Long poems last for a long time

Lately, poetry is all coming in floaty long phrases. It’s all endless stretching introductions full of commas. I think it’s because I’m in a beginning, and don’t have the clarity to send down a full stop sort of root into where I’m going with the language and ideas. I need a whole day to travel and think very thinkily, to figure that out. The ocean is often too distracting. I write poetry best when I’m pulled over by the side of the road, after having thought out phrases and rhythm and a holistic vision in my head to the sound of the highway.

I worked more on the very long Homeric Hymn that has been around for a couple of years. Its first part is good, and I can see the 2nd and 3rd bits aren’t going to match it no matter how long I wait for lightning to strike 3 times. That’s okay. I can detach from the desire for it to all be as good as the best bit. There, the long unhinging of the first section rambles into personal memory. I can’t match Steve Arntsen’s sustained visions, often 20 minutes of digression and glory.

That might be true for the new long poems, that they will be a little bit about personal memory. There is one about the moon landing and another about spaceflight and mistakes; another called Information Manifesto that makes me especially happy. The other thing holding me back is that I can’t quite figure out where they go in relation to others; are they part of Mother Frankenstein or are they something else and something new? That can be such an illusion, as so many people’s careful arrangement of poems into books is pointless. It’s only worth it to care if there is driving unity behind it and not just “the poems that i wrote sort of together in time.” Meanwhile, the manuscript of artless is just sitting around. At this point, fuck it, I thought I’d put out a tiny book at a time, like Woodbird Jazzophone, keep Tollbooth Press alive, and fuck the idea of books. Of all of it, artless is the only one important to keep together bookishly, because it is a deliberate series and I thought it out as one thing with structure.

I hauled out my Alta booklets lately and went looking online for another that I had seen in the New York Poetry House library – and found it. I have always liked the stolid bulldozer of her in Burn This Memorize Yourself. And I got a new Maureen Owen book and again pulled out old ones (as I have rearranged my library and excavated through piles and piles of books, weeding and shelving and shedding an entire piano’s worth of worthlessness, to make room for Oblomovka). Lucky find, and lucky remembrance, also from my trip to New York last year with its unsatisfactory visit to the Bowery Poetry Club — but there, in a lonely shelf of used books that were utter crap that I laughed at with qatipay by my side, I found Untapped Maps and was riveted to the spot till I had finished the book (with some sort of Erotic Poetry Happening happening all around me). Reading Owen was horrifying because until then I felt pleasantly maverick. I read AE later and realized so many things in common, leaps of thought and language in parallel, similar tracks. The relationship built across time and unreality! So that’s horrifying, understand, yet beautiful and made me cry with happiness because I feel less alone (as a poet). The beautiful similarities to the long and short airy eddies from Elvira Hernandez — I would like to send Owen my translations — and then spinning off into curls of density — and then her moments of solidness ringing true as, say, Piercy’s don’t for me. The thought that I might be thought to copy her upsets me. At least it is better than people drivelling about “the female Ginsberg” not that I don’t love it but WTF… as if.

But that moment holding the battered 20 year old copy of Untapped Maps in my hands was beautiful also if you think of all the small books that are to some extent neglected and you might think what’s the point, or where do they go, or are they dead. No! They might be lighthouses in the fog, and a distant in time person will hold them and cry a little with relief that not all poetry is damned boringly all the same as all the other poetry of its time. As I felt with some of the issues of Alcatraz and especially Wanda Coleman’s stuff in there. Think of the mountain, the dead weight, of awfully dull magazines! Think how nice it will be when some future poet-eating woman cradles your quite unexpectedly excellent little book in her hands. Send out those time travellers!

I do think of Greg Hall and how much he would (and might already) dig this crazy chick, certain phrases in particular are very Dirty Greggie, and I want to call him up and get back in touch and send him a xeroxed sheaf with coffee cup stains added accidentally on purpose.

Meanwhile! I’m very excited that a friend introduced me to Maureen Alsop, another translator of Juana de Ibarbourou! I have around 100 poems of Ibarbourou’s, translated in varying degrees of done-ness. Maureen and I had both tackled the Diaria de una isleña, a long prose poem in umpteen sections; one of Ibarbourou’s later works, I think from 1968 or 1969. The arc of Ibarbourou’s writing over her lifetime went from those pantheic exultations, almost-sonnety droplets published in 1919, to her sonnets on Biblical characters, and prayers of the 30s as if to atone; to forays into the surreal in the 40s and 50s, and then grey complex elegies, mad-eyed and Norn-like, in the 1960s and 1970s. Maureen’s and my separate translations of Diary of an Islander felt complementary, and I hope we carry out our collaboration by the sea, and merge versions over endless cups of strong tea and the solace of knowing someone else has loved and inhabited the words we’ve loved by the act of translation.

That’s what’s going on with my poetry and translations; it’s been a while since I’ve said. The translations of some of Carmen Berenguer’s poems from A media asta aren’t out yet; publishing is always slow; maybe the magazine‘s in difficulty? Maybe the difficult typography of that flag poem broke their souls! I hope it comes out soon. No one took my translations of Nestor Perlongher; so again, screw it, I’ll publish them myself in little booklets; I know they’re good and compelling and there is no magic validation needed of some other half-assed clique to rubberstamp it good. Get it out into the world and move on.

Related posts:

Protector of the Small

Here’s some small and beautiful books that I have around the house:

This Is Important by F.A. Nettelbeck.
Half a sheet of letter paper, xeroxed, cut the long way and folded accordion-style. Tiny poems.

WHEN

you travel for
a distance and you
don’t see any bones,
you worry, because
then you are lost.

Okay, not my favorite poem in the world, but I like the idea of these little scraps floating around the world! Nettlebeck’s work is often amazing. This Is Important looks to have come from the 80s in Santa Cruz. Last year I saw Nettelbeck read at Art 21 in Palo Alto – he came out from Arizona or Colorado or somewhere on a visit – and he blew me away. It was like a scruffy, stinking, roaring tiger at a Persian cat show. He came complete with drunken shit-kicker girlfriend who heckled everyone and asked them if they were dead. (As it is generally a lovely yet WASPy crowd, quiet and solemn as church.) Meanwhile Nettelbeck was ranting from his novel with sort of time travelling scungy teenagers and reminiscings of the 70s Santa Cruz poetry scene and the bones of Ginsberg. There is something to ephemeral slips of paper and to experiences like that mad, mad reading in the art gallery!

Inevitable – writings by Sabrina C.
Letter paper, halved the short way, folded, and stapled on the short edge handout not booklet style, xerox.

Roller blade fire mama, spandex short and legs hard with gleaming muscle, the shine shifting, blinding ants for a second…

Sabrina tries hard to capture each moment, each person passed in the street, the blinding sweat rollerblade beauty and the “lonely aluminum wolves”, “how they cross and uncross streets in nervous jittered unlacings”. Strong fierce lovely poems… I like the roughness of the work and of the book. My favorite of her poems I’ve seen so far is the long one in Inevitable that starts:

Now the key has to be ready and accessible between fingers three and four by the time I’ve even rounded my block
right hand in my right pocket, I’ve got the lock down of my mental security in check.

She describes how she pictures the locks and the sequence of actions necessary to get into her apartment’s gates and doors; in the middle of the imagining and unlocking, she describes her enemy. It’s eerie for me to read, as I also wrote a long poem about this very thing.

I know the way they look in the sun
their eyes downcast and watching
their sideways following heet whispers as they warm you up for their licking shadows

I know the way that they plan their sentences to follow my passing like a scent
and their lingering desires that catch me like ghosts of stink perfume

I know the rooms they live in
boxes of heated sheets
stained with the imprints of their turning night bodies
their hands praying to crucifixes
while creating the beads of rosaries
in cream and liquid testimonies of faith

they are praying to something they will never get
and though I am nameless, I am it

That’s quite powerful. Do you see the roughness, but the power of the roughness? I think the power would disappear if smoothed. I saw John Lee Hooker play once, and it was like that, rough, smoky, crackling, noisy, with extra bits. It had noise in the signal.

Nonce by Cid Corman.
Small and thin. Japanese striped paper jacket. printed & stapled, 1965. 500 copies printed. The jacket goes over the staples to hide them.

As the sun
lights mountains
the child’s hand

lifts to its
grandmother’s
thoughtlessly.

I’m on a roll with the poems about babies and sunbeams.

Thunder
shower! As
if I couldnt
go out,
if I wished!

Aw yeah. Should tattoo that on myself, for when the revolution comes. Why wait for the revolution? It’s a good motto anytime. Thunder shower! Hah! It expresses such affection and boldness, an intimate relationship with the world. Like he’s saying, “Oh, you!” and patting the storm on its head. Or anything that makes a Big Noise to scare you. You don’t have to be scared – says Cid. And it’s conveyed in so few words! Go ahead and try to do that.

I’m a sucker for this poem:

Someone will
sweep the fallen
petals away

away. I know,
I know. Weight of
red shadows.

I feel oldfashioned for liking Corman so much. I’m not sure how much of my liking is in the poems and how much is in his little books and his philosophies. I’m sad that he died a couple of years ago and I didn’t even know. We were writing letters for a while, and he gave me permission to reprint his translation of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, a work on writers and writing.

He was the sort of person who delighted in writing to everyone, sending off little paper doves, emitting poems and interesting thoughts to anyone who might find them. Whole chunks of the letters would repeat themselves sometimes. As if he wanted to make sure it got through to someone, like repeated coded messages from a submarine… He would have had a lovely blog.

Related posts:

Cheap thrills, writing hangovers, long poems

Have you ever written – and published – a line that later gives you a hot blush of shame? For me it’s always some cheap trick of rhetoric that seemed like a good idea when it spewed off my fingertips into TexEdit, some utterly dorktastic 9th grade journalism thing, a throwaway bit of demogoguery that mixes the trite and pompous. I can think of two of them right now that I’d love, love, love, to delete from the face of the earth.

Other lines I’ve written stick in my head more pleasantly. I’m in love with them despite their technical flaws, and I don’t want to abandon their imperfections.

This happened to me today. I was driving along, thinking about poetry. A poem I wrote 10 years ago, “White Horse,” started running through my head. I haven’t thought of it or looked at it for quite a while, though I tried reading it aloud at a poetry slam in San Jose once – my first and only poetry slam, and it was the wrong kind of poem and I hadn’t memorized it.

Things bothered me about this poem: I kept plonking back and forth between prosy explaining-language that embarrasses me, like:

her children fight, complain, scream,
her mother and sisters bicker
far into the night, chainsmoking,

and dense stuff that I approve of still, like:

Resignation bright as a trumpet, victim-shiny,

It became completely obvious to me how I wanted to fix the poem and save it from my own clumsiness. Because it’s good, really, especially the very end:

Your hands, Diana, pull the life
from his warm animal eyes, his skin
collapses, the bones protruding
unwind, unwrap themselves into crackling
mummy bandages, deeds to property, car
registrations, proof of insurance, diplomas,
credit reports, all fluttering up and around your hands
like paper doves, and the moon dissolves into its own
beams. My wet puddle self is drawn up in the same
life-line, into the horse’s skin, which,
reanimate, boneless, sways to accept her weight,
all fluid and alert, and we are together
rollicking off into the moonless night.

“Off into” bothers me, and yet I don’t want to abandon it, for its trueness to my own speech patterns and for its rhythm and emphasis.

There’s other poems I know I can’t rewrite. I have to start over, and start somewhere else.

At that time 10 years ago my poetics were focused around narrative movement. I wanted each poem, without being prose, to have something happen. The mood and images had to be in a story, and that story had to be something beyond “Oooo, look, I just had a vague epiphany.” I wrestled with that one for a while.

But later, I spouted off thusly, in one of my “Hot Air” essays. I think this one was in Caesura magazine:

Poetry swirls and leaps and turns in on itself. It should be dense, rich, layered. Dense poetry rewards study and thought. It should not pace – not even long narrative poetry. It changes state. It boils and sublimates.

A prose poem is something different; a vignette, or a collage, not an excerpt from a novel.

Look at the poem. If it can be written out as a paragraph – with a paragraph’s pacing and sensibility – then make it so.

(You see what I mean about my tendency to bombast… But I was trying to say something steely-eyed about Bad Poetry, without citing any actual examples of bad poetry, those ones I’d been hearing that were driving me crazy…)

And then suddenly I moved on to writing very long poems, listening to the structure of long poems. I love how certain poems move in and out of a subject, returning to touch base and then spinning out into the distance, never quite letting you go – but you have to pay attention! But no, actually, you don’t. The long poem allows space for spacing out. You can listen to it, and as in listening to baroque music, your mind can spin out into some fascinating direction and then be reeled or yanked back in, back into the present of the poet’s voice. At readings at Waverley Writers, and then later at Art21, and the Saturday Poets, I heard Steve Arntson recite his long, long poems about the coast of Oregon and Kirk and Spock and the Wizard of Oz, and immediately classed him with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Grahn, in his mastery of the form of the long poem. It was instructive for me. I have his CD, “Poem Dreams with Imaginary Companions” and another huge audio tape with the oregon poems.

At the time I was translating a poem that takes 20 minutes to read aloud, that is all in rhymed couplets and mean to be sung: “Florentino y el Diablo.” Now, I am translating Nestor Perlongher’s long poem “Cadáveres”, which spins off in baroque fashion and “yanks” you back with repetition. Each verse – and the lengths and rhythms vary – ends with the words, “Hay Cadáveres”. In a way I felt… Oh, this is so rude … but I’m a snob and I love the clusterfuck density of Perlongher’s shorter, more cryptic poems where many things happen at once, like a 10-dimensional cryptogram, and I remember first reading “Cadáveres” and thinking “Ha. That’s a cheap trick. Here’s his popular poem.” But really I love that poem.

Believe it or not, I have a point I’m winding up to make. Recently I was talking to someone, I think Serene who does the Nomad Cafe reading series, about our love of “that 70s thing” that is sort of like beat poets, or like the next generation of poets who obviously love the beats but who are not quite beats, and we think of ourselves as continuing in that vein. I am about ready to declare that whole Thing to be part of what Cuban and Argentinian critics call the neobarroque. At some point last year, Hilary Kaplan turned me on to her translation of Alexei Bueno‘s amazing long poem, “The Decomposition of Johann Sebastian Bach”, so there’s a Brazilian neobarroco writer for you…. Once I started reading about neobarroco, I realized that’s what I’m doing. For a year I’ve been thinking of my own poetics as part of the neobaroque, but it’s been a private process of consideration. I should write this up more thoroughly, with examples.

It is like the beautiful moment during Quetzalcoatl’s version of “El Gabán y el gavilán” where the song is interrupted by the harp spiralling off into something hesitant, like a haze of a chain of thought that’s almost broken…

Anyway, I really hate it when people call me a language poet. I’m a neobaroque poet. And in the best of my nascent traditions, I will promise to write about all this tomorrow. Then tomorrow, I’ll have a new and shinier thought.

I will also promise to discuss Steve Arntson’s work in detail. It’s astonishing to me when I’m in a room full of people who seem not to realize that whenever he reads it’s a Momentous Occasion. If I ever help to get his poems published or collected or recorded I will be very, very happy. The world is missing out and I can’t stand for his work to disappear into the fog of memory.

Related posts:

Fear of disillusion; a point to poetry

I felt a moment’s temptation to try and go see Mary Oliver. But what if she’s a twit? It was rather upsetting when I went to hear Margaret Atwood, though we’re all ambivalent about her these days for being a snotwad about science fiction some of the time, I still have my admirations… and she was cool, but came off as oddly stuckup for someone who is so boasty about growing up in the backwoods.

Anyway I have this nightmare-universe vision suddenly of Oliver being so eastcoast and upperclass that I will want to scream no matter how much i like her poetry. It’s so unfair to say this; I know nothing about her!

Considering imitations. People who try to write like Oliver, they bother me more than people who try to write like Ginsberg. Why is that? Certain literary styles that are good in the original but when the emulators spring up, it makes it all seem cheap.

And I imitate her too including the yuppie moments of aetheticization and thoreau-like musing combined and the neat little wrap-up at the end. Sometimes I write that kind of poem and then I’m disgusted with myself. And then i know someone will publish it somewhere because it is easy to grok. It’s simple and digestible. And then I feel dirty, a lowdown rotten dirty liar, because my moment of aestheticizing nature is essentially false given the way I live, in an urban/suburban environment, so that it’s like this blinder-vision where I’m staring as if hypnotized at a tree or an acorn or a star, when all around me are streets and houses, bags of cheetos, paperclips, trashcans, dinner tables, people going to work. If I were actually living out in the woods like Thoreau it would seem more intellectually honest to write about the tree like it were the most important thing in my world. (Though I read all about how Thoreau’s mom or aunt or someone would come and clean his house and bring him his dinner so he could loll about the trails gazing at groundhogs — so he’s rather bogus himself.)

This is not at all a new thought for me; I became obsessed with it when I was about 16 and I set out to try to aestheticize everything and ended up with a lot of that sort of poetry that exalts paperclips and trashcans to positions of tawdry glory. At that age I was filled with a lot of wild determinations like, “I’m going to combine Art and Science in a way heretofore never seen in the history of the entire world!

And later I tried to feel a spiritual & poetic bond while musing on the nature of the artificial, the spirit of manufactured objects and mass production. I can get in that mode where an empty milk carton is a tragic miracle! The effort required to make it, its moldedness, its nearly severed connection with the things used to make it and with people. But central nature-y things come up, or one is just too conditioned to go around “feeling poetic” when the moon is up, or when gazing at the ocean with no pressure to go anywhere, and the moon and stars become poetic archetypes, part of a pantheon of symbology, and the trashcans, paperclips, urbanness, etc. are harder to internalize. And then one doubts completely whether the aestheticization of everything is a good idea at all! If we accept that poetic musing as part of the process of art or the point of art, then we’re lost to poltitical awareness.

So, back to the small precious illusions about other poets: Part of the reason I can believe in Marge Piercy’s poems is that I believe in the picture of her I have constructed, that she spends a lot of time in her garden, that she has a huge real-life commitment to composting her lettuce beds. I imagine her recycling everything, and wearing only all-cotton tunic-dresses made by non-sweatshop labor, and you know, the salty Cape Cod wind blowing in her hair. And it kinda ruins it when I imagine her going to K-mart and buying some socks, tampax, and a bag of cheetos and going home to eat the cheetos, grumpily pop some Midol, and watch Tivo-ed episode of “Cops” until she falls asleep in front of the TV, even though surely that or its Marge Piercy equivalent must happen. How unfair that my romantic myth of the poet should interfere with the poetry itself! And that the poetry should construct this unrealistic wind-blown portrait of the poet! Is that really necessary? I don’t think it’s right!

At poetry readings, part of what we like about them as poets — I’m thinking of Waverley Writers here, or some other small “page poet” readings around the Bay Area — is that we see evidence of other people who seem like regular cheeto-consuming people, confessing to those moments of tender aestheticization, of romanticizing some aspect of the world. And that makes them vulnerable, I think, and we mutually recognize the vulnerability of “being like that” and walking around in a sort of fog where we attach our attention to some object– or situation –and stuff all this meaning into it. We’re a little embarrassed. And yet we love it – and admire it when other people do it, no matter how it may seem to the rest of the world like pointless navel-gazing wankery.

Related posts: