Friday, May 26, 2017

War veterans read Sophocles, off the NYT

I don't usually post material from the newspaper on my blog, but the video in this story is stunning. Not only do the vets reading Sophocles address issues of combat, death, suicide, and betrayal, they also testify to the power of literature if not to heal us, then to explain our condition. I will show this to my students whenever I can, especially when I hear them reading in a droning voice, as if there is no human being trying to speak from the page. These readers get it, are gotten by it. If you do nothing else today, watch them:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pre-publication sale

25 May 2017

Feel not merely who you are but that you are. She wove a multi-colored shawl as biography of Anna Akhmatova, enclosed a key in the decorated box. Who we are is clothing. There's a frog on Camus's motorcycle, and it's hurtling toward a tree at excessive speed. Frog, too, feels the problem of existence, albeit without memory or prospect. Only Basho could render the SPLAT well on the page, but that incident at the tree solves the problem of identity (frog) vs. (sentient) being only insofar as it illustrates its end. A green stain means nothing unless you know its history, but history means little unless you know what it means to sit beside the pond and croak at lilies. The pond's water is also green, but only imitates substance while it drifts. The frog jumps in, we remember. But we cannot remember frog.

--25 May 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

23 May 2017

Embrace the word whole. “Ze hole in ze text,” Herr Iser intoned, circa 1985. That's where we fall in like babies in a well, before we ascend into the headline, which rests at the top. Tails you find the bottom, where wisdom is before it kills you. Of course you think about suicide, he said, because you're trying to prevent it. I just added the “w” to make the pun complete; the hole had had a hole, albeit without a sound. Being of sound mind, I think out loud, muttering mantras on the plane (“we are experiencing turbulence, do not be worried,” said the Chinese voice, too often to prevent it). Can a canned voice console? Will our robots help us through our griefs, whether of beloved uncles or disappointing friends? Should we can our own words, like blood or peaches? The White House website advocated “peach” in the Middle East. I remember someone put a large leaf over the letters “im,” so that only “peach” turned its skin toward Kahekili traffic. The pun in German is with sex; the word whole is where we're headed.

--23 May 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

21 May 2017

In contemplation, direction as we know it ceases to exist. We only travel in one direction, my friend tells me, and it's toward dying. What the direction is, the map doesn't show, nor does the map's voice tell us, sprouting from the phone. The metaphor of roots takes root, but seems to mean less and less, when going out's the same as coming in. Shanghai's doors illustrate a leap from one economy to the next; even those that are boarded up (corruption!) retain their numbers. The difference between horizontal and vertical housing is only quantified as direction, not as value. A Buddhist temple sits surrounded by shopping mall neon, though its golden roof tells another story. Twenty minutes before we landed, the video screens showed us how to do tai chi in our seats. To land is to float over marshes and acres of new apartment blocks and a river that would prove full of plastic and the city whose history is one of opium and banks. We pulled up to the as-yet-to-be-completed terminal, then bused to the extant one that took us in. My office is where friendships go to die, though our good uncle died at home, well after the airline refused him oxygen. Something's happening in our culture, a friend says, and we're all going back.

--21 May 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

A note to my students of the avant-garde

What is the avant-garde, anyway, and are we doing it?

Aloha class--the question has come up, and it's exactly the right one. What, in the end, is the avant-garde? The "official" version of it goes something like this: the European avant-garde, including Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, foregrounded the material of language and art over its content or meaning. Whatever meaning we find in these works we locate in some sense outside of it. Not: how do we read closely in order to find what the poet intended, a message, but what does this work of art do in the world? How does it disrupt our notions of reality, which begin with grammar, syntax, narrative structures? We end up reading ourselves more than we do the poems. In more recent decades, Conceptualism has taken up the banner of the avant-garde and engaged with questions of plagiarism and other norms that most of us have chosen not to break (much).
My argument in this class has been, however, that the avant-garde can be other things, especially when it travels to Africa, African American, the Pacific. It can find itself located in place. The disruptions made by writers from these places are disruptions of an imperial grammar, one imbricated in language and in other forms of power. This avant-garde may seem "tamer" to the adherent of the echt avant-garde, but it's equally powerful in its questioning of norms and cultural assumptions. Where works along these line directly take on questions of language (using more than one and refusing to translate, for example), they intersect with the traditional AG. Where they tell the stories of place, however broken they may be, perhaps they do not.

Are we writes of avant-garde works? Speaking for myself, I have been deeply influenced by Language writing, especially, and in recent many years by poets like Westlake who are seeking to include places like this one in their work with honesty (which I would here distinct in many ways from "authenticity").These are poets for whom there are tensions between various paradoxical inheritances (Hawaiian mele and Chinese poetry, say) and between desires for nationalism and internationalism. But my work is all about the meaning that the poem can generate improvisationally. It's oddly more NY School than AG, even if I've never lived in NYC. 

I see something similar in your work. None of you has become a fervent avant-gardist. Instead, you're taking what you need for the work you already do and enriching it, as the question ran last night. While sometimes I confess to wanting you to go crazy with the possibilities and abandon aspects of your own style, I've come to realize that's not realistic. Those of you who are Ph.D. poets, especially, are already deeply invested in what you do and how you do it. Easy for me to say, spend a semester mucking around with something else. 

BUT, I would like to see you thinking about the ways in which the avant-garde has influenced your work this semester, and also the ways it has not. What have you accepted, and what rejected? Are you more like Kenny Goldsmith, or like Hart Crane--essentially a late Romantic poet, but one who sometimes used the techniques of the AG--or like John Ashbery, who had only one book in the early 60s that might be termed "authentic" AG? That word again. Where are the boundaries, and where do they blur? To what purpose each? In what ways are your poetic heroes aligned with the most radical purposes of the AG, and in what ways not? Let me see the contexts that you're developing around these ideas. That work of analysis will help when you write your own poems, and when you think about literary history as a teacher.

As students, I want you to devise a narrative about the avant-garde; as poets, I want you to place yourselves inside (or outside) of it.

I'll also post this on the blog, and invite responses to it. 

aloha, Susan (who is also living with these questions )

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

At the New Orleans Poetry Festival, April, 2017

Eileen Tabios, Tim Dyke, Lo Mei Wa and myself before the Tinfish Press reading.