Category Archives: Poetry

Greg Kosmicki: “Whenever I Peel an Orange”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Greg Kosmicki: Whenever I Peel an Orange”

Greg Kosmicki sent me a link to a video made of his poem “Whenever I Peel an Orange.” In watching it, I noticed how certain images lingered in my imagination even as the words of the poem moved on in a quiet pas de deux the visual layering on the screen.
Kosmicki’s poem is a meditation on mortality in the midst of the collaborative community of a shared workplace. It is a “portrait” poem, both a compassionate tribute to and acknowledgement of a deceased co-worker for whom there was no retirement party. His last day on the job is no different than any other; his evanescence is a set of phone calls from his spouse, in which tests for a lesion swirl lead incrementally to more and more serious medical interventions, all of which prove futile. The poem makes the peeling of an orange a kind of cenotaph in remembrance of this man, whose revelation of his son’s problem proves to be the kind of resistance that conservative people are prone to and yet that makes complete sense upon reflection. One of the ways Kosmicki’s poems has the tart juice its central symbol suggests is in the implication of this story within a story. The co-worker’s son keeps getting his car towed because he won’t get a parking sticker for the complex he lives at. That his son resists the change of the bureaucratic demand to secure permission to park at a place that he is already paying for makes sense to those of us who have to endure the impediments of tasks imposed simply to keep our lives busy. The father, too, the poem recounts, resisted changes on the job, and the spiral of the orange peel comes to stand for the DNA helix of contumacious integrity. The poem was originally published in Rattle magazine.

The lingering of the images as I read the poem reminded me of my recent visit to a book I had looked at a couple of years ago, Imagination by Mary Warnock. Although Warnock at one point suggests that the co-habitation of images is something that happens without any particular strain (one drives a car, for instance, in her example, and thinks of other images while absorbing and reacting to the images arriving through the windows of the car), in any encounter requiring the full circumference of the imagination, a kind of smudging must take place. If I imagine Kosmicki’s co-worker pinning the spiral of his orange peel to the side of his work cubicle, it has the underlayer of the image of the skinned fur of a hunted animal nailed to a barn wall. And I continue to meditate on this image as the video swirls off into other images, all of which I am coiled within as the poem peels itself. I don’t peel the poem. The poem peels me.

The Surprise Guests of the Vacant Storefront Reading (Long Beach, 2012)

March 3, 2017

Greg Kosmicki and Greg Kuzma: The Surprise Guests of the Vacant Storefront Reading

Greg Kosmicki, the editor and publisher of Backwaters Press, contacted me the other day to forward a half-dozen photographs of a reading that took place in Long Beach back in 2012. Nicole Street, who was then a MFA student at CSULB, had located a vacant storefront that was willing to open its premises for a one-day festival of painters and poets. The poets who read included Greg Kuzma, Laurel Ann Bogen, Gerry Locklin, and myself, as well as Greg Kosmicki. Visual artists included Kelsey Livingston, Walter Gajewski, and Linda Fry.

It was a memorable pleasure to meet and read with Greg Kosmicki and Greg Kuzma. I had first heard of Kuzma back in the early 1970s. His magazine, Pebble, was one of my favorites of that period, and it was hard not to be impressed by his early success in getting his poems published. His commitment to writing and editing seemed so palpable to me that I was baffled in the early 1980s as to what had become of him. I didn’t hear of him anymore, but the stillness didn’t seem explicable. It turned out that his brother had been killed in an automobile accident in 1977, and that this horrendous intervention had deflected his literary production for quite some time. But all I knew back then was that he seemed to have disappeared as an active poet and I just assumed by the late 1980s and early 1990s that I would never meet him. To end up reading with him in Long Beach, California did not seem to be worth taking even a 1,000 to 1 bet on.

Of course, there are more than a few people a half-century ago who would have given similar odds on me still writing as I approach the age of 70. Just to get to this age and still be devoted to the art seems like a minor triumph. And trust me that the devotion is all that keeps me going. There are no publishing houses in this country interested in my poetry other than ones that require the poet to put up some of the financing for the book; and the other usual rejections keep piling up: this past week I received a notification from the administrative portion of CSULB that made it very clear how little I am appreciated there. Unlike the Academy Awards, there was no flub involved in that message. If it weren’t for a publisher in Mexico, I would indeed have little to show for my efforts the past ten years.

Vacant Storefront - 6It is at a moment such as this one that the arrival of a photograph depicting the unexpected is most appreciated. (From left to right: G. Murray Thomas; Linda Delmont; Bill Mohr; Nicole Street; Gerald Locklin; Greg Kuzma; Greg Kosmicki.)

Tom Lux’s Audience

Saturday, February 18, 2017

As many poets born between 1940 and 1955 have noticed, the number of people writing poetry in the United States has increased enormously since they first started publishing their writing. In the late 1960s, the protests against the Vietnam War included poetry as a popular part of the counter-culture’s resistance. Only a small proportion of those young poets, however, were still writing in the late 1970s. In contrast, there are perhaps as many as 40,000 people who currently regard poetry as their primary means of creative cultural work; and while it is frequently claimed that the only people who read poetry are those who write it, that simply is not the case. Tom Lux, for instance, was a poet who actually collected royalties from his book sales, and no poet reaches that point of popularity without attracting the attention of serious readers.

For poets who were born after 1960 or 1985, however, the abundance of poets in the United States has a drawback, in that what might be regarded as a surplus of talent makes the crescent edge of older poets harder to detect and calibrate. Compounding this diffusion, I find this pair of generations all too often ends up depending too much on a narrow cluster of initial friends within the poetry world to guide their reading. Or at least that’s the only explanation I can come up with when I consider what I have found in the wake of learning about Tom Lux’s death. Karina Borowicz, for instance, has a blog entry (dated September 23, 2015) in which she describes a reading by Lux when he was on tour promoting his most recent collection, To the Left of Time. Borowiz leads off her commentary by saying that “I went to see Thomas Lux read the other night at Smith College. I haven’t read much Lux before and I don’t know much about him, so I didn’t know what to expect.” Her appreciative commentary after the reading sums up fairly well the effect that Tom Lux’s poetry had on thousands of people, and I would assume that she has passed on her discovery of Lux’s vital imagination to her friends.

It does seem odd to me that a mid-life poet whose poetics fall within a fairly familiar terrain would not have read much Lux. It seems as odd, in fact, as it would be if I ran into a mainstream musician who said she or he didn’t know much about Ry Cooder. I would give that person a quizzical look. “Surely, you’re joking?”

Nevertheless, Borowicz herself is a poet worth paying attention to. In the process of getting her poems published in over three dozen well known poetry magazines, she has won several distinctive prizes and citations. You can find her poem “September Tomatoes” at the Poetry Foundation website as well as other work at http://contrarymagazine.com/two-poems-by-karina-borowicz/.

Her blog entry on Tom Lux’s reading is at:

https://karinaborowicz.com/2015/09/23/poetry-reading-review-thomas-lux/

Thomas Lux (1946 – 2017)

TOM LUX (December 10, 1946 – February 5, 2017)

Larry Goldstein was in town this past week, and we had lunch together at the Long Beach Museum of Art, where the upstairs gallery currently features some superb photographs of the Long Beach port. On our way to the museum, as I drove on Seventh Street, Larry mentioned that the Cortland Review was dedicating its next issue to the late Thomas Lux. I hadn’t heard that Tom had died, and I was as grateful for the slow traffic, as for the street’s familiarity. To have been told the same news on the 90 freeway last Friday night, as rain sliced down, might have had a different outcome, for the 90’s lane markers at night are very faint to begin with, and I struggled to detect exactly which lane I was traversing.

I first met Tom back in the early 1990s, when he was on a Southern California reading tour. He started at the Chateau Marmont on a weekend, headed over to Loyola Marymount at the start of the school week, and ended up at California State University Long Beach, by which time we ended up playing pool in the Student Union after his reading. I remember how surprised Tom was when I showed up at the second reading with a copy of Tarantulas on a Lifebuoy. He probably thought at that point that he had met everyone who had a copy of that early book. Not quite, I told him. Contrary to popular allegations from an individual he used to know in New York City, there were more than a handful of astute readers in Los Angeles.

Tom was a superb reader, and his poems fit perfectly into the Stand Up school that Charles Harper Webb was beginning to promote. Indeed, he unquestionably deserved his place in the second edition. He returned to the Los Angeles area in the late 1990s; along with Naomi Shihab Nye, he was the first poet-in-residence at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. Idyllwild was the last place I saw him, in large part because my life as a scholar has diverted my creative energies outside of the contemporary poetry nexus. It was over a decade ago that we last wrote each other. His poems have been a constant presence in my teaching, though.

Thomas Lux radiated a multi-dimensional love of poetry that went beyond anything I have ever encountered in all but a few other people. If it seems that he is present now in my memory’s eye as a living presence, reciting lines of poetry by Hart Crane or Theodore Roethke to illustrate his point, then it is a measure of how much his invisible companionship has meant to me the past dozen years.

This sense of personal loss extends to Charles Harper Webb, one of my fellow poets at CSULB. I asked if he would be willing to contribute to this blog post about Tom Lux’s writing and presence in our lives and he immediately sent the following eulogy:

“I was beyond bummed to hear of the death of Tom Lux, one of the truly good guys in American poetry. Just last December, I sent him my new book of essays on poetry, and he promised to send me a copy of the collection of Bill Knott’s poems which he’d just finished editing. It never crossed my mind that I’d never see, or even e-mail him again. Since we lived on opposite sides of the country, I didn’t see him much; but he was my friend, and a world-class ally in the fight for clear, entertaining poetry. I love Tom’s poems. I wish I’d written them. Every virtue that I praise in my essays, his poetry exemplifies. Wit, passion, impropriety, brilliance of metaphor and conception—he gave it all to the world in clear, concise language that sounds like no one else. Because there was no one else like him. It’s our good fortune that, although his body’s gone, his voice still sings out of his books, loud and quirky, brave and clear.”

The Collected Poems of Tom Lux will be a book worth waiting for, and the second half of Charles’s assessment would be a spot on blurb for that book. In that kind of volume, it is a common practice to include an index of titles as well as first lines. I would recommend including an index of last lines, too, in that book as a way of giving young poets one more axis of inspiration. I have seen many determined and talented young poets emerging in the past twenty years, but few have the gift of Tom Lux’s quirky, encompassing, comic sense of poignant elucidation.

If I were to take part in a memorial reading, I would be hard pressed to choose which one of his poems to read. “Refrigerator, 1957” would probably be my choice, though given its popularity, someone else would probably have read it by the time I got to the podium. It is certainly one of the best poems to have first appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/thomas-lux/refrigerator-1957/
https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/thomas-lux/refrigerator-1957/
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/07/28/refrigerator-1957
http://happopoemouse.blogspot.com/2013/11/number-326-thomas-lux-refrigerator-1957.html

And for a view of that poem “across the pond,” go to:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/16/selected-poems-1986-to-2012-thomas-lux-review

One of the better articles I’ve found on his poetry can be found at:
http://www.cerisepress.com/01/01/life-on-a-piecemeal-planet-god-particles-by-thomas-lux/view-all

https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-1998-99/about-thomas-lux-profile
Issue 77 / Winter 1998-99 – Stuart Dischell
http://www.news.gatech.edu/2017/02/07/campus-atlanta-communities-mourn-loss-thomas-lux-director-poetrytech
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/02/thomas-lux-obituary/516354/
http://www.dailyo.in/voices/tom-lux-death-poet-poetry-eulogy-tribute-vijay-seshadri/story/1/15523.html

Correct Crowd Count: 2,500,000 join U.S. Women’s Marches (“Super Callow Fragile Ego Trump You Are Atrocious”)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

OVER TWO MILLION MARCH IN CONTUMACIOUS CELEBRATION OF FEMINIST IDEALS

Yesterday’s marches of protest against the FBI-assisted ascendancy of Donald Trump were vigorously attended throughout the nation, in large part because enormous numbers of people were willing to give up their hard-earned personal time to affirm the feminist movement. The rallies in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Oakland attracted hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. No one will have to stand at a press conference today and exaggerate the number of marchers in order to massage the egos of its organizers.

Once again, the ability of social media to mobilize a movement far exceeded expectations. When Teresa Shook first proposed a Women’s March on her Facebook page soon after Election Day. she certainly didn’t stretch out on a couch and immediately begin fantasizing about speaking on a stage in front of hundreds of thousands of protestors in Washington, D.C. And yet, yesterday, she found herself in a line-up of social activists and cultural workers who spoke to a crowd much larger than the one that witnessed Trump’s clamp-down taking of the presidential oath of office the day before.

In an update, over six hours after the original posting of today’s entry, I wish to correct the crowd count. The total number of marchers was over two million people in the United States alone. I am struck by how the mass media refuse to acknowledge breaking this “glass ceiling” of numerical defiance. My own original impression from media reports was that the total attendance at all of the marches exceeded one million, but that is a vast underestimate. It’s one thing to top the one million figure for any given one-day public event. Two million is exponentially more massive. The scale of this “stand your ground” message to Trump, in fact, is on the ominous side of predictions. The attendance seems closer to the number of people who might turn out for an anti-war rally. Indeed, the fear that Trump is already drawing up invasion plans in hopes that a war will “unify” the country is more than amply justified. It should be noted that it was not just the largest cities, such as Los Angeles, that featured enormous crowds proportionate to their population. Smaller urban areas such as San Jose, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Atlanta also had significantly attended rallies.

I was not impressed with the coverage of the mainstream media. I happened to watch a bit of the march on the L.A. Times link to the ABC news, and noticed Maxwell’s rendition of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” erased him from the screen. In fact, a kind of misogynistic voyeurism seemed to take over the control booth. Rather than show Maxwell singing, the camera panned across the dispersal of the crowd, as if to diminish the meaning of Bush’s lyrics. What was really disturbing was how the camera awkwardly swooped across the crowd to find signs with the word “pussy” on them. It was as if the control booth of the ABC network was being directed by young teenage boys who couldn’t get enough of seeing a “forbidden word” being bandied about. What must have attracted them even more was that one sign had a set of curves suggesting the inner and outer lips of a woman’s genitals. That the camera would linger on this sign together with a nearby one on a green board that also featured the word “pussy” in large letters seemed not to be a moment of transgressive affirmation, but rather an attempt to reduce feminist protest to an essentialist taunt.

At least Aja Monet’s performance of her poem, “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter,” was spared this imposition of male scopic power. Monet, a performance poet who won a major slam contest at a very young age, attended Sarah Lawrence College for her B.A. and has a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. The poem she read is the title poem of her most recent collection of poetry. That a poet would be asked to be part of this protest and perform on the main stage is hardly a surprise, though. Writers Resist, an informal collective of protest readings by writers the week before the inauguration, was one of the major preliminary groundswells of protest against the outrageous plutocracy that Trump has assembled as his administrative bureaucracy of American government.

I believe it was in a column by Steve Lopez, the L.A. Times columnist, that I saw a protest sign with the best comment of the day: “Super Callow Fragile Ego Trump You Are Atrocious.” My compliments to the Palimpsest-in-Chief.

President Trump took note of the demonstrations, but seemed to overlook their impetus. “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” he tweeted.

Excuse me, Mr. President, but they did vote. That is why you lost the popular vote by a margin equal to the entire number of voters in Arizona. Losing the popular vote has consequences. It means that you failed to win the respect of the electorate, and the daily disrespect has just begun.

Media coverage post-script: As Larry Goldstein noted in an e-mail today, at least CNN refused to act as if it were Fox News light and roll over in accepting Sean Spicer’s outrageous exaggerations about the size of the inaugural attendance. See the following article in the NY Times for a scientific report on the crowd size of these events.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/22/us/politics/womens-march-trump-crowd-estimates.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

Mike Sonksen’s review of “CROSS-STROKES”

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Lana Turner, issue number 9
“A Reunion Party of Sorts,” by Mike Sonksen – January 16, 2017

Lana Turner Journal has just published Mike Sonksen’s comprehensive review of Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the anthology which Neeli Cherkovski and I devoted half a decade to co-editing. Sonksen meticulously acknowledges every contributor to the anthology and provides representative sample of their poems. In a way that I am sure he is not aware of, he has followed the instructions on the permissions form that we had to negotiate with New Directions. No poet was to get a larger billing in any advertisement we would take out. This is to say that we were not allowed to promote the book by putting Kenneth Rexroth’s and Nate Mackey’s names in big type and Kevin Opstedal and Sharon Doubiago in small type. Not that Neeli and I would have ever done otherwise!

The next reviewer should have a much easier task, should she or he be willing to “collaborate” with Mike the Poet, as Sonksen is also known as. This is to say that a follow-up review might well benefit from focusing on a comparison of Cross-Strokes with other “regional” anthologies, including those that do not acknowledge themselves as such. It always amuses me to see anthologies that assume they present a national survey of American poetry, but have far less than ten percent of their contributors based in California.

Here is the link to Mike Sonksen’s review:
http://www.lanaturnerjournal.com/blog/a-reunion-party-of-poets

One very gratifying aspect of the roster of poets Cherkovski and I were able to assemble was their compatibility. If one were to try to put together a chronological anthology, the task might prove to be overwhelming. Consider trying to assemble a volume of poets born in the 1940s, a project that would probably fracture almost at the onset as poets or their executors point-blank rebuffed being associated by juxtaposition with figures inimical to their hopes for the art. Such an anthology, however, is probably needed if one is to understand how “post-modernism” pushed away from the massive influence of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry. Maybe the most important part of this potential anthology would be not the poems, but essays at the end in which the poets address their “generation(s)” within that decade’s outset. The time to begin requesting these essays is the next four years, while the surviving remnant of American poets born in the 1940s will still be fairly substantial. This will not hold up indefinitely; after all, we were forced to pause and consider the inexorable attrition of our ranks this past year with the deaths of two poets, Ted Greenwald and Ray DiPalma, who first appeared together in an anthology back in 1985. In many ways, that year marked a turning point in American poetry. Three major anthologies appeared in 1985: In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman; “Poetry Loves Poetry,” edited by Bill Mohr; and The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, edited by David Bottoms and David Smith. The Morrow Anthology represented the first indication of the rapid growth of MFA programs in the United States since 1980, while Silliman’s and my anthologies presented a case for writing that centered itself on other questions of poetry’s social value other than academic legitimacy.

I did not ever meet Ray DiPalma, though I certainly remember the first anthology in which I saw his work: Quickly Aging Here, edited by Geoff Hewitt. DiPalma appeared frequently in Invisible City magazine, edited by Paul Vangelisti and John McBride, and continued to be published by Vangelisti throughout the rest of his life. One of DiPalma’s other long-time supporters and allies was Michael Lally, who has posted his recollections on his blog, “Lally’s Alley.” According to Lally, there will be a memorial for DiPalma on Wednesday, February 15, at the School of Visual Arts Gallery from 6 – 8 p.m. (601 West 26th Street).
http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2016/12/ray-dipalma-rip-by-michael-lally.html

I heard Ted Greenwald read several times over the decades. The first time was at a bookstore called Intellectuals & Liars, which was located near the corner of 11th Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. It was an odd pairing: he read with Kate Braverman, who left the reading grumbling about Greenwald’s lack of personal narrative. Although I had published Kate’s first book, Milk Run, a couple of years earlier and was very pleased that she went to become a successful novelist, I was more impressed and intrigued that night with Greenwald’s work, and I was excited when he read in Los Angeles again, at Beyond Baroque, shortly after Dennis Cooper took over the reading series. It was a quarter century before I saw read again, at St. Mark’s with Lyn Hejinian. He was as on key as ever, and his “voice” (which almost always seems like an illusory concept to me) was as pitch-perfect to his vision as it had been when I first heard it.

That I am hardly alone in my profound admiration for Greenwald’s poetry was reflected in the line-up of poets who spoke at his memorial service at St. Mark’s Poetry Project back on September 16, which included Alan Bernheimer, Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies, John Godfrey, Erica Hunt, Michael Lally, Ron Padgett, Kit Robinson, Patricia Spears Jones, Stacy Szymaszek, Chris Tysh, Lewis Warsh, Barrett Watten, and Terence Winch

Rattle magazine, issue 54: Runner-up poems for annual contest

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Issue Number 54 of Rattle magazine arrived several weeks ago, and I first read the section of poems that the editors nominated for the runner-up prize in their annual poetry contest. Of the ten poems they selected, not one convinced me that it deserved a second place award; a third place award, maybe, but not second place. The problem in the quartet of poems by Ellen Bass, C. Wade Bentley, Rhina P. Espaillat, and Emily Ransdell is largely in their endings. I admire Espaillat’s poem, in particular, for the persuasive dexterity of its trochees in the second stanza, but the very last line of the poem is an easy exit, and the poem’s finish falters. Ransdell’s ending almost convinces, but leans too heavily on the image’s potential symbolic intonation. Slightly more figurative language might well have pushed Ransdell’s poem over the finish line for a silver medal. For the first two-thirds of its narrative, Bass’s poem might well be the best of the ten that the editors selected, but the ending left me wanting a return to the present tense. The look back, in lingering indefinitely as the conclusion to the poem, seemed to verge on evasiveness. Perhaps this is the first poem of a sequence of poems, in which case the ending would suffice. My vote will go, therefore, to C. Wade Bentley’s “Spin,” which was the more successful of a pair of poems with complementary concerns about absence and presence. The other poem was by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, which was composed in alternating lines in a kind of musical round of scientific inquiry and the intimate curiosity of one’s mortal reproduction. Jendrzejewski’s poem was a more than worthy effort and deserves publication, but not a prize, although she may well garner substantial awards in the future.

Anthology Submission Announcement for Redondo Poets

Monday, January 16, 2017

Larry Colker and Jim Doane, who curate the Redondo Poets at the Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach, are soliciting poems from anyone who has read in the series for a 20th anniversary anthology. When they started being weekly co-hosts in one of the truly staid but droll side-pockets of Los Angeles County, e-mail was still the domain of relatively few people, so Jim and Larry have requested that all readers from the second decade spread the word about their project in hopes that featured poets who read in the first decade will contact them. They are also willing to consider submissions from people who read at the open mike for the series.

The deadline for sending poems to this anthology, which will be published electronically, is May 1, 2017. The address to send requests for guidelines is:
submit.redondopoets@gmail.com

According to my records, I have been a featured reader at Redondo poets twice, but I have also read at a couple of the open mikes. In particular, I remember reading several ghazals at an open mike for the reading that Richard Garcia and Katherine Williams gave on December 9, 2014. During the previous three months, thanks to a RSCA grant from CSU Long Beach, I had been working on a series of ghazals, “The Jugular Notch of Sunset Blvd.” Richard’s response to my reading of some of those poems was an important affirmation of my project, and I selected two of those ghazals for consideration in their anthology in appreciation of Richard’s comment.

“Russia” by Brian Kim Stefans

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The e-mail notification from Facebook said that Brian Kim Stefans’s post began, “Russia I gave you all and now I’m nothing.” A pertinent parody was obviously awaiting me, so I logged on immediately, and his poem proved to be a scrumptious repast. It’s just what I needed, given the international machinations of the past three months. I immediately asked for permission to reprint, which was granted forthwith. So without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to turn the stage over to my guest artist for the day, Brian Kim Stefans and his poem, “Russia.”

RUSSIA

Russia I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
Russia a Netflix subscription, a respectable credit rating and my way around BitTorrent, January 10th, 2017.
I can’t stand my own water.
Russia when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your American Presidents and legions of NY Times trolls.
I don’t feel good don’t hack me.
(Ok, hack me.)
I won’t write my poem till I’m in Ann Coulter’s right mind.
Russia when will you be autotelic?
When will you take off my Reeboks?
When will you look at yourself through the prism of Game of Thrones?
When will you be worthy of your million Michelle Obama fans?
Russia why are your libraries full of copyright infringements?
Russia when will you send your kale to Big Sur?
Your cell phones to Nigeria?
I’m sick of your jock-like demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with the bare fact of my American citizenship?
Russia after all it is you and I who are perfect not the Mexicans.
Your democracy is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint (or a Korean).
There must be some other way to settle this Facebook thread.
Assange is in Ecuador I don’t think he’ll come back (it’s fine).
Are you in Ecuador or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to write a sonnet.
Russia I feel sentimental about Credence Clearwater Revival and Viktor Tsoi.
Russia I used to be a Jedi when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I eat kale every chance I get.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk but you get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations and I still haven’t told you what you did to Spongebob Squarepants after he got his hair sporked on Jimmy Fallon.
Russia I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel!

“Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems” by Charles Harper Webb

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Charles Harper Webb’s “SHADOW BALL”

I had a job teaching fiction writing at Idyllwild Arts during the summer from 1995 til 2014, so I had a chance to hear Charles Harper Webb read at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival every time he taught there. The consistently high quality of his poems during the decade that Cecilia Woloch ran the festival was truly extraordinary. On each occasion on which I heard him, at least one of the poems he read deserved to appear in Best Poems of the Year. Here are some of those poems I was fortunate enough to hear back then:

“Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72”
“In Praise of Pliny”
“The Shape of History”
“Biblical Also-Rans”
“Love Poetry”
“Cocksucker”
“To Make My Countrymen Love Poetry”
“Rat Defeated in a Landslide”
“Conan the Barbarian”
“Superman, Old”
“The Animals Are Leaving”
“A Grand Opening of Hearts”
“The Open-Air Recital Survived a Shaky Start”
“You Missed the Earthquake, Bill”

I’m working from memory, it must be said, and if one were to review the tapes made of the Idyllwild readings, one might find that Webb did not read one or two of these poems. In point of fact, the rendition by Webb of “In Praise of Pliny” that I most clearly remember was at the Long Beach Poetry Festival a half-dozen or so years ago. Regardless of whether he read them at Idyllwild, every one of these poems contributed towards the establishment of Webb as a formidably comic presence in American poetry, and make no mistake about it: the poems as a whole have an extremely unusual amount of humor rumbling around in the basement.

That poetry should accommodate the comic spirit is hardly a revolutionary proposal, though perhaps Chaucer was rebuked more than we are aware of for the high-jinks in “The Miller’s Tale”; and it is the case that contemporary poetry on the whole regards itself as a solemn art. As I pointed out in my previous post, Webb was a late arrival in Los Angeles in terms of the emphasis on humor in the poetry of the “local scene,” so his role in the development of this particular poetics has been more akin to that of a real estate developer who realizes how a neighborhood is undervalued – considerably undervalued, in fact – and sets about making it “neighborhip.” And to his credit, he has indeed pulled it off, though ironically he has not received the credit that is his due, except in Laurence Goldstein’s masterful study of Southern California poetry, POETRY LOS ANGELES: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

Goldstein is perhaps the first critic to point out the Stand Up school’s affiliation with the New York School of Poets: “it, too, goes on its nerve, to cite Frank O’Hara’s description of his poetics, and delights in performance style and structure.” Nerve, in this poetics, also contains a sense of audaciousness, the willingness to say what appears to be an inappropriate sentiment. In an extended commentary on “You Missed the Earthquake, Bill,” Goldstein quotes Webb’s “farcical language in the opening stanzas” and notes that “Webb seeks to effect a subversion of discursive style and good taste by means of an extravagant rhetoric suited to the occasion” (269). The rambunctiousness of the earthquake, Goldstein argues, and the existential sense of contingent outcomes it engenders, Goldstein argues, give Webb free rein to play with “excessive simile” as a psychological counterweight to help establish an internal equilibrium.
Goldstein emphasizes that the elegiac turn of this poem is only “putatively consolatory”; underlying this characterization and Webb’s poetics

in general is an imaginative strategy best described by Norman Holland in The Dynamics of Literary Response. Although Fredric Jameson has tantalizingly extrapolated from Holland’s updating of Freudian analysis a model though which to critique mass culture, Holland’s scheme remains very useful as a way to understand the less commodified efforts of individual poems and poets. “The psychic function of the work of art,” according to Jameson’s account of Holland’s paradigm, involves a reconciliation of a pair of “inconsistent and even incompatible features of aesthetic gratification – on the one hand, its wish-fulfilling function, but on the other the necessity that its symbolic structure protect the psyche against the frightening and potentially damaging eruption of powerful archaic desire and wish-material…. the vocation of the work of art (is) to manage the raw material of the drives and the archaic wish or fantasy material.” Webb’s comic management of this “raw material” takes the less traveled road in contemporary poetry. The allure of his poetry depends on this dialectic of wish-fulfillment and symbol-producing affect, and it is a mark of his achievement that he is successful enough in managing his material’s emotional turbulence that readers can forget that the resolutions embedded in the closures of his poems yield only “purely symbolic satisfaction” in which the “psychic compromise” leaves provoked desires only “momentarily stilled” (“Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”).

Webb’s choice of symbolic figures is highly unusual, and quite frequently reinforces the fantasized desire behind the wish. If we find ourselves filled with self-loathing about our appearances and how they have hindered our chances at worldly success, then Webb has just the ticket: “Rat Defeated in a Landscape” will deflate the grandiosity of our ambition and remind us of the all consuming fate of those who are too easily manipulated by the powers behind the throne. Aristophanes could not manage a better satire of our political perversity.
If one were to ferret out one central tension in Webb’s themes, it would be the desire for strength and the fear of weakness. That this tension enfolds itself in primarily a masculine domain contributes to the comic resilience of his poems and prose poems. In one of his best prose poems, for instance, “Conan the Barbarian,” Webb’s appropriation of a popular culture character provides the reader with the chance to indulge in an anecdotal reverie of infantile revenge. It’s a road rage joke in which Conan is the passenger, not the driver, and he is all the more sympathetic for his desire to blend in finally with all of his fellow travelers. Alas, the futility of hoping that ordinary objects simply do their job launches Conan back into his most familiar habits of instantaneous requital.

Webb can cover more than the average number of topics in his poems. These often seem like “one-off” efforts, as if he aware that it wouldn’t hurt his repertoire if he included an ecological poem. “The Animals Are Leaving”: check; and how about a poem that addresses the social environment of casual homophobia in which so many young men grow up? “Cocksucker”: check. These poems are masterfully adept at fulfilling their assignments, as is another examination of the strength-weakness binary in his poem, “Tenderness in Men.”

In his best poems, Webb handles the spatial cartography of his images with a fine touch of its inherent plasticity. His skill in this area, in fact, tends to hide a fairly pedestrian sense of rhythm. “Rhythm is the total sound of the line’s movement,” said Karl Shapiro in a book on prosody, and the total sound of Webb’s lines falls short of the cumulative resonance that one can find in another American master of sardonic narrative, E. A. Robinson, whose vowel-consonant combinations (when he’s at this best) are superbly backed by the backbeat. When Webb’s topic plays it safe with an imaginative counter-attack, his poems falter and quickly fade from memory’s reading list. “Losing My Hair,” for instance, is self-interrogation with too much rhetorical urgency and too little dramatic imagination.

It should also be noted that he seems to lack, almost by predisposition, any interest in the long poem. This is not a major failing in itself. Elizabeth Bishop is not in any danger of being thought of as an unimportant poet simply because she did not write a long poem. Indeed, Webb might well earn an equivalent stature in the field of stand up poetry.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have yet to read Webb’s latest book, Brain Camp, and while I would like to wrap up this commentary on his poetry with this posting, it would seem only fair to him and any assessment of his writing to include some reaction to this new volume. Therefore, let us pause at this point and return here soon.