Making lists and breaking aesthetics

Marilyn Hacker said on the WOMPO Women’s Poetry mailing list recently:

If, as feminists,we can’t discuss racism openly, if not “comfortably,”
then what did all the feminist writers who were discussing it in the 70s ,
and those doing so now –Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toi
Derricotte, Alicia Ostriker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo,
Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Alexander, Jane Cooper, Rita Dove, Irena Klepfisz,
Alison Joseph, Jan Clausen, among others — — accomplish ? There
are a lot more African American poets, Asian American poets, poets of
color, published now, enough of them that they don’t have to conform to
any kind of mold or expectation , political or formal — and yet that
change doesn’t seem to have changed the consciousness of many women whom
I’d have expected to have READ those poets and thought about what they’d
read.

Yes, exactly!

I note that it is important to go on making lists like this and telling people what to read. Lists of names make paths and entryways for people who need the guidance. As readers, we can’t rely on any sort of established power structure to represent diversity.

I also note that reading widely with an open mind needs to come first. THEN break and re-form your aesthetics and your poetics. In other words, upper class white people with the education that goes with it can’t impose the aesthetics they’ve developed from that background onto what they read from who are not just like them Keeping your tired old privileged aesthetic is like saying that beautiful meaningful things can only be built with legos. Maybe Legos made of gold, but still — so limited!

*** A rant I’ve been wanting to make for a long time***

I’m thinking of a particular incident with a person who happens to be quite powerful at the moment. I’ll call him Mr. Darcy. A few years ago, Darcy was just on the cusp of coming into that powerful position. I was tagging along to an event with my friend Martin, a poet and translator. Darcy, Martin, and I ended up hanging out over coffee. I didn’t register on Darcy’s radar as a person… a mohawked callow youth, perhaps Martin’s unaccountably freakish girl-of-the-minute.

And Darcy proceded to trash and eviscerate the idea of multiculturalism and political correctness. “Yeah, I make my anthologies and put in the really good poets, and then have to throw in some crappy PC person, and be all multicultural…” He spoke the names of some people of color with venomous bitterness and derision. I began to speak up to say that if he didn’t like those particular writers, he should look further into the latino, black, vietnamese communities to find ones that he did like, because the ones he was referring to weren’t necessarily the best by my judgement either… When I said this, it was as if a dog had spoken, an unexpected miracle. I talked about some ideas of poetry-of-inner-city communities poetry in public places, at bus stops, etc. And he got mad, saying that what people needed was to learn about real poetry, like Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, and only the classics of American poetry should go up at those bus stops to force “real culture” on “those people”. He said the same sorts of things about modern women poets, including dissing on “confessional” “disgusting” “PC” women. (Who should also get a forced dose of Dickinson; almost enough to make one hate Dickinson… almost…)

I was shocked that Darcy would be so open about his bigotry — to someone like me, someone who clearly did not agree with him — He assumed, maybe, that I was a person it was safe to be bigoted in front of — that I would be complicit, even after I spoke up and argued with him. That purple mohawk radical feminist or not, I could be ignored or co-opted.

I am now grateful for this moment of my own invisibility on Darcy’s power-map. From his dismissal of my importance, his figuring that I didn’t matter, and his willingness to expose his own “pride and prejudice” in front of me, I learned some crucial and ugly things. I studied his anthologies to see the “presentable” face of racism and privilege, now armed with the knowledge of its unguarded scorn. Darcy’s anthologies never picked the poets of color who had been around, who were part of a tradition. Instead they would pick a short inferior work by someone very recent, the youngest person possible… Darcy behaved as if he could safely assume there were no traditions, no leaders, no communities, but only isolated examples he could safely tokenize and encapsulate… in short he only saw mediocrity in work by people of color or women, because he didn’t look deep…and then he actively promoted that vision of their mediocrity. This kind of tokenism harms everyone. I look back into anthologies all through the 19th and 20th centuries, and see the same pattern.

I still have trouble believing the depth of Darcy’s ignorance or his active malice, whichever was foremost in the operation of his racist, sexist aesthetics.

When Ran's daughters meet

Oh happy synchronicity! I opened my juicy new “Poesía moderna en Cuba” and right smack in Juana Borrero’s short bio:

Debido a esta doble cualidad de pintora y escritora, y la pintura, y a la precocidad de su geniio, Julián del Casal la compara con la fascinadora María Bashkirseff, cuyas analogías se acentuan despueés con la muerte temprana de nuestra poetisa.

My sister just gave me a ratty old volume of Marie Bashkirseff’s journals (translated) which I devoured whole… Of course, I love to make the connections of who knew of whom and of course it makes sense that Borrero and her sisters would have known about Bashkirseff. And Bashkirseff wrote about Madame de Stael and George Sand, and other women who were inspirations for her. There was a hilarious day when she made her bumptious country cousin from Russia, who was in love with her, read Corrine… as if to say “And if you can take that, you might begin to understand the tiniest part of my little fingernail…”

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the volume “Grupo de familia”, which collected work by several of the Borrero sisters, edited by Aurelia Castillo. I translated a few of Juana B.’s poems, and some of Aurelia’s, and I’m reading some of Dulce María Borrero’s. Others by Mercedes Matamoros, Nieves Xenes, and another Xenes sister make it clear that their poetic circle was not always focused on Julian de Casal as its center. The women read each other and wrote poems to each other. They read work by women from other countries and times. It seems important to say this, because most of the critical writing, the short bios, and the prefaces of anthologies, speaks as if de Casal was The Influence on everyone of that circle.

how long it takes to make connections

I was coalescing vaguely this morning about the length of time in a woman’s life that it takes her to make connections with other women. Because of the ways tokenism works, if you’re sort of “successful” in the male-dominated world then you’re cut off in some ways… the isolations of nuclear families also factor in…

So I notice in feminist utopian fiction the women hit a point later in life where they start connecting. They get into the secret menopause club and all talk to each other. Like in Suzette Haden Elgin’s “Native Tongue”. I could make lists of books that show this pattern.

Maybe that’s what blogs and the net are changing. We find each other earlier in life. We get reinforcement and like-minded ideas, we can go further in thought because we don’t have to keep starting from the beginning in our explanations.

Gender and genre

As I continue reading Latin American literary criticism from the 20s and 30s onward, I keep noticing that critics often decide that women poets missed the genre bus. A critic will launch into a discussion of modernismo, and then mention at the end of the chapter that some women were writing, but they are really Romanticists who came to the party years too late. That in 1910, no respectable poet would still be writing in a Romanticist tradition; poetry has evolved beyond that. And then later, that in 1930, no respectable poet would still be writing in a modernismo tradition, because now the new thing is different.

As if only one genre could exist at a time, and as if there were a model of evolutionary progress. Literary Darwinism. And as if there weren’t fuzzy boundaries, as if even a single poem didn’t have multiple traditions feeding it – not to mention the entire body of work of a poet who might write in many genres, many styles.

But then, in a strange twist; the same critics lament that there was never a great woman Romanticist poet, never a real one who was Romanticist to the core; never a true poet of modernimso.

I see the same thing in science fiction. Oh, it’s too bad women don’t really fit “the genre” — don’t write “hard sf”. (Despite all the ones who did, and still do.) But then when they do… Well, of course when women start doing it, they’ve missed the bus; they’re out of date, they’re stuck in the past, they’re no longer the cutting edge. We men have already plumbed that genre to its depths and discarded it and we have our Great examples. We’ve gone somewhere else to redefine the center of power, now that you women have come.

And I begin to believe the same is true of the “where are the masterworks” argument. (Which is now happening, heatedly, on the WOMPO list.) Where are the masterworks by women throughout history? Where is our female Dante, Homer, Shakespeare? This question always asked as if there could be no possible answer except pity that the terribly sexist conditions of the past precluded women ever acheiving something great. How inassailably logical! Always, we are on the cusp of Now; because of the recent advances in women’s rights and education, we might, someday, hope to acheive a masterwork; the problem is, this arguement has been around for hundreds of years at least. It’s always almost. It’s always as if the problem were new and the carrot were just out of reach. And … this is a big fat lie. And women, if you buy into that lure of Now Almost Maybe and it might be you who surfs the new thing into the open arms of important history; well you’re actually screwing over the women of the past in order to eliminate some competition, you’re elbowing other women out of the way in a roller derby you aren’t going to win, because that token position is a shaky one. Be careful what you’re buying into.

It is very instructive to look at the ratio (As Beth Miller does in her essay “El sexismo en los antologías”) of women to men in anthologies over a long time period. We need more studies like this, with charts and data analysis… To make the patterns and process more obvious to everyone.

I remain convinced that not only are the masterworks out there (one small example – I’d put the Heptameron up against Boccacio any day) but there is something wrong with you definition of masterwork if you think they aren’t.

And I’m also convinced that one solution is to redefine genres. I like my idea of maenidismo as a genre. It fits so well. Redefine and recreate genres in which women’s work is central, is the core. In science fiction, we have some of that with the push to define a canon for feminist speculative fiction. But I’d like to see more thought and discussion; more genres invented. Perhaps the beginning is to take the work by women, and put it all together, and look for patterns, create groupings, look for movements and feedback loops. Then define the genre. THEN look and see if there’s any work by men that might half-way begin to fit in that genre.

I wonder if anyone else has used this approach? Probably; but it’s a new thought to me and I’ve been developing it for many years. It goes beyond the creation of women’s anthologies and studying work by women only. Create genres and traditions, and then let in men’s work halfway, as tokens. This avoids pure separatism, and the ghettoization that seems to accompany it. Even if this doesn’t “work”, with the ripple effects of power that I’d like to see, well, then it ends up functioning like other gender identity-based efforts and anthologies; as pockets for information and women’s work to be preserved for future rediscovery by people like me, which is maybe the best we can hope for.

status report, Art 21, Waverley readings

I’ve been sandblasted by the “holidays”, with not much leisure! Writing continues, but what critical thinking still is possible has been directed towards the SF book award I’m helping to judge.

Still… poetry! I’ve found some wonderful poets to translate, including Olga Acevedo, Marí Luisa Milanés, and María Antoneta La-Quesne. I came across a really inspiring book by Catherine Davies,A Place in the Sun? Women Writers in Twentieth-Century Cuba, and ordered it for mulling-over outside of the library halls. Here it is on my kitchen table, thanks to online used-book ordering! I’m totally drooling to read the whole thing instead of just a few chapters – and want to nerve myself to write to Davies.

It’s hard to do that! But it helps so much. I want to be like all the women who have helped me immensely, writing me long detailed emails and directing my attention… who will never be paid for it. One thing I can do is to resolve to pass it on, and try to behave that way myself to others – to be helpful and respectful, and never obstructionist, competitive, or dismissive. (Because I’ve run into that attitude too, of course!) Also, I want to make my work the best it can be…

But onwards! Tomorrow, Friday at 7pm, is the Waverly Writers open mike at Friends Meeting House, Colorado, Palo Alto. It’s usually 25-30+ poets, each reading one poem, to a group of perhaps 50 people. It’s a good slice of poetry in the peninsula, but I would say it leans heavily towards the white page-poet… I have yet to untangle who is in whose factions or has been in the same workshop for decades or who shared a poetry mentor 15 years ago, etc. All of which is interesting politics that seethes below the surface. I take notes on the poetry, and have great interest in following the poets’ development over the last few years. And don’t let my comment on “politics” scare you, because it’s a warm and welcoming group, very accepting of personal difference and of varying poetic styles.

Next Friday, Jan. 13th, is the reading at the Art21 gallery in Palo Alto. Its crowd intersects with Waverley’s but is not identical. This reading tends to be 30-ish people; the gallery is spacious and pleasant; there’s often jazz musicians who participate; they’re a fun, friendly crowd who buy books and bring wine and cheese to share (both of those things, the book-buying and the food, make one feel so loved! Not to be sneezed at!) I like to read translations there. Well, this month I’m the MC and organizer. Our featured poet is Serene, who I met at the Nomad Cafe in Oakland; I liked her rapid-reading approach and the books she quoted (I mean, who reads the feminist poet Alta, these days! I do! Me, me! and her too, huzzah!) I felt that her poetry would appeal to the peninsula poets and might shake them up a little bit. I also asked a few others… but it’s hard to compete with events on Friday nights in SF. So I think Serene will be the sole featured poet and then a break, then a lively open mike, and I look forward to doing fun introductions for everyone.

At both readings, there’s always some people from the Poetry Center San José, some from the Saturday Poets, and some from the Not Yet Dead crowd. Sometimes people come from over the hill, from Santa Cruz, including Len Anderson, whose brilliant parody of “Howl” — “Beep”, a history of Silicon Valley and personal computing, I gave to many people for Christmas this year — and we also get a spattering of people from Stanford, though I’m always surprised who doesn’t come… *cough*Stegnerfellows*cough*. Heh! More fool them, because they could sell their books, promote their work, and be in touch with the local poets, their natural base… and as I said, the friendliest people in the world…

Fitting and not fitting

While I was doing my research I pretty much ignored Chile and in fact I have completely ignored Gabriela Mistral because I figure everyone else has written about her already, and she’s well known. Ultimately I have to go and read her poems and read something about her life – in fact, probably I’m being stupid and there’s a biography of her out there in English that would be easy for me to find, with pointers to lots of other good poets.

My poet this week has been Olga Acevedo, a Chilean born around 1895. Acevedo fits firmly with the other women I’ve been translating, all the ones who are “not quite modernists”. Well what if they’re not? Why not call them something else? Because there was definitely something. Why not call it a genre? For god’s sake.

My special favorite, Juana de Ibarbourou, doesn’t fit strict definitions of modernismo in her early work mostly because she’s not quite rigorous and formal enough. I read somewhere in an interview with her that until after her second book, she didnt’ even know what a sonnet was. She’d read plenty of them, and written them, but had never studied the rules of verse. (All the poets did not study the rules of verse, but the ladies DO roll their eyes.) She just DID it – but slightly “wrong”.

Back to Acevedo. I got very excited at her early poems. Acevedo mentions silence a lot. There’s a lot of not-speaking, and dot-dot-dot ellipses, ghosts and statues that can’t speak but who want to speak and paradoxically ARE speaking through the poem. The sort of poem that goes like this, “I’m totally mute, I’m a statue, I can’t speak! Oh, the sadness!” (Not an actual line.) It’s a beautiful rhetorical strategy that makes me aware of all the things they’re not saying. Despite my writing ALL THE TIME there is plenty I’m not saying and can’t say because of social convention or attempts to be private — and I don’t always feel comfortable with that. Show me a wall and I want to break it. Reflex! But these early 20th century women, their silent speaking statues are all talking to Rodó, in response to his essay “Ariel” in which a philosopher explains to his students (gatherred around a statue of Ariel) all about their duty as artists.

I wondered about the phrase “la tristeza de ser”, which was in quotes in Acevedo’s poem “Serenata”. Is it a quotation/translation from French? Or Kierkegaard? I could translate it as “existential despair” but I’m not sure if I want to be anachronistic if it’s an anachronism. If you’re going to say “sadness of being” you might as well say “existential despair”. Anyway, Acevedo’s angst is expressed thusly: She’s passionately addressing a ray of pure white moonlight as it streams into her room, and she wants to hide her face in its gauzy negligee and melt away into perfumed nothingness like a ravished bride. Hot stuff!

In other early poems by Acevedo, I noticed a lot of blue which is now a red flag, or really a blue flag, for me that something is going on about Art and Poetry with capital letters. Anything that’s blue, or anything about fountains or swans, and the poet is definitely talking to/about Darío and “Azul” — and so is addressing the ideas of modernismo; the poem should be read in the context of modernismo whether you “count” it or not in that genre. Pure art, inspiration, beauty — Beauty — as a way of being. These women, these adherents of maenidismo, saw themselves as living their lives as art. I feel like the more I read, the more I am in their dream-world. Edith Södergran is there — and the Comtesse de Noailles — and I’m sure so many more from other countries and languages. I want to put my Latin American women together with them in a lovely anthology, someday, to show the connections.

My own dreamworld is still this imaginary, beautiful data structure of all the texts in the world. I want it to be easy to see relationships between books. I want people to be viewable as nebulous clouds of text-production and consumption or maybe those are the wrong words; texts and people have conversations and relationships.

How much happier I am to be putting all this out into the world, instead of just in private notebooks! And not to be a lonely super-reader autodidact freak anymore. I mean, I still am, but the value of it is different once I’m not talking to the air.

Excerpts from Mitchison

I’m glued to Naomi Mitchison’s wartime diaries, in a volume called “Among You Taking Notes…” I’d read her Memoirs of a Spacewoman and Travelling Light but until the amazing feminist scholar and reader Lesley Hall mentioned Mitchison’s non-fiction and diaries, I had no idea she was a renowned autobiographer.

To me her wartime diaries read like a blog. I get that same sense of intimacy, of the fullness of someone else’s life, without much exposition. I have to work to fill in gaps and figure out who’s who. (There is a handy glossary, and the book was edited well, with footnotes interspersed.) Apparently Mitchison was part of a project called Mass-Observation, which among other things got people to keep diaries during times of social change and war. I’m very curious about this project. She refers to it sometimes as “like therapy” so I wonder what her participation was other than to write the diary and mail it off to the Mass-Obs. people? There is mention that her diaries and letters were intercepted by the Home Office as a matter of course, read, copied by hand, and pertinent facts noted. “Shall remember that anything I say may be noted. I may be able to do a certain amount that way.” To note things on purpose that local people might need in hopes that politicians might help.

She’s in her early 40s… has 4 children off at school, a houseful of evacuees and refugees, in fact responsibility on some level for a townful of them, hundreds… writing… domestic and farming arrangements… poaching fish with the poachers for fun… and she lost her newborn baby, a heart defect, very sad. Her feelings about this recorded as faithfully as any mommyblogger’s. Occasional writerly crisis and freakout over the war, like this one from 7 Aug 1941:

I do feel like hell; it is partly being tired, partly that I feel so stupid; I can’t concentrate, I forget facts, I can’t read a serious book…. I make serious blunders about this war. I don’t know anything properly. If I’m no good I may as well do manual work and wear myself out, it doesn’t matter; I wish I knew if this was age or something physical or the beginning of some kind of mental decay or what. I so much want someone to be awfully nice to me for a long time. Oh someone that I love, stand up and crown me. And I get like screaming when all these girls talk at once. How can one write when one feels like that? I can remember now the things that Denny M. said to me yesterday about writing but what the hell; he is stupider than I am, it doesn’t matter what he says. It’s no fun being merely one-eyed in the country of the blind. Damn.

From someone so literate and hard-working and politically committed, a successful novelist, poet, and renowned intellectual, whose life was so full and who lived to be a hundred and one … It means a lot to me to see her low moments. It buoys me up not because of any schadenfreude at a successful person’s moments of pain, but because I know that these moments are inevitable and I shoudl not measure my own life by its low points. I admire Naomi Mitchison for her exposure of life’s messiness and complexity.

And that line, so beautiful, “Oh someone that I love, stand up and crown me.” Her diary entries are keenly perceptive of other women’s work, of women who are trying to have jobs or be writers or to survive and care for a family and whose work never ends, never has a stopping point or a congratulation, who “spend all their time caring for and petting others and who I would dearly love to pet as they are so in need of it.” Sometime during 1941 she noted that she would like to take everyone in turn in the village — a small herring-fishery village in west Scotland — and give them a day off in bed with tea and the nicest service. She agonizes over her own luxuries… I like her immensely.

Reading her diaries makes me think of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, of course Narnia, and other childrens’ books that are steeped in 30s and 40s England and the changing times. The ways that wartime and post-war books have a lustful focus on what the children have for tea struck me as odd when I was little, until I realized there was a butter and sugar ration. And the morals of children in E. Nesbit focus around nobly helping, social levelling, and gender equity – because she was a Fabian and a socialist, a feminist and believer in free love. Like Mitchison seems to have been.

I was struck by this quote from September 1939, the start of the war:

I think one sees things more vividly, storing them up, insisting on the moment, at these times. If one is wise. During the last war, when I was a girl, I felt all the time that it was wrong ever to be happy; now I think one should be when possible. It was the kind of day one could carry into the trench or a concentration camp, in one’s mind…. We took care not to shoot the pheasants; it seems odd, when men are shooting one another in Europe, and when we may be much more directly involved in that ourselves, yet I htink it is probably a good idea to be punctilious at the moment about small and silly rules which are not part of this totalitarian plan which is eating us now.

Elsewhere she brings up the possibility that most democratic or humanist rights and freedoms, most civil liberties, will disappear during wartime; that it is in enclaves like her village with its discussion groups and Labour meetings and plays that ideas of freedom will survive. They won’t be in textbooks; newspapers were censored and suppressed. Italian, Austrian, and german immigrants and refugees were being interned in England and shipped to Canada or Australia. One ship with I think 1500 internees was sunk by a German submarine, crossing the Atlantic, full of Italians… her friend’s doctor and his wife were on that ship… It’s a good reality check to compare Mitchison’s take on WWII to the wartime we are in.

Where are the memoirs and histories now, right now, of the Muslim people being detained illegally by our own government? I hope they are on blogs and I’ll be able to find them and read them.

Mitchison often wonders about being detained or exiled or put in a concentration camp herself especially if England were invaded. I certainly think about it too for myself – the tide could turn very suddenly in the U.S. to a paranoid and totalitarian dictatorship, as our President says in public that he is above the law. How wistfully I think of Al Gore and his stiff yet heartfelt statements about “The Rule of Law” the day after the election was decided with transparent unfairness.

Genre classifications and sexism

I come up against this again and again. Critical literature focuses on defining a genre, and women end up just outside that definition. So it always looks like they just miss the boat because they’re not quite good enough. Really, though, if you look at the moments when the genre is being defined, the boundaries are arbitrary. Other genres could be declared.

I need to read more widely…

So check this out.

With respect to her poetry in particular, critics have often failed to recognize the modernity of its lyric voice on account of its traditional verse patterns. Reflecting a dual attitude of competition and cooperation with her cultural world, Noailles held a similarly double-voiced discourse toward conventional interpretations of woman. Her classification in literary history as a belated French Romantic further obfuscates the significance of her work. While recognizing her predecessors, Noailles was frequently unable to find adequate models in their works for a distinct poetic identity. In seeking new versions of the feminine self, she acknowledged women who were unable to write and, more broadly, she attempted to provide a formerly silent Muse with voice and presence. (Catherine Perry)

She’s not quite a romantic… or she’s a “late” romantic… but she’s not quite a modernista either – like de Ibarbourou, Bernal, Vaz Ferreira, Elisa Monge, Mercedes Matamoros, and so many women poets of the 1890s to the 1920s.

I’ll be looking for Perry’s book. She has more to say on her brief website on de Noailles:

A discrepancy between form and content, reflecting Noailles’ situation at the cusp of the antithetical world views of nineteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century Modernism, characterizes her poetry, where dynamic concepts and images strive to dissolve a largely classical structure. By actively engaging with her French literary heritage while finding a source of inspiration in Greek paganism and in Nietzsche’s radical thought, Noailles constructed an original poetic world view. Her work is best described as Dionysian–ecstatic, sensual, erotic, playful, sometimes violent, and always marked by a tragic undercurrent which becomes more apparent in her later poetry.

“Dionysian” describes Agustini, de Ibarbourou, Bernal, and Matamoros very well. I would prefer a different name if we are going to declare a new genre… Imagine the articles as we define Maenidic poetics and make brief offhand mention of Ruben Darío – and how he doesn’t quite fit the Genre. A pity, really, as his work contained echos of Maenidism, traces which can’t help but reflect the prevailing spirit of the time.

***
It occurs to me that I have had a giant epiphany about this, but I’m reinventing the wheel. I did a little poking around and found this excellent bibliography: Gender and Genre. My god! right up top we have “Benstock, S. (1991). Textualizing the feminine. On the limits of genre. University of Okla. Press.” Looks perfect! I’m still 15 years behind in academic literary theory. Though I think it might be more like “feminizing the textual” than “textualizing the feminine” – that’s what’s going on in a lot of the criticism I’m reading. The poets are textualizing the feminine. The critics feminize in order to denigrate and marginalize. *sigh*

A few notes from Arntson's reading and the NYDPS

I had been looking forward to this reading of Not Dead Yet Poets’ Society, and had planned for it, but my childcare options suddenly fell through on two levels. John was late, my neighbor had a complication, and so I had to stuff Milo into his raincoat, boots, whisk him off unwelcome and harried and late to the reading at the Main Street Gallery in the dimly awakening nightlife of Redwood City. Instead of composing my mind to think of my poem or even having a moment to practice I was answering questions from him about the night, the city, the gallery, Main Street, What Is an Art Gallery. Then questions about him, some from well-meaning people, some NOT. Oh, the little disapprovals and snideries! Out late, isn’t he? Is he going to be a Good Boy? You do understand that a child can be Distracting? I hope you can keep him Quiet. He knows not to touch anything, right? Rather than focus on the people I would like to talk to, I have to keep my mind focused on my son and his experience. Yes, people, I do understand that a child can be distracting. What do you think?

The temptation to answer everyone with flippant rudeness… running a spectrum from “oh, fuck off already” to “Actually, as you have correctly discerned, I am the sort of unwed teenage mother who feeds my child on diet pepsi, goldfish crackers, twinkies, and crack cocaine, and I encourage him to scream as loud as possible during poetry readings in fancy art galleries with delicate breakable Art made of glass, to express my punk rock disrespect for you and all your ilk. By the way, he has double pneumonia.” Well, I held my tongue, Milo quietly read Asterix in the corner, and John showed up just before the reading was about to start, since the rain and lack of chairs and large crowd delayed the reading for 20 minutes or so. Thank god!

Now that that’s off my chest! Whew! It’s a blog, so I get to say whatever I want!

The room was packed. Way more so than usual for the NYDPS. Really the cream of the peninsula poets came to hear and be heard. Forgive me for saying that… (Or don’t.)

Jayne Kos hosted the reading, and we kicked off with some tributes to Anatole Lubovich. Kathy St. Claire wrote in talking about Anatole’s attempt to write the shortest poem possible that would express the essence of cats: “Cat sits.” James Lee or James Li wrote in from Sacramento with a poem about stars. “Stars are maps to the soul” …that sort of thing. Bruce Jewett – who sometimes sends me poetry postcards and who used to publish small books and magazines in the.. 70s? 80s? I think the Fat Frog… talked about how Anatole was vibrant with verve but how they were oil and water.

Jayne then read parts of Arntson’s introduction. It was funny and sort of touching when in her inimitable kindergarten-teacher style she said that many things were important influence on him, including “The Burning Man” said with a strangely wrong emphasis as people normally say it with no “the” and the “ing” elided so that it’s trocheed, equal stress, BURN(uh) MAN. (Like saying “house boat” or “tow truck”. The lights went off. There were xmas lights, and EL wire in a long coiling tangle on the floor, and some zappy globes making you think of the beauty of neon in the rain. All cheesy and half-assed, but in a good way that gave us beauty and atmosphere… dislocation. Arntson in his fez and pakistani-looking tunic thing. (Salwar kameez? I can’t remember the name of it. ) A little tinsel and vaudeville. Two radios, one with swing music and one with a crackly broadcast of the Day that will live in Infamy… Fellow Americans… Pearl Harbor.. the pearl that fell into the ocean. Remarks from Arntson.

First – “She saw a ghost” which was brilliant and lovely… a somewhat halting start until he got into the swing of it. You have to rememeber he recites it all from memory and he recited for probably 40 minutes nonstop. An ode to saltines, clouds, ghosts, journeys, exhaustion physical and spiritual. His poems just keept going. You realize, “Oh. There is no reason to stop here,” and keep writing. This was one of the main head-opening lessons for me when I first started hearing Steve read at Waverley and San Jose Arts League at the minor street house. I wrote the essay “On Stopping” and began to push myself beyond – a push also helped by Diane Di Prima.

This little bit of the poem is not formatted properly. It should be rambling all over the page with a lot of white space, staggered and open-handed. Maybe I will come back later and try to do it correctly. (It’s time consuming with HTML.)

tired of all that waking state
she started to dream before she slept
And her dream was our own on the way to the lake
qualified by crackers
nourished by those same saltines
of sodium and chlorine
packed for just this occasion of reconnaissance and homelessness
So the scenery is haunted
in spite of better knowing
the night as eclipse
collapsing the sun on a diet of corn starch
seeing all the way to the stars
the last she saw before they saw HER
like rock n roll psychedelia staring back
she thought a city to have receded with all of the sun
east to westside gone
she is of the cult of the newcomer to all this terrain
including clouds
as beautiful
as the right idea at the very right time
the sky is royally appointed
therefore she things of her angels throughout the evening
and angels there may be, convening
allowed just enough substance
to startle the mortal
traveller gone crackers-giddy in the twilight

Saltines, clouds, journeys, dream and waking come together. Whiteness in want of water.

and the answer: “Pai-ute” : “water-there”
And thus a people are named
for a direction you take to slake a thirst
And now t his witching for water in the dark
Waterboarding to blue tremolo of trembling shore
so that you shudder with the cheddar
collide with nabisco, the cracker too delicate
to last the length of jolting
She studies the ghhost and ourselves
competing tangibilities
the relative corporeal
it is as if the wind had determined to be visible
beyond its agitations of botany

The deal is, you stay with it, and sometimes you can’t and you spin off into your own thoughts sparked by listening. That spacing out is okay. It takes practice to absorb and stay with a long poem. But you are reeled back in by some strand coming back. The cracker comes back and combines with cloud, or the Paiutes with water and its lack and the ghost and your attention is caught. The point of the long poem is that it is not a painting; it is a journey and you not only end up somewhere, you have travelled somewhere. Arntson’s poems are road trips of the mind. You can sit next to him in the car and enjoy the journey. You can pull off the road or space out – that’s the beauty of the trip.

He read “Wadsworth” – a long poem about an abandoned school. Beautiful!

Shark Car, which me and Rob Pesich published in the “Cuts from the Barbershop” anthology.

Synaptic Mandala – which I give a sample of here:
last bit of Synaptic Mandala: 1.6MB

And Mousetrap, to which I wondered what percent of the room got what it was about.

Well, I could go on praising his poetry and giving examples but I’d like to give that more time and energy than I have available this moment.

He passed out (free) a CD with three poems on it. Good quality recordings, but the music is intrusive and cheesy. Alas! How can this be? He’s a good musician… but must have had a blind moment or just loves his friend the cheesy-keyboard player.

To the open mike. April, Palmer Pinney with a sort of holiday poem, a couple of other people read, but
I was not fully there. I read the first bit of “The Dead Girlfriend of Novalis” not really at my best. Later Jayne pointed out that I said “amApolas” instead of “amaPOlas” … er! whoops! I think because it sounds greek. But of course she is right! Bruce read a poem. Judith B. read a long poem about acorn woodpeckers, who live communally. Mary-Marcia Casoly read a poem “stay wild” about the sky and ocean.

Then the Saturday Poets crowd, all together:
Amy McLennan … ghost ships. Lisa Ortiz read an astonishingly good poem about cookies, desire, and martinis. I have written before that she is the ultimate celebrator of profundity in the suburban mundane, distilling it beautifully… dark in your bitter parts, bitter in your dark. The fierce YES of the crinkling insomniac cookie bag. More people should listen carefully to what she is doing. Robert H. “People said he had crazy eyes…” Amy Miller – In the century where nothing happened – another brilliant poem. I have trouble reading my own handwriting but I exploded into note taking with a lot of exclamation points and little stars on the page. “They washed the murals off the walls…” Quite good. A science-fiction poet and I expect to see more of her stuff out there… I wish I had a copy of this poem.

JC Watson – “for family”. “old friendship an ancient car/something always coming loose.” As always, good. Once at a readaround we took turns reading her poems in our varying reading styles. Because sometimes her delivery style blinds you a little. It’s very powerful. But the poems can be VERY different read aloud by someone else. It was instructive. It was also cool to hear her do one of my poems HER way.

Christine Holland – a poem about a painting of native americans – history – painting – colonialism – solid. I started thinking of John McPhee. She is the John McPhee of poetry? Hmmm. I’m not sure if that would please or insult her but it’s what I was thinking and I meant it as a compliment. She paints and extends vision. David Cummings in faultless flowing rhythm – “and I think of Blake’s other law,” – really a technical master and a builder of complex thought.

Charlotte talked about Anatole, a heartfelt cascade of feelings about how he was quite amazing, cosmopolitan, cultured, bizarre and fantastic, somewhat unappreciated because he was difficult and prickly as well. A story about having dinner with him and fearing death by food poisoning because the food was in the fridge but the fridge didn’t actually function as a fridge… And he is quite stubborn and of course no way to convey to him that maybe chicken should be kept particularly cold. Charlotte really is grasping over saying something between a (self and other) reproach and a confession of love for us all as a community, that… she didn’t realize until he was gone how much she would miss him, this person almost a stranger whose work she has known for so many years, seen once, twice a month at Events… And that maybe we all are that important to each other and that is as it should be – but how to recognize it? What does it mean? That’s what I felt she was saying.

Patrick Daly – read a poem of Anatole’s. I riffled through a couple of magazines but he chose the best poem of Anatole’s from that selection ‘ “Grey Hereafter Ever After” and I did not want to read one that was an order of magnitude less interesting (all the others.) A poem castigating the “grey breath” of hedonophobes. Anatole at his best when formal and technical and exquisitely clever. I like his sonnets. I am not a neoformalist or any kind of formalist, but I enjoy formality when other people do it well, and I don’t give a rat’s ass what’s in fashion. As if we are limited by time! Bah humbug!

Steve Arntson stood up again to recite (from almost-memory) a sonnet of Substance by Anatole. “When I consider the things that swirl through space…’ …”I am amazed that I can reach this far…” Alas, I cannot memorize a poem or even write fast enough to keep up. I could have typed fast enough to capture most of it, but was not quick on the draw with the laptop.
Arntston passed out a packet of poems, some typed, some xeroxed from his manuscripts. This made me so happy! I begged him and begged him to do it! And he did, huzzah! I want everyone to appreciate his genius.

Everyone cleaned up, and left quickly… and Arntson was off to take the train to his night watchman job at a huge downtown building, a granite palace where he makes Tchaikovsky echo off the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple.

A great, memorable reading!

I always take brief notes and looking back on them can rememeber and reconstruct most of an evening. I feel self-conscious to type it up with everyone’s names… but I hope they enjoy coming across it if they do some vanity googling.

the pleasure of discernment

I can’t do justice to the great readings tonight. I’m sort of cranky from ulcers and a long, long day. So instead… you get this.

As I drove home I was stuck with the thought of how much I love judging and discernment. I can’t stop doing it. I realize it’s obnoxious and sometimes out of place or unwelcome. I get such a kick out of hearing samples of the same people’s work over time. I’m always thinking, “Ah! This is a good one! Much better than last month’s workshopped-to-death thing that had all the edges smoothed off it!” or “Hmm, this is maybe the 6th time I’ve heard this person read, and now I have a handle on Their Trip. And yet tonight is different – they’re doing something unlike what they’ve done before.” So I compare people to themselves.

And of course comparing them to each other. I put people in categories, fuzzy ones, but I know I’m still ranking, ordering, grouping, looking for connections.

Rhymed doggerel about driving to work being stuck in traffic, or angst about one’s own body fluids, or … well, imagine your personal poetic hell in this space. Gosh darn it, at least that villanelle about chopping carrots on a granite countertop while bluebirds sing in the garden and Hurricane Katrina victims are eaten by crocodiles, at least it’s the best villanelle it can possibly be. Since I don’t want to live in a state of irony and snark (as I was dipping into just now with the imaginary Katrina carrots) I try to be analytical and fair-minded instead. With critical faculties turned up past 11, I’m guaranteed some entertainment.

Unfortunately… around the poetry-reading time of night, I am usually in some sort of fairly intense physical pain. The only way to deal with that is to think as hard as possible, for distraction.

Judgement is also a defense mechanism against boredom. Because I catch on quickly and people are often stunningly predictable… I can amuse myself during moments of literary tedium by making up theories, or considering what exactly makes it tedious and wondering why it isn’t tedious to everyone or what factors people are enjoying or what it means for the person who wrote it. Value IS relative in many ways. I have to dislocate the center of my judgement in order to get to the place where I can understand that relativity and see poetry newly. Yet… some writing still sucks and is dull. To me. For my purposes. At this particular moment. Oh, I could argue all day about this!

I’m not judging every second and in fact at some point during a poem I can abandon judgement or make my decision quickly and sit back to enjoy the ride, whatever that ride is. I can stop being Elitist McSnootypants for a brief moment, but then it kicks right back in afterwards.

When something is good…I am SO happy, relieved, excited, and inspired. Like Steve Arntson’s recitations tonight… and I would especially mention the open mike readings by Lisa Ortiz, Amy Miller, David Cummings, JC Watson… others. Like I said, I will check in tomorrow and write up the reading by Arntson and others. And in the next few days I’ll talk more about Anatole’s work and the tributes to Anatole we heard tonight; I hope with examples of his poetry. Charlotte lent me some journals from 12 years ago and I look forward to reading early… or earlier… poetry by various poets I’ve been hearing around town since 2001.