Monday, May 31, 2010

what I saw at the ALA

or rather, what I saw in San Francisco over the past weekend. It's kind of axiomatic for me that the broader the scope of a conference, the harder it is to find things of specific interest. The very best conferences I've been to have included two LZ events in 2004 (Columbia & Chicago), separate Ronald Johnson & Bottom: on Shakespeare events at Buffalo, a Sir Walter Scott do in Eugene, Oregon, & of course the sequence of massive poetry-fests mounted at the University of Maine. I find the University of Louisville's "Lit. & Culture Since 1900" conference pretty consistently stimulating, & I get a hankering to attend the Modernist Studies Association every year, tho I've never quite gotten around to it.

The American Literature Association casts its net of presentations a bit too broadly for my taste, I must admit. I love Twain, & I love Cooper, but do I really want to see the Twain-Cooper contretemps restaged between representatives of the Fenimore Cooper Circle and the Mark Twain Society? Try as I might, I can't muster the slightest bit of enthusiasm for talks about John Steinbeck or any American realist author. And like the MLA, the ALA is strikingly poetry-poor.

So I was seesawing back & forth until the very last minute as to whether I'd even show up to give a paper on this panel on biographies of 20th century American poets. I had reasonably priced airline tickets (which I knew I could exchange if need be), but I waited till the last minute to book a hotel. Alas, the conference hotel – the brutalist, brutally dated Embarcadero Hyatt Regency – was booked solid; the back-up hotel, 1 1/2 miles away, was far out of my price range. So I took a chance and booked a room in the "charming" Aida Plaza Hotel, pretty much in the heart of the Tenderloin district. Not bad – at least I was never lacking for company in my strolls to & from the hotel, since the neighborhood is plentifully supplied with panhandlers, crackheads, drug dealers & assorted street personages. If I needed entertainment, there were two strip clubs on the block (tho if I wanted "company," the Hotel charges a $30 "visitor's fee" to allow someone into your room). Somehow, between an iPod with David Harvey's collected lectures on Das Kapital and a briefcase full of books, I managed to entertain myself alone in my 14' x 14' room (taupe plaster walls, vintage 50s-era furniture, television with 3 working channels, linens & towels that didn't bear too close inspection); after all, this was San Francisco, right?

Frankly, I wasn't expecting much of this conference, or of the trip in general. The semester had left me bone-weary. I wanted to fly in, give my paper, & get the hell out. But the weekend turned out better than alright. First, there were bookstores: I'd been to City Lights some years ago, & found myself for some reason unimpressed. Perhaps I was reacting apotropaically to the whole beatification of the Beats, the "shrine" aspect of the place. This time around, I spent some serious time with the poetry section, which is flatly excellent. On Friday, I hiked to The Richmond to visit Green Apple Books. Now my usual out-of-town 2nd-hand book haunt is The Strand in Manhattan, & my MO in the poetry section there is to pile up everything I see that I want, add to it things that I might want, & buy that. In Green Apple I found myself having to reject all of the "might wants" outright, & then performing a kind of 2/1 triage on things I really wanted. & even then ending up spending a good deal more than I'd expected. It made for a back-breaking carry-on bag on the flight back, mind you, but I've got enough poetry to keep me busy for some time. (Which doesn't mean you shouldn't send me your book.)

Lodging... book shopping... what else is there to conference-going? Oh, right: Food. A couple of splendid Italian meals, a mediocre Indian lunch buffet – but the grand find: trudging around the fringes of the Union Square district, I finally rediscovered the Indonesian place I'd visited back in I think 1991, where I had a fantastic rendang the color & consistency of 2-year-old motor oil. It was just as delightful and piquant this time around.

Yes, the Conference: well, the highlight for me was a reading by my old friend Cecil (CS) Giscombe, beautifully delivered & ecstatically received. Cecil, whom I've known for almost a quarter century now (!!), has made the big time – a job at UC Berkeley, prizes, widespread recognition, etc. And he's still as warm & delightful as ever. I saw more old friends & acquaintances than I'd expected – Aldon Nielson, Katharine Wright, William J. Harris, Lyn Hejinian, Richard Flynn, Laura Barrett, Joan Retallack, Juliana Spahr, Alec Marsh (himself at work on a Pound bio). Marjorie Perloff whisked in for a panel on Gertrude Stein, where she delivered a rousing defense & analysis of Stein's language, took a few potshots at what she saw were misguided readings of Stein, and called for a new "renaissance," on the order of the whole Modernist revolution, in contemporary poetry. I was struck by her evocation of Wordsworth's Preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads, with its attack on the "inane & gaudy phraseology" of contemporaneous poetry, & her call for a similar revitalization of poetry. Who's to do it, tho – or who's doing it?

My own panel was something of a repeat, with a slightly different cast, of the similar panel I was on at the 2008 MLA (also in San Francisco). I found myself afterwards having supper with a group of biographers and Kenneth Rexroth fans – more Rexrothians than I knew existed. Don't get me wrong – I'd been reading Rexroth lately, and finding him a very intelligent and sometimes moving poet, but it's unnerving to be dropped into the midst of a bunch of folks for whom one particular guy is DA BOMB, pure & simple. (Yes, I know – it's the same way with LZ events.) Weirdest moment of the evening was when his biographer related some hair-raising tale of Rexroth's amorous goings-on – something to do with inviting both his wife and his mistress to the same apartment in Paris, with a couple of local pick-ups involved as well – and the women present simply sighed & smiled, and someone said, "I guess he just loved women." And everyone present nodded knowingly & sympathetically.

The weekend's very best moments happened outside of the Hyatt Regency: A lovely afternoon on the Embarcadero with Cecil and Roxi Power Hamilton, a friend who was tremendously important to me back in the ambiguous days of my graduate studies, but whom I haven't seen in 19 years (& have only been in touch with recently thru the magic of Facebook). That same evening I was taken for a brief tour of North Beach & an excellent Italian dinner by poet Susan Gevirtz and her partner Steve Dickison, director of SFSU's Poetry Center. I don't know why they wanted to know little ole me, but I had a great time; good talk, good food, good company. (Hey, isn't it time for the PC to do an LZ event?)

It seemed unseasonably chilly in SF for late May; most of the time I was wearing my big leather coat & feeling quite comfortable. When my plane touched down in Fort Lauderdale Sunday night, however, I knew I was back in the steam. I'd worked up quite a lather, overdressed & hauling all those books in the 85 degree, 90% humidity twilight, by the time I got to my car in the parking garage. Only to realize, as I turned over the ignition, that my air conditioning isn't working. Welcome back to Florida.
R.I.P.: Peter Orlovsky and Leslie Scalapino. that they were at the beach: aeolotropic series (North Point, 1985) was probably the first Language-related book I ever bought, at Books Strings & Things in Blacksburg, VA, after having been seduced by a large chunk of the book printed in of all places the American Poetry Review. The start of a very long journey for me; it will take me some time to process this passing.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

the upright man

I'm off to the American Literature Association conference in San Francisco next week. I don't think this is a conference I've ever been to, at least as a participant (I seem to vaguely recall dropping by one of their meetings in Baltimore a million years ago, for what reason I can't imagine). Am I remembering rightly, or is this the association set up in explicit opposition to the MLA's rampant theory-binge of the 1980s (still ongoing, happily)? At any rate, I'm on a tightly organized panel about biographical approaches to 20th-century poets, along with biographers of Kenneth Rexroth & Denise Levertov. It should be fun; not an awful lot of alt-poetry types there, but I'm sure I'll run down a fair number of people I know (feel free to drop a line – let's do lunch, or coffee). And after all, it's San Francisco, for heaven's sake. How can one not have a good time?

My biggest regret is that our panel seems to be scheduled opposite a panel of homages to the late Burt Hatlen, which I'd dearly love to attend, if only to show my gratitude to the big man.
Another symptom of middle-aged drain-circling: back pain, not debilitating, not even really chronic, but occasional & irritating. I suspect it has something to do with sitting reading & writing 8 or 10 hours a day in ergonomically disastrous chairs. But I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of the "stand-up" desk, used – as manufacturers will tell you endlessly, by Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, all the way down to those contemporary luminaries Philip Roth & Donald Rumsfeld. You can google all the purported health benefits (posture, energy levels, etc); the one that struck me – aside from the overwhelming reports of decreased back stress – was a base metabolic benefit of 60 extra calories burned per hour – just by standing. Which doesn't sound like much, but that's 240 calories every 4 hours – extrapolate it out.

I wasn't about to pay the outrageous prices the whole desk-thingies are fetching online these days, nor did I want to shell out $70 or more for a plain old tabletop lectern. (I did consider stealing one from a classroom in Our Fair University, but when I reflected how difficult it's been to get one to teach at lately...) So I cleaned the cobwebs off my hunter-gatherer-manly-arts-of-tinkering-with-power-tools skills, and you can see the results above: yes, my very own homemade (from nothing more than scraps of lumber hanging about the house & environs) tabletop lectern, complete with broad working surface & that little "lip" do-jobber at the bottom to keep your pen from rolling off. Once the spar varnish dries – I was gonna jump right in to using it, but reflected that if I wanted to paint up there, it'd be impossible to get the splatters off untreated wood – I expect to be well on the road to a slimmer, better-postured, dashing poet-scholar me. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

the Bill Laswell diet

Above, the bassist-producer-all round badass Bill Laswell, photographed probably five-six years ago. (Think Bob Archambeau with an electric bass, a cool hat, & long hair.) Now I, as someone professionally & personally interested in the fashion choices of men of a certain size with clear balding-related issues, have found Bill Laswell a fashion icon for some time now. Imagine my surprise, however, when I happened upon this rather more recent photo:

My goodness. Was it Weight Watchers, the Atkins Diet, or some personal regimen of lettuce and laxatives?

Turns out to be nothing quite so volitional. Think a bout of spinal meningitis. Oof. Don't try this at home, kids; me, I think I'd settle for my own rather zaftig corporal presentation for the nonce.

deep into the mystic

Last week, in the midst of final exams, I went to see Van Morrison perform at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, part of one of those strange drinking/shopping/gambling enclaves one encounters here & there in South Florida. Odd place – sorta Disneyland for grownups, a few blocks of ersatz urbanism in the middle of the endless suburb.

I followed Morrison's music intensely for a few years; too young to be aware of his grand achievements of the mid-70s, I started backtracking thru the catalog & buying the new releases as they came out with 1980's Common One. I stuck with it, thru increasing forays into synthesized new agey gunk and hazy mysticism, thru 1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. The next record, Poetic Champions Compose, with its über-pretentious title & the shocking combover hairdo of the cover photo, was too much for me. So it's been over a decade since I've truly kept up with Van's records, tho various works of his have been absolute touchstones for me: of course the classic Astral Weeks and Moondance, but also Veedon Fleece and the sublime Into the Music, which has the happy quality of lifting my spirits no matter how depressed I might be.

Morrison's music has always struck me as densely paradoxical: he has one of the great R&B voices of all time, a truly wonderful set of pipes that has only grown deeper & more flexible over the years; he has an immaculate sense of musical timing, and a wonderful way of continually recasting the same 3- or 4-chord progressions into entirely new & surprising song structures. His "spirituality," however, strikes me as at best dodgy, sometimes downright embarassing. When he growls (in "Summertime in England"), in best bluesy voice, "Didja ever hear about, didja ever hear about, didja ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge, baby?... They were rockin' by the lakeside," I just want to know who threw this guy a copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (& why couldn't they have thrown him The New American Poets?).

Morrison in concert is always a chancy affair. One never knows whether one's going to get a truly sublime experience of a master musician submerging himself in his music, or a guy who's punching the clock. His show in Hollywood, thank heavens, was more the former than the latter. Okay, he started right at 8.03, no opening act; he didn't banter with the crowd, or seem to interact with them at all; and after his hour & 40 minute set, he was gone – no encore. All of these things seemed to piss off the audience – tho if they'd done a bit of research, they'd have known that this has been more or less Morrison's performing MO for the past 3 decades.

Florida audiences are irritating; if the show is scheduled for 8.00, don't show up at 8.25 & then complain you've missed 20 minutes of music (including "Brown Eyed Girl," probably the only song you'd securely recognize) – especially if you've dropped a couple hundred bucks on a pair of the really good seats. When the music gets really quiet, & the interplay between the bassist and the reeds player is particularly complex and fascinating, please don't take that opportunity to start a conversation, or to loudly hoot for the band to "start up" again. And for heaven's sake, don't expect Van Morrison, who's released something like 30 albums since Moondance, to honor you with an "oldies" set.

His set was for me at least fairly surprising, starting with an amazing version of "Northern Muse (Solid Ground)," disinterring such little-heard songs as "Fair Play" (Veedon Fleece), "Foreign Window" (No Guru), and "Help Me." Most moving for me were astonishing versions of "The Mystery" (a song which I hadn't heard before – his live version blows the pants off of the recorded cut) and "In the Garden." There was a strange, extended, even painful version of "Slim Slow Slider," which seemed to veer into "TB Sheets" territory in its divagations. And a beautiful, uplifting "When the Healing Has Begun." At 64, Morrison is a better singer than ever (tho his enunciation isn't what it once was – he doesn't do consonants much anymore); so what if the white suit & fedora made him look like a cross between the Stay Pufft Marshmallow Man and the Godfather?

The lack of interaction with the audience was interesting. Some musicians feed off of audience response, draw their energy from the enthusiasm with which they are received. Morrison seemed to draw his from within – from whatever muse – and from his interaction with his astonishingly tight and precise band. I felt as tho I were witnessing a musician in an almost autistic trance, spiraling deeper and deeper into the layers of his own songs. And while I would have loved to hear "Into the Mystic" or "Bright Side of the Road," that was plenty for me.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

progress report

I've completed four 2-page openings of an erasure/overpainting of Bartleby the Scrivener, "Bar by the Riven." I'm no Ronald Johnson, nor even a Tom Phillips, but take an intense joy in the process – exacto-ing apart the pages, gluing them down on heavy waterpaper stock, pulling out phrases and words that catch my eye, and then painting over the whole in vivid acrylic colors & designs (at this point, mostly vaguely Suprematist, but I've got a good deal of the story to go, & look forward to trying out all sorts of graphic styles). The designing is the smallest part of my pleasure: I love the texture of the paints, the sensation of laying down the colors with my smallest brushes – even the final step of embalming it all under a high-gloss varnish, bringing all the colors out into an eye-popping clarity.
Lisa Robertson's XEclogue (1993, my copy New Star Books, 1999) is 10 eclogues, more or less. "Nancy" and "Lady M" exchange letters; the "Roaring Boys" sing roisterous adaptations of the Pervigilium Veneris. The pastoral shades here, as it so often does, into the gardening poem, but always remains on the uncultivated side of the hedge. Robertson, as one of the most theoretically sophisticated poets writing, knows the centrality of the pastoral to Western thought (John Taggart said somewhere, recently, "the pastoral is the Western tradition"): it's the most fundamentally political of genres (cf. Empson), the field in which one steps out of the social/urban precisely to take stock of society. Robertson's is a pastoral of gender relations and the socio-psychoanalytic construction of the subject. Oof, that sounds MLA-ish, doesn't it? which doesn't get at how weird and intriguing a book this is, how pitch-perfect her voice is as she veers towards & inevitably avoids the conventionally lyrical.

A copy of Anathem, Neal Stephenson's latest door-stopping epic of speculative fiction, has fallen into my hands. I've turned it over a few times, contemplating all the word-of-mouth intelligence I've received, & the few reviews I've read ("huge," "daunting complex," "too clever by half"), & have compromised: I'll certainly tackle this sometime over the summer, but for now it's China Miéville's The Scar.
The people at Otis College of Art and Design are producing some exceeding beautiful books under the Otis Books/Seismicity Editions imprint. I am at the moment enthralled by the first stretch of Ray DiPalma's The Ancient Use of Stone: Journals and Daybooks 1998-2008, a decade's worth of notebooks – so it would seem; one always wonders, reading a published daybook/journal/commonplace book, how much retouching has been applied to the messy pages of the original. Right now I'm still in "The Ancient Use of Stone," the earliest of DiPalma's daybooks here collected – part journal, part commonplace book, part bibliographical checklist (mostly of early modern imprints). It has precisely the miscellaneous character I enjoy in these things, shifting from quotation to observational prose to verse, often in the compass of a single entry. And I can't resist looking ahead: the later daybooks are even more miscellaneous – multiple columns, typefaces, graphics, etc. More later on this large & beautiful book.

The notebook as word-hoard, prose-hoard, treasury of lines & passages. Thoreau's journals as the vast quarry from which he excavated his books; Emerson's as the practice room in which he tried out the various virtuoso passages to be included in his essays. My own shelf of notebooks seems to grow exponentially: I realize, soberingly, that I probably now own enough blank pages to keep me busy for the rest of my life (solution: write more!). The ones I've filled are of distressingly little interest: hundreds of pages of journalizing, repeated drafts of poems (I copy back & forth from notebook to notebook, keeping track – when I don't lose track – by arcane numbering schemes), passages of prose for whatever assignment happens to be on my plate at the moment. Unlined notebooks encourage me to doodle, even to draw, which makes them rather nicer to look at; lined notebooks encourage more voluble word-production.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

jumping fish

The semester officially ended over the weekend, when I turned in the last set of grades. Alas, I was so exhausted by the time it finally wound down that I haven't yet had that moment of VACATION!! elation – just a kind of emptied-out aimlessness thus far, along with any number of fiddly house-related things I've started to tackle. I have this kind of fantasy wish list for the summer: 1) lose weight, stop being a corpulent old man; 2) get (sorta) into shape, slough off some of those bad (physical) habits I've acquired over the last decades; 3) clean out the hideous, sifted midden that is my study, a major archaeological enterprise; 4) write the next book.

I hope to make a teeny bit of headway on some of these; we'll see. I think tidying the study is a pretty high priority, as it's gotten to the point where I can't find a pen when I need to take a phone message. The last one, "write the next book," is probably the most sheerly fantastical of them all. But I'm thinking about it, making notes, looking over old notes.
Writing per se has been a problem this semester. I've written some pretty decent poems, and at the beginning of the year I managed to pump out several pieces that I'm not all ashamed of; but since then I've found myself not exactly blocked, but rather unable to get to the point: I sit down with ideas & I proceed to write around them, spin them out & then spin away from them, ending up with yards of prose that is so baggy it repels all attempts at revision. These things go in cycles, I know; maybe at some point in July everything will come clear, & I'll start reeling out the crystalline sentences & paragraphs I need.
Reading is never a problem, tho I think my reading lately has been even more scattered & exogamic than usual. Yes, I read thru the Harry Potter books, over the course of a couple-three weeks, just so I can keep ahead of P. Half-Blood Prince was better than I remembered; Deathly Hallows was as much of a train-wreck the 2nd time thru as the first, bales of new esoterica, distracting side plots crammed into an already overstuffed package. Give me Return of the King any day, where it all comes down to that damned ring; Tolkien, he didn't introduce 15 new magical objects that Frodo had to negotiate in his final volume, did he?

20 years later, Middlemarch is far more engrossing than it was the 1st time around. I suspect I will be deciding that missing out on Eliot has been a major problem in my life. Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages is a surprisingly good book (why "surprisingly"? – evidence I guess of my prejudice against the widely-reviewed, hard-headedly "popular"): I learned a good deal about Harriet Taylor & John Stuart Mill, & was confirmed in my opinion of Thomas Carlyle (a brilliant, self-absorbed shit). The "contemporary" commentary of Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers haven't worn very well, but the basic information is rock-solid, & it's stuff that I feel a need to know at the moment, for whatever reason. I'm contemplating with trepidation Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis.
Finally I know for certain what I'm teaching next year, which is a nice thing. I've already mentioned at some point the grad workshop & the Milton course for the Fall. After some consideration I've decided to go with the Kerrigan et. al. Milton, Complete Poetry and Essential Prose (Modern Library), which looks to be the single-volume edition I & my students need. If it's a disaster, you'll hear about it.

In the spring, to my surprise (well, I asked for them, so it shouldn't be such a surprise) I'm teaching an undergraduate course on the epic and reprising my graduate seminar on biography. The readings for the former are obvious: Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, plus maybe something else (we'll see). Would love to hear others' experiences with particular translations of the poems. Last time around in the biography course, along with the "historical" stuff – Plutarch, Johnson, Boswell, Strachey's Eminent Victorians, etc. – we read Claire Tomalin's Pepys, The Poem of a Life, Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman. This time around I'll probably drop the Plutarch & a final session on AS Byatt's The Biographer's Tale, making room for one or two more contemporary works; maybe swap out Tomalin & TPOAL in favor of 3-4 others. As I asked before, any suggestions?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

sources of depression

1] the prospect of a weekend's worth of marking papers & calculating final grades

2] the descent of Florida summer; heat index in the mid-90s today; even now, almost 1 am, it feels like soup outside

3] the Greasemonkey script I added to Firefox which tells me who's unfriended me on Facebook; this one I think I'll have to remove – too much angst in my life already, without worrying about "social" "networks"

4] as always – deadlines