31 December 2010

Favorite Things: Rich Owens


Despite the Herculean endurance of the financial meltdown, 2010 has been a remarkable year for poetry. There are two, I think, major publications that appeared this year—one that has already been widely registered as major and another that has disappointingly slipped through the cracks: the four volume Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, edited by Robert Grenier, and Dennis Tedlock’s 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. Both appear courtesy of the same university press—California—and while the Eigner has created something of a stir and been incredibly well received, Tedlock’s work—a no less exhaustive book and, in the end, the textual record of a lifetime’s intellectual and cultural labor—has gone virtually unnoticed in poetry communities. One can only hope the book, through its clear debt to a wide range of important contemporary poets, is a heavy sleeper that wakes with a roar down the road.

Toward the end of his acknowledgments Tedlock writes: “For my long association with poets and poet-translators, I have drawn energies that cannot be described in precise terms, though the transmission sometimes comes at moments of close attention to the sound or appearance of particular words and phrases. Here the ghostly figures are William Arrowsmith, Robert Creeley, Stanley Diamond, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, A.K. Ramanujan, and Armand Schwerner. Among those who speak out loud and put new lines on pages are Humberto Ak’abal, David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Donald Carne-Ross, Paul Friedrich, Susan Howe, Dell Hymes, Robert Kelly, Nathaniel Mackey, Herbert Mason, Michael McClure, W.S. Merwin, Carol Moldaw, William Mullen, Simon Ortiz, Jerome Rothenberg, Luis Enrique Sam Colop, Andrew Schelling, Gary Snyder, Arthur Sze, Nathaniel Tarn, Cecilia Vicuña and Anne Waldman. Thanks, gracias, and maltiox to all of them.”

Where else could one encounter such an internally differentiated, almost completely incompatible, constellation of poets listed outside of a Norton anthology? But for Tedlock this amazingly motley constellation of poets have fueled his work across a lifetime of study and that lifetime is encapsulated—or rigorously abstracted—in 2000 Years.

My difficulty with Eigner and Grenier—my inability to satisfyingly connect with their work—doesn’t mar my ability to see the continuity that cuts across their work (two albeit radically different bodies of poetry) over to Tedlock’s. The overdetermined and utterly inexplicable relationship between sight and sound in the work of the poet—precisely the thing Prynne takes a meaningful stab at naming in a fairly recent essay published in the Chicago Review—is always first on the menu in Eigner, Grenier and Tedlock. I mean, it’s there for all to encounter as they will. And the usefulness of Tedlock’s lifelong investigation of the Mayan lies not only in his articulation of it with poetry, but the internal construction of the Mayan writing system itself. The Mayan, like the work of Eigner or Grenier, is at once visual and syllabic—a synthetic complex of ideographic representations (the topos of the writing surface) combined with abstract representations of sound.

But we have a strange inversion here: just as Olson’s Mayan Letters resonated with poets and not formally trained Mayanists (who hated the book), Tedlock’s 2000 Years is a book that Mayanists have eagerly taken in but poets have, as yet, failed to take stock of or, as I understand it, even mention.

Others from the hip, in no particular order:
  • I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala’s Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx, forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2011. To travel in the Challenger from phenomenology to Millbank.
  • Michael Cross’ Haecceities (Cuneiform Press) is a careful and beautiful large format book long in the making and since I find writing about it here a little awkward I won’t. But I will say, if reading Eigner or Grenier offer a more responsible point of entry into Cross’ work—which I think they do—then I’ll grudgingly clamor through the otherwise unpleasurable labor of reading them. That’s the sort of book Haecceities is.
  • A book that appeared in late 2009 but has received little if any attention from poetry communities is Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic (Verso). The book is an excellent reference tool for anyone interested or invested in dialectical thinking—at the very least, the rhetorical force of the book is dangerously seductive: “Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.”
  • Brenda Ijima’s )((eco(lang)(uage(reader)) (collaboratively published by Nightboat Editions and Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs). Tyrone Williams says it best in his conversation with Iijima: “As for ecopoetics—it is a necessary adjunct to the overall critique of both late capitalism and fundamentalist Marxism.” An essential book closing with a immensely useful curriculum co-constructed by Iijima and Jonathan Skinner.
  • Andrea Brady’s Wildfire (Krupskaya). From a June 18, 2010 post at the damn the caesars blog: “Suffering is everywhere present in Wildfire and the question of suffering is clearly central to the work. But how does one textually gesture toward suffering — or evidence of suffering or representations of suffering — in a meaningful way that does not betray that suffering and works instead to responsibly register and, if at all possible, stem or ameliorate it?”
  • Keston Sutherland’s The Stats on Infinity (Crater Press). Large format. Beautifully constructed. Crater Press takes up, I think, where Sean Bonney and Frances Kruk’s Yt Communications left off.
  • J.H. Prynne’s sub-songs (Barque Press). I imagine the importance of this book goes without saying. The format is large—unusually large. And the poems are, as ever, wonderfully impenetrable constructions that offer the promise of meaning by way of a productively frustrating distance.
  • The stunningly comprehensive Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil (Kenning Editions). A major event and a major publication I aim to spend much more time with. Seeing over the past two years the amount of attention devoted to poets theater in Buffalo—where poet David Hadbawnik started curating a series of performances, including the first production of Robert Duncan’s Origins of Old Son in nearly sixty years—the collaborative character of poets theater performances offers, I think, a powerful opportunity for breaking out of the surprisingly-still-normative individual-reader-center-stage format that so limits poetry events. For whom are the drinks and conversation after an event not the primary motivation for attending an event? In their intro Killian and Brazil begin with the social: “Poets theater is first and foremost about the scene of its production. This is a social scene, but it is also, crucially, a geographical scene, and the two are complexly interwoven. The locales of poets theater are vortices, almost in the Poundian sense—self-interfering energy patterns like lightening rods, established to receive the influxes of new energy from whatever direction …” Fresh energy to diminish the morgue-like qualities so many endure.
  • Charles Olson’s Muthologos revised, expanded and reedited by Ralph Maud (Talon Books). There is no greater or more vigilant custodian of Olson’s intellectual accomplishment than Maud. This goes without saying, right?
  • Tom Raworth’s Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems (Carcanet). Fills in gaping gaps, chasms and otherwise bottomless holes in the earlier Collected Poems (though there’s an incredibly wild prose piece extracted from a letter to Dorn and beautifully printed by Zephyrus Image that remains to be collected).
  • Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman). A discriminating selection of poets that, courageously I think, refuses generational difference, situating “younger,” “mid-career,” and “older” poets together in an effort to gather “poetries not readily found in the pages of Britain’s broadsheets or larger-circulation literary journals.” Anne Blonstein and Elisabeth Bletsoe were two poets I was previously unfamiliar with and delighted to encounter alongside Emily Critchley, Harriet Tarlo, Andrea Brady, Frances Kruk, Sophie Robinson and other more familiar names. Inadequacy and failure are always already built into the architecture of any anthology, but Etter’s serves, I think, as an excellent supplement to Keith Tuma’s Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry—particularly for seminars, lectures, reading groups, etc, given to contemporary British poetry (if any such thing exist in the states).
  • Kyle Schlesinger’s Poems & Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book (1946-1981) (Collaboratively published by the NYC’s Center for Book Arts, Houston’s Museum of Printing History and Buffalo’s Western New York Book Arts Center). Departing from the location Steve Clay, Alasdair Johnson, Johanna Drucker and no more than a small handful of other printers, publishers and bibliographers have led him, Kyle Schlesinger further advances bibliography as efficacious poetic practice. I think Schlesinger’s poetics have, like Susan Howe’s, always been bibliographic in orientation—and so books like Poems & Pictures, at once exhibition catalog and partial bibliography, should be, I think, considered as an extension of Schlesinger’s more immediately poetic work (i.e. Mantle with Thom Donovan, Hello Helicopter, his forthcoming What You Will from Aaron Cohick’s New Lights Press). Poems & Pictures homes in on the “long-standing relationship between visual and language arts,” pointing also to Schlesinger’s own long-standing interest in collaboration, the visual arts and the material figurations of language—that from here we see his poems.
  • David Rich’s Charles Olson: Letters Home 1949-1969 (Cape Ann Museum). This extends Peter Anastas’ edition of Olson’s letters to the Gloucester Times (now long out of print) by reproducing a range of personal missives to Gloucester residents made public here for the first time and all drawn, I believe, from holdings at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester. An image of fragments from the vandalized 1760 gravestone of Gloucester minister John White, which Olson affectionately retrieved from Bridge Street Cemetery and hand-delivered to the Cape Ann Museum in 1959, is also reproduced and commented on by Rich.
  • Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman’s edition of Duncan’s HD Book (University of California Press). There it is. An eagerly awaited book years in the making and, though technically registered as a 2011 publication, now available. As with their work in poetry and criticism, Boughn and Coleman’s work as textual editors is rigorous, exhaustive, responsible. A thrill to have this affectionately edited University of California edition replace the pirated pdf copy of the book circulating some years back. With Peter Quartermain currently building the two-volume edition of Duncan’s collected poems, it’s wonderful to see not one but two Canadians knee-deep in books that promise to be the most authoritative Duncan volumes available.
There are, as ever, others—dozens on dozens—that too deserve attention, careful, hasty, drunkenly cheered, etc … at the end of the year with numb toes and greasy hair …


  1. Ralph appreciates your comment about his work, if ever in Vancouver call me at 604 291 8072. tom

  2. Eigner is from Stanford & Curtis Faville was the co-editor

  3. Tom, thanks for the kind words! will certainly call when i can manage to pass through. honored, too, to hear RM was pleased by the comment. can't imagine where Olson scholarship wld be without him.

    Ron, thank you for the correction & apologies to CF. the list written in some haste & the cheap bourbon blinds, tho on the terrain of textual editing the Eigner is truly something to behold. sorry for my failure to mention Faville's contribution to it.

    rich ...

  4. Mr. Owens:

    Correction duly noted and appreciated. The real delight was in getting Larry's work--all of it--into permanent form for posterity. It was a labor of love as much as anything. We hope to get a Selected out before too long. Cheers, Curtis Faville