29 June 2011

Imaginary Syllabi, Part III

Stan Apps's "English 0000 Syllabus" opens with a set of questions consonant with Miranda Mellis's "potential heuristics": "What is the range of possible experience and behaviors? What forms of social possibility are evoked by this range? To what extent is the range of the possible threatening and/or liberating and/or confining?"

He continues:

"Students will read a mix of science fiction, experimental poetry, science writing, literary criticism, and other genres. We will assume that each text we read is in itself a representation of the possible, that the sentences or words themselves enact the limits of the possible. Based on this assumption, we will enact a comparative study, asking questions like these:

Within different genres, what are the differing horizons of possibility within the sentence? Does science fiction enact a different horizon of possibility than philosophy does, for example? What is the horizon of possibility enacted in a poem by, say, Percy Shelley, and within what aspect of the poem is that horizon situated? Many might hold that the horizon of the possible in Shelley's work is enacted through imagery; can we find similar enactments in other texts in other genres?"

I'm interested in approaching material as a set of limits to thought. But I find myself longing for an imaginary pedagogy rather than an imaginary syllabus. Many of the contributions to Imaginary Syllabi present unusual material one might teach, or challenge how said material might be presented in a classroom setting. Few, however, address the problematic of how we approach pedagogy itself. For instance, while many contributions present interesting constellations of material, few question, say, the power structure in the classroom, or how potential students might process said information, or the very confines of the "classroom" itself. There are notable exceptions: in "Mystic Poetics" Elizabeth Robinson seeks to "hone attentiveness" by studying the "mystical imagination." The first class meeting in Robinson's course is held in silence, Quaker-style, while later in the course students are encouraged "to experiment with performative aspects of ritual and mystery: a bacchanal? a seance? an exorcism? a laying on of hands? a reincarnation? speaking in tongues?" Also, in the collaborative contribution "Mobile Mapping for Everyday Spaces," the authors investigate how "walking as a medium or generative model of investigation might illuminate the critical and aesthetic terrain between an embodied self and the ever articulating sense of place."

I'm most concerned, I suppose, with theories of pedagogy that purport to present a radical rethinking of praxis by falling back into master narrative (that is: maybe theory is the answer!). Take Adam Katz's "Meditation and Methodology," for example (and really just for example: I don't mean to harp on Katz in particular), which begins with the claim "It's a question of interest what it would mean to apply Derrida to (teaching) the writing of poetry" before making his way to Heidegger's Mindfulness. Katz's contribution is certainly ahistorical in its understanding of contemporary practice (and contemporary teaching, no less): he writes "...a very big problem for poetry practiced by undergraduates, graduates, and authorities, but especially by students, is its authors' lack of interest in theories about the true nature of the medium in which they take it to be their propriety to compose" and later "...but even the best poetry evinces no commitment to marrying a rigorous process of analysis to its pursuit of beauty..." Even a cursory reading of this very blog should suggest immediately that this reading is a bit out of touch with the concerns of contemporary poetry (even the more conservative poetry one might find in the academy), from, say, the 1970s to the present (as if Norma Cole or Leslie Scalapino or even Louis Zukofsky didn't exist? And aren't already institutional figures in some ways?). Even super conventional poets publishing in super conventional journals seem to understand that poetry MUST attend to the conditions of composition (to its own coming-into-being). So there's certainly little disagreement, I think, even at straight-laced institutions, that poets ought to have some "interest in theories about the true nature of the medium in which they take it to be their propriety to compose."

My real concern is how quickly we promote applying this or that theory to the teaching of writing. In this case, Katz promotes "encountering the aporetic co-presence of nostalgia and affirmation in writing, reading and experience" as a practice in order to, finally, publish the results: "...students could be assigned poetic texts that could be close-read in terms of their stake in observing the relationship between nostalgia and affirmation, and which would furnish tools the students could use to write their own poems in provisional fidelity to the hypothesis. The results of this experiment could then be published." I don't disagree that there's a problem with students reproducing a particular model of MFA-style poetry that's all parataxis and no bite (and I don't think Katz's exercise is half bad in terms of teaching students how to pay attention!), but this very same problem of factory-style writing is currently reproduced across the country in how poet "x" applies theory "y" to her practice (in the very same way critical writing about poetry is often yet another Marxist reading of "x" or another psychoanalytic reading of "y" without engaging with the particularities of the writing itself). This is not to mention, of course, the problematic of publishing everything we write as quickly as possible, because, I don't know, that's what poets do?

There's certainly no shortage of criticism directed at the MFA model (especially here in the Bay Area), and as someone who studied closely with one of Katz's "exceptions," the mighty Myung Mi Kim, I suppose my sense of the super common dissemination of Derridean or Heideggerian praxis as a model of composition in institutional settings might be a bit skewed. But I'd argue that a more productive question might be thinking about how we can teach students to write their poetry: the work that only they can write. I wonder if this "methodology" will simply contribute to more student writing devoid of the very thing that makes their practice actually unique?

27 June 2011

Imaginary Syllabi, Part II

I was thinking about Thom Donovan's "A Syllabi to Come" while participating in some "free school" classes at David Brazil and Sara Larsen's apartment this evening (I'm participating in a Spanish class and a reading group on "allegories"). Donovan writes,

"Imaginary Syllabi, the title of this anthology, implies to me that our syllabi may be somehow a- or u- topian. Not of real places, but places that may be able to exist were we only able to create the conditions of possibility necessary for their existence. By publishing our thoughts here, by projecting what we would want one day to be, can we conjure the future of our pedagogies and teaching practices as if they may one day exist or have existed? Can we alter the present as such in relation to any number of possible futures?"

It's interesting how difficult it can be to produce these "conditions of possibility" even with a room full of interested and thoroughly critical participants (far outside of the academy, no less). For instance, what does it mean to drastically rethink learning styles (and how we might respond to hitherto unimagined styles of learning) without reproducing a particular model of distributing or gaining "knowledge"? What does it mean to strike a balance of desire(s) in a room full of adult, intellectual equals without falling back on an arsenal of affect to protect ourselves from real or imagined psychic danger? What does it mean to trust one's cohort enough to really learn?

Some contributions to Imaginary Syllabi begin with the question of "conditions of potential" from the outset. Miranda Mellis's "Potential Heuristics" provides a "mutable, fractional grammar for collective use towards an evolving, collaborative heuristics...a drawer of queries and terms, assorted lenses, potential tools, and magnifying devices" intended to "stimulate verbal and written responses" in the writing workshop; that said, I'm interested in how her questions might prove particularly useful when treating the class itself as a narrative site. In other words, I wonder what happens when you apply her "potential heuristics" not to "writing," per se, but the drama of pedagogy itself:

*"Desire and thwarted desire are often described as the generators of conflict; which is in turn described as the engine of plot; how else might we conceive of the action of the text?"

*"Epiphany is often considered the telos of a storyhow else might we conceive of transformation, metamorphosis, politicization, surges of awareness, raised consciousness in the context of the story/storytelling?"

*"Figure/ground...how distinct/indistinct are figure and ground proximally? Where are delineations marked, where implied? How do you read/find/survey/understand surface/topology, locale/site, interiority/depth, the unseen/unsaid, density/permeability, mutability/complexity, pores/aporias, region/zone..."

*"How does the writer handle tempo, pace, repetition, duration, prosody, motion, waxing, waning, promise, failure, entropy, age, velocity, degrees of oscillation between registers [exposition relative to dialog, for example, or structural components relative to apparent transgression of same], consistency, direction, stops/rests, peaks, cadence at the micro-level as well as shape or [musical] score of the narrative entire?"

*"Where/when is the 'now' of the story?...How is cause and effect paced, or ruptured?"

*"What and how does the narrator/narrative perceive/apperceive? Does the narrator/narration have an explicit shaping affect?"

*"Can we change or question habits by changing syntactic or other aspects of form or structure? How can we use fiction to explore a set of ideas?"

Reading through Mellis's "potential heuristic," I wonder how we might construct a similar set of questions in order to rethink the "potential" of the "classroom" before we even begin?

24 June 2011

Clocks and Clouds

Three new ones by George Albon on David Abel's "envelope" series, ostensibly in response to Fran Herdon's painting "Eventide, Majorca"...click for full-screen...

22 June 2011


These are some sample pages from David Brazil's new Lew Gallery chapbook, printed by Micah Ballard and Sunnylyn Thibodeaux in an edition of 50. This chaplet finds Brazil at his finest"make your leaven not / of shit & / wounds / but out of salt, / for son thou art"once again proving that lyric "singing" is always lyric thinking! I'll see if I can't post the whole thing here in the coming week as I'm sure Micah and Sunnlyn are running out, but in the meantime, take a gander above...

Glossematics, Thus

My favorite page from Glossematics, Thus. Click image for full-screen...

20 June 2011

Charles Olson at Goddard College

I'm just about to start teaching the summer term, reading the Imaginary Syllabi all the while, and what lands in my mailbox? Another book about pedagogy (well, maybe indirectly about pedagogy) by one of the great American pedagogues: Charles Olson at Goddard College: April 12-14, 1962. This particular transcript of Olson at work was immaculately produced by the great Kyle Schlesinger for Cuneiform Press, so there's no doubt it found the form it had to take: the design is clean and crisp throughout, printed large-format on super heavy and glossy paper with a foreword by Basil King and an introduction by Schlesinger (with very helpful and thoroughly researched notes throughout). Kyle transcribed this version from the tapes at Goddard while an undergraduate at the same institution, and exhumed the transcripts while participating in an Olson/Melville study group with Creeley and others at Buffalo. Like all Cuneiform books, Olson at Goddard must be seen and held in order to fully appreciate the artistry: the text somehow pops off the page even though it's offset (due to the paper perhaps?), so one can literally feel the material presence of language while reading... But the main event here, of course, is Olson's wild and ecstatic teaching style, which somehow feels perfectly composed and calculated and totally wild and out of control. Schlesinger sets the stage with the perfect epigrapha letter from Olson to Hank Chapin composed a few weeks after the Goddard sessions:

"What the young know is the price today is huge, and already are clear that institutions are dinosaurs and sanctions are pitiful gasps and procedures all gone dead in their mouths and minds. The task wld seem to be to get the new things sorted and straight for all to have some idea of paths or procedures to follow (other than abandonment and suicide). Guerilla and soft."

I had some issues with Kristin Prevallet's course description in Imaginary Syllabi ("You will learn what you already know and will know what you haven't yet thought to learn"), but with Olson, I always trust that if you follow him, really let yourself inhabit moments of great doubt and scepticism while struggling with the shape of his thought, then Prevallet's axiom can be realized as a kind of pure teaching potential...

I'm struck by his generosity as a teacher—how part of the experience of learning is watching Olson, himself, learn what he's saying—literally learning with him. His pedagogy requires bravely embodying uncertainty and making oneself incredibly vulnerable in front of perfect strangers (who, from the outset, are searching for competency and mastery). The book is divided over two days: on April 12th, Olson reads from the Maximus Poems and The Distances, and on the 14th he delivers a lecture on Melville. I'm partial to the first set because it shows him negotiating his poetic (with all its complicated uncertainty), while performing to an audience who admit to knowing "fairly little" about his project. The result is totally charged and messy and revealing. Take the following rambling exchange for example: 

"CO: Oh boy, oh boy...I think I hit here on one of the real problems which is that that thing doesn't have idiomatic language, yet doesn't give that effect of being how well it might be reported and with no, uh—one of the boring things about most writing in America is slang, whether it's local or national or, like, in fact, the compliment in our cultural speech is a form of slang. That is, that deadness of our cultural, of our universal speech is just so dull, it's like dialectical, dialect, uh? I hate it. I would clean every—I myself would wish that all who spoke and wrote spoke always from a place that is new at that moment that they do speak and not hang up on any of the places from which they may have acquired their speech, whether it's putative, purposed, or personal. And I like, and I think really that's why I think (Gael) Turnbull really dug this poem, this thing was—some way or other, I'm getting somewhere a language thing there, which is, well...Who was sitting there? I just—did she just go? She asked me something and I went back to you, and—oh! There she is. Excuse me, for you had a question which I missed.      

UV: You were saying something about the edge of experience and I'm trying to connect that with a geographical...

CO: Yeah!

UV: ...point, that you mentioned.

CO:Yeah! Absolutely. Well, while you were out, I got to the point where I was saying that I believe even—I read another poem on that, "Cashes Shoal," and said that I almost would return to the very place, that somehow or another caused the fermentation. Yeah, let's talk wine, that kind of a thing. Each year you grow those damned grapes and make the wine from the same vine don't you? I mean you really do, so you go back. That's not a bad image. I mean, again, like, let's talk. I mean, again, like, that's what—I mean we had a wonderful conversation this afternoon, we had a wonderful conversation, and in fact I tried to read a poem of Duncan's from Trobar and I held this thing up and this guy Guthrie, "who is a learned man, said Strabo" he comes on strong because I guess he published a book called Trobar, or something, and so immediately, a very lively thing occurred: what does "trobar" mean, like? And we both had no trouble saying "to find" but then I said, "isn't the meaning really to find, on a guitar, the tone?" "No!" he says, "as a matter of fact, so and so..." by Dilys Laing or something it was did a book on the diseases and cures of birds, and, uh, was called a "troubadour" for having done it, because it was a "trovar." In other words it means "to find out something" which I really, just knocks me for a loop..."

Through the transcript, Olson reads, stops, interacts with the audience, restarts, skips around, producing the very performance of language he claims to find suspect ("You feel as though you have an audience and you're supposed to do a concert or something, and I don't think I believe in verse in this respect at all. As a matter of fact, I know I don't."). And yet, he's obviously using the "performance" as a heuristic, really and truly learning with his students... 

Anyone interested in teaching should own this document, even if one harbors little interest in Olson's project (which seems sort of impossible!). While Olson's style totally teeters on the brink of disaster, as a living and breathing energetic, the work is truly emancipatory... 

16 June 2011

Imaginary Syllabi

I've been reading Imaginary Syllabi (edited by Jane Sprague for Palm Press) while preparing three syllabi of my own for the forthcoming summer session, and I'm struck (so far) by how a number of contributors seem to intuitively link "learning" with "seeing differently" with recalibrating the habitus with the simple act of drawing attention to what the body is doing while thinking or reading or writing (or thinking of reading or writing or thinking!). Brenda Iijima mentioned in an email that many of my recent posts seem to investigate "body ecology," and I admit to immediately returning to Eleni Stecopolous's reference to Jean Luc Nancy after reading the first few contributions from Imaginary Syllabi: that which enables contemplation of the body renders the body exterior (I just checked the exact citation from Eleni's somatics questionnaire, and I realize now that I got it interestingly twisted. Here's Eleni: "Jean-Luc Nancy writes that the Western quest for embodiment only 'expel[s] the thing we desired…That’s why the body, bodily, never happens, least of all when it’s named and convoked. For us, the body is always sacrificed: eucharist' (Corpus). What enables contemplation for Nancy inherently renders the object exterior to 'me.'”). What happens when the body and the body's habits become central to an embodied teaching practice?

In Dana Teen Lomax's contribution to Imaginary Syllabi, fittingly titled "Disclosure," physical documents disclosing intimate facts about the author (including photocopies of credit card statements and physical examinations) decrease the distance between teacher and student by making the author more human (and embodied and vulnerable).

Dorothea Lasky's "Red Exercise" challenges students to imagine how the very environment they inhabit a(e)ffects how they see. She writes,

"...I had spent the entire summer...thinking about red paired with its unlikely oppositea pale aquamarine. I was making a lot of jewelry then...and I kept imagining making a necklace of aquamarines with one single bright red bead. The fantasy transcended into other mental images where red might be a singular thing in a sea of paler attributes. I imagined a room where everything was pale blue, except one red bowl. To connect myself physically to this idea, I would wear outfits where I only had one red thing on (one red sock, sparkly red glass earrings, a red hair tie, red fingernails) in the midst of an entire pale yellow ensemble. I became obsessed with red's power to drive everything else it came in contact with."

In a nutshell, Lasky's exercise asks students to study red objects, loved ones interacting with red objects, and feelings associated with red objects in order to write a poem inspired by visual environments. She continues, "Because writing is, at least in part, about capturing human behaviors as completely as one can, it is important to me to train young writers to notice, understand, and represent the world through emergent themes versus simply placing linear constructs upon it and recording the words that represent these constructs. My imagined course would allow students to meditate upon the world seen through various lenses in order to notice universal themes of human experience. It would be important because, I believe, it would move the creative process of writers towards seeking more complex and novel forms of expression."

Imaginary Syllabi also contains four of CA Conrad's Soma(tic) Exercises, which consistently and brilliantly put the body in all kinds of interesting and unfamiliar circumstances (and environments) in order to realign perception of phenomena and their effects. Here's "Aphrodite's Hatan" in full:

"Wash a penny, rinse it, slip it under your tongue and walk out the door. Copper is the metal of Aphrodite, never forget this, never, don't forget it, ever. Drink a little orange juice outside and let some of the juice rest in your mouth with the penny. Oranges are the fruit of Aphrodite, and she is the goddess of Love, but not fidelity. Go somewhere outside, go, get going with your penny and juice. Where do you want to sit? Find it, and sit there. What is the best Love you've ever had in this world? Be quiet while thinking about that Love. If someone comes along and starts talking, quietly shoo them away, you're busy, you're a poet with a penny in your mouth, idle chit chat is not your friend. Be quiet so quiet, let the very sounds of that Love be heard in your bones. After a little while take the penny out of your mouth and place it on the top of your head. Balance it there and sit still a little while, for you are now moving your own forces quietly about in your stillness. Now get your pen and paper and write about POVERTY, write line after line about starvation and deprivation from the voice of one who has been Loved in this world."

I admit to feeling a bit suspicious of (and, frankly, sometimes exhausted by!) some of the rhetoric surrounding emancipatory pedagogical models, though all the talking and thinking makes me want to buy into Kristin Prevallet's "course description" that "You will learn what you already know and will know what you haven't yet thought to learn." However, as an active participant in these conversations and a lifetime learner and a teacher in an MFA writing program and also a teacher of remedial reading and writing at a "school of last resort," I'm not sure Prevallet's statement is all that helpful. How do we learn what we already know? How do we discover (and become interested in!) what we haven't thought to learn? I'm most interested in practical solutions to ameliorating the weird power dynamic between student and teacher, but in a way that does justice to the often vast discrepancy in resources between the two. Lomax and Lasky and Conrad remind us that real thinking begins when the habitual has been usefully disrupted, and there's no better place to start than our relationship to our own bodies and the environments we inhabit.

More thinking on Imaginary Syllabi to follow... 

14 June 2011

Glossematics, Thus

Brenda Iijima's writing is remarkable in its ability to incorporate so many different registers of attention and response while somehow maintaining the integrity of a discrete instantiation of thought. I often turn to her work when I'm feeling stuck or frustrated or like the air in my poems has grown stale because she has this amazing ability to incorporate (and balance) these sometimes disparate (though never in the writing) always surprising elements that consistently feel like the perfect gesture (or addition or swerve or continuation). I'm generally super sensitive to transitions, and Brenda's writing constantly reminds me of the value of laying off over-rigid, over-mechanical moves; in other words, her work gives all kinds of permission in the way Leslie Scalapino or Kathy Acker or Dodie Bellamy or CA Conrad give permission...Her writing reminds me that my writing can only ever be my own, and that it tends to find its necessary form when embracing its own idiosyncratic impulses...

This new chapbook, Glossematics, Thus, on new-to-me Little Weasel Chapbooks (really beautifully printed by Karen Randall (I admit to being kind of jealous of the design work, actually! Sort of brilliant...)) moves in all kinds of directions at once, making super fluid leaps from past to present to future anterior in a near seamless flow that perfectly captures how Brenda interfaces with her encircling ring (which is to say bravely and with no hesitation!). This poem will require many careful readings to digest what's going on here, but the following immediately caught my attention:

"The historical process maximizes a hide of consensus, like these tanneries—
odiferous, outskirts—to live nearby the skinning factories
chiffon of the living, working, mouth, tongue
scudding—wet blue, blue blue sky, cascade pools, drenched splashing child
biocide: pentachlorophenol— resource demure, tissue of cells begin to hear
chromium—lungs to breathe out objects
leftover leather turned into glue—feeding on silt, feeding on bones—barbed
when diamond found, eye put out, hard bark, evidence bare foot, climb cliff
difficulty of stepping back from atmosphere—elicit
osmosis through skin, woven hair, veins
components of the engine: cylinder head, valve train,
transformers to regulate light, incandescent, starlight, sun at noon
treaties remains etcetera—compression where there were terms—of
agreement where there were—the corn needs the be harvested
largest collection of Impressionists
now we make mounds of paper
laminate causation"

13 June 2011

More Notes On Eleni Stecopoulos

Still thinking about Brenda Iijima's statement that "There is a sense that the body has become a listening chamber but is also its own instrumentation. The humming resound of the body as energies precipitate and issue from/and away."

Place this next to the following notes I took from Armies of Compassion and Eleni's somatics questionnaire (don't remember the precise source for much of this, sorry! Took poor notes as I was reading...):

-What enables contemplation renders the body exterior...(Eleni on Jean Luc Nancy?). The body is always sacrificed: Eucharist...

-To be literally "possessed" by words...(I'm thinking here of Brenda's comment: not to possess language, but to be possessed by it...)

-Killing and reviving as a process: "strangled the body so the voice would climax"

-"lay my body in the hole as surrogate for / product ownership" (my body is a hole for product ownership?!)

-Defense against immunity? Tricked into immunity...

-"Boobytrapped by humanism"

-What do we embody when we inhabit our bodies?

Eleni's promised to send selections from her critical project on the poetics of healing for publication here. I've seen some of it, and I'm very, very excited! Keep yr. eyes peeled...

09 June 2011


Brenda Iijima and I were emailing back and forth the other day about Jamie Townsend's STRAP/HALO, and she sent me this totally brilliant, totally off-the-cuff reading that I couldn't help but share here:

"The permutations in STRAP/HALO definitely shift between the worldly and unworldly and also the mechanical and visceral. And these seemingly polar states combine and mutate. There’s a drama in the way echoes appear inside of the language. This document becomes a cacophonous chamber of echoes. There is a sense that the body has become a listening chamber but is also its own instrumentation. The humming resound of the body as energies precipitate and issue from/and away. I picked up on his line 'into similar voids' and think that's where a huge part of the ontology falls or filters through. Bodies too, as familiar voids, especially the bodies that will have been already the case but have yet to be—a play on/of the future anterior which has found its way through Tyrone’s work to Rob’s, Thom’s and now Jamie’s—a very particular Derridean temporal positioning.

There's this Marco Polo-like expedition that is happening (which sounds epic). A search for the brother figure and what is collected (instead) is the social detritus along route. I think so much of Siddhartha and other spiritual tales of becoming and overcoming but this work has none of the attendant grandiosity—there’s a sense of discretion, privacy and vulnerability. Jamie parses through various umwelts, undoing worlds of perception—its so subtle.

There's also this incredible friction that I sense. A clashing, 'anterior worlds, conjoined so artfully not/natural must be framed as brazen'. Also a psychosexual dimension (homoerotic) that brings on tension—the words rub up against tensions instigated by the rigors of cultural forms of normative gesture—there's quaking going on all around these enforced terms of the body. And at times the words seem goth, sublime, romantic, remote, hanging on like relics. The residue of religiosity butting up against hot sensuality. 'Graceful as brute redirection'. Principles vs desire/instinct/force/energy. Anyway, some notes I’ve jotted down."

Wow. The body as a listening chamber or "familiar void." Brenda Iijima, ladies and gentlemen! And then over coffee the other day, Rob Halpern said something like, "I think of the poem as an additional sense organ" (or maybe it was "I think of the poem as an extension of a sense organ"?!). Anyway, I was thinking about all of this this evening when my yoga instructor asked us to "empty" our stomachs so our abdominal muscles could massage our organs!

MATRYOSHKA, Jamie Townsend's other new chapbook is less dense than STRAP/HALO, but no less challenging or rewarding. The poems are totally elemental (down to the binary "1" and "0" headings) in that the language seems to register phenomena in the body while processing it ("rendering" it?) on the page (as if the chapbook were a sense organ). Townsend uses tons of nouns in these short bursts, which contribute, I think, to the haptic weight of each page. And Dawn Pendergast's  INCREDIBLE design work (including some super delicate sewing on every page) further adds to the language's material presence. Little Red Leaves co-editor Ash Smith writes of MATRYOSHKA: "The title...denotes famous Russian nesting dolls, and yet the subtle physics and physicality of such poems which attend to "sub-dermal termites scattering" reveal that such momentary nesting is in fact a station in orbit." Indeed.

While this book MUST be held in the hands to fully appreciate its execution as a book object (and you can buy it here for only 8 bucks (if it's still in print!)), the folks at Little Red Leaves have also posted the entire text online for yr. reading pleasure. Take a look here...

08 June 2011

Names of the Lion at The Economist

A few weeks back, a writer at The Economist (blogging under the pen-name Samuel Johnson) inexplicably published an article on David Larsen's Names of the Lion, inspiring all kinds of renewed interest in the long-out-of-print chapbook. In the article, the author notes that "The 2009 translation by David Larsen doesn't seem to be available for money and possibly not even for love..." which is totally true, much to the chagrin, apparently, of my indignant email correspondents! I've received any number of emails asking when I plan to reprint it (a few correspondents even pledged to pay for the reissue!), though few seem to understand that printing and binding a book by hand is an entirely different proposition than printing a trade edition! However, in light of the resurgence of interest, I thought to make a PDF available for those genuinely interested in spending some time with the translation. In the not-so-distant future (maybe by the end of the summer?) I hope to make the entire run of Atticus/Finch chapbooks available as ebooks. In the meantime, however, the following PDF will have to do. Click on the arrow in the right-hand corner for full-screen... 


06 June 2011


I've been told by a number of friends recently that I would love Jamie Townsend's work, and then suddenly two chapbooks arrived in the mail within a few days of each other: STRAP/HALO on Brenda Iijima's inimitable Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs and MATRYOSHKA, thanks to Dawn Pendergast's Little Red Leaves Textile Series. I don't know much about Townsend's project, but I read both books with great interest and found them difficult and provocative and demanding, which means, of course, that I did, indeed, love them! I arbitrarily decided to dig into STRAP/HALO first, a work that certainly speaks its own language while harboring a heuristic element that trains its readers how to comport. The poems are super dense, and the linebreaks create a sense of vertigo as new units often start at the ends of lines, rotating sense like a helix:

a soft touch you said the minister
came dragging weight bent A shallow com-
pression above it was in the eyes that taketh
to dwell within nature wilts evening each order
gathering harvest together smoke-light leaning
into brown foundation just habits   ditch-weed
before a concerned trip to vespers small engines
palmed burn the relics touch scapula   pectoral
cemetery plot where I buried little else for fear
of fear in future tensing the length of a hand
can unstring my bow spill out law fingering
ark from mouth stall hot breath on the lid
insistent |an exile from your cloth|

I'm most struck (so far) by how the body factors in this work (though this might be a product of reading a ton of Eleni Stecopoulos last week!). There's this technosomatic element to the work that reminds me of those gene-splicing-cyborg-monstrosity-minority-report-style surgery scenes in science fiction films, in which the body is rendered tensile through the very technological interfaces by which it comes to understand itself:

|self-immolation ritual| ingesting at
once a lifetime of placebos trying to
break thru the still find me between
diacritical marks impossible flesh
of videos develop chemical bonds
zones of body-work digitize nerves
cold metal pins awaken to rhythmic
doubling cell production fine-tuned
mitosis where the deepest blue light
filtered thru detachment blooms I
fall to pieces
again & resemble burst
intention curl extremities back bound
to the pull of satellites |shells| weight-
less desire grounds fear its partner held
close hatching |crosses| our leavings

The language creates this interesting tension between the organic and the plastic, so that the body figures both warm and aerated, and totally lifeless and ersatz. Take this string of lines from across the chapbook:


plate curved to trunk exiting slight the dead flesh
holding live nerve no riddle in wounds chosen


to spires   thick braid of optic cable
siphoning scrambled transmission with-
in my unsure being to harden each root-
less message or hand around wrist reaching


abandoned to genetics parceled out leit-
motif a splinter gathering dark blood day
made waste made blood enemy in relation
our core broken at points |borne new response|


being adjustments | rerouted surges smooth
casing for best performance this active
null-spot sole form of shared architecture


revelation brushed from lobe to lobe removes
heads atomizes attention steady now hushed
sincerity attempts at holding to a course
that could fold itself around a pin prick warped
hollow curve to fill or circumnavigate


pinning vessels held negation eyes
completely drained refine my
capacity - where all capability
implodes   where to be followed
for unseen generations yields
biocomposites rifts-|-rhizomes


The term "biocomposites" captures what I'm getting at here: life produced through a mash-up of inorganic material: "|syntaxes - synapses|" - synthetic/sensual.

The final poems in the chapbook shed light on this reading, especially the following prose block:

approaching a lip of blue streamers twinned color guard speckled silver ovals
float searing phosphorescent palindrome fanned spore in pixel band of historic
post metallurgy post vision stylized body projectile ultra chlorine finish hands
like powder nano metallurgy for sense woven viral our collective electric fields
so over remixed creep encoding |thin_distinct_user_| could be more decibels
possible blocked ration of thin snapfrost metal plates shattered octagonal
percussion consider rubber tension a latex armory monolithic summer notes
ground fine no amount of distinction holds erupt at sound | water's film of
blood deciding factor rippling through high density material its material axiom
inlaid LED senesce state kept forking series of perfect angles keyed shapes a
basic animal crystal geometrics in salt-peter stringing lucent |head rushes|--

Camille Roy mentioned in our recent interview the notion of the "uncanny valley." She wrote,

"Language, received from the dead, has an uncanny aspect. This causes the linguistic body to ripple with horror as well as pleasure. There is a wonderful idea relating to the uncanny that comes from robotics: the hypothesis of the uncanny valley. It states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The moment of revulsion, where the robot is recognized as non-human, is called the uncanny valley."

There's something of the uncanny in these "basic animal crystal geometrics," these "stylized body projectile(s)."

03 June 2011


While reading Armies of Compassion last night, I was reminded that the centerpiece, AUTOIMMUNITY, is available as a PDF thanks to the folks at Deep Oakland. Originally published by Suzanne Stein's crucial minimalist press TAXT, the chapbook sports interesting textual variations that differ from the version in Armies. Comparing the two makes for an instructive read. Some of my favorite lines include:

lay my body in the hole as surrogate for
product ownership satiety the fertile reserve (I'm dissimulating I'm
faking dead     boobytrapped with     humanism

Click on the arrow in the right-hand corner for full screen:


And if you have some time this weekend, check out the other TAXT editions at Deep Oakland here including David Buuck's "Ruts," Brandon Brown's "Camels!," and Suzanne Stein's own "Tout Va Bien."

02 June 2011

Eleni Stecopoulos World Tour!

Eleni Stecopoulos is sort of on tour at the moment in support of her brilliant Palm Press full-length Armies of Compassion: she spent time in Seattle and Olympia over Memorial Day weekend (thanks to Will Owen and David Wolach), and now she's off to Philadelphia to read with Wolach for the Con/Crescent Series (next Wednesday, June 8th). And then, at the end of the month, she'll present a seminar at Naropa called "Dreaming in the Fault Zone: Poetry, Healing, Earth." Eleni wrote the following description to advertise the class:

"This course will explore the efficacy of poetry as a healing modality. We’ll experiment with writing as somatic and therapeutic practice, focusing on language as material power, living energy, medicine...part of ecology and sometimes even originating from earth. As sensitive bodies proliferate with ecological imbalance, how might we cultivate sensitivity as a method of receiving earth’s signs, forms, rhythms – collaborate with earth’s own poetics? We’ll work with sources from divinatory and medical systems, myth, geoarchaeology."

I'm deeply jealous of anyone lucky enough to sit in! In the meantime, I've been rereading Armies of Compassion this week next to Eleni's responses to Thom Donovan's somatics questionnaire. I was honored to design the book for Eleni, and while I spent many months thinking about it quite intimately, her responses to Thom (along with Thom's review of Autoimmunity here) offer new entry points:

"The body’s knowledge is real and when we acknowledge it and believe in its reality, we can no longer be duped by the attempts of our intellectual legacy to disembody us. A dual disembodiment: an inert body that’s exchangeable, a standardized entity who is no one—and yet also unique, a singular possession alienable from the whole.

We don’t have qi or prana in the West. We have an immune system, or at best, we have psychoneuroimmunology. If we’re heterodox we speak of energy or maybe subtle body or breath or spirit. We end up using “energy” or “information” and there’s a politics to this. (It can’t be coincidental that “energy” is our trope du jour in this age of blood for oil, from the sense of individual vitality to the appropriation and depletion of others’ resources.) Other cultures have fully developed philosophies that understand the connections of the whole or the way. But in the West we’re always struggling with the split that’s engraved in our worldview, and our dearth of language reflects this.

For me, soma opens up this energy, life force, poetic agency—an agency of no subject and without object. And maybe then this redresses the false universalism and standardization of “the” body. For body to have agency, to be recognized as intelligence, to be identified as “me,” it may have to be called the body, at least heuristically. Just as we have to say somatics. So we can take seriously the mind of the body. Yet maybe it’s through care, through the therapeutic, that we don’t actually need to make this body me, but can remediate the objectification through an ethics of the other. Maybe serving others remakes agency—agency not in service of the subject."

This afternoon, I came across the following lines from Armies: "She beat time in his throat / trying to heal talking." I wonder if Eleni's syntax "beats time" in my throat while I read quietly to myself (doesn't the tongue keep time even when reading silently?)? Can her poetry heal "talking" by drawing attention to how language and the body comport to one another?

01 June 2011

Joan Retallack's Scalapino Lecture

Joan Retallack's talk Friday night was characteristically difficult and thorny and inspiring and full of things to think about. I made a special accordian broadside for the event (see the cover above; it folds in three with a special slipcover to boot!), which required inviting folks over to perform some chance operations on the text: thank you to Lionel, Alina, Kate, Jackqueline, Chris, Julia, Jenni, Rob, Taylor, and Katja for helping out with production. While these were crazy difficult to make, we're selling them for only 5 bucks to support Small Press Traffic! They should be up at the SPT website soon, but in the meantime, feel free to send on a check or well-concealed cash to 2556 Frances Street, Oakland, CA, 94601 and I'll get one in the mail.

And here are a few paragraphs from my introduction to Joan:

The Leslie Scalapino Memorial Lecture in Innovative Poetics was designed to celebrate the life and work of one of the most innovative, challenging, and frankly emancipatory writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, but to do so through the life and work of her coevals: those fellow travelers who “punch a hole,” as Leslie would have it, in the calcified shell of the habitus. We—her colleagues, family and friends—believe, as Leslie did, that “activity is the only community,” that, as the French collective Tiqqun puts it, “When, at a certain time and place, two bodies affected by the same form-of-life meet, they experience an objective pact, which precedes any decision. They experience community.” However, for Tiqqun, “There is no community except in singular relations. THE community doesn’t exist. There is only…community that circulates.” If ever two writers shared a form-of-life, the singular fidelity to a particular instantiation of praxis, it is Leslie Scalapino and Joan Retallack. Both challenge us to recognize forms of change in the diurnal, to embrace unpredictability, disorientation, estrangement, and alterity in the very structures that enervate legitimately radical forms-of-life through predictable “conservative gesture.” While Scalapino’s writing is certainly lush (Joan calls this sensuousness her “textual eros”), it is also at times stark and unsettling, and this juxtaposition works to recalibrate mind action, to refocus attention, to “short-circuit complex terrain”—in short, to draw the reader out of the enframement of standing-reserve and into a world where forms fluoresce through complex interaction with “acts of responsible consciousness” (as Joan has it).

In her Memnoir, Retallack writes, “coming out of the movie theater the world the world is bright too bright gnomic present tense tensile everything happening at once the world is full of its own mute history the fatality of reflection the fatality of nature and culture…mute history remaining mute the fatality of of the preposition reaching out to its object even as…it slips away”

After reading Leslie, after reading Joan, I often feel like I’ve left a similar theater, and now the world seems suddenly too bright, ersatz, bogged down in its own machinations, because our attentions are perfectly tuned to the pitch of becoming—everything matters, everything is happening now, in now-time, simultaneously jarring and intoxicating. We are suddenly aware that something is alive beneath the tensile membrane of experience, ready to press through phenomena, always-already sinewy and tenacious. The writing of this community, this singular relation, extends from Leslie to Joan to us their readers: we also make a wager: we risk becoming wholly and fundamentally unmoored by participating in this act of composition; that we can participate in the remediation of a “past that tragically persists in our barbarous proclivities” while giving up a claim to the comforts of the “habitus”: the enfeebled commonplace where we nurse the “radical innocence of our own self-perpetrated destinies.” This community, this singular relation, asks us to decide, to comport, to engage, to interact with “specific and energetic forms of life.” And to do so finally, is an act of communion, in which the white eschatology of vision washes over the hidebound through the terrible, unpredictable, and ecstatic activities it proposes. I, for one, am honored, to count myself a member of this singular community.