Friday, September 30, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 7.2 (Eugene O'Neill)

O'Neill, Eugene
Long Day's Journey Into Night

Purchased at the Fordham University bookstore for a course on American theater.

I don't remember it too clearly, but I am pretty sure I saw this with my father, too. Probably when I was a teenager, probably at the Arena Stage in DC. Our theater-going continued when I went off to college.

My father would come to New York to visit once or twice a year. He ran a high school basketball tournament in DC that tried to bring in all the best high school teams from around the country to play each December. Many of the teams he invited came from New York, so he often combined trips to visit me with trips to visit high school basketball coaches in the New York Area.

Whenever he visited, he tried to take me to see a play on Broadway. We saw "Six Degrees of Separation" during its original run. "Les Miserables," also. We went to see "Dancing at Lughnasa" (he loved Irish plays). I remember seeing Ethan Hawke standing in the lobby, smoking and looking very hipsterish.

Once we went to see Oscar Wilde's "Salome," starring Al Pacino as Herod and Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks) as Salome. I remember her Dance of the Seven Veils ended with her stark naked and spread eagled on the stage. It was theater in the round, so part of the audience got the money shot. I think she had her back to us.

I am sure we went to others, but that's the last one I remember off the top of my head. Oddly, we never saw an O'Neill play in New York.

from Long Day's Journey Into Night

EDMUND (with alcoholic talkativeness): You've just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They're all connected with the sea. Here's one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself -- actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. Then another time, on the American Line, when I was lookout on the crow's nest in the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy ground swell and a slow drowsy roll of the ship. The passengers asleep and none of the crew in sight. No sound of man. Black smoke pouring from the funnels behind and beneath me. Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together. Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men's lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams! And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see -- and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

(He grins wryly.)

It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Aimless Reading, The O's: Part 7.1 (Eugene O'Neill)

O'Neill, Eugene
Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape

Purchased at the Fordham University Bookstore for a course on American theater.

I am thinking of Great Garbo as Anna Christie, Paul Robeson as the Emperor Jones. I've seen both films within the last few years.

I remember once going to see a staging of The Emperor Jones in New York by the Wooster group. I think Willem Dafoe's wife runs the company. Dafoe himself often stars in their plays. Their version of O'Neill's play did a kind of postmodern deconstruction of the colonial and imperialist themes running through it.

To say the turned it inside out is understatement.

Everyone dressed in Kabuki regalia, as I recall. All the movement was highly stylized. Three or four television sets, including one at center stage, faced the audience. Dafoe played Smithers, dancing around the stage like a dainty samurai with a cockney accent. He mumbled most of his lines. The Emperor Jones was played by a woman in Japanese whiteface.

For much of the play, or at least at the beginning, I can't quite recall, she faced a camera, her back to the audience. The image of her face was projected from the various television sets in negative, turning her whiteface into blackface. It was a pretty stunning performance, I recall, but when they started bringing the sound techs and light techs into it, I got a little annoyed. Brecht is Brecht, but I prefer my illusions.

Well, I just found this little video at their website. Turns out the Emperor Jones was played by Kate Valk, a white woman, in blackface, dressed in Kabuki dress. Her face in negative must have been projected as white. Hmm. Inside out, for sure.

Here's a clip with valk and Dafoe:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 7 (Eugene O'Neill)

The Iceman Cometh by Michael_Kelleher
The Iceman Cometh, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
O'Neill, Eugene
The Iceman Cometh

Purchased at the Fordham University Book Store for an undergraduate course in American theater.

My father was not what you would call "artsy." He was a businessman. He owned a small rental car company in Washington, DC. Before that he had worked for a number of years in the leasing department of Ford, and before that at several large car rental chains, including Hertz. I don't know if he ever had his own artistic inclinations. If he did, he kept them to himself. He did, however, enjoy theater and movies. They two of his great passions. Basketball was the third.

He went to college at St. John's University in Queens in the mid-fifties. One of his jobs during this period was on Wall Street -- I am not really sure what he did there. He spent a lot of time in Manhattan, though, and I know he used to go to the theater often. This was at the height of dramatic theater's popularity in New York, when you could, on a given night, see a play by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill.

Eugene O'Neill was my father's favorite playwright. I think in O'Neill's tortured souls he found some kinship both with his own alcoholic demons and with those of his Irish immigrant family. His father was a nasty, violent drunk, a longshoreman who left home before my father could remember. My father himself battled alcoholism until he was in his late-thirties or early forties and then spent the rest of his life in AA. Both of his brothers had drinking problems and died before they were sixty.

My father took me to my first play at the Arena Stage in Washington when I was about ten. It was "Ah, Wilderness," by Eugene O'Neill. He took me to a play or two every year after that. We saw the stage version of "You Can't Take It With You," on two separate occasions, once starring Robert Prosky in the Lionel Barrymore role, once starring Jason Robard.

Jason Robards was himself an alcoholic. He struggled with the disease for many years before finally sobering up. He managed to carve out a pretty impressive acting career along the way. As you can well imagine, he was my father's favorite actor. His favorite performance? You guessed it -- as the recovering alcoholic in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." My father used to tell me stories about going to see Robards in the role on Broadway. As far as he was concerned, it was the greatest performance in the history of the stage, bar none.

Late in my high school career, when I was struggling with my own drinking problem and trying to get sober (the first of several attempts before it finally took), my father told me that they had brought a revival of "The Iceman Cometh" to the stage in DC, starring none other than Jason Robards in the role of Hickey. I think it was at the National Theater in Washington, but I am not sure.

Anyhow, I went with my father and a friend of his that was also a recovering alcoholic. I remember at some point during the play his friend leaned over and whispered in my ear, "What do you think about that? Three recovering alcoholics going to see a play about a recovering alcoholic who is played by a recovering alcoholic! There's a story in there somewhere."

from The Iceman Cometh

HICKEY. [suddenly bursts out] I’ve got to tell you! Your being the way you are now gets my goat! It’s all wrong! It puts things in my mind — about myself. It makes me think, if I got balled up about you, how do I know I wasn’t balled up about myself? And that’s plain damned foolishness. When you know the story of me and Evelyn, you’ll see there wasn’t any other possible way out of it, for her sake. Only I’ve got to start way back at the beginning or you won’t understand. [He starts his story, his tone again becomes musingly reminiscent.] You see, even as a kid I was always restless. I had to keep on the go. You’ve heard the old saying, “Ministers’ sons are sons of guns.” Well, that was me, and then some. Home was like a jail. I didn’t fall for the religious bunk. Listening to my old man whooping up hell fire and scaring those Hoosier suckers into shelling out their dough only handed me a laugh, although I had to hand it to him, the way he sold them nothing for something. I guess I take after him, and that’s what makes me a good salesman. Well, anyway, as I said, home was like jail, and so was school, and so was that damned hick town. The only place I liked was the pool rooms, where I could smoke Sweet Corporals, and mop up a couple of beers, thinking I was a hell-on-wheels sport. We had one hooker shop in town, and, of course, I liked that, too. Not that I hardly ever had entrance money. My old man was a tight old bastard. But I liked to sit around in the parlor and joke with the girls, and they liked me because I could kid ‘em along and make ‘em laugh. Well, you know what a small town is. Everyone got wise to me. They all said I was a no-good tramp. I didn’t give a damn what they said. I hated everybody in the place. That is, except Evelyn. I loved Evelyn. Even as a kid. And Evelyn loved me.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 6.1 (Michael Ondaatje)

The English Patient by Michael_Kelleher
The English Patient, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Ondaatje, Michael
The English Patient

Sent to me by the publisher in anticipation of the author's visit to Buffalo in 2008. I am drawing a blank on this one, so I'll just post an excerpt an move on.

from The English Patient

She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.

In the kitchen she doesn't pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.

She turns into the room which is another garden--this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.

Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 6 (Michael Ondaatje)

Ondaatje, Michael
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

Given to me by the author. Inscribed. Though I can't make out the whole inscription.

Michael Ondaatje was featured in the second season of the Babel series. I got to hang out with him for the better of a day. He has just about the brightest blue eyes I have ever seen -- at least in person.

He came to town in the afternoon and I picked him up at his hotel and brought him over to Babeville, where he attended the Patron reception, then read and talked and answered questions for about 900 people. He read a fair amount from this book, which made me really happy.

During our conversation, we both sat forward on our chairs as we spoke, instead of leaning back into them. For some reason, this felt like a much more active way to talk about things. He was very easy to talk to and I thought the q & a part of the evening went really well.

Afterwards I took him back to his hotel and we ordered french bread pizza and sat in the lounger talking about poetry. It turned out that we actually had a lot of mutual acquaintances in the poetry world. I liked him a lot. Afterwards he gave me this book, as well as a couple issues of his magazine, Brick.

from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid


one morning woke up
Charlie was cooking
and we ate not talking
but sniffing wind
wind so fine
it was like drinking beer

we sat hands round knees
heads leaned back taking lover wind
in us sniffing and sniffing
getting high on the way
it crashed in our nostrils

Friday, September 23, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.36 (Charles Olson)

Projective Verse by Michael_Kelleher
Projective Verse, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Projective Verse

Given to me as a birthday gift by Dan Machlin. I can't remember which birthday, but it was in my early thirties. I have had it for a long time. This might actually be the most valuable book in my library. With amazing cover and title art by Matsumi Kanemitsu, it was published in 1959 by Totem Press, which was run by Amiri Baraka (then still LeRoi Jones) It's going on Alibis for up to $750. The value doubles for an inscribed copy, which this is not. It does, though, contain an original errata slip, which is quite Olsonian in and of itself:

I got to meet Amiri Baraka a few years back. We brought him to Buffalo for the first of several celebrations of Robert Creeley in the year following his death. He headlined the event along with Joanne Kyger and Tom Raworth. I found him to be engaged, sensitive, intelligent, and, contrary to his public persona, quite amiable. I remember sitting in the lounge at the bed and breakfast where the poets stayed, talking to him about Jackson Mac Low. I don't remember the details of the story, but I recall him telling me about a reading the two of them had done many years earlier in Rome. I think Gregory Corso (who is buried there) also came up.

The reading took place at the Church, a huge performance space the was rehabbed from its former religious life by Ani DiFranco (it's now called Babeville). Ani herself sat in the front row for most of the event. The wide stage at Babeville rises about three feet above the floor. A short staircase leads to the stage on either side.

Baraka read from stage left. A grand piano, kind of a prop. stood silent at stage left. He read for nearly an hour. A fiery, breathtaking performance that was equal parts poetry and sermon in tone. About halfway through the performance, a young man walked up the steps at stage left and seated himself at the grand piano.

Panicked, I ran around the rear of the hall to ask Ed Cardoni what he thought we should do. I felt a looming presence at my back and turned to find Geoffrey Gatza towering over us both.

You want me to go get him? he asked.
Hold on. He's just sitting there, Ed replied. If he starts to play the piano or make any noise, we'll go get him.

We waited. The kid sat hunched over the keyboard. He quietly elevated both hands until they hovered above the keys, threatening to play. Geoff took a step toward the stage. The kid sat absolutely still. Slowly, one finger on his left hand lowered itself from the others until it pointed straight down. He lowered the hand. Geoff took another step forward. He touched a key, playing the note just loud enough to be heard. Geoff took another step forward.

The kid held his hands over the keyboard a second longer, then replaced them in his lap. We waited. Nothing more. He just sat there until the end of the reading, when Ed escorted him to a seat to ask him a few questions. Just art school dropout looking for attention, it turned out. I saw him a few times after that, always disrupting readings or performances around town. He seemed to take pleasure only in upsetting people, which he was, admittedly, pretty good at.

I asked Baraka if he had noticed. He said yes. I asked did it bother him. He said no, he'd dealt with a lot worse than that. I am sure he wasn't lying.

from Projective Verse

I want to do two things: first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished; and II, suggest a few ideas about what stance toward reality brings such verse into being, what that stance does, both to the poet and to his reader. (The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to new poetics and to new concepts from which some sort of drama, say, or of epic,pehaps, may emerge.)

First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the “old” base of the non-projective.

(1) the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away.

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION— put himself in the open— he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. (It is much more, for example, this push, than simply such a one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: “the musical phrase,” go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome.)

(2) is the principle, the law which presides conspicuously over the composition, and, when obeyed, is the reason why a projective poem can come into being. It is this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley, and it makes absolute sense to me, with this possible corollary, that right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand.) There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE.

Now (3) the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER! So there we are, fast, there’s the dogma. And its excuse, itsusableness, in practice. Which gets us, it ought to get us, inside the machinery, now, 1950, of how projective verse is made.

If I hammer, if I recall in, and keep calling in, the breath, the breathing as distinguished from the hearing, it is for cause, it is to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot) has not been sufficiently observed or practiced, but which has to be if verse is to advance to its proper force and place in the day, now, ahead. I take it that PROJECTIVE VERSE teaches, is, this lesson, that the verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.35 (Charles Olson)

Olson, Charles
The Collected Poem of Charles Olson

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

This is the penultimate book in the Charles Olson section of my bookcases. Kind of sad to be leaving it. In the span of these 36 books I will have sold one house and bought another, moved from the former to the latter, witnessed the birth of my daughter, had a roof, laundry room, one toilet, one sink, and a load of new plumbing installed, and written the two most viewed blog posts in the history of Pearlblossom Highway. Not bad for a month and a half's work. Tomorrow I'll show you my Totem Press first edition chapbook of Projective Verse.]

from The Collected Poems of Charles Olson

The Will To

all living things

transpire: love alone

transforms desire

the measure

of the black chrysanthemum,

that nothing

is anything

but itself, is

too much: I alone

live in the sun.

How to outrage


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.34 (Charles Olson)

Collected Prose by Michael_Kelleher
Collected Prose, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Collected Prose
Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. My orange post-it index markers still stick out from the sides of this one. Most are curled up against the edge of the pages. Lot's or markings on the inside also. The book is starting to show it's age. A couple hours' reading and pages will likely start to come away from the glue in the spine. It's a great collection, but I've always had a bit of trouble with the sans serif font used throughout. I find it very frustrating to read. The words all want to float off the page and disappear.

Collected Prose came out right around the time I came to Buffalo. Ben Friedlander was my classmate the first two years I was here, and I remember being kind of wowed by the fact that a grad student had already tackled an editing project of this magnitude, not to mention having already edited and published Larry Eigner's prose. I was doubly impressed that the co-editor of the volume, Donald Allen, had been responsible for putting together the collected poems of Frank O'Hara, my idol at the time.

I can remember around this time sitting in Ben's office in Clemens hall. Either Ben had left the room or I was daydreaming or something. Not sure, but Ben is not in the picture. I can see the all sorts of notes and things pinned to the wall above his desk. I remember a Red Sox baseball cap and a note reminding him to call Don Allen, with the latter's phone number written below his name. I remember thinking that was pretty cool.

from Collected Prose

from "The Present is Prologue"

My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore. Is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action–a poem, form example. Down with causation (except, see below). And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.33 (Charles Olson)

Butterick, George
Editing the Maximus Poems

Given to me by the curator of the Charles Olson Archive at Storrs, along with the full set of Olson, the journal of the archive about which I wrote at the beginning of the Olson section here at PBH.

Two days ago, I made mention of the fact that my copy of the Maximus Poems contains a tourist brochure for the city of Gloucester, which I acquired on my first trip to Cape Ann, in the summer of 1998.

A college friend, J., also member of the infamous writing group I wrote about some time ago, was getting married. I drove from Buffalo to Cape Ann with my then girlfriend, E., also a poet. We'd had a sort of secret affair going for the better part of eight months. At first it was a romantic secret kept from our friends and peers, but by that August it had become apparent, to me anyhow, that the secret was something else. I was starting to let the cat out of the bag, as they say, and she kept trying to push it back it, so to speak.

Like the rest of the guests, we'd booked a room at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Inn in Rockport, where the reception was to take place. The wedding ceremony was held in an austere white chapel. It was Catholic, but it felt much more like a Puritan Congregationalist structure. E. and I sat in the back among my friends. Now that I think of it, it was all the guys from the writing group -- though none of the women -- plus a few other college friends.

My main memory of the ceremony is of laughter. It started when the priest began blessing the holy water and sprinkling it on the couple being married. Something in his mannerisms, his tone of voice, his persona, was so lackadaisical, so world-weary, that it seemed seemed at odds with the supposed joyousness of the celebration. All of us picked up on it.

The I made eye contact with one of my friends. We started to giggle. Within a few minutes the whole back row was stifling laughter to the point of choking. Fake coughs rose up, one after the other. I had to place my head between my knees to keep from looking at my friends or laughing harder. I was certain we had been heard, but no one mentioned it.

E. did not like any of my friends. When we went swimming after the wedding, she tried to do laps through their volleyball game and became angry that they didn't part the waters for her to swim past. Throughout the evening she made sour faces at their jokes and acted impatient to leave. She did like one friend, P. It was P., you might recall, whose exit from the writers group had signaled its demise. He also did not like this group of guys assembled in a group. He felt they got too chummy and arrogant and started to poke fun at each other in ways that made him uneasy.

To get out of the hotel and away from the group, we drove off with P. and another woman we had met. There's a big traffic circle at the entrance to the cape that we drove to. We drove around it once, then twice, then three times, until it became a silly joke. I think we must have driven around it about twenty times before returning to the hotel.

I couldn't sleep that night, probably as a result of my unhappiness with E. I had also run out of cigarettes. I got dressed and drove alone into downtown Gloucester. As I neared the main wharf, I could see firetrucks and police cars converging near the water. I decided to investigate. As I approached, I could see that the whole wharf, included several boats, was one fire. Huge flames swallowed warehouses, docks, and boats, while firetrucks and fireboats did their best to contain them. It was terrible and mesmerizing at the same time.

(Note: I''l resist the temptation to say I saw the destiny of my relationship in this conflagration. After all, this isn't a novel).

I returned to the hotel and slept. Next day I dragged E. around Gloucester, showing her all the sites I could find from the Maximus Poems. I was particularly excited to find the church atop of which was perched Our Lady of Good Voyage, cradling a schooner in her arms. E. seemed bored most of the time. She even seemed bored by my interest in the subject.

(Okay, then I imagined the conflagration of the night before and pictured our love going up in flames. We broke up a few months later, quite bitterly.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.32 (Charles Olson)

Butterick, George
A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

When I first read the Maximus Poems I made the mistake of approaching them the way I had been taught to approach Ulysses or the Cantos or The Wasteland -- that is, I assumed I needed to read slowly and carefully, catching as many allusions as I could and trying to make sense of their significance within the larger symbolic order of the poem. Butterick's book is much more than a guide to allusions, though -- its also a textual record and a useful key to the places and people mentioned throughout Maxiumus.

That said, after reading through the poem once with the guidebook next to me, I found that I still didn't really get it. So I read it again. Only this time I chose to read The Maximus Poems the way one reads a novel–quickly, and with an emphasis on moving forward through the text. It made much more sense to me this time. Olson's poetry is about forward movement–"one perception moving instanter upon another." It's about movement & energy, not symbol & order. It is this move away from the kind of static symbolic structure imposed upon meaning that differentiates Olson from his modernist predecessors.

Reading Maximus this way gives you a sense of thought and perception in motion, of being in the activity of making. A new critic might object to this as being messy and unfinished, unrefined even. This is not so much the objective case as a value judgment. Olson's poetics opens up form to allow in anything that comes to hand or mind. It allows for contemporaneity, spontaneity, politics, disruption, myth, fact, intimacy, and so on. What distinguishes Maximus is that it levels them all out along the plane of movement, leaving each an object among objects.

The symbolic order of, say, The Wasteland, does the opposite, creating hierarchies of meaning, value, morals, and trying to hold them in place by way of a rigid adherence to form. It's technically brilliant, but ultimately self-contained, whereas Maximus butts right up against the world in a way The Cantos, say, never really does.

This is why I love Olson, I think. Eliot not so much. Some of Pound, but not so much the Cantos.

Which isn't to say that there is no point in tracking down facts and allusions in Olson, just that you don't need to do so in order to read The Maximus Poems. All you need to do is read. And keep on reading.

I meant to tell you about my first trip to Gloucester, but the critical urge took over. Maybe tomorrow.

Here's Butterick's note on the poem I published at the end of yesterday's blog post:

III.52 To Have the bright body of sex and love...

Holograph original written in blue ink on page torn from notepad, with the following note added in pencil: "oh yes see next sheet–& both were on top of the same folder in which notes on Blegen (?) were–on black table by fireplace." The poem was thus probably written in Wyoming, NY–the Hooker house where the Olsons lived had a fireplace–and the note was apparently made by the poet when packing in order to leave, following the death of his wife in March 1964. A typescript later made by the poet has the following note at the bottom: "date? (in blue ink–abt period of Enyalion–or after March 28th [i.e. the death of his wife] /////?????"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.31 (Charles Olson)

The Maximus Poems by Michael_Kelleher
The Maximus Poems, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
The Maximus Poems

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. Speaking of which, I was informed by the proprietor of Talking Leaves, one Jonathon Welch, that it was he, and not Jim Koller, that gave me the copy of Olson at Berkeley I have in my library. Apologies and thanks to Mr. Welch.

Between pages 318 and 319 sit two items. One is a Gloucester brochure I acquired the first time I visited, for a wedding in Rockport in 1998. I will write about this in the next entry, I think. The other is a small piece of paper with the following typed on it.


How do the great poets deal
with fallen coats?

I am pretty sure this slip of paper was handed out by Matvei Yankelevich to the audience in attendance for a reading we gave together along with Ammiel Alcalay at the Zinc bar in 2005. Brendan Lorber asked if I would give a talk and so I invited Ammiel along to talk about the Olson Now project, which we had just begun.


In other news, I am now a father.

Lori gave birth to our daughter, Emily Anabelle Kelleher, on Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 1:40 PM., after about 17 hours of labor. Wednesday night around 9 PM, we were sitting in the living room watching Dexter Season 5 on DVD, when Lori heard a pop. A few minutes later her water broke and she started having labor pains. We called the midwife, who told us to wait until the contractions got much closer and the pain became too great to bear before going to the hospital. Around midnight, we decided to go. The midwife seemed dubious, but she put in the call anyway and met us there. We arrived about 12:15 and were admitted and given a room almost immediately.

That was the last thing that happened quickly for the next thirteen hours and forty minutes. We spent the first two answering admission questions a nurse typed in to a computer next to the bed. Apparently, the hospital just switched over to computer record keeping last week. How any operation could still be on a paper-only basis at this late date is mind-boggling. But there it is. None of the night nurses truly understood the computers system, so we ended up answering all the questions two to three times. At one point, a conference of about five nurses coalesced in our room, all of gathered to try to figure out how to save data without erasing it. While they were doing this, Lori was bouncing up and down on an inflatable ball as I massaged her back.

Lori suffered heroically through about eight hours of labor without any kind of relief. At about six in the morning, the midwife suggested it might be best to help her dilate by inserting a balloon catheter into the cervix. This painful procedure took about two hours, at the end of which Lori decided the pain had become too great and decided to induce and get an epidural. All of this was set up by about 7 AM, at which time, thankfully, the night shift ended and the day nurse and midwife arrived. Both of them were wide awake, capable, caring and wonderful to deal with. Not that there was anything terrible about the night shift, but everyone seemed to be a bit slow and cranky by about 3.

From 7-10 the midwife checked in every now and again on Lori's dilation. At around 9:30 she had dilated to 9 cm and the midwife told us it was time to get serious. She reached in, pushed what was left of the cervix aside, and told us all to get ready. I had to pee. I ran to the bathroom. While I was peeing I burst into tears. I stood over the toilet for a few minutes crying, partly out of exhaustion, partly out of a sense that my whole life was about to change right then and there. I haven't had too many moments in my life where that fact was so present and apparent. In fact, I don't think I have had any until now.

When I returned I asked if I had to put on scrubs. The nurse replied that they only did that in the movies and that I could wear the clothes I had on. For the next nearly four hours, I was in charge of Lori's right leg. The midwife took charge of the delivery. The nurse took the left leg. We shared responsibility for Lori's breathing. At this point, Lori's was so exhausted that she had a little trouble connecting all of her senses together in order to breath in, hold it, and push in one motion. We coached her through this for about an hour before she finally got into a good rhythm.

Even then, things were going slowly, so the midwife and nurse put her in many different positions: on her back, on both sides, on all fours. At one point, they put her on her back again and handed her the knot of a sheet that had been tied into a circle. The midwife told her that during each contraction she was to pull on one end of the sheet while the midwife pulled on the other. They called it "Tug-o'-war." We tried this until Lori had exhausted herself physically. The midwife told her to rest for a while, that it might be best just to let her uterus do the heavy lifting for her.

This seemed to work. A half an hour later, the midwife and nurse returned and said they could see the baby's head. Lori told me later that she had been quietly pushing when she was supposed to be resting, which probably hurried things along. From then on, it was all Lori. She had the breathing, the holding, the pushing engaged in a single rhythm fueled by an angry will to get the pain overwith. We were just there for moral support until the end.

It was a marvel to watch the head slowly appear, a small round disk the size of nickel, then retract, then reappear the size of a quarter, then retract, until it was about the size of a silver dollar. Finally, the midwife could get her hand around the head so you could see the side of it. She looked at Lori and said, "This is the LAST contraction. I mean it!" We waited another minute or so, and when it came around Lori held her breath and pushed until she was purple. The baby's head began to emerge. "One more push!" Lori pushed again. Suddenly the baby's whole body shot out as if from a cannon. Almost as quickly, the midwife placed her on Lori's breast.

The baby wept quietly after she came out. Lori closed her eyes and wept with relief while the nurses and midwives cleaned the baby off. She was bright pink from top to bottom. Her dark brown hair was matted around her temporarily elongated cranium. I took a few quick photos and videos, but was too overwhelmed by the moment to document it in great detail.

We were there, we know what happened. Pictures aid memory, but I'd rather write about it.

So, there you are. We got home yesterday. Everybody's healthy. Our darling angel sleeps through the night, crying only when she wants to nurse. Hopefully it will stay that way! I will try to keep up with the blog, if I can get enough sleep and free time to do so.

from The Maximus Poems

III. 52

To have the bright body of sex and love
back in the world–the moon
has her legs up
in the sky of Egypt

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.30 (Charles Olson)

The Maximus Poems by Michael_Kelleher
The Maximus Poems, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
The Maximus Poems

Purchased at Rust Belt Books. I probably overpaid a bit for it at $100. (Ahem, Brian Lampkin). But it was worth it. Actually, according to Alibris it is now worth somewhere between $125 and $175. I have very few valuable books in my library, but this is definitely one, and one of the most cherished.

Published by Jargon/Corinth in 1960 and printed in the UK by Cape Goliard, it is still in fine condition in its original wrappers. The book is completely unpaginated and has a beautiful blue cover page with an abstract image made from a photo by Frederick Sommer. The description of the abstract is described as follows:

A word on the title page device: this 'glyph' becomes Olson's 'Figure of Outward,' striding forth from the domain of the infinitely small; and, also, a written character for Maximus himself–the Man in the Word. It is (really, like they say) the enlargement of a sliver of perforated tin ceiling found on the floor of a bar room in a ghost town Arizona. Frederick Sommer made the discovery and the photograph.

Interestingly, the image is reproduced in black and white on the cover page of the paperback. However, that version does not include the description of the image. Amid all this discussion of publishing practices, POD printing and e-books, this is a good reminder of one thing that is getting lost–the art of printing books of poetry in fine, hardcover editions. Very few poetry books get this kind of treatment any more.

Here's a video of Ed Sanders singing Olson's 'Maximus from Dogtown I' at the Olson Centennial Conference on March 27, 2010.

Ed Sanders reads/sings Charles Olson' "Maximus from Dogtown I" from Pierre Joris on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.29 (Charles Olson)

The Maximus Poems by Michael_Kelleher
The Maximus Poems, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.

Olson, Charles
The Maximus Poems

Purchased at Rust Belt Books.

Unfortunately, this is in terrible shape. The cover glue has dried up and has loosened the cover from the guts. A Barnes & Noble sticker has been pasted on it as well. Very attractive. As far as I can tell, it is a first edition paperback. Not worth much. Looks like I paid ten dollars for it. I also have a first edition of the hardcover, which is quite beautiful. I'll be sharing that one tomorrow. Still waiting for my daughter to be born. Happy she didn't decide to arrive on 9/11. I am no superstitious, so 9/13 would be just fine.

Here's Olson reading from Maximus:

Monday, September 12, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.28 (Charles Olson)

Pleistocene Man by Michael_Kelleher
Pleistocene Man, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Pleistocene Man

Purchased at St. Mark's Books. Second printing. I don't know why I am suddenly aware of which printing I have of Olson's books, but for some reason I am.

There'smtalk that St. Mark's Books might have to close. That would be a damn shame. That was my primary source of books from 1991-1997. When I first moved to the East Village, it was still on St. Mark's Place proper. I only went to that location once or twice and was not particularly fond of it. It had lots of space, but it always felt like they were short on stock. But when they moved over to the current location, it became my go-to place for books, especially poetry and theory books. Still, whenever I visit the city, I end up meeting someone there so I can check out current recommendations for new books and also see which ones end up in the window displays, etc.

I must have been visiting from Buffalo when I bought Pleistocene Man, as I hadn't read much Olson before I came here, and I probably wouldn't have noticed a little pamphlet like this without any prior knowledge of the subject.

from Pleistocene Man

My dear Jack, Fortunately, as usual, I am not free but I did want to offer you my impression that the unusual, and only maybe Jung's grabbing of Alchemy a comparable opportunity, is Pleistocene,

whichever end you take, either the 'beginnings,' at this end, of say, 4000 Before Christ (5000 –and Mellaart's & others recent work in Asia Minor...But I could show you passages in Hawkes, in which he was, so far as I am aware. the first man to conceive that the reason why there is no Mesolithic in Near Eastern sites generally [as against Europe] is conceivably a direct continuance during Pluvial and Sub-Boreal of Paleolithic into the hands of the Earliest "Civilization creators."

And as the date of the last Ice has, I believe also shrunk, one can remove any Stone Age impression–which actually I have a hunch even most or all of the sd persons in front of you retain and won't lose (any more than they easily lost literary-isms) unless almost like Hepzibah you keep a good candy store in the House of the Seven Sable-Toothed Lives...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.27 (Charles Olson)

West by Michael_Kelleher
'West', a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles

Given to me by Cass Clarke, widow of poet Jack Clarke, an important member of Olson's circle in Buffalo. Cass sold Jack's archive to the university at Buffalo about five years ago and gave this to me as a gift just before the sale. She also gave me an old issue of the William Carlos Williams Review.

'West' was published by Cape Goliard, whose editors included Tom Raworth, in 1966. I remember reading somewhere, though I can't for the life of me remember where, that 'West' was originally intended to be an epic in its own right, on the scale of 'Maximus,' and that it was never completed as such.

Can someone point to some info on this? I flipped through the various biographical and critical works I own, but there is scant mention of it in these. I am wondering how I have this idea in my head.

Olson's prefatory note reads as follows:

I've been absorbed by the subject of America all my life. One piece of it has been what the enclosed hopes, in that sense, to set down. Actually as in fact it was reading and playing it out as a child in redoubts we imagined trenches and trees on the foot of Fisher's Hill we were sure had been part of earlier INdian wars the books of James Altschuler–and I am now convinced there are indeed only "three" American stories–that which was 1st, the one Cowpens actualized (the "line" which the Proclamation of 1763 made the Appalachian ridge)–and then the West. So I have here a much larger story than would appear.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.26 (Charles Olson)

Reading at Berkeley by Michael_Kelleher
Reading at Berkeley, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Reading at Berkeley

I'm not sure where I got this -- either at Talking Leaves or Rust Belt Books, I suspect. This edition, by Coyote Press, is long out of print, though I suspect it's not worth much, given it is part of a second printing.

The publisher, Jim Koller, stayed at our house in Black Rock a few years back. Coyote press is still being published out of Jim's house in Maine. We visited he and Maggie, his wife, a few years back, while staying with Jonathan Skinner and Isabelle Pelissier. Is it possible Jim gave this to me? I don't think so. He gave me a lot his stuff, including his Curriculum of the Soul pamphlet, but I don't think this was in the pile of goodies he left. O well.

Anyhow, it's a transcription of the legendary reading Olson gave in Berkeley in 1965. He was apparently quite soused and managed to commandeer the stage for several excruciating hours, during which friends were either begging him to stop or just leaving the room altogether. Like Faulkner's rambling, incomprehensible Nobel speech, when people listened to and deciphered the tapes after the fact, they discovered he'd actually said some pretty interesting things. (And some less than interesting things as well).

I think I have more to add to yesterday's "Poetryland" diatribe. I feel like a left in all my cynicism about the poetry world and left implied all the interesting answers one might have to the question: Why write poetry if there is no market for it? If the baby stays inside a few more days, maybe I'll get to it. Meantime, if you feel like answering the question yourself in the comment box, be my guest!

from Reading at Berkleley

OLSON: ...Society is the same fucking thing as taking care of a child. Or a cow, Paul, empty chair X. I mean–oh Jesus, talk about assassination. That's over, see. I'm going to read you tonight the poem called The Three Towns––

Editor of Gloucester quarterly: the eyes which watch you
do not look in the plate glass of Brown's (that display);
or idly, waiting for the bus, stare at yr cover

––This is the news, the world news, reversewise––okay, backwards or something, this is it. This is the same fucking news they're rushing to the headlines, of MacNamara on––I mean, you know, Allen, Eisnhower said––you weren't there today––but I said Eisenhower said the fucking thing in 19-- when Mendes France was selling milk to the French, "That whole country is a guerilla country." You know that?


OLSON: Are we a guerilla country? That's all that all this radicalism is to produce. The students of the world! The only way that America'd be radical is that there is the students of the world. That's all. That's why, Bobby Kennedy in Tokyo––the embarrassment of that situation––right? And you getting––being the King of May and being kicked out of Czechoslovakia––thank God!––is this side of that, baby. In my cabinet you're the Secretary of State, not the––not anything else.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Babes in Poetryland

Babes in Poetryland by Michael_Kelleher

The recent controversy over Blazevox Books’ publishing practices, by Internet standards now an ancient five days past and quickly fading from memory, brought up a lot of philosophical issues regarding small press publishing and also about what one might call the author fantasy in contemporary American culture.

The economic issues of publishing have been covered pretty thoroughly at this point, with Reb Livingston’s posts at No Tell Books providing a needed dose of economic reality to the conversation. Johannes Goranson touched on some issues regarding the author fantasy at his own blog.

Most of the posts I’ve read, especially those denouncing Blazevox and Geoffrey Gatza, fall to moralizing and are thus completely useless. Moralizers set out to delineate a set of boundaries one dare not cross and then show one after the other how the person they are denouncing has crossed them. Black and white are the colors of this world. It is a stable, unchanging place, infused with the universal values of “civilization.” Context doesn’t count. The rules, the bounds, the system and the establishment are justified a priori. It is the job of we, “the cultured,” to protect established norms.

Otherwise, well, you may have heard of the Visigoths.

But context does matter, and the context of writing and publishing poetry in early twenty-first century America is a messy one. Thus, I think it might be useful to take a look at the context out of which this particular controversy has arisen.


In Poetryland, we like to deny that economics play a part in what we do. It is easy to think this way because none of those who live here make any money from the writing of poetry. Some of us make paltry sums from giving readings or selling books at readings. Some of us make paltry sums publishing the work of others. Some of us (myself included) get paid to curate public performances of poetry. Some of us get paid to teach the writing and reading of poetry at colleges and universities. Some of us get invited to read at conferences and make a little money at that. Some of us get grants, awards, fellowships, residencies, and so on. But none of us, and by none, I mean none, gets paid for the poetry itself. It is a simple fact.

There is an equally simple reason for this state of affairs. Most people don’t read poetry (hell, most people don’t even read), and because they don’t read it, they don’t buy it. At least not very often. Because few people purchase poetry, there is no market for it. And yet there is an enormous glut of people writing and performing it. One could understand this glut if there were some monetary reward attached to it.

People don’t go to Hollywood to become artists. They go there to get rich (and famous). People don’t start rock bands so that someone will write a good review of their work in Rolling Stone. They start rock bands to become rich (and famous -- and to get laid). Despite the astronomical odds against becoming rich or famous in Hollywood or as a rock star, there is at least some infinitesimally small chance it could happen. People do become rich and famous in Hollywood. People do become rock stars.

No one gets rich off poetry.

Which means that the main driver of the poetry market glut must be fame. But fame? Really? Can you name a famous living poet? I mean really famous -- on the level of a rock star or a Hollywood celebrity? I didn’t think so. The late David Foster Wallace once said that literary celebrity in America is comparable to that of a mid-market TV weatherman. Poetry celebrity, then, must be comparable to the key grip on the mid-market weatherman’s set.

Perhaps its better to say that poets are driven to Poetryland by a desire for status of some kind. Social status, perhaps. If one teaches, perhaps professional status. I mean, what else could it be that drives us all to glut a non-existent market with a worthless product that is ultimately a drain on our financial and emotional well-being?

It’s fascinating to me that even the Poetry Foundation, with a hundred million dollars to spend and an astute businessman with a strong sense of marketing at the helm, has not been able to create an economically viable market for poetry.

This could be a great challenge to all the marketing gurus of the world: create a viable economic market for poetry books. I’d give them an unlimited budget with one caveat: if you fail, you have to foot the bill yourself. I don’t think any would take up the challenge. After all, in order to effectively market, you have to have a viable product to sell. It has to do something for the consumer.

But what does poetry do for anyone?


Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what drives people to Poetryland is a desire for some kind of status in a society that gives little if any status to poets. So what kind of status do they seek? I think the answer is status within Poetryland itself.

Who, after all, reads poetry? Answer: poets (some of them, anyhow).
Who, after all, goes to poetry readings? Answer: Poets and their friends and family.
Who teaches poetry workshops? Answer: Poets
Who hires creative writing faculty? Answer: Poets, for the most part.

So we can begin to see the outlines of Poetryland. All one need do to enter this enchanted place is call oneself a poet. But this only gets your foot in the door. It gives you very little if any status at all in Poetryland to be a poet without, say, a book--or a good teaching job. Within each of these categories -- the “published poet” and the “creative writing professor poet” -- exist sub-categories, each with their attendant level of Poetryland status points.

For instance, the lowest level on the totem pole in the “published author” category is the “self-published” author. Historically, this category was reserved for the wealthy. Books have always been expensive to produce because of high specialized labor costs and high material production costs. Additionally, these costs required high print runs which meant there were warehousing costs in addition to everything else. Over time, the pejorative term “vanity publishing” became associated with this activity. This despite the fact poets like Walt Whitman and William Blake and John Milton and many others self-published their work.

In truth, the term “vanity publishing” is reserved for those whose self-reliance did not ultimately secure the desired literary fame. We can laugh at these sad sacks the same way we laugh at actors who waste their lives doing TV commercials and walk-on roles in daytime soap operas. They’re losers. Each of us enters Poetryland for the first time certain that we will never allow ourselves to stoop to the level of the “vanity” poet. We’d rather die or -- more likely -- leave Poetryland behind than subject ourselves to that.

Wouldn’t we?

Now, one step above this level are those who start their own magazines or presses in order to self-publish. There is no word for this, but we all know what I mean. In this instance, the frustrated author creates a publishing outlet for herself, but hides this fact by also publishing others. By creating a legitimate brand for others, she at the same time provides some cover for her vanity.

Next up are those authors who blindly send their poems and manuscripts out to magazines, presses and contests for publication. These authors achieve a special status because somehow they have overcome the odds of getting published and have gotten their work out to the world by means of what could only be one thing: talent.

That’s right friends, it takes talent to get published by someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you. Why, the very fact that they don’t know you means that they must have good taste, recognize talent when they see it, and believe heart and soul in the authors they select.

Doesn’t it?

Now, there is still some sifting to do among the “chosen” ones, and this has to do with our sense of the selectivity of the publishing outfits. A combination of legacy, history, reputation, distribution and, yes, money, gives status to the various outlets that publish poetry. The more of each of these a publisher has, the more status the denizens of Poetryland accord to the authors they select.

Those published in the appropriate venues are, quite literally, chosen.

And once they have been chosen, they qualify for other forms of Poetryland status points. These include, grants, awards, and good creative writing jobs. Now, because so many people want to enter Poetryland and only a select few can be chosen, an entire industry has arisen that allows people to pay for entry into Poetryland by way of a terminal degree program. Some of the graduates of these programs, despite not really being “chosen,” are given jobs teaching others, thus creating a sub-economy of the un-chosen who nonetheless seek and find some form of status in Poetryland, always of course with the knowledge that they are not “chosen” and thus don’t really deserve what they’ve got. For this reason, they fight for the status quo that much more forcefully. Anything that threatens the status level they have a achieved must be defended against at all costs.

(There was an interesting study published recently about voting habits. It sought to discover why poor voters would willingly vote for lower taxes for the rich. The assumption had always been that they did so because they hoped to one day be rich and therefore developed an identification with the interests of the class to which they aspired. What the study found, however, was much more base in nature. They discovered that people voted for lowering taxes on the wealthy not because they aspired to personal wealth, but because they wanted to be certain that someone else was always poorer than themselves. This, I think drives much of the status-seeking in Poetryland. We protect the status quo because it allows us to imagine someone else is below us, no matter how far down the ladder we really are. We need to imagine that people are “vanity” publishing in order to legitimize our fantasy that being “selected” blindly matters more than doing it ourselves. This, I think, is at the heart of the “vanity” publishing aspect of the Blazevox discussion. )

Meanwhile, the elect smile and generously take on occasional judging duties to help initiate a few new members into their circle, lest it die out completely or become hideously deformed through inbreeding.


The various strata and sub-strata of Poetryland outlined in the previous section delineate the values of what has been called, variously, “mainstream poetry,” “official verse culture,” “workshop poetry,” and “aesthetic conservatism.” What money does get channeled into Poetryland most often gets directed into their accounts, with a few scraps here and there thrown to alternative “voices” who manage to garner enough cultural capital outside of Poetryland (or from certain segments within it) to demand their attention. Otherwise, they remain blissfully unaware of alternative poetry lifestyles, which have no “official” status, no legitimacy, & therefore do not count.

But there is a whole history of small press culture in Poetryland that both critiques mainstream culture and offers viable alternatives to it. There are places, obviously, where the two meet, and others where they do not.

New Directions press is an alternative press fueled by a personal fortune and thus not subject to real market demands. This lack of subjection to the market allowed the press to champion modernism despite a persistent (and ongoing) backlash against work considered difficult, opaque, impolitic, or just not polite. Over time, New Directions has a achieved enough status points in Poetryland to be able to pass some of those points on to authors it chooses to publish. Or they just have a good eye for talent. That’s for you to decide.

So that is one alternative. To have a personal fortune at one’s disposal and to use it to make an aesthetic argument. Not many have such a fortune and among those that do even fewer are willing to risk it on so lowly a thing as poetry.

Another is to take the means of production into the hands of the workers, in this case the poets. If one looks at the history of the avant-garde at least since WWII, it is these alternatives, in which poets willingly become “culture workers,” which have fueled aesthetic innovation in the writing, publishing and theorizing of poetry.

The most threatening aspect of the Culture Worker model is that it calls into question aesthetic judgment. It questions the authority of the judges, the legitimacy of the presses, and the whole machinery of judgment upon which the professorial/elected class of poets depends for its livelihood.

In the case of contests, it asks, “Who are you to judge?”
In the case of presses, it asks, “Why should I respect your poets more than I respect those who self-publish?”
In the case of the machinery of judgment it asks, to mostly stunned silence, “Why judge at all?”

I once sat in on a discussion between Robert Creeley, whose Divers Press is one of the most important examples of small press publishing getting important work into the world when the mainstream would have nothing to do with it, and a non-poet English Professor at the University at Buffalo. The question of aesthetic value came up. Creeley suggested that value was created in the work, or rather, in the process of making, poesis, and in the community (or “company”) the poet/publisher built around the work (here defined as writing, aesthetics, and publishing). The professor then asked, But how are we to judge whether or not it is any good? To which Creeley responded, Who cares?

In Creeley’s mind, the process of determining aesthetic value was absolutely secondary (if not tertiary) to the work of the poet. Which was not to say that poets don’t have any base interests in their status in Poetryland, but that their job is to both write and make an argument for their work at the same time. Those who depend on presses, universities, critics, etc., to make their argument for them have no real stake in the aesthetic and political questions of their time beyond whatever “status” they might achieve by being one of the chosen or maintaining the status quo.

The Culture Worker model further threatens the image of the heroic author, in which the artist functions as a kind of celebrity or star giving off rays of light that illumine the lives of all they touch. Because of this great power of illumination, the artist should never be subject to thoughts about money, economics, administration or anything else tainted by brute necessity, lest they dull the light.

The Culture Worker model democratizes the relationship between the author and the publisher. It views them as co-conspirators. The work of selecting, editing, designing, making, marketing and distributing a book is viewed as equally important to the writing itself (and the writer himself). I have been to several small press conferences over the years and I have seen that they fall into two categories: those that value publishing and the community of artists, editors, designers and so on it creates around one or several aesthetic ideas; and those that value the status of the authors published by certain “legitimate” presses.

I am partial to the former.

At those conferences based on the Culture Worker model, we talk about books, bookmaking, fonts, stitching and sewing, editing, marketing, and the work being published or self-published by the presses. At the latter, the writers with the most status are flown in, give a quick reading and are taken to an exclusive meal before leaving town. In the other room, the small presses attempt to sell their books to no one.

There are other alternative models in Poetryland worth noting. These involve small communities of like-minded or like-born writers banding together to counteract a perceived under-representation in mainstream literary culture. Presses founded on ethnic, racial, sexual and gender identity arise all the time to make arguments for various kinds of equality in the publishing worlds. These, too, create viable alternatives to the mainstream model.

What binds all of these alternatives (many of which I’ve barely touched on) together is the fact that they value building community over building resumes. Which is not to say that there is no status-seeking within alternative culture either, just a recognition that in terms of quality of work, there is no reason to trust Norton or Penguin or Graywolf over Blazevox or Ugly Duckling or Green Integer. In fact, the opposite might be true.


What I earlier called “aesthetic conservatism” can be defined as follows. The belief that literary value is inherent in a poetic work and that there are certain specialists, be they critics, academics, editors or publishers who -- like perfumers that can sniff out not only the kinds but quantities of each aroma in a given perfume -- can sniff out literary value and compare it to the accepted or inherited (the latter suggesting also the class structure on which this concept is founded) value of all literary works, thus preserving the universal aesthetic order from one generation to the next.

I guess we want to believe this is true in much the same way we like to believe we go to heaven after we die. If only.


And so let us turn once more to our babe, the aspirant to Poetryland, naive and innocent, standing before the gates, quietly importuning the immortals:

Please, Lord, please. Smell it on ME!

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.25 (Charles Olson)

Causal Mythology by Michael_Kelleher
Causal Mythology, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Causal Mythology

Let me acknowledge up front that I begin this post feeling like a jerk. This book was given to me as a gift. By a friend. Possibly a close friend. What's more, it was given to me within the last three years. Yet, for whatever reason, I cannot remember who gave it to me. I cast about in my head and draw a blank. I really, really appreciate it, whoever it was. Thanks. And sorry. Feel free to berate me in the comment box or in person the next time you see me.

I remember reading this in the library in graduate school. Going to the library at the University at Buffalo is not fun. The building is a monolithic, brutalist hunk dropped across the path from the English department. I remember studying in these little cubicles with locking doors and thinking how much more useful these would be for clandestine sexual encounters than for studying.

After a time, I only went in there to take out books or to return them. I rarely stayed to read or study. The same could be said for the campus. After a time, I only went there to attend classes or go to events. I rarely stayed for any other reason, least of all studying.

After Kent Johnson's comment about the value of yesterday's book, I did a quick search to see how much my copy of The Distances is worth. Sadly, about ten dollars. This volume, on the other hand, is worth a tidy twenty-two dollars. Not quite the money I could be raking in by running an avant-garde poetry press, but hey, it's a lot less work, too.

from Causal Mythology

You know I'm very obliged to get rid of that rap for being Zeus. I never knew I was Prometheus until now. It's a fine thing–I've been a father figure too long. [Laughter]. And I've begun to suffer so completely the fate of that other fellow that what I propose to do today is to expose myself, as he was, on a rock. And, in fact, if I can accomplish anything it's simply because there's a little of my liver left from overnight, like I think his was. [Laughter].

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.24 (Charles Olson)

The Distances by Michael_Kelleher
The Distances, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
The Distances

Given to me by Nicholas Laudadio, a classmate in graduate school.

Nick briefly began buying caches of avant-garde classics on eBay when it first opened. He was able to get some amazing deals back then (1997-8) and resell them in the process. I remember he bought a huge cache of Jack Spicer material. I was over at his apartment admiring this when he showed me this copy of The Distances, which he had also just bought. Seeing my delight at putting my hands on it, he gave it to me.

Thanks, Nick.

I love the Roy Kuhlman cover on this one. He designed a lot of the amazing Grove Press covers in the fifties and sixties, most of which are kind of iconic now. There's a flickr set devoted to them here:

And here's a link to the first, most famous poem in this collection, "The Kingfishers."


Thinking I was done with this post, I stepped down the hall and cleaned out the cat box, then carried the bag downstairs and out to the garbage totes. As I descended, I started remembering more about Nick's house. He lived in a house on Livingston St., which has for a long time been a relatively safe and cheap street on the west side of Buffalo. Most of the surrounding neighborhood is pretty rough, but this hidden little street has always maintained a modicum of cleanliness and safety. It's kind of an oasis. Lori and I almost bought a house there once.

Nick lived in a large rental house, at first with several others, but eventually he rented it all on his own. It had all kinds of crazy carpet and paneling all over it, but Nick revelled in the bad taste of the owner and gave the house a personality all his own. He had a recording studio and a print shop and a hammock in the back yard. He threw a lot of parties and barbecues. I think Juliana Spahr lived in the same house when she was in Buffalo.

Too, Nick Published my first non-self-published chapbook in this house. He did a series of very, very short chaps in the late nineties on his press, Trifecta -- I think maybe three poems or three pages each. It might have been called the "Three Poems" series. They were hand-sewn and printed in very small editions, maybe twenty or so. I remember going to Nick's to help him puncture the covers and sew the bindings.  I am not even sure I still have a copy of my own.

Anyhow, it was a groovy little place that I felt I needed to mention before a closed up shop on this particular book.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.23 (Charles Olson)

Call Me Ishmael by Michael_Kelleher
Call Me Ishmael, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Call Me Ishmael

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. This is one of the most read books in my library. I have probably read it three times, and sections of it many more times than that. This is partly because I was writing the first chapter of my dissertation on it, partly because it's one of my all time favorite books. Personally, I think it is one of the single most significant contributions to the scholarship of American Literature. Ever. Right up there with American Renaissance, My Emily Dickinson, Studies in Classic American Literature and In The American Grain. In my humble opinion.

In this particular copy, which I don't think is the first I owned (or perhaps not the first I read -- I may have taken it out from the library), I find a bookmark between pages 64 & 65, at the beginning of the chapter called, "Shakespeare Concluded." The bookmark comes from a multilingual bookstore in Quito, Ecuador, which I frequented when I lived there. It was called, appropriately, Libri Mundi. I am not sure how it survived all these years to end up in this book. I haven't picked up this book in eight or nine years -- and even then it still would have to have survived in my library, including several moves, for an additional seven or eight years before it landed where it did.

I can remember buying a UK Penguin edition of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy at Libri Mundi. I had seen individual titles in the U.S., but there wasn't an edition of all three works in print at the time in the U.S., so I was very excited when I found it. I paid some ungodly amount of money for it because this was, after all, the only English language bookstore in Quito. I think it cost thirty dollars for a cheap Penguin Classics paperback. And this in 1994!

My clearest memory of the book is a satirical passage on the Presidency of Theodore Rosevelt, in which the phrase, "Bully for him!" is repeated ad nauseum. I spent the whole of the winter months reading through trilogy. The book even made it back to the states with me. I later loaned it to a friend in New York, who then moved to Austin, then Boston, then Austin then Cincinnati, then Oneonta, then Los Angeles, marrying twice and divorcing once along the way. He's now married with a child. I wonder if he still has my book.

from Call Me Ishmael
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave until now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first America story (Parkman's): exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth–seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus' day. That made Melville's story (part of it).

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikan, a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man's job to square the circle.

Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it, Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

American's still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.22 (Charles Olson)

Olson, Charles
The Fiery Hunt and Other Plays

Purchased at Rust Belt Books, back in the Brian Lampkin days. It's a posthumous collection of Olson's plays and verse dramas, none of which were never performed in his lifetime. Another labor of love by George Butterick. Man, talk about a heroic editor!

Quite a day here yesterday. My post on the Blazevox situation shattered all previous records for number of hits to the blog. According to Google Analytics, 1535 visitors came to the site yesterday. The crazy thing is that when I went to bed at 11:30, the number was around 1100, which means either that there is a delay in the posting of the numbers on Google's end or that 400 people visited the site in the final 30 minutes of the day. Hits are still five times higher than normal today. I'd guess we'll be back down to 30 or so by week's end, unless another conflagration ignites.

I feel like I have more to say about the whole situation -- not about Blazevox, per se, but about the different ideas concerning literary production, literary communities, authority, legitimacy, and the heroic author (see Johannes Göranson's excellent post on this subject) that arose during yesterday's conflagration.

But not today. Soon. Maybe after the baby comes, or before, depending on when.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.21 (Charles Olson)

Selected Writings by Michael_Kelleher
Selected Writings, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Olson, Charles
Selected Writings
Ed. Robert Creeley

I think I bought this at Talking Leaves...Books. I am not sure.

I brought it with me to the Yucatan when I traveled there with Lori in 2004. I can remember sitting in our hotel room in Cozumel reading the Mayan Letters alongside Dennis Tedlock's translation of the Popol Vuh. I think Lori and I were passing the two books back and forth as we traversed the peninsula.

As I have written before, I love the format of this book because it presents several different facets of Olson's work -- poetry, poetics, correspondence etc. I wish more works like this -- eclectic collections -- were published during authors' lifetimes.


Well, once again, a provocative post has sent my hit counter off the charts. On a normal day, my posts are supposedly followed by some 650 people, though my hit counter suggests that about 15-25 actually visit the blog on a given day. Of those, 2-3 spend more than a minute reading it.

However, last night I wrote about the ridiculous attacks on Blazevox books and woke this morning to discover that over 400 people had visited my blog (as of this writing). Maybe some of them will stick around to read the less exciting blog posts I put up here every day.

I somehow doubt it.

On Blazevox' Publishing Model, Or Fuck You You Fucking Fucks!

Geoffrey Gatza by Michael_Kelleher
Geoffrey Gatza, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Earlier this evening, as I was settling into my recently purchased Ikea Pöang chair to watch my favorite TV series, "Breaking Bad," my partner, Lori, nine months pregnant, said, Uh oh, something is going on with Geoffrey and Blazevox Books, and it doesn't look good.

I went to Geoffrey's Facebook page and saw that Evan Lavender Smith, an author who Blazevox discovered, had accused Geoffrey of "unethical" publishing practices, and was therefore leaving the press. Mr. Lavender Smith said he would soon write an open letter to Geoffrey, but in the meantime substituted a link to a blog post by a disgruntled author who felt like he'd been cheated because Geoffrey had asked him to cover a portion of the cost of the publication of his book.

This author, Brett Ortler, wrote a hysterical denunciation of Geoffrey's business practices, accusing him of scamming unsuspecting young authors into paying for publication and -- horror of horrors -- subjecting them to the demoralizing stigma of vanity publishing. In a later post, the blood still dripping from his mouth, he announced that he had begun an investigation into their finances and that he'd discovered that  Blazevox was not even a not-for-profit organization!

Hysteria aside, the implicit threat in this announcement was heard loud and clear. Within a short period of time, Geoffrey announced that he had had enough and that he would shut down his press.

After gloating over this, Mr. Ortler then went on to say that he never intended to close the press down, that he only wanted transparent submissions guidelines. Well, Brett, the damage is done. I hope you feel better. I am sure the university presses will be lining up to make you a poetry star. And if not, there's always the comment section of your blog to keep your poetry company.

Before Mr. Lavender Smith publishes his open letter, it should be noted that the successful discovery and publication of his book led him to, shall we say, seek higher ground and sell off the rights to his book to another small press. When Geoffrey objected, loudly, about this, Smith backed down. Seems he was looking for an excuse to pack his bags and conveniently found one in Brett Ortler.

But that is not what I came to talk to you about...I came to talk about Geoffrey Gatza and Blazevox Books and why their visionary (if poorly articulated) business model is important to poetry.

Let me begin by saying that Blazevox was the first small press publisher that I am aware of to have embraced the possibilities of print-on-demand. Geoffrey recognized two things that many in the poetry world have still not accepted:

1. No one reads poetry and it is too damned expensive to publish.
2. Many people write good poetry despite number 1 and wouldn't it be nice to find a cost effective way to usher their work into the world.

Now, when this technology came online more than ten years ago, the first thing out of every literary mouth was something like the following: O, that's just vanity publishing. Now everyone can have their own book and the quality of literary production will go down the toilet. There will be no more gatekeepers! How will we know if it is any good?

The answer to the last question is simple: READ THE FUCKING BOOK! If you like it, then it is good. If not, not.

Which brings me to the point. Geoffrey made the bold step of saying that the point of publishing is not to give authority or legitimacy to writers and their work, but to bring work that HE likes into the world. If the world likes it, then Hurray, as he would say. If not, well, there's always tomorrow.

The work that he does in producing and distributing these books is a gift to the authors he publishes. Authors like Ortler think it is the other way around: that their work is a gift to the world and that publishers should get down on their knees and thank them for writing it. Well, go fuck yourself.

The great crime that Geoffrey has committed in the eyes of these people is not a lack of concern for their work or a desire to scam young authors out of their money (both false charges), it is that they thought he was going to give them legitimacy and authority and all he gave them was a lousy, beautiful book, a worldwide distribution network and some marketing support. He even gave them his logo, telling the whole world that he personally liked their work and thought others should read it, too.

How dare he?

I would like all of the Brett Ortlers and Lavender Smiths of the world, before they go fuck themselves, to understand the following. Geoffrey Gatza has devoted his life to publishing them. He has no job. No source of income. He lives entirely on the very, very modest amount of money he has leftover after he publishes their books. He has no health insurance, no dental insurance, and no independent income. He is not a non-profit, which means he cannot receive grants. He is dependent for his meagre livelihood on book sales and the small fees he charges to offset costs to publish them.

And he publishes more quality books per year than most other presses in the country.

As a two-time Blazevox author, I am proud to be a part of this vain endeavor. I am proud to market my own books. I am proud to contribute what I can to their publication and distribution. Geoffrey is not my servant, he is my collaborator.

I owe him a lot and I refuse to sit quietly by as some MFA's hissy fit puts him out of business.

We love you Geoffrey -- don't stop!