Sunday, March 31, 2013

John Clute: Appleseed

Appleseed, John Clute (2001; Tor Books, 2003)

John Clute's known as perhaps the most learned and intelligent critic of SF/fantasy alive; he's sorta like Northrop Frye with a passionate love of the space opera form, an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire speculative canon, and a prose style that sometimes rivals RP Blackmur's for knotty insight. So you perhaps can imagine what Appleseed, his second venture into actually writing SF, is like. Or maybe not – the vision of the future here, the sheer technological and social otherness of Clute's world is so fantastically imagined that it's hard for a reader to get a grip of anything like the whole. I'm used to being off-balance for the obligatory opening 50-75 pages of an SF novel, getting used to its novum (or nova); Clute keeps you off-balance for pretty much all of this medium-sized book, not least in his astonishingly various prose, which shimmies from the technologically gritty to the lyrically visionary to the weirdest yee-haw vernacular, often in the course of a single sentence.

Appleseed, alas, is way short on fully realized characters – it's really a kind of verbally and conceptually souped-up space opera, after all – but its mind-blowing imagination of a future of cybernetically "augmented" human beings, shimmering artificial intelligences, and vast metaphysical / theological forces almost makes up for that. At the very least, it's worth reading just for the relentless baroque energy of its dialogue & descriptive prose.


Jena Osman: Public Figures

Public Figures, Jena Osman (Wesleyan UP, 2012)

Is it an essay? (even a "lyric" essay?) or is it a longish poem? Who cares; it's writing, smart and engaging, impassioned. Public Figures begins as a conceptual-art kinda thang – check out the statues in the public spaces of Philadelphia, rig up a camera to snap images of precisely what their stoney/bronzey eyes are gazing upon, then meditate upon those gazes. So far so good: there's lots to think about there – the tradition of memorial statuary in the New World and the Old, urban development growth and decay, the ironies of history. But something else emerges over the course of this meditation. The poem-essay-commentary, which begins in a plainspoken this is what my idea was and this is how I started doing it register, shifts into the ultra-contemporary now, as transcribed drone observations – from the Iraq theater of operations, one assumes – start running along the bottom of the page like the "crawl" on the CNN screen; and the poem becomes not just a meditation on statuary (paging Dr. Ozymandias) but a larger consideration of the decline of the "heroic" "ideal" in the age of remote-controlled war.


Monday, March 25, 2013

michael moorcock: the chinese agent

Michael Moorcock, The Chinese Agent (1970; Mayflower, 1979)

I must've read this one about 30 years ago, probably in a library copy, because I didn't own a copy until I found one in a 2nd-hand shop a few months back. An enjoyable two or three hours, given that MM probably devoted all of a couple weeks to writing it. There are some passages of pretty evocative description – devoted mostly to the more sordid districts of London, to the old Notting Hill and Portobello Road – and gratifying few of the terrifically sloppy passages one finds in so much of his work of the 60s and 70s.

This is non-fantasy, non-SF Moorcock – a clear precursor of the "serious" city books of later years, Mother London (1988) and King of the City (2000). Gosh he loves London, and that affection suffuses the passages of urban description. Plotwise it's nominally a spy thriller – well, actually a spy farce, the sort of thing that got filmed so delightfully in all those Peter Sellers movies of the day. The protagonist is Jerry Cornell, who is a kind of down-at-the-heels, bourgeois version of Jerry Cornelius; he's working, improbably, for the British secret service. The novel has him revisiting the bosom of his disgusting Cockney family (rather more outrageously gross than the other Jerry C's), falling into bed with a shy receptionist and a Mata Hari-like femme fatale, and blundering his way thru a highly improbable comedy of mistaken identities, stolen secret documents, and time-bombs.

A bit of literary popcorn, in the final analysis – but it never aspires to be anything higher than light entertainment, and that's sometimes refreshing from a writer who can get all too "heavy" when he furrows his brow and becomes serious.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

expanding the base

So I've been thinking about my own "knowledge base," a concept I've borrowed & modified from Jonathan Mayhew's very useful idea of the "scholarly base." There's this stack of poets whose work I know very well indeed, whom I've studied and studied hard, whose work I've read pretty much from one end to the other: LZ, Ronald Johnson, Milton, Niedecker, WCW, John Matthias, etc. And there's a somewhat larger group of poets whose work I've read in its entirely, but of whom I have a somewhat more casual grasp: John Peck, Michael Palmer, Moore, Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe, Creeley, etc.

And then there's the contemporaries. There are probably a half dozen poets whose every work I'll buy; and there are probably twenty or thirty poets whose book I'll pick up in the second-hand shop on the strength of their name alone. I've got lots of books of poetry waiting to be read: every year I seem to discover between twenty and forty new poets.

I've got a hankering, however, to get to grips with some contemporaries on a deeper level. To that end, I posted on Facebook this morning the following: "Looking for a new focus: who's the one poet -- between 30 & 50 -- besides yourself -- whom you think I ought to immerse myself in?" I got a bunch of responses, and here's the list:
Noah Eli Gordon
Graham Foust
Michael Cross
Elizabeth Treadwell
Jena Osman
Stacy Kidd
Peter O'Leary
Joshua Harmon
Gabrielle Calvocoressi
GC Waldrep
Harold Schweizer
Andrea Brady
Keston Sutherland
Dan Beachy-Quick
Joanna Klink
Nate Klug
Austin Smith
Michael Robbins
Ange Mlinko
Kevin Prufer
Laura Kasischke
Sean Bonney
Rory Waterman
Buck Downs
Andrew Zawacki
Julie Carr
Julie Doxsee
Juliana Leslie
Joshua Corey

(Points off, Mike Theune, for not reading instructions – one poet.) 29 poets in all – with Kevin Prufer recommended twice. If nothing else, the list shows me that I'm perhaps not as out of touch as I'd feared: only maybe four of these names are entirely new to me, and I've read books by about half of them. (I seem to have actually met about 2/5 of them – which means it's a small world.) Indeed, a few of them fall into my "know pretty well" category. I think the "pick up whatever looks interesting, then read other books by the good ones" method is working out alright.

What I decided this afternoon, however, was that I would indeed work to expand my "knowledge base," but not necessarily by changing my consumption/study of 30-50-year-olds. Instead, I'd focus on a few slightly older – boomer generation, really – poets who've written both poetry and essays, and whose work has always compelled me even if I haven't given it quite the time it deserves. So one of my ancillary reading projects over the next few months will be an in-depth reading of Rachel Blau DuPlessis (whose Drafts I've followed since they started appearing, but which I've never given the kind of concentrated reading they deserve); Norma Cole, every word of whose I've read I've been compelled by, but whom I've never quite been able to see whole; and Marjorie Welish, whose work – or at least the four or five books I've read – has both sensuality and really dazzling conceptual rigor.

That should keep me off the streets for a while.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"I have wasted my life"

It's one of those lines that echo in my mind, even if I have to resort to Google to make sure that I remember its source – James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," a poem about which I remember nothing else. (I rather prefer Lorine Niedecker's "I've spent my life on nothing," from a poem which begins "What horror to awake at night.")

It's a feeling I get around this time every year, after I've turned in what Our Fair University calls the "Annual Report," in which I gather up all the things I've done over the previous year – the theses directed & served on, the classes taught along with their student evaluations, the committees reluctantly served on, and – most ominously – the things published. I always do just fine on these things: a few poems here and there (last year was a banner year – two collections of poems published, but that won't happen for another decade), a book review, a couple of essays.

But what does it add up to? I'll admit to being unhealthily obsessed with looking over the bibliographies of scholars-critics-poets, counting how many things they'd published by the time they were my age, calculating their rate of production – mostly of books. And boy mine doesn't look very impressing next to Terry E., or Marjorie P., or Norman F., or any number of others.

Over the last few, I find, my (prose) energies have gone in three directions (this is leaving aside all the work that went into The Poem of a Life, which I realize [gulp] was published a full SIX years ago): book reviews and short pieces that usually began as conference papers; large-scale literary-historical articles for Cambridge Companions and suchlike volumes; and rangy multiple-book-topic review essays for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Now things in the first category obviously are publications, but they aren't publications that add up to much. Things in the second category, as useful as they may be – and some of the things I've done for such volumes are to my mind quite good indeed – can't really be reused for my own books because of copyright restraints: Cambridge, Oxford, Blackwell, etc. make you sign away your reprint rights.

Then there's the Parnassus pieces. I'm terrifically proud of them: I've written on everyone from Guy Davenport to Anne Carson to Ron Johnson and Rae Armantrout, and in every case Herb Leibowitz and Ben Downing's ferocious line-editing has pulled my prose to levels of smartness and readability that I didn't know I could attain. The problem is that the resulting pieces are rather in-betwixt-and-between: they're all on fairly hipster poets, but they're written for a "general audience," whoever that might be – not a scholarly readership, or a band of ferocious partisans. Clearly, this probably isn't a book that an academic press is going to snap up. But on the other hand, the very obscurity of most of the folks I write about (when have you ever seen anything about Ted Enslin in a journal of more than 750 copies circulation?) is likely to make this collection a losing proposition for an independent.

So I've got 95,000 words of essays, reviews, and essay-reviews on my hands (mind you, that's only about half of what I culled thru), a title, and the beginnings of a lively introduction. All I need (sigh, and that's what we all need) is a publisher.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


So I'm feeling a bit more sanguine about the fantasy/sf conference, which is coming up next week. I finished (a draft of) my paper, and managed somehow to steer myself into something I know pretty well – high modernism, that is – by the end. The thing is probably short on theory – lamentably short on theory – the only really theoretical moment is some ideas lifted from one of Samuel Delany's essays from ages & ages ago – but I'm hoping it's ballasted enough with careful close readings & bibliographical observations that that doesn't really matter. And I've talked to some colleagues who are pretty deeply into this scene in a professional way, & they tell me it's a good conference: plenty of intellectual rigor if you look for it, but the old pros aren't totally sadistic assholes to us newbies. I might be singing a different tune in a week's time; we'll see.

I'm continuing to read Ruskin, or at least around Ruskin. A hole seems to have formed in my life since I finished the Library Edition some weeks ago, and I've been trying to block it by reading ancillary texts, some of the many volumes of Ruskin letters I've accumulated. Fascinating stuff, for the most part, tho lots of thank-you notes and scheduling dithering as well. 

We exhausted ourselves last weekend by taking the girls to Orlando & doing a pair of Disney parks. The less said about that perhaps the better.

Tonight I went to see Salome at the Palm Beach Opera. A decent performance, but no better than decent. The orchestra at least was excellent, which made up for many deficiencies; I'm very fond of Strauss, and this is one of my favorite operas. The magnificent Denyse Graves, playing Herodias, had some hip emergency right before the opening; she sang her part in full costume in a wheelchair downstage right, while an actress in a very modern sheath dress mimed her part among the other actors. It was one of the strangest things I've ever seen. Erika Sunnegardh  played Salome as a perverse 14-year-old, which makes a certain amount of sense; she's the only Salome I've seen who could dance a lick.

Alas, the audience.... Opening night, but the hall was only half full. It's odd to sit among such well-heeled folks, shelling out real money for tickets, who seemed so innocent of the classical repertoire. Murmurs around me: Is she really going to take off her clothes? Will she kiss him? And afterward: "Well, I didn't expect that!" "That was a strange one, wasn't it?"

I shouldn't rag on the poor snowbirds. They want their culture, after all. And the funniest such moment I can remember was actually on Broadway, at the end of Janet McTeer's stunning rendention of Nora in Doll's House maybe 12 or 13 years ago. Nora has left her husband, has gone "downstairs"; Thorvald is brooding alone on stage, hoping she'll return. And then, as the play's final moment, you hear a resounding door-slam. From in front of me, a quavering voice wonders, "What happened? Did she shoot herself?"

Friday, March 08, 2013

comfort zone

[MS at the Florida Renaissance Festival, photo by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald]

Okay, perhaps you wonder whether the fellow in the photo above is ever outside of his comfort zone. You'd be surprised – this was taken at the Renaissance Festival, where it's perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to put on a top hat, a figured waistcoat, and a set of home made goggles and to get one's steampunk on. When it comes to intellectual pursuits, however, I'm acutely aware when I've ventured beyond my areas of "expertise," or at least the places where I'm comfortable.

Two short narratives about what I'm getting at: 1) Last year I went to the Blackfriars Conference, which mainly centers around Shakespeare and performance. I'd submitted a paper on The Tempest as adapted by Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books) and Michael Nyman (Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs). My basic thesis was that as much as I enjoyed Greenaway's film & Nyman's composition (opera? oratorio?), they were both in one sense failures in that their effect was to empty Shax's play of agency, of character, & recast a polyvocal original into a particular sort of British postmodern monologue. In the commenting process of the conference, I got my butt kicked in a particularly stinging manner, mostly over my general ineptitude when talking about music. I'd overlooked a number of details about Nyman's soundtrack for the Prospero's Books, and I was deploying a lamentably impoverished vocabulary for musical commentary. When I wrote the paper, I felt I was venturing outside of my comfort zone, & I ended up regretting it.

2) Last month at the Louisville conference on 20th- & 21st-c. culture, I attended a two-person panel in which the clear star attraction was Full Professor X, an old chum of mine delivering another delightful installment of his ongoing commentary on Obscure Avant-Gardist Y. A splendid talk, veering between close reading, textual history, and sociological locating. The other guy Professor X's was Professor Z, whose only bespoke audience (alas) was his partner; everyone else was there to hear X. Z talked about his subject – let's call it "an American poetic genre" – in terms that showed he was entirely ignorant of what the modernists had done with that genre, and what the Language Poets had done, and what any number of interesting contemporaries had done. I'm happy to say that no-one handed him his teeth in the q&a session, but there were any number of cutting comments passed back & forth in the hall afterward. Me, I sat squirming with discomfort for the poor gent.

All of this is by way of saying that I'm off in two weeks time for ICFA – that's the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts – in Orlando, to deliver my very first paper on a science fiction/fantasy subject. This is a BIG conference – hundreds and hundreds of papers; very big names in the field, both in terms of writers and of scholars; people in from all corners of the globe. And I'm scared stiff.

Sure, I've been reading fantasy and SF as long as I've been reading, and I think I've been reading it fairly critically & carefully over the last few years. But this is my first venture into talking about it in an academic context, & I'm acutely aware of how little I really know about this field and its critical discourse. No way I can pull this off by putting on a steampunk hat and showing what an enthusiastic fanboy I can be.

It's probably a good thing to begin making steps outside of one's comfort zone, early or late. I'll let you know when I'm on the verge of attempting my first Victorianist conference.