Category Archives: Collage

The Gallantry of Bob Dylan, Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE GALLANTRY OF BOB DYLAN, WINNER OF THE 2016 NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

A dozen or so years ago, as I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in the Humanities Program at Revelle College at UCSD, I had the good fortune to be assigned to William Arctander (“Billy”) O’Brien, an absolutely brilliant professor whose specialties included the final installment of a “Great Books” survey for undergraduates, most of whom were pre-med students. This intellectual forced march began in the Winter quarter of the students’ first year, and often started with Homer and Plato. By the end of their sophomore year, in the fifth quarter, the students were often reading Nietzsche and Beckett. O’Brien was the first professor I ever met who included Bob Dylan on his syllabus for this course, and O’Brien most certainly should be savoring his prescience in acknowledging the canonical value of Bob Dylan’s writing. So, too, should Steve Axelrod, whose recent three-volume anthology of American poetry includes a solid set of Bob Dylan’s lyrics (in Volume three, “Postmodernisms”). O’Brien, though, was far ahead of the curve and deserves considerable applause for his academic courage.

Following O’Brien’s example, I also teach Bob Dylan’s lyrics as part of a “Survey on Poetry” course at CSULB, and have always been puzzled at the unwillingness of so many other professors to include him. I doubt that the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Bob Dylan will change their minds. For many contemporary poets, not much has changed since Robert Lowell conceded in the mid-1960s that Bob Dylan had written some fragments that might be considered poetry, but that he had not written anything that stood on its own all the way through as a poem. Lowell was essentially saying that music had to intervene and prolong the poetic touch of Dylan’s lyrics at the point that language failed in his verses.

It is after citing Lowell in my classes that the students read “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” No music is played; no singing is heard. We look at the words on the page, and ask if they hold up as a poem. Indeed, the words do sustain the entire poem, and even more remarkably, it also turns out to have been set to a quietly imploring melody. Having established that Bob Dylan’s writing does more than partake of the “poetic,” but unfolds its essential imaginative logic with as much negative capability as Keats ever asked of a poem, we move on to a consideration of David Antin’s observation that Dylan is essentially a collage artist, a description that is most useful when examining “Desolation Row.”

Since teaching Literature always involves introducing student to formal terms, it is at this point that I define epistrophe for the students, and during my remarks on “Desolation Row” I offer other examples of this rhetorical technique. I noticed that the newspaper articles carrying the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature cite many of the musical influences on Bob Dylan, as well as those whose work he has in turn influenced. Not a single article has mentioned Robert Burns, the poet whom Dylan acknowledged as having influenced his songwriting. In particular, of course, Burns would have been an influence in Dylan’s use of epistrophe, starting with “Hard Rain” and “Desolation Row.” “Tangled Up in Blue” remains one of the masterful instances of that ancient rhetorical arrangement, and it would behoove contemporary poets to follow Dylan’s example and draw upon Burns as a model.

One of the pivotal questions about Bob Dylan’s status as a writer and poet is ultimately not about him, but about his audience, for it is not just the selection of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) for this award that irks those who still cling to Robert Lowell’s assessment. Rather, it is the gnawing suspicion that this award in some way legitimates the audience that Dylan’s writings and music have attracted. “Do the people in his audiences read other books? Other poets?” Behind the all too foreseeable backlash to Dylan’s award, it will not be too difficult to detect a residual fear of the illiterate masses, whose preferences are easily seduced by a charismatic performance in the oral tradition.

I have no doubt that a significant number of people who listen to Dylan’s songs do not spend much time reading the poetry found in contemporary anthologies. His audience, however, also includes many poets whose commitment to their art was shaped by his vision of the public role that a poet could play, if only one dared to be audacious enough. Such a quest requires the one quality that Dylan himself assessed as possibly being the most enduring virtue of his writing: a sense of gallantry. I call upon those who feel reluctant to applaud the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan to remind themselves of this archaic ideal and to reexamine their own lives and writing within that context.

Post-script:
Thanks to Twitter, I learned of a link to a very thoughtful essay on Bob Dylan by Robert Polito:

http://riggio.americanvanguardpress.com/portfolio/bob-dylans-memory-palace-robert-polito/

Joseph Hansen and the Early Days of Beyond Baroque

Friday, August 12, 2016

Addendum to HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992

A couple weekends ago, I drove down to UC Irvine to meet with Dina Moinzedeh, a graduate student from France who is on the verge of completing a dissertation on Charles Bukowski. She asked me to take a look at the first chapter, and I spent over two and a half hours talking with her about it. In the draft I read, I noted that she cited my Holdouts a fair number of times, primarily to provide a literary context for Bukowski’s writing. If Holdouts devoted very little time to Bukowski’s writing, it was in part because I didn’t want newcomers to the history of communities of poets in Los Angeles to get a distorted understanding of the scenes by a disproportionate emphasis on his poems. It would have been more than appropriate, of course, to have included a 20 page overview of his poetry, since he is one of the major figures to come out of this particular region, and his international renown is continuing to expand, and I will have to write such an article in the near future in order to redress this omission. If I am overdue in writing on any writer, it is to my shame that I have put off this article so long. My focus, though, in Holdouts was on the contribution that Bukowski made as editor of a literary magazine and co-editor of Anthology of L.A. Poets (Red Hill Press, 1972).

One obstacle to including such a section on Bukowski’s poetry in Holdouts was that my original manuscript logged in at somewhere around 120,000 words, and the University of Iowa Press insisted on cutting it to 90,000 words, which effectively meant that every fourth page had to be deleted. (With a straight face, they added: “Keep the good stuff.”) Given that Holdouts was already too long, according to Iowa, one can understand how trying to squeeze in additional commentary on Bukowski was next to impossible. The compression of the penultimate draft of Holdouts required that an immense amount of relevant detail and evidence be eliminated; it should surprise no one when I mention that Paul Vangelisti recently said that my dissertation is better than the book. I’ll leave that to others to argue about, but the fact remains that not only did the book not incorporate key moments in the history of these communities, but my dissertation didn’t include them either.

To give one instance of neglected material, it is the case that I do refer to Joseph Hansen’s articles about the Bridge and the early days of the Beyond Baroque workshop, but it’s a pity that neither the book nor the dissertation provided a big enough stage to cite the following:

“The Workshop had a crowd of taxi-drivers at that time – Ed Entin, Phil Taylor, Dennis Holt, as well as Barry (Simons). …. It was Dennis who arranged for us to read at Cal State Northridge after Venice Thirteen was published. The buildings seemed to me raw, and the sunlit library where we read had hundreds of books on the shelves that look untouched by human hands. The place was full. our outspoken language didn’t seem to offend anyone. Luis Campos, a delicately made man with a shy smile and a Spanish accent, drew laughs with his mordant view of plastic America, its fast food chains and hair spray commercials. So did John Harris’s “Deuteronomy Edition,” hacked from assorted sources – newspaper want ads, cooking columns, society pages, astrological forecasts, weather reports – and read by the entire crew. Luis’ tape recorder had awaken us to the possibilities in multi-voice poems.” (Bachy, issue number 10, page 139)

A group reading of a collage poem was just one small, but brightly colored rhomboid in the mosaic of community maturation for the poets of Los Angeles at that time, but it wasn’t an isolated instance. Rather, it was part of the trajectory that would lead to an entire day and evening given to the composition and reading of poems written by groups of us at Beyond Baroque in the mid-1970s. Jim Krusoe once said to me that one of his biggest regrets about those years is that he didn’t gather all the pages we wrote that day and keep them together in a folder. It certainly wasn’t the case that we didn’t like what we wrote. The collaborative event was a jovial occasion, but we regarded the day as being the equivalent of a jam session of musicians, and in our exuberance forgot what we were conscious of all along: something special was happening in Venice and Hollywood and many points in between, as well as to the north and south of this axis; and it deserved preservation. One can only sigh in wistful speculation. Few enough photographs exist of that time, and but even more tinged with regret is the fact that the amount of writing lost along the way is an aporia that will haunt the legend of those days each time the surviving archives are looked into by the scholars to come.

An Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

Monday, August 10, 2016

The Phantom Dwelling of an Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

“So much ink wasted on verbs. / Stand still — cherished nouns.”

When Jack Grapes sent me a copy of WIDE ROAD to the edge of the world: 301 haiku and One Long Essay: “A Windswept Spirit” a month or so ago, I was surprised by both the size of the book and the print run. It’s an odd size, around three inches high and four inches wide, but at an inch thick, it’s enough of a block of paper to shoulder its way onto your bookshelf. Well over two-thirds of its 600 plus pages are devoted to a long essay on haiku, which specialists might read in its entirety, but I am going to pass on it. For one thing, the type is just too small; moreover, a spot check of randomly selected passages did not rev up my curiosity enough to want to start at the beginning and read it all the way through. I must be getting more impatient in my old age than I ever realized: an uninteresting look at WC Williams’s classic poem about a red wheelbarrow was in itself almost enough to deter any further perusal of this long treatise. Fortunately, I did keep browsing and encountered another section about a haiku club established by Grapes with a fellow fifth grade student back when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. Inspired by one of Issa’s lesser known haiku, the elementary school haiku club ended up naming itself “The Bats.” Though I recollect a chapbook by C.K. Williams devoted to translations of Issa’s haiku, he is still not known as well as he should be in the United States, and you will probably find at least one of his poems in Grapes’s essay that you had not previously encountered.
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
Perhaps Grapes published the essay in a limited edition book out of a distrust of the permanence of the electronic library. The recent case of Dennis Cooper’s on-line material being completely jettisoned by corporate overlords is a cautionary tale about the internet, and so I’m happy that Grapes has chosen the road less traveled on these days to preserve his meandering essay. Nevertheless, having invested so much time on this project, he should post it in larger print on some website posthaste, and I do mean larger print. Obviously, the advantage of public distribution on a website is that there isn’t any limit to an essay’s length, but the scroll bar is actually a tougher adjudicator of a reader’s attention span. Not only does it not take long to let up on that descending pressure point, but nothing about the experience rewards one on a sensory level with anything comparable to the solace of paper’s caress of a fingertip. In the case of this essay, I would still cast my lot with a much shorter essay on paper.

For those who love short poems and who still prefer an experience of reading embedded in print culture, then I would recommend a magazine that I wish Grapes had sent some of his haiku to before he published this collection. If any periodical would have proved hospitable to Grapes’s renewed devotion to haiku, it would be none other than Hummingbird, which is currently edited by CX Dillhunt. The saddle-stitched magazine was founded over twenty years ago by Phyllis Walsh, and it almost folded after she died, but it’s a tribute to the inspiring quality of her editing that her admiring readership refused to let it expire. For those who read Grapes’s haiku and wish they could receive some regular infusion of short poems, then I urge you to subscribe to this magazine:
HUMMINGBIRD
7129 Lindfield Road
Madison, Wisconsin 53719

Until your first issue of HUMMINGBIRD arrives, I offer you several of my favorite haiku in “Wide Road”:

Circumcision day.
Little brother in his crib.
The bloody diaper.

Why is it five seven five?
Seven five seven
works just fine, if you ask me.

Okay pal, hands up
Gimme all your money, punk,
and your heartache, too.

The dialectic’s
undeniable power:
appropriation.

Once I was a dog.
No one was afraid of me.
I licked people’s hands.

I would be with you
if I could not be alone.
But I can. I can.

Where are we going?
Body outside of body
Mind inside of mind

We’re fresh in the grave
when the grim minister speaks:
blah blah blah blah blah

This last one I’ve cited is Grapes’s response to one of the haiku by Issa that he cites in his essay. Like Issa, Grapes is by his own account “an inside-out outsider.” As uneven as this book is, it still remains worth tracking down, and any serious library will want to have a copy on its shelves.

Jack will be reading along with other contributors (Meg Eden and Mari Werner) to recent issues of RATTLE poetry magazine on Sunday, August 14, at the La Canada/Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House,
1010 Foothill Blvd, at 5pm.
www.flintridgebooks.com

His featured poem in the most recent issue of RATTLE is “Any Style,” and you can find it at: http://www.rattle.com/any-style-by-jack-grapes/

Terry Braunstein – “Who Is She?” — Long Beach Museum of Art

SUBTLE TRIUMPH: The Fortitude of Who Is She?

The book cover image of feminist collage artist Terry Braunstein’s Who Is She? is of a female gymnast with her hands joined together over her head, which is largely hidden within a slightly tilted bucket. The woman is fully clothed: shoes, stockings, knicker-style pants ballooned by some mysteriously yeasty fabric, are all complemented by a full-size, pull-over jersey that extends from her hips to just shy of her wrists. Her neck, too, is covered. The only visible skin is the lower third of the face: chin, lips and part of the cheeks; and the wrists and hands. The uplifted arms do not seem to signify some ultimate triumph as such, but hint more of a contumacious refusal to accept the negation of the bucket. Obliteration of identity is unacceptable in Braunstein’s cosmos. Resistance is on-going, the image suggests, and the apex of the joined hands is a quiet warning to anyone who would suppose otherwise.

The covered face, however, might also suggest another metamorphosis. Women in particular are judged by their faces, and in this case the bucket might be more of a disguise than it first appears to be. A bucket is a work item that is usually associated with subservience; it carries water, and is passive in that task. It merely contains. In contrast, what the viewer doesn’t know are thoughts contained in the hidden head. Indeed, the image is more renitent than might first appear: if the figure can’t see out, it only intensifies what is seen within, and to that extent there is an overtone of a sibyl, in which the bucket operates as a metonym for the cave of her vatic habitation. The process of appropriation in collage art engenders reversals such as this, and the upside down bucket, therefore, might also suggest the upended expectations of a woman’s visionary powers.

The challenge in apprehending Braunstein’s message is not so much in the reception as in the translation of one’s understanding of it into an adequate paraphrase; for that is all one can hope to achieve: a paraphrase. Braunstein’s images give commands to the Impossible, and have no patience with anything less than instantaneous obedience. A woman hoisting one of Rene Magritte’s rocks (“The Castle of the Pyrenees”) above her head and totting “onward” is made to seem a matter of willpower alone. It’s not a question of existence precedes essence, in Braunstein’s cosmology. In an existential paradox, there is an essence of willpower that supersedes all opposition, and the quiet magnificence of Braunstein’s heroines is hypnotic.

The stalwart capacity of Braunstein’s anonymous protagonists is especially striking, given the harrowing circumstances they often find themselves embedded in. The “Nuclear Summer” series, in particular, serves as a reminder that we are hardly in a much better position in regard to the intercontinental missiles than we were back in the mid-1980s; and Braunstein’s “Women in a columned room with a terrorist” (dated 2012) recoils with a humbling urgency: somehow one must dare to live as if one’s paradise were inviolate, even as the daily trauma only accelerates. If this is a form of self-denial, then one indeed knows what it would mean to escape from the spiked coffin of social conformity. Braunstein’s heroines are prepared to flee, but their calm composure whispers, “Not unless you come with me. I will not leave you here alone.”

Although the show’s catalogue book, published by Thistle and Weed Press in South Pasadena, California, contains many of the show’s best images and contains two fine essays on Braunstein’s work, it falls short of capturing the best of her work. “Buddha in drawer,” for instance, is not reproduced in the show’s catalogue nor is her collaboration with Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, “Dancing with Kerouac,” given sufficient attention. The “Buddha” collage, in particular is haunting in its quest: the woman slides between the slightly separated jointed ends of a large drawer; the Buddha figure meditates in a corner. There is no special pleading; the protagonist knows and risk and accepts the possibility to being pinned forever in a liminal state. So, too, does the artist cut that precisely between the entrance of the image and the final sep of its choreography of juxtapositions.

Braunstein’s technical deftness verges on the casualness of a windshield wiper in a heavy storm. The road is so visible that we are almost grateful for the storm in allowing us to see it washed free of anything that would cause us to skid. As the decades have gone by and Braunstein has continued to summon the imperceptible and blend it with the incongruous, her work has contributed to the critical dialogue between what needs to be done and how much that need to alter the world might prove to be beyond our affirmation’s strength. In that sundering weakness, Braunstein’s images renew our fortitude.

If you make the trip to Long Beach to catch this show, you’ll get a rare treat: another show is also up that is worth the time spent driving here. Barbara Strasen’s “Layer by Layer” has some of the most appealing and delightful imagery I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with recently. Perhaps the highest tribute I could pay to Strasen’s exhibit is that it would easily qualify as part of the “Magical Mystery Tours” that Josine Ianco-Starrels used to organize back in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. It’s not that one shouldn’t relax in front of a work of art. It’s almost a given that one is supposed to be in a heightened state of alertness: the whole point is to question the ratio of feeling cantilevered across the work of art to the base line of its own audacious trajectory. On the other hand, if it doesn’t at some point invite you to relax and absorb – slowly absorb – its permeated secrets, then it is also playing a game with one-sided rules. Strasen’s lenticular panels exude a contagious spectrum of shifting perspectives. The afterglow will carry you to your next destination, without even being asked.

DETAILS: Terry Braunstein’s Who Is She? opened on November 20, 2015, and will continue to be on exhibit until February 14 (2016). Long Beach Museum of Art. The show’s catalogue is published by Thistle & Weed Press in South Pasadena.A long-time resident of Long Beach, Braunstein has frequently shown her collages at LBMA; she is hardly a “local” artist, however. She has had solo exhibitions in Spain and Italy as well as in New York City and Washington, D.C., and been included in several important group shows at the LA County Museum of Art and the Armand Hammer. Her honors include a Visual Artist’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985.

Bill Mohr’s prose, commentary, and poems have appeared in dozens of magazines, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, Antioch Review, Blue Mesa Review, Caliban (On-line), Santa Monica Review, and ZYZZYVA. Individual collections of his poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982) and Bittersweet Kaleidoscope (2006). Bonobos Editores in Mexico published a bilingual edition of his poetry, Pruebas Ocultas, in 2015. His account of West Coast poetry, Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. Mohr has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and is currently an Associate Professor at CSU Long Beach.