Monday, January 26, 2009

among the English (Zukofsky in Sussex)

[Harry Gilonis listening, Jeff Twitchell-Waas speaking]

The first thing the conference-organizer-doctoral-candidate Richard Parker said to me when he met me in Gatwick last Thursday was (in a touching London accent) "We've got some proper English weather for you." Yeah, as in pissing with rain, bone-crampingly cold, & breathtakingly windy. What I saw of Brighton thru weather-slitted eyes was lovely tho. And the University of Sussex's Centre for Modernist Studies's seminar & performance on & of Louis Zukofsky's "A"-24 the next day was an invigorating, exciting event – one of those intellectual & emotional rechargings I seem to need more & more often as dotage approaches.

First things first, however: while "The Meeting House" at Sussex is a lovely name for the ecumenical chapel on campus, there was very little redolent of 18th-century Quakerism in the very, very unlovely, very mod-early-70s-University-architecture of the building itself; the thing's a bit of a cross between a concrete beehive and a canted brick liberty hat, set off with a rather pitiful little moat, all of three or four inches deep. There was however, to my delight, a rather snazzy original oil of the dissenter Lodowicke Muggleton – you might recognize him from EP Thompson's Witness Against the Beast – hanging forlornly on the otherwise anonymous wall. 

The papers were uniformly interesting; Tim Woods putting "A"-24 & Cid Corman into conjunction; Jeff Hilson speculating on how to read the thing (ending with a lovely account of facing down the score while managing his 8-month-old's spitup bout); Jeff Twitchell-Waas providing all manner of connections, & Harry Gilonis suggesting the work has more in common with Cage than Handel (or so I take him to imply).

And then the performance(s). The evening began with some fiddling, Sarah-Jane Barnes playing Gerhard Münch's arrangement of Clément Janequin's "Chant des Oiseaux" (Pound's Canto 75), taking us all back to the lawn of St Elizabeths in 1954, where Paul Z. played the piece for the old poet. I'd never heard the Chant before (& even if I could read music, doubt if I could make much of the microscopically shrunken score in the New Directions Cantos); but it was an enchanting piece, all bird-song and pizzicati. Then she rendered what "A"-19 calls "the Chaconne," i.e. the chaconne from Bach's Partita in D Minor (#2) – a piece which famously provides the framework for "A"-13. She played beautifully, tho I confess I'd listened to the movement twice on the iPod on the flight over, in PZ's own rendering, & therefore found myself wincing at the perhaps over-free vibrato.

[Francesca Beasley, Ken Edwards, Sean Bonney, Daniel Kane]

"A"-24 was rendered by a crack team of poets: Ken Edwards, publisher of Reality Street Editions, read the "Drama"; Francesca Beasley, resplendent in silver lamé and brightly verdant hair, read "Story"; Sean Bonney read "Poem"; and Daniel Kane lent the performance a welcome New York accent reading "Thought." Ken was the anchor of the performance, dead on time thruout and wonderfully expressive, & the readers did a lovely job of modulating their voices to the instructions of the texts as to volume & dynamics. Sean was the man to watch, however, rocking back & forth alternately to the rhythms of the harpsichord and the other readers, & delivering his lines in a sonorous Hullensian accent (did Andrew Marvell, MP Hull, speak like that? I like to think so...).

Kerry Yong played the Händel harpsichord pieces beautifully, & my only complaint about the performance – if I were to have a complaint, which I don't – is that he was perhaps paying too much attention to the musical score alone, rather than the interaction of the music & the voices. So that while the readers remained "together" pretty much perfectly thruout, the harpsichord had an unfortunate tendency to run away from them, thundering on thru the piece at hand, & a couple of times coming to a finish a page & a half before the voices had caught up with him. [Update: in a comment below, Ken points out that Kerry shouldn't be blamed, as it was literally impossible to hear the voices from the harpsichord.]

But I'm not complaining. It was an exhilarating evening, tho seemingly a bit exhausting for everyone involved. The kind of evening that calls for a more or less epic pub-crawl. (Epic for me, that is – for the natives, it seems that this sort of thing is pretty much par for the course.) Lots of good talk – with Harry G., Jeff T-W., Peter Nicholls (founder of the Centre for Modernist Studies), Sean B., the poet Richard Makin, & many others; lots more stout & bitter. Things wound up back at the faculty apartment where I was being generously accomodated (many thanks, SC) with rounds of single-malt Scotch & big bowls of a carbonara-ish pasta, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 AM.

Did I sleep on the flight back the next day? Your guess...
Update: More (& much better) pictures on Jeff Hilson's blog, here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sussex!; Finlay!; new poems

I have only in the last day or so gotten really excited about heading to the U. of Sussex later this week for their Centre for Modernist Studies' Friday symposium on Zukofsky's "A"-24. Imagine – a gathering held on a university campus in something called "The Quiet Room" of a building called "The Meeting House." Around here, our buildings have picturesque names like "General Classroom South" and "Social Sciences." (Donors take note: I suspect it's not too expensive to get one's name attached to these – er – graceful structures: they might as well have "Your Name Here" posted by their doors.)
One of the presenters Friday will be Harry Gilonis, who I believe is the picture editor at Reaktion Books. I thought of him as the last of the holiday presents came in thru the transom, courtesy of John Dixon Hunt's beautifully-produced, career-crowning study of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Nature Over Again: The Garden Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Reaktion Books, 2008). This is a volume that I'm having difficulty not devouring at a gulp, even tho I've so many things pressing on my immediate attention. I was delighted, however, to find my own little piece on Finlay from Jacket (and before that, from FlashPoint) mentioned in Hunt's endnotes, however fleetingly. I wonder if this old essay might not be my single most-cited bit of writing, for better or worse.
Zach Barocas, recovering from his move back to Brooklyn, has an update to the always-excellent Cultural Society website, including bundles of new writing by various worthies: Robert Archambeau, Wes Benson, Joseph Bradshaw, Derrick Buisch, Cary Conover, Jon Curley, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Heller, Matthew Henriksen, Drew Kunz, Peter O'Leary, Gregory Ott, Adam Fleming Petty, John Phillips, Pam Rehm, Chuck Stebelton, Mathias Svalina, Shannon Tharp, & Jason Stumpf.

And two newish things by yr. humble blogger, "Dawn, New & Improved" and "Vasa Leviathan." Go to Cultural Society & click on "texts," if you're so moved.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chicago Review: Rodefer!

Fans (oh yes, count me as one) of the ever-enthralling Stephen Rodefer would do well to grab a copy of the latest Chicago Review, which has an enormous feature on Rodefer – lots of stuff, including an interview with Rodefer, critical essays on his work by Keston Sutherland and David Georgi, two essays and four poems by Rodefer himself, a memoir by Fanny Howe and a checklist.

And there's more: poems by Rae Armantrout, Carl Phillips, Ange Mlinko, Endi Hartigan, John Tipton, Joanna Klink, Alice Notley, Paul Éluard (translated by Robert Huddleston) and Elizabeth Arnold.

And my own review of John Matthias's latest, strong collection, Kedging: New Poems.
A reminder to Britons, & those who might be drifting thru southern England late next week, that the place to be for the Zukofskynalia this year (that's 23 January, Zukofsky's birthday – 105 if you're counting) is the University of Sussex, where their Centre for Modernist Studies'll be celebrating the event with a performance – by Sean Bonney, Ken Edwards, Daniel Kane and Francesca Beasley, with Kerry Yong on harpsichord – of "A"-24. There'll also be talks by Harry Gilonis, Jeff Hilson, the indispensible Jeff Twitchell-Waas, and Tim Woods. 

And by yr. humble blogger, as well. Someone tell me what the weather's like there; should I bring socks?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Friday, January 09, 2009

Belacqua, c'est moi

Off this afternoon for a weekend at lovely Sanibel Island, on the Gulf coast – white sand, lashings of seashells, birds' cries & the surf in one's ears all night.

In the grip of an unaccountable – but all too familiar – acedia. Too torpid to put pen to paper or listlessly turn a book's pages, save for the scholarly porn of James Knowlson's Beckett life, which trundles from one somatically manifested neurosis to the next. Will our hero make it thru the chapter? How can he live to write all those books he hasn't gotten to yet?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

biography, transatlantic

Having 15 minutes on my hands before I had to pick up the girls, I dropped into our local used book emporium & found two jewels on the $5 shelf – Juliet Barker's Wordsworth: A Life (Ecco, 2005) & Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street (2008). They exemplify the weird things that happen when biographies of British worthies cross the Atlantic, I guess. 

The title page of Nicholl's volume reads as follows: "CHARLES NICHOLL | The Lodger | His Life on Silver Street | Viking." Something missing there, no? Turns out the book was published in the UK in 2007 by Allen Lane as The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. When they got around to resetting the title page for the US release, they fixed the subtitle but not the title itself. Would that they'd been willing to spend the money for the UK endpapers, which the List of Illustrations tells me show "The 'Agas' map of London, c. 1561." The US endpapers are quite blank.

The Barker, on the other hand, is an entirely different piscine kettle. The book seemed a bit slim for a biography of the long-lived laureate, until I realized that the paper was thin enough to account for some 548 closely printed pages. But what's missing? Alas, the entire scholarly apparatus: no references, no notes, no bibliography. Then I consulted the copyright page, where I read: "First published in the United Kingdom by Viking 2000. | This abridged edition published in Penguin Books 2001. | First American edition 2005." According to James Fenton's New York Times review, the original British hardcover clocked in at almost 1000 pages, so the abridgment involves a good deal more than just the 134 original pages of notes and bibliography.

Two comments: First off, it's entirely reprehensible for Ecco to run glowing review quotations from the TLS, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, & a buttload of other British papers on the back of Barker's book without telling the reader that they refer to a substantially different edition of the text. Sorry. Just isn't right. Cheating. Secondly: Reading a biography without references is like having sex without protection; you may be just fine, but in the end you really don't know what you're getting into.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Sextidi, 16 Nivôse 217 – Nivôse, the "snowy month." (Not around here, hélas.) Day 16 of Nivôse, the day of Silex, or flint. Fabre d'Églantine: "In Nivôse earth is sealed and usually covered with snow. At this time earth is resting and there are no herbal agriculture products to characterize this month. We rather took names of animal and mineral substances of agricultural use." Set a flinty face to the world, to tomorrow's classes, to the stream of job candidates who begin arriving this Friday (Decadi, the 20th), on the day devoted to Van, or – how appropriately – the winnowing basket.

Friday, January 02, 2009

John Taggart: There Are Birds

There Are Birds, John Taggart (Flood Editions, 2008)

I sought out John Taggart on my own, pulled off I-81 on one of those drives between Blacksburg & Ithaca way back when, looked him up in the book at a filling station, & paid the proverbial ephebe's 1st visit. A mentor? Something like that, tho as Ron Johnson said of Zukofsky, "I don't think he liked my poetry much." That was okay. Of all the Taggart books I've accumulated over the years, Loop (Sun & Moon, 1991) stands out, if only because it's biggest – slice that one anywhere & you'll hit a fantastic poem. But There Are Birds is frankly his greatest achievement yet, a set of 5 substantial poems and few outriding "cadenzas." There're elegies: one for Zukofsky, one for Creeley, one for Robert Quine – who would've thought that John, the bop-saturated jazz fan, would also admire the guy who comes close to topping my pantheon of guitar heroes? "Refrains for Robert Quine," a painfully touching elegy that never once directly alludes to the circumstances of Quine's death – in grief over the death of his beloved wife, he took an intentional overdose of heroin – brings me to tears.

The centerpiece is the long and very strange  "Unveiling/Marianne Moore," a poem of place (south central rural Pennsylvania) that is simultaneously an erotic fantasy (delicate, disturbing) about two red-haired virgins, Moore & Emily Dickinson, an homage to the Bartrams & other "nature boys," a horticultural poem, and much more.

If John Adams & Philip Glass evolved their own minimalist techniques into a kind of late Romanticism, Taggart has taken the austere repetitiousness of Peace on Earth and "The Rothko Chapel Poem" & has stripped it down to an angular, 2nd Vienna School lyricism. If he used to be Robert Fripp, now he's Fred Frith.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

random bay area notes

Back from MLA; no kudos to US Airways, which now charges $2 a pop for bottled water on their flights, along with all the other indignities one suffers flying coach. Best moment of the conference (most of which was spent interviewing): the redoubtable Daphne Gottlieb, signing my copy of Kissing Dead Girls at the oh-so-stuffy book expo, looking distinctly uncomfortable in her killer bangs & dreads among all the university presses, asks: "So, how's your MLA going?" Me: "Not so fun. Interviewing. Sitting across a table and soaking up lots of young people's angst." DG: "What's not to love about that?"

Meanwhile, my heart leaps up at the sight of not one but two copies of The Poem of a Life on display behind her. You see, now that Soft Skull (her publisher) has been incorporated into the new Counterpoint (which has absorbed Shoemaker & Hoard, publisher of the LZ biography), Daphne Gottlieb & I have more or less the same publisher. Small world.
The marathon reading was marathonish as usual. Only the straight-'n'-narrowistas keep to the 2-minute limit, so by the time I snuck out of the vast space of the Yerba Buena Arts auditorium some 2 1/2 hours into the thing, we'd only gotten I think to the O's or P's. Walter Lew didn't cut anybody's tie off this year, but he spent so long footering around with a hotel bedsheet & a portable laptop projector (which didn't work) that he managed to clock in around 12 minutes.
Didn't get out enough to savor the varieties of the "MLA gaze." You know how it works: someone walks towards you, glances at your face, drops their eyes to your name tag, & if it doesn't register high enough in their own academic pecking order, proceeds to let their gaze wander around the room in search of bigger game. How to say "hello" while looking around for someone more important to say "hello" to.