn't exactly parallel is it, not if one clause is in the passive voice, while the other is active. I might then see the sentence as executing a kind of backflip in mid-air, changing itself, wriggling out of a hole. This sentence isn't even really the beginning of the poem. Two others precede it. "Everything is capable of being broken./ /The mast of a miniature ship/ snaps off beneath a fountain's cascade." Naturally I think of how everything's wet in one place and dry in the desert. Then a "you" enters, a "you" and a "me." "You hand me slivers." I imagine that is the child's boat smashed in the fountain. Anachronistically, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. "You hand me over." You, turning me over to them. "Storm clouds gather west of the west./ Slumming time." On this cut exquisite the poem ends, and part 2 begins; there are 23 parts.

It could be that "slumming time," with its Three Kings suggestion of a US contingent going pleasure mad in an invaded space, might also refer in assonance to "summertime," in sound or rhyme or assonance. Gilbert's vast knowledge of music might inform this poetry, but the poetry of tin-eared losers is called "musical" so often that the term had its critical value pounded out of it along ago. In fact if I had a dollar for every blurb I ever wrote wherein I threw around the word "musical" I could buy myself a Lexus, so no more! Instead I'm thinking, what he does so well is a kind of narrative prolepsis-—the line casting itself forward, through time, and seeing what is to come as though prophetic--and then also what I might term the opposite of prolepsis--the way he lingers on the individual image till it ripens, distinct from the rapid movement of the poem towards conclusion. The swift movement. Like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Anyhow it is his way of working through history, its ins and outs, that makes Alan Gilbert the provocative poet I admire and revere.


Few writers can claim the breadth of cultural engagement Alan Gilbert offers in a practice dissatisfied with the increasing division between advanced poetics and sustained critical inquiry. I have the good fortune to delight in regular telephone conversations with Alan. Our topics, rhetorically performed in variously gendered personae, range from the cranky and arcane--item: the economy of prestige bestowed by a foregoing intellectual style, its writerly habits, and its partial terms of cultural reference--to the wayward and everyday. Relevant, for example, to the advantages of certain hair- and skin-care products are the false problems that continue to pass for gravity among specific avant-garde procedures in the United States, and the self-importance that is the cosmetic style. Gilbert’s commitment has been, instead, to a broader conversation. Witness the series of open letter exchanges with such writers as Rodrigo Toscano (Philly Talks 5), Nancy Shaw (Open Letter, No. 1, Series 11), and Dale Smith (Possum Pouch 12.23.03 and 01.22.04). Capable at once of addressing DJ revisionism or the work of French-Israeli visual artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger or the finer points in the evolution of writer Barrett Watten, Alan compels the variety and specifics of cultural renderings as an arena of legitimate struggle. His poetry is therefore indivisible from such critical urgency insofar as it voices a “cultural poetics” as the interrogation of those material and institutional conditions that allow us to activate what we depict:

During the late Middle Ages, I marched
on the capitol with the maimed and insane.
One banner read: “We’re here to crush obfuscation.”
The crowd tipped over the king’s carriage,
as it slowly rolled through the mud,
soiling advertisements on its side.

(“Static Limits,” in Philly Talks 5, p. 13)

In one important sense his poetry allegorizes what he has strikingly distinguished as the difference between the present and the now, so that a historically remote sovereign can personify the sway of capitalism, a multitude as the cult to American postmodernism. Given a generation whose formal plurality is often deficient in critical commitment, his labors are all the more remarkable. I look forward to the publication of Alan’s collection of essays, Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight, to his own poetic output--and to our forthcoming phone dates of course.


from The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church website [www.poetryproject.com/poets&poems/gilbert.html]
from The East Village Poetry Web [www.theeastvillage.com/tny/gilbert/p1.htm]

from PORES [www.bbk.ac.uk/pores/2/index.htm]
from Jacket [http://jacketmagazine.com/15/gilb-r-fried.html]

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