Friday, September 30, 2011


Tangles of administrative stuff these days. Once upon a time – well, maybe until 5 or 6 years ago – because I am indeed a slow, slow learner* – I believed that somewhere up there, somewhere among the tenured faculty, somewhere in upper echelons of administration (& by implication, somewhere in the government, somewhere among the well-established poets), there were actual grown-ups: you know, people who knew what they were doing, who did it well, and who did their best to make the whole ungainly machine move forward & work smoothly for everyone involved.

I still believe in grown-ups in high places; but I've just realized that they're a hell of a lot scarcer than I once thought. I won't go into the details of my current irritations with Our Fair University; I'm sure irritations like them're shared by a great number of colleagues in higher education – probably the vast majority. Let's just say I've learned a few things about the difference between administrators & classroom instructors/researchers: or, for that matter, between those who do the actual day-to-day work in an organization – "labor" – & those who think of themselves as "management":
•The vast majority of administrator/managers are possessed with a remarkable absence of imagination (and hereafter "The vast majority" should be understood – not everybody, just most...)

•Administrator/managers are therefore highly rule-bound individuals; the substance of work that passes under their eyes is of less importance than whether or not it follows the minutiae of form

•Administrator/managers are highly territorial, & are constantly striving to define the boundaries of what they hold sway – oversight – over

•Administrator/managers are as well imperial: their territories are never quite broad enough, and need constant expansion; more and more of the everyday work of the labor force gets codified, formalized, & quantified

•Which implies, clearly enough, that administration/management are rather wonderfully pure examples of "instrumental reason" – and indeed, they understand no other kind of rationality
Colleagues at Our Fair University probably have sussed that I'm talking about The Graduate College, an administrative body whose purpose I don't understand – tho I do know that they seem to be able to hire highly-paid after highly-paid person, even as the academic departments keep getting the poor mouth from higher administration – but whose tentacular reach has been creeping into more and more of our everyday activities. I wish they'd go away, and let me and my colleagues do our jobs – which we do, on the whole rather well.

*And I'm not kidding about that; I really am a slow learner. It takes an ungodly number of times thru a book or a concept before I can get the hang of anything.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

comfort zone

So there's this dream I used to have: I'm at this concert, some band I'm totally into – Hüsker Dü, or Mekons, or Oysterband, whatever – and for some reason one of the band members singles me out, and hauls me up on stage. And they hand me a guitar – a nice one, a vintage Strat or an ES 295 – & invite me to play along. And I play along, really well: I seem to know the songs, & after a number or two they invite me to take a solo, & it's really hot – you know, Bill Frisell hot, or Marc Ribot hot. Somehow I can hear the music in my head & translate it to my fingers. You know, like a real musician.

Then there's this other dream: Same as the first, up thru the "And I play along" bit. But I don't play well – I play badly; I'm always a half-beat behind, I forget what key we're in, I'm lost on the bridges, I can't even – for god's sake – remember how to play an E-minor chord. You know, pretty much the way I play every day, but now in front of a whole bunch of people, & under the withering glare of musicians I idolize. I'm humiliated.

It's that latter dream I'm worried about playing out at the Shakespeare conference I'm off to next month. Right now I'm finishing up a paper on pomo British adaptations of The Tempest – Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman – & pretty much soiling my pants worrying about how the real Shakespeare scholars are going to receive me.

Don't get me wrong: I know my Shakespeare pretty damned well, & I know The Tempest about as well as any of his plays. I've read it maybe 20-25 times, I've taught it a few times, I've read stacks of the criticism. But I've never written about it, much less presented in front of people who've made a vocation out of early modern drama. The range of imaginable and unimaginable gaffes I may be setting myself up to perpetrate is broader than I want to consider at the moment.

It's all very well for the B-school types and self-help gurus to talk about stepping outside of your "comfort zone" and so forth; all that's at stake there is money, or a date, or the chance of a raise. Here there's the potential for serious professional humiliation.

On the other hand, my apprehension here is probably just a subset of my larger professional self-image apprehension, as I find myself shifting from a focus on modernist/contemporary poetry to a large side-interest in Victorian literature & culture. This's happened before, I have to keep telling myself: When I wrote the LZ biography, & worried myself to death about how the real biographers were going to receive it. And that turned out okay – maybe this will as well.

Monday, September 19, 2011

off stride

I'm off my stride, in all sorts of ways. Here we are four weeks into the semester, & I haven't really settled into my classes, nor have I settled into the rhythm of the school week. (This time around it's front-loaded; my long day is Monday, which means there's a kind of anticipatory nervousness through the whole weekend.) The girls are just settling into their own extracurricular activities, which means backing-&-forthing all round. Dance classes, acting classes, violin lessons, orchestra... Even on the weekend, the four of us pile into the car & drive up to West Palm Beach for art classes. (I'm learning some of the basics of oil painting I never took the trouble to learn back in the day – back, well, three decades ago.)

Plus, this whole business of department administration weighs heavily. It's not like it's a job that takes hours upon hours every day. Rather, it's a job where there are always a half-dozen emails to give attention to, & where there's always a deadline looming in the middle distance to revise some document or prepare for some change of affairs. Just enough to keep me nervous.

What's suffered? Well, my writing has suffered, for one thing. I still have a handful of book reviews owed various people (if you're checking in, editor-types, I apologize). I haven't set pen to paper on the biography book I hoped to crank out this summer; that will have to wait for another year, I suspect, at the very least. Right now, I'm desperately at work on a conference paper, for next month's Blackfriars Shakespeare do up in the Virginia hills. And after that some reviews get written. Poems happen – or bits of poems happen – in the interstices.

I am trying, however, as the above indicates (and as my latest little entry in the "poem-books" noting series indicates), to get back into the swing of blogging, if at shorter length than before perhaps. Bear with me.

Cole Swensen: Greensward

Greensward, Cole Swensen (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

A sumptuous, beautifully designed & illustrated volume with which I'll have to come to terms if I ever actually get around to writing my gardening poetry book. While Swensen's last collection, Ours, focused on the gardens of Versailles, their designer André de Nôtre, and the theory of 17th-century formal gardening, Greensward moves into the 18th century, to the new "English," "natural" gardens of Humphrey Repton and Lancelot "Capability" Brown. (I can think of worse nicknames than "Capability"...) It also moves from an exclusive focus on the interaction of the human being with the landscape to a consideration of the role animals play in landscape gardening – perfectly logically, as the English country estates for which Repton & Brown designed landscapes were working farms & game preserves, with large populations of sheep, cattle, & deer. Where Swensen breaks new & surprising ground is in her exploration of aesthetics & the non-human. An epigraph quotes Dr. Linda Kaplan: "Mainstream science has yet to be convinced that animals have an aesthetic sense." Swensen's poem begins with the observation that, yes, animals do enhance a landscape to its human observers; and proceeds to wonder whether a landscape's manufactured order & beauty might not be perceived as such by animals as well.


Monday, September 12, 2011

in print | cultural society

A few recent publications, just for the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks of keeping the CV up to date:
•a review of Marjorie Perloff's Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, in BookForum

•"One Last Modernist: Guy Davenport," a big-ass, much sweat-&-tears career-overview essay on the man's poetry, translations, fiction, essays, and overall self, in the latest Parnassus: Poetry in Review

•an essay in Joe Francis Doerr's brand spanking new, excellent Salt Campanion to John Matthias: "One Briggflatts After Another: John Matthias and the Pocket Epic"

•two poems, "Flâneur" and "Captain Modernism" in the latest Notre Dame Review (the first time I've had poems in actual golly-ink-on-paper "print" in a while)
Biggish publication news in the offing; stay tuned.

In the meantime, by all means if you're in New York City on October 8, make plans to come round to the Cultural Society's 10th anniversary celebration, which will feature a fantastic group reading in the afternoon at Poet's House (Brooklyn Copeland, Jon Curley, Sally Delehant, Norman Finkelstein, Chris Glomski, Michael Heller, Eric Hoffman, Philip Jenks, Peter O’Leary, Chuck Stebelton, and Shannon Tharp), then a musical evening (David Grubbs, Drew O’Doherty, J. Robbins, and BELLS≥ [Robbins and BELLS≥ will both be joined by Gordon Withers on cello]) at Bruar Falls in Brooklyn.

It's hard to believe Zach Barocas has been running Cultural Society for a whole decade now, keeping up an amazing standard of clean & attractive web design and scrupulous poetry editing (except of course for the unguarded moments when he's published your humble blogger) that puts most online journals to shame. And his new band Bells≥ really is the bomb; worth a trip to the City just to catch them in concert.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

study habits

So I was bemoaning my lack of narrative memory to another academic friend, bitching about how I can't remember plots & characters from one year to the next. "Every time I teach a novel," I said, "I have to re-read it. And the first time I read it, just to get a handle on it, I end up jotting down lists of characters & their relationships to one another on the flyleaf, & in the back I even write chapter-by-chapter summaries."

"Oh," she said. "You're studying. Shame our students haven't learned to do that."

Perhaps the best bit of advice I got during grad school was from John Taggart, who said simply, "Keep a reading journal." It was good advice, tho I didn't pursue it in any systematic way. Of course, I mark my books pretty heavily, and often I gist good quotations and overall arguments into various notebooks. But not really systematically, which is what I suspect he meant.

Over this past year, as I've been trying to expand my scholarly base into the "dark backward & abysm" of the Victorian era (concerning which expansion I mean to blog sometime soon), I've knuckled down and started doing this seriously. The last few batch of scholarly books I've read, I've marked them as usual, but I've also taken a few minutes at the end of each chapter (or each few chapters) to type up a thumbnail summary of the arguments. It's amazing how much better I seem to retain the books when I've taken the trouble to do this, even when I don't consult the notes.

Maybe this is just one of those expedients one is forced to when one doesn't have the steel-trap memory one did at 25 or 30. (Maybe I'll start posting notes to myself as to where I've left my keys and wallet.*) But I suspect it's pretty good operating practice for scholars in general, as well as students. I blush at how long it's taken me to start developing good study habits.

*When I was last in Tennessee, I spent a melancholy time in my mother's house, tearing down some of the last evidences of her failing memory before she went into the assisted living facility – the little "operating notes" she'd posted to herself around the house: how to work the microwave, how to set the thermostat, how to operate the garage door.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

John Davidson, for Labor Day (early)

from "The Testament of a Man Forbid"

This Beauty, this Divinity, this Thought,
This hallowed bower and harvest of delight
Whose roots ethereal seemed to clutch the stars,
Whose amaranths perfumed eternity,
Is fixed in earthly soil enriched with bones
Of used-up workers; fattened with the blood
Of prostitutes, the prime manure; and dressed
With brains of madmen and the broken hearts
Of children. Understand it, you at least
Who toil all day and writhe and groan all night
With roots of luxury, a cancer struck
In every muscle: out of you it is
Cathedrals rise and Heaven blossoms fair;
You are the hidden putrefying source
Of beauty and delight, of leisured hours,
Of passionate loves and high imaginings;
You are the dung that keeps the roses sweet.
I say, uproot it; plough the land; and let
A summer-fallow sweeten all the World.

–John Davidson (1857-1909)