Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Part Two of a conversation between Carol Mirakove, Mark Wallace and Tinfish's Editor

Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace: Cross-Posted with Mark Wallace's blog, here.

Part Two

(Part One can be found here). Or here.

There has been some debate around the expectation that small presses should abide by rules and guidelines versus small-press publishing being fueled by a gift economy and donations. What kinds of transparency does a publisher owe to their readers and authors in terms of submission guidelines and publishing expectations?

SMS: I think we're caught between two models right now. The old model was self-publishing and micro-press publishing. That's where Tinfish started, publishing chaps of 100 copies and a very short run journal that was xeroxed. But we rather quickly became a “real publisher,” meaning that our books cost more to produce and came out in larger runs. The production values went way up. So there was more need for resources. It's very easy to get big fast, because there are so many worthy manuscripts floating around out there. And I have no objection to presses that publish a lot—Salt and BlazeVox come to mind. That doesn't mean they aren't publishing good books or that they don't care about what happens to their product. They are working with possibility, which is a finer thing than prose . . . While I would never publish as many books as they do, I applaud them for their efforts. And, if a publisher tries to live off of his or her work, why not? It may seem “suicidal,” as someone wrote on an fb page, but so much more gratifying than many other jobs with steady incomes.

If a press asks for money from its authors, something I have no problem with, I do think they should be up front about it. Otherwise, I don't think authors need to know the details, except perhaps to realize that the work of publishing involves a lot of resources by someone(s) else—editing, designing, printing, distributing, marketing, and so on. Some of the nastiness of the recent discussions revolved around a fundamental misunderstanding of the work and resources involved. My students sometimes tell me that they are going to make money with their poems. One class accused me of not taking them seriously when I laughed at this notion. We need to disabuse others of the notion that seriousness = money-making, while letting them know that it takes money to put out a product. Our most recent Tinfish book cost us over $2,000 to print (600 copies) and I bought advertising cards and sent out review copies. The book could have been less gorgeous, but we made our choices—it could also have been more gorgeous and a lot more expensive to make.

It's also a good idea, as Craig Santos Perez and others argue, for authors to work harder to promote their own work, and work that they think is important. The problem there is that the fine line between disseminating important information and sounding like someone selling refrigerators (though my local Sears salesman was a former student!), is easily crossed. Keep the emphasis on the work, is my advice. Then make sure people know about it.

CM: Thank you for breaking that down.

MW: The question of the transparency that publishers owe to readers and authors is an important one, and I like Susan’s answer. But is there any reason that the focus of transparency, even in this conversation, should be on publishers alone? Should there be transparency (and is there any?) in Creative Writing MFA programs? What about in education institutions more broadly? Or in the work of political organizations and corporations? The fact is, in all those larger social institutions, there’s little and sometimes no transparency. That lack of transparency serves the interests of those with most access to money and most power.

In the case that led to this discussion, a lot of the expressed frustration with small press publishers, and the expressed frustration about that frustration, comes from a context of massive lack of transparency and honesty in multiple institutions, and not just in relationship to literature. And while many small press publishers, Tinfish and Bloof and others, have been lately explaining and confessing the details of their practices, corporations fuel their power over public life by deploying much larger resources under legal cover and never have to mention it.

CM: Mark, you offer good points in helping us to get out of a myopic framework. At the same time, we don’t interact with small-press publishers on the same terms of MFA programs or corporations. I believe this merits a distinct (and useful) thread. The question I asked around transparency was specifically between a writer who might become a press author and the press. This is a different dimension than those in the relationships you bring up, e.g., I may get my MFA certificate based on the criteria spelled out in the application process, but the meaning of the MFA may not match the implied promise of the degree.

That said, I think one of the best parts of operating in the small-press publishing world is that a sketchy or shady corporate framework is not the standard. There are several people working hard to demand that corporations be more transparent, and I don’t think there’s anyone arguing that there should be low-transparency on any corporate or institutional agreements, so I don’t think it’s true that we’re asking more of publishers more than we are of more powerful institutions, even though the fact that we are often more successful in having reciprocal conversations with publishers makes it seem as though they are subject to more critical scrutiny.

MW: I appreciate you trying to focus the discussion more specifically. Your points have also helped locate for me one of the things I find myself concerned about in this conversation. We’ve put the focus on what writers might ask of and need from publishers, but I’m not sure we can ask that question fairly without also asking what publishers might ask of or need from writers. I think part of the reason that there was recent controversy was an assumption by too many writers that publishers are more or less just a writer service industry, doing the janitorial work of creating a nice clean place for writers to put themselves center stage. I’m not saying anybody thinks this consciously, but that’s often in effect what happens. It’s too easy for writers to think of small press publishers just as people serving to advance a writer’s career, instead of as people who are often writers themselves and who are also working collaboratively to put forward the interests of an interconnected group of people.

SMS: So the new model is “real publishing.” And there's a need for it, because MFA grads and others need jobs. To get a job teaching you need to have published. And you need “real” books, not chaps, journal publications. No quarrel there. The quarrel comes in when the relationship between author and publisher becomes one of producer and—how to put this?--hired but unpaid help. This model is much less personal, much more capitalistic, and much less equitable. Another danger with this second model is that it makes publishing less a visionary enterprise than a business. (Not that businesses can't be visionary, but I would rather use another metaphor for small press publishing, something that describes an enterprise between business and gift economy.) Tinfish Press has been lucky that our vision has—in some instances, if not in many others—proved marketable, especially for classroom use. “Experimental poetry from the Pacific” has been rare, until recently. We helped create a market for it, and the texts with which to teach it. Several of our books have sold in the thousands. They help to pay for those that sell in the hundreds, or in the tens.

The discussion reminds me, in odd and mostly unparallel ways, of conversations in the adoption world. We're talking about a practice (adoption, small press publishing) that has a value (spiritual, familial, aesthetic) apart from the monetary, but which inevitably enters the marketplace. Then the question becomes, to what extent does our pure ethics inevitably get muddied by realities? And how can we act ethically, even after acknowledging our lack of purity?

CM: Susan, you ask a complex question and I appreciate the depth of it. To begin, I believe we can act ethically by making a conscious effort to communicate constructively and with respect for each other. If you think someone is naive, maybe try to remember when you were naive and be a friend, be a neighbor -- if not to an individual, at least to the art.

If your goal is truly to have another poet shut up and sit down, I want to ask about the violence of that reaction.

Mark, I am glad you bring up that publishers might ask things of authors; it may be the question at the crux of this upset. I, personally, believe completely in cooperation. But, I continue to feel that disclosing the terms of cooperation after a manuscript has been accepted is not a good model, and I don't believe that mode is likely to yield positive relationships. Maybe I am proposing an undue burden on the publisher to have figured out what is needed from authors -- I do appreciate that a lot of publishing labor is already invisible and thankless -- but there is right now an opportunity for presses to consider publishing terms, and if they are stated up front then we might avoid vitriolic controversy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tangles: Visual Poetics of Alzheimer's

Tangles. Hair. Err. Air. Heir.

My Alzheimer's is mostly sound. When I sat among Alzheimer's residents, I listened more than looked. When I wrote notes, then later blog posts, my thoughts were generated from the sounds of words, or parts of words, I'd overheard in the Alzheimer's home. Because so much of my life with my mother near the end was on the telephone, she became her voice, and then her lack of one, breath and then none.

Sarah Leavitt, in Tangles: A story about Alzheimer's, my mother and me, a graphic memoir, and Jennifer Ruth Montgomery, in the video, The Agonal Phase,* offer us images of and for their mothers' diseases. Leavitt's title foregrounds the curly hair that runs in her family, passing down from mothers to daughters. Montgomery's video opens with a long still image of tangled hairl many more images of hair follow, including one of hair being slipped into an envelope whose return address is that of a hospice. As Leavitt writes in the chapter aptly called "Hair": "Most people in my family have curly hair. It was one of the things that made us really stand out in the small towns we lived in when I was growing up." That box is unillustrated. The next one frames a somewhat absurd image; here, we see Leavitt's mother leaning over an ironing board, hair splayed out, an iron in her left hand, moving over her hair. "Mom had tried to straighten her hair for a while in the 60s. She ironed it," we read. The rest of this page is all about hair--mother's, mother's friend's, Leavitt's, the monster in her dreams who wants her hair brushed, the balls of her mother's hair she keeps, and then her own, which she begins collecting. "I kept the boxes on shelves above the bed and it helped me sleep at night, just knowing they were there." (Click to enlarge the image.) That the boxes of hair have something to do with the boxes of illustrations and the unspooling narrative seems clear. Both are family stories, one written in DNA's continuous present and the other in historical time.

But if you look closely at the second box on the fourth line of this page, the one that reads, "I never used a comb or brush on Mom's hair, just my fingers," and pause on the images of these tangles, you'll notice shapes that appear as if seen under a microscope. Lacking the words, the context, you would not know these are tangles of hair. You might, if you've read enough about Alzheimer's, think they formed another kind of tangle, like these:

These are tangles in the brain, tangles that provide visual evidence of the disease during an autopsy, mysterious tangles that cannot (yet) be uncombed, ironed out, straightened into merely remembered clarities of thought. Alzheimer's--especially early-onset, like that suffered by Leavitt's mother--runs in biological families. Like curly hair. An inheritance. At one point, the daughter, Sarah, spends a lot of time writing and drawing with her non-dominant hand, trying to "strengthen her brain." That is all we need to know of her worry.

Leavitt tells us from the start that she obsessively collected things--took notes, made drawings, hoarded her own tangles--also saved scraps of her mother's handwriting. The scrawled notes from mother to daughter are tangled. Early on, mother's note to daughter about garlic seeds she's sending on moves from left to right. The spacing is cramped, but the note is readable. Twenty pages later, another note is both less and more so; lines do not move from left to right but one moves from the center out and back: "family is The whole / eags to see you." That the family is not whole; that mother has a hole in her--and yet that the family is whole, coming together around her, is something Leavitt does not need to write. Her mother's unconscious poem speaks it to us. In its falling apart, language testifies to its own strength. Meaning accrues around loss, for better and for worse. (This would have been my mother's 94th birthday, so I know that I know this.)

The handwritten tangles visually echo others that Leavitt writes down in more orthodox, readable handwriting. Such verbal "typos" include her mother's declaration, "Oh broccoli, who are simple!" and her answer to the question "did you eat the rye cracker," of "No, it's eejier and squiggy to them." Of the first, Leavitt's father says "Well, it is grammatically correct," suggesting that grammar possesses a logic that lasts beyond the mind's ability to know it. The second is left without comment, except by Mom, who adds: "Something's gonna happen to it. / Nice or not nice, nicely or lovely." As I've suggested before, Gertrude Stein had nothing on lines like these.

If Stein postulated that there is no repetition, only insistence, Alzheimer's argues otherwise. Jennifer Montgomery gets at the dullness of sheer repetition in her opening to The Agonal Phase. There is the sound of something squeaking, something happening over and over again, but we don't know what it is, except that it sounds like breathing perhaps, mechanical breathing. It's like the opening to a Twin Peaks episode, when you hear balls bouncing, but have no idea where they are or why they're bouncing. The delightful absurdity of a group of cadets bouncing balls at the lodge, in David Lynch's video, gives way to Montgomery's image of her father--seen mostly from the back, or in parts of his face only--bouncing on a small trampoline in his simple room. Bed with red cover, side table, telephone. A tea cup, a white cloth.

Everything is still except father. Father bounces up and down, up and down, up and down. The voice-over is quiet, a bit monotonous. He rehearses his wife's symptoms, which are short narratives, vignettes. These are stories of how time has gotten confused, mostly. Oddly, sadly, set to a rhythm so regular it's dull, like a poetic meter without variation. There's a tension between the dullness, the unchangingness of his bouncing, and the soft voice detailing mistake after mistake (not mistake but symptom).

Whatever order is created through this bouncing is artificial; the content of the image may be simple, but the emotions evoked by the mother's chaotic attempts to live within time are tangles. So, in the second section of her film, beautifully titled "The Good Enough Movie" (after Winnicott's "good enough mother"), Montgomery shows us herself under hypnosis. Again, very little "happens" on-screen. We see a woman sitting back in a chair, following the voiced over directions of a hypnotist (like a mellowed out version of her father's voice), raising her left hand, opening and closing it. The hypnotist proposes that there are two movie screens. On one she will see narrative, psychological time. This screen will confuse her. On the other screen, she will see things as they happen in clock time. This screen is not confusing to watch. The main point of the hypnosis is to put the contents of the first screen (memory) in storage, and/or to transpose them into the second movie, which follows time clearly. This is at once a therapy for the film-maker and a fantasy of how Alzheimer's might be cured. It resembles Leavitt's dream that her mother never had Alzheimer's, but had been hired to participate in a study and pretend she had Alzheimer's.

If the Alzheimer's sufferer cannot rediscover clock-time, then the film-maker can. This is perhaps why her film takes place inside time, why the images are so still, so repetitive, so predictable, why the voices try so hard to convey calm. And why the film runs at such a slow pace, even slower than baseball, because much less action happens. Much in the middle of the film occurs in silence, with only the father's voice-over (for the most part). Sound is only suggested: musical scores fill a section of the house, and poems are open to read, like Charles Causley's "The Swan."

They leave very little out, not the smell of shit, in the case of Leavitt, or talk of sexuality by Montgomery's father. They try to set time back on its axis by drawing it out, by making narratives, however short, of episodes in their mothers' lives. But what strikes me as most valuable about their visual poetics of Alzheimer's is that it puts our eyes on their mothers. Even when Jennifer Montgomery shows herself crying, she's framed this image of reflection within a nest of images of her mother, a manatee, other snapshots. For the daughter, grief is less a lack of control than a chance to observe, to "ruminate." One section of the film that struck me for reasons not having to do with my mother's illness but with my own, concerned the effects of depression upon memory. According to recent studies, Montgomery tells us, depression opens us up to seeing things, remembering them better than we do when we are not sad. It offers us a heightened power of analysis. (Sometimes, I would add.)
The film ends in sound. A woman sings in a park. She plays an accordian, pulling it back and forth. The accordion gives life back to time, to music, to the brightness of a summer day. After a few striking images of Judaism--Hebrew letters on a synagogue, among them--it sounds like a secular Kaddish. Leavitt writes more directly of her vow to say Kaddish for her mother every day for 11 months. She notes that "The words of the Kaddish and the feeling of the cloth against my skin and the solidity of the floor against my forehead comforted me every night." She ends by telling us a dream that her mother had planted seeds on her daughter's shoulders, that they bloomed. Another space of brightness, even though we know by now that it is only episode, a clip to take its place in a longer "strip" of time. I'm reminded that the day after my mother died, I walked across a wide suburban street to a mall and bought Ginsberg's Collected Poems for "Kaddish" alone. Its weight was a comfort, though I later realized the poem can be found on-line.
"Toward the Key in the window--and the great Key lays its head of light / on top of Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the / sidewalk"

Sarah Leavitt's mother loved to dance. Tango leads to tangle by way of sound and sight. The vision of her mother trying to get out of the car after her body had stiffened, her mind forgetting how to move that body, takes us from the free movements of dance to the physical knots of late Alzheimer's. If we take confusion away, transpose the film of our mother's decline and death into clock-time, detach ourselves from the tangles of sentiment, horror, sadness, gnashing of teeth and hair, then we are, if not cured, salvaged for the next turn, which may or may not be ours.

*A non-figurative rendition of "the agonal phase," by Sherwin Nuland, can be found here.

In honor of my mother, on her birthday, October 25, let me link to an elegy for her. I've since revised and lineated it, but the original reflects the crazy force of memory in the aftermath of her death.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Grief notes: on my mother's upcoming birthday

My mother would have been 94 years old this coming Tuesday, October 25. The anniversary coincides with the final wrapping up of her estate. I spent 10 minutes on the phone this morning with a woman named Valerie who works in Survivor Relations at a bank, talking paperwork. They have the death certificate, but they need a letter of instruction. They require my attorney's original document of certification that she is executor of the estate; without the original, they lack the stamp. The woman-who relates-with-survivors and I had a good laugh about my lawyer's last name, Wildhack ("she's a very nice person but her name is kind of scary," I told her), but the rest of our conversation transpired in deep breaths. She offered her "personal condolences" and wondered how I am doing. She empathized with me, if only in the fuzzy quality of her speaking. No doubt she feels for me, to the extent that she knows me as a function (the survivor), rather than me as the person who wields a particular personal pronoun. I pulled up short of resentment. It's her job. She probably had breathy voice training. There's no good way to do this. "I can refer you to an investment adviser," she said at one point in the conversation. I said no.

It's the point at which analogy (the mind as an economic system) becomes fact (the financial sector as grief adviser) that what seemed a nagging sense of loss recovers the anger stage. I'm occupying the Wall Street of my mind, hearing a cacophony of voices confusing loss of mother with loss of income, inheritance of a parent's assets with investment advice by yet another stranger on the phone. Another stranger who would act like a friend because what else can she do? It's only humane to care, and besides, it brings in revenue.

[Someone calls now from Hawaiian Tropical Flowers to say that my delivery date of Tuesday would void their guarantees and would I like to pay more to ship over the weekend? I'm sending flowers to my mother's Alzheimer's home, because I don't know how else to memorialize her. I say no, it's after the fact, whenever they get there . . . she thanks me and we say good-bye. Another business transaction attached to a point of time that is also a point of grief.]

And now, with my cat's assistance, the blog post just "published" itself, while I am in its midst. The post does not yet have a title, though I will soon get title to my mother's remaining assets. Title, deed, account, certificate, letter of intention. I feel awash in a Shakespearian field of metaphor. I need his sonnets to wash this all down. Wit is at least not a term in economics. The other day I found myself telling the story of how my mother, after she earned her M.A. in Drama & Speech from Iowa, worked for a stern older Dean of Students at Grinnell College. This was where she got in trouble for helping to hide student's pets (in Iowa, a farm state, chickens and pigs counted as pets to be hidden in a dormitory basement). When my mother left on one of her wanderings (Girl Scouts in California or Red Cross in North Africa, I don't remember the itinerary), the Dean gestured loudly, said, "But Marty, you could have had THIS." Meaning her job, her station, her authority. Decades later, my mother would say, she heard that the Dean had finally retired. She must have been younger than she looked.

Wit is the thread that holds us together. My children, who do not look like me, or like my mother, carry her wit with them. My daughter's year of what I called Sarcasm Boot Camp (how to tell when to use scare quotes, when to change intonation to mark deep irony) should have been performed in my mother's name. My son's eager plays with words, too, bear her trace, though he did not know her well. A woman who left so few memories behind (her friends are dead or vanished, and I am her only child) leaves that thread of humor, at once guarded and a little bit wild.

At my Alzheimer's talk in West Virginia, where I argued that the person writing about a loved one's Alzheimer's should keep herself out of it, someone asked me how it is possible to do so. How can you keep your emotions out of this story? he was asking. It seems counter-intuitive, a bit odd. The hard part is actually more surprising, I found myself saying. Now that I am my story's subject--in the aftermath of my mother's death--I find it difficult to write about myself, reduced (or aggrandized?) at times to a confabulation of emotions. The Objectivist view of my mother's last years, the sense that it was her story not mine that was important, no longer works so well. And while, as a man in a bright football jersey in Boise told me, there is plenty of me in my Dementia Blog, it's layered in the descriptions, the meditations, the process, rather than a matter of content, theme, subject matter. I cannot describe myself seated at a desk, orange cat splayed over papers and a nearly orange volume of Jack Spicer, and have those details carry any freight. It strikes me that the subject of grief is as real, as crucial, as that of Alzheimer's (if more frequently trodden over), but it's not easy to approach obliquely, if the grief is one's own. Ah, ownership. Vexed subject in this era of capital (see above), of occupying Wall Street, de-occupying Honolulu, owning up to one's feelings. The metaphors betray the real ethical lapses, when Goods and Values meet up and call each other by the same names.

Where I was my mother's signature for nearly half a decade, I am now what follows her. I have my own signature back (even if it's an unreadable scrawl). I have her wit and her things. (Though if wit be an asset, what then?) And I have the occasional sense of being overwhelmed, not just by my loss of her, but by the loss of her memories, memories of her. Before these past few years, I did not realize that loss is such a complicated word. I am faced now with the loss of losing her. It's the finality of it, as someone said to me. Even when I felt that I had lost her to Alzheimer's, I was still living a gerund. There was losing yet to be done. But the loss no longer moves; it's static. I've also lost her "home," the many people she lived with, caregivers and fellow residents, those with wits intact and those without.

Gaye Chan put a page of my mother's date book on the title page of Dementia Blog. The date was Monday, 18 July, 1955. On that calendar page, my mother had written: "Get married--OK." She had underlined "OK" several times. Evidence of her wit: of course she would not have forgotten her wedding day. Yet on the title page of a book about her later forgetting, the writing on that page changes its effect, alters my affect. What was funny then is still funny, but a mixed state, mingled with irony, sadness, the hollow drum-like feeling loss installs in the body. When my students write, "I feel sad," I demand to know where in their bodies they feel it and what it feels like.

Today my chest is a dumb drum.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation (Part One)

I am cross-posting this conversation with Mark Wallace at Thinking Again.

Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace

Part One

Following a recent controversy in the small-press publishing community, I reached out to Mark Wallace and asked if we might have a broad discussion on the issues and hand towards potentially avoiding an ugly repeat. I knew Mark and I did not totally agree, which is why I reached out to him. We also looped in Susan M. Schultz, editor and publisher of Tinfish since 1995. -- Carol Mirakove

Susan M. Schultz: Thanks for asking me to speak to the issue. I blogged about the particular controversy when it first hit the airwaves, here: I read blog and facebook posts by Johannes Gorensson, Craig Santos Perez, Amy King, Reb Livingston, Matvei Yankelevich, Shanna Compton, and probably others, as well as many of the threads written about the controversy. But of course there's much more to it than whether or not one press asks its authors for contributions toward the publication of their books.

CM: Absolutely, but a point of clarification was not whether or not a press asks authors for contributions but how and when.

How do we distinguish critical discussion from destructive attacks? Name-calling seems to always reflect far more poorly on the insulter than the target. Why does this happen in our community? How can we criticize practices constructively, without personal wars being waged?

SMS: I've worked in an English department for over 20 years now, and if I knew the answer to that question, I'd be a lot happier there. We could create a forum to discuss these issues and put out a list of rules and regulations, beginning from “no name calling” and continuing with “keep it civil,” but I don't know that that works either. Such discussions happen rather organically (good to remember that many poisons are also organic). Part of the problem is that, name-calling aside, we all take our own and others' practices very personally, indeed.

CM: You make excellent points -- we certainly don't want to regulate speech. But, it seems to me that we take some others' practices very seriously, notably others we know, and other others' practices and positions are met with hostility.

SMS: Even apart from overtly personal attacks, every conversation about contests, prizes, subscriptions, funding drives, how many books we publish in a year, and so on, is implicitly personal. One of the uncomfortable values of this discussion is getting out in the open just how vested we are in some practices, and how hostile we are to others. I'd rather see us moralize less and encourage each other more. Or make the rhetorical point that we do not like certain practices, but do not condemn others for using them. Tinfish does not have contests, for example, because I find them an odd mix of revenue enhancement and the promise of cultural capital, but I know full well why many presses run them. Cash flow.

Mark Wallace: Distinguishing critical discussion from destructive attacks seems easy enough. The focus should remain on the ideas in question, not the personalities or behavior of the people expressing the ideas. It’s a matter of tone too. Hostility or dismissiveness, even when focused on an idea, quickly moves into the personal, since the more one’s tone highlights emotion, the more people become emotional in response to it.

Still, to say that it’s easy enough, in general, to distinguish between the two, doesn’t change the fact that in practice, there are many murky situations in which the boundaries get blurry, especially since, as Susan says, people take their ideas seriously. We can’t help but have an emotional relation to them.

The Enlightenment, of course, invented most of our contemporary ideas about the value of dispassionate, rational discussion. But the very belief in it brought in whole new waves of irrationality, not just in all the ways that people continued not to behave rationally, but also in the ways that many notions of Enlightenment rationality were nothing more than new ways of being irrational.

I’ve always appreciated what Dostoevsky said relative to the Enlightenment (if you’ll excuse but also note the way it’s gendered): “Men are so necessarily mad that imagining them sane must be another form of madness.”

I’m not sure much can be done to change the nature of public discussion. People come from so many backgrounds and ways of understanding words that standards for discussion vary from context to context. Professional and intellectual and literary discourses do have defined social standards, no matter how fuzzily followed, but it shouldn’t be surprising that not everyone has absorbed or respects them.

Public language has always involved murderous hostility. Right now, we’re in a moment when the unfounded hostile accusation has tremendous power in U.S. politics and culture, as just one for instance (I don’t say “more power than ever” because I don’t think that’s true). Hostile lies and accusations, if there’s enough power behind them, can force individuals and groups to spend most of their time defending themselves regarding things they didn’t even do, and explaining and even confessing the things they actually do. In fact, this current discussion of publisher’s financial practices is happening mainly because of the power of such accusations.

I don’t believe, by the way, that there’s any such thing as “our community” of writers. Sure, those of us who have been writers for a long time are likely to have some (many, in my case) trusted, respected, and loved comrades, but even the small world of experimental/alternative etc etc etc poetry and poetics features a constantly changing list of active participants. Look at the names of who is publishing in any literary magazine that you like now as compared to 20, 10, or even 5 years ago, and you’ll see how fast the participants change. None of us know more than a portion of those people, and it’s an open question about how well we get along even with those we do know. Certainly our feelings of community towards and with others are real, but I don’t think that there’s any stable entity there that belongs to any of us. Community is established through ongoing interaction and is always fragile. It can’t be relied on too much.

That said, I do think individuals and groups can and do influence the nature of public conversation in limited contexts. I’ve long been interested in fostering friendly but open intellectual discussion among the people around me, and I think I do it well, and I’m hardly the only one who does it. Still, hostile or irrelevant commentary can’t be avoided entirely even in the best conditions.

CM: Mark, you foster open discussion exceptionally well, which is one of the reasons I approached you about having a discussion amidst a very heated debate.

You reveal that the two of us have defined community differently, and while multiple definitions are “correct,” you explain that community is established through ongoing interaction where I imply earlier that it is defined by a common interest, in this case an interest in small-press poetry.

However community is defined, my concern with the hostility of late is this: the way we treat individuals in our microcosms, especially in the microcosms we choose (e.g., small-press poetry), informs the way we act in the world at large. If we aspire to a global respect and peace then we have a golden opportunity to hone those practices amongst our friends, and friends of friends, and strangers who share interests in things about which we are most ardent.

SMS (interrupting): I'd suggest that we stop trying to define what community is, and simply act as if we are members of a community. Enact community rather than sit back and try to figure out who's in and who's out.

MW: With apologies for being contrary and insistent, Susan, I don’t quite agree with that approach. I think we often need to act as if the people we’re dealing with in the world of poetry are strangers—which, much of the time, they are, at least to some degree. I think we need more awareness of the fact that other people, even if they’re poets, don’t share our values or assumptions. Precisely one of the reasons that this issue became controversial recently was that a lot of people discovered that they didn’t understand each other, which came to them as a surprise because they had assumed a lot of mutual agreement. Many people involved assumed that they knew what a poetry press was… except, as it turned out, they didn’t share the same assumptions at all.

Our responses to people in the world of poetry would probably change if we went in with the recognition that community can’t be taken for granted or assumed. Like any relationship, it has to be worked out. Speaking just for myself maybe, even with my close friends I’ve often become most frustrated when I assume, in advance and unintentionally, that because they’re my friends, we agree about things and understand each other. As it turns out, we often don’t.

I would have no problem with calling such interactions instances of community, I suppose, if we described “community” as a group of individuals interacting because of a shared interest even when they might not have much otherwise in common.

(End of Part One)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"the voice that left a hole in my life," on Steve Shrader

In June 2007, in our "Sister Bay Bowl" issue of the journal, Tinfish published Steve Shrader's poem, "Forensic Theology," which opens "we'll start here at the frayed edge." I'd had a hard time communicating with him during the production stage; I didn't know that he died on February 23 of that year. I google his name now and find that there were two obituaries, back when there were two Honolulu newspapers. On March 6, 2007, the Star-Advertiser reported that "STEVE SHRADER, 62, of Waimanalo . . . A writer, poet and graphic designer" had died, and that he was "born in New York." Two days later, the Star-Bulletin reported that he had "died at home" and that he was born in Cleveland. There is something appropriate about this moving origin, New York or Cleveland, Cleveland or New York. As he puts it in that poem I published, "behind us lay the boundless grid / ahead stretched the land of fractals."

At the frayed edge, indeed. Waimanalo is a community on the east side of O`ahu, known best outside the state for its beautiful long beach, and here as a farming community with a large native Hawaiian community. I vividly recall the day (in late-2006, probably) when I got an envelope of poems from Steve. I'd already been publishing Tinfish's journal for over 11 years, and had never heard of him. The poems were astonishing; they felt like pieces I'd waited all my life in Hawai`i to see. I accepted two of them, only printing one--out of my own sloppiness--and invited him to come to a reading. He came, we met, and then he disappeared. But "Forensic Theology" has stayed in my head. As of a week or two ago, I have his 1970 Ithaca House book, Leaving By The Closet Door, from the internet's magical warehouse of rare and used volumes. It's perfect bound, but stapled inside; the type is from a typewriter. Decidedly small press work from a press that published 100 titles over its 15 year lifespan. (Among the other poets published by Ithaca House were Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Maxine Chernoff, Tom Mandel, C.S. Giscombe and others.) Each of them has published many books since. Less magical is the lack of record of Shrader's existence as a poet. All I have found is one review of this first book, by Erik Lichtenberg (who has also disappeared) in Chicago Review: 23/24 (1972), under "Short Notes." When I print this two page review, the last two lines disappear, the ones that read: "fantastic book of poems, full of both promise and fulfillment: Stephen Shrader will, I think, prove to be one of the best poets of our time." This was his only published book. The material in it was written before he moved to Hawai`i.

I had coffee with Shrader's friend, Warren Iwasa, a couple of weeks back. Iwasa edited an alternative Honolulu newspaper, The Hawaii Observer, in the early 1970s; Shrader was the lay-out person, and he was good at it. So they spent many long days and nights together, but Warren tells me that Shrader never told him about that review. I mentioned Albert Saijo, who refused to be published after his Bamboo Ridge volume, OUTSPEAKS, came out in the 1990s. Warren wondered if that's what happens to Hawai`i poets. I don't think so, but the thought teases me a bit. That "frayed edge" that opens Steve's Tinfish poem, "Forensic Theology," leads to this ending: "the water sloping toward a vortex / we harbored doubts about this line of enquiry." Doubts about poetry by poets are not rare, but silence is perhaps less so. By "silence," I do not mean the silence of not-writing, but that of not-publishing. It echoes in my mind that I ordered a set of Emily Dickinson poems in facsimile for Saijo (for which he paid). I had thought their use of the page and handwriting complementary; now I'm finding their joint notion that publishing amounts to an "auction of the soul" more apt.

I don't yet have a handle on Leaving by the Closet Door, which Warren Iwasa suggests may having something to do with Cary Grant, by way of Kurt Vonnegut, albeit proleptically. But the book, which begins during the winter of 1967 in Iowa City, fitfully weaves together poetic narratives of awkward love, Vietnam, echoes of the World War, mythological references, and campaigns that seem wrenched out of particular historical context. There are short poems, after Kenneth Koch. Much of the book strikes me as abstract, if only because I lack whatever historical context there was, myself. But "Retreat" jumps out first--it's on page 9--as a poem about the Vietnam War. I don't think Shrader served in that war, but its images were everywhere; as a child I watched the war on the evening news. The poem is written in the voice of a soldier; the second stanza goes like this:

Word comes down the line: miles ahead
our officers have abandoned their jeeps,
their orderlies, fresh underwear and field
latrines; and splash off across the paddies.

And then, as Shrader is always careful to measure time by its days and hours:

Two days ago, we were still looking
over our shoulders; two hours ago,
we shot birds off the rumps of water buffalo.

Under the blades of the last helicopter,
a crater of flattened grass slides off
toward distant water. A small boy
steps out of the brush, holding up his
mother's thigh. Here is where our maps end.
Here, the dust breaks in waves
through the pilings of our legs.

This is perhaps the least Shrader-like of the poems in Shrader's book, but its concerns (violence, war, family, time) are focused here in ways that open the rest of the book to my attention. The mysterious Erik Lichtenberg pronounced "The Campaign: Letters from the Front" to be "undoubtedly the best poem in the book." The "First Letter" in this sequence begins, "it is a strange land, sister," and includes these lines: "We measure the distance / to the straits by the grain's height and / if we do not sight water by harvest, this campaign / like all others shall end I fear // in white-blindness and brain-frost" (15). The poems lack a particular ground, but the lines are compelling.

What Shrader has done in these last poems is to internalize the action of the poems with more overt subject matter. As he writes in that Tinfish poem from 2007, a poem written in Hawai`i:

we'll start here at the frayed edge
and work our way inward toward the center
pausing whenever something catches our eye

This is a more gentle poetics than that I find in the 1970 book, as "Fragmentation Wound," about a man with "a shard in / his throat." This "shard protrudes / just below the chin" where he sits smoking a cigar and looking at a book of Fra Angelico paintings (of "cherubs / darting like shrapnel"). The man, who is smart, contemplates:

The key to success, he thinks, is
humor. the shard

Ah, but where is the humor in this poem? That the man has a shard protruding from his neck is humorous (perhaps) as surrealism, and that this afflicted man is looking at painted cherubs is--at its extremest sense--a bit funny. But this is not a poem that lives up to its moral. Instead, it testifies more to the artist's pain than to his wit. (Warren talked to me about his sense that Steve was living a dangerous life through his work as a poet; while this sounds a note of dubious Romanticism, it's probably got more than a grain of truth to it. See "silence," above.)

But this last poem I have before me, this "Forensic Theology," is a lighter piece. This is not to say it's not serious, because it is. But the wandering quality of the poet's lines, his thinking, sounds an Ashberyan note of in-gathering and out-taking. The poem occurs over seven stanzas; it's (ambitiously) about the origin of the world and our search for meaning in it. The poem moves from the frayed edge, to a mountain range, to a bridge, to spiritual grief, to the lotus and its Buddha, and ends with exhaustion and doubt. But this is not a doubt that destroys the poem; it merely ends it, without final punctuation, promising more days, more searches. Let me copy out two stanzas of this poem; you can find the whole in Tinfish 17. I have no more copies, but I'll wager that Small Press Distribution does ( OK, so I just looked, and they have six of them left. I will also admit that you can find the issue for free here.

we could tell that space was shaped by the objects
floating in it if those are the words for it
jumping off a bridge would be like riding a rollercoaster
much whooping and screeching until
that last split second when we would enter
an enormous apple or vice
still we were pleased to think of speed
as a potential fountain of youth

day four brought spiritual grief
we found a man nailed to an X
when we saw that he was squared
we realized that he was part of an equation
and looked around for Y whom we found finally
cowering behind a dumpster at the stripmall
Z was of course their stepmother
a quick-witted suburban girl who had married up

and on the poem goes. Truly a beautiful piece of writing.

Warren tells me this about Steve by latest email:

"I believe Steve graduated from Oberlin in 1966. I think he went to iowa right after that. If Iowa is a two-year program, he probably left with an MFA in 1968. He might have come to UH to teach in the fall. The secretary of the English department should be able to find out. He then taught as an instructor for four years. I didn't meet Steve until 1973."

Of the title to the first book, he writes:

"To have somebody walk through what looks like a shallow little puddle, but which is actually six feet deep. I remember a movie where Cary Grant was loping across lawns at night. He came to a low hedge, which he cleared ever so gracefully, only there was a twenty-foot drop on the other side. But the thing my sister and I loved best was when somebody in a movie would tell everybody off, and then make a grand exit into the coat closet. He had to come out again, of course, all tangled in coat hangers and scarves.

Or so I thought, until I saw that the Paris Review interview with Kurt Vonnegut wasn't published until 1977. Did Vonnegut relate the anecdote earlier elsewhere?"

Not surprising that a man born in two places should have heard Vonnegut speak to him from out of the future of 1977, when he wrote his poems in the late 1960s. And so gratifying that he is still speaking to us out of his unknown future, now.

The department secretary is on vacation. If you read this post and knew Steve, please contact me ( The quotation in the title comes from the poem, "The Heart Transplant." "Regards, then, / finally to the voice that left a hole in / my life. Regards" (36).

Losing It symposium at the University of Chicago, November 4-5, 2011

[click to enlarge]

What are the many ways of losing it?
How can we write ethically about how our parents lose it?
What are the forms we choose to embody or enact losing it?

These are some of the questions I'll be asking and trying to answer during my "performance" from dementia blogging old and new at the Losing It event.

Jennifer Montgomery's video, The Agonal Phase, can be found here. Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary Affects is here. Susan Lepselter's faculty page is here. Carl Bogner's is here. Our convener is Lauren Berlant.

Beforehand, I'll be reading at the FELIX series in Madison on November 2 with Connie Deanovich. And afterwards, in the Red Rover series with Patrick Durgin, Caroline Picard, and Johannes Gorensson. (Please add umlaut to taste.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

My Life as a St. Louis Cardinals Fan

[My son's Cardinals shrine; in the background, the Brewers commit an error in Game Six of the NLCS, 2011]

There is something odd, lightly exilic, about being the fan of a team whose city you hardly ever visit.

In 2006, I published a short memoir of my life as a fan for Vice-Versa, when it was edited by the great fan of baseball, Tim Denevi. Now that the Cardinals have again arrived at the World Series, this time not to face the Detroit Tigers but that team's nemesis, the Texas Rangers, I thought to offer a link here. The essay is as much about imaging a sense of place and history as it is about baseball. That I became a Cardinals fan was a lucky accident; that I remain one, some 45 years later, involves persistence, obsessiveness, and the desire for some part of my own history to remain certain, even as transience offers a less sure mode of certainty in daily life. It's also an essay about tradition and team talent: the team I first followed included Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Tim McCarver. The team I follow now has Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Chris Carpenter on its roster. So I hope you enjoy reading the 2006 essay, as I warm up to write another, perhaps, from the vantage of 2011.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New Chapbook (from MEMORY CARDS)

I have a new chapbook up at EOAGH, edited by Tim Trace Peterson. Each poem begins from a randomly selected (more or less!) phrase from Clark Coolidge's The Crystal Text. The book, Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series, is forthcoming from Singing Horse Press in San Diego, edited by Paul Naylor. Here is the first of these cards:

I am not to speak for one year. I wonder if I should call. She has taken my vow of silence, cannot hold the phone or say more than hello. To enter another’s sainthood, attend to complexity’s unraveling into perfection. My crystal text is not transparent; she is my parent. Apparent vehicle, I & she. In the dugout the losing team falls apart: my son weeps, another woman’s son hangs head to chest. I sign her checks; I must be part she. I have lost her voice as she has lost my name. My son, in red & white, stands at the plate in the sun and blinks, bat quivering over his right shoulder. At this moment I cannot say I love him. Egrets sail over us in drafts. A baby cries. Coach yells, what are you DOING, holding that ball? One to another writes, I’m missing you, but the second is gone, except to Facebook.

–18 April 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Return of the Sidewalk Blogger

[`Ahuimanu, O`ahu, Hawai`i, just off Kahekili Highway]

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tinfish Retro Chap #7, baseball, dementia: a grab bag!

Announcing a new Tinfish Retro Chapbook, #7!

Tinfish Retro Chapbook #7

Y O U R S _ T R U L Y _ & _ O T H E R _ P O E M S
By Xi Chuan • Translated by Lucas Klein • October 2011 • $3
Design by Eric Butler

“Drink a bellyful of cold water and you'll drown all the voices in your head,” writes Xi Chuan. Harder to quiet the voices one hears echoing from Xi's new chapbook. The poet over-hears and over-sees; these poems are shards of the zeitgeist overheard through as many walls as you can construct against your noisy neighbor's television set. The title poem reveals Xi Chuan's Whitmanian reach; turn over in your bed and he will be the presence beside you. If you want to sample the work of an important contemporary Chinese poet, this chapbook provides an excellent place to start.

See here for more details.
Order for $3, plus $1 shipping, from Tinfish Press, via the website or at 47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9, Kaneohe, HI 96744


The box score to yesterday's tightly fought Cardinals Phillies game is here.

While I've been unhappy with Tony LaRussa's coaching for some time, I loved the moment--as Cliff Lee struggled on the mound for the Phillies--that he put the injured (but how injured?) slugger, Matt Holliday, in the on-deck circle for as long as it took for Jon Jay (what a professional hitter he is) to get a hit, then pulled him back in favor of the uninjured Skip Schumacher. Mind games at their best. One of those moments that will never show in the box score. Marianne Moore said she loved the aspects of baseball that are crucial to the game but have no effect on its outcome. For her, it was the throw back from the catcher to the pitcher. For me, I think it will be Matt Holliday, at-deck decoy.


Earlier this year, I wrote a post on the ownership of my mother's Alzheimer's home by the Carlyle Group. Today I got this message in my inbox:

Many care homes already provide a stimulating atmosphere that provides quality of life for people in all stages of dementia, and we should all have much higher expectations of the quality of life that can be experienced by people with Alzheimers Care Home.

If you click the link, you arrive at an ad for an Alzheimer's care provider. A quick google search reveals that the company in question is expanding, and that "The property will be sold to Nationwide Health Properties Inc., a real estate investment trust, Newport Beach, Calif., and then leased to Harbor House, which will operate the facility, Williams said."