Friday, October 29, 2004
(Turtle Point Press)
written by the collaborative trio
qustions by CAConrad
At first seeing your 651 page book, I couldn't believe there was that much to say about All About Eve. I should be embarrassed for having thought this for 2 reasons (at least 2)
1) that the book encompasses a far greater embrace of film as a whole: "Filmic Fashion Shows," for instance, profiling stylish details of movie fashion from Edith Head to Diana Ross (remember Mahogany?) "Ross personally designed every costume in the movie, which explains a lot." This being one example of a constant horde of shared film knowledge, and other entertainment, like "The Tainted Awards" section, etc.
2) that, after seeing the film again, the richness of its layers was full of our culture's most closely guarded archetypes, but few films or plays have developed the nuances of these archetypes as well as All About Eve. (by the way, the calligrams of a wine bottle and an Oscar were great, I wish there were others.)
There are! There�s also a champagne glass--with bubbles!
My first question though is, how did this enormous project originate? Was it talked out, designed or planned in any way, or something that started and took on a life of its own?
I just remember finishing "Chain Chain Chain," our collaborative Renga (which is 100 stanzas) and David calling me on the phone one night and saying, "Lynn wants us to write an essay in verse about All About Eve." I think I just intoned, "O.K." It was like one of those statements that makes no sense, yet at the same time, feels like a piece of your own DNA has been revealed--like all of a sudden you have another small glimmer of exactly who you are and why you were born. The three of us had often talked together or written one another about the film and the ominous "Everyeve" that each of us had had to do battle with at some point in our lives. The next thing I knew, David had emailed me a stanza--the first couplet of the book: "Alfred's music grand and cloying ('Eve's Theme'?) / while the credits appear on what: a scrap of gray burlap?" I popped my copy of the movie into the VCR and responded with the next three stanzas of the book and then sent what we had to Lynn. So I'd say that I don't recall really any planning--it just began and, indeed, it took on a life of its own.
Yes, our renga, which we wrote in the last months of the century, somehow opened the door for "le monstre" (the name Susan Wheeler eventually dubbed Phoebe). I seem to recall that someone (me? it�s hard to remember anymore) suggested that the poem should read like a DVD commentary of All About Eve. DVDs were new to me; I was enthralled by the idea of chatting about a film as you were viewing it. I�d listened several times to Marian Keane�s commentary (actually, on the DVD it�s called an "audio essay") of Hitchcock�s The 39 Steps. She�s brilliant; her commentary adds this whole other dimension to the film. So I was excited about the possibilities. One of the first DVDs I purchased was All About Eve. It�s a film the three of us were obsessed with; as Jeffery says, we�d discussed it many times. Once, Lynn was visiting me in New York and we watched AAE together. When we got to the scene where Eve�s caught holding up Margo�s dress in front of the mirror, we both gasped---appalled and fascinated. We must have replayed Eve�s startled reaction ten times. Also, having the film on DVD made it very easy to maneuver through the movie: freezing and rewinding and fast-forwarding. Made it very easy to examine it closely. Lynn and I both had DVD players. Eventually Jeffery caught up with us. I remember him complaining about how difficult it was to navigate the film on VHS. It was like he was in the dark ages. And yes, the project just took off and had a life of its own. It was very exciting, intoxicating really. And addictive. By the time we got to Book 5, I think, we knew we were on to something. The process had become exhilarating. Later in the book---mind you, this became a three-year commitment---we planned/outlined a few things, but in a very loose way. We always made room for the surprise, and for spontaneous reactions to what each other wrote.
The concept was my idea, which arose after we three had finished "Chain, Chain, Chain," and we all felt we should keep going. There was talk of a third project, "Anne and Her Dolls," based on the musical Jacqueline Susann wanted to write ("Helen and Her Dolls" and Anne Sexton's bad poetry (her last poems, that is). We all shaped the idea together: epic, stations of the cross, etc., and Jeffery and Davis made a far more substantive contribution too the text as a whole. I was pretty much a wreck for most of it, lost my husband, fell into disrepair, and so on. Jeffery and David, as writers of this text, are the spine, binding and bulk. I am, often, like a shaky hand, passing through it.
David, when reading from the manuscript in Philadelphia, you made a statement, something like, "Bette Davis was not glamorous, but she was about glamour." That's always stayed with me, and I wondered if you could please expand or explain the idea of the statement? And Lynn and Jeffery, do either of you have anything to say or add to this?
I have nothing to say or add to this as I feel I'm not qualified. You see, regarding myself, I've always felt exactly the opposite: Jeffery Conway is glamorous, but he is not about glamour. I love and hate Bette, but I am not "Her Kind," and therefore refrain from commenting.
In Phoebe I quote Tallulah Bankhead�s biographer, Lee Israel, who wrote that such actresses as Bankhead, Davis, Crawford, etc. were "about glamour rather than glamorous." Israel also says about Bankhead, and I equate this to Davis and Crawford as well, "Her lip-line had ceased . . . to have anything to do with the shape of her mouth." I think that certain women, especially movie stars of yore, as they age become such exaggerations or caricatures of youthful femininity, they are about the thing, rather than the thing itself. Maybe it�s that they�re trying to hold onto their youth. It�s also about miming certain mannerisms, certain gestures. Perhaps certain movie star gestures. The waving of the cigarette, the downing of the martini, the tossing of the hair. Oh, and the hand on the hip. Everything�s too big, too loud. How can that be truly glamorous. It�s the broadcasting of an idea, not a genuine, or natural, expression.
I can't speak for David, but think I know what he means. In this film in particular, she is a amphibian-eyed, crepe-faced fully 40 woman, which was not a glamourous age then, and barely is now. Yet, her gestures, her temper, her disposition, even her sensibilities are glamourous: the way in which she descends a stair-case, reveals her stockinged leg, smokes a cigarette (reminds me a bit of that Asnevour song, "She who always seems so happy in a crowd/whose eyes can be so private and so proud/so one's allowed to see them when they cry." Her life is appearances; her glam-tragic stature emerges from the unsettling of the same.
The poem "Ode to My Eve" is a wonderful transference of the film's theme of a young wannabe stealing the star's thunder to the world of poetry. Actually, thunder is possibly the least of what's taken in the end. But I was wondering what insights you developed while working on this project into the phenomenon of celebrity, and all the dysfunction and thirst poured into it? The book as a whole is a testament (& celebration) to something being askew with our world, but maybe you could share some highlights about your deeper insights from this project?
As we moved through the movie/book, and as we challenged one another to reveal more and more about our own experiences, I was shocked to discover not only the audacity of Eves past, but that Evedom was alive and well, and that Phoebes and Phoebedom were on the rise! It's like they were all conspiring to fuel our mock epic! I didn't want to write "Ode to My Eve'' (for obvious reasons), but Lynn and David pushed me in that direction. There was a great relief, a solid cleansing after I finished it; I felt like I had been reborn and that I could now move back into the world that I had gradually retreated from over the course of five or six years. I am no longer afraid of Eves and Phoebes; I welcome them as part of the Fame Foodchain. Now they just simply amuse me--the way one was amused watching classroom science movies as a kid--the visceral thrill of watching bottom feeders eat one another up.
It�s something that we promise on page one of the book: "But more of Phoebe[s], later." So hundreds and hundreds of pages later we had to live up to that promise, deliver the goods. We do circle around it throughout the book. But by the time we got to Book 16, "le monstre" seemed to demand that we hit it on the head. "It" being Phoebedom, as Jeffery called it, the disease of blind ambition, fame-mongering, careerism run rampant---whatever you want to call it. I was being plagued by several out-of-control beginning poets. One, a woman who knew I was gay, decided she was in love with me, was sending me hostile, drunken emails. Another, a young man I had worked with as an instructor, was writing inappropriate sexual poems about me (really lewd stuff) and posting them on the internet. I depict them as crazed Phoebes in the book. I was leaving New York at the time, packing to move to Chicago. The move seemed to give me permission to unload a lot of poetry world resentments; you know, poets who had been mean to me over the years, or who I�d witnessed acting out in public---ridiculously egotistical or self-important or whatever. So I just went for it, wrote a few sections about poets behaving badly. As Jeffery says, it was very freeing. Other poets� bad behavior does seem amusing now; it doesn�t offend me the way it used to. Egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. That�s how I see such poets. Dime a dozen. Of course the secret is that I too have those feelings from time to time; I just choose not to act out on them.
I write about celebrity constantly in my journalism, yet do not feel inclined to extend an analysis of its relationship to one of the film's (cited by you) deep tropes. It is obvious that genuine celebrity is like a rat's warren; concealed, filthy, and cannibalistic. But the reason I am hesitant to make more analogies is because the section you cited is different, and well-liked by me because it is confessional, and has to do with each of our Eves (I suppose you could say everyone has one.)
Please share with us some things you have learned about collaboration as a result of this book?
Collaborating on this book with Lynn and David was the most fun I've ever had writing. I think collaboration is the wave of the future. O.K., I'm being melodramatic. Yesterday I said, "Steel cut Irish oatmeal is the wave of the future." So, you get the idea about my world view--a little askewed? What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that on some gut, deep level I feel like writing collaboratively might be an antithesis to celebrity fever within the poetry world and in the greater world of authorialship in general. One must *share* any praise or glory that comes from the project (and one must also share in the criticism and slams, too). It feels very "Eastern spiritual," you know what I mean? And as God knows, China is the wave of the future.
Actually, Soy Crisps are the wave of the future. The new potato chip. Yes, it was the most fun ever. I loved collaborating with Jeffery and Lynn. It was so easy to jump into writing, I think because I was writing *to* them. There was an instant, specific audience. We were talking to each other, entertaining each other, mocking each other, goading each other on. I was very sad when it ended. I knew something special, maybe a once-in-lifetime opportunity, was over. Now it�s back to business as usual, writing one�s own poems. I haven�t written very many poems the last few years, since Phoebe ended. I tend to write slowly, with occasional bursts. I miss that Jeffery and Lynn aren�t on the other end, as it were. I mean who am I writing my poems to? The world, I guess, that never wrote to me. Same as always. But Jeffery and Lynn wrote to me!
Okay, I hope you don't mind this question. But I want to ask it, because I think it's fun. The idea of a remake of All About Eve is slightly horrifying, UNLESS (in my opinion) it were done in the way the recent remake of The Stepford Wives was done, that is, with humor. So my question is, if there were to be a drag remake, all female roles played by men, and male roles by women, who would you have play what roles, and why?
First of all, I think All About Eve has already been remade with humor--namely, Showgirls. I have to be honest though, I didn't see the remake of The Stepford Wives I saw the trailer when I went to see Mean Girls (!), and I was repelled. I loved the original one--it was super scary to me as a kid! I didn't like the idea of it being turned into a sitcommy comedy. On the other hand, the idea of a drag remake for All About Eve doesn't annoy me (in the same way that drag stage versions of Valley of the Dolls make perfect sense to me). I think I would try to assemble a cast of aging 90s East Village drag queens for two of the principal female roles: maybe The "Lady" Bunny as Margo, and Tabboo as Karen. For Eve, we'd have to get some nefarious drag newcomer, and for Phoebe, gee, does it matter? I can't tell you why, exactly, I'd choose such a cast . . . it's just that it's a lazy Sunday morning, I'm eating steel cut Irish oatmeal, and dreaming of the wave of the future when drag queens will rule the world.
Do I have to answer this question? I think Jeffery did a good job. I will say something about the remake of The Stepford Wives, though. When I heard Nicole Kidman was going to star in it, I was excited. I thought it was going to be a serious, scary remake. Instead, they did this stupid comedy. It had a few laughs, but it was pretty pointless. And for a camp remake, they didn�t make much use of the campiest moment in the original: the scene where Katharine Ross stabs the robot Paula Prentiss and she short circuits, repeating "I thought we were friends" over and over. In the remake I think Bette Midler just sticks her hand in a flame. Anyway, remakes, robotic replacements, young poetry Phoebes . . . it�s the endless recycling of Phoebedom, as Jeffery would say. It�s a carbon-copy world, as Sparks would say.
Addison: Sharon Stone (she possessed only of a grotesque allure, and is capable of arch-cruelty.
Eve: Matt Damon, has that wonderful faux-nice quality, seems genuinely repulsive.
Bill: Sandra Bullock.So obvious.
Birdie: Brian Denehy. Good actor, capable of shrewd malice (cf Rambo, John Wayne Gacy Story).
Margo: Richard Chamberlin. (Ditto Bullock)
Marilyn Monroe: Her sepulcher
Monday, October 25, 2004
Like many of you I read and admired the obituary for Carl Rakosi that was published in the current issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter. And like many of you I was sad to see it was published anonymously. I wanted to be able to thank its author for writing such a perceptive and insightful article about Carl Rakosi, a poet who, I realized after reading the unattributed obituary, I hadn't known half as well as I thought I had. Anyhow it occurred to me that the true author shouldn't be hard to find, I could indeed call the Poetry Project and try to peel away the veil of secrecy surrounding the author's identity OR through so-called 'internal evidence" I could identify him or her through subtle verbal cues, the kind which have persuaded many that Oxford wrote Shakespeare and Philip Larkin wrote all those anti-bebop letters to the editor of UK TRAD JAZZ in the 1950s. The first thing that leaped out at me was the way the author thanked Rakosi for the gift of friendship with Jen Hofer. I thought to myself, oh dear, that's not narrowing it down much, for Jen Hofer has more friends than Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff put together. What about the author's claim to have participated in the December 2002 tribute for Rakosi at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. Listen to this, "Jerome Rothenberg, Paul Vangelisti, Wanda Coleman, and I also participated along with several others." I kept thinking, if only the "several others" has been named, I'd be closer. Could it be Jen Hofer herself writing the article and seeking to keep her anonymity through confusion with several thousand of her friends? Like the purloined letter? For a few weeks my thoughts kept straying in this direction until I happened upon another sentence in the article, one I'd inexplicably overlooked earlier. "I read a Rakosi poem entitled, 'OK.'" Eureka, all I had to do was call Beyond Baroque and speak to the helpful people there, all of whom remembered vividly the sensitive rendition of OK by the Philadelphia poet Thomas Devaney.
Therefore I say it was him! If I'm wrong, sue me,
Tom if you're on the list step forward and accept the thanks of a grateful nation.
-- Kevin Killian
Kevin, OK, I am stepping forward, here on screen (hi), to say that I did write the obituary on Carl Rakosi in the Poetry Project Newsletter. I so enjoyed the journey you took to suss me out, and the query to the BUFF LIST, and appreciate your appreciation of the obit.
The Rakosi reading and conversation, organized by Jen Hofer and Fred Dewey, at Beyond Baroque was a two-day program in December 2003, the other readers and participants included Patrick Durgin and Mark Salerno.
A big hug and thanks.
-- Tom Devaney
Sunday, October 24, 2004
Alicia's one of those poets with an enormous number of mind blowing poems, and SOME publisher will, soon I hope, see to it that we can read them all!
read the poem below and see for yourself!
[Middle English knokel.] a knuckle sandwish. a knuckle in the face can be good. if one dodges brass knuckles. it's good to re-veal in the knuckle or revel. a veal knuckle is not
osso buco. osso buco is not what it seems. not cow tail nor ass in it are bones. bones can be eaten. from a chicken the wings. not to fly. what is the purpose. is osso buco a cut above. a shank is not a knuckle. is carpal or tarsal joint. the bone has holes.. osso buco is translated oslo buck. currency is good in oslo. a good meal is attainable in oslo. people in oslo have big bones. strong bones because a meal is good. their cows have big asses. for a buck you can't get buffalo wings. an actor is confederate. a buck can be counterfeit. actors are prone to fits in oslo. the sauce is not hot. not enough heat in oslo. fjords is without I. an actor has big knuckles. big muscle is the brain. a knucklehead can rule. in oslo I don't know. over here the shank is large. served osso buco in office. when it's good it's so-so bad. sosa says mal. oh the veal meal of mass. a ruler has holes in those clothes. currency pays. it flies in the office. the office can be off. its' osso bucko made a killing. in a well clad chad. an actor can be active. an actor can be holy. an actor can be crass. an actor can be president. that's pursuit. an actor can be pursued. a president can be prone. a bone like a fjord. a bonehead born twice makes an expert. one on a hill, one in a tank. shrinking skank shrank.
I had the terrific opportunity to write a 60 second radio commercial,
engineered by sound-artists Brian Conley and Andrew Deutsch, that will
play in four swing states the week of October 25: Wisconsin, New
Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
The commercial can be heard at: http://www.speakfirst.org/swing/
On this site you can also see information about several other amazing
art projects that were designed for Swing States.
And if you know anyone in the four states, perhaps you could let them
know about the schedule:
WBYY-98.7FM Adult Contemporary
Wilkes Barre, PA
WGBI 910AM All News simulcast
WLJY-106.5FM Adult Contemporary
(Campaign just ended)
WGAN-560AM - All News
WPOR-101.9 FM - Country
Many thanks, I hope you're well.
Friday, October 22, 2004
Bob Perelman reminded me that curating is itself an artform. I haven't seen a better pairing of poets in a long, long time. Lopez gave a versatile reading, surveying a few of his recent books. He delivered six new poems that were less than a day old & three words each. Lopez conjured the spectres of the 19th century & made space for them in his 21st century sonnets, entitled False Memory(Salt Press). These poems chart a personal life attempting to make it through economies, militaries, headlines-the absurd.
Michael Gottlieb read from his latest book, Lost & Found(Roof Books). This is a seminal post-9/11 text composed of three long poems. The most haunting piece is the second- "The Dust". It's a list poem of items (& people) reduced to debris after the attack. The technology, the clothes, the cosmetics, the victims are listed in this powerful piece that goes for about fifteen pages. I have a tender spot for list poems, & "The Dust" is one the best.
I feel sorry for those who slept on this reading. But you can recapture some of the magic by checking out their books. You'll thank me later.
- Frank Sherlock
Tuesday, October 19, 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.
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.
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.
SHORT INTERVIEW WITH ALAN GILBERT:
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.
ALAN GILBERT ONLINE:
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]
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Jena Osman will read poems by other poets who
have confronted the injustices of their time, as a
way of speaking to our own.
Saturday, October 23rd,
7 to 8pm cocktail hour
at La Tazza,
108 Chestnut St.,
Guest hosted by CAConrad, there will be a short
talk by Mary Kalyna of the Global Women Strike
about the organization, and about
the Million Workers March.
We will ask for a $5 donation, but if you can
give more, the hard working people at the
Global Women Strike will be appreciative,
and you can believe they will put the money
to work! check out their website:
Thursday, October 28 from 2-5 p.m.
Temple University Center City Campus, 15th and Market, room 222
Free and open to the public.
How can poetry and politics combine? Can poetry lead to concrete political action? How can poetry inhabit public spaces? How can it serve as an effective commentary on the political situation today? These questions and more will be addressed at the Chain re:Action Political Poetry Forum at Temple University. Sponsored by Temple's Creative Writing program and Chain Arts, this pre-election event features multimedia presentations and readings by a number of literary luminaries. Poet Anne Waldman (who with Alan Ginsberg founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) will talk about recent protests and her various community work to "keep the world safe for poetry." Kristin Prevallet will present the poetry interventions of the Poetry is Public Art (PIPA) group in New York. Poet Alan Gilbert will speak on poetry as cultural activism. Poet Kaia Sand will present the "Southern Maryland Sign Project," where poetry served as political commentary in suburban sign groves. Tracie Morris, performance poet extraordinaire, and Sarah Riggs, organizer of the Fact Campaign, will also contribute to the mix. Discussion and brainstorming for future poetry actions will conclude the forum session.
Other related events: Tracie Morris will present her poetry at 8:00 on Thursday, October 28 at Temple Center City, room 222. Anne Waldman will present her poetry at the Kelley Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania (3805 Locust Walk) on Friday, October 29 at noon.
Contact information: Jena Osman, Director of Creative Writing
215.204.3014 email@example.com www.temple.edu/creativewriting/events
Friday, October 15, 2004
It was one of those nights where I sat in the audience, in awe of my friends, knowing that there's some magic in this town that KICKS ASS!
And MAN ALIVE was I happy to hear from Emily Missner! She's a librarian from Drexel University who spoke to us about Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which deals mostly with FBI authority over our library records. To be honest, I wish we could have heard more from Emily, wish we could have had a bit of Q&A with her. She's someone to listen to, and brings the much deserved respect librarians have coming to them as truly bad ass activists in this fight to preserve our hold on our rights to access information, and to preserve our privacy in that access.
Much thanks to Jennifer Sneed and Tom Devaney for their continued support for such important events. And also for providing some delicious refreshments! What a GREAT night! Thanks again!
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Noah's the author of The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises), notes toward the spectacle (Duration Press), Jaywalking the Is (Margin to Margin), and What Ever Belongs in the Circle (Anchorite). A new collection, The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press this December. Recent work of his is forthcoming from 26, Hambone, Web Conjunctions, 88, The Tiny, and Magazine Cypress. His book reviews have appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Rain Taxi, The Poetry Project Newsletter, The Poker, and Jacket. He publishes the Braincase chapbook series from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his current writing project is a manuscript called "The Year Of The Rooster & Other Alarming Poems."
I interviewed Noah via email over the last few months, and here’s the fruits of our labor. I hope you enjoy, and I hope to see you at the reading, too. – Chris McC
CM: Your last email to me includes the great line, "it was around the time I quit playing music...and turned into a poetry geek..." Can you talk a bit about getting turned on to poetry? Whose work was crucial to that process?
NEG: The first poet that really got under my skin and showed me that poems could be made by anyone was Charles Simic. I remember taking a trip to Boston to see him read. I had just written a 20-page paper on his work, tracing the shifts in subject matter and tying everything to his then four volumes of essays and talks. After the reading I remember being really nervous but wanting to somehow approach him, to let him know how much his work had meant to me. What I ended up saying to him is pretty hilarious. I told him, "You're my favorite contemporary poet." Ha! It was around then that I quit playing music, bought the collected Stevens and got down to work. I had just graduated college with a BA in English and took a job at a local dollar-type store, where I’d hide in the back room and read when the boss wasn't around. I wanted to know everything there was to know about poetry. I must have read hundreds of books during my first summer out of school. My reading habits were still pretty singular though. I just didn't know what was out there. As a graduation present my mother got me a gift certificate to a local used bookstore. I went in and pulled anything off the shelf that looked interesting, stuff that I would never bother with now, Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, James Dickey. They were the folks with whom I had some sort of familiarity, some sense of how to read their work. There were two books among the many that I'd gotten which changed me in a huge way. Michael Palmer's First Figure and Ann Lauterbach's And For Example. Every other book I'd purchased that day had had an exhaustive element to it, a way of unfolding that never really redeemed itself, or that could never be refolded. They were to me like that snake-in-a-jar trick, only I could never get the snake back in. What I'm trying to say is that the work was just so entirely on the surface that there was no pay back in returning to the books after one had thoroughly absorbed them. The Palmer and Lauterbach were different. At first I was pretty turned off by the stuff--it just didn't make any kind of sense, well, it didn't make the kind of sense I felt in someone like Bly. I even went so far as to sell the Lauterbach book back to the used book store, only to buy it again a few weeks later, once I realized that it, like the collected Stevens I owned, was in some way calling to me. Funny, this is starting to sound like some kind of conversion narrative, which, in a way, I guess it is. When I started to ease my expectations with the Palmer and Lauterbach books, I came to see that not only were they infinitely more compelling than the work I was starting to become pretty familiar with, but they also were more respectful of my intelligence as a reader. Although they asked more of me, they paid off in numerous ways.
Their influence isn't really all that present in my first book, The Frequencies, because it's not really my "first book". In fact, it's not all that much there in The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, my next book, which'll be out in December. But I have a manuscript I've been circulating in one form or another for a while now. It's called A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, and it's really my "first book". It owes something to the Palmer/Lauterbach side of things.
CM: How did The Frequencies come about, then, once A Fiddle was written? Did you write the sections quickly, or was it a project that you picked at over time? Did you conceive it as a whole from the get-go, or did it grow organically as you went along?
NEG: The projects weren’t exactly linear in terms of their progression. I was consistently dipping into one and out of the other, not to mention many other modes of writing. I sometimes struggle with the shape a thing has to take in relation to its viability as an eventual object, as a “book” rather than a notebook or computer file. There is a definite standard out there, say the 60 to 80 page poetry book, which, I think, must have an impact, possibly a huge impact, on the writing projects of many poets. Of course, this isn’t true across the board, although the death of Black Sparrow did leave a big hole in the poetry world’s more bulky output, but I’m really excited by presses like Atelos, and Salt seems to cater to the longer work. Those are more the exceptions. I sometimes wonder if the standard length of poetry books, which seems to be decreasing, is indicative of any sort of correlation to our current era of the internet-inspired lack of attention span.
But to return to your question, The Frequencies was conceived of, for the most part, before any actual writing occurred. I recently saw the poet Mark Wallace read in Boston, and he said something about the serial poem that I pretty much agree with. He said once he writes something, he needs to write something else in the same vein to figure out what he’s doing, and that that figuring out doesn’t come until he’s accumulated a series of those somethings. Well, he put it more eloquently than that, but that’s the gist. I work in a similar way, although I tend to have a superstructure in mind before beginning the writing process. With The Frequencies, it was pretty simple, and it came out of me feeling, at the time, that titles for individual poems were somehow oppressive little things. I wanted to get around them, while simultaneously figuring out a system that would allow for the sense of duration titles can bring to a book of poems. Additionally, there’s something of an homage to my reading practice in there. The first bit of text I wrote that found its way into the book was done before I had the project in mind. It’s “107.1”, on page 19 of the book. I wrote it after reading Albert Mobilio’s The Geographics. There’s this story I’ve always loved about the band The Ramones. When they first got together they wanted to start a band along the lines of Black Sabbath, but just didn’t have the instrumental proficiency that it required. What happened is we got a new sound out of folks who were essentially paying tribute to one of the older sounds. I like to think of The Frequencies in that way. Outside of the Mobilio book, which inspired the form of the project as a whole, I was writing under and into the influence of John Godfrey’s Push the Mule, Michael Friedman’s Species and Rosmarie Waldrop’s triptych of prose texts, The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle and Reluctant Gravities. I hope, in the end, my sound is something different, but that it still carries a bit of where it came from.
As far as the writing process, I did about 50 of them in under two months, from February to March of 2002, sometimes writing two or three a day, then sort of abandoned the project, thinking it was no good, and that I was ready to move onto other things. I wasted a few months that summer on what turned out to be an aborted attempt to turn a different manuscript into a single long poem. Once I returned to The Frequencies, I finished the actual writing in another few months. It was a rapid-fire process. Much of the book’s movement is based on an alterative rhythm hooked into a system of faux-hypotactic syntax. I was trying to explore the logic gaps between the “ands” and “buts”, to see what happens when they don’t necessarily relate to one another, especially given that the prose which houses them carries an expected sense, at least initially, of relationship and liner progression. So I had a little over one hundred of these things, one for every station on the FM dial. I pulled out the ones which I didn’t feel were as strong, culling as much as I could from them to beef up the remaining 70 that became the final book. I’m forever in debt to James Meetze, the publisher, since I’m sure I must have been a headache to deal with. I kept revising the thing with every set of proofs he sent me. For me there’s always this generative process of accumulating text, a process that is done pretty quickly. And then there’s the endless headache of revision. My friend Eric Baus makes fun of me, calling the move “going lateral”, as I’ll read him something one day, which on the next, will be the same poem in a completely different mode. I wish I had the guts to pull off the variation on a theme book, like some of John Taggart’s stuff, but instead I just seem to make a mess of things.
CM: One of the things that I keep coming back to in The Frequencies is the idea of the "you" - do you see the poems as addressing a single, relatively coherent person in a sense, or does the "you" shift?
NEG: The “I” and the “You” are meant to be pretty consistent, and hopefully function as pathos pollinators throughout the book. There are two exceptions, both of which are elegiac in tone, one more cloaked than the other. The “you” in 105.9 (on page 29) is addressed to John Wieners; it written a few days after his passing, & ends by morphing a passage from his poem “What Happened?”, which reads, “better than a hatchet/ in Massachusetts,” into, “I wonder what the light’s like in your new city. Better than a hammer in Maine I hope.” What’s was interesting to me in incorporating this section is that although ostensibly addressed to Wieners, the “you” here also holds with the narrative underpinning of the book, as the “you” did in fact move to a new city at some point. The “you” in 95.1, written the day after Kenneth Koch died, is simultaneously self-reflexive & aimed at the reader, although I don’t think it jumps all that strongly outside of the rest of the book. It’s a really vague narrative I’ve got going on. The “you” is some kind of ornithologist, the “I” a DJ. One question kept irking me as I was putting the manuscript together: if I wrote in prose, with a consistent set of characters, often engaging in dialogue, was I writing a novel? At one point I wanted to call the book The Frequencies: an American Radio Novel. Thankfully my friends & publisher talked me out of it; still, regardless of Stevens’ notions of poetry as the supreme fiction, if the “I” is always the same other, then I can’t help but think of it as more straight-up fiction.
Monday, October 04, 2004
KICKOFF PROGRAM for the 215 FEST
Wednesday October 6, 2004
8:00 PM: The 215 Festival at the Kelly Writers House
3805 Locust Walk
Join the Writers House for the kickoff event of the 215 Festival.
The Philly Sound at the 215 brings together five Philly Sound poets who comprise a vital strata of Philadelphia's writing world with one of the city's hottest musicians: Monica McIntyre. Poets include Linh Dinh, Ish Klein, Frank Sherlock, hassen, and Kevin Varrone.
Remarks on The USA PATRIOT ACT by Emily Missner, Drexel Univeristy Librarian.
Evening hosted by Tom Devaney and CAConrad.
The 215 Fest at the Writers House will also provide and spotlight information about the most controversial section of The US PATRIOT ACT: Section 215.
Section 215 of the US Patriot Act gives the FBI unprecedented access to the communications, research, and reading habits of the public. It allows the government to get "any tangible thing" via a subpoena -- library, academic, financial, travel, and medical records; bookstore transaction receipts; Internet use logs; etc
For an article on the USA Patriot Act <-- click here.