Saturday, February 06, 2016

Timothy Yu and Ian Duhig Take On Poetics, Politics, and Identity

The Western bourgeoisie has long known its rôle in art is to be abused by the avant-garde; however, groups outside this tradition or class don’t easily see why they or their culture should be insulted or patronized by relatively privileged people. It very often seems to members of such groups to be merely a continuance of abusive patterns rooted deep in society.
That's from a new essay called "To Witness," on poetry's responsibilities, by Ian Duhig.  It's a wide-ranging and thoughtful piece, looking back to Caroline Forché and the poetry of witness, and to contemporary controversy involving the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Claudia Rankine.  Along the way he takes a look at some skeptical statements of my own about the political claims of experimental poetry.  Anything Duhig writes is worth reading on its own merits—but this is particularly notable for our own moment. 

Another piece of writing with intrinsic merit, and with particular relevance to our moment, also came out today: Timothy Yu's book of poems 100 Chinese Silences, which, like Duhig's essay, looks to the intersection of poetics, identity, and politics.  Here's what I wrote for the book jacket:
I can’t remember when I last read a book as necessary, and as wickedly fun, as Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences. Yu responds to, rewrites, and reforms a whole poetic tradition of Western representations of China and the Chinese, from Ezra Pound to Gary Snyder to Billy Collins. Yu wears his learning lightly, and his various parodies, pastiches, and campy retakes on the poetic tradition balance a love of the poetry he’s spent a career studying with a necessary critical edge. Our age demands a re-assessment of old representations of the “mysterious east,” and Timothy Yu has come through with exactly what we need. 100 Chinese Silences has “breakthrough book” written all over it.
Ordering information is available at Les Figues. 

And in other news, my own essay on Charles Simic, trauma, and the Cold War is now online as well as in the Boston Review.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Death of a Bookseller

If, like me, you can’t pass a used bookshop without going in, to emerge at least an hour later with as many titles as you can carry shoved into your bag and your jacket pockets, then you’ll know that such establishments come in two kinds: the carefully curated variety, with titles categorized precisely and books wrapped neatly in protective mylar; and the other kind, where you wander among heaped mountains of books, ready at any time to be stunned by either a rare first edition or an avalanche.  Chicago’s Aspidistra Bookshop, which held down a spot on Clark Street for close to thirty years before closing in 1998, fell into the second category.  And I should know: I had the honor of working there for a couple of years while I finished writing my doctoral dissertation.  The place had two owners—Darrell Simmons, who only stopped in from time to time and who knew more about Yeats than anyone I’ve ever met (and I’ve met several Yeats scholars), and Ron Ellingson, with whom I worked.  Yesterday I attended Ron’s funeral, and I’ve been thinking about him and his bookshop all day.

A lot of people who came into Aspidistra asked about the name (on one occasion a woman told me she liked it so much she planned to name her daughter Aspidistra).  The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill.  You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing.  You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off.  For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole.  Ron was also a big fan of George Orwell, whose Keep the Aspidistra Flying cast a hard, cynical gaze on the entire literary system, especially the world of bookshops.  Only once did a customer come in and ask if Orwell had inspired the name—and Ron dropped the copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book he was putting into a locked glass case, strode around the counter, and kissed the man on both cheeks.

Ron grew up in Decatur where, as his wife Kathleen said at the funeral, no one wanted to talk about anything interesting except Ron, who was always reading and always wanted to talk about what he read.  She married him and they talked for decades, and had a troop of children who talked books too, when they weren’t hauling crates of them around Ron’s Lincoln Park store, or to the second shop he briefly opened in Uptown, or to one of the many weird little attic or cellar book caches he had around Chicago.  Like too many young men of his generation, Ron was sent off to Vietnam.  A clerk in the Marine Corps, he never saw combat, but he had the unenviable task of shipping a great many dead bodies back to the U.S.  “I like what they’ve done with the Vietnam memorial in D.C.,” he once told me, “but there’s no way I’m ever going—I’d cry until my eyes bled.” He took an attitude toward authority that I’ve seen in a lot of veterans: it could go and fuck itself, in all its forms.  That may be why his lawyer, a strange little guy who looked for all the world like Ron Jeremy in a cheap suit, was always coming by the shop with something to sign or be faxed.  I don’t think Ron and the tax system always played well together.  Another time I remember an old-school Chicago ward politician coming by and telling (not asking) Ron to put up a poster for the mayor’s chosen candidate for Alderman.  That guy was lucky to get out without being hit on the head with a thick volume of the Oxford English Dictionary.

A bookshop is many things—at least a good one is.  And Aspidistra, in its scruffy, scrappy way, was a very good bookshop, and served a number of functions.  Firstly, it was a crucial part of my education.  I was living a few blocks north of the store when I worked there, and taking the electric train out to South Bend, Indiana every week to meet with my doctoral advisors and take care of whatever grad school business I had to address.  Grad school was very good to me, but doctoral study tends to make one narrow and deep—the logic guiding one’s study is that of specialization in a field, and concentration on particular problems within that field (for me it was poetry, and questions of poetic influence). But Ron’s bookstore was an exercise in intellectual breadth.  You never knew what books would come in the door—anything from out-of-fashion historiography, philosophy, and literary criticism from the libraries of deceased academics to the books printed locally by the Chicago branch of the Surrealist movement to old Wobbly tracts to large collections of (shall we say) special interest erotica.  And Ron had an opinion about all of it.  In a way, the exposure to the forgotten, the weird, and the academically untouchable has been a kind of secret weapon for me as a poet, critic, and writer—it’s always been a kind of ballast against the winds of academic fashion.

Of course Aspidistra wasn’t just about me and my education—though Ron certainly saw that as one of its functions.  He was always asking me about how my dissertation was going, and I think he hired people largely on the basis of whether he thought it would be mutually beneficial to be in conversation with them.  I remember my job interview: he saw that I studied British literature, and asked me to name three of the best English novelists writing.  It was the mid-1990s, and I said “Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, and Julian Barnes.”  “Two out of three,” Ron replied, with a grunt of disapproval (he would hold Barnes against me for the rest of his life).  He also asked me to lift a very large cardboard box of books, and when I told him “that’s too big—you can’t lift it, and if you did the box would break” he said “you pass—you start tomorrow.”

When I came back for work the next day, I discovered another of Aspidistra’s great functions: as a kind of ongoing salon for the interestingly weird.  I didn’t see a lot of the old Aspidistra crowd at Ron’s funeral—I think because a lot of them have passed on.  Fred Burkhart, for example, has died—a giant of a man, an outsider printmaker and photographer who used to come by to hang out with his tiny young daughter, and who’d crash on hot days in air conditioned comfort on the floor of one of the less-visited sections.  As, I’m sure, has the man I only knew as “Snowman,” an ancient African-American gentleman from New Orleans who had been a reverend, a jazz musician, and filled every other conceivable sort of interesting role in the world (including, it was rumored, a cocaine dealer, the putative source of his nickname).  I remember others who came by—art dealers, collectors of odd books, Situationists, left-over Black Panthers who’d pull Machiavelli off the shelves to argue over passages, a homeless man who had once been on the Existentialist Party ticket as a vice presidential candidate, a tall astrologer and ladies’ man called “Startouch,” two old cross-dressers who were always pleased to be called “ma’am”, a uniform fetishist (I once asked him which branch of the service he was in, since I couldn’t quite tell, and got a lecture on each part of the hodgepodge of military gear in which he paraded around), and so on.  One of Ron’s sons told me at the funeral service that some of these people are still around, but fringy people are hard to get hold of, so they hadn’t got the news about Ron’s passing.

Once in a great while Ron would feel a sudden urge to throw a party in the store.  “Let be be finale of seem!” he’d shout, quoting his favorite poem, Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “I’m throwing a soirée!” I’d be sent out to lay in a supply of Guinness and fried chicken from the joint down the street, and he’d keep the doors open late for a gathering of all the regulars.  It was always great.

I think what got me choked up at the service was the memory of those moments— it hit me hard when Ron’s son Colin stood up next to the flag-draped casket and read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” just as Ron would have wanted.  And then the service was over, and the music came on: "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells.  I remembered Ron putting that song on at one of his soirées, and could see him, Guinness in hand, dancing among the bookshelves among all his friends.  It was a bit much for me, and I headed back to the cloak room, where I reached into the pocket of a jacket I hadn’t worn for years and found a little Grove Press paperback of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that Ron had given me when he closed the store. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go home after the funeral, and I was a bit too shaken up to stay and talk to the others who’d come. I spent the evening riding the El wherever it took me and reading the copy of Brecht that Ron had placed in my hands so long ago.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charles Simic and History; Karl Larsson and Embodiment; Belgian Surrealism

Hot news! Two of my favorite journals, the eminently respectable Boston Review and the eminently raffish Toad Suck Review have new issues out.  Both include things I've written (that's not why they number among my favorite journals, and I'm no longer sure where I fall on the scale leading from raffishness to respectability).

There are two pieces of mine available in the Boston Review, the first, "A Strange and Quiet Fullness," is about Charles Simic's poetry and prose, and begins like this:
Shop windows empty except for a dusty mannequin or a boy's suit long out of style; abandoned city streets; a seedy magician doing his threadbare act in an unpopular theater; a fat fly in a matchbox clutched by a lunatic—Charles Simic has been the primary purveyor of images like these in American poetry for close to half a century, importing them from some mysterious region rumored to lie somewhere between the former Yugoslavia and the monstrous mountain passes of Simic's private dream kingdom. A specialist in the uncanny, in objects removed from explanatory contexts, in stories gestured at but left untold, Simic describes his orientation as cosmic rather than historical or natural. He distrusts the tribalism inherent in history, with its chains of "begats" and its stockpiles of grievances, and he sees a direct link between the Romantic idealization of nature and a dangerously naive utopianism. He would rather reach beyond history and nature to deep enigmas of the cosmos itself—"the brain-chilling infinities and silences of modern astronomy and Pascalian thought." He finds unsettling enigmas not just in the vastness of space, but in the scenes and objects nearest to hand. When Simic looks at it, even a dog heading up the walk with the newspaper in his mouth becomes eerie and touches on an aspect of infinity. 
The irony is that this turning away from history to the cosmic is itself the product of history, of the collision of Simic's life with some of the most brutal events of the past century. A child of war-ravaged Belgrade, Simic tells us "I've seen tanks, piles of corpses, and people strung from lampposts with my own eyes." Although they could not have known it, Hitler and Stalin were, according to Simic, "hatching an elaborate plot to make me an American poet." There is a truth to this, and not just a truth about Simic as an immigrant to the United States: Simic's commitment to lyric poetry has everything to do with a skepticism about the certainties of ideologies, whether of the right or the left; and his orientation toward the cosmic and the uncanny comes, too, from his traumatic childhood...
At the moment it's available only in the print edition, but will be online soon. UPDATE: HERE IT IS ONLINE.

The other piece is up now on the Boston Review website.  It's called "Meditations on Embodiment," and discusses the work of Swedish artist and writer Karl Larsson, whose Form/Force I listed as my "book of the year" for Partisan magazine.  It begins like this:
A Mexican man sewn into a car seat to confound American border guards; the published prison memoirs of leftist German revolutionaries; the destruction of ancient statues in Iraq: what do these things have in common? What about the nine tracks of a Joy Division concert recording, the rubble where two great statues of the Buddha once stood in Afghanistan, and Andy Warhol’s interminable experimental film Sleep? They all provide rich material for Karl Larsson’s meditations on embodiment, on the ways bodies, artworks, and texts enter the material world and maintain or lose presence there. 
It shouldn’t surprise us, given these concerns with spatial experience, that Larsson is both a poet and a visual artist. As a sculptor and installation artist, he has exhibited extensively in Europe, especially in his native Sweden, and taken a keen interest in both the physicality of texts—palimpsest, erased, and overwritten writing is a favorite theme—and the ways in which bodies interact with environments.

Finally, in Toad Suck Review, you'll find some translations of the lovably weird Garbriel and Marcel Piqueray, midcentury Belgian Surrealists I've been reading forever.  It's a series of poems called "The Sproks," and you can read the whole thing in Toad Suck Review (I love typing that title), or check out a few of them here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Book of the Year

It's time for year-end lists, and the good people at Partisan have not neglected to provide one.  Along with William Logan, A.E. Stallings, Daisy Fried, Jonathan Farmer, and others, I was asked to contribute.

I chose Karl Larsson's Form/Force, out from John Yau's Black Square Editions in a translation by Jennifer Hayashida, who is one of the great translators of experimental writing in Swedish.  I liked the book so much I wrote something more extensive than this about it, which should be out in Boston Review come January.  Until then, here's the text for Partisan:
I’m not really convinced there’s such a thing as a “best book” of 2015 or any other year—some are good for one thing, some for another. But my favorite book of the year is Karl Larsson’sForm/Force , translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida, who, along with Johannes Göransson, has the distinction of being the main conduit bringing Swedish experimental writing to the Anglophone world. Larsson’s book is presented as poetry, but it’s hard to know what to call it, really. It’s a collage, a writing-through, a meditation in found text about embodiment, borders, and the power of ideology over the body. It takes us from a man sewn into a car seat in an attempt to cross the U.S./Mexican border, through the prison writings of the Baader-Meinhof terror faction, to the destroyed Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan via bootlegs of New Order records, finding in each instance a way to think about how power works its way over the spaces we share. Best book of 2015? Well, pick it up and I’ll guarantee it will be the best book of Swedish trans-generic experimental writing you’ve read in some time.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Kafka Sutra: On Amazon and Live at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop

Hot news! The Amazon listing for my new book of poems and literary oddities, The Kafka Sutra is now up and running.  Just in time for the launch of the book, along with two other new titles from MadHat Press, tomorrow at the Grolier  Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Mass.  

Here's the text from the Amazon listing:
What if Franz Kafka, that master of frustration, failure, and despair, had written the ancient Sanskrit sex manual The Kama Sutra? Robert Archambeau explores this question in the illustrated series of parables that begins his collection The Kafka Sutra. Other questions behind the pieces in this book concern glam rock, fatherhood, Afro-Caribbean and Belgian Surrealism, Conceptualism, Hiroshima, the sad lot of the English professor, and similar vital matters of these, our troubled times.

And here's my severed head, advertising the book launch.  See you there!

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery

Hot news! The glorious new issue of Prelude magazine is out in print and online.  It includes many fine things, (new work by Rae Armantrout, Felix Bernstein, Anne Tardos, Katy Lederer, Rusty Morrison, and Kaveh Akbar, and—oh boy oh boy oh boy—Anthony Madrid on rhyme in Wallace Stevens, just for starters), and an essay of mine called "Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery."  The essay takes a look at how a decade in France shaped Ashbery's poetics (his isolation mattered, and his exposure to the French literary tradition).  It also looks at how the triumph of French theory in American literature departments back in the day prepared those departments to appreciate, and canonize, Ashbery.  The essay is online here, and starts like this:

“I regret,” intoned the solemn-eyed boy, climbing the steps of the school where he attended kindergarten, “these stairs.” Many years later, when the boy had become perhaps the most lauded poet in America, he would tell an interviewer that he’d had no idea what the word “regret” meant back then, but it seemed resonant to him. What is more, by saying the word he discovered that he did, somehow, regret those stairs. Language delighted him without having to be useful, and language held the key to unexpected truths. Small wonder, then, that four years after he declared his regret, the boy would fixate on a Life magazine feature on Surrealism, the first mass media treatment of that movement in America. Poring over images of Réne Magritte’s art and a description of André Breton’s automatic writing, the young Ashbery declared himself a Surrealist at once. The moment is, to the best of my knowledge, Ashbery’s first profound encounter with French culture. And it is France that made Ashbery—that made his poetry what it is, and made, in a roundabout way, his American reputation.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Meeting That Saved Modernism

You're probably wondering how San Francisco streetcar consolidation in the 1890s helped make modernism happen, and speculating on how much of the legendary Paris of the 1920s would have disappeared if Michael Stein, Gertrude's older brother, hadn't shaken railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington's hand firmly and without perspiration.  Find out in a short essay I wrote for Partisan, "The Meeting that Saved Modernism," available online!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The State of Poetry Criticism: Perloff, Archambeau, Logan & More

Good news for those interested in the state of poetry criticism: there's a feature on that very topic just now available in the latest issue of The Battersea Review.  It includes contributions by...

...William Logan

...Marjorie Perloff

...Mike Theune

...David Bromwich

...and my own contribution, "The Work of Criticism in the Age of Mechanical Recommendation"

As usual, The Battersea Review feels like a great party, with all sorts of guests.  Outside of the symposium on criticism, the focus of the current issue is on French-language writing, and there's too much to list, but as a longtime lover of all things Tintin, let me point to Alexandra Kulik's piece on the life of Tintin's creator Hergé, "Tintin and the Well of Dissatisfaction."

Friday, October 30, 2015

Rhyme, Rimbaud, Harvard, and the Future of Poetry: An Interview with Ben Mazer

Ben Mazer in his natural habitat, the streets around Harvard Square

In a couple of weeks I'll be reading at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Ben Mazer and Stephen Sturgeon, at the launch for the fall list of books from MadHat Press.  I interviewed Ben, and the results, which will appear as the afterword to his book The Glass Piano, have been posted at Todd Swift's site Eyewear.  Mazer talks about the writing process, the little-known works of Landis Everson, the meaning of rhyme in contemporary poetry, Rimbaud, Harvard outsiders, and the future of poetry.  Check it out here!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Downfall of Kenneth Goldsmith: One Final Speculation

I’m no better at predicting the future than you are (a fact which hasn’t stopped me from trying to do so in public) but let’s, for the sake or argument, pretend that I am, that I have a secret crystal ball and I’ve been using it to peer into the Kenneth Goldsmith’s life in the year 2021.  Let’s pretend that what I saw in that crystal ball confirms Goldsmith’s speculation, at the end of Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article “The Poet Who Went Too Far,” that he will leave the poetry world and return to the art world, where he will be accepted.  What would such an acceptance signify? What would it tell us about the differences between the poetry and art worlds?

One wonders, immediately, about he question of race.  It was, after all, outrage over race—specifically Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy of Ferguson police shooting victim Michael Brown’s autopsy—that ignited a firestorm of criticism and, in our speculative future history, drove Goldsmith out of the poetry world and back to the art world.  Could it really be the case that the art world cares less about race and racism than the poetry world? It seems unlikely. One imagines both worlds embody roughly the same level of institutionalized racism: the subtle but nevertheless significant kind one comes across in predominantly white, progressive circles.

Alec Wilkinson reports that Goldsmith feels the art world is simply more “accustomed to outrage and turmoil” than the poetry world, and this, I think, is significant, but in a subtler way than we might expect. It’s not that the art world would shrug off a controversial performance about race.  It’s that the art world does not contain many people alienated by Goldsmith’s posturing about the importance of Conceptualism, and the poetry world does. This alienation seems to have played a role in the way justifiable criticism of Goldsmith caught on so quickly and traveled so far.

I want to be careful here, so let me be clear: I think that the most charitable thing one could say Goldsmith’s autopsy reading is that it was a monumental act of insensitivity on a topic where sensitivity is needed—and many have argued for saying things far sharper-edged than that.  I think critics of the performance have generally been in the right, and I recommend Cathy Park Hong’s essay in The New Republic as a good place to see many of these criticisms articulated (along with criticisms of how Wilkinson’s New Yorker represents the controversy). But I think that Goldsmith’s earlier posturings in the poetry world quite probably magnified the impact of his actions.  After all, other recent race-based controversies in poetry—the Tony Hoagland/Claudia Rankine affair, for example—resulted in less widespread criticism.  We didn’t find Hoagland thinking of abandoning poetry for some other, more welcoming realm.

I think the kind of controversy the art world has seen much more of than the poetry world is the controversy over new movements and the claims made on behalf of them. “The art world’s been through counter-movements, counter-revolutions, and then counter-counter-movements” says Goldsmith in Wilkinson’s article, “people’s idea of art is infinite… Poetry is such an easy place to go in and break up the house.” But Goldsmith may have underestimated how angry he would make people in the poetry world when he attempted to break up the house with notions of unoriginality. And that anger, while not the source of the criticism he received about the autopsy reading, created a very fertile ground for the reception of that criticism.

It’s not that there haven’t been new movements and controversies in poetry, but compared to the art world since, say, the days of Impressionism, we’ve seen very few. We’re less used to them, and have fewer antibodies with which to handle the overblown, partisan rhetoric that accompanies them.  At the very least, we’d have to go back a generation in the art world to find people as alienated by the claims that a new style has rendered old styles irrelevant as people in the poetry world were by Goldsmith’s claims for Conceptualism.  What Leo Steinberg said of the art world in his 1972 book Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art seems to me entirely true of the poetry world in 2015.  When we are asked to “discard visual [read “literary” or “interpretive”] habits which have been acquired in the contemplation of real masterpieces,” wrote Steinberg, we may find ourselves experiencing “a feeling that one’s accumulated culture or experience is hopelessly devalued.”  And this will lead us either to despair or smoldering rage. “Who,” we might ask, “is this interloper who tells us the ways we’ve learned to read don’t matter? They goddamn well do matter! Fuck that guy!” And when the interloper commits an actual, and very public, act of monumental insensitivity, his critics will find that the flames of their anger meeting with plenty of dry kindling. The fire will be bigger and hotter than it would have been if more people in the field were inclined to view the person favorably, the outrage spreading to those who might otherwise have shrugged it all off.

None of this is to say that there shouldn’t have been a fire, that the criticism was at all unfounded—quite the opposite.  I’m just wondering if it would have burned brightly enough to melt the wax from Goldsmith’s Icarian wings.