Thursday, February 26, 2009
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Barack Obama writes and speaks in long sentences. His sentences sometimes seem to come to us out of the 18th century, rather than the text-messaging 20th. They are synthetic, acknowledge differences and only sometimes bridge them easily. They are like his view of race, which he delivered in Philadelphia last year, unabashedly complex. Huffingtonpost.com recently published a diagram of one of these sentences from a recent press conference; it featured more than one instance of parallel structure (appropriate for a politician so enamored of bipartisanship). “My view is also that nobody's above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” Obama's sentences bob and weave and weigh evidence and often end with studied ambiguity, the kind that usually indicates wisdom instead of muddle-headedness. They open at the end, rather than close down. There are more commas than periods, more pauses than halts. When asked about rap music, he said, “I am troubled sometimes by the misogyny and materialism of a lot of rap lyrics, but I think the genius of the art form has shifted the culture and helped to desegregate music.” A long and complicated sentence about a long and complicated culture. It is about gender and greed and art and race and history, to say nothing of the shape of Barack Obama's intellectual grammar. The contents of his iPod are likewise complicated, aesthetically and racially: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ludacris, among others. (Where's the Hawaiian slack key guitar? one wonders, surely he loves that, too.) Always there is Stevie Wonder, belting out his song about being “signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours,” an ambiguous line if ever there was one. This was Obama's signature song on the campaign trail. But one can well imagine he might have preferred to play another of his favorite songs, Bob Dylan's “Maggie's Farm,” with its rather more direct lament of the effects of politicking:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
If you are a slinger of long sentences who has lived too long in a country of short ones (read Bush, if not Rumsfeld), then the danger is that you “just get bored.” But there's reason to expect that Obama's sentences may take hold, expand the grammar of the national discourse, add to the cultural iPod list, and otherwise nudge us toward the subtleties embedded in periodic sentences. With Obama's sentences as our curriculum, the next years will not be dull.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
--How to get students to make poems out of documents. I assigned them to write documentary poems and am mostly getting (very clever) collages of found texts. Will have to talk to them about editing out excess, and editing in some lyric moments. Having tried to steer them away from the lyric for several weeks, it's time to let a few personal pronouns into their writing. Another strand in the weave. Will start with a Ronald Johnson moment of erasure. Then have them write a lyric poem off of their documents, so that their investments in the material is more clear to them, and then to us as they weave their voices into the documentation.
--Speaking of collage poems, my students in Poetry & Politics will be talking to Mark Nowak on Skype this coming Friday. One of the more provocative questions posed already in discussion had to do with the manipulative nature of his method, using "objective" sources toward very "subjective" ends. Helped me realize why my former student, the retired Catholic priest, may have so loved Nowak's Shut Up, Shut Down as a righteous screed!
--I do not want to think about greatness in poetry, but David Orr in the New York Times is still at it. Read John Emil Vincent's response.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Just back from Chicago and Virginia; seems oddly (very oddly) colder here than there.
Just a few notes on form, based on a comment by Hank Lazer on our Multiformalisms panel at AWP. He referred to form as epistemology, a way of perceiving the world, which reminded me I once developed a series of exercises designed to show how form refracts world, without asking students to follow any particular rules. Hence, the exercise goes as follows:
Write one sentence on each prompt:
--Sit under a tree and observe what you see as an aspect of yourself. (Nature poem)
--Describe the same situation three different ways and then draw a moral from it. (Shakespearian sonnet)
--Write about a friend who died. (Elegy)
--Write sentences with various modes of repetition. (Villanelle, etc.)
--Praise an inanimate or animate object. (Keatsian ode)
--Praise or insult someone. (Obvious!)
--Write a sentence in which you eliminate one or more letters. (Oulipo)
--Write a sentence in which you describe a natural scene and then open a trap door. (Haiku)
--Write a sentence that contains everything. (Prose poem)
And so on. The prompts are just as much fun to write as the responses, I suspect. And while these sentences do not get at forms as rules, they do get at forms as ways to see. Once a student discovers a way of seeing that appeals to him or her, then you offer them a rule bound form. But this would make the alteration of form a kind of new lens on the world, rather than a violence perpetuated upon it. A mode of jazz rather than terror. One might consider Coltrane's favorite things not as a destruction of The Sound of Music, but as a correction, an episode of play, a signification on it. With signifying comes wit, which adds as much (at least) as it takes away.
Tomorrow my students in all classes give me documentary poems. Can't wait to see what they come up with. In the two 273s I asked for poems in which students started from a family member or friend who had been involved somehow in a historical event. Based this on C.D. Wright's One Big Self: An Investigation. Amazing to hear them struggle with this, as if unattached to history. That may be the main lesson. The Poetry & Politics students will have read Mark Nowak's Shut Up, Shut Down. (That is on google, my word.)
And still brooding on the way visits to the Alzheimer's home send me running to write, where my ordinary daily life does not. Something about forgetting that is more compelling than memory, despite old (pre-psychotropic) fears that memory could destroy a woman. What we forget we are bound to re-produce?
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
the nouns are verbs
conduit between I and I
from which the fish the fowl--
breaks on the well water
source and structure
a thrush's voice
of the body and be
yond the body
is the meaning of our talk
and then in section 28, the ending:
the ghost between us
I cannot say that I have read his book, but sections of it became mirrors to my day with the Alzheimer's residents.
Another woman, older than my mother but not by much, admired my blue Obama 44 bag, wondered if I had had to go to school to learn how to make it. I was tempted to say I went to school so as not to know how to make it, but watched her instead as she examined the bag, commented on it with other cut narratives mixed in.
This last woman talks a lot, about her sister Charlotte, about bags, about the knocking on a door she thinks is for her, but it's as if the momentum of talk leads her to confront constant obstacles. She runs out of words, falls silent, begins again another story. My one class had not heard the term "mother tongue" but what do we call it when we lose the authority of that tongue? Mother loss? For that it is.
I noted to a Korean woman that she has grandchildren. She smiled and tried to say something to me, but could not. She turned her attention to her neighbor's rice, which had spilled off her plate. The neighbor moved the grains of rice to the place mat on the other side of the plate.
My mother sits quietly all day, recovering from pneumonia. While the others nap in their chairs, she sits awake. Occasionally she smiles, or looks unhappy when someone talks about her ("they really should shave her chin," said a volunteer ombudsman, as my mother visibly ignored her).
I opened and scanned books by Sweeney, Joseph Lease and Patricia Smith, the last two from Coffee House. Lease's book takes on the economy of glut and superficiality of the past many years; Smith's offers us the voices of Katrina (herself!) and of those caught in her path. There's the story of Luther B, a dog who dies in the storm, as well. Good to see such serious content out there, but strange to open these books in the surreal waiting room (for that it seems) of the Alzheimer's home.
Monday, February 16, 2009
_Dementia Blog_ will have no sequel, because Alzheimer's has none. There are many new residents, and several I miss because, as the staff says, they "have passed" or been moved (in the case of the woman with the remarkably devoted husband whom I saw every previous time I visited). But the behaviors and the conversations sound remarkably the same. One newer resident plucks invisible stuff off the carpet; he handed some of it to my mother, who opened her hand and accepted it. Another speaks in a kind of stutter; she says the same word several times in a row and then moves to the next (repetition within sentences like the repetitions of the disease itself). So she says, "no no no" followed by "yes yes yes" and refused to eat, though she kept chopping at the gravied turkey. Her son waited behind the wall because he didn't want to interrupt her lunch. Another woman chants nursery rhymes, sings about how hard it is to get up in the morning, and burst forth with a song in what I'm pretty sure was Yiddish.
I spoke with members of the staff, including the new marketing person who went to a high school reunion and met an old friend from Alexandria (blonde Irish) who lives in Mililani works in the fire department and sends his daughter to Kamehameha (the pronunciations were left to me). We talked about Hawai'i's racial politics and Obama. She had visited Hawai'i and wondered if there were any black people there (the staff at Arden Courts, including her, is almost all African American or African immigrant), Lots of Obama stickers in northern VA and one I saw that referred to Operation Quagmire. Another new member of the staff said she had not attended school as a child in Somalia because of the civil war, but that a wonderful teacher in Alexandria had helped her when she was plunked down in an intermediate school classroom.
AWP was for me mostly the book fair, the Tinfish table and much wandering. Saw some good friends and met a new Cards fan; soon we'll have quite an AWP interest group. Jade Sunouchi and Meg Withers held the fort often, and we were sandwiched between Craig Perez and Jennifer Reimer on the one side, and Bill and Lise Howe on the other. A staggering number of presses engaged in an inventory of glut, which met the economy of recession with some discomfort.
I "moderated" the _Multiformalisms_ panel, which was (un)planned as a discussion and quickly became contentious. There was much talk of form as violence, or any new use of form as a form of violence, which may not have done justice either to form or to violence. We spoke alternately of form as activity and as content. I contradicted myself terribly on the question of hybridity, or perhaps offered a strange hybrid answer to the question of the multiple uses of form. Dick Allen of the grand anthology asked a question in which he commented that when he sends poems in different forms to journals, he's never certain which poems will be accepted, whether the sonnets or the free verse. Hank Lazer and Kasey Mohammad were not keen on this, nor was I, though I found myself talking about documentary poetry instead and opining that journals that publish various forms are fine, while people who write them are not. Or something. Will have to think more on that, and probably drop the judgmental tone that I heard emanating from my moderating voice.
I also attended two evenings of readings at Links Hall, which were a mixed bag centered around a lot of presses. The Tinfish reading featured Meg and Craig. I had heard Craig before in person, but not Meg, and I very much liked the way she read her sad/funny drag queen prose poems. When I taught them this past summer, many students didn't seem to hear all the voices in the prose blocks, so I asked them to perform them outloud, on the roof and in the small roof room we workshopped in. What they found in the poems was what Meg also offered at Links Hall. Voices. Paul Naylor says the poems remind him of Berryman. I don't quite "get" the connection, but I like it. While Meg's are not sonnets, they offer distinct voices. Life, friends, is boring, they might say, as they drank a rum and coke.
And now Virginia, which seems so different now, though I think it's as much this subject as it is that object. The view is different after almost 19 years away, and staying in a motel also changes the frame considerably. I'll see my mother again tomorrow, then leave on a very early flight out of BWI on Wednesday.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
The longer I live in classrooms, the more I think it important to transmit these practical details to students. They are not there simply to learn the art of writing. They are also there to learn how to make things, how to edit things, how to talk to one another, and how to publish other peoples' poems. One of my most successful recent classes was a rather impromptu directed reading for six(?) graduate students on publication issues. (Need I add that I am not paid for such courses? I write this not so much as complaint but as further proof of what I'm saying!) We met once a month for four hours and talked about how to set up a non-profit, how to devise a mission statement, how to run a press, how to stitch together a chapbook (the students sewed most of Leonard Schwartz's Language as Responsibility, under the keen eyes of Gaye Chan and Lian Lederman, Tinfish's art director and that chap's designer). And they put together chapbooks of poems by their students, their friends, by women poets; the concept was up to them, but they had to go out and hunt for work beyond the cosy confines of their own desks and laptops. One of the projects was Ryan Oishi's bus anthology, which I've blogged about. Another was Jill Yamasawa's Seeds and Esssse, a hand-sewn book of her students' writings, which she had them dictate to her. Another was an on-line project edited by Tiare Picard, which may still be out there in cyberspace somewhere.
These projects are crucial to fulfilling the cliche of "building community," yes, but also because they demand practical thinking. Now I confess to a certain lack thereof myself, but that's when collaboration becomes necessary. What you cannot do well, someone else can. What you can all do well together becomes a press, a community-arts organization, a reading series.
Now let me share Tinfish's final 2008 report with you. I'm not going to attach all the numbers, or include details of the TARP-like bail-out at year's end out of my own pocket, which Jade Sunouchi put together for our virtual meeting, but rather a list of our accomplishments, and then an acknowledgment that the ledgers did not record profits, or even a break even year. Some of the issues involved in budgeting should become clearer here, too, such as the problem of when and how many books to reprint. All publishers know the phenomenon of the book that gets reprinted and then stops selling. Or, in the case of Lisa Kanae's Sista Tongue, probably our most important book on some level, the problem of reprinting a book that was damn expensive to manufacture, because it was done locally and non-digitally. It helped one important economy, but not ours.
Anyway, enjoy. Hope to see some of you at AWP this year. We are at table 734, next to Achiote Press and Slack Buddha.
Susan M. Schultz
Editor, Tinfish Press
Tinfish Annual Report: 2008
The Board: Susan M. Schultz, Gaye Chan, Bryant Webster Schultz, John Zuern, Masako Ikeda, Jon Osorio.
In 2008, Tinfish published four full-length books of poetry:
--A Communion of Saints, by Meg Withers (run of 1000)
--The Erotics of Geography, by Hazel Smith (run 0f 1000 with cd-rom)
--from unincorporated territory, by Craig Santos Perez (1000)
--Tinfish 18.5: The Book, edited by Susan M. Schultz (1000)
We published one issue of the journal, Tinfish 18, which featured long poems (run of 500)
We published one chapbook, Charlotte's Way, by Norman Fischer. (Run of 300).
We reprinted two chapbooks, Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue (2nd edition) and Sarith Peou's Corpse Watching. Kanae's book was in a run of 1500, probably too many, but there were cost issues. Peou's book was a run of 250. [Kanae's book is very costly--making more meant we spent less for each book--but making more also meant we spent a ton!]
Our mission continues to be the publication of experimental writing from the Pacific. We had a n emphasis this past year on work about Hawai`i (Withers, 18.5, Kanae reprint) and the Pacific basin (Perez's book on Guam). Many of our designers were from Hawai`i, including Gaye Chan (our art director), Chae Ho Lee, and Alan Konishi.
See www.tinfishpress.com for details.
Reading & gallery show:
In November, Tinfish launched Tinfish 18.5: The Book at the Art Department Auditorium and in the Commons Gallery. There were readings by the poets, Kai Gaspar, Ryan Oishi, Sage Uilani Takehiro, Jill Yamasawa, and Tiare Picard, as well as a gallery show curated by Lian Litvin (she curated the book, as well, bringing in artists to respond to the poetry). Gaye Chan and Lian Litvin talked about their design work for Tinfish Press. [Photos of the event and a more recent one can be found on the public facebook photo album.]
In late January and early February, Susan and Tiare Picard, then the Tinfish office manager, attended the AWP conference in NYC, where we had a table at the book fair. Susan gave a talk on translations from Asian languages, concentrating in her case on work published by Tinfish.
Reviews of Tinfish books ran in the Honolulu Weekly, Honolulu Advertiser, Hawai`i Independent, and various websites, including The Literary Lotus by Christine Thomas, out of Kailua. A review of Meg Withers's book appeared in the on-line journal, Jacket out of Australia, and Craig Perez's book was widely reviewed on blogs and in print.
Friends of Tinfish Press, on facebook, has proved a good place to publicize Tinfish books and events. Our current office manager, Jade Sunouchi, recently completed an email list on gmail.com for sending out our announcements; the list increases when we make sales.
Sarith Peou's chapbook, Corpse Watching, was a finalist for the Asian American Writer's Workshop award for poetry.
SFCA grant for $1,000 for 2008. [I don't expect this to happen again soon, as arts funding is currently being gutted. It's frivolous, you know; just ask any Republican senator.]
By the end of the year, finances were a concern, not so much due to our new publications, but because of the reprints. (Reprints are dicey, because they often seem to be needed about the time sales have plateaued.) We did a lot of begging and received substantial gifts; the editor also put in $X of her own money. Money is now flowing in again, due to the popularity of several of our new publications. [Also significant here is the loss of franking privileges in the English department at UHM, due to budget crises there. That privilege saved us a lot of money over the years. The Kane`ohe postal clerks are now getting to know me all too well. We have added a handling fee to book charges on our website, but given that the cost of sending a $10 book to New Zealand or Australia is over $10, you can see what this might mean.]
We have plans to publish two full-length books, one by Paul Naylor (Jammed Transmission) that engages the Japanese zen tradition (Paul lives in San Diego) with an introduction by Norman Fischer, who wrote Charlotte's Way, the other on secret Oregon histories, by Kaia Sand, who lives in Portland. We will publish Tinfish 19 and a fund-raising project by Chae Ho Lee's students of four volumes of poetry in a box set. Chae designed Meg Withers's book and did the graphic design on Tinfish 18 in 2008.
To continue our mission of publishing experimental poetry from the Pacific region.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
The Book of Remembering Forgetting
One of the first things you notice when you enter Jules Boykoff's and Kaia Sand's house in Portland (apart from the cats, the books, the happy happy clutter) is a gallery of collages. These collages by Jules Boykoff contain images of Ronald Reagan; the Gipper stares from nearly every wall of the house, or so it seemed when I visited in November 2007. Needless to say, perhaps, these are not the icons of a properous era; instead, they are emblems of rampant capital (aka “free” trade), the demands such “freedom” makes on ordinary folks. They are the Reagans of Mark Nowak's poem "Capitalization," who fired air-traffic controllers in 1981 for threatening to strike for better working conditions. This odd and welcome mix of political science, art, and poetry comes naturally to Boykoff, who teaches Poli Sci at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (which appears to be a satellite campus of the University of Hawai`i, such are their recruiting methods). His book, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (2007) is a prose/academic analogue to his poetry, as is his book with Kaia Sand, Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry & Public Space. The latter presents case studies of public poetries that resist power, whether that power is literary or political, governmental. Boykoff's first book of poems, Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge (2006) might then be said to be the poetic analogue to his academic work; in it, we find the Reagan obsession in full flower.
In Hegemonic Love Potion, Reagan has given way to new counter-muses, namely Alan Greenspan and Alberto Gonzales, among others. I do not have the time or energy to devote to the entire volume (43 student essays await my attention, among other tasks!), but I want to point to a couple sections of the book, crucial to an understanding not just of Boykoff's work, but also the larger work poetry can do to intervene in our politics. For poetry is a crucial form of our collective memory, precisely because (through form, through innovative content) poetry is what lends itself to memory. Boykoff's uses of anaphora and sound are memorable, performative. Thus, one of the most crucial sections of Boykoff's book, “Notes from the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment” (a title he took from Martin Luther King, Jr., not widely known for his sense of humor,) is a collage of testimony by Albert Gonzales before a Senate Panel in April, 2007. Boykoff collages sections of the transcript—what is a transcript, if it presents full-bore amnesia?--from the Congressional Quarterly Transcripts Wire. The then-attorney general sings!
Boykoff proves what we do not want to hear, that bad testimony, like Donald Rumsfeld's press conferences, can be compelling poetry, and that poetry can absorb as well as perpetuate memory. So Boykoff creates a public record of a calculated amnesia. This record is sadly funny, a severe indictment of the Bush administration's refusal to answer to checks and balances. And so the mazurka begins: after a list of failures to recollect, Gonzales says, “I may have no recollection, but I presume it is true.” The failures to recollect add up, add up, add up: “I have searched my memory. I have no recollection . . .”. Failure to remember is magical: “My understanding is that the gentleman had hazy recollections about it as well.” “I have no memory of this.”
“I recall making the decision—I recall making the decision.
But I don't recall when the decision was made.”
I could go on, quoting and quoting the words for which Gonzales will be best forgotten. Except by Boykoff, whose memory of all this forgetting is crucial to any history of the Bush administration. That he makes the forgotten memorable is a strike against the amnesia that cost Americans part of their Constitution between at least 2000-2008. President Obama has recovered some of it already, but much remains to be reinstated.
The book's title, its cover by Jim Dine (a heart!), suggests that this is a book about love. So far, I've described a book about anger, albeit often comedic in its force/farce. But there are love poems toward the beginning of the book, none quite so amusing as the triangle of Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand, and Andrea Mitchell. Another flurry of amnesia, perhaps, or what Boykoff calls “rampant dismantling redux”: “Ayn or Andrea? Ayn or Andrea? Ayn or Andrea”? Ayn Rand was Greenspan's mentor; Andrea Mitchell is his wife.
The last sequence, “The Slow Motion Underneath,” is worth lingering on as a lyric love poem that refuses to separate itself from the world, yet opens a possible space for transformation. In a wonderful way, it is a poem about ethics (“barely audible as it was at the time / it all sliced mightily to your ethical metric” is a statement about a person and about poetry.) Each section contains 11 lines. Boykoff's birthday was September 11, personal marker of what later became a public nightmare. One might ask, “11 or 11?” In the sequence, the poet meets the love of his life (“kinetic moment of fortune”), even as he references the reality that “is a wooden handle for a hatchet in the ice”; a No-No boy from Heart Mountain, Pablo Neruda, erosion (Sand has written about water issues in her poems), labor strikes, deaths in Iraq, “a decade-old list of nice things to say,” and daffodils. Of that last, surprising, element Boykoff has spoken of his early love of Wordsworth, his memorization of his poems, and the non-poets he knows who commit verse to memory (Here Comes Everybody). Again, the significance of memory.
And of hope. A full-time job, as he writes on the last page of the book. “Hope is a category, an object, a toothbrush, an unmarked door, a metric of leisure, a decolonized mind. Hope is a volcano, a train platform, an island, a thumbtack, an impediment, a bombshell, an intellectual pitbull.”
While bad testimony can make compelling poetry, like a Happy Meal it cannot sustain itself for long. So Boykoff has included much richness in his book, as well, including this potion poem at the end. Anyone who wants to understand the formal and tonal possibilities of political poetry, as well as its bull's-eyes, ought to read Boykoff's book. Hope exists, and it is ordinary. Go brush your teeth.